DISCLAIMER: All "Dark Angel" characters belong to James Cameron and Charles Eglee (Cameron Eglee Productions) and "Dark Angel" itself belongs to FOX.

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Taking Another Shot
By Valjean

The sixth continuation story in "The Best Laid Plans" universe. (rated R for language, violence, sexuality, rape) -- author's note

*************************************
"There's your boy," OC said.

Max turned in her chair and looked toward the front door of Crash. There was a time not so long ago that she would have hotly declared "he's not my boy." Now, she wouldn't dream of denying it.

They both watched as Alec crossed the crowded floor and placed his order. Waiting for his drink, he turned around, leaned with his elbows against the bar, and scanned the crowd, easily spotting them at their corner table.

When his eyes met hers across the room Max felt as if an electric current had just run through her body.

OC noticed and smiled. "There's something about Alec that just kinda lights up the place, isn't there? Call it charisma, charm, whatever ..."

"Call it he has enough sexual magnetism to depolarize Seattle," Max said wryly. "Trouble is, he knows it too. I used to tell myself it annoyed me, the fact I'd be so aware of him whenever he was around. It was like no matter how much I tried to ignore him, I couldn't. And it drove me nuts."

Her friend raised an eyebrow. "Listen to yourself, Boo. You got it bad. You never talked about Logan like that."

Max sighed. "I know. I guess that should have been a clue I wasn't really in love. This ... what I have with Alec ... is so much more intense." She looked at OC. "Sometimes it even hurts. I love him so much. I can't help thinking that something that burns this brightly can't last for long."

"Ladies," Alec said, joining them at the table with his Scotch. He signaled a passing waitress. "Another pitcher of beer," he said. "And a ginger ale for the lovely mother of my child."

OC grinned. "You buyin' tonight?"

"I am," Alec said. "I got a big fat tip on that run to Sector 12 Normal made me do. That's why I'm late. It was one of those deals where I had to phone into the place from the entryway. They put me on hold with that elevator music for somethin' like fifteen minutes before buzzin' me in." He thought a moment. "On the other hand, I now know all the words to 'I Believe I Can Fly'."

Max just shook her head.

"You know," Alec continued, "somehow it seems so out of balance. We go undercover pretendin' to be these respectable ordinaries, while in real life we're bike messengers. I feel like I've got a secret identity, only it's a lousy one."

"You do have a secret identity," OC said. "You're a transgenic. Isn't that enough for you?"

"Maybe I wanna be a superhero," Alec said.

"I'll superhero you," Max said, smacking his shoulder.

"Ow."

The waitress brought their drinks and Max sighed. "We really ought to be saving our money. It's not as if Lydecker pays us anything."

"We can always get money when we have to, Max," Alec said. "You know that."

"Yeah, if we want to end up in jail or worse. I mean doing something legitimate that doesn't involve Manticore, secret identities, or Normal." She saw the amused look in his eyes and quickly added, "And no cracks about my lack of lap dancing talent."

"I wasn't going to," Alec said. He was looking at her slightly rounded stomach. "You don't need a third job anyway. Let me worry about the money. You just take care of yourself and our kid."

"Normal's about ready to can my ass anyway," Max said, resting her head on her arms. "I keep oversleeping, which is so weird because all my life I had trouble sleeping. Now, I can't get enough."

"You need to just stay at my place," Alec said. "It's closer to Jam Pony."

"Your bed isn't big enough."

"I'll get a bigger one."

"Hey!" OC said. "What about me?"

Alec regarded her a moment. "I'll have to make it a king if you're talkin' menage a trois."

OC swatted his hand and Alec grinned.

"I mean what am I gonna do when I lose my roommate?" she said.

"That's awhile off," Max said, with a quick look at Alec to make certain he really still agreed. "We figure it's better me having two places to stay to help keep White's people off balance."

"Boo," OC said, her eyes growing serious. "Don't you think that evil man already knows where you live?"

"He knows where we work for certain," Alec said. "But he's never made a move, not in all the weeks we've been back in the city."

"Logan thinks I should move into the New Manticore base for protection," Max said.

Alec's eyes narrowed, their greenish color even more striking than usual due to the overhead fluorescent lighting.

"You been talkin' to Logan again?"

Max knew she was in for it now. All it took was the mention of Logan's name to get Alec spinning.

"He called and asked me to stop by yesterday," she said. "We talked a little."

"And you were gonna tell me this when?" Alec said, his voice flat in a way she knew meant he was trying to keep his emotions in check. But his clenched jaw gave his real mood away.

"Tonight," she lied. "Later."

"What did he want? Besides for you to leave me."

"We just talked, Alec," Max said, sounding more defensive than she meant to. "He worries about me."

"I'll bet he does," Alec said, taking a big swig of his Scotch. "Max, he nearly got you killed in Thailand, and not so long ago he tried to kill me. Of course he claims it was just a mix-up, that he didn't know you could still be in time to help me at the hospital. But he knew, Max. He knew exactly what he was doin'."

