Alec rounds the corner to The Hive, anticipating a cold beer on tap and a relaxing game of pool with some of the guys from the Row, where he just spent another long day trading stocks. Soaring housing prices and the downturn of the nation's largest chemical plant had sent the stock market up and down like a roller coaster since 10 am and he's still keyed up from the constant adrenaline rush.

The sight of her is like a sucker punch to the gut, unexpected and brutal. She's leaning against the wall on the other side of the door. The blue neon light from the psychedelic stylized bee lights is gleaming in her long dark hair. He considers passing her by without so much as a wordless nod, but ignoring her has never really been an option for him. She's his target and he's a guided missile without will or thought or sense.

"Hey," he says, approaching her. "Never expected to see you on my side of town."

She's wearing dark glasses and a black leather jacket buttoned tight at her waist but open at the top, revealing the delicious swell of her breasts under a soft gray tee. She regards him mildly, the smooth, sharp lines of her chin and cheekbones as beautiful and achingly perfect as always.

It takes her a moment to say, "Alec," in a tone somewhere between surprise and recognition. The sound of his name on her plush lips always makes something deep and unnameable vibrate inside of him.

"You alone?" he asks.

She gives a noncommittal shrug, scuffs the heel of her boot against a long encrusted splotch of gum on the sidewalk. Broadcasting her disinterest in him, like always. So, like always, he needles her.

"What's Logan think about that?"

"I don't know," she says, pausing to take a drag on her cig, tobacco flaring red at the tip. "Don't care either."

Fuck. How could he not have noticed it earlier? Well, better late than never.

"You're not Max."

She tilts her chin, and blows a mouthful of smoke through red, pursed lips. Her smile is a little too bitter to be wry. "Who says I'd want to be?"


Everything goes to hell in 2021. Alec knows that 2020 had its share of challenges – starting with getting his ass kicked – both literally and figuratively – by the breeding partner Manticore assigned to him and ending with said breeding partner getting him shot again, this time in a standoff with the cops that trapped them all in their own little super soldier refugee camp. There's a whole lot in between there that Alec supposes doesn't involve Max, but she's all he can think about when he recalls it, and that's a huge part of the problem right there.

Turns out that running a super soldier refugee camp isn't all that different from running a regular one. People need shelter and fresh water and proper sewage and health care and a place for their children to play. Getting those needs met is a whole lot more difficult when they are being shot at by bigots, vigilantes, and insane ex-Federal agents that come with their own snake-worshipping acolytes. But, hey, what's life without a challenge, right? Transgenics were built to be adaptable, and Alec prides himself on excelling at that skill. So he adapts. He does what needs to be done – scams tryptophan and trades for medical supplies and harangues people Max tells him to harangue, works hard to stay on the straight and narrow, and tries to pretend he's doing this for the greater good and not because of his desperate, unrequited love for Max. He even convinces himself that the weekly injections of transgenic blood the doc is giving Logan probably won't make a rat's ass worth of difference when it comes to the virus that keeps he and Max from touching.

For a while, everything seems to be working as well as can be expected. Of course, that's about the time that all hell breaks loose.


"You're 453," Alec blurts out. "Max's clone."

"Don't hold that against me," she quips. Then, "I prefer Samantha."

He runs a hand over the back of his neck. "Samantha. Okay. So, Samantha, what happened to Canada?"

"It's still there. I'm not anymore. And before you ask – because I'm sure you will – so are my ex-husband and his son. I guess that makes him my ex-son."

He lets her words hang in awkward silence for a moment before saying, "I'm sorry."

She drops the stub of her cigarette to the sidewalk and grinds it under her boot.

"Aren't we all? Anything else you've got to know?"

He considers being charitable and shutting up. But since when had he ever shut up when he should? "Well, you can tell me what you're doing here."

"I'm looking for you."

Alec can't really help it, he's so surprised: he does a double take.

Her voice is as sarcastic as her smile. "All right, not you in particular. Any old X5 will do, I suppose. Greg – he's the ex – seems to think I'd be better off with my own kind. So, here I am, being with my own kind. At least for a night."

"Okay. Well, that's blunt."

"What can I say? I've been jaded by marriage and a family."

Alec can't resist saying, "Yeah, I get that. But here's the thing. You seem to have forgotten that you're supposed to be nice to a guy when you're looking to score. Don't worry, you can go back to being a bitch right afterward. It's practically expected."

