Hopeless Causes

By Inzane

Disclaimer: I do not own Dark Angel or its characters.

Summary: Alec knew about hostage situations. He knew how to stay cool when life and death were on the line. But this time was different. This time, it was Max's life… Max's death.

A/N: Thank you so much for all of the kind reviews. It's like Christmas came early!

Warning: Violence and language.

For a brief moment, Max felt weightless, as if the wind itself had taken mercy on her and bore her up. It rushed through her hair and pressed against her skin, wild and unfettered in a way that she'd never truly had the chance to be. Was this what it felt like to fly?

Then the spell was over, and she was falling.

She tucked her legs and brought her handcuffed wrists around and to the front. She wasn't sure why she bothered; it wasn't like it would make much of a difference. Unless Manticore had slipped her some avian DNA that she didn't know about, she couldn't sprout wings and fly.

She was going to die.

She felt strangely disconnected from the reality of her own death, but how else could she react, really? Should she scream? Cry? Hardly helpful, and no way she was going out like some pansy-ass. Panic? Freak out? Why bother? It wouldn't change a thing.

As her body rushed toward its end, she glanced down, not at the ground, but at the roof below where her friends stood, helpless. She wished they didn't have to watch, especially Joshua. She knew he would take it hard.

She wondered if it would hurt when she hit the pavement. Would it be quick, or would she have to live through an eternal second of agony as her body shattered, before her brain finally shut down?

Did it even matter? Dead was dead. Given the choice, she would actually rather feel something, in that last moment, than nothing at all.

One point two seconds after Max began to fall, when the reality of what was happening had finally sunk in, Alec knew he had a decision to make. He had to make it now. There was no time for doubt.

Could he really just stand there and watch Max die?


The word rang out across the roof, echoing with the finality of his decision.

Alec backed up, eyes tracking Max's fall as he did quick calculations in his head, gauging distance and speed. It could work. It had to work.

Never taking his eyes off Max, Alec pulled his gun from the small of his back, clicked off the safety, and pumped a round into the chamber.

Mole and Dix both turned at the sound. "What the hell are you doing?!" Mole yelled, even though he suspected he already knew the answer.

Not good, not good at all. They couldn't afford to lose both Max and Alec. He had no idea why, but Max and Alec seemed to be the glue that held them together. Terminal City might be able to survive the loss of one, but not both. The transgenics would fall apart and scatter to the winds, only to be picked off one by one by the Familiars or the government.

Mole knew that he should stop him. But he also knew, from the look on Alec's face, that the X5 wouldn't hesitate to put a bullet in him if he tried.

At that moment, Alec didn't care about Terminal City. He didn't care about himself. All that mattered was that Max didn't die.

He ignored Mole's question, his entire body tensing as his mental countdown approached zero. He tightened his grip on his gun and said, "If this doesn't work, you're in charge."

He'd either save Max or die trying. There was no other option.

Alec blurred toward the edge of the roof and jumped.

He crashed into her in mid-air, over a hundred feet from the ground.

He wrapped his free arm and both legs around her, holding her tight. His momentum sent both of them careening toward the building Max had just been thrown from.

Once he was sure he had her, he raised his gun. He managed to fire eight rounds into the glass window they were about to smash into… or, if the bullets didn't do their job, bounce off of.

The glass crazed in spider-web-like patterns, then shattered in a fall of glittering crystals as their bodies crashed straight through.

Ames White had thought his plan was flawless. He'd thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to exact revenge on 452, and at the same time, deal a powerful blow to the transgenic cause by killing their leader.

He'd planned to kill 452 from the start. Even if the transgenics had known the whereabouts of his son--and he'd seriously doubted that they had--he wouldn't have let 452 slip through his fingers again. She'd been a thorn in his side for far too long. Killing her in front of Cale and 494 was just an added bonus.

He watched 452 fall, a bit disappointed that she didn't scream, but he suspected that seeing her spattered on the sidewalk below would make up for it. But then his eyes were widening in disbelief as he watched 494 sail through the sky like some sort of superhero, literally snatching the triumph of the moment away from him.