"I know," Max said in a small voice. "It's just that ... I feel like I owe it to Logan to--"

"To what? Let him have another shot at me?"

"That's not going to happen. He promised me he would leave you alone."

"Logan's in love with you Max, and I took you away from him. A man never gets over somethin' like that. I know I wouldn't. He's gonna hate me forever. The best thing you can do is to stay away from the guy."

"I know," Max said, her voice still small.

OC was looking at them both. Then she reached out and took hold of each of their hands. "Stop it, you two," she said quietly. She turned to Max. "Boo, you know it hurts your man when you visit your ex like that. He's got a right to be out of sorts." She turned her eyes on Alec. "And you, sugar ... You gotta remember that Max has a long history with Logan Cale. She can't just wipe him out of her life." She regarded them both then. "Aren't you two lovebirds secure enough in your relationship to kiss and make up now?"

Max glanced sideways at Alec who was looking charmingly sheepish. Sometimes her roommate had an uncanny sense of what was right. Leaning over, Max touched her lips to Alec's. And when his arms came around her she knew everything was still all right.


*****

'"I want you to stay away from Max."

"I was wondering when you'd show up," Logan said. Slowly, with some difficulty, he turned his wheelchair around so he was facing Alec instead of the computer console.

The glow of the screen was the only light in the room. Alec knew Logan couldn't see him so he stepped forward out of the doorway. He wasn't going to hide in the shadows for this conversation.

"Why the hell did you have to get involved in her life?" Logan said, his voice as bitter as any Alec had ever heard. "Why didn't you just go away after Manticore went down? Why did you have to follow her here?"

"If we're gonna play twenty questions," Alec said. "then you might as well ask why I didn't put a bullet in your head when I had the chance."

Logan was watching him closely, his eyes bloodshot, the look in them enigmatic.

"If you really wanna know," Alec said, "I came back to Seattle because I knew that if Max had survived here then so could I."

"You're lying! But then that's what you do so well. You followed her here because you wanted her."

"No!" Alec said. "I never meant to get involved with her. I didn't wanna mess up her life any more than I already had. And the reason I didn't shoot you is because I didn't have orders to, which was fine with me because, no matter what Manticore and everyone else thinks, I don't get off on killin' people." He pinned Logan with his eyes. "At least not usually," he added more softly.

Logan was grinning. "Why should you care whether or not you messed up Max's life? You've always had your eye on her, ever since the first moment you came into her cell back at Manticore with the intention of raping her."

"I would never have raped her," Alec said quietly. "I would never rape any woman."

"But that's exactly what you did," Logan said. "In Terminal City, when Max was in heat ... You took advantage of her. You fucked her and got her pregnant with your child. And now she thinks she has to stay with you even though you'll never be able to give her a normal life ... marriage--"

"Max and I are transgenics, Logan. We're not human. We don't marry. We mate. Max and me gettin' together was as natural as breathing. When are you gonna get it through your head that she doesn't belong with you? She can never belong with you."

Logan was laughing again and it gave Alec the creeps. "But she did belong with me." he said. "She rose from the dead to be with me. Then you came along and made sure I got this virus -- fucked everything up even before you fucked her. But in spite of everything Max still loved me. Of course you did all you could to keep us from finding a cure. And then you got her pregnant, you and that perfect Manticore body of yours."

"Get over it, Logan." Alec said. But his eyes had involuntarily gone to the wheelchair.

"Lydecker told me the same thing," Logan said. "He said that once a woman has a transgenic lover, she can never go back to an ordinary like me. He told me to forget about getting Max back."

Alec winced inwardly. Lydecker and Logan were always a bad combination.

Logan reached out and picked up the glass of Scotch he'd been drinking. "What's it like, Alec?" he said, swirling the ice in the glass. "What's it like being a highly trained, genetically engineered killing machine? What's it like having a perfect body?" He leaned forward in the wheelchair. "What's it like fucking Max like an animal?"

"Leave us alone," Alec said, realizing the futility of trying to talk to Logan any more. The man had lost it. He turned to go.

"Have you ever killed anyone for revenge, Alec?" Logan asked.

Alec paused in the doorway, remembering a certain Manticore mission from long ago. "Yeah," he said. He looked back at Logan, his lips quirked in a little smile. "Felt pretty good too. You might even say that kind of rush is addictive."

It wasn't the answer Logan was expecting.

"What?" Alec said, suddenly realizing something. "You think that just because I don't like killin' people ... that just 'cause I didn't kill you when I had the chance a year ago ... that I'm tame?" He grinned. "You think I 'm not capable of killin' you right now? Is that why you're sittin' there takin' jabs at me, figurin' I won't go off because Max has me on some kinda leash?"

"Max swears you won't hurt me," Logan said carefully.

"Max knows me pretty well," Alec said. "But she doesn't know everything."

