posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:04:37 AM
Title: Epiphanies 3: Soul Survivor

Author: Carol (spacemom)

pb]E-mail: mschanche⊕aol.com

Rating: All over the place, including NC17

Setting: About 3 weeks after the end of Epiphanies 2. It's early in their junior year.

Disclaimer: If I owned them, you’d see THIS on tv

Author's note: This is the third story in a trilogy. By an odd coincidence, the others are called Epiphanies 1: The Ties that Bind and Epiphanies 2: The Anasazi Road. These are posted at both Crashdown (where the NC17 epilog is sitting sad and lonely by itself in the Afterhours section) and Jenn's repost board. I hope you take the time to read them before you start this one.
I am a Dreamer. After a brief meltdown last week, I have joined the ranks of the many fic writers who are determined to keep the ideal love of Max and Liz alive. Viva the Dream!


Prologue

It was obvious to everyone, and a mystery at the same time. With the awareness that pervades every school dynamic, the students at West Roswell High watched each other, conscious of the comings and goings among and within groups. One of the most interesting--and separate--groups had captured the casual attention of cliques across the social strata. It was an unlikely blend of prep, brain, goofball, new girl, loner, geek, bad boy, and jock. But they were tight--freaky tight--and no one could figure out the connection.

All last year, there had been strange interplay among the eight teens. First Kyle and Liz had been a couple. Then Max Evans had entered the picture after a strange incident at the Crashdown Café, and the tension between Kyle and Max had been thick. It had come to a head that night at the dance when Liz had appeared on stage with Kyle, Max, and some blind date the radio station had set up. Max had kissed her that night, a kiss that had silenced a whole roomful of raucous teens, and then he had disappeared. After that, Liz didn't seem to be with anyone for a while.

Then Liz and Max became a couple. They'd even gotten caught in the Eraser Room making out, which was a real eye-opener, considering one of them was destined for class Valedictorian and the other had spent his school career not being noticed. Maria, Liz's best friend, and Michael, Max's best friend, had done some evolving, too. After months of public and private arguing, they had made quite a spectacle of themselves in the hallway with a passionate kiss of their own. Then, stumbling into that same Eraser Room for privacy, they found it already occupied by the Ice Queen herself, Isabel Evans, and one of the school's premier geeks, Alex Whitman. No one could believe that one. There was even one rumor that she'd taken a dare, but that rumor fell away as their quiet affection grew deeper and no "punch line" was ever delivered. Enter Tess Harding, an unsubtle blond who made no secret of her intent to win over Max's heart. She and Liz barely tolerated the same air space. When school had ended for the summer, no one knew what to expect.

What they certainly hadn't expected was that the new school year would find these eight teens as a tight-knit, fiercely protective unit. Their interaction with others was minimal, and although they were friendly to everyone, they gave the impression that outsiders were not welcome. To top if off, they had paired up quite neatly. Kyle and Tess were now holding hands in the halls and sharing fries at the Crashdown after school. Alex and Isabel were still exchanging shy smiles and light kisses between classes. Michael and Maria were cursing and kissing their way through every day with a special spark in their eyes.

The quietest and most powerful change of all was in Max and Liz. Most people weren't surprised that they were together. They'd seen plenty of them the year before. What caused people to stop and stare was the aura of strength, confidence, and unquestionable love they exuded with no effort at all. Everything about them was intense--the looks, the touches, the invisible connection that bound them even when they weren't together. When they walked down a hallway, a path appeared in front of them as people parted. Not out of fear, or awe, or even respect. It was simply all one could do. It was so obvious to everyone, and a mystery at the same time.

Part 1

The first rays of sun were sprawling through space into Liz's bedroom window, and Max's internal clock went off. His mind awakened, and a smile lit his face as he drank in the smell and feel of Liz wrapped in his arms. This was always the best part of any day. The quiet, the stillness, and the intimacy of waking up with the love of his life.

He and Liz had been pushing the limits of their parents' tolerance, he knew. Both sets of parents had endured a series of shocks. Having discovered the truth about Max, Isabel, and Michael, not to mention the unusual relationship between Liz and Max, they had needed time to adjust to the harrowing revelations that Grandma Claudia's after-spirit had led Liz and Max to uncover. She had helped them find the Criston that had put them in contact with Max's family on Voya, and she had helped her son, Jeff, come to terms with his own--and Liz's--Anasazi/alien heritage.

Ultimately, they had been more accepting of this overwhelming reality than Max and the others could ever have expected. They had embraced their children and assured them of their unconditional love. With somewhat more reluctance, they had granted Max and Liz's request for "space," a term they chose not to define too closely. They had turned a blind eye to the very late dates and the clear intimacy of their behavior. After Max and Liz's first night of lovemaking, however, their need for each other didn't fade; it built to an almost frightening degree, and they had taken to finding a way to be together, at one house or the other, almost every night since. The parents didn't know, as far as they could tell, and so they parted at first light, only to reunite when Max picked Liz up for school. It was the best they could hope for right now.

And so Max began to disentangle himself from Liz, preparing for the chilly ride home where he would shower, dress, and come right back to greet his love again. As he started to rise, though, Liz turned toward him and threw her leg over his, her hand curling around his neck.

"Hmmmm," she purred sleepily.

The feel of Liz's leg against his own sensitive skin and her light breath on his chest
evoked an immediate response. He hardened in an instant, feeling blessed and cursed all at once. They rarely made love when any parents were home for obvious reasons. But mostly, they respected their parents' effort to cope with this relationship, and they didn't want to make it harder on them by flaunting it. When they crept into each other's beds on those nights when they just couldn't tolerate being apart--and that was most nights--they simply held each other and thanked the stars for bringing them together. On the rare and wonderful occasions when they could be alone together, they made the most of it, sharing their hearts and their bodies completely.

It had been several days since they had been alone, though, and Max's body was aching for that sweet contact. As if in direct response to his thoughts, Liz's hand started to move over him, grazing his powerful chest and rippling abdomen. He could hardly breathe.

"Liz," he gasped. "Love, I have to go. It's a school day."

He had barely uttered the words when Liz moved gracefully on top of him. "Not yet," she whispered, and he smiled into her hair. This day would start even better than most.

**********

The Jeep jerked to a halt in the school parking lot, and Max and Liz ran for the doors at full speed. The first bell was just sounding. Three minutes to get to class. Piece of cake. As Liz turned to go down the far hall, Max reached for her one last time. "I love you," he whispered against her lips. She smiled up at him. "I know," she teased and took off at a fast walk. He grinned after her and turned toward his own classroom. From inside the dean's office, a scowling face watched the exchange.

As Max flew toward the door to American History, Michael fell into step behind him.

"Maxwell! We need to talk."

"What's up, Michael?"

Michael pulled him into the darkened doorway next door.

"What's up is, you have to quit spending every blessed minute with Liz and get your head back in the game. Isabel and I still have some questions."

"What questions?" asked Max, pushing back the guilt that threatened to ruin his good mood. He really had let everything slide since school had started two weeks ago.

"Like when do we activate the orbs and meet our families?"

Max nodded. "I know, Michael, I'm sorry. I've been . . . ."

"Distracted. I know," Michael finished sarcastically. "But it's been almost three weeks, and Isabel and I have been plenty patient. We want to try to use the orbs to contact our families, Max. We need answers."

"You're right, Michael. We'll meet after school to talk about this. All of us."

Michael gave a single nod in acknowledgment and turned toward his own class down the hall. At that moment, Maria rounded the corner, rushing toward the history class she shared with Max. Michael frowned at her appearance. Her eyes were puffy, her skin was pale, and her expression was closed. When she saw Michael and Max watching her, she looked away, trying to breeze past them casually.

"Maria, wait," Michael called. His look of concern deepened as he got closer. "The dreams again?" he asked quietly.

She nodded her head imperceptibly, and Michael wrapped his arms around her, pulling her to him and kissing her on the head.

"You look exhausted."

Maria closed her eyes against him and let some of the tension drain from her. It was so ironic that Michael, the most hyperactive person she knew, was the one person who could calm her. She relaxed into his chest and sighed, absorbing what she could of his warmth and strength.

"Ms. DeLuca. Mr. Evans. I trust you'll be joining us for class today? And Mr. Guerin, I would assume you have somewhere to be as well."

Maria took a deep breath and looked with gratitude into Michael's eyes. He squeezed her hand and headed down the hall. Max followed Maria into class and took a seat behind her. What dreams? he wondered.


Part 2

Lunchtime. As usual, the back picnic table was already staked out for the eight friends. Michael had thrown his books on one bench and was straddling the other, scowling at the world. No one was even tempted to join him. That is, until Tess and Isabel wandered toward him and slid easily into his corner of the world. They belonged. You could tell.

Kyle, having spotted Tess from the doorway, was about to head toward the group as well when his old friend Paulie called out.

"Kyle! Hey, Kyle! We're gonna go grab some pizza. Wanna come?"

"No, that's okay. You go on." He turned to leave.

"What is up with you, man? You never hang out with the guys anymore. You're always with those freaks. Why?"

"They're not freaks, Paulie. They're friends. What do you care, anyway?"

Paulie shook his head, his face displaying confusion and contempt. "I don't get you, dude. You used to be cool. Now all you do is hang out with that pathetic bunch of misfits. I can understand the blond. She's probably a helluva lay, but what do you waste your time with the others for?"

Kyle stood stone still. Then his body exploded into action. Before Paulie knew what had hit him, he was on the ground looking up and Kyle's eyes, seething with anger, were boring holes through his head. Kyle brought his fist up, picturing with satisfaction how it would wipe that look of contempt from Paulie's face. But he hesitated when he saw fear, not contempt, and he realized this was not worth the trouble it would cause him.

"Kyle, don't!" Tess's voice penetrated his consciousness. He tore his eyes from Paulie's face and looked into Tess's pleading ones. He brought his arm down slowly, cringing at the crowd the fight had drawn in just a few seconds.

"You're a loser, Paulie. I suggest you leave Tess . . . and the rest of my friends . . . alone." He climbed off of Paulie, glared at the crowd, and drifted back toward the picnic table. Tess reached for his hand, and he looked at her.

"What in the world started that?" she asked him. "I've never seen you so mad."

Kyle hesitated. He couldn't tell her what Paulie had said. "The creep has no class," he told her. "I can't stand a guy with no class."

Tess looked at him, bewildered, but let it drop. Obviously, he didn’t want to talk about it.

"You okay, Kyle?" asked Max. "What happened?" The rest of the group had congregated at the table by now, and they all looked worried.

"It's nothing. Let it go." He sat down heavily and avoided eye contact with his confused friends.

"It was about us," Michael stated matter-of-factly. "You're takin' heat for hanging out with us, aren't you?"

Kyle was silent, still staring down at the table.

"We appreciate your loyalty and all, Valenti," Michael began, "but we can't draw attention to ourselves. Especially now. There's too much goin' down."

All eyes moved from Kyle to Michael. "What's going down?" Isabel asked as she scooted over to make room for Alex.

"Max has agreed that it's time for us to try to contact our families, Isabel."

Isabel's eyes widened and her face broke into a bright smile. "Max, we're finally going to do it? I'm going to meet our family?"

Max leaned forward and kept his voice low. "We can't talk about this here," Max cautioned. "Let's meet after school at Michael's, okay?"

Everyone nodded, except Maria. She was leaning against Michael with her eyes closed, apparently oblivious to the conversation.

"Maria," Max began. She opened her eyes, the dark circles under them making them look huge and gaunt. "I don't want to pry, Maria, but I heard Michael ask you about the dreams, and you look terrible. What's going on?"

Maria gathered herself and tried hard to look offended. "Terrible? I look terrible? Look, Max, if you're going to insult me, then I'll have no use for Michael. You're infringing on his territory."

No one laughed, and the looks of concern broke through her thin façade quickly.

"I can't talk about this here, either," she sighed. "I'll fill you in at the meeting." Michael put his arm around her and drew her back to him, looking more worried than anyone. Alex reached for Isabel's hand, and Max leaned toward Liz, kissing her hair. The friends sat quietly like that for several minutes, forgetting to eat. A figure in the doorway just watched them, jotted some notes in a small notebook, and left.


Part 3

"I realize now how much I don't know yet," Max admitted, as he and his friends sat around Michael's living room. "For starters, I'm not sure if we have to be in Chaco Canyon for the orbs to work or not. I mean, the transmitter we used was hovering overhead there. Does that mean we have to be there to reach anyone? And I don't know how they figure out we're trying to reach them. When Liz and I talked to them, there were lots of family and friends there. How did they know we would be contacting them that night? Why were my friends and family there, but not Michael's or Tess's? I just don't know how it works."

There was a prolonged silence as each person pondered these questions. They really had no idea how to begin.

"Then there's the problem of sending out a signal to our enemies when we use them. We can't just pick them up and call like some kind of high-tech long distance plan, right? We have to limit the contact in order to limit the danger."

Again, a heavy silence. Liz could see how inadequate Max was feeling. Everyone was looking to him for answers and direction, and he felt he was letting them down. She reached for his hand, and he looked up at her.

"We'll work this out together, Max. We just have to feel our way through, trial and error. Eventually, it'll all make sense."

He looked at her gratefully, and then made his proposal.

"I suggest we try this from Roswell first. Chaco Canyon is almost 8 hours from here, and if we have to contact Voya from there, we won't be contacting them very much, that's for sure. So let's try it from here, activating the orbs like we did when the hologram appeared in the cave."

He shot Liz a quick look, worried about her reaction to the memory of how the hologram in the cave that day had sent everything spiraling downward for so long. Her face had clouded over and her eyes were far away, but she quickly snapped out of it and turned her eyes to him confidently. She nodded her encouragement to continue.

"If we succeed in reaching someone, we'll ask our questions. Meanwhile, let's have those questions ready, because we don't want the contact to take too long when we know it can bring our enemies here."

"I think we should invite Josh," Isabel suggested. "He has a lot of questions, too, and we wouldn't have gotten this far if it weren't for him."

"I don't care if he comes, as long as he can get here quick," chimed in Michael. "We've waited long enough."

Tess was strangely quiet. Max had been watching her over on the couch, her arm tucked through Kyle's. "Tess? What are you thinking?"

Tess's eyes reflected her pain. "So much of what I've been taught was lies. I'm afraid some of my memories are, too. What if they aren't real? I don't know what these people will tell me, but I'm pretty sure it won't be what I'm expecting. I'm almost afraid to know."

Kyle moved his arm and brought it around Tess's shoulders, pulling her close. "No matter what they tell you, it doesn't change who you are here, now. Your past isn't what's important. Your present is."

Max made a mental note to say a prayer of thanks that things had worked out between Kyle and Tess. It had taken the pressure off of his relationship with Liz, and had made Tess feel wanted in a different way. They could remain the unit they needed to be without the uncomfortable relationship stuff interfering.

"Kyle's right," Max confirmed. "Our lives are here, if we want them to be. But we still have to deal with whatever spills over from Voya to Earth. Let's just take this one step at a time and try contacting them. Izzie, you get in touch with Josh and see what he wants to do. Agreed?"

Heads nodded and a quiet descended on the group. Liz rose and walked over to Maria, who was looking tired and subdued.

"Maria? It's your turn. Tell us about the bad dreams you've been having."

Maria had been sitting back against Michael on the floor, her head nestled under his chin. She looked at her best friend and then at the others in the room. She had wanted to keep this to herself; they had enough to deal with. But their concern was obvious, and she knew that they'd keep after her until she told them.

"It started about two weeks ago. I've been having a recurring nightmare where I'm in my room, but it's decorated like it was when I was a little girl. At first, the dream was just full of yelling and I felt really scared. The more I have the dream, though, the more detail there is. I can tell that men are yelling in the kitchen and then I hear one voice yell, 'But what about my wife and daughter? You can't do this!' I feel so terrified, like something awful is happening. I open my door but all I see is a bright light and then I wake up." She looked around the room at the faces intent on her story. She felt so foolish.

"It's probably nothing," she shrugged. "People have recurring nightmares all the time, right?"

"A dream like that usually has some meaning, Maria. Having it over and over in greater detail may mean it's a memory." Isabel hesitated. "I could help you, if you'll let me, Maria. I could come in there with you and see if I can see what you can't."

Maria shook her head. "No, Isabel. I'm sure it'll just go away. But thanks."

Isabel watched her shaken friend lean back against Michael, closing her eyes. This wasn't healthy, but she wouldn't go into one of Maria's dreams without permission. Not any more.

Liz looked back over her shoulder at Max, at a loss as to how to help her friend. Michael made the decision.

"Come on, Maria. We're gonna lay you down on the bed for a while. Just a little nap, okay?"

"You'll stay with me?" she asked quietly, as she slipped her hand into his.

Michael stood and helped her to her feet. "Count on it," he assured her, and steered her toward his bedroom. He lay her gently on the bed and grabbed a blanket from the stack at the foot of the bed. Once he had stretched out beside her, he pulled her to him and covered them both. "I'm right here, Maria. I won't let anything happen to you."

Maria nestled into him and sighed heavily. There was something innately safe and secure about being wrapped in those arms, and she let herself relax into a badly needed sleep.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:05:48 AM
Part 4

Isabel, Alex, Tess, and Kyle rose to leave. "Are you coming?" Isabel asked Max.

Max looked at Liz and read his own thoughts in her eyes. This was one of those rare chances to have some time alone. They planned to take full advantage.

"No, I think we'll hang out here a while," he told her.

Isabel wasn’t fooled, but then, Max wasn't trying very hard to fool anyone about their relationship anymore. She threw him a knowing look. "What should I tell Mom and Dad?"

"Just tell them we're eating with Michael and Maria tonight, and I'll be home later."

Isabel nodded and closed the door behind them. Max turned to Liz with a smile. "I guess we can't have the bed, but we have a couch and a kitchen. That sounds like a pretty good deal."

Liz turned to Max, a serious expression on her face. "Max, you've been putting off trying to make contact with your family again. I think if Michael hadn't forced the issue, you would've waited even longer. What's bothering you?"

Max sat on the couch, pulling Liz down next to him. He gazed into those big chocolate eyes and struggled with how to put what he was feeling into words.

"Liz, the last three weeks have been the happiest of my life. Isabel and I don't have to hide things from our parents anymore, the eight of us are working together for a change, and most of all, I know that I can have the life I've always dreamed of . . . a life with you. The truth is, I don't want anything to change now. I'm where I want to be. I'm with the person I want to be with. If we contact our families, maybe Izzie or Michael will decide to go home. Maybe we'll learn about another enemy we have to fend off. Maybe they'll tell me something that will take me away from you. I've just found you, Liz. I can't lose you now."

"Max Evans," Liz replied, taking his hand and pressing it to her heart, "there is nothing they could tell you that will take me from you. We are one. I go where you go. I'll fight beside you, and I'll share your victories. I told your Voyan mother the truth that night in Chaco Canyon--I want to share everything with you, live in your soul, have your children. There is no separating us."

Max felt a flood of warmth flowing through his whole body. It was as if he had plunged into those eyes and had become surrounded by Liz's love, a cocoon of emotional safety in a world of fear and uncertainty. This beautiful creature had bound herself to him for better or for worse, and he had never felt more powerful. He released her hand and brought his own up to her face, stroking the soft skin, then sliding around to sift through the silky locks.

"Liz, I love you." His mouth descended gently to hers, worshipping her--body and soul. He poured his love into the kiss and felt her respond beneath his touch. Liz curled her fingers through his hair and pulled him toward her, wanting to feel every inch of him pressed against her, wanting to smell him and taste him. He was her everything, and there was nothing she wouldn't give to him.

Liz wanted nothing more than to banish any doubts in Max's mind about her being there with him through it all, no matter what "it" meant. Her love for him was not about this incredibly sexy body that she adored loving, and it wasn't about his "powers," impressive as they were. Her love grew from seeing into his gentle soul and knowing the kind of man he was becoming. He was caring and protective of those he loved; he put his own needs last, always; and he was completely unaware of how incredible he was--she found that irresistible. So now all she wanted was to reassure him, and to let him know how she supported him, adored him, loved him for who he was and who she was when she was with him.

"Max," she whispered into his ear, "you are the center of my life, the best part of me." She moved his hand to her heart again and held his eyes with her own, shining with love. "This is the heart that will love you for all of my days, that will trust you to be the leader you were born to be, and that will rejoice in your love for me." She slid his hand down to her abdomen. "This is where the children that spring from that love will grow, protected and nurtured by us both." She saw his eyes filling with tears and leaned forward to kiss each one gently.

Finally, she cupped his face in her hands. "I want to try something, Max. Will you let me?" He nodded mutely, awed by this unconditional declaration of love and commitment from a slip of a girl who had captured his heart all those years ago.

"I know I'm just learning what my own special abilities are, Max, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that forming a connection with you is one of them. I want you to feel what I'm feeling, just as you shared yourself with me once."

She held his face in her hands and looked deeply into his eyes. The connection was instantaneous and her mind filled with the wonderful memories she and Max had made, from their first connection after he had healed her, their first kiss, their first flashes, waking up in Max's arms after he had rescued her from the rogue FBI agents, discovering they shared an alien genetic history, and finally the first time they made love. Through it all, Max could feel the depth of Liz's feelings for him. Her willingness to even try this connection overwhelmed him, and he could only stare at her in wonder, much as she had looked at him after he connected with her what seemed like a lifetime ago.

His tear-filled eyes spilled onto his cheeks unashamedly, and he tried to make sounds through his constricted throat. What could he say in response to her opening her beautiful soul to him? Words failed him, and he reached for her, desperate for her to understand what her words and feelings meant to him. He would have to let his actions speak for him.

He crushed her to him and took her mouth hungrily. Slipping into the darkest reaches of her mouth, he savored the feel and taste of her as his salty tears slid across their tongues. His hands caressed her back, sliding easily over the silky material of her shirt, leaving a trail of warmth in their wake. His mouth left hers and began an assault on her jaw and her neck, stopping to swirl a moist spiral at the base of her throat. Breathing in small gasps, Liz arched her neck, demanding more pressure wherever he touched her. His hand slid slowly from her back to the sensitive skin under her arm and at the base of her breast, causing small sounds to bubble from her throat. His thumb teased her nipple, eliciting a long, breathy moan, and Max felt his heart race even faster. Her every response heightened his own.

His fingers began to work the small buttons on her blouse, but he lost track of them when he felt her begin to move beneath him. She was pressing herself to his arousal, conveying an urgency that he had been struggling to control himself. His fingers left the buttons and slid up under her skirt, seeking the heat he could feel already through their clothes. The second he touched her sensitive bud, even through the damp material, his name tumbled from her lips. He was intoxicated by the feel and smell of her, but now he wanted to see her, watch her falling apart in his arms.

He opened his eyes and smiled at the familiar glow that seemed to surround them whenever they were focused only on each other in love. They had grown to accept this physical indication that everything about their union was in harmony, but it never ceased to amaze them. Then his eyes went to her face, and his heart leapt at the obvious pleasure he was bringing her. His gaze traveled down her beautiful features and settled on the barely concealed breasts, now heaving in response to his touch.

He finished unbuttoning her blouse and let the material fall away. It never failed to take his breath away, seeing her delicate form exposed to him. She opened her body to him with the same willingness with which she had opened her soul, and the sense of awe this brought him was almost painful. What had he done to deserve such devotion?

As Max lowered his mouth to her creamy breasts, Liz seemed to awaken from her pleasure-induced haze. She had been floating on a sea of sensation; it seemed there was nothing he could do to her body that didn't thrill her. His hot moist mouth sucking at her nipples, his gentle hands expertly rubbing against her most sensitive spot--how quickly he had learned every way to please her.

She began to tug on Max's t-shirt, pulling it over his head and diving toward his chest. She licked at his nipples, which turned instantly hard under her tongue. She felt him shudder and looked up to see him throw his head back, eyes closed. She slid further down, flicking her tongue in a trail toward his firm abdomen and grazing her teeth across his skin at his waistband. She heard him suck in his breath and smiled to herself.

Her fingers quickly opened his jeans and released his pulsing erection from its confines. Already giving up precious drops, his sensitive tip almost burst right then as Liz licked and stroked his heated length. She was rewarded with his choked effort to say her name, but all that came out was a primal, guttural sound. With a few swift movements, she pulled his pants off and shed her own. When she looked up, Max was gazing at her with a breathtaking look of love and desire. How badly she needed him inside her!

Suddenly her whole focus was on achieving that goal. She startled him by pushing his body into a reclining position on the couch, and then straddling him and taking him inside her in one graceful act. The surprise and pleasure on his face just fueled Liz's desire, and she began to ride him with abandon, thrilling in his moans of pleasure.

"Liz!" Max cried out. "I won't . . . last . . . ." Liz smiled and leaned forward, supporting herself with her hands on either side of his head. His mind was spinning with passion, sensation, and the total joy of giving himself to Liz. Nothing had ever been so right in his life as this woman.

As he felt a breast graze his mouth, Max eagerly sucked it in, laving it with tenderness. Liz's immediate response was to accelerate her pace. Max reached down and rubbed his finger across her sensitive nub; the contact triggered a series of explosions in her body, followed by a warm sensation running through her veins. It brought tears to her eyes, and she breathed Max's name over and over as her muscles closed around him in waves of glorious pleasure. Feeling her release was the last straw for Max, and he erupted inside of her, giving everything he had to her, physically and emotionally.

Liz's arms could no longer support her, and she sank happily into Max's chest, knowing that she never wanted to be anywhere else. His arms enfolded her, and for a few moments, they were aware only of their oneness. As the glow around them slowly subsided, they drifted into a contented sleep.

**********

Michael had accepted that Max and Liz were intimate. It had been inevitable and everyone knew it, probably even their parents. In fact, it had been Michael who offered them his apartment for what had obviously been their first time. It had been his way of telling Max that he had come to terms with it and accepted Liz. But he sure as heck didn't want details. He had never asked Max about it, and Max had never volunteered anything. It was an unspoken understanding between them.

As he lay on his bed, a sleeping Maria in his arms, he could tell what was happening in his living room. At first, he had willed himself not to hear. Then he had thought about going in there and telling them to knock it off. Did they think his room was soundproof? But he hadn't wanted to disturb Maria, and he knew they would be terribly embarrassed, so he let it go. Obviously, they assumed he was sleeping. Obviously, they were wrong.

As he heard the sounds, though, the moans and the names being called out in the heat of passion, he didn't find himself disgusted, so much as envious. What they shared was clearly not just physical. It was their expression of the deep bond that connected them in an almost unnatural way. Sometimes Michael felt he could have that with Maria--that she was someone who would love him no matter what and who was willing to share the strange and possibly dangerous life he was destined to live. Other times, he worried that she would eventually turn away from him, that the kick of being in on this alien secret would wear off, and the stark reality of its dark side would fill her with fear and loathing.

He had been brutally honest that day at the silver mine when he had walked away from her. She had asked how he could do that, and he had answered simply, "Maybe because I love you too much." That was true. In his heart, he knew she was his anchor, his rock, his love. And oh how he loved her body! In fact, if he hadn't loved her so much, he would have gladly tried to persuade her to have sex with him. But it couldn't be just sex for them. He couldn't do that to her. And as long as he was still afraid of her rejection, as long as he still needed that ever-shrinking wall around him, he knew he couldn't give himself to her completely. As he heard Max and Liz come together with total honesty, he knew he just wasn't ready yet. And it made him sad.

**********

Liz and Max slept peacefully in the afterglow of their lovemaking, still one with each other, still basking in the warmth of their union. Until the screams. They came awake abruptly, and Liz bounded off of Max in a panic.

"Maria!" she gasped.

Hurriedly, Max slipped on his pants and started for Michael's door.

"Max, wait!" Max turned to see Liz still getting her clothes on. If he hadn't been so worried about Maria, he would have enjoyed the sight. As it was, he waited patiently for Liz to cover herself and then reached for Michael's door. He burst in, Liz close on his heels, and found Michael holding a sobbing Maria.

"The nightmare again?" he asked.

Michael nodded. "Max, we have to do something. She can't go on like this."

"I'll talk to Isabel tonight," he offered.


Part 5

It took Maria several minutes to calm down from the trauma of her dream. Michael moved her out to the couch and held her quietly while Max and Liz fixed them all something to drink.

"Maria, was this the same dream you've been having?" asked Liz quietly, sensing the fragile state of her dearest friend.

Maria nodded. "I just can't get past what's beyond that door. Every time I open it, I just see the bright light and feel a terrible sense of dread." She turned her face into Michael's shoulder again, shutting her eyes against the frightening memory.

"Maria," said Max gently, moving to sit next to her on the couch. He took her limp hand in his and squeezed it reassuringly. "Please, Maria. Let me talk to Isabel. It's possible that because she isn't emotionally invested in this dream or memory or whatever it is, that she'll be able to see something you're blocking. Let her try. You won't rest until the dreams stop, and I'm pretty sure they won't stop until you understand what it is you fear."

Maria turned to look at Max, her haunted eyes desperate. "Okay," she whispered, and turned back into Michael's shoulder.

Liz and Max exchanged glances. Right now, Michael and Maria just needed some time alone. They rose to leave.

"I'll call you after I've talked to Isabel."

Michael nodded his thanks and pulled Maria closer. He wished he could be the one to make her demons go away, but for now, he would hold her close and give her what he could--his love.

**********

Max pulled the Jeep into the alley behind the Crashdown.

"Liz, I don't know exactly what will happen tonight, so I don't know if I'll make it back over here."

"I know," she sighed, gazing lovingly into his eyes. "It just seems so wrong that we have to pretend like this. But . . . I guess there isn't much we can do about it for now." Her fingers traced his mouth, and her eyes crinkled with mischief.

"Besides, you probably think I've had my minimum daily requirement of loving today. You're probably just itching to get rid of me so you can have some peace."

Max was equal to her challenge. "Yeah, you're right. I could use a break."

Liz's eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open until she saw the amused glint shining from his eyes. She recovered quickly.

"In that case, Max Evans, take as much time as you like. In fact, call for an appointment next time you want to come over, and I'll see if I can fit you into my schedule." She turned to get out of the car when his strong arms grabbed her and pulled her back to him, just as she knew he would.

"There had better not be anyone else on your schedule, Liz Parker. Ever. I plan to completely monopolize your time . . . and your loving." He kissed her possessively and she responded willingly. When they separated, there was no humor left in their eyes. Only need and want and love.

"Let me know how it goes with Isabel," she reminded him. He kissed her lightly one more time and watched her until she was safely inside the door.

**********

Isabel was lying on her bed listening to CDs when Max knocked. She waved him in and turned down the music when she saw his serious expression.

"What's up?"

Max sat down on the bed. "It's Maria. She had another bad dream while we were there, and Isabel, she was really screaming when she woke up. She was terrified. I think she's ready to accept your offer now--to go into the dream with her."

"Tonight, Max?" She frowned. I was going to try to meet with the Star Chamber tonight and tell Josh about contacting our families on Voya."

"How does that work, Iz? Do you let them know you want to meet, or do they let you know when there's a meeting, or what?"

"Well, when I fall asleep, if there's something I want to talk about, I sort of reach out with my mind for Josh. He seems to pull the meeting together then. Other times, he comes to me and tells me they're waiting for me. There are people there from all over the world, so they can't all be sleeping--the time zones would make that impossible. I guess some of them can just achieve the state of relaxation that lets them reach out to the group even during the day."

"Well, if you help Maria first, couldn't you find Josh later?"

"That'll work great, Max, as long as I don't want to get any real sleep."

Isabel watched Max's silent face speaking volumes to her. Maria needed her, and Isabel knew she couldn't say no. Max knew it, too. It just irritated Isabel that Max assumed she would inconvenience herself like this. But who was she kidding? Maria had put herself on the line for them a dozen times. Of course she would help her.

They went downstairs together to find their parents. Diane and Philip were watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind on cable, and they grinned sheepishly at their children as they entered the room.

"Studying up?" Max teased them.

"Max!" his mother protested. "This has nothing to do with you. It's just a good movie."

"I know, Mom," he chuckled. Isabel rolled her eyes and sat on the arm of her father's chair.

"Mom, Dad, we have to go to Michael's."

Philip frowned. "It's late, kids. I'd rather you were in for the night."

"Dad? I don't know if I've ever explained about my dreamwalking before. Mom knows some of the details. But Maria has been having a recurring nightmare; she thinks it might be a suppressed memory, but whatever it is, it's turning her into a wreck. I want to try to help her by going into the dream with her and seeing what has her so scared."

Philip stared at his beautiful daughter. Would he ever get used to all the secrets both of his children had hidden for so many years?

"Couldn't that hurt you?" he asked, taking her hand.

"No, Dad. I've done this before. I might be able to see something she can't--something that she's repressed because it's too scary. But it can't hurt me." She didn't dare tell him how frightened she had become doing this on other occasions, but she really was convinced she couldn't actually be hurt.

"Okay, if Maria needs you. But come home right after, okay?"

Isabel leaned over and kissed her father's forehead. "Don't freak, Dad. It's harmless."

He smiled at her. "I got over 'freaked' a while back. I'm still at the 'what else is there and do I really want to know' stage."

They all laughed, and Max marveled once again at how his parents had accepted them and their bizarre secret. It felt good to know the love in the family was honest now. And he did love them so much.

**********

When they arrived at Michael's, he and Maria were just stretching out again on the bed.

"She's so tired, Isabel. I couldn't tell her not to sleep. But I'm glad you're here."

"Leave your door open, Michael. I'll just stay out here on the couch where I can see her. You know how that helps."

Max sat at the end of the couch and motioned for Isabel to put her head in his lap. Maria's nightmare had been so frightening, he wanted to stay close by where he could calm Isabel, if need be. Maria fell asleep quickly in Michael's protective embrace, and Michael watched out his doorway as Isabel settled herself on the couch and looked into the bedroom. After a few seconds, her eyes drifted shut, and she entered Maria's dream.

Isabel looked around the room. It was a pleasant room, obviously decorated for a little girl. There were dolls sitting at a tea party, ruffled curtains, and a poster of the New Kids on the Block. Hot air balloons adorned the wallpaper border, and there was a matching hot air balloon lamp and night light. That night light was the only illumination in the room, except for the indirect light from the street lamp that cast dancing shadows along the walls from the tree outside the window. Isabel turned to see the sweet face framed with blonde hair resting on the floral pillowcase. To her surprise, young Maria's eyes were focused on her, yet she showed no surprise or fear. Until the shouting started.

"Maria?" Isabel whispered softly. "I'm Isabel. I've come to help you."

Maria nodded, eyes wide now, her tiny arms strangling a little stuffed alien.

Isabel focused her attention on the angry voices coming from down the hall.

"I told you before," a panicked voice begged, "I won't tell anyone. Just leave me and my family alone!"

A gruff and unsympathetic voice responded, "That's very reassuring, Mr. DeLuca, but I'm afraid it just isn't good enough. You poked your nose where it didn't belong, and now it's time to accept the consequences."

"But what about my wife and daughter? You can't do this!"

"They'll never know what happened to you. It's best that way."

"Look, my little girl is asleep down the hall. Her mother is at work! I can't just leave her here alone." Mr. DeLuca's voice was desperate, pleading.

A third voice joined the discussion. "I'm sorry, Mr. DeLuca. If there was any other choice . . . ."

"We're wasting time. Let's just get out of here."

