A/N: Thank you to my beta, Deb. I love you THIS much. ... Oh wait, you can't see me, can you?

Well, this is my final M/A update at this site. Because it's been forever since I started this story, and because I had posted the original Ch.1 here before I decided to take it down due to a case of extreme disatisfaction with the results...I thought, what the heck. Might as well throw this up.

Again, the rest of this story can be found only at NWP or at my own website.




Opening Cages


-Chapter 1-




It began with a single drop, then another. More followed, each closer to its predecessor than the set before. In the span of a half dozen breaths, it had escaladed into something exponentially larger. The skies opened up, unleashing a torrent on the unsuspecting city resting blow, the sound of heavy rainfall a harsh noise against the silence of mere seconds earlier. With the abrupt flurry of activity just outside his open window tearing him unceremoniously from his restless sleep, Alec shot up straight in bed, hand reaching in the darkness.

Grasping fingers brushed up against the cool metal of his glock, and after a moment's hesitation, as his heart struggled back to its normal pace, they moved past. He grabbed the watch off the bedside table and glanced down at the display, its little digital figure revealing it was just past four - plenty of time before his usual rise-and-shine hour…though he had to admit that no hour in which he rose was one in which he also shone.

Rubbing the heel of his other hand into one eye, he let out a slow breath and dropped the watch back onto the rickety wooden contraption next to his bed. He eyed it momentarily, one eyebrow raised in sardonic amusement, as the weakest of the four legs wobbled slightly, threatening to take the whole pile to the floor. The glock wobbled too, with a noise like a somewhat unbalanced bowl attempting to settle, and for a brief instant he had time to consider that had he somehow failed to put the safety on after its last use, this morning could certainly go from the bad to worse he had no desire to witness.

But after several precarious seconds, both table and gun stilled, the table apparently content to hold out at least a little while longer.

A bitter curl of his lips bared white teeth in the darkness. "You and me both," he muttered.

With a single movement, the sweat-dampened sheets were flung off his equally sweaty body, and he lowered his legs to the side of the bed. The floor was, if possible, even colder than the air inside the room, seeping in quickly through the soles of his bare feet and proving that, despite the perspiration that soaked his body, excess warmth was not an issue.

Standing swiftly, he made his way through the darkness to the bathroom. His movements were steadier than seemed right, considering the aftershocks that still coursed through his system following the dream from which the drowning rain had awakened him. Even his hands had ceased to shake by the time he turned on the tap, letting loose the cold water that had been rigged to run to most of the buildings in the newly resurrected Terminal City.

Splashing the harshly cool liquid to his face, he tried to wash away the lingering feelings of death and failure alongside the sticky layer of sweat. With a harsh gesture, wet fingers smoothed back the too long hair that had an annoying habit of falling into his eyes. He could cut it now, he supposed. No more shifts at Jam Pony, no more hanging at the Crash, no more needing to keep up the pretense of being "normal".

Of course, it wasn't like TC had a running selection of hair salons, and he didn't feel all that comfortable asking anyone he knew. Joshua with a pair of scissors, near his hair - forget it.

And Original Cindy had returned home, along with Sketchy, almost three weeks earlier, following Sketchy's little vomiting episode during which the would-be reporter had proceeded to turn all shades of green and rediscover his faith in his Lord and Savior…before his stomach finally settled and he returned to his usual pasty, pagan self. Alec suspected it had more to do with Mole's newly brewed batch of moonshine than any toxins - or, more precisely, any other toxins - residing within the parameters of TC.

But Max, not wanting to take any chances when it came to the safety of her friends, had sent the pair back home…where their primary concerns included assuring the sector police that they were not indeed minion spies for the "mutants", attempting to re-infiltrate themselves into ordinary society in order to bring about the downfall of the good ol' U.S. of A., and make way for the future nation of Transgenicsylvania.

Or something like that. Alec hadn't really been paying much attention to the details of Max's little speech…he'd been too busy fighting the aftereffects of Mole's extraordinarily potent concoction himself. Fortunately though, his genetically enhanced immune system had finally kicked in, limiting his own experience to mild hallucinations and the sudden and mysterious acquisition of x-ray vision (or possibly just a belief that he had required said mysterious x-ray vision), which he then proceeded to discreetly use on Max's clothing. Or maybe not so discreetly, as Max had slapped him upside the head and demanded that he stop "ogling" her.

In either case, the only non-transgenic residing within TC now was Logan. Max had made a half-hearted attempt to get him to return to the old house Joshua had inhabited prior to his own move, but when it became apparent that the transgenic blood coursing through his system made him at least somewhat immune to the effects of the toxins, she had accepted his decision to stay without much fight. Because if Max had really wanted Logan gone, for his sake or her own, there was no question in Alec's mind that he would be. But only if she really wanted it that way.

