So, here it is. The last chapter… Finally. You guys ready for it?
But if you couldn't touch…
Joshua is really worried now. Not only are those Solomon transgenics still close on their heels, but there's also Mole to worry about, who only follows along because Josh simply won't let go of him.
The lizard-man has to snap out of his stupor soon, or…
Josh can't even finish his thought, for right then half a dozen X-series soldiers start closing in on them from behind, too, thus cutting off their only escape route. Still holding onto the other's lapel, the big guy backs against the wall before letting go of Mole eventually and raising both arms in surrender.
He won't fight these people, even if they should fight him.
He'll wait for them to catch him, will remain passive throughout, doing it for those who died because of all this. Doing it for Annie…
Too many have died already; one more today.
At least one…
Not allow Manticore to add more names to the list…
That was the plan.
But having come here – as soldiers… That plan sucked, had done so right from the start.
Joshua winces at the plain truth of that fact as the first soldier reaches him, and he closes his eyes, hearing Mole breathe heavily right next to him.
And then he hears a shot ring out.
She doesn't know what just happened, doesn't know how it happened. But she knows that it has to be over if she is still here, still herself, still Max. Although she just heard his voice, his beautiful voice, if distorted by pain and anger.
She heard it, and in full conscience this time, too…
And yet she is not trying to kill him. Again.
She is not.
But the pain in his eyes…
That will never entirely leave.
Neither will the pain in hers…
Her sobbing has died down rather abruptly with the first note of his voice, his words having sounded vaguely familiar and yet so different.
Not directed at her this time, but at Med.
His demand including – not excluding – Max… Stay the hell away from me. Stay the hell away from Max.
So he doesn't hate her? Maybe…
Slowly, but gradually, she lifts herself up off the ground. Her head is hurting like a bitch again and her legs feel slightly wobbly, but they do carry her. She stands in the corner of the room, warily eyeing the others and Alec, her feet rooted to the spot, her limbs frozen.
Max's hands feel for the safety of the masonry behind her, the touch of her fingers against the cold wall assuring her that this is real.
As his gaze suddenly meets hers, as he studies her unblinkingly, she draws her shoulders up protectively and averts her eyes. She doesn't dare look at Alec, doesn't dare approach him, is not even moving one single step toward him.
Not even daring to ask him what he meant; Med – what…
And finally her face scrunches up of its own accord as tears run freely down her hot flushed cheeks, leaving little wet trails on her dry skin.
She feels so exhausted… so small… so…
What has she done…
It's Cindy who eventually breaks the silence, Cindy, who is not even aware that her hand has slipped off of Alec's shoulder, her arm now hanging at her side, slack and useless. She stares at the girl, momentarily forgetting the presence of Max in the corner, and of Alec who is pulling himself up even further, backing away in his bed, backing away from Med, away from Cindy, too.
"What does he mean?"
Cindy's voice is quiet, hardly audible in fact, but Med hears every syllable she says with acute awareness.
What. Does. He. Mean.
She inhales slowly, cherishing the one second in which OC is still in denial, still giving her a chance, although surely already knowing Med doesn't deserve as much.
For one stretched intake of breath the world is on hold…
If you couldn't touch…
But you can.
Remember what once was…
… what is…
Joshua doesn't dare open his eyes, no no no no…
But he's alive; he can even still hear Mole's breathing not far off. He, too, is still there.
And slowly, slowly, he opens first one eye…
… then the other…
He stares straight into the face of a guy in a dark camouflage uniform, two small letters embroidered on his shirt. A gun is being poked into Josh's side repeatedly, but he doesn't dare shove it away.
"Uh," the big fella makes, turning his head to the side, to exchange a glance with his companion. But Mole doesn't return his gaze.
The shot apparently never hit anyone. A warning maybe? Or a stray bullet having missed its aim? He'd never know…
"Who ordered you to come here?" the Solomon Industries soldier asks, flanked on both sides by comrades that appear to be just as dark-clad, just as combat-ready as he is.
