Xylos approached the old warehouse cautiously, eyes flickering around the scene as he held his gun with both hands, prepared to swing suddenly in any direction. He made it to the door and peeked around it, then flattened himself against the inner wall. Hearing nothing but silence, he darted across an open space to a pillar and plotted his next move.
His heart beat fast but steady, and adrenaline sharpened every sense, magnifying the sounds and smells and clarifying their import in his mind, giving him a picture of the vast interior. A clatter of chains; the splash of water. Tension coiled within him as he sensed his quarry nearby, and he struck from behind the pillar, firing his gun into the dim space.
Another gun had fired at the same moment, the bullets improbably smashing together in mid-air and shattering, and Xylos caught only a shadow of movement before he pulled back behind cover. He grinned a little bit to himself, then fired again, this time not really aiming. If he didn’t know where the bullet would go, neither would anyone else.
He heard the shot ricochet off metal, along with a startled yelp and a curse, and he smirked. Then the stone above his head was chipped by a bullet, a little too close for comfort, and he went on the run again, dodging to an old service elevator. The warehouse was perfect for a hunt, deserted with multiple levels, some cover but not clutter, and he checked for nearby stairs or ladders, wanting to get a higher vantage point.
Then he heard footsteps, too obvious to be his adversary’s. “Xylos?”
S—t. “Joanna, get down!” he shouted, as a burst of gunfire echoed around them. She dropped to the concrete floor as he fired several rounds back, signaling for her to join him. She did so, crouching by the elevator with wide eyes as he reloaded his gun. “You should’ve stayed at the apartment!” he hissed. Bullets whizzed by overhead, scaring Joanna more than anything.
“I thought you might be in trouble,” she explained in a shaky voice. Well, she had some courage at least, even if it was misplaced.
“You see what my life is like?” Xylos asked. “I’m always in trouble.” More bullets; the shooter was wondering why he hadn’t fired back yet, or moved. “Did Sid give you trouble after I left?” he checked.
“No, he was still sitting in the kitchen like you told him to,” she reported. “I think he’s gonna sit there forever.”
“Good.” The warehouse was quiet now; he didn’t think his target had left, but rather was trying to assess Xylos’s strategy. Which unfortunately had now turned from hunting to getting Joanna out of here safely. “When I say, you’re going to run for the door,” he told her. “I’ll cover you. Wait for me at the car, I’ll be out soon.”
“Is it the man you’ve been looking for?” Because this was exactly the right time to discuss this.
“Yes. I’ll keep looking,” Xylos assured her. “Ready? Go!”
Joanna ran, and Xylos stepped into the open after her, firing to pin down the other man. Then he heard a gasp and a rattle, and turned to see that Joanna had gotten tangled in a chain hanging from the ceiling. At that moment he sensed the bullet heading his way and shot desperately, trying to intercept it as before, but he was at the wrong angle. It was not aimed at Joanna but rather she was in its way; the result would be the same, and his one thought was that he couldn’t let that happen, couldn’t let her death be on his hands. So he lunged, like an outfielder trying to catch a stray ball.
He felt the impact before the pain, noted dispassionately the tearing flesh and erratic path of the bullet inside his body, imagining all the damage that was being done to his internal organs. This was going to be very unpleasant. He didn’t remember hitting the ground, just the burning agony that followed, blinding him and blanking his mind of everything else.
Joanna freed herself and ran to him, horrified by the blood pouring freely from his abdomen. She’d only known him a short time but he’d seemed impossibly strong, like an action movie hero, shaking off injuries that would’ve crippled someone else; she had felt safe with him, for perhaps the first time in her life. And now he was lying on the floor, curling up instinctively around his injury. And it was all her fault.
And someone was coming towards them.
Joanna had only gotten glimpses of the man Xylos had tracked to her city—tall, rangy, though with a certain horrible elegance in his movements, a true professional at work. And this was undoubtedly him now, stalking towards them across the concrete floor, gun in hand to finish the job.
“Go,” Xylos tried to tell her, pushing at her feebly. “Take the car. Go.”
She couldn’t just leave him, not after all he’d done for her. His gun was lying nearby and she grabbed for it. Instantly the approaching man trained his gun on her.
“Joanna, no!” Xylos insisted. “Put it down! Roman, don’t!”
Shakily she got to her feet, aiming the weapon at the other man. His face might’ve been handsome, if not for the cold anger etched on it. She wasn’t entirely unaccustomed to guns, and tried to project confidence.
“Back off!” she ordered. “Back away or I’ll shoot!”
