Don is reading up on the details of the most recent alligator attack in Florida when Assistant #9 knocks on his half-open office door.
He looks up, feeling a just a tiny bit guilty for dawdling. Hey, he’ll be the first one to admit that he tends to spend too much time on the alligator attacks, but somehow the circumstances are just always oddly fascinating. Also, they are far less common than most people assume.
“What is it,” he asks, halfway out of his seat, because Assistant #9 looks nervous, and she is usually not that easy to shake.
“It’s one of them, Boss,” she says meaningfully, and he falls back into his chair.
“Oh,” he says, half relieved, half disappointed. She should know better by now.
“Ignore it,” he says. “The alarm will turn itself off in a couple of minutes.”
She grimaces, shuffles her feet. “It’s been fifteen, Boss.”
“Reeeaaally,” he says slowly and climbs to his feet. That’s … unexpected, to say the least. “Huh. You got the details?”
“Yes, Boss,” she says hastily and hands him the printout with the sparse notes. “You want me to …” Her fingers are shaking a little. Figures that this would be the one thing to make her lose her cool.
“That’s alright,” he waves her off. “Here, sit down. Can you finish the Florida thing for me?”
He takes a deep breath that he doesn’t actually need. “I’ll look into this one myself.”
If you catch Don on a good day and get him a little tipsy on, say, the right kind of absinthe, there are two secrets you might be able to get him to spill.
First, his name is not actually Don. Not even close, but the thing is, his real name is not one many people are able to pronounce, and he has to call himself something. Also, it means that the assistants sometimes call him ‘Big D’ behind his back, and even though he’d never admit it out loud, he kind of gets a kick out of that.
There’s another thing you might get not-really-Don to talk about, but you better fetch yourself another drink first, because once he gets going, it may be a while before you can convince him to stop. And yes, he is not supposed to talk to civilians about work, but he makes an exception when it comes to those people, because (a) no one ever believes him anyway, and (b) if there’s one thing he hates about his job, it’s them.
If he didn’t have to deal with them on a near-daily basis, he’d probably find it kind of impressive, the amount of resources these people take up, considering that there’s only a handful of them. As it is, he finds them at best exasperating, unbearable at worst. It’s not like his team doesn’t have other stuff to do. Even on the quiet days, they are generally swamped with work. They could really do without all the drama, without the pointless paperwork, the piles of bodies those people leave for them to find, and most of all, without all the fucking false alarms.
He still remembers orientation week, when the Old Guy was showing him around the archives, explaining their filing system to him. From what he’d heard through the grapevine, the Old Guy had worked as an Assistant in the archives before his promotion, but Don had just recently been sent up from below. Something about him not being enough of a sadist to do the job well, yadda yadda yadda, but he was always on top of his paperwork, and they thought perhaps Headquarters might have some use for him.
Don liked Headquarters. They were all about the paperwork, but also got to go on all the good business trips, and most of all, he’d already figured out that not being a sadist wasn’t considered a character flaw around here. No, Headquarters was all about OBJECTIVITY. The Old Guy even had a sign in his office that said so.
So yeah, he really wanted the job, and preferably keep it for a full term. He was trailing behind the Old Guy through the archives, trying to remember everything he was told about different forms and the color coding system and how, really, computers had made things so much easier, when the Old Guy suddenly came to a halt in front of a door at the back of the main archive and said:
“And then there’s this.”
The Old Guy looked uncomfortable, and Don wondered what kind of gruesome stuff they kept locked up in there. Not that he was really worried. He’d worked downstairs. He knew gruesome. But when the Old Guy pushed the door open, there were no snake pits or body parts. It was just another storage room. A storage room with back-to-back shelves from floor to ceiling, and overflowing with all kinds of documents … piles of papyrus rolls, leather-bound books, cheap plastic file folders, a stack of something that looked like floppy disks, all stuffed into the shelves in a way that was a lot less meticulous than what he’d seen in the main room.
