posted on 12-Dec-2001 12:38:00 PM
Hey guys! I'm finally getting this posted over here. It'll probably take me a bit to catch up with the regular board, but I'll get there eventually. *wink* Enjoy!

*happy*
Em

*********


…There’s No Place Like Home
by EmilyluvsRoswell

Disclaimer: Don’t own the characters or the concepts; just borrowing them! If Jason Katims wants to pay me to do this, I’d be more than happy to oblige him, but meanwhile this is just for fun.
Category: The whole gang.
Summary: Post-Destiny.
Spoilers: Only for Season 1.
Rating: PG-13; mostly for language and some suggestive behavior.
Feedback: Sure! Love it!
Author’s notes: This is the seventh, and final, story in a series. I recommend that you read "You Can’t Go Home Again" and its sequels, "House of Cards", "Home Is Where the Heart Is", "The Home Advantage", "Home Bound", and "Be It Ever So Humble.." prior to reading this, or it won’t make much sense.


* * * * *

Maria DeLuca’s first waking thought was that Michael’s apartment was spinning. Even with her eyes closed, she could swear she was going around and around, as if she had hitched a ride with Dorothy through the cyclone.

Her second thought was that the house had already fallen, possibly on top of her, because she had a pounding headache.

"Michael?" she mumbled. "Michael, are you awake?" It hurt to talk, each sound she made echoing through her brain, causing the throbbing in her head to worsen. She was gradually becoming aware that her stomach was upset, as well. What the hell was wrong with her? She had been fine the night before.

Bracing herself against the morning light, Maria gingerly opened one eye. The other eye snapped open a split second later and she blinked furiously in an attempt to clear her vision. It did nothing to improve the situation. Unless her mysterious ailment included hallucinations, she was no longer in Michael’s apartment – and she was alone.

"Okay, DeLuca, no need to panic," she whispered. "Just keep calm." She started to sit up, then quickly changed her mind when she realized how dizzy it made her simply to move. Her stomach clenched abruptly and she closed her eyes, trying to regain a measure of equilibrium.

God, what was happening? Where was she, and where was Michael? She took a slow, deep breath in an effort to control the wave of fear that swept over her. "Calm, stay calm," she repeated softly. "It won’t help to freak out."

Careful to remain perfectly still, she slowly opened her eyes again. Except for the cot on which she was lying, the room appeared completely empty. There was a steel door to the right and a small vent high on one wall. The room itself was extremely bright, but there didn’t seem to be a light anywhere.

Another bout of nausea forced her to close her eyes again, and she was conscious of feeling overwhelmingly tired. It suddenly seemed a major effort just to stay awake. Her blood moved sluggishly and her breathing grew more relaxed. On some level she still wanted to know how she had gotten there, but it didn’t seem that important. Michael’s whereabouts were more so, but even that nagging question could wait until later. As she drifted toward oblivion, she had a fleeting thought that this was how she imagined it felt to be drugged, but before she could consider what that meant, she was asleep.

* * * * *

Kyle Valenti stepped over the wreckage of Liz Parker’s bedroom door and let out a low whistle. "Liz’s dad did this?" he asked.

Alex shrugged. "Apparently. Though I doubt the damage would have been quite so severe if Max hadn’t melted the lock shut," he added with a wry grin.

Kyle shook his head. "Too much information."

"I thought you were over Liz?"

"I am, I am. I just…" Kyle waved his hand absently toward Alex. "Forget it. Let’s go get this guy before he comes to."

"Max said he won’t wake up until he does something to him," Alex reminded him. "Or until he undoes something," he continued, frowning slightly. "I wasn’t quite clear on the details."

Kyle slipped through the bedroom window and out onto the roof. "Terrific," he muttered. "This is one detail I don’t want to deal with. At least not conscious," he said, jerking his thumb toward the man lying prone in a pile of rubble. "Shit, what a mess."

Alex followed Kyle onto the roof and shook his head, eyes wide. "Man, they must have really gone at it. Looks like they broke everything out here." He bent over and poked at the remains of Liz’s deck chair.

Pulling his father’s handcuffs out of his back pocket, Kyle frowned. He squatted next to the man and looked him over appraisingly.

"What?" Alex asked, coming to join him.

"He sure is a big sucker. How did Max manage this?"

"Alien powers," Alex replied, arching one eyebrow. "And I imagine it was also highly motivating to see Liz go flying into a wall."

"Yeah. Well, help me roll sleeping beauty here over so we can cuff him. Though I don’t see why we need to, if Max is so sure he won’t wake up."

"Better safe than sorry, I guess," Alex grunted as he grabbed the figure by the shoulder and shoved.

They rolled the man onto his stomach and forced his arms behind his back. Kyle snapped the handcuffs around his bulky wrists, tightening them as far as they would go. Rolling the man over again, they each took an arm and pulled him into a sitting position, then dragged him across the roof until they could prop him against the back wall of the building. Shards of pottery mixed with clumps of soil scattered noisily in their wake.

Alex straightened up slowly, wincing as his back cracked.

"Getting old, Whitman?" Kyle asked, eyebrows raised.

"You try sitting at a computer for twelve hours and see what your spine sounds like the next day."

"Whatever. So, now what? My dad and I already got the body in the alley out of sight, so we don’t need to worry about him just yet."

"All I know is that I’m staying out of the café until Max is done talking with the Parkers."

"He’s really gonna tell Liz’s parents that he’s an alien?" Kyle asked in disbelief, though he was careful to keep his voice low.

"Looks like. I guess he figures that there’s not much he can do to avoid it now." Alex ran a hand through his hair and looked out over the wall. The town was just beginning to stir, giving off a deceptively peaceful air. He turned back to Kyle and began counting off fingers. "First the attack on Isabel and me the other night, then Tess nearly getting snatched on Sunday. This morning Max and Liz get attacked, and God only knows where Michael and Maria are. Things are escalating, Kyle. Max can’t expect the Parkers to keep out of harm’s way if the fight is coming to them."

Kyle paused. "You think he’s scared."

"Hell, yes, and I’m right there with him. Can you honestly tell me you’re not?"

Kyle looked at the rubble covering the roof. Then he thought about how Isabel, Tess, and Liz had all needed to be healed in a manner of days. "No," he agreed quietly. "I can’t."

**********

Part 2

**********

Max watched as the disbelief in Nancy Parker’s eyes slowly morphed into anger. He couldn’t say he was surprised. After all, he had just told her and her husband that their daughter was in love with an alien. She was bound to be less than enthusiastic about the news. Still, for Liz’s sake, he had hoped she would be willing to at least hear him out.

"You’re telling me that you come from another planet?" Nancy asked, her voice steely, each word separate and distinct as if he were the one who might not understand. "That you were some sort of king there, and now your enemies have followed you to earth? And you honestly expect me to believe that?"

"Mrs. Parker, I realize how it sounds…"

"No," Nancy said, cutting him off mid-sentence. "I sincerely doubt that you do." She shot a look at the Evanses who were seated between Max and Jeff. "And you believe this? That your son, whom you’ve raised from a little boy, is actually a… a spaceman? That he landed here in the ’47 crash? That he has some sort of special powers and can heal people? You’re all insane," she dismissively, not even letting Max’s parents reply.

"Mom," Liz began.

"Liz, I don’t want to hear a word out of you. If you believe this hogwash then it’s obvious you aren’t thinking clearly. I don’t know what he’s done to you – if he’s hypnotized you or what – but I want you to go upstairs while your father and I handle this."

"Mom, I am not…"

"Right now," Nancy snapped.

"No," Liz stated firmly.

"Maybe you should let me…" Max said, recognizing the familiarly stubborn set of Liz’s jaw in Nancy Parker’s expression.

"I’m not going anywhere," Liz told him quickly before turning back to her mother. "I know all of this sounds crazy, Mom, but please, you have to listen to us. Everyone’s life depends on it."

Nancy shook her head, tears suddenly coming to her eyes. "Is this somehow my fault? You’re such a bright girl. We should have left Roswell years ago. Gone somewhere with more opportunities for you, more challenges. Someplace where you wouldn’t have felt it necessary to create some wild fantasy life…"

"Mom…"

"Nancy," Jeff interrupted, taking his wife’s hand. His voice was low and soothing. "I know you’re upset, but you have to calm down. Just let Max finish."

"You’re not saying you believe him?" She swung on her husband, blue eyes wide. "First that break down on the roof the other night and now this. Jeff, he’s obviously unstable. You can’t possibly believe otherwise."

"I don’t know what I believe, Nancy, but I do know what I saw. Liz was lying up there bleeding just a little while ago, and after Max touched the back of her head the bleeding stopped." Jeff sighed wearily. "As impossible as it sounds, he healed her. I saw it."

She opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came out. Her gaze flicked from her husband to Philip and Diane Evans, then to Max. Finally she looked at her daughter – her little girl – whose deep brown eyes were pleading for understanding. Shutting her mouth abruptly, Nancy nodded. "Fine. I’ll listen to the rest of your story," she agreed, her tone reserved.

"Thank you," Diane said softly. She reached across the table and let her hand fall palm down just inches from where Nancy clutched the edge of the Formica. "I do understand what you’re going through. The kids only told Phillip and me a couple of days ago, and it was hard for us to believe, too. I know what Max is saying sounds incredible, but it’s all true."

Max smiled at his mother, grateful for her support. In many ways, telling Liz’s parents the truth was harder than telling his own parents had been. While he had been afraid of his parents’ rejection, the Parkers could forbid Liz to have anything to do with him, and he knew he would never survive that. Under the best of circumstances, he couldn’t stand to be kept away from Liz. But now – in the middle of all this chaos, with Michael and Maria potentially in danger – he had to be able to focus, and that would be impossible without Liz beside him. He needed her love, her strength, if he was going to make it through the days ahead.

His father interrupted his thoughts. "Max, maybe if you did something now to show the Parkers how your abilities work. The way you changed the color of the flowers for your mom and me," he suggested.

"He’s right, Max," Liz agreed. "Um… what about your back?"

"My back?" Max asked.

"Yeah, the cuts. Did you bother to do anything about them?"

Max shook his head. "I told you they don’t hurt. Besides, we’ve been a little preoccupied," he reminded her quietly.

"I know," Liz said, giving his hand an encouraging squeeze. "Why don’t you take off your shirt." She turned back to her parents. "Mom, Dad, you both saw what happened to Max’s back upstairs, right? How he got sliced up by the debris on the roof?"

"What’s this?" Diane asked worriedly.

"It’s not bad, Mom," Max assured her as he slowly lifted the edge of his shirt. Glancing at Liz, who nodded, he continued to pull his shirt up and over his head.

"I don’t understand, Liz," Nancy said. "How will this change anything?"

"I want Max to heal himself," Liz said simply. "If you see it happen before your eyes, it’ll be easier for you to believe it."

Max pushed his chair away from the table and swiveled so his back was facing the adults, though not before he caught the look of doubt in Nancy Parker’s eyes. His own mother winced audibly at the sight of his torn, bloody skin, but, aside from that, no one uttered a word.

"Liz?" Max asked, holding out his hand. She smiled and took it, giving his fingers another encouraging squeeze. Taking a deep breath, he closed eyes and tried to relax. He began to concentrate, attempting to visualize the cuts on his back and imagining the skin closing over, healing until the surface was even and unblemished. He could feel the heat radiating from his spine and spreading to either side. A small gasp behind him let him know that his efforts were working, and that they were visible to his audience. When he could sense no remaining damage to his back, he opened his eyes and let out the breath he had been holding.

"That’s… remarkable," Jeff Parker said as Max turned around again. "I mean, I saw you heal Liz earlier, but I wasn’t really sure what was happening at the time. But this…" He ran a hand through his hair and looked Max in the eye. "My God."

Feeling self-conscious, Max pulled his shirt back over his head. Liz reached out and helped him tug it down and, as she did, he could feel Nancy’s eyes on him. Bracing himself, he risked a glance in her direction.

"I… I don’t know what to think," she admitted somewhat shakily. She turned toward the Evanses. "How do I… I mean, you realize…" Nancy stopped and looked down. Her hands were trembling where they rested on the table. "There has to be some other explanation."

Liz leaned forward and put a comforting hand on her mother’s shoulder. "Mom, there isn’t. And why does there need to be? This doesn’t change who Max is, or how he and I feel about each other. He’s a good, sweet, caring person, Mom, not something from a bad B movie. I love him. Isn’t that what’s important?"

Nancy raised her head and looked her daughter in the eye. "Liz, all I have ever wanted was for you to be happy and healthy. To have a good life. And now you’re telling me you’re… that you are sleeping with a boy who isn’t even… human," she said, a note of hysteria in her voice. "One who is responsible for very nearly getting you killed this morning, and God knows how many other times. Who has asked you to lie repeatedly to your family. How am I supposed to react to that? I want you to be happy, yes, but I also want you to be safe."

"Mom, Max saved my life. I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for him," Liz said simply.

"So what? Did he save you only to get you killed later on? Is that it? You think you owe him your very life now?" she snapped.

"Nancy," Jeff said gently. He reached out and pulled her into his arms, where she promptly burst into tears, her head against his shoulder. "Shhh," he soothed. He looked up and met Max’s concerned eyes. "It’ll be okay. It’s just a lot to take in," he said, glancing at Liz and then back to Max, rubbing his wife’s back all the while. "Thank you, Max, for trusting us with your story," he added. "I realize it must have taken a lot for you to open up to us this way. You can count on us to keep your secret."

Max nodded, glad at least one of Liz’s parents seemed accepting. "Thank you, sir. I appreciate that. And I really am sorry for all of the elaborate lies and half-truths over the past months."

"I think I can understand why you felt them necessary," Jeff told him.

"Honestly, I wouldn’t have told you now if I hadn’t felt it was important for you to know what was going on," Max admitted. He stood and began pacing restlessly, darting occasional glances at Liz’s mother, who had started to calm down. He needed to explain the risks involved to everyone, but he was unsure if Mrs. Parker was quite ready for the next part of the discussion. Sighing, he shook his head. He didn’t have time to ease Liz’s parents into the actualities of the situation. Things were coming to a head much too rapidly.

"Look, I realize this is all difficult for you. I want you both to know that I would sooner die than see Liz come to any harm. But these other aliens – my enemies – they are on this planet, and they’re a threat to everyone. Earth was their next target after my home planet, and while my presence here has nothing to do with bringing that about, it’s my duty to try and stop them. I wish to God I could keep you all out of it, and safe," he said, looking to Liz. "But there are no guarantees, and after the attack here this morning… Well, I won’t take any more chances with the people we love," he said. "You both need to be prepared and to understand that you must be very careful from here on out."

"Max, honey, I think maybe you should let your father and me explain the rest," Diane interrupted. "I know you and Liz have other things that need your attention."

"Thanks, Mom, but until the Sheriff calls and lets us know what they’ve found at Michael’s, my hands are pretty much tied," he said, his frustration clear. "I just hope that, if the worst is true, Tess and Isabel are able to sense something."

"So, Michael and Isabel and Tess are all like you?" Nancy asked slowly. She had dried her eyes, and, though she still sat very close to her husband, she seemed more pulled together – almost subdued.

Max nodded. "The four of us were sent here together, as a unit," he told her, having given up on any hope of keeping the others out of his explanation.

"And when you said Michael and Maria are missing…?"

"We don’t know yet," Max replied. "It might be nothing. They could have just gone out for an early breakfast or something."

"But you don’t believe that," Nancy stated flatly. "You think they’ve been… abducted… or whatever. Taken hostage. Has anyone told Amy all of this?"

Max shook his head, regret in his eyes. "I’d rather keep Mrs. DeLuca out of this for the time being. At least until we know for sure what’s happened to them."

"But isn’t she in danger, too? I mean, if we are…" Nancy trailed off, suddenly looking a little frightened.

"The Sheriff was at Mrs. DeLuca’s last night," Max reassured her. "She’s okay for now."

A sudden ringing broke through the tension in the room. Liz went over and answered the phone. "Crashdown, how may I help you?" she asked automatically. "I’ll get him." Concern clear in her expression, she held the phone out to Max. "It’s the Sheriff."

*********

TBC


[ edited 2 time(s), last at 13-Dec-2001 1:28:51 PM ]
posted on 12-Dec-2001 12:42:30 PM

Part 3

*********

Jim Valenti got right to the point. "They’re gone, Max. No outward signs of struggle, but Michael’s front door was wide open when we got here." His hand tightened automatically around the phone. As he spoke, he watched Isabel and Tess circle the room slowly, trying to get some sense as to what had happened. Tess appeared worried, while Isabel seemed calm until you saw the wild look in her eyes. "I don’t know what to tell you."

"Have Iz or Tess gotten any flashes?" Max asked.

"Hold on." Placing one hand over the mouth piece, he motioned to Isabel. "Want to fill him in?"

"Max?" Isabel brushed her hair restlessly off her face. "I’m barely getting anything at all, but it looks like they took Maria at the very least. I got a flash off the couch. She was asleep and someone held a cloth over her mouth, probably with chloroform. There’s nothing after that."

