"You're still alive." The mildly bemused comment filtered through the loud noise in the dark, smelly room. The patron gingerly took a seat on the bar stool opposite the bartender, looked him over and wrinkled her nose. She glanced about the dingy interior with great distaste. "And working in a total dive."
Without missing a beat, the young man poured a couple of shots for the couple a few paces to her right, pocketed their payment and stated matter-of-factly, "It's called living on the down-low."
She inclined her head. "You've had worse."
"True," he agreed, nodding. "The last job was pretty crusty."
"So was your female companion."
"She was really talented," he recalled with a fond grin.
She scoffed. "I'll bet she was."
The banter was familiar, comforting. Sorely missed.
"How do you explain the apartment?"
He fake-pouted. "I know, right? TV never did work there."
She shook her and rolled her eyes. "The tragedy! However did you survive?"
"Creature comforts weren't exactly a priority."
She sobered. "They rarely are when you're on the run."
"I was trying to keep a low profile."
"Lotta good that did you."
He smiled wryly. "I did alright... Thanks for saving my ass."
"It seems to be a trend. What number are we up to, five? Six?" she asked good-naturedly, leaning across the bar for a coaster.
"Seven," he answered with a low, nervous chuckle. It seemed that she was forever saving his hide and he was constantly ruining her life. Some things never changed.
When she replied, all traces of humor had disappeared.
Her meaning was self-evident. His heart sank.
"My luck had to run out some time," he spoke finally with a resigned air as he continued wiping down the bar. Despair filled him when she failed to laugh. He went back to cleaning the counter and surreptitiously scanned his surroundings.
The bar was full of regulars, not a single new face save for hers, but that didn't mean she was alone or that he wasn't already aware of what her presence in his town truly meant. He'd known the minute she walked into the bar that it wasn't a courtesy visit. The gig was up.
"So what is this, a warning or goodbye?"
She snorted inelegantly and flipped her long dark hair over her shoulder, tucking a few stray strands behind her ear.
"Would I waste a goodbye on you?"
He smiled briefly before sobering again. "Do I have time to pack?"
"If you mean your gun and the change of clothes and emergency back-up cash you keep behind the bar, then yes. Anything else... Well, it's your ass on the line."
"Cutting it a bit close, don't you think?" If she was warning him away from his apartment, time was short indeed.
The pair locked eyes, his searching hers for answers. Her gaze was steady, face revealing nothing.
"You took a great risk coming here, Max." When her eyes flickered, he had his answer.
He bit his lip. There were so many things he wished he could do over, particularly his final directives at the Terminal City stand nine years earlier. "I'm sorry."
She stopped him. "Don't."
He sighed. She insisted he wasn't at fault. He didn't share her opinion.
"I don't blame you, you know," she said after a moment, popping a handful of peanuts into her mouth before swiveling her legs to the side and jumping off the bar stool gracefully. "It was a good call. The best you could have made under the circumstances."
"That's bull and you know it." He hated to be reminded of his choices and their consequences. Especially when it came to her.
"We agreed on a course of action, Alec. You did your duty, I did mine. There was no way we could have known what would happen." Her exasperation was apparent. It was an argument they'd had many times over the years and one he always lost.
Alec shook his head vehemently. "No. A good strategist plans for every possible eventuality. I screwed up, and you -"
"Got sloppy, got myself caught. At least I was able to negotiate some of the terms."
Yes, the terms. The deal she brokered with the devil to save his ass. Again.
"I should never have agreed."
She smiled. "You're a leader, Alec. Sometimes you have to make tough choices for the greater good. I was an acceptable loss - and got everyone else out safely."
"Stop beating yourself up about it. It was my mistake that landed me bound and gagged in the back of a Manticore convoy. Which is precisely what's going to happen to you if you don't get the hell out of here in the next few minutes."
He swallowed, unwilling to look away or to walk away from her again. Fear of discovery - for him and the nation he led - provided the necessary push to get moving. Alec bent to retrieve his bag and then straightened once more. He grabbed her hand and held tight.
"Tell me it was worth it," he entreated in a voice thick with emotion.
Max cupped his cheek in her hand and smiled. "It was worth it."
Nodding at Max, Alec heaved his bag over his shoulder and tipped an imaginary hat at her.
"I guess I'll see ya when I see ya."
He didn't know when that might be, but he knew he'd see her again before long. And maybe next time they'd find a way to get her out and bring her home.