posted on 5-Dec-2001 1:02:56 PM
Hey everyone! This is a Christmas fic I wrote last year between MITC and A Roswell Christmas Carol. It was my take on how the holiday seasons should have gone. Needless to say, they didn't. I may or may not have time to do a S3 holiday fic, so I thought I'd start reposting this. It's actually a lot happier than anything I can think of for the current year's circumstances.

All of the couples show up in this, so just hang in there until I get to whomever you're looking for. *wink*

Enjoy!

*happy*
Em

************

Alienating Traditions
by EmilyluvsRoswell

Disclaimer: Don’t own the characters or the concepts; just borrowing them! If Jason Katims wants to pay me to do this, I’d be more than happy to oblige him, but meanwhile this is just for fun.
Category: The whole gang.
Summary: Christmas in Roswell, alien style.
Spoilers: For episodes up to, but not including, A Roswell Christmas Carol.
Rating: PG-13.

* * * * *

The banging sound was getting louder. Michael groaned and pulled the covers more securely over his head. This couldn’t possibly be happening, he thought. His first Saturday off in more months than he could remember, and someone was pounding on his front door.

"Michael!"

He pulled the covers back down and glanced at the clock. Nine o’clock. What on earth was Maria doing up this early on a Saturday morning? Resigned to the fact that she wasn’t going to go away until he actually opened the door, he dragged himself out of bed and stumbled across the apartment. Throwing open the door, he winced at the bright light flooding in from the hallway.

"This had better be good," he muttered testily.

"Don’t be such a grinch," Maria said as she sailed past him into the room.

"If being a grinch means you’ll let me go back to bed until noon, then I’ll damn well be a grinch," he grumbled. He closed the door a little too firmly and headed into the kitchen. "Stop," he ordered as she reached for the window shades. "It’s too early for sunshine," he informed her as he pulled a carton of orange juice from the fridge. He gulped thirstily, relieved when she left the shades where they were.

"Come on, Michael," she coaxed. "Go get dressed."

"Why?" he asked suspiciously. It had been months since she had shown up at his door unannounced. Yeah, they’d been hanging out again lately, but that didn’t mean he was obliged to follow her everywhere like when they had been a couple. Not that he’d followed her everywhere then, he thought. His eyes narrowed as he took in her appearance. She was wearing one of those fluffy hats she liked, and a festive red scarf. Her earrings looked like little bells. "Does this have something to do with Christmas?" he demanded.

"As a matter of fact, it does," she announced cheerily, seemingly oblivious to his foul humor. "We’re getting you a tree today."

"No, we’re not," he said shortly.

"Yes, we are. This place hasn’t an ounce of holiday spirit," she declared, looking around the room with a slight frown.

"There’s a reason for that," he muttered. He shoved the juice back into the refrigerator and slammed the door. "Go get your own tree."

Maria’s frown deepened slightly. "We’ve already got ours," she said. "Come on. It’ll be fun. Just a little one. It’ll make your apartment smell all nice and Christmasy."

"Maria, let me point something out to you. Christmas is a human holiday. I am not a human. Hence – no Christmas decorations in my apartment."

"That’s just plain ridiculous. Isabel’s just as alien as you are, and she loves Christmas," Maria reminded him. "Max too. Even Tess is getting into it. You’re gonna have to do better than that, pally." She reached out and grabbed him by the arm. "Now, are you going to go get dressed, or is this gonna get ugly?"

Michael rolled his eyes and headed into the other room. Some days it was just easier to submit.

* * *

"You’re worse than Isabel," he mumbled as Maria dragged him by the sleeve onto the Christmas tree lot.

"Am not," she said. "Izzy’s absolutely anal about this stuff. Max has told me all the stories," she informed him. "Come on. There are some little trees over there," she said and took off down one of the aisles.

Michael shook his head, but he trailed after her. The air was filled with the scent of evergreens and there was an uncharacteristic crispness to the air. Families were milling about, examining trees carefully, their expressions so serious you might think the fate of the world depended on their choices. Vaguely amused, Michael watched as Maria struggled to stand up a fat tree that was approximately her own height. A determined look on her face, she set her feet and tugged, nearly toppling over in her attempt to prop up the tree. Smirking, he reached out and held her shoulders to steady her.

"Why is this so important to you?" he asked suddenly.

Maria looked at him, startled. "You need a good tree," she said. "This one’s too wide," she added, releasing the branches and allowing the tree to flop back in place next to the others. Pulling away from him, she moved further down the row and began inspecting a slightly smaller looking pine.

"No. Why do you care if I have a Christmas tree at all?" he asked.

She stopped what she was doing and glanced up. Michael was surprised to see a measure of shyness in her expression. "It’s your first Christmas on your own," she said softly.

"So? Christmas has never been a big deal to me," he told her.

"I know that," she said, and her melancholy tone spoke volumes regarding her feelings on that subject. "What did you do for Christmas last year?" she asked.

Michael was silent, remembering his last holiday with Hank. It had been the same as every other Christmas – a day spent hiding out in his room to avoid Hank’s drunken temper, relieved only by a few hours at the Evans house with Max and Isabel, who refused to leave him alone for the entire day. Each year they tried to convince him to stay for dinner, and each year he refused, conscious that it would invite too many questions from their parents.

"That’s what I figured," Maria said quietly when he failed to reply. "So…what do you think of this one?"

"What?" he asked, pulled abruptly from his thoughts.

"Do you think this one will fit in that corner past your couch?" she asked, indicating the tree before her.

It was a few inches shorter than Maria, its branches full and even. Michael stared at it for a moment, trying to picture it standing in his apartment. "I guess," he said. He shot a look at Maria, who was watching him closely, her green eyes dancing. "Yeah," he said. "It’ll fit."

Maria beamed. "Okay. Stay here and I’ll go get the guy. Don’t let anyone steal it from you, all right?" she ordered.

Michael shook his head as she bounced off, her blond curls flying out from under her silly hat like rays of sunshine. He wished everything could be so easy.

******

TBC


[ edited 6 time(s), last at 10-Dec-2001 10:28:19 AM ]
posted on 5-Dec-2001 7:02:24 PM
I'm trying desperately to jump start my holiday spirit, so here's the next bit... *wink*

*happy*
Em

******

Part 2

*******

Tess stood in the middle of the Valentis' kitchen and tried to determine just where she had gone wrong. The counters were covered with large bowls filled with various ingredients; flour, brown sugar, white sugar, chopped nuts, chocolate chips. Tiny bowls held an assortment of spices from cinnamon to ginger. She had a crate of eggs and pounds of butter and tons of colored sprinkles and sugars suitable for the most intricate of Christmas cookies. In other words, she had absolutely no idea what she was doing.

When Isabel has asked if she'd mind being in charge of baking the cookies, it had seemed like such a good idea. A sweet-smelling, fun way to help out and at the same time catch some of this holiday spirit everyone was chattering about. Growing up, she had never really experienced Christmas. There had been school parties and the odd holiday movie on TV, but nothing more substantial than that. Nothing real, that she could come home to. "Christmas is for humans," Nasedo had said one year, putting an effective end to her pleas for a tree. "It has nothing to do with us." "Christmas is for families," is what her teacher had told the class just days later, and Tess had suspected that was closer to the truth. But it didn't really make much difference. She and Nasedo didn't qualify under either definition.

But Isabel had made Christmas sound so magical that some of her enthusiasm had rubbed off, reminding Tess of a time when she had longed to be a part of the sparkle and spectacle of the season. She had thought this year could be different. It wouldn't be the same as having a real family - not the way she had dreamed it might be all those years they were searching for the other three. But it would be better than all of the Christmases past, spent on the run, trying to blend in at yet another new school where the kids didn't know her name and didn't care. It would be a Christmas spent in a real home - even if it wasn't really hers. So she had agreed to bake the cookies.

When the door bell had sounded early that morning, Tess had been ready. Her hair was tied neatly off her face, her hands were scrubbed clean, and she was wearing an old apron she'd located in the pantry. What she hadn't been prepared for was the sight of Isabel loaded down with no fewer than five grocery bags of ingredients, looking like a demonic version of one of Santa's helpers. Her blond hair flowing in streams of ringlets from beneath a jaunty red elf hat, she had bustled into the kitchen and dropped her parcels onto the counter. She had been grinning from ear to ear, as if going to the market was her favorite pastime, and her eyes had been as bright as the glittering candy cane pinned to her sweater.