At this point, Maria crept from her bed toward her door. She opened it just a crack and the hall light threw a bright shaft of light across her face. Isabel leaned behind her and looked into the hallway. She saw the backs of three men, one on each side of a struggling figure who was clearly overpowered. At the last moment, Tom DeLuca wrenched his body around to look down the hall toward Maria's room, his face twisted with despair.

A sob escaped little Maria's lips and she ran to her bed, pulling the covers over herself, rocking back and forth.

Isabel's own eyes filled with tears. That must have been Maria's father. So that's what happened to him. He hadn't left of his own free will after all. But what had he seen? What was so important that it cost him his family and possibly his life? And why was Maria just remembering this now?

Maria and Isabel woke simultaneously. They each sat up from where they had been sleeping and looked at each other across the rooms.

"Could you see it, Isabel?" Maria asked, her voice shaking.

Isabel nodded slowly, and Maria turned her face into Michael's chest and started to cry.

"What the hell happened?" Michael demanded of Isabel. Max turned toward his sister and saw a tear slide down her cheek.

"Poor Maria," was all Isabel could say.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:06:53 AM
Part 6

Tess sat looking out at the moon from what had once been Kyle's bed. Right before school had started, Jim Valenti had come to her, warning that the school authorities were bound to get wind of her living alone. Tess was still two months away from her 18th birthday, and the sheriff knew she would be sent to a foster home, so he had offered to take her in, at least until she turned 18. Nacedo, still working to protect the young hybrids in his position as Agent Pierce, had agreed to the arrangement, so she had gratefully accepted his generosity.

The only real problem had been Kyle. Or rather, being so close to Kyle. Tess had surprised herself by developing strong feelings for Kyle, and it didn't help her at all that he was sleeping 20 feet away from her every night. She suspected he felt the same way, but they had worked hard to keep a certain distance. It just kept getting harder.

The real irony was, now that she was finally becoming comfortable with her human side, and had something resembling a family in Michael, Max, Isabel, and the Valentis, she was suddenly presented with the possibility that she would, indeed, meet her alien past. For the first time, she found herself wary of the contact with her home, instead of eager. What if it jeopardized what she had finally found here? She knew Max's Voyan family had accepted Liz as his mate, so she and Max wouldn't be forced together, but what if there were different plans for her? What if Liz was only acceptable because of her alien ancestry? Maybe Kyle wouldn't be deemed worthy. Maybe he wouldn't even want to be.

"Penny for your thoughts." The voice behind her made her jump.

"Kyle! What are you doing up?"

"I couldn't sleep. And given how shaken up you were this afternoon, I figured you were having the same problem. Wanna talk?"

Tess nodded and gave him a warm smile. Just his presence made her feel better. Kyle scooted back on the bed so his back was leaning against the wall. He pulled Tess into his arms, and they both looked out at the moon together.

Tess sighed deeply. "It just doesn't seem fair, I guess," she began. "All my life, I've searched for my alien roots, for Max and Michael and Isabel. I learned whatever Nacedo was willing to teach me, and I lived for the day I could return 'home.' Now, I've found a home." She hesitated, realizing how presumptuous that sounded.

"I mean, I've made Earth my home. I've come to actually like a lot of the humans I know." Kyle gave her a squeeze; she could feel him smile against her hair. "Now I don't know if I even want to know what they'll tell me if we make contact with Voya. What if there is a whole family there that wants to tell me what to do with my life. I'm finally to the point where I want to decide for myself. I've never been able to do that, and it feels good."

Kyle didn't know what to tell her. What she was facing was completely out of his experience, and there wasn’t a thing he could tell her that would help. Except . . . .

"Tess, I don't know what they'll tell you, but just remember this. You won't be able to decide what you want unless you know what your options are. Turning your back on this chance to contact your home is just hiding your head in the sand. Personally, I hope you decide to stay here, but if you decide that without all the facts, you'll always wonder if you made the right choice."

Tess pondered his words. They were very wise, actually.

"Kyle, how did you get so smart?" She turned to look at him, and what she saw in his eyes sent a little thrill through her body.

"I've had a little time to think lately," he grinned at her.

"Then will you do me a favor?" she asked, feeling almost timid.

"You name it," he agreed.

"Come with me. I mean, come with me when we try to contact Voya."

Kyle's eyes grew wide. This was deeper than he had ever planned to get involved with these aliens, but it was even more amazing that she actually wanted him there with her. He couldn't refuse her, no matter how weird things were getting.

"Done," he said, and leaned toward her smiling lips. She met his touch with a sigh, this time of contentment, and turned to face him more easily. Her breasts, covered only by the thin material of her short tank top, grazed his chest and he sucked in his breath. For a moment, he gave into the electric sensation; his hand slid around her waist as he pulled her closer, the warm silky skin shocking every nerve and causing a dramatic reaction in his own body. He pulled away reluctantly.

"This isn't a good idea, Tess. I'd better go back to bed. In the other room."

Tess stroked his cheek. "Thank you, Kyle. For the advice, for agreeing to come with me, and for holding me when I needed it. You're really a special guy, you know that?"

"I'm a fool," he grumbled good-naturedly. "No sane man would leave now."

She giggled, feeling carefree for the first time today. "Remind me to give you a gold star," she teased.

"Yippee," Kyle mumbled as he made his way back to the living room.

Tess snuggled down in the covers. They felt cold after Kyle's warm embrace. But at least now, she could sleep.

**********

"I need to see Liz," Maria sniffed.

"Maria, it's almost midnight," Michael pointed out.

"I don't care. I need to see Liz."

Max moved to the phone, raising his hand to ward off Michael's protests. He
dialed the familiar number and heard the smile in her voice. She knew only
Max would call her late at night like this.

"Hey," she said affectionately. "How's a girl supposed to get her beauty
sleep?"

Max's mouth twitched with amusement until he felt an unexpected jolt of
desire; his mind painted a picture of Liz in her shorty pajamas, her hair
cascading down her back, her favorite fragrance enveloping him. Then he
heard Maria sniffle again and remembered why he had called.

"Maria is asking for you."

"Max! Is she okay? Did Isabel see her dream?"

"Yeah, she's all right, but both she and Isabel are a little shaken. We don't
have the details yet. I'll be there in 5 minutes."

"I'll be waiting," she promised.

**********

Liz and Max returned to find three very quiet people occupying Michael's living room. Isabel sat in the chair, her fingers pressing slow circles into her temples. Max recognized this habit from other times when she had been tense or upset. Maria sat on the couch, the heels of her feet pulled tightly against her rear, her chin resting on the shelf her knees created in front of her. Michael's arm was around her, rubbing her upper arm lightly.

When Liz entered the room, Maria sprang to her feet and launched herself at her best friend. Her hug was vice-like, as if Liz could save her from drowning in this dark sea of fear and confusion. Liz just held her while Max looked on. Sometimes it took something like this to remind him how much they all really needed each other.

Liz guided Maria back to the couch, where she instinctively curled back into Michael's waiting arms. Liz sat on her other side and Max pulled up a barstool.

"Maria, can you talk about it?" Liz asked gently.

"It was just the same as all the others. I'm a little girl in my room. I'm supposed to be asleep, but I'm not. I hear yelling from down the hall, and a man yells, 'What about my wife and daughter?' I go to the door and see a bright light. This time, I ran back to my bed and hid, and then I woke up."

Liz looked over at Isabel. "Did you see anything else? Anything that Maria didn't see?"

Isabel hesitated. "Yes," she whispered.

All four pairs of eyes were riveted to Isabel.

"Why didn't you say something?" blurted Maria. "I just assumed you saw
exactly what I did!"

"For the most part, I did," Isabel explained. "But when you opened the
bedroom door, I could see down the hall. Two men were forcing your father-I
least, I assume that was your father-out the door, telling him he had to pay
the consequences for something." She looked at her friend's anguished face.
"He didn't want to go, Maria."

He didn't want to go. The thought raced in circles in her mind. She wanted to laugh. He didn't want to go! Then she wanted to scream. Who took him? Why? She paced around the room like a caged animal, mumbling, running her fingers through her hair, small pained sounds escaping her throat. She came to a stop in front of Isabel.

"If I showed you a picture of my dad, would you be able to tell if it was him you saw?"

"I think so," Isabel replied.

"Okay, then. I'll find a picture. Once Isabel has confirmed it's him, I'll go to my mom. She must know something she hasn't told me." The thought broke through her bravado. "Has she been lying to me all these years?" She started to cry. Michael stood and wrapped his arms around her. From against his arm came a muffled, "Liz? Come with me when I talk to her?" It was the voice of a small child.

She stepped toward Maria and stroked her hair. "You know I've got your back, Maria."

She saw Maria's head bob. Giving Michael a grateful smile, she joined Max and Isabel. As they left, she turned to see Michael rubbing Maria's back, whispering words of comfort. Space Boy really did come through sometimes, she thought.

**********

Max knew Isabel would have no patience for his usual long goodbye with Liz,
so when they pulled up to the Crashdown, he hopped out quickly and came
around to Liz's side of the car.

"Be right back, Iz," he promised.

"You'd better, Max. I swear, if this turns into some sort of marathon kissy-fest, I'm taking the Jeep home myself."

Liz chuckled in spite of her serious mood. Max weaved his fingers through hers, and they moved toward the ladder to her rooftop patio. He turned and pulled her into his arms.

"Liz, Mom and Dad are waiting for Isabel and me. I don't know if I can get back here tonight."

"I know," she whispered against his chest. "You do realize, don't you, that I never sleep well anymore unless you're with me, so don't blame me if I have big circles under my eyes tomorrow. It'll be your fault."

She felt him pull away slightly and lift her chin so he could look into her beautiful dark eyes. "Have you tried figuring out if you have any of the same powers that the rest of us have?" He grinned at her slyly. "Dreamwalking comes to mind."

Liz grinned back. "You mean I haven't been in your dreams? Because you've sure been in mine. And they feel very real."

Max's eyebrows went up. "We'll definitely have to discuss those later. Meanwhile, I'll keep an eye out for you, just in case." He brought his lips down to hers and brushed them gently. "I don't dare get into a 'kissy-fest' with that car thief sitting in the Jeep," Max said with a chuckle, "so I'd better say goodnight."

"Not until I've had a real kiss, Max," Liz insisted. She went up on her toes and brought her hands around the back of his neck. As her breasts slid up his chest and her lips pressed against his, Max instinctively pulled her tightly to him and plunged eagerly into her mouth, feeling as he always did--like he was home.

Liz pulled away. "Now you can go home." She ascended the ladder with the sounds of Max's ragged breathing behind her.

"I'll get you for that, Liz Parker."

"I'm counting on it," he heard her say as he watched her cute butt disappear over the wall.

Max took a deep breath and headed back to the car.

"It's about time," Isabel chided him. All she got for her trouble was a glare.

**********

He answered the phone.

"Hi. Yeah, I've been watching them. There are too many of them to keep track of--8 it looks like--but I'm beginning to think there might actually be something to this. I'm concentrating on the DeLuca girl, of course. Yeah, Maria."

He listened attentively. "I won't make a move unless I have to. Give me a few more days. Okay."

He hung up the phone and looked out at the star-filled night. Damn, this was big. Too big. He grabbed his coat and headed for the DeLuca house.


Part 7

Friday morning passed agonizingly slowly. Maria was anxious to show Isabel her dad's picture, pulled from an old scrapbook her mother didn't even know she'd found. She already knew it had been him in the dream--that's the only way it made sense. But until Isabel confirmed it, she had nothing to take to her mom. She needed that lead-in to finally force her mother to talk about it. There had been too many secrets for too long.

Maria wasn't the only one waiting anxiously for lunch time. Michael was going to press for a shot at those orbs tonight. Max was out of excuses for putting it off, and even if he insisted Liz come along--and he would--Michael knew she'd be free, too. Maria and Liz never worked on Friday or Saturday nights; the Parkers wanted them to have time to "just be teens" with their friends. This was not one of the activities they'd had in mind, he was sure, but what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them.

Max was watching the clock, too. He hadn't slept well at all without Liz next to him, and when he had picked her up for school, she had come to him like a shot, throwing her arms around him and kissing him with a single-mindedness that went right to his heart. Obviously, she had also been a victim of insomnia. Max was growing increasingly edgy about sustaining this pretense that they were a normal teenage couple. There was nothing normal about them or their relationship, and he was starting to fantasize about ways out of this dilemma. Right now, though, he just wanted to see Liz.

At long last, the lunch bell rang and the friends emerged from their different corners of the school, headed for their usual table outside. Maria stopped at her locker to grab her lunch, slammed it shut, and turned down the hall. As soon as she had rounded the corner, she realized she had left her dad's picture hidden at the bottom of her locker.

"Idiot!" she muttered to herself, wheeling around to return to her locker. She came around the corner full speed, and then stopped dead in her tracks. Her stomach clenched as she slammed herself up against the wall. A man was standing in front of her locker, working to open it! Who the hell was that?

Maria heard voices approaching from the far end of the hall and looked down to see the vice-principal, Mr. Vidoni, and two teachers walking in the direction of the mysterious man. He looked up sharply and immediately abandoned his effort to get her locker open. Turning toward them, he walked casually in their direction, nodding a brief greeting as they passed him. Then he hurried down the hall.

Maria was furious. They knew this man. And he'd been trying to search her locker! She pushed off from the wall and emerged into the light of the hallway, stepping into the path of the vice-principal.

"Who was that? Drug searches, right? But why my locker? I haven't done anything to deserve having my locker searched. And while we're at it, he seemed pretty incompetent to me. Don't you provide locker combinations? He could have damaged my lock!"

Mr. Vidoni blinked at her. "Ms. Deluca, right?" Maria nodded, undisguised indignation on her face.

"Ms. Deluca. First, I do not appreciate your tone. Second, I have no idea what you're talking about. There are no drug searches underway in this school. Please explain what you're babbling about."

Well, that had taken the wind out of her sails. What was she talking about? Maybe this wasn't a school thing, maybe it was an alien thing and she shouldn't be talking at all. What should she say now? But he had known the man.

"Ms. DeLuca, I'm waiting for an explanation."

"Who was that man you just passed in the hallway?"

Mr. Vidoni thought for a moment, retracing his short walk down the hall. "Oh, Mr. Austin, a computer consultant who is working with us this week on our scheduling software. Why?"

"Why was he trying to get into my locker?"

"I assure you, Ms. DeLuca, Mr. Austin has no interest in any student's locker. I don't know what you saw, but you're mistaken. And a word of advice, be careful how you throw accusations around."

Mr. Vidoni gave her a warning look and continued down the hallway. Maria could feel herself starting to shake. She walked to her locker and opened it; it looked untouched. She reached immediately for her father's photo and found it right where she had left it. Well, at least the guy hadn't succeeded. Her head was spinning with the implications of what she had seen, and in her exhausted state, she felt completely unable to deal with this. She took off to find her friends. As Michael saw her marching purposefully toward them, his radar went off--something was wrong.

Maria threw herself down on the bench and began to talk at a blinding speed. "Okay, you guys, tell me this. Why is there some random computer consultant trying to break into my locker? And when he sees Mr. Vidoni coming down the hall, why does he drop what he's doing and walk away all innocently? And why do I feel like somebody is following me all the time? And why do I keep having this awful nightmare? Why can't I just be left alone?" Having rattled off her list of complaints, Maria drew a deep breath and a shudder shook her body. Michael rubbed her back; he had noticed how that had a soothing effect on her last night. She was falling apart, and they hadn't been able to do anything to help her.

"Back up," Liz asked, alarmed at both Maria's words and her state of mind. "When did this happen with the locker? And what do you mean you think someone's been following you?"

Maria pushed away from Michael. Her anger had returned. "Just now, I grabbed my lunch from my locker, but forgot my dad's picture. When I went back for it, some strange guy was trying to open my locker! I watched him for a minute, but when Mr. Vidoni came down the hall, he quit and just walked down the hall, nodding to Mr. Vidoni. I thought they were doing some damned drug search or something, and I couldn't figure out why they would single out my locker, so I asked Mr. Vidoni. And not too nicely, either, "she confessed. "He told me there were no drug searches going on and that the guy I saw was a computer consultant. He told me I was wrong about what I saw."

She looked around at the group of worried faces. "As for being followed, I don't really know for sure. Don't you sometimes get that tingly, creeped-out feeling when someone is watching you? I've just had that a lot lately. It's probably nothing. My nerves are shot."

She leaned back into Michael again, totally exhausted.

Max pulled Liz a little closer. "We know better than to ignore anyone's suspicions. I want everyone to be extra cautious, very aware of their surroundings, especially who is around. Alex, you're our techie, can you find out about this guy and what he's doing at West Roswell?"

Alex nodded. He worked in the office during his study hall. "I think I've seen the guy you're talking about, Maria. Kind of a solid body? Short, dark hair? Maybe 5' 11"?"

Maria nodded. "Yeah, that sounds like him. He looks like he should be wearing a uniform. Real military type."

"Yeah, I've seen him around the last few days. I'll see what I can find out."

"Maybe my dad could check him out, too," Kyle offered. Tess smiled at him; he had become so supportive of all of them, of her. She caught his eye and smiled her thanks. He reached for her hand.

"If this guy is a computer consultant, and he's up to no good, he'll know if his own history is being checked. You can watch for that sort of thing, you know," Alex reminded them.

Max nodded in agreement. "Thanks, Kyle," Max said. "If things get tight, we might take you up on that. Meanwhile, this confirms what I was thinking about activating the orbs."

Michael looked up sharply. Was Max going to back out of this again?

Max noted his nervous expression, but kept talking. "Isabel, did you reach Josh?"

"Yeah, he can be here tomorrow, but not tonight."

"That's fine. Okay, tonight we'll get together at my house and come up with our list of questions. Tomorrow night, we'll head out to the pod chamber in three cars, and we won't leave all at the same time. If anyone thinks they're being followed, please, turn around and come back. We can't lead anyone out there. Agreed?"

Everyone nodded. Michael looked relieved.

"But Max," Isabel wondered, "didn't you say there was a really bright light when you talked with our family? Won't that be seen for miles?"

"It looked like that to Liz and me, Isabel, but Paul said he couldn't see anything until Grandma Claudia helped him. I don't think others can see it."

"Okay," she said doubtfully. Alex slid his arm around her. They all sat quietly, lost in thought.

It never really ends, does it? Max thought. They could never really relax. He felt a small hand on his thigh and turned to look into Liz's concerned eyes. He placed his own hand over hers and leaned in to kiss her forehead.

"Oh!" Maria sat up again suddenly and grabbed her math book, flipping through the pages. She pulled out an old photo and held it toward Isabel. Isabel spent a moment looking at the face staring back at her. This one was smiling and confident, unlike the one from Maria's dream. But there was no doubt. It had been Maria's father she had seen in the dream.

She looked up at Maria's anxious eyes. "It's him, Maria. It was your father they were taking away in your dream."

Maria took the picture back from Isabel and replaced it in the math book. Her friends' faces blurred as her eyes filled with tears again. She looked at Liz as a tear trickled down her face. "Tomorrow, Liz."

Liz gave her a reassuring smile. "I'll be there, Maria." She sure hoped Amy DeLuca had some answers.

Off to the side of the quad, Mr. Vidoni stood observing the group. Always the same kids, always so serious, always keeping to themselves. Maria DeLuca had been extremely touchy on the subject of her locker being searched. And that Michael Guerin had been a loose canon last year; now he was an emancipated minor--no supervision. The new girl had been left on her own when her father took off for a job elsewhere, and she was living with the sheriff and his son. Given the budding romance between her and Kyle, that seemed to be a very unhealthy situation. Someone had even reported a scuffle between Kyle and a close friend yesterday. Apparently Kyle was cutting ties with former friends--always a bad sign. Max and Isabel Evans had never been in any trouble . . . well, except for that one occasion when Max was caught in the Eraser Room with Liz Parker, but that was a minor incident. And Alex Whitman? He was an excellent student, an intelligent and respectful boy. How did he get mixed up in this . . . whatever it was?

Still, he'd been a vice-principal for a long time. Whenever a group got this close, to the exclusion of everyone else, there was usually trouble brewing. Maybe it was drugs. Maybe some kind of gang or cult. And he wondered if the Evanses and the Parkers had picked up on the signs from Max and Liz. He'd been watching them. The school rarely became involved when they suspected a sexual relationship; that was out of their purview and besides, there was so much of that around now, they'd never be able to keep up. But it was another piece of the puzzle he'd been trying to work out about this group. He didn't like it--he didn't like it at all.

**********
"Mom, Dad, we've asked everyone over tonight for a meeting. We thought we'd better tell you what's going on."

Philip Evans paused, his salad fork halfway to his mouth. "Go ahead, Max. What is it?"

"We've told you how Liz and I met my family members and friends from Voya in Chaco Canyon. Well, Isabel and Michael want to meet them, too. And, there are some things we need to know, you know, questions we want to ask. So, we're meeting tonight to make a list of questions. Then, tomorrow night, we're going to go out to the pod chamber and see if we can contact them with the orbs. We don't really know how it works, so we're just going to go at it by trial and error."

Philip and Diane were quiet.

"If you don't know how this works," Philip frowned, "then you don't know if this could be dangerous, right?"

"The orbs won't hurt us, Dad. They're basically communicators. The only thing we don't know is how they work. We've only used them once before and they triggered that hologram, but our Voyan mother said we could use them to contact them, now that they have the Criston." Max felt guilty about withholding the fact that using the orbs could attract their enemies, but he saw no point in worrying them when there was nothing they could do about it. He was still convinced that the more they knew, the worse danger they were in, but they had insisted on knowing everything, so he had been honest, to a point. Maybe the answers they sought would help him protect them.

"And apparently, the whole thing is invisible to those not taking part in it. Someone passing by would see us, but not what we're seeing, so there shouldn't be a problem there."

"Then why are you going all the way out to the pod chamber?" Philip asked.

Max thought quickly. He'd had enough of secrets, but his parents had had enough of shocking revelations. Best to keep the explanations simple.

"We're thinking the signal might be stronger out there, near our point of origin. Besides, in town there's all kinds of electronics that could generate interference. We just thought a remote area might increase our odds of reaching them."

Diane smiled at Isabel. "Isabel, that's wonderful. I know you're anxious to meet your real mother."

Isabel looked stricken. "Mom, you are my real mother. I love you. It's just . . . ."

"Isabel," Diane said soothingly. "I know how you feel. And I love you, too. You are right to do this, though. It's part of who you are. Please don't feel guilty about it." She hesitated and then grinned impishly, "But I would like all the details if you succeed. Okay?"

Isabel burst from her chair and threw her arms around her mother. "You're the best, Mom." Max and Philip exchanged smiles over their heads.

"So, when will everyone be here?" Philip asked. "Maybe I'll whip up some of my famous homemade caramel corn."

Max shook his head in wonder. "That'd be great, Dad." Man, this was so much easier with their parents behind them.

**********

By the time everyone had offered their suggestions for questions, Liz had recorded three pages of them. They all agreed that if they even succeeded in contacting anyone, they would have to deal with the biggest questions first: Who are Michael's and Tess's families? How exactly do the orbs work and is there any way to prevent them from notifying enemies about their location? What is the status of the conflict now, and what are the Earthbound aliens supposed to do to prepare? The other questions could wait.

"Are we all going to go?" asked Tess. "I mean, I sort of asked Kyle to come with me, if that's okay."

Isabel pursed her lips. "Yeah, I asked Alex to come, too."

Maria looked up at Michael, hurt overshadowing the tiredness in her eyes. She looked away quickly. She guessed he still was trying to do it all on his own, and she was too tired to fight him.

"Maria," Michael said softly. "I was going to ask you to come, but after this past week, I just didn't think you were up to it."

"Think again, Space boy. We're a team, remember?" Michael suppressed a smile.

"So you keep telling me," he teased.

She swatted his arm. "You're going, right, Liz?"

"I wouldn't miss it," she said firmly, winning a smile from Max.

"Okay, it's settled then," Max announced, falling easily into his role as leader. "We'll head out at dusk tomorrow. Michael, you and I should go in separate cars, just in case . . . well, you know, we should travel separately, that's all." Max looked around the group. Why did he keep trying to beat around the bush? Everyone knew the score.

"Just like they don't let the President and the Vice President travel together, right?" Alex had hit the nail on the head, as usual.

"Right," confirmed Max. "So, you and Isabel ride with Liz and me. Kyle, you and Tess are together. And Maria, can you guys take the Jetta?"

Maria nodded. "But I think I'll let Mario Andretti over here drive. I'd rather be a passenger this time."

"Okay, Josh can ride with you, then."

The significance of what they were planning seemed to dampen any festive spirit they may have otherwise enjoyed while spending a Friday evening with friends. Maria and Michael left quickly, followed soon after by Kyle and Tess. Max and Liz opted for a walk back to the Crashdown, and Isabel and Alex enjoyed some snuggle time in front of the TV. Everyone seemed to need a little time alone before facing another unknown.

**********

At Maria's request, Michael came home with her for a while. She wasn't up to talking to her mother tonight, and she was sure Michael's presence would stifle any meaningful conversation Amy might have instigated. Besides, she had become dependent on Michael's support this week. He had shown her his love in important ways during her ordeal with the nightmares. He might not be much on talkin' the talk, but his heart was right where she could see it.

They sat on the front step, looking up at the stars and the crescent moon, content just to enjoy each other's company in silence. As Maria grew restless, though, Michael took her hand. "What's wrong," he asked.

"I'm getting that prickly feeling again, like I'm being watched."

"Let's get up slowly and go inside," Michael said firmly. "And don't turn any lights on."

They rose together and entered the house. The kitchen was dark and Maria suspected her mother was already in bed.

"Okay, you take that window and I'll take this one. Keep about 2' away from the window and just watch for a minute. Look in the shadows for any kind of movement."

They stood rigid, watching intently for several minutes.

"Shit," Michael muttered under his breath.

"What, Michael?" Maria asked nervously, moving quickly to his side.

"Look over there, next to that tree just beyond the street lamp."

Maria peered into the darkness. At first, she saw nothing, but then she detected a movement, and as her eyes adjusted, she could make out a figure leaning against the tree.

"Michael!" Maria grabbed his arm and clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming. After breathing deeply, she finally whispered, "What is happening? What is he doing here?"

At that moment, the figure stepped briefly into the light, taking one more look at the house. Then he pulled his coat around him and walked down the street.


[ edited 2 time(s), last at 20-Apr-2002 1:58:10 PM ]
posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:08:06 AM
Part 8

Max and Liz strolled hand in hand back toward the Crashdown. Liz looked up at the star-riddled sky and sighed deeply.

"What are you thinking about, Liz?"

She turned somber eyes toward Max, and he frowned at her seriousness. "Max, when we talked to your Voyan family, your mother asked if you wanted to stay on Earth. You sort of left the decision up to me, and I said I wanted to live here." They stopped walking and she turned to face him. Lacing her fingers through his, she searched his eyes for a truth she was almost afraid to find.

"I was speaking for me, Max, but I'm afraid I wasn't speaking for you. You have to be honest with me. Do you want to return to Voya? Do you want to see your home?"

Max looked into her earnest face, and his heart swelled with love. He released her hands and drew her to him, wrapping his arms tightly around her.

"Liz, don't you understand yet? You are my home. It doesn't matter where I am. All that matters is that wherever we are, we're together. I don't care where that is. Earth, Voya, Oz--it doesn't matter."

He turned Liz into his side and led her toward a half-wall at the edge of the park. He sat on it, and pulled her into his lap. She looked up at him uncertainly.

"Liz, I don't know if you can ever understand what my life was like before you. I know we've talked about it some, but I need you to truly grasp what loving you means to me."
He shifted her in his lap so that she would watch his face as he spoke.

"When we connected that first time after I healed you, you saw something of my life before you. I was always hiding, blending into the landscape, resigned to loneliness. I cared for you from a distance, but I couldn't let myself get too close, and it hurt. Can you even imagine the emptiness and fear, wondering if my parents would reject me if they knew, having nightmares about your finding out the truth and looking at me with disgust and loathing?"

Liz's eyes had filled with tears, and she reached up to stroke his cheek, trying to soothe his anguished face as he remembered. He had suffered so much, and almost entirely alone. Only Isabel and Michael could fathom the depth of his isolation and despair.

"Then one day, you knew. And you didn't turn away. And suddenly each day was something to look forward to. Just seeing your smile, watching your eyes light up when I came into a room, feeling your hand in mine when we walked down a hall--these simple things breathed life into me for the first time."

He bent to kiss her forehead, taking a moment to will his tightened muscles to relax and the tension to ebb. Liz's fingers threaded through his hair, and she buried her face in his neck, laying a path of small, comforting kisses from his throat to his ear. He pulled her more tightly to him.

"Liz, do you remember the time I got flashes of your fantasy in the girls' locker room?"

Liz turned her head away from his neck and hid her face against his chest.

"A gentleman wouldn't bring that up," she mumbled into his shirt. Max chuckled softly.

"Then I'm no gentleman, because that's a moment I'll never forget. That flash let me feel what you were feeling, and it was a revelation; it changed everything. The fact that you would look at me and feel love, touch me and feel desire, I was . . . amazed. It was a miracle. And at that moment, I let myself hope that our life together didn't have to be just a fantasy."

Max pulled back from Liz and stared at her, the awe at her feelings for him flooding back into his memory and his heart. "Liz Parker Evans--and that iswhat you are to me--you are the only home I care about, the only haven I need in this world. Don't ever ask me again if I want to go home. I'm there. Right now."

A tear slid down Liz's cheek, and he tenderly brushed it away, leaning in to kiss the trail it had followed. His lips brushed slowly over hers, and she resisted the urge to respond for just a moment, relishing the sensuous almost-contact. Her resistance was short-lived, though, for the instant she felt his tongue touch her lip, she opened to him completely. Their connection was intense, and Liz knew without a doubt that every word Max had spoken came right from his soul. She was the very center of his being, and if she ever doubted it again, she had only to think of this moment.

"Max," Liz whispered hoarsely, her breaths irregular, "I love you so much." His answering gaze spoke louder than words.

Another silent moment passed before Max sat up straight and smiled a sad smile. "I'd better get you home so you can go to bed. Big day tomorrow."

Liz gave him a sidelong look. "I won't be alone tonight, will I?"

"Not even if your parents had that fire escape removed," he grinned. He leaned forward to share one more gentle kiss. What a perfect night, thought Liz.

**********

Things did not feel at all perfect at the DeLuca home.

"Maria, I'm staying here tonight."

Maria looked at Michael with a mixture of gratitude and disbelief. Her voice became a very loud stage whisper. "Michael, my mother is here. You can't stay the night!"

"I'll stay out here on the couch, but I'm not leaving you alone in this house. Between the nightmares and that creep in the shadows outside, you need protection. There's no way you're getting rid of me, so just deal with it."

You had to hand it to Space Boy. He could be quite the hero when he put his mind to it. "Well, I'm not letting you stay out here alone. Besides, I'm afraid to go to sleep. We'll just watch TV."

She went to the kitchen and took two sodas from the refrigerator. Tentatively, she reached over and checked the lock on the back door and the windows. It's only paranoia if there's nobody after you, she reminded herself. She returned to the living room and found Michael surfing channels; he was as restless with that remote control as he was with everything else in his life, but it had not escaped her attention that he had been there for her very consistently lately, and that was a big step for him. She snuggled in next to him and turned to give him his soda, surprising him with a wet kiss as he turned to accept it.

"What was that for?" he asked, obviously pleased underneath his somewhat indignant expression.

"For being the sweetest alien I know," she told him.

"I thought that was Max," he quipped, his voice tinged with resentment.

She caught his eyes meaningfully. "Not to me," she said simply. This time, it was Michael who initiated the kiss--a deeply satisfying kiss, too, Maria noted as she sank into his arms.

Through the night, Maria slept fitfully against Michael as the television selections deteriorated. At one point, she had awakened to hear the theme song for Green Acres intruding noisily on her dreams. That explained the odd dream sequence where a space ship had landed at West Roswell High and Michael, dressed in overalls and a straw hat, had emerged from the ship carrying a squealing piglet. No wonder she was afraid to sleep!

Michael was not sleeping well either. His senses were on alert for any noises around the house, and Maria kept stirring and whimpering as she dozed. Each time, he moved just enough to break her dream cycle. He didn't want her to get to the point in the dream where she screamed in terror. It was too hard on her, and if her mother heard, well, he couldn't begin to count all the ways that would complicate his life.

Michael and Maria were both relieved when the sun rose the next morning.

"I'd better go before your mother wakes up," Michael told Maria as she resisted his attempts to get up. As always, she had finally fallen into a decent sleep just at dawn.

"Nooooo," she whined. "Staaayyyy."

"Maria! I can't. You do not need your mother out here screaming at us for being here all night. I'm going home."

Maria sat up and blinked at him. He was right, of course.

"Thank you, Michael. Really. This was above and beyond the call."

He shrugged, kissed her on the head, and headed out the door. "I'll let you know when to pick me up tonight."

Maria sat bolt upright. Tonight! They were going to try to contact Michael's family tonight!

Wide awake now, Maria was suddenly ravenous. Soon she was frying bacon, scrambling eggs, making coffee, and baking biscuits. The smells enticed Amy from her dreams, and she padded sleepily out to the kitchen.

"Hi, honey. You're up early. What's with all the cooking?"

The sight of her mother brought everything Maria had been dealing with slamming into her consciousness--the idea of confronting her mother, the fear of the apparent stalker, not to mention a severe lack of sleep. She looked at the countertop full of food, and her stomach began to churn. "Excuse me!" she blurted as she raced past Amy toward the bathroom. Amy could hear her retching and hurried to check on her.

"Maria! You're sick! Honey, do you have a fever?"

Maria washed her face off with cool water and realized she felt much better. "I'm fine now, Mom. I don't know what came over me. I'm not sick."

Amy DeLuca looked at her daughter's pale face and felt her head. "No, no fever."

Maria pushed her hand away. "Mom! I'm fine. I already feel better."

Amy froze. Her face drained of color, and she sat down hard on the toilet seat, staring at Maria in horror.

"Mom, now you look sick."

"Maria DeLuca, just tell me now. Don't lie and don't avoid the question." She braced herself. "Are you pregnant?"

Maria's mouth dropped open and her wide eyes stared at her mother in shock. "What? No! No! Why would you even ask me that?"

"Maria, don't kid a kidder. You and Michael have been spending so much time together, coming in so late. You get up early, fix a huge breakfast, and then throw up before you eat a bite. If you're not sick, then you explain it." She looked at Maria expectantly.

Maria could feel her anger getting the best of her. "Mother, I am not pregnant. In fact, if you must know, I'm still a virgin, as unwilling as you seem to be to believe that. But I can explain the feeling sick part, and you aren't going to like it much. Go get some breakfast. I have to make a phone call." She stormed out of the bathroom, leaving Amy speechless behind her.

**********

Liz and Max were sleeping soundly. They had made love twice during the night, and even then it was their bodies that had declared time out while their hearts and minds were still willing. After their emotional walk home, they had had so much to express to each other, and they were past doing it with words. In spite of Liz's parents being down the hall, there was no reining in their urgent need for one another, so they had abandoned good sense and given themselves up to each other until they finally accepted their other need--blissful sleep in each other's arms.

