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Only Human

Chapter Text

Moments passed. Moments where nothing felt real, she didn't feel real. Not now, not – the shaking was real at least. She couldn't control it, couldn't will it away, it was there and it made her real, at least. For a little bit, at least.

Vision blurry, it would go on. Memories sharp, it would go on. It was only her, huddled in a ball on her bathroom floor, shaking.

Eventually it stopped. It always stopped. Just like she stopped. She stopped being real when the shaking stopped. When she thought on this, it always made her feel at least, for she could see how it would all play out in the end. If the shaking stopped, she stopped being real; if it didn't, she stopped being alive.

So hard to be alive but not real in a place where everyone else was both. They expected so much, took so much, reveled in her non-humanness and demanded she be real at the same time.

She has nothing to offer them. She can't be what they want her to be when she doesn't even know what she is anymore. No, not true. She knows, knows too well, and it's a sharper pain and more real than anything else about her.

Murderer, the tiles whisper behind her blurred eyes. Monster cries the dripping of the sink: mon-ster *drip* mon-ster *drop*. She fees herself falling away with each drop until the tiles are screaming silently because she can't see them anymore.

The best part is when she can't see them. It all fades away, drop by drop, until even the harsh shaking gasps of her body don't hurt anymore.




The reawakening is always harsh. Inevitable. The shaking stops, the blackness fades, and suddenly she's there again. A brief birthing moment of reality, where she can see the sharp, stinging colors of her pain, and then it's gone.

She's gone.

Hands too pale, too smooth, too steady brush through her hair, push her off the floor. Staring into the blankness of her soul as the haunted face in the mirror mocks her. Still alive it screams; still tough and still strong and still a lie.

She's fumbling in weakness that will soon fade; sure in principle.

The mirror shatters, just as she knew it would.

The blood flows out of her, just as she knew it would.

And she sighs; calmness, relief. The blood flows from her, red and harsh against pale skin. It's all okay now. She bleeds, and even if she can't feel it, she can see it. Relief. For she bleeds and that's who she is. She's only human.

Chapter Text

It was the little things that were the most obvious. The way they flirted so naturally, if you could even call it that. Neither, or at least, she never set out purposely to flirt with him, but it was something that neither could avoid.

Every time they interacted, everything they said, it all screamed with such obvious comfort and ease that it was hard to miss. Not that they didn't fight. They fought a lot, which was perhaps how I managed to ignore it so long, convinced that their fighting negated everything else.

The way they would both look at each other and be having a silent conversation while the rest of us were still in the dark as to what their moods were.

Even the way they moved was entwined. Perfectly in sync, perfectly confident with their abilities. Neither had to turn and watch for the other, to protect the other, and yet, if it was needed, both were automatically there.

Quirks and oddities even seemed to fit. She'd sit and play with his hair, and he'd accept it, ruffling it back into place seconds after she'd finished with it. His sarcastic and slightly cocky remarks that she just took with a smile and often a small whap to the back of his head (I'm convinced that those didn't hurt him in the least, though he made quite a show of whining over it).

She jumped farther; he moved faster, hard to tell who was stronger. When they fought for the most part she won, but half the time I know that he let her. But God, once I saw them fight on the same side, I knew it was over.

They moved so closely, blocked for each other without the need for any signal at all, played with their opponents in the same slightly obsessive and self-assured way.

No, when they came and told me I'd already known, before I saw their first kiss I'd already known. From that first fight, I knew.

They would end up together, no matter how long it took and how hard it was. They'd be together. And I knew.

Knew I'd have to let her go, virus or not... Knew I'd never really had her heart because he'd been holding it long before I'd sought it. Knew I'd be standing here today with her shooting expectant glances my way and a protective tone to his normal glare.

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Escape. Evade. Fight. Train. Analyze. Learn. Fight. Train. Escape. Evade. Control. Obey. Obey. Obey.

Somewhere in their whole perfect programming system, they managed to completely forget the fact that we were human. They didn’t mention emotions, feelings, thoughts, individuality, normality, family, freedom, so somehow we weren’t supposed to have those things, feel them, need them; be prepared for them.

Be human.

Despite the vitamins, superpowers, and mixed-up crazy genes, under it all we were still human. We just didn’t know it.

Being out in the real world is like walking into some sort of alternate universe where everything is backwards and you have no clue what to do or how to act. Everything that was drilled into our minds from birth seems foolish or creepy out here, useless to the normal people who grew up with everything we lacked.

There was no room in our lives for love, for any emotion. Emotions made us weak, made us think, changed us from controllable soldiers into unpredictable escapees. People.

Nobody can possibly understand how after all these years it’s still hard to move past that enough to carry on a regular conversation with a friend. To laugh when something is funny, to even let something be funny.

Still being chased at every turn and being forced to call upon those things we’re trying to forget makes it worse, makes it harder each and every day to function as people outside do.

So, how can they possibly imagine how love feels to us, what it’s like? A complete loss of control, emotions everywhere. Weakness.

