posted on 5-Oct-2001 2:08:34 AM by AndHerLittleChickenToo
ScentedFlame's The OTHER Jungle Book Challenge

Title: 'The Arrangement' - thanks, cj *happy* ('Kyle! You idiot' was a close second)
Rating: R (definitely)
Spoilers: I guess only through 'Destiny'
Category – AU, M/M, CC
Disclaimer – In case you're confused, None of this belongs to me.
Author’s Note – this is in response to ScentedFlame's challenge. I hope I've met the criteria, I've never responded to a challenge before but this was so intriguing I couldn't resist - if I've committed some board faux pas, please don't hate me, it was in ignorance. I'm setting this on a fictional Carribean island (Sodinay) instead of in India like the real Jungle Book. I tried to write in proper British nineteenth century lingo, but failed miserably (yes, I'm an unpolished American), so please suspend that disbelief when reading - think about Kevin Costner's horrible 2 scene attempt at an accent in Robin Hood, and maybe my writing won't seem so bad. Also, I am not a history buff, and I'm sure that this thing is full of holes historically - just humor me.


Quote:
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The OTHER Jungle Book Challenge
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In the 1800's, alien pods escaping from a dying world landed in the rainforest. Nacedo and Serena are left to raise Max, Isabel, and Tess in the forest. Michael's pod landed in the river, where he floated downstream and was by humans.

Years later, Max, Iz, and Tess go off to find their wayward brother, whom they can feel through a weird connection. They find themselves in the English colony where Michael was raised.

Michael thinks of himself as a freak. He doesn't know why he always had an urge to go off in the forest, and does his best to hide his powers. He has been raise like a son by Jeff Parker, a wealthy gold miner. Liz and Alex are Jeff's biological children. Maria was promised to Alex when they were only toddlers, but neither of them feel anything but friendship towards each other. They pretend to feel things for each other, fearing their fathers' reactions to their non-existant love. Even their siblings don't know of their true feelings, although Liz suspects.

Maria and Kyle Valenti are children of a British General. Kyle is Michael's best friend. Michael worships Maria from afar because he fears that letting his love be known will cause Kyle to reject him and Alex to hate him. He dreamwalks her regularly, which he has no control of. It makes him feel like he's invading her privacy, but is able to act out his feelings under Maria's advances in her sleep. Maria is in love with Michael. She thinks that he doesn't have any feelings for her, which is why she doesn't fight the charade with Alex, and welcomes the dreams.

The other three poddies must find Michael and try to intergrate into human society. Kyle, Maria, Alex, and Liz must all try to help them learn their culture as a favour to Michael. Must end with Michael and Maria together.

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Parts 1-3:


Part 1

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Michael Guerin put his feet on the dock and felt an instant release from the two months of tension the voyage had built up in his body, he’d been worried about Alex’s health and was relieved that they were finally home. Stretching his shoulders, he turned to see his brother making his way down the gangplank.

“Come on Alex, five more steps and it will all be over,” Michael felt a little guilty but couldn’t suppress a smile as he watched Alex moving gingerly toward him.

Alex didn’t do well on the high seas, his skin had maintained a green undertone throughout their journey. This was the second time Michael had been on a trans-Atlantic trek with his little brother, and he noted that Alex was no better a traveler at 22 than he had been at 19. During the last week Alex had begun to recover from the worst of the seasickness and Michael knew his brother would be back in good shape after a month or two at home.

“Michael, you know that I live for your amusement,” Alex’s voice dripped with sarcasm, “but do you think you could at least wipe the smirk off of your face long enough for us to get through the family greetings?”

Michael laughed and clapped Alex on the back, noticing that his brother’s formal coat didn’t fit as well as it had two months ago in London. Poor Alex must have lost at least twenty pounds, and in all honesty he hadn’t had any weight to spare to begin with. Well, at least his sense of humor hadn’t suffered.

They were just taking their first steps on the dock when Michael looked up suddenly. She was somewhere near them. He couldn’t make out any of the faces in the crowd, but there were definitely women – he could see brightly colored dresses. ‘And why shouldn’t she be here?’ he thought, ‘she is his fiancé after all. Be a man, don’t get caught up in this again.’ Her presence made the small hairs on the back of his neck stand up. It had something to do with his strange powers, he knew. Normal men weren’t turned upside down at the nearness of a pretty woman. No, this sort of thing only happened to Michael Guerin ‘the freak’.

“Ah, I see all of the friends and neighbors have turned out as well,” Alex said under his breath as he waved to the crowd of about thirty people gathered at the end of the dock. “As soon as they see me they’ll start betting on how much longer the ‘Poor Parker Lad’ has to live. Wonderful.”

“Alex, don’t be dramatic. They haven’t seen you for three years, they don’t really know what you normally look like,” Michael snickered, thankful for a distraction. “More than likely the betting will be on how much longer it will take you to grow some facial hair.”

Narrowing his eyes, Alex tried his best to give Michael a warning look, but failed miserably making Michael laugh all the harder.

“Well, at least I haven’t become foppish. Really, dear brother, what is this hairstyle supposed to be? Hair everywhere, half curled, mostly mussed. Is it supposed to be rakish? Do the ladies all swoon? And these,” Alex flicked Michael’s cravat, “lacy things. It looks like you took the fabric I bought for Liz and had it made into suits for yourself. Honestly, Michael, one sister is enough.”

Michael growled as they neared the end of the dock and shot Alex a look that promised there would be retribution later. Alex grinned and wagged his eyebrows playfully, obviously enjoying the fact that his brother couldn’t respond in front of the waiting crowd.

Michael was just stepping into his father’s arms when he saw her, she stepped out from behind some crates stacked next to the warehouse at the end of the dock. Their eyes locked, and he couldn’t turn away from her. God, she was more beautiful than ever. She stood there - her green eyes bright, a smile on her perfect little bee stung lips – and she took his breath away. ‘Don’t look at her, Guerin, or she’ll see it in your eyes. Look away, dammit, look away before it’s too late!’

He forced himself to look at his father with a smile; he wasn’t going to let Maria Valenti distract him – not today.

***

“Boys!” Jeff Parker yelled throwing his arms around them, pulling them both into a bear hug.

“Father,” Alex said.

“My boy, it’s been too long,” Mr. Parker placed his hands on Alex’s shoulders inspecting him, “Three years, and look at you, head and shoulders taller than your own father! Still find the sea passage difficult I see, but you’ll mend. Here Liz, what do you think of your brother? A boy left us and a man returned.”

Alex watched as his father was pushed aside by a petite brunette, and had to fight back tears when his little sister threw herself into his arms.

“Oh, I missed you, Alex,” Liz said as she gripped him tightly, “Michael said you had changed, but I would never have guessed. You look so grown up!”

“So do you Liz,” he whispered, “I missed you so much.”

Liz smiled up at him, and he realized how much he had missed her. She was his best friend in the world. His father loved him but was always pushing him to be the man he thought his son should be. And his brother loved him, but was always too busy being protective and ‘in charge’ to know the real Alex. It was Liz, his wonderful sister, with whom he shared every secret and every dream – she was the only person in his life that didn’t have expectations of him, she just loved him, no questions asked.

“Alex,” his father said, “don’t you want to greet General Valenti?”

Alex turned and saw the three members of the Valenti family standing behind him. General Valenti was an intimidating bulldog of a man with a hard, no-nonsense air. His son, Kyle, was very like his father, but the flip-side of the coin; rather than being no-nonsense, Kyle’s air was absolutely devil-may-care. Maria, the General’s daughter, and apple of his eye was like an intelligent version of her brother, with the General’s blonde hair, and twinkling green eyes.

“It’s good to see you, General, I trust that you are well?”

“Quite well, thank you, Alexander. Glad to see you’ve had a safe journey home,” the General said politely.

“And, Miss Valenti,” Alex began trying to ignore the amused look Maria was giving him, “you are looking lovely as usual.”

“Thank you Mr. Parker, how kind,” Maria’s voice was saccharine, and Alex was glad her father hadn’t caught her false tone. He knew she hated these little politeness charades as much as he did. Bending over her hand to kiss it, he gave her a conspiratorial wink, and saw her bite back a giggle.

Alex noticed Michael and Kyle greeting each other in the corner of his eye, no doubt congratulating themselves on some new business deal or other. He knew that neither of their fathers were especially thrilled at the partnership the two had formed seven years before. General Valenti had intended for his son to join the military and follow in his footsteps, but Kyle had relished throwing his father’s wishes out the window when he and Michael had started their first sugar cane venture. It was obvious that their presence at the docks together was merely a coincidence, Kyle had left his father’s house at 17, and while the General had not disowned him, they rarely spoke – Maria was the only thing they had in common.

Jeff Parker raised his hands and caught the attention of the group of people gathered to greet his sons, “Won’t you all join us for a reception at the house? My children and I would love to have your company,” he said warmly before walking with Liz on his arm toward the Parker family carriage. Alex caught Michael’s eye and they couldn’t help smiling at each other, they knew their father hated entertaining.

***

Michael broke off his conversation with Kyle after his father’s announcement, “Listen, I’ll meet you at the plantation tomorrow. It’s been six months, I’d really like to spend some time with my family.”

“Whatever you say,” Kyle grinned, “all I needed to hear was that the ships were back from India to put a smile on my face. That clinches it, we’ll be the richest men in the West Indies within the year.”

Michael rolled his eyes and left his old friend to join his family in their carriage. At least some things never change. Most of the people on the island thought Kyle was a little witless, but he was actually an astute businessman. As much as Kyle thought he’d rebelled against his father, Michael knew better than anyone that Kyle had simply opted to become a soldier in a different field than the General.

He turned for one last look at the ship he’d recently vacated, it was one of his newest acquisitions for their shipping company, and he’d been pleased with it. He would have to remember to tell Kyle that they should order another from the shipbuilder who had made it. As his eyes swept from the ship back toward the street, he caught her staring at him. It took him off guard, but she casually looked away and he wondered if she’d really been looking at him at all. Had she felt something from him earlier? Did she suspect the effect that she had on him?

He whirled and headed for the carriage, hoping he hadn’t let her see the truth. As he was climbing in next to Alex he noticed someone else staring at him. There was a young man with dark hair and eyes standing across the street looking intently at him. Michael had the feeling that he should know the man, but couldn’t quite place his face. He met so many people in his travels he thought it was better to err on the side of caution in case the man was a business acquaintance, so he nodded at the man in a silent greeting. The man returned the greeting and continued to watch him as the carriage pulled away.

‘Strange, he seems so familiar,’ Michael thought, ‘I wonder why I can’t remember where I know him from.’

“Well it was certainly nice for so many people to come greet you boys,” Mr. Parker said.

Michael nodded in ascent, but scoffed inwardly. He knew that besides his father and sister the only person who had come to see him was Kyle. Sodinay society had no use for him. He was the adopted son of an important man, so he was tolerated. In the minds of these people he was just a foundling with no family and no name of his own. They had made it clear in his younger years that he would always be a second-class citizen because of his unknown parentage. If it weren’t for Kyle, Michael wouldn’t have had any friends at all when he was growing up. General Valenti had come up through the military ranks the hard way, and didn’t hold anyone’s background against them. Michael secretly wondered if even the good General wouldn’t regret his liberal actions if he knew the thoughts Michael harbored toward his beloved daughter.

That was why he loved the shipping business. He relished any reason to travel. In London he was the rough and exotic West Indian businessman with the air of a rogue, but with the polish of a fine education – he was too exciting for anyone to care about his parentage. In America…Boston and New York, his money made him powerful – most Americans preferred good bloodlines, but when enough money was involved such conventions were ignored. Things were very different on this tiny Island in the Caribbean Sea, no matter how great a man he was in the rest of the world, the minute Michael Guerin stepped foot on the shores of Sodinay he was nothing.

***

“I found him,” Max said quietly after the maid left the drawing room.