When the phone rang, it felt like a knife stabbing Liz's body. She had been totally relaxed and completely comfortable nestled against Max’s warm and naked body, his arms flung around her protectively. Even in sleep, she was his first priority. She tried to make the horrible shrillness go away by sheer force of will, but by the third ring, she was reaching for the phone.

A knock at the door. "Lizzie? Are you going to get that?" Her father was right outside, and Max and Liz's eyes could not have gotten bigger if they'd been propped open with toothpicks. Max pulled the covers over his head in a completely pointless effort to make himself invisible. Liz reached for the phone.

"Hello?"

"Liz, it's Maria. I know it's early, and I apologize, but my mom is up, she's asking me if I'm pregnant, and I need you over here now!"

"Pregnant?"

Max sat straight up in bed, looking at Liz in alarm. They heard the doorknob jiggle and both sets of eyes darted to the door.

"Dad! It's okay. Everything's fine, and I'm not dressed. Please, I'll be out in a few minutes."

"Liz! Who is that? What's wrong?"

"Nothing, Dad. It's Maria, and she's pulling a prank on me. I'm gonna kill her! Really, it's fine. I'll be out soon."

"Okay," he agreed reluctantly.

Liz ducked under the covers to muffle her voice. Max joined her immediately. "Maria! Have you lost your mind? It's 7 a.m. and what are you talking about?"

"Liz, it's time to talk to my mom. I'm sorry for waking you, but we're both up and it's gonna happen now and I need you here."

"Why does she think you're pregnant?"

"Because I threw up this morning. It's just nerves about talking to her, but she doesn't know that. Please, Liz. Come now."

"I'm on my way."

Liz hung up the phone and looked into Max's face. She couldn't stop the giggle that erupted when she saw his flustered and confused state. Her father had almost walked in, and he had heard her say "pregnant." What must he be thinking?

"I'm very glad you see the humor in this because at the moment, it escapes me," muttered Max. His reaction only made her laugh harder. He relaxed somewhat, seeing that Liz was obviously not struggling to cope with what had sounded like unsettling news.

"Gee, Max. If my father had come in, you would have had to marry me," she teased him. Max smirked at her.

"In that case, maybe I'll go pay him a little visit." Max stood up and walked to her bedroom door. Liz took a moment to appreciate him in all his naked glory. Seeing her giving him the once-over like that caused him to produce an instant erection, and Liz smiled seductively.

"Do you really think you should go see my father like that?"

"Maybe in a few minutes," he grinned, stepping back toward the bed.

"Max, as much as I'd love to oblige--and believe me, I'd like nothing better--Maria really needs me. It seems things with her mother have come to a head, and she wants me over there right away."

A deflated Max sat on the edge of the bed. Then he remembered "the P word." "Who's pregnant?" He was almost afraid to hear the answer to this one. Had Michael been holding out on him?

"Nobody, Max. But Maria got so keyed up about talking to her mother, she threw up, so her mother naturally assumed the worst. I don't think Maria will ever live down her mother's teen years. I gotta go."

"Me, too. Let me know how it goes. I've got some errands to do today anyway. I'll come get you tonight around 6:30."

Liz watched him dress, a favorite pasttime, and kissed him goodbye. She sighed happily as she watched him climb down her ladder. Then Maria's insistent voice ran through her head, and she hurried to get dressed herself.

**********

"Liz! What are you doing here at this hour?" Amy asked, confusion lacing her thinly disguised irritation.

"Maria asked me to come," Liz told her.

"Why?" She looked back over her shoulder. "She's not feeling well this morning."

"I know, Mrs. DeLuca. But she did ask me to come."

"Mom, I called Liz," Maria assured her, walking into the room. "I needed her moral support. The reason I don't feel well is because I'm tired and upset and afraid. But I'm not pregnant."

"Maria, baby, what's wrong? What's got you in such a state?"

"I'm tired because I can't sleep; I keep having these nightmares that won't let me rest. I'm upset because I think you've been lying to me my whole life. And I'm afraid, because I think my nightmare is really a horrible memory. I need answers, Mom. And I need them now."

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:10:12 AM
Part 9

Amy looked at Liz in confusion. "Liz? Do you have any idea what this is about?"

Maria blew. "Mom!! Talk to me. I'm the one who wants to talk! I'm your daughter! Why are you asking Liz what this is about?"

Amy was completely lost and getting more nervous by the minute.

"Why don't we all go sit in the living room," Liz suggested. "Maria's just tired, Mrs. DeLuca, and . . . ."

"Liz," Maria hissed. "I need you here for moral support, not to have the conversation for me, okay?"

Liz nodded, looking a little trapped between Maria's touchy mood and Amy's confused and frustrated state.

Maria perched stiffly on the edge of the couch. Amy sat facing her in one of the two chairs while Liz took the other. Maria took in a deep breath and blew it out slowly, sniffed her cedar oil, and brought her gaze to her mother.

"Okay." She took another brief, calming breath. "Mom, I'm sorry I yelled. Here's what I'm upset about. For the last two weeks, I've been having horrible dreams where I'm a little girl in my room at night. I hear yelling and I get real scared. I open the door . . . ." She hesitated, looking at Liz with an "I've-painted-myself-into-a-corner" look on her face. Her mother knew nothing of the aliens, so she couldn't very well describe Isabel's dreamwalking. Liz gave her an encouraging look, and she made a quick decision.

". . . and when I look down the hall, I see two men taking daddy away. I don't know what this means, but it makes me think he didn't just walk out. He was taken by somebody, and I want to know who it was."

Amy froze in her seat, staring at Maria. Suddenly, she burst into tears, great gulping sobs that wracked her body and brought Maria to her knees next to the chair.

"Mom! I'm sorry. What is it?" She put her arms around her mother and rocked her gently as the tears flowed. Over her mother's shoulder, her guilty eyes caught Liz's. She had expected her mother to be angry or defensive, not hysterical.

Amy's sobs finally began to subside, and she turned red, puffy eyes to her daughter.

"Nobody took your father, Maria. I drove him away, and I've never forgiven myself for depriving you of a father. I hope someday you can forgive me." She began to weep again, and Maria stared at her, trying to make the pieces fit.

"What do you mean you 'drove him away'?" she asked. "You always said he just left us."

Amy stood and began to pace, just as Maria had done the night before when she was trying to process too much information.

"I thought your dad and I were so happy," she sniffed, reaching for a tissue. "When I found out I was pregnant with you, he said he'd marry me, and I was ecstatic. He was a student over at New Mexico Military Institute in town here. He was going to get an associate’s degree, and then transfer to the Air Force Academy to finish a bachelor’s and get a commission. It was our ticket out of Roswell, and it gave us a goal to work for. I was with you during the day while he was in school, and he stayed with you at night while I was waitressing in town. Sometimes, he'd come by the restaurant at my break with a little picnic for us all, and sometimes I'd reach into my uniform pocket and find a little note from him. It was wonderful."

A faraway look came into Amy's eyes, and a faint smile graced her lips as she remembered happier times. She stood frozen in memories for a moment, a light animating her eyes. Then she returned to her story with a shudder, pacing once again.

"But I was so tired all the time. I didn't get home from work until almost midnight, and by six, you were up and ready for a feeding. I know I got pretty grumpy sometimes, and would yell about how hard I was working. But he was working hard, too. He went to class all day and tried to do homework and take care of you at night. Why didn't I see that?"

She slumped back on the couch and held her head in her hands. "Soon I noticed that he got sitters more often then usual. He always said it was because he had 'homework' to take care of at school. As time went on, he got jumpy and nervous, sometimes coming home after I did. I even answered the phone a couple of times only to have the caller hang up when they heard my voice. I finally realized . . . he had found someone else.

"We had a huge fight that morning. I confronted him with my suspicions. I called him names and threatened to leave him. He denied it, of course. He said he loved me and that he'd explain when he could, but I didn't believe him." Amy started to sob again. "When he got home that day, we didn't even speak. I just left for work without a word."

She raised her eyes again to Maria's. "When I came home, he was gone. He'd left you all alone in this house, and I never saw him again. I'm sorry, Maria! I just drove him away. I never found out who it was he was seeing; even his friends swore they didn't know." She looked at Maria, pleading for answers she knew Maria didn't have. "What if I was wrong?"

Liz and Maria were gaping at her. Neither of them had ever heard a word about this before. All Maria knew was that her dad had left them. That had been enough to fuel her cynicism and build her own personal protective walls all these years. This version of what happened stunned her.

Maria sat down next to her mother and put her arms around her shaking shoulders.

"Mom, what if you're wrong about what happened? What if my dream is a memory? What if someone took Dad out of here against his will?"

Amy lifted her head and stared at Maria. The only sound was her occasional gulp for air, as if her whole being was so engrossed in this possibility, she had forgotten to breathe.

The wheels were turning in Liz's mind. New Mexico Military Institute. Was it possible there was a military connection here? Her eyes locked with Maria's. Was it possible there was an alien/military connection here? No, her imagination was getting the best of her. It was way too early to reach any such conclusion.

Something drew Liz's attention back to Maria's face. There was something else, something Maria hadn't told them yet. A feeling of dread washed over Liz. She stood and waited for the other shoe to drop.

**********

It was 4:30. Max couldn't believe how time had gotten away from him. He had been more than a little intent on his errands, and now he was going to have to rush. He pulled up in front of Michael's to make sure Josh had arrived. Josh opened the door and greeted Max warmly.

"Hey, Max. How's everything been going?"

"Good, Josh. I'm glad you could make it. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to organize this. I'm sure you've been anxious."

"Yes and no," Josh admitted. "I thought this is what I wanted most. Now that it's actually happening, I'm not so sure."

Max looked at Josh with surprise. "You, too? Because I've been feeling that way myself. Things are fine the way they are, and I'm not sure I want to change anything."

"We both know it's inevitable, Max. If you don't go looking for what's out there, it'll come looking for you. Whatever is going to happen, it should be on your terms."

Max shrugged. "I know." He couldn't afford to hide from what he was. That would only put Liz and his friends in danger, and he couldn't accept that.

"How's Isabel?" Josh grinned with some embarrassment at Max's knowing look.

"She's fine, Josh. But she's still with Alex . . . in case you're interested."

Josh tried to hide his disappointment. "No harm in asking."

"Where's Michael?"

"He was gone when I got here. He left a note that he'd gone to see Sheriff Valenti."

"Valenti? Why?"

"I don't know."

Max could feel his carefree mood draining away and the familiar weight settle on his shoulders.

"Come on."

When they arrived at Sheriff Valenti's house, Michael rushed out the front door to meet them. Ignoring Josh, he turned on Max.

"Where the hell have you been, Maxwell? I've looked everywhere for you!"

"I had some errands, Michael. What's wrong?"

"Someone is stalking Maria."

Max was still absorbing this when the sheriff, Kyle, and Tess emerged from the house.

"What are you talking about? Did you see someone?" Max hoped Michael was exaggerating, as usual.

"Last night, Maria got that creepy feeling again while we were sitting on her front steps. We went inside and watched, and sure enough, some guy was lurking in the shadows. Finally, he stepped into the light for a second, looked at the house, and left."

"Did you recognize him?" Max asked, wondering how anyone watching the DeLucas could be connected with them.

"No, it was too dark and he was too far away."

"Michael and I have been talking, Max," the sheriff interjected. "There's no way to tell at this point if this has anything to do with aliens or if he has some other agenda, but we can't take chances either way. I think it's best if I handle this, just in case."

"We," Michael stated. "We will handle this."

Valenti gave him a half-smile. He knew how much Michael cared for Maria, and he also knew how hard he'd been working to fine-tune his powers. Michael was a good kid, despite the rough edges, and the sheriff was pleased to be working with him instead of against him these days.

"Kyle and Tess have filled me in on your, um, activity for this evening. Amy and I were going to . . . well, we were planning . . . we thought we'd . . . ."

"Good grief, Dad! You have a date. Just say it," interrupted Kyle, shaking his head. "It's not like it's a secret you're seeing each other."

Jim Valenti actually started to blush as he stumbled over his words. "Yes, well, be that as it may . . . . The point is, I'll keep an eye on her and the house tonight. After you all get home, I'll position myself out back where I can't be seen. If he turns up again, I'll know about it."

"Thanks, Sheriff," Max said. "We appreciate the help. I hope you understand, we have to try the orbs tonight. Josh has come all this way . . . ."

"I know, Max. I'm surprised you've waited this long."

Max looked over at Kyle and Tess. "We need to go out to the pod chamber at intervals tonight. I'll take the first car out around 6:30 with Liz, Isabel, and Alex." He saw Josh purse his lips, head down.

"You and Tess go next, Kyle, around 6:45. Michael will follow with Maria and Josh at 7:00. One orb will come with me and one with Michael. Any signs of being followed and you turn around and come back to town. Understood?"

Everyone agreed, and Max checked his watch again. 5:15. He was running out of time, and he wanted everything perfect tonight. He found himself wishing that the attempt to contact Voya was over so he could get to the surprise he had planned for Liz.

He could feel his good mood returning as thoughts of Liz drifted through his mind. All the way home she hovered there—the smiles, the quick laugh, the look of concentration when she was studying, the way her body felt pressed to his.

A horn honked. Max had almost gone through a stop sign. Focus, Max, he told himself. You’ve got to get there in one piece first. Arriving home, he took the stairs two at a time, stripped quickly and hopped in the shower. As he stood there, though, she pushed through his thoughts again and he welcomed her. He could almost feel her hands on him, and it drove him wild. He didn't want to do anything tonight but spend time with her, talking, making love, making plans. It was hard to concentrate on anything else.

"Liz, I love you," he whispered into the heated mist of the shower.

He jumped when he heard, "I love you, Max," He turned, wondering how Liz had gotten into his bathroom unnoticed, but she wasn't there. The phrase hung in the air and made his heart race. My imagination must be in overdrive, he thought.

A half hour later, the crowded Jeep headed out of town. Fifteen minutes after that, Tess steered her Explorer westward, followed promptly at 7:00 by the Jetta. Each passenger kept a watchful eye, but no one seemed to be following them. They began to relax.

They waited together until everyone had arrived at the closest point accessible by car, and then began their hike toward the pod chamber. Soon after they had circled behind a large rock formation, a car doused its lights and pulled off some distance down the road. The driver got out, closing his door quietly, and trotted toward the parked cars. When he reached them, he knelt, feeling up under the Jetta's bumper with his hands. He grunted with satisfaction when the small blinking device came off in his hand. He turned it off, placed it in his pocket, and walked into the desert.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:11:41 AM
Part 10

The group of nine milled around uneasily, unsure what was about to happen. On the one hand, the aliens might meet previously unknown family and friends. On the other hand, they might fail to contact anyone. No matter what happened, the scene would be emotional, and, with the exception of Liz, the humans began to wonder if they belonged here at all.

As if sensing their discomfort, the alien members of the group took a moment to reassure their human partners. Josh stood awkwardly to one side as he watched them pair off. Tess smiled at Kyle, pulling him into a hug that hovered between platonic and loving. He held her tightly until impulse prompted him to kiss her, first on the cheek and then on the lips. She met him eagerly, smiling at his uncertainty. Alex and Isabel, fingers entwined and held close against their chests, looked into each other's eyes, murmuring soft words of love and exchanging feathery kisses. Michael held Maria close, realizing how much he had come to think of her as family. Suddenly, nervousness overcame him. How might things change once he met the Voyans? What if he had left a wife behind, or a girlfriend? He lifted Maria's chin and searched her eyes, seeing there exactly what he hoped to find--trust, understanding, and love. He needed to make her understand, before his unknown past came crashing down on them. He needed her to know.

"I love you, Maria. No matter what happens here, that won't change, okay?"

"I know, Michael. I'll be right here with you, I promise. Now go get 'em, Space Boy."

He kissed her with a tenderness she had rarely felt from him before, and when he lifted his head, he saw her eyes shining with unshed tears.

Max and Liz, having experienced this once before, were less nervous than the others, but they still felt a strong sense of anticipation. The one thing Max was nervous about was getting the orbs to work at all.

"Liz," Max whispered into Liz's hair, "I hope you know what it means to me to be able to share this with you. I guess I'll never get over being amazed at your willingness to be a part of all this."

"No, Max," Liz answered, raising her head so he could see that what she said was true. "Thank you, for letting be a part of this. Sharing yourself with me is the most precious gift I've ever received." She pulled his forehead down to hers. "We’re one, Max. We always have been, whether we admitted it or not. Remember what Grandma said—our strength is each other.” She kissed him lightly and smiled. “So let's do it."

Max straightened, assuming the role of leader that was slowly becoming a comfortable part of him.

"Okay, everyone. Let's begin. First, let me remind you that if we succeed, the people you see will be images, holograms. You won't be able to touch them, okay? Now, I'm going to assume that our best bet is to hold the orbs as we did in the cave that day, but I know that Liz and I were holding each other the whole time when we contacted Voya at Chaco Canyon. Why don't we form a circle so that everyone is connected, and then Tess and I and Michael and Isabel can hold the orbs."

They arranged themselves according to his instructions. Isabel looked around to see Josh hanging back, and she extended her hand to him. "Come on, Josh. You're a part of this, too." Alex quickly slid in next to Isabel, casting a subtle warning look in Josh's direction. Josh accepted Maria's hand instead and looped an arm through Alex's stiff one. Cupping the orbs in their hands, the aliens closed their eyes and concentrated.

After a moment, a bright white light burst from the orbs, shooting two spiral symbols into the deep dusk.

"Max!" gasped Isabel. "This will be visible for miles!"

Before her words had died on the air, the light seemed to withdraw into the orbs, which took on a pulsing glow. Within seconds, people materialized in a larger circle around them. Max recognized some of them from their first visit, most of all his mother. Others were strangers to him. Tess stood proud and surveyed the people who had gathered; Isabel and Michael looked stunned and unsure.

Immediately, all but Max's mother made a low bow to their royal family. Max squirmed uncomfortably. "Please, rise." They lifted their heads uncertainly; Max's mother nodded to them and they straightened.

"Mother, I'm relieved this worked. You know, we never talked about how to contact you with the orbs."

"I know, my son. There are still many questions." She turned to Isabel. "My darling daughter! My heart has ached to see you for so many years. How beautiful you are!"

Isabel felt a tear trickle down her cheek and she quickly wiped it away with the hand that was still clasping Alex’s. Her mother! Finally!

"I've wondered about you my whole life," Isabel barely whispered. "I wasn’t sure you even existed except in my imagination." She wanted to run to her, but remembered Max's warning.

"Max has told me much of your life here, but I'll look forward to hearing more. We've missed so much." Her face reflected her melancholy--great joy at seeing her daughter again, great sadness at all they had missed.

"Tess. Dear child. How have you fared here? I know you were separated from the others."

"I've done all right . . . I guess." Tess's bravado faltered. "I've been alone, mostly. Finding Max and the others has changed things for me. I imagine meeting you will, too." She hesitated again. "What shall I call you?"

"I am called Rana. Many refer to me as queen, although that title rightfully belongs to Liz now. I am simply the King's mother."

Liz blanched at her words. She didn't feel very queen-like. She felt Max squeeze her hand, and she looked up into his smiling eyes. He could easily sense her misgivings about being called “queen.” "You were always my queen," he whispered to her. She relaxed against him. No matter what, he would always just be Max to her.

Rana looked at Tess for a moment, almost sympathetically.

"Being alone seems to be your fate in both worlds, doesn't it?"

Tess's chin quivered. "It does?"

"Oh, my dear. I had forgotten, you don't remember. How thoughtless of me. You agreed to the arranged marriage with Max because you had no family left. Your mother died of a tragic illness when you were quite young, and your father, one of our bravest military leaders, died in a valiant effort to save our king, my husband. I'm sorry you have not found a family here. Perhaps that will change someday." She smiled warmly, eyeing Kyle as she turned toward Michael.

"Michael, you have fulfilled your duty at Max's side even here, have you not?"

"Well," Michael stuttered, "I . . . well, we didn't know he was our leader, you know, until recently, . . .so, I, uh, I haven't always done everything he’s asked." He stared at the ground, unable to look Rana in the eye.

Her light laugh made him look up with surprise. "Then that hasn't changed, either," she chuckled. "You were always at odds, but good for each other. You give each other balance." She sobered. "But remember, Michael. In the end, there can only be one leader. Never forget that." He nodded mutely.

Her gaze fell on Josh. "You are Voyan, but not of the royal family."

Josh made a slight bow. "I am also a hybrid, emerged from a pod 24 years ago. I was on a different ship and only found our King when the orbs were first activated. I wanted to come so I could report to our people first-hand. It's been so long since anyone has had contact with Voya."

Rana sighed. "Our effort did not turn out as we'd planned, this is true. Apparently, though, our people have thrived here on Earth, and for that, I am grateful."

She surveyed the group and a smile graced her face.

"You are all so huddled together! Do you fear me?" Rana asked, amused.

"We weren't sure if we had to be touching in order to see you, especially the humans," Max explained. "I know Liz and I were holding each other when we spoke to you before."

"Clearly by choice, then and now," she teased. "You may release each other, if you wish. Once our connection is made, no additional contact is required." She turned back to Liz. "Liz, you are radiant, child. Clearly the joining has agreed with you."

"The joining?" Liz asked timidly.

"When I saw you last, you two asked for my blessing, which was freely given. I can see that the joining has taken place--spiritually and physically. I'm not mistaken, am I?"

Liz could feel the blush creeping up her neck and face. She gripped Max's hand, glancing up at him in the process. He, too, was turning a bright shade of red. They hadn't discussed this with anyone, although he felt sure it was no secret.

"No, mother, you are not mistaken. If what you describe is 'the joining,' then it has taken place, and we are both very happy. However, you should know that in this culture, we are considered too young for such a joining. We must wait until our parents . . . our Earth parents . . . agree to this before we can make it public and legal."

"Of course, you must follow the customs here, but it is what's in your hearts that matters. Hold out your hand, Max."

He obeyed, and as her palm hovered over his, a three-dimensional symbol glowed in Max's hand. It reminded Liz of a jack from the old childhood game of jacks. Rana stepped in front of Liz. Commanding only with her eyes, Rana asked Liz to do the same. The symbol appeared in Liz's hand as well, and Rana smiled broadly.

"Your ring, Liz. Max made it for you, as is our custom?" Liz looked down at the ring Max had given her the night they first made love. It was a broad silver band, engraved with the spiral symbol and adorned with a perfect turquoise stone at the center. She had vowed never to take it off, and she had kept that promise.

"Yes, he did," she breathed, the emotion shining from her face. "I will cherish it for my lifetime, and my children will know its importance and cherish it, too."

Rana's eyes shone. "The joining has not only been completed, it is strong and enduring. This is happy news, indeed, for all of us!"

The Voyans who had been watching cheered loudly, and Max pulled Liz close. As wonderful as this support was, it was also a little intimidating. Max was not used to his private life being on display like this. Part of the price of being royalty, he supposed. He looked down at Liz, worried that this might be scaring her. His heart soared when he turned to see her beaming up at him. "I could have told her that," she laughed. Max grabbed her and swung her around, feeling euphorically happy. The crowd just cheered louder.

As the cheering subsided, Rana approached Isabel and the others. "Are there others here who wish the blessing? I have yet to meet your guests."

There was an awkward silence; no one had expected to be asked about a commitment at this meeting. Maria sneaked a look at Michael; his face was contorted, as if he were fighting some inner battle, but he remained quiet. Maria tried to keep the hurt from her eyes when he glanced at her.

"We're still in that 'let's see how things go' sort of stage, Your Highness," Alex blurted out. "Not that Isabel isn't great, I mean, not that aliens aren't great, . . . you know, because they are, but we're still in high school, and Max and Liz, well . . . that's just a different thing . . . ."

"Alex!" Isabel hissed through a clenched smile. "Not . . . help . . . ing."

Alex shut his mouth and looked at the ground.

Tess almost laughed out loud at the look on Kyle's face. He had inched away and was looking at anything but her.

"There is no need for haste, my children. All in good time. Josh, you have not brought a partner. Is there no one for you, then?"

Try as he might, Josh couldn't prevent the quick glance at Isabel, and he saw Alex bristle. "No, Your Highness. Not as yet."

Rana returned to her place in the circle and she assumed a more formal air.

"Now, I know there are questions. Let us begin."

Max stepped forward, still holding onto Liz's hand. "I've told Isabel about you and other family members I've met. Now you've told Tess about her family. What about Michael? Does he have family?"

Michael took the few steps needed to stand next to Max. As he did, an older man and a middle-aged woman stepped forward from the circle.

"Michael, this is your grandfather, Marcus, and your sister, Zeval."

Michael stared in stunned silence at the two figures in front of him. There was a distant familiarity about them, and the radiant smile on his sister's face told him he had been missed. He took a step toward them, but pulled back quickly, remembering he couldn't touch them.

"I'm Michael."

"Well, big brother, it took you long enough to contact us."

Big brother? This was his little sister?

"We didn't . . . know . . . ."

"We know, son," his grandfather said. "Your sister is enjoying torturing you, just as she used to. Zeval, can't you behave yourself even now?" he chuckled.

Zeval threw him a contrite smile. “Old habits, brother. It’s so wonderful to see you. And how young you are!”

Michael couldn’t hold back his most pressing question. “Where are our parents?”

Marcus lowered his eyes and his body sagged visibly. “I don’t suppose any of you can remember or understand the massive death and destruction brought on by the conflict on Voya. Michael, your mother was a brave warrior, killed at the hands of our enemies after weeks of imprisonment. She never told them anything, and eventually they killed her. Your father was overcome with grief, and ceased to care for his own life. As a distinguished diplomat, he volunteered to serve as ambassador to that nest of monsters, feeding us information at every opportunity. He was found out, of course, as he knew he would be, and was killed.”

Michael stood spellbound by the story of his parents, passionate and aggressive. Without ever having met them, he felt a bond. Hearing about them explained a lot. There were finally real images in his mind of people who gave birth to him, loved him, sacrificed themselves for the greater good. He felt something he had never felt before, something he couldn’t identify until his grandfather named it for him.

“You should feel proud, Michael. It is their spirit and their strong sense of duty that lives in you. You didn’t hesitate to step forward when the time came to approve the plan to send your essence to Earth if the situation became bad enough. You made us all proud as well.”

"Mother," Max interrupted. "How did anyone know Michael would be here tonight? How did you know it was me last time? I don't understand how the orbs work."

Rana smiled. "There is so much you do not know. This is a good place to start. When you hold the orb," Rana explained, "your personal imprint is embedded in the signal. It activates the individual units that are programmed to receive that specific imprint. If you are holding the orb, Max, those on your activation protocol are notified. Tonight, all four of you activated the orbs, so Michael's family, as well as yours and Isabel’s, was alerted.”

She stopped and looked with compassion at Tess. “I’m sorry there was no one for you, Tess. We have all lost so many loved ones.” Tess nodded, fighting to hide the sorrow in her heart.

Rana turned to Max. “Each housing unit is equipped with a communication chamber. Stepping into that chamber allows that person to see, converse with, and even interact with the originator of the signal."

"It's Star Trek," Alex said aloud, earning him a glare from Isabel. "It is!" Alex insisted. "Communicators, holodecks. Amazing."

"Michael," Zeval asked, "are you happy here?"

Michael stared, mouth open, unsure how to answer her simple question. "I didn't used to be," Michael told her honestly. "If it weren't for Max and Isabel, I don't know where I'd be. But now, I'm on my own and things are better." He hesitated, then turned to reach for Maria. He took her hand as she approached them. "This is Maria. She's the first person to make me think maybe I could be happy."

Maria whipped her head around to look at Michael. He seemed nervous about her reaction to his words, but the brilliant smile she gave him filled him with the very happiness he was talking about, and he couldn't help but smile back.

"Then Maria, my grandfather and I owe you a great debt of gratitude. My brother is a good man, and he deserves great happiness."

Michael was moved by her words and found himself blinking back tears. "I wish I could spend some time talking to you," he choked.

"You may get your wish, big brother. Our situation on Voya has greatly improved, which is driving our enemies to Earth. To find our royal family." A tense quiet settled over the gathering. "If I come to Earth, I may be able to contribute to the effort to defeat them."

"How?" several voices asked at once.

"I am an astronomer, specializing in telescopic detection systems." Max and Michael exchanged confused looks. Liz jumped in.

"You adapt telescopes to track movement in space! And that would include alien spaceships entering Earth's atmosphere, right?"

Zeval was obviously impressed, and Max couldn't help but feel proud of Liz.

"That's exactly right, Your Highness. I just need to do some research about where an appropriate telescope might be located on Earth and then figure out a way to get a job working with it. That could take some time."

"I'll see if I can find out anything," Liz volunteered. "And Josh has access to a worldwide network of people who want to help." Josh nodded his agreement. "Are the orbs the safest way to contact you? We heard that using them can also give away our location to our enemies."

Max smiled down at her, unable to resist putting his arm around her shoulders. Our location, our enemies. She was truly one of them. In every way. He didn't think it was possible to love her more than he did at that moment.

Rana answered her question. "That was true before the Criston was in place. Now that the Criston is properly installed, it focuses the signal so that it can't be picked up elsewhere. This is perfectly safe."

"Can any one of us contact you?" Max asked. "Or does it take two or more of us to activate the orbs?"

"It only takes one; any of you can reach us at any time. And now that your personal imprints have been identified, we can contact you, too. The King should keep one of the orbs, and his second in command should have the other. When we are trying to reach you, it will emit a beeping sound." Liz and Max looked at each other in surprise; that must have been the beeping they heard when they found the first orb in the desert!

"How do we respond?" asked Max.

"Just pick up the orb and that will complete the contact."

"So we can do this anywhere? Our rooms at home?"

"Certainly, as long as there's no one to see you talking into thin air," his mother smiled.

Isabel stepped toward her brother and Michael. "Mother, there's so much I want to ask you . . . and tell you. Can I use the orbs just to talk to you?"

"I will look forward to that, dearest daughter."

Tess was hanging back, feeling excluded once again. She never belonged anywhere, it seemed. No family, no one to love her, no one to love. She felt Kyle's hand on her back, and pressed against it. Sometimes she desperately needed to be touched.

At that moment, Max turned toward her. "Tess, please join us." Tess felt Kyle's hand exerting the slightest pressure, encouraging her to join the others. She moved slowly toward the group and faced Rana.

"Tess, you did your people a great service when you agreed to come to Earth. I know it has been difficult for you, and I wish we could have eased your burden, but know that the people of Voya hold you in great esteem. If you would like to return to us, that can be arranged."

Tess looked at the faces of those around her: Max, Isabel, Michael, Liz, Alex, Maria, Kyle. Every face seemed to be asking her to stay. To stay. She couldn't believe what she was seeing. Kyle looked especially nervous about her answer. She looked back to Rana.

"I think I'd like to stay here for now, and think about it." She was gratified by the sigh of relief from her friends--yes, they were friends now. Maybe she belonged somewhere after all.

They all agreed to more frequent contact--especially Isabel with Rana and Michael with Zeval--and more detailed updates on the activities of the enemy movements to Earth. As the images disappeared, the friends found themselves back in the reality of the desert night. They hugged and laughed at their success, more than willing to postpone consideration of the dangers to come.

"I'm starved!" shouted an unusually happy Michael. "To the Crashdown!"

"You all go on," said Max softly. Liz looked at him questioningly.

"Tess, can you take Isabel and Alex with you? Liz and I have something to take care of here."

"We do?" she asked him, confused.

"We do," he stated firmly. "We'll meet you at the Crashdown in two hours."

Isabel rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Max," she sighed, and joined the others trekking back to their cars.

A bewildered pair of eyes watched their departure from behind a large outcropping; a storm of unanswered questions and unexplainable sights bombarded his brain. He had watched this group holding metallic, egg-shaped containers of some kind. After an initial burst of light, the containers had begun to glow. Then, all of the teens appeared to talk and interact with something or someone he couldn't see. They all seemed to be able to see it, though. What possible explanation could there be for this strange behavior? He had no idea where to begin looking.

Once the rest of the group had left, Max turned to Liz, tugging at her excitedly.

"Max! Where are we going?" she laughed, picking up on Max's festive mood.

"It’s a surprise!" he called over his shoulder. They climbed up to the entrance to the pod chamber, and Max activated the handprint to open the stone wall. He snapped his fingers, instantly lighting a multitude of candles around the room. Liz gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth.

"Happy Anniversary, my love," he whispered, as he lifted her up and carried her over the threshold.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:12:53 AM
Part 11

Liz's wide eyes swept the room, taking in the painstaking detail with which Max had planned her surprise. There was a large quilt spread on the ground; candles of every shape and size illuminated the chamber with a golden glow; two flower bouquets added color and delicate fragrance to the romantic scene. Liz's smile grew wider as she felt Max lower her to the ground and turn her to face the room, his arms sliding around her waist from behind, his warm breath against her neck.

She let her body sink into his. "Max, this is incredible. You are incredible. When did you do all this?"

"This afternoon." He nibbled gently at her ear. "It's not half of what I would like to have done, but I couldn't do anything that would draw attention to us. Besides, I like it here. It's one of the few places where we can be completely alone."

Liz just shook her head, still amazed at what he had accomplished in one short afternoon, forever incredulous at how he loved her. She turned in his arms and looked up into his happy and loving eyes.

"I wasn't sure this was a date you'd want to celebrate. Your saving me is what started all the danger, the fear. I've often wondered if it was the right decision," she whispered.

"I don't," he said firmly, bringing his forehead to hers, willing her to see the sincerity in his eyes. "Liz, I think of September 18th as the day my life began. I was dead before that. Cold and alone and dead.” He traced her jaw line and ran his fingers over her lips. “I told you that once before, remember?"

Liz remembered back to that bittersweet night when she had helped rescue Max from Pierce's inhuman torture, and they had escaped into the woods, hiding in an abandoned van. They had finally let the flood burst forth, declaring their love and sharing their innermost thoughts. She had worried that night, too, about what saving her had done to his life. And he had reassured her with the same words: "That's the day my life began." Nothing had changed since then except the depth of their commitment and the intensity of their love.

She nodded, her eyes growing moist.

"When you got shot, I knew that I couldn't be without you. Ever. I'd been hiding from you for so long, afraid to get close, but there you were, on the floor, bleeding, leaving me . . . ." His voice cracked and his arms clamped around her; she felt a shudder slide through him. He pulled back from her then, cupping her face in his hands. She had grown so accustomed to this loving habit of his. It always made her feel special, like she was the only person in the world he could see. "I will never be without you, Liz. Not as long as you'll have me."

Mere words were not enough to answer him. She slid her arms up and around his neck and pulled him toward her until she could reach her goal, those perfect lips that tasted so familiar. This is what love tastes like, she decided. Max responded so tenderly, cradling her head in his hands, slipping his tongue in and around her mouth and lips. Liz felt herself floating into that special place where only Max could take her, a place where all that existed was warmth and sensation . . . and Max. A tiny whimper of protest escaped her when he pulled back. Her small hands pressed against the small of his back and she moved against him.

"Wait, Liz. There's something I want to give you first . . . ."

Liz opened her eyes slowly, and Max was mesmerized. When he looked into those smoky, sultry eyes, he saw himself–as she saw him. He felt her desire and her devotion; he could see clearly what she had in mind for him, and he felt every nerve, every cell responding to her, wanting the same thing.

