“This whole organization is one enormous temporal pincer movement. Every single agent, including us, knows only what is necessary for the operation to succeed.”
Neil sits in the Protagonist’s lap and kisses him. “I know, dear. Why are you telling me this again?”
The Protagonist smiles and caresses Neil’s cheek. “Because there is information only known by a select few. Should something happen to these people…”
“The whole operation would collapse. I get it. Better protect them, right?” Neil returns the Protagonist’s smile. “Again, why are you telling me this? I must admit I had something else in mind than strategy talks when I you invited me to your office. On Friday evening. At 7pm.”
“No, Neil. I invited you to tell you about the Archive. At 7pm Friday, because I knew the office would be empty.”
“All right, then. What about an archive? Tenet has multiple, as far as I’m aware.”
“The Archive is in the basement of this building. It contains highly volatile information of both past and future operations. It is our failsafe system. If someone holding critical information of a future event dies, an agent is sent down there to retrieve that information”, the Protagonist explains with a serious expression on his face.
“It is. That is why it isn’t common knowledge.” The Protagonist sighs. “However, next Tuesday, an operation will go down in Philadelphia. Agent Fawkes used to know all about it, but as you no doubt know, she was killed a week ago. I need you to go down to the Archive and find out what she knew.”
“You need me to be Fawkes?”
Neil takes the elevator down and enters the heavily guarded vault. He finds the files, and after he is done reading, he can no longer blame agent Fawkes for her eternal grumpiness. Poor woman. It must have been – it will be horrible. In a wrinkly piece of paper, handwritten by Fawkes, something catches his eye.
At 10 am on the final day, we enter the military base. Our team consists of myself, agent Wheeler, agent Smith and agent Callaghan. We meet up with the soldier behind the leaks. He tells us he is with Tenet as well – recruited a couple of years from now, just before the Stalsk-12 incident. According to him, this operation has something to do with what was discovered that day. I do not know what it is, but I recommend you, in the past, to find out – this is not a simple case of smuggling as we had previously thought. This might be extremely serious. - Agent A. Fawkes.
Neil bites his lip. Stalsk-12? I think I saw a file labelled that somewhere here… He goes through the dusty shelves, and eventually finds the file. He rifles through the documents, most of them written by the Protagonist. He notices his own name and starts reading.
The door of the Archive opens. The Protagonist steps in. “Did you find it?” he asks.
“Yes, I did. Fawkes thought there was more relevant information to be found elsewhere.” Neil shows the folder and continues, still eyeing the text. “Stalsk-12. Apparently, something both of us will be part of, I admit I probably shouldn’t be reading this.”
The Protagonist freezes. He recognizes the file in Neil’s hands. He tries to stop him, but as horror and desperation spread across Neil’s pale face, he knows it’s too late to save his lover from the truth.
“Neil, I’m so sorry.”
“This says I died. That I was shot.” Neil’s voice trembles and his hands shake.
“So that’s why I was never given the test? To see if I would be willing to die for Tenet?”
“No. I already knew you are.”
“You didn’t, though. You knew I would die for Tenet. You never asked if I was willing.”
The Protagonist shakes his head. “I know I can trust you. I know you’ll do what’s right. I know you, Neil.” He tries to pat Neil’s shoulder, an empty gesture of supposed comfort, but Neil dodges his touch.
“But that’s where you’re wrong. I am not just your memory, a reminder of someone you used to love. I am a real, breathing, living, actual person, and I did not sign up for this shit.” Angry tears fill Neil’s eyes.
“I know. But eventually, you will be my Neil. It has already happened.”
“And then what, you win?” Neil’s face is distorted by rage.
“Losing you was never a victory. But like I said, it has already happened.”
“No need to ask me, then?” Neil laughs, a mocking, hollow laugh. “You’ll regret that.”
Neil storms out of the room. And the Protagonist is left to wonder how their beautiful friendship could have gone so wrong.
Sabotaged operations, destroyed safe houses, hacked databases. Someone is out there doing their damnedest to destroy Tenet, and in many cases, they are very close to succeeding.
The Protagonist waits for Neil to return, but months pass by, and he is nowhere to be found. The attacks against Tenet grow more frequent. Some agents start to connect the dots, but he denies any accusations towards Neil. They don’t know him like I do. He’ll return, any day now.
“It has nothing to do with him. Don’t you dare even imply that he would do this”, the Protagonist snaps at Ives.
“He’s nowhere to be found, and clearly he prefers it that way. He found out how and when he will die. That can mess anyone up. Even a man as good as Neil.” Ives argues.
