A chill runs through Alec as his instructions sink in. He's not prepared for this one, and closing his eyes in resignation, he knows there's no way out. The iron will that stands against him is unbreachable.
Aware that his captor regards him as a vulture regards its next meal, he holds his expression steady, wanting to give nothing of his thoughts away.
“How long do I have?”
Ames White's tightly controlled scowl flickers with contempt, well pleased with what he's managed to accomplish today; arranging a transgenic to do his own dirty work.
“The explosive is timed to detonate in exactly twenty-four hours.”
He accompanies Max in her search for Joshua. All day he's feigned concern for her friend, when all he can think about is how much his own neck is on the line. Literally.
White's cold flat words ring through his mind. Locate and kill three transgenics. Collect their barcodes as proof of purchase. It's the only way the micro-explosive in the back of his neck will be disarmed.
The first target is relatively easy. A transhuman bearing little resemblance to the human portion of her genetic make up. He rationalises that he's doing Seattle a favour. Doing her a favour. He's an assassin, this is an assignment. The only difference is that the chain of command has changed.
“One down, two to go.” He mutters to himself, as he presses a bloodied scrap of skin into his notebook.
But the second transgenic poses more of a dilemma. The previous excuse made for his actions is no longer working. It's not simply the chain of command that poses the problem, it's the fact his targets are his own people. The reality only hits him when a young X6 huddled beneath a blanket in the wasteland of ‘Terminal City' recognises him and leaps to his feet, eager to remobilise.
The kid calls him “Sir”.
And yet he carries out the gruelling task of cutting the barcode from the unconscious boy's neck. He leaves the kid bandaged outside a hospital, thinking he's found a way to outwit White and get around the orders requiring him to kill his own.
But White expects as much. Has read him too well. And he finishes what Alec had been unable to.
“Maybe if you don't have to listen to them beg and scream, you can actually go through with it.”
He's sent on his way with a tazer, and another chance. One more transgenic to go.
Again he joins Max. He glances to the barcode on her neck as she leans over her bike, and fingers the tazer beneath his jacket, sickened that in a city full of transgenics, it's come down to this - to her. But she has a lead on Joshua. She'd better be right. His timer gives him fifty-nine minutes left of brain activity.
They find Joshua in the backyard of a deserted property, dejected from his failure to find the man he calls “Father”. Max's affection for the transhuman would be touching - in better circumstances.
But Alec has no time for her compassion. He's held off as long as he can, hoping a better target will happen along - one he has no connection with. But he's at his wits end. He's down to forty-six minutes while oblivious to his problems, Max and Joshua are making plans to check the final 'Sandeman' listed in an outdated phone directory.
It's now or never.
“I hate to be a killjoy, but nobody's going anywhere.”
He leaves no time for their reaction and pulls out the tazer, turning to Max and driving it against her until her convulsing body collapses to the ground; immobilised. Joshua strikes out at him with a roar, but he ducks his swing and sends a jolt of electricity into the transhuman. Stronger than Max, Joshua doesn't fall straight away but lunges forward once more. Anticipating his move, Alec spins him aside and strikes again.
As the transhuman falls shuddering to the ground, Alec is on him, well aware that his time is running out. Rolling Joshua over, he searches his neck for the barcode. There's no time for remorse. No time to think about anything but the ticking time bomb implanted in the back of his neck.
But Joshua's neck is bare - there's no barcode.
“Where is it? Where the hell is your barcode!” There's no time for this, not now! Alec roughly grabs up the transhuman and shakes him, forcing him to answer.
“No barcode. I was first...special.”
Alec zaps him again, frustrated by the stupid answer which does nothing to help himself. He turns back to Max, lying helpless on the grass. Remorse washed over him, but only for a moment. There's no time to find another transgenic and the final hour of his life is bearing down. It's her life or his own he reminds himself, as he stalks towards her.
She stares up at him, fear in her eyes as she realises what he's going to do. It's her life, or his own.
“I'm sorry, there's no other way.”
Flicking open the knife, his blood is thumping in his ears as he steps forward. He can do this, he was an assassin before anything else . Killing is what he was trained to do.
He swallows as the name she bestowed upon him slips from her lips. He remembers how by doing so she gave him his freedom that day, inside Manticore. Even though he didn't realise it at the time.
And now it seems she'll be the one to give him freedom again.
His mouth feels like sawdust. Her doe-eyes are filled with desolation and yearning. Not for him but for life. Her lips don't move yet she pleads with him to let her live. He's no longer sure if the heartbeat thumping wildly in protest is his or her own.
Tightening his jaw, he tries to steel himself against those brown, pleading eyes. He wants to explain it's not his fault. To make her understand his own helplessness. He wants her to know that he never wished for her death on his hands. But there's no time for such explanations now.
