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Aggression
By Valjean

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

*************************************
"Shit!" Alec hit the ground hard, sprawling flat on his back. Rolling backwards, he brought his knees to his chest then arched, springing to his feet just in time to avoid having the side of his head kicked in. Breathing heavily, he circled warily, never losing eye contact, waiting for his opponent to make the next move. He blocked the first punch high, and the second at midriff level, but the third blow breached his defenses and he took it on the chin hard enough to see stars. Instinctively, he brought up his right arm to block the next punch he thought was coming. Instead, his attacker followed through with a whirling kick that hit him hard in the ribs and he went down for a second time.

"Shit! Shit! Shit!"

He rolled, and came up in a fighting stance. Licking his lips, he tasted his own blood.

His opponent was edging to his right. Alec knew he had to get this fight under control, take the offensive. Blurring forward, he aimed a straight punch to the stomach, delivered with enough power to kill an ordinary human. However, the other man dodged left with equal speed, causing Alec to over balance.

The second he felt his blow glance off he knew he was fucked. One hand grabbed his right arm and twisted it up behind his back while another hand clamped down on the back of his neck like a vise. The next thing Alec knew he was lying face down in the dirt with an impossible pressure on his spine.

"Surrender!" The word hissed in his ear.

Alec dug the toe of his boot into the ground and struggled, hoping to find room to maneuver. His arm was pushed upwards another inch, the pain excruciating.

"Surrender!"

"Fuck you!"

Another shove and tears were pricking his eyes.

"Give it up, 494!"

"No!" He tried to rear his head back and the knee on his spine pressed down.

"I'll break your damn neck!"

"Alec!" another voice cried out.

"Give up!"

Alec twisted his head around and bit down as hard as he could on his assailant's forearm. The scream was gratifying. But it was quickly followed by his own scream as his shoulder dislocated.

"Enough!" a fourth voice roared. "489, let him up!"

"Yes, sir," X5-489 said, emphasizing the sir a bit too much. Slowly, almost leisurely, the big X5 male stood, releasing the near fatal pressure on Alec's spine at last. Jet black hair, piercing blue eyes, and a coldly handsome face, Greg was the same genetic make-up that Dante had been -- far more massive than Alec in every way.

Alec knew he had to get on his feet, had to pretend he wasn't hurt -- but he was hurt.

"Leave him," he heard Lydecker say, and knew he was talking to Max. "Get up, soldier!"

Alec struggled to his knees and, using his good left arm, pushed himself to his feet where he stood swaying, dizzy, his right arm dangling uselessly.

Then Lydecker was in his face. "You're pathetic," he said, shaking his head. "Of all the poor excuses for fighting I've seen, yours comes close to being the worst."

Alec hung his head. Old habit. He'd had plenty of dressings down in his lifetime and knew what behavior was expected. He wondered if Lydecker had a solitary confinement cell somewhere on the New Manticore base. Because that's where he would be headed if he'd still been a soldier in the old regime.

He glanced at Max out of the corner of his eye. She wasn't looking at him, and his shame deepened. To make matters worse, Original Cindy had come with them today, wanting to visit Joshua and Gem. And then there were the X6's and X7's who'd turned out to watch the show. Dalton looked like he didn't know what to think, seeing his hero from the Jam Pony siege getting his ass kicked and his face pushed in the dirt during what was supposed to be a simple training exercise demonstration.

"Explain your inability to perform up to standards," Lydecker barked.

"The match was unequal," Max said, stepping forward, her expression indignant. "489 ... Greg ... is a heavy combat model. Alec's body was designed for stealth and light aggression."

Alec closed his eyes. He knew she meant well, but Max was just making things worse.

"I was unfit for the task, sir," he said quickly, before Lydecker could vent his rage on Max. "I've been fighting too many ordinaries and not practicing enough with my own kind."

"Exactly," Lydecker said, his scowl deepening. "Yet you're the one who's supposed to be protecting 452 from the Familiars. And those Familiars are at least as strong as X5's."

"But not as strong as combat models," Max said under her breath. Alec heard her. Luckily, Lydecker didn't. He really wished she'd quit making excuses for him.

"Sir," Greg spoke up. "I would be glad to take over the task of protecting X5-452, sir."

Alec glared at the other X5, wishing he hadn't left his gun at the front door weapon's drop. Then he looked at Lydecker and what he saw just made his day. He could tell by the look on his face that 'Deck was actually considering Greg's proposition.

"Sir," Alec said. "There are more ways to protect Max than by using hand-to-hand tactics." He glanced at Greg. "Weapons range. Give me fifteen minutes, and then I'll show you who's the better body guard."

Lydecker nodded, and Alec knew he was going to get another chance.

*****

"Your shoulder," Max said.

They'd been walking in silence, heading for the firing range where Lydecker and his men had been training the X6's and X7's in the arts of weaponry. Max thought Lydecker was being mean to the youngsters, forcing them to be soldiers instead of letting them just be kids. But Alec, much as he sympathized with Max, actually thought it was probably the best thing. After all, look what had happened to Ben when he'd been thrown out into the real world with no way to channel his genetic aggression. At least this way the X6's and X7's like Dalton would have an identity and a purpose in the world. And it beat hands down beggin' on the streets of Seattle or rippin' off 7-Elevens.

