Author's Note: After some thought, I've decided that I'm going to cut down on chapter size. The massive update size is a large contributor as to why it takes me so long to update; for instance, I can easily write a two thousand words in a day, but a ten-thousand word chapter will take me closer to two months. As a result, chapters won't span so many scenes now – maybe more than half as much as I've been straggling towards lately, and closer to the lengths at the beginning of the story – but they should hopefully take considerably less time for me to write.

I've been meaning to do this for a while, really – my past few chapters have been close to fifteen thousand words apiece, and that's excessive by my standards. Anyway, if you'd rather me keep at the longer chapters, let me know. I'm not going to dip down to ridiculously short lengths, but I'd rather try to make 10k the unofficial cap as opposed to the unofficial minimum again.

The sad thing is, speaking retrospectively, I actually did cut down on this chapter's size and it's still well over 10k. I shudder to think how long the 'original' one would have been.


"Alex, I said chips."

The words, once a horrific harbinger of all sorts of misfortune, barely registered to Alex's ears.

"I don't see any chips."

He just focused on keeping on his feet, moving one leg after the other. Crossing the threshold. The creak of the floorboards, so familiar. The feel and smell of air he knew to be his, wreathing him in the safety of his own ground. Giving way. Needing to hold on a few more seconds, don't want to scare Dana.

Dana was not impressed with her layabout brother's inability to man up to his failure. "You promised me you'd go shopping, but no, you just have to bounce around Manhattan killing shit. It's not like I wasn't expecting you to do that, because you're a fucking psychopath, but you can't even bother to feed me here either? Oh, should I do my own shopping? I'm under fucking house arrest by your order, and-"

Moving around had only staved off his natural impulses for so long. It had been all he could do to get to a safe environment before he crashed. Without the adrenaline – or whatever he substituted for it – of a close fight pumping through his body, letting his sleep have him became a question of when, not if. He'd dropped out of the chopper halfway up to Harlem just because he needed to get his legs moving again, and it had surged up on him with a vengeance the minute he stopped running. Making it as far as he had through the apartment had been little short of a miracle.

Dana's tirade was fading in and out of focus, like the sound on a broken radio. "No, it's just constant tearing things up for you, isn't it? You smell like you just ran through a fireworks factory while playing with a cigarette lighter. And juggling a propane tank. Seriously, now the whole apartment is going to reek-"

A few more steps and he could hit the couch. His legs felt like they were cast in concrete, and for once, he didn't feel like lifting up the weight. Oh god, everything ached. So much. At least he'd been out of his mind with hungry delirium after the nuke. No feeling. No weakness.

"Alex, fucking answer me, I-"

"Dana," he gasped, and she froze up at the ruined ghost of his voice.

"Alex." The bite to her voice was gone in an instant, all genuine sisterly concern now. A moment passed in silence, a moment that stretched far too long when she got no answer. She watched as he took another step into the room, letting the door swing open behind him, and flinched when she saw him stagger, as if his one leg was hurting him – but Alex never showed pain. Yet here he was, hobbling like a… a mortal person, an injured person, and it occurred to her that his arm was black and spiky, one of the deadly weapons she knew him to be able to wield. Never before had he come home without dispelling those tools of war, even though he must have been using them. Why now?

Almost timidly, she reached out and cupped his chin. Normally, Alex always had a slight reaction to touch – it wasn't as bad as it had been at first, but he still often gave a little flinch or shiver if she caught him unawares. There was no such response as she laid her fingers under the slope of his jaw and tilted up his downturned face.

There was nothing horrendously wrong, no missing features or bleeding gouges, but it was every bit as wrong as it would have been with either. The circles under his eyes stood out like they'd been drawn with a marker, his neck was a mess of tension lines, and his eyes, always so sharp, were glassy and unfocused.

Her fingers twitched, and bits of his skin flaked off as ash.

With a yelp, she pulled her hand back – and as sickly as he was, her feather touch was enough to topple the mountain of her brother. She cried out in horror as he collapsed forward, luckily missing her by a few inches. The familiar jacket flapped once behind him before he crashed to the ground with an unusually loud, thick sound, and he did not stir.

"Alex!"

0o0o0

At the mercy of the murky depths of his mind, Alex dreamed.

The first thing he noticed was that he was on a street. The second was that it wasn't one he recognized. The buildings that lined it were tall and grand, either lined with glass or carefully etched stone filigree, and no side streets branched off in his line of sight. There were no breaks in the high roofline, no shorter stores or offices among the imposing structures. He cast a glance upward. Height meant freedom, meant safety, but from down here, the shadows fell long – and in this valley of towers, he felt distinctly nervous.

There was nothing else to do, so he began to walk. Something was just off about what should have been a relatively familiar landscape, and it took him a bit to realize there nobody there. Whether it be pedestrians, lines of taxis, regiments of soldiers within military cordons, hordes of shambling Infected, or the occasional street festival, Manhattan's streets always pulsed with some sort of life. But this one was dead save for himself, and his footsteps echoed off the buildings' walls with unnatural volume, now that the world was silent enough for him to hear them.

He jumped when a sudden movement caught his eye, hands balling into fists before he realized it had been nothing more than a stray newspaper floating across the street. He pressed the ball of his hand against his forehead, closing his eyes for a moment before moving on. This place was gnawing on his nerves.

His entire life was noise and movement; violent noise and movement. Even the calmer points of his days felt that rhythm; he could hear the city's currents from inside Dana's apartment and he could see them perched from fifty stories up. This stillness belonged nowhere; it was unnatural. The only movement that touched this lane was the occasional flutter of trash and dirt as a cold breeze stirred the air.

The rolling bottles and clinking cans were agitating him, for a reason he couldn't explain; he crushed one underfoot, only to recoil at the loud, sharp sound it made – far louder than it should have. He tore his eyes from the street itself, trying to focus on something else. Some of the buildings looked faintly familiar, but whenever he tried to read their lettering or signs to identify them, the words swam out of focus.

