"You look tired."

"I'm not," I whispered. "I'm not tired."

"It was a long walk back here."

I didn't say anything for a second. "Yeah," I admitted quietly. "It was."

"I should go," He said softly, shifting his weight. "Let you get some sleep."

"Don't," I breathed, catching his arm and rising up at the same time to kiss him. His arms flexed and surrounded my body, his hands slipping up my back, teasing the soft skin at the nape of my neck, sliding into my hair, his mouth warm and gentle against my lips. I broke the kiss and pressed my forehead against his, holding him close so he wouldn't leave.

"I sleep better when you're here," I whispered.

"I don't think so," He grinned.

I shook my head. "You know what I -"

He cut me off with a kiss, his lips warm against mine, his hands sliding across my neck to cup my face gently. It feels so good that it almost hurts, I thought, my heart swelling in my chest, making me want to dance, to hold him until the sun came up, to never let him leave…

It's everything that all the poets and musicians and artists say it is, I thought, that perfection, that wholeness and feeling of finally, finally this is mine that you get when the person that you choose, chooses you back...

You'll get through it, She told us. All of it.

And we did.

I let my hands unclasp behind his neck and trailed my hand down his chest, my fingers finding the thin silk rope that hung around his neck. I could feel his lips leave me. He was smiling.

My fingers found the pendant. I looked down, admiring the way it hung loosely against his chest.

"It works on you," I whispered. "I like it."

"It's perfect," He said quietly. My eyes flickered up to him.

He was staring at me.

I fought the instinct to blush and released the pendant. "I was talking about -"

"I know," He interrupted, still staring at me. I smiled, looking down and then back at him.


He blinked, surprised at the question, and shook his head. "Nothing," He said quietly. "Just - you."

I started to laugh, pushing at him, and he smiled, pulling me closer. He bent his head down to my body, his lips hovering over my cheek, the curve of my neck, my collarbone. I fought the desire to breathe deeply, for my body to rise up to him, to close the few millimeters that separated my body from his touch and I felt his breath first, warm, no, hot against my skin and then the soft, warm wetness of his mouth, his tongue sending soft shivers of lightning through my body, little waves of heat and light rippling under and over and through me, making me tremble and reach for him, my hands drifting up his shoulders and slipping into his hair, cupping his face up to mine for a kiss, wanting nothing between us but warmth and light and each other's touch, soft murmurs and touches opening the gates to each other like a healing, something sacred, something we could never share with anyone else, the language of touch and yes and you, I choose you, I want you. Only you.


I watched her body rise and fall with her breathing. She was curled up on her side, asleep. A long wisp of hair fell slowly down the length of her shoulder, coming to rest against her cheek. I reached up and moved it back, careful not to wake her.

She looked like an angel. Maybe it was the moonlight slipping over her skin, or the peaceful look on her face. I smiled and shifted my weight gently, pressing down on the mattress and letting it up slowly. No matter what she said, I was sure she'd sleep better without me.

I paused for a second, making sure the mattress wouldn't betray me. I lifted my hands.

Nothing. Her breathing didn't even change.

I raised the pendant in the half-light, staring at the curving sweep of the symbol, twisting and circling in upon itself.

Funny how it's circular, I thought. It looped outward and then overlapped itself, making two circles...why not one circle?

Why not one line heading out to a horizon, never coming back?

I pursed my lips, my fingertips stroking the pendant. It was so small in my hands.

I shook my head, dropping the symbol and looking over at her sleeping form. My life was full of symbols.

I finally knew what one of them meant.

"Sweet dreams," I whispered.

I turned around to find my things.


I climbed the stairs to my apartment. I felt like whistling. I shook it off.

You've got it bad, Guerin, but you're not certifiable.

I couldn't help humming something under my breath as I got to the door. Sarah McLachlan, I think. I almost laughed out loud. Max was rubbing off on me.

I shook my head and opened the door, walking through it -

He was sitting on the couch.

On my couch.

I stopped dead, my breath catching in my throat.

Max Evans was in my house. On my couch.

How did he get in?

"Max," I said slowly, letting the question hang in my voice.

