It hadn't been the bomb that broke him. Benji assumed it would be the bomb, of course it would. He'd nearly died. He'd nearly sacrificed his life (or rather, had it sacrificed by Ethan) to save the world from the Syndicate. He'd never been so close to death in his entire life. Less than a second - less than HALF a second, (he'd kept the vest, and seen the time). And if the deadly game of chicken had gone on a fraction of a second longer, Benji, Ethan, Ilsa, and about seventy-odd innocent people would have died.
But he survived that moment, thanks to Ethan's brilliance. Or maybe thanks to his innate knowledge of human nature. Or maybe it was just thanks to his amazingly good luck. Benji wasn't really sure, but he was grateful for whatever it was. He'd had himself a little moment alone to puke his guts out on the way to locating Brandt and Luther, so that by the time he got to them, he looked as collected as he could, and he was able to help get things ready for the trap.
He fully expected the nightmares. The cold sweats. It was the same as it had been after Hendricks. But it wasn't for the same reason. Benji remembered waking from horrible nightmares in which the world was destroyed and gross, zombie-like people remained, half-dead from the fallout, but alive enough (apparently) to chase him. And he remembered shaking and sweating and having to talk himself down from hyperventilating for what seemed like no reason at all. It could be triggered by something as small as seeing a kid flying a kite, or hearing his favorite song, and he'd realize that, if not for four hard-headed lunatics, all of it could have been gone. Sometimes, he'd get that way because of literally nothing at all, nothing he recognized anyway.
This time, it was almost always the same. But it wasn't the bomb. It was the moment he failed. The moment he cracked. The moment he'd shown how weak he was. And it had all come from a look.
No. No, that wasn't fair. It wasn't from a look. It was from the actual presence of evil. That briefest of power struggles, where Benji had tried to face Lane, and Lane had destroyed him without a single word. The malice, the viciousness, the disdain - they had been as palatable and painful as any amount of pummeling the Bone Doctor could have given him. And after only a few seconds of being wordlessly threatened, he'd backed away, terrified and hating himself for it.
Then, that little, subtle laugh. That final dig, the salt in the wound. You're afraid. You're pathetic. You're no match for me, even with my hands resting casually behind my back. It haunted him. It was almost humiliating, too, that Lane didn't even feel the need to have Vinter hurt him. He'd sat there, sick to his stomach, while the bomb was strapped on, and the "dead" agent grinned at him and told him exactly what everything was, as if Benji didn't already know.
Benji had felt a little of the sourness in his gut get calmer when he'd watched impassively while Lane flailed inside the box. It was hard to believe that Lane had done this very thing to Ethan. Benji was thrilled for Ethan, that he'd been able to look Lane in the eyes as the smoke filled the trap. And he'd been more grateful than he knew how to express, that Ethan had let him turn on the gas.
But now, weeks later, he still had to shove down feelings of nausea and guilt - or not-quite guilt, but something like it - for being caught in the first place, and for cowering under Lane's gaze. The chills, the sweats, the semi-sleepless nights, they were all back with a vengeance. And it didn't exactly help knowing that Lane was alive somewhere, being imprisoned by people who had no idea what he was capable of. God. God help the world if he slipped out of their hands.
"What are you working on?"
Ethan glanced over to see Brandt standing near Benji's chair, checking out his latest project. There were wires all over Benji's station, and it looked a little like a mad scientist was at work, without the beakers. "Just fixing the timing on it now," Benji said. He kept his eyes focused on his work, and he sounded distracted. It was natural enough for a busy person, but it wasn't really like Benji. He was usually very enthusiastic about anything he was working on, and would pause to show people exactly what he was up to.
Brandt laughed. "The timing on what?" he asked. "Are those the little drones we were going to send through to-"
"Yeah," Benji said, sounding a little sharp.
"Nice." Brandt didn't seem to notice the change in Benji's tone. He leaned in closer and Benji looked up at him. Ethan saw him bare his teeth and edge back, but Brandt was focused on the drones. "This is kind of-"
"Will you back OFF, BRANDT?!" Benji shouted.
