posted on 7-Dec-2002 10:15:27 PM
Author's Note:
I decided I'd repost this story here in the winners' forum so that it would be more accessible for those who haven't had a chance to read it. This was winner for Best PG-13 fic and also Most Angsty Fic. Runner up for Best Portrayal of Michael Guerin. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. This one definitely holds a special place in my heart. *happy*
Hugs!
D

antariansky

ANTARIAN SKY
by RosDeidre

Disclaimer: The characters of Roswell are the property of Twentieth Century Fox Television and Regency Productions. All original characters and concepts are the property of the author. No profit has been made from the distribution of this work of fiction.

Rating: PG-13

Category: M/L

Summary: This story is set ten years in the future, and is an alternative universe that plays off of events through Departure. It’s also a slight (very slight) nod to the film Vanilla Sky.
Email: RosDeidre⊕aol.com
Banner by: Schurry

* * *

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
From John Keats’ ODE ON A GRECIAN URN

* * *

CHAPTER ONE

Frieze. A moment caught in time, figures in dance with one another, hand to hand, shadow to light. Ancient battles fought, long ago decided, and ever yet hanging in balance so long as sculpture remains.

A weapon lifted, a horse rearing, a moment lost in time.
An empire crumbling.

She’d stood in the British Museum and studied their antiquities collection, and she’d walked the grounds of the Parthenon. Alone…always alone. In her memories and recollections, it didn’t matter if Maria had flown cross Atlantic to tour with her on a Eurail pass. Or if some boy from her exchange program had asked to tag along to the museum.

In her remembrances, she was always detached, studying the ancient dramas, captured in stone—wondering how these great figures, mythological and immortal, still died such very slow deaths after countless years. Yet unlike Liz Parker, they weren’t quite alone. No, they were accompanied in death by the hands of artisans and builders, and students throughout the ages.

Frieze. A term she’d first learned in Art History 101 some eight years earlier. The term for decorative sculpture and ornament atop a building, like on the temples in Greece and Rome.

And for some reason, she dreamed it every night.
In her sleep, there was always the brightly dappled hillside, some place exotic like Athens or Rome. A crumbling building, ruins all around. Chunks of stone and pediments. Rocks and heat simmering in a desert mirage.

And then the frieze.

A ruler, servants bowing down, sometimes soldiers. Fluttering pages in open art history tomes…slides flashing on her college classroom wall. A kaleidoscope of kings and emperors, tragedy and ruin.

And always the strangest sky, like something from an impressionist painting, all pink and purple and dappled. Too bright. Unearthly.

Like now, as Liz lay on her back at the foot of the temple, arms spread out at her sides, unable to move, unfeeling. Just watching the clouds float quickly overhead in the purple sky. Too quickly, as the sun began setting with shocking ease, and yet still she remained immobilized. Her hands grew cold, her feet, numb and paralyzed.

And her face always ached with the same excruciating pain. Particularly her jaw as she wrestled to speak, but couldn’t so much as cry for help.

Help me, she moaned within her mind. Love me, see me…acknowledge my existence. Heal me.
Yet she remained alone, broken…and utterly unable to speak.

Liz slammed awake, the damp sheets tangled around her body. She clutched at her throat, working her mouth soundlessly. God, why was it always so real, the aching need to cry out? Her nightshirt was wet with perspiration, and her hair clung to her neck.

She rubbed her jaw, which ached a bit. Her dentist said she ground her teeth at night, and that was why she woke with the pain. Yet he couldn’t find any signs of TMJ or anything else to elicit such sharp facial sensations during her sleep.

She sank back into the mattress, pulling the blankets around her and wished the dreams would end. And wondered why they’d begun her freshman year in college, a snowy morning in Virginia…exactly one day after Max Evans’s death.



***


Liz sipped her gourmet coffee, pulling her jacket tight around her shoulders. Santa Fe winters were bitingly cold, with chilling winds that blew unexpectedly. She loved how the lights twinkled in darkness on the plaza, though, how fresh the winter air felt when it filled her lungs. Roswell had never been that way, with its dusty air and shuddering heat.

Liz had bought a small house just a few blocks off the plaza, which meant she could walk to her gallery in a matter of moments. A convenient fact, since she all but lived in her small downtown shop, and seemed to walk there most often when it was still dark. And only headed home long after sunset.

She glanced down at her watch, tightening her knit scarf around her neck and hunkered low over her coffee. Six-thirty eight a.m. Late again, she thought, laughing wryly as the plaza came into view. Her gallery was nestled into a far corner, probably the least glamorous art establishment in the heart of downtown.

Funny how things had turned out, how unlike what she’d always imagined. For years her father had offered her a role in the Crashdown, suggested she open up a second café on the other side of Roswell. But the idea of entering the family business had left her cold. How ironic then, that in the end she’d turned out to be more of an entrepreneur than her father had ever guessed—and now made a decent living not only running the gallery, but also representing artists for a living.

Her father could hardly contain his pride, bragging to all their friends in Roswell that his daughter had inherited the old Parker business acumen. And when she jetted to New York four times a year, he was the first one calling her hotel room every night, to ask how her meetings had gone down in Soho.

Liz reached the doorway to her gallery and paused, retrieving the key from her pocket with thickly gloved fingers. She couldn’t seem to clasp the key, as she juggled her coffee against her chest.

And that’s when she saw it, tucked neatly in the corner of the doorway, just propped against the glass door. It was wrapped in pristine brown paper, tied with a piece of plain string. Smallish, not too big, waiting like a simple calling card.

She scowled at it a moment, it was so thoroughly unexpected. She was accustomed to unsolicited submissions and queries, desperate artists clamoring for the attention of an agent. But those typically arrived by mail, Federal Express, and the notes by e-mail.

No one had ever simply left a package on her doorstep like this, some eerie talisman in the night.

Liz continued staring down at it, and wondered what kind of desperate artist would drop his original work at her gallery this way, with no guarantee that it wouldn’t be stolen or even just discarded without consideration.

But curiosity had the better of her, and slowly she knelt to retrieve it between her gloved fingers. The brown paper crinkled like dried leaves as she lifted it, and that was when she glimpsed the simple white card that was attached.

No artist’s name was listed, no phone number or address. Just one simple message.

Open Your Eyes.



***

“Alright, I know you left it.” Liz cradled the phone receiver against her ear, while quickly typing out a reply to an email from a dealer in New York.

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Michael huffed from the other end of the line. He sounded grumpy and tired, even though she’d patiently waited until ten a.m., the earliest he was willing to answer her calls.

“Michael, this isn’t funny.”

“I’m not doing anything!” he cried impatiently. In the background she could hear music echoing in his loft. “I’m serious. I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about the weird package you left down here in the middle of the night.”

“I was sleeping in the middle of the night.”

