by Northlight

"I'm not, you know. Perfect."

Brain was seated in front of Logan's computer, his weight sunk into the chair so that the flexible back titled backwards. He held a glass of milk against the upper swell of his stomach and a chocolate bar in his other hand. Max wasn't sure whether Brain shared the X5's excellent senses or whether it was his own unique talent, but Brain was already swivelling in Logan's chair before she began to speak. His lips had begun stretching and curving in advance so that a full-fledged smile was in place by the time he faced her fully. His face was full and soft and his smile gathered folds of fat against his cheekbones. Max had reared back, appalled and disgusted, the first time she had seen someone with rolls of fat distorting their shape. That old reaction lingered, even now.

"Don't worry," Brain said and tipped his glass gently in Max's direction. "I'm not about to do any damage."

Max held out her hand and smiled crookedly. "Don't. Please don't tell me you knew what I was about to say." Max pushed away from the doorway with her shoulder and stepped into the room. She snagged a chair with her foot, rolled it towards her and sat: a smooth series of motions that Brain watched with bright-eyed appreciation. Max slid her legs out and arched her eyebrows in Brain's direction. "Has anyone ever told you how incredibly annoying that is?" Max asked, her tone light, the implication anything but.

Brain's lips twitched, his cheeks puffing and smoothing. "I knew you'd say that," he said seriously and ducked his head when Max swatted lightly at his knee. His cheeks had flushed at the brief contact. Brain twisted back towards Logan's computer and carefully set his empty glass aside. His thick fingers were graceful across the keyboard, quick and light. "Most people don't even notice that I exist." Old hurt coloured Brain's words and Max couldn't bring herself to look at him fully. "I can deal with annoyance."

"I'm sorry," Max murmured. She had spent a lifetime at Manticore wishing to be invisible. Max had never imagined that Manticore could create something so very innocent as Brain. Max had emerged into the world already deadly, hard and distant. Manticore hadn't had any use for innocence. Max had learned to blunt the sharp edges of her personality over the years. She had learned to blend in and had, over time, even found herself capable of caring about more than her own physical survival. Beneath Max's acquired softness, X5-452 was still scared and angry, a directionless soldier ready to strike out. Brain, though--Brain made Max think of a puppy. Bright-eyed, playful and so very devoted that Max's stomach churned at the responsibility.

Brain's shoulders rose and fell. "It's okay," Brain said. His fingers stilled against the keyboard as he brought the full weight of his attention to bear upon Max. "Now that I found you," he added, hopeful and defiant all at once. He watched Max's reflection in the dark computer screen. It had been ten years since Max had been forced to hide her emotions from outside eyes. Time had worn at her self-control and Max saw hurt work across Brain's face as her own thinned with discomfort. She felt a surge of resentment at his disappointment: did he think the probabilities would change and the world realign itself with a few carefully chosen confessions?

Beautiful, they said, all of them: you are so fucking beautiful. The men who wanted to fuck her, the men who wanted to kill her, those that couldn't quite make up their minds. Darren and Peter and Trevor--lips and breasts and legs. Zack and Logan, each with their own vision of a woman who wasn't quite the Max-who-was. Lydekcer, and his wife's eyes facing Max every time she looked into a mirror. She didn't want Brain's adoration, didn't want his shining eyes or his wide smile. He should have loved Tinga or Krit, Chloe or Niall. They would have been careful with his heart. Max couldn't be, wasn't sure that she wanted to be.

"Brain--" Max began as evenly as she could. She stopped, at a loss for the right words. Max had never been at ease when dealing with her own emotions, much less those of others. Original Cindy and Logan had been the first people to truly work their way through Max's outer defences, and Max still struggled with her feelings towards them. Brain's outright adoration wasn't anything Max knew how to deal with. Max had broken hearts and bones in the past, but Brain wasn't leering, he was family and his devotion was painfully pitiful.

Max's neck and shoulders had gone tight with tension. She loosened her back and slumped back into her seat, her teeth digging into the inside of her lower lip. She had planned on setting this situation right. Max had hoped to neatly deflect Brain's attention without doing undue damage to his pride but she could already feel her temper fraying. "Brain. Don't, okay? You don't know me. Not really."

