shallowness: Five panels featuring pictures of different female characters based on my interests at the time. (Default)
[personal profile] shallowness
Title: Darker Games
Fandom: Dark Angel
Rating: PG
Characters/Pairing: Max/Alec implied.
Word count: 4,504
First posted: March 2004.
Summary: Alec makes Max talk about the effect being the leader of Terminal City has upon her.

Disclaimer: Not mine.
Notes: I was listening to The Cure and Muse when I started writing this. It fits in some time after ‘Freak Nation’ (I had yet to read the tie-in novels when I wrote the first draft.) Thanks to FridayAngel for betaing, all idiocies are mine.


Darker Games: shallowness


He was used to the chase – had been trained in what it was to be on both sides at Manticore. Not that it would have been described like that in the records. They’d write instead that the units were equipped with the training needed to both hunt a target and evade capture within the established parameters. As if their lives would be nothing beyond simulations with occasional approved missions beyond the wire-fence perimeters. As if they’d always accept the role they were given like good little soldiers. When you were chased, the basics they’d been taught kicked in - run, find a good spot, then lay low. He preferred chasing. Of course, it was in his genes to be the predator.

*

“Alec! Can you look over this?”

“A guy just walks into Command, and just for that minor infraction, he gets punished.”

“Shut up!”

“Hit me with it, then,” he swung toward her, belying his mocking words.

Max lowered her voice, handing him the paper with little ceremony.

“It’s a proposal for rationing, some of the stuff here we can get, I assume.”

“And since I’m your go-to-guy for acquisitions-”

“You can rejig it,” she finished for him, then crossed her arms, adding, “but whatever it is that you did that you think I would punish you for, I will find out about it.”

“And kick my ass,” he retorted, much as she’d expected him to.

“Then come to get-together for scotch,” Joshua interrupted, perhaps reading too much into the almost rote nature of Alec’s responses to Max.

“What get-together?” she snapped.

She had almost made it too easy, piquing Alec’s curiosity by a second’s relaxation on her face when Joshua told her more under duress about the get-together arranged at the bar. Alec told himself again that it was his training to notice every detail, and her reaction had definitely been off. She had found out about a party – of sorts – to which she hadn’t been invited and her reaction was lacking the Max Guevara spit and temper. Or even hurt.

He blocked out the detail that not a glance of puzzlement was thrown at their petite and muted leader from the other guys in the Command Center. They’d merely made exaggerated gestures of relief that she wasn’t shouting and reminding them why they’d kept it on the down low from her, then got on with keeping Terminal City together.

Alec had continued watching her while he dealt easily with his task, crossing out the stocks that could realistically be replenished with a few off-site visits, and creating a new mental list simultaneously. Nearly everyone else around him was working on tasks of his or her own with a concentration and diligence that they’d never had for their Manticore handlers.

Captured on the monitors that broke the room’s closed-in feeling, were the shift changes outside the barricades amongst both police and protestors. All of the principals - those well known enough to have earned Mole-approved sobriquets - were present. The trannies would have noticed anything unexpected in what had become a signal of the daily change into evening for them. But it was another day in their new home, with the armed guards to stave off nostalgia.

Only he found the anomaly to the usual rhythm within the room, and zoned in on it. Her. Which was why the unnoticed disappearance from a room of usually hyper-aware paranoiacs she’d planned instead got appreciative points for style, timing and execution from the one corner she probably didn’t want it.

Not turning his head, Alec walked out of their headquarters down a perfunctorily lit corridor. She’d have said something if she were going up for air, and he couldn’t see her pacing out their boundaries and whatever was up her ass. Too public. He assumed then that she had to be headed for one of the sewer tunnels that meant that Terminal City was far from the sewn-up target the ordinaries believed it. Usually, the freaks only used them if they needed to make supply runs or Eyes Only directed rescue missions, so what was hurtling her out of there tonight?

For a moment, he paused, wondering if she was headed out to see Logan. After all, there were things you couldn’t say over a video screen when other people were always around, bringing your conversation back to transgenic matters or, if it was Dix, top technology tips. What could be more natural? Cale had probably decided that he had to do something about the dark rims around Max’s eyes. Maybe erase them with his gloved touch. . .

Alec resumed walking, telling himself he’d check she got to Sandeman’s and her kind-of boyfriend safely. He was pretty confident he could trail her without her knowledge and then why not award himself in a bar where only tonight mattered.

