Joshua glanced up as Alec quickly moved past him. It wasn't unusual for him to see the young transgenic moving quickly around TC, but it was unusual to see him furtively looking around, as though trying to avoid someone. Still relatively hidden in the art room he’d set up for himself, he watched Alec throw one last look over his shoulder before disappearing into the gym TC had set up. He should have shaken it off, would have shaken it off, if not for the fact that he had a particular soft spot for the X5—despite their rocky start. He was Max's 2IC and if something was making Alec nervous, it could only be about Max herself, or TC. Thinking something might be wrong with his favourite 'Little Fella', Joshua snuck out of his studio and across the road to the gym. He wasn't exactly subtle with his movements, but Alec still looked completely shocked to see him there. Joshua looked around the room and noticed that Alec had cleared the floor, moving the mats and equipment to the back corner. Joshua tried to push down his rising concern. The only time he'd seen the floor cleared was when the Familiars had first attacked TC and there just hadn't been enough room in the medbay for all of the casualties.
This did not bode well.
"What's wrong? Something wrong with Little Fella?"
Confusion crossed Alec's face and Joshua could have sworn he'd seen fear before Alec's eyes darted to the door behind him. It all happened in a moment, and he never had been particularly good at reading people, but when Alec tilted his head at the bigger man, his expression was neutral.
"Why would something be wrong with Max?"
The two words should have said it all but he noticed it took a couple of seconds for Alec's genius mind to put together the pieces. He frowned.
"Nothing's wrong—certainly nothing like that! I'm just working on a special project in here and needed the space cleared."
Alec gave him an easy smile but Joshua was still slightly on edge. He remembered the bodies, most of them still moving. And the blood. He had tried helping with the clean up later but the blood proved stubborn and he couldn't help seeing it every time he'd closed his eyes. Max had pulled him off clean up and insisted he not return until she'd told him to. The next time he'd been allowed in, it had been transformed back into the gym he knew.
Alec's eyes darted around the empty room before he leaned in conspiratorially. "Something for someone VERY special."
Joshua felt his face would split from the smile that currently adorned it. He loved doing things for people, helping where he could, but he loved Max even more and she deserved something special!
"Wanna help me out, big guy?"
Joshua nodded eagerly and Alec clapped him on the back. “Excellent! Now, if it were up to you, what would you do to liven this place up a bit?”
He looked around at the repurposed hall. “Max’d like more light. Clear the windows?”
Alec looked up at the large windows, covered in black tarp, and frowned in concentration. He turned back to Joshua. “Forget about Max; I’ve got that covered. If it were up to you, what would you want to do?”
He grinned at Alec. “Little lights?”
Alec nodded enthusiastically. “Sounds like a plan! How ‘bout you see what you can rustle up?”
Joshua turned to leave. “Oh, and Josh, remember not to say anything to Maxie!”
He nodded and headed down to the large miscellaneous storage area. He was sure he’d seen some fairy lights in there at one stage, along with some round balls that Max had told him the Ordinaries had used for Christmas. He’d never seen it but he hoped to one day. Sure enough, buried at the bottom of a box marked ‘decorations’, was a string of the twinkling lights. He’d wanted to see them lit up for a while and he was trying to imagine just what they’d look like when he heard voices approach the door. He grabbed the lights and hid behind a wall of stacked boxes.
“There’ll be something we can use in here.”
“Max, are you sure about this? You might not even have enough power; you may just be risking TC’s power supply for nothing.”
“It’s not nothing!”
Josh could imagine the look on Logan’s face when Max snapped. She’d been shorter than usual with Logan over the last few months and he had overheard Max and Alec talking about a potential ban on Logan being allowed into the city, Max thought it was just too dangerous for him to keep risking his life with the fallout, chemical and otherwise, and couldn’t seem to make Logan understand. Obviously he had come again, so there must be something serious going on, but he knew how Max felt. There was a further rustling in the boxes before everything fell silent. Joshua would have thought they had left if it hadn’t been for Logan’s aftershave.
“I’m sorry. That came out wrong.”
“It’s just... things are so serious at the moment. I don’t think you should be making these decisions on your own.”
“I’m not! I talked it over with Alec; he’s going to-”
“That’s not what I meant. You should be talking with everyone about it; they have a right to be a part of this decision as well.”
“They’ll agree with us. This is what’s best. You know I can’t just call a meeting or make an announcement. This has to be handled discreetly.”
“I’m done talking about it, Logan. Get on board or get out.”
