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You barely know the man. You don’t know you’ll die for him yet. 

 

***

 

You save his life the first time you meet and the last – the first in his timeline, the last in yours. He doesn’t know you in the opera house, but he will. He will. You comfort yourself with this knowledge weeks later, on the same day, when you leave him standing in the dust. He doesn’t say, but something in his eyes tells you that you will not meet again. So you tell him that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship – the truth, and half a lie – and you head back into the fray. Knowing that he still has so much time with you. 

 

***

 

You barely know the man. You don’t know you’ll die for him yet. 

 

But he seems to know you. He orders you a vodka tonic without asking, seems to peer into your soul with his deep brown eyes as if searching for something there. You can’t tell if he finds it.

 

‘Welcome to the after-life’, he says. And you think, right. Niarobi. The bullet in your sternum. The certainty of death. Except it wasn’t a certainty, apparently, because you’re lying in a hospital bed and even though the man is handsome enough to be an angel you don’t think you’d be in so much pain if you were in heaven, or at least you hope not. You don’t believe in heaven, anyway. Never been the religious type. But then he starts talking about time-travel, of all things, and he doesn’t seem insane. He seems, if anything, the opposite. Very put together, in his tailored suit which suggests wealth but doesn’t hide his physicality. He seems grounded, mainly, and sure of himself. He seems very real, somehow, and you think perhaps that is just a momentary feeling induced by the fact that the world seems to be moving – and are you on a boat, of all things? – and he’s talking about unreal, unbelievable things like inversion and reverse entropy with his calm voice, and really it’s no wonder that your mind wants something steady to latch onto. It’ll pass.

 

***

 

You think, for a while after meeting him, that he must have lost somebody. You are good at reading people, normally. You are good at charming marks, putting them at ease, making them reveal themselves without meaning to. The American reveals nothing, except at times you see hints of something like grief at the edges of his eyes. But it becomes apparent after a while that he has no-one in his life, and hasn’t in a long time. Tenet agents aren’t meant to share any personal details, anything that could reveal who they really are, but you have a lot of experience at playing detective. Besides, you charm a few of his subordinates who’ve known him for years, and none of them are aware of any personal attachments of his, not even family. It fits his image, you suppose, of a man bound to his work and nothing else, but it doesn’t explain the rueful way his mouth twists, sometimes, or the sad look that flits across his eyes at random moments. After a few weeks you stop noticing it, however, and as time passes you think perhaps you must have imagined it all. 

 

***

 

You notice other things about him instead. Not just how handsome he is – you noticed that the first time you met – but how his eyes light up when a plan comes together. His rare but brilliant smiles. How calm and collected he is with a gun. How sure he is of himself and his power. How he’s ready to jump into action at a moment’s notice. Other things, too. How he seems to live on black coffee and whatever food is put in front of him. How much he knows, about everything – art, geography, history, music, current affairs in every country under the sun – but doesn’t seem to take pleasure in any of it. Everything seems like a professional interest to him, and you wonder what his personal interests are – what he likes, what he dislikes, not just what he knows for a mission or what he pretends to care about because it allows him to interact with the right people. You want, absurdly, to see the inside of his house, to look at his bookshelves, to see what artwork (if any) he has on the walls, see what he’s got on his Netflix queue. You want to see the inside of his bedroom, too, want to take his pristine suit off him and take him to bed, want him to want you, want him in a way you haven’t in a long time. You think sinful thoughts about him in meetings and smile extra charmingly at him to make up for it, but his intense stares make you feel like he sees right through you.

 

***

 

His suits are making you feel poetic and horny, in a stupid, juvenile way. Maybe this is how Byron felt before he was thrown out of England and died. You could wax lyrical about his suits, about how the forest green one makes him look like someone you could get lost in, how the deep blue one makes him look like someone you could sink into. He is sleek, hard lines and calm confidence, and you want him so badly you think that maybe you do understand the Romantics after all.

 

***

 

You barely know the man. You don’t know you’ll die for him yet. 