"Give me a hand with these," she'd said, starting to unload the bags. "I wish I could help you, but I've got way too much to do."

Tess had simply stared at her, as if she had sprouted a second head.

"What's wrong?" Isabel had questioned eventually, when it became obvious Tess wasn't helping.

"I thought you wanted me to bake a few cookies. You know. Like a couple of dozen."

Isabel had simply laughed. "A few dozen? Max and Michael can eat a few dozen cookies each," she'd declared. "You've seen them in action. Get real." Apparently oblivious to Tess's growing state of panic, she had pulled a folder out of her bag and shoved it into her hands. "Here are the recipes. Thanks so much for doing this," she'd bubbled as she turned and headed for the door. "Have fun!"

The more she thought about it, the more Tess was sure that she knew precisely where she had gone wrong. She never should have let Isabel through the door.

* * *

"I can do this," she muttered to herself. "How hard can it be, after all? I just need some mood music." Tess wandered into the living room and started to rummage through the CDs stacked next to the stereo. She knew better than to approach Kyle's music collection, which held a disproportionate amount of Shania Twain and Faith Hill, but she was hoping his father might have something that at least resembled a Christmas carol. She shuffled through the little plastic cases, then sighed heavily. It would appear that musical taste in the Valenti family was an inherited trait.

"What the hell?"

Tess groaned. When had Kyle come home? She had been positive he was gone for the day. She headed back into the kitchen somewhat reluctantly. Kyle was peering curiously into the bowls that littered the counter, shaking his head.

"What is this mess?" he asked, not bothering to look up. "It looks like a bakery exploded."

"I'm baking Christmas cookies," she replied defensively.

Kyle did glance up at that, one eyebrow raised incredulously. "Really," he drawled. "There seems to be precious little baking actually going on here." He shook his head again, his blue eyes amused. "Have you ever even been inside a kitchen? I mean, other than to grab a yogurt out of the fridge?"

"Look, Buddha boy, I am perfectly capable of making Christmas cookies," she declared, pushing her way past him and grabbing the folder of recipes Isabel had left. "I just… I haven't decided which kind to make first. That's all. I'm still getting organized."

"Oh. I see," he said, nodding agreeably. "And you were getting organized in the living room. Right."

Tess glared at him. "I was looking for some Christmas music. But apparently that's too much to ask for," she said.

A funny look crossed Kyle's face. He turned and headed out of the kitchen.

Tess watched him go, a fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she wondered what exactly she had said wrong. After a moment, she followed him into the living room. Walking through the door, she found Kyle crouched in front of the entertainment center, fiddling with an ancient turntable. He turned a couple of dials and pressed a button and suddenly the room was filled with the opening notes of The Nutcracker Suite. He rose slowly and stood there for a moment, eyes closed, simply allowing the music to wash over him. Then he turned and looked at Tess, a faint smile touching his lips.

"Is this what you had in mind?"

She shrugged. "I wasn't really sure what I had in mind, to tell you the truth," she admitted. "But that's pretty."

"It was my mom's," Kyle said, avoiding her gaze. "She loved Christmas. Everything about it. But especially music. I don't know why she didn't take her records with her when she left, but she didn't. They're all still here," he said, waving at the cabinet beneath the stereo.

"Maybe she wanted you to have them," Tess suggested cautiously.

"Yeah, maybe," he said. His lips twitched briefly before he continued. "Let me see those," he told her, reaching for the folder she still held clutched in one hand.

Tess frowned, but handed the recipes over. "Don't tell me you number baking among your many accomplishments," she said as they returned to the kitchen. She watched as he laid the folder open on the table and began flipping through the various pages. "You do, don't you?" she continued. "The Buddhist Baker," she quipped. "This gets better and better."

Kyle shot her a warning look. "Do you want help with these or don't you? Cuz there are plenty of things I could be doing, you know."

Taking one look at the daunting array of baking supplies that cluttered the kitchen, Tess quickly shut her mouth.

"That's what I figured," Kyle said with a smirk. He turned his attention back to the directions before him. "These aren't that difficult," he said after a minute. "You've got two basic batters here, and then you just add different ingredients to alter the cookie. Like chips or nuts or vanilla. Whatever." He glanced up. "So?"

"So, what?" she asked slowly.

"So, you want me to help with the cookies?" he clarified.

"You mean, make them together?"

"That was the idea," Kyle replied. "I don't see Evans showing up to give you a hand anytime soon," he muttered.

"I didn't say he was."

"Well then. I'm assuming you want these things to actually be edible." He reached into the bowl of flour and flicked some at her, laughing when it settled across her nose despite her attempt to duck out of the way.

"Watch it," she warned.

"Yeah, yeah, alien death-ray eyes. Whatever." His eyes twinkled. "Come on. You have absolutely no idea what you're doing here, do you?"

Tess felt the corners of her mouth tugging upward in an unconscious smile. "All right," she said finally, rolling her eyes. "You can help."

Kyle shot her a look.

"Thank you," Tess said, exaggerating the words. "I …um…. I appreciate it."

Kyle grinned. "Okay then." He shuffled through the recipes and laid one on top. "What do you say we start with these?"

******

TBC
posted on 6-Dec-2001 9:36:53 AM
Hi guys! So glad you're enjoying this. I had so much fun writing it and I'm in major need of some Christmas spirit this year, so hopefully it'll rub off on me. *big*

*happy*
Em

*********

Part 3

**********

"I thought you finished your shopping when we went last weekend," Isabel muttered, obviously annoyed. "Christmas is in two days, Max."

"Yeah, I’m aware of that Iz," he replied with a tired sigh. "I just need to pick up a few more things," he continued vaguely, unwilling to mention that her gift was among those he had yet to purchase. After all, he couldn’t very well have gotten something during their previous trip – not with her hovering over his shoulder the whole time. "Drop me at the mall and then you can pick me up on the way home later."

"No, no, it’s okay," she said. "You can take the Jeep. God knows how long it’s gonna take you. The stores must be crazy today. I can get a ride home from Michael’s."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I’m sure," she said. "Just help me with all of this stuff."

Max looked at the garbage bags filled with Christmas decorations and shook his head in wonder. "I still can’t believe Michael agreed to let you decorate his apartment," he said. "You realize you’ve probably got enough here for his entire building?" he teased as he hefted a bag over his shoulder.

"It’s not all Christmas stuff," she told him. "I’ve got cleaning supplies, too." Ignoring his questioning look, she flipped open her cell phone and punched in a number. "It’s me," she said. "You guys out of there?"

Max could hear the distinct sound of Maria’s voice crackling through the connection. "Mom, stop checking up on me."

"He’s with you?" Isabel asked.

"Course," came Maria’s annoyed reply. "We’re shopping, I told you. See ya later."

"You haven’t told Michael, have you?" he asked as his sister hung up. "He’s got no idea what’s going on. And Maria’s in on this?" He chuckled lightly. "I don’t think I wanna be there when Michael gets hold of the two of you."

"Relax, Max," Isabel said, grabbing two large bags and heading for the door. "I’ll be in and out before they get back and by then it’ll be too late. The halls will be decked," she said, her brown eyes twinkling merrily.

"You’re completely out of control," he told her as he followed her out to the Jeep.

* * *

It took Max half an hour of circling the parking lot before he finally found a space. As he slid the Jeep into the spot, he strongly suspected that Isabel had suggested he drive for just this reason. She knew exactly what kind of a zoo the mall would be two days before Christmas and that, by some weird quirk of fate or human stupidity, every last minute shopper would insist on driving themselves instead of carpooling.

He shook his head and hurried into the enclosed complex. Christmas music was blaring, but it was barely audible over the din of people bustling from shop to shop. Max went into the first department store and began to wander around. The sad truth was that he had quite a bit of shopping left to do. Not only had he not gotten his sister’s gift, but he had to find something for Tess. Something nice, but suitably brotherly so she wouldn’t get the wrong idea. He just wasn’t quite sure what that was. Something he would get for Isabel, though by no means the same thing he got for Isabel. He knew enough to realize that wouldn’t go over so well.