He didn't look up. Didn't even acknowledge I was there. He just sat there in the dark, the pale light from the streetlight and the moon slipping through the blind, casting a reverse shadow of silver light on his back.

My heartbeat was pounding so hard I could almost hear it over the roaring in my blood.

Relax, Guerin. He's probably here to talk about the hologram or something -

I cleared my throat. "What're, uh - what're you doing here?"

He sat there, silent, staring at something in his hands. A book, or something -

"You alright?" I asked, getting my bearings back.

No response. I stared at him for a second, waiting for him to say something.


I slammed the front door behind me and walked over to the fridge, opening the door and staring at the contents. The light flickered and sputtered in protest before finally catching and illuminating the fridge with a sterile white light and a faint humming sound.

No big deal, I thought. Relax.

I glanced over my shoulder at him. He hadn't moved yet.

The adrenalin ebbed from my blood. It was just Max. Stoic, silent Max.

I rolled my eyes and took a slow, deep breath. My lungs were burning for air. I focused back on the refrigerator. An old bottle of tobasco. Some old milk that I wasn't gonna open.

"You want something, Maxwell?" I muttered in a low voice.

I caught the movement out of the corner of my eye. Whatever it was he was looking at, he was holding it up to me.

I sighed and turned around to look -

My sketchpad.

I froze.

It was a picture of Liz.

My drawing of Liz.

In her room.

In her bed.

That's impossible, I thought, my mind refusing to connect Max and the drawing in the same place at once. They were hidden. He couldn't have found them. He couldn't -

"Explain this," He said, his voice low and dangerous, his eyes locked on me.

Neither of us moved.

My hand was still on the refrigerator door, the cold air warm against my skin.

He knew. Max knew.

I blinked and licked my lips. "Max -"

He moved faster than I could react, slamming me backwards into the fridge, knocking the breath out of me.

"Talk," He hissed, his eyes flashing, his arm pushed against my throat. "Now."

I stared at him for a second, at all that rage and fury waiting for a reason to get out of control, boiling to the surface -

You have to tell him something. Tell him something -

Tell him what?

"How long," He whispered. His voice was a snarl.

I swallowed and felt his arm press down harder on my throat.

"How long have you -"

"Months," I whispered.

His mouth opened and shut. He blinked. His arm dropped and he backed away from me.

"I don't believe it," He whispered, shaking his head. "I don't believe you."

I stared at him, trying to predict what was going to happen, what he was going to do next. He was still backing up, his feet taking him toward the couch when he stumbled over something and fell back, regaining his balance at the last second. My eyes flickered to what he'd tripped over -


Stacks of them.

Dozens of them lying open, all of them of Liz. At school, asleep, at work -

He'd found them. All of them. How did he know to look -

"You bastard," He whispered, shaking his head. He was staring at the open books. "You sonofabitch."

"Max -"

"I trusted you," He hissed, snatching a book from the stack and hurling it viciously across the room. It twisted and spun helplessly, its pages fluttering like useless wings, landing with a heavy thump in the corner. "I trusted you -"

He buried his face in his hands and started pacing.

Breathe, Guerin, breathe -

"We didn't know how to -"

"Shut up," He snarled, his arm whipping out, pointing at me, his steps coming right for me. "I can't believe I trusted you," He said, shaking his head, still advancing. "I can't believe I -"

He stopped, hands on his hips, his lips clamped together, shaking his head.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" He demanded.

Yes. I do -

"She doesn't love you," He hissed, pointing at me. "She'll never love you -"

Something in me snapped.

"That's not what she says," I said.

His jaw dropped. He blinked in amazement. He straightened and I felt my muscles tense, waiting for the punch to fall, watching his hips and legs to know which way he'd go -

And then he did something I didn't expect at all.

He started to laugh.


"Oh, that's too rich," He laughed, shaking his head and bringing the heel of one hand up to wipe his eyes. "'That's not what she says'. Oh, that's great, Michael. That's great."

I blinked, staring at him.

He's lost it, I thought. He's totally lost it.

"How long did you think it would take for me to find out?" He asked, tilting his head, a strange smile slipping over his features.

