Alec woke with a jolt to confusion, terror, and pain. He bobbed in ice cold water, thrashing and blinking against the glare of bright light. The motion made the searing agony in his hip and thigh bad enough that he opened his mouth to scream, but the breath choked in his throat. His elbows connected with slick plastic walls and he scrabbled at them and slipped, flailing and dunking himself under the frigid water. Water burned his sinuses as he inhaled it. Surfacing, he managed to grab hold of the lip of the tub and pull himself up, coughing and spewing water from his mouth and nose with violent hacks.
Strong hands grasped his shoulders, slipping a little on bare skin. Someone was talking – had been talking for a while now, deep and insistent. He made himself listen. "Alec! It's Logan. Everything is all right. You're hurt but we've got you. You're going to be fine. Do you understand?"
When he recognized the familiar cadence of Logan's voice, Alec's panic dialed down a notch. Not like before (lasers and restraints and brainwashing, oh my). He forced himself to still as the glare of the overhead light became a mere 100 watts and not a blinding searchlight. He found himself sitting naked and shivering in a bathtub. The bathroom sported typical post-Pulse décor: broken shower tiles, rusted faucets, huge brown water spots staining the ceiling and walls.
Alec released his fists from where they were knotted in Logan's shirt front, but found it impossible to relax the cramped muscles in his hands. He looked down at himself sitting in pink tinged bathwater. Bloody gashes marred the skin on his right side from ribs to thigh. Broken ribs made it impossible for him to fill his lungs to capacity. Inside, the broken ends of his ribs seemed to saw together, scraping, at his smallest movements.
The Fundamentals of Pain Management had been drilled into all of the Manticore kids practically from infancy. He applied the principals now, shoving the searing agony aside for more immediate concerns.
"What happened?" he asked, voice hoarse.
Logan looked scared and wet. Alec had apparently pitched quite the fit. Wet swaths decorated Logan's shirt and pants and water spots clung to his glasses, magnifying parts of his green eyes in a haphazard pattern. "You wouldn't wake up," he said. "Max said that putting you in cold water might revive you. Something about Manticore's biological system reboot."
Yes. The Cold Water Cure. He'd only seen it applied once, to a fellow squad member when he'd lain in a coma due to a head injury. It had looked excruciating. That assessment, he decided ruefully, was about right.
"Come on," Logan said, helping him upright. "You're shaking like a leaf. Let's get you out of here and patched up."
Alec stood, hunched and trembling and feeling rather like the shredded chew toy of an excitable guard dog. Logan fumbled around, cursing under his breath, as he pulled Alec's arms through a too-small blue robe that did little more than cover his nakedness. Logan took most of Alec's weight as they exited the bathroom, Alec hissing in agony at every step.
Max stood in the room beyond, her hands jammed in the pockets of her tight leather jacket and her eyes unnaturally large in her pale face. They were in her apartment in Terminal City, he realized suddenly.
"Alec," she blurted out, expressive eyes liquid with concern. Then, as if hearing the worried tone of her voice, she took hold of herself. Familiar annoyance settled on her features and she ordered brusquely, "Lay down on the bed. You're getting blood all over the floor."
Alec looked down at his right leg where blood snaked over his kneecap and down his shinbone in a red trickle. "Sorry," he said.
Max shot him an exasperated look that he didn't have the strength to interpret, and went to dig around underneath the kitchen sink.
Logan laid a white fluffy towel down over Max's rumpled bedspread and guided Alec down on his left side, murmuring, "Easy." Alec inhaled a whiff of Max's shampoo as he rested his head on her pillow. Want struck him low in the gut, deeper and more potent than the almost distant discomfort of his wounds.
Max stalked up and unceremoniously plopped down on the side of the bed, her hands filled with bandages and first aid supplies.
Logan stood back, careful to maintain distance from Max's poisonous skin. "I've got this," Max said over her shoulder to him. "You should go, make contact with the seller and see if he'll still deal."
