Curt spent the aftermath staring at the corpse of his partner. His former partner. His former…Curt shouldn’t cry. Couldn’t cry. What had Owen told him, before the gun in Curt’s hand had taken the hardest shot Curt had taken in his life? Move on.
He should honor Owen’s last wish, at least.
The communication device in his wrist crackled to life with Barb’s shrill chirping punctuated by Tatiana’s heavy timbre. Curt wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy trying to not look at Owen’s face. Curt wished he had gotten a better look at Owen before he pulled the trigger, wished he had given himself a moment to commit that face to memory before it became forever marred by all of Curt’s mistakes.
Move on. What a joke. Curt was a joke. He couldn’t even fulfill Owen’s last wish.
Tomorrow, he told himself, he’ll try to move on tomorrow. He’ll allow himself to be a failure today. He’d already failed so much, what was one more strike in his books?
Exhaustion washed over him like a bucket of interrogation water. Curt’s eyes wandered over to Owen’s still body. So quiet. So beautiful. If Curt closed his eyes, he could pretend like Owen was just sleeping beside him, like they were on one of their missions and Owen was resting while Curt kept watch. He slumped against the grimy wall with a shudder. He should bury Owen. He needed to bury Owen. This was a stupid idea, taking a fucking nap in the middle of a hostile country, even if the building seemed to have been abandoned.
One minute. He’ll give himself a minute.
Curt maneuvered his head into Owen’s lap and wordlessly closed his eyes. If he tried hard enough, he could pretend like this was four years ago and Owen was indulging one of his tantrums in the middle of a mission. A quick nap to cool off. The bulletwound in his side and the ache in his jaw burned. He squeezed his eyes tighter.
The darkness took him.
He woke up to the harsh white light of an interrogation room, hands bound. The first thing that crossed his mind was that he had failed again. He had allowed himself to stew in his mistakes and had ended up in a giant heap of trouble for it. Curt vaguely wondered who captured him, whether they had the decency to bury Owen. He hoped they did. God, he hoped they did, or Curt would never be able to forgive himse–
“Well, well, well. He lives.”
Curt froze. That voice.
Its owner turned and faced him. Curt felt his breath lodge itself in his throat. Standing before him was Owen, whole and unbroken, with the slightest fond twinkle in his eye and that hideous mustache plastered to his face.
He’d been here before.
He experienced it once, and dreamed of it over and over again for four years. The rope digging into his skin never felt as real as this before, but Curt knew how this went. How this ended.
“You don’t have anything to say to me, Mr. Mega?”
“That’s Agent Mega to you,” Curt replied. That’s what he said the first time, exactly on script. Owen smirked at him, alive and beautiful and God, Curt wanted to wake up.
Like a practiced actor (how many times had he relived this day in his head?), Curt went through his lines, acted out his stage directions, following each step like a mechanical marionette. He knew how this was going to end. Whatever depraved trick his mind was playing on him, Curt hoped it would stop quickly. Set the charges, check. Shoot the guards, check. He even ate the stupid banana and threw the stupid peel on the stupid spot where the biggest regret of his life was going to happen. Usually, when he dreamed about this day, he would feel a sense of disconnect, like he was a ghost in his own head, watching the events unfold before him like a helpless spectator and unable to change the predetermined tragedy. But this was different. Everything felt so real. Too real. Like if he strayed off script, he would be around to witness the effects instead of being slammed to reality when he awoke.
When Owen slipped on that fucking banana peel and went tumbling into the abyss, Curt waited for the dream to end.
He didn’t wake up.
“Owen!” Curt screamed, launching himself down the steps as the first charges went off. But his own hubris caught up to him as his foot snagged on that stupid fucking banana peel and he felt himself fall, fall, fall.
Oh. That was what Owen must have felt like. Curt hated himself a little more.
“Well, well, well. He lives.”
“You don’t have anything to say to me, Mr. Mega?”
Curt squeezed his eyes shut. It’s alright. This was all a bad dream. All he had to do was follow the script and then he’d be released to wallow in his misery in the real world. Retrace his steps and wait for the regret to set in. Curt could do this. He could do this. This wasn’t real.
They found themselves at the top of the stairs again, and Curt had done everything that he was supposed to do. He watched with a surreal detachment as Owen once again tumbled from the stairs into the depths below. This was it. All Curt had to do now was turn around in his cowardice and then he’d wake up wallowing in his regret like before.
He turned around and rushed down the stairs.
“I’ve got you, Owen,” Curt muttered, “I’m gonna get you out of here.” God, the blood. There was so much blood. How did Owen survive? Curt didn’t want to think about who, or what, came to Owen’s rescue. It should have been Curt. This time, it would be Curt.
“Curt…shto…” Owen mumbled groggily. There was an ugly gash at the back of his head that Curt tried his best to avoid. He gingerly hoisted Owen up on his feet, making an effort to not disturb anything that was broken, ignoring the ugly way Owen’s left arm was twisted.
“I’ve got you, Owen. I’m gonna get us out of here.”
“Jst go…” Owen tried again, sputtering into a coughing fit punctuated by hisses of pain. Curt winced. Owen must have broken a few ribs.
“Shhh,” Curt shushed, trying his best to be reassuring. They clumsily moved up the first few steps, and God, they were moving so slow. Too slow. “We’ll be okay,” Curt muttered, less a promise and more a prayer. One step at a time. Nevermind the time bomb behind their backs, they could do this if Curt just focus on each heavy, trodding step.
