Disclaimer: I don't own Dark Angel and my only reimbursement is reviews.
A/N: Almost every DA fanfic writer takes a crack at the ambivalently viewed episode "Female Trouble." This is mine. It revolves around Vertes' decision to call Lydecker, a decision that Max found illogical and which ended up in Vertes' death and Logan's loss of mobility (and short foray into suicidal tendencies). This fiction presumes that choice was never made, and Vertes instead chose a different path. What follows is a five "episode" arch of what changed after that, paying particular attention to Logan's mindset.
I, for one, feel the show relied on Logan's paralysis a little too heavily in keeping our star-crossed heroes apart (evidence of course being the virus they felt they needed to use in season two) when good old fashioned anger and betrayal would suffice. Much of which I think is present in the episode, but was overshadowed by Vertes' death and Logan's "suicide." The fact that I get to skip over the ridiculous Mrs. Moreno water-drip scene is just a bonus.
Episode 1, Alternative Ending to Female Trouble…
Our story picks up right as Max tells Logan that Jace has "decided to switch teams." Although Logan is uncomfortable with Max's trust in her sister, he goes along with her decision and prepares Jace's new identity. As mentioned he has an appointment with Vertes scheduled for later that day, and Max is headed back to work.
Max's retreating form could be heard leaving Logan's apartment until she closed the door with a solid click.
It was a better sound than the slams and bangs of yesterday, Logan wryly thought, thinking how she'd discovered his medical condition by spying. The look of betrayal and perhaps guilt in her eyes when he confirmed that he had, in fact, been seeing a Manticore specialist was enough to make Logan wince.
That look had also been replaced by the hopeful, teasing smile that had accompanied her words. Words that Logan hadn't been able to hold back his own smile at. "Life is good," she'd said, and he'd agreed, looking into her beautiful face and recognizing that there was still a chance to continue walking.
Walking was the gateway, Logan thought, the arch into a land of possibilities. It would lead him back to the lifestyle he had once known and the confidence he had once enjoyed. And when he had that, Logan reasoned, anything was possible.
Everything would be better than okay, it would be good, just as long as he kept putting one foot in front of the other…
Meanwhile, at the safe house….
For the better part of the morning Jace and Dr. Vertes had inhabited completely opposite ends of the Eyes Only safe-house. Jace had contented herself with imagining what her baby would look like, how Victor was doing, and what life would be like outside of Manticore. Although she was afraid, something she'd never admit aloud, of living life beyond the order and structure of Manticore, her fear for her child was greater. The mothering instinct was strong in the X5s, a combination of higher human intellect and pure, visceral animal instinct. It was more than enough to push Jace to do what she had been unable to almost eleven years ago.
It was with those thoughts in mind that she was interrupted.
"How are you feeling?" Dr. Vertes asked, as she confronted a reclining Jace who was lying on her back absentmindedly rubbing her belly. Even lying on a stained mattress in a black tank top, the X5 looked strong and beautiful, with her dark skin, clear and smooth, and her symmetric facial features reflecting the beauty embedded in all of her generation's DNA.
Although the doctor's sudden presence unnerved her, Jace's face reflected no surprise, having long become use to remaining passive in the face of anxiety.
"Better," Jace responded. She was still uneasy with this woman she tried to kill. Vertes represented the last tangible link to the past that Jace was attempting to break from, but she tried to suppress that feeling and focus on making slight amends to Vertes for Max's sake.
Despite being wrapped up in her own world, and strapped to a bed for some of the time, Jace's sharp hearing had allowed her to listen in on most of the conversations among Max, Logan, and Vertes. It was from those conversations that she had quickly picked on the man's condition and Max's involvement. And although Jace too hated Vertes, she recognized that Logan's ability to walk was dependent upon the woman. More importantly, Logan's walking was important to Max, and, therefore, by association to Jace. The woman was a necessary evil.
As if hearing her thoughts, the slim, icy blond gave Jace a small smile before beginning what seemed to be a patient/doctor consultation: "You're going to need to begin a vitamin regiment. Although X5 anatomy is resilient your baby is going to be diverting a lot of your mineral intake. In particular, you'll need more iron and B12 supplements than the average woman – not to mention getting a steady stream of lactose to support your serotonin levels." Vertes warned her.
The advice wasn't unwelcome, but still Jace frowned as she pondered that information.
