Sorry for the late update, guys. Life's been kind of insane the past couple of days. Anyway, this is the last part, and I'd like to thank everyone who read, especially those who reviewed (recicup - you made me smile!). I hope you all had as much fun reading this as I did writing it!
It was strange watching Delilah work. She was a little older than Max, maybe twenty-six or -seven, but was five-foot even if Max was an inch, with pretty chestnut colored corkscrew curls and hands that looked like a doll's. Raif was easily over six feet tall, and she had him positively writhing with little more than two fingers pressed to his temple.
Max almost didn't hear the knock on the door over Raif's screams of agony. Without a word, Max pushed off the desk and stepped outside. It was Krit.
"I didn't think torture was really your thing, Max," he said disapprovingly.
"That's not the point and you know it. You're going off the deep end."
Max sighed heavily. "Look, I appreciate your concern, but can we discuss ethics later? I need to know what he knows, period."
Krit pressed his lips together in a thin line. "Logan's here. Thought you might want to know."
"Thank you." Max started to walk away when Krit spoke again.
"This darkness you're flirting with – it's tempting, I know," he said, swallowing hard. There was a knowing in his eyes that made Max wonder what had happened to put it there. "Especially since you – since it's Alec, but it'll swallow you whole if you're not careful."
"He'd go there for me." Max knew he would, too. She didn't know how she knew; she just did.
Max came back and embraced her brother tightly. "I hear you," she said. "But I owe him this."
Logan was at the computer station talking to Dix and Syl.
"Logan," Max said. "I heard you came through."
"I did indeed." He handed Max an envelope. "I even got you the exit permit."
"Thanks," Max said, sliding the envelope in her back pocket. "I mean it."
"Don't mention it."
Suddenly, Delilah was at Max's side. God, she moved like a wraith. Or maybe no one ever noticed her because she was so small. Krit was right behind her, his expression carefully bland.
"You were right," she said, the grim expression strange on her sweet face.
Max's gut twisted. "What did he give you?"
"He overheard a telephone conversation approximately a week ago. All he knows is that whatever is going to happen is going to be catastrophic, and that they've been working toward it for thousands of years."
"Thanks, D. You mind hanging around? We might need you again."
"No problem," Delilah replied, already walking away. "I'll find something to do."
"It's happening tonight," Max said with total certainty. She suddenly wanted to sit down very badly.
"You don't know that," Logan said.
"It's the only thing that makes sense," she said, digging her hands into her hair. "That's why they took Alec today; it's a distraction. And these," she gestured to the runes lining the insides of her arms, "say I'm the only one who will be able to stop it. That's why I'm the ransom. Oh God, it's perfect."
"Calm down Max," Syl said. "We don't know anything."
Max laughed the Crazy Laugh again. God, if she never had to do today again, she could die a happy woman. Everyone just stared at her.
"Let's just look at what we know. There's archaeological evidence that the Conclave has been around for thousands of years, and they've got this whole superiority complex thing going on. These freaky runes I've got written all over my body – they seem to say that I'm supposed to save humanity from some terrible, unidentified tragedy. Which, by the way, I could have lived the rest of my life not knowing."
"Okay…" Logan said. "We knew that already."
"Well, combine that with everything that's happened today. One: Alec gets taken hostage. If they wanted to fuck with me, why not just kill him? If they wanted information, why not just ask Raif? He's been the ace up their sleeve for weeks, maybe longer.
"Two: They want me. Preferably dead, but I'm pretty sure they'd love the chance to see what Sandeman did to me for themselves.
"Three: When I asked White why he made his move today, he told me that sometimes timing is everything. Why would he say that?"
"And four: Everyone hates us."
Max stopped and took a deep breath. Everyone was still just staring at her, though now with a little concern mixed in with the confusion.
"Stop looking at me like I've lost my marbles!" she barked. "How can you not see how freaking brilliant this is? It's diabolical."
"Call me slow, but I don't get it," Dix said.
"Fine. Just for a second, humor me, and say that whatever the Conclave is planning is happening tonight, okay? White wants me to walk right out the front gate and surrender in exchange for Alec's safe return. Obviously there's a sniper waiting out there with a bullet that has my name on it. I'm dead, Alec's dead, and there's no one to stop whatever it is they're planning.
"Or, I don't surrender, but try to rescue Alec. White knows me well enough to know that's what I'm going to do, so he'll be waiting for it. He's not stupid. He allowed us to trace the call because he wanted us to know where he was. He gets me, catastrophe proceeds as scheduled.
"This is the brilliant part: He pretty much told me that there was more going on than I knew, and he really didn't seem all that bothered that his inside man had been compromised. We know. We may not know what or where, but we do know. So, if we know and do nothing and Seattle is decimated, guess who they'll blame? Sandeman took steps to protect us from just about everything else out there, I'm sure we'd be spared from this, too. When they see their dead piled up in the streets and we're all peachy-keen, they're going to be out for our blood.