“That’s a first,” she quipped. Michael typically painted until three or four a.m., then slept until at least ten.

“Dry spell,” he grumbled.

“Should I be worried?”

“Thanks for the pep talk.”

“It’s not my job to give you pep talks,” she retorted, spinning in her chair when the small bell chimed over the door. An elderly couple, clearly tourists, entered the gallery. She lowered her voice, turning back toward the computer. “It’s my job to keep you on track. New York is expecting something from me in two weeks.”

“Yeah, Liz, from you,” he laughed, and she heard him take a swig of coffee. “That doesn’t mean from me.”

“No, Michael, Leon wants three new paintings from you.”

“Liz, you need to find some new talent,” he offered softly. “You know why I’m in this…”

“For the money.”

“Yeah, last I checked that was you, babe.”

“Why did you leave me this painting?” she pressed again, knowing she sounded irritable.

“I’m hanging up,” he said and before she could open her mouth to reply, the phone clicked.

She rotated in her desk chair, and eyed the package on the counter. She’d not opened it yet, not with how mysteriously she’d found it. Instead, she’d waited to call Michael, even though she knew he was far too boyish for this kind of thing, despite her determined questioning. He typically brought his paintings to the gallery with much fanfare, all exuberant for her praise and reaction. Leaving any of his work like that, especially so vulnerable to theft, simply wasn’t his style.

But she’d hoped somehow that he would offer an explanation, tell her it belonged to one of his artist buddies from town. She’d needed that kind of explanation because for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint, the package unsettled her. Like a quickly glimpsed doppelganger on a train, someone who looked like a lost friend but wasn’t, the package unnerved her.

She’d watched for Max in crowds for eight years now. Eight years, traversing continents, moving in New York subway trains, walking through airports, she always sought him. And she’d done a double take on countless occasions, only to glimpse a pair of green eyes. Or a different nose or chin. Never Max, no matter how hard she looked for him. She looked, even though she knew he was dead, because she couldn’t stop looking. Old habits died hard.

So now the paining sat atop her large counter desk, neatly folded within the confines of brown wrapping. And somehow, it reminded her of those strangers on trains, men turning on Fifth Avenue…moments caught in time, full of possibility.

The package was smallish, most certainly a painting, she thought, as she shivered and reached for her knife.

Open Your Eyes, she thought, drawing in a tight breath, as slowly she sliced open the paper. It unfolded like a flower, revealing an explosion of color—purples and golds and dreamy pinks. A sky. A giant, panorama of an otherworldly sky.

Like something straight out of her dreams.







[ edited 1 time(s), last at 15-Dec-2002 6:59:31 PM ]
posted on 7-Dec-2002 10:22:19 PM



CHAPTER TWO

“Look, Michael,” she began as he walked into the gallery. “This isn’t funny.” He handed her a cup of Starbucks meeting her gaze with his own perpetually melancholy one. His long brown hair was disheveled and he needed a shave. Typical Michael, she thought, as he drew his eyebrows together in a scowl.

“Yeah, you said that on the phone. Where is it?” he asked, brushing past her and glancing intently around. He’d come downstairs from the loft he rented above the gallery, when she’d called a second time…after opening the package.

She pointed mutely to where the mysterious painting now hung on the gallery wall. She’d wanted to see how it looked on display, how it presented—if it would still impact her just as profoundly. Michael turned on his heel, and Liz took a sip of the steaming coffee.

He was silent a long moment, studying it from where they each leaned against her small counter. The vibrant colors were even more stunning on the wall, more magical and mysterious. A sky spread out, open and surreal, filled with radiant colors that bled one into another. Movement. That was the word that Liz heard clearly in her mind. Like some J.M.W. Turner painting, this one was all about energy and movement.

An angel soared heavenward, arms spread at its sides, opening to the sky above. Welcoming its destiny. Yet the angel’s face was darkened, not like the lovely colors undulating all around it. And it was shrouded completely in black, draped like some dark figure of apotheosis.

Liz shivered as she studied the work, feeling its magnetic allure. She stepped slowly closer, and lifted her fingers, allowing them to gently graze the surface of the painting. She needed to feel the strokes, their texture--was compelled to enter the painting, as she would a dream.

And it opened, the sky all above her…arms at her sides, gazing upward. And instead of the angel, she glimpsed the temple from her dream. Crumbling and broken. Shattered.

“No note?” Michael asked, stepping closer to the painting. She was jerked back to the present with a start.

She hesitated a moment, then lied. “No, nothing.” She wasn’t sure why she wanted to keep the card a secret. “I just assumed it was some artist looking for representation.”

“Maybe so,” Michael replied, still studying the piece quietly. “God, is this whacked or what?” She caught a hint of jealousy in his voice. Competition.
“I love it,” she whispered, again lightly touching the surface of each stroke. Feeling them resonate inside her, weave their otherworldly magic within her soul.

“It’s pretty damn creepy, that’s what it is,” Michael assessed irritably.

“You’re jealous,” she laughed, slowly gazing up at him in surprise. His eyes shifted ever so slightly. Found out, known. They always did that to one another, ever since that eternal day on a hillside, some ten years before.

And then, “Why the hell would I be jealous, Liz?” She sensed his chest almost puff out, his territorialism. “I’ve got all the notice I want for my work.”

“Yeah, right,” she smirked, suddenly finding his moodiness sexy and charming. “Then just admit it.”

“Admit what?”

“Whoever painted this is really good.”

He blew out a breath, his eyes narrowing as he studied it. She watched his reaction, the way his brown depths shifted like soft mercury. Finally, he shrugged indifferently. “You’re the better judge of this stuff.”

“Why won’t you just admit it?” She stomped in frustration. God, he drove her crazy, and as he brushed his long hair away from his eyes she ached to kiss him. To just end their standoff, once and for all, and pull his mouth down to hers for a searing, loving kiss.

But that would require movement, something other than being trapped together in this motionless dance, endlessly spinning out between them.

“I mean, who just leaves something like this on your doorstep, huh?” he demanded, whirling to face her, and suddenly she was back in Roswell, ten years before.

The Great Alien Abyss. The Conspiracy. Someone always after them. The intervening years when the threats had died out dissolved, and suddenly time stood still. Max was calling a meeting in the basement of the UFO Center. Michael was pacing, angry and reactive, dead-set to know more about their origins. Not the very different man who stood before her now, dressed in a thick wool sweater and faded jeans, drinking Starbucks coffee. An artist to the core. Not an alien, or a gifted warrior with a profound destiny all his own. Certainly never that.

“Liz?” he asked. “Did you hear me?” He looked vexed with her, as she focused in again. She shook her head in confusion.

“Don’t you find it a little weird? Someone just leaves this…thing,” he gestured at the work derisively. “Anonymously on your doorstep? I mean anything could be happening here…anything.” He stared at her intently, conveying the precise meaning she’d imagined. Anything alien could be happening here, even though they’d buried those concerns together long ago.

