Ethan hadn't trusted him at first. None of them had, of course. Why would they? It wasn't the plastic surgery of itself. After all, they were used to people changing faces almost at will. But, even though they'd known Jim would need extensive reconstruction after that last mission, he'd assured them that he was going to keep his features the same. "I'm attached to this old mug."
But now, it seemed, he'd had a change of heart, complete with deciding on vocal cord adjustment. They didn't like it.
But the man had passed a battery of tests and much more than your run of the mill lie detector test, too. This was an organization dedicated to promoting the Greater Good, by any means necessary. They knew deceit. They knew how to root out a con man they were the consummate impersonation experts, after all. They knew what to look for, and they employed all their knowledge to the problem of determining whether this man was friend or foe.
He passed the tests with flying colors.
Ethan didn't care. He still didn't trust him. Couldn't. Not yet. Not until the man passed Ethan's personal test. It was something no one who wasn't Jim Phelps could possibly know. It was a code they had worked out between them, during one of their many evenings together. It was inviolate something neither of them would ever divulge to anyone else, no matter how much they trusted the person.
Jim passed the test.
Ethan was almost surprised his misgivings had been so strong. But Jim would never have given this away, no matter what. Not ever. Ethan relaxed. He welcomed Jim home. He made an effort to get used to the new features, which certainly weren't unpleasant. He assured the rest of the team that Jim was still Jim.
Three years later, the man named Jim Phelps had killed nearly every person Ethan loved, including himself. And Ethan Hunt no longer trusted anyone including himself.
Ethan's generalized mistrust of everyone around him only grew with age and experience. His control sent him on a mission to intentionally endanger a civilian without disclosing the fact first. His close personal friend and internal liaison had betrayed Ethan and his country, kidnapped his wife and nearly killed her. Time and time again, his mistrust of the world seemed to have been fulfilled. His mistrust of himself had also been confirmed.
Ethan had had many successful missions since Jim had died, but there had been setbacks moments when he'd misjudged a situation or a person (like Musgrave, who had been his best friend in the service), and at times, those mistakes had cost lives. Ethan knew that in a position like his, the risk of death was always present. All agents knew the risks involved, so he never let his guilt impede his ability to complete missions. But that guilt was still there. Each decision that led to death, or even to a minor setback, was proof that he could not be trusted to make the right choices. Each incident was a reminder that he had known, loved, and trusted a man, without reserve, and that man had betrayed him and killed his team without Ethan ever having suspected him not until it was far too late.
Then came the most harrowing mission of his entire career. The entire world was at stake, and the team he'd been saddled with was not the most confidence-inspiring group. A green agent who'd been manning the tech station in the comfort of headquarters the last time Ethan had seen him, and an agent who had just lost an extremely vital file, and who clearly had an overwhelming (and completely understandable) hatred for the assassin that had taken her team member's life. Circumstances gave him another impromptu team member a desk jockey who second-guessed every damn thing, and had even more anxiety issues than Benji.
But something changed on this mission. Ethan wasn't sure what it was. His team was at one another's throats most of the time, which had never happened before. The enemy actually got away with exactly what he needed to destroy the world. The desk jockey turned out to be lying about who he was.
But in the end, everything had worked out, and it had happened because Ethan had put his faith in himself and his team. They'd pulled together beautifully, in spite of all that had gone wrong, and they'd become fast friends in the process. Brandt had shown some of the cynicism and self-doubt Ethan had been hiding from his varied teams for the past several years, and Ethan had helped to eradicate it in the young agent, hopefully before it took a permanent hold. In so doing, he did something he hadn't done in ages. He trusted someone, in a situation wherein the person he trusted would not be in danger of death if they betrayed Ethan's trust. Brandt would lose nothing by divulging Ethan's secret that Julia was still alive. But Ethan had told him anyway. It was a milestone.
Ethan felt good about the mission, despite the many things that had gone wrong. He felt good about the team, and was happy to know they trusted him enough to accept him as their leader on a long term basis.
He felt good about himself. He felt that the people who trusted him were right to do so. He trusted himself again. He could almost say that he had gotten over the betrayal of his former leader.
Then, six months later, Ethan ran headlong into Jim Phelps.
