Title: Genetically Engineered Stray
Spoilers: Designate This
Summary: After escaping from Manticore in the beginning of Season 2, Max runs into Alec on the outside.
Disclaimer: None of it's mine. I'm just a sad little fangirl that spends her days writing fanfic and watching DVDs of her favorite shows :(
Somehow, the world outside of Manticore seemed just as different after Max's second escape as it had after her first.
Max knew it wasn't that it had changed, really. It was the juxtaposition. It was being ripped from one environment and being thrown into another completely different. It was ice cold water after a scalding bath. The world of filth and chaos back to back with the world of order and discipline. Black and white. Right and wrong. Simple and convoluted.
It was the tearing away of so many lies and beliefs that Max had wrapped so tightly around herself. All the little things she did in her desperate attempts to forget who she was.
Within a matter of days back at Manticore, she was adapted. In so many ways, it was like she had never left.
Because it hadn't been like being drafted, it had been coming home. Reintroduction of a wild animal into its natural habitat. The claws and teeth she'd kept mostly sheathed were bared in all their ferocity, and they were just as deadly as ever. Her time in the world of average men had not dulled the creature that she was created to be.
As much as she railed against everything Manticore was and everything it had done to her, it was her childhood and her upbringing. The first laws of survival she had learned were the lessons taught by drill instructors, and because they were the first they were, against all her efforts, the most comforting. Nostalgia clung to the rigid structure and singularity of purpose. Duty. Discipline. Teamwork.
Max had forgotten all those dirty little insidious secrets about Manticore. She had buried them so deep that she had fooled herself sometimes into believing she'd ditched the mindless solider Manticore had bred and trained her to be. She still kicked ass, but the way Max kicked ass.
But thrust back into that environment and she discovered just how close to the surface X5-452 was. For all her efforts since her first escape, that person was just waiting for its own escape. X5-452 came back to her as though she had never pushed it all away.
She was so very much the same infantry solider when she ran away the second time that Max felt lost all over again.
She thought she knew where her new place in life was. It was a place she had fought tooth and nail to claim. It was waiting for her, much the same as when she'd left. But she saw it with different eyes now. She saw her dirty apartment with Cindy and compared it to the orderliness of a barracks. She saw people on the street, aimless, shuffling, meandering masses of bedraggled and destitute human beings, and she held them against the unit in formation.
It was the pointless scrabbling of it all that made her jerk, made her see a homeless man on the street (who was really not much worse off than she was) and flinch away from the thought of touching him.
She went back to the world she'd left behind, but Manticore's grip was still tight around her. The fires were long since extinguished, but Max still felt the heat in her bones.
She was a perfect modern weapon thrown in with clubs and hammers, and she had to go through her day like she didn't know it. She had to associate with the weak and find camaraderie with them.
Max didn't say anything to Cindy about what had happened. The hard facts of Manticore, yes, but nothing about becoming X5-452 again. She couldn't confess those sins.
Familiar, too, was the loneliness of having no one like her to share her plight with. She knew that many other Manticore creations had escaped into the world this time, but she had not fled with them. She didn't know where they were.
Max had been home about three days. Back in her old apartment with Cindy and her motorcycle and Logan on her periphery whenever she wanted to throw her orbit that way. It was the very existence she'd been unwilling to give up.
She still clung to it, but she wasn't sure how tightly anymore. Now it was the grip of someone with nothing else to hold on to.
Cindy noted how quiet she was since coming back, but Max would just shake her head and Cindy would back off. Max couldn't talk to Cindy or Logan about the things she felt and feared, because while they could know they couldn't understand. She was alone in a world of anarchy all over again. She just hoped adjusting the second time would not take as long as it had the first.
One evening, Cindy was talking incessantly about a girl Cindy had hooked up with. Max was listening politely, her mind only half engaged, when Cindy moved the talk into bedroom antics. Against any conscious effort, Max found herself looking critically at Cindy's body and wondering who would touch a weak, imperfect, dirty body like that.
That was when Max bolted. She didn't have anyplace to go, but she couldn't bear to be in the same room with Cindy and chance more horrible thoughts like that popping into her head.
Cindy was a wonderful person, but all Max saw for a second was frailty.
Max walked the streets of Seattle alone, arms drawn into her sides and hands deep in her pockets. She tried to move without thinking. It was easy to do; Manticore didn't drill soldiers to think unless ordered to.
It was a cold night. Max's breath was fogging in front of her face with every breath. The fires lit in barrels that drew the detritus of humanity like a human bug lamp were globes of heat in bitterly chill air.
A few on the street called her name. People knew her here, knew Max. She ignored them and continued walking. She thought maybe, if she walked far enough, she'd outpace her past.
She'd worked so hard to make 'Max', and now it seemed that person was the façade. Maybe she was, and always would be, X5-452.
