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Payback

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Payback
By JJJunky

 

This story is set between the second season episodes:" Love Among the Runes" and "Freak Nation."

 

Alec ignored the rifle the gunrunner tried to hand him, and pulled one at random from the crate. He expertly inspected every inch for flaws. Finding none, he placed it back in the box and took out another.

"Careful man," observed the dealer.

"Smart man," countered Alec.

Waving a hand at the cases the merchant assured, "You won't find a defective piece in the shipment. I'd stake my reputation on it."

"You're staking a lot more." Though the inflection in Alec's voice hadn't altered, the warning was clear.

Finally satisfied, Alec gestured to his two companions to start loading the merchandise. He wished it were Mole and Joshua. He trusted the two mutants to watch his back. But with the current mood towards transgenics, it wasn't safe for either of them to set foot outside Terminal City. Only the X series, like Alec and his helpers could walk the streets of Seattle in relative safety. Though, Biggs' recent death at the hands of vigilantes made even that security a precarious one.

"You have a deal." Alec stiffened when one of the dealer's henchmen walked behind him. He hunched his shoulders so the high collar of his jacket would cover his neck in case his barcode was visible. He knew the sale would not be completed if the gunrunner knew his client was a trannie. In an attempt to draw attention away from himself, he handed a metal briefcase to the runner.

The man popped the locks, eagerly checking the contents.

"It's all there," said Alec.

"It better be."

Unaffected by the threatening tone, Alec asked, "Will you be able to provide the grenade- launchers, or will I have to go elsewhere?"

"That item will take a little more time to procure." The dealer hastily added, "But I'll get them."

"Contact me when you do."

Without a backward glance, Alec joined his colleagues in the loaded truck. He looked forward to relaxing. Now that the public was aware of the Manticore escapees, it had become difficult to maintain a normal life. If he wasn't securing supplies for the Terminal City residents or delivering packages as a messenger for Jam Pony; he was helping Max rescue a mutant from the police, an angry mob, or the government.

His cell phone rang as if the mere thought of his fellow X-5 was enough to activate it. Wearily pulling it from his pocket, Alec said, "Yeah."

"Where are you?"

Even though he knew why Max treated him so boorishly at times, Alec admitted it still grated. He wished she would forget about Ben, his clone's murderous rampage and treat him with the same respect she accorded Logan and Joshua. Realizing his silence would only exacerbate her volatile temper, Alec said, "We're on our way back to Terminal City with the merchandise. Where are you?"

"At Crash."

"Well, your evening sounds a lot more fun than mine," muttered Alec. "Not to mention safer."

"It's time we touched up our barcodes again."

Not in the least surprised that Max had ignored his comment, Alec winced at the remembered pain from the laser procedure, and wished they could find a more permanent solution to disguise the brands. "Do you want to meet at the clinic?" At this time of night, Alec knew the office would be empty so there would be no chance of being caught using the equipment.

I can be there in ten minutes."

His eyes seeking the nearest road sign to pinpoint his location, Alec said, "I'll meet you in fifteen."

"See you there."

The silence in his ear told Alec the connection had been broken. He wondered again if he would ever warrant the same amenities Max bestowed on her other acquaintances. He had changed since their escape from Manticore. And, he deeply regretted the temptation to kill her and Joshua in order to save his own life. He wondered if she would ever notice.

Closing his cell phone, Alec put it back in his pocket. "Drop me at the corner of Murphy and Wilson," he instructed Clark, the X-5 who was driving. "I'll walk the rest of the way."

"Sure, boss."

There was a time when Alec would have basked in the title. Too much had happened, there had been too many deaths for him to take the label lightly. "Don't call me boss."

"Right." Clark pulled into the curb. "Here we are."

As he climbed from the cab, Alec paradoxically showed how well the unwanted designation suited him. "Make sure Mole checks out every one of those guns. The last thing we need is to have one jam at a critical time."

"I'll bet he's itching for us to get back so he can do just that."

Alec allowed a smile to curve his lips. "I'll bet you're right." Slamming the door, he added, "See you later."

He watched the truck roar away, before heading down Wilson towards the clinic. This time of night the streets were deserted. Feeling the strain of the evening's activities, he cracked his neck and tried to shake the tension from his shoulders. Breathing in the cool air, he let it fill his lungs. He would need to be on top of his game when he met Max. Things had become even more strained between them after he'd discovered she had lied to Logan concerning the nature of their relationship. One of the things Alec had hated about Manticore was the feeling of being used, having no control over his life. Without Alec's consent or prior knowledge, Max had told Logan that she was seeing Alec. Unable to reveal the truth to Logan, Alec found himself caught in the middle – a position he found untenable.