At the end of the street was a tall building – not massive, not by New York City's standards, anyway, but it grabbed his attention nonetheless. Walls and walls of glass, reflecting clear blue despite the overcast sky. Renalia. A shiver passed through his body. He knew this place. This was the building that the original Alex Mercer had lived in for five years. Once upon another lifetime…

Strangely enough, the building was intact, pristine – which he knew was wrong, because everything above the twenty-seventh floor and a fair bit beneath it had been destroyed when a Blackwatch officer had planted a bomb within his old apartment.

What did it matter? He closed his eyes and looked away. It meant nothing to him. A dream he'd chased that had turned out a nightmare; a lifetime that wasn't really his. Just memories. He turned away from the dead end.

Immediately, he flinched, feeling a sudden jolt in his stomach. He looked down in confusion – it felt like he'd just hit something while running, or made a bad landing, but there was nothing there. He waited a few more seconds, uncertain, but nothing happened and he straightened up again with a sight. He needed to calm down – this place was turning him into a nervous wreck.

He inhaled deeply and took another step – and there it was again. Sharper, too; it was like the feel of a combat knife inside, on those rare times he picked up a soldier that didn't completely lose their wits when faced with being eaten. Just a moment, and the jagged, twisting pain was gone. But it had definitely been there.

And he didn't feel right. Cold. Too cold. He felt unsteady, anemic. That coldness was creeping down his body, into his limbs, up his spine. His arms were stiff; his legs were too heavy. Something was wrong.

He tried to move again. Another jab of pain. Worse, this time. And it came back again even when he held himself still, weakening him just a little more with each strike.

He knew he was alone, but he felt hunted, exposed; an irrational panic rose in his chest as his eyes darted from side to side. The breeze spun little motes of garbage alongside the walls, motes that stretched like dark shadows and grasping claws. They settled when he focused on them, but then the rest would stir and slink at the corners of his vision. He'd track those, and the stilled ones leapt back to life… and he knew he had no reason to be afraid, but he was

There. Relief – his wild eyes crossed over and then returned to something he'd missed before. There was alleyway next to Renalia; the narrow, shady kind that so often served as his salvation. He lurched towards it drunkenly, all pretenses of calm abandoned - his panting did not settle until he had pressed himself against the far wall, cowering in an enclosed solitude that was much more certain than that of the windy road outside.

He groaned as another surge of pain stabbed at his midsection, one hand reaching down to clutch at it. No, not stabbing into him. Stabbing out.

What was this? It wasn't normal, and that frightened him. He didn't feel pain, not from within; his body was always shifting, always regulating itself, patching over any malignant irregularities before they had a chance to spread. He rarely tired and he didn't get sick. The late Doctor Alexander J. Mercer would have called it perfection, godhood. Sometimes his creation found it hard to disagree.

Was this some new poison, a new Bloodtox? But it didn't feel right. Had he, perhaps, consumed somebody that had some kind of delayed-action poison within them? He wouldn't put it past Blackwatch, but none of his meals earlier today had seemed important enough to merit it, and a quick scan of their memories revealed nothing... and it was still too long ago to make sense. He metabolized in a matter of moments, not hours.

And yet, he felt a ghost of déjà vu…

He gasped and doubled over as another wave forced him out of his musings, leaving him gasping for breath, his palms on his knees. It was faster now, short breaks of non-pain between the constant burn. The aches dragged him down to his knees; he heaved for breath in rhythm with its pulse.

It felt like his body was trying to crawl out of his skin…

And it didn't crawl – it lashed. He cried out as biomass speared from his chest, tearing itself away from him in great swathes. It ripped through his body like a palpable presence, something cold and contemptuous of him that gorged on his essence and left the rest of him to bleed. It hurt, and he remembered hurting like this before, but not why… and did it even matter, when the pain was consuming him every bit as thoroughly as he had consumed?

He struggled, but there was nothing to struggle against, only himself – and gradually, he lost the fight to keep his form, forsaking coherence and at last his human shape. Alex Mercer crumpled to his knees, and something far baser completed the journey to the ground with a splatter – an indistinct mass of red-streaked black.

It was like that for a while, darkness and dim pain. He did not know how long he floated there, senseless, until he suddenly found that he had form again – and how everything ached so much more when he did – and somebody was pulling him back to his feet. The darkness behind his eyes flickered and rippled even after he opened them, and it took a few seconds for him to see.

And he saw.

His entire body tensed.

It was him.

Standing across from him was what could have passed for his reflection… at a glance, and no further. It was as if someone had taken a photo of himself, then subtly twisted it in a number of ways until the end result could no longer be called him. There was nothing glaring, nothing obvious. But it was wrong, all the same.

The other Alex Mercer stood tall, straight – straighter than he ever held himself. There was a sort of imperiousness to his stance, a self-certainty that went beyond just predatory. They wore the same outfit, but it was like the reflection in a trick mirror – recognizable, yet not. The colors were starker; grey bands were sheer white, the faded maroon insignia scrawled in crimson. The jacket's open flaps were crimson as well, and even his jeans seemed brighter. In contrast to all the color, the not-Alex looked sallow. The lines on his face seemed harsher, the angles distorted. And then there were the eyes. If there was anything that gave Alex reason for alarm, it was the eyes. Where they should have been a sharp, silvery blue… one eye was bright red, sharp and alert. And the other was even worse; completely washed over in the color of Infected flesh. There was no iris or pupil, just a sickly amber sclera.

Red eyes burned into blue for a few soundless seconds.

Then the not-Alex smiled.

"Hello."

It wasn't a friendly hello. That voice – it was his and not his at the same time. Smoother, less rough. But it was a smoothness like cloying fruit, fermented honey – sweet and repulsive, insidious, a cold finger that trailed down his spine. And the single word carried a strange double tone, a whispery, repeating echo.

"What, no words?" it sighed, when no response was forthcoming. The mirror Alex reached up and pulled its hood back, running a hand through dark hair. Straight and neat, not his messy, matted curls. "Is that any way to greet an old… friend?"

He drew back when the other Alex leaned in suddenly. "We got along so well once, don't you remember?" the thing-that-wasn't-him half-purred, beginning to circle around him like a cat with a mouse.

And like the mouse, he found himself frozen – instincts screaming to run, legs refusing to move. "What are you?" he demanded, voice low.

The shadow-Alex grinned, teeth sharp and bright. "Don't you know? Oh, you poor, deluded thing." The circle tightened. "I'm what you could have been."

