Spoilers: Through AJBAC.
Disclaimer: Not mine. Summary's from a Bif Naked song.
Many thanks to shywr1ter and seenred for editing.
For shywr1ter --
"I took time very seriously in those years,
if I remember accurately."
– Louise Glück, "Aubade"
The invitation arrived on Thursday afternoon, heavy paper solemn and snobbish amidst the squalor of the day's mail. His fingers grazed the embossed edges, classified the weight as he scanned the ritualized archaic handwriting. There was to be a party. This is how many stories begin. He looked at the date on the invitation and then at the postmark. Either the postal service was delayed or someone was going through his mail. Both were possible, and both happened more often than he would have liked. He tossed the page aside, having no need to be exposed to Level-4 boredom again so soon, and another note fell out of the envelope. He read this one with interest; the text was block-printed and probably untraceable. Information was to be exchanged. RSVP, someone had scrawled at the bottom in an attempt at humor.
He reached for the invitation and read it again. He had a video set to go out in an hour, and he'd planned to delve into the Maher case after that, but he'd never been one to turn down a meet. He considered his most active informants: any of them could have sent the note, or none of them could have sent it. There would be no way to find out, nor to find out what it was about, prior to the party. He drummed his fingers on the desk and then made his decision. He creased the edges of the note and placed it next to his computer. He thought of galas and dark-suited butlers; sometimes the butler really does do it, and so he would be on his guard. He considered blueprints and wire specs and she hovered in the corner of his mind, resplendent in red.
There were spatters of oil on the hem of her dress and her shoes were scuffed. Carefully-bound tendrils of hair were falling loose. She was eternally transient, ephemeral in both worlds, and the morning fell gossamer-light around her. The sunlight was sharp and clear and blinding, and she opened her own door when the car stopped, because she thought chivalry was absurd. He watched her sashay into the concrete building, vibrant and rich against the grit and graffiti. She flipped her middle finger at a biker wearing a watch cap, and Logan laughed. She turned like she'd heard him and her eyes sparked, sparkled, closed.
He dropped her off in front of the grafitti'd building and it felt like a morning after.
The air is tinged with the smell of gasoline, and a cold northerly wind pricks at his hands. He wonders if it will rain, because it's not cold enough for snow. The roads will be horrible and he will be cocooned away, as always, lost in some tangential dream, chasing some elusive name, a connection. The sky is grey; clouds are etched against steel. Soon there will be frost on the windows, hieroglyphs of ice. What has brought him here? He envisions roads unwinding, years as miles. He thinks wistfully of childhood and the suffocating heat of Santa Anas. The world is unforgiving. The door expels a rush of warm air as it swings closed behind him, and he hears the grinding of bicycle tires on dry pavement.
Max comes to meet him on the windswept sidewalk in front of his home. He's a little touched by this coincidence, however insignificant it is in the face of their differences: she is darkness and rich, unnameable things, and sometimes he is nothing but light. She dreams of open sky and he of land; they are always competing.
She coasts to a stop beside him and slips one foot off of the pedals for balance. She leans forward over the handlebars, wind rustling her hair despite her baseball cap, and he thinks of prayers shouted heavenward, of quiet earth and the ripping flow of rivers. "Hey," she says. "Where're you heading?"
"Out for groceries," he says, and her gaze burns across him. She meets his eyes and betrays nothing. "You have plans for Saturday?"
She tilts her head and hair falls across her eyes, breaking their connection. He feels a little lost in its sudden absence. "Why?" she asks. She questions everything, from his crusades to his cooking habits, a trait that sometimes bothers him but can also be incredibly endearing.
"Informant wants a meet," he says, wondering why it should be so awkward to ask for her help. Logan is forever hopeful, forever willing, and he believes in inherent goodness and the possibility of reform for the better. Max plays the cynic and claims to be unwilling to act in any way that might not benefit her, but he knows her well enough to see past this.
She shrugs, balancing her bike with her usual careless grace. He has seen her shivering twice, wracked with seizures, and once he brought her back to life, but he still has trouble seeing her as anything less than perfection. "Sure, I'll go," she says, and he blinks. "That's what you were gonna ask, right?" she says innocently.
"Yeah," he admits. He wonders why he thought that subterfuge was necessary. Sometimes he thinks their entire relationship is based on understatements and avoidance; neither of them are good at telling the entire truth, for a variety of reasons.
"Cool," she says. Across the street, someone shouts in Arabic. She glances over her shoulder, what little light the sky offers streaking across her hair, and he catches only a few untranslatable words.
"I'm buying the dress this time," he says, and admittedly it's a non-sequitur. She looks slightly taken aback by the implication, because most of their outings involve dark clothing, hidden wires, and not-entirely-legal maneuvers. She stares at him for a moment and then, coming to a decision, she nods.
"Cool," she repeats. She looks down at her watch and then swings onto her bike. "Gotta go – Normal wants me back in ten." There is something unfamiliar at the back of her eyes and he thinks that any interpretation of her expression would be completely biased, tainted by his own unfair reveries.
"See ya," he says. He wonders if she is really due back or if she has to escape this situation, if she's afraid of what might follow, of what he might say, of what might be revealed.
"See ya," she echoes, and she turns away. She's caught in profile for a millisecond, but the image will last him for the rest of the day, rendered holy by the tricks and foibles of memory. Derailleurs click-slide silently as she shifts gears, and he doesn't watch her go. He feels off-kilter, feels as though he has received a visitation.
A few days ago, someone had spray-painted the wall across from the Jam Pony building. 'Liar,' it said, a black scrawl across the bricks, above an amateurish rendition of that red-white-and-blue screen. The letters were starting to run, dripping across his eyes. She tasted salt in the air and wondered who had painted it, though she knew it didn't matter. Plastic rustled behind her; Original Cindy stood beside her stickered mountain bike, watching Max. There was no judgement in her gaze, and nothing demanding, so Max looked back at the graffiti in philosophical contemplation.
"Hey, girlie! I'm not paying you to play art critic," Normal snapped and Max started, jarred into a world not entirely her own. Cindy raised an eyebrow at him and he handed her a box sealed with blue electrical tape. "You, either!" he said, waving his clipboard at Max.
Another heavy rain and the word would be illegible. He would never see it, so she was offended on his behalf.