They can’t: no one can understand unless they’ve been there, gone through it, have the same messed up blood running through genetically engineered veins that we do. So, then, how could we possibly love someone who has spent every day of his or her life living and breathing freedom on the outside?

We can’t. I can’t.

Believe me, I tried, I laughed and sat still and enjoyed dinners with candlelight that was supposed to add romance but simply had me thinking of how unsafe it all was - the many ways the entire place could go up in flames. Mapping out exits and escape routes; always planning for the worst.

Romance: it’s hard to see its purpose. I understand it and sometimes I even crave it, but not romance like that. Romance where I feel normal, to be sure, but with someone who knows candles would be risking too much, someone who would settle for romance in speech and actions more than setting. Someone who I know would and could save my life in an instant; someone I don’t have to worry about; someone like me; someone who would be kind.

Ahh, kindness, yet another seemingly simple word that most learn from the moment of their conception. Sure, people have pain and suffering in their lives, but they at least understand the concept - all it takes is one moment, one touch, one anything.

We had none of that. Even our interactions with each other lacked such a simple emotion because we were not capable of it. Our goal with each other was to make sure every one of us was satisfied and safe. Thinking beyond that was more than we could have ever dreamed.

Sure, it’s hard knowing you’re different in every basic move and planned out thought, and it was even harder for me to accept that fact after years of denying it to the core of my being. But it’s easier with others, who know, who were there.

It’s easier being with him, trying so hard to love him and knowing that it’s okay if I still don’t have the concept down properly. My learning is excellent with facts, my improvisation perfect with fights, but emotions are a struggle.

And that’s okay with him, because he’s been there - maybe not with me, but in the same place, with the same problems.

Emotionless, like me.

So, it’s okay for us if we learn together, gather emotions together, explore them together.

Cast off the shadow of our training together, slowly but surely. We’ll manage to escape our programming yet, and eventually, we won’t be emotionless anymore - we’ll be whole and together.

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It’s funny, after all our time together, there’s only a very few things about him which I remember. Mostly, it’s those looks he used to give me once I’d gotten back from a heist, even a heist that was for him, for Eyes Only.

The look that so plainly said it was wrong, that he pitied me for doing something that was wrong, and confusion that I didn’t care.

But most of all, he gave me that look when I told him Alec and I were together. The look that said, “Is that right, because I think it’s wrong.”

Course I was lying through my teeth, and that didn’t help matters. I couldn’t imagine how that look would seem if he’d known not only was I breaking his heart, I was breaking it over a lie.

By now it’s the truth though, and it’s been so long that I can’t remember the hurt I felt without Logan. It seems distant and irreplaceably fake in comparison to my feelings for Alec.

And it’s not wrong. Lydecker, White, Manticore, the mobs of transgenic hunters, they were wrong. Alec and I, we aren’t even close to wrong.

So, we fought. Get over it. We both felt too strongly about each other and damn if we didn’t know what to make of it. Feelings like that are scary at first, so we took it out on each other.

Doesn’t make what we have wrong. Actually, if you could see us, you’d see that it makes us all the more right. We can hurt each other equally but we won’t. We were always equal in fights, and in life we’re the perfect partners. We match the intensity of one another.

Something else that is wrong? Logan treated me like someone different, he never saw me, not the soldier, not the transgenic, just Max. He never saw that I was just as normal as everyone else on the inside, I have the same thoughts and worries and feelings and needs.

Alec sees that part of me. He sees the part of me that gets scared and needs comforting and worries just like the next person. Not only does he see her, he loves me like that and he knows without having to be asked when I simply need him to be there for me. To hug me and tell me it’ll be okay whether it really will or not.

At the same time he doesn’t forget that I’m still a transgenic, still a soldier, part of my own special officially recognized race of freaks. He knows that very rarely am I weak and I don’t need him to take care of me or baby me, I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Not to mention, I’ve saved his ass more than a few times.

But that’s okay, I didn’t mind, it gives me something to tease him mercilessly about for the next forever. Just like how I named him for being such a smart-alec pompous jackass. Just like how he insists upon calling me Maxie until I want to strangle him, and then he does it again.

We’re not perfect, but we’re perfect for each other. And, damn, if life isn’t fun with Alec around. Even if I do have to bail him out of all sorts of trouble. Hey, that’s what badass super-strong transgenic girlfriends are for.

So supposedly it’s wrong that we just are and we’re happy like that. Is that right? Hmm, could have fooled me.

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Max strolled into Logan’s casually, putting on her best, “Hey, Logan,” she stopped and stared at Logan’s fully restored computer. “What the hell? Get that outta here!”

Asha stood up from where she’d been sitting on the once again immaculate couch, “Chill, Max, it’s okay.”

Max stomped her foot, so hard that she almost dented the floor, “It is not okay!” she whined, “Logan’s supposed to have lost all his money, and we’ve been found out and- and-”

Alec came out of a hallway, his head halfway upside down; he was drying his hair. “Maxie’s got a point, if she would stop yelling long enough to get to it.”

Max glared at Alec, “I was not yelling, you’re probably just hung over.” She then turned to Logan, her eyes widening, “What’s he doing here!?”