A movement in the recess of the building to his left drew his attention. Wires abruptly shot out of the shadows, their spiked tips pierced the flesh over his shoulder blade. Before he could extract the darts, a current of electricity coursed through his body making it impossible for him to control his limbs.

A second set of tazer lines punctured his chest, doubling the crippling shock waves. Crumbling to the ground, pain blurring his vision, Alec looked up to see faces he thought he recognized. He only had a few seconds to perceive that he was about to die, before a board slammed against his head, putting an end to all conscious thought.

55555

Her anger perilously close to consuming her, Max stalked into the building housing Terminal City's control center. She knew she must look as mad as she felt when Luke and Dix scurried up the stairs to the upper level, feigning interest in the various monitors mounted on the tables. Regret at causing the two little mutants distress softened her tone as she addressed Joshua. "Where's Alec?"

His canine DNA giving him the appearance of a very large dog, Joshua calmly turned away from the picture he was painting. "Alec supposed to be with you."

"If he was with me," snapped Max, her ire returning, "would I be asking you where he is?"

"Clark dropped Alec off. Alec going to meet you at the clinic."

"I waited for an hour. He never showed."

Joshua's composure deserted him as he put down his paintbrush. "Alec in trouble."

"Alec is always in trouble."

"No, something happen to him."

"What happened is he decided he would rather have a drink and went to Crash instead of meeting me."

"Alec wouldn't do that. If he say he meet you, he would be there. If Alec able."

Max put a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder. "Come on, Big Fella, you know how irresponsible he can be."

"No." Joshua's voice was filled with sadness. "Not since Biggs."

Her own chest contracting with grief as she remembered the X-5's recent death, Max shook her head. "I know you think Alec has changed …"

"He has. We should go look for him."

Max moved to stand in the determined mutant's way. "You know it isn't safe for you out there."

"Not safe for Alec."

"At least he can pass for an ordinary."

"So could Biggs."

The image of the X-5's beaten body hanging from a bridge made Max shudder. Worried Joshua would put himself in similar danger, she sought a solution to her problem. Desperately, she suggested, "Let me look for Alec at Crash before you do something stupid."

"Not stupid to look for friend."

Hearing the sorrow in the deep tones, Max realized she might have gone too far. Afraid Joshua would defy her as he had when he left Sandeman's house to move to Terminal City, she quickly pleaded, "Just give me an hour."

"Hope Alec has hour to give."

Concern starting to eat away at her anger, Max said, "I'll be back soon. Be ready just in case."

"Ready now."

Emotions, different from the ones she had arrived with, drove Max out to her bike. Doubt began to gnaw at her. How well did she know Alec? She knew she continued to see him in the same light that had made her dub him Alec, a play on smart aleck. But was he still that man? Would that Alec have risked his life to save other mutants? If she was honest with herself, she would have to admit the answer was no.

Already regretting her decision to postpone mounting a search, she opened the throttle on her bike, revving it up to full speed. A small part of her was certain she would find Alec downing beer and playing a game of pool at Crash. The bigger part knew she wouldn't.

55555

Alec successfully suppressed a moan. He wanted to assess the situation before his captors knew he had regained consciousness. Since he had expected to be dead, surprise was the first emotion he had to evaluate. This, along with everything else, was soon overwhelmed by pain. His head throbbed with an intensity aspirin could never hope to alleviate. The two areas where the tazers had struck, tingled with a sharp, burning sensation. His aching muscles he attributed to the electrical current that had coursed along his nerves. The fire in his wrists and shoulders came from supporting the weight of his body. His finger tips were touching cold metal, telling him he was probably hanging from a beam. Something was tied to his ankles to prevent him from lifting his legs.

There was no part of his body that he could control – that he could use to fight back.

A musty smell that made his nose twitch was one he had become familiar with in Terminal City. It spoke of a place that had not been inhabited for a long time. The room was cold, but the chill he was experiencing could mostly be due to the fact that he had been stripped down to his shorts. It was strange how the lack of clothes made him feel more vulnerable.

"Come on, Ski, let's jus' kill 'im and get the hell out of here before his friend shows up."

Alec didn't recognize the voice. He began to wonder if he had dreamed the faces he had seen before he lost consciousness.

"Let him come. We'll do to him what we done to the other freak."

Now Alec knew he hadn't been hallucinating. That was a voice he would never forget; it had echoed in Biggs cell phone. It belonged to the man responsible for his friend's death.

"They got super human strength, Ski."