My mouth opened and closed, my muscles screaming to act. "I don't - I don't know," I said, my voice hoarse against my throat. I stood up straight.

He pursed his lips, his eyes widening. "I see," He said, nodding. "So - no plan. No worry about how it might affect, oh, say, me," he continued, waving his hands. "Or maybe Isabel, or even Tess, for that matter, or anything else -"

"What are you talking about," I snapped. "What do any of them have to -"

"Our mission, Michael," He snarled, leaning in again. "Our whole reason for being here. The enslavement of our people. Going home. Isn't that what you've been searching for all your life?" He demanded, pushing himself away from the counter and turning around, gesturing at the room. "What, you think this is it? Think. I know you can do it, I've watched you figure almost everything else out, you know what you need to do -"

I blinked.

He kept talking, but I wasn't listening. I was staring at the contemptuous way his hands moved, the sneer on his lips, the resolution in his eyes...

He walked like a panther. He moved like he was ready to kill -

I licked my lips.

"I thought you were supposed to go to Hondo," I said quietly.

Max stopped in mid-sentence, turning and staring at me.

Not Max, I thought. Nasedo.


His eyes narrowed and his hands dropped back to his hips.

"Too much?" He asked, shaking his head. "I never can tell with him. There's a fine line, you know, and I can't seem to get it, I either hedge from it or I go right over it -"

"I asked you a question," I snapped, moving toward him, the adrenalin pulsing through my body again.

He wasn't Max. Max didn't know. He didn't know -

He rolled his eyes at me and sighed loudly. "I went," He said. "I took care of them."

I blinked. "Did you... did you..."

"Kill them?" He asked, tilting his head at me and pursing his lips in a sneer. "No."

I felt my body relax slightly.

"No, Michael," He said deliberately, "I save that for special occasions."

I saw Pierce flying back in that arc, the look in his eyes, the word 'no' on his lips...

"Not that I follow your orders," He said evenly.

We stared at each other, sizing up each other's motivations, trying to judge how far each of us would go to protect what was important to us. A police siren started a few blocks away and then faded off into the distance. A dog barked down the street.

His eyes flickered.

"Anyway," He said, shrugging and moving back to the stacks of sketchpads. He picked one up and nodded in appreciation before turning it upside down.

"Soooo," He murmured, letting out a low whistle that crawled up my spine, "This is what I'm missing."

I moved quickly, snatching the book out of his hands and tossing it on the couch. He chuckled a low, soft laugh.

"There's no need to be rude, Michael."

"Get out."

He clutched his hand over his heart. "Go? Now? But I've only just gotten here," He said, sneering at me. "Still want to offer me something to drink?"

"Tell me what you want, or get out," I said quietly.

He pursed his lips. "Oh, fine," He said, rolling his eyes and exhaling loudly. "Take all the fun out of it."

He folded his arms in front of his chest. "Well, you have to leave her," He said, shrugging his shoulders. "That's all there is to it."


"Excuse me?"

He blinked. "Leave. Her," He said, his head tilting from side to side. "Leave her. It's not rocket science, Michael."

I shook my head. "You want me to -"

"Break it off with the girl," He snapped. "The human. Parker."

"Her name," I said quietly, moving closer to him, "is Liz. And that is not an option."

"Michael, Michael, Michael," He said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry. Well," He said, frowning reflectively, "I would be sorry, I guess, if I cared. But really. You've had your fun, and now it's time to move on -"

"I don't think you're listening -"

He stared at me, his mouth open. "What is the problem, Michael? I understand your wanting to get some, but frankly, I think you can do better. You can't -"

His body shot backwards and slammed against the wall. His head snapped back from the force of it.

My arm was fully extended, my fingers outspread and pointing at him. I tried to breathe over the rage pounding in my blood.

"I wouldn't finish that," I whispered.

He blinked. Surprise flickered across his face. He jerked his arms but they didn't move. I was breathing hard, watching Max's body pinned to the wall, wondering how long I could hold him -

Think, Guerin. Think -

A slow smile spread across his lips. "Don't be stupid, Michael," He said softly. "I'm impressed.

"But I won't lose."