She reflected a moment, yanked back to Roswell. To another Michael, to a time when Max was still with them…and closed her eyes to shut out the keen memories.

Clouds floating overhead, arms spread out at her sides, her jaw aching endlessly. Shattered. Frozen and captured.

She stared at a sky filled with smoke, trailing like some comet of death.

“Liz,” he whispered now, his voice suddenly surprisingly gentle. She felt his large hand on her shoulder, his warm breath on her cheek, and her eyes fluttered open.

“I’m sorry. I…didn’t mean to push,” he offered softly. He could read her so well, after all these years of being only friends, of working together. Of both of them just surviving without Max.

“I think it’s really bizarre, yeah,” she answered, ignoring the tender concern in his voice. Yet he didn’t drop his hand away from her arm, instead let it rest there, burning softly against her.

“Then again,” he suggested offhandedly, “it’s probably just some aspiring artist, desperate for Liz Parker’s attention.”

Like you? she ached to ask, feeling the unspoken words scald her throat. Just like you, Michael Guerin?

Michael turned slowly, slipping his arm around her shoulder. They stood in silence, and studied the painting together. “God, it’s gorgeous. His use of color is just…incredibly powerful,” she whispered, hesitating as she reached inside for what her true reaction was. “He moves me.”

“He?” Michael asked sharply, catching her slip up instantly. “What makes you so sure it’s a he?

Liz rubbed her jaw absently, wondering why she felt so clearly that the artist was a man. “I don’t know…I just…feel it.” Something about mentioning the artist’s identity caused a little shiver to shoot across her skin, touched some long dormant part of her heart.

Michael tightened his arm around her shoulder almost imperceptibly, drawing her closer to his side. But she ignored the feel of his hand, slung so easily across her shoulder…how it electrified her.

“So I guess we wait,” he volunteered after a moment. A moment when her heart pounded heavily, when she sensed how his own beat in the magnetic silence between them both.

“We wait,” she agreed, swallowing hard.



***

Michael had been the first to run to her, that day at the Pod Chamber, almost ten years before. And that single memory was like a fine engraving, etched into her recollections, subtle yet permanent. The kind of detail that only struck one after the fact.

“So I guess we wait,” Michael had said as they’d stepped outside the cave. The world had seemed instantly sharp, far too sunny, as their eyes had adjusted slowly from the chamber’s dank interior.

“He doesn’t have long,” Isabel had reminded them. “Only about two minutes.”

“It won’t take Maxwell long to do what he’s got to do,” Michael had asserted boldly, and his gaze had imperceptibly wandered in her direction. Even as he and Maria had embraced so closely.

The minutes had ticked off, the time had drawn explosively near. Yet still no sign of Max at all.
And then it all became a blur in her remembrance, a series of images all pasted together like some jumbled collage.

Heat, smoke, and stone, mangled in memory. Pieced together.

The Granolith had blasted away, sending an avalanche of rock and debris cascading down the hillside as she’d skidded down the rocky incline with the others. Then, when the smoke cloud had cleared away, and they’d been left lying facedown and breathless in the rubble, it had been Michael who’d gone tearing back up the rock face to find Max.

And Maria had held her close, refusing to let her follow after him.

When Max had told them all to leave, to give him just a few minutes inside the chamber with Tess, she’d never guessed it would be the very last time she’d see him. Never imagined that he’d simply vanish, no more said between them in the crushing weight of all that had happened.

But when Michael had slowly ambled back down the rocks, his head bowed and features unreadable, Liz had known before he ever reached her. Max was gone. Isabel was frantic, but for some bizarre reason, Liz felt an unearthly calm, just a steady sense of awareness.

Max had left with Tess. End of story.

Not like I love you…not like I love you…not like I love you. The words had beat like her heart, insistent and hypnotic as she’d watched Michael high atop the jagged rocks. She’d squinted, gazing up at the hidden cave like some ancient ruin on a Roman hillside—praying that somehow her instinct was wrong. That Max would emerge from inside the cave, sweep her into his arms, and plant a smoldering kiss on her lips once again.

Not like I love you…not like I love you.

Her hand had clutched desperately at her throat, as she struggled to breathe. Tears burned her eyes as she’d watched Michael’s descent, and then finally he’d reached the place where she knelt on the dusty earth, Isabel clutching at his arm—and his eyes had met hers in the silence. They’d watered with his own unshed tears, anguished as he’d stared at her, unable to speak.

“He’s gone,” Liz had managed to whisper. She hadn’t voiced it as a question, she’d simply understood. Michael had dropped his gaze a moment again, as Maria had leapt to his side, and Isabel crumpled into his arms. Then, slowly, he’d met her intense gaze again, uttering only two words. “I’m sorry.”

And he’d never stopped murmuring those words ever since, not in all those ten years. The two of them had remained forever frozen in that single moment together, like the ancient sculptures from Liz’s dreams, unable to say the things that begged to be said. Always, those words hung between them, suspended and haunting.

I’m sorry.

Words that Max had never spoken before vanishing into a dreamy cloud of remembrance on that desert hillside.


***

It was well after five p.m. and Liz was still on the phone with New York. She would be traveling there in just a few weeks, and was still frantically setting meetings with key buyers and dealers. She sat at her desk, a makeshift area semi-hidden behind her counter, scrolling through the new emails that had arrived within the past few hours.

Several queries cluttered her inbox, as well as a forwarded joke from Maria with the subject line, “Are you still alive, chica? See you in two weeks!” And that was it.

Until a new e-mail suddenly appeared from an unfamiliar address. DavidPeyton321⊕newmex.net.

She clicked open, right as Leon came to the phone. She’d been on hold, and had used those moments to log online.

“Liz,” he laughed in his smoker’s rasp. “I’ve got really terrific news for you.”

“Great, what’s going on?” she asked, opening the e-mail from the mysterious David Peyton.

“Looks like I just sold Guerin’s last piece in here. Guess how much?”

She thought a moment, wondering what kind of figure might leave Leon breathless like that, especially since he wasn’t easily given to flights of fancy.

“I don’t know…eight thousand?” she guessed, but her gaze had fallen on the open e-mail. One line blinked at her from the computer screen.

Does it have possibilities?

“Ten thousand!” Leon laughed enthusiastically. “You’ve got to get me some new pieces from him soon. I think he’s finally ready to break out up here…I want to talk about a big show in the fall.”

“Okay,” Liz mumbled, staring at the computer screen.

Does it have possibilities? What kind of obnoxious artist would send a query like that? She felt her dander rise in irritation, feeling indignant, no matter how talented he obviously was.

“Oh, Liz, gotta run,” Leon buzzed across the phone line. “Someone’s coming in…talk to you in the a.m.”

