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The Bootstrap Paradox

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“But can we change things, if we do it differently?”

“What’s happened, happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”

“Fate?”

“Call it what you want.”

“What do you call it?”

“Reality. Now let me go.”

 

 


 

Kat keeps calling him for a long time and even the calls make it through, the protagonist never picks up. It would be dangerous, he knew, to re-enter her life. Dangerous and worse than that, messy. His life is complicated enough right now. In the old days he used to wake up and not know where he was; now it’s a question of when.  

Kat doesn’t seem to mind; she always leaves a message.

At first, she played it by his rules; she only called for worries, hunches, faint intuitions of danger. She was almost always right to be afraid; her late husband had a lot of business rivals who weren’t above taking out their frustrations on their former enemy’s widow. Or his child.

But sometimes the messages were different.

Have you been to St James Park? They have wild parakeets nesting in the trees.

The next time you’re in New York, go to this address and ask for the Cagliari Panini.

Someone tried to bring me a ‘lost masterpiece’ by Caravaggio yesterday. The paint was still wet.

At first when he got these messages, the protagonist didn’t know what to make of them. For a while he suspected they were a code and he would play the staticky audio recording of her voice on loop trying to work it out.

Then one day he went to St James, feeling foolish in his big woollen coat, like a cold war spy feeding the ducks. It was winter, not spring, but still, he saw the parakeets. They were very bright in the bleak grey cloud that was London and that was when he understood. She was leaving him messages, but they didn’t mean anything more than what they were.

She wanted him to see the parakeets and so he did. It was simple really.

After that, he got used to them. He almost anticipated it; the beep of the answerphone; the low sound of her voice. It’s a beautiful day here, she would say. Max is learning about ancient Rome- he wants me to take him to see the Colosseum. I wonder how you’re doing. Sometimes I think that maybe I dreamed everything that happened. The more time passes the more I forget. I think I’ve forgotten my husband’s face. Can that really be true? Sometimes I think I’ll forget you too- I’ll wake up one day and I won’t remember your name.

Sometimes he would like to forget too. Forget what happened; or rather what will happen. The cage underground; the body on the floor, dying in reverse.  

When he was younger, he always peeked at the last page of the book. He could never stand not knowing- an excellent quality in an intelligence officer. But now he thinks maybe they’re right to say ignorance is bliss. Or if not bliss then at least less painful.

 


 

The next time he meets Neil, the encounter is nothing like what he had expected.

What exactly he had been expecting, he isn’t quite sure. In a way he's been waiting for it ever since he started going backwards; with every step back into the past the anticipation grows.

He had been bracing himself for the worst possibility; Neil not knowing him at all. If Neil did know him, if this wasn’t the first time Neil met him or the last but somewhere in between then he would…well, he’s not sure what he would do. Buy Neil a drink maybe. Shake his hand or clap his back or… something. His imagination always falls short at this point.

It would be good to see Neil again. He decides to leave the thought at that.

So, when they do encounter each other next, in a rather shitty little pub in Cornwall of all places, it’s a shock when Neil looks over, sighs and says bluntly, “I was wondering when you’d turn up next. You’re like a bad penny.”

The protagonist keeps calm, walks over, and sits down on the next sticky barstool. Neil looks distinctly unimpressed. There is a drained pint glass in front of him, ringed in the remnants of white froth.

“Hello,” the protagonist says carefully. “Long time no see?”

It’s a genuine question; he hadn’t expected the operative he was sent to meet today to be Neil and on top of that he has no idea which Neil this is. Old friend? Rookie?

“Not too long,” Neil says in a way that implies, not long enough, and then flags down the bartender. “What are you having?”

Ah, the protagonist thinks, not old friend then. Maybe not friend at all yet.

They drink for a while in silence and then share a brief, complicated conversation revolving around the technicalities of the current mission.

Neil seems brittle; not outwardly unfriendly but not the casual warmth that the protagonist remembers. He seems, apart from the drink in his hand, every inch the consummate professional. He sketches out the details; he suggests polite alternatives, he points out potential risks. He is calm and straightforward.  

It’s very unsettling.

By the time they finish planning out their next move, the protagonist feels rattled, off-kilter and without understanding why, almost angry. He doesn’t know what he wanted from this reunion; he only knows something is missing. He had suspected this would happen, that they would be at different stages, that they might never match up, but he didn’t expect to feel this strange ache in his chest, this undeniable sense of loss.

At one point an old man sits down next to them, loudly ordering a pint of Guinness. The protagonist’s hand comes up quickly to wipe away the rough map Neil has drawn in condensation on the bar top. As he does the tip of his index finger brushes Neil’s wrist where it juts from his ridiculous fisherman’s cable knit.

The protagonist sees Neil bristle at the contact and draw back. When they leave the pub a few moments later, heading in different directions, the protagonist’s heart is still pounding.

It was the shock; he tells himself later. The shock of touching a dead man.

It was something else too, he realizes later. It was that, for a moment after they touched, a scrap of memory had come back. He remembers asking why he couldn’t make contact with himself.

It would be annihilation. Had Neil told him that?

For a moment, feeling the warmth of Neil’s skin, the memory had come back to him like a warning, which was ridiculous, because Neil was a complete separate entity, he was Neil, and touching him was perfectly safe and not likely to cause the end of the world.

But still. Maybe better not to make a habit of it. Just in case.

 


 

They next time they meet, Neil doesn’t know him at all, and they don’t have time to drink. They are both too busy trying very hard not to die.

The Protagonist hadn’t been expecting this as their first meeting. He thought he would be in control. He had pictured a planned recruitment, a sterile interview room. He had thought he would seek Neil out, read carefully over his files. Pick him out from some black site database.

He definitely hadn’t expected to stumble across Neil by accident, in the middle of an assignment that was only tangentially connected to Tenet’s operations.

It’s just another battle in just another war; Tenet has no interest in the outcome. They don’t care who was killing who, they only cared about the weapons being used to do it. Rumour was they caused wounds that no doctor had ever treated.

It’s a fact-finding mission really. The protagonist wasn’t expecting much but it was important to follow up on every lead. Everything, he was learning, must be water-tight or the whole thing could fall apart. It was a difficult job, protecting a future where you saved the world. It was like getting full marks in an exam and going home to study. No time to rest on your laurels. No time at all really, for anything other than the job.

The only thing that makes this mission stand out was just how far back it was; the furthest the protagonist has ever travelled. It makes him uneasy, dislocated. It had taken a long time to get here. As a result, he checks his watch too much, a compulsive stupid habit but one he finds it impossible to break. He finds himself doing it at strange times; sometimes he wakes up in the night and scrabbles for it on the bedside table.

