It's the breaking point: pressure applied to glass, subtle at first and growing over time; the intricate web of cracks that spread and devour, scars on an untouched slate; the almost-there bend that tries, tries so hard to hold it all together under the weight of a force beyond its control. It's the razor's edge: balance hardly kept, a wind that puffs and howls and tries to topple you over; the cliff side you tiptoe on and the endless canyon below; the place you can't go and the place you won't go flush on either side, pushing and pushing and pushing until one finally has to give way. It's your ultimatum: your loyalty to him or your loyalty her (her life blood splattered crimson on your hands and your own splattered on his.) You never saw it coming – not from him, not from your God, merciful and righteous. Even if you had, you don't think you could have ever prepared for it. The world you live in is painted in stark black and blinding white, a portrait of good conquering evil and rebellion uprising to save the meek. It's been this way since you were young. You never expected to see gray.
“Kill her. That's all you have to do.”
Holy Mary, full of grace. You've never been a religious man, but you worshiped at her feet like a dog because with her, you felt loved – clean. This city is stained, but the ground she walks is untouched, the words she speaks pure. She could never be yours, but you were content to stay at her side forever. Unworthy. (Wanted.) But now God Himself asks of you deicide, and you're reminded of just why you were unworthy in the first place – of her. Of Him.
(You may be death incarnate, but you're still just a filthy human.)
“... Kill Mary?”
You see Him first in your prime. It's been years since you've stepped foot in any place you could call home, and the fires of hatred that had licked so hotly at your heart have been swallowed by ash, dormant and smoldering in their little pit of contempt. There's still plenty of that; it's what makes the timing perfect. Politics make you sick. Bile creeps up your throat at the very mention of a name, and you spit it out on anyone who dare rush to their verbal aid. Corruption is what killed that man on Olive street on Monday and what kept your mayor out of jail on Wednesday. (It's what infected your father, tore your family into pieces.) And the others, they just don't see it the way you do. They go about their lives, complacent, ever oblivious to the evil men and women who dictate their lives and keep them under America's muddy foot. You can yell at them all you like of their foolishness and their wasted opportunities for real, tangible freedom – but at the end of the day, you're just a boy. A drop out, no less, and one who keeps himself sane with needles up his arm and bliss running through his veins three times a day. Your words are nothing but air.
But His words – His, identical as they may be in meaning to your own, ring loud and true through Occidental Park, spoken with a voice that could shake mountains, stir eruptions. You hear that voice and the things it says, and you stop, frozen in your tracks in Seattle's rainy streets. (Around you, there are more just like you, dozens, maybe even hundreds, all enraptured, all listening for what may be the first time in their lives.) You've never cared about the speeches they give in this monochrome place before, but there's something about this one that catches you in its vice and refuses to let you go. Is it the way He spins thoughts you've been thinking for years into sentences almost lyrical in nature? Is it the way He speaks of a country that could one day, truly, be for the people? Is it the way it leaves you dumbstruck, awed that, after all this time, you've finally found another man who sees the world as clearly as you? But He is no man – He can't be. There is power inhuman woven into each syllable. And when He casts His gaze out beyond the crowd, locks gazes with you alone, you realize that it's love at first sight.
The pistol in your hand isn't cumbersome, instead serving as a familiar weight in your palm and a line cast for days of old to ground you to your reality. Everything around you, this building, these people, the feeling of His steadying grip on your right shoulder, is bizarre, new – but you have fired a gun before, and you teether yourself to the memory to keep yourself from drifting off. Safety was your father's “biggest concern” throughout your earliest years. Laughable, you think now, for a man who was never around to protect you. You'd be angrier about it now had it not been for the fact that his negligence led to your usefulness to the cause; when he wasn't there to defend, you learned to defend yourself, and when you learned to defend yourself, you made yourself an asset. No one else here can wield this weapon like you can.
The Doctor tells you to show them all what you can do, and you do so gladly.
“This... could use some work,” He tells you after the cacophony of gunfire has died, your clip empty and your weapon useless in the face of a dozen (now headless) mannequins. There's scrutiny in His eyes, and you try to stifle the indignation in your own. If those had been real, living people, they'd have all been dead. But there are words left unspoken on His tongue, and while He may look as though this is nothing He hasn't seen before, the revolutionists who have come before you look caught in a limbo between shocked and impressed; that, at least, is something you can take pride in. “But this was more than I had expected for a first showing. Consider me impressed.
(”We'll make a death machine out of you, yet.”)
“He's working you too hard.”
