Hey! *waves* I'm still alive. My first (and epic) go at Dark Angel, so please let me know how I did. Alpha'd and beta'd by alchemynerd (genius and saint) over at LJ. I'm'll put a link up for the gorgeous artwork that skylar0grace did for this. It'll be in my profile.
Disclaimer: I don't own Dark Angel, because if I did, I totally would have pitched to SyFy when stupid Fox gave them the axe.
In all the fantasy flicks Alec had ever seen, there was always the part where the guy with the sword leading the helpless travelers through the wilderness would stop and whisper, 'Do you hear that?' The brash youth, or frightened, lovestruck girl would say, 'I don't hear anything,' to which the hero would reply, 'Exactly.' Like crickets and sparrows knew when shit was going down.
That was what it was like, right before everything blew up in their faces. There were no insects, no alley cats squabbling, no hum of hover drones, or the deeper rumble of poorly-tuned automobiles passing. Alec could pick up a cell phone ringing from three blocks, but the only thing he heard then was the toilet leaking across the corridor and Max and Zara talking quietly from the office at the other end of the hall as they shuffled through papers. Transport manifests: that's what they were looking for. There was supposed to be a bus-full of captured transgenics being shipped out of the city in the next few days, and they were planning an extraction.
It was grating on his nerves, though. The silence.
He stepped away from his lookout spot at the window, scanning the deserted lot one more time. His brain was working on which argument would be most efficient in convincing Max that they had to leave, when gunfire ripped through the glass, showering him with shining shards. He ducked instinctively and dove away. There was more gunfire, and then some more, and when Max called out for him, her voice tight, he found himself making a break across the room.
Alec made it to the hallway unscathed, just in time for the tear gas canisters to burst through the exit doors at both ends and immediately activate, rapidly filling the narrow passage with the noxious, stinging fumes. About ten seconds after that, came the men. Soldiers. Creepy snake-cult minions. It didn't matter; they had gasmasks and guns and—
"No!" It was Max again, but this time it sounded like the words were torn from her throat.
There were already a dozen men sweeping the offices, searching for them. What they didn't know was that Alec could hold his breath for nearly six minutes, so instead of coughing and crying, he was able to use the smoke as a cover and ran toward Max and Zara. Sounds of hand-to-hand combat reached his ears. There was a crash from inside the office at the end of the hall where the corridor bent in an L, then the sound of wood snapping coupled with a half-stifled cry.
Alec's stomach sank, but he quickly dispatched the two guys with masks that came around the corner, just as he was about to enter. He took one of their radios and both of their guns.
The room was a disaster. All of the windows had been shot out, too, and the desk had been smashed in half, probably by the broken soldier lying prone across the wreckage. A second guy, crumpled on the floor by the door, had a broken arm, leg, and a shiner on his unmasked face suggesting his forehead had become intimately acquainted with the doorframe. A third had been tossed out the open window, his unconscious body precariously balanced on the sill.
When his eyes fell on Max though, it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. She was sat in the middle of the floor cradling Zara to her chest and trying so hard not to cry that it looked like it hurt. There was blood all over the floor, and the limp way Zara's hand dangled in it made his stomach turn.
Alec swallowed, the creeping tear gas burning his throat. "We need to go."
Max glared at him. "We can't just leave her."
Hearing footsteps approaching, Alec popped his head out, aimed the assault rifle, and fired three short bursts. Return fire sounded from the opposite direction, and he hastily ducked back inside the office. They were so fucked.
"Now, Max!" he barked. "She's dead. And unless you plan on fighting a small army with her body strapped to your back, maybe you should snap out of it and give me a hand."
Reluctantly and with much glaring, Max gently laid Zara on the floor and stood. "Any brilliant ideas?"
"We blow the place."
Max arched a brow.
"About ten feet back there's a janitor's closet. Money says we can come up with something that goes boom."
Max shrugged and walked to the demolished desk, where she lifted the guy she'd taken out earlier. His lower extremities swung in an unnatural way as Max turned and crossed to the door. Apparently he'd broken his back along with the desk.
Alec nodded, stepping in beside her. He fired back the way he had come, making sure the assailants ducked long enough to safely get Max into the hallway. She moved quickly, using the dead man as a shield. He fired down to the other end of the hall as well, keeping the crossfire to a minimum.
Less than a minute later, a mop bucket full of plastic bottles and a five-gallon bucket were rolled down the hall. Alec quickly pulled them inside before providing Max with cover fire for the return.
Max hurried back to the office, where she discarded her human shield like a dirty napkin. Alec stifled a snort; for all Max liked to preach about taking the high road, she had a vindictive streak about a mile wide. Sure, she'd probably beat herself up over it later, but in the heat of the moment Alec had learned it was best to get the hell out of dodge.
"There was a water heater in the closet."
Alec allowed himself to be cautiously optimistic. "Gas or electric?"
"Gas," Max replied, sounding slightly pleased. "I broke the line. In about two minutes there should be enough gas in the hallway to turn the place into a small crater."
