DISCLAIMER: Dark Angel borrowed; as always, no profits realized.

Christmas in July Challenge: Gift for Insane Troll Logic

A/N: This story results from a Christmas in July Challenge/Story request engineered by RT4Ever, a sort of DA Secret Santa for writers, all of whom definitely lean M/L. In signing up for her present, each Giftee provided a wish list that the Giftor was to try and accommodate. In her gift request, Insane Troll Logic requested the following:

1) Lydecker
2) Someone from Jam Pony captured by Manticore
3) An Eyes Only broadcast

You just know I couldn't do this in one chapter – this will take a half-dozen or so chapters, but will be done soon! Thanks for reading; would love to hear any any all comments. And... Merry Christmas, ITL and everyone!


Chapter 1

"It's a trade. A simple trade. No strings; you just come in, let us do some testing, a debriefing, and you're done."

Max felt a sense of unreality, knowing that a confrontation had been coming but not this, not like this, not standing on the street, visible to the world, Lydecker calmly 'inviting' her to come see him and implying that with such a simple act, she would be free of him.

She had come back from her first run of the day, the gloomy, gray fall day threatening rain which would serve to change the day from cool to bone-chilling. The past weeks had been tense and she had been irritable, the news disturbing: she had gotten a cryptic message from Zack that his sources put Lydecker in the area, with the plan of setting up a base of operations in her own back yard. No details, no idea if he brought an army or merely a security detail; no idea of his purpose or how long he'd stay. Logan had been on it as soon as she'd told him and confirmed Lydecker's whereabouts – how he did so she still didn't know, but if anyone could track the beast she believed Logan could – and he'd immediately started pestering her to leave town for a while, to lay low until he could discover Lydecker's plan. It was part of the reason she was so pissy; she knew she ought to take his advice but couldn't leave when she didn't know what was up – or when Logan might be putting himself square in Lydecker's sights by poking around to see what he had in mind.

She'd seen him when she turned onto Jam Pony's street, the bulky, black SUV gleaming too cleanly amid the otherwise squalid surroundings. Seeing it now gave her a chill beyond any the rain could have brought: Lydecker was ready to reveal his purpose; he would never have come to her like this if he was not. Max watched him emerge from the vehicle as she rode up and stopped at Jam Pony's entrance, up on the sidewalk, finding a vague sense of strength with the familiar brick of her daily home base at her back. What a whack reaction is that? she thought irrationally, working to keep her attitude in place as she forced him to cross the street and come to her.

And without preamble or greeting, he'd laid it all out – or laid out what he wanted her to believe. "You kids have been on your own for a decade now, 452, and even if we brought you in, what Psy-Ops would have to do to make any of you fit for our purpose would just as likely destroy what's valuable in you. At this point, Manticore is about ready to give up on the idea that we'll ever have you back."

Max didn't believe him for a moment. "With all that whining about how much time and money you spent developing us?" she spat. "And your own sad ego, that a handful of little kids got away from you and your elite squad of sadists?" She shook her head, hoping her angry outburst would cover the irrational fear gnawing at her of what all this meant. "Manticore doesn't want us, so you go buy a busted up factory just outside of town, just for kicks. Try the other leg, Deck."

He was unflappable, speaking again as if she'd said nothing, even affecting a little smile. Her stomach clutched to see it. "It's always important to see how a project can develop, outside of the lab, and to compare the group exposed to the elements to those kept inside, in a controlled environment. Over the years, at least from a distance, we've been able to track how you've each differed from the X-5s still with us."

Max felt a shift in her universe at his words – while still unwilling to put form to it, or any trust in its truth, she'd heard him suggest oh, so subtly, that their successful escape might not have been altogether their idea...

"At this point, I think we'd learn quite a lot from getting a closer look at your skills, and what's resulted from your living out in the world, hiding from Manticore, scraping by without a traceable history, living close to ground. So, you come in for a couple days, go though some physical and mental testing, and you take off. You won't see us again."

"Free to stroll out the front door? Without at least futzing with my genes or my head?" Max snorted, hoping for a steady response. "Now why don't I believe you?"