 

But you stumble into his hotel room all the same, hoping you look artfully dishevelled and not like an upturned laundry basket. You are a little tipsy, a little over-eager, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s had a drink too, but only the one, and he doesn’t seem even a little buzzed. He is, in fact, infuriately put-together. And even though he’s let you into his room, he makes no move to initiate anything, heading over to the bar to grab a bottle of whiskey, pouring two drinks, everything neat and measured. You step towards him, put a hand to his waist, kiss to the back of his neck. Maybe it’s too intimate, too presumptuous, but he doesn’t even flinch, just places the glasses down carefully, turns around to face you with an amused glimmer in his eye. Bastard. He’s always been far better at self-restraint than you. But it’s been torture, this low ache of wanting in the pit of your stomach, the only real constant in your life (other than him, a voice in your head reminds you) these last few months. You try to play it off as simple lust, just a simple chemical reaction catalysed by proximity and time and a shared knowledge of what’s at stake, but some part of you knows that’s not true. Love is just a chemical reaction, too, you tell yourself, but love isn’t just anything.

 

You shy away from the word, from the feeling, distract yourself by kissing him instead. He lets you kiss him, which maybe means that he’s got less self-restraint than you thought. Maybe he’s just humouring you, but he’s not the type of man to humour anybody unless they have something he needs. You huff something that’s half a laugh against his jaw, hands gripping the front of his shirt, and he doesn’t seem to mind that either, or the careless way you treat his clothes. He kisses you back, now, firmly, almost possessively. He is different than what you expected – and what did you expect? Something wilder, maybe, something uncomplicated and rough, a means to an end, a way to release all the frustrated energy that must have been building up during this job, this infuriating, boring, exhausting job that you’ve been on for weeks now without achieving anything meaningful. You half-expected him to push you around, actually, to give you commands like he does at work and use you, and you wouldn’t have minded that – have fantasised about it, actually – but he is more gentle than you were expecting, his kisses delving deep, his hands running up your sides, tangling in your hair. And then he is pushing you towards the bedroom and his hands on you feel like heat and electricity, the look in his eyes feels like a promise he’s about to make good on, and this feels like everything you have ever wanted.

 

***

 

He doesn’t do anything by halves, you have always known this. Yet somehow it still surprises you, after you arrive in Madrid for your next mission and check into your hotel, when he presses a spare key card into your hand and says ‘come and see me tonight’. You assumed, after the last time, that it would be a one time thing. A momentary lapse of judgement, maybe, not that he has many of those. Or just something to get out of his system, so that you could both go back to the real work of saving the world.

 

You still half-expect him to rescind the offer. You prepare yourself for the possibility that you’ll walk into his room and he won’t be there. Or he will be there and he’ll tell you to leave. Maybe he’ll even be apologetic about it, a little pitying, like he knows exactly how you feel and doesn’t reciprocate. That would be embarrassing, but it would hardly be the worst thing you’ve experienced. A bullet in the sternum, you remind yourself. Being strangled. A warzone, inverted. Almost drowning, that time in Norway. You steel yourself for rejection, head into the room like you’re facing a firing squad. But he doesn’t tell you to leave. He doesn’t say anything, actually, just crosses the room and kisses you like he needs this, like he’s been waiting for it. Pulls you into the bedroom and slams the door. He strips you with cool efficiency, like he’s used to this, like he’s practised this, the way he takes a gun apart and puts it back together, and something about his sure hands on your shirt buttons and the hungry look in his eyes fills you with desperate want, makes you willing to beg, willing to do whatever he says, as long as he keeps touching you.

