Even Though It's Painful…Always

By Kara



Rating: R

Spoilers: Up through "AJBAC"-possible second season

Disclaimer: If I was associated with Dark Angel, Fox, Cameron, or Eglee, would I be writing fanfic?

Summary: When Max gets a call from a sister in trouble, she has to choose between the possibilities of the future, and promises of the past. Follows "Lady in Red", "Blood for Blood," and "Sistahs." A/N: The title comes from a translation of "Setsunakutemo...Zutto" from Fushigi Yuugi, translated by Tasuki No Miko (http://www.crosswinds.net/~tasukinomiko/Anime/FY/). Translated lyrics used with permission.

This is not going to be a pretty fic! Though it looks like it will be a long one…

For Christi Smith Hayden, who in an odd way inspired this with her "Mockingbird," one of the most painfully beautiful Gargoyles stories.



For Tracy, who gave me ideas, and who still loves the woozle. And for my tattooing partners, Bree and Donna, who will read this even if they don't watch Dark Angel. g







Prologue: Back to Your Side



if the years take away

every memory that I have

I would still know the way

that would lead me back to your side

the north star may die

but the light that I see in your eyes

will burn there always

lit by the love we have shared before time

A Love Before Time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon



I'd like to say that when I got out of Manticore, it was all roses and romance for me and Logan. At nights in the barracks, I'd dream of it, falling into his arms and making gentle love in his candle-lit apartment, just like in that hallucination I had. But nothing about me has ever been gentle, and when I finally got out of that hellhole for a second time, I didn't greet him with stars in my eyes or words of love at my lips.





I escaped to warn him that his life was in danger. Our first kiss was hungry and desperate, but all I passed on to Logan was a virus that killed the romance between us for a very long time. It fucked with us for a while, but we danced around and dealt with it the same way we always did. It was hard, probably the hardest time of my life, but we made it through. And finally, I did fall into his arms, but then I proceeded to weep all over him, like some sissy girl. And we did have sex, but it was anything but gentle. It was an act of desperation, for two consenting adults who hadn't known if they'd ever have this chance again. We screwed it up every time in the past. The first time…he broke down in the middle and collapsed on top of me, sobbing. It was probably the most emotionally-exhausting fuck I'd ever had, and it drained both of us to the point where we slept for two days. But when I woke up in his arms, and found out that it wasn't a dream…

That made all the difference.





The world moved on while I was locked away. People changed. I was scared to death that Logan would forget about me, or move on, or give me up for dead. But he never lost hope, not even a little. I don't know if that's just phony sentimentality, or if those in love are truly blind, but his sheer determination kept him going. And I was so hell-bent on getting back to him that I don't know if anything could've stopped me. I didn't want Zack's sacrifice to be for nothing. Someone has to bring this bitch down. The soldier that retreats always lives to fight again.

Damn Manticore. Damn Manticore for taking away everything I've ever loved, and ruining every chance I've had to take my life back. This time, I'm not going to let them.

And I'll bring Manticore down. If not for Zack, then for Tinga, and Case, and Ben and Eva and Jack. For all of my family who died in the fire that night Manticore went down a second time. For Logan, and every tomorrow we might not see because I'm on the run. For everyone who suffered just so that some government agency could send gen-synthed soldiers off to war. It's what I was trained to do. And it's the only way I'll be able to stop running.

Even Though It's Painful, Always

Chapter One: Running Alone

For buggs, because I shoved Dark Angel down her throat in the off-season, and now she clamors for more.





Looking down I watch the night

Running from the sun

Orphan stars and city lights

Fading one by one

Oh sweet memories

I call on you now

Two too many hearts been broke

Along this lonely road

Steel gray eyes can shine the lies

Until they look like gold

Cold city sidewalks can turn your heart to stone

The street won't defeat me

Cause I've got the will I'll survive

I don't mind runnin' alone

I believe that every soul

Has a song to sing

The spirit's locked in every man

Waiting for a wing

Oh so much is wasted

And oh so little used

The trick of the dreamer

Is keeping yourself from the blues

And I don't mind runnin'

Everyone's a hero

If you want to be

Everyone's a prisoner

Holding their own key

Every step I take

In every move I make

Always one step closer

I don't mind runnin' alone

Laughing children echo down

The concrete alleyways

Oh their voices

Calling, calling, calling yesterday

Oh sweet memories

Returning to me now

When young eyes saw clearly

Running Alone, Steve Perry



December 1, 2023

Max stared out the bedroom window at the cold gray light. It was winter. To this day, she wasn't sure how she felt about winter, because part of her still thought of Manticore every time she saw snow fell. Winter meant the turning of the old year into a new one, and training becoming more and more complex. Winter meant barefoot marches in the snow to acclimate their growing bodies to all kinds of weather, and hard days of training outside from before dawn until far into the night.

Maybe it was because it seemed like it was always winter in Wyoming. Snow covered the ground from October into late April sometimes. For her first four years, Max could even remember wondering if the green would come back after the first snow fell. She had to admit that Gillette was the perfect backdrop for a secret government agency-just the right blend of bleak and overpowering.

But as Max rolled over, her body pressing up against the warm bare one next to her under the covers, she remembered what else had happened in the dead of winter. The escape from Manticore had meant rebirth in more than one way. Both times she'd escaped, it had been winter. Both times, only the dogs of hell could've dragged her back. Because of rebirth in winter, she was able to lie under the covers with someone to warm those cold, sleepless nights. And though he complained liberally about how little sleep Eyes Only got these days, Max knew that Logan was also grateful for winter.

"Max?" His voice was sleepy as he instinctively dragged her body closer to his. Though his body still remained dead below the waist, his arms were still perfectly capable. His arm wrapped itself around her waist, his fingers tracing her spinal column until they reached her barcode. It was both a comfort and a turn-on, whenever he rubbed her neck there. This early morning, lying in bed with him, it was more the latter than the former. She didn't need comforting. Life was quiet.