I blinked. It was getting harder to hold him. The smile slipped to the edges of Max's mouth, curling up in the early stages of a sneer.

"I'm not playing some game," I snapped. There were only ten steps between us. Nine. Eight. "This is my life you're talking about -"

"I know what I'm talking about," He raged suddenly. "I know more than you, Michael. Have you forgotten that?"

I stopped, stunned by the ferocity in his voice. It's not Max, Guerin. Relax. He's not Max -

Not that Max would react any differently if he found the sketchpads, a voice in my head whispered.

"Let me go," He demanded. "Now."

I shook my head.


"Let me go, or kill me," He whispered.

I froze.


"Those are your only choices," He said.

Pierce's body was at the top of its arc, just before his body slammed back into the wall, crushing the paint and cinderblock beneath it -


Yes, you sonofabitch -

I blinked.

He wasn't serious. He couldn't be serious -

"Let me go, Michael," He snarled. I tried to focus -

Max's eyes burned into me. "Let me go, or kill me."

I stared at Max's eyes locked onto mine, his hair disheveled, his arms straining to break free -

He's not Max. It's Nasedo -

I felt the pulse building around Pierce's heart, quickening the frequency, letting the pulse build upon itself and then releasing it, his body flying back from the power of it...

I blinked again, my heart pounding, the rage in my blood drowning in the memory, dwindling to a whimper and then a murmur and then there was nothing left.

I let my arm drop.

I stared down at the sketchbook lying open at my feet. Liz was at the Crashdown, smiling at a customer while she poured coffee into their cup...

Nasedo took a step forward. He licked his lips and turned his head from side to side. I heard the joints in his neck pop sharply.

"That hurt," He said.

He sounded pleased.

I raised my head to look at him -

I didn't see his arm swing out, the fire from his hand sending me backwards, flying across the room until my body hit some cans and stacks of art supplies, the paint bleeding into my shirt and my arms, the plaster wall cracking under the pressure -

I heard a far-off sound, something rythymic. It sounded miles away. It took me a second to realize it was Max's voice.

"The first lesson is," Nasedo murmured slowly, flicking imaginary dust off his arm on the other side of the room, "Never let an opponent get the upper hand."

I was a foot off the ground. The air was thick, suddenly, too thick to breathe. I felt like my blood had stopped, stopped dead in every vein, every artery, my heart screaming for movement, for something to beat through it, keep it alive, keep it moving -

"The second lesson," He said nonchalantly, closer to me now, "Is to be willing to make sacrifices. Cut your losses."

He stood next to my body, peering up at me. "Accept reality and move on. Do you understand?"

I tried to force my arms away from the wall. Nothing happened. He had me pinned. I couldn't even breathe to say anything -

"How many lessons are we going to have to go through, Michael?" He murmured, smiling.

I didn't answer. I couldn't. My heart and lungs were screaming and I tried to bite back the panic flooding my body -

He looked at me evenly and then flicked his hand as if he was swatting at a fly.

I collapsed in a heap on the ground immediately, gasping for air, the blood in my body surging forward again, my heart pounding to push the blood through the chambers of my heart -

"I'm glad we had this chat," He said distantly. He squatted down next to me.

"End it. Tonight," He said. "Do you understand?"

I blinked, trying to clear my vision, trying to focus on the floor in front of me, thinking say something, do something, say something - -

"Michael," He whispered. His voice low and dangerous. "Do. You. Understand."

I paused for a second.

Then I nodded.

"Good," He said, standing up and walking to the door.

I tried to force my muscles to work, pushing myself off the floor as Max's body walked away from me, catching myself from stumbling, trying to stay upright.

"I understand," I whispered, my voice ragged and torn.

He rolled his eyes around to me, his hand on the doorknob.

I stood up straight and tried to breathe.

"The answer," I whispered, "is no."


His eyes narrowed.

Liz. Think of Liz -

He moved quicker than my eyes could follow, his arm whipping around to knock me back, the pressure stronger this time and I threw everything I had at him, my vision narrowing until everything else faded and all I could see was him, trying to block his strike and pin him back all at once, feeling the fire and light howling in my blood and screaming out of me, ripping through my muscles, my mind, my heart -

He blinked, surprised, and let his arm drop. I lowered my arm a second later.

