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

Christmas in July Challenge: Gift for Insane Troll Logic

Please see Chapter 1 A/N to see the Challenge assigning this story and the requests made by ITL inspiring it.

A/N: Finally dragging this gift to a close. Mia, thanks for managing the Challenge; Merry Christmas, Troll... and thanks to everyone for reading. Reviews, comments, rants, thoughts, complaints all welcomed...

AS SIMPLE AS THAT

Chapter 5

"Logan?"

Nearly three hours after the stand-off, Logan was back again in front of his computer, Bling there and gone after fitting in a session with him in front of the news. He felt some lingering satisfaction that the local media had been engaged enough with not only the story of what had happened to Cindy, but with the resulting public interest in the threat of another secret government conspiracy, that more investigation and follow up from them was guaranteed. A triple win, as far as he was concerned: more investigation into Manticore and its intentions, more headache for Lydecker and his cronies, all with less direct exposure for Max and Eyes Only. Quintuple win, he corrected himself, because it also got Cindy out of their clutches– and is likely to make them close up shop here, at least for a while...

But the sound of his door and Max's appearance surprised him. Given events, he had expected Max to spend the evening with Original Cindy, making sure she was okay and probably assuaging her own guilt that her best friend had victimized been as a result of their friendship. He looked up to see her rounding the corner into the room, her mood unreadable from her expression.

"Hey," he began, not sure what to expect. "How's Cindy doing?"

"Okay, I think. She says she's fine, but she also came up with a sudden urge to go see her family." Max shrugged, clearly juggling the thought along with everything else that had happened though the day. "There's a bus leaving in about an hour, so while she's packing I told her I'd go get the ticket, so she wouldn't be held up waiting in line."

"Oh – here; do you need some...?"

As he immediately turned to reach into a drawer, Max was struck by his ready willingness to give his money, his safety, all he had, for others, and prodded herself to remember that such generosity defined Logan Cale. "No – I got it..." she murmured, as she reached into her jacket and pulled out the boarding pass, waving it a little in front of him before slipping it back in her pocket. "Didn't have to wait too long after all." The question she had for him, leading her to come out of her way to see him now, before getting back to Cindy, suddenly sounded ungrateful and uncalled for. She stalled. "I'm on my way back to get this to her, but I wanted to stop..."

Logan cocked his head slightly to one side, as if seeing through her. Not like Max to hold back, he thought. Of course, this has been one hell of a day for her. Cut her a little slack, Cale...

She looked almost as if she was now unsure why she'd come. After a moment, though, she said, eyes flickering away from him, looking around the room in her awkwardness, "look, what happened today – you really smoked them, you know?" She shook her head, still taken with how things had turned out. "Who'd've expected something so direct and in their face to work?" She paused, lifting her eyes now to make contact with his. "...except you. You probably had it all figured out..."

"Me? No; I had no idea it would end as easily as it did, with Matt just talking Cindy out of there. It worked better than I'd hoped." He continued to look at Max closely, and had a sneaking hunch he knew what was bothering her. "Max... what?" At her shrug, he pressed, "c'mon – you don't like the fact that Lydecker got away..."

With his words, she immediately pressed, emotionally, "why did you not only let him off the hook, but help him off?"

"He's not getting off the hook.." Logan smiled the comfortable smile of one self-assured, pleased that he'd guessed right about what had been bugging her. "That many media people on the scene, with that sudden and dramatic an event – someone is gonna follow it up, even if only second-stringers or new hires who hope to catch a big, exclusive expose. I suspect if they need a little help along the way, it can be funneled to the right people, at the right time. But however it happens, it will be done with some research, and a little time and distance – which ought to put you right back on your bike, anonymously blended with everyone else at Jam Pony, when it all comes back to haunt him."

She wavered, looking at Logan as he explained his reasons for what he'd done to help end the stand-off, and her look softened from demanding indignation to surprise, as she began to understand his motives in helping Lydecker find an easy exit from the crowd's demands. Mulling over his words, she even seemed to look a little self-consciously guilty for ever doubting him. "Figures," she finally allowed. "Always gettin' my back, aren't you?"

"Somebody's got to, while you're so busy getting everyone else's."

Max nodded, appreciating his easy willingness to ignore her accusative tone. "Look – I'd better get Cindy's ticket to her – and I want to hang with her, you know, 'til she gets on the bus and safely on the road."

Logan's smile of understanding was soft, and he nodded. "Sure. You two need anything?"