"But she is what's keeping me alive right now, isn't she Alec? She's the only reason you don't break my neck. You know she'd never forgive you. That makes me just about invincible where you're concerned. You can't touch me."

"You're right," Alec admitted. "You're pretty much off limits because of Max -- that and because you saved my life once. I figure that buys you a couple of extra chances with me too."

"I should have let White's bitch kill you," he said coldly.

Alec was finding Logan's taunts increasingly hard to take. "Do you have some kind of death wish, Logan? Just how far do you think you can push me tonight? No matter what you think, I came over here to warn you off, not end your life. But believe me, you don't wanna test the limits of my good nature."

However, Logan's words had hurt. Alec took a deep breath, controlling his emotions the way he'd learned at Manticore. "What happened to us?" he said levelly, trying to bring the conversation back from the dangerous edge it had reached. "We used to be almost friends."

"That was before you stole Max."

"No," Alec said. "You thought I was with Max a long time ago and it didn't make you act like this. What happened?"

Logan took another drink of Scotch. "I had almost let her go," he said. "I'd resigned myself to the two of you being together because I wanted her to be happy. But then she told me it had all been a lie, that she wanted me, not you, and everything was wonderful again."

"But it wasn't a lie," Alec said. "There really was somethin' between Max and me even though neither one of us wanted to admit it."

"No!" Logan said. "There was never anything between you two until you violated her!"

Alec was tired of playing a game he was never going to win. Logan was obsessed and maybe even a little bit insane. There would be no reasoning with him. Time to end it now. "Stay away from Max," he said, his voice deepening. "Don't call her. Don't talk to her. Oh, and if you ever try to hurt either of us again ..." His fingers were around Logan's throat before the other man could blink. "Max's forgiveness or not, you'll be all out of chances."


*****

"Sir," Otto Gottlieb said. "You have a phone call." He held out the cell phone to his superior.

"Who is it?" Ames White asked. He was busy. But then he was always busy, endlessly checking statistics, data sheets, battle plans, prisoner reports, and the scientists' newest findings about transhuman and transgenic weaknesses.

Otto couldn't get over how the man had changed in the past few months. White had aged ten years, his hair graying, skin turning sallow, face growing gaunt, and his eyes ... His eyes were hollow, haunted, bloodshot and watery from lack of sleep, but still burning with hatred. All the man did, day and night, was work on the breeding cult's master plan -- the one that would eliminate first the Manticore creations, then ultimately all those in the human race who weren't deemed worthy of salvation. Then, of course, there was his obsession with X5-452 and his personal plans for her.

"An anonymous caller, sir. But he says that if we move fast he knows where you can find X5-494 -- alone. We can get him without any witnesses."


*****

Alec might not have Max's penchant for visions and premonitions, but whatever gift the Manticore scientists had put in his brain warned him in its own way. The moment he wheeled his motorcycle into the hallway of his apartment building he knew there was someone watching. Whoever it was had made no sound, nor had he seen any movement, but he could "feel" them nonetheless.

There was a time he would have ignored the subtle sensation, that hint of fear caressing his mind, chalked it up to being too tired or spun from his encounter with Logan. But White's breeding cult had members with extrasensory powers. And Dr. Jameson had mentioned infusing psychic abilities into the X5's. Alec had never really believed in that kind of thing, writing his own uncanny abilities to judge people off to simply being a good observer. But Max insisted she'd "seen" something during the Jam Pony siege -- something beyond her physical senses -- and deep in his heart, Alec knew that he, too, sometimes knew more than he should.

Sixth sense or whatever, at the moment he was certain there were at least three men surrounding him -- one beneath the staircase, one in the entranceway to the apartment up ahead, and one behind him just outside the door he'd come through.

This is not good, he thought, kicking out the stand for the motorcycle and making sure the machine was secure. At least Max wasn't here tonight. She'd gone home with Original Cindy, her address protected thanks to OC's removal of their files from Jam Pony weeks ago, and the fact Lydecker had faked their transgenic I.D.'s. But then again, his address should have been unknown as well.

Alec weighed his options. Whoever it was wouldn't wait long before making a move. If it was ordinaries -- a vigilante group of some kind who'd found out where he lived -- he could probably handle them. After all, there were only three.

If it was Lydecker ... Alec shook his head slightly. They weren't Manticore. He'd definitely be able to sense his own kind.

Which left the last, and worst, possibility. White had found him.

Fight here, trapped in the hallway, or run? The decision wasn't hard. Letting go of the bike's handlebars, Alec bolted for the door.

He expected to feel a bullet hit his back, or the burn of an electrical prod. But the needle on the dart that struck his side was so sharp he hardly felt any pain at all.

He reached the curb and stopped, staggered, grabbed for the gun he always carried tucked in his belt beneath his jacket..

"Why do they always run?" Ames White said, grinning broadly as he emerged from the doorway holding a tranquilizer rifle. "Otto!" he shouted.