He'd been on a break between missions. The last mission had been a harrowing one, and Ethan had been granted an extended leave to rest and recover. He'd done his recovering this time in a small town outside Toledo, Spain, and now he was resting. For Ethan, that meant getting back to his normal routine. That meant going for his runs, getting his body back into "fighting shape" (as he called it), and exploring the city now that he could get out of bed for more than a few hours a day.
Ethan sometimes combined his exploration with his runs, and this was just such an excursion. He was on a run, late in the evening, exploring some of the more modern parts of the ancient city. He was armed (as he usually was between missions) with a flashlight and a five inch blade, long enough to do serious damage when wielded by someone as skilled as Ethan, but short enough to be considered "harmless" by most conventional law enforcement agencies.
Ethan was on his second mile, well into "the zone" the slightly hypnotic state he often fell into when running. The streets were somewhat busy, the weather was now warm and pleasant rather than sweltering and deadly. Still, Ethan had no trouble navigating through the pedestrians, even though most conscious thought had been relegated to the backburners. He was always peripherally alert and aware.
At exactly the wrong moment (or possibly, the right moment), a man was shoved roughly out of the doorway of a small club, directly into Ethan's path. Ethan was far too close to correct, and the other man was slammed by the full force of Ethan's body. The other man was tall and solid, but he'd already been thrown off balance (literally), and when Ethan slammed into him, they both crashed to the ground.
Ethan heard an angry voice shout, "And don't come here again!" in heavily accented English. Ethan spared a second to glance at the back of the large, burly bouncer, before turning his attention to disentangling himself from the man who'd been shoved into harm's way.
The man was tall Ethan could tell that even from their awkward position on the ground. He was fairly fit, too. Ethan could feel well-developed muscle beneath the man's shabby brown coat. He was an older man. His hair was almost pure white. It had grown to about collar length, but that seemed to be the result of neglect, rather than an intentional style. His hair was as tattered and unkempt as the suit he wore.
Ethan made his observations in less than two seconds. He shifted his weight, moving off of the other man. "Sorry about that, sir," he said, speaking in English, since the bouncer had felt it necessary to do so. The man cringed, groaning, and put his hands over his ears. Ethan frowned. A few people who'd been nearby when they'd run into one another began to mutter that the man was a drunk. Ethan put a hand on the man's arm. "Are you hurt?"
The man wailed and shook his head again, cringing and folding in on himself. Ethan was alarmed. They'd hit fairly hard, but Ethan wasn't hurt, and their collision couldn't have caused either of them more damage than a few bruises. Besides, the man seemed more as though he were in fear than in pain. "Listen, I'm not going to hurt you," Ethan said gently. "Just let me help you up, okay? You-"
The man shuddered the moment Ethan touched his arm. He shook his head vigorously and spoke in a rough, tortured voice. "No, no, no. Stop it, it's not possible!"
Ethan hissed and drew his hand away as if the man's coat had suddenly turned into molten lava. No! It can't be. Ethan felt light-headed suddenly. It couldn't be. But he couldn't deny his own ears, and the man was still shaking his head and pleading with the same unknown force to "stop it."
Ethan couldn't take it. He grabbed the man by the shoulders and pulled him up. The man resisted, though weakly, and Ethan was easily able to turn him around and force him to look up.
Ethan choked back a shout. His hands clutched the man's arms tightly, and he felt like his own body had either slowed down or sped up. He heard a rushing sound, almost as if his blood wasn't sure which way to go. Jim. But not as he'd last seen him. This was the man he'd met at the recruitment conference so many years ago eons, it seemed. And even then, his hair had already been white. That, combined with his tall, powerful, austere presence, had seemed to add weight to his words even though they were all thoroughly trained not to let appearances guide them. Appearance was the easiest thing to change.
"Jim." Ethan's voice was a barely audible whisper, as he struggled to regain control of himself.
If there was an attempt on the part of the other man to control his emotions, it failed miserably. Jim stared at him, blood-shot eyes wide and wild. For the briefest moment so quick Ethan wasn't sure it had really happened he thought he saw joy on Jim's face. Then, the flash was gone, and Jim shook his head. His lip trembled and he suddenly broke down into sobs. "It's gone," he moaned. "It's gone, it's finally happened. I've lost my mind!"