Logan frowned at their childish bickering. “Max, Alec, I think you two need to sit down.”

They all sat, and Max glared at the way Asha snaked her hand into Logan’s. Alec, ever to the point, even if he was a *little* bit hung over, asked, “Well, what’s so all important?”

Asha tried to hide her smile, “The show’s been cancelled…”

“Cancelled!?” Both Max and Alec roared, simultaneously jumping out of their seats.

Logan began to rise and calm the transgenics when a glare – this time from Alec – stopped him. “Try not to break anything important, please!” he griped.

Max made an almost whimpering sound (that is, she would have whimpered if she wasn’t everyone’s badass transgenic heroine), “But that’s not FAIR! There was all this great tension, and war and love and stuff! We can’t have been cancelled!”

Alec quietly asked, even the humming of Logan’s machines upsetting his delicate hearing. “Is it official?”

Logan sighed and fidgeted in his wheelchair as he nodded, “It’s as official as it gets. Was on the website and everything.”

Max gave up, seeing as she no longer had to be the badass transgenic heroine that everybody loved, and sniffled. “Why?”

Alec, still shirtless and with a towel half on his head, strolled over to Max and put his arms around her. Delighting in Logan’s glower he murmured, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Shh… It’s all right Maxie. We can whine together when I’m not hung over, okay? I promise!”

Max looked up and smiled with the realization that Alec would be bawling like a baby were he at top shape. “Why are you hung over anyway?”

Alec grimaced, “OC took me out to crash last night. Said we could pick up chicks together. Guess everybody else knew about the cancellation though, 'cause we were like the only people there. So we got totally plastered! God, my head hurts.”

Max again grinned at the fact that everyone’s favorite hunky, tough, badass transgenic was whining over a little hangover. She pretended to consider the matter, “Aww, poor baby, want Maxie to kiss it better?”

Neither noticed that Logan was fuming, or that Asha had snaked her arms around his neck in a comforting manner. Asha asked irritably, “Oh, would you two knock it off?”

Alec rolled his eyes heavenward and sent a silent message to the blue lady, “Max, sometimes, you are such a bitch, I swear-”

Max pulling his head down to hers for a very passionate kiss silenced him. When they finally broke for air - and being transgenics that was a while later - Alec stuttered, disorientated. “Wh-what was that for!?”

Max’s grin now spread from ear to ear, “For being the Smart-Alec I always knew you were!”

Neither noticed Logan slowly turning bright red, or Asha’s perfectly thrilled smile. Asha quickly decided she’d rather comfort Logan alone, and happily asked, “Shouldn’t you guys go somewhere to lament the ending of the show?”

Alec nodded calmly, and without warning scooped Max up in his arms, heading for the door. “I have wanted to do that for quite a while. Now that the show’s over, I finally can!”

Max squealed and ransacked her brain for a reason to be put down. “Allleeccc! Noo, put me down! What about….” she thought quickly, they were getting awfully close to the door of no return. “What about your shirt?”

Alec looked down and shrugged, “Will I really be needing it?”

Max blushed, “Umm, wait, Alec…. your hangover?!” She smirked, having found a better excuse.

Alec looked down at her, seemingly shocked, “Why Maxie!” she looked up at him in genuine bewilderment; he leaned down and whispered in her ear, “You kissed it better, remember.”

Max squirmed for a minute, before deciding that she really didn’t want to get into a fight with Alec right now. “Umm, gotta blaze, see you guys later,” she called over Alec’s shoulder.

Alec shook his head and laughed as he kicked open the door, “Damn, Maxie, you should have that line patented.”

Logan stared in bewilderment as they disappeared from sight, Max’s cheerful voice floating back down the hall “Don’t call me that! Smart-Alec!”

Logan closed the door angrily before turning back to Asha. He stared a moment, “Umm, Asha, why are you looking at me like that?”

Asha, who had a look that said I could eat you alive, strode up to Logan, “Baby, the show’s over. Get over it.”

Logan could only nod his agreement.

Chapter Text

I always knew we were “meant to be”. I knew that we’d sleep together, and I knew that we’d love each other. It never occurred to me what could go on between knowing that and it actually happening.

By now, it’s pointless to get into when I stopped hating him, when I started caring, and when I came to that striking realization. Besides, if I’ll be honest with myself, it probably happened almost the moment we met and I was just being the good human with the boyfriend back home… someone who would never go for that kind of bad boy.

Sometimes I wonder what the hell messed my head up so much; then I remember, oh yeah that would have been Manticore. Thanks for that, boys. Reminds me why I took the opportunity to blow you up. Manticore deserved fiery torment.

I was right; I always am, aren’t I? It’s from training and super genes; I can look at the situation and come up with the most accurate outcome. There were just some… factors… I didn’t count upon.

Zack was the first one, I always thought he loved me as a brother; now I shudder when I remember him as that innocent little boy who was like my big brother.