"And we got these."

When the tazer touched his privates, Alec could no longer feign unconsciousness. A hoarse scream echoed around the room.

"I thought you might be faking it."

Opening his eyes, Alec stared at his dark-skinned tormentor. The man's bald head was almost on the same level as Alec's, even though Alec was suspended several inches above the ground. Alec glared at the smiling face, hoping his eyes were conveying the feelings his voice couldn't.

"I think we should see how much pain this mutant freak can handle. The government would appreciate whatever information we can provide. Don't you agree, Larry?" Ski crossed to a table and laid down the tazer. Retrieving a whip, he returned to stand in front of Alec.

"I think we should just git outta here, Ski."

Larry looked as frightened as he sounded, giving Alec a certain amount of consolation.

"We didn't skulk in doorways for the last week looking for this freak just to turn tail and run." Ski cracked the whip. "He told us to leave town or he would kill us."

"I know, but …"

Ski walked behind his prisoner. "No one runs me out of my home."

Knowing the next flick of the whip wouldn't be for show, Alec involuntarily stiffened. He knew it was the wrong thing to do; it wasn't the first time he had been tortured. He tried to tell himself these amateurs had nothing on the pros at Manticore.

As soon as the leather tip struck his back, he knew it didn't matter. Immediate pain hurt worse than remembered pain. Memory had a way of altering the past in a way the real thing couldn't. Flinching as another strip of skin was peeled from his back, he realized he had to hold out as long as he could. Max had been expecting him. When he didn't show up, she would sound the alarm.

55555

Max walked down the stairs leading into Crash. Her eyes searched the bar looking for Alec. She honestly wasn't sure how she would react if she found him. On the one hand, she would be relieved that the horrible scenario her mind had imagined on the ride over had not come to pass. However, if he was here, worrying not only herself but Joshua, she would be tempted to kill him herself.

"Hey, Boo, I thought you called it a night."

Locating her roommate in the crowd, Max quickly crossed to the young African-American's table. "Have you seen Alec?"

Original Cindy frowned at her friend. "I thought you left to meet him."

"I did."

"And he never showed up," OC interpreted.

"He's not in Terminal City, and he doesn't answer his cell phone."

Shaking her head, OC reminded her, "That white boy isn't the most dependable person I've ever met."

"That's what I said." Max slipped onto the other chair at the table. "But Joshua seems to think he might be in trouble."

"Doggy-dog's got pretty good instincts," OC thoughtfully noted.

"Don't I know it," Max ruefully agreed. "We might still be trapped in that Gossamer's spit if he hadn't disobeyed my orders."

"So, what are you going to do now?"

Max regained her feet. "Trust Joshua's instincts."

"Sounds like a plan to me."

Giving her friend a quick hug, Max said, "I gotta blaze."

 

55555

For rookies, Alec had to admit these guys knew what they were doing. A year before Manticore went up in flames, his superiors had sent Alec on a mission. He was to ascertain how much his target knew about the secret institution, and then eliminate him. He had failed. Deemed untrustworthy, Alec had endured months of torture and reprogramming. Even he had been surprised to find it had been only partially successful. Once free of Manticore's shackles, he had disdained the bulk of his training and easily became an ordinary, using his skills to further his own interests.

A proficiency that was totally ineffectual now. Alec had never felt so helpless. Focusing his attention on Ski, he realized the man had tired of the whip and was looking for another toy to amuse him. Whatever it was, Alec knew it would hurt. "You yahoos need to get a life," he taunted.

"What kind of life can we have with trannie freaks like you running around?" Ski fingered a brass knuckle.

"There didn't seem to be any problems when you didn't know we existed." Alec knew every minute he kept breathing was another minute closer to rescue.

"Well, I have a problem now. You tried to run me out of my own city."

"And you killed my friend. Seems to me, I've been the humane one here."

Ski played with the deadly weapon, before slipping it over the fingers of his right hand. "Who are you to give me orders? I'm the one who belongs here, not you."

"That doesn't say much for Seattle, does it?"

The enhanced fist connected with Alec's jaw. Before he could regain his senses, a punch plowed into his stomach, emptying his lungs. Gasping for air, his jaw on fire, Alec silently pleaded, Hurry, Max.

55555

When Max returned to Terminal City, she wasn't surprised to find Joshua, Mole, and a number of other transgenics waiting for her. She knew Alec was popular in the small enclave, though she hadn't realized how much. Once again, she thought she should reevaluate her opinion concerning her fellow X-5. But she would do it later – after they found him.

"Clark dropped Alec at Wilson and Murphy," reminded Joshua. "We start searching there."

