North Star

Author: Stellaluna
Recipient: Merry R.
Requested Character: Sasha Bordeaux
Rating: R for sex and language
Summary: Navigation is an art.
Spoilers: This story takes place after Infinite Crisis #7 and before One Year Later. Spoilers for Infinite Crisis, The OMAC Project, The OMAC Project Special, and Checkmate, as well as references to the Murderer/Fugitive storyline.

Sasha wipes sweat from the back of her neck as she steps out onto the narrow balcony. In a minute, she'll go inside and take a shower, but she's in no real hurry. Her skin is wet with perspiration and her muscles are still quivering from the workout she's just finished, but it feels good. It's a source of wonder to her even after all these months, her own skin with no impenetrable coating of metal over it.

This is a puzzle to her sometimes, how new it still seems, because she was never an OMAC hybrid -- or whatever it was that Brother Eye made her into -- for very long, not really. It was a brief interlude in a life that's otherwise been spent in the same old skin, if not always exactly the same face, and she's gotten used to that. She's not like the Metal Men, or poor Urania Blackwell. If any of them had ever suddenly gotten back human skin, she'd understand them marveling over it day after day, or even year after year. For herself, Sasha can't help thinking it's self-indulgence.

She stands on the balcony for a few more minutes, watching the setting sun and the evening routine of the little Swiss city, then turns to go inside. Being classed as a meta doesn't seem to have any effect on how much she can push herself before she starts to feel it, and she's much more exhausted than she cares to acknowledge even to herself. The work has been hard, and the days have developed a tendency to blur into each other, and the only reason right now she knows it's a Thursday is because the U.N. ceremony, two days ago, took place on a Tuesday. She still hasn't quite processed everything that happened there, and what it's going to mean for her, even though they'd had word beforehand, and she's had some time now to adjust to her new status.

If there's one thing she's grown used to in the last few years, one constant that she's been able to cling to, it's that nothing ever stays the same for very long. There's a certain bitter relief in that, a certain comfort that she's aware of even as she reminds herself not to get too comfortable with her new, improved circumstances. This will pass, too, just like everything else.

In the bathroom, she lets the water run until it's as hot as she can stand it, then steps into the spray. The water sluicing over her head and pounding into her aching muscles is like a balm, and she flexes her shoulder slowly as she tilts her head back, wincing a little as a joint protests. She pushes herself much harder during these workouts than she needs to, and Jess won't give up on teasing her about it, but she doesn't care. She still works out the way he taught her. 100% is field-ready. That's all there is to it. He wasn't right about everything -- and was, in fact, wrong about several very important points -- but on some issues, he was right on the money. It's easier these days for her to remember that.

She hasn't heard from him in months; she doesn't even know if he knows: not just about her new status in Checkmate, but about her freedom from Brother. She can hardly blame him if he isn't aware, just like she can hardly blame him for not finding the cure that he'd promised her right after the initial OMAC incident had happened. The entire world had gone haywire in the wake of that, and there had been no time. Not while he was fighting for his life and for the lives of everyone around him.

What she does blame him for is not coming to see her now that the crisis has passed, or even sending word to her that he's all right. It's typical, and she wonders if she ever really expected anything different, but it still tugs at her whenever she lets herself think about it, little steel claws of hurt and resentment that dig into her heart the same way the OMAC nanobots wormed their way into her skin. She never dwells on it for very long, because it's worse self-indulgence than her glee over the feeling of her own flesh beneath her fingers, and because dwelling on the past is a fool's errand.

Batman isn't in Gotham now, but Bruce is still alive. She knows that much, and if she had more time or less willpower, she could probably utilize Checkmate's resources to find out where, exactly, he is. She hasn't given into the impulse, even though it would be a simple matter of a voice command, of tapping into the network. He's off the radar these days, but she knows as well as anyone how difficult it is to drop out of sight entirely.

His name has never passed her lips, not once in all this time.

What troubles her, she thinks as she slides her fingers through her wet hair, is how much Bruce still feels like unfinished business. She'd thought he wasn't any more; she'd thought she was done with all that the day she walked away from him in Robinson Park. From that day up until the night in Paris that she mailed Ted Kord's goggles to him, they hadn't had so much as a single word of contact, either directly or through intermediaries. He had crossed her mind from time to time, but only in the most abstract way, only when Batman's name came up during Checkmate's routine business, or when something someone would say in passing would trigger some memory.