Valenti moved across the room to stand next to Tess, who was nervously chewing on her bottom lip. He offered a comforting smile, but neither of them spoke, both remaining focused on Isabel as she continued her conversation with Max.

"I don’t know what happened to Michael, but if they got Maria they probably got him too, one way or another," Isabel said, her voice rising. "You know he wouldn’t have risked her, Max." She paused, letting her hair fall forward again. "No, I know, I know. I’m just upset," she said softly. "Okay, we’re coming. Yeah, we’ll be careful." She hung up and turned to the others. "He wants us back at the Crashdown."

"Did he say what we’re going to do?" Tess asked.

Isabel shook her head. "I doubt he knows. Come on."

* * * * *

Liz stood next to Max as he spoke to the Sheriff and Isabel, hoping her presence would help keep him calm, even though she knew it was unlikely. She couldn’t get hold of her own raucous emotions – why should she expect Max to be able to? The muscles in his arm were tense under her hand and his forehead creased with frowning. Tiny worry lines were visible at the corners of his eyes. Sighing, she acknowledged that, after everything that had happened that morning, it was a wonder he was holding it together as well as he was.

She peered cautiously toward her mother. Diane had shifted to the seat next to her and the two women were talking quietly, heads bent. Nancy seemed to have recovered from the shock of learning Max’s true identity, but Liz knew in her heart that it wouldn’t be that easy. It would take more than a brief discussion for her mother to admit that Max was good for Liz – regardless of his planetary origins. She suspected Nancy was simply waiting for the immediate crisis to be over to launch her campaign for Liz to find a "normal" boyfriend. One who didn’t come with quite so many complications.

Her father, on the other hand, appeared more accepting of the situation, if not entirely comfortable. He and Philip had adjourned to the back booth and were talking earnestly, but it was clear Jeff was more amazed by Philip’s explanations of the past days’ events than anything else. Liz could hear snippets of the conversation across the room, and the words "FBI" and "torture" came across loud and clear. Obviously, Max’s father was recounting the story of Max being captured.

"What’s wrong?" Max asked quietly.

Liz glanced up, only then realizing Max was no longer on the phone. "What? Why?"

"You shuddered," he whispered, slipping his arm around her shoulders.

Liz shook her head. "It was nothing. What about Maria and Michael?"

Max frowned. "No sign of them. Doesn’t look good." Giving her a comforting squeeze, he drew her out from behind the counter and headed toward the table where their mothers were sitting. "Well, it seems we were right. The Sheriff said both Michael and Maria are gone. I’m going to run up and get Kyle and Alex, so I can fill you all in together."

"I’ll go, Max," Liz told him.

"You sure?"

She nodded. "Be right back." Brushing a quick kiss over his lips, she headed out the back door of the café.

Liz ran up the stairs to the apartment, concentrating on the sound of her feet hitting each step. Anything to avoid thinking about Michael and Maria. Her heart was beating a little faster by the time she got upstairs, and it had nothing to do with the short climb. Was this how things were going to be from now on? Every day bringing something a little worse for them to deal with? No, she thought determinedly. I refuse to let myself get mired down in fear. We’ve come so far – survived so much. We’ll deal with this, too.

Crossing to her bedroom, she found Kyle and Alex still sitting out on the roof. Taking in the rubble that littered the ground, Liz sighed and climbed out the window to join them. Her eyes flicked to the unconscious man propped against the wall.

"What’s up?" Alex asked.

"Kyle’s dad called."

"And? What did he say?" Kyle asked. "Did they find Michael and Maria?"

Liz shook her head. "They weren’t there," she said quietly. "Max told your dad, Iz, and Tess to come back. I said I’d come get you guys."

"What else did Max say?" Alex asked. "I mean, there had to be something. Michael and Maria didn’t just vanish."

"I don’t know any more than you do," Liz said. "Max wanted to tell everyone at once, okay? Now just come downstairs."

Alex nodded. "Okay, we’re coming."

"What about him?" Kyle asked, pointing at their captive.

Liz chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully. "I don’t think he’s going anywhere, but maybe we should drag him downstairs anyway. Just to be safe. He may be our only chance of finding out where Michael and Maria are," she added softly.

Alex and Kyle exchanged looks. "Good idea," Kyle said. "Come on, Whitman. You go ahead, Liz. We’ll catch up."

Liz nodded and slipped back through the window. Alex and Kyle followed at a slower pace, dragging the unconscious man behind them.

"Do you think Max will be able to get anything out of this guy?" Alex asked in a low tone when Liz was out of earshot.

Kyle grunted. "I can’t picture Max strong-arming anyone, but then a year ago I never would have figured him for a king, either."

"He’s not exactly the type to rough someone up. I could see Michael doing it, but Max?"

"Yeah, well, that’s kind of a problem, seeing as how Guerin’s MIA."

"I know. I wish I’d been able to find out something about where these evil aliens are staying. I mean, they’ve got to be somewhere," Alex huffed as they muscled the man’s bulk through the window.

Kyle shook his head and began dragging the body across Liz’s bedroom floor. "Day’s just getting started, man. Plenty of time for geek stuff."

"But there’s not plenty of time," Alex snapped. "There wasn’t before, and now there’s even less. Or did you not notice that our merry little army is shrinking?"

"Hey, take it easy," Kyle said, looking up. "All I meant is that you’ll figure it out, okay? No need to take my head off."

Alex nodded. "Sorry. It’s just Maria…"

"I know," Kyle said. "I hear you. Don’t worry. She’s with Michael, right? He’ll look out for her."

"I hope so," Alex said softly.

***********

Part 4

***********

It was all Michael could do to keep from climbing the walls. Not that he thought it would get him anywhere; they were smooth and white and seemingly impenetrable. Never in his life could he remember feeling so helpless, so trapped. Not as a kid at the mercy of his drunken foster father, not when Max was taken by the FBI – never.

He paced the length of the narrow, sterile room and pounded the flat of his hand against the steel door. God, what was happening to Maria? Where had they taken her? Was she awake, scared, wondering where he was? Or was something even worse happening to her?

"Argh!" he screamed, pounding on the door once more. He would kill them all. He would pull them apart with his bare hands if they hurt one golden hair on her head. Turning so his back was against the wall, he slid down to the cold tile floor and wrapped his arms around his knees, pulling them against his chest. His hand stung where he had hit the door, but he barely noticed.

Even after going over everything a thousand times in his mind, he still had no idea what he should have done differently – how he could have prevented their being taken prisoner. It had all happened so quickly. He’d stepped out of the shower and dried off, pulled on clean shorts and his jeans, all without hearing a thing. Then he had opened the bathroom door and all hell had broken loose.

There had been two of them – tall, broad shouldered, looking as human as he did – standing in the middle of his apartment, their faces expressionless. One had Maria tossed over his shoulder as if she were a sack of flour, and the sight of her blond hair falling in soft waves over her face, her arms hanging limp, had been enough to make Michael lose his mind. He had instantly launched himself at the second man, only to pull up short when he caught sight of the laser gun. The man had pointed it directly at Maria, and Michael had folded instantly, though it had taken every ounce of willpower he possessed. His fear for Maria’s safety had been the only thing strong enough to keep his fury in check.

Had he been wrong to hold himself back? Springing to his feet, he began to pace again, restlessly bouncing off the far wall, only to turn and head for the opposite one. They had thrown them in a van, where his only comfort had been the feel of Maria propped on the floor next to him, her skin warm, her pulse steady. After they had driven in circles for what seemed like forever, the man keeping guard over them had knocked him unconscious with a blow to the head. He had come to in his tiny cell, alone, and no amount of screaming and swearing had gotten him any answers. Maybe he should have taken a chance, used his powers when they were still free. If he had…

No. They would have killed Maria. He was sure of it. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he sank to the floor again and rested his head against the wall. His eyes scanned the walls, the ceiling, finding the same nothing he had found each time before. "Maria, where are you?" he whispered hoarsely. "What have I gotten you into?"

* * * * *

Max stood near the front door of the café and watched Liz as she lined up a row of coffee cups on the counter and began to fill them. Kyle and Alex had taken a seat at the table next to the parents and were talking quietly, but Liz seemed unable to sit still. Her hand hovered briefly over each cup, pouring out the steaming liquid with practiced ease. When she had finished, she returned the pot to the burner and began serving, starting with their mothers. By the time she was done, her hands were shaking ever so slightly and she looked pale.

Not wanting to draw anyone’s attention, Max abandoned his watch for the Sheriff and the others and headed across the room. "Liz," he said softly.

She looked up, forcing a weak smile. "Hey. You want coffee, too? I was just gonna get you a cherry coke, but…"

"Hey, stop that," he urged, slipping his arm around her and steering her gently back to the counter. "Sit down. You’re not on duty and you most definitely do not have to wait on me," he scolded. "What’s wrong? You don’t look so good," he noted worriedly.

Liz shook her head, her eyes dropping. "I’m okay," she assured him. "I guess it’s all just starting to catch up with me," she admitted quietly.

"Is your head all right?" he questioned, running a hand over the back of her scalp. "Look at me a second."

She met his concerned gaze.

"Your pupils aren’t dilated. I don’t think you have a concussion, but maybe I missed…"

"Max, I’m fine. Really. You did a good job," she said. "I’m just worried about Maria and Michael, that’s all." Her dark eyes clouded up with tears. "I’m trying to keep a positive attitude, you know? Especially with my parents here. But Max, I’m so scared," she whispered.

"Me, too," he confessed, pulling her against his chest and stroking her back soothingly. "You don’t have to put up a good front, Liz," he added. "I already know you’re the bravest woman in the world. And let me worry about your parents, all right?" He dropped a kiss on the top of her head, sighing as her arms snaked around his waist and she huddled against him. He could feel her tears dampening the front of his shirt. "It’ll be okay," he promised. "We’ll find them."

**********

Part 5

**********

Nancy Parker watched Max Evans comfort her daughter, noting how gentle he was with her, as if she were something fragile and precious . At the same time, in the back on her mind, a little voice reminded her that Liz wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for the young man holding her – that his crazy, unbelievable, science fiction life was what had put her daughter and her friends in danger. Yet, she couldn’t deny the look of concern in Max’s eyes, or the genuine protectiveness of his actions toward Liz. Seeing them together this way, she had to admit that they seemed deeply in love.

But how could she sit back and simply accept their relationship? It was no longer just a case of teenagers getting in too deep, too quickly, or that Max might distract Liz from her goals. Though she felt insane even thinking it, the truth was that he was from another planet. His very existence put them all at risk, most particularly Liz. If Max was truly such an important individual, anyone close to him was bound to be a target for his enemies. Already his friends were going missing, and she didn’t even want to consider what might have happened to Liz that morning outside her own bedroom window. There had to be something they could do to stop it. Something to make Liz realize how dangerous it was for her to be with Max.

Max was whispering in Liz’s ear, and Nancy couldn’t help but wonder what he was saying. Whatever it was, Liz was calmer than she had been just moments earlier. Nancy’s eyes narrowed. Perhaps Max was the one she needed to speak to about all of this. He had always been a sensible young man, despite everything, and from what he had been telling them earlier, he clearly felt a measure of guilt about the situation. Max himself had said he would sooner die than see Liz hurt. Maybe he could be made to see reason – to understand that this relationship just couldn’t continue.

Jeff leaned over and squeezed her hand, breaking her train of thought. "I’m going to change the sign in the window, Nance. It doesn’t look like we’re going to be opening any time today."

"Okay," she agreed.

"How are you holding up?" he asked, his blue eyes worried. "I know it seems like we stepped into one of those old "Twilight Zone" episodes, but how do you feel about all of this?"

Nancy shrugged. "I’m not sure," she said slowly, realizing her husband was concerned about her reaction. How could he just take this all in stride? "I’m not sure I really believe it all," she admitted.

"Do you have a better explanation?" he asked.

"Just because I don’t, doesn’t mean there isn’t one, Jeff. Hell, I’m not even sure I’m awake," she muttered.

"Nancy, we’re going to have to trust Liz," he said. "It’s hard. Believe me, I know that. But I think we have to give her credit for coming through these past months so well. All of them, really. They’re clearly an amazing bunch of kids," he said softly.

Hearing the awe in her husband’s voice, Nancy nodded. He was right about that much. "It’s a miracle they’re all alive," she whispered.

Jeff looked at her closely. "Nancy, you’ve got to let it go," he said gently. "Let her go. Look at her," he said, turning toward the counter. Liz and Max were talking quietly. His arm was snaked around her waist and their free hands were linked. Neither had eyes for anything but each other. "Look at them," Jeff continued. "Do you remember what we were like?"

"We were nineteen, Jeff."

He shook his head. "Ah, babe, they’re just a stone’s throw from there. And in many ways I think they’re both so much older than we ever were."

Nancy rubbed a hand over her eyes. "I’m scared for her," she said finally, looking at her husband. His eyes were filled with infinite understanding and she sighed. "Jeff, I don’t want to be a bad guy. I want her to be happy. But it just isn’t that simple for me."

"Liz can take care of herself."

"Against aliens?" she asked, her voice rising.

"Nancy."

She looked up to find Diane Evans standing in front of her with a pot of coffee, her brow furrowed. "I’m sorry," Nancy said. "I didn’t realize I was talking so loudly," she added lamely.

Diane smiled. "More coffee?"

"Thanks." Glancing past Diane, Nancy saw Liz watching her from across the room. Her daughter looked unhappy.

"I’ll take some, too, Diane," Jeff said. "Thanks."

"My pleasure," Diane replied, her smile warm. She topped off both cups of coffee, then headed to the next table where Kyle and Alex were sitting.

"We can talk about this more later," Jeff told Nancy in a low voice. "But given the circumstances, I think it should wait until we know what is going on with Maria and Michael, don’t you?" He sounded stern. "I’m going to go take care of that sign."

Nancy nodded, feeling suddenly three feet tall. She closed her eyes, her hands wrapping automatically around the warmth of the cup in front of her. Why didn’t anyone understand? It wasn’t that she didn’t like Max, or understand, or care. She wasn’t an unfeeling harpy. But Liz was her daughter – her only child – and her safety and well-being would always come first.

*******

TBC
posted on 12-Dec-2001 12:47:37 PM

Part 6

********

The mood in the Crashdown was subdued as the Sheriff, Isabel, and Tess recounted what they had found at Michael’s apartment. Max stood at the counter next to Liz, too keyed up to sit, watching everyone’s reactions carefully. His parents and the Parkers were seated together, but their responses were anything but identical. Both fathers appeared worried, while his mother seemed on the verge of tears. He couldn’t readily identify the look on Nancy Parker’s face, which worried him. It seemed a mixture of fear and shock that didn’t bode well for her ability to deal with the morning’s news.

"So, you didn’t see anything more than that?" Max asked, shifting his attention back to his sister. "Nothing pertaining to Michael?"

Isabel shook her head slowly. "Hardly anything at all. The room was a blank."

"It was as if someone had cleaned the place of any trace of emotions," Tess said. "Like when you all tried to get impressions from my house the other day. There wasn’t even anything leftover from before this morning."

"But I was able to get flashes from your house," Max pointed out. "Maybe I should go over to Michael’s and give it a try," he mused.

"Didn’t they plant the memories for you at Tess’s?" Liz asked.

"She’s right, Max," Isabel agreed. "There wouldn’t have been any reason for them to do that at Michael’s. Not if they were attacking here as well. Why leave clues for a person they intended to capture?"

Max let out a frustrated sigh and began to pace in the narrow space between the tables and the counter. "There has to be something there for us to go on." He glanced at Isabel. "Would you try to dream walk them?"

Isabel hesitated. "You know I’ve always had trouble with Michael. He never lets me in."

"But you’ve dream walked Maria before," Alex pointed out.

She nodded. "But if Maria was unconscious, chances are she has no idea where they took her."

"Try anyway, Iz. Please?" Max pressed, not wanting to point out that a successful dream walk would at least tell them if Maria was all right.

Isabel seemed to understand his concern. She nodded. "I’ll try," she said softly.

"Thanks." Max focused on Valenti. "Sheriff, I’m going to need you to get a hold of Nasedo. We need all the help we can get , and frankly, right now he’ll be of more use to us here. And he has to know what’s happened."

"Already taken care of, Max," the Sheriff replied. "Made the call after we left Michael’s apartment, so we’re just waiting to hear back."

"I appreciate it," Max told him. He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck, trying to relieve some of the tension knotting there.

"Uh, so… what’s the plan, Max?" Kyle asked. "What do you want the rest of us to do?"

Max sighed tiredly. "I think you and Tess should go ahead and check out the realtors in the area, just as we discussed. Just be extra careful, and don’t go off checking any leads on your own. You find out something, come back for the rest of us."

Tess and Kyle exchanged looks. "Okay, Max. We understand," Tess said.

"Alex?"

"Don’t have to say it," came the reply. "I’m on computer duty as soon as this little meeting breaks up."