"Or we do try to stop it, but we fail. The only thing anyone is going to see is a bunch of transgenics beating up a bunch of ordinaries and then everyone died. Except us."
"Whoa," Zero murmured.
"He could destroy us," Syl said, her voice weak.
"Without really having to lift a finger," Max agreed. "All White has to do is send some familiars out to do… whatever it is, and public outrage will do the rest for him."
"Don't forget about all the innocent people who will die," Logan added.
"But what can we do?" Dix asked. "Not to be all negative or anything, but we don't know where this is going down. If it's going down."
Max shot him a glare that would have impressed the devil. "You want to take that chance? If I'm wrong, so what? If I'm right and we sat here with our thumbs up our asses, we've sealed everyone's fate."
"How are we supposed to stop something when we don't even know what we're looking for?" Krit asked.
"Well," Syl said clearing her throat, "it would have to be something capable of covering a wide radius with minimal product, but also something that won't draw too much attention to put in place. I'd rule out any sort of incoming projectile, like a missile because those can be traced back to their origin. I'd also put money on it being one central target that would reach most of the city in one go, rather than scattering it across the city. One target is easier to control, and they wouldn't have to worry about their guys being pinched and disrupting the distribution."
"So pretty much, we're looking at something low-key and a central target with manual placement, if not deployment," Max said, summing it all up.
"But we don't know what it is," Dix said. "I mean, it could be anything."
"That's not necessarily true," said Logan. He had that look, like a great idea was about to kick him in the face. "Whatever they're planning, must be capable of affecting all humans, but also be attributable to transgenics. In other words, if a nuclear bomb or another pulse were to be set off, everyone would blame Russia or North Korea. Which pretty much leaves us with-"
"Biological warfare," Max finished. She looked at Logan, and their eyes locked. "You don't think—"
"What do you think?"
"I think it sounds right up their alley. Airborne dispersal would be perfect, too."
Logan nodded. "They'd need another biochemist, considering the last one got shot."
"The Conclave has deep pockets." Max furrowed her brow. "Don't you have all the schematics? I thought Sung gave them to you so White wouldn't get his hands on them."
"I couldn't save everything when they shot up my house, Max. I was more concerned with preserving the Informant Net. It's possible they stumbled across it."
"Hold on," Syl interrupted irritably. "I think I speak for the rest of us when I ask: What the hell are you guys talking about?"
Max waved her hand impatiently. She and Logan had been on a roll, just like old times, and she had honestly forgotten that the others were even still there.
"Almost a year ago, before the transgenic cat was out of the bag, White paid this biochemist to engineer this bioweapon that targeted specific genetic sequences. At the time he was trying to wipe out all the transgenics on the west coast, but, if he has all the information and someone who knows their way around a genetics lab, I don't think it's that much of a stretch assume White's turned it around and targeted ordinaries."
"Okay," Krit said. "But we still don't know what the target is."
"Um, hold on," Zero spoke up. He turned back to his keyboard, and in a matter of seconds brought up a map of Seattle. "Tell me about these airborne dispersal units you mentioned."
"They were military grade," Logan said, "purchased on the black market. The canisters were launched from a hand held device, and triggered by an altimeter."
Zero's fingers flew across the keys, and after a minute green lines and red circles began appearing on the screen, overlaying the city. Some shrank, others grew, until there were six large red circles shaped in a ring. Green lines extended from the center of the ring to each circles.
"The green lines are trajectories, the red circles distribution radii. This scenario will cover the most ground from one target." Another green line bounced up from the very middle, arced up, and went right back where it began. The ring filled in with another red circle. "Six canisters fired simultaneously from equidistant locations and a seventh fired vertically will blanket 93.4 per-cent of the city."
"Jesus," Syl breathed.
"Is that the Space Needle?" Max asked. It would figure White would pick her favorite place in the whole city to begin the mass extermination of human life.
"Great," Max replied sarcastically. "Good work, Zero. I don't know what the docs were mixin' up in you X-6s, but they did a good job."
Zero blushed at her praise.
"Not to rain on your parade, Max," Dix said, adjusting his monocle, "but what about Alec? I understand he's the carrot in this scenario, but we can't just leave him."
Max's blood pressure spiked. "We're not," she ground out.
"No man left behind, right Maxie?" Krit said, trying to smooth things over.
"So, what's the plan?" Logan asked.
"Give me five, and I bet I can come up with something that has an ice cube's chance of working."
"That's reassuring," Dix muttered.
"Meanwhile," Max bit back, "Dix, Zero, I need you to map out the quickest routes, and come up with some exit strategies, in case this all goes downhill. The second van will go to the Space Needle, the first will head out to retrieve Alec."
"Where do you need me?" Logan asked.
"Honestly? Out of town."
"I mean it, Logan. If you want to help me, go get Cindy and Sketchy and get the hell out of dodge. I don't know if we're going to come out on top this time, and I don't' need to be worrying about you guys when there's a city that needs saving."