Joshua almost recoiled from the venom in her voice and he heard Logan sigh before they both left the room. He waited until he was sure they were out of sight before standing up and heading back to the gym. Worry was settling deep in his stomach and he was confused about what to do. Obviously, something major was happening, but Max and Alec were choosing not to tell anyone about it. He trusted them, knew they would protect the city, but he wanted to ease the burden. More than anything, he didn’t want to be in the dark. He’d felt like that his whole life, one way or the other.
When he showed Alec the party lights, Alec had grinned. He didn’t seem to have a care in the world but Joshua had learned to see past the happy-go-lucky exterior to the tormented soul underneath. Alec was all tricks on the surface, a defense mechanism to keep people at arm’s length, but he was good at it. He’d been trained that way and Joshua was not good enough at seeing through that to know every time something was wrong.
“Something wrong, Big Guy?”
Joshua realised he’d been staring at the X5, trying to get a better read on him, but he couldn’t figure it out. Alec seemed genuinely happy. There had only been a few times he’d seen that and he began to wonder if planning a surprise party for Max was his way of keeping the worry at bay. Doing something special for someone he cared about, to push down the worry that was surrounding him.
Joshua hadn’t answered immediately and Alec moved over to him. “Josh? Are you okay?”
Joshua nodded and, even though Alec remained unconvinced, Alec resumed trying to untangle the lights.
“I had a great idea—what about if we put up your artwork to decorate the room? Would that be alright? perhaps you could even paint a new piece specifically for this?”
Despite himself, Joshua grinned. He loved putting his artwork up. Max and Alec had managed to get a steady stream of art supplies into TC and he’d been using his talent to paint murals on the walls of the living spaces. Each mural had been specific to the people living there and he’d even managed to paint a couple of canvases that Alec could sell to the gallery. Having freedom, even though they were at war, had been cathartic and painting was his outlet.
“Excellent! How about you head over to the studio and work on it, and I’ll send Cam over later to pick up some pieces?”
“Max, number 23!”
Alec spun around. “No! I mean, you’re always painting us. I wanna see you, buddy, I wanna see Joshua! There’ll be plenty here of everyone else, including Max.”
Alec nodded. “Just Joshua! Now, get working!”
Joshua turned and walked to his studio in a bit of a stupor. It had been so long since he’d painted anything for himself, of himself. He’d set up a canvas and was staring at the blank slate when he heard Original Cindy walking in.
“Josh, you here?”
He popped his head up from behind the easel and noticed OC and Sketchy grinning back at him. He leapt up and hugged the both of them, sweeping them both into one giant hug and lifting them slightly before returning their feet to the ground. They both regaled him with various things that had happened since they’d last been at TC but Joshua couldn’t help noticing that they would individually look out the door, as though waiting for someone. If he hadn’t already been worried, he may not have noticed it at all, but he was, and he did.
“We should prob’ly get goin’, stop in and see Alec. Do ya know where he’s at?”
Joshua told them that the last place he’d seen Alec was the gym but neither one seemed surprised. He wondered if they’d already known.
“Why’d ya ask?”
Joshua watched them carefully. “Everyone is hiding something.”
“Everyone has their own secrets. Are ya worried? Maybe you’re just seeing your own worry in others?”
Joshua shook his head but OC just smiled comfortingly at him.
“Everything’s okay! I promise!”
OC and Sketchy left the studio and Joshua turned back to his canvas. He was feeling mixed up—worry, confusion, fear—but he didn’t want to paint it. Something was off with the day but he trusted them to tell him if it was something to worry about. He placed a few strokes on a half finished canvas before he pushed everything else out of his mind.
Alec wanted him to paint ‘Joshua’. The paintbrush was moving across in broad strokes as he started, feathering off into smaller ones as he pushed his emotions out through the colours. Every now and again, he would take a step back and look at his work, trying to work out whether or not he had placed himself on the canvas or just a part. He got so caught up in his work that night was beginning to fall when Max walked into the studio. His eyes darted to her and back before he placed his paintbrush carefully down and swept her up in a hug.
“Hey, Big Fella! Are you okay?”
He nodded. He could always trust Max to listen to him and, with that in mind, he ushered her to the nearby stool. She sat gingerly and looked up at him with her big, brown, eyes.
“Josh? You okay?”
“Everything alright?” he asked and Max tilted her head in confusion. “Little while ago you said that Logan wasn’t allowed back here again. Max and Logan okay?”
Max sighed, her shoulders slumping in what looked like defeat. “Josh, it’s just... Yes, things have been strained between us, and our friendship isn’t as easy-going as it used to be, but we’re okay. Still friends. I was just concerned that Logan was spending too much unnecessary time here and it’s not fair on you or Alec to keep transfusing him so that he can stay.”