 

Then his hands are running over your bare skin and he’s kissing your mouth and your neck and down your chest until suddenly his mouth is around your dick and he’s sucking, tongue sliding obscenely over your skin. Your hands clutch at his hair and he grips your hips and you try to stop yourself from thrusting into him, but he just moans around your dick and you could come like this but you want – you need ––. You can’t speak but you make an unhappy noise and somehow he must understand because he’s standing up and flipping you over onto the bed and his fingers are between your legs. You don’t know how much time passes, aware of nothing but him and this room. He grabs some lube from the bedside drawer, opens you up one finger at a time, and time unravels completely. You are conscious only of wanting more, your fingers gripping the sheets so hard you think they might tear, reduced to moans of desperation. And then finally, finally, you hear the sound of a condom wrapper and a few moments later he’s sliding into you and you are writhing beneath him. He fucks you urgently, not rushed but wanting, yearning, aching towards. You make a keening sound at the back of your throat, somewhere between a moan and a cry, and it’s almost too much, his skin against yours, his gasping breath in your ear, the way he stretches you open. He pounds into you, one hand around your cock, until you come apart beneath him.

 

***

 

It becomes almost routine, after that. You’re both busy, always with a hundred and one things to do to stop the world from imploding, but now you have him too.

 

You’ve admired his decisiveness since your first meeting, his ability to hear the basic outline of a situation, make a decision and stick to it. What you admire even more is the way his decisions almost invariably work out, even if he has to improvise a little in the middle. It’s like competence porn, an agent you were working with said once. You think maybe he makes things work out of sheer determination. You just never thought he’d decide on you.

 

You have sex in hotel rooms and on private jets and in tents and on one memorable occasion while inverted, but everything about that – friction, gravity, sensation – is odd, so you tick it off your bucket-list and decide that that really was a one-time thing. It doesn’t matter, anyway, because once you’re uninverted he takes you back to the same bed and says ‘I think that deserves a do-over.’

 

***

 

It’s not like you do this often, but you’re not a monk. You’re used to having to learn new people’s bodies, what they like, what they don’t like, what things they secretly enjoy but would be too embarrassed to say, what they pretend to enjoy but could really do without. You’re used to the time it takes, to become attuned to somebody new. Even though you’ve been working with him for a long time now, you’re expecting it to take some time to adjust. What you don’t expect is how well he seems to know you, how he seems to understand slight variations in the sounds you make, how he knows exactly what your mood you’re in, sometimes even before you do. You think you should ask him about it, but then he bites down in just the right place on the side of your neck, and you forget about asking anyone anything for a while.

 

 

***

 

‘How would you like to die?’

 

‘Old.’

 

‘You chose the wrong profession.’

 

***

 

You are standing in a bus with him. It’s like a fragment of a poem you only half-remember, you are sitting in a car with a beautiful boy, except it’s not like that at all. For one thing, there’s nothing boyish about him, about the firm lines of his body, the hard line of his mouth as his lips press together, his expression pensive. In your memory the scene distorts, the words you exchange muffled as meaning is superimposed over it. It doesn’t matter what you are talking about. All that matters is the feeling. What matters is the fact that his eyes are the steadiest thing in the room – in any room, really. Even during the strange vertigo that comes with the first few minutes of inversion he acts as an anchor, something to grasp onto when the ground under your feet feels unstable. When time shifts and you stumble into the past, he is there. The feeling is as inescapable as the present. You sense the magnitude of the feeling, expansive and overwhelming, somewhere beneath your feet. You let go and allow yourself to sink into it.  

 

***

 

The cabinets are filling up, each drawer filled with bits and pieces of guns, bombs, tanks, weapons not yet invented. The residue of loss. The souvenirs of future trauma. You call them that, half-ironically, only in your mind. It’s harder to be poetic about inverted bullets when you have seen them pass through someone’s body. Harder to feel a sense of detachment from this museum of horrors when the items are from the future, not the past. When one of the weapons might kill you, one day. 

 

***

 

Don’t try to understand it. Feel it. 

