"Trois jours. TROIS JOURS!!" The Merovingian was almost spitting with rage. "You are gone three days an' you come back empty 'anded?"
One and Two stood impassively before the massive desk, faces expressionless. The Merovingian slammed his fists down on the polished mahogany.
"Do you 'ave any idea 'ow important the Keymaker was?"
"Of course." Two sounded cool and unemotional, but One could hear the hint of anger in the soft, silky voice. And he could certainly feel it, in them both. Anger and humiliation. The first time they had ever failed a mission, and of course it had to be this one...
The Merovingian wasn't listening. He spent the next ten minutes pacing furiously, cursing the Twins inventively - if inaccurately given that they had no biological parents - and at the end almost screamed at them to get out. Inclining their heads in unison, they left the office, closing the door quietly behind them.
We don't like failure.*
They headed for their suite along the marble-floored corridors of the chateau, ignoring the occasional malicious grin from the programmes they passed. It would appear that the news of their failure had spread fast. Two was fuming inside, but being careful not to show it. One nodded slightly.
*No, we don't.*
*We must consider what went wrong. We do not wish a repeat of the incident.*
One hadn't been in any fit state to think about the events leading up to the explosion - still wasn't, truth be told. Phased, he was the same as ever, but in human form... he was still fatigued, in pain, strange phantom aches where the worst of his injuries had been. He needed to rest, Two decided, twisting to frown at him.
*We still hurt?*
*A little.* It was admitted reluctantly; neither of them liked confessing to weakness, even to each other. Not that they could actually keep it a secret for very long... Two halted for a moment, eyes searching his twin's face from behind his sunglasses.
*We must do something about that.*
One sighed silently.
*All we need is to sleep.*
Two raised an eyebrow but didn't comment further, instead leading the way back to the suite.
It was warm inside, and the table had been set, several covered platters sitting on the hotplates on the sideboard. Two's lips quirked.
*Interesting. It appears that not all the Merovingian's servants are pleased at our failure.*
*Not everyone likes the Merovingian.*
Two dissolved his coat and removed his sunglasses: One followed suit a moment later, then slumped down on the bed. Two frowned and knelt on the duvet behind his twin, hands on the bowed shoulders, kneading gently then moving forwards to press against One's back, knees on either side of his twin's thighs, arms wrapping his torso and his chin resting on the top of the silvery locks.
*We are going to take a shower.*
One glanced upwards.
*We discovered it was one of the nicer things about playing human.*
One watched as his twin slid off the bed, dissolved the rest of his clothing and padded towards the ensuite, glancing back over a broad pale shoulder as he reached the door.
*We would prefer to stay there?*
One considered it for a moment, then shook his head.
*But we would prefer a bath...*
Two's eyes narrowed fractionally, calculatingly, then he nodded.
*Then we will run a bath.*
That would take a few minutes, One realised. And he was hungry. Another hangover from his brief spell as a human. He dissolved his own clothing and investigated the food on the hotplates - warmed brioche, chocolat au pain, croissant dripping with butter, all items that could be easily carried through to the bathroom.
They'd never actually bathed together, he realised, although the bath was easily big enough for three...
The sunken tub was half-full by the time he'd placed an assortment of pastries onto a warm plate, filled two large earthenware mugs with frothy hot chocolate - whoever had prepared the meal seemed to be attempting a hearty rustic effect - and loped through to the bathroom. One glanced up from where he was crouched at the side of the tub, a brightly-coloured bottle in each hand.
*Lavender, or cypress?*
One stared at him, then frowned enquiringly. Two indicated the bottles.
*Bath preparations. Foaming oil. Would we prefer lavender, or cypress scented?*
*Are we perhaps taking 'playing human' a little too far?*
*Considering how far they themselves take it, in all seriousness, we think not. Besides, the fragrances are pleasant - as is the sensation of the preparation on the skin.*
One raised an eyebrow.
*And when did we turn sybarite?*
*When we realised that physical sensation could be pleasurable. Lavender or cypress?*
*Good. We particularly like that one...* Two poured a measure of the thick liquid under the taps: the swirling water swiftly turned a rich shade of green, the surface covered with bubbles, and a delicious woody scent filled the room. One placed the plate and mugs within reach and slid into the tub, relaxing back against the side as his twin turned off the taps and climbed in opposite, settling into the water with a sigh and stretching out long legs.
*There are benefits to playing human...*
And One had to admit he had a point. The nearly-hot water felt wonderful on his aching body - a far cry from the cold water of the last three days. Two glanced at the plate.
