posted on 31-Jan-2002 8:54:14 PM

Parallax
by EmilyluvsRoswell


Disclaimer: Claudia is mine, but the rest belong to 20th Century Fox Television and the folks at Regency, despite the fact that they've been abusing the privilege recently.
Category: Future.
Summary: Liz's daughter delves into her past.
Spoilers: General spoilers thru end of Season 2, though I have taken some minor liberties with the details of "Departure".
Rating: PG-13
June 2001

* * * * *

parallax - n. An apparent change in the direction of an object, caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

* * * * *

Her mother insists that she travel. "It's important that you see the world while you can," she tells her. "Don't take today for granted, because tomorrow might never come."

She goes to England over spring break senior year. For her, a trip always begins the moment the plane takes off. The wheels lift from the tarmac and she experiences an instant of weightlessness before her body registers the forward thrust of the engines. It leaves her feeling giddy and full of possibility. Landing is anticlimactic by comparison, but the disappointment fades as soon as she clears customs and is caught up by the sights and sounds of a new place. London is busy, though less so than New York, and smells of damp concrete and ale. The air feels lighter than at home and the grass in the parks seems a more vibrant green.

The call comes on the third day. She has just returned to her room after an excursion to Stonehenge and her head is still filled with the magic of the roughly hewn stones and the way the weak sunlight seemed to make them sparkle. It takes her a moment to link the unfamiliar buzzing sound to the phone. Even before she answers, she knows that something is wrong. She has already called home to announce her safe arrival and her mother is not in the habit of checking up on her. The voice on the other end is low and vaguely familiar. Her mother's attorney.

"Claudia, I'm so sorry." She is conscious of his words filtering through her brain, some of them slipping away entirely while others seem to echo. "…hit by a cab.." "…very quick…" She drops the receiver and it bangs against the edge of the night table before crashing to the floor. Words, fuzzy and indistinct now, continue to seep from it, and she can make out her name being repeated. Her knees buckle and she sits hard on the edge of the bed.

* * * * *

She expects their apartment to feel different, but instead it is as if nothing has changed. Her mother's room appears untouched. Her hairbrush still rests on the dressing table, along with a pale coral lipstick and one of Claudia's baby pictures in a silver frame. There is a used tissue in the waste basket bearing the perfect imprint of her mother's lips. A pair of black pumps are on the floor in front of the looking glass, as if recently rejected in favor of a different pair. The air carries a faint scent of tea roses and, sure enough, when Claudia checks the bathroom she finds a bottle of her mother's favorite perfume on the counter. It is the same all over the apartment. A copy of Scientific American on the kitchen table, unopened bills on the desk, notes by the computer for a journal article. Claudia's own room is tidier than she left it after her last weekend home - the sheets have been changed, clothes she left behind are now clean and folded away in the dresser.

Standing in the living room, she determines that the silence is too loud, but all of her CDs are up in Boston and she cannot bring herself to listen to her mother's music. She turns on the radio and thumbs the volume higher, not caring that it is a news program. When the sun goes down, she flips on all of the lights and falls asleep curled in a ball on the couch.

In the morning, she puts on a dress and takes the number one train downtown to Times Square, then walks the last seven blocks to the lawyer's office. The building is old and the elevator creaks threateningly as it climbs to the fifteenth floor. Inside, a middle-aged receptionist offers her coffee before ushering her into a clean, unassuming office. Lloyd Reynolds, Attorney at Law, is waiting for her. He has gray hair and faded blue eyes. Claudia guesses he has gained approximately ten pounds since he bought the navy pinstripe he is wearing, and maybe twenty since the only other time she has met him.

"Claudia, I'm so sorry for your loss," he says, and his sympathy appears to be genuine, personal. "It's tragic. I knew Liz for many years. She was a good woman. Much too young to…" He trails off when Claudia shifts uncomfortably in her chair. "I won't keep you any longer than necessary," he continues.

There are papers to sign - things having to do with investments and the lease on the apartment, the hospital and the crematorium. Her mother's wishes were explicit and have been carried out to the letter. Claudia scribbles her name mechanically, repeatedly, not bothering to read anything. On each line, at each X, Claudia Parker, over and over until she feels her fingers begin to cramp. When she leaves, she carries a folder filled with copies of all the paperwork and a manila envelope that she has yet to open.

"Let me know if there's anything you need," Lloyd says as he walks her to the door.

What she needs are answers, but she knows better than to ask the questions. Instead she smiles politely as she shakes his hand, then heads for the elevator, her good shoes clicking noisily on the shabby tile.

* * * * *

She leaves the envelope on the coffee table and does not touch it for two days. When she finally gets up the nerve, she pulls the flap back carefully, making sure not to tear it. It is easier than she thought it would be, the glue dried with age. She sits on the couch and upends the envelope over the cushion next to her so that the contents slide out. Papers rustle and something small and hard drops out from between them. A key, the type used to open a safe deposit box.

In addition to the key, she finds a letter, a map of New Mexico, and a business card for an art gallery in Albuquerque. That is all. Claudia slowly unfolds the letter and runs a finger over the fine blue script that fills the page. Her mother's handwriting has always been elegant and precise, perfectly legible, a rarity for a scientist. She takes a deep breath before she begins to read.


My darling Claudia,

Although you stopped asking questions years ago, I have never been so naïve as to think you no longer had any. I promised myself that I would tell you everything when you turned twenty-one, not because you would be any more prepared to handle the truth, but because I wanted to allow you to live a carefree life for as long as possible. If you are reading this now, then something has happened to prevent me from telling you what I had wished to say in person. And so I leave the telling - at least part of it - in other hands.

The key opens a bank box in Albuquerque. The box contains my past - and by extension, yours. Read everything you find there, then go to the address on the card. Go back every day until you understand.

You will ask why I have kept so much from you. Realize that I made a choice - that we all did. I chose you, Claudi, over everything else, because I love you. I wanted to protect you because I knew I could only do so for a little while. Remember what I taught you about building a life, and always follow your heart. My grandmother, for whom you are named, told me that at the beginning, and I have never regretted following her advice.

Your loving mother,
Liz



There is no date on the letter. At the bottom, written at an angle in green ink, is an address for the Bank of New Mexico and a three-digit number. Claudia folds the letter carefully and slips it back into the envelope, along with the map and the card and the key.

For the first time she wonders whether her mother actually chose to be alone.

* * * * *

She thinks about choices and remembers her mother telling her she could be anything - do anything. It was a litany repeated often while she was growing up. Her mother had encouraged her to read, to explore, to stretch herself. "You can't know what you want if you don't know what's out there," she would say.

When the time had come for Claudia to declare a major, she had called her mother in a panic, torn between her love of history and her obsession with science.

"You're going to have to make a choice, Claudi," her mother had told her. "I can't make the decision for you."

"But you always said I could do anything I set my mind to... why do I have to choose between them?"

"Doing anything and doing everything aren't the same thing," came the gentle reply. "Pick one."

Claudia had considered for a moment. "Which do you think is more important, Mom?"

"Both," her mother had announced, and Claudia had almost been able to hear her wistful smile through the line. "History is the past - the foundation of your future. And science is that future - the thing that shapes it and pushes it forward."

Claudia had been tempted at the time to point out that, if that was so, it was unreasonable to expect her to plan her future when she had no knowledge of her past. But she knew the comment would have gotten her nowhere. Her mother never fell into clichéd responses - never told Claudia she was too young for the truth, or that she'd understand some day - but she was still adept at avoiding issues. Claudia had learned at a very young age that if her mother preferred not to answer a question, she simply wouldn't.

After she had hung up the phone, Claudia had thought about her own past, and her mother's, and all of the unanswered questions swirling there - questions she was unlikely to find answers to in a classroom. Then she had thought about her mother and the way she approached her life - one foot in front of another - intelligent, thoughtful, and determined.

She had chosen to follow in her mother's footsteps.