"Nothing else," her slow smile acknowledged all he'd done so far, "but I know who to call if we do." Still, she didn't leave, wavering as she thought again of the enormity of what he'd accomplished that day, the many questions Lydecker still left in her, unanswered. "Logan, you know you may have just pushed things enough with them that they'll come after Eyes Only, now, too – or you. Or both..."

"Or, there will be enough of an outcry, and enough investigation, that Manticore will have to shut down, for good. It's a different world now than when they set this all up a couple decades ago, Max."

"Tell me about it." She looked at the man before her, his eyes gazing into hers steadily, his intensity dissipated, now that things had gone down safely and Cindy – and Max – were out of Lydecker's reach. With a sudden, dazzling smile and a laugh, Max added, "Zack would be so pissed if he knew that you were able to diffuse Manticore with a bunch of civilians, a plan cooked up in fifteen minutes, and sheer audacity."

Logan grinned. "Good. I think I like getting one up on him, for a change."

"Logan," Max finally breathed, reaching out to him, reaching her arms around him to encircle him with a heartfelt, emotional hug. "Thank you. For every part of this."

Logan returned the warm embrace, smiling softly to himself as he closed his eyes and let himself just be in the moment, in her arms. "Glad to help," he murmured softly, his words echoing an earlier Max and Logan. He held her only another few moments, though, knowing that Cindy needed her now, more than he did, and he gently eased his hold. As she disentangled and straightened, he offered, "you'd better get going."

"Right," she nodded, only partly beginning her turn before looking back, her eyes making contact with his again. "So, you going to be up for feeding a girl later, or should I bring some pizza on the way back?"

"Pizza..." He almost looked surprised, doing what he could to minimize the delight threatening to paint his face, knowing that she would be back again soon. "I haven't had pizza in a while."

"Pizza it is." She grinned happily and as she turned to walk out of the penthouse with a cocky swagger, emphasized for the gaze that she knew followed her, she called over her shoulder, "not even gonna ask what kind – 'cos I know all your favorites."

Logan continued to sit, unmoving, for several minutes after her exit, still smiling softly to himself. That you do, Max, he mused. And for some crazy reason – that fact beats everything else that happened today by a mile...

xoxoxoxoxoxoxo

In another two hours, Max appeared at his door with two large pizzas and grinned to see that he'd made a salad and had even managed a growler of beer from a local micro-brewery that had just reopened not too far away. She teased him about trying to turn even a lousy pizza into a gourmet meal, but scooped out a generous bowl of salad for herself and let the taste of the rich beer roll around in her mouth appreciatively. Her next words, about his additions to the meal, were genuine, as she thanked him for making a trip to get them real beer and fresh lettuce...

But as they began to eat, Logan saw that she was more quiet than usual, probably still shaken by having one of her worst fears realized – Lydecker had using someone close to her to get to her.

"Max – Cindy's fine," he urged, trying to help her get past the day. "I can't imagine he'd try the same thing again with her. Not after the reception he got."

"Maybe not..."

Her tone was vague, not connecting with what he'd said. It was clear that her worries were winding in a much different direction for the moment – and Logan frowned. "Max? Something else is bothering you about all this..." His words penetrated her thoughts and she seemed to come closer to earth, looking up at him almost guiltily. Not getting it, he asked, "there's more?"

She breathed out, slowly, as if considering whether or not to admit what was going on in her head. Finally, she shrugged and admitted, "Lydecker said something else, this morning. He made it sound as if we didn't escape, really, but that they let us go... or..." Logan waited. "Or at least let us stay away, rather than catch us. Either way, that it wasn't so much our avoiding them, but their letting us out, on a long leash."

Logan frowned slightly in surprise, but then considered it for only a moment before shaking his head. "Sounds like sour grapes to me," he opined, flatly. "Or making lemonade..."

"Meaning what?" She had no idea how he could be so certain, but wanted to be, too.

"Damage control," he shrugged. "It's possible," he added, seeing her skepticism. "You and the others escaped and they couldn't manage to catch you, so as the weeks went by they decided to report that they let a few of you escape to track your actions, just a long-term test to see how you all could do among the common folk. It could be a cover for any failed attempt they made to catch one of you – they report their attempts as challenging your skills, not a serious effort to capture you. They document their 'observations' of your evasion, pad their reports, if needed, by borrowing a few police reports about local thefts or attacks, maybe, whatever they needed to develop a picture of an X-5 commando in the field, under 'combat' conditions. If they capture you, the test is 'over;' if not, each failure becomes field testing and data gathering."