Or when she dreamed about freefalling through the Gotham night, the sidewalks whiplashing up beneath her and the buildings looming at sideways or upside-down angles in her peripheral vision. Seeing the city from that new perspective had always been as thrilling as it was terrifying, and she thinks that it's the one thing he gave her that was real: the gift of self-directed flight.

She'd learned to navigate all over again, not by the North Star, the way she'd been taught as a child on camping trips and Girl Scout excursions; and not by landmarks and street signs, but by the secret heart of the city. It was the night city, the one that existed high up on the roofs and in hidden alleys, in the sky and on the balustrades of the bridges, instead of down on the sidewalks: the city that no one but the superheroes and vigilantes and villains knew about.

The superheroes and vigilantes and villains, and her. Because she'd never fit into any of those categories. She'd never even had a name after he put her into the costume, because they'd never bothered with an alias for her, and he was careful not to address her as Sasha once she strapped on the mask.

Then he'd left her to rot in jail, and Checkmate had come and taken her away, and because she'd thought it was the way to freedom, she'd gladly surrendered her face to their plastic surgeons. A chance to re-invent herself yet again, she'd thought at the time. She'd gone from Special Agent Bordeaux to bodyguard to Bruce Wayne, to a nameless blonde vigilante. And back around again to Agent, this time for Checkmate, and it had even been good, at least until Max Lord took over.

Sasha realizes that she's been standing here and staring into space for some time now, and that the water is starting to run lukewarm. She turns the shower off and steps out, and wipes some of the steam away from the mirror over the sink. Her face is sharper-featured than her original one, and now there's one of the last remnants of the nanobots beneath her eye, a legacy of Brother and the thing that marks her as meta. She touches it gently, and it's warm beneath her fingers; it doesn't hurt.

Brother is no longer in her mind; neither is Max Lord. She hopes that there'll come a day when she can stop reminding herself of that, when she'll feel fully confident in the fact that she's now listening to her voice and her voice alone when she concentrates on her thoughts.

Someday. She turns away and goes to dress.

They're not in her head, and Bruce is in her past; and the latter fact is as much to the good as the former one is. He's not unfinished business, she argues with herself. Once upon a time he was, but then she'd told him what she needed to, had laid out for him in detail all the ways he'd betrayed her and taken away her sense of autonomy, her sense of self. The days when she thought she loved him are long in the past, and the foolish woman in purple kevlar who maybe, from time to time, thought he might love her too is dead. Or as good as.

It's much later that night, after a quiet dinner and a brief conference call with her Bishop, when she hears a footstep outside the front door. She's sitting on the couch when the sound reaches her ears, and she's on her feet and reaching for her piece in an instant. Waiting, listening to the sound of her own breathing and the sounds outside the door. Trying to anticipate the next move.

The doorbell rings.

That wasn't what she was expecting. This doesn't cause her to let down her guard; if anything, it increases her need for caution, and she goes slowly toward the door, trying to keep to the sides of the room, to the shadows. She holds her breath and braces herself, then undoes the latch and steps to the side as she pulls the door open. Hold for a three-count, then she moves into position, gun drawn.

Bruce looks almost comically surprised, and actually takes a step back before he seems to remember himself, and holds his position.

"Jesus Christ!" she exclaims. "Bruce...?"

"Sasha." His gaze drops to her hands, and she lowers the gun slowly, still wondering if this might not be a set-up of some sort. "This wasn't the welcome I was expecting."

"What were you expecting?" Her tone is sharper than she means it to be, and she takes a breath. "Or were you just looking to get yourself killed?" she asks. "Because showing up unannounced on a special agent's doorstep is a good way to do that."

He holds up his hands in defense. "Pax," he says. "I'm sorry. I -- I thought about sending you a message."

"And you didn't because...?"

His voice is uncharacteristically hesitant. "I didn't know what to say."

She sighs. "Well, you might as well come in, now that you're here." As she steps back to let him in, she realizes that she's much less surprised than she should be. In the back of her mind, hasn't she been anticipating something like this all along?

"Let me take your jacket," she says, after she locks the door and sets her gun down, and she has to bite back a wild shriek of laughter at the common, polite statement. Bruce is standing in her apartment after all this time, and she's offering to put his jacket away like this is nothing out of the ordinary. Like they work together and he's stopped by for a quick beer after hours.