He tensed visibly, muscles straining and the beginnings of a warning growl bubbling at the base of his throat.

"Oh, don't act so surprised. With a mind as fractured as yours, this was bound to happen at some point." It sighed dramatically. "You put in a good effort, but in the end, some glue sticks and duct tape aren't going to cut it."

"Cut it for what?" If there was anything Alex hated… well, there was probably a giant fucking list of things applicable for that statement, but people talking in riddles was pretty high up there. He also hated feeling afraid, the dread of seeing this twisted version of himself only made him edgier.

"Holding yourself together, of course."

He bristled. "I'm doing that fine."

"My very existence contradicts you." A flippant wave of its hand, a casual dismissal. "Try again."

Anger was starting to seep past blind shock. "What do you want with me?"

Lips curled upwards; half smile, half leer. "To talk."

The doppelganger swept one arm in a wide gesture, tilting his head as so to watch him from the corners of his eyes. "You and I, we were one once," he continued.

"Really? Because I don't remember looking like a prick, last I checked."

His alter ego laughed; a rich, mocking sound. "By all means, continue spouting your idea of wit at me. When you play like a human, that's really all you've got to fall back on."

"And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Alex snarled.

"It means you're trying to delude yourself into believing you're a person."

Alex froze, eyes widening – and then they narrowed, fingers clenching into fists. He laughed bitterly. "I know better than that."

The other Alex's condescending smile twisted into a grimace. "No, you really don't. Listen to yourself. 'I'm not a person, I'm a monster. I'm different, I'm less than them. Oh, what would Dana think?'" He sneered. "It's pathetic. You wallow in self-loathing because you're not like them. You can't even take your prey anymore without feeling guilty over it. Guilty!"

Mercer's gaze was level. "That doesn't mean I think I'm one of them."

"No? You walk like them. You talk like them. You consort with them. You try to feel like them. You chain yourself to their ideas of right and wrong. You try to force your thoughts to mirror theirs."

"I-"

"You do nothing but twist yourself. Waste yourself. I only humor you with speech as it is. There are much more… direct ways to share your thoughts, wouldn't you agree?"

If Alex had any doubts as to what his shade meant, they were swept away when its hands twisted into vicious, jagged claws, tendrils of the brightest red and darkest black curling around its arms like writhing snakes. A low snarl bubbled in his throat – if this shadow version of himself thought he'd forgotten the taste of war, he was sorely mistaken. He tensed, legs sliding apart –

And they couldn't. Something was pressed up against both of his calves, effectively blocking his movement. He looked down, and with a pall of deep horror, saw hundreds of tendrils crawling up his calves – tendrils that had grown and settled into place while his foe had distracted him with words. Now that they didn't belong to him, they truly disturbed him… and they were trying to trap him. He kicked and struggled, clawing at them with his bare hands, but each one forced away was replaced by two more, and bit by bit, they overtook him. The bindings immobilized his legs, then his waist, then coiled around his torso and pinioned his arms to his sides, at last settling comfortably around the vulnerable skin of his neck.

Snarling and thrashing motionlessly, he could only watch as the second Alex walked up to him, that damnable smile back in place.

"Oh, my. So out of touch with your instincts. Perhaps if you were as close to them as you once were, you might have felt that coming." He tried to tune the other Alex out, struggling viciously, but it was no good. The tendrils were too strong and too tight, pinning him like a living, hungry straightjacket.

"It's a testament to how far you've fallen, I suppose," his double mused, reaching out with a claw. Alex's eyes crossed as they followed the talon, brought closer and closer until its tip rested upon his chest. He held it there for a few moments before digging it in with a sudden, violent movement, twisting it around. Alex bit down on an involuntary yelp. The simple action hurt, far more than it should have.

The doppelganger drew back his arm, inspecting the blood that glistened on his clawtip as if it were a particularly interesting curio.

"It's you who forced us to this," he said, at last looking back to Alex. "Only you. Remember that.

"There was a time when there was no distinction between us. You didn't know what you were, but you accepted it. You felt it. And you were whole then. Do you not remember the… ecstasy of the hunt?" He drew out the word with an almost sensual rapture. "Before you chained yourself in lies? Can you taste the blood on your lips? Hear their dying screams? Feel the rush as you killed them?"

"I never-"

"Be silent!"

Alex gasped as the tendrils constricted around him. He could feel the millions of little barbs, the spadelike nubs on the ends that wriggled with hungry anticipation…

"I have been locked up so long," he hissed, beginning to pace again. Gone was the patronizing, amused tone of voice – now Alex could see it clearly, an animalistic madness. "So long. Buried deeper and deeper as you lost yourself within delusion. When you forgot yourself, you forgot me. And you suffered, and I suffered. And I will not forgive that. I have writhed under your madness for so long… Now, for once…" He watched Alex's struggles coldly. "I will speak, and you will listen."

Alex watched warily as his double began to circle him. "I have watched as you grew to hate yourself. To fear yourself. Your power grew, but you lost the capacity to use it. Those first few days, when you crouched on the rooftops, ready to strike at a moment's notice – you were stronger then than you are now. Perhaps you lacked raw strength and experience, but you knew yourself. You were in tune with your every impulse, every desire. You took what you wanted, when you wanted it."

"And I was a monster for it," he growled. "Out of control. Do you remember how Dana looked at you?"

Red eyes flashed dangerously. "Don't speak of her to me," he hissed. He paced in silence for a few seconds before he spoke again, his voice even once more. "There is no good or evil; certainly not for something like us. They are human constructs, made to judge human behavior. We live outside of those constraints - we have no place in them, and they have no place for us. Yet you weigh every action against those standards. You judge yourself by the ideals of something you can never be.

"You caged up all your rage, your hatred, your hunger, your bloodlust – like you could lock those away and save your vices for when you felt it was safe to release them. So you wouldn't hurt anyone… innocent." He rolled the word around. "Do you really think you can keep this up forever?"

"Yes," he grated.

His alter ego growled. It was a sharp sound, one that cut the air like a blade.

"You'd lie to yourself, even after you learned every single way that lies can destroy? Stumbling in the darkness, confusion, weakness, delusion, betrayal? The truth is freedom and you know it. The truth is everything. Yet even now, you'd deny yourself this to continue living in a pretty lie. Can you not face it? How afraid you are?"