She snorted. "Sounds like them." She grabbed another piece of pizza and took an angry bite. "Lydecker's a snake. Just like him to say 'no, we didn't screw up, we let you leave.' He'd never admit failure – even if it just proved their success in training us." She fell quiet again, her expression still dark in thought.

Logan looked at the pretty face, far from comforted, and knew that she'd let Lydecker's suggestion raise even more doubts about the past decade since she'd escaped. Playing a hunch, he spoke again. "Max," he began, his voice quieter now, "from anything that I've seen ... Zack has led his life making sure each of you were okay, when he's dropped in on each of you. That's all..."

Her eyes flashed. "Why did you bring up Zack, all of a sudden?"

He knew he'd been right. "Because I must have guessed the rest of what's bothering you."

She shook her head, stubbornly. "No way, Logan," she finally said, low. "No way will I believe that Zack is spy for them. He hated them more than any of us did. "

"I wasn't going to suggest that." He looked at her closely, saw the pain in her eyes ... and knew Lydecker had. "But ... you've been afraid that maybe he was ..."

She stood quickly and paced away to stare out the window, almost as if running from the possibility in his words – and in her thoughts. She was silent for several minutes, and Logan said nothing to intrude as she worked out the painful possibilities. Finally, he saw her shoulders sag slightly, and after another few moments she admitted, softly, "ever since Lydecker wanted me to think it was planned, it's ..." She turned back to him, and Logan could see that there were still tiny glimmers of tears in her eyes that she refused to let fall. "I can't believe it; I won't believe it. But ... it's possible. Zack could have been used as a handler, as someone we would trust, to keep an eye on us and feed Manticore information about where we were and what we were doing."

He nodded, knowing how much it must hurt her to acknowledge that much. When she said nothing else but stood at the window, still apart and hurt, he said, "I guess you have to bear it in mind, if only for your safety. But Max – what I've seen of him, the little bit we've talked – I'd trust Zack and his genuine concern for each of you over anything Lydecker had to say."

She looked at him from across the room, wavering, adding his comments to the thousands of memories and questions of her own swirling in her head, and she finally moved back to the couch, sinking down to sit beside him, the tension in her starting to relax just a little. "You really think so?" She asked quietly, in hope. As he just nodded, silently, but with complete confidence, she relaxed a little more. "Me, too." She leaned over to pull a mushroom off one of the cooling pieces of pizza in front of her and admitted, "it helps, your thinking that Zack's okay."

Logan's brow clouded and he drew a careful breath. "Max –I don't mean that you should go back to trusting him so completely..." As she stiffened and her eyes flashed again in her defensiveness for her brother, he tried to soothe as he explained, "I do trust Zack s concern for each of you, as far as his conscious intentions – but you can't ever be certain of what's happened to him, over the past ten years. From what you've told me about Psy-Ops, and all the things could have happened, if they caught Zack after the rest of you escaped – or captured him any time in the past ten years. They could have filled him with memories of being out the entire time, erased all memory of any capture and re-programming he received ... they could have simply implanted some sort of tracking device in him so they could follow him any time he took off to find one of you. They could have planted triggers, so if they wanted to bring any of you in..."

"I get the idea!" she blurted in her anger, again popping up to escape the words.

"Max ... maybe nothing like that happened..." Logan offered softly. "It only means that you have to remember to be cautious..."

She turned back to see the troubled eyes, the concern he had for her, and knew she was venting her anger and pain at the very last person who deserved it. Slowly she leaned back against the window and, the pain for Zack weighing heavily, she spoke quietly, eyes cast toward the floor. "I know..." She sighed, sadly. "After so many years of having to be 'cautious,' with everyone else, I hate to have to add Zack – or any of the others – to that list."

"For what it's worth..." Logan offered, his rich voice soothing her hurt. "Nothing I've seen from him, and nothing I've found, suggests anything but what you remember – that he'd decided that none of you was safe staying there at Manticore, and that an attempt to escape and live on your own was a better option than staying there. He decided. Besides," he watched her carefully, seeing his words helped a little, and that she understood his concern, "they expended a lot of time and money not only on the twelve of you, but on the whole project, and keeping it quiet. Remember, it was all happening back in the days when a good number of politicians and their constituents were irrational about the idea of cloning and stem cell research – the science was often misunderstood or misrepresented, and there was a decidedly conservative voice in politics at the time that argued against anything like what Manticore was doing. If any of you had spilled their secrets, you could have brought a lot of influential people down." He shook his head. "There are just too many reasons that everything happened just as you thought it did – and anything that did happen to the contrary was merely Manticore trying to scramble and mitigate their losses by finding some little bit of useful information from their very gifted runaways."

