Rachel breathed a heavy sigh at the sight in front of her, before setting off into the cavern. Frankly, the only pirates she knew of were either ‘historical’ ones with their yohohos and bottles of rum, or the modern day ones who were constantly trying to kidnap cruise ships and transportation vessels containing valuable goods, neither of which described the forlorn group being herded out in police custody.
Their group leader, if he could be called that, claimed a long, unbroken genetic link to the pirates of yore, and also was convinced of the fact that there was a huge trove of unclaimed treasure underneath the peninsula, and that he just needed to cause an earthquake to get to it.
Naturally, the fact that he caused mass structural damage and endangered numerous people was of no consequence to him. He simply walked, head held high, past Rachel and other INTEC agents, convinced that he’d get out of jail and find his money, and that the time spent waiting for it would be that much sweeter.
“You’d think God would have stopped after making Woody,” Max cracked as he silently walked up beside Rachel. However, despite the humour in his voice, he stared at the cave wall opposite, not making eye contact with Rachel and not even attempting to smile.
“What happened with Laura?” Rachel asked, turning to look at her partner. As she finished asking, he visibly stiffened, but simply gave a,
“You don’t wanna know,” as his answer.
A small group of techs were over in the far corner, looking over the earthquake machine with a mix of wonder and amusement. A couple quickly talked to each other, the one further away pointing to where Max and Rachel were standing, and the nearer one beckoned them both over.
“Well, you did a good job of knocking her out,” he said as the pair approached him. “Not quite sure if we’re going to be able to repair it well enough to repeat what it did here.”
“Hopefully without causing the chaos he did,” Rachel interjected quickly.
“We just need it for the trial. Prove that he could do it and how he did it should be enough. If not...” the tech trailed off and shrugged his shoulders, going back to rooting around in the mass of wires underneath a removable panel. “I don’t think there’s any way he’s going to get out of this.”
“Insanity plea?” Max offered, and the tech chuckled.
“Fine line between madness and genius my friend. Very fine line indeed.”
[ - ]
As the first faint rays of the Bajanian sunrise began to creep over the bay, Rachel Leeds was already awake, up, and being productive. Having not been able to sleep the previous night, she’d pulled out her laptop and began writing her mission report while the memories were still fresh. She, however, faltered on the inclusion of Laura -- she had been a bystander but Rachel felt that her part in the events should be left up to Max and not her.
Closing the laptop lid, Rachel looked out of the window: it looked to be shaping up to be a cool, sunny day in La Paz, something which all of the tourists would no doubt be taking advantage of. The locals, however, would be spending the day either working as normal, or trying to get work started on repairing their houses.
Almost as if on cue, Rachel’s cell phone began bleeping, and she leaned over to the bedside table to pick it up. There was a single text waiting for her, and she opened it.
You awake? -J
Rachel hit the ‘reply’ button, pausing before she composed her message.
Yeah. Couldn’t sleep? I’ve been awake most of the night myself.
A few minutes after sending her message, her phone bleeped again. Giving up all pretence of working, Rachel shut down her computer and instead concentrated on her phone.
Glad I’m not the only one. I bet you’ve been using the time to work.
You’d be right, Mr. Steel. Nothing more productive than doing work beside an ocean view.
I can give you a better view :P
Rachel did a double-take, exiting out and then re-opening the text to see if Max had sent what she thought he sent.
Aren’t you concerned Laura will get jealous?
No chance; she dumped me. Why would she bother getting jealous over some random guy she used to know?
‘Used’ to know? What happened?
I told her about us. About what happened.
Dare I ask what occurred? Do you want to talk in person?
Hell no. This would just get more screwed up than it already is if I tried to talk to you.
[ - ]
“...Seriously, Josh, what the hell? You told me, months ago, that nothing was going on between you two! You joked that I was being silly, that you’d never do anything like that!”
“Zip it, Josh. Do you really think I’m going to believe everything you’re saying? You could even be lying about sleeping with her -- how do I know you haven’t been lying and covering up dating her, and said you just had sex with her once because it sounded better than ‘I’ve been two-timing you’?!” Laura balled her hands up in to fists, tears forming at the corners of her eyes and she turned away to look at the sea. Josh said nothing, instead simply moving towards her and attempted to put an arm on her shoulder. “Don’t touch me,” she half-yelled, shoving his hand away from her.