"Just thinking." Logan was beautiful in the morning. He was a fine specimen of man at any time, even for someone who wasn't genetically- engineered, but there was something about the composure in his face in the morning, combined with his undeniable bed-head, and the way he had of blinking owlishly at her without his glasses… In this hour, he was completely hers, and Eyes Only was far from his mind.

A hand reached out to stroke her cheek, and Max found herself looking into light blue eyes--eyes almost the same shade as Jondy's. "Why am I afraid to hear you've been thinking?" He wore that teasing smile on his face. Okay, so her past two thoughtful periods had involved something a little more outrageous than either of them were used to… But Max was trained to think of every option, and sometimes, that over-thought could come up with interesting ideas.

"Because someone's hornier than Kendra in the mornings," she said lightly, pushing back the sandy hair that kept falling into his eyes. "And my girl doesn't exactly have the sex drive of Normal."

Logan closed his eyes briefly, as if he was trying to ward off that image. When he opened them again, there was a little grin on his face. Then, Max found herself on top of him as one of Logan's hands began rubbing at the back of her neck again. "So what were you really thinking?" he asked nonchalantly.

Max tried to focus on his question, but found herself fail miserably. For someone who had taken over a year to finally touch her in any sexual way, Logan had turned out to be a complete hornball. If she didn't know better, she'd almost say that he went into heat-even more often than she did. There were still problems occasionally, but she thanked whoever was in charge every day that Logan was one of the 15% of paraplegic men who could still function sexually…

"About winter," Max managed to say.

"Winter?" If it had been any other time, she would have loved perplexing the brilliant Eyes

Only. But now, all she could think of was the pounding of her blood in her veins and the warmth of Logan's flesh against hers.

"In winter, since it's so cold outside, there isn't a lot you can do." Max nuzzled his neck, feeling the heat building up in her stomach. She gave him a feral grin. "But inside…"

His blue eyes widened, and his grin grew to match her own. "Maybe we should play inside today," Logan whispered between soft kisses.

~*~*~*~*~

"Where you been, Boo? Normal's eyes almost fell outta his head when I said you was sick again yesterday," Original Cindy said as Max wandered into Jam Pony the next morning. Her best friend gave Max a closer look before grinning. "One of those sick days, huh, Boo?"

Max shrugged. "You get yours once a month, mine comes every three. It all works out in the end." But she couldn't help smiling a little, remembering.

Alec wrinkled his nose as he wheeled his bike by. "Damn, Maxie. I'm happy that you and the Wallet are finally fucking like monkeys, but can you at least shower afterwards?" He grinned as he dodged her blow, but Max hadn't been trying too hard to deck him anyway. She didn't hate her fellow X-5 as much as she used to, but he still annoyed her, especially when he was breathing.

"She has decided to grace us with her presence. Welcome back to the land of the living, Miss Guevara." Normal's voice was at its usual sardonic best. "What was it this time? A genetically-enhanced plague? Neural surgery? Airborne ebola virus?" But Max noticed that he had his ever- present can of Lysol clutched in one hand.



She wondered why she didn't try to get another job sometimes-why any of them stayed. The pay wasn't great, and they got no respect… But the messenger pass in her vest pocket allowed Max access to any sector in the city, and who ever noticed the chick who brought the mail? There was an anonymity that came along with the job, and that itself was worth putting up with Normal and his annoying firetrucking ass. Especially since he more or less ignored the fact that she took long leaves of absence sometimes on one of her quests as Eyes Only Champion, others as Protector of the X-5s.

"Remember three years ago? That day? That day?"

Normal's pale eyes widened, and Max noticed beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He coughed. "Y-yeah…"

She smiled sweetly, forcing her full-blown grin on Normal's scrambled brain. "It was one of those days."

Normal swallowed a few times before responding. "Oh. Umm…oh." He blushed to the roots of his receding hair. "Oh." Max wondered if that day still haunted Normal's dreams. It could explain one reason why he let her get away with shit that no one else could… Second thought, maybe she didn't want to wonder about that…

"You could always just move in with Logan, Boo," Cindy said as they rummaged through their lockers. "Not that Original Cindy don't mind kickin' it with her homegirl, but if you've got a chance to move into a supah fly pad like that, take it, aiight?"

It wasn't like she never thought about moving in with Logan. There were still times when Max had panic attacks, and the only thing that could calm her down was hearing his voice. But living with him wasn't something she was ready for. Even after all they'd been through, they still had a long way to go to dog Manticore, and everything that bitch had done to her.

"I'm still clingin' to my issues, I guess." Max shrugged, jamming her cap over her eyes. "If you ever want me to move out…" Even now, after almost four years of living with Original Cindy, Max still felt uneasy. Yeah, her best girlfriend knew about all the deep dark secrets of her almost-human soul, but that was no guarantee that it didn't creep Cindy out from time to time. Every human has a weakness, even the test-tube babies of Manticore.

And then Cindy's arms wrapped around her, enfolding Max in an incredible feeling of love. "You might not swing for the same team as me, sugar, but you'll always be my boo." Then she grinned at Max. "Besides, if Original Cindy ever need her pad to bring back a homegirl, then she knows her boo's got someplace to go."



Cindy might not have been genetically engineered, but she was just as good as Jondy sometimes.

~*~*~*~*~

The weeks flew by until it was almost Christmas. Alec took a leave of absense--told Normal some shit about touring the Southwest as the boxer Monty Cora to make some money. Max knew he was actually helping out Asha and the S1Ws with some plot to overthrow the world somewhere near Vancouver. Maybe some of the Christmas spirit was affecting Mr. Smart Alec. Or he was finally becoming human after all. Logan mentioned something about Alec's heart growing seven sizes like some green guy. Or maybe it was just a way to get Asha back into Alec's bed again. They were always on or off again.

