Captain Robert Cross rarely left the briefing room in a good mood. Today was no exception.

It was, however, a candidate for one of the worst moods he had ever found himself in on his way out of getting an assignment. Everything before Manhattan seemed pretty pathetic in comparison to all the shit the Wisemen had been put through in the past three months, but he wasn't sure that even finding out that he had to ambush and engage Alex Mercer in the middle of an active Hive had left him this pissed off. And hell knew where that one had led him – the greatest fucking failure of his career. Ninety percent mortality rate, with only himself and three others surviving. Detwiller had managed to get out with only superficial injuries, but Winder was only just out of his casts and Matthews had been reduced to a gibbering wreck. The captain had signed the papers himself – as soon as he got out of rehab, Matthews was getting sent home; the man didn't need to get thrown back into the field after getting shaken apart that badly. He snorted to himself. The great Cross, always looking after his men. Too little and too late.

He'd rebuilt the Wisemen, knew each of the nineteen – now eighteen – new members as well as he knew his reflection, but it didn't erase that black stain on its past. It wasn't even that he was working with roughly half the force he used to have – he could get inured to that, work around it. It was that he'd lost nearly everyone. That for all of his planning and forethought, he'd failed nearly everyone under his wing. Objectively, he knew it was a mistake to get attached to the people he worked with; as a soldier, definitely, and as Blackwatch, even moreso. Working with the elite did lend his squad higher survival rates than usual, but when you fought the nastiest, off-the-radar threats that the country had to face, death happened – and maybe he was weak, but he just couldn't get used to it.

Another commanding officer he had spoken to had seemed to hold that opinion – if anything, he'd been bemused that Cross could still manage to care so much after all his time in service. He'd sounded as though he was genuinely used to replacing lost faces with more faces… but the captain just couldn't think of it that way. He was entrusted with looking after his team, keeping them alive. He had his new Wisemen to protect, but that didn't just erase the thirty-five letters he'd penned out in one night, letters to put mothers to tears and break new widows' hearts.

It wasn't a position he ever wanted to find himself in again. But this

By this point, heading back to inform his team of their next job, he was usually already forming battle plans, going over a map of the target location in his head and plotting out every possible course of movement, the positions he could place his men at, likely enemy concentrations, and so on. In modes of thinking, though, Cross hadn't quite yet made the usual transition. His mind was stuck in a loop, one single question playing over and over again with no solid answer in sight.

Is Red Crown trying to get me killed?

It was not a rhetorical question, as many soldiers were like to pose along the more dangerous lines of duty. But it wasn't an expectation either; it was something that didn't seem wholly likely but was too possible to be considered a paranoid assumption anymore. Which begged the question – Detrick was running out of troops to give, but were they really this short-staffed? Was it a suicide mission or did command actually think he could handle it?

It all boiled down to one thing. Had he been found? Could he have been found? He had covered his tracks with Samson flawlessly, of that he was certain – and the following turmoil with Pariah almost guaranteed no resources would be spent on solving a crime that already had an answer.

But he would be a fool to think that his recent record looked completely innocent. He'd done all he could to cement his alibi with Blackwatch, but he simply had made too many exceptions in order to work with Mercer. He had too much time spent off the record, too many missions that had been completed in unsatisfactorily-explained ways, and he did have a record of having Zeus appear on the site while he was working. He had more clean missions than not, more by far – but those dots were right there, and he was painfully aware that if anyone in the currently blurry hierarchy decided to investigate him, he was absolutely fucked.

Perhaps it was because he realized how deep the hole he stood in was, that he had become so willing to dig it deeper.

It had sounded simple enough, at first. An armored Hive had emerged near Times Square, something that hadn't been seen since the heart of Greene's infection. The Wisemen were to clear out the surrounding area so that a thermobaric tank could be moved in and survive long enough to blow the thing to hell.

Then he'd asked what backup and vehicles his team would be receiving. Smoothly as ever, he'd been told that there was none to be had.

Nineteen men – eighteen ordinary men and one enhanced, if he wanted to make it sound marginally better – had been tasked to clear a hive by themselves. An armored hive. By. Themselves. What the fuck.

If he didn't know any better, he'd have said it was a suicide mission. As it was, he did know better and he still couldn't make the call on that one.

But he had his orders. And in Blackwatch, you didn't question your orders.

He didn't want to bring Mercer into things again – damn it, it wasn't even completely about getting caught any more. He didn't want to rely on Zeus, Gentek's pet monster gone renegade. He didn't want to force his team to work with something that was as like to eat them as he was to fight alongside them. He didn't want to need somebody else to keep his squadron alive.

And he knew he had a choice, but it was a joke of one. The Wisemen were the best of the best, but this? This was suicide. The Infection was gaining strength rapidly, and there were unknowns thrown into the mix now – things he didn't know how to handle along with the difficult things he did. Even if they didn't all end up dead, there was no way every member of his team was walking alive out of this.

What was more catastrophic? The chance that he would be found out, or the chance that his entire squad would be destroyed?

Of course, being found wouldn't let his men off freely, and that made the choice more difficult than he'd have liked. Cross wasn't a selfless man, but he knew duty and he knew the value of all the lives he'd been entrusted with. He'd already lost Forsey, and that was far too much. Hell, he'd lost nearly all of his team at Mercer's tentacles. Self-defense or not, that was something he doubted he'd ever forgive the Blacklight virus for.

Yet he worked alongside him nonetheless, and the Wisemen were all accomplices to his actions. He knew what a fine line he walked, but his men's lives were worth treading the knife's edge. He'd told them to denounce their captain if the worst ever came to fruition, to all swear that Mercer had threatened to infect them and make them spies otherwise. He did not feel any guilt about dragging Mercer into those hypothetical explanations. Blackwatch did not tolerate weakness – if Cross had threatened his team with death or working with their worst enemy, then they were expected to have chosen death. This was the best way he could think of that allowed his team to keep a shred of honor in the worst case scenario – death or becoming a threat to Blackwatch.

He just had to pray his men wouldn't try to defend him.

There was also the chance that he wouldn't be found, or the chance his team could singlehandedly take down the hive. He was not banking on the second. The first… he just had to hope his streak of luck continued.

He was going to need to take Zeus up on his offer.

0o0o0

Alex watched from the rooftops – silent, a statue with keen, raking eyes. The midday heat of the summer was long past; the air remained cool and now a touch irritatingly damp, even at high noon. The humidity was enough to make his surface area prickle uncomfortably, but it did not register to the hunter. His attention was held elsewhere. His targets were in plain sight, unaware of the monster that tracked them. Even if they had known, what could they have done to escape his notice? The city was his kingdom; whether crawling with tendrils or uninfected masses, he knew every rise and shadow intimately.

They moved slowly through the crowds, even more so than the sluggish speed that was bound to occur in the confusion and desynchronization that came with hundreds of humans all trying to fit in a small area. A male and a female – a man and a woman, he corrected himself, since Dana scolded him on speaking like that and sounding like a scientist was something he wanted to avoid anyway. Still, it was hard not to feel like he was analyzing them from on high, because that was exactly what he was doing. Observing. And nothing would get past him.

They stayed close together. That was unlike most operatives he knew; Blackwatch tended to keep its undercover agents spread apart, to maximize surveillance or coverage and minimize losses if one was found out. The speed, too, was unbefitting. Too slow, not purposeful enough. It was possible that they were lounging around only to seem innocent, but they weren't blending into the crowd so much as holding it up.

They walked. And walked some more. Any moment now, and they were going to… walk some more, apparently. His scowl had gradually morphed from one of distrust to one of frustrated anticipation, and finally of boredom over the course of his watch.