He shrugs out of the jacket, and she manages to get a good look at him as she takes it and hangs it up. There's not much different about him that she can see, she realizes; he's more casually dressed than she's used to, in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt and ancient-looking boots, and he doesn't seem to have had a haircut any time in the recent past, but other than that, she feels like she's suddenly taken a giant step backwards. Another memory hits her: seeing him in the warehouse in Illinois back at the start of the whole affair with Max Lord and the OMACs, the first time she'd laid eyes on him in years. She hadn't been expecting that, even after sending him the message about Brother; and if, prior to that, she'd occasionally wondered what it might be like to see him again, she had never imagined that she would end up in his arms, or that they would be kissing each other within seconds.

Sasha shakes the memory off. "Hail the prodigal son," she says softly.

He meets her gaze. "Hail the Black Queen," he says.

"You know, then."

"How could I not? The U.N. ceremony wasn't exactly a low-key affair."

"I didn't know if you were someplace that got television." She looks him up and down again, taking in his appearance once more. Working clothes, she realizes, or maybe traveling clothes. "Or newspapers, for that matter," she adds.

"I haven't always been, lately," he says. "But I was in Zurich earlier in the week, and..."

She raises an eyebrow at him. "And you decided to drop in on an old friend?"

"Something like that."

"Which leads me to my first question." Her voice is steady, but she's shaking inside. She won't let him see that. "How did you know where to find me? This address isn't a matter of public record."

"There are ways around that, Sasha," he says. "You know that as well as I do."

That much is true. "All right," she says. "So what do you want?"

"I came here to see you," he says. "No hidden agenda."

"I'm not an OMAC any more," she says.

"I didn't think you ever were." He lifts a hand, almost touching her, then puts it back down. "How does it feel?"

"Good. Better than good. I..." She pauses. She's devoted so much time to thinking about this, to reveling in the feel of her own skin, and now, when she finally gets the chance to talk about it, she finds herself at a loss for words. "It's a relief," she says at last, and he nods.

"It must be."

"Next question," she says. "Where have you been? You sent me to destroy the last of Brother Eye's satellite, there was a battle in Metropolis, and I haven't heard a word from you since." And you said in front of everyone that I wasn't one of you. That I never would be. She swallows hard, trying to steel herself against the hurt of that. "What's Gotham going to do without its protector?"

"Gotham is being taken care of," he says.

She doesn't reply.

"There's no easy answer to that." He gestures toward the couch. "Maybe we should sit down."

She's tempted, for a moment, to tell him to get out, that she's not interested in his story. But the hell of it is that she is interested. "All right," she says after a pause. "I'll listen. But I need a drink first. Do you want anything?"

"Water," he says. "Water will do."

Sasha fixes herself a gin and tonic and gets him a glass of water, then comes back to the living room. Why is this always so normal, she wonders. Well, normal given the very unreal scope of their lives, anyway. She feels like she should have had a bigger reaction to his appearance on her doorstep, that she should have been more shocked, or more happy to see him, or even more angry. Something. Instead, she'd had a brief moment of surprise, and then they'd fallen right into conversation like they'd never been apart at all, or like this had been a planned meeting. She thinks again of kissing him in the warehouse, of how his mouth had felt against hers. It was only the second time they'd ever kissed, but even that had been an entirely natural move, something she'd fallen into like she'd done it a hundred times before.

"So," she says, once they're sitting on the couch together, and that's all she says, and then waits for him to start talking.

"I've been traveling," he says at last. "It's not a vacation. And I've left Gotham in good hands."

"If it's not a vacation, then what is it?" she asks.

"Years ago, when I started to train, I went around the world to learn how to -- to be better. I was taught by the best. Now I'm doing that again."

"So you just decided to pick up and leave Gotham for...what? A refresher course?"

"Something like that." He turns the glass around in his hands. "I feel as though I've lost sight of my original mission. Of who Batman is supposed to be. I can't be Gotham's protector if I've forgotten that."

"And you're trying to remember." She sips her drink slowly, watching his face.

"Yes." He looks at her. "When we got to Switzerland and I realized that you'd be here, I...I wanted to see you. I know it's been too long."

"I destroyed the Brother satellite for you." Good little agent, give your field rep.

"I know. And I never got to thank you for that."

"It cured me," she says, and holds out her arm, showing him. "It shattered the shell. And the control along with it."