Max never really understood the big deal about Christmas--so some guy had been born in Bethlehem? It wasn't like he'd ever done anything for her. After the betrayal of her own childhood beliefs in the Blue Lady, Max still had a problem admitting to the presence of a higher good. Christmas had always been just another day at Manticore--a day with a skeleton crew that occasionally hummed odd songs under their breath, but just another day. Apparently, Jolly Old Saint Nick didn't cater to the genetically-augmented boys and girls.

But she still went through the motions. She wrestled a dying fir tree into the apartment for Cindy, and then helped Bling haul in a ten-footer for Logan's vaulted ceilings. Joshua settled for yards and yards of blinking red Christmas lights, to the point where Alec said Father's house looked like the Red Light District. Alec would know. And since the fine art of decorating a tree wasn't covered by the Manticore curriculum, she left the decorations up to others. Their tree at home was covered in home-made ornaments Cindy'd picked up over the years, and her Xena collection. Logan's tree was a showcase of family heirlooms, and the glittery cardboard and macaroni ornaments he'd made pre-Pulse in school. Two trees for the two different parts of her life. And yet, both were completely removed from the one life she still had to come to terms with. Manticore would always make her an outsider, even in her own life. And there was nothing she could do to ignore it.

"Max?" Logan wheeled over, running a hand along the back of her neck as she sat on the couch. "You were staring off into space again. I thought I'd lost you for a moment." His tone was light, but Max could still see the fear in his eyes. This was something else that still separated them, even after all they'd been through. She wasn't the only one who woke up crying at night, and needed to hear another voice to make the panic stop.



Picking herself up from the couch, she let herself drop into Logan's lap as he sat in his wheelchair. His arms automatically wrapped around her, and she rested her head against his shoulder, listening to the reassuring thump of his heartbeat. "What is it?" he asked again, one free hand rubbing her barcode.

But it wasn't something she could put into words. How could you talk about ten years of not knowing where your family was, and another eleven years spent in the closest thing to hell on Earth? Dante might not've been psychic, but sometimes Max swore he foretold of Manticore in the Inferno. All hope abandon, ye who enter there… She was just starting to have hope again, but something kept holding her back.

"I've just got this feeling dogging me," she said finally, resting her forehead against his neck. "Like something's about to go down. It's been too quiet."

The hand at the back of her neck moved to stroke her hair. That also helped comfort her-probably all that feline recombinant DNA. "Has everyone checked in lately?" Logan, as always, was the voice of reason.

"All eight of them." Eight of the original twelve survivors were still alive. Eight, plus Jace down in Mexico. Not a bad record, all things considering… "And Alec's gonna check on Bullet and the others for me when he passes through Vancouver with Asha and her crew."

"How's your nephew?" Logan nuzzled the top of her head. Was he thinking about babies? They'd only seen pictures of Max's namesake, but her nephew was three years old now, and according to Jace, developing the same way Case had.

"Jace says he's the true son of an X-5," she answered lightly, trying not to think how lucky Jace was that he was born at all, without a barcode, or paws, or a tail. "He speaks more Spanish than he does English. And he asks where his papa is a lot." She shifted slightly in his lap, looking up at him. "Jondy'll be here for Christmas. She's gonna crash with me. If you don't mind…"

Logan smiled. "Any sister of yours is a friend of mine," he answered lightly. "I know how much you miss her."

Max chuckled. "Jondy's my homegirl-even more than Cindy is. Jondy was my protector back at Manticore, even before we had names. She's the one who used to sit up with me when we couldn't sleep, and held my hand when I got the shakes." In many ways, Jondy saved her life. "When we were separated, the night we escaped, and I fell through the ice…I cried for days after that. I didn't know what I'd do all alone in the world. I never thought I'd have to face life without her. Without any of them."

Logan's hand fell from her hair and came to rest against the inside of her left breast. "You still have them here," he reminded her, kissing her gently. "Inside your heart." Inside Zack's heart. At least some part of him did live on in her. That was one reason why she'd never forget the sacrifice he made for her. Never. She wasn't a soldier anymore, but she'd always protect her family.

Slowly, he wheeled them over to the window, looking out at the flickering city lights. Max settled herself so that she faced forward in his lap, her back leaning up against his chest. "It's starting to snow," Logan said, his fingers tangling themselves in the chain that she wore around her neck. The action seemed almost subconscious as he fidgeted with her locket, his eyes looking out over Seattle. Maybe he'd sat with his mother like this when he was small, playing with the locket. "You can crash here tonight, if you want." The arm around her waist tightened.

"In the guestroom?" She leaned her head against his shoulder and looked up at him. His mouth was curved into a smug smile, the mood of before forgotten.

"We could sleep in the guestroom, I suppose." Tipping his face towards hers, he kissed her softly. "It's been a while since anyone slept there."

"We could sleep, I suppose," she amended, twisting so that she straddled his legs. "Or we could-"

But before they could get too comfortable, Max heard the sound of someone dropping through the skylight. With one swift movement, she slid off Logan's lap and into a crouch, half-hiding behind the wheelchair. At the moment she heard feet hit Logan's hardwood floors, Max launched herself at whoever was breaking and entering. She was the only one who could use the skylight, thank you very much.

The body that she hit was lithe, but strong. With the grace of a cat, the intruder shook her off, automatically somersaulting into an attack position. There were only so many 'ready' positions, and Max knew each of her brothers' and sisters' as if they were her own. Though the slender woman before her wore a faded blue ski mask over her face, Max recognized the stance. "Jondy!"