Sudden movement. The woman was reaching into her bag! His stare sharpened; it could be anything. A grenade, a bomb, a concealed weapon, or a… he squinted… hairbrush. Huh. It looked spiky enough at one end, he supposed, but she wasn't slashing at anyone with it. Dana sometimes threw one of those things at him. It didn't seem to be very dangerous, but he knew that many things that he hardly noticed were dangerous or even lethal to a normal person. He turned away as she began to run it through her hair, adjusting his hood to keep the sun out of his eyes.

Yeah, looking at the sky, it was definitely close to noon. He had places to be. Time to wrap things up.

When he looked back, the pair was near the end of the street. They turned the corner and vanished from his line of sight without incident.

Mercer sighed and leaned back. Adding those two to the count, that made seventeen elderly citizens, and not one of them had the good graces to be perceptibly terrifying, vicious, or even mildly aggressive. The jury was still out on Chihuahuas, whatever the hell those were. His memories painted pictures of a breed of canine that was about as long as his forearm fully-grown, but he was entirely at a loss as to something that fragile-looking could ever pose a danger to a human.

Unless… he was beginning to think that maybe this had been another one of Dana's 'literary device' things. Huh. Best not to mention this whole thing to her, then.

He shrugged and pulled back from the roof's edge. Cross needed his help, and more importantly, Dana wanted snacks. Alex had never been quite clueless enough to think that she'd appreciate his kind of snacks, and had asked for some specifics early on. He had the particular brands memorized with scientific precision now – Cheetos, Lays, Ridges, Pringles, several things that ended with 'ito'. No barbeque or ranch, under pain of death.

Cross wanted him to kill things, which was a little more fun, but his favorite kind of supermarket had just opened up not too far southwest of their apartment; an abandoned one. No shoppers, no infuriatingly pushy people bludgeoning him with carts, painfully unaware that each fleeting bodily contact they made with an angry guy in a hood was an invitation for his tendrils to lash out and assimilate them. Just a handy sign that warned shoppers away from rising local levels of infection and pointed out where to find the grocery's temporary relocation. It was amazing, he thought, that a little sheet of metal with words was so much more effective at warning people to stay away than thrashing tentacles and biomass growths. Either Dana's occasional rambles about the power of the written word were actually valid, or humans were just so out of touch with their instincts that they needed to be outwardly told when they were supposed to run away.

Given all he'd seen, he was inclined to think the latter.

He was only a few blocks east of the store, and it was best that he got that done now, while he still remembered to. This was not something he could afford to fail. Some things were just not meant to be trifled with. As far as Alex was concerned, this list included thermobaric tanks, fire hydrants, and Dana at its very top.

Two minutes later, Alex could thankfully say that no thermobaric tanks had patrolled the streets between his position then and his location now, and he had not been foolish enough to try and wrench one of the funny-looking red things out of the sidewalk as a makeshift projectile. Not that he took the sidewalk anyway, but Alex had learned his lesson if nothing else, and was thoroughly prepared to quash any urge to dip down to street level and get blasted by a high-pressure stream of pain, should one arise.

He peered down. Store in sight, no army presence, and sparsely populated sidewalks. Ideal. Maybe this whole area was being warned off – he wasn't used to such thin crowds. He paced lengthwise along the rooftops, searching for a wide enough empty stretch where he could fall without crushing somebody. That was always more trouble than it was worth.

"Prey," something whispered in his mind, and he gave his head an irritable jerk. Was he ever going to condition himself out of his worse instincts? He thought he'd been making progress there, but apparently he wasn't as good as he thought.

His search took him a few buildings over, but he at last found an opening in the shifting trickle of foot traffic and dropped to the street, ignoring the startled cries that tended to emerge when a viral monstrosity in human skin fell from the sky and cracked the pavement. Sometimes, he thought it might be worth coming down silently and discreetly to avoid the stragglers that sometimes followed him, asking him if he was okay or wanting to know how the fuck he did that. It was even worse when there were police officers around. He was pretty vigilant when it came to scanning for military, but the guys in blue caps just didn't strike the same warning bells.

It hadn't been enough of an annoyance to make him change his ways yet, though, and this was no different. Most of Manhattan's denizens had the good grace to be completely absorbed in their own business – or perhaps three months of continual crazy shit had deadened their confusion. He brushed aside one young man that seemed to be talking to him, making it a full-blown shove when his point failed to get across, and stalked away, heading up towards the supermarket. The sliding doors were unresponsive – he forced his hands through and wrenched them open, carefully setting down a maimed pane when one of the doors popped out of its slot entirely. See? He could do gentle. Let Dana complain about that.

It was dark inside; the building was devoid of the usual shoppers and staff, but it hadn't fallen apart; the only sign of its disuse was the thin layer of dust that his footsteps stirred. The only light streamed in from the windows among the front walls, which quickly faded into shadow among the numerous aisles and rows of shelves, still half-stocked. Thankfully, no visible signs of the Infection had risen to lend credence to the evacuation; everything was, if not clean, at least not covered with tendrils.

He pushed past stacks of carts, glancing up at a ceiling-mounted camera. Judging by the real-time monitor next to it, it was still active. Some whimsical fragment of his mind wanted to give it an impish wave, but he simply scowled and took a few steps past it. Getting caught shoplifting was inconsequential beyond definition compared to the rest of his crimes. If the police wanted to apprehend Alexander J. Mercer, they'd need to get in line behind Blackwatch, the Marines, and possibly a few government intelligence agencies. And the fine would need to be tacked onto the end of the tens-of-billions dollars he'd owe in damage reparations, which was not something he ever intended on paying. Access to at least a hundred still-functioning bank accounts of Manhattan residents aside, that was way out of his fiscal league. Let Blackwatch cover up its own messes.

On the other hand, what if somebody else wanted to get groceries without putting up with the usual insufferable masses of people? Not everyone had his complete immunity to law enforcement. After a moment's thought, he hoisted up one of the carts and threw it at the camera; it and the screen exploded into bits of glass.

His good deed for the day done, he continued in, sweeping the darkness for heat signatures. There was nothing to be found. In comparison to other times he'd found himself in these accursed buildings, this one seemed poorly stocked – either they'd taken the time to move a considerable amount of supplies to their new location, or he hadn't been the first looter to try his luck in here.

He tried his best to remember the scent of Dana's snacks. Even abandoned – no, especially abandoned – these places were always hell on his nose. Too much conflicting information from all directions – sweet and salt, stale and oily, rubber, plastic, the harshness of antiseptics that he could practically feel. He even picked up the familiar smell of rotting meat wafting from one section. Clearly, the coolers were out of backup power. His lip curled. …It still smelled better than that 'sour cream' dip, though.

A quick scan in his infected vision proved that the food was free of contamination; once again, his eyesight flickered back to the normal spectrum as he wandered forward. Alex was excellent at treading carefully, all things considered, but he still weighed too much for quiet footsteps; clacking echoes snapped through the dusty air. It got darker as he moved farther into the store, enough so that when he finally reached the shelves that carried his target, he had to fine-tune his eyes in order to read the labels without difficulty.

Chips were looted meticulously. The first can of Pringles he found was hastily put back when he recognized the 'Barbeque' label on the front of it; he did not want to risk invoking Dana's wrath with the wrong sort of chemical mixture on her apparently delicious plant-based foodstuffs. Two more were returned to the shelves and a third was smashed upon the floor before he finally found a row of less offensive flavors.

He eventually made off with a large bag of plain Lays chips and two cans of pizza Pringles – something he didn't understand, given that his memories painted a pizza as a large and generally loaded food object that shouldn't have been able to fit in such a thin can. After a few seconds' thought, he lifted the can to eye level and read more closely. Apparently, it was full of chips that tasted like pizza. He still didn't get it. If somebody wanted a pizza, why would they get chips instead of eating a pizza? Humans. Whatever.

His sister's errand aside, he could get on with Cross's task. Times Square… He turned his eyes south, remembering the time a misshapen monster had erupted from the street. It seemed like Manhattan's famed heart was destined to serve as a core for the Infection yet again. He wondered if Pariah was going for some kind of stupid symbolism with it, or if the place was just useful again due to another factor like its central location or the high population flow.