“What is this?” he asked, and the Old Guy sighed and said heavily:
“That’s the Immortals.”
Don frowned. “Well, if they are immortal, they shouldn’t be causing a lot of work, now, should they?”
The Old Guy laughed hollowly. “Just wait a few years,” he said, and pulled the door shut behind him. “You’ll see.”
His very first week at the new job, Don still thought the Old Guy might have been a bit of a drama queen about the whole thing. But then the Anchorage thing happened and … yeah, no. Definitely not a drama queen. About two weeks in, he told Assistant #2 to finally put a pillow over the alarm for the one in the box and leave it there, because he was certain that the constant ringing in five-minute intervals was going to drive him into an early grave. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
By now, he has a pretty good idea why the Old Guy was looking forward so much to his retirement on the Maldives, and that’s saying something, considering that Don’s only been running the place for the past twenty years – which means he has another 980 to get through until he’ll never have to think about the Immortals again.
The case report directs him to an empty shipping container in the harbor of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, which he supposes is an adequately dramatic setting for a final exit, if one of them is really ready to go.
For a moment, Don thinks Assistant #9 has gotten her data wrong, because at first it looks like there are two bodies in the container. Then he realizes that the one leaning with his back against the wall is actually breathing, even if he’s as motionless as a marble statue, and about as pale. The body of the other one is laid out behind him on the floor, and his head is pillowed in the first one’s lap - which might look quite cozy, if not for the fact that the head is not currently attached.
“What the hell happened here?” Don blurts out, and the man on the ground slowly lifts his head. It’s the Italian guy, the one Assistant #7 has a tiny celebrity crush on, which Don is not entirely unsympathetic to: he’s a decent-looking fellow, although right now he looks pretty awful for someone who is technically still alive. His eyes are red-rimmed, his gaze vacant, and there is dried blood all over his face, as if he was trying to wipe away tears and forgot that his fingers were still dripping red.
“What does it look like?” the guy snaps, and the fact that he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about some stranger in a suit waltzing into their hiding space probably says something about how out of it he is.
Don wrinkles his nose. “Looks like someone got decapitated with a machete,” he says. He feels bad. It’s one of the nastier ways to go.
“There you have it,” the guy says tonelessly and pulls the head in his lap a little more closely towards himself. “Now if you could please mind your own business …”
“Ah, sorry, man.” Don awkwardly rubs his chin. “I’m afraid this is my business.” He pauses for a moment, because no matter how often he does this, it never really gets easier.
“I’m here to collect.”
“Collect?” the guy starts, confused, and then he freezes, and Don can see all the color drain from his face when the words sink in. It’s a little impressive, really. People these days rarely recognize him, at least not this fast.
“No,” the man says, his voice shifting from dead-tired to panicked within a split-second. “Nonononono. That can’t be right.” He tries to scoot away, as if he has forgotten that he’s already with his back against the wall.
“You can’t – he’s going to wake up.”
Don grimaces. “Dude,” he says gently. “It’s been half an hour.”
If the man looked pale before, he is ashen now. “No, that’s not –”
His gaze drops down to the watch on his wrist, and he makes an odd sound when he sees the time, like a puppy getting his tail caught in a closing door.
“No. Look,” he says, clearly trying his hardest to keep it together and failing rather miserably. “When I lost my leg in Madagascar in the 1800s, it took about that long to fully grow back.”
“Yeah, but … ” Don drags a palm over his face. “Look, man … uhm, Nicolo?” He checks the open file on his tablet. “Right, Nicolo. Look, I’m not a doctor, but I think generally speaking, heads are a little trickier than legs.”
“I’m not going to let you take him,” Nicolo says angrily, and just like that, Don finds himself staring down the gleaming blade of a longsword, which Nicolo is pointing at his midsection from where he’s sitting on the floor.
Don lets himself admire the sword for a moment. It’s a nice sword, and a nice change of routine. Most people tend to point guns at him. Not that it really matters, of course.
