|posted on 6-Oct-2002 8:49:24 PM by Cookieman1234|
|The Art of Forgetting|
Author: Cookieman aka Stacey
Rating: PG 13 to R for language mostly
Disclaimer:Shockingly enough, I do not own these characters. This can be proven by many existing plotlines and of course, anything involving Tess. Many other people own these characters. They may not deserve them, but there you go. I’m borrowing them. I promise to give them back after some snuggles because they are going to need it.
Author's Note and Summary all rolled into one: Okay, duckies, basically what we have here is me changing the facts around to suit my own purposes. Everything up to It’s Too Late, And It’s Too Bad happened, but to a point. What if Liz hadn’t received the phone call from the Swedish Embassy before she climbed aboard the plane to Sweden? This story takes place in that world. Liz went to Sweden and pretty much the rest of the season played out as is, just without Liz. The aliens left, but didn’t figure out Tess’s deceptions in time. Cue dramatic music… This story is a bit outside of my norm. It’s completely Liz’s POV, set six years after that fateful day. And can I just mention in here that I think symbolism rocks and there isn’t anything in an English textbook that fascinates me more? There will be two parts and two parts exactly. No more. No less. And for the record, all grammatical mistakes are mine and mine alone and I stand by each and every one of them. I like them. They are my friends. Big kisses to Abbi, Cookie, and David on this one for giving me gentle nudges and hugs.
Attempt number three to post this story tonight. Hopefully this one will go over better than the previous two with empty subject headings. And now I owe Cookie an even bigger thanks for attempting to get rid of them for me. And I still swear that my computer did it to simply annoy me. I’m not that computer stupid that I can’t post. LOL
O! that I were as great
As my grief, or lesser than my name,
Or that I could forget what I have been,
Or not remember what I must be now.
…William Shakespeare, Richard II
The Art of Forgetting
Alcohol is good.
It can be both smooth and hot, trailing a line of fire down your throat until you can’t taste anything but the choking bitterness. Or it can be biting and cold, the kind that robs you of your breath and makes you shiver as you drink.
At the moment, Liz wasn’t sure which one she preferred more. But she knew that she hadn’t had nearly enough of either if she could still tell the difference between the two.
The pavement was uneven beneath her feet, or maybe it was her feet that were the problem. It was hard to tell since she’d seen three feet the last time she’d tried to check. But she wasn’t worried. That third foot would only get her home quicker.
If only she could remember where home was.
The wind was cold; howling as it whipped through the trees that lined the dark and empty street. All the sane people had gone home to crawl into bed with their loved ones, which just meant Liz had more of the sidewalk for herself. Less of a chance to bump into anyone and have to explain…well, anything. Her left shoulder was cold and wet. Maybe another day or time that would have worried her, but not tonight. Tonight, nothing worried Liz, not after the day she had successfully limped through.
A memory tried to surface from the back of her mind, threatening to seize hold of her body. Her heart rate pounded from it, fighting against the pain it would bring. She couldn’t relive it again, not all the faces endlessly staring and watching, waiting for a hint of some emotion to bubble up and choke her. She’d heard them talking, heard the whispered barbs and had answered them with silence. Well, silence and a bottle of brandy. Or had it been two?
He didn’t make it though surgery.
Pausing, Liz fumbled with the ridiculously long coat, looking for the pockets. She’d hidden the flask away somewhere. She was sure of it. The coat flapped in the wind, slowing her already difficult efforts. She hated the cold, hated the harsh crispness in the air that promised snow and promised it soon. Being cold on the inside was far different than being cold on the outside.
She knew all about the welcoming chill that numbed your every thought, blurred memories best left forgotten. She’d gotten so good at it; she didn’t even need liquor to dull the sharper edges. Not usually. Allowances had to be made though on bitterly cold days that were spent waiting in hospitals for news of death, when every breath had burned her lungs slowly and her skin was too tightly stretched over weary bones. She hadn’t even been in town when it had happened. Hell, she hadn’t even been in the same time zone.
Successfully finding her flask, Liz pulled it from her pocket and automatically tilted her head back for a drink. When no liquid met her lips, she focused all of her concentration on the lid. Who the hell put lids on flasks that had to be screwed on? It seemed wrong, and well…wrong. Drinking and basic motor skills did not mix. She considered blasting it off. She could do it. But she might spill the liquid inside. That thought alone stopped her from trying.
Of course, it also reminded her of the reason she was wandering the dark streets anyway. She’d run out of liquor at the house. It seemed impossible with the bar that had always been stocked but never touched. But it had happened. And some part of her brain had known that outside that large oak door would be more liquor. She just had to find it first.
Liz’s fingers caught her attention and she gazed at them thoughtfully, wiggling them hypnotically. Shouldn’t she be wearing something on them? Gloves? Was that why she was so cold?
The glint of a gold band on her finger caught her eye, winking against the soft glow of the street light behind her. She had a brief flash of moonlight and laughter, of Christmas gifts exchanged on another bitterly cold day. It wasn’t her laughter though. It was attached to the memory. Someone had been happy on that long ago night when he had given her the ring and had sworn no meaning to it.
It was never her laughter, always someone else within their group. She could barely remember when she allowed it of herself last. She’d lost the ability to laugh years ago, left it behind in the bittersweet memories of the dark, mysterious boy that had saved her life and had offered her the universe on a silver platter. Or had she left it on the tarmac when she’d climbed onto the plane for Sweden, her heart in tatters from the same boy that had shown her what it was to love? Maybe her laughter had been buried with Alex. She hadn’t needed it since his funeral anyway.
Hoping to stop her legs from giving out, Liz leaned against the cool iron fencing behind her and squeezed her eyes shut. Another memory from another funeral flashed white hot in her mind. It had been a car accident too, or at least it was what they had thought at first. And it always took more effort to shake off those memories. She was usually better than this. She could usually block faces and whole years from her memory brutally and swiftly.
Such innocence in the beginning, such beauty. They hadn’t been marred by time and destiny yet. Sometimes it was easier not to fight those memories, to give in for a moment when the solitude was too much to bear. But it was wrong today, wrong and painful. And she couldn’t do it.
She slid lifelessly to the floor, idly wondering if the liquor had melted her bones. She could picture it, wobbling her way into the lab, trying to explain what had happened. It made her giggle softly at first. He colleagues would be horrified. Or maybe they would try to dissect her. It shouldn’t have been funny, yet it was. Her laughter echoed down the deserted streets. There were no odd looks, no questions as to why even her laughter sounded hollow and bitter. Liz’s body swayed under the force of her laughter and she felt the rough concrete grate against her cheek, pebbles imbedding in her skin. The breath rushed out of her in a gust and it left her a bit dazed. When had she lain down on the floor? It hardly seemed like something that was expected of a respectable scientist. If only the disapproving hospital staff were here to see this. She knew they thought her as unapproachable, cold and stoic. Maybe she was unfeeling. She’d certainly tried her hardest to be. Had been. Wasn’t that the problem?
A shadow loomed above her, blocking the moonlight that filtered though large oak trees. She closed her eyes, fighting the urge to giggle. She had to be making a scene. Would it be the scandal of the century in the sleepy New England town or would she be dismissed as crazy, lost in her grief? It would almost be laughable, and what did that say about her? Nothing she didn’t already know certainly, but it doesn’t make it any easier to look at. Reason number three hundred and twelve why alcohol was good.
Liz opened her eyes and squinted, trying to focus. She knew that voice. It had haunted her every dream, her every nightmare for six years. She’d run from it once, and would again as soon as her legs worked. Fear wanted to seize her heart at what his being there meant. Instead, she found herself giggling, an odd almost choking sound that it took her a moment to identify. This was so far down the spectrum of how she thought their reunion would be. And she had known there would be one, had known it since the cool night when she’d felt the jarring impact of his return to the world. “Max.”
Unbidden, another memory flashed in her mind and not even the alcohol could keep it at bay. In another time, in another life, they had met like this. Only then they had been surrounded by a pool of blood and Maria’s screams. Max loomed over her now, demanding her focus and attention. And if she listened closely enough, she could swear she heard the echo of those long ago words.
It’s gonna be okay.