He even checks it while infiltrating an active battlefield, with bombs popping off around him. This is particularly stupid because he knows exactly what time it was, they had timed their manoeuvres so precisely that it was stamped indelibly onto the grey matter of his brain. Just a quick glance down at the glowing red numbers on his rest, 12.21 and when he looks up, he sees Neil.

The shock of it quite literally nearly kills him. He hesitates for a moment and would have caught a bullet to the brain if Ives wasn’t there to pull him down to safety.

Afterwards, when the dust had cleared and they were safely holed up back at their base, the protagonist tries to thank him for it. Ives just brushes him off.

“Don’t mention it,” he says brusquely. “I saw him too.”

There is no doubt who they are talking about. Neil had been wearing a different uniform and had a different haircut, but the protagonist didn’t need to see him in a white linen suit to recognise him. He would know Neil anywhere. Just by the way he moved.

“He didn’t know us,” the protagonist says softly. “What do you think that means?”

“I don’t know,” Ives says. “You’re the boss. You tell me.”

The protagonist sighs- he knows really what it means. It means they have reached the point in time before Neil was recruited. Which means the protagonist needs to make a decision. Do it now or wait to see if their paths crossed again. It was, as always, a question of timing.

The possibility of not recruiting Neil at all is never discussed.

It brings up a lot of questions, the protagonist thinks later that night, staring up at the ceiling. He will recruit Neil because he knows who Neil will become. It’s a stunted paradoxical little loop.

How did it start? The protagonist knows how it will end.

Unless…unless he walks away. He could leave Neil fight in whatever normal, chronologically conventional war this is. He might die fighting it, but those chances are a lot better than the alternative. Lying in the dark wide awake the protagonist is tempted.

(Can we change things, if we do it differently?)

But…

“What’s happened, happened,” the protagonist says to the dark.

Besides (selfish, selfish). He wants to see Neil again.

 


 

The recruitment doesn’t go as planned; the protagonist is starting to think he should be used to that when it comes to Neil.

In a way he doesn’t mind; the thing about starting at the ending is that you’re very rarely surprised. The way Neil keep catching him off guard, even unknowingly, well…it feels like it’s important somehow. Like the universe still has one last trick up its sleeve.

Neil takes his leave abroad and the protagonist follows close behind. Ives takes the team and they go on ahead without him. The protagonist somehow knows he needs to do this alone. He takes a room in the same shabby hotel where Neil is staying; he follows him down the bright streets like a shadow and sits at the same restaurants, two tables back. Moments of opportunity come and go but the protagonist bides his time. He isn’t quite sure what he’s waiting for.

The truth is he finds it strangely fascinating to watch Neil move through the world.

He looks so familiar. He looks like a stranger. In cafes Neil smiles at waitresses and makes small talk with vendors on the street but still, there’s something solitary about him. He’s supposed to be on holiday here in Antigua but if he’s spending it with a lover or friends then he’s kept them well concealed. Most days he wanders the bright streets alone. He looks like he’s waiting for something too.

One night just after dusk, the protagonist loses sight of him in the crowd. He searched for an hour in the bustling tourist nightlife before giving up and heading back to the hotel, tired and dusty and frustrated. He’s annoyed at himself for dragging this out; he should have made contact days ago. Now he’s back at square one.  

As the protagonist turns the corner onto the dark backstreet, he sees a shadow waiting for him by the hotel’s entrance. He doesn’t slow his steps but he’s bracing himself for a fight until he gets close enough to see the faint glow of Neil’s hair under the lamplight.

“Do you have a light?” Neil asks and when he angles his head, the protagonist sees the faint lines of his smile. It looks dangerous.

“Sorry,” the protagonist says, pausing by the bright doorway. “I don’t smoke.”

“Well in that case, lets skip the pleasantries,” Neil says easily. “Do you want to come up?”

The protagonist blinks, genuinely taken aback, and has to recover quickly, smoothing his face into a good-natured confusion.

“Sorry- I don’t understand,” he says. He’s going for good-natured and faintly dim American tourist.

Neil’s smile doesn’t drop; it just sharpens. “Are you sure you don’t? You’ve been following me for three days now- I thought maybe I would save you the chase. There’s a beautiful view of the ocean from my bedroom.”

The protagonist freezes for a moment then laughs, low in his throat. “You make a habit of propositioning your stalkers?”

“Not all of them,” Neil says and then his eyelashes sweep down and up so quickly that the Protagonist almost thinks he might have imagined it. This might just be a game but for a moment the Protagonist almost forgets why they’re here. They could just be two strangers on a hot night in a dark street.

The impulse that comes with that thought is wild, dangerous, and the protagonist pushes it away as quickly as it comes into his head.

“We shouldn’t talk here,” he says softly and then puts his hands into his suit pockets to seem nonchalant (and maybe, just maybe, to hide the faint twitch in his fingers).  “Why don’t you come to my room in half an hour? I can’t promise much of a view but it’s quiet.”

Neil says nothing but he lets out a small, almost imperceptible huff of laughter. The protagonist turns away and lets himself into the building.

Upstairs, he draws the shutters and checks the room over before taking a seat by the small rickety table. He thinks about pouring a drink or pacing but he’s too well-trained for that. He waits instead and tries not to look at the bed. It seems suddenly suggestively, almost obscenely large.

It was just a way of throwing him off guard, the protagonist knows that. It was probably a very effective technique for dealing with alpha male intelligence operatives. Smart. It shows Neil knows what he’s doing. It means nothing more that.

The protagonist allows himself a moment to close his eyes and when he does, he sees again the long inviting lean of Neil’s body against the cooling brick wall. The way he had smiled, the top two buttons of his white shirt undone, his skin exposed to the night air. The nights were so hot here. Already with the windows closed, the air of the hotel room was starting to feel close and stuffy. You could still hear the ocean though, the distant sound of waves….

By the time the knock came at the door the protagonist has collected himself.

“Come in,” he says.

 


 

Neil is whip-smart and quick on the uptake, but still it takes a long time and three more meetings before he even starts to take the concept of time travel seriously.

The protagonist tries not to get frustrated, but he keeps thinking how much easier it would be just to take Neil with him to see the bullet hole riddled wall. He knows now why the first thing he was shown were the fragements of inverted artifacts. Without any evidence, the concept is ludicrous. But of course, his own introduction to Tenet had been crafted with the benefit of trial and experience. He only had himself to convince; Neil is a different case altogether and far less willing to blindly place his trust in shadowy organizations.

Which is, the protagonist has to keep reminding himself, not necessarily a bad personality trait.

Still, it’s a relief when, sitting one day drinking small bitter cups of coffee at a beach café, Neil turns to him and says, “Alright, let’s say I believe you.”

The protagonist looks over at him. Neil is wearing a soft blue t-shirt and small round shades on his face; he almost looks like any of the other tourists here. Almost.

Are we saying that?” the protagonist asks.

“Let’s say we are. I have a question.”