The other Familiars around White all looked to him expectantly, almost afraid of how he would react to this latest failure.

White stood at the edge of the building, looking down at the spot where 452 would've been a broken and bloody mess, if it hadn't been for the interference of 494. He shook his head.

"494. I should've put a bullet in you when I had the chance," he muttered, remembering how he'd once let 494 talk his way out of a death sentence. He swore that the next time he had a transgenic in his clutches, he wouldn't hesitate.

His eyes shifted to the rooftop of the other building. Logan Cale and the other trangenics were standing there, fully exposed. His eyes narrowed.

"Kill them."

"Holy shit! He did it!" Mole shouted, running to the edge of the roof. "The sonofabitch did it!"

Logan stared across at the other building, leaning heavily on the ledge. He was having a hard time believing what he'd just seen. "That was… I had no idea he could do something like that."

Joshua came up behind him and placed one of his large hands on Logan's shoulder. "Bad idea to take Alec for granted."

"I'm beginning to see that," Logan said quietly.

Alec had risked his life for Max. He'd jumped off a ten-story building to save her, willing to face the possibility of a very messy death a hundred feet below rather than watch her die. Logan was undeniably grateful that Alec had saved Max, but it made him think.

It would be a very bad idea to take Alec for granted in the future. Especially when it came to Max.

Then bullets were zinging past them, and Mole was yelling, "Take cover!" and he had no more time to think about Max and Alec.

They rolled in a tangle of limbs, tumbling across hard floor and broken glass until they finally skidded to a halt halfway across the room. They lay tangled together for a while--hearts pounding, breathing hard--shocked to be alive.

The sound of automatic gunfire from somewhere high above quickly brought both of them back to their senses.

They clumsily disentangled themselves and struggled to their feet. They were mirrors of each other, covered in dust, scrapes, and cuts, and wearing identical wide-eyed expressions.

Then Max's eyes flashed with violent intent, and she reached out shoved Alec in the chest, only because the handcuffs prevented her from taking a swing at him.

"Are you crazy?!" she yelled, her voice verging on hysterical. She figured the hysteria was totally justified and couldn't be held against her; after all, she'd just been shoved off a fucking high rise.

Alec blinked, dumbfounded. Not exactly the reaction he'd expected.

"That has got to be the most insanely reckless, stupidest, fucked up stunt I've ever seen in my entire life!" She punctuated this with another shove.

Alec was completely taken aback. He hadn't been expecting much--this was Max, after all--but a simple thanks would've been nice. He was ready to tell her so when her face broke into a broad grin, showing every one of her perfect teeth.

"You idiot! I could kiss you!" Max exclaimed excitedly, as the high caused by a massive dose of adrenalin hit her. Then she thought, Wow, he really has nice lips, and, Why the hell not?; she grabbed the front of his jacket with her bound hands, pulled him down to her and did just that.

It started out as friendly, celebratory kind of kiss--the kind that said, Hey, glad we're not dead. But his lips were so soft and warm, and it had been so long… she couldn't help herself. She deepened the kiss, gripping his jacket tight and pulling him closer, suddenly consumed by some unnamed desperate need.

For that moment, it was like they had pulled away from the world, transported to a time and place where only the two of them existed. Then sound of gunfire intruded, all too soon bringing them back to reality.

Max pulled away from him--almost, but not quite, reluctantly. Her lips still tingled from the contact, as if there had been a literal spark between them. Between her and Alec. What the hell?

She looked up at Alec, curious to see if he'd felt something as well. He just stood there, open-mouthed and looking like something important in his head had short-circuited--a far cry from the cocky, self-confident Alec that she knew. It made her laugh.

The sound of more gunfire reminded her that there would be a time and a place to figure out whatever the hell it was that had just happened between them, and this was definitely not it.

"Hey," Max said, trying to get his attention. She held her cuffed wrists out, holding her hands as far apart as possible. "Little help, here?"

Alec's eyes remained unfocused. She had kissed him. At least, he was pretty sure that Max had kissed him--either that, or they were both dead and this was some really messed up version of Heaven, if such a place existed. A heaven where Max kissed him. On the lips. With tongue, even.

