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Change of Heart

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Max Tegan was heading across the parking lot after a long – extremely long – day at work, thinking about getting home and pretty much nothing else. Eating, maybe, if he decided he could spare the energy or the time for it. He ran a hand through his dark hair, noticing absently that it was starting to get a little shaggy. With eleven new investors and Josie’s new algorithms for the site and the supposed threat of market-share competition from Kindlin, their dragon-lady boss Elise had been pushing the entire team to the brink of exhaustion, wanting to drive the business higher.

Elise, of course, had never met the brink of exhaustion and didn’t really believe it existed. Max had finally stopped wondering if she was actually human or not – the answer had to be not. And you couldn’t show any weakness, perceived or otherwise, around her, because she didn’t tolerate weakness. Period. In anyone. For any reason.

Which was why Max was very momentarily happy that his dangerous, gun-toting dragon-lady boss wasn’t there to see him get jumped halfway across the parking lot by someone who hopefully only had mugging on their mind. The knife could be for show, right? The stains could be a trick of the light. And the guy’s crazy, bloodshot eyes could be…his hopeful imagination threw up its hands and walked off at that point, leaving Max on the ground with a crazed, possibly strung-out mugger holding a bloody knife standing over him. Crap, he was going to die, wasn’t he? Right there in the fucking parking lot, where Elise would see his corpse in the morning and mock it for not being alive – or maybe order it to get up and get to work. It was entirely possible she didn’t believe in death as an excuse, either.

Max was trying to decide whether he should start begging for his life or not when a miracle occurred: A black-clad figure leaped out of the night and knocked the knife out of the mugger’s hand. And then it knocked the mugger down, and for a minute Max thought there was going to be a fight…and then the mugger pissed his pants right there in front of God and everybody, scrambled cringingly to his feet, stuck both hands in the air and started backing up, shaking his head violently. “Goin’, I’m goin’!” he exclaimed in a panicked voice. “I’m sorry, I won’t come back, don’t kill me, man, don’t kill me…”

The man in black made a threatening move, stamping down one foot the way you’d warn off a child or a dog, and the mugger broke and ran, trailing pee across the asphalt because obviously the first scare hadn’t gotten it all. And then the man looked down at Max.

No, he looked Max over, quite possibly all the way down to the molecular level. Max shuddered. The man was short and muscular, and of course dressed all in form-fitting black with most of his face covered by same, and he had the intense dark eyes of a movie hero-vigilante – more hopeful thinking on Max’s part, of course, but his imagination had been intrigued into coming back by the idea of being saved by a ninja in a parking lot and so was willing to do him a solid in the wishful reasoning department. The man also didn’t appear to be armed, except in the literal sense because his biceps were making cartoon superhero bulges under his black shirt. He checked Max out intently, apparently didn’t see anything he was looking for, and then took off into the night, vanishing in seconds into the shadows where the anemic parking lot lights didn’t reach.

Max slowly sat up. He could see the knife, lying there on the asphalt, and now it was really obvious that it was bloodstained. He started to get to his feet, couldn’t get his shaking legs to cooperate, and fished out his cellphone instead, dialing 911. “Hello,” he said when the operator picked up and asked what his emergency was. “Do you count it as an emergency if some guy just tried to mug me and possibly kill me in the parking lot of my work but some other guy ran him off and now I’m here sitting on the ground looking at the bloody knife he was going to kill me with?”

The operator calmly assured him that yes, that did count – much to Max’s relief – and asked for his location so she could send the police to get the knife and get a statement from him. She even stayed on the phone with him until they got there so he wouldn’t be alone. Max asked the officer who drove him home after the statement-taking and knife-bagging was over if it was possible to leave some kind of 5-star review for a 911 operator and was disappointed to find out there wasn’t, but the officer promised that he’d pass the compliment on once he got back to the station. He even made sure Max got inside his apartment all right, although he said a repeat encounter with either attacker was highly unlikely. “Your rescuer has made it kind of plain that he’s the only bad thing allowed in the area, if you know what I mean,” he confided. “Not that we’ve had any complaints about him except for the ones from a few perps’ lawyers, but you know how it is – we can’t let just any Tom, Dick or Ninja Guy start running around playing vigilante games in the streets at night. And I think your guy must know that, because he never does anything that would make us have to go after him, and he never shows up in the same place twice or hangs around long enough for anyone to figure him out.” He clapped a reassuring hand on Max’s shoulder. “What I’m saying is…you’re fine, okay? You’ll never have any problems in that parking lot again, because the junkies think your guy is the god-damned boogeyman and they won’t go anyplace he’s already chased them out of.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Sure you don’t want to call a friend or something, though? You have every right to be shook up, it was still a close call.”

Max shook his head, wrapping his arms around his chest. The idea of calling one of his co-workers for…this sort of thing was unthinkable. He couldn’t handle the teasing right now, he just couldn’t. He found a shaky smile for the officer. “I’ll actually…be better off without any of them here, honest,” he said. “I’ll be fine, really.”

“Okay, your call,” the officer agreed, and let himself out. Max locked the deadbolt after him, put on the chain, and then slowly walked into his bedroom, sat down on the end of his bed, and just shook some more. He was entitled, after all. The nice police officer had said so.

And if he dreamed fitfully about ninjas once he finally did get to sleep…well, that was okay too.

 

Max was still too shaken up to drive the next morning – or to contemplate braving the parking lot after dark again to get to his car if he did drive – so he took a cab to work. Which deviation from normal was immediately commented on by multiple people, all of whom just automatically assumed that his car hadn’t started that morning. Max was happily letting them think that when someone who was surfing instead of working found the police report buried in the day’s local news and started telling everyone else about a near-mugging happening right in their very own parking lot the night before. Eventually someone else put two and two together and figured it out, and it wasn’t very long after that that he found himself being tapped on the shoulder by a frowning Elise.

Who had a gun in her hand, which almost sent Max right out of his skin just on general principles. “Do you want some protection?” she asked him point-blank. “Because I can teach you to use this, so it won’t happen again.”

Max got his breath back and shook his head. “No, I…thanks, for the offer, but I’m fine. The police said we shouldn’t have any more problems here. And the junkie just had a knife.”

