When Ethan sees the car, his mind is thinking of a million and one different things.
It hasn’t been a simple mission. He’s never expected the mission to be easy, of course; inception—something that’s still of a legend, believed to have only been successfully done by one team led by the best extractor in the business—definitely doesn’t fall under the category of ‘easy’.
The mark doesn’t make anything easier, either. Kurt Hendricks, alias Cobalt, is the leading proponent of nuclear warfare, whose penchants for said armaments in wars—coupled with several shady activities in recent times—have made the IMF suspect that he is planning to initiate a nuclear war. Direct attack and long debates wouldn’t convince the man to think otherwise, certainly, and IMF decided that the only solution is to incept the man with a simple idea: that nuclear warfare is not feasible.
They need the best of the best, though, and after hearing that the leader of the original inception team had retired, the IMF turned into its own dreamsharing department; and that’s when they came into the conclusion to break their best extractor, Ethan Hunt, out of the jail.
Definitely not a simple mission.
But no matter how complicated and difficult the mission is, he wouldn’t have expected everything to go wrong at once: the dream becoming unstable; a projection sabotaged the mission, blowing Benji’s architecture apart and sending all his teammates back to reality; and for that projection to be Julia…
“Ethan, this is code DT-56. I repeat, this is code DT-56,” the Secretary says as soon as he enters the car, and Ethan nods. Code DT-56 means that the Secretary has hijacked the dream in the middle of a mission; or, in other words, that he’s not a projection.
As Ethan takes in his surroundings—bullet-proof, sound-proof, IMF seal all over the place, at least three fire-arms visible and two in his reach—the Secretary says, “this is William Brandt, Chief Analyst.”
He takes his time before turning to see the man. William Brandt’s expression is guarded, his lips thin and eyes devoid of any emotion. If there was a flicker of recognition in Brandt’s eyes seconds ago, Ethan didn’t see it.
A projection, huh, he concludes, because Brandt lacks the warmth and vibrancy that humans usually exude.
Brandt offers his arm for Ethan to shake, and Ethan raises his eyebrow. Okay, there’s courtesy, and then there’s shaking hands with a projection who isn’t real; so Ethan doesn’t shake the hand and asks for a pen instead.
What happens after that is a blur, like a collection of hazy pictures; they talk about the mission, the real world situation (where apparently Cobalt’s underlings have blown up the Kremlin, shit, Ethan’s a step too late), how Jane and Benji are safe and now waiting at the extraction point, and how the entire IMF has now been disavowed. Ethan inwardly compliments the Secretary’s choice to dream up an Analyst; his knowledge of people of interests actually comes in handy.
And then they talk about friendship, and how the Secretary actually considers Ethan as a friend out of all things, and before Ethan can make of any of it the car comes to a lurch and it’s swerving and they are falling and falling and falling—
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.
Ethan instinctively jerks and sits up, his hand on his throat as he chokes for air, for life. Panting, he darts his eyes around the room, but can’t see anything: it’s dark, pitch black dark, and the two windows at the other end of the room don’t help because there is no source of light outside the windows, not even the stars.
“Shit—“ someone beside of him curses, and Ethan vaguely recognizes it as the analyst’s, “fuck.”
“…Brandt?” He tries, unsure, and suddenly someone grabs his arm.
“Agent Hunt,” the man says, and Ethan is now sure that it’s Brandt, “we need to get out of here. The mission has been compromised. The Secretary—“ Brandt pauses, swallowing his saliva before bringing himself to say, “—has been murdered.”
If he was a normal agent, he would’ve started to panic after hearing that. But he is Ethan Hunt, and almost nothing surprises him anymore; so instead he stops himself from reacting and quickly inspects his surroundings for the second time, “any signs of enemy? The mark?”
“The mark seems to have run away in the middle of the dream. Someone manages to tamper with the PASIV; I think he has much more information about the extraction than we expected,” Brandt says quickly, more like a ramble than an explanation, but they don’t have much time for talking anyways. Explanations will have to wait.
Brandt pulls him towards the exit and Ethan follows suit; before long, they are out of the building, discarding their suits in favor of a more bland looks and bringing nothing but the PASIV device. Ethan tells him the extraction place (which Brandt already knows, apparently) and after circling the area a few times to lose any possible trail, they head for the place.