*Not terribly substantial...*
*It's sufficient for now. We can eat properly later.*
*Very well.* Two helped his twin to a chocolat au pain, holding the rich pastry to One's lips, other hand cupped on a level with his chin as the delicacy crumbled. *Messy.*
One quirked an eyebrow.
*It is not possible to eat French pastry without making a mess.*
*True. Next time we will ask for crumpets.* Two smirked as One's tongue licked melted chocolate from his fingers, then reached for the mugs, handing one to his twin. He watched as One settled back deeper into the water, eyes half-closing as he sipped the creamy drink. *Was it terrible?*
One sighed and placed the mug back on the floor, then spread his arms along the edge of the bath, regarding his twin sombrely.
*Yes, it was. Had it not been for Trash...*
Two scowled. The fact that the human, instead of himself, had been there to take care of his twin rankled, especially when he saw in One's mind what Trash had done. No one had the right to touch his twin except himself...
Yet if the human hadn't been there, One would most likely have died, of his injuries and blood-loss. So Two was in the unenviable position of having to be grateful to someone - a human at that! - he deeply resented.
It was just as well Trash hadn't made any intimate advances, or he'd be dead by now, instead of on his way back to his own turf with the credit card and licence to withdraw as much as he liked up to the limit (Two had told him in an aside that if he abused their trust and tried to go over it they'd simply advise the police that their card had been stolen and let him take the consequences).
Two shook his head. And after the... unpleasantness of the last few days they'd still have to deal with whatever the Merovingian considered an appropriate retribution for their failure. Assuming, that is, they opted to stay with him.
But they could worry about that later. For now, Two was more concerned about his twin. He could feel One's pain echoing in his own body, far more acutely than ever before. He didn't like it. They weren't used to suffering. And over and above the specific pains One was aching, a low-level throbbing that seemed to affect his whole body.
But he could do something about that.
One slid deeper into the tub, then jumped as Two caught his foot between warm hands under the water.
*What are we doing?*
Strong fingers were stroking at his toes, the sole of the foot. It felt strange, but definitely not unpleasant.
*Just a little something we learned recently...*
Eyes closing, sinking back against the warm porcelain, One stretched out a little further, flexing the foot Two was massaging.
One frowned, then decided he really didn't want to know. In any case, Two's hands were moving further up his leg, kneading at the calf, stroking the smooth skin; it was... distracting...
Two started on the other foot, thumbs pressing against the arch, the pads under his toes, and One's head rolled back, lips parted as he sighed in pleasure. He had almost drifted into a light doze when Two gently released his leg and smirked, eyes half-closed.
One stirred, reluctant to move but hazily curious about what his twin intended, turning around and shifting back a little, sitting between Two's legs. Strong elegant hands settled on his back, under his locks, brushing them aside, kneading at his shoulders, rubbing small circles over and down his back... One winced as the hands found painful areas - then sighed blissfully as he felt Two's fingers phase, pressing into his back, tweaking tiny fractions of misplaced code back into shape.
*Thank you.* He knew from experience how much concentration and control it took to partially phase, how very uncomfortable, even painful, it could be. Two stroked the nape of his neck.
He leaned back against his twin as long arms slid around his chest from behind, holding him close, Two's chin resting on his shoulder, his twin's almost soundless breathing whispering over his ear.
So close, so comfortable, so... warmly intimate.
Two sighed, hand absently caressing his twin's chest, long slow strokes with the flat of his hand from neck to thigh, the rhythm soothing, calming. One lay back fully, closing his eyes, welcoming the contentment that flowed through him, and for a while there was silence. Then Two stirred, rousing his drowsing twin.
*Bed. We need to rest.*
One stretched slightly and settled himself more comfortably against his twin.
Two stared down at the top of One's head, eyes narrowed. Spared the human frailty of waterlogged skin they might be, but the bath was not the most amenable of places to sleep. He nuzzled One's locks.
*It will be more comfortable.*
*We're quite comfortable here, thank you...*
Hm. Apparently being forced to play human had had longer lasting effects than he'd first suspected. Two shifted, pushing himself awkwardly to his feet and hauling his twin with him. One groaned and slumped against his body, nearly knocking them both back down into the bath. Two glared at him.
*A little cooperation here!*
One pulled himself a little more upright, most of his weight still resting against his twin. Two sighed with exasperation. Or was it fondness...?