Max had not said a word, but Joshua obviously already knew the trip to Crash had been a waste of time. Feeling guilty, she easily capitulated. "He would have to walk up Wilson to reach the clinic."

"Let's go." Joshua headed toward the van, one of several vehicles they had acquired.

Grabbing Joshua's arm, Max shook her head. "You're not coming. It isn't safe."

Gently shaking off the restraint, Joshua continued walking. "Max need me to pick up Alec's scent."

"We can find Alec without endangering your life," insisted Max.

"No, you can't."

"Yes, we can."

Turning, Joshua growled softly. "I don't want you to. Alec my friend. I find him faster."

"Joshua--"

"You come, Max?"

Though her own gaze was fixed on Joshua's back, Max knew all eyes were on her. How could she be their leader if even Joshua wouldn't listen to her? Silently cursing Alec for the predicament he put her in, she nodded. "I'm coming."

"Stay close to the radio," Mole instructed Dix. "We'll call if we need backup."

Climbing into the front passenger seat, Max avoided any attempts to appease her. She still felt it would be safer for the X-5s to handle the search. If they didn't find Alec by sunrise, she would insist the two distinctive transgenics head back to Terminal City while she continued looking on her own. She would not take no for an answer again.

There was no further conversation as Mole drove the short distance to the cross street where Alec had last been seen. This early in the morning, the streets were still deserted. Max knew they only had a few hours before it became too dangerous for Joshua and Mole. But her Manticore training told her if they didn't find Alec in that window, they wouldn't find him alive, anyway.

Mole parked the van in an alley between two buildings.

His nose sniffing the air for the fading scent, Joshua walked slowly up the sidewalk. "Got it," he said, his nostrils twitching in the recess of one of the building. "Alec not alone."

If Alec was visiting friends, Max knew it would be difficult to refrain from killing him. "Can you tell who he met?"

"Two men who killed Biggs." There was a mixture of sorrow and anger in Joshua's voice.

For the first time, Max felt real fear concerning the fate of her friend. Funny how the prospect of losing him made Max realize she considered Alec a friend. "Do you know where they went?"

"This way." Joshua led them down the same alley they had parked the car.

Pushing Mole back to their vehicle, Max ordered, "Follow us."

Despite the difficulty of his task, Joshua moved quickly through the deserted alleys and streets. The first rays of the rising sun were peeking above the horizon when he pointed to an empty warehouse. "In there."

Max turned so Mole could see her and imitated cutting her throat.

Correctly interpreting the signal, Mole turned off the engine and quickly climbed from the van. "Can you tell which floor?"

"Top," Joshua succinctly replied.

"Joshua and I'll take the front," said Max. "Mole, you take the back."

Grateful for once for her Manticore training, Max crept up the stairs. Though it was ten stories, she wasn't breathing heavily by the time she reached the top. Using hand signals, she indicated that she would go to the right as they entered, while Joshua went to the left.

Prepared for anything – she thought – she crept through the unfettered entrance. In the far corner of the room, Max saw two men. One was punching the face of a body suspended from a beam. Her superior sight told her it was Alec.

Noticing the attackers didn't appear to have guns, she yelled, "That's enough."

Both men turned to her with sneers on their faces, until the man standing closest to the table saw Joshua. He yelped with fear, threw down the bat he had been wielding, and ran for the back stairs.

Knowing Mole would take care of him, Max focused her attention on the bald man, who had discarded some brass knuckles and was picking up a tazer. Knowing they would have to be fairly close for the device to work, Max confidently moved forward. From the corner of her eye, she saw Joshua cross to Alec.

The leads from the paralyzing weapon shot towards her. With lightening speed, Max jerked out of the way. Realizing this must have been how they had captured Alec, she stood her ground waiting to see how he chose to attack next.

Angrily cursing, Ski threw away the discharged weapon and reached for a knife. "Let's see if you're fast enough to dodge this, you trannie freak."

Her fists held defensively in front of her, Max bounced on her toes. When he lunged, she was ready. Moving to the side, she planted her left foot in the man's stomach as he stumbled past. Entwined hands struck the broad shoulders with transgenic strength. The man fell to the floor. Max shuffled from foot to foot, waiting for him to climb to his feet and renew his assault. She was looking forward to kicking his ass.

When he didn't move, she taunted, "Come on, is that all you've got?"

The disparaging remark failed to elicit a response. Staying vigilant, Max jabbed him in the hip with her toe. Though she knew it must have hurt, there wasn't a groan of pain, or even a snarl of anger. Planting her foot under the man's stomach, she flipped him on his back. Blank eyes, devoid of life, stared up at her. The knife was sunk to its hilt in the man's chest. It was clear he had died instantly.