There was the distinct possibility that she was drunk. She could see that now, see it in a way that she hadn’t been able to when she’d stumbled out of the house earlier. So what if she was roaming the streets of a quiet town at two in the morning? That hadn’t seemed the least bit odd to her. Behavior easily dismissed as classic grief. Scientifically proven in fact. But this? This was more. She was lying on the snow-covered ground with what felt like leaves stuck to her cheek. Max was there. Finally. And all she could do was giggle. Hallucinating was something she actually found herself hoping she was capable of. But if luck had ever been on her side, she wouldn’t be here in the first place. Luck would have stopped that bullet from piercing her skin a lifetime ago. Or maybe Luck would have kept Max out of the Crashdown on that warm spring day when bullet and flesh had collided.
God, she needed more liquor. A tanker truck full of it to get through this next moment. Hands wanted to shake from something even bigger than the problems that had driven her to drink and forget.
Max was frowning at her. She could make it out through the swirl of her vision, peering down at her as if she were lying in her very own Petri dish. And it was just odd to be on that end of things. She was the one that examined. No one examined her anymore. She’d made sure of it.
His eyes, once so open and loving, were hooded and dark. And it suddenly wasn’t quite so funny anymore. She tried to sit up, but her head weighed a thousand pounds. No, it was better if she just stayed on the floor. It was a perfectly respectable place to spend one’s time anyway. And if she closed her eyes tight, it was even better. She could pretend that he wasn’t real, that he hadn’t chosen today of all days to come back to her. Or had he just come back? Alcohol was making it harder to find that line between the two and keep it there.
“Are you okay?” Strong arms wrapped around her ribs just under her armpits and pulled her upright. Her brain protested the sudden gravity shift and she found herself giggling at the lightheaded sensation. Max apparently didn’t know about her bones and wasn’t expecting her to sag back to the concrete. He lost his grip on her, skidding on a patch of ice and she fell back to the ground.
“Go away, Max. I don’t need you.” She tried to push away from him when he tried to right them a second time, but he wouldn’t budge.
“You’re – Liz, have you been drinking?”
Sagging limply, Liz rolled her head backwards and examined the world upside down. “No.”
“God. We need to get you inside. You’re freezing.”
Max’s hands were tugging at her coat, fumbling with the buttons and the familiar gesture was enough to rouse her anger. She batted at his hands, finally succeeding in pushing him away. “I don’t need your help. I don’t need your…hands.” She swept her hair out of her face dramatically and faced him with as much resolve and pride as she could muster. Unfortunately, there were two of him, so she simply picked one and addressed him first. “I can stand on my own.”
The battle won, Liz licked her lips and pushed herself up on her hands. How difficult could it be to sit up? She’d done it a million times before. It couldn’t be any trickier than ignoring Max and the way his eyes followed her every move. And she absolutely would not think about the way his hands had felt warm and familiar even through her clothes. She didn’t need his warmth.
Pushing to her knees, gravity betrayed her again for a second, but stubborn will had her rising to her feet unassisted. Okay, Max’s hand was at her elbow, but it didn’t count. She wouldn’t let it, not when it came to a battle of hard earned points. Wrapping her coat around her body, Liz created a protective cocoon that she’d be damned if she let that gaze pierce. Not again.
“I don’t need any help, Max.” Liz let his name roll off her tongue, familiar even though she hadn’t spoken it in six years. Her words were slurred to her own ears and she finally questioned whether she’d had enough to drink. But she’d be damned if she’d let Max know that. “So, go back to your home, whatever planet that happens to be on, and leave me alone.” She wanted to stab at him with her fingertip. He certainly deserved to be stabbed with a fingertip, and she had ten of them simply waiting for the chance to line up and draw numbers. She made a quick movement towards him and the sudden shift in gravity reminded her why she’d been shuffling down the sidewalk in the first place. Liquor and…well, moving didn’t mix.
She expected to fall forward, back to the pavement but Max caught her easily. Since when could Max’s arms move so quickly? She never had the chance to fall far as Max’s hands caught her waist.
“I’m taking you home.”
Liz’s world tilted suddenly as her legs were swept out from under her. She wanted to protest, but her lips were moving about as well as her legs were. Besides, there was something wrong with the sidewalk and her third foot was just getting in the way.
“Which one is your home?”
“I don’t have a home.” Liz rolled her head back again, liking the way things looked upside down. But she pointed in the general direction of where the house should be. “I have a house and a car. Oh, Max, you should see my car.” She sighed. “It’ll take me anywhere I want to go. Any time. Can you imagine the freedom in just…escaping? Didn’t have that in Roswell.”
“And that’s important to you?”
If Liz had been a bit more sober, maybe she would have tried to analyze the note in his voice, that soft tone she used to know so well. But then if she’d been more sober, she supposed she wouldn’t be letting Max carry her home in the dead of night. Which brought her thoughts to a dead halt. Since when did she let Max carry her?
“You’re not allowed to carry me anymore. You don’t have my permission.” She made a token effort to push at his hands, but it was half-hearted at best and he seemed to know that. It was just another reason to curse his name. In fact, it made her want to brush up on the dozen languages her old roommate had made her learn the basics of. Because cursing his name in just one language simply wasn’t enough.
“Then I promise never to do it again once I get you inside.” Hint of sarcasm in his voice that seemed out of place, but did it really matter?
“Okay.” Another battle won and her struggles stopped. If Liz had been on her feet, she would have done a happy dance. But she wasn’t, so she hummed a tune of victory under her breath. If things kept up, she would win this war for sure. What was she trying to win again? Could she get a toaster? A years’ supply of turtle wax? The thought made her giggle again.
Max exhaled, sighing deeply and the movement pushed his chest against hers. Liz refused to acknowledge the little bolts of lust that sizzled beneath her skin. She’d gotten over Max Evans a long time ago. It was amazing really how easy it had been to get over a boyfriend when he left the planet with his pregnant wife. Liz learned years ago that life was funny that way.
Max’s arms tightened around her as he climbed up the steps to her front door. Recognizing the small garden gnomes hidden near the bushes, Liz remembered why she hated her neighbor. “Max, can you do me a favor?”
“What?” Liz let Max shift her in his arms while he dug in her coat pockets. She should ask him what he was doing, demand he put her down and leave. But that damn gnome was smiling at her as if he knew all of her secrets. And…was he winking? He had to be stopped.
Liz let her head roll until it fit on Max’s shoulder. Her old spot. She raised her eyes to meet his, some part of her brain warning that not only had Max stopped all movement, but his gaze was riveted on her face. Her own gaze sharpened and suddenly, Max was close. Too close for people that didn’t get close anymore. Bells, whistles and foghorns rang between her ears. But she ignored them all with the ease of longstanding practice.
He was looking at her expectantly. Why was that? Oh. She had asked him something. “Can you kill the gnome?”
“What?” Liz had the satisfaction of seeing Max blink in confusion. She grinned at him.
“The gnome…in the bushes.” She leaned close enough to Max to see the golden ring of color in his eyes. Fascinated, she watched as they dilated. “He’s looking at me.” Was that her voice whispering?
Max chuckled, a short bark that seemed to surprise him. “How much have you had to drink anyway?”
“Not nearly enough. I can still walk.”
“You’re not walking, Liz.”
“Oh.” Why were they still standing outside? Oh right. “My keys are in my pocket.” At least she was pretty sure that was what she felt digging into her thigh.
Max seemed to consider it a second before reaching briefly into Liz’s pants pocket for the keys. Liz watched as he slid the key into the lock and then he was carrying her through the open doorway. Everything was different than she remembered it inside. It had been a shock earlier that afternoon, but not so much of a shock now. She hadn’t lived here in almost a year after all.
The sight of her own furniture reminded her that she was angry and that Max was still carrying her around like a sick child. Enough was enough. Swatting at his hands, Liz wriggled until Max released his grip on her legs. Her knees gave way beneath her for one embarrassing second as her feet hit the ground, but she was able to grip the back of the couch in time to avoid making a fool of herself. Smoothing her hair back, Liz straightened and met Max’s worried gaze. She tried to throw everything into a glare, but couldn’t be sure if she had even stopped laughing from the absurdity of it all. “I’m home now. You can go.”
