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A Borrowed Heart of Gold

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"Why is your underwear pink?"

Max opens his eyes and realizes he's lying on a beat-up sofa. There's a crick in his neck from resting at an odd angle, and he closes his eyes and savors it for a moment before he remembers he's been asked a question.

"I suck at laundry," he mumbles, blinking up at Louis Armadale. "How did I get here, and why am I in my underwear?"

"Your jeans got blood on them while you were saving that little girl," says Armadale. "You got me safely home and I offered to wash them. When I came back here you were passed out on my couch." He shrugs. "I didn't want to wake you."

"The end of the night is kind of fuzzy," says Max. Her parents hadn't been too thrilled to see her coming home in Max Damage's arms and had loosed some kind of killerbot on him. Figures he'd pick a paranoid genius scientist's daughter to save from a kidnapping. Typical. "She all right?"

Armadale looks slightly surprised, then nods. He often does when Max says anything that could be interpreted as altruism. Max isn't very good with words, so he's not sure if he could explain to Armadale that it isn't altruism, it's just wanting to make sure he got it right. Got something right.

He kind of wishes Armadale would stop looking surprised, though.

He sits up, rubbing his eyes. Armadale hands him his jeans, folded and smelling nice. "Wow, you got all the blood out," says Max.

"Years of practice. You shouldn't wash reds with your underwear," he adds, nodding at Max's pink briefs as Max pulls on the jeans.

"Not used to doing laundry," Max says. Jailbait always used to do it. She said she liked it, handling his clothes, and he never argued with her, just let her do it. That kind of bothers him, now. He rubs at his chin. "You got a razor?"

Armadale grunts and leads him to the bathroom.

"Electric? That's barbaric," says Max. "You gotta use a straight razor, lather, the works." He takes the electric razor anyway and rubs it over his face briskly.

Armadale is watching him in the mirror. "I don't like cutting my face to ribbons."

"That's part of the fun," grins Max. "The risk." It makes him feel alive, for a little while every day. He splashes scalding hot water on his face and sighs at the sensation. It used to be that he loved committing crimes early in the morning, right after he woke up. There was an extra thrill in the chance that a stray bullet might take him out before he got too powerful. But he doesn't like to get to work protecting Coalville too early now. The risk isn't as much fun when someone might get killed if you screw up. So he waits, now, until he feels invulnerable enough to help. It can be a frustrating wait at times. There's so much that has to get done, and not many people doing it.

"Can you only get drunk right after you wake up?" Armadale's eyes are just a little too avid, the way they always are when he talks about booze, even though he hasn't touched a drop in months.

"Pretty much. I've got about an hour that I can taste, or feel stuff, or--" He decides he doesn't want to talk to Armadale about his sex life. Not that he has one right now. It's just not practical.

Usually he doesn't even miss it. Just now and then. Just the first hour.

But Armadale is clapping him on the back, hard enough that it almost makes him wince--obviously he's used to Max not flinching through whatever abuse he gets handed, and he hasn't fully processed the idea of a Max Damage that can be hurt. "Let me make you breakfast, then," he says. "My Mama Armadale's special French toast."

It's either that or McDonalds' take out, so after a moment Max nods.

The French toast is delicious, thick and fluffy and rich, with real maple syrup. There's bacon, too. Max has to eat it hastily as he can feel the sensations fading off, growing distant, but he enjoys every bite. Armadale has an odd look on his face as he watches Max wolf down the food, slightly smug and maybe a little possessive. "They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

Max doesn't often taste other meals, so he agrees. He takes the last bite and sighs, then pushes his chair away and stands up. "Well, I should get back to work," he says. "Think I'm ready to handle whatever the world throws at me." The barriers between him and the world are firmly back in place; as every minute passes he can be hurt less and less. It's security of a sort, and makes it possible to get his work done.

The cost--well, the cost is nothing he can't pay.

He throws on his leather coat then pauses. He's forgotten something. What would the Plutonian have done? he asks himself again. Not the real Plutonian, but the one Max fought for years, the cheerful do-gooder with a heart of gold. He squints, concentrating, and finally comes up with it.

"Thank you," he says to Armadale. "For the laundry. And the sofa. And the breakfast."

Armadale beams, and Max relaxes a little: he's gotten it right. "Well," Armadale says, "Anytime you're sick of wearing pink underwear, you can bring your laundry to me." He pauses. "I don't mind some company, even yours." Max nods and heads for the door, into another bright Coalville morning and another day of work that he isn't sure how to do. He's winging it, every moment. He'll try to do what he thinks the Plutonian would have done--the imaginary Plutonian in his head, not the sadistic bastard who lives to hurt people.

Max doesn't have a heart of gold, so has to borrow a fake one. It'll do.

He hopes it'll do.