Liquid laps at the rim of the spoon cradled in your trembling hand, powder giving way to heat and the source of your high melting before your very eyes. Typically, they're more considerate than this, delivering ready-to-go syringes rather than all the ingredients a junkie would need to get himself from Point A to Point B, but you know the irritation you feel is only there because it's been what feels like an eternity since your last shot, and it isn't as though you haven't had your fair share of practice doing this yourself from days before your life had any real meaning. You swallow it down like another addict might swallow their pills; the only person to be angry with here is the carrier, and you know that she was not the one to throw this ensemble together. Not that you can imagine lashing out at her, anyway. The closest you'll ever get is in the moments like these: her back turned away from you, as though watching you preform your ritualistic self-contamination might stain her purity (most nights, you believe it would) and words echoing the doubt you refuse to let yourself have tumbling out of her mouth. It's no secret that the Holy Virgin Mary cares not for your God, but oh, how you wish she would keep it to herself.
“It's fine. I can take it.” You watch the bubbles disappear from your saving grace, your needle of choice all prepped and ready to go, and as you line it up with the dozens of track marks that have come from nights just like this before, you can't help but let your mind wander. The nun in your room, on your chair, porcelain chin tilted away and green eyes focused on the patter of rain outside only says these things because she frets over your safety. What she doesn't quite understand is that your safety means nothing in your line of work. Limitations are constructed by those who don't try, by those who aren't willing to put themselves on the line for the things they wish to achieve. There is no easy road to freedom. He works you as hard as He must, and you are all too happy to give it to Him; if it was your life you would have to give for your country, you would lay it down in an instant. So tonight, too, you brace yourself for the impact (metal on flesh, a self-inflicted wound) – but she speaks, beyond what she usually does in this line of thought, this unnecessary conversation, so you pause. You listen.
“No, you can't. Look at yourself, Nikki – you've been walking around all day like a corpse.” You flinch at the word and give thanks for the fact that her biting words are aimed at the wall where she cannot see it. “You keep telling me it's fine, that you're fine, that you can keep going, but – ” Her words die in her throat, you think, but a second later you realize that her gaze has wandered to the candles that infest the furthest corner of the room. It's too much to look at them yourself. (That doesn't mean you can't see them, though, in your mind's eye: three lit candles amidst dozens of piles of melted wax; three flames for three stolen lives. You can't let them get to you.
(So you don't let them.)
The needle breaks the surface of your skin, and you let it feed you euphoria. Regret dissolves as a concept as you let the high take you away, far from saddened eyes and burning candles, far from the doubts you refuse to let yourself have, and into a world where there is only peace. Someday, you think, you will bring this peace to all – someday.
Metal against flesh, bullet to the brain – you've never met a man so dedicated to His work that He would die so needlessly for it, but the sight before you has your heart racing faster than you can ever remember, and it's not just because you might bare witness to a living person's self-inflicted death. “I swear to give my life for you – ” He'd said to you, “– if you would swear to give yours for mine.” Verbal oaths would have done just fine anywhere else, Cross My Hearts and pinky promises to fealty and dedication. This, however, the gun in His hand and the single bullet in its revolver, reminds you that you are not just anywhere. You're in the presence of God: unyielding, undying. You know His life won't end here, not at this desk, not in this building He has lead you to (it doesn't; he pulls the trigger and the gun clicks out its refusal), so you will make sure your's doesn't, either. The weapon glides across the table and into your waiting hand, its weight familiar in your grip, the single bullet reloaded into its slot, and you swear in this moment, this limbo, teetering between your life and death that you will give everything you have and more to this deity and His cause.
You point the revolver at your first ever victim and, unshakeable, pull the trigger.
(Empty air brands you: You are property of Doctor X.)
He finds you in the alley three blocks from the Operation's hidden doors, naked, bloodied, and only just reclaiming your consciousness. Embarrassment is not the first emotion to come to mind in the wake of a violent mugging, particularly one that robbed you of everything on your person down to the clothes on your back, but when you realize who is lightly shaking your beaten frame – who exactly you're swearing and throwing weak, hardly qualified punches at – it floods through your system like a drug and hits you harder than some of the blows you'd taken just hours before. If He minds, though, it doesn't show on His face through the veil of rain. He's never been an easy read, what with the glasses and a poker face that would put all others to shame, but you believe (even if it's just the distortion of a concussed mind) you can succeed now where you've never been able to before: there is is confusion there in the contours of His expression, but it's nearly engulfed by the unguarded concern that reigns over the rest. For a moment, He... looks like less of a He and more of a he. For a moment, you wonder what He might be to you if He were not your God in human flesh.