"I know. It's so good to see you back to yourself."

"Yes," she says. "Good thing, too. If I'd waited for you to find a cure, I'd probably still be a machine."

"You were never a machine, Sasha," he says, and his voice is harsh; it's close to the growl he uses when he's in the mask.

"You weren't in my skin, Bruce," she says, and she can hear her own voice rising. "Or what was left of it, anyway. You don't know what it was like to have that son of a bitch in your head, not know which of your thoughts were your own, and which were the system's."

"Maybe not, but I know what it's like to have someone in your head who's not supposed to be there." He slams his glass down on the coffee table. "Goddammit, Sasha, I'm not trying to minimize what you went through, so don't suggest that I am." She opens her mouth for a retort, but he keeps on talking. "And I would have found the cure. The world was going haywire; a fix for your problem would have done you no good if we were all dead before you could use it."

"I know," she says. "I know. I didn't expect you to stop in the middle of a war and track down some high-tech penicillin for me. But you could have...said something. Showed up after. Did you even know about me?" She stares at him. "Before you dropped out of sight, I mean. You knew Brother was dead, but did you know I'd gotten better, too?"

There's a silence, and then he hangs his head. "No."

Sasha doesn't say anything.

"I didn't find out until later on," he says.

"So as far as you knew, I was still OMAC. And you never tried to do anything about it. Never even tried to contact me to find out for sure."

"I knew you were alive," he says, still looking at his hands. "And that Brother was gone."

"And that was enough for you." She doesn't phrase it as a question, because she knows she's right. "What they'd done to me didn't matter."

"No." He looks up at her. "Sasha, no. That part's not true. It -- it mattered very much. I should have gotten in touch sooner. But I'm not -- that's one of the reasons I'm going back to the start."

She laughs then; she can't help it. "So this whole quest is about me? You expect me to believe that, Bruce?"

"No, it's not about you," he says. "I'm not going to lie to you. But it's because of you, in a way. You and -- and everyone else I've let down." He takes a breath. "I can't go on this way any more. I've seen that in the past year, the way I've...I lost too many friends. We buried the dead and shrugged and went about my business, and didn't -- didn't let anyone get any closer than was absolutely necessary. What good is a Batman who doesn't give a damn about people? About anything except protecting his own interests, instead of protecting his city?"

"That's a very pretty speech, Bruce," she says, after a pause. "Did you rehearse it on the way over here?"

"No!" He stands up and starts to pace back and forth. "What the hell do you want from me, Sasha? What more can I say?"

She gets up and goes over to him, and grabs him by the arm, forcing him to stand still and look at her. "I want an apology that I think you mean," she says. "And I'm never going to get that, because...because I don't think you can mean it. Not in any kind of permanent way, at least. Do you realize that -- that -- " She's not sure if she can finish the sentence.

"What?" he says. "What? Say it, already."

"Do you realize this is the exact conversation we had three years ago?"

He looks puzzled. "I don't -- "

"In Robinson Park. The last day. You told me all about how you weren't good at letting people get close. The exact same revelation, Bruce." She lets go of his arm and takes a step away from him, hugging herself and suddenly unable to look at him. "And you begged me to come back," she says wearily. "Nothing's changed. Except for me."

"It's not the same as Robinson Park," he says.

"Isn't it?" She lifts her eyes to look at his face, and he looks stunned.

"No," he says. "This time it's going to be different. I'm working at it. That's the reason for this journey. I've even brought two of my team along with me from Gotham. They're traveling with me. It's good for them, and it's a good reminder for me."

"Reminder?" she asks.

"That it's about being a team. About not isolating myself."

"I'd like to believe you mean that." The sorrow that hits her then is unexpected, and is an actual, physical ache that seems to center itself in her chest. She sits down on the couch again, still hugging herself, trying to breathe evenly. Goddammit, how can she let him do this to her again?

"I do mean it. I do. Sasha..." He sits down next to her. "I know you don't believe me. I even -- I even understand why. But it is true. I don't know if things are really going to be different. I don't even know how much I can change. It's been such a long time. But I'm trying. Doesn't that count for something?"

Slow breaths. In and out. Concentrate on the rhythm of it. She forces herself to speak calmly. "It counts," she says, after a pause. She just doesn't know how much it counts, and with a sudden burst of clarity, she sees what their lives are going to be like: this, over and over again. They're going to encounter each other over and over again, and even telling him right now to get out and never come back, never contact her again, won't change that.

