The adrenaline finally starts to abate after Neil puts him—him, nameless again, somehow both more and less painful to think of him like that—on the 2:30am flight from Mumbai to London. He gets back in the car, and even gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles are white can't stop his fingers shaking. It takes three tries to hit the right buttons to call the only number saved in his phone.
Only once it's ringing does Neil start to think about timezones, but he doesn't even know where the icebreaker is right now, so the question is meaningless. Ives answers on the third ring anyway. "It went fine," he says, no preamble.
"You can't know that," Neil objects, but the words huff out of him, carrying a slice of his nerves with them.
The thread of amusement in Ives' voice is only there if you know what you're looking for. "It's been hours, you don't think I've seen and double-checked the scrubbing of the security footage from the Singh building already?"
Neil leans back in the driver's seat. "That's not what I meant."
A moment of quiet on the other end of the line. At this end, an aeroplane whines overhead. Possibly on its way to London. Possibly carrying the man who isn't quite the man Neil knew, and who he might not ever see again.
"I know," Ives says.
After that, he's quiet again. Not silent—if Neil listens closely, he can hear the shuffle of paper or fabric, a distant murmur of voices, little squeaks and clinks, the steady sound of Ives breathing. He wonders what's going on there. What Ives was doing that he interrupted. What Ives is still doing, even while on the phone with him. Probably something sensible, workmanlike, essential, unthinking.
The quiet doesn't bother Neil like he expects it to. He would be talking; they'd be going back and forth, the push and pull of ideas and words and counter-suggestions working its own unknotting on whatever was bothering Neil. They'd almost had it, a time or two this evening—Neil's nerves sang like a lock yielding each time, which had made the jangle of falling out of alignment all the worse. Not the same, not really him, it would never be him again, couldn't be...
Neil's breathing is a rasp in his throat. Ives swears barely loud enough to be heard; there's a louder clunk, as of something heavy being set down. "Where are you?" he asks.
"Mumbai," Neil manages, purely powered by the surprise of as you fucking know.
"Location and timestamp," Ives snaps, like he has a hundred times on a hundred jobs.
And well-drilled habit has Neil rattling off the time on his watch (always synced to the international standard), tilting his head to see the location markers in the carpark. Even as the syllables leave his mouth, he's adding, "But you can't—"
The phone line goes dead. Actually silent. It allows Neil to hear the sound of footsteps coming across the carpark.
Nice change to have something different to panic about.
He scrambles out of the car. It's nearly three in the morning—the carpark is barely a quarter full. Easy to spot the figure striding towards him. It's maybe the fifth time he's ever seen Ives out of fatigues, though even in slacks and a button-down, he carries himself like special forces.
Neil is sharply reminded of when he met Ives, squad leader on Neil's second ever job. A swift jolt of realising this guy could kill me and not blink. He's come a long way since then. He's learned a lot. But in this moment, he's still not sure.
Neil swallows. "You going to shoot me in an airport carpark?"
"What?" Ives frowns at him, short and sharp. "Don't be stupid. Give me the keys, or are you more right to drive than you sounded?"
Neil isn't sure he believes him, but it's actually a relief to hand over the carkeys. Like he's relinquishing responsibility entirely. A weight passes off him; Neil slumps into the passenger seat.
Ives doesn't drive far—just to one of the airport hotels, checks them into a twin. The room actually has a great view over the tarmac. Neil stares dully at the never-quenched lights, then turns his back on them, leans against the window. Watches Ives toss his backpack—the entirety of his luggage, from wherever he's come from—on one of the beds. "What? You inverted just to babysit me?"
"Yeah, logistics weren't too impressed either. But we don't actually have a more important operation going on right now. You know that. It's why you're so twitchy." Ives considers Neil, hands on hips. Neil always thinks of him as being bigger than Neil. Bigger than he is. "Well, one reason."
Neil rubs a hand over his face. He's not trembling right now, but the tangle of it all is still seething inside him. The residue of adrenaline, and the knotted-up tension of the job's knife-edge, and a whole day of being terrified of saying the wrong thing, and probably a whisper of hangover. And more. And worse. "He looked at me like I was anyone."