For the last three meetings Neil has had nothing but questions but the protagonist decides to allow it. He raises an eyebrow and gestures for Neil to continue.

“If what you’re saying is true, then I’ve thought of a potential paradox.”

The protagonist sighs. “If you’re talking about the grandfather-“

“Not that one. I mean I’ll get to that later but right now I’m thinking about the bootstrap paradox.”

“I’m not familiar,” the protagonist says, frowning and, with some effort, looking away from the sun in Neil’s hair and out over the impossibly blue coast.   

“You’ll know it when you hear it. The idea is pretty straightforward. Say I went back in time to meet Shakespeare-“

“It doesn’t-“

“I know it doesn’t work like that really. Hear me out. Say I went back to meet Shakespeare and I bring my favorite copy of Hamlet with me so he can sign it.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Just wait- I’m going somewhere with this. So, I bring my copy for Shakespeare to sign but when I arrive, he hasn’t written it yet. He’s intrigued though, so he steals it off me and I return to my time without it. If Shakespeare didn’t write it-he just used my copy- then who wrote Hamlet?”

The protagonist stretches out a slight stiffness in his neck, feeling suddenly very warm and lazy in the sunshine. It really is a beautiful day. Right now, looking out at the sea it’s hard to believe that anything they’re discussing could ever be anything more than theoretical. He turns to Neil and smiles and when he does, he catches Neil looking away just a little too quickly.

“Do you like Hamlet?” the protagonist asks.

Neil thinks about it and then shakes his head. “No. Too much agonizing. He knew what needed to be done.”

The protagonist feels a sudden kind of chill, as if a single cloud had somehow appeared in the endless sky; his smile suddenly requires effort to maintain.

“Yeah,” he says. “I suppose he did. “

 


 

The next time they meet, Neil no longer talks about time travel in theoretical terms. The day before the protagonist meets him in Dusseldorf, Neil was in the lab catching bullets in the barrel of his gun.

Thirteen bullets exactly; the protagonist knows the number because Neil won’t stop talking about it. In the face of real evidence all his cool composure seems to have been stripped away; in the protagonist’s hotel room Neil stalks back and forth in front of the floor to ceiling windows, almost babbling with excitement. He seems overwhelmed by the possibilities, eyes wild and hands constantly moving as he talks about relativity, spacetime geometries, traversable wormholes. For the first time, the protagonist sees the vague echoes of what Neil must have been like as an undergraduate studying theoretical physics; intense, serious, grinning in the face of each new problem he encountered.

Neil likes problems. The protagonist knows him well enough to see that now. He likes to sink his teeth into them and not let go.

It’s strange though, to see him so animated. When they had first met (or rather when the protagonist first met Neil) he had seemed so implausibly unruffled. He had taken everything in his stride; he seemed to have absolute faith in the universe. But that, the protagonist has to remind himself, was an older, more experienced Neil.

This one has just made bullets fly upwards into his hands; this one the protagonist has to eventually calm down by opening up the mini bar.

Four vodka tonics later, Neil has moved from mania to a numbed sort of shell shock. He sits on the floor with his back to the end of the bed, staring out through the window at the dark city beyond, his hand wrapped tight over his mouth. The protagonist, who is only on his second bottle of beer, sits on the edge of the bed and looks down at him, feeling a twinge of concern.  

“You alright?” he asks. He thinks about putting his hand on Neil’s shoulder. It’s close enough, just inches away, but in the end, he keeps it where it is, feeling the silk sheets twist under his palm.

“It’s just,” Neil says hoarsely. “So much. It changes everything.”

The protagonist nods and then has to add, “And also nothing. Nothing about the universe has actually changed. We can just… move through it differently now.”

Neil nods and a strand of hair falls in front of his eyes. It’s sticking up at odd angles from the way Neil kept raking his hands through it. It looks messy; the protagonists fingers twitch involuntarily. He takes a tighter hold of the sheets, rubs them between his thumb and forefinger till he feels the grain.

“It’s still made of the same stuff,” Neil says, and it almost sounds like he’s asking a question, like he wants to be reassured.

“That’s right,” the protagonist says softly. “Whether you’re coming or going-it’s all the same.”

Neil is silent for a worrying long time and then, very abruptly he laughs and says, “Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?”

The protagonist freezes and thinks for a moment of codewords and repeated phrases. We live in a twilight world.

Neil must see the look on the protagonist’s face because he grins, wolfish. “You don’t know that one?”

The protagonist thinks for a moment and then when he works it out, he laughs.  “It’s a palindrome. Won’t lovers revolt now?”

Neil’s grin changes somehow; it loses its edge and he look for a moment genuinely delighted.

Was it a bat I saw?” Neil drawls, in a way that should really be annoying.

It sometimes strikes the protagonist that everything about Neil would have annoyed him in another person. His rumpled clothes, the drink in his hand, the air of affected carelessness; it was all so unprofessional, it was everything the protagonist hated in the other operatives he met. The ones who treated it like a game.

For a moment, the protagonist thinks maybe he is annoyed, maybe that maybe this was causing the frustrated tugging in his stomach. But no, he thinks, he isn’t stupid enough to try and lie to himself or dance around the truth.

It wasn’t Neil’s crumpled collar that bothered him; it was the soft skin of his neck below it, the rough gold of his five o’clock shadow. The protagonist wants to see what it feels like. He wants to run his thumb over the edge of Neil’s jaw. He wants to lean in and smell the vodka on his breath.

Instead of doing that, he leans back, and drawls; “Never odd or even.”

“Never odd or even,” Neil says solemnly, holding up his glass as if it’s a toast, as if it’s a long-standing private joke.

Who knows? Maybe it is. Maybe it will be. The protagonist offers up his bottle and the glass clinks between them.

 


 

After that, the protagonist tries to keep things professional. They don’t meet in hotel rooms. If they ever drink, then it’s in crowded bars.

“What are you having?” Neil asks him the first time, loose and easy.

“Diet coke,” the protagonist says, “I never drink on the job.”

Neil must read something in that, because his smile fades a little at the edges, but he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t say anything the next time the protagonist leaves early or the time after that. If he notices the protagonist pulling back, putting up his defenses, he doesn’t say a word, just smiles and lets him go.

The closest they come to a conversation about it is in New York, when Neil flat out asks him if he wants to go and grab a beer. It’s late at night and they’re done for the day, about to head back to their respective boltholes, but for a moment the protagonist hesitates. 

“Thanks,” the protagonist says finally, “but you know I don’t-.”

“Yeah, I know. Not on the job. And the job never ends right?” Neil says dryly and its a joke, but neither of them laugh.

It’s not about alcohol. The protagonist knows that Neil wouldn’t care if he wanted to drink wine or water or strawberry milkshakes. There’s something much more on offer here. The moment hangs between them, heavy as a stone, and then the protagonist makes up his mind.