The light blue eyes seemed to dance as her sister tore off the mask. "You knew. You're still good, Maxie." Jondy's light brown hair spilled past her thin shoulders. "I knew you wouldn't lose your touch, baby sister." Max found herself in the middle of a tight hug. Jondy had always been one of the smallest X-5s. Even now, she still looked like she was sixteen or seventeen, all brown hair and blue eyes in a face Max could still only call delicate. There was a hardened look about the face though that Max had only seen on prostitutes and soldiers-anyone who'd ever seen a warzone. And though the blue eyes laughed, it seemed like there was a dark shadow in their pale depths, something Max saw often enough in the mirror.

"You're early, Jondy." While she wasn't unhappy to see her sister, Max couldn't help wishing Jondy could have waited an extra day.

Jondy laughed. "At least I wasn't earlier, baby sister. I stopped to see Syl and Krit on the way up, but things got…crowded there."

"Syl and Krit, huh?" After the invasion on Manticore, Logan said the two had gotten close. Max didn't know it was that kind of close. Not that she could blame them. It was human instinct to turn to the one closest to you after you faced a war. Ten years at Manticore had taught her that much.

"Syl and Krit. Something that would've never happened if Zack-" Jondy trailed off as Max led her into Logan's living room. Logan gave them an expectant look as they walked in.

"Happy Holidays, Jondy," he said, giving her a smile.

Jondy leaned in, leaving a light kiss on his cheek. "Happy Holidays to you too, brother." Though her face smiled, there was a grateful look in her eyes. "Thanks for allowing me to intrude on your celebration."

"You're Max's family," Logan answered simply. "If I can handle Alec for extended periods of time, I think I can handle you." Jondy snorted at that. "The guestroom is yours as long as you need it, Jondy." The fact that he understood her so well was one of the reasons why Max loved him so much, especially at moments like this. Especially when he turned back to her with a laugh in his blue eyes. "Looks like you'll be staying in the guestroom after all, huh, Max?"

Before she could answer, Logan blinked and yawned, the emotions of the day seeming to finally catch up with him. "I'll leave you ladies, if you don't mind," he said, as if Max and Jondy were society ladies, and not synthetic killing machines. When she leaned in to kiss him goodnight, he moved his lips to her ear. "If you need me…"

Max ran her fingers through his spiky hair. "If you need me," she replied, in the same quiet tone. His answer was the soft smile meant only for her.

"Night, Jondy. Night, Max." And with a wave to them both, he wheeled himself down the hall towards his bedroom.

When they reached the guestroom, Jondy threw herself down on the bed, testing the mattress. "Softer than Manticore," she remarked. It was hard to miss the sardonic note in her light voice.

Max laid down beside her sister. "The ground is more comfortable than our barracks at Manticore were. Even those pallets we had, when we were small…" She had dim memories of the room they'd lived in for the first five years of their lives. She remembered the pallet on the floor with one firm pillow and one coarse blanket, and how she used to huddle under hers with Jondy on the nights they couldn't sleep. "It always comes back to Manticore, doesn't it?"

Jondy moved closer to her on the bed, leaning up against her in the same way they did when they were small. "It's a bitch we'll never beat, no matter how far we run, or how long the project has been closed." She gave a non-committal shrug. "It's burnt into our genes, just like our barcodes. I try to shake it whenever I can, but…"

Max rested her head on Jondy's shoulder, letting herself be the baby sister again for a moment. "Don't you get lonely?" They'd all had their failed relationships. Zane had even almost gotten married once, years before. Now their biggest brother let only one woman into his heart-his dog, Millie. Only she and Logan were still together--the sole survivors of Manticore and the havoc it wrecked on every X-5 relationship--those who let themselves have relationships. But Logan had been clued into her less than conventional origins from the start, and their road hadn't been an easy one. It would never be an easy one.

Jondy's hand toyed with Max's curls, something that always managed to comfort her. "My knight never came," her big sister said simply. "I had something for a moment, but…"

"But Manticore took it away." Max didn't need to ask. She knew the drill all too well. But Jondy did answer, because a soldier always answered what she was asked, even if it wasn't a direct question. "Did he look like Zack?"

She waited for Jondy to chuckle, but her sister never did. After a long silence, Max pulled away. It almost surprised her, to see tears running down Jondy's face. Almost.

"It was Zack."

Now it was Jondy's turn to be the little sister. The other girl seemed even smaller as Max held her close, the same way she'd once held Tinga, and Brin. It was kind of funny, how automatic a reflex it was now, to reach out to her sisters as they had once reached out to comfort her. Maybe filling Zack's shoes wasn't such a stretch after all.

But it didn't help the guilt she felt. Max had never told Jondy about Adam, and the man Zack had become. He was still on that ranch in Idaho, going on with his life like he'd never known the hell known as Manticore. None of her brothers and sisters knew, just like none of them knew about what really happened to Ben. But if Jondy loved Zack…

"He was there the first time I went into heat when I was fifteen. It scared me so badly… But we dealt with it, and he held me when I cried afterward. He was gone the next morning, but he'd been there when I needed him." Max could hear Jondy swallowing. "He'd seen it with Tinga, so he kind of knew what to expect. He knew that Case was the result of Tinga's heat, but Tinga loved Charlie so much."

Max didn't want to think of the first time she'd gone into heat at fourteen. It was before Seattle, before Washington even. She might've still been in Oregon then, on the outskirts of Salem. All she could remember to this day was the incredible hunger, and the heat boiling her blood… The doctors at Manticore had never explained this particular bitch of a side effect to her feline DNA. While her foster sisters had gotten periods over the years, Max had just sat and waited, not knowing what Manticore had in store for her. That first time…

"At least you had Zack then," she said softly, stroking Jondy's silky brown hair. "You had someone to protect you and hold you then…" At least, out of the five of her sisters that had escaped alive, only Tinga had gotten pregnant while she was in heat. One out of six-not bad odds. And up to her death, Tinga thought it was worth the price. Max didn't know how Charlie felt about it, but for her oldest sister, any child was worth it.