Alec had his gun in his hand, but his fingers were numb. He couldn't pull the trigger. His knees buckled. Through sheer will power he didn't go all the way down. Keeping his eyes on White, he fought to remain conscious.

"These animals have the stamina of lions," White muttered. Then more loudly, "What happens if I hit him with a second dart?"

"That would be a potentially lethal overdose, sir," Otto said, coming up behind his boss.

Still grinning, White took careful aim at Alec's chest and shot him again.


*****

Max and OC sat together on the couch in their apartment, watching Senator McKinley's latest news conference on the television set Alec had insisted they had to have if he was going to be staying there sometimes, something about not being able to live without his "boob tube." The senator was going on yet again about the dangers of allowing transgenics to live among normal humans, how they would contaminate the species and harbored unknown diseases. He also kept circling back to the fact that the transgenics were soldiers, trained to use lethal force in combat.

"An incident in a Seattle nightclub several weeks ago highlights my point," McKinley said. "This diabolically clever transgenic male, an X5 series from Manticore, wreaked havoc, viciously attacking a respected colleague of mine in order to make advances on his female companion."

"Oh ... my ... God," OC said as a picture of Alec, the one on his transgenic I.D. card, came up on the screen.

"A lot of words describe Alec," Max deadpanned, watching McKinley with very little expression on her face. "But diabolical isn't one of them. Clever ... maybe. I'd even go for mildly fiendish ... but diabolical? No way." She raised an eyebrow and looked at OC. "I mean it's Alec."

"They're aggressive, immoral, and out of control," McKinley nattered on. "Creatures like this shouldn't be allowed to roam loose on the peaceful streets of Seattle or anywhere else in this fine country."

"Joke all you want, Boo," OC said. "But it can't be good, Alec's mug all over the news like that. Female companion? Wasn't that Asha?"

"They make him sound like a rabid dog," Max said, scowling at the screen. "I wonder why Lydecker didn't squash this story?" She reached for her phone.

"You gonna call Alec?" OC said.

"Just to give him a heads up about this," Max said. "In case he doesn't have the TV on. Bet it will make going in to work tomorrow interesting." She sighed. "I can just hear Sketchy now."

But the phone rang and rang without Alec answering. "I wonder where he is?" Max said, checking the time. "When he left here he said he was going straight home."

"Maybe he decided to pay Joshua a visit or something," OC said.

"This late? And without his cell phone?"

OC didn't know what to say.

"I'll wait until morning," Max decided. "If he doesn't show up by then I'll go out to the base and find Lydecker."

That night Max lay alone missing her mate. It had been a mistake, she realized, her not going home with Alec tonight. Small bed or not, they should always sleep together. She glanced up at a spot beside the headboard where there was a fist-sized hole in the plaster and smiled. Alec had done that the first time they'd made love in her bed, his climax so intense he'd literally put his hand through the wall as he'd thrust one last time and exploded deeply inside her. If she closed her eyes she could still hear the sound he'd made while he shuddered, held tightly captive between her legs, a guttural moan that was so, so sexy. And the look of feral lust in those hazel green eyes ... They'd been completely lost in each other that night, and it had been one of the most amazing sexual encounters of her life. Of course there had been many other nights as well. They were good together, she and Alec ...

Max slept fitfully, her dreams full of Alec making love to her. And at dawn, when he still didn't answer his cell phone, she got on her Ninja and headed for his place. His motorcycle was just inside the entryway of the building, but his apartment was empty, his bed cold, his scent lingering but not fresh. Max shivered in the doorway, looking around at his things. She had a terrible feeling about this, especially after McKinley's news story. Maybe Lydecker would know something.

Alec, where are you?


*****

"He's been unconscious for two days!" White said, punctuating his disgust by kicking the cage.

"I told you that much tranquilizer could be lethal," Otto said.

"I want him awake!" White snarled, kicking the cage again. "He's not as much good to me dead."

Otto opened his mouth to ask the obvious question -- Why hit 494 with two darts and risk it being fatal when the one would have soon knocked him out? -- but the look in White's eyes kept him silent.

"I gather you want to use him as bait for 452?" Otto said instead. "Then once you have her you can keep using him to make her tell you where your son is."

"That's basically the plan," White said, still staring at the young transgenic lying unconscious on the floor of the suspended cage.

"We could take him down to medical," Otto offered. "They might be able to revive him."

"No," White said. "I won't waste our resources on transgenic trash. 452 will come looking for him no matter what. Whether he's breathing or not doesn't really matter. Although," he added. "It would be nice to see the look on her face if I could kill him in front of her. And I would like a chance at pay back for the embarrassment he caused me in that night club last month."

He turned to Otto. "Do you think 452 would beg for his life? Are these transgenics capable of that kind of affection for one another?"

"I don't know, sir."

White regarded his captive again. "Call me if there's any change in its condition."