“Gun beats knife, every time,” she informed him, but tucked the holstered gun under her arm. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

“I will, thanks.” Surreal, but that was Elise. At least she hadn’t gotten on his case for not standing up to the mugger, which was nice.

She made fun of him for it later, in their meeting – that was also Elise. But Max handled it, because he knew it was more about their coworkers than it was about him. If it hadn’t been, she wouldn’t have caught him alone first and offered him a gun and lessons to make him feel better. Weird, by most people’s standards, but that was just the way Elise worked and Max had gotten used to it. He weathered the teasing with a quip or two, suggested that in spite of the officer’s assurances they might want to warn employees working late that they shouldn’t work late alone, and let it go. And so did everyone else.

Josie did ask him if he was all right later, though, which he thought was nice of her – as in nice that she’d remembered to ask at all, which was also a good sign that she was currently more human than algorithm-spewing robot goblin. And Blake nervously brought him a cookie and even more nervously asked if he wanted a ride home after work since he’d taken a cab that morning and cabs were expensive, and Max thanked him but said that no, he’d be fine and he’d be driving again the next day, he’d just been…shook up. To which Blake nodded a little too vigorously – for anyone else, but pretty much normal for him – and told Max that if he needed anything just to ask and then darted back to the front desk. And Max had smiled, actually smiled and even felt a little warm inside. Say what you wanted to about Blake, who could be really, really annoying sometimes, but he was a good little guy at heart. Max resolved to step back on the Blake-teasing in the future in appreciation of that. Their office could get kind of brutal in that area, something Elise had unintentionally started because she just didn’t have a filter or see any reason to get one, but maybe it had gone too far, gotten too mean. In fact, thinking back, Max sort of wanted to cringe away from some things he actually remembered himself saying to his coworkers, especially to Blake. He’d sounded like a bully, in hindsight, and that really wasn’t the kind of person he saw himself as or wanted to be seen as, either.

He resolved to do better, starting immediately. Which turned out to be harder than he’d initially thought it would be. He’d actually been acting like a mean bastard to certain of his coworkers long enough for it to have become a habit, which was worrisome to him, but he pushed on despite the occasional slip – which he made himself apologize for each time – and gradually, actually painfully slowly, he started to get a better handle on the problem and it started to go away.

Blake called him on it at the end of the first week. “Max, are you…are you okay? Because you haven’t…you haven’t been acting…well, like yourself, lately.” He scratched his front tooth with a fingernail. “Is it still about that…that incident? In the parking lot?”

Max made a face. “Kind of it is, but kind of not,” he admitted. “I realized after it happened that we’d gotten more than a little mean around the office – I mean, you were so nice to me the day after, once everyone found out, you were actually the only person besides Elise who was really nice about it, and I realized that I’d been…well, a total dick, a lot more of one than I was really comfortable with being and a lot more often than I’d realized I was doing it.” He shrugged. “So I decided I needed to stop doing that. Maybe if so many of us around here weren’t acting like assholes all the time, that night I could have…well, maybe I would have felt like I could call someone to talk to that night, instead of sitting home alone trying to deal with what happened on my own.”

Blake leaned forward, just a little, and looked him in the eye; he had brown eyes, just like Max did, and they were surprisingly intense. “You can call me,” he said, not sounding hyper or displaying a tic or anything. “You know you can call me, right?”

“Yeah, buddy, I do – and you can call me, too, although I really hope I’m the only one who gets threatened with death and/or dismemberment in the parking lot this year. The cops said I would be. But even for mundane stuff, you know, you drank too much or you need a ride or something – just call me. Because the dealing with it alone thing sucks donkey balls.”

“That it does,” Blake agreed, and then the nervous twitchiness came back and he bounced off. Max watched him go, puzzled. Something…well, he’d figure out what was nagging him about that later, right now he had work to do.

 

Of course, it didn’t take too long before other people around the office started to notice Max’s change of attitude, and not much longer than that before they started to comment on it to him instead of just to each other. Mostly in relatively negative ways – meaning, now Max was the one getting picked on more often than not. He held strong and persevered. Elise had said once that she was disgusted people weren’t already their ideal selves, and so when she’d asked Max about his change in attitude in her blunt way he’d explained it the same way he had to Blake and she’d not only gotten it, she’d actually been supportive. Well, supportive for Elise, but it was one of those things Max didn’t and had never held against her; Elise was the way she was, she was happy with herself, and it seemed to work for her in a way that it usually didn’t for normal-ish people. Max only concerned himself with it when they were talking to clients or investors, at which point it became his job to help balance her inherent Elise-ness out and make sure whoever talked to her knew they didn’t have a reason to run for their lives and/or call the cops.

Josie usually did damage-control for Elise as well, but she’d been being an absolute little shit to Max ever since he’d stopped participating in the teasing around the office; she’d done it before, most recently during their last divisive run-in with Elise’s competitive reindeer games, although she’d ended up apologizing to him for that one. He knew she was picking on him, in her own mind, in a ‘fun’ way, but knowing that wasn’t making it any fun for him. Her he actually – verbally, anyway – duked it out with a few times, although he never got anywhere with those arguments because you just couldn’t argue with Josie, about anything. Which was another thing he usually just accepted, Josie being Josie and occasionally being either a robot or a goblin or possibly a robot-goblin hybrid, but for some reason he’d been having more trouble dealing with it lately than he had in the past.

And then, he got a visit from HR. FindLove.net had one HR person, a guy named Martin who was almost indecently pretty and perfect, sort of like a Hollywood actor playing the yuppie bad guy in a movie. He was also a complete and total dick, further completing the yuppie bad-guy image in Max’s mind. Martin appeared in the break room doorway while Max was having a slightly rushed late lunch one day, leaning against it but not coming into the room – Martin never came into the break room that anyone ever saw, rumor had it that he was germ-phobic and kept his own bottled water and snacks in his office. Or possibly in a hidden refrigerator under his desk, something nobody else but him probably could have gotten away with since Elise tended to treat him like a favored pet. Not for the reasons Martin probably thought, as Martin all-too-obviously considered himself to be God’s gift to an undeserving world, but because all he had to do was open his mouth to confirm every scathing comment Elise had ever made about men and fully fifty-percent of every scathing comment she’d ever made about humanity in general. He really was a dick.