She'd lifted her eyes to Logan's as he spoke, assuring herself of his candor and hoping that in this, as they usually were, his insights were right. After a moment she responded. "Like lemonade from lemons?" she asked softly, a thread of her own hope there.

"Something like that," he promised.

"Speaking of which," she pushed away from the window and slowly came back to his side. "Did I properly thank you for getting the whole town out to help Original Cindy? And for arranging Don's public humiliation?"

"The pizza was more than enough," he smiled, "but I can't take credit for Matt's facing Lydecker off in the public square. That was all him."

"He's good." She nodded, smiling too, but it faded again after only a moment. "What do you think, Logan? No matter what, it's not his style to slink off in the night."

"Maybe not, but he's got to know with every act he risks more people learning about what went on with you and the others. He can't want that – and I suspect there are higher placed people who want it even less." He sighed, but had to add, "you know there's a risk that they might figure if they're this close to being blown, they might as well risk it one more time in even a more obvious show of force if it could finally bring you in?"

Max rolled her eyes and in some frustration, countered, "you think they haven't been giving it their all, so far?"

Logan shook his head, his tone conciliatory, in an effort to smooth her ruffled feathers at the implication. "You know what I mean. If so far he's only brought a few men, so as not to be too obvious, he might now figure what the hell, go for broke. You said it just now, Max – it's not his style to slink off with his tail between his legs..."

"...and he doesn't like being beaten."

Logan looked at Max, thoughtful now, as she yet gain mulled over her long-time adversary, and finally asked, "so ... what do you think?"

She looked back up to him, seeing his concern and care for her, his strength and intelligence, and knew that any of the options she'd just been weighing were unworkable if they didn't include him. Suddenly smiling with a look of cocky self-assurance, she replied, "I think I've beaten him every time so far – sometimes, with a little help from my friends. Far as I'm concerned, he can bring it on."

Logan was torn by her reaction, pleased to see her bounce back, but unconvinced she was as concerned for her safety as she should be. "You know..." he began, slowly, "if it's time for you to leave town..."

"Not even close," she interrupted, with a stubborn smile. "You're not going to get rid of me that fast, Logan Cale. I have too many questions left for you ... and too much pizza to leave behind, just because some deep black government agency is still pissed that I walked out on them." As she lifted another piece of pizza to her mouth, Logan could see that Max had made up her mind and, despite her flip words and apparent refusal to see the danger, she knew, more than anyone could, what might be waiting ahead for her.

Logan considered her words, and her stubborn refusal to consider his. Maybe later tonight, or maybe tomorrow, he'd bring up the idea again that she might want to leave town – at least for a while. But the evening was getting on and she was unlikely to be swayed from her reasoning tonight. Relaxing into the inevitable, he finally smiled in concession, and reached over for another piece of pizza, too. "What questions?" he played along. For Max, he told himself. Even transgenic soldiers fleeing their evil creators need to put it aside, once in a while...

"Plenty," she murmured as she munched. "Like Eyes Only's connection to S1W," she bagan, expansively. "... and that little blonde out there with them," her eyes narrowed as she remembered. "What was her name...?" she looked at him, as if daring him to answer.

Asha, he thought, remembering that he saw Max following her through the crowds. "Blonde?" he stalled.

"Blonde," Max repeated, watching him closely.

"Hmmm..." he chewed his pizza thoughtfully, then shrugged, the picture of innocence. "Can't really say. I'm afraid my mind was on other things..."

"Uh-huh," she grunted, skeptically.

"...and I've always been more of a brunette man, myself." He glanced over to her with his words, and when he found her eyes twinkling in response, gave himself a couple points for turning a loaded question into a score for him. He grinned at her reaction, and she laughed.

"Funny how things work out sometimes," she smirked.

"I was thinking exactly the same thing." Lifting his slice of pizza toward her, Logan saw that Max immediately caught his thoughts and raised her own to 'clink' her slice against his. "To us," he toasted.

"To us," she agreed.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxo