Disclaimer: I don't own these characters! I didn't last chapter, and I still don't with this one, and I never will!

Chapter 2: Hard to Love You

Hard to Love You by the Wreckers

I've been wrong but I've been changing

I've been wondering what to do

Here I am alone and waiting

For you

It isn't easy trying to tell you

Exactly what's on my mind.

Alec felt the pain rush back to him immediately. He shrugged and then moved the glass up to his lips once more. "I don't know what you're talking about," he told her simply before chasing his thoughts away with the amber liquid again.

Max frowned at him. "I'm not stupid, Alec."

"I never said you were."

Alec was surprised by the silent response. It caused him to turn and face her again. He was momentarily shocked to find her lip quivering ever so slightly as she prepared herself. He wouldn't have even noticed if he hadn't paid so much attention to the details of Max. And as much as he could anticipate many of her actions, she still managed to surprise him- like on days like this.

He again wondered what she was doing here. It seemed she was struggling with something herself. But what did that have to with knowing about Rachel?

"Max, what is it?" he asked her, his voice letting on his concern.

"I don't just think I saw something, Alec," she said finally. "I know I did."

"What did you see?"

Max hesitated before continuing. "This isn't easy for me to tell you," she admitted.

Alec almost laughed. It hadn't occurred to him how surprised Max would be to see that he'd actually allowed himself to care about another person. He thought that like everything else, she'd just let it go over her head.

But it seemed, she'd noticed. Alec wasn't sure if that was good or bad.

"I tried to talk myself out of coming here," she continued.

"You talk to yourself often, Maxie?" Alec teased her, his first light comment since he'd seen her.

"Shut up," she replied with a small grin.

"So I guess I'm not the only person you ignore," Alec continued. "You don't even listen to yourself. That's kind of messed up, Max."

"You know, I thought about what you said earlier," she told him seriously.

Alec nodded. Great. Now he had the guilt of hurting Max to weigh on his mind, as well. He could tell she wasn't going to leave until she felt like everything was back to normal in Maxie World. Which meant, somehow, he had to ensure her that he was perfectly fine when he was feeling so low that cracking a smile took real effort.

"That I don't understand…. That I can't understand." Max managed to pull her lips into a light grin as she continued. "But I think I might, if you give me a chance. And do you really want to pass up the opportunity to prove me wrong?"

Alec almost snorted at her attempt to lightly prod him into discussing it. "Are you challenging me, Max?" he asked her for clarity.

After a moment of considering it, she nodded. "Yeah, I think I am. You up for it?"

"I feel like this is a lose-lose situation. How am I supposed to know whether you understand or not? You could just say you do, and I'll have no choice but to believe you."

"I guess you'll just have to take my word for it."

"I'm just supposed to trust you."

"Yeah," Max answered with a nod. "It's not so bad once you accept it."

"Speaking from experience?"

"A friend of mine told me something today," she began to explain. "I think he trusts you. And well, I trust him with my whole heart. So I guess that means I should trust you, too."

Alec was curious by her words. She had to be talking about Joshua. "Is that all Josh had to say about me?" he couldn't help pressing.

"Well, you make a pretty painting," Max joked.

Alec let out a laugh at this statement, the action making his heart feel light for a moment. "So I made the cut, huh? What am I, Joshua number 50?" he returned the light mood.

"Actually, you're number 57," Max answered him seriously.

"So what number are you?" he asked her casually.

Max shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe I didn't make the cut."

"I doubt that," Alec told her. "I remember when he first started painting. If you were hurt about something, he just couldn't paint. Maybe they're all about you," he considered.

"Well not 57," Max insisted. "That one's all you, Pretty Boy."

Alec nodded with a light smile before he thought about his situation again, the thought bringing a sadness over his face once more.

"So what's the worst thing you've ever had to do, Max?" he asked her suddenly.

Max was silent for a moment, as images of her family flashed through her mind. The sound of a neck snapping as his limp body rested in her arms; the unfamiliar stare attached to a face that she never got to say goodbye to; the frail body of her sister that she was forced to abandon as the helicopter drew near; watching- allowing- her sister to be taken away in a trade with the devil only to find out later that she'd died a slow and painful death; hugging an unknown soldier who she'd never even noticed until he gave his life for her.

