(Sometimes, when they put him in the ice, he dreamt. Dreamt of a smiling man with kind brown eyes and dense, dark curly hair.)
“Ordensmann,” they told him, “This is your handler for your next mission.”
(He hated German. Hated the way everyone barked the harsh, staccato syllables at him. It was ugly: the sounds, the words, the meanings. He had a notion that language was meant to be beautiful, both in the ear and in the mind. He didn’t know where that idea could have come from. Certainly not here. There must have been a time Before.)
The handler was a new man. While he didn’t have the usual glint of sadism in his eyes- indeed, the handler looked more sad than anything- he hated the man at first sight. The force of the emotion hit him viscerally like little did these days.
(He didn’t wonder why. It was safer to just accept everything, simply acknowledge whatever he was faced with and follow orders and not think. They didn’t like it when he thought.)
The new handler had sad eyes and blond hair and the same competent motions when he took the remote. Ordensmann’s leash. The button that put lightning directly into his brain.
Ordensmann did what the new handler, the sad one that he hated for some unknown reason in a different way than he despised all the other handlers who had used him over the years, directed him to. Dressed like a civilian, took the components of his rifle that had been hidden inside a different container, and followed him into a car. The new handler drove for hours, silently, seemingly on edge with his passenger.
(He rarely ever spoke, now. They had taught him to be silent, only to verbally respond to orders when directed. Give mission reports rapidly and succinctly in their ugly machine-gun tongue.)
Closing in on their destination, the handler made a call to ensure the base of operations was prepared. He spoke in English, which felt like a reprieve to his ears but still far from pleasing.
(Though what was ever “pleasing” to him? He had a vague sense that there used to be nicer things in life, a very long time ago. Things from Before he only got vague glimpses of when he was frozen. Like the brown man in his dreams.)
The staging point at the base of operations was a warehouse. There was only one person waiting there: a dark-skinned woman.
(He often forgot that there were women. He often saw dark-skinned men through his rifle scope, though. The handlers thought that the color of a person’s skin made them lesser. He knew, though, that skin was meaningless: the rot that made a person evil and and lesser could only be found in the red-gray-white matter inside of a person’s head. If he didn’t have a handler, he would loose a bullet into every one of the heads of the handlers and trainers who had used him over the years. Every single one deserved to have their brains and skulls exploded from the force let loose by the tension of his finger on the trigger.)
(Even, he suspected, this new sad-faced handler. The one who made his stomach clench tight with rage of an unknown origin.)
“Knie nieder,” the handler ordered. He complied and settled on his knees on the bare concrete floor.
“I have the words,” the woman said, unfolding a piece of paper she pulled from a pocket. “Should I read them?”
The blond handler shook his head. “I should.” He clenched his jaw. “It’s my responsibility.”
“No shit,” the woman said, with venom. Clearly, she didn’t like the handler either.
The handler took the paper and smoothed it out. “Merde,” he said quietly as he read over whatever was on it. He shook out his shoulders and then straightened his stance.
“Cristo,” he began, the word rolling off his tongue. “Sangue. Millenovantanove.”
(The syllables were lovely. The words were sharp. Each one familiar and painful. At the close of every word agony and meaning blossomed inside of his head like flowers made of razor blades. Images of Before, the Before for him that he rarely even could sense existed, until it was all brought back in a rush of memories that seemed to come from some hidden place inside of him. A deep wound that had scarred over tightly and was now explosively bursting like an aneurysm.)
“Scythia. Spada. Frère. Drowning. Betrayal. Jerusalem.”
Each word was like a stone thrown at him and the accumulation of it all weighed him down as if he was being buried by boulders. Memories whirled in his mind and he was caught up in a blizzard of agonizing emotions without any mental barriers to buffer the pain and confusion. Pictures flashed in his head, places and people with startling clarity, everything flaying him until he was just a pulp of loss and abandonment and devastation inside of an always-healing skin that wouldn’t ever stay cut to release the pressure inside.
Except… there was warmth. Hands, gentle, cupping his face and lifting his head from its slump. Warm skin, warmer brown eyes. The woman. “Nicolò,” she said. “We are going to free you. One shot to the head, one quick death, and we will get the computer chip from your head, okay?”
The English took a few moments for him to process; her American accent was something he needed to parse. He nodded. “Si. Yes. Do it,” and closed his eyes. Maybe she was being truthful or maybe it would be a final death, the real one. Maybe this was another mind game inflicted by them. He didn’t care; he was exposed and over-sensitive, a raw nerve, and he just wanted it to end.
It was not his final end. Nicolò woke, still on the warehouse floor, on his back and wet with his own blood. The woman knelt next to him and examined a piece of plastic and metal she held in her fingers. “…Seriously fucked up,” she said before she noticed his blinking. “Ah, hey, Andy?”
Andrea. Just the fact that she was there was a balm! She dropped to her knees and squeezed his shoulder. “Buongiorno. Happy to have you back. Sorry it took so long to get to you.”
