a/n: thanks everyone for your reviews! Sorry that I didn't get the chance to respond from last chapter. I'll be sure to this time...

Chapter 3: That Lovin' Feelin'

Max didn't notice the sun starting to set as she sat deep in thought. She'd long abandoned trying to sort through her feelings. She knew exactly what she wanted, and she also knew that she'd never have it.

She had briefly attempted to put her thoughts into words and a matching rhythm. But she couldn't come up with anything that sounded right, and so resigned to recalling the insightful words that a friend of hers had once said.

"Love sucks," she spoke apathetically into the darkness.

She could just hear Joshua now. 'No Frost in your cocktail?' Manticore must not have found much use in having a talented writer on their side. Probably wouldn't have been much use to have messages come across in iambic pentameter.

A shift in the wind told Max that she wasn't alone anymore. She snapped her head around to catch the set of spying eyes, not that she needed to. No one else would bother coming up here, least of all know about her special place.

In the quick movement, she'd unknowingly thrust her head inches from his, a sight that caused her to narrow her brown eyes into a slight glare. He was smirking, as usual, and she noticed, to her annoyance, that his other trademark was present; his green eyes twinkled with a golden glint of mischief.

Or was it amusement this time? Maybe he found something entertaining in the way he always succeeded in pushing her buttons. He didn't even need to speak anymore to get underneath her skin; his mere presence brought a small fire racing through her that didn't settle, even in his absence. Mere thoughts of him had a way of setting her off.

And they kept finding their way into her mind, creeping in despite her concern for something else. Even just that day, she'd come atop the Needle thinking of Logan. Yet somehow, thoughts of her cursed relationship had been interrupted with flashes of the annoyance that came with Alec, like a slap across the face.

And here it was again, the sting of being ripped from her concentration. She was sitting atop cold metal, feeling her worst, and especially vulnerable, and he had the nerve to come uninvited, bearing that ever-present smirk of his.

Some days she felt she'd do anything to remove it from his face.

In an instant, a memory flashed through her mind. There had been a time before that she'd seen his face without his signature smirk. She'd even found herself missing it, though she wouldn't admit it.

There was certainly a darkness hiding underneath his carefree façade. One that she understood entirely, without having his confidence.

There was a wordless bond between the two that she couldn't deny. She'd found herself clinging to it without realizing, depending on his predictable reactions.

He'd been honest with her before. Sometimes, he couldn't help it, it slipped through, his true self. Other times, he let it out deliberately.

Today, the cocky grin looked like a lie to her. In spite of her own problems, she found herself wondering what could have happened to make him pull some of his trust away from her within the past few hours.

When his lips parted, she expected a cheap dig at her, some immature insult that she was fully prepared to either deny, come back to, or respond with a slap across his face.

But instead, he eased all the tension by taking her mind away from all the questions and feelings racing through her.

"You forgot the coffee," he chided her to break the silence.

Instead of her lips curling downward into a frown as anticipated, she found herself cracking a light smile. Her most vulnerable, and he was letting her slide. At least for now. Maybe he wasn't ready, either.

She quickly recovered, raising a brow at him. "Coffee?" she repeated doubtfully. "That's what brings you here?"

"I didn't say that," he answered casually as he took a seat beside her. He made a 'tsk tsk' noise before teasing her a bit more, "Can't even remember small tasks now, Maxie? I guess a cup of coffee is a little too much to expect out of you these days, huh?"

Max rolled her eyes and shook her head at him. How he had managed to go from setting her off to making her smile within an instant was beyond her.

A month or two ago, and she would still be holding anger for him.

But something had changed recently. She found herself looking more, giving him the benefit of the doubt.

It was that night, and she knew it. Everything had changed then. She didn't know at the time, but a veil had truly been lifted from her eyes on that day.

She only knew afterwards that it was because she couldn't forgive herself. But when she'd opened up to him about Ben, he didn't look at her like she was a monster. He didn't tell her what she should have done better or judge her.

In fact, he'd apologized. He'd offered her complete understanding, and a shoulder to lean on. He didn't need to forgive her, because he'd never held it against her.

But because of him, she was able to forgive herself.

And so now, she was able to look at him beyond the mask he put on. She was past beginning to understand him, and his smirk wasn't a good shield against her anymore.

It wasn't that something was wrong. In fact, she was fairly confident that, as usual, he was just fine.

But she didn't get the chance to study him more to find out what was bothering him. She used to be irritated by his cocky attitude. But right now, it was his silence and walls that were irritating her, and she found herself putting up her own defenses in response.