Worst of all, he had to find something for Liz. That was going to be more difficult than the other gifts combined. After all, what did you buy the girl you used to date but were now just friends with? Particularly when you had recently given back the gift said girl gave you last year? And most especially when, if you were to be perfectly honest with yourself, you were still in love with the girl in spite of everything? Max rubbed a hand wearily over his face. He had a headache just thinking about it.

His wandering feet soon landed him in the ladies’ sweaters department. Half a dozen men were milling about, their expressions set in various stages of panic. Every sales person seemed to have been commandeered by yet another husband/boyfriend who was looking for a last minute gift. Max managed to slip between one of these desperate males and a middle aged woman who was searching through a stack of once-carefully-folded-now-somewhat-sloppy sweaters on a display table. He rummaged through the assortment, holding up the occasional item, and finally settled on a pullover sweater made of some kind of soft blue material. He’d noticed that Tess wore a lot of blue, and the price was right. Plus, this particular sweater had the added advantage of boasting a much higher cut neckline than anything Tess seemed to own.

Max continued shopping over the next few hours, weaving in and out of the different shops haphazardly. He eventually bought some CDs for Isabel, including a new Christmas album that he suspected she would like. They had all agreed to chip in on Michael’s gift at Maria’s suggestion, but he still picked up a couple of books for his friend. It had been a Christmas tradition since Max first learned of Michael’s love of reading, and considering the stress and strain of the previous year, Max was reluctant to break it. But by three o’clock, he was tired and frustrated, and no closer to choosing a gift for Liz. He grabbed a pretzel from one of the stands in the food court and wandered over to the information booth where they had the map of all the stores, hoping inspiration would strike.

He heard her before he actually saw her. Not surprising, he thought, considering the throng of people. And the fact that he was permanently tuned into the sound of her voice. Max only had to search a moment before he spotted her. Standing against the opposite wall, trying to keep out of the flow of traffic, she was talking to a little girl with dark hair and eyes. A number of shopping bags were stacked precariously at their feet. The little girl held Liz’s hand tightly and was tugging at her, apparently with great impatience. Her rose bud mouth was set in a pout and her small feet in their patent leather shoes were firmly planted. Clearly, she was not happy with whatever Liz was saying to her.

As Max drew closer, the child shook her head vehemently. "No, Liz," she said. "I hafta see Santa today. Else he won’t know I’m in Ros’ell and he won’t bring my presents," she told her emphatically. "You promised," she pleaded, her big brown eyes starting to fill with tears.

"I know I promised, sweetie," Liz replied. "And we will go see Santa. I just need…"

"No," the child insisted. "You said next. It’s the last day ‘fore he goes home to pack his sleigh. Puh-leazzzzzeee," she begged, pulling harder on Liz’s hand.

"Maybe I can help?" Max suggested quietly, a smile tugging at his lips.

The little girl instantly dove behind Liz, hiding her head against the older girl’s hip. Liz looked up, startled. "Max," she said, clearly surprised. "What are you doing here?"

"Same thing as about two-thirds of the county, from the looks of it," he told her, holding up his bags. "Last minute shopping."

Liz blushed and looked down. "Right," she said. "Um, this is my little cousin, Rebecca," she said, reaching down to pry the child off of her leg. "Come on, Becca," she coaxed. "Say hi to Max. He’s a friend of mine."

Two dark eyes peered out at Max, assessing. Becca pulled away from Liz long enough to mumble hello before hiding again.

"Sorry," Liz said with an embarrassed shrug. "She’s shy. She and her parents are visiting from Florida for the holidays," she explained.

Max nodded. "The aunt you were with this summer?"

"Um… yeah." Liz looked down again. "I uh… said I’d watch Becca today, but I have so much to do still and with the thing tonight…" she trailed off. "So, here we are. I promised I’d take her to see Santa, but the line’s like a mile long and I’ve got to pick up a few more things. I feel terrible dragging her around all day. She’s only four."

Crouching down in front of Liz, Max reached out and tapped gently on Becca’s shoulder. "Hey there, Becca. Would it be okay if I took you to see Santa so Liz can finish up her shopping?"

"No, Max, you don’t have….." Liz began.

"I want to," he said, cutting her off with a look. "Really," he said softly. "That is, if it’s all right with Becca," he added, dropping his gaze once more.

Becca was looking at Max now, her arms still wrapped around Liz, but her eyes glowing in anticipation. "You really wanna go see Santa with me?" she asked tentatively.

Max nodded, his expression serious. "I would love to go see Santa. What do you think? Can Liz meet us there a little later?"

Becca grinned up at Liz. "Can I go with Max? Can I really?"

Max watched Liz smile down at the little girl, her eyes warm and loving, one hand stroking the child’s silky brown hair. For an instant he could see her ten years into the future with a child of her own, and he swallowed hard. "Come on, Liz," he said quietly. "We’ll be fine. Go shop."

"You don’t have anything else to do?" she asked him worriedly. "I wouldn’t want to…."

"I’ve got it covered," he lied. Turning to Becca, he held out his hand. "You ready to go?"

Pulling away from Liz, Becca slipped her hand into Max’s and jumped up and down. "I’m ready, I’m ready," she declared gleefully.

Max stood up, smiling when the little girl proceeded to swing his hand back and forth happily. "Meet us over at Santa’s village in about an hour," he told Liz.

She hesitated for a moment, her eyes darting back and forth between Max and Becca. "You’re sure?" she asked him again.

"Positive. What are friends for?" he asked gently.

Liz seemed to flinch slightly at his words, but then she was kneeling in front of Becca, straightening the little girl’s dress. "Have fun, sweetie," she told her. "And do what Max tells you, okay?’

"I will," Becca said. She leaned forward and planted a noisy kiss on Liz’s cheek. "I love you Liz."

"I love you too, baby," Liz told her. She smoothed her hair back one final time and gave her a quick kiss. "Go easy on Santa. He’s got a lot of work to do this weekend." She stood up and flashed Max a quick smile. "Thank you," she said.

Max nodded. "No problem. We’ll see you later."

********

TBC
posted on 7-Dec-2001 8:49:30 AM

Part 4

*********

Michael grunted as a young woman rolled her child's stroller over his foot.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, blue eyes apologetic. "It's just so crowded," she explained as she continued to push her way down the aisle.

"It would be less crowed if you left the baby and its SUV at home," he muttered under his breath.

"Michael, hush," Maria ordered. "Where's your Christmas spirit?"

"I don't have any," he grumbled. "As I believe we established this morning."

"Spoiled sport," she said with a teasing smile. "Let's look in this store next," she urged, tugging on his sleeve.

"I don't think so," he replied, planting his feet and refusing to budge. "There is no way I'm gonna go into …" He paused to peer up at the sign over the shop. "..Bath and Body Works," he declared. "The place smells all the way out here."

Maria let out an exasperated sigh. "Fine. Then where do you want to go next?"

"Home," he suggested hopefully, knowing he was fighting a losing battle.

"Are you trying to tell me that you've honestly finished all of your Christmas shopping?" she asked.

"Weeks ago," he said. "It's not like I've got a long list," he reminded her.

Her eyes narrowed. "Exactly how short a list are we talking?"

"Yes, I got you a Christmas present," he said, carefully enunciating every word. "It wasn't likely I'd forget, seeing as how you've been dropping hints and threats since Halloween," he muttered. "So, can we go now?"

"No, we can't. I'm not done yet."

Michael shook his head. "All right," he said. "Can we at least go get something to drink then? It's hot in here."

"Yeah, now that you mention it," she said.

Michael smirked. Maria's cheeks were flushed pink, yet she still had her hat perched on her head. Reaching out, he plucked it off and handed it to her. "It might help if you put this in your pocket," he told her.

She stuck out her tongue at him, eliciting a snort of amusement, but ended up shoving the hat into one of her shopping bags. "Cherry coke?" she asked.

"Lead on," he declared.