"Fine, but what about you?" Logan countered.
"What about me?"
"If this goes down like you think it will, S.P.D will have the city locked down in a heartbeat. You won't be able to get back in to TC, and whoever goes for Alec will be trapped outside the city."
Max considered a moment. "Do you still have that cabin you were supposed to take me to, up near the border, or did you sell it?"
"It's still there," Logan said, "though I can't promise you what sort of condition it's in now."
"Doesn't matter; we really just need a roof and four walls. It cool if we crash there until this blows over?"
"Be careful, Max. And good luck."
Max smiled. "You too."
Max watched Logan as he walked across the room for a moment, before turning back to Syl and Krit.
"We need to talk, in private."
Max led them to the dry goods storage, as the office was currently occupied, and shut the door.
"What's up?" Krit asked.
"I need you guys to get Alec. I have to deal with the attack, and need someone I can trust to make sure he makes it out alive."
"No," Syl said.
Max blinked. "What?"
"No, we will not rescue Alec."
"Syl—" Krit said.
"Why the hell not?"
"Because you're going to."
"I can't," Max insisted, even though it ripped her up to say it. "No matter how much it kills me to not be there for him, I have a responsibility to stop this. It's my destiny even, if you listen to some people."
"Oh screw destiny. Since when do you buy into all that crap, anyways? And this isn't about obligations, Max, this is about your life. If Alec dies, you'll be beating yourself up forever for not being there. And if we make it out all right, he'll know that you weren't there, and you may never move past it, regardless how well you justify it to yourself."
"Syl's right, Max. Let us handle the attack. Besides, I think you have some loose ends to tie up out there, and that won't happen if you're here."
"This shit at the Space Needle, it's just a bump in the road. White's the real problem, and if you don't deal with him now, while you have the chance, you'll never be rid of him."
Max couldn't deny that she was looking forward to laying the smackdown on his scrawny ass. He'd been a thorn in her side from day one. Maybe it was time to end it, once and for all.
Having another crack at Thula wouldn't really be a bad thing, either.
"Are you sure?"
"Positive," Syl responded.
The guns on the wall mocked Max. She hated them. They felt wrong, cheap in her hands; they felt like she was taking the easy way out, when ending a life should be anything but. But she thought she might need them this time.
Terminal City was populated mostly by Manticore's more interesting genetic experiments. Most of the X-Series had some skills with which to survive on the outside, and hadn't bothered to make their way to Seattle, let alone TC. Max was reluctant to bring any of them along since they were leaving the city, and having them only increased the risk of them failing before the plan even got off the ground.
It was bad enough that Mole wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. His loyalty to Alec was intense, and Max knew if she didn't let him come, she'd never have him on her side again, and Mole had the ear of a lot of the others. He could make her life very difficult. Well, more difficult than it already was.
Joshua had insisted too, and Max thought she owed it to him, since he and Alec were so close.
Anyway, the point was she didn't know if they had the manpower to pull it off, since most everyone was going with Syl and Krit to the Space Needle to avert impending doom.
"Syl says wheels up in five," Joshua said, popping his head in the door. He scowled. "Little Fella doesn't like guns."
"I know, but I don't know what kind of firepower they have waiting for us," Max said, sighing. "Or how many of them there are. It might just be White and Thula, or they could have a whole squad hiding out in that house. We're going to have to hit them fast and hard if we expect to get to Alec before they kill him."
Joshua put his arm around Max's shoulder. "Max will figure it out. Joshua knows." He tapped his hand to his chest, right over his heart.
"Thanks," she said, hugging him back. Max sighed again and reached for a pistol and a shoulder holster. "I've already shot one person today. I guess one or two more won't hurt."
Joshua put his hand over hers, stopping it. The look on his face was mischievous. "How does Little Fella feel about swords?"
Joshua grinned and began rifling through the crates. He came back triumphantly with a pair of matching katanas. "Alec stole them, long time ago. Said no one buy them."
"Huh," Max said, replacing the pistol and accepting the swords from Joshua's hands. "Is that so?"
Joshua nodded enthusiastically.
Max slid one of the blades partially out of its sheath and flicked her thumb across the edge. It was still sharp, and the leather straps used to secure them to one's waist or back were still soft and supple. She chewed her lip for a moment, then smiled and went about wrapping herself up in leather straps, arranging the blades so they crisscrossed across her back.
"Badass," Joshua said approvingly.
Mole arrived and stood in the doorway. "Hey, Ninja Girl, you ready to move out?"
Max glared. "Come on, Josh, let's go save the day."
Crouched in the living room of the house across the street, Max tried not to be too optimistic. They'd gotten out of the city without a hitch, which was beyond miraculous, considering there was a guy who looked like a lizard and another that looked like a dog wedged beneath the seats in the back of the van. It wasn't the best neighborhood, so no one paid the beat up Dodge Caravan parked up the street any mind, and the streetlamps were all busted so no one saw them break into the house.