"But where am I going to find that stuff? I mean it's not like I can walk to the corner store and pick up prenatal vitamins specific to X5 pregnancies."
"True." Vertes acknowledged, "but I'm sure Max's… connections can get you set up with most of what you need. And if you want, I can use the resources I have back at the clinic and put together an intravenous supplement for now."
The offer was unexpected to say the least.
"You'd do that for me? Why?" Jace asked, immediately suspicious of this woman's magnanimity, despite her efforts to distance herself from her past training. Manticore hadn't raised her to be credulous.
The doctor didn't respond at first, but instead walked over to the window to look down at the street below, despite her hard life style the older woman was still attractive. It took all of Jace's restraint not to jump up and check the area for Manticore issued soldiers, sure as she was that the woman had betrayed her.
Finally, in what sounded like a penitent voice, Vertes began.
"Let's just say that Max's accusations earlier hit a nerve," she sighed, turning to face Jace again. "I can have something put together in a few hours. Rest now, you'll need it."
Reluctantly, Jace complied, laying down and attempting to resist all of the internal instincts warning her to flee.
Later in the afternoon, at Vertes' clinic.
There was nothing imposing or impressive about Dr. Vertes' current clinic. Situated in one of Seattle's worst neighborhoods, its purpose was to avoid attention rather than garnering looks of awe from her clientele. Since leaving Manticore, the doctor had had to rely solely on her reputation and her unusual branch of advanced medicine to quietly gather willing patients to her. If they objected to the sad state of her seemingly unsterile examination rooms, or the exposed pipes that seemed to follow her to each new location, then that was too bad. She had a valuable commodity to offer, and after she treated Logan Cale she suspected its value would go up even higher. As long as she could keep Manticore from catching up with her.
It that regard, she wasn't entirely unhappy with having come into contact with the escaped '09er. The young transgenic had proven very useful, and with any luck she would continue to be. As long as she didn't let that blind spot of hers completely distract her from seeing the reality of the situation.
"Ahh…" the doctor let out a small sigh of satisfaction as she mixed in the last of her compound. "That should do. Do you want me to administer it or would you prefer to do it yourself?"
The afternoon had continued to slip by after the conversation between the two women. Jace had continued to ponder Vertes' words, worried about her baby, as previously unthought-of ways she could screw up motherhood began to present themselves.
It was a dark contrast to the more positive outlook of Max, who had spent the afternoon enjoying her strange little life – delivering packages, chatting with Original Cindy, and cheering Sketchy on as he performed a bicycle trick that Max probably could have accomplished at age 12. It didn't matter, Max could easily appreciate the human achievements around her.
Now it was about quitting time, and Jace was anxiously awaiting the arrival of her sister; keen for her advice and support.
Returning an answer to Vertes' question, Jace responded, "I'll have Max do it when she gets here, which should be any minute."
Jace carefully watched Vertes' stoic face for any visible signs of alarm, her instincts continuing to scream at her although nothing recognizable manifested.
"As you wish," Vertes answered, before setting up for her session with Logan, seemingly unconcerned.
It was the last thing they bothered to say to one another for several long minutes. However, soon the sound of a door opening alerted first Jace and then Vertes of Max's arrival as she came walking into the clinic area, a small smile in place, meant for her sister.
"Hey, Jace, you here?" Upon seeing her, Max confirmed, "I got your message. What's up?"
"Hey, Max. I thought you might like to go with me up the street; I'd like to do some shopping, get some regular street clothes, maybe some baby stuff." Jace smiled sheepishly at her admission. They both knew how odd those requests sounded coming from an X5 and both of them relished the conversation in their own way.
"Sure thing. We'll leave in a few," Max smiled back at her, pleased at her quick transition. Turning to Vertes she added, "Logan should be here any minute; he seems to be doing okay."
It was more than just a statement; it was a request for information.
"The prognosis seems hopeful," Vertes confirmed to Max's unspoken question.
Max nodded, before taking up a new subject, content to let the current one lie.
"Listen," Max began, "I don't know how to break this to you, but you've got a bit of rat problem. Heard them on my way in."
"Well hopefully I won't be here overly long to worry about it." Vertes countered, daring Max to say otherwise.
"Just as long as Logan gets what he needs," she warned, raising her eyebrows in a double dare.