She looks him in the eye at last, stunned into silence for a beat. Familiar clear skin, so soft-looking; familiar dark eyes shining with quick anger. He glances away, stomach twisting.

"You know what?" She bursts out. "I don't need this. I'm blazing."

She shoves away from the wall and stalks off. He lets her get a whole ten steps away before calling out, "Hey, wait!" He runs to her because apparently she has enough of Max's genes to make him lose all sense, to make him seek her out even when all she's willing to give him is a heap of scorn with a side order of disgust.

Her arms are crossed and her lips are twisted in an expression that screams "pissed off" like nobody's business. So of course he has to go and get in her face and say, "I don't think that's true."


"I think you do need this. I think that's why you're here."

She pauses a moment too long before saying, "Whatever." But she doesn't start walking away again.

He should say something to make her leave, but instead he hears himself saying, "Hey, look, this place is a zoo, complete with monkeys. The house band comes on in a few minutes and they are way too loud for our ears. I know a quiet place around the corner where we can get a drink and … you know, talk."

She looks at him skeptically. "Talk?" She says the word like it's the stupidest idea in the history of stupid ideas.

He shrugs, lets her just look at him while he shifts uncomfortably under her gaze. It takes her a long moment to say, "Yeah, okay, let's go."


He's with Joshua when it happens. It's broad daylight – a sunny day in Seattle, in midwinter, an omen that should have tipped him off right there, he realizes later. They're at the south end of TC, in sight of one of the roads heavily trafficked by the rest of civilization. Joshua has picked this spot carefully. He's been all around TC for days, trying to find the best possible place to paint his mural. This run-down old building with a wide naked wall that's been painted a dingy off white color is apparently as good as it gets.

Joshua swings around, arms held wide, gesturing at the passing traffic. He's smiling, oblivious that the motorists are gawking at him like a freak. "I want them to see that we can create beauty. So they won't only see monsters when they look at us."

Alec smiles at Joshua, because it's just so … sweet. So idealistic.

"What will you paint?" He asks.

Joshua prowls around the wall, cocking his head and making motions with his hands. "Here, a garden – red and yellow flowers – big stalks of corn and round little tomatoes. There, Max, standing on a hill, proud and free. No fences or barbed wire or--"

A gunshot explodes from somewhere very close. Joshua's head whips back, sending a spray of blood and bone arcing into the air. He slumps to the dirty asphalt silently; a fist-sized chunk of his skull is missing from his forehead, revealing white his brains. His eyes are open and his body is jerking, but he's already dead. Alec's seen enough death--caused enough of it himself--to know when someone's dead.

He whips around, dashes towards the chain link fence separating them from Ordinary civilization, military training taking over: locate threat and neutralize it. But there's nothing – no one on the street corner, no open windows with lurking riflemen, just the street and passing cars and his friend lying dead on the ground, blood seeping from his fractured skull in an ever-widening arc.


The bar Alec suggests is quieter than The Hive, but it's no less crowded. Friday night and the desperate are all trying to hook up in any way they can. They take a bistro table that's missing chairs, and lean their elbows on it as they sip their beer.

She's wary at first, tense and nervous like a wild animal, looking for some excuse to bolt. He forces himself to reign in his own ever-present nervous energy and tries to put her at ease by reminiscing a little. He confesses that he remembers her from the good old days at Manticore. He's telling the truth, weirdly enough. It's taken him awhile to remember, but when he thinks about the others at Manticore, those apart from his immediate unit, those who remained after Max and her siblings escaped, he recalls a slim, dark-haired girl with an air of distracted indifference.

He never spoke to her, nor had she acknowledged him. Just about all he remembers is that she seemed angry and ill tempered: there was something about a smart-mouthed cadet and a remark about her ass, and she had him down on his with two moves. Or maybe it's just wishful thinking. For all that he has a photographic memory, some things are a little hazy. Probably because of the months he spent in psy-ops and the things they did to him there. Who knows? He rambles on, spinning stories like yarn, watching her body language as he uses his voice to calm and settle her.

People heading for the bathroom or the bar jostle them closer together, so that their shoulders are touching. She almost draws away from him, but Alec sees her stop herself, trembling a little.

It takes the better part of a beer before she starts to relax. He gets her to talk a little: she's staying downtown, not too far from where he works. She works in a law office, fetching coffee and making photocopies. Her boss is a dick, but aren't they all? No, she doesn't know anyone in the city, has only been here for two months herself. Yeah, if he could put her in touch with a few members of her old Manticore unit, she'd appreciate it. She hadn't made it down to TC yet. Sure, she wants to go, but she's still getting settled in her new place, buying dishes and pictures for the walls and cooking after work and that's been occupying all of her time.

