It should go without saying, but I don't own anything whatever to do with the Mission: Impossible franchise. I'm just playing with the characters for a little while.
Be advised, there are mild spoilers for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol in this story.
He should never have let her see him.
That was the only thing Ethan Hunt could think as his gaze locked with his wife's across the water. In the split second before Julia focused fully on him, he could have moved out of her sight. Instead, he'd lingered, and now she was smiling at him. Ethan couldn't help smiling back, despite the voice in his head telling him to move, to get away, to protect her with his absence.
She gave him the tiniest of waves, more a flick of her fingers than an actual wave, then turned to rejoin her friends, doubtless certain she'd never see him again.
She shouldn't, Ethan told himself firmly. Then, even more firmly, I shouldn't. I shouldn't have come tonight. Too dangerous.
But he'd had to see her, to reassure himself that Julia was still alive, that his time in Rankow prison hadn't been for nothing. It wasn't your job to protect her, he'd told Brandt. It's mine.
And still is. Which is why he had to leave. Ethan glanced toward Julia for one last look, frowned when he didn't see her at the table with her friends. Instinct took over and he scanned what he could see of the interior of the restaurant - thank God for large glass windows - and then, when he didn't find her, the exterior.
Relief flooded him when he spotted her outside the restaurant in a secluded nook. But what was she doing there, especially with that serious expression? Then she lifted her hand, exposing the cell phone she held. Her message was clear: Call me.
I can't. Ethan shook his head, knowing he should turn and walk away, make the break final. But his feet wouldn't move, and Julia was stabbing a finger at the cell phone, her expression turning from serious to angry. Ethan winced, remembering the only other time he'd seen her that angry, and his hand moved toward the pocket holding his secure phone.
Just one call. I can tell her goodbye in person. Of course he knew her cell number. He knew everything about her, both when she'd been Julia Mead, those precious few months she'd been Julia Hunt, and now when she'd become Julia Dixon.
Ethan tapped in the number, and it was only a few seconds before her voice filled his awareness. "Ethan."
"Jules." He took a breath, and suddenly had no idea what to say to his wife.
"We should talk."
"It's risky even on this phone," Ethan said. "I just - I wanted to see you, to know you're okay, to know - to know it was worth it."
"Then let's not use this phone," Julia told him. "My apartment?"
"Talk about risky."
The cell phone she held couldn't hide her smile. "This from a man who works for the Impossible Missions Force? If you can't get in without being noticed, who can?"
"Just once, Ethan. Please."
I shouldn't. Too dangerous. But he let out a breath. "All right. Tomorrow night."
"No, you have plans with your friends. Enjoy it, and I'll see you later."
"Yeah," he said, feeling like a hundred different kinds of idiot for doing so. "I promise."
I shouldn't be doing this. Too dangerous. I should just disappear and let her go on with her life. But Ethan finished picking the lock to the apartment door and let himself in, careful not to leave fingerprints.
Ethan closed the door behind him and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dimness inside. Julia wouldn't be home for a while yet, to judge by the group she'd been with when he'd seen her half an hour before.
Now that his eyes had adjusted, he withdrew a small electronic scanner from his pocket and, avoiding furniture thanks to the ambient light through the window, he circled the living room, kitchen, and bedroom. No one had any reason to suspect he might be here - no one that he knew of, anyway - but Ethan would always use extra caution where Julia was concerned.
Except for coming here in the first place.
The apartment registered free of any electronic scanners or bugs, and Ethan allowed himself to relax fractionally. Now all he had to do was wait for Julia to come home. The recliner by the window offered the best view of the door, and he crossed to it.
Before he could sit, the scrape of a key in the lock rasped through the dark room. Instinctively, Ethan reached for the gun concealed beneath his jacket, but he hesitated, his hand hovering over the grip.
The door opened, and Ethan released a silent breath. Julia stood alone, framed in the light from the hallway, smiling at someone he couldn't see. "Thanks, Paul. See you tomorrow."
Then she was reaching for the light switch.
"Don't turn on the light," Ethan said, his voice low but pitched to carry.
Julia gasped, her whole body jerking in surprise, but she didn't turn on the light. Instead she closed the door and rested her back against it.
"Ethan?" Her voice barely registered.
"I'm here." It was all he could think to say.
"Ethan." It wasn't a cry, more that her voice caressed his name, and then she was crossing the room, throwing her arms around him. Instinctively, Ethan folded her into an embrace and simply held her.
Six months since he'd last held her for real, though he'd held her a thousand times in his dreams since then. It only made what was coming next worse.
"Thought you said tomorrow night."
Ethan couldn't help smiling, though she couldn't see it. There were so very many practical reasons he'd come tonight instead of waiting, but all he said was, "Couldn't wait any longer."
"I miss you, Ethan. So much."