"Do you have the thermal gun?" Max whispered to Jared.
He nodded and pulled it out of the knapsack at his feet. Max took it and turned it on. She aimed it out the window, and slowly swept the house with it. She counted five signatures. Three were on the first floor; one of them was pacing (Max had money that was White) and the other two stood stalk-still, suggesting they were guarding the front and rear entrances. There were none on the second floor, but two in the attic, and the heat signature from one of them was significantly hotter than the other.
"Alec's in the attic," Max whispered. "Three downstairs, one more upstairs."
"Do we go in hot?" Mole asked. He looked weird without the cigar, but Max had made him put it out lest he wake the residents. "Max?"
"Shut up, I'm trying to think."
"Well, think a little faster." Mole looked at his watch. "There's only ten minutes left until the three hours are up."
"I know that. So why don't you quit wasting my time, and shut up?"
Mole glared daggers, but she ignored him. There was an idea forming, and she didn't want to disrupt its development.
"All right, here's what we're doing. Katya, stay with the van, and be ready to get us the hell out of there as soon as the dust clears. Brutus and Jared, you'll go in through the front. Josh and Mole through the back. I'll scale the wall and go through a second story window, then make my way upstairs. You must wait exactly forty-five seconds; if you don't, Alec's dead."
Jared tossed Katya the keys to the van, and she took his bag before nodding to Max and sneaking back out of the house.
"Everyone ready?" Max asked. "Good. Oh, and hold off on firing your weapons as long as possible. We should probably avoid having the police called if we can manage it." Max looked pointedly at Mole as she said this. He was a bit trigger happy.
"Fine," Mole huffed.
Max took out Alex's phone and texted Syl.
We're going in.
The street was deserted as they hurried across it, then split into groups to head for their positions. Max gave them a moment to get in place, then began climbing the side of the house. It was wood siding, but pieces were missing, giving her perfect hand- and foot-holds.
Standing on the window sill, Max used a pocket knife to unlock the old window, then carefully pushed it up, praying that it didn't make too much noise. It didn't, barely emitting a soft shush sound, and Max slipped inside. She strained her ears for a moment, listening for any sign that the house's occupants had changed location before stealthily creeping into the hall and up the stairs to the attic. She had just enough time to remove her swords from their sheaths before hearing the doors downstairs burst in simultaneously. Sounds of combat drifted up the stairs.
Max took a deep breath, and kicked the door in.
She tried, really, really hard not to look at Alec. Even his back was covered in bruises, and the uneven rise and fall of his shoulders as he drew breath was barely discernable. His legs hung limply, bare feet dragging the floor like he didn't even have the strength to put them beneath him.
"You have a hero complex," Thula said, a hint of amusement in her voice.
"Shut up, and let's do this, bitch," Max said, rage and disgust welling up inside.
Max tossed Thula one of the swords. She caught it by the grip then spun it once to test its balance. Metal sang as it sliced through air, and the clang of steel on steel filled the room. They worked their way across the room, circling each other like wildcats. The chain from which Alec hung was anchored to the wall opposite the door, and Max did her best to angle that direction.
Thula thrust for Max's abdomen. Max parried the blow, then kicked her in the stomach and made a break for the wall, where she slashed at the hook the chain was worked around. It broke easily and Alec collapsed. He tried to break his fall with his hands, but the impact jarred his shoulders violently. His arms ultimately gave out beneath him, and he wound up on his face. He groaned in agony and briefly tried to get his knees beneath him, but failed and flopped over onto his back.
Max had to force herself to ignore him, because Thula was out for blood tonight. But that was okay, because so was Max. They met again, and Max let her instincts take over, because if she thought about what was at stake rather than the task at hand it was quite likely that both she and Alec would never see the outside of this room.
Thula was becoming frustrated by her lack of ground gained on Max. Their blades crossed, bring them nearly nose to nose. Then Max slammed her forehead against Thula's and spun, and suddenly she had Thula's weapon in her other hand. With arms crossed, Max swept both blades in a broad scissor-like motion that would have surely decapitated anyone else. But Thula was quick, and cartwheeled backward, out of strike range. She grabbed a folding chair that was propped against the wall, popped it open and used it to defend herself against Max's onslaught.
Max wasn't quite sure what happened but Thula somehow managed to twist the swords up the in the chair and yank them both clear out of Max's grip. Then she kicked Max in the face.
Max recovered almost instantly and attacked, swords forgotten. They worked in circles again, constantly moving, trading blow for blow and block for block, until Max found herself a little too close to the wall for comfort.
She dealt a backhand to Thula's face, then walked up the wall and flipped over the other woman. But Thula had anticipated the move, and spun around just in time to slam the heel of her boot into Max's chest. Max stumbled back a step, and then kicked out at Thula's ribs.