“Nikki, what's happened?” He asks you softly, so softly, and your heart aches more at that than the memory of what brought this about. It aches all the more when you realize that you must tell Him exactly what that was: that you failed. You're His hitman, meant to be untouchable, unstoppable, a force of nature that brought death down upon all who crossed your path. And you'd had your chance. You'd heard their arrival, had an idea of what it was that they wanted out of you, and you'd every chance to pull the trigger. (But you are not death, impartial, all-consuming. Not yet. You're just a boy parading in its clothes, sitting under its flag. In one second, you saw yourself, an innocent, in your assailants, and your hesitation became your undoing.)
“I – ” you start, only to stop. Your mouth won't obey; your lips freeze in place. “I – ” It stirs down deep in you, something primal and disgusting, and you feel it there. All of your effort is wasted, though. You could not save yourself then, and you cannot save yourself now. “Fuck,” you curse, and in the next moment you're sobbing, body heaving, tears mingling with rain. You can't tell Him, you can't – but He understands, He must, because He comes to you like a moth to flame and lets you cling to Him like your lifeline. Your blood stains His trench coat, your snot smears His shirt, but He doesn't move away. Instead, He rocks you like the child you've never really stopped being; the one you could never afford to let yourself show. Months have passed since that fateful day in Occidental and you've dedicated your life to He and His cause, but nothing He has ever done for you has ever felt quite like this. You could lose yourself in this feeling, to the ideas of what could have been and what never was. There's a hole in your heart that's been screaming to be filled. (It won't be until much later that you learn that he'd been looking for a way to plant himself there from the very moment your eyes had met.)
Shelter comes from His coat draped across your bare skin, comfort in His open arms, and together you wait out the rain, the night. Something changes between you after that.
He never asks for the trench coat back, and it becomes a staple of your wardrobe.
From the moment you lay eyes on him, you know with certainty that you hate Father William. It's in the way he walks, head tilted high, shoulders shoving past any and all who might get in his way; it's in the look of disdain he shoots you all, disgust infecting his bearded face like a man looking upon a wet sewer rat; it's in the way he draws out his words when he speaks to any but the Doctor Himself, the coddling way of speaking that insults the intelligence of any he speaks to without the specific use of any words. Mostly, however, it is the fact that he's one of the enemy. Imagine: a priest walking, invited, through those doors! You'd never thought you'd live to see the day! You look upon him now and wish that you hadn't.
There are things, of course, that only one of the enemy would know, and they need every scrap of information they can get, no matter the source. If a corrupt man of God – the “real” one, not the one you kiss the feet of – is the only one willing to share the secrets of the “other side”, he's simply the one you must accept.
(What is it, exactly, he trades those secrets for, you wonder? It haunts you, a scream in the back of your mind as you watch His door shut behind him nearly every day. Is it money? Drugs? Something else? When, you don't let yourself ask, was it that the reason for your constant questions shifted from curiosity to raw, uncut jealousy?)
Father William and his sermons are a half-smiling joke, but his church is not without one merit beyond measure. It comes to your apartment door one night with your payment in tow, packaged prettily in the body of a woman who had certainly turned more than a few heads in her lifetime and tied up neatly in the traditional garb of, laughably, a nun. The image strikes you as funny the first time you see it: perfect Sister Mary standing in the doorway of your unkempt home, a package you already know the contents of held in her arms like a swaddled baby. Infant Jesus, perhaps, held in the arms of the Virgin Mary – what irony! (You take from her your package and set about accepting your payment in full for the night. It takes you longer than you're proud of to realize why she lingers in your living space, pensive, eyes flickering between you and the mattress you never sleep on, and when you do, you feel hatred anew for Father fucking William.
(Instead, high as the top of Mount Everest, you treat her to a bowl of Lucky Charms and send her on her way. In the morning, there will be hell to be paid for this.)
God bestows upon you missions divine in nature, and you are always all too willing to accept. You're a cog in the system, only one part of many that drives the Operation forward, but yours is perhaps the most essential just below that of His: He points His finger, and you enact divine retribution on His enemies. The world you live in is full of villains and monsters, beings of evil beyond redemption and deserving only of your bullet; you'd never be able to find them yourself, but you have no trouble dealing with them when they have been found for you. It's always been this way – it will always be this way. Save for one.
Strauss. Doctor X says it as mechanically as an item listed off a grocery list, but you tense at the sound, rigid and wide-eyed at its implications. His pacing keeps Him from noticing right away, and He prattles on about locations and things of note that you're incapable of taking in for nearly a minute before He turns and realizes that His favorite pawn has started to tremble in his shoes. A simple question of what the matter is – it should be so easy to answer, and yet -
“Th... That's my name. Strauss. Nikki... Nicklaus Strauss.” Confusion lasts only a second before melting away into something else, something unrecognizable, and you try all the harder to say what your mouth simply can't. “That guy, he's... He's my...”