That’s right,” the protagonist says and Neil to his credit, only looks away for a moment before smiling and saying good night.

The protagonist thinks that might be the end of it. He thinks that might be for the best.

 


 

It’s not, it isn’t and it doesn’t take very long for the dam to break.

They have for some time been investigating restricted places across the world; bomb test sites, abandoned factories and military bases. It was the protagonist’s theory actually, working backwards from what Sator had told him about finding his first shipment of gold at an old nuclear facility. What were the chances, the protagonist had wondered, of Sator happening to stumble across that first message from the future? Would they have sent only one? Or are there thousands of caches buried under the earth, caches which might contain precious information about whatever future enemy they were fighting?

Not to mention a lot of gold.

So far, this theory had been proved correct on just two occasions: in a missile solo in in Kansas and an abandoned munitions dump in Northern Ireland. They had each of them taken months of work and exhaustive manpower to track down but the secrets they contained were too valuable to pass up.

Which meant that, even though every part of him was itching in rebellion, the protagonist had no choice but to be leading a team down into one of the deepest, abandoned gold mines in Nevada.

“Watch your step,” he had told the others before they went in. “You’ve never seen dark like this before.”

They had nodded and stuck close behind him. They were a tight team of four; any more than that would increase the already high risk of tunnel collapse. Walking just behind the protagonist was Tanner, a tall older woman with a background in. of all things, corporate espionage. Behind her was Anand, barely more than a rookie but one of the most disturbingly efficient people the protagonist had ever worked with. And then bringing up the back, Neil, a little older now, a little surer, but just as infuriatingly distracting.

All their intel said the cache would most likely be found at the bottom of one of the deepest western shafts. On the maps this had seemed very straightforward but now that he was down here with the walls closing in tighter and tighter on every side, the protagonist was beginning to feel a woozy kind of narrowing in his chest with every step.

At the edge of an old elevator shaft he holds up his hand to stop. It was just supposed to be for a moment, just until he checked his bearings, but then he makes the mistake of looking down. The void beneath him yawns like a big hungry mouth. For just a moment, the protagonist sways in place.

It was just a momentary loss of control; you would have had to have been watching very closely to see it.

But Neil had always been sharp.

“You two,” the protagonist hears him say. “Go on ahead. We’ll follow behind in a moment.

Tanner and Anand hesitate, shooting each other unsure looks until the protagonist nods and waves them on. “Go slow. It gets narrower from here.”

When they’re out of sight, the protagonist feels more than sees Neil coming closer. Just having him near makes the vertigo recede a little.

“You really shouldn’t give them orders,” the protagonist says, keeping his voice hushed. “It disrupts the chain of command.”

“Sorry,” Neil says, unconvincingly. “What is it? Claustrophobia?”

“Something like that,” the protagonist says. “I’ll be fine.”

The truth is he’s never felt this kind of fear before and he’s been in far narrower spaces than this.  He wouldn’t have been able to spend three months in a windmill if he had been claustrophobic.

This is something worse; this is a memory, pressing in around him as tight as the rock. When the protagonist closes his eyes, he sees a concrete tunnel, a metal gate, a body lying on the other side with something red hanging off its backpack. But of course, he can’t tell that to Neil.

“We should go,” the protagonist says, suddenly aware of how close they are. He can’t see much more than the shape of Neil’s body in the dark; their flashlights are lowered, lighting up two bright white spots on the rocky floor. The tunnel is so narrow, the silence so crushing, it feels for a moment like the universe itself is pressing them together.

“Just a moment,” Neil says. “Breathe.”

The protagonist does and only when it comes out in a rattle does he realize how oxygen starved his lungs are.

“Better?” Neil asks and puts his hand briefly on the protagonist’s arm.

It’s nothing really, it’s just a passing touch, he doesn’t linger and there’s about five layers of fabric between them, but for some reason it’s the thing that makes the protagonist lose all his carefully held control. Without thinking, his hand comes up to grip at Neil’s shirt.

His fingers are tightening to pull Neil down before his brain suddenly catches up with his body and then he freezes. Neil draws in a sharp breath; for a moment they sway together by the precipice. Neil swallows with a dry click; the protagonist is close enough now to hear it. In a moment one of them will break the silence and then maybe they’ll never speak about this again.

With an effort the protagonist unclenches his hand and then, by accident, the tip of one of his fingers brushes the exposed skin of Neil’s neck.

Neil sighs, like relief, like he can’t help it and the protagonist barely has time to think, will I really do this, before he does it, pulling Neil down to kiss him.

It’s just a rough press of lips; it only lasts a moment and they’re lucky to have even found each other in the pitch black, but the thrill of it moves through him like an electric current. He knows suddenly that this won’t be enough, that he will never have enough of this. Neil kisses back like he’s hungry for it, like he’s been waiting, and the protagonist wants to fuck him right here in this filthy ancient tunnel.

He doesn’t of course; instead, he draws back quickly and takes a step away, narrowly avoiding falling into the pit. He clears his throat.

“We should go,” he says, and Neil says nothing, doesn’t even move. When the protagonist moves away, he can hear Neil following, his footsteps steady in the dark.

 


 

They don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about it when they finally get out the mine after finding nothing but cobwebs and rusted machinery and they don’t talk about it the next time they meet, or the time after that.

They don’t talk about it for so long that the protagonist thinks maybe they never will. He puts his guard down; he even lets Neil buy him a beer in Paris. That night when they’re walking back towards their hotel along the Seine, Neil turns to him and says, as casual as if he was talking about the weather, “Would you like to sleep with me?”

The protagonist stops walking and looks over at him. Neil waits for him. He’s not smiling; his face looks perfectly calm. There’s no way the protagonist can pretend this is just a joke. The offer itself wasn’t even that flirtatious.

“I…” the protagonist says and then decides to be honest. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Why not?” From someone else it would sound angry or offended but Neil sounds genuinely curious.

The protagonist looks at him levelly and then starts walking again. “I think it would make things…complicated.”

“They’re already quite complicated,” Neil points out. “Compared to what we do sex is pretty simple.”

The protagonist looks at him for a moment and then laughs. Neil grins back, half in shadow. The tension breaks a little.

Still the offer hangs between them. The protagonist wonders why he doesn’t turn Neil down flat out. It would be easy, and Neil wouldn’t ask again.

They’re silent for the rest of the walk back to the hotel but it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Neil seems lost to his own thoughts, watching the lamplit boats as they drift past on the water.

The protagonist thinks about Kat.

There had been a moment once out on the boat. The protagonist had gone looking for her after dinner; they only had a few moments alone before one of Sator’s men would come to find them. The protagonist found her leaning over a railing, watching the dark waves. He had wanted to talk strategy but she had just shaken her head.

Just a moment, she had said. Look at the moon.

