December 1, 2005 – Yes, an author's note that's long and contains disclaimers and trivia about my life that you might wish to skip, lol! ;)
This is sort of a response to a Christmas Challenge: Write a story in the 'Dark Angel' universe with "festive spirit" and show peace, good will and "fluff". Between 1,000 and 10,000 words. Deadline: December 15, 2005.
Well, the deadline is shot but that isn't unexpected given the mad flurry of activity and mind-numbing workload that usually occurs just before the holidays. I know that happened to me…
As Fate would have it, I was planning on writing something I'll call "warm and fuzzy" before the challenge was posted. If it meets the requirements, that's a bonus, but I'm sticking with the original concept regardless. :)
Be It So Noted: This has not been Betaed so any errors, everything from Canadian spelling to 'Dark Angel' continuity, are my own darn fault. I have set this in Season One, not knowing exactly when Christmas occurs and hoping that for a "warm and fuzzy" story, I will be forgiven if I get something wrong. My apologies in advance if I'm off base.
Though this is probably AU, anyway… ;)
My thanks to Kyre for sharing a time line someone has diligently worked out. This story takes place after 'Blah, Blah, Woof, Woof' and before 'Out'.
Many thanks to all who read and review my stories. Your encouragement and support are greatly appreciated. May the holidays find you and yours safe, healthy and happy. :)
December 27, 2005, 3:50 AM: Still writing. If I post this now without re-reading it first - when I'm definitely conscious - I'll probably regret it, so it isn't going to reach FFN this early in the morning… lol!
Hmmm... I'm having trouble loading onto FFN...
December 28, 2005: And now it is as ready as it'll ever be and still be posted within the Twelve days of Christmas. Enjoy!
Comfort and Joy
"I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men."
"Do not attempt to adjust your set. This is a Streaming Freedom Video Bulletin. The cable hack will last exactly sixty seconds. It cannot be traced, it cannot be stopped, and it is the only free voice left in this city."
Max pushed her bike in the long line behind Original Cindy, wishing the drizzle would stop and give everyone a break from the damp, dreary Christmas Eve the weather man had so glumly predicted. She wondered why the meteorologists even bothered. This was the Pacific coast, for crying out loud. The annual rainfall in Seattle had been tallied and was about the same as it had been last year: 42.5 inches. Not that she kept these statistics in her head but she remembered them from the report. Christmas would hardly be a magical exception to the usual weather patterns. Max had adjusted her baseball cap so it was on her head properly before heading out from Jam Pony that morning. She watched with a sigh as another drop of water slid free of the soaked brim, her eyes almost crossing as they followed its path to the pavement.
It rained last year, it'll rain this year, and it'll rain next year. Write it down.
"Do you think there'll be any left for us?" a tentative voice inquired.
Max turned to look behind her at a pale woman huddled in an old raincoat. The hood was either too small for her or torn somehow so that it didn't protect her from the weather. Her fair hair was pasted to her forehead and the drizzle made her skin glisten as if she had a fever. The straps of a bulky backpack cut into her shoulders and she seemed to carry the weight of the world. One arm was wrapped protectively around the shoulders of a little girl who was probably eight or nine years old. The girl wore a coat too large for her that looked better suited for somewhere much colder.Like Wyoming…
"It has come to my attention that some of our citizens are being treated poorly by a certain outreach program in Sector Six, leaving many at the mercy of hunger and misery on the street. The rules change based on some perverted quota or guidelines which don't exist and people are being turned away with a different reason every time. Those who are accepted are charged a fee, which is illegal for a shelter supported by the city."
One small hand clutched at the frayed hem of the woman's coat and the girl stared up at Max with an alarmingly blank expression that was wrong for someone so young. Max smiled down at her and said, "Hey."
Max returned her gaze to the woman, who managed a smile.
"Not a problem." Max shrugged as if it didn't matter, but something niggling in the back of her skull was telling her that it did. She let it slide - for now. "And as for the soup," she continued, her tone light, "there better be some left, or I'll kick Mia's ass."
The woman frowned slightly. At first, Max wasn't sure if it's because she'd used an inappropriate word in front of the girl or because the woman didn't know who Mia was. Assuming the latter, she said, "Mia runs the lunch truck."
"Ah." The woman's expression cleared. "I see. You know this Mia?"
"When I'm hungry and I'm in the neighbourhood, I hit Mia's. She always has somethin' good cookin'."