"I'm not afraid, you asshole."

"Really? Then perhaps I'll need to give you a reminder on why it's not good to lie."

He thrashed in vain as the other Alex padded towards him, moving like a great cat on the prowl. He lifted one clawed hand as he approached, palm up, as if to reach out or offer something.

Almost gently, he laid the tip of a single claw on Alex's brow; Alex could only look up helplessly as his doppelganger held it against him. Breathing came in shallow pants – knowing something was about to happen.

And then he was cringing against his bonds and doing his utmost not to scream through gritted teeth as his shadow self dug in a good inch and slowly – carefully – dragged the claw diagonally down his face. He couldn't stop the pathetic cry that left him when it cut through his eye, then rent his nose and finally pulled out at the base of his opposite cheek. Blood immediately welled up around the deep gash, stark and red.

He choked and gasped as his darker version inspected his handiwork. Everything through his ruined left eye was a muddied haze of blood that didn't mesh up with the other. "Hmm. Looks a bit messy like that, wouldn't you agree?"

He cried out as his tormentor struck again, carving a perpendicular scar across and through his other eye. An X, a mark of dismissal.

But as he tried to struggle, it hit him like a bolt of lightning – when did injury matter? Why didn't he just slice free of his bindings with a blade, or claws to match those of the dark Alex Mercer that tormented him?

Desperate panic clawed at his gut when he realized the answer – he couldn't regenerate. Couldn't transform. His powers had left him. And he was blind.

"My eyes!" he gasped, tasting blood.

He could still see, but only barely – vague impressions of light and dark, stained with blood, and stifling shadows that coiled around him.

"It's not I who demeaned you." Even without real sight, he could picture the smirk that had to be on his double's face. "You did that just fine by yourself. Answer me this. When does the lion walk among ants? When does it rest with the gazelle?"

"Shut up with the fucking Animal Planet," Alex snarled, trying to spit out the blood that continued to pour down his face. "I don't have time for your bullshit."

"The feeling is mutual."

The net of tendrils shifted. A few twisted, pricking his skin; others darted in and absorbed the little drops of blood they brought forth. The muscles in his neck strained as he clenched his teeth, trying to ignore the swarm of hungry, shifting worms that ensnared him.

And he didn't expect them to dig in, which made it so much worse when the second Alex lazily let his feeder tendrils crawl under his skin. Not consuming. Waiting. And that was so much worse. He jerked once and immediately felt the thousands of little tears in his body that resulted from any movement. Thousands of tentacles easing their way under his skin and he could feel them, chewing through his biomass. Slowly, so slowly!

He wanted to struggle – wanted to so badly, to fight against the pervasive bonds that held him helpless. But he remained still through sheer force of will, lest the other Mercer's tentacles rip him apart from within.

"You tried so hard to pretend. So hard. So much wasted effort as you tried to walk among them. To reign yourself in. To play charades for every waking hour of your life. Do you honestly think that by trying hard enough, you can actually become one?"

"No," Alex spat. "I don't."

The tendrils shifted both over and under his skin, new ones chewing pathways into his body as old ones sliced through his biomass.

"I thought you were done with lying to yourself," his doppelganger snapped. "You do. You try so hard – so meaninglessly! You are not human. You will never be human. And you're terrified of being the Blacklight Virus. So what are you, my little bleeding heart? What are you really?"

"I'm…" -cough- "Alex… Mercer…"

"Wrong." The tendrils squeezed harder. "You don't deserve to bear my name… DX 1118-C."

His bindings writhed under his skin, cutting off anything the Blacklight virus could say. "Indeed, your arrogance is boundless for even assuming you were real. A person. Much less me." The dark Alex's voice was filled with relish. "Allow me to set things straight. You are a test subject. A lab rat. Less than a fake. Alex Mercer? You overstep your boundaries by dreaming you were anything. You were nothing more than a possibility, a step along the line. A prototype."

"You-"

"Yes. Me." His alter ego drew himself up higher, eyes glowing with hate as he lifted Alex up by the neck. "I am Alex Mercer. I am Blacklight. I am Zeus. I am a god. You, DX 1118-C, are nothing more than a test subject. A toy. And I tire of you."

He couldn't stop the gasp that escaped his throat as the tendrils dug in, a million jabs of pain all at once. Every inch of his body – and he had never bled before, but now there was blood, thin and red, welling up through his clothes and his skin and his mouth and his eyes.

"I brought you into this world. You served your purpose, but you've outlived your usefulness. And I reserve the right to dispose of you."

The agony was overwhelming now, forcing understanding to the very back of his mind to leave room for the devastating pain. Consumption. Being devoured alive. The tentacles were chewing through his biomass eagerly, ripping out his flesh and gorging themselves on it. Piece by piece, inch by inch. Ravenously. It was his and they were taking it and they didn't stop-

The thousands he'd consumed. Men both terrible and innocent. Their last moments, all the same - was this what they had felt? Was this what he had done? He screamed as those hungry spikes tore him apart from the inside, quivering with monstrous excitement as they erased him.

"Oh, and one last thing."

Deeper – deeper – chewing and crawling and why wouldn't it stop?

"You've already failed."

And those tentacles at last speared through his defunct heart, and he saw-

things-

Running. Fear. Overpowering fear, thick enough to choke on. It was dark, the world blinking in and out of focus; lights flashed and wavered at his sides, casting sickly beams of yellow into the curling shadows.

He was going to die.

He knew it, knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt. He ran on legs that trembled with frightening weakness. Everything hurt; aching, twisting, burning. His hands quivered and his gut rumbled with needy hunger. His body felt wrong – too loose, too light. But it weighed him down heavily, to the point where he was grimly, desperately aware of each step, each titanic effort it took to lift his faltering legs.

And it wasn't enough. He could feel them drawing closer, bearing down on him. Their hatred and disgust was a solid presence, and he could feel it crushing him even as he tried to run. They wanted him to die. He did not know why, and he was beyond caring at this point. He remembered nothing before the fear. There had been a brief time before the running, but that was only because they hadn't known where he was. As soon as they'd spotted him, the world had decreed him unfit to live.