“Why isn’t someone with you?” Why was Max turning on lights and walking around her living room like that? Like he belonged there, fit smoothly into her life. Didn’t he know she didn’t want him there? She had told him, hadn’t she? It made her frown in thought.
“Why would someone be with me?” She was used to being alone. She liked being alone. But Max’s gaze shifted so suddenly, it had her reeling backwards. And then she remembered. Breath knocked out of her, Liz sunk to the couch. “He’s dead.” The word was strange, foreign, and tasted like regret.
“I’m sorry.” The softness of his voice threatened to unravel her and that was unacceptable.
“You don’t owe me an apology.” He did. They both knew it was a lie, but Liz didn’t want his pity. Not now. He was ruining her ability to block it all out, to drink herself into oblivion. Everything was riding on her ability to block this out, just like everything and everyone else. Out of sight, out of mind. She didn’t need people. People were bad. They made you believe and then they hurt you in the end. People just sucked and Liz decided she didn’t want to be one anymore. And maybe, just maybe if she drank enough, she could forget the last nine years.
“I know about Josh.”
Liz’s eyes flared and she turned to look at Max quickly. “You don’t know anything about Josh.” How could he when she really hadn’t known him herself? Her choice. Always her choice now. It should have surprised her that Max knew who Josh was, but she had allowed her family to think they had been involved. It had been easier that way, and Josh had never minded. It had been an unrecognized dream of his, one that had definitively proved how completely screwed up her life had become.
“I know you loved him.”
Liz closed her eyes again. There it was. How could she explain to Max the truth? Or to anyone for that matter? She could feel the alcohol sloshing in her stomach and she wondered again exactly what she’d mixed together. What would he think of her if he knew she hadn’t loved even someone as lovable as Josh? Someone that her friends and family thought she had been engaged to? She was still drunk enough to consider flinging the truth to the ground between them just to see what he would do. But that meant things would change and change was the very definition of bad.
That horrible silence fell between them, the one that had always separated them by a mile of secrets and lies. Only this time it was the truth that pulled at them until the distance was insurmountable. How surprising was it really that the truth turned out to be the greatest divider of them all?
Liz was suddenly tired. Tired and…almost sober, which was a frightening thought and it wouldn’t do. She couldn’t do this sober, couldn’t face the failure of her life with Max sucking up all the air in the room.
“Go back to her, Max.”
“I’m not with Tess.” It was a testament to all that stood between them that he knew who and what she was talking about.
Liz tried to tell herself she didn’t care, tried to tell herself that it didn’t matter. And wasn’t it funny that she could still be bitter about something…someone she had gotten over?
“Is that what this is about? You showing up unannounced? You don’t have a girl to call your own and you heard I was single again? Came to finish what never should have been started?” It was mean and so far from what the girl he once knew might have said to him, but she felt like being mean. Josh was dead. Alex was dead. And it always…always came back to this same circle. A dance that was never really a dance because that would mean they had to admit they were looking at each other first.
Flash of pain in those eyes and…good. There should be pain. It should hurt him, because if it didn’t, how could she justify the last six years of her own pain?
“I can’t believe no one is here with you.” He was already reaching for the phone, his whole body shifted away from her. Closed off. And she was disappointed. She’d braced for a fight, needed one. Why wouldn’t he give it to her? “I should call someone.”
“No. Don’t call.” Liz laid her head back on the couch. If Max wasn’t going to fight with her, she wasn’t going to bother with him. It was all they had left. Half-truths and arguments that needed to be hashed out until there was nothing but empty silence and a contest to see who could bring up the weather first.
Since when did the ceiling spin like that? Had she simply never noticed it before? Because she could look at it all day. Hypnotizing in a bizarre sort of way. She could almost believe that if she tilted her head just right, the answers to the universe were there for the taking.
“You didn’t tell them.” It was more of a statement than a question, so Liz didn’t bother answering. Plus, she couldn’t really remember the question anyway. How could she anyway when the ceiling was too interesting not to pay attention to?
“How doesn’t anyone know?” Oh, right. That question.
“It’s easy when you don’t talk.” Maria’s voice in her head, telling her they would come back. It had been hard, so hard to listen, to see her best friend hang her hopes on a slim maybe when Liz herself had nothing left to hang her hopes on. She hadn’t even dared to hope there would be a return. Because it would only mean a welcome home to the entire Evans clan, and it had been appalling to discover that she had the capacity to hate small children with golden hair for years after she’d found out.
Not so slim of a maybe now though with her ex-alien standing in her living room.
She wanted to giggle at the new title, but managed to suppress it. Max’s presence was making her question things she’d told herself she didn’t need or want to know. Had Maria waited for Michael? Did Maria even know anything about her new life? It had been easy not to make that phone call. Years of practice there.
“I don’t want anyone here. Don’t call.” Sweat trickled down her arm and it was suffocating. Why was it so hot in the room? There was another vague memory of turning the thermostat as high as it would go. She’d called it a science experiment to see if it was possible to melt away a lifetime worth of ice and chill. Angry again, Liz pushed to her feet. Her coat tangled around her legs and she fought to strip it off. It didn’t go easy, and she forced it off her arms to let it crumple on the floor.
“God, Liz, your arm.”
Warm fingers were on her shoulder before she could blink. She glanced down and was surprised to see slick blood on her skin, a coppery red that trailed down her arm and stained her clothes. When had that happened? “Huh.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?”
“Didn’t know.” Liz stretched through the alcohol-induced fog to come up with an incident that would have produced an injury. “I fell. I think.” There was a flash of a memory that involved stumbling. Had that been before she’d left her house? She was pretty sure it had been. But she didn’t see any blood or glass in the living room. How odd.
“We need to get you cleaned up.” Before Liz could even form a protest, Max was pushing her towards the hallway. She stumbled and cursed her third foot for getting in the way. She was going to have to do something about that really soon. Max was pushing open doors, peering inside of them for something then moving on to the next. He came to one room at the end of the hall and pushed it open easily. Liz guessed whatever he was looking for he’d found because he was pushing her inside the room now.
And…oh, it was the yellow guestroom, a hideous room that had always seemed too bright and happy for any normal person to want to spend time in. She remembered picking out curtains with a decorator. She’d hated those damn curtains every time she’d looked at them after that day. Just something horrid about the color and the design, but she had been assured they were appropriate in a way that the ones she had liked were not.
Maybe she could strangle the gnomes with the curtains.
Liz found herself sitting on the yellow bed. Max was moving efficiently around the room and Liz was concentrating on his movements so intently that she forgot to throw him out. He disappeared into the connecting bathroom and came back with a first aid kit. She stared at him, daring him to sit beside her on the bed. She might not have the strength to throw him out the front door, but she was pretty sure she could summon up some form of power to zap him. And wouldn’t it be worth it to see the look on his face?
“This might hurt a bit.” His eyes were soft again, tender and she almost wished that he was still closed off. He was easier to deal with then, easier to ignore and brush aside. But no, he had to be wearing his puppy dog eyes, and it reminded her of a freakish Mr. Potato Head. Max had a set of eyes for every situation. They could be cold, so much colder than the chill that lived inside of her. And they could be warm and clear, offering a glimpse of things you never knew you wanted until it was in front of you in vivid Technicolor.
Too soon…or was it too late…those eyes slid away, focusing on her arm. And he was applying something cold and antiseptic smelling to her arm with more care than anyone had shown her in months…years. Who knew? She didn’t keep track of that sort of thing. She didn’t need it. But somehow she could remember going three whole weeks once without having spoken a word to another living soul. That had been an experiment of a different sort that Josh had ruined with an ill timed visit.
“Why are you here?” She hadn’t meant to ask the question, and she really wasn’t sure if she wanted an answer. She did know that she wanted him gone, out of her life without the backward glance she hadn’t gotten the first time. Max Evans made it hard to forget.
“You needed someone.” As if it were ever really that simple.
“Not you. Not anymore.” Liz wasn’t sure why she was letting him take care of her arm. He was taking away the rich red color that had stained her skin.