"It's a trade. A simple trade," he said smoothly, carefully avoiding her allegations and catching her attention with the sudden shift of his terms. "No strings; you just come in, let us do some testing, a debriefing, and you're done."

Max's retort was cocky, sounding far more confident than she felt. "And just what would you have that would be worth a trade like that?"

"We might not be able to round up all of you kids now – we made you too strong, trained you too well. And it appears that the ten years away from Manticore have convinced you that you want to remain outside." Lydecker seemed to suddenly wax philosophical, staring off into the past as his voice took on a conversational tone, maybe even a bit of pride there as well. "Of course, had you learned everything we taught you," he couldn't resist a dig, in the circumstances as he'd now arranged them, "you wouldn't be here begging for the return of some civilian who, had you paid attention, should have meant nothing to you." With a dramatic flair, Lydecker let his eyes sweep the room. "When was the last time you saw that friend of yours, the one you spend so much time with at that broken-down bar? 'Original' ...what? Original Cindy?" He watched as Max turned in sudden fear, scanning the room now too, not seeing her there. She turned back to Lydecker accusatively. Before she could speak, he added smoothly, in oily satisfaction, "more interested in a trade now?"

Max started at him silently, far too aware of Manticore's resources and complete lack of morality to have any credible come-back – or not to immediately believe that he really held her friend. Without a word to Lydecker, she turned and pounded over to Normal, fearing the worst. "Normal? Where's Cindy?"

"That's a good question. Where the fire truck is..." he yelled to the room.

"When did she leave on her last run, Normal?" Max interrupted, grabbing his clipboard, and the dispatcher looked back at her, surprised at her intensity and his words died. "She's late, isn't she?" Max pressed as she scanned the list.

He nodded, clearly a bit worried now himself seeing that her friend was as unaware of Cindy's whereabouts as he was, and said flatly, "about two hours."

"And you didn't say...?" Max stared at him accusatively for a tense moment before she slammed the clipboard down and stormed back up to face Lydecker, her anger, hatred – and fear – flashing in her eyes.

"You don't exactly have much choice, do you?" Lydecker offered as Max faced him again.

"Why am I supposed to believe you actually have her – or that you haven't already hurt her?"

Lydecker felt a tiny bit of admiration that she hadn't indulged in empty threats to take him out, to pay them back. No, she remembers her training far too well to think that we won't use the woman in any way necessary to bring her back. He pulled two items out of his jacket, and handed her the first – a cell phone – Original Cindy's, in fact, with Cindy's image glowing ominously from a grainy picture on its screen as she sat in a small, bare room, appearing to be uninjured, but not moving, either. Once he'd seen Max register that, Lydecker handed her Cindy's riding gloves – and watched as she recognized them as the ones Cindy had with her that morning.

Max's retort was hot and immediate. "Original Cindy's a civilian; she doesn't know that this is part of the game." Somewhere, beyond her initial fear for Cindy, Max knew that her words would mean nothing to him, but she had to try. "She's my friend," she added, "and a much better person than you could ever hope of knowing..."

Lydecker's admiration of moments before died immediately. He countered, "and now you understand my point, 452, when I taught you kids that sloppy emotional reactions can get you killed."

"Or give us something like a normal life – something you tried like hell to keep from us!"

Lydecker's face took on an expression that had crossed the face of every disappointed father at one time or another. "No good comeback, so you try a pointless, maudlin appeal? It does nothing but tell the enemy they were right about finding your Achilles Heel, soldier." Disappointing, but not surprising, that someone who had left him so young wouldn't have avoided the dangers of a home ... friends. As he made a mental note to reinforce the avoidance of that error in his training regime with the soldiers he had now, Lydecker saw that his point had hit home, and let it sink in further for another moment before he spoke again, drawing a long-suffering, pedantic breath to lecture, "I suppose this is the sort of life you were hoping for – riding for a messenger service... getting your friends abducted..."

In the next moment, Lydecker found himself several inches off the ground, back flattened against the brick wall, Max's arm across his throat. "If you've even wrinkled her clothes..." Max hissed. She showed no sign of backing down or of loosening her hold as the four figures jumped from the back of the SUV, until she noted Lydecker's brief hand signal directing them back. At that, she felt a momentary burn in her throat, knowing that the man who had trained her saw through her and recognized her purpose: if I'd have wanted him dead, it would have happened before he was aware he'd been touched ... and who knows that better than he does?