As Alec ensured their assailants kept their distance, he could hear the splash and sizzle of Max mixing caustic liquids behind him. Then she began shifting the wreckage of the desk around, coming up with a package of cigarettes and a book of matches. She broke the cigarette off nearly all the way down then carefully lit it and folded it up in the matchbook with the cherry sticking out the end. She balanced it precariously on the edge of the mop bucket, so that when the matches caught it would fall into the flammable liquids.
A moment later, Max tossed Alec a gas mask. She was already wearing one.
"We good?" asked Alec.
"Great. Let's blow this joint."
Already smelling the gas from the busted water heater, Alec grabbed the radio and pushed the talk button. "Oh my God, there's a bomb! Everyone move out! Move out!"
It took less than a second for everyone to respond. Even the most seasoned gunmen had issues with being blown to smithereens. As soon as the footsteps began to retreat, Max and Alec ducked out and ran after them, following them halfway down the block. Dressed in black, carrying firearms, and wearing gasmasks, no one paid them any mind.
They especially didn't notice when the building finally blew, sending debris about a hundred feet into the air, and busting out all the windows and streetlamps on the road. Nearly everyone was bowled over by the concussion, but the now pitch-black street hid the only two on their feet as they discarded the guns and masks and bolted down the street.
Max ignored Alec all the way back to the only current tunnel leading into Terminal City, and when she finally did say something, it was somewhat less than ideal.
"How could this possibly be my fault?" Alec demanded as he practically chased Max through the sewers.
If she thought he was just going to let her walk away after accusing him of blowing the mission, she had another thing coming. It had all gone sideways so fast, he still wasn't one hundred percent sure what happened. All he knew was that it wasn't his fault.
"Right. I'm sorry. I forgot – the great Alec never screws anything up," Max snapped derisively. "Maybe if you just did as you were told for once instead of making everything up as you go – "
"Do as I'm told?" Alec said, his voice rising, echoing down the broad pipes. "I don't know if you've noticed, but I've done pretty much nothing but what you've told me to do since we came to Terminal City. 'Alec, do this. Alec, do that. Alec, jump on one foot with your hands in the air, singing hey-no-ni-no-ni'. Not once have I questioned you."
"You were supposed to keep a lookout!" Max said, changing the subject.
"I did. They sent a small army out to get us, which strongly suggests we have a traitor in the camp. And you had no exit strategy! You were so sure we'd get in and out without a problem, that you didn't plan for the shit to hit the fan. You wanted to lead? Take some damn responsibility, because I won't be your whipping boy. Not this time."
Max spun around then, eyes flashing. Even in the dark of the tunnel, Alec could see the smears of red staining her arms as she thrust them toward him.
"Responsibility?" she all but shouted. "Zara's blood is literally on my hands. She died in my arms, and you want to talk to me about responsibility? Our sister is dead, Alec. Do you even care, or is your own reputation all you care about?"
Alec froze instantly, his hands balled into tight fists at his side. He spoke through clenched teeth. "Do not think for one moment that because I don't wear my heart on my sleeve that it doesn't rip me up inside every time we lose one of ours. You talk about brothers and sisters and family like you're the only one who gets it, but you're not."
Cat-quick, Max smacked him hard on the cheek. "Go to hell."
Alec watched her go, and wondered if they'd ever get to a point where they could stand to be in the same room with each other without one of them wanting to put their fist through a wall.
Max really, really hated it when Alec was right. He had this way of pointing out what should have been blindingly obvious that made her feel like an idiot for not having seen it herself. It surprised her sometimes, how much insight he possessed, especially when it came to people. He spent so much time putting up the smart-ass façade that she often forgot that he was trained for deep cover missions, where reading a person's intentions and motivations were key to his survival. And he was usually just as smug about it as he was everything else.
But not this time.
It had taken a couple of days to admit to herself, but Max knew now that Zara's death was more her fault than it would ever be his. She hadn't planned on being caught, and was used to working solo. It was a hell of a lot easier to get just herself out of sticky situations than it was to make sure three got out with all limbs attached.
It was also apparent now that the whole thing had been a set-up. Getting in had been too easy, so she should have known that getting out would be the hard part. The thought that they had a turncoat in Terminal City made her ill and angry by turns, but was totally inescapable. Writing Zara's death off as an unfortunate twist of fate would endanger everyone in Terminal City.
The tough part would be flushing out whoever it was. Manticore's progeny had all developed an extreme sense of self-preservation, and the traitor would have taken equally extreme measures to ensure that their cover remained in place.
Alec was also right about how she treated him, though Max would never tell him that. She was so quick to blame him because it was easy. On the outside, it usually was Alec's fault, but not in Terminal City. Sure, he still hit on anything with the proper anatomy, and he still wore that devil-may-care grin with mind-numbing regularity, but he'd left the hijinx behind. He saw their situation for what it was: they were soldiers under siege, and he acted like it. Even when Alec disagreed with Max, he never called her on it in front of the others; he always pulled her aside to say his piece.
Max supposed she'd have to give him credit for that, if nothing else.