"Yeah, I do want you to continue the computer searches," Max said, "but would you mind staying with Isabel first? While she tries to dream walk Maria? I know you helped her when Pierce took me."

"Sure," Alex agreed. "That is, assuming Isabel wants me to."

"Of course, I do," she said, giving his hand a squeeze.

"Thank you," Max said. "Plus it’s possible Iz may learn something that will you help you with the computer stuff."

"Max?" his mother began tentatively. "I realize you’ve said that you want your father and me to stay out of all of this, but surely there’s something we can do to help."

Max turned to the table where his parents and Liz’s were sitting together. All four looked tense and fatigued, suddenly older.

"I don’t know, Mom. Until we have more to go on, there’s not much any of us can really do."

"What about Amy DeLuca?" asked Nancy. "Someone has to tell her that her daughter is missing."

"Mom.." Liz began.

Max squeezed Liz’s hand gently to halt her protest. "Mrs. Parker, I really don’t think that’s a good idea. There’s no point in alarming Mrs. DeLuca at this point."

"But if Maria’s been taken, Amy has a right to know," Nancy said, growing indignant.

"What would you have me tell her?" Max asked gently. "That evil aliens kidnapped her daughter?"

"No, but… surely there’s something we could say. Something that wouldn’t sound so…"

"Anything we say would just make her panic. She’d want to call the police or the state troopers, and we can’t go that way."

"Trust me, Nancy," the Sheriff said. "I’d put out an APB right now if I thought it would do any good. Max is right."

"It won’t help Maria for her mother to know, and it will only make Mrs. DeLuca worry," Max said. "Hopefully she won’t come looking for her. Maria was supposedly spending the night with Liz, so that can just extend to spending the day together, too."

Nancy looked as if she wanted to argue, but instead she picked up her coffee cup with a shaky hand and drained it. Taking a steadying breath, she set her cup carefully on the table and looked straight at Max. "What if you don’t find Maria by tonight?"

Max met her gaze without flinching. "We’ll get them back, Mrs. Parker. Both of them. Unharmed."

"How can you be so sure?" she asked, her voice cracking. "You’re just a teenager, Max. What makes you think you can handle any of this?"

"Nancy," Jeff said softly, taking her hand. "This isn’t helping."

"I don’t care," she said, her voice rising. "He swears to us he’d sooner die than see Liz hurt, but Maria and Michael are already gone, Jeff, and God only knows what’s happening to them. He wants our trust, but I don’t see anything worth trusting here. All I see are reasons to be afraid. Reasons to take Liz and run for the hills," she snapped.

"Mom," Liz said, her voice sharp. "Stop it. You have to pull yourself together. I know you’re scared, but you have to stay calm. If you and Dad want to leave town, to get away for a while, that’s fine. It’s probably safer for you. But I’m not going anywhere. There’s too much that needs to be done."

Nancy stared open-mouthed at her daughter. "You’re not afraid," she said slowly, incredulous. "You’re not even a little worried. He really is going to get you killed."

"He’s the only reason I’m even standing here," Liz ground out. "I love you, Mom, but you’re not going to win here. So just stop."

"I asked some of those same questions," Philip offered quietly, his soft voice cutting some of the tension in the room. "What you’re asking now, Nancy. I couldn’t accept that my teenage son might be better equipped to handle something than his own parents. But the truth is, he is. They all are. It’s not just having these… powers, either. This is what they’re here for, the reason they’re on the planet."

"But it isn’t the reason Liz is here," Nancy said, tears in her eyes.

"Mom," Liz said, going over to her mother. Kneeling at her feet, she took her mother’s hands in her own. "Mom, if the building was on fire, would you run out and leave Daddy behind?"

Nancy paused. "Of course not."

"I won’t leave Max."

"Honey, it’s not the same thing."

Liz looked her mother in the eye. "It’s exactly the same."

Nancy was quiet for a moment, mother and daughter continuing to stare at each other. Then she closed her eyes, reached down, and hugged Liz close. "Oh, baby… Please be careful," she whispered.

Tears ran down Liz’s cheeks as she wrapped her arms around her mother. "I promise." Looking over her mother’s shoulder, she met Max’s worried gaze. "I love you," she mouthed.

"I love you, too," he mouthed back.

After a moment, Liz sat back on her heels, disentangling herself from her mother’s embrace. Nodding slightly toward Max, she rose and pulled a chair over between her parents.

"Okay," Max continued. "I guess that’s really it for now. Mom, Dad, maybe you could stick around here for a while and finish filling in the Parkers?"

"We’d be happy to," his mother said.

Nodding, Max turned to the others. "Kyle, you and Tess should probably get started. Sheriff, I don’t mean to keep you from your job, so if you could just let me know when that call comes through?"

"This is part of my job, Max, but you’re right. I should get back to the station." He rose stiffly. "I can get hold of you here?"

Max nodded. "Or on Liz’s cell." He glanced over toward Liz. "Can Isabel use your room?"

"Sure," Liz replied. "There are some pictures of Maria on my dresser," she added, giving Isabel an encouraging smile. "Just, uh, watch out for the debris."

"The what?" Isabel asked.

"Mr. Parker broke down Liz’s bedroom door," Alex supplied. "It looks worse than it sounds. Come on," he said, taking Isabel’s hand and tugging gently.

Jeff shook his head. "I don’t know why I had such trouble getting through. I never thought those old locks were that strong."

Max shot Liz a warning look. "I’ll fix the door and everything for you later, Mr. Parker," he offered. "I realize the roof is kind of a mess."

"That’s okay, Max. I can take care of it. You’ve got better things to do," Jeff replied.

"It’ll be faster for Max to do it, Dad," Liz said.

Half-way across the café, Isabel stopped and turned. "Max? What are you planning to do? I mean, we’ve all got assignments except you and Liz."

"I figured Liz could help Alex with the computer searches. As for me, if your dream walk doesn’t yield any leads, I thought we could work on the book translation some more."

Isabel’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. "And in the meantime?"

Max stared past her at the door to the break room, his normally calm demeanor suddenly hard and forbidding. "In the meantime I have a few questions for our unconscious friend."

Valenti cleared his throat, causing Max to turn and look at him. After meeting his steely gaze, the Sheriff nodded, then deliberately turned and headed for the door. "Kyle? You and Tess need a lift?"

"Coming, Dad," Kyle replied. After a quick glance toward Max, he and Tess followed the Sheriff out of the café.

Without another word, Isabel and Alex pushed through the swinging door into the back room.

Max started across the café, only to be stopped by Liz’s hand on his arm.

"Are you going to be okay?" she asked in a low voice.

He stared at her a moment, unwilling to lie. "Just stay out here," he told her, gently brushing a lock of hair away from her face.

"Max?"

Leaning in, he kissed her briefly. "I have to do this."

"I know," she whispered reluctantly. "Be careful."

Max nodded, and then he was gone.

***********

Part 7

***********

Isabel took one look at the devastation that lay beyond Liz’s bedroom window and sucked in her breath.

"Yeah. Pretty bad," Alex said quietly. He went over to the bed and pulled the covers up, then fluffed the pillows with a few quick pats. "Come on, Iz. Looking at it won’t help anything."

"I know," she said, her eyes still riveted to the roof.

"Iz?" Alex touched her gently on the shoulder. "Max and Liz are fine."

Shaking herself, Isabel turned away from the window. "You’re right." She headed over to the dresser and chose a photo of Maria with Liz and Alex. Both girls were in their Crashdown uniforms, looking carefree and happy. She gently traced the contours of Maria’s smiling face, then turned to Alex. "I’m ready."

Alex led her to the bed and they lay down on top of the lightweight blanket. Shifting slightly, Isabel rested her head on Alex’s chest. Neither mentioned how similar their position was to that of a night a few weeks earlier, when Max was being held in the white room.

"Just relax," Alex said, brushing her hair gently off her cheek. "I’ve got you."

"Thank you, Alex," she whispered. Clutching the photo, one finger resting on Maria’s image, Isabel let her eyes drift closed. "Maria, where are you? Please, Maria. Please let me in."

She was vaguely aware of Alex’s arms wrapped tightly around her and the warmth of his breath against her forehead. Then everything began to slowly fade away, only to be replaced by a new set of sensations. A rough sheet beneath her cheek. A bright light behind her eyelids. A feeling of nausea creeping gradually through her stomach, and a mild headache that made her feel dizzy.

Opening her eyes, Isabel struggled to focus. Maria was sprawled on a narrow cot, one arm hanging limply over the side. She was looking at Isabel, but her green eyes were glassy, as if she weren’t really seeing anything.

"Maria, you’ve got to pay attention." Dropping to her knees, Isabel took the other girl’s face in her hands and forced her to look directly at her. "Maria, can you hear me?"

"Isabel?"

Blinking hard, Isabel tried to maintain her own focus, but the room was starting to spin. "Maria, close your eyes," she said hurriedly. "Whatever they gave you is making you dizzy. I need you to close your eyes."

"’kay," Maria moaned softly, shutting her eyes. "Michael," she whispered. "Where’s Michael?"

Isabel bit her lip hard. The room had stopped its crazy whirling, but her stomach was still upset. "Maria, listen to me carefully. Is there anything you can tell me? Anything at all? Remember when Pierce took Max? I need you to help me the way Max did, so we can find you."

"Little room," Maria mumbled. "No windows. Cold. White."

"What else?" Isabel pressed. "Maria, please try. Did you see anything when they were bringing you here? Do you remember anything?"

Maria opened her eyes again and Isabel felt the room lurch once more. Then suddenly she was staring down a long hallway with a tile floor and a series of gray steel doors to either side. The angle was peculiar and she realized Maria had been slung over someone’s shoulder. Then everything went black and Isabel felt herself snapped back into wakefulness.

"What? Iz, are you all right?" Alex asked.

Isabel discovered she was sitting upright, shaking all over. "I’m okay," she said breathlessly. "Whatever they gave Maria is making her sick. Her stomach is queasy and the room spins when she opens her eyes. I’m just a little dizzy, that’s all."

"So you got in? You talked to her?"

"Yeah. She’s basically all right," Isabel said, her voice weak. She took a steadying breath. "She asked where Michael is, so clearly she has no idea. They’ve got her locked up in a tiny room. No windows. She showed me some sort of long hallway, but there weren’t any identifiable markings." Pushing restlessly at her hair, she shook her head. "I didn’t get anything, Alex. Nothing of any use," she whispered, her frustration clear.

"No, Iz, don’t," Alex soothed, pulling her back into his arms. "We know she’s alive," he said quietly. "That’s a lot."

"I know. But it doesn’t help us find her."

"Shhh. It’s okay." He rubbed her back, his hand tangling in her hair. "Maybe you should rest a little and then try Michael," he suggested.

"I’ve never dream walked Michael before," Isabel sniffed. "He always blocks me somehow."

"Maybe he won’t this time. He’ll know why you’re messing around in his head and try to help."

"Maybe," Isabel agreed, but she sounded unsure.

They lay there for a few minutes, neither speaking. Finally Isabel lifted her head and looked at Alex. "Thank you. For being so supportive. I know you’re not exactly thrilled with me right now."

"One has nothing to do with the other," Alex told her. "Did you think I wouldn’t be there for you ever again, simply because you pissed me off last night?"

A small smile played across Isabel’s face. "No, I guess not. Still, I appreciate it."

"You’re welcome." Leaning forward, he brushed a kiss over her forehead. "Maybe we should go tell the others that Maria is okay."

Isabel nodded. "Yeah. We probably should." Pushing off the bed, she waited for Alex to stand as well, then shyly held out her hand. When Alex took it without question, her smile widened. "I don’t deserve you," she told him quietly.

"Then we’re even," he said, a gleam in his eye. "Let’s go."

**********

Part 8

**********

Diane Evans watched as Liz paced behind the counter. Each time the girl reached the back of the café, she would glance nervously at the door leading to the break room, then return to restlessly walking the floor.

"She’s worried about him."

Diane turned toward Nancy in surprise. The other woman’s eyes were glued to her daughter. "Yes, I believe she is," Diane agreed.

"Maybe you could go see if she’s all right," Nancy suggested slowly. The two of you… you seem to understand what she’s going through."

"Nancy, you’re her mother," Diane said gently. "It’s your support she needs."

"I know, but… We have a way of saying the wrong thing to each other." She paused, turning to meet Diane’s gaze. "I have a way of saying the wrong thing," she sighed. "What Liz and I need to straighten out is going to take more than a couple of soothing words, Diane. Please?"

"Okay." Diane pushed back her chair and went over to the edge of the counter. Resting her elbows on the polished surface, she leaned over just as Liz turned to start her return trip from the front of the room.

"Mrs. Evans," Liz said, slowing her pace. "Did you want more coffee? Or maybe some breakfast? The grill’s not on, but we’ve got cereal and muffins, or I can whip up some toast?"

Diane smiled. "That’s all right, Liz. I’m fine. How are you?" she asked pointedly.

Liz dropped her cheerful smile and slumped against the counter across from Diane. "Not so good," she admitted quietly. Her gaze flickered briefly toward the back door. "I…

"You’re worried about Max."

Liz nodded. "I don’t know if he’s up to this," she confessed softly.

Diane frowned. "You mean interrogating this… person… you’ve detained?" Her eyes narrowed as something in Liz’s expression changed. "You think this is more than just Max asking questions?"

"I don’t know. I… Max is the sweetest, most gentle person I have ever known, Mrs. Evans," Liz said quietly. "You know that about him. He isn’t violent. Even this morning… he was only defending us. I can’t imagine him… using force… to get information."

"But without using force, he might not learn anything," Diane said in sudden comprehension.

Liz shrugged. "We’re all new at this, but it seems logical, doesn’t it? The only time Max has done anything like this was when he questioned Agent Pierce, and then Isabel managed to get inside Pierce’s head to get the answers we needed. It had nothing to do with Max’s interrogation."

"Maybe Isabel could do that again."

"She had a hard time with Pierce, and he was human," Liz said, glancing worriedly toward the back again.

Diane felt some of Liz’s concern rubbing off on her. "Maybe we should check on him."

"No," Liz said. "He wanted us to wait out here. If there was anything I could do to help… But I think I’d just be a distraction."

"Are you sure? Philip could go back."

"I’m sure," Liz said, her brow furrowed slightly.

Diane reached over and took Liz’s hand. "Come sit with your mom and me," she urged.

Liz’s gaze shifted to the other side of the café. "How’s Mom doing?" she asked cautiously.

"She’s worried about you, but I think she’s a little calmer. Come show her you’re okay."

With a final glance toward the break room, Liz nodded reluctantly. "All right."

* * * * *

Max crouched down in front of the unconscious man, studying him carefully. Kyle and Alex had propped him on the floor in front of the couch with his hands cuffed behind his back, the cuffs themselves threaded around the couch leg. The man’s head lolled to one side, his longish brown hair falling over his eyes. His outward appearance was harmless – and human.

Frowning, Max reached out to revive the man, then stopped. Was he really ready for this? They knew so little about their enemies. Nothing, when he really thought about it. What made him think this individual would willingly change that? Why would he cooperate? What could Max do, short of threatening to kill him, to make him talk?

An idea began to form in the corner of his mind. Stretching out his hands again, he cupped his palms on either side of the man’s head and closed his eyes. Probing gently, he could feel the block he had put in the man’s throat, still lessening the flow of air to his brain. Pushing further, he began search the man’s anatomy, slowly examining the structure of his frame – bones, organs, arteries. He followed the slow pulsing flow of blood through the network of veins, from the heart outward and back up toward the brain.

Shifting closer, struggling to maintain the connection, Max focused on the man’s mind. Where the body had been familiar territory, as easily navigated as an anatomy textbook diagram, the brain threw up sudden, unexpected roadblocks. Pulling back, Max pressed on in a different direction, only to run straight into another wall. He took a deep breath and probed harder, but even as the wall gave slightly, Max could feel the man’s pulse grow more rapid, his heart straining under an invisible stress. After a moment’s hesitation, he drew back once again and opened his eyes. When he released the man’s head, it fell to the side once more.

"Who are you?" Max whispered. Sitting back on his heels, he rubbed one hand over his jaw as he took another look at the figure before him. The man wore faded jeans and a dark gray shirt. His sneakers were blue with white Nike logos, the soles unevenly worn on the outside edges as if he rolled his feet outward when he walked. There was nothing exceptional about his appearance.

"Normal. A perfect disguise," Max muttered. "Unless…" Shifting to his knees, Max rolled the man to his side and frisked him quickly, then reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his wallet. He let the man fall back into place, then rose and flipped the wallet open.

Riffling through the contents, he spread his findings out on the couch. A New Mexico driver’s license; a social security card; an insurance card; I.D. for a gym in Albuquerque; two photos of a pretty young woman with big blue eyes and a slight gap in her smile; three credit cards, and thirty-seven dollars in cash. Max sat back abruptly and looked helplessly at the unconscious man. "Oh, God," he whispered.