He continued to cry, a plaintive, miserable sound. Ethan's heart ached. He had been through this once before. He'd been absolutely certain Jim was dead he'd witnessed it. Then he'd seen Jim in a phone booth, wounded and weary, but alive. Now, he had the same experience again. He knew this man was dead. He had to be. There was no other logical explanation of events. But he was here. Bowed, possibly broken, but alive.
Ethan was older now than he had been the first time Jim had come back from the dead in may ways. He felt the same nearly overwhelming sense of shock, relief and joy. That was a given. He'd known Jim was a murderer and a traitor before, when he'd found him in the phone booth. But he'd still felt intense relief and joy at the sight of the man he'd come to know as his most trusted and beloved mentor. The man he'd loved.
But this time, Ethan didn't let his joy overpower the deep-seeded mistrust and fear that also rose within him. Ethan had no idea what to think. There were a few possible explanations for what he was seeing, and Ethan didn't like any of them.
Ethan kept his hands tightly on Jim's arms, determined not to let this man out of his sight for a second. "Come on," he said, his voice more gentle than he'd planned. Whoever he was, this man was in bad shape. He hadn't stopped crying yet, and he still cringed at the sound of Ethan's voice. Ethan couldn't bear to be cruel to him, no matter how suspicious he was.
Ethan glanced around, his grip on the man tightening for the few moments Ethan wasn't in visual contact with him. There were still a few people hanging around nearby. Ethan caught the attention of someone who looked fairly sober. "Could you please call me a cab?" he asked the man in Spanish.
The gentleman looked surprised, then nodded. "Absolutely. Is that your father?"
Ethan turned back and looked at the once-powerful, nearly unflappable man who had led Ethan to make one of the most transforming decisions of his life. "Yes," he said softly. "Yes, he is."
"Thank you, Lucy."
"You're welcome, Mr. Phelps."
The young woman who cooked and cleaned for Jim Phelps cleared away the dishes and offered them coffee. "That'll be great, Lucy," Mr. Phelps replied. "Bring us some of those little flower-shaped cookies you made last Wednesday, will you?"
"Of course," Lucy said with a pleasant smile.
Ethan and the other three candidates followed Mr. Phelps to his living room. The fireplace on its platform crackled and lent a warm, wonderful glow to the already beautiful room. Ethan was suitably impressed, and he could tell his fellow dinner guests were also amazed. "This place is great!" Joseph exclaimed.
"I'll say!" Karla turned in a slow circle, taking in the opulent room. "Mr. Phelps, you really have a beautiful place here."
"Thank you, Karla," Mr. Phelps said. "Have a seat, everyone, have a seat."
Ethan sat in the black and white sofa, and Daryl, Joseph, and Karla sat beside him. "Now," Jim said. "Why do you think I invited you here today?"
Ethan glanced in the direction of his fellow guests, but they seemed completely mystified. Ethan turned back to Mr. Phelps. "Because you think we're the best recruits," he said, a slight rise in his voice.
Mr. Phelps smiled. "That's right, Ethan. I believe the four of you are excellent in your current fields, and I think you'd be an asset to the IMF. But that's not the only reason." Phelps looked up and smiled. "Come right in, Lucy."
The housekeeper came in, carrying a tray with a silver coffee pot and five cups. She served the coffee and left the tray of shortbread cookies on the center table. "Can I bring you anything else, sir?"
"That'll be all, Lucy. You can head home, I'll take care of the rest."
The woman smiled, nodded at the guests, then went away to collect her things. Ethan took a sip of coffee from a China cup the like of which had never seen the inside of a Hunt family kitchen. Daryl took a few cookies. When the others had fixed coffee and settled in, Mr. Phelps continued.
"I invited you here for another purpose," he said. "I wanted you to see this place. My home, the standard of living I appear to enjoy."
"Appear, Mr. Phelps?" Joseph asked. "You mean you don't like living here, sir?"
"Oh, no, I enjoy it very much." He glanced around and smiled. "I love this place there are a lot of wonderful memories here. Even from before my time in the Agency. But I want you to understand. All this? It's nothing. It means absolutely nothing."
