Three minutes, thought Max, staring over the lean shadows of Alec's back.

He faced the window of their small motel room, seemingly asleep and surprisingly silent (surprisingly, considering his normally mouthy self).

Max was also silent, but her mind was loud with questions and arguments, and those sentiments muddled her vision more than did the threadbare curtains over the couch on which he 'slept.'

Three minutes. That's how long their intimate kissing and dancing lasted before the song ended and Alec suggested they turn in for the night.

It was like a light switch. One minute, Max was weak in the knees with Alec's unreasonably soft lips and skilled tongue massaging hers, and the next minute, they were silently walking back to the motel room, their scuffling feet on jagged rocks the only noises which dared make themselves known.

He had gone to the car to get their belongings as she slipped into the darkened room and mentally panicked. What did all of this mean? Was it just a comfort kiss? Internally she called out to the Blue Lady for some clarity and advice, because she realized she really didn't want it to be just a comfort kiss.

With her heart beating rapidly, Max marked a path through the empty room to the bathroom.

One bed. Only one bed, she noticed, her mind excited racing over the possibilities. Would they share the bed like they had at the Lux? And if so, would things turn out differently, different than hugging the edge of the mattress to avoid his warmth, keeping turned from him so she wouldn't be tempted to stare at him? Or would he see the one bed and immediately offer to take the first leg of the drive back to Seattle, just to avoid it altogether? Somewhere in her subconscious, she wondered if he was freaking out about this, too.

Behind the bathroom's closed door, Max leaned against it, grateful for the time alone to attempt to assess the situation, even if all she could actively think about was how good he tasted.

Switching the light on, Max took in the small, clean room. Two of the four bulbs atop the vanity were burned out, but the shower curtain looked clean and the toilet paper was folded into a triangle at the hanging end.

She lifted her eyes to see her reflection. They'd been through a lot over the past few days, and it certainly showed on her. Dirty, tired, tear-stained and rumpled.

Max slipped off her shoes and turned on the shower, and as she gradually undressed in preparation for the shower, she heard the motel door open. Part of the main room's light spilled under the bathroom door, and as she heard their bags hit the floor, Max calmed, knowing Alec was there.

It wasn't until a minute later, under the gentle pressure of the shower spray, that she realized she hadn't brought her clothes in with her. Oh well, she thought. I'll just have to be a big girl and wear a towel to go grab them.

Max looked down to the ring again. It was terrifying to admit she was getting used to it, and it was pretty, and she didn't want to give it back just yet. All of it was terrifying.

Once her shower was complete, she toweled off and wrapped the white terry-cloth around her body, preparing to grab her suitcase; however, no extra light seeped under the door. Alec must have turned off the light and gone to sleep.

Opening the door, she peered into the room. Directly in her path rested her case. She smiled, bent to lift the luggage, and swung it into the bathroom. She could see her own silhouette shadowed across the room, falling over Alec's prone form at the couch.

Once that thin door closed her off from him once again, Max took a deep breath. He hadn't taken the bed; he had just done the chivalrous thing and made a bed out of the couch. Part of it was relieving, because now they didn't have to address the kiss or feel awkward talking about going to bed, but the other part made her feel anxious, because she wanted to talk about those things, to get a feel for what he was feeling.

Quickly, she changed into clean underwear and pulled out and put on the short nightgown she thought she was going to wear back when they should have had separate rooms. She sat on the lidded toilet, combed her hair, and surveyed the room, thinking about the past few days.

Alec had really opened up, letting her see who he really was. He'd really come a long way since that first day in her cell. The respect he inspired in Biggs and Trip and Scar, the respect he offered to and inspired in her. She smiled to herself and towel-dried her hair. Plus, he wasn't too shabby in a tux.

Softly, she packed up her dress and heels. There'd be no saving the dress now that it was bloodied and dirtied, but she wasn't ready to part with it just yet. She clicked off the light and opened the door, carried out and set down her luggage, and pulled back the covers of the bed.

On the rightmost pillow sat a small, shiny object. From the very little light that leaked into the room, the object glimmered, and she could see by the shadows around it that it was the face of a black cat with shining chrome eyes.

When she picked it up, it became clear that it was a pendant. She sat down facing the window and looked at it.

Clearly it came from Alec. What she wasn't sure about was when he had the time to procure said pendant. She lifted her gaze to him and found he was leaning up on one elbow, watching her face.

"Do you like it?" he asked in a gravelly, low voice.

Max's mouth went dry, staring at the darkened parts of his eyes under slightly disheveled 'couch head.' She smiled. "I love it."

He gave a lopsided grin. "Good. I have a contact that has the perfect chain. I'll get it tomorrow." Careful not to peep too long, he took in Max's attire appreciatively, then promptly turned to face the window.