*******

TBC
posted on 12-Dec-2001 12:52:59 PM

Part 9

********

Isabel rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and started down to the Crashdown with Alex close behind her. The first thing she saw was her brother, sitting on the floor in front of the couch, his head in his hands.

"Max? What is it?" Pounding down the steps, Isabel was relieved when Max looked up, seemingly fine. "What happened?" She glanced toward the individual slumped in front of the couch, clearly still unconscious.

Max pushed himself to his feet, his movements slow and weary. "I’m okay, Iz," he said, shaking his head. "Just frustrated." He sighed. "You have any luck?"

"Maria’s all right," Isabel said. "But she wasn’t able to tell me anything."

"Michael?" he asked.

Isabel shook her head. "She doesn’t know where he is."

"Damn," Max muttered.

"We’re not giving up," Alex said. "Isabel’s going to try to dream walk Michael as soon as she’s rested a bit. How about you? What’s up with him?" he asked, nodding toward the man at their feet.

Max let out another long sigh. "He’s human."

"He’s what?" Isabel demanded, her voice rising.

"Human. I tried doing an anatomical scan before waking him up, to see if I could learn anything. I thought maybe I’d find some kind of weakness…" Max rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Physically, he’s human."

"Well, does that really mean anything?" Alex asked. "You guys are physically human, too."

"Not entirely, Alex," Isabel said. "Our blood is different."

"Could you tell with something so minor?" Alex asked.

"I’m pretty sure. I can tell the difference with us," Max replied.

"What does this mean, Max?" Isabel asked. "Is he with the government? Some other group? Wouldn’t Nasedo know if there were other people after us?"

"I don’t think he’s government, Iz," Max replied. "Look, let’s take this into the other room so we can all discuss it together." He propelled her toward the café, one hand on her shoulder. "Alex?"

"Coming." With one final glance at the man on the floor, Alex followed Max and Isabel.

Isabel pushed open the door and walked slowly into the restaurant, vaguely aware of Max somehow reassuring her through his touch, of Alex just steps away. Then the door swung noisily behind the three of them, and she became conscious of five sets of worried eyes focused in their direction.

Liz was already halfway to the door, clearly on her way to see what was going on. "What’s wrong?" she asked quickly, her gaze sweeping over Isabel and Alex before landing on Max.

"Relax," Max told her. "It’s all right." Releasing Isabel, he moved to Liz and gave her a quick hug.

"Did you kids manage to learn anything?" Philip asked.

"I was able to contact Maria, but she doesn’t know where she is, and she has no idea what’s happened to Michael," Isabel said.

One arm still around Liz, Max turned to his sister. "Don’t sound so discouraged," he told her. "It’s not your fault Maria didn’t see anything. At least we know she’s safe."

"For now," Isabel mumbled.

"She’ll be okay," Alex said, slipping a comforting arm around her.

"What about you, Max?" his mother asked. "Did you get anything out of that man?"

"Not what I thought I would. He’s human."

"Human? How is that possible?" Liz asked.

"You mean he’s an FBI agent?" Jeff Parker asked.

Max held up his hand before anyone could ask another question. "I don’t know anything for sure. Let me just tell you what I do know, and then we’ll get to what I suspect it means." He led Liz back to the table where their mothers were sitting. "Everyone take a seat, okay?" he asked, nodding toward Alex and Isabel.

Alex wordlessly steered Isabel to an empty table and sat down beside her, but no one seemed able to relax. Philip shifted his chair restlessly, while Jeff toyed with the teaspoon resting next to his coffee cup. Nancy and Diane each watched Max expectantly.

"All right," Max began. "I managed to connect with our unconscious friend without reviving him. My plan was to see if I could detect any weaknesses… anything I might be able to use to get him to talk. Physically, as near as I can tell, he’s completely human. I checked his wallet, too, and found nothing out of the ordinary. Not that that proves much. I mean, I have a drivers license and a couple of photos, too, but it still points more toward a normal person than an alien assassin. Now, the problem came when I tried to get into his head."

"Max, you should have had me do that. Or Tess," Isabel broke in.

"Just let me finish, Iz," Max requested. "I couldn’t get in," he continued. "But I don’t think it had anything to do with my control over my powers. I kept butting up against something. Like a barrier. When I tried to push through it, I could sense certain physical repercussions."

"What do you mean?" Liz asked.

"The guy’s heart went crazy. I got the distinct impression that he’ll have a heart attack if I try to force my way into his head," Max said grimly.

"I’m not sure I’m following you, Max," Nancy said quietly. "What exactly do you mean by a barrier?"

Max frowned thoughtfully. "I don’t know if I can explain it exactly. I can follow all the standard channels through his anatomy. That’s how I heal someone – by mentally tracing the paths blood would follow and checking the organs, tissue, bones structure and so on. With this guy, it’s like there’s a wall stopping me from following that route into his mind."

"A physical wall?" Jeff asked.

Max nodded. "That’s how it feels. But I don’t think it’s something different about this man’s biological make up. I think someone put that barrier there, to keep us from getting through."

"Someone alien," Alex said slowly.

"Yes," Max replied.

"They’re using them," Liz said, her face contorting with horror. "That’s what you believe, isn’t it? That they’re just pawns."

"I don’t know," Max admitted, his voice strained. "But I think so."

"So, how exactly? They rounded up a bunch of strong, bulky looking guys and messed with their minds? Rigged them with boobytraps?" Alex asked.

"Maybe they just hired them," Isabel suggested. "And used the blocks to keep us from learning anything if we captured them, just like this."

Max looked at her. "I don’t know, Iz," he repeated gently. "I guess that’s a possibility. But I really don’t think so. Why risk exposing themselves, if all they had to do was go into the humans’ heads and plant thoughts? This way they get the muscle without the vulnerability that comes from having associates who may give away too much information. They get much better control this way."

"But that would mean…" Isabel trailed off, her expression pained.

"I’m afraid I’m not following here," Philip said. "Why do you four look so upset?"

Max turned to his father. "If they’re being used against their will, that makes them innocent victims, Dad."

"I see," Philip said slowly.

Diane suddenly gasped quietly, her gaze flying from Isabel to Max. "You didn’t have any way of knowing," she said swiftly.

"That doesn’t change the facts, Mom," Max said. "Five of them are dead, and we’re at fault."

"No, Max, who ever did this to them is at fault," Diane declared forcefully.

Isabel got up suddenly and headed into the bathroom. Alex looked helplessly at Liz.

"I’ll go after her," Liz said quietly, getting up. "Max?"

Max nodded. As soon as Liz disappeared into the bathroom, he sank down into the chair she had vacated. He rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes for what felt like the hundredth time that day.

"Are you all right, Max?" Jeff asked.

Glancing up, Max managed a half-smile. "Yeah. At least, intellectually. Emotionally… well, I guess I’ve been better," he admitted. "But there isn’t time to worry about that right now," he said briskly, sitting up a little straighter. "We still need to find Michael and Maria."

A loud rapping at the door caused everyone to look up, startled.

"Can’t people read?" Jeff muttered. "The sign clearly states that we’re closed for the day."

"Jeff? Nancy? Are you in there?" came a strained voice through the door.

Everyone turned to look at Max. "It’s your call," Jeff said. "That’s Amy DeLuca."

*******

Part 10

********

Liz squeezed the excess water out of the paper towel she had run under the tap. "Here," she said, handing it to Isabel.

"Thanks." The other girl pressed the cool compress to her forehead.

"Feel better?"

"Not really. My stomach’s just this mass of knots," Isabel confessed quietly.

"Your mother’s right, you know. It’s their fault – your enemies. Whoever it is that brainwashed these men – or whatever they did – they’re the ones to blame."

"That’s easy to say," Isabel replied. She tossed the damp towel into the trash and grabbed a fresh one to dry her hands. Then she flipped her ponytail over her shoulder and turned to face Liz. "The truth is we killed them, whatever else was going on."

"It was just as much self defense as when Michael killed Pierce."

"Pierce knew what he was doing," Isabel shot back. "These men didn’t."

"You don’t know that," Liz countered. "Not for sure. Besides, what were we supposed to do? Just let them blast us with their borrowed alien laser guns?"

"No, but it still doesn’t change the facts. What if they had been someone we know? Some kid from school or one of our parents? How are we ever going to know who’s really on our side again? Don’t you see, Liz? This is worse than when we were looking for Nasedo. Then we had one shape shifter to contend with – this could be any number of people all at once."

"There’s no point in beating yourself up, Isabel. None of us knew. Now we do, and we’ll figure out some way to deal with it. But it wasn’t your fault, no matter what you think, and I refuse to sit here and let you wallow. Any of you," Liz said pointedly.

Isabel glanced at the door, realization flooding her face. "God, Max is gonna pull out the hair shirt over this one."

A hard knock made them both jump slightly. Max’s voice came clearly through the door. "Liz? Isabel? Get out here."

Trading startled looks, Liz and Isabel hurried back into the café.

"Max, what…?" Liz began.

"Mrs. DeLuca’s here," Alex supplied.

Everyone was standing, looking tense. The front door rattled briefly and the shadow of a woman could be seen through the shade.

"What do we do?" Max asked. His carefully maintained façade was beginning to crack and his eyes flicked nervously from Liz to his sister.

Seeing Max’s panicked expression, Liz made a snap decision. "Alex, Isabel, and Max, out the back." Turning to the adults, Liz focused on Diane. "Mrs. Evans, where did you and Mr. Evans park this morning?"

Diane looked flustered. "Um… around the corner on College Street. We brought Philip’s car."

"May we borrow it for a while?"

"Of course, Liz," Philip said quickly. He pulled out his car keys and passed them to her. "But what about Maria’s mother?"

Shifting to face her own parents, Liz crossed her fingers reflexively. "Please? Cover for us?"

"What do you expect us to say?" Jeff asked tentatively.

"Just… just tell her we all went off someplace. That there was an attempted break-in and that’s why you closed the café and so we just went on… a picnic or something. The six of us," Liz stressed. Her eyes went from her father to her mother. "Mom? Please? I promise if we don’t find Maria by tonight that I’ll go to Mrs. DeLuca myself."

Jeff turned to Nancy. "Honey?"

Nancy held her husbands gaze for a split second, then looked over at Liz and nodded. "You better get going." Her eyes shifted past Liz to the three teens hovering just behind her, halfway through the back door. "All of you. We’ll hold off Amy as long as we can," she promised. "But just for this one day, Liz, all right? I won’t keep lying to her indefinitely."

"Thanks, Mom." Liz pulled her mother into a quick hug. "I love you," she whispered. Stepping back, she smiled at her father, then turned and herded the others the rest of the way into the break room.

"I can’t believe your parents just agreed to that," Alex said, his tone amazed.

"Keep going," Liz urged, pushing them toward the back door. The door chime sounded out front as someone let Amy DeLuca into the café. "We don’t want to risk getting spotted without Maria."

"Liz, where are we going?" Max asked under his breath as they hurried past the man lying unconscious on the floor and out into the alley.

"We should go fill in Valenti," Isabel stated as soon as they were safely outside. She nodded toward the door they had just come through. "We can’t just leave that guy there indefinitely. It’s not fair to Liz’s parents."

"Iz, I still need to wake him up. We have to see if he’ll tell us anything," Max said.

"I don’t think you should try alone. I want to be there, and we should get Tess, too. The two of us are more used to going into people’s heads, Max. Maybe we’ll be able to get past the blocks without hurting him."

"That makes sense, but can’t you do that at the Sheriff’s station?" Alex questioned.

"They’re right, Max. Valenti can stick him in a cell for a while," Liz said. "That way we won’t have to worry about someone stumbling over him while we figure out what to do, okay?"

Max looked at Isabel’s determined expression. "Okay, we’ll go see Valenti. Now let’s get out of here. We don’t want to end up running into Mrs. DeLuca out front."

They headed out of the alley and down the street toward where the Evanses had left their car. Liz handed off the keys to Max and everyone got in, Alex and Isabel automatically taking the back seat. The doors were barely closed before Max had turned the key in the ignition and was sliding the car into the light morning traffic.

No one said a word as Max turned at the corner and headed for the Sheriff’s station. Liz studied his face as he drove, his eyes glued to the road, his jaw clenched tightly. When he stopped short to avoid going through a red light, she reached over and rested her hand on his leg.

"Stop it," she whispered.

"I’m okay," he said, glancing over at her. "Really. It’s not what you think."

Liz’s eyebrows arched. "And what do I think?"

Max smiled slightly, the fine lines around his eyes disappearing as he relaxed. "You doubt that I know you that well?"

Liz’s eyebrows merely hiked higher.

"Fine. You think I’m obsessing over the men we killed, but I’m not. At least not right now," he added. He gave the hand on his thigh a quick squeeze before facing forward and easing the car through the intersection. "It’s what you promised your parents."

Frowning, Liz tried to recall precisely what she had said. "What… oh, about going to Mrs. DeLuca," she realized. "Max, don’t worry. It won’t come to that."

"But what if it does? Liz, what are you going to tell her?"

Liz sighed. "As little as possible. Besides, this bought us some more time. Hopefully to find them, but if not, to come up with a story."

"Liz, you know Maria’s mother’s like a bull-terrier," Alex pointed out. He leaned forward, poking his head between the front seats. "Better start working on that story now, or else she’ll be convinced that Michael and Maria have run off."

"Michael would just love it if we used that as a cover," Isabel groaned.

"Right now I wouldn’t mind hearing him complain about it," Liz said softly.

"Me either," Max agreed.

Liz turned at the wistful note in Max’s voice. "We’re going to find them," she said firmly.

"I know," he said. But as he pulled the car into the parking lot in front of the Sheriff’s station, none of them looked particularly confident.

*******

Part 11

*********

"You ready?" Kyle asked Tess. They were sitting in his car outside the first realtor’s office.

"I guess," she replied, staring out the window.

Kyle frowned. "You know, Tess, you don’t have to… uh…" He paused, flustered. "I mean, if you’d rather not…"

Tess swung to look at him. "Kyle, we have to do this. Michael and Maria’s lives may depend on it," she said firmly.

"No, no, that’s not what I mean," he said hurriedly. "I know we need to get the information." He glanced down, avoiding her piercing blue gaze. "I just meant…"

"What?" Tess asked. "What did you mean?" she probed gently.

"Uh… that you don’t need to find an apartment if you’d rather not live alone," he said. "It’s probably safer if you just stay with us," he added. "What with everything that’s been going on."

Tess didn’t say anything for a minute. When Kyle looked up, he saw she was watching him, a curious expression on her face.

"What?" he demanded. "Look, my dad’ll agree with me, if that’s what you’re wondering."

"Thanks, Kyle," Tess whispered.

"Yeah," he said gruffly. "No problem. So, are we going in or what?"

Tess nodded and got out of the car.

"Real suave, Valenti," Kyle muttered as he climbed out and locked the doors.

The office was small, decorated in a pleasant yet nondescript manner typical of so many service-related businesses. Wood-veneer desks lined one wall, each arranged perpendicularly to create small individual areas. Each desk featured a computer, sturdy lamp, and multi-line telephone, varying only in the various personal items such as photos and coffee mugs. Two cushioned chairs, clearly intended for clients, perched in front of every desk. The opposite wall served as a gallery, with framed photos of houses and apartment buildings – properties currently available – displayed at eye level.

Only one agent sat at her desk, her face animated as she spoke on the phone. Spotting Tess and Kyle lingering in the doorway, she motioned them to come inside, holding up a finger to indicate she would only be a moment.

"Pickings are kinda slim, huh?" Kyle whispered.

"Don’t worry about it," Tess answered, her voice equally low. Smiling broadly, she headed toward the desks, a spring in her step. She plopped down in front of the realtor, then turned and patted the seat next to her.

Kyle resisted the urge to raise his eyebrows. There was a glint in Tess’s eyes that told him she knew exactly what she was doing. He sat down in the other chair, shifting so he was angled toward Tess.

One eye on the woman as she finished up on the phone, Tess leaned toward Kyle. "Wait for my signal, then search through her files," she murmured.

Pulling back, Kyle jerked his head slightly in acknowledgement, wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into now.

"Sorry about that," the realtor said, hanging up the phone. "I’m Jody Simon," she told them, her voice overly cheerful.

Kyle managed not to wince at the woman’s extreme perkiness. "Pleased to meet you," he said. "I’m Kyle, this is Tess. She’s the one looking."

Tess shot him a quick look before turning back to the realtor. "Hi," she said, sitting forward and extending her hand. "Tess Harding."

Jody Simon shook Tess’s hand, her bright smile flashing. "Hi, Tess. Very nice to meet you. So, you need somewhere to live?" Her smile wavered slightly. "I must say, you seem a bit young… Of course, what woman doesn’t wish for that, right?"

Kyle watched Tess’s eyes narrow slightly and forced himself not to smile. He could almost sense her desire to blast the woman through the back wall of the office.

