Title: Behind Masks
Spoilers: "Hello, Goodbye" and "The Berrisford Agenda"
Summary: When he wasn't strutting around like a peacock, Max saw the soldier Alec was made to be. He faked nonchalant and care-free, but it was an act. It was his idea of mimicking a normal person in the world outside of Manticore.
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 :(
Author's Note: Not part of my Stray Series ("Genetically Engineered Stray", "The Cat Came Back", and "By Any Other Name")
Max sat on the stool in her kitchen, watching with uncharacteristic calm and unconcern while Alec moved around her apartment. He had to hole up somewhere while his unjust label of murderer was cleaned off his record, and strangely Max was okay with him staying at her place.
He had been unaccountably kind to her since she told him about how she had killed his twin. He didn't give her hell about it. He just pressed his lips to the top of her head, held her, told her he was sorry for what she had had to do, and damn it all if she hadn't found that really comforting.
More often than not, Alec surprised her. She should probably take that to mean she should stop expecting so little of him, but she was used to thinking of him as a silver-tongued, philandering smart alec jerk, and she just wasn't big enough to change that opinion easily or quickly.
She wasn't saying she didn't have her own issues - stubbornness being foremost among them.
Usually Alec surprised her in little ways. Small gestures where she'd been bracing for sarcasm and callous selfishness. Sincerity when she didn't think he was physically capable of anything but screwing around and cracking jokes.
Sometimes, though, he surprised her big time.
Rachel Berrisford had been a huge surprise.
Alec always struck her as someone who never had or would care about anyone except himself. He was looking out for numero uno and made it pretty plain to the world that was his objective. It was something she could despise about him, even though she had been just like him not so long ago.
Truthfully, Max had been thinking the worst about the whole Berrisford situation… until she saw Alec whispering brokenly to a comatose Rachel. Until she saw Alec cry for her. He used the word 'love', and Max was shocked when she realized he actually meant it. Max had always been so holier-than-thou with Alec, but when he told Rachel he loved her, he meant it more than she ever had.
That knocked her on her ass. She backed off, handled him gently, and he seemed to appreciate it for a while (though he never said as much). He was quiet for quite a while afterward. Normal was worried he was ill and fretted about his workload being too much. Then Alec got over it, covered it up, buried it, whatever. He was back to his obnoxious self and Max fell back into their old routine of griping and arguing. It was comforting and familiar and predictable.
Then tonight brought that carefully crafted tête-à-tête back to its knees. Alec showed her pure, unstained compassion when she would have been expecting snarky and condescending.
Time to retreat and reevaluate.
She didn't want to tell him about Ben. Ben had been her brother, even if he was Alec's twin, and she didn't want to share the tragedy of his final moments with Alec. He couldn't understand how she felt and so she shouldn't even try.
But she told him anyway. She wasn't really sure how it happened, it just kind of came out of her, and she was screaming inside when she heard him walk around the kitchen counter and approach her. She wasn't ready to fight him, to spar with him over what she had done. She just couldn't.
But Alec didn't ask her to. He wrapped an arm around her and let her cry. He didn't say anything. He was a warm, protective presence, and she broke in his half-embrace and still felt safe.
When Max had shed her tears and collected herself, he just gave her a squeeze and walked away, leaving her recouping and weary on her kitchen stool.
She was still on that stool, an hour later, just observing life… which, for an apartment empty but for Alec and herself, amounted to observing him.
He was solemn now, digging through hodge-podge closets in her place, pulling out misshapen pillows and extra blankets, fixing the lumpy couch up for a bed for the night. When he wasn't swaggering and strutting around like a peacock, she saw the soldier he was made to be. He faked nonchalant and care-free, but it was an act. It was his idea of mimicking a normal person in the world outside of Manticore. But it was only that… camouflage. He was just as much predator as she; she idly watched the confident movement of his body as he prepared a bunk for himself. He wasn't acting now, perhaps too tired for it, and his body language was much more honest for it.
It was the real Alec. It was a shame everyone else didn't get to see him like she did at that moment.
Alec turned, caught her eye, and they just stared at each other a moment.
She had to admit, he was devastatingly handsome (even if she would never breathe a word of that admission to Alec). He was made to be the best and more than the human body had to offer.
He offered a small, gentle smile that almost made Max smile back.
"Should I be expecting Cindy to stumble in during the night?" he asked with an abortive gesture at the couch turned bunk.
"She said she'd stay up at the hospital with Logan. She'll probably stay the night and take him home in the morning."
Alec nodded. "You don't have to stay here and babysit me, if you want to go be with him."
Max sat straighter on reflex. "Actually… I don't."
Everyday Alec would have reamed her for confessing such a slight of her dear ol' Logan, but tonight Alec just nodded. And she knew that he understood, which made this night even stranger. Alec had an unnerving capacity to read her, to get her, but it was usually masked by the façade of Alec the untouchable.