"Alec!" Max exclaimed, and his eyes snapped back into focus. He gave his head a little shake to try to clear the Max-kissed-me-induced fog. He glanced down, and found that his fingers were still wrapped around his gun. He was surprised he hadn't dropped it; looked like the old Manticore training was alive and kickin'.

Without hesitation or comment, he raised the gun and fired, snapping the chain that linked the cuffs in two.

Max sighed in relief and gingerly massaged her wrists, which were red and raw. As soon as she got home, she was going to soak in a nice, hot bath. For a week, or until she grew gills--whichever came first.

Of course, they weren't home free yet. White and his men were still out there.

"Come on," Max said, sobering. "Let's go."

Just as they turned to leave, there was the sound of a large explosion, then another. The building shook beneath their feet.

"What was that?" Max asked. They moved over to the window to look out.

White's helicopter--or, what was left of it--passed by the broken window in what seemed like slow motion, flaming as it fell from the sky.

"Huh. Mole must've broken out the heavy artillery," Alec said offhandedly, raising his eyebrows. The pair of them watched, fascinated, as the burning helicopter crashed to the ground. "Hope White was in there."

"If only…" Max replied.

No way had they taken out White and all his goons; their luck just didn't roll that way. The Familiars would soon be after them, and with all the gunfire and explosions, it wouldn't be long until the sector cops showed up.

She grabbed a fistful of Alec's jacket, tugging him away from the window. "Move it, hotshot. We gotta blaze."

They became a blur to the normal eye, circling down the stairwell so fast it would have made an ordinary dizzy. They dodged and jumped over garbage and debris as they rocketed toward freedom. Though there was no way that White and his pals could catch up to them on foot, they still hurried, just in case one of the Familiars decided to be clever and drop a grenade down the stairwell.

They were more than halfway down when Max noticed that Alec was falling behind. She was faster than him--she knew that much from recent personal experience--but not that much faster. Maybe he'd wrenched his knee or something when they crashed through the window.

She slowed and turned her head just in time to see him falter as he tried to jump over a broken down fire door. He wasn't able to get enough height to clear it, causing his foot to catch on the edge. He tumbled forward and came down hard on the landing below, his momentum causing him to skid until his body crashed into the wall.

Max ran back up the stairs to where Alec was now struggling to his hands and knees. She automatically reached for him, trying to feel for any breaks. Normally, she would've let Alec fend for himself, but this wasn't quite normally. He'd hit the wall so hard that he'd left an impact crater. "Hey, you all right?"

Alec frowned and pushed her probing hands away with more embarrassment and irritation than anger. "Always."

"Alec," Max scolded, annoyed by his typical answer for that question. "You dented the wall."

"I'm fine," he said, though she noticed he didn't look at her when he said it.

She frowned. "What the hell happened?"

"Tripped." Alec had both hands braced against floor, panting as he tried to catch his breath. "Gettin' clumsy in my old age."

Max wondered why she even bothered asking the question. She'd probably have more luck winning the lottery than she would getting a straight answer out of Alec. She grabbed his right arm and unceremoniously hauled him to his feet. "Come on, we don't have time to screw around. Move your ass."

As Max dragged him away, she didn't notice the bloody palm print Alec had left behind on the floor.

They burst out of the building just as the others taking cover behind the vehicles. Logan took a step toward Max, relief evident on his face, but Max carefully slipped past him, immediately taking charge of the situation. She did a quick scan of the surroundings to assess personnel and equipment, then started barking out orders.

"Ginny, Dix, you're with Logan. The rest of you, into the van."

"The bitch is back," Mole quipped as he climbed into the back of the van. He actually sounded kind of happy, for Mole. The transhuman was dragging Shakes, who had been knocked for a loop when the helicopter had exploded; the sniper had a bad concussion.

"Max, I..." Logan began, hesitating.

"You can kiss and make up later, Logan," Alec growled, giving Logan a shove toward his Aztek. It really pissed him off to think that Max and Logan would probably do just that. Well, maybe not literally, since the virus was still an issue, but the end result would be the same.