She knew that at dawn, Alec met with Raif, a transgenic who had been given a night-vision upgrade by the docs at Manticore. Raif led the night-time perimeter patrols, for obvious reasons, and Alec liked to hear his report as early as possible so Raif could get back inside before his eyes were burned out of his skull by the sun. She vaguely wondered if Alec ever slept. She wondered why she was worried, when she never slept either.
Everything was blue and violet, and Terminal City was as quiet as a grave. Transgenics only made noise when they wanted to, and people had moved even farther away from the perimeter, out of fear or distaste or both, so even the sounds of Seattle were muted. It was kind of eerie.
Max waited until last night's shift had departed for their beds, and the morning's for their positions before approaching the shack they had erected to serve as a guard station for the north-east end of the compound. Alec was leaning against the door frame, eating slices of apple from the blade of a knife that was a touch too large for the task.
His eyes were on the rapidly lightening sky, fresh touches of amber and gold making his hair glow. She could tell by the tense, almost rigid hold of his body that he wasn't pleased to see her. Not that she blamed him, really; she had been kind of a bitch the last time they talked.
Max leaned up against the side of the shack, facing him. After a moment, he cut the apple clean in half and offered it to her. She took it, sensing he was offering more than a little breakfast, and took a bite. A soft happy noise caught in her throat, which Alec correctly translated as a 'thank you', if his 'you're welcome' grunt was any indicator.
Max wondered when they started communicating nonverbally. She rather liked it. Sometimes it was nice to not have to say something, no matter how trivial.
"I've been thinking," Max began softly, swallowing the apple.
"Don't hurt yourself, Maxie," Alec said.
There was just enough bite to it though, that Max knew he was more defensive than angry. Because that's what Alec did. He blocked it all out with sarcasm, wrapped himself in witty rejoinders, then threw up a wall of insincere flippancy, just so no one would know what was going on in that pretty, remarkably complicated head of his.
It quite suddenly occurred to Max that she had actually hurt Alec with her accusations concerning the circumstances of Zara's death. How many times had she blindly lashed out at him, just because he was there and she was stressed or angry? How many times had she accused him of screwing things up before all the facts were in?
How many times had he just taken it?
An apology stuck in her throat, so she had to force her reply out around the obstruction.
"You were right." It was almost the same thing, right?
Alec went very, very still, knife poised halfway through a slice, his jaw clenched. "You'll have to be more specific. I'm usually right."
About all of it. The words she couldn't say rang out in the silence of her hesitation.
"About there being a traitor in Terminal City."
Alec made a funny noise deep in his chest that she was pretty sure was a combination of 'well, duh' and 'what are you going to do about it?'
"I was hoping you'd have some ideas."
For the first time since she approached him, Alec looked at Max, his eyes sharp and searching and way more green in the morning sun than she ever remembered. It made her inexplicably antsy.
"You spend more time with everyone here." God, she hated admitting this – "You know them better than I do. If anyone's going to notice someone acting weird or suspicious, it's gonna be you."
"You're asking for my help." It wasn't a question.
Max met his gaze steadily. "You're the only one I trust with this."
There was a beat where Alec's expression remained frozen and stoic and Max was positive he was going to tell her to stuff it. Images of burning bridges flashed across her mind. It was unpleasant.
Then his lips twitched upward, ever so slightly, but it reached his eyes so Max knew she'd been forgiven.
"Hey, Dix, you seen Max?" Alec said, approaching Command central.
It had come a long way since their first days in Terminal City. All sorts of electronic equipment had been salvaged or commandeered over the past weeks, including two damaged but useable large-screen monitors, a set of walkie-talkie radios and a signal jammer, as well as enough computer gadgets to hack just about anything imaginable.
"Had a couple of incomings," Dix replied distractedly.
His eyes never left the lines of code he was studying as his fingers typed away at the keyboard more quickly than any ordinary could have managed. Alec had set him to mirroring some of Eyes Only's hacks so they didn't have to wait for a heads up from Logan to know that shit was going down. First on the list were Seattle P.D.'s communications and hover drones. The police were still wrangling with White and his government cronies over who would control the Transgenic Situation, and it would be easier to get information from the notoriously leak-prone police department than White's lot.
"And you didn't think it was worth mentioning to me?" Alec said, kind of annoyed. "Come on Dix, you know what kind of security measures we've got in place after what happened with CJ."
Alec's tone must have caught Dix's attention, because he finally tore his eyes away from the computer monitor. He straightened his monocle and shrugged.
"She was here when the call came – looking for you, actually. Got all – " he flapped his hands in front of him and pulled a face – "when she heard their designations. Then she ran off. Said she'd handle it."
"Did she take anyone with her?"
Dix shrugged unhelpfully. "I figured she'd take you."
"Well, she didn't," Alec snapped. "How long ago?"
"About an hour."
"Jesus, Max," Alec muttered. It was stupid how often she forgot there was a target on her back. He dug his cell out of his pocket and took the stairs down two at a time. "What exit?" he called back.
"Sewer at Magnolia and Commerce."
He punched the Send button as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
Alec froze, his insides going cold. He didn't recognize the voice, but it was filled with disbelief and so much hope that it almost hurt. He looked up.
