She sends Logan away.
Terminal City isn't safe for him, wouldn't be safe for him even without the mob outside the gates or the police snipers clustered around the perimeter. It's a toxic wasteland, and Logan doesn't have a Transgenic's ability to survive the poisons in the air, in the water, in the ground.
Max does, but she's beginning to believe that she has the ability to survive anything. Doesn't make it hurt any less, though. Doesn't stop it from sucking.
She sends Original Cindy away, too, and somehow that hurts even more. Her Boo, her best friend. The first person to have her back after Manticore, and the only one not to let her down yet.
Yeah, that fucking sucks, too. And of the two of them, Original Cindy is the one who argues least. She should be more surprised by that, but she's not. She thinks that maybe Original Cindy is the one who loves her best; she makes it easy for Max, the way she's always made living just that little bit easier when life is at its worst.
"I see Logan's being noble again."
She's not surprised when Alec leans against the wall next to her, folding his arms across his chest as his eyes track Logan's movements through the streets below. She has a Transgenic's hearing, but Alec has a Transgenic's ability to move quietly; if she heard him coming it's because he wanted her to.
"He can't stay," she says, and her voice doesn't waver, not this time. That's progress, and each step that Logan takes away from her hurts a little less. "Terminal City will kill him."
It sounds rote, an argument she's had so many times that the words come out automatically, no fire in them, all of that passion long since exhausted. Maybe that's progress, too.
She'll take it.
Alec snorts, the sound saying everything that, for once, he's not saying out loud. "He's Eyes Only. I'm sure TC's only one of the things on a very long list."
He doesn't point out that Max is probably at the top of the list, and she doesn't point out that he's the reason why. That's progress of a sort, too.
"He's not being noble," she says instead, and hears the lie. It sits on her tongue, heavy and uncomfortable, even as it echoes in the line of Logan's back, in the way that his steps slow but how he doesn't look back before he finally disappears from sight, down into the maze of tunnels that leads out of TC.
Alec's silence is pointed, but she'll take that, too. It's better than rehashing old arguments, and she's tired, even with her shark DNA. It's the kind of bone-deep weariness that she thinks maybe Joshua would understand.
And speaking of…
"Have you seen Joshua?"
Alec tears his eyes away from his contemplation of the alleyway that Logan disappeared down, giving her a look that she's too tired to interpret. It's familiar though, something of Alec's normal cocksure attitude in it, the kind of mask he pulls on when he's been up to no good, and she's already gritting her teeth before he finally says anything.
"He's walking the perimeter with Mole."
He shrugs like it's no big deal, but she's wise to his tells. The muscle in his jaw twitches as she stares at him, and then tightens when she doesn't look away.
"He's a big boy, Max," he interrupts, the words coming out more harshly than he probably intended, judging by the way he winces as soon as they leave his mouth. "He just wants to help."
"There are ways Joshua can help that don't involve him having to carry a gun." This time the words are heated, something frustrated and furious beating underneath them, something that echoes the slow pulse of an X-5's heart rate, pounding in her ears.
"I think it's a bit late for that, Max."
This time she flinches, guilt swirling through her, and Alec sighs.
"You're not the one who put a gun in his hand, Max. The world did that. The world and Manticore. They've been doing that for a long time." He shrugs. "That's what they made us for, isn't it?"
"Not Joshua," she says stubbornly.
"No, not Joshua…" His voice trails off, his expression growing serious. It doesn't suit him. "But you and me, we don't get to make that choice for him."
It's the 'you and me' that finally silences her, traps the words in her mouth long enough to give Alec the space to continue.
"Let's face it, Max. Once White killed Annie, it was just a matter of time before Joshua got dragged into this war." He shrugs again, but it isn't light-hearted this time, that serious expression still on his face. "Maybe even before."
"It won't come to a war." Once again, she can hear the lie, feeling it slipping from her tongue, all tangled up in everything else. "We'll find another way."
Alec snorts again, but there's nothing dismissive in the sound; it doesn't have his usual level of insincere sarcasm, and there's something genuine in his eyes. As genuine as Alec can ever get.
It's more genuine than he ever used to be.
"I'm sure you will," he says, and even though he aims for sarcasm this time, he misses the mark, something heavy underlying his words. He is usually better at lying than this. They both are.
Joshua isn't, and maybe she owes it to Joshua to face the truth head on.
"Maybe…" she says slowly, forcing the words past a throat that is too tight, "one of us should teach Joshua how to shoot straight."
It's not a capitulation, not entirely, but Alec doesn't call her on it, doesn't crow about the small victory the way he would have once. He simply gives her a little sidelong glance, and for once it's inscrutable.
"And by one of us, you mean me?"
She doesn't bother answering him, not when she's already given him the only victory he can expect tonight. Not when the answer is already so obvious – she still hates the way a weapon in her hand makes her feel, and she won't do that to Joshua.