He looked at Max, his purpose in the world right now. "Get Joshua," he said.

"I'll do it."

"Get Joshua."

"I'll do it," she insisted, reaching for his dislocated right arm.

Alec pulled away. He was sorry he'd just caused that hurt look in her eyes, but he really didn't want her tending to his injury -- macho pride of some kind he supposed. "Joshua!" he called, spotting his big friend over by the door to the main compound. "Here boy!"

""Hey, Doggie-Dog," OC said when Joshua came over. "How's life been treatin' you?"

"Good," Joshua said. "But we need more computer equipment and macaroni."

"Lydecker's runnin' this place on a shoe string," Alec said. "He's barely got enough funding to feed everyone, let alone buy high tech hardware."

"Alec," Joshua said. "Your arm ..."

"Yeah, I know," Alec said, wincing as he tried to lift his right arm a bit. He looked at Max who had moved several steps away and turned her back.

"Can you put that bitch back in place?" OC said, her expression concerned. "Our boy managed to dislocate his shoulder playin' soldier."

Joshua looked at Alec, his eyes questioning.

Alec took a deep breath. 'Pop it back in, Big Fella." He glanced at OC. "Please."

Joshua gingerly grabbed hold of Alec's wrist and upper arm, and took a deep breath.

"Wait, wait," Alec said. "Have you ever done this before?"

"No."

"I have," Max said, her voice indicating just how miffed she was.

Alec ignored her, but swallowed hard, suddenly having second thoughts about this. However, he had to be over on the firing range in just a few minutes. "Okay," he said. "Do it."

Joshua squeezed his eyes shut.

"Wait, wait."

"Now what?" OC said disgustedly.

"This is gonna hurt, isn't it?"

Max exhaled sharply, turned around, and marched over. "Yes," she said, grabbing hold of his shoulder with one hand and his wrist with the other. "It's going to hurt." And then she pulled." The sound as the joint popped back into its socket was audible.

"Shit!," Alec hollered. "Ow!" This time there really were tears in his eyes. "Max!"

Joshua stood by looking sheepish.

"There," Max said, dusting off her hands. "Good as new." She looked at Joshua. "Sorry Big Fella, but if it wasn't done right he'd have ended up with torn ligaments."

Alec was flexing his shoulder. It felt much better. "Thanks," he said grudgingly to Max as OC patted him sympathetically on his other arm.

"You're welcome. Now get your butt over to that firing range and pretend you're a Manticore soldier again so Lydecker will get off your back."

*****

"Why did that Greg dude whip our boy so bad?" OC asked as they walked to the building that housed the firing range.

"I don't know," Max said worriedly, watching Alec and Joshua just ahead of them. "Maybe he doesn't feel good or something."

"Looks fine to me," OC said. "Seemed to me like our Alec just didn't have his act together."

"I know," Max said. "And that shouldn't happen. Not with his Manticore training."

"What was that flippy move he did to get up off the ground?" OC asked.

"It's called a kip," Max said. "And he shouldn't have been on the ground in the first place."

"Well it was impressive," OC said.

"Not the easiest move either," Max admitted. "Alec's had all the really advanced training, but he and I fight so differently."

"What do you mean, Boo?"

"I like the acrobatic stuff, the flips and jumps. Alec ... he's basically a kickboxer. He can do the other things when he has to, but they're really not his best moves."

"His best move today seemed to be eatin' dirt," OC said.

"I know."

"Will he do better with the guns?"

"I hope so. He likes guns." Max grimaced at what she considered a minor character flaw in her man. "In fact, he likes guns a lot."

"We'll see," OC said. "I just hope he hits the bullseye or you might end up with that Greg dude tonight instead of your main squeeze."

Max actually shuddered at that thought. Lydecker wouldn't really do that to them, would he?

*****

"Best six shots," Lydecker said. And that was it. He stepped back.

Mole had brought Alec his Glock 35 from the front drop-off, but Alec had his eye on a semi-automatic that was lying on the table. It had a bit more firepower, and in his experience the sites would be better calibrated as well.

"Practice shots?" he asked.

Greg had already chosen a weapon, a mean looking Browning Mark III he was obviously very familiar with.

Lydecker nodded, and Alec picked up the semi-automatic. He popped off six shots in a row at the first target, a bulls-eye circle 50 feet out. The gun drew a tiny bit to the left, he realized, as his bullets didn't quite hit where he intended. But he could compensate. "Ready." he said.

Greg stepped up to the bench. Assuming a marksman's stance, X5-489 squeezed the trigger and put six shots in a neat little circle dead square in the center of the silhouetted man's head. He looked at Alec, a smug smile on his face. "Beat that, spook boy," he said.

Spook boy. Alec hadn't heard that that in a long time. It was what the meatier soldiers called the special ops forces at Manticore -- and it wasn't a compliment. Unlike the quick clean kills of combat, the assassins had to get their hands dirty, using methods the others considered cowardly -- like garroting victims from behind. It didn't help their reputations that they were also trained to be consumate liars. Many at Manticore had considered the "spooks" to be scum ...scary scum, but scum nonetheless.

