An Autumn Solstice

Disclaimer: Let me check . . . no, I still don't own Dark Angel.

Rating: PG-13

Pairing: M/A

Summary: 'For the test of the heart is trouble . . .'

Author's Note: Blame my cartridge pen; it just doesn't know when to give the angst a rest.

It is easy enough to be pleasant,

When life flows by like a song,

But the man worth while is one who will smile,

When everything goes dead wrong.

For the test of the heart is trouble,

And it always comes with the years,

And the smile that is worth the praises of the earth

Is the one that shines through tears.

Worthwhile – Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Prologue

October 2022

She had left them in dumbfounded silence. After the initial shock had receded all that was left was the bitter taste of anger and resentment. In all honesty Max had expected it, but the misdirection of their fury was something she hadn't. They were blaming entirely the wrong person. Deep down she had always suspected that they didn't follow her willingly, but she was their leader, and she couldn't help but hurt at how much they distrusted her; not when it was being so openly staged.

Max wasn't one to dwell too long on other's misconceptions of her, and besides, she was far too busy kicking walls and toppling chairs to be attuned to the furious gossiping she had left in her wake.

She had grappled with the possibility that they were right, that it was her fault, but Max stubbornly refused to shoulder any of the blame. Alec was a grown man. He governed by his own rules. Max's actions had no input in his life. It never ever had done and there was no reason at all why it should start now. No, Alec had skipped Terminal City of his own free will. She had had nothing to do with it.

Despite her self assured innocence, Max couldn't help torment herself by replaying the last twenty four hours in her head, over and over again. And so she sat there; her head banging rhythmically against the wall of yet another crumbling TC building, the cold wind biting through even the tough leather of her jacket, never feeling more alone than she did now. . .

"What the hell happened?" Max came bursting into the makeshift infirmary, took one look at the bullet ridden and blood covered female X5, and then turned on the male currently nursing an injured leg, with a look of savage determination.

Sat on the next bed, Alec looked up at Max with a tired sigh, clearly prepared for her over-rehearsed tirade.

"I didn't see them coming," he said.

"You didn't see them coming?" Max repeated slowly as if she had never heard a more ridiculous excuse.

Alec nodded mutely, "they came out of nowhere . . . they didn't give us enough time to react . . . I . . . tried . . ."

The rest of the incoherent jumble of words died on his lips, his eyes a vacant green as they stared first at his hands, then at the floor.

It was such a mess.

Three X5's shot dead right in front of his eyes – and he hadn't been able to do a damn thing about it. The guilt threatened to choke him. It didn't help that Max's cutting stare had just plunged a knife hilt deep into his chest as well. He had climbed a treacherous mountain to get where he had with the fiery female X5. From the minute he had stepped foot into her cell that day back at Manticore to the entire fiasco with the retrovirus, it had been a battle to gain her trust. Time and time again, Max would shoot him down with scathing remarks, but he always dusted himself off, determined to make it to that summit somehow. He thought he'd made it when, out of the blue, Max turned around and made him her second-in-command, giving everyone at Terminal City simultaneous heart attacks. But like many things in his life, that had only been a cruel tease. Sitting there now – his heart sick at the memories of blood on his hands – she still wouldn't give him what he truly wanted.

"Go home."

It was a whispered request – tired and forlorn.

"What?" Alec looked up at her.

She wouldn't look at him. She couldn't even look at him.

She was twisting that knife now – hard.

"There's nothing you can do here."

She was looking past him at Kimi. The usually rosy cheeked, bright eyed female was looking terrifyingly pale. Blood was still seeping through on to her tightly wound bandages. Dark, dry blood was matted in clumps in her beautifully silky brown hair. She was hooked up to an IV and heart monitor, blissfully unconscious.

"Right," he said, gingerly standing up, leaning heavily on his better leg. That son-of-a-bitch sure had done a number on him. There was no word sufficient enough in the English language to describe the evil that was Ames White. Trying to sum up the utterly twisted malevolency of White was redundant. "I guess, knowing me. I'd probably do more bad than good here."