Tucking her feet into the cool sheets, Max set the pendant on the nightstand and stared at Alec's back.

Three minutes.

Three minutes, Alec thought in the shower the next morning. Three minutes of the scariest and most beautiful minutes of my life.

As he washed his hair, he tried to wash away the negative thoughts creeping into his mind. Was that only a one-time thing with her, or was it more? He hoped it was more, and that was the scariest part of all. Because why would she ever go for a guy like me. She's got me pigeon-holed as a screw-up, and I proved that this week, if nothing else.

What if she didn't feel the same? What if it had been a pity drink, followed by a pity dance, followed by a pity kiss? A pity kiss that lasted the better part of three minutes, his brain argued.

Momentarily, he wondered what she really thought of the cat. Was she just being polite?

Max, polite? Man, those are two words previously never used in the same sentence. If she were in here, she would have smacked me for that, he was another dangerous thought, because it led to the idea that if she were in there, she'd be in the shower-

He cut off that thought. No reason to get excited, he warned himself.

When he exited the bathroom fully dressed eight minutes later, he saw that Max had already taken her stuff out to the car as she said she would. Dropping the key at the nightstand, Alec made his way out the door and toward the vehicle.

"How'd you sleep?" Max asked as Alec climbed into the driver's seat. She had already wired the car and had been warming up the interior.

"Okay," he said. He had barely slept at all. Forcing himself to keep his back to her all night was torturous, considering all his anxiety-filled thoughts. It didn't help that he felt like she was staring holes into his back all night. "You?"

"Shark DNA," she supplied, implying she had slept a little. It was also a lie; she hadn't slept at all – just stared at Alec's back for an hour or two before going through all of the events to attempt to play the scenarios out with different choices. And when that became boring, her thoughts turned to Alec's ridiculously delicious lips and she found herself heating up.

"You ready to head back?"

"I guess so," she offered.

When he raised his hands to the wheel, she noticed he no longer wore the wedding band. As secretively as possible, she covered one hand with the other and removed hers, stowing it in her jeans pocket. Her face fell for a moment, feeling foolish for having kept it on when he clearly had no intention of keeping the one she'd picked out for him.

Though he kept his face schooled, he saw her movements and sorrowed expression. Idiot, he chided himself. He was damn near certain he saw her take her ring off this morning when he 'woke up.' He didn't want to hold on to the ruse if she wasn't going to do the same, so he had removed his before his shower, and pocketed it before leaving the bathroom.

Max turned her body toward the passenger's side window and stared out at the trees as Alec drove them out of Santa Cruz.

Max was surprised when she woke up at a gas station. She didn't remember falling asleep, and that meant two things: one, she didn't know where they were, and two, she didn't know how long she'd slept.

She sat up fully in her seat and stared out the driver's side passenger's window at Alec, who appeared to not yet know she had awakened. He seemed deep in thought, once again. He was making a habit of that, she thought, or else she had never noticed before. With his jaw clenched and his eyebrows furrowed, she could sense something serious was on his mind, but she couldn't tell what. Maybe he was debating with himself about something.

Finally, he turned to pull the nozzle from the vehicle and saw Max's wide eyes, watching him. Instinctively, he smiled at her. One small smile to admit she had caught him.

Paralyzed from feeling his gaze wash over her face, Max could only stare back at him, silently retreating to her highway imagery. Cold, dark leather interior, shiny black and chrome, moonlight dancing off surfaces, completely alone.

Alec recognized that look. It was uncanny in its resemblance to the far-off look she sported when he'd sweet-talked Max, causing Original Cindy to leave the table at Crash. But she isn't thinking about that. How could she be?

He opened the driver's side door and Max looked away, a sexy blush shifting onto her face. "I'll drive," she said, eager to get out of the car and let the air cool her off.

Sliding into the driver's seat, Max looked over to Alec, who seemed to have already adjusted the seat back to accommodate his longer legs. She moved her own seat forward and buckled in.

Alec leaned his seat back and stared into the roof's abyss.

"Something on your mind?"

Glancing to her concerned eyes, Alec tried to shake his behavior. He was quiet for a moment. "I was just thinking…" he trailed, but stopped himself with a (if she wasn't mistaken) self-depreciating smile. "No, nevermind."

She let it go. For the first time in a long time, she didn't push him. Hadn't he had enough? Besides that, she didn't want to fracture their seemingly fragile possibly-on-the-verge-of-becoming-something-more-than-friendship. "Okay," she said, feeling the need to punctuate the conversation.

And she really was okay with it all. And when he fell asleep, she was okay with that too. Gave her more time to think.