But if there was an armored Hive in the area, there couldn't be any civilians passing through. It wasn't that they were capable of pulling their heads out of their asses and not strolling into an area only marginally more safe than a firing range; Alex had no faith that humanity was ever going to figure that one out. But Hives were protected, and any squishy humans meandering around were going to get mauled, eaten, or mauled and then eaten. Redlight as a virus existed to spread, but the creatures it created seemed just as happy to kill a potential carrier as they were to infect it.

Finding Cross wasn't difficult. The location was very well-traversed by him – the diversity of low buildings and skyscrapers, dotted with erratic billboard shapes, created an enjoyable place to practice whenever he got bored, though this wasn't the time for it. He hadn't been aware of an armored Hive appearing so soon, and in truth, it unsettled him, but that was irrelevant for now; all that mattered was that he was looking for an armored Hive, and that kind of thing was hard to miss. He didn't even have to rely on his sense of smell to track him and his team; it was more of a matter of feeling the infection and following where it thickened, saturating the ground and filling the air until it grew strong enough to visibly thrive. It was a tangible thing to him, something he could feel and taste long before anyone else seemed to notice.

However, as he peered down from one of the taller buildings in the square, he found himself disappointed. The Hive wasn't located in Times Square itself, but a few blocks off from the hub; far enough for the skyline to be noticeably lower than the island's grand center. Erratic ground played to his strengths, and the target area looked pretty generic. He leapt to another building, shorter but closer, for a better look. It looked like something was under construction – probably being rebuilt, there was a lot of that going on in Manhattan. Well, that was a little better. All of the exposed bars and planks might end up being useful.

A few buildings down from the construction site, he spotted a group of nearly twenty, spread out across the space of two rooftops. He smiled grimly to himself; truly, there was nothing like some good bloodshed.

"Prey," something in his head whispered again, and his eyes narrowed. He had no love for Blackwatch, but Cross was an ally, and his men were off limits by extension. And yet, for a few seconds there, something about them had distinctly felt like enemy, something for him to rip and shred until no more threat was present. His mouth flattened into a hard line; he was slipping today. He was hungry, yes, but he was always hungry – that was a burn that smoldered quietly at the best of times and raged at the worst, and right now, he definitely wasn't starved enough to merit going completely fucking insane.

He cupped a hand against his forehead. Get it together, Mercer.

When he was certain that he was in his right mind, he jumped down to the clustered, relatively even rows of roofs below, slipping into a glide as he fell in order to avoid crashing straight through whatever structure he landed upon. It still cracked dangerously when he impacted, but he was already gone, bounding across the rooftops until he was close enough to the Captain's position to skid to a stop. The shocked voices that rose in response to his entrance – and the shower of debris that accompanied it – were momentarily gratifying.

"I'm here," he grated, tossing the bags down.

Cross looked down to the containers at his feet, then back up to the viral monstrosity. Then back to the chips again, looking a shade more skeptical and considerably less like he expected them to sprout tentacles and try to eat him.

"What the…" He shook his head, confused. "Hungry, Mercer?"

"Dana wanted them," he replied gruffly.

The silence that briefly followed that was not the usual death glare, mutual I-seriously-want-to-see-you-die silence that tended to run between him and the Wisemen. He couldn't see their faces, as always, but he could tell they were all looking at him and there was something off about it. This silence was bemused, vaguely reminding him of the times Dana would look at him whenever he said or did something inhuman but not too disturbing. Discomfiture grew into a weird pit of anger somewhere in his stomach as the moment dragged on. Yes, that was Dana's look – and Cross and his damnable team didn't have the right to look at him like that. That was hers.

Unwilling to deal with the strangely infuriating attention for any longer, he broke away from Cross's incredulous stare, suddenly highly interested in a loose bit of concrete down by his foot.

"Just hold onto these, okay?" he muttered. "You do not want to see my sister when she doesn't have this stuff around."

There was another awkward pause before Cross cleared his throat. "Fine. Whatever. The plan is to hold position anyway." He gave his head a slight shake, indicating the Hive in the distance. "We can do that as long as you keep anything big from climbing up. Once the hard-hitters have been thinned, we'll move in and clear the rest. Then I'll call in fire support and you'll get the fuck out of here."

Mercer nodded and leaned down to pick up the snacks again. "Where are you setting up?"

"There." Cross jerked a thumb, pointing at a rooftop among the flat buildings further down the street. "The second one from the end of the block."

Alex turned his sharp gaze onto the indicated roof. "Low," he observed. "Quickly climbed. And that high one behind it is an obvious ambush point."

"Hmph." The captain wasn't amused. "Not all of us can run up walls. And not all of us can jump down sixty stories and go out for coffee afterwards, either. If we set up from a high-rise, getting down takes too long in a crisis situation. I've watched a single hydra kill a squad of snipers on a skyscraper. Beat the base to shit; none of those poor fucks had a chance." He shook his head. "And you think we can't cover that? That's what part of working in a team is, Mercer. More people, more eyes. I don't care how alert you are, you're never going to cover as much space as nineteen."

"And I've got better senses than all of you put together." The virus hunched his shoulders and kicked the piece of concrete aside. "If you're done with your little pep talk, let's go. You're making me wait on lunch."

Without waiting for a response, he bent his knees and leapt to the next roof over. Before he made the next jump, he glanced back over his shoulder. Cross was giving him the finger; he smirked. He quickly cut ahead when they began to move, keeping at least two buildings between himself and the squadron. Their open hostility always called out to his own, and it was still pretty taxing to stand next to them without making Blackwatch puree. Letting threats live wasn't his way, and for all his inability to pick up on the majority of human expression, he could feel when somebody wanted to put him down.

The target rooftop was only a few buildings ahead, so he slowed down to a brisk pace. He rolled his shoulders once and looked back. The team was a decent ways behind now. They moved so slowly, so gingerly – carefully measuring the small gaps between buildings. They had to prepare themselves to take such a tiny jump! Nothing like his own predator's grace. How could they ever survive against the Infected hordes?

He could have done dozens of laps back and forth in the time it took for them to move from point A to point B, but Cross probably would have given him hell for it. So he remained relatively still as the Wisemen finally made it to the target rooftop and began to set up, distributing weapons and stationing themselves in rough lines along the building's edges, more thickly on the one that overlooked the street.

Cross said little, watching the preparations from a spot that could loosely be considered 'next' to him. Occasionally, the man would fiddle with his blasted shock baton or tweak the visor he never seemed to wear.

"Well, we're all here." Alex gestured to the armored hive. "Ready to move in?"

"We're not moving. I can't wade in there with eighteen men and expect to make it. I need you back here to prevent anything from getting too close."

"Can't you look after yourselves?" the hooded man growled. "I can't do anything useful from here. Waste of my talents."

"You'll get to run around and wreak hell in a few minutes," Cross snapped. "Stalkers like to ambush early on. I want you here when that happens."

He was saved from Mercer's retort when the monster stiffened like a terrier spotting a squirrel. Without prompt, he grabbed one of the extra weapons and hurled it over the building's edge. A wet thunk was heard an instant later.

"That's not how you use a gun, Mercer."

Alex ignored the captain, peering over the side. "Might want to hurry it up. They're coming."

"No shit. And stop wasting my guns."

The virus was rummaging through the spares again. "What? It was just one of those shitty ones anyway; not like it was good for anything. This, on the other hand…" He stood up again, a rocket launcher cradled against his chest and a distinctly unsettling grin plastered on his face. "Me and Javvy are great friends."

The captain shook his head. "I'll just add pyromania to your list of neuroses, then."

"I blame all the ones I've eaten," Alex deadpanned, stalking over to the edge again. He tilted his head a shade, then fired into the slowly growing crowd of Walkers. "Hah. Beautiful."