They proceeded to push their way through the crowds of people in an attempt to reach the food court. Michael realized too late that they had chosen the route that ran past the line to see Santa. Taking a firmer grip on Maria's hand, he wove through the mess, muttering under his breath about lousy merchants and crass commercialism. But just as he was thinking they might get clear of the crowd, Maria came to a stop and pulled hard on his arm to get his attention.

"Michael, wait," she said, her voice uncharacteristically low.

"What?" he asked impatiently. He turned to see what she wanted him to look at this time.

Maria was smiling, a soft, wistful smile that made her look almost angelic. Michael had a sudden urge to reach out and smooth her soft blonde hair where her hat had mussed it, but he restrained himself. Instead, he turned and tried to focus on whatever it was Maria was pointing toward.

That was when he spotted Max. He was standing in the middle of the line that wove through Santa's village, surrounded by fluffy, sparkly cotton that was supposed to be snow, and giant foam candy canes that lined the path. As Michael and Maria watched, Max shifted his bags to one hand, then bent over and lifted a little girl so she was perched on his opposite hip. The child was giggling, her dark eyes glowing with happiness. She leaned over and whispered something in Max's ear and, to Michael's surprise, Max threw back his head and laughed.

"What the hell?" Michael said. "That kid looks just like….." He looked questioningly at Maria. "Doesn't she look like Liz when she was little? I mean, I didn't know Liz 'til we were older, but still…."

Maria smiled. "Liz's aunt and uncle are visiting and I suspect that's her cousin, Becca."

Michael was staring at Max again. "So, where's Liz?"

"I dunno. Shopping, maybe."

"I don't get them," he muttered. "I mean, first she's staying away from him and he's following her like some love-sick puppy. Then suddenly he can't even look at her, something I never thought would happen. And now they're all buddy buddy again and he's babysitting for her. What's going on?"

"Um… long story," Maria said.

Michael turned and glared at her. "A long story you know, I take it? So? What's the deal?"

"I… really can't tell you," Maria said. "I promised."

"You promised Liz not to tell me?"

"Uh, well… actually I promised her not to tell Max."

Michael snorted. "Saved by semantics, DeLuca. You and I are gonna have a long talk," he told her.

But Maria was staring at Max and Becca again. She let out a long sigh.

"What?" Michael asked, glancing down at her again.

Maria shrugged. "Nothing. I just… That's what Christmas is all about, you know?"

"What? Kids?"

"Yeah, kids, but not just that. It's about… doing things for other people. Helping them out. You know. 'Tis better to give than to receive'. That stuff." She nodded toward Max. "In this case I'd say it's working both ways. When was the last time you heard Max laugh?"

"I see your point," he said ruefully. He turned to watch his friend. Max was bouncing the little girl up and down, clearly enjoying himself.

"You still thirsty?" Maria asked.

"Hmm? Oh, yeah," Michael agreed. "Let's go." He turned and started to push through the crowd again, but there was something about the image of Max and the little girl that stuck in his mind.

* * *

The line was moving quickly, despite the number of children and parents involved. Max bounced Becca on his hip, surprised at how much he liked to hear the resulting giggle. She was a charming little girl, and he found himself wondering if this was what Liz was like at four.

"So, what are you asking Santa for, Becca?" he asked, trying to focus himself on the present.

"Oooo…. Lots of things," she replied happily. "I was vewy good this year," she added solemnly.

Max smiled. "I'm sure you were. So, what sorts of things? A new doll?"

Becca grinned. "A Barbie," she declared. "And I want a house for her, too. And a jump rope. But Momma says I'm too little for rolling skates," she added with a slight frown.

"Well, I'm sure she just wants you to be safe," Max assured her. "Maybe next year you can get roller skates," he suggested.

"What are you gonna ask Santa for, Max?" the child asked, her big brown eyes wide and curious.

Max chuckled. "I'm a little big for Santa's lap, sweetie," he told her. "I sent him a letter a few weeks ago, though," he added when she began to look distressed on his behalf. "Don't you worry. Santa and I are all set. This trip is just for you."

Becca squirmed in his arms so she could see Santa. He was sitting in a beautiful throne-like chair at the end of the path, propped up high so that everyone could see him over the crowds. "Look, Max, we're a'most there," she squealed.

"Yes we are," he agreed. "Just two more kids and then it'll be your turn."

Becca wiggled around to face Max again, her face flushed with excitement. "I love you, Max," she said, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him on the cheek.

Max felt his heart squeeze. "Thank you, sweetie," he said, hugging her back. He dropped a kiss on her forehead. "I love you too." And heaven help all the guys when you grow up, he thought wryly. A definite heartbreaker in the making.

When they reached the head of the line, Max leaned down and set Becca on her feet. The little girl began to scamper up the ramp to Santa, then turned to wait for Max, holding out her hand to him. Max smiled and took Becca's hand in his, giving it a quick squeeze as they walked the rest of the way to Santa.

Santa Claus was wearing his traditional red velvet coat, trimmed elegantly with white fur. His beard was full and curly and his glasses sat perched on the tip of his nose. His blue eyes sparkled as Max and Becca approached.

"Ho ho ho! Hello there, young lady," he said, leaning forward to help Becca climb onto his lap. "How are you today, Becca?"

Max looked up sharply. Santa met his look and just winked. "Now, there, Max, I wouldn't worry," he told him. "After all, it's Christmas, you know." Turning back to the child, Santa chucked her briefly under the chin. "So, what would you like Santa to bring you this year, Becca?"

The child began happily listing all of the toys and games she wanted for Christmas, while Max looked on in amazement. He was trying to remember if he had been able to hear Santa talking to any of the children that went before them - if he had addressed any of them by name. How could this man have known who Becca was? Was he someone he knew? But Max had only just met Becca today, so how would anyone know both of them?

"Well, now, Becca," Santa said. "That's quite a list you have there, but I'll see what I can do, all right? You've been a good girl this year and you deserve a merry Christmas," he told her. "Be sure to get a candy cane from my elf on the way out, now," he continued as he helped her slide from his lap. He patted her on the head and she beamed up at him.

"Thank you, Santa. Merry Christmas," Becca sang out.

"You too, Becca," Santa replied.

The little girl turned and skipped toward the elf who was standing nearby with a basket of candy canes.

"Becca, wait for me there a minute, okay?" Max called out.

"Okay, Max," the little girl agreed.

Max turned to Santa. "Who are you?" he asked slowly.

Santa raised two white eyebrows, and his blue eyes sparkled at Max. "Why, Santa Claus, of course," he replied. Then his expression grew serious. "It's the time of year for faith, Max. Sometimes it's easier just to believe. Have a merry Christmas. You've more than earned it."

Max stood frozen in place until the father and son who had been behind him on line reached the top of the ramp. The father tapped Max lightly on the shoulder.

"You done, pal?" the man asked.

"Oh, sorry," Max replied. "Yeah." He turned and reached out a hand for Becca. "Come on, Becca. Let's go see if Liz is waiting."

The little girl grabbed his hand with her slightly-sticky one and skipped happily next to him. "Santa is so nice," she said as they made their way toward the exit. "I love his whiskers. They're so soft."

"Yeah, well, Santa's known for his soft beard," Max agreed, though his mind was only half on the conversation.

Suddenly, Becca pulled away and went running across the walkway. "Liz!" she called. "We saw Santa! I sat on his lap and the elf gave me a candy cane!"

Max looked up in time to see the little girl throw herself into Liz's waiting arms. He smiled. Maybe Santa's right, he thought. Sometimes it is easier just to believe.

********

TBC
posted on 8-Dec-2001 9:11:28 AM
Hey guys! Off to Christmas shop, but before I brave the crowds, I've got a little something for all of you. *wink* Enjoy!

*happy*
Em

*****

Part 5

******

Isabel stepped back to admire her handiwork. Michael's apartment was, without a doubt, the cleanest it had been since he had moved in. Perhaps even since the previous decade, she amended, recalling the thick layer of grime she had magically whisked off the bathroom floor. Everything shone. The windows, the counter tops, even the ancient bathroom faucets. It was a blank slate, free from the clutter of clothing tossed hastily to one side and week-old empty pizza boxes. Now the real work could begin.

