Note: This story was written as a continuous text, but I didn't want to submit you to over 17000 words of continuous text. This means length of the chapters might be a bit weird.
Thanks also to my amazing beta-reader. One of the characters was created by her, I'm using it with her permission.
The Russian Quartett
The packing station was a large hall, divided only by the desks where the workers were packing parcels. At one of those desks, Sergey sat, staring blankly into the air, while his fingers did the work. As usual his mind was elsewhere, until he realized that someone was talking to him.
Rodya called him for the third time, when he finally looked up. The voice of his boss was concerned rather than angry. "Sergey, is everything alright?"
"Da, da," Sergey replied halfheartedly and to redirect his focus back to his work. But as soon as his boss walked away, his mind started drifting again. Yes, everything was alright for Sergey Ivanov. He had a work that payed his food and his flat, a good boss and a – reasonably – honest job, more than he could have wished for. That was him, as he was now, but he had not always been like this. And lately his thoughts tended to wander back to another life. And another job. He knew he should keep the two apart, especially after Andrey had once surprised him in his flat and caught a glimpse of his other side.
Sergey had nearly punched a few teeth out of his mouth. Gladly the threat of doing so had sufficed to shut him up, at least around the others. And he doubted he had seen enough to get a good idea of his second occupation, but ever since, the younger man worshiped him like some kind of secret super hero.
With a start Sergey's thoughts returned to his work-place. He cursed silently, his hand was tangled up in a knot of packaging tape. Pulling his fingers out of the sticky mess, he looked around for Rodya, who had called him from the other side of the hall. "Sergey! Come over here, and meet Mr. Kostas!"
Sergey slammed the ball of tape on his fingers onto his work-table, where it stuck. Then he carefully made his way through the narrow passages between the rows of workbenches, until he reached Ivan and his guest on the other side of the room. He could already hear Rodya praising him from far away: "Sergey is a very fine man. A good worker, and one of my specialists for difficult deliveries. Maybe even the best."
Mr. Kostas looked rather bored, but nodded out of courtesy. Rodya didn't even notice.
"Sergey, this is Mr. Kostas, a new customer," he introduced the other man. "One of our special customers, you understand."
Sergey just nodded. He was used to his employer's not-so-legal ways of helping along his income, and didn't care. How Rodya ran his company was none of his business, although this time a bad feeling rose in the pit of his stomach. Still he forced himself to smile and offered Kostas a hand, which the Greek decided to ignore.
"So he is the best," Kostas sneered down on him, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He showed a hollow smile out of a floppy face, set on a body that was as wide in every direction as it was tall. Sergey was glad he had not shaken his hand that likely was as grimy as everything else on this man.
"Oh yes," Rodya said with the same enthusiasm. "He can be quite creative, you will see. And he is completely reliable."
There seemed to be the slightest spark of interest in Kostas' eyes. Not taking his eyes off Sergey, he took out a cigarette and lit it. Despite the usually strict no-smoking-policy in the packing station, Rodya let him prevail. "How good is he, really?" the Greek asked, still looking at Sergey, but talking over his head as if he was some an animal. Sergey didn't like that, and took the chance to reply himself. "That depends on what you want to ship, and where."
"I have many goods to deliver," Kostas answered and took a long draw from his cigarette. "To many different places." This time it was not clear who he was talking to. They kept staring at each other, until Rodya got uneasy and led his new business-partner away. "Come. I will show you the rest of my company," the boss said and signaled Sergey to return to his work.
Somewhat uneasy, Sergey went back to his place. He couldn't help feeling that this time Rodya was in over his head. This Kostas was not like one of the small criminals they were usually smuggling for. He was first-class scum, dangerous and potentially lethal. And something in his gut told Sergey that they had met before. In another place. In another life.
In an average office cubicle, inside an average office building in D.C., Benjamin Dunn sat in front of a not so average computer screen, scrolling through endless lines of top-secret data. Half a year ago above everything else he had wanted to just get back into the field, but right now he was rather content with his office spot. Usually he was mostly bored by the work any computer analyst could do, but today he simply wasn't in the mood for anything. Not even the collection of PC games in his desk drawer could cheer him up. Blankly he stared at the rows of numbers and letters in front of him.