"He changed that day," Jondy continued, her eyes staring at the wall as if she could see the past written there. "He stopped being my big brother. But for him, I was always baby sister Jondy. He had eyes for only one X-5, and that wasn't me."

For a while, Max couldn't look at her older sister. She knew well enough who Zack had eyes for. She knew it as well as she knew whose heart beat in her chest. She still heard his voice at night sometimes, that desperate tone echoing over and over--but I love you, Max, I love you… "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I'm sorry…"

Jondy smiled slightly, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "There are some things in life that you can't change, soldier," she said lightly, echoing the words of a man they'd only called the Colonel. "Nobody controls his own life, Maxie."

"The best you can do is choose to fill the roles given you by good people, by people who love you," Max continued, remembering the night at Manticore that a book had changed their entire world.

"I could never hate you, baby sister. I didn't like you for a while, after I realized…" Jondy's thin shoulders shook slightly. "But then word came that you were back at Manticore again, and about what Zack had done, and I saw Logan…" She shook her head, her fine brown hair hiding her face from Max for a moment. "You paid your price. I saw both of you pay the price for what you had, and I was glad that I didn't have to go through it. I was happy with the small things I had with Zack, because they never cost me what your time with Logan has cost you, or the time Tinga spent with Charlie cost her."

They sat again, leaning up against each other like they were still two little girls, clinging together out of fear of the unknown. Even after years of being outside, there were still times when Max longed for the security of Manticore, and the fact that she knew, day in and day out, what her objective would be. Duty. Responsibility. Courage. Those never changed. But outside…outside was a lot more complicated than a nine year old's brain would ever be able to comprehend.

"Do you ever wish--" Max trailed off, not knowing if she should even ask the question. But Jondy knew, because of the years they'd spent together, and the years they'd spent apart.

"Even though I've had more lives than our feline DNA should allow, and even though I've lost more people I loved in each of those lives than most do in one, I don't wish it. No regrets, Maxie. We had our chance, and we took it, and if we hadn't…"

"Brin," Max finished softly.

"Brin," Jondy echoed. There was nothing more that had to be said. "Just a little less independence in us, and a little more kindness in them, and I don't know if we'd ever have bailed. If you hadn't gotten the shakes that night…"

It was a scene she'd run through her mind so many times that it sometimes seemed like it was a story she'd heard once, that had happened to someone else. She'd been in such a daze then, the seizures not quite worn off. The part she remembered most, even to this day, was Zack pressed against one side, and Jondy clinging to her hand on the other. "If Eva hadn't grabbed the gun."

Jondy's eyes closed, as if she was also reliving that night. "And Zack hadn't attacked the guard who was going to take you." She opened them again, turning to look back at Max. "Did I ever tell you I was sorry, Maxie? It ate at me for years, thinking of you under the ice."

Max could feel her mouth quivering as she tried to quirk a smile. "It's all good, big sister," she said finally, unconsciously echoing words a sister had once said to her. "I got out, and we ended up finding each other again, so it all worked. It's all good."

Jondy laughed suddenly. "Taking lessons from Herbal, Max?"

Max surprised herself by laughing back. "Herbal's Ja seems like a decent thing to believe in, if you go for that whole faith thing." She shrugged. "Not my cuppa. Gods and faith are for people born human."

"That is true, my sistah." Jondy's voice echoed the slowed cadence of Herbal's. "You okay, Maxie? You seem tired." One of her small hands stroked Max's hair again.

Trying to smother a yawn, Max nodded. "I've just been a little tired lately. Not sleeping, but tired, y'know?" She shifted so that her head rested on Jondy's shoulder, the way she imagined she might've done if she had a mother. "It could be the weather, or the season. Seattle isn't exactly the happiest place on earth." The weather, the season, memories…

"When was your last heat?" There was an odd note in her sister's voice.

"Two weeks ago." Not that it made much of a difference when it came to her and Logan. His sex drive seemed as strong as her sometimes, to the point where she wondered how much her transfused blood had affected him. He didn't go into heat the way she did, but somehow, her cycles seemed to throw him into overdrive sometimes.

"Two weeks. That could explain it."

Max looked up at her sister at that cryptic answer, but Jondy refused to say anything. "I'm not pregnant, Jondy. We're careful when I'm in heat. I haven't caught once."

The sudden darkening of Jondy's face scared Max. "It doesn't mean it can't happen, baby sister." Her sister's voice was emotionless. But before Max could ask anything else, Jondy yawned, rubbing at her eyes with her fists. "Now you've got me tired." A little bit of a smile had returned to her face..

"How long were you on the road?" Max asked as they turned down the comforter of the bed.

Jondy kicked off her boots and tossed them in a heap with her jeans on the floor. "Since Tuesday. Or maybe Monday. I just felt like leaving. I can't stay put now, even when I don't have to run." She slid under the covers, wriggling into the mattress the same way she used to do on her cot in the barracks. "I parked my baby next to yours in the garage."

Max walked to the bureau and dug for one of Logan's spare shirts that he kept there. Folding her clothes neatly beside Jondy's, she fell into bed. "At least you've never had a roommate who used your baby as a clothesline," she grumbled, tugging some of the covers free of Jondy's grip. Soldier or not, her sister had always hogged covers.

"Night, baby sister." As she closed her eyes, Max felt a light kiss on her forehead, and the shift in the mattress as Jondy settled close to her body.

"Night, big sister." She yawned again, and then let sleep take her.