His mouth came down on hers, hard and demanding, and she was eager to give him what he sought. He felt the velvet texture of her lips, the hot, moist cavern that welcomed his probing tongue. He was almost dizzy with need, breathlessly aware that those same textures, those same hot, moist sensations awaited him in another part of her body.

With one graceful motion, Max swooped Liz into his arms and strode toward the thick quilt. He lay her down gently in its soft depths and settled on top of her, supporting his weight on his forearms. Immediately, he could feel Liz’s small, warm hands creeping up under his shirt, lightly circling over his electrified skin. His eyes found hers, and they both stilled for a moment, communicating their love and desire with looks so full of meaning, they forgot to breathe. Then it was all motion—their lips met, their tongues danced, and their bodies came together with an aching need that only the other could fill.

Max slid his mouth from her lips to her jaw, down her throat, leaving a trail on its way toward the valley between her breasts. He stopped to nuzzle, nip, and tease her, avoiding the taut tips he could see protruding against the light fabric of her tank top. He tugged the edge of the material down just a little, leaving hot moist kisses against the creamy mounds, but never quite reaching the center. Liz began to move beneath him, trying to press her tingling nipple into his mouth, as if he had inadvertently missed it.

Max could feel her desire mounting, and he smiled against her skin. His mouth drifted away from her wriggling insistence, and he heard her release a small protest. Instead, he pulled her arm out from against her body and started to trace small, feathery kisses down the inside of her upper arm, causing her to gasp. The little sounds she made were fueling his own desire, but he was willing to endure the torture as he inflicted some of his own on his beautiful mate.

No longer willing to be the passive recipient of this exquisite frustration, Liz pulled hard enough on Max’s shirt to force him to stop and help her remove it. Once his torso had lifted from her own, Liz took advantage of her opportunity and reached for the hem of her own top. As she began to lift it, though, she was struck by the lustful look that came into Max’s eyes, and she slowed her movements, raising the shirt ever so slowly, revealing her soft perfect skin a little at a time, and listening to Max’s breathing labor with each additional inch. As the top lifted over her breasts, Max sucked in his breath and began to devour the eager tips.

Liz realized her aggression had backfired. Now her arms were caught in her shirt above her head and she was helpless to respond to Max’s heavenly ministrations. As he licked and suckled at her breasts, her hands fought with the material. The ache in her body was consuming her, and she sighed with pleasure and frustration. Finally free, her hands came down against Max’s head and she pressed him to her, wanting him to take her in, wanting to take him in, wanting to be one.

Soon Liz’s hips were lifting against Max, and they began a rhythm that foreshadowed their union to come. She reached between their bodies to rub her hand against the hard erection that was straining for release. Max moaned against her skin.

“God, Liz, when you touch me like that . . . .” He couldn’t finish his thought; he was barely thinking at all. She had the ability to make him lose himself and that was a blessing in these moments. Her hand kept rubbing the length of him until he had to have more. He pulled away from Liz and stood, pulling her to her feet along with him. The movement didn’t idle her hands at all. She kept at him, rubbing, squeezing, now nipping at his nipple as well. He could feel it turn hard under her hot tongue. Her hand slid up his chest to play with his taut muscles as her hips ground against him.

“Liz!” he cried out. Frantic now to feel her whole body against him, he fumbled with her pants, stopping for a breathless moment to admire the black lace bikini underpants that sent his heart racing even faster. While he was lost in the wonder of her sexy body, she reached for him again, but this time, she slid the zipper of his jeans down slowly and his boxers tented immediately. When she slid her hand down into them and touched him, he jerked, his reverie broken. They finished undressing each other, but when Liz looked up from helping Max step out of his jeans, a sly smile crept across her face.

Before he knew what she had in mind, Liz was on her knees taking his hot erection into her mouth. A long, slow groan filled the room as she set up her slow, torturous rhythm. Max held her head and gave himself up to the flood of sensation. The gentle friction, the warm laving of his sensitive tip, the subtle sucking sensation had him right on the brink. He felt himself coiling to burst, and pulled himself away. Liz looked at him questioningly.

“Not yet, my love,” he panted. “You’re coming with me.”

He knelt to face her and then lay them back against the quilt. Gazing into her eyes, he let his hands stroke her everywhere—arms, breasts, stomach, thighs. When she was writhing and moaning beneath him, he let his hands drift into her nest of dark curls, his fingers sliding into her wet folds, his thumb seeking out and teasing her stiffened nub. It was Liz’s turn to disappear. The room was swirling with thrilling sensation and electrical current. His hands had turned her into a willing and helpless receptacle.

She gasped when she felt a new sensation. Without her even realizing it, Max had lowered himself down to nuzzle her most sensitive spot. A moment later, his tongue was flicking against her, driving her to new heights. Shivers ran through her bloodstream, carrying delight and desire to every part of her body. She no longer had or wanted any control; all she wanted was to feel him inside her.

Combing her fingers through his hair, she pulled him up to her. “Not yet, my love,” she barely managed to gasp. “You’re coming with me.”

They exchanged an intense look, speaking to their love and passion, and then Max was inside her, glorying in the feel of her surrounding him, wishing with all his soul for this moment to never end. They found their rhythm and moved against each other with a building need. As they moved faster, they were aware of the glow that always surrounded them when they made love. It shone out from them in this act of love in much the same way it seemed to shine from them in their everyday lives. Their own private mystery.

Their orgasms slammed through them as they came together in a violent release. Waves of pleasure shook them until at last they focused once again on each other.

“I think you may be the best lover I’ve ever had,” breathed Liz, enjoying the flicker of alarm that passed over Max’s face.

Max was struggling to regulate his breathing, but he registered Liz’s small smirk of triumph when she noticed his split-second surprise at her words.

“I’ve never had any complaints,” he quipped casually. Liz frowned at him in mock severity.

“You do realize that girls all over school pant after you on a regular basis, don’t you?”

Max looked away, embarrassed. Isabel had told him that before, but he thought she was just teasing him. Sisters loved to embarrass brothers.

“I doubt that seriously,” he mumbled.

“Don’t,” Liz replied. “It’s absolutely true. It’s part of your charm that you don’t notice it.”

Max felt on firmer ground now. “All I notice is you.” His eyes turned from teasing to loving, and Liz couldn’t help but return the look.

“I’ve got something for you,” he told her. “Your anniversary present.”

“Max!” Liz felt embarrassed now. She hadn’t even intended to remind Max of the day’s significance, let alone set up a big surprise and get him a gift. “I didn’t get you anything; I didn’t even know if you realized what day this was.”

Max was lifting a small box from a wide crevice in the cave wall. “This is as much for me as it is for you, Liz. This is our celebration.”

He handed her a shallow rectangular box. She looked at him with shining eyes. “I love you.”

He sat down next to her and leaned over to give her a light kiss. “Open it.”

Liz unwrapped the gift and lifted off the lid. Pulling aside the tissue paper, her mouth broke into a wide smile before she bit her lip to hold back the tears. In a silver frame was a perfect picture of the two of them gazing deeply into each other’s eyes. Somehow, someone had caught on film their undeniable chemistry, their intense love, and the awe in which they held each other.

“Where did you get this? I don’t remember this!” she exclaimed.

“Remember last spring, when things were getting so intense between us . . . before . . . everything happened?” he stuttered. Liz nodded, a mixture of emotions passing across her face. “Well, remember when you and I were at the Crashdown and Maria was giving us a hard time about how obvious we were being and we both denied it?”

Liz laughed. She had long since acknowledged that there was nothing subtle about their feelings for each other.

“Evidently, she decided to prove it, so she took this picture of us without our even noticing her. Well, a few days later, she brought these pictures to show us. I saw them before you did and asked her to keep them quiet. I wanted to blow one up and give it to you. Then after everything sort of fell apart, I forgot about it until I was thinking of what I could do to celebrate our anniversary. Maria let me have the negative and promised not to tell. I can’t believe she actually kept a secret!”

Max was looking very proud of himself, and Liz laughed at his expression. He was so adorable!

She leaned forward to kiss him, and they were soon entangled in each other yet again. It always seemed to be this way with them. Their first lovemaking was always full of urgency and need. The second was always so gentle and tender. They thought it was a perfectly lovely pattern.

Eventually, Max looked at his watch. “Our two hours are up,” he lamented. “We’d better join the others.”

Liz nodded reluctantly. “I guess.”

They gathered their things, but when Liz bent to fold the quilt, Max stopped her. “Let’s leave that here.” He looked at her meaningfully, and she smiled almost shyly.

“I think your mother was right.”

“Which one?” he asked, suddenly smiling at how natural the completely unnatural question sounded.

“Rana. She said the ‘joining’ agreed with me.” Liz smiled radiantly.

Max smiled back, reaching out to stroke her soft cheek. “It agrees with both of us.”

They walked out into the dark night, arms around each other, fortified to face the uncertain future together.

********

The closer they came to Roswell, the more their thoughts returned to the issues awaiting them in the real world.

“Liz, I learned something this afternoon that I haven’t had a chance to tell you yet. I wish I didn’t have to upset you, but you need to know.”

Liz stiffened at his words. “No secrets, Max. Remember? What is it?”

Michael told me this afternoon that they actually saw someone lurking in the shadows outside Maria’s house last night. Evidently, he stayed at the house until dawn, just to be sure no one tried to get in. This afternoon, he told the sheriff, and he’s keeping an eye on things tonight.”

Suddenly, Maria’s face loomed in Liz’s mind. This morning, when Amy DeLuca had crumbled in Maria’s arms, Liz had seen that there was something else—something Maria was afraid to tell them. This must have been it! No wonder she didn’t say anything to her mother; Amy had completely come apart. Liz had decided to let them have their privacy and left shortly afterwards. Poor Maria!

“Max, there’s something you don’t know, too. When I went to Maria’s this morning, she confronted her mother about those dreams. She wanted to know what really happened to her dad. Mrs. DeLuca just lost it. She said no one took him; that she had driven him away by being jealous. She said he’d been acting strangely, real secretive and all. And one day after a fight, he just disappeared. She feels like it’s her fault Maria doesn’t have a dad. You should’ve seen her Max, crying and shaking, saying it was all her fault. I could tell there was something else Maria wanted to say, but she didn’t. I guess she thought her mom couldn’t take any more.”

Max was silent for several minutes, scowling at the road. Did this have anything to do with aliens? Or was this another problem altogether? he wondered. He felt a calm come over him and realized that Liz had taken his hand as it rested on the gearshift. He looked over at her concerned face and smiled.

“There’s another mystery, too,” he told her seriously.

Liz frowned. “What?” Max could feel her concern turn to tension.

“I was showering late this afternoon, thinking of you, as usual.” He glanced over to see her face softening and a hint of a smile turning up the corners of her mouth. “I was imagining you in there with me . . . .” Now he was smiling, too. “And I was thinking about how much I love you, and suddenly, I swear I heard your voice say you loved me, too.”

Grinning broadly now, Max turned to Liz, expecting to see her smiling shyly back at him. Instead, she looked as surprised as if he’d struck her. Her eyes were wide, her mouth was open, and the shock was coming off her in waves. Max pulled off the road, and turned to her, taking her hands in his.

“Liz! What’s wrong? Was it what I said? Did that upset you?”

Liz’s shock softened slightly, as the barest hint of a smile touched her lips.

“Max, I showered right before you came today, too. I couldn’t help but wish you were there with me.” She became suddenly shy. “I was pretending you were there washing me. It felt almost real, and then I heard you say, ‘Liz, I love you.’ I knew it was just my imagination, but I said it back to you, right out loud.”

It was Max’s turn to look shocked. He reached for her and she wrapped her arms around him.

“Max, what does it mean?”

“I think it means our connection is growing deeper, Liz. We’re bonding on a whole new level. Does it scare you?”

The uncertainty in Liz’s eyes evaporated when she looked at Max. She saw excitement and love staring back at her, and she couldn’t help but share in his joy.

********

“If they don’t get here soon, screw ‘em,” complained Michael. Kyle raised his eyebrows at the unintentional pun. Tess slapped at his arm.

“Grow up, Kyle,” she scolded, and then giggled in spite of herself.

Isabel shot Alex a warning look, warding off the quip that was ready to tumble from his lips.

“Well, not to worry,” said Maria. “Here they are now.”

Max and Liz walked into the Crashdown, holding hands and smiling.

“Gee, wonder where you’ve been,” Michael drawled sarcastically.

Kyle put on a serious expression. “Give ‘em a break, man. ‘Joining’ can be hell. Right, guys?”

Liz and Max both began to blush and the others laughed heartily at their expense, except Isabel, who found the whole subject disgusting. This was her brother, after all!

Michael turned serious. “I’m gonna take Maria home. I want to check in with Valenti and see if he saw anyone lurking around the house tonight.” Michael had brought Isabel and Alex up to date on the guy lurking outside Maria’s the night before. No one could figure out if this had something to do with the four aliens or with some other mystery in the DeLuca family. Isabel privately wondered if it were some dangerous man who realized two attractive women were living there alone and was waiting for an opportunity to prey on them.

“We’re coming with you,” Max responded quickly. “This may or may not have something to do with us, but we need to find out.”

“Want some help?” asked Alex, not sure if there was really anything he could do to help, but he had to offer. Besides, they might want Isabel along.

Max shook his head. “No, I just want to talk to the sheriff. I don’t expect anything to happen. You guys go on and do whatever you had planned.”

“What about us?” asked Tess.

“No, it’s fine. We’re just going to check in and then leave. We don’t need a big group.”

Max saw Kyle smile and take Tess’s hand. Looks like they had plans.

Michael and Maria hopped in the back of the Jeep and the foursome took the short ride to Maria’s house. As they pulled up, Michael stiffened.

“I see somebody near the house!”

Their eyes searched the darkness, and they breathed a collective sigh of relief when Jim Valenti and Amy DeLuca emerged into the streetlight, holding hands and smiling.

They waved at the teens and approached the car.

“Hi, kids! What have you been up to tonight?” Amy asked, as the group climbed out of the Jeep.

Valenti saw the quick glances among the group and the unspoken decision to let Max handle that one.

“We just met up with some old friends and talked,” Max told her. Well, it was the truth, sort of.

Liz grabbed Max’s arm and pointed. Everyone looked up at the house. There it was again--a flashlight beam flickering across one wall.

“Stay here!” Valenti whispered to Amy, motioning for the girls to do the same.

He sprinted to his own parked car, unlocked it, and reached under the seat for his handgun and cuffs. Hooking the cuffs over his belt, he gestured for Michael to circle around back in one direction and Max in the other. He approached the front door slowly, gun pointed skyward, his other arm outstretched. As he crept through the front doorway, he stilled, listening for any giveaway sounds, watching the shadows for movement.

A floorboard creaked; it sounded like it had come from the rear of the house. He circled to his left, stepping lightly through the living room. Glass shattered somewhere ahead of him and he ran toward the sound.

Outside, Amy held onto Maria’s and Liz’s hands nervously. “Why did he send the boys in there? They’re kids! This could be dangerous!” Her eyes were searching the house and the darkness for some kind of explanation.

“Mom, they’re okay. Michael and Max are really . . . strong . . . and fast. They might be able to catch this guy.”

“Maria, they have no training in this kind of thing. What was he thinking?”

At that moment, they heard the glass shatter, and Amy was running toward the house.

“Mom, no!” shouted Maria, running to restrain her. “Liz, we can’t let her go in there!”

Liz was running, too, trying to get in front of Mrs. DeLuca to block her path.

“Liz! Get out of my way! This is my house and I have to know what’s happening!”

With surprising strength, she moved Liz aside and entered the house. The girls followed helplessly. As they set foot in the living room, a figure rushed past them, almost knocking Amy to the ground. Just as Maria flipped on the wall switch to turn on the living room lamps, Michael appeared in the doorway, extending one arm. A second later, the figure was thrown to the floor in the front hallway.

The frantic intruder reached under his jacket and Max saw the light reflect from the gun metal. Déjà vu. Liz being shot in the Crashdown. Falling to the floor. The blood. The awful sense of loss.

“NO!” It was Max’s turn to extend an arm. A greenish force field, almost alive with movement, held the man in place.

“That’s a new one,” breathed Liz, astonished that Max had a power she had never seen.

Valenti rushed in, aimed his gun at the terrified intruder, and counted down. “Three, two, one!”

Max released the force field, and Valenti bore down on his prisoner, the gun aimed right at his head. “Now, suppose you tell us who you are and exactly what you’re doing here.”

A thud distracted everyone but the sheriff, who wasn’t about to let his guard down.

“Mom!” Maria gasped, rushing across the living room. Amy DeLuca had fainted.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:14:41 AM
Part 12

“Get her out of here,” ordered the sheriff, worried about what Amy had seen in those last few seconds. “Take her to her room. If she comes to, just see what she says. If necessary, tell her she bumped her head, and it’s affected her memory.”

Michael lifted the slender woman easily and followed Maria toward the back of the house to Amy’s bedroom.

“Get up slowly,” Valenti told his prisoner. “Sit in that chair over there and cross your wrists behind you.”

The man did as he was told, his wary eyes never leaving Max.

“Max, grab my cuffs and get them on him. Liz, go ask Maria if there’s any rope in the house.”

Liz took off for the back bedroom, and Max hurried to secure the intruder. He still didn’t know if this man was in the DeLuca house because of some alien connection, or if he was a prowler or a rapist or what. But he had seen things, things he shouldn’t have seen, and Max had no idea what he would do with that information.

Liz returned moments later with a length of clothesline and Max bound the man’s feet to the chair. A few minutes later, Maria and Michael returned to the living room. “She’s still out, Sheriff," Maria told him. "I put a cold compress on her head and covered her with a blanket. I know I should stay with her, but I need to know what this creep is doing in our house.”

“A fine question, Maria,” the Sheriff agreed, looking expectantly at the defiant prisoner. “Why don’t you fill us in on that very thing, Mr. . . . ?”

“Wait!” cried Maria. “This is that guy from school! The one who tried to break into my locker! Mr. Vidoni said his name was Austin. Who are you?” she cried, her voice rising in pitch with every word. “What do you want with me?”

Austin’s eyes darted from Michael to Max and back to Michael. Then his eyes fell on Maria.

“I’ll talk to Maria. Alone,” he announced.

The fact that he had finally spoken quieted everyone for a moment. Then the Sheriff took charge.

“You’re not in a position to dictate the circumstances of this little conversation, Mr. Austin. I suggest you share your story with the group.”

Austin shook his head stubbornly. “I will talk to Maria. Only Maria.”

Maria turned angry eyes on her stalker. “Mr. Austin, if that’s really your name, you have been following me, invading my privacy, invading my home! You almost drew a gun in my house! I want to know what the hell you are doing here!” She looked at her friends and took a deep breath. Her voice became low and threatening. “I have no secrets from these people, so start talking.”

Austin hesitated, looking at each member of the group as the war of wills was fought. As the stillness closed in around her, Liz was overcome with a strange sense of him. She felt his emotions and intentions penetrating the air, and looked to see if anyone else was responding to it. They seemed completely unaware of it. It was Liz who broke the silence.

"He doesn't want to hurt Maria."

All eyes swung to her, another layer of confusion weighing down the air. Liz's eyes were riveted to Austin. "He's scared of us, but he wants to protect her. He's not going to hurt her."

Max walked toward Liz and studied her face. How could she know such a thing? Liz was not prone to exaggeration, nor did it escape her how important it was that she be right about this. Even when he touched her arm, her eyes never left Austin's.

"Liz? What are you talking about? How can you be sure about this?"

Liz slowly shifted her gaze to Max. "I don't know," she said honestly. "I just know. I can feel it. I feel what he's feeling." Her face turned fearful. "How, Max? How can I be feeling what he's feeling?" She reached for him and he gathered her in. She started to shake.

“Who are you?” growled Valenti, mentally trying to make the pieces of the puzzle fit.

Austin didn't respond immediately. He was watching Liz trembling in Max's arms. "I didn't think you were one of them," he whispered, almost to himself.

Liz turned to him, trying to calm her nerves. "What do you mean? Have you been watching me, too?"

"I've been watching Maria. That means I've seen a lot of all of you." He turned back to Maria. “I’m afraid for you, Maria. I think we should have this conversation alone,” he pleaded one more time.

“What makes you think I would ever be alone with you? These are the people I trust, not you.” She took a step closer to Michael, and he put his arm around her.

Something snapped in Austin’s resolve. “Do you even realize what you’re dealing with? I wasn’t sure whether to believe it until tonight, but now I’m convinced.” He took a long look at Michael and Max. “These friends of yours might be . . . .” His mouth worked furiously, as if he were afraid he might choke on the word. “They might be . . . alien.”

An icy calm descended in the room. Every face was frozen in shock, and Austin observed the effect of his words with alarm. Until he had seen their reaction, he hadn’t really been sure, but no one was laughing. No one was even questioning. What lay exposed on every face was fearful acknowledgment. They knew. They all knew.

“I think you’d better keep talkin’,” the sheriff warned him, caught off guard by the astonishingly accurate conclusion. “That’s a pretty wild accusation.”

Austin released his breath slowly. He realized he’d been holding it as he took in the stricken expressions on the faces around the room. “My name is Lucas Austin. Major Lucas Austin, recently retired from the Air Force. I’ve been . . . investigating . . . no, watching out for . . . well, both, really . . . Amy and Maria. Mostly Maria, as a favor, to an old friend.”

Confusion replaced fear all around the room.

“What old friend. Why?”

“Maria, I was a good friend of your father’s. A couple of days before he disappeared, I got a letter from him. The letter accompanied a sealed manila envelope, and said that if anything happened to him, I should read the contents of the envelope. Maria, I’ve had an eye on you for years, but I think you may be in danger now.” He looked again at Michael and Max. “Do you realize what you’re dealing with here?” he asked her. He turned to the Sheriff. “Do you?”

********

After some discussion among the group, and a series of menacing warnings to Lucas Austin, they agreed to uncuff their prisoner as long as he moved slowly and deliberately and agreed to answer their questions. They assembled around the dining room table, with Austin against the interior wall where he would have to get by two or more of them to escape. Having experienced the display put on by Max and Michael earlier, he had no intention of even trying.

He was confused by the ease with which the ones he suspected of being alien interacted with the ones he assumed were human. There was a trust built up among them, but he wasn’t sure it was voluntary. The humans showed no fear, so he didn’t think they were being threatened. Controlled, maybe? Unaware of the mind manipulation? How could he combat that?

“I’m right, aren’t I?” he asked, as much to observe the reaction as to hear the answer. He wasn’t expecting truth.

He watched Liz put her hand on Max’s arm, a comforting, reassuring gesture. No, she wasn’t afraid. Michael had his arm draped around Maria’s chair. He caught her quick glance at him—a “what do we do now?” look.

“You’re the one answering questions here, Austin,” the sheriff reminded him. “As Sheriff, let’s get some of mine out of the way first.”

Austin turned to make one more plea to Maria. “Maria, please. I really think you’ll want to hear what I have to say in private. Tell the others to wait in the other room." He begged her with his eyes. "Please, Maria.”

Maria sat silently for a moment. “Mr. Austin, these people are closer than family to me. We are responsible for each other in a way most people would never understand. They hear what I hear.”

Lucas Austin sighed. He was a military man, and he knew when a tactical retreat was the best course of action.

“Maria, your father was a good man. We met when he was working for the local telephone company. He had finished high school and already married your mother and had you. He was one of the crew assigned to our maintenance contract at White Sands Air Force Base where I was stationed. He often came out to the base for routine equipment checks or to trace a problem. Over a couple of years, we began to talk more and more, and I soon realized that he was a smart and ambitious young man who just didn’t know how to get out of his rut and make a better life for his family. He started asking me about the military, and I encouraged him to get his college degree and become an officer.

“He really liked the idea, and eventually, he enrolled at the community college, New Mexico Military Institute. He planned to transfer to a four-year school and then join the service. I advised him on courses, tutored him a little in Calculus, and we became rather close.”

He ventured a look at Maria, and was startled to see unshed tears shining in her eyes. He realized her father was only a vague memory for her, and hearing about him like this was having quite an impact. He suppressed a shudder when he saw Michael draw her close against him.

“I became concerned those last few weeks. Tom had been a good, conscientious student, but suddenly his grades were dropping, he was missing some classes, and his behavior was erratic. I tried to talk to him, but he was avoiding me, and everyone else, as far as I could tell. When I got that letter from him, I thought it was more evidence that he was losing it. That the pressure of school and family had proved too much for him. Then when he disappeared . . . .” Maria’s face was stricken, and he began to doubt the wisdom of telling her everything.

As if reading his mind, Maria pulled herself together. “Go on. Don’t leave anything out.”

“When he disappeared, I fished that envelope out of my desk drawer and opened it. I didn’t know what to think. He was either crazy, or he had stumbled across the most unbelievable secret in U.S. history.”

Austin reached inside his coat and the Sheriff was on his feet instantly. Max tensed, ready to respond to the slightest threat. “I’m reaching for the letter,” he assured them.

“Slowly,” the sheriff warned.

Austin reached for a zippered pocket in the lining of his jacket and pulled out a yellowed and ragged sheaf of papers.

“Here’s what he wrote:

Dear Lieutenant Austin,

I fear for my life and the life of my family. If that weren’t the case, I would never commit any of this to writing. Please believe me, I’m not crazy, but what I’m about to tell you may sound that way. If you are reading this, then I am dead or gone. That means my family is in danger, and I am pleading with you to help protect them in my absence. You are my closest friend, and the only person I feel I can trust.

Three months ago, I was working on a paper for military history. I had procrastinated, and Maria had been sick, and it was down to the wire to get it finished. We were supposed to prepare the paper in the computer lab, but I hadn’t finished, and the lab was closed. I threw myself on Elena’s mercy (remember Elena, the cleaning lady in Dow Hall?) and she let me into one of the professor’s offices to use the computer. That building is so isolated from the others, I figured no one would notice a light on late at night. Besides, since the military science department is in that building, I knew they would have all the resources I needed.

Anyway, a thunderstorm was brewing that night, and as I was working on my paper, the power flickered. Suddenly, the screen was opening files that I hadn’t been looking at. The stuff in those files was unbelievable. It described a crash . . . a real spaceship crash in 1947. It described the discovery of alien bodies—dead and alive! It had details of the ship, the debris. It said at least one alien was believed to have escaped, and it said there was a large empty part of the hull that looked like it had housed containers of some kind, but they couldn’t find the containers. And the professor's name whose office I was using was listed on the investigation team–he'd been military, at one time.

Then I saw an addendum to the file dated 1990. The government had become aware of three children found naked in the desert with no speech and no clue as to their origin. No one claimed them, there were no reports of stolen children or runaways. They seemed completely unsocialized. Some investigators were speculating that these were new arrivals to the planet, although most people thought that was preposterous. But it got me to thinking about the folks in town who had just adopted two kids—Diane and Philip Evans. Suddenly they had two 6-year-olds, and I remember they didn’t speak because Amy told me about them. She’d waited on them in the restaurant a few times.

I wasn’t sure if what I was reading was true or not, but I printed out some of it to look at later. It was too incredible to digest in the short time I was there. I shut those files down, finished my paper, and went home. A couple of days later, I was called into the professor’s office and asked about my whereabouts that night. I guess when he had opened his computer the next day, he could see from the file list what had been accessed. I had stupidly used my own password to log onto school resource sites, and they knew I had been in there.

I denied seeing the files, of course, and just said I wrote my paper and left, but he didn’t believe me. Why would he? I’d left my “prints” all over the place. Pretty soon, I realized I was being followed. He questioned me a couple more times, but I was too afraid to tell them anything, so I just kept saying I didn’t know. The more they pressured me, the more I began to believe that what I’d read was true, and they would do anything to keep it secret. I would have dismissed the whole thing except for the reaction I'd observed.

If any of this is true, we’re all in danger. I suspect my own government of plotting to silence me. I’m afraid that my little Maria, who is just about the same age as these foundling children, will somehow get involved with them. They are bound to go to school together. What if they're dangerous? What if she unknowingly does something to upset them? Or worse, what if she should find out their secret?

I know I sound like a madman, but I’m asking you for the most desperate favor of my life. Keep an eye on Amy and Maria. I love them so much, and if my mistake winds up hurting them, nothing they can do to me will be penance enough. I need someone to make sure that Amy can make it on her own. And I want to be sure that Maria never becomes involved in any of this. They can’t know this . . . ever. The more they know, the more danger they are in. Please, Lieutenant Austin, even if you don’t believe me, watch out for my family.

With many thanks,

Tom DeLuca


As the Major folded the fragile papers, he could see the pain and anguish on the faces around the table. The aliens had affected Maria’s life before she ever knew of their existence. It didn’t seem to matter about their good intentions or their vow of secrecy, they couldn’t seem to stop hurting people.

Michael rose abruptly, startling Maria. She reached for him, but he pulled away and turned toward the doorway, only to stop dead in his tracks. “Maria,” he breathed. Everyone turned toward the hallway.

There stood Amy DeLuca, white as a sheet. “Oh my God, Maria. What have you been hiding from me?”

Part 13

Hardly a breath could be heard as six pairs of eyes focused on Amy, who was standing unsteadily in the doorway. Her face was pinched, her eyes determined.

"What is it you've been keeping from me?" she repeated.

JimValenti was the first to react. He rose from his chair slowly and took a step toward her.

"Amy, you've had a shock. Let me help you back to bed."

"No." Amy stepped into the room.

Max and Michael exchanged nervous looks. Michael then turned to Maria.

"Do something," he hissed at her.

She threw him an irritated look and then rushed forward as Amy faltered and reached back for the support of the doorway.

"Mom! You need to lie down. Please!"

Amy gathered herself and faced the group again. Around her were faces she knew, trusted, even loved. What was it they were hiding? And who was this stranger among them? Why was he still here?

Again, she stepped further into the room. "No."

The sheriff stepped forward to take her arm and guided her into his chair.

"Amy, I don't know . . . ."

"Then let me tell you what I know," she interrupted. "I know that a lot of strange things have happened over the last year that have never been explained. I know that Maria and her friends have disappeared, sometimes overnight, and have offered only lame excuses. I know that tonight, in this house, Michael threw a man across a room without touching him. I know Max held him down with some sort of green cloud, and I know that you, Jim, weren't even surprised. And finally, I know that a man broke into my home and instead of being in jail, he's sitting in my dining room chatting with everyone like it's a family reunion!

Her frantic speech finished, she looked around the room, daring them not to respond to her. When her eyes fell on Lucas, she hesitated, the slightest hint of recognition passing across her face. Lucas attempted a half-smile.

"Hello, Amy."

She frowned momentarily, struggling to place the face she felt sure was familiar to her. Then, "Lucas? Lucas Austin?"

He nodded. "It's been a long time, Amy. You seem to be doing all right for yourself."

"Lucas, what are you doing here? Why did you break into my house?"

Lucas glanced uncomfortably around the room at the anxious faces awaiting his reply. He picked nervously at the papers he was holding, but looked up sharply when Amy gasped.

"What's that?" she demanded, her face draining of the little color that was left. "That's Tom's handwriting. Do you know where he is?"

Again, Liz was struck with impressions, this time from Amy. It seemed that while her connection with Max was growing stronger, even from a distance, she was also able to sense strong emotions in others around her. Her first impression with Lucas Austin earlier had frightened her, but now she found herself both awed and curious by this strange new sensation. She could feel Amy's turmoil--the guilt, the confusion, the overpowering need to know. Liz knew then that it was time. Amy had to know the truth. She turned to Max and nodded slightly. In her eyes, Max saw certainty and confidence, and he trusted it.

"Okay, Mrs. DeLuca, we'll answer your questions. But know this: with the truth comes a certain amount of danger and some hard decisions. Are you sure you want to do this now?"

"Max!" cried Michael. "What are you doing?"

"It's time, Michael."

Michael opened his mouth to protest again, but Maria took his hand, and he turned to her. "It's time, Michael," she pleaded softly.

He searched her face, letting himself see, maybe for the first time, how hard this had been on her--loving him, and living a lie with the only other person she loved as much. His expression softened, and he sighed, resigned.

Jim Valenti returned his attention to Lucas. "Mr. Austin, I don't believe we're done here yet. I'd like to ask you to stay the night in my jail, as my guest. I'm inclined to believe your story, but there is a lot to clear up yet, and I'm not prepared to let you walk out of here."

"And if I refuse?" Austin answered.

"Then I have more than enough reason to arrest you."

Austin smiled sardonically. "Then I'd be pleased to accept your invitation."

Valenti turned to Max. "I'll see to Mr. Austin and come back. I want to be here when you talk to Amy."

He looked over at Amy with concern, a fondness evident on his face. "Why don't you all get some coffee on and get comfortable. It's gonna be a long night."

"We'll wait for you," Max assured him.

"We'd better call our folks," Liz suggested, "and tell them what's going on--at least about telling Amy. I know they'll understand, and this way they won't worry."

Maria led Amy into the living room while Michael paced nervously, uncomfortable with the inevitable baring of their secrets to yet another human. They seemed to be doing that a lot lately.

Max and Liz headed to the kitchen. As Liz retrieved coffee mugs from the cupboard, she broached the subject that had been bothering her.

"Max, that thing you did to Major Austin--I've never seen that before, but the sheriff obviously knew about it. Why?"

Max cringed inwardly at the hurt in her voice. "I haven't been hiding it, Liz. I honestly just forgot to mention it. The first time it happened was early last summer, when you and I weren't seeing much of each other." He hesitated; even the thought of those days still hurt, and he could see the pain on Liz's face when he mentioned it. He shook it off and continued.

"Michael and I were arguing about something. He was about to go off half-cocked again, and I was so angry, I just reacted. It shocked us both. I didn't even know how I did it. Later, I started practicing; I wanted to be sure I could control it. The only reason the sheriff knows is because he stopped by one day when I was working on it, and he asked again to be kept up to speed on whatever powers we were discovering. That way, he can anticipate what might be coming from our enemies and what to count on from me if we ever have to fight off someone together."

Max pulled Liz into his arms and kissed the top of her head. "It's not about secrets, Liz. It's just about forgetfulness. I haven't needed to use that anywhere, and when I'm with you," he pulled back and smiled into her beautiful, trusting face, "there are a million others things I would rather talk about . . . or do," he teased. "Am I forgiven?"

Liz gave him a stern look. "I'll get back to you on that."

At his worried look, she relented. "Of course, I forgive you, Max. Just don't keep me in the dark. My reasons are the same as the sheriff's, plus one more important one--I love you. I want to know everything about you. No secrets."

"Deal," Max agreed, and sealed his promise with a kiss. When he ended the kiss, he noted the slightly glazed look in Liz's eyes with satisfaction. He lived for that look.

Soon, everyone but the sheriff was assembled in the living room, listening in tense silence for the sound of his car. As soon as he returned, he slid in next to Amy on the couch and took her hand.

"Ready?" he smiled.

Amy took a deep breath and nodded.

********

It was almost 4 a.m. when Max had brought Liz home from their evening of revelations--the second meeting with the Voyans, their beautiful anniversary celebration, and the tension of the break-in, hearing Tom DeLuca's letter, and then the "new reality" talk with Amy; they were almost as drained and exhausted as they had been the night of Max's rescue from Pierce.