He paused and let his words sink in for a moment before he continued. "The IMF will pay you well. You may not be rich beyond your wildest dreams, but you can live well on what the government will pay. But this job isn't a bed of roses by any means. At any time, you could lose it all."
Mr. Phelps paused again. "Now. I think the four of you are excellent candidates. You'll make fine agents. But I don't want you to have any illusions. If you come into this line of work looking for wealth, or fame, or glory, or any of that conventional nonsense, you need to get out now. You'll never get what you want, and you'll probably end up getting yourself, or your team, and any number of innocent people killed. But if you love your country. If you want to make a real difference in the world. If you want to save lives. If you hope and pray that one day this world will progress to a point where task forces like this will no longer be necessary then you've come to the right place."
Ethan forgot all about the coffee, the cookies, the other recruits everything. He had eyes only for Jim Phelps. Something stirred within him at the man's words. Ethan was definitely in the right place. He was inspired, as he had never been before.
He might just have been in love.
The cab ride back to Ethan's small rental was short, and it was perhaps one of the strangest rides he'd ever experienced. The cab driver had to help Ethan get Jim into the back seat. Jim stayed crouched in his seat, as far away from Ethan as he could get and still be inside the car. He'd quieted some, but he was still agitated. He kept glancing worriedly at Ethan, then shaking his head and muttering quietly to himself.
When they arrived at the apartment, the driver helped Ethan get Jim into the house, and settled onto Ethan's bed. Ethan paid the driver, gave him a hefty tip and asked for discretion. He hadn't seen anyone following them, but he didn't want to take any chances. The fewer people who knew where Jim was, the better.
Finally, Ethan locked up the house and barricaded the doors. When he got back to the bedroom, Jim was curled under the covers, shaking and clutching the blankets tightly to him. Only the white tuft of his hair could be seen.
Ethan approached the bed slowly. He pulled up a chair beside the bed and reached out to touch Jim's arm. "Jim? It's alright, Jim."
Jim pulled down the covers and looked at Ethan, his eyes wide and still red with tears. "Is is it really you, Ethan?" he asked, his voice hoarse. Ethan nodded. "They said they'd killed you. I " His lip trembled, and the tears began to flow again. He shut his eyes briefly, then opened them again and looked directly at Ethan crystal blue eyes piercing through to Ethan's very soul. "Oh, Ethan. Oh, God, how you must despise me."
Jim began to cry again, and Ethan stroked his arm. "Try to relax, Jim," he whispered. "You'll feel better in the morning. Can I bring you something to calm you down?"
Jim nodded, and Ethan hurried out of the room. He was back within seconds with a tranquilizer pill. He was a little concerned about interaction with the alcohol he could smell even a few feet away from his former mentor, so he started with just one pill. Jim took it and gulped it down hungrily, as if he were desperate to go to sleep. Considering the circumstances (or what little Ethan understood of them), he wasn't surprised.
Jim chased the pills down with the water Ethan had brought. His hand shook as he handed the glass back to Ethan. "Thank you. I I'm s-"
"Shhhh." Ethan shook his head. "Just get some rest, okay?"
Jim nodded and didn't try to apologize again. Maybe he could tell that Ethan wasn't ready couldn't hear an apology and be forced to make the decision to accept or deny right now. Jim pulled the covers back up and lay pack against the pillows. Jim stared at the ceiling, and Ethan stared at Jim.
After a few minutes, Jim's eyes drifted closed, and his body relaxed. His hands went slack, no longer clutching the blankets to him as if they were the only thing that stood between him and whatever terrible punishment he imagined awaited him.
Ethan watched him for a few minutes. He didn't nudge him or disturb him in any way to confirm that he was really asleep. Jim had been a light sleeper, even when he took a sleep aid, and Ethan had only given him half a dose. He got up quietly and left the room. He took a shower, put on a pair of fresh sweat pants, and returned to the room, all without allowing his mind to move farther than "Jim is back, or someone who looks like Jim is back."
Jim was still in bed, in the same position he'd been in when Ethan had left him. Ethan considered sleeping on the couch, but decided against it. He didn't delve into any of the reasons why he decided against it. He just did.