Throughout the journey, Brandt seems to be in shock. It is as if he has seen something that he’s never seen before, and in retrospect, maybe he did; Brandt is a Chief Analyst, Ethan reminds himself, the man probably has never seen a real dead body before moments ago. Hell, that might have been his first experience in dream sharing.
But being this much stressed can’t be good, so Ethan tries to talk to him.
“So, uh… you’re real.”
That obviously perks Brandt’s interest. “What do you mean by that?”
“I thought you were a projection,” Ethan says, then realizes that it’s probably one of the worst conversation starter ever.
Brandt, surprisingly, chuckles. “You thought I was a projection?”
He shrugs, “in my defense, you were kind of emotionless.”
“Well,” Brandt shrugs, “projections and real people aren’t as different as most people think,” he says, and there’s something in his eyes that Ethan can’t put his fingers on; it’s like he remembers something he chooses to forget, but can’t.
And Ethan immediately thinks of Julia and the projection of her, how the projection has her smile and her soft wavy hair; and smiles the way she smiled at him that last time, waving her left hand, paper cut from his report the day before still visible on her index finger—
Ethan shakes his head and continues running.
“So… mission’s failed?” Benji states the obvious after Ethan finishes telling him and Jane almost everything; the disappointment in his voice is palpable, and Ethan can’t blame him.
“Well, none of you got to the second level, the secretary is dead and the IMF—not just the dreamsharing branch, mind you—is disavowed. Tell me which part of that sounds like ‘success’?” Brandt pipes in, earning a glare from Ethan.
“There was an unexpected interference; a projection compromises our plan and position,” Ethan says, looking pointedly at Brandt.
“A projection, huh?” Benji quips, frowning, “that’s new, projection compromising a mission. Do you have any idea who…?”
“It’s just a projection,” Ethan replies quickly, too quickly, “it doesn’t matter what projection.”
There is a collective silence.
Benji is still agape, being cut off so abruptly by Ethan for the first time, while Brandt just frowns at him accusingly; Ethan has a feeling that the analyst knows what’s actually going on. His back is facing Jane, though, and he doesn’t see the way her eyes widen in realization, and then soften in understanding.
The only thing in his mind now is just Julia, or most precisely, the projection of her, and he decides he should wash his face to get some sense.
When he gets to the small toilet at the end of the train, though, he finds that Brandt is following him.
“The projection was someone you know,” Brandt says, and it’s not a question.
This man is a Chief Analyst, Ethan thinks, and understands that he can’t lie to him, not about this, so he nods. “My wife.”
And it’s back again, that something that flashes in Brandt’s eyes, something Ethan can’t put a name on. Brandt avoids looking into Ethan’s eyes before saying, “tell me what actually happened.”
So he does.
“Detonate the bomb,” a voice suddenly came out of the radio, and while it was clearly a woman’s, it wasn’t Jane’s.
Benji quickly lost his composure. “Shit,” the man cursed and started rambling, “shit. Ethan, Ethan—we need to get out of here, that’s clearly not Jane’s. Not that I memorize her voice or anything, that would be creepy, but I think I would at least recognize her voice even though admittedly through the com it would’ve sounded a bit off—“
“Benji,” he raised his voice to be heard over Benji’s nonsensical ramblings, “we have to get out. See you at the extraction place.”
He could hear Benji gulping in anxiety. “Real world or dream world?”
“Wherever possible,” and he closed the connection without waiting for a reply.
Ethan then walked briskly out, trying to walk out of the building as fast as possible without alerting the projections. But while he was still fairly safe—the projections barely paid him any attention—his heart was racing.
It was Julia’s voice. Ethan could recognize her voice even if she spoke through a phone with bad connection after losing her voice (just like Paris six years ago, he remembered, and felt his heart ached at the memory); identifying her voice through a radio was like a walk in the park.
In other words—the woman was a projection of Julia. And he thought he was ready to be back in the field, after trying to get over her during his time in the Russian prison; apparently he overestimated his ability to control his own emotions and projections.
But before he could think much of it there was a loud boom; and the building collapsed and the ground under his feet shook—
“Don’t move,” someone ordered, and Ethan froze as the imitation of Kremlin crumbled down in front of his eyes. He could feel someone—no, two people—approached him from behind, and with a nudge from the muzzle of a gun, he turned.