The assault was over.

"Well," Nasedo said, clucking his - Max's - tongue. "Looks like we have a stalemate."

Focus, Guerin, focus -

"Maybe we should negotiate," He said, tilting his head.

"You don't have anything I want," I breathed, my body still tensed to strike.

"Oh, I think I do," He murmured, smiling slightly. "I have information, Michael."

I blinked. You can't trust him. Don't trust him -

"Maybe I've been doing this all wrong," He said amiably. "Maybe I should be talking to Liz."

The fire was warm in my hands, screaming to cut loose, throw him back, burn the life out of him -

"Ah ah ahhh," He said in a sing-song voice, waving his finger back and forth. "Careful with that bloodlust, Michael," He said softly. His hand dropped and a short laugh escaped his lips. "Don't worry. You get used to it."

"What're you talking about," I whispered.

"The bloodlust, Michael," He said, his eyes glimmering. He stepped toward me.

"The taste of battle. The hunger to kill. It's strong, isn't it?" He grinned. His teeth shone in the shadows. "Hard to control that urge. Hard to go back once that line is crossed."

Is that what we are now? Murderers?

No, Guerin. Just you -

I blinked. "Leave me alone," I whispered.

He shrugged and waved his hands. "There's nothing you can do about it, Michael," He said, smiling. "It's part of your program. Part of who you are. Don't fight it."
His eyes turned cold and determined. "You can't deny who or what you are," He hissed. "And the human isn't part of it. Break it off. Tonight."

"No," I whispered. "You don't understand -"

"You're lying to Max, Michael," He yelled, his eyes flashing.

I tried to breathe. I know, I thought, I know I am, but -

"I thought that if you saw him, saw what he would look like when he knew -" His voice broke off and he shook his head.

"Your loyalties are in the wrong place, Michael. You're compromising your connection to him. Not to mention Isabel. You're putting the entire mission at risk, and I won't let that happen."

I licked my lips. "I don't think -"

"It's not your job to think," He snarled suddenly. "It's your job to learn. To kill. To survive. It's my job to protect you, all of you, so that you can do that. And you are not helping me, Michael."

I fought the urge to rub my eyes. "What - why does it matter? Why does my being with Liz make any -"

He stepped forward quickly, cutting me off.

"Who's your top priority, Michael?"

I blinked. His eyes were locked on me.

I fumbled for an answer.

"Who. Is your top. Priority."

I swallowed. My teeth clenched against the inside of my cheek. My eyes flickered to the floor.

"There you go," He whispered, his voice low and disgusted, shrugging his shoulders.

"There's your answer."


"You kept it a secret for a long time," He muttered, crossing over to the couch, glancing at some sketchpads before tossing them to the floor and sitting down. "I'll give you that.

"But you can't keep this up. And you need to focus."

"Focus on what?" I said slowly.

"What - were none of you listening to me?" He demanded. "There's a good chance that you've alerted your enemies, Michael, that they know exactly where you are. You think they're going to just leave you alone? Trust me," He laughed, shaking his head. "I'm doing you a favor."

A favor. I almost laughed.

"And you're not ready," He muttered, shaking his head. "I mean, look at you," He said, waving at me. There's that contempt again, I thought, seeing the dismissal in his eyes. "One kill, and you're useless. Afraid to fight back. We don't have time for ethical dilemmas, Michael. You have to work together. You have to trust each other.

"Especially you."

I licked my lips. "Why especially me?"

He pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes.

"Because you're the front line, Michael."

I shook my head. "I'm - I'm what?"

"You're the front line," He repeated. "It's your first order. Protect Max. Protect the King."

My mouth hung open. "King?" I demanded. "She didn't - she didn't say that. She said leader-"

"King, leader, what difference does it make?" He snapped. "Whatever she said, you protect him. Why do you think you're here, Michael?"

I don't know. I don't know -

"You're a soldier, Michael," He stressed, standing up and walking toward me.