The denial gets harder to uphold as bodies of Tenet operatives start to appear all over the world. Some shot, some tortured to death, some poisoned, but every single one of them left to a public place to be found, with a metal trinket on a red string wrapped around their little finger.
“Someone’s trying to frame him”, the Protagonist insists, and does little to stop the killer.
For a while, Neil gets his amusement from the mindless killing and destruction alone. The thought of Tenet losing resources excites him, and he has no trouble imagining himself as the hero of the story. But as time passes and Tenet does nothing to stop him, Neil gets impatient. The point was to make him suffer. I don’t see any tears. In his quest to get a reaction out of Tenet, out of the Protagonist, he kidnaps a high-ranking agent, ties him to a chair and approaches him with a dagger in his hand.
“Where are your henchmen? Shouldn’t you always have a couple of those in an evil lair?” the agent inquires, trying to turn the situation into something beneficial for Tenet.
Neil hums and shakes his head. “I work alone. I know better than to involve other people in my personal warfare.”
“Yes, you really are saint, aren’t you?” The agent glares at Neil. “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”
Neil laughs. “Oh no, no. I am not responsible for your death. You were already doomed the minute Tenet decided to recruit you. That was the day your fate was sealed, not today. I might finish the job, but never forget, it was Tenet that killed you.” Neil steps towards the agent. “Believe me, I am sorry that this happened to you. I know how much it hurts.”
With a swift movement, he slashes the agent’s throat. “It’s not right.” Neil carefully places the trinket between the agent’s fingers and caresses his face softly. “I am truly sorry. I’ll make sure he pays for this.” He writes a note with the agent’s blood, folds the paper and attaches it to the trinket.
Do you regret it now?
The note is delivered to Tenet headquarters with pictures from the crime scene. Ives is tasked with telling the Protagonist, an ungrateful assignment no one wanted. He hands the envelope to his boss, takes a few steps back and hides his own emotions.
The Protagonist shifts trough the papers and shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Ives. I should have listened to you.”
“It’s fine, sir. No one expected… No one wanted to believe it.”
“I should have known.”
Ives shrugs. “But you chose to see the good in him. You might regret it now, but if it makes you feel any better, I regret how quickly I was willing to judge him. He was my friend too, you know.”
“I know. I met him in the future.”
“But I didn’t, apparently. What happened, didn’t happen. That wonderful, lovely, kind Neil I thought I knew… Apparently, he never existed.” The Protagonist slumps into his chair and covers his eyes with his hands.
“I think he did, at one point. The Neil I knew, back when we trained together… I think he really was a good person.” Ives takes one of the pictures to his hands. A picture of a slit throat. “But that monster is not him. Not anymore. I… We need to remember that. There is no way this Neil will ever do anything for Tenet again.”
The Protagonist doesn’t have it in him to argue.
When Tenet gains intelligence about Neil’s whereabouts, the Protagonist insists to be the one to take him down. “He’s my responsibility. I created him.”
They track Neil down to an abandoned mall. The Protagonist steps in, refusing any offers for backup. He finds Neil sitting on a bench in the middle of the complex. Neil is dressed in a black suit, with a silky red dress shirt underneath. The red of the shirt matches perfectly the colour of blood soaking the floor, pouring from the freshly killed bodies under his feet. The Protagonist recognizes the bodies as the team of agents that had tracked Neil down. Neil smiles, his whole demeanour content and relaxed, and Protagonist’s heart races. He is filled with anger, but he cannot deny how relieved he is to see Neil alive.
“You wanted me to come, didn’t you?”
Neil nods, still smiling his sickeningly sweet smile. “And you came, like a good little soldier.”
“I missed you. I wanted to see you. I wanted to make sure that you know, without a doubt, that all this”, Neil gestures towards the bodies, “is your punishment. That you have no one else to blame but yourself.”
The Protagonist tries to ignore his murdered agents and focuses his eyes on Neil. “Now I’m here. Are you happy now? Have you gotten enough revenge?”
“Not really, my beloved.” Neil stands up. He walks to the Protagonist and grabs his chin. “Aren’t we having fun, though? Why would you want it to end?” His thumb brushes the Protagonist’s lips with intimidating tenderness.
“Do you seriously think you can just walk away from this?”
Neil smiles and nods. “Or course. I came prepared. I have a dead man’s switch back home. If I won’t confirm that I am alive and well in next forty-five minutes, it will go off.”
“And then what?”
“Well, dear, you’ll just have to find out.”
The Protagonist shakes his head. “Isn’t that a little bit dramatic?”