"We're new here," the woman stated, hesitant but obviously in need of human contact. "I'm Cathy, and this is Hope."
"Pretty name," Max said to the girl, who continued her blank stare. She held out her hand. "I'm Max."
"Nice to meet you, Max," Cathy said, and shook her hand fervently as if grasping at a lifeline. What the hell are these folks goin' through that a stranger is so readily welcome?
"So, you're at the shelter?" Max retrieved her hand and nodded behind them in the general direction of one of the places that helped people who were new to the city settle in. A bed was provided while they were given orientation, tips on travel and job postings and warnings about which areas to stay clear of after dark. It was a safe place, which was half the battle when you didn't know your way around.
Cathy shook her head. "They don't have any room. Busy season. They were very nice," she continued gamely, one had stroking the little girl's hair as if it would make everything better. "Very apologetic. Said we should try another place that's opened up but we don't have a pass yet and the man there said they won't serve anyone without a pass."
Max stared at her. "A pass?"
"This is not acceptable. If this is truly a legitimate facility, I suggest the program directors take a closer look, reassess their focus and make immediate changes to reflect the positive reputation of our city and the good will of the holiday season. I will be watching and will not hesitate to act if necessary. This has been a Streaming Freedom Video from the Eyes Only informant net. Peace. Out."
"A pass. You know…" She struggled to find the right word. Max wondered when she'd last had a meal or a good night's sleep.And when did I start gettin' friendly with people in line-ups?
"A work pass," Cathy stated, trying to clarify, "or a sector pass, something like that."
Max snorted. "That's stupid. How can you have a pass when you just got here?"
"That's what I said but those are the rules."
"Those ain't the rules, honey," Original Cindy said, leaning across her bike to face them. Max wondered when her friend had started listening in on the conversation and why she hadn't automatically noticed the shift in her stance. "He's either readin' the book upside-down or he's pullin' a fast one."
"I know what my bet's placed on," Max murmured.Merry freakin' Christmas…
As Original Cindy started discussing transfer papers and citizen rights in the State of Washington with Cathy, Max bought chicken noodle soup for all four of them, and found herself wondering if she could reach Sector Nine in the remaining time she had for lunch.
It was almost two-thirty and the elevator was frustratingly slow. Max stood very still, her boots and plastic raincoat leaving small puddles on the linoleum, and watched the numbers blink in progression all the way to 'P'. She knew she could get there faster by taking the stairs. There were other tenants in Logan's building, however, and if they spotted something unusual they might report it to someone who mattered.Hello, Manticore! I'm over here!
Her arrival at the penthouse level was announced with a delicate bell tone. She waited patiently for the doors to open and checked the corridor before jogging to the apartment.
When did I start running to him when I have a problem? She frowned at the thought, which wasn't actually new and surfaced to plague her on a regular basis. Eyes Only can sort this out. Yeah, that's it. He has the resources. That's why I'm here.
She tried to ignore the sound of her stomach grumbling, the soup apparently insufficient fuel for her hunger.
And food. Yeah. She raised her hand as if to knock then wondered why she'd bother. He didn't seem to mind that she just wandered in, unannounced, to ask him about her siblings and check the fridge for leftovers. Why was right now any different?
I'm distracted, she realized, opening the door and slipping inside. Don't know when that happened, or why a mother and child gettin' the short end of the stick should matter, but that's why I'm distracted. Yeah. Her eyes narrowed at a new thought. It's all Original Cindy's fault, gettin' involved. She crossed the hardwood floor and looked into the kitchen. And Logan, she decided. It's his fault, too. I wouldn't have looked around, started talkin', smiled at a little girl…
She turned to the large living room window, wondering if maybe he was sitting near the coffee table, taking in the roiling clouds and renewed rainfall; brooding about things he could and couldn't change. He wasn't there. The rain pelted against the glass like fine gravel and visibility was practically nil - even for her.
She ran across the yard, her bare feet sure of their purchase in the crisp snow. Her gown was insufficient for the cold but she didn't notice. Search lights, alarms, the sounds of pursuit. None of it mattered. Her only goal was to escape. Reach the fence, get to the other side, flee through the forest, run, run, run –
At the time, she was the same age as Hope.
Max was reminded of the present by the sound of the bathroom door opening. Intent on her mission, she walked briskly around the corner.
"Logan, I -"
Her cheeks flushed hot as she stared at the man before her, unable to look away despite his obvious alarm and embarrassment.