“Did you speak to him?” Tess asked.

“No, I just saw him from a distance. He just arrived today. I saw him hugging Jefferson Parker, the man with the gold mine in the island’s interior, he must be the adopted son. Nothing I heard gave any indication that he was a possibility, but it must be him. He noticed me and nodded at me – maybe he could tell.”

Max sat down next to his sister Isabel on the sofa, and took her hand in his own. He knew that deep down she was frightened of what this would mean. During their last three weeks of gathering information on every orphan in town it had seemed like their search was hopeless, and he knew his sister was more than a little relieved by that.

“We should approach him,” Tess said eagerly.

“Of course, Tess, we know that,” Isabel said with disgust.

“Alright,” Max said trying to keep the peace, “we’re all a little excited, let’s not argue. I’m going to speak to him as soon as I can, but I don’t want to rush it and frighten him.”

“I can’t imagine why anyone would be frightened of their destiny,” Tess replied to Max, but made it obvious the meaning of her words was intended for Isabel.

“I’m going out,” Isabel stood and headed for the hallway, giving Tess a withering look as she passed her.

“Is, it isn’t proper for you to go out unescorted. We have to keep up appearances, remember what Nacedo said,” Max hated it when Tess and Isabel fought, he was always caught in the middle.

“Well then, dear brother, please escort me,” Isabel called from the hallway as she opened the front door.

“Tess, don’t antagonize her, she’s allowed to feel scared about this,” Max said as he got up to follow his sister. “Please try to be more understanding with her.”

“Of course, Max,” Tess smiled sweetly and called after him, “Try to be back in time for dinner!”

***

Alex sighed and plopped down in a chair in the entryway as soon as the door closed after their last guest.

“Well, thank God that’s over,” he said, and his father laughed.

“I couldn’t agree more, son, I’m afraid most of the people of our acquaintance bore me to tears.”

“Too true,” Alex said, “I’d like to go see Mr. Trainor, and see if he has any new reading material. I’ve already ready everything I brought with me on the ship. Would you mind if I went out before the evening meal?”

“Not at all,” Jeff said as he turned down the hall toward his study, “you should see if Liz would like to go. She’s nearly as interested in the sciences as you are, you know. All I ever hear is some new method to improve crop yield, or the merits of vegetables in one’s diet.”

Alex smiled, he was proud of his sister and her mind, they shared a love of scientific research in nearly every area. “I’ll ask her to join me. Where did Michael disappear to? I haven’t seen him since we walked in the house.”

Jeff shook his head, “Your brother has never been one for social occasions.”

“Actually, Father, in London he is very much one for social occasions. He attends every ball and every party, receives dinner invitations every night. I know we’d heard that he was a bit of a playboy, but I really had no idea until I saw it for myself, he’s actually considered a ladies’ man. I was amazed, not to say that he isn’t the same person there that he is here, but he just doesn’t have the chip on his shoulder when he’s in public.”

“It’s hard to believe, Alex. I’ve heard that he is well regarded, but I just assumed it was only in matters of business. Life was always difficult for your brother, it’s good to hear that he has made a place for himself in that world. I suppose that would explain why he hasn’t been home for more than a month at a time since he and Kyle began their shipping ventures. It seems he’s found a life elsewhere,” Jeff said a little sadly. “I just hope it’s enough to make him happy,” he shook his head again and turned back down the hall toward his study.

“Is that true?”

Alex turned to see Liz come through the door of the parlor into the hallway.

“Yes, it’s true.”

“That’s amazing, my brother the ‘man-about-town’. I miss him so much when he’s away. I wish he could make a life for himself here,” she said wistfully, and then smiled at him, “At least you’re home to stay now.”

Alex cleared his throat, “Well, yes, I’m home to stay. Did I mention that I was also the toast of London society? Yes, I believe ‘dashing’ was the word most often used to describe me.”

Liz giggled and grabbed his hand pulling him out of the chair, “Come on, I do want to go to Mr. Trainor’s he was supposed to order a book for me on the migratory patterns of tropical birds.”

“My sister, the eavesdropping scientist,” Alex teased as he grabbed his hat and followed her out of the house.

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Part 2
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Maria stared out the carriage window while her mind wandered.

He was back again.

Her heart had nearly stopped when he’d locked eyes with her at the dock earlier. Had he really noticed her? For a moment it seemed like he had, but then he’d looked away. She’d prayed that this would be the day that he’d see the new Maria - not Kyle’s annoying little sister, but Maria, the woman. As usual though, he hadn’t even noticed her existence. The only way she ever got him to pay attention to her was if she pestered him, but she was getting too old for that.

“Dreaming about Alex, are you?” Kyle asked her.

“No,” she said quietly.

“Really? I thought he might catch your eye now that he’s all grown up. Too bad,” Kyle said thoughtfully.

“He doesn’t want me like that either, Kyle. We’re friends.”

“Well, maybe once you’re married…” Kyle sounded hopeful.

“Please, talk to Father again. I don’t want to do it, and I know Alex doesn’t either. This is 1819, shouldn’t I have some say in who I marry? It was so unfair for Mother to promise me to Alex. For heaven’s sake, she went directly against Grandfather’s wishes and married Father. If she were still alive, I could reason with her, but instead I’m left with Father who will honor her last wish if it kills him…or me! Please, Kyle, ask him again?” Maria pleaded.

“You know I’ve tried. As much for Alex’s sake as for yours,” he grinned wickedly, “we both know you’ll eat the poor boy alive.”

Maria threw her gloves at her brother, but smiled. It was true; Alex led an ordered, intellectual life. After a few months of living with her he would be pulling his hair out, she knew that she was a little too lively for her quiet friend.

“Well, maybe I just won’t go home. Maybe I’ll live with you at the plantation. I brought enough clothes for a few weeks, and you can buy me more. Please, Kyle?”

Kyle’s features became somber, “We’re lucky he lets you see me at all. Do you know how many promises I have to make about your safety and well being any time he lets you visit me? Maria, if I let you stay, I think he’d kill me,” there was no laughter in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, I know it’s impossible, I was just hoping…” her voice trailed off. The look on his face tore at her heart, “You’re still his son Kyle. In his own way he’s actually proud of you. When he writes to our Grandfather, he brags about you. I just wish one of you would swallow your pride and end this feuding.”

For a moment she thought he would open up to her, but then she saw him compose himself, pulling his features into a smirk.

She barely had time to duck before he threw her gloves back in her face, his signal that the discussion was over.

“So, are you going to be on your best behavior during your stay? Should I go over my house rules for you? Let’s see, ah…no slinging mud at my friends…no loosening the buckles on anyone’s saddle…no hair pulling…” he teased.

“Kyle, that’s not fair! It’s been so long since-“

He raised his eyebrows at her as though daring her to continue.

“Well, I know it’s been at least a year. I’m 18 now, I’m a lady,” she rolled her eyes, “and it’s not as if it was anyone important, it was only Michael…” her heart stopped.

Oh no. It was all Michael! Did Kyle know?

She looked at his face but just saw his usual ‘wicked older brother’ look. Thank God, he was too dense to make the connection. He probably would skin her alive if he had any idea how she felt about his friend.

“Well, Michael is coming tomorrow,” he said after he stopped laughing, “at least try to be nice. If it weren’t for him, your wardrobe wouldn’t be the envy of every girl on the island.”

“Kyle, you would have been a success without him. Michael Guerin isn’t anything special,” she hoped that her face wouldn’t reveal her as a liar.

Kyle’s face grew deadly serious, “No, he is one of the best men I’ve ever known, and I would not have been anything without him. At least show him some respect,” he said sternly, then whispered to himself, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”

Maria watched her brother quietly. Had she heard him correctly? What did he mean that he ‘wouldn’t be here’ if it weren’t for Michael? He obviously hadn’t intended for her to hear it, and she was a little afraid to ask. Kyle said strange things sometimes; this must just be one of those occasions. She pushed the questions out of her mind and resumed watching the fields through the carriage window. Right now, she needed to begin to formulate a strategy for the next day…how was she going to get Michael Guerin’s attention without doing anything childish? That was the question.

***

Michael crouched on the riverbank and scanned the woods behind him.

This was the spot.

This was the exact place Jeff Parker had found him 17 years before. He could still remember clawing his way out of the slimy casing of the pod and laying down near the edge of the water. Michael had felt so alone, he felt that there should have been others, but he didn’t know where they were. It was only by chance that Jeff Parker happened upon him, needing to water a tired horse. The feeling of safety and warmth as the man had wrapped him in his coat and held him until he stopped crying. Jeff had spoken to him, but he hadn’t been able to understand a word. It didn’t matter what Jeff was saying, Michael had simply needed to hear a soothing voice.

He could still remember the night when Jeff took him home. Five year old Alex had stared hard at him, not quite sure what to make of the strange boy who couldn’t speak. He could remember little Liz, who had been just two, pinching his nose and giggling at him, he had given her a smile – his first ever. Within a few hours they were all three playing together, and Alex had him speaking perfect English by the end of his first week. Jeff had named him after an old friend who had died at sea, Michael Guerin, the name gave him a sense of identity and sparked the idea that he might be happy with his new family.

Jeff had tried to find out who he was, but never had any success. Everyone had assumed that Michael had amnesia, explaining his inability to speak and the fact that he had no memories before the riverbank. Michael knew differently, he knew he wasn’t natural, he just didn’t want to tell Jeff. He was afraid his new family wouldn’t want him if they knew that he had been born out of a pod a fully developed boy, approximately seven years old. Secretly as a child he had suspected that he must be some sort of devil spawn, which would explain his powers to move and change and heal things. When he got older he began to think differently. His tutors taught him about the Greek myths when he was 13 and he’d imagined that he was really a child of the gods sent to live on earth, but still possessing supernatural powers. Now, as an adult, he was relatively certain that he was from an entirely different world, he just didn’t know where.

All of his life he’d returned to this spot when he was upset. Drawn here to search for the answers that he knew must exist somewhere, the answers that would make everything in his life make sense.

She was the reason he’d come here today.

They’d just arrived home from the docks and he’d stood in the drawing room looking out the window, watching as she moved toward the front door on her father’s arm. He couldn’t be confined in the house with her, not while Alex was here too.

For the thousandth time he cursed his rotten luck for not really being Jeff Parker’s son. If only Nancy Parker had been his real mother. Maybe she and Amy Valenti would have cooked up a scheme to marry Maria to him. Then his life would be complete no matter how much of a freak he had been. But, no, the deal had been done before he’d even entered the picture – he’d never known Amy or Nancy, they were dead and buried and their promises to each other regarding to their children were sealed as tightly as their tombs.

He’d fled the house before she was even inside. What kind of man coveted his brother’s fiancé? The whole voyage Michael had been afraid that Alex would mention her, that he wouldn’t be able to hide his reaction at the sound of her name. Thankfully he hadn’t. It sickened him that he would even consider interfering with his brother’s happiness, but he couldn’t stop wanting Maria. The dreams he would have of her running into his arms, touching him with those tiny hands, kissing him with her feather soft lips – he always woke in a cold sweat, cursing himself. Liz had hinted before he’d left for London six months ago that she didn’t think Alex really cared for Maria that way – his heart had leapt and then sank again, it didn’t really matter if Alex cared or not, the marriage was set in stone. He wondered if Liz could be right, could Alex be such a fool that he wouldn’t love Maria and worship the ground that she walked on? He doubted it.

Michael stood and walked away from the riverbank toward his horse. He turned the mount toward town and tried to keep his mind off of her. As usual, she was the only thing he could think about.

He needed to end his obsession with Maria Valenti. For years he’d tried, and failed. Too many years…

He could still remember how it had all started, she had been barely 13 and was visiting Kyle at the plantation. He’d found her in the swimming hole in the woods behind the house. The carefree way that she jumped and splashed in the water made his breath catch. In a few moments she went from being Kyle’s little sister to the only object of his desire. He’d been so upset by his feelings that he’d yelled at her, told her to get out of the water and put her clothes on. She’d stood in the water in her dripping underclothes, arms crossed haughtily and stuck her tongue out at him.