Thinking is overrated, Max decided. Or sleeping is. One of them is.

She scowled, thinking how lonely six hours is when you're driving and no one else is awake, because he's still sleeping.

When he woke up, it was with a start. Minutes prior, he had a couple of whimpers, but they passed quickly and Max assumed whatever nightmare he was probably having was over. All thoughts of how selfishly he'd been sleeping faded in his wake.

And just as before, he was checking her limbs again.

"I'm okay," she said this time. After a beat, she asked, "Are you?"

He adjusted his position and cleared his throat. "Yeah, just a dream." He wondered how she knew. He wondered if he was being too obvious with his behavior and willed himself to try to stop.

Alec hated Manticore once again. They had abused their soldiers' loyalty and taken everything from them just shy of their lives – and barely not their lives because of Max's interference. They had taken their choices away and brainwashed them into believing there was no hope for survival outside of their system. Their royally fucked up system.

He was tired of losing, of losing the people he cared about. He was tired of losing hope that he'd, one day, have a quasi-normal life. He was tired of running away.

Max watched his emotions play just behind the veil of his irises and pupils. She didn't want him to retreat. It seemed he was dangerously close to shutting himself off again.

"Hey," she started, smoothly.

He looked to her, and for a few seconds, caught her expression. She wouldn't placate him, but she could say with her eyes that things would be okay.

"I know a fence who'll take this SUV off our hands. Cut you in on half?"

Normal had welcomed Alec back with open arms, and Max with a slight scolding for not letting his Golden Boy get in his full week of vacation. Alec had given her a sheepish grin for an apology and avoided Normal's advances. His cell phone rang, and he excused himself to another part of the room to answer.

Max wandered back to her locker, muscled the door open, and stared in surprise. Two things were in her locker that she hadn't left there: the Jasmine Bubble Bath, and, on one of the two hooks which normally held her raincoat, the silver chain Alec had promised.

She fished into her pocket for the pendant and produced two objects – her pendant and the ring. She slipped both onto the chain, slipped the chain over her head, and pulled her hair through.

"Hey Max," Alec called, heading toward her.

With her back to him, she quickly slipped the chain under her shirt so he wouldn't see the ring, and then faced him. "Yeah," she said impatiently.

He caught up to her and eyed her warily. He had a sneaking suspicion she was hiding something from him. Light glimmered off the chain at her neck, and he could see she was panicking.

"Thanks for the chain. And the bubbles."

He leaned on the locker next to hers. "Man of my word," he said simply, appreciating the look on her face as it changed from panicked to grateful. "Hey, can I talk to you about something?"

"Of course." Max pulled her gloves from her locker and shut the locker door.

Alec was tongue-tied. He wanted to talk about their kiss, and his nightmares, and the news he'd just received, but she had him in a trance.

"What? Everything okay?" she asked, wriggling the glove over her hand.

If he couldn't tell her how he felt, he could at least show her. He couldn't spend the rest of his life letting the fear of losing people dictate who he was. Nervously, he stood up straight and hesitated only a second before advancing toward her.

He scooped a hand through her hair at the back of her head and tilted his head down to meet hers in a kiss. He moved his mouth deftly over hers, waiting for her to push him away. Instead, she made a tiny noise akin to pleasure and crept her one gloved hand up to his neck. She deepened their kiss.

Despite the cat calls of the other messengers, the two transgenics carried on undeterred.

Original Cindy sauntered in amidst the hoots and hollers, looking for the couple responsible for her coworkers' cacophonous uproar, and settled her gaze on her girl, wrapped up in Alec's tight embrace. She smiled to herself.

"Hey! You're not being paid to 'get your mack on' or whatever you miscreants say, on company time!" Normal reprimanded.

"Shut up, fool," Cindy said, and added quietly, "Been a long time coming."

"One more remark like that outta you…" Normal threatened. "Bip, bip, bip!" he shouted.

Max and Alec came apart, breathless, flushed, and with kiss-swollen lips. He pressed his lips to hers one last time before speaking. "Just got word that another chapter of our dear alma mater's going down. Biggs and Ivy've got a plan. It's in Texas. You game?"

Max smiled excitedly.

"We'd be undercover again," he started. "You still got that ring?"

Thumbing it out from under her shirt, Max bit her lip guiltily.

Alec confirmed his suspicion she had been hiding something. Proudly, he held up his left hand, on which he had replaced the ring she had given him.

"Can I take that as a yes?"

Max smiled coyly. "Do they have bathtubs the size of Logan's office?" She arched a single brow at Alec's agape mouth, proud of the response her question elicited.

Alec grabbed her hand and pulled her past a smiling Original Cindy and toward the exit. "Everything's big in Texas!"