The women seemed to be squaring off, Jace thought, a test of wills. And although Jace had every confidence in Max, there was something about Vertes that spoke of the steel beneath the surface. The woman was a survivor, and wouldn't hesitate to do what she needed to remain that way. For now, that was incumbent on Max's protection, but Jace wasn't fooled into complacency.
As any good soldier knew, there was more than one way to manipulate someone, and for all Max's seemingly impenetrable exterior, it was obvious she had developed a weakness, one that Vertes was also aware of. No, she thought, there was no doubt what that weakness was. Or more accurately who - attractive and, Jace estimated, about 6 foot 2 when standing, a state which was tenuous at best. It was the most expedient way any trained operative would use to get to Max, the good doctor included.
Still meeting Max's gaze, Vertes continued: "Of that," she nodded, "You have my word."
Although Vertes was unaware of it, both Max and Jace heard Logan's car pulling in.
"Listen Max," Jace interrupted, eager to address her other point of concern, "Can you give this shot before we go?"
There was only the barest hint of a signal. One so small a regular person would have doubted that they even saw it, but Max didn't.
"What is it?" Max asked, immediately suspicious.
"A vitamin supplement the doctor made for me," Jace replied, her eyes never wavering from Max's as they communicated silently.
"Just a basic mixture of the essential compounds," Vertes responded, again turning toward her preparation for Logan's session.
"Then you won't mind taking it yourself," Max charged, holding out the syringe to doctor. Again their test of wills continued in its back and forth pattern, as Max upped the ante.
"Not at all," Vertes drawed, turning around with what seemed to be labored annoyance. "I thought you might be suspicious."
Taking the needle the doctor put it to her own skin and emptied the contents of the syringe in such a way so that both X5 could clearly see the contents entering into her blood stream. Vertes barely wasted time acknowledging Max's look of acceptance, before seeming to dismiss her.
"There are three more prepared over on the counter," Vertes stated distractedly, as she worked on her machinery, hooking up wires and turning on switches.
There was no time to respond as the sounds of Logan entering the building become apparent to even Vertes. He was still in his wheelchair, with his cane lying across his lap as if it were in anticipation for use. Despite herself, Max couldn't help but smile at the sight. Logan's eyes seem clear and controlled; none of the feverish gleam that she'd detected the night of their confrontation. He'd scared her then, and hurt her, though she didn't want to admit it.
Though the smile is small, and Logan doesn't catch it, both of the other women did and added it to their furthering suspicions.
"Doctor Vertes," Logan stated in greeting, before noticing the X5s. "Max, Jace – didn't expect to see you two here."
Although his tone was civil, there was a note of wariness behind it. Obviously, a part of him continued to doubt the Manticore assassin, despite Max's words of support.
"We were just headed to do some shopping. Need me to pick up anything while I'm out?" Max's asked, her tone casual, detached.
"Not that I can think of," Logan answered, the exchange obviously superfluous.
Although he tried to hide it, Logan's transition from the wheelchair to the examination table was difficult. Vertes needed to help him, and Logan was reluctant to accept the help. It was also apparent from his facial expression that he was still in a great deal of pain, and from the short, furtive glances he made toward the X5s it was obvious he was anxious to hide it from Max.
As Logan and Vertes turned back to Max, they saw her removing an empty syringe from Jace's arm. Her expression suggested that she didn't notice Logan's signs of distress at his transfer, but the front is pure pretext, and Logan knew it.
"Play nice." Max bluntly taunted, before giving Vertes a death stare and walking out of the building with Jace in tow, the warning evident in her gaze.
"Charming personality on that one," Vertes deadpanned.
Logan didn't respond immediately, but met her gaze with his supposedly neutral one. Any charade of neutrality, however, was dispelled by the threat underlying his voice, "You'll have to excuse her, she had a lousy childhood."
A sweaty but smiling Logan could be seen watching over the operation system that monitors his progress. From his satisfied expression and the mobility of his legs, it was clear that the session had gone well. Not only was he able to move the wheels on the bike more readily, but by the end of the session he was able to get up of his own volition.
The progress seemed to relax him, and as he answered Vertes' questions his voice no longer contained the edge that has been so apparent since the episode began. And although he maintained the flow of conversation with Vertes, he also glanced over at the door from time to time as if anxious for someone to enter.
He didn't need to wait long. Just as he pulled his sweater over his head, a loud bang was heard from the front door as Max came charging in, attitude first with her temper riding only seconds behind.
