It was the worst pain he’d ever been in, though increasingly he had begun to realize what a soft life he’d led to this point, so that wasn’t really saying much. And, it had now mostly faded from the initial spikes of agony to a dull throb—nothing he could forget about, nothing he wanted to live with, but now he could at least think coherent thoughts about his larger situation.
And that was when the real pain came in.
It was hard to know anything for sure here, and Williams and his men certainly weren’t bothering to keep him informed; but if Roman really had turned on him, believed some whisper that said he was disloyal, then what he faced at the governmental complex would be far, far worse than what he’d experienced so far. Roman took betrayal hard, harder the closer the person had been to him, and if he was already furious and grief-stricken he wouldn’t listen to any explanation Nicholas gave him.
But further physical torture wasn’t the thing Nicholas was most afraid of. What he was most afraid of was the moment when Roman walked into the room and looked at him, and Nicholas had to see the hurt in his eyes, bone-deep pain that Nicholas had caused. Or rather, lies about Nicholas, that Roman believed, had caused. Tears dripped down his face where he lay tumbled in the back of the car and he didn’t bother to brush them away. If someone had asked right then, he would’ve chosen immediate execution over facing Roman.
The car stopped and Nicholas heard the voices of the guards conferring with the security detail transporting him. Then they were allowed through, into the yard of the complex, and a moment later stopped before the main building. Someone ordered him to get out of the car, but Nicholas just lay there with his eyes closed, like everything might fade away and turn out alright if he just ignored it.
Naturally it didn’t and he was dragged roughly from the car, making him gasp as his injured ribs were pulled and his knees banged anew. The two men pulled him up the steps and through the doors almost effortlessly, his feet trailing behind him. Idly he wondered how many people were around to witness this, and what they thought; embarrassment was the furthest thing from his mind right now. They moved into a darker, closer space with carpet that caught on his shoes, and he realized they were approaching Roman’s office; he started to squirm then, muscles that had been forcefully limp tensing, and he coughed and choked as he tried to breathe.
He heard Roman’s secretary, Betty, gasp and protest as she saw them, but she was silenced gruffly, and then Nicholas was carried into Roman’s office and chucked across the floor, whacking hard into the coffee table. Once his head stopped ringing he could at least appreciate how the table helped him sit up a little, though he wasn’t certain this was an improvement. Roman wasn’t there yet; the five guards arrayed themselves around the room, their faces impassive. Except for Williams, who glared at him with cold hatred.
Nicholas tried to breathe, to focus on breathing; but every moment of clarity he gained made him realize what would soon be happening, and set off the panic again. Would Roman rush to see him, or let him linger, unable to face him until he’d processed whatever fabricated story? Nicholas didn’t know which to hope for, a quick end or more time to grasp at calm. At the moment he was a shivering, gasping mess.
Voices in the hallway, and Nicholas’s heart and lungs went into overdrive, like he was really going to make a run for it or something. He turned all his energies towards keeping himself contained, to not faint or fly to pieces before Roman saw him.
The door opened and Roman strode in, followed by Johnson. He was wearing a nice grey suit, perhaps having come straight from a meeting. He started to address Williams, then Johnson touched his arm and nodded towards Nicholas.
Roman’s eyes widened in surprise, then the fury arose, and Nicholas felt his broken nose tingle painfully as fresh tears started. Roman’s expression softened deliberately—could Nicholas actually win him with pity? And did he even want to? He would not admit to false guilt.
Roman crossed the room swiftly and knelt down beside him. “Nicholas—” He reached out a large hand and the boy flinched away. “It’s okay, Schatzi, it’s okay,” Roman tried in a soothing tone, approaching him more slowly. His callused fingers brushed an injured cheek, damp with tears and sweat, and Nicholas’s eyes fluttered closed. “No, stay with me, stay with me, Schatzi,” Roman instructed, shaking him a little.
He slid one arm around the boy’s back, tipping him closer to rest against Roman’s chest, heedless of the damage to his expensive suit, and hooked the other arm under his knees. He tried to lift him smoothly but Nicholas groaned in pain. “I know, I know,” Roman murmured, kissing his temple. “Shh, we’ll fix it soon.”
Williams was beginning to look distinctly nervous; this was not the reaction he’d expected. And it didn’t exactly calm Nicholas either—as much as he appreciated it in the moment, he couldn’t help imagining that any second Roman would finally snap at him.
Roman laid him down on the couch, fingers ghosting over undamaged skin again, and draped a blanket over him. “Call the hospital,” he ordered Johnson. “Get Dr. Smith over here, now.”