“Stay away from me. Don’t contact me unless I contact you.” Laura was fuming, any idiot could see that. Of course, any idiot also saw a no-good, two-timing boyfriend who did nothing when his (first) girlfriend walked away after being handed the keys to his car.
“That exploded very nicely in your face, hermano,” Berto said calmly, and Josh closed the link between him and INTEC, jabbing furiously at a side switch on his watch.
It wasn’t me, it was Max! He wanted to yell out, but he knew it would do him no good. Aside from making him look as if he had multiple personality disorder, it was also allowing him an excuse which was no excuse at all. Sure, as Max he looked like a different person, but mentally and emotionally, he was still the same nineteen year old who was standing on a beach, watching his now-ex girlfriend walk away and wondered how he had managed to screw up his life this badly.
Rachel had already left to investigate the cavern the ‘pirates’ had been using, and would have been long out of earshot by the time he and Laura started their argument/shouting match. For once he was glad his partner wasn’t there, else he would have dreaded to think what Laura would have done to them.
Even though he probably deserved it.
[ - ]
A couple of days later, back in California, Rachel was weighing up the option of eating to satisfy what had become almost constant hunger and knowing that if she did eat something she’d throw it up again in a couple of hours. Her only lifesaver was that she never seemed to throw up what she drank, for some peculiar reason, and had been supplementing her diet with weight gain and protein powders, but even those were starting to become dubious as to whether they’d end their life in the toilet bowl.
A hasty knock at the door caught her attention, and she left her lunch -- crackers and a protein drink -- to answer the door, and was more than mildly surprised to see Josh standing in front of the door.
“Can I come in?” Josh said after a moment of waiting, and Rachel moved to the side to let him in. He took roughly three steps inside the apartment and stopped, surveying the living room, eyes catching on her meagre lunch but he refrained from saying anything.
“Why are you here?” Rachel asked accusingly, breaking the silence which had covered them. At her words Josh seemed to break out of his daydream and he turned to look at Rachel. “I didn’t think you knew where I lived.”
“I didn’t, at least not until an hour ago,” Josh admitted, taking a seat on the sofa and began to fiddle with the collar of his jacket. “We need to talk.”
“No, we don’t,” Rachel replied, her stomach beginning to churn. She prayed that it was simply nerves that was causing the nausea, and not the illness that had been plaguing her for almost four days.
“I think we do,” Josh snapped back, and almost immediately looked apologetic. “"We never really talked about it...you know, before."
"I didn't really think we had time," Rachel replied half-sarcastically. "We were trying to deal with L'Etranger attempting to steal plutonium in order to either make nuclear bombs or to sell to the highest bidder."
"Do you want me to say that it was all a mistake, that it was never meant to happen? That I can tell you this, absolve you of all guilt, and you can go back to Laura with a clean conscience?"
Josh looked more than mildly taken aback at Rachel’s words, and stood for a few minutes, mouth slightly open, trying to think of a response. Unable to come up with one he stood up, held Rachel’s gaze for a few seconds, and then walked out of the apartment, door slamming behind him.
Rachel stood in the middle of the living room, looking at the door, arms folded across her chest. She knew she should be feeling guilty -- she had not only destroyed Josh and Laura’s relationship due to her actions, but she knew as soon as word got round INTEC that Jake would also be hurt by the news.
And yet, as she stared at the door, a tiny part of her brain willing Josh to come back, she searched her mind and she felt...
[ - ]
“Any chance you could be pregnant?” Rachel’s gynaecologist asked, and Rachel’s mind started to answer ‘no’ before she could think logically. It was early April, her last period had been...late December? She knew that her schedule was irregular, but until she’d stopped to think about it she hadn’t given it much mind space.
“Have you had sex recently?” the woman pressed, dragging Rachel out of her thoughts.
“Yes, approximately six weeks ago.”
The doctor quickly typed something up on the computer before turning back to Rachel. “I’m going to need you to give me urine sample to rule out pregnancy. You’ll be able to phone back in a day or two to collect your results.”
Rachel thanked the doctor and made a quick detour to collect a urine sample before walking out the front door of the clinic. A quick check of her watch told her that she still had half an hour of her lunch break left, and it took ten minutes from where she was to get back to INTEC.