It was the date. He had tried not to think of it, push it out of his mind, where it could stay as far as he was concerned. He had tried to forget it, like the birthday of his aunt Lucy. He had tried to think forward to something pleasant, like counting the days to the next weekend. But it hadn't worked. The instance his eyes had habitually glanced at his calendar in the morning, the date had jumped at him like an angry cat.
It had been four months now. Back then, he had refused to believe it, and even now a part of him still wanted to hope, no matter how unfunded that hope was. But from now on he would have to accept the painful truth, at least officially.
Angry with himself he tried to shake off the thought, push it away and concentrate on his work, but he couldn't focus. The numbers and letters started to swim in front of his eyes and he caught himself starting at the top of the page again. Benji didn't know how many times he had read that particular line of code already, but it just wouldn't stick in his mind. He felt incredibly tired, thanks to sleeping bad the previous night, even by his lowest standards, and he thought he might have been less exhausted if he hadn't slept at all.
With a sigh the techie decided to quit working for now. He was well within his monthly schedule and today he just couldn't be productive. He started to close down what he had been working on and was about to shut down the computer completely, when a small window popped up in the lower right corner of his screen with a friendly ping.
The soft sound startled Benji. He had set up several alerts four months ago, and in the beginning he had been buried in notifications. Like the others, he had worked day and night that first week, neglecting other duties. But all searches had been fruitless and while all their leads had ended in a dead end, his automated notifications had slowly died down. This was the first one he got in over a week.
Considering how exhausted he was, Benji tried to convince himself that this could wait a day and he should get back to it tomorrow. But he knew that to him it couldn't, and, suddenly alert, he clicked on the message.
A file opened, one of the not so secret kind that was simply a compilation of commonly known data about a specific individual, in this case a Greek merchant. To access files like this agents didn't need to confirm their identities, only provide the right security key. This way crucial background information was easily and quickly available for agents everywhere and usually, when a passkey accidentally fell into the wrong hands, there was not much harm done. None of the information were actually secret.
The file in itself was not all that interesting, a merchant dealing with everything that brought lots of money fast, suspected of illegally shipping arms, drugs, and other contraband. For Benji the average everyday criminal. Most likely someone was taking care of him already.
Also the content wasn't what had triggered the alert. Although there seemed to be an active case, most of the information was comparatively old, and even the most recent additions dated back over a month already. Which meant that something else must have sparked the interest of his self-written search program.
Cracking his knuckles, Benji leaned over his keyboard and started to rummage through the file's meta-data. His ping had been triggered by someone accessing the file, and there was only one access that could be responsible.
Opening another window, he typed in a few commands and soon knew he was on the right track. The key that had been used was one of the old ones, that dated back to before the invocation of Ghost Protocol two years earlier. All the access codes had been renewed with the reinstatement after the CIA takeover half a year ago, but most of the old keys were still active out of convenience and because the security risk was virtually nonexistent. Still it meant that this wasn't likely to have anything to do with any ongoing mission, and only strengthened Benji's suspicion.
The list of agents who had been handed this particular key was long, even once the computer had filtered out only those still active in the reinstated IMF. Frustrated Benji decided he needed a different approach and started to trace the access back to its geographic origin. The request had been relayed over several proxies and encrypted to hide its source, but soon the techie had a result that looked very promising.
He ordered the computer to sort the list of agents he had compiled earlier by the proximity of their current known or assumed location to where he believed the access had been from, and to eliminate all outside a certain range.
He was prepared to sift through them by hand, but to his surprise his new search brought up only one hit. And one that was spot on.
The eager smile that had spread over Benji's face during his search broadened into a grin, when he glanced at the black-and-white picture and the name written on top of the file that popped up. Then it dropped instantly when his eyes met the writing that was printed across the file in bloody red letters:
Absentmindedly William Brandt, Chief Analyst, sat in the cafeteria and stared into a cup of coffee that was slowly growing cold. He had not been so foolish to give up field work again, but he hadn't complained about keeping his office job, either. In the last half year he had tried to get out there some more again, but ultimately there had been no one else to do his job.
