James Cameron and Charles Eglee own Dark Angel. My use is in no way meant to challenge their copyrights. This piece is not intended for any profit on the part of the writer, nor is it meant to detract from the commercial viability of the aforementioned (or any other) copyright. Any similarity to any events or persons (either real or fictional) is unintended.

VI

At first glance, the apartment building in which Norton Koch was supposedly hiding did not appear like much. It was plain, and only stood seven stories. It's solid, though, Max realized after examining the structure more thoroughly. The building was certainly at least a hundred years old. As the saying goes, they don't build 'em like they used to.

Max crouched down behind a white, classic 1986 Cutlass Supreme, and checked her equipment. She had already gone over it all once, and knew it was fine. It had been too long, though, since she had been in combat, and her nerves were getting to her. She simply hoped she had enough weapons – two Glock 10mm's, an H&K MP-5, and, just in case, a Beretta 3032 Tomcat hidden in an ankle holster. The body armor she was wearing still seemed bulky and distracting, but she knew that her unnaturally developed abilities would more than make up for the encumbrance of the vest. She would still be at least two steps faster than any of the competition.

"You ready?" she heard Rory's voice ask. He was speaking through a sub-vocal communicator, and Max knew the sound of his voice meant that he was likely in position on the rooftop above her. The plan was simple – she would enter the building from the ground floor and fight her way to the top. Rory would fire a line from the roof across the street, ride a pulley down to Koch's rooftop, and then take Koch's men from the top floor.

"I'm ready when you are," Max muttered. Without even waiting for a response she stood up and walked toward the building. A slight gust of wind rustled the bottom hem of the heavy black cloak she was wearing, providing just enough movement of the fabric to make it virtually impossible to detect the sub-machinegun concealed beneath.

There was a guard waiting outside the building at the front door. He saw Max approaching and immediately went for the .45 cal. pistol he had under his jacket. He fires that and the element of surprise is gone, Max thought. Even as the thought crossed her mind, her legs were already beginning to race toward her target. In the mere heartbeat it took the professional guard to reach into his jacket, draw his pistol, and bring it to bear, Max had crossed the twenty feet separating her from her opponent and grabbed his forearm in her vice-like grasp. In a lightning-fast motion she then sent a palm-heel strike into his chin. She felt the man's jaw crack and teeth smash under the force of the impact, but to his credit, he did not even whimper. Instead, he used his free hand to grab Max's hood and pull her to the ground. In an instant he was straddling her, blood dripping from his mouth down onto the black fabric of her ninja mask.

In one quick motion Max shot her knee up into the man's groin, and then rolled to her left. Her right hand then shot out, catching his throat with a knife-hand strike. Max felt her opponent's windpipe crack, and knew that he would not be raising an alarm anytime soon. That would simply be too much to expect of a man that was straining futilely for his final breaths. Without giving the sentry another thought, Max stepped up to the front door of the apartment building. It was locked, but that did not concern her in the least. All that was stopping her was a simple mechanical lock. Thieves in this neighborhood were deterred by an increased police presence, not by any impressive security measures.

Once the door was opened, Max stepped inside and walked quickly through the main hall to the stairwell. Norton Koch owned both the sixth and seventh floors, so there was no telling where he would be. That was the main purpose behind Rory and Max splitting up. They wanted to ensure that Koch would not be able to escape through an exit to the roof if their assault was delayed on the sixth floor. This way, they would pin him between them in a two-man pincer movement.

Max started up the stairs quickly, keeping to the walls and not making a noise. There were guards a few floors up, she could tell that much. She assumed the door from the sixth floor would be guarded. She would first have to immobilize the sentries, and then continue to the seventh floor door into the main stairwell. There she would place a claymore mine, just a little insurance that Koch would not be able to escape. Neither she nor Rory were taking any chances this time.

A flurry of motion and a couple of minutes to set the mine were all that Max needed. Before she knew it, she was standing back at the door to the sixth floor, two dead guards lying at her feet. She did not even bother to admire her own handiwork, the byproduct of years of training at Lydecker's feet. Max had snapped the necks of both men before either one could make a sound. It was quick and effective. She looked over the lock to the sixth floor, and out of habit let out a small groan when she realized it was a maglock with an electronic passkey. Then Max's mood brightened when she realized that one of the guards was certain to have a key card. A quick search produced the item, and she prepared to unlock the door.