"And a little privacy is too much to expect of you, I see," she snapped at him.

Alec laughed at her rudeness. "I'm sorry. Am I interrupting your time of reflection? Please tell me that your time up here helped you to realize that this whole ghost-hunting idea of yours is completely absurd and you've decided to get back to beating up Familiars instead."

Max finally did allow herself to frown at him. "You're not getting out of the plan that easily, Alec. But an ass-kicking sounds really good right about now."

"Then it's settled!" Alec said decisively as he stood up.

"Are you volunteering?" Max snapped.

"What?" he asked in confusion.

"You must be," she concluded. "Why else would you come up here to bother me?"

This time, he only half-smirked. "So do you still want me to help with this ghost-hunt? Or would that be bothering you too much?"

"Why are you so against this?" Max asked him seriously. "Logan doesn't mind looking into this for me."

"Logan," Alec mumbled dryly.

Max was only more confused by his reaction. Alec had always gotten along well enough with Logan. "What is your deal?" she asked.

Alec must have known that his attitude was truly confusing her, because almost instantly, he let go of the anger he seemed to be carrying. "Sorry," he muttered. "Seeing Sketchy… you know, we still can't go and buy a beer without getting arrested."

Max was relieved to hear his problem wasn't such a mystery to her. The bitterness that came with being on the 'outside' was something they all went through from time to time. Her tension immediately left and her tone softened at his confession. "Sorry," she offered. "I didn't even think about that when I asked you-"

"It's fine," he cut her off. Then he took the chance to change the subject. "But I'm not gonna let go of that coffee so easily," he said with a slight grin.

Max rolled her eyes. "I was gonna pick one up on the way back," she told him.

"Which was… tomorrow?" he asked. "Wait, does this mean you gave up?"

"You know, you're gonna feel pretty pathetic for all this when we see the ghost tonight," Max said confidently, walking away.

Alec laughed and walked along side her, matching her stride. "Yeah, that or you'll finally admit that you should listen to me when you find out I was right all along- that there's no such thing as ghosts."

Max cocked a brow. "Is that a challenge?" she asked with a light grin.

"No, babe. That's a bet," he told her.

Max quickly swatted the top of his head. "Don't call me 'babe'."

Alec rubbed his hair dramatically. "You know, some girls would give anything to hear that from me-"

"That reminds me…," Max mumbled as he finished, and Alec felt another blow, this one to the side of his head.

"Ow!" he whimpered in a quiet, overly dramatic voice. "And what was that for?" he asked.

"Don't call me 'Maxie'," she said simply.

"What about 'bitch'?" he asked.

His answer was another slap.

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Alec raised his lips from the cup after taking the last sip. "So how'd it go at Logan's?" he couldn't help asking.

Max swallowed, instinctively hiding the truth from him, how hurt she was by the whole thing. "He figures it's less than 2 years old," she answered, sticking to business.

"He knows that just by looking?" Alec said doubtfully, the amused look on his face showing clearly his objection to putting that much faith in an assessment of Logan's.

"He said he wasn't sure," Max barely offered, letting out an annoyed sigh. She hadn't anticipated having to report every single detail back to him.

The truth was, she was putting up a defense. Talking about Logan and what happened at his apartment took her back to the hurt feelings that still lingered inside of her given how they'd- she'd- left things. Walking away was the easy part, and shedding a few tears wasn't so bad. But having to live with her decision and guilt? Max just wasn't ready to open up about what really happened at the Penthouse that day.

It was much easier to go off on Alec than to admit how hurt she really was. She knew it was wrong, that she ought to step up and own her mistakes. But being able to jump 15 feet of razor wire and taking out a 250 pound linebacker with her thumb and index finger had done nothing for her inner strength.

She'd handled much worse before, of course. But that was her family, something that had never come easy. Logan had always been the one constant for her, her brief escape from a screwed up life. But now, they'd found a way to take that from her, too.

Alec's voice interrupted her from her sad thoughts, which should have relieved her, but instead, his nonchalant attitude was an easy target for her anger. "So about how accurate would you say his guess is… on a scale of 1 to 10?" he asked.

Max rolled her eyes and stopped abruptly, turned her head and flashed him a glare, as if daring him to ask one more question. "He's not positive. He's checking it out. Anything else?"

"So… about a 5 then, huh?"

His only answer was another glare followed by Max quickly turning around and continuing on their walk, her steps heavier than before.

Alec laughed at how quickly she could be angered. "Anyone ever tell you to lighten up?"