Alec stepped in front of a fresh target, reached beneath the bench, and flipped the switch, running it out it's full distance, 100 feet.

Greg snorted. "I thought your kind were supposed to have the highest I.Q.'s," he said. "That's farther than we're qualified for. Looks like you're just a show-off. And now I get to see you fall flat on your face -- again."

Max was watching nervously. "He's going to mess this up," she said to OC. "No one can do well at that extreme range."

"Don't underestimate him, Boo," OC said. "Give him a chance. Remember that Dante dude and the bullet in his head? Alec knows his job and this is his job."

Alec brushed strands of hair back off his face and assumed a marksman's stance, holding the semi-automatic in his right hand, steadying his wrist with his left, and lining up the distant target through the sites.

Max actually felt Alec enter his "zone." It was as if part of her lover's mind just went away for a few seconds, his entire being centered on one thing. She held her breath with him.

Lydecker was watching from behind, his expression controlled.

Alec didn't wait for long. His senses acquired the target, his vision zoomed in, and he squeezed the trigger rapidly six times in a row, the link between mind, eye, and hand absolute perfection. And then he reached down and flipped the switch, reeling the target in.

Lydecker plucked it off the line and frowned. "You only hit it one time," he said, indicating the single bullet hole dead center in the silhouette's head. "That means five misses."

Greg was grinning from ear to ear.

Max felt kind of sick. How could Alec be goofing up so incredibly? She didn't want to be ashamed of him, but that's how she felt. It was just so embarrassing.

"I didn't miss," Alec said quietly.

"There's only one bullet hole," Lydecker repeated.

"Look at the target backing."

And suddenly realization dawned. Lydecker's eyes widened and so did Max's. He walked over to inspect the wooden brace that held the paper targets in place. Sure enough, there was a very large hole in the wood corresponding exactly with Alec's target, and it contained the remains of six flattened bullets.

"You put all of the bullets through the same hole," Lydecker said, shaking his head in amazement. "And at 100 feet out no less. I've seen that done a couple of times with side arms by our top rated snipers. But they're gone now. Killed by White." He looked at Alec. "You're probably the only one in the world who can pull off a stunt like this now."

"Biggs could do it too," Alec said quietly. "We used to practice together."

"As I said," Lydecker repeated. "The only one in the world."

*****

"I don't believe he sent this doofus home with us anyway," Alec muttered. Greg had accompanied them back to Seattle, riding a motorcycle provided by the base.

"Where's he gonna stay?" OC asked as they dismounted in front of the derelict building that housed their apartment.

"I don't care," Max said. "So long as it isn't with us."

Greg came up behind Alec and clapped him hard on the back with his hand. "I've been wanting to get into the city for quite awhile," he said. "But you know Lydecker. He's been keepin' our kind pretty busy. I've been to Serbia, Egypt, and Colombia in the past month." He pulled Alec closer, ignoring the other X5's grimace. "Heard you had a nice time in France."

Alec spun away, fists up, his eyes blazing.

"That's enough!" Max said, putting herself between the two men. "We're supposed to be on the same side here."

"Alec here didn't get enough this afternoon," Greg said. "Looks like he needs to be shown who's the alpha male again." Shooting ... marksmanship ... that's nothing. It's the hand-to-hand that counts. He looked over at Max who was standing with her hands indignantly on her hips and winked. "And afterwards, maybe, if you're real nice to me, I'll give you a taste of what it's like to fuck with a nondefective X5."

"Alec," Max said calmly.

"Yeah," Alec replied. He was breathing rapidly, his jaw clenched, but managing to hold his temper.

"Can you think of a reason why you shouldn't just shoot this bastard right now?"

"No."

"Well I can!" OC spoke up, putting herself between the two X5 males. "How many X5's did Lydecker say are left?" she asked, eyebrows raised. "Hmm?

"Nineteen," Max said. "He lost two more three weeks ago on a mission."

"And there aren't many more on the way," OC said with a meaningful look at Max's slightly swollen belly. "So, you guys are like an endangered species. Which means you don't need to be helpin' White by killin' one another off."

"She's right," Max said reluctantly. "Greg, shut up. Alec, calm down."

Alec's hand was resting on the handle of the gun tucked in his belt. "He's not comin' in with us."

"Lydecker gave us orders," Greg said, his blue eyes glittering.

"We don't have to follow orders any more," Alec countered.

"We do if we want Lydecker's help," Max pointed out. She looked at Alec, her hand resting lightly on her stomach. "And we need his help."

Alec gave up. He couldn't fight all of them. "I'm goin' to Crash," he growled, swinging his leg back over the motorbike.

OC had her arm around Max's shoulder and was watching Greg warily. The X5 looked from the women to Alec and back again. Then, with that grin Alec had come to hate, he said, "I think I'll tag along."

*****

"How's the shoulder?" Greg said, deliberately jostling Alec's right side as they entered Crash.