The tone of her voice was dismissive and something like dismay flickered over Logan's features before he said softly, "I'll call as soon as I find out anything." He slipped out the door, leaving an awkward silence in his wake.
She reached for the tie at the front of what was evidently her robe, and then seemed to think better of it, and instead pulled the fabric up over Alec's naked flank and hip. The action made him feel strangely vulnerable despite the careful way she avoided exposing him. He knew for certain that she wasn't particularly modest; Manticore hadn't been real big on modesty, what with its communal … everything.
Max worked in silence for a while, threading a needle and punching it through the skin around the ragged cuts on his hip and thigh, efficient and impatient. He tried not to think about the stinging pinch of the needle, and concentrated instead on the sounds that the building's scattered transgenic tenants made. Somewhere, a dog – or possibly a dog boy – barked. Somewhere else, bacon sizzled in a frying pan.
"You're such a dumb ass," she commented.
He grunted back a cry of pain as she tied off the gauze with unnecessary roughness. "Maxie, you say the sweetest things." He paused, then admitted, "I don't remember what happened."
"It figures." She snorted and reached around him to stuff another pillow under his head. "We were in Sector 12, where you and your dumb ass jumped out in front of a speeding car."
He touched his forehead, felt gravel and dirt and something slick and wet, then brought his fingers down to see blood. He tried to think. "We were waiting for a tryptophan shipment."
Her gaze slid sideways toward him. "And someone tipped White off. He decided to make a hood ornament out of me and you pushed me aside--" she snapped a finger in front of his eyes. "Any of this coming back to you?"
Actually, it was. He remembered standing in the doorway of one of the anonymous run-down apartment buildings in the inner city. The front door was in an alcove recessed from the street. Max leaning against the front door, relaxed and unconcerned that Logan couldn't see her from the street. And that Mr. High and Mighty Eyes Only was ten minutes late. She merely shrugged when Alec complained about it.
"Cool your jets, Pretty Boy. He'll be here when he's here."
Alec lifted an eyebrow. "Pretty Boy? Why Max, I didn't know you thought of me that way."
Her face twisted in annoyance. "I don't."
Oh, Maxie. Yanking your chain just never got old.
He took her small cold hand in his and pulled her into his chest. She tried to push away from him, but he wrapped his arms tight around her slim form, trapping her against him. "I think you do, Maxie." He pitched his voice low and smooth; sexy. If he hadn't been standing so close up against her he would have missed the way his words caused her to shiver ever so slightly.
She covered her reaction by shoving hard at him. He snatched her back against his chest. "Aw, don't be like that. We're supposed to be pretending we're together, like you told Logan. I'm just trying to make it look authentic. I'm an affectionate kinda guy. Ask any of my lovers. They'll tell you."
Max froze in his arms and tilted her chin up to level angry dark eyes on him. "Let me go or I will hurt you."
Alec released her. "All right, all ready. No need to get physical. You know, unless you want to."
She stepped out onto the sidewalk, tossing over her shoulder, "Shut up, Alec. And get over here. I see Logan."
She jerked her thumb toward the intersection, where lo and behold, Logan was sitting in his piece of crap car in the left hand turn lane, waiting for traffic to clear.
That's when Alec saw him: a glimpse of a hard eyes set in a pale face behind the wheel of a late model black sedan. White. He punched the accelerator and zoomed through the intersection directly toward Max. Alec didn't even have time to warn her.
He fisted his hand in the back of her jacket and flung her into the recessed doorway, flexing to follow her; only he didn't quite make it before the world exploded around him.
"I remember," Alec said quietly.
Max's lips flattened and something hard settled in her face.
"I guess you didn't get White, huh?"
"Sorry, Alec, but I wasn't exactly thinking about him while you were flying fifty feet through the air and then bouncing along the asphalt like a kid's plastic ball. My bad."
He snorted. "I aim to please."
"Well, you're a bad shot." She knotted and broke the string from his stitches and as she did so, Alec noticed her hand trembling.