Then he advanced on Williams, finally giving vent to the fury that had been building inside him. “Did you beat my boy? Did I tell you to beat him? I told you to bring him to me, so I could talk to him—”
Nicholas watched hazily from the couch as Roman grabbed the man by the throat, bashing his head against the wall with each word. He should be feeling better now, if Williams had been overzealous in carrying out his orders, and Roman was not already convinced of his guilt. But instead he just felt sick, the hatred and violence in the room, in the country, roiling his stomach. He could be beaten over a mistake, and the man who made it was probably going to be killed, maybe right in front of him—
One of the guards glanced away from watching his boss get beaten to a bloody pulp when he heard a gurgling noise from the couch, and saw the boy struggling to turn himself. S—t, any hope he had of surviving his boss’s misjudgment would be gone if the kid choked to death on his own vomit in the same room. Slinging his automatic rifle over his shoulder, he stepped over to the boy and tipped him sideways.
This did not go unnoticed. “What are you doing?!” Roman snapped at him, but then Nicholas heaved what little remained in his stomach onto the floor, which was better than it staying caught in his throat. Roman could punish Williams later; right now Nicholas needed help.
Roman dropped his former security chief to the floor. “What’s your name?” he asked the guard who’d attended Nicholas. He’d noticed him before, bright-eyed and competent in a sea of mindless followers.
“You’ve just been promoted,” Roman announced. “Take him away and keep working on him,” he ordered, indicating Williams. “But don’t let him die. I want to talk to him again.”
“Yes, sir,” Brown confirmed immediately, as Roman sat down on the edge of the couch next to Nicholas.
“And Brown?” Roman added. “Make sure you’re better at following orders than your predecessor.”
Brown knew exactly what that meant. “Yes, sir!” The four guards filed out, now dragging their former boss, and Roman turned his full attention to Nicholas. At this point the boy just wanted the entire world to disappear, desperately, and curled up on the couch with his face covered.
Roman could feel the energy crackling around him and the lights flickered; he countered it, but he had to calm Nicholas down before he inadvertently blew out a wall. Xylos’s power might be latent, unknown to him in his present identity, but it was still there, ready and eager to be tapped. “Schatzi, Schatzi, it’s okay,” he tried, brushing a hand through Nicholas’s hair. He yanked his own jacket off and draped it over him as well, trying to keep him warm.
“Shock,” Johnson assessed, putting a pillow under Nicholas’s feet to elevate them. Neatly he made an ice pack from the supplies at the side bar and passed it to Roman, who was assiduously wiping Nicholas’s mouth with his handkerchief. Johnson was good for first aid in a pinch.
“Can we give him a drink?” Roman questioned.
Roman pressed the ice pack gently against Nicholas’s black eye. “You’ll be okay. Miller! Come here. Tell him what you told me.”
Nicholas had not noticed Finance Minister Miller in the room; he looked like he really wished to continue being unnoticed. “Perhaps we should wait for Doctor—”
“He’s frightened,” Roman pointed out unnecessarily, “and he won’t calm down until he understands why this is happening. So tell him!” He shouted the last line, losing patience, and everyone jumped, Nicholas lurching like he’d received another blow. Roman resumed stroking his hair, willing him to relax.
Finance Minister Miller stepped forward then, carrying a folder. “On Thursday, Nicholas was seen at the Holiday Inn around noon, talking to two men,” he began evenly. He pulled a series of photographs from the folder. “They bought him a drink and were engaged in conversation for several minutes.”
Roman took one of the photos and held it before Nicholas. “Can you see?” he asked solicitously, like it was his favorite vacation snapshot. Nicholas didn’t want to move enough to take it, but his eyes darted over the black-and-white image of him and two other men in the crowd at the bar. “People follow you around and take pictures of what you’re doing, Nicky,” he spelled out. “Not always my people, either.” Nicholas swallowed hard, his skin crawling at this evidence that he was being watched, traced, documented. Stalked.
“The two men work for the British Commission,” Miller went on, “and are known to have connections to British Intelligence.” He kept his tone neutral and did not ask a follow-up question, not wanting to end up like Williams for his presumption.
“What did you talk about with them, Schatzi? That’s all I wanted to ask you,” Roman said in a soothing tone.
He sounded so sincere, so reasonable. But the evidence did look bad—at least, Nicholas had seen similar photographs lead other men to execution here. “They wanted me to tell them things about you,” he tried to articulate. His Scottish accent was thick with stress, his throat dry.
“What kind of things?”
“I-I don’t know,” Nicholas insisted, trying to think. “We didn’t—They wanted me to come to the embassy—”
“What did you tell them?” Roman asked, and his gentle tone paradoxically made it worse, like Nicholas was an idiot who couldn’t be trusted to mind his own tongue.