He also had only the barest comprehension of how a concept like ‘confidentiality’ applied to the rarely-seen performance of his actual job. “I heard you’re having some problems with the prevailing corporate culture of our company,” he announced – and in spite of them being the only two people present, it was definitely an announcement and not just a statement. “You’re supposed to take any issues you have to your supervisor…”

“…Or bring them to HR?” Max supplied helpfully. “Isn’t that the way that’s supposed to work, you take problems to HR?”

Martin made a face like Max had just started eating a dead rat in front of him and then offered to share. “Your supervisor can bring them to me if it’s necessary. Which I doubt it will be.” He rolled his eyes at the apparent plebian nature of such problems, which would doubtless be beneath him and a criminal waste of his time to deal with. “But someone else said something to me via the complaint box, so I’m following up for my weekly report. Stop harassing your fellow employees, Mr. Tegan.”

“My fellow employees are a bunch of bullies – which you’d know if you ever came out of your office,” Max countered. “And I haven’t been harassing anyone, I’ve simply been refusing to take part in the verbal abuse and harassment of other employees…”

“Who you happen to be sleeping with?”

The words were so unexpected that Max actually felt his brain throw out a system-not-responding error as it tried and failed to process them. He slowly shook his head. “I’m not seeing anyone here at work.”

That got another eye-roll. “Sure you aren’t. Don’t even try to deny it, you come to the defense of one particular coworker more often than any other. You must have a reason for that, correct?”

Max frowned as the error resolved itself. So that was it. He really did work with assholes. “Yeah, I do – he’s been getting singled out for most of the verbal abuse and harassment. Even by me, before, and when I realized what I was doing…I stopped. Because it wasn’t right, and that’s not the person I want to be.” He saw the other man shaking his head in denial of that and stood up, starting to get angry; it made him feel just a tiny bit better that he was several inches taller than Martin. “So you, as our director of Human Resources, find it perfectly a-okay for employees of our company to be abusive to one another, is that what you’re saying? But if someone decides it’s gone too far and refuses to participate anymore, then that person is the troublemaker…and your automatic assumption is that they must only be objecting because sex is involved. Is that it? Is that what you showed up here in the break room to convey to me?”

Martin straightened away from the doorframe. “This entire company – which pays both of our salaries – is based entirely on the idea that everything people do leads to or from sex, Tegan,” he bit out. “That’s the way people work. I realize Elise hired you to be her ideals person, to make sure the public face we show is all romance and commitment and happily ever after…but those are just ideals, fantasies, and the rest of us know it.” He shook his head, tsking lightly, a mocking, smirking sort of sneer quirking up one corner of his mouth. “You know, if there was one person doing anything just because of an ideal,” he made it sound like a dirty word, “that would be you, wouldn’t it? Consider yourself off the hook for the favors-for-sex ethical violation someone complained about, I’ll put it in my report that you’re just an ‘idealist’ trying to push his own standards of appropriate interpersonal behavior onto his coworkers and that I gave you a verbal warning for it.”

He sauntered off again, and Max slowly sank back down onto the hard break-room chair, feeling like he’d just had a rug yanked out from under him. Because even after some of the shit that had gone on recently thanks to their Kindlin-related market-share issues, he’d still thought he was an important member of the team at FindLove.net, not just Elise’s ‘ideals’ person, hired to balance out all the logic-wielding numbers people. And certainly not just…not just a joke.

From the corner of the break room, the round convex lens of a small security camera glinted in the light from the sunny window behind him, allowing the green light on its base to go unnoticed.

 

Max was unusually subdued at the afternoon meeting, and when he got back to his desk afterward and found a mocked-up Planeteer ring with a heart on it on his keyboard, he stopped talking altogether. He went home early after sending Elise an email saying he was sick. He composed and discarded three resignation letters, played with his resume for a little while, and finally went to bed and just stared at the ceiling until he fell into a restless sleep.

The next morning, Blake greeted him with honest concern when he came in to work, wanting to know if he was feeling better. Max managed a sickly smile – and after his sleepless night he really did look like he’d been sick, and he didn’t feel so hot either. “I’m okay – I’ll be okay,” he said. “I just…I guess something just sort of knocked me for a loop, I’ll get over it.” He added a little more wattage to the smile, even managed a wink because Blake still looked worried. “Thanks for asking, though.”

Blake just nodded. Max continued on to his desk, found the Planeteer ring still there…but now there was something under it, a folded piece of paper. He unpacked his laptop, plugged in and sat down, then took a deep breath and moved the ring, opening the note. Inside was a simple printed message:

Without the Heart, Captain Planet would have been a monster.

Max sat there, stunned. And then, slowly, he smiled. He put the ring on a shelf where everyone could see it, and the note where he could see it but where nobody else could, logged in to the network and got to work. He had emails and things to catch up on thanks to leaving early the day before, and the team had a meeting with Elise in two hours. And he also had a really awesome friend named Blake.

He never heard another word from HR, although the following week he did hear someone mention that Elise had torn Martin a new one over something and the bastard didn’t have his own refrigerator anymore. And eventually everyone in the office calmed back down, and the bullying problem actually did settle down to what might be considered ‘normal’ levels – as opposed to the levels it had been at before. Which made Max happy in a way he was kind of unhappy he couldn’t share with anyone without sounding like the kind of person Martin had accused him of being. He might just be Elise’s ideals person…but he’d still made a difference.

Chapter Text

Six weeks went by, for the most part uneventfully. Kindlin was already showing signs of going the way of most dating apps, maybe even a little quicker than most once word started getting around that some people were screen-capping the profile pictures and then doing image searches to find the owners of those pictures on other social media sites – thereby bypassing what little personal privacy the mutual-swipe-to-view-profile function was supposed to provide for its users. And Josie had come up with something that would somehow block dick-pics in FindLove’s messaging system, while Max had gotten with the site’s database team and had them set up file exclusions so that any picture whose metadata pointed to it being over a year old could not be uploaded as a user’s main profile picture. FindLove was also developing a new app of its own which would let members check their messages more conveniently on their phones – thereby allowing them to communicate more fluidly with potential love-interests without giving out their cell phone number.