The room exploded.
The last thing Curt remembered was his body uselessly trying to shield Owen from the explosion.
Curt opened his eyes to the same septic white interrogation light.
“Well, well, we–”
He didn’t stop screaming until his voice gave out into a hoarse sputter. Even then, he tried to keep going. His vision was blurry, eyes choked with tears. He sobbed and convulsed through the cracking of his voice. Curt wanted to wake up. Why wasn’t he waking up?
“Hush, love,” Owen cooed, voice slipping out of that terrible Russian accent, “It’s alright.” He had his arms wrapped around Curt, stroking gentle waves into his hair. Curt found his hands had been untied. He brought them up and wrapped them around Owen. Why did this nightmare have to feel so real? Everything felt so real, Owen felt so real, and Curt found himself breaking into another round of soundless sobbing.
“Did he do something to you?” Owen asked, his voice icing over in a way that was terror-inducingly familiar. Curt shot up and out from Owen’s grip. He tripped over something dense and body shaped on his scramble, and oh, oh, that made sense.
“Curt, love, talk to me,” Owen said gently.
This wasn’t real. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t real and Curt needed to wake the fuck up.
“You’re scaring me,” Owen said. His voice was cracking and Curt shouldn’t, couldn’t do that to him.
Curt’s eyes darted around the room. He needed to wake up. There, on the table strewn with torture instruments, a set of electric wires. He sprinted over and grabbed the charges. Yeah, this would work. This had to work. A strong enough shock to bring him back to reality, to close the curtains on this nightmare.
“Curt, what are you doing?” Owen asked, his voice rising in volume. Curt could hear him approaching Curt like he was a wounded animal and Owen had to be careful he would lash out. Curt turned the dial up on the machine.
Curt opened his mouth and stuck the ends of the electrodes inside.
Curt opened his eyes. The same sterile ceiling stared down back at him. No. Not again. Why wasn’t he waking up?
“Well, well, well. He…” Owen’s accented voice trailed off. Then there was a smack and a grunt and Owen was bringing a thumb up to Curt’s face, all pretense of discretion disappearing. “Curt, love, are you alright?” He was wiping at Curt’s wet cheek. Huh. Curt couldn’t remember how his cheeks became wet.
“Curt, talk to me, please,” Owen begged, and there was a glow of concerned fondness in his eyes that Curt hadn’t seen in so long, that Curt hadn’t even known he had missed.
Curt was dead. He had followed after Owen and this was his personal punishment. It had to be. Only Hell could be so cruel.
“We have to get out of here,” Curt said instead. If whatever audience was stringing him along wasn’t happy with how he was playing the scene, then Curt would just have to go off script completely.
Owen raised an eyebrow, “What about the blueprints?”
“Fuck the blueprints,” Curt snarled, grabbing Owen’s hand and pulling him towards the door. If this was Hell, then Curt was not going to play along anymore. “We’re getting out of here.”
“Okay…” Owen said slowly, looking at Curt like he’d grown a second head, “Do you mind telling me what’s going on here, Curt?”
“Please.” Curt begged. He didn’t mean for it to sound so pathetic, but his voice sputtered and cracked on the tail end of the word anyways, and he found himself choking back his tears. It must have worked, somehow, because Owen had clammed his mouth shut, grabbed Curt’s hand, and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
They snuck through the hallways, Curt steering Owen away from the back entrance where those blasted stairs were located. They banked left into a long hallway, a staircase leading up into the next floor and down into a storage unit of some kind. Curt paused and listened. There was shouting from behind them and footsteps from the hallway ahead of them.
He made a decision. “We’re going down.”
Owen nodded gravely behind him. They scurried down the staircase, finding themselves face to face with a dead end and a single, unassuming door. The shouting above them grew louder.
“In there, love,” Owen whispered, and Curt followed.
They found themselves in what seemed like a defunct boiler room. The trappings were all there, a knot of pipes tangled across each other, punctuated by aluminum covers and red valves, the statement piece boiler in the center caked over in cobwebs. Curt slumped against the nearest wall, allowing himself a moment to catch his breath. Owen pressed his ear against the door.
“All clear, I think,” Owen said. Curt felt himself exhale with relief. He reached for the doorknob, feeling something like hope soar in his chest for the first time in a long time.
The door was locked.
“I’m sorry,” Curt whispered, feeling his raspy, swollen throat clamp down on his words. He tried pulling Owen closer, but couldn’t muster up the strength to do so.
“Don’t…” Owen mumbled. Curt didn’t know how long they’d been in this room. No one else had entered. Even if the only people who could come would gladly put a bullet between their eyes, that would be a mercy compared to this. The communication watch on his wrist, useless under so many layers of lead and concrete, was terrifyingly loose.
“It’s…my fault,” Curt rasped.
“Shut up,” Owen replied weakly, “Hold me.”
When the end came, Curt didn’t know which one of them went first.
Curt woke up for a fifth time, met Owen’s gaze, and said coldly, “Cut the crap, Owen. Get me the fuck out of here.”
He saw both Owen and the underling that was stationed there (Olaf? Ollie? Orville?) freeze. Owen was quicker, of course, turning around and knocking the henchman out with a precise smack with his gun.