Brandt jumped and backed up, looking down at Benji in confusion. Benji was breathing hard, looking nearly as shocked as Brandt did. "Sorry," Brandt said, raising his hands.
Benji suddenly looked horrified. "No, I... I'm sorry, that wasn't called for. I'm really sorry, I... don't know..."
"No big deal, Benji," Brandt said.
"Don't sweat it, really," Brandt said. He glanced at Ethan for a moment, a split second of worry on his face, before he smiled at Benji. "We're all a little punchy right now."
Benji gave him a half-hearted smile of gratitude, then looked at Ethan. There was the same split second of worry in his eyes that Ethan had seen in Brandt's. Ethan gave his own half-hearted smile. "Agreed, we're tense right now. None of us likes playing the waiting game. Maybe we can get something to eat while we wait for Jane to get back? Should I-"
"I'll go," Brandt offered immediately. "My part's done, and I'm definitely stir crazy."
"Okay, thanks man."
Brandt gave him a playful salute, grabbed a coat, and left the warehouse. Benji sighed and sank heavily back into his chair. Ethan put down his own already-forgotten project and approached his friend. "I'm so sorry, Ethan," Benji said, looking up.
Ethan grabbed a chair and pulled it over, sitting across from Benji. "It's okay," he said.
"It's not, I shouldn't have... we're a team, I should never have..." He sighed, and rubbed his face with his hands, with a frustrated groan.
"You lost your temper in a stressful situation," Ethan said. "But you corrected it immediately. Brandt knows how you feel about him, so don't worry about that. It's not like the team is going to crumble now." Benji looked at him with a wry grin. "I know you already know that," Ethan said. "But-"
"Helps to hear it," Benji said. "Still, I... I didn't expect it myself. I don't want to be... some kind of a loose cannon."
Ethan suppressed a smile. The thought of his buddy turning into a loose cannon was almost ridiculous. But he knew it would be awful to say so, and it wasn't even true. Benji was as skilled and (therefore) as dangerous as any other agent who had been in the field going on three years. And anyone unpredictable could be a danger to lives on a team. "Listen. As long as you're conscious of it, you're not likely to blow a tense moment on a mission. And you are conscious of it, you caught yourself right away. So don't worry, I'm not going to try to send you home."
He winked and Benji laughed - a sound Ethan hadn't heard in weeks, which in itself was unnerving. "Thanks, Ethan."
"Sure. But I do think we should talk about it," he said seriously. Benji shifted uncomfortably, but didn't try to end the conversation. "Brandt didn't see your face, but I did Benji." He lowered his head. "I know you're not afraid of Brandt. So... who were you afraid of in that second?"
Benji sighed shakily, and looked as if he were searching for words. His eyes began to glisten, and Ethan took a deep, slow breath, waiting for Benji to let it out. "Shit!" Benji hissed.
"I'm sorry," Ethan said, acknowledging how hard it was, without easing off.
Benji shook his head and pressed his eyes with the heel of his palms. "It's... it was... him."
"Mmm," Ethan said, nodding. There was no need to ask who "he" was. "Will you tell me about it?"
Benji sighed again, and nodded. "I... I think I'd like to," he said, sounding surprised. "Figured I'd never want..." He shook his head. "It's so..." He shrugged and his hands flailed helplessly.
"Take your time," Ethan said calmly.
Benji took a deep breath, held it in, and then let it out slowly. His jaw seemed to set, and he started to talk, his eyes focused somewhere around Ethan's left elbow. He told Ethan, sometimes haltingly, about his experience with Lane, and how it had made him feel - like a failure, a fraud and a disappointment. Ethan was reminded of his impotent rage as Lane trapped him and murdered the London terminal agent in front of him. He let Benji get through it all, including his panic attacks, and lately, his tension around the others.
"And it's just been building, I guess. Hardly slept last night, and now I'm yelling at people who don't deserve it." He shook his head. "But it's so... stupid, I should be able to..."
Ethan nodded. "I... I'm sorry if it sounds trite, but I know how you feel," he said.