"Just fine," Alec said evenly. He scanned the bar and spotted Sketchy at one of the pool tables. Asha was sitting in the back with a guy who thankfully was not Ames White.

"Isn't one of us supposed to be guarding Max?" Greg asked, his voice mockingly innocent.

"Max can take care of herself most of the time," Alec said as he settled in on a bar stool. "Scotch," he told Hummer, the bartender. Greg took the seat next to him and ordered bourbon.

"I'll bet she can," Greg said, looking around the room. "Reminds me of that dive in Hong Kong," he said. "Weren't you on that mission with me? Oh wait, that's the one where you messed up so bad, nearly got three of us killed because you gave us the wrong intel."

"I passed along the code I received," Alec said, taking a sip of his Scotch. "It wasn't my fault our deep cover operative had been spotted and fed the wrong information."

"Which is why you spent a week in the sensory deprivation chamber when we got back, right?" Greg said snidely. "Word around base was they made you cry, but then you lightweights don't have much stamina." He winked. "Max really deserves better, a male who can keep her satisfied all night." He licked his lips. "Bet she's tight, even with that brat in her belly."

Alec dropped his face into his hands and concentrated on taking deep breaths. Another brawl in Crash wasn't going to help matters any. He sniffed loudly and raised his head. "Shut up."

"You can't make me," Greg said evenly.

Alec turned around and pinned the bigger man with his eyes. "I wouldn't be so sure 'bout that."

Greg laughed. "You can't beat me in a fair fight."

"Who says it'll be fair." Alec said matter-of-factly.

"Lydecker will take you down and your pregnant bitch too if you do anything to me. He's got you neutered."

Alec's hand was easing toward his gun yet again, but just then Sketchy came up to the bar. "Alec!" he greeted him with a hard clap on his sore shoulder that made Alec wince. "Hey dude. Thanks for makin' that run into steelhead territory for me yesterday. Those guys give me the creeps, but I figured they'd leave you alone seein' as how your face was all over the news a week or so ago."

"No problem," Alec said, putting both hands back on the bar.

"Who's your friend?" Sketchy said, referring to Greg. Then his eyes widened. "You're one of 'em too," he said, lowering his voice. "A transgenic." He looked Greg over better. "Dude, what are you? Like the ultimate model?"

"He's a heavy combat series," Alec snapped, tired of talking about Greg and his physical attributes. He saw Sketchy didn't understand and was still comparing them. "I'm Black Ops ... stealth, speed? The model with the brains?" Sketchy's eyes lit up as he finally understood.

"But I thought all you guys came off an assembly line and would be built just about alike," Sketchy said.

At least he's not taking notes, Alec thought wearily.

"You said it," Greg put in. "I'm the ultimate model. Alec here is just ... ordinary."

"I'm done," Alec said, slapping a few bills down on the counter and standing up. He strode to the door without bothering to see if Greg was following. Of course he was.

*****

"One of us is just going to have to beat his ass," Max said disgustedly as she sat on the edge of the bed. Alec was sitting on the other side, still dressed. Neither felt like sleeping, or doing anything else for that matter, with their house guest laying stretched out snoring on the couch in the other room. Only OC seemed able to accommodate the awkward situation with any grace. She'd offered Greg a cup of hot chocolate then gone to bed.

"Lydecker will pull him in when he needs him for another mission," Alec said tiredly, throwing himself back on the pillows with his arms behind his head.

"Take your boots off," Max scolded, knocking his feet off the bedspread. Alec kicked them off and they fell with a loud thump to the floor.

"If only I'd taken him this afternoon."

"That's not your style of fighting," Max said carefully.

"What do you mean?" Alec said, shooting her a look, hoping she wasn't going to refer to the "spook" thing.

"You don't fight dirty enough in straight forward hand-to-hand. And you'd have to fight dirty to overcome a soldier like Greg who's your equal in all areas of training. Muscle for muscle, he's always got you beat."

"I should be able to defeat anyone," Alec said morosely. "Even Manticore."

"You never could beat me," Max pointed out, curling up beside him.

Alec's lips curved in a slow knowing smile, his eyes getting back a little of the sparkle they'd lost that afternoon.

"What?" she said defensively. "I've owned your ass every time we've thrown down."

"You've never beaten me, Max. Not really."

"How about at Logan's that first time?"

"I backed off when he picked up the gun," Alec said. "Call it a survival instinct, but with you ready to bash my head in and Logan ready to put a bullet in me common sense dictated surrender. I probably could've killed both of you that day." He shrugged. "But the long and the short of it is -- I didn't feel very motivated."

"And in our little cage fight?" Max said, apparently conceding that he might be right about the earlier incident. She smiled mercilessly. "I kicked a lot more than your ass that night and you know it."

"Don't I though." Alec said wryly. "I was pissin' blood for a week."

"So I beat you."

"Yeah, with me havin' a huge handicap."

"What handicap?"

"A handicap in that I couldn't hurt you while you apparently had absolutely no problem hurtin' me."

"I wouldn't have really hurt you," Max said, pouting. "I just needed to incapacitate you a little bit."