Finally, just as they finish their second round of beer, his curiosity wins out over his patience and he says, in what he hopes is a casual manner, "So, what are you really doing here?"

Her eyes narrow slightly, watchful but not hostile, her other features carefully still. She gathers courage with her breath and leans forward, skims suggestive fingers up and down the underside of his arm, trailing sparks of desire. "Do I really have to spell it out for you?"

He catches her fingers and raises her hand to his lips, kisses her knuckles gently. "Please."

Her lips curl in a little smile. "I'll explain it to you back at your place."

Her voice is low and smoky smooth. He swallows down the impulse to fall all over himself to agree. "Now, don't get me wrong. I'm interested. God, am I ever. But you don't seem to want this. Not really."

She keeps moving those fingers, caressing. Something flickers in her eyes and she admits, "I don't want it. But I need it."

He searches her face, sees the light flush there, and that very need in her eyes, underneath the prickly shell he's somehow managed to crack.

"Your heat?" He asks.

She winces slightly, then gives a curt nod. The bitter twist to her lip returns. "It's damned inconvenient, really. Not to be able to take care of this situation satisfactorily by myself."

The visual image of her trying to take care of that situation makes his dick twitch. He clears his throat, and twines his fingers with hers. "All right, then. Let's go."


He doesn't remember, later, how he got Joshua back to HQ. He must have slung him over his shoulder, because later he found that the back of his pant leg was stiff with his friend's blood. Joshua's blood is splattered all over his shirt and face as well, so much of it that when he staggers in the front door at HQ and hands Joshua over (people all around, yelling and crying and crowding him) several people begin pulling at his clothes, checking his scalp, trying to find the wound that's caused all the blood. He stands there dazed, searching the frantic faces around him, ignoring the panicked questions, looking for Max. He has to keep Max away. She can't see Joshua like this, can't see his head blown apart. She loves him--

"Alec!" She calls to him from across the room, her beautiful face stricken when she sees several of the Nomalies carting Joshua to the infirmary. "What's happened?"

He pushes through the crowd. He has to get to her. Has to protect her as much as he can. Her arms are wiry and strong in his grip, but not strong enough. "Alec, you have to tell me what happened. Why are they taking Joshua away?"

He tries to hustle her away, take her somewhere private, keep her safe and untouched by all the blood –

She's Max, though, stubborn and angry. She plants her heels, dragging them both to a halt. He's babbling, a neverending stream of, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Maxie. He's gone. He's dead."

Her beautiful face goes from confused to disbelieving to angry in the space of seconds. She hauls back her fist, clocks him in the jaw, screaming, "No! You're wrong!"

He can't even feel the blow, couldn't care less that she's trying to hurt him. Instead, he works at backing her up against a wall, pinning her arms down, struggling to keep her from going after Joshua. She fights him until Mole and Gem flank him, and the three of them scuffle around as Max twists and cries out like a panicked cat.

Finally Mole slams her back against the brick wall and yells in her face, "Joshua's dead!"

She jerks and stills, her eyes wide and glassy. Alec shoves him away, clutches at her. He has to touch her, soothe her, protect her somehow from the terrible reality that he's seen today. She stiffens and pushes past him, walks woodenly to her quarters. His arms ache with the unfulfilled need to hold her. Dalton and Gem fuss over him, wiping Joshua's blood off his face and checking him for injuries.

Gem guides him to his quarters, tells him to change his clothes and rest for a while. He goes inside his room and yanks off his shirt and boots and blood-stiffened jeans. He stands there in his boxers for a minute, looking around his room, and remembers that he's supposed to be changing his clothes. He yanks open the bureau drawers looking for a clean t-shirt, but there aren't any and he can't understand where they went, thinks for a minute that someone broke in here and stole his fucking t-shirts and the next thing he knows he's crying out in effort as he smashes his fist into the wall again and again and again. He feels bones break and muscles tear, but he doesn't care, it doesn't hurt, not really, not like the pain inside.

He keeps at it, tears blurring his vision, blood (his own, this time) making a slick mess on the wall, until Logan shows up and says, "Alec," in his soft deep voice.

He never liked Logan all that much to begin with, liked him even less when it became clear that Max was still pining for him even after dumping the four-eyed geek, but he's robbed of the luxury of hating him because Logan's the one who's here, caring about him. Not Max, he thinks bitterly, never Max.