"Don't." It was so cold, under laced with a dangerous tremor – as if she was just bursting at the seams.

And Alec couldn't take it any longer. "Can we get this over with?"

"What?" she snapped.

"How I screwed up, how you never should have trusted me, etc etc."

Max's eyes blazed, "This is not some – oops I slept with my best friend's girl, I'm sorry, problem Alec. Don't you get it? We lost three good men today. Three of our friends-"

"Of course I get it!" Alec yelled back, "I was there, Max. I saw the whole damn thing happen. The whole damn thing in damned slow motion – and I couldn't do a bloody thing to stop it!"

He had somehow surged forward, his face looming dangerously close to Max's, invading her personal space, and so close she could smell the acrid dried blood and sweat that stained his clothes.

The feeling was altogether too alien and frightening. Never once had she felt such utter despair emanating from him. Her throat tightened, "It's not your fault."

"Don't," he replied with the same lack of warmth she had previously thrown his way, "Don't you dare lie to me. Don't you dare lie to me Max. Not now."

"Well what do you want me to say?"

She didn't have a clue – and that was what broke his heart.

"Nothing."

His eyes shuttered as he drew in a deep breath and took a step back.

"Nothing?" Max stammered, her voice once again rising.

Turning around he grabbed what was left of his jacket from the bed.

"Alec?"

He brushed passed her, hobbling to the door of Terminal City's barely functioning infirmary.

"Alec?" Max said again.

But she received nothing but the backswing of the door and the cold breeze of loneliness in reply.

XOXOXOXOXOXOXOX

She wasn't sure how long she'd walked around the dark and desolate streets of Terminal City in a daze. Everything seeming so devastatingly surreal.

The cost of those three lives was so infinitely more than she could have imagined. Her chain of command was collapsing in front of her eyes. Distrust was flying around like a pandemic of flu. The responsibility had never felt such a burden as it threatened to crush her down to a fine powder. But despite that, all she could see was the hurt and anguish dimming the light of those hazel-green eyes, over and over again in her mind. It was as if the image had been permanently burnt to her retinas – soundlessly torturing her again and again.

She knew in her heart that it wasn't his fault. But everything seemed so much easier if she could blame anyone but herself. It wasn't her fault either, her rationale argued, but rational thoughts were never ones to grace Max often. And so irrationality prevailed, and who should be caught first in her line of fire?

Alec.

It was always him.

Once upon a time, she would have believed he deserved every barb she threw at him, but that had changed so gradually she no longer knew where to draw the line. She trusted him more than she would ever let him know. He had her back, she had his. He made her laugh, he made her angry, he irritated the hell out of her; yet she spent more time with him than she did Logan. Even with the virus well and truly dead – well as dead as an already dead piece of protein could be – she spent more time with the irksome X5 than with the supposed love of her life. And that frightened her.

When the news of White's untimely reappearance had seeped through the wires and cables of Transgenic Headquarters – Max's first thought had been of Alec. Only Alec. She had felt like she had been gutted, burning slowly from the inside out. The feeling of sheer terror that had coursed through her veins, making her sick to the stomach was something she wasn't going to forget easily; add that to the overwhelming sense of relief that had nearly caused her to topple over on seeing him burst through the gates; bloody, battered and all. And that's when she turned cold.

There had always been the niggling thought in the back of her mind that he was beginning to mean more to her than he should, but she had always adamantly squashed the thought flat before it had wholly formed. The painfully familiar adage of "we're not like that" sprung to the forefront of her mind. It sounded so ridiculous now; the sordid truth was she didn't know how she felt about either man anymore. But what had become crystal clear in those few hours of hell on Earth was that Alec really did mean more to her than she could ever fathom. And that was why she had turned cold. It was so much easier to not get hurt if she didn't feel in the first place.

If only she had known how it would be misinterpreted.

But that was Max. Always the fool to feelings.