Fishing her car keys from the bottom of her handbag, Rachel pressed the remote unlock option, climbed in to her car and started a slow drive back to INTEC.
She had to be thankful that her only work that day was finishing writing the mission report for Baja, as her mind was uncharacteristically not on the job.
If she was pregnant...she didn’t really want to think about it. It’d be hard enough facing people she’d worked with for years knowing that she’d had an affair with the boss’s son while engaged to someone else, but to throw a child into the mix would be beyond chaotic.
There would be no way she’d be able to pass it off as anyone else’s: if the blond hair didn’t tip them off, then the nanoprobes certainly would...
“Oh God,” Rachel murmured, a hand covering her mouth to prevent another wave of nausea. She recalled one of the reports stating that the nanoprobes were present in all tissues and organs tested, and it was speculated that it also ran true for every system in Josh’s body.
Well, it would certainly explain her vastly increased appetite.
Closing her eyes and taking a couple of deep breaths, Rachel got her nausea under control and attempted to think through the situation logically. Logically? That was a laugh: if she had been logical instead of hormonal and emotional, she would have never gotten herself in to this situation.
She needed to talk to Berto, now.
[ - ]
However, as Rachel neared the ops room, she faltered. She had no idea how to broach the topic, and any ideas she reasonably had regarding talking about what had occurred between herself and Josh...well, it wasn’t like she didn’t trust Berto, but given how easily gossip spread through INTEC she didn’t want to risk it.
Of course, given that Josh, at the time, was dating Laura, Rachel reasoned that they would have been concerned about Josh potentially infecting someone else...and with the full medical report, lifted from Berto’s filing cabinet laid out on her dining table, she was correct.
Reports appear to be consistent with Dr. Martinez’s predictions of there not being a large enough concentration of nanoprobes in any bodily fluids which would endanger any other person who becomes exposed to such fluids.
Blood is the only exception in which a person exposed to a large enough concentration (estimates currently at half a pint) may run the risk of nanoprobe infection; however ethics cannot permit such an experimentation.
Rachel closed the file and slid it across the table, sighing in relief. Admittedly being pregnant at the current time wasn’t a celebration, but at least it was something she could deal with.
Now it was just time for her to relax until she could call the doctor’s.
[ - ]
The phone call to the doctor confirmed what Rachel had suspected, and she was booked in for her first check-up a few days later. Her physician made no comment on the fact that she was there on her own, and gave her a long list of pamphlets and advice to be followed during the next eight months.
Of course, the next hardest thing would be to inform her superiors -- Jefferson Smith included -- about the pregnancy, and hope that they wouldn't enquire as to whom the father was. She was no longer in a relationship with Jake -- her encounter with Josh had certainly taken care of that -- and she doubted that they would take the lie that it was a one-night stand and she didn't know the father.
Well, it was only half a lie: it was akin to a one-night stand, but she knew who the father was, and worked with him every day.
When she arrived at INTEC the following day, she was certainly glad that she had been given medication to control her morning sickness -- feeling nauseous at the smell of coffee was miles better than not being able to keep down solid food. In fact, when five PM rolled around and the only symptom was coffee-induced nausea, she left the office in a much better mood than she had been in since the Baja mission.
Until she ran in to Max, that is.
"Oh, Rachel. Hi," Max said in a monotone, not seeming at all surprised that she was at INTEC. "How are you doing?"
"Quite well, Mister Steel. Yourself?" she replied automatically, and kicked herself when an annoyed expression crept on to Max's face. "Ridiculous question, I'm sorry," she added, turning away to walk down an alternate path to the elevators.
"Are you busy tonight?" Max blurted out after Rachel had taken a couple of steps, forcing her to halt out of surprise.
"I have some paper work that --"
"Oh, screw paperwork, Rache. When was the last time you actually enjoyed yourself?"
The automatic response in France came to the forefront of her mind, but she had enough sense to chase that thought away. "Unlike you, I don't feel the need to exhaust myself with social events every night."
"Is that a no?" Max pressed, looking almost disappointed.
"For tonight." Rachel ended the conversation, brushing past Max and heading directly towards the elevator. "If you try asking me about next week, my answer is quite likely to change."