Logan with his sorrowful eyes, Logan with his starched shirt and strong arms, Logan who smells like sweat and sadness, who stops Alec from hitting the wall with a steady, gentle hand, then pulls Alec into his arms, keeps him from causing himself more pain.

Alec just stands there, letting himself be held, trembling uncontrollably like an epileptic in the middle of a seizure. When he comprehends the words Logan is murmuring ("It's not your fault, Alec. It's not.") he sags against the other man, surprising himself by the way his body surrenders as if he's been given a double dose of tranquilizers. He hears himself making a raw, wounded noise and realizes that he's crying. It's all so overwhelming, the way his emotions are running riot over him, the way he can't even begin to stem their tsunami-like tide.

Logan holds him for a long time, until Alec's harsh, grating sobs quiet and the blood stops dripping from his fingertips."


He makes a drink while she disappears into the bathroom, and dims the lights in his tastefully furnished studio apartment. He likes the view of the city from up here on the 7th floor enough to pay the outrageous rent. Below, hundreds upon hundreds of yellow and white lights wink and burn. Every one of them represents dozens of people, all of them connected one to another by blood or association or just by breathing the same misty-thick air. Seeing the lights makes him feel part of something bigger and more majestic than Manticore's sterile plans for him.

He stands looking out at the city as he sips a glass of brandy. Alcohol is his second favorite thing about the world outside of Manticore.

The bathroom door opens with a muted creak. Samantha flicks the light switch off, darkening the interior of his apartment but brightening the outside lights. As she pads up behind him, a thrill of arousal makes his chest tighten and his breathing deepen. He smiles.

Women. They are his second favorite thing about life in the real world. Out here, there's an endless variety of them, all of them soft, sweet, and yielding. And still he's only really drawn to the two that Manticore produced. The two with long dark hair, endlessly deep brown eyes, and a prickly, oversensitive demeanor.

He smells her behind him, the scent of fine perfume and perfect body chemistry. He sets his drink down on the end table and turns around.

She's shed her jacket so that the gray t-shirt glows in the dim light. Her hair lays like spun silk around her shoulders; her eyes and nose are concealed by shadows, but the swell of her lips, visible by a slant of light, beckons him like the flesh of some rare delicate fruit. He cups her cheek with one hand and leans down to kiss her.

She gives a little gasp as their lips meet, but her mouth is warm and pliant beneath his. He draws back.

"You're trembling."

"I'm not used to … this. Being with another man."

He takes a lock of her hair between his fingers. It's even softer than he imagined it would be.

"I'll be gentle," he promises.

Her eyes shine as she looks up at him, trusting. Her expression twists something deep inside him, something he can't name.

When they tumble to the bed, he is gentle. Gentle and patient and considerate. He's duly rewarded by her gasps and whimpers, by the slick, welcoming heat of her body as he enters her. She arches her back and tightens her legs around his hips as she comes. The deep powerful contractions within her body induce his own orgasm.

The second time he fucks her hard and fast, pressing her ass against the plate glass window. He feels powerful and exultant, pounding into her wild, beautiful body as the city slumbers unknowingly beneath them. Sweat glistens at her throat as she digs her nails into his shoulders and keens, "Harder. Harder."

The second time, he's not gentle at all.


It's a week after Joshua's death and Alec swings back and forth from feeling pissed off to feeling like a zombie. He can't remember how much he's slept because every time he tries he sees that snapshot picture of Joshua's blood spraying wide, backlit by sunlight and TC. His stomach feels twisted all the time. Food tastes like cardboard. When he does force himself to eat, the meal seems to sit in his stomach undigested for hours.

Max hasn't been around much and when she is her hair is uncombed and her eyes are red from crying. Alec wants to hold her so badly that he aches with it. He doesn't go to her. The thought of her pushing him aside again isn't something he can bear right now. In fact, he's not sure he can bear it ever again.

He's having a hard time concentrating, so he takes sentry duty most days. Sentry duty consists of watching the closed circuit TV cameras that Logan insisted they put at key entrances to TC and HQ, to make sure the Army or CIA or whoever isn't sneaking in to gank them all. He likes sentry duty because he can stare at the cameras in a daze and appear to be helping out.

He's staring at said cameras late one evening when he sees two figures right outside HQ's east entrance. They're going at it hot and heavy – some tall guy and a girl with long hair. He leans in to study the image because whatever else is going on in the world, he's still a red-blooded young man. What he sees makes his blood turn to ice.