Owen swiveled around and glared at Curt, “What the hell, Mega?”
His tone sounded so painfully, horrifying familiar, cold and angry. Curt swore Owen had bent his vowels in the same way The Deadliest Man Alive did, tilted his sentences in the same way he had when he approached Curt with the pliers and chains. “I’m sorry,” Curt said, small and hollow and God, he fucked up again, didn’t he? Went too off script. Way too off script. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sor–”
“It’s alright, love,” Owen said softly. Curt could see a flicker of worry behind Owen’s eyes. Great, he was still a failure, but just in another way.
“Let’s just go,” Curt muttered. He ignored the way Owen would not stop looking at him like he was a science experiment that had gone wrong, and Owen needed to figure out a solution for before it exploded in his face.
He pulled Owen along, tracing their steps back to that same intersection. This time, they went up the stairs. The hallway continued endlessly, Curt praying and praying that there would be an exit of some kind, a window or a room or a ladder, something to carry them to salvation. The footsteps behind them grew louder and more numerous. They had to hurry.
They hit a dead end.
A concrete wall stared back at them, cold and daunting as it took the flicker of hope Curt dared to nurse in his heart and crushed it with its impenetrable concrete shell. Curt turned to face Owen. The footsteps grew louder. The apology died in his throat.
“I love you,” Owen whispered.
The last thing Curt felt was Owen’s body convulsing in a futile attempt to shield him from the rain of gunfire that descended on them. He didn’t know who was crying.
The sixth time Curt woke up, he simply told Owen that they needed to go.
One option left. They were going straight ahead, even though there had been voices bouncing off the walls of that hallway. Maybe Curt was imagining things. Maybe this was the answer.
They had barely made it thirty paces down the hall when they found themselves facing down the barrel of half a dozen guns. The crook leading the pack grinned at them, and Curt felt a shiver down his spine when he realized that he recognized the man.
“Thought you two could get away from me, huh?” the sniveling minion sneered, “Joke’s on you. I was dropped as baby. Head very hard.”
Owen glared, “Oleg.” Curt swiveled, trying to find a way to retrace their steps and flee, but another squadron of armed men came rushing into the hall. They were surrounded. They were fucked.
Curt had failed again.
“We only need one,” Oleg said to the other guards behind him.
Curt’s eyes went wide, “No.”
He heard Owen scream his name, felt a thousand sharp pin pricks of pain bloom across his body, then nothing.
Seventh loop. New script.
The moment Owen released him from his restraints, Curt picked up his gun and placed a bullet between Oleg’s eyes.
Owen stared at him, “Love, was that necessary?”
“Yes,” Curt replied, “C’mon, we’ve gotta go.” The hollow chill in his own voice terrified Curt.
They didn’t even make it to the intersection before they were surrounded. He felt his back press against Owen’s as they shot into the sea of gunmen. There was no end to them. Every one that fell, two more would replace them, and Curt was pretty sure he’d been hit at least a few dozen times. He couldn’t feel his right shoulder. His knees were threatening to give out.
His gun clicked. Curt cursed and threw it aside, reaching behind him for Owen to hand him another one. Owen was always prepared, always was someone Curt could depend on. Or he had been. He was now.
Curt felt empty air.
He turned to find Owen crumpled into a bloody heap. Still. Lifeless.
There goes his spine.
As Curt collapsed, tears tracking down his face, all he could mutter as he reached for Owen’s body was “Why?”
A Russian soldier slammed his foot on Curt’s hand. The pain felt like nothing, like another blast of wind in a howling hurricane. The man chuckled as the safety on his gun clicked off. “Guns are very loud, no?”
Curt squeezed his eyes shut.
Curt woke up an eighth time and sobbed.
Oleg was knocked out before Curt could even blink. Owen gathered Curt up in his arms, whispering soft, meaningless reassurances into his ears. Curt pried himself away from Owen.
“We…The charges. We’ve got to set the charges,” Curt muttered. It was his hubris for straying too far from the script, so now Curt figured he should try retracing his steps again. With some edits. There had to be an edit that he could make to change their fate, to get Owen out of this place in one piece. Maybe then, the nightmare would finally end.
“Just trust me, Owen,” Curt whispered.
Owen didn’t budge.
It tore Curt apart to see how much Owen, this Owen, still cared. How easy it was for Curt to break and for Owen to rush to his side, willing and eager to pick up the pieces. Curt had fucked this up badly, hadn’t he? Not now. Not again. He wouldn’t fail Owen again.
“Did you set the charges?” Owen asked after the final picture of those stupid blueprints have been snapped.
“Yep,” Curt answered, “Ten minutes.”
Owen raised an eyebrow, “Curt Mega? Careful? Do I have to worry that our enemies have replaced you with a poor imitation, love?”
“No,” Curt said, “Just…taking one out of your playbook.”
Owen hummed appreciatively, “There’s a good fellow.”
They raced through the building, working together in a dizzying, deadly dance. Curt had missed this so much. Another pang of regret stabbed at his heart, the knowledge that his cowardice had caused all of this to crumble apart. Not this time. This time Curt had been careful, going over the script with a careful pen and a finer eye. Small edits.
They found themselves back to back, grinning at each other as guards came at them from all sides. Curt waited for the charges to go off and distract the henchmen so he and Owen could go to town on the unwitting fools.
