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Neil knows that he is well and truly fucked when he meets his new boss for the first time. 

There is only warmth in the man’s eyes as they shake hands, a brightness in the sharp smile like Neil has told a joke, a crinkle in the corner of his eyes like they’re long-lost childhood friends. 

And as if the man isn’t devastatingly beautiful as is, Neil knows he’s absolutely, one hundred percent fucked beyond belief because the second their hands touch, he feels a needle-prick pinch to the skin of the forearm beneath his sleeve. 

Which, he thinks with vague frustration buzzing at the back of his mind, is such an annoying place for his soulmate’s name to appear tattooed on his flesh. He doesn’t often wear short sleeves on a job, but there’s no unsuspicious way to cover the skin of your forearm on a casual job in the Bahamas. He’s heard of people on previous teams getting skin grafts or, in more desperate times, burning the name clean off as soon as it appears, but first, Neil realises, he’s got to clear this conversation. 

Because his new boss doesn’t seem to be having the same life-changing realisation that Neil is, which means either he’s got an excellent poker-face or Neil is one of those unlucky sods with an unreciprocal soulmate.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” New Boss says, unbuttoning his blazer to sit at the table, alfresco in San Paolo. 

“I’m sure the pleasure is all mine,” Neil says, flashing an iteration of charming smile that he censors ever so slightly so he doesn’t look absolutely desperate. 

Christ , he thinks as he sits. He really hopes he isn’t going to look at his wrist later to find ‘New Boss’ emblazoned there. He’s no stranger to humiliation but he’s not going to last a week in any sort of task-force situation with ‘New Boss’ written on his arm. Even a week’s pushing it; if he saw the dude parachuting from a plane in front of him had this shit across his neck he’d balk from hysterics.

“I’d offer a vodka tonic, but I believe beer’s in order.”

Neil doesn’t let the surprise show on his face, but his smile becomes a little more plastic. “First time I’ve had someone research my drink order. I’m impressed.”

There’s that knowing look again, and Neil can only find himself filling with dread. If by some cruel joke the love of his life is this New Boss, in this line of work it’s very likely that he’s going to have to kill or be killed by him, and New Boss has a striking tactical advantage. “Do you ever feel,” Neil says, licking his lips, “Like you’re a mouse trapped in a very elaborate laboratory?”

“A very interesting mouse,” New Boss says, leaning back in his seat with an amused smile. 

“You or me?”

New Boss smiles all the wider. “So,” he says, then looks as if he has to reach for a name. “Peter. Have you had pizza at Braz Elettrica before?”

“I feel as if I’ve missed a session on code phrases.”

“You strike me as a pepperoni kind of guy.” 

Neil can’t stop himself from squinting his eyes at that one. If it’s innuendo, it’s so ridiculously base that it undermines this grand image he’s already built of the man sat before him, looking for all the world like he’s got every piece of a puzzle Neil can’t even see. “More of a Neapolitan man myself,” Neil says, keeping his hands linked loosely in his lap. 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” New Boss says and, to his credit, looks like he really is filing that away as important information. 

There’s a moment’s silence, and Neil feels like he’s had his legs kicked out from under him at just how unsure this situation is. He gets the sudden and overwhelming feeling that he’s being played with, and he doesn’t like having to play catch up. “Is there,” a reason I’m here , he doesn’t finish. “I was told that you scouted me.”

“I did.”

“Because you couldn’t find a date to accompany you to your favourite pizza place?”

“You should be so lucky.”

Neil hums, and feels like maybe he’s finding his footing again. Banter, quick and light, he can do that. “I’d have to know your name first.”

“You can call me the Protagonist.”

“Does that turn many people on?”

“Currently just one, but I’m working on two.”

“Hmm.” 

New Boss, the Protagonist, looks like he wants to continue this game, baiting Neil, but he holds himself back. “I’m going to take you somewhere after this.”

“So soon after the onboarding process? What will the gossip mongers say?”

“Your mind is going to be blown.”

“Just my mind?”

“You’ll have to allow me the indulgence; this won’t make any sense to you, and I have to revel in that while I can.”

“Certainly an interesting kink.”

“I asked myself how long I was going to prolong it, wait you out. Test you, get to know you before I told you. But you were right, this is reality. And there’s no time like the present.”

“Am I allowed to admit that I am very much confused by this conversation or will that ruin your fun?” Neil asks. 