"I miss you."
She held him even tighter, and he winced at the pressure on his still-sore ribs. Though the wounds had mostly healed, the slight limp he still had and the lingering soreness in his ribs were uncomfortable reminders of the fight with Hendricks. Julia pulled away just enough to look into his eyes.
"Another impossible mission successfully accomplished?"
Ethan chuckled, ignoring the resultant spike of pain in his ribs. "That's one way of putting it."
Julia took his hand and tugged him toward the sofa. "Sit down. Rest. Relax. Let me take care of you."
He squeezed her hand but didn't move. She turned questioning eyes to him, and Ethan wanted nothing more in that moment than to let her take care of him, to sink into the comfort and respite that she offered. It would be easy, so easy, to do.
He couldn't. Not when there were men like Owen Davian out there, men who didn't care that Julia knew little of his work with the IMF - men who saw her only as leverage to use against him. Davian had kidnapped her. She - a nurse - had had to kill to survive.
She'd been lucky.
Davian had been a rational enemy, one who understood psychological torture. He'd had no need to physically hurt Julia. Other men, other enemies, weren't so rational. Or, perhaps, were even more rational, and would not hesitate to hurt or abuse Julia if it would convince Ethan to do as they wanted.
So he took a breath and said the words he had to say. "I'm not staying."
Julia's lips thinned. "Ethan -"
"No, Jules." He cut her off. "I shouldn't have let you see me at the dock, and I shouldn't have come here."
"I'm willing to take the risk. I love you."
Ethan savored her words, tucked them away in his memory, and then shook his head. "I'm not."
"What do you mean, you're not?" Julia demanded.
"I told you in Rovinj." Ethan kept his voice calm. "This is the only way for you to be safe - and you have to be safe, Jules. You have to."
"But you don't." Anger laced her voice even as she turned away from him.
"My job is to keep everyone else safe, not myself."
"I'm your wife."
"You didn't know what I do when you married me."
"You were training other agents then." Julia turned back to him, and even in the ambient light of Seattle at night, he could see tears glistening in her eyes. "You got drawn into a mission with Davian, but that was one time. You can train others again."
Ethan let out a breath. "I'm a field agent, Jules. One of the best in the IMF."
"Modest, too," Julia snapped.
"Honest. And I have a team that's one of the best, now, after …" he broke off, but Julia finished for him.
"After the last thing you can't tell me about."
"Right." For long moments, he simply looked at her. She wasn't classically beautiful, but she had a joy for life that even her experience with Davian hadn't dimmed. "You're the reason I do what I do, Jules."
"You did it long before you met me."
"For you - people like you. You are what I work to protect." Ethan paced away from her, careful to avoid crossing directly in front of the window. "I love you, but if I'm going to protect you, I have to leave you. You'll always be a target otherwise, and the next guy who decides to use you to get to me won't be as rational about it as Davian was."
"I told you, I'm willing to take the risk."
"But I'm not," Ethan repeated gently, and then in a moment of starburst insight, he knew what to say. "Davian taught me exactly how much you mean to me, and what I'll do to save you. Your life against the rest of the world, Jules… that's no choice. So call me a coward if you want, but I can't face that. Not again."
Julia's expression softened, and Ethan hated himself for playing on her natural sympathies. "Oh, Ethan. I've been selfish, just thinking about what I want." She took a breath. "I know we talked about this before we went to Croatia, how I had to be dead to be safe. I just - I didn't realize it was forever."
"I didn't want it to be forever." That much was true. He'd wanted forever with her, not this forever. "And if there were any other way, I'd take it."
"But you're the good guy. Aren't you supposed to get the girl in the end?" Now her tone was plaintive, and Ethan marveled again at her many moods. He'd planned to spend a lifetime exploring them, but now he could only hope the memories he etched now would last a lifetime.
"It's not the end yet, Jules. There are more Davians out there, and someone has to stand against them."
Julia managed a smile. "And I just happened to fall in love with one of those someones."
Ethan couldn't joke, not about this. He swallowed. "Jules -"
The invitation surprised him, and he stared at her. In his work, he was called on to improvise in any situation. How was it that this woman could catch him flat-footed?
"Please," she added, her voice not much more than a whisper in the dark. "One last time together."
Ethan's body reacted to the suggestion, and he gave a silent thanks for the dimness that would help conceal it from her too-perceptive eyes. "I want to." God, how he wanted to lose himself in her. The want was a need, one that demanded to be satisfied.
Julia sighed. "But."
"It's riskier the longer I stay." He cleared his throat, a harsh rasp through the dark apartment. "And if I stay, I'm not sure I'll be able to leave in the morning."
This time he crossed to her and folded her into his arms, burying his face in her hair. "I love you , Jules."