XOXOXOXOXOXOXOX

The slam of the door wasn't loud enough to block the sound of the gunshots from echoing mercilessly against his eardrums. Squeezing his eyes shut only brought more torture as Max's iced over eyes stared back at him.

He shrugged off his jacket, tossing it unceremoniously onto his battered couch and headed straight for the kitchen, aiming solely for the bottle of scotch sitting in his bare cupboard. His tiny apartment wouldn't be winning any health and safety prizes but then not much could be expected for the crumbling, toxic buildings of Terminal City. He would have called it home, once. But now, he didn't feel like he belonged anywhere.

They'd barricaded themselves into Terminal City almost a year ago now. The so-called 'second coming' had yet to materialise, the familiars were still a royal pain in the ass, and the only thing which seemed to have disappeared was the mob of angry Ordinaries hurling rocks at their gates. They appeared to have gotten bored with watching their new circus of freaks, but that didn't mean they were forgotten. The media was always slurring the truth about the transgenics, their fate was never far from the top of the political agenda, and the odd flaming X would pop up here and there every now and again.

The familiars had been quiet for quite a while – 'probably biding their time' Alec had once surmised. If it hadn't been for White's very sudden appearance today, they had very well thought, or rather hoped, they'd fallen off the face of this Earth. As it so happened, it looked as if they were back on the rise – mobilising their forces.

Max's mysterious tattoos had coincidently also stopped appearing, but if he was to hazard another guess, they would probably start popping up again very soon. And it scared him witless.

If all this mythology was in fact the understated truth, and Max was indeed the saviour of the human race, then for the thousandth time he wished he'd never met her.

For all the times Max had ragged on his ass about screwing up her life, that was as many times as she'd screwed up his. After Rachel, he'd found himself wound up in this warm and safe cocoon of false bravado and carelessness. He'd vowed he'd never let anyone worm their way into his heart again. He had blocked himself off from feeling anything and embraced the cold. He had loved the cold. But then he'd been shoved in the direct pathway of the fireball that was Max. And he had resisted; as best as he could. But the law of inevitability would always win; no matter what the situation, fire would always melt ice. And as much as it sucked, the laws of inevitability meant that where there was a saviour there was always sacrifice; and it hurt like hell.

"Damn it!" he screamed, hurling his empty glass across the room. Hitting the far wall, it shattered with a satisfying crash; the shards of glass spreading out everywhere. All that was left was the sound of his heavy breathing in the deafening silence. He struggled to focus his eyes as they became glazed over with tears that would remain unshed. He raked a hand through his hair, gripping it tightly and pulled. It was as if that single action would expel all the anguish and anger that consumed him. "Idiot!" he yelled again, this time kicking in the kitchen cupboard with his injured leg, again and again.

Tired and spent, his leg throbbing in pain, and with his back against the wall, he slid down on to floor. Unfocussed, now startling green eyes, stared out in front of him, relishing the bliss in shutting down and not feeling.

And that was how she found him.

Having spent ages procrastinating outside in the cold, Max finally came to the decision that a confrontation was in order. She needed to know what was going on inside that blond head of his. She had steeled herself for many different situations, but this was not it.

The door had been uncharacteristically left open. Popping her head in the gap, she looked into the small living room space. His jacket was draped haphazardly across the sofa, but what really caught her eyes were the shattered, sparkling pieces of glass that were scattered across the floor.

She stepped hesitantly into the room, shutting the door gently behind her. And that's when she saw him.

The kitchen was plainly in sight. The havoc he'd inflicted upon the old wood was also clearly visible but her focus was drawn to the figure sat on the floor; long legs stretched out in front of him, eyes staring into space.

Her throat suddenly felt parched, and her mind reeled for words that would nevertheless remain inadequate. "Hey," was all that escaped her lips.

Initially, Max had thought he hadn't heard her. But after a few more seconds of silence, the slight twitch of his jaw was followed with a hoarse, "What are you doing here?"

