They'd both been shivering from the river water, but it seemed worse for Brandt. They had shucked their wet clothes and traded for clean, dry ones from the train car cache, and Ethan was starting to feel mostly human again, but Brandt was curled up tight, sitting with his arms around his knees, and still shaking. "Brandt. Are you all right?" Ethan asked, standing over him.
"F-fine." The clatter of Brandt's teeth made a liar of him.
"You weren't hit." Surely Brandt would have said, or Ethan would have seen. Still, it wasn't like the Secretary getting shot in front of you and your car going off a bridge in the middle of an international nuclear scare wasn't enough of a clusterfuck on its own. "Shock catching up to you?" He put his hand on the top of Brandt's head, meaning to tip him back and check his pupils.
But Brandt tilted his head forward and pressed up against Ethan's hand like a cat asking to be stroked and--and moaned, and Ethan froze.
"Uh, what the hell," Benji said, looking up from his laptop.
"You're a sub," Ethan said. He left his hand where it was, pressed to the wet spikes of Brandt's hair.
"And you're a Dom," Brandt answered. His voice wasn't completely steady, but he'd stopped shivering so hard his teeth chattered when he spoke, at least. He shifted subtly, still rubbing his head against Ethan's hand.
"I'm not," Ethan blurted out. Brandt went still. Damn it, Ethan had spent two years in prison for supposedly being a Dom who'd lost it, but it wasn't Brandt's fault that had been the cover. "I mean, I can, if that's what you need, but I'm an agent, I'm neutral, they test for the biological imperatives--"
"Yes, they do." Brandt sounded wry.
"They don't just test for field agents," Jane pointed out. "You said he was chief analyst? That can't be right, nobody'd put a sub in a position like that, that's insane."
Nobody should have, but obviously the IMF had. The only way it could possibly have worked, Ethan thought, was if... "The Secretary was your master." No wonder he was a wreck--it was amazing he'd made it this far.
"I don't have a master," Brandt mumbled to his kneecap. "I don't, I've never trusted anyone that far. I." He shuddered against Ethan's palm and Ethan pressed down instinctively, his fingertips sliding down to the nape of Brandt's neck. "Please," Brandt said softly, then visibly struggled to control himself, though he still kept his head under Ethan's hand. "Shit, I'm sorry."
"You don't have to apologize for what you are," Ethan said, because it wasn't like he could help it.
"It's a fucking inconvenience, and I know that," Brandt snapped.
"We'll deal with it," Ethan said, over him. "We need every resource we've got, you are an asset we can't afford to lose, so we'll deal with it. You need to submit right now, yes? That's why you're in such bad shape."
"I--" Brandt made a noise something like a laugh, something like a whimper. "It's been a while, yeah."
"What do you need? Sex?" Ethan asked.
"Sure," Brandt said, "that's a pretty quick fix." Ethan tried to figure out if the sarcastic tone was because he was nervous or resistant.
"Can't you just order him to calm down or something?" Jane asked. "I don't really wanna sit here and watch while you screw him, Ethan."
"I'm hitting breaking point, so no, that wouldn't be enough," Brandt said. Breaking point for subs meant collapse from muscle weakness, dizziness, loss of consciousness--eventually death if they refused to submit, or if there wasn't anyone to submit to. Ethan hadn't ever seen it happen, but the symptom list was a lot like shock; he should have known how bad it was the second he realized Brandt was a sub.
A weird sub, though. Jane hadn't spoken to him, either time, because that was what you were supposed to do, talk to whoever was dominating a sub and not to the sub himself, yet Brandt had answered her. Maybe he'd really meant it about not having a master.
"No choice if we want him functional," Ethan said.
"Headphones," Benji announced. "Two pair. I've got a couple of movies on the laptop, we can put up the curtain and give you your privacy."
"There's a curtain?" Brandt asked. "In a supply cache? What for?"
"Rear-projection variable-width corridor camouflage," Benji expanded, not bothering to look at Ethan until he added, "Back-up set." But then, Brandt had asked directly. Benji turned his laptop to Jane. "Finding Nemo all right?"
"Yeah, fine," Jane sighed.