He's embarrassed about having said it as soon as the words leave his mouth. But Ives just watches him, steady as ever. "I know," he says, and if anyone does know—if anyone understands—it's Ives. Ives who was a fixture of Tenet by the time Neil was recruited. Ives who has dragged them both out of blazing trouble a dozen times. Ives who's the only person Neil's ever seen shout down the boss and not simply be worked around.
Ives who carried the body back when Neil couldn't.
"What was it like?" Neil asks. "Seeing him on the security footage."
There's the barest flicker of expression on Ives' face. "Like seeing a ghost."
"Worse than that." Neil shakes his head. Can barely get the words out around the knot rising in his throat. "An imposter. An impossibility. I'd catch him sidelong and feel like—" That's the problem. The feelings. He'd feel like it was him. Him. The moment later he'd be wrong again—half a beat too early, just a little not right. Every time layered over the last, and now Neil's body was wound tight with expectation, because if it had been him, if they'd been working together on a job, and Neil's plan of outrageous audacity had seen them through…
Well, right now he'd be in a different hotel room, with a different man, being backed up against the windows in an entirely different way. His blood's racing, fizzing beneath his skin, with absolutely nowhere to go. Neil wants to cry. He wants to scream. But neither is enough.
Ives closes the distance between them carefully, like he's very aware of stepping within striking distance. Or maybe it's the blast radius. Neil feels liable to explode.
"You can do this," Ives says. It's barely reassurance, the way he says it. A statement of fact. "You're going to do this. My job is to give you everything you need to get it done. So what do you need?" When Neil just blinks at him, an eyebrow twitches up. "C'mon. Push through this. What'll help? Bottle of vodka? Climb something stupid? Throw a punch?" He lifts his chin a little, beckoning; the universal sign for bring it on.
Neil barks a little laugh. "The number of times in my life I'd have been delighted to be invited to take a swing."
The little smile is almost hidden in Ives' beard. "One time offer, non-transferrable."
Neil's very tempted, to be honest. His heart's still racing, his fingers twitching; Ives is right, he needs something. There's not a lot of space in this hotel room for sparring, but they put down a credit card that can cover any damages without making accounts even blink.
Maybe Ives sees something—in Neil's expression, in the shift of his weight—because his smile turns just a little feral, and his weight shifts. Neil straightens, and tries to stay nonchalant, even as he launches. A feint, a genuine swing—that Ives shifts back just enough to avoid, of course—and then Neil's shoulder hits his chest. Barely makes him stagger back two steps. Neil crowds in, not willing to give up the advantage.
And it's on. Nothing elegant—he would have mocked both of them, but neither Neil nor Ives have specialised in one-on-one, hand-to-hand. Both of them had other priorities. And they'd had him, if efficient individual brutality was called for.
Now they don't.
Neil shoves that thought aside; easy when his blood is singing. He twists, trying to break the hold Ives has on him, to drive an elbow into his side. They stagger sideways, half bent over the little room's armchair, a struggle of leverage and balance, and Neil can feel every single atom of his own body—totally, screamingly alive—and every straining part of Ives engaged in wrestling with him. It's all physical, barely room to think at all. It's nearly perfect. Nearly.
He manages to jerk them sideways, dig the corner of the desk into Ives' kidneys, which earns him a sharp hiss of, "Cheeky!" and then Ives is laughing—and he's laughing—even as Ives levers him around, slams him into the wall hard enough to rattle the breath in Neil's lungs. Barely needs the follow-up—the restraining forearm across Neil's shoulder and throat, the weight pinning him, the thigh wedged between Neil's—
Neil only realises he's hard when the friction sends a jolt of pleasure through him like a lightning strike. He bites down on the moan, but from the sudden blankness of Ives' face, he needn't have bothered; it's obvious what sort of state he's in. Neil wasn't expecting this—wasn't expecting any of this—but his hips tilt of their own accord, grinding against Ives, and it feels blindingly good. Like enough sensation could wipe him entirely clean, no need to think or feel beyond the physical.
Even if it's just for a moment, he wants it. He needs it.
So when he feels Ives start letting go, start leaning back, he gasps, "Don't," and grabs for him, snags twisting fingers in the front of his shirt, a button biting into his knuckles.
Ives stops, but eases his leg away, and Neil could sob for that loss. As it is, the rasp of his breath is so loud he can barely hear Ives say, "Neil." Only when he says it again, louder, does Neil realise his eyes are closed tight. Blinks them open to Ives' serious face. Watching Neil steadily. Not retreating. Not judging. Just waiting.