"Yes, well, I’m on my own. My father is out of the country on business and arranged for my emancipation before he left," Tess said, smiling just a little too sweetly. "I need a one bedroom apartment somewhere in town. Nothing fancy. Just clean and safe," she said.

"Of course, dear. Well, then. Let me just get the paperwork." Reaching into her file drawer, Jody pulled out a number of forms. Her smile once again stretched from ear to ear. "This is just to get an idea of what you’re looking for," she said, passing the sheets to Tess along with a pen. "You know, price range, whether you have pets, that sort of thing. All of my fees are paid by the landlord when you settle on something, so you don’t have to worry about that."

"Oh, that’s good to know," Tess replied, scanning the forms quickly.

"Go ahead and fill those out, then, and we can get started."

Tess pulled her chair forward so she could lean on the desk. Pen in hand, she proceeded to ignore the papers in front of her and scrunch up her eyes. "Kyle," she muttered softly. "Now."

"Right." Kyle quickly darted around the other side of the desk, careful not to come into contact with Jody Simon. The realtor had opened a thick binder and was thumbing through it, stopping every so often to take notes on a legal pad. She appeared completely oblivious to Kyle’s movements.

Opening the top desk drawer, Kyle began riffling through the contents. Finding nothing more than an assortment of office supplies, he dropped to his knees and turned his attention to the bottom drawer, which appeared to be filled with client files. He found they were organized in chronological order, by month, with a separate folder in front for clients that were still looking. Pulling out the folders for leases signed in May, he stood up and looked around.

"Come on, come on," he muttered. "Ah ha." Locating the copy machine, Kyle hurried to the back of the room and started duplicating everything in the file, glancing nervously toward Tess and the realtor every so often.

As soon as he was finished with the copies, Kyle returned the file to its proper slot and shut the drawer. Seeing that Tess was still holding the mindwarp without any visible strain, he moved on to the next desk and pulled open the file drawer. Sure enough, it was arranged in precisely the same manner as Jody Simon’s files.

"Go figure," he murmured, yanking out the correct folder. Moving swiftly, he managed to duplicate the information from four more desks before Tess began to look fatigued.

"Kyle," she whispered urgently. "I can’t do this much longer."

Returning the last set of files, he folded everything he had copied and shoved the papers into Tess’s bag before sliding into his seat next to her.

Tess waved her hand quickly over the forms in front of her, filling in the blanks, then let out a long breath.

"All done?" Jody asked, looking up.

Smiling, Tess handed the papers over to the realtor. "All done," she replied.

********

TBC
posted on 12-Dec-2001 1:01:16 PM

Part 12

**********

Amy DeLuca peered over the edge of her cup as she sipped her coffee, her eyes glued to the Parkers. Something was obviously going on – something more than a simple attempted robbery – but neither Jeff nor Nancy was giving an inch. Nancy seemed restless, while her husband was being overly solicitous, even for the owner of a restaurant. It wasn’t as if the café was actually open, yet he kept refilling her coffee and offering to make breakfast. On top of everything, Philip and Diane Evans were seated at the table across from her, both looking slightly apprehensive.

"More coffee, Amy?" Jeff asked again, nodding at her near-empty mug.

"I’m fine, Jeff, thanks. I need to get back to the store anyway," she sighed. "So, you don’t plan on opening at all today?" she pressed once more.

"No. I mean, I hate to lose the business, but we have too much to take care of," Jeff told her. "We still need to go down to the Sheriff’s station and fill out some paperwork. Get the insurance company in to assess the damage. No point in putting any of that off."

"Speaking of which," Philip said, glancing at his watch. "I have an appointment with our insurance guy that I’m about to be late for."

"Oh, dear, I’d forgotten all about that," Diane said. "Do you still want me to come?"

Philip glanced hesitantly toward the Parkers. "Well, I don’t really need you to, if you’d rather stay here."

Jeff shook his head. "Thanks for the support, but you two go ahead. Nancy and I’ll be fine here," he said.

"Are you sure, Nancy?" Diane questioned. "I know how upset you were earlier."

Nancy smiled slightly. "Really. It’s fine. Jeff’s right. We do have a lot to do and if you’re here I’ll just sit and chat all morning. I’m okay," she added.

Diane nodded. "Well, call if you need anything," she said. "I mean it. I know all of this is unsettling."

"Thanks," Nancy replied softly.

"Amy, it was good to see you," Diane continued, turning to the other woman. "One of these days I’m going to have you and Jeff and Nancy over. With our kids all glued at the hip, I feel like we should get to know each other better."

"That would be nice, Diane. Thank you," Amy said.

Amy watched the Evanses say their good-byes, taking note of the speaking looks that passed between the two couples. The moment the door closed and Jeff threw the bolt, she pounced.

"What’s really going on here?"

Jeff sighed. "We told you, Amy. Someone tried to rob the store by breaking in upstairs through Liz’s room. "

"Yes, I heard all of that," Amy replied. "But what does that have to do with the Evanses? Why were they here? And don’t tell me that story about them coming in with their kids for breakfast, because I don’t for a moment believe it. No teenager gets up at seven to have breakfast with their parents a week into summer vacation."

"Really, Amy," Nancy said wearily, brushing a stray hair off her face. "Max Evans practically lives here now that school is out. You really think it was his parents’ idea to come over early?"

Amy frowned. Something still seemed off. "How is Max doing? Still having those awful nightmares?"

"I don’t know," Jeff said. "But he did finally break down and talk to Philip and Diane about what happened."

"Oh, good. That’s at least a step in the right direction," Amy said. Feeling like she was getting no where, she rose from her chair. "I do need to get back to the store. The girl who’s on doesn’t have the best people skills, so I don’t want to leave her alone too long," she sighed. "Let me know if I can do anything. And please tell Maria to call me if you see her," she added pointedly. "This going off without checking in really has to stop," she muttered.

"Of course we’ll tell her," Nancy said hurriedly. "Have a good day, Amy," she told her, then got up and began clearing the table.

Jeff walked Amy to the front. "Still bringing me some pies tomorrow?"

"Of course," she replied. Stopping at the entrance, Amy put one palm against the door to prevent Jeff from opening it. "You’re sure nothing’s wrong?" she asked again, her voice low.

"Amy, stop worrying so much," he said gently. "They’re all good kids, and they take care of each other. I’m sure Maria will call when she gets a chance."

Amy stared at Jeff for another moment, uncertain, but finally nodded. "I’ll talk to you later, Jeff. Thanks for the coffee. Good luck with everything here."

"Thanks, Amy. I’ll see you tomorrow."

* * * * *

Max, Liz, Alex, and Isabel trudged wearily into the Whitmans’ living room and collapsed onto the large sectional couch. Having filled the Sheriff in on the morning’s events, Max had been intent on waiting at the station until Valenti retrieved their hostage, but Isabel had convinced him they should wait until Tess could help them access the man’s thoughts and memories. So, they had all headed back to Alex’s house until Tess and Kyle returned from investigating the local realtors. The idea was for Alex and Liz to work on the computer while Max and Isabel tried to translate more of the alien book. However, the adrenaline that had been pumping through each of them since dawn seemed to have vanished, replaced by sudden intense fatigue and a sense of discouragement that weighted them down.

"I know I should move, but I just don’t seem able to," Liz murmured sleepily, curling into Max’s side, her head resting on his chest.

Max stroked her hair off her face and looked at the others. Alex was slouched low, his legs flopping haphazardly in front of him. Isabel had stretched out next to him, her head on the cushion just inches from his thigh and her feet tucked up against the arm of the couch. Alex gently rubbed her temple with the tips of his fingers, clearly trying to ease her tension.

Sighing, Max shifted Liz so he could stand up. Her eyes fluttered open and she stared up at him, her gaze filled with understanding. "Five minutes, Max," she whispered. "We all know what’s at stake, but just give us five minutes to pull ourselves together."

"I know it’s been a long morning," he agreed. "Go ahead and take a quick nap if you want. I’ll come wake you all up in a little while." He leaned over and brushed a kiss over Liz’s forehead, then headed out of the room.

Liz stared at the empty doorway for a moment, then started to get up.

"I’ll go," Isabel said quietly. She was still curled on her side, but her eyes were open and alert.

Liz hesitated, then nodded. "That’s probably a good idea," she said.

Isabel pushed herself off the couch and went after Max. Shrugging, Alex levered himself up as well. He shifted until he was sitting next to Liz.

"Come here, Parker," he murmured, tugging Liz down so her head rested on his shoulder. "Max was right. Close your eyes for a few minutes. They look like two burned out holes right now."

"I got plenty of sleep last night," Liz protested, but she closed her eyes anyway.

"It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality," Alex informed her. "And somehow I doubt any of us are gonna get much quality sleep for a long time to come," he murmured softly.

"How can I sleep with Michael and Maria God-knows-where?" Liz whispered.

"You’re no good to them if you fall apart," Alex said. "None of us are."

"Tell that to Max."

"I’m telling you," Alex said firmly. "We’ll just let Isabel tell Max."

"She’s not much better off," Liz commented.

"Bossing Max gives her a sense of purpose, though," Alex smirked. "Now, less chatter, more snoring."

"I don’t snore," Liz huffed, shifting so she was more comfortable.

"Hush," Alex ordered.

"Yes, sir," Liz murmured faintly.

* * * * *

"Max?"

Sitting cross-legged on Alex’s bed, the alien book propped in his lap, Max glanced at his sister. "It’s okay, Iz. Go catch a quick cat nap."

"What about you?" she asked pointedly, going into the room and sitting on the edge of the bed next to him.

"I’m fine."

"Max, you have to take care of yourself. I know you’re worried. We all are. But we really need you to be strong right now, and that includes making sure your body doesn’t break down on you. You’ve been through so much the past few weeks."

"I’m aware of that, Isabel," Max said dryly. "Look, I appreciate your concern, but I’m okay. I just… I need to be doing something."

Isabel looked into his eyes, as if searching for something. Then she stood up and went over to Alex’s nightstand. "Here," she said, passing Max a legal pad. "Tess and I copied the symbols out in our own handwriting. It seemed to help us remember what they meant."

Max accepted her offering with a small smile. "Thanks, Iz." He paused, his smile fading. "How are you doing?"

She shrugged. "Surviving. Liz was a big help earlier. I… I actually owe her an apology. She told me that it wasn’t our fault – those men dying. That it was our enemy who chose to use them and that we had no way of knowing. What she said made a lot of sense, but I’m afraid I wasn’t too gracious."

"What did you say?"

"That it didn’t matter because, ultimately, we were the ones who killed them. But I know on some level that she’s right."

"Yeah, she is," Max agreed. "I know it feels callous, but the truth is that this is a war. Innocent people get killed in wars all the time. It doesn’t make it right, or any less difficult, but I think it’s something we’re going to have to accept for now."

"I just hate to think that this is what we’ve come to. It’s like each thing we do, each thing we face, makes it all that much more real."

"I feel the same way. But there’s nothing we can do about it except struggle along as best we can and hope we’re doing the right thing. I’m floundering here, too, Iz. I don’t have any more answers than you do."

"I know, Max." Isabel picked up her own set of notes and a second pen, then settled on the edge of the bed again. "For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing a really good job," she said quietly.

Max looked startled. "Really?"

Isabel nodded. "I mean, you’re right. None of us has any idea what to do here, and yet you’ve been calm and rational and supportive, despite everything. I know how worried you were about telling Mom and Dad the truth, and about Liz’s parents and everything, but you just keep meeting each challenge. I’m proud of you."

"Thanks, Iz," Max said quietly. "I’m proud of you, too."

It was Isabel’s turn to look surprised. "Why? What have I done?"

Max raised an eyebrow. "Getting me out of the white room? Dream walking Pierce? Keeping your head when you and Alex were attacked the other night? I could keep going here," he teased.

"Thanks, Max," Isabel said, her gaze dropping almost shyly. "I… Thanks."

"You’re welcome. Now how about giving me a hand here," he said, indicating the foreign text in front of him. "Where did you guys leave off?"

Isabel took the book and began flipping through the metal leaves, and the siblings got down to work.

*********

Part 13

**********

"If I never look at another apartment, it’ll be too soon," Tess groaned as she climbed into Kyle’s car.

"I know what you mean. Too bad you couldn’t use your hocus pocus to make them think we were actually taking all those tours," Kyle said.

"Yeah," Tess agreed, smiling slightly. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the headrest. "So, what do you think?"

"I think this town has a major shortage when it comes to decent housing," Kyle replied. "No wonder Guerin lives in that rat trap. Talk about crappy apartments."

Opening one eye, Tess peered at Kyle. "I meant about the files you copied," she clarified. "Did anything look promising?"

"Oh. Uh… dunno. Didn’t really take time to look at them." Reaching into the back seat, Kyle grabbed the stack of papers they had accumulated over their visits to Roswell’s three real estate agencies. "Sure is enough of it," he grumbled.

"Here," Tess said, taking the sheaf of paper. "I’ll start sorting it out. You drive."

Nodding, Kyle started the car. "Where to?"

"Alex’s," Tess told him. "Isabel told me they’d stay there until we were done."

They drove for several minutes, the only sound the rustle of paper as Tess attempted to organize the documents in her hands. Eventually she gave up, simply tapping the sheets back into a neat pile.

"This has to wait until there’s more room to spread them out," she explained when Kyle shot her a questioning look.

"Yeah." He turned his attention back to the road, slowing the car as he drew up to a stop sign.

Tess frowned. "Is something wrong?" she asked hesitantly.

"What? No," he said quickly. "We’re just about there," he added unnecessarily as he turned onto Alex’s street.

"Kyle? What’s is it? Did I… Did I say something?"

Sighing, Kyle pulled up in front of Alex’s house and cut the engine. "No. No, it’s me, okay? Don’t worry about it."

"Are you sure?"

Kyle sat without responding, simply staring out the front window. The street was perfectly suburban, with neat houses and manicured lawns to each side. A few driveways had cars in them – none of them too new or too old – all of them clean and waxed to a shine. The Evanses’ Audi sat in Alex’s driveway, much less conspicuous than the old Jeep would have been. Everything looked normal.

"Kyle?" Tess prompted again.

"Sorry. I guess I was just…" He let out another long sigh, then turned to face Tess. "Did you ever… I mean, I know you did with Max and Isabel and those guys. But did you ever…?"

"Did I ever use my mindwarp on you?" she asked softly.

Kyle flinched slightly, but nodded.

"No, I didn’t," she said. "I didn’t have a reason to. I wish I could say it was because I would never do that to you, but the truth is I would have." Her bright blue eyes dropped and she began to fiddle with the papers in her lap.

"Would you now?" Kyle asked.

Tess’s gaze flew back up to meet his. "No! I swear, Kyle, I wouldn’t. Not to any of you," she added quickly. "For any reason."

"That’s kinda what I figured," he said. "But I… I guess after seeing you in action today, I just needed to hear it."

"I understand," she said quietly.

"Do you? I mean, I know you’re really trying, Tess. I can see it. It’s just… all the alien power stuff is new to me. I can’t help how it makes me feel."

"How does it make you feel?"

"Off balance. Weird. Just… not that you’re weird. That’s not what I mean," he said hastily. "It’s the circumstances, you know? You hear all your life that certain things aren’t possible, and then suddenly all that changes."

"I get it, Kyle," Tess smiled. "You need time to adjust."

"And that’s okay with you?"

"Of course it is."

"Well, okay then," Kyle said. "Uh… I guess we should go see what everyone else is up to, huh?"

"Yeah."

"All righty. Geek central, here we come," he cracked. He shot Tess a quick wink, then turned and got out of the car.

* * * * *

"I can’t make heads or tails out of any of this," Max said, crumpling a sheet of paper in his hand. "How the hell did you and Tess figure any of it out?"

"Max, you’re trying too hard," Isabel said softly. "It’ll come. You’ve got to relax."

"Relax?" he demanded. "You want me to relax? Isabel, we’ve been at this for hours and we haven’t got a fucking thing!" Ripping the alien book from her hands, he flung it at the bedroom wall, embedding the metal firmly in the plaster and sending flakes of paint sliding down the wall. "This won’t help Michael and Maria. We need to do something."

"Max." Liz’s voice was barely audible, but the rebuke inherent in her tone still came through.

"Uh… I appreciate your frustration, Max, but I wasn’t really looking to add a window there," Alex told him.

Max swiveled to face the desk where Liz and Alex sat in front of the computer. He could see both shock and concern in their eyes. He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly in a desperate attempt to reign in his temper. "Sorry," he said. In a series of controlled movements, he retrieved the book, then waved his hand over the hole it had made, restoring the wall to its previous unmarred state. As he dropped the text on the bed, the doorbell rang. "I’ll get that. I need some air anyway." He walked out of the room without another word.

Liz and Isabel exchanged looks. "You want to go?" Isabel asked.

Liz shook her head. "Leave him. He’s feeling helpless." She sighed. "Nothing any of us say or do is going to change that right now."

"Is it safe for him to just go off?" Alex asked.

"He won’t go far," Liz said.

