A/N: I'm having quite some fun with these one-shots. I hope you guys don't mind…
Disclaimer: I still don't own any of it.
The weight of the whole world seemed to be resting on Ethan Hunt's shoulders as his legs carried him along. He didn't- couldn't pay attention to the speed he was going at, wasn't consciously aware of his surroundings. Years and years of training and experience were particularly helpful now, as he just let his body do the job of getting him to his destination while his mind was trying to comprehend what had just happened. Somewhere behind him, the sounds of panic could be still heard, the flames eating up what was left of an outdoor restaurant. The sound of an explosion was still ringing in his ears; it felt like it was never going to stop. And the worst thing about it was that he knew what – who – was in the epicentre of that explosion… All because he, Ethan Hunt, was simply not fast enough. Not fast enough to accomplish the mission in time when timing was the most crucial. Not good enough when it mattered the most. This had to happen again someday. Someday his daredevil ways had to turn out to be not enough to save the day… not enough to save the people he cared about, his friends… it was not enough to save him. This was too much. Ethan sped up his pace, not allowing himself to stop and ponder on anything.
"Ethan?" Ethan suddenly found himself looking at Brandt's face, full of confusion, eyes wide with surprise. Looking at that face, knowing what he'd have to tell him, was so unbearable that he didn't stop to wonder how he had even gotten here.
"Where is he?" Brandt's voice cut through the ringing still present in Ethan's ears, sharp and demanding. Ethan blinked and somehow ended up staring at the concrete floor under his feet.
"Ethan, where is Benji?" it was the name that cut the deepest. The sharpest razorblade slicing into an already open wound. Slowly, Ethan forced himself to raise his head and look up at the younger man. He did not, however, have enough willpower to produce a word. Not that it was necessary anyway...
"No…" Brandt shook his head frantically. His breath hitched, and he had to swallow. "N-no. He's not… don't". Those words were a mere whisper. He was visibly running out of air, gulping for it helplessly; there was obviously a lump blocking his throat, tears building up in his eyes, but he refused to let them out just yet.
Ethan felt something desperate burning through his chest, and his mind was trying to tell him something, but he couldn't hear it through the ringing of the explosion, and he felt almost numb, almost comfortable, if not for that almost physical burning sensation…
"So this is the price he had to pay for following Ethan Hunt," Brandt's voice was shaky and yet steady enough for Ethan to hear him. To hear the bitterness and the blame in those words. "Come to think of it, he was dead the moment he joined you in Vienna. He trusted you with his life, and this is what you led him into?!"
Ethan opened his mouth to say something, anything, and found he couldn't. Vienna… The fire in Benji's eyes - the eyes he would never see again-, the raw anger in his voice -the voice he would never hear again- as he had refused to leave Ethan to face any threats alone… And this was the price he had had to pay for his loyalty – his life… The weight in Ethan's chest, combined with the invisible hand clutching his throat, were effectively suffocating him, and no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't find the strength to fight them, couldn't take a breath. It felt like he was back in the water tank in Morocco, like he was drowning again. Only back then, when he had been dying, his last thought had been that he had been giving Benji a chance to pull through by doing so. Now there was no light, no hope, no comfort…
… And then everything was gone. Ethan had to take a few breaths to take in everything around him: a darkened room, a bed he was lying on. He had to sit up and remember every detail of what had actually happened, to remind himself that they had made it, that they were all alive. But no matter how many times he did it, a tiny bug still found a way to scratch its way around his chest. He still felt guilty, even though Benji had been dismissing every single one of his apologies in an increasingly exasperated manner.
Their job left very little space for doubt, and yet sometimes, some missions would make him wonder if he was the right person to lead others into danger. More so when those others were his friends. It had happened before. He had lost so many people he cared about, he had been unable to protect them, he had let them down. He didn't know how many times it could happen again before he finally broke completely. Ethan rubbed his face. He was going to pull through this. Like he always had before.
"Are you alright?" Benji's voice was quiet and soft, as if he was afraid of breaking Ethan's train of thought. It did, however, help to bring the older agent out of his trance, and he only realised now that he had been staring at the timer on Benji's microwave for the past thirty seconds, unable to look away. Just like he had been staring at another timer on that night in London…
The Englishman followed his gaze and frowned, unable to look at the thing for longer than a short glance could take.