What’s there to say? A transgenic rebuilt with mechanical parts and doubled stamina, it’s not like I could have stopped him. Shame they had to play around with his brain so much to bring out his most basic plans… the Zack I knew wouldn’t have been enough of an idiot to go to sleep after…

Amazing how the strongest people crumple when you snap their necks.

Speaking of snapping someone’s neck... that brings me to the second factor: Ben. Oh, Ben. God, I loved him as my brother and he was; he always was my brother. I used to wonder if Ben would have taken it all back, the caring he showed me and the stories he told me, if he realized I would be his murderer.

I used to sit up at night and stare at the wall hoping that when I closed my eyes this time I wouldn’t see his body. That had all stopped by the time I met him. Still, seeing him was like seeing Ben and for a long time after we were “meant to be”, the dreams of killing Ben came back, of trying to save him.

I no longer see myself as a murderer, either of Ben or Zack. I’ve realized that I did what I had to, what their eyes begged of me while their lips stayed firm. Funny thing is, I don’t see myself as much of anything anymore, and certainly not that hero Logan fancied me to be.

Admittedly, I never understood why I played his game, or why I actually tried to become his hero. “My dark angel,” that’s what Logan used to call me, thinking I was his angel, never noticing the darkness eating me away.

That girl I was then, I don’t even remember being her; I look back on her in memories as though she were someone else, someone whose brain is alien to me. My goal was to survive back then, now I realize I’m dead, and my goal is simply to function this day and make it to the next.

Pieces of her were ripped away by White, Logan, the freedom fight, Zack, and all those reorientation trips to Manticore. Oh, did I forget to mention those times when the military came in with full bio suits and hauled us all back to Manticore? “Put those damn mutant freaks back where they came from.”

I can just see Lydecker grinning at the thought that he finally had us, knew where we were, trapped us, and brought us “home”. That bastard always was too cruel to die, even the mind games where he was actually on “our side” were nothing new.

Somehow I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself, did I forget White; Logan? The thing with White was sneaky at first, snake venom injected into my blood for that brief time he had me. Let’s just say that the glowing eyes and hissing were a dead give away and not fun to live through.

Neither are the marks that have stayed, tattooed little scars that won’t leave, just like my barcode. Think my body has been screwed with enough yet? Guess again.

Logan, I knew he would be a problem, something in his eyes always said, “I won’t let you go,” and he didn’t. Now, I didn’t expect him to be such a cold-hearted bastard; amazing how easy it is to be fooled when someone finally shows you affection.

But don’t worry, his conscience is shiny and clean, because handing me over to Lydecker –“he was our friend, he helped us”- doesn’t make him responsible for them slashing me open and inspecting my insides like I was a lab rat. And you know, as for betrayal, apparently by not loving him I betrayed Logan first, and so it was perfectly all right to give me over to my worst nightmare.

Nowadays they all sit around in my head and have battles over who will torture me with nightmares when. Sons of bitches won’t even leave me alone inside my own brain.

Never mind all that, because you know, we were “meant to be”, and now we’re together, so apparently my scars have just disappeared.

Don’t get me wrong, I love him with every fiber of my being and he hasn’t hurt me like everyone else; I just don’t have much of a being anymore. But that’s okay with him because he went back there with me, lived in Manticore longer than I did, and he’s not so whole inside anymore either.

Harsh voices and cold walls bring me back from my so pleasant trip down memory lane, and I clutch his hand tighter against my own. “494, 452, if you will not comply with the retraining you will be put back into PsyOps.”

I catch his eyes with my own as I let his hand slip out of my grasp and I can’t help but wonder if Manticore will ever learn. No program has yet stopped us from escaping eventually and they’re still afraid to kill us.

True, we won’t survive this one any better than the last, but we’ll live, we’ll continue on to the next day and the one after that.

Remember, because we were “meant to be”, and for Alec and I, this is our happily ever after.

Chapter Text

There’s something about being dragged away screaming to your worst nightmare that will inevitably come true, which gives you clarity. Time to think. Now, I’m not talking about those first few minutes - then you’re clawing and punching and doing everything in your power to escape.

No, I’m talking about after, when you’ve already been caught and you know it. All that waits is the torture that you know is coming, but you can’t focus on that because it’s going to be terrifying and agonizing, so instead you think about something - anything - else.

And you get time to realize the mistakes you’ve made, the things you’ve said - everything - it’s like your life flashing through your eyes, but really it’s your freedom. At first you think that maybe you didn’t deserve it, maybe you deserve this, because you broke his heart and wasted yours on another. But that’s not true.

Yeah, you get a lot of time to think right then, to realize how your life could have gone, to replay anything that could have stopped this outcome, and then you think how your life should go, once you escape. Actually, somewhere, escape is the only thing on your mind, always, until they break you.

The first time they got me, with Renfro, was bad. Between interrogations, Psy-Ops, and the general “break her back into the mold” attitude, it was pretty damn bad, but you make it, ya know? You keep on going and keep on going until eventually they let you rest, then you start to lick your wounds and recoup.

They didn’t give me that option the second time. Figured out when I blew up the building trying to escape the first time that they couldn’t let me recover enough to even think about escape. And they didn’t. Except, this time, before they started with the torture and the psychoanalysis, they decided to run some tests.