"Anyone ever tell you to shut up?" she snapped back. "What is this sudden interest in everything, Alec? I thought you couldn't care less about this whole thing. Did you suddenly become a romantic?"

Alec laughed. "Yeah right," he dismissed. "I'm bored, okay. Trying to find some way this could be just a little bit entertaining. What I'd really like to be doing on a Friday night-"

"-Is something I'd rather not hear out loud," Max interrupted to silence the innuendo before it came out.

"What?" Alec asked innocently. "I was just gonna say how fun it would be to help little children, or visit an orphanage."

Max scoffed at his dry sarcasm. "Too bad for the little children that tonight, we're going ghost-hunting." She stopped again, but this time it was intentional. She couldn't help grinning as she considered what lay ahead. She cocked her head at him, a smile set across her face. "Ready?"

Alec looked around and then back at her like she must be lost. "Ready for what? We're in the middle of nowhere."

"This is the spot. I don't know about you, but I've never done this sort of thing before."

"Followed a wild goose chase?"

Max went on as though he hadn't spoken. "Searched for a ghost. I guess we should start with a sighting, don't you think?"

Alec's eyes widened. "And then what? Talk the spirit into passing on?"

Max frowned at him. "Just shut up and find us a spot to survey from."

Alec lifted his head again and scanned the surrounding area for a good hiding spot. His eyes rested upon a nearby decrepit-looking shed that looked about as appealing as spending a couple hours in a dark, narrow, and cramped closet. The wood looked like it was decaying, and with his transgenic vision, he could see the cobwebs even in the night.

As he didn't see anything else, he let out a quiet groan before looking at Max and nodding toward the place. "See that?" Taking a second look with her, he reconsidered his initial thoughts. He'd take the closet over the dirty shed any day of the week.

Max looked it over and made a pouty face for a brief instant before accepting it was their only option. She made a motion to move toward it before stopping suddenly, a thought coming to her. "You brought the camera, right?" Max asked him, staring at him hopefully, her brown eyes dancing with slight panic.

Alec shook his head at her, feigning disappointment. "I'm a soldier, Max." He pulled it out with a cocky grin. "Always prepared."

Max returned to the path, rolling her eyes. "In that case, you made sure it had film already."

Alec's smile faltered and became more uneasy than confident. He gave her an innocent stare and then shrugged. "Well…" he started.

"You idiot!" Max said, snatching the camera away from him.

Suddenly, Alec found himself face to face with the camera lens, a flash momentarily blinding him.

At hearing the winding sound of the camera and noticing the number of pictures left move one down to '8', Max grinned, realizing that there was still film left. She smirked at Alec, who still looked like a deer in the headlights. "I guess that answers our question," she said simply.

Alec opened his mouth at her, about to protest her disregard for his delicate senses, but found he couldn't resist the chance to make a snide remark. "Did you get my good side?"

Max answered him by delivering a playful punch to his shoulder. "You don't have a good side," she teased him.

"Yeah, cuz that implies one is better than the other, when we all know that-"

"You're completely full of yourself," Max finished for him.

Alec stared at her with a wry smile. "Max, that hurts."

Max shrugged. "Truth always does."

Alec smiled slyly as he answered, "See, but the real truth is-"

The words died on his lips and his grin faded as he noticed that they were now standing right outside the shed.

"You'll have to get back to me on all that big, bad, truth, cuz we're here!" Max said.

Alec let out a fake laugh followed by a weak smile.

"Ready?" Max said, holding the door open for him with a grin that looked too deep to Alec to be natural.

Alec shook his head, putting on the face of a true gentleman. "You know what they say, Max." He held his hand out toward the inside, motioning for her to enter. "Ladies first," he said, flashing a matching wide-set grin.

Max cocked her head, annoyed. "Just get in the shed," she ordered, grabbing him by the shirt and pulling him inside.

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"What I'd like to know, is where are the other transgenics? The ones that supposedly have seen this stupid thing?" Alec complained.

Max rolled her eyes for the umpteenth time, but didn't move her stare from focusing on the designated spot. "Just be quiet and keep the camera ready."

Alec looked at her in disbelief. "You still think we're gonna see something? Max, we've been in here for an hour! Wasn't she supposed to have already come by now?"

When Max didn't answer in a failed attempt to ignore him, he continued. "Well, I guess she could be busy writing another love poem." he finished with a mocking smirk.

As expected, this inspired a response from Max. "Listen, you idiot! No more joking around. This is serious."

Alec let out a groan before mumbling, "It always is with you." When her focus still didn't flinch, Alec resorted to complaining some more. "Max, I'm bored."