He had to stifle a shiver the second he walked under the boundary of Terminal City. All the time spent absorbing the plans for defense purposes didn’t quite explain his reaction. It was more than an internal positioning system at work. He’d raised his hand, hadn’t he? Agreed to stay and call this place home and these people family. She’d promised that night that they had a haven – and he’d let himself believe her too, because the other option was running, finding a good place, laying low and that was unacceptable. It would be playing by someone else’s rules.

So he stayed, like all the X-5s and 6s who could have left in the night and passed for ordinaries. Like the nomalies who had no choice but to stick with Max. He stayed and played follow my leader, much as he was doing now, even though she had never asked him to be her de facto second in command. He was pretty sure she’d assumed that the command structure had come about innately, never noticing that someone had filled in the gaps for her. Never noticing how much she was shielded.

She had to be. The self-titled freaks needed someone who was in control, an unshakeable figurehead whose orders they could trust. They’d brought into the plan and so they had to keep believing it would work. Unlike them, Max had been out there for a decade, and whatever the whys and wherefores of that, she understood the ordinaries - the people they needed to convince to give them freedom in their midst. That was the future they trusted their leader to deliver.

Only Alec saw her let her eyelids rest as she took deep breaths before standing in front of her troops and family for the speeches she had to make. The others needed their leader too much - and none of them were standing close enough - to notice Max.

He’d surprised her, he knew, by still being there, he was the me-first guy, right? He always promised ambiguity when he offered his hand, the danger that when it was too much strain on his shoulders, he’d let go. He rarely used words like respect and empowerment. Or if he did, he used them with a sense of the absurd.

A distancing trick, she and others had said. They never realized the irony of him allowing them close enough to tell him these things. But he appreciated it for them all. If he didn’t, he might as well seek the night as she did. Max had always been one for roaming, he knew, stalking through the dark, over roofs and through back streets until what was troubling her took shape and she could beat it up. One way of dealing with things. Only now the stakes were higher, she could not think of only herself. She had duties – they all did. She’d given them all, even the unwilling such as him, a sense of responsibility. Wry smiles would not get rid of that fact. But wry smiles helped him carry the burden.

Better than she did.

They had passed two turnings that would have led to Joshua’s old place. As she finally took a ladder – he could hear her boot’s muffled contact with the metal – he knew he was in this for the night.

He raised himself out of the hole to be greeted by the sight of her, waiting for him, her head slightly tilted askance and a hand on her hip on a deserted side road. From her stance, there was no way she was going to lean forward and help him up.

“Why are you following me, Alec?” her voice was harsh, but resigned to having this conversation.

“When did you clock me?” he teased, returning the cover to its place.

She scowled. Oooh, testy.

“Beside the point. I didn’t ask for your company.”

“So where are you going?” he asked pleasantly, knowing that his tone would deepen her anger. But there were two ways for her to go when she got angry – shouting or giving him the short shrift of her boot. Tonight he hoped she might stick to shouting; it was a form of communication after all.

“Out for a walk,” she waved her hand dismissively.

“Sector three? Nearest dive? Both? Where?”

“Does it matter to you? No, 'cause you’re going to turn your sorry ass back home.”

He shook his head and crossed his arms.

“Nope. You’re going to talk to me.”

“Am not either,” she responded, then sighed, blaming him for making her so juvenile. “I was going up to the Needle.”

“Ah,” he let out. It was awkward. Her old haunt, he knew. He’d followed her up once. He’d watched her climb up more than once. She didn’t get to go there so much anymore. She obviously didn’t want his pity that her own place of refuge had been lost to her when she set up a sanctuary for others. A sanctuary of toxic chemicals, dank rooms, flickering lights full of desperately hopeful people, sure. But refuge too.

“Alone,” she tried tentatively.

“No,” he replied.

“Did Logan send you-“ he shook his head. “Or is it down to that whole taking care of me thing-“

“You don’t need taking care of, I know, I know,” he forestalled her too easily. “And it’s got nothing at all to do with Logan.”

“I don’t need a tail,” she said crossly. He smirked.

“Lucky no one thought to give you one in the lab, then.”

The young woman rolled her eyes at him, and then shrugged, by her gesture missing him pull back his smile, reprimanded by a memory.

“Ok, come along then,” she mumbled.

“What was that, Max? Your diction – not good - you know?”