"Don't even think about using that at close range," the Specialist warned.

That damnable grin grew. "That's what the tentacles are for."

"Captain," Black cut in. "Permission to shoot?"

"Mercer?" Cross rubbed his eyes. "Try to make it look like an accident."

The private chuckled. "I meant the other bastards, but that works too."

"Oh. Ugh. Mercer, quit fucking distracting me. Yes, Wisemen, we're starting now. Sullivan, Krausch, I want you keeping watch on the rear wall. Everyone else is on long-distance crowd clearing. Mercer, please try to remember that there is only one asshole here that can take a Javelin at close range, and we both know who that is. And I'll let you know when you can go, so don't try to run off before then or so help me God I will kick your ass later. Are we clear?"

There was a chorus of eighteen "Yes, sir!"s and one snort.

The common Walkers that had crowded around the building's front were quickly dispatched. Being unable to climb, they posed no real threat anyway – the occasional evolved variant might start scaling the wall, but would always get picked off by a bullet or explosive.

For a short while, Alex was left with nothing to do but watch the others. Each soldier kept their eyes and guns strictly on their appointed ground to cover, with Cross and him at the center. There was no looking back, no flinching at sudden noises – they had to trust each other enormously for that, to entrust the team as a whole to watch their backs. Alex was used to analyzing groups, in that he knew how to pick out isolated members and locate the chain of command. But he'd never just sat back before and observed the very basis of how the human race survived.

They weren't even eyeing him as the threat they always saw. Did this make him, just for this instant, a part of the group…?

A Hunter's call rumbled in his ears, and he strode to the edge, pushing two Wisemen aside to make a space for himself. Mercer might have preferred the frenzy of close combat, but a mesh of countless soldiers' experiences lent him a master's skill at using several types of weapons. How to compensate for recoil, gauging the speed of the rocket and the path his target took, steadiness and aim – none of them had been good at everything, but he stole their best parts like he had stolen their flesh, and he watched his rocket blaze down and collide directly with the Hunter's face. The tanklike Infected reared back, howling, and a sheet of bullets from beside him finished it off.

"You do your job and let us do ours," the soldier nearest to him grumbled.

"Shut up and shoot, Detwiller," barked the one besides him, not looking up from his scope.

Alex gave the one called Detwiller a shove as he backed up, returning to his impromptu position in the center. He went through most of his missiles over the next few minutes, but he wasn't able to do much from the rooftop – the Wisemen did a good job at keeping anything on the ground from getting close.

A screech rang out from above, and Alex's head whipped up in tandem with the entire team's. A Stalker was perched on the edge of the building behind them.

That one went down before it had a chance to leap; two different Wisemen simultaneously went for headshots, and neither missed. But as it toppled two more of the beasts pounced down, shrieking with rage.

These ones had tails, Alex dimly noted. They were short, still rather stubby near the end, but the ones he'd seen over the past two days definitely hadn't. There wasn't much time to stop and observe them, but the legs looked more even, too, albeit still far from pretty. Pariah and Greene had to be working themselves overdrive to evolve everything so quickly…

Not that it was ever likely to make a difference against the very avatar of evolution. He tossed his Javelin aside and dove for the closer one, only for it to be cleanly sniped through the chest and not-so-cleanly hit with a propelled grenade at the same time. There was no time to pull back, and he was caught in the explosion, tossed back a few feet. He growled as he stood back up, flicking the gore off his shoulders.

Bastards stole my kill.

He turned his eyes to the other. It was getting dispatched just as quickly, but it had gotten much closer to the Wisemen, nearly at the edge of their group. Another grenade detonated as he watched, blasting the creature's misshapen legs off… and knocking the nearest black-clad figure off his feet and sprawling towards the edge of the building.

It happened in an instant. There was one flashing moment to process what he was seeing, and then the lightning-fast reaction. He hurled himself towards the edge, right arm crawling into a more whiplike shape. Even in the heat of the moment, all the vital details were frozen in time; the Wiseman's legs and the base of his spine were still on solid ground, but his torso and center of gravity were not.

His whip wrapped around the other man's midsection as he began to fall, legs angling upwards in a manner that might have been comical in any other situation. The Wiseman barely had time to give an admittedly undignified cry before he was hauled back to safe ground, hoisted upright by a writhing mass of black tentacles that was definitely new to this kind of work.

Blue eyes met blue lenses for a few shuddering seconds before reality hit Mercer like a brick. More accurately, it hit him like a series of bricks shaped into the words 'wait, what?' It took him a few more moments before he recognized that not only had he protected the man, but he was still holding onto him. And not killing him. And not planning to kill him. His whipfist flicked open as if scalded, and the soldier fell to his knees awkwardly. Another moment and Alex had leapt backwards, as far away from them as the roof would allow. He was staring at the team with utter confusion scrawled across his face, and while masks hid most of their expressions, their gazes fell between their nearly-injured teammate and his unlikely rescuer with equal amazement.

He didn't understand why. He knew, distantly, that he saved the Wiseman, like he knew that there was a world outside the waters of the bay and that there were over seven billion people on the planet. A fact, but abstract; he could comprehend the words, but it was difficult to grasp. He'd saved the soldier, but he had no particular feelings for whoever this man was – Detwiller, he thought – beyond his general hatred for Blackwatch. He knew he would have protected Dana without hesitating – once upon a time, Karen Parker too – and perhaps Cross, if the veteran was ever foolish enough to get caught in such a situation – but this was somebody who, frankly, Alex would not have been at all opposed to seeing dead, and he'd prevented that from happening anyway. Assisting them or not, he wasn't one of them. Hell, it wasn't like he would have been blamed for not catching the guy. Why had he done it?

He hadn't thought. Movement in the corner of his vision, a slip, a yell, and it was all instinct from there. He was familiar with instinct, perhaps too much so. Whatever neural system he had was tied to his impulses with steel cables – the drive to hunt, to kill, to infect, the guiding hand that shaped his plans in combat and kept tabs on everything outside his field of view. And this… wasn't it. Even as he'd dove forward, forming his whipfist, he'd dimly recognized it didn't come from that viral switchboard. But nonetheless, it had been reflex. So that left… hell. He'd known he had changed, but this was new, and not pleasantly so – it was always telling him not to act, not spurring him to do so. The insidious infection seemed determined to worm its way into every corner of his brain, no matter how hard he tried to repress it. Memories, feelings, morals… humanity. Fuck, it was so deeply rooted that he couldn't even feel properly outraged that he was slowly losing himself. If it wasn't the Hivemind, it was this… it was always one way or another, wasn't it? Become a monster or cage himself within impossible standards. Which was worse? Which was him?

Dana would be proud of me if she saw this, he thought, and resigned himself to his answer.

The confused staring match went on for several more heartbeats before anyone regained their senses enough to speak. That was Cross, of course – time was too vital to waste gawking when you were in the middle of a battlefield, and the veteran knew it, no matter how floored he was.

Alex was relieved when the captain finally cut through the damnable silence. "Enough staring!" he barked, although the viral monstrosity didn't miss the odd glance Cross sent him as he said that. Great, even he was still trying to measure him up. "Get your eyes back on the field!"

Then he turned to Mercer. "It's getting thicker down there," Cross pointed out. "Go."

"Gladly." As if 'glad' was enough to describe his burning desire to get the hell away from the Wisemen right now. Alex nodded once, then turned on the spot and leapt over the line of soldiers – which elicited several swears – and to ground level. The roars and cries of the Infected were so much louder here; combined with the stench of decay, it was nearly a palpable thing. His whipfist was still out, and he drew it back as he stalked forward.

If he was thinking too much like a human right now, well, what better than to clear his head than to go on a slaughtering spree?