 

***

 

You are good at analysis. At MI5 they called you an analyst even after they gave you a gun and told you to use it. Before that, at Cambridge, your studies revolved around analysis, around paying attention to the details, studying them, trying to understand them. And you were good at it. But something deep in your psyche rebelled against that analytical drive. Sometimes late at night you used to break into the college observatory and stare at the stars through the huge telescope, trying to make sense of it all. Sometimes, stumbling back from a party in the early hours of the morning, you would collapse on the cool grass of the quad and stare at the sky, at its bigness. Its incomprehensibility. And you’d think things you could never say to your lecturers, like we’ll never understand all this. Maybe we’re not supposed to. Maybe seeing it, experiencing it, is all that matters

 

You felt the same way about people, sometimes. Sitting in Halls with your fellow students, you’d try to puzzle them out. It was an amusing pastime, for a while, figuring out who’d slept with who the night before, who’d broken up, who’d had a fight with their friends, who’d just started a new relationship. Later, with MI5, it had stopped being a fun distraction, becoming life-or-death instead. And you were good at people, everyone knew, though you’d never told the people who recruited you that you’d honed your skills on the trivialities of uni life. But there were still a few times when people surprised you, when a meeting went suddenly sideways or someone you’d taken for a coward tried to pop a bullet in your skull, or conversely when an antagonist’s stalwart supporter suddenly flipped on them. And in amidst the panic about a mission going tits-up and trying to get out with your vital organs intact, or the jubilation of a job suddenly coming right, some part of your brain would be surprised and strangely gratified – reinvigorated, even – by the reminder that there was still something unpredictable, something unanalysable (I don’t think that’s a real word) in human nature.

 

You haven’t thought about that in years. Your job (and often your life) depends on you being able to comprehend and predict people – their vices, their virtues, their motives, their loyalties. But looking at him reminds you of those thoughts. 

 

***

 

He feels inevitable.

 

***

 

Sometimes, after sex, you stay the night. The first time you did it to see if you could, and when you woke up with his arm curled around your waist you were so giddy that you dragged him out to breakfast, and then back into bed for another enthusiastic round of sex.

 

‘You have to eat something,’ you told him by way of explanation as you guided him to the French restaurant down the street.

 

‘I do eat,’ he said, and then smiled in a way that made him look younger, less burdened by the weight of the world on his shoulders. He stepped back and flexed his biceps, which were very visible in today’s short-sleeved polo-shirt. ‘Does this look like a man who doesn’t eat?’.

 

His smile was so wicked that you almost dragged him back to the hotel room there and then, but you weren’t about to let yourself lose an argument so quickly.

 

‘Protein powder doesn’t count’, you scoffed.

 

‘It’s not protein powder,’ he argued. ‘It’s –‘

 

‘a nutritionally complete meal replacement. I know.’ You interrupted him, still a little giddy from the sex and the fact that he’d let you sleep over and was now grumblingly allowing himself to be taken to breakfast, as if you were actually dating. ‘It’s still not food. Military men.’ You sighed mournfully, shaking your head. ‘It’s like they train all the taste out of you.’

 

He gestured towards himself and the perfectly coordinated outfit he’d somehow managed to put together while you still half-asleep as if to say does this look like someone who doesn’t have taste?

 

‘You do look very edible today,’ you agreed, deliberately misunderstanding, ‘but I’d still like to eat some real food.’

 

He sighed and rolled his eyes, but he didn’t voice any more complaints on the way to the restaurant, so you considered it a victory. You felt even more victorious later, when he took you back to the room and reminded you exactly how powerful his tasteless not-food made him.

 

*** 

 

It becomes a habit, after that. After sex you stay the night, and sometimes you get breakfast in the morning. Sometimes you have dinner together, too, and it’s not as if you haven’t shared meals before – on stakeouts, during planning sessions, or sometimes just when you were so exhausted you ordered takeout to the office and ate in silence while poring over case files – but this feels different, somehow. Eating with intent. Almost like dating. And you know you’re not supposed to share personal details but you do, anyway, telling him stories about your university days and your time with MI5 and a few choice anecdotes of your time at boarding school, and you’ve never felt prouder than when one of your stories reduces him to tears of laughter. He tells you things in return, about the army, about playing football in college, about some of the places he visited while working for the CIA. It feels like trust. It feels almost like a real relationship, and you don’t know what to do with that.

 

***

 

The closer you get to the war, the more detritus comes streaming back at you. 