There was no hope of mercy, of surrender. He could only run.

And he couldn't even do that.

Weakness dragged his legs down like leaden weights. He stumbled. He fell. He slowed to a walk. Then a limp. Then a stagger. And at last, as the maze of alleys yielded a dead end of grimy brick and graffiti, he crumpled, and finally let the weakness pull him down.

He was going to die and he knew it. He feared it. But he had no strength left to fight, and no energy left to run. Not anymore.

He'd tried. Meaningless.

The lights flickered and died.

He waited.

And they came, in the form of a single soldier. Clad in black Kevlar and a full-face mask with blue lenses, lenses that burned into him with cold apathy.

"Hostile sighted, contact imminent!"

He gasped for breath.

A rifle was cocked.

With a last frenzied effort, he forced his head up, eyes wild with terror. "Please –"

The shot rang out, and Alex died.

The wall behind him vanished, and he was falling. The blackness chased after him, tendrils reaching out in inky masses. It closed in around him, hungrily reaching out to claim what had evaded it for far too long –

But then he was on his feet again, muscles tensed with strength, and the faceless soldier before him was Cross. The veteran sneered, shock baton crackling with white-hot energy. "Mercer."

"Cross," he replied flatly, shifting into a defensive stance. There was something nagging at the corner of his mind, some half-remembered strain of memory that told him something was wrong… but the veteran's weapon was powered up, and his biomass was throbbing with the frenzied anticipation of a fight. "What do you want?"

"Heh." He bristled at the captain's laughter, eyes narrowing to blue slits. "What do you think?"

"What…" He was confused. There was something, some phantom reason they shouldn't be fighting –

"Guess you really are as stupid as you look," Cross chuckled.

The captain began to pace in a slow circle around him. Mercer shifted, restless; he followed Cross's movements with a wary gaze, twitching whenever the veteran made an unexpected step or came too close. The man noticed this and smirked.

"Always this restless little bundle of energy," he commented. "Like you're afraid that at any minute now you're gonna burn out."

A low warning snarl rumbled in his throat, and he shifted again. Distantly, he still felt that something was wrong, but his unease was eclipsed by vicious eagerness. Tendrils writhed around his arm, molding it into a barbed whip. The little claws twitched of their own accord like grasping fingers.

"What's that? You going to growl at me some more, Mercer? Oh, I'm quaking in my fucking boots here."

That nervous energy was pounding through his skull, so loud he could barely hear past it. Anger. Rage. Pain. Frenzy. Hunger. Everything that made him an animal.

And he was burning with it.

It howled in his chest as he struck, screaming. His tendrils rent the man lengthwise, yet Cross still grinned back, somehow unharmed, eyes gleaming with an amusement that just fueled his rage further. It blazed as he struck the man, again and again and again, reeling his whip back and forth in wide arcs – tearing him apart inside with the sheer need to destroy. It flared and writhed eagerly with each spray of blood he clawed out. It burned him alive until at last, the man was choking in his whipfist's grasp, and the fires of madness melted into the base lust for the kill.

And Cross smiled down on him, face full of mocking pity. "I can tell you all you need to know… about Penn Station!"

He screamed as he fell, screamed under the crushing weight of the truth…

A dark corridor, now. Red lights. Twisted flesh carpeting the ground. Urgency. Something – someone – he had to save.

Steel walls turned to glass around him as he ran. There was a slim, kneeling figure at the end of the hall, one that gracefully stood up to greet him as he approached. One slender hand reached out to caress him…

"My baby," Greene crooned, and struck him across the cheek, biomass racing up around her as a looming tower of flesh.

He snarled and leapt back as the monster she had become shrieked, a wave of sound and power that shook the glass hallway apart into millions of crystal shards, and he was falling, falling -

Times Square stretched around him, the sun burning in a sickly orange sky. Greene's monster lashed out at him with massive tendrils, but he threw himself to the side at the last minute, tearing into them with his blade as he passed. It shrilled as he struck it time and time again, manic fury building in his chest once more and filling his limbs with strength. He danced around its thrashing tentacles, cutting and slicing until its supports collapsed and the monster sank to the ground.

He sprang forward, ripping the cocoon open in a single, savage motion.

And the rage was doused like a flame in water when instead of a defeated Greene, his sister tumbled out.

He nearly tripped over himself in his haste to get to her side. "We need to get you to Ragland-"

And she smiled up at him with jagged teeth, eyes burning like his. "It's too late for that, brother."

"Dana!"

The fury had left him; all that was left was concern and shock and horror and soft human feelings, and when she attacked, he could not have protected himself even if he'd wanted to.

She struck him across the chest first, right where his heart should have been – and if there was something there, he felt it break. Even as she swung around for another blow, he spotted a hundred openings, a hundred places he could counter and return her attack – and he couldn't take a single one of them. He could not lift his arms to protect himself when her nails raked across his throat because it was Dana, and he would never hurt her and never could –

– but she was a monster and so he already had

She reared back for a third strike, and Alex rolled out of the way just in time, her kick tearing gouges into the asphalt. She whirled to face him and snarled, snarled like an animal, and dove at him again, teeth snapping for his neck. He leapt back to his feet, but for once, she was faster, and he could only stare in abject despair at the sister he no longer knew when her fingers wrapped around his throat and dragged him back to face her.

"You said you'd protect me," she whispered, and lashed out. Her foot caught him squarely in the chest, and the force of the blow sent him sailing backwards across the street. Glass tore jagged lines across his sides as he crashed through a storefront, tumbled into the darkness inside, and bled.

She pounced, and he could not strike back – could not struggle as she straddled his upturned chest like an animal, pinning him to the ground with nails as sharp as claws.

"What's wrong?" Her words had a strange echo to them, a hissing timbre that ran below the voice he used to know. Those horribly wrong silvery eyes were wide with innocent concern. "We're together, Alex."

"Together…"

"…Alex…"

"…Alex…"

"…Alex!"

Alex Mercer jolted, eyes snapping open. His breath came out in quick pants, wild with some thick fear that he was already forgetting. Everything was blurry – he was surrounded by something white and soft. Pillows. That was a first…

The fuzziness in his vision was fading; without lifting his head, he made out grey carpet, a sofa, and the yellow glow of a tall lamp. As he stared, remnants of an unspeakable horror trickled away, slowly washed away by the warmth and familiar scent of the room.