Her glare spoke of stabbing and poundings and scratching out his eyes.

“Okay, let’s get going then. Max and her good friend Alec. To the Needle!” Something about his words made her turn and walk away. Angrily, of course, but he thought the invitation was still good so he used his longer stride to catch up with her.

He was used to her anger. She was always close to losing it. But that was her response to the chase that was her life – she got mad and decided to follow her own rules. It worked for her, she might appear to be penned in, but she wasn’t even playing the same game as the other side. Only trouble was, being captain wasn’t her natural style. She could give orders, because it always sounded as if she was threatening to rip some parts of your limbs off if you didn’t comply whilst promising to help, all at the same time. But giving so much diminished her. Her eyes seemed to have grown in her face over the past few weeks. She was truly penned up, in a way she hadn’t been in the cell when they’d first met. Even tonight she could not think of only herself.

He followed her from half a step behind, letting her decide on how they were getting to their destination, scanning their surroundings for possible danger as he always did. It was a quiet night. Most people were in, watching some big sports match. Even for blowing off steam, she’d chosen the most appropriate time. Attagirl.

And then he saw it, dead ahead, inviting the brave to climb. Seattle’s finest edifice, its trademark even, soaring above the garbage and graffiti-strewn streets. The impressiveness was ruined once you got close enough to see how the Pulse and decay had left their mark. The warning signs that surrounded it were meant to keep the citizens away, intimating it was unsafe for structural reasons, when the biggest danger it posed was that it was too close to the heart of what the city had been, and worse, could show up what it was.

She looked around before committing herself to going towards it. With the same intensity of gaze, so did he. They saw nothing, no signs of disturbance or possible witnesses, shared a look to confirm it and she led the way again. He was getting too used to that, he admitted, pursing his lips, caught between what had to be vexation and amusement.

Climbing was easy. No enemy fire. That was his usual measuring stick these days. He smiled, relishing the exercise, knowing the view would be awesome. He wondered if she’d first found the spot because she was thinking of jumping, or if it had just been a challenge. Could easily have been the latter. Sure, she bitched for an easier life – they all did – but she, less than anyone he knew, had never backed down from challenges. Sometimes she tried to walk away, but she usually turned around and took them on, and how much that had rubbed off on him terrified Alec.

She walked out on to the lip. Most people would have thought about really turning back – the incline down was a little steep, there were winds to make a paraglider cheer, and the lights below were very distant. She didn’t flinch. For her it was probably the equivalent of going to your favorite swing in a playground.

He followed to the edge, as sure-footed as her. Her equal, and yet not. There were reasons why she had gone first and he had followed. Reasons he usually accepted, with protesting eyebrows, but acceptance was what counted, right?

For now.

Like her, he sat cross-legged. They were even wearing the same uniform, dark jeans and zipped up leather. Hiding the napes of their necks. Their brands.

“Did you laser?” he asked abruptly.

“What?” she spat out. Ha. She’d been expecting a direct attack. Score one for team Alec.

“Well you planned coming out here tonight, did you laser?”

“My face is all over the media, Alec. Does it matter? And I did not, repeat, did not plan on your coming too. So your neck is your business!”

“I wasn’t egotistical enough to think you did,” he said coolly, trying to defuse the anger. Or deflect it a little at least. “But it’s come to something when you have to plan your night off.”

“We were spoiled at Jam Pony,” she replied.

“I honestly never thought you’d say that, ever.”

“Neither did I – but come on. We got to dictate our hours.”

“You did. Our boss’ favorite name for you was Little Miss Tardy.”

“And he had a crush on you.”

He coughed at that.

“Oh, come on, you were his golden boy. And you used it.”

“What was your initial point again?” He asked, letting her know that she could fight dirty but he was getting used to that and had better defenses this time.

“Uh, just that we could clock off. Walk away.”

“Cycle away,” he cracked.

“I miss my bike,” she turned to him, making her admission quick, as if nostalgia was a weakness. “Even making deliveries, there was nothing like turning a corner and cutting through an alley, weaving past people and-“

“Yeah,” he breathed, surprised at the expression on her face. Her confession had relaxed a hardness he’d been starting to take for granted. For a second she’d been stunning. And he shouldn’t have been the one to catch that expression on her face, or it shouldn’t have affected him so.

