posted on 19-Jul-2002 1:46:21 PM by mockingbird39
Title: The Darkest Hour

Author: mockingbird39

Author’s Note: This is a short fic that has been playing around in my head for a while. It is a Future Max POV from End of the World, and will be only two parts. The next will be posted sometime tomorrow.

Part One

It’s 3am and I’m watching Liz Parker sleep. She looks so peaceful, but I can’t imagine what her dreams must be like. Different from last night, surely, now that I’ve come to her with a request that will destroy the life she should have.

I rise from my chair and walk to the window, but I cannot walk away from my thoughts. Was this the right decision? Will this work? Will the future truly be different? And if it isn’t, what have I done to Liz. . .and to myself?

We made the decision together two days ago—No, I remind myself, fourteen years from now we make this decision. But to me it feels like two days past. . .and a lifetime. But time isn’t important to me now. What’s important is that we made the decision together. We’ve known we could do this for about a year now. That’s how long it took to exhaust all other options and come to terms with the idea of losing each other like this. For years we’ve been terrified to lose each other in other ways—war has made us vulnerable to all kind of dangers. But this is different. If we went ahead with Serena’s idea, we wouldn’t just lose our future; we would lose our shared past. All the memories and dreams and moments that have kept us going through a thousand battles and losses so high we stopped counting. Those few years when we were safe and happy and together have been like a shield that we’ve held over each other since the war tore our lives apart. If this doesn’t work—if this doesn’t stop the war before it starts—I don’t know how either of us will survive without them.

I walk back to Liz’s bed and I stand there quietly, looking down, watching her sleep. I’ve watched her sleep thousands of times over the years, but this is so much like the first time that I feel seventeen again. My stomach knots as I stand there, and I ache to touch her because I know what it will feel like. I can close my eyes and remember the feel of her skin—how the night air made it cool to the touch and how fire burned just beneath it. I remember the feel of her wrapped around me, holding me so tightly we weren’t separate people anymore, just one person, finally whole, finally as we were meant to be. I think of the other version of myself sleeping—or, more likely, lying awake—close by and I pity him because he will never know those things. I remember the dreams I had of Liz when I was a boy and I smile faintly because they pale in the face of what making love to her is really like. But he will never know that, though for the rest of his life he will wonder.

Couldn’t he have that? I wonder, closing my eyes in anguish. Couldn’t he just have that memory for the rest of his life? But I know it can’t be. Making love to Liz had truly cemented us—after that night, we could never have been apart. This break has to be clean. We have to stop the bond before it has a chance to take hold.

I sit back down beside Liz’s bed, my eyes seeking out the familiar contours of her face. I remember the times before we were married when I would see her from across the room—in class, at a party, in the Crashdown—and I would have to touch her, have to find an empty room or secret corner where we could lay down together and lose ourselves in each other. I want to hold her now. I want to crawl into bed beside her and pull her into my arms and tell her there must be another way to do this. I want to stop this plan because I am no longer sure that I care if the world ends if stopping it means losing her. I try to find the resolve that brought me here. I try to remember how it felt to hold Isabel’s lifeless body in my arms. Khivar had taken special pains with her. He humiliated her before he killed her and then left her body where he knew I would find it. But I didn’t find her—it was Alex who found her lying prostrate on the street, her blond hair hacked off close to her head, her clothes ripped to shreds. And it was Alex who went after Khivar by himself and ended up dead, too. We buried them together, but by then none of us had any tears left to cry.

But sitting here tonight, those images come to me as though from another life. It was another man who lowered Isabel and Alex into a grave we were afraid to mark—another man who didn’t bother to say a prayer over them because he no longer believed in anything but the war. But it had been Liz who lingered for a few seconds, crossing herself and murmuring words half-remembered from childhood. And it had been me standing there watching her.

Liz stirs in her sleep and murmurs something I can’t quite hear, though I lean close to try and catch the words. I love this habit of hers—mumbling as she dreams. I never mentioned it to her—she would have been mortified—but every night I lay awake next to her, listening in the darkness. Usually it’s nonsense. . .fragments of her dreams. . .but I love it just the same. Tonight as I lean over her, I notice something that makes my eyes burn. Liz’s cheeks are wet with tears. I’ve made her cry, and that fact touches me more than any of the memories of my past. . .or her future.

I can’t stop myself from reaching out to touch the tearstains on her cheek. My hands are callused now from a thousand tasks I’d rather not remember, but her skin feels the same. If I close my eyes, I might open them and find myself in our bedroom fourteen years from now with my wife in my arms. Or maybe in the tiny studio apartment we shared in college, with snow falling outside and the sound of sirens in the distance. Or maybe in the motel room we rented for two weeks after our wedding—the one right on the beach where we lay in bed for hours, touching, caressing, making love, and trying to believe we were really man and wife.