Thula quickly pinned Max's foot to her side with her arm. Then she gripped Max's thigh with her other hand, bent her knees slightly and lifted upward, spun in a circle and flung Max across the room. She hit the wall next to the busted door with such force that dust shook loose from the rafters. It knocked the wind out of her, but Max forced her body into motion, snapping back up to her feet.
From the corner of her eye, Max saw Alec struggling again to rise to his knees.
Thula had retrieved the swords while Max was on the ground. Max landed in a crouch just in time to catch Thula's wrists as she drove both blades down toward Max's face. In one fluid move, Max spun beneath her right arm, putting Thula behind her, arms crossed. Then Max flipped the other woman over her head; Thula landed on her feet, but facing away from Max with her arms stretched awkwardly behind her back. Putting a boot firmly between Thula's shoulder blades, she pulled her arms painfully taut and wrested the blades from her grip.
Thula stumbled forward as Max released her, but quickly spun to meet Max's attack. She was fast, rapidly ducking and dodging Max's attempts to strike her, until Max thrusted. Lightning fast, Thula struck Max's outstretched wrist with her foot, sending the sword flying straight into the air. She caught it easily, evening up the contest once again.
Thula's counter attack was vicious, and Max found herself unwillingly retreating under the assault. Suddenly Max's back was pressed to the wall and Thula was too close to bring the sword to bear properly, so she raised it over her head, and prepared to strike Thula's neck with the pommel.
Thula caught Max's wrist and pinned it to the wall with her hand. Then she took half a step back, blocked Max's hastily thrown knee with her thigh, spun her sword around the flat of her hand and drove it into Max's shoulder, sticking her to the to the wall like an insect to a board.
Max cried out, her hand reflexively dropping her weapon to grasp at the sharp object piercing her flesh. It hurt like a mother just to move, and Max couldn't seem to get a good enough grip on the katana to yank it out. Max tried to kick out, buy her some time, but Thula was out of reach as she bent to pick up Max's discarded sword. Then she stood in front of Max, her face twisted in a triumphant sneer and raised the blade high above her head.
Suddenly, there was a funny whoosh, and a chain lashed out of nowhere to wrap itself around Thula's wrists. Max's eyes found Alec; he was barely strong enough to stand on his own two feet, but had somehow managed to save Max's ass nonetheless.
His face twisted in pain, he gave the chain a mighty yank, pulling Thula's hands to the side and causing her to drop the sword. He pulled again, dragging her closer and kicked her in the face before spinning her around and wrapping the chain around her neck.
Max wasn't wasting any time. She could barely breathe through the blinding pain ripping through her chest, but she knew that Alec was no match for Thula in his current state, and she was no use stuck to the damn wall.
Thula dug at the chain for a moment before remembering what sort of condition Alec was in. Violently, she threw her head back into his face, elbowed him in the ribs, and then flipped him over her. He landed on his back and gasped for breath before breaking into body-wracking coughs.
Max saw blood staining his lips, and everything went red.
With both hands, she gripped the pommel as tightly as she could and pulled, throwing her weight forward simultaneously to jerk the blade out of the wall. Thula stepped over Alec like he was garbage.
Max feinted an over-head blow; Thula fell for it, raising her hands to block it and leaving the rest of herself vulnerable. Rotating on her heel, Max struck a solid blow to the other woman's knee, shattering the joint. Thula fell forward, landing on her good knee, and Max, both hands wrapped around the sword's handle, stepped smoothly to the side and brought the blade down with every ounce of strength she had.
Blood sprayed Max's face, hot and revolting, as the sword sliced cleanly through Thula's neck.
"Veni Stol, bitch."
Max wiped the blood from her face on her sleeve, and dragged the flat of her sword across Thula's back to clean it off before she returned it to its sheath.
There was more groaning and coughing from Alec, and Max rushed to him, her eyes wide. He was stupidly trying to get up again, with little success. She knelt next to him and placed one hand on his back and the other on his arm. He practically fell into her arms, coughed again and spat blood on the floor.
Max's stomach twisted. If she could kill that bitch again, she totally would.
"You came for me," Alec wheezed between breaths. He was having a lot of trouble breathing.
The genuine surprise in his voice hurt.
"Of course I came for you, you idiot."
"Well, what took you so long?"
"Your gratitude is overwhelming."
Alec's face contorted in pain and when his eyes met hers her throat tightened uncomfortably. "Can we leave now?"
Max tried to smile, but couldn't quite manage it. "Yeah, we can leave now."
Alec didn't remember much after talking to Max except that Katya's hands were almost unbearably cold and that the new van smelled just as bad as the old one. He kind of remembered Josh raging that White had escaped, but Alec hadn't seen Josh since, so he wasn't sure if he imagined that part or not.
In fact, there was a lot that he wasn't sure if he imagined or not. The only thing he knew for certain was that everything fucking hurt, including the sliver of sunlight filtering in through a space in the ragged curtains as it crept across his face. The room looked like it had probably been really nice at one point, but had long fell into disuse. And the sheets were scratchy and smelled of mothballs.