“You of all people should know better than that,” he says, trying to keep any trace of disapproval out of his voice. “What are you going to do, try to kill me? I hate to say it, but it’s not going to do much good.”
Nicolo keeps the sword trained on him for a moment longer, then the weapon hits the metal floor with a clang. He presses the back of his free hand against his eyes, the other one still anxiously clutching the severed head against his chest.
“You know,” Don says, trying for soothing. “I’d have to go back to my notes to make sure I got it right, but if I remember correctly, a wise man once said: Everything has to die.”
Nicolo stares at him, his mouth hanging open in incredulous rage. “Oh no,” he hisses angrily. “No, you do not get to quote that at me right now. This isn’t supposed to happen …”
He trails off, struggling for air, and Don wonders if he is about to start hyperventilating. He wishes he’d thought to bring a plastic bag.
“He killed me first,” Nicolo now says desperately. “I died five minutes before he did. I should be the first one to go. Just take me instead,” he pleads, raising one hand towards Don as if in prayer.
“I’ll come with you, just leave him be.”
Don raises his eyebrows. “Hey,” he says. “It’s your relationship, of course, and I only know what the Assistants read to me from the gossip rags, which tend to lean towards exaggeration nine times out of ten. But if only half of what I hear is true …. do you really think he’d be happier going on without you than you will be going on without him?”
“He – “ The man looks down at the head in his lap, and his shoulders shake.
“Then take us both,” he says and looks up, and shit, he actually has tears running down his face. “Isn’t that better for you? Kill two birds with one stone, get twice the commission, something like that?”
“I don’t get commission, my friend, I make my own salary,” Don says, patting his own chest. “But contrary to what you may think, I don’t actually make the decisions. You think you are the first one to ask me to change my mind? It doesn’t work like that, okay? I can’t bring anyone back. It’s not like some of the less experienced interns haven’t tried, but whenever someone thinks they can get around the rules, you end up with vengeful ghosts. And right now you may think that sounds like a decent solution but a couple years ago we ran a survey, and it turns out that 95% of ghosts said they were not happy with their current situation and wished their loved ones had just let them die. You would not be doing him a favor, is what I am trying to say.”
He stops talking then, because it is obvious that Nicolo isn’t really listening anymore. Instead, he’s staring at the head he’s cradling against his chest as if he can will his lover back to life with the force of his gaze alone, his fingers tangled tightly in the dark curls surrounding the lifeless face. The curls are really quite lovely. Don knows a few people who would kill – well, actually, knows a few people who have killed for that kind of hair. It would really be a shame to deprive the world of such gorgeous curls, but what can you do.
“Just – wait a little longer,” Nicolo says now. He’s directing the words at his lover’s face, but Don is pretty sure that he’s talking to him. He sounds like a man who is this close to giving up but figures he’s got nothing to lose by making one last desperate attempt.
“Please. Half an hour. Just give me half an hour. He’s going to come back. I know he will.”
Don cracks his neck. He looks at the ceiling. He sighs. This is the moment where being more of a sadist might actually come in handy, now that he’s thinking about it.
“Well,” he finally says. “I suppose we could use the time to go over some of your paperwork.”
Nicolo stares up at him in disbelief. “Paperwork,” he says flatly. Don might consider feeling a little insulted but honestly he’s just glad the man is not soulfully staring at a severed head anymore.
“See, the thing is,” he says, “we are meant to document every death. And I don’t want to complain because I know you are in a tough spot right now, but you guys keep causing major backlog, and half of your incident forms are incomplete because by the time we show up to check out the scene, you are already up and running again. So how about this: I’ll ask you some questions, and as long as you are able to give me new information for my records, I’m going to sit here and wait with you. When we run out of things to talk about and he’s still dead, I’ll leave, and I’ll take him with me.”
“You … are you serious?” Nicolo asks, his brows furrowed suspiciously.
“Hey,” Don says, raising his palms. “I can also take him right now.”
“No,” Nicolo says hastily, “no, fine, I’ll answer your questions. Bene, perfetto, wonderful. Please, have a seat. Just … watch the blood over here.”