I’d told Liz about our wedding tonight. I try to regret that, but I can’t. I love to tell the story—how she’d pulled out her copy of Romeo and Juliet and showed me that those two lovers were younger than we were, how we’d found driven all night and found the Elvis chapel just as the sun was coming up. How we’d danced all night at that smoky club outside Phoenix until Isabel, Alex, Michael, and Maria were practically asleep at the table, but we were still on the dance floor in each other’s arms. I haven’t told Liz about our honeymoon—about how we’d left the others in Phoenix and driven west again, this time all the way to the coast. Liz had been asleep in the car when we reached the ocean at sunset and when I’d woken her up she’d smiled sleepily at me and I’d known there must be a heaven somewhere. We’d gotten out of the car and run down to the ocean like the kids we were, and I can still hear Liz’s laughter as we ran right into the waves. Ever since that day, whenever I think of the sea, I feel Liz’s hand clutching mine and the waves crashing over our bare feet. I feel her arms around my neck as spray soaks our clothes. I taste salt water on her skin as I lower my head to her neck and I feel her damp hair clinging to us both.

I would like to tell Liz about those two weeks—about how easily we slipped into being married. But I won’t. I won’t tell her anymore about the things she won’t have. If we do this right, she will have a future. It won’t be the one that I cherish tonight, but it will be something. She will be safe. She will have children. She will get over this heartbreak and she will be okay.

I have to believe that. If I don’t, I won’t be able to do this, and I promised her I would. In fourteen years, I’ve never broken a promise to her. I’m not about to start now.

[ edited 2 time(s), last at 20-Jul-2002 10:16:37 AM ]
posted on 20-Jul-2002 10:15:45 AM by mockingbird39
Part Two

It’s done. This thing we’ve done—this ruse with Kyle—it will work. I know it. I feel a tug somewhere deep inside, telling me my time is running low. If there’s anything I want to do—anything I want to say or touch or remember—I’d better do it now. I look over at Liz, who is sitting, silent and weeping, beside me. Her heart is broken, and so is mine. But she’s the one that has to live with it. In a few moments I will cease to exist, no longer needed in this world.

I don’t want to go. As hard as I know this world can be, I still don’t want to leave it. I want to stay here with this girl I love who will become the woman I love even more. But it’s done now. I have no choice. I wonder if this is how the people we’ve lost felt before they died. I’m afraid, but not of anything that will come after death. I’m afraid that nothing will come. I stopped believing in God years ago, and when I did I quit believing in heaven and hell, too. Now I can’t imagine that life just stops and darkness takes its place. But I can’t quite imagine heaven or hell, either.

And anyway, this isn’t death. This is something outside the realm of faith and religion—something that science has brought to be. Maybe it has no place in the natural order of things. But I don’t feel like I am about to disappear into a void. My life is ending, but I can’t quell the feeling that something else is about to begin. I take a deep breath of the night air, and I think about of Liz—my Liz, the one I married and then left in the future. I wonder if she can feel this, too. I wonder what she has done as she waited for the future to change, or if she didn’t wait at all. Maybe for her it ended the moment I left. Maybe she didn’t have a chance to grieve. But somehow I don’t think so. Somehow I think she is waiting, too, and I feel very close to her right now, even closer than I am to the broken-hearted girl beside me.

But right now, it is this girl I can try to comfort.

Ice cream, I think. We should have ice cream. It was a joke between us. Have a bad day? Ice cream will make you feel better. Fail a test? Speeding ticket? Curl up on the couch—I’ll get the Hagen Dazs. I can still taste that ice cream—strawberry, usually. I remember how cold Liz’s hands would get from holding the carton, and how she would casually slip them beneath the blanket we would be wrapped up in, shocking me with her icy fingers on my bare skin.

That won’t happen now, either. I’ll never sit next to her on that ratty old red sofa we’d found in a thrift store a few blocks from our first apartment. I thought I’d never seen an uglier piece of furniture—it was red velvet, worn in some places, and had big, hard buttons on the back that left a mark if you leaned against them too long. But Liz had loved it, and we’d spent so many nights curled up on it together that I’d loved it, too, and we’d dragged it with us when we moved until it fell apart. I haven’t thought of that couch in years, but tonight I wished I could run my hand over the worn red velvet one more time.

I look over at Liz and wonder, if by some miracle, she’ll find that couch in the thrift store and take it home with her. The thought almost makes me smile. But then I see that she’s crying again. I should be amazed how well she’s holding it together, but I’m not. I know how deep her well of strength runs. I wish I could say something to make her smile. I’d give anything to see her smile one more time. A sob escapes her, and my thoughts tumble out of my mouth.

“I’ve thought a thousand battles,” I say, “but watching you do that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” I close my eyes as the image of her in Kyle’s arms rises up before me. I know that it was a hoax—one I took part in—but it doesn’t stop the ache that wells up in me. I cannot begin to imagine what the boy who ran from this balcony a short time ago must be feeling. But I think that Liz can.

“The look on his face. . .” She covers her eyes with her hand as a sob shakes her. “. . .on your face. . .”