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Neil — my apologies, sorry, Peter.

Neil keeps his practised smile as-is. Either the Protagonist has had a damn lucky accident or Neil has been very, very made. Judging by the taunt in the Protagonist’s expression, it’s the latter. 

“If you know I’ve been sent to gather intel on you, why meet me?” Neil asks. 

“I wasn’t sure how I was going to draw you out of the woodworks,” the Protagonist says. “Agonised for months about how to get you to meet me without you taking me out the second you saw me. But you offered yourself up to me on a silver plate instead. Some would call that fate.”

“Some would call it an Intelligence Network setting its sights on an unnamed and as of yet unmasked mastermind.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere.” 

“What annoys me,” Neil says, dropping his habitual smile for something akin to open petulance, an extreme rarity in his public expressions, “Is that I can tell you’re not just being a cocky shit. You know something. Something big.”

If Neil thought the Protagonist looked smug before, he is unprepared for the pure delight that runs its way through the Protagonist’s laugh. The man is already turning to wave down a waiter, telling him to pack their order to go. “I can’t wait to show you,” the Protagonist tells Neil with genuine thrill in his voice, so fast it’s like he can’t get the words out fast enough. “You’re going to— this is going to—” The Protagonist bites his lip to restrain the words, then turns back to pin Neil with a look of open and single-minded adoration. “You’re going to love it.”

-

It isn’t ‘New Boss’, but it’s so damn near the same problem that Neil considers then and there whether he should cut the arm off at the elbow. 

The Protagonist has taken him to a University of all places, and Neil had taken the opportunity to use the bathroom before whatever Big Reveal is about to happen to check how Fucked he is. 

Pretty Damn Fucked, he confirms when he sees ‘The Protagonist’, fresh and red against the faint blue of his veins. He indulges himself with a deep in breath and a long exhale, really relishing the stale scent of piss and air freshener in the air. 

He glares at the words as if that’ll make them reverse through time, ink fading back to pale flesh, but he can’t kid himself, let alone the universe, so he rolls his sleeve back up, tightens the cuff as tight as he can, and straightens himself out. 

He runs a hand through his hair which, this morning, was perfectly slick but now he fears is anxiety-dishevelled, gives himself a light slap on the cheeks to get some colour back in them and heads once more unto the breach. 

-

Neil hasn’t asked. He hasn’t wanted to know. 

There is a reason why the Protagonist keeps an undershirt on when they change costumes together, and Neil can only assume that the white material masks a name that is not his. Neil respects this man too much to break his trust by looking, by forcing something; and in some way to not see it, to not know, helps to mask the hurt. 

For now he has The Protagonist, has a monopoly on him, and he is unendingly thankful for every second they have together; both as partners and in this mortal realm. No matter how intelligent the Protagonist thinks Neil is, it takes more than a month to even grasp the concept of Tenet. He can’t wave his hand over inverted bullets the way the Protagonist can, imagining he’s dropping them instead of catching them. He can’t dodge a hit for shit, and his heavily-bruised skin is proof.

He’s marked all over, sharp nicks from hidden blades, mottled skin bruised in every colour of the rainbow. He’s got a particularly beautiful red eye from a broom handle an inverted Protagonist had whacked him with, looking for all the world like he’s doing some fairly dramatic experimentation with eyeshadow. 

It means the Protagonist hasn’t been able to move on to recruiting others, though, and Neil can’t find himself particularly upset by it. Being the object of the Protagonist’s intense focus is a thrill in and of itself. 

They’re flirting, now, too, he’s sure of it. It’s frustrating, watching the Protagonist pull up every time they get just close enough, when Neil thinks maybe this time — 

But it never is, and it is absolutely wrecking Neil in ways he can’t quite articulate. 

The Protagonist knocks him on his back for the twelfth time in two minutes and he huffs a breath that verges too close to disappointment for Neil’s comfort. Neil’s chest hurts, breathing hurts, here, even hooked up to a tank, and his body feels foreign, like he’s fighting wearing the carcass of an animal. He hates it here. And, he thinks, if it wasn’t for how disrespectfully handsome the Protagonist was, Neil would have given up weeks ago. 

Neil likes a challenge. Loves a challenge, in fact. Loves to fix and to tinker and to orchestrate back-breaking projects that only one, maybe two people in the world can ever fully appreciate. Tenet is so much grander, so much more fractal than Neil could ever begin to fully appreciate and he so desperately wants to get it , to get it like the Protagonist so obviously does. 