“I know that.” Soft voice, wounded and bleeding from a deep cut that hadn’t, or maybe couldn’t heal. “But you need someone right now, and if you won’t let me call someone else, then you’re stuck with me.”
Liz watched impassively as Max wound a length of gauze around her arm. It didn’t hurt as badly as it did before, and the fact that she could even feel some of the pain didn’t bode well for what it would feel like later when the alcohol wore off altogether. She supposed she could just start drinking all over again tomorrow, but she really wasn’t interested in becoming that weak. She was strong. Usually. She’d had to be in order to survive what she’d survived in high school.
Liz didn’t have anything to say to Max’s soft statement, so she kept her mouth closed. Gone were her earlier giggles. Max was standing beside the bed with the ugly yellow comforter watching her with sad Potato Head eyes. And maybe it was true. Maybe she did need someone to keep the cold away for a few hours. But she couldn’t let it be him. She couldn’t survive it a second time.
“You should leave, Max. I’ll be fine in the morning. Hung over, but fine.”
Max nodded, but didn’t say if he was agreeing with her about being hung over or about leaving. Instead, he picked up the first aid supplies and took a step toward the bed. “You should lie down. Get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a rough day.”
She didn’t want to sleep. She wanted to roam the house room by room looking for changes that had occurred in her absence. She wanted to see if Josh still had that horrible red hockey jersey she’d bought him as a joke years ago, but she found herself nodding anyway. Max drew back the covers and she slipped under them, not bothering to do anything with her clothes. The sheets, though a pale shade of yellow, were soft beneath her and she found her eyes closing before she could command them to do otherwise.
Briefly, she thought she felt the gentle pressure of fingertips on her forehead, but that had to have been a mistake. No touch could ever be so light. Darkness crept around the edges of her consciousness and Liz decided to stop fighting it. She would have to sleep eventually. And hopefully it would come without dreams of any kind.
Liz awoke anxiously, feeling the weight of a gaze on her. She opened her eyes, realized that it wasn’t just any gaze she had felt. Max was sitting in a large armchair by the window, watching her. His eyes were probing, and instead of breaking the gaze as he once might have done when caught, he held it, daring her to look away. A memory stirred in the back of her mind, only she had never lived a moment like this with Max. She had never woken to the sleepy face of her lover, never shared a moment of intimacy like this. She had dreamed of it though, her unconscious mind yearning for it the way she would never allow when she was in control of her emotions.
She wasn’t sure if she’d been hoping to discover she was capable of alcohol induced hallucinations or not. Max, apparently, was real. It could have been comforting to know she hadn’t been drunk enough to make up his presence, but it still meant that Max was watching her sleep. Or watching her watch him, which is what they had moved into.
She felt…did it even matter what she felt? The simple fact that his gaze could make her feel anything was enough to unnerve her. Sunlight was filtering in through the window beside Max, framing his profile with the dancing dust motes that had been this room’s only inhabitants for so long. And it hurt her eyes.
Max shifted and he lightened his gaze, offering her what could have been a smile if it hadn’t been for the fissures of pain marring it. “Good morning.”
Not How did you sleep? or Sorry you caught me watching you sleep like a psycho. Though she shouldn’t have been surprised by the lack of apology. Some things never changed. Shifting to sit up, pain lanced from her head to the rest of her body and Liz remembered why she didn’t drink. She raised a hand to the side of her head to see if she could prevent it from exploding before she was able to find a less painful way to die.
Max unfolded himself from the armchair, long limbs moving toward her with a purposeful stride she didn’t recognize. “Here. I brought you some water. I couldn’t find any aspirin though.”
Liz nodded, forcing her hand to take the glass from Max and drink the cool liquid in small sips. She didn’t keep aspirin, hadn’t ever needed it. Just another charming alien quirk she’d picked up over the years. This pain would subside within fifteen or twenty minutes just as it had when she’d discovered the lack of hangovers in college. On the other hand, it felt as if she had downed a swimming pools’ worth of alcohol. Relief might take an hour.
“Thank you.” She kept Max in her peripheral vision, noting that he didn’t make a move to back away. So many little things were different. It made her realize she didn’t really know him anymore at all. Which was…odd. There were just some things in the universe she had come to count on. She had known Max better than his own mother had. And if that changed, what else had too?
“You might want to take a shower. I hear it helps.”
Liz fisted the yellow comforter in her hands and glanced down at herself. And there was a brief flash of relief that she was still fully dressed. She remembered seeing Max for the first time last night, but there was still an embarrassing amount that she didn’t remember.
“You didn’t…say anything. Last night.” Max stuffed his hands in his pockets and Liz tried not to resent him for being able to read her mind so easily. “You wouldn’t really talk to me.”
“Right.” Truthfully, she remembered watching a nest of birds in a tree somewhere and wanting to cry over how happy they looked in the damn tree. And then something about gnomes.
She was never drinking again.
Huffing out a breath, Liz pulled back the covers and shifted until her feet hit the wood floors. Thank god the ground was steady beneath her feet. She didn’t say anything to Max as she shuffled toward the bathroom that held the items she’d brought with her. What could she say that he apparently hadn’t already plucked from her body language anyway? Besides, she was afraid the only words she had left for him were to leave, and in the light of day, his presence didn’t seem as frightening. And there wasn’t as much room for the cold.
She took an hour, stripping and standing beneath the spray of the shower, hot enough to peel off a layer of skin. She had dawdled, taking the time she usually didn’t to blow dry her hair and then pin it back ruthlessly with clips and pins. She applied a touch of make up, enough to hide the circles under her eyes. Automatically, she slipped on a pair of black slacks and a black turtleneck to match from the overstuffed closet she had never emptied. It was one of those things she’d told herself she would come back someday to do.
She’d never actually voiced the plan. Josh wouldn’t have allowed it. He’d insisted that it was her home too, even if she didn’t live in it. A gift from parents with too much money and no interest in love. He’d wanted to give her a place she could run to. And she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been disappointed that she never had. All of her running was done internally now anyway. If nothing else, last night had taught her that there was no place she could run where she would be safe from Max.
A quick examination of her arm reaffirmed what she’d already known. Most of the damage was already healed, leaving only a small crease in her skin. By nightfall, it would be another scar that didn’t exist.
It crossed her mind briefly that she could conceivably stay in the bathroom all day if she wanted. How long would it be before Max came looking for her? Another hour? Could she claim two more hours before she had to face him and the rest of the world? It was tempting to hide and see. But there were things she had to do this morning, papers that needed to be signed.
Left without any of the tedious everyday tasks, Liz smoothed her hands down the side of her pants and left the safety of the bathroom. Max wasn’t waiting for her in the yellow bedroom, and Liz left it quickly to head down the hall. Following the faint smell of coffee, she found Max in the kitchen. Her step faltered when she saw him in the sunny kitchen, scowling into a coffee mug. Pausing in the doorway, she examined him the way she hadn’t had the sense to the previous night.
It was Max, of that there was no doubt. Even if she hadn’t recognized the eyes, she could still see the boy she’d known in every graceful arch of muscle. He was a bit taller, certainly leaner and she didn’t think it was her imagination that in the warm kitchen light he looked older than he should.
Deciding it was too soon to analyze any of it, Liz pushed off the doorframe and entered the kitchen. Max’s head rose to meet her as she strode across the kitchen. Automatically, he moved to pour her a cup. She had no memories of Josh in this room. It hadn’t been one of his habits to cook. But then Liz hadn’t officially lived here more than a few months. There were no memories of love and laughter here. And for that reason alone, she decided to stay in the kitchen for awhile longer.
It should have bothered her to see Max move so effortlessly in a place where he shouldn’t. But if she examined that, there were a thousand other things she would have to examine too. So, she didn’t bother.
“Yeah.” It was almost a juggling act to take the steaming mug without actually having to touch Max, but she managed. It just seemed wrong on a sunny morning when she still had to make funeral arrangements for Josh. Liz pulled a chair away from the glass table and sat down carefully. She heard Max sit across from her, but she didn’t look at him yet. This would be hard enough without watching him change out those eyes again.