“Joanna, don’t, put it down!” Xylos ordered, sounding more delirious with each passing moment. “Roman, leave her, she doesn’t—”
Roman was not backing down, or away, and Joanna knew she would only get one shot before he retaliated. “Last chance!” she told him, cocking the gun. He raised his own weapon, a startling fury in his eyes.
Somehow Xylos managed to get enough leverage to throw himself at her, knocking her to the ground and the gun away. His shout of pain from this action echoed in the empty space and his blood soaked through her clothes where they touched. He didn’t know what he was doing, Joanna thought, and now they were both going to die.
Roman was close enough now for Joanna to see the blue in his eyes. But as quickly as he had lifted his gun, he now tucked it behind him, and knelt down next to Xylos, turning him over with a surprising gentleness. The other man had gone pale, his face drenched in sweat even as he shivered.
“Okay, okay, just relax,” Roman purred, his hand caressing Xylos’s cheek. Joanna’s eyes went wide. “Let me see.” Carefully he tugged Xylos’s pullover up, examining the wound. Joanna glanced around speculatively. “Girl, I will shoot you if you touch that gun,” Roman warned, without bothering to look at her.
Xylos gripped him with a bloody hand. “Please, Roman,” he gasped. “She’s my friend—"
“You did this,” Roman accused Joanna, looking up to pin her with his intense gaze. “This is your fault.”
Xylos squeezed his arm, as much as he could in his weakened state. “Don’t, don’t, don’t…”
Joanna had to agree with Roman somehow—even though he had been the one shooting. If she hadn’t entered the warehouse, if she hadn’t distracted Xylos—But then again—
“You were trying to kill each other!” she pointed out.
“Don’t be daft,” Roman snapped, against all logic. “Give me your jacket.”
Joanna took off the hoodie she was wearing and watched him pack it carefully over Xylos’s wound. “Shh, shh, shh,” he encouraged the other man. His feverish blue eyes never left Roman’s, as if they were long-parted lovers rather than archenemies. “I’ll fix it, I can fix it. We’re taking a break.” Roman started to help him sit up. “We have to go.” Sirens whined in the background. “I’m putting you to sleep.”
“Bring Joanna,” Xylos told him, and then he was out cold, whether from the pain or something Roman had done.
Roman scooped him up, looking at Joanna like she was an unpleasant bug who’d come in through an open window. “Fine,” he conceded curtly. “Come if you want.” He turned and stalked toward the elevator, which couldn’t possibly be operational.
“Where are you taking him?” Joanna wanted to know. Something very different from what she’d thought was going on here, and she wasn’t sure she should be a part of it. Roman clearly agreed with her doubts.
“Somewhere safe,” was all he said. “Bring the gun here.”
Oh, now it was okay to touch the gun? Joanna took the opportunity to grab it and watched warily as Roman shouldered open the elevator doors and looked around the rusted car they led to. “Give it here,” Roman ordered, and Joanna awkwardly laid it on Xylos’s bloody lap. “Are you coming? Take my arm. I’m not waiting.” The sirens grew louder, and impulsively Joanna grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and followed him through the elevator doorway.
And stepped into a posh, modern apartment of steel and glass, with a huge wall of windows looking out on an unfamiliar city.
Joanna gasped and looked behind her, seeing only the normal apartment door leading to the hallway of the building. It shut as soon as she moved out of the way and the locks seemed to engage of their own accord. Roman was already striding away down a hall, Xylos unconscious in his arms, and Joanna hurried after them. Roman laid the other man gingerly down on a bed in what must have been the master bedroom, a luxuriant space with another expansive window wall, and carefully stripped off his bloody clothes, discarding them in a heap, including Joanna’s hoodie.
“Should we call a doctor?” she asked hesitantly, now completely confused about what to do in this world where enemies took care of each other and old elevators led to penthouse apartments.
Roman looked as though he barely remembered her existence, and didn’t care for it. “Go away,” he ordered abruptly. “Find your room. Stay there.” He turned his attention back to Xylos, probing gently at his wound. “You’re still here,” he prompted Joanna without looking at her.
“You don’t need any help?” she asked, even though the answer was obvious. She just didn’t feel comfortable doing nothing to help her friend.
She thought he was going to snap at her, from the way his shoulders tensed. Then he took a breath and released it. “No,” he replied evenly. “I’ll let you know how he is later.”
Joanna felt like that was some kind of concession to the friendship, and finally left. If Roman could work the magic of transporting them from one place to another, maybe he really could heal Xylos as well. And after what she’d experienced today, she could use a rest.