*****

He was really thirsty. How many days had it been? How long ago had Lydecker thrown him in the box? He couldn't remember. All he knew was that the heat was killing him, and it felt like he'd swallowed sand. Four days, Lydecker had said. His punishment was to be four days in the box in the Sahara sun.

Alec clawed at the metal beneath him. Why didn't they let him out? Hadn't it been four days yet? He was so hot ... so thirsty ... And his head was pounding too. Had they hit him in the head? He couldn't remember ... couldn't even remember what he was being punished for. There had been so many punishments ...

With a groan Alec rolled over onto his back, opened his eyes, and realized-- This wasn't the Sahara. This was-- He turned his head and looked through the bars of the cage directly into Otto's eyes.

"Hello?" Alec said weakly.

"We didn't think you were going to wake up," Otto said.

"Sorry to disappoint you," Alec rasped. "Any chance of some water?" He was trying to gather his badly scattered thoughts.

Otto looked around to see if anyone was watching. Then he nodded and walked away. A moment later he was back with a glass of water which he cautiously placed on the floor of the cage through the bars.

Alec rolled over on his stomach, grabbed the glass with both hands, and eagerly began to drink.

"Not too fast," Otto said. "You'll throw up."

Alec's eyes turned upwards, his lips still touching the rim of the glass, regarding White's assistant. "You're with White. Why do you care?"

"Because I'll have to clean up the mess."

Alec acquiesced to the answer, then went back to finishing off the water a bit more slowly, knowing he probably wouldn't be getting any more.

"Can you stand up?" Otto asked.

"Don't know." Alec took hold of the bars and, using them, managed to drag himself to his feet.

"You're in no condition for what's going to happen next," Otto said.

"What are you talkin' about? You mean to face White?"

"No," Otto said. "To be rescued." He looked up at the sky where the sound of a helicopter was rapidly growing closer. "Fe'nos tol," he said, then turned and walked away.

"Oh, this is interesting," Alec said as he watched the helicopter coming in for a landing. His cage was on the side of a courtyard in what looked to be a fairly large compound. There was just enough room for the chopper to land. Shielding his face from the flying dirt with his hands, Alec could only wait helplessly while several heavily armed men piled out of the chopper and ran toward him as White's men began firing at the invaders from inside the building.

With military precision, the first soldier to reach him placed a small explosive charge on the cage door. Alec knew enough to crawl back into the farthest corner and cover his head. The explosion was exactly right, and seconds later he was free -- well, not exactly free. No sooner had he staggered out of his prison than his arms were grabbed from both sides and he was being dragged to the helicopter.

Instinctively, Alec tried to fight, but he was far too weak to be effective. "Hey!" he yelled as he was picked up bodily and thrown into the cargo area. He hit the floor of the chopper hard enough to knock the wind out of his lungs. And then the needle jabbed his arm.

"Don't!" an oddly familiar voice cried out. "He's already--"

And then everything went black -- again.


*****

Consciousness returned slowly again, but when his brain finally began functioning Alec's first coherent thought was to wish that he'd never awakened.

His body was strapped down on a stainless steel table -- wrists, waist, and ankles encircled by heavy leather bands. Through bleary eyes he could see that the ceiling and walls of the room were white, sterile. It looked like some kind of operating theater. His head still hurt like hell, although he was cold now instead of burning up -- which is when he realized he was pretty much naked.

Terrified, Alec yanked on the restraints.

"D├ętends-toi," (Relax) a woman's voice said. Ne lutte pas (Don't struggle).

"Ou?" (Where?) Alec said, automatically responding in French. "Qui?" (Who?).

The woman walked into his line of sight, and Alec stared, for one of the few times in his life shocked into total silence.

Madam Renfro's eyes were cold and calculating, and her greeting telling. Reaching out, she touched her index finger to the hollow of his throat. "Welcome back 494," she said, her voice a deadly purr. And then she pressed down and slowly drew her razor sharp fingernail over his skin, leaving a trail of blood.

Biting his lip, Alec forced himself to ignore the pain. But when she leaned over him and smiled, her hand now resting on his belly, he knew he was in very deep trouble.

She touched her tongue to his blood on her fingertip. And for one horrible second he thought she was going to kiss him ...

"Why am I not surprised you were one of the survivors?" she said softly in his ear, her breath seductively caressing his cheek. "But then I didn't choose you to be 452's breeding partner for your ...," her predatory eyes swept over him, "physical attributes alone."

Just breathe Alec. Just breathe and keep your mouth shut.

She sighed. "But unfortunately for you, you're still just a pretty piece of meat to me." Again the roaming eyes. "Although admittedly grade A choice."

Raising her voice, she spoke to someone else. "From what I understand, 452 has ruined this once fine specimen of a soldier -- put too many independent thoughts into his handsome head, rendering him useless. What do you think? He'll have to be completely reprogrammed of course, that is if I decide to salvage him at all. Re-indoctrination level four?" She touched his bare chest again, her fingernail this time raking a nipple. "Or should we go all the way and make it a five?"

