Master Of Disguise
"We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin." - André Berthiaume
His given name is Paris. Paris and nothing more, as if five letters are enough to represent him, this stranger in their midst. It's all he offers and they don't question. After all, names matter little in this line of work and can easily be changed.
He doesn't ask about the agent he replaced, and they never tell him. Dead, retired, he never knows. After a while they stop looking at him with that faraway gaze or biting off a name before the second syllable. It doesn't matter to him either way.
There's something dark in the flash of his eyes and the set of his mouth, a strangeness not present in the other's. They see it, watch it for a sign of weakness.
There's a fatal flaw within him, they know, the ability to feel. It dooms him from the first mission, sets him apart from the others.
He flinches when the first man dies, a corrupt leader who would probably have been killed by his own men sooner or later anyway. But it wasn't later, it was now, and all because they set him up for the fall. He covers the flinch with a quick shrug but not before the Leader's eyes bore into him.
He's played dozens of parts by now, old and young, kings and the poorest of the poor. Tonight he is somewhere between it all, portraying a man he's never met, a man destined to die before he changes back to his own face.
He streaks the gray lines through his hair like an artist painting a canvas, each line representing years in the life of the man he must play tonight. It's ironic in many ways, as tonight will bring an end to those years for the man who lived them, and he himself will no doubt never live to have gray in his hair.
A muscle in his jaw jumps and his fingers tighten around the brush. He takes a deep breath and returns to working on his disguise. It must be perfect down to the last detail. A single hair out of place, a single wrong move, and his life is over.
The fist slams into his cheek again and he closes his eyes against the pain. His face is already painted in livid purple but he can't scream, can't even speak. He has to hold out another fifteen minutes, long enough to give the others time to make it inside.
No one will notice or mention his sacrifice, he's only a name disavowed and written off.
He's curled up in a fetal position when they find him, gently lift him and carry him out between them, his head rolled forward sickeningly. They say nothing as they tend to him, and he keeps his eyes closed. He's afraid to open them, afraid that he'll look at their unbruised faces and fall apart, start screaming in anger.
If he had opened his eyes he might have seen the sorrow on the Leader's face.
The first scar is a thin white line etched into his skin below the hairline, the only mark left from the bomb's explosion. It's a small scar but he reaches for the makeup to cover it. It could identify him under cover someday and cost him his life. Even this tiny scar can't be part of his own face. In truth he no longer knows what his real face looks like.
All he knows now is deception and countless deaths, hundreds now on his hands, on his heart. Evil men, but still men, bloodstains all over him. His world is magic tricks and masks, black shrouds and never ending nightmares. He bargained for it, he tells himself, sold his soul for a greater good.
But the ache never leaves, the pain concealed behind a new identity and another man's face.
It's a simple assignment of taking down a traitor, a woman prepared to sell all she knows to their enemies.
He's charmed her, won her confidence over the past week, won her away from the husband who loves her and knows nothing of her activities.
They're sitting in a quiet, discreet restaurant, hands joined across the table, candlelight flickering off their eyes.
It's halfway through the meal when she leans close and kisses him, whispering how beautiful his blue eyes are, that his heart clenches and rips inside him until he thinks he can't bear another moment. But he holds out anyway.
Later, much later, when she lies dead by her husband's hand and he's made his escape he goes into the back room and washes her blood off his hands, jerks the contacts from his eyes and tosses them into their case.
He lifts his face to the mirror above him, stares back into the dark and hollow eyes set deep into his face.
When the others have gone he lowers his head onto the case and sobs until he has no tears left, fists slamming against the mirror in quiet rage.
In the morning he's back with them, eyes dry, face set in hard and unreadable stone. And if the others notice that his eyes seem a bit red they never comment.
The last mask he wears is red and it's his own blood running down the side of his head and dripping steadily into his eyes. He's curled up in the darkness, back against one side of the tunnel, knees drawn up to the other. It's too black to see his hand in front of his face and he doesn't even know it's his last performance until he's choking on the dust and grime left behind by the explosion.
He always wondered how death would come and now he knows - quiet, silent, a lonely, faceless stranger born out of blackness as dark as the soul he once had.
He's sinking into the darkness when a pair of hands wrap around him and an oxygen mask comes down across his mouth, fresh, clean air expanding his lungs. He gasps for that air like a drowning man clutching at straws, like a man clinging to life out of habit rather than desire.
A murmur of voices swirl around him as a larger set of hands come underneath him and gather him up, sliding him out of the tunnel and away from the darkness.
He opens his eyes into the harsh light of a hospital room, to the faces surrounding him, once strangers, now the only family, the only friends he has, if he could still afford friends in this line of work.
His hands come up slowly, touch the bandages covering half of his face. He asks, voice toneless and stiff. They tell him it's from the surgery. That side of his face was cut to ribbons. More surgery will correct it, will give him a new face.
He laughs, a hollow sound that echoes eerily in the room. He laughs until his shoulders heave, and his hands dig into the bandages. And sometime later on the laughter turns to quiet weeping.