Benji looked up at his face for the first time since he'd started talking. "How... how could you? I mean... not like... but you're so... in control," he said at last. "You never..." He shrugged.
"Oh, I do," He smiled. "Believe it or not, I do. I've been an IMF agent for close to two decades, Benji," he said. "In all those years, there have been many many times I've felt helpless against... so many things. Everything! And if you can believe it, it got worse when I started heading up my own team."
Benji nodded. "I can see that. Feeling responsible for all of us."
"Responsible for you, and to you. It's the IMF - Impossible is in the name. We all tend to hold ourselves to some pretty high standards. Me? I'm not allowed to crack in front of my team, no matter how much I tell myself that you guys would understand."
"But we do understand, Ethan," he said fervently. "You're human, like anyone else!" Ethan smiled slowly, and Benji nodded again. "Just... like... how I feel I wasn't supposed to crack in front of him."
"You're human, like anyone else, Benji," Ethan said softly. "And anybody who has even a little bit of decency inside them would cringe around a... creature like that." Benji's mouth twitched, and he looked down, embarrassed. "I can't tell you that getting past this will be easy," he said. "I'm not exactly past it myself, and I never had to be in the same room with him without glass between us. None of our team has, unless you count Ilsa." Benji looked up sharply, as if he'd never realized that fact before. "But I can tell you," Ethan said, catching Benji's gaze and holding it with his own. "You are more capable today than you were before he did what he did to you."
"But... he didn't even-"
"He didn't have to, and you already know that, Benji," Ethan said. Benji nodded his acknowledgement. "But you survived it. You survived him. And now you're out here doing what you've always wanted to do, and he's rotting in a cell, being interrogated day and night, and knowing - every minute of every day - that he's a failure."
A slow smile spread across Benji's face, and Ethan smiled in response. "And knowing it's because of us."
"Damn right," Ethan said.
His smile became brilliant, and after a moment, he started to laugh. He laughed and laughed, throwing his head back in glee. Ethan was tickled by it, and by the image he'd just painted of Lane sitting in a cell, still frustrated because a few disconnected, disavowed ruffians had taken him and his closest lieutenants down. He laughed as well, joining Benji in untamed mirth the like of which he hadn't enjoyed for months.
They were still laughing when Brandt came back with the food, and followed swiftly by Jane. "Look who I... er..." Brandt and Jane looked at them with confusion that turned swiftly to amusement.
Ethan and Benji made an effort to calm down, and Jane shook her head. "Not sure I even want to know," she said, pulling off her coat, and tossing a flash drive to Ethan.
Ethan smiled broadly. "Excellent work, Jane."
"Thanks," she said, with a brilliant smile of her own.
"So, what were you two cackling about while we were out doing hard work?" Brandt asked, setting down several bags on another partially cleared table.
"We?" Jane cried, and Brandt grinned mischievously at her.
"Oh, just... thinking about winning," Ethan said.
Brandt smiled. "Well, c'mon over here and think about chow," he said. "Do you know how hard it is to find good Thai around here?"
"Not as hard as getting that disk, I'll bet," Jane snapped, punching Brandt in the arm, only slightly playfully.
"Brandt... we're in MOLDOVA," Benji said incredulously.
"Exactly!" he said, rolling out his shoulder with a pointed glance at Jane. "C'mon before it gets cold."
Benji got up and trotted over to join them at the table, and Ethan noticed that he seemed lighter - his movements didn't have the subdued overtone that they'd seemed to for the past few weeks. Benji must have felt his gaze, because he glanced at Ethan. Ethan winked at him, and he smiled and mouthed "thank you" before turning his attention to dinner.
It hadn't been the bomb that broke him. It had been a man. A man who could exude evil, and break wills without even opening his mouth. He'd nearly lost his life. He'd never been so close to giving up, so close to letting another man define him and make him believe in his own inferiority as he had that day.
But he survived that moment, thanks to Ethan's brilliance. Or maybe thanks to his innate knowledge of human nature. Or maybe it was just thanks to his amazingly good luck. Benji wasn't really sure, but he was grateful for whatever it was.