Someone was poking his shoulder.
"Hey, mister. You OK?"
Whatever he'd intended to reply was drowned in the tide of sheer agony that flooded through him. Gritting his teeth, he ignored the human at his side and instinctively tried to phase, desperate to escape the pain...
He couldn't phase. A surge of fear spilled into the pain: without realising it he whimpered, holding his breath as he rolled onto his side, trying to ease the agony blazing through his back.
"Mister, you're hurt bad. Gotta get you some help."
He grabbed for the nearest body part as the human made to stand, his fingers closing inexorably around a thin ankle.
"No..." it was an almost incomprehensible rasp, but the human seemed to understand him.
"You can't stay here."
That much was obvious. The Agents were already out hunting the exiles who'd returned to the matrix: if they caught him - especially in this solid state - the chances were better than good that he'd not survive the encounter...
The fear gave him added strength. He pushed himself to his knees, then to his feet, eyes narrowed, disregarding the pain for a moment as he searched the vicinity for his twin, panic a bitter taste at the back of his throat.
Two was nowhere to be seen.
*Two? Where are we?*
But there was no answer - and the human was tugging at the burnt and ragged remains of his coat.
"We gotta go, mister. Cops're comin'."
He tried to pull away, staggered and nearly fell: the human wrapped a skinny arm around his waist, catching him.
"Come on, foo'!"
Too disorientated to object, he allowed the human to drag him, stumbling, off into the dimness of a tumbledown building a short distance away.
A grimy, stained mattress, rough hands pulling off his coat, the remains of his waistcoat and shirt, tie, boots... a hand reaching for his sunglasses...
He gripped the wrist with a bleeding hand, and the human winced.
"Hey, I'm tryin' t' help!"
He tried to speak, failed, and shook his head instead, even that slight movement sending a spear of pain through him. The human growled.
"OK, have it your own fuckin' way." The hands reached for his fly, easing the hopelessly torn, blood-soaked, once silver-white trousers down long legs before One could stop him, then the human sat back on his heels and regarded the naked hairless body in front of him. He shook his head, though whether in despair or wonder One couldn't have said even if he'd cared.
"How the fuck are you still breathin'? I'm no doctor, but..." The burns alone looked enough to kill the average man. Add to that the probable broken ribs, fractured bones in arms and legs, lacerations and blood loss... there'd been a lot of blood pooled under the white figure lying at the edge of the road... he had no idea about internal injuries... "Look, I'm gonna try to get some stuff to help. Don't try movin' while I'm gone, OK?"
One closed his eyes, nodding fractionally. Right now he couldn't move, much as he wanted to.
Where was Two?
And why was he in this state? They'd phased as the blast had ripped the car apart, fast enough to prevent their destruction: it should have been a simple matter to drift down to earth, re-materialise, and get themselves back to the core before the Agents found them.
Instead... He shifted slightly, whimpering quietly as bones grated against each other. One part of his mind was coolly recording the experience, coding it to memory: they'd never felt pain before, not like this. He didn't know how to deal with it. Every instinct was telling him to get up, find his twin, and get back - but his body wouldn't obey his commands. It was a little less excruciating to just lie still. He tried to switch off the part of his mind that felt pain, only to find he could no longer do so.
Forcing down the panic, he tried to think rationally. It would appear part of his code was missing; that was the only explanation he could think of for his current state. All had been as normal until the explosion. And his injuries were consistent with a heavy or awkward landing from a considerable, though not great, height. So it was logical to assume that either the landing, or, more likely, the explosion had somehow - damaged him.
Had it hurt his twin? Was Two lying somewhere as he had been, unable to move, unable to phase? Was he...
One's mind balked, refusing to even consider the notion of his twin's destruction. He'd know. Of course he'd know! He'd feel it...
But he couldn't feel anything but his own pain. The comfortable, comforting awareness of each other's presence that was always there, thrumming deep within, had gone.
It must be an effect of whatever had happened to his code.
It must be. Anything else was too terrible to contemplate...
"You still alive in there?"
He slowly turned his head to the sagging door as the human entered, arms piled with unidentifiable objects. The human grinned, his teeth startlingly white against his dark skin.
"Stubborn bastard ain't ya? Got what I could. You owe me, man."
One tried to swallow, to speak, but his throat was far too parched for sound. The human seemed to realise this and opened a bottle of ... something, and held it to his patient's lips.
Some sort of cheap, bitter alcohol. But it was liquid, and eased the dryness.
"You got a name? I'm Trash."
One eyed him for a moment, wondering if that was a description or a name. The human smirked.
"S'not my real name."
Trash. Very well.
"Wun? You Chink?"
One tried to speak more clearly, gritting his teeth as the indrawn breath stabbed at his lungs. Trash flapped a hand.
"Doesn't matter. Tell me later. Now, I gotta try and fix you up. Gonna hurt some..."
'Some' was a distinct understatement: it was all One could do to keep from crying out. But worse than the pain was the humiliation. Naked and unable to do anything for himself, he was forced to endure the young human's hands upon his body... He closed his eyes, trying over and over again to *call* to his twin, growing more and more desperate as his calls went unanswered...