Alec doesn't call her on her cowardice, or her stupidity in clinging to things she has no business holding onto, not in Terminal City. That's a price she shouldn't ask anyone else to pay. But he gives her an out when he would normally give her shit, and she is a little too grateful for that, the kind of grateful that's edged with the bitter taste of resentment and regret.
"Well, it makes sense, I guess," he says, not quite a capitulation, not when he's reading her too well. His voice is cocky but the look in his eyes stays on the wrong side of serious. "I'm a much better shot."
She scowls at him, ignoring his easy, practiced grin, both of them slipping into familiar patterns. They're both too good at putting on masks, and she pulls everything she feels behind hers, gratitude and grief all mingled in together for the things that Joshua has lost and the things she still gets to keep.
"No, seriously, Max. You really should have kept up target practice after you left Manticore. There are X-7's that can outshoot you, and some of them are twelve. It's embarrassing."
She doesn't pull her punch, and his grin is less practiced as he rubs at his arm. Only most of it is for show – she can still shoot, no matter what he says, but she's never skimped on hand-to-hand.
The grief fades, slowly. It leaves something quiet behind, something that is not quite gratitude this time, but is close enough for government work.
It's close enough for Max.
"Thanks," she says, pointedly not looking in Alec's direction. She still catches the way that his expression turns quizzical in her peripheral vision, but for once he keeps his mouth shut, choosing waiting her out over smacking her in the face with it.
The silence stretches out between them, but even that doesn't put her on edge. They're getting better at the silences, she thinks. Better than she's ever been at them with Logan.
"And speak of the devil," Alec finally murmurs next to her, his gaze fixed on the street below. For a second she thinks his thoughts have echoed hers, and her heart gives a complicated twist, something that is not quite grief and not quite anger but that falls and easily between.
But when she looks, it's not Logan she sees striding back towards her, his shoulders stiff with righteous pride. It's Joshua's shuffle she recognises, the way he curls his shoulders in, even here in TC, as though that could ever hide the height and breadth of him, and it's so achingly familiar that something clenches again in her chest.
That, at least, is an easier pain to bear.
Joshua disappears into the doorway below, and she hears him long before she sees him again, already turning to face the door to the roof before he finally clatters through it.
He smiles when he sees her, but there are shadows in his eyes, ones that weren't there before White.
"Hey, big fella."
He grins at her, but even that is subdued, not as wide as it once was, and not as innocent.
Alec is right, as much as it pains her to admit it. She can't protect Joshua from this. She can only prepare him.
"Hey, little fella," he says, and that, at least, sounds happier, genuinely pleased to see her the way that Joshua always is. Sometimes she thinks he's the only one glad to see her coming, for all of the trouble she brings. "Hey, Alec."
Alec moves closer to him, obviously heading out for his own patrol now that Joshua's shift has finished. He pauses on his way past, letting his hand come to rest on Joshua's shoulder for a moment as he sends a quick, searching look in Max's direction.
The something in his eyes, something that's not quite sympathy but isn't a kick in the teeth far from it. It shouldn't be familiar, not from Alec, but then it's been a long time since he's been the smart-ass she named him for.
Doesn't mean he's not still an ass.
He's waiting, she knows. Waiting for her to make the final call, even though he won't let it go if she makes the wrong one.
She nods, once, and a barely-there tension eases from his shoulders. He pats Joshua's shoulder a couple of times, the kind of casual affection that he's so good at and that she's never quite managed to perfect.
"Big fella," he says, his tone serious even though the look he shoots Max is anything but. "I've gotta book, but I'll catch you later, okay?" He pats Joshua's shoulder once or twice more before sending Max a sloppy salute, something that's all Alec and attitude, his eyes gleaming in the gathering twilight. "You, too, Max. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
She snorts. That's a hell of a short list.
Joshua watches him go, something mournful in the set of his mouth. They've barely had a chance to spend any time together, the three of them, since the siege at Jam Pony, and, weirdly, she's missed it.
Missed the both of them.
"Everything okay?" she asks Joshua quietly, and he nods, his head tilted as he listens for Alec making his way downstairs. She is not surprised when he lopes over, resting his arms on the wall where Alec stood, where the bricks are probably still warm from Alec's body.
"It's quiet," he says. "Police aren't moving, nobody shooting. No rocks or bottles. It's good."
"That's as good as it gets, I suppose."
He makes a soft sound of agreement, his eyes fixed on the street below, just waiting.
She waits with him, leaning into his body warmth even though she doesn't need it, not with her DNA.
She was right; the bricks still hold Alec's body heat and she rests her hand right where Alec's had been, feeling that lingering warmth.
She stays with Joshua and watches Alec move down the street, half-keeping to the shadows, because even here, in the heart of Terminal City, paranoia might just keep them alive.
They wait until he reaches the corner.
They wait until he stops and looks back.