"Yeah, fine," even Ethan himself could hear how fake he sounded. He noticed that his friend was not convinced by that, either, so he rushed to add, "And you? How have you been?"
"We've talked enough about that," he said quietly before looking Ethan in the eye again. He clearly wanted to say something or ask a question but couldn't find the words for it. Ethan wanted to protest because Benji had barely said anything about how he was dealing with his experience… he hadn't been all that chatty lately overall. And so they sat in silence, staring at each other, feeling like they were somewhere else, away from the safety of Benji's kitchen, each of them silently begging for the other's forgiveness.
A sudden loud "Ding!" that came from the microwave made both men jump and take a sharp breath. Ethan noticed that Benji's hands involuntarily clenched into fists before realising that his own hands had done the same.
"I… I keep thinking of buying another one…" the younger agent murmured apologetically, his voice wavering a bit as he struggled to get the food with his shaking hands. "With a different… timer", the last word came out slurred and almost in whisper.
"Yeah," Ethan agreed, cringing at the sound of his own voice. When did he get so breathless? "This one is too much like… yeah".
It was another five minutes of silence before everything was ready for their movie marathon they had been planning to have. However, instead of turning to go to the living room, Benji sat back at the table across Ethan, studying his features intently.
"Before we go," he started, looking somewhat lost, "please tell me what's wrong with you". He probably hadn't planned to sound so straightforward, but here they were. He noticed an already familiar expression forming on Ethan's face and cut off whatever he was about to say, "And if you are going to apologise for what happened again, I swear to God, I will punch you in the face".
That earned a little laugh from Ethan, who was actually going to say he was sorry for the umpteenth time. He sighed.
"Really, Benji, I'm fine. It's just that… every time something goes wrong on a mission, I think about what I could have done to prevent it. Whether I can actually be trusted to lead people. I've already lost so many teammates… friends… I couldn't protect them. I shouldn't have done something and I just… couldn't. And they died. And…" he paused, not knowing how to put the rest of his thoughts into words and at the same time surprised at the fact that he was even talking about this now.
"I'm sure none of them would have blamed you for what happened," Benji stated, determined.
"Why?" Ethan raised an eyebrow.
"Because I don't," Benji's features morphed into a soft yet still somewhat sad smile. "This is our job, Ethan. We all willingly accept our missions and all that comes with them. It's our lives and it's up to us to decide. We can get hurt or die, but it's the risk we all accepted when we passed our field exams".
Ethan nodded. It was true, and he knew it. But he still felt the dull ache in his chest whenever he remembered the faces of all those people he had cared about… and even now, when he looked at Benji's pale face, the dark bags under his eyes being a clear sign of lack of sleep, which he was almost certain he knew the reason for. However, he knew Benji was right. He knew he had to move on. He nodded again, noticing Benji's smile grow wider and more genuine, and began to mirror that expression.
"Good," the younger man nodded, satisfied. "Now let's go see our movies before our food gets cold and I have to microwave it again".
As they both stood up, Ethan suddenly threw his arms around Benji in a tight embrace, as if only now waking up from a horrific nightmare. Startled, Benji just stood there for two seconds before lifting up his hands to pat his friend on the back. There were still so many things Ethan wanted to talk about, so many things he needed to ask Benji, to make sure he was really okay… even though he knew that neither of them was okay. But right now he wanted to focus on how they were both alive. The nightmares and the endless what-if scenarios were always going to be there, he already knew it. However, as long as he still had something to wake up to after whatever nightmare he might have, life was worth living.
"We'll still need to talk about how you are doing afterwards," Ethan said after letting go, looking into Benji's eyes with as much seriousness as he could muster.
"Sure," Benji nodded curtly, a shadow passing his face. When he saw how stern the other man's gaze had turned, he sighed. "We'll talk. I promise. When I can talk about it". He took a pause and swallowed. "… But not before you check out my new sound system!"
With that, he turned around, grabbing the food from the table, and headed to the living room, leaving the other man with no choice but to follow him, the tiniest smile tugging at his lips.