When he wasn't pretending, he was frighteningly insightful when it came to Max. Was it just their shared transgenic status? Their similar childhoods? Or was Alec on the cusp of surprising her yet again?
She didn't know and she was too tired to figure it out.
She saw him look around the room, turning a small circle. He frowned to himself.
"What are you looking for?" she asked, her voice still pitched low. She was almost afraid to use her normal tone of voice, as if the volume would destroy the strange peace they had made tonight.
"Where's your TV?"
Max smirked. "Don't have one."
Alec looked hard at her. Any other day he would have looked wounded and indignant and shocked out of his gourd, but tonight he just gauged her, frowned, and turned away with a half-sigh of resignation.
Max frowned. Alec didn't strike her as the couch potato type, one to just idle around eating chips and watching whatever crap was on the television, but he did. He zoned out in front of television sets like he was a cat in front of an aquarium. It didn't seem to fit him. She would expect him to be like her; not content with watching when he could be doing. They were bred to be active, on the move, energetic. What worth was a solider who wanted to veg constantly? "Why do you like watching TV so much?"
Alec turned warily to her, his expression slightly guarded. That was another one of the little Alec surprises for the night. Max didn't understand why asking about his television fascination would be a question that might make him cagey.
She got the feeling that if she'd asked this question yesterday or tomorrow, she'd get a flippant answer.
Alec sat down slowly on the edge of the couch, the rumpled blanket and grungy pillow balled up behind him. He pursed his lips, rubbed his hands absently together, and looked away. "If I concentrate on it, I can stop thinking."
She would have teasingly accused him of not thinking most of the time, television or not, but not today. She stood and walked across the living room to join him on the couch. She sat down beside him, leaned back, and watched his profile closely.
He eventually looked over at her, and he had been right about what he told her had been said about him in the jailhouse. He did have sincere eyes. When he wanted to woo a woman or when he was just plain Alec without the window dressing.
Alec considered her pensively. "Don't you ever get tired of it?"
"What?" she almost whispered.
"Being you, what you are."
Max inhaled sharply and looked away from his gaze. "All the time," she barely croaked.
Alec leaned back, reclining shoulder to shoulder with her. It was like the couch was their own little foxhole, and they the soldiers they were meant to be, holding back the enemy together. But tonight the enemy was tomorrow, when this honesty and sincerity and trust faded and the old Max and Alec were back in charge and snapping peevishly at each other.
"If I concentrate on the TV enough, I stop thinking about being me. I sort of become nobody. Just a guy in front of a screen."
Max thought it sounded kind of nice, which probably said a lot about her own messed up psyche. She and Alec might be screwed up in more of the same ways than she thought.
Alec's stomach grumbled unexpectedly.
Alec rubbed his stomach. "Don't suppose you've got anything edible stashed around here I could get into, do ya?"
Max rolled her eyes. "Whatever you can find in the kitchen is fair game. I'm going to take a shower." The talk of killing her brother made her feel unclean.
Max took a long time in the shower, treating herself to a long, hot soak when most of her showers were Manticore-style. In and out in record time. She took her time getting dressed and brushing her hair, too. She didn't have it in her to be expedient or intense. She was just tired. Not so much in the sense of being sleepy, but just what Alec had said. Tired of being herself.
She slipped out of the bathroom quietly, aware that it was late and that Alec may already be asleep. Given how little it took to wake an X5, she moved as though walking on eggshells.
But she knew right away Alec wasn't sleeping. She froze in the hallway when the reason why she knew he was awake struck her.
She could hear him in the living room.
She couldn't bring herself to move for a second, so stunned was she by the sound of Alec's melodic voice. It was yet another Alec surprise for the night. It was like the masked amazement at finding out he could play piano. And not just chopsticks. He could play classical masterpieces effortlessly.
Alec probably thought she was still holed up in the bathroom. She doubted he would be singing if he thought she could hear him. She knew she should slink into her bedroom and grant him privacy, but she was drawn forward. It was almost as though her feet moved of their own accord.
Alec was standing in the living room, flipping through her and Cindy's battered CD collection, obviously trying to find something to listen to. If television wasn't an option, apparently music was a suitable substitute.
And apparently in lieu of something he considered decent music, his own voice would suffice.
"… won't you break… scatter pieces of all I've been… bowing to all I've been…" it was low-pitched and gentle, sung softly so as not to be heard in the bathroom of the apartment.
Max listened in rapt attention.
Alec had a beautiful voice. She should have expected it, his speaking voice melted women's resolve and resistance left and right, but she just never expected this of Alec.
She stepped lightly into the living room, his back still turned to her.
"… all I pray is wrong… and all I claim is gone…"
"Manticore did a real nice job," Max said by way of announcing her presence.
Alec whirled to face her, surprise registering on his face for a second. "Hey... I thought you were… Manticore what?"
Max nodded toward him. "You know, when they… just saying, their music lessons... The piano and the singing... it's… you're… good." Max shrugged. Way to compliment a guy. She should work on making the compliments at least almost as easy to dish out as the insults.