The charges didn’t go off.
Realization settled cold and heavy in the pit of Curt’s stomach. He had set the charges for ten minutes. They weren’t going to go off.
Curt’s heart dropped into a leadened freefall as the firing squad began their curtain call.
He couldn’t do this anymore.
Owen was staring at him with unbridled horror. Curt could only see Owen’s lifeless face staring back at him, riddled with bullet holes and fractures and Curt’s own blood, mistake on top of mistake etched across his unmarked face. Not for long. Not when Curt was here to fuck everything up again. The henchman that shared the room with them had been dispatched ages ago.
It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
“Curt,” Owen whispered, and Curt could hear the fear creeping into his voice, “Love, what’s wrong?”
Everything. Everything was wrong.
Curt opened his mouth to try and reassure Owen. His voice choked on the sob wracking his entire body. Everything was so watery. His cheeks were wet. There was nothing he could do.
“Oh, Curt,” Owen mumbled, scooping Curt up in his arms. “Come on, love, we need to move, before–”
“Hold me,” Curt rasped out.
There was nothing he could do. This was Hell and this was forever and Curt was so, so tired. All he could manage was to cling on to Owen like his life depended on it, like it was the last thing he was capable of. He clung to Owen like if he held on tight enough, he would wake up and everything could be okay. He clung to Owen like Owen was the only thing in the world that was real.
He clung to Owen as the guards stormed the room and gunned them down.
Curt did the same thing the next time he woke up.
And the next.
And the next.
He wasn’t waking up. Every time he died, he could hear Owen crying his name.
Curt woke up for the thirteenth time hating himself more than he had ever hated anything in his life. He had this new script memorized, now. Owen would knock out Oleg, untie him, and they would spend the next five to ten minutes in each other’s arms until the guards came running to put an end to their miserable little lives.
Curt just wanted this to end.
“Curt, love?” Owen said, his voice sounding a thousand leagues away, under an ocean of water, circles above Curt’s head. “Curt?”
His legs took him where he needed to. The gun was exactly where Curt expected Oleg to keep it. Predictable. He could almost laugh.
“What are you doing?”
Maybe he wasn’t supposed to wake up. Maybe he was supposed to end it himself. Curt heard the click of the safety being released. Point blank. Target not moving. He could do this in his sleep.
“Curt, put the gun down!”
The fourteenth time Curt woke up, he swallowed the sob threatening to burst out from him.
“Well, well, well. He lives.”
This Owen was wearing that shit eating smirk and that crappy mustache and that ridiculous accent that Curt had always found an excuse to make fun of. The Owen behind Curt’s eyes was wearing an expression of horror that Curt knew he could never forget. And it had been his fault.
“You don’t have anything to say to me, Mr. Mega?”
Curt said nothing. No smart quip to be had when all he wanted to do was throw up.
“Do you think he’ll talk if we tortured him a little, Oleg?” Owen said, a bravado in his tone that was a code that only Curt could decipher. An unwarranted trust.
Curt decided then and there that he couldn’t fail Owen again.
He willed himself into his trademark cocky grin and began the script anew, going through the motions like he should have the first time. Knock out Oleg, check. Set the charges for three minutes, check. Gun down the hoards of incompetently competent guards as they’re distracted, check. He even pulled out the damned banana that his mom had packed for him and ate it, check that too.
This time, however, Curt threw the peel away like he was supposed to. Owen chuckled at him, “What, are you concerned about the aesthetic value of a soon to be inferno?”
“Yes,” Curt quipped back, feeling a little bit like the Curt from before again, “I thought you knew I was an environmentalist.”
The plans were photographed, the end drew near, and Curt thought for the first time that they could make it out of this damned concrete prison in one piece. He led the way, bounding up the stairs two at a time as Owen laughed loud and clear behind him. The sound rang honeyed and sweet through the distant explosions. Curt couldn’t help but join in. He was allowed to do this now. He was allowed to enjoy himself. To forgive himself.
The stairs gave out under him. For the second time, Curt felt himself go into a free fall. He had just enough time to laugh at his own foolishness before the crash knocked the wind out of his wrecked body.
Curt squeezed his eyes shut. His breath was weakening, it wouldn’t be long now before he found himself back in that room again. He wanted to cry. He heard footsteps rush down the stairs through his pain addled fog, footsteps Curt could recognize even a thousand years from now. Owen was coming down the stairs. Owen was coming back for him.
He felt arms around his torso, lifting him up and over a pair of achingly familiar shoulders. Pain shot through his ribs, his legs, his awkwardly bent right shoulder and throbbing head. Curt whimpered.
“I’ve got you, love,” Owen said gently.
“Gggh…” Curt tried. His lungs were caught in one of his bent ribs, his vocal chords struggling to find purchase. But he tried. He tried. Go. Leave me. Please. Please.
“One step at a time, old boy,” Owen said, guiding him towards the stairs.
They weren’t going to make it.
“Gg–umph,” Curt started, cut off by his own struggling body as pain shot up his right leg. His ankle. Busted. Guilt weighed on his chest. Owen would have come back. Curt did not, but Owen did. Curt didn’t deserve Owen. The tears flowed. He commanded his body to push Owen away, to tell Owen to escape and just leave Curt to rot.
“Easy, love, I’ve got you,” Owen said, “We’ll make it, you’ll see.” What a pretty lie.