* * * * *

Four days after graduation, her plane lands in Albuquerque. The dry, late afternoon heat hits her in the face, and the air seems to ripple where it meets the ground. She is struck by the size of the sky, so vast it swallows the horizon. The sun reflects off the distant hills, setting everything on fire. The colors here are different - burnt oranges, muted golds and browns, faded greens. It feels like another world.

She checks into her room, then goes for a walk. The woman at the front desk has pointed her in the direction of Old Town, but instead she goes the other way, toward the university. It seems strange to meander these streets, past places her mother might have frequented as a student - small stores and coffee shops and casual restaurants. Her mother never spoke much of her college days - like so much of her past it was a time that had been relegated to memory alone, not to be mentioned or discussed. Now those memories are gone and Claudia is left to wander aimlessly, wondering precisely why her mother chose to send her here for answers.

The longer she walks, the more impatient she feels. She wishes it were earlier so that she could go to the bank and use the key her mother left her. Instead she must wait for morning, for proper banking hours. How ironic that, after a lifetime of living with gaps in the puzzle, she should be unable to last another night.

Glancing up, she realizes she has gone farther than she intended. The streets are beginning to look shabby and there are fewer pedestrians around. She is about to turn back when she catches sight of the street sign and pauses. Monte Vista. She reaches into the pocket of her shorts and fingers the card that she tucked there earlier. Had she intended to come this far after all? She turns the corner and continues to walk.

The street wraps northward and starts to double back toward the nicer part of town. Slowly, the bars and convenience stores give way to cafés, boutiques, and bookstores. The gallery is in the middle of a block, sandwiched between a jeweler and a bakery. An old fashioned sign swings above the entrance in an ironwork frame: The Whirlwind Gallery. The lights are on inside and Claudia can see a blonde woman leaning against a desk toward the rear of the room, her back to the door. She wears a red print dress and her hair is swept up in a casual knot. As she talks on the phone, she taps a pencil on the desktop.

Claudia takes a step back from the glass and focuses on the artwork displayed in the window. There is a series of photographs of the local landscape, and once again she notices the proportion of sky to earth. Had she seen the prints prior to this trip, she would have assumed it was an effect created by the photographer - a trick of the light or the angle. Who would imagine that you could so radically alter your view of the sky just by changing your location? So much, she thinks, is a matter of perspective.

* * * * *

That night she dreams of an endless green sea and a masculine hand reaching toward a white sandy shore. She wakes breathless and sweating, her dark hair clinging to her flushed cheeks. Heart pounding, she makes her way to the bathroom and splashes cool water on her face. When she looks in the mirror, she sees her mother in her reflection - the shape of her face, the slope of her nose, the curve of her lips. Only her eyes differ, a softly glowing amber in contrast to her mother's darker brown. A stranger's eyes.

Claudia takes a deep breath and dries her hands. Here, too, she resembles her mother. Small hands with long slender fingers and tapered nails kept serviceably short. But they are not her mother's hands.

When she was six years old, Claudia had come home from school one afternoon to discover her pet hamster lying perfectly still in his cage. She had pet him and talked to him, but he had refused to wake up. Only then had she realized what had happened. Tears streaming down her face, she had carried the little animal out to the living room, intending to show her mother. By the time she reached the couch, her hamster had been nuzzling at her fingers, trying to escape.

Her mother had explained that she was different. Special. Because she was her father's daughter. But that some people might not understand, and so she must never use her abilities where anyone might see.

It is Claudia's only recollection of her mother voluntarily mentioning her father.

* * * * *

Nine o'clock finds her in front of the bank, coffee in hand, waiting impatiently for the doors to open. As she feels the kick of caffeine hitting her bloodstream, she smiles, thankful for the few certainties in her life. Every town has a Starbucks.

It is pleasantly cool inside. She follows a young woman into a long, narrow room. The woman shows her where to sign, and then they go through a door into the back where the safe deposit boxes line one long wall. Claudia experiences a moment of panic as she slips her key into the lock - inexplicably fearing that it will not work. But the key turns smoothly and the woman helps her slide the box from its compartment and carry it into an adjoining room where she can pull a curtain for privacy.

The box is one of the largest available, yet it still seems too small to hold a person's past. Claudia lifts the lid and reveals a number of packages, each wrapped in plain brown paper like you might find at an old fashioned butcher shop and numbered in black ink. Her first instinct is to begin ripping them open, but instead she loads them carefully into the tote bag she has brought with her. When she is finished, the bag is heavy on her shoulder and the bank box makes a hollow rattling sound as she shuts it.

Not until she has returned to her hotel room, with its locked door and heavy drapes, does she give in to temptation. She spreads the packages over the bed, lining them up in numerical order. Fingering the first wrapper, she is suddenly cold despite the warmth of the morning. She hesitates, a part of her reluctant - almost fearful - to bring more change into her life.

Then the moment passes and she tears open the paper.

The first package holds a large envelope like the one she received from her mother's lawyer, but this one is not sealed. She opens the flap and pulls out a set of photographs. On top is a picture of a smiling young couple dressed in evening clothes. The woman is her mother, and she looks glowingly beautiful. The man has Claudia's eyes. There is an inscription on the back in her mother's handwriting: Junior Prom, April 2001.

Claudia stares dumbly at the date, her brain refusing to process the information. What little she knows of the circumstances leading to her birth has been pieced together through the years, a collage of tidbits her mother has let slip combined with her own common sense. She has always assumed her parents met in college, or perhaps immediately afterward, because her mother was twenty-three and single when Claudia was born. It is inconceivable that they should have known each other since high school - that their relationship had endured for so long - and yet still they had not ended up together. She feels a pang of sorrow for her mother.

There are more photographs, clearly from that same night. Some are of her parents alone, while others include a number of couples. Claudia shuffles through them quickly, checking the back of each, but her mother merely wrote the date on them, failing to note any names. However, there are more packages to open, she reminds herself. It is unlikely that her mother saved only her prom pictures.

The next parcel contains another envelope, this one padded with the end stapled shut. Claudia tears it open and pulls out the contents - two pieces of cardboard held together by a rubber band, and a small velvet bag. She removes the rubber band from the cardboard and two pieces of paper slip from between them. The first is a marriage license for Elizabeth Anne Parker and Max Evans, dated July 3, 2004, in the state of Nevada. The second is a birth certificate for Claudia Parker Evans, born August 18, 2006.

Claudia's fingers tremble and she lays the papers on the bed. Her parents were married. Her mother lied. Why would her mother let her go all this time believing she was illegitimate? Thinking her father was never really part of their lives? Granted, there are plenty of children who never know one parent or another, and just as many born out of wedlock. It is the twenty-first century, and such things no longer hold the stigma they once did. But there is still an emotional consequence - a feeling of abandonment that comes with being fatherless. No matter how many times her mother has assured her that her father loved her, there has always been that nagging doubt in the back of Claudia's mind. Why did her father leave them? Why didn't he ever try to contact her? Is it her fault? Didn't he want her? Had her father left her mother because of her? Logically, she knows she is being ridiculous, but on another level she has never been entirely certain.

Shaking off her insecurities, she picks up the velvet bag and loosens the drawstring. She has no doubt that there is jewelry inside the pouch - can feel the hard, lumpy shape beneath the soft fabric - but she is surprised when she slides the contents into her palm. There are two gold bands - a matched set of wedding rings - suspended from a sturdy gold chain. The metal seems unusually warm against her skin and Claudia's fingers begin to flex automatically. She stops abruptly, then quickly returns the rings to their bag, unprepared for a Technicolor replay of her mother's memories.

The next package is heavier than the first two and proves to be a book - a journal. Claudia allows it to fall open in her hands and the pages flutter, each filled with her mother's even writing, black on cream. She flips to the front and finds a neat bookplate just inside the cover: Property of Liz Parker - September 1999. Turning to the first entry, she begins to read.


September 23rd. Journal entry one. I'm Liz Parker and five days ago I died. After that, things got really weird…


Claudia stops reading. For a moment she does nothing but stare at the page, the words dancing and blurring in front of her. Finally, she sets the book aside, then gathers the remaining packages and sets them on the bedside table. When the bed is cleared off except for the journal and the prom photos, she settles herself against the headboard, plumping the pillows behind her until she is comfortable. Taking a deep breath, she reaches for the journal and starts to read again from the beginning.