Neil releases the tension in his body, letting the unloaded gun he’d been practising with drop to the concrete floor, feeling the cool ground sap some of the heat from his sweaty skin. He closes his eyes and wrests an arm over his eyes as he breathes, letting his body come back to some sort of calm. 

The Protagonist is waiting for something, Neil can feel it. For some realisation, for the other shoe to drop, but Neil can’t get his brain to work fast enough. Why it feels like the Protagonist is always ten steps ahead of him — ten weeks, ten years ahead every step of the way. Eking him on with half-said omens about the future, mystical phrases mixed in with paradoxes that the Protagonist never just answers , even though he always sounds like he’s talking from-

Like he’s talking from the future. 

“It’s not about whether we can talk to the future,” the Protagonist had said, “It’s about whether the future can talk back.”

Neil wipes the sweat from his brow with his sleeve, then rolls both sleeves up. “You’re not from around here,” he accuses. 

“Took you long enough,” the Protagonist says from far closer than Neil expects. He feels rough fingers take his hand, the Protagonist joining their right hands together. 

“Future me is a goddamn narc,” Neil says, still refusing to open his eyes. Refusing, or too coward. He’s not entirely sure he’ll be able to handle whatever expression is hovering a few feet from his face, or what embarrassing noise he’ll make if he has to experience it first hand. 

He is, however, intrigued to hear the Protagonist take a breath, almost like he’s been shocked. Neil jolts when he feels the reverent way the Protagonist ghosts his breath to the pale skin of Neil’s wrist, bottom lip the faintest softness as it glances across the letters of his name. 

“This is categorically unfair,” Neil tells him, swallowing thickly. 

“I didn’t know,” the Protagonist says, barely a whisper. 

“Mister The Future didn’t know? Pull the other one.”

“I didn’t,” the Protagonist insists, punctuating his words with another kiss to his name. “You should have told me.”

“That I have the Head Operative of my new Organisation as my soulmate?”

“That it’s me .”

Neil can’t help but take the bait that time, cracking his eyes open to take a peek at the Protagonist. He’s kneeling beside Neil like he’s praying, their hands linked together. And — and the look of adoration hasn’t changed. It hasn’t become brighter, or more real, it is every bit as loving as it has been since day one.

“You and I—”

“Not yet,” the Protagonist says. “This is our middle.” 

“Well,” Neil says, and for the first time in a month he feels that feeling of being powerfully overwhelmed begin to fade. “Here’s to a long and beautiful friendship.”

“Yes,” the Protagonist says, nodding desperately. “ Yes .”

-

The thick hair of the Protagonist’s beard, well-groomed, conditioned to softness still burns familiar as they kiss. Neil chases after it, hands to the back of the Protagonist’s neck, urging him to press closer, to set his skin alight; the chaff of friction balmed when they’re followed by butter-soft kisses.

Neil pulls back, takes the Protagonist in; lying back on the white sheets where he’s straddled, broad arms relaxed and tucked behind his head, black underwear tight and hiding nothing, stark and beautiful and so, so at ease. 

Neil runs his fingers through the tight coils of the Protagonist’s hair, brushes a thumb to the apple of his cheek, swipes down to press a thumbprint into his kiss-slick lips. 

“You’re not nearly worked up enough,” Neil says, dragging the Protagonist’s lip down until he feels the man huff a laugh. 

“Is that a threat or a promise?” the Protagonist asks, never dropping Neil’s eye even as he licks at Neil’s thumb, slow and curling. Neil’s breath catches and he dips close again, feeling the smug smile on the Protagonist’s lips as they kiss; just as planned, again. Bastard.

Neil breaks away, determined, and fixes the Protagonist, his Protagonist, with his most serious look before wordlessly moving himself back, until he’s cradled between the Protagonist’s bent knees. He puts a hand to one well-turned calf, massaging his way up the Protagonist’s toned calf, digging into the scars across his thick thighs. He feels the Protagonist stiffen then gradually relax into it, until on one eased knot the Protagonist lets out a low, thankful moan.

“If I knew you came with a free massage, I’d have made my move sooner.”