~*~*~*~*~*~

It was just after dawn when Logan woke up, mainly because of the empty space beside him in bed. Max didn't spend every night with him-there were even entire weeks when he wouldn't see her, because she was off visiting one X-5 or another. But somehow, he couldn't really sleep unless she was there anymore. Four years and more of knowing her and loving her had changed his life in countless ways. If he rationalized it out, it was even worth being sentenced to the chair, if only for that handful of days of walking beside her, dancing with her, loving her…

Yeah, his sleep patterns were screwed up now, and he had to go shopping for food a lot more. That didn't matter when he looked at the impact Max had made on his little rich boy's life. It wasn't just the fact that he had his own personal super hero to help save the world. It was the fact that she was Max, and she loved him, and that was a miracle.

Pushing back the covers, Logan groped for his glasses, and then for the exoskeleton that stood next to his side of the bed, the ever-present sentinel in his life. Sliding his lifeless legs into it, he flipped the power switch, and was relieved when it didn't short out. He still had days like that, when he had to resort to the chair. It didn't happen often, but it was infuriating when it did.

His faded khakis went over the exoskeleton, and shoes and socks after the khakis. Showering was something he didn't feel like dealing with this morning. It was hard enough maneuvering the chair into the bathroom, and then hoisting himself onto the seat in the shower. It was easier with Max with him, letting her hold him up under the water… But that wasn't something he needed to think about, with Max's sister in the apartment.

As Logan walked down the hall, he couldn't help peering into the guestroom on his way to the kitchen. He was surprised to see the bed still occupied, though. For a moment, he could almost see the little girls Max and Jondy had been, curled up with their heads on the same pillow. Sisters light and dark. There was poetry in it, somewhere. Though Jondy was fair where Max was dark, he could still see a resemblance in their faces. Maybe it was the way both seemed to sleep on edge, as if they were unable to completely relax. Or maybe it was the identical frowns pressed into the still young faces. Max was right. Manticore would always dog her brothers and sisters. It was the one thing they shared that Logan could never be a part of--something he wasn't sure he even wanted.

As if she felt the presence of an intruder, Jondy's blue eyes opened. Logan could almost feel the tension coiling in her body as Jondy automatically slipped to the floor into a crouch.

"It's Logan," he said softly, trying not to alarm her. He still had a scar on the inside of his forearm from when he'd woken Max too suddenly, two years before.

The light brown head shook, and Jondy's blue eyes came into focus as she smiled sheepishly. "Reflexes" was all she would say as she reached for her jeans on the floor. Max didn't really like talking about Manticore either, so Logan knew when not to pry.

Jondy followed him into the kitchen, hoisting herself up on the counter as he started to cook breakfast.

"Eggs and pancakes okay?"

Her stomach rumbled in response. "As long as it's not nutritionally- enhanced military rations, I'm happy."

"So that's what they fed you at Manticore. That explains a lot about Max and food…" And it did, actually. Sometimes Logan forgot how much he took for granted, to the point of almost not remembering how Max was raised and what she was born to do. She wasn't a soldier to him. She was Max, the woman he loved. The only woman he knew who could eat anyone under the table.

But as he watched the petite brunette beside him, Logan could see other resemblances between Jondy and Max. There was something in their mannerisms…something about the complete focus and passion that they turned to everything they did… Though Max always said she had the ability to multi-task with the best of them, she tended to center on one action as if life depended on it, even if it was devouring a stack of blueberry pancakes and scrambled eggs.

"So, whatcha get Maxie for Christmas?" Jondy asked, maple syrup dripping down her pointed chin. From the way she was eyeing the plate, Logan wondered if she'd lick it clean, the same way Max did sometimes.

He heaped another stack on her plate. "Max? Nothing much." Jondy would probably laugh at him for being so sentimental. Bling had just kind of stared at it when Logan showed him, and Original Cindy hadn't said anything at all. But Jondy was Max's closest sister…

Her blue eyes plainly said that she didn't believe him. For an X-5, it surprised him how expressive Jondy's face was. Zack and the others always seemed to wear a constant scowl, even Syl, who was almost as beautiful as Max was. But Max…it was to easy to read her emotions by the look she wore, if you knew her well enough…

With a sigh, Logan stood, walking to the junk drawer where he kept old mail, rubberbands, and the scissors with one broken point. Max wasn't the kind of person to go pawing through his apartment, looking for gifts, but she'd surprised him before. Fumbling around for a few moments, he brought out a rumpled handkerchief that Grandfather Cale had once used. He laid the wad of white silk on the table and sat back, letting Jondy examine it.

He looked at his hands until he heard her gasp, and the sound of a small box hitting the table.

"You can't, Logan." Her voice was soft.

He was almost afraid to meet her eyes. But Logan looked up at Jondy and the ring that she held between two slender fingers. "You can't, Logan. It's beautiful, but…"

The gold ring felt cold as she placed it back into his hand. The single diamond seemed to mock him as it sparkled in the sunlight. "Forever eyes, dark, my angel," the inscription on the inside read.

"Logan." Strong fingers tipped his face up, forcing him to look into a pair of stormy blue eyes. "She's not ready yet," Jondy said softly. There were tears in the blue eyes. "She loves you, but there's still a long way that she has to go…"

His vision blurred for a moment, but he nodded. He knew that. He wanted to give Max all the time in the world, but after holding her dying body in his arms at Manticore…after those nights of not knowing where she was or if he'd see her again… They were always living on borrowed time, but he wanted to make the most of it, before life ruined what they had again. "Had we but world enough, and time," he whispered, staring at the ring. "But at my back I always hear Time's wingéd chariots hurrying near."

"Though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run," Jondy countered. She quirked a quick grin. "Andrew Marvell wasn't on Manticore's reading list, but some of us did some extracurricular research." Her hand reached out, covering the ring he had clutched in both of his. Her hand was not much bigger than a child's, the same as Max's. "She loves you, Logan. But she does need time. You might run out of time before she's ever ready, but do you really want to throw everything away now for something that's just a formality?"