* * * * *

Her mother gave her a journal the year she turned thirteen, a black leather book with endless clean, white pages. Claudia remembers being surprised, since it was weeks after her birthday and months until Christmas. Her mother had merely smiled and told her that some occasions had nothing to do with a date on the calendar, and that new beginnings rarely waited for the first of January.

Claudia had taken the journal to her room, opened it to the first page, and carefully inscribed her name on the flyleaf. Then she had stared for an hour at the pristine surface, unsure of what to write. Journals were for recording the achievements of your life, and she had yet to do anything worth setting down for posterity. Instead her life was a series of unasked, unanswered questions - of mysteries that did nothing more than separate her from the other girls she knew and make her doubt her identity.

Finally, she had written the date at the top of the page, then dropped down an inch and carefully penned a single question: Who am I? Then her mother had poked her head through the door to ask if she was hungry, and they had gone to the greasy spoon around the corner for Claudia's favorite spicy chili fries and chocolate milk shakes. They had laughed and talked about school and her mother's work, and ended up at the Hayden Planetarium to see the space show for the umpteenth time because Claudia had begged mercilessly.

The next morning she had woken early, feeling stiff and unrested, to discover a dark stain on her sheets. When she gone in to tell her mother, Liz had brushed the hair back off her face with a gentle hand, and pulled her into a tight hug.

* * * * *

By the time she finishes reading, it is nearly four o'clock. Her eyes are tired and her head aches, but most of all she feels emotionally drained. She wants to deny, to disbelieve, but she cannot. To do so would be to doubt her mother's sanity, and Claudia has never known her mother to be anything but perfectly rational.

When she stands up, the room spins, and she recalls she has had nothing more than coffee all day. On unsteady legs, she goes down the hall to the vending machines and comes back with an assortment of candy bars and chips and a cherry cola. The soda can is cold and she holds it up against her flushed cheek as she locks the door behind her again.

Ignoring the journal still resting on the bed, Claudia opens the remaining packages as she eats. Her mind is racing and her fingers seem determined to keep time with her whirling thoughts, tearing each plain brown wrapper recklessly. There are more photos, this time in an album; a number of sketches of strange symbols; a pendant on a black cord. Her brain takes note of each item automatically, filing it away with a description pulled from her mother's ramblings. She knows what everything is, yet it all still feels incredibly foreign because she has seen none of it before.

The final parcel holds a crystal. It emits a pale pink glow, yet feels cool in her hands. Claudia frowns. There is no mention of a crystal in her mother's journal and she wonders what it means - what it might do. Is it of this world or another?

She sighs and returns to the journal, flipping through the entries and rereading at random. There are many gaps in her mother's writing - long periods of time when she set aside her journaling for one reason or another. Because she was too busy living life to take time to write it all down? Or because it hurt too much to put the words on paper? Somehow Claudia thinks there should be more here - more than an incomplete chronicle of her mother's life and a few odd souvenirs. She feels lost and confused - unsatisfied. The holes in the puzzle are too important to ignore. If she now understands a fraction of the beginning - of those events that set her strange world in motion - there are still few answers to the questions that have plagued her since childhood.

* * * * *

According to the small sign in the window, the gallery will be open for another half hour, but there is no one inside. The door chime rings out musically when Claudia enters, but still no one appears. She walks further into the room, past the display of photographs she admired the previous evening, taking note of the gallery's design. It has been arranged to maximize the space, the main support walls dividing the room into thirds, while several adjustable walls have been fitted with wheels, enabling the owners to further configure the display areas. The ceiling is high, with silver pipes and black iron cross beams completely exposed. It reminds her of a gallery in Soho - someplace her mother might have taken her on one of their weekend explorations of the city - more than anything she would expect to find in New Mexico.

The walls of the main gallery have been hung with a series of watercolors, all by the same artist. She is entranced by the play of colors, the simplicity of the lines that still manage to convey enormous detail. Several of the paintings depict the small pueblos that populate the area, while others have clearly been done on one of the local reservations and include a number of Native Americans portraits. There are a few landscapes - sunsets, rock formations and so on. One in particular catches her eye - a nightscape where the moon almost appears to pulse in the sky.

She is still admiring the painting when she hears someone come out of the back room. Heavy footsteps sound against the polished wood floor and she feels a sudden heightened awareness, as if someone has run the blade of a knife over her skin without drawing blood. The footsteps stop abruptly a short distance away and she wonders if whoever it is has seen her - or sensed her.

"We're closing soon. Did you need any help?"

The voice is deep and even, but Claudia can hear something else behind the polite question. She turns around slowly and waits.

He is standing by the desk, his back to her, shuffling through a pile of papers. His hair is sandy brown, disheveled, a touch too long for anyone but an artist or a musician. He's wearing clean, faded jeans, a dark green T-shirt, and scruffy paint-splattered work boots that account for the weight of his steps. The muscles in his arms are tense - too tense for the simple act of searching for an invoice, or whatever it is he is pretending to do.

"Are these yours?" she asks finally.

That's when he turns to look at her. He appears younger than she expected - barely forty, though she knows technically he is the same age as her mother was. But his eyes - his eyes seem so much older that she draws in a quick breath. His brow is furrowed in obvious confusion, as if he thought she would be someone else. And she supposes he did. Then comprehension floods his face and he shakes his head slowly. "Claudia Evans," he says.

She feels a jolt at the name. It sounds odd to hear it; still more so to hear it from a perfect stranger. In some respects she realizes he knows more about her than she knows herself.

Before she can reply, his expression darkens. "What happened to your mother?"

Claudia tenses. "How do you know something happened to her?"

"Your birthday isn't for another three months and you're here alone. Tell me."

She feels herself begin to tear up. "In March," she whispers. "She was hit by a cab crossing Columbus Avenue."

It is like a tidal wave crashing down on her. She does not know where the emotions are coming from, or why they have chosen this moment to unleash themselves. She only knows they are building quickly and there is nothing she can do to stop them. She opens her mouth to excuse herself, to say she has to leave, but instead she sobs and it feels as if the breath is being ripped from her body. Tears stream down her face and she gasps painfully and her knees begin to buckle.

Strong arms encircle her - warm, comforting arms that close around her back and shoulders and keep her from falling. She buries her face against his chest and allows herself to be rocked gently as she cries.

*****

TBC
posted on 31-Jan-2002 9:01:15 PM

Before she knows what has happened, she is seated next to Michael in his ancient pick up truck, heading away from Albuquerque. He has somehow managed to close the gallery, swing past her hotel to retrieve her belongings, and stop at a roadside shack for take out tacos, all within the span of an hour.

"Where are we going exactly?" she asks, embarrassed that the question has only just occurred to her.

He smirks, clearly amused. She wonders if he has much previous experience with hysterical females. Thinking of her mother's descriptions of Maria DeLuca, she decides he probably does.

"Roswell," he replies.

Claudia nods. This makes sense. Roswell is where it all began. "How long a drive is it?"

Another smirk. "We should make it in about three hours."

Glancing at the speedometer, Claudia resists the urge to ask him to make it four. She takes a bite out of her burrito. After a lunch of potato chips and Snickers bars, it tastes fabulous. Or nearly. She riffles through the bag and pulls out another packet of hot sauce. Beside her, Michael chuckles.

"What?"

"Definitely one of us," he says.

"I wasn't aware there was any question," she shoots back.

"Max's taste buds in Liz's mouth," he mutters. "Why am I not surprised?"

She reaches for her soda and takes a quick sip, then stirs it vigorously with the straw so the melting ice mixes more thoroughly with the cherry cola. After another sip, she turns toward Michael. "What were they like together?"

He glances at her, frowning slightly. "Max and Liz?"

"Uh huh."

He looks vaguely uncomfortable. "I'm not sure what you're asking."