“That’s what did it for you?” Neil asks, attempting to sound pissed but more than delighted that the Protagonist is falling apart under his hands. Neil feels every inch like the cat who’s got the cream, has to slow himself down so he can draw this out, unravel this man until he’s lost every bit of that infuriatingly ever-present composure.

Neil moves his hands to the Protagonist’s clothed stomach, spreading his hands like a butterfly over the planes of his abdomen, thumbs rubbing soothing circles into untensing muscles. 

And, once the Protagonist is distracted, dazed and half-dreaming, Neil lowers himself and ghosts hot breath against the Protagonist’s clothed cock. He anticipates the jolt and grins as the Protagonist gasps out a “God, Neil. Some warning-” before pressing his lips against the head of the Protagonist’s dick, feather-light and teasing against the dampness he can feel through the fabric. He laps at the Protagonist’s dick, forcing himself to go slow, his nose pressing sweet friction as he begins to nip lower, teeth pinching skin and underwear together, lower, lower until he can lift the Protagonist up, rest his legs on his shoulders and dip his tongue into the Protagonist’s ass, pressing, insistent, until the Protagonist squirms.

“Neil, please-”

“Anything, for you, anything,” Neil promises.

“I want to see you,” the Protagonist says, voice husky, so much further gone than Neil could have thought, could have imagined. “I want to watch you open yourself for me.”

“Hm,” Neil says, grinding a hand against the Protagonist’s dick as he pretends to think about it. “Sure you can last?”

“Neil,” the Protagonist says, and it’s so very close to an order that Neil’s chest tightens with anticipation. 

He brings himself up to straddle the Protagonist’s hips, pressing down, once, for good measure, feeling the Protagonist’s heat against his hole. 

The Protagonist reaches a hand out, scrabbles against the sideboard until he finds their hastily-bought lube, clicks the lid open to squeeze some into his own palm, warming it before taking Neil’s hand and slicking his fingers. 

Neil pushes the back of his underwear down, teases his hole with a finger as the Protagonist’s hands come up to hold him steady.

“Good, Neil, so good for me. Going slow, letting me see.”

Neil gasps as he dips a first finger in, tilting forward to get a better angle, closer, closer until the Protagonist can half rise from his position, can catch Neil’s bottom lip between his teeth and to bite, gently, to pull and to kiss as Neil works himself open, slipping to a second joint, then to a second tip as the Protagonist’s hand rises to Neil’s chest, nail grazing against Neil’s nipple, timing the scratch with Neil’s pace. 

Neil rides himself, half-risen from the Protagonist’s cock, the tight elastic of his own underwear an unbearable friction against his own desperate, untouched dick.

"God, Neil, you’re so- you’re perfect, you’re so good to me,” the Protagonist keens, strong hands pulling Neil closer so he can nip at his nipples, beard scraping against his sensitive flesh and sending Neil shuddering. 

Neil pushes the Protagonist’s underwear down, takes his dick in hand, wishes he could kiss it again, lips to skin this time, but he can’t wait, needs to feel him inside, to feel stretched and full. He takes the lube from where it’s been abandoned, is too hasty in slicking the Protagonist up and gets a hiss as the cold lube meets dick. 

“Sorry,” Neil laughs, and then he’s unable to stop laughing, because they’ve both — they both wanted to go so slow, and Neil was so unbearably charmed that the Protagonist would warm his fingers for him, would think that far ahead and here Neil is, desperate and unmade on top of the Protagonist. 

The Protagonist huffs a laugh too, falling back against the bed as if laughing has taken the steam out of him. “Hey,” Neil says, once he’s — if not caught his breath, not outright verging into hysterics. “Hey,” he says again, until he sees the Protagonist open one curious eye. 

Neil presses a kiss to the long line of the Protagonist’s neck, takes a deep breath of the Protagonist's skin as he works a bruise, there, sucking until he can feel the Protagonist’s heartbeat against his lips, hand slowly working the Protagonist’s cock between them. “Okay?” he asks. 

Yes ,” the Protagonist says, and Neil kisses him, sweet and slow as he rocks himself onto the Protagonist’s dick, breathing in tandem, slick foreheads pressed tightly together. Neil moans into the Protagonist’s mouth as he rides him, the muscles in his legs protesting at the laboriously slow pace they take, but the crests and falls are all the more blissful for it; another challenge for his body to relish. 