The woman who spoke was petite and blonde, but she held herself like she knew she could do some damage. The look on her face matched her voice and Alec suddenly hated himself for having to let her down.
The dude behind her was dark and slender and looked so much like Max he could have actually passed for her brother. Max stood next to him, stock-still and as tense as Alec, a stunned expression on her face. And something that looked suspiciously like shame. Her cell was still ringing off in her pocket.
Alec and Max never talked about Ben. Never even said his name. He was a ghost that haunted them; a wall that would forever stand between them. Alec could still remember the look on Max's face the first time they'd met in her cell at Manticore. She'd looked a lot like the blonde did now.
Alec forced a grin. "Nah, think of me as Ben 2.0, without the side of crazy. My designation's 494, but you can call me Alec."
Unconscious steps were taken, and Alec extended his hand. The blonde shook it.
"Sorry, I'm Syl."
"Krit," the dark guy said, also offering his hand. "We saw Max on the news a few weeks ago, and had to come see her with our own eyes."
"Well, in that case, welcome to our humble nuclear quarantine. There's more ammo than food, but the bars are open all night."
Syl smiled, but Alec was anxious to get the hell outta there. He turned to Max, and his next words nearly died on his lips. She looked so… grief-stricken. Like someone just died.
"Dix said you were looking for me?" he forced out. He managed to keep the mask from slipping, though. Alec winked at Syl. "Maxie here just can't get enough of me."
If he'd expected a scowl or an eye roll, he was disappointed. Instead she just looked at him like she saw right through him. It was a little unnerving, and left him feeling exposed.
Max cleared her throat and put on a fake smile, too. "Alec here is a bit full of himself. We've got some supplies scheduled to arrive later. Could you get a team together and pick it up?"
"Yeah, sure," Alec said raking a hand through his hair. "I'll, uh, I'll let you guys get settled, and if you ask her real nice I bet Max'll give you the grand tour."
Alec walked away before anyone could get another word in, and he didn't even feel bad about it. He felt Max's eyes boring a hole in his back though, all the way to the door.
Max hadn't realized how badly she'd needed to just talk until her throat was raw from it. Syl and Krit were both anxious for information, considering Lydecker had told them both she was KIA. So Max had told them everything, from Zack's sacrifice, right up to the day the shit hit the fan at Jam Pony. It felt good, liberating; like a great burden had been lifted off her chest and she could finally breathe again.
"At least he's safe," Syl murmured when Max had finished. "Zack, I mean."
"Yeah," Krit said, taking a swig of his beer.
"I was pretty messed up about it at first," Max confessed. "After all we'd been through; it seemed so unfair that we had to lose each other again. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he deserved it, ya know? He spent so long taking care of us, watching our backs, always in battle mode. The sacrifices he made for us – it kinda feels like this is his reward."
Syl nodded, a soft smile tugging at her lips. "With any luck, he'll find himself a nice ordinary to settle down with and have a whole brood of intense, borderline obsessive geniuses."
Max chuckled and raised her beer bottle. "To Zack."
Glass clinked as their bottles met in the center of the table, and Max settled comfortably into the companionable silence that followed. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd felt this at ease. If she closed her eyes, she could even pretend she was at the old apartment she shared with OC and not the hole in the wall transgenics in Seattle got to call home.
Not that her old digs weren't a hole in the wall, but they'd been hers and that was more important to Max than living in some posh penthouse.
The serenity came crashing down though, when Krit cleared his throat. "Max, what happened to Ben?"
It felt like the air had been sucked out of Max's lungs, and her eyes stung. There was a reason she never talked about Ben; never even let herself think about him, really. She took a deep breath.
"I should have told you last time, but with Tinga and Lydecker… it just never came up."
"It was kind of crazy," Syl said, offering an encouraging smile.
Max stared at her fingers as they fiddled with her now empty bottle. It would be easier that way.
"Remember back at Manticore, the stories he used to tell?" Syl and Krit nodded. "He had an answer for everything, things he couldn't possibly know. It was kind of comforting, ya know? Because having it wrong was better than the big fat nothing Manticore gave us.
"After we escaped… he couldn't – nothing made sense anymore. Everything he believed was a lie, and I keep thinking that maybe if we hadn't scattered so well, that if one of us had been with him it never would have happened."
Max finally looked up at her siblings. Their curiosity had already turned to dread, so Max figured she should probably get it over with as soon as possible. This was way harder than when she'd told Alec. Ben may have been Alec's genetic double, but he had been a brother to Syl and Krit. They were emotionally invested. There was also the chance they might hate her for what she did.
"I wouldn't have caught wind of him at all if he hadn't tattooed his barcode onto the necks of all his victims." Syl drew breath sharply, but Max ploughed ahead. "There were eleven of them that we know of, all over the country. I thought I'd gotten through to him," she finished quietly.
"Max—" Krit said.
"We fought, in the woods. He was injured and Maticore was breathing down our necks. He was so scared." Max stopped, angrily swiping at the rebellious tears staining her cheeks. "He asked me to, and I did it. I killed our brother, and then I ran, like a coward."