"I'm in position," she muttered.

"Me, too," came the response.

"Then let's go," Max said. She then slipped the card into the lock, opened the door, and began shooting. One man fell, then another, and another. Max fired through a narrow hallway at a fourth sentry standing at the far end. The man was firing a Beretta 9mm with an extended clip, and Max silently counted the shots that came her way. Fifteen... sixteen... seventeen... then a pause. Max decided her target had not loaded an eighteenth round into the chamber, and so she dashed down the hallway, covering the distance in an inhumanly short amount of time. She heard the guard slide a new clip into his weapon just as she rounded the corner and emptied the rest of her own clip into him. Then she whirled and fired a round from a second weapon in her left hand. A split second later, a fifth guard fell lifeless to the floor, victim of a head shot.

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Upstairs on the seventh floor, Cameron Dean was one of the first to react rationally to the gunfire below. He organized his men, Norton Koch's last line of defense, and ordered them to fan out and guard all the doorways. Less than a minute later it became clear that whoever was below had help on the seventh floor. Cameron heard a new wave of gunshots erupt from two rooms over, and he looked at his boss and saw a flash of panic. The old man knows he's probably done for, Cameron realized.

"Bobby, get to the door to the stairwell," Cameron ordered. "Make sure that way is clear." Bobby, one of the newest guards and therefore low man on the totem pole, nodded in understanding. A moment later a loud blast came from the direction of the stairwell. Debris shot through the entire level as metal shrapnel from the claymore mine tore through the plaster walls. Thanks for setting off the booby trap, Cameron thought quietly, commending Bobby on his last act. "This way!" Cameron then yelled to Koch.

The older criminal moved behind his right-hand man, his look of resolve making it clear that he had gathered himself together once again. Koch's moment of weakness had been fleeting, to say the least. The kingpin drew a .357 Magnum from a shoulder holster and followed quickly as Cameron yelled out commands to his underlings. They only have to hold off our pursuers for a few more seconds, Cameron knew. Then I'll be free. The assassin reached the stairwell and looked down quickly, pausing for only a cursory evaluation to make certain that there were no more armed assailants or readily identifiable traps. He saw none, and moved out quickly. As soon as the two men were halfway to the sixth floor, Cameron turned back to his boss with a smile on his face.

"You know, whoever these guys are, they're not going to let up until they get their claws into you," Cameron said evenly. "And since you're with me, that puts me in danger. Still, it wouldn't be good business for word to get out that I deserted you, either. I would never be able to take over your operation that way. I would never be able to get respect."

"What are you talking about?" Koch asked. The only response Cameron gave was a quick flick of the wrist to bring his 9mm to bear, and a single round through Koch's forehead. The mobster slumped to the floor and fell halfway down the flight of stairs. Now maybe I'll have a chance, Cameron decided.

The assassin raced down the stairs, taking them three and four at a time, all the while making certain he did not misstep and roll an ankle on the way down. That would likely slow him down enough to get him killed. He reached the ground floor, ran out the front door, and down the street, not bothering to get his car. He figured the time it took to start the engine might be all Koch's attackers would need to catch up. He ran for several blocks, never daring to look back until he reached a police station. Only then did he slow down as a smile crossed his face. No one would dare start shooting at me here, he decided. Finally feeling safe, he wandered over to a parked Chevy, pulled out a slim-Jim, and opened the door. It had been years since he had stolen a car, but he found the skills were like riding a bike. It was something that came back immediately.

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At Norton Koch's apartment, Max and Rory finally met up on the seventh floor, surrounded by destruction and fresh corpses. "Where is he?" Max asked breathlessly. "Did you get him?"

"No," Rory admitted. "Someone tried to get out to the stairwell, just like we figured, and set off the mine. Seems Koch ran out right after that. His body's on the stairs."

"You didn't do it?" Max asked.

"No," Rory answered. "I figure either one of his own guys did it, or he did it himself. I don't know for sure, and to tell the truth, I don't much care. Looks like the job is done."

"Yep, looks that way," Max agreed.