"You're the warrior. The protector. You have to know that if one of them comes after Max, you won't even hesitate to protect him."

I blinked. "That's it?" I whispered. "That's all I am? Max's bodyguard?"

His eyes flickered.

"That's the only reason I'm here?" I demanded. "Are you kidding me?"

"Welcome to my world, Michael," He snapped.

I shook my head and backed away from him.

"It's your mission, Michael," He said loudly. "Find the clues. Protect the King. Convince him to lead."

My fingers rose up to my shirt, feeling the hard curve of the pendant.

"But you're not focusing on that, are you?" He smirked. "Nope. Not on Max. Just on the few distractions on available on this barren wasteland of a rock -"

"Hey," I snapped, turning around suddenly. "I spent my whole life looking for clues. Looking for you. Where the hell were you?"

Max's eyes locked on me. He didn't say anything for a second.

"I had things to take care of," He said, his tone defiant, his chin coming up. "It's not relevant."

"Not relevant," I repeated. My voice was a whisper.

His eyes flickered around the room.

"You just show up and expect us all to do whatever you say," I said, advancing on him. You know what it was like for us here, not knowing, not having any idea why were here? Do you have any idea what that did to us? To me?"

He shifted his weight and blinked fiercely. He wouldn't look at me.

"Do you know what they did to me?" I shouted. "Do you know what I -"

"Yes, Michael," He snapped suddenly, his eyes locking on to me. I stopped in mid-sentence.

"I know," He said, his voice quieter.

I stared at him. He knew? He knew -

He looked away, his eyes flickering across the couch, the sketchpads, the paint...

"You knew," I whispered. "You knew they took me? You knew about the foster homes, the.."

He licked his lips.

"You knew where I was the whole time?" I snapped. "You knew about Hank -"

"Michael -"

"You knew where I was, and you didn't do anything to get me out?"

"Yes!" He shouted, his eyes flashing dangerously, his eyes locked on me. "I did. And I'd do it again, Michael."

My mouth hung open. I didn't know what to say.

"I'd do it all over again," He hissed. "All of it."

I was backing up, shaking my head. "Why," I whispered. "Why would you -"

"Because we needed you hungry, Michael," He snapped suddenly. "We needed you angry. We needed you desperate to get out. Look at what happened to Isabel and Max -"

"What - that they're happy?" I demanded. "That they have a family that loves them?"

"Exactly," He hissed. "They don't even want to go back. Don't even want the responsibility they have. They don't want to believe any of it is real.

"But you, Michael," He whispered, shaking his head and smiling. "You kept pushing them. And when they didn't agree with you, when they refused to listen, you went out on your own to find clues that they couldn't run away from, things they had to acknowledge -"

"You bastard," I whispered.

He paused, staring at me. His mouth opened and closed.

Then he looked away.

"I don't understand you at all," I whispered.

"No," He snapped, rubbing his eyes. "You don't.

"Fortunately, that doesn't matter. What does matter is that you get yourself on track, Michael."

"Are we back on that?" I asked, biting back a laugh. "Back to Liz?"

"I'll go back to it until you listen to me," He said quietly.

"Talk all you want," I snapped. "I'm not changing my mind. Can't do it."

He took a deep breath. "You mean you won't," He said slowly, his voice low.

"Fine," I snapped, shrugging my shoulders and waving my hands. "Whatever. I won't. Happy?"

He licked his lips. "I just want to make absolutely sure I'm clear on this," He said, his voice low. "You're refusing to focus on your mission."

"I don't take orders from anyone," I said evenly. "Especially not from you."

He bit back a laugh and rubbed his face. "Alright," He said, clasping Max's hands together. "Let me make this easy for you, Michael.

"End it with the human. Or I'll do it for you.

"And you know how I'm going to do it."

My breath stopped.

You've got until this guy gets to the door, then I'm using his hand, and you know how I'm going to get it -

"Don't test me, Michael," He whispered, shaking his head slowly from side to side. "I'll do it. You of all people know I'll do it."

My heart was hammering in my chest. I tried to think -

"You know, you just can't trust people these days," He said, shaking his head. "I'd probably do it when she least expects it. Maybe as her dad, or as Max, or - hey!" He snapped his fingers, smiling. "Maybe I'll be you. That would be ironic, wouldn't it?"