Max grinned. "All right. You need to stop working so hard -- how about dinner next Tuesday? As friends, not co-workers." Or lovers.
"Next Tuesday?" Rachel pretended to consider. "I have nothing planned."
"You do now."
[ - ]
"Rachel!" Max's voice came through on the comms channel, startling Rachel. She glanced around at the fungus-covered walls before a quick look over her shoulder reassured her that Marie Keita was still with her. "Rachel!" Max said again, this time with annoyance in his voice.
"Max, I'm here," Rachel said, and Max breathed a sigh of relief.
"Don't --" Max began to admonish, then caught himself. "What's your situation?"
"Not good. The fungus has sealed shut most of the doorways on this floor -- we're still trying to find a way out."
"Try the north wall," Max said, accompanied by a rapid tap of keys. "Simulation shows that the fungus isn't spreading as quickly there."
"Thanks." Rachel cut the link and turned to look at Marie Keita. "Reports are that the north wall has a higher chance of being accessible."
They were in luck: the north wall had a stairwell that had yet to be affected by the fungus, and both Rachel and Marie made a hurried descent to the lower floors. On each floor, Rachel made a quick sweep to ensure that there were no employees present -- Marie's evacuation notice should have meant that everyone was out of the building, but nothing was certain.
"Max, we're on the twelfth floor," Rachel stated on another one of her sweeps. "How's the evacuation going?"
"Evacuation is progressing as planned. No difficulties. Of course, now that I've said that..." Max trailed off. "Never mind. I'm almost at New York. Keep me posted on your situation."
"I --" Rachel began, cutting herself off as she caught movement out of the corner of her eye.
Rachel pushed Marie towards the stairwell, telling her to get down to ground level now. With her back to Vitriol, and focused on keeping Marie safe over everything else, she forgot about half of the issues she was facing.
She remembered when an energy blast slammed in to her back, sending her stumbling over the first section of stairs. A twisted ankle the casualty of Vitriol's attack, Rachel regained her footing, albeit slightly unsteady, and turned back to face Vitriol.
Vitriol feinted left, causing Rachel to mis-step, putting more pressure on her twisted ankle, and Vitriol aimed a blow towards Rachel's unprotected stomach, slamming her against the wall. The unexpected attack was what initially surprised Rachel, overtaken when a burst of pain emitted from her stomach and back.
Rachel's stomach twisted, causing further pain, and she slumped to the floor, clutching her stomach. She was vaguely away of Vitriol passing by her, heading down the same path as Marie, but was unable to summon the ability to stand up, let alone follow him -- she just hoped that someone would be able to catch him.
Another twist of pain was emitted from her stomach, and she blacked out.
[ - ]
She regained consciousness a couple of times before she fully awoke in the hospital, but each time she was drawn back under from the pain. The first time was when Max, in a panicked state, found her in the stairwell -- she'd regained consciousness long enough to open her eyes and look at him before the pain dragged her under again.
The second time was more vague, hearing Max arguing with someone about something. She'd later learned that he had been arguing with the paramedics to be allowed to ride in the ambulance with her -- initially the paramedics refused as he wasn't family, but he'd somehow managed to change their opinion.
And he was there when he woke up, looking like he hadn't moved or slept in days. Of course, she didn't tell him that, instead asking about what had happened.
"Always business," Max said with a small, crooked smile. "I got there just as Vitriol was fighting his way out of the building. Managed to subdue him and he's on his way to prison. Well," he added quickly. "He should be in prison, given how long it's been."
"How long has it been?"
"Just over a day. What happened?" Rachel struggled to sit up, but Max placed a firm hand on her shoulder, gently pushing her back on to the bed. "Uh-uh, you were in a coma, you need to relax."
"My...what tests have they done?"
"You always need to know everything," Max said, standing up and walking to the foot of the bed, picking up the medical chart. "General coma response test when you came in -- score of three when you came in, the fact that you responded when I found you didn't factor in. Um...CT scan to assess abdominal and cranial injuries, and a general battery of tests. Still waiting on the results of those tests. CT scans showed no internal injuries."
Rachel breathed a sigh of relief, focusing her vision on the ceiling tiles overhead. "Anything else?"
"Nope. From the looks of it, you can be cleared to go home pretty soon."