They didn’t make it.
Curt felt himself shaking the next time he woke up, a full body shudder as a thousand phantom pains realized he was no longer in any danger. Yet. They had been so close. One simple change. It wasn’t like Curt hasn’t done this before, going through the same motions but doing something different in hope of a better outcome. It had to work eventually. It just had to. Or he’d go crazy from the compounding pain or the mounting guilt, or both.
“Curt, love, what’s wrong?”
Oh. He hadn’t stopped shaking.
“Nothing,” Curt gritted out, willing himself to get a fucking grip, “C’mon, we need to get out of here.”
They followed the script. Curt made the necessary changes, skipping over the rusting step, motioned for Owen to do the same. They made it out the door. For the first time in fifteen loops, Curt remembered what fresh air tasted like. A sob threatened to burst out of his throat. Curt swallowed it down. He laughed instead.
“We did it!” Curt exclaimed, reveling in the way his voice echoed in the cold Russian night. Owen was confusedly grinning beside him, playfully shoving Curt around like it was their first few missions and they could only let themselves touch each other through this careful context.
“That we did, love, now let’s–”
A gunshot chased the ghost of Curt’s laughter, slicing through the blossom of hope that Curt had dared to foster in his chest. Curt watched as Owen fell, a constellation of blood blooming where his heart had been beating just a happy, ignorant second ago. A set of guards rounded on them. Their pistols were already reloaded before Owen had even hit the snow.
Curt screamed. He screamed until a bullet was placed between his eyes, and then screamed some more.
Curt woke up screaming. Again.
When his senses returned through his hoarse-throated haze, Curt could feel strong, warm arms surrounding him. He should feel safe. They didn’t have enough time for Curt to feel safe.
“What’s wrong, love?” How many times had Owen asked him that? Everything. Everything was wrong, Owen.
“Let’s move,” Curt scraped out instead.
Set the charges, snap the picture, throw away the peel, skip the step. The next change was to take out the guards. Curt led, as he always did, this time with the clarity of fifteen failures behind him, quietly motioning to Owen to help neutralize the guards. He double, triple checked that they were in the clear before opening the comms channel in his watch and requesting their extraction.
“Another successful mission,” Owen said, beaming, as they waited for A.S.S. to come get them out of dodge.
Curt simply nodded, swiveling his head around to watch out for any possible threat that could prematurely end their escape. He couldn’t get complacent, not yet. Not until they were safe.
The helicopter finally came and Curt felt his tense body finally relax. He fought the urge to lean against Owen as they were ferried to the closest safehouse. There would be time for that later. He had gone through too much to risk their safety for a moment of comfort now, not when the end was so close in sight.
Maybe he could hope. Maybe this was the good ending he was supposed to work towards all along. Curt allowed his pinkie to brush against Owen’s hand for a single, solitary second before letting himself sink further into the lumpy seat he was parked in. It was enough for Owen to flash him a shy smile. Beautiful. And maybe after this, Curt would tender his resignation and settle down somewhere warm and safe and out of the way, and maybe Owen would be there too. He’d had enough pain to last multiple lifetimes.
They touched down and Curt had barely stepped a foot into the door of their safehouse when he was confronted by a very pissed off Cynthia. Great.
“What the hell was that, Mega?” Cynthia barked.
Curt was tired. He brushed past her and slumped into the nearest chair, ignoring the way her lips grew thinner and thinner. Owen tried covering for him, “We got the blueprints for you, didn’t we?”
“How the fuck do you expect me to cover up the mess you just left, huh?” Cynthia shouted. It was too loud. It was too bright. “And I know that this was Mega’s brainchild. Has his piss all over it, so don’t even try to cover for him, Carvour.”
“There was no other way,” Curt whispered. He knew. He had sixteen fucking tries to know, and this was the first time they actually made it out to tell the tale. Curt tuned out the argument that Cynthia and Owen were brewing in front of him, wishing for a bed and a bath and Owen’s arms around his waist. These fights seemed so trivial now that he had stared down death over and over and over again. Cynthia’s tough love, her circus ring of verbal threats and bodily harm seemed inconsequential, petty even, now that Curt had almost had eternity to suffer through the worse day of his life on staccato repeat. Curt was so tired. He squeezed his eyes shut, throwing an arm over his face to try and block out the artificial fluorescence of their safehouse.
“Owen?” Curt whimpered, his vision blurring as his brain worked overtime to catch up to the events around him.
“You were supposed to dodge.” Cynthia. Did she sound regretful, or was that a trick of Curt’s dying imagination?
Oh. Curt wasn’t going to make it, was he?
His vision faded in and out as he slipped further and further into the darkness. He could make out Owen launching himself at Cynthia, could hear the violent rumble of a bloody fight. There was a gunshot, then another, then another. Someone hissed in pain. Then, before the darkness completely took him, Curt could hear a cold, heartless voice that he had tried so, so hard to forget echo in his brain.
“I’m going to make you all pay for this.”
“He’s not worth your time, Car–”
Gunshot. Then nothing.
Try number seventeen. Curt’s favorite number, and that had to count for something, right? He was rapidly running out of ideas, but this last one would have to work. It just had to.