“Max, I…I don’t even know where to begin.” Short, humorless laugh and Liz wished her hair was still down just so she could run her fingers through it in frustration. But that had been why she’d put it up in the first place. That and the twisted knowledge that it just might remind Max that she was a different person now. No longer his. “I owe you thanks.”
“You don’t owe me anything, Liz.”
“Yes I do. I was…out of it last night.” Which was painful to admit, even to herself much less out loud. But it needed to be said. “Josh was…it was a shock.” Liz wondered if she would be able to make a single statement all morning that wouldn’t be blatantly obvious. “Trust me when I say that I could have done something stupid if you hadn’t shown up and brought me home.”
Liz swallowed, trying to shut down her mind before the guilt and anger resurfaced. It had been stupid to drink herself into oblivion and risk exposing everything. What if she’d used her powers or had hurt someone? As it was, her shoulder still throbbed, but that was sure to be gone by the end of the day.
“You needed a friend.” Stated so simply as if it had been the most natural thing in the world for him to have accidentally found her wandering the streets in a drunken stupor, as if there weren’t years of lies, truth and anguish lying between them.
“We’re not friends, Max.” She wasn’t out to hurt him, didn’t have the strength at the moment to bother with it. It was taking everything within her not to get up and run to the nearest airport. She could be on an airplane in under an hour, away from this town, from this house, the hospital with its white halls, and from the man calmly sitting across from her.
“I know that.” He raised his eyes now and Liz was sorry that she had looked. The eyes were back, pleading with her for a dozen different things and she couldn’t even name them all. “I owe you an apology, but not right now. Today…this…isn’t about what happened six years ago. Your fiancee died yesterday and you don’t have anyone here to help you. You need someone, Liz. I don’t care what you say, I’m not leaving you alone. So, either call someone else and kick me out…”
“Or don’t.” Max didn’t have to say what would happen if she let him stay. Some things were inevitable. They would have to talk eventually. Tomorrow, next week, what did it matter? They would talk, yell more than likely, and she would be forced to face the past she had spent so many years avoiding. She would have to face the ugly truth behind why she hadn’t been able to love a man that had so desperately deserved it.
She could tell him to leave, call a random acquaintance to pacify him until he was firmly on the other side of the oak door. And he might just leave and not simply hang out behind the bushes in the front yard with the garden gnomes, another fixture that knew too many of her secrets. Or.
“I have to go to the hospital. Papers need to be signed. They said they would have the name of a funeral home, but I don’t know if Josh had a burial plot picked out.” So many things she didn’t know. She’d known Josh for three years, had lived with him for almost half that time, and she didn’t know much more about him than the fact that he didn’t cook.
Max nodded and exchanged the pleading eyes for a more guarded pair, neutral enough to do what had to be done. “There would be papers.”
“His study.” Liz hadn’t gone in there yet, couldn’t. “I guess I need to go through some of his things, see what sort of investments he had.” She blew out a steady breath. “His lawyer would know I guess. Maybe his accountant.” She was already making a mental list of people she had to call. The sheer volume of what the day would hold was staggering.
A warm hand covered hers, offering warmth and maybe comfort. But even the brief touch of skin was enough to throw her back to another time when such gestures had seemed forbidden and were treasured. Didn’t she have five pages in her old diary dedicated to the first time he’d held her hand in public? “We’ll make a list and get through it all in time.”
It would be easy to turn her hand over, let their palms caress. So, she tugged it out from beneath his and wrapped it around the cooling coffee mug. Her gaze slid past Max and out the window. There were storm clouds, but the sun was still shining bright. It would snow soon, sometime in the next few days and the world would be blanketed. Liz usually hated the cold, but at that moment she craved it, needed it in a way she couldn’t describe or explain. And maybe Max did understand that somehow. Maybe he was the only one that could, an understanding born of circumstances that had torn down and destroyed relationships and lives alike.
She wouldn’t tell him to leave, but she wouldn’t ask him to stay either.
Silence settled around them and Liz let it. Sometimes it was okay to let things simply be.
The steady click of Liz’s heels on the hospital linoleum reverberated throughout the halls. Max followed a half step behind her, always careful to give her space. She’d even wondered if part of his brain had been dedicated to the task of making sure there was no possible way for them to accidentally brush against each other. He probably mentally measured the distance between them in inches too. It seemed like the kind of thing Max would do. At least the Max she used to know.
She remembered this hallway, remembered running down it not twelve hours before. She’d been in London when the accident had happened. It had taken the hospital three days to find her, to tell her Josh had been hanging onto his life by a thread. And he had died alone.
Max hadn’t said anything to her since they’d left the kitchen, but he hadn’t left his spot at her elbow either. It was enough for now to be able to feel him nearby. Maybe she would think about that later, in the safety of that damn yellow bed that was growing on her. But in the harsh fluorescent hospital lighting, she wasn’t ready to see those things.
The piece of her that had begun to thaw in the kitchen that morning refroze as she approached the nurses’ station. More concerned glances were thrown her way and she wanted to run from them. Instead, she stood, accepting the stares along with the papers they handed her to sign. They were explaining the papers, a release slip for the body, a release for Josh’s personal items. Didn’t they know that she didn’t care what the papers said? She could be signing away everything she owned to Greenpeace for all she cared.
The hospital was stifling, choking her slowly as they continued to bring her paper after paper to sign. She scribbled her name another dozen or so times, hoping each time would be the last. She couldn’t help but wonder how these people didn’t know she was a fraud. They were looking at her with sad, knowing eyes but they didn’t really see anything. She hadn’t been engaged to Josh anymore than she had ever been engaged to Max. But here they were, letting her sign her name as if Josh had belonged to her in some way.
Max for his part was sitting quietly to her left. Occasionally, he would get up to bring her another cup of coffee or a bag of chips. It had unnerved her earlier when he’d brought her a bag of Fritos, which was possibly the only thing she could have stomached. Somehow, that small detail should have escaped his mind. He conveniently forgot about her whole existence when it came to blonde ex-aliens, but not when it came to her junk food of choice? It was amazingly unfair that ex’s could be allowed to remember things that they shouldn’t. And though she had eaten the bag, she had cursed him with every bite.
It took the better part of the morning to make sure that everything was in order. One of the release slips had been missing and it had taken too long for the nurses to find the correct form. And by the time she had finally breathed in fresh air, her nerves were bunched and twisted. The silence between her and Max was all too present and she wondered where her small talk abilities had disappeared to. Idle chitchat would have been preferable even to this. It was too familiar.
Because it seemed so wrong to talk until they were safely back inside the house, Liz let the silence settle. Max parked his car in the street and Liz climbed out, still not sure why she hadn’t driven her car. But Max had just been in a take charge mood that morning, and she’d been more than happy to let him. Besides, arguing would have meant actually talking, and Liz was putting that one off for as long as she possibly could.
Denial, thy name is Liz Parker.
Unlocking the door, Liz tried not to let the garden gnomes bother her, but she could feel their beady stare a mile away. Max followed her inside, waiting as she stripped off her coat and gloves. Hanging them in the closet, Liz turned to where Max stood in the foyer, uncertain what needed to be done next. There was simply too much. Nothing was simple anymore and she was beginning to suspect it never would be again. Not in a world where good people were allowed to die.
“Come on. I’ll make lunch.”
Surprised, Liz looked up. Had she thought that Max’s take charge mood had ended when they’d arrived at the hospital? Max was already disappearing into the kitchen and she could only follow. There wasn’t exactly a list of reasons why eating lunch was a bad idea. And if they were eating, it left less room for talking. Which, frankly, was a fantastic idea.
By the time she made it into the kitchen, Max was already rummaging through the fridge. He didn’t ask for her help, so she didn’t offer it. Taking a seat at one of the barstools, she found herself rearranging a rack of spices. Monotony was good. It filled the mind and didn’t leave room for earth shattering realizations like she was sharing the same breathing space with Max Evans again. As long as she could keep that thought from truly sinking in, the big question would be whether the spices should be arranged alphabetically or by color.
“Sure.” Alphabetically won the argument.
“What’s on the list for this afternoon?”