Neil smiles again, this time, the smile seeming almost genuine. “God, I hope so.”
“Every good Protagonist needs an Antagonist.”
“I already have an antagonist. His name is Sator.”
Rage surges through Neil’s body. He grabs the Protagonist’s chin again, the previous tenderness gone. “When I am done, Sator will be the least of your worries”, he hisses.
Neil marches away, and Tenet troops storm the building.
Neil is a man of his word, and after their encounter in the mall, the amount of bodies found increases rapidly. No base of Tenet’s is safe as Neil’s rage sweeps through the ruins of the once formidable organization. The Protagonist forbids all agents from going after Neil. He doesn’t know if he tries to protect his remaining agents from Neil, or Neil from his agents, but no one dares to defy his orders.
As the day of Neil’s supposed death draws closer, his actions become more erratic. Afraid that he doesn’t have the time for all the destruction he wants to cause, he becomes reckless, careless, and finally, the Protagonist finds him in his base, unprepared for visitors.
Neil fights back, but he had always fought better with his brain than his brawn, and soon he finds himself pinned against the ground, unarmed. He expects his world to go dark. Ironic, isn’t it? I will always die to a bullet to the head. It will always be his fault. He squeezes his eyes shut, expecting a shot that never comes. Instead he feels strong arms wrapping around him, pulling him closer. He feels his sworn enemy burying his face into his blonde hair. Neil thinks he feels a tear falling, but why would the Protagonist cry? Shouldn’t he be happy, now that Neil was defeated?
“Neil, dear, please. Run away, hide, do whatever, but don’t make me kill you. I cannot kill you. Please, Neil. I know you hate me, but please, please, don’t make me shoot you, please.”
Neil wants to struggle, to punch the man holding him, but for reasons unknown to him, he feels too content to do so. He wants to scream, but he can’t, the moment being too precious to disturb.
“I’m scared”, he whispers.
“I know”, the Protagonist answers, petting his hair gently.
“I don’t want to die.”
The Protagonist lifts Neil up and carries him into his car. He drives them to Tenet’s nearest base and hides Neil in his private quarters. Neil sits in silence on his bed as the Protagonist tends to his wounds. He flinches when the Protagonist’s fingers caress the bruises on his ribs.
“You have killed a lot of people”, the Protagonist says.
Neil shrugs. “So have you.”
“It’s not the same and you know it. I kill to save others; you do it simply because you cannot accept your own mortality.”
“Do you want to have an argument? Because you know I’m always happy to call you a monster.”
The Protagonist stares at Neil for a while. “Not really. I guess we are past that point.”
“Thought so”, Neil says and shoots a glare at the Protagonist. “Are you finished with that?”
The Protagonist tapes the bandage around Neil’s rib cage and nods. He gathers the excess bandages, washes his hands, and pours two glasses of whiskey.
“How much more guilt are you going to inflict on me?” the Protagonist asks as he hands the glass to Neil.
“I don’t need you to feel guilty.”
“What do you need, then?”
Neil bites his lip in an uncharacteristic display of shyness. “I need you to save me”, he admits.
“I want to, so much. But I don’t think I can.”
“You tell yourself that you want to”, Neil says, takes a sip from his glass and continues. “But your actions speak louder than your words. You say you want to save me, yet, you recruit me to die. In the end, you are far too focused on saving the world to truly care about what happens to us who are caught in the crossfire.” Neil lifts his gaze, stares straight into the Protagonist’s eyes. “It’s okay. It’s who you are. I am at fault for once thinking otherwise.”
The Protagonist stays silent for a long time. He examines his glass, his fingernails, the curtains of the room, anything but Neil’s accusing face. “You know, I didn’t even want to recruit you. I did my best to avoid that. And when it became obvious that it could not be avoided, I started to research ways of saving you. I never wanted you to die. I just thought that there was no way of stopping you from going to Stalsk-12.” A long sip of whiskey, and a tear. “Had I known it was as easy as telling you to fuck off, I would have done that. I didn’t want to lie to you. I just didn’t want you to live in fear, either.”
Neil looks away from the Protagonist. “So, your solution was simply to not tell me? Send me to my death without a warning?”
“I was planning on telling you. A little later. It was too early, I should have hidden the information better.”
“So early that I wasn’t indoctrinated enough to accept my death for the glory of the cult of Tenet?”
“So early that you didn’t have the strength to accept that what’s happened, happened. You were too fragile. You still are.”
Neil laughs, downs his drink and extends his middle finger gracefully. “Don’t quit your day job. You make an awful therapist.”