"Go, Logan," Max snapped, barely pausing long enough to give him a glance. She tugged open the driver's side door to find Joshua in the driver's seat. That wasn't a good idea; the transhuman was so excited that everyone was alive, she was afraid he might crash them into the side of a building. "Slide over, Big Fella. I'm drivin'."

Joshua nodded. He was only able to contain himself for two seconds before he pulled her into a big hug. "Josh..." Max gasped, finding it hard to breathe under the crushing strength of her friend's hug, "we'll celebrate later, 'kay?"

"'Kay," Joshua replied, giving her one final squeeze before he released her. "Time to blaze."

"You know it," Max said, smiling broadly. Once Joshua moved, she slipped into the driver's seat and gunned the engine.

"Go! Go! Go!" Alec yelled as bullets began to pepper the van. White's goons had caught up with them.

They sped through the abandoned streets, Logan's Aztek in the lead. As Logan's driving skills were somewhat notorious, Dix was driving the vehicle. The van followed behind closely, offering a cover for Logan and the others. Mole busted out the back windows of the van so they could provide covering fire.

The loss of the helicopter didn't deter White's men. Apparently, they'd had a couple of cars in wait just in case they had to do a little transgenic hunting. Three standard nondescript government-type vehicles were quickly in pursuit.

"Can't this thing go any faster?" Max heard Alec call out from the back of the van in between gunshots.

"I can't go any faster than what's in front of me!"

"Well, make it go faster!" Mole yelled as he fired off another two rounds.

Max gripped the wheel so hard she quite possibly left indentations. "I can't help it if Logan's piece-of-shit can't do over sixty! I'm practically scraping the bumper!"

"We don't lose 'em before we hit a populated area, sector police'll be all over us," Shakes called out from where he sat on the floor of the van, looking almost as green as Mole. The high-speed chase really wasn't helping his concussion.

"I know! I know, dammit!" Alec snapped.

"Well, do something, then!" Max yelled back.

Alec turned to look at Mole. "Got any of the good stuff left?"

Mole chomped angrily on his cigar. "Had to drop it when we displaced." Both transgenics ducked as several bullets came zinging through the window. When it was clear, Mole raised his head to look at Alec. He reached into one of the deep pockets of his jacket and pulled out a grenade. "I do have this, though."

Alec waited for Mole to throw it, but the transhuman hesitated. When Alec raised his eyebrows in askance, Mole frowned, then ripped out the pin with a bit more force than necessary. "What? It's my lucky grenade," he explained with what Alec figured was regret; it was always hard to tell with Mole.

Alec shook his head. "Only you."

The lizard man stood, took aim, and let fly in one quick, fluid motion. The grenade landed on the street and exploded just as the lead car rolled over top of it.

The car burst into flames and careened to the side, unfortunately taking it out of the path of the other two cars. They sped through the flaming debris left behind, still doggedly pursuing the transgenics.

Mole shrugged and looked at Alec. "Any more ideas, Princess?"

Alec popped the clip out of his gun. It was his last. He checked the load--three bullets left. Mole still had almost a full clip, "Cover me," Alec said, then stood up.

Mole fired a barrage of bullets out of the left window while Alec carefully took aim out of the right. He focused, narrowing his vision to a spot just above the rim of the lead car's right front tire. He let the air out of his lungs, relaxed the muscles in his neck and shoulders, then took the shot.

He missed.

Mole paused and turned his head toward Alec, eyes wide with surprise. Alec never missed. Not when it was important.

Alec clenched his teeth, shifted his feet to widen his stance, then took aim again.

This time, he didn't miss.

The tire on the lead car blew, and it spun out of control. The road had narrowed, so there was no way the car behind it could swerve out of the way. It crashed into the lead vehicle with the sound of tearing metal and breaking glass.

Finally safe within the borders of Terminal City, Max took a moment and let her head fall against the steering wheel.

"Okay, Little Fella?"

Max could hear the concern in Joshua's voice. She didn't raise her head. "'M'fine, Josh," she replied tiredly. Now that the adrenalin had worn off, her body felt like one giant, aching bruise.

"Positive?" he asked, the doubt clear in his voice.