Everything you need, he said earlier.
This is crazy. This is crazy. But what part of Neil's life—from the moment he met him for the first time—hasn't been? No different now that he's dead. He's dead, and Neil has to drink with his ghost, has to smile and plan and not ruin everything.
"Please," he gasps. "Help me stop thinking."
Not a thing about Ives' heavy gaze and steady face changes, but after a long moment—a moment that stretches into an awful eternity—he shifts closer again, and his hand presses over the front of Neil's trousers, fingers curving to the urgent shape of Neil's erection. Relief is a flood, with pleasure hard on its heels. The combination makes Neil's knees tremble; he tries not to sag, nor to lean into the press of Ives' hand.
Ives wrestles his trousers open—fingers fumbling on the fastenings like they absolutely wouldn't reassembling an assault rifle—and the first drag of skin on heated skin has Neil's head knocking back against the wall with an echoing thud. He lets go of Ives' shirt to grab his arm, feeling the muscles twitch and flex beneath his grip, holding on for dear life. Eyes closed again, hips tilting, a whine snagged at the back of his throat.
He's desperately embarrassed, and just plain desperate, all rolled into one.
Ives shifts back again, and Neil tightens his grip, says, "Don't you—" before he realises that Ives is just dropping to his knees. Neil feels the ghost of breath before wet heat closes over his cock; he gasps, lets go of Ives' arm to grab for his head instead, pushing fingertips through the rasp of his hair.
Only realises he's arched forward when Ives' hands land on his hips, gripping firmly, slamming him back against the wall. Holds him there, unyielding, as Ives swallows him down. Sets his rhythm, slow but building. The world slides out of coherence and into blood-red pressure and hot white sparks, luscious enfolding velvet and frantic urgency, and it's not his mouth, it's not him, but the prickle of Ives' beard against Neil's thighs is shamefully close enough to drag Neil under. The orgasm rolls over him like a breaker—leaving him tumbling and churned up and blessedly breathless.
Without Ives holding him up, Neil sags against the wall, sliding slowly down to slump on the floor. The bathroom door closes with a click, and Neil can hardly begrudge Ives his privacy right now. He turns his hot cheek against the cool wall, and just sits, feeling boneless and empty and actually calm for the first time in more than twenty-four hours. It won't last—already he can feel reality nibbling at the edges—but it's nice for just a moment.
By the time Ives comes out of the bathroom, Neil's pulled himself together, got his clothes back in order, got back on his feet. Knows that Ives takes that all in, however quick the slide of his glance seems, however focused he seems on rolling his sleeves back down and refastening the cuffs.
"Sorry," Neil says, and gets skewered by a sharp glance. It actually twitches an unthinking smile out of him. "Then thanks."
Ives grunts. "Better?"
"Better," Neil confirms. For whatever that's worth, right now. They both know that he only needs to be better enough to keep going. To do what needs to be done. It's a low enough bar. Better, but still, after he swallows, the words that come bubbling up are, "What if he doesn't call?"
"He'll call." No hesitation, no room for doubt.
"What do you know?" Neil asks.
Ives fixes him with that steady gaze. "I know him. So do you."
Neil swallows again, against the lump in his throat. "I miss him."
Ives turns away, reaching for his backpack, but not before Neil's seen the hook at the orner of his mouth, not quite a smile. "I know."
"So do you." The words come by instinct, rising out of the stillness he's given Neil.
When Ives looks up, his face is shuttered again. "Not like you do."
"But you still do." Neil doesn't know why it's so important to press on this. Why he wants that admission.
That he's not alone in this.
Ives stops, the backpack over one shoulder, staring at the floor. When he looks up, his face is blank as ever, but his eyes have a sympathy that would have shocked Neil as a new recruit. Still shocks him a little now. "I signed up to do a job worth doing. I'd have gone anywhere he needed me. Made whatever he needed happen. Fix what needed fixing. But there are some things I can't fix."
Neil took a ragged breath. It felt like a gift, one that he didn't need to repay, but honour in kind. "Ever since—" He can't find the words. It happened is too distanced for something that reached into his chest and ripped his heart out; he died is too stark for something that is all complications. "I keep expecting to see him. Like it always used to happen, just there when you least expect it. And then—" And then he did see him. Him but not him. Neil knew exactly who he was there to meet, and it still kicked him in the chest.