“We miss what we can’t have,” she said, removing the emotion from her voice, too good at that. Clamping herself down until she was the soldier with herself under control again. The leader. “When Joshua and the others couldn’t ever have it.”

“It doesn’t make us the bad guys in this situation,” he said awkwardly.

“Riiight.”

Silence. They took in the view. A ruined city, haphazardly lit – for now. He could point at the different sectors and name the areas where the tips were good, the parts where the pickings were amazing, and the streets that embraced the seedy, took their money, then patted their faces and kicked them out. He deliberately did not look out for the place from where they’d come that night.

“So why didn’t you bring one of them? You know, wearing a cloak, a hooded top, a hat? You could have kept them hidden, we hardly saw anyone on the way over.”

“And shown them the world they can’t have?”

“That’s not what you tell them,” he accused her, taking all the heat out of his voice, as if it were a mere observation.

“I lie,” she said softly, knowing his ears would catch it.

“And it’s eating you up, because Josh and the others look up to you, and you can’t control the fears of the people outside and the liars you’re meant to be negotiating with-“ he sighed, really wanting to shake her out of this, but knowing she wouldn’t take too kindly to that and was probably seething at just his words.

“I don’t, I can’t-“

“You don’t have to.”

“What does that mean? I have to take the burden of responsibility-“

“Because you set us free in a dangerous world, so you feel you have to reform that world.” The phrases came easily, they were all hers from one speech or another. “Don’t you think that’s a little much to blame yourself for not accomplishing in a few months?”

“Our medical facilities are a few strips of gauze. Our electricity is a joke in a city that has fifty words for black outs. If we didn’t have the antibodies and stem cells we do running through our blood, we’d be dead plenty times over.”

“And that’s not your fault.”

“It feels like it.”

“And you can’t take it. So don’t. Don’t put it on your shoulders. You’re cracking up.”

“Blunt. That’s blunt. You’ve been hanging with O.C. behind my back?” The sadness and wistfulness in her voice didn’t help.

“It’s true.”

“I can’t run.”

“I’m not suggesting running.”

“Well, what then? A time out?” she spat.

“Wasn’t that what this was, a time out?”

She paused, his insistence wearing her down. The tough girl thing only worked on him when it was followed by a punch, and she didn’t feel much like injuring him, for once.

“Was meant to be. I wanted to clear my head, get a little perspective.”

“It usually works?” A reminder, again, that he knew her too well. When had she let him get to do that? She’d never thought he’d still be here by her side, and causing her less trouble than most too.

“A little. Yeah. But its not just my messed up life I’m dealing with, is it?”

“What if you pretend that it is,” he offered. “Just you.”

“What are you doing here, then?” she asked, not unkindly, but attacked by a pang of curiosity. She’d pushed him as much as she could tonight, been ruder to him than she had for a while. He could have rolled his eyes at her, turned and taken off, found a quiet bar, mingled, maybe picked some tramp up and checked up on her in the morning. Let her pretend everything was all right. Max told herself that she liked that scenario, seeing that it included her being left alone.

“Call me Jiminy Cricket.” His smile was crooked. Too weary for that she turned her head away from him, staring out to the city limits. She didn’t want to see his lips in a crooked smile, an unfinished thing. Too many unfinished things waited for her at home.

“My life is messed up because as per usual, there are people who want to kill me and mine.”

“Forget them.”

“The cult? The cops? The vigilantes? All go bye-bye!?”

“The people you feel responsible for.”

She scrunched up her eyes, letting herself play along.

“So, there are people who want to kill me. People who have ensured that my life is not what I hoped for. I gave up on a normal life, I really did, can’t change what I am, but I’d settle for peaceful right now.”

“You would, wouldn’t you?” he sounded surprised.

“And I have to deal with the fact that it ain’t going to happen. I can’t run. I’d beat myself up and anyway someone would come after me.”

“Yeah,” his voice was bleak and she sneaked an almost playful look at him.

“Were you trying to cheer me up, Jiminy?” His face seemed to have borrowed her previous moroseness.

“You’re too tired to be thinking this straight,” he offered.

“I sleep all right, but when I wake up, there are broken pipes, lists of more things to steal, food, medicine, blankets. False avenues of hope.”

“But you have Logan, you have Joshua, you’ve set up a community, which considering how much we need those stolen goods to keep going, the neighborhood in general and our, er, upbringing, is surprisingly peaceful.”