“I told them to f—k off!” he said forcefully. “To leave me alone…”
“Did they ask about anything specific?” Miller probed carefully. The conversation had lasted several minutes.
Nicholas closed his eyes. Thursday seemed like so long ago, and he had to say the right thing, convince them of its truth. “They—they mentioned people who had disappeared,” he remembered, “like Baker.”
Roman nodded encouragingly. “And what did you say?”
“That he had stolen money, and fled the country.” Nicholas’s brilliant blue eyes—well, the one that wasn’t swollen shut—regarded Roman penetratingly. “That what you told me. That’s what happened, isn’t it?”
“Of course, Nicky.” It was actually the truth, but Roman had a way of saying things that made them all sound like lies. Or maybe it was the known lies he made sound like truth that so confused Nicholas right now.
“Well, they don’t believe it.” Roman shrugged without concern, glad to see the boy felt comfortable enough to put a bit of spirit in his tone.
“They bought you a drink,” Miller repeated. He could feel the situation slipping away from him—even if the boy wasn’t outright disloyal, his lack of savvy made him a liability.
To Nicholas this was a pointless comment. “I never pay for drinks. Anywhere.” Someone was always glad to pick up the tab, hoping for a good word to Roman through Nicholas.
Roman laughed at this, imagining the mischief Nicholas could get up to if he wasn’t so closely watched—a young man with a whole country spread out before him. “You see?” he said to Miller. “Nothing to worry about. But you must be more careful, Nicky,” he added firmly. “Don’t talk to people like that, just walk away from them. And tell me about it afterwards. And don’t drink so much,” he added for good measure. “You can go,” he told Miller. The man had more to say, he could see, but he could say it later, once Roman had taken care of his boy.
Miller was let out as Dr. Smith hurried in, and Nicholas started to gasp again, as if the doctor’s appearance suddenly reminded him of his injuries. “Shh, shh, shh,” Roman encouraged, before he was forced to move by the doctor. He went around the back of the couch and leaned on it, looming over Nicholas. “I’m so sorry, Schatzi,” he told him, realizing he hadn’t actually said that before. “This was not how I meant for things to happen—You’re hurting him,” he snapped at Dr. Smith.
“Necessary, I’m afraid,” the doctor conveyed briskly, checked the boy’s eyes with a flashlight. “Can you tell me your name?”
“And do you know where you are?”
“In Roman’s office.” That was about the extent of his knowledge he could feel confident about at the moment.
“I think he should go to the hospital,” Dr. Smith decided, standing. “He’ll need some X-rays. I don’t think he has a concussion, though.”
“Fine,” Roman allowed, and Dr. Smith summoned the attendants waiting in the hall with a stretcher. Roman leaned down to touch Nicholas’s cheek. “Schatzi, go to sleep now. I’ll see you when you wake up.” Everything went blissfully dark for the boy.
“Nice trick,” Johnson commented dryly.
“High suggestible,” Roman dismissed. He took his jacket back and watched intimidatingly as the medical workers secured Nicholas’s head and moved him to a stretcher. “Take him out the back,” he ordered, knowing the press congregated at the front of the complex.
“You want some minders for him?” Johnson suggested as they wheeled the boy out. Roman wanted to follow but knew he would be useless at the hospital, and he had other work to be done.
“No need, I’m not letting him out again,” Roman judged harshly. Sometimes Nicholas was worse than the children in the judgment and naivete he showed—he was a public figure here, and people would try to take advantage of that. Johnson shrugged, knowing the boy would not like that decision much, but that wasn’t his business. Roman put his jacket back on and straightened his tie, feeling the bloodstains on his clothing only added to his mystique. “What’s next?”
Nicholas was sitting in bed trying to read a magazine when there was a perfunctory knock on his door, followed by Roman striding in per usual like he owned the place. Which of course he did. But if he expected Nicholas to be thrilled to see him, he was in for some disappointment. Nicholas gave him a glanced then went back to his magazine.
Roman frowned and sat down on the edge of the bed. “How do you feel today, Schatzi? Your eye looks a little better.” He reached out to touch him but Nicholas turned away defiantly, gaze resolutely on the magazine. Roman was not sure how to deal with this. “Williams is gone,” he tried. “No one else will make his mistake again.”
“You mean they’ll only beat me if you explicitly tell them to?” Nicholas shot back with bitter sarcasm.
“Nicky, I would never hurt you—” He reached again for the boy and was again dodged, so he cupped Nicholas’s jaw more forcefully and turned the boy to face him. “Have I ever hurt you? Hmm?”