Benji was all business about it, pulling down bedding from the bunks and a personal kit with lube and condoms, without bothering to comment on the fact that Ethan was glued to the spot, stroking Brandt's head quietly. "Er, you want?" he asked at one point, hefting a bag of interrogation gear--restraints, drugs, a few unsavory tools.
Ethan looked down. Brandt hadn't reacted beyond sudden, complete stillness. "Pass," Ethan said. The tension in Brandt's shoulders shifted, but Ethan couldn't really say he'd relaxed.
"Good times," Benji said, shoving the bag back on the shelf. "And here we go, rear projection, let me just set it to take video signal from my laptop instead of the tablet... and showtime."
The panel of the curtain unfurled, cutting them off from the others. Ethan waited for the silvery screen to shift to bright, animated images before asking Brandt, "Can you get up enough to kneel?"
Brandt nodded under his hand and gathered himself up to move. Ethan stepped back a little, letting his hand drop. Brandt's soft noise sounded pained. He pulled himself up and Ethan stepped back towards him, carefully placing his right foot between Brandt's knees so he could draw Brandt against him, full body, down his leg. Brandt turned his head to fit his face against Ethan's hipbone. His hands were clenched in fists at his thighs and Ethan wasn't sure if that was because he didn't want to be here or because he hadn't been given permission to touch. "You can do whatever you want with your hands," Ethan said experimentally.
Brandt's hands loosened incrementally. His breathing was harsh. He nudged the hem of Ethan's pants leg out of the way so he could curl his fingers around Ethan's calf, just above the ankle.
"When you said it'd been a while how long were you talking about?" Ethan asked, stroking the side of Brandt's face.
"No," Brandt said, distinctly.
"'No'?" Ethan asked incredulously. Even a sub who didn't want to sub--to a particular person, at a particular time, or at all--wasn't supposed to be able to say no, not once they'd knelt. But he hadn't been standing in the first place, did that matter? "What do you mean, no?"
"Don't ask me questions, just--don't," Brandt said. "Tell me what to do. Don't ask me to talk. Please."
Ethan frowned. "You can't expect me to go in blind, here. If I'm going to do you any good you have to tell me a little."
Brandt hissed a sigh and said, short and sharp: "Eight weeks. I can usually go twice that long. It's been a bad day. I don't see how this is relevant."
"Why don't you want to talk?" Ethan asked.
"Because in the last two years I've personally uncovered and executed four internal moles who decided to ask me things they shouldn't know about," Brandt said. "I get so I'll answer, that's exactly why I shouldn't be in this position, so just--don't ask."
"Are you sure you're not a switch?" Ethan asked, because that sounded--but, well, he knew how to deal with switches, even if a switch who'd hit breaking point on Dom side was horrifying to contemplate.
"Ha, yes, I'm sure," Brandt answered. "Better guess than the company, though; they were considering reclassifying me as a frustrated Dom."
"What are you on the books as?" Ethan asked, troubled. He wished he could see Brandt's face, but he didn't think he should pull back far enough to tell him to look up; he was leaning into Ethan too heavily, with too much need.
"Neutral," Brandt said. Which meant he'd lied, faked evals, something, or else he was faking now, but that made no sense. This didn't gain him anything, this was too obviously a weakness.
Ethan kept stroking his hair. Nothing about this felt right. For one, the math didn't add up. "Four moles in two years. What did you do the rest of the time? Was there someone in the IMF you could go to?"
Brandt gave an unhappy laugh at that: "No, the take away there was no one in the IMF wants to dominate an analyst for kicks. Probably should have been a warning sign that none of them were bio-Doms--"
"I'm not," Ethan said, knee-jerk.
"--fine, none of them were doms who pushed all my damn buttons," Brandt corrected himself, although it wasn't much of a correction. Supposedly one of the hallmarks of biological Doms and biological subs was that they recognized each other. And Ethan had recognized Brandt. Goddamnit. He wasn't. "No, I was better off craigslisting the local kink clubs and showing up as Joe the investment banker," Brandt continued, ignoring Ethan's turmoil, "than trusting anyone who had any inkling what I know."
"Would it help if I ordered you to be quiet?" Ethan suggested.
There was a wary pause. "Are you gonna gag me?" Brandt asked.
