AFTER THE MISSION

Jim Phelps pressed the entry phone and activated the viewer. "Paris?"

"Obviously." The tone was arrogant; as was the way the newcomer brushed past his host into the apartment without courtesy once Jim had deactivated the locks and let him in and up in the elevator. Jim was not offended. The arrogance was a semi-permanent fixture. But it was clear that his volatile team member was not a happy man at the moment. He took pains to stifle a smile as he turned away from the door and moved into his lounge.

"Paris, have a drink." This last was entirely unnecessary, as Paris had already moved across the room to the drinks cabinet and picked up the bottle of Scotch. As he poured the drink into the crystal glass and squirted a puff of soda, Jim cut glances with Barney Collier, who was lounging in an armchair and stifling a smile of his own. Paris spun away from the drinks table with what could only be described as a flourish, and scanned the room with a dark brown challenging glare. He took a sip of his drink, and then another.

"Hi," he said, to everyone and no-one in particular. He continued to survey the room, deep brown eyes across the rim of his glass.

Had the IM Team not been extremely used to this or similar performances after each mission, the shattering of the previously equable atmosphere by this dramatic arrival might have been disturbing, irritating, worrying. But they were, and they were free to ignore it and Paris knew that they were. Just give it a few moments…

Dana turned around and craned her neck to look behind her. She caught Paris's gaze, and she smiled. Paris took another sip of Scotch, and pushed himself away from the drinks table and walked with a possibly exaggeratedly casual stroll towards the other end of the sofa on which she sat. He sat down next to her, took a deep breath and leaned back. He chewed his lower lip, and then he turned towards her and met her gaze in turn.

It was only a glance. It was never more than only a glance, between them. They worked together. It would never be more than only a glance, unless or until that situation changed. Their eyes met, held for an instant, and then broke away. Again.

"Everyone," Jim spoke from his place near the fireplace. Paris, Dana Barney, Willy and Doug looked up at him and, when he had their attention, he smiled. "We did it. Again. Well done." A pause, a glance around the group, which included them all. "Now…"

The debrief began.

Paris poured another drink. He could be seen to pause infinitesimally with his back to the room, before turning again and returning to his place on the sofa. A sofa which he now occupied alone. Dana had left straight after the debrief; she'd said something about a singing gig, and she and Paris had exchanged a quick tight smile before she closed the door behind her. Doug had gone, and Willy. Barney was climbing to his feet and reaching for an overcoat. "No Jim, I won't, thanks," he was saying in answer to the offer of another drink. "I'm beat. I'm off. Paris?" Barney crossed the room, his coat over his arm, and held out his hand to his team mate. "Take care, buddy."

Paris shook the extended hand from his seated position, and nodded. "I will. Barney."

Jim saw Barney to the door; the two exchanged words which Paris didn't try to overhear, and then closed the door and came back into the room, via the drinks table. He sat on a chair opposite Paris and the sofa and took a sip. His silence was an invitation for the other to speak. Paris took up the invitation, albeit briefly. "I'm sorry," he said.

"What for?"

Paris's eyebrow twitched. "Histrionics?"

"No more than usual."

The eyebrow moved again. "Perhaps there shouldn't be any."

Jim smiled, blue eyes affectionate. "Wouldn't be The Great Paris without a good show."

Paris gave an audible sigh, and jiggled his Scotch back and forth as he stared into it, before looking up at Jim again. "It's just hard to remember who I am sometimes." There was no hint of histrionics in the sombre statement, despite the ostensibly melodramatic words. It was clear that Paris meant it literally.

"And who are you?"

This time Paris smiled. "I've no idea," he said, and swallowed half the contents of the glass in his hand.

"Sure you have."

Paris pursed his lips, before giving another profound sigh and leaning back into the deep sofa cushions. He seemed to take a breath to speak, but said nothing and a silence dragged out which neither man tried to fill. Jim Phelps's knowledge of human workings was encyclopaedic, and the man sitting in front of him was not just another subject human to study but a team member and friend with whom he'd entrusted his life on a regular basis. Jim knew Paris, possibly better than Paris did himself, and he was very aware that it would be less than constructive for him to break in with platitudes. He sank himself into the bland stillness he'd employed countless times, and waited it out, until Paris spoke again.

"How do you do it?"

"What do you mean?"