His breath caught.
It was Julia. She looked exactly the same as the Julia he saw last time in Croatia; the same playful smile, hair, her. The only difference was instead of waving, she was holding a gun pointed at him; and even then, he could see that one of her fingers had the paper cut she had last time, pressed tightly onto the gun pointed at him.
“This woman told me you were inside,” Hendricks said. He almost jumped—he forgot that the man was even there.
He didn’t take his eyes off Julia, though. Why, he mouthed, but she didn’t say anything.
She pulled the trigger and he ducked; she missed and he ran away without looking back, just running and running and running—
The car was swerving and turning, and Ethan caught a glimpse of Julia before they ran into something and the car was falling, falling, falling—
Ethan falls silent, not knowing what else to say. Brandt just stares at him, the something stays in his eyes.
“I—“ he starts, then pauses, before, “Julia?”
Ethan remembers Croatia and closes his eyes. “She’s dead. Attacked by some people while I was out.”
“I’m sorry,” Brandt says, and he sounds like he really means it.
Ethan doesn’t look at him. “You know, even though people say it’s an accident, I know that they’re talking behind my back. I know that they think—they think I let her die. Because it had been difficult, for both of us. Because it was not possible to keep protecting her all the time, and maybe I thought it was better, letting her die.”
He stops there.
When Brandt doesn’t say anything, he can’t help smiling a little bit, “thank you.”
He turns and looks at him in the eyes, “for not asking me whether I did.”
Then it happens so fast—that something becomes much clearer, much more visible in Brandt’s eyes, and Ethan can recognize the guilt layering that look. Brandt opens his mouth, but before either of them can say anything, Benji’s voice fills the silence.
“We’re here! Let’s go, we’re going down now!”
And whatever was there is gone, and Brandt closes his mouth.
“Let’s go,” he mumbles, resigned, and walks out of the toilet.
Ethan wants to stop him, but Benji approaches them and starts talking to Brandt, “so, was that your first time in dreamsharing? The one when you hijacked our dream with the Secretary?”
“Uhm, yes,” Brandt says as he walks, leading them away from Ethan. He has a feeling Brandt does it on purpose.
“Oh,” Benji says, following Brandt, “but I believe you know the technicalities right? Here’s the thing—I’m the architect, I design. Ethan’s extractor, and Jane’s the point woman.”
Brandt nods. “So what’s my code?”
“You’re the architect. She’s the point woman. What about me?”
Benji’s lips form a deep smirk, as if he’s been waiting to say this for a long time. “You’re the helper.”
“The helper?” Brandt says, incredulous, and Benji replies with something Ethan can no longer hear since they are now out of his earshot. He contemplates approaching them and pulling Brandt, demanding him to say whatever he wanted to say just now.
(It’s not long before they have a lead on Hendricks; sources said he would be meeting an assassin to obtain a nuclear missile launch code; they decide to put both to sleep and performed a simpler version of inception—acting out their meeting in dream, two levels; Benji the dreamer of the first level, convincing Moreau that she has given the code, while Hendricks and the rest of the team goes to second level, convincing him that he doesn’t get it. Without launching codes Hendricks can’t do anything, thus accomplishing the mission.
Before he knows it he’s already hooked on PASIV again and dangling outside of the Burj Kalifa imitation; for a second he admires Benji’s works on the details—the silver window pane is a nice touch—before realizing that falling means waking, and waking means failing.)
The sticky gloves are the most ridiculous things Benji has dreamed up yet, Ethan concludes as he is dangling with a rope that isn’t long enough to get him back to the hotel room. He bets Benji dreams them up because they’re cool or something. He wants to smack Benji in the head right now, but his hands are definitely full and Benji is in another dream level.
The lack of Benji is this level is the main root of the problem, anyways. Hendricks security is so tight that the items Benji dreamed up are malfunctioning now, and Benji is not here to fix them. And speaking of the lack of team member, where’s Brandt…
“Brandt? You there?” He calls through the com.
There’s static for a few seconds before Brandt answers, “I’m here, copy. Just back.”
Ethan wants to ask, from where? But the rope he’s betting his ‘life’ on starts making unwanted sounds, and he focuses himself back onto the more urgent task at hand.