He's up and moving for the east door before consciously making a decision to leave his post unattended. The door bounces off the outside wall when he slams it open. The lovers break apart and gape at him. No, his eyes hadn't deceived him. The tall guy is Logan, and the girl is Max.

"When?" Alec hears himself say. His voice sounds dead.

"Yesterday," Logan says. "I've been taking immunization shots for a while now. We decided to test it yesterday. And, well … Good news."

He looks Max in the eyes. She's proud and defiant. She lifts her chin a little. "We're going to tell everyone when the time is right."

He doesn't respond. He can't seem to hear himself think over the rush of blood in his ears.

Finally, Logan ventures, "If you don't mind, Alec, we were busy …"

"Oh, yeah. Sure," he says, backing away, letting the door swing shut behind him. He stands in the dark just breathing for a long moment.

Then he goes to his room, stuffs a few changes of clothing in his duffle, and leaves TC for good.


Sam wakes him with a kiss the next morning. It's 7 am, and his nose tells him that she's already brewed him a cup of coffee. He cares more about tasting her lips, though. Sweet and soft and warm. As he deepens the kiss she makes a reluctant sound and pulls back.

"What's this?" he asks, plucking at the sleeve of her gray tee. "I don't like my women to have clothes on."

"Ha ha," she says with mock humor. "I gotta go feed my cat."

"You have a cat?"

She shrugs. "Best kind of pets."

Well, he couldn't argue there. "Stay. It won't starve to death if you stay a few more hours."

She turns her head toward his lips and kisses him for a long moment. Then she draws back and stands. "Really, it's time for me to go."

He gets out of bed with a sigh and a groan, stretches, and catches her eyes traveling down his naked form. He winks at her. "I'll walk you to the door."

At the front door, she pauses, smiling. "Please tell me you weren't talking about the building door. I think they arrest people for walking around naked."

"I want to see you again."

It takes her a moment to answer. He realizes it's because she's waiting for the punch line. When he doesn't give it, she asks, "Why?"

He crowds in a little, brushes his thumb across her cheekbone. "Last night was … wow. I liked it. I like you. People who like each other usually spend time together. Really, all the cool kids are doing it."

She searches his face. "I'm not Max."

It hurts. He bites off the immediate denial, just thinks for a moment before he says, "I know that. And I want to see you again."

He doesn't know what she sees in his eyes. She's just like Max in that regard. He wonders if he's lying to her, but doesn't delve into that thought too deeply. He does like her. He wants her. What's so complicated about that?

"Maybe," she says at last.

Then she's gone and he doesn't know if he'll ever see her again.


Max actually calls him a couple of days after he leaves TC. When he sees her number on the display of his cell phone it's like a knife in his guts. He throws his cell phone in the nearest trashcan.

A week later he returns to his apartment after a visit to the corner liquor store and sees her sitting in his armchair. He's so shocked that he just stands on the threshold with his mouth hanging open and his heart pounding like a madman on the door of his chest. She stands, looking nervous but beautiful still, so beautiful.

"Alec." She packs so much into the sound of his name. Worry and regret and concern. But no love. Alec never meant to feel that way about her. Didn't want it, didn't need it, didn't appreciate it – except, apparently, for all the ways he did.

When they met, she started out being a complete bitch to him – scoffing at him, challenging him, saving his life –

And that's the thing, see. She's good, underneath the cat burglary and insults and impatience. She always does the right thing, even when it hurts. He finds that irresistible. He supposes he's been doomed to love her. Doomed to watch her love someone else.

I'm giving Logan up. I'm keeping him safe. She may have even meant it when she made that vow. And it was just enough hope to keep him coming back, again and again, moth to a flame and all that garbage. But enough is enough.

He puts his brown paper bag of brandy down on the table, crinkles the paper in his fist. His voice is a bit too cracked to be nonchalant, but he gives it a shot for old time's sake. "I see you tracked me down. Why did you bother?"

"You just … left. TC needs you. We …" She trails off, then starts again with new resolve. "Joshua's dead and now you're gone. I need you, Alec. Please come back."

He gives a harsh bark of laughter and looks at her incredulously. "You don't need me, Max. You have Logan. The virus is gone; you two can be together now. There's no need for me to be your pretend boyfriend any longer."