When she found herself, for the briefest moment, longing for direct orders, or a bunk beneath her, or nothing more unpredictable than morning drills, she thought that maybe Alec had been right all along. He'd stayed where he belonged. He became the weapon they bred and trained him to be. He accepted it.
But Max could never just accept it. Her DNA sequence must have been jacked, because she wanted a choice. The ability to choose, to make a decision for her own future, was a necessity she could not suppress.
She was afraid to think that if only Manticore had offered her the choice, then she may have stayed. Maybe if there hadn't been a brick wall but an open gate, she would have bowed to her genes and crawled back in her bunk that night of the escape.
A catcall to her left caught Max in just the wrong mood. In the days before she was recaptured, she would have mouthed off and walked away. Scum on the outside just did crap like that, and it didn't deserve to be noticed.
But Max was too close to X5-452 at that particular second, and she whirled to the lecherous man and had his throat in her fist before he could blink.
"Go rut with your own kind, you dirtbag," Max snarled, and with a heave she tossed the guy like he was nothing. He was nothing.
Max turned to continue on her way.
Her enhanced vision caught sight of something, and she stopped cold in her tracks.
It was a person huddled between a trash can and a soaked and soggy cardboard box. His knees were drawn up and his arms wrapped around his shins. His head was bowed.
It should not have given Max a second's pause. It was just another pathetic creature in a world of flawed, inferior beings.
It was the haircut, she decided, that caught her eye. It was clean. Military.
Max stared. Then she moved.
She crouched down in front of the ball of limbs and frowned, eyes taking in details. She reached out a hand to barely touch a forearm.
A fist shot out at her and would have clocked her if she hadn't been more than merely human. Max jerked out of the way and threw an answering block that off-balanced the man.
Max blinked at him. She hadn't thought of him, really, since the fire. She knew he'd escaped the blaze, but she hadn't really wondered where he went. He was an obnoxious ass and of all her fellow X5s, she cared about him the least.
Even if he had helped her escape in his own self-serving and traitorous way.
Max pushed the thought away. Unconsciously, she assessed Alec's condition. The battle triage was innate; she couldn't help the quick visual once-over of his status. He'd run afoul of some nasty characters, it seemed. His face was bruised and his bottom lip was bleeding. What worried her most was the teetering sense of balance. Alec was made to be more coordinated and agile than that.
Alec blinked, taken aback, and then took a good look at her. He seemed puzzled. "Max?"
"Yeah… what happened to you?" she reached out to touch his face.
Alec stiffened and pressed back against the chain length fence behind him.
It was definitely a change from the loud-mouth breeding partner she'd met in the barracks.
"Stop it," Alec snapped. "It's nothing."
"Right. What are you doing out here?"
Alec tensed and looked away. There was almost shame in his body language.
"Hey…" Max jostled his shoulder.
"I'm just trying to get some sleep… is that all right with you?" he asked peevishly.
Max narrowed her eyes. His lethargy, lack of coordination, uncharacteristic behavior… it could all be exhaustion.
"Here?" she asked incredulously, looking around him at the squalor he'd found in which to hunker down.
Alec dropped his head on to his knees and the muscles of his body seemed to go slack. "Yeah, doesn't it look cozy to you?"
"Looks like a rat-hole to me."
Alec brought up his head and it lolled as he pinned her with a hot and glassy stare. "I found a place… the guys who were living there weren't really the sharing type."
Max frowned thoughtfully and pressed her fingers to a cut on his eyebrow. "Is that where you got these?"
Alec pulled his head away from her hand. "This is all your fault, you know. If it weren't for you, I'd be in my bunk right now." Alec's head fell to his knees again, as though it were an immense effort to hold his own head up.
Max had to figure he had been awake since the fire.
She pondered his state a moment, then stated as fact, "You've never been on a long-term mission."
"I've been on plenty," he snarled.
"Any where you didn't go back to Manticore at night?"
Alec didn't answer.
"Any mission where you had to find a place to sleep on your own?"
Alec leaned his head back against the fence and let his eyes close. "You want to be useful? Just… keep eyes out for me so I can catch a few minutes. That's all I need."
Max looked around at the riffraff around them. They looked meek and harmless enough. "You expecting trouble?"
Alec, even dead tired, managed a slow and cocky smirk. "There are a few less bikers from that man-love pad than there was when I showed up looking for a bunk to crash on. They're probably not too happy about that."
"I didn't ask for your opinion."
Max stood and stared down reprovingly at him. He was oblivious, looking for all the world like he intended to make good on his word to take a combat nap for whatever time he might have Max on watch.
She wanted to hate him, but she looked at him and saw a lost brethren. She thought of him, abandoned in a world he didn't really know, so clueless and alone he didn't even know how to find a decent place to sleep.
She remembered how hard it had been to sleep at first, alone, when she'd lived the whole of her life until that moment with her fellow soldiers on lookout for her while her guard was down.