"If you want to see her again, back here, with your other 'friends...'" he lingered over the moment, feeling the warmth of the win when Max released him abruptly. He managed to land on his feet, trying not to enjoy his power over her but feeling some satisfaction that he'd found a way to get 452 to walk back into Manticore, under her own power, while making his point that she should have listened to him, all those years ago. "...all you need to do is to come back. Temporarily."

"I'll think about it." She growled.

"Think? Did I say this was an open-ended invitation?" Lydecker's anger flared quickly, revealing his own demons, patience too frayed to hold this long. The longer she has to think, the more likely it is she comes up with a plan. She won't escape me this time. "You want her back here, come with me now."

"I can't..." Max said immediately. "Tomorrow. I'll be there," she relented, "but I have some things to wrap up..."

"You're there by oh-eighteen hundred hours or we dispose of your friend. After all," he let his eyes flicker around the room, making his point, "you have plenty others." Lydecker stepped back to leave, nodding toward Normal, who was trying not to watch what was going on in his entryway. "That should give you ample time to make your excuses to your employer for the both of you." Lydecker turned and started back toward the SUV, a hard, cold satisfaction spreading across his features.

"Where do you want me?" Max called behind him.

That stopped him, and he turned. "You're trying to tell me you don't know exactly where the facility is, outside of town?" With a smirk, he turned back to the SUV and, as he strode toward it, called over his shoulder, dismissively, "You're one of the reasons we took over that old factory, 452, your being here in Seattle – we decided if you were so fond of the place, there must be something to it."

It took all of Max's strength not to follow him, to jump him and pummel him senseless, not only for herself and her siblings, but now, for her other sister, Original Cindy. Cindy has done nothing to deserve this, she berated herself, nothing but be your friend, be there for you through everything, and because of it, she's thrown into a Lydecker-designed hell...

He'd been right; she knew damn well where they'd set up shop there in town. It had haunted her daily since she'd found them, certain Lydecker was here in her backyard solely because of her. It was all just a question of when he would come for her. It had made her crazy, made her ride out there to look the place over, several times, uncertain how close she could go safely but anxious to see if she could discover what he had in mind...

It was this?

Without another word to Normal she picked up her bike, frustrated beyond all sense that she'd left her Ninja at home, knowing she could easily pedal the distance to the abandoned factory they'd taken over but knowing that for a fast escape, Cindy in tow, she'd need more. Even as she watched the SUV drive away, she stood rooted, not moving, at a loss to know how to play this right.

He came to tell you he had a trap set for you, and where, and who he had as his bait. He made sure you knew he'd found your weakness and exploited it, a weakness he'd told you to avoid. He made sure that not only would you come to the rescue, but that you'd come crawling back to him, to Manticore, and admit that he'd been right all along...

She hadn't dared get close enough to the facility to see how many he had there with him, their security system or internal set-up. Lydecker had to know that; he would have had surveillance cameras or motion detectors, other apparatus to track her had she come close enough to get that kind of intel. With Lydecker waiting for her, she couldn't get that information now, unseen – and they each knew the other would be keenly aware of that, too. He'd be watching for her now and spot her as soon as she got within a mile of the place.

Go in with such little information, no way could you successfully find Cindy and get her out, without risking her – not with him expecting you, with him backed by his own little troop of X-5s or 6s or whatever batch he has now ...

She shook herself angrily, sharply. So deal! She tried to cut through the fear. Cindy needs you and it's your fault she's in this. You know where she is and have an idea of the odds. Lydecker knows your strengths and has set things up to make it damn near impossible to use your strengths to handle this.

...so what strengths do you have that Lydecker wouldn't know to expect?

At her first thought in response, she took one last look at the speeding SUV, as it rounded the corner out of her line of sight, and, fighting the urge to just follow and fight her way to her friend, jumped on her bike and took the streets quickly, purposefully. She was only bare minutes away from Sector Nine...

...to be continued...