Max rolled her head a bit so that she could see him, smiling a little to reassure him. "Positive. Just need a moment. Do me a favor and get Shakes to Medical?"

The dog-man nodded soberly. "Take care of Shakes. No problem." Before he left, he reached over and gave her a little hug. "Very happy Max not dead."

"Me too, Big Guy. Me too."

Once he was gone, Max let out a shaky breath, one it felt like she had been holding since the day White had captured her. The odds had been stacked against her a mile high, and, by all rights, she should have been dead. If it wasn't for the fact that Alec was completely out of his mind, she would have been dead.

He'd risked his own life to save her. Jumped off a goddamn ten-story building to save her.

They'd certainly come a long way since the day they'd met. Maybe further than she'd thought.

Max straightened, pushing her hair back away from her face. She'd worry about whatever this thing was with Alec later. Right now, all she wanted was a bath, a steak the size of a dinner plate, and a bed. Odds were she'd at least get two out of three.

She hopped out of the van to virtual pandemonium. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, and they were all talking about the amazing stunt Alec had pulled off to rescue her. Alec, of course, was at the center of the pandemonium, and seemed to have no problem discussing how awesome he was.

Max had to admit, it had been pretty awesome.

She noticed Logan standing off to one side a bit, apart from the conversation. He appeared to be trying to catch her eye, but she purposely avoided his gaze. She didn't want to deal with him right now. Until she could sort out exactly how she felt about him, she didn't really want to deal with him at all.

The crowd began to move off toward the heart of Terminal City. Soon every transgenic would be taking about how Alec had saved her. God, he was going to be insufferably smug for months. He'd be reminding her off it daily for the next couple of…

Wait. Where was Alec?

He wasn't with the rest of the group, who had been so excited talking about what Alec had done that they hadn't noticed the subject of their attention had fallen behind.

Max slowed to a stop. Fear gripped her like a vice, and she told herself that she was being stupid. They were home. They were safe. There was nothing to be afraid of.

She hated when she was wrong.

She turned and saw Alec was standing by the back of the van, swaying slightly. She could literally see the color drain out of his face as she watched.

His left arm hung loosely at his side. Blood was dripping steadily from the fingertips of his hand, spattering on the asphalt in a wild Rorschach pattern. His right hand was inside his jacket pressing against his left shoulder, but then he pulled it away, eyes wide as he examined it.

His hand was drenched in blood.

Her eyes shifted back to his face, and there was a look in his eyes--a look that said he'd screwed up again, maybe this time more than could be fixed.

"Glass must've… shifted," he stammered. Then his legs buckled, and he was falling.

Max blurred to his side and caught him before he hit the ground. She caught him, just as he'd caught her.

As he clumsily tried to regain his feet--with Max's arms wrapped around him and his lifeblood pumping out onto the street--he wondered if he really was going to die saving Max. If that was the case, there was something he had to say.

"Thanks. But… doesn't make us even," he muttered, then struggled to maintain consciousness as she dragged him off to Medical.

"We there yet?"

"Keep pressure on that wound," Max snapped, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead instead of on him. She kept telling herself that he was going to be fine. It was just a nasty cut, and it was only a block and a half to Medical. He was going to be fine.

"We there… yet?" Alec repeated, his words starting to slur.

He asked the question ten feet from the door of the building that housed their medical facilities. He couldn't tell for himself that they were already that close, because he couldn't seem to raise his head any more. He watched in fascination as two pairs of feet became three.

"Almost there," Max assured him, a hint of worry in her tone. She'd told everyone that she would take Alec to Medical herself, because it wasn't that far and she hadn't thought his injury was that bad. Now she was beginning to doubt.

"Good," Alec sighed, and Max almost faltered as Alec leaned his full weight against her. "'Cause I think I'm gonna pass out."

He gave up trying to fight it; his eyes rolled up into his head as he let himself go.

"Alec!" Max cried out. She collapsed to the ground with him, breaking his fall.

She pressed her hand firmly against his wound and tried not to panic at how the blood flowed steadily against her fingers.

"Dammit, Alec, you'd better not die on me."

"Thought I'd find you here."