Of course, this also meant that they were all still working incredibly hard, and keeping a lot of late hours. Max had mostly given up on having a social life for the time being, because he was just too tired to want to do anything by the time he got off work every night and his weekends were mostly devoted to cleaning, shopping, and sleeping. He knew Josie was seeing someone – she’d been gloating and dropping hints – and he suspected that person might just be someone who worked for one of their competitors, because she never used his actual name the way she had Derek’s. It was probably someone from Match, they had an office just a few blocks away and tended to frequent the same bars after work that the FindLove staff did. Max wasn’t going to say anything, though; Josie was still being a little shit to him a lot of the time, yes, but not so much that he’d throw her under the bus with Elise that way. Especially since Elise’s bus was more likely to be a tank. And possibly have a flamethrower mounted on it.

Which was the other part of the reason Max had been working himself half to death lately. He’d already come really close to being fired once this year, he’d been given a warning by HR which had no doubt gone in his employment records, and some of the other employees were still making it plain that they didn’t like him very much. So he just didn’t dare give Elise even the tiniest possible reason to think she should get rid of him, especially since the job market in his field was so saturated he might never get back into it again if he got booted out. And he really didn’t want to go back to being a bartender.

Blake seemed to be more than a little worried about Max’s shift into the ‘driven by fear’ end of the workaholic spectrum. He never brought it up directly, but he’d started to just show up in front of Max’s desk in that materialized-out-of-thin-air way he had and ask if Max wanted to get a beer after work, or go to the movies or something on a Friday night. Max couldn’t say no to him. Blake normally had less of a social life than Max currently did, so having the guy push that envelope for him because they were buddies and he was worried…well, it was special, and that meant something to Max.

It was probably inevitable that his feelings started to get a little deeper than that, Max being a sentimental, romantic kind of guy, but he did his best to hold those feelings back. Blake had never indicated that he was, well, interested, and he definitely knew Max was gay, so Max was leery of indicating that he himself was getting interested in being more than just buddies. Not just because of the complaint that had gotten HR on his ass in the first place, although that was part of it; but also because while hitting on a close friend would be perfectly okay as part of the plot of a fictional romance, it would be just plain weird in real life and could cost him a friend he’d really come to value.

 

Trusting what the police had told him, Max had not expected to get jumped in the parking lot at work again. He’d still been a little more careful, a little more watchful, but he’d stopped worrying about a repeat performance…which was one reason why, when it did happen, he was almost as shocked as he had been by the first attack. The other reason why was that this time it wasn’t some random junkie with a knife attacking him with the implied intent to rob and possibly kill.

This time it was Martin, the HR guy, and nothing about his intentions was implied because he announced those intentions right up front and quite loudly after knocking Max off his feet – apparently ‘loud announcement’ was the only vocal setting Martin had anywhere, not just in the office. “You cost me some of the cushiness of my position by tattling to the boss like the worthless emo whiner you are,” Martin informed him. “She’s been on my ass ever since, and she’s indicated that she’s planning to stay there for the foreseeable future until I ‘figure out how to do my actual job instead of just throwing attitude around’ – which means I am also tanked when it comes to finding another job because I won’t be able to get a decent personal reference from her, which has fucked up my future plans. Not to mention the way you’ve been sucking up to her lately, just so you can make me look even worse. So in return for you fucking up my life, I am going to beat the living shit out of you, Tegan.” He shook the tire iron he was holding for emphasis. “And you’re going to take it, and you’re going to tell everyone another junkie did it, because I know where you fucking live and I know where your parents and your sister fucking live – I know everything about you and I will not hesitate to use any or all of that information if you cause me any more trouble, got it?” He kicked and Max yelped because the bastard was wearing shiny hard shoes and it had hurt. “Aw, I knew you wouldn’t be able to take a beating like a man. I’m not even going to have to break a sweat to break you, am I?” He smiled his disturbingly perfect Ken-doll smile, which Max actually found scarier than the tire iron, and then kicked again to make Max curl up. Which gave him his opening to use the tire iron, which came down on Max’s side with only about half as much force as the guy was probably capable of exerting, but it still felt like getting hit by a steel bar in the ribs to Max. The second time the iron descended he tried to block it, or maybe to catch it like guys in the movies did, kicking out at the same time to try to force Martin back away from him so he could get back to his feet and try to put some distance between them, but his arm turned out not to be a good thing to block a tire iron with in real life and ‘half as much force’ was apparently plenty as the impact and associated cracking pain made him scream. Which got him another kick and an attempted stomp to one of his ankles that missed. Max curled up again, trying to protect his arm, panicking now. Martin was saying something about maybe him needing his jaw wired shut to remind him not to be a tattletale…

And then Martin was the one screaming, because a black blur had just leaped out of nowhere and attacked him from behind, grabbing the arm wielding the tire iron and punching him in the ribs on that side, then spinning him around by that same arm to punch him square in the face, following that up with a knee to the stomach that morphed into what looked like a judo throw that hurled him crashing into the ground with enough force to visibly dislocate his shoulder. Martin tried to crawl away, now screaming for help from Max of all people, and the guy stalked after him like a cat playing with a wounded mouse, kicking the tire iron away from his reaching hand and then delivering a kick to his hip that flipped him over onto his back. And then the man yanked Martin up by his shirt collar, giving him a shake to shut him up before bitch-slapping him back down again, so hard his head bounced when it hit the asphalt. That was apparently all it took: Martin stopped screaming or trying to get away at that point, instead curling up and making the really pitiful noise that a dog makes right after you run it over with a car.

And then the guy in black just straightened, turned, and walked away, obviously finished. His intense brown eyes met Max’s for a moment, he gave a very brief nod as though to say ‘You’re welcome’ to the ‘thank you’ Max couldn’t quite choke out…and then he was gone again, just like a ninja in a movie, just like before. Max managed to sit up even though doing it made his ribs and his stomach scream at him, cradling the arm he was pretty sure was broken against his chest and just staring at the place where the guy had been standing – although he kept one wary eye on the sobbing, bleeding pile of Martin a few feet away just in case. Part of his mind was screaming that he needed to fish out his phone and call the police, that he needed to yell for help or get back to the office or something…but his body wasn’t responding to that part of his mind, so it was just background noise.