Acrid smoke is caught at the back of her throat and residual tremors assail her body. She is fragile, she is weak, she cannot fail, but she will. He saved her from fire and bullets and probably rape. He fought in a burning cabin and, immobilized, she heard his shouts. Several men are dead; his ingenuity saved her and saved the child and he will never, ever know how scared she was.
Arms crossed, she leans against the chainlink fence and watches him play basketball. A group of women and children, breath frosting in the unseasonably cold air, waits on the other side of the court. They wear woolen jackets and heavy scarves and they cheer whenever anyone scores, no matter the team. They are wives and girlfriends, sisters and mothers and Max stands alone, because she's not sure where she fits in and because she resents being categorized.
The game ends, breaking up into laughter and friendly masculine insults. He turns around and sees her and, she thinks, looks a little surprised. She wonders if she's made a mistake; maybe she should have called him, instead. It's too late to turn away and keep walking, though. He's already coming over to her. Deja vu overload. She hastily turns her frown into something happier, lest he think she's frowning at him.
"You got my message," he says, sounding pleased. She blinks and wonders why that should affect her. Why it does affect her. She threw herself from a hotel roof to catch him, once, but she'd tied a rope around her waist to break her fall, so she doesn't think that it counts as anything especially meaningful or heroic.
"Yeah," she says gruffly. "Figured I'd come in person and congratulate you on the game – you did win, right?"
He grins. "Barely," he admits. He reaches into his bag for his water bottle and takes a long draw. "So, tonight,"he says, screwing the lid back on. She raises an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue. "The meet."
"I got my dress and everything," she says. She'd charged it to his account, the cadence of the words foreign and awkward, and as she'd walked out of the store, she'd vowed to pay him back. "Be just like Cinderella. Redux," she adds.
"Right," he says. "I thought you could stop by my place first, get the wire . . ." They stop moving when they reach the end of the fence. She entwines her fingers with the cold, grounding metal and turns to face him.
"Do you know who it is you're meeting?" she asks.
"Not exactly," he says, too casually. How long has he been waiting for her to ask this question?
She pauses to consider this. "So if some random guy asks you to go with him and then decides to shoot you and, like, leave your body in a closet or something . . ." Her eyes widen dramatically for effect.
He winces. "That's why I'll be wearing a wire, and why you'll be listening."
"Got it." She nods, once.
"See you at six?" he asks.
She grins. "Can't wait." He smiles, the sun glints off of the frames of his glasses, and she wonders how she could have ever considered fleeing to Canada. The distance between them widens; the tethers begin to loose. O.C. shakes her head knowingly when Max turns down her invitation to Crash; she has learned not to expect anything else.
He awoke once in a hospital bed, the edges of his vision fuzzed with painkillers, and he saw that she was slumped in the chair beside him. So much for not sleeping, he thought, and the lights dimmed gradually, and they dreamed together a second time, lucid and clear as truth, though neither would ever mention it.
It gets dark early. The sky is strange, overcast and tinged with yellow. His files are out of order. The pages are coffee-stained and the corners are creased and fraying. Time is running out and he cannot find the wire, the keys, his left cufflink. His hair is still damp. The forecast promises rain and she will be here any minute. He hasn't seen Geoff in months, and cannot think why his old friend would invite him to a party, to this party. He recalls basketball games and board meetings, and he snaps the magazine into place, holsters the gun. He has left too much to chance, as always, and there's nothing he can do about it now.
There's a knock on the door. He turns from his computer; she enters. The lighting is low and warm, rich in the fading glow of afternoon. She has chosen black and it is a very good thing, he thinks, that she doesn't need to conceal a weapon.
They wait in the foyer of the McCole mansion and he has the urge to whisper last-minute directions, to tell her to be careful, watch her back. He remains silent, watchful. She shifts her weight from foot to foot; it's that or stand at attention, he thinks. Something glitters at her throat and he cannot remember whether she owned it prior to his invitation. I paid for the dress, he thinks helplessly, and after all, that was the extent of their agreement.
At last they are led by the butler into the recesses of the house. Logan hears Max's intake of breath, senses her amazement and her equally strong attempt to not display anything of the like. They pass a staircase and Logan regards it with trepidation. He hopes that whoever he's meeting knows what to expect. There is an elevator beyond that, and he can't help but wonder. He hears faint music, and laughter, and then a door opens before them. They are ushered into a crush of elegance, a collage of wealth and designer taste. The room is pale and bright; the majority of the attendees wear black, as do he and Max. They fit in, he thinks, and they might fit in well at a funeral, too.
A chandelier sparkles above them, shards of light spinning across the walls. He catches snatches of conversation – the weather, politics, Margot's children, that Cale boy, the caterer – and is intensely uncomfortable.
"Nice digs," Max says, her voice pitched for only him to hear. "And the jewelry's not half-bad, either. Know anything about the security system?"
He looks up at her almost quickly enough to give himself whiplash. She beams angelically. "Funny," he says.
"You looked tense," she says. She rolls her shoulders and reaches to pin back a stray curl. She looks ahead and drops her arm to her side. "This your guy?"
He follows her gaze. Geoff is coming towards them, a delicate blonde woman on his arm. Logan feels an adolescent surge of self-consciousness. "The guy who invited us?" he said, warning. "Yeah."
"Logan," Geoff says, releasing the woman so that he can shake Logan's hand. Geoff doesn't seem surprised to see the wheelchair, and Logan tries to remember when he last saw Geoff, before. The winter, perhaps. Early December. Logan wonders what Geoff has heard about him in the interim. "How've you been?"
"Good," he says, and to his surprise, it's not entirely a lie. "Geoff, this is Max."
"My pleasure," Geoff says, bending low over Max's hand. Max smiles vapidly and Logan represses a sigh of relief. He forgot to tell her to play nice. "Max, Logan, Lianne." The woman smiles, and they murmur polite social nothings at each other. Another couple arrives and Geoff excuses himself. He and Lianne move off, lost into the crowd. Logan glances around, searching for his informant.
"Swell crowd," Max says. "Thrill-a-minute."
"Wish me luck," he says. She nods solemnly: she has his back.
"I'll be here," she says. Their eyes meet and then he turns away to make himself an obvious target. Pleasantries are to be exchanged, meaningless words in the interest of blending in. He glances back at Max and then tries to turn his attention to the task at hand. Life without her is unimaginable, he thinks; he is thirty-two years old and cannot imagine living any other way. He must try to remember that she is ephemeral, that their lives are not permanently entangled, and that this is not necessarily written in the stars. He watches Max move among the crowd, in it but not of it. He wonders if she is uncomfortable or if she views this as just a part of the job. He thinks that she must find him indistinguishable from this group, that even though he aspires to save the world, he really is just one of the chosen few, the lucky, the untouchable. He wonders if she knows how wrong that is.