//”You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my brother!”

The wet clothes clinging to her budding figure were driving him crazy, but he couldn’t look away. He shouldn’t feel like this, she was Kyle’s little sister.

“Maria, the tomboy act isn’t cute anymore. Now get dressed and get back to the house.”

He had to get away from her, this was wrong, she was too young and her anger was just making him want her more. He turned to start toward the house.

“Oh, just leave me alone. You’re so mean, why don’t you ever smile? You’re evil. That’s why I hate you,” she’d said obstinately her hands on her hips.

He whirled around, and pointed a finger at her, taking out the anger that he felt toward himself on her.

“You are a spoiled brat, Maria Valenti, and I feel so sorry for my poor brother. Imagine being saddled with you for the rest of his life! I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”//

They’d never really said a kind word to each other since.

He’d thrown himself into the shipping business and avoided the plantation after that day, he and Maria had never gotten along and after the incident at the swimming hole, he knew she hated him. She was always doing something to him. For Maria and Kyle pranks had always been a way of life, and she had spent her teenage years pulling some of her best on Michael. The truth was he’d loved every minute of it. The fact that she never backed down, never gave up, it just made her seem more perfect. Her creativity always amazed him, his initial feelings had been physical but over time it grew to be so much more.

A little over a year ago when he’d returned from Boston she’d been a little different though. She was as malicious as ever in conversation, but the pranks had stopped. And she no longer went out of her way to insult him; she simply used the opportunities that presented themselves. He missed her old attitude, it had helped to remind him that she was young and immature. The new mature Maria Valenti was of an age to be looked at and desired. It made resisting the urge to touch her ten times harder. She’d started showing up at the Parker house more often. Since she had begun acting like an adult she and Liz had much more in common, their friendship had grown very close. He’d been unable to avoid her, and it was why he’d left the last time, to avoid temptation.

The night he’d left was when the dreams had started, dreams that seemed so real he woke thinking he had actually been with her. In his dreams, she was his. They’d played out a dramatic courtship in his dream world, but he’d finally won her. Every night in his dreams she ran to him across a waving field of grass and threw herself into his arms. Sometimes they talked about silly things like what they’d done that day, sometimes they fought and she would rant and throw dirt at him, sometimes he just held her and kissed her and looked into her eyes. The dreams were relatively tame, just the occasional passionate kiss, but it was little consolation to a man who nightly betrayed not only his brother, but also his best friend.

He was just riding into town when he noticed the dark haired man from the docks earlier. He felt the same strange feeling he had when he’d seen the man before. Without really thinking about it, he hopped off of his horse and stood on the side of the street staring after the stranger.

There was a statuesque looking blonde walking alongside him. They seemed to be having an intense conversation, the woman kept making large hand gestures and the man was either nodding or shaking his head constantly. Something about the pair had Michael completely intrigued, and he decided he had to follow them.

***

“…and it’s not that I’m not grateful to Nacedo and Serena for taking care of us, but to be honest I don’t think we’re ever going to make it home, as a matter of fact – if these dreams I’m having are true, there is no home to go back to. It just seems like it would make sense to try to integrate into this society, we can’t just live out our lives as hermits in the for-“ Isabel stopped mid-sentence, “Did you feel that?”

Max had stopped walking and was scanning the street, “It’s him,” he said softly.

“Really?” Isabel whispered, “He feels strange, not like the rest of us.”

“You just aren’t used to him yet, Is. Let’s keep walking, he might get suspicious if he catches me staring at him again.”

“Did you spot him? Where is he?”

“He’s behind us. Come on, let’s go into that bookshop over there, and stop looking so nervous. Try to act casual,” Max hissed as he grabbed her elbow and started to cross the street toward the shop.

They stepped inside and Isabel was greeted with the wonderful smell of the shop, it was a strange combination of leather, dust, and mold – and she loved it.

“Well, hello, Miss Evans,” Mr. Trainor said from behind a counter to her left.

“Hello, Mr. Trainor, um, have your received anymore of…ah…my preferred reading material?” Isabel stammered, dreading what Max was going to say.

“Yes as a matter of fact, fresh off the boat today, come on back and I’ll show you what I have,” Mr. Trainor said kindly, knowing that she didn’t want to admit out loud that she was an avid novel reader.

Isabel moved to follow him to the back of the store when Max grabbed her arm, “He knows you by name? Remember what Nacedo said about reading novels? It isn’t proper, and you also shouldn’t be coming here on your own.”

“Oh, Max, who cares, I’m sick of following Nacedo’s stupid rules, I think I might just start doing things my way,” Isabel jerked her arm away from him and practically tripped in her haste to follow Mr. Trainor.

Max heard the door opening behind him and turned to find Michael Guerin entering the store with the young man and woman he’d seen him with at the dock earlier.

“…I’m glad you’re here though, Michael, you can solve an argument for us. Is salt water more buoyant than fresh water?” the brunette was asking Guerin.

“Liz, I don’t know and I could not possibly care less. You know I’m not as smart as either of you, why do you even ask me this stuff?”

The brunette laughed at him and Max felt a tightening in his chest, the girl was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

***

Michael tried to keep his eyes on his sister hoping that the dark haired stranger hadn’t noticed that he was following him. He hadn’t intended to follow the man and woman into the shop, but when he’d seen Liz and Alex headed for the entrance he’d felt like it was an opportunity. Now he just felt uncomfortable. What on earth was he doing lurking around, following a man he thought looked a little familiar?

He decided to get a grip on the situation and looked the man dead in the eyes.

“I saw you on the docks today,” Michael began and extended his hand, “allow me to introduce myself, I’m Michael Guerin.” He gestured his hand toward his siblings, “this is my brother, Alexander Parker, and my sister, Miss Elizabeth Parker.”

Well, that was certainly was facing things head on. He waited with bated breath for the stranger to respond.

“Ah, yes, pleased to meet you, I’m Maxwell Evans,” the man replied and shook his hand, then turned to Alex and did the same.

“Mr. Evans, are you the one who is renting the Grant residence for the summer?” Liz asked.

“Oh, well, yes. We - uh, that is my sister and I – are renting it for the summer,” Evans fumbled.

Puzzled, Michael was wondering if the man was just socially inept or if he had some other reason to be so nervous. Something was going on, that much was certain. Evans was sizing him up, looking at his face as though he was searching for something. And there was a strange feeling, almost like a strange buzz in his mind. He was beginning to develop a sickening idea that this stranger might have something to do with his unnatural abilities.

Michael looked at Liz who was continuing to make polite conversation with Evans. She was being unusually outgoing, it must have something to do with the man’s obvious awkwardness, she was being kind to him. No, she was being extremely friendly, smiling. What was going on here? He looked back at Evans who had stopped perusing Michael to examine Liz, a shy smile on his face. Then he saw it, the obvious electricity between them. They couldn’t take their eyes off each other.

Where was Alex? Michael spotted him examining a bookshelf at the back of the room. What was he supposed to do? This Evans was definitely strange, maybe even frightening – he was not someone who should be looking at his sister like that.

“Liz,” Michael interrupted their conversation about the moon’s orbit around the earth, “Alex needs you, it looks important.”

Liz looked at him strangely, “Well, I was just in the middle-“

“Evans, I’ve got a horse outside I’m itching to sell. You’re interested in good horseflesh aren’t you?” Michael grabbed the man by the arm in a gesture that was outwardly friendly but he knew Evans would recognize as confrontational.

“Oh, ah, horses. Yes,” Evans murmured as Michael pulled him out the door of the shop.

Michael knew Liz would be confused, but he’d come up with an excuse for her later. He couldn’t let that episode continue, especially since he had a sneaking suspicion that Maxwell Evans was dangerous.

As soon as they were out the door, Michael led Evans toward the alley next to the shop, “Look, I’m not one for small talk. There is something strange about you, and you look at me like you know me. I have a strange feeling I should know you too, so explain why I have that impression,” Michael said urgently.

Evans looked a little surprised, but not astounded. Michael was glad he’d decided on the direct approach.

“I, uh, I don’t actually know you, but we’re the same. That’s the feeling you have when you see me, and that’s why I’ve been looking at you strangely.”

Michael did his best to remain outwardly passive as he processed Evans’ words.

“What do you mean ‘we’re the same’?”

Evans looked at him for a moment then turned to look down the alley. There was a small wooden crate a few feet from where the two men stood. Michael watched in silence as Evans held out his hand toward the crate. It shot three feet up in the air, spun three times, then floated back to the ground.

Michael grabbed Evans by his coat lapels and threw him against the wall of the bookshop, God he was grateful he’d gotten this creature away from Liz.

“Before I kill you, tell me who you are, and what you know about me,” he hissed.

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

Part 3
*************************


Isabel clutched the two books she was purchasing tightly as she made her way back into the main room of the bookshop. She looked anxiously around the room but didn’t see her brother. At the front was a dark haired young woman who was peering out the window as though she were looking for someone, and to her left was a man studying a shelf of books in the corner very intently. Apparently Max had been so disgusted with her he’d left. Oh well, that just gave her more browsing time. She moved slowly over to where the young man was standing hoping he would move aside so that she could examine the shelves of novels.

“Ahem,” Isabel cleared her throat.

The man turned slowly and looked at her. He was tall and painfully thin, with dark hair and eyes.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“Well, I was hoping to see if there were any new titles on this shelf,” she gestured to the row of books he was standing in front of.

“Oh,” he blushed, “you read nov- er, these books as well?”

She nodded at him, hoping he would accept her answer and move aside, she wasn’t really in a mood for conversation.

“I thought that proper young ladies didn’t read this sort of material.”

Isabel narrowed her eyes, “Are you saying I’m not a proper young lady?”

“No,” he said quietly.

“I suppose the same argument could be made about ‘proper’ young men, sir,” she said icily. Who was this human? Was he trying to judge her? She didn’t care about their ridiculous customs. The next person who even breathed the word ‘proper’ to her was going to be flung against a wall.

The man stared at her quietly, examining her features with a curious look on his face. Seconds ticked slowly past, he didn’t respond, he just stood there.

“Perhaps you should go sit down,” she said with false politeness, “it’s been my experience that people who look as sickly as you do need constant rest.”

He cocked his head to the side and continued to stare intently with a furrowed brow, he looked as though he was trying to solve a riddle.

Why wouldn’t he leave? She’d been giving him her best insults and he was absolutely unruffled. He simply stood there, studying her. It was unnerving. For the first time in her life Isabel Evans didn’t know what to say.

“I’m fine, thank you,” he said and turned back to the shelf in front of him.

Isabel was in shock. What had just happened? Didn’t he understand that she was insulting him? Why had he refused to do what she wanted? She shook her head and turned to walk toward the front of the store, it was obvious that the man wouldn’t move to let her see the books she was interested in, and that made her want to get as far away from him as possible. This was the strangest encounter with a human she had ever had. She felt incredibly uncomfortable…

Was she embarrassed?

She’d heard of the emotion but had never actually experienced it. Yes, she could feel heat on her cheeks and knew without looking that they were red. These were the classic symptoms of embarrassment as she had understood them: feelings of discomfort, an urge to flee, flushed skin.

Isabel didn’t like being embarrassed. She took what she thought would be enough money out of her handbag and placed it on the counter for Mr. Trainor, payment for the two books he’d given her, and practically ran out the door of the shop.

***

Michael Guerin was slumped on the ground, his back leaned against the alley wall of Trainor’s bookshop. He cradled his head gently in his hands as though he thought it was going to fall off.

“So, Evans-,” he began still staring at the ground.

“Please,” the dark haired man cut in, “I’ve just recently adopted the surname. Call me Max.”

“Alright,” Michael started again, “Max, you’re telling me that you,” he swallowed hard, “and I are from a different…planet.”