There were voices outside his door, and Alec strained to listen.
"He needs a surgeon, Max. I know what I'm doing, but I don't have the equipment."
"What do you suggest?" Max replied tersely. "Just drive him to a hospital? There will be blood tests and police reports and way too many questions that I can't answer. Like how he got this way in the first place. And we're still close enough to Seattle that people are freaked about us. If they find out he's a transgenic, he's screwed."
"He has a punctured lung," Katya hissed urgently. "And severe damage to his kidneys and liver. The only reason he's still alive is because of what he is; an ordinary would have died hours ago."
There was a long silence, and Alec could almost imagine the look on Max's face, the wheels turning in her head. Then there were heavy footsteps, headed away from the door.
"Where are you going?"
"You said he needs a surgeon?" Max demanded. "I'll get him a fucking surgeon. Prepare one of the extra bedrooms. I'll be back in an hour. Don't let him die while I'm gone."
Alec slipped back into oblivion.
There were small, positively frigid hands on Alec's chest, and he batted them away, trying to recapture the warmth of the darkness he'd just been enveloped in. It was nice there. Nothing hurt there, and there certainly weren't any freezing fingers probing him to awareness.
Alec cracked his eyes open, testing the light. There was a petite Asian woman standing next to his bed, gently pressing her fingers into his ribs, an awed expression on her face.
"Absolutely phenomenal," she whispered.
Alec realized she wasn't Katya and his brain kicked into gear. Cat-quick, he reached out and snatched her wrists. The woman squeaked in fright, but didn't struggle.
"Who the hell are you?" Alec demanded, his voice hoarse. God, he was thirsty.
"You're hurting me."
"Alec!" Max said, flinging the door open. She placed her hands over his, and gently worked the woman's hands free of his grip. "This is Dr. Su. She's okay."
Alec relaxed, and brought his hand up to cover his eyes. His ribs twinged, but it wasn't the mind-blowing pain he'd expected, and his breathing was easier. Not back to normal, but it didn't feel like his lungs were trying to escape though his mouth anymore. When he dropped his hand back to the bed, Max was looking at him, her expression unreadable.
"I'll give you two a moment, but he really needs his rest, Max."
Max nodded without looking away. Dr. Su closed the door behind her.
"Does she know?"
"Yeah," Max said, the corner of her mouth twitching up in a smile. "She ran into Joshua in the bathroom. It would have been funny, if they hadn't both had absolute freak-attacks. She fainted."
Alec chuckled, but kind of regretted it. "Sounds pretty funny to me. Where'd she come from? Is this her place?"
Max shifted uncomfortably. "Logan's family owns the cabin."
Alec arched a brow. "And Dr. Su…?"
"Let's just say I commandeered her services."
"You kidnapped a doctor." Well, that made sense. "Thanks, I guess."
Max shrugged and looked away. "Well, I couldn't go through all that trouble to rescue you then let you die. Bad form and all that."
"But you really should try not to make a habit of this shit. I don't know how much longer my luck's going to hold," Max continued. Her voice trembled slightly, but she quickly cleared her throat to cover it up.
"I didn't think you'd come," Alec said quietly.
"I will always come for you." Max fidgeted for a second, and dragged her hand through her hair. ""It's my job, right? Saving your ass."
"Lucky me," Alec said, trying to ease the tension.
"Get some rest. We're safe here."
She was gone before Alec could think to try to stop her.
"Those cigars stink, man," Alec groused. "How do you stand it?"
Mole shrugged and took another puff. "It's part of my persona."
Alec snorted. "Then what happened?"
"Then she shot him. Twice."
Alec stared incredulously. "I don't believe you."
"I wouldn't believe me either, if I hadn't been standing right next to her. She was serious, man. I thought she was going to waste him right there. I've never seen her freak out like that before."
Neither had Alec. Max hated guns, and she almost never totally lost her cool like that. If anyone but Mole had told him, Alec would have told them to fuck off.
"You know me and Max have always rubbed each other the wrong way, but I'll be the first to admit that she will do whatever it takes to protect the people she loves."
Alec froze. Mole froze, too, and the air was suddenly just too thick to be comfortable.
It was just a turn of phrase.
"Anyway," Mole continued hurriedly, "White called a little while later, and that's when she started to put things together."
Mole related the entire tale to Alec, but if asked later what was said, he wouldn't have been able to answer.
The next time Alec woke up, it was the quiet hour before dawn where the sky was lavender and the air so still and quiet one could imagine they were the only person on the face of the planet. Except Alec knew he wasn't. It was the sound of quiet crying that had awoken him, and a quick survey of the room found Max sat on the floor next to the closed door. She had her back pressed against the wall and her knees drawn up to her chest. Her elbows were folded across her knees, and her shoulders shook as she sobbed into her arms. The sound tugged at his heartstrings.