"Well I couldn't bring myself to hurt you at all," Alec countered. "Sort of put a damper on my moves. Heck Max, you had to throw every sin I'd ever committed at me before I could even work up enough righteous indignation to throw a punch."

"You lost because you're too easily distracted," Max pointed out. "If you hadn't looked at the ring girl you probably could have knocked me out."

Alec actually had to agree."Women," he said, a slightly blissful look on his face. "They've always been my weakness, especially topless ones. Of course you'll never admit that you really kicked me in the nuts 'cause you didn't want me takin' the ring girl home that night -- a rather extreme way of keepin' me chaste I might add. Did you notice she had a tongue stud?"

"Shut up."

"But the fact is, Max, if you and I went one-on-one with me really intent on takin' you out. ... If I didn't have to hold back at all ..." He raised his eyebrows, not feeling the need to say any more.

Max opened her mouth to argue, but instead suddenly grabbed hold of his hand and placed it on her swollen stomach.

"What?"

"Did you feel it?"

"Feel what?" And then he understood. "The baby?" He waited, letting his hand rest gently on Max's abdomen. And then he did feel something, like a little thump against his palm. Mouth open in astonishment, he looked into Max's eyes. "I think it just kicked." And there it was again -- definitely a kick, or maybe a punch.

She nodded, smiling. "I thought I felt something a couple of days ago, then again yesterday, but I wasn't sure until tonight. I'm glad you can feel him too.

Alec thought he'd never experienced anything so amazing in his life. His son ... their son ... alive inside of Max.

"You're gonna be a daddy," she said softly.

"And you're gonna be a mommy," he countered.

And then they just stared at one another, neither knowing where to go from there.

*****

For the rest of his life, Alec never forgot what happened the next morning.

"Get your hand off my ass!" Max snapped at Greg. She and OC were in the kitchen making breakfast and 489 had come up behind her.

Alec, just coming out of the bathroom, narrowed his eyes, but OC was already on top of things.

"Ow!" Greg yelled, shaking the offending fingers after OC, who'd been mixing pancakes, smacked them with a spatula.

But Greg wasn't used to living with ordinaries ... wasn't used to being teased. And, unlike Max and Alec, his genetics had included a truly vicious temper. He raised his hand, intending to strike Original Cindy.

"Hey!" Alec roared.

OC retreated back against the counter, fear replacing the cockiness in her brown eyes. Alec hated seeing her like that -- hated this other X5 stepping all over his life and the lives of his friends.

"Leave her alone!" he said, his voice deep and dangerous.

"The bitch smacked me!"

Max grabbed Greg's hand and twisted his wrist painfully back. "You deserved it, soldier boy."

Which is when everything suddenly went so very, very wrong.

Greg whirled out of Max's grip and made a truly fatal mistake as far as Alec was concerned. He hit her in the face with the back of his hand. "Bitch," he snarled. "What you need is a good fuck!" Then he pulled her against his chest and brutally pressed his lips against hers, at the same time groping her breasts with his other hand.

Max's blow broke his nose.

Alec was over the counter in a heartbeat, his brain in full attack mode, the animal in control -- just the way Manticore intended. He was what he was.

Together the two men crashed through the thin lathe and plaster divider that separated the kitchen from the rest of the apartment, Alec landing on his back with Greg on top of him. Shifting one hand to his opponent's chin, Alec twisted, trying to break Greg's neck, but X5-489's heavy musculature protected him. Alec pushed harder, grunting from the strain, and realized he wasn't going to be able to complete the move.

And then suddenly 489's fingers were around his throat and he couldn't breathe.

The sound of his own heartbeat pounded wildly in Alec's ears as sparks burned the back of his retina. He was asphyxiating, his brain starving from lack of blood. If he blacked out Greg would snap his spine.

And then suddenly -- the stranglehold was gone. Struggling up on one elbow, gasping for breath and rubbing his bruised throat, Alec saw Max attacking like a wildcat, fists and feet flying, driving Greg back against the wall. But 489 was smiling, blocking everything she threw at him.

Terrified for Max, Alec launched himself at Greg, hitting him from the side, taking him down. Only this time he rolled clear, knowing better than to get himself pinned again. Springing to his feet like a cat, he heard his name called and whirled in midair--

"Alec!" OC shouted.

His head came around as she tossed him his gun.

After that, everything seemed to go in slow motion.

In a single fluid movement, Alec caught the gun, and, still turning in the air, aimed, fired -- and missed as Greg blurred. His feet hit the ground and he fired again. This time the bullet found its mark. 489 staggered, a look of incredible surprise in his cold blue eyes, then crashed to the floor, a bloody hole in the side of his forehead.

Alec backed up a step, breathing heavily, warily watching the other X5, keeping the gun trained on him.

"Alec," OC said, her voice sounding strange. "Alec."

And then he saw her. Max. Lying still against the wall in the corner, her eyes closed, and the front of her tank top covered with blood. She'd been in the line of fire. His first shot had hit her in the chest.

*****

OC was afraid she was going to lose both of her friends.