Trash finally sat back, critically eyeing the pallid body in front of him - even paler now much of it was obscured by bandages.
"That'll have to do. How's it feel?"
One dragged his mind back to the present, surprised to find that the pain had eased somewhat. He nodded, and Trash grinned.
"Coverin' up the burns helps. Here." He held out his hand, two white pills cradled in the centre of his dark palm. "KDs. They'll help with the pain."
One shook his head, unwilling to risk any drugs while in apparently human form. Trash pouted, then shrugged and put them back into a small bottle.
"Your loss." He turned to the side and dragged a brown paper bag to him, upending it onto the mattress. "Got you somethin' to wear. Think they're about the right size. Ain't fancy though, can't afford anything much."
Dark denim jeans and a faded black sweatshirt. One would have shuddered if it hadn't hurt so much. But he could hardly expect a stranger - an obviously impoverished one at that - to inconvenience himself by providing appropriate attire for his unexpected... guest.
Trash was watching him, frowning.
"Ain't never seen anyone like you before. You're not from around here, are ya?"
He shook his head carefully. Trash nodded absently, then held the bottle to One's lips again. After several swallows One weakly pushed it away.
"... another... of us..."
The human frowned.
"Another like you? I didn't see anyone."
"... must be... somewhere..." Panic rose in his throat again: he struggled to sit upright, teeth clenched to stop himself from whimpering. "... must... find..."
"Whoa, man!" Trash clamped a hand on his shoulder, making him flinch. "You ain't going anywhere - not today, anyway. I'll go look for him. He dressed like you were?"
One nodded and collapsed back onto the mattress, suddenly absurdly grateful to the human. Trash grinned and placed the bottle within reach.
"You rest. I'll be quick's I can."
One lay still, trying not to move, not to breathe too deeply, trying to contact Two while the human was absent. He thought this must be very much what a nightmare would be like, an inability to take control of events. It was appalling. Unthinkable. Couldn't be happening.
Except that it was, and he wasn't dealing with it at all efficiently...
His thoughts spiralled around disbelief - and an aching emptiness that he finally realised was his twin's absence - going nowhere, caught in a despairing loop of pain. Some part of him knew he should be trying to plan how to get out of this mess: the rest of him wanted to curl up and make everything go away...
Trash arrived back, alone, to find his patient semi-conscious and shivering. Tiny sounds issued from deep in his throat, like a terrified child trying not to sob. Frowning, the human grabbed for a threadbare blanket, draping it lightly over the cold body then laying a hand over the pale bruised forehead. No fever. That probably meant no infection. Which was good. He was probably in shock, though.
What the fuck was he going to do with the guy?
He sat and watched the pale figure for a few minutes, thinking. The clothes were irredeemable now, but had been good - expensive - before the whatever-had-happened. His 'guest' could be someone important: he certainly seemed wealthy.
Trash reached for the remains of the silvery clothing, swiftly checking pockets, but the only thing he found was a straight razor. Beautiful thing it was, the handle real mother of pearl, not that false plastic stuff most of them had, but not a lot of use to a young man who'd just spent his last handful of dollars at the thrift store. The tie tack and cufflinks might be worth something...
"... find... him...?"
Startled out of reverie, Trash gazed down at his patient. The shivering hadn't stopped, and he couldn't see the eyes behind those shades, which was disconcerting.
"Nah. Sorry man. I looked real hard, even knocked on doors to see if anyone'd seen him."
One eased himself over onto his side and curled up jerkily, hands covering his face. The human shifted closer, concerned.
"Who was he? Your partner? Boyfriend?"
"... twin..." It was so quiet, the voice so rough and shaky, Trash could hardly make out the word. He rested a hand on a tense shoulder.
"Oh, hey man, I'm sorry..." The words were so hollow. He didn't know his pale guest, didn't know the twin, but that didn't stop him feeling distressed for his patient. "You wanna tell me what happened? Was it some kind of accident?"
One shook his head, and Trash wisely let it rest. Patting the cool shoulder under his hand he dug into his pocket, pulling out the last of his cash. Enough to stretch to a small pizza, perhaps. He grimaced and eyed his patient.
Another shake of the head.
"You should eat. It'll help you get better."
"Well, OK. But I got to. Be OK for twenty minutes?"
Alone, One pulled off his glasses and rubbed at his face with aching bandaged hands, refusing to accept that Two might be... might not be anymore.
What was he going to do?
He needed to repair his code.
For that, he needed his twin, and he needed to get back to the core. Preferably to the chateau, it was as much home, sanctuary, as anywhere. Though right now just making it back to Le Vrai would be enough...
He could probably manage that. Two would know he'd head in that direction, and make his own way there.
If he was still...
One forced down the thought. He had to believe his twin still existed. Had to.
He didn't think he could survive alone.