"And then he really will be useless to us," a man's voice said.

Alec tore his eyes away from Renfro's hypnotic gaze and craned his neck to see the speaker. Never in his life did Alec think he'd be glad to see Donald Lydecker, but at the moment, if he'd been free, he'd have kissed the bastard's shoes. If anyone could take on Renfro, it was 'Deck.

"Alec excels at covert operations," Lydecker said from the other side of the room. It's what his body and mind were created for, even moreso than combat. He has an I.Q. of 187. He speaks fourteen languages, for God's sake, not to mention his acumen for absorbing new skills at a phenomenal rate. A level five or even a level four re-indoctrination series to make him forget Max and be more compliant would cause brain damage. He'd lose a lot of his abilities."

'Deck, you've sure changed your tune. Since when are you on my side?

Alec's eyes went back to Renfro. She wasn't buying it. And his heart started to pound.

Renfro shook her head. "Even with total reprogramming I'm not certain he's worth the trouble." She looked down at him again. "I think the organ bank might be a better choice."

She was studying him for far too long, her prurient eyes shining ... devouring. Alec was glad he wasn't one of Manticore's mind readers. The emotional vibes he was getting were frightening enough.

Then, "I'm sorry, soldier," she said, her voice deceptively gentle. "Your mission's over." To Lydecker, "Leave him with me. We'll harvest the DNA samples and organs we can use, and incinerate the rest of the body."

Lydecker was shocked. "You've got to be kidding me? Alec's our best chance to keep Max safe and you want to relegate him to mere body parts?"

Alec realized he had to do something ... or at least find his tongue. Renfro thought he was subdued, too scared to fight. She was standing so close he could hear her heart beating ... smell her perfume. From the way her eyes were still roving so hungrily over him, he knew she wasn't going to give him to the surgeons right away. If she got him alone ...

"You gonna try and hump me while I'm alive lady?" Alec said, deliberately making his voice low ... mocking, bringing her dirty little plan out into the open. "Or is necrophilia the only way you can get off on an X5?"

"La ferme!" (Shut up!) Renfro snapped, slapping his face almost as hard as Max could. "No one gave you permission to speak!." She looked at Lydecker. "That kind of insolence shouldn't exist in the X5 series. No wonder the program was a failure. I'm sorry I let you talk me into this. We should have just left him with White. 494's fulfilled his role in this little drama. Now it's time to dispose of him."

She was staring at him again though, daring him. Alec glared back, but still couldn't help shivering -- and it wasn't from the cold.

Suddenly Renfro reached out, grabbed hold of his hair and yanked his head around, her eyes boring into his like daggers. "What?" she said, her face only inches from his. "No more smart Alec remarks?"

He swallowed hard.

"If you have anything more to say, then say it. It will be your last chance."

Alec knew she was just looking for an excuse to hurt him. He bit his tongue and said nothing.

Renfro tightened her grip on his hair as her other hand subtly trailed lower, touching him, her body shielding her actions from Lydecker's view.

"You didn't think I knew you had feelings for 452 from the very beginning?" she taunted. "You didn't think I planned all along for you to fall in love with her? You did, after all, have a reputation for getting emotionally involved with your marks. A re-indoctrination level two like you underwent after the Berrisford fiasco would suppress the tendency, but not eliminate it. I knew I could put that flaw to good use. I've got to give you credit, though." A wicked smile. "You actually did follow your orders. All of your orders. You even impregnated 452."

She hurt him then, and Alec squeezed his eyes shut, his breath a hiss.

"Which makes our job a lot easier," she added. "The child will be unique. However, I really don't see how you'll be anything but a liability from now on."

To Lydecker, "He's outlived his usefulness."

"He'll protect her," Lydecker argued. "Better than we ever could. Just because you want him--"

"He'll get in the way! And I will have him! I'll use him any way I want." She turned and looked at the older man. "He's mine, not yours!"

"What if something happens to the pregnancy?" Lydecker said. "What if Max has a miscarriage? White and your people have murdered dozens of my kids, practically wiping out the genetic pool. He's the only X5 male left with compatible DNA sequencing, the only one who can successfully mate with her. That alone makes him still valuable."

"That's what sperm banks are for, 'Deck," Renfro said, at last letting go of Alec's hair and moving away from the table. However, her eyes lingered. "A pity in a way," she said more softly. "So much potential ... But I'll be sure to get a good sample before we harvest his other organs." And with that last ominous remark, she turned and left the room.

*****

"What the hell is she doin' alive?" Alec said, regaining his courage and most of his attitude as soon as Renfro had closed the door. The dragon lady might scare him shitless, but Lydecker was an old enemy he knew how to handle. "Max said she died when Manticore One went up in flames."