The paramedics refused to come down to the part of Seattle where the apartment was, so she called Normal. Alec carried Max to the car, tears running down his face as he cradled her in his arms in the back seat during the drive to the hospital.

"She's five months pregnant," he said hoarsely to the ER doctor as he gently lay Max down on the gurney. He looked up at the man, his green eyes full of desperation. "Please ... don't let them die."

"If Max and the baby don't make it, that boy's a goner too," OC said to Normal.

Normal wiped a tear out of the corner of his eye with a finger and sniffed. "How bad do you suppose it is?"

OC hadn't taken her eyes off of Alec. He was still standing in the middle of the hallway, watching the door where they'd wheeled Max away.

"Bad," she whispered. "Real bad." She walked over to Alec and took hold of his hand. "Come on, Boo," she said. "We'll go sit down."

"I shot her. I shot Max," he said, his voice flat.

"It was an accident," OC said firmly, still holding his hand. God, she felt so awful for the boy. "You were tryin' to protect your woman." She put herself in front of him, grabbed his leather jacket with both hands, and gave him a little shake. "It ... was ... an ... accident." But Alec's eyes remained fixed on the double swinging doors down the hall.

"Come on," OC said, tugging on his hand again. "Come sit with Normal and me. We'll wait with you. You're not alone in this, Alec. We'll see this bitch through together. Max is gonna be all right and so is the baby."

"494!" a hated voice said behind them. Of course the bastard had a contact at the hospital, had maybe even intercepted the initial 911 call.

OC's head whipped around, but Alec didn't move. "Now he don't need you makin' him feel any worse than he already does," she scolded Lydecker. "You just leave him alone." But then she remembered something. "Although you could do us all a favor and get that load of Manticore trash outta my apartment."

Lydecker ignored her. "494," he repeated. "Come with me."

Alec still didn't turn around. Lydecker motioned behind him and two X5's moved forward. One was holding a hypodermic needle.

OC stepped in front of Alec, putting herself between him and the soldiers. "Run," she said in a low voice, at the same time tugging on his his arm. "No matter how much you blame yourself right now you don't want this to happen. Run!"

Alec finally looked at her then, the expression in his eloquent eyes conveying how grateful he was for her concern. However, he gently pulled her hand off of his arm. "Take care of Max," he said softly. "She deserves better than me." Then he stepped forward and gave his life to Lydecker.

*****

They didn't treat him too badly, at least not at first. The chains were removed from his wrists and ankles when they put him into the solitary confinement cell, and they never used the sedative at all. Of course he'd come willingly.

"Didn't think we had these cells here, did you?" Lydecker said from the other side of the bars.

"Some things never change," Alec said as he sat on the edge of the bunk.

"You know what's going to happen to you?"

Alec blinked once and raised his eyes. "I think I can pretty much guess."

"Your incompetence is truly spectacular. Everyone in the compound is talking about it. You not only failed to protect 452, you shot her yourself. Not to mention murdering a fellow X5 soldier."

"489 was hurting Max," Alec said, although he didn't know why he was even trying to defend his actions.

"You disgust me," Lydecker said. "After all the trouble I went through to keep you with 452, you pull a stupid stunt like this and ruin everything." His eyes cold, he added, "You'd better prepare yourself 494. What happens to you next is not going to be pretty." He turned to leave.

Alec jumped off of the bunk and wrapped his fingers around the bars. "Don't give me to Renfro," he said, swallowing hard. "Anything else but ... just don't give me to her."

"No promises," Lydecker said. He was walking away.

"Is Max alive?" Alec shouted. "At least tell me if she's alive!"

Lydecker stopped and looked back at the desperate X5. "She died an hour ago," he said. "And so did your son."

*****

"Alec?" Max said, fighting her way back to consciousness. "Alec?"

"She's coming around," Dr. Shankar said.

"Thank God." OC took Max's hand. "Come on, Boo. Open your eyes. You need to wake up now." She looked at the doctor. "You say she's gonna be all right."

"The damage looked a lot worse than it was," Shankar said. "I'd say she caught a ricochet, not a direct hit. She's got two broken ribs and a collapsed lung, but the bullet never penetrated. Knowing transgenic healing powers, she'll be good as a new in a couple of weeks."

"And the baby?" OC asked.

"Just fine." Shankar looked around the room. "Where's Alec?"

"Good question," OC said grimly.

Max's eyelids fluttered and she focused on her friend. "OC? What happened?"

"You got shot, sugar, but you and the baby are gonna be okay."

"Alec?" Max said again, trying to see if he was in the room. She began struggling to sit up, ignoring the IV in her arm and the chest tube in her side. "There was a fight. Gunfire." Her eyes grew more wild. "Where's Alec? Is he all right?"

"He wasn't hurt," OC said truthfully.

"Then where is he?"

OC took hold of Max's hand again. "Lydecker took him," she said. "The bastard took him away."

Max felt like she couldn't breathe, and it wasn't because of the lung damage.

"How long ago?" she asked.

OC glanced at the clock on the wall. "This morning. 'Bout twelve hours."

Max was thinking faster now. "They won't do anything to him right away. They'll let him worry for awhile, probably in a solitary cell."