Footsteps echoed from the hallway and a moment later Tess and Kyle appeared in the doorway. "Is everything okay?" Tess asked quietly.

"As okay as possible," Isabel said. "Come on in."

"What’s up with Max?" Kyle asked.

"He’s just feeling a little tense," Alex offered.

Tess’s eyebrows arched, but she didn’t say anything. Instead she dropped down on the bed next to Isabel and handed her a pile of papers.

"What’s all that?" Liz asked as Isabel began shuffling through the stack.

"Records of all properties leased in the Roswell area over the last month," Tess replied.

"You got them?" Liz asked, eyes growing wide. "How?"

"The hand is quicker than the eye," Kyle announced with a grin. "Particularly when the eye has no idea what’s happening right in front of it."

"Tess, this is fabulous," Isabel said.

Tess flushed slightly. "Yeah, well, I just hope there’s something useful in there. Looks like we could use it," she observed. "Is there someplace we can spread all of this out?" she asked, looking toward Alex.

"Sure. Kitchen table, dining room table, coffee table," he ticked off. "Take your pick."

"Here you go," Isabel said, handing back the documents. "Want help?"

Tess glanced over at Kyle. "Do we need help?"

Kyle shrugged. "Nah. You guys get back to whatever you were doing. We’ll let you know if we find anything."

"Like we didn’t see that one coming," Alex said pointedly as soon as Tess and Kyle had gone.

"I’m glad for them," Liz said. "And no, not just because it keeps her away from Max," she added when Isabel grinned broadly.

"I know," Isabel said. "Besides, it’s not like you need to worry about Max anyway. Sis."

"Very funny," Liz replied, but the corner of her mouth tugged upward.

"Uh, speaking of our alien king," Alex said. "You might wanna check this out."

"What?" Liz asked.

"There," Alex replied, nodding out the window at the backyard.

Liz got up so she could see past Alex and pulled up short. Max was standing in the middle of the yard, perfectly still, hands clenched into fists, simply staring up at the sky. Liz turned and headed immediately for the door.

"I’ll be back, guys."

"Liz, what are you going to do?" Isabel asked worriedly.

"I’m not sure, but we might be a while."

"Like, how long?" Alex asked.

Liz glanced back from the doorway. "You’ll see us when you see us," she said grimly, then disappeared down the hall.

********

TBC

posted on 12-Dec-2001 1:06:37 PM

Part 14

*********

Jim Valenti stared out the window of his office, lost in thought. He found himself doing so more and more these days. In a matter of weeks he had gone from searching for the truth about aliens to actually helping them. It was a lot for a man to take in, even after a lifetime’s preparation. No matter what he had seen or heard in all his years in Roswell, he had never expected things to turn out quite the way they had.

"Sheriff?"

Blinking, Valenti turned away from the window and went back to his desk. "What is it, Hanson?"

"What do you want me to do with that new guy down in lock up?"

"Why do you have to do anything with him?"

"Well, it’s just he’s still unconscious and I thought maybe I should call a doctor in…"

Rubbing his tired eyes, Jim shook his head. "Just leave him for now, Deputy. It won’t hurt anything for him to sleep it off."

Hanson frowned. "Sir? I wasn’t aware the suspect was intoxicated when you made the arrest."

"Well he sure as hell was on something," the Sheriff snapped. "Tearing up the Parkers’ property that way, scaring those people half to death. Look, Hanson, is he still breathing?"

"What? Oh, yes sir."

"Then just leave him alone. I want you to stay out of that cell, you hear me?"

Hanson jumped back slightly, but nodded. "Right, Sheriff. Uh… I guess I’ll just take my lunch then."

"You do that."

After Hanson left, Jim flipped open his calendar and began to assess his week. Two meetings on the schedule, but not much else. Of course, crime didn’t exactly make appointments ahead, but then Roswell wasn’t the kind of town that generated much excitement along those lines. Unless you included alien mischief, and that wasn’t really the kind of thing to cause a backlog in paperwork.

The red light on his phone flashed, followed by a short ring, indicating a call was coming in over his personal line. He picked up immediately.

"Valenti."

"Ah, Sheriff, Agent Daniel Pierce here." The voice was thin and drawling, a perfect imitation of the actual Pierce. "I received a message that you called. It sounded… urgent."

"I don’t know where you are," Jim said, "but we need you back here. There’s trouble."

"Could you be a bit more specific, Sheriff?"

"Missing a couple of kids, namely Michael and Maria. That specific enough for you?"

"Missing? When?" While the voice was still Pierce’s, the concern behind the words was clearly Nasedo’s. "What happened?"

"Near as we can figure, they were taken early this morning. Max and Liz had a little trouble of their own, but they handled it. But no one has a clue as to where the others are."

"Damn. I’m on my way. I’m in Washington right now, so it’ll be a few hours. Sheriff, don’t let them do anything foolish before I get there. I’m putting this on you."

"In case you didn’t notice, I’m not the one handing down the orders out here," Valenti snorted. "But I’ll do my best."

* * * * *

As soon as she rounded the corner of the house, Liz felt a surge of power rippling through the air. Max was still in the same position, but now she could see that his eyes were closed. Even so, his awareness of her presence was automatic. She could tell the instant he realized she was there – saw the knowledge flicker across his face.

"Liz, go back inside," he said, his voice strained.

She stopped walking toward him, but she did not retreat. "Max, what’s going on?"

"Go, Liz. I mean it. I don’t want you to get hurt," he bit out.

"I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s happening. You’re giving off enough energy to light a forest-full of Christmas trees."

"Liz, I feel fully capable of punching through granite right now. Please back off."

"Max, you’re not going to hit me," Liz reasoned. "Let me help you."

"I just need some time to calm down," he told her, his voice steely.

Liz started across the yard again, feeling the air shift and pulse. Max’s anger and frustration surrounded her, making her skin come alive. "Well, whatever you’re doing to calm down, it doesn’t seem to be working," she told him. "Look at me."

Max did as she had asked and Liz nearly halted at the fire she saw burning in his gaze. Desperation practically lept from his eyes. "Please, Liz," he whispered. "Don’t come any closer."

"I know you’re upset," she said softly. "I understand how worried you are. I am, too. Maria’s my best friend, Max. I know what you’re feeling. But we’re doing everything we can."

"It’s not enough. We’re not getting anywhere, Liz. And I need to pull it together so we can go do something about that, but right now all I want to do is pound something. I’ve never felt so angry in my entire life." He closed his eyes again, a shudder racking his frame as he tried to repress the urge to let go.

"Stop it," Liz demanded. "You cannot control absolutely everything in your life, Max. Get angry at the situation, but not at yourself. We’re going to see what Tess and Kyle discovered, and Isabel is going to try to dream walk Michael. And if we still haven’t gotten anywhere, we’re all going back down to the Sheriff’s station to see if that man knows anything. There’s nothing else we can do until we hear from Nasedo, so stop beating yourself up."

"I know all that, but knowing doesn’t seem to help. It’s like I’ve built up all this adrenaline and there’s no where for it to go."

"Fair enough," Liz said. "So, why don’t we see what we can do about that?" She took three more steps until she was standing before him.

Max’s eyes snapped open. His pupils were dilated and he looked panicked. "What are you doing? Liz, I’m serious," he said. His entire body trembled.

"Shhh," Liz said "I trust you. Don’t you get that?" Reaching out, she circled his wrists with her hands and began gently stroking his pulse points. She could feel the blood surging just beneath his skin. "Try loosening your hands," she coaxed, running her fingers down over his clenched fists.

"I don’t think that’s a good idea," he whispered hoarsely.

Liz looked up, eyebrows arched, and met his heated gaze. "Max, it’s okay," she replied, her voice husky.

"You don’t know what you’re saying. Liz, if I touch you, I won’t be able to stop."

"That’s good, because I won’t want you to,"

Something bright glittered in Max’s eyes. "We’re in Alex’s backyard," he stammered. "In broad daylight."

A slow grin crept across Liz’s face as she moved her hands up over his arms, tracing the taut lines of his straining muscles. "Ah, but Alex’s backyard comes with a tool shed," she told him. "A very empty tool shed."

She knew the instant he gave in, could feel something deep inside of him snap. His arms went around her, his grip like iron, and he pulled her flush against his body. Liz wound her arms around Max’s neck, her fingers spearing into his hair as his mouth came down on hers, hard and demanding. He let out a moan and the sound sent vibrations coursing through her, making her skin tingle. Every touch, every kiss, was hot, almost feverish, bringing her own blood closer to a boil.

Yet, despite his urgency, or perhaps because of it, Max suddenly wrenched himself back. "No," he said. "Not like this."

"Not like what?" she demanded, her own need already spiraling nearly out of control. "Not fast and hard and desperate? Max, I want you," she said. Stroking his cheek, she forced him to look at her. "I need you."

"God," he whispered. He pulled her back into his arms, kissing her hard. Cupping her buttocks, he lifted until she wrapped her legs around his waist.

"Where is it? Tool shed," he panted.

"Back there," she replied, waving toward the far corner of the property, even as she dropped open-mouthed kisses over his jaw.

Max tightened his hold on Liz and strode across the yard. "We’re never gonna live this down," he managed between searing kisses.

"Who cares?" Liz moaned.

With a wave of his hand, Max unlocked the tool shed door, then carried Liz inside. There was a muffled giggle, followed by a grunt, and the door slammed shut behind them.

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

Part 15

**********

"Thank you, Sheriff. I’ll let Max and the others know." Isabel flipped Liz’s cell phone closed and tossed it on the bed, then crossed to the window to see if Max and Liz were still in the yard. At the sight of her brother carting his girlfriend across the lawn, she stepped away, her face suddenly warm. "Uh… yeah," she said to herself. "Never mind." Shaking her head, she retrieved the cell phone and walked down the hall.

In the kitchen, Tess and Kyle were busy organizing the rental documents in various piles, separating the residential from the commercial and eliminating anything dealing with properties in overly populated areas. Alex had joined them with a series of computer printouts and was trying to cross reference his findings with the records from the realtors.

"Valenti called," Isabel told them, as she headed over to the refrigerator and dug out a cherry cola. "Nasedo’s in DC, but he’s coming back. He should be here by this evening at the latest."

"Uh, is there another one of those?" Tess asked, eyeing Isabel’s soda.

"Yeah." Isabel pulled another can off the shelf and passed it to her. "Anyone else?" When Alex and Kyle shook their heads, she closed the door. "Anyway, I was thinking I should try to dream walk Michael now."

"I thought you wanted to wait? He’s not going to be asleep in the middle of the afternoon," Alex pointed out

"I know, but if Nasedo isn’t going to be here until later, that’s that many hours wasted. You heard Liz’s mother. She’s not going to cover with Maria’s mom after tonight. We can’t afford to wait."

"It can’t hurt to try," Tess said.

"What about the guy down at the jail?" Kyle asked. "I thought you were gonna try to get in his head or whatever."

Isabel and Tess exchanged looks. "We don’t know if we can. Without hurting him, that is," Tess said.

"We really wanted Nasedo here for that," Isabel added.

"What? So he can be the one to kill him?" Alex asked gravely. "Last time I checked, preserving human life wasn’t high on Nasedo’s list of priorities."

"So, is it down to the jail then?" Kyle asked.

"I still want to try to get through to Michael first," Isabel said. "Besides, we can’t go anywhere without Max and Liz and… uh… Liz thought they’d be a while."

"Well, if you’re sure, I’m game," Alex said. "I’ve got that picture Mr. Parker took of us at the Crashdown last week. Michael’s in it."

"Okay," Isabel said.

Turning to the others, Alex waved at the pile of computer printouts. "You two good with this stuff for now?"

"Go ahead, Alex," Tess told him. "We’ve got plenty to keep us busy."

Alex turned to Isabel and waved his hand toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms. "After you, milady."

Isabel headed for Alex’s room, conscious of him following just behind her. His voice had been missing its usual teasing quality, and it made her sad. Yes, he was being wonderfully supportive and caring in light of the immediate crisis, but at the same time it was clear he was holding something back from her. Not that she blamed him. After all, she had been the first one to hold back, and he was perfectly justified in his anger. But it still hurt. All of her own worries and insecurities aside, she genuinely cared for Alex – maybe even loved him. And she trusted him, no matter what he thought. Once all of this was over, if it was ever over, she would have to find a way to prove it to him.

"Here." Alex plucked a photo from the mirror and handed it to her. "Will this do?"

Fingering the image, Isabel smiled in spite of herself. Michael was sitting between herself and Max, Maria sprawled on his lap. He had obviously turned toward the camera at the last second because he was actually smiling, presumably at something someone had said, and his eyes were bright. He looked genuinely happy.

"Yeah," she said, swallowing the lump that had suddenly appeared in her throat. "It’s fine. Thanks."

Warm hands steered her toward the bed. She reached out and started piling up the copies of the translation she had been working on earlier, but Alex took the papers out of her hands and dropped them onto the floor. "Come on," he said, pulling her down next to him and sliding back so they were propped up on the pillows.

Curling on her side, her head on Alex’s shoulder, Isabel forced herself to clear her mind. She stared at the picture of Michael, concentrating on his dark eyes, his sandy hair, the angle of his head. Slowly she allowed her eyes to drift shut, feeling a heavy wave sweep over her body. She was sinking into the mattress as if it were water, Alex’s comforting arms the only thing keeping her afloat. "Michael," she whispered. "Where are you?"

* * * * *

Michael sat on the floor of his cell, his head resting on the back of the door. He had given up pounding on it ten minutes earlier when it had finally sunk in that no one was coming. Whether they were ignoring him or simply could not hear him, didn’t really matter. He was stuck, and he was alone. Screaming and yelling would not change anything.

As the hours ticked by, he had been aware of his fears multiplying. Bad enough that he was there, worse still that they also had Maria, but what if they had taken the others as well? What made him think that he had been the only target? It was one thing if he and Maria had been taken as bait, but he was only the second in command. Why settle for second if you can get the first? If they had taken him, why not Max? And if Max, why not Isabel and Tess and all of the rest of them? That had been the thought that had him shouting and trying to break through the door – the image of all of his friends held captive, each in a separate room along the hall, unable to communicate with each other.

But even panic has a way of wearing down. It wouldn’t do any good if he hollered himself hoarse, so instead he sat and tried to focus. He had discovered that, if he was perfectly still and kept his head against the door, he could feel the vibrations in the floor and walls as someone – or something – moved through the hallway outside of his cell. Activity was minimal, but at least it made him feel less isolated – as if the world was still out there going around and around.

He wished he was tired. It hadn’t escaped him that, if Isabel was still free, she might try to dream walk him. For the first time he regretted that he had always been so adamant about keeping her out of his head. If he had let her in, had allowed her access to his dreams, maybe it would be easier for her to contact him now. But he had always been afraid – worried she might see too much of the life he had led up until recently. The last thing he had needed was to give her protective streak any more ammunition. So, he had put up a wall – shut her out – making sure she would never be able to come upon him unawares.

Still, it didn’t matter now. He had never felt less like sleeping in his life. Even in this calmer state, his blood was pumping at an accelerated pace, adrenaline keeping every nerve ending on alert. He would just have to wait, and hope he could eventually relax.

It would help if he could talk to Maria, or even just see that she was all right. He knew she had to be there somewhere, but she might as well be in another country for all the good it did him. Wherever they had put her, it was too far away for him to sense her.

For the first time, he wondered about their bond and what it meant. Would it get stronger over time, assuming they lived long enough to find out? Was it something they could practice, like they had been doing with their powers? If he tried now, could he somehow reach out to her?

It was worth a try, he decided. Not like there was anything else he could do. He pushed himself off the floor and stretched out on the cot. Closing his eyes, he tried to remember what Isabel did when she was trying to dream walk someone. She generally used a picture, but he didn’t need a photo to tell him what Maria looked like. Her face was permanently etched on his brain. He concentrated on her image in his mind, thinking of the way her soft blonde hair felt between his fingers, picturing how her green eyes flashed when she was angry with him, or softened when he took her by surprise by saying something heart-felt. He recalled the feel of her mouth on his, her taste, her warmth. He thought of her feisty temper, and how she refused to give up on him no matter what.

"Maria," he murmured. "I know you’re out there. Come on and talk to me."

* * * * *

Maria shifted on the narrow bed, tucking her hand beneath her cheek. Slowly but surely, the drug had eased from her system, dissolving in her bloodstream over time, and her sleep pattern had returned to normal. Her breathing grew deep and even, her mind clear, and she gradually slipped into a dream state.

"Maria? Maria, can you hear me?"

"Isabel?" But the voice was too low, too obviously male.

"No, Maria, it’s me."

God, it was just a regular dream, she thought. Her subconscious had taken over, giving her the answer she was wishing for in the form of a dream-Michael – safe and sound and hovering right in front of her.

"Michael?" she murmured, sitting up. "I wish it was really you."

"Maria, it is me," he replied, his voice rising slightly. "I tried to dream walk you and it worked."