The Protagonist knows better than to argue. He should know better than to let someone like Neil roam around a Tenet base. “I should take you to a cell”, he says, and makes no effort to leave the room.
“That’s what you are going to do to me, isn’t it? Lock me up for life? Or just execute me?”
Even in all his arrogance, Neil looks so small, sitting on the bed, covered in bandages. There is no remorse in his eyes, but there is a hint of fear and sadness. Without answering, the Protagonist sits down and wraps his arm around him. Neil leans into the touch.
“You know, I’ve dreamed of killing you for so long”, he says, staring into emptiness.
“You could do it now.” I probably couldn’t stop you, the Protagonist adds in his thoughts.
“I know. But I’ve realized that as much as I want to kill you, simultaneously, I don’t want you to be gone. If that… If that makes any sense to you. Maybe I’m too used to finding purpose in hating you.”
The Protagonist smiles, as if Neil had just confessed his undying love. “It does make sense.” For a moment they sit in comfortable silence. “We could just… Sleep. I don’t know. Figure out what to do with you tomorrow.”
Neil snorts. “What, you want to cuddle? For old time’s sake?”
“As if I had anyone else to fall asleep with. You are all I’ve ever had”, The Protagonist says. His words are filled with grief, but his voice betrays no emotion.
Neil takes the Protagonist’s face in his hands. He caresses him, eyes wide and sad. More reminiscent of the young, innocent, long gone Neil. “Don’t you think it’s time to let me go?”
The Protagonist has no answer. He pulls Neil into a kiss.
Next morning, the Protagonist wakes up alone. “At least I’m alive”, he mutters under his breath, as he looks erratically around the room, trying to find a sign of Neil. He checks the bathroom, the kitchen closet, and finds nothing. Neil’s gone, and the Protagonist curses at himself for being so naïve. A single angry tear falls to his check. He notices a piece of paper on the bedside table and picks it up.
The Protagonist steps out of his quarters, expecting to find a trail of dead Tenet operatives. Instead, only one guard sits on the floor, unconscious but relatively unharmed. No trinket between his fingers. No destruction to be seen.
As if Neil was never there. The Protagonist realizes where Neil has gone, and the lonely tear finds company. What’s happened, happened.
One shot in Kiev opera house, and Neil has saved the Protagonist. As tempting as it would have been to just shoot him, Neil feels a bit proud to be the one to save the great, glorious Protagonist. He runs away and wonders, if he noticed the trinket in his backpack. Of course he did. Always so infuriatingly observant.
The Protagonist doesn’t recognize Neil and Neil hates how much it hurts. For a moment he contemplates letting the Protagonist kill his future self, but still, he saves the man from himself. What’s happened, happened, he thinks, and shudders in fear.
Ives, of course, recognizes him, but under the Protagonist’s strict orders he keeps most of his opinions to himself. “I’m glad you’ve come to your senses”, he simply says, and Neil chooses to ignore him.
Neil considers letting Kat die, but decides against it. After all, the woman was dragged into this mess as unwillingly as he was, and Neil pities her. The Protagonist has countless questions, and Neil does his best to answer them. Like a good little soldier, he thinks, and loathes himself for a moment.
When the Protagonist realizes Neil is going to die, his face is filled with sorrow. Neil’s heart aches a little, but mostly, he finds it amusing. All these years I wanted to hurt you. I went through all that trouble to get to you. Had I known that dying was all I needed to do to make you cry…
He wants to laugh, but he keeps a straight face. “We get up to some stuff”, and it technically is true. I mean, there is stuff. Bad stuff mostly, but stuff, nevertheless.
“You’ll love it”, he says, hoping he isn’t lying. I loved it, at least. I loved the games, I loved your attention, I loved to hate you.
He smiles, the Protagonist cries, and he walks away. Neil had feared this day for years, but now that it was here, it all seemed so natural. As if I never had any other choice, he thinks and tries not to burst into desperate laughter. He finds the turnstile and walks through. He makes his way through the battlefield and thinks about flowers. I want roses. I want red roses and white lilies. And a white coffin. It will look good with the red. He ignores the little voice in his head telling him that he will not have a funeral, a coffin, or even a grave. He wonders, if the chrysanthemums should be red or white. Or maybe blue? Yes, I want them to be blue.
Neil opens the door, just like he is supposed to. He steps in front the bullet, like he was always meant to.
He had hoped that it would be painless.
It is not.
He sees the Protagonist, standing behind the door in all his righteous glory. It’s been a pleasure to despise you, my love.