Max looked up from where she was sitting on the floor, with her back against the wall. The hadn't yet bothered to remove the broken handcuffs from her wrists. She hadn't eaten, she hadn't slept, and you could've played connect the dots with all the bruises on her body, but that didn't matter. Alec was on the other side of that wall, being sliced into by the Manticore field medics they loosely called surgeons. Logan stood there, looking down at her, an unreadable expression on his face and his hands shoved deep into his pockets.

"Hey," Max said, then looked away.

There was silence for a long while. Then Logan said, "It goes both ways, doesn't it?"

That caused Max to tilt her head to look up at him. "Huh?"

"Alec. I always thought he had a thing for you. Why else would a guy like that stick around when things got tough? But I didn't think that you…" Logan trailed off. He couldn't say it. Not out loud. "Do you?" he asked, his eyes intensely blue behind his glasses.

Max bowed her head, hesitating. Could she deny it? Could she really look Logan in the eye and say that she'd been sitting on the floor outside the operating room for several hours now just out of a sense of obligation to the man that had saved her?

"What if I do?" she said quietly, more asking than telling. What if she did have feelings for Alec? What then?

She turned her head to look up at Logan. He didn't have as much practice at guarding his emotions; she could tell how much her answer had hurt him. She hadn't meant to do it, but it had been coming on for a long time. Ignoring their problems had just made them worse.

She wasn't sure what Logan wanted from her. They couldn't be lovers; Manticore had seen to that. They'd tried being partners in his righteous crusade against injustice, and that had worked out just great, hadn't it? There was too much history between them to be casual friends. What was left for them, if not that?

Logan nodded, unable to speak around the lump in his throat. Max hadn't denied it. She hadn't exactly confirmed it, either, but this was Alec they were talking about. If things had been the same as they used to be, she would've been the first to threaten bodily damage to anyone that even hinted that she cared about Alec.

Max was a different person, now. She didn't need him. Not anymore. He turned to walk away, when she called out, stopping him.


He turned back, unable to stop the flicker of hope deep inside his heart. "Yeah?"

Max smiled apologetically at him. "I won't be going on any more missions. I know it's important work, but… I can't risk it. It's not just my life I have to worry about, now."

Logan was silent, breathing slowly as he let that flicker of hope die. "I understand."

"Take care of yourself. And if you, you know, get your ass into serious trouble or somethin', I still got your back."

He smiled weakly. "Thanks."

They didn't say goodbye. They didn't need to. It was understood.

As Logan walked away, Max let her head fall back and thunk against the wall. The dull pain was a welcome distraction from all the thoughts running rampant in her head.

She closed her eyes and settled in to wait.

Alec was okay. He'd come through the surgery just fine. It was all kind of anticlimactic really, considering how scared she'd been.

Once she'd carried Alec's unconscious form into Medical, the three transgenics that made up their medical team quickly discovered that Alec had been right. A piece of glass had imbedded itself in his shoulder, and, during all the excitement of trying to escape, must have had worked its way deeper until it had finally sliced through an artery.

The medics said it was no big deal--that they'd actually stitched up worse wounds on the battlefield with RPGs exploding all around them. The biggest problem they had was the fact that Alec kept regaining consciousness and interfering. He complained about their handiwork, threatening retribution if they left him an ugly scar. Finally, he pissed them off enough that one of the medics gave him a triple dose of sedative to knock him out cold. As a result, they'd told her that he was going to be out of it for at least a couple of hours.

Once she knew that he was out of danger, she'd headed back to her apartment. Thanks to a team of transgenics led by Alec, Luke, and Dix, most of the buildings in TC now had hot water. She filled the tub until it was almost overflowing, pouring in the bubble bath that had been a gift from Original Cindy. Then she virtually decimated her small stash of food to make the biggest sandwich possible; it wasn't a steak, but it would do. Shedding clothes and handcuffs, she sank down into the tub, her sandwich close at hand on a small stool. For the first time in days, she relaxed.

An hour later--a bit pruney but definitely more relaxed--Max hauled herself out of the tub. She purposely avoided looking at her reflection in the mirror; she didn't need to see the bruises to know that they were there. She wrapped herself in her threadbare yet comfortable robe and tumbled into bed.