*We wish to be carried?*
To his hastily quashed surprise, One actually appeared to seriously consider the suggestion. Then shook his head, smirking slightly.
*No, we think we have enough energy to walk the distance...*
Two climbed from the tub, one hand reaching back to steady his twin, then phased to dry himself, ignoring the voluminous soft towels on the rail. One followed suit: they padded together into the bedroom, where One flopped gracefully onto the bed.
*Are we hungry?*
One closed his eyes and stretched, milky-pale skin almost luminous against the royal blue of the bedding.
*Yes, but we can wait. We're too tired to enjoy food right now.*
Two slid onto the other side of the bed, pulling the thick duvet up to cover them both and settling back onto the pillows, not surprised when his twin shifted over to curl around him, head resting on a broad pale shoulder. Within moments One was asleep.
Two wrapped his arm around One's shoulder and moved slightly so he could peer down into his twin's face, brushing stray locks out of the way with his other hand. It was strange how oddly innocent One looked when he slept. Not something Two had seen very often: after all, they were usually asleep at the same time...
But right now...
One had come close to death. Deletion. Non-existence.
A chilling coldness filled Two from the inside. For a moment he struggled to breathe; something seemed to be pressing down on his lungs, and he almost phased, just stopping himself as he realised it would probably wake One. And he didn't want that. Didn't want One awake to feel this... what was it he was feeling? Despair? Pain, certainly. Stark fear.
The thought that they could have been separated forever was agony.
Shaking, he stroked One's smooth pale face. He didn't know if they could survive as one half and didn't care. Without One he wouldn't want to survive, would willingly allow himself to be deleted.
One's eyes opened.
*But we are together.*
Two drew a shuddering breath.
*We thought we were asleep.*
*We were. Our pain woke us.* He pulled back, but only far enough to slide his arms around Two's shoulders, holding him close and tight, one hand buried in soft heavy locks. *Calm, Two. We are now as we should be.*
*But what if it should happen again?*
A brief, tense silence, then,
*It must not. We must make sure it cannot.*
*Our existence is... precarious. We had not thought it could be so.*
One nuzzled silvery locks, at a loss as to what to say to comfort his twin - comfort himself. They'd been so confident in their own abilities, taken each other's existence and continued presence for granted. Now they knew differently. And it was terrifying. His twin shivered and pulled him even closer, fingers pressing painfully into his flesh.
*We are afraid.*
One sighed and kissed his forehead. If Two had been human, he'd be suffering from delayed shock.
*Yes. We know. It will fade.*
Two somehow doubted it, but the realisation that his twin felt the same fear kept him from vocalising the sentiment. And right now One needed to rest. He stroked his twin's locks.
*It will fade, in time... We should sleep.*
*Mm.* One shifted slightly, squirming down to rest his head on Two's shoulder - not easy given his twin's current death-grip. *We are tired.*
Two's hold slackened a little, allowing One to get comfortable, although he couldn't stop the trembling that still quivered along his body. One kissed his shoulder.
*Sleep, Two. Restful sleep. We will feel much more like our usual selves when we wake.*
Privately Two doubted it, but he nodded, and brushed a kiss over One's forehead, and lay still, trying to stop the shaking. He felt One drift back into sleep - but it was several hours before he managed to doze himself, and even then he was woken by strange echoes, memories of being lost and entirely alone...
It was three days before they were summoned into the presence, three days they'd spent resting, bathing, eating - and exercising. Not something they did often - they had no need to - but Two was irritable, chafing from the inaction and still shaky from recent events.
The servant who'd been sent to fetch them peered out from behind the rock through the lightly falling snow, his mouth open with amazement, forgetting to shiver as he took in the sight before him in the small flat clearing on the slopes behind the chateau.
Barefoot in the snow, their gis only a little whiter than their skin, the Twins were sparring, their movements economical and precise and incredibly fast. He didn't know what form of martial art it was they were practising - didn't want to know, the further he could stay from the pale assassins the happier he'd be - but it looked wholly deadly... His sudden shiver had nothing to do with the freezing air and everything to do with their eyes: their sunglasses were missing, and the green-slashed silvery-blackness that was usually hidden beneath made the pair look even more alien, and more frightening, than usual.
He swallowed hard, not wanting their attention turned to himself but not wanting to risk offending the Merovingian by making him wait, either. He took a step forward, and sighed with short-lived relief when the Twins broke off their combat and bowed to each other, tugged the gaping white jackets closed against the cold, then turned in his direction - pausing to glare as they caught sight of him.