"Then what will happen?" OC asked.

"Re-indoctrination," Max said quietly. "Or worse. Lydecker's wanted to get Alec back into a unit for months. This is all the excuse he needs to wipe his mind and reprogram." She shuddered at the thought of Alec's wonderful personality destroyed and only a cold blooded killer left in that beautiful body.

"But I thought Lydecker was on your side now," OC said, confused.

"Only when it benefits him," Max said ominously. "He really still just wants to control all of his so-called children, including me and Alec." She looked at her friend. "You've got to go out there OC. You've got to tell Joshua what's happening. If Alec's on the base, maybe he and Mole and some of the others can get to him. Knowing Lydecker, they've probably told Alec I'm dead. And then he won't even fight them. They'll put him in that machine and they'll make him forget everything ... make him forget me ... the baby ... our love ..." She was starting to cry.

OC looked at Dr. Shankar who was reaching for a sedative. "I'll go," OC said firmly. "I'll save your boy."

*****

"Do you want to forget, son?" Lydecker said, his voice not unkind.

Alec lay strapped down in the chair, his head held rigid by a band around his forehead, the tip of the laser mere inches from his eye. He knew the routine. Any second now a red beam of pure hell would pierce through the pupil of his eye directly into his brain. The agony would be unbearable. He'd scream and scream and scream. And then he wouldn't be able to remember anything but the pain.

"No," he said through gritted teeth.

"Do you want to forget, soldier?" Lydecker repeated, his voice more strident. "Do you want to forget that you killed the woman you loved and your child?"

Actually, he did want to forget the horror of the past two days, but he knew that if he lost those hours, he'd also lose everything else. "No!" Alec cried out. He'd let himself be taken at the hospital, thinking he deserved to be punished -- but he'd been wrong. He wanted to die and be with Max, not become Lydecker's mind controlled puppet. "Max! I don't wanna forget you! I don't wanna forget who I am!"

"Relax, son," Lydecker said soothingly, placing a rough calloused palm against Alec's cheek. "It will all be over soon." He nodded at the technician.

"Nooo!" Alec screamed as the pencil-thin beam of red light tore into his eye. He wanted to look away, but his head was held immobile. He wasn't even allowed to blink. Arching with pain, his muscles strained against the straps, sweat soaking his body, heart racing. He began to shake uncontrollably, fighting the inhumanly cruel procedure.

"How long?" the technician asked.

"One this stubborn ..." Lydecker said, shaking his head sadly. "Hours. Maybe days."

"And the brain damage?"

"Can't be helped. He's a rogue anyway. All we can do is salvage what functions we can. When we're done he'll be totally compliant and ready for re-indoctrination."

Alec knew that the second he stopped fighting, the second he stopped thinking about Max, he'd be lost. And so he concentrated on her, the love of his life -- remembering every detail, every word, every moment they'd ever shared together. The fighting, the adventures, the arguing -- the first time they'd lain together, the first time she'd said she loved him, the sex, the baby. But it was getting harder and harder to concentrate. He was so tired, and the pain was so intense.

"He can't keep this up for long," Lydecker said after a few minutes. He bent closer to Alec and whispered low his ear. "Max is dead. She's gone. You killed her. Give it up 494. Forget everything. Come back to where you really belong. Come back to me."

"Ahhhh!" Alec shrieked, writhing in the chair, trying to tear himself away from both the laser beam and Lydecker's cruel words.

Lydecker nodded at the technician who came forward with a hypodermic needle. "This will end it," Lydecker said. "The drug will take all the fight out of him. I wanted him to give up on his own, but this will do almost as well."

Alec felt the needle pierce his skin, the drug flowing into his vein like fire, and Max slipping away. Try as he might, he couldn't hold onto her. Lydecker had won.

*****

OC had never heard a man scream before. The fact that it was Alec's shrieks echoing in the basement corridor made her want to vomit.

"Hurry," she said to Joshua, her eyes filling with tears. "They're hurtin' him bad."

Joshua nodded, his blue eyes grim and determined. "We'll save Alec," he assured her.

The door of the newly built "discipline chamber" was just ahead. Alec had the distinguished honor of being the first "guest" to experience its new technology.

Lydecker and the technician jumped when the door crashed open. The single guard in the room, armed with a machine gun, was no match for Joshua's strength and speed. Within seconds he was lying unconscious on the floor while OC held the other two at gunpoint against the wall.

"Help him!" she screamed to Joshua.

With a roar of rage, Joshua smashed the laser, breaking off the deadly beam of red light that was attempting to destroy Alec's mind. Alec's body, in the throes of a grand mal seizure, went limp, his eyes half closing, The technician hadn't bothered with a mouth guard, and blood flowed from his lips where he'd bitten his tongue.

Joshua released the restraints and gathered Alec into his arms.

"Will he be all right?" OC asked Lydecker. "What did you do to him?"

Lydecker was shaking his head in amazement. "I don't believe it," he said. "Every single time I get my hands on him someone interferes." He regarded Joshua. "I'll make you a deal," he said.

"What?" Joshua said, hugging Alec protectively against his chest as if he were a child.