The protagonist had thought she had been trying to tell him something. He had leaned in close and asked, are we not safe to talk here?

We are, she said. But just for a moment, let’s not. It’s so beautiful tonight. Can’t some things just be simple?

The protagonist had felt unsure, almost uncomfortable. He had looked out at the waves and then, for the first time, he saw the moon reflected in them, a shimmering pale light, breaking and reforming. They had stayed there in silence for nearly five minutes before being interrupted.

When he thinks of Kat, that’s what he remembers. The silver light. The sound of the waves breaking against the side of the boat.

Can’t some things be simple?

He thinks about that as they reach the hotel and he and Neil say goodnight. He thinks about it in his room lying under the covers with the light out and then he gets up and leaves, taking his room key with him.

Neil’s room is two floors below. The protagonist takes the stairs in the hopes that it will buy him more time to talk himself out of this incredibly stupid thing he’s planning to do.

It doesn’t work. By the time he’s standing outside of Neil’s room his heart is racing and when he puts his hand on the door it falls open.

“You shouldn’t leave your door unlocked,” he says when he steps inside. “It’s not safe.”

Neil looks up from where he’s sitting on the edge of his bed. All the calm nonchalance from earlier is stripped away. He looks at the protagonist like he can’t quite believe he’s real.

“I didn’t think you would come.”

“I wanted to,” the protagonist says and then, because he can’t help himself, he admits, “I wanted to the first time you asked me.”

Neil moves to get up, but the protagonist is already over at the bed, putting his hands on either side of Neil’s body, pressing him gently back onto the sheets.

“Is this alright?” the protagonist asks. He can hear his voice dropping, going rough at the edges.

Neil opens his mouth but doesn’t say anything, hair falling into his wide eyes. He doesn’t look frightened; he’s looking at the protagonist like he doesn’t want to miss anything. There’s something else there, something that the protagonist doesn’t understand.

“Is this alright,” the protagonist asks again, suddenly desperate. “You have to tell me, I don’t want to-“

Yes,” Neil says quickly and then it’s like the words all come pouring out at once, “Yes, christ, it’s alright, just touch me, please, I’ve been waiting for-“

The protagonist kisses him quickly, before Neil can say anything else. For a second, it’s just a kiss; too dry, the angle wrong, but then Neil turns his head and lets out a little moan and then all at once the protagonist can’t think straight.

“Fuck,” he groans into Neil’s mouth and kisses him again, and again, thinking, thank god. The sense of relief is overwhelming. Until this moment he hadn’t been sure that what he had felt in the mine had been real, but the warmth of Neil’s mouth brings it all back, that electric feeling, that dizzying loss of control.  

“Wait,” Neil says, pulling back, out of breath and almost laughing. “Hold on. I should have taken my clothes off before you came-“

“That would have been presumptuous,” the protagonist says and then he reaches out to still Neil’s hand. “Let me-“

Neil looks at him strangely and the protagonist hears too late the slightly desperate tinge to his own question. Can Neil tell how much it means to the protagonist how much this means, to have Neil here, to strip him out of his clothes like this? Maybe- Neil always seems to know too much.

Either way he’s strangely pliant, letting the protagonist push him back against the headboards. The protagonist unbuttons Neil’s shirt slowly, carefully, barely touching the skin underneath even as it gets uncovered inch by golden inch. Neil is silent, watching carefully, his breath hitching only slightly when the protagonist strips off the shirt and grazes the back of his knuckles over Neil’s side.

The composure doesn’t last long after that though; by the time the protagonist is peeling away Neil’s underwear, Neil is a mess, eyes pressed tightly shut and hips twitching upwards off the mattress. When the protagonist leans down to kiss him on the soft curve of his hip, Neil practically snarls.

“Christ, I can’t wait too much longer, please, let me touch you-“

“You can wait,” the protagonist says, and its meant to sound calm but his voice is shaking.

Neil grits his teeth and shakes his head on the pillow but they both know what the protagonist said is true; Neil has waited before after all. The protagonist sits back on his haunches and takes a moment just to look at Neil spread out before him, messy and undone and so trusting it almost hurts to look at him-

“At least take off your shirt,“ Neil whines, but he stops talking when the protagonist takes him by the hips and starts to suck his cock.

Neil is so good for him after that, lying there and taking it so well that the protagonist almost comes untouched, just from listening to the noises Neil makes. He doesn’t want this to be over though, so he tries to focus on the feel of Neil in his mouth, the slick slide of Neil’s hips under the protagonist’s hands. It’s almost shocking to have him so close, to have him be real after all the months (the years) of waiting and imagining and just thinking about it, the protagonist lets out an involuntary moan.

The vibrations must tip Neil over the edge because he comes not long after that, gripping at the sheets and swearing in a long, unbroken stream under his breath.

When the protagonist pulls away, he’s half expecting Neil to be in a stupor, so forceful was his orgasm, but Neil as always surprises him, dragging the protagonist up to kiss him.

There is nothing careful or elegant about what they are doing now; the protagonist feels almost drunk with lust and when Neil reaches down and paws at the protagonist through his trousers, the protagonist groans and nearly comes from that alone.

“Let me,” Neil is saying, “I want to take care of you, please, god, just get these off-“

Too dizzy with want to protest much now, the protagonist lets Neil roughly at his shirt, lick and bite at his neck, half-pulling the protagonist into his lap.

There is something strangely familiar about this; it’s the first time but it doesn’t feel like it. Neil’s body feels so achingly familiar. Touching him felt like coming home but then the protagonist loses the thought almost as soon as he thinks it.

When Neil finally gets his hand into the protagonist’s trousers, the protagonist groans and has to bury his face in the crook of Neil’s neck, breathing in the smell of him.

“Is that good?” Neil asks. “Like this?”

The protagonist couldn’t answer if he wanted to; all he can do is hold on and pant into Neil’s skin as Neil starts to stroke him in strokes that are clumsy and rough but perfect, just perfect and the protagonist won’t last long, not like this, eyes shut so tight that hot pinprick stars start to bloom in his vision.

Moments from the edge, he can’t hold back anymore; he lets himself bite at the soft skin below Neil’s skin, thinking, this mark will still be there tomorrow and the day after and-

Neil lets out a broken sound and just like that the protagonist falls apart.

 


 

Later, Neil puts his head down on the protagonist’s chest and traces his fingers along the old hatch-marked scars. Neil doesn’t ask where they came from and the protagonist doesn’t tell him. He’s not sure what’s safe information to share. Some of the scars that Neil touches now come from injuries that a different, future Neil will patch up. The protagonist wonders if that Neil will recognize them from this.

 The protagonist stops trying to think about it. It feels good- maybe right now that’s all that matters.

Neil is very quiet now; he’s watching his own hand on the protagonist’s skin like it’s one of his puzzles, his eyebrows drawn together with a look of deep concentration.