"We are being watched."
"Indeed we are."
The servant shook his head frantically, eyes closing.
"Nononono, sirs, I wasn't spying..." He risked glancing up at them, blinking as he saw they'd resumed their sunglasses. Where'd they been hiding those...? "The Merovingian requests your presence. I believe it's quite urgent, sirs."
They glanced at each other, then one of them - the servant had no idea which - smirked dangerously.
"Tell the Merovingian we will be with him shortly."
Bowing and turning swiftly, the servant scuttled off, relieved. One smiled mirthlessly at his twin as they phased, resuming their more usual attire.
*Are we forgiven, we wonder?*
Two growled quietly.
*Perhaps we had better go and see.*
Persephone was waiting for them, her lovely face tight with irritation. She folded her arms and frowned at the twins.
"'e asks that you escort me to Le Vrai."
One nodded, though it was more a matter of Persephone escorting them; the Merovingian jealously guarded the keys that gave access to the back doors to the control core and his 'kingdom'. They took up position, one to each side and slightly behind Persephone, following as she headed towards the front of the chateau: a brief turn of her key in a side door and they stepped through into the corridor outside the restaurant. Head high, she waltzed in, past the doorman and the throng of diners at their tables, ignoring the various admiring, lustful or scared glances she and her escorts received, sauntering for the top table, hips swaying in the tight red dress she'd chosen today. The Merovingian raised his glass, a small smirk twisting his lips.
"Ah, ma chére, 'ere you are at last." He tutted quietly. "You 'ave kept our guests waiting."
The two figures sitting with their backs toward the newcomers turned to look over their shoulders: the twins eyed them curiously. One was male, average, nothing particularly distinctive about him, the other was female, similarly nondescript. Both were programmes... One stiffened imperceptibly. Their code was shifting, fluid, difficult to pin down...
The Merovingian nodded tightly to the Twins, eyes flicking to their normal table; they seated themselves with deceptive aplomb, both regarding the new programmes.
*What are they?*
One glanced at his twin, thoughts uneasy.
*Their code has some elements of similarity with ours. Viruses, perhaps?*
*And sitting at the top table. Are we supposed to believe we are being ousted?*
*It's certainly well within the scope of the Merovingian's fondness for veiled threats...*
They were silent for a moment, only half-listening to the Merovingian's little speech on causality - they'd heard it many times before, it was his standard introduction to newcomers - as they considered the situation. One's voice was dry.
*No introductions. We assume we're still out of favour.*
Two growled silently.
*Should we make contingency plans?*
*It might be a good idea...*
By the time the Merovingian rose to his feet to signal the end of the meal, the twins had learned that the newcomers were Wallon and Sky - and that they were expected to "show them the ropes" as the Merovingian put it. Two's lips tightened fractionally.
*Now we're babysitters?*
One's eyes narrowed.
*Trainers, perhaps. Though we don't like the idea of training our replacements.* He regarded the new programmes. *Though we don't think they will be much competition.*
The female, Sky, smiled a little awkwardly.
"I know this is really not your sort of thing..."
One waited for just long enough for the pause to become embarrassing, then inclined his head.
"And how do you know that?"
She lowered her eyes, her face reddening. A blush?! Programmes didn't blush!
"I've - we've - heard of you, of course. We all know about the Twins. You're famous, you know." She looked up at them hesitantly. "We're honoured to meet you."
One glanced at his twin, bemused and suspicious. At the other side of the table the Merovingian looked up from whatever it was he had been saying to Persephone and glared at the backs of the newcomers' heads, obviously not at all impressed by the sentiment. He slapped his hands down on the table, attracting everyone's attention.
"We are finished?"
Nods answered him: he straightened, ostentatiously offered his arm to his 'wife', and led the way out of the restaurant...
... and through a door into the ground floor of the chateau, where he paused and addressed the twins for the first time, his voice taut with irritation.
"Zeir rooms are opposite yours. We will discuss what I want wiz zem tomorrow at breakfast. Do not be late."
He turned on his heel and headed off to his own quarters, Persephone trailing behind him accompanied by several bodyguards. One watched them for a moment, then turned to the new programmes.
"Come with us."
Sky talked at the twins as they all made their way through the chateau, nervous chatter as she and Wallon tried to keep pace with their mentors' long strides. After climbing the second staircase she was, however, too short of breath to continue, much to the twins' relief. Finally they paused outside their own door and One gestured to the two rooms opposite.