Max remembered everything about that moment. The pine needles sticking through her jeans as she held him to her, the cologne he wore, the desperation in his eyes. Her fingers tingled with the memory of his neck snapping beneath them, super-human yet still so fragile. It made her sick.
Syl was crying, too; she wiped the tears away with her shirtsleeve. "Did he suffer?"
Max shook her head.
"I kind of wish I hadn't asked," Krit said. He looked a little ill. Max could empathize.
"Alec knows, doesn't he?" Syl whispered. "That's why he looked like I'd punched him in the gut."
"Yeah," Max replied softly. "He got picked up for one of Ben's murders a few months ago. I kind of had to tell him after that."
"How did he take it?" Krit asked.
Max furrowed her brow. She remembered Alec kissing her hair and telling her he was sorry. She remembered him trying to make her laugh about it the next morning, but they hadn't spoken of it since.
"I don't know," she said. That was also the night she'd ended things with Logan. Even Max would admit that she had a tendency to get wrapped up in her own shit. "I never thought to ask."
"I'd say not well, from the looks of it," Syl said.
"Seriously, though, how would you feel if you found out that your clone turned out to be a serial killer?" Krit added.
Max had met her clone. Sam was a bit of a bitch, even by Max's standards, but she was just looking out for her own and Max got that. She'd never even considered what it would be like to know that there was someone out there made from the exact same test tube goo she was that also happened to be a homicidal sociopath.
"I think Maxie's just had an epiphany," Syl whispered to Krit, who nodded in agreement.
"I gotta go," Max said hastily. "We'll do this again."
"Yeah," Krit said. "Only with less crying. Please."
Max smiled. "Deal."
Knowing now what had become of Ben, Alec often wondered if Manticore had trained him as an assassin with the intent to push Alec over that same ledge. To see if he'd snap and shatter like his twin had and start killing people just to bring order to his own twisted corner of the world.
No, not killing. Murdering.
That's what he was, really: a murderer. 'Following orders' and 'there's a bomb in my brain' only got one so far in the Valid Excuses Department. He'd never questioned the former, and he'd volunteered for the latter. Maybe he was more like Ben than he'd ever imagined.
Because the Berrisfords may have been his first deep cover assignment, but they weren't his first marks. Alec had done his first hit at age sixteen, and had done such a bang-up job that, with a few exceptions, it was pretty much all he did for Manticore. It also made him wonder how long Ben had actually been killing - murdering – people, considering how young they started Alec. Or maybe Renfro had simply seen something in him.
Not that it really mattered. He still had blood all over his hands. Blood he'd never be able to wash away, no matter how long he stood in the cold Seattle rain. It was pounding violently onto the rooftop, fat, heavy drops that stung his flesh and soaked him instantly. An ordinary would have been shivering by now, but Alec felt numb and disconnected as he allowed the summer thunderstorm to pummel him.
He thought he should have gone somewhere warm and sunny, and wished for a moment that he'd never come to Seattle in the first place. At the time it had seemed logical enough; a big city was easy to hide in, and there was a better chance of him blending in than in a smaller town, where everyone knew everyone and trusted no one.
And there was Max. At first it had just been fun to annoy her. Her connection to Logan had also proven beneficial for him too, but that didn't explain why he stayed. He could have made his own luck anywhere, so why did he pick here? Especially when luck seemed to be a pretty rare commodity these days. Maybe if he'd left, he never would have made any friends, because having friends sometimes hurt more than not. Maybe if he'd left he never would have learned about Ben, or spontaneously grown a conscience, and would have gone merrily on his way, blissfully unaware of his own moral shortcomings.
Between crashes of thunder, Alec heard the rooftop access open and close behind him. He turned, and was unsurprised to find Max staring at him. She seemed uncertain, though, which was a totally new look for her.
Alec turned away again, really not in the mood for Max's brand of company. "Whatever it is this time, find someone else. I don't much feel like being your errand boy tonight."
There was no response, which was odd for Max, who always had a snide comment waiting just for him, and the feel of her eyes on him was irritating.
"Well?" he snapped. "What do you want?"
"I want you to tell me what's really got your shorts in a knot."
Alec refused to respond in the hopes that she'd give up and leave him alone. Then her hand was on his arm, soft but steady, and he found himself turning to face her. Max didn't do soft. At least not with him. She was all hard planes and sharp edges, so sharp she didn't even realize when she'd just shredded you to pieces.
"I told you once that I trusted you, and I meant it. Now I'm telling you that you can trust me, too."
Really not what Alec was expecting. The truth in her eyes made his skin burn, despite the rain.
"You shouldn't trust me," he forced out.
"Why not? I think you've proven that you're worth it."
"Don't say that," he whispered harshly.
Alec clamped his jaw shut, and focused all his energy on slowing his breathing down to normal levels. They were heading into dangerous waters.
"This is about Ben."
It wasn't a question. Leave it to Max to jump into the deep end, head first. He couldn't shake those dark, searching eyes, and when she spoke he knew she'd found his reply before he had.
"You're not him."