It is then that Joshua actually realizes how far his Manticore days lie behind him now, behind them all. Bad memories might still be stored away in their minds, haunting them every so often, having scarred their souls; and sure enough, Terminal City is not the perfect place, either; White might still be around, breathing down their necks, his obscure cult a constant threat to their lives.
And yet it's different.
"Answer me, Dog!"
"Dude," Mole suddenly snarls out while the big fella's brow is furrowing in indignation, and he raises one arm, thus startling Joshua into retreating a step away from his friend's side. Mole sounds slightly dangerous, slightly annoyed.
Like the old Mole…
"Don't you be insulting my friend here, got that?"
"Uh, Mole…" Joshua injects, with one look pointing out that Mole better not argue, given the current circumstances.
What? The other one mouths, but shrugs his shoulders in defeat. No need to endanger the big one's life. After all, Mole has already caused one person's death today… Clenching his jaw he stares on, his unblinking eyes boring into his opponents.
"No one. No orders – our own decision," Joshua interrupts the stranger and waits for him to lash out with his weapon any time now, readies himself for an attack.
But that attack never comes.
"Your own…?" the soldier in the front queries, more than slightly bewildered, right when his earpiece apparently jumps to life and he answers someone Josh can't hear.
"Yes, Sir. – Sector B… is cleared, I repeat: Sector B is cleared. Unit III will move on to Sector C now. Yes, Sir, roger that," the unknown soldier says, never once taking his eyes off of Joshua as if directing his report to him.
And then, when he does address him again: "What do you mean, your own?"
No one of his unit has made a move on either Josh or Mole this whole time, they all stand transfixed, waiting for something.
Not far away, the dead body of the poor kid is still lying in a heap on the cold floor, but Joshua tries not to look in that direction.
He doesn't really have to in order to see the image of the red stain spreading on the poor one's chest over and over again… It's still there, carved into his memory, as an echo of the actual scene…
"No one tells us what to do," he then hears Mole state matter-of-factly, and rather defiantly, too… "No one."
"Oh yeah? Well, sorry, Lizard, but you Seattle scum will have to learn to obey rules again, I'm afraid…"
Mole suddenly laughs out, a harsh and unpleasant sound. "Oh yeah, and you better be afraid…" he then says, grinning at the other one, grinning like a madman, worrying Joshua all over again.
"Mole, no…" Joshua implores him, and then, remembering that he has done it once before, he readies himself for speaking to these people here, too.
They don't know, they can't know what it's like out there…
The silence is eating at her, devouring her insides, painfully tearing her apart inch by inch. She presses one hand over her mouth, her stare imploring the ordinary not to hate her. Just please not to hate her…
"Med? What did Alec mean by sayin' that'cha…"
"I…" Med falters, frowning so hard it hurts. "I never meant to – I…"
She hears Alec snort, but doesn't dare look at him. She can feel how tense he is, how desperate to get his overexerted body to obey him.
Even X5s have their limits, though. And after what this one has been through…
"Please believe me, Cindy… Alec, I – I didn't know! I…"
"Oh yeah?" he hisses out, shooting Max a covert glance; Max, who is standing there like a child in shock, holding her bandaged head in both hands.
And Alec, holding his side, his neck marred by a thin red line…
Both not really heeding the physical pain, though.
Med catches Max's wild glare, the fearful anticipation she reads in the other woman's eyes nearly making her gag as she helplessly watches Max try to cope with what she's done.
Alec shoots Med a killing glance that sends shivers down her spine, not saying one word; and it's his silence that actually chills her the most.
Now that he could actually speak in Max's presence, now that he can…
But she didn't know. She didn't know…
The night is so cold that Ames is shivering in his thin suit coat while waiting for the Senator to arrive. Always late, that man. Annoyed, he stares at his watch for the hundredth time, cursing underneath his breath when that little idiot Grant enters the tent.
"His" tent, White amends mentally, grinning to himself. It's not like that fact makes the situation any more decent, though… Housed in a damn tent.