"Max?" Alec said softly. His voice sounded out of place in the stillness.
Max snapped her head up and looked at him in the darkness before hastily wiping tears off her cheeks. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to wake you."
She waved her hand dismissively and started to rise. "Go back to sleep."
Yeah, fat chance.
Alec pushed himself up on an elbow, which was decidedly not comfortable, so he could see her better.
"Max," he said sharply. "What's wrong?"
She halted with her hand on the door knob and seemed to debate whether or not she should speak.
"Syl called… Krit – he, uh…" She drew a deep breath. "Apparently there are some things that even a genetically engineered fighting machine can't bounce back from."
"I knew he'd fallen, but… I guess I just assumed he'd pull through, you know?"
Alec had absolutely no clue what to say, but thought maybe Max just needed to talk. So he let her.
"I should have been there," she said, turning to face him. "I was supposed to be there. It was my responsibility. But I can't be in two places at once, and he said I should go find you. And now he's dead, and—"
"And I'm not."
Max nodded, and wiped her face again. "And I keep trying to hate you for it; I want to hate you for it because I chose you." She laughed bitterly. "Save Seattle or save you, and I chose you. And my brother's life was all it cost me.
"And you know what the worst part is? All I can think is that if I take my eyes off you for one fucking second I'll lose you, too. My brother's dead, and I'm worried about you."
Max gestured helplessly with her arms. The darkness had made her bold, loosening her tongue and making it easier to say things she'd never confess with the lights on.
"What have you done to me?"
Nothing more than you've done to me, Alec thought.
"Come here," he said instead.
Max faltered for a second before hesitantly closing the distance between them. He reached for her hand cautiously, like she might bolt if he moved too quickly, and tugged. To Alec's endless surprise, she didn't resist him. Max crawled willingly beneath the blankets, tucking her head into the crook of his shoulder when he lay back down.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, kissing the top of her head.
Max started crying again, and he stroked her hair until she fell asleep.
She was gone when he woke again.
Over the next few days, Alec saw very little of Max, though he half expected she watched him while he slept sometimes. Just to reassure herself that he was still breathing. Which was just as well, Alec supposed, because she seemed to have trouble being in the same room with him when the sun was up. When she was forced into his company, she kept the conversations so stringently neutral that Alec wanted to throw something at her, just to see if he could still piss her off.
It felt like she was distancing herself from him, but in true Max fashion, she refused to talk about it.
His convalescence wasn't all bad though. Joshua, Mole, Jared and even Brutus kept him plenty of company, so he was never bored, and whoever was cooking wasn't half-bad. Alec suspected it was Dr. Su, who had apparently decided that the crazy people in the cabin in the middle of nowhere who had kidnapped her were not going to kill her after all and felt obligated to see Alec to his feet again.
And holy God, did Alec want to be on his feet again. He'd almost died; he got that, really, but if he had to spend one more second in bed he was going to go mad. So he waited quite impatiently until the house fell silent before sneaking out the back door.
It felt so good to be moving. His legs were a bit wobbly, and a dull ache had wrapped itself around most of his torso, but he really couldn't have cared less. The air outside the cabin was foggy and still, but it smelled of flowers and green, not pavement and exhaust and human, and was so much cooler than the heat of Seattle, Alec almost couldn't believe they were even in the same state.
He sat on the ground with his back propped against a tree when he became tired. That bedroom would feel like even more of a prison after this.
Alec was beginning to nod off, when the sound of a vehicle approaching brought him to attention. Climbing to his feet, he crept along the side of the house and peered around the corner. The headlights cut off, and Alec recognized Logan's Pontiac.
Max was out the front door of the cabin before Logan even had a chance to get out of the car. She halted a couple of paces back from the car with her arms crossed tightly over her chest. Logan climbed out and shut the door.
"Thanks for coming."
"It was kind of short notice, but I managed to get what you asked for."
Alec expected Max to relax a bit now that she had whatever it was she wanted, but the opposite occurred. Her back was as straight as a board, and it looked like she was digging her fingers into the flesh of her arms.
Logan pulled a slender manila envelope from inside his jacket and offered it to Max. But when she reached for it, he pulled it away, like he wasn't sure he wanted her to have it. Max just stared, though she was frowning now.
"This is for Alec, isn't it?" Max didn't reply. "You failed to mention he was leaving Seattle when White took him."
"I didn't think it mattered," Max said defensively.
Logan shrugged. "It doesn't really. But it explains a lot."
"Yeah, like what?"
"Like the fact that you shot a man. Or that a police report filed the night you rescued Alec stated that a woman was found decapitated in the attic of an abandoned home outside of Seattle. There were two more bodies, one shot, and one with a broken back, but I don't think you had anything to do with those."
Decapitated. Alec recalled swords clashing and blood on Max's face, but he certainly didn't remember that.