It had gone "as well as could be expected." Amy had listened to their story in stunned silence, unable to even ask questions. With each new disclosure, she had sunk deeper into Jim Valenti's willing arms. She had cried a little when she heard about their more dangerous escapades, wondering how she could not have known the trauma her daughter had experienced. She was awestruck when she learned of the aliens' powers. She was horrified when they described what Pierce had done, looking at Max with new respect and compassion. When she heard how Max had healed Kyle, she understood the surprising closeness between Jim and the group of teens. Finally, she learned that the Parkers and the Evans had only recently been told about all this. She couldn't imagine how Diane and Philip Evans had felt when they realized that they had raised two alien children. Liz had told Amy that both sets of parents were more than willing to talk to her when she was ready.

Now, in the haven of Liz's balcony, the two young lovers wanted nothing other than to hold each other. They could feel their mutual need to abandon the world within the shelter of their love. They curled around each other in Liz's bed and fell asleep instantly, welcoming the peace of their dreamworlds where only the two of them existed.

********

"Paul!" Nancy Parker answered the early morning knock at the back entrance to the cafe. She had been debating whether to wake Liz for church, knowing that she had come in very late after their talk last night with Amy DeLuca. Their unexpected guest meant a change in plans for all of them.

Paul Hernandez had been a close personal friend of Claudia Parker's, Liz's deceased grandmother. He (along with Claudia's after-spirit) had been instrumental in helping Max and Liz find the Criston in the ancient Anasazi Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde, Colorado. Later, he had helped ease Max's and Liz's parents' acceptance of so many new truths: the aliens among them, Liz's and Jeff's alien/Anasazi ancestry, and even the unique and special bond between Max and Liz. Everyone now considered him part of their family, and his presence was a welcome surprise.

"Come in, Paul! How wonderful to see you. What brings you here?"

"Good to see you, too, Nancy. Actually, I'm just stopping on my way to Apache Point Observatory down in Sunspot. Ever since my retirement from the Astronomy department at UNM, I've been doing consulting on new telescope installations. They've just taken delivery on a real beauty down at Apache Point, and I couldn't resist the offer to work with it."

"That's so exciting, Paul! Maybe our star-gazing group could get a tour down there when it's all set up."

"Great idea, Nancy. I'll try to arrange that. I'm just sorry I had to disturb you so early, but I wanted to see everyone, especially Max and Liz, and I have dinner plans with the head of the observatory. It's at least a two-hour drive from here."

"Don't be silly, Paul. You're welcome here any time. I was just about to get Liz up anyway, and Jeff is just finishing dressing. Have a seat, and I'll get you some coffee.

She led Paul to the living room and, after getting his coffee, hurried to find Jeff and Liz. Just as she started down the hallway, she saw Jeff emerge from their bedroom. They met outside Liz's doorway.

"Jeff, Paul Hernandez just stopped by on his way to Apache Point Observatory. He just wanted to say hello."

"It'll be good to see him again," Jeff smiled. "I bet he wants to see Lizzie, too."

Nancy flashed him an answering smile. "Of course. Max, too. We should call Philip and Diane."

She turned to knock on Liz's door. She rapped softly, but got no response, so she called her name. Still no answer. She turned the doorknob. Locked. She glanced at Jeff, a slightly worried frown creasing her brow.

As she released the doorknob, however, the door gave way. It had been locked but not fully closed. As she pushed the door open, her eyes widened and her mouth fell open. At his wife's stiffened reaction, Jeff peered over her shoulder. Suddenly, his face mirrored hers. The vision they had fought, the truth they had studiously ignored had risen to slap them into reality.

There in Liz's bed were Max and Liz, spooned tightly. Max's arm was draped over Liz's body, their fingers intertwined, their faces a study in contentment. The sheet had worked its way down to their waists, revealing Max's muscular chest and Liz's barely-there tank top. The opening of the door must have created a cool draft because Max reached down in his sleep and pulled the sheet up over Liz, an instinctively loving gesture. As he moved, Liz shifted slightly and sighed his name.

An odd feeling came over Max and his consciousness jolted awake. Seconds later, his eyes flew open. Staring back at him were Liz's parents, frozen in place by the scene before them. After Max's initial shock at seeing them, a feeling of settled over him. There was no avoiding this now. He finally had the excuse he needed to change the intolerable status quo.

"We'll be right out," he said, a note of command in his voice.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:17:01 AM
Part 14

At a complete loss as to how to react, Nancy and Philip backed slowly out of the doorway. Max could hear Nancy stage whispering to her husband. "Jeff, what should we do? I knew this would happen. I knew it!"

He couldn't hear Jeff's response, but he knew that Liz and he had better get out there and talk things over with her parents.

He shook Liz, who was still sleeping peacefully against him. For a few seconds, he became distracted by the joy of waking up with her. Every time he awoke to find Liz in his arms, he felt a surge of love that never seemed to subside. He knew beyond any doubt that this was how it was meant to be for them. It was this sense of completeness that allowed him to welcome the uncomfortable talk they would have with Liz's parents. He wasn't so sure Liz would see the bright side to this, however.

"Liz!" He shook her again. "We've got to get up! Liz!"

His efforts were rewarded when two large brown eyes fluttered open and gazed at him with such love and tenderness, he almost forgot everything else. Her mouth slowly curved into a brilliant smile and she reached for him, pulling him down for their first kiss of the day. Max knew it would be so easy to lose himself in her, but the larger problem needed to be resolved, and he needed Liz thinking at full strength.

"Liz," he mumbled against her persistent mouth. "Liz! We have to get dressed now."

She frowned in confusion. "Why?"

“Because about five minutes ago, your parents walked into this room."

Liz gasped and her eyes flew wide. "What? Here? They were in here? Max, they saw you?"

Max nodded. "Liz, it's okay. We're going to go out there and talk to them and make them understand how it is with us. This had to happen sooner or later, and I, for one, would like to get things out in the open."

At her still-frightened look, Max pulled her close again. "Liz, I don't want them to see me as just your boyfriend, even though we both know it's a sham. They need to know I'm not going away--voluntarily, at least--and that we are joined together by Voyan custom. You are my queen on Voya, and if it were in my power, you would be my wife here. It's getting harder and harder to pretend."

Liz's eyes shone at him, touched by his intensity and, when it came to talking to the Parkers, courage. They just didn't come any better than Max Evans, she thought happily. He had given her courage with the strength of his conviction.

"Then let's go," she replied.

They dressed quickly and headed for the living room. Liz and Max were surprised and delighted to find Paul Hernandez waiting for them. Forgetting their mission momentarily, Liz flew toward him, hugging him tightly. When she released him, a smiling Max shook his hand.

"It's so good to see you!" Liz smiled broadly at their friend.

"Well, I was passing through Roswell and didn't want to miss a chance to see everyone." He glanced at the Parkers, sitting quietly on the couch. Looking back at Max and Liz, he raised his eyebrows. "Have I come at a bad time?"

"Not at all," Max answered. "In fact, your timing couldn't be better." He turned toward Jeff and Nancy Parker. "I realize we've given you quite a shock, but I'm actually glad this happened. We need to talk."

Nancy looked at him with almost frightened eyes. She had tried so hard not to let herself think about this aspect of Liz's relationship with Max. She still thought of Liz as her baby girl, and she wasn't ready to come to terms with her becoming a woman, let alone an alien queen. Jeff was a bundle of nerves. He had recognized weeks ago that this relationship defied explanation, and that the circumstances of their backgrounds and the intensity of their feelings would lead to this day eventually, but he couldn't help grieving the loss of his little girl. He resented Max in some ways because he had become the most important person in Liz's life, and Jeff didn't feel ready to let her go. He watched Max warily, unsure of how to react to this inevitable confrontation.

Max was calm, controlled, confident. He took hold of Liz's hand and squeezed it reassuringly. She looked up at him and realized that she was seeing more and more frequent flashes of the leader Max was destined to be. "Mr. and Mrs. Parker, no one understands more than I do your desire to protect Liz. I know you want what's best for her, and you're not sure I'm it, especially at our young ages, but please, listen to what I have to say."

Both Parkers were looking from Max to Liz and back to Max, wondering what new revelation he was waiting to tell them this time. Paul looked on, resigned to his familiar place on the sidelines of yet another emotional scene between this unique couple and their parents.

"We were able to contact my Voyan family again last night," Max began, watching the surprise register on each face. "My Voyan mother helped clarify more about our customs, and Liz and I learned that what we feel in our hearts has already been accepted on our planet. Liz is my queen and my mate; we have achieved what my mother called 'the joining.'"

Nancy uttered a choked sound as her trembling hand reached for Jeff, though her eyes never left Max's face.

"Mrs. Parker, this 'joining' is not just physical, it's spiritual, too. Liz and I have bonded; my mother even confirmed that with some kind of test. She was satisfied that we are one, and that it's a good thing for us and for my people. We all understand that from your perspective, this is anything but normal, but you should know that if it were in my power to marry Liz, I would do it today."

Liz's heart ached as she watched the internal struggle play out across her parents' faces. She never wanted to hurt them, but it was important to her that they accept Max. She wasn't just a daughter anymore; she was, for all practical purposes, a wife, and that was her most important role now.

"Mom, Dad," she began, "I love you. I would never intentionally hurt you. You mean the world to me, and you've always done your best for me. This past year has been strange and hard for all of us, but you've raised me to think for myself and to love and to choose what's right. This is right. Please trust in what you've done. Trust me to choose wisely."

She looked up at Max and saw the love and pride he was feeling at her words. It gave her the courage to continue.

"I'm sorry this came up the way it did, but I know you aren't really all that shocked, are you? Mom, you and I even talked about birth control once, remember? And Max and I are being very careful. Dad, you knew from the campout at Chaco Canyon this summer that what Max and I have is different, stronger than most people ever find." She paused, reaching out with her mind to detect their feelings, trying to find their emotions just as she had last night with Lucas Austin and Amy DeLuca. What she felt warmed her heart, because in spite of the shock, anger, and fear that were so predictable, the overwhelming emotion was love and concern for her. And most surprisingly, there was even a begrudging respect for Max and his willingness to take a stand because of his deep love for their daughter.

“We know this is hard for you; that’s why we’ve done our best to keep this to ourselves for now. We aren’t hiding, and we aren’t ashamed. It was our respect for you and our desire to make this adjustment as easy for you as we could that made us keep a low profile. Last night, though, there was so much happening that left us emotionally exhausted. First we met with Max’s family, and some of Michael’s, too,” she smiled, glancing at Paul. “Then there was the break-in at Amy’s and telling her everything. And,” she beamed, looking up at Max lovingly, “it was our anniversary.”

“Break in?” Jeff asked, alarmed.

“Anniversary?” Nancy mumbled.

“A man broke in to the DeLuca’s house. He turned out to be an old friend of Tom DeLuca’s who had been keeping a distant eye on Maria and Amy, but in the process, he was figuring some things out about Michael, Isabel, and me at the same time,” Max explained.

“And it was a year ago yesterday that I was shot and Max saved my life,” Liz said with a glow of happiness that escaped no one’s notice.

Liz was immediately aware of her parents’ flood of pain and gratefulness as they remembered once again that their daughter would not be standing there now were it not for one Max Evans, hero, alien, and from the looks of things, future son-in-law.

Then another sensation pierced Liz's mind and she turned to look with surprise at Paul. He was quietly observing the scene with a faint smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He believed in them. She realized now that he always had. How could he have been so sure of them from the beginning? When their eyes met, Paul's widened with faint surprise.

"You have it, don't you?" he asked quietly. "Your grandmother's gift of sensing others' emotions. I can see you reaching out for them. It's the same look that always crossed your grandmother's face when she was 'tuning in' to others." He smiled as she slowly nodded, aware that this was new to her.

"This was my grandmother's gift, wasn't it?" Liz began to smile, too. "Dad, Paul is right! This is another part of my heritage surfacing. This is why Grandma and Paul have always supported Max and me. Grandma knew it was right, that it was meant to be. And Paul believed in her instincts, right Paul?"

"She felt your bond from across a distance as soon as you two connected. She never wavered in her belief in that bond." Paul turned to Nancy and Jeff. "I'm not a parent, so I won't be so presumptuous as to offer advice. I will tell you, though, that I do believe in Claudia's instincts, and having watched Max and Liz together, as well as watching an alien race embrace their union, I don't believe there is anything that can or should keep them apart. It's out of our hands."

The Parkers sat immobile, absorbing all that had been said. Liz's heart went out to them once again. They had had less time and less reason to accept all this than Liz had. "Mom, Dad, Max and I have never wanted to make this difficult for you. We have tried to be so careful to make things appear normal for your sake. But the fact is, much of what has happened has been as shocking to us as it has to you, and we have learned that our being together is what makes us strong and keeps us sane with all this craziness." She slipped her arm around Max's waist and his arm immediately encompassed her, drawing her close.

"For better or for worse, we are destined to follow this through together. I just pray we will have your blessing." She released Max to give each of her parents a hug. Nancy began to cry softly, and Jeff held Liz so tightly, she couldn't get a full breath. When she stood again, she asked, "Can you find it in your hearts to accept us?"

Jeff stood and faced Max. "I guess I've known this was coming; I just didn't want to face it. After all those years of trying to keep Liz's ancestry a secret, it's hard to believe it's come back full circle with such force." He shook his head, obvious regret darkening his face. "I admire you, Max. I really do. But what you are headed for in your life scares me, and the fact that my only daughter is headed there with you scares me even more. I know there's nothing I can do to stop this, so promise me this: Liz will always come first. And don't let pride keep you from asking for help. If you're going to be a part of this family, then you have to trust us." He held out his hand, and Max grasped it firmly, a serious expression on his face.

"That's a promise I'm happy to make. Thank you." He shook Jeff's hand, and then shifted his gaze to Nancy Parker, who had punctuated this exchange with an occasional sniff. Max knelt down and looked directly into her eyes with an intensity and sincerity that startled her into silence.

"Mrs. Parker, I love Liz with all my heart, and I consider myself the luckiest person in the universe that she returns that love. I know that she loves you, too, and that won't ever change." He continued to hold her gaze, pouring as much of himself into his plea as he could. "It will make it better for all of us, especially Liz, if we're all on the same side."

After a long, silent moment, Nancy Parker spoke, her voice shaking. “You are so young. Even if we could approve of this, no one else would understand. You’re in high school. Liz is still 17. You still have college and . . . .”

“I have an idea about that, too,” Max suggested tentatively. “Liz and I both have enough credits to graduate from high school after our junior year except for one English course. If we took that in summer school, we could go to college in the fall. Lots of college students are married. No one would even think twice about it. They would just assume we were older. That way, we can be married, continue our education so that we’re as prepared as we can be for what might be ahead, and we won’t attract any special attention.”

Liz looked down at Max, amazed that he had been thinking so seriously about all this.

“Max, you never mentioned this to me,” she chided him.

“I wanted to bring it up last night, but . . . .” He didn’t need to finish his sentence. She blushed, remembering how there had been so much passion between them and so little conversation. Afterwards, all hell had broken loose at the DeLuca’s.

Nancy looked at Max with a mixture of awe and fear. “Married? College? What if your enemies come here? What if you have to go home to . . . wherever it is you’re from? How can I turn Liz over to a life of danger and who knows what? What if she couldn’t survive a trip to your planet? What if she got pregnant? We don’t know what could happen to her.” Her voice was building to a frantic level; Liz could see she was close to becoming hysterical. Max looked up at Liz helplessly.

“Mom, it’s okay. None of this is settled yet.” Max opened his mouth to respond, but Liz threw him a warning look. Her mother couldn’t take much more. “We’ll work it out,” she promised.

Jeff helped Nancy to her feet. “We just need some time to think. Paul, please feel free to stay and visit with Max and Liz. Shall we meet downstairs for lunch?”

Paul nodded his agreement, sad to see so much anguish disrupting the lives of these wonderful people caught in extraordinary circumstances. He watched Jeff guide Nancy back toward their room.

Max moved toward Paul to shake his hand. "Thanks, Paul. You've done so much for us already, but I'm really grateful for your support."

Paul nodded modestly. "You've always had it, Max. I hope you'll remember I'm here if you need me."

“I just hope Mrs. Parker can adjust to all this,” Max sighed. “I can’t lose Liz now.”

Two small arms encircled his waist from behind. “That could never happen,” Liz reassured him. “No matter what.” She ducked under his arm and looked up at him. “We’re together, Max. She just needs some time.”

Max returned her intense gaze, and then took a deep breath. He returned his attention to their guest.

“So, Paul, you’re headed to Apache Point? What’s going on down there?”

“They’ve just bought a powerful new telescope, and I’m going to help them install and calibrate it.”

Paul observed the meaningful look that Max and Liz exchanged. They turned back to him, a mixture of hesitation and hope on their faces.

“Okay, you two. What’s going on?”

“Let us tell you about Michael’s sister,” Max smiled.


Part 15

Tess found herself in the desert, the sun beating down on her mercilessly. She took off the jacket that she was inexplicably wearing, but felt little relief. She looked around, confused as to how she had gotten there, searching for shelter, a car, water, anything to help ease the panic that was slowly rising in her throat.

Her chest felt tight, as if bound by some unseen restraint, and she could hear the rush of wind in her ears, although the air around her was still and oppressive. What had happened to her? Why was she alone? Where was everyone?

Soon breathing became more of an effort, and she felt claustrophobic, even in the wide open spaces of the desert. She had to get out. Now.

She began to run, her arms and legs pumping hard, her breaths short and shallow.

“Ow!” protested a voice behind her. Tess turned, frightened by a voice in the lonesome vastness.

“Ow!” she heard again. Slowly, the desert around her began to evaporate, and her own bedroom came into focus. A dream. It had all been a bizarre dream. But she was still hot, and it was still hard to breathe.

As the dreamworld dissipated and reality crystallized, Tess became aware of the vice-like grip of arms around her. She screamed and began to fight her way out of their grasp. Her scream was immediately echoed by another scream, a deeper, huskier scream. She whirled around in her bed and came face to face with Kyle. Another scream erupted from her throat, this time a scream of surprise and outrage. Kyle echoed her again, shock evident on his face. He jumped from the bed, looking desperately around the room, confused and frantic. Nothing was making sense.

The two stared at each other, frozen in their effort to make sense of what had happened. Tess’s mouth was agape at Kyle standing there, having burst from her bed in nothing but his boxers. He was staring back, looking for all the world like he didn’t know why Tess was in his room, in his bed.

Gradually, Kyle began to put the pieces together. This was Tess’s room now, not his. He had climbed in bed with her! Why? Then it hit him. The dream. A hint of a smile lit the corners of his mouth at the memory. He had been showering when he heard the shower curtain shift. To his amazement, a blond vixen with seductive eyes and plump breasts had stepped gracefully into the tub, trailed her fingers up his damp chest, curled her fingers into his hair, and pulled him against her, sliding up against him toward his mouth. She had seduced her willing target, leading him to her bed where he had lost himself in her body. The vivid sensations were still with him, and his body reacted abruptly, catching him off-guard.

Tess saw his erection come to life and his frantic expression as he tried to hide it.

“Tess! I’m sorry! I must have been sleepwalking! Oh, God!” Kyle’s eyes darted everywhere, refusing to settle anywhere, especially on Tess’s face.

“Kyle!” Jim Valenti stood in the doorway, looking with shock from his son to his temporary ward and back again. “What in the name of all that’s holy is going on here?!”

Kyle started to prance, the urge to run irrepressible, but there was nowhere to go.

“Dad, honestly, I don’t know what happened. I . . . .” As the evidence of Kyle’s aroused state began to subside, Tess was hit with a completely inappropriate urge to giggle. It started small and bubbled forth in louder and louder bursts until she fell back against her pillow, holding her sides. The sheriff gaped at the scene, completely unable to understand what had happened and more than a little unsettled by Tess’s unexpected fit of laughter. Kyle made a mad dash for the bathroom and slammed the door, eliciting another bout of muffled giggles from under Tess’s pillow.

Jim Valenti knew he had to do something, but he had no idea what. “Both of you, dressed and in the kitchen in ten minutes!” he barked.

Tess was still struggling to control her mirth when she entered the kitchen, and it didn’t help at all when Kyle crept in, avoiding her gaze at all costs. Jim Valenti’s severe expression was even funny, and she wasn’t at all sure she could look as contrite as she was expected to.

“Who wants to tell me what happened?” He glared at both of them, more afraid of the answer than he let on.

“It was nothing, Sheriff,” Tess assured him. “It was just an accident. Kyle climbed into his old bed in his sleep, and it startled me . . . and him, evidently.” Another unwelcome chuckle escaped her, and she clamped down on it hard. The truth was, she was delighted that Kyle’s subconscious had led him to her bed. That was the most encouraging sign she’d had from him in a long time. He’d been so damn careful with her since they had begun to recognize their mutual attraction.

Kyle’s guilty expression made his father nervous. “Kyle? Is that what happened?” Kyle finally let himself look at Tess, relieved and gratified to see the affection in her eyes. She wasn’t holding it against him . . . so to speak. She wasn’t going to accuse him of mauling her. He relaxed a little.

“Yeah, Dad. I’m sorry. I don’t know how I could have done that, even in my sleep.”

A suspicious look lingered on the sheriff’s face, but he could only accept the story at face value. “I’ll get a lock on that door by tonight,” he promised Tess. Tess was surprised by the pang of disappointment that swept through her. Of course, that was the right thing to do, she told herself. She stole another look at Kyle. He had picked up on her reaction, and now he was the one suppressing a smile.

The phone ringing broke the awkward silence, and as Jim answered it, Tess and Kyle began to fix breakfast, flowing through the practiced choreography of people who were used to a familiar ritual. He took down the bowls and grabbed the bread, putting four pieces into the toaster. She reached for the milk and juice, pouring everyone the drinks she knew they wanted without even asking, and setting them on the placemats at the table. As Jim continued his conversation, Tess surrendered to an ornery whim.

“Must have been some dream,” she murmured suggestively, sidling up beside Kyle. He turned to get off a quick retort when something in her eyes caught his breath.

“It won’t always be a dream,” he whispered softly, and suddenly Tess found nothing funny in the situation.

The sheriff hung up the phone, breaking the spell that had held them mesmerized. “Remember Paul Hernandez?” he asked them. They nodded, still unnerved by their brief exchange. “He’s back in town for the day, and he’s headed down to Apache Point to help install their new telescope.”

Kyle and Tess were quickly focused on what he was saying. They had told him all about their meeting with the Voyans at the end of the long session with Amy. “If they can contact Michael’s sister, this could be her chance to get a job where she can help identify incoming Voyan ships. It’d be perfect! She’d be right near Roswell and all of you.”

“When are they going to try to contact her?” Tess asked.

“As soon as they can reach Michael. He’s not home, so they’re betting he’s still at the DeLuca’s. They don’t want to call over there yet. Amy needs to get some rest. I hope she can deal with all this when she wakes up,” he said thoughtfully. “I’d go over there, but I’ve still got this Austin guy to deal with.”

As they sat down to breakfast, each mind was a hive of worries, ideas, and emotions. None of them really noticed the quiet that settled over the table.

********
Michael stuck his head in the door and watched Maria sleeping next to her mother in Amy’s bedroom. His head and his heart were battling it out, slamming logic and emotion back and forth like a championship ping-pong match. He kept coming up with the same end result—he was no good for her. He had started ruining her life as soon as he emerged from his pod, and he had only made it worse since they’d met. Her father was gone because of him. Her life was in danger because of him. He knew he loved her, but that’s why he had to push her away.

He could already anticipate her anger, her eyes throwing sparks at him, her words punching holes in the air between them. He loved that. Sparring with Maria made him feel alive. She challenged him, wouldn’t let him get away with anything, laid it all out there where he had to deal with it. She made him better than he was. And she loved him in spite of it all.

Her angelic features belied the fire that lay beneath, and he studied her, memorizing her face to keep within his heart for later, when he needed her and she wasn’t there. He walked heavily out to the porch, sitting on the steps with the coffee he had just made. He couldn’t bring himself to leave until they woke up, so he could see for himself that Amy was coping with the shock they had delivered. Maria would have her hands full. He’d have to wait until later to tell her of his decision.

Two warm hands slid up his back and began to massage his neck. He moved his head in a slow circle, relishing the soothing touch. She had magic fingers.

“Morning,” she crooned, bending to kiss the top of his head. “Rough night. Are you okay?”

This would be hard, maybe the hardest thing he’d ever done. But it wouldn’t be now. He knew she was fragile now, in spite of her attempt at normalcy. “I’m okay. How are you?”

“Tired, but okay. We’ll have to see about mom when she wakes up.” She sat next to him and looked up, smiling. “Thanks for staying, Michael. That means a lot to me.”

Michael looked away, embarrassed as he always was when he was caught playing the good guy. “No big deal. I figured you might need me if she woke up and freaked.”

Maria accepted his answer; he never did know how to react to gratitude. She looped her arms around one of his and rested her head on his shoulder. He stiffened, and Maria frowned. Maybe he was just jumpy about all that happened last night, she thought. He probably thought her mother would wake up and start screaming at the top of her lungs. He deserved to be jumpy.

The phone rang, and Maria hurried inside. “Michael, it’s Max!” she called.

Michael came inside and took the phone. She watched his face as he grunted his understanding, his whole body becoming animated as Max continued talking. Finally Michael spoke.

“I’ll meet you at the sheriff’s office. Bring the orb; mine’s at home.”

Michael let a rare smile break out on his face, and he grabbed Maria by the shoulders excitedly.

“Paul Hernandez is at the Parker’s. He’s on his way to Apache Point Observatory to help install their new high-powered telescope.” He watched Maria expectantly, waiting for the light to dawn. When it did, Maria wrapped her arms around him and bounced with anticipation.

“Michael, this is just what we need for your sister! If Paul can help her get a job there, she could adjust it to watch for Voyan ships! Does he think he can help us? Can he get her a job?”

“Yeah. He knows the director there and says they’ll have to hire some new people to work with this telescope. It’s cutting edge stuff, but she’s bound to know everything about it and more.” Michael let it sink in that the sister he never knew he had until yesterday might be coming to join him on Earth, and working near Roswell at that! He was suddenly energized.

“Maria, we’re all supposed to meet at the sheriff’s office first and see what else we can learn from Lucas Austin. Then we’re going to use Max’s orb to contact Zeval. I wonder how fast she can get here!”

Maria grinned at the excitement on Michael’s usually deadpan face. It brought a whole new dimension to him, and she felt her heart embrace him even more. One day, she would have the chance to patiently scrape away the many layers of Michael. She didn’t know what she would find, but she felt sure there was pure gold inside.

********

Malek watched the stars streak by the observation window. Three more weeks until they reached Earth. At least he had the element of surprise on his side. If his intelligence reports were correct, the royal family was hiding out in the southwestern portion of the North American continent. An earlier transmission had put them somewhere in New Mexico, but they hadn’t been able to pick up anything else since.

No matter. He could feel them getting closer every day. They had dealt his cause a staggering blow when they had returned the Criston to the King’s family. The people had rallied behind them, caught up in a vulgar display of patriotism and good will. Malek’s own planet, Krona, an industrial powerhouse, had managed to maintain a viable alliance with Durin, a harsh planet good for little but mining and full of malcontents, but Voya had renewed its strong bond with Theron, cornering the market on technology, culture, and philosophy, and the malleable farmers on Oreana blew whichever way the wind was strongest. He intended to be that wind and throw the balance of power back in his favor. Capturing the royal family would break the back of the Voyan effort, and install him permanently as leader of the 5-planet cluster.

He had spent his adulthood one step behind the Voyans, his dream forever just out of his reach. But no more. He had narrowed down his search for his enemies, and best of all, he now knew the King’s weakness. Yes, indeed, he would bring the King of Voya to his knees.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:18:41 AM
Part 16

Lucas Austin watched the parade file into the holding area of the Roswell jail on this quiet Sunday afternoon. He'd never been in jail before, not counting that time when he was on leave after boot camp and got a little drunk. Well, a lot drunk. Evidently, he had gotten into a losing argument with an arcade game. Other than that, he'd walked the straight and narrow, and even though he'd spent a short and uncomfortable night as the sheriff's "guest," he supposed he was lucky he hadn't been arrested.

The teens, and the sheriff, too, strangely enough, looked energized, excited. Amy and the other adults, whom he recognized as parents from his surveillance, looked worn and a little shellshocked. He could easily understand Amy's state of mind, but he was perplexed by the others. They had known the truth for a while.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Austin," the sheriff boomed cheerfully. "I hope my deputy has been taking good care of you."

"No complaints," Lucas responded as the sheriff unlocked his door.

"Glad to hear it. I wondered if we could have a moment of your time."

Lucas almost smiled. Clearly he had no choice in the matter, but the sheriff liked to keep things "friendly." A typical law enforcement tactic.

The group crowded into the largest interrogation room. There were only four chairs, and Lucas noted with interest that they were occupied immediately by the sheriff, Max, Michael, and himself. The others lined the walls, accepting without question that these were the key players in this conversation.

"Okay, Mr. Austin. Let's pick up where we left off last night. Tom DeLuca was a close friend who sent you a package to open in case anything happened to him. When he disappeared, you opened it to find evidence of an alien presence on this planet. Since then, you've been keeping an eye on Amy and Maria in his absence, and you've been drawing some conclusions about the identity of those aliens. Is that accurate so far?"

Lucas nodded.

"Then, tell me, Mr. Austin, why you felt it necessary to break into the DeLuca's home. Why not knock on the front door?"

Lucas looked at the group and wondered again about the acceptance this little band of aliens had found among a group of upstanding middle-class citizens.

"I was becoming more and more convinced that Tom was on to something–belated as that conclusion may have been. After what I saw last night in the desert, I was more concerned than ever about Maria's safety, especially. She seemed too close to them and weird things were going on." He hesitated, gauging the effect of his words. Nothing. He had said nothing that they weren't expecting.

"I'd already been through their school files with a fine-tooth comb, and I thought maybe I could find something in the house that would give me physical evidence I could take to the authorities. I wanted to get Maria out of this."

Well, that had an effect. Every face reflected fear when he said "the authorities," even the sheriff's. They were all committed to protecting these aliens, that much was clear. The group fell still, waiting for the sheriff to plan his line of questioning.

"Were you successful, Mr. Austin? Did you find anything?"

"If I had, you would have found it on me, now wouldn't you, Sheriff?" More silence. "No, I didn't find anything. I'm not even sure what I was looking for."

Max had been watching closely, absorbing Lucas Austin's body language, speech inflections, eye movements–anything that would give him a clue as to his state of mind. "What were you protecting Maria from, exactly?" he asked. "Did you think she was in danger? Had you ever witnessed her in any sort of danger while she was with us?"

Lucas met his eyes, finding no malice hidden there, only one man assessing another. "I knew there were things going on that weren't normal. I also knew that if what Tom suspected was true, he wouldn't want Maria involved. I just wanted her away from it. I just wanted her safe."

Max stared him down a moment longer. Then his eyes sought Liz's. She was staring intently at Lucas, too. She turned to Max. "I think he's telling the truth. He just wants Maria safe."

"What do you intend to do now?" Max asked him.

"I intend to ask some questions of my own," Lucas responded. "Like how many of you are there? How did you get here? Why are you here? Why are these people so interested in protecting you? Are more coming? What do they want?" He paused. "And what do you intend to do with me?"

"I don't trust him, Max," Michael piped up. "We have no reason to trust him."

"Your call, Max," the sheriff said. "I can arrest him, if you want."

Lucas observed this interaction with extreme interest. His instincts had been correct. Max was a leader of some kind. The others all deferred to him. Even the parents, at least about this. And he was involved with the Parker girl, but what were her gifts? He'd never had her pegged as one of them. The boy, Michael, must be his second. He was the one involved with Maria. He suspected Isabel was one of them, too. She had been adopted at the same time as Max, and the circumstances of her origin were equally mysterious. He couldn't tell if there were others.

He returned his attention to Max, who was weighing his options carefully.

"Forgive me, Mr. Austin, but the people in this room who have the answers you want earned that information by building trust. I have no reason to trust you other than your apparent good intentions toward Maria. I'm not inclined to explain much of anything to you right now, except to say that no one is in danger from us, least of all Maria or anyone else here. I'd like to know what you intend to do with the limited information you have."

Lucas shrugged. "What can I do with it, Max? Anyone I tell about this will think I'm crazy and my reputation will be worthless. I have a contract to fulfill with Roswell High, and then I will be on my way. But I intend to keep checking up on Amy and Maria . . . frequently. If I think they're in danger at any point, things could change."

His challenge did not go unnoticed, and Max approved. This man intended to put Amy and Maria first, even if his own life could be in danger. Max admired that. There was his first link in building a chain of trust with Lucas Austin.

"Let him go, Sheriff."

"Max! Are you crazy? He could walk out of here and head straight for the newspapers!" Michael objected.

Max had never lost eye contact with Lucas. "He won't do that, Michael. He doesn't have anything but heresay to tell them, and he wouldn't drag the DeLucas into a media circus. Not to mention that he's not really sure we won't disintegrate him, if he messes with us."

Lucas smiled at Max. "I see we understand each other."

"I think we do." Max turned to the sheriff. "Let him go."

Jim nodded. "Okay, then. Major, you're free to go, but let me offer one word of advice. Choose your friends wisely. The good guys aren't always who you think they are."

Lucas gave him a cursory nod as he headed toward the door. "I'll keep that in mind, Sheriff." Then the latest threat to the group's secret walked out.

******

Jeff and Nancy Parker walked slowly back toward their car. So much was happening with the kids—alien stuff, romantic stuff . . . scary stuff. Thinking about finding Max in Liz’s bed was bad enough, but wrapping their brains around the concept that he was an alien king, and she was his queen? Life used to be easier.

Philip and Diane Evans filed behind them, lost in their own thoughts. They had adjusted to all this fairly well, they thought. But each time the reality of it came boiling to the surface, they struggled for a while. The concept of alien life wasn’t as unsettling as the reality that their precious children could be hurt. They had previous lives, and responsibilities to alien races, and budding romances with humans and, laughably, homework to finish. And now, a dilemma not unknown in the world of human parenting—their son had spent the night with his girlfriend. Nancy had called them in quite a state. Diane wasn’t surprised, and truth be known, neither was Philip. But now that they knew for sure, they would have to deal with it—somehow. Nancy Parker had looked positively shaken.

“Could I talk to you?” Amy DeLuca was hurrying down the sidewalk toward the two couples. “Liz told me you had offered to talk to me about . . . about what they told me last night. I really need to talk to someone. I feel like my head’s going to explode.”

Jolted from their private thoughts, the other four adults were overcome with guilt. How could they have been so thoughtless, knowing Amy had only learned about any of this the night before? Lost in their own concerns, they had completely forgotten the nightmare she was living this morning.

“Amy, I’m so sorry!” Diane apologized. “I wasn’t thinking.”

Jeff, too, came forward, patting Amy’s shoulder. “You name the time and place, Amy.”

Amy knew she would be unable to function until she heard some reasonable talk from some reasonable people who knew what she knew. “My house. Now.”

Jeff couldn’t help but smile at Amy’s unmasked nervousness. “We’ll follow you home,” he offered, and the others nodded their agreement. Maybe afterwards, they would talk about what to do with Max and Liz. There just seemed to be no escape these days.