She actually felt the bed shift when he sat beside her. It seemed real. As real as when Isabel invaded her dreams. Then his arms were around her, and Maria collapsed against him, all her fear and worry coming swimming to the forefront of her mind.

"Oh, Michael! Thank God. I was so scared. I didn’t know what had happened to you," she whispered, her arms snaking around his back and pulling him close.

"Shhh," he soothed. "I’m okay. But what about you?" He pulled back gently so he could look her in the eyes, one hand coming up to cup her cheek. "They drugged you back in my apartment. Are you all right? How do you feel?"

Tears in her eyes, Maria nodded. "I’m fine. I felt sick for a while, but it wore off." Suddenly she clutched at his shoulder. "Isabel was here. I mean, she was in my dream before."

"She was? What did she say? Is everyone else safe?" Michael demanded.

"I… I think so. I was still feeling pretty woozy," Maria confessed. "But she didn’t ask about any of the others. She just wanted to know if I’d seen anything. And she was upset that I couldn’t tell her where you were."

Michael pulled her back against his chest. "At least she knows you’re okay."

"Michael," she began hesitantly, her voice muffled against his shirt. "Do you know where we are?"

"No idea," he admitted, his voice weighted with regret. "They drove us in circles to disorient me, and then they knocked me out before we got here."

"Have you seen anyone?"

"No," he said again. "Don’t worry about it right now. I’m just glad you’re all right."

Maria tightened her arms around him and cuddled closer. "Me too. I was really worried when I woke up all alone."

"I’m here now. Well, somewhere," he added wryly. "Max and everybody will find us," he assured her.

"How?"

"They’ll figure out a way." He smoothed back her hair and brushed a kiss over her forehead. "I’m having a hard time holding onto our connection, Maria," he told her. "So don’t be surprised if I slip out of your dream, okay?"

She nodded against him, but her arms tightened slightly more. "I’ll be all right, now that I know they haven’t hurt you. Just please be careful. Don’t lose your temper and do anything crazy."

"I won’t," he promised.

* * * * *

Isabel sat up, feeling frustrated. "I can’t get in."

"Are you really surprised?" Alex asked, sitting up next to her. "I mean, you said he never lets you. Besides, he’s probably still awake."

Shaking her head, Isabel slid to the edge of the bed and got up. "That’s not it. I found him. I could feel him. He wasn’t actively blocking me, but there was still this barrier. I don’t think he was asleep. It seemed like he was talking to someone."

"Uh… like how? Were they… interrogating him?" Alex asked slowly.

"I don’t think so," she frowned. "Even when Pierce was asking Max questions I could get into his head. I could feel Max’s pain and fear, but I could still slip in through the cracks. This was different. Like Michael’s whole mind was occupied."

"Well, at least you know he’s safe right now," Alex told her. "That’s more than you knew before. We can try again later."

"Yeah," she agreed distractedly. "I guess. I just wish I could put my finger on what was going on in his head. It feels like I should know."

Sitting cross-legged, Alex glanced at the clock. "Why don’t we go round up the others and order some lunch? No one’s really eaten today and it’s getting pretty late. Maybe Tess or Max will have some idea of what was up with Michael."

"Okay," Isabel replied. "Thanks again, Alex." She waited as he climbed off the bed, then held out the photo he had loaned her.

"I want them back, too, you know," he said gently. Taking the picture, he tucked it back into the corner of the frame of his mirror. "Let’s go see how Tess and Kyle are doing."

*******

TBC
posted on 13-Dec-2001 1:26:59 PM

Part 16

**********

"I can’t believe I just made love to you on a pile of old tarps," Max groaned as they folded the oversized cloth.

"Twice," Liz grinned. "That was certainly quite a bit of pent up frustration," she teased.

Even in the dim light of the shed, she could see Max’s eyes darken. "The first time was pent up frustration," he told her. "The second was all you." Closing the gap between them, he matched his end of the tarp to hers, their fingers brushing as they met.

Liz let out a breathy sigh. "If you don’t stop looking at me that way, we’ll never make it back to the house," she murmured.

Max kissed the tip of her nose and took the tarp from her. "You’re right." He finished folding the canvas and tossed it back in the corner where they had found it. "We’d better go inside. I want to know what Tess and Kyle found." They emerged from the shed into the bright afternoon, Max closing the door firmly behind them.

"I should probably check in with my parents, too," Liz said as Max slipped his arm around her shoulders and began steering her across the lawn. "Find out how it went to Mrs. DeLuca. Maybe make sure my mother hasn’t imploded while I’m at it."

"Oh, God," Max said.

"What?"

"My parents. We stranded them at the Crashdown when we took Dad’s car, and never checked back to see if they needed a ride home."

"I’m sure they’re fine," Liz told him. "It’s not like you live far from town, and my dad would have given them a lift."

"Still, they’ve been so supportive the past few days," Max said with a quiet sigh. "I hate putting them out."

"Max, you’ve had a lot on your mind. Recent near-breakdown as evidence of such."

"Thanks," he whispered, hugging her closer.

"You’re welcome," she replied softly, leaning her head against his side.

They headed into the house, following the sound of voices into the kitchen. Tess, Kyle, and Isabel stood around the old farmhouse table, papers spread in front of them. Alex was hanging up the phone.

"Hey," he said. "We just ordered Chinese. Plenty of both spicy and mild, for alien and non-alien taste buds alike," he grinned.

"Great," Max said. "I guess we all kind of forgot about food. I’m starved."

"I’ll bet," Isabel muttered.

Max shot his sister a questioning look. "Iz?"

"Oh, nothing. I was just agreeing with you," she said a tad too sweetly. "You’ve had way too much on your mind to think about eating. By the way, the Sheriff called. Nasedo’s rushing back from Washington. He’ll be here in a few hours." She turned and strode out of the kitchen, leaving Max to stare after her.

"So, you okay?" Tess asked tentatively.

"Uh, yeah," Max replied. "Thanks."

"What exactly happened to you?" Kyle asked. "I mean, when we got here you looked about ready to blow something up."

"I guess I was," Max said, his attention still focused on the doorway through which Isabel had disappeared. "Um, I’ll be back in a minute," he said, then headed down the hall.

"Am I the only one here who feels like they’ve missed something?" Alex asked.

"I think I’m gonna give up asking," Kyle said.

Liz busied herself with examining the printouts stacked on the table. "How are you guys doing with all of this? Make any headway?"

Alex sighed. "Fine. Don’t tell us."

Liz looked up. "Alex, it’s not that. This is… I think I know what’s bothering Isabel, but it’s private, all right? I swear it has nothing to do with Michael and Maria," she promised.

Nodding, Alex took the paper she was holding and smoothed it out on the table in front of them. "Okay," he said.

"You sure?"

"Yeah," he said, smiling a little sheepishly. "I guess I’m just being overly sensitive to the whole need-to-know only deal."

"You have every right, Alex. But you know we’re all a team now, so if there are things we don’t talk about, chances are they’re… personal," she said carefully.

Alex’s eyes opened wide. "Okay, stop right there. I think I’m getting the picture, and it is all too vivid. Let’s get back to this stuff." He patted the table, pointedly ignoring the small snicker from Kyle.

Liz smiled, managing to suppress a giggle. "So, where are we?"

"Well, I finally managed to crack the security at the power company. Got in through a lower level and worked my way back up to the stuff we were looking for. I’m cross referencing it with the records Tess and Kyle got from the realtors."

"And?"

"Nothing yet," Tess sighed. "We think we’ve eliminated some properties, but we won’t be sure until Alex runs the names and determines if they’re real people or just aliases."

"Won’t that be hard?" Liz asked. "I mean, where did you and Nasedo get your identities? I can’t believe you’ve been Tess and Ed Harding all along the way."

Tess shook her head. "I’ve always been Tess – just with different last names according to whatever Nasedo was using. He thought I might get confused and give us away when I was younger. But he never told me how he arranged for the new identities."

"If I track them back far enough, I should be able to figure out if the people are real. Chances are that these guys won’t have been that careful," Alex said. "At least, I hope not," he added under his breath.

"What’s this?" Liz asked, pointing to a grid.

"That’s the stuff from the power company," Alex explained. Shuffling through the papers, he spread out a series of similar graphs. "I’ve got them for each geographical zone in the county. It shows the peaks and valleys for usage by date."

Liz sighed. "Okay. So, where should I start? I don’t want to go over stuff that’s already been covered."

"Help yourself," Tess said, sliding over a pile of paper. "No one’s gotten to those."

Pulling up a chair, Liz tucked her hair behind her ears and got down to work.

* * * * *

Max stood in the doorway to Alex’s room and watched his sister pace the floor restlessly. "Okay, Isabel. Let’s have it. What’s wrong?"

"What’s wrong?" Isabel demanded, spinning on her heel to glare at him. "You’re kidding, right? Michael and Maria are missing, Max. Taken by our enemies. We are completely in the dark here, racing against the clock to try to find them, and you’re out in the yard boffing your girlfriend! They’re your best friends, Max! Michael’s like our brother! What the hell were you thinking?"

Max let out a long sigh and walked the rest of the way into the room. "I know what it looked like, Iz, but it really wasn’t that simple. Or that callous."

"So, explain it to me," she said, hands on her hips. "Please. Because right now I’m thinking your brain has short-circuited."

"When I stormed out of here earlier, there was something happening to me," Max began. "Something physical. Throwing the book at the wall was just the beginning."

Isabel frowned. "What do you mean? What was happening?"

Max shrugged helplessly. "I’m still not too sure. It was like all of my emotions were building up and I felt ready to murder someone. Like an extreme adrenaline rush, but one I had absolutely no control over."

"Like your body getting ready for battle or something?"

"Maybe. That would make sense," he agreed, venturing a look in her eyes. "By the time Liz came out to find me, I was on the verge of losing it. Blowing something up – anything to get rid of some of the energy. It was surging through me and I had nothing to do with it."

"And Liz decided you needed to…" Isabel closed her eyes and shook her head slightly. "Forget it. I don’t want to hear the rest. I understand now."

"If Liz hadn’t… done what she did… I could have really done some major damage. It was more powerful than anything I’ve ever experienced."

Isabel opened her eyes and looked at him. Her lips were pressed tightly together. "I’m sorry I snapped at you. I just… I’m really scared, Max. I tried to dream walk Michael and I couldn’t get through."

Max frowned. "Isn’t it way too early?"

"I know," she half cried, "but I had to do something. I feel so helpless."

Max went over and took her in his arms. "I know," he said, rubbing her back soothingly. "I do, too."

"And… this thing with Alex," she said quietly.

Pulling back, Max looked her in the eye. "What happened?"

She shrugged and slipped out of his arms. "We had a fight. Because I waited to tell him about the whole life-bond thing."

"He was angry?"

"He said he wasn’t. Just… disappointed."

"Ahh…"

Twisting her mouth in annoyance, Isabel shook her head. "Don’t you dare take his side," she demanded. "I don’t care if he was right. I’m your sister."

Max chuckled. "Iz, you can’t expect to make all the decisions in a relationship, especially about the important things. Believe me, I’m learning that the hard way."

"I know. I know he’s right to be upset with me. I just don’t know how to get past it," Isabel sighed. "I want to find some way to make it up to him, but everything is so crazy right now, there’s no time."

"It’ll be okay," Max told her. "Alex understands we’re all under a lot of pressure. And as far as I can tell, he’s not exactly backing down."

"Yeah," Isabel said, smiling slightly. "He’s stuck like glue."

"Just talk to him, Iz. He cares about you. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have minded that you weren’t straight with him."

"You’re right." She brushed her hair off her face and sat down on the edge of the bed. "So, new alien reactions to stress," she said, looking up at Max. "And I felt something weird when I tried to dream walk Michael."

Max took a seat next to her. "Like what? I thought you didn’t get in?"

"I didn’t. But I did manage to find him, so at least we know he’s all right. But there was something blocking me from making the connection. Not him, either. Something else, whatever he was doing. Like he was concentrating so hard, it was using up every bit of his brain power."

"And you’ve never encountered anything like that before?"

Isabel shook her head. "I thought maybe he was talking to someone, but that shouldn’t have used so much of his thought process."

"So it must have been something else." Max paused. "Would you have been able to tell if someone was… doing anything to him?"

"I could tell with you," she pointed out softly.

Max looked down at the floor. "Right." He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "So, if he wasn’t just talking and no one was…"

A shout from the other room interrupted him. "Max! Isabel! Get in here!" Liz called.

Max was off the bed and halfway down the hall in an instant, Isabel at his heels. "What happened?" he demanded, rushing into the kitchen. "Did you find something?"

"Look at this," Liz told him, holding out one of the computer printouts. Her hand was trembling slightly, causing the paper to flutter.

Max took her hand and lowered it, laying the paper on the table and soothing her at the same time. "What am I looking at?" he asked, his tone low and even, as if he was dealing with an hysterical child.

"It’s one of the charts graphing power usage for the last two weeks in May," Liz explained. With her free hand, she smoothed out the paper. "See? There’s a spike here," she said, pointing to a spot on the graph. "Then it drops off abruptly. It cuts off entirely three days later. But see this?" She moved her hand over to a later date. "The power comes back on and gets boosted to an entirely new level. It’s been holding steadily ever since. I checked the records for this month as well."

Everyone had crowded around the table to see what Liz was pointing toward as she went through her explanation. Leaning over, Isabel gently tugged at the paper, turning it so she could see better. "This first spike," she said. "That’s the day before we used the orbs."

"I know," Liz said quietly.

Max looked up. Tess, Kyle, Alex, and Liz were all watching him expectantly. "Okay," he said. "The dates are clearly significant, but they don’t mean anything on their own." He turned to Liz. "Was this one of the properties on record at the realtors?"

Liz shook her head. "I doubt it. When I realized when these surges took place, I checked the map to find out what part of town the property corresponded to."

"And?" Max asked. "Where is it?"

Liz reached under the graph and pulled out a map of the county. Each sector had been delineated in black pen, then shaded a different color. Her eyes pinned on Max’s face, Liz pointed to an area outside of town that had been tinted a pale green. "Here," she said quietly.

Isabel gasped.

Frowning, Max leaned over to examine the map. "Oh, my God," he breathed.

*********

Part 17

**********

Liz watched as Max braced himself against the table and took a deep, steadying breath. "You okay?" she asked, her voice low so no one else would hear her.

Max blinked and stood straighter. His eyes flicked in her direction and he nodded slightly, but behind his dark gaze she could sense his thoughts churning.

"I don’t understand. I thought Nasedo closed down Eagle Rock?" Alex asked.

"He did," Isabel replied, her voice shaky.

"First you figure out the guys after you are human, and now a government facility reopens? Sounds like the Feds are on your tail again," Kyle said.

"No. Nasedo would have warned us," Tess insisted.

"But if these guys are human…" Kyle continued.

"They’re not human," Max interjected firmly. Shifting away from the table, he began to pace. "Not the ones behind everything. Those men they sent after us had alien technology in their possession. You’re not going to find those kinds of weapons on this planet – not even in a government lab. And that man down at the jail… No human doctor could have put those blocks in his brain." He shook his head. "No. What we’re up against is anything but human," he murmured.

"Okay," Isabel said. "At least we know where Michael and Maria are. We can get them out of Eagle Rock. We got Max out, we can get them out too."

Max ceased his restless movements. "It isn’t that simple, Iz. Yes, it’s logical to assume they’re holding Michael and Maria there, but we don’t know for certain." Turning, he focused on Alex. "How long will it take you to run checks on the new property owners you thought were suspicious?"

Alex blinked. "Uh… maybe a couple of hours?"

"Fine. Do it."

"But why…?"

Max held up his hand. "Just because they’ve taken over the military base, doesn’t mean they don’t have other properties at their disposal."

"Okay, I’m on it," Alex said, scooping up a pile of printouts.

"Tess? Iz? How much do you remember about the layout of Eagle Rock?" Max asked.

The girls traded looks. "Uh… not all that much," Tess told him. "Nasedo and Michael were the ones who actually went in to get you, Max. We never got further than the office outside the security check."

"I need as much as you can give me. We can’t wait until Nasedo gets back to give us the whole picture. What about the outside? Could you draw me a map?"

Isabel nodded. "I think so."

"Good. Do the best you can. Uh, Kyle? Could you call your dad? Fill him in on what we’ve found and let him know we’ll be down there around…" Max glanced at the clock. "Five o’clock, I’d say. And be sure he understands this information is still confidential. No discussing it with any of the parents."

"Sure thing, Max," Kyle said.

Max turned to Liz. "Did you ever call your parents?"

Liz closed her eyes briefly. "Forgot."

"Okay, do that," he told her, circling her wrists with his hands. "But don’t tell them what we’ve found out."

"Why don’t you want them to know?" she asked softly.

"There’s no reason to tell them," he said. "Or my parents either, for that matter. They’ll only worry. Plenty of time to fill everyone in once we’ve got Michael and Maria out safely."

"Okay," Liz nodded. She gave him a quick kiss. "I’ll go call, but then you and I are going to talk," she said pointedly.