Trash, meanwhile, was wondering what the fuck had possessed him to stop and help the stranger in the first place. He couldn't come up with one single sensible answer - except that he was curious. The man was... definitely different. Pale enough to be an albino, especially with those silver dreadlocks. And what was with that, anyway? They looked more like... like cables than hair, though they'd felt soft and silky when he'd brushed them aside to get at the burns on the stranger's back. The guy was well-built too, muscular without being bulky. Probably worked out, but not like the pinheads at the gym, piling on the muscle until they looked stupid.
Trash frowned to himself. 'Wun', he'd said his name was - or something that sounded like Wun anyway. But the guy wasn't oriental, he was almost sure of it. Too tall, for one thing. Legs too long. Face the wrong shape. And his voice; he hadn't said much, and what he had said had been raspy, but it didn't sound oriental. Sounded British, if anything.
It was a mystery. Like his own motives for rescuing the guy.
He growled at himself. Well, he'd done it, and unless he wanted to run again, he was stuck with it. With him. And fuck knew where that was going to end up...
He ate the pizza as he walked back, almost hoping his guest would be gone by the time he arrived. No such luck: he was still curled up, still shivering, though he seemed to be asleep. At any rate, his shades were clasped in his hand and his eyes were closed. Trash regarded his face, drawn tight with pain and fatigue, pale brows pulled down into a frown, pale lashes fringing the closed eyelids. He wondered, briefly, what the eyes were like. Then wondered, more urgently, where he was going to sleep: he only had the one mattress, and the rest of the building had been gutted... Shrugging mentally, he stripped down to his underwear and crawled under the blanket behind his guest, careful not to get too close: didn't want to add to the injuries, that would only cause more grief. Though he was a little worried about the coolness of the stranger's body. Sitting up again he reached for another blanket, spreading it over them both then settling down as close to the bandaged form as he could without actually touching, figuring his own body-heat should help a little.
He believed he'd never get to sleep. He woke up still thinking it, early the next morning.
His patient hadn't moved, it seemed. He was still asleep, though he'd stopped shivering and felt a little warmer to the touch. Trash dragged himself out of the makeshift bed, pulled his clothes back on, and stumbled down to the lane that ran along the back of the building for a piss. When he got back to the room his guest was awake. At least, he'd put the shades back on and stretched out a little. Trash grinned and opened a bottle of cheap beer.
"How you feelin'?"
The stranger regarded him coolly, expression neutral, unspeaking. Trash shifted uneasily.
"Uh, I oughta change those bandages, check the damage. That OK with you?"
A curt nod, and the man shoved back the blankets, shivering as the cool air washed over him. Trash sat on the edge of mattress, unrolling the medical dressings, careful not to pull at the burned and lacerated skin underneath.
"You said your name was Wun?"
"One." The voice was a lot stronger than yesterday, still a little hoarse, but with a smooth silkiness to it. Trash frowned, concentrating on the task at hand.
"One. Un, Én, Uno, Jeden, Ichi, Ein. One."
"OK, OK, I get the message... One. And I bet your twin is called Two, right?"
One twisted to glance over his shoulder, frowning.
"Yes, we are."
Trash paused for a second, gazing at the blackness of the shades.
"We are One and Two."
Oh just fuckin' wonderful! The guy must be one of those schizo-psycho-nuts... Maybe there wasn't any twin, maybe he was just in One's head...
"OK, good, fine..." Trash peeled off the last layer of bandage and stared: the flesh underneath was already healing, still red and inflamed, but the rawness and blistering had gone. "Fuck... how you do that?"
"Heal that fast."
One flexed his shoulders experimentally, wincing as the healing skin pulled taut.
"We don't know."
OK, Trash, go easy here. The guy hasn't made any threatening moves so far. Not that he'd been in any fit state to, anyway. The human reached for the burns salve.
"If you keep this up, you'll be back to normal in a couple days."
Trash debated leaving the burns undressed - his grandmother'd always said things healed faster if the air could get to them - then decided against it. They must still hurt: One was healing fast, but not that fast. And the bandages would help with his cracked ribs, too...
Ten minutes later he smoothed tape over the end of the dressing and sat back, wondering what next? One was watching him, making him very uneasy: it was hard enough gauging his mood anyway with those shades covering his eyes, but the guy could also seem absolutely emotionless. It was scary. He was scary. Even injured and relatively helpless as he was, he felt dangerous - like sitting in a locked room with a sleeping rattlesnake. Trash shifted nervously.
"Uh... sorry I don't have anything to eat. Out of cash, too."
One tilted his head very slightly, then pointed to what was left of his clothes. Trash hastily grabbed them closer then flinched back as One pulled the broad snakeskin belt free of the trousers with a loud whipcrack. Smirking at the expression on the frightened human's face, he snapped open the razor and efficiently cut the belt's stitching along the back - then handed over the credit card that had been concealed between the belt's two layers. Trash took it warily, eyes on the razor.
"The number is 0110. Withdraw as much as you need."
Trash stared disbelievingly. How could anyone be so trusting?
"Uh, what's the limit?"
"Five thousand. But you would be unwise to withdraw such a large sum."
He had a point... "OK. Nearest ATM's about half an hour away. You want anything in particular for breakfast?"