"News of her demise was exaggerated," Lydecker said, his voice tinged with exasperation. "As you can see, she recovered. Renfro's with Sandeman's people. She was their undercover operative at Manticore."

Alec motioned with his chin at the restraints. "Get me outta here! And where are my clothes? I better get my leather jacket back."

"If I let you go she'll kill us both," Lydecker said. "And then Max will be alone and unprotected."

Alec grew quiet, realizing what Lydecker was really saying. "And even if I do get away, Renfro's gonna take you out, then hunt me down. Which will still leave Max at her mercy."

Lydecker moved to his side and placed a hand on Alec's bare shoulder. "I'm sorry. I thought I could talk her into letting you be Max's bodyguard. That was what I had in mind from the beginning -- why, when Max told me you were missing, I asked for Renfro's help in getting you away from White. Alec, I know I threatened to take you away from Max on more than one occasion -- threatened to force you back into a Manticore unit. But I've seen how the two of you work together, better than any team I could ever have created. I was wrong. And now I'm on your side."

"I don't care who's side you're on," Alec said through clenched teeth. "Just get these straps off of me so I have a fighting chance."

"You'll be shot."

"And the alternative is? Oh yeah, bein' raped and butchered alive. I'll take the bullet."

"She'll take what she wants from your body anyway. Look what she did to Zack."

Alec remembered all right, and it sickened him. Max had told him about what had happened to Zack, the way he'd shot himself in the head so she could live, only to be resurrected by Manticore. They'd cut him up, gouged out his insides, then rebuilt him as some kind of machine.

And, the worst of it was, Alec knew there hadn't been anything special about Zack. It could just as easily have been me with those nanocites in my blood and a processor replacin' my brain. Renfro would have used any available X5 male body for that experiment. Just like she was going to use his body now.

"I'm sorry, son," Lydecker said, his eyes truly sympathetic. "I can't help you. Max needs at least one of us to stay alive."

"Then I guess you're all out of luck, Donald," a wonderfully familiar voice said behind them. "'Because when it comes down to choosing between you and my man, my man's going to win every time."

"Max!" Alec shouted, deliriously happy but at the same time horrified she was here. Behind her on the floor he could see at least two bodies.

Swiftly she moved to his side and began undoing straps. "Looks like you've been having fun, lover," she said with a forced smile. But her deep brown eyes reflected just how truly afraid she was for him.

"Let's just say Madam Renfro would make a creative lap dancer," Alec said, attempting for his sanity's sake to make light of what had just been a terrifying, not to mention mortifying, experience.

Lydecker stood back, not helping, but not interfering either. "Your clothes are over there," he said, pointing to a far corner of the room.

As soon as his hands and waist were free, Alec began unbuckling his ankles. Max tossed him his jeans. He'd never gotten dressed so fast in his life. Once his boots were on his feet he felt infinitely better. There was something about shoes that made a soldier complete.

"Where are we?" he asked Max as he buckled his boot. "And how did you get here?"

"France," she said. She nodded at Lydecker. "He told me to wait at Manticore while he went after you, but he doesn't cover his tracks very well. I got a fake passport and I.D. then followed him."

"France?" Alec looked up at her in astonishment. "We're not even in the friggin U S of A? Max, tell me you've got a plan for us gettin' outta here." He remembered their wildly improvised escape from the police station a few months back. "And please don't let it involve climbin' a drain pipe 'cause I haven't had anything to eat in four days."

"Well, well," Major Renfro said, delicately stepping over the fallen bodies in the doorway.

Max and Alec looked at her like deer caught in headlights. "And tell me you brought a gun," Alec said under his breath.

Lydecker started to speak, but Renfro held up her hand. "Look who's found her way home," she said.

"Max can't stay here," Lydecker said. "You know she can't. Your people can't be trusted. Let her go. Let them both go. He'll protect her for us."

"He'll run off with her," Renfro countered.

"No," Alec said. "He'll keep her safe, not 'cause she's some kind of damn freakin' omen, or 'cause he's been ordered to, but because he loves her." And then he saw that unfortunately Renfro did have a gun, which she was pointing directly at him.

"Do you remember what I told you 452? Do you remember what I told you about the ones you love?"

"You said I was poison," Max replied calmly. She reached out and took hold of Alec's hand. "You said I destroyed the ones I love."

Renfro raised one eyebrow and nodded in Alec's direction. "And now you've done it again. Say goodbye to your lover, 452. The organ bank is waiting for his donation."

"No!" Max screamed, flinging herself in front of Alec. The sound of the shot was deafening in the small room.

Alec caught Max in his arms, and for one horrible second thought she'd just taken a bullet for him. But then she straightened, obviously all right, and they both looked over at Renfro. The major was standing leaning against the wall, her hand pressed to her bloody shoulder, the gun lying on the floor.

"You'll pay for this," she snarled at Lydecker.