Not the good kind of tests; no, the kind that involve submerging you in water and letting you very literally hang there until you’re way past your limit of being able to hold your breath. The kind that require them to starve you, carve you, cut you, slice you up and dice you across.

The kind that kill you mentally, slowly but surely. Of course, that’s the least of your worries. No, you’re much more worried about how their little experiment of cutting off body parts and reattaching them will go, or how the slicing you down the middle and checking your internal workings went.

Scars are nothing. It’s the never-ending tests and trials and torture. Things that they did to the nomalies when you were little, or that they did when you were first in training. Worse things than you could have imagined, even if you had talked back to Lydecker or refused a mission.

And by the time they’re done with all that, and you’re starting to heal, let back into your little cell, freedom is the farthest thing from your mind. It seems like some far away dream that you can’t quite remember and can’t quite believe.

By the time they’re done and you’re well enough to see others and go back into the endless training, it’s “yes, ma’am, no sir, I will follow the set procedure…” So that all the stuff you worked so hard to escape for ten years is more engraved inside of you than ever.

So that by the time they let you out on a mission, and you actually see someone from your old life, who you don’t remember and who doesn’t even recognize you, it hardly matters. So that when you see the man you love for the first time in over two years it’s hard to even remember the emotions you once attached to him.

But even after all that, all the time, all the mind games, all it takes is one look, one “Maxie?” to turn it all upside down and make you see the light. Make you free, make you remember, make you get out of that hellhole.

And it feels like you’re waking up from a nightmare that hasn’t ended, a nightmare that has broken your soul. And when you’re wrapped in his arms again, and you’re sobbing, you look up finally and you expect it all to be back to normal, for it all to not have happened.

It has, it did, it’s there, and it’s worse than restarting from scratch, it’s starting two hundred paces behind. It’s finally having the time to look in the mirror and realize that the beauty you were designed to have and that you would have given up to be normal is gone, that the man you look at next to you is just as beaten and broken as you are.

That the scars covering your body and the pain when it’s cold or there’s a fight won’t change. That you can’t jump as high or run as fast. That in two years you’ve aged twenty.

And no matter how much you wish it wasn’t so, and no matter how much you pray, you’ve still been betrayed by two people you trusted, and so has the man you love, and that even if you wanted, you can’t have a family now. That you still have to run and hide from the relentless hunts for you.

Worst of all, that this nightmare was real, and you survived it, true, but just barely, and your spirit didn’t make it out at all. Because your soul is still sound asleep in your bed two years ago, before the door was knocked down and you were dragged out into this world of your worst nightmares come true.

Chapter Text

The ground is cold. Hard. And my eyes are staring at it, unblinking, staring at that fucking cement that won’t answer. Just it and me, and it won’t tell, and I won’t ever say.

I should blink, I think. That would seem more human, more normal, oh god, why don’t I blink? Can I anymore? Isn’t that what people do, blink. What’s wrong with me?

The buzz of the fluorescent lights is mocking me. Like some sick, echoing laughter in the dark silence. Wait, that’s not right, if the lights are on, why is it dark? Okay, we tried blinking, how about opening eyes now. Okay, so that’s a no.

I think I’m going to be sick. I wonder if I even can… maybe I lack the genetic code that says you can throw up when you’re shriveling up and dying inside. Wouldn’t that be poetic justice? Hmm, maybe not, just another bizarre point about me.

Cry, scream, do something! But my body’s not gonna because my brain knows what will happen, they’ll come in, haul me away, do tests to see what made me cry. Couldn’t just ask or anything. Not supposed to have those emotions like crying.

Seems my heart missed that memo. I’ll settle for the shaking, the shaking is good, makes me think I’m having a seizure, but I’m not, I can’t; they took that defect out of me. Maybe if I stay curled up here long enough I’ll just die.

From the cold cement that’s seeping into my bones, or my broken heart, not blinking, eyes closed, shaking, something! They wouldn’t give me that luxury, couldn’t let something so useful die.

Wallow in misery for a limited time. Sun is rising, they’re going to come get me soon, and I better look all not bushy tailed, or watch out. Better not cry, better not shout, ‘cause Santa Claus is coming to town. Humph. Like there’s a Santa here. Probably some soul sucking engineered parasite with my luck.

It’s not even like I have anybody to blame. My own damn choice. My own damn fault. I wasn’t strong enough. I failed. I let it happen. I’m the one who knew better. I let it happen. Oh god, forgive me. But there is no god, and I’m not forgiving myself.

So here we go, night again, time to stay in my little corner because I’m not going near that bed again. Ever. Not until I’m sure I can lift it up without gouging my own eyes out, not until I can look Joshua in the eyes and not want to die. Not until I have hope that when I escape I’ll have something to go back to.

Not until I’m sure that when he comes back I’m not going to be stupid. I’m not going to ask him to hold me and make it better. Make my weakness better. Make the world go away for just a little bit, not again.