********

Michael, Max, Liz, and Paul sped toward the pod chamber. They now knew it was unnecessary to go out there for these meetings with their Voyan families, but they still felt a comforting sense of privacy and connection out there. Paul was almost giddy with excitement. Liz exchanged an amused look with Max as Paul rambled on about the first contact he had witnessed with Claudia’s help. Now he was to be part of it, and it was almost more than he could bear. He hoped Claudia was watching.

Meanwhile, Michael sat quiet and brooding alongside Paul in the back seat. He had looked back over his shoulder at Maria as they pulled away from the sheriff’s department. Maria had stood on the sidewalk, hurt and confused by his refusal to let her come. He was pushing her away again, and she wasn’t sure why. As far as he was concerned, he was doing her a favor. She’d understand that soon enough.

Following the now-familiar routine, the group was soon joined by Rana, Zeval, and Marcus. Max introduced Paul to his mother, and Michael proudly introduced him to Zeval and Marcus, obviously gratified to lay claim to family at last.

“It is an honor to meet you,” beamed Rana, eliciting an embarrassed and pleased smile from Paul. “We are aware of how you helped my son and his queen restore the Criston to us, and we are in your debt.”

Paul stumbled over a response, finally settling for an awkward, “You’re welcome.”

“Max, we’ve changed your contact protocols, giving you a primary and secondary list. Now that we have reestablished contact, there is no need for all of your family to be present at every meeting, but whenever you want them all here, let me know, and I’ll alert them.”

Max nodded his understanding. He was relieved that every contact didn’t have to be the huge production the first two had been.

“Paul may be able to help us again,” began Max. “He is on his way to Apache Point Observatory where they’re installing a new telescope. He’ll be helping with the installation and calibration, and may have some influence over who is hired to work with it.”

Zeval’s interest was immediately piqued. “What kind of a telescope is it?”

“It’s an ARC 3.5m, which will be accessed on three levels. It’s quite a plum for the facility.”

Zeval’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “That’s not bad, really. I should be able to adapt that one for our purposes without it being detected. This may be just what we’re looking for!”

“Soon after installation has begun, they’ll be interviewing for permanent employees,” continued Paul. “I’m sure I could help you get hired there. How long would it take you to get here?”

Marcus spoke up. “Until recently, it took about 4 weeks, even with our most advanced shuttles. However, a new model has just been tested that could make the trip in only two weeks. The problem is, it hasn’t been taken on a working, manned flight yet, and so far, we haven’t been able to maintain constant communication with the test flights. The speed is so great, the signal is unreliable.”

Max frowned. “I don’t want you to take any chances, Zeval. Perhaps the 4-week flight is safer.”

“And that’s what you’re taking,” Michael added emphatically, unwilling to embrace any plan that put his newfound family in danger.

Zeval smiled at her brother affectionately. “You always were bossy,” she teased. “Let me look into it, and I’ll let you know what I find out. I’ll try to get back to you tomorrow. I don’t want to waste any time.”

“Perhaps when you arrive,” Paul offered, “you could give me your credentials, and I could fill out the application for you, deleting references to your obvious experience with technology we don’t even have yet, but making it look impressive enough for the director to take notice.”

“I would be most grateful, Paul. Once again, you are doing our people a great service. Thank you.” Turning to Michael, Zeval asked, “Where is your partner today, Michael?”

Michael scowled, and Max and Liz frowned at his reaction. “She couldn’t make it today,” he said lightly, avoiding eye contact with Zeval. She let her gaze linger on him, sensing his evasiveness. “Give her my best,” Zeval told him. He glanced at her quickly, and she smiled. Within seconds, the Voyans were gone.

Paul’s face was lit with excitement. “That was amazing!” he beamed. “Max, do you think I could see the pod chamber while we’re out here?”

Max nodded. “Michael, would you mind showing Paul the chamber? I need to talk to Liz about something.”

Michael shrugged. “Sure. Come on.” He and Paul turned to make the climb up to the chamber entrance.

“What do you want to talk to me about, Max?” Liz asked.

Max struggled to form an answer, looking helplessly toward the horizon for inspiration. Finally, he just spun her into his arms and sought her mouth, kissing her with an urgency that took Liz by surprise. She needed no encouragement to respond, though, and instantly returned his kiss, matching his intensity willingly. Mingled with the love and need she felt pouring from him, she detected a concern as well, a tiny gnawing fear that she couldn’t explain. She pulled back from him and searched his eyes.

“Max, what’s wrong?”

“Wrong? I can’t kiss you without something being wrong?” His innocent expression didn’t convince Liz. She could feel what he was feeling.

“Max. I can feel your emotions, remember?” She smiled, a feeling of power boosting her confidence. “There isn’t much you’ll be able to keep from me now,” she teased him. “What’s bothering you?”

Max sighed, recognizing that there might be some disadvantages to Liz’s new ability. “It’s just that . . . .” He looked down at the barren desert floor and groped for the right words. “Your parents are very upset with us right now. I know how much they mean to you, and I know you don’t want them to be disappointed in you or angry with you . . . .”

“Max! Are you afraid that they’ll talk me out of being with you? I thought we addressed that little worry this morning! It’s not going to happen! You are I are together for the long haul. They’ll just have to get used to it.” She stopped and grew more serious, realizing that this was not a small worry to Max. She took his face in her hands and lightly touched her lips to his. “Max, we’ve been through so much, and the one thing that I never doubted in all that time was my love for you. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for you. There is nothing that would make me doubt your love for me. There is no one who could ever take your place in my heart. Max, I would die for you.”

She tenderly stroked the creases in his brow, easing the frown he wore. “Having my parents upset that we express that love physically is the least of my worries. They’ll come to terms with it. And someday, maybe we can even give them a grandchild to play with.” At this, Max’s face broke into a wide grin, and his eyes sparkled.

“I wouldn’t mind practicing for that,” he teased back, reassured, as always, by the depth of her love for him. “But we’ll have to lay low for a while.”

Now it was Liz’s turn to frown. “We’ll see about that.”

They both turned to see Paul and Michael making their way down from the pod chamber. “Unbelievable,” Paul was exclaiming. “I really wish Claudia could have seen this!”

“Yeah, and the latest decorating touches make it nice and homey,” Michael drawled sarcastically.

Max and Liz exchanged a brief, confused glance until they both remembered what they had left behind in the pod chamber—a thick quilt and lots of candles. Matching blushes crept up their faces. Michael pushed on. “I guess that explains the urgent issue you had to take care of last night.”

“Enough, Michael,” Max ordered. He hated seeing Liz embarrassed this way. Michael rolled his eyes and brushed past, leading the way toward the car. As he did, Liz’s cell phone rang. “Hello.” She raised her eyebrows and threw Max a chagrined look. “Yeah, Dad. We’re just leaving. We should be home in about 45 minutes. . . . Okay.”

She sighed as she put the phone away. “Guess what, Max?” She smiled a thin, insincere smile. “Our folks want to talk to us at the Crashdown when we get back.”

Max nodded and took her hand firmly. “No problem.” He set his jaw and straightened to his full height. “We can handle it.” They heard Paul chuckling behind them.

********

After dropping Michael off at his apartment, Max, Liz, and Paul headed for the Crashdown. Max pulled in the parking space, turned off the ignition, and . . . sat there. So did Liz. Paul watched the two of them gazing toward the Crashdown, building their resolve and their nerve. He reached forward, putting a calming hand on each shoulder.

“It’ll work out,” he told them warmly. “Hold on to each other, and know that this is just a small hurdle. You not only have the whole Voyan race behind you, but you have support here, too. You’ll do fine.”

Max reached for Liz’s hand, and they turned to Paul with gratitude. Paul could see so clearly what Claudia had felt and seen herself. Just beneath their teenaged exteriors and their questions about their roles as alien leaders was an uncommon bond, an unspoken strength. He had watched it grow between them since he’d met them. It held them apart from everything and everyone around them. It took a parent, so close and involved emotionally, to miss seeing the forest for the trees. It was more obvious to Paul all the time. And he was willing to bet others saw it, too, whether or not they understood what they were seeing.

“I can’t thank you enough for this afternoon,” he told them warmly. “But I’d better head on down to Sunspot so I can get a hotel room before dinner.”

They exchanged hugs and promises to keep in touch about Zeval and progress on the telescope. Then Max and Liz turned toward the café. “Remember when we walked in to face them once before?” Liz asked Max. “After we spent the night in the desert?”

“Yeah,” Max smiled. “And don’t forget just a few weeks ago when we walked into that ‘tell all’ session they were having. I thought your mom and my dad would pass out on the spot.” He sobered. “It’s no wonder they dread seeing us coming. From their point of view, it’s always bad news.”

“Something tells me this is no different,” Liz grimaced.

“‘Small hurdles.’ That’s what Paul said. He was right. We can do this.”

They walked through the café’s back door and up the steps toward the Parkers’ apartment. They could hear voices humming softly from within. As they opened the door, the voices stopped abruptly. Four pairs of eyes swiveled toward them. Max squeezed Liz’s hand, and they stepped through into the room.

The silence was thick and heavy, ticking by in slow motion. Finally, Jeff Parker sliced through it with predictable, but ominous words. “We’ve been talking about your situation.”

Liz felt Max tense beside her, but he held her father’s gaze resolutely.

“As we learned this morning, you two have decided to advance your relationship to the next level, an intimate level. Now I know this morning, I led you to believe that I was willing to accept this, given the extraordinary circumstances of your relationship, but I’m not the only parent involved.” He looked pointedly at his wife. “As you can imagine, we have serious reservations about the wisdom of that step. There are issues of health, emotional maturity, an uncertain future, and your ability to understand what it is you’re committing to.”

Jeff seemed to run out of steam. A speech like that was more Philip Evans’s style, but they had agreed that, as Liz’s father, Jeff had the right to speak first, and he had gone over his lines several times before the kids arrived home. Diane took up where Jeff left off. Her face was filled with understanding, but a sad resignation tinged the edges of her smile.

“We know you two love each other. Anyone looking at you can see that. But Jeff is right. Neither of you can know what’s coming. How can you be ready to commit to each other when the potential for danger is . . . .” She paled, fighting against the fear that welled up within her. “When you don’t know what that commitment might involve. Liz, what about Max and Isabel’s enemies? Max, you have always put others first. How do you know what you might be exposing Liz to? And now Jeff tells us you were even proposing an early graduation and marriage next year. Then college. We haven’t even talked about these things.”

Max noticed Nancy Parker crying again. She was his toughest sell.

“Liz and I understand your concerns. We have been over all of them time and time again, so let me address them one at a time. First, issues of health. The Voyans assured me that the hybrids sent to Earth are completely compatible with humans physically. Liz and I never . . . .” He faltered at mentioning such an intensely personal part of their lives, but it had to be done. “We never made love until I was sure of that. Believe me, I would never have risked endangering her without being sure.”

Max risked a look down at Liz, wondering how she felt about his honesty concerning their sexual lives. He knew better than anyone how extremely private Liz was about these things. His look was greeted with one of determined support. She knew this was hard on him, too. In fact, she was unwilling to let him take all the pressure about this.

“Max is right. I tried to convince him otherwise on numerous occasions, but he was determined to be sure. He wouldn’t let things get out of control because he feared for my safety.”

Nancy Parker couldn’t have looked more surprised if Liz had grown another head right in front of her. “Liz!” she breathed incredulously. Max was looking at Liz with astonishment.

“I’m sorry, Mom, but I can’t let Max take all this alone. If it weren’t for him, this would have happened months earlier. As it was, it was only after Rana assured him we were compatible that he let it happen.”

“Rana?” asked Diane.

“My Voyan mother,” Max explained. “She said it would have been cruel to send us here if we couldn’t make a life with a human.”

Max noticed with some relief that his father was looking at him with a trace of pride in his expression.

Max continued. “As for emotional maturity, I admit that’s a mixed bag. Here on Earth, we are teens. High school kids with homework and dances and part-time jobs. But as I told you at the end of the summer, we have been through more in the last year than most people go through in a lifetime. We have seen things and experienced things that no one should ever have to deal with. In the process, I have learned that I am king to a race of people I am only beginning to know. The more I have learned about them and myself, the more confident I am that I can help them. I have a lot to learn—I know that. But doesn’t everyone? And as for endangering Liz, that is my one regret. Once she knew my secret, she was a target.” He looked at her and momentarily lost himself in the adoring eyes that met his gaze. He reached to stroke her cheek, lovingly pushing that stray hair behind her ear, a habitual loving gesture. He checked himself and turned back to the adults.

“I can’t tell you how many times I pushed Liz away in the beginning, just in hopes of keeping her safe. I’d loved her for years, even before I should have known what love is, but after I healed her, I feared for her every day. I kept telling her we couldn’t be together. Later, she told me the same thing because she thought my destiny was elsewhere, with one of my own.”

Max reached for Liz and pulled her to him. “We were wrong. Not only were we miserable without each other, but while we were apart, she was kidnapped, and I realized that the danger to her exists whether she is with me or not. At least if she’s with me, I can protect her better. I would still change that if I could—keep her safe by keeping my secret. But I couldn’t let her die.” His voice cracked on his last few words, and Liz used her other arm to encircle him.

“Max, you don’t mean that. You wouldn’t change our being together, would you?”

He turned to look at her, knowing that this was a painful thing for her to hear. His focus on her was so intense that he was only aware of the two of them in the room. He cupped her face. “If I knew that it would keep you safe, I would change it. It would kill me, but I would do it.”

“No, Max! Don’t you know I wouldn’t change anything? I would love you anyway. I would have found you anyway!” By this time, she was crying, and he was kissing away her tears, oblivious to the audience that was spellbound across the room. When the moment ended in a tearfully tender kiss, no one even breathed.

Pulling apart slowly, they remembered where they were, and turned to their parents awkwardly.

“I’m sorry,” Max began, trying to regain control of his emotions as Liz wiped determinedly at her tears. He didn’t suppose that had done much for his argument about maturity.

“We have come to understand that we share a bond, we are each other’s strength,” he tried to explain again. “We complete each other in a way that even we may never understand. Our early graduation would be a common and easy solution. By that time, Liz will be 18, too. We can marry and go to college as a married couple.

“You’re right,” he continued. “We don’t know what’s coming. But we do know that we are much better prepared to face it together than we are apart. In that sense, we know exactly what we’re committing to, and the fact is, we’ve already done it.”

Diane stood up abruptly, unable to contain her own emotions. “Max! I’m so proud of you, sweetheart. You are every bit the man I hoped to raise.” Philip joined her.

“I couldn’t agree more,” he said proudly.

Max turned back toward Jeff and Nancy, who were clearly less caught up in the moment than the Evans’s. Nancy was still sitting in stunned silence, watching the emotional scene unfold.

“She’s not like you, Max.” Everyone turned at Nancy’s quiet words. “She’s human. Or mostly human, anyway. She has no defenses, no way to help you fight your enemies. If you loved her, you would set her free. You would make sure she was as far from you as possible.”

Max’s face reflected the pain her words had caused him, his guilt and his doubt surfacing once again. Liz looked in horror at her mother. Wouldn’t she ever understand? Liz fought to maintain her poise. “Actually, Mom, you’re wrong. Didn’t you hear what Paul said this morning? I have Grandma Claudia’s gift for sensing others’ emotions. That helped last night when Lucas Austin broke into the DeLuca’s house. It helped again when Amy DeLuca started to fall apart and no one knew what was best for her. And Max and I can sense each other even from a distance now. Our bond grows stronger every day.”

She looked at her mother sadly. “Whether you like it or not, Mom, I’m not completely human, and I can help Max. I’m not so defenseless as you might think. And besides, I will be a target whether I’m with Max or not. The bottom line is, Mom, I’m Max’s wife already, in my heart.”

Max and Liz watched their parents absorb this emphatic statement. Then Philip looked at each of the other adults, apparently confirming something they had talked about earlier. He took a step forward. “Son, we have one request.”

Max waited, wondering what they could ask of him now. He wouldn’t leave Liz. Not for anything. He looked from face to face. They all seemed to know what was coming.

“We want to meet your mother. Your Voyan mother.”

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:20:19 AM
Part 17

Max was taken aback by his father's request. It had never occurred to him that their human parents would want to meet his Voyan mother. But it made sense. In fact, with Rana's strong support for his relationship with Liz, it could only help their cause. He looked at Liz.

"I don't see why not," he said to her. "Do you?"

Liz smiled back, obviously thinking, too, that Rana would be their champion. "I think it's a wonderful idea." She looked at her mother. "You, too, Mom? You want to meet Rana?"

Nancy rose and approached Liz tentatively. She seemed afraid that Liz would step back from her. She rested her hands on Liz's shoulders. "I'm trying to come to terms with all this, Liz. I'm so torn between what I know you want, and what I feel is best for you. If meeting Rana will help me understand what is happening, then I want to meet her. It scares me to death, but others have obviously survived it, so I guess I can, too."

The frightened look on her mother's face, coupled with her conciliatory words, touched Liz, and she drew her mother into a hug–the first they'd shared in a very long time. Everyone was quiet while the two women forged their tentative truce. When they pulled apart, Max felt a ray of hope pushing through the clouds.

"I'll arrange it for this weekend," he offered.

********

The whole weekend had been exhausting. If Max could have his way, he and Liz would find a place to be alone, make love slowly and leisurely, and sleep for 10 hours in each other’s arms. Reality looked a little different. Liz’s mom had asked Liz to help her with a few things, indicating clearly that she expected Liz to stay home this evening, with her parents, without Max. It wasn’t a time for argument or confrontation. It was a time for tactical retreat.

Liz stepped outside the back door of the Crashdown, pulling Max along behind her.

“I hate this, Max. I’m so sorry they’re being so bullheaded, especially Mom.”

“They love you, just like I do.”

Liz raised her eyebrows, and Max chuckled. “Okay, not just like I do, but they do love you very much. They’re just confused about what’s best for you right now. We’ll wear them down, love. We just have to be patient.”

“I’m tired of being patient!” she sighed in frustration. “Why can’t we just go away and start our life together now?” A sly smile crept across her face. “You offered to take me away once, remember? You said nothing mattered but our being together.”

Max smiled, too, remembering the night he’d let Kyle talk him into taking a sip of liquor. He really didn’t have many clear memories of that night, but Liz had enjoyed filling him in on every single detail.

“Well, it wasn’t the best thought-out plan I ever had,” he grinned, “but it does have its appeal.”

Liz wrapped her hands around his neck and pulled him toward her, launching them both into their special world where no one else existed. She melted into him, welcoming her body’s familiar response, every nerve electrified, every cell humming. They stood together, wrapped in each other, for several minutes. Finally, as if on cue, they parted.

“I’ll dream of you,” he promised.

“I’ll reach out to you, Max. Maybe it can work like in the shower the other day. Be looking for me.”

He nodded, and turned to leave, running his hand down her arm, his fingers lingering on hers until he reluctantly made the break and walked to the Jeep. Liz watched him drive away and felt the emptiness. You’d better come around fast, Mom, she thought, because I won’t last long.

Climbing the stairs, Liz got ready for bed quickly, anxious to see if she could somehow reach out to Max over the short distance. After an agonizing hour of “helping” her mom with things that didn’t need doing, she gratefully slid into bed and turned out the lights. At first, her mind was busy juggling all of the weekend’s events. Images of Rana, Lucas Austin, Paul Hernandez, Zeval, and her parents ran marathons through her brain. Eventually, though, she focused on the image of the pod chamber flickering in candlelight, Max worshipping her with his eyes, his hands, his lips. Her body began to respond to the potent emotions these images elicited, and suddenly she felt him . . . almost as tangibly as if he were sharing her bed.

Amazed at the strong sensation of him, she reveled in the warmth for a few minutes. Then her curiosity kicked in. What else could she do? Could he feel her? Could she communicate?

She concentrated on imagining him next to her. She pictured herself stroking his sculpted chest and felt sure she detected a leap in his response. She imagined a kiss, and again, the sensation of his returning the kiss filtered through. Careful not to imagine anything too erotic for fear of causing a reaction that couldn’t be dealt with long distance, she tamed her thoughts and whispered, “I love you, Max” into the dark stillness. Blocks away, Max pulled his pillow to him and smiled.

********

Isabel knocked loudly on Max’s door. “Max, get up! We’ll be late for school!”

To her surprise, he opened the door fully dressed, backpack in place, car keys at the ready. “Let’s go,” he replied enthusiastically.

Isabel gaped at him. “Well, I’m not ready yet, Max. I thought you were still asleep, but we have plenty of time.”

“I want to get to school early. Hurry up!”

Isabel didn’t need to ask why. He had been without Liz last night, and everything with Max these days boiled down to Liz.

“Take it easy, Max. Go get some breakfast, and I’ll be down in a minute.”

Max stifled his immediate retort. Patience, Max, he scolded himself. She’s probably not even there yet.

Isabel’s idea of “in a minute” turned into half an hour, and in the end, Max didn’t get to see Liz before school. He felt her reach out to him a couple of times, and it calmed him to know she was there somewhere and missing him as much as he missed her.

Lunchtime. Liz hurried down the hall, her eyes sweeping over the sea of bobbing heads looking for the one with thick dark hair that fell carelessly toward those mesmerizing eyes. As she rounded the corner, two hands reached out and pulled her into a familiar chest, and she smiled happily. Looking back up over her shoulder, she grinned at him, and he tilted his head down the hall.

“Follow me,” Max whispered, as if they were on a secret mission. They hurried down the hall and slipped quickly into the Eraser Room.

“The Eraser Room, Max?” Liz teased him. “Haven’t we grown just a little beyond the Eraser Room?”

“What are you talking about?” he exclaimed, sweeping her into his arms. “This room is an institution! This is where romance thrives and innocence is lost, where passion is unleashed, and . . . .”

Liz pushed herself up and stifled his speech with a forceful kiss, a kiss that immediately captured Max’s full attention. Liz dove into his mouth, sweeping her tongue over every warm, delicious texture, reveling in the spontaneous reaction she felt from him. Instantly, Max’s arms tightened possessively around her, crushing her soft curves to him. One hand cradled her head, fingers threading gently through the cool, silky strands.

Their night apart had been so much harder than either one had expected. Liz was struck with the need she felt for Max after only a moment in his arms. Max was drinking from her like a man whose thirst could not be quenched. His hands snaked under her shirt, an untucked fitted shirt that stymied his attempts to explore upwards. With a gutteral moan, his impatient hands forced their way, scattering the buttons like popcorn. Finally able to caress her breasts, he pulled back to enjoy the beauty she shared with him. It always humbled him that she was so open to him, so willing to accept him, to want him as he wanted her.

“Sometimes I can’t believe you love me,” she sighed, and theirs eyes met in a suspended moment of crystal-clear understanding.

The dinginess of their surroundings fell away, and soon they found that isolated place they so often occupied, where the two of them were all that existed. Carried away on a wave of want and need, they shed the outside world and came together, finding ultimate release only in their joining. The peace and warmth that spread through them left them weak and breathless.

Calming gradually, Max was quite suddenly reminded of where they were when a school bell rang. Liz’s legs were wrapped firmly around him; her brow was moist with sweat; her eyes were closed, and there was a look of serenity on her face. “Liz! Liz, what did we do? God, Liz, I can’t believe we . . . . Liz, are you okay? The Eraser Room?”

Liz’s eyes grew wide, and she bit her lip, reality taking hold. “Max! We actually made love in the Eraser Room!” She started to laugh and clapped her hand over her mouth.

Max smiled at her reaction, relieved she wasn’t upset that they had shared something so beautiful in the dusty, cramped room that was a school joke. “I’m sorry I got so carried away, Liz. That wasn’t my intention when we came in here.”

Liz eyed him, mock scorn darkening her face. “Really? Then tell me, Mr. Evans, what were your intentions?”

“My intentions were to ask you to Homecoming this weekend. We haven’t even talked about it with everything that’s been going on.”

Liz began to dress, looking deep in thought. “Homecoming? Well, I don’t know. I sort of like to keep my options open until the last minute. You know, see what my choices are.”

Max immediately joined in her playful banter. “Yeah, I know what you mean. In fact, Christina Williams asked me if I was ready for a ‘real woman.’ I’m not exactly sure what she has in mind, but I think you’d agree that’s an option worth exploring.”

Liz suddenly straightened up, her hands on her hips. “She said what? That little . . . . Like she doesn’t know you’re mine?” Liz’s flush of pleasure was morphing into a flush of anger. I thought we’d finally gotten past the part where girls in this school were throwing themselves at you. I can’t blame them for wanting you, but you’d think they’d know by now . . . .” Liz’s hands were aimlessly trying to button her blouse, forgetting that her buttons had scattered in the wake of Max’s frustration. She stopped and looked down at her front, then looked up at Max, who was grinning broadly at her.

“What?”

Max chuckled and pulled her to him for a quick kiss to the forehead. “Well, maybe I forgot to mention that her comment was last spring.”

Liz choked out an indignant protest and began beating on Max’s chest as he laughed and grabbed her wrists. “Want some help finding those buttons or not?”

Liz threw him a threatening glance and began searching the floor for the little white buttons. Having retrieved the last one, she stood up. A wave of dizziness swept over her, and she reached out blindly for something to grab onto. Max was at her side immediately, bracing her against him.

“Liz? What’s wrong?”

Liz held her head and took a moment to refocus. A chilling feeling of disquiet settled over her, and she clung to Max, a frightened look on her face.

“Liz! Tell me what’s happening. Are you sick?”

“No, I . . . I don’t know. I got dizzy for a minute, and now I feel . . . I feel . . . bad. Like worried or something. Like something bad is going to happen. Max? What’s happening?”

Max felt his heart clench at the thought that entered his mind. “Liz, you don’t think . . . I mean, it couldn’t be that you’re . . . you know, pregnant?”

“No, Max. That’s not it. I haven’t missed any periods, and I’ve been taking my pill faithfully. Besides,” she smiled weakly, “even though the timing isn’t great, I don’t think I could ever feel that carrying your child was a bad thing.” She looked at him, love radiating from her eyes. “It would be the proudest thing I’ve ever done.”

Max pulled her tightly to him, touched beyond words at her sincere pronouncement. After a moment, Liz straightened, feeling much better. “I think I just stood up too fast,” she assured him. “Haven’t you ever done that? Just a head rush.”

Max looked doubtful, but lacking any other rational ideas, he let it go. He reattached her buttons with a sweep of his hand and pulled her toward the door. “We have like ten minutes to eat,” he reminded her, and they ran out to meet their friends.

Vice Principal Vidoni observed their exit from the Eraser Room and frowned. He was sure that door had been locked, but his main concern was what they’d been up to. He might not be able to control what these couples do off-campus, but he sure as hell intended to have some control at school.

After the expected ribbing from their friends, Max and Liz bolted down their lunches. Liz was watching Maria, who was not her usual bubbly self. “You okay, Maria?”

Maria nodded. She risked a sidelong look at Michael, who was sitting at the other end of the table. “Yeah, I guess so.” Michael looked away. He was going to have to talk to her. Soon.

“So, is everyone set for Homecoming?” Alex asked. “The Lady Isabel has agreed to go with me, so I want to make some plans!”

“Liz wants to keep her options open,” Max replied seriously. He was rewarded with about 5 seconds of blank stares before the groans and sarcastic remarks started up.

“Maria?” Liz asked gently. “Are you and Michael going?”

“Yeah, we’re going,” Michael spoke up. Maria turned her head in surprise.

“You haven’t even asked me, you big jerk!” she protested, a note of relief in her voice.

“Who else you gonna go with?” he shrugged. “But I’m not gettin’ all dressed up,” he warned. “I intend to be comfortable.”

Maria sighed. “That was beautiful, Michael. Really. How could a girl say no?”

Max frowned at the exchange. It was a typical Michael/Maria conversation, but the spark was gone. They weren’t enjoying the sparring today.

Kyle turned to Tess. “We haven’t talked about this, Tess, but I was hoping you’d go with me.”

Tess smiled shyly, remembering Kyle’s dream over the weekend and what it might mean about his interest in her. “I could be persuaded,” she said coyly. “But how will we both get ready in the same bathroom?”

Everyone’s eyes flew to Tess, and soon the eight friends were laughing. These relaxed moments of being normal were so rare. And about to get rarer.

********

The evening hours found Max trying to concentrate on homework at Michael’s apartment. The two friends worked quietly for a while. Finally, Michael stood and walked toward the kitchen.

“Want somethin’ to drink?” he asked.

“Yeah, you have any iced tea?”

“Instant,” Michael replied.

“That’s fine.” Max sat at the bar to the kitchen. “What’s going on with you and Maria, Michael? I thought you were really getting along, and now there’s all these looks and Maria’s acting miserable.”

Michael worked silently fixing the drinks, uncertain of what to say to Max. If he told him why he was pushing her away, what would Max say? He’d done the same thing to Liz for the same reason, but now they were inseparable. He’d say it didn’t matter. But that was different. Liz was already part alien. She was developing gifts of her own.

And she hadn’t lost her father because of Max.

“I just think we should cool it. We don’t need two of us so head over heels about a girl, we can’t think straight.”

Max didn’t rise to the bait. “So, you think you could be head over heels for Maria?”

Damn! Michael thought. That’s not how that was supposed to come out! “I didn’t mean that. I just mean I need to keep my head in the game.”

“Your head was in the game just fine, even with Maria.” Max hesitated. “At least it was before you found out her father was taken because of what he knew about us.”

Michael whipped around to stare at Max. He should have known Max would know what was going through his mind.

“Michael, you can’t change that. It wasn’t your fault. Right now, it’s you she wants. If you push her away, you’re just another person who’s leaving her.”

“It’s only going to get more complicated, Maxwell. You know that. I don’t want her in the middle of it. She’s too excitable, too high strung, too . . . .”

“Too important to you?” Max watched his friend’s face close down. He’d struck a chord, but there was no way Michael was ready to admit it.

Beep . . . beep . . . beep . . . .

Michael sprang into action. He ran toward the bedroom and emerged with the orb. Its light shone brightly for a few seconds and then retreated into the orb where it glowed softly from within. A few seconds later, Zeval was standing with them.

“Michael, thank God you’re here!”

“What is it? What’s happened?” Michael asked worriedly.

“I was scheduled to leave tomorrow in the 4-week shuttle, but we’ve just received some terrible news. We think Malek is already headed to Earth, Michael. He’s coming for the four of you. He’ll destroy you if he can. He may even know where you are!”

“Who’s Malek?” Max was getting a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“He’s the governor of Krona, and the most ruthless leader in our history. He’s determined to strip you of the throne, Max, and take control of the alliance.”

“How? I don’t understand?”

“I don’t have time now. I’ll explain everything when I get there. But Michael . . . .” She turned to her brother, her own worried face mirroring his. “I’m coming in the 2-week shuttle, Michael. It’s the only way I can beat Malek there.”

“No! It’s not safe!” Michael was desperate at the thought of losing the sister he’d just found.

“Michael! This is not up for a vote. It’s the only way. I may not be able to communicate with you, but I’ll come to you as soon as I arrive. Warn Paul.” She turned to Max, her voice dropping to a whisper. “He wants you most of all, Max. And he’ll stop at nothing to get to you. Max . . . warn Liz.”

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:22:09 AM
Part 18

“Warn Liz.” The words ricocheted around in Max’s head, sending terrifying vibrations through his body. Then, like a light switch, he transformed from panicked teen to confident leader. There were people who needed him.

“Zeval, tell Rana I will be contacting her soon. Safe journey.”

Zeval dipped her head in a small bow and disappeared.

“Michael, call Paul. Fill him in and tell him we’ll get him more detail as soon as we can. Tell him Zeval will be here in two weeks. Then get over to Valentis and talk to the sheriff, Kyle, and Tess.” He looked at Michael, knowing his next words might spark an objection. “Then go talk to Maria. She needs to know, Michael, and she needs you. It’s too late to push her away. The danger is on its way.” Michael didn’t speak; he just set his jaw and nodded.

“I suggest we leave Amy and the Parkers out of this for a few days, at least until we know more. They’ll only panic. I’m going to see Liz. Then I’ll go home and talk to Isabel and my folks.”

Michael seemed to accept that Max was, indeed, in charge, and immediately headed for the phone to carry out his first order. Max grabbed his keys and headed for the Crashdown. As he pulled up, he could see the candlelight flickering against the brick on Liz’s rooftop patio. How many times had he climbed that ladder with a light heart, knowing the joy that waited for him at the top? Tonight, he would have given anything not to be climbing those rungs.

Liz jumped when Max’s head appeared over her half-wall. “Max, you startled me! I wasn’t expecting you.” She rose from her lounge chair, a welcoming smile springing to her lips. It dimmed almost immediately when she saw the look on his face.

“Max, what’s wrong?”

“Zeval just came to Michael. She’s taking a chance on the 2-week trip here because they’ve learned that Malek is already on his way to Earth to find us—to destroy us.”

“Max! Oh, God, Max!” Liz threw her arms around Max and locked him in a fierce embrace. Then her shaky voice asked, “Who is this Malek? Why would he want to hurt you?”

“I gather he’s the leader on one of the other planets in our system. He’s been struggling for control for a long time, and now that things have turned against him at home, I guess he figures coming after us is the best way to improve his odds.” He pulled Liz away from him and held her shoulders firmly, making full eye contact with her so that he knew she was understanding every word.

“Liz. This is what I have dreaded most. That someone would actually come after me here. You know what I’m saying, don’t you? He’ll know about you Liz. He’ll know how important you are to me. You’re a perfect target.” He released her shoulders only to slide his arms around her fully and crush her to him. His voice fell to a raspy whisper. “Liz, this is why I said I would change things, if I could. I would do anything to keep you from harm.”

She nodded against his chest, needing his strong arms around her for a few moments. It was really happening. The danger that had been limited to Earthbound enemies had expanded to include the enemies from Max’s home world. Well, she was his queen, and it was her job to be the partner he needed, to support him and help him as much as she could.

Finding courage in that realization, Liz stepped back from Max, presenting him with a calm and resolute partner. “Well, then, we’d better have a plan. When shall we meet?”

Max looked down at his mate’s beautiful face, full of determination and love for him. He was speechless for a few seconds, absorbing the impact of her words. Would he ever get used to her unshakable loyalty? He was ashamed that even now, part of him had expected her to be overwhelmed by fear, to push him away, perhaps to reject him. But time after time, this is what he got—unwavering support and love. She was too good to be true.

“Well?” Liz asked impatiently.

Max smiled, in spite of the situation. A plan. Yep, that was his Liz. “We’ll all meet tomorrow. Michael is telling Paul, theValenti household, and Maria. I’ve come to see you, and now I’m headed to my house. We’re not mentioning this to your parents or to Amy DeLuca until we have more detail and that plan you’re talking about. There’s nothing for them to do or to fear for at least a couple of weeks.”

“Then you’d better get home,” she told him. He nodded and turned to leave.

“Max.” He turned back again. “I love you,” she said simply.

He rushed to sweep her up into his arms again, kissing her desperately, letting her feel everything: the love, the guilt, the fear, the promise—the promise that he would do everything in his power to protect her and her family and friends. Then he was gone over the side, leaving Liz to imagine what fate awaited them all.

