The Patriot
Chapter 3 - Reconciliation

There were tears in Jim's eyes by the time he finished telling his story. He didn't try to hide the tears, either. The pain on his face was so raw that Ethan could hardly stand to see it. But Ethan didn't turn away – couldn't leave Jim alone after what he'd just revealed.

"I'm... sorry, Ethan," he said. "I'm s-so sorry I gave away our-"

"Jim, don't," he said. This time, it wasn't because he couldn't handle the pressure of an apology. It was because he couldn't stand the thought of Jim blaming himself for what had happened.

Jim looked at him, and for a moment, they were filled with the deepest gratitude. Then he lowered his head again. "I... I'm I'm sorry I didn't look for you, too," Jim said. "I... I thought... there didn't seem any reason to doubt they were telling the truth. I was afraid to approach the Agency after what happened. With you dead, and Claire backing the impostor, I couldn't have convinced anyone of who I was. And I was sure you were-"

"I know, Jim," Ethan said. "I thought you were dead, too." Jim looked surprised, and Ethan explained the conversation that had finally tipped him off. "When I realized it couldn't possibly be you, I assumed he must have killed you. I only wish that my suspicions could have been enough to clear your name, but-"

Jim shook his head. "There was too much against me," he said. "All the codes he knew – everything Claire gave him. You couldn't have done anything about it based on that one conversation. I'm... I'm just glad you didn't think I died a traitor."

Ethan nodded. "I'd hoped Claire didn't know about him, but..." Ethan paused and took a deep breath. He could feel the guilt and rage starting to build. "I'm sorry, Jim," he said. "I wish I'd been there for you." Jim shook his head. "I should have seen through him before-"

Jim was on his feet so fast his chair nearly fell over. He came toward Ethan, who also got to his feet, but stopped when he was still a couple of feet away. "Ethan, please don't blame yourself."

"But how could I not have known it wasn't you?" he cried. "I... we... he knew about... us. We..." Ethan clenched his fists tightly, thinking about all he had shared with the false Jim.

"Don't think about it, Ethan," Jim said firmly. "Just... don't think about it." He took a hesitant step toward Ethan. "I could never blame you for being taken in, Ethan. I was absolutely sure of Claire, and look what happened. I got the whole team killed. Unless... unless that was a lie too?"

Ethan shook his head sadly. "I'm the only one who survived," he said. "And that was just so they could pin the blame on me."

Jim looked both saddened and disgusted, and Ethan took another step toward him. "Jim, whappened was not your-"

"Wasn't it? I brought her into our lives. I gave her everything she needed to destroy you." Jim shook his head, helpless. "I... I've spent the last eighteen years going over every conversation I ever had with her. Every look, every gesture, just... trying to figure out when she changed. Trying to pick out signs that I might have missed." He shut his eyes and let out a heavy sigh. After a moment, he looked at Ethan again, eyes red and shining. "I've spent close to twenty years second-guessing myself, nearly going mad, unable to trust my own thoughts and decisions."

Ethan nodded. "I know exactly what you mean," he said softly.

Jim looked keenly at him for a moment, and there was understanding in his eyes. He lowered his head briefly. "I... Ethan, I love you so much. I'm just grateful you're alive."

Ethan nodded again. He didn't quite feel capable of speech, but the hesitation that had kept him at a distance from Jim before suddenly vanished. He staggered toward Jim, and Jim was inches from him in the next second. Jim pulled Ethan close and wrapped his arms around him. Ethan clutched Jim tightly, trying to keep himself together and failing. "I love you, Jim," he said, voice cracking.

Jim held him even tighter and the two men rested in each others' arms, as they had longed to do for nearly two decades. Ethan did as Jim had suggested – he didn't think about the past. He didn't think about Claire, or the false Jim, or the time that had been stolen from them. He focused on the feeling of Jim's arms, warm and firm, and the feeling of Jim's body pressed hard against his.

Ethan was usually keenly aware of the passage of time. It was an innate sense that could come in very handy when lives depended on something being accomplished (or thwarted) on a precise deadline. But that morning, enveloped in Jim's embrace, Ethan lost track of time completely.

He didn't want to break the embrace, but eventually, they had to move. Ethan wasn't sure who shifted first, or if they moved simultaneously, but at some point they pulled apart and sat back down at the table – this time choosing seats right next to one another. "So," Ethan said. "Let me tell you how the ambush on the train really ended."

By the time Ethan finished his story, Jim was teary-eyed again, although he had burst into a wide, genuinely gleeful grin when Ethan had told him about Claire's death, and then again at the death of the impostor. Ethan had been saddened by Claire's death, despite her betrayal. But, just as he'd hoped she hadn't had a personal hand in killing their team, Ethan had still held onto a shred of hope that maybe she hadn't known about the impostor from the start. Or that maybe it had been some kind of misguided attempt to keep Jim alive. But Jim had known for nearly twenty years that Claire had been part of the charade from the very beginning. She had to have helped as far back as the kidnapping itself, in fact. It would have taken an insider to find out what hospital Jim had been taken to. Jim had also believed that she'd been enjoying the fruits of her deceipt for nearly as long. Ethan certainly understood his joy at the discovery that she'd died exactly as he predicted she would.

When Ethan had finished speaking, the two of them left the dining room and made themselves comfortable on the couch. Ethan easily slipped back into his old, familiar position, leaning against Jim, the other man's arm draped casually over Ethan's shoulder. Quietly, over their now lukewarm black coffee, the two men caught up on almost twenty years of lost time.

Ethan talked about the many adventures he'd had since he'd become head of his own team. He talked about Naiah and Julia and Bogdan, and the excellent group of people he now had as his permanent team. Jim told him about his wanderings, of trying to stay well under the radar of The Initiator, and the Agency. He told Ethan about the relationships he'd tried to maintain, each of which had failed for one reason or another – most often because no one could compete with the memory of the loves he'd lost. He talked about the lingering depression that eventually left him destitute, scraping out a living, leaving unpaid bar tabs in more than one city.

It was late evening by the time their stories had been fully told, and they had barely moved from the couch except for a short foray into the kitchen around mid-day. Ethan was comfortable, settled and prepared to stay right here, in the crook of Jim's arm for the rest of his life. He felt Jim take a deep, slow breath. "We've been through quite a time, you and I," he said.

"Mmhmm," Ethan acknowledged.

"IMF thinks I'm a dead traitor, practically everyone I knew is dead and gone, and I probably wouldn't be any use to the Agency even if they were willing to accept me again."

"You never know," Ethan said. "You'd be surprised how many people refused to believe it was you once the truth came out. Or... well... the half truth."

Jim squeezed Ethan's arm, and there was a smile on his face when Ethan looked up at him. Jim sighed and shook his head, becoming seriously again. "So much has happened. So many years of..." He shook his head, becoming serious again, no doubt unwilling to put it all into words. "I guess I just... don't know."

"Know what, Jim?"

"Where do we go from here?"

Ethan turned and smiled. He kissed Jim softly on the lips, smiling again when Jim's hand pressed tightly against his back. Ethan pulled back after a few moments, and ran a hand gently through Jim's shiny, snow-white hair. "Wherever we want, Jim," he whispered. "Wherever we want."

Chapter 2

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