She came to a halt beside Logan, catty corner to Vertes, with the examining chair in between. On the silver table that contained Vertes' medical instruments, Max slammed something down hard, causing the table to jump and Logan and Vertes to stare down in alarm.
"I took care of your rat problem," Max taunted, he voice controlled and sarcastic, but with eyes blazing.
A rat, stone dead, rested on the table.
Vertes didn't flinch, although she was aware that she had been found out. Letting her eyes wander over to Jace, who was standing a few feet away from the scene, she boldly responded:
"Not the big one."
"You sick bitch!" Max flared, and she turned to walk around the table, only to be stopped by Logan who gripped her arm soundly enough to garner her attention.
"Whoa, Max. What's going on?" Logan asked, trying to gain eye contact with the fuming X5.
"You want to know what's going on?! The good doctor over there prepared a nice prenatal vitamin cocktail for Jace and her baby. Seems the rat I administered it too didn't find it all that invigorating!"
"I did what I had to," Vertes responded, turning to Max as she continued. "I heard you talking the other day and I knew it was only a matter of time before you let your guard down and left me unattended with her," indicating Jace.
"So you just decided you'd kill an innocent baby to guarantee your continued survival," Max simmered.
When Vertes doesn't answer Max continued, "You must have forgotten you put some IQ points in our cocktail. That whole bait and switch plan is like operation basics 101. Figured you'd make one good batch and one bad, and I wouldn't think twice about it as I administered poison to my own sister!!"
"Sister?" Vertes challenged. "What about your friend here? He isn't going to be able to continue to walk without my existence – have you thought about that?"
A notable air of electricity hung over the room at Vertes words, and both Jace and Logan turned to look at Max, who's face had hardened at Vertes' proclamation - the game the doctor was playing suddenly became crystal clear.
"It's because of my friend here that you're alive in the first place." She spat back after a few moments. "But see you miscalculated, cause now I'm finding your continued existence kind of unnecessary."
Max once again moved to reach Vertes, but Logan again blocked her path, this time by standing in front of her and putting his hands up in a gesture of stop.
Their eyes meet, and Max rapidly searched his gaze, looking for his opinion. What she saw evidently disturbed her and she jerked away from him slightly before attempting to continue with her intent.
"Max, listen," Logan began, aware that he only had a few second to plead his case. His voice made her pause, and the price of her attention became clear when she forced him to meet her gaze, not letting him hide.
Momentarily, Logan found himself pausing, caught in her brown pools and suddenly reluctant to continue with the conversation. Nevertheless, he found his voice: "I know what the doctor did is disgusting…" he threw his voice slightly to make sure Vertes knew he was referencing her directly, before proceeding, "but…"
He raised his voice slightly to keep her attention, "BUT... Jace is leaving tonight, I've made arrangements, and Vertes only needs a few weeks before she can leave Seattle."
"So I'm just suppose to let her get away with attempted murder on my niece or nephew?!"
"Max…" Jace's voice entered the fray for the first time, pulling her sister's attention away from the conversation, and subtext going on between her and the man in front her. "What he says is right. Vertes will be more useful alive than dead."
It's the soldier's voice, the pragmatic voice that Jace spoke with. Although the woman had almost killed her and her baby, Jace knew that a soldier didn't make tactical decisions with the heart. Besides, the doctor had hit Max where it hurt, and no matter how much of an angry front she put up, it would only be a matter of time before Max would be forced to give into Vertes' demands. It was better for all involved if Jace could ease that transition and allow her sister to save face.
"I wasn't going to kill her," Max responded, before turning to Vertes as she threatened, "just rough her up some."
"Come on Max, let's call it even," Jace soothed, attempting to elicit an agreement.
"Hardly!" Max vehemently gritted out at Vertes, before giving Logan a furious look and storming out of the building. The look between them lasted only a second, but it's long enough to communicate the fire and betrayal behind her eyes. An image that would continue to haunt Logan for the rest of the night and into the subsequent days.
After Max's departure, silence settled over the run down doctor's office, before Jace shrugged her shoulders slightly at Logan, as if acknowledging that it wasn't a bad way for this confrontation to end, and then nodded by way of goodbye before following her sister out of the building, never once stopping to look at the woman who had attempted to betray her.