Until then, she had never really thought about just how vulnerable one was while they slept. Alone, it was painfully, frighteningly obvious.
"You can't sleep here," Max said.
"I could if you'd shut up."
"Just a few minutes!" Alec barked. He looked physically incapable of fighting with anything more than words. "I just want ten fucking minutes of your time so I can…" he started to drift mid-sentence.
Max sighed. "I know I'm going to regret this. Let's go."
Alec cracked weary eyes open at her. "Do you hate me that much? I'm not asking for an honor guard here, just a catnap."
"On your feet, that's an order."
Alec rose ponderously. "I don't take orders from you," he said sharply, though Max noticed he had stood at her command nonetheless.
"Come with me." Without checking to see if he would follow, she turned back toward her apartment building and started walking.
A minute later, she heard Alec behind her ask in a very tired voice, "Where are we going? If you want to work me over for not hating Manticore with every fiber of my being, I'm really not in the mood right now."
"Do you want to sleep or not?" she snapped, turning quickly to look at him. He was smaller out here in the world than inside Manticore, she noticed. Drawn in tight and defensive. The strain of being on his own with no backup, no home base, had chipped away at X5-494 and left Alec in its place. And Alec was a tired, homeless, lost man with no one to turn to.
Max remembered all too well what that was like. It made her take pity on him. He might be a jackass and a jerk, but he didn't deserve that feeling of helplessness. For a solider, there was nothing worse. Max knew.
And, in a screwed up way, he was family.
She might detest him at times, but she couldn't leave him on the street.
Alec said remarkably little the rest of the way to Max's apartment. He was so weary that he'd take orders from Max.
The apartment was dark and quiet when Max eased open the door. She paused in the doorway and listened for Cindy. She couldn't hear even the sound of her breathing. She must be out with that woman she'd been talking about endlessly.
Max entered the apartment and held the door open for Alec. "Home sweet home," she cracked dryly.
Alec shuffled in after her and seemed too tired to notice it. But he had to. Training ingrained in him the inability to fail to notice the lay of his surroundings. The exits, the weak spots, the defensible positions.
He just did a quick and cursory job of it.
"What a dump," he grumbled.
"I can gladly throw you back out on the street if you don't think my place is good enough for you."
Alec looked at her and said nothing. His look said it all. No matter how much he'd love to give her hell about the apartment and her life and her take on the universe, he needed her too badly. He was in the worse tactical position and he knew it.
Max grabbed him by the back of his jacket like he was an errant puppy taken in jaw by the nape of its neck by its mother and she hauled him into her bedroom.
Alec's eyes fell on the bed and she felt him nearly fold under her hand at the sight of promised rest.
"One word and I'll kick your ass," Max said with a shove that pushed Alec toward the bed.
Alec stumbled into the bedroom, blinked almost reverently at the bed, then he slipped his jacket off his shoulders. It pooled on the floor. His shirt followed. Shoes. Pants. Underwear. He stripped down to nothing in front of her, uncaring and unashamed that she was in the same room with him.
Max's years outside of Manticore told her to recoil at such blatant nudity outside of someone she meant and chose to sleep with. Nudity was a big deal to normal people.
In Manticore, it had been merely the machine under its dressings. The engine under the hood. It was only the soldier, the weapon. She wanted to feel the disgust of the average person at a naked body, the flagrant flaunting of private skin (particularly the body of someone for whom she didn't have any affection), but she just didn't. She was an X5 and so was Alec. It was just flesh over muscle and bone and she couldn't make herself see it as anything cruder than that.
Of course, if their bodies weren't honed weapons, conditioned and strong – if their bodies were as ugly as average human beings' bodies, flabby and hairy and imperfect - maybe the children of Manticore would be more modest about nudity, too.
But they weren't built to be something to be ashamed of.
Alec, bare and exhausted, all but fell onto the bed and the last of his energy vanished. She doubted she could have gotten him out of bed then if she tried.
That wasn't true. She could bark an order and he'd jump. He had nothing left, but he'd jump just the same.
He sprawled on her bed face-down for a moment, just relishing the sense of impending sleep, then he habitually rolled on to his side, back to the middle of the bed, his long body only taking up exactly half of the mattress.
It was unconscious. Training instilled since childhood.
It was his proffered position of reciprocal watch while they slept.
Max wanted to be put out and storm back to the living room to spend an uncomfortable night on her and Cindy's lumpy, ancient couch. She wanted to take that moral high ground, with Alec more than most. She wanted to do what a normal person would do.
But she was so little of Max these days and so much of X5-452.
Without feeling, without emotion, she stripped down to nothing and climbed into bed with Alec.
He was already asleep by the time she joined him.
She turned her back to him and lay on her side. Her eyes watching his back, and his eyes watching hers, symbolically if nothing else.
Max closed her eyes and hated just how quickly and easily sleep came with a fellow soldier pressed to her back.