"If you touch her -"

"You can't watch her all the time, Michael," He interrupted, laughing and moving toward me. "Not without people figuring out your precious, dirty, nasty little secret.

"Not without Max finding out you've been sneaking cookies from his private stash for months," He whispered, stopping in front of me. He leaned in to me.

"What do you think he's going to say when he finds out you've been screwing his girlfriend?"

"The same thing he'll say when I tell him you threatened to kill her," I whispered.


I watched Max's eyes flickered surprise. Then rage. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "You wouldn't," He said easily.

"Try me," I whispered.

He blinked. I counted to ten.

His smile faded to a scowl.

I knew it. I knew it -

"Don't **** with me, Michael," He whispered.

I felt air flow into my lungs. I had him. I had the bastard.

"I think he'd be interested," I said, folding my arms over my chest. "You know, to hear that you're planning on killing the love of his life."

I watched the rage simmering to the surface, dancing across his expression. You want a stalemate, you got one, you bastard.

He held his arm out, as if he wanted to shake my hand.

"Alright," He said. "You win."

My gaze flickered from his eyes to the outstretched hand and back again. He blinked and let his hand drop.

"Fine," He said. "Hard way."

The slam backwards took me by surprise, stronger this time, hurtling me back against the wall and knocking the breath out of me. My blood was heating up, skyrocketing in temperature, white-hot liquid searing through my veins, scalding the tissue in my body, pulsing through my heart -

"What was the first lesson, Michael?"

I tried to find slips and cracks in the energy field surrounding my body, in the quick lava pouring through my body, my muscles and organs screaming -

"I'll tell him," I whispered, my voice choked. "You know I'll tell him."

He moved closer, shaking his head.

"No, Michael," He whispered faintly. "You won't."

I tried to swallow. "Don't test me on this," I whispered.

He paused. "You know, I believe you really would tell him," He said, reflecting. He shook his head. "What secret powers does she possess in those marvelous, soft thighs of hers?"

"Let me go," I whispered.

"Oh no, Michael," He whispered. "No, no, no. I'm not letting you go until I'm ready."

I looked into Max's eyes.

They were dark. Soulless. There wasn't a glimmer of hesitation or remorse.

"I told you we'd have biology lessons later, Michael."

His hand rose up and rested on my cheek.

"Did you know," He said softly, "That my powers aren't just limited to shape-shifting into another person?

"What do you think happens when I'm between shifts, Michael?"

The fire was blistering in my hands. Let me go. Let me out. Let me out -

I couldn't release it. I could barely talk.

Max's lips curved slightly in a slow, cruel smile. His hand slid down my cheek and down my neck, resting over my heart.

"Part of shape-shifting is phasing, Michael. Finding the spaces between the cells, between the atoms. Do you know what that means?"

I shook my head. He leaned in closely, his breath warm against my ear. I could almost feel his lips against my skin.

"It means that I can phase through things, Michael. Lots of things. Things like rock. Like wood."

He pulled back and looked me straight in the eyes.

"Like your heart," He whispered.

The pulse shot out from his hand and I felt something pushing into me, into my body, cold and slithering through my skin, through my muscles, the pain slicing into and out of my rib cage, through muscle, tissue, membranes, coiling like a python around my heart. I tried to breathe and realized my mouth was already open, the scream echoing back at me, trapped in my throat...

I looked down. His arm was in me. It was in me, his arm flickering like quicksilver just outside my body.

"Give me a reason, Michael," He whispered. "Tell me no again."

No, I thought, No -

Yes, you sonofabitch. Yes -

"You're connected to her," He whispered. "But of course you knew that.

"You don't know everything, though, do you? No. You don't know, for example, that the same thing that binds you together, that helps you, can hurt you.

"Whatever you feel, she feels."

I stared at him, my mind started to piece together what he was saying.

He shook his head in mock sympathy. "It's a bane and a blessing, Michael," He whispered. "If I kill you, she feels it. Every second of it. Every heartbeat, the last breath, the fluttering of the lungs, everything."