Joanna made her way back down the hall, checking each room. ‘Find your room,’ he’d said, like she’d know it somehow. There were several bedrooms, all nice though smaller than the master, but which—she opened one door and found the room piled with boxes and bags, her boxes and bags, the ones Xylos had been helping her reclaim from Sid. Tears sprang to her eyes. Her possessions were few, often cheaply made and worn with use, but they were all she had, her way to start again on her own, without an abusive jerk in her life. Somehow they had made it here, to this refuge, and for that she was grateful.
Meanwhile, Roman shut and locked the bedroom door, keeping the extraneous person safely out. Xylos wanted her included, was helping her somehow; so, here she was. Roman decided to assume she was competent to be left unsupervised for a while and concentrated on the man on the bed, his figure still and bloody. Under normal circumstances this would not be good. Fortunately, these were not normal circumstances.
Roman let his hand hover an inch above the sticky, pale skin, sensing the path the bullet had taken, the damage it had caused. With gentle nudges he encouraged each organ to begin repairs, resealing cell membranes, dividing new cells to take the place of those obliterated. The shrapnel was cleaned up, carried away for recycling; any germs that had dared invade were swarmed and strangled by an invigorated immune system. The edges of holes zipped themselves back together, reconnecting blood vessels, allowing the fluid to start flowing again through its proper channels.
Roman found his bullet, lodged near Xylos’s heart, and gave up on physically plausible effects to have its molecules simply transported to the palm of his hand, its shape smoothed back to perfection. He gave the bullet a long glance, then shrugged and pushed it back into his clip. Next time.
His work of healing ticking along nicely, Roman proceeded to remove the rest of Xylos’s clothes and clean the blood properly off him, then he tucked him into bed. He just needed a little time, and there was plenty of it here. Roman picked through the bloody clothes, saved Xylos’s wallet but found nothing else of value, and let them dissolve away into nothingness. Not as much fun as burning them, but much more practical.
Then he just had to wait.
This was the game they were playing now, something well-suited to Roman’s personality—assassins, traveling the world hunting each other, each trying to get the drop on the other. Car chases, gun battles, explosions. Not usually fistfights, as those tended to turn into other activities that inevitably ended in stalemate. Roman was surprised by how well his partner took to it, though being Xylos he always had rules—no humans could be hurt was chief among them. It was really difficult to have a good car chase—expensive vehicles barreling through a crowded marketplace, knocking over café tables and sending fresh produce flying, police cars in pointless pursuit—without anyone getting hurt. But that was the rule he had to abide by if he wanted Xylos to play.
Eventually one would catch the other, and after the usual escape attempts and fake-outs, one would surrender for real, and they’d take a little break to enjoy the spoils of victory. Or sometimes when one of them got hurt—there was a bad car crash in Montenegro where their positions were reversed, and it was Xylos standing over Roman in this bed, staring down with unfocused eyes, waiting for any sign of stirring.
Roman certainly hadn’t dragged any human along, though.
Xylos wasn’t going anywhere for a while, so Roman left the bedroom and strode down the hall, finding the woman’s room easily—she stood out like an insect on a flower. He gave a perfunctory knock then opened the door and walked in, finding her sitting on the bed looking through a photo album. There were boxes of stuff everywhere, and he frowned deeply, imagining Xylos using up precious strength to transport it all here.
The woman looked up. “How is he?” She did seem concerned about him, at least.
“Resting,” Roman replied abruptly. “Do you want food?” The answer was probably yes, so he turned and walked off to the kitchen, trusting that she would follow.
Indeed she did. “Um, I’m Joanna,” she told him, as he dug in the fridge. They didn’t need to eat, of course, but it was nice sometimes.
“Do you eat meat?” Roman checked.
“Pad Thai with chicken?” he offered. Normally he didn’t like leftovers, if they tasted like leftovers, but without Xylos around to give him a chiding look at the frivolous use of his powers, he could make leftovers taste hot and fresh again.
“Sure, that sounds good,” Joanna claimed. She watched as Roman dumped the contents of a styrofoam container, age uncertain, into a bowl and put it in a microwave. He could feel dubiousness radiating off her and turned abruptly to catch some, startling her. “So, what was your name?” she asked. “Roman?”
“And where are we?”
She didn’t strike him as especially bold, but the apartment was designed to feel safe; perhaps that empowered her. “I don’t know,” Roman shrugged without concern. The microwave dinged and he turned to attend the food.
“You don’t know,” Joanna repeated skeptically.
Unceremoniously he dropped half of the dish into another bowl then set it in front of her, adding a pair of chopsticks on the side. His raised eyebrow dared her to ask for a fork instead. She didn’t.