With a sigh of regret, Max turned her attention to Joshua. "How's Alec?"

"Alive," Joshua said. "I took weighs off his ankles. I hold him, you untie his arms."

Though unconscious, Alec winced obviously feeling the damage that had been done to his body. Looking at the numerous red marks that were developing into bruises, Max was glad he was unconscious. Releasing him was not going to be pleasant. Moving around to the rear to give herself more room to work, she gasped as her gaze rested on his torn and bleeding back.

"What?" demanded Joshua.

"They whipped him."

Joshua's soft growl of anger increased in volume. A note of warning crept in when a noise from the back stairs drew their attention. The alarm trailed off when Mole appeared in the doorway.

"Did you see the guy who came your way?" asked Max.

"Yeah." Mole laid the barrel of his rifle on his shoulder. "He saw me, too."

Max wasn't a murderer, but she felt the need to avenge Alec's suffering. With one man already dead, there was still one target left to inherit her wrath. "Where is he?"

"When he saw me, he tried to run back upstairs. Guess he didn't like what he saw." Mole chewed nonchalantly on his cigar.

"Where is he?" an exasperated Max repeated.

"At the bottom of the stairs. These ordinaries are clumsy."

With mixed emotions, Max clarified, "You killed him?"

"Technically, you could say he killed himself." Mole crossed to help Joshua release Alec.

Making room for the taller man, Max snapped, "The police will call it murder."

"I didn't lay a hand on him," Mole defended himself. "He fell down the stairs."

In a sense, Max realized, both men had committed suicide. But she knew no one in authority would believe "trannie freaks." "We better get out of here."

Though the two men were as gentle as they could be, Alec groaned as they released the bonds and slowly lowered him. Feebly, he tried to escape from this new torture.

His injured friend cradled in his arms, Joshua pointed out, "Alec needs doctor."

The memory of her own visit to the Harbor Lights Hospital still painfully fresh, Max said, "We can't take him to a hospital. Once they do tests, they'll know he's not human."

"If we don't, Alec dies." A note of anger crept into Joshua's voice.

Noticing the change, and understanding that her bond with the mutant was still tenuous, Max said, "We'll take Alec to Logan's and call Dr. Carr. It'll be safer for Sam to go there than Terminal City."

"Whatever we do, we need to do it fast." Mole indicated the sunlight reflecting off the windows. The morning glow made it dangerous for the two mutants to be out on the streets.

Wondering if her decision was paramount to a death sentence for their friend, Max led the way down the stairs. She had the van door open when Joshua arrived. Her eyes sought Alec's face as he was carried past her. The right side of the handsome features were swollen and bruised. She knew the memory of his mutilated back would haunt her for a long time. No matter how she felt about Alec personally, no one deserved such treatment.

55555

Every muscle, every part of Alec's body screamed with pain as he regained consciousness, making him anxious to slip back into the void where he had been pain free. It even hurt to breathe. But the part of him that Max seemed to find the most irritating, wouldn't let him take the easy out. It would make him feel as though Ski and Larry had bested him. While that outcome seemed inevitable, he wasn't ready to surrender yet. He hoped he never would, however he was intelligent enough to realize he had a threshold. Once it was breached, he would ultimately relinquish control – and they would win. Manticore had taken him to the brink several times. They stopped before pushing him over, unwilling to lose a valuable commodity. Ski and Larry would have no such compunction.

Slowly becoming cognizant of his surroundings, Alec realized he wasn't suspended from a beam anymore. He was, in fact, lying on his left side in a soft bed. His right eye felt as though it was swollen shut, or at least something impeded his ability to open it. With a concentrated effort, he finally lifted the heavy weight attempting to hold down the eyelid covering his other eye. He involuntarily jumped when his vision was filled by a half-dog, half-human face. It took his brain a few seconds to process its identity.

"Alec safe," Joshua softly assured him.

A surprisingly gentle hand touched the side of Alec's face. Uncertain if his voice would even work, Alec croaked, "Where?"

"Father's house. Dr. Carr will be here soon. Make you all better."

Seriously doubting the physician's abilities stretched to that extent, Alec stopped fighting and let the heavy eyelid roll closed. "What took . . . so . . . long?" he whispered.

If there was an answer to his question, he never heard it.