Liz pulled the little jars of spice from their slots and lined them upon the counter. “Phone calls. I think I’ll set up the funeral for the day after tomorrow. There’s a lot that needs to be done.” Liz moved the jars now, aligning them by letter. “Josh has…had.” Small pause while the reality of that still tried to sink in. “Josh had a lot of investments, some property. I’ll have to put it all on the market.”
“What did he do?”
Liz smiled a little, but it never quite reached her eyes. “He was studying to be a doctor. Cardiology. We met in school.” Memories of late night study sessions and conversations over bad coffee and cold pizza sprang immediately to mind. Josh had been a year older and despite her repeated refusals to go out with him, he hadn’t stopped trying.
“You knew him for a long time.” Voice unreadable, far off and she left him there. Safer all around.
“Yeah. He was…the only real friend I had left.” It had been so easy to push Kyle and Maria away, to leave them behind in the sticky clutches of the tourist town that held too much truth. People had come and gone since then, but Josh had stuck, even when it had been annoying. And he had been the only person to care, the only one to call and make sure she was eating or sleeping or listening to Bobby Darin on a regular basis. Josh had loved Bobby Darin.
“You know, there are…” Max seemed to change his mind, leaving whatever he meant to say unsaid. “What do you do now?”
“At the moment? Nothing. You could say I’m in the middle of a mid life crisis, only I’m not old enough for one.” Of course, she could theoretically argue the point that the things she’d seen and done in her short life were more than most people even read about in fiction novels. But she wouldn’t. Max was looking at her sharply over a loaf of bread. She sighed, guessing she would have to explain that one. So much for cryptic comments. “I quit my job last week. It was…less than satisfying.” The long hours and lonely nights had appealed to her once, but not lately. Something had been missing, something vital that she’d been unable to put her finger on.
“So, you did it then? Molecular Biology at Harvard?” The awe and pride in his voice was unmistakable and tinged with a note of regret. And…that’s right. Had Max even graduated? It was just another little nugget to put in the Things Liz Didn’t Know About Max box.
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” The spice bottles were arranged alphabetically, but they just looked wrong. Maybe color coded was the better way to go. It was chilly inside the room and Liz wanted to search for firewood. Would a crackling fire warm her in a way nothing else had been able to?
“So, you were moving back here then? Will you stay here still?”
For some unexplainable reason, Liz wanted to tell Max everything, to unburden her soul. She wanted to tell Max about her non-engagement with Josh, about the not so funny story that had started it all, about the long nights when she’d had to force herself not to wonder what Max was doing and if he was okay and how Josh had understood without ever making her say the words aloud. Instead, she found herself meeting his eyes over the spice rack.
“Why didn’t you come see me before last night?” Shit. Had she really just said that? And, okay. Apparently, she had. Max’s startled eyes widened even further. She’d surprised him with the question. Good. She’d surprised herself too. Quickly, he lowered his head again, picking up the two plates and bringing them to the glass table.
And Liz was back to being angry with Max, with herself, with the world. The answer wasn’t as important as it had been a second ago, and she just wanted to escape. She wanted the words back so she could keep pretending the hurt wasn’t there. Amazing how bitterness could grow and wind its way through the heart even if it had been a cold, empty chamber for years.
Max had no intention of answering her question, not in the sunny kitchen over a plate of sandwiches. With swift strides, Liz moved to the glass table. She snatched the plate off the counter and idly noticed he’d made her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The bastard.
“I’ll take mine in the study.” Without another word, without waiting to see if he was following, Liz turned toward the hallway. Sure, she’d thrown a minor tantrum, but it had felt good. Really good in a way that being adult didn’t. She carried that fire through the heavy oak doors of the study that Josh had all but lived in and she stopped cold in the doorway.
Suddenly the question of her cut shoulder was no longer a question. Shards of glass littered the wood floorboards. This was where she had fallen? What had she even been doing in the study? She took another step inside and saw the empty brandy bottle on the far side of the desk, and she remembered. Josh kept the good liquor in his study. It was nice to know she’d at least drowned her sorrows in expensive brandy. Josh would have been proud.
Max, of course, had followed her. And didn’t it just figure he’d be there to see this? The evidence of her weakness glittered in the artificial light, thousands of tiny glass shards that caught their reflection and twisted it a million different ways. He stood next to her for a second, studying the glass as if it held some sort of answer. Maybe the broken bottle held more answers for Max than the full bottle had offered her the night before. But he didn’t look at her and she was grateful for it. She wasn’t ready to see what eyes he was wearing.
“I’ll find the broom.” Not a hint of anger, or disdain, or…judgment. She felt petty for sniping at him in the kitchen, but it was a justifiable pettiness. So it was okay.
Liz closed her eyes and took a settling breath. She crunched her way over broken glass and set her lunch down on the desk. Max appeared a few minutes later with a broom and she made an effort to rise and help him. But he waved her back down and set about cleaning the floor himself.
Things were more comfortable after that, as if some balance had been restored. At least enough of one for them to work together, and it was uneasy to admit how quickly Liz was becoming used to having Max around. Together, they’d made quick work of organizing Josh’s papers. One stack held papers they could deal with on their own. Another slightly larger stack held papers Liz needed to take to either Josh’s lawyer or accountant. But by the time the sun had sunk completely below the horizon, most of Josh’s investments had been dealt with in one way or another. Liz had made all of the funeral arrangements. It had helped that Josh had even less family than she did, but he’d had a lot more friends.
By ten, she’d been drained physically and mentally. She’d called the last of Josh’s friends on the west coast and the emotional toll had been more than she’d been prepared for. Everyone had loved Josh, expressing sympathies and sharing a story of some sort. Liz had let them. Just because she grieved by pulling inward didn’t mean the rest of the world would too. Dinner had consisted of more sandwiches. Ham and cheese this time, food she hadn’t even known she wanted until it was in front of her. Still annoying, but with a hint of humor this time. Maybe Max had developed the ability to read minds over the years. Stranger things had happened.
Finally, she sat back in the plush chair. Max was still making neat stacks of paper on the floor and she wondered if he would continue to do so all night if she asked. They hadn’t spoken beyond the necessary questions since lunch and Liz was left feeling colder than ever. That roaring fire was sounding like a better idea every minute.
“Hmm?” Was it wrong that he looked impossibly young and irresistible on the floor? It would be so easy to just pretend there wasn’t six years standing between them. When she didn’t answer right away, he raised his head. And it just…hell. Not that look, the caring, concerned one that made her think she was the only person on the face of the earth. It had been years, years since she’d been on the receiving end of that stare. It was enough to break down the defenses she’d built up brick by brick, protecting her against just this very thing.
“Liz?” And it was even worse when he spoke, pouring tenderness into the word, whispering her name with hushed reverence.
Liz swallowed and forced herself out of the chair. Away from those eyes and that voice. “I think we should call it a night. There isn’t much left to be done.”
Max nodded, dropping his gaze again. The moment was gone and Liz could breath. Max straightened the last of his papers and Liz could do nothing but stand still and watch. She watched the quiet certainty he carried himself with now. The Max Evans she’d known as a boy had been quiet, shy, but had longed to be seen. The man before her now was none of those things and yet all of them at the same time. He was quieter, almost possessing the ability to sink into the shadows and hide there. His presence was more commanding than ever though, a man who had finally learned what to do with the power given to him. He belonged in his own skin now, but it was a weary fit.
For the first time since Max’s face had reappeared in her line of sight, Liz really wondered what had happened to Max. They’d all been gone by the time Liz had returned from Sweden. She wanted to ask about Tess, if she was still alive. Wouldn’t it be something if she was on Earth? Liz had created a hundred colorful ways to kill Tess herself over the years. It was a question that she would definitely pose. Later. When the mythical perfect moment presented itself and such questions could be asked and answered as if they held no more weight than a conversation about the weather.
But Tess was the least of her worries at the moment. And had she ever thought she’d be able to make that particular statement? Max had finally come to her. Only, this Max was…broken. There was no spark of life, no hope for the future. It reminded her of the desert, how the sands could choke anything that dared to try to live within its boundaries. And…maybe it reminded her a little too closely of the image in her own mirror. Or it would if she bothered to really look anymore.