One shook his head, though he was conscious of a growing hunger. But until he could find Two, know his twin was safe, his own physical needs would have to wait. Trash nodded.
"OK then. Back soon."
"Please do not tarry."
Trash grinned, relieved.
"Be s'quick's I can."
It wasn't until ten minutes later that he realised One had said 'please'.
One lay back, stretching each limb in turn, assessing how much stress his current body-form could handle. The news wasn't the best he could have hoped for, but at least he was no longer completely helpless. It would appear that at least some of his innate healing ability had survived: he could move, albeit slowly and with difficulty... It would have to do. Disregarding the pain he eased himself to his feet, then into the clothes Trash had bought...
The jeans were very snug, but not too uncomfortable, the sweatshirt baggy but warm; both items were clean, at least, if old and well-worn, and hid the bandages. Trash had used some sort of antiseptic liquid to clean his face and neck, but his locks were stiff with dried blood, as he discovered on catching sight of himself in a shard of mirrored glass still adhering to a wall. Grimacing with distaste, he limped stiffly to the door and glanced up and down the corridor. There was running water somewhere, he could hear it...
An old sink in what had probably once been a bathroom, the tap leaking slowly, a fast steady drip into the basin beneath. He pocketed his sunglasses, twisted the tap, and leaned forward painfully into the steady flow splashing down against the cracked porcelain. Cold, but sufficient to rinse away the blood, although he was exhausted and aching at the end. Forcing his battered body upright again, he wiped clean another remnant of mirror and regarded himself, frowning.
The code that usually vertically bisected his eyes was gone. Which made sense: after all, he was almost human in this state. The silvery-black blankness was alarming, though, made him feel even more lost, the absence of his twin a sudden wrenching pain within.
He pushed it back down. He would find Two. He had to.
A dismayed cry had him sliding the glasses back onto his face and limping painfully back to Trash's room. The human was staring at the empty mattress, apparently worried about where his guest had gone. Both relief and fear were plain on his face as he turned to see One paused in the doorway, leaning heavily against the jamb.
"Oh, thank fuck for that! I thought something bad had happened!" He peered more closely at his guest. "You washed your hair?" He seemed to find the idea amusing - at any rate he was having trouble not laughing. One ignored him.
"We need to return to the centre of the city."
Trash stopped trying not to laugh and frowned.
"But you're still hurting. At least wait until you've healed!"
"It is vital that we return to the centre. We cannot be caught here."
Trash frowned, dropping into a crouch, dumping the bag he carried onto the floor and delving inside, his attention half on what he was doing and half on One.
"You in some sort of trouble?"
"And your twin?"
"Yes. Both of us."
"But we haven't found him."
"Two will be on the way back to the centre. We will meet there." ... he was on his way. He was. Anything else was unimaginable...
Trash pulled out two cartons of milk and two BLTs, handing one to his guest. One took the sandwich hesitantly; the smell was appetising, made his stomach roil in anticipation, but he had no appetite... Trash sighed in exasperation.
"Look, man, it's a long way back into town. You just survived a major incident, you're not fit to be on your feet, let alone travelling, the least you could do is humour me and eat something!"
The human shoved the sandwich into his mouth, taking a huge bite and swallowing with the minimum of mastication, tomato pips and shredded lettuce trailing down his chin. One shuddered fastidiously and limped over to the window, gazing out at the dismal surroundings as he took quick, small, efficient mouthfuls.
"Have some milk. S'good for ya!"
Glancing back over his shoulder, One watched as Trash took a hefty gulp, belching loudly and sighing with satisfaction. He grinned at his guest.
"Best meal I've had in a week. Didn't say thanks, did I? Took out five hundred - that OK?"
"That is... OK."
"D'ya mind if I keep a bit of it? To pay for the medicine and clothes and shit?"
"You may keep all of it..."
Trash blinked, then grinned widely.
"Oh hey, thanks, man!" Remembering he hadn't returned the card yet, he hastily reached into his pocket and handed it over. "'preciate it!"
"... on condition you guide us back to the centre."
"No problem! You wanna take a cab?"
It was tempting, but given the Agents' ability to take over any human they so chose it would be a dangerous option. On foot and stealthily was safer.
"No. We shall walk."
"Whatever you say. When d'ya wanna start?"
Trash had objected and complained, but One was adamant, slipping on his boots, sliding his razor into a hip pocket of the jeans and standing at the door, arms crossed, obviously waiting impatiently, and eventually Trash gave up. Shoving the rest of the food into a tatty backpack, he glowered at One.
"'K. I guess I'm ready."
"We assume you know the back routes?"
"Oh sure. Use 'em all the time."
In the distance rose the towers of the city's centre, and the way back to the core. Back to safety. And in between, several miles of danger-fraught matrix before they could get anywhere near the interface...
Trash certainly knew his way. For an hour he led One through lanes, underpasses, empty ruined buildings, occasionally zig-zagging but always heading in more or less the right direction. One followed, trying to keep up, cursing silently: oh, the embarrassment of being less able than a human! Finally he paused, leaning heavily against a wall, head lowered, panting, as Trash walked on ahead not realising he'd stopped. Several yards away the human glanced over his shoulder then hastened back, wrapping an arm around One's waist and taking some of his weight.