Logan's eyes watched them go before huffing loudly and rubbing the back of his neck in a gesture of frustration. It was only as he turned to Vertes that the look of his distaste on his face at her presence became visible.
Fogle Towers, later that night.
"Passport, papers, contact name, and this…" Logan stated, as he dumped the contents of Jace's necessary documentation and a few thousand bucks into a manila envelope. "That should do it."
Since Max had entered his apartment only moments ago the two of them have been all business. Logan fortified behind his desk, and Max standing with overt attitude by the door frame. Neither was truly making eye contact as the tension between them continued to thicken with unspoken words.
"I'll make sure she gets this," Max answered. It was a far cry from the thanks she usually gave him, but Max figured Logan owed Jace, and her variation on the usual theme was her way of communicating her own displeasure with him. It didn't go unnoticed, but it was only when she turned to leave that Logan finally raised his eyes to her and halted her progress with a word.
It came out raspy, part exasperation, part apology. But it did the trick and Max paused instead of leaving. Turning again to face him, Max met his eyes and waited for him to continue, she was done making concessions for the day.
"I know what Vertes did is unforgivable, Max."
"Really? Figure that out by yourself?" she lashed back, annoyed with his attempts to mitigate the situation.
In response, his voice became increasing intense, with notes of desperation coming to the surface.
He didn't acknowledge her sarcasm, but continued. "But Max… I need her."
The word 'need' made Max visibly flinch.
"So you can walk," she added, although she didn't understand why.
"I will only take a few weeks, eight to twelve at most." His eyes probed hers, holding her attention, and willing her to understand.
"Well you don't need my blessing. You've made it abundantly clear that your walking has nothing to do with me." Max's tone was harsh, as she twisted his words from yesterday and threw them back at him. Below the surface, it contained all the pain and hurt at his perceived rejection.
"Max!" Logan stated, this time clearly annoyed, "That's not what I meant…"
Breaking off, he rubbed the back of his neck in frustration for the second time that day. This wasn't how he'd envisioned the conversation going. He'd rehearsed how to approach her before she came over, but now none of it was coming out as intended. He needed to handle this differently, to make her understand.
When he finally pick up the strands of their discussion, Logan's voice had altered, no long angry, it was now earnest and low as he attempted to explain his feelings. Something neither of them was good at.
"Since the accident, my life has felt like it's been on hold, like I'm always waiting on something or someone. I want to stop waiting, Max, and move forward, and this is the only way I can do that. I'm so close to getting my life back; I can't lose it now."
From his myopic perspective, Logan had no idea of how those words sounded to Max.
All he could see were the endless training sessions with Bling, the hours spent waiting on informants to call, the tension of sending Max to do what he would willing have helped her with. His very nature rebelled against the inertia forced upon him.
Despite all his introspection, Logan Cale was a man of action; someone who did what he thought was right in spite of the dangers. He was someone who would have willingly followed Max into the cabin that day on nothing more than one powerful kiss; that is, if a bullet fragment hadn't lodged itself in his spine. Sonrisa's men did more than just sever Logan's spine; they had severed Logan from himself.
But that's not what Max heard in his answer. She heard how the past nine months have meant nothing to him; that their moments together were just passing time until he could get back to his real life, a life that she knew nothing about and has never been a part of. It is a new wound to add to mounting pains Logan had caused her within the last week, and like a hurt animal, she lashed back.
"I get it Logan. Vertes means life… your life. And if a transgenic baby has to be sacrificed along the way, then so be it."
It wasn't true, and it wasn't fair, but it hit home nonetheless.
"That's what we're built for, right? To be soldiers, or guinea pigs, or hired legs until you can get back your own."
"Max, you're blowing this way out of proportion. The doctor isn't Manticore anymore, hell even she's a victim of Mantcore's lies."
"Don't, Logan. Don't you dare. Don't you defend that woman to me; you have no idea what she is."
"And what do you want me to do about it?" Logan abruptly asked, wheeling from her accusations.
His response threw her. The Great Eyes Only, Max's humanitarian touchstone, had just asked her why he should care about a woman's attempt to kill one of her siblings. For the first time in a long time, Max began to draw a distinction between Logan and her family. It was her breaking point, and the passion behind her words was suddenly and chillingly replaced by a new deadly cold.
"You're right; it's not your problem. And now Vertes isn't mine – see you around Logan."