“Yes,” Max was nodding encouragingly, even though Michael couldn’t see him.

“And, we have these special ‘powers’ because…we aren’t…exactly…human?”

“I know it must be a difficult concept to grasp,” Max grimaced as Michael brought his head up to give him a ‘you-have-no-idea’ look, “but no matter how difficult it is…well, it’s the truth.”

Michael began to laugh softly.

This couldn’t possibly be true. He must be dreaming. Reaching for his calf he pinched himself, hard. It hurt. Must be real.

He started to laugh harder.

‘Being from another world. Strange powers. Stranded on earth.’ The thoughts swirled through his head.

The laughter was now hysterical.

‘Not completely human. Warrior in a former life. Pre-destined mate.’

The sounds he made were now shrieks.

He was on fire. He exhaled rage.

One by one the objects in the alley began hurling themselves against the wall of the bookshop.

Somewhere he heard a woman’s concerned voice, then Max’s deeper tone. There were hands on him, attempting to soothe.

Michael became vaguely aware of the commotion around him before he blacked out.

***

The bookshop door slammed shut and Alex put his hands on the bookcase in front of him trying to keep himself upright. What had just happened?

The woman had been beautiful, tall, statuesque. She looked like a goddess carved from perfectly smooth marble. Her manner had been almost regal, she was effortless grace in human form. In her presence he had been reduced to a slobbering, simpering fool. Oh God, that was the most humiliating…

‘No, don’t think about it! Don’t remember! Oh no…’

//“Ahem.”

He turns, sees her, can’t breathe.

Perfect blonde eyebrows arch expectantly.

“Can I help you?”

What was he, a shop clerk?

“Well, I was hoping to see if there were any new titles on this shelf.”

She’d caught him in front of the novels. What would she think? Wait, she wanted to see them…

“Oh, you read nov- er, these books as well?”

An angry red blush attacks his face.

‘Idiot! Stating the obvious, how witty. Come on fool, you’ve got something better than that, now try again...’

“I thought that proper young ladies didn’t read this sort of material.”

‘Not good. Retreat.’

Anger flashes in her eyes, but her face is untouched.

His legs won’t move.

“Are you saying I’m not a proper young lady?”

Legs still won’t move.

‘Oh God. Whatever you do, do not say another word.’

“No,” he said quietly.

‘Sh**. Well, at least that should end it. She’ll think I’m a half-wit, pity me, and leave. Listen, body, all I’m asking is that you remain standing until she goes.’

“I suppose the same argument could be made about ‘proper’ young men, sir.”

‘Uh oh, returned insult, she knows that I’m capable of intelligent thought. Respond…apologize…do something.’

Voice is no longer responding.

‘Well, if I don’t answer, she’ll have to leave. Just have to remain standing…’

Her eyes are locked on his, her jaw is clenched. Beautiful.

Why isn’t she walking away? She’ll just assume he’s very rude if he doesn’t speak, she’ll be disgusted and leave him alone.

Silence…

Why is she still standing there? Maybe she had moved and he didn’t know it. Are his eyes permanently imprinted with her image?

‘Alright, look closely, is she still there?’

“Perhaps you should go sit down, it’s been my experience that people who look as sickly as you do need constant rest.”

Eyes must be working. She’d definitely still there. Now neck refuses to hold head up.

Why wouldn’t she leave? How could she stand there so cool and collected when she was turning him inside out?

‘Say something, Alex. It’s not like this can get any worse.’

“I’m fine, thank you.”

‘I’m fine thank you?’

Neck is working again.

‘Turn away. Look away, dammit. Please, body, help me salvage any shreds of dignity I may have left…’

The head turns.

Her skirt rustles as she walks away.

‘Just have to stay standing until she leaves…’//

WHACK

Alex jumped as he was startled out of his reverie.

What was that? Had something fallen? A bookcase?

WHACK THUMP WHACK

“Alex?” Liz called from the front of the store.

WHACK

She looked as frightened as he felt, he ran over to her.

“What on earth is that, Alex?”

“I don’t know.”

THUD WHACK

“I think something is hitting the wall from the outside. I’m going to go see what it is, don’t move until I come back for you, it might not be safe,” Alex said authoritatively as he opened the door.

Liz shoved past him and ran toward the alley next to the shop.

‘Good to see that she obeys as well as ever,’ he thought wryly as he followed her.

***

“What did you do, Is?!?” Max pulled his sister’s hand away from Michael’s face.

“N-Nothing. I just made the connection and he blacked out,” Isabel pulled her hand away from her brother, “it’s probably a good thing, we’re lucky no one saw that. Is he insane? Has living in this society damaged his mind?”

“No, he was just in shock. Imagine yourself in his position. This race has no concept of – well, of what we are. I-oh, Is, w-what are we going to do? We can’t just leave him like this,” Max was kneading his temple with his fingertips.

Isabel knelt again and cupped Michael’s face in her hands. Maybe if she could dreamwalk him and calm him down…

“What are you doing?” a female voice screeched, “What did you do to my brother.”

Isabel barely caught herself as she was pushed aside by a small brunette.

“Michael?!?” the girl fell to her knees beside the unconscious man and began to shake by the shoulders in an attempt to wake him.

“Miss Parker,” Max reached out to touch Liz on the shoulder, but someone grabbed his arm and threw it back violently.

“Don’t touch my sister.”

Max just recognized the form of Alex Parker in the corner of his eye when a fist crunched into his temple. His vision was suddenly full of sparks and he was falling to the ground.

“Liz, did you see what he did to Michael?” Alex asked frantically.

Max blinked trying to clear his eyes.

“No, it was her, she was touching him and her eyes were closed,” Liz’s tone was accusing.

“What did you do to my brother?” Alex’s tone was flat as he directed his gaze from Max to Isabel.

Max couldn’t let them hurt Isabel, he turned and tried to push himself off of the ground. Parker was on him in an instant, reaching to grab his shirt front. Then suddenly the man stopped, suspend mid-movement above him. Alex’s eyes moved wildly while the rest of his body remained absolutely still.

“Alex? Alex! What-,” Liz was moving toward Alex and she too was frozen in mid-air, her fingers inches away from her brother’s arm. Her eyes swung slowly to Max, and she seemed to be pleading with him to help her. He put his hands on the ground and pulled himself up into a sitting position.

“Now listen,” Isabel’s voice washed calmly over the bizarre scene, “no one is trying to hurt your brother. We only want to help him. But, if you two don’t behave yourselves I’ll stop your beating hearts without thinking twice. You know I’m in control. Don’t doubt that I can and will do it.”

“Isabel,” Max looked at his sister, “don’t. Release them.”

His sister continued as if she hadn’t heard him, “Now, we are going to pick your brother up and carry him to our residence. If anyone on the street asks you a question, tell them that he fainted and we are taking him home, is that understood? If either of you tries to run, or speak to someone, or even breathe in a way I don’t like - I’ll snap the other’s neck.”

Isabel paused for a moment to let her words sink in, “I’m going to release you now.”

Alex suddenly fell in a heap on the ground, and Liz stumbled and barely caught her balance. Parker was on his feet quickly and moved between his sister and Isabel.

“Max, are you alright?” Isabel asked him casually.

“Yes, I’m fine. Isabel-.”

“Good, you pick up Michael’s feet, and the brother will pick up his shoulders. Sister, you can walk next to brother.” Isabel said.

Max was angry. He didn’t like this. Why was she scaring these poor people? They were only concerned about their brother. Now they would know that Isabel had powers. What were they going to do with two humans who knew the truth about them? He realized there was no easy way out of their current situation. At least if they were in a house they could speak freely.

“Isabel, we’ll talk later,” Max slowly stood and moved toward Michael, “Mr. Parker, if you would please help me to carry your brother. I promise no harm will come to you. My sister was telling the truth, we only want to help your brother.”

Alex looked at him for a moment, let out a defeated sigh, and moved to pick up Michael’s feet.

***

Alex and Liz sat quietly in the small bedroom, both staring at their sleeping brother on the bed.

“I don’t understand, Alex, he looks as though he’s taking a nap, but nothing will wake him.”

“I know, I know.”

Alex stood to stalk around the room again. It had no windows, and only one door – which had been promptly locked after Max and Isabel Evans left the room. ‘If only I were the one who was knocked out, Michael could find some way to get Liz out of here,’ he thought.

“It’s nearly supper time,” Liz said softly, making an effort not to sound terrified, “Father will notice that none of us have returned and he’ll look for us.”

Alex nodded at her, trying to be the reassuring older brother. This was a bad situation, these people had unnatural powers, he and Liz were helpless against them. They had managed to send Michael into some sort of a coma, obviously with some sort of magic, because he didn’t have a mark or any other sign of a blow on him. As Alex continued to pace, he tried to find hope that their Father would find them. It wasn’t working. He had an unshakable suspicion that his father would be childless by morning.

***

“You have put us in an impossible position, Isabel. We are going to have to trust these people with our true identities. Hopefully we can convince Michael to leave with us quickly,” Max was trying to keep the anger out of his voice while he paced the room.

“Max,” Tess began quietly, “they are only humans. We will simply have to eliminate them.”

“Oh no!” Max lost control of the volume of his voice, “Don’t you spout Nacedo’s, ‘they’re an inferior race’ drivel to me. I have always been suspicious of his claims that humans are not much more than animals, and in my opinion these last few days in this town have proved that he was wrong. Humans are capable of love and loyalty, and even intelligence. I believe they have the same emotions we do, and that they feel things just as strongly. Look at those two – they were only trying to protect a man they think of as their brother. Doesn’t that alone show you that everything Nacedo told us about them is untrue? He claimed they were incapable of such complex emotion.”

The women looked unconvinced. He could not let them hurt the humans. His heart constricted painfully at the idea of Elizabeth Parker coming to any sort of harm.

“Not that I don’t agree with you about that, Max,” Isabel said in a soothing tone, “but I don’t think we have much choice about eliminating these two.”

He couldn’t stop this. For once in their lives, Isabel and Tess were in agreement – and Liz and Alex Parker were going to die. He had to stop this from happening, he had to do something. But what could he do? It would be 2 versus 1. Then he remembered. There was one last thing he could try…

“No.” Max’s voice was solid steel. “I won’t discuss this further, for once I’m going to do things my way. I am the King. Neither of you will harm so much as a hair on their heads.”

Isabel and Tess stole glances at one another. Max had never issued a ‘command’ as ‘the King’ in his life. Neither of them knew how to respond. Serena and Nacedo had instilled a sense of duty in them, they had explained the plans for their lives in great detail, but this was the first time one of them had ever truly made a step to fill their role in the Royal Four.

Max could barely breathe as the three sat in silence digesting what he’d said.

Tess and Isabel weren’t speaking, they weren’t arguing…Had it worked?

Max put a look of absolute confidence on his face and rode out his bluff.

“Well, I think we’ve overlooked the obvious element here,” his voice was calm and sure, not betraying his racing heart and sweating palms. “When they understand that their brother is like us, they won’t want anyone to know, they will want to protect him. We’ll just tell them everything, and when Michael awakens they will understand. I wonder what excuse we could give their father to keep them here until then? Isabel, you and I will go up and see if we can’t get some flashes from them that would give us an idea.”

Isabel stood, ready to follow him upstairs.

He nearly fainted. It had worked. He’d never thought it would.

The Parkers were safe - for now.

‘I think I’ll hang onto the ‘King card’ for a while,’ he thought to himself as he left the room.

***

Michael was laying on the green grass of the field as a slight breeze played over his face and the sun warmed him.

“Michael?”

He sat up at the sound of her voice.

She spotted him and a smile broke out on her face. Before he knew it, she had tackled him and they were laying side by side in the grass. He turned to look at her, and she giggled and laced her fingers through his. Michael pulled her tiny hand to his mouth and kissed it, then he noticed it was bandaged.