"Fuckin' told you you should have waited!" He glanced around hurriedly, then pulled One towards an old building. "C'mon, you need to rest for a bit."
One didn't have the energy to argue. Once inside he collapsed onto the floor, head back against old wallpaper, arm wrapped around his chest, trying to control his breathing so his ribs didn't hurt so much. Trash eyed him worriedly.
"This is a baaaad idea."
"... we... must... get... back..."
"Look, why don't we just hide out for a few days? Get you healed."
Because once the Agents realised he was still here they'd come looking, in force, and they wouldn't worry about a human caught in the crossfire... He frowned. Come to think of it, why hadn't they already found him? The answer flashed into his mind almost immediately: they were looking for his code, looking for a programme, and at the moment he was, effectively, human.
Trash was waiting, anxiously, for an answer.
"Hiding... not an option... they will... find us..."
The human swore under his breath, then growled.
"K. What we'll do is this, walk an hour, then stop and rest up, then walk again. That way we don't stay too long in any one place, and we keep moving. That suit you?"
One nodded, and Trash grumpily unslung the pack from his back, digging into the contents and pulling out a bottle of water.
"Here." One took the bottle, swallowing fast. Thirst. Another new concept.
He did not like being human.
"I don't think we're gonna make the centre today."
They'd rested for half an hour, then One had pulled himself upright and - ignoring the human's objections - limped from the building: Trash either had to follow him or be left behind. An hour and a half later they'd repeated the exercise, and yet again another hour and a half later.
One paused for a moment, calculating the distance. He was exhausted already, and there was still a long way to go.
"Indeed. Do you know of a place we can spend the night?"
Trash thought for a minute, then grinned.
"Just so happens I do..."
"Yo, Trash! Long time no see, dude!"
Trash high-fived the lanky, spiky haired youth sitting just inside the tatty apartment building.
"Yo, Flip. Been peregrinatin'. Got room for us for a night?"
Flip glanced at One looming over Trash and frowned.
"Found him hurt. Feds want him. He's OK."
"OK, I guess. Top rooms're empty - they do?"
"Fo' sure." Trash squirreled out a handful of notes. "Get supplies, OK?"
Flip's eyes widened as he stared at the money; Trash jerked his head towards One.
Flip grinned, revealing missing teeth.
"Thanks, pale dude!"
Too exhausted to take exception to the epithet, One nodded his head, once, tightly, then Trash was leading him up rickety stairs to the top of the ancient pile.
The room actually had beds. Sagging and none too clean, but real beds all the same. Trash dumped his backpack on one and gazed at One, sitting on the edge of the other, shoulders slumped, head hanging.
"Hey. Why don't you get some sleep? I can check you over in the morning."
One dragged his head up, eyeing the human from behind his glasses, then nodded reluctantly.
"We are... tired."
Trash grinned to himself: it sounded like it had hurt One to make the admission. Damn but the man was hard-ass!
"G'wan then. I'm gonna shoot the shit downstairs for a piece. I'll try not to wake ya when I come up."
One glared briefly, then nodded, awkwardly pulling the sweatshirt over his head. Trash grinned and left him to it.
One dreamed of being stranded, unable to move, unable to speak, in a featureless fog, Two calling to him, asking him where he was, over and over again until his frantic voice faded into the distance. He jerked awake to find a shadowy figure standing over him in the darkness, and snatched his razor from its place under the thin pillow: the figure stepped back, hands raised and head shaking.
"Hey man, I'm not dangerous. Just wanted to see you is all."
He eased himself to a sitting position, sliding his sunglasses back on. The figure seated itself on the bed and flicked the switch on a large torch: he caught a glimpse of large dark eyes and white teeth as the light splayed upwards and reflected off the ceiling.
He thought he'd heard incorrectly, then the female - it was, apparently, female despite the thinness of its body and lack of obvious breasts - leaned forward, scrutinising his face.
Completely at a loss as to how to respond, One stared at the apparition for long moments, then pointed at the door.
"Well ain't you the unfriendly type!" She tossed her head. "You gonna make me?"
Scowling, he slid awkwardly out of the bed, ignoring her wide-eyed appreciative stare at his groin, grabbed her arm and marched her out into the corridor, closing the door firmly behind her. As he limped back to the bed he heard her giggling, and lay awake for a while, concerned that someone else would enter the room. But he was left in peace, and the next thing he knew it was morning and Trash was splashing water in the rudimentary bathroom next door.
The human grinned as he came back into the bedroom, grubby towel around his neck.
"I hear Stel paid you a visit last night! You got yourself a fan, man!"
One stared for a moment, then mentally shook his head, neither understanding nor wishing to understand what Trash meant.
"We would prefer not to meet her again."