"Take your pick - they are identical. You will find everything you need inside."
Wallon, who'd said nothing so far, inclined his head and disappeared through the first of the doors. Sky hovered outside the second, smiling gratefully as Two opened the door to their own suite.
"Thank you... um, what time is breakfast?"
"When you are summoned."
She blinked, then frowned.
"One of the chateau servants will escort you. Be ready from 7.30."
"Oh. OK. Thanks." She licked her lips nervously. "Um, don't mean to seem rude, but which Twin are you?"
"I'll try and remember..."
One inclined his head and stepped through the door that Two was impatiently still holding open, leaving Sky to enter her own room. Turning the lock, Two sighed and dissolved his coat.
"We are not impressed."
To be honest, neither was One. Both the new programmes were out of breath by the time they reached their rooms. If - as currently seemed unlikely - they were to be included amongst the Merovingian's guard, they'd need a considerable amount of training. One dissolved coat, waistcoat and tie and sat on the edge of the bed, frowning as he removed his sunglasses.
"Perhaps we simply have to show them how the Merovingian likes his little empire to run."
Two smirked at the faintly sarcastic tone, then was serious again.
"Why us? We are not teachers."
"We don't know. Perhaps the Merovingian thinks we will find it humiliating."
"Our punishment for failure."
"We have seen worse."
"True." The last programme that had failed the Merovingian had ended up deleted. Slowly and painfully. "We assume we are too useful for him to delete casually."
"Or too powerful." That too was a possibility. The Merovingian depended heavily on them for the most dangerous jobs: their ability to phase made them invaluable. And - they'd thought - just about irreplaceable. But they could be mistaken. Just because they'd never heard of another programme that could phase didn't mean that such a thing didn't exist...
One lay back on the bed, arms crossed behind his neck, and gazed up at his twin.
*Things change. We have changed, after all. We shouldn't expect everything else to remain static.*
*Why not? It has been for... a long time...* Two frowned, then sighed. *Very well. What should we do if the Merovingian wishes to dispense with our services?*
One sat up, expression pensive.
*The Merovingian has rivals.*
Two folded his arms.
*Minor programmes with no significant power. Hopefuls he tolerates because they aren't a threat.*
*Because they don't have us.*
*We can hardly take on the Merovingian's force by ourselves!*
*Not as things stand, no. But not everyone is happy with the Merovingian's rule.* He shook his head. *Well, it's an option. Or we could 'retire'.*
*Retire? And do what, exactly?*
*Take up pottery?*
Two blinked, then scowled.
*We are wondering if we are quite recovered from our ordeal as a human...*
*We're not serious.*
*We are glad of that! Our talent is for destruction, not creation.*
*We could return to the matrix.*
*And have the Agents permanently on our tails? We don't think so.*
*But it would be exciting. Challenging.*
*It would be disastrous!*
*Perhaps we could join the rebels.*
Two stared at his twin.
*And what makes us think that the rebels would want us in the first place?*
*It seems an unlikely scenario. Though stranger things have happened.*
Two gave an exasperated growl and started to pace.
*There is nowhere we can go. We are Exiles.*
*Exiles with a narrow but powerful range of abilities. There must be some purpose we can serve!*
*We can't think of one.*
*Then we aren't thinking widely enough.*
Two glowered, then paused as a knock came on the door. One smirked.
*Dinner.* He eyed his twin, eyebrow raised. *Shall we invite the new programmes to join us?*
For just a second Two looked almost panicked.
*NO!* He calmed himself. *They have already eaten.*
One stood to open the door, allowing the kitchen staff to enter and lay the table.
*We were joking.*
Two glared at him.
*We think we're making altogether too many jokes at the moment.*
*We'll try to stop.* One nodded to the staff, who bowed their heads and left swiftly, then gestured to the meal. *Shall we see what delights await us tonight?*
The Merovingian sat at the table helping himself to a variety of dishes, the twins standing to one side. They hadn't been invited to sit.
"I want you to spend one day wiz the new arrivals. Show zem le chateau, teach zem where - and where not - zey are permitted to go. Introduce zem to ze oz'ers. Explain how s'ings are, 'ere. Zen tomorrow I 'ave an assignment for you."
"May we ask what?"
The Merovingian smiled maliciously.
"You will be told tomorrow. But be assured it is worthy of your... talents."
It wasn't in their programming to worry about imponderables, but One was nevertheless preoccupied. Towards midday Sky paused at his side, gazing up at him.
"Um, One... is there anything I can do to help?"