Nicholas could not say he had—not the way Roman meant. There were more ways to hurt someone than just physically, however. “No, you just keep me prisoner here,” he spat.
Roman sighed, which Nicholas read as patronizing, because it was. “Nicky, you’re not a prisoner—”
Now that was a complete lie. “I just can’t leave without your permission,” Nicholas scoffed, “and you never give permission! Bad enough when it was the whole country, now I can’t even leave the estate—” He stopped himself; the tears were threatening and he didn’t want to cry anymore. Instead he scooted down in the bed and rolled over, putting his back to Roman.
The other man felt slightly helpless—an unusual feeling for him in general, but sadly familiar when it came to his boy. He rested a hand on Nicholas’s ribs, trying to soothe while mindful of his injuries. “Get up and get dressed, Schatzi,” he suggested, trying to sound upbeat. “Let’s go outside. The children are playing—”
“I’m tired,” Nicholas interrupted. He felt petty and mean, but it was the only power he had. “I’d like to take a nap now.” Implication: go away and leave me alone.
Roman did not think this was a good idea, however, and leaned over to murmur in the boy’s ear. “Schatzi, come outside.” He kissed him lightly. “You’re going to get depressed staying in bed all the time—"
He could feel Nicholas scoff beneath him. “Depressed?” he repeated. “This whole f-----g country depresses me! You wouldn’t hurt me? Well you’ve hurt so many other people it’s easy to forget, Roman!” He feared he’d said too much, but he couldn’t stop himself; then he tried to bury himself in the pillows, until he inadvertently pressured his eye and nose and hissed in pain.
“Nicky—” The boy did not want his comfort, even if it meant more pain for himself, and Roman realized he’d played this all wrong. He thought he could command and it would be done, that any obstacle was merely a matter of willpower. Which worked on most of the world, but somehow he had forgotten it would not work on Xylos, even if he didn’t remember who he was. Resentment and hopelessness rolled off the boy in waves, and had a visible effect on the world around him—the other household members were subdued, the plants outside his bedroom window wilted and shriveled.
“Do you want to go somewhere?” Roman offered, a bit desperately. “There’s the chateau in the mountains—I could get away for a couple days—” That would be difficult, but not impossible.
He could see this was the wrong tactic, though. “No!” Nicholas answered forcefully. “No, I don’t want your chateau or your toys—” The books and games Roman had sent in lay untouched in the corner. “I just want to go home.” He turned to face Roman then, wondering if he would see anything other than the monster of confidence he had come to dread. “Please, just let me go home.” That was the only thing he’d dreamt of lately, the only solution he could see—leave and never look back.
Roman traced his features with a gentle finger. “You mean so much to me, Nicky,” he admitted softly. “I know I’m not good at explaining that—” Nicholas closed his eyes, wondering if he was being stalled again. The truth was his heart ached at the thought of leaving, of leaving Roman, but he felt like he would go mad if he stayed. “You really want to go, back to Scotland?” he asked heavily.
Nicholas’s eyes popped open, seizing on the slight possibility he heard in the other man’s tone, and he sat up more. “Yes,” he replied firmly.
Roman sat back, a sinking feeling in his stomach. “Then you can go.” He spit the words out before he could change his mind, even though he could feel his boy slipping out of his grasp, out of his protection, and that was terrifying to him.
Nicholas blinked at him dully, not sure he’d heard properly. “What?”
Roman stood abruptly, putting his back to Nicholas. “Pack your things,” he advised. “I’ll arrange for a flight later today.” Making arrangements was something he knew how to do; people would balk at the last-minute flight, and he would intimidate them until they followed through, so he could give his boy what he wanted.
“Are you—” Nicholas stopped himself. Of course Roman was serious. He was doing what Nicholas had asked for, he needed to shut up and stop questioning it. “Thank you,” he breathed instead. Roman stood alone in his bedroom, like a statue for a melancholy hero, and Nicholas scrambled out of bed and put his arms around him, which he could tell was a surprise. “Thank you, Roman,” he repeated, with more animation.
Roman’s warm, callused fingers rested on his. “You’re welcome, Schatzi.”
“I wish you would come with me,” Nicholas blurted, not sure if that really was what he wished. He wanted to wish it. “I wish we could both leave this place, and just have normal lives—”
“Oh Schatzi,” Roman corrected with a dark chuckle, “I don’t want a normal life.” He gently disentangled himself, not quite looking at Nicholas as he headed for the door. Part of him felt lighter having made this decision, seeing how happy it made the younger man, and he grasped that while he could. “I’ll send someone to help you pack. Take what you want but don’t be slow.” With that, he left.