Not that Isabel minded. Decorating for the holidays was something she looked forward to every year. There was something about the glitter and polish of the ornaments and the lovely pine smell of evergreen boughs that made her feel a little lighter, a little more joyful. Everything seemed cleaner, brighter - as if the world had undergone a housecleaning of its own. People were nicer, too. More conscious of each other. Whatever you believed in, it was a time to put your differences aside and be thankful for the good things in your life. Plus, after the craziness of the past year, Isabel was more than ready for a dose of optimism. And so, she suspected, was everyone else, whether or not they were aware of it.

She started with the windows, draping swags of evergreen and holly over the tops of the shades and using bright red velvet bows to attach them at the corners. Once she was satisfied with the effect, she tackled the tree. The lights went on first - ten strings of tiny multi-colored lights that twinkled brightly in the dwindling mid-afternoon light. Next came the Tabasco sauce. It had been Liz's idea. She had ordered a case of the mini bottles through the Crashdown and she and Maria had spent three consecutive nights tying little red bows around the necks of each bottle. All Isabel had to do was slide ornament hooks beneath the ribbons in order to hang them. Liz had said it was a way to personalize the tree for Michael and give it an alien theme, without resorting to the tacky green spacemen decorations available in Mrs. DeLuca's store. Chuckling softly, Isabel had to admit that Liz's idea had been a good one. The little glass bottles reflected the Christmas lights perfectly, giving the entire tree a rosy hue. And if it wasn't exactly a traditional look, well, Michael was hardly a traditionalist. Once the rest of the ornaments were added, it would look more Christmasy.

Checking her watch, Isabel realized that she needed to get a move on if she wanted to miss Michael and Maria. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed.

"Hello?"

Isabel smiled at Alex's harried tone. "Hey there," she said. "Whatcha doing?"

"At this particular moment? You really don't want to know," he muttered. "What's up?"

"Can you still pick me up from Michael's?"

"Uh… yeah. What time?"

"Fifteen minutes? I'm just about done."

"Better make it twenty," he told her. "I'm a little… tied up."

Isabel laughed. "Did you pick up Michael's present?"

"Yes and no. The box is too big for my mom's trunk, so Tess and Kyle are gonna swing by and pick it up."

"Really?" Isabel asked. "Who came up with that idea?"

Alex chuckled. "Tess, believe it or not. It'll fit in the back of that monster she drives, no problem."

"Okay. So I'll meet you out front?"

"I'll be there."

"Thanks. And Alex? Thank you for everything you've done. You know I couldn't have pulled it all together without your help."

"Yeah, well, call it a group effort," he replied, his tone light. "And just remember. You owe me."

"I know, I know." Isabel hung up the phone, a smile on her lips.

* * *

Michael stopped short and stared at the wreath hanging on his front door. There were pine cones on it, each one sprayed silver and coated liberally with glitter. A red-and-green plaid ribbon was wound around the sprigs of evergreen, finishing on top in a festive bow.

"What is that?" he asked, his voice held carefully in check. After the bomb Maria had dropped on him during the drive home, he was in no mood for surprises.

"It's a Christmas wreath," Maria answered calmly.

"I can see that," he ground out. "How did it get on my door?"

"I don't suppose you'd buy an early visit from St. Nick?" she asked.

Michael turned and glared at her.

"Fine, fine," she muttered. "Isabel did a little decorating while we were out."

"She what?"

Maria sighed. "Can you just open the door so we can go inside? My feet are killing me."

"I'm going to be pissed off, aren't I?"

"Undoubtedly," she said. "Door? Please?"

The first thing that he noticed was the smell. As soon as he opened the door, Michael was assaulted by the scent of fresh pine and clean air. He took a few hesitant steps into the apartment and his mouth fell open. Oblivious to Maria as she dropped onto the couch with a quiet moan, he walked slowly across the room, marveling at how polished and shiny everything seemed. He had to admit, the apartment looked like new. He didn't even mind the pine things hanging over the window - not if they were what was making everything smell so good - though he guessed that the Christmas tree had something to do with that as well. That's when he realized that the tree had decorations on it. Were those bottles of Tabasco? Incredulous, he went over and poked at one of the tiny bottles hanging from the tree. It spun slightly, the red liquid shifting inside of it.

"Why don't you plug in the lights?" Maria suggested softly.

He turned and found her watching him, her eyes twinkling merrily, a gentle smile curving her lips. Nodding, he crouched in front of the tree and searched briefly until he found the cord, then plugged the lights into the nearby socket. Hundreds of tiny colored lights sprang to life, making every branch glow. Michael took a step back and stared at the tree.

"What do you think?"

"Shouldn't it have something on it besides lights and bottles of Tabasco?" he asked cautiously.

"Of course." Maria leaned over and rummaged in her bag. "Here you go," she said, coming over to stand next to him. "Your very first ornament. Merry Christmas, Spaceboy."

Michael took the little box she held out, but his eyes were riveted to her face.

Maria blushed slightly. "What?" she asked.

He held her gaze, for once not shying away. "Your eyes," he said softly. "They're reflecting the Christmas lights. It's like a million tiny rainbows."

"Oh," she whispered. After a long moment, she looked down and the rainbows were gone. "Aren't you going to open it?"

Michael glanced at the box in his hands. He slipped the lid off and reached into the nest of tissue paper, drawing out a small glass star. Holding it to the light, he realized that silver glitter had been mixed into the glass so that the star sparkled and shone as it moved.

"It's perfect," he said quietly, almost to himself.

Maria smiled. "Here," she said, handing him an ornament hook.

Michael slipped the hook through the loop at the top of the star and turned to examine the tree. "Where should it go?"

"Wherever you want," Maria replied.

He studied the tree for a moment, then chose a strong branch about a third of the way from the top. The star spun and danced, sending a spray of colored light shooting in every direction.

"How's that?"

"Perfect," she whispered.

Michael stepped back from the tree and took Maria's hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. "So, I guess I need to go get more ornaments tomorrow, huh?"

"Well, actually…."

"What?"

"Um…"

Michael's eyes narrowed. "What else?"

"Everyone's going to be stopping by with ornaments for you."

Knowing better than to relax after a statement like that, Michael pulled Maria around to face him. "When?"

Maria gave him a guilty look. Michael groaned. "Maria?"

"Seven."

"Seven o'clock. Maria, it's after six now."

She shrugged. "We'd better get changed then," she told him.

"What do you mean, get changed?"

"You can't possibly host your first Christmas party wearing that ratty old sweater," she informed him with a grin.

"My first what?" he roared.

Maria jumped backward out of his reach and ended up toppling onto the couch in a fit of laughter.

Michael felt his anger drain away at the sight of Maria sprawled on the couch, clutching her sides. Her face was rosy and she was laughing so hard that tears were starting to stream down her cheeks. He shook his head and dropped down beside her, pulling her into the crook of his arm.

"It's hopeless," he announced.

"What is?" she managed, as she gasped for air.

"I've been tag-teamed," he declared. "Looks like the Christmas Nazi found a helper," he added with a grin.

Maria rolled over and began to laugh even harder.

"What? What did I say?"

"Oh, Michael," she sputtered, "you don't even know the half of it."

*******

TBC
posted on 9-Dec-2001 11:20:35 AM
Hey there, everyone! Glad you're getting into the holiday spirit. I was shopping all day yesterday and got very little done, but it was nice to be out and about with all the decorations and Christmas music. Anyway, the party is almost here. *wink* In the meantime, here's then next part... Thanks for your feedback, and Cleo, welcome to the thread. *big*

*happy*
Em

*********

Part 6

*********

"Come on, Whitman," Kyle said. "Put your back into it."

"It's not my back that's the issue, Kyle," Alex groaned as he shifted his grip on his end of the box.

"Just a little higher," Tess told them. "There, that's good. You've got it."

With a strong shove, Kyle and Alex managed to slide the box into the back of Tess's SUV. She slammed the door shut and smiled.

"Thanks, Tess," Alex said, panting slightly. "I'm not sure how we would have gotten this thing to Michael's without you."

Kyle shrugged. "There's always my dad's cruiser."

"This makes more sense," Tess told him. "Your dad isn't exactly going to the party," she reminded him. She opened the driver's side door and smiled at Alex. "We all set?"