Brain's voice was sharper than Max expected. "I told you, Max. I told you--I know you. I know you better than anyone else ever has."

Max's eyes narrowed. She leaned forward, hands tight against the arm of her chair. Her throat felt tight: she was so fucking tired of people believing that they knew her, that they knew what was best for her. Zack should have, and he didn't have a fucking clue. Logan could, but he didn't want to search out the dark stretches within Max's mind. She couldn't tolerate Brain's romanticized version of who she had been--not when Manticore was a nightmare, one she had escaped again all too recently.

"You don't!" Max snapped. "You knew X5-452--and hell, you didn't even know her! We weren't having fun back then, we weren't playing and you have no idea at all about who I am if you can't understand that!" Max slumped back into her chair and pressed her hands against her eyes. It hurt to breathe. "Damn it, Brain."

"I'm not an idiot, Max," Brain said. He swallowed heavily and he wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. "You. You never even imagined that the rest of us existed, did you? Even now, you haven't really thought about us, have you? I mean, really thought about us? Who we are. What Manticore was to us."

"Don't," Max said. "Don't." All she wanted was to be left alone. All she wanted was the chance to live her life, to be normal. And they wouldn't let her, none of them: barcode upon barcode, crazy and killers and monsters.

Brain's hand was warm and sticky against Max's wrist. "We were so fat and slow that most of us fried when you took down Manticore, Max."

It's not my fault, Max wailed silently. I just wanted to be free. She turned her face away from Brain's wet eyes. "I don't want your love, Brain. I don't deserve it."

"You do," Brain whispered, "you do. You kept me sane. I had never seen the sun, Max. We spent our lives before televisions and computer screens and printouts. We spent our lives with doctors cutting into our skulls. I helped kill more people from within that room than you ever would have as one of Manticore's soldiers." Brain's breath came out in sharp whistles.

"I didn't know."

"I did," Brain said. "I knew everything, Max. Everything, and no one ever asked me the right questions. Do you have any idea of the things I could have prevented if I'd spoken up? If I hadn't convinced Dot and Data to keep quiet? I knew, I knew, and don't tell me that I don't understand!"

"Max? Brain?" Logan stood at the doorway, cautious concern in every line of his body. "Are you two all right?"

"We're fine, Logan," Max answered. Her face felt stiff as she smiled. She didn't look at Brain: not a tongue-lolling puppy after all, Max thought. All of then tainted by Manticore, all of them, and she suddenly felt as pitiful in her love for Logan as Brain had seemed in his adoration towards her. "It's all good Logan. Really."

Logan hesitated, studying Max's face for a long moment. "Okay. Okay. Call me if you need anything, then."

Brain was staring at Max when she turned away from Logan's retreating back. "You love him," he said. His voice was calm and even again, as if Logan's interruption had given him enough time to repackage all of his messy emotions. A trick worthy of an X5 at their best, Max thought.

Max rolled her shoulders and relaxed back into her seat. "We're not--" she began, familiar, easy words.

"Please. Max. Don't lie to me. Don't even try," Brain said. He sounded tired and suddenly old.

Max sighed. "I didn't want any of this. This isn't what I came here to talk to you about."

Brain smiled slightly and inclined his head. "You aren't perfect," Brain echoed. "I know."

"Do you? Really?" Max asked. "You look at me as if I were the answer to all of your prayers, Brain. I can't take care of you. I can barely take care of myself. And I am so very tired of people loving me for being someone I'm not."

"I don't need you to love me back, Max," Brain said and twitched his eyebrow, "although I can't promise that I won't keep an eye on the numbers. I need. I need something to believe in. Something to dream about."

"I'm not perfect, Brain," Max repeated, more tired than firm.

"You're all I have."

And that was so sad that Max would have cried if she had the strength for it. Max stood up, hands restless against her thighs. She looked at Brain's reflection in the computer, his expression dulled by the glass. "Just so long as we have that all settled, then."


Silverlake: Authors / Mediums / Titles / Links / List / About / Plain Style / Fancy Style