He caught her small hand. It felt thin and cold in his grip. "What's wrong? Why are you--" He broke off, amazed. "Are you actually worried about me, Maxie?"
She snatched her hand away. "Try pissed. Your stupidity cost us a good contact."
"Trying to protect you is stupid?"
"Everything you do is stupid," she bit back.
Her scorn hurt. Normally, he'd just laugh it off or ignore it, but tonight he just didn't have the strength to do either. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing, trying to shore up his defenses against the pain in his chest and hip, against the pain of Max's reaction to him. He wished that last thing, in particular, didn't hurt so continuously.
Her breath hitched slightly, and he felt her eyes boring holes into him, radiating emotion. He expected that emotion to be anger, recrimination, and possibly disgust, but when he opened his eyes again, her lovely face was unguarded for once, her expression … tender?
She stood up suddenly, rubbing her palms on her thighs as if they itched. "I'll go find you some painkillers."
She made it to the door by the time he levered himself out of bed, shrugged off the robe, and twisted one of the towels around his hips. Just before she escaped, he blurted out, "Don't go."
She froze, hand on the doorknob, as he hobbled toward her. "I've got to go – you need medicine --"
He swallowed. He'd once told Asha that he wouldn't pussyfoot around a woman; he'd tell her if he wanted her. If he loved her.
"I need you, Max."
She whipped around, face flushed, back against the wall. It was dangerous, putting her in that position.
"Don't say things like that!" She snapped.
"It's the truth," he said. He didn't care that his voice slurred. That his ribs burned. That's she'd more than likely shoot him down. He'd waited too long for this already – almost died today without letting her know.
"Get back." She pushed at his uninjured shoulder. He planted his feet. The moist heat of her breath puffed against his bare chest. "I'm warning you. Get back." Her voice trembled; so did her chin.
When she shoved him next he stumbled back a step, breath catching as a red haze of pain from his broken ribs blanketed his vision. "Always hurting me, Max."
"And you're always taking it," she sneered. Then she pushed against his chest, again and again, the motion wrenching him from side to side. It hurt, but he just stood there, taking it, his breath rushing out in little grunts as she struck him. It took far too long for her to wear herself out. When she finally did, she leaned against his battered chest, panting. Tears bathed her cheeks. He smoothed the hair back from her face gently.
"I love you, Max."
She slumped further against him, the fight rushing out of her like the air from a balloon.
"Hey," he said, coaxing her to turn her face up to his. Reluctantly, she did. Even tear-stained and wild-haired, she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. He smiled at her. "I'm going to kiss you now. And while it would be completely in character for you to belt me in the face afterward, I'd really prefer that you didn't."
Her lips curved upward and she rolled her eyes. "You're such an ass."
"Yeah, well, you still love me."
He bent his head and pressed a soft kiss to her lush lips, found them parted and pliant and intoxicating. She tasted like honey and whiskey and woman--strong but yielding, more than a match for him in every way. Deepening the kiss, he slid his fingers into the silky hair behind her ear, and heard her moan. He curled his other hand around her hip, pulling her snug against his body. Despite the fact that he could barely stand, he felt heat quickening in his groin. He released her lips and pressed wet, gentle kisses along her jaw and down her throat, whispering her name over and over again. When he raised his head to look her in the eye she cupped his chin with her slim, soft hand. And this time she didn't shut off the tenderness or force back the spring of fresh tears in her eyes.
"Alec," she replied.
He'd never really understood the importance of names to her, why she insisted on naming everyone when they all had perfectly good numbers that they were used to and everything. But now, hearing his name on her lips, he realized that it was her way of acknowledging him as a human being, alive and special and real.
He smiled. "You didn't deny it. That you love me."
"You try any more stupid heroics like that again and I will kick your ass. You got it?"
"Mmmhmm. Is that what you call this? Kicking my ass?"
She let out a breath in exasperation. "Just shut up, would you? I've got a better use for those lips."
This time, she kissed him.