"Listen, I'll see you two over there," Alex told them. "I still have to go pick up Isabel and Liz."

Kyle's eyebrows lifted. "Isabel and Liz?"

"Don't start, Valenti."

"I just thought… well, I guess I figured by now Max would…"

Alex shot him a warning look. "I really wouldn't go there if I were you."

"Right," Kyle said with a cautious nod, clearly startled by Alex's fierce expression. "Okay. See you at Guerin's then." Turning to get into the car next to Tess, he shook his head. "Never thought I'd here those words coming out of my mouth," he mumbled.

* * *

Max carefully arranged the packages in the shopping bag, making sure the heavier items like the books for Michael were resting on the bottom. When the bag was nearly filled, he eyed the final package resting on his dresser. He had bought it on impulse - or rather on instinct. Once he had turned Becca over to Liz, there had been very little time left to shop, but something that Santa Claus had said had sparked an idea. He had hurried across the mall, aware that the chances of finding what he wanted were slim, but hoping against hope nonetheless. And there it had been, almost as if were waiting for him. Max hadn't questioned his luck, just pulled out his wallet and asked if they had gift wrap.

Now he was having second thoughts. Was it too much? Too little? He was back to the question that had been driving him crazy all day. What did you get for your former girlfriend when you were still in love with her? Shaking his head, he added the little box to rest. Too late to worry about it now. All he could do was cross his fingers and hope she didn't hate it. Or him.

Feeling rather like St. Nick himself, Max grabbed the bag and his leather jacket and started down the hall. Hearing the faint strain of Christmas carols coming from Isabel's room, he paused and poked his head through the open door.

"You still here?"

Isabel was seated at her dressing table, fussing with her lipstick. She caught his eye in the mirror. "You look nice," she told him with a smile.

Max glanced down at the red sweater he had put on and shrugged. "It seemed appropriate. I figured, worse comes to worse, it'll hide the blood when Michael decides to kill us all."

"Christmas massacre in Roswell?" she asked. "I don't think so, Max. He'll have fun in spite of himself."

"That remains to be seen. So, you need a ride?"

Isabel shook her head. "Alex is coming by."

Max raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Been a while since he's been over," he noted.

Rolling her eyes, Isabel turned and glared at him. "You are in no position to be throwing stones."

"Right," Max said, backing out of the door. "Okay then. See you over there." He was halfway down the hall when he heard Isabel call out in apology. Although he waved back in acknowledgement, he continued on his way out to the Jeep.

* * *

"Just how are we supposed to get this thing inside?" Kyle asked.

Tess caught his appraising look and laughed. "You're joking, right? You don't honestly think I'm gonna help you carry it?"

Kyle snorted. "So much for equality of the sexes."

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing, nothing," he insisted quickly. "I just figured maybe you could whip out a couple of magic tricks or something."

"Sorry," she said. "Levitation isn't one of my gifts. Anyway, I'm barely gonna be able to get all of these cookies inside," she told him, indicating the Tupperware containers stacked in the back seat.

"Oh yeah, real hardship there," he muttered.

Tess looked doubtfully toward Michael's building. "I suppose we could ask Michael to come help."

"Great gift giving etiquette, Tess," Kyle said. "Merry Christmas, Guerin. By the way, if you want your present you've gotta come help carry it."

"Well, I don't know," she said defensively. "I've never done anything like this before."

"Terrific. This just gets better and better," Kyle said, shaking his head.

"What?" Tess turned. "Oh," she said. "I guess you and Max still aren't on speaking terms."

Kyle glanced down at her. "You know about that?"

She shrugged. "Just what Max told me. Don't worry about it. If he hasn't killed you yet, I doubt he will."

Kyle rolled his eyes. "Thanks. That's very comforting."

Max had parked a few spaces over and was now walking over, carrying a large shopping bag filled with presents. He eyed Tess and Kyle curiously. "You guys waiting for something out here? Are we all supposed to go inside at the same time or something?"

Tess pointed at her trunk. "Kyle needs help getting Michael's present inside."

Max shot Kyle a measured look. "How'd you get stuck with this?"

Kyle shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "Whitman couldn't get it in his car so Tess volunteered hers."

Max held out the bag he was carrying to Tess. "If you take these, I can help with the box."

Tess smiled toward Kyle. "Sure," she said, taking Max's bag.

"Thanks," Kyle said.

Max nodded. "After all, Michael's more my friend than yours."

They positioned themselves on either side of the car and gently shimmied the box forward until they were able to lift it. Tess quickly shut the trunk, then dashed ahead to get the front door.

"You're a hell of a lot better at this than Whitman," Kyle grunted as they carried the box smoothly up the front steps.

Max let out a quick chuckle. "I'm not surprised. Unless there's a computer in the box, Alex is less than motivated."

Kyle laughed.

Working in perfect unison, Max and Kyle maneuvered the box through the open doorway and around the bend, carrying it carefully down the hall. By the time Tess caught up, juggling Max's bag and several containers of cookies, they had set their load down in front of Michael's front door. Max was staring at the wreath with a funny expression on his face.

"What's wrong?" Tess asked.

Max shook his head. "I know Isabel said she was going to decorate Michael's place, but I never imagined any of it would actually last past Michael's getting home."

"Looks pretty good," Kyle said with a shrug.

Tess smiled. "So. Are we just going to stand here, or is someone going to ring the bell?"

********

TBC

[ edited 1 time(s), last at 9-Dec-2001 11:26:32 AM ]
posted on 10-Dec-2001 10:25:39 AM
Hey guys! Well, it's Monday and it's cold, so I think that calls for a little merriment. *wink* So, here's the final part of the story - the party in total. Enjoy!

*happy*
Em

*******

Part 7 - Conclusion

*******

Michael frowned as he stared at his door for the second time that day.

"You know, the traditional response to someone ringing the bell is to answer the door," Maria teased.

He turned a wary eye toward her. "Who would be ringing the doorbell?"

"Gee, I dunno. One of your guests, maybe?"

"Since when does anyone I know actually ring the bell?" he grumbled, but he went over and opened the door. He stopped abruptly at the sight of a large box in the hallway, wrapped in newspaper. Eyebrows raised, he met Max’s amused gaze. "Maxwell," he said, nodding slowly in greeting. "Tess. Kyle," he added, his voice indicating a certain amount of surprise.

"Merry Christmas, Michael," Tess said, her face lit up with a smile.

Max chuckled at his friend’s obvious discomfort. "Hey, Michael. Wanna back up so that Kyle and I can bring this inside?"

"Right," Michael agreed, automatically backing into the apartment. He watched in amazement as they hefted up the box and carried it through the doorway.

"Maria?" Max questioned, peering around one side of the box. "Where do you want this?"

Maria showed them where to put the box, then turned to take a stack of containers from Tess. "Oh my God," she exclaimed. "You baked enough for an army," she told her.

Tess rolled her eyes, then laughed. "Don’t blame me. I just did what I was told. Isabel came up with all the recipes."

Michael shook his head as Maria and Tess bustled into the kitchen and began setting out the cookies. Max had taken a bag from Tess and was putting presents under the tree. Kyle stood near the still-open door, jacket in hand, looking awkward. It suddenly occurred to Michael that he was probably supposed to be playing host, even if none of this had been his idea.

"Uh, can I take that for you?" he asked Kyle.

"Sure, thanks. Um …Merry Christmas, Guerin."

Michael smirked. "You too, Valenti." He followed Kyle’s gaze and nodded. "So, you brought Tess over, huh?"

"Actually, she drove. But only because we needed her car to get that damn box over here."

"Mmm. What’s in it, anyway?"

Kyle turned to Michael and chuckled. "Wouldn’t you like to know."

"What? You mean it’s some kinda secret?"

"Christmas presents usually are," Kyle pointed out. When Michael looked confused, Kyle laughed a little harder. "The box is for you, man. You’re gonna have to wait."

Michael nodded. "Okay. I… guess I’ll go put this away." He headed across the room, glancing over at Max. "Maxwell. Jacket."

"Um, thanks, but I’ll hold onto it for now," Max replied.