********

Isabel had never convened the Star Chamber before. She had never felt confident enough or important enough to call them together, in spite of their protestations that, as their princess, she could call upon them at any time. This time, however, she didn’t hesitate. She entered the semi-dream state and located the senior leaders, who, in turn, called together the others. Josh hurried to her as soon as he arrived. He took one look at her face and grabbed for her hand, never thinking that this was a breach of protocol. Evidently, that didn’t occur to Isabel either, for she held onto him gratefully.

When they were assembled, Isabel took her place before them and related the highlights of their last meeting with the Voyans, Paul Hernandez’s offer to help place Zeval in the Apache Point Observatory, and then Zeval’s visit that evening to warn them of Malek’s impending arrival. When she finished speaking, there were several seconds of silence before a frantic hum rose up throughout the gathering. Eventually, their leader, Antul, silenced them.

“We’ve known this day would come,” he announced solemnly. “We are prepared to protect our king and his family. We have experts in every field; we have abilities that have lain dormant all these many years. It is time to rededicate ourselves to our people and our leaders. Are we of one mind?”

A chorus of agreement arose, and Antul faced Isabel. “We are at your service. Please relay our support to our king. Whatever he needs, it will be done.”

Isabel bit back tears. She had to appear strong in front of these representatives, but what she really felt was small and helpless, and completely humbled by this blind show of support.

“Thank you. I will tell him. I know he will be very grateful. I’ll return when we have any more news.”

The group dispersed, but Isabel turned to see Josh waiting for her. He was looking at her intently, easily sensing her fear and uncertainty. “Isabel, wait.”

She stopped, uneasy with his intent stare. “I have to go, Josh.”

“Isabel, I know this is your worst nightmare. It would be enough to knock any of us for a loop. I don’t want to see you try to cope with this alone.”

“I’m not alone,” Isabel replied defensively. “I have Max and Michael and Tess . . . .”

“That’s not what I mean,” he countered gently. “Sometimes you need someone to lean on, who will just listen, who will just let you cry, and who will understand.”

Isabel could feel her controlled façade begin to crumble. “I have Alex,” she reminded him.

“I know,” Josh said, stepping closer and taking her hand. “But Alex is human. I know he cares for you, and you care for him, but he can never really understand. Isabel, this is about intergalactic war. This is about alien royalty. What has ever prepared Alex Whitman to cope with any of this?”

Josh took yet another step toward Isabel, coming face to face with her, though she would not look at him. He could smell her light perfume, he could feel her warmth, he could see the tiny teardrops gathering at the corners of her eyes. “Isabel, I am like you. I understand what it’s like being one of us living on this Earth. I have grown up with stories of our home and its politics. And I can be with you, just like this, whenever you need me. I’m only a wish away when you want someone to talk to, someone to hold you, someone to love you.”

Isabel’s head jerked up. Love her! They were only friends! Casual friends, at that. “Josh, what are you talking about? We don’t even know each other that well.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time with you, Isabel. In my dreams, that is. And we did spend time together last summer while you learned about the Star Chamber. I feel something for you, Isabel. Something strong. And I think you could feel it, too, if you’d let yourself.”

She stood staring at him, an unsettling combination of surprise, curiosity, and familiarity sweeping through her. And then, before she knew what was happening, he was kissing her, and in spite of her shock, she felt something, too. She wasn’t sure what, but it was not unpleasant or scary. She felt comfortable, safe. And for a moment, she let herself experience it. Quickly, though, she pulled away, frowning at what she had let happen.

“Josh, we can’t do this! I don’t really know you. I love Alex! It’s not right.” She was growing flustered, and Josh stepped back, not wanting to upset her further.

“Think about it, Isabel. Open yourself to it. You might be surprised.”

Isabel turned away and bolted upright in her bed. As the memory of what happened came flooding back, she held her head and let out an anguished groan.

******

Michael frowned as he approached Maria’s house. It had been hard enough breaking this to the Valenti household. Tess had looked resigned, having known on some level that this was inevitable. Jim Valenti had taken the news stone-faced. From the day his suspicions about Max Evans had been confirmed to the moment he had watched his dying son restored to him, he had known that he was buying into a dangerous secret, but he was as good as his word, and he wasn’t about to abandon them now. Kyle had paled, swallowed convulsively, and then asked, “Is this a joke, Guerin?” If the circumstances had been less dire, Michael would have laughed out loud. As it was, his grim facial expression told Kyle all he needed to know.

Now for the hard part. Maria.

She opened the door to him even before he could knock, her face already wary because of the way he had been acting toward her. Looking at his expression now, her wariness turned to anxiety.

“What’s going on?”

He held out his hand and, when she took it tentatively, he pulled her outside to sit on the front steps.

“Maria, things are about to get rough.”

She turned to him but said nothing, the fear evident in her eyes.

“Zeval came to tell me that this ruthless leader who wants control of our 5-planet alliance is on his way to Earth, looking for the royal family. His name is Malek, and as far as they know, he could be here in a couple of weeks.”

He was watching Maria carefully, bracing for the inevitable explosion. That’s how Maria coped—she blew off her initial strong emotions in a fireworks display of words and hands and movement. Then she settled down and addressed the situation. He’d learned to wait her out. But she sat quietly, still wide-eyed and staring.

“They think he knows where to look for us—probably that damned first orb communication—and he might know about you and Liz and the others. We’re gonna meet tomorrow and try to figure out what to do. Isabel is letting the Star Chamber know and I’ve already talked to the Valentis and called Paul.”

The fireworks began.

Maria stood suddenly and started to pace. “That’s just great! Now we have the ultimate bad guy—with powers, mind you—on his way to some unsuspecting planet where who knows what kind of havoc he’ll wreak! How are we supposed to defend against that? How many others is he bringing with him? Does anyone even know what powers he has? Can they tell us how to fight back? I mean, he could just walk up to Roswell and incinerate the whole place and poof, no more royal family . . . or anybody else, for that matter!”

Her face was alive with outrage and her arms waved wildly as she spewed her indignation into the air. “You realize that if they know about Liz, they’ll come after her. I mean, she’s the perfect bait for Max. Oh my God, my mother will have a fit! She’s already just this side of hysterical.”

She stopped suddenly in front of Michael. Then the tears came. “Oh, Michael! I’d die if anything happened to you.” And then her arms were around him, and as he held her, he was glad he didn’t have to speak. He was reeling from Maria’s tirade. Not the fact of it, or course; he had expected that. But as he listened to her, he heard only concern for others, and most amazingly, no talk about running or distancing herself from him or blaming him for endangering them. Her bitterness was all directed to their unseen enemy, and her questions were all about how “we” were going to fight him. Now she was in his arms, crying over the danger he was in. His love for her raged within him while his mind kept reminding him that he was the worse person in the world for her.

He released her before she was ready, and she looked up at him questioningly. He bit back the words he wanted to say, and instead turned to leave. “We’re not telling the Parkers or your mom for now. Not until we know more about what we’re dealing with. Okay?”

She nodded, more hurt and confusion in her eyes; they would haunt his dreams tonight.

******

Max couldn’t sleep. He hated not being with Liz, especially now that he had put her in even more danger. He knew Malek would be hot on Zeval’s heels, even with her in the faster ship. When she arrived, he intended to make an impassioned plea to the Parkers to let him stay with Liz. He’d sleep on the rooftop, if necessary, or the couch, but he wanted to be wherever she was until they had Malek under control.

He tossed and turned for a few more minutes until finally, heaving a frustrated sigh, he got up and started pacing. His eyes fell on the orb, peeking out from under the bed. Rana, he thought suddenly. Why wait til tomorrow?

Seconds later, the orb was in his hand, sending a brilliant shaft of light upwards, until it withdrew into its shell. Rana stood before him, an uncharacteristically strained look on her face.

“I’m not surprised to hear from you, my son. We are gathering every bit of information we can. We’ll keep you fully informed. Zeval will be leaving in a few hours. I only pray she is able to reach Earth before Malek does.”

“What does he hope to achieve here, Mother?”

Rana hesitated, holding her hand to her forehead. Max instinctively reached for her, but quickly remembered he couldn’t touch her. His movement caught her eye, though, and she smiled at him. “I’m fine, son. But the answer to your question is my worst nightmare. Malek wants power. That’s all he’s ever wanted or cared about. Now that the Criston has been restored to us, we have regained control of the alliance. Theron is our strong ally, and Oreana is satisfied enough, but Krona and Durin are sworn to take control, and now the only option they have left is to . . . to destroy the royal family. And Max, with the wonderful news about your joining, Liz is part of that family.” She looked stricken as she watched her son hear confirmation of his own worst fears.

“I suspected as much. But how do I protect her? I don’t even know what to expect! How do we fight him?”

“The four of you are strong, son. Very strong. You need to keep your minds in tune, use your gifts. Liz joining you is an extra bonus. She may have gifts you haven’t explored. But you must work together. Malek is powerful, and he plays ruthless games with his enemies’ minds and bodies. Your unity is the key.”

“Liz does have a gift. She’s learned to sense other people’s feelings, motives. She seems to be able to reach out with her mind and sense another person’s intentions.”

“That could be very helpful to you, but take care. Those with that sensitivity are often more susceptible to receiving a ruthless mind’s malevolent signals. She must learn to block Malek, or he may try to control her thoughts.”

Max was horrified at the thought of Malek creeping into Liz’s mind. That wasn’t something he could protect her from. She had only two weeks to figure out how to block him.

Rana frowned. “You’ve never come to me without Liz before. Where is she?”

“That’s the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. I told you that here we are considered too young for the joining. Well, Liz’s parents—her mother, really—have real problems with our relationship. They found us together . . . you know, I mean . . . together.” He looked at Rana, embarrassed, but she simply smiled and nodded for him to continue. “Anyway, it started a whole big deal about whether I was good for her and how young we are. . . .” Max trailed off, feeling overwhelmed with their problems. For the first time in his life, he had his real mother to talk to, and the little boy in him just wanted her to kiss it and make it better.

“I’m sorry, son. I wish there was something I could do.”

“There is. They want to meet you. All of them. My parents and Liz’s parents. Would you do that?”

For the first time in the conversation, Rana smiled happily. “I’d like nothing better, my son! I owe these humans more than I could ever repay. It would be a pleasure and an honor. When would you like me to meet with them?”

“I told them I’d try for this weekend. How about our Friday night? We have a dance on Saturday. I know it sounds crazy to go to a dance in the middle of all this, but we haven’t told the Parkers or Maria’s mother what’s happening with Malek yet. I’d like things to look as normal as possible. Besides, he won’t be here for at least two weeks, so there shouldn’t be any danger yet. We’ll be meeting to make plans, and Isabel is contacting the other Voyans on Earth to recruit their help. That’s all I can think to do right now.”

“You’ve done well, my son. I am so proud of the leader you are becoming. Whenever you want me to meet the parents is fine. I’ll look forward to it. And I promise, I’ll try to ease their minds.”

“Rana?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve never called me anything but ‘my son.’ What’s my name?”

She smiled fondly at her son. “You were given the name Zan at birth, but I know you are called Max on Earth. I like it. It suits you. Shall I call you Max?”

“Zan?” Max thought for a moment. “Yeah, call me Max.”

“So be it, Max. I’ll look forward to meeting your parents. Liz’s, too. Take care, dear son.”

And she was gone.

Max stared at the spot where Rana had been standing seconds before, wondering what was in store for them all. The fact that he had put Liz in even more danger–again– brought Nancy Parker's face looming in front of him. If you really loved her, you'd make sure she was as far from you as possible. He sighed deeply. It was too late for that. Even if he pushed her away again, Malek already knew what she meant to him. She was a target no matter where she was. And who was he kidding? That strategy hadn't worked for them even when they were just starting out. Now they were as close as any two beings had ever been; they were one, and that's how they would face this.

The ominous images of what their future might hold blurred in his mind. He held his head in his hands and tried to slow them down, tried to make sense of what was happening. It was too soon, though. He couldn't get them under control, and his heart called for Liz. He lay down on the bed and tried to relax his mind. Maybe she was still out there, reaching for him, too.

He was instantly rewarded with Liz’s presence; her searching had found him, tense and lonely, and she wrapped him in her warm love, imagining her gentle pressure on his temples, whispering meaningless words of comfort into the air. She could tell he was aware of her, but he couldn't block his need for her.

Liz was on her feet, the decision taking only a split second. She smiled ruefully as she implemented the most adolescent scam on the planet–stuffing her pillows into a human shape, covering them with a blanket, and dousing the light. "I'm coming," she whispered.

The effect of her thoughts on Max's state of mind was dramatic. His breathing slowed, his tension began to subside, and his mind calmed. She was coming. Minutes later he saw her move through the shadows of his yard, and he quietly opened his window to help her in. She was in his arms instantly, sharing her love and comfort, gratified at the calming effect her presence exerted over him.

He lifted her up and carried her to the bed, all the while planting soft kisses across her face and neck. "Thank you for coming, Liz. I needed you. You knew how much I needed you."

She stroked his face lovingly. "Yes, Max. I'll always know."

She had expected their lovemaking to be fast and urgent, so she was surprised when Max began to love her slowly, softly, patiently. At first, she reveled in his languid strokes and feathery touches, but her own desire burned hotter every second, and she opened her eyes impatiently, wanting him to take her. She watched him concentrating, as if he were memorizing every detail of her body. And that’s when it hit her. That was the second she knew exactly what he was thinking.

He was already wondering how much longer they would have together.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:23:50 AM
Part 19

By morning, Max was feeling in control again. At dawn, he awoke and drank in the sight of his angel lying in his arms. He would have gladly turned over his distant kingdom for the privilege of staying right where he was at that moment. This isolated little blip in time offered the peace he could never seem to find anywhere else but in Liz’s arms. He hated to break the spell.

“Liz,” he whispered softly in her ear, stroking her arm lightly. “I have to get you home.”

Liz woke slowly from under sexy, heavy-lidded eyes. Max’s breath caught in his throat. Her flushed face and mussed hair sharpened his anticipation as he waited for their eyes to meet. When they did, that familiar jolt ran through him, the love he saw there an ever-new surprise. He drifted toward her, his lips barely touching hers. She lay there, content for the moment to absorb the light, loving sensations that Max was sprinkling over her body. The image of Tinkerbell and fairy dust flitted across her mind, and the hint of a smile touched her lips.

“What?” Max asked, pulling back with a smile of his own.

“Nothing,” giggled Liz. “I don’t think you’d appreciate the comparison.”

“To what?” he asked, feigning offense.

Liz laughed softly. “To Tinkerbell.”

The look on Max’s face drew genuine laughter from Liz this time, and she pushed her face into the pillow to muffle the sound.

“Let me get this straight,” an indignant Max complained. “When I kiss you, you think of fairies?”

Liz pushed against him playfully, crawling on top of him and bringing her face down to his. “I guess that takes some explaining,” she chuckled. As she felt his inevitable response to their intimate contact, though, her mood shifted from lighthearted to lustful. “I only think of fairies when the kisses feel like this,” she whispered, and began to leave feathery kisses across his face, neck, shoulders, and chest. At first, he lay still, letting her electrify him one tiny jolt at a time, but he lost his ability to lie still when she unexpectedly nipped at one nipple. He grabbed her suddenly and flipped her onto her back.

“Fairy, huh?” he breathed against her ear, sending shivers through her body. Their passion built quickly, and he took her as she had expected him to the night before—hard, fast, and demanding. Max had a thousand ways to love her, each better than the last, but sometimes she needed this from him, and she matched his pace with an intensity that sent them both spiraling toward completion. When the ripples of pleasure they had shared began to subside, Max nuzzled her neck.

“You were saying?” he baited her.

“I was saying how much I love you, your highness,” she teased back.

He grinned down at her, looking triumphant. “That’s what I thought you said.”

********

Their little diversion had cost them precious time in an already tight morning schedule. Max took Liz home just as the sun was rising. He raced home, showered, and took off with Isabel to pick Liz up for school.

“Max?”

“Yeah.”

“This morning I passed your door early and saw a bright light coming out from under your door. I almost stopped to see if you were okay, but I thought I heard voices, so I figured Liz was in there. What was that, anyway?”

Max’s mouth twitched, a familiar indication that he didn’t want to give a straight answer. He threw her an embarrassed glance. “Yeah, Liz was there.”

“So what was the light all about? Were you using the orb?”

“Not exactly.”

“Not exactly? What does that mean?”

He could tell she was genuinely confused. “Isabel, when Liz and I . . . when we’re . . . if things are getting . . .”

Isabel rolled her eyes. “Max, if you’re talking about that little glowing thing you told me about--the “make-out glow?”—that’s not what I mean. This was really bright, kind of a golden color. You really don’t remember?”

Max let a deep breath out slowly. This was not a conversation he wanted to have with his sister. “Iz, the glow is bright; it’s sort of proportional to the intensity of . . . Damn it, Izzie, when we make love, that’s what happens, okay?”

Isabel’s mouth dropped open, and she stared at her brother. Then, suddenly, was looking everywhere but at Max. “Oh my God, Max. Every time?”

“Pretty much,” he sighed, fervently hoping they were done with this conversation.

Evidently they were. Isabel didn’t say another word. After a few minutes, though, Max became the curious one. “That was really early, Isabel. What were you doing up?”

“Oh, well . . .” Isabel bit her lip. “I hardly slept last night. Maybe I should tell you about a really strange experience I had in the Star Chamber last night.”

********

It was a somber group who gathered at the Evans home after school. Something about the uncertainty of the situation had people paired up—a comforting coping mechanism. Kyle and Tess sat close together, their fingers intertwined. Alex sat on the edge of Isabel’s chair, his arm draped around her. Her hand rested on his at her shoulder. Michael sat on the floor, his back to the couch. Maria didn’t hesitate to sit in front of him, wiggling back up against him between his legs. Max had been holding onto Liz in some manner ever since school, and only released her when it came time for him to talk. Even then, his hand stroked her back nervously, never breaking contact. Even Diane and Philip were holding hands as they sat on the sofa, waiting for their son, the alien king, to run the meeting. Only Jim Valenti was going solo, but he had agreed that Amy wasn’t ready to hear this yet. They would wait until closer to the expected arrival of Zeval and Malek to tell her. It would be up to Liz and Max when to inform the Parkers.

“I talked with Rana again last night,” Max began. “Here’s what we know so far: Malek is on his way to Earth and should arrive in 2-3 weeks. He wants to strip our family of power, I assume by killing us or taking us hostage, or . . .” He hesitated, not wanting to verbalize the worst possibility. “Or by taking those we love hostage.”

The tension in the room thickened, although the silence was unbroken. “He has enormous mental and physical powers and no conscience. His ultimate goal is to take control of the 5-planets in our system.”

Max looked around the room. He knew each person was fighting the wave of panic that had attacked him as well when he learned more about their enemy. There wasn’t time to panic, though. They had to prepare.

“We also know that Zeval is on her way, and should beat him here, if all goes well. If we can get her on board at Apache Point fast enough, she might be able to help pinpoint the time and location of Malek’s arrival. Rana also told me that our combined abilities make us very strong. We can fight him. This time, ‘we’ includes Liz; as you know, she has begun to develop some abilities of her own that could be very helpful. The problem is, Rana says that those who have Liz’s special gift can be more susceptible to receiving the disruptive thoughts that Malek sends out. She said he plays cruel games with people’s minds and bodies.”

Max stopped and looked at Liz, fear evident on his face. Saying all this out loud made it worse, made it real. Liz, however, was determined to show a calm and confident face. She wanted them to believe in her, and she had to start by believing in herself.

“What we don’t know is how many others Malek might be bringing, what his plan is, and exactly how to fight him. So here’s what I’m proposing: Each of us needs to spend time over the next few weeks sharpening our skills—practicing as much as we can. We also need plenty of rest; we can’t start out run down because we have no idea how long this may drag on.

“Isabel also informs me that the Star Chamber leaders are mobilizing the other Voyans from Earth. Antul has pledged their full support.”

Max took a deep breath. The last part of his plan would not please Isabel, given what she had shared with him in the car. It was too important, though. She would have to find a way to deal with it. “Finally, we need to help Liz learn to block Malek. Isabel, I’d like you to get Josh down here. As dreamwalkers, you can give Liz practice in resisting your attempts to enter her mind, but she needs to be able to block at least two people, I think, to build up resistance to Malek.”

Isabel looked at him sharply, surprised that he would suggest this in light of her experience last night, but she saw the apology in his eyes, and knew he wouldn’t ask if it weren’t critical. She nodded and reached for Alex’s hand.

“Two more things. First, since we know that Malek is not only powerful physically, but mentally, we have to make a pact right now. We are all in this together. No matter what we see, or think we see, we have to trust one another. Don’t fall for what might look like one of us doing something to harm or betray the others. I think we can all agree right now that our rational minds know this would never happen. If you think that is happening, think twice, and remember that we are probably being made to see something that’s not true.

“And finally, our own safety, especially our human family and friends. For now, we need to act as normal as possible. We’ll go to school and work, we’ll attend the Homecoming dance, and we’ll prepare privately as much as possible. But please, be aware of your surroundings. Try never to be alone. We’ll do whatever it takes to protect you, but we can’t be everywhere at once, and we’re just not sure what we’re fighting.”

Max had never so much as run a meeting before, let alone planned and implemented an important effort like this one. It gave him an odd feeling to see them watching, listening, trusting him the way they did. It was a little heady, but it was a lot scary—he was responsible for these people. He loved them, and they loved him, and having their lives in his hands almost paralyzed him. But he didn’t have the luxury of self-pity or even self-doubt. There simply wasn’t time.

Quite suddenly, he surprised himself by declaring, “I love you. All of you. I’m sorry that my very existence is endangering you, but I’m grateful every day for having you in my life. I’ll try not to let you down.”

His honest, simple statement startled his audience, but within seconds they rose and began to hug each other and Max and then each other again. They say troops who go into battle together develop a closeness unparalleled in human relationships, he thought as he watched them reach out to each other. Now I understand what that means.

********

The rest of the week was a blur. They did their best to appear normal while preparing for the fight of their lives. Meanwhile, Max and Liz were also anticipating their parents’ meeting with Rana. Early Friday evening, the Jeep led the Crashdown van containing the two sets of parents out to the pod chamber. Max had decided to begin by showing them the chamber so they could see firsthand how the four hybrids had come into this world. He hoped it would make an impression on Nancy Parker, making Max seem less threatening.

As soon as they arrived and made the short trek up to the entrance, Liz realized what they would see inside. Her gasp caught Max’s attention, and he looked over at her, alarmed.

“Max! What about the quilt and candles. They’ll know what we’ve been doing in there!” she whispered to him.

He smiled, amused at her sudden concern. “It’s all taken care of. Don’t worry.”

She breathed a sigh of relief, and turned to follow the four nervous parents into the cave.

Max led the way into the pod chamber, lighting several candles that he had left in place for this purpose. Diane and Philip, holding on to each other tightly, entered behind him, wide-eyed with wonder. They had rarely seen Max use his powers, so watching him use his hand to open the chamber and light the candles was still amazing to them. They began to take in the details of the cave as Jeff and Nancy, herded gently by Liz, followed them in.

Jeff felt an excitement that surprised him. This was a part of his own heritage, although he'd never known of its existence. And now he felt a connection that he had both anticipated and dreaded. His own denial of his alien ancestry had pushed him far away from ever considering what it meant to him. He hadn’t wanted to know. Until now. Now he felt . . . something. A bond, a familiarity, even a sense of pride. He was linked to this incredible legacy, and his daughter was carrying it forward.

In his awe of this place and what it meant, Jeff had almost forgotten about his nervous wife. Nancy stood in the doorway, reluctant to fully enter the chamber. Liz took her arm. "Come on, Mom. It's okay. Nothing in here can hurt you."

Jeff heard Liz reassuring Nancy, and he quickly returned to his wife's side. "Look, honey. This is incredible! This is where they emerged from the pods. Look at the tears in the shells. It's amazing, isn't it? The Voyans had been mating with the humans for centuries, but they were actually able to recreate that on their planet and send them here!"

Nancy seemed less enthused about this biological feat than her husband, but she approached one of the pods tentatively. "Can I touch it?" she asked Max.

"Of course, Mrs. Parker. It will feel dried out now, of course, but I have a vague memory of it being very moist and sort of lit from within. I imagine it was quite beautiful, if I'd even thought to really look at it. Everything was too new and strange, though. Isabel and Michael had emerged at the same time, so we were getting used to each other and trying to figure out what to do. I'm not sure why Tess didn't emerge when the rest of us did."

"I remember when we found you," Diane added, already starting to get teary-eyed. "You were so small and thin and frightened. I'd never seen anything so vulnerable and precious in my life. It was like God had placed you there at that exact moment for us to find." She looked up at her husband, and he took her hand, smiling at the recollection.

Philip picked up the memory where Diane had left off. "You didn't speak at all, and you were totally naked. You and Isabel never stopped holding hands. Everyone could see that you two needed to stay together." He thought for a moment. "We never saw Michael. I wish we had. Things could have been better for him." He shook his head, regret creasing his brow. Then he returned to his memories. "But you seemed–I don't know–intelligent, I guess. You seemed to understand we were helping you. And when you finally came to us for good, you learned so quickly, we could hardly believe it."

As they grew more comfortable with their surroundings, they began to mill around the confined area, touching, asking questions. Max seemed to relax, enjoying sharing memories that he had sheltered for so long. Liz watched as he became more animated, explaining what little he had come to understand about himself and his people. His parents marveled yet again at what he had lived with right under their noses without their realizing it, and Jeff Parker was almost giddy with excitement. The dam that had held his curiosity and untapped alien tendencies under tight control burst open, and he felt more in tune with himself than he ever had before. Nancy still hung back, taking it all in, reserving judgment. This wasn't just sci-fi turned real, this was her daughter's life, her future, and Nancy still had serious reservations.

"Shall we contact Rana?" Max suggested when the others seemed to run out of questions.

They filed outside, and Max retrieved the orb he had left outside the chamber entrance.

"Gather in a circle and hold hands," he instructed them. "Once she has appeared, we can let go."

They did as they were told, and after the now-familiar beam of light and its soft afterglow, Rana stood before them. Max felt suddenly awkward. He had to introduce his two mothers, and the absurdity of the situation was not lost on him. Liz gave him a reassuring smile, and he found himself smiling back at her. If this was going to help their parents accept them as a couple, it was worth it.

"Rana," Max began. "I'm proud to introduce my parents, Diane and Philip Evans, and Liz's parents, Nancy and Jeff Parker. They've been anxious to meet you. Everyone, this is my Voyan mother, Rana."

Rana took a moment to make eye contact with each one of them. Then, focusing on Diane and Philip, she spoke. "I can't tell you how honored I am to meet you. I have spent many anxious hours wondering what became of my children. Now, to know that they were loved and cared for by such wonderful people has gladdened my heart and brought a sense of relief to an entire planet."

The four parents were awestruck by the sight before them, and none of them could find words to reply. Rana had anticipated their intimidation and sought to ease the tension. She approached the Parkers; Nancy took an involuntary step back and Rana stopped.

"You are Liz's parents. How proud you must be. She has certainly won my son's heart, and in the process, the heart of my people. I know this must be quite shocking, but her ancestry makes the situation quite appropriate, don't you think? Mr. Parker, it is you who links Liz to the Voyans?"

Jeff was astounded. Here he was, talking to a member of the Voyan race and acknowledging for the first time all that he was. He felt ashamed for renouncing it for so long.

"Yes, it is my ancestry that links Liz to your people, but I confess that I turned my back on it until recently. I didn't even tell Liz about it. I wish now that I had explored it more. I find myself quite drawn to it now." He missed Nancy’s sharp, fearful look.

"I understand perfectly," she assured him. "You had no need for it, and in some ways, a reason to fear it. I'm glad that you are ready to embrace it now, though. Liz and Max will need your understanding and support."

She turned to Nancy. "You have many concerns about all this, as any mother would." Nancy barely managed a nod. "If the situation were reversed, I could only hope to be dealing with it as graciously as you are. I must tell you that I find Liz extraordinary. She has dared to love the unknown, she has faced a mysterious past with courage, and she has embraced a future in which her own emerging powers may play an important role. To go from an anonymous teen to an alien queen in the midst of crisis takes character and faith, both of which she possesses in abundance. I'm sure you were largely responsible for that."

Nancy couldn't help but look pleased, and she stole a glance at Liz, suddenly seeing her in a slightly different light. "Thank you," she whispered.

Rana then turned to Max's parents, who had been taking all this in with fascination.

"To you, I owe everything. Can you begin to imagine the anguish of watching your children die, and then sending their embryonic essence into the galaxy, praying for the best? Well, my prayers were answered. It is clear how much Max and Isabel love you, how you have loved them and given them all that they needed. You not only have the humble thanks of their mother; you have the undying gratitude of our people. Through you, hope has been restored on Voya, and our king is prepared to lead our future."

Max winced at his mother's words. He didn't feel like a king, and he certainly didn't feel prepared to lead an entire planet. But he appreciated the faith she had in him and hoped he wouldn’t disappoint her.

“You must have questions,” she continued. “Please feel free to ask me anything.”

“What do your people look like . . . you know, when you’re on Voya?” Jeff asked her. Max tensed, wondering if Rana was comfortable talking about this.

“A natural question,” she answered easily. “Not really that much different from you, actually. Our bodies hold a form similar to human form, but less angular, more malleable. When on Earth, those properties allow us to take on a variety of external forms. On Voya, we are much more limited in the changes we can make. Our biology differs, of course, but as I have told you, those differences are not a barrier between Max and Liz.”

“What were they like . . . before?” Diane asked timidly. “Max and Isabel, I mean.”

Rana smiled with pride. “Well, Isabel was so beautiful. She used to drive us crazy worrying about her personal appearance, and having little fits to get her way, but when it was important, when it really mattered, she had a heart of gold. She and Max were so close, they’d go off and whisper to each other keeping secrets they never shared with anyone else. As they grew, that closeness was their foundation.” She looked at Max lovingly, remembering how close she had felt to her children then.

“And Max. He was wonderful. Softspoken, but so wise. He had such a generous nature and was always so caring about other people’s needs. A natural born leader, people said. Athletic, too.” She sighed wistfully. “It always saddened me that he never found someone to love—he had so much to give.” Then she brightened and smiled at Liz. “Perhaps he was just saving it for this special one.”

“How do you know?” asked Nancy Parker, so quietly her question could have gone unnoticed, but Rana heard her and turned to face her directly.

“How do I know they belong together?” Rana asked.

“Yes,” Nancy answered her, calling on courage she didn’t know she had. Standing here in this scene from a bad movie, she knew she had to ask her questions now. She wasn’t sure she would get another chance. She wasn’t sure she wanted one. “I want to know why I should believe that these two children should commit to one another. They have their whole lives ahead of them, and they’re talking about marriage already. They want us to accept that they are ready to decide whom to spend a lifetime with. And not just a regular lifetime, either, but a lifetime of aliens and enemies and royalty and other planets.” She stopped, trying to calm herself. She could hear herself talking faster and higher with every breath.

“I need to know how you know.”

Rana listened to her carefully, hearing the fear and doubt, understanding a mother’s instinct to protect her young.

“I’m glad you’re asking these questions, Mrs. Parker, because I respect those questions. You love your daughter and you want what’s best for her. I want no less for my own children. Let me tell you about a ritual we perform on our planet when two people express a desire for the joining.

“The candidates come together before an official and state their wishes. Then they each hold out a hand, palm up. When the official’s hand contacts the energy radiating naturally from another being, an energy symbol forms in each palm; it represents the temperament, dreams, and ambitions of the person who holds it. If the symbols match, we know that this is a union of two compatible souls, and the joining is approved. I performed this ritual with Max and Liz. Their symbols matched exactly, and glowed brightly—a very positive sign. I have no doubt that these two belong together. Let me show you.”

Rana stood in front of Max and Liz, and they extended their hands, palms up, just as they had before. As Rana held her hand over Max’s, a glowing energy symbol appeared, resembling a jack from a children’s game. Next, Rana held her hand over Liz’s, and the matching symbol began to glow immediately. As the parents watched in awed silence, Rana smiled at Max and Liz, happy to see a confirmation of her earlier conclusion.

“Do you see how they match? These symbols are . . . .” Rana froze. As she was speaking, the symbols had begun to rise in the air, hovering over the young couple’s heads.

“Max, what’s happening?” Liz asked.

“I have no idea,” he breathed, his eyes riveted to the symbols above him. “Rana?”

Before she could answer, the symbols began to move again, floating toward each other until they touched. Instead of stopping next to each other, however, they began to merge, blending their shapes as the beams of light bent around each other to create a larger, brighter symbol of the same shape. It bathed the onlookers in a gradually intensifying light until it shattered into tiny shards of glowing energy and showered down over Max and Liz.

No one moved for several seconds. Max finally gathered his wits and looked at Rana, who was speechless in front of him. “Rana?” Her eyes were still fixed on the now-dark space above their heads.

“Mother!” Max shouted. “What happened? What was that?”

Rana took in a sudden deep breath and brought her hands to her face, looking in shock at her son and his mate. Finally, she managed a few whispered words. “I thought it was just a legend.”


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 20-Apr-2002 11:26:54 AM ]
posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:28:26 AM
Part 20

“What was a legend? Rana! Tell me what this is about!” The commanding tone in Max’s voice penetrated Rana’s daze, and she focused on him. Much to everyone’s surprise, she lowered her hands to reveal a radiant smile.

“I thought it was just a legend!” She took in the alarmed faces of her paralyzed audience and hurried to organize her thoughts. “There is a prophecy among our people as old as the ‘First Ones.’ It is said that after centuries of political unrest, we would one day have a king and queen whose joining embodied a perfect love--a love for the ages. This royal couple would turn the tide of our history and lead us to a lasting peace.” She stared at Max and Liz, her face alive with hope. “It was said that we would know when they were among us by the joining ritual: their joining symbols would merge into one and burst into a showery blessing.

“I never believed it. I thought it was just a story we told our children generation after generation to offer a bit of hope for the future. It never occurred to me that . . .” She beamed at Max and Liz, watching as they reached for each other, trying to absorb what they had just heard. It was exciting and frightening at the same time. Their eyes were locked as they sought understanding and reassurance from one another. Max finally turned back to Rana.

“Why didn’t it happen the other day?” asked Max.

“I don’t know,” puzzled Rana. “We performed the ceremony just as we did today.”

“No, we didn’t,” said Liz. Confused eyes turned to her expectantly.

“The last time, we got as far as the symbols appearing when you noticed the ring Max had made for me. I turned my hand over so you could see it, and Max lowered his hands altogether. Isn’t it possible we just stopped too soon?”

Rana could barely contain her excitement. “Yes! You’re right. We did stop too soon. I just never imagined that there was anything more to come!”

Max looked down at Liz with a confidence borne of new understanding. "I always knew there was something between us. Something strong . . . inevitable. I just never dreamt it went beyond my own feelings for you." He bent to kiss her softly, unconcerned about the loved ones who watched the tender moment.

Liz shared his happiness through the kiss, and instinctively drew him closer when she wrapped her arms around his neck. The kiss deepened, in spite of their somewhat public surroundings. There was so much emotion being exchanged between them–the joy of having this tangible proof that they belonged together, the worry over bearing so much responsibility to a people they didn't even know, the surreal knowledge that they embodied the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, but always and above all, the gratitude for the uncommon bond of love they shared. All this, focused in one impulsive kiss.