He didn’t even jump when Elise and Blake ran up on him, he just blinked when Blake very gently took hold of his shoulders and looked him in the eye, saying something…the police, that was it, they’d called the police. Blake had seen the attack happening in the parking lot and called the police, and he’d gotten Elise. Who Max vaguely heard say, ‘Crap, he’s in shock, stay with him,’ before moving over to Martin, looming over Martin, and telling him he was so fired and couldn’t collect unemployment in jail. Something about aggravated assault and what kind of loser was he that he’d go after someone with a tire iron anyway because tire irons were for cowards and the weak.

Max wanted to laugh at that, but all he managed was a sort of hiccupping noise that made him curl up more around the parts that hurt. And he felt cold; in fact, he thought he was shivering, which also hurt. Was this shock? He wasn’t sure, but then Blake was wrapping strong arms around him, holding him very gently, and Max could tell he was shivering after that because he knew Blake wasn’t. Blake was murmuring something very softly in his ear, too, a soft litany of reassurances and apologies that slowly started to make sense.

Max blinked, hard. And blinked again. He was still cold, but that was mostly his butt where he was sitting on the asphalt. His arm hurt, probably because it was broken, but a warm, strong hand was locked around his wrist, and the arm attached to that hand was supporting and bracing his broken arm to try to keep it from moving and hurting more. Max blinked a third time. “That’s…nice,” he said. “You’re so nice.”

The chest he was leaning against released a relieved breath. “I try,” Blake told him. “Are you starting to come back, Max?”

Max considered the question and slowly shook his head. “I don’t know. A little bit, maybe. You’re warm.”

“You were shivering,” Blake informed him. “You were shivering and it was making you hurt more.” He shifted, just slightly and somehow without making anything hurt worse, so that Max could see his face. “You missed it, Elise kicked Martin when he tried to grab her ankle. She’s on the phone with 911 dispatch right now, keeping them updated – not about her kicking him, about the situation in general.” Blake’s free hand reached around under Max’s jacket and gently felt around his ribcage; he sighed when Max involuntarily let out a soft, pained cry. “Shh, shh, I’m sorry, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Blake answered the immediate demand from Elise to know what that had been with a shrug. “I was checking his ribs. I don’t think they’re broken – he’s breathing okay – but they’re definitely hurt.”

Elise relayed that to the 911 dispatcher, and then there was a yelp of pain from Martin. “She got him with the toe of her shoe,” he murmured in Max’s ear. “Right in the balls, I think.”

Max processed that. “She’s…mad at him.”

“She’s really really mad at him,” Blake confirmed. “Especially the part about the tire iron. If he hadn’t done that, if it had been a fair fight, she wouldn’t be nearly as mad and you probably could have held your own. You’ve got a couple of inches and twenty or thirty pounds on him at least.”

Max shook his head – and then stopped, because that hurt too. “He has muscles, he works out…”

“He has gym muscles,” Blake corrected. “He works out to look pretty. Er, anyway.” A pause. “He’s not very pretty right now.”

“No.” And Max shuddered, which made Blake’s arm tighten around him. “No, not anymore.”

“No, not anymore,” Blake agreed softly. “That is not your fault, Max. He made the decision – a bad one – to pick a fight with you in the parking lot, he made the decision – an even worse one – to arm himself with a potentially deadly weapon, and he made the decision – the glowing worst-decision cherry on top of all the others – to actually follow through physically instead of just trying to scare you.”

Max let himself lean against Blake a little more, staring out across the parking lot. “He did scare me.”

“He won’t be scaring anyone else, and you don’t have to worry about him coming after you again,” Blake promised – and it did sound like a promise. “He’s done, Max. He’s finished. You’ll never see him again…because if he gets out of jail and shows up here, Elise will kill him.”

That was probably true, in a very literal sense. Still…“He said he knew where my parents live, and my sister. He said I was going to tell everyone a j-junkie attacked me, like before…because he knew that.”

The little rumble under his shoulder blade…had that been a growl? “Elise!” Blake called over. “Max said Martin threatened his parents and his sister if he told anyone that it was Martin who attacked him!”

There was no mistaking the fact that Elise had just growled. Luckily, the police showed up a few seconds later or she probably would have done something worse to Martin than just kicking him in the balls again. Max heard Elise start talking to the police officers who’d showed up, heard her showing them the tire iron and telling them how fired Martin was and that he’d threatened to use the personal information available to him through his – now former – position to hurt Max’s family if Max didn’t lie about who had hurt him and say it hadn’t been Martin at all.

And then Blake started to talk, telling a police officer just out of Max’s line of sight what he had seen and how he’d called the police and what he thought Max’s injuries were – including something about a bump and confusion and a possible head injury, which made no sense at all. Blake talking was soothing, even though he was stuttering again, and Max let his eyes close. Which made the police officer and Blake start talking to him instead of about him, so Max reluctantly opened his eyes again. The police officer was squatting down in his line of sight now, and it was the same officer who’d driven him home the last time he’d been attacked in the parking lot. Max blinked at him. “Oh, hi.”

The police officer nodded. “Hi yourself, Max. Can you tell me what happened here tonight?”

“Didn’t everyone else already tell you that?”

“Yes, but I need to hear it from you, because you were the one who was here first. We know there was a fight, did you start it or did someone else?”

Max shook his head, grimacing when it hurt again. “He attacked me, I was just…I was just leaving work and going to my car. Like last time.”

“Okay. So who’s the guy that attacked you this time, do you know him?”

Max nodded. “That’s Martin, our HR guy.”

“Do you and Martin get along?” Max shook his head. “Why not? Did the two of you have a fight about something?”

Max sighed. “No, not really. He caught me in the break room one day, he wanted to get on my ass about a complaint someone had made.” The cop made a ‘go on’ noise, and Max sighed again. “I was trying to be nicer to people, someone didn’t like that. Martin thought it was because I was having sex with Blake.”

The police officer glanced up – at Blake, most likely – and then cocked an eyebrow. “Were you having sex with Blake, Max?”

“No, he’s just my friend. We could be more than friends if he wanted to, though.”

Blake started to cough, startling him just a bit, and the police officer smiled just slightly and patted Max’s leg. “I think Blake may have been surprised to hear that. You guys can talk about that later, though. Okay, so Martin your HR guy confronted you in the break room…”

“Not quite two months ago,” Blake interjected quietly, his voice sounding a little funny to Max. “It was…done in a very unprofessional way.”