Brandt’s head pops out of the window.
“Holy shit, Hunt,” he says, then shouts, “your rope is not long enough!”
“NO SHIT!” Ethan barks back, because seriously? He can’t even bring himself to glare at the man; instead, he strengthens his grip on the rope, making sure his irritation at the resident Captain Obvious won’t make him fall and jeopardize the mission—he’s a professional, damn it.
As he breathes in and out, trying to calm himself down, he hears the rumbling from behind. He turns to see the sandstorm slowly approaching, and can’t help the “what the hell is that…” that escapes his lips.
He hears Brandt curses. “A kick,” he says, “something happened to Benji up there. We need to be faster. Oh, and also—remember, if you fall down, you’ll wake up.”
William Brandt, the master of revelatory statements. “Hey, Brandt—you, you just came in, right?” he says before he starts cursing at the man again, “how about, uh, you do whatever it is you were doing again?”
Brandt shrugs, obviously offended, “I was just saying.”
At that time, Ethan has actually given it another thought—what was Brandt doing? The man almost literally had nothing to do (even Benji said he was the helper, for god’s sake); what was he doing?
“Faster,” Brandt says again through the com, and Ethan grits his teeth.
You need fast? Ethan thinks as he walks back, and then starts running, I give you fast.
He jumps, and wind is rushing in his ears as he throws himself to the window opening and a wide-eyed Brandt and—shit, he’s too high and fuck that fucking hurts and he’s fucking falling and his head hit the window again before he stops—
Wait. He stops falling?
Apparently someone has caught his leg, bless them. He tries to look up as he is being pulled slowly upwards, half-expecting to see Jane. She’s the agent and the experienced dreamer; if there’s anyone with fast enough reflexes to catch him, it’d be Jane.
So he is really surprised when he finds out that it’s Brandt.
And really, the universe is conspiring against him knowing anything about the Analyst because before he can voice his increasing suspicion for the man, the mask machine makes several crack sounds before stops working altogether.
“No,” Jane breathes, running to the machine and tapping it lightly, as if that would fix it, “no. Ethan—the machine stops working.”
“Then we’re going in without the mask. Neither of us can forge well, and we don’t have enough time to practice,” Ethan snaps as he changes into a professional-looking suit.
Jane makes a face. “Ethan—if they’ve met, the dreamer will find out that something’s going wrong. The projection will go awry.”
Ethan ignores her. He looks into the mirror, adjusts his tie, and when he turns, Jane is in front of him, squeezing his shoulder.
“What if they’ve met?” She grits her teeth.
“What if they haven’t?” Because the chance is really 50-50 and they will be damned if they don’t take the risk.
Suddenly, Brandt steps into the conversation, “they haven’t.”
Both heads turn at him at record time. “How do you know?“
Brandt doesn’t look at anyone’s eyes. “They haven’t,” he repeats, which is not an answer at all.
“We don’t have enough time,” Brandt says, cutting Ethan off, “Jane, you’re meeting Cobalt in three minutes and Ethan, you—you should come with her, just in case.”
He opens the hotel door as if to make his point clearer, and despite the secret he obviously hides from everyone, Brandt is right: they don’t have much time. Jane understands this, too, because she nods and quickly walks out of the door.
Ethan follows her. But before leaving, he turns to Brandt and says, “look, I don’t know how you know all these, but a mission isn’t going to go well if someone’s keeping secrets. We’re going to find out, sooner or later.”
Brandt only gives him a small smile, as if to say, who are you to say anything about secrets, and closes the door.
Brandt breathes a sigh of relief when he hears Hendricks starts conversing with Jane and Ethan as if they are the assassins he hired; Brandt’s method never guarantees a hundred percent accuracy, after all. There was a chance Hendricks had actually met Moreau.
But now everything will finally take a turn for the better. All they need to do is pretending to be Moreau and her associate, acting as if Hendricks has violated a certain part of the agreement and refuse to give the code. When Hendricks wakes up, he’ll be convinced that the meeting has failed, stopping him from getting the actual code.
The only thing that unsettles him is the unplanned kick, which means something happened to Benji, but considering the dream is still stable, he can assume nothing’s wrong for now.