It was Rachel's turn to smile. "I didn't know you qualified as a paramedic."
"You spend as much time around hospitals as I have, you pick up on things like these."
[ - ]
A little over a week after her hospital visit, Rachel had been preparing information and what to say in regards to a reassign of her position. She hadn't informed INTEC of her pregnancy as she hadn't experienced any dangerous situation -- her second bad decision when she really thought about it -- but continually putting herself in danger, especially when she was now beginning to show, was no longer an option.
Before she could think about what she'd need to say the following morning, her cell phone began to ring.
"Rachel?" a female voice on the other side of the line said, and Rachel's breath caught in her throat. "Rachel, are you still there?"
"I'm here, Julie. How did you get my number?"
"Luck, mainly. I managed to find you on N-Tek's company website, and a quick phone call to them later, I was able to get your number to call you."
"Is there a reason you decided to hunt me down?"
"Yes. Grandpa's dying."
Rachel was about to snap back with a sharp, "Why should I care?" but she realized that she may have been handed a choice opportunity -- thinking about it in depth, everyone would know that she was pregnant. Max would be able to piece together a rough conception date, and he'd easily identify that he was the father.
If she was able to transfer to England for a few months, she could skew the birth date...if she could transfer permanently, she might not even have to concern herself about Max knowing.
"I'll catch the first flight I can."
[ - ]
"I see you're finally going to settle down...although I can see that you've left it a little too late," Albert Leeds said, his eyes going from the ring on Rachel's left hand to her stomach. "Why isn't he visiting with you?"
"He's working -- as he's not family he wasn't able to get permission for leave."
Albert snorted. "He is setting an exemplary example for his family. Marrying you only because he knocked you up, then not even bothering to visit with you? He sounds like a marvellous man; I just hope he changes when he becomes a father."
Rachel bit back the words she was exceedingly tempted to throw back at her grandfather, instead fixing him with a look of determination. To her surprise, Albert laughed.
"Eight years away from England has done nothing to change your attitude. You're still the strong-willed young woman you were when you left here -- I was hoping perhaps that when you had found someone you would have mellowed out."
"Unfortunately for you, I haven't." Rachel flashed a humourless smile. "I was never a child you could mould to your liking -- after my father, I am the heir to the Leeds corporation. Imagine that, not just a woman in charge, but a strong-willed one whom you can't marry off to a man who will rule the business, leaving the woman as just a figure-head.
"Don't think for a moment I was here on your behalf -- I was here because Julie requested I come back." Rachel made a move to leave, but was stopped when Albert said one final thing.
"Do you intend to stay?"
[ - ]
Upon her announcement that she was intending to stay, a large portion of the family was overjoyed by the news, including Julie. Only Albert had seen Rachel wearing the ring she had bought, and if anyone questioned Rachel's relationship with the father when she announced she was pregnant, no one thought to ask.
The months rolled past, and once September gave way to October, Rachel Leeds had given birth to a boy with blonde hair and blue eyes, named Jonathan Leeds. Christmas approached, and Rachel began to breathe easier -- the longer she went without contact Max was better for him...better for all of them.
Unfortunately, just after the new year rolled around, Josh McGrath made a visit to the Leeds mansion.
"Josh." Rachel hesitated on the imposing staircase situated in the main hall, looking down at her ex-partner. "I hope you've been keeping well."
"Been keeping out of trouble," Josh said with a crooked smile, looking more like Max than himself at that moment. "This isn't a pleasant visit, I'm visiting because of work."
"Josh, I'm on leave. Whatever this news is regarding work, I'm sure--"
"Dread knows who I am. Dread knows that Max Steel is Josh McGrath."
Rachel froze. "What?"
"Dread knows my civilian identity. Look...can we go and sit down? Standing here looking up at you is not that comfortable." Rachel nodded, walking down the rest of the stairs and escorting him in to the living room.
In hindsight, with some of the pictures in the room, it wasn't the best place to visit. Being the main Leeds mansion, there were numerous pictures on the walls and shelving, including a telling few of Rachel and Jonathan.
All it took was one look at Jonathan's blue eyes and the pieces clicked together in Josh's mind.