They acted through the revised script one more time, but Curt had taken off his watch and grinded it under his heel. Owen stared at him in horrified confusion for the upteenth time. How strange to think that Owen remained constant through it all, and maybe Curt was changing too fast and becoming too erratic for him. It made sense with context, Owen just didn’t have any.
“What was that for, love?”
“Not safe anymore,” Curt muttered. The implication was enough for Owen to turn on his own comm and request an emergency extraction, even though this was an A.S.S. mission.
“What do you plan to do now, love?”
Curt shrugged, “I don’t know. Defect to MI6?”
Owen smiled sadly at him, “I’ll put in a good word for you. I…what happened, Curt? You love your agency.”
“Ah,” Owen said, his tone implying that this conversation wasn’t over.
The extraction helicopter landed, two MI6 agents stepping out of the cockpit. Curt raised an eyebrow suspiciously.
“Gentlemen,” Owen greeted amicably, “I didn’t expect an escort.”
Two gunshots, then two more, perfectly aimed at their kneecaps. Curt heard Owen cry out. Instinctively, he tried covering Owen’s body with his own, reaching for his holstered weapon to attempt a retaliation. More gunshots, more limbs disabled until Curt and Owen were just two useless, bloody heaps on the ground.
“Just end it already,” Curt gritted out, feeling himself teetering over the edge of despair.
“Not before we read the charges against the sodomite,” One of the agents said.
Owen laughed bitterly, “So that’s what this is all about.”
The other agent grinned, an ugly smear across his face, “We have reason to believe your degeneracy has led to you being compromised.”
“And you know how we like to handle compromised agents,” the first agent added.
“More like accomplices.”
Yeah. Curt knew how this would end.
Despair. Nothing left but a looming void where his hopes and dreams and desires used to be. This was his destiny, to live through the worst day in his life over and over again, helpless to change the outcome to anything remotely better. A carousel, a spiral, a never-ending nightmare.
Curt gave up.
“Hold me.” That was all he could croak out before he broke down in Owen’s arms. Before the guards came for them again.
Three more times. Curt clung. Curt cried. Curt couldn’t do anything else.
This time, Owen wouldn’t hold him. He only stared at the pathetic, sniveling mess that was trying desperately to reach out to him, horror morphing to disgust on the lines of his face.
“Curt…what happened to you?”
So much. Too much. Curt stammered out something incomprehensible between each gasping breath. He watched as Owen collapsed into himself. He watched as something was flipped within the man he had failed twenty five times, and oh, Curt was once again staring down the limits of how much a person could love.
“Goodbye, Agent Mega.”
This time, when the guards came to put him out of his misery, Curt was alone.
“Well, well, well. He lives.”
Curt felt nothing.
“You don’t have anything to say to me, Mr. Mega?”
Curt felt nothing.
“Do you think he’ll talk if we tortured him a little, Oleg?”
Curt felt nothing.
“Maybe if we break some of his fingers?”
Curt felt nothing. The script was set, the edits crossed out and backcrossed into their original permutation. What was the point in trying to change, if the outcome would just be the same? The banana peel was left untouched on the ground.
Owen fell, like he was supposed to. Curt felt nothing.
He knew Owen was alive, somewhere out there. Entertained the idea of searching for him before Chimera got its claws into Owen. But he found he could barely muster up the energy to drag himself out of bed. He felt nothing, then he felt everything, everywhere, all at once. And it was too much.
So he found the energy for one thing. The liquor cabinet in his house soon emptied itself. But he needed another. More. And again.
Curt felt nothing. And when he did, he would drink until he could feel nothing once more.
Then he was nothing but a pickled liver and a pool of his own vomit.
This time Curt weighed his options. He tried A.S.S., multiple times, but he knew they only saw him as expendable. MI6 was out, they had already figured them out and were gunning for Owen’s head. Maybe their out was the thing that Curt had been so horrified to see Owen become. Maybe Curt had to be willing to give up everything he believed in for a shot at an end to this nightmare.
He went through the script again, having committed his role to heart. He tried not to drink himself to death. He waited for Cynthia to extend her invitation to him, one too many losses that resulted in them turning to a drunkard like him to bolster up the numbers. He staked out the weapons deal, let the transaction happen without incident, and revealed himself to Owen - The Deadliest Man Alive - when he was sure they were alone.
“Let me join Chimera.”
“Wh–Curt? How did you–” Curt tried not to smile as Owen slipped out of the DMA’s cockney accent into his natural received, sputtering as he attempted to throw up the disguise again, “How did you find out about us, Mega?”
“Threw you for a loop, huh Owen?” Curt drawled. He tried not to preen as Owen blinked in surprise a second time. Curt held up his hands, preemptively pacifying Owen before the other man decided that the best way to proceed was to shoot a hole in Curt’s head. “I…don’t trust anything anymore. Except you, and you’re with them, so it must count for something, right?”
Owen was silent. Then he muttered, in his own voice, “Give me a moment, love.”
Curt sighed in relief as Owen requested an extraction with a clipped explanation. He attempted to side up to Owen when the other man held up a hand and steeled the expression behind his silicone disguise.
“I still hate you.”
“Thank you,” Curt muttered, “That makes two of us.”
They didn’t talk much until the other Chimera agents arrived.
“We’ve got a new asset,” Owen said to the new arrivals. Curt readied himself for an introduction.
“Management said he’s better off dead,” the agent replied. Curt found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He looked desperately over to Owen, making no move to reach for his own weapon.