"What's your point?" Max shifted her weight, almost holding her body in a defensive stance, like she expected Logan's reply to strike a physical blow.
"My point is that it's obvious you feel guilty as hell about whatever it was that happened to make him think he had to leave, and you're too stubborn to admit to yourself that you love him and apologize. You compensated with gratuitous violence."
Max's face was guarded. "That's rich, you giving me advice on my love-life. I kind of feel like I just stepped into the Twilight Zone."
"You think I don't think about where we'd be if it weren't for this stupid virus?" Logan hissed, suddenly fierce. "What our lives would look like? It drives me crazy, sometimes. But part of loving someone is wanting them to be happy, and if he's going to do it for you, then I can live with that. Don't make the same mistake we did, Max. You deserve to be happy."
"So does he," Max snapped, "and if I don't do it for him, then I guess I'll just have to live with it. If he wants to leave, I won't stop him." Max reached out and snatched the envelope before Logan even processed what she was doing. "But there's no reason he should start out with nothing but the clothes on his back."
She was already walking away. "Let me know if you have any trouble getting into the city. We were going to try to head back tomorrow."
When Max was gone, Logan swore and kicked the side of his car before flinging the door open and climbing in. He swung the Aztec around and gunned it, dirt and gravel crunching in its wake.
Max was letting Alec go. Max, who fought him on everything, every last detail, was just going to let him walk out of her life without so much as an argument. Alec didn't know whether to be impressed by her sudden emotional maturity or insulted that she didn't think he was worth the argument. Or was it that she really thought they'd busted things up so badly that they wouldn't be able to fix it?
But Alec was the one who had left. He was the one who had copped out, instead of sticking around and proving her wrong. Maybe he was the one who had broken everything. Maybe she was letting him go because she thought it was what he really wanted.
He decided he really ought to stop eavesdropping on Max and Logan's conversations.
Alec was in his room, staring out the window. Sleep had been masterfully elusive, and honestly not that appealing after overhearing Max and Logan argue. He'd been standing there most of the morning.
"Logan called," Max said, entering the room. "He said they didn't have any trouble getting back into Seattle, so we're going to head out in a couple of hours."
Alec turned to look at her just in time to see her drop his duffel on the floor. It must have been in the van. He tried to make eye contact, but Max was determined to look anywhere but at him.
"I don't know what your plans are, but I'll drop you off wherever you want." She pulled the envelope Alec had seen her take from Logan the night before out of her back pocket and tossed it onto the bed. "Courtesy of Eyes Only."
"Anxious to be rid of me?" Alec asked, not bothering to mask his venom. "And I don't want your money."
"Whatever," Max said defensively. She shrugged. "I was just trying to be helpful. Don't take it, if you don't want it."
Max spun on her heel to leave, and Alec's chest tightened. They really needed to stop ending conversations this way.
"Max, wait," he said tiredly.
She did, albeit reluctantly. "What?"
Alec gestured helplessly with his hands. "Is this really how you want things to be?"
"It's how you wanted it," she countered. "You're the one who left. I assumed you'd want to pick up where we left off."
"I don't remember you trying to stop me." Max was silent, her expression dark. "What do you want, Max?"
"What do you want?" she countered, blatantly refusing to answer.
"I want you."
If Max was going to be difficult, he was going to make himself as clear as possible because he was so fucking tired of dancing this particular jig. And he'd be damned if he took it back, because it was the truth, and she deserved to hear it.
Max's eyes flew wide, that deer in the headlights look creeping across her countenance.
"Then you're more of an idiot than I'd thought." She practically ran out the door.
Alec chased her into the hall and grabbed her arm. He spun her around to face him.
"Then I'm an idiot. But I'm not a liar."
Max jerked her arm free. "You cannot possibly know what you're talking about. I'm poison, and if you know what's good for you, you'll take the money and get as far away from me as possible."
"That's such bullshit, and you know it."
"You almost died because of me!"
"I would have definitely died without you!" Alec shouted back. "Do you think I don't know everything you did for me? You chopped off Thula's head, Max. You don't get to do that and then act like it doesn't mean anything."
Max shrank back, like she was going to flee again, so Alec grabbed her arm and pulled her closer. Very close. Close enough that he could smell her hair and feel her breath on his cheek.
"So what the fuck do you want? Because I can't figure you out and I can't keep guessing. I'm tired of getting it wrong, and I'm tired of us never being on the same page. I have to know, Max, so you gotta say it."
Max swallowed hard and opened her mouth, but no words emerged, like they'd gotten stuck.
"What do you want?" Alec repeated, his voice low.
Alec released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Okay."
He silenced her with a kiss, every cell in his body singing out when she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back.
"See now, that wasn't so hard, was it?"
Max rolled her eyes. "Shut up."
I've been entertaining the idea of a follow-up piece, so let me know what you guys think. Make sure you check out the super-fantastic artwork skylar0grace did for this, too! The link's at the very top of my profile page. Thanks again!