Watching Max stand, Liz realized she was filled with nervous energy. It was rolling just beneath her skin, clawing at her for…something. She didn’t want to sleep, wasn’t ready to shut herself up in the yellow bedroom and pretend. “Do you know how to light a fire?”
Surprise showed for a second, but then it was sucked back into the desert sands. “Yeah.”
“The den has a large fireplace. We could light a fire.” And was this the stupidest idea she’d had in months or what? If he went along with this ludicrous plan, she would have to talk. To Max. About something. She should just go to bed. Alone. Leave Max alone and leave the questions unasked. But of their own accord, her lips were still moving. “Unless you’re tired.”
“No. Not at all.” Liz sighed in…relief…despair? Max had answered a second too eagerly and it was as confusing as every other word seemed to be. She was going to look into getting her jaw wired shut in the morning. Or maybe just have her lips sewn together to be on the safe side.
“The den’s this way.” She must have hit her head last night. It was the only plausible explanation for what she was doing. She was possessed by someone that was forcing her to talk to Max. It was bizarre, but in a way that she’d once been used to. Somehow, Liz had forgotten the almost hypnotic power Max had once held over her.
Liz’s thoughts carried her to the den, keeping her company as she watched Max align firewood and twist newspaper. She could have lit the thing herself, but it would have involved alien powers, and she wasn’t ready for that level of show and tell yet.
And then there was nothing left to do but sit on the old leather couch Josh had found second hand at some yard sale a million years ago. The fire crackled in front of them, the only sound that dared break the silence that had fallen. Max was sitting beside her, but still keeping the requisite twelve inches of space between them. Twelve inches of space that still could hold more charge than any two beings on the planet had the right to create.
The minutes melted together one by one until there was an official lull in conversation. The mood had shifted somehow into one Liz didn’t recognize. The air was heavy, with secrets, with the truth. And maybe she was afraid to break that silence. Because if she actually talked to Max the way they needed to, she was going to have to let down her walls.
“We’re not friends.”
Liz turned her head towards Max, surprised by the sudden words. He was gazing into the fire, his eyes glassy and bright, fixed on anything but her. “What?”
“In the kitchen. You asked why…it was because we weren’t friends.”
Liz had a brief flash of their last conversation years ago, one she’d tried desperately to block from her mind. She’d been waiting for her cab, ready to run to Sweden to discover the truth about Alex’s death. And Max had forbidden her to go, as if he’d had any say in her life by that point. And the gauntlet had been thrown down. Liz didn’t know what to say to him now, so she said nothing. This was what happened when words went unchecked by the brain first.
“I hurt you, Liz. I knew it on some level back then, but I couldn’t stop. That whole year things just spun out of control and as hard as I tried to put it all back again, the pieces just wouldn’t fit.”
“Max –“ Liz didn’t want to hear his apology. If she heard it, she would have to consider forgiving him. And truthfully, she’d known years ago that the events of their Junior year weren’t the reasons her heart had been shattered. That event had come years later.
“I’m sorry, Liz. For all of it, for wanting to hurt you the way you hurt me. I’d just spent so long hoping and dreaming and then after you and Kyle…” His voice trailed off into little more than a strangled sigh. It hurt to listen to any of it, but running would hurt even more. She knew. She’d tried it for six years. Not for the first time, she wavered indecisively as to whether Max should know the truth about her and Kyle. Would it hurt more to know that all the pain you’d suffered was for nothing?
“Max, you don’t owe me an apology.” His gaze swung in her direction, meeting her eyes with that probing stare. It made her want to shrink back and move forward all at once.
“I do.” Slowly, he returned his gaze to the fire, watching the embers glow. “It was all a lie. Tess. The baby. None of it was real. I…didn’t know if you’d still care.”
The breath froze in Liz’s lungs, chilling her like nothing before. She hadn’t known words could hurt that much. But surprise, they could. All of it had been a lie, a well crafted lie by a well crafted liar. And to think she’d been worried about hurting Max with the truth about her and Kyle. Why was the joke always on her?
“When I came back, I didn’t think there was any reason to find you. We’d ended things on such bad terms and the last thing I wanted to do was cause you more pain.”
A thought was gnawing at the back of Liz’s mind. Something Max wasn’t saying. Even if she hadn’t known the exact second Max had come back, didn’t he think she would have heard about it? But the thought made her frown in thought. Had her parents ever mentioned Max’s return home? She couldn’t think of it. They hadn’t been happy about her seeing Max so exclusively, but they would have told her if they’d run into him on the streets. Unless.
“You never went back, did you?” Liz turned on the couch until she was facing Max’s profile. His silence was every bit as damning as a blazing neon sign. “Max, why didn’t you go home?”
He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “It was easier.”
Easier Liz knew all about. But this? Could it be possible that Max hadn’t gone back because of her? Or had he been running from his past just as she had been? How could she have been so wrong about him?
“Liz, I’m not – maybe we shouldn’t be talking about this right now. Your-“
“No, Max.” She couldn’t bear to hear the word fiancée one more time. She might not have wanted to have this conversation before, but she knew now that if they didn’t get it all out now, they never would. It would be just one more moment lost to them forever, sucked into the desert and stolen.
“You hurt me, Max. There’s no denying that. But I hurt you first and maybe worse.” It had been her intention after all, she had tricked him into thinking she had given her virginity to someone Max envied while he’d been wooing her. Was there a better definition of pain in the dictionary?
“This isn’t about who hurt who more. I was tired of seeing that disappointment in your eyes. I found a way to stop it.”
And then it all made sense, the stubborn set of his jaw, the hard glaze of his eyes, and all the words Max wasn’t saying. It was so amazing, she almost didn’t believe it herself. “You didn’t think I’d know.”
Max’s gaze shifted back to her, confusion coloring his features. “Know?”
“That you were back. You didn’t think I’d know the very second you crash landed back on Earth?” It had been jarring, as if every one of her senses had gone into overload at once. She had been able to hear colors and taste sounds. And she’d known. “It was almost like feeling you leave, only I wasn’t confused by it this time.” She could still remember being in Sweden when he’d left. She’d been in the middle of talking to someone from the embassy when she’d all but fainted at the man’s feet.
“You…” Max’s eyes narrowed in shock, in horror. “You knew?” Soft voice so low it was almost swallowed by the crackling flames. “But…”
But. Was there a word in the English language that held more meaning?
“You changed me, Max.” She still wasn’t ready to elaborate on how much. But it was a start.
Max pressed his eyes closed. “God, Liz. I’m sorry.”
Unsure if the apology was for changing her or for not telling her he was back. Maybe it was for both. Maybe it was for neither. But she accepted it anyway. “That…hurt me, Max.” God, she was horrified to discover tears clogging her throat. What was wrong with her? Max was staring at her again, eyes wide open and he was closer than before. “I waited, Max. For days, months. I knew you were back and around every corner was the possibility that you’d be there. On the other end of a phone, or behind a closed door. I knew you’d come.” She turned questioning, almost teary eyes on him, cocking her head. “But you never did.”
Max’s hand shot out and connected with her arm, long fingers wrapping around her wrist. The contact burned, melted her from the inside. And the pressure was unbelievably, amazingly strong. “Liz.”
The first of the tears blurred her vision and it was a weakness she wasn’t ready to admit. To cry meant there was something to cry over, and there simply wasn’t. Not anymore. She was over Max, didn’t need him. But, oh how she wanted him. In the near dark of the den, with the flickering flames casting long shadows on the wall, Liz remembered what it was to burn for Max Evans. And was six years really that long after all?
In the end, there really was no first move. That would imply that one of them had been willing to not move towards the other. But it didn’t make the first press of lips any less sweet. Liz had forgotten the texture, the shape and feel of Max’s lips. The way they could slant ever so perfectly over hers. It was a gift and a curse. Could she have carried the anger so well if she’d remembered this? Max’s hands against her arms, tracing their way up to her shoulders and she moved into the contact, craving it.
Nothing else in her life had ever felt like this. A warmth that both soothed and enflamed, making every small touch of skin never enough, yet was too much at the same time. Without questioning her need to, Liz shifted closer to Max and opened herself to him. She needed more of Max, needed to taste him, to see if he was as intoxicating as she now remembered him to be. And when Max’s tongue dipped to explore her mouth, it gave new meaning to the word addiction.