“He’s just like that – unprofessional, I mean,” Max tacked on. “He decided I was too stupid and idealistic to do sex for favors, though, so he said he was going to drop the complaint and put down that he reprimanded me for trying to push my own standards of behavior on my co-workers.”

The police officer frowned. “Did anything physical happen? Pushing or throwing things, anything like that?” Max shook his head. “Has he confronted you again between then and now?”

“No.” Max made a face, thinking. It was hard, the inside of his head felt…fuzzy for some reason. “I heard someone say he got in trouble with Elise for something about a week later, though. Some of the things he said when he attacked me…I think he got in trouble for what he said in the break room, but I don’t know how anyone could have known because I was the only person there. Besides Martin, of course.”

“Security footage,” Blake put in, even more quietly. “We have a security camera in the break room…and it has sound.” His arm tightened around Max. “I’m…that was my fault, I saw the footage and I…I made sure Elise got to see it too.” Max looked at him, blinking a question, and he made a face. “I’m…it’s my fault, Max, mine. I showed that security footage to…to Elise, because Martin was so obviously out of line when he talked to you that…that day.”

Max considered that, and then he smiled. “Thanks.”

“It’s not your fault the guy’s a psycho,” the police officer assured Blake, who was still looking kind of worried. “I mean, you have to know it’s not normal behavior for someone to physically attack a co-worker and threaten their family just because their boss chewed them a new one – if it was, our entire precinct would be behind bars and the Chief would be taking all the calls by himself.” That made Max laugh, which made him curl up again and blink really hard, and Blake’s arms tightened around him again. The officer grimaced apologetically. “Yeah, laughing’s bad when you’re hurt, I’ll try not to make you do that again. So can you tell me what happened in the parking lot tonight, Max? Start at the beginning: You were leaving work for the day…”

“I came out, at my usual time – I wasn’t working late tonight, no meetings,” Max told him slowly. “It wasn’t dark yet…”

“Did you see anyone else in the parking lot?”

“No. I always look around, since the last time, but I didn’t see anyone. And then someone shoved me really hard and knocked me down, and when I looked up it was Martin, with a tire iron in his hand.” He frowned, forehead wrinkling. “He looked…rabid.”

“That’s a pretty good description of the kind of person who attacks people in parking lots with a tire iron,” muttered Blake.

The police officer agreed with a nod. “Yeah, can’t argue with you there. Max, what did Martin do after he knocked you down?”

“Complained because he got in trouble with Elise and she’d been staying on his ass until he ‘figured out what his actual job was’. Told me he was going to beat the crap out of me as payback. Then he kicked me and then he hit me with the tire iron.” The frown again. “I don’t think he was hitting me as hard as he could.”

“Was that when he broke your arm?”

Max shook his head. “No, he did that when I tried to stop him from hitting me with the tire iron again; I tried to block it and it didn’t work and then I screamed and he said something about needing my jaw wired shut for a while so I’d learn not to be a tattletale and he tried to stomp on my foot…and then the guy in black was kicking his ass.” In spite of himself, he shuddered. “It was…it was so...”

“Fast?” The officer patted his leg again. “First time you’ve ever seen a real beat-down happen, huh?” Max nodded, swallowing. “Yeah, it doesn’t look like the movies, that’s for sure – those fights are choreographed to be…well, pretty, or at least dramatic. Real fights aren’t like that, real fights are quick and brutal.” He frowned. “It’s weird, though. Until this, our guy has never actually hurt anybody – scared the crap out of them, sure, but he’s never doled out a beating like this. Kind of makes me wonder if it was even our guy, because this just isn’t his M.O. He’s never done more than shove the junkies around a little, maybe slapped a few of them…”

“He slapped Martin.” The police officer blinked. “He…bitch slapped him? With the back of his hand. It made Martin’s head bounce off the asphalt.”

“He slapped him after he knocked him down?”

“Martin was trying to get the tire iron back, after the guy threw him down the first time,” Max told him. “He was crawling to it, the guy kicked it away and then kicked him really hard to flip him over. And then he grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, shook him, and slapped him…slapped him back down, hard.”

The police officer’s eyes were wide. “And then what did the guy do?”

“He walked away.” Max blinked. “I…I wanted to say thank you, but I couldn’t…I couldn’t make my mouth move. He looked me in the eye when he walked past me, though, like everything was okay and he was saying you’re welcome…and then he disappeared.” He made a face. “Do you think he knew? I mean I…I wouldn’t have wanted someone to do that…but this is the second time he’s saved my life.”

The police officer was just staring at him, but Blake squeezed him just a little bit more, a reassuring little hug. “I’m sure he knew you were grateful, Max,” he murmured softly. “I’m sure he knew. But you need to calm down again now, okay? You’re shaking again, and that’s got to hurt.”

“I think it’s time the EMTs got over here and stopped fussing over Mr. Tire-Iron anyway,” the officer said, shaking off whatever it was he’d been thinking and standing back up. He was frowning again, though. “Max…I don’t suppose you could have seen this guy before, could you? Someone you know, someone you’ve met…someone who was interested in you, maybe?”

Max blinked up at him. “I don’t know any ninjas. I don’t think I go to the right bars for that.”

The police officer couldn’t help but smile. “If you ever find a bar where vigilante ninjas hang out…call me, we’d like to visit that one too.” He nodded to Blake. “You staying with him?” Blake nodded. “Good. I’ll let the EMTs know. They’ll either have to get another wagon out or someone else will have to transport him – we won’t make him ride with the other guy.”

“Thanks for that,” Blake told him. “Elise has an SUV, she could…she could probably do it.”

“I’ll talk to her.” The officer cocked his head. “Is she packing?”

“Licensed – for concealed carry, even.” Blake managed a smile. “Don’t worry, she’s safe.”

“I’ll take your word for it, but she’s still scary,” the officer told him, but he winked. “And you guys work for her every damn day, too – if I had my hat on, I’d take it off to you.”