Claudia makes an impatient sound. "I didn't even know my father's name until this morning. Didn't know my parents were married. Had no idea my mother grew up in Roswell. I've read her journal, but it only gives me bits and pieces." She shifts restlessly, tugging at her seatbelt. "Michael, my life has gone from a total blank to an impressionist painting. Show me a photograph."

"That's why I'm taking you to Roswell," he tells her.

"I know that," she sighs. "I just… Talk to me about them. Tell me what you remember. Please?"

"Fine," he agrees rather gruffly.

She settles back in her seat and watches the emotions cross his face. It had not occurred to her that this would be hard for him. But she has so many questions - and her mother obviously left the answers in his hands. And she isn't sure she's prepared to discuss anything more serious - more alien - during this long, dark drive. She wants something simple - a love story.

"Max fell for your mother the moment he saw her. It was like he recognized her or something. All I know is, as long as I knew him, Max Evans belonged to Liz Parker. Even before she knew about us. Even when it seemed things between them were impossible. Hell, even when he was in the arms of another woman."

"Tess," Claudia says.

Michael shoots her a look. "I always wondered what Liz had to say about her in that journal."

"Nothing good," Claudia replies tersely, not wanting the discussion to take this turn.

"I'm sure. But regardless, Max loved Liz. More than that. He never functioned as well when they were apart. She gave him something he needed - some kind of inner strength. Without her it was like he was going through the motions."

"What about her?"

Michael snorts. "I never understood your mother. Every time I thought I did, she'd do something else that shocked the hell out of me. I learned not to underestimate her. But I know she loved Max just as much as he loved her. She proved it more times that I could count."

"I don't understand." Claudia rubs her hands wearily over her face and sighs. Her head feels like it might explode. "They loved each other so much, went through such hell together. The whole thing is like some incredible fairy tale. Overcoming the wicked witch and the evil men in the black hats and the powers from beyond. What happened, Michael? Where the hell's the happily-ever-after part? And why all the secrets? Why not tell me about my father and all of you and about who I really am? Why work so hard to keep me in the dark?"

"It was the only way to guarantee your safety."

That stops her short. "My safety? Why wouldn't I be safe? Mom wrote that the FBI was no longer a problem."

"It's not the earthly threat we were concerned about."

* * * * *

They pull into a gas station and Claudia gets out to stretch her legs. She can feel Michael watching her as she walks toward the adjacent mini-mart, his gaze protective, but she needs to put some distance between them if only for a few minutes. Her head is throbbing, her mind trying desperately to make sense of everything she has learned. The ride has been two hours of non-stop personal history. Everything she ever wanted to know, and more, about who she is and where she comes from, all crammed into the cab of a '09 Ford. So much for a simple love story. She needs air.

When Michael comes in to pay for the gas, she is at the counter trying to choose a candy bar to compliment her aspirin and her cherry cola. He grabs a pack of gum and indicates that she should throw her purchases in with his own. She shrugs and does as he asks, figuring the headache at least is partially his fault. He seems to sense how she is feeling, or else he has noticed the aspirin, because they walk back to the truck in silence.

"Want me to drive?" she asks.

"You don't know where you're going."

She raises an eyebrow. "How hard is it to follow the highway? Besides, you can tell me where to go."

"I'm fine."

"If you say so." She climbs back in on the passenger side.

After he has pulled out of the gas station, he glances over. "Are you commenting on my driving?"

"Did I say anything about your driving?"

He mutters something under his breath that sounds suspiciously like, "Women."

* * * * *

It is past eleven when they pull into Roswell and the town is so quiet she wonders if it has been abandoned. Michael parks in front of the UFO Center and cuts the engine. "Don't leave anything important in the truck," he tells her.

Claudia nods and gathers up her purse and her tote bag. "Are we going in there?" she asks, her eyes pinned to the gaudy neon sign above the center's door.

He shakes his head. "Across the street. Come on."

She gets out and glances behind them. Only then does she notice the Crashdown Café across the way. The lights are out and the front is boarded up, but there is no mistaking the giant flying saucer above the entrance from the photos in her mother's album. She starts to follow Michael across the street, but her steps falter when she realizes that a light is flickering in the window above the restaurant.

"Come on," he repeats. He grabs her hand and tugs her along, pulling her into the alley that runs beside the building. They stop at a door half-hidden behind a dumpster, and he passes his free hand over the lock. "Inside," he tells her, and she is aware of him checking the alley once more before following her and sealing the door again behind them.

"Watch out," he warns in a low voice. "There are stairs right behind you."

"Why don't you go first," she suggests quietly. At this point she knows better than to suggest they turn on a light, though she can barely see.

He slips past her and leads the way up the stairs. She climbs after him, her heart beating so loudly she wonders if he can hear it. She has already realized where they are heading and she isn't sure if she is more nervous because of Michael's suddenly cautious behavior or because she is about to see where her mother grew up.

Ahead of her, Michael tenses abruptly, then relaxes. "Damn it, I told you to stay in Liz's room," he whispers harshly.

"I could tell it was you, Spaceboy," comes a woman's voice. A flashlight flickers on revealing wavy blonde hair and bright green eyes that glimmer in the darkness. "Now move over and let me see my godchild."

For the second time that day, Claudia finds herself enveloped in the shelter of a stranger's arms, yet the sensation is oddly that of coming home.

* * * * *

They sit on the floor of what used to be her mother's bedroom, a half dozen candles providing an eerie light. There is no furniture in the apartment except for a battered couch in the living room, but neither Michael nor Maria seem to mind that she has chosen this location instead. Michael has managed to produce mugs of hot coffee from downstairs, and a half-empty box of tissues for Maria, who periodically breaks into a fresh bout of tears, particularly at any mention of Liz. Each time Michael pulls her a little closer, murmuring soothing words in her ear until she quiets again, and each time Claudia feels like an intruder watching them.

"I'm sorry," Maria says finally, a determined set to her mouth. She sits up firmly, appearing to give herself a little shake. "It's just so hard. You look so much like her," she tells Claudia wistfully. "And I hadn't seen her in so long. I never thought that the last time would be…" She trails off with another shake of her head. "No," she says, almost to herself, but her eyes have dropped from Claudia to her lap, and she is nervously twisting her wedding band around her finger.

"I understand," Claudia says softly.

Maria sighs. "I wish I did," she mutters. "But that's not important." Her eyes wander around the room. "It's strange… being up here. Michael and I come down every few weeks to visit my mom and Jim and to check on things. That's why I was here today. But normally we just make sure the place is still locked up and that no one's been poking around. I haven't actually been upstairs in years."

"What happened to the café? I mean, why is it closed? Do you guys own it now?"

"Actually, you do," Michael says. "Liz retained ownership after your grandparents died. But then she decided to take you to New York. It wouldn't have been safe to try to keep the place open anyway. Everyone knew it was a link to the two of you. So she closed up shop and we said we'd keep an eye out for anything suspicious."

"Has there ever been anything?"

"The odd case of vandalism," Maria replies. "Kids trying to break in, mostly."

"So, nothing…"

"Alien?" Michael fills in. "Hard to tell."

Claudia sighs. "Look," she begins. "I realize this is hard for both of you, but this hunting and pecking for answers is driving me crazy. Don't I deserve to know the whole truth? Isn't that what my mother wanted? I think it was." She rubs restlessly at her eyes with the heels of her hands. "But what do I know? God, sometimes I feel like she's turned into this stranger - someone I don't even recognize. How could she lie to me that way? She kept me in the dark for my entire life," she says, not realizing that her voice is rising. "It's just lying by omission. How could she do it? How could it have been better, my not knowing the truth about who I am and where I come from? She left it all to chance - left it all up to the two of you to fill in the blanks. Damn it! How can anyone keep secrets like that?"

Michael snorts. "You mother was the champion," he declares. "Couldn't tell a convincing lie to save her life or any of ours, but once Maria and Alex knew the truth about us, there was no prying anything out of Liz. She could take a secret to the grave…" He stops short, suddenly aware of what he has said, and the silence hangs heavily in the air between them. Maria looks horrified, and even Michael seems stunned. "I…"

Claudia shakes her head, cutting him off. "It's all right. I know what you meant," she tells him. "Just… please. I need to know the rest. Where is my father? What happened to Isabel? I mean… she's my aunt. And the rest of them? Kyle? Tess? I know about Alex's death from my mother's journal, but she never wrote what she discovered. Did she ever learn the truth? There are so many gaps," she tells them, hearing the desperation in her own voice, refusing to feel ashamed. "Please tell me what happened."