Liz stood quickly from her desk, and walked to the glass door of the gallery. She flipped over the closed sign, bolting the door, and stared out onto the darkened plaza. Nighttime fell so early at this time of year, covering the old square with a delicate hush—even with the bustle of tourists and shoppers.

She squinted, staring out into the darkness, and felt a strange sensation shiver across her skin. It was as if someone were studying her, watching her from just beyond the glass door. Someone unseen and clandestine, out in the frigid nighttime.

Liz walked away, rubbing her neck slowly. She surveyed the narrow walls of her gallery, as she often did at this time of the day. From floor to ceiling, paintings hung in enticing display, intended to draw in the most ambivalent of patrons. Splashes of color, like New Mexico sun, brightened the walls.

That was her taste, what she was known for from Santa Fe to downtown Manhattan. Liz Parker had a fabulous eye for color and form. In the local business journal, she’d been described as having, “impeccable instincts.” And now, when she called certain dealers, touting a new discovery, they took note, because they knew the level of talent she scouted.

She leaned against the glass display counter, filled with much smaller trinkets and carvings-- something meant to draw the tourist traffic. Her gaze roved the current arrangement of works on the walls, as she considered how they might be rearranged. But despite her best intentions, her gaze was drawn like a magnet to the one new piece that hung right before her.

Does it have possibilities?

Should she answer honestly? Or should she dismiss David Peyton out of hand? She despised the gimmicky tactics of would-be artists, always clamoring for her attention in such peculiar ways. She’d often wondered why they didn’t realize that a straightforward approach would get them much further, rather than such coy and vain meanderings.

That’s how the elusive David Peyton now struck her, with his pithy little e-mail, absent of so much as his phone number. Instinct led her to forget his seductive painting. But her heart seemed to say something else entirely, as she was drawn magnetically toward his work again.

It reminded her of another painting, one that she couldn’t quite place. The way the angel lifted off the earth, flying heavenward. The stark black, contrasted with the vivid colors…well, that part was reminiscent of Gauguin to her. But not the angel. That was just beyond her grasp.

She moved to her computer screen, and began quickly typing. Are you seeking representation? She felt testy and irritable, wanted to add something snide, since she received hundreds of these queries a month—but for some inexplicable reason, refrained, and sent the e-mail without another word.

Only moments later, she received a reply.

I’m interested in your opinion, to know what you think of the work.

Did the guy not believe in anything other than single line exposition? Good thing he was an artist and not a writer, she thought with a frustrated roll of her eyes.

She’d been about to leave for the night, her jacket already on, and a scarf wrapped around her neck. But something had compelled her to check her e-mail one last time as she’d turned out the lights in the gallery. Now, she lamented that decision, as her terrible curiosity flamed anew.

Look, I’m not in the habit of this kind of…staccato communication, she hammered out quickly. Why don’t you come down to the gallery tomorrow and we can discuss your work and whether or not it’s something I’d want to represent. Okay? Otherwise, let’s not waste one another’s time.

She hit send, and immediately turned off her computer screen. There, she thought with some satisfaction. That should show him.

The phone rang again in the darkness, and this time it was Michael. “Hear anything?” he asked, and somehow Liz felt he was a little too concerned. And not because he thought the painting represented a threat from beyond their galaxy.

“Nope,” she lied, the second time in one day. “Not a word.”

“Just curious.”

“I’ll let you know, okay?” she asked, spinning in her chair to check the door. Her earlier sense that someone had been watching her still left her a bit unsettled.

“Cool. What are you doing tonight?” he asked. “Thought I might make you a little dinner.”

“Uh, oh,” she laughed gently, thumbing through the pile of mail that still sat unopened on her desk.

“What?” he cried indignantly.

“You only cook for me when you need something,” she said knowingly.

He fell silent a long moment, and she heard him cough a bit, which perplexed her. Michael would ordinarily joust right back, tussling playfully with her. Instead, her words were only met with pensive quiet, until he finally spoke again.

“Yeah, I just need to talk,” he finished somberly.

“I’ll be right up.”


***

Michael had come to visit her in February of her freshman year of college. At that point, nearly two years had passed since Max had disappeared in the granolith, and Liz still maintained the vague hope that he would one day return.

But her hope for their love had slowly diminished with every dream of that day at the chamber. With every flash of Michael’s gentle brown eyes, distraught as they met hers—two people, reaching soundlessly for one another.

Her subconscious, the perfect panorama of betrayal.

But it was much more difficult to convince her heart that Max Evans had left her forever.

Isabel had moved to San Francisco, Maria had gone to New York, and Liz had headed off to private college in Virginia. Their group had scattered like so many ashes in the wind, each to their separate corners.
It was Michael who’d stayed at home, and begun painting his heart out, frantic in his need for expression. The canvas was the one place he could speak the unutterable things, the silent words that friendship with Max wouldn’t allow him to breathe life into.

Fractured images appeared, a schematic of what had happened to their leader, their destiny. The greatest love of her life. But he’d shown them to no one, just kept on painting. He only confessed his addiction to Liz on that snowy visit freshman year, as they’d roamed the corridors of the National Gallery. As they’d lain awake in her dorm room, talking until dawn.

He’d flown into Dulles Airport, an army duffel slung over one shoulder, and a black portfolio in his other hand. His hair had grown hopelessly long, obscuring his features from her as he’d loped into the gate area. He’d brushed at the hair with his fingers, searching her out and then their gazes had met across the short distance.

And an uncertain smile had formed on his lips. Liz understood that hesitation well, because she was terrified to see Michael alone, without accompanying friends and noise. Because unchaperoned, they might actually speak of secrets trapped between them.

One of them might actually make a move, instead of remaining in statuesque form, eternally reaching for the other. Not in love, not in friendship…but in ruin.


posted on 7-Dec-2002 10:29:55 PM


CHAPTER THREE

Michael slid open the door to his loft, a weighty, leaden thing. Like a door to a crypt, she thought, as it strained on its hinges. Inside, the apartment had a vacant, hollow feeling, despite the rhythmic droning from his stereo. A melodious drumming of only a few notes, over and over.

Liz frowned, glancing in the direction of the CD player. Michael followed her gaze. “It’s only Radiohead,” he explained defensively.

“I hate Radiohead.”

“You don’t listen to their music,” he argued. “They rock.”

“Only before Kid A.”

Michael huffed soundlessly, as he lifted the stereo remote, and clicked the volume control with his thumb.

It was their usual banter, playful and charged with disagreeable tension, yet Liz sensed something else between them. Michael seemed nervous, fidgeting as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“What?” she asked, suspicion edging her voice. “What’s going on?”

He avoided her gaze, and instead moved away from her, smiling faintly. “Nothing, Liz, I just wanted to see you.”

“You told me you needed to talk.”