Alec responded fiercely, pinning her to the door behind her with so much force he felt her startled exhalation of breath on his face. He fisted his left hand in her shirt and pressed his right forearm firmly against her windpipe, holding her in place. Max reflexively grasped his arms, but she didn't fight him. Alec leaned in close, close enough their noses almost brushed, and met her gaze head on.
"Are you sure about that?"
Max raised her chin, exposing even more of her vulnerable, graceful neck and glared defiantly. Unafraid. "Yes."
Rage rushed through him, and Alec let it. How could she not see what he was? She'd told him herself once that she knew he was capable of killing in cold blood. Why was she choosing now to change her mind?
"I'm a killer, Maxie," he snarled. "It's what I was made to be, what I was trained to do."
"You're still not him," she rasped.
"You don't know that!" he shouted, shaking her hard. "You don't know what I've done. Did you think that Rach- the Berrisfords were my first? My last? I've killed more people that you'll ever believe. Some of them with my bare hands. Sometimes I even enjoyed it. So, tell me: How am I not him?"
"Did you know that he tattooed his barcode on his victims?" Max replied. "He told me that war was art and the world was his battlefield, but really he was just killing himself over and over again. He was broken, Alec, and I don't mean damaged. Everyone's damaged, especially people like us. I mean utterly destroyed. He hated himself – but never for what he did to his victims. I could see it in his eyes."
Alec tried to focus on breathing and not on Max's words whirling around inside his skull, because destroyed was just a little too close to how he felt for comfort.
"What do you see in mine?" he whispered, like maybe she wouldn't hear him, and he wouldn't have to know the answer.
Max looked hard, Alec so tense that his every muscle protested. He felt about to burst out of his skin, or pop and fray like dry-rotted rope.
"Fear," Max said at last. "And a whole lotta guilt. Mostly just you, though."
"Max-" Alec choked out. Unconsciously, he loosened his grip on her and leaned forward. He looked down and squeezed his eyes shut tight.
Max released his wrists, one hand sliding down his arm, then the outside of his ribcage to fist in his shirt. The other tenderly cupped his cheek. She took a deep breath, now that she could.
"You're a good man, Alec."
Alec tried to jerk away, because she was just wrong, he knew it, and he didn't think he could stand it if she was just telling him what she thought he needed to hear. Because he did need to hear it. He needed her to say it. He needed her to mean it too, because, he realized, that was why he'd stayed. He had wanted to prove her wrong, prove that he was better than that guy who looked like the brother she'd killed and kept fucking up her life just by breathing.
Why was another question, however.
Max didn't let him flee; she'd been prepared for his reaction and yanked him back to her. She threw an arm around his neck, wrapped the other around his back and held on tight. She molded herself to him, willed him to melt into her, like he could crawl inside her and hide until the storm passed. Alec hesitated for a very long moment before finally returning the embrace. He felt himself begin to tremble as the tension ebbed away. Max held him that much tighter.
"You stopped being a stranger with my brother's face a long time ago," she whispered.
For some reason, Alec believed her.
"Rise and shine, sweetheart."
It was only his super human reflexes that prevented Alec's face from kissing the floor as Max unceremoniously rolled him off his bed.
"I didn't realize that Terminal City offered wake-up calls," he grumbled, flipping onto his back.
"Call it a service reserved for our premier clients."
Alec scrubbed his face with his hands, wishing he was still asleep. It felt like weeks since he'd had a decent night's rest. Between helping Max get the place up and running and organizing perimeter patrols - and inventory, and sleeping arrangements, and about a hundred other things - there hadn't been a whole lot of Alec Time.
"I'm honored, really, but go away."
"We gotta bounce. Heard over the police radio there's a bunch of transgenics holed up in an abandoned house in Sector Three. We need to leave now if we're gonna get there before the whole thing goes pear-shaped."
Alec sighed and pushed himself off the ground. She was still as demanding as ever, but he had to give her brownie points for treating him like he hadn't had a total meltdown the other night. Though he did notice that she'd been smiling a lot more lately, but it may have been because her brother and sister were planning to stay until the Fat Lady sang. He wasn't going to complain; she had a great smile, when she meant it.
Max tossed him his boots and turned to leave. "We're wheels up in three."
Glancing longingly at his bed, Alec tugged his boots on, grabbed the rest of his gear, and followed Max.
"I don't like it," Alec declared, taking in the scene.
They were parked a ways up the block, but he could still see it all clearly. Being a genetic experiment did have some perks. There were too many ordinaries congregated in front of the building, and they were getting antsy. Alec could see that some of them had weapons, mostly pipes and hammers, but there were probably more than a few handguns hidden in that crowd.
There were also three squad cars parked in the street, though the cops seemed as reluctant to enter the premises as everyone else, and no sign of White which probably meant he had men everywhere. Over the past weeks, they'd taken a page out of the Transgenic Playbook, and were running a Stealth game, rather than a Bust Everything Up and Hope No One Asks Too Many Questions game. They were probably hidden all around the block.
And the van smelled.
"We don't have much of a choice," Max said, her eyes glued on the house. It was dilapidated, like most things in Seattle, but it looked like it had probably been a cute little home with a green yard and two-point-five kids before the Pulse.