He lifted the covers and slid into the bed carefully, slowly, as he used to do on the rare occasions when he'd come home after Jim had already gone to sleep. Jim moaned and shifted, but didn't wake up. Ethan pulled the covers up and placed his hand on Jim's arm (about the closest he ever got to "spooning" these days). With a last glance at Jim, Ethan closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
Ethan sat at the plastic table, on his plastic chair, and stared across at the traitor, Jim Phelps. Years of practicing deceit allowed him to run through the horrific murders of his entire team without showing his unmitigated revulsion for the man he thought he knew. Even still, he couldn't keep from asking the question that had burned through his insides from the moment he saw the inside cover of the Drake Hotel's Bible.
"Why, Jim? Why?"
"Well, you think about it, Ethan, it was inevitable. No more Cold War. No more secrets you keep from yourself. Answer to no one but yourself. Then, you wake up one morning and find out the President is running the country without your permission. The son of a bitch, how dare he? Then, you realize it's over. You are an obsolete piece of hardware, not worth upgrading. You've got a lousy marriage, and sixty-two grand a year."
Ethan let his silence stand for acceptance, and his mind raced as he formulated a plan. But inside deeper than the cunning that showed this man enough of his cards that it seemed Ethan trusted him completely a part of Ethan was crushed by the man's speech. Below the false concern that prompted him to advise the man to go to the safe house and rest up, there was a hum of awareness that would have broken him if he didn't know he would soon have his revenge. That awareness was in the form of two phrases that seemed to repeat over and over in his head, drowning out all the small details the years of betrayal and lies. This man is not Jim. Therefore, Jim is dead.
Ethan was alone in the bed when he awoke the next morning. He sprang from the bed and raced out of the room in a panic (or as close to a panic as a man could get when he'd been dealing with life or death situations as long as Ethan had). He ran down the hall and out into the living area. The room hadn't been disturbed. The door was closed, but that didn't mean he hadn't left and closed the door behind him. Damn!
"I'm here, Ethan."
Ethan spun around toward the sound of Jim's voice. He half expected to see Jim standing there with one of Ethan's own guns pointed at him. (Jim had not been armed when he brought him to the house Ethan had checked). However, Jim was not in a threatening pose at all. He sat at the dining table, hands wrapped around a large mug of coffee. It looked as though he'd made use of Ethan's shaving tools his two-day stubble was gone. His hair was still "too long", but it was clean and glossy, shining like polished silver, like Ethan was used to. He wore a t-shirt that was somewhat ill-fitted a bit too tight, which led Ethan to believe it was one of his own. A glance down confirmed this Ethan recognized a pair of his own sweats, stopping about four inches above Jim's ankles.
Jim met Ethan's eyes for the briefest second, before looking down into the mug. "Hope you don't mind my borrowing these," he said quietly. "Couldn't stand to touch that suit again."
"Not at all," Ethan said. He walked to the table and rested a hand on the back of the chair across from Jim. He searched for something to say, but he had no idea where to begin. He glanced down at the coffee that seemed to be holding Jim's attention so completely. "Any more of that around?"
Jim looked up. "Hm? Oh, sure, I'm sorry, I should have-"
He started to stand, but Ethan waved a hand. "I'll get it, Jim," he said, heading for the kitchen. He poured himself a cup from the pot Jim had made. He came back and sat across from Jim. The two men stared at their coffee in a silence that was somewhere south of "comfortable", but north of "tense". Ethan waited for the coffee to tell him what to say. He had a thousand questions, but he didn't feel overwhelmed now, as he did last night. He just didn't know where to start, nor what was most important for him to know.
He didn't force it. Jim seemed content to remain silent, and Ethan allowed his thoughts to drift toward some of the questions that had gone through his mind when he'd first realized that Jim was gone.
Finally, he looked up. Jim was still staring down into his cup, his brow furrowed. "He knew our code, Jim," Ethan said. Jim's body seemed to shrink, almost imperceptibly. "Our code. Our inviolate code." Jim's fingers clutched the mug, and he began to fidget, but he didn't look up. "How?"
Jim was silent for several moments. His hands continued to grip the mug, and his face reddened. Finally, his hands relaxed, and he took a deep, slow breath. He looked up, his eyes filled with remorse. He said only one word.