Brandt even allows himself to hum at the thought of a job well done as he half-skips to the door, answering the knocks. For a second it crosses his mind that there shouldn’t be any knocks to the door, considering Jane and Ethan are still talking to Hendricks, but before he can make of any of it the door slams open, revealing a wavy-haired woman he’s never seen before.
“Shit—“ he rolls to his side as the woman pulls up two guns from both of her sides and starts shooting, narrowly missing his arm by a few inches.
“Brandt, what is happening there?” He can hear Ethan hisses through the com moments later, hopefully after standing in a place out of Hendricks’ earshot—“Brandt, can you hear me?!”
“A projection just barges in!” He practically screams to the com as he rolls to his side twice, dodging the bullets as fast as he can. He grabs one of the vases from the table and throws at the woman; this time she’s the one dodging, and he uses the opportunity to close their distance as he says to the com, “a woman, brown-haired, never seen her before!”
He can hear Ethan’s breath hitches through the radio. “Brandt—“ he starts, then stops.
It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together to realize that Ethan must have thought the woman was the projection of his wife. He doesn’t have time for Ethan and his angst, so he barks into the radio as he grabs the projection’s wrist, making her shoot at nothing, “it’s not—I’ve seen her.”
“What?” Ethan’s reply is soft, and there are a few seconds silence before it comes. In those few seconds Brandt has hit the projection’s wrist, forcing her to drop the gun, and avoided two kicks aimed at his face.
“Your wife,” he quickly says. Under other conditions, he would’ve thought twice before revealing this, but this is not ‘other conditions’. He tries to grab her leg to no avail; she backs away and throws a TV remote from the couch—“I’ve seen her. This is not her.”
“How do you—“ Ethan starts, then stops. When he speaks up again, his voice is much calmer, “I think it’s Hendricks’ projection of Moreau. He’s never met her, so his mind simply creates a woman with physical appearances different from the real Moreau.”
It makes sense. Hendricks expected to meet Moreau, so it’s only natural for his mind to create a projection of her.
More of a reason to hate Kurt Hendricks’ mind.
The not-Moreau grabs his leg and pulls it, trying to flip him over. He jumps before she does, kicking her with his other leg as he tries to remind himself that she is a projection and, technically, he’s not hitting any woman.
“I’m on my way, meeting’s over, hang on!” this time it’s Jane’s, her voice more panicked than ever; considering she thinks Brandt is just an analyst, her panic isn’t unpredictable. “Brandt—do you copy?”
He dreams up a gun—his secrets be damned—and points it at not-Moreau. “Copy.”
He pulls the trigger and not-Moreau’s body slumps. He hears someone enters the room through the opened door and turns, fully expecting to greet Jane.
He thanks his body for the reflexes he still has; his body has instinctively ducked when the man in front of him—tall, dark-haired, young, clearly not Jane—almost shot his head at point-blank range.
“What the fuck—“ he curses under his breath, rolls to his side, dreams up another gun and shoots the projection. The man staggers, eyes wide, before slumping down like a lifeless doll.
Brandt pants heavily as the room falls into silence.
When he’s quite sure no projections try to kill him anymore, he walks up to the man, trying to get a good look at his face. He is surprised he actually recognizes him; Trevor Hanaway, field agent who died on a mission three weeks ago under—his brain tries to remember the mission file—Carson? No, Jason Carson was in Greenland that day—wait, Carter?
When he looks up, Jane Carter is standing at the door, eyes locked on Hanaway’s dead body, as if she’s seeing her worst nightmare.
And maybe she is.
“Fucking projection,” he says to almost nobody in particular, standing up and gesturing to Hanaway, “didn’t really expect Cobalt to know Agent Hanaway, though.”
Jane immediately looks away at that.
“No,” she says in low voice, almost a whisper, “it’s mine.”
Ethan runs his hand through his face and hair again, breathing heavily. He looks into his own reflection and is startled by it; there’s something in his eyes—a mixture of morbid fear and guilt—and he blinks rapidly before he starts hallucinating and seeing things that are never there.
Things like Julia.
“Are you blaming me now!?” He hears Jane screams from the room next door. They have been having a fight—Brandt and Jane—and their rising voices start to grate on Ethan’s nerves. They are now lying low after the mission, but despite the success, Jane’s projection seems to create an argument amongst them.