A hush falls over the small room, but the echo of Claudia's pleas travels lightly through the empty apartment. She drops her head into her hands and waits, her shoulders slumped under the weight of her fears and anxiety. Part of her still dreads the answers to her questions, even as she craves them.

Michael speaks first. "Your mother wanted to protect you, Claudia. As Max's only legitimate child, you are heir to the throne of Antar. And Liz had good reason to know Kivar would go to any lengths to keep you from ever claiming that throne."

"What do you mean?" she questions, looking up.

He shakes his head, as if warning her not to interrupt. "I told you that Liz wanted to keep you safe from any alien threat, but I meant more than a potential attack party or Nicholas. If the rest of us were in jeopardy because of who we had been in our past lives, you were in ten times more danger because of who you are in this life. And as a child, you were even more vulnerable. When Liz left for New York, we didn't even know if you had inherited Max's powers yet. You were constantly at risk."

"But…"

"Just let him tell you," Maria breaks in, and Claudia nods.

Michael takes a sip of coffee and stares off into the distance, as if collecting his thoughts. The air is so still that Claudia can hear each of them breathing - their individual breaths - each inhale, exhale. Michael's forehead is furrowed and she braces herself when he begins to speak again.

"Everything was splintering apart," he states baldly. "It was the end of our junior year in high school. Things had been up and down for months. Sides switching, trust in each other wavering. Max and Liz were fighting and making up every ten minutes, and Tess had latched onto Max pretty hard." He shakes his head. "Maybe it's hindsight, but none of the rest of us were too thrilled with that at the time. But we didn't say anything. We knew what our destinies were, and if Max chose to follow his, it wasn't for Iz or me to interfere. Until he started alienating Liz, that is. She had been moping around for months, but she was still helping, still on our side. After all - she had walked away from him, told him to be with Tess. There wasn't much she could say about it, though it was pretty clear how she felt. And then Alex was killed."

Claudia feels a shiver run down her spine as Maria whimpers slightly and huddles closer to Michael again. She has closed her eyes in an obvious effort not to cry, but a lone tear streaks down her face. Michael rubs her arm absently, automatically, but this time he does not stop speaking.

"Liz decided Alex's death was alien related. The rest of us thought she was just being irrational, but Max went nuts. Said she was endangering us. Frankly, I never saw that, but I agreed she was barking up the wrong tree. Only, it turned out she wasn't. Still, by the time she dug up proof, she and Max had declared World War Three and the lines had been drawn. Things had gotten way out of hand, and Max had turned to Tess for comfort. Suddenly she was pregnant. The baby couldn't survive in this atmosphere and we needed a way off the planet."

Claudia gasps. Her mind clamps down on the word pregnant and won't let go. "They… He…?" She sucks in air, desperately trying to keep breathing. It's not something she has ever considered, not after reading her mother's journal, not after learning about the bond between her parents.

Michael stops speaking and Maria shifts forward, but Claudia barely feels her arm settle comfortingly around her shoulders. "You have to calm down," she tells her. "Let Michael tell you the rest. It'll all make more sense. Try to reserve judgement until you know everything."

"How can I?" she sputters.

"You have to keep an open mind," Maria says. "Max didn't know that Liz still loved him. He thought she had betrayed him months earlier. He was fighting with Michael all that year, and he and Isabel were barely speaking. He thought Tess was all he had."

"But how? How could he think my mother had betrayed him?"

"Just what the hell did she write in that journal?" Michael growls.

Maria hushes him. "You know she didn't write this down. She wouldn't risk it." She turns back to Claudia. "Liz made Max think she had slept with Kyle Valenti. Arranged for him to catch them in bed together. It was all a set up, of course, designed to make him turn to Tess. Your mother believed it was the only way they could all eventually vanquish the Skins and Kivar."

"She did that?" Claudia thinks of the way her mother had written about her father - the love inherent in every word and memory. She understands, or thinks she does, just what such a sacrifice must have cost her.

* * * * *

Claudia feels like a child again. Her mother had always told her frightening bedtime tales, spinning endless yarns of aliens and kings and raven-haired maidens who needed to be rescued from errant bullets and evil shapeshifters. The stories had delighted her, even as they made her scream in terror and bury her head in her mother's lap. Afterwards, her mother would always stroke her hair and whisper in her ear, calling her the bravest little princess, and no matter how scary the story had been, Claudia would never have any nightmares. She wonders if things would have been different had she understood that the stories were all true.

At that moment, knowing the truth, knowing that she is, indeed, a princess of sorts, Claudia feels anything but brave. But she wants to hear the rest of Michael's story anyway. Needs to hear it. Stealing herself further, she meets his questioning gaze and holds it steady, wordlessly conveying that she is ready to continue.

Michael nods. "We discovered that Alex had come up with a computer program to decode the book that had been sent with us to earth. In it were instructions on how to go home using the granilith."

Claudia frowns. "But why was Alex trying to translate the book?"

Maria raises her eyebrows toward Michael.

"What?" he asks. "So we should have wondered the same thing, okay?" He shakes his head. "We never asked why. The translation was a convenient solution to what we perceived to be our biggest problem - how to keep Max's son alive. We got ready to leave. The four of us. Max found out the truth about Liz and Kyle at the last minute, but it was too late for him to do anything about it. We said our good byes and headed out to the pod chamber to go. Only, at the last minute I couldn't do it." Michael smiles briefly at Maria, whose eyes are glistening.

"You couldn't leave?" Claudia asks, though she can see the answer in front of her.

He shakes his head. "I came out of the pod chamber and found Maria, Liz, and Kyle. They'd figured out who killed Alex."

Claudia's eyes grew wide. "Tess?" she guesses.

Michael and Maria both nod. "She had been using Alex to translate the book so she could get home," Maria adds, her voice soft. "When the mind warp she was using on him to keep it all secret failed, she killed him."

"Oh my God," Claudia breathes, feeling her chest constrict painfully. "What happened?"

"Max called her on it and she admitted that the plan had been to get pregnant and get us all home. Nasedo had made a deal with Kivar when we were still in the pods, when the Skins first arrived here. Even the damn book was a prop - faked with pictures of us that would make us think we were destined to pair up again on earth as we had in our past lives. Kivar planned to kill the three of us as soon as we reached home, and to put Max's child on the throne as a puppet ruler to end the war." Michael shrugs. "Max let Tess leave alone, and the rest of us stayed on earth."

"He let her go?"

"She reminded him that he couldn't kill her without killing the baby," Maria says, though her tone indicates she thinks the sacrifice worth it.

Claudia nods. "He wouldn't hurt the innocent child. My brother," she adds, the word strange on her tongue.

"Not your brother," Michael corrected.

"What?"

"By the end of the summer, Max realized that he, too, had been under the influence of a mind warp. He and Tess never had sex - it was just some elaborate mental gymnastics she performed to make him think they had."

"So… Tess wasn't really pregnant?"

Maria snorts. "Not even close. At least not then. Kivar had her knocked up pretty quick when she got back to the home planet."

"He passed his child off as Max's," Michael continues.

"How did you find out?" Claudia questions. She is finding it hard to follow the thread of her history - is overwhelmed by how much she has learned in a short time.

Michael looks disturbed. "We didn't for a long time," he says. "Things seemed normal. Max and Liz were inseparable again. Life was falling back into place. We finished high school, went on to college and got jobs. Max and Liz got married and had you a couple of years later. But the summer you turned two, all hell broke loose."