He slipped the ring back into the velvet box, wrapped the box in the folds of silk, and shoved both back into the junk drawer. Jondy had a point. Max was the kind of person who'd run if she thought she was being hunted, and they all knew too well that there was more than one way to hunt, and more than one type of predator.

Yet, why did he feel like she'd never wear his ring?

"Damn. You started the party without me." When Logan looked up, Max stood in the doorway, wrapped in his thick red robe, hair still wet from the shower.

"Your man's a good cook, Maxie." Jondy grinned around a mouthful of pancakes, already polishing off her second stack.

"Don't hog all the food, Jondy." Logan watched her give her sister a playful shove as she pulled up a chair with her foot and flopped down. Society lady Max was not, but she had a grace and charm all her own.

"So what's the dealio with Christmas? Are we entertaining?" Jondy shoved the remainder of pancakes onto Max's plate. Logan laughed as the woman he loved attacked them like there was no tomorrow.

"Cindy and I promised we'd stop by Joshua's Christmas Eve." Jondy wrinkled her nose at that. Apparently Jondy hadn't quite gotten over her apathy towards Joshua. Logan didn't exactly blame her. Joshua was kind-hearted and a loyal friend to Max and Alec, but as much as Logan hated to admit it, something still bothered him about the dog-man. "He's making popcorn, and there's some book he wants to show me. And then we're having breakfast for Christmas Day or something--some whacked family tradition," Max said with a shrug, as if she was trying to pretend it meant nothing to her.

Sliding the last platter of pancakes and eggs on the table, Logan took back his place between the two women. "On Christmas Day, the three of us have been invited to brunch with my Aunt Margot. She's anxious to meet more of Max's family. Max just wanted you to come along to help her piss off my aunt," he added with a grin. There were times when being a paraplegic was a blessing, like when Max decided to kick his leg. He didn't feel the actual impact, but Jondy doubtlessly noticed the movement under the table.

"And there's someone I want you to meet at midnight, Jondy. He's…a friend." Logan didn't know what Max's plans were, but for the past two Christmases, she'd disappeared on him at midnight, and come back a few hours later, smelling of incense and pine. They all had private traditions to keep, and he knew that the few rituals Max actually kept from her childhood meant a lot to her.

He sat back in his chair, watching the two women alternate talking and eating. Though he barely touched his share of breakfast, Max and Jondy easily demolished the meal, leaving nothing left but syrup stains on their faces and egg crumbs on the plates. Something Lydecker said once came to mind, about how different his kids were. It wasn't that they weren't human, they were just…more. They were faster, smarter, stronger. They felt things more intensely. Love and loyalty were so deeply ingrained into them that no act could be done without incredible passion. There was room for great ecstasy, but also an incredible fall into pain. There was no gray in their world. It was either black or white, love or hate.

And Max loved him. She loved him with the same forthrightness that she put into everything from protecting her family to making sure she got her share of the grub. It was her way, and all Logan could do was hope that she wouldn't burn out too soon. Angels are bright still, though their brightest brother fell…

~*~*~*~*~

Christmas Eve, 2023

"A church, Maxie?" Jondy sounded surprised as she turned off her bike. "I didn't know you'd gone to religion, like Zane." Faith, and his dog Millie. That was all that their next biggest brother needed.

"It's not the church," Max said, parking her Ninja next to Jondy's. She still laughed, sometimes, at the fact that half of her brothers and sisters rode motorcycles. Not for necessity, the way some people did, but because of the power, the exhilaration, the speed… "It's the man inside."

The bells chimed midnight as they walked into the vestibule of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Max took a seat in the last pew as the midnight vigil unfolded around her. Though she understood little of the pomp and procedures, she recognized the actions for what they were-ritual. She doubted that the young priest at the altar even really knew what it all meant anymore. It was just humanity's interpretation of what they thought their vision of a higher power would want. The same way twenty-four nine year olds thought that sacrificing their baby teeth to a blue lady would protect them from nomalies and a man they only called the Colonel.

Beside her, Max could hear Jondy whispering the words of the mass along with the parishioners, not consciously, but the same way they'd gone through their training exercises at dawn at Manticore. Small things to comfort people in a world of the unknown. People clung to these small things even now-especially now. Even X-5s did.

Max barely noticed when the mass ended. She began to make her way towards the altar, weaving through the crowds moving towards the door. Even in dark times, the church was full at Christmas, as if the power of their faith alone could change the world.

Jondy's hand slipped into hers as they approached the statue in the nave of the church. She knew, from the way her sister's hand tightened its grip on hers, that Jondy recognized the statue. But the statue was only part of the reason why she came.

"Ben," Jondy whispered, as she caught sight of the priest. Under the priest's fringe of brown hair, Max could see what looked like the bottom of a barcode. So he still hadn't gotten the tattoo removed.

She moved in front of her sister, blocking the way to where the man stood. "It's not Ben. His name's Father Destry. He's the one that Ben tried to-"

"Max!" The priest caught sight of her, surprise lighting up his eyes. He reached out, taking both of her hands in his. "Merry Christmas, Max. It's been almost a year, hasn't it?"

She nodded. "A year exactly, Father." Turning slightly, Max pulled Jondy up beside her. "I wanted to introduce you to my sister, Father Destry. Jondy, this is Father Destry."

The priest's blue eyes darkened for a moment. "Your sister?" There was pain in his eyes as he smiled at them. "Welcome, Jondy. Any family of Max's is welcome here." Neither of them said anything about the irony of that statement…

Max noticed Jondy's lips quivering as she shook the priest's hand. "A pleasure, Father Destry. I noticed that you have a very interesting tattoo on the back of your neck." Max hid a smile. Her big sister had never been subtle. It wasn't part of the curriculum at Manticore.