With a speed she rarely exercised, Max spun around, intent of fleeing, when Logan's voice called her back for one last go round.
"Max! Listen to me. I know you have every right to hate her and soon she'll be out of your life forever. But I need you to do me a favor, the most important favor I've ever asked you for."
Her eyes, when they turned to him, were like coal, dark and hard, and Logan was unable to tell what she's thinking. Momentarily, he paused. Deep down, he knew he was pushing her away and that somehow he's hurting her – and internally he swore he'd make it up to her - but first, he needed to walk. And so he continued.
"When Jace doesn't return, Manticore might send another assassin. I need you to keep Vertes alive; I'm going to help her move to a new facility, but I need your help to protect her."
Max paused a few heart beats before answering; the coldness was still there, but also a note of disbelief crept into her voice, "You'd ask that of me, after what she's done?"
Part of Max was throbbing with pain, though the surface remained impassive. Everything about this conversation went against the very essence of who she thought Logan was. And she couldn't help but draw a parallel between how Manticore had used them then and how Logan was using her now, selfishly and coldly, with little regard for their own feelings. Except back then, it hadn't felt like this, this ache in her heart as Logan implicitly chose Vertes over her.
In the back of her mind, Max heard Logan's words from yesterday taunting her with new insidious meaning: "Not everything about me is automatically your business."
She should have known better than to care.
Logan heard her, but not the import behind her words. He was desperate and depressed and all he could currently see was her unwillingness to put her unpleasant feelings aside for his recovery.
"Max it's only a few weeks. Weeks compared to a lifetime."
Despite the words, the tone is stern and didactic. Logan doesn't beg, pride has become his last refuge, and after baring himself only moments before he doesn't think to modify it.
Max's eyes were bright with pain, but her voice steady as she answered, "Fine, Logan, I'll keep her alive, but know that I consider us even after this."
A small tug at his heart was Logan's only warning, and it was not enough to stop him from plowing ahead. Neither of them realized how close he'd been to the edge the other night; how desperately he'd been banking on Vertes' cure.
"And what's that suppose to mean?" he urged, his own eyes unnaturally bright.
"It means I'm going to make damn sure you're on your feet because afterward I'm out. Zack was right; it's us against all of you, and I know which side I'm on."
Nothing else is said as Max stomped out of the apartment, leaving a stunned Logan in her wake.
Bus Stop (almost exactly like the show, except one addition.)
Max and Jace exchanged their goodbyes as the sisters they'd once been instead of the soldiers Manticore had manipulated them into being. In what passed as a deep sign of trust from an X5, Jace asked Max to get word to Victor and let Max know that the baby will be named after her.
Before Jace stepped on the bus she added, almost hesitantly: "Max, about what happened. Don't be too hard on him."
There was no hesitation on Max's part, she knew of whom they're speaking.
"Yeah, right." Max's usual sarcastic tone was in place.
"You know," Jace began thoughtfully, "back at Manticore, Victor would sometimes tell me that he felt like he wasn't good enough to be with me. That he felt weak and helpless in comparison."
"What'd he expect, it's not like we asked to be built this way."
"Max, all I'm saying is it must be a difficult thing – to give up walking, your mobility, based on what was done by someone else. You can't expect him to put everyone else's needs before his own."
Max smiled at her sister as if in agreement, but when Jace turned to board the bus Max stated in low, sarcastic voice: "Yeah…. Right…"
Space Needle, Max voiceover…
Except the thing is, that's what Logan's always done. He puts other people's needs ahead of his own; he sacrifices everything to do what's good and right… and somewhere along the way I just assumed he always would.
It's not just Vertes, it's that by continuing on it's almost like he's condoning everything they did to us back at Mantiore. I don't know, guess I never thought Logan Cale could turn out to be so human…
Whatever… in all the excitement I guess I forgot. It's eleven years ago today that we escaped. So Tinga, Zack, Jondy, Brin and everybody else… happy anniversary kids. And Donald Lydecker, where ever you are, you can kiss my transgenic ass.
A baby… named after me, that is awesome.
Fade to black…
A huge thanks to Lisa, who has provided both beta skills and insightful feedback. Not only did she have to endure my atrocious comma usage, but she also walked me through the really rough draft way back in September when past and present tense were merging to form an odd outline thing - and she still managed to read it again! What can I say? She's the best :-)