Understanding claimed Alec's expression… and instead of cocky and proud, he looked sucker-punched.
"Manticore didn't teach me to sing," he said gently, brokenly, putting the CDs in his hands back where they belonged.
Max cocked her head in question.
Alec didn't look at her, but he could sense her questioning gaze all the same. His hand rose to his mouth, his index finger sliding along his lower lip. "Rachel taught me."
Max bit her lip. "Oh."
Alec gave a sickly, insincere smile. "I'm gonna turn in for the night. Been a ball-buster of a day."
Max frowned as she watched him divest himself of jacket, shoes, and pants, leaving him standing in her living room in boxers and a t shirt. He lay down on the couch and pulled the spare blanket over him.
Max would usually turn around and go to her bedroom, but tonight she went to Alec instead. He'd turned his back to the room, his face nearly pressed into the back of the couch. She could feel him tense as she got close. He knew full well she was standing right over him.
His body language was loud and clear. He didn't want to talk about it. Didn't want to talk about her. Wanted to hide from that pain.
Max hated herself for ever thinking ill of the whole Alec and Rachel situation. True, she couldn't have known before that moment in Rachel's bedroom, but Max felt retroactively bad for thinking the worst. She stood by a lot of the other things in Alec's life she'd disparaged and disliked, because Alec deserved the shit he caught for a lot of the stuff he did.
But he never deserved any flak for Rachel.
Logan had been snide about the Berrisford matter and Alec's part in it. Max actually resented Logan for that. Even still the memory of Logan's dubious 'you think he really cared about her?' comment rankled Max. Logan didn't understand. He couldn't see what Max did; just how strong Alec had felt about Rachel.
Logan grew up knowing love. Being handled gently by it, even if by his standards he'd had heartaches and bad experiences, which no doubt amounted to a few bad break-ups with any number of girlfriends.
It paled in comparison to a born and raised soldier, always taught he was just a part of a military machine, more lugnut than person, being loved by someone for the human side of himself he had been trained all his life to spurn. Logan had no clue what it was like to discover belonging to the human race through the power of someone's love for the person Alec was and not the soldier.
Alec was tense, faking dozing off and willing Max to leave him alone.
Instead, Max sat down on the edge of the couch, her hip pressed against his back.
He stopped breathing.
"What was she like?"
Alec sucked in a breath, opened his eyes, and clenched his fists. He slowly, reluctantly, glanced over at her.
Max offered her softest, most honest smile.
Alec frowned, looked away, then slowly shifted on to his back. He stared up at her, trying to read her intent in her expression. Rachel was a raw wound, and he would not touch it for any reason.
Except, apparently, for honest, genuine interest in who Rachel Berrisford had been. Maybe Alec wanted her to live on in someone's memory beside his just own.
Alec licked his lips. "Soft. She was… you know, she laughed. She played these little games during lessons, trying to make me smile with silly songs when she was supposed to be playing Bach. Rachel," Alec swallowed hard and looked down at his hands. "She was so innocent. She didn't have that look, you know."
Alec fidgeted. "The look in her eyes that she'd killed people."
Max knew exactly the look Alec meant. They were ghosts that she struggled with every time she looked in a mirror. They were the remnants of a killer should could never escape.
Alec glanced up at her and the same ghosts were in his eyes, too.
"I'm sorry," Max whispered.
Alec took a deep breath and Max watched a look of pain flash across his features.
"She, ah…. she…" Alec couldn't make himself say it.
So Max did. "She loved you."
Alec clenched his jaw. The muscles in his cheeks jumped with the effort. "I… I can't," he croaked.
"Then don't," Max whispered. "I just… I wanted to know what she was like. Thank you."
Alec nodded stiltedly, rolled over, and nearly brought the blanket up over his head. His breathing was tense and shallow.
Max left him alone then, staggered to think of just how much Alec must have loved Rachel to still feel her death so acutely after all this time.
Max had a dreadful feeling she wouldn't be as crushed if Logan died. It made her sick and she hated herself for that, but she suspected it was the truth.
She also knew Alec would be, more or less, back to his usual self in the morning. Whatever peek she had been permitted at the Alec behind the mask would be covered up again with the light of day. She couldn't really blame him; the Max who had confessed with tears to killing Ben would be tucked back in a dark closet by morning.
They couldn't function in the world as those people. They needed their defenses, their walls, their constructed fronts to hold back everything.
But it was comforting to know that somewhere, deep inside the attitude and colorful wrapping, they both hid a softer version of themselves. The people they might have been if Manticore had not been their nursery and school.
It didn't matter that those parts of themselves would so rarely surface. Max and Alec wouldn't know how to deal with them.
But Max knew that the next time she was feeling lonely and misunderstood by the entire freaking universe, she would hold on to the memory of Alec's arm around her, his lips pressed to her hair.
This time out of Manticore, she wasn't alone.