"You don't tell the others in the compound about this room ... this little incident ... and I'll let the three of you leave, no questions asked."

"Why would you just let us go?" OC asked, her eyebrows raised in skepticism. "Why would you let him go?" she added, indicating Alec.

"I'll let you two go because I don't want this compound to have a mutant uprising. In spite of the rules, I know how well armed everyone is in here." Lydecker looked at Alec, shaking his head in disgusted amazement. "And I'll let him go because he was going to die in that chair anyway. Even with the drug, he wasn't going to submit. I've seen it a time or two before, with the really stubborn ones. Besides, his seizure threshold is too low, probably because he's been a year without tryptophan treatments. Fighting it the way he was he would have suffered repeated grand mals until his nervous system burned out."

Then Lydecker smiled grimly. "But I'll give him this. 494 resisted the first level admirably. He protected his memories ... his sense of self." He nodded at Joshua. "Get him someplace quiet where he can sleep off the headache. When he wakes up -- it will all just be a nightmare."

"You sound like you care about him," OC said, not understanding how this evil man could at one moment be tearing Alec apart and the next worried about his headache.

"He's one of my kids," Lydecker said softly. "One of my own. I never wanted Alec dead, anymore than I ever wanted Max, Ben, Zack, or Tinga dead. I hope it doesn't come to that, having to put Alec down. Of course now that re-indoctrination is no longer an option ..." He eyed OC. "There will come a time when he has to be either controlled or destroyed."

"Max is alive, you know," OC said, still keeping Lydecker and the technician covered with her gun. "She and the baby are fine."

"I know," Lydecker said.

"So, we can just leave now?"

Lydecker looked at Joshua. "I'm not keeping you here." His eyes went to Alec. "Any of you. At least not this time."

*****

Alec blocked high, delivered a hard punch to his opponent's stomach, and followed through with a roundhouse kick that knocked the bigger X5 to the ground. Then he danced back, both fists up, ready for more. The watching crowd of mutants, including Joshua and Dalton, whistled and clapped.

"Your boy's been practicin'," OC commented to Max.

Max smiled. "Not really.

Alec looked over at her and nodded, a big cocky grin on his face.

"There he goes again," Max said. "Getting distracted. Good thing I'm not topless."

The large X5 had climbed to his feet and Alec ducked just in time to keep from getting clocked by a huge fist swinging through the air.

"The battle models don't have his speed," Max said. "He's got an advantage there if he uses it right."

"What's changed?" OC asked. "Other than Alec findin' out he didn't really shoot you so bad after all, and you and the baby are fine."

Max smiled again. "What changed is Luke helped me get hold of Alec's old Manticore file. It was pretty interesting reading."

OC looked at her askance. "You and Alec read it together I presume?"

"Two nights ago," Max said. "There were some things in there he didn't know about ... genetic information ... I see why they paired the two of us. His basic X5 coding is identical to mine, at least according to what bits of my own file I've seen. Then there's the the psionic DNA we all apparently got but don't know how to use. Also, some of the mistakes on missions he got punished for weren't his fault. He's not nearly the screw-up Lydecker wanted him to think he was." Max's expression grew more serious. "All the people he's killed were in the file too. I think that bothered him." She looked at OC. "There were ... more than I thought."

"But what's got your boy so pumped?" OC asked, wincing as Alec took a hard blow on the chin but then countered with a high kick that landed right in the other guy's face knocking him backwards to the ground. The bigger X5 was immediately up again, charging Alec with both arms wide.

"Get him!" Lydecker shouted from the sidelines.

Max scowled. "I hate that man." She looked at Alec. "We both do."

"So, what else was in the file?" OC prodded. "Come on, girl. Give it up. What's Alec's deep dark secret?"

"Not so dark it seems," Max said. "And that was the problem. Way down at the bottom of the report there was a list of what are supposed to be Alec's greatest weaknesses. And right at the top of the list it said, 'Reluctant to kill unless provoked.' It was written in red. He probably barely made it past the screening when he was younger. If a soldier didn't have enough aggression, he was declared defective."

"You mean Alec isn't enough of a killer for Manticore's liking."

"Not really," Max said, remembering how Lydecker had pushed her to kill at the tender age of nine. "But he did it anyway to survive."

"So what's that got to do with this?" OC said, indicating the fight in front of them.

"473!" Lydecker screamed. "Take out 494! Now!"

Alec paused and looked right at Lydecker, then turned around, executed a perfectly timed sidekick, and splintered the other X5's leg. As his opponent rolled on the ground in agony, Alec then turned back to Lydecker and mockingly bowed.

Suddenly OC realized what Max was getting at. "Reluctant to kill unless provoked, huh?" she said. She looked from Alec to Lydecker. "Looks like that boy's done been provoked."

"That he has," Max said quietly. "Which means Donald Lydecker had better watch out because my man can't wait to kick his ass."

She turned to OC. "Alec also has another major flaw," she said quietly. One considered almost as defective as a lack of aggression, marked right there in the file in big red letters."

"What's that?" OC asked.

Max smiled. "He falls in love."

THE END

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