Not because of fate or destiny or any ridiculous thing, but because that's the way it is. Because her work with Checkmate, something that's finally, now, her own, is going to put her right back in the same circles that he travels in. They're going to need each other's help sometimes, and they're going to keep betraying each other's trust, and they're never going to get it right. And they won't be able to get away from each other.

It's even fitting, in a way: the Black Queen and the Dark Knight. She bites back a laugh that's much too close to a sob for her comfort.

"Sasha?" he says.

"I'm fine." She lifts her head. "It's fine."

"I'm sorry." He reaches out, as if he means to take her hand, and then stops himself. "I'm so sorry, for all of it. For not doing more, or acting sooner."

"I know."

"And if I were to ask you to come with me...?" he begins.

"I'd say no." She doesn't even have to think about it. "Not -- I'm not one of your people. This is my life now, Bruce. Checkmate."

He just nods. "It is, isn't it?"


"I'm happy for you, Sasha," he says. "And proud of what you're doing with Checkmate." The sincerity in his voice tears at her.

"Thank you," she says. This time he does take her hand, and she lets him.

"Don't you have somewhere you need to be?" she asks after awhile.

"What do you mean?"

"Your traveling companions," she says. "Won't they be wondering where you are?"

He shakes his head. "I told them I had some things I needed to take care of in private. I'm meeting them in Liechtenstein tomorrow."

"In that case," she says, "could I convince you to have another drink?"

"Another glass of water, if you don't mind," he says, and smiles a little.

"Not at all." She takes both glasses and stands up.

What a strange night this is turning out to be, Sasha thinks sometime later. She's stretched out on the couch, sipping occasionally from her second gin and tonic, and Bruce is sitting in the armchair across from her, and they're talking. They're not arguing and they're not discussing strategy, and most of all they're not out patrolling the city or fighting anything. They're just having a conversation. She's been telling him about Checkmate and their new initiatives, and learning to deal with Amanda, and he's talked about the boat trip over from the States and about going through martial arts training at a monastery in the Himalayas.

Now she says, "Do you know what my best memory of the Gotham days is?"

"What?" he asks.

She smiles to herself, staring up at the ceiling. "The first time I jumped from the top of a building."

"You mean the first time I pushed you from the top of a building."

She waves a hand at him in dismissal. "Details. I remember I just screamed the whole time, all the way down and then back up again. I was so scared. So convinced I was going to die. But it was so exhilarating, too. And then I landed on the roof and realized what I'd just done -- "

"And you asked me why I had never told you what it felt like."

She laughs. "You do remember. I wasn't sure if you would."

"Of course I remember." He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "You were..."

"I was what?" she asks, when he doesn't finish the sentence.

He clears his throat. "You reminded me of how I was at the beginning."

"So why didn't you ever tell me that it felt so good?"

"I needed to keep you on-task," he says.

She should have known that, she thinks. "Right." She takes another sip of her drink.

"And I needed to keep myself on-task."

"Bruce -- " she starts to say, sitting up halfway. There's something dangerous in his gaze now as he looks at her, something determined and frightened and much more vulnerable than he's ever looked to her before, even in the midst of all their true confessions. She feels herself starting to fall into it, and tries to resist.

"You were so determined," he says. "The way you looked when you landed after that first jump..." He sighs, and bows his head for a moment, and when he looks at her again, the expression in his eyes is more scared, and more dangerous, than ever. "If I had given in, I'd never have let you go."

Sasha won't ever believe that he had as much trouble letting her go as he's now telling himself, but she doesn't say that. They've had enough of recriminations for one night, maybe, and if her earlier revelation is even halfway accurate, they're going to have plenty more time for them in the days and years to come. "Bruce..." She sits up and holds her hand out to him. "Come over here."

His mouth is warm against hers as he kisses her and slips his hands into her hair. She can taste mint and, after she's been kissing him for awhile, the gin she was drinking earlier; the other times she kissed him, she remembers there was a faint scent of kevlar clinging to him, as if the suit had worked its way into his skin somehow. And the last time he kissed her, there'd been too much metal between the two of them, and she hadn't been able to feel it the way she'd wanted to, however long he held her and tried to offer comfort.