Suddenly, Max reached out and grabbed Alec's arm, her eyes going wide.
"Oh my God, is that-? Alec, I think that's Bullett… and Ralph."
"The kids we helped across the border?" Alec said, hastily turning his attention toward the house rather than the mob. "What were the other two called?"
"Zero and Fixit," Max replied, a bit distractedly. "What the hell are they doing here? I told them to stay gone."
"I don't know, nice weather, friendly neighborhood atmosphere… Why wouldn't they want to drop in for a visit?"
Krit snorted. "That must be it."
The van door slid open with a mighty creak, and Syl climbed in. She crouched next to Krit, who shut the door behind her.
"I didn't see anything to suggest we're being watched," she began. And there's a rear entrance to the house, a cellar. The backyard is fenced off, so there aren't any ordinaries back there. We could probably get in that way."
The shouting down the street became markedly more enthusiastic, and Alec turned just in time to see three punk ass kids throw some Molotov cocktails through the windows. Flames whooshed out.
"Looks like planning time's over, guys," Alec said.
"Damn," Max swore. Alec could see her brain calculating, working out the best way to get in and out without losing anyone. "Mole, drop us off at the front door, would you?"
"Max," Alec said slowly, "you know I got your back, but that's a Terrible Idea."
"I like it," Mole said with slightly more zeal than Alec was strictly comfortable with.
"Are you cra—"
Mole chuckled darkly and gunned it, throwing Alec against the back wall of the van, cutting short his protestations. They shot down the block as fast as the old Econoline would go, jumped the curb, drove through the neighboring house's yard and fishtailed to a stop at the front door. The mob had momentarily dispersed to avoid being flattened, and the body of the van would protect the short dash across the yard from the police who were present and any snipers White may have hidden in any of the surrounding homes.
Max whirled two fingers in a circle next to her head. "Take her around the block and wait for us to exit from the back."
Alec recovered his balance quickly, and was the first out the door. The others followed, Max bringing up the rear. He took the porch steps two at a time, and threw his shoulder against the door. The force of his momentum shattered it clear off its hinges.
The two rooms facing the street, what looked like a living room and maybe a dining room, were ablaze, but mostly just where the accelerant had splattered when the bottles shattered. The house was so old though, Alec knew it wouldn't take long for it all to go up in smoke.
The stairs were right near the front door, and Max lead the way now with Alec right behind her. The upstairs had three bedrooms and a small bathroom, but only one door was shut. They were halfway down the hall, when a short burst of gunfire ripped through the old door like it was paper. Alec hit the deck instinctively, dragging Max down with him. Syl and Krit were still on the stairs, crouched and waiting for Max's signal.
"Jesus," Alec muttered. "You good?"
Max nodded. "Ralph, Bullett! It's Max and Alec."
"Remember us?" Alec added. "We're here to save your asses again, so don't shoot the cavalry!"
Max punched Alec in the arm.
There was an excited flurry of movement and hastily spoken words on the other side of the door before it was flung open, revealing a disheveled Ralph. Her long blonde hair was in a loose plait, holding it back from her face, but there was grass stuck in it and grime smeared on her face, making her look like she'd spent the night in a barn. She had a pistol in one hand and looked so relieved Alec thought she might cry. Ralph was remarkably soft for being a product of Manticore.
"I don't think I've ever been happier to see anyone in my life," she declared.
Max and Alec both hopped to their feet. A wave from Max, and Syl and Krit joined them.
Bullet stepped into view behind Ralph, looking just as rough. His hair stuck up at odd angles like he'd been raking his hands through it all day and had a nasty abrasion on his left cheek. The assault rifle he had strapped over his shoulder looked just like the ones Sector Police carried. An all around interesting day, by the looks of it.
"Please tell me you have a plan."
"Eh," Alec said, entering the room. "If you call sneaking out the basement a plan, then yeah, we're golden."
"It's better than being burned to death by an angry mob," Max snapped. "Where are Fixit and Zero?"
Ralph pointed to the corner of the room farthest from the window. The bed there was in shambles, but they'd pulled the mattress onto the floor. Fixit lay upon it, white as a sheet, her clothes caked with blood, both dried and fresh. Zero knelt next to her, pressing an old towel firmly against the young girl's abdomen. Alec noted that he was by far the most cleanly of the lot, and got the feeling that they all went out of their way to protect the kid from the worst of whatever it was they'd been through. He was inexplicably proud of them all.
"Watch out," Krit said sharply, pushing his way through them toward Fixit. Zero moved out of the way while Krit inspected the wound. "Sharp-force trauma, pretty deep. A hunting knife, maybe?"
"Can we move her?" Max asked.
"We're going to have to," Alec said, gesturing to the floor. Smoke was seeping through the cracks in the warped boards.
No one needed much convincing after that. Krit scooped Fixit up in one smooth motion, like she weighed nothing, while Syl went to Zero and herded him toward the door. Max went next, followed by Ralph and Bullet. Alec brought up the rear.
They hurried down the stairs and through the living room, careful to skirt the flames now licking the wall and what was left of a love seat. There was a nice little traffic jam when they reached the kitchen, though, and Alec nearly ran Ralph over.