"We'd better get out of here before the cops show up," Rory pointed out. "I'll meet you at my place." Max nodded in reply, and both of Manticore's escaped soldiers slipped out under cover of darkness, their black ninja outfits and cloaks allowing them to blend into the shadows well enough to avoid detection by arriving police units.

Epilogue

"You know, you seem different somehow," Rory commented as he threw two Glock 10mm's into a backpack. Max thought it was amazing that Rory could fit all of his belongings into so small a bag. He seemed to have absolutely nothing to tie him down.

"I think I've become what I was meant to be," Max commented evenly. "I'm not sure yet whether that's good or bad, but time'll tell." Max looked her 'brother' up and down, trying to figure out what Rory was thinking. It seemed a futile exercise. "So you think you'll ever come around this way again?"

"Maybe," Rory answered evasively. "I have a lot of the others to find. Through them I can learn more about myself, and maybe help them figure out more about themselves."

"Just like me," Max said with a grin.

"Just like you," Rory agreed, a thin smile spreading across his own face. "So you really think you know who you are now?"

"I think I have a clue," Max replied. She kept to herself the thrill that she had experienced, the incredible rush that the adrenaline had provided. In the end, the only truly important thing was the incredibly comfortable feeling of it all, as if she had finally been doing what was completely natural for her. That is what had meant the most. That is what Rory had revealed to her. "I'll see where this all takes me."

"As long as you never give up searching for answers," Rory said. "You became complacent once already, try not to ever let that happen again. Just like the sun rises and sets, and like the seasons change every year, so will you change little by little over the course of your life. You may be happy with the decisions you've made about yourself for now, but this role might not work for you after a few years."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Max asked. She suddenly had the suspicion that Rory had something very specific in mind.

"You're a big girl," Rory responded. "Figure it out for yourself." He looked his sister over for a few moments, and Max had the definite feeling that Rory was deciding whether or not to add anything to their little exchange. "So how do you think Logan's gonna like the new you?"

"Logan?" Max asked. "What does he have to do with any of this?"

"You're the only one that can really answer that question, aren't you?" Rory inquired in reply. "How do you feel about him? How does he feel about you? How will he feel about the new role you've embraced?"

"He doesn't need to know about that," Max said evenly. An uncomfortable moment of silence followed as Rory gazed deeply into Max's eyes.

"I see," he said finally.

"What?"

"No, I can't tell you," Rory replied. "I'll just leave you with one last question. Why is it that Logan doesn't need to know?"

"What?" Max asked, thrown completely off guard by the question. Rory looked at her for a few moments more, seeming as if he was deciding whether to add anything further. Finally, he sighed.

"Do you want to keep it quiet because you feel he would disapprove?" Rory muttered, appearing as if he was reluctant to say any more. "If he would disapprove, would that matter to you? Or do you simply want to keep a side of your personality to yourself? What would that say about your relationship with Logan if you wanted to keep things from him?" Rory looked Max over for a few brief seconds, and then smiled mischievously. Max was amazed at how fluid her brother's moods seemed to be. "It seems the answers you've found have only led to more questions, Max," he continued in a far lighter tone. "That's good, though. Never fool yourself into believing that you've found all the answers. Keep questioning everything, and nothing should ever take you by surprise." Without another word, Rory picked up the backpack and walked toward the door.

"That's it?" Max asked. "You're just leaving now?"

"Unlike you, I've discovered all about myself that I can in this city," Rory replied. "The apartment's been paid for up through the next three months. I talked to the manager, too. If you want to take it over when the next payment is due, he'll let you have it. So feel free to make a haven for yourself here. With the road you've chosen, I think you'll need a safe, comfortable place to crash from time to time." With nothing more than a wink, Rory then opened the door and walked out, leaving Max standing behind in the apartment.

No, I don't want him to leave like this, Max decided. I want to know more. She walked out after him, only to find an empty hallway. She knew she could probably chase him down if she tried hard enough, but gave up on the idea quickly. Max knew that Rory had simply wanted to disappear for the time being, and part of her felt that things were the way they should be.

Seattle is all mine, now, she realized. It's time to do my job. It's a good thing Justice hardly ever needs to sleep.

Fin

(for now, at least)

Final Note: Like I said initially, this is the end of the first story. If you're interested in reading more in this AU universe, continue on with Way of the Warrior.