“So they said,” Owen repeated, clipped, tight. His eyes betrayed not a single ounce of fondness or regret. That was fair. It was better than Curt deserved.
Curt sucked in a sharp breath. “Make it quick, then,” he said, resigned.
No point fighting.
If Owen was destined to hate him, if that was the only way Owen could survive, then Curt would hand his head to Owen on a silver platter. It was the only thing left he could do. Maybe then, he could finally rest, it would finally stick, and whatever twisted Hell he was stuck in would sort itself out and just let him wallow in his misery in wherever awaited him after.
Follow the script. Wait out the years. Meet Owen at the arms deal.
“Hey Owen,” Curt said, revealing himself from the shadows. He saw Owen’s breath hitch under his disguise.
He was staring down the barrel of Owen’s gun, now, but he had a sinking feeling that Owen wouldn’t be able to pull the trigger. He was a better man than Curt could ever be. He just needed a little push.
“I hate you,” Curt said, allowing his shattered heart to grind itself into dust, “I never loved you. I left you for dead because I wanted to.”
Owen pulled the trigger.
It didn’t stick.
Maybe Curt needed to give Owen the satisfaction of seeing him in pain. Maybe whatever hellish, celestial force that was making him relive the lowest low of his life over and over again wanted him to suffer some more, wanted to see Owen’s revenge fantasy fulfilled. Curt could do that.
He allowed himself to cry as his tooth was pulled out by Owen. Screamed and screamed and screamed as electricity coursed through his aching body. Struggled against the garrote, knowing the damage it would cause, hoping it would be enough to appease Owen, enough to absolve Curt of the guilt and self-hatred that gnawed at his core.
When Tatianna finally rescued him, Curt didn’t move. He simply stood over Owen, guiding the other man’s gun to his heart. They locked eyes. Curt found no love there. Curt understood. He didn’t know how anyone could love him, either.
He wanted to apologize for all the times he failed. He wanted to tell Owen how much he loved him, how much Owen deserved someone better. Someone who could actually protect him, who would have come back for him the first time. He wanted to apologize to Owen for all the times Owen had died for him.
It wouldn’t be enough. Instead, Curt said, “Take the shot, Owen.”
And Owen did.
It didn’t stick. Again.
Try number thirty. Maybe it’s supposed to be at the end, in that filthy warehouse, poetic justice for Owen, curtains for Curt. It was the only straw Curt could hold on to as he watched Owen fall again, lived through another miserable three years, endured a third round of torture.
They met in the same warehouse, Curt chasing Owen up those blasted stairs, Owen launching into his stupid speech.
“Sounds boring,” Curt said, trying to keep his voice steady. Owen was open. Deja vu, easy shot. But Curt had done this before, and he won’t be able to handle seeing Owen with a bullethole between his eyes again. He didn’t take the shot. He left himself open.
Owen took the shot for him.
The gun flew out of Curt’s hand. Owen advanced, “Say, love, are you going easy on me?”
Curt said nothing.
“C’mon, Mega. I know you’re better than that.”
No. He was not better than anything.
“What, you’ve gone mute now? I used to have such a hard time getting you to shut up. Unless we were in bed, I shut you up then, huh?”
Owen was stalling. Curt would have to make this easier for him. He moved forward, ignored the way Owen flinched, and pressed his forehead against the barrel of Owen’s gun. He waited.
“What are you doing?”
“End it, Owen,” Curt said, “Stop wasting our time.”
And so Curt Mega died for the thirtieth time.
Curt was so tired.
He woke up, set the charges, shot the guards, threw the peel, watched Owen fall.
Curt was so tired.
He drank himself to near oblivion, got the call from Cynthia, grabbed his gear from Barb, met the Informant.
Curt was so tired.
He busted the arms deal, met Tatiana, saw Owen (oh, Owen).
Curt was so tired.
He gambled, met von Nazi, was tortured, was rescued, was shot.
Curt was so tired.
He stayed with his mother, had his moment with Tatiana, assembled his team, watched as the Informant died.
Curt was so tired.
He chased Owen to the same warehouse. He followed the man he’d failed thirty times up the same set of stairs until the exhaustion of remembering caught up with him. Curt collapsed into a heap at the bottom of the first landing, Owen whipping around and Curt could almost fool himself into believing that there was a glint of concern in those eyes. Owen tried launching into his speech.
Curt couldn’t stand this script anymore. “I’m so tired,” Curt said, marveling at how hollow his voice sounded to his own ears.
Owen scoffed, “You? Tired? What gives you the fucking right, Mega?”
“You’re right,” Curt nodded, loading the gun in his hands and clicking off the safety. “I have no idea what you went through, Owen.” Thirty Owens stared back at him, some bloody, some charred, some with ugly sneers, some wearing the face of the Deadliest Man Alive. Curt felt himself stagger back into the nearest wall.
“I despise you, Mega. You don’t know how happy this makes me.”
“The only person who hates me more than you,” Curt muttered, pointing the gun to his own temple, “is myself.”
Owen laughed, ugly and cruel and nothing like the laugh that Curt had been so fond of. “What do you think you’re doing, Curt? Do you think this will make me pity you? Pull the trigger, Mega. You wouldn’t dare.”