Paris shook his head sharply, the glossy black hair instantly resuming its frame of the long lean face. "I…" He paused again. "I'm not even sure what I mean," he went on. His right elbow was propped on the arm of the sofa, and he was rubbing one long forefinger to and fro against his lips, the other hand nursing his drink on his lap. He suddenly smiled, and looked up at Jim as if to signal an end to the confusing conversation. "I don't mean anything," he said, his voice assertive, stronger. "Ignore me." He smiled again, and drained the drink.

Jim was having none of it.

"Paris, what is it this time?" Paris's forced smile faded. "Is it your job? A woman? The missions? He paused briefly, and then prompted, "Eh?"

"I…All of the above?"

Jim didn't miss a beat. "Which one shall we take first?"

Paris shook his head, and sighed yet again. "Jim, I…. I don't… I think I can work this out myself. I just… I just don't know what conclusion I'll reach." He looked into the piercing blue eyes, seeking an understanding there which he immediately found. Jim nodded, and held the gaze.

"Course you can work it out, Paris. You'll do the right thing. It's fine." He waited a beat, and then pushed himself to his feet, crossed the few feet to the sofa and reached out for Paris's glass. "Another?"

Paris automatically looked at his watch. "I've… ah…"

"Come on. You can stay over again if you want. Anything you have to get back to?"

Paris's reply came in the form of an involuntary and deeply ironic snort; an expellation of anger that said all he needed to say about the impossibility of sustaining the kind of relationships he would have wanted to 'get back to'; that described to a tee the bitter end of the last one he'd had to let go without any possibility of an explanation to assuage her understandable fury and distress; that covered every struggle to produce convincing stories for his business manager; and which expressed the confusion, the schizophrenic wilderness through which he had to find his way after each mission on leaving behind whichever identity he'd assumed and stepping back into…

Who even was The Great Paris?

Where was the man he'd been before that role?

He felt a firm hand squeeze his shoulder. He looked up, and accepted the drink Phelps was proffering. He locked gaze with him for an instant, and nodded. Jim returned to his own seat, and raised his glass. "Paris," he said.

Paris raised his own glass, and the two drank in mutual salute, before Paris said again, "I'm sorry." This time there was no lack of clarity over what he meant.

Jim felt a piercing sadness and regret in his heart, which he was able to stifle and set aside through long practise. He smiled, easily, genuinely. "Ok," he began, "show me the latest one. I'll get it, this time I will." He reached down to a shelf below the table, and withdrew a pack of cards. He handed it to Paris. "Come on."

Paris grinned, a wide and brilliant smile that transformed his face. He leaned forward and took the box, and deftly slid the cards out of the pack. Without taking his eyes off Phelps's face, without even a glance down at the cards, his long, clever, slender fingers deftly shuffled, reshuffled, fanned and straightened the cards. An eyebrow rose again.

"Not a chance," he said. And grinned again, a wicked grin.

Paris's deep brown eyes fluttered half open, closed again and then opened properly. He blinked, breathed, waited to orientate himself, and then lay a while, taking in the fact that, yet again, he was waking up on Jim Phelps's luxurious sofa, a blanket half on and half off him (which hadn't been there when he fell asleep, that was for sure), and the detritus of a long and inebriated evening spread out on the coffee table on a level with his sleepy eyes. Sounds and cooking smells from the kitchen suggested the reason he'd woken.

Coffee. And sizzling bacon.

He shifted onto his back and stared a while at the ceiling, contemplating the effort of getting up. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, and then ran his fingers up through his thick hair leaving it mussed and on end, for a short while at least. Then a deep breath, and he pushed himself upright and swung his legs down onto the floor.

He paused a while, as he recalled and absorbed the conversations of the evening and night. It was as it had to be. No specifics, no final decisions, this wasn't their way. It wasn't allowed to be, by the firm rules by which they played. But enough had been said, and understood. Not the first time he'd woken on Jim's sofa; possibly the last.

This was a serious game they played.

Paris got to his feet, assessed the extent of possible hangover, found none and, leaving the blanket crumpled on the carpet, he paced slowly towards the kitchen and leaned against the doorframe. Jim Phelps was expertly manoeuvring three rashers of bacon onto a hot place before prodding at eggs which bubbled and fried in the same pan. He didn't turn around, but clearly knew his impromptu guest was up and about. "Coffee?" he said, without pausing in what he was doing.

"Mmm. You?"

"Yup."

He turned to Paris, and offered a friendly grin to the dishevelled, unshaven but somehow still glamorous magic man in his kitchen. He passed him a plate of freshly cooked food and gestured with his head to the table in the corner.

Paris took the plate. "Thank you, Jim," he said, seriously.

"You're very welcome," Jim replied.

Neither were talking about breakfast.

FIN