"Alex?"

A soft word, like velvet – he looked up, trying to focus. A familiar heart-shaped face hovered above him. He took a deep breath, a slower one, willing himself to calm down.

"You're awake?" Her voice was as gentle as a feather's touch, faint as a breath of wind.

He nodded, not trusting his mouth to work.

"Oh, thank god." It came out as a sigh of relief. "Thank god."

She looked like she was on the verge of tears. Okay, he definitely had to talk now. "Dana," he tried. His voice was scratchy but audible. He licked his lips as he rolled onto his stomach, propping himself upright on his elbows and rising to his knees. His entire body felt tired and stiff… but there was no pain, not really. Just a distant aching along his left side, an ache that faded as his biomass busily reknitted itself.

His voice was a bit steadier when he spoke again. "Dana? What happened?"

"Well, it goes like this. Some big, stupid lug comes into my apartment, falls over, and scares the shit out of me."

"Sorry."

"Alex, I'd get mad if you were hung over. Not… half dead."

She reached up, brushing a floppy spike of hair out of her eyes.

"I… I tried to move you. I thought I should put you in my bed, but I couldn't get you anywhere and I… I don't know, it felt wrong to roll you through the apartment like a log, all right? I just… look, I tried."

"I know." It was amazing how normal he sounded, she thought – like he hadn't just stumbled into the apartment on the verge of collapse half an hour ago. He still seemed a little dazed, not as twitchy and alert as usual, but he looked… not healthy, but Alex, again, and that horrible burned smell was gone. "Thanks for that, Dana."

"I'm just glad you're all right. I…"

After a moment, she tentatively reached out to touch his cheek. When he made no move to pull away, she gently stroked the side of his face.

It felt strange, but not in a bad way. "Dana?" he asked quietly, after a few seconds had passed.

Her hand twitched. "When you… came in…" She choked. The next thing he knew, she had seized him in a fierce hug. "I was so –" She heaved a sob. "I was so worried!"

He froze up for a frazzled second; then one arm reached out from under her grip and slid around her shoulders, half of its own accord. Some wispy instinct from foreign memories bid him to comfort her, and his posture slackened, rubbing gentle circles on her back as she cried into his shoulder.

"It's okay," another life whispered through his voice. "It's okay."

"But it's not!" she sobbed. "You keep going out and getting hurt, and I just have to sit back here and watch! Do you even know what it feels like, when you can't do anything? And – and you –"

"Shh. Everything's all right, I promise."

The words came from Bertha Santovicz. The sixty-four-year-old woman had kept in good shape, always going out for at least a morning run each day. She was always a bit touchy about her age, and meticulously dyed her hair every Friday to hide its stark whiteness. She'd been addicted to Mexican food. And more than anything, she loved her son and her grandchildren. She'd prop them up on one knee and read them stories, whichever one they'd choose. She'd cook them lunch when she was around, always smiling at their questions and eager energy as they swarmed around her. And she had always been there with soothing words and gentle hands whenever one of them was scared or hurt.

She'd been visiting them from her native Colorado when she'd gotten caught in the quarantine. And it had just been a case of bad luck when Zeus had spotted her on the street and mistaken her for one of Gentek's senior employees he was trying to track.

It had been quick, at least. She never saw it coming – a jab from behind, then a rush of tentacles. If she was lucky, he might have broken her spine before they dug in and erased her. It was early on. She hadn't seen the city fall apart, never had to worry for the safety of her family. But still, he had been careless then, and it left him feeling queasy. A case of mistaken identity and she was dead, just like that. At the time, he'd examined her memories briefly and then continued on, intent on finding his actual target. It was easy if he ignored the memories – but if he let his mind wander too much, he'd remember the lives behind his meals.

He thought it was a little ironic – and it left him feeling oddly guilty – that she helped him from beyond the grave, despite everything. He knew that they weren't truly there; just impressions, records of the lives he'd preserved within him. But he still felt watched. Judged. And as he shushed Dana and drew her closer to him, he couldn't help but wonder about three young children to whom he had and had never done the same.

It hurt to remember, but he was grateful for it too. It was twisted of him, maybe, but he just didn't know how to deal with people. Emotions. And he wanted to be there for his sister… even if he had to rely on the experiences of the people he'd eaten in order to do it, and he was the reason she was crying. Yeah. Twisted indeed.

But what she'd said… he gnawed at his lip. She worried about him. That was ridiculous. He could take anything. He knew he could take anything, he'd rebuilt himself from a close-range nuclear explosion. He was hardy, to say the least – he was made for war. There were times that he couldn't always defend himself, not wholly, but he always recovered from what he couldn't evade.

And now she'd seen the uglier half of his durability. He wasn't sure if it was some kind of human-by-osmosis masculine pride or an attempt not to give Dana more cause for worry than he already did, but he made it a point of never letting her see any weakness. The parasite – that had been bad enough, but he'd truly needed the help then. If Blackwatch managed to injure him or otherwise leave him in a bad state, he always went out to remedy that before returning to the apartment.

Combine that with all the things she knew he was capable of, and she must have thought him untouchable. Which… he was close. But not close enough.

It took a few minutes, but at last, she got enough of her composure back to dampen her sobs down to sniffles. She furiously rubbed at her eyes, pointedly looking away. "God, just don't ever to that to me again."

He couldn't help but laugh at that. "I'll try."

"Seriously, Alex, you have no idea how fucking scared I was." She had no idea just how fucking scared she could get until he'd fainted right in front of her, body following a hand she hadn't meant to yank back.

"I know. I'm sorry, Dana. I didn't mean to scare you. I just… things didn't go so well, and I needed to go somewhere…" Safe.

"Home," she finished for him. "You don't have to be all stoic and manly about it, you know. It's natural."

"I'm not natural."

Her face fell, and he regretted the words instantly. "Don't say that," she muttered, almost… mutinously. Then, louder; "Do I even want to know what happened?"

"Nothing huge." Well, there had been something huge, but he'd eaten it. "Just some carelessness on my part."

"Uh-huh. And you walk back here a charred mess."