Brandt stirred his coffee, watching the swirls he produced in the dark liquid. He didn't know how long he had been sitting there. He had excused himself from the office early, and Hunley had let him go without asking any questions. He simply hadn't been able to concentrate, the date hanging over his head like a Damocles-sword.
Logically he knew that he couldn't have changed anything. He had been too far away. And yet it was so easy to put the blame on himself. He hadn't been there. But he could have been. Should have been.
With a sigh he lifted his cup and took a sip. Brandt grimaced. His coffee was cold.
He only half looked up when someone sat down across from him. He knew it could only be one of two people, no one else in their right mind would have dared to approach him right then. Still he forced his gaze away from his cup of cold coffee, and looked at Luther who sat there in a heavy, dripping rain coat.
"Where do you come from?" Brandt asked with a croaky voice, trying to sound interested.
"I'm not actually here," Luther replied flatly. "I took a day off."
Luther Stickell had spent the morning on the pier, staring out at the sea. The place itself didn't have a meaning. For a field agent few places ever did. The only thing about it was that especially in this weather he would be alone there, and that was exactly how he wanted it. He wasn't feeling like meeting anyone today, and the few people he did see decided to stay out of his way.
He had stood there for hours, watching the waves rolling ashore, and thinking about the past, the present and the future. But mainly the past. He had been thinking about retiring from the field before. One time he had actually done it, but right now for the very first time he felt it was the right time. He felt tired, exhausted, old.
If Ethan had been there, he thought, he would make fun of him for that. But he wasn't there. He was gone. Missing. As of today, he was officially disavowed and presumed dead.
Despite the cold sprinkle on his face, when he closed his eyes, Luther could still see the blazing building, hear the howl of the fire truck sirens, remnants of a supposedly easy mission that had spectacularly gone up in smoke. He should have known it then. But now he could no longer ignore it. Now he had to accept that this time, Ethan Hunt would not be coming back.
"Coffee?" Brandt offered in a half-hearted try to break the silence that had evolved. Luther only shook his head, so the two men kept staring at their respective spots on the table, until another person let herself fall onto the chair next to Luther. Both looked up.
"Shouldn't you still be in infirmary?" Brandt asked as Skye wordlessly put four steaming mugs onto the table. The long sleeves of her sweatshirt almost covered the bandage on her right hand, but her moves were still very careful.
"Special leave. Not that they could have kept me there today anyway," she explained and took a sip from her coffee. "Have you seen Benji? I couldn't find him in his office."
"Sorry, I had to look something up," Benji apologized behind her. He gave her a light, careful hug, aware of the cracked ribs underneath the striped sweater. Then he sat down next to Brandt.
Even underneath his blond hair, Benji was looking incredibly pale, except for the dark rings around his eyes. Brandt knew he didn't look much better. So far they had managed to keep up at least a semblance of being alright, but today they all seemed to be falling apart. Yet looking at Benji, the analyst thought there was something else.
"You look as if you've seen a ghost," Brandt stated, trying and failing to find a mocking tone. He instantly regretted it.
"Maybe I have," Benji muttered, turning another shade paler. Then he quickly busied himself with his coffee.
"So?" Luther asked, when he didn't volunteer any more information.
The other techie had realized, too late, that he had already implied more than he should have, and now he was treading on very thin ice. But now it was too late to back out. He swallowed, then carefully said: "I... I got a new ping."
Brandt looked up, unsure if he should actually reach for that very thin straw Benji was handing them. But Skye took the decision from him. "You think we have a new lead?"
Benji was still thinking about how he should respond to not raise too many hopes, when Luther interrupted him. "It's probably nothing."
"But what if it's not?" Benji inadvertently raised his voice. The temperature in the room dropped from cold to frosty. Luther steadily met his gaze, but Benji refused to be intimidated by his stare. Neither dared to blink.
Still, when Luther spoke his voice shook ever so slightly. "I was there. The whole place was on fire and if he made it out, we would know it by now. He's not coming back."
Benji looked at him with a mixture of disbelief and hurt, but when no one opposed him, Luther stood up and turned to go. He almost ran into the secretary.
Hunley nodded a greeting at the agents and when Luther tried to move past him, he held him back. "Agent Stickell," he said, and Luther stopped. Then he addressed them all. "Something urgent has come up. If you would join me in my office, please."