Liz moaned against his lips. She was pressed tight against his chest and it was hard to breath. Hard to think. Hard to feel with too many emotions fighting to break free all at once. She pulled away from the kiss with a broken shudder and pressed her forehead against his. Liz drew in harsh breathes and put everything she had into not sobbing against Max’s chest.
“I’m sorry, Liz. God, I’m sorry. I didn’t think.” Soothing kisses against her temple, her eyelids. His hands were still tangled in her hair.
Liz wanted to laugh, but nothing was funny anymore. She forced her eyes open and laid her palm against the stubble of Max’s cheek. So rough, so prickly, just like the rest of him now. How many other changes? And how long would it take to learn them all? One taste and she already wanted more. She knew there was a reason she safeguarded her heart all these years. She’d thought she’d been protecting it. Now she knew she’d merely been keeping it safe.
“Max.” Soft whisper and a hint of reverent awe borrowed from Max. His eyes were searching hers, looking for something. Only now, she thought she might have a clue what it was. “I wasn’t engaged to Josh. We weren’t ever involved. He was…will always be a friend. One I didn’t deserve, but a friend nonetheless.”
Max frowned, but beneath it was hope. “But-“
“My parents thought we were involved all these years and when they saw the ring, they just assumed. I wasn’t involved with Josh anymore than I was involved with…Kyle.” And okay, maybe that was the worst analogy ever. Max’s eyes started to cloud, but she wouldn’t let them. “I never slept with Kyle either. I know, it sounds impossible and crazy. Please don’t ask me to explain it now. Tomorrow, not tonight. But I just wanted to let you know that I’m not sleeping with anyone. Which is probably more than you maybe needed to know.” Grimacing at her own words, Liz shook her head. One kiss and she lost the ability to speak. Truthfully, she’d never really had the ability. Not since their first true meeting when he’d ripped her uniform open and dazzled her with healing hands and hypnotic eyes.
Max smiled and a corner of the darkness lifted. Whatever she’d done, she wanted to do it again and again. It was breathtaking to watch, like a sunrise just before the colors light up the sky. All potential and the faintest beginnings of light. “No, maybe it’s just what I needed to hear.”
Liz knew that look, the predatory gleam of those eyes. It was almost like watching a nature documentary where a gazelle was about to be pounced upon by a lion. And Max looked hungry. The look was only there for a second, replaced by the guilt ridden haunted look Grown-Up Max lived with. It made Liz sad even though she knew this Max was safer.
“Liz, I’m not naïve enough to believe it’s this easy.” And Max was right. In the blink of an eye, they’d gone from being strangers who didn’t talk to…what? Was it even fair to say they had been strangers? How could you not know your other half implicitly? Maybe the difference was that fifteen minutes ago, Liz had wanted them to be strangers and now she was ready to accept they never would be. Even after all these years apart, Max still knew her better than anyone alive. And dead too for that matter. Not only did he understand the paralyzing cold inside of her, he shared it as well.
“You’re right. It isn’t this easy.” Liz let her forehead drop back to Max’s. “But I want it to be.”
Max pulled away from her, cupping her cheek with his hand. “I’ve hurt you, and I think that after you’ve had some time to really think it all over, things will get harder.”
“For you too.” Liz wasn’t about to let all of this be pushed onto her shoulders. They were going to have to start learning to share or it would kill them again.
“Fine.” Small smile, the mysterious one always reserved just for her. It made her think of alien blasts and simpler days when they only had to worry about her father walking in on them kissing in the break room. But then the smile disappeared again just as quickly. “I might hurt you again, Liz. My life is…hasn’t been pretty. There are things we still need to talk about. Important things.”
Was that the understatement of the century? But she knew that at least Max was being honest with her. Maybe there was a dash of the old Max, the martyr that liked to push Liz away for her own good. But Liz could deal with that. It was who Max was. He wasn’t promising he would never hurt her, but then she couldn’t promise she wouldn’t ever hurt him. It was proof that they’d both been grounded in harsh reality for too long. It occurred to Liz that maybe they both just needed a night off. No worries. No guilt.
“Come to bed with me, Max.” Had she ever seen Max’s head move so quickly? Almost made an audible snapping sound and she couldn’t help but smile. “Not sex. Not yet. You’re right, we do need to talk. Tomorrow. But for tonight, can we just…sleep? I’m tired, Max.” And she was. Achingly so.
Max nodded and rose to his feet. He offered her a hand and she took it without hesitation. “Let me put out the fire. Go get comfortable.”
Liz didn’t want to get comfortable, not without Max. Now that she had his hand clasped in hers, she wasn’t ready to let go. She eyed the fire, then Max. He would flip, but she was going to tell him tomorrow anyway. With her free hand outstretched, Liz banked the fire in a matter of seconds. Eyes wide and unreadable, Max gaped at her.
“Tomorrow, Max.” Liz pressed one finger against his lips, wanting to still the flow of question. “I’m fine. I promise.” It seemed to pacify him enough to take the panic from his eyes, but there was still caution. There would be questions in the morning, a thousand of them by the hungry look on Max’s face. It was fine though. Liz could handle it. She had a thousand questions of her own.
Their hands were firmly linked, almost cemented together as if it were the only safe form of contact. And it was beautiful. Max fell into step beside Liz, or had she fallen into step with Max? Either way, they moved together. Liz pushed open the door to the yellow guestroom, and had she thought it had been oppressively yellow before? It really didn’t seem so bad now.
Realized she had paused and Max was stroking soft circles against the small patch of skin between her thumb and index finger. Who knew that small point of contact could be the biggest turn on ever?
“Liz, we don’t have to-“
“I need to feel you , Max.” The admission seemed to shut him up quick enough, but the man before her was suddenly more of the impish Max than the guilt ridden one. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
Nodding, taking the decision out of her hands, Max turned into the take charge version that had stood at her elbow all day. Tugging on her hand, he led her to the bed. She watched as he took great pains to fold the sheet down, lining it precisely with the comforter. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Max was as nervous as she was. There really wasn’t anything to be nervous about. They’d had make out sessions in the broom closet of the diner that had held more possibility than this situation. But no quick groping session could ever compare with the small almost imperceptible tremor in the hand clasped in her own.
Max had turned back to her, watching her with the unreadable eyes. And she could do this with the unreadable eyes. They really weren’t so bad. Toeing off her shoes, Liz released Max’s hand only long enough to crawl under the covers and move to the middle of the bed. Just enough room for Max to slide in beside her, but not enough for him to avoid touching her. It was a clear statement and Max read it easily. Which was good because she wasn’t up for explaining anything more complicated than how to snore.
Slipping into the warm bed, Max’s body automatically aligned with Liz’s. He shifted onto his back and her head settled itself on his chest. She could hear the steady thump of his heart and she closed her eyes against it. Max’s arms were tight around her shoulders, pulling her impossibly closer until she was all but lying across his body. Stray thoughts invaded her mind, making her question how Liz had never noticed how comfortable the position was. Their relationship in the beginning had been all about heat, about the secret relationship that should never have been. And maybe it was still about that, only in more subtle ways.
Max’s embrace now was about heat, but not the sexual kind that burned from within. It was more of a warmth that simmered deep inside her bones, taking the chill from limbs that were numb from years of cold and misuse. And if their relationship was still based on something that maybe should never have been, there really wasn’t anything much to be done about it now. Nothing but hold on tight, hoping that maybe for once it could be enough.
Liz felt her eyes drift closed and the same feather touches she was sure she’d made up last night ruffled her hair, pulling and discarding pins until her hair flowed down her back. Liz felt the sigh reverberate in Max’s chest and felt it down to her toes. It was crazy really to feel this safe with the only person with the power to still destroy her. But she was getting more used to insanity by the minute. In fact, it was a lifestyle choice she was going to consider adopting permanently. Tomorrow. She would put thought into it in the morning, after she’d had a chance to recharge her brain and see if she still woke up cold and aching.
But for now, with the gentle pressure of Max’s arms lulling her into a security like she’d never known, Liz closed her eyes and let out a breath she hadn’t even known she was holding. And she fell asleep.