“ I don't want to die.”
He doesn't. It's not in his genetic make-up to give up on life. Maybe he's nothing without Manticore, but how will he know unless he has a chance to find out? He's not a hero or a martyr, he's just a man who wants to live. God, he wants to live.
So he kneels over her and lifts the knife into the air, preparing himself to take that sweeping plunge. Again he meets her eyes and sees that utter futility in their chocolate brown depths He hesitates, willing himself to finish the job. Why can't he just do it? Why does she have to look at him that way? Why does she have to look so betrayed?
He pulls his treacherous eyes away from her own, unable to bear the pleading disbelief. He knows what she's thinking. ‘How can this be happening to me?' He knows. It's a question he's been asking himself for hours.
Had she really expected anything better out of him?
Meeting her startled eyes once more, his heart sinks as he realises the answer.
Alec hits the ground and rolls onto his back, sucking in great gulps of air as if he's been holding his breath.
He can't bear to turn his head, to look at her. It's over now - it's out of his hands, and a part of him is relieved. There's forty minutes to go. He doesn't know this for sure - no longer has the willpower to check his watch. But it seems a likely estimate, and either way it doesn't really matter anymore.
Resigned, he closes his eyes, and waits. Minutes slip by.
Movement to his left interrupts the resignation he feels ready to succumb to. He senses someone's eyes upon him. Can almost feel them burning into his skin.
“What the hell was that about?”
Her anger is dulled by exhaustion. He's a little surprised by that, but decides to give it a few more minutes. She'll get her strength back. Idly he wonders when Joshua's gonna pull himself to his feet - and will he cut down the waiting time once he does?
A hand grabs his shoulder, shakes him roughly. “I asked what the hell was that about!”
He should've known there'd be more than one set of consequences to face. Should he bother trying to explain? Could she understand? His life is nothing to her and she'll take his actions as a personal insult - how dare he consider killing her to save himself? She's that kind of girl. His own sacrifice will account for nothing.
“Alec, answer me damn it!” Her voice is edged with worry now. Maybe she's afraid he's lost his mind. Maybe she's frightened she'll never get an explanation out of him.
The soft touch of a fingertip against the side of his face alarms him from his apathy and before he can stop himself, he opens his eyes and meets her own. For a moment she blinks, startled. Then the storm clouds roll across and she snatches back her hand, fury now building up behind her eyes.
He knew her strength would return.
“Great. You're alive. Now you can start explaining.”
You're alive. He grunts at that. It's meant to be an ironic chuckle but somehow it gets trapped in his throat
She's crouching over him, looking almost feral with rage and disbelief, but the storm clouds held in check for now as she waits for him to start talking. Her closeness is almost intimate but he knows she's only conserving energy before she kicks his ass.
Wearily he pushes her back a little and pulls himself into a half-seating position, their faces a mere foot apart. He can see a fine crease on her forehead - left behind from that trademark perpetual frown. Time's a wasting.
“There's a bomb in my head and it's going to explode” - he checks his watch - “ in thirty-five minutes.”
“What?” The delicate frown-line falls into a crevice, she prepares to patronise.
“It's White's handiwork. He'll only disarm it if I bring him the barcodes of three transgenics.” He clears his throat before hitting the punch line. “Three dead transgenics.”
Max's expression is unreadable. In fact, it's frozen. Alec holds her gaze and tenses himself, waiting for her to crack.
He can see it takes her an effort to press those two little words out without letting all the other, bigger ones escape. For someone who lets her anger loose so easily, he never knew she was capable of such self-control.
She must be wanting that explanation pretty bad.
“Does it matter anymore? My brain's going to explode in a little over half an hour and you'll be rid of me forever. You should be pleased, and leave it at that.”
She winces at his tone. "So what, it's my fault now! No Alec, you can't turn this on me - you can't make this my fault!”
He shrugs and rolls onto his back once more. She doesn't understand what he's trying to tell her. Maybe he doesn't understand himself. And maybe his wording could have been less brash but he's a little too busy kicking himself for making this deal with White in the first place, to bother with eloquence. Seems he can never get anything right.
“So that's it? You're just going to lie there and let yourself die?"
He's not sure what else she expects him to do. Of course he doesn't want to die. But time's against him, and he's fresh out of options.
“What would you prefer? I pick up the knife and finish the job?” His words are bitter. Maybe he'd help the world find some peace and quiet if he did. But she's right. So he sits up and gazes around. Maybe there's a place nearby where he can get a good strong drink.
She scrambles to her knees and grabs him by the shirt, holding him in place as she yells through gritted teeth, "you could've come to me!"
Funny, he never really considered that one.
“Why didn't you come to me?” The hardness in her tone cracks and she unclenches her fists from his shirt, but keeps her hands in place, her eyes filled with that pleading desperation again. This time at the loss of his life, rather than her own.