"Yeah, she can be pushy..." He grabbed his medical supplies from the backpack and sat on the bed behind One, unwrapping the bandages, pursing his lips in satisfaction at the sight that met his eyes. Apart from the shiny pinkness of the tender new skin, it appeared that most of the external damage had repaired itself.
"Lookin' good. Don't need salve or bandages any more. How's the rest of you?"
One stretched, cautiously, nodding as he realised that most of the pain had gone.
"We believe we are fine."
That royal we again. Trash still wasn't used to it.
"Then I guess we can make town today."
"But breakfast first!"
Breakfast was eaten in a sort of communal room on the ground floor, a room filled with mismatched chairs and a couple of tables: a row of camping stoves on a long bench at one end of the room provided cooking facilities.
Trash collected two plates of something unidentifiable but tasty. Halfway through the meal, Stel made an appearance, dark eyes lighting up when she caught sight of One. She draped herself over him from behind, arms around his neck: he froze.
"Hi again." She nipped at his earlobe. "'member me?"
Moving with cool deliberation, he placed his plate on the adjacent table, gripped her wrists and moved them away from his body, then resumed his breakfast.
Stel glowered, and tugged at his locks. He ignored her: she tugged harder. He reached behind him and caught her hand, pulling it forcibly away from his head then regarding her over his shoulder.
"We do not wish to hurt you, but we will if you don't leave us alone."
She blinked, then frowned at Trash, who shrugged.
"Don't ask me. He always talks that way."
Stel turned her attention back to One, who had dropped her hand and taken another mouthful of mush.
"Nobody talks to me like that, freak."
One ignored her. She grabbed a handful of locks - only to find her wrist caught and held as One stood, twisted and forced open her fingers, none too gently, with his other hand. Holding her struggling body at a slight distance, he regarded her dispassionately.
"Perhaps you didn't hear what we said."
"I fuckin' heard you, freak." She spat, still struggling.
"Then we would suggest you do as instructed. It will be less painful for you."
She glared death at him, then stopped squirming. He released her, watching as she turned and stalked out of the room, back stiff with fury. Trash let out a loud whoosh of air.
"Hope she doesn't try to get even."
One glanced at him; he smiled apologetically.
"She can be... spiteful."
"We are leaving as soon as you have finished. She will be left behind."
Trash grimaced ruefully.
"Might not be as easy as that... but yeah, let's get going."
Half an hour later Trash came to a dead stop. Two large - very large - leather-clad forms were blocking the entrance to the alleyway they were currently... trapped in, he realised, casting a quick glance over his shoulder at the other two behind them.
Trash raised his hands imploringly.
"Hey guys... we don't want any trouble."
"Should'a thought of that before insultin' my li'l sister."
Trash's heart sank. Yeah, given his luck it stood to reason that big bastard was little Stel's big brother...
"Look, it was a misunderstandin'..."
"We don't want you." Stel's brother interrupted, dismissing him with the wave of a hand. "We want the freak."
Trash swallowed, torn. He could just walk away from this - should walk away, he was useless in a fight. But that would leave four against One, and his companion was still weak, not fully healed yet...
"Just you." The big thug pointed at One, who stared back impassively. Trash licked dry lips.
"We suggest you move out of the way."
It took a moment for the words to sink in - then Trash scurried back, pressing himself against the wall, as...
He had difficulty following what happened next, he'd never seen anyone move so fast. One of the big guys was on the ground, throat slashed and pumping out blood before he even realised he'd been hit, and One was tackling another with single-minded resolve, light flashing on his razor. The guy knew some sort of martial art, that was obvious... Trash cried out a warning as the other two thugs, finally realising what was happening, moved toward One's back, fists swinging.
The fight was brief and nasty, and ended with two dead, one unconscious, and one moaning against the wall, both arms broken... Trash scuttled forward as One collapsed onto one knee, doubled over, face hidden by his locks, arm around his belly as blood streamed down his body.
"One! Man, you gonna die on me?"
"We... don't think... so..."
Trash dragged him to his feet, supporting him as he stumbled into a doorway and leaned back against the wall. The human pulled up the sodden sweatshirt, wincing at the long, deep knife slash across One's pale abdomen.
"That needs stitching."
One shook his head, and the human growled.
"I know, I know... OK, you're gonna have to hold still while I try and patch you up..."
All he had was surgical tape, hardly the best thing to close a large open wound. But One was bleeding heavily... Placing strips of tape vertically across the injury, he managed to pull the edges of the gash together, then bandaged the whole area as tightly as he thought safe. By the time he'd finished One was light-headed with exhaustion and yet more blood loss, paler than ever and distinctly wobbly. Trash eased him down to sit on the ground, rummaging in his pack for a bottle of water and a small bottle of small yellow pills. Tipping a couple out into his hand, he held them out to One.
"Here. These'll... help..." His voice faded as he realised that One's shades had been knocked off during the fight and he was looking into silver-sheened blackness. His jaw dropped.
"Wow! Man, what cool contacts!"
One stared at him, completely bemused - then winced and half-closed his eyes.
"We need our glasses."