“Wow, this is really good,” she admitted, with some amazement.
“I know,” Roman agreed with a pleased sigh, dropping a long noodle into his mouth. Food made him feel better, a primitive chemical reaction. “The apartment moves around, to different cities,” he went on. “Wherever seems safe.”
It was still not gelling for Joanna, but why should it, really. “And we got here just by walking into an old elevator,” she recalled, a question in her tone.
“Almost any doorway will do,” Roman confirmed. “It’s inconvenient otherwise.”
“Inconvenient,” Joanna nodded. “Right. And—my stuff?”
“Xylos,” Roman told her. “You want a beer? Or something else?” He went back to the fridge.
“Diet soda?” she requested.
Roman rolled his eyes but found one. “J---s, live a little,” he advised, handing the drink over. Nothing went with Thai food better than some cold Thai beer, which normally you could only get in Thailand.
They ate silently for a few moments, which Roman preferred. “So, this is all pretty weird for me,” Joanna finally said.
“I’m not surprised,” Roman replied. “Diet Coke must taste horrible with pad Thai.”
Joanna grimaced at him. “I mean the whole transporting magically from place to place thing,” she clarified. “Getting my stuff here. Healing Xylos. Aren’t you two enemies?”
“No, it’s just a game.”
“A game.” Humans repeated words so much. Roman assumed that was so their tiny brains could process information better—some kind of delaying tactic. “Chasing each other, shooting at each other—” That was all she’d seen, just a little footrace across the rooftops and a mild shootout. Hardly them at their best.
“No one gets hurt,” he dismissed. “It’s a rule.” Then he pinned her with a look. “Unless someone interferes.”
Joanna was unrepentant. “Don’t lots of people interfere?” she argued. “Police—”
“No, and what do you care?” Roman asked with some irritation. He didn’t know why he’d bothered trying to explain to her in the first place. Only to halt her inane questions, really.
“Xylos is my friend,” she stated, as if this was the ultimate reason for anything. “He helped me get away from Sid. I’d like to know you’re not trying to kill him.”
Which was ridiculous, because what could she do about it if he was? Nothing, that’s what. “I’m not,” Roman scoffed, as if it should be obvious. Which it should be, at this point. He supposed it should also be obvious, to him at least, why Xylos wanted her brought along. He liked having little side projects, rescuing humans here and there. Roman preferred going to the movies as a hobby. 3-D IMAX was the best.
Joanna seemed judgmental, but not disbelieving. “So you just chase each other for fun,” she reiterated, after a few blissfully silent minutes.
“Yes,” Roman insisted with irritation. He was on the point of leaving her. “Don’t you watch action movies? It’s exciting.”
“I prefer romantic comedies,” Joanna countered.
Typical. So typical. “Figures,” Roman replied. “A completely useless genre. There is nothing funny about romance.”
Joanna blinked at him as if trying to decide if he was serious. He usually was, hence his comment. Obviously action movies had far more real-world applications for him. Shaking his head Roman gathered up his food to leave. “Do whatever you want,” he dismissed Joanna. “Only I wouldn’t leave, as the building might move without you.” He shut the bedroom door before he had to hear her repeat part of that.
Xylos awoke slowly, to the sound of tires zipping past at high speed, the roar of a motor, the whine of brakes. He didn’t feel like he was moving though, and his extra-ordinary senses told him he was safe. Carefully he opened his eyes.
The noise stopped suddenly, and his blurry view sharpened to consist of Roman’s face, staring down at him with a frown, his violent videogame abandoned. Xylos smiled gently in response, as he always did, and coaxed a half-smirk from the other man. He started to raise his hand but it felt like lead.
Roman took it in his own calloused fingers, sitting down on the edge of the bed. Xylos’s eyes darted around the room, recognizing it as the master bedroom in their tower refuge. Then he remembered why they were here and shifted experimentally, wincing at the tightness of his muscles. Better than being riddled with a bullet trail, of course. Absently he rubbed the spot on his belly where the bullet had first entered, finding only slightly tender skin there now.
“You fixed me,” he remarked to Roman, smiling again.
“Of course.” He said it so simply, like there was no need to doubt, and Xylos didn’t.
He tried to raise his arm again and Roman caught it, flailing slightly. “What are you trying to do?” Roman asked, his tone suggesting it was probably foolish.
“I just want to touch you.”
Roman leaned forward and lifted Xylos’s hand to his scruffy cheek, where he scratched at the day’s growth of stubble. “You believe I’m real now?” he teased.