“What happened?” he looked into her eyes.

“Oh, I fell down and scraped it,” she held up her other hand for him to see the bandage on it, “this one too.”

He rolled his eyes and smiled at her. “You always were a clumsly little thing,” he teased.

She punched his shoulder, but there was a smile on her face. He watched her quietly and his breath caught, she was so beautiful. Her forehead suddenly wrinkled, and she put her lip out in a slight pout.

“Michael, what’s wrong with you? There’s something wrong,” she propped herself up on one elbow and caressed his cheek with her other hand, looking intently into his face.

What was wrong with him? Nothing was wrong with him. No, wait there was something…

The memories of what had happened in the alley flooded into his mind.

No! He couldn’t realize that this was a dream, then it would end!

Guilt. Dread.

He shouldn’t be with her – not even in his dreams.

She was fading.

The world grew dim.

“Michael!” he heard her call, though he could no longer see her face.

“Maria!” he screamed, then everything went black.

***

“Aaaaahhhh,” Liz was awakened by the weak cry. She jerked to her feet from the chair she’d fallen asleep in.

It was Michael, he was sitting up in the bed, palms pressed against his face. As she moved closer, the low light from the oil lamp made the sweat on his forehead sparkle. She could see that Alex was still asleep in the chair in the far corner.

She sat on the bed and touched his arm, “Michael?”

He slowly moved his hands away from his face and looked around the room, then let his eyes settle on her.

“Liz?” his voice was full of gravel, “Where are we?”

She didn’t know how to answer. Maybe he didn’t remember anything from earlier. Max had explained to them that he had started to get hysterical shortly after he’d heard…

“What do you remember from the bookshop, Michael?” she asked him softly, keeping her voice low not wanting to wake Alex. She knew Alex was still angry, and she wanted to explain things to Michael before Alex filled him in on the details of what had happened after he blacked out.

He looked puzzled for a moment, “The bookshop…”

Horrible realization spread over his face, and he looked into her eyes.

He was afraid. She grabbed his hand and squeezed reassuringly, it was obvious that he was afraid that she knew about him.

“Michael-.”

“No. Oh, God, Liz. Where is Evans? What did he tell you?”

“Shhh…,” Liz pointed to where Alex slept, “it’s alright, he told us…well, no…he showed us. Michael, you poor thing, how could you have lived all of this time with these strange…powers and never told anyone? You must have been so scared.”

He still looked unsure, “You aren’t frightened of me?” his voice cracked. “You-you don’t think I’m a freak?”

Liz had never in her life seen tears in her brother’s eyes. They were there now, shining and threatening to spill. She reached for him and pulled him into her arms.

“Oh, Michael, you’re my brother. I love you. Of course you’re not a freak. You’re wonderful.”

Liz felt tears well up in her own eyes and let them fall down her cheeks as her brother began to sob into her shoulder.

***

Max bolted out of bed at the sound of his door banging open, he had fallen asleep fully dressed, lost in his thoughts.

“What is this Evans? Why did you kidnap my brother and sister?”

Max squinted and could make out the figure of Michael Guerin in his doorway. Oops, should have realized he could make short work of a lock if he woke up.

Michael looked wild and frightening. He was shirtless, and his hair was sticking out at wild angles all over his head. Max tried to gather his thoughts, but sleep was still clouding his brain.

“No, Michael, I told you he apologized. He explained,” Max could see a female figure grab Guerin’s arm from behind, “Alex, do you see what you did?”

“Get back, Liz,” Michael growled.

Alex Parker suddenly appeared over his brother’s shoulder. He looked pleased to see Max’s confused expression.

Liz shoved her way past her brothers into the room and stood between them and Max.

“You both need to calm down. They only threatened us to make sure we didn’t do anything drastic. I know that they never intended to hurt us,” Liz had her hands raised in a pleading manner.

Max knew he should try to intervene, “Please, she’s telling the truth. My sister was just frightened and said the first thing that came into her mind. If we can all just discuss this calmly-.”

Max was interrupted as Michael’s body was hurled (apparently not of it’s on volition) into the room. He flew into Liz knocking her to the ground.

Max could only watch as her head fell backwards, seemingly in slow motion, and hit the floor with a sickening thud.

The next few moments were a blur, and Max seemed to be frozen in place. Through the doorway he saw Alex make a run at someone in the hallway. Michael was screaming Liz’s name and cradling her in his arms. There was a loud crash like glass breaking in the hallway, then a loud wooshing sound. He heard his sister scream, and then watched in horror as Alex dragged her past the doorway, her skirt on fire.

Smoke was everywhere now, it was burning Max’s lungs. It snapped him out of his trance, and he began to move.

He stepped to where Michael was holding Liz and he leaned down and pulled her into his arms. Kicking a nearly hysterical Michael on the leg, he yelled, “We have to get out of here! Now!”

Max clutched Liz’s limp form tightly and ran out the door, he heard Guerin close behind him. He looked down the hall to where Alex was just stepping back from his sister’s smoking skirt. The flames were gone. Isabel looked like a terrified child, staring at Alex.

“Parker!” Max shouted. Alex turned to him and nodded, understanding the unspoken request. He caught Isabel by the arm and pulled her to her feet pushing her down the staircase ahead of him.

Max glanced back down the hallway and saw where a broken oil lamp had thrown flaming oil all over the walls. It was burning fast. The sound of more breaking glass another wooshing sound in a room down the hallway snapped him to attention again.

“Max?!?” he heard Tess’s voice. Where was she? He prayed she wasn’t down that hallway. “Maaaxx!!!” She was calling from below, she was out of danger. He continued down the steps, carrying Liz

“I’m coming.” He replied.

As he made his way down the stairs he heard Michael behind him beginning to cough uncontrollably. When he reached the bottom he felt Tess’ hand on his arm. He was nearly knocked over when Michael fell into him from behind.

“Help him,” Max jerked his head toward Michael who was on his hands and knees coughing and gagging.

Tess nodded and moved toward Guerin.

Max ran toward the back door of the house, looking over his shoulder once to see Tess half dragging Michael’s hunched form. The smoke was beginning to fill the lower level of the house now. He burst through the door into the backyard and sucked the fresh air into his tortured lungs. Alex was settling a wild-eyed Isabel down onto the grass, and Max ran up to them and laid Liz down on the ground.

He lifted her head and she groaned, “Elizabeth,” he said urgently, “you need to look at me. Please.”

She moved her head a little and opened her eyes. He moved close to her face and started to make the connection. There were hands pulling at him, and a male voice saying “You have to move! I can help her, I’ve done it before!”

Max ignored the voice and concentrated on Liz, she started to close her eyes again and he panicked, “No, don’t close your eyes! Look at me! Elizabeth! Liz!” at the sound of her nickname the lids flew open again. That was all it took, he was in, he was connected. She had a swollen blood vessel in her brain, he cleared the blockage that had caused it to fill and slowly eased the blood flow threw it, and after a few seconds it went back to normal size. When he was satisfied that she would be alright he broke the connection and slumped forward, drained.

She was moving beneath him, pushing him off of her. He was crushing her, he jerked backward. She was moving herself into a sitting position, looking at him with those big brown eyes. He couldn’t resist, he reached for her. She didn’t pull away, she let him clutch her head to his chest, cradle her in his arms.

“Liz?” Michael’s voice was rough, scarred by the smoke, “Can you speak? Are you alright?” Her brother reached out for her, but she leaned closer to Max and simply nodded at Michael.

Guerin was looking at Max now, silently thanking him. Max acknowledged him and then turned his attention back to Liz. It felt so good to have her in his arms, he didn’t want to let her go. He tore his eyes away for a moment to look at Tess and Isabel, they were sitting next to Alex Parker. Tess was holding his sister’s hands, and speaking to her in soothing tones. Isabel wasn’t paying attention, her eyes were riveted on the house, which was being consumed by flames, she was in shock, but she was all right. Max met Alex’s eyes for a moment, and there was a brief understanding between the two – mutual gratitude, mutual respect.

It was then that Max noticed the maid standing next to the large oak tree that dominated the backyard. She was dividing crazed glances between the burning house and Max. Oh no, what had she seen?

Not wanting to alarm the frightened girl, Max caught Michael’s eye and slowly moved his head in the direction of the maid. Michael followed his gesture and his face said that he understood Max’s fear. Tess was also watching the exchange closely, she touched Alex on the arm and nodded toward Max and Michael. Alex whirled his head toward the maid and the sudden motion made her jump.

The girl was shaking her head and backing slowly away from them. She was mouthing something, it looked like the same word over and over, but Max couldn’t make out what it was.

Alex sucked in air sharply, and the girl turned and ran. Alex stood quickly and looked down at Max, “She was saying ‘witchcraft’.”

Max gently released Liz and stood, “I think she saw me heal your sister.”

Tess was on her feet now as well, “We have to run Max, we have to get out of here.”

“Wait,” Michael said, swallowing hard, “that would make things look worse. You should come to my father’s, your house burned down…” his voiced cracked and he began to cough, his burned throat not allowing him to continue.

“No,” Alex said. “They had us send Father a note saying we were going with you to the plantation. That you had urgent business and wanted us along.”

Michael looked questioningly at Max, “We had to make an excuse for their absence. I didn’t want your father searching for them. It was important that we be sure they wouldn’t tell anyone about us before we let them go home.”

Alex and Michael looked at one another and seemed to come to some silent agreement. Michael turned back to Max, “I-,” he put a hand to his throat as his face twisted in pain.

Max took a step toward him, glanced quickly around to make sure no one was watching and placed his fingers on Michael’s throat, healing it.

Michael stared at Max, “Thank you. I was going to say maybe we should all go to the plantation. We’ll be safe there and we can give any witchcraft rumors that the girl starts a chance to cool down.” Michael pointed toward the still burning house, “People will just think she’s hysterical from the fire. They’ll forget after a few days if there’s no more grist for the rumor mill. Alex, quick go around to the front of the house, there’s probably a crowd out there already. Tell them that the Evans are old friends of Kyle’s and that we’re taking them to the plantation so that the women can recover in the countryside. After you’ve told a few people, meet us at the livery, we can take some of my horses.”

Alex nodded and moved to place a kiss on the top of Liz’s head before walking around the blazing building to the street.

“The livery is down the street. Is your sister well enough to walk?” Michael asked Max.

Max looked at Isabel. She still appeared to be in shock, but he would carry her if he had to. “We’ll be fine. Please, lead the way.”

Michael nodded and grabbed Liz’s hand, pulled her to her feet and began walking toward the livery. Tess helped Isabel up and held the other girl’s elbow to guide her in Michael and Liz’s direction. Max cast one last look at the burning house. The flames were no longer dancing on the roof, but he could see them in the windows of the first floor.

It was incredible what could happen in a few minutes’ time.

Max shook his head as he began walking behind Tess and Isabel. One second someone wants you dead, the next they’re doing everything they can to save your life. Amazing.

***

It was morning by the time the small party came within sight of the plantation. The house was just visible across the fields and through the trees that lined the mile long drive as it jutted off of the main road.

Michael’s eyes swept over the disheveled group. The ride had taken twice as long as it normally would have. Evans had failed to mention that he and the women did not know how to ride. Apparently they considered the practice barbaric. The small blonde with the bouncy curls still had a disgusted look on her face over the clothes he’d found for her, Liz, and Isabel. He’d grabbed a shirt for himself, and some boys shirts and trousers for the women off a clothesline in the yard of a house they’d passed. The blondes were both in nightgowns, but even Liz’s dress wouldn’t do - he didn’t want to be hindered by women riding sidesaddle. Liz had simply accepted the clothes and put them on. Isabel hadn’t really been coherent, he had heard Liz in the tack room struggling to help the girl dress. And the small blonde had turned her nose up and scowled at him before huffing off to the tackroom. He watched her flounce off realizing he should probably thank her for dragging him out of the burning building, but when she whirled to give him one more ‘look of death’ he had decided it could wait until later.