He sighed, slipping the door to the loft back in place. It groaned in aching complaint, as Liz dropped heavily onto his sofa, pulling her jacket tight around her. The loft was always drafty, and tonight was no exception.

“I do,” he agreed, turning to face her. He drew in an audible breath, then finally spoke. “About Max.”

The hair on the back of her neck bristled at the mere mention of his name. They rarely spoke of him, though he stood ever between them.

“I’d rather talk about Leon’s call a few minutes ago.”

“You’re just changing the subject.”

“He got ten thousand for the last painting,” she countered.

Michael’s eyes widened, obviously despite himself. “Really?”

Liz leaned back into the sofa, folding her arms over her chest in satisfaction. She loved her job, loved making her clients’ dreams come true. Even though Michael was her beloved friend, he was still her client—and the disbelief shining in his eyes made every thankless moment worth it.

“Yeah, really!” She laughed. “And he wants to talk about a show in the fall.”

Michael began pacing, wringing his hands together slightly. His eyes had assumed a far off look, as he quickly processed all that she’d shared. His work had been selling steadily in Soho for a year now, but no one had offered him a show yet.

And this meant he’d forget about Max, Liz sighed with delicate relief.

“But I still want to talk about Max,” he announced, turning to face her where she sat on the sofa.

“Well, I don’t.” She closed herself off instantly, became resistant.

“Isabel called yesterday,” he continued. “I hadn’t wanted to say anything yet, but I don’t know…I just think it’s time you dealt with this.”

“With this?” she exclaimed. She had the sense that they were closing in on her like a tight knot, choking the breath from her lungs.

“She wants to do some kind of memorial this spring…at the chamber.”

Liz began shaking her head vehemently. “No, no…that’s just not right.”

“What can’t be right about it? This spring will be ten years, Liz, and everybody wants to do something.”

“Everybody?” she asked meaningfully, feeling somehow betrayed by him.

“Yeah, I do, too,” he admitted with a shrug of his shoulder.

“That’s not when he died,” she whispered hoarsely, her throat burning. “Don’t you even care about that?”

“Liz,” Michael dropped to the floor just in front of her, planting his hand on the arm of the sofa. His eyes shimmered in the golden light of the loft, filled with undeniable feeling. “You know I care, but it’s the only sure thing the others can mark.”

“But…don’t you believe me?” she asked, feeling tears burn her eyes. Damn him, for bringing her emotions to the surface like this, she thought. For making her heart awaken, when all she wanted was for it to remain cold as a stone.

He touched her face, and slowly stroked a long strand of hair from her cheek, his fingers lingering tenderly there. “Liz, I’ve always believed you. In the connection you shared with him.”

“You know what I’m asking, Michael,” she nearly cried, ducking sharply away from his hand. He dropped it instantly as she recoiled from his touch, and she noticed that his features hardened a bit.

“When would you want a memorial?” he snapped. “I mean, you tell me when you’d do it, and hell, I’ll set it up.”

She dropped her head, feeling her jaw ache. Her throat constricted painfully, and all she wanted was to run. To move freely, not to feel so transfixed by emotion. So captured by Michael’s keen stare.

“In February…that’s when it happened.”

“No, Liz, it isn’t. He left in May.”

“Stop it!” She cried, wiping at her eyes. She leapt to her feet, struggling past him, but he immediately followed, pouncing to his feet like a graceful tiger.

“You’ve got to deal with this, Liz,” he pressed. “I care enough to make you.”

“He died in February and I know it!” she shouted, her words echoing hollowly off the rafters of the loft. Michael caught her arm, spinning her back to face him. Suddenly, his expression softened as tears filled her eyes.

“I know, Liz,” he shushed her gently. He suddenly seemed so tall, looming over her in the half-darkness of his apartment. “It’s just, well, the others aren’t as convinced.”

“I felt it the moment it happened,” she explained, words tumbling out in a rush. “I dreamed it eight years ago this month…at precisely the moment it happened.”

“Then why can’t you let him go?”

“What?” she cried indignantly. “Excuse me, but what did you just say?” She planted her hands on her hips, staring up at him in forceful determination.

“You heard me.”

“But see, I can’t believe I just heard that from you of all people, Michael Guerin.”

“I love you, Liz,” he blurted, raking his fingers through his long hair. Their eyes met for a soundless moment, only their hearts beating against the insistent rhythm of the music.

Not like I love you…not like I love you…not like I love you.

He’d spoken the unutterable, broken the sacred promise that had bound them, all these many years.

Liz began moving, around the loft, toward the door. Anything other than just standing in the crosshairs of his vulnerable gaze. She clutched at her throat, wishing the painful tightness would lessen.

“Look, I’ve got to go,” she finally answered. “Do whatever you guys want on the stupid memorial. He’s dead, end of story.”

“Then why can’t ours just begin, Liz?” he asked quietly, so softly she nearly missed it.

“I’ve gotta go,” she repeated numbly, images of the mystery painting flashing in her mind.

Open sky, arms extended.

Broken sculpture…slides in college.

Michael in her dorm room, nestling far too close in her bed. Holding her for hours while they both wept. Stroking her hair.

The most loving hands since…

She reached for the handle on the door, throwing all her weight into it, working to force it open. Suddenly Michael caught her hands, trapping them against the steel.

“Wake up, Liz,” he hissed powerfully against her ear. “Max is dead.”

She paused a moment, closing her eyes, trying to regain her equilibrium, even though her legs trembled beneath her. Finally, she swallowed hard and spoke.

“Yeah, well so am I, Michael.”


***

A polar ice cap shifting, groaning against the solid surface underneath. A shattering, a rearranging. A deal forsaken.

Liz glanced upward, into the New York sky, just the fragments of clear blue that peeked from above the glass and chrome and steel. Occasionally, a cloud would sail quickly into view, then beyond.

An aperture opened and closed, revealing a series of images soaring overhead-- sped up then eerily slowed down, frame by frame, depending on how she studied them.

She sipped her coffee, not Starbucks this time. From that other coffee place that she only ever found in New York. The one whose name she never could remember, not even in her dreams, like now.
A little froth tickled her upper lip, and her tongue darted out, licking it away, as she looked first to the left, then to the right of the busy intersection. Blaring horns wailed, pierced the morning calm.

Steam roiled upward from the subway grating, billowing in delicate puffs of creamy white. Smoke signals from the subterranean city, a secret code that she might decipher.

If only she understood the lexicon of her dreams.

She was in New York, somewhere in the financial district in the early morning. Men in pristine suits bustled to monotonous jobs on Wall Street. Traders and bankers, all droning to employment they might not want, like so many bees in a hive.

The noise was cacophonous, harsh in her ears, as she glanced upward, searching for the sky. And that’s when the edges of blue and cloud glinted from above, tessarae in some critical mosaic. Here was where the truth lay, if only she could reach deeper into the dream.