Reality is cold and harsh and when the door opens and he comes in he’s not going to see any of that. Not the longing. Not the self-hate. Not the fantasy. Not me. Reality. Mission parameters. Escape.

Chapter Text

The first splash of iced water is always the most shocking, but not the worst. It’s a progressive experience – the careful buildup of fear and panic. The chill that seeps into the bone and never quite manages to leave.

It’s always cold. Some abstract (everything is abstract but the water, rising steadily, climbing with the fear) concept about shocking the body and forcing it to work twice as hard.

They’re watching too, of course, waiting for motions of struggle. A fleeting glance could spell doom. Just look straight ahead – ignore the wet grip (up to the chest now) slithering against the body.

Nearby, lined up in a row, the harsh breathing of the others is obvious. It would be so easy to look, to turn just slightly, and catch a last glimpse. But He’s there, above, watching – hand on that little button.

Not everyone makes it.

Sometimes, at first, they’d release the chains. Mutter about inadequacies and let the struggling one flounder to the surface. Now, though, it’s more demanding. Longer, harder, colder – no more room for the weaklings.

If she thinks about it, and she does (when the water’s crawling up her neck), the sting of pain and fear nearly blindsides her – wondering which sibling will be lost to the cold darkness tonight.

Then the first gurgles slip up the nose, eyes, head, and stray thought becomes the enemy. Focus, or it’ll be him pulling at the chains, fighting but unable to get away.

It’s like a void.

And a contest at the same time: one that neither can win. If it’s not enough, not strong enough, there’s the darkness. If the void doesn’t consume, there’s the next time, the next limit that someone won’t be able to reach. Because they’re expendable.

There’s a delusion that she favors, as her throat constricts and heart slows (a delusion because there’s no escape from this prison, seeping into pores and past locked chains). One where there’s an accident that lets her free, and she surges up, catches Him by surprise and snaps His neck before another person is sacrificed to the depths.

But somehow, even in the fantasy, the consequences for such a violation are always more horrible than can be stood. And he’s a good little soldier – he stands all he can, all they can throw at him.

At nights, it sneaks up on them. Something smooth constricting around her throat, her insides, until she wakes – gasping – unable to breathe the standard air. The taste of it fills her up with revulsion until she’s half convinced that she could breathe in the ice. That the loss would be worth it.

No one ever knows how long it will last. Each time, it’s different – harder. The cold seeps in until the only option screams (open up, let it in) and screams for release.

There’s no sound though. Only bubbles to capture his voice and smother it in the oppressive depths. And Him, staring down at a little watch that could (any time now) signal their doom.

She wonders (even though it’s so hard to think, the darkness closing in inch by inch) what will happen when it isn’t enough. Will they all be surrendered to the darkness, so He can begin afresh? They’re never enough (never good enough or why would they be here, stuck in the liquid death) for Him. His words ripple through this world, while theirs are swallowed up.

There’s nothing to do but endure it, though. Knowing that is one thing (in the stillness), but staring straight at the gray-tinted-blue metal encasing them, while the reverberations and ripples around him mask the screams of a brother (pulling at his chains, clawing at the gray)…

The weight tightens while everything moves and… and then it’s still again.

The stillness is worse. Because they all know that the still, wet, cold means the darkness has come. And a sickening, terrible, lump of hope. As the darkness recedes, so does the wet clench on her, and soon it will be gone.

Just a little longer now.

Staring at the metal and hearing Him shake His head – waiting for His finger to move towards the other button, the one they can’t see. Waiting for it all to be over (it burns now, fire and hot and cold and threatening to take in great gasping breaths that will only make it worse).

There’s a harsh clang, more ripples and waves across his vision, and then the chains fall away effortlessly. Floating there, mocking him.

But the rush is demanding, the blackness edging closer, and she reaches forward, even though she doesn’t want to because she knows it's what He is waiting for. It’s a defeat, and that’s nearly the worst part.

Breaking the surface, he tries to breathe in, shudders of air, and (for a moment) he thinks it doesn’t work. Then the burning flairs up, and he can stare, wide-eyed, at the chains, The Tank, Him.

When she crawls out (shaking still) and hears His praise, it’s worse than the stillness. Retreating back into The Soldier. Good job. Sir, yes, sir.

Each time, the chill is colder and the darkness is closer.

He wonders how long until it swallows him whole.

She dreams half-imaginings of escaping the ice that follows everywhere.

Swimming in their vision, Lydecker’s face against the blue-gray of The Tank walls. Trapped.

Chapter Text

It was crowded, loud. Rank with the smell of sweaty people and stale beer. Not the kind of place Alec would have expected her to frequent. Hell, it was a little much, even for him.

She was sitting at the bar, her back to Alec, tipping back a beer expertly and looking rather lost in thought. Nothing new for her, only a new locale.

Swinging onto the stool next to her, Alec cheerfully teased, "Where's the gang? I would have thought you'd be out partying with everyone else, not all alone in this…" he shrugged, gesturing helplessly around, "place…"

Not turning to acknowledge him, Max shrugged. "This is the first beer I'm supposed to have had."