* * * * *

There is a certain numbness that takes over, she discovers, when you learn more than your brain can reasonably process. She listens as Michael's words roll over her - talk of assassination attempts and murder. She hears how her grandparents were killed in the darkest part of the night, over a long weekend while her parents visited graduate schools and she slept blissfully unaware at Michael and Maria's in Albuquerque. How they had all regrouped in Roswell to find themselves under attack - not from warriors come across galaxies to fight, but from cunning secretive operatives that crept through the shadows and struck when it was least expected. How they had waged a back-alley war for months, their only information coming from Max's friend, Larek, who risked his life repeatedly to contact them.

"It was the worst time of our lives," Michael says, his expression guarded. "Max learned that Tess's son was six years old, and no one on Antar believed him to be Max's heir, despite Kivar's best efforts. Rioting was rampant, and all semblance of control was gone. In desperation, Kivar had signed termination orders for Max - something apparently unprecedented in Antarian history, as Max technically was not a resident of the planet and therefore not under Kivar's jurisdiction. Yet the ruling had been made and the assassins dispatched."

Cold fear creeps up from her toes until she has lost sensation in her entire frame. She knows what is coming, but still somehow hopes that she is wrong.

"It was the week before Christmas. Liz had gone to visit with you; she and Max had hidden you with a friend in Austin for safety's sake, and with the holidays so close she wanted to be with you. Max was supposed to meet up with her after he straightened out something having to do with his parents' law practice. I think it was the only time they had been separated for more than a day since that spring he was with Tess."

"Just say it," Claudia asks, feeling her heart slowing. It is an odd sensation, yet somehow right. She wonders if it is an alien reaction.

Michael drops his eyes, and Claudia notices Maria tightening her grip on his hand. She is already crying, the tears falling silently down her cheeks.

"They got him out on 285," Michael says stiffly, and Claudia realizes that he, too, is crying. "We never learned exactly what happened, but your mother just knew. She called me, frantic, demanding to talk to Max. Begging me to tell her he was with me. But he wasn't. I told her I hadn't seen him all day. That he had been planning on leaving for Texas that morning. The sound she made…" he whispers. "I've never heard anything like that. It was primal. I felt like I'd just killed her. In a way, maybe I had. But she knew - had known even before she called me. I was only confirming."

Claudia wipes at her eyes, but the tears keep pooling, blurring her vision. She feels Maria press the box of tissues into her lap and grabs a handful gratefully. The numbness is gone, and the pain that has replaced it so severe that she wonders if it is possible to die from such a thing. Her heart has constricted so tightly that it cannot possibly be functioning, and her breathing is shallow and erratic. Gasping for air, she mops up her cheeks, her neck, the hollow at the base of her collar bone - anywhere her tears have seen fit to lodge themselves - but it is useless. She stops fighting it and allows the dam to burst.

Michael wraps her in his arms and settles her awkwardly on his lap as if she were a little girl. Curling into herself, her body wracked with sobs, she feels Maria add her arms to the tangle, supporting her from behind and stroking her hair lovingly. None of it can bring her any comfort. It is as if every ounce of grief she has held back for the mother she has lost, for the father she never knew, has finally escaped. Her crying jag in the gallery earlier was a mere trickle in the face of this current flood of emotions - her sense of profound loss. She has gained a past and an identity and a family, yet she has never felt more unsure of who she is.

*****

TBC
posted on 31-Jan-2002 9:07:12 PM

She has never been much of a crier. Even as a child, she found tears useless. Better to funnel your energies into solving your problem - fixing whatever is making you miserable. Her mother taught her that her mind was her most precious asset, and a well thought out plan her best weapon against almost any type of defeat. She wonders how her mother imagined her handling all of this.

There is an awkward moment when she has cried herself dry and realizes that she has no idea what to do next. She shifts off Michael's lap, pulls out of Maria's arms. A hot flush colors her pale cheeks and she pushes stiffly to her feet. Is there protocol for such a moment? Should she apologize, or smile and pretend that she hasn't just made a spectacle of herself? Maybe she can breeze past it by asking more questions - picking up where they left off. There has to be more to the story. Repercussions. But her brain refuses to work and the numbness has returned, and all she can do is stumble to the open doorway and brace herself against the wooden frame and hope her thoughts will somehow jumpstart themselves.

Maria saves her from the necessity of making a decision. "Why don't we take a break?" she suggests, and Claudia nods.

Michael stands and pulls Maria up from the floor. They slip silently past Claudia, Maria's hand brushing gently against her arm as she goes by. Claudia listens as they head back down the stairs to the café, whispering softly to each other, their voices like wind rustling through the hall as they grow less distinct.

Alone in the room where her mother grew up, Claudia moves away from the door and turns in slow circles, wondering what it might have looked like with a bed and a dresser - what might have hung on the walls. What kind of dreams did her mother have - a young girl learning about life in a town that was alien-obsessed? What were her thoughts as she lay awake nights, waiting for sleep to claim her? What type of childhood prepared one to fall in love with someone from another world - and to cope with the dangers that accompanied that love? She runs her hand lightly over one bare wall, but the room has been abandoned too long for her to get any impressions from mere paint and plaster.

The windows are boarded up, but Claudia knows what lies beyond them. Her mother wrote in her journal of the roof over the café that she could access from her bedroom - about her rickety lawn chair and the planters and candles that made the space homey. It was her own personal refuge from parents who didn't understand why their daughter had grown distant and secretive, a place safe from danger and heartbreak and fear. Claudia recalls her mother mentioning the freak December heat wave the year she fell in love, and how her father had come climbing up the fire escape to see her. Her parents had kissed for the first time on that roof beneath the stars.

Claudia has a sudden urge to stand out on that roof - to somehow connect with that young couple through time and space. She goes to the nearest window, unlocks it and slides up the pane. The board beyond is made of hard wood and refuses to give an inch, though she leans against it with her full weight. Frustrated, Claudia raps against it with the flat of her hand, swearing under her breath. It seems there is always something in her way, always a barrier between herself and the truth, preventing her from seeing things as they really are.

Not bothering with a candle, she makes her way through the dark apartment and heads downstairs to the back room, where Michael and Maria are leaning against the brick wall, beneath yet another boarded window.

"What happened after my father was killed?" she demands. "I need to know all of it."

Michael exchanges a look with Maria, then nods. "No one said you didn't," he tells Claudia.

"I'm sorry," Claudia replies, the gentle rebuke making her realize how harsh the question must have sounded. "I know. I just feel so helpless and confused." She rubs at her tired eyes. "It's… I never knew my father. And now I feel like I never really knew my mother, either. She was all I had and it's like I'm losing her all over again," she whispers.

"You can never lose her," Maria says. "She's part of you. And she loved you more than anything in the world."

"Why don't we go back upstairs and I'll finish telling you what happened," Michael suggests. "There's not that much more."

"I'd rather stay down here," Claudia says.

"Fine," Michael says. He slides down the wall and holds out a hand to Maria, who goes to sit beside him. He waits for Claudia to sit on the steps that lead to the apartment. "All right?"

"Yes," she replies.

He takes a deep breath and stares straight ahead. "It was chaotic, those first few days after Max was killed. Liz was on a rampage - not that we could blame her, but she bordered on the reckless. Even I thought so, and that's saying something. She got back from Texas and we all went out to investigate together. We checked over the road where Max was ambushed, the surrounding area, anywhere we thought might reveal a clue. By the third day, Isabel and I had gotten enough flashes to piece things together pretty well, and we were both exhausted. But not your mother. Nothing was stopping her. Maria, Kyle, and Valenti kept trying to convince her that none of us were any good to anyone, least of all Max, if we were so tired and careless that we got caught. But she didn't care. Finally Maria actually had to slap her - ask her if she wanted you to be an orphan. That got her attention," he sighs.

"So what happened?"

"She agreed to go back to town. Rest up for a day. Then we went after the assassins."

Even after all these years, Claudia can see the steely anger in Michael's eyes. "All of you?" she asks.

He nods, his arm tightening slightly around Maria's shoulders. "Iz and I wanted to take care of it ourselves, but Liz stood firm. She refused to be left behind, no matter what the consequences. We couldn't dissuade her. Once she was going, the others fell in line, too."

"We were always stronger together," Maria adds softly.