“I wasn’t the one who picked a dove for the flag.”

“Maybe what I’m trying to say is you should take hope from the person who did. Josh – he’s blooming.”

“The literature lessons?” she smiled.

“The murals. The portraits. The fact that everyone thinks his height is the best thing because we’ve only got – what? - five ladders. The fact that nobody’s afraid of him unless if he wants them to be. He never panics, he smiles, a little too much if you ask me.”

“I’m happy for him,” she said thinly.

“It’s not enough. You should be happy for you and what you’ve got,” he retorted, making her eyes open wide although her head stayed still.

And why are you taking it to heart, she wanted to ask him, but burst out bitterly instead, “I’m sorry I’m such a failure,” surprising herself with that.

“You’re not a failure, I’ve been trying to tell you. You have such a thick skull. And blocked ears.”

“Just because I find it difficult to believe in The World According to Alec...” she sniffed derisively.

“But believing your most depressed take on the way things are – real clever. I know you love the brooding and the self-recrimination, but you can’t let yourself. You really can’t.”

“Because I’m cracking up?” she shouted. They’d both shouted.

“You will! Carry on like this and it’ll happen, Max. And you’ll be the one who’ll have broken you. Because you expect too much of yourself.” She could feel his breath on her face, the vibrations of his words. And he wasn’t quite shouting now, and that was scary too.

“Don’t. Don’t, it’s not your place.”

“Then whose is it? Huh? Because you’re lying to them all, telling them it’s fine, under control. Don’t you remember? I’m the expert on deception, and I‘m the one who’s calling you on it, and you can’t push me away.”

“I’m seriously considering pushing you over, you know,” she said defiantly.

He smiled. Real amusement changing his features.

“No, you’re not.”

She felt the responding smile break through her control.

“No, no, I’m not. Not tonight.”

Despite the fact that she was actually smiling at him, he reacted as if she’d begun to cry, putting his arms around her, his lips and chin finding the top of her head, and she didn’t rustle or move. Her passive acceptance frightened him a little, and he held her tighter.

He drew his face back then to say, “It’s all right if it’s not all right, sometimes.”

“That one of those life lessons you picked up, soldier boy?” Her voice still wasn’t halfway Max’s. His hand started rubbing up and down her arm.

“Oh, I learn fast,” he said vaguely.

“Hey, you labeling me a dunce?”

“Knew you wouldn’t be able to resist that.” The elbow-jab he got was for form’s sake and constrained by their physical proximity. She didn’t wriggle for more space for another attack.

“I’m scared and it’s something I can’t get away from,” she eventually said. “I do all this, and every second something could happen that I hadn’t foreseen or planned for. White could come for us in ways we don’t want to imagine or the government could pull out from the discussions and that’s not even allowing for chaos theory.”

“We cope okay with chaos,” he reminded her.

“All of us?” she asked, her voice husky. “The kids, the nomalies?”

“We’re making a go of Terminal City. Real pioneer stock.”

He got a stifled snort at that, proof that she was on the edge of some kind of hysterical outbreak. She probably had come up here to cry. He restarted the arm rubbing, knowing he’d be told to knock it off eventually.

But Max was closing her eyes, trying not to imagine any of the trannies on a covered wagon. The shaking started as a vision involving bonnets coalesced. It was the kind of laughter that is close to tears. When the spasms ran out, she dropped her head on his chest, acknowledging inside that she felt better, that it was simply good to talk to someone who was listening. Only who would have thought that that someone would be this guy? Again.

“Alec, this talking thing-“ she began.

“Which in your case involves butchering the English language.”

“Oh, shut up! Can I-“

“You can trust me,” he said oddly. “I mean, not with something I could fence, but I’m not going to go blab on ya.”

“I know that,” she flexed her legs. “I just – it’s – if I wanted to talk again, could we do that?”

Getting that she’d had enough from her movements, he let her go, leaning away from her, trying to downplay to himself how wrong the action felt.

“’Course.”

She nodded, satisfied.

“I think I’ll want to,” she was still looking at Seattle, not wanting to raise her eyes to his. “Yeah, I’m gonna hold ya to that.”

It was not long after that when she tired of the silence and said they should go home.

Seeing the slight droop of her shoulders in the tunnels, he’d ordered her to bed, her only argument was a sniff, but she must have told herself she wanted to do it anyway.

They separated with something like smiles on their faces.

END

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