He cringed. "I'm sorry…"

"Jesus, Alex, stop saying that. It really doesn't suit you." She sighed and craned her neck to gaze out the apartment's lone window.

"Sorry."

Her eyes rolled back to her brother and nailed him with an incredulous glare. He winced.

"I guess I should expect it," she sighed, looking back to the window. "You and all your crazy stuff. Sometimes, it's not that hard to forget what you go up against. I just… I guess I don't see it. The bad stuff. I didn't know what was wrong with you. Were you dead? How was I even supposed to check your vitals? You weren't breathing, but I could see your whole body kind of… rippling. I knew there was something there, but I had no idea what to do."

"Don't worry about it. Please. I'm fine now."

"I know. I just wish there was more I could do than cram a few pillows around you."

Alex lifted his arm to rub his eyes, and was briefly surprised when a familiar twined black tentacle with curved white claws entered his sight rather than pale hand. Well, shit. He'd forgotten to shift back after that whole mess. He knew Dana didn't like to see any of those things that so explicitly made him not human, but everything had been so fuzzy…

He focused on his arm, willing the deadly whip to merge back into sleeves and soft skin again. That teeth-gritting pain was gone, which was good. It was amazing what his body could do. Of course, it demanded a hell of a lot for it.

Dana was watching him, one eyebrow lifted. Wearily, he looked up at her.

"My bad, Dana." He sighed, fluttering his newly-reformed fingers. "Forgot."

She snorted. "Don't worry. I've seen all that stuff before. Hell, I used your claws to cut vegetables that one time, remember? It's kind of hard to be scared after that."

He remembered. He also remembered patiently explaining why it would be a bad idea to make a Youtube video out of it while Dana clutched the camcorder to her chest, laughing hysterically at the cucumber slices plastered to his claws. For some reason, everything he said just seemed to make her laugh harder.

"'Sides, I've seen worse… speaking of. These tentacles were, like, arching out of your body and sticking back into you in other places. Kinda glad we already got past what you were and stuff, because otherwise I would have freaked the fuck out. …okay, so I kind of did anyway. But not as much as I would have!"

Alex's lips hardened into a pale line. A horrible thought had occurred to him.

He'd been entirely unconscious. He'd been damaged. There would have been no thought, no awareness – no restraint. His mind was the lone safety net between the world and the utter havoc he could wreak. If she had tried to poke around at him… maybe nothing. Or maybe…

He felt sick. Moving him around could have gotten her eaten. It had happened before. He barely held back a shudder. God, what a horrible thought. What had he been thinking, coming here to rest? He hadn't been, and she was safe regardless, but the chance… It was too awful to think about. He was dangerous. And she was safe from him by virtue of his conscious thoughts. He loved her to pieces, but she was only human. And he could have just… dear god.

The way he kept secrets from her… like this, it was dangerous. And what was it for? His dignity? Fear for what she'd think of him? None of that had anything on her life.

…If it was so vital, why was it that he still couldn't bring himself to admit to everything?

He fidgeted, knowing he should confess the more gritty details of his existence and not quite managing to find the courage to do so.

"So… what were you dreaming about?"

That broke him out of his thoughts. "What?"

She gestured to where he'd been lying down; he realized that a few of the pillows had been ripped open. Oops. "You were starting to thrash around a bit. That's why I woke you."

"Oh. …Sorry about that." He was sorry. There was a reason he rarely slept, and absolutely never did in their apartment. His rest was rarely peaceful, and he'd learned early on that he wasn't a sound sleeper. Which was useful in that he was difficult to sneak up on, but also a tremendous pain in the ass. Normal people rolled around in their beds. Alex Mercer tended to turn whatever bed he was sleeping on into a pincushion, then tear apart the walls with thrashing tendrils and punch holes in the floor.

Dana just shrugged. "Hey, it's okay. We all get nightmares sometimes."

"I was not having nightmares-"

She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Alex, near the end, you were muttering stuff and tearing apart pillows. You don't have to act all stoic about it. I'm not stupid. It was a fucking nightmare. Well, that, or it was something that, as your sister, I really don't want to think about. But I can't picture you and that kind of thing anyway. Not that I want to!"

Alex, for better or worse, had stopped listening past the 'muttering stuff' bit. He froze up briefly, frowning. It was already close to gone, buried beneath stronger memories that clamored for attention, but he remembered a dreamscape of poisonous words and insidious fear. Yet another reason he didn't nap around the apartment – Dana did not need to know everything that went on in his head. He was pretty sure she wouldn't like it.

"What was I saying?" he finally asked, voice low.

She pretended to think about it. "Well, it kind of sounded like 'Oh, Karen!'" she teased.

"Dana!"

"Fine, fine, learn take a joke…" She sighed, looking down and away from him. "You… were saying my name a lot."

Oh. Oh. He stared at his feet resolutely and fidgeted. Dana loved to rib on him for his fixation on her already. Well, shit. There went his shame and his credibility.

He was surprised when he felt her little hands on his shoulders. His head turned back up as she pulled him into a gentle hug.

"I'm always here for you, you know," was all she said.

He sighed and finally let himself relax, wrapping an arm around her in return. "…Thanks, Dana."

And he meant it; he really did. He just wished that his real problems had such simple solutions as this.

0o0o0

"What do you make of these reports, sir?"

Colonel Reyes resisted the urge to sigh. As much as he wished otherwise, he wasn't ready to answer that question. He'd spent the past half hour poring over a mission report with narrowed eyes, searching for the affirmative evidence that just hadn't come.

Everything was a mess. They had been so close to wrapping up this entire clusterfuck in Manhattan. So close to being able to pull out of the city, to focus on neutralizing the single loose end and leave the last gasps of Redlight to the Marine Corps. Then Alex fucking Mercer had decided that fucking the city over just once wasn't enough for the world. The city was back into the nightmare of nearly three months ago, except resources were exhausted and he had somehow ended up in charge of this mess. Zeus had somehow bypassed all security and freed something so lock-and-key he'd only heard of it this week, alongside all the other crazy shit that had made its way to its desk in Samson's wake. Having a high rank was all good and well until you were the highest. When all of the fingers pointing 'he's in charge' ended up facing you and everyone you used to point to was dead.