He strode over to where the EMTs were trying to do their job and stay as far as they possibly could from Elise at the same time, and Blake watched him go until he stopped again and then turned his attention back to Max. “You’re upset again, what…”

Max had curled in on himself as much as he could. “I…I didn’t want to get him into trouble. Did I just get him into trouble? Maybe I really am a…a…”

“No, you aren’t.” Blake’s voice, although soft, snapped like a whip and actually startled him. “You aren’t, Max. And when the police ask a question, you’re supposed to answer it. He knows that.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. I promise, he…he knows.”

 

Max didn’t remember much of the ride to the hospital except that Elise’s SUV smelled like her perfume and gun oil and they seemed to be going really fast. The emergency room was busy and loud, but their police officer was there and he made a fuss and got them to take Max back to a room they called a ‘bay’ and let Blake stay in the bay with him, filling out paperwork. Nurses flitted in and out a few times, and eventually a doctor came in to start doing his thing. Max was mostly dozing off and not really paying attention by that point, but eventually the doctor’s words penetrated the comfortable fuzziness. “I need to do a thorough examination, the police want full documentation of any injuries you received, Mr. Tegan. Your friend can wait…”

“No!” It came out a little too loud and more than a little panicked, and Max blushed – but he didn’t let go of Blake’s sleeve where he’d grabbed hold of it. “I…please, let him stay.”

Blake had a silent but intense eye-to-eye conversation with the doctor, and then he gently pried Max’s fingers off his sleeve and moved the chair he’d been sitting in up near the head of the narrow gurney, out of the doctor’s way. He smiled at Max – who still looked worried – and ruffled his hair. “Don’t worry, I won’t…I won’t look.”

Max relaxed again and smiled at him, closing his eyes. “Doesn’t matter if you do, there’s not much to see – it’s not like I’m a gym junkie the way Martin is.”

The doctor made an inquisitive noise. “Martin?”

“The guy who assaulted him,” Blake explained, and raised an eyebrow at the doctor’s surprise. “The…the guy the ambulance brought in, the one who’d had the shit beaten out of him? He came after Max in the parking lot at work with a tire iron. Didn’t the…didn’t the cops tell you?”

“But…” The doctor picked up one of Max’s hands, frowning as he examined the undamaged knuckles; then he checked the other hand, not picking it up because the arm attached to it was broken and had a temporary splint on it. “This man did not do all that damage, there’s no way!”

“No, a…a vigilante guy showed up and did that, Max never even had a chance to fight back. It’s true,” Blake insisted when the doctor didn’t seem to be buying that story. “The cops said they think we’re in…we’re in the territory the guy has claimed for himself, so he doesn’t…he runs off everyone else. This is the second time he’s shown up in our…in our parking lot.”

“I’ve heard of him,” the doctor admitted. “I’d never heard he was that kind of violent, though.” Max shivered, which made him soften somewhat. “I’m sorry, Mr. Tegan; I thought you’d been a participant in a fight, I didn’t realize you’d been assaulted and then witnessed one. Now I’m going to start checking your other injuries since we need to wait for the X-ray technician to get here before I can see about your arm, all right? Just relax, I’ll try my best not to hurt you…”

The doctor’s best turned out to be pretty good, and Max eventually got bored enough to fall asleep again. He missed the X-rays, and the cast, but when the doctor finally woke him up it was with the news that he’d be able to go home instead of staying the night in the hospital as long as someone would be there to watch him. “I’m staying tonight, and tomorrow,” Blake told the doctor, before Max could even open his mouth. “We’ll figure something out after…after that, but Elise and I will make sure he isn’t left alone.”

“Elise…?”

“Our boss,” Max put in, yawning. “The scary woman in heels who was probably in your waiting room earlier, no doubt terrorizing everyone within a five-foot radius?”

“Oh, her. She’s still there – and it was ten feet, not five,” the doctor told him with a smile. “I think our intake receptionist is going to be sad to see her go, actually; nobody’s dared to be anything but polite out there once that woman started glaring at them.” He patted Max’s leg. “Oh, and the police asked us to let them know whether we were discharging you or not, so they might be back in to talk to you before you leave.”

Max and Blake both nodded that they understood that, and then the doctor left, pulling the curtain across the bay’s opening behind him. Max let his head roll to one side so he could see Blake, blinking. He felt tired, but not nearly as fuzzy now as he had been before. “I think I remember saying something…inappropriate earlier, so I really appreciate you volunteering to stay with me tonight.”

Blake quirked a smile, shaking his head. “You said something that surprised me, but it wasn’t inappropriate given the circumstances. Now if you trotted out a statement like that in the middle of a meeting...”

“I’d get a visit from HR?”

“We no longer have an HR, according to Elise. Not that we actually had one before, but someone was working for the company who occupied the office, anyway.”

“Is he…”

Blake shrugged. “No idea. I know he’s alive, because I heard him whining at one point earlier from down the hall, but beyond that I have no idea. And I don’t care.” He shook his head when Max looked surprised. “He went after an unarmed, unsuspecting guy in a parking lot with a fucking tire iron and a fuck-ton of gym muscles to swing it with, all because our boss chewed him out for not doing his job the way he was supposed to.” He leaned closer, locking eyes with his friend. “Not to mention, the guy he went after, the guy he hurt, is my friend and maybe…maybe wants to be more than that, which would make me a very happy man if it ever happened. I hope someone accidentally pushes the bastard down to the morgue and then leaves him there overnight. I, personally, would drop him down an elevator shaft if it didn’t mean making a mess for the building’s janitorial staff to clean up later.”

Max looked startled for a few seconds…but then he smiled. It was the happy, sunny smile that always made the people he turned it on feel warm inside, and Blake was so relieved to see it that he almost teared up; he hadn’t been seeing a lot of that smile lately. “If I wasn’t in the emergency room wearing nothing but my underwear and a blanket and a neon blue cast, I think we’d be having a moment.”

“It can still be a moment,” Blake assured him, smiling himself. “It’s just a weird moment, that’s…that’s all.”

Max closed his eyes, still smiling. “Works for me.”

 

Max came back to work the following week, mostly back to his usual cheerful self. His casted arm was in a sling and he was moving carefully, cautiously, in deference to still-healing injuries, and for the first meeting he went to Blake dragged in a padded desk chair for him to sit in instead of the hard plastic chairs everyone else had. When Josie commented on that, mentioning that his broken bone was in his arm not his butt, he just shook his head and quietly admitted to also having a cracked rib and a lot of bruises; Josie blanched and shut up. And then Elise came in radiating aggressive energy like usual and the meeting got underway. She treated Max just like she always did, too, and ignored both the chair and him using his tablet to record the meeting instead of taking notes.