But she couldn't sleep.

She stared at the ceiling for a half an hour, but she couldn't shut her brain off. Her thoughts kept drifting toward Alec.

They'd said he was okay, but what if something had happened since then? What if he had internal bleeding and they couldn't tell because they had shitty, second-hand equipment?

Max huffed and threw off the covers. She'd just have to check on him herself. Then, maybe, she could get some sleep.

When she returned to Medical, she ran into one of the medics--a sandy-haired X-series named Stan--outside of the room they had loosely termed "Recovery."

"You can go on in. He's awake and feelin' no pain. Pestered us until we gave him the good stuff. We're basically ready to do anything to shut him up at this point, so whatever you can do to keep him out of our hair is much appreciated. I'd kick him out right now if I wasn't afraid he might do something to tear those stitches before the healing process sets in."

Max rolled her eyes. Men--they were such babies when it came to pain. "I'll see what I can do."

Alec was sitting propped up in bed, shirtless, a bandage on his shoulder. He was picking at the bandage like a little kid picks at a scab. "Why's it always gotta be the shoulder?" he grumbled.

Seeing him there, pale from blood loss and the trauma of surgery, the evidence of his mortality blazing stark white against his skin, it truly hit home that Alec could've died.

He could've died. Because of her. For her.

She charged across the room and swatted him upside his dumb head.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"You stupid idiot!"

Alec rubbed his head, mainly for effect. "Gee, Max, is this the way you always thank people for saving your life? 'Cause if it is, I'll make sure I never do it again."

Max ignored him. She had learned over the past few months that the best way to deal with Alec and not want to kill him was to ignore three-quarters of everything he said. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurt?"

"Why? Would you have offered to kiss it and make it better?" Alec asked, suggestively waggling his eyebrows.

"You had a piece of glass in your shoulder the size of my thumb!"

"And they say size doesn't matter."

Max swatted at his head again. This time he ducked, grimacing when the move pulled at his stitches. It didn't really hurt, just felt kind of weird, but he figured maybe he could guilt Max into laying off. It was worth a shot, anyway. He raised his hands in mock surrender, affecting a pained look. "Hey, take it easy! Wounded, here."

Max glared at him, crossing her arms over her chest.

Okay, she wasn't buying it. He shifted uncomfortably under the weight of her stare. Looked like she wasn't going to leave until she got an answer to her question. Damn stubborn woman. Maybe he could throw her off balance.

"You kissed me. Excuse me if I was still in shock."

"Alec…" Max growled warningly. She had kissed him, and it had been kind of… wow, but she knew that wasn't the reason.

"Okay, fine," he snapped. He returned her glare, wishing that she would just go away so that he wouldn't damage the shaky truce between them since the Jam Pony incident. But he was too well-medicated to come up with a decent lie, so he gave her the truth. "I didn't want another 'been there, done that,' all right?"

Max had been prepared to fire off a scathing comeback to whatever it was he had to say, but her mouth snapped shut with an audible click at Alec's words. Had that really been the reason? Was that really what he thought of her?

Alec immediately regretted his words. Max had been through a hell of a lot in the past couple of days, and he hadn't wanted to add to it. With an apologetic look, he shrugged with his good shoulder. "You asked."

Max sat down hard on the edge of his bed, facing away from him so that he wouldn't see the hurt on her face. "I thought we were past all that.

"We were. We are, I guess, but… I don't know, Max. Every time I think things are different, something always happens to make me think that maybe they're not."

"Like me ignoring you and going off on Logan's Eyes Only mission." Alec didn't reply, but his silence was answer enough. She twisted to face him. "You think I don't trust you?"

Alec looked away. "It's not that…"

Her eyes widened as realization dawned. "You don't trust me."

And why did that hurt so much?

"I trust you with my life, Max. Just not my heart." He froze, then closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the pillow. "Damn. I said that last part out loud, didn't I? Stupid drugs."

They fell into an uncomfortable silence. Alec mentally cursed himself. They had just been getting used to being friends, and now he had to go and screw it up.