“What are you thinking about?” the protagonist asks. Maybe it’s a clichéd thing to say post-sex but he really wants to know. He always wanted to know what’s going on in Neil’s head; even after all this time he still can’t make it out.

Neil looks up at him without lifting his head. The loose strands of his hair tickle a bit. The protagonist wants to touch him and out of habit holds himself back before remembering that’s alright now. That’s allowed. He reaches down and combs the hair out of Neil’s face; he leaves his hand there, feeling the strands between his fingers.

Neil leans into it, smiling. “I was thinking about time capsules. We used to make them in school.”

“A shoebox buried in the playground?” the protagonist asks. They’re speaking very low; if the protagonist concentrates, he can feel Neil’s heartbeat in the places where they are pressed together.

“The other kids used shoeboxes,” Neil says dismissively, “But I knew that cardboard disintegrates. I used an old coffee tin.”

“Smart kid.”

Neil shrugs but smiles a little wider at the praise. The protagonist wants to kiss him again but holds back, wanting to hear the story.

“What did you bury?” he asks.

Neil shrugs. “Some photos. A toy train. And a letter.”

“What did it say?”

“I don’t remember,” Neil says and the protagonist wonders if that’s true.

“I wrote a letter once,” the protagonist says softly. “To myself.”

“When you were a kid?”

“A little older,” the protagonist admits, feeling embarrassed. He had been twenty and directionless and his heart had just been broken.

“What did you tell yourself?” Neil turns his face to press his mouth to protagonist’s chest, just above his left rib.

“I told myself that I would know what to do one day, “the protagonist says and then, even though it’s embarrassing: “And that it wouldn’t hurt forever.”

“Were you telling the truth?” Neil pulls his mouth away for a moment. The protagonist shivers at the warm huff of breath on bare skin.

“Yes,” the protagonist says, even though he hasn’t thought about it for years or really examined if that was true. In this moment, it feels impossible to think otherwise with Neil working his way down over the protagonist’s stomach. It’s hard to remember that anything in the world could be painful at all.

 


 

They end up spending a week longer than planned in France, hardly leaving the hotel except to eat and let the staff in to clean their rooms. By the time they have to get back to the real world, they’re both very late for important rendezvous. The protagonist knows that he’s being reckless, stupid even, but it’s hard to care. Not when Neil was sleeping in his bed every night, all naked skin and long limbs under the crisp white sheets.

The month they spend apart after that is grueling; the protagonist spends most of his time irritable and distracted. He’s a professional so it doesn’t interfere with his job but in what little free time he does have he can’t relax. He tries to read, and his eyes keep looping back to the beginnings of paragraphs.

He and Neil communicate, as they always do, through brief, impersonal and highly encrypted emails.

Situation has changed over here, Neil writes. But shouldn’t mean delays.

Good, the protagonist writes back. Keep me updated.

The protagonist wishes (childishly) that they had established some kind of code.

How’s the weather? he could write, and it would mean, stay safe, don’t take unnecessary risks.

Cloudy, could be I miss you.

Very cold today. I think about you naked nearly all the time.

Raining. Come home soon.  

He thinks about telling Neil this when they see each other next. He knows Neil will laugh at him. He wants Neil to laugh at him.

Instead they hardly talk at all; they just fuck right there in the hallway of the protagonist’s rented Chicago apartment. This time, Neil is the one to take charge, pushing the protagonist’s back up against the wall and falling down to his knees in front of him. When the protagonist comes, his head knocks back so hard he sees stars, gasping for breath, his hands caught up in Neil’s hair. When the haze clears he feels a pang of guilt, thinking he’s pulled too tightly but Neil’s face is desperate when he looks up and the moment the protagonist pulls him up and touches him, Neil comes with a full body shudder, burying his face in the protagonist’s shoulder.

It’s not until later, when they finally make it to the protagonist’s bedroom, that they take off a single piece of clothing.

“How was the mission?” the protagonist asks later when they’re in the shower. He says it softly into the slick curve of Neil’s neck and the words are almost drowned out by the sound of the water.

“Boring,” Neil says and then, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world to admit; “I missed you.”

The protagonist smiles against damp skin. “You didn’t get into any trouble?”

“How could I? You weren’t there.”

Neil’s joking but the words stick with the protagonist long after Chicago is just a fond memory.

The thing is, it’s difficult, this thing they have. There are so many things he wants to tell Neil, in the same way that there was so much to ask him when they first met. The weight of truth between them will never fully balance.

Sometimes he wants to tell Neil that the protagonist will get him into trouble one day, the worst kind, the kind there’s no way back from. More than that, he wants to tell Neil about the nightmares.

They’re always the same.

The protagonist will be standing by the gate, his fingers rattling at the bars. He never gets in. This part of the dream never changes. What changes is the body lying on the floor. Sometimes it will be the first man that the protagonist ever killed. Sometimes it will be Kat, her eyes wide open and accusing. The worst nights are when it’s just Neil. Sometimes he’s dressed in that same linen suit he had been wearing the first time they met. Most of the time though, the dreams play out exactly as the protagonist’s memories.

These dreams start not long after they start sleeping together and while the protagonist may not be a psychiatrist, but he knows what a guilty conscience looks like.

It doesn’t stop him wanting Neil any less though. It doesn’t stop him fucking Neil in every hotel room he can. It doesn’t stop him worrying about Neil when they’re apart or picking him up postcards from Seville, Johannesburg, Indianapolis.

It’s too risky to send them when they’re both on a mission and he always leaves them blank but still, the protagonist knows they’re a risky indulgence.

The first was a bad kind of joke; Wish You Were Here! emblazoned over a photograph of the world’s largest ball of twine. The protagonist had picked it up on a whim in Cawker City, Kansas but when he handed it over, Neil had looked so genuinely touched it had become an odd kind of tradition.

What did you bring me this time? Neil would ask, and the protagonist would pull out a glossy square of a Dutch tulip field, a Scottish castle, Mount Fuji at sunset.

What Neil did with them, the protagonist didn’t know, but he always smiled and tucked them away with a careful kind of reverence.

“Do you have a shoebox somewhere full of these?” the protagonist once teased.

“No,” Neil had said. “A coffee tin.”

 


 

It’s good for a while and then all at once, they fall out of synch. It happens so quickly that the protagonist almost doesn’t realize they’ve misplaced each other in the timeline.

They meet in Central Park one day in autumn. The leaves have only just started to collect on the ground but it’s cold, the first really cold day of the season, and the protagonist is bundled up against it in gloves and a thick woollen peacoat.  

He finds Neil stamping his feet under a tree, hands shoved deep in his thin jacket, a flush over his nose and cheeks. Neil hasn’t seen him yet, or at least he’s pretending he hasn’t, and the protagonist takes a moment just to watch him appreciatively.  “Where’s your scarf?”