He couldn't see any Hunters or Stalkers, and there definitely weren't any Hydras yet, but there was an evolved Walker in the crowd of meandering Infected closest to him, and that was as good as a target to single out as any. His fingers clenched and he ran his tongue across his teeth. These bastards were going to die

Something hit him – not physical, but enough to stagger him all the same. His head spiked with pain and his vision flagged, the surrounding street giving way to unrecognizable, shifting patches of color like the darkness behind closed eyes. Up and down and left and right were scrambled, skewed, and he reached out his whiplike arm helplessly, the clawed barbs spreading in a pointless bid for balance. Whispers crawled in his skull, an impression of voices – memories? Something seemed off – that simultaneously rose in a cacophony and fell in tandem with each other at once. He gasped, still pitching for balance, suddenly viscerally aware that he felt less at ease than he'd be in a room full of Blackwatch's now-decimated supersoldiers, and that that churning confusion had nothing to do with his muddled senses.

Towering above all of it was the pervading sense of wrongness; something was horribly, unbearably wrong where he stood – like everything he knew was wrong, that the fleeting glimpses he could still see through mostly blinded eyes painted a picture that made him feel sick. He was fighting – why was he fighting –

Teeth clamped around his still-human arm and the world fell into place again; He recoiled, jolted out of his stupor. A snarl and a flick of his whipfist, and whatever Infected bastard had tried to take a bite out of him was tossed a block away.

His left hand shot up to his now-aching head. What was that? A moment's confused pause and a thick, deformed hand slammed into his skull, breaking several fingers and sending him stumbling back. God, there was no time to think – his whip lashed out and slashed the offending Walker lengthwise. If he stopped to try to psychoanalyze everything that went on in his head, he'd never get anything done. He had decided a long time ago that he probably had an excuse to be crazy somewhere within several hundred lifetimes' worth of foreign memories raging against his existence and dealing with instincts born from a disease meant to destroy humanity.

Disorientation was a new one, though, and a serious liability. As if he didn't already have enough to worry about. Definitely need to look into that afterwards and – fuck! See, this is why thinking never solves anything.

A Hunter had taken advantage of his distraction this time, and the beast pounced on him with enough force to throw him backwards across the street. Hell, he needed to get a grip. Just had to forget about unwanted mindfucking and the fact that Cross's team was probably laughing their collective ass off right now – yep, he definitely wanted to forget about that one. It wasn't like it was hard. He just had to do what was natural…

And if there was anything Alex Mercer could call his own, it was bloodshed. Worries and confusion were shoved aside like useless toys; the only thoughts he needed were of action and reaction. The world always seemed just a bit redder around the edges when he got like this…

The Hunter was going to die, but his momentary weakness had gotten him surrounded. He needed better ground, needed somewhere to fight from and not out of; his body knew this as fiercely as his rational mind, and he scythed upwards, his forming blade whistling through the air. He plunged it into a concrete wall as a temporary anchor, sweeping the area from his momentarily safe ground. Damn this street and its flat levels… and the construction site. Just what he needed.

Springing from a wall was a little harder than jumping from the ground, but it was distance he needed, not height. A quick glide and he was near the structure's top – for an instant, anyway. Even with as gentle a landing as he could make, the thinner scaffolding on the top was made for humans, not compact viral abominations, and it gave immediately. Alex spent the next few seconds tumbling onto and through bars, very grateful he didn't bruise, until he at last stopped crashing down and settled at a height around the middle of the original building. The beams below were sturdier, he noted, although they still groaned under his weight.

He really hoped the Wisemen hadn't seen that.

The Hunter from before had caught up; it was pacing around the structure's base. A large sheet of metal leaned down from the story underneath Alex and to the ground, and the Infected had noticed it.

It wasn't able to do much more than mill around, though, as several more Infected began to congregate. The Hunter seemed confused. It put one meaty paw onto the sloping beams, but drew it back when the metal groaned under the pressure. It paced from side to side several times before trying again, and then loosed a frustrated growl at its unreachable target when the second attempt failed as well.

Alex grinned and morphed his free hand back into a whip. The Hunter went down with a few strikes to center mass, and he began to snipe at its lesser brethren below. Easy pickings.

Or it would have been, if another, more foolhardy Hunter hadn't shown up. He didn't notice the creature among the crowd until it quite boldly announced that it wasn't going to be stymied by something as simple as gravity. Mercer took a moment to chuckle at the beast's sheer stupidity as it tried to scale the metal slope. It split almost instantly, both halves falling to the ground with a sharp rasp.

Undeterred, it crawled back a few steps and then leapt up to the first story of beams. Hah. Like that wouldn't make the whole thing…

collapse.

His grin faltered when the beams underfoot gave a massive heave.

"Oh, shit," was all he managed to say before the entire structure toppled.

He tried to jump, but he was too late to hold his footing, and by the time he could spring, he was already falling. Once again, he was tangled up in a series of metal poles and beams as he went down; this time, though, he hit the ground hard, and the rain of steel kept coming long after impact. All he could do was force a carapace over his back and wait for it to stop. The hasty knob of armor protected him from a few of the bars, but it eventually broke when a particularly thick support more or less nailed him.

Enough. He curled in on himself, feeling the burning compression in his chest, the raw power that coiled up like a spring. He let the pressure grow until he could no longer hold it in – he released his tendrils with a thunderous roar, spearing and blasting the damnable prison of metal away. He could only hope the debris would crush some of the surrounding horde when it landed.

Fuck. He hadn't been in great shape for a Devastator, and his body was letting him know. Everything was spinning, and he was forced to revert his whipfist to a hand for balance. Once the world had stopped throbbing, he crawled back to his feet with a pained hiss, keeping his hand splayed on the ground and his blade dug into the asphalt. The Hunter had known what it was doing, because it looked unharmed; clearly, it had reacted faster than him. But its ingenuity ended there, because now it was pacing towards him with the slow gait of a predator moving in for the kill – like I was actually down, he thought, mind throbbing with the pulse of battle – and he leaned back, shifting his weight to leap forth in a high, vaulting arc and plant his blade in its skull.

Over the chaos, he heard a sound behind him, the crack of debris, and he whirled –

Too late. Three brands of pain were burnt into his mind as lengthy talons of bone scored across his twisting side, ripping through the biomass jacket, his shell of skin, and the swirling mass underneath. They twisted up and across his spine before coming out the other side with a spray of liquid too dark and thick to be blood.

Alex howled. Capable of instantly reforming flesh or not, having one's back torn open nearly through was horribly painful, and it had been a while since anything had inflicted that kind of damage to him. Anything normal, anyway… was he slipping, or were his enemies catching up to him?

He wouldn't accept that. The cry changed into a furious roar as he rolled back and twisted to his feet, ignoring the rivulets of biomass that oozed from his healing back. Already, the flow had diminished from a gush to a trickle, and the ooze on the ground around him was slithering back towards his feet to rejoin its master. His eyes narrowed. Everything seemed tinted just the slightest bit red, moreso than the normal haze of the Infected zones. They had hurt him. As if he could lower himself to being as weak as they were, weak as he had been once – once and then and never again, before he'd clawed his way up the food chain through a sea of blood. Back when he'd been weak and scared and not good enough for what he needed to do. Back then, this had been experience. Now, he was impossibly beyond this, and to some snapped part of himself, this was an insult. These bastards were insignificant, the Hive's soldier ants, an army of pawns. And he was a king!

He locked eyes with the Stalker. It lunged. Instead of dodging, he copied its motion and met it head-on. Its claws stabbed through his midsection at the same time he slammed his arm through its chest, his tendrils burrowing in right after it. Like the other Stalker, its body seemed to break apart into his nigh effortlessly, and he might not have imagined the minor surge of vigor he gained from it. Tentacles still out and framing his silhouette like an eldritch, bloody mirage, he caught the Hunter with his blade and ripped it cleanly in half, taking his second meal in a span of instants.