Alec blinked, his mind returning to the present as moonlight leaking in through the naked window, glaring off his bare torso. Curtains were not a reality of the new Terminal City. No one cared enough to bother hunting any down.

His eyes were drawn to the angry reddish-purple marking over the otherwise perfect tan skin of his stomach. It had healed over pretty well, all things considered, and the bandages had already come off. His fingers moved unconsciously, tentatively brushing over the wound.

Soon, the flesh would smooth, and it'd be just a scar…and then, not even that. Gone, just a distant memory. And hardly even that, which was the most unsettling thing about it all. Not knowing, not remembering. All he had was the bits and pieces he'd gathered through his nightly dreams, and what others had told him. But aside from that, the fateful day of two weeks past was just a blank spot in his mind.

Max had been disturbingly civil to him since his little run-in. He'd taken bullets before, and she'd never shown much sympathy on previous occasions. Sure that last time was a closer time than the rest…but still. It was starting to creep him out. He almost longed for the days when she'd just smack him across the shoulder - or shoot him a death glare if she wasn't close enough for bodily damage - if he said something that pissed her off. There was a certain comfort in familiarity, even if it included playing the part of someone's punching bag.

Yeah, he'd realized that he was in love with her, but that hadn't changed a thing. And why should it? He'd already been willing to risk his life to keep her safe, he put up with more shit from her than from anyone else in his life, past and present, and he'd decided he couldn't have her, so…that was that.

It was nothing so noble or self-sacrificing as the fact that she was in love with Logan - or that Logan was in love with her. He just didn't want to risk the complications that would inevitably arise with any shift in their relationship. Not to mention the fact that he doubted she would eagerly embrace any heartfelt confessions on his part…and he saw no reason in letting Max know he was in love with her if she wasn't prepared to return his feelings. It'd be useless and distracting.

His inner voice contested that. It called him a coward and scoffed at his paper-thin justifications. And he let it.

If I loved someone, I'd tell them.

Hadn't he told Asha that in the not so distant past? The very line he'd used when he'd mocked the whole "does he, doesn't she" affair between Max and Logan. And yet, here he was, his actions the perfect contrast to his words. Of course, he was a notorious liar. Tried and true, more to himself than to anyone else.

And it wasn't as if he were above using a line like that to get into a pretty girl's pants.

Fuck, just fuck. How could he have gone and fallen in love with Max? What the hell had he been thinking?

She hated him.

Well, no, that was being a bit melodramatic...she didn't hate him, exactly. She was his friend. She thought of him as a friend (and, god forbid, like a brother?). In a way, it would have been easier if she did hate him, if she still treated him with the animosity she'd displayed before their relationship had developed into something more amicable. But no, they just had to go and work things out, talk about Ben, developed a better understanding of one another.

But how could he fall in love with her? It was only a matter of time before her and Logan ended up back together and worked everything out.

It was funny how when he'd convinced himself he thought of Max as nothing more than a friend, he was sure that her relationship with Logan was doomed. And now that he knew his own feelings were much more complicated than he'd originally thought - or intended - he couldn't help but feel that she and Logan would work things out, and they'd end up together and happy, inevitably.

He snapped the water off abruptly, and returned to the adjacent room. Pulling on a pair of pants and a reasonably clean shirt, he sat himself down on the edge of the bed, shoes in hand.

He wouldn't be getting any more sleep today either way…he might as well take the time to do something useful.


---


Max pulled away from the pile of papers she had been pouring through, and rotated her neck to work out a crick. Using both hands, she attempted to loosen her shoulders through a self-administered massage, but gave up shortly. What she needed was her own personal masseuse. Not needing to sleep had its advantages, but the biggest disadvantage was the fact that her body still needed to relax, to ease the tension she put it through on a daily basis. She was used to attaining that relaxation through her frequent hot baths…but seeing as there was no hot water - nor bathtub, for that matter - in her current residence, that was out of the question.

Standing up straight, she stretched her arms above her head, arching her back as she proceeded to put her body into several positions that would have been enough to eliminate any potential doubts over the feline element of her genetic makeup. An expression of pure contentment graced her features as she closed her eyes and fought the urge to purr. Mustn't give in to the X5 stereotypes…there were still a few other nocturnal transgenics, mostly 'nomlies, milling about the command post while she worked plainly within sight. It worked out well to let everyone pick their schedules as they accommodated their lifestyles, since allowing the city to go unmanned but for a few lone sentries at night would have left them vulnerable to potential attacks…more so by the Familiars than the ordinaries, but vulnerable in either case.

It was the feeling of being watched that finally drew Max back to earth. She half-turned, body still contorted in the last seemingly impossible position, and found herself staring back at a rather disconcerted Alec, who looked as if he'd stopped mid-stride, unsure of whether to continue on or make a hasty retreat. He was fully dressed, in a dark blue sweater and matching jeans, hair a little mussed - but wasn't it always? - looking far too awake and cognizant for someone who generally saw dawn at the end of each day, and treated their early morning meetings as the bane of his existence.