"You're lying," I whispered, and immediately regretted it. Taking in a breath was like breathing in fire.

He clucked disapproval. "Some people just won't believe things unless they see it with their own eyes," He said softly, raising his other hand up to my face.

My eyes went wide. The panic in me started to uncoil. "Don't," I whispered.

"Don't -"

"I'm sorry, Michael," He said, his hand hovering over my forehead. He didn't look sorry at all.

"I do what I have to do."

He pressed Max's hand down on me and I saw her lying in bed, wearing the same white shirt she was sleeping in when I left her. Her body was arched sharply, her breath coming in short gasps and wheezes, her hand clutched over her heart.

She was screaming.

Make it stop - make it stop - Michael, make it stop -

I breathed in the fire and screamed at Max's smiling face.

"Stop it!"

His hands left me and I fell to the ground, gasping for air, air that didn't burn my lungs or choke me, my hand clutched over my chest, feeling my skin and bones free of his touch, feeling my heart stretch and start to beat again, the fire in my blood ebbing into warmth -

"I'm not the only one, you know," Max's voice said tightly. "There are others. Other shapeshifters. And they won't hesitate.

"They won't stop, Michael. They'll torture you a thousand different ways until they're sure they've found out everything they want to know about you, about Max, Isabel, Tess, everything about your mission.

"And the whole time," He finished, his voice dropping to a whisper, "The entire time, they'll make sure you're watching her screaming, every single second, knowing you're the cause, until she's dead."

My hands found something next to my heart.

The pendant.

I clutched it both hands and swallowed hard.

I tried to force the word out of my mouth. He sensed I was trying to say something and squatted down next to me.

"Say it, Michael," He chanted softly. "Say it."

I took a deep breath.

It's just a word. It's just a word -

I'd never said it.

"Please," I whispered, my voice choked and broken.

The silence hovered between us.

"It's all I have," I whispered. "She's all I have."

He didn't answer me. I took a breath.

"Please," I whispered, the sound hurting my throat.

Say something. Say something -

He sighed and stood up, walking away from me. My fingers clenched around the pendant.

"Time to decide, Michael," He said quietly. "What life are you going to have? A life of meaning, with Max, Isabel and Tess? A life where you accomplish something, do something good? Where you save lives, where you are admired? Looked up to?"

"Or are you going to run?"


I looked up at him and bit back the pain. It hurt to move. Everything hurt.

He shrugged, staring down at me, his body leaning casually against the counter.

"You could," He said simply. "You could run. Try and escape all of them, all the ones that are coming for you. Take Liz Parker somewhere far away from here, away from everything you've ever known. That might not be so bad," He said, his voice strange. "Not for you.

"But she has a full life here. Her family, her friends - you think she wants to risk all of that to go on the run with you?"

He blurred in front of my eyes. I looked down at the floor.

"And believe me - you would be on the run, Michael. From all of them.

"And from me," He said, his voice deadly and cold.

My gaze flickered up to his and down to his hands. His eyes followed mine. He raised his left hand and stared at his open palm for a second before looking purposefully at me.

My gaze dropped back down to the floor.

"You know I'm good at finding you, Michael," He whispered. "It took me fifty years to do it. Leave the others, and I'd find you if it takes me a hundred years.

"Or maybe I'd just try to find Liz."

The floor blurred in front of me and I closed my eyes.

"She hasn't lived a life in hiding," Max's voice mused reflectively. "I bet she'd be easy to find. In an alley, or when you're off working, trying to pay the bills. Or maybe when you're sleeping. When you're in the shower. Whatever.

"You make the choice, Michael," He said. "Her life is in your hands."

The voice stopped. There was a silence.

Think. Guerin, think -

I took a deep breath.

I had the solution. The only solution.

I let go of the pendant and felt it fall loose, the black coil of rope tightening across my neck as the dead weight of the pendant pulled it down. I placed my palms on the floor, pushing my body up until I could sit back on my knees, ignoring the pain.

He regarded me carefully. I think he was holding his breath. I swallowed.

"I'll do it," I whispered.


Chapter Index

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