Neil turns, smiling, but there’s something puzzled about it, like there’s something not adding up.

“I don’t have one,” he says, and for a moment the protagonist feels his smiles freeze on his face.

He recovers quickly, shaking his head and forcing a laugh. “Well, don’t come crying to me when you get frostbite.”

After that they walk for a while and talk about neutral subjects: the upcoming job, the weather. The protagonist smiles and keeps up a calm front but all the time his mind is racing, thinking, which Neil is this? The Neil I slept with last week? A Neil from a year ago? The difference was important; just ten months ago they were strictly platonic.  

His only clue was the scarf; last time they met he had tied it around Neil’s neck himself before they left the hotel room. It had been one of the protagonist’s own; a soft deep red. Neil had laughed at him for it. Even without this clue, the protagonist would have known. Now that he was closer, he could tell that this Neil was younger. He could tell it from the way Neil smiled at him, just that little bit uncertain.

The protagonist is still trying to work it out when Neil stops suddenly in his tracks and interrupts him mid-sentence.  “We’re out of step, aren’t we?”

Very carefully, the protagonist nods. “I think so.”

Neil looks over and for a moment they watch each other in silence.

“Will you come and see me tonight?” Neil asks at last. “And we can catch up?”

“Is that something I’ve done before?” the protagonist asks, choosing his words carefully.

When Neil nods, the protagonist feels a sudden rush of relief and something that had been winding up in his chest all at once unspools.

“Alright,” he says. “I’ll see you at eight.”

“You don’t know the address,” Neil says softly.

The protagonist looks away, at the dead leaves and shakes his head.

“I know it,” he says.

He’s been there before, but if he’s guessed right, Neil won’t know that for another week at least.

Some things can be simple, Kat had said.

But most of the time, they weren’t.

 


 

When he shows up that night at the hotel Neil is waiting for him in the bar, at a quiet table in the back. He’s wearing a loose-necked white shirt and his face is still a little flushed even though it’s very warm in here, all polished oak surfaces and soft golden lighting. Maybe it’s from drinking; there’s an empty glass on the table by his hand. Dutch courage maybe althoiugh its strange to think that Neil could be still be nervous after all this time.

He’s beautiful either way.

The protagonist takes a seat next to him. “So.”

“So,” Neil echoes, not looking up from where he’s tracing the drops of condensation on the glass with a fingertip. “I’m guessing this is where things get confusing.”

“They were never simple,” the protagonist says. “But yeah- it’s not going to be so easy now. If we’re not…at the same place in time…then there are going to be complications. Things we can’t tell each other. We’re going to have to be more careful. If we want this to work.”

He’s watching Neil very intently but Neil’s eyes are fixed on the glass in his hands, his eyelashes brushing his cheek. He’s unreadable as ever and the protagonist wants with a sudden desperation to touch him, to make Neil look up, look back at him.

“The way I see it,” Neil says slowly, “there are two options here. The one you just described, where we watch everything we say and tiptoe around each other- that’s option one. Maybe we could use some of those code words you like so much.”

The protagonist smiles despite himself and opens his mouth to protest but then Neil looks up and his face is so serious that the protagonist stops himself.

“Option two,” Neil goes on. “Option two is more radical.”

“What’s option two?” the protagonist asks. He can hear the fondness in his own voice but he’s well past the point of trying to hide it.

“Option two: total honesty. We lay it all out on the table. I tell you everything that’s happened; you tell me everything that’s going to happen. No need to keep secrets. No more code words.”

Neil is still speaking softly, but his expression is so fierce that this time the protagonist is the one who has to look away, down at the melting ice in the glass between them.

“There are some things you might not want to know,” the protagonist says. He suddenly very badly wants a drink; he looks up for a waiter, avoiding Neil’s eyes.

Neil laughs, voice rough now at the edges. “When have I ever given a fuck about spoilers?”

The protagonist gives him a sidelong glance but at that point a waiter shimmies out of nowhere and asks for their order.

“He’ll have another vodka tonic,” the protagonist says. “And I’ll take a whiskey. Thank you.”

When the waiter is safely out of earshot, Neil stretches out his long legs just a little, just enough to nudge his knee slightly against the protagonist’s. “Not coke?”

“I’m not on the job,” the protagonist tells him and when they smile at each other, something changes almost imperceptibly. Maybe it’s the temperature; all at once the bar feels very warm compared to the chill outside. The protagonist is suddenly acutely aware of the empty space that hangs between their bodies. He can still feel the ghost of Neil’ knee against his; his stomach tightens at the thought.

Neil must feel it too because he swallows and leans closer into the table, his eyes getting just that tiniest bit darker.

“You know, I have a minibar in my room,” he suggests, almost but not quite innocently.

The protagonist laughs. “I just ordered drinks.”

“You want to stay here and finish them? I can be patient.”

Part of the protagonist wants to drag this out, to savor the thrill of anticipation for just a little longer (while he still can). A bigger part of him wants to get his teeth on Neil’s neck.

They leave money on the table and head for the elevators. It may be too much money, even with the tip included, but the protagonist can’t concentrate too closely on that. All he can think about is getting upstairs, getting Neil alone and then-

He forces himself not to think about it on the ride up, to avoid odd looks from their fellow passengers but he’s acutely aware of Neil standing next to him, looking cool and collected, hands in his pockets and smiling faintly to himself. It’s a crowded elevator and halfway to their floor, more people come in; they are briefly pushed together in the crush. The protagonist risks one glance up at Neil’s face and regrets it. Neil is looking down at him with something close to hunger, eyes lidded. The protagonist glances down just for a second at Neil’s mouth; after that the protagonist has to look away and watch the changing floor numbers.

Pressed shoulder to shoulder, there are layers and layers of fabric between them, but when the protagonist breaths in, he can smell the subtle edge of Neil’s cologne. Neil must smell him too, this close, and this thought fixes in the protagonist’s head even after the lift stops and they get out.

They walk slowly down the corridor, side by side but carefully apart. Standing by the door, the protagonist risks one touch. Just a hand on Neil’s arm, barely any pressure, but still Neil fumbles the card and swears under his breath.

“I thought you were good at opening doors?” the protagonist says lightly; the glare Neil shoots him is undercut with a kind of desperation that’s almost needy.

Inside the protagonist barely manages to get the door closed before Neil is on him, pressing him back against the wall, his hands sliding under the layers of the protagonist’s coat, getting at the buttons underneath.

“Take these off,” Neil mutters. “God, do you really need all these layers-“

“It’s cold outside, “the protagonist says but he’s not sure if it comes out as anything intelligible, he’s too busy trying to take off Neil’s clothes and pull him closer at the same time.

“Wait,” Neil says, “Let’s do this properly.”

“Properly?”

“On a bed at least.”