"What is it, Grant?" he asks, rather impatiently, apparently already scaring the other one with his slightly raised voice. Pathetic. And such a guy is working for him?
"Sir, reportedly, Solomon Industries is being attacked."
"Yeah, Grant. Any news, too?" White juggles with his cell phone and a transceiver while trying to get the computer in front of him to work, to show him the most recent pictures the satellite should have transmitted by now.
"What…" he mumbles to himself, distractedly poking at a few keys, but the screen remains dark.
"Are you just going to stand there or are you going to help me with this stupid thing now, huh? If not, then you may just as well go. GO!" he screams, making Grant's face fall, before the young agent manages to compose himself again and hurries to help his boss with his problem.
No way would Ames want to miss seeing the coverage of Conrad Solomon's dream being destroyed. No way…
Once those stupid transgenics have started fighting Solomon and his bunch of subordinates White will be free to do whatever he likes, free to chase 452 without having to fear repercussions, without having to fear someone interfering.
Let the freaks take care of the freaks first, and then…
White is not in a hurry. Not anymore. Yes, the Senator is a little impatient, and so are his other superiors, but once the Solomon problem is out of the way…
If 452 should still be sane by then, if 494 should still be alive, he has his ways to change that. To make them do whatever he wants them to do, and finally get rid of all of his problems at once.
The good part in having cooperated with that piece of shit Solomon was that Ames had been able to make his own scientists add one or the other little encoding during the process of programming. And while 452 knows about Solomon's manipulation, she doesn't know about his…
Neither does her constant companion, that annoying idiot 494...
… who will prove to be the perfect weapon for killing 452 swiftly and inconspicuously one day.
Oh yes, Ames can be patient, and he has ways of showing 452 how serious this all is.
No messing around with him.
"Here, Sir, I think it's working now."
Max doesn't really know what she is to do now; she can't wrap her mind around what she has done. Of course she knows she would have never done it of her own accord. And yet…
She sees Alec sitting propped up in bed, sees how agitated he is. But how could she walk up to him now, after what she has done. How could she walk up to him and touch him? Hug him?
Even though it's the one thing she wants to do the most.
Hold the one who stayed, who did not leave her. Not yet.
But he will never forget, can never forgive her, she is sure of that, in spite of what she has read in his eyes.
That he has forgiven her. He has…
And there is something else…
The echo of an image
inscribed into her mind, too…
"Ma'am, I have to be back in Seattle by 0700 hours. They are expecting me to be there for the morning round," X5-1503 said, standing straight, facing Elaine.
"Morning round…" Elaine mused, tapping on her clipboard and adding a note to 1503's file. Integration process successfully completed.
"Yes, Ma'am, at the infirmary."
"Ah, I see. Well, don't worry 1503, you'll be long back by then. – I just need our two subjects to take a close look at you... We need to make sure that neither of them will recognize you when they will return to Terminal City."
Elaine smiled. In leaving she put the clipboard down on the table and gently shoved the X5 out the door with her.
"Don't worry, 1503, just a simple thing. We don't want to spoil the experiment by carelessly letting them meet you unprepared, now do we?"
"No, of course not, Ma'am."
Obedient little soldier, this one.
With that said, Elaine led the soldier into one of the cold dark cells down in the basement. She could feel the young soldier tense involuntarily, surely remembering the times she herself had spent down here, being punished for one or the other mission gone wrong.
No need to worry this time, though, not for her, anyways.
"I never…" Med starts again, but it's useless. No one really wants to hear what she has to say, right? And she can't blame them.
Looking at Alec, who's only refraining from grabbing her in a choke-hold because his body is betraying him with its weakness, looking at him now she wonders what exactly he does remember.
But then, she doesn't really want to know…
And grinning weakly in her desperation she raises both arms in surrender before whirling around and running for the door. Just wanting out.
She can't stay, can't confide in them. Not even in Cindy.
Especially not in Cindy. She'll just hate her.