“Great,” Don says, and folds himself into a cross-legged seat, in a safe distance from any suspicious puddles. With the job he’s doing, he can’t afford to be squeamish, but the dry-cleaning can get expensive over time.
“Huh,” he says, once he’s gotten as comfortable as the circumstances permit. “You know, this is very Thousand and One Nights, in a way.”
“Excuse me?” Nicolo says slowly.
“Yeah, you know?” Don gestures. “I’m Shahryar, you are Scheherazade. You tell me stories, I don’t kill anyone. Just, you know. Less sex. More I-705 forms.”
“You – “ Nicolo says. He looks like he’s trying to decide whether he should be throwing up.
“What, too much?” Don asks, ruefully.
“Kind of, yes,” Nicolo replies dryly, and even though he doesn’t say it, Don can hear the implied tacked-on asshole loud and clear.
“You know, I don’t remember the last one being such a dick.”
Don lifts his eyebrows. This day just keeps getting more and more interesting. “You met Old Guy.”
“Yes,” Nicolo says, his gaze distant. “Back in 1099. He showed up after about the third time we died … I had just woken up, but Yusuf was still dead. I sat there among all the bodies, waiting to see if this was it, and he walked across the battlefield straight towards us.”
“And?” Don asks curiously, and Nicolo shrugs.
“And he told me that he was still getting a handle on the job and didn’t have time to deal with whatever we were doing, and that if he was in my position and fate dropped a man with such amazing hair into his lap, the last thing he would be doing was come up with better ways to kill him.”
“And then?” Don pries.
“Then nothing,” Nicolo says. “He disappeared. I figured he probably had a point. When Yusuf woke up, I asked if he was interested in a truce. He thought I was propositioning him. Because – you know, we technically both spoke the lingua franca, but there was some minor miscommunication, what with the regional differences in vocabulary, but – ah, uhm, we figured it out.”
“Hm,” Don says, adding a note on his tablet. “You know, this is useful information, because the Old Guy didn’t actually write down any of this. Not that I blame him – if I had to write everything by hand on those ridiculous parchment rolls, I would be tempted to leave out some details too.”
He looks up and frowns. Nicolo appears to be about a million miles away, withdrawn and quiet.
“Let’s get started then,” Don says cheerfully, clapping his hands, and waits until Nicolo’s gaze is focused and directed at him again.
“But could you do me a favor and put that head down first? It’s starting to freak me out a little.”
For a moment, he thinks Nicolo is going to say no – he clutches the head even more tightly, and Don winces as blood and spinal fluid are dripping from the open neck wound into Nicolo’s lap. Nicolo doesn’t even seem to notice, but eventually he does place the head carefully onto the ground next to his leg, as if he’s trying to make sure that his lover is comfortable even in his current headless state. It’s probably a good thing that Don doesn’t actually have a heart, because this? Is fucking heartbreaking.
“Okay, so,” he says, trying to steer the conversation into safer waters. “How about this one. 1647, Santiago. The earthquake.” He looks down at his notes. “You were out a little longer than usual but the whole thing was such a clusterfuck, by the time the team finally got around to looking for you, you’d disappeared.”
Nicolo is silent for long enough that Don starts to wonder whether this whole Scheherazade thing is going to be over before they even get started.
“Aww no, you don’t remember?”
“I do remember,” Nicolo says tiredly. “It’s just – Yusuf is the poet. He’s the storyteller. He should be the one doing this.”
“It’s just for our records,” Don says reassuringly. “We are not going for a Pulitzer here.”
Nicolo shrugs. “Yusuf says if you are going to tell a story, you have to do it properly.”
“I’m all ears,” Don says, and opens a new memo on his screen.
“I didn’t actually get hit during the first wave,” Nicolo finally says. “We were out at the river with Andromache. When the earth shook, we knew we had to go back to help. It was chaos, the entire city in ruins. We never should have split up, but there were so many injured. Yusuf was helping elsewhere but I went back to the convent.” He shakes his head.