"So much that you'll leave me." Her voice was rough, and Ethan knew she was holding back tears. That was okay - he was, too.
"Yes." He cleared his throat again. "Just promise me you'll be happy."
It was enough. Ethan pulled back and pressed his lips gently against hers, focusing on telling her he loved her with his kiss, even as he was also telling her goodbye. Julia clung to him, her mouth intense against his. A taste of salt told him tears slipped down her cheeks, and he forced himself to end the kiss and back away.
She didn't stop him, and he knew it was time to go. He stepped past her and crossed to the door. He heard her take a ragged breath and almost fled the apartment. If he heard her crying …
At least she doesn't hate me. Ethan emerged from Julia's apartment building, inhaling Seattle's cool night air. It wasn't quite as bracing as a dip in Elliott Bay, but it felt cleansing and refreshing all the same. In the middle of his exhale, his instincts flared alert. Someone was watching him.
Ethan fought the anger welling within him - at himself, for allowing someone to follow him to Julia's apartment, and at that unknown someone who threatened her - and covertly scanned the area.
A shadow separated itself from a dark corner, resolved into a male figure, and Ethan's hand dropped to the gun concealed at his waistband. But the man walked casually toward him, and when he crossed into the circle of light cast by a streetlamp, Ethan recognized him as William Brandt, and let his hand fall, frowning. Brandt was no threat, but what was he doing here?
"You were wrong," Brandt said when he came within easy speaking range.
"When you said it wasn't my job to protect her. It's both our jobs."
Ethan felt an eyebrow climbing. "Both?"
"How do you figure?" Ethan asked as he fell into step with Brandt and left Julia's building behind.
"Aside from it being my assignment, you made it my job when you told me she's alive."
"So what are you doing here?"
"Watching your back." Brandt might be walking casually, but Ethan could see that his eyes were alert for any sign of danger.
"It needed watching why?"
"You couldn't take your eyes off her at the docks."
Ethan winced at the truth of Brandt's observation. Even while Ethan had been reassuring Brandt that he wasn't upset about what had happened in Croatia - how could he be, when he'd arranged the whole thing? - he'd been watching Julia debark the ferry and walk to the diner with her friends.
"Besides," Brandt said over Ethan's silence, "I'm your second in command. It's my job to have your back - and that includes protecting her."
"My second -?" Ethan broke off his question, thinking back to their recently-concluded mission that had taken them from Moscow to Dubai to India. When things in Dubai went wrong, Brandt was the one who'd taken Carter and Dunn to task, and he'd backed Ethan's moves, even when he clearly didn't understand or agree with Ethan's plans.
Besides, a quiet voice spoke in Ethan's mind, who else would do it? Carter? Benji?
Carter could do it, Ethan thought, if she weren't still blaming herself for a mission that had gone wrong. Benji Dunn - no way. Brandt was the only reasonable choice for his second, but that didn't mean he was the wrong man for it.
Ethan focused on Brandt again, noted the nerves lining the other man's posture, and realized he'd been quiet too long. "You sure you want the job?"
"I dunno… You are one crazy-ass son of a bitch." Brandt grinned, robbing the statement of any insult. "But, irrational as it is, your hunches seem to work out. Yeah, I want the job."
"Good," Ethan said. "Because, you know, Benji was interested…"
Brandt glared at him. "I'd resign before I'd let Benji take second. He's a techie genius, and not half bad with a Glock in a pinch, but he's not leader material."
Ethan chuckled. Then his attention drifted back to Julia. "It was clear?"
"A man escorted her to the building and went inside with her, came out a few minutes later. I assume he followed her to her door?"
"She said she'd see him tomorrow. Called him Paul."
"I ran his picture through our database. No matches. He's clean, as far as the IMF's concerned."
"Good." It was good, wasn't it? Hadn't he just told Julia to be happy without him? So why did he have the urge to track this Paul down and beat him to a pulp?
Because you still think of her as yours, and she's not.
"Want to see?" Brandt asked quietly.
"Yes - no."
"That was definite."
"No. I have to let her go."
"Okay." Brandt pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped in a command.
"What was that?"
"You said no. I believed you. I deleted the picture. I'm not sure even Benji can get it back."
For an instant, Ethan wanted to try to get the image back, but the impulse faded, and he nodded acknowledgment. Letting Julia go, allowing her to be happy, meant he couldn't babysit her, as much as he wanted to.
"I've got to get out of Seattle."
He didn't realize he'd said the words aloud until Brandt responded, "Stickell said he'd see you in Kandahar. Mission there?"
"Not that I know of."
Brandt appeared to consider that. "Not exactly a resort town."
"Luther's not exactly a resort kind of guy."
"Huh." Ten paces further on, Brandt said, "Shoot some pool instead?"
"Depends. You any good?"
"Nah. Should be fun, though."