"There's a lot," she told him finally. "Could you be more specific?"

"Okay," he tried. "Have you ever been ordered to hurt someone you loved?"

Max was hit with surprise by the question. She didn't realize that Alec's concerns were so extreme as to be love. As she considered it, she remembered being ordered to give away Eyes Only's identity. "…not exactly," Max answered finally. It was like Alec had said earlier- she'd left when she was 9. She had never been on any real missions. Just the training.

"Well if you were," he continued, speaking hypothetically, "Would you do it?"

Max thought about it seriously for a moment.

"I'd rather die," she answered finally with quiet conviction.

"Well maybe you do understand," Alec answered before escaping to his drink again.

Max felt his sadness as she considered what he must be going through. Regret danced in her mind, not for the first time. But it was the first time that it was for him. She was probably the last person he wanted to open up to. But unfortunately for both of them, she was all he had at the moment.

"I'm sorry," she told him for the second time that day.

Alec faced her, his hazel eyes shining with moisture that he didn't think he still had in him. "She was my job," he confessed to Max.

Alec wasn't really sure why he caved in to her. He didn't want to talk about it, especially not with Max. The whole situation was completely weird. She was sitting beside him as though they were equals, when from day one, she'd regarded him as no good.

"I know," she told him softly as she again placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Alec's eyes moved to fall upon the hand that was offering him warmth and giving some life back to him. It wasn't his intention, but the action led her to realize that he would appreciate more than just a friendly pat on the back.

Max surprised Alec by closing the space between them and slowly placing her arms around him in a tentative hug.

And he surprised her by holding onto her in a way that made her feel the love he was carrying in his scarred heart for his lost love.

"It's all my fault," his muffled voice told her.

Max felt him suddenly stiffen underneath her touch. "Alec…" she began.

She felt his swallow as the lump chased down his throat that was pressed against her, and she was silent as he lifted his head so that he could lock his eyes with hers before he continued.

"Do you want to hear a story?" Alec asked Max. His voice was much stronger than it had been so far. But the random question left Max confused. Maybe he wasn't ready to talk about it after all…

"Sure," she answered confidently despite the uncertainty shaking at her core. "I'm always up for a good story." It was her warm way of encouraging him.

But Alec didn't return the light mood. "This one isn't happily ever after," he warned her.

Max only smiled in response. "That's okay," she accepted. Her eyes shone into his with an openness that she sometimes forgot she had in her. She was so used to putting up walls and being strong for people… It got to be more than just survival. It was her entire way of life. But something in his open stare and the small bond that she couldn't deny between the two of them called her to forget all of her problems and all the people she needed to be strong for. At least for long enough to hear one story.

Her hand rested on his shoulder, now a familiar and comfortable spot for her, as she continued, "I really want to hear it."

Alec nodded. "Well, I'm not much of a storyteller, but I'll give it a shot."

He paused before letting out his tale. "There was this beautiful princess," he began.

"Princess?" Max couldn't help mocking as she raised a brow in hesitation. He couldn't be serious!

"Yes, a princess," Alec continued with a grin. "Hey, it's my story. And all good stories have a princess in them, didn't you know that?"

Max let out a light laugh. "Um, no!" she answered honestly.

"Well, what kind of childhood did you have?" Alec asked in ironic jest.

Max rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine. Your story, your rules. There's a princess… go on."

"A beautiful princess," Alec reminded her.

"Aren't they always?" Max commented sarcastically.

Alec took a moment to consider the question. "Well… now that you mention it, I've never seen an ugly princess. But they can't all be beautiful."

"Can't they?" Max questioned him again.

"Do you mind letting me tell the story?" Alec asked.

"Oh, sorry!" Max mock-apologized. "Do your thing. I won't interrupt. I'm finding this completely enthralling already!"

"I'm sure," Alec dismissed her teasing before continuing seriously. "So like I was saying, there's this princess."

"Beautiful princess," Max reminded him.

Alec continued as though there was no interjection. "…and she fell in love with this really ugly frog."

Max bit her lip to prevent herself from laughing. "Okay. What was it that made her fall for the ugly frog? Couldn't have been the warts, so I'm guessing he was all kinds of charm."