Michael frowned, but continued into the bedroom. As soon as he was out of sight, Max took the small box he had set to one side under the tree and slipped it into his pocket.

"Hello?" Isabel poked her head around the front door. "Can we come in?"

Michael came back into the room in time to see Isabel, Alex, and Liz arrive. "Hey guys," he said.

Isabel smiled sheepishly. "So, it’s safe?"

He snorted. "You’ll live to see New Year’s," he informed her. "Just don’t think this is gonna be an annual event, all right?"

"It looks really nice, Michael," Liz said softly.

"Yeah, it does," he agreed. "Uh, thanks for the Tabasco on the tree. Maria said it was your idea."

Liz smiled. "I’m glad you liked it. Actually, that reminds me…" She reached into the tote bag she had brought and pulled out a paper bag. "Candy canes," she told him. "For the tree. You know, sweet and spicy."

Michael smirked and glanced at Maria. "Yeah, right. Thanks."

Maria came out from behind the kitchen counter. "Uh, Liz, Isabel, let me take your coats, okay? Alex?" She grabbed their jackets and hurried out of the room.

Michael laughed.

"I’m just going to put this stuff under the tree," Liz told him, indicating the bag of gifts.

"Sure," Michael said. He watched as she headed slowly over to the tree, as if giving Max a chance to back away. But Max stood his ground, talking quietly to her as she slipped the wrapped packages in among the ones that were already there. Yet he seemed to be addressing her from a great distance, and they never made eye contact. Michael frowned. How had he not noticed the level of change between them? It was one thing when Liz was holding Max at a distance, but now they were both acting like a couple of skittish animals.

"Hey everyone. How about a toast?" Isabel asked. "We’ve got egg nog and sparkling cider. Come take your pick."

They all moved slowly toward the kitchen counter, where Isabel had set out a huge punch bowl that was obviously her mother’s and several bottles of cider. Tess and Kyle tried to go into the kitchen at the same time, and Maria squealed with delight.

"Hold it, you two! Not so fast," she told them, pointing upward.

Kyle and Tess both looked up to find a spring of mistletoe hanging above their heads. Kyle groaned and Tess blushed.

"Come on, guys," Isabel said. "It’s tradition."

Michael glanced at Max, only to find his eyes on Liz. When Michael turned, he found Liz watching Tess and Kyle. "Terrific," he muttered. "That helps." He turned back in time to see Kyle kiss Tess lightly on the mouth. By the time he pulled back, Tess was several shades rosier and her eyes were shining. Shooting a look at Maria, Michael discovered her eyes were dancing. When he raised his eyebrows, she merely grinned.

Once Kyle and Tess had each gotten their drinks and escaped the kitchen without further mishap, Michael went and stood beneath the mistletoe and stared up at the ceiling, eyes narrowed. "Isabel? How exactly did you get this up here?" he asked.

Isabel laughed. "You should know, Michael. Same way you did it in fifth grade."

"You knew?" he began, but was interrupted by Maria’s hysterical laughter. He turned in time to see Liz hide her head in her hands and Max look rather embarrassed. They had been the ones to benefit from Michael’s strategic placement of mistletoe on the ceiling of their fifth grade class – one of the few times in his youth that his powers had actually cooperated. "Uh…." Michael turned helplessly toward Alex, who merely shook his head.

"Didn’t somebody say something about a toast?" Kyle asked quickly.

Michael shot him a grateful look. "Right. Isabel? It was your idea."

Isabel smiled, but clearly decided to let him off the hook. "Okay. Gather around the tree everyone."

They all came closer, standing in a half circle. Maria stood at one end, followed by Michael, Liz, Alex, Isabel, Tess, Kyle, and Max. Michael frowned slightly at the arrangement, but looked expectantly toward Isabel.

"All right," she said. "I guess what I really want to say is that this has been a really hard year. For all of us. We’ve had our lives turned upside down more than once, we’ve been in danger almost constantly, and it seems like every time we turned around we faced a challenge even worse than the last." She paused a moment, obviously trying to contain her emotions. "I know you all think I’m crazy when it comes to Christmas, but this year – well, Christmas stands for everything that I feel about all of you. It’s a time for giving unselfishly, for being with the ones you love no matter what, for being thankful for all of the blessings in your life," she continued, her brown eyes starting to fill with tears. "I just wanted to say thank you. To all of you. For sticking with us through all of this, for being there for us and for each other, for really showing me that family has absolutely nothing to do with blood ties. And for proving to me that there are people who will put others before themselves, no matter what the cost. I want you to know that, no matter what happens, or where I am, I will always love all of you," she concluded, a tear starting to cascade down her cheek. "Merry Christmas, and may the new year bring us no more than we can handle," she added, lifting her chin and her glass in unison.

"Here, here," came the general rumble as everyone lifted their glasses. There was a series of clinking as everyone reached out to share the toast.

Michael slipped his arm around Maria’s shoulders and gave her a quick hug. He watched as Max and Tess both hugged Isabel, though Max merely took Tess’s hand and squeezed it. Alex swept Liz into a comforting bear hug, but Michael was aware of Liz’s eyes still pinned to Max.

"I think we should do presents," Maria announced.

"Yes," Isabel agreed, wiping her eyes. "That’s a good idea. Who wants to start?"

"Oh, please start with Michael," Max said. "That box is such an eye sore," he teased, smiling at his sister.

"I take no responsibility for how it looks," Isabel said, somewhat huffily. "I told Alex to wrap it."

"Wrap it? I can’t even lift it!" Alex declared.

"Looks fine to me," Kyle piped up.

"Figures," Isabel said.

"Guys? Does it really matter?" Tess asked. "Michael, why don’t you end this discussion by unwrapping it?"

Michael looked sheepishly toward the box. "That’s really for me?"

Maria grinned. "From all of us. Come on, Spaceboy. Get to it."

Michael went over and circled the box. It came up to his hip. Shaking his head, he began to unwrap it, ignoring Isabel’s outraged cry at the way he was tearing the paper. A slow grin spread across his face.

"You guys bought me a new TV?"

Everyone laughed. "Can’t have you missing all of hockey season, can we?" Max asked.

"This is great, guys, really." He balled up the paper and tossed it haphazardly toward the trash. Hearing Maria’s moan, he knew he had missed, but he didn’t care. "Thanks," he said, ducking his head slightly. "You shouldn’t have. This must have cost a bundle."

"Not split seven ways," Maria pointed out. She dropped a quick kiss on his temple. "Merry Christmas, Michael."

Turning into the kiss, Michael found Maria smiling at him, her green eyes reflecting the Christmas lights again. He returned her smile, and found himself wishing that Christmas came more often. Not because he wanted more gifts, though they were definitely nice, but because he thought he could get used to this feeling of being wrapped in family. For a moment he could believe what Isabel had said – that family had nothing to do with blood ties. He brushed his lips over Maria’s very slowly, not letting it become anything more than a friendly kiss. But when he pulled back, he could tell she saw the promise of more in his eyes.

Shooting a glance toward Max, he found him watching Liz again. And that’s when he knew what he had to do. It would be his real Christmas present to Max – and to Liz as well. He suspected it was better than anything he could get in a store. After all, wasn’t that what Christmas was all about? Hadn’t Maria been telling him that all day – and Isabel too – that Christmas was about doing things for others? By his reckoning, he owned both Max and Liz more than he could easily repay.

"Hey, Maxwell," he called out. "Come with me a sec. I’ve got a Christmas present for you." He stood up and waved his friend toward the door. Max looked puzzled, but followed Michael out into the hall. Michael caught Maria’s eye as he closed the door behind them, and was glad to see her nod in approval.

"Okay, Michael, what’s going on?" Max asked. "Why are we out here?"

Michael took a deep breath. "This is gonna sound bizarre. Just bear with me. Liz didn’t sleep with Kyle."

Max’s eyebrows shot up. "What? How do you know anything about this, Michael?"

"Hang on, I’m getting to that."

"Look, I know she didn’t sleep with him," Max said tersely. "I mean… I never really believed she did. I just don’t know why she’s lying to me about it."

"Maxwell," Michael said. "Do you want me to tell you or not?"

Max frowned, but nodded.