Trash placed the pills and water bottle in his hands and hastened to check the alleyway. There, to one side, the shades lay half hidden under a wind-blown newspaper. Cleaning them against his teeshirt, he handed them to his companion, smirking as One slid them back onto his face.
"D'you think you can move? They - " he gestured at the bodies lying in the alley " - may have back up."
One grunted as he hauled himself upright, swaying unsteadily, gripping the human's shoulder.
"We have no choice."
"OK. Let's see how far we get..."
Trash could feel One tensing up as they approached the freeway, almost as though he was expecting trouble. His companion was staggering: without the human's supporting arm around his waist he'd never have made it this far.
But they passed under the freeway without problem, and once on the city-side One relaxed a little.
"We can find our way from here."
"Yeah, sure you can - 'til you fall over an' can't get up again. No - " he shook his head as One tried to object "- don't fuckin' argue, man! I got you this far, I'll get you the rest of the way."
One eyed him, reluctantly admitting to himself that he needed the help. The light-headedness wasn't easing, and the pain in his abdomen was growing worse. The wound was bleeding again, too, he could feel it, warm wetness soaking down through the front of the jeans. The quicker he found Two and returned to Le Vrai the better.
Two... He winced as pain speared through him. He'd convinced himself that his twin was alive and waiting for him, believed it. It had kept him moving. Still kept him moving. It had to be so. He pulled himself a little more upright and stumbled forward, pulling Trash with him The human sighed resignedly and wrapped his arm around One's waist a little more firmly...
The light was fading by the time they arrived outside the solidly impressive tower block. One paused on the opposite side of the road, regarding the building closely then scanning the street. Trash felt him slump.
"No. Not yet."
"OK then. Let's find somewhere to wait."
There was a small alley nearby, a narrow passageway between two adjoining buildings, which afforded a good view of the frontage opposite. One sagged against the wall, breath coming in irregular gasps: Trash watched him worriedly.
"You need a doctor."
"We are all we need."
"What if he doesn't come? What if he can't come? What if he's dead?"
There was a long, long strained silence, then One whispered,
"We must be one..."
Trash's eyes widened at the implication.
"You'd... you'd... join him?" Let yourself die...?
But One was silent, gazing fixedly at the opposite building...
Full night, and Trash was beginning to flag: One had hardly moved except to haul himself a little more upright every time his legs buckled. Couldn't fault his willpower! But Trash was beginning to think this whole thing was futile, though he didn't quite dare to say so. He felt certain One was quite serious about suicide - which made him wonder about the guy's relationship with his twin...
One stiffened, both hands flat against the wall behind him as his legs threatened to give way. Trash grabbed him, supporting him.
"What is it?"
His eyes widened. One was smiling.
Head swivelling to face the direction of One's gaze, he gasped silently. Striding purposefully along the sidewalk opposite was a tall, silver figure, pale locks glinting in the neon light, black shades hiding his eyes.
One was moving, stumbling out into the light: Trash managed to catch him before he fell. Holding his fainting companion more or less upright, Trash took a deep breath and bellowed,
The silver figure paused, the head turning in his direction - then he was racing towards them, stopping in a flurry of silver and grabbing the limp form of One to him ...
Trash stepped back, watching with wide eyes as Two held his twin close, one arm around his lower back, the other hand cupping the back of his head. He glanced over One's shoulder to frown at the human.
"What has happened?"
Trash swallowed nervously.
"He was hurt. He said he needed to get here." He paused for a moment, then risked adding, "He needs a doctor. He's been knifed."
Two nodded, then swung the unconscious One up into his arms.
"Come with us."
With Trash trailing behind, Two strode across the road and into the tower block, waved through the foyer by a wide-eyed and patently nervous doorman. Turning down a corridor, Two unceremoniously kicked open the door of the first office he came to, entering then kicking the door shut again as Trash darted through.
His fingers trembling, Trash reached behind him and turned the catch, trying to make himself inconspicuous as Two stood in the middle of the room and swung One back to his feet, still holding him close. He glanced briefly at Trash, his expression hard.
"You are not here. You are not seeing this."
"... whatever you say, man..." But Two was no longer listening. Pressing his cheek to his twin's he...
Trash whimpered silently as Two changed. Became transparent, locks waving around his head like some sort of bizarre halo - then disappeared into his twin...
One's body went rigid, arms stretched out to the side, his head rolling back. A second later Two reappeared, solidified, and caught One as he crumpled, swinging the pale figure back up into his arms.
"What... what did you do?"
Two stared at the human, then deigned to answer.
"We are no longer in danger."
"He's still unconscious."
"Yes. We are partly healed - but not yet whole."
"Can you fix it?"
Two was silent for a moment, as if unable to believe that a human could be as impudent as to question him - then One stirred slightly.
Two pressed his forehead to his twin's.
*We are here.*
*... we thought we were lost...*
*We were, for a little. No longer.*
*... we feel... not right...*
*We need a little more time.*
*The human who helped us.*
*He must not be harmed.*
*Very well.* Two eyed the cringing human, then smirked very slightly.
"We understand that you have been helpful to us."