Max met his strangely cloudy eyes and relaxed her body into a more natural pose. She didn't bother to try to keep the surprise out of her voice as she said, "Hey…what are you doing up this early?"

This seemed to propel Alec into making his decision. The confusion and indecision she'd witnessed on his face moments earlier, disappeared as he stepped forward. He shrugged. "Felt restless," he said nonchalantly.

She nodded, choosing not to question it any further. "I take it the injury has pretty much healed. Coffee?" She moved toward the table where the recently brewed liquid was resting. Fortunately there was no shortage of the godsend potent beans in TC.

"Sure. Yeah…it's not that bad."

She returned with two mugs and glanced at him with a questioning quirk of her eyebrow. "Coffee?"

He took the cup she offered him. "Injury." Alec sipped his coffee and wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Definitely not coffee." He shook his head as he watched Max drink her own without complaint. Straight and black; their cream supply was at zero, and the sugar was low enough that they'd had to restrict its usage. Max didn't mind much either way…she'd always preferred it without the frills and distillers.

"Why is it, with the whole shark DNA and not needing sleep thing, you still drink coffee?"

Max took a sip and watched him thoughtfully. Despite all his protests, he still hadn't put his cup down, and was soldiering through the contents diligently. She gave a slight shrug of one shoulder. "I like it. I like how it smells…how it tastes."

Alec glanced up from his rather intent study of the murky liquid, giving her a look of pure incredulity. "You like the taste? Oh come on…no one can like the way black coffee tastes. Our taste buds just weren't built to suffer that abuse with pleasure."

Finishing her drink, she set the mug aside. "Yeah, well why do you drink alcohol? It isn't to get drunk."

Pursing his lips, Alec seemed to ponder this rebuttal, before finally giving a single concessionary nod. "Duly noted."


---


It was just past seven in the morning when Logan finally arrived at command post, showered - in extremely cold water, but he couldn't really complain so long as there weren't bullets flying through the walls in the meantime - dressed and ready to face whatever the day held in store for him. It was how he approached every day now, like a mini battle in its own right.

Life had certainly taken a turn for the - more - challenging since the siege had begun, but for reasons beyond the most apparent. While Terminal City in itself was no small area, covering approximately four full city blocks worth of land, undoubtedly most of his day was spent within the confines of the building that served as the impromptu headquarters, the operating base…with Max.

And with Alec.

And often with both Max and Alec at once.

And to say things were a little strained at the present…

Well, they were pretty damn strained. If he'd thought they were bad enough at the beginning, following that strange little handholding episode that even now he puzzled over, considering the circumstances of their situation - Max having moved past him and onto Alec - he'd been in for quite the unpleasant surprise when they actually took a turn for the worse over the ensuing weeks.

He supposed it began with the ambush and Alec's disappearance, and though it seemed that they'd gotten better since then, he couldn't help but feel that the nearly pleasant exterior was just a cover-up for deeper-seeded issues.

Max. Alec. Max and Alec.

It'd been a punch in the gut that morning he saw them together…a painful, winding punch in the gut. It was a kick in the crotch when he confronted her that night - indignity and pain atop the dull throbbing of the earlier blow. Nowadays, it'd just been upgraded to an occasional, awakening, slap in the face.

Right when he thought he'd settled in, adjusted and gotten used to the reality of the situation…

SMACK!

Sorry Logan, you seemed to actually be coming to terms with it there. Have to keep you on your toes.

The ambush had been the first real reminder. During those precious two days when everything hung in the balance, when there was no telling whether Alec was alive or dead, in White's custody, or what…

Despite the end of what relationship they'd been carrying on for the past year, he had hoped that Max might find comfort in his presence. Nothing ulterior, just a shoulder to lean on. After all, he'd been her friend before anything else, and he would remain her friend, no matter what happened. Or so he had hoped.

But she'd turned him away, in the most painful, harrowing way possible…by pointing out the single greatest dividing factor between him and Alec…between him and Max.

An ordinary. She'd called him an ordinary.

What would the other transgenics think having their leader questioned by an ordinary?

Now that he thought about it, it really wasn't a slap. It hurt too much, its impact lasted too long for a mere slap. A stab through the gut, maybe.

Logan took a deep breath and straightened his spine as he pulled open the door that led into the already bustling interior of the command post. When he saw Max and Alec huddled together over a large conference table, studying some sort of maps or blueprints laid out on the surface, he paused. Oblivious to his observation, they continued to discuss whatever matter held their interest, Max's face lively and animated in a way that it only got over things that truly impassioned her.

Alec made some sort of remark that earned a laugh from Max, and though Logan couldn't hear the sound, he could see the genuine pleasure that adorned her features. His breath caught in his throat.

Yep. Smack.


--



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