Michael proceeded to repeat the story Maria had told him earlier that day, including everything he knew about Future Max’s visit and the potential end of the world. As he spoke, he watched Max lean more and more heavily against the wall until he suspected it was the only thing holding him up. "You okay?" he asked when he was finally done.

Max nodded slowly. "I knew something was wrong. That she’d never do anything so…"

"Cruel? Look, Max, think about this from her point of view. She’s carrying this whole thing on her own two shoulders. She didn’t even tell Maria until a couple of weeks ago."

"And Maria told you?"

Michael nodded. "This afternoon."

Max looked at his friend curiously. "Why did you tell me, Michael? I mean, I know the idea of Liz and me has never exactly thrilled you."

"I got past that a long time ago." Michael shrugged. "Call it the Christmas spirit," he said. "I got to thinking about all of the things Liz has done to save our necks over the last year. It just doesn’t seem right that she should hold herself responsible for the whole world, too."

"Thank you," Max said, patting him firmly on the shoulder.

"Merry Christmas," Michael said. "Now, maybe you wanna spread a little good cheer?"

Max smiled. "Let’s go inside."

Upon entering the apartment, they were greeted by the sound of Christmas carols on the stereo. Tess, Kyle, Alex, and Isabel were hanging candy canes and additional ornaments on the tree, while Maria and Liz sat on the stools by the kitchen counter, heads bent in discussion. Michael headed straight for Maria.

"Mind if I borrow her?" he asked Liz, tugging Maria off her stool. Without waiting for an answer, he swung her around under the mistletoe and kissed her noisily to everyone’s great amusement.

Max smiled at his friend, then turned to Liz. "Can we take a walk?"

Liz looked startled. "Uh… sure. Okay. Let me get my coat."

"You won’t need it," he assured her. "Come on." He held out his hand tentatively.

Liz stared at Max’s hand, then slipped hers into it, smiling slightly. She slid off the stool and followed him out into the hall.

"Max, what’s going on?" she asked as the door swung closed behind them.

Max pulled her several feet down the hall, then stopped short and turned toward her. "I wanted to give you your Christmas present," he told her.

"Oh, but Max, I left your gift under the tree. Let me just…" She started to pull away to go get his present, but was stopped by his grip on her hand. "Max?"

"Don’t worry about it right now, okay?" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a smallish wrapped box. "Here."

Liz looked confused, but nodded. "All right. Thank you," she said, accepting the package. Her graceful fingers slipped neatly beneath the edges of the wrap, carefully unwrapping the box without tearing the paper. She let out a little gasp as the tiny wooden box came into view. The top was intricately carved and there was a winding mechanism on the bottom. She looked up at Max, her eyes glowing. "A music box."

Max nodded. "Wind it up."

Liz turned over the box and wound the tiny knob several times, then flipped it right side up and opened the lid. It took a moment before it began to play, but then the notes began to tinkle sweetly. She listened for a few moments before the smile died on her face and she hurriedly shut the lid. Her eyes took on a glassy look and tears began streaming down her face.

"Liz? What is it?" Max asked. "I thought you liked ‘I Shall Believe’?"

"I do, I do," she assured him. "It’s just….."

"Liz," he coaxed. He reached out and tipped her chin up so that she was forced to look at him. "Let me tell you why I got you this music box, all right?" When she nodded, he smiled. "I’m afraid I lied today at the mall. When I offered to take Becca, I wasn’t done with my shopping yet. I still needed to get you something and I was having no luck at all. But then that Santa Claus… he was the strangest man, Liz. He knew my name and Becca’s name and… well, that’s not important. But as we were leaving, he told me that sometimes it’s easier to just believe. That made me think of you – and the way you saved my life. Not just the other day in New York, but so many times Liz."

"Max, I….."

"Just let me finish. I remembered how much you always liked that song. And when I went to the little music box shop at the end of the mall, they had a box that played it. So I bought it. Because I’ll always believe in you, Liz. No matter what happens."

Liz pulled back, crying in earnest. "Stop, Max, please. I just can’t do this…" She turned and ran down the hall.

"Liz, wait," Max called. He took off after her, catching her at the end of the hall. "Liz, shh," he soothed, pulling her into his arms. "I know, Liz. I know everything. Don’t cry," he urged.

"What? What are you talking about?" she mumbled through her tears.

"Maria told Michael and he told me," Max said, pulling her more tightly against him. "Shh, it’s okay. Don’t be upset. We’re gonna work it all out," he soothed.

"But Max, I never told Maria about the song," Liz said, pulling back so she could look at him.

He frowned, brushing her tears off her cheeks. "What about the song?" He looked into her damp brown eyes and saw the confusion spinning there. "Never mind," he told her. Leaning down, he brushed a gentle kiss over her lips. "We’ll figure it all out later, okay? Let’s go back inside."

Liz nodded. She snaked an arm around Max’s waist and rested against him. "Remind me never to tell Maria another secret as long as I live," she mumbled halfheartedly.

Max chuckled. "She got you on a technicality. She claims you only told her not to tell me."

Liz snorted. "She wishes."

This time Max returned to find everyone curled up in couples, singing softly. Taking Liz’s hand, he pulled her down beside him near the tree, tugging her so she was leaning against his chest. Liz smiled shyly, but allowed him to cradle her against him. Max looked up to see Michael smile and Maria’s eyes twinkle. A glance at Tess and Kyle proved them completely oblivious to his actions – they were too wrapped up in each other. When Max finally turned toward his sister, her broad smile told him he, like Michael, was the victim of a well orchestrated plan. "Thank you," he mouthed.

"Merry Christmas," Isabel whispered softly from her place on the couch next to Alex.

Smiling, Max began to sing, adding his soft tenor to the mix of voices already filling the room.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Let your heart be light,
From now on our troubles
Will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on our troubles
Will be miles away.


* * *

"So, feel better?" Alex asked as he pulled into the Evanses’ driveway.

"Yeah," Isabel said. "It was good to see them happy for a change," she added wistfully. "I even think Tess had a good time."

"Not to mention Kyle," Alex quipped.

"That was so not my intention in doing all of this," she insisted. "Not that I’m complaining. Solves Max’s dilemma, at least to some extent." Isabel shifted in her seat toward Alex. "I meant what I said this afternoon. I really appreciated your help."

"I know. But you know my terms. No more on again, off again, Isabel. I can’t handle it. So, if you’re getting ready to tell me what a good friend I am for the fiftieth time, just save it."

"Alex, I….."

"I mean it, Isabel. It’s killing me. So….."

She cut him off by taking his face in her hands and kissing him soundly. He continued to struggle for all of half a second before sinking into the kiss. After a long moment they pulled apart and Alex looked at her suspiciously.

"What exactly was that?"

Isabel chuckled. "If you’re not sure, I can do it again."

"You know what I mean."

"You think I’m in the habit of kissing my friends that way? Even my good friends?" she teased.

He narrowed his eyes. "Normally I’d say no, but seeing…."

"Merry Christmas, Alex," she told him. "Now shut up and kiss me."

Alex’s eyebrows rose abruptly, but he did as he was told. "So," he mumbled between kisses. "Does this mean we’re on again?"

"No," she murmured back. "Just that we’re on." She kissed him again, snaking her hands around the back of his neck. Suddenly, she pulled away, a curious expression on her face. "Alex? Your neck is sticky."

"Oh," he said with a chuckle. "Sorry. That’s the spirit gum. You know, the stuff to hold on Santa’s beard. I was in such a hurry when I got off work today that I guess I missed some."

"I told you to let me just…." She waved a hand in front of his face. "It would have been so much more realistic."

"Thank you, but no. I’m fine with my glue on whiskers and the cotton stuffed in my mouth," he grinned. "Besides, it was good enough to fool Max," he added, a twinkle in his eye.

Isabel’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You’re trying to tell me that Max paid a visit to Santa?"

Alex burst out laughing. "It’s a long story," he told her.

"One which you will be explaining," she told him. "In great detail."

"All right," he agreed. "Later," he added, pulling her in for another kiss. "After all, even Santa deserves a merry Christmas."

END

*******



[ edited 1 time(s), last at 10-Dec-2001 10:27:20 AM ]