Michael watched as Max tried to turn his mount to the left trying to move to a spot alongside Michael. When Max’s horse turned in a circle then stopped completely, refusing to move at all, Michael was barely able to hold back a laugh. He turned his mare back toward Max and grabbed the bridle of the stationary horse, leading it down the road.

“Uh, thank you.” Max said letting the reins fall from his hands.

“Not a problem.”

“Your friend won’t mind that you’re bringing unannounced visitors to his house?” Max asked.

“Well, it’s as much my house as it is his, but no, he won’t mind.” Michael replied.

“Your sister and brother won’t say anything?” Max asked cautiously, “I mean, they understand the need for secrecy?”

“Do you think they’re too dense to pick up on it?” Michael said softly through clenched teeth.

“No, no. Sorry. I was just making sure-,” Max swallowed, “I j-just wanted to be certain. And, your friend, if he hears a rumor from town…he won’t become…suspicious.”

“No.”

“Oh. All right.”

“He has known about me for a long time. About my powers,” Michael explained.

“Oh,” Max voice sounded surprised.

Michael simply nodded and stared ahead, signaling that he didn’t want to discuss it further.

Alex led the group off of the main road onto the tree-lined drive to the plantation house. When they were nearly at the end of the drive, Michael saw Kyle come out of the house. He walked alongside Michael’s horse as they rode toward the stables.

He explained briefly that these were his friends and that they would need to stay for a few weeks. Kyle raised his eyebrows when Michael said that if anyone asked he was to tell them that they were friends of the Valenti’s, but didn’t question him.

“Well, I’ll go have some food made for you and get some rooms ready,” Kyle looked at the women in their tattered men’s clothing, “I’ll have Maria get some night clothes out for the ladies.”

Michael tried to keep his face passive at the mention of Maria’s name. He hadn’t thought that she might be here. He simply nodded at Kyle as his friend headed back toward the house to make arrangements. At the stable they all dismounted and Michael led them through the garden to the back door which entered into the kitchen. They wound their way through the 12 bedroom house to the main hall.

Maria was standing at the foot of the grand staircase holding a pile of white cotton underclothes watching the group come in with a surprised look on her face. As soon as she spotted Liz her face lit up and she gave her friend a quick embrace, then flashed a smile at Alex. She ignored Michael as was her habit of late. Kyle walked into the hallway from the study and stood beside his sister. They were both looking at Michael expectantly.

What did they want? Oh, introductions.

“Um, Maria and Kyle Valenti, this is Max Evans and his sisters, Isabel and-,” Michael glanced at the short blonde realizing he didn’t know her name.

The girl half rolled her eyes and said, “Tess. Actually it’s Tess Harding, I’m a friend of Isabel’s.”

“Right,” Michael said tersely, the girl was really beginning to get on his nerves, if she hadn’t saved his life...

“Nice to meet you,” Maria gave them a friendly smile, then held the pile of clothes in her arms out toward them, “Um, Kyle said your luggage wasn’t here yet. Why don’t you follow me upstairs and I’ll get you ladies settled in.”

Liz and Tess moved to follow her, but Isabel remained where she was, looking a little frightened. Maria shoved the pile into Kyle’s arms, and he made a face that showed he’d prefer not to hold women’s underclothes.

“Kyle, put Liz in the room next to mine, and Tess in the one adjoining it,” Kyle started up the stairs and Maria slowly walked to Isabel and put an arm around the girl’s waist, “Isabel is it?” Maria looked to Max for confirmation and he nodded. “Come on I’ll help you upstairs.”

Isabel seemed to relax slightly.

Maria smiled reassuringly at the girl and brought her hand up to tuck a stray lock of hair behind Isabel’s ear. When she moved her hand, Michael caught site of a white bandage wrapped around it.

His hand snaked out and grabbed her wrist, “Wh-what is this?”

“It’s a bandage, Michael,” Maria spoke in a voice that was too quiet for a true reaction to what he’d just done, “No reason to get violent,” she jerked her head toward Isabel who was cowering away from him, frightened by his sudden movement. Maria narrowed her eyes, and he dropped her hand.

“I-I was just…What did you do to it?” he asked harshly, embarrassed that he’d grabbed her. He was hoping that this was just some strange coincidence. No, he was praying that this was just a coincidence.

For a moment a strange look crossed her face.

“I fell and scraped it yesterday,” she said watching him closely. She withdrew her other hand from around Isabel’s waist and held it up in front of her to reveal another bandage. “This one too,” she whispered.

His legs wouldn’t hold him. He was going to be sick.

For a heartbeat she stared at him wide-eyed and he wondered if she was remembering the same thing he was. Was it possible? She composed her features quickly and put her arm back around Isabel and began to speak soothingly to the girl as she led her up the large staircase, not giving him a second glance.

Michael was left to stare after her, dumbfounded, as waves of nausea swept over him.

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

TBC...

Chicky

Edited by - AndHerLittleChickenToo on 10/06/2001 02:35:16

[ edited 1 time(s), last at 29-Jan-2002 7:15:52 PM ]
posted on 29-Jan-2002 8:22:46 AM by AndHerLittleChickenToo
Thanks for the feedback, guys. Here's more.

Part 4A
*************************

Alex opened his eyes to the afternoon sun flooding through the window of his room. He sat up slowly, stretching his muscles. The events of the past few hours played through his mind as he washed and dressed in clothes out of the trunk that had appeared in his room - Mr. Parker must have sent their clothes immediately after he received their note this morning.

There hadn’t been many exciting days in Alex Parker’s life. He knew that most of the people who knew him considered him rather dull. Not that he had minded, he had always been fine with dull. Dull was safe. At the moment nothing in his life felt safe - and he liked it.

Somehow, all of the excitement that had been missing from his life for the last 22 years had caught up with him in the last 22 hours…and he’d loved every minute of it.

He’d learned to ride the adrenaline wave. He’d been struck speechless. He’d felt his fist connect with solid flesh. He’d been frozen in midair by superhuman powers. He’d nearly been killed. He’d nearly killed. He’d saved a life. He’d been terrified. He’d been exultant. He’d fallen in love…

Well, he wasn’t entirely sure about that last one, but he knew he had the symptoms. Sure, he’d only known her for a matter of hours, but she was amazing. Isabel was a walking contradiction. So strong, so vulnerable. Perfect.

There was a soft knock at his door.

“Come in.”

“Alex?”

“Hi. Did you get some sleep?”

Michael shut the door and walked over to the bed and sat down.

“Yeah. You?”

“Just woke up.”

“Me too.”

“Is everyone else up?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t get a chance to check. Max said he was going to stay awake and keep an eye on his sister, I think he’s really starting to worry. She’s still…” Michael’s voice trailed off.

“Catatonic?” Alex offered.

Michael gave him a condescending look, “She’s not catatonic. She’s just really frightened. Max says she’s never shaken by anything. He was wondering what happened in the hallway, you know, when the lamp broke.”

Alex was flabbergasted. Was Max accusing him of something? The girl had attacked him! And, he cared about her, really cared about her – it was ludicrous to think someone would accuse him of malice in attacking her – it had been self defense!

If his brother wanted an explanation, he could have one…

“Well, she used her ‘voodoo’ powers to throw you around like a rag doll, and I lunged at her before she could do the same to me. The lamp she was carrying fell on the floor and broke; the oil splashed on her dress and lit her skirt on fire. I dragged her away from the place on the floor that was burning and I smothered the flames on her skirt.”
Michael nodded, not picking up on Alex’s anger.

Alex decided to add healthy dose of sarcasm for his next few words, “Will there be further questions? Should I expect an alien trial for attempted murder?”

Michael shot him a disgusted look.

“Don’t be an ass. I’m just trying to help the girl. No one is accusing you of anything, so don’t get your knickers in a twist.”

“So, you’ve known them for one day and you’re completely loyal to your new alien family, huh?”

Michael jumped off the bed and took a step toward him. Alex prepared to defend himself. Then, suddenly, a strange look came over Michael’s face and he stepped backwards and sat down again on the bed.

Alex studied his brother carefully. He was a little surprised that Michael had calmed himself down. Usually when he flew into a rage there was no stopping him until he’d vented.

“Look,” Michael’s voice sounded a little weary, “you should know me better than that. You might be an idiot, but you’re my brother.”

Alex knew that was as close to an ‘I love you’ as Michael could get. Now he felt bad for taking offense.

“Is there anything I can do to help her?” Alex asked. He tried not to sound too eager. He couldn’t let Michael catch a whiff of his feelings for Isabel…Michael would tell Kyle, then Kyle would kill him for betraying Maria…Alex suddenly awoke to the impossibility of his feelings for Isabel.

“I don’t know. Apparently,” Michael cleared his throat looking uncomfortable, “uh, they can enter people’s dreams. And, Max was going to try that with her to see if he could find a way to calm her down.”

“Really? They can enter people’s dreams? Wait, can you do that too?”

Michael was staring at his hands, refusing to look Alex in the eye, “I think maybe I can. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to me,” Alex said indignantly, “I don’t want anyone poking around in my head!”

Michael jumped to his feet and headed for the door.

“Don’t worry, no one will look at your dreams,” he mumbled and then called from the hallway, “Kyle left me a note saying they’d have a cold lunch left in the dining room for us, I’ve got to tell everyone else.”

Alex followed Michael into the hallway and came face to face with Isabel Evans, nearly knocking her over.

“Oh, excuse me, Miss Evans.”

“No, Isabel,” she looked calm and collected. He could hardly believe she was the same girl who’d been afraid of her shadow that morning – hadn’t Michael just been asking him how to help her? Now she was casually asking him to call her by her first name.

“Isabel,” he repeated.

She nodded. They stared at one another in silence. Alex didn’t know what to say to her. Should he apologize for yesterday? She should apologize to him, but if her normal personality was back he doubted there was much chance of that happening.

“Your brother told me there was food downstairs.”

“Yes, I was just going down myself,” he didn’t know what came over him, but he held his arm out to her, “Would you like to join me?”

No emotion crossed her face, she simply moved her head in ascent and reached for his arm.

Alex couldn’t believe it. Maybe some of Michael’s ‘lady charming’ ways had rubbed off on him. He could barely suppress a grin as he walked the beautiful blonde to the dining room. All thoughts of attacks, apologies, impossible feelings, and her previously catatonic state were washed away by the touch of her hand.

***

Maria heard voices coming from the dining room as soon as she stepped foot inside the front door after her ride.

They were awake!

She rushed into the room, wanting to be as close to Michael as possible.

All six of the new arrivals were seated at the table. Her jaw nearly hit the floor when she saw that Max, Isabel, and Tess were all eating with their hands. Where were these people from? Who didn’t use a knife and fork when they ate?

Maria knew Liz and Alex were too polite to say anything (they were pretending not to notice), and obviously Michael hadn’t even noticed anything strange (he was too busy with the pile of food he’d helped himself to). ‘I guess it’s up to me,’ she thought.

“Oh, Mr. Evans, no need to use your hands. We wouldn’t be offended at all if you used the eating utensils at the side of your plate,” Maria didn’t want them to feel embarrassed, she wondered if this tactic would work.

Max, Isabel, and Tess all looked up at her, as though they didn’t understand. Then Max looked across the table at Alex and Liz noticing the forks in each of their hands. He reddened slightly, and reached for the one next to his plate.

“Oh, thank you, Miss Valenti,” Max said sheepishly, motioning to Isabel and Tess to pick up their forks.

They all attempted to use the utensils and didn’t seem to have much luck. Max had speared a piece of meat and was trying to use his spoon to cut it. Tess was trying to scoop rice onto her fork and only seemed able to get a grain or two at a time. Isabel, however, after only a few tries, seemed to have the hang of it, eating carrots gracefully with her fork as if she’d never eaten any other way.