"What happened?"

Michael's voice is like gravel. "We won," he says simply.

Claudia wants to press him for details, but she can tell by the set of his jaw that she will get no more from him on this particular subject. At least not now. "And after that?"

"Isabel decided it was time to take the fight to Kivar. She told us she was going back to Antar - to publicly denounce Tess's son and to take Kivar out."

"By herself?" Claudia asks.

Michael nods. "That was how she wanted it. She said it was the only logical choice. She would be able to get close enough to Kivar, because of their relationship in our past life. Besides, she owed him. And Tess."

"Because of Alex," Claudia says, understanding.

"Yes, and for Max as well," Michael replies.

"So she really went back," she says softly. "Left earth and…"

"In a way, she didn't have any reason to stay," Maria told her. "Her brother had been killed. Alex had been killed. Liz had you, Michael was with me. It became her purpose. Evening the score."

"She used the granilith to transport back to Antar. It was months before we heard anything. All we knew was that no more assassins had arrived," Michael continued. "Then Larek made contact to tell us Kivar had been overthrown. Isabel was ruling in his stead, and her first act had been to reassemble the Senate that had assisted in running Antar back when her father had been King."

Claudia feels lightheaded. "She won? She did it?"

Michael nods. "She had help, of course. There was already a well-developed resistance long before she arrived. But she gave them a leader. As far as they knew, with Max dead and Tess's son clearly not his heir, Isabel was next in line for the throne. Of course, technically, that's your position, but they don't know about you. Nor will they, unless you want to go."

"You mean… if I want to go to Antar?" Claudia asks slowly. "That's possible?"

Maria smiles gently at her obvious confusion. "Claudi, anything is possible. You're Max's daughter."

* * * * *

It is impossible for her to sleep. She lies on the battered couch in what used to be her grandparents' living room while Michael and Maria share a sleeping bag in one of the back rooms. Her head is pounding, her thoughts jumbled. Part of her hopes she will wake in her dorm room back at Harvard and discover the past three months have been nothing more than a nightmare - that she is just a college student, Liz Parker's daughter who has never had anything more than her mother's love. Perhaps given a second chance she won't look for any answers.

But the answers are surrounding her, and she cannot ignore them. Sitting up, she fumbles for a book of matches and lights the candle on the floor beside her. The flame sends strange shadows dancing over the walls, each additional one brightening the room and enhancing the patterns until finally she has lit them all.

Kneeling at the foot of the couch, she tugs her bag from where it rests on the floor and begins rummaging through its contents, fishing out the things she found in her mother's bank box. Taking out the pale pink crystal, she turns it over in her hands, feeling the energy pulsing through it. At least now she understands what it is for - her father used it to send Tess back to Antar, and Isabel to return herself. And Claudia may use it, as well, if she chooses.

She stores the crystal in the bag and pulls out her mother's letter. It is beginning to look worn from all of the times she has folded and refolded the paper, but she cannot deny the need to read and reread it. What would her mother have wanted her to do? Did she expect her to stay on earth, go to graduate school, live a human life? Or did she mean for her to go to Antar? She has always believed that getting answers about her father - about her mother's past - would help her to figure out who she is. But she is more confused than ever. Which world is hers? Where does she belong? Who is she?

* * * * *

They are on the road just after dawn. Claudia sits in the back of Maria's car, a paper cup of strong coffee clutched in her hands, while Michael steers them out into the desert. The scenery here is drier and more barren than it was in Albuquerque, and the temperature is already soaring. She swallows down her coffee quickly, then pulls a bottle of water from the cooler resting on the seat beside her, conscious that she must guard against dehydration. It isn't something she is used to worrying about back in New York.

She is glad no one seems inclined to talk. She supposes they all spoke enough the previous night to last them for days. Instead she stares out the window at the dusty landscape and the huge blue sky and tries not to think.

They are about twenty minutes outside the city limits when they drive through a tunnel and the terrain begins to grow more rocky. "We're nearly there," Maria tells her.

Claudia strains to look through the front window, trying to determine where exactly "there" is, but she can see nothing out of the ordinary. Yet a moment later Michael veers off the road and heads toward a mountainous peak that seems slightly more pronounced than its neighbors. He circles it and parks on the side furthest from the road.

"This is it," he says, glancing back.

She is unsure what to say.

They climb out of the car and she follows Michael and Maria up the steep slope. Despite the heat, she feels a slight chill as they near a low plateau, and wonders if she, too, is somehow connected to this place. When Michael reaches out a hand toward the smooth rock's surface, she stops him.

"Wait," she says. "Let me…"

His eyebrows arch questioningly, but he steps back and allows her to approach. She reaches out her hand, fingers spread the way she had seen Michael doing it. Waving her palm over the wall, she jerks back when a glowing silver handprint appears on the stone face. "Oh my God," she murmurs.

"Put your hand over it," Michael tells her.

Claudia rests her hand against the glowing print and presses gently. There is a rumbling sound and part of the wall recesses and slides to the side. She stands perfectly still, hand suspended in mid-air, and stares. This, more than anything she has seen or read or been told, makes everything seem very real.

Michael leads the way. The chamber is cool and dark, and it takes a moment for her eyes to adjust after the brightness of the day. Eventually she can make out four empty pods, stacked two over two against the side wall. She wanders further into the chamber, runs a hand over the far pod, knocking away the cobwebs.

"That was Max's," Michael tells her.

She nods slowly. She isn't surprised. "The granilith is through here?"

"Yeah."

He sounds hesitant, and Claudia turns to see what's wrong. It is only then that she sees the carved stone on the opposite side of the chamber. A dust-coated urn stands before it.

She crosses the chamber and kneels in front of the tombstone. The words seem to have been seared into the face of it. Max Evans ~ Beloved Husband, Father, Brother, Friend. There are no dates. She reaches out to touch the urn but stops herself. "Why here?" she whispers.

"Where else?" Michael asks. "We couldn't risk anyone ever finding him. Here, he's safe."

Maria comes and sits on the ground beside her. "It was Liz's idea," she says. "Isabel used her powers to carve the marker."

"I think I need some air," Claudia tells them. She stands and rushes out of the chamber.

* * * * *

Claudia leans against the side of the car and takes a long drink of water. It has grown warm sitting on the seat of the car, but she doesn't care. She gulps thirstily, finishing it off, then tosses the empty bottle back into the car next to her bag.

From where she stands, she can see Michael and Maria back up the slope near the pod chamber. They are watching her and she can almost feel their concern, even at a distance. Still, she is grateful that they have allowed her some space - that they understand that she needs to be alone for a moment. The past twenty-four hours are crashing down on her, with all of their information and revelations, and she is feeling overwhelmed. More than at any other time since she learned of her mother's death, she wishes she could have just one more day with her - to talk to her, to ask her what she should do.

She thinks again of her mother's letter - of her final words. She said to remember what she taught her about building a life, and to always follow her heart. And that she had chosen her above all else. Claudia wishes she understood what that meant.

Maria and Michael are making their way down to the car. They look hot, and Maria has pulled her hair into a loose ponytail on the top of her head. Claudia thinks they both look very young from this distance, walking side by side, holding hands. She imagines she is seeing them as they were more than twenty years earlier - teenagers up against incredible odds, doing their best to make it through each day. Was that how it was for her parents? Did they feel like they were out of their depths? Unsure and afraid? Was that what her mother had been trying to spare her by keeping her safely in the dark all these years?

"How you holding up?" Michael asks as they draw nearer.

Claudia shrugs. "Okay, I suppose." She sighs, wondering if she is telling the truth. Even she can no longer tell.

"More water?" Maria asks. She is reaching through the car window, pulling bottles from the cooler. When Claudia nods, she tosses her one, then passes the other to Michael before grabbing another for herself.

"I wish my mother was here," Claudia says suddenly. "I have so much I want to know still… that I want to be able to ask her. It's not fair."

Maria comes and leans against the car next to her. "I know. I wish she was here, too. Why don't you try asking us? I can't promise we'll have all the answers, but you never know."