It creaked at his ribs all over again, but Neil drew breath around it, and said the unforgivable: "It might be easier if he were really gone."
Ives gives a little huff. "You signed up expecting easy?" And he smiles, a thing of history and hurt and yet hope.
Neil smiles back, and it barely hurts at all.
He calls Neil. Neil calls Ives. It all happens like it's happened. Like it will happen. Like it must happen. All of it.
Neil hauls them out of the hypocentre, and they are all there, and yet, obviously, one of them hasn't made it.
It expects it to weigh more than it does. Oh, Neil doesn't want to die. He doesn't. But it also isn't the frantic terror it might have been earlier in his life. He's tired. Not just from sprinting through a Soviet ghost-city. Not just from the few frantic weeks of this job, the hours of sleep sacrificed to more planning. Not just from being constantly on his guard against the ghosts of his own life past.
It's almost more painful to see grief—recognised like an old friend in the mirror; the denial, the bargaining, the first sparks of anger—playing out on his face, than to face what's coming himself. Neil doesn't know what his comfort is worth. Can't not try, though.
He jogs away, up the slope to the helicopter, squints at the shadows inside. "Give us a lift?"
Ives reaches out, grabs his wrist to pull Neil into the belly of the chopper. "I told you. Everything you need."
Everything he needs to get it done. "Your job," he repeats, what Ives told him back in Mumbai. Doesn't let go of Ives' wrist, but holds tight as the chopper starts to wind up. It's funny that it's only now that he has the clarity, the distance, to think about it more. Your job. "Who gave it to you?"
No shift in Ives' expression. Of course. "Who do you think?"
"What did he tell you?" But even as he's asking, Neil's looking Ives straight in the eyes, and he already knows the answer.
Everything. He told Ives everything. From that first moment in Mumbai, all the way through to what's inevitably coming next. The final act in today's business. Neil's final act.
Ives has always known where this was going.
The chopper jolts around them, lifting off. Ives snags his other hand in the netted ceiling, and holds them both steady. Like he doesn't even have to think about it. He's still watching Neil, just as steady as always. Steady enough to carry this knowledge all this way, and never spill a drop. Never let Neil spill either.
Everything he needs to get it done. To get here. To get him here. To ensure it happens.
Maybe Neil should be angry. All he feels is relief. But he doesn't expect saying thanks to go any better than it did last time, so instead he says, "I'll fucking haunt you, arsehole."
Ives actually laughs, with a flash of that grin that Neil has seen a handful of times in all the long, tangled years they've known each other. Normally caused by him. "I think," Ives says, still sounding richly amused, even with his voice raised over the noise of the chopper, "if you get a say, you'll have better things to do."
Neil can't argue with that. "And you?"
Ives looks down, at the chunks of the algorithm. "There's a quote from Sun Tzu—"
"Bloody Sun Tzu," Neil interrupts, because he can, because why not, because it's his last goddamn day on earth and he should get to interrupt if he wants. "Every day of basic training, it's all about—"
"He says," Ives counters, louder again, with a glare that just makes Neil grin, "Wait long by the river, and the bodies of your enemies will float by."
Neil's grin fades, but doesn't completely disappear. "Friends too," he notes.
Ives nods. "Friends too." It sits for just a moment between them, where their hands are still clasped, wrist to steadying wrist. And then Ives adds, "Of course, you two idiots have always been far happier diving in head-first."
Neil laughs, and reaches a hand up to the ceiling. Lets go of Ives, holds himself steady, as the chopper carries them away. "It's been something, eh?" He looks back at the ground, but they've already travelled too far. It's all just a beige blur of dust and destruction. Neil might have picked a nicer spot for it, but he supposes it's not the location but the company that matters. "One more thing," he says, not looking back.
"Don't even," Ives growls. "Don't you ask."
Neils asks. "Look after him."
"Fuck off," Ives snaps, and Neil starts to laugh. Knows he will. Knows he would have, even without asking.
That's what friends do. That's what Ives does. Has always done.
"Fuck off," Ives repeats, almost sullen.
And Neil goes to his last job with a smile on his face.