On the eve of his birthday, he'd fallen asleep at his desk and, upon waking, did not remember his dreams.
The next day had dawned blustery and gloomy, a cold November day more winter than fall. There was no celebration and he was well aware that the highlight of his day had been her midmorning intrusion, the way she leaned over his shoulder and made him spill his coffee. She was a breath of cold air, exotic in his cloistered apartment. She spoke in slang and in colloquialisms, and she left a crumpled origami flower next to his computer. She was his muse.
"How have you been?" Geoff asks again. Lianne has excused herself and Geoff sits across from Logan. The white linen cloth draped across the table only covers a battlefield. Logan feels a little guilty. He shouldn't make assumptions, shouldn't think that Geoff will be like the rest.
Even though he will be. Even though he is.
"Good," Logan says. "Really," he says, when Geoff looks suspicious. What right does Geoff have, he thinks. "What about you? Haven't seen you in awhile," he says, thinking of the block-printed note, thinking of Geoff's potential connections.
"Good," Geoff echoes, nodding. "And it's been too long, hasn't it?"
"That it has," Logan says. The room falls abruptly silent for a moment and he shifts; someone laughs and the noise resumes. He feels at once exposed and cut off, separated from the chatter and burble, isolated by his focus and intensity.
"It's great you could make it," Geoff says. His smile is genuine, but there's an edge of eagerness, of desperation, that makes Logan uncomfortable. "And that you brought Max."
"Well, thanks for inviting me – us," Logan says.
Geoff nods. "Like I said, it's great to see you. So you're still doing the writing, the journalism?" he asks after a moment.
"Ah, yeah," Logan says. "Yeah. Actually, there was a story in last month's Free Press --"
"That's wonderful!" Geoff says. "It's great you're still doing that, still involved."
"Right," Logan says. "Yeah. I'm still involved. Um . . . what about you? Have you, ah, known Lianne long?"
Geoff beams. "Eight months," he says. "We're engaged."
"Congratulations," Logan says. He smiles and takes a sip of wine. Geoff will be married, Bennett is married, and he himself is divorced. They are all growing up, and are any of them turning out as they'd expected? He feels distant, Promethean, and Geoff has no idea. Logan wonders what the next year will bring. When Geoff is old, and Logan is dead, who will be there to carry the torch?
The thought is morbid and chilling. He forces himself to pay attention to Geoff, to the conversation, to the party. His informant is here, somewhere.
He deliberately does not look at Max.
He hands his empty glass to the white-shirted waiter, who nods and takes his leave. Logan sighs and wants to check his watch. Aware of the interested glances cast his way, he fakes a smile and tries to look casual, content. Max checks in every fifteen and sixteen minutes, alternating on the half-hour. Her smile is growing more strained, and he wants to apologize for her boredom. He watches her dance with Geoff's friends and speak to their girlfriends, and from that distance, she is unrestrained: she belongs. The facade only falters when she speaks to him; he feels oddly thankful for this, though he knows that it's perfectly logical.
"Mr. Cale?" The man next to him speaks and Logan thinks, finally. The man is tall and looks faded, worn, though he can't be much older than Logan, himself. He looks, in the most classic and cliche of ways, as though he has traveled a great distance to be here.
"Yes?" Logan says, and he imagines Max's infinitesimal pause as she redirects her attention.
"I trust you received my note?" he says. His hands are in the pockets of his coat and Logan thinks of his own gun. How long it will take to draw and aim.
"I did," Logan says cautiously.
"Maybe we can talk somewhere a bit quieter," the man says. He doesn't appear nervous and this is a good sign. Or maybe he's a professional. That thought is less than heartening.
"Lead the way," Logan says. He doesn't look at Max as he leaves, though he senses her gaze on his shoulders as he follows the other man. There is a balcony across the hall. The man knew it was there, Logan thinks, and wonders if he is a friend of Geoff's, or a business acquaintance, or if he just happened to stumble across photos or blueprints prior to this occasion. The noises of the party are muted out here, nearly inaudible. Logan's own breath is loud in his ears and he thinks it must be near-deafening for Max. Light the color and luminosity of champagne spills through the half-open door behind them and the city lights are sharp and bright in the distance. The air is electric, barometric pressure rising; he shivers as the wind picks up.
"You don't know me," the man says. His voice is unaccented. "But I'm a fan of your work." Logan blinks and nods. "Your journalism – the story in last month's Free Press was incredible."
"Thank you," Logan says. When all else fails, resort to manners, he thinks. At least you'll go out in style.
"Are you familiar with Chase Corporation?" the man asks. He doesn't wait for Logan to answer. "They're a pharmaceutical group based in Portland. They've been accused of genetic experimentation, but who hasn't?" He pauses dramatically, and Logan wonders why he can't just hand over the damned information. Contrary to popular belief, or at least Max's belief, Logan has no desire to play James Bond.
"It's true, through," the man continues. "They've created a monster."
"A monster," Logan repeats, recalling Max, crumpled and shaking beneath his hands. Stay with me, please. In the distance, traffic is stop-and-go on the freeway. He thinks it might be a universal constant, traffic, impervious to EMPs and oil embargos and the rising cost of electricity. The stars are masked by clouds.
"Some sort of super-soldier. I know it's hard to believe, but it's true." The man pulls a manila envelope from an inner pocket of his coat, and he presses it into Logan's hands. "She died yesterday, but they're keeping the body. People should know." He rubs his hands together against the chill and then turns and disappears inside the house. He leaves the door open behind him and Logan wonders if he'll ever see the informant again.
Logan's still staring at the open door when Max steps outside. Her collarbone is damp above the black sculpture of her dress and her curls are coming loose again. He thinks morosely that she probably had a very good time. She sighs and he knows he's wrong.
"A monster," she says, disbelieving and maybe a little amused. Her smile is shaky. "So I'm not perfect, but isn't 'monster' kind of pushing it?"
"To say the least," he says, because he can't think of anything reassuring to say, anything that won't be clumsy and painful. She'll scoff at any attempt to bolster her morale. "You think Chase Corporation's connected to Manticore?"