Claudia nods. She watches Michael as he opens his water and drinks, draining half the bottle. He pours a little out into his hand and rubs it over his face, leaving behind a smudge on his forehead where he smears the dust and sand from the chamber. She wonders if she is as disheveled, then shakes off the thought.

"What did you want to ask?" Maria prompts.

"I… I asked Michael this before, but… What were they like together?" she asks, turning toward Maria. "My parents."

The ghost of a smile touches Maria's lips. "Magic," she whispers. "I told Liz once that they had that look-into-each-other's-eyes-soul-mate-thing. We were sixteen, and I thought it was a romantic thing to say," she continues. "We were dishing over ice cream. Talking about what it was like to kiss someone not of this earth." She makes a face when Michael snorts. "We were wondering if… if it had ruined it for us with anyone else." She shakes her head. "I think Liz knew, even then, that there wouldn't ever be anyone else for her. Not really. Not the way it was with her and Max."

"You make it sound like something out of a novel," Claudia says.

Maria shrugs. "It was. What they had was one for the storybooks. Which isn't to say it wasn't hard. Or that things were always perfect. But they loved each other in a way most of us never understand or experience."

"What about you and Michael?" Claudia asks before she can stop herself. "I'm sorry," she adds quickly. "That's none of my…"

"It's fine," Maria says. She glances toward Michael and their eyes meet. "What we have is different, but that doesn't make it any less special. Your parents were different people than Michael and me. And they had to go through a lot more. Were tested more," she says. "Because of who Max was, I think."

"Because he had been the leader?"

"Because he was always the leader," Michael says. "In both lives. He led us from the time we were kids. Before we ever knew why. It was who he was."

"Is that why they didn't just go into hiding when they realized Kivar was out to kill my father? I mean, if they were so in love, why didn't they just run? Save themselves?"

Michael shakes his head. "That's not what they were about. It never would have occurred to Max to run, or to Liz to abandon him. Even after Max was gone, Liz stood and fought. Saw it through."

"My mother said she chose me. In her letter. What did she mean by that?"

Michael looks to Maria. "I suppose that she chose to go into hiding - to leave her home and friends to protect you. As long as you were in Roswell, there was a danger that Kivar or his men would come after you. Even after Isabel took power, there was no guarantee. Kivar had been a powerful ruler for decades, and he had allies on the other planets in the system. It's why we've never really let down our guard," he admits.

"You're saying she gave up her life for me," Claudia says.

"No, Claudi, that wasn't how it was," Maria tells her. "You were Liz's world. She would have done anything for you. And you had a good life in New York. She loved it there; the busy streets, the culture, the adventure of it. She was always meant for more then a small town life in New Mexico. And it thrilled her to be able to raise you with all of that around you. She wanted to give you a normal childhood for as long as possible."

Claudia pushes off the side of the car and begins to pace, her sneakers stirring up the dust at her feet. "But what now? What kind of life am I supposed to have? Do I just go about my business as if none of this happened? Pretend I'm not part alien?"

"That's up to you," Michael tells her. "You've had to have known you were different before this," he adds. "You had powers from the time you were a kid. Maybe you didn't figure out exactly what it was about you. After all, Max, Iz, and I grew up in Roswell. And we had each other. It wasn't such a leap for us to decide we were somehow from another planet. But don't try to tell me all of this was a total shock."

"No," Claudia agrees. "I knew there was something about me. But it doesn't matter what I knew or didn't know. I'm not the same person I was a few days ago."

"Bullshit," Michael spits out. "You're precisely the same. You just have a better understanding of your history. When we found out that we were genetically engineered - that we had been sent here for a purpose - do you think that made us different? Was Max a new person because he learned that he'd ruled a planet in his previous life? No. Knowing the truth about yourself doesn't change who you are, Claudia. It just changes the way you look at things - alters your perspective. Broadens your horizon."

"Makes the sky seem bigger," she whispers. "So I have a better view," she sighs. "I just wish I knew what to do with it."

* * * * *

She sits alone in the center of the pod chamber. The small velvet bag fits neatly in her hand, the drawstring threaded between her fingers. She strokes the soft fabric, feeling the hard surface of her parents' rings beneath it. She takes a few deep breaths, then opens the bag and slides the two rings on their chain into her palm. The metal is cool against her skin and catches the light from the open doorway, throwing pale yellow shadows on the far wall.

Looking at the rings, she wonders if she is doing the right thing. She acknowledges that it is fear that causes her doubts. Fear of what she might see - or not see. More than that, she does not know how any vision she gets can possibly help answer her questions. But Michael and Maria seem to think it will. So, after a moment's hesitation, Claudia closes her fingers firmly around the rings and shuts her eyes.

The flashes come in a rapid-fire jumble, overwhelming her with images and sounds. Her mother in a flowing white wedding dress being swept into her father's arms; a rumbling, masculine laugh followed by her mother's voice - "Max…" ; soft music she cannot quite identify; more laughter and voices echoing in congratulations; amber eyes glowing with desire; a deep voice whispering - "You are my destiny". The flashes speed up. Claudia sees herself as an infant, cradled in her mother's arms as her father holds them both on his lap and rocks them, his eyes shining with love and pride. Her parents dance barefoot on someone's lawn beneath a starry sky, her father humming in her mother's ear. Then a sharp pain shoots through her, and she sees her mother again, eyes shining with tears, as she slips her wedding ring from her finger and adds it to a chain suspended around her neck - one that already carries a thick gold band.

Claudia opens her hand and lets the rings fall from her grasp. Her heart is pounding and her breathing is erratic. She has never liked this ability - has always believed that it was an invasion of privacy to strip memories from an object in this way. Though her mother left her the rings, she feels like a voyeur. Not because of anything she saw, but because of the incredible wave of emotions that rippled through her - that ripples through her even now. Like the images, the feelings are blurred together, but she is still able to recognize them. She senses great joy, hints of triumph and relief, despair, but most of all, she feels love - boundless, timeless, unconditional love. And beyond that, she can feel a sense of belonging, of unity, the bond her parents shared.

A shadow passes over the entrance and she looks up to see Michael standing in the doorway, Maria a few feet behind him. She drops the rings back into their pouch and stands.

"I think I'm ready to leave," she tells them.

"Are you all right?" Maria asks in a concerned tone.

She smiles reassuringly. "Yeah. Just hot. And a little… I have a lot to take in."

Maria nods. "I'm sure."

They head back to the car and Claudia settles into the back seat again, her parents' wedding rings still clutched in her hand.

* * * * *

The week before she is due to start graduate school, Claudia drives her rental car through the New Mexico countryside. She glances at the directions Michael wrote out for her, then checks her rearview mirror again, hoping she has not passed the turn off. But then she recognizes it up ahead, a dry dirt path with faint tire marks leading toward a rocky peak. She maneuvers off the road and follows the path as she had with Michael and Maria three months before, parking beyond the far slope.

She takes the tote bag from the front seat and carries it carefully up the hill. When she reaches the entrance to the chamber, she sets the bag to one side and waves her palm over the wall. Once again, the silver handprint appears and she fits her palm to the glowing symbol. The door slides open easily. She lifts the bag and slips into the chamber.

It takes her a few minutes to get the hang of it. She traces her finger over the rocky surface, carefully adding the words to her father's tombstone directly below his epitaph. Liz Parker Evans ~ Beloved Wife, Mother, Friend. When she is finished the letters match perfectly. She opens her bag and lifts out the urn that holds her mother's ashes and sets it gently beside her father's. Then she takes the chain from her neck - the one that carries two gold wedding bands - and drapes it so that it connects the urns. The rings click together as they settle on the lowest part of the chain. "Rest well," she whispers through her tears.

Gathering up her bag, Claudia turns and walks out of the pod chamber. A wave of her hand sends the wall sliding back into place, sealing the room. She makes her way down the slope and gets into her car. Before she starts back to town, she wipes her eyes and takes a last look at the rocky surface that she knows hides the entrance to the chamber. The surface is perfectly smooth, revealing no sign of the door. She smiles, then turns the car toward the road and drives away.

****

END