 

***

Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and he’s not there. He’ll be out for a run or at the gym or doing ending pushups in the living room. Sometimes he’ll come back and he’ll be almost gasping for breath, and you’ll think he must have been sprinting but it doesn’t stop the flare of concern that spikes through your chest, the way he sounds like someone who lost their oxygen tank while inverted, the way you’ll want to go to him, put air into his lungs, cling onto him until he can breathe again. He always comes back to bed eventually, kisses your forehead, wraps his arms around you, and you grumble about him being sweaty and getting the bed dirty but really you are just stuck between relief and worry, and you’ll tell yourself everything is okay.

 

***

 

Sometimes in the morning when he’s only just woken up he’ll give you a look that’s so fond you want to treasure it forever, want to preserve it in amber to look at every time you feel unhappy. But sometimes when he looks at you it’s distant and sad, like he’s looking at someone else in his memory, and you want to go back in time and fight whoever it was who put that look on his face. You could go back in time, you remind yourself, but you doubt he’d be pleased about that, and besides you doubt it would change anything. Though it would be satisfying, you have to admit, to punch that ex-lover in the face. To show them what they’re missing.

 

***

You are heading towards the end of the world. Everyone knows this, but does not say. You cannot prevent the future that is coming, only try to stop it from infecting the past. 

 

***

 

You know the man, now. You don’t know you’ll die for him yet, but even if you did it wouldn’t change anything. What's happened happened. You are beginning to love him. Does that mean your love was inevitable, too, unchangeable? You suspect he loves you back. 

 

***

 

In Poland a pile of rubble turns into a town before your eyes. You are trying to follow the bomb back to where it was made, but on your way through the town you are distracted by people struck with shrapnel. Is there a difference between inverted and uninverted shrapnel, you wonder? It’s not like a bullet, designed for war, just a side-effect of it. Their screams sound like normal screams. You avert your eyes and carry on. 

 

***

 

‘Have you ever been to Estonia?’ you ask, late one night. You’re lying in bed together, on the verge of sleep.

 

‘What?’ he asks, sounding bemused and adorably sleepy. ‘Why?’

 

‘It’s just that I speak Estonian,’ you tell him. You speak a number of languages, actually, but not that many people know Estonian, so you could act as translator. ‘And I didn’t know if you’d been. So I was thinking we could go, someday. I thought it might be nice to have a break.’

 

That’s an understatement. You’re still in Poland, and really you just want to get away from it all, from the fighting and the debris and the reminder that war is coming and you can’t stop it no matter how hard you try. Estonia’s not that far, after all, and maybe a different language and seeing old sites from your memories with someone new is exactly what you need to get out of this funk.

 

He’s silent for so long you think he must have fallen asleep.

 

‘That would be nice,’ he says eventually. ‘Maybe someday’.

 

***

 

You are heading towards the end of the world, but he is sending you back. 

 

‘I need you,’ he says, and your heart lurches, because he is still so cautious with that word, ‘to invert yourself.’

 

‘How far back do I go?’ 

 

When he tells you, you feel – you don’t know how you feel. You think this is him trying to protect you from the coming war, and you feel angry and resentful and pleased and sad all at once. He must see it in your eyes, because he says:

 

‘This isn’t – this isn’t for you. I need you to go back to save my life. I need you to go back so that Tenet recruits me.’

 

‘But you started Tenet.’

 

‘I know that. But I didn’t know that then.’

 

You shake your head. Sometimes, despite all your years of doing this, the mind still boggles.

 

‘I need you. If you don’t find me in the past, Tenet never exists, and all human life is wiped out.’

 

‘So we did meet in the past?’ You know this, of course. He has always known too much about you. But he has never given you details. Ignorance is our ammunition, he says. And anyway, it’s your life. You’ll get to experience it too. Today he gives you two dates and two places: an opera house in Ukraine, a yacht club in Mumbai.

 

‘And after that?’ you ask. 

 

‘You’ll see when you get there.’ 