On her first trip to New York, she’d wanted to see the World Trade Center memorial, had been inexplicably drawn there. She knew from Maria that there wasn’t much to see—not in those days at least—but some part of her needed to touch it herself.

Three thousand or more voices silenced all at once, beautiful and vital, then suddenly no more. Well, not quite at once, she reflected as she stood on the downtown corner in Manhattan, glancing left and right at the morning traffic.

Not a singular moment, but a series of silences. First, 8:53 a.m., and then death parceled out in measurable increments. Like Max’s journey. First the granolith, and later her vision of his death. Now the memorial his loved ones and friends wanted to stage.

And then just silence.

The downtown memorial area was a windswept crater in the midst of the throbbing city center--like a mini-Hiroshima, some cosmic canyon of the human consciousness.

Liz stood on the platform, gazing out at the bits of mangled steel and concrete that remained. Stylized rubble, like some piece of modern sculpture.

Then, in the smallish morning gathering, she saw him. Just standing on the other side of the street, dark hair neatly brushed back, briefcase in hand.

A doppelganger, an eerie likeness of her erstwhile soul mate.

Only this time he looked up at her, from the other side of the flowing river, taxis and buses, pedestrians pulsating between them.

Golden eyes didn’t shift to green, a chin wasn’t different.

Max smiled at her, a tender, haunting half-smile of acknowledgement.

“Max!” She screamed soundlessly, unable to work her mouth. Her jaw throbbed as she moved her lips, tried to utter something. But he turned slowly from her, no further acknowledgment as she scrambled desperately down the viewing platform. She tripped on the steps, sliding.

She hurled herself after him, into the street.

And slammed awake as she landed on the hood of a taxi, sprawling wildly. A hand splayed on the hood, coffee flung against glass.

Shattered pieces. Broken shards. A moment’s image in pieces.

She lay on the hood, breathless and terrified, searching the crowd for Max.

But he was gone, lost in a sea of souls all around her.


***


Liz woke from the dream in a sweat, glancing quickly at the digital alarm clock.

4:34 a.m.

The same time she’d been waking for most every night eight years now, always vaguely terrified. Always from the same dreams.

She rubbed her eyes sleepily and reached for the lamp. She’d tried explaining the repetitive dreaming to her psychiatrist, the one her family had insisted she see during college.

After Max had died.

And he’d explained the waking pattern to her in a perfectly scientific manner, one that she readily acknowledged as the truth. She woke every night at the same time—at the precise time of his death-- as some way of holding onto Max. She’d elected herself keeper of his memory, the one who cared enough to stand vigil over his death hour.

It was like a perverse deathbed watch.

Only she’d never been allowed that, given that closure. So instead she clung to 4:34 a.m., repeated night after night, like some surreal purgatory of her own making.

And that was much less painful than actually clinging to Max.


***

A single e-mail flashed in Liz’s inbox, begging to be read. David Peyton had responded in her absence.

She felt her heart quicken in anticipation, as she slipped out of her heavy winter coat. She flicked the coffee pot on, and settled into her desk chair, ready to be irritated by him.

But she’d never expected the words that she saw, flickering luminously on the screen.


I must apologize, Ms. Parker. I meant no disrespect at all…quite the contrary. I do know how busy you are, and wanted only to make my intentions known. I am not seeking representation, simply to know if you feel my work has potential. Please accept my most humble apology if my actions seemed rude or…crafty.

Yours, David.

P.S. I will send a courier for the painting.

For crying out loud, Liz thought with a roll of her eyes. It wasn’t even six a.m. She was tired and irritable, and somehow such a seemingly genuine response only frustrated her more.

No problem, she tapped out snappishly. Just curious what, “Open Your Eyes,” meant. Can you come to the gallery? We’ll discuss your work…I’m here all day.

Liz heard a shuffling overhead and felt a sharp pang of guilt. Michael never stirred this early, which meant one of two things. Either, he’d been up all night, or was already awake uncommonly early.

She knew that either way, she was partly to blame, the way she’d blown off his declaration of love for her. She closed her eyes, shuddering at the memory. And remembered how she’d ached to kiss him just the day before, how beautiful he’d looked standing there beside her, studying the painting.

I love you, Liz. He’d murmured the words with such passion, such intent feeling. She knew the price he’d paid to admit what should never have been spoken.

But he understood their arrangement, and it wasn’t to be defied. No matter what her heart kept whispering in return.


***

I regret that I can’t come. Unfortunately, it isn’t feasible. I am, as they say…physically challenged.

The ellipses betrayed his confession, beckoned her attention to his words, as if he’d wrestled with his self-description, and had arrived at the only possible explanation. But not quite right, she sensed somehow.

Do you take visitors? she quipped, feeling smug. Have you any other work that I might come to? see?

She was determined to know what secrets David Peyton hid, how this secretive man’s life mirrored her own. For there was a kinship she sensed in his painting, something clandestine and obscured in his work. A terrible secret, a moment forever lost…ever remembered.

There are other pieces, yes, Ms. Parker. But I don’t think you should come. I’ll leave them for your perusal, if that’s alright.

“No, it’s not alright!” she cried loudly, then glanced overhead wondering if Michael had heard her shout, especially since a muffled sound answered right above where she sat.

“Sorry, Michael,” she muttered quietly under her breath, hoping she hadn’t woken him from a tentative nap.

I will come there, she persisted. Liz Parker hadn’t made a name in the art world in just four very short years without learning how to be quite determined when it came to scouting talent. Because as curious as she was about the elusive David Peyton, she also knew he had something.

The ability might be slightly undeveloped yet, but his one painting revealed a gift for expressing himself outside convention. She saw thousands of paintings a year from would-be clients, all of them perfectly competent. The problem was what they lacked…the magic. The inspiration. A certain something that would set them apart from the masses of other artists.

David Peyton had that something, so she was willing to pursue him a bit.

What about “Open Your Eyes,” she added in a second email. What did that mean, David?

Liz walked to the coffee pot, startled by the quick refrain of “you’ve got mail,” as it chimed almost immediately within the silent gallery. She ambled back to her computer, and opened another e-mail from DavidPeyton321⊕newmex.net

Open Your Eyes…is the title of the painting.

Those ellipses again, Liz thought smugly, and knew that while it might be the title, he’d also yearned to tell her something entirely different.





posted on 8-Dec-2002 1:40:23 PM

Author's Note:
Thanks, Skyiris! I'm going to keep posting this today. Takes a little time, though. *happy*



CHAPTER FOUR

David Peyton’s colors moved within her soul.

All day long, Liz’s gaze had been drawn to his painting, as it seemed to exercise an unearthly force upon her.

His brushstrokes touched dead places, luring her deep inside his canvas, and left her aching for more.

Unresolved…hungry.

Open Your Eyes, she thought. Oh, David…if only I could.