Nicolò remembered. Her hair was short, but the air around her felt the same. Her eyes remained serious even as she spoke with an edge of blackly humorous understatement, her face familiar and loved and beautiful. She helped him sit. He touched his head, his hair was bloody and his skull and scalp still knitting together.
The first noise he made was rusty, didn’t resemble a word. He closed his lips and tried to wet his mouth so he could try again. “Yusuf?”
Andrea’s eyes directed his own to a closed door. “Said that he’s giving you privacy to pull yourself together, but he’s really just scared that you won’t remember him.”
He clutched at her hand. “They couldn’t make me forget any of you.” They had tried; ended up locking all of his memories- all of himself- behind hypnotic triggers. While under their control he had just been an obedient automaton. …After the torture and deprivation that had reduced him, first, to an abused and cowering animal.
Nicolò smiled thinly at the unfamiliar young woman then twisted to see Sebastien. He was busying himself with bullshit: absorbed with dismantling the remote into pieces as if he would find something more than radio signals to trigger the shock from the extracted chip that had been implanted in Nicolò’s brain.
“Want to stab him?” Andrea asked.
With his returned clarity of mind, Sebastien’s betrayal lanced anew through Nicolò’s heart and chest. He shook his head. “No more violence. Not for a while?”
“We didn’t buy his story,” Andrea said. “We kept interrogating him until he told the truth. Explained what he did and why he handed you to them.”
“I think he’s sorry,” the American added quietly.
Nicolò didn’t have any desire to deal with Sebastien now. Both women helped him up to his feet. He felt like a newborn colt. “Are you a new one?” He said to the unfamiliar black woman.
She looked so painfully young. Nicolò didn’t know how long he had been prisoner; whether he had even been frozen for the last time before or after she had been born. “Thank you,” he said, though she probably deserved more than that for getting involved with this recovery mission.
…The shared dreams. Poveretta. He hoped that she didn’t get glimpses of anything too horrible.
He blinked and shook his head. Now was not the time to deal with that. Nicolò wanted Yusuf.
Anxiety tightened his throat. Would Yusuf want him?
Nicolò shoved that question aside. He needed to see Yusuf; that question would be answered in only a moment. His life had become a series of steps, a deathly dance as he looked no further than the next order. Looking toward the future had been useless. Now that he had a future again, it still didn’t matter past the next step. And that next step was to see Yusuf’s face after… an unknown number of years. Nicolò could remember their first ride on a zeppelin as if it were yesterday. One of the last memories he has of just the two of them before his last mission with Sebastien where the man he had thought of as a brother had sold him out. Nicolò didn’t know why and didn’t care to know right then.
Now, automobiles were slick and quiet. There were aeroplanes and people could travel across the world in days. Hundreds of years must have passed, and he felt more out of time than ever.
Nicoló walked toward the door that hid Yusuf. Watched his hand reach for the knob, felt the metal on his skin and paused, just to remind himself that is was his own will impelling his movements— though the drive to see Yusuf felt as unarguable as the commands he was used to being unable to resist. He twisted the knob and pushed it open.
Yusuf was there, standing awkwardly with his hand in his hair, frozen from where he had been pacing and muttering anxiously to himself. His posture still so familiar to Nicolò that he could instantly intuit his lover’s nervous tics.
He looked at Nicolò like he was a lost relic; some fragile, holy thing that might crumble into dust at the merest gust of breath.
“Breathe, hayati,” Nicolò said. It didn’t sound like the light tease that he had intended the statement to be; instead it was wrung from his throat with intense pressure, fell from his lips as a sodden, heavy weight.
It took a moment for Yusuf to either register the order or for his body to resume the process of living on its own accord, but his breath heaved audibly in the otherwise silent space. He looked gutted, his gaze and facial expression betraying how he had been emotionally balanced on a pinnacle between fear and hope. Nicolò wanted to rescue him, cradle his heart as he brought it safely back home.
“Ti amo,” Nicolò blurted. “Ana bahebak,” he added, just to make it clear.
“Nicolò,” Yusuf croaked out, looking and sounding shattered instead of whole. But he stumbled toward Nicolò in a rush, so Nicolò interpreted their reunion as a burgeoning success.
They met in a tender clash of touches and kisses and murmurs. The familiar smell of him, the sensations of his skin and hair— it all felt like gentle rain returning to the parched soil of Nicolò’s soul. He embraced Yusuf, pressed his lips against his neck and face, spreading their tears but not caring. This was joy, rebuilt on a foundation of loss that made it much more profound and euphoric.
“I missed you,” Yusuf said once the tsunami of incoherent sentiment had receded. “God, I missed you. Every minute.”
“I don’t even know how long it’s been,” Nicolò confessed, wiping his cheek against Yusuf’s shoulder. “How many centuries.”
Yusuf’s hand cradled the back of his head, holding it in place for another kiss to his brow like Nicolò was at risk of being torn away again at any second. “Less than one, hayati. You think it would take so long for us to find you? Andy and I would have torn the world apart!”
Instead, Nicolò thought, they had probably only torn Sebastien apart. He didn’t dwell on that image. Retribution— revenge— was something for later. Now was the time for reunion.