He would and he did. Loop number thirteen. For some reason, he could feel it in his gut that this would be the last time, that this time would be the time that stuck. That thirty was fine and well, but thirty-one was one too many and Curt had used up whatever grace he was cursed with to redo this over and over again. He just wanted this to be over. Curt was so tired.
“Why didn’t you come back for me?”
Loop one. Loop two.
“Why didn’t you set the charges for longer?”
“Why didn’t you just throw away the damned banana peel?”
Loop fourteen. Loop fifteen. Loop sixteen. Loop seventeen.
“Why didn’t you just drink your sorry ass to death?”
Loop twenty six.
“I did,” Curt sobbed out, feeling the gun in his hands shaking, “I did it all, Owen. I did it all and then some, and it doesn’t work. None of it works and you die or we both die or sometimes I’m the one that dies because I deserve it. And we start over again and I can’t do it anymore, Owen. I can’t watch you die another time. I can’t. I can’t.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Owen said, and there was thirty of him, voices layered one on top of another, thirty accusations thrown at Curt for his cowardice, for his incompetence, for his inability to change anything.
“I love you,” Curt choked out, “And it wasn’t enough. And I ruined you and…and this must be my punishment. I’m sorry. I know it’s not enough, but I’m sorry.”
He was crying now, tears and snot and sweat blurring the Owens into a shapeless mass before him. It didn’t matter, their stares burned into him like a brand, asking him why he hadn’t pulled the stupid trigger.
Curt wished he could hear Owen call him “love” one last time.
“Wh…what did you do to me?”
Everything and nothing. Never good enough or careful enough or brave enough to save them both.
“I see it all… I see…Curt?”
There’s only one Owen now, and Curt couldn’t look him in the eye either. His finger tightened around the trigger.
“Curt, put the gun down. Please.”
“I love you. I’m sorry.” He pulled the trigger.
Curt woke up. But this time, there was no bright industrial light glaring down at him, nor was he tied to a chair. He was swathed in billows of blankets, a soft pillow nestling his throbbing skull, someone’s hand running through his hair.
Curt burst out sobbing.
“I’m dreaming,” he mumbled, “I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming.”
Owen chuckled, “Did the gunshot give you brain damage, love? Lucky bugger you are. Grazed your skull, but just. Thanks to yours truly, of course.”
“What, how…why? Why’d you save me?” Curt said, ignoring the pain in his head and in his jaw and in his ribs, three days’ worth of injuries catching up to his body all at once. Owen gently propped him up against the bed and handed him a glass of water. Chimera Owen. The Owen with the new scars and the wiry body and the cold glint in his eyes.
“You tried offing yourself.” Owen was quiet then, as if he was trying to gather up his scattered thoughts as Curt gulped down the offered water. “It’s not the first time, is it?”
“It stuck the last two times, didn’t it?”
Loop thirteen. Loop three, kind of.
“Never permanently,” Curt mumbled. “How…how do you know?”
Owen shrugged. “One moment I only had these memories of you. Then all of the sudden, I saw the rest of them. The other thirty Owens. What they saw, what they did, what they felt, like I was watching a movie but the actors were us.”
He reached out and grabbed Curt’s hand, giving it a soft squeeze, “And I saw you. Trying. Falling apart. Trying again. I’m sorry, Curt, I’m sorry you had to live through all of that. I…I can’t bring myself to hate you any more.
Owen took a deep breath, as if preparing himself to say something he never thought he would have to say. “I don’t think I ever did, even during the times when I fell. I was angry, but I…couldn’t hate you. Was damn good at telling myself I did, though.”
Curt broke. Owen opened his arms, and Curt allowed himself to fall into Owen and wail thirty lifetimes’ worth of grief into his shoulder. They stayed there, Curt safe and warm in Owen’s embrace, until the sobs turned into quiet sniffles and Curt’s body began to tire itself out again.
“You know the loops where I lived and you died?” Owen asked. Curt nodded a wet stain into Owen’s shirt. The last four loops, the ones where he took his own life, the one where Cynthia killed him. A few others Curt couldn’t remember anymore.
“I didn’t last long after,” Owen muttered, “Without you, I self-destructed.”
Curt laughed bitterly, “Looks like we can’t live with or without each other, huh?”
Owen looked at him softly, “We can try this time.”
Curt laughed again, wringing the neck of the little bit of fluttering hope that dared to form in his chest. “Something will get us, Owen. A.S.S., MI6, Chimera, a freak train accident, I don’t know. I can’t let myself hope, Owen. I can’t…I can’t trust my own happiness anymore.”
“Then I’ll hope for the both of us,” Owen said firmly, “You just sit there and look pretty, like you always do.”
“I can’t do that to you, Owen,” Curt huffed.
“We’ll figure it out, then,” Owen said firmly, confidently. “I know this time, love. I can keep an eye out for us too. I know you can’t trust the universe, or yourself, but do you think you can trust me?”
Curt took a deep breath. He felt himself center again for the first time in thirty lifetimes. Maybe this would work out, in the end. Maybe the thirty-first try would be the last try.
“Okay. I trust you.”
Owen smiled and pressed a single kiss to the top of Curt’s forehead. The first kiss they’d shared in thirty loops. Curt almost broke again, then and there.
“Get some shut eye, love. Tomorrow’s a new day.”
And when Curt woke up for the thirty-second time, Owen was still there next to him, and Curt allowed himself to hope again.