She shrugs. "Name's not familiar, but who knows? Let's see the big bad," she says, sounding bitter, and rightfully so. She tilts her head. "Think it'll have fangs?"
He pauses. "Claws," he says.
She smiles. Her dress rustles as she steps closer to him. She leans over his shoulder and he feels her breath tingle on his neck. "You're on," she says. Her eyes are dark. Mischievous, he tells himself. This is only a game, and she likes to win.
He opens the clasp on the envelope and pulls out several photographs. They are black and white, as if to minimize shock, as if to mimic art. The girl's eyes are closed. She looks about twenty years old. She's pretty and blonde, and there are black lines on the back of her neck. He feels the first drops of rain on his hands and he slides the photographs back into their envelope. No fangs, he thinks, and he regrets asking Max to come. He can't protect her from everything, but he wants to try.
"Aspen," Max says, and she sounds like her heart is breaking. The world is new to her: she feels everything, no matter how hard she tries to pretend otherwise. She is only nineteen.
She was drawn to brilliance.
Max and Logan were in the marketplace together on one of the first days of spring. The sun had shone hotly, but the air was still cool. There were only traces of clouds in the sky, wispy lines against that eternal shade of blue. He was perusing the shopkeeper's carts, ostensibly looking for dinner ingredients, and she was following behind, providing commentary when she wasn't distracted by the wares, herself. She'd paused in front of the candlemaker's stall and knew that he had to have another line of business; no way could candles keep him afloat in the gritty post-Pulse world. But the display had smelled of cardamon and vanilla, of foreign warmth, and as she watched, the elderly man lit one of the candles. The flame sparked, twisted in the breeze, and took hold. She was mesmerized by the simplicity of the flame, and was, for once, unhurried.
There had been a scuffle behind her and she'd turned, pulled from the slow drift of her thoughts, and he'd turned, as well. His eyes were sharp and worried, and he glanced at her from across the square. Her breath had caught, and of course she loved fire, she'd thought in a moment of epiphany. Fire, flames, embodied all that she was – but the slow beauty of winter was no less addictive.
She'd hurried to meet him, then, entranced by those forces stronger than herself, those elemental forces at work, shaping.
"I want to go to Portland," Max says decisively. They had left Geoff's party in a hurry, and she looks now at the falling rain as Logan drives. She feels overdressed, tired and achy. She thinks of Aspen, cold and alone in Portland. How close she'd been. Max had envisioned a different life for her: beaches and cool water and happiness. She hadn't really believed that was real, though. Mostly she'd just hoped that Aspen was okay. "I want to see her."
And I want you to come with me.
"It'll be dangerous," Logan says. He doesn't look away from the road. His eyes are soft and sad, and they don't fit the smooth lines of his tuxedo. He hates that he's exposed her to this. She wants to tell him that she would have found out anyway, and that she would have hated him if he hadn't told her, but she doesn't. She can't find the words, and it should be damned obvious to him, anyway. "After all, they kept your sister there . . ."
"I know," she says. She glances at him, a quick sideways look. "Can you get me in?"
"I'll do what I can," he says. "I'll let you know what I find out."
"Okay," she says. "Logan?"
"Yeah?" He sounds cautious, afraid of what to expect.
He shrugs, awkward, and she smiles, just a little. She leans back against the seat, and does not want to think about how Aspen died.
When she arrives home, it is later than she expected, and Original Cindy is there, waiting on the couch with a smile on her face, like she wants to hear all of the details. What's wrong, boo, O.C. says immediately after she sees Max, and Max only shakes her head and says she needs time to think. Her sister is dead. The words are strange in her mind and she doesn't dare speak them aloud. She wonders if Aspen remembered her, and she thinks of Logan, making his way home through the deluge by himself. In the grey slant of rain, they are indistinguishable, both distant as stars, beyond her reach. She stares out the window until Original Cindy gives up and goes to bed, until light begins to streak the sky over the broken city, until she can't stand to be still any longer.
"Still she won't experience
the sea as evil. To her, it is what it is:
where it touches land, it must turn to violence."
– Louise Glück, "Saints"
He pages her the next day. She calls him from a payphone four blocks away from his apartment. She twists the phone cord as she waits for him to pick up and wonders, what if someone followed him? And then he answers and she smothers her relief in a discussion of the weather. "I got passes," he says. He sounds like he hasn't slept at all, and she feels a twinge of guilt. "And the IDs are printing as we speak."
"IDs," she says, because this has to be a battle. She will not lead him into danger if he does not insist, no matter how much she'd like to have him with her. In the street-scene reflected on one wall of the phone booth, she watches a hoverdrone skims closer, closer, whirring subliminally. She balances the phone on her shoulder and adjusts her baseball cap, pulling it over her eyes. She wonders how they found Aspen. Brin decided to go back, rather than die. Max hopes that Aspen didn't have to make that choice.
"Well, yeah," Logan says, sounding exasperated, as though he can't imagine letting her go off by herself. She should call him on that, but if she hadn't wanted it, she would never have mentioned Portland to him in the first place. She wonders if she should be above such petty manipulation, but since they don't talk about that, she doesn't really have any other options. And it's not like he's any better. He once had Bling call him and pretend to be an informant, just to impress her.
She shrugs, though she knows he can't see her. "Then I'll get the gas and maybe we can head out today. I'll take off work."
"Max," he says. "Are you sure you want to do this?" She imagines him on the other end of the line, distracted by his computer display, rumpled and unslept and concerned for her. He worries too much, about corruption and pollution and saving whatever whales still remain near the depths of the bay.
She rests one hand against the cool plastic of the phone booth. Aspen on that cold autopsy table, exposed and vulnerable. Aspen, gone. She wonders if Zack knows. "I have to," she says."Yeah."
His sigh is raspy over the phone line. "Okay," he says. He sounds reluctant. This isn't your choice, she wants to say. You can't do anything about this. "Swing by my place when you're ready and we'll go."
"Works for me," she says. "Late'." She hangs up the phone and listens to the machine swallow her coins. She steps out of the phone booth, into the frail spring sunshine, and tastes metal, like grief, at the back of her throat.
The road unravels before them. She rests her head on one hand and looks out the window. Logan is driving, silent and strong behind the wheel. He is taking her to see her sister, to make sure that she comes back. They have not spoken since they passed through the checkpoint at the Seattle border. She wonders if she's offended him somehow, or if he just knows that repeating warnings and advice will only set her on edge, and weary him. She has his words memorized from the last time he saw fit to lecture her. She hates the way he thinks that he knows better than her, but she loves that he tries. She feels the beginnings of an adrenaline rush in her bloodstream. If they're lucky, they'll reach Portland by sunset, before the facility closes.