Tightening his grip to keep her from moving away, Max covered her mouth with his in a more lingering kiss. "I’m all right," he whispered against her lips. "I can handle this," he added, pulling back and looking in her eyes.

"Really?"

"Yeah. I just wasn’t expecting it, that’s all."

Liz held his gaze a long moment, then kissed him again. "All right. Phone call," she said. Grabbing her cell phone off the kitchen table, she headed into the next room.

Max turned back to Isabel. "You have your cell phone? I want to check in with Mom and Dad."

Isabel’s eyes widened in comprehension. She retrieved her phone from her back and passed it to him. "You’re acting like you have a plan, Max. Do you?"

"In a manner of speaking," he replied, flipping open the phone and punching a few numbers.

"Well? Are you going to let the rest of us in on it?" she asked.

Max eyes narrowed. "We’re going in as soon as it’s dark," he told her. "No one stays in that hell for a single night," he ground out harshly. "Not if I have anything to say about it."

* * * * *

"Your mom still freaking out?"

Liz glanced up from where she sat, curled on the couch with the phone beside her. "Hey, Kyle." She sighed and rested her chin back on her knees, tugging her legs more firmly against her chest. "It’s hard to tell. I never know what she’s really thinking unless I can see her face."

"Yeah. I get that. My dad always says you need to look a man in the eye to get his true measure." He moved the phone to the coffee table and plopped down beside her. "So what’s got you all tied up in knots?"

"I called and got my mom. Dad got on the other extension. The two of them just sat there and listened while I fed them these half-truths about what’s going on. No real lies, just lots of omissions. Even now that they know about Max, I can’t just come right out and tell them what’s happening."

"I’m guessing Evans told you not to say anything?"

"He’s right, Kyle. They would just worry. Or worse, tell me I have to go home so I’ll be safe," she added, rolling her eyes. "As if hanging out with the two of them would act like some magic talisman to keep the boogie man at bay."

Kyle snickered. "I think this morning already proved how off that theory is."

"I know, but they’re not thinking that way yet. They’re still in parental mode."

"Can’t blame them. Give it a couple of days. They’ll adjust."

Liz shrugged. "What’s everyone else doing?"

"Tess and Isabel are working on the map of Eagle Rock. Max was on the phone with his folks for a while, but now he’s helping Whitman with the computer stuff. I just came to tell you the Chinese food’s here."

A faint smile warmed Liz’s expression. "Thanks."

"Better come eat before Tess and Isabel polish everything off," he warned as he got back up. "I’ve never seen two chicks eat like that in my life," he marveled.

"You forget, Kyle. I serve them all the time," Liz laughed.

"So you know what I’m talking about," he said, eyebrows arching. "Let’s go."

* * * * *

The meal was a hurried affair – a form of fuel – necessary if they were to keep up their strength, but not particularly enjoyable. Max and Alex stopped only long enough to down a few mouthfuls each before heading back to the computer. Tess and Isabel worked on the layout of the military base as they ate. Kyle and Liz found themselves pouring over the remain records from the realtors to see if they had missed anything. By the time they regrouped in the living room, everyone was showing signs of strain.

"So, where are we?" Max asked.

"Here’s as much as we could remember," Isabel replied, handing over the map. "Of course, we have no way of knowing what’s changed. I’m assuming the security check is gone, or at least modified. Unless we’re dealing with a species of alien that has human skeletal structures, like us."

"Nasedo should be able to tell us more," Max said. "But this gives us a good place to start. Thanks, guys." He turned to Liz. "How about you?"

She shook her head. "Nothing else suspicious in the property records. Pretty much all of the transactions were residential, and the majority of them were within the town borders."

"At least that narrows things down," Max said. "Alex ran the identities of the four individuals we thought sounded off, and we’re pretty sure all but one check out. A guy named…?" He glanced at Alex questioningly.

"Oh… a Mr. Aram Aster," he filled in, looking at the sheet in front on him. "He’s renting a huge property outside of town."

"Is it a house or what?" Tess asked.

Alex shook his head. "It used to be some kind of lab. Offshoot of State U. But the university closed it down back after the war."

"You mean about the time of the crash?" Isabel asked.

"Exactly," Max said. "It’s been empty ever since. Then this Aster guy comes out of no where and rents the whole thing for a pittance."

"So Michael and Maria might be there instead," Isabel said.

"Maybe. But I don’t think so," Max said. "The place has been abandoned for so long, it would have taken a lot of work to get it functional as a lab. And I doubt it has the kind of lock down facilities they’ve got at Eagle Rock. But if this guys is one of our enemies, this could be where they’ve all been hiding out."

"Aram Aster," Liz mused.

"What is it, Liz?" Tess asked.

"Aster means star," she replied, her eyes meeting Max’s.

"Yeah, I know," he said. "Of course, I had to look it up," he chuckled

Liz smiled. "Did you happen to look up Aram while you were at it?"

"It means exalted one," he replied.

Kyle snorted. "Guy sure has one hell of an opinion of himself, doesn’t he?"

"This may all be a false lead," Max said. "But Asher’s background seems flimsy, and with the name and the timing… it all sounded suspicious. But getting Michael and Maria back is still the first order of business."

"I take it the Sheriff’s station is the next stop," Isabel said.

Max nodded. "We’ve got a little time. I need to head home and switch cars. I don’t want to take Dad’s Audi out to Eagle Rock. And Liz wanted to go home and change."

"Yeah, me too," Tess said. "I dressed for meeting with realtors, not storming military strongholds," she added wryly.

"So we meet up at the station?" Kyle asked.

"Five, no later," Max said. "That gives us about an hour. And Tess is right. Everyone in jeans and dark shirts. Make sure you’re wearing a watch. And boots or sneakers, but something with a soft sole," he added, shooting Isabel a meaningful look. "I don’t want them to hear us coming ten minutes down the hall. Any questions?" When no one responded, Max stood up. "Okay. Let’s get going."

**********

Part 18

***********

Max drove slowly down Murray Lane, his eyes fixed on the strange vehicle in his parents’ driveway. "Iz, do we know anyone with a Pathfinder?" he asked as he pulled up a few yards short of the house.

"Not that I can recall," she said, poking her head through the two front seats to get a better view. "You think we should be worried?"

"It’s probably nothing, but I’m not taking any chances. Come sit up here," he told his sister. "If I’m not back in five minutes, get the hell out of here."

"Max, we’re not just going to leave you here," Liz informed him. "And you are not going in there alone." She unbuckled her seat belt and hit the auto lock. "Come on," she said, her face set in a stubborn frown.

"She’s right," Alex agreed. "Safety in numbers."

Max raised his eyebrows at Isabel in the rearview mirror. "See what I mean?" he mouthed, earning a whack in the arm from Liz, who had caught the exchange. "Okay, we’ll all go," he said aloud, climbing out of the car. "But be careful."

Leading the way, Max headed across the yard, the others following closely. He raised a finger to his lips before he opened the door. They filed in slowly with Isabel bringing up the rear. For a moment they simply stood in the front hall, listening.

"I don’t hear anything," Isabel whispered.

"Mom? Dad?" Max called out cautiously.

"Kids? Is that you?" Soft footsteps could be heard at the other end of the house and a moment later, Diane Evans emerged, a pleased smile on her face, allowing everyone to relax. "I’m so glad you came in before heading down to the Sheriff’s station," she told them. "But why are you all loitering out here? Come sit down for a minute. Philip?" she called.

"We were a little worried when we saw the strange car out front," Isabel explained as they went into the next room.

"Yeah, Mom. Whose is it?" Max asked.

"Yours," his father answered, walking in from the kitchen. "Here, son. Catch." He tossed a set of keys across the room.

Max caught the keys automatically. "Mine?" he asked, sinking down on the couch.

"Well, yours and your sister’s," Diane corrected, smiling at her daughter.

"The insurance check came through on the Jeep," Philip elaborated.

"Oh, does anyone want something to drink? Or eat?" Diane asked, as the group chose their seats. "Liz? Alex?"

"I’m fine, Mrs. Evans," Liz said, as she settled next to Max.

"Same here, but thank you," Alex added, perching on the ottoman in front of Isabel.

"Yeah, we ate, Mom," Max told her, as he unconsciously put his arm around Liz and tugged her a bit closer. "Uh… can we get back to the car for a sec? Dad, there’s no way the insurance on the Jeep covered a Pathfinder. Even a used one."

Philip and Diane exchanged looks. "Well, Max, your mother and I thought it was about time for an upgrade."

"We never intended you to use the Jeep for anything more than going back and forth to school," his mother said. "It just wasn’t a safe car."

"Certainly not in any shape to go trekking out to the desert," Philip added somewhat sternly.

"Or Texas," Isabel muttered.

"What? You went to Texas?" Diane asked.

Isabel looked guilty. "Uh… long story. Some other time, Mom, okay?"

Diane sighed. "I suppose. I get the feeling there’s been a great deal going on that you still haven’t told us."

Philip cleared his throat. "Anyway, we thought something a little sturdier and more reliable was called for. Particularly given your… uh… royal status," he said, looking amused at the thought.

Max looked sheepish. "Dad, you didn’t have to…"

"Let your old man linger under the delusion that his kids still need him for something, all right?" his father said.

"Oh, Dad, of course we need you," Isabel said hurriedly. "We’ll always need you."

Max stood and went over to his father. "Thanks," he said. "I… It means a lot." He enveloped him in a swift hug.

"Yeah, well, just try to keep it in one piece for a couple of weeks, okay?" Philip said quietly. "I’m not sure the insurance agent would buy more than one carjacking in a month."

"We’ll be careful," Max promised. He pulled back and looked his father in the eye, grateful for the way things had turned out with both of his parents. With a final nod, Max moved back to his place next to Liz.

"So, uh… a Pathfinder, huh?" Alex said. "I guess that’s kind of appropriate."

"I thought an Explorer sounded just a little too ‘Star Trek’," Philip chuckled.

"I always thought the Jeep was kind of ironic," Liz said. "You know," she continued, when they all turned to her questioningly. "for Max and Isabel to own anything that used to belong to the military."

Max grinned when both of his parents started to laugh. "Iz and I thought the same thing when they got it for us. Michael picked on us for months."

"Oh, my," Diane said, trying to catch her breath. "No wonder you both gave us such strange looks."

"Michael was so sure you suspected the truth about us," Isabel said softly.

"Yeah," Max agreed, the humor gone from his voice.

"I’m starting to recognize that tone," Philip said ruefully. "I’m guessing you kids need to go."

"I’m sorry, Dad," Max said. "We wanted to pick up some stuff, and we still have to swing past the Crashdown."

Philip shook his head. "Go, Max. We understand."

"We’ll see you later," Diane told them. "Just be careful."

"We will," Isabel said.

* * * * *

Fingers interlaced, Max and Liz ran up the back stairs to the Parkers’ apartment.

"Mom? Dad?" Liz called, as they headed into the empty living room.

"Liz?" Nancy Parker emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. There was a restrained wildness visible in her eyes as she raked them swiftly over her daughter, as if to verify she was still in one piece.

"Hey, Mom," Liz said. "Everything okay? Where’s Dad?"

"Oh, your father went down to see the insurance agent to arrange for a claims adjuster to come check out the damage to your room. The Sheriff was good enough to drop by a copy of his report earlier."

"You didn’t need to bother with insurance, Mrs. Parker," Max said. "I would have been happy to fix everything. I mean, I’m mostly responsible for the mess."

"Thank you, Max, but that really isn’t necessary," Nancy replied. "You have enough on your plate as it is," she added.

The three of them stood there awkwardly for a long moment before Liz recalled why she had come home. "Mom, I need to change, and then we’ve got to head down to the Sheriff’s station," she told her.

"Do you two want anything to eat before you go?" Nancy asked.

"Thanks, Mrs. Parker, but Isabel and Alex are waiting for us. We told them we’d just be a few minutes," Max replied.

"Well, they could come in, too."

"We’re fine," Liz said. She threw a slightly nervous glance at Max. "Mom, maybe you want to come talk to me while I change," she offered.

"Oh." Nancy looked from Liz to Max, then back. "Well, all right. I could do that. I guess we’ll be back in a few minutes. Make yourself comfortable, Max," she said, indicating the couch.

Liz took her mother’s hand and gently tugged her down the hall. Her room was in the same shape as when she had left that morning, the door in pieces on the floor. They carefully stepped over the shards of wood and Liz made her way over to her dresser while her mother took a seat at her desk.

"So," Nancy began. "You’re all meeting with the Sheriff."

"Yeah," Liz said. She pulled a black shirt out of a drawer and tossed it over her shoulder. "Nasedo is coming and we’re going to try to put together a plan."

"For rescuing Michael and Maria."

Liz dug a black bra out from under a tangle of white and cream undergarments. "Right."

"You’re pretty sure you know where they are, then."

"Pretty sure," Liz agreed, offering no more information.

"Where?"

Liz sighed. "This isn’t really what I had in mind, Mom. I thought you might have some more questions about Max and the others, that’s all." She went to the closet and selected a pair of dark jeans. "I’m going to go change. Keep talking, though," she added as she headed into the bathroom, leaving the door open. "I can hear."

"So, you’re not going to tell me," her mother said. "Where they are."

"Mom…"

"Fine. I suppose I should be grateful you’re telling me anything at all."

Liz stuck her head out through the doorway. "Mom."

"I’m sorry. I do understand why you’ve been so secretive."

"Thanks," Liz smiled, then ducked back into the bathroom. She hurriedly pulled off her shorts and top and began putting on her new selections. The room was quiet as she redid her ponytail, smoothing her hair back and securing it tightly. She glanced at her mother as she went back into the room, noting her subdued expression. "What?" she asked as she began searching the floor of her closet for her black sneakers.

"I do have another question, and I know this isn’t something you want to talk about, but I really need to know this, Liz."

"Go ahead," Liz told her, still head down in the closet.

"Honey, are you being careful? With Max? I mean, are you using protection?"

Liz emerged, sneaker in hand, and turned toward her mother. "Yes," she said softly. "We’re being careful. And if it helps, we didn’t do anything but sleep here last night. Max and I – all of us – have been spending the night with each other for safety more than anything else, Mom. Because we were worried about something like this happening," she said waving a hand at the destruction beyond her windows.

"Are you telling me you and Max haven’t become… intimate?"

Liz took a deep breath. "No. That’s not what I’m saying." She paused a minute, trying to gage her mother’s mood. "You said I never had to lie to you about this, Mom, so I’m taking you at your word. Yes, Max and I have made love. Just a few times, and we’ve used protection."

"And… is that enough? What about his being… different? Is it safe, even taking precautions?"

"He’s basically human, Mom," Liz smiled gently. "Yes, his blood is different, and he can do these amazing things… but even his powers are just advanced human abilities. It’s not dangerous for me to be with him," she whispered. "Not like that."

Tears had formed in the corners of Nancy’s eyes. "God, you’re all grown up," she sniffed. "My little girl’s a woman."

"Oh, Mom," Liz said. Dropping her shoe, she crossed the room and wrapped her arms around her mother.

"I love you, baby. And if Max means so much to you, if you really believe everything you’ve said to me, I’ll try to understand," Nancy said, her voice muffled against Liz’s shoulder. "But promise me you’ll be careful. Please. You and your father are all I have, Liz."

"I promise to be careful," Liz told her. Pulling back, she looked her mother in the eyes. "Max is the best person I know, Mom. More human than most of the people walking around. And he loves me."

"I know he does," Nancy admitted. "It’s in his eyes."

"Yeah, those eyes," Liz grinned.

Smiling, Nancy wiped the tears from her cheeks. "They are beautiful," she said.

"Thanks, Mom," Liz whispered.

Nancy nodded. "Finish getting changed. I suspect Prince Charming will be growing restless out there."

"Okay." Liz retrieved her sneaker and quickly located the other one. She quickly shoved her feet into them and grabbed her denim jacket. "Well?" she asked, holding her hands out and striking a mock pose.

"You look ready for an evening of breaking and entering," her mother announced, shaking her head. "The Sheriff and this Nasedo person are going to do the actual dangerous part, right? I mean, you kids aren’t going to be doing anything foolish?"

Liz dropped her pose. "We’ll do whatever it takes to get Michael and Maria back," she said. "Just like we did when the FBI had Max. I can’t tell you what I will or won’t be doing, Mom, because I don’t know. That’s what the meeting is for."

"Liz…"

"Mom, don’t make me sorry for being straight with you. You can’t call me a woman and then turn around and treat me like a child. Please, try to have a little faith in me."

Nancy let out a weary sigh. "Don’t expect me to change overnight, Liz. It’s going to take some time for me to adjust."

"I know. But I don’t have the time to wait for you, okay?" Liz glanced at her watch. "I’ve got to go."

"All right. Just…"

"Be careful. Yes. I will." Liz reached out and gave her mother’s hand a quick squeeze. "I’ll probably be late." Not waiting for a response, she turned and vanished down the hall.

*********

TBC