Neil loses track of the world, loses track of everything but the Protagonist below him, the burn, the coil in his gut. He slips his still-lubed hand down his own dick, has to pinch himself because-

“Together,” the Protagonist says. “Together, Neil, I want-”

“Together,” Neil agrees, and it isn’t long before they can last no longer, crashing together through orgasm, Neil unapologetically loud and dirty as he comes, the Protagonist, pleasingly, no less undone. 

Neil takes a moment to breath, and then he’s laughing again, though this time more an elated giggle as he unseats himself, kissing fevered kisses to the Protagonist’s face. “How’s that, you elegant fuck,” Neil says, so deeply aware of how much he loves this man. 

The Protagonist catches the giggles from him, but at least has the wherewithal to remove Neil’s underwear the rest of the way, using the fabric to wipe his come from Neil’s ass, unendingly delicate before pulling Neil down onto the mattress with him.

“I love you, Neil,” the Protagonist says, thumb wiping across his name on Neil’s wrist. “I love you.”

“Yeah,” Neil says, and he can’t believe he’s going to have his heart so thoroughly broken after such great sex. Because this can’t last, not when the Protagonist’s love is temporary, when any moment his true soul mate might appear to dislodge Neil from his place in his heart. “One day you won’t, though,” his traitorous mouth says, and he brings his wrist up to bite it, like doing so will jam the words back in. 

“What?” the Protagonist says, then repeats it, sounding so thoroughly confused and, worse, worried. 

“It’s unreciprocal, isn’t it,” Neil says, biting down on the tattoo, hard, not wanting the words to survive this night. Better to harden his heart now, than to have it broken later down the line once he’s become accustomed to the love. “That’s why you won’t show me yours.”

The Protagonist goes eerily silent, which is all Neil needs to hear to know he’s guessed right. He feels the Protagonist’s rough, work-man fingers rest on the back of his hand, and Neil tries to flinch away but the Protagonist catches him. The Protagonist guides Neil’s resisting hand to his stomach and up, pushing the material of the sweat-damp undershirt up to show a sliver of smooth skin. 

Neil’s stomach flips and he fists his hand, refusing to go further. He doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to see. Not now; not ever. And if this is the Protagonist’s way of letting him down, telling him that they can no longer do this, see each other this way — 

Neil will accept it, but he doesn’t want to see. 

"Neil,” the Protagonist says, ever-soft. 

“This is cruel,” Neil says, even as his hand is guided, the Protagonist’s shirt riding higher over the broad expanse of his chest. 

“You have ‘The Protagonist’,” he tells Neil, “Your name for me. Your thought of me. I have a name for you, too, Neil. I thought — I thought it would be too heavy for you, that I’d be forcing a weight on your shoulders. That you’d have to carry the name, and I didn’t want that for you. But this is who you are for me, Neil. This is you.”

Neil finds himself meeting the Protagonist’s steady gaze, and he can’t not trust the undisguised sincerity resting there. He takes a breath and rises onto his side so he’s on one elbow, dragging his eyes up the Protagonist's body until he sees their tangled hands on the Protagonist’s chest, and then the words written above them. 

‘Reality’ etched into the Protagonist’s skin in a clear cursive in fine, light ink, the colour almost like a new scar. Compact and pride of place across the Protagonist’s heart, steady and real. 

“I got it the first time I met you,” the Protagonist admits. “In India, in your future. Wait for it. I feel it when we’re about to bungee jump off a building. It’s the first time you touch me, when you’re strapping me in. I thought I was going to die and it was the Universe’s cruel joke.”

“You don’t realise you’ve got your mark?”

“Not until after it’s all over,” the Protagonist says. “I feel like a real idiot, just so you know. And hey, you’re going to have to go through a couple of gruelling weeks where I’m the oblivious, unreciprocated idiot, so prepare yourself.”

Neil can’t help but grin as he falls back in the bed. He’s going to have so much fun. “Hey,” he says. “Retribution. That does make me feel better.”

-

“What do you think it feels like?” Neil asks, voice already thick with sleep, “To ride dick in Inverse?”

“Hm,” the Protagonist says, interest obviously piqued but so blissfully fucked out that he can’t quite rise to the thought experiment. “Interesting.”

“That’s it?”

“Thinking can happen tomorrow, Neil.”

Neil hums, wrapping himself closer around the Protagonist, nipping sleeping kisses into his shoulder. “Guess we’ll have to innovate another field.”

“Guess we will,” the Protagonist agrees.