She takes a few steps toward him, then stops, uncertain. "Alec, I don't understand--"

"Don't give me that," he interrupts. "You know how I feel about you." Feel. Not past tense. Not yet, anyhow.

She falls silent. She knows. Of all the dumb ass times he could have told her, he chose to blurt it out in the janitor's closet at HQ one night when they were inventorying detergent supplies. I'm in love with you, Max. She had gaped at him, speechless. Then she just walked out, leaving him standing there.

The next day she acted like nothing had happened, until he took her by the arm and dragged her into her office and shut the door. You can't do this to me, Maxie. You can't leave me hanging after what I told you last night.

She studied her hands. Don't make me lie to you, Alec. You know who I love. Who I've always loved.

He should have left right then, should have packed up all his shit and hit the pavement. But like an idiot, he stayed, telling himself that he did it for Joshua, for the other transgenics, when all the while he was just hoping she would change her mind … the reminder of his stupidity burns.

He looks at her, wishing it didn't hurt so much to keep from touching her, forgiving her.

"Look, Max, I get it. I do. You made your choice. You chose Logan. And, well, good for him. Good for the both of you. But I won't stay and watch you with him. Not anymore."

She purses her lips. "Don't make this about Logan. It's not about him, not really."

"No, I guess you're right. It's about you. Period." He pauses, says quietly, "It's always been about you, Maxie."

She swallows, tears shimmering in her eyes. "There was a time when I never could have imagined myself saying this, but I miss you, Alec. I really do."

His throat tightens. After a moment, he says, "Goodbye, Maxie."

She brushes past him, halts at the open door. "Goodbye, Alec. You'll always have a home in TC if you want to come back."

"Thanks, but I'm good where I'm at."

She gives him a sad smile. "I know."

He listens as her footsteps echo into nothingness, then goes to sit on the couch and stare at the dull gray sky out his window. He's kind of surprised that he doesn't feel devastated, like he did those first few weeks away from TC, so lonely and miserable that he almost returned a dozen times.

Instead, he feels nothing.


Alec's never been good at waiting. When Sam hasn't called his cell phone after two days, he decides to track her down. She'd purposefully avoided giving him her number. But being a government-trained covert operative has its advantages. Half a day after he sets out to find her, he's leaning against the back wall of her office building. She exits the door, digging in her purse for her car keys.

She looks amazing. Long curled hair, mauve cashmere sweater and a flowing long skirt that accentuates her curves and makes her look deliciously feminine in a way that Max never had.

He can't help smiling when she notices him.

"Hey, baby."

She raises her eyebrows. "Hey baby yourself. What are you doing here?"

This close he can smell her perfume. He wants to touch her so badly that his palms tingle.

"Isn't it obvious? I told you I wanted to see you again. I go after what I want. And I'm impatient. It's a character defect."

"Yeah?" She asks mildly. "Some might call it arrogance."

"Others might call it flattering."

"Others might not know about your twin's habit of collecting teeth."

Oh. He slid a hand over the back of his neck. "You know about that, huh?"

She smirks at him. "I still have some Manticore contacts, believe it or not."

"Yeah, well. I'm not 493. I'm better. Just like you're better than 452."

"I won't argue with you there."

"Then you'll have dinner with me tonight?"

She just looks at him, shakes her head a little and gives a sigh. "Alec … I'm gonna be honest with you. I don't know how to do … this." She gestures at him. "Date. Or whatever." She pauses. "That's what you're asking me for, right? A date?"

"Yeah. Although I have to warn you. I'm not the kinda guy that puts out on the first date. So keep your dirty mind to yourself."

She rolls her eyes, smiles despite herself. "Look … you deserve to know. Greg … he was it for me. Til death do us part and all that. Now he's gone and I can't go through that again. I won't."

He tries not to be crushed, thinks on his feet. He's always been good at that. "I get it. You're too scared."

"What? Hell no. I just … I'm loyal, that's all."

"No, you're scared."

She pauses, then admits, "Maybe a little."

"I'm scared too, Sam."

"Well, aren't we a coupla losers."

He steps in closer, slips his arm around her waist and ducks his head so that his lips are very near hers. "No, baby. We're not. We've just got a little baggage, is all."

She looks up at him, relaxes in his arms, and says, "You a good cook? I'm a finicky eater. I blame it on Manticore, putting all this feline DNA in me."

Alec makes a show of considering what she says. "Tuna casserole?"

"Yeah, okay."

Her smile is pure Sam, and he thinks it's enough for him. More than enough.