 

You nod, but your mind is running away from you. You are thinking about the fact that if you go and come back, it might be years before you see him again. If you come back.

 

‘Do we meet? In between then and now?’

 

‘Oh yeah. We get up to some stuff.’ He smiles to himself as if at an inside joke, but his eyes are sad. You think you understand. 

 

***

 

Who can say what we know without knowing, what truths we bury inside ourselves until they must come to light? Perhaps you do know. Perhaps you have known all this time. You know you’d be willing to take a bullet for him, certainly. You just didn’t know you’d have to. 

 

***

 

You keep stumbling into him in the past. 

 

It’s strange, having the roles reversed. You know everything about him and he knows less and less about you. 

 

It’s strange, thinking about how much of you he knew before you met. It’s comforting, in a way. He already knew all your flaws, all your fears and desires. You wonder if the idea will bring him comfort, later. You each knew where the other was heading. 

 

You tell him some of the same stories you did before and he laughs in the same places, except sometimes you startle a laugh out of him unexpectedly – because he hasn’t heard these stories yet, you realise – and you think that may be your favourite sound. He looks pleased every time he sees you again, and unbearably fond, and you realise that he didn’t fall for you at the same time you did – he must have been waiting for you for months after you first met, waiting for your feelings to catch up with his. You feel annoyed that he didn’t just shove you up against a wall and kiss you at the first opportunity – it’s not as if you’d have complained – but fond, too, that he waited. That he left the decision up to you.

 

***

 

He never seems to have anyone else in his life.

 

There are months where you don’t see him, so you suppose he could have been seeing people in the meantime, but there’s no evidence to suggest that. And he always seems pleased to see you – he’s perfectly willing to jump you at the first opportunity now that he knows you want it too, and you are more than willing to let him.

 

But the occasional suggestions of sadness don’t disappear, either, and that twists uncomfortably inside you, niggling at your subconscious. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything – it’s not as if what you do is all sunshine and rainbows, and you’ve heard some of his stories from the CIA by now – God knows the MI5 did a number on you, and you weren’t in it for that long. Perhaps those occasional bad spells are just the aftershocks of trauma, from long before you met, but you can’t help feeling that they’re about someone specific. So you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, to jump back in time and find him grieving – or worse, in the midst of a relationship that’s about to end horribly. But it never happens, and you feel relieved and anxious all at once, and something else too, something like understanding, but an understanding you can’t face head-on or it will cut right through you.

 

***

 

You’ve stumbled into his bedroom together again and he’s kissing you and it’s a little awkward, a little like fumbling in the dark and you think maybe he drank more than you thought at dinner because he’s eager and needy in a way he isn’t always, not like this at any rate, and he’s a little less coordinated than you’re used to and he sounds a little breathless, but none of this is that strange exactly, it’s just that something feels different somehow. You can’t put your finger on what, though, at least not until he fumbles the condom and you joke ‘what, haven’t you done this before?’ and he looks up and says ‘not with you’.

 

It’s like someone’s knocked the breath out of you. For a moment you can’t speak. You want to ask him to give you a minute, to let you adapt to this new paradigm, to go slow even though normally you’re the one giving him the choice. You don’t want to think about what it means. What you want is to wrap your arms around him and never let go, to crawl inside him until you fuse together as one, but you also want to be somewhere far away, somewhere less overwhelming where the world is still and there isn’t this pressure slamming down on your chest. And then he’s kissing you like he’s made his choice, and you are pulled along in the wake of it, distantly aware of your heart breaking as you slip into his arms.

 

But then his tongue is slipping into your mouth and you forget about everything except how desperately in love you are. And if a part of you expected him to be timid or nervous it is pleasantly surprised. Of course he has sex like he does everything – confidently, surely, putting his all into it, like he knows exactly what he’s doing. Like he’ll take care of you. He may not know your body inside and out yet but he’s as observant at ever, twisting his fingers inside you until you are almost sobbing with want, fucking you until you are incoherently begging, until you come around his dick and he gasps ‘oh, fuck’ and then he’s coming, too, collapsing against your sweat-slicked back.