Knowing that those few of Greene's pets that had been able to hurt him were now the flesh that lined up and healed over his wounds was enough to diminish his rage. In truth, he didn't know what he was mad at – that pack of foes that had managed to knock him down in tandem, or himself, for being caught off guard? For being as strong as some kind of unholy god and still not being able to match Pariah? For struggling and bleeding his whole life to gain power, and never finding it enough? After a second, he shook his head and retracted his feeder tendrils. He didn't fucking care, not when there were still enemies to kill and a buffet to take advantage of.

He leaned forward to dash forward into another sprint, then paused, holding himself back and alert. Something was disturbing the ground underfoot – a series of subtle vibrations rocked the street, rhythmic and purposeful. It wasn't unlike the feeling when the building's frame had started to collapse, but this was solid ground, not a suspended platform. …And crashes followed each one like distant thunderclaps, he realized, squinting. He didn't know anything that could have done that; maybe the Supreme Hunter, but Cross obviously hadn't evacuated it with the surviving soldiers, and the Reagan had been destroyed in the wake of the nuclear bomb. Months ago, he'd scoured the entire east shoreline of the island just in case. He had found more bits of his own biomass, but no trace of the Supreme Hunter – not even its scent. No, that thing was gone.

And the creature that rose up behind the Hive was definitely not it.

The first impression Alex got from the thing was that it was big. The new beast was a hulking wall of bulging muscle, towering a good two stories over the street. Bass rumbles mixed with discolored saliva and dribbled from its throat.

It looked sort of like a Leader, if you pumped it full of steroids and somehow managed to make its face even more unrecognizable. Even the Supreme Hunter hadn't been this big, although it shared something else in common with this newcomer. One of its arms melted off into a crude blade near the elbow, and the other ended in a massive block of flesh not unlike his own Hammerfists.

He wasn't the only one to notice it, although spotting a roughly twenty-five-foot behemoth was admittedly not a difficult thing to do. The Wisemen began to fire while he was still sizing it up – how stupid were they, grabbing its attention? It didn't notice the smaller ordnance, but when a rocket exploded against its chest, it got mad. When it pummeled the ground with its fist, windows all along both sides of the street shattered outward, and Alex lost his footing. When he regained balance enough to stand, the monster was crashing towards the Wisemen's rooftop, trampling the smaller Infected in its path.

Shit. If Cross's men were having trouble fighting off walking sticks with claws, they were doomed with this thing. He had no doubt that this hulking Infected could simply smash through their building and kill them all. And hell if he was going to let his one ally in Blackwatch die so easily. He launched himself into a flying sprint, blade forming into fingers and chitin bulking out into a mass of muscle to rival the creature's own.

He dove for its ankle, wrapping his arms around it and squeezing. He'd hoped to hear something break; nothing did, but he'd at least gotten its attention, by the way it was slowing down and the roar that pummeled his ears.

He couldn't cut it without something sharp, but he needed as much strength as he could muster if he wanted to get any leverage against this thing. When it tried to lift its leg, searching for the humanoid tick that was clinging to it, he let go and braced himself against its other leg. He only had a few seconds before it put down the other for balance, but even with his Musclemass, it was like trying to move a house. A grunt of exertion became a raw-throated roar as he pushed every whit of his prodigious strength into shoving against that limb.

Unfortunately for the Infected, being between Alex Mercer and where Alex Mercer wants to be is a difficult position to maintain. The behemoth continued to search for whatever had been hurting its ankle right up until it began to topple backwards. Alex panted, letting his arms hang limp, as the creature fell into and crushed several buildings – thankfully, on the side opposite from Cross.

All right. Now that he'd gotten the bastard away from the squishy team, he could beat it down in earnest. He sprinted across the street and onto the creature, landing a solid punch to its gut. It swiped at him with its sword-arm, but he ducked under it and began whaling at the base of that arm with a flurry of punches that could shatter solid blocks of marble.

It roared again, and when Alex found himself able to think again, he was flying through the air, his whole side feeling like it had been run over by something very heavy. Fucking hammer arm. He was losing track of the amount of times that he was getting thrown to the ground today, but it was already getting very frustrating. He twisted and managed to land on his feet, even if he had to briefly sink to his knees and pull in a deep breath. The monster was trying to get upright. By the way its blade-arm hung limply at its side, it seemed likely that he'd managed to break it in his punching frenzy. But it still had that other arm, and it was bracing itself against the ground in a bid to get back to its feet.

A toothy grin gleamed under the shadows of Mercer's hood. A pose like that was very vulnerable.

He broke into a flat run towards the creature's arm, pushing himself harder when he saw it begin to rise. Instead of ducking around it, he ran up the limb as he would a building; his tentacles which normally provided traction ripped into the thing's arm with every step. His favored arm shifted back into a blade as he crested its shoulder, darting up the small of its back.

The roar might have actually shattered Alex's eardrums – he couldn't really tell. All he knew was the exposed neck before him and the feral joy that accompanied each spray of blood, each slick cut that always went a fraction deeper than the last. His free arm, still muscled up, clung to the creature as it flailed wildly, trying to dislodge whatever was slamming a guillotine into its neck. He hardly noticed when the struggles reached a peak and began to weaken; all he knew was when it finally started to fall, and that was when he let his tendrils out to claim his prize.

It was probably the best meal he'd had in a long time, if not the best – the usual moment of pure euphoria and satisfaction that consuming brought just kept going. There was so much to absorb and his tentacles greedily worked through it all, breaking down biomass and filing away DNA with all the fervor of a junkie in withdrawal that had just found a hidden stash. By the time he finally ran out of whatever-the-hell-the-Infected-was to consume, he couldn't even feel disappointed. Just alive.

Hell, that felt good, he sighed internally, springing back to Cross's position. After all of his injuries, the solid wall of flesh was more than welcome in his biomass. He could feel the new strength solidifying within him, augmenting damaged or strained spots and filling his reserves.

Cross wasted no time. "Mercer!" He barked as the hooded man crested the roof. "What the hell was that thing?"

"I was hoping you'd know," Alex grunted back, rolling his shoulders. A quick sweep of the rooftop showed that all the Wisemen were still standing – not that I care, he vehemently reminded himself – and that they were eyeing him with a new level of apprehension. Well, good for them. "Definitely wasn't a fucking Leader. And we saw the Supreme Hunter off. It's got to be something new."

"Fuck," Cross swore. "It has to be another new variant. Fuck. This isn't like the first time. Everything's… it's evolving so fast, we've never even heard of turnout rates this high –"

A strangled noise came from Mercer's general direction, and the captain turned, warily wondering what might elicit such a sound. But there was no threat, no great Infected monster approaching – just a slackened look, blank and staring into the hazy distance.

"It's not like the first time at all," Alex agreed, his words ringing oddly hollow. "It's going to be worse."

"No shit, Sherlock."

"No. No, I…" The veteran turned to look at him, and his brows narrowed – the Blacklight virus's expression had shifted to something Cross had never witnessed before on that usually scowling face. Horror. His eyes were distant, and his jaw hung loosely, working uselessly for a few moments before finally finding speech again. "It's more than that. Oh, shit."

"You're just realizing that this is all fucked?"

Alex whirled to face him, the movement jerky and stilted. "I just realized we're even more fucked than I thought we were a minute ago. Cross... I... oh, hell. Oh, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!"

The captain let Mercer swear baselessly for a few seconds before irritably interrupting. "We've probably already figured it out and have it covered, whatever this is."

"Cross, how much do you know about the Outbreak? Of Redlight and Blacklight, I mean. The specifics. Blacklight was only released once," he babbled, not even waiting for the other man's answer. "Doctor Alexander Mercer released it in Penn Station. Blacklight was made as a weapon, not the same as Redlight; the virus killed everyone in the terminal save for Mercer himself, who was already dying. It finished him off and then rebuilt me from the components."