She lifted tentative fingers to touch the angel’s wings and closed her eyes. Just breathing.

In and out, the cadence of sleeping. The rhythm of dreams. Her hands reached upward, toward the beckoning sky. And she could simply leave, float away to a distant world forever.

Open Your Eyes…

Michael hadn’t answered a single one of her calls all day. Now it was nearly five p.m., and he hadn’t so much as brought her a cup of Starbucks to share—one of their little daily rituals. She’d ached to talk to him, to make sure she hadn’t hurt him too badly the night before.

He’d told he loved her. Finally. The culmination of ten years worth of emotion and deflected desire, and she hadn’t even been able to look him in the eye. Hadn’t admitted that sometimes, for the briefest moments, she felt alive when he was near.

That sometimes she believed in their possibilities.

So she strode to her desk, dialing his number again on her portable phone. She’d decided to take a bold step when he finally did answer her call, because there was something she needed him to know, a branch she yearned to extend by way of explanation.

She settled in her desk chair, drawing her legs up beneath her, and swiveled away from the rest of the gallery toward the wall. A calendar with vintage photos of New York City hung beside her, turned to last December. She’d left it there because she loved the photo of two lovers kissing at Coney Island…an illicit moment stolen under the boardwalk.

Michael jarred her by answering with his usual gruff hello. At least that was a positive sign, since he had caller ID.

“What’s up?” he asked off-handedly. But she could hear the raw emotion in his voice, how tired he sounded.

“Painting?” She tried to sound bright.

“Not today.” Then nothing, as she became aware of the receiver in her clammy hand. Help me, Michael, she begged mutely. Make this just a bit easier, please.

“So…” he began, but his voice drifted off into awkward silence.

“There’s something I want to say, Michael,” she began tentatively. “Something I wish I’d explained…before.”

“Sure,” he encouraged softly.

She drew in a steadying breath, her gaze trained on the boardwalk kiss. “I know Max is dead,” she began quietly, the sound of blood rushing in her ears. “I’m the one who felt it.”

“Liz, look, I was out of line,” he explained.

“Just let me say this,” she interrupted.

“Okay.”

“But sometimes I miss him so much that I think it will kill me,” Liz half-whispered into the phone, her chest tightening with the blurted admission. Michael couldn’t possibly understand what he’d done to her last night, that he’d awakened something slumbering and glacial inside. Something she didn’t want to arouse.
But he only remained soundless on the other end of the phone, his soft breath barely audible. Whether he realized it or not, her own confession had come at a great price. Because she’d admitted to feeling something, and that was more than she’d been able to do for almost eight years.

Missing him like this would kill me…if I weren’t already dead, she thought, rubbing her jaw.

“Well, Liz, I wish I could help you on that,” Michael finally answered. “But I think I’m done trying.”

Her chest ached at his words, and she felt her throat constrict. “Michael,” she begged softly. “Please.”

“Liz, I can’t go on like this,” he admitted, his voice filled with emotion. “I told you how I feel…you’ve known it for forever. But you still love him.”

“So do you,” she pointed out gently.

“That’s not relevant to this conversation.”

“Michael, it’s the heart of this conversation. It’s everything.”

He sighed heavily, and she heard the clatter of brushes behind him. Maybe he was painting, but why would he have lied?

“Why does loving him mean I can’t love you?” His voice was surprisingly lost and bewildered. “Or that you can’t love me?”

“I…I’m not saying that.”

“Yeah, Liz, I think you are…it’s what you’re always saying. Or not saying,” he said.

“Michael,” she began, but he cut her off.

“You still love him, Liz. You’re just frozen there, and I can’t fight it anymore,” he sighed heavily. “And I can’t fight him. Because if there’s one thing I figured out years ago, it’s that I’m never going to be Max Evans.” His voice broke on the last words, causing Liz’s heart to turn over in her chest.

“I gotta go…gotta paint,” he mumbled, slamming the phone down with a loud click, and Liz felt tears sting her eyes. She stared at the receiver, lightly stroking her fingers across the mouthpiece.

Michael, I love you.

She’d almost said it, had been painfully close. But like elevator doors caught too late, slamming shut just before she reached them, the moment had vanished. Another floor, another life. Another opportunity lost.


***

Liz had returned to Roswell after graduation strangely expectant. Not just about her career in art, but also about Michael. Maybe one bled into another, but for one fragmentary moment, it seemed she could be whole.

Her eternal mosaic shifted briefly then, and seemed to sort into place, a fractured image of possibility.
She and Michael had been growing closer during the whole of their four-year separation, especially during his east coast visits, when they’d trailed through the galleries together endlessly. Afterwards, each time, they’d spent hours just talking over pizza, fingers brushing together lightly with an explosion of surprising heat.

In those days, she’d thought she might be falling in love with him, but she’d willed the emotions back underground, buried them beneath the cold embers of her heart. But every time they’d been near one another, they’d wound up taking another cautious step closer.

Finally, they’d spent her spring break that senior year camped out in her dorm room, and they’d lay nestled together every night.

Once during that week, when he’d thought she was asleep, Liz had felt him press tender kisses against her forehead. Stolen and achingly beautiful. But no matter how much she’d wanted to simply tilt her face upward, and capture his soft lips with her own, she’d been unable. She’d been paralyzed, just lying there in his arms, images of Max haunting her. Visions of their first kiss on her balcony, the feel of his fingers against her bare skin.

Finally, she’d heard Michael’s breathing change, grow deeper against the top of her head, his hand relax slightly against her side. And Liz had wept for what might have been.

Not just for Max, and how he might have been the one holding her that chilly spring night. But for Michael, too. For all that might have been in her life.

By the time she returned to Roswell that late spring, she’d made a conscious decision. They were all attending a small graduation party her parents were throwing at the Crashdown. Maria was returning from New York, Isabel from California, and the gang would be together, celebrating with friends from home.
And she would tell Michael that she wanted him, because while she never ceased aching for Max, she’d come to the tentative conclusion that she could care for Michael, too. Her heart was opening like an early spring flower, delicate and fragile.

As she dressed for the party, she spent hours before the mirror, piling her hair in just the right style, and she wondered how Michael felt about seeing Maria again. The two of them had broken up during their senior year of high school, but she also knew his feelings were still slightly unresolved about her—and that he’d hardly seen her in all the intervening years. It was Liz that he traveled to visit at least once a year, not Maria.

As for Maria, she was well involved with the drummer in her latest band—some guy who worked an internship at MTV on the side. So Liz knew that while Maria might be surprised, she certainly wouldn’t be shocked if the two of them began dating. And while she yearned to talk to her about it—especially when Maria pressed her for details about her nonexistent love life at every possible juncture—somehow it just felt too awkward.