Maria was definitely going to question Kyle about the origins of the new guests. She sat at the head of the table and dropped her riding crop on the floor with a sharp thwack. That got Michael’s attention, he looked up at her.

“Sitting at the head of the table, are you? Mistress of the house?” Michael’s tone dared her to respond.

“Yes, I fill your position when you’re not here.”

He growled. A big smile broke out on her face, she loved to enrage him. He looked so handsome when he was angry - jaw clenched, eyes slightly narrowed.

She noticed that the women had found the clothes she laid out for them. The dress Tess was wearing fit fairly well, but Isabel’s was far too tight in the bust and Maria knew it had to be far too short.

“Miss Evans, Miss Harding. Would you allow me to contact my dressmaker for you? I know you must be anxious to rebuild your wardrobes after the fire,” Maria smiled.

Tess and Isabel looked at each other as though the thought had not occurred to them.

“Oh it will be so much fun,” Maria gushed, “I’ll send her a note this afternoon, I’m sure she’ll come first thing in the morning.”

Isabel smiled, Maria knew that the girl liked her, “Thank you. And, please call me Isabel.”

Tess decided to put a smile on her face as well, “And call me Tess,” she looked at Alex, Liz, and Michael, “Please, everyone, call me Tess.”

Liz and Alex smiled, Michael continued shoving food into his mouth.

“Maria?” Tess began, “Is it really fun to have clothes made? In the past, I-we…well, I’ve never picked my own clothes.”

“Oh, Tess, you don’t know what you’ve been missing,” Maria winked at her.

***

Kyle let out a low whistle as Michael finished the whole story.

“Wow, Michael.”

Michael had been able to give his friend a brief outline earlier, but they’d had to wait until everyone else was in bed before he could tell him everything. He glanced around to be sure that both study doors were still shut securely – they couldn’t afford to have another servant overhear something they shouldn’t.

“I’m glad that you finally know,” Kyle’s tone was sincere, “I know you’ve always been afraid that you were evil or something.”

Michael rolled his eyes at his friend.

Kyle shrugged, “Well, you know what I mean. I’m glad that you know. Too bad you’re the last of your kind.”

“That’s Max’s opinion, but apparently Serena and Nacedo think otherwise.”

Kyle was nodding, “So, is it Isabel? You know, your ‘destined mate’?”

Michael was surprised by the question. He hadn’t really thought about it, “I suppose she is. She and Max are siblings, so it must be Tess and him, Isabel and…me.”

“Are you gonna’ go along with that?”

“I don’t know. Max made it sound like it was pointless. I should probably have another talk with him.”

“At least she’s beautiful.”

Michael laughed at him. With everything he’d just told Kyle, this is what he was focused on – typical.

“Yeah. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter much to me. My marital prospects were never very good. Respectable people wouldn’t want anything to do with me.”

“Well my prospects aren’t much better,” Kyle said.

Michael shot him a ‘don’t be stupid’ look, “Your grandfather is a Duke!”

“On my mother’s side. You know my father’s father was an innkeeper. My grandfather didn’t disown my mother, but her brothers did – when he’s gone all ties to the family will be lost,” he smirked, “unless it’s true that my eldest uncle is having money problems – then I suppose there will be a tearful reconciliation.”

Michael laughed.

“You know, Michael, speaking of ‘destined’ mates…Now, don’t be offended…but my sister has been begging me for the last two years to get her out of her ‘arrangement’.”

Michael sat down hard in a leather chair across from Kyle and leaned close to him unable to keep a note of urgency out of his voice, “She doesn’t want to marry Alex?”

Kyle held his hands up, “Look, I said not to get offended, she thinks he's wonderful, just not...you know for a husband. She says he doesn’t want it either.”

Sitting back hard in the chair, Michael let out the breath he’d been holding in a gush. “Liz told me she suspected that, but I never thought… I mean, why wouldn’t he love Maria?”

Kyle shook his head, “I don’t know, but I think it’s true. I was watching him tonight – now don’t get mad, but I think he’s interested in Isabel.”

Michael was shocked. Could his brother really be interested in Isabel? For a moment he gave himself a little hope, maybe the engagement would be broken. No, it didn’t matter. Even if she was free, her father would never allow her to marry him. No, that didn’t even matter. She would probably throw herself into the sea before she’d marry him. Still…if he really was seeing into her dreams, well, in them she seemed very receptive…

“Michael?”

“What? Oh, no, I’m not angry. I’m just thinking…we should help them if they really don’t want to marry each other.” Michael tried not to look guilty. He always felt badly when he had ‘Maria thoughts’ in Kyle’s presence – it was such a horrible betrayal of his friendship.

“Well, I’ve tried - I’ve spoken to my father twice and I think Maria pesters him about it all of the time. He won’t budge because my mother made him promise, before she died. But…I did wonder if maybe your father talked to him-.”

“No, my father would never approach him about it. He’ll never try to break a promise he’s made.”

“All right, what if Alex talked to my father? If he knew that Alex didn’t want it, and he already knows that Maria doesn’t, he might relent.”

“Sounds like a good idea, but I think they should go together to speak to him.”

“I think Maria is too embarrassed to bring it up to Alex, and I’d feel a little awkward about it... Do you think you could?”

“Maria gets embarrassed?” Michael smirked.

“Come on, Michael, I’m being serious. I know that you and Maria don’t get along, but you want your brother to be happy don’t you?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll talk to him.”

“What if he wants your Isabel?”

“She’s not my Isabel. He can have her.”

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

Part 4B
*************************

Maria ran through the waving grass, as her eyes swept the horizon…

Where was he?

She plopped down hard on the grass, she hated it when she couldn’t find him.

Leaning her head back, she cupped her hands around her mouth and called for him again, “Michael!”

Silence.

This happened from time to time. She would be unable to find him and lay down on the grass to cry herself into oblivion. Their time was always limited, he was never around for long, something would always happen - they would be talking, laughing, and then…that strange look would cross his face, and before she knew it he would disappear.

She could feel tears stinging her eyes and hopped up to look for him one more time.

“Miiiicccchhhaaaeeelll!!!”

The she spotted him, some distance away. She started to run to him. His face broke into a smile, then it was overwhelmed with a look of fear and dread. Within seconds he was gone.

She threw herself down face first onto the grass. The tears fell like rain. He’d never disappeared so fast before, he always spoke to her first…

She buried her head in the grass, and then she was falling…falling…falling…

Maria awoke with a start in the middle of the night, and she could feel wet tears on her face. She had the dreams regularly, but she usually didn’t remember much about them in the morning.

This dream was alive in her head even though she was awake. It wasn’t bad enough that he couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her in the real world, now she had to lose him in her dreams as well?

She looked down at her bandaged hands, and wondered again at his reaction to them when he’d arrived. It had reminded her of something, she’d had a feeling of déjà vu…

Sighing, she laid back down and wiped her tears away with the back of her hand. It was just this once, he’d be back tomorrow night…

***

Max was about to knock on Isabel’s door when he was startled by the sound of laughter inside. He was taken aback hearing both Tess and Isabel’s voices mingling in high pitched giggles. Composing himself, he tapped his knuckles against her door. He wanted to make sure that his sister was still holding up well, he’d been more than a little shocked at her sudden recovery the day before.

“Come in!” Isabel called sweetly from inside.

Max opened the door and walked in to see both Tess and Isabel wearing several scarves around their necks and each with a hat on their heads.

“What’s going on?” he asked lamely.

“Oh, Max, we had the best day,” Tess began. “The dressmaker was here and – oh, well you must know that, you were with her just now weren’t you? We ordered the most wonderful things, and Maria said her brother would pay for all of it! And, oh, Max – the colors, it was-.”

“-So amazing,” Isabel cut her off. “Liz and Maria helped us, did you know that you can wear colors to match your skin and hair? It was the most wonderful thing.”

Max stared at them speechless. They were spending time together. Giggling. Excited about garments of all things. For the first time he began to wonder if the humans were a good influence on them.

“Well,” Tess smiled, “where were you all day?”

“Michael took me riding,” Max said barely able get words out of his mouth – they both looked so happy.

“Riding?” Tess wrinkled her nose. “I don’t ever want to do that again. Ew. What kind of influence is Michael on you?”

“He’s-.”

“Yes, Max, you can’t allow the humans to pull you into all of their barbaric practices. I mean, of course I am enjoying many aspects of their society…” Isabel was saying in a lecturing tone.

“Look, Isabel, I’m just trying to blend in. Valenti said his sister was asking questions after the incident in the dining room yesterday. I would like for us to at least appear human.”

“Well,” Isabel looked at him out of the corner of her eye, “what do you think of Michael now that you’ve spent a little more time with him?”

Max cleared his throat, that was a difficult question to answer, “I like him. He’s a little rough, and not incredibly polite sometimes, but I like him. I think he’s a very good, honorable man.”

“Why do you ask Isabel?” Tess asked with an innocent look on her face.

“No particular reason, Tess,” Isabel snapped.

“Oh well,” Tess smiled falsely, “I was just thinking it would be natural for you to ask questions about the man who will be your mate.”

Max was almost relieved that they were fighting again. It was a little too strange to have them getting along so well. The familiar sound of Tess ridiculing Isabel for not wanting to embrace her ‘destiny’ was oddly comforting.

“I haven’t decided that he will be my mate. I don’t really like him, he doesn’t have any manners, or polish…and I don’t think he’s very intelligent either. I would blame it on Michael’s human father, but he seems to have done such a wonderful job with Alex…” Isabel trailed off as she blushed slightly. “Besides, I don’t really believe there’s any reason to follow our destiny. There is no planet to go home to and there aren’t enough of us to continue our species here. Obviously it doesn’t matter if we mate with humans.”

“You’re considering mating with a human?” Tess was looking at her curiously. She was no longer sarcastic or argumentative, she seemed genuinely interested as though the thought had never occurred to her before.

Max was watching the exchange in shock. He knew how Isabel felt about their destinies, secretly he felt the same way, but to actually state it openly…And, Tess, she’d been catty at first, but now she looked interested in the prospect. What would Nacedo say if he heard this conversation?

“Well,” Isabel said seriously, “we know that it’s possible. That is why we’re hybrids. Haven’t you ever considered it?”

Tess shook her head, “No, I really hadn’t, but now that you do…well, if we did integrate into this society…I don’t know, Max what do you think?”

“I think Nacedo would be incredibly angry if he heard us right now,” Max said sternly. “I’m going downstairs.”

Max turned and fled from the room. He’d always dreaded marrying Tess. They had grown up together, she was like a sister to him, not to mention that their personalities weren’t entirely compatible. Isabel had always felt the same although she rarely said it outright. Now Tess felt the same way. Maybe they could all rebel and just ‘say no’ to destiny.

With renewed hope, Max reached the drawing room door at the same moment as Maria.

“Max,” she smiled at him, he liked her a great deal, she was so friendly, “how was your visit with the tailor?”

He opened the door for her, “It went well, I’ve ordered some new clothes.”

“Oh, I hope she remembered to add a formal suit to the order. We have a ball to attend in five days,” Maria said as she entered the room.

“What ball?” Alex asked, peeking over the book he was reading in the window seat.

“Oh,” Liz exclaimed, “in all of the excitement I forgot to tell you! Mrs. Landon’s niece is visiting from London, she’s the only daughter of Lord Sheldon.”

“Aarrgh,” Kyle groaned, “I forgot about that awful thing.”

“Well,” Maria put her hands on her hips, “you’re going. We’re all going. I sent a note to Mrs. Landon today telling her we would have extra guests – I also told her that Alex would be attending. I thought you might not have included him in your RSVP, Liz, since you weren’t sure when they were arriving.”

“I’m not invited?” Michael asked Maria, from the corner where he was leaning casually against the wall.

“Yes,” Liz said quietly, “of course you were included on our invitation.”

Michael continued to stare challengingly at Maria.

She rose to the bait, “Well, I knew you had been invited, but you never attend social functions.”