 

‘Not bad for a virgin,’ you tell him, once you’ve regained the ability to speak.

 

He huffs in annoyance and pinches your butt.

 

‘Shut up.’

 

‘Make me,’ you retort without thinking.

 

He smirks devilishly at that, then glances down at his crotch and sighs.

 

‘Give me twenty minutes.’

 

You laugh, then roll over and rest your head on his chest. His arm wraps around you, his fingers tracing lines on your back. His eyes are soft and warm, his body a steadying presence beside you. You feel like you’re home at last.

 

 

***

 

You don’t realise which kiss is your last until it’s over. It’s such a cliché – you don’t know what you have till it’s gone – but the absence aches much longer than you thought it would. 

 

It’s almost a year after your destination date, and you are about to invert yourself again, perhaps for the last time. He’s hinted that he was busy on isolated missions over the last year, so you think perhaps you do not meet again until the beginning. He’s been a little strange, to be honest. A little aloof. Tense, too, and occasionally irritable. Sometimes you find him looking quizzically at you, as if you are a puzzle to solve. As if he is confused by your presence. You wonder if you got it wrong, if your first meeting went badly, if perhaps he didn’t like you until later.  

 

You’re about to go through the turnstile when suddenly he grabs you, pulls you close. The kiss is fierce, and there’s something a little desperate in it. It feels like he’s staking a claim, and it fills you with warmth. He lets you go, watches you walk through the turnstile, but the warmth stays buried in your core. It’s a memory you will treasure, will turn over in your hands as you pass through the months backwards, will compare to all the other, later kisses, like watching puzzle pieces fit together. You wonder if you have solved him yet. Or maybe you were presented with the completed jigsaw when you first met, and everything since then has been seeing you how all the pieces fit together. Like seeing the beauty of the universe, then studying what it is made of.  

 

***

 

What's happened happened. You think about that, and about love. You wonder what it means. There’s not much chance to be philosophical in your line of work, but you were a physicist before all of this. You studied the nature of the universe, wondered at what it meant. You think about cells, his and yours, about how they combined at just the right time, in just the right way, to allow you to experience the universe at the same time. To allow you to love each other. What a gift this life has been.

 

***

 

You know the man, though he doesn’t know you. You save his life in the opera house, still going backwards. You don’t see where he goes after that. You meet up with Ives and his men, have a briefing. You wonder why you never met Ives in the future, why he was never mentioned. Decide not to wonder. Apparently there’s a new threat - a Russian oligarch called Sator who’s a threat to all life, past and future. You read up on the latest intel, then fly to Mumbai, wait. You spend some time walking around the city, seeing what’s changed. You spend some time in the hotel bar, drinking non-inverted alcohol. You think, and try not to. 

 

And then he’s there and he’s beautiful, familiar and strange at once, looking dashing in his shell pink suit. You look slightly dishevelled, but then he’s used to that. Will be used to that. You try to make up for it with charm, looking for some kind of recognition in his eyes even though you know you won’t find it. His smile still sends you reeling. 

 

***

 

Time isn’t the problem. Making it out alive is the problem.

 

***

 

In the end it’s easy. As easy as breathing uninverted air. As easy as falling. 

 

You do things because you have to, unthinking. You see the Russian enter the base and change tack immediately, thinking only I have to save him. You have to save him so Tenet exists, so that the world exists, so that he exists. You have to save him for humanity’s past and for your future. You have to save him because you love him. 

 

You pull him and Ives out of the wreck. There’s a bit of a standoff in the desert. It doesn’t matter. You give him your piece of the algorithm, turn to go. 

 

This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

 

For you.

 

***

 

See you at the beginning, friend.

 

***

 

It’s the easiest thing in the world. Dying. It’s the easiest thing in the world, unlocking the door. Jumping in front of the bullet meant for him. The pain sears through you, red-hot screaming. And you think he’s known all this time. You think he was saying goodbye. You think I love you, and hope he understands. 

 

***

 

He barely knows you yet. But he will.