Her pain is palpable. It runs off her in waves, and as always I feel a surge of fury at what has caused her to hurt. This time my target is myself—the younger version of myself, who at this moment is certainly feeling sorry for himself, oblivious to the enormous sacrifice she has just made. But even as I want to run after that boy, find him, shake him until he realizes the truth—that Liz could never do what he thinks she has done—I pity him again. He won’t know how amazing Liz Parker is. He won’t know how quickly—and how well—she learned to be a soldier. He won’t know how she held me together when the world caved in on us. But most of all, he won’t know what she was willing to do for him. What she was willing to give up.

She is crying softly now, the sobs gone as tears fall silently down her cheeks. It’s wrong—it should be years before she learns to keep her grief silent. She’s too young to know the kind of heartache that strangles all sound. I want to comfort her, but there is little to be said. We both know what we’ve done. “Maybe it’s for the best,” I say quietly, and maybe it is. Not just for the world. “For you, too,” I add.

She raises her head and looks at me in disbelief. “What are you talking about?”

I can’t look at her as I speak again. “I saw you with Kyle,” I say, trying to keep the resentment out of my voice. At this moment I hate Kyle almost as much as I hate myself. Why was he so eager to help with this, anyway? But I don’t say that. “He’s turning out to be a. . .a great guy.” Those words leave a bad taste in my mouth, but I go on. “Maybe it would be better for you to be with a human.”

I catch it in her eyes—the flash of betrayal—and I know she doesn’t believe it, either. She shakes her head. “Don’t you realize what you are to me? What you’re always going to be?” she asks, and a thousand words fill my mind. Soul mate. Lover. Best friend. Husband. Partner. But she has another. “You’re the love of my life,” she says, her lips twisting in a sad smile. “Everyone else is going to be second best. There will never be another you.”

There is nothing I can say to that—no denial. I know that she is right. She may go on—I want her to go on. She may meet someone else, and though it’s hard, I can want that, too. But she won’t feel this again. This is something beyond love and I know it only comes once. We were lucky to find it. I never met anyone else who did.

“So,” she says, drawing a deep, painful breath, “Max and. . .Tess are going to be together now.”

The way she pronounces Tess’s name—with barely concealed resentment—makes me smile. It’s just the way I say Kyle’s name. I shake my head. “I don’t know,” I say honestly, and the truth is that I can’t imagine it. How could I be content with Tess when Liz is in every breath I’ve ever taken? “I don’t know anything now. This is a different world.”

She looks unimpressed by the philosophical ramifications of that. “I’m going to be alone,” she says, and I think she may be testing the words on her tongue, getting used to them.

I reach out to her. I feel that tug at the back of my ribcage again—time is short. What I say now is what I want to leave her with. What I want her to remember in case this doesn’t work—or in case it does. “Maybe,” I say. “Maybe not. From now on, the future is to be determined. It’s what I’ve always said to you, Liz. We create our own destiny.”

She gives another sad smile and after a moment, she holds out her hand. “Will you dance with me?” she asks softly.

My chest tightens so much I can barely breathe. “What?”

She smiles with tears swimming in her eyes. “I want to have my wedding dance.”

Nothing in the world could have made me refuse her at that moment, because at that moment we are no longer standing on her balcony. We are at a bar just outside Phoenix and red light is glowing all around us. I see Liz as she will be two years from now—beautiful beyond my wildest dreams, and all mine, holding out her hand to me with a smile that I’ve dreamed of every night of my life. I take her hand and we are on a dance floor all by ourselves with our song playing softly in my ears. We fit together like we always have, and we are standing on a beach in California with the sunlight in our eyes. We begin to dance and we are in a motel room, standing together at the window as the sun goes down on the first day of our marriage.

The tug is stronger now, and I think I should be afraid. But I’m not. Serena explained that when my task was done, I would simply cease to be, but I think now that she was wrong. I don’t feel like a man on the verge of darkness. There is so much in my heart—in my soul—that I know cannot just disappear. It has to go somewhere, and so I must go with it. I don’t know where—maybe heaven, maybe hell. God knows I’ve done enough to deserve either. But where ever it is, I think that she is there. I feel her—my Liz, my wife. I feel her like I always did when I walked up to our door at the end of the day and I knew she was on the other side waiting for me.

A moment ago I said I didn’t know the future, but now it all seems so clear. I don’t know how I could have been so blind. This trick we played—it will work, but only for a while. He won’t believe it forever, and sooner or later he won’t care. He will simply need her and she won’t be able to turn him away. You can’t lie to your own soul. He will know the truth somehow. He has to. I want to tell this girl that it will be okay—it won’t be perfect, and it won’t be easy, but life is like that. She has hard years ahead, but in the end she will look back and she will know it has been worth it, just like I know that know.

The tug is stronger, pulling on my whole body now. But it’s okay because there is no darkness. It’s only light. I feel the ocean on my feet and Liz’s hair damp against my neck. I taste strawberry ice cream on my tongue and it is so cold my mouth feels numb. There is red velvet beneath my hand and chilled fingers on my neck. I am back in the bar in Phoenix and we are dancing and maybe that’s what heaven is. Maybe we will dance forever in each other’s arms. She smiles at me and I take her hand to twirl her around and light overtakes me. I am blinded by it, but I know it is beautiful. And she is there.

We are together. We could never be anything else.