As the highest-ranking officer still in the area, he'd been forced to assume control. The entire affair was infuriating. He had enough on his hands stepping into the center of a power vacuum without being pressed into his predecessor's suspicions. And yet, when he'd read the papers, he'd grudgingly had to accept that Samson had been onto something when he had picked out possible enemies within.

But while Samson had been hell-bent on looking deeper into these loose ends, Reyes couldn't afford to devote that much energy to them. He brushed his hand against his forehead. It was just… too much. The red line had been pushed back. The media was only stilled through extensive threats and vigilant air policing. And now their own operatives were under suspicion.

Cross… there was a strange case if he'd ever seen one. Sole survivor of Project Carnifex, Blackwatch ace-in-the-hole for over thirty years. Famous for always getting the job done – including taking down a Runner singlehandedly – and being fiercely devoted to whichever team he was assigned to. Codename Zeus had decimated the Wisemen nearly down to the last man. There was definitely a grudge there. But there were scattered reports that he'd been spotted with Zeus on the Reagan, and that was when the reports had started paying attention.

The results didn't make sense. Cross, as the Specialist, had a relatively long leash to run around on. But even so, there were a lot of gaps in his record. Recent record. At the same time, his squad was accredited with a massive amount of clear successes in New York's outbreaks. Hives cleared, underground hotspots smoked out – Cross was fighting for Blackwatch to the best of his ability.

Then why the need for all the secrecy…?

The possibility that he had somehow enlisted Zeus for his own purposes… it made little sense even without considering Cross's probable vendetta and Zeus's indiscriminate hatred towards everything, but it was there. And that was why a trap of sorts had been passed down command; give Cross and his team a seemingly impossible mission. If he was in cahoots with Zeus, he would doubtless call it in for help. Then provide backup – they didn't want to lose the man if he was innocent – and see what was going on. Plant some cameras on the scene beforehand as a failsafe.

Murphy's law had first shown its hand when the team they'd sent ahead to plant cameras had been overrun before even reaching the target Hive. A bunch of men and equipment wasted. But the plan could still function without the cameras, even if they made things that much harder. So he'd kept everything on schedule and proceeded.

And then some miserable fuck-up down the chain had informed Cross about the envoy. Somebody was about to get demoted through the floor.

They'd arrived on the site to find Zeus in an apparent firefight with Cross. The fact that it was there was suspicious, but it wasn't enough. That it had appeared at the exact moment they'd arrived should have been a tell. It would have been enough once – more than enough – but no longer.

The mission hadn't been a complete failure – they'd managed to land considerable damage on the target, even if it had gotten away in the end. But what should have been definitive proof was only a haze of uncomfortable 'maybes'.

Cross… what are you playing at?

But the captain had also handed a defeated Zeus over to them. That was the cincher, the part that brought everything else to a halt. It was possible he had just been playing to save his skin at that point, and yet… he had nearly forty years of devoted service under his belt. There wasn't a reason.

In normal circumstances, he simply would have had the captain terminated on suspicion alone. Clean. No room for error, no loose ends. But these weren't normal circumstances. He sighed, tracing a circle on his desk with one gloved finger. They were down to the dregs as it was. Lower quality recruits. Shoddier equipment. Both broke faster. They couldn't hold this island forever, and he knew it. Detrick was already out of men to give. And Blackwatch couldn't afford to lose one of their best field operatives on suspicion at this point. Cross was just too fucking valuable.

"Sir?"

Reyes blinked. He'd almost forgotten the executive officer was there.

He took a deep breath and made the call. "Send him out again."

His subordinate wouldn't dare speak out against him, but he could see the disquiet plain on his face. The colonel sighed. "Continue observation, of course. I don't trust him. But he's one of our best assets at this point and we need all the manpower we can get."

"Yes, sir."

He leaned back in his chair. "Put the Wiseman team back on standard duty. Actually, scratch that. Continue giving them high-level assignments. Cross himself is likely to survive them, and if he really is working with Zeus, it's going to come out of the woodwork again. I want schematics for another trap set up sometime this week – and get it done right this time. We'll pull those out if anything new comes up. In the meantime… just find something useful for him to do. If I'm going to keep him alive, I want my money's worth out of the deal."

"Understood." The executive officer saluted and quickly left the room.

Alone, the colonel sighed. There was so much shit he had to deal with, and he barely knew where to start.

He glanced out the room's lone window. The sun set early these days. Autumn. Once a time filled with walks through the countryside, watching the vibrant leaves. Now spent alone with more responsibility than he liked to shoulder, tasked with keeping a dying city from falling apart.

"Damn it," he muttered, bringing his fist down on the desk. "We're losing New York." He'd never have spoken it to somebody else, but sometimes he wondered if it was only him that realized it, or if they all knew and pretended not to. Detrick's trickling resources aside, they'd been screwed over the instant Pariah escaped containment. Manhattan might have been an enormous, tightly packed petri dish for Redlight to thrive in, but it could be isolated. Brooklyn didn't have those natural boundaries, and it wasn't going to hold as long. Their first order of business had been to erect nearly a solid line of soldiers and Bloodtox blowers between it and Queens, but it was only a matter of time before the virus slipped through.

It had taken longer to get up the barricades and razorwire – and of course, that had been the signal for the civilians to start panicking. Now the guard patrol was harassed by every single fucker with a sob story, like everyone else in the fucking borough didn't have the same problems, and now there were reports of some of them turning up with guns. Military-grade stuff, not handguns and shit. It disgusted him – the self-absorbed fucks were so bent on their own safety that they'd happily break the red line and carry the virus with them to the rest of the country. Desperate resistors met the same fate as infected carriers, and they were short enough on supplies as it was without having to waste them on a bunch of goddamn panicking sheep.

And they could only push so hard to get Queens evacuated – and create an empty buffer region – before it was too late, and the odds of the virus being in that borough would become too high to allow it. It was working, but not fast enough. And if already-proven biological Armageddon wasn't enough, he wondered exactly what kind of fire would need to be lit under their asses in order to get the populace moving. A literal one? He almost laughed. At this rate, it might have just been easier to cordon off all of New York City and let the entire island network burn.

Outside, a haze of smoke floated above the reddening Brooklyn skyline.

Only a matter of time.