"Go on." Cross was trying to be patient, but there was a fucking battle going on. On the other hand, he was also somewhat curious – given his methods, Mercer was likely to truly have all of the facts surrounding the Outbreak. The captain knew a lot more of the truth than somebody of his rank would normally be privy to, but some of the details just didn't seem to exist anywhere.

"Blacklight never got beyond Penn Station; save for myself, it burned itself out. It killed everyone there in the span of minutes – too fast for anyone to spread it. The most efficient killer known to mankind, of course, but it was too good. Diseases weren't meant to work that way. Uncontrolled, unaltered, it was an evolutionary dead end. The Infection that took this island to hell was purely Redlight, courtesy of Greene."

"That's interesting, but I don't see how it's relevant." That, and he already knew this.

"Greene is Redlight. That's all she had at her disposal. The virus was horrible, yeah, but everything I had was superior to her. She had one advantage in that she had a hive backing her up, and I didn't, but even with that handicap, I was able to bring her down. You've seen what I can do, Cross. That's Blacklight. A strain of Redlight isolated and then screwed with by evil geniuses for years."

"Stop being so full of yourself, Mercer."

"I'm not. You're not getting it." Alex swung his hand in a wild gesture. "When I consume somebody, I infect them with the virus, my virus – turn them into material I can use, and pull that into myself. Blacklight. All of my body, all of my flesh, that's what it is. And if Greene was pulled out of me, if she was made from me…"

"Then she's Blacklight too," Cross finished, feeling his stomach drop.

"I'm only guessing here – I'm not a scientist. But…"

"No, I think you're right. She's had direct exposure to your strain now. Redlight is highly adaptable. And you can rearrange your genetics like a kid with a bunch of building blocks. Shit. Shit. That explains so fucking much and I wish to God it didn't."

It did explain so much. How the disease was evolving so fast, why it was spitting out new and functionalmutations at such a maddening rate.

And those Stalkers, this giant new thing – of course they were easier to absorb. There was far less that needed to be converted. They were closer to him – not quite Blacklight, not fully realized, but it was there, within them, and their own genes raced to liquefy their bodies when he started the process.

It wasn't entirely Blacklight – as far as he knew, these things couldn't shapeshift, couldn't consume. But a neat little slice of his own genealogy was in Greene now, and it was probably only a matter of time before Redlight unlocked it.

Something rang. Mercer's head snapped up; Cross was reaching down for his communicator. He watched as the captain's face slowly went from composed to somewhere between outrage and shocked… fear? Whatever the news was, he could probably kill it.

Cross took a breath, straightening out his face. "Hold on, we've got incoming…" He paused, but Mercer could see him counting out the seconds with a tapping foot. "Krausch, get your eyes on that." The indicated soldier gave him a confused look, but the captain only shook his head.

Another one of the Wisemen had caught on, though. "Fuck!" he yelled, loudly enough for Cross's comm to pick up. "It's Zeus! We've got Zeus on scanners, coming in fast!"

"Fuck, fuck," Cross swore. "Detwiller, Winder, grenade the bastard to shit if he gets too close! Sullivan, Vicks, get him in your sights and do not let him out!" He brought his mouth back to the comm. "Red Crown! Mission compromised! Zeus has made an appearance. Requesting additional backup, now!" A long pause. "Understood. As soon as possible."

He snapped the comm shut. Alex stared at him, not comprehending.

"Sorry, Mercer. They went and sent reinforcements ahead of schedule. Do me a favor and don't kill anyone."

Alex barely had time to jump back when Cross lunged out at him, shock baton blazing. As it was, the weapon came close enough for him to feel sparks across his skin.

"Cross!" Alex's arms pulsed, flesh arching into vicious spines and deadly claws. "What the fuck is this?"

"I'm covering my ass, you dumbfuck! I get caught talking to you and we're all dead!"

"You're all dead, you mean." Still, the reminder was enough to placate him, and he settled back from his fighter's stance.

"How fucking stupid are you?" Cross howled, composure close to gone as he lifted his mounted grenade launcher. "Don't just stand there! They're going to be here any minute!"

The viral abomination was about to make an equally angry remark on how he had no idea on how to pretend to fight, but then the concrete underneath him exploded and threw him off the building's edge.

He twisted in midair and managed to land on his feet, if not roughly. He paused for a moment, his question still unanswered. How did you pretend like you were trying to kill somebody without killing somebody? He was good at killing things. He was also good at killing things without meaning to. If he was actually trying to kill somebody, they didn't have a snowball's chance in hell, so how was he supposed to…

The faint thrum of helicopters in the distance reached his ears, and he made up his mind. He sprang back up to the building, claws outstretched. He hit the roof running and went straight into the charge, holding one arm as he usually did, talons spread wide to dismember. But instead of ripping several assholes in half as he usually did, he swerved around the team, his swing going wide. Bullets bit into his skin, probably something every single damn one of Cross's soldiers had been looking to do for a long time – he swore he'd make the smug bastard pay for this when this whole mess was done with.

He looped around for another false strike. The choppers were overhead now, and he hoped that they were getting a good view of the show – Cross getting called out on his treachery would not be good for Dana's continued safety. The captain lashed out with his shock stick again, and with a grimace, he ran into the swing's path for good show.

Moments later, he was really wishing he hadn't done that. He'd forgotten just how much a direct strike from that thing burned, and the electricity was enough to make his arms lose cohesion. He swore as he vaulted off the building and onto a parallel rooftop, forcing his claws back into shape. After a moment's thought, he twisted one into a whipfist.

Mercer snorted, glancing up. He'd hold the Wisemen off-limits, but Cross could go fuck himself if he thought that he'd spare the rest of Blackwatch.

He flung his whipfist upwards, but his targeted copter jinked out of the way with a dangerously sharp turn. The lucky pilot was spared another shot when Cross's bastard team took advantage of his stillness and opened fire again. Bullets were hardly better than an annoyance, but the Wisemen had several men who preferred grenade launchers, including the captain himself, and there were at least two soldiers with Javelins.

Between the helicopters and the Wisemen, Alex was forced to bounce between buildings to evade most hits. Normally, he'd slaughter the rooftop full of soldiers, then hijack a helicopter or use a disguise to slip away. But with so much attention and the obvious targets given diplomatic immunity, he was left without any clear options. To make matters worse, there was another, louder engine on the street now, and he chanced a moment's pause to check what else Blackwatch had brought to the party.

Oh, shit. Oh shit. It was an armored Hive. Of course they had a fucking thermobaric tank!

In combat, Alex was not afraid of much. Carelessness could lead to injury, but nearly everything could be healed over with little effort. When your own enemies served as figurative health packs, you could afford some room to be reckless. As his powers had grown, the wariness he paid towards enemies progressively shrank in scope. It was simply his nature, that he grew in response to a challenge. Pursued by soldiers? Steal their forms and slip away. Aerial assault? Built-in grappling hook. Heavy artillery? Move faster. Unrelenting military assault? Get more biomass to fuel himself with.

But the thermobaric tank was in a class of its own. He'd taken a few hits from them on various occasions, and realized one thing with chilling certainty – Blackwatch had found something that they could consistently tell him to fuck off with, and it was just too damaging to risk exposing himself to it in hopes that he might develop a defense. There were a few times that Alex knew he'd been brought close to death. One was when he had first been born and fled blindly through the city's night under furious pursuit. Another was when Blackwatch's cancer parasite had gorged itself on his body. The nuclear explosion had almost done him in, and he'd been in awful shape when Pariah had recreated Greene out of his own flesh.

All of those were extenuating circumstances, things that would not and could not happen regularly – or again, for that matter. But then there were those thermobaric shells. Not common, at least there was that saving grace. But he always ran like hell before Blackwatch could mobilize them against him, because all it took was one near hit and his flesh would be burned away like the virus he was.