The protagonist draws back and gives Neil a look. “When did you get so picky?”

Neil laughs but he looks distracted, impatient, pulling the protagonist to the bed and stripping him so efficiently it feels like a timer somewhere is running out.  

At first the protagonist goes along with it, feeling flushed with eagerness, caught up in the same mad urgency but when they’re finally in bed he moves to kiss Neil and Neil pulls away, scrabbling in the bedside table for what looks like lube.

“Slow down for a moment,” the protagonist says. “We have all night. What’s the rush?”

Neil fidgets against the blankets, shooting the protagonist a cagey look from under his eyelashes. “I just…I just want you to fuck me. Please.”

The protagonist takes the lube bottle and turns it over in his hands. “Feeling impatient?”

“I’ve been waiting all day,” Neil says and something about the way he says it sounds like it’s been much longer than that. The protagonist frowns.

Neil sees it and laughs, coming closer to kiss the protagonist swiftly on the underside of his chin. His voice turns soft, persuasive. “It won’t take much of that stuff. I prepared for you earlier.”

“You prepared?” the protagonist asks, swallowing. He thinks of Neil in this bed earlier, hand moving between his thighs, staring up at the ceiling. “Did you touch yourself too?”

“No,” Neil says. “I was waiting for you.”

“Good,” the protagonist says roughly. “Lie back.”

Neil does so, eyes shut tight, waiting, limbs twitching slightly in impatience or maybe anticipation. The protagonist takes his time smoothing his hands down Neil’s body, teasing until Neil starts to look on the edge of genuine distress.

“Ready” the protagonist asks at last, so soft it’s not more than a whisper. Neil shuts his eyes and nods tightly.

“Do it,” he grits out.

The protagonist laughs and slips a finger inside him; Neil’s eyes fly open indignantly.

“I told you I was prepared.”

“I know,” the protagonist says. “I can feel it. Be patient.”

Neil makes a frustrated noise but lies back, lets the protagonist open him up with an aching slowness and care. The wet slide of it is so good that for a while the protagonist loses himself in it; he loves Neil like this, so responsive and willing. It’s the only time that the protagonist can really read him; he takes a deep burning satisfaction in the way Neil tries to bite back the noises.

Part of him thinks he might like to keep Neil like this all night, strung out and begging for it. A dark part of the protagonist wants to see how far he could push him before he breaks. But as always, a more instinctual desire wins out; he wants so badly to make Neil happy. And at this point, the protagonist won’t last very long either.

“If you don’t fuck me sometime soon, I’m going to go out and find someone who will,” Neil threatens at one point. His voice is strangled but it doesn’t hold much conviction; it could never be anyone else, and even through the haze of want the protagonist feels a sudden, almost painful surge of love. It's not unusual for him to feel this way during sex with Neil. It's easier somehow to think when they're like this. Sex makes everything so simple; he wants Neil and he loves him and after a lifetime of shadows it feels so fucking good to have one thing be easy. 

Nonetheless, the protagonist takes that as his cue. He gets to his knees on the bed, moving Neil’s legs into position and kissing at the soft spot on his ankle.

“Tell me if I’m going too fast,” he whispers in Neil’s ear as he eases in, laughing when Neil tries to bite him in response.

He’s joking but at this point he’s so keyed up, he does have to hold himself back for a moment when he first bottoms out, closing his eyes and taking a shaky breath. When he opens them Neil is looking up at him with an expression that’s almost distraught.

“What is it,” the protagonist asks. “You okay?”

“Yeah, just...” Neil says, “God, you’re lovely.”

The protagonist doesn’t know what to say to that. He can barely look at Neil in that moment, so instead he fucks him.

The protagonist means to take it slow, make it last and for a while he succeeds, moving in long deliberate strokes. It’s not long before that begins to fall apart though he can’t help himself; the rhyme falling apart and the bed starting to shake with the force of it.

Neil is saying something and the protagonist wants to listen, he doesn’t want to miss anything but the words are barely more than nonsense; cursing and begging and, this is so good, it’s always so good, and then it just becomes the protagonist’s name, his real name, the one hardly anyone alive still know him by.

Neil comes abruptly, without warning, crying out into his hand and only a little later, the protagonist follows him. 


 

It takes a long time for the protagonist to be able to move enough to get a wet towel from the bathroom. When he comes back, Neil pulls him back down into his arms and for a long time they lie there together not talking, the sweat cooling on their skin.

Eventually they’re going to have to continue the conversation from the bar, the protagonist knows. There’s no use in putting it off.

But still he keeps his mouth shut, closing his eyes and tightening his arms just a little to bring Neil closer. Lying like this wrapped up in each other, he doesn’t want to moment to end. When they talked about it something would change, the protagonist knew.

And maybe that was inevitable, but not just yet.

It’s Neil who speaks first; when he clears his throat, the protagonist feels himself tensing.

“What can you tell me then,” Neil asks. “That’s spoiler-free?”

The protagonist hesitates, trying to think of words, phrases, any way around it. In the end he decides to just be honest.

“You and me,” he begins haltingly. “We’re on the same path. But going different directions. The place I’ve come from…”

“You already know how it ends.”

The protagonist nods and pulls Neil a little closer. He feels the vibration in Neil’s chest when he hums thoughtfully.

 “So, you’re saying we’re like ships passing in the night?”

“No,” the protagonist says, more strongly than he intended. “No, it’s…You’re more important than that.”

“To the fate of the world?”

“To me,” the protagonist says simply.

Neil blinks, for once caught off guard, and the protagonist takes advantage of the rare occasion to lean over and kiss him. Neil is strangely still for a moment and then he’s kissing back, soft and almost uncertain. It’s a kiss that feels like it means something, the protagonist thinks, and the thought doesn’t scare him like it should.

“One day,” Neil says, pulling back just enough that they are no longer kissing but not opening his eyes, “One day I’m going to ask you what happens. Will you tell me?”

“Yes,” the protagonist says. “Yes, if you ask me.”

“Tell me later then.”

“When?” the protagonist asks. “Tomorrow?”

“Maybe.” Neil is smiling now. “Or next week.”

The protagonist smiles back. To do anything else would be impossible. He knows what it means now when Neil looks at him like this. He doesn’t know why he never saw it before, it was there the whole time.

Neil trusts him.

Things might get messy after this. They’re both still bound for different places. But right now, somewhere in the middle between the beginning and the ending, there’s a little space that they can carve out for themselves. Where they can lie here like this and talk queitly about things that aren't about the end of the world. Where they both know the drink order.

It won’t last forever, but what does?

“Can I stay tonight?” the protagonist asks.

Neil looks pleased but a little surprised. “That won’t make things complicated? We’re still out of step.”

The protagonist shakes his head and rolls over so that Neil is under him, looking up with that same same serious expression.

“There’s no rush,” the protagonist says. “We have time.”