All through the party, Liz caught Michael staring at her at odd moments, and she blushed softly in reply each time. Especially at how shy he seemed around her, so different than their last time back east. His cautious behavior recalled memories of another shy young man, just watching her from the other side of the Crashdown silently.

Michael laughed with Maria all night long, but every time Liz looked up, his eyes had been trained on her. Full of unmasked desire.

At some point, with all the friends coming in and out of the diner, Liz had lost track of him. But he’d already asked her to walk back to his apartment and hang out—he hadn’t moved to Santa Fe yet then.

As the gathering drew to a close, Liz toted a few dirty plates into the kitchen, and she heard a strange noise in the supply closet. Something cautioned her to ignore it, some primal instinct of protection, yet she found herself opening the closet door—despite every warning in her mind.

She found Michael and Maria entwined together in the dark, her legs wrapped easily around him, his mouth buried against her neck. They’d both cried out, as the small arc of light from the hallway had pierced the darkness, illuminating their half-naked bodies perfectly. Liz had stood transfixed for what felt forever, until finally she’d mumbled an awkward, “sorry…so sorry,” and pulled the door shut again, her face flushed in terrible shame.

She’d stumbled upstairs to her room, wiping her eyes blindly—and cursing herself for having hoped, for having ever believed she might be able to love again.

Especially when she couldn’t stop her heart from loving Max. All else was just pretense.

Later, Michael found her on the balcony, lovingly reading the first entries in her old journal. She’d drawn her legs up, and just nestled with her memories of Max, stroking each yellowing page as she’d turned it.

Michael lumbered through her window, silent and palpably guilty in his demeanor.

“Liz,” he began, slipping his long legs through the small opening of her casement.

“Michael, God, let’s just not talk about it, okay?” she blurted, feeling utterly foolish.

“I don’t love her anymore.”

“Yeah, of course you do. She’s Maria. She’s wonderful,” Liz had gushed, meaning every word.

You’re wonderful…I’d be with you in a heartbeat if I thought you’d have me.”

“Maria’s the one for you,” she countered quietly, avoiding his piercing gaze.

“She’s a habit…a comfortable habit.”

“Look, Michael, you know I will only ever love one person,” Liz replied archly, meaning to sound distant. But what she spoke was the truth, and he needed to know it. “You read it in this book years ago.” She waved the journal at him meaningfully, reminding him of those purloined words, emotions from her heart that he’d never been meant to know.

It occurred to her that perhaps those words were what transfixed the two of them together so profoundly.

“I could love you.” Michael’s voice had become quiet, undeniably gentle, as he stood on her dark balcony, his hands thrust awkwardly in his jeans pockets. He was a strange counterpoint to all her memories of Max, standing on that same balcony in such a similar pose.

“Yeah, well don’t,” she snapped, closing her diary with an air of finality. But she’d never forgotten the way he’d stared at her, his melancholy eyes seeming so dazed and lost.

Something nascent had withered inside of her that night. It was as if her heart had almost opened again, a tiny crocus blossom peeking out from the snow. But had closed again just as quickly, never to bloom again.

***

“I’m sorry,” Michael murmured, staring at some unseen point over her shoulder, as he pressed a cup of Starbucks coffee into her hand. He glanced anxiously around the gallery, at the walls, the paintings, his eyes apparently focusing on anything but her.

Liz blushed softly, feeling the awkward strain between them. Aching to end it somehow.

“I deserved it,” she answered quietly. He shook his head in silent denial, and their eyes met for a moment, as she walked around the counter toward him. He stepped away from her, pausing just in front of David Peyton’s painting, thoughtfully studying it.

Unspoken words crackled like electricity in the air, held life even in silence. She sensed that there was more he wanted to say, as he brushed his hair away from his eyes pensively. For a moment, he seemed ready to speak, and Liz braced herself. Then, his demeanor changed a bit, relaxed.

“Why does this thing bug the crap outta me?” he asked rhetorically, scratching his eyebrow as he squinted at the painting. “I think I hate it.”

“Why?” she asked, puzzled by his reaction. Keenly aware of how near he stood to her, the proximity of his body, so warm. Like Max’s always had been. Warmer than a human’s body, just pulsating with heat and power.

“It’s pretentious,” he observed, taking a sip from his own cup of coffee. “I mean, hell, it’s like a rip on Chagall or something.”

That was it. The painting that had been eluding her recollection, the one it had reminded her of all along. David’s work was reminiscent of Chagall’s childlike flights of fancy, yet was borne of some darkly illuminated alter-universe, twisted and misshapen.

His gift was rare as a comet’s path, chasing through an unknown galaxy, trailing stardust in its wake.

“It’s…like magic,” she breathed, gazing at the angel’s hands. They were so perfectly formed and beautiful, reaching ever upward with long tapered fingers, delicate in shape. The kind that could touch you and bring healing—or unlock your soul if you needed it.
Hands that would stroke your hair all night long, just soothing you until the demons departed.

“You’re in love,” Michael scowled, moving away from her. For a moment, his words caused her to start.
Images flashed quickly through her mind. Michael at his easel, whistling softly while she napped on his sofa. The pull of desire, as she watched him through a half-opened eye.

Michael touching her cheek to wake her, resting his fingers a moment too long.

Found out, utterly exposed.

Until she realized he meant that she’d fallen in love with the painting. “So you better figure out who the hell painted the thing, huh?” He all but growled.

She stared after him, as he loped toward the darkened front door. His sweater had a large hole in the back, along his upper shoulder, and she had the urge to slip her fingers through the torn place and just touch his back. To caress it, expressing everything she couldn’t say in words.

“I know who painted it,” she confessed, staring after him, aching for him to stay just a little longer.

Slowly, Michael spun to face her, his liquid brown eyes shifting mercurially.

“His name is David Peyton,” she explained. “And he’s couriering more over before the end of the day.”

“Well, hope they’re as magical as this one,” he barked. He was reverting, yanking her back ten years ago, to a time when they were always opponents. Abandoning her.

“But I wanted to know what you think, too.” Her voice was small, as forlorn as she felt inside.

“You don’t need my opinion, Liz,” he snapped coolly, opening the door. “Hell, you don’t need me at all.”


***

“Can you give me the address where you picked these up?” Liz asked, turning the courier’s clipboard so she could sign for the packages. He balanced a slim stack of three neatly wrapped paintings under his arm, the paper measured and pristine in the way it enfolded each one.

“Sorry,” the courier answered, handing her a yellow receipt. “Not allowed to give that information out.”

“These are from David Peyton, correct?” Liz persisted, as she took possession of the three pieces, cradling them to her chest like delicate porcelain. “That’s who sent them, right?”

“If that’s what it says on the slip,” the courier answered flatly, turning toward the door.

“Sure you can’t give me his address?” Liz pressed, unwilling to be daunted, but the courier simply shook his head.

“Can you at least tell me what he looked like?” Liz called, aware that her voice was edged with d