He stared down at her, lips a thin line, and she flinched.
"Sorry... I just thought... you looked a little... distracted..."
"It is no concern of yours."
Her shoulders hunched as she backed away a step.
Two eyed him curiously.
*Then shall we let them have lunch?*
*If they require it...*
They did, and sat at the massive table in the refectory, sampling the chateau's fare with good appetites. Sky kept glancing at them, obviously wanting to ask why they weren't eating, but was - to One's amusement - apparently too intimidated to risk it.
The morning had allowed them to familiarise themselves with the abilities of the new programmes. Wallon was a saboteur, skilled at gaining entrance to supposedly secure systems to allow other, more aggressive programmes access: Sky worked with him as a distractor. The pair would be useful to the Merovingian in his search for ever more obscure and heavily protected sources of information, but were of little use or interest to the twins. Much as Sky seemed to want to be. But perhaps that was just a part of her code...
After lunch the twins introduced them to the inhabitants of the chateau - those that were currently in residence, at any rate. And then finally they were able to leave the pair in Serendipity's capable hands.
*No.* Two dissolved his coat and stretched widely. *We are relieved.*
*We were worried?*
*Not worried. Uneasy, perhaps. The Merovingian can be - unpredictable.*
*For all his talk of causality... We wonder what the assignment could be.*
*We will find out in seven hours.*
Early morning sunlight slanted into the spacious office and across the mahogany desk. The Merovingian clasped his hands together on the polished top and regarded the twins solemnly.
"You 'ave disappointed me. Oui, I know zere were - extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, I expected better of you." He frowned. "It is per'aps fortunate that you are the best I 'ave, or I might be tempted to bid you adieu. 'owever..."
He paused and took a sip of his coffee.
"Where one door closes, anozer opens. It appears zere is anozer Keymaker."
One's eyes widened behind his sunglasses. They'd all thought the programme was unique. The Merovingian smirked.
"'e is a rogue programme, newly exiled. I want you to collect 'im and bring 'im to me." He inclined his head. "Since you lost ze first one..."
There was a brief silence as the twins looked at each other, then One asked,
"Where is he?"
The Merovingian called up a map onto the screen inset into the desktop and pointed.
In the matrix, of course. And a long, long way away from the core. Agent territory.
*Excitement. Challenge.* Two flashed his twin a dirty look. *Perhaps in future we'll be more careful what we wish for...*
Persephone escorted the Twins to the appropriate door, opening onto the fourth floor of a deserted multi-storey carpark. An elegant hand waved at the parked vehicles.
"'elp yourselves to whatever you want." Large dark eyes regarded them for a moment, then she reached up and laid delicate fingertips against Two's shoulder, her gaze encompassing them both. "Please, take care. Come back safely."
Two's lips quirked as he inclined his head, then turned on his heel and headed towards the further rank of cars. One eyed Persephone pensively for a moment, then followed his twin, somewhat bemused...
Two had chosen a relatively inconspicuous vehicle, black, sleek, but not eye-catching or particularly unusual. The windows were lightly tinted, affording them a measure of camouflage, and there was the usual arsenal on the back seat. One slid behind the wheel, starting the engine as his twin settled into the passenger seat.
*We know where we are going?*
One nodded, easing the car out of the parking space and heading for the down ramp.
*Our aim is to avoid detection for as long as possible. We will obey the traffic laws until events dictate otherwise.*
*Oh.* Two looked disappointed. *We suppose that's sensible.*
*Much as the necessity grates, if we wish to be successful it's the wisest choice.*
Two sighed and settled back grumpily, folding his arms and glaring out of the window.
*If we must...*
Crossing the freeway raised a frisson of fear in One: the trauma of a week ago was still fresh in his mind, and despite being completely healed, he could still feel strange phantom pains spearing through him. Two gripped his shoulder, the pain echoing in his own body.
*An illusion - a memory. Nothing more. We are whole. It can't hurt us.*
Swallowing hard, One focussed on manoeuvring the car through the fast-moving mass of vehicles with the minimum of fuss and effort, and after twenty minutes turned off, heading across town to the distant industrial district that had been the last place the new Keymaker had been spotted.
An hour of threading the car through narrowing streets, constantly alert for pursuit, then they arrived at a run-down area of crumbling tenement housing. One pulled the car into an alleyway between two buildings and regarded his twin.
*Where is he?*
Two leaned forwards to peer up at the dismal assemblage of bricks through the windscreen. Outside it had begun to rain.