55555

Unable to prevent adrenaline from pumping into her system, Max paced the small living area, agilely avoiding the bodies reclining around the room. Sam Carr, with the assistance of two X-5's trained for combat medicine, had been in the small bedroom with Alec for over an hour. With every additional minute, Max's anxiety increased. She tried to remind herself that she didn't even like Alec. He read her thoughts and feelings much too accurately for her peace of mind. However she would never admit to anyone he wasn't as shallow as she had once believed.

Stepping over Joshua's outstretched legs, she circled Mole's chair. Her progress impeded by Logan's desk, she walked along the front of it to find herself back where she began.

"Max, sit down."

There was an exasperation in Logan's voice that told Max he had been biting his tongue to keep from expressing his frustration. Obviously, his patience had finally reached its limit. Forcing herself to cross to Joshua and sit on the floor next to her friend, Max realized she should be grateful for the anxiety the wait was producing. Hopefully, Logan would interpret it as the natural concern a girlfriend would have for her boyfriend. It was hard enough under normal circumstances to keep up the pretense that she no longer had feelings for Logan Cale. The stress of waiting had caused her to come close to seeking his comfort several times already. Something she dare not do if she hoped to keep the man at arm's length.

Max had no sooner lowered herself to the floor than Carr appeared. The frown on his face made her stay where she was when the others sprang to their feet.

"How bad is it, Sam?" asked Logan.

The genuine concern audible in the question showed the activist's true feelings concerning the injured transgenic. Even though Alec had apparently stolen his girlfriend, Logan still obviously cared about the X-5. This discovery made Max love Logan even more. The only thing that kept her from going to his side was the virus that would kill him if their flesh ever came into contact.

"If he was human," Sam revealed, "he would be dead."

"Alec not human," said Joshua. "So he'll be all right?"

"I didn't say that," Sam gently corrected. "Thanks to those genetically superior genes, the cuts on his back have already started healing, though at a slower rate than expected. The real problem came from the beating. He's bleeding internally. I have to operate to remove his spleen, which means we need to take him to the hospital."

Max slowly rose to her feet. "We can't risk it."

Horrified, Logan snapped, "Didn't you hear what Sam said? Alec is bleeding to death."

"I heard."

"And you still won't take him to the hospital?"

"There's too much at stake." Max fought to suppress her feelings. "Look what happened to me."

"We'd be more careful this time," Sam promised.

"It's too dangerous."

"For who?" demanded Logan.

"You, Alec, the other transgenics . . . and Sam. What do you think the NSD would do to him if they discovered he was helping mutants?"

Though the fear was clearly visible in his eyes, Sam said, "I'm willing to take the chance."

"We're not." Logan unexpectedly supported Max.

Sam shook his head. "Do you expect me to just let that boy die?"

"Operate here," suggested Joshua.

"Under these conditions?" Sam regarded the mutant in dismay. "I might as well kill him now."

"Alec is strong," Joshua reminded him.

Obviously wavering, Sam said, "I don't have the necessary equipment."

"Tell us what you need and we'll get it," pledged Max.

Mole handed the physician a piece of paper and a pen.

Reluctantly taking the implements, Sam shook his head. "I still think you're condemning him to death. Infection is just as deadly as a damaged spleen."

"Alec would not want you to risk your life," Joshua confidently stated.

A few hours ago, Max would have scoffed at such an altruistic view regarding X5-494. Now, she knew it was true. She wondered why it had taken her so long to see Alec in the same light as the others. She was honest enough with herself to know it wasn't entirely because of Alec's resemblance to Ben. When she needed backup, Alec was the first one she turned to.

He had almost killed her twice; she had a right to distrust him. It was a shock to realize she no longer did, and that if she had admitted it sooner, they would have found Alec before he had been brought to the brink of death. If he died now, it would be all her fault.

Tears filled her eyes as she remembered the question she had overheard Alec ask Joshua. She was the reason it had taken so long to find him. If he died, it would be another notch carved into her conscience to go along with Ben, Seth, and Tinga.

 

55555

This second round of waiting was proving to be no easier than the first. Max longed to pace, to dispel some of her anxiety with action. But even Joshua growled at her the last time she had made a circuit.

The sound triggered a memory. It took her a few minutes to make the association. When she did, she turned on her friend. "When you picked up Alec's scent, you said the other men's scents were familiar to you. Why?"

"Me and Alec taught them lesson," Joshua quietly revealed.

"You left Terminal City?" Careful to keep her tone level, Max tried to hide her anger at the revelation. She didn't want to alienate Joshua again by being over-protective. "What was so important?"

"They killed Biggs."

"So Alec talked you into risking your life to avenge Biggs' death?" It was a little harder this time to hide her feelings.