Rolling his eyes, Alec couldn't help but laugh as this was probably the hundredth time he'd seen Max drink a beer. "What?"

A bitter half smile. Max pointed to an old, tattered, half torn sign dwarfed easily by the 'no biking on the counters' proclamation of a few months earlier. It read simply, 'Legal drinking age: 21. Prepare to be carded.'

Taking a moment to contemplate the absurdity of this sign, Alec finally shrugged it off as yet something else he didn't fully understand about Ordinaries. "So, what's it matter?"

Offering a small laugh at some unshared joke, Max swiveled on her chair to face Alec. "No, it doesn't much matter, does it." She was silent for a moment, motioning to the bartender (who certainly didn't care about ages) for two more beers. Finally, quietly, she shrugged, "I'm twenty-one today."

Alec was nearly floored. Clearly, he was trying to think of the appropriate response, but it seemed to be eluding him. "So, why aren't you out with Original Cindy?" He wanted to ask how she knew.

Max again offered a half shrug; she seemed to be in an oddly calm mood tonight. "They don't know." Alec offered her an incredulous look. "I mean, it's not really my birthday. Just, everybody gets so excited about theirs, so I thought, I'm going to pick a day, and I did."

Now it was Alec who was silent. Suddenly, Max felt stupid. Here she was, sitting in a bar all alone, trying to make something out of a law nobody followed on a day that wasn't even hers to celebrate. Or at least, the odds were 365 to 1 that it wasn't hers. "It's kind of stupid, I guess. I didn't even celebrate it last year… what with-" she stopped.

A sympathetic wince accompanied that; Alec well remembered where they'd been this time last year. Yet, after a moment, a grin spread over his face. A grin that just screamed 'trouble.' Max regarded his suddenly hyper attitude with concern. Finally, he winked at her, taking the offered beer and drinking some. "Well, guess I get to pick my birthday too."

He seemed to be giving the matter a good deal of consideration, so Max took another sip of her beer while he thought. After a few seconds, Alec declared, "How about April Fools?" Max almost spit out her drink. "Nah, who wants to be more of a joke?"

Turning to Max sheepishly, Alec shrugged; obviously completely unaware that he'd echoed Max's almost exact thoughts on the idea. Max rolled her eyes, cuffing him lightly on the back of the head, "Brilliant observation there, Alec."

Unconcerned, Alec ignored the less than par insult. "Well, if you just randomly decided on today, then I think I'll do the same. We can share the drinks."

Astonished, Max shook her head, "Alec, we can't have the same birthday!"

"Why not," he gave her the best puppy-dog eyes (second only to Joshua), making her wonder if perhaps he'd gotten a little bit of dog in his genetic cocktail.

"Because," Max struggled with her exact objection, "won't it be weird?"

Shaking his head determinedly, Alec denied her excuse, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling Max closer to him in a good-natured hug. "Nah, it'll be fun. You can't hog all the seedy bars to yourself."

Laughing, Max stayed under Alec's arm a moment before ducking out of the embrace, regaining her balance on her stool. Catching the mischief in Alec's eyes, she nodded. "Why the hell not," shrugged, eyes sparkling in amusement that she was sure would last for years to come. "Happy birthday to us."

Agreeing easily, Alec gave a mock salute. "Twenty-one it is." Then he pulled Max up and onto the packed dance floor, laughing in the dark that they were going to have a real celebration for once.

Chapter Text

At first I figured it was just sex. Great sex, admittedly, but I tried not to analyze it further. What can I say; the way things had been going I just wanted something uncomplicated. Something that could just happen, that I couldn’t fuck up; like everything else.

I mean, in the middle of a fucking war, what do you expect? Gee, while everybody else is busting their asses off for freedom and equality, I’ll just sit here and doodle love poems. It wasn’t like that.

After my last non-relationship, I knew something simple was in order, something that wouldn’t leave me curled up in a ball crying for months. I didn’t want to give my fucking heart away, because I knew one more betrayal would break it.

Betrayal, do you have any idea how much I hate it? And how often the damn universe insists on screwing me over and having someone I love betray me somehow. My proxy-brother, my boyfriend that never really was, my family, my friends, my life, I couldn’t add another person to that list!

I couldn’t afford it, not when I had to stay tough and stay strong. I was leading something I never wanted to, all I wanted was to live in peace without having to look over my shoulder.

So, yeah, I figured it was just mind-blowing, weak-in-the-knees, sex. Shoot me for being that naive, won’t someone? I mean, God, what the fuck did I think was going to happen?

Maybe I thought it was just sex because I hoped that was all he thought, but you know what they say, if you have that much passion, it’s an uncontrollable thing. I hated him sometimes, and God if he didn’t hate me, but at the end of the day, it didn’t matter, because we were both there.

What I want to know is when it went from sex to me loving him with every fiber of my being. Punching out the bitches that dared to comment on what was mine and letting us go on so long.

When the war ended, it should have too, I could have said it was convenience, he would have let it slide even if he didn’t buy it. But I kept it going, let us go from being handy to belonging to one another. Let him fuck me until I didn’t even want to think of anyone else.