"Those are Max's eyes," Josh said, and Rachel mentally winced as soon as she heard the words. "Big Jim's eyes, too. Pretty unmistakeable." He turned around to look at Rachel. "Is this why you left? Not because your grandfather was dying --"
"But because you were pregnant and couldn't stand to be around me? Is that it?"
"It is nothing like that."
"Nothing like that? You think I didn't deserve to know I had a son?" Josh's voice was reaching a dangerously loud level, and he was angrier than Rachel had ever seen him -- or Max, for that matter.
"No, I didn't." Rachel stood her ground, looking Josh in the eyes and not daring to move.
"Why not? If Dread knew --"
"That is precisely why --" Rachel broke off and glared at Josh as a faint cry started up and, without another word, she walked out of the living room and up the nearest set of stairs, Josh following close behind.
Reaching the nursery she opened the door carefully before slamming it back into Josh, who had to react quickly to avoid getting a damaged nose. Recovering, he too walked in to the nursery just as Rachel was picking his son -- their son -- from his crib.
"Can I at least get him calmed down before you continue to rant?" Rachel snapped, holding the baby close to her in a vain attempt to get him to calm down. He seemed to start to calm down...then a wet hacking sound was heard, followed by a sigh from Rachel.
Setting the baby down in his crib, Rachel brushed past Josh and headed down the corridor, Josh following once again.
"Are you going to tell me?"
"Tell you what?" Rachel snapped, stopping in the doorway of what Josh assumed was her room. The door was slightly open, revealing a perfectly-presented room that looked almost...artificial.
"Why would it have been worse if I knew I had a son?"
"Can I at least change my blouse first?" Rachel said, and walked in to her room without waiting for an answer. She started unbuttoning her blouse, pausing as she heard the floorboard creak and turned to see Josh standing in her room.
Josh didn't move.
"I'm getting changed."
"So what? Nothing I've not seen before."
"You really don't understand, do you?" Rachel yelled, pulling off her blouse, revealing a c-section scar. She dropped the old blouse to the floor and stormed past Josh, heading to her wardrobe for a new top.
"Get what?" Josh yelled back, grabbing Rachel's arm as she walked past him. "Maybe if you tried to explain, hey, this idiot might actually learn something!"
"Fine! Do you even remember who you are, what you said when you first spoke to me today? "˜Dread knows who I am. He knows that Josh is Max.' That child in the room down the hallway is Josh's son. He is Max's son. Do you really think if Dread knew you had a son that he'd just leave him to have a normal life?" Rachel managed to pull her arm out of Josh's grip and put a new blouse on, still talking. "Is Dread honestly going to leave a three-month baby alone because it wouldn't be fair to kidnap him to force you into a confrontation with him?"
"Like INTEC doesn't have guards, people who could protect him?"
"He's three months old. Do you really want him growing up where he's constantly having to look over his shoulder or ensure that he has a bodyguard around him at all times? How would you explain to him that he's not like other children, that his father's enemies with a very bad man who'll do horrific things to him unless his father does what he wants? Do you really want to chance that, even if you did do what Dread wanted, he would be honourable enough not to hurt him just because he can?"
"He doesn't have nanoprobes, he --"
"He doesn't need nanoprobes to be useful. Just think: Josh McGrath, a person who would go to the ends of the earth for his friends, the people he works with...are you trying to tell me that your own son is worth less than Berto? Kat?" Rachel faltered before she continued to speak. "Me? The only protection, the best protection, you can give your son, Josh, is to walk out that door, go back to Del Oro, and get used to the fact that we do not have a son together because no matter what the DNA says, he is not and will never be yourson." Rachel's shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry. If this were any other situation, you would have known, but Jonathan's safety comes first, and if that means never knowing his father..."
Josh reached out to take Rachel's hand, gently entwining his fingers in hers. Slightly shocked, Rachel looked down at their hands before back to Josh, confusion etched on her face.
"What were you planning on telling him when he asked about me?"
It was Rachel's turn to smile wanly. "He was a brave man who had a lot of enemies and had to disappear in order to keep us safe. He loves us both, and thinks about and misses us every day."
Keeping a hold of Rachel's hand, Josh brushed the fingers of his free hand lightly against Rachel's cheek, before moving in for a quick kiss.
"How about," Josh said, pulling back. "He doesn't need to ask about me, because I'm always around."