"Sort of. See… he was in disguise," Alec explained. "So, the princess didn't know he was just an ugly frog. She thought he was a-"

"Handsome prince?" Max guessed.

"Something like that," Alec half-accepted. "Only the frog was pretending to be her teacher. He gave her piano lessons, only dressed up like a prince."

Max nodded, pretending to be captivated. "So this was quite the talented little frog. Or was he also pretending to know how to play the piano."

"Oh, no," Alec clarified. "That frog knew how to play. He was damn good, too. Took all these lessons beforehand. You know, so he could be sure to fool the princess."

"'Cuz if he couldn't play the piano, she would surely know that he was really just an ugly frog," Max commented.

"Okay, so to make a long story short, the frog was a little more complicated than that."

"Could he also play the guitar?" Max smartly asked.

"Okay, maybe," Alec commented, sounding slightly irritated, "this is taking too long because you keep interrupting."

"Sorry!" Max apologized again before making a symbol with her hands to indicate she was sealing her lips shut and throwing away the key.

Alec rolled his eyes, suddenly losing the desire to continue. "Forget it," he mumbled. "She's gone. What does it matter how or why or who?"

"Alec…" Max tried, before he tensed and ripped himself away from her grip.

"I'm serious, Max. Story time's over. Get out. I'm not kidding this time."

Max lost the playful look that had been lighting up her face and immediately flashed him a look of true concern. "Alec, come on. I mean it, I want to hear the rest."

Alec shrugged. "Too bad. I told you, I'm not much of a story-teller. Why don't you ask your boyfriend to find the Berrisford file? I'm sure it won't take him long to read up on the whole affair. You two can bond over some popcorn while you enjoy story time together."

It was Max's turn to tense at these words. "He's not my boyfriend," she insisted. "And this isn't something I would share with Logan," she told him truthfully.

Alec's brow raised in interest, betraying his wishes for her to leave him to his misery. "You keep things from Logan?" he asked curiously.

Max looked to the floor but was still open in her response. "You're not the only one with secrets, Alec."

"Isn't the whole point of secrets to keep them that way?" Alec commented, again hinting for her to butt out.

"It could be our little secret," Max encouraged him.

"Forget it," Alec dismissed the offer. "It's mine. And I have to keep it that way."

Max nodded. "Fine," she said simply. "It's your secret," she accepted, "But is it okay if I tell you one of mine? I don't really want to keep it to myself anymore, if you don't mind sharing the burden."

Alec almost laughed. "Yeah, bring it on," he told her, "It'll be in good company, with all the other crap I'm carrying."

Max nodded and then took a moment to breathe in once. It seemed this secret wasn't as easy to share, despite her willingness to do so. "So, I met this guy. And I thought he was nothing but an arrogant, selfish, sarcastic dick."

A smirk easily came to Alec's face at her description of him. "That all?" he asked in mock-surprise that she had no other foul words to use in her description.

Max took a minute to consider it. "I think that about covers it," she said. "Well, you get the idea, anyway."

"Yeah," Alec commented dryly.

"But it turns out I was wrong," Max admitted in a quiet voice, full of vindication. "See, I never looked past his walls. 'Cuz I was too busy fortifying my own."

"You sure they were just walls?" Alec questioned her in a low voice. "Maybe you were right about this guy. Maybe he really is just… an asshole."

Max almost laughed. "Well, he is an asshole," she accepted. "But that's not everything to him. Outside, there's… lots of pretty colors. Tricks and treats. But inside, there's darkness. Confusion."

"Pretty colors?" Alec said with a cocky grin. "And here I thought you'd never noticed."

"I didn't," Max told him. "But apparently everyone else did." She rolled her eyes at this. "And maybe I did, too. I just didn't want to admit it."

"You know I'm not gonna let you live that one down, Max."

"I said maybe," Max said in her own defense.

"It's okay," Alec continued. "You can deny it all you want. I always knew how you really felt."

Max rolled her eyes again. "Okay, Pretty Boy. That's not the point though."

"That you find me extremely attractive? With all my outer 'pretty colors'?"

"The point is," she continued forcefully as though he hadn't spoken, "I get it. I never saw the whole picture with you."