In retrospect, I guess it was never just sex, it was always there, like I said, passion. Did I mention he’s an incredible kisser? Yeah, see that’s the only reason I keep him around. And why is it that I can’t even say that with a straight face anymore?

Damn it all to hell, I didn’t want to love him, but I guess I always did.

Chapter Text

I always liked her. I mean, look at her, who wouldn’t? It just came as a bit of a shock when I realized that I felt something more for her than normal.

Now I’m not a complete idiot. I’ve done this before, I knew what was going on; there was just no point in acting on it.

Sometimes, I wonder how much simpler my life would be if I could just shut my brain off. Unfortunately I can’t do that; I wasn’t engineered that way.

Long story short, I took the hard road, just like I’ve always done. I didn’t say anything because I’d calculated my chances and they weren’t good. She didn’t say or do anything because, well, let’s count the reasons, shall we? It’s just how she is. Like me, couldn’t find the easy path if it came right upon us, even though we’re always looking for it.

And it did find us, once. We were waiting together for something, bantering like usual, then we started talking. It just kind of happened and the next thing we knew we were sharing stories nobody else would understand.

I think that’s when we both realized how alike we really were.

But things had to get more complicated and he came right back into the picture. Like an idiot I didn’t fight for her, I fought with her. I pushed her away because I thought I wouldn’t win and I couldn’t stand to lose.

Stupid, stupid, stupid!

She only came a couple times after that. I can still remember her voice, pissed off and hurt, “What the hell is wrong with you? I thought we were friends…

Then she left, with him. Just like I’d figured she would.

I tried to move on, kept up my bachelor status, but I couldn’t forget her, not really. I’d see a flash of hair or hear a voice like hers and it was all I could think about for days. So maybe I was a little obsessed; sue me.

After about six months I was finally done with it; I focused on the trials of life and there wasn’t any time to think of her anymore.

Then one day I opened the door and there she was, all smiles, joking and saying that she just couldn’t stay away from me.

It wasn’t until later that the tears came and she told me about it. What had happened, how stupid she felt, how she’d hated it, her normal little life.

So maybe it took us the better part of two years, but we finally found a path that may not be easy, but it’s a hell of a lot better than everything else.

Plus, it’s fun to see the look on her face when I do something she considers really stupid. So life still has its kicks, but they usually aren’t that hard unless I really piss her off, and at that point, I’m allowed to hit back.

Chapter Text

Soft, smooth, oh-so-cool against my skin, clean, sweet-scented, silk. Such a harsh contrast, I’m hot, so hot, sweaty, rough, sticky, salty, not anywhere near sweet.

That doesn’t stop the sheets from brushing against my skin, making me feel safe and like some sort of a divine perfected goddess. A soft caress, a gentle kiss, sweet, but hot in all the right places, skin on moist skin.

Moist heat, salty goodness, ahh, ahh, silk to catch me when I fall from a lover's embrace. Between silky sheets that contain all my hopes and dreams, I’m living out some sort of fantasy.

Oh but it feels so good. How can this hot/cold tenderness be so perfect, so intimate, drive me so insane, and feel so good all at once? There must be an oxymoron in there, something that doesn’t fit, but it does.

If this is heaven then kill me now because- oh, there are those sheets again, soaking in the heat of my back. Up, down, flip, ah-ah, repeat. Somehow, the silk is still ice to my fire, or am I just that much hotter every time I encounter them?

I’m draped in obscure items, diamonds in the rough; perfection in the harshness of reality. My fantasies made into life.

Flesh too sticky, sweaty, hot, so hot, flesh. Strong and hard and perfect but oh-so-tender, so gentle, so not what I expected, not what has ever happened before.

So sweet, just like the silk swathed over me in a double caress of both cool and heat, hot, oh. Oh, so different, but good, first time, always first. First in mind heart bo-

Did I mention that those sheets are so very cold, or I’m so hot that it just seems that way. So right but it took so long but I wasn’t ready. And oh, sliding now, backwards, and how the hell are these sheets not getting tangled up or thrown off?

In and out and in and breathe. Breathing is good. Ah-ah. Or maybe I don’t need to breathe, not if it feels like this… Oh. Always giving silky kisses that make me hotter with their ice, and bring the world up, then crashing back down.

Crash. Crash and burn, baby, between silk-sheets, this is the world. Crash up to new heights and then burn down. Now do it again. Ahh.

I want a time out. Are there time out’s for silk and ice and fire and hot and cold and… Ah-ah. Guess not. Flip, my turn, silk still against my back, over my head, always there. How many sheets are there? Or am I just tangled up?

Up/down, in/out, breathe/don’t breathe, hot/cold. Ah-ah. Repeat. And those damn sheets that are so tender and sweet and they’re not the only one even if we are so hot and sweaty and dirty, filthy, ooh, but so good.

Gentle, tender, flip my world up side down, and take me with it. Take me. Oh. Cold against my hot and oh… Oh, so perfect, sweet.

See what I’ve been reduced to? Babbling sheet-speak, because wow, and oh… Repeat…