"No," Ethan said. Maybe with a sub he knew better, but he didn't want to completely cut off an avenue of communication with someone he didn't know well, and he definitely didn't want to do anything to restrict breathing with a sub near breaking.
"Then no," Brandt said. "That's not an order I take well. I'm not good at shutting the fuck up, sir." Something about it sounded like a quote, but it least Brandt sounded amused rather than angry at whoever that sir had been.
"I don't do 'sir,'" Ethan told him, in case he'd thought was something Ethan wanted. "If I'm going to have sex with you, you should call me Ethan."
Brandt was silent for a moment. When he spoke, he didn't repeat the instruction back, like Ethan had been half expecting. Instead, he said, "Will."
"Good. Will," Ethan replied, affirming him. He hesitated. "When you'd hit the local clubs, what was your safeword?" If he had been trying to pass for a neutral who submitted for fun, he should have had one.
"Fuck's sake, does it matter? When you start touching me I'm not going to be able to say no," Will said, which was interesting--Ethan wondered if the idea that point after which subs couldn't resist was when they knelt was an exaggeration, that it was this instead, or if Will was just a little fucked up for a submissive.
"Safeword. Tell me," Ethan said. Sometimes it was a fine line between an order and a question when it came to subs; sometimes it wasn't.
"Department of transportation," Will muttered.
Ethan chuckled in spite of himself; that alone was proof Will had worked in IMF's DC office. He nudged Will's chin up. Will met his gaze, awkwardly; the angle was bad, but Will wasn't fighting him, at least. "I'm ordering you to use it if you think you should. You can separate out what you need from what no one should be asking you, right?"
"In the middle of submissive sex?" Will groaned. "You're ordering me to think?"
"I'm getting the feeling you never stop thinking," Ethan said. Analyst. Scared of everyone. With reason, apparently. "I'm giving you permission not to stop thinking."
Will's breath hitched and his pupils expanded. "Thank you. Ethan."
Ethan tried to keep things pretty simple after that, to refrain from asking Will anything else, to give him space to relax a little, to trust at all that Ethan wouldn't take advantage. They stripped but only partway, both of them still cold. Ethan bore Will down on the thin padding from the bunk and held him there until he'd banished the last of Will's shivers. He kept his touches firm, using friction as well as body heat to warm him. After a while, Ethan ordered Will to turn over, to get on his hands and knees, and that was all easy and obvious. He did slow, careful prep and went by Will's gasps and moans rather than push him for words.
So it was a little bit of a surprise when Will came out with a complete sentence, without being asked anything: "This is really surreal."
"What is?" Ethan asked, then noticed Will's line of sight. "Are you watching Finding Nemo backwards on the rear projection screen? While I'm having sex with you?"
"Um," Will answered.
"Will, put your head down," Ethan ordered.
"Bossy, bossy," Will said, though he obediently dipped forward until his forehead met the mat, between his elbows.
"What are we here for?" Ethan asked, exasperated. "Close your eyes," he added for good measure, and Will hummed an assent. Now that the bright shapes of darting cartoon fish had caught Ethan's eye, he found himself hard-pressed to look away. Or to keep from laughing. It was as much for himself as for Will that he said, "Focus. Feel me. Feel this." He rocked his hips against Will purposefully, and Will responded with a small, swallowed sound and a shaky push back that spread his knees wider apart.
Afterwards, when he'd cleaned Will up and redressed him and dropped a jacket he'd pulled from the cache over Will's back for good measure, Ethan crouched down and put his hand on the back of Will's neck and asked, "Did you get what you need?"
Will opened his eyes and Ethan could see him shift, focus, mentally take stock. "Yeah," he said. He was smiling a little.
"Good." Ethan rubbed soft circles in Will's short hair. "Then I release you from your servitude."
"Ha, okay," Will said, face still pressed to the mat. And the floor. He'd collapsed flat on his front at the edge of the mattress pad and hadn't made any move to correct his position for comfort. "I'm just gonna lay here in a puddle of endorphins for another twenty minutes or so, unless we need to save the world right this second," he said.
Ethan checked his watch; they were nearly three hours out from the next station, and, when he glanced up, only halfway through Finding Nemo. Will probably knew that, too, probably had never lost track. "Twenty minutes is fine," Ethan promised him, and continued to pet his hair.