Max smiled. “I know you don’t, Big Fella, so it falls on me to draw the line. Honestly, there’s no reason for him to be here when he can do so much more out there. Behind enemy lines, so to speak. It’s okay, I got this. You don’t have to worry.”
“But Logan’s here.”
Max’s eyes darted around. She was momentarily saved from explanation by X6’s entering the workshop to collect the canvases. Joshua let them know which ones were heading out, including the one that was still drying, before turning back expectantly to Max. She took a deep breath, clearly hoping he would have forgotten about their conversation.
“It’s not that I don’t want him here at all. I just wanted to minimise the amount of unnecessary exposure.”
Joshua raised his eyebrows and she rolled her eyes.
“Fine! Things are still awkward between Alec, Logan and I and it’s just easier if there’s distance. What I said about exposure is still true, but Logan gets all weird around Alec and even though Alec’s ignoring it—for the most part—the others are noticing. I can’t have Alec’s authority questioned around here. Or mine. Or for anyone to turn on Logan. I’ve told Logan to keep his distance, for exposure reasons, and he’s sticking by that.”
“But Logan’s here.” Joshua repeated. Fear was rising in him like a coiling snake and Joshua tried not to fidget.
“He had a few important files to drop off. He began wondering if Father had buried anything like the Conclave had and so he pulled up the floor in the basement. Found some files that obviously Sandeman didn’t want falling into the wrong hands.”
“Files on you?”
This was it. The apocalypse that everyone had been talking about was coming and they finally had the paperwork to prove it. Or maybe it told Max how to stop it. Or how to save everyone—he was still a little sketchy on just how the ‘saviour’ thing was supposed to work. Worse yet, what if it didn’t tell her at all? What if the files only left more questions?
Max’s lips pursed. “Both of us, actually. Well, there were a few on me—just the same basic work-ups that Renfro did, with only a few bits of extra information that she didn’t know to look for—and the original files on you and Isaac. There were all his notes too, some of them might actually help us treat the others. I mean, it’s not exactly the treasure load we were hoping for, but it’s still good information and much better with us that the Conclave.”
Joshua had stilled. He had been so busy preparing for all of the worse case scenarios in his head that he hadn’t actually thought it might be good news. He frowned at her.
“But, Alec all fidg-”
“I KNEW IT!” Max stood quickly. “I knew it! I told him he was acting too suspiciously! Why doesn’t he ever just listen to me?”
“And OC and Sketchy here too...”
Max smiled sheepishly. “Oh, that’s my bad. I thought you’d want to see them.”
Joshua nodded. “It was good but they were nervous and... there’s no Lockdown?”
The horrified look on her face was only amplified by her hand flying to her mouth. “You thought that’s what was happening?”
He shrugged. “Alec trying to keep me busy...”
She threw her arms around him in a tight hug and he felt the tension leave his body as relief flooded in. She pulled back and her eyes searched his.
“I won’t hide that from you, okay?! You’ve shown all of us that you can fight too and, as much as I wanna protect everybody, if it comes down to another fight, we’ll all fight. This is our home.”
“What about the power?”
Max frowned as she tried to figure out what he was referring to and then she turned and her lips tuned up in the corners. “You heard that?”
She ignored his rueful nod and took his hand in hers.
“It’s for a good reason. Come, let me show you.”
She led him from the studio to the darkened gym. His senses went on overdrive as he tried to figure out what was going on but he had only taken a couple of steps over the threshold before the fairy lights blinked on and a disco ball reflected light around the room. A multitude of people jumped out at him yelling, ‘Surprise!’ and he had to try and force his heart rate down as he smiled back. Lining the walls of the gym were his paintings and, across the back wall in large hand-painted letters, were the words, ‘Happy Birthday, Joshua!’ He looked at Max in confusion as music filled the room and several people either slapped him on the back or hugged him.
“One of the things in the files, something which stood out to me, was your birthday. Most of us X’s know ours and you helped so many of the others—we just wanted to give back to someone special. So, this is our way of celebrating you, and how much you mean to us all.”
Alec gave him a big hug and as Joshua looked at all of the people in the room, he couldn’t believe that so many people were here for him. In the background, he could hear Max and Alec good-naturedly arguing over who had blown the surprise first, but he only smiled. He was still surprised. People were dancing, looking at his artwork, talking animatedly amongst themselves—but they were all happy. And they were all there for him.
He was still surprised an hour later when Gem brought in the cake she had managed to whip up in the labs and when he blew out the candles lighting it up, Max yelled, ‘Make a wish!’. He looked around and realised he couldn’t think of one. He was in the happiest moment of his life and he wouldn’t want it to be any other way.