Instead of sympathizing as he didn't expect but was sincerely hoping for, Max rolled her eyes. "Well, too bad for poor Alec. Cuz entertaining you isn't in my job description."

"Yeah, well, neither is chasing ghost theories or other impossible assignments."

"You never know," Max argued, taking a moment to look down at the blank skin where runes had once been. They'd disappeared just as suddenly as they'd come, and the best she and Logan could do was guess at their meaning. "Maybe my next assignment from Sandeman will be expelling demons."

Alec barely caught the sarcasm because not all of Max was joking. He could tell that somehow, either in his words or her thoughts, a nerve had been struck and now she was slipping in her confidence.

"Max, what is it?" Alec asked, truly concerned.

"Still nothing, so keep that mouth of yours shut until we see something."

Alec swallowed as he tried to think of another approach. Getting Max to open up wasn't exactly easy. It was more like pulling teeth with a set of tweezers. "Is it all that 'destiny' stuff? 'Transgenic savior'?"

When Max's only response was a faltering sigh, he continued. "You know, you're not alone in this, Max. We're all backing you up, even though we don't understand it, either. Mole, Luke, Dix, …me." He chanced studying her to see if that elicited some sort of reaction.

She didn't look quite as tense, but the worry didn't leave her face. "It's not that," she finally admitted. "It's just… something happened earlier today."

"At Logan's?" Alec guessed, his concern building. Logan was the one thing he could do nothing for her to make it better.

Max turned to face him as she confessed. "It's nothing new, I mean, everyone's been avoiding it all along, but I just can't do it anymore, Alec."

Alec couldn't tell what she meant by the comment. She couldn't… pretend the virus wasn't really there? …avoid Logan anymore? "What can't you do?" Alec asked her. "'Cuz there's not a whole lot I know of that you can't do. Well, maybe poetry isn't your thing." He finished with a comforting smile.

Max allowed the seriousness to settle a bit, and shoved him lightly. "Yeah, well I bet you're not so great, either."

Alec considered it before shrugging. "I don't know. Can't say I have much to inspire me."

Max rolled her eyes that were slightly misted. "I wonder what it would take. Probably a pair? Of blondes?"

Alec laughed at her cheap dig. "That used to inspire something else, I'll give you that. But I don't know about that anymore."

Max nodded, studying him instead of herself. "You don't know? Or you can't admit it yet?"

Alec answered her with a vulnerable stare, his green eyes wide and intensified with a worry. Does she know? Max didn't hear the words, but his eyes were asking loud and clear, which brought a question to her mind. Know what?

Just a second, and then it was gone. Alec smirked at her with all of his restored confidence. "Let's not analyze me, Max. Besides, you were gonna tell me your current weakness. Chocolate? Soap operas? Alec?" He gave a hopeful grin and his brow wiggled suggestively.

Max swallowed as the pain took her again. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, a tear slid down her bronze cheek. "I can't run," she admitted before her brow furrowed and she shut her eyes again.

Alec couldn't bear to see her in so much pain. He reached out a hand toward her cheek and stroked it gently with his thumb. "Hey," he spoke softly, calling her to open her eyes.

She did, and he found himself staring into watery brown pools that weren't hiding her sorrow. She shook once, the emotion ready to burst, and he guided her to fall into his embrace, wrapping his arms around her to comfort her.

It wasn't exactly a breakdown, in that she didn't do much crying, but just feeling the heat of another person surrounding her, human touch that had been taken from her for so long… The way their bodies melded together into one form…

And she could smell it. Pheromones. There was desire swirling together, so strong and sudden that she couldn't tell who it was coming from, nor did she care. She lifted her head to stare into his eyes, questioning whether she was only imagining everything.

But it was there. The hazel set was wide, dilated in desire.

Max blinked, shocked and pleased at once, and then shocked again at being pleased to see that Alec wanted her. Her heart rate picked up under his stare. His sparkling eyes were only for her.

Max lost herself in his stare for a bit before her own gaze drifted toward his lips. They were parted slightly, and they looked soft and firm. Max found herself wanting to find out what they tasted like…

She stopped herself from leaning into him with a jolt. Her heart now raced with building fear. What was happening?

Alec suddenly shifted a little, stood a little straighter. Through the haze clouding Max's mind, she finally noticed that his eyes no longer held hers. He was looking over her shoulder with a concerned expression.

"Max," he said in an urgent whisper, "the ghost!"


a/n: thanks for reading! I know, not the best cliffie! I'll try not to make you wait long!