“Why didn't you tell me?”
It's an accusation: sharp, disappointed. Outwardly, you don't react. Inwardly, you flinch as though burned. “I... just didn't really want you to know.”
The response is immediate, spoken almost before you can finish your own answer: “Know that you had ties to the enemy?” And you can't help it now, can't reign in your reaction before it slips through your fingers. He's treating this like you've kept from Him some horrible secret – or worse, that you've been working with a man that's been labeled as the enemy. Your silence must not be very reassuring. You find yourself leaning more toward the latter when He presses: “Nikki, tell me again why you joined the revolution.” There's a tell there, though, a flaw in the poker face that you miraculously see right through. This isn't doubt. This is a test.
“To save the country,” you tell Him in a way that you hope sounds easy, a way that doesn't betray your haywire nerves and the fear that one misstep might have you out of His favor. “... And if D– Strauss is in the way of that, then he's no different from the rest.” Quiet, tense and charged, passes between you both for a frighteningly long amount of time. He stares you down all the while, perhaps looking for some break in your resolve, some hesitation in your words. Now that you've said it, though, you realize just how much you mean it. Memory takes you back to all the days your father was never there. (Worse were the days he was.) In hindsight, you shouldn't have been surprised that it's come to this. You're being asked to commit patricide, but if that's what it takes...
“Very well. Then that's no longer your name.”
You pause again, startled for a different reason as you blink up at Him in bafflement and ask intelligently: “Huh?” But X has turned away from you now, fingers leafing through files once again and that same mechanical tone creeping back into His voice. Is it a loss of interest? No – to Him, the words are common sense.
“You are no longer bound by the name Strauss. From here on, you are Nikki. Just Nikki.” He casts you a sidelong glace, almost bored in expression, but there's an emotion you can't quite pin down welling in you now. Liberation, perhaps? You've been calling yourself Nikki for years now, never introducing yourself as anything else (never wanting to be associated with that man), but the concept of shedding your so-called legacy entirely had never even occurred to you as a possibility. You'd accepted the fact that it would be your ball and chain until the day you died. But here, so easily, He's offering you freedom from those chains. Some would argue that documentation would be necessary, the one cannot simply shed legality in the face of preference – but the word of God is law. If He says it is done, than it is done. “I assume you have no complaints?”
“N-no! That's... That's fine by me.” More than fine. Nikki. You are Nikki – and you are no one else. “... Thanks.”
Despite an early request for a different mailman, for better or worse, you find yourself spending quite a bit of time in the company of Sister Mary. It's a source of irritation at first – you're not interested in any member of the church, much less one who willing works in the company of someone as blatantly disreputable as William – and you make sure she knows it, but as it sinks in that she can't be shaken, as well as the fact that you do, to an extent, rely on her services, you transition from barking at her to give you some goddamn privacy to pretending she doesn't exist at all. Surprisingly ineffective. As it turns out, she's been given instructions to not leave until specifically told otherwise. (If anything, her arrival in your life only serves to remind why corruption must be weeded out of not only the government, but also the church.)
You come to find that her presence isn't as much a bother as you'd originally expected it to be, however. She doesn't bother you when you inject – won't even look in your direction when you do, in fact – and while you don't remember most of anything that happens afterward, you come to find through her off-handed comments that she's had the odd conversation with you while you were in your... influenced state. Just once, you dare to try to talk to her beforehand, just to see what its like. But then once becomes twice, and twice becomes thrice, and it's not long before you're talking with her every visit, your precious heroin a treat after a lengthy chat about what flavor of ice cream is the best or which language would be the best one to learn. She laughs once, a genuine, beautiful thing, and as you stare at her with wonder in your eyes, you vow to do whatever you can to bring it out again.
And you do – over and over and over.
The Doctor has left you behind in favor of deals and traded secrets, but for once, the sting of jealousy doesn't bother you as it used to. All of the shoulder claps and praise, the sense of purpose, that night He spent with you in the alleyway are buried, lost under the avalanche that is the heart-mending smile of the sweet Sister Mary.