"Alec didn't talk. Wanted to do it."

"So you went alone?" Max clarified.

Picking at a thread on his sweatshirt, Joshua shook his head. "Went with Alec. Biggs my friend too."

"I don't care."

"I do."

Max was surprised by the animosity clearly audible in the reply. Her friend's steps towards independence worried her more and more. She was afraid recklessness would lead Joshua to his death. "It was a stupid thing to do."

"I know you don't like me around upstairs people, Little Fella."

Her head jerking up in surprise at Joshua's blatant ability to read her mind, Max indicated the room where the operation was underway. "It could be you in there."

"It's not."

Frustrated at Joshua's obtuseness, Max insisted, "But it could have been."

"Wish it were," whispered Joshua.

"What? No!"

"I hurt man torturing Alec. It should be me he hurt back."

"Knowing Alec, it was his idea to go looking for those losers."

"Biggs Alec's friend," Joshua defended.

"He was my friend, too, but I didn't get stupid about it."

"Biggs didn't save Max's life."

"I've saved Alec a few times. It's almost become a full-time job."

The sadness on Joshua's face nearly broke Max's heart. Softening her tone, she said, "I know Biggs and Alec were assigned to a mission together-- "

"Not a mission," Joshua corrected. "Biggs saved Alec from Manticore."

Max felt a chill go down her spine. "I don't understand."

"Alec failed mission. Biggs covered."

It wasn't necessary to ask for clarification this time. Max knew what Manticore would have done to Alec, especially after his failure to terminate Berrisford and his daughter. Alec would have been labeled defective and his life terminated. But it wouldn't have been an easy death. Nothing at Manticore was easy. In all likelihood, Alec would have been used as a test subject for a new torture device or interrogation method. To Manticore, even the failures had their uses.

Max had never realized how significant Biggs' friendship had been to Alec. Yet, Joshua did. Every time she thought she had Alec figured out, another side of him was revealed. Her own dark past often weighed on her, making it difficult for her to enjoy her life without feeling guilty. The more she learned about Alec, the darker his own past appeared. If this was some kind of macabre contest, she wasn't sure who would win. What made it harder for her to understand was that Alec had a joy for life that had often made Max angry. She had wanted to believe his attitude was disrespectful to the transgenics who had never had a chance for a decent life, not at Manticore, not in the world. Now, she realized it was she who was being disrespectful by not living every precious minute to its fullest. If Alec made it, she would have to find some way to apologize to him.

The door to Logan's bedroom opened, revealing Sam Carr. The white gown he wore was covered with blood. Though the sight had never affected her in the past, Max felt her stomach twist and turn, threatening to purge its contents.

Jumping to his feet, Joshua asked, "Alec good?"

"Considering what he's been through, he's very good," assured the physician. "He's lost a lot of blood. But once we get his volume back up, he should be fine, as long as there's no infection."

Logan crossed to his friend and shook his stained hand. "Thanks, Sam."

"Don't thank me yet. That young man still has a long way to go before I'd deem him recovered."

Her initial relief tempered by Sam's caution, Max decided to think positive, something she had rarely done in her life. She had turned over a new leaf; now was a good time to test her resolve. When she apologized to Alec, it was important that he believe her.

5555

This time, when Alec woke up, he wasn't surprised to find Joshua sitting next to his bed reading a book. What he did find astonishing was how weak he felt. Attempting to test his limits, he realized he couldn't even lift a finger, much less his hand. Hoping his voice worked, since nothing else seemed to, he said, "Hey."

Though the missive wasn't nearly as loud as Alec intended, it caught Joshua's attention. Closing his book over a finger to mark his place, he leaned in closer.

"Welcome back," Joshua returned.

Suppressing a moan, Alec forced back the pain. It was another thing he had learned how to do at Manticore, along with his combat training, weapons instruction, and tactical lessons. Trying to instill his words with a certain levity, Alec weakly uttered an old joke in response. "Did I go somewhere?"

Joshua winced, dropping his head so his hair hid his face. "Alec almost died."

"But I didn't, unless there's something you're not telling me?"

Joshua anxiously stuttered, "N-n-n-o. Doctor says Alec will be fine."

"Thanks to you." Alec coughed, wincing at the agony it caused his cracked ribs, and torn flesh. "You found me in time. I knew you would."

"Almost didn't. Too close."

"I'm alive, that's all I care about." It was difficult instilling his tone with an outlook he didn't truly believe.

"No." Joshua gently traced the welts circling one of Alec's wrists. "Not all that matters."

Treading unfamiliar ground, Alec was uncertain how to mollify Joshua's obvious aggravation. "Well, I'm happy with the results."