"We should talk."

He still hadn't lifted his eyes, "There's nothing to talk about."

"I think there is."

Alec said nothing.

Max sighed, "This is no one's fault but White's."

Alec smiled grimly, "Say it like you mean it Max."

"I do mean it. Is this what this is about?" she asked, throwing her arm around, indicating the mess he'd made. "You think I blame you for what happened?"

Alec finally looked up. His eyes collided with hers, and the effect was immediate. His eyes were shining with something she had never seen in him before. There was a childlike vulnerability and sadness there that made her heart quail, "Do you?"

She hesitated. She would never know why she hesitated, but the damage was done in that single second, "No," she stammered, "Of course not."

The brilliant green of his eyes faded, "Liar."

He stood up, balancing precariously on one leg. And that's when she noticed the blood. The previously white bandage on his left leg was now stained a dark red.

"You're bleeding."

He ignored her, "What are you really doing here Max?"

"I want to know what's going on in that head of yours, is what I'm doing here. Talk to me."

Alec scoffed, "Talk? Since when have we ever talked?" He knew that was unfair. They had talked plenty of times. The discussion about Ben had been a milestone for them both; they'd talked numerous times after that too; sometimes about absolutely nothing and once, very bizarrely, about what they hoped for the future. That had been so utterly surreal, Alec was no longer sure that conversation had ever even taken place.

"You know what?" Max finally snapped, "I don't have to put up with this." She turned to go, but Alec's retort stopped her dead in her tracks.

"Is that what I am, something you just put up with?"

She moved forward, closer to him and softened her voice, "For the last time Alec, can you please just talk to me?"

"I can't take it anymore," he whispered.

"Can't take what?"

"You."

Max blinked. And blinked again. She would have said something if she could formulate the words, but then thinking was an entirely difficult prospect with him staring down at her so intensely.

He had inched forward somehow. He knew what he was contemplating was incredibly foolish. She would probably kill him, but then he just couldn't do it any longer. He'd tried to be noble and bottle it away, but maybe it was just the culmination of all the suppressed emotion added to the nightmare of the situation that made him finally do it.

She didn't really know how it happened. One minute she was just staring at him, and the next his lips were on hers.

Max froze for a second. But it was only a second, as Alec's hands found there way up into her hair, cradling her head. He pushed himself against her and kissed her hard.

She was lost to the sensation, her heart thumping erratically against her chest wall, blood rushing through her veins and all her nerve endings tingling as if they'd been set alight. He was robbing her of all coherent thought, and then she was kissing him back – hungrily. All her pent up frustration and confusion went into that kiss, as she gripped on to him tighter. Alec responded with increasing fervour, but that's when sense finally filtered its way through Max's fuzzy brain, and she realised with a startle what it was that she was doing.

She turned rigid, and pushed herself away from him with all the strength she could muster. Both transgenics were breathing heavily, their lips equally swollen and hair a tumultuous mess.

The unquenched fire in the pit of her stomach gave rise to blistering anger, and Max with one sharp movement, deftly delivered a slap to his right cheek.

"What the hell was that?" Max screamed her pitch unnaturally high.

"That," Alec replied as his hand came up to the offended cheek, "is the answer to your question."

"Don't you dare be smart with me," Max spat through gritted teeth.

"You wanted to know what was going through my head, and that's your answer."

Max shook her head in disbelief, "I don't need this."

"Yeah, well neither do I!" Alec yelled back, "I didn't ask for this, I didn't go looking for it, it happened, and I can't do a damn thing about it!"

"I'm with Logan." Max said her voice misleadingly calm.

"I know."

And then she was at a loss for words, except for two excruciatingly misplaced ones, "I'm sorry," she whispered.

Alec looked up, his face heartbreakingly open, but only for a mere fraction of a second, "Yeah, me too."

Turning on her feet, Max walked to the door. She faltered at the door to his apartment, but then changing her mind; she offered him no second glance over her shoulder and walked away.