If not, she's going in anyway. He is here for moral support, because maybe she can't make it on her own, but he is not the reason for her being here. He does not define her.
The road rushes beneath them. She feels timeless, suspended. If only this would not end. If only they would not come to a stop in front of the building in which her sister died. She doesn't have to do this, she knows. If she asked him to take her home, he would.
She remains silent. And closes her eyes against the intrusion of the outside world.
"Max," he says finally, quietly. He does not want to startle her. He must know that she's not sleeping. Her eyes are closed, but she's awake, and jagged beneath skin.
He swallows. He never killed anyone until he met her, she thinks tangentially. "When we get there," he says, "you're just going to see her."
"Right," she says, feeling empty and drained. This won't prove anything, and Aspen will never know, but she has to do it, all the same. "I'm not much for the whole funeral ceremony thing, anyway."
He nods, satisfied, and returns his attention to the road. She thinks he looks sad, though.
"There it is," he says. He frowns and she follows his gaze. Chase Corporation's headquarters is a monolithic white building, iconic, tall enough to tower over the shoreline, and it is on fire. Thick black smoke stains the sky overhead, and as they draw closer, it coats her throat, burns her eyes.
"Logan," she says. "They burned her."
On a cold winter night, they drove to the Seattle shore.
In the incomplete silence of midnight, they watched the moon over water. Clouds drifted in and darkened the world, rendering it mysterious and shadowy. They had come from his apartment, from warmth and soft candlelight, and the sensation of being somewhere new, somewhere rare and a little dangerous, somewhere mostly unseen, was more powerful for this. Russia was in the distance, an invisible force, but there was no trace of geography's weight, no sense of being in relation to anything else. Only of being there, being alive.
"It'll rain tomorrow," he said, because he had to say something.
"Too bad we missed the sunset," she said. They were on different wavelengths, always on different wavelengths. Despite this, they were connected, and because of this, the connection was breathtaking.
The flames are reflected in Max's eyes as she stares at the burning building and Logan is transfixed: she has the eyes of an ifrit, in this shifting flame-haze. She doesn't say anything, but her hand comes to rest against the window and she mouths something that Logan can't make out: words of mourning, a vow made at this sacrifice. Logan pulls the Aztek next to the curb and cuts the engine. A crowd is gathering near one of the fire trucks and he wants to tell Max to duck, to look away, because their world is one of fate and paranoia. Someone could recognize her; someone could be waiting. But how can he speak in her reverential silence? Hushed, he can only wait. She could die of anything and he cannot take this from her. He doesn't know what it's like to have a sister, to be blood-bonded with someone so similar, but she makes it real for him, and untouchable. He cannot share her grief.
Max shared blood with him twice, he thinks, and that bond only runs one way. In this, he has nothing to offer her.
One of the onlookers, a security guard, crosses the street and raps against the window. Max starts, but doesn't look away from her sister's pyre. Logan unrolls his window and flashes his press pass at the guard, who doesn't look awed. "What happened?" he asks.
"Eco-terrorists," the guard says, and Logan thinks incongruently of pollution, of clear-cutting, of the San Francisco Peaks. The guard rubs his hands together against the evening chill. Ash covers his face and coats his hair, making him look older than his years. "Snuck in during the evening rush, everybody heading out. Stupid bastard probably didn't get out himself, whoever it was." He shakes his head. Fireman unroll hoses and attack the building from all sides, but they will not be in time. Aspen is gone, Logan thinks. Is it coincidence, or did someone know that they were coming? Who else knew what the informant had given him, knew about the photos? And who would know that he and Max would come in person?
Or does that even matter? The evidence is gone, either way. Save for the photos, Aspen has been erased. Logan shivers.
"Thanks," Logan says, a beat later, when it becomes obvious that the guard's attention is on the fire and not on the conversation. He rolls up the window and blinks against the gritty smoke inside of the car. He looks at Max, who hasn't moved, who is still looking at the building, at the flames, the rising smoke. The crowd is beginning to move, the heat pushing them back, and Logan knows that he and Max can't leave yet. They cannot go home.
He starts the car, moving slowly through the crowd that spills into the street, and parks a block away. The sun is setting like blood on the nearby water. They watch the plumes of smoke rise over the rooftops, black against the reddened sky. The air in the car is beginning to clear and he adjusts the vents so that they're not blowing directly at his face. There is a muffled whump in the distance and he winces. Max bites her lip.
"They burned her," she repeats.
"I'm sorry," he says. She shakes her head and looks like she might cry. He can't blame her. He feels cold. Something tears, rends. This should not happen to her. It's not fair that she should attract so much tragedy, but maybe it's only logical. She is not, after all, a normal girl. "I'm sorry."
"If something happened," she says, as though she hasn't heard him, "you'd tell Zach."
He blinks. "Yeah," he says, although he'd never thought about it. "I would." She nods as though comforted by the weight, the intensity, of his words. She doesn't ask how he would find Zach; she just knows. He doesn't say that he hopes she won't die before him, and that if she does, he hopes that he would be with her. Life would be miserable without her, he thinks, and he has only known her for a few months. How did he survive, before?
But this isn't about him. It's about her.
"Thanks," she says absently. A tremor runs through her shoulders, but her eyes are dry: she is not crying.
"Max," he says.
"I'm good," she says. She smiles shakily at him. "Not – I mean, not good, obviously, but –" She turns away from him to facing the windows, and he can't look away as she struggles to compose herself. He wants to tell her that she doesn't need to, but he can't, too unwilling to intrude. She looks back at him, steady. "We should go," she says. "You probably gotta be back for some big Eyes Only thing."
"No," he lies, surprised at himself. "No, I don't."
"Oh," she says. She sounds touched. "Oh."
Logan concentrates on not falling asleep as the temperature dips, as the sky grows black. The stars are dark over Chase Corporation; the smoke is still rising. Max is silent, lost in her own thoughts, but she hasn't said she wants to leave, and they will stay here until she does. It's the least he can do. After all, he brought her into this. If not for him, she wouldn't know. If not for him, Aspen would still be dead, but she would not be grieving. His eyes drift closed. Just for a minute, he tells himself. He's aware of her presence, just out of his reach, and it's not hard to be comfortable here.