The small pistol in his hand never wavered. "Go on," he told them. "Get out now before someone comes to investigate." He tossed a set of car keys to Alec. "My car's in front of the building, a green Jeep. The airport's about twenty miles to the south." He fished in his pocket and pulled out his wallet and some papers. "There's enough cash in there to buy two tickets, and a passport for you. I really did intend to take you back to the states with me. You speak French fluently. You can talk your way through security."

"You can't just let her leave," Renfro gasped. "Sandeman has to see her."

"Sandeman's not ready for her," Lydecker said. "Not yet. And until he is, Alec is Max's best chance to avoid White's people. He's the only one without an agenda." He looked at Alec and barked, "You have your assignment, 494. Get moving."

"Yes, sir," Alec said under his breath as he took hold of Max's hand and pulled her out the door.

*****

"Shhh," Alec whispered in Max's ear. "OC's gonna hear us."

Max giggled. "As if you don't make enough noise yourself. She really is going to think you're part animal."

Alec grinned, and shifted his body to one side so his weight wouldn't be too much for Max in her condition. There would a come a time he realized, not too far in the future, when they were going to have to try some new positions.

She relaxed in his arms, snuggling against him. Their nights together, their moments of closeness, had become a refuge, a time when they could almost forget about White and Lydecker and now Renfro -- a time when they could pretend for a little while that they were just a normal couple excited about their baby that was on the way.

"Are you sure OC doesn't mind me crashin' here for awhile?" Alec said. "I mean, I know I've stayed here before, but this is different. I brought a bunch of my stuff."

"White knows where you live now," Max said. "You can't go back right away."

"I don't wanna go back," Alec said honestly. "I wanna be with you every night, makin' sure you're safe."

Max hugged him tightly, pushing her head into the crook of his shoulder, drinking in his scent, that wonderful musky mixture of perspiration and testosterone that was so uniquely Alec. "I want to make sure you're safe too."
She was quiet a moment, then, "Do you think Renfro killed Lydecker?"

"Nah. She'd have killed him a long time ago if she was going to."

"But he shot her."

"I know. And I wish he'd put that bullet in her head instead of just in her shoulder."

Max looked up at his face, seeing his expression clearly even though the room was dark. "Did Renfro hurt you? Did she--"

"No," Alec said quickly. "Lydecker kept Madam Libido off of me -- well, mostly off of me. But I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't shown up when you did." He nuzzled her hair. "Guess you saved my ass -- again," he breathed. "Not to mention a few other important parts."

Max reached down and cupped the bare objects of their conversation in her hands, pulling him against her. "Since it still seems to be my full time job saving them," she said softly, "you're lucky I'm so fond of your parts."

"You didn't used to be," Alec said gruffly, his breath tickling her ear.

"That was before," Max said.

"Before what?"

"Before I fell in love with you." She thought a moment. "I still can't believe it took me so long to realize you were ... there."

Alec kissed her ear. "Not so hard to understand," he said. "I really screwed things up at first, right after Manticore went down. I didn't deserve you. I was just glad you didn't totally hate me."

"You really thought that?" Max said, somewhat surprised at his confession. "That you didn't deserve to be with me?"

"I didn't," Alec said honestly. "Not after the stupid stuff I pulled."

"Back then you strutted around acting like you were God's gift to women," Max said. She smiled. "In fact, you still do. But you sure hid your insecurities well. In fact, you about drove me nuts with your egotistical macho attitude until I realized that underneath it all you were really just a lost, scared little boy."

Alec blinked at that. She was right. But he wasn't going to admit it.

"You know when I first started thinking you weren't a total idiot?"

"I think I can guess," Alec said, remembering that Max had been there when he'd found Rachel. She'd seen him completely lose it emotionally. He'd always been grateful afterwards that she'd never mentioned that intensely personal moment of his life again.

"No, you can't guess. Because you don't know about this. It was Joshua who got me thinking."

"Joshua?" Alec shifted his weight again, settling her more comfortably in his arms and throwing a leg over her waist. The position let him press himself snugly against her moist warmth without disturbing her slightly swollen belly. He needed to be touching her there right now -- needed to know she was really his.

"Joshua painted a picture of you."

"Joshua painted me?" He smiled, surprisingly pleased at the revelation. "He never told me that."

"It had a lot of black in it," Max said. "With beautiful colors surrounding the darkness."

"I suppose that's a good metaphor for me," Alec said.

"He said you were 'tricks and treats' on the outside with darkness inside, and that the darkness was Manticore. I realized then that the way you acted sometimes wasn't your fault, and that the fact you were trying to do the right thing in spite of what you'd been through was truly admirable." She pressed herself against him, relaxing, letting him slide easily into her where she knew he wanted to be.

Alec closed his eyes, losing himself in the incredibly erotic sensation.

"Are we done talking?" Max whispered as her hands ran down his body.

"Yeah," Alec said, his voice deep and husky as he began to make love to her in earnest.

"Good," she murmured as her lips found his.

THE END

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