*A tracker would be useful at this point.*
*But we don't have one, so let's just start searching...*
The actual capture was going to be tricky. All they knew about the new Keymaker was his code: they had no idea how experienced or talented the programme was, or how many keys he had, or the extent of his abilities. If he saw or heard them coming, he would most likely try to escape, and derelict as the buildings were, they still possessed plenty of functioning doors.
The twins slid from the car, ignoring the increasing rain, and moved swiftly into the shadows, pausing to take stock of the locale. It would be most practicable for them to enter from opposite sides of the building in phased form and check each floor in turn, they decided, and were about to split up when a familiar voice made them pause.
"One? Two? What are you guys doing here?"
Twin heads turned in the same direction, to see Trash huddled in a doorway out of the rain. One frowned.
"We might ask the same of you."
"Me? Ahh, I just like to keep movin'." He smiled tentatively at One. "You're lookin' great, man. All healed up." He glanced nervously at Two. "Did a good job there."
One laid a restraining hand on his twin's arm as Two reached for his razor, then crouched down to be on a level with the young human.
"We are looking for someone."
"Someone... a little like us, maybe."
"Ain't no-one else alive like you two!"
Two growled quietly.
*Silence him and let us get a move on!*
"But there is someone new around."
Ignoring Two, One waited in silence for a moment, until Trash fidgeted and said, reluctantly,
"... and she's bit... odd."
"Yeah. Doesn't seem to have the first clue how to live on the streets. And although she's real frightened of something, it's almost like... she doesn't want to be here but can't go home."
"She is near here?"
The human jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
"In there. Hiding. I was goin' to get us something to eat and then the rain started." He frowned. "You're not going to hurt her, are you?"
"No." One glanced up at his twin: Two was glowering. "Take us to her."
"You promise you won't hurt her?"
"We will not hurt her."
Trash pulled himself to his feet.
"Well, OK then..."
As they followed him up the first flight of rickety stairs Two was still scowling.
*We wonder how he manages to always be in the vicinity...*
*Twice is hardly always!*
*It's still suspicious.*
One considered reminding his twin that had it not been for Trash they wouldn't be having this conversation, then decided against it. Twice really wasn't anything more than coincidence, but Two's mistrustful nature had served them well on innumerable occasions...
Trash turned to them at the top of the second flight and put his finger to his lips.
"Let me go in first, 'K? I need to let her know you're OK. Otherwise she'll try to run."
One nodded, and Trash disappeared through an ill-fitting door: Two immediately phased and disappeared through the neighbouring wall, heading for the ubiquitous fire escape at the other side of the building. If the mysterious 'she' decided to make a run for it, that was the only place she could go.
After a moment Trash came back to the door, smiling - a smile that vanished when he saw Two was missing.
"Where'd he go? You're not trying to fuck with us, are you?"
One shook his head and pushed past the human into the apartment: Trash knew better than to try to stop him. He hurried after One, gesturing towards the bedroom, his voice low.
"Please please be nice. She's shit-scared as it is..."
One paused in the doorway, gazing at the small figure huddled on the bed. Young, pretty, shoulder-length dark blonde hair and grey eyes, currently wide with fear - nothing at all like the previous Keymaker. After a panicked couple of seconds staring at One she squeaked and dived off the bed, backing towards the adjoining bathroom - only to come up against Two, who gripped her upper arms before she could make any further move to escape.
"Let me go!" Credit where credit was due, she didn't immediately crumple; she tried to fight back, kicking at Two's legs and wriggling frantically - not that it did any good. Trash hastened to her, laid both hands on her shoulders.
"Hey, it's OK! I said they're friends of mine!"
Tears were trickling down her face.
"The Twins have no friends!"
One moved to stand in front of her, one pale hand cupped under her chin.
"You know who we are?"
"We all know who you are!" Her voice was bitter. "Are you going to kill me now or prolong the agony?"
"We are not going to harm you. We have been sent to collect you, Keymaker."
She flinched at the title, averting her eyes. Trash's eyes were huge.
"Keymaker? What the fuck is a keymaker?"
One inclined his head - he could hear sirens in the distance, heading their way.
"We must leave."
The Keymaker shook her head.
"Nuh. Uhuh. I'm not going anywhere with you."
One eyed her bemusedly.
"It was not a request." He glanced at Two, who lifted her bodily, squirming and protesting, holding her tightly against his body. Trash grabbed One's arm as the twins strode swiftly from the apartment and towards the stairs.