"You want me to drive?" she asks suddenly, and he blinks. The stars have shifted and when he looks at the clock, he sees that a half-hour has passed. He stretches as inconspicuously as possible. There are dried tear-tracks on Max's face, barely visible by starlight, and he wishes that she would have woken him.
"'s just thinking," he says. "You ready to go?"
"Yeah," she says. She settles back against the seat and he glances at her one last time. Her hands are folded together, fingers entwined as though she is trying to literally hold herself together. There is blood underneath her fingernails and he remembers the satin of her dress at the wedding, and the dried blood surrounding her eyes. If he tries, if he thinks hard enough, he can still hear the silence in between breaths, can feel the stillness of her heart as she lay on the debris-strewn floor. She would die for those who believe in her, for those who love her. She would die for their faith, and she thinks that this is only natural, that there is no other way.
He starts the car and wonders why love always has to feel so much like grief.
It begins to rain when they are an hour away from Seattle, and by the time they reach the border checkpoint, it's pouring. Traffic is stopped, taillights gleaming blurry red through the rain. There's a biker ahead, soaking wet and androgynous, blue windbreaker turning black. There's an accident, maybe, or midnight construction, or maybe the sector cops are just having fun. The windshield wipers slap back and forth until Logan gives up and stills them. The rain batters down without interruption; they are completely isolated in this crowd. There's nothing to see, nothing beyond them, beyond the walls of water and heavy night. He thinks wistfully of the shore, of the stars; he wonders what Max was thinking while he slept.
"Logan," she says.
"Hm?" He looks over at her. She looks tired, but better; she no longer looks broken. He breathes a sigh of relief. He hopes she's not going to thank him, because he's not doing this to earn her appreciation. He's doing this for her because it has to be done, because she needs it, because he must.
He hopes she's not going to thank him, and she doesn't.
It takes a moment for him to register that she is kissing him, that she is kneeling on the seat and stretching across the controls and kissing him. She's kissed him once before, in the woods near the Canadian border, and it had been sorrowful and sweet and meant to be, in accordance with the idea that you really don't know what you have until it's gone and all of that.
But now that he's got it back, what does he do? Some action seems to be required on his part.
He presses one hand to the back of her head, her hair soft against his skin, and the other cups her chin. Her lips are hot against his and he slides his hand tentatively from her chin to her shoulder, tracing lines of bone beneath skin. Her tongue brushes against his and he feels the sharp edge of her teeth, feels the steady rhythm of her heartbeat as though it's his own. This can't be happening: her hands against his neck, her breath becoming his own, her weight against him as his hand slips across the strap of her bra. This is weightless, timeless, suspended: an experience without context. It's messy and sloppy and wrong – not here, not now – but as she grips him, as he tries to remain silent, he knows that something is being cemented, created. It is not tangible, but it is certain.
He feels her smile against him and knows that this has to be true.
They break apart with mutual consent and he takes a deep breath. "Line's moving," she says, and her eyes look a little wet. She brushes her hair behind her ear and nods at the windshield.
He swallows, switches the windshield wipers back on, and they begin to move forward.
"I had two desires: desire
to be safe and desire to feel."
– Louise Glück, "Aubade"
The rain has abated by the time they arrive at his apartment. Her motorcycle gleams in the parking space next to his and he feels a stab of envy for all that it represents to her: freedom, the ability to speed, to curve through the smooth pitch of midnight. Her eyes are wide and dark under the fluorescent lights and his skin feels too thin, too fragile to withstand the slightest pressure, much less the sharp edges of her rationale.
She opens her door and leaves him there, her boots echoing on the dull concrete floor. They haven't touched since.
There is a fight in the street in front of Jam Pony, between Wish and one of the new guys, whose name Max hasn't yet bothered to learn. In the slanting shadows of twilight, their epithets are surreal, their choreography clumsy and false. Normal has gone to break up the fight, an argyle-sweatered referee, but even that spectacle isn't enough to hold Max's attention. She leans against the dented metal locker and examines her newly-painted fingernails. She will be off of work in fourteen minutes and Logan paged her at noon to tell her that he was looking for information on the informant from his friend's party. He's doing too much again, balancing too many cases, and she can't shake the feeling that sooner or later, they're all going to come crashing down around him.
She saw an accident on the way back from his apartment, after Portland, and she remembers the glint of blood and shattered glass underneath streetlights and headlights. She imagined that he was the focus of the EMTs' sharp gazes, their quick movements burning white in the darkness, and she imagined Aspen. She can't help but feel that her own luck is unnatural, that it will run out abruptly and she will be left alone and broken for having tried, for having believed.
Original Cindy drops onto the bench next to Max and lets out a dramatic sigh. "'member when Original Cindy asked what's wrong and you said later?" she asks quietly. Near the doorway, Normal is arguing with Herbal. Their voices carry over the lockers, the rise and fall like music, like poetry. "This is it, boo."
Max shrugs and adjusts one of her fingerless gloves. "Nothing's wrong."
"Which is why you looking like your boy dumped you again." O.C. takes Max's hand and slides the glove off. "Come on, boo. Spill."
"Nothing's wrong, O.C.," she says, trying to look sincere. Admittedly, if she'd wanted Cindy to stop asking her, she would have tried a little harder. "'s just been a long week, is all."
Original Cindy looks up from her examination of Max's fingernails and raises an eyebrow. "And since you didn't debate the 'boy' or the 'dumped,' I'm thinking there's something else."
She sighs. "You know how I said I've got siblings?"
"Yeah?" Original Cindy nods.
Max looks down, away. She does not want pity, and it's hard enough to say the words. "One of them – my sister – is dead."
"Oh, Max," Cindy says. "Come here, sugar." She pulls Max into an embrace, resting her forehead against Max's. The gesture surprises Max, just a little, but she leans into Cindy's warmth and doesn't speak. Original Cindy is quiet and soothing and Max wonders why she didn't tell her about Aspen any sooner. It's a stupid question, though.
She didn't mention it because she wasn't ready.
"Hey, hey!" Normal says, brandishing his clipboard as he rounds the corner. "Take the show elsewhere! You wanna have your Sapphic display of love or whatever it is, and believe me, I don't wanna know, do it off company property!"