Logan Cale, Man of Mystery, voice of freedom in Seattle, sat in his wheelchair, a towel draped around his neck. He still wasn't completely dry from his shower and water trickled down his arms, chest and legs. His hair wasn't styled, his face was freshly shaved, and he wasn't wearing his glasses or a stitch of clothing. Not even a bathrobe. He was home, safe, why would he bother?
Naked. Nude. In the buff. Fully exposed.
"Max, what the hell -" He grabbed the towel and dragged it into his lap, anger temporarily replacing his embarrassment.
"Ooops, sorry," she said, finally looking away. "I'll wait out here."
"I might stay in my bedroom!" His voice roared after her as she darted out of sight and threw herself onto the couch. "Where I might have some privacy!" A door slammed shut and she could hear him muttering on the other side.
She pulled herself into a seated position and slouched in the couch, dazed, listening to the rain and reliving every second of what she had just witnessed. It wasn't that she'd never thought of Logan as a sexual being. On the contrary, she was reminded of it every time they met, even though she convinced herself when not in his presence that they weren't like that at all. Nope. We're just friends, she'd repeat like a mantra whenever her pager went off and she caught herself hoping it was him. She liked him - when he wasn't being a stubborn ass - admired him for what he did, for how he'd helped her, for all he'd endured. He didn't have to look good to gain her friendship. The fact that he did look good was just icing on the cake.
She wasn't delusional. 'Love-sick idiot' was a term she used for others, not herself. She was the Frankenstein monster in this scenario and knew where she stood; she didn't have the right to happiness. 'Relationships' happened to other people.
Use 'em and lose 'em…
Max wasn't blind. Logan was a very attractive man and she was sure she wasn't alone in that assessment. His eyes, his smile, his wonderful hands with those long fingers, the body she'd seen in work-out gear that just -
And now she'd seen even more of him. All of him. He was so…
Max swallowed and allowed herself another moment to relive the image of him wearing only a towel, and not a strategically placed one, either. She knew she'd never forget it and thanked Manticore for her excellent memory, if only for this one time.
She waited, unsure if he'd come out to speak with her, unsure if he'd want to ever see her again after this breach of personal space. She knew he had issues - who didn't? - but his status in the wheelchair was a big one. She sighed. Sorta like me being a freak…
She'd decided she was going to face the music this time. Maybe he'd face a few things himself if she stayed. It sounded lame in her head but she thought it was the right choice. Besides, I wanna tell him about Cathy and Hope and I'm hungry and -
Logan called her name again and she turned her head just enough to look at him, remaining slouched. He'd pulled on a turtleneck, track pants and socks. Maybe he'd run a hand through his wet hair but more likely he hadn't bothered. He was wearing his glasses now and although his nostrils flared with every other breath, he was containing himself fairly well, she thought.
Maybe I'll get outta this with my skin intact…
"We have to talk."
"I had to see you -"
"Well you certainly did that, didn't you?"
Max sat upright. "It isn't like I came in here knowing you'd just gotten outta the shower!"
"You came in here without knocking or calling out."
"I do that all the time!"
"Which is why we have to talk."
Here it comes, she thought. The 'call first' conversation. The 'I-know-where-to-find-you-if-I-need-you' schpeil. The 'pat on the shoulder and send me on my way' talk.
"Hey, skip it." She stood and headed for the door, losing her courage to change their dynamic once more. "I get the idea. Send up the Bat-signal if you need me."
"Wait! Where are you going?"
She stopped at that and turned, raising one eyebrow, trying to appear cool and unoffended. "Somewhere else."
Logan wheeled over to her, speaking as he moved, navigating unerringly despite the fact that his eyes were locked on hers. "But… we haven't talked yet," he said, almost stammering.
"What's to talk about?"
"We - I - You - "
Max folded her arms across her chest. "I'm not pronoun deficient."
Logan stared. "What?"
"Never mind." She turned sharply and opened the door. Somehow, he managed to wheel within range and push it shut again.
"Max," he said softly and she looked down at the toes of her boots. "I'd just… I'd just like it if you made a noise or… something. You're more cat than you know, aren't you?" She didn't look at him, uncertain what she'd see. "It's pouring rain. You rode through this to see me because you felt it was important or you wouldn't be here. I was just…" She slid her gaze sideways and caught his eyes. He grimaced. "Surprised. I was surprised to see you, startled, that's all." She blew out a huff of air that wasn't quite a sigh so much as a release of holding her breath. He wasn't tossing her out on her ass. He wasn't even yelling. He was pissed off, sure, but his concern was palpable. She looked at her boots again.