In the next meeting, someone else tried that and Elise made them put their tablet away. “He has a reason, he’s right-handed,” she informed the offended-yet-scared employee from Marketing with a roll of her eyes. “Grow up – you’re supposed to be a professional adult, not a five-year-old.”

It was widely reported in office gossip that afternoon that the head of Marketing had agreed with Elise and then snidely asked her still-offended subordinate if someone needed to follow her out to her car after work to make sure she didn’t have a tire iron. There were no more petty complaints after that, and if anyone had a problem with Max getting ‘special treatment’ they were careful not to let anyone know it.

Because in all honesty, most of the people in the office had been pretty shaken up when they’d heard about the latest parking-lot incident. The first time had just been an attempted mugging, which in L.A. wasn’t really all that unusual, but this time it had been one of their coworkers attacking another of their coworkers with a tire iron over something relatively petty, and that was shocking. And a little frightening, which had at least some of them looking sideways at the other people they worked with and showing a little more restraint when they talked to – or about – each other. Because obviously, you just never knew.

Blake brought it up while he was meeting with Elise later that week. The two of them actually had regular meetings which no other employee was permitted to either be part of or to interrupt, and if any of them had they might have been surprised by how different the interaction between the two was once the door to Elise’s personal shooting range was closed. “I doubt it will…I doubt it will last too long,” Blake told her. “But half of them are running scared now and it’s probably the reality-check some of them needed. We really do have an extraordinarily high percentage of assholes on staff.”

Elise snorted. “They’re good at their jobs, that’s all I care about – that, and since they’re mostly all relatively awful human beings to each other, I don’t have to worry about anyone running to a lawyer about anything that might be said or done inside the office.”

“True,” Blake agreed. He had hopped up on the concrete-block wall that separated the range area from the firing line and was swinging his legs, tapping the heels of his shoes against the concrete in a very precise rhythm. “So what are you planning to do about Josie literally screwing the competition? Last week you said you were still considering…still considering options.”

That got a shrug from his boss – also one of his mother’s protégés, once upon a time. Elise had known Blake since he was a young teenager, and she’d considered herself his aunt since his mother’s death. A death she and his other ‘aunt’ had temporarily teamed back up to avenge. “I’m waiting for her to either give herself away or piss me off, then I’ll congratulate her for sleeping with him to get inside information because I know she’d never dare to betray me by fraternizing with the enemy that way.” She smirked. “I’ll bring it up in a meeting; I guarantee you she’ll never do it again, after that.”

Blake chuckled. “No, most likely not.” He stopped swinging his feet. “And Max?”

She sighed. “Are you going to be able to get him to calm down? Not that I don’t like having people running scared, because you know I do, but I don’t want him to kill himself trying to keep me happy. And him working harder than all the other little monkeys isn’t inspiring them to outdo him the way I’d hoped it would when it first got started.”

“No, it just made them resent him – but then, a lot of them were already there anyway, once he decided to start living up to his ideal self instead of down to the level the rest of them are at.”

“And I admire him for that.” She cocked an eyebrow. “You didn’t answer my question.”

He nodded. “Yes, I…I believe I can. You know how I feel about him, but now I know he feels the same way about…about me. He’s just been holding back because he didn’t realize I was doing my best to flirt with him and my best isn’t…isn’t very good.”

“Not your fault you’re not wired that way,” Elise reminded him. “He’s all right with that?”

Blake rolled his eyes. “He apologized for not picking up on it. We talked a lot over the weekend. I’m going to let things play out for just a little while longer, just to be sure…but then I’m going to tell him.”

Elise frowned, her eyes narrowing in a way that would have scared the crap out of anyone who wasn’t Blake. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“I’m not sure you’ll believe me when I do.” He hopped back down off the wall, brushed off the seat of his pants. “What kind of movies do you think Max likes to watch best, Elise?”

“That’s easy, romantic comedies. And probably those excuses for cinema that Hallmark vomits out.”

“Yes to both,” Blake confirmed. “And he likes classics, for the same reason – romance and happy endings. But when I was alphabetizing his DVD collection, you’ll never guess what I found right in the middle of all of the obvious choices.” He grinned. “A two-disc unrated special edition of Scayered Straights.”

Elise’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding.”

Blake shook his head. “Nope. I was amazed the other movies weren’t leaning away from it in horror – that’s one of the bloodiest films Tarantino’s ever made, half the theaters in the country wouldn’t even show it until he agreed to let them censor the trash can scene. But there it was on a shelf full of feel-good fluff, with the case showing so much wear that part of it…part of it was held together with tape. I thought at first that maybe an old boyfriend or someone had left it there, but when I asked him about it he admitted it’s one of his…one of his favorite movies. He was embarrassed because he thought I’d be disgusted, but he said he empathizes with the way the main character feels – he said if someone killed his husband, he’d want to set them all on fire and watch them burn, maybe roast marshmallows over their corpses.” Her eyebrows were all the way up at this point, and he blushed. “So I…I made some s’mores and we sat on the couch and watched it together. He got a little quiet during some of the fight scenes, but all he said about it was that…that now he could see how choreographed they were, and it was a little weird that he’d thought they looked so realistic before.”

She nodded slowly. “I see why you’re thinking about telling him, yes. Just be sure you’re sure, all right? And be sure you only tell him what it’s safe for him to know.” One eyebrow went back up. “You’re sure he doesn’t already know it was you?”

“He has no idea. I was worried we might be…might be getting into a Spiderman and Mary Jane situation right at first…but I’m positive now that we’re not. It’s not the violence in the movie he’s getting off on, it’s how much…how much the protagonist loved his partner.”

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.” She finished putting the gun she’d been cleaning back together and laid it on the wall next to its magazine. “All right, get your protective gear on and set a target up for me. Let’s have a bear this time.”

“Polar, grizzly, or that Teddy Ruxpin toy you found at a yard sale?”

She smiled. “Grizzly. I’m saving Teddy for a special occasion.”