"You have got to be shitting me," Max said, clearly frustrated.
Alec shoved his way past the kids and froze next to Max. "Figures."
"452," the red-headed woman greeted. Thula. And all of her goons. They filled the kitchen, one of them specifically guarding the door to the cellar. They had been waiting for them. Alec wanted to knock the smug grin right off her face.
"She-ra," Max countered.
"Oooh, no, you know who she looks like?" Alec said. "Xena."
"Or Carrot Top."
"I honestly don't know which is worse."
Thula cocked her head and glared at Alec. "The lap dog has a sense of humor."
Alec bristled, but Max gently put her hand on his wrist. The contact instantly silenced him. Not so much because anyone could ever get him to shut up if he didn't want to, but because Max's touch had been doing funny things to him lately. While Alec really didn't mind Max touching him he kind of wished she hadn't just then. Thula's lips curled into what might have been a smile or a sneer; however, as though her point had been made for her.
"As much as I'd love to hang around and test the limits of your witty repartee, our ride's waiting. Raincheck?" Max said brightly.
It seemed like everything happened at once after that. Max and Thula lunged for each other, trading blow for blow and block for block until they were hardly more than a blur of limbs. Bullet stepped in front of Ralph, his gun held at the ready, and Syl shoved Zero behind Krit before engaging the two goons who moved her way. Petite and lithe she may have been, but she was also as capable as Alec had assumed and nearly as fast as Max.
Krit hesitated, debating between laying Fixit down inside a burning building to fight or waiting and hoping for an exit. Alec made his decision for him. He took a step backward, snatched the pistol from Ralph's hand and shot the guy guarding the cellar door in the head. The man hadn't even had time to react and crumpled on the floor like a limp rag. Although, Alec did kind of half-expect him to jump up and shake it off. Apparently Conclave human weapons were at the top of the head-shot only list, right next to Zombies.
"Get them outta here!" he shouted at Krit. Then he grabbed Ralph's arm and shoved her toward the door, slipping the pistol back into her hand. It had served its purpose, and she and Bullet would need all the ammo they could get to protect the van in case the mob out front got wise to what was going down.
Bullett retreated without being told, his rifle trained on the only thug in the room not fighting. It was the same chick Alec had fought at Jam Pony. She approached, no, stalked toward them, like a lioness on the prowl, her eyes predatory. She looked like she was going to enjoy ripping Alec apart. Alec sighed; it would figure he'd get the sadistic one.
"That was my brother," she snarled.
"My condolences. Remind me to send flowers."
Alec barely had time to dodge the fist aimed at his face and then block the kick she sent toward his ribs. But he was ready for her this time; he knew how she fought, knew what to expect. Knew how to bait her.
For half a beat, he left his chest exposed, and she wasted no time. Abnormally strong fists dug into the lapels of his jacket. Just before her arms locked to lift him off the ground, he slammed his fists down onto her elbows and they buckled. The force set her slightly off balance, and Alec used the split second to slam his boot square onto her kneecap. Then he grabbed her shoulders with both hands and head-butted her so hard she actually fell on the floor.
Alec went to straddle her chest so he could beat her face into the floor like she'd done to him, but she struck out with a leg, only just missing his groin, then sent the heel of her palm straight into his solar plexus. Alec staggered back, fighting for breath.
In the blink of an eye, she was back on her feet. Then with a smug smile, she crouched and pulled a knife out of her boot.
"Come on," Alec gasped, "that's not very sporting."
Apparently banter wasn't her thing. She renewed her assault with gusto, swiping and slicing and thrusting, Alec blocking with elbows, wrists and feet. It was all he could do just to keep the blade away from his vital organs, and he hadn't really realized he'd been moving backward until a burning floorboard groaned and gave under his foot. He jumped to the side just in time and rolled, aiming for the kitchen, but his progress was halted when she threw herself onto him, her elbow driving into his spine.
Alec almost couldn't swallow the cry of pain that threatened to escape, because fuck, that hurt. Then she rolled him over and climbed on top of him, only this time instead of pummeling his face, she brought the knife down in a deadly arc, aiming for his chest. Alec got his hands up just in time, grasping her wrists, but it wasn't quite enough to totally divert the blow. The blade plunged into his left shoulder to the hilt. He felt it scrape against bone and didn't bother to hold back the agonized scream that tore itself out of his throat. He didn't even know he could make that sound.
He got the instant replay though, when the bitch twisted, rending flesh and forcing the knife impossibly deep. Then she ripped it out and prepared to do it all over again.
The ceiling above them groaned impressively, but she was so fixated on finishing Alec off that she didn't even notice. The knife came down, blade flashing in the firelight. Alec didn't block it. Instead he jerked his head as far to his right as it would go; the knife hit wood, not flesh, and with her weight now committed forward, Alec grabbed her hips and flipped her beneath him like he'd done with countless other women, just under much more pleasurable circumstances.
He dove off just as the ceiling came crashing down, landing on his stomach. Max shouted his name just before some hot, heavy thing cracked against the back of his skull, sending his vision spinning. Then everything went black.