"Sorry," she mumbled.
"It's okay." Her eyes darted sideways again, challenging. "Okay, it's not okay but I'll… get over it."
He didn't sound convinced but it was a start. She faced him properly, leaning against the door. She must have looked miserable because he added, "Max, its Christmas Eve."
She might have been less baffled if he'd started singing carols. "So?"
Logan shook his head. "So? Don't you celebrate Christmas?"
"It wasn't exactly on the Manticore agenda."
"No, I meant, since you started living in Seattle."
She frowned. "Kendra decks the halls, makes her own sushi rolls, whatever. Religion isn't my thing, you know?"
He smiled. Max hadn't realized she was feeling unusually chilled until a warmth started to spread from her stomach. "I'm not particularly religious, either." He moved the wheelchair to face the couch and nodded his head to indicate she was welcome to follow. "My family had a tree and presents and sure, we went to church when everyone else did, you know, the 'C&E' crowd." He stopped beside the couch and she slid into the corner farthest from him.
"The 'Christmas and Easter' crowd. Some people only attend when they feel they absolutely have to. My parents were very busy. They went when they could, like so many others, but…" He shrugged. "I'm getting off topic here. My point is, no one should be alone on Christmas Eve."
"I'm between runs," she stated, as if that explained everything.
"I see." The sound of the rain filled the space between them. It was almost comforting, like a cushion rather than a barrier settling in. "Have you had lunch yet?" Max hesitated just long enough to give him an answer. He headed for the kitchen, saying, "I have left-over pasta you can have, if you want."
"I came to ask you about somethin'," she said, turning in the couch enough to see him, hoping to get away from the topics of personal space and Christmas. "There's a place that's supposed to be helpin' people who are new to the city and there's somethin' goin' on that isn't right."
"Yeah?" Logan's head was behind the refrigerator door so his voice was a little muffled.
"Yeah." This was business. This was safe territory. "Original Cindy and me were in the soup line for lunch -"
"You've had lunch?"
At his teasing tone, she responded firmly, "Not enough. Keep diggin' for the pasta."
He laughed. Damn, but he didn't do that often…
"We met a woman and her daughter. They got the run around at this place, sayin' they couldn't help them unless they had a pass -" His face reappeared and Max added, "She couldn't remember exactly what was said to her. Lack of food and sleep. Could be a sector pass or work permit. Couldn't be the travel papers from Montana 'cause she has those."
"Why'd she leave Montana?"
"Not enough work. She's a bookkeeper. Husband left her, town shut her out…" Max looked out the window, feeling her jaw tense. "You should've seen them, standin' in the rain with their lives in a backpack and nobody gave a damn."
The fridge door closed. Logan opened the cutlery drawer and retrieved a fork, placing it in his lap beside a sealed container and a napkin. He wheeled towards the couch, opting to stop right beside her this time, and set the breaks.
"Sounds like hell," he commented quietly.
"She looked like hell and Hope - the girl - she just…" Max shook her head. "O.C. jumped in, started tellin' Cathy what rights she had and after the soup we took them to the community centre, the one where you play basketball. No beds there, of course, but at least they're outta the rain. They had a tree decorated and some guy playing Santa and…"
Max fell silent. Why was she so upset? She'd only known these people for a few hours but the injustice of their situation had certainly hit a nerve. Some time at the community centre wasn't much to give, just a place to be where people accepted them and they could forget for a while.
Cathy had cried and Hope had solemnly joined the circle of children, saying nothing.
At that moment, Max had been sorely tempted to go to the shelter that had added to their grief and kick the shit out of anyone she could find.
Maybe Eyes Only really was having a stronger influence on her decisions than she'd previously realized. Choice. It was all about choice. She'd taken a step today and made a difference, however slight, in the lives of two people. Original Cindy hadn't hesitated to get involved but she often vocalized the feelings of the other messengers to Normal when they would have remained silent.
"Here." Logan handed her the container. "It won't solve all your problems but it'll help." She took it and opened it and allowed herself a moment to inhale. "I can heat that up if you -"
His offer died as she tugged the fork from his hand and started eating enthusiastically. His grin was poorly restrained and didn't escape her notice.
"I'm hungry," she said, her mouth full.
Logan lifted his hands in the international sign of surrender. "Just making an observation." His grin faded. "I think I know the place you mean. In Sector Six, right?"