He can almost imagine them now: Jane biting her lower lip in irritation, Benji sinking into his seat, pretending he’s never there, and Brandt…
Ethan starts thinking about the man, about his admittedly suspicious actions, and—
Oh, he thinks.
Suddenly, realization hits Ethan, and it almost knocks him off his feet, a shock like a thunder or lightning. Brandt. Always-tense-Brandt, keeping-a-secret-Brandt. Brandt, who always seems uncomfortable in his own skin, like he’d give anything to be in someone else’s. Brandt, who disappears when Ethan is outside the windows of Burj Khalifa, who knows Hendricks and Moreau have never met. Brandt, who identifies a kick before the more experienced dreamers do, who fights against two projections and wins.
Brandt, who knows how Julia looks like.
“Yes, I’m blaming you!” Brandt shouts back at her, “that was really unprofessional, having a projection in the middle of a mission! You’re a trained dreamer, you should be able to suppress your subconscious, especially during a mission—“
“It’s my subconscious, remember?! I can’t control them!” Jane has one of her hands gripping the edge of the table, as if she wants to break the table into two, “and who are you to say anything, you’re just an analyst—”
“Yes, Brandt, just an analyst, aren’t you?” Ethan barks as he barges in the room, “and if that’s so, how did you recognize the sandstorm was a kick?!”
That hits the right spot; Brandt’s eyes widen in panic. “It was in the manual—“
“More importantly,” Ethan cuts him, “how do you know Moreau and Hendricks haven’t met before? That couldn’t be in the manual. It was never even in IMF’s file. It was never in anyone’s file.”
Brandt opens his mouth to retort, but seems to find nothing to say.
There’s a suffocating silence.
“You know because you tried,” Ethan says, “you changed into Moreau and tried walking past Hendricks when I was busy hanging on the ropes outside the building, when Jane was busy with the machines.”
“You’re a forger,” Benji breathes, his voice shakes as he starts to piece the puzzle.
“But the million-dollar question is,” he continues, “who are you?”
And they are back; that something, and this time Ethan knows what it is: guilt, deep-rooted guilt, mixed with fear and uncertainties and grief and regret.
“We all have our secrets,” he says gently, and looks into Ethan’s eyes, “don’t we, Ethan?”
Ethan finds himself unable to say anything.
(His mind screams, Julia, and he’s scared if he opens his mouth he will say it out loud. So he walks away instead, to the bedroom where they store the PASIV, and hooks himself up before he can think better of it).
Julia is sitting in front of him, with the same wistful smile and crinkling eyes like the last time he saw her. She reaches out to him, removing the strand of hair from his face, and he can faintly see the paper cut she had from the day before. She seems real, so fucking real, and for a moment he thinks of Jane’s projection. He recognizes the projection—Trevor Hanaway, field agent, recently killed in action—and can’t bring himself to blame her for dreaming him up.
“Ethan Hunt was my mark. His marriage has been highly unfavorable for the agency, so I was tasked to incept the idea… that his wife was dead, killed by some enemies he’d made,” Brandt says, pulling a chair nearest to him and slowly sits, “and the idea took hold. He woke up believing Croatians operatives had killed his wife. That was five years ago.”
Jane’s eyes sting with tears. He has heard the rumors, of course; how the higher-ups didn’t like losing one of their best extractors due to something as petty as marriages. She never knows they actually took some kind of action.
Brandt looks like he’d rather be anywhere else but here. “The next day after the inception, he ran away, tried to find the non-existent murderers. He ended up killing six Croatians, presumably innocent, and had been disavowed ever since.”
“Julia?” Benji visibly gulps and fidgets. Jane remembers he has known Ethan’s wife in person.
Brandt shrugs, “I don’t know. Some say she committed suicide; others said the IMF took care of her.”
“So—“ Jane tries to say, but something caught in her throat. She tries to breathe evenly, controlling herself, before continuing, “that projection. It was his wife? She appears because he’s guilty, thinking that he’s let his wife die?”
Brandt flinches a little and doesn’t look at her. “It is his wife,” he manages, “but the projection isn’t his.”
He looks down, as if the words weighing him down, before saying, “it’s mine.”