XOXOXOXOXOXOXOX

Not that Max really slept at all, but that night she was particularly restless. The endless list of the ramifications of Alec's actions ran a frivolous course through her mind. It explained so much yet so little.

Knowing how Alec felt about her brought with it only a suffocating grip. What should she tell Logan? How should she deal with Alec now? The awkwardness between them would be stifling. The biggest question that had hit her, however, was one which she still refused to acknowledge. How she felt about either man was even more blurred, and it left her entirely disorientated.

Kicking off the bed sheets, Max expertly navigated the dark room and slipped her feet into her shoes. Tugging on her jacket, she crept silently out of her apartment and down the stairs of her block.

On reaching the outside, the cold wind of dawn enveloped her and she hugged herself tightly. The first few rays of sunlight were making their way up as she revved the engine of her bike. She sped along the back roads, her mind taking her to her only solace behind those barb wired gates.

When she reached her destination, she had not expected him to be awake, but then she was getting a lot of what she wasn't expecting recently.

"Hey Big fella," she smiled brightly, "What are you doing up?"

She received nothing in return, as the larger transgenic remained stock still with his back to her.

"Joshua, you ok?" Max asked walking hurriedly forward to catch a glimpse of his face under the masses of shaggy hair.

She was met with a look of confusion, as Joshua held out a large package in one hand, and an open letter in the other.

Taking the letter from his hand, she read:

Hey there Big fella,

Sorry I couldn't give this package to you personally. I found it on a raid last month and thought you could use it. I'm gonna be away for a while. Wish I could explain, but I can't seem to make sense of it myself. I'm no good at goodbyes, but I do want you to know that I feel so damn lucky to have met you. You've been a great friend, and anyone who says feline and canine don't mix, are clueless. I'm gonna miss you pal.

And one last thing, take care of Max for me.

Alec

The letter fluttered to the ground, as Max looked up at Josh with wide brown eyes.

Opening the newspaper wrapped package, Joshua found himself holding a beautifully intricately carved wooden box full of expensive oil paints and paintbrushes.

Max's heart plunged.

He was gone.

He'd left them.

He'd left her.

A single tear rolled down her cheek.

And another, each drop merging with the rain that cascaded down from the skies and onto the huddled figure sat at the foot of the old building. It was not the first time she'd relived the day in her mind, but the loneliness she felt each time worsened with each sharp stab. The rest of Terminal City's reaction to her announcement of Alec's departure hadn't helped either.

She was still processing the turn of events, but the initial grief had quickly descended into fully fledged anger.

How dare he cut and run? All her original thoughts of him washed back to her on a tidal wave. He was still the selfish, immoral jerk he'd always been, nothing had changed at all; and Max had never felt more foolish. He was heartbroken, a voice whispered at the back of her mind, but she furiously stamped it out. So? She argued back ruthlessly. He ran, the bastard had ran. He had left them to deal with everything on their own. He didn't care about anyone but himself – and it hurt.

God, did it hurt.

XOXOXOXOXOXOXOX

A/N 2: I realise that was a rather long prologue, but there was a lot to tell. I hope the transition from past to present at the end wasn't too confusing.

I'm generally very critical of my own stories, and I have to be honest with myself, I feel Alec, in particular, is out of character. Whilst I think he would shut down after deaths of transgenics he felt responsible for (being a soldier after all), I don't think he'd actually ever run away. That said, I think it's the culmination of guilt, the fact that he believes Max doesn't trust him made worse by the fact he has strong (unwanted) feelings for her that made him do it. But in defence of Alec – because I seriously love the guy for his sheer complexity (amongst other things . . .) – there's a lot more to his absence than meets the eye . . .

I'll shut up now. Please leave a review. Good, bad, please let me know what you thought . . . and maybe, just maybe I'll put the next chapter up – shameless I know – so sue me. No, no no wait . . . you actually might. (Man, I'm so far gone it's not funny).

SmilinStar

xxx