“I don’t even really know why – there were so many others who needed help, but somehow in that moment I still thought that pulling the nuns out from underneath the rubble was more important than anything else. One of the side buildings seemed mostly intact, but then the aftershocks started, and the roof collapsed over our heads.”
“You died,” Don says. It’s not really a question.
“I died,” Nicolo confirmed. “Woke up quickly again, but I was trapped under the stone. There was no way I was going to get out on my own.”
He rubs his face.
“By the time Yusuf figured out where I was, most had given up on us. He spent the entire day lifting rocks until his hands were covered in blood. He saved two others who were still breathing from the rubble before he got to me. We should have left as soon as he lifted the last brick off my leg. But we asked for water. The nuns saw that I was without a scratch, and then they realized what – who – he was. They called us demons, told us we had brought God’s wrath upon them. One of them spit at Yusuf’s feet. I would have run her through with my sword on the spot if Yusuf hadn’t held me back. We found Andromache, turned our backs on the city. Later we heard that typhus had broken out in the city, killing twice as many as the earthquake did.”
“Sounds like you had a rough day,” Don says sympathetically, typing away. “If it’s any comfort to you,” he adds, looking up at Nicolo: “I have it on good authority that nuns end up in hell at the same rate other people do.”
For a moment, Nicolo stares at him as if he thinks Don is insane, then he seems to remember whom he is talking to and exhales a shuddering breath.
“I don’t know if I find it comforting,” he says. “To tell you the truth, I had mostly come to the conclusion that the only hell that exists is the one humans create for themselves on Earth.”
“Yeahhhhhhhh,” Don says, weighing his head. “It’s complicated. But how about we do another one,” he continues, because it occurs to him that perhaps this isn’t the most enjoyable conversation topic for someone currently agonizing about their loved one’s soul. He scrolls down his screen.
“How about this one: Malta, 1956.”
There is a pause long enough for him to glance up from his tablet, if only to make sure that Nicolo didn’t abruptly pass out when he wasn’t looking.
“You … what?” Nicolo asks incredulously. “Almost a thousand years, countless deaths, and you want to talk about Malta.”
“I admit we have been wondering,” Don shrugs. He doesn’t say that this is his chance to settle a few bets. “Because I know the alarm pinged, but when the Assistants showed up, it looked like it was just a sex vacation.”
Nicolo pinches the bridge of his nose. “It was a sex vacation.”
“So what happened? I’m curious. Because usually when the two of you die, you leave destruction and other bodies in your wake. But not that time. If you don’t count the mess you made of your sheets.”
“It was nothing,” Nicolo says. If Don didn’t know better, he’d say that the man looks embarrassed.
“We just – we were experimenting.”
“Experimenting with what?” Don asks, puzzled. “C-4? Sticking a fork in the power socket?”
“Asphyxiation,” Nicolo says through gritted teeth.
“Oh,” Don says, and then: “Oooooh.” He whistles. “Let me get this straight … you choked each other during sex,” he says. “You choked each other to death.”
Nicolo crosses his arms over his chest. “The first time was an accident, okay?” he says, defensively.
“The first time,” Don repeats, his brows raised.
“It felt – it felt good,” Nicolo says helplessly. “It was … I was looking into his eyes, and he cut off my airflow, and it just … got really intense … I couldn’t breathe but his eyes were still there and I just … I got lost in his gaze and forgot that I was meant to give him a signal, and so I passed out, and he panicked and crushed my windpipe.” He swallows. “Stupid, really.”
Hm,” Don says. He clears his throat, shifts in his seat. He doesn’t really get aroused per se, but an interesting fantasy can still get him to feel a little hot around the collar. So sue him. He never claimed to be well-adjusted.
“But from my notes, it doesn’t look like this became a routine,” he finally says, when he trusts himself to speak again.
“We didn’t want to tempt fate,” Nicolo says. “We knew … we knew about what happened to Lykon. It didn’t seem worth the risk.” He bites his lip.