And being hated now that she has actually learned what love feels like? She won't be able to bear that…
Out of the corner of her eye she sees Alec struggle to get out of bed, sees Max ready herself to go after her.
But it's Cindy she hears calling her name.
Hears her beg Max and Alec to let her deal with it…
No time to find it out. No time. She has to run, run…
They emerge out of the shadows, out of the darkness and suddenly appear right in front of Conrad as if having materialized out of thin air.
Truly creepy, and if it weren't his own soldiers he'd surely be a little more spooked.
But seeing as these are his creations…
He hardly believes his eyes when he sees one of them, a tall dark woman – if you could even call it that – raise her weapon and aim it at his head.
"Please…" he says, drawing the word out, grinning all the while. "Shouldn't you rather be defending yourselves against the advancing enemy at this very moment?" he inquires, stretching out one arm and making to grab the firearm.
"We are… Sir." She pulls her hand out of his reach – the one holding the gun – then readjusts her position, taking aim again, while suddenly two transhuman creatures appear in the midst of this troop of X-series soldiers.
And these two are not his…
Conrad's grin vanishes, slowly making room for a completely different expression.
X5-1503 entered the cold room and shivered involuntarily. She hated it down there, she hated it. It was so cold, so terrifying.
Back in Terminal City they didn't have rooms like that. Back in Terminal City they didn't have to be afraid of being put into a tiny cell. They didn't have to spend their days filled with missions and exercises, were not punished for "socializing."
Only a week with the Manticore rogues and already she felt at home in their little freak nation. Only a week since the two leaders had left TC for presumably taking their overdue days off… And already she never wanted to come back to SI…
She stood there, motionless, waiting for the present Psy-Ops personnel to wake the unconscious soldiers. She waited, staring at them both, remembering having been in their place once, too…
She sighed silently, grimacing ever so slightly. No one back in TC suspected something like this was happening to two of their chosen leaders. No one.
It was as if the transgenics of TC were starting to feel a little too detached from the harsh truth about their origins, were becoming a little too careless, despite that man White.
Whom she had seen standing in the lobby of SI just this morning. But what was a man like him doing there, anyways? Another mystery…
She didn't have time to contemplate the thought any further, though, for right then the piercing scream of one of the two Manticore rogues could be heard…
… echoing on and on, the sound mercilessly reverberating against the walls of the small room.
X5-1503 was forced to step closer to where both soldiers were seated in special reclining chairs, only half-conscious; she was forced to stare right into their bloodshot eyes, and it terrified her horribly.
The woman recognized her, right away, and 1503 saw a word form on the poor one's cracked lips.
Another scream, another attempt at silencing her, making her forget…
Again and again and again.
Until it was over, finally.
Finally; and she felt so horribly exhausted as if she had been the one they had tortured down there.
She was already half out of the room when something made her turn her head one last time and she found herself looking right into the clouded eyes of the male. She could have sworn there was something in his stare then. A hint of recognition, perhaps, not strong enough to prevail, maybe, yet it was there, would survive, even if buried somewhere deep in his subconsciousness.
She should have reported what she had seen, and yet she didn't.
Had wanted to spare him at least a bit of the pain.
She had a name now, a name she had been given by the people of TC; she no longer wanted to be X5-1503, obeying orders, doing whatever they wanted her to do. She wanted to be Med, the medic, who helped people, saved them…
She wanted to be Med…
Something not quite tangible.
And yet it's there…
For a moment Max simply stands there, staring at Original Cindy, a questioning look in her eyes that doesn't need to be answered with actual words.
Because she can see it in OC's open face – written plainly across her beautiful features, for everyone to read. And with a nod she steps to the side, letting her friend pass, letting Med go.
The abrupt silence in the room suddenly becomes tangible, like a too heavy blanket spreading across her, across Alec, enclosing them in threatening privacy now that they are alone.
Alone, like they have always been.
And yet, Max doesn't feel all that alone…
Slowly, yet decisively, she steps closer to the bed, closer still, all the while feeling Alec's inquisitive, wary stare on her. He doubts her, she can tell. He doubts her, and who can blame him, really.