Father Destry's eyes met Max's before he answered. The priest had never asked questions about what really happened that day, but he had prayed for Ben's soul, whatever good that might do. Max would never admit it to anyone, but sometimes she hoped that prayer gained her laughing big brother entrance to the Good Place. "Call it a badge of honor." Destry's tone was light. This man had cried for Ben, and for Max, when she'd confessed what end her brother had come to.

Jondy smiled a small smile. "A dubious honor." She nodded towards the statue, the one that Max noticed her sister avoided looking towards at all costs. "The Lady--you believe in her?"

Father Destry's answer was a simple nod. "She keeps me safe. Her ways are beyond my comprehension at times, but the Virgin Mary protects and keeps me."

Jondy reached into the pocket of her leather jacket. What she pulled out was a card Max recognized from a life when she'd only been a number. "This was my brother Jack's. Could you keep it safe for me?"

Destry took the faded card. Max could see the questions in his eyes, but she knew the priest's vocation would keep him from asking. "I promise." His eyes met Max's. There were no questions, just a look full of incredible emotions -sorrow, loss, sympathy. This was one of the few men who might understand what it was to grow up an X-5. He bore the mark of one, and knew what it was like to be hunted. That in and of itself almost made him an honorary brother.

"Your brother Ben-" The priest hesitated, as if he was afraid of saying too much. "His faith was strong in the Lady. Is yours?"

Jondy froze beside her. Max could almost feel her sister's anger-the same passionate anger that had protected Max more than once from Lydecker's wrath. "It was once," Jondy said finally. She looked up at the priest, her mouth curved into a stubborn look that reminded Max of Zack. "But faith left me a long time ago. I'd rather run alone." And she walked out.

"I'm sorry…" Max couldn't think of anything else to say. From the moment an X-5 walked into his life, Max's brothers and sisters had shown the priest what hell really was.

But Father Destry only shrugged, looking down again at the crumpled card in his hand. "Many lose touch with faith," he said finally. "But sometimes, they find it again. She believed once. Our Lady still watches over her, as mother to us all."

Which was fine and dandy. Except that X-5s didn't have mothers.

~*~*~*~*~



Jondy leaned up against her bike, staring at the crumbling outline of the church. Faith. She'd given up on faith a long time ago, even before Zack was killed and Max was taken back to Manticore. Faith left her before she'd found herself pregnant with Zack's child four years ago, knowing that he left her bed because he was chasing a phantom lover in Seattle. The divorce with faith had come early, when she was nine years old, and saw the sister she loved best fall beneath a sheet of ice in the dead of winter…

She wasn't cold, even though her breath hung in the air like ice. Manticore had given her that much-the ability to survive, as hard as she tried to kill herself. Jondy wondered how many of her brothers and sisters had scars on their wrists to show where some interfering bitch had stopped them from ending it all. In her case, it had been her roommate. The pale cuts were jagged, because of the way her hands shook when her seizures came. But it had almost done the trick…almost…

If her nature had tended towards the melodramatic the way Ben's had always done, or the extremes, the way Zack's had, she would have died of alcohol poisoning years ago. Her body was a temple, created by man. Why desecrate it with man-made toxins like alcohol or drugs? Better to burn out in a brilliant flash of light, defying and fulfilling her destiny as a soldier. Part of her wanted to die for a cause, the way Zack had. Part of her still woke up, chanting Duty, Objective, Responsibility. A small part of her wished she was still at Manticore sometimes, before they'd be awakened and enlightened and realized how much more complicated the world really was.

"Jondy?" Maxie's voice was hesitant in the darkness. Max, the person she loved and hated most on the earth, because she had everything Jondy ever wanted, including Zack. Including the price that came with it.

"It's okay, baby sister."

Max came up to lean beside her, an instinct as old as Manticore. They'd had nothing but each other for comfort there. It was natural that they still sought it, even years later. It was what drove Syl into the arms of Krit, and Jondy to seek out Zack. It was clinging to someone who knew. Her baby sister had been there and back again, and Jondy could still see the shadows of it in Max's dark eyes.

"Do you believe in all that shit, Maxie?"

Max had never seemed as gung ho about it as Ben did. They all wanted to believe in the Good Place. That was natural. But the only part of Manticore that her little sister had really bought into was family, and that was one weakness that they all shared.



"If there was a god, and he was glorious because he made man, what does that make us? Proof that man is as great as God?" The bitterness in Max's voice surprised Jondy, even as it didn't. They all bore the scars of Manticore--some burned deeper than others. "They say Jesus sacrificed his life so that the people loved would be saved. But it doesn't take the son of God to do that." Though her eyes were on the church, Jondy knew Max was seeing something else. "Someone sacrificed his life for me, and he was only a man. A soldier. But I don't worship him."

Max only loved him, not as Jondy did, but she still loved him. Protector, savior, soldier. Zack.

Her sister's hand found Jondy's in the darkness. For all her talk, Max was still the same little sister that Jondy had tried to protect for most of her young life. Only now, she was trying to take the place of big brother as well as baby sister. Zack had always worried more than he had to. Yeah, they were hunted, but the X-5s had been raised for the hunt, as both predator and prey. Escape and Evade was never just a game. It was a way of life. And if they all made stupid choices sometimes, it was something that could be blamed all on too human genes, complete with human fallibility.

For the hundredth time in that hour of that day, Jondy wished she'd had a normal life, with normal parents, and a normal genetic code, if only to forget the burdens Manticore forced on its children.

For the hundredth time in that hour of that day, she wished she could comfort her little sister, in spite of the life they had, and the road that was chosen for them before they were born. That was Manticore's one failing-making the X-5s too human.

Everyone's a hero

If you want to be

Everyone's a prisoner

Holding their own key

Every step I take

In every move I make

Always one step closer

I don't mind runnin' alone

Laughing children echo down

The concrete alleyways

Oh their voices

Calling, calling, calling yesterday

Oh sweet memories

Returning to me now

When young eyes saw clearly