"Alec almost died," Joshua repeated, shock suffusing his canine features. "Should have killed man when I had the chance."

Finally realizing Joshua was feeling guilty, Alec tried – and failed – to physically reach out to his distraught friend. His voice rough with emotion and exhaustion, he said, "As I recall, I wouldn't let you. I pulled you off the bastard. I have no one to blame for this but myself."

"Not Alec's fault either," said Joshua, reluctantly accepting Alec's forgiveness. "We should have found you sooner."

"Now that I wouldn't have minded." Alec sighed tiredly. "What took you so long?"

When Joshua looked at his hands, refusing to answer, Alec knew the reason as surely as if the mutant had spoken it out loud. Max. She'd probably thought he had blown her off. He thought their relationship had warmed recently, that she had gotten over the whole betrayal issue. The knowledge that she still saw him as irresponsible hurt more than he wanted to admit, even to himself.

Pretending to be tired to let Joshua off the hook wouldn't be much of a stretch. In fact, he was exhausted. Closing his eyes, he said, "I'm whacked; think I'll try to get some sleep."

"Good. I watch Alec's back."

Touched, but finding it difficult to believe anyone cared what happened to him, Alec whispered, "You don't have to do that."

"Don't have to," agreed Joshua. "Want to."

Alec had to clamp his eyelids down tight to prevent a tear from escaping. He blamed his weakness on infirmity. The only other person in his life who'd seemed to give a damn whether he lived or died, had been Biggs. Since the transgenic's death, Alec had been feeling particularly alone and vulnerable. Knowing Joshua cared made Max's indifference easier to bear. Maybe when the time came, his death wouldn't go unmourned as he had once thought.

55555

Though most of the welts on his back had healed, there were still a couple reminding Alec of his wounds when he twisted the wrong way. Not that he needed any reminders. The incision on his stomach where Sam Carr had removed his spleen was still tender. That, along with the blood his system had yet to replace, left him feeling weaker than normal. For once, he was grateful for the transgenic enhancements that had allowed him to heal faster than a human. Even impaired, he was stronger and faster than an ordinary.

Though not entirely healed, he was going stir-crazy trapped in Sandeman's house with only Logan and Joshua for company. A key motive in his decision to return to work at Jam Pony. Unlike most of the other messengers, he didn't have to worry about Normal firing him for absenteeism. Alec was one of the few people Normal liked. Actually, "like" was a mild term. The man fawned over Alec, treating him as though he was important. Something Alec needed after his ordeal.

Warmed by the enthusiastic greetings of his fellow messengers, Alec crossed to his locker to stow his gear. Normal was as excited as a child. Alec could read the man like a book, and knew he had something planned. Time to seek out Sketchy. It was almost impossible these days to hide anything from the budding reporter.

"What are you doing here?"

Tamping down the flash of anger the familiar voice ignited, Alec said, "I work here, Max. Just like you."

"Did Sam say you could get out of bed?"

"Believe it or not, I am capable of making decisions for myself."

"You're still pale," observed Max. "I don't think you should be here."

Grateful no one was close enough to overhear their conversation, Alec nonetheless spoke low. "I don't care what you think." When Max flinched, Alec almost regretted his harsh words. Almost.

"Alec, I know I screwed up. If it wasn't for me, Joshua would have found you earlier."

Slamming his locker door closed, Alec asked, "Is this the part where I'm supposed to forgive you?"

"No, I just--"

"You aren't going to become nice to me now, are you?" Alec leaned against his locker, his arms crossed. "I don't think I could take it."

Max ducked her head and sadly admitted, "I guess I deserved that."

Alec wanted to tell her she had gotten off easy. She could have been the one captured and tortured by the vigilantes. It could have been the person she relied on the most who delayed the search. Alec knew he would eventually forgive her; he was incapable of holding a grudge for long. But that moment wasn't now.

"Where's Joshua?" Max asked, anxious to change the subject.

"He and Mole are picking up a pregnant X-5 and an X-6 at the rendezvous point." Alec could tell Max wasn't happy with the revelation, but for once she didn't blame him for allowing Joshua to flirt with danger. Maybe she hadlearned something from all this?

"I gotta blaze," said Max, regret and anger flashing in her eyes. "I've got some new tats Logan wants to check out."

"I'll see ya." Alec could tell she was disappointed when he didn't try to stop her.

"Yeah," Max falteringly agreed. "See ya."

As he watched her walk away, Alec wondered if there was a world where a leopard could change its spots. Maybe in that world Max would learn to respect him.