He lifts his arms to let her pull his shirt over his head, and then she caresses his back and chest, fingers working across the scarring there as she presses slow kisses to his skin. Sasha shivers; she's still not sure if this is a good idea or not, but God, she wants him, and she's been wanting this for years. It may not be love between them now, but it's something, and desire may be all she needs to keep her warm tonight. She can do this. She feels a little dizzy as they get each other out of the rest of their clothes, and it's suddenly hard to breathe. His hands on her body are gentle as he traces little circles across her breasts and ducks his head lower, lips moving over her ribcage and belly.

"Long time," he murmurs, and she knows just what he means; he catches her hand in his, and kisses the palm, then suddenly sits up, tugging her with him. She's uncertain of his intentions at first, but then he flashes her a smile and sinks to his knees by the side of the couch, pulling her to the edge. She starts laughing all over again, and then lets her eyes slide closed when his tongue brushes the inside of her thigh.

Her hand moves over the back of his head and her fingers twine into his hair, tugging at it a little as he strokes higher, fingers moving while he licks steadily into her. "God, Bruce," she says, and then can't talk at all; it's too good, wet friction and pressure making her tremble, his hot mouth teasing over her skin in quick, shuddery movements. She comes hard, moaning as she arches toward him, and she hears him gasp; his hands tighten on her and she sinks back onto the couch. He crawls on top of her and then lies still, head dropped against her stomach and breathing hard.

After awhile, when she's collected herself a little, she opens her eyes and looks at him, then pulls him into her arms. He looks down at her, eyes glassy and dazed. "Hey," she says softly, and smiles.

"Hey." He kisses her on the mouth and she can taste herself on his lips. No gin, no kevlar or cold metal: just her, and she laughs. He pulls back a little and looks at her, the familiar suspicion dawning in his eyes. "What's so funny?"

"You wouldn't understand." He looks hurt at that, and she kisses him again, nipping at his lip. "It's a good thing. I promise."

He sighs a little against her mouth. "You always kept your promises."

"Yeah, I have." She kisses him one last time and tugs at his hair, then takes him by the hand and leads him to the bedroom.

Remember this, she thinks as he bends over her on the bed and kisses her again; and Remember this, she thinks again, later, when he holds her tight and pushes slowly into her; and when he tenses above her and then whispers, "Sasha," as he starts to shake. She croons into his ear and holds him close, and later still she watches his face in the moonlight as she moves up and down in his lap, watches his eyes widen and his mouth work helplessly as his hands clutch at the small of her back.

She's up before him in the morning, and has spent almost an hour sipping coffee and tracking the flow of chatter by the time he comes into the kitchen, dressed except for his shoes, wet hair combed neatly back. She makes more coffee and cuts up some clementines, and they sit without talking much until he looks at his watch. "There's a train at 11:00," he says. "I should go if I want to catch it. I...they'll be expecting me."

She nods and stands with him. "I have a meeting with Amanda and Alan at 11:30."

He suddenly looks amused. "And if she should happen to ask if you had a nice evening..."

"Couldn't have been better. I finally got through this book I've been meaning to read for ages." She blinks at him, all innocence, and then they both laugh.

"Of course." He falls quiet again as she walks him to the door, and it's not until he's standing on the top step that he speaks again. "Sasha, I don't suppose you -- "

She presses two fingers to his lips. "Go get your train," she says. For a moment she sees snow and heavy gray skies, the bare trees and icy paths of Robinson Park back in Gotham; then she blinks and it's a bright, warm morning in Switzerland again.

"Go," she repeats, and lets herself caress his cheek one more time. "We both have things to do."

He nods and puts a hand on her shoulder; his kiss is brief, but tender. They stand still for a moment longer, then he turns away.

"Bruce," she says, when he's at the bottom of the stairs. He looks back. "When you're done with all of this, if you ever need Checkmate's help with anything, come see me. I'll make sure we do our best."

He nods. "I'll keep that in mind."

Sasha goes back inside without watching him leave, and as she starts to dress for her meeting, she realizes how calm she feels. Bruce's visit hasn't changed her, hasn't dragged her back into that no-man's-land of the past; she's not his or Max's or anyone else's. She presses a hand to her chest to feel her heartbeat, and listens to the blood rushing through her veins.

Nothing buzzes in her head, no alien voice whispers in her ear. It's just her, all the rhythms of her body in sync and her internal compass pointing nowhere but at her own North Star.