Max was right; he really was a stupid idiot.

Max stared at the floor as Alec's words sank in. He didn't trust her--not completely. He thought she didn't care. But still, he'd risked his own life to save her.

She could've walked away and let him keep on thinking that she didn't care. It probably would've been less complicated, in the end.

Oh, what the hell, she thought. When it comes to men, Complicated is my middle name.

"You know," she said, turning toward him and giving him a mock glare, "you're damn lucky you didn't get yourself killed."

It was like someone had popped the tension in the room with a needle. Alec's infamous smirk was back, making him somehow annoying and endearing all at once, as only Alec could be. "Luck had nothing to do with it, sweetheart. I got mad skillz."

Max rolled her eyes. "Yeah. My hero," she said, the words dripping with sarcasm.

She jumped off the bed, then froze. Vertigo gripped her as she remembered. She felt like she was falling again, on her way to certain death until Alec had snatched her from its clutches.

Alec reached forward and grabbed her arm, steadying her. "Hey. You okay?"

She bit her bottom lip and nodded, forcing herself to take slow, even breaths.

His grip on her tightened. "You sure? You might have a concussion or something."

Max nodded, then turned her head to look at him. His brows were drawn together with concern, and he hadn't let go of her arm.

He really was a hero.

She pulled gently away, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear in a nervous motion. "So…umm… thanks. For the hero thing," she added awkwardly, not really sure what to say to him.

She was alive because of him. How do you thank someone for something like that? Words could never be enough.

Alec ducked his head, mildly embarrassed and a little bit afraid that he would give away more than he already had. "What are friends for?"

Friends, Max thought. The word hardly seemed to do justice to the important role he'd come to play in her life. She'd always taken for granted that he'd be there, just like he'd always been since the day they met, even when she hadn't wanted him to be. It took the thought of no longer having him around to make her see that he was more important than she had ever realized.

Somehow, he'd managed to sneak in and stake out a tiny foothold on her heart when she wasn't looking.

Imagine that.

She silently walked back to him, feeling him jerk slightly in surprise when she took his hand in hers. "Alec?"

He raised his head to look at her. His heart was suddenly pounding, which was completely ridiculous since she was just holding his hand. It didn't mean anything. Just like the kiss hadn't really meant anything.

"Yeah?" he responded, his voice barely a whisper.

She rubbed her thumb slowly across the top of his hand, looking down at it as if she had never seen it before. Then she raised her eyes, looking at him in the same way she had looked at his hand.

She really had never seen him before. She'd seen plenty of what he wanted people to see--the smart-ass, the playa, the con man, even the solider. She'd always bought into the masks and the sleight-of-hand he used to protect the real Alec, because it had been easier than trying to figure out what was underneath it all.

She wondered how different things would've been if she had put a little effort into getting to know the real Alec instead of dismissing him as a self-centered pain in the ass.

"Next time, tell me when you're hurt, stupid," she said, giving his hand a little squeeze. The softness of her tone took the sting out of the words, turning them into gentle teasing instead of her usual biting insults.

She meant more than just the physical. It was time for them to be up front with each other, about everything. They'd gone through so much together and come this far; it was finally time to turn the corner.

He smiled at her, for once with no pretense or ulterior motive--just an honest display of emotion. "Sure thing, Max."

Alec noticed a slight blush colored Max's cheeks when he smiled at her like that. He liked the look of it on her. Even more, he liked that he was the cause of it. Looked like the mighty Max Guevara wasn't one-hundred percent immune to his charms.

Maybe he wasn't the champion of hopeless causes after all.

A/N: Did you really think that I would make you cry? Come on! It's Christmas! I'm not a complete Scrooge!

I think I've cleared my head enough to start on the sequel to The Friggin' Cure. I have to reread the stories in the series to make sure I have all the details right (and that's a lot of reading... sigh), so you definitely won't be seeing the first chapter until sometime after the New Year. Until then, I hope all of you have a happy holiday!

P.S. - There are a couple of characters that were introduced in my story "Boys Will Be Boys" that will be in TFC sequel. If you haven't read it, you might want to give it a quick look.