He waits, wary. Still expecting her to hit him somewhere along the lines and a part of him is hoping she does. He can believe the angry, pouting, sulky Max, but he can't quite believe the Max before him now. The one who looks like she's bordering on an emotion he's not sure he's experienced in anyone.
She understands now; he chose her life over his own. These last few weeks she's done nothing but put him down and accuse him of being too self-involved to care for anyone except himself, but she only realises now just how much she under-estimated him. Maybe she's the one who's been a little too self-involved.
“Damn it Alec!” She does strike him now. Hard. Leaving him wincing and wanting to rub the spot on his chest where she connected. But she's lowered her head and he instead finds himself touching her chin, lightly, tilting her face back up. A tear spills down one cheek, followed closely by another. He feels as if he's been struck again, this time from the inside.
He's never seen her cry before. Didn't know she could. And suddenly his desire to live returns to him in full force. He wants to live so much! He wants to live for this. To have someone care if he lives or dies. To have her care.
It's not the first sacrifice a man has made for her, but she hasn't told him this. Nor does he know how the weight of Ben's death has always rested on her shoulders. These things he'll never learn, because there's twenty-eight minutes on the clock to go, and no time for lengthy heart to hearts.
Overwhelmed, he leans in and collects her in his arms, drawing her to his chest. He presses his lips against her hair and murmurs, “it wasn't meant to end like this Max. It wasn't meant to come down to you and me.”
She pulls back, furiously wiping away the tears, denying their existence. “We'll go to the lab tech. He can remove -”
“No. Shhh.” Alec interrupts her with a finger to her lips, feeling his heart sink further towards the pit of his stomach as he realises that given another twenty minutes, that could've been an option. “There's no time now.”
She stares at him blankly, a protest hovering on her lips. He shakes his head. It's over.
There's pity in her eyes, along with that ‘something else' he can't quite pin a name on. He lies back down and draws her to him, slowly, as if handling something delicate.
This is Max. He still can‘t quite get his head around that. Any other time she‘d be calling him an opportunistic show-off. Or worse. But she doesn't say these things. Instead she runs her fingers through his hair and leans in to press her cheek against his forehead. He can't see her face but he knows she's crying, he can feel the wetness on his skin. It's a strange intimacy; not one borne of love - they've hardly tolerated each other enough for that, but of a basic need to console each other over the intimate loss of human life. At least, that's what he figures.
Her arms slide around his shoulders as he slips his hands tenatively around her waist. She draws back a little to let their eyes sweep over each other, taking in details neither had noticed in the other before. He's pre-occupied by that unreadable ‘something' in her eyes. Something as alien to him as her tears.
He doesn't want to focus on the end - to wonder if there'll be pain. So he turns his worry towards Joshua. He hopes he didn't tazer him too hard. He hopes the big fella will forgive what he's done, and stick around to look after Max after he's gone. Not that his passing will make any difference to Max's ability to look after herself. Which leads him to wonder...
Will you go back to Logan?
The question niggles him like an itch, but he doesn't ask it out loud. It would be asking too much. He knows she’s going to hold him until the end, and he feels grateful for that. Whatever happens afterwards is none of his concern.
Instead his mind falls to wondering if the lab tech will cure their virus. It's a bleak train of thought to focus on, but he can't help himself. He wonders if their world will return to normal after he's gone- as if he never existed.
“Why didn't you kill me?”
Her eyes study his own and he pulls his head back a little, awkward beneath her scrutiny. He's not sure how to answer the question He doesn't know what she expects from him. She forgets what it's like to come from his world. A world where intimacy doesn't get any closer than a breeding program, and emotions get people killed. Or worse.
Time is slipping by with every thumping heartbeat.
“Because I was an assassin, but I was never a murderer. There's a difference.”
She smiles, weakly. It wasn't the answer she was looking for and he knows he has a better one than that. Desperation has him in it's hold. The time is drawing close now. Maybe a minute. Maybe less.
What can he say? How can he sum it all up? These emotions are too new for him to put a name on. All these weeks he's been by her side, taking everything she dishes out, and he still hasn't figured it out. There's a simple word for this, but it eludes him.
It was never meant to come down to him or her. Fresh anguish grips him. His mind takes him back to that moment when he's standing over her again, poised on the edge of the plunge. Can't she see his helplessness? Can't she see he doesn't want to hurt her? Maybe he's nothing without Manticore, but...
Her hold on him tightens and he doesn't need to look at his watch to know the final moments are descending. Tilting his head, he captures that ‘something unreadable' in her eyes and recognises it for what it is. It's his counterfoil. He draws in to press his lips lightly to her own, and smiles. Maybe they won't be the right words, but it's what lies beneath them that counts.
“Without you, I'm nothing.”