Max pulls back as Cindy stands, hands on her hips, and approaches Normal. "Original Cindy don't do shows for crowds, aiight? And neither does my boo. So you back off, 'less you want things to get dirty, and I don't mean in any way 's gonna get you het," Cindy says, and Max grins despite herself. Normal, to his credit, knows when he's beat. He shakes his head, raising his clipboard as though to shield his eyes, and retreats.
Max looks down at her watch. "Looks like we're off."
Original Cindy turns back to her and waits for her to stand before heading for the door. "You gonna hit Guru's with me an' see Diamond?"
Max tilts her head. "I gotta stop by Logan's," she says, "but I'll swing by later." She pauses to grab her bike from the doorway, and Cindy does the same.
"Hold you to that, boo," O.C. says. "See ya."
"Late'," Max says. She watches Original Cindy bike in the opposite direction, and then sighs. She hadn't known Logan wrote poetry, she thinks, and so she will not tell Cindy about what happened. She holds him like a secret; there are things about him that she doesn't know and until she does, he will be hers alone.
Nightfall comes like a blade, sharp and knife-quick over the city. She steals quietly along the streets, keeping to the shadows out of habit, and leaves her bike next to his apartment door. He's at his desk, as usual, as always. His leatherbound journal is open on the table next to him, inkstained pages covered in his spiky scrawl. She resists the urge to flip through them and leans over his shoulder, instead. "Hey," she says, and he swallows harshly.
"Why do you do that?" he says, turning to face her. The darkness in his eyes is not as heavy today, and she smiles. She would like to think that she is responsible for that, that she has helped; she knows it would be selfish to do so. She is glad to see him happier, at any rate.
She pauses as though seriously contemplating his question and then shrugs. "It's fun. 'sides, I gotta keep you on edge."
He raises his eyebrows and she leans against the side of his desk, her fingertips resting against the smooth grain of his journal. "And believe me, you're doing a great job," he says.
She beams and crosses her legs at the heels, motorcycle boots tiny and scuffed against the clean hardwood floor. "So, what've you got? Thrilling new crime to either avenge or perpetrate?"
Logan rolls his eyes. "Neither, actually. I talked to Geoff about the informant," he says. "He's not sure who the guy was."
Max tosses her hair back. "You called me over to tell me that?" she asks. "'Course, if you offer dinner . . ."
"There's leftovers," he said, his eyes back on his computer screen. He's looking at a grainy photo, perhaps a frame from a surveillance camera. It's from a party, maybe Geoff's.
"That was enthusiastic," she says. She turns away, tired of this. The stars are coming out over the jagged city skyline and she feels suddenly lonely, suddenly cold. "You eating?" she asks, her back to him. The windowsill is sharp and icy against her palms. The night is bitter and she does not want to think about souls. Logan has the only proof of Aspen's existence, the photos, locked away in a file cabinet.
"Maybe later," he says. He still sounds distracted. "Go ahead, though, if you're hungry."
She shakes her head, wondering if he's even looking at her. "Nah, I gotta bounce. O.C.'s ex has a gig and I said I'd swing by."
"Oh," he says. "Um. Max." Something in his voice, some new gravity, makes her turn. Shadows fall across his face; his glasses glint in the computer screen light.
"Yeah?" she says, hesitant to meet his eyes, lest she be held here forever.
"How are you?" he asks, his words hesitant, and she is sorry that she has given him reason to think that she will take offense at this question, at the intrusion into her life. Doesn't he understand that they're friends, she thinks irritably, and that she doesn't make a habit of kissing people just for the hell of it?
She tilts her head, hair falling across one eye. "Dealing," she says after a minute, and not only is this is the most honest answer she could have given, it is the truest thing she has said all day.
The glass shattered around them as they crashed through the window of the Steinlitz Hotel, and that only increased his fear of heights. They landed on the bed, linens sliding underneath his hands as he fought for a hold and he began to understand that he was no longer falling, that he was safe. Max breathed close to him, her eyes dark and angry, and a little fearful, and his mouth went dry. They shouted at each other: anger is the safest emotion, though not the easiest, nor the most expressive. She'd gotten up to leave, and he'd pulled her back down, dizzy with falling and adrenaline, and unwilling to let her go.
Just go save the kid, he'd said finally, and when she was gone, it had been a long moment before he'd been able to move, before the world stopped spinning and he realized that he was angry with her for trying to save him, because how dare she risk her own life for his?
He'd been amazed that she didn't see what she meant to him. How could she have failed to understand the significance of her life? Without her, his own life would hold no meaning; without her, his life would be in ruins.
He'd pulled her back to him. If you love someone, you should never let them go away angry; this is doubly true if they will be entering a gunfight.
The city is grimy, even in the rain, and twilight throws long shadows across the streets, making pedestrians shiver and quicken their paces. He sees none of this from where he is, but he envisions it all, and when Max enters, shaking water from her hair and brushing off her leather jacket, he knows that he was right. He presses a cup of hot coffee into her hands, momentarily forgetting that the chill probably doesn't affect her at all, and her smile is bright amidst the watercolor smears of rain. Her hair is damp and curling, and Portland is the unmentioned darkness in her eyes. He sees it, but only because he's looking, and he's only looking because he thinks that someone should know her and should see her for who she is. He believes in the enormity of love, in the holiness of weighted silences and lingering glances.
He is, after all, a romantic.
"Original Cindy's at home," she says, before he can ask. "She's holding up. Not doing great or anything, but . . ."
"She's dealing," he finishes quietly. She nods.
"Yeah. She's dealing," she repeats, hoisting herself onto the kitchen counter. "Gotta be rough, losing your true love or whatever like that. Or finding out they lied to you the whole time."
"She wanted to see Original Cindy before she died," Logan says. "I kinda get that."
"Yeah," Max says. "I'm not saying I don't. I'm just saying if I was planning on spending the rest of my life with somebody, I'd make sure they knew who I was." In the silence that follows, her words take on an additional weight, and Logan's not sure what to say. "Which is why I'm never getting married," she adds awkwardly, triumphantly. Crisis averted.
"Of course, you could always tell them who you were," he points out cautiously as he removes the chicken from the oven. She drains her coffee and shakes her head.
"Nah, too much trouble. Not to mention, I'm guessing most people'd be freaked by the whole super-soldier thing."
"Most people," he agrees. It has long been his philosophy that the opinion of the majority is useless when it comes down to things like this. He hopes she knows that. He knows that she does. She kissed him, and he knows that it wasn't a mistake, but he's come to believe that, as with most miracles, it will not happen again.