He was done putting on Cross's show – the stakes were too high for him to play the obedient meat shield anymore. His armor flowed over his body in an instant, protecting his more vulnerable biomass. The streets were a mess of bullets and explosions as the helicopters fired on the Infected below – best to take advantage of their distraction. He shot across the rooftops with as much speed as he could manage, pushing harder when the whine of a Hellfire rocket reached his ears –

The next building in his path exploded, and clods of concrete and burning wood knocked him off his course. Caught in mid-stride, he had nothing to brace himself against, and gravity yanked him down to the broken roof with a vengeance.

The thunder of a tank's cannon split the air.

Ohshitohshitohshitohshiiiiii -

He screamed as purifying, white-hot flame erupted to his left. Waves of hellfire rolled out from the exploded shell like shockwaves from an earthquake, hot hot so hot he could actually feel it inside of him, breaking through his protection like no normal missile or torch could and burrowing into the vulnerable flesh beneath. The side of his carapace was breaking, lattices of cracks webbing out and melting over almost instantaneously. He dove away and shrieked, throwing himself over the collapsing rooftops as his left claw splintered and shattered in the heat. The fires were blazing through his shattered protection and eating away the biomass below, sizzling away his life force. He hardly noticed when his legs would no longer support him, and he tumbled into another street.

He did not break his fall and hit the ground with a crunch, superficial on top of the rest his body had suffered under the thermobaric assault. He slammed his teeth together and forced that unwanted cry of his weakness to die mewling in his throat.

Fuck, fuck, how to deal…

Shedding his still-burning armor and letting it fall to ash did little to help the pain; this was internal, beyond the patch jobs he had always gotten by with. A massive portion of his biomass had been burnt off entirely, and a considerable amount more was still alive, but damaged, something he was unused to; it felt stiff within him, a throbbing ache that screamed to life when he tried to rearrange it. It was like there was a wall or a gaping slash that stretched from his left thigh to where his collarbone should have been, where his mass pulled against itself instead of flowing. Regenerating his left arm was hell, the simple action hurting like it had never hurt before. He was lucky he already had his whipfist out on the other hand, because it was the best getaway tool he had, barring a disguise, and he didn't feel up to any more shapeshifting for a while.

He could feel his senses faltering, his body readying itself to shut down into a recovering state. And he craved that, blissful oblivion as he let his biomass deal with the massive damage without his input. Just waking up and feeling good again, not having to deal with it.

But he did have to deal with it and he growled, struggling against the hibernation that was rising up. Staying conscious was hell when he wanted nothing more than to let go. How long would it take, fifteen minutes, an hour? He knew how long he had before he had to move, and it was getting near the point where he could count the seconds with his fingers and barbs. He was broken down and injured, but he was also in the middle of a fucking fight and he was only safe if he kept moving. If he let himself fall into that regenerating sleep, he wasn't going to wake up from it.

Mentally grappling with what amounted to a last-ditch biological safety net was getting nowhere and he was slipping, so he forced himself to his feet, shoving away the flare of agony that pulsed from his side. As long as he kept himself on his feet, he could stay awake. If nothing else, the renewed pain sharpened his awareness – that, or being in motion again, but they were one and the same as he took a few steps to grab at an approaching Walker and consume it. The fresh biomass helped, but only marginally. He was prevented from taking more when two Stalkers leapt down from the rooftops across the street. Let Blackwatch handle them; he wasn't in the mood. He whirled around and launched his whipfist at the wall of the nearest building and reeled himself to it. He clawed himself up a few body-lengths, then kicked off and ran.

His side hurt like a bitch now, but stopping now was a great way to die and he wasn't about to give Blackwatch the satisfaction of besting him. Three of the four gunships were overhead by the time Alex reached the top, and he wasted no time in launching his whip upwards. He didn't care if his target was part of a strike team or Cross's transport at this point – he was getting a ride, throwing down the snack in the cockpit, and getting the hell out of Times Square. There was no more time for screwing around and he had no room for playing nice.

His first launch missed, but a quick reel back and his second strike embedded itself in metal. He hurled himself skyward, another thermobaric shell whistling under him a second later. The deadly fire blossomed across the street at a safe distance, and he felt nothing more than a gale of hot wind blow across him as he swung from the helicopter's wing to the cockpit door.

Even his feeder tendrils were damaged; his left side couldn't form them at all, and the ones he could form took much longer to do their job. The pilot screamed in agony as he was slowly liquefied, begging for mercy, to stop. Alex barely heard him; thin mewling fell on dead ears. The copilot met the same fate; the quick surge of energy helped him stay aware, but his body burned horribly and having anything moving around inside of him just made it worse.

He collapsed into the chair, taking the controls as an afterthought. He was probably going to need those rockets for pursuit. And steering wasn't a bad idea.

All he could think of was that he wanted to go home.

Not so much to a place as to a person.

0o0o0

Black watched the helicopter fly away, its balance uneven. "Well, on the bright side, nobody died," he offered.

The battle was clearly over; the tank was clearing out the last of the Infected, and the Hive was about to become so much ash. A few of his cohorts had set down their weapons, while others still scanned the area through their scopes.

Sullivan turned to him, probably either glaring or looking utterly baffled. "No one we know, anyway," the man amended, a little defensively.

"Hah." A few helmets looked up Winder's unexpected crow. "I don't care if the fucker's working with us or not. It did me good to listen to Zeus screaming like a bitch."

The statement might have normally been met with several whoops and laughter, but an odd silence fell upon the group instead. Winder's eyes immediately sought his friend and first line of support, and he found Detwiller staring at the ground, his expression obscured by his headgear.

Oh.

He almost didn't notice Cross approaching, and he straightened up with a "sir" in clear discomfort, suddenly wondering if the captain was actually going to turn against him for the remark against… what, an ally? Zeus was an enemy. A monster. This… what it had done today… was confusing, but it couldn't actually change anything. The Blacklight virus couldn't be anything other than a merciless animal. It made no more sense than a green sky or a hound that meowed.

But Cross walked past him without so much as a glance, and Winder fell back into line as his superior stopped near the rooftop's edge.

Cross looked up to the distant helicopter, and it was hard to tell if the captain looked angry or just weary.

"Poor bastard." The wind snapped up his whisper before anyone could hear it.

"Sir? Do you think…?"

Cross turned to the speaking Wiseman. "That we got away with it? I don't know. You all did your best, but this was a hell of a lot closer than I ever wanted. If they hadn't called ahead…"

"Half a minute's not much warning, Captain," Vicks pointed out.

"Still meant the difference between a chance and none at all." Cross sighed. "Just do your best. I'll handle this."

There was an uneasy silence. Two bangs in the distance signaled the likely demise of Zeus's pursuit.

Black noticed something brightly colored on the ground and leaned in closer to inspect it. He laughed when he realized what it was – the bags of chips that Zeus had left behind. Seriously, what the fuck? Today was just a surreal mess.

Another Wiseman noticed. "What's so funny?"

Black jerked a thumb towards the chips. "Zeus left his stuff behind."

A few laughs broke out at this, and some of the other members bent down to check it out.

"What the hell was he doing with them, anyway?"

"Never would have thought the Monster of Manhattan liked Pringles."

"I dunno, anything's got to taste better than cannibalism."

"Think they're, like, infected or something?"

The captain tapped his chin. "He said they were for his sister. Hell's freezing over before Mercer tries to infect her. Trust me on that one."

"So…" Sullivan looked back and forth between the captain and the small pile of snack containers. "Does that mean we can eat them?"

"We can't take off our masks here, idiot. If the virus doesn't do us in, command will."

"Not for here," Sullivan argued. "On the transport."

"I don't know about you, but it'd suck to get killed by Zeus because you stole a fucking bag of chips," Vicks noted.

"I don't think he's coming back for them," Cross pointed out.

There was a pause as the team observed the three packages of chips and weighed the possibility of infection or horrific death against eating something that wasn't field rations.

"…Ah, screw it. I'm hungry."