She bites down hard on the inner side of her bottom lip, indenting the soft flesh like she has done so often in the past.
She wants to ask him what made him yell at the medic, wants to share his memory, but she doesn't ask. Nothing that happened in the last couple days – or weeks? – nothing changed who he is, she can feel it, see it.
Still the guy who'll always try to keep his bad memories in check by not talking about them.
Just like she had once done, still sometimes does.
"Alec?" she eventually croaks out, meeting the gaze of his unblinking eyes.
"Alec…" she repeats, and finally, she reaches his side and hesitatingly extends one hand, her fingertips touching his arm now, following one long and prominent vein down to his hand.
She can't stop herself from tearing up again, she can't.
Not typical of her, she knows that; not what people would expect of her. But she no longer is that girl who meets people's expectations.
Not after –
"Hey…" she finally whispers, silently begging for him to break his silence, begging like she has done uncounted times before.
"Med!" Cindy calls out, following the tall transgenic, and God only knows why she is doing this to herself. Running after a transgenic who is so much faster than she is.
But she has to. It's just…
"Med! Please." Cindy sees the other one stop in her tracks, rather abruptly, and she hisses out in relief. "Tell me, why," she then says, slowly catching up with the waiting woman.
No longer tall and proud. Just wounded, haunted.
Sad, and broken.
Just like the other transgenics, really, Cindy can't help but think. Just like all of them, one way or the other…
"Tell me what… tell OC what happened… Med… I won't accuse you, okay, I'll listen to yo' story, okay?"
And what she hears is nothing at first. Nothing. A thick silence, and the bustle of a few others working at the infirmary.
But then: a sob. One choked sob… and that single sound tears at her heart…
His thumbs trace the trails of tears down her face, his hands rough against her smooth skin, the simple touch more pleasurable than she could have hoped for. He leans forward, kissing her forehead gently, remaining in that position for a while longer, taking in her scent as he allows her to take in his…
Like once before.
He doesn't hate her…
And she whispers, "Please, Alec, tell me you're okay," her voice not much more than a breath against his skin, "Tell me it's over now, that everything is going to be alright again…"
He closes his eyes, forcing the images out of his mind, forcing them to leave. Gently, he holds Max's bandaged head in both hands, his forehead touching hers now, her breath a soft touch on his face.
She's alive. Still alive... And so is he.
"It's over now, Maxie," he eventually whispers, meaning every word, although he doesn't quite belief himself.
"You're okay now."
Is she really? He so hopes she will be…
"'N' I'm alright, too. Always. You hear me?"
He'll try his best, anyway, starting with trying to trust her again. Which won't be easy. But then, what has ever been easy in their lives?
And so does Max.
"Everything is gonna be alright again. Okay?"
Waiting for news White sits and stares at the darkening screen, not quite comprehending what he sees there. Not what he expected, not…
But Solomon is out of the way, right?
And White does have his means to get rid of 452 soon, too.
No matter what happened in Utah. No matter…
This time it all will go according to plan.
Solomon, facing the determined faces of unknown soldiers…
Mole and Joshua…
Cindy, grabbing Med's shaking hands in hers, holding her gaze with the dark orbs of her eyes…
Everything is gonna be alright again.
It can't quite be grasped, sometimes evades them completely.
That image. The echo of a half buried memory.
A kiss, an embrace, their entangled limbs.
The closeness of their bodies.
It has always been there, stored away in their minds, never to leave…
His naked body pressed into hers, hard. Heat and bare skin and the light breeze of his breath in her hair, on her face, his lips buried against the nape of her neck, his hands all over her.
And her hands?
All over him, tracing inch after inch, feeling herself, feeling him.
Just one image.
And their touch.
Huh, guess I just might have screwed it up now…
Thanks so much for bearing with me all the time, for reading on despite all confusion, despite this having taken me forever to finish… It's been a pleasure. (:
So, thanks again!