“We were thinking about doing it again a couple years ago,” he admits. “After the whole Merrick debacle. But … I don’t know, too many things happened. Nile showed up, Andy became mortal, Booker left, then Quynh came back, and we rescued Booker, and by the time we finally made it to Malta, we were so exhausted that we spent the entire week sleeping and making out. It was …”
He pauses, looks to the side, and suddenly freezes. Don blinks, his eyes following Nicolo’s gaze. The space where Yusuf’s head was sitting just a moment ago is empty.
“Where – where is he?” Nicolo asks, panicked, and he lets himself fall forward onto all fours, his hands feeling every inch of the ground as he thinks his eyes might be deceiving him and the head should still be there.
“What did you do with him?” he shouts, his voice breaking on the last words.
“I didn’t do anything,” Don retorts, a little offended to be wrongfully accused of capital (ha!) theft. He climbs to his feet anyway, because clearly the head has to be somewhere, and he might as well help Nicolo look.
But before he can even set down his tablet, a sudden noise startles them both.
It’s an awful, terrible sound, the kind that gives Don unpleasant flashbacks to his stint downstairs. It’s the voice of someone in excruciating, unbearable agony.
Their heads turn towards the body laid out alongside the container wall. A mere minute ago, it had rested on the ground, unmoving. But now it is convulsing, thrashing back and forth like a stranded fish on the sand. Don backs away a little, just in case, because demonic possession can get ugly, but Nicolo is on his knees already, his hands hovering over the spasming body as if he desperately wants to touch but is afraid to make things worse.
When the body finally stops shaking, Don realizes with a jolt that Yusuf’s head is back where it belongs – more or less anyway, because it is still flopping around in odd ways – but even as Don watches, arteries are re-growing, the skull is fusing itself back to the spine, and a dark foamy fluid is dripping steadily from the mouth.
He kneels at Nicolo’s side and offers him one of the baby wipes he always carries, because Nicolo is looking an awful lot like he considers kissing the man, and Don is not a fragile flower, but he has his limits, and kissing someone who’s drooling blood and bone marrow is high up on the list.
Luckily, Nicolo accepts the wipe without a word, and gently starts to clean Yusuf’s face, still unnaturally pale and without any sign of consciousness.
“Joe?” he says anxiously, and his breath hitches when Yusuf finally utters a disoriented, confused little moan.
Don climbs to his feet and brushes the dust off his suit pants. He stores his tablet in his briefcase and heads towards the exit.
Already in the door, he turns around once more. Nicolo is sobbing and kissing Yusuf’s face, his hair, his chest, and Yusuf’s hands have found their way around Nicolo’s back, holding him tight.
Don takes a picture with his smartphone, just because.
When he gets back to the office, Assistant #9 is sitting on his desk, her legs dangling over the edge. Next to her are a bottle of absinthe and two glasses, and Don tells himself that he needs to remember to give her a raise.
“You were gone for a while,” she says, pouring a glass for him, then one for herself.
He sits down in his office chair and puts his feet up onto the desk next to her hip. He watches in silence as she balances the absinthe spoons atop the glasses, places the sugar cubes on top and pulls a box of matches from a pocket in her skirt.
“Cleared some of the backlog while I was there,” he says, and yawns. “He woke up, by the way.”
“Phew,” she says, and holds a lit match against the sugar until it catches fire.
“You sound relieved,” he remarks, his eyes trained on the tiny flame.
“Well,” she shrugs, and tosses the burnt match into his paper trash. “His art is pretty phenomenal. So is his hair. I’m not sure humanity deserves it, but the world is a better place for it.”
She waits until the last bit of sugar has dripped into the absinthe, then hands him a glass.
“To the Immortals,” she says, and he humors her by clinking his glass against hers.
“To immortal love,” he replies, only partly in jest.
“They are not that bad, are they,” she teases, and takes a sip.
“I’ve had worse days,” Don says, and knocks back his drink.