"But now you do?" Alec asked, somewhat irritated that she thought she had him figured out so well.

"No," she surprised him with her truthful answer. "But I'll be on the lookout now, I guess."

"The lookout?"

"For Alec."

"I'm right here, Max," he said with a smirk.

"I know," she accepted in an appreciative voice. "You're always right here."

"It must be hard," Alec said suddenly, turning the focus onto Max. "Not being able to share everything with Logan."

Max noted that this time, the man wasn't used as a quick change of subject. Alec really looked concerned as he brought up her 'not-like-that' boyfriend.

Max nodded. "Yeah, it's rough sometimes." She laughed before confessing something to him that she had no intention of telling anyone, let alone Alec. But it just came right out of her in the natural flow of their conversation. "Sometimes I wonder if he would love me still… knowing… everything." Her eyes burned at her heart's confession.

She felt a thumb lightly stroke the unshed tears out of her mind with the calming action of the circles being traced onto her skin. The way his strong hand cradled her face brought her stare away from the floor and into his vulnerable eyes that were shining into hers.

"He would love you still, Max," Alec told her, his voice and stare so serious that she had to believe him. "If he's still capable of sane thought, he'll love you. Don't ever think that way about yourself."

He pulled Max slowly into an embrace, giving her some strength to deal with her pain, just as she had done for him. As he held her in his arms, he knew it was true. He had never really noticed before. She made it hard to, of course. It was just as she said. Her walls were carefully and purposefully in place to keep anyone from really knowing her. Was that really why? She was scared that if they knew the truth, they wouldn't want to be with her anymore?

Her past was nothing to run from. In Alec's eyes, the decisions she'd been forced to make, even the ones he still didn't know about, he knew were just as worthy of embracing as the easy ones. In fact, the harder decisions were even more worthy, in his eyes.

The woman he was holding onto, he realized, meant more to him than anyone else right now. And to think that she thought herself undeserving of any true love hurt him almost as much the pain he was already carrying.

What's happening? Max asked herself as her world started to spin underneath the warm feel that his strong arms gave her as he held onto her tiny frame. She had come here with a purpose, a reason. She was supposed to be the strong one. She was supposed to be the one offering comfort.

But now she was the one with tears coming out of her eyes.

Even though they were enclosed together in silence, their actions spoke volumes. An understanding that hadn't existed before settled over the pair. Both knew without discussing it that they weren't going to mention this moment in the future. It wasn't that they wanted to pretend like it never happened.

It was like Max said- it was their little secret.

Max withdrew from the hug with a smile lighting up her face. She squeezed the hand that was interlocked with hers once in gratitude that she wouldn't speak of but that both knew was there. "You, too," she said simply before letting go and reaching for her coat.

Her purpose in being there was fulfilled. Her reason in coming was complete. She'd wanted to be a listening ear for him, and even though he never finished the story, he didn't have to. She knew and more importantly, she understood.

"Me, too…?" Alec asked in true confusion as he helped her put her jacket back on. The same jacket that he hadn't even noticed her removing when she'd first come in since he was too wrapped up in his own thoughts at that time.

"A girl could really fall for you," she told him honestly. "I mean it. Not with your lines or that Pretty Boy face. It's in here." With that, Max reached out to his chest, letting her hand fall upon the spot directly over his beating heart that she could feel racing underneath her touch.

Alec stared in disbelief for a moment, considering her words. He still wasn't convinced that anyone could possibly love someone like himself. After a minute to think about it, his voice came back to him. "You really think so, Max?" he couldn't help asking.

Max stared him up and down once in a quick, but studying action. After a moment to consider it, she nodded with her reply. "Yeah," she told him softly, "I do."

Once the door was closed in front of him, Alec really did feel as though a burden had been lifted. His heart was lighter, and he felt free, despite the painful memories that he could never escape from, and didn't want to, for that matter.

Rachel was a part of his past, something that taught him a lesson that he would never forget. She had given him his first taste of love.

Alec allowed a small grin to come to his face as he stared at the door that was shut in front of him, thinking of the woman who'd been standing there only a moment before. "Goodbye, Rachel," he said softly before retreating to his bedroom.

a/n: Thanks everyone for reading! I hope the ending was just as good as the beginning.