"I did a broadcast on them today." She paused in her eating, a sure sign that he had her attention. "Well, I didn't name them but they'll recognize themselves. Thought I'd give them a chance to clean up their act." At Max's raised eyebrows, he said, "Some of my informants have relatives who are trying to make a fresh start here. They don't need the crash space but they could use help getting registered with job search programs, workshops, filing for a pass. This place is choosing who they help and excluding others."
"That's the one." Max finished the pasta and gave the empty container a despairing look.
"Eyes Only is on the case."
She sighed and smiled shyly. "Figures you'd already be there."
"Hey, I'm going to need you to follow up on them if they don't change their habits."
Now it was her turn to tease, though she wasn't really at her best. "You know about everything, don't you?"
"I know who's been naughty and nice."
She offered him the container and fork and accepted the napkin. "Thanks. That was good."
"I have more if you -"
"No, I better get goin'. Normal will figure I've been drowned if I don't."
Neither one moved other than to simultaneously look out the window at the raging storm.
"It sure is wet out there," he commented lightly.
"Yeah. Merry freakin' Christmas." She moved to stand but he placed a hand on her arm. It wasn't enough to restrain her, not if she wanted to go. Against the judgement of some part of her that was feeling vulnerable, she looked into his eyes and her usual mantra disappeared.
He said one word: "Stay."
"I can't -"
"Yes, you can."
"I want to keep my job, you know. Bailing to a cabin in the woods then gettin' arrested cuts into the paycheque."
Returning to save you…
She could tell he was thinking the same thing. He said another word: "Please."
Max knew she should move or decline his offer but it was so comfortable. After a long week of pre-Christmas deliveries, even a genetically engineered soldier needed some comfort and joy.
A quiet, internal argument ensued. After a few minutes, she said, "What'll I tell Normal?"
Logan smiled. "Leave that to me. In the meantime, you'd better get out of those wet clothes -" Her sharp look made him blush. "And into the shower. I know Manticore made them tough but I hate to think what you're like when you're sick if you're this stubborn when you're well."
She gaped at him. "I'm stubborn?"
"Shower. You can borrow some of my clothes. T-shirts and track pants are on the left, middle and bottom drawers."
It occurred to her then that she was sharing the rainy day with his couch. She bit her bottom lip and stood, gesturing at the furniture. "Sorry about that."
"Its leather. No problem."
She hesitated. "Are you sure you want me here? You don't have some fancy function to go to… or somethin'?"
"I'm right where I want to be," he assured her. "I just have to make a few calls then the evening is ours."
They shared a smile then realized they were staring and looked away, self-conscious.
"Well, I'd better… make those calls and get something started for Christmas dinner." He unlocked his breaks and moved away from the couch.
"Uh, right and I'll… do that shower thing." She took a few steps backwards, towards the bathroom, still uncertain.
Together they turned and went in opposite directions. Once they looked back and caught the other watching.
Logan called Bling - she could hear the conversation as she lingered in his bedroom. The physiotherapist was happy to source out a place for Cathy and Hope to spend the next few days, even though it was short notice and Christmas Eve. Max smiled: yet another reason for her to like the guy. Then Logan called the community centre and spoke with one of the program directors, someone named Keon. She could hear the cheers of children in the background and wondered if Hope was joining the activities.
The next call was to Jam Pony. Max quickly found some clothes, selecting randomly, and darted into the bathroom, closing the door behind her and switching on the exhaust fan. She didn't really want to know what he was telling Normal.
Let it all go, girl, she told herself, imagining Original Cindy saying those words. She removed her baseball cap and considered her face in the mirror.
She didn't know if the others had escaped. Embraced by water, she stared at the night through a window of ice until she couldn't hold her breath any longer. If she'd bothered counting, it would probably have been a record. X5-452 slid carefully across the deceptive surface until she was clear and hidden under the bough of a fir tree. Distant sounds of fighting spurred her on after only a few minutes. The night was calm and bright as she shadowed the trees and chased freedom.
Max swallowed. She was safe and warm and a man she had come to accept as her friend wanted her to spend Christmas Eve with him. She removed her wet clothing, turned on the shower - running hot water! - and tried to relax.
Let it all go, girl.
If nothing else, this would certainly be a night to remember.
If you think this warrants another chapter, I'll see what I can do but for now…
Merry Christmas, everyone, and a safe and happy 2006. Thank you. :)