There is screaming in there air, a monstrous noise tearing through the rainy night that you don't stop to realize is yours. Not that you could if you wanted to; there's not a second to waste on the noisy city night or what poor, broken fool might be waking the dead now. You have to find her. She's here, somewhere, caught between the neon signs and the shattered reflections in rain puddles, and if you don't find her soon, she'll be gone – really gone. You, after all, would be the one to know. You know all about death, what it looks like, where it leads. All the same, you refuse to accept her's for what it is. She was fine when you left her. Undressed, yes, pushed up against the altar, but alive, breathing, feeling, enjoying –
“Mary!” you call into the night. You don't even realize you've left the tangle of alleyways until you're standing at their mouth, eyes squeezed tight against the glare of the streetlights, and you call out for her again, instinctive, repetitive, loud and tearing at your vocal chords. People are watching you now, fleeing, maybe, from a madman – pedestrians, whores and their pimps, and muggers alike – but you pay them no mind. They don't matter to you. Nothing matters to you but the feel of her in your hands, the sound of her voice in your ear. Your idols are false, your God a fake, but she – she was true to you from the start. A constant. A foundation. The love of your life.
You rip the trench coat from your body like it's burned you (only it has, it really has, you feel it bone-deep, fires that have ruined your body and killed your lover), throw it down with all the strength you can muster, and kick it through muddied water just to be petty. It had happened on a night just like this; he'd made you feel like you were everything to him, that he really would give just as much for you as you'd sworn to give to him. What has he given you, though? A purpose – empty. An addiction – debilitating. A name – at the cost of another. Mary – dead. You hiccup; chuckle; sob; all he has ever done was take, take, take, and you gave it all away with a perfect, plastic smile.
There's nothing left to take now, nothing of any use.
(Your body is numb as you collapse to the ground, your mind a storm of thoughts to ephemeral to catch. You lay there like a dead man and hope that is what you'll become.)
It's a simple mission, as easy as they come. They've given you a name, a face, and all you have to do is pull the trigger. Muscle memory pulls you through as usual; you're thoughtless, moving through the motions. He's in your sights for only a second before the bullet's sailing, and you stick around just long enough to watch it hit its mark. Just long enough to realize that you are not the only one to witness the act. (Your God has blessed you with marksmanship skills beyond anything you could have ever dreamed. You're a deadshot, a man who has never left a target alive, and if the Doctor is the hand that pulls, you are the gun that fires.)
You kill a man in front of his own son. It hits you when you see the little boy come rushing from deeper into the home, from a place just beyond your sight. He can't see you, and you can't hear him, but you don't need to. Desperation is clear even from a distance. Their resemblance is unmistakable.
Gray in a black and white world.
You don't know who you are or why you're here, only that you exist in a state of half-being: not quite dead, but not quite alive. Commands to your body don't always work, are sluggish if they do, but you've lost reason to do much of anything at all. Your nurse won't even catch your eye when she enters the room, only deigning to make any form of contact when the panic strikes and you pitch an incoherent fit. The needle slides right in – familiar. You can't possibly imagine why. You don't know much of anything here. There is hate in their eyes you cannot explain, fear in their movements when they stand too close, but for all the curiosity that should bring, you can't even muster the energy to wonder why that may be. Can't muster up the energy to do anything, really. So you lay there in bed, a shell of a man – were you ever? – complacent, catatonic. This is your reality.
(You wished so much to forget her face, to forget his betrayal. Was it better to have that wish granted?)
It's the breaking point: pressure applied to glass, subtle at first and growing over time; the intricate web of cracks that spread and devour, scars on an untouched slate; the almost-there bend that tries, tries so hard to hold it all together under the weight of a force beyond its control. It's the razor's edge: balance hardly kept, a wind that puffs and howls and tries to topple you over; the cliff side you tiptoe on and the endless canyon below; the place you can't go and the place you won't go flush on either side, pushing and pushing and pushing until one finally has to give way. It's your ultimatum: your loyalty to him or your loyalty her (her life blood splattered crimson on your hands and your own splattered on his.)
“I've had enough, and I want out.”
You professed your love to her on that night, and she (hesitant, perhaps dishonestly) reciprocated. Your idol has asked you to spill the blood of an innocent, and it's only now that you see him for what he truly is. Time and time again you've overlooked the ever growing flow of money, the half-hearted excuses for hits that had no obvious reason. You followed like dog because his was the way that would lead to freedom – but you've come to realize that there is no true evil out there to be killed, and even you are no shining white knight. Sister Mary mothered no one, and he who stands on the other side of that desk is no God at all, but a man just like yourself. His promises are hollow. His utopia has room for only one.
(This isn't the beginning, nor is it the end. It's the interlude – you think it your ticket out, your precursor to a happy ending hand in hand with the woman you love. But there are no “happy endings”. Not for you, death incarnate, a filthy human like the rest. There is no future outside of the revolution, and even if he is no God, X is still all-knowing. He smiles at you, cold, hollow, and for the first time since you met eyes across Occidental Park, tells you the truth:)
“You can't walk away now.”