A smile played across Michael’s lips, “I think I have a formal suit I could have father send out for me.”

“So,” Maria cocked her head at him and gave him a smirk, “just to spite me, you’re going to go?”

“No…,” there was an evil glint in Michael’s eyes, “I’d just like to have my chance to dance with Margaret Sheldon.”

“Ha!” Maria scoffed. “That’s Lady Margaret to you, and as if she would ever dance with you!” she glared at Alex who had begun to snicker, then turned back to Michael.

Michael laughed and shook his head slowly, “You’re right Maria,” sarcasm dripped from his voice, “I hope she doesn’t laugh in my face when I ask her.”

He raised his eyebrows at her, and then chuckled as he walked past her and out the door.

Max looked at Maria whose face was red, and scrunched into a surprisingly becoming scowl. Alex was now hooting with laughter.

Maria whirled on her fiancé, “And what are you laughing at?!?”

Alex stood and held his hand to his stomach, “I’m laughing at you Maria,” he stood and started toward the door.

“I can’t imagine why. If I were you, I’d be trying to figure out how to keep my brother from embarrassing me at the ball,” she snapped.

Alex paused in the doorway and turned back toward her, trying to keep a straight face, “I’m not worried about that,” he grinned at her.

She looked at him strangely and moved her mouth as if to speak, but Alex beat her to it.

“I was wondering…how do you like your crow, Maria? Baked or fried?”

With that he turned and left the small group in the drawing room to listen as his hysterical laughter drifted behind him down the hallway.

Max walked past a fuming (and apparently speechless) Maria to sit by Liz on the sofa. Liz had a puzzled look on her face.

“Liz?” Max asked quietly. “Are you all right?”

Liz smiled at him and nodded slowly, “Oh, yes. I was just wondering how Michael knew that the Lady’s first name was Margaret. No one said her first name.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Max said softly, Liz was so intelligent, she always caught every detail.

“It’s probably nothing,” she broadened her smile. “I was about to take a walk, would you like to join me?”

“Absolutely,” he replied, unable to suppress a grin, as he rose and reached for her hand.

***

Three days after Kyle asked him to, Michael approached Alex.

“Got a minute?”

Alex jumped slightly at the sound of his brother’s voice.

“Uh, yeah, what do you need?”

Michael sat beside him on the top rail of the fence overlooking a pasture where several horses were grazing.

“Well, I’ve gotten so wrapped up with ‘everything’ I forgot that I told Kyle I’d talk to you about something,” Michael said, crossing his arms. Trying to decide how best to breach the subject. He knew he needed to do it, he’d put it off long enough, fearing that Alex would dash whatever shreds of hope he still held.

“What’s that?” Alex asked with a less than curious tone.

“The night we got here, Kyle mentioned that he and Maria have been discussing your betrothal quite a bit lately,” Michael glanced at Alex and then continued, “She is under the impression that you’re not thrilled with the arrangement.”

Michael could see that he now had Alex’s complete attention.

“I-I, uh, I’m not thrilled. Maria is a great friend, and I could think of worse people to be married to, but…I’ve just never felt, you know, that way about her. We’ve - sort of, almost - discussed it a couple of times…” Alex trailed off weakly.

Michael could have done cartwheels. Alex didn’t love her. Part of the heavy load of guilt he’d been carrying since he was 19 lifted from his chest. He felt like dancing.

“Don’t worry,” Michael reassured him, trying not to sound overjoyed, “there’s no question that she feels the same way. Kyle says she’s been begging the General to let her out of it. And, Kyle’s tried talking to him more than once. He won’t budge, he’s sticking to his promise to their mother.”

Alex let out a defeated sigh, “Oh.”

“It’s not as though all hope is lost. Kyle asked my opinion about it, he wondered if father would talk to him. I don’t think he would…so we came up with the idea of you talking to him…with Maria. If you confronted him together, and showed him how unhappy it would make you, well there is a chance…”

Michael watched Alex light up like a firecracker.

“Yes, that’s got to work! We’ll talk to him. I’ll go get a carriage, we can leave within the hour-.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Michael held his hands up to his brother, he hadn’t expected him to be this thrilled about getting out of the engagement, “I think you should spend some time strategizing first. You can talk to her after dinner, and decide on a time. The ball is in two days, maybe the next day you could take Maria and Liz back to town and speak to General Valenti.”

Alex looked a little disappointed, but nodded.

Michael couldn’t resist, he had to know…

“Alex? Do you – do you have…feelings…for Isabel?”

Alex paled, but looked at him steadily, “Yes. I’m sorry for not coming to you right away. I know she’s your ‘destined’ mate. If that is what you both want, you don’t have to worry about me, I wouldn’t interfere.”

Michael felt like slime. For the first time he realized that both he and Alex had been in the same position. Both were in love with the other’s future spouse, but Alex had the courage to face him head on – while he’d hidden his feelings from his brother for years.

Swallowing hard, Michael put his hand on his brother’s shoulder, “I have no interest in her at all. But, that’s beside the point. I want you to be happy. Max has told me she’s not interested in the ‘destiny’ thing and, if I know anything about women, I think she’s interested in you. If she makes you happy, don’t let her go.”

A look of relief broke out on Alex’s face. Michael couldn’t help himself and, for the first time in his life, he hugged his brother. He held him tightly and pounded him on the back a few times, then held him by the upper arms as he pulled back. Alex was smiling at him like an idiot, and Michael couldn’t help smiling back.

“Now, go,” Michael fought to keep his voice from cracking, “find her and tell her how you feel. You won’t regret it.”

Alex nodded and hopped off the fence, practically running back to the house.

Michael stared out at the pasture, feeling happy for his brother. He hoped, for Alex’s sake, that they would be able to find a way out of the engagement.

He watched the wind play with the grass. The memory of last night’s dream played through his mind. For the last three nights, he’d seen her in the field but had almost instantly awakened, horrible guilt forcing him away from her.

He’d never imagined the truth. It made him feel as though he was violating her in the worst way possible. He’d seen her bandaged hands, then Max had mentioned dream walking to him, and he’d become overwhelmed with questions. From what he’d learned, human dreams were not often logical, and didn’t necessarily relate to real life or real people - but rather played broadly on emotions using bizarre symbolism to express feelings. He’d briefly described his dream encounters to his new friend, not telling him whom the encounters were with. Max had told him it sounded different than normal dream walking, that what Michael described was more like two people meeting in a mutually created dream. The discussions had left Michael with even more questions.

One thing was certain, Maria was sharing his dreams.

At first he’d wondered if there was any chance that the dreams were a reflection of her true feelings, but after spending a few days with her he knew that they weren’t. Max had warned him that the actions in a dream could not always be taken at face value. Obviously her actions in the dreams meant nothing - she hated him as much as ever, if not more. Her insults of late were viciously personal, it made him wonder if she knew that it was his fault she was having the dreams.

Michael heard a voice shouting, and then heard loud laughter. He looked toward the house and at a distance he could see Kyle and Max on horseback in the stable yard. Kyle was bent double, pointing at Max’s horse, which was (to Max’s bewilderment) walking backwards.

He laughed out loud at the sight. There lots of things to distract him. With so many people around, he wasn’t forced to spend hours on end in Maria’s presence, feeling guilty. And, there was the ball to look forward to. That was one occasion when he’d have the upper hand – for once. She could be the one to feel awkward and embarrassed for a change. Imagining her face lit up by shock, disbelief, and anger was enough to make him feel a little giddy…an enraged Maria was a beautiful Maria.

One thing he could do, without feeling guilty, was get on her nerves.

***

The sun warmed Isabel as she walked through the garden. It was nice to be out in the fresh air. The past few days had been full of dancing and etiquette lessons, Maria had been frantically trying to prepare her guests for the ball.

Maria had insisted that she, Max, and Tess learn to dance. She’d enlisted the help of Liz, Kyle, and Alex. Isabel had learned quickly in Alex’s experienced arms, as had Max with Liz. Poor Tess had been left with Kyle, who was not much of a dancer. Maria had grown frustrated with Tess and Kyle continually collapsing in laughter as they stepped on each other’s feet and tripped around in circles. After about 30 minutes she’d dismissed Kyle and paired Tess with Max – according to Maria, Max was already a better dancer than her brother. Kyle had laughed good-naturedly and left the room.

After the dancing, Maria had worked with them each individually on greetings and introductions, polite conversation and table manners. Isabel thought Maria was wonderful, but she had been at her wit’s end when she escaped outdoors to do some reading this afternoon.

“Isabel?”

She turned to see Alex walking toward her, and she smiled at him.

“Hello, Alex.”

“Taking another stroll in the garden?”

She held up the book she was reading for him to see as he came to her side, “Reading.”

“Am I disturbing you?”

“No, no. Please, walk with me,” she grabbed his arm, hoping he would stay. She enjoyed their talks. They’d had so many over the past few days. He was so funny, and he listened to her as if everything she said was the most important thing he’d ever heard. Alex made her feel so wonderful. When she was with him she imagined leaving her ‘destiny’ behind for something completely different.

“You know, Isabel,” he looked over at her, and waved his hand toward her book, “there are many theories about why people enjoy one novel more than another.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Many people think that if you identify strongly with a particular character you’ll enjoy the book much more. Do you find that to be true?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” she glanced at him. He always had interesting questions for her.

“Well, which role in a story do you normally identify with?” he asked.

“I suppose it’s generally the heroine.”

“Oh. And, uh, other people? You know - say me, for instance. What role would you picture me playing in a story?”

This was going to be a fascinating conversation, she could tell.

“I would think of you as the amusing sidekick, Alex.”

She stopped walking and turned to face him, waiting for him to tell her what role he would see himself in. He looked as though he were disappointed. Had her answer been silly? She’d simply said the first thing that came to mind.

“That’s interesting,” he said softly, and began walking again.

Isabel moved with him. Maybe she should explain why she answered the way she did. She didn’t want him to think she was stupid, she could already feel the redness creeping up her cheeks – Alex made her feel so many new things, but embarrassment was her least favorite.

“Alex, you always make me laugh. You seem to sit back and watch a situation, never saying anything until you’ve come up with a witty observance. And it seems like you never make major mistakes like the lead in a story does, you’re always careful – you always show up in the nick of time to help…” she finished lamely, this was the first time she’d ever alluded to him saving her life.

“I see,” he said quietly, but his face still looked a little disappointed, maybe even sad.

She felt the redness climbing her cheeks faster, and although something inside of her cried out for her to stop, she finished her thought.

“I’ve always wondered why they don’t make the hero a little bit more like the amusing sidekick,” she finished quietly.

He stopped again. She turned toward him, his face was unreadable.

Alex’s voice was barely more than a whisper, and he searched her eyes as though he could find an answer to some question in them, “Isabel, you read a lot about romance. Have you ever felt like they do in the stories? Do you think you’ve ever been in love?”

She blushed - the embarrassment was in full swing. Isabel hoped that this question meant what she thought it did. Fighting the urge to run, she answered him directly.

“Not until recently.”

Isabel looked up at him, waiting for him to answer.

Silence. Was he unconvinced? Had she been wrong? Was he just making conversation?

Alex simply looked stunned. Suddenly the embarrassment overwhelmed her. He’d been making friendly conversation and she’d laid her heart at his feet. She dropped her eyes and turned to walk away from him, unbelievably embarrassed.

“Isabel,” his voice was husky and low as he grabbed her arm before she could take her first step.

Breathing in deeply, she found just enough courage to look into his eyes once more.

He looked like he was in awe.

She didn’t know who moved first, but suddenly their lips met. Her hands laced around his neck pulling him closer. One of his hands was in her hair, holding her to him – the other was thrown tightly around her waist.

She felt like she was going to burst. Every hair on her body was standing on end, and she felt as though electricity was running through her veins.

Isabel had read about first kisses, but she’d never read about anything like this - it was indescribable.

*************************
TBC...

Chicky