"What the fuck is going on?"
"We are all in danger."
The human suddenly seemed to hear the sirens.
"Oh. They still after you, then?"
"Yes. You also, now."
"Where'd you learn to fuckin' drive, man?" yelped Trash as One slammed on the brakes and slid sideways onto the main road between two approaching squad cars. The human and the Keymaker were in the back, hanging on for dear life as One guided - guided as in guided missile, in Trash's opinion - the car back towards the freeway. (The Keymaker had made several futile attempts to escape until Two, losing what little patience he possessed, had twisted in his seat and swiped at her, halting his razor just touching the skin of her neck: she'd frozen, staring at him in terror, and thereafter obeyed his growled instruction to "sit still"...)
One smirked at Trash in the rear-view mirror.
"The alternative is painful death. Which would you prefer?"
Trash swallowed and tried to smile.
"I'll shut up, shall I?"
Two glared over his shoulder.
"We would appreciate it."
Behind them four squad cars were pursuing: ahead of them another two had stopped bumper to bumper in an impromptu road block. Two reached behind his seat and grabbed the armaments case, pulling out the UMP and standing up as One hit the switch to reel back the car's sunroof...
The Keymaker was huddled down on the seat, hands over her ears to try to mute the rattle of gunfire: Trash watched, disbelievingly, as Two mowed down police and passersby indiscriminately. The car shook as One slammed it through the barricade, setting the squad cars spinning out of the way: a last round of fire from Two hit a fuel tank, the vehicle exploding into a ball of flame, sending Agents and police alike leaping for cover and severely hindering the pursuing cars. Trash caught a glimpse of the maliciously satisfied smirk on Two's face as he sat back down, the expression mirrored on his twin's features...
*There will be others.*
*Yes, but it will take them a little while to catch up.*
*Then let us see if we can get back before they do so.*
One floored the accelerator, hurtling onto and along the freeway with blithe disregard for the lives and limbs of other road users...
The car screeched into its space in the multi-storey, stopping a fraction of an inch from the wall: One switched off the engine with an air of satisfaction and twisted to regard their passengers. Who both looked pale and shaken, but uninjured.
"Come with us."
Too dazed to object, Trash and the Keymaker meekly followed the twins down into the building and along corridors until they came to a section that seemed vaguely familiar to Trash. As Two opened the door and One ushered their guests inside, the human realised where he was - next door to the guest suite he'd occupied on that memorable night a week ago.
He quickly scrutinised the twins' room as inconspicuously as he was able, noting without surprise the solitary king-sized bed and lack of personal decoration. Then One gestured to the two armchairs by the window, and he and the... Keymaker, they'd called her, seated themselves and gazed up at their hosts.
One eyed them from behind his sunglasses: Two sat down on the bed - between them and the door, Trash thought cynically. But One had started speaking, his remarks addressed to the programme.
"The Merovingian wants you."
The Keymaker cringed, and Trash took her hand.
"You know what he's talking about?"
"Kind of..." She bit her lip and gazed up at One. "What does he want me for?"
"To work for him."
She managed a bitter laugh.
"Like the old Keymaker worked for him? Shut away in a dungeon, kept a prisoner? I'd rather be deleted."
"But you are an Exile. You were offered the same choice as the rest of us."
She shook her head.
"I wasn't exiled. I escaped."
One and Two exchanged looks.
"Yeah. Didn't like what my creators wanted to do with me. So I escaped."
She stared at them.
"Well how the hell do you think?! I'm the Keymaker. It's what I do!"
It was a novel idea - self-imposed exile, in effect. But it explained a few things, like how she'd come to be marooned in the city rather than making her way to core or source. One folded his arms over his chest, regarding her contemplatively.
"What had you planned to do?"
Her shoulders slumped as she lowered her head.
"Hadn't quite thought that far..."
One glanced at Two, frowning, then perched on the arm of Trash's chair, regarding the Keymaker sombrely.
"You do not wish to work for the Merovingian, yet you do not have any plans as to what you do intend to do."
"You understand that you are a highly valued programme, much in demand?"
"Yeah, I know."
"And that the Merovingian will go to any lengths, physical or otherwise, to force you to join him."
She nodded again, miserably. "I've heard what he does to females."
*We wonder if the Merovingian is aware of his reputation outside the core?* Two smirked slightly. *Though he would probably be pleased...*
One nodded absently, considering alternative paths, then inclined his head to the Keymaker.
"How would it be if you were to work for us?"