This was getting too weird. Were they telepaths as well? Trash nodded. Two settled his twin more comfortably in his arms and gestured towards the door.
"Come with us."
The human followed them along a corridor and into an elevator, then out again and along another corridor until they came to a couple of rooms at the end of yet another featureless corridor. Two indicated the first door.
"Make yourself comfortable."
Not daring to disobey, the human pushed open the door, to find a luxurious guest suite inside. He twisted to grin at Two, then eyed One worriedly.
"Is he going to be OK?"
"OK... Um, will I see you later?" The thought of being discovered in the suite with no legal right to be there was suddenly very frightening. Two smirked.
"You will. In the morning."
He closed the door, deciding to make the best of it.
In the adjacent room, Two laid One carefully down on the double bed, pulled off the boots, pulled out his razor, and sliced off the bloodstained clothes, dumping them in a heap on the floor. Dissolving his coat and removing both their glasses, he frowned at his twin's body, fingertips gently tracing the rough, ugly scars of the last few days. One's eyes fluttered open, their silvery-blackness still devoid of code, and gazed into his twin's, one shaking hand raised to a silvery-grey clad shoulder.
*We... we can't phase. We haven't been able to heal ourself. We think our code is damaged.*
Two nodded; he'd come to that conclusion himself.
*We will join and heal the code.*
One relaxed with a sigh.
*We want to be whole. It has been terrible, being lost, being half. Being human.*
Two stroked his face.
*We know. We... missed us...*
Dissolving the rest of his clothing, he lay beside his twin, pulling the pale abused body close, holding it tenderly.
*Are we ready?*
One nodded. Two phased, this time completely immersing himself in his twin, sharing their programme, their code twisting, rewriting itself. It was painful, but only for a moment. Then it was ecstasy.
Shaking, Two drew a shuddering breath and pulled back slightly, gazing into his twin's face. One's lips were parted, his eyes half-closed, bright green code now flickering down their centres again, his smile positively beatific, his body smooth and unmarred once more. He nestled a little closer, kissing his twin's jaw.
*We are happy now.*
Two sighed and nuzzled his twin's locks.
*Yes, we are...*
Warmth and unity. Rightness. It felt very good after their... misadventure...
He'd woken to the most appalling smell, lying on his back in the dark, immersed in cold, slimy water. Struggling upright he'd instinctively phased - which had at least cleansed him of the foulness of the sewer in which he'd ended up - then looked around for his twin.
But there'd been no answer. And not simply no answer, but the most terrible emptiness within him.
He'd phased straight up, exiting the ground into the darkness of night, eyes automatically adapting, scanning the vicinity for One's code. He must be near - they couldn't have landed too far apart...
Still nothing. Grimly shoving incipient panic to the background of his mind he set off in the direction of the freeway turnoff.
Blood. A lot of blood, albeit now mostly dried, half on the road, half on the pavement. One's blood - he recognised the code, the slight difference between it and a human's. And footprints, the outline of the sole of snakeskin boots, beside them a faint print of smaller feet, wearing trainers. He rose from his crouch, following the prints towards the dilapidated building. It was empty, as he'd expected. But it meant that One was still... alive.
The relief was almost overwhelming.
Then he frowned. He still couldn't contact his twin, which must mean there was something badly wrong. One must be injured, and - he'd hazard a guess - stuck in human form, it was the only way to explain this dreadful sense of loss.
He'd be on his way back to the centre, and Le Vrai. It was the only logical place to go. Therefore Two must also make his way back.
And he'd better travel in phased form, at least some of the way. No doubt the Agents were still hunting them.
Finding One in a human's arms had been... disorientating. If it hadn't been for the fact that the human was quite obviously only supporting him as he lapsed into unconsciousness, Two would have slit the dark throat there and then. But One's body was dangerously weak, losing blood he could ill-afford from a very recent injury, and ensuring his twin's safety was Two's highest priority...
Two sighed and pulled the duvet over their cooling bodies: One eyed him solemnly.
*We couldn't *speak*. We feared the worst.*
Two stroked his twin's locks.
*We didn't like being separate.*
*We loathed it. We don't want it to happen again.*
*We will do all in our power to prevent it.*
They were silent for a moment, then One shook his head slightly.
*And we failed to catch the Keymaker. The Merovingian will not be happy.*
*The Merovingian can go and fuck himself.*
One chuckled quietly.
*Might it be time for us to leave his employ?*
*Let's see how he behaves when we report, shall we?*
Two paused for a second, then asked, reluctantly, *What of the human?*
*He was... kind. Concerned. We would like him to be rewarded.*
Two's eyebrows rose.
*We trust we aren't developing feelings for humans?*
*No. Just this particular human. In human form, we probably would have... died, were it not for him.*
A tense silence, then,
*It truly was that close?*
Two hugged One tightly, refusing to countenance the idea.
*We didn't know.*
*It is over. And we're very tired. Sleep now?*
Two nodded. They could sort out the tangle of feeling and fears this whole event had caused later. For now, they were whole. He smiled, pressing his lips to One's forehead.
*Sleep now. All is as it should be.*