"Plus, who knows what'll happen with these seizures?" she says, too lightly for his comfort, and then she hops down from her perch. "Dinner smells good," she says, and then she is clattering cutlery and banging plates onto the counters and as he listens to her talk about Sketchy's vow to scale the Needle bare-handed by the end of summer, he wishes that she would let him help her. Even though he might not be able to succeed, he wants to try. But why should she, when he won't let her do the same for him?
We're twisted, he thinks, and he raises his glass, a silent toast to whatever deities may have been involved in entangling them.
There is a kind of beauty in the city at night, ravaged as it may be. When darkness settles and his work is done for the day, when the dishes have been cleared and the candles begin to burn low – it is only now that he begins to feel at home. Max sees it all, and despite her veneer of cynicism, she takes it in with an innocence and awe that he rarely sees in himself. Their perceptions are never the same; they are constantly at war. Sometimes Logan is amazed that she still stops by, that she hasn't abandoned him to his own designs.
"I was thinking," Max says hesitantly, and this should warn him right away. Instead, he merely looks at her, waiting for her to continue. She is lying at the other end of his couch, dangerously close to dozing, he thinks, a warm female presence in the isolation of night. "About what happened."
"What happened?" he asks. There is a faint crackle of lightning in the distance, and an unfocused rumble of thunder. He offered her the guest room, once, during a rainstorm, and she turned him down. He sometimes thinks that, were it up to him, he would not be such a gentleman again. Max, perhaps recognizing this, has not since demonstrated the need for him to make such an offer.
"You," she says, and she is hardly louder than the rain, the near-instantaneous deluge. They are alone, adrift in the night; the candlelight is a flickering veil across her face, and this must be what it means to be content.
"Me," he repeats. Her eyes open fractionally wider.
"Yeah," she says. "Remember when Mrs. Moreno fell and you called the ambulance for her?"
"Yeah," he says. He doesn't like where this conversation is heading, and he feels the evening grow colder.
She pushes herself into a sitting position. "That won't happen again, right?"
He blinks at the unexpected question. "Um. I don't know. I hope not. I think her son's gonna stop by more often --"
She looks down, studying her fingernails. "No, I mean the part where I come in and you're not here and your gun's, like . . ." She trails off and shrugs. He remembers the strength of her arms, the frightening intimacy of her voice. He does not want to think about that. He does not want to have caused her pain, and he does not want to relive the emotions that brought him to that moment, to that decision. He can easily recall the comforting heft of the gun in his hand and the strange, alien clarity of his thoughts. Max is staring at him and he clears his throat.
"No," he says, feeling oddly violated. What right does she have to ask? She'd said it herself – she could never understand. He wants to keep these two areas of his life completely separate, but she hasn't seemed to notice, or she doesn't care. She makes it impossible, he thinks, but he's not sure that's her intention.
"Just because with Diamond and Asp – and all," she says. "I've been thinking serious thoughts lately." She looks embarrassed, as though she knows it was an intrusion. Thunder crashes. It's getting closer.
"Oh," he says, not looking away. He doesn't trust himself to say any more.
She continues. "And then when there were those guys in Cape Haven, I didn't know . . . I thought maybe you'd wanna talk about it."
"I don't," he says shortly, torn between anger at her audacity and shock at the fact that she thinks she knows him well enough to ask these things. The anger seems to be winning out. She kissed him, but that does not give her the right. He is aware of his own contradictions as far as she is concerned, but he has decided that logic does not apply to her: Max and rationality cannot coexist.
She blinks. "You saved my life," she says, contrite, as an explanation. "I was thinking, you know, least I could do was ask."
"Just returning the favor," he says, and that is the end of the conversation. Her expression is blank, untouched, but her eyes betray her, and he wonders if things will ever be more than quid pro quo, than a tally and exchange of favors, between them. This is their relationship, reduced to a common denominator, to the bare minimum. And then she shrugs, blinks sleepily, and she smiles, and his cynicism begins to recede.
"I gotta bounce," she says, and when she leaves, she brushes past, close enough for him to touch her, but he doesn't.
The room grows cold quickly in her absence and he thinks that he has never been so foolish.
"You are not suffering because you touched each other
but because you were born --"
– Louise Glück, "Early Darkness"
Max went home and life went on. She spoke with Original Cindy, who showed her a picture of a child and who painted her nails, who told her about soul power and who'd been the first person to define friendship to her. She spoke with Cindy and then she went to see Logan. She stole a page from his journal and kept it with her. She memorized the words, but she never spoke them aloud, fearing perhaps the power they held.
And the next day, she went back to see him.
Logan pages her at lunchtime, in the vivid heat of early afternoon. "I need your help," he says when she calls him. Her fingers are still warm from the coins, themselves warmed by their proximity to her body. She feels fragmented, incomplete. She hasn't ever meant to hurt him, but with the luck of the damned, it's all she ever seems to do. He seems more fragile these days; she is aware of him not only as a presence, but as human. He wrote her a poem, and in exposing himself, he made her more real than she could have imagined.
"I'll swing by after work," she says, reciting her lines in this all-too-familiar conversation. The dial tone buzzes in her ear and she feels newborn, lost in the sudden shock of immersion, the termination of their connection.
She visits him after work and he hands her a page, gives her a new poem. The paper rustles between her fingers. His hands are not shaking. Neither of them mention the missing page, and then he turns from her. "Why I called you," he says.
"You mean you didn't just want to see me?" she asks, and she thinks that she's just joking until he turns back to her. Her breath catches in her throat as she begins to voice a demurral, to forge her escape; she falls silent, enthralled.
This time, he kisses her. The night is warm with the heat of their being, and they say never, never, never, and finally, yes.
They will argue and fight and touch; they will shout and cry and bleed. They will be each other's everything, and nothing, and on one late spring day, they will read the newspaper together and she will laugh, which should tell them that this will never work. Max will lose another sister and Logan will almost lose Max: there will be hundreds of tiny moments leading to the culmination. There will be thousands of cracks and broken places, incomplete sentences and shattered glances. Both of them will think that nothing is more painful, or more sweet, than love. They will think of each other as immortal, despite what they know. They will live in a future that never comes true. They will live in the moment, they will live forever, she will breathe and he will smile. They won't see the end when it comes in the whisper of dark wings in the sky, as it brushes silver on their horizon.