It should have been no surprise to them, then, when a golden light began to swirl around them. Rana, smiling knowingly, looked down in a futile effort to allow them their private moment. Diane and Philip looked on in awed silence as they took another step along that long road to truly comprehending who and what their son was. Jeff was taking it all in, trying to make the pieces of his life's long-ignored puzzle fit. He was blatantly fascinated, watching the scene unfold before him. It was only when he felt his wife falter against him that he snapped out of his reverie and realized she was on the verge of fainting.

The young lovers parted just as Jeff uttered “Nancy!” Liz rushed to her mother’s side.

“Mom! Are you okay?”

“I need to get her home, Lizzie. I’m sorry.” He reached out a hand and stroked her cheek. “I don’t know what to say, sweetheart, but thank you. You’ve led me back to a part of myself I’ve never taken time to know. And you . . .” He looked over at Max. “You’re beautiful together. We’ll work things out. Just give it some time.”

Liz blinked back the tears, grateful for her father’s blessing, but she was still worried about her mother, who looked pale and weak leaning against her husband. “Thank you, Dad. That means so much to me.” She kissed him on the cheek and turned to her mother.

“Will you be okay, Mom?” Nancy attempted a weak smile and nodded. Jeff turned to lead her toward the car. Diane and Philip began to follow, stopping in front of Max, who had walked over to join Liz. “We have plenty to talk about, son,” Philip said. “But I can’t believe what we’ve seen tonight. I know it took a lot to share all of this with us, and I want you to know, we’ll honor your wishes about this. We just need a while to take it all in.”

Diane stopped resisting her urge to hug her son and threw her arms around him. Max smiled at his father as he returned her embrace. “I always knew you were special, Max,” she whispered between sniffles. “I just never imagined howspecial.” She pulled back from him and reached to pull Liz into their hug. “All this time, you’ve been telling us you two were meant to be. How could we have known? You’re so young.” She stepped back and took Philip’s hand. “I have no idea what’s ahead for you two, but I hope you’ll let us help.”

Max was speechless. His relationship with his parents had just taken a huge step, and he wondered why he had waited so long to reveal himself to them. His own tears joined theirs. “Thank you,” he choked.

Taking a deep breath, he saw the Parkers waiting by the car. “You’d better go. We’ll talk more later.”

His parents nodded and started to leave, but Diane turned back to Rana. “You have shared something special with us—a gift that changed our lives. I can’t imagine your sacrifice. I can never repay you.”

“You already have,” Rana smiled. “You have given my children everything they needed to grow into who they are—our people’s hope. It is I who owe you a great debt of gratitude.” The two women silently acknowledged their mutual understanding, and Diane continued back to the car.

Max took Liz’s hand and led her back toward Rana. “I’m not sure I understand what all this means,” he told her. “How do we live up to this prophecy? It’s hard enough to think of myself as a king, let alone half of a couple who is expected to change history.”

“You didn’t realize it, did you? Didn’t you wonder about that glow that surrounds you? The one I saw just now when you kissed?”

Liz looked puzzled. “It’s always been that way with us. We didn’t know why, but we got used to it. What does it mean?”

Rana chuckled. “Well, I’m not sure how to answer that, since I’ve never seen it before. It must be related to the prophecy.”

“You’ve never seen it before?” Liz asked, amazed. They had both assumed it was part of the alien “joining.”

“No,” Rana confirmed. “I think it’s one more testament to what you share . . . what you are.”

They stood quietly for a moment. “I must go. I pray for Zeval’s safe arrival. Oh, and she has a special gift for you. She’ll explain it when you see her.” She smiled fondly at the couple. “I’ll be here for you, my children. May God bless our cause.” With that, she was gone.

********

Hours later, the Jeep pulled up next to the Crashdown. Max and Liz had gone to the pod chamber, reeling from the evening’s revelations. They had talked and talked about what the future might hold and how they could live up to the expectations that had been thrust upon them. They wondered how best to break this latest development to the others, and they marveled at how they had failed to recognize just how unique their love, their bond, was. Somehow, they had just assumed that the others would experience what they had, if they found the right person. It was exhilarating to realize that what they had was so special and so rare. Eventually, they had poured their souls out to each other through their slow and tender lovemaking. As frightened as they were, they felt like the luckiest people in the world.

As much as they longed to spend what was left of the night in each other’s arms, they agreed that their parents were probably full of questions, so Max drove Liz home, where they sat quietly, avoiding their inevitable separation. “I’ll see you in a few hours, love,” Max reminded her.

Liz nodded. “I have a long shift tomorrow, but I’ll be ready for the dance by 7:00.”

“I’m not waiting for the dance,” Max stated firmly. “I have a feeling I’ll be craving some Saturn rings around lunchtime.”

Liz grinned up at him. “Play your cards right and there might be a free Cherry Coke in it for you.”

Max descended on her still-puffy lips and licked them soothingly before his tongue slipped inside her mouth for one last taste. When he pulled back, her eyes shone. “You’re definitely on the right track,” she sighed, and turned to get out of the car. Max hurried around to meet her and walked her to the café door. After one last kiss, she ducked inside and headed up the stairs.

Grateful to find that her parents were already in bed, she started to undress. She felt exhausted. Changing into her nightshirt, she plodded into the bathroom to brush her teeth. As she brushed, she glanced at herself in the mirror. A smile lit her face as she thought of Max loving her tonight. She loved him so much.

Suddenly, a chill settled over her, and she felt the weight of dread and anger fill her. She recoiled from her reflection in the mirror when she saw the evil that lurked behind the cold, dead eyes looking back at her. Her body shook, and she braced herself against the sink. As the tremors continued, her legs gave out, and she sank to the floor.

******

Max threw his tired body down on the bed and sighed. What a night! He let images of Liz play through his mind and chided himself for how much he missed her already. The images began to fade, though, and an ominous feeling descended on him. A sensation of loathing and bitterness invaded his mind and he lost the faint thread of connection with Liz that had recently become an important part of his very existence. Nausea attacked his stomach, a feeling Max had only heard about, since he had never been sick enough to throw up.

Liz! He was on his feet in an instant, grabbing for the phone. Even as he dialed, the sensation subsided, and his former tired but contented feelings returned. Still, he finished punching in Liz’s number and waited anxiously.

“Liz? Are you okay? I got this awful feeling . . .”

Liz was terrified, but did her best to mask her roiling emotions so Max couldn’t feel the full impact the experience had had on her. She had to learn to block this, and Max couldn’t help. He needed to concentrate on what he could do best, and worrying about her would only distract him. “I’m okay, Max. I just had another dizzy spell. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? I’m coming over,” he announced.

“No, Max. Don’t come over. My parents were asleep when I got home, and I still don’t know how my mom is reacting to all this. Besides, I’m completely exhausted, and I just want to sleep. I’ll be fine, really. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Liz, I’m afraid Malek is already getting to you. We have to start working on your blocking skills right away. Josh will be here by Sunday, but for now, I should be there with you.”

“It’s over for now, Max. I’ll be fine. And as much as I want you here, it’s just not a good idea tonight. Please, Max, go to bed.”

Max reluctantly agreed, making Liz promise to call if anything else woke her or upset her during the night. Once she had promised, he hung up and lay down, settling into a restless sleep of his own.

********

Liz fought against the sound of the alarm clock, but its persistent buzzing dragged her up through several layers of consciousness until she realized she had to get up for her shift. Moving slowly at first, she headed for the shower. As the water startled her body into action, however, her mind began to move more quickly, too. Perhaps if she hurried, she could talk with her parents before her shift. She was more than a little worried about how her mother would react to everything she had seen and heard last night.

She dressed quickly and hurried out to the kitchen. Deserted, as was the entire apartment. Thinking her parents were in the café already, she ran down the stairs. Her father was loading supplies onto the storeroom shelves.

"Dad? Where's Mom?"

Her father stopped his unpacking and turned to his daughter with a sad smile. "I'm not exactly sure, Lizzie. She got up early and said she needed time to think. She didn't want us to worry about her, but she expected to be gone all day." His heart went out to Liz; her face was both sad and fearful, and her lip quivered.

"Dad, will she ever come to terms with this? Will she learn to accept Max and me and what we are?" She leaned into her father, hugging him tightly. Welcoming his love and acceptance more than ever before, she clung to him.

"She'll adjust, little one. She just needs time. She's learning to accept me at the same time, don't forget. Everything she thought she knew about us, about her life, about everything, has been turned on its ear. I've had this knowledge all along–at least about myself." He smiled down at her. "I'll admit, this whole thing with you and Max is an eye-opener, even for me."

She looked up at him earnestly. "I love him, Dad. It could never be anyone else."

"I understand that now, Liz. Just give your mom time." They stood together quietly, arms around each other, for several minutes. Liz could feel her father's emotions clearly, and she felt relief and gratitude when she realized he really had accepted this new reality. She could tell he was worried for her future, but he wouldn't fight them.

She released her father slowly. "I'd better get to work."

"Darn right," he teased. "You'd better get out there and earn all that money I pay you."

********

Business was brisk, and Liz was grateful. It kept her mind and body occupied, and the hours flew by. Max was true to his word, ordering Saturn rings and a succession of drinks just to keep an eye on Liz and enjoy her closeness. He detected no ill effects from her scary experience the night before, but the nagging feeling that this might be too much for her wouldn't go away. Finally, Liz approached his table with an irritated expression on her face and her arms akimbo.

"Go home, Max. I only have two hours to make myself beautiful for the dance tonight, so go away and let me get ready."

Max stood and grinned down at her. "Only two hours? Wow, you'd better get moving. Looks like you have a lot of work to do."

Liz's jaw dropped and her eyes widened. Max never said things like that to her. "Max Evans! I can't believe you said that! Maybe I should just . . ." She never got to finish her sentence because Max's mouth had covered hers in a possessive, demanding kiss. Liz melted into him immediately, forgetting completely what she was saying. When Max released her, he buried his face in her hair.

"You are the most beautiful woman in the world to me," he whispered in her ear. "Always." He turned and left the restaurant, leaving Liz standing shakily next to his empty booth.

Two hours later, Max knocked at the Parkers’ apartment door. He was holding a corsage of white sweetheart roses and an extra yellow rose for Mrs. Parker. His palms were sweaty and he could feel his heart racing. He had no idea what to expect from Liz’s mother when she opened that door, but he had vowed to be the perfect date for her daughter that night, and it started with a rose for her mom.

Jeff Parker opened the door and smiled at Max. “Right on time, Max. Liz is almost ready. I’ll get her for you.”

He walked toward the back of the apartment, leaving a relieved Max standing in the front hall. Maybe she wasn’t home. How lucky could he get?

“You look very handsome, Max,” a voice said from the kitchen doorway. Max jumped at the sound of Mrs. Parker’s voice; he had relaxed too soon.

“Thank you, Mrs. Parker. I . . . uh . . . brought you this.” He held out the rose feeling very much like a little boy bringing his mother a dandelion from the lawn. Nancy accepted the flower graciously.

“Max, I . . .”

“Mom! I didn’t know you were home. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, dear.”

“I know you probably want to talk, but the Homecoming dance . . .”

“Don’t be silly, honey. You go and have fun. We’ll talk later.”

Liz turned to Max and stopped cold. He looked delicious, and the expression on his face made her skin prickly. He looked like he could eat her alive. He started toward her, leaning in to give her a brief, gentle kiss. “You look incredible,” he breathed against her mouth. She had chosen the burgundy dress with spaghetti straps because she knew how he loved her in that color, and how he always delighted in stroking her bare skin when they danced, or kissed, or . . . anything.

“So do you.” Their eyes continued to speak to each other until Liz finally asked, “Is that for me?”

“What?”

“The corsage. I assume it’s for me.”

Max looked down at the box in his hand. “Oh! Yeah, sorry. I . . .”

Liz laughed. “You don’t have to explain to me, Max. Let me get your boutonnière.”

Moments later they were off to enjoy a typical teen night.

Or so they thought.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:31:25 AM
Part 21

He led her proudly into the large dealership show room that had been magically transformed into a festive ballroom. Soft lighting, brightly colored centerpieces, and fireworks created with twinkle lights on the walls generated an atmosphere of celebration and romance. Barely a guest missed their entrance. As usual, the aura they unknowingly created wherever they went caught the attention of every eye, and there were teens of both genders quietly envying what they saw.

They took their seats at a large table, predictably occupied by the same tight group that hung together like branches on a tree, swaying in their own directions occasionally, but always returning to their place, permanently connected. An onlooker might have envied the ease with which the group talked and laughed, seemingly isolated in a sea of people, noise, and music–confident and comfortable in each other's company.

Vice Principal Vidoni was among those watching the group, but not with envy or casual interest. He was a tiger waiting to pounce, watching for the slightest provocation to enter their world and learn the secrets they held. They were too close, too smug, too removed from his sphere of influence. He just had a bad feeling, and he'd learned to trust his instincts.

"Unchained Melody" began to play, and Max turned to his breathtaking mate. "Dance with me?"

Liz accepted his hand with a smile and a sparkle in her eye that Max knew he would never tire of seeing. They held each other close and swayed to the music, letting it flow over them, insulating them from everything and everyone else. Max breathed in Liz's favorite perfume and let himself concentrate on the sensation of her smooth, cool hair on his neck. He felt her hands slide up his back, and he pulled her tighter. They could never be close enough for him.

Liz lifted her head and looked up into his half-closed eyes. "Look over there," she nodded. Max followed her gaze over to Kyle and Tess, dancing almost as close as he and Liz were. Tess had slipped her arms up around Kyle's neck and was on the verge of kissing him. Max chuckled at the look on Kyle's face. He knew that look. Kyle was a goner. He leaned into Tess, and the two of them stopped moving altogether, the music forgotten.

"Looks like having to share a bathroom to get ready for tonight gave them a head start on the evening," he grinned at Liz.

"Well, if that's what did it," she countered, "how do you explain Alex and Isabel?"

Max danced them to the right and his mouth dropped open. Isabel had somehow maneuvered Alex up against a wall and they were going at it pretty heavily for a public place. Max frowned; that wasn't like Isabel at all. And it wasn't like Alex either. What was up with them? Then he saw Alex draw back and look at Isabel, slightly dazed but a little confused as well. Looks like Alex doesn't know what's up either, he thought. Max turned back to Liz, dismissing any worry or speculation about anyone else. Right now, all he wanted was to hold Liz in his arms.

Liz, too, was more than willing to dismiss the world and lose herself in Max's arms. Dancing was a stroke of genius, she thought. Where else can you hold another person close like this in public, and no one raises an eyebrow? She slid her hands lightly over the part of Max's chest that her own body wasn't already glued to, and she heard him breathe in sharply. She smiled to herself as she felt him react against her elsewhere, too.

"You're doing this to me on purpose," he scolded her, a glint of humor peeking through his quickly darkening eyes. "I'm trying to enjoy an evening looking at my beautiful mate, showing her off, holding her, dancing with her, but you are making me want to get you alone and ravish you. Tread softly, my love."

Liz sighed contentedly against him. In moments like this, she thought her life was perfect.

********

Across the room, Maria and Michael, having given up on any real form of dancing, were just holding each other, shifting from foot to foot, enjoying each other's warmth. Michael was mentally berating himself for allowing their closeness tonight. He knew he was making it harder on both of them. He would have to put an end to this soon. But he also knew Maria was his heart, his center, and the most human part of his life, and he couldn't bring himself to let her go.

He felt Maria pull back slightly. She looked up at him, smiling that beautiful, sexy smile of hers. Then, quite unexpectedly, she pushed up on her tiptoes and kissed him. Thrown off-guard, he responded instinctively, returning her kiss with a depth of emotion he rarely let show through his protective wall. His own reaction fueled Maria's response, and their kiss quickly exploded to a passionate level. When they broke apart, breathing heavily, Maria stared at him, her wide eyes shining. "Michael, I love you."

Michael froze. What had he done? He'd let himself show her what was burning inside him, and he knew he was about to hurt her more deeply than he'd ever intended. The anguish in his eyes devastated Maria, and the tears of joy that had already formed spilled over as tears of hurt and anger. She pulled away from him and stalked off before he ever realized that he'd already done the damage he so desperately wanted to avoid.

Liz was pulled from her dreamy state in Max's arms by a sniffle and a weak "Liz" mumbled nearby. She turned her head to see Maria trying hard to keep her act together, but tears were skidding down her face and her hands were shaking. Max, too, was alarmed and immediately looked around for Michael. He saw him leaning against a far wall, running his hands through his hair and watching Maria run to her best friend for consolation.

"Liz, you go with Maria. I'll be here when you're done."

Liz nodded and put her arm around her fragile friend. She wished she were taller so she could see Michael over the heads of the crowd; she wanted to throw him a deadly look. Maria's pain was crashing into Liz, and she felt a little wobbly herself as they made their way into the cool night air.

They settled on a bench outside, and Maria began to cry–great sobs that finished in small staccato moans until her body took in another gulp of air and started the cycle again. Liz waited her out, knowing that right now, she was an incoherent bundle of pain, and conversation would be impossible. Eventually, Maria's sobs subsided into infrequent hiccups, and she turned to her friend with puffy eyes and a splotchy face.

"Liz, things have been so good with Michael lately, and although I've felt him pulling back a little recently, things were just perfect tonight . . . until . . ." She doubled over as another moan escaped. "I told him I loved him, and he just . . . just stood there, looking like I'd insulted him or something! He doesn't love me anymore, Liz! I should have seen it coming, but no. I just ignore all the signs and then make a fool of myself."

The tears came again, quieter this time. "What am I going to do?" she asked, expecting no reply.

Liz pulled her close. "You're going to go on, Maria. Michael goes through this from time to time. You know that. You just have to decide if you're going to put up with it anymore."

"I don't want to put up with it. I don't deserve this," she protested, some of her innate spunk surfacing. Then her shoulders slumped again. "But I love him. I don't want to move on." She sighed a deep, cleansing sigh. "He's such a jerk sometimes."

"I know, Maria." She smoothed her friend's hair and looked at her lovingly. "You don't deserve it. You're too good for him. But I understand about the love part. Don’t worry. He'll come around."

Maria sat silently for a moment. Finally, Liz asked, "Do you want Max and me to take you home?"

Maria shook her head. "I wouldn't give him the satisfaction. I'm going back in there and I'm dancing til I drop, and Mr. Schizophrenic can eat my dust."

Liz grinned at her friend. "That's the spirit! Come on. I'll help you freshen up."

The girls made their way to the ladies room and repaired Maria's appearance. By the time they were done, Maria returned to the dance with her head high and a determined look on her face. She was going to get out there and party or die trying.

********

Liz scanned the room for Max, but she couldn't see past the people right in front of her. Frustrated, she kicked off her shoes, lifted her dress, and pulled herself up to stand on a folding chair. Searching for that signature dark hair falling forward over mesmerizing eyes, she peered around the room. To her surprise, she found him saying something into the DJ's ear, causing the DJ to smile and nod. As Max turned to search the room for her, he caught her eye above the crowd and crooked his finger, motioning for her to meet him. Smiling back at him, she climbed down off the chair and began to make her way through the crowd.

"May I have this dance?" he asked, sweeping her into his arms. They moved together slowly as the first few bars of the song floated across the room. The DJ's voice interrupted briefly.

"This is dedicated to Liz, from Max." Liz blushed as classmates looked over toward them before reaching for their own partners. Still, she couldn't help but be pleased by his special attention to her.

"Thank you, Max," she murmured, snuggling into his chest, reveling in the warmth of him, the smell of him, the strong beating of his heart beneath her ear.

"I chose this one for the words, Liz. They say what I don't say enough." Liz had recognized the song immediately, and thrilled at the thought that Michael Bolton's words were expressing Max's feelings for her.

Said I loved you, but I lied.
This is more than love I feel inside.
Said I loved you, but I was wrong.
Love could never, ever feel so strong.


Liz knew exactly how Max felt because she had felt it every day–coming from him in a hundred different ways, and she returned those feelings with every fiber of her being.

Then it hit.

"Max!" Liz whispered urgently. "Max, it's happening again!"

She clutched at his lapels as the terrifying darkness descended on her again. She could feel the loathing and anger as the tremors began to wrack her body. Max's whole body constricted. He could feel clearly what had invaded Liz's mind, and his first thought was to get her out immediately, but before he could even flag down any of his friends, Liz's body began to convulse, and her eyes rolled back in her head. Max suppressed the panic that threatened to immobilize him, and he managed to lower her carefully to the floor.

The dance came to a halt as concentric circles of students became aware of what was happening. Max was helpless to stop Liz's violent tremors, and he frantically tried to come up with a plan.

"Call the paramedics!" the vice principal yelled, elbowing his way toward the pair.

Paramedics? Max went into full escape mode. He couldn't let them take her to the hospital. Liz's alien side had blossomed in recent weeks, and there was no telling what physical effects that had had on her system.

Their friends had gravitated toward them immediately, sensing what had to be done. Vidoni appeared next to Liz and knelt down.

"Give her room, Evans," he commanded. "The paramedics will be here shortly."

"No!" Max argued, trying to sound rational. "I'll take care of her."

"You'll do no such thing, Mr. Evans," Vidoni ordered. "You aren't qualified to take care of her. Now step away and let the professionals handle this."

Michael exchanged a panicked look with Max as Vidoni knelt next to Liz. The convulsions had subsided, but Liz was pale and unresponsive. When Vidoni reached across to take Liz's wrist, Max lunged at him, knocking him to the floor. The collective gasp from the crowd silenced the room. They watched in wide-eyed amazement as Max yelled, "I said no!" and, with one swift movement, swept Liz into his arms and stood scanning the room for an unguarded doorway. Teachers and chaperones were already making their way toward the disturbance.

A movement off to the side of the room caught Max's attention. Lucas Austin was standing near the door to the side hallway and had given him one short signal. Max was gripped with indecision. Lucas could be helping them, or leading them into a trap. Their eyes met and Max made his decision. He flashed on the day he had been forced to trust Sheriff Valenti when nothing was sure about that, either. Sometimes you had to go with your gut.

"We're getting out of here." Like a line of well-trained soldiers, the remaining six friends positioned themselves around Max and Liz and headed for Lucas, Michael in the lead. The crowd parted, then closed in behind them as the group made their way across the room. Even the protests and shouted orders from Vidoni and the other adults went unheard. It was as if they had all understood the urgency, and had inexplicably accepted Max's leadership.

As the group drew closer to the doorway, however, Max realized Lucas was no longer there. Michael, too, had hesitated and looked back at Max. At that moment, the door was pulled open from the other side, and the group stepped through quickly. Lucas was already sprinting down the hall to the locked guidance office doors, key in hand. He unlocked the door quickly and held it open as the teens hurried through.

"There's an outside door behind the secretary's desk."

With that, he stepped back into the hallway and shut the door quickly. Alex, bringing up the rear, was closing the outside door behind them when he heard Lucas shout, "They ran toward the auditorium. What's wrong?" The pounding of footsteps was the only response.

********

Maria ran ahead to start her car. Isabel grabbed the Jeep keys. "Where shall we meet?"

"Michael's!" Max called out, slightly winded from running with Liz in his arms. He climbed into the back of the Jetta and Michael joined Maria up front. She sped out of the parking lot.

"Is she alright, Max?" Maria yelled over the engine noise. "What happened?"

"She had a seizure. It's got to be Malek. He's not even here yet and he's messing with her mind!" Max's pained expression was only a partial reflection of the guilt that gnawed at him. Loving Liz was the best part of his life, but she would never be safe. There was no going back now, though. All he could do was vow to protect her with everything at his disposal.

Once in Michael's apartment, Liz began to rouse. "Max?" she mumbled.

He stroked her hair, perched on the edge of Michael's bed where he had watched her for the last 15 minutes.

"Yes, Liz. I'm here. Are you all right? Can you tell me what happened?"

Liz tried to sit up, but fell back against the pillows. "Max, I could really feel it coming this time. It's like an angry, hateful wall of emotion that seeps into me. I don't even feel like myself. I can feel myself fighting it, but I'm no match for it, Max." The fear in her was building; her face and voice mirrored the terror inside.

"We'll help you, Liz," he promised, hoping he was right. "Josh will be here tomorrow, and Isabel and he will work with you. They'll help you build your resistance. And I'll be with you, I promise."

Liz calmed a little. "Hold me," she whispered. Max wrapped his arms tightly around her, projecting the few calm thoughts that he could control. "You know, Liz, we're going to have to tell your parents. They need to know what might happen to you and why. And they need to know that we're working to help you build your resistance. I know they'll be upset, but it's better than letting them think you're sick. I have no idea what they'd find if you went to the doctor."

"I know," she agreed, snuggling closer into his reassuring arms.

Isabel walked in with Alex on her heels. "How is she?"

"I'm okay," Liz assured them. "I need to get home, though. Time to talk to the parents."

"What are you going to tell them?" Alex asked.

"The truth."

********

Jeff and Nancy Parker clasped hands and listened to the latest bizarre twist in their daughter's life. Liz did most of the talking, eager to show her parents that she hadn't suffered any lasting effects from the incident. Max kept a supportive arm around her, and Liz laced and unlaced her fingers with his as she talked.

"We should at least have the doctor take a look at you," Nancy urged.

"No, Mom. Don't you see? We have no idea what changes have occurred in me physically since my alien characteristics have started to develop. Anything odd that showed up would endanger me and the others. Please, Mom. Let us handle this. Josh will be here tomorrow, and I'll work hard with him and Isabel to learn how to block Malek. Maybe when Zeval gets here, she'll have some advice. It's really our only choice right now."

They sat in silence for several minutes. Nancy looked pale, beaten. Jeff was struggling with his own sense of guilt; he was, after all, Liz's alien link. Liz let her head fall back against Max's chest. She was exhausted. He unconsciously kissed the top of her head while his hand lightly stroked her forearm. Nancy watched the easy, intimate contact.

She stood. "I'll help you to bed, Liz," she said, effectively bringing the discussion to a close.

Max opened his mouth to say he would care for her, but quickly shut it. He couldn't intrude on Nancy Parker's role as mother right now. Liz lifted her face to his and communicated her appreciation of his restraint. He bent to kiss her softly.

"Goodnight, love."

She rose and let her mother help her back to her room. Max watched them leave, a worried look on his face. "I should be with her," he said to no one in particular.

Jeff took in Max's anxious face and dogged, single-minded focus on Liz, and made a decision. "You will be."

Max whirled around to face Jeff, a glimmer of hope on his face.

"I know you need to be with her, Max, but Nancy hasn't opened up to me yet on where she stands with this relationship. I want to give her time. How about you go up to the patio and I'll bring you a blanket and pillow."

Max was speechless, both at Jeff's offer and at the implication that he already knew how to get up to Liz's patio. Jeff smiled.

"You don't seriously think I don't know you've used that ladder a few hundred times, do you?"

Max looked at his feet, but smiled gratefully. "Thank you."

"Never mind. You go on around and I'll get you something when I can."

Max nodded and headed downstairs. Circling around the building, he let himself feel encouraged by Jeff's acceptance, fervently hoping his wife would come around to his way of thinking. When he reached the rooftop patio, he could see into Liz's room clearly. Liz was already in bed, her mother sitting on the edge, stroking Liz's forehead and crooning softly to her. Liz was letting her have her way, giving the impression, at least, that she was drifting off to sleep. Eventually, Nancy rose, turned the lights down, and tiptoed out, leaving the door ajar.

Minutes later, Jeff appeared in the room, carrying a blanket and pillow. He handed them to Max through the window. "Keep an eye on our girl," he whispered. Max nodded.

As Liz slept peacefully, Max felt a heavy weariness overtake him. First, he arranged the lawn chair so he could lie down and still watch over Liz. Sleep claimed him quickly, though, and he slipped into a deep slumber. He never saw Nancy Parker come into Liz's room hours later. After checking on her daughter, she leaned against the window and watched the young alien boy/man/king who had changed their lives forever.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:33:28 AM
Part 22

Sitting in Michael's living room, Liz sat snuggled into Max's arms and watched with confusion as Isabel paced nervously. Liz was the one who was supposed to be nervous, who was about to learn how to strengthen and control an alien power she hadn't even known she had until recently. But here was Isabel, wearing a groove in Michael's living room floor and running her hand through her hair at 10-second intervals.

Josh was due shortly, and the three of them had been waiting quietly, each pondering their own perspective on the future. Michael had bowed out, saying this wasn’t his thing. Isabel’s pacing was putting Max’s nerves on edge as well. He tried some casual conversation.

“Lucas Austin called today to see how you were doing,” he told Liz. “He really helped us out of a jam. I wish I knew what he was really thinking.”

“It was nice of him to call,” Liz commented. “Looks like your instincts were right.”

Silence. Pacing. So much for conversation.

"Iz, you might as well tell me what's up." Max had tried to be patient, waiting for Isabel to open up to him, but he couldn't afford to have her distracted. Preparing Liz to resist Malek was too important.

Isabel stopped pacing and looked at her brother. She seemed almost surprised to see him sitting there. Then she glanced at Liz. Bearing her soul in front of Liz was not a comfortable thought, but she knew Liz was not only one of them now, she was a permanent fixture at Max's side, and Isabel figured she might as well get used to it.

Isabel threw herself into a chair and raked her fingers through her hair once again. "I don't understand how I'm feeling, but I wish there'd been another way to get Liz ready without Josh."

Liz was surprised by Isabel's words. "Why? I thought you liked Josh. Has something happened to change that?"

Isabel and Max exchanged a meaningful look. Liz turned to Max, puzzled. "Something you forgot to tell me?"

"Yeah, actually," he admitted. "When Izzie convened the Star Chamber last week, Josh made it clear he was interested in her. He tried to convince her she'd be happier with one of her own and that he was the one."

"Isabel!" Liz was stunned. She had finally started to believe that Isabel and Alex could make a go of it. "Well, what are you feeling, because at the dance, it looked like you weren't undecided at all."

Another pang of guilt swept through Isabel, and as her face reflected her turmoil, Liz understood. "You're trying to convince yourself Josh is wrong, aren't you? But you're not sure he is."

Isabel raised her eyes to meet Liz's. She had been dead on with that analysis. "I don't know what to do. All I can tell you is that when he kissed me . . ."

"He kissed you?!" Liz was suddenly agitated. Alex was a lifelong friend, and she couldn't bear to think how hurt he would be. Or how devastated if Isabel left him.

Isabel resumed her pacing. "I didn't mean for it to happen. One minute he was telling me how I needed someone who really understood me and knew what my life was like. The next minute, he was kissing me, and I . . . I didn't . . . hate it."

Her eyes were pleading when she looked back at her brother and his mate, who had never been confused about their feelings for each other. They were truly destined to be together. She felt suddenly bitter. It was all so easy for them, wasn't it? How must that feel–to just "know"?

Then she felt ashamed. That wasn't fair. They had paid a high price for their love. It had never been easy, and it was about to get harder.

"I love Alex," she explained, on the verge of tears. "He's sweet and thoughtful and smart and cute, and he tries so hard to understand. But Josh, Josh does understand. He lives it every day. That felt good–to know that I didn't have to explain or feel like a freak. He says I should give it a chance. What if he's right? But how could I do that to Alex? I . . ." Then the tears came.

Max gave Liz a squeeze and pushed out of the sofa to console his sister. As Liz watched Isabel crying into her brother's shoulder, Liz began to realize that she and Max had actually arrived at this same crossroads months back. When "destiny" seemed to dictate that Max leave her for Tess, these same thoughts must have crossed his mind. They both struggled with what was right instead of listening to their hearts, as Grandma Claudia had always counseled her to do. In the end, though, their hearts had been wiser than their heads. Thank God they had come to realize that.

Liz, too, stood and approached her friend. "Isabel, what you're feeling is perfectly normal. Don't you think Max and I both doubted everything we were feeling when that hologram described his destiny? I was sure we weren't meant to be. And Max put aside his love for me just to try and do the right thing."

Isabel turned to Liz, intent on what she was saying. Liz took Isabel's hands in her own. "Isabel, 'follow your heart' is good advice. It led Max and me back to each other. Alex doesn't want you to stay with him out of guilt or fear of the unknown. He doesn't want to be anybody's safe choice. He wants your love. You owe it to him to be sure that's what you're feeling."

Isabel nodded. "I know, but how can I be sure? I've never really loved anyone except Alex before."

"Is this what was behind that display at the dance?” Max asked. “I've never seen you so aggressive with Alex before. Even he looked confused."

Isabel blushed with embarrassment. "I just wanted him to know how much he means to me. I had to reassure him . . ."

"But he didn't think he needed reassurance, Iz. I think it was you who needed convincing."

There was a knock at the door, and Isabel jumped. "There he is."

"You go freshen up. I'll get the door."

Isabel disappeared into the bathroom, and Max opened the door to Josh Alexander. This was going to be weird.

********

Josh, Isabel, and Liz sat cross-legged in a small circle on the floor.

"I suggest we hold hands," Josh began. "It will give us the strongest possible connection and we might be able to project the mindset Liz needs to focus her resistance."

They nodded in agreement. Liz was finally getting nervous–not just because of what they were about to attempt, but because she worried about her focus. The emotions that both Josh and Isabel were projecting were strong and conflicting, and Liz was having a hard time ignoring them.

"Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and try to clear your mind," Josh instructed. "Find that place where you pick up the emotions of others and draw yourself into it completely."

Liz had been practicing that very feeling. It had been helping her find Max on those nights when they were apart. She was better at it than they suspected, but her ability became clear when suddenly they were all connected emotionally, and it was Isabel and Josh who gasped with surprise at the clarity with which they could see each other's feelings.

Josh opened his eyes and stared at Isabel. She was staring right back. "I think Isabel and I need a moment before we continue."

Liz sat stone still, focused inwardly on all that she was feeling from them. Max pulled her gently to her feet. "Time for a walk, Liz." She looked at him blankly for a moment and then realized what he was doing.

"Sure." She accepted Max's help, fending off the strained tension in the room.

"We'll be back in a half hour," Max announced, and guided Liz out the door.

"We may as well talk about this, Isabel. I can tell you're upset, but not entirely sure what you want."

Isabel rested her elbows on her knees and leaned forward. "What am I supposed to do, Josh? I love Alex. I was perfectly happy with that. Now you've made me doubt what I feel. Is it wrong to be with a human? Michael is . . . or was. I don't know what's going on with him and Maria. Tess is . . . sort of. Max is . . . or thought he was. I don't know what's right here."

"We can't know how it will work out between Michael and Maria or Kyle and Tess. We know that Liz is part alien after all, so that might be why they are working out so well. It's you I'm thinking about. Isabel, did you . . . feel . . . anything when we kissed?"

Isabel sat silent for a moment. "I felt shocked at first, then sort of curious and comfortable. Then guilty! Terribly guilty for betraying Alex like that."

"First of all, Isabel. I kissed you. You didn't betray Alex. Second, just the fact that you were comfortable with it means it might not be out of the realm of possibility. And last, I feel a great deal for you, but I don't want to upset you or bully you into being with me because I'm like you. I feel we could have more."

Isabel held her face in her hands now, rocking slightly back and forth. "I don't know! How do I figure this out?"

"Let me suggest something. Let's just see how things go while I'm here. I won't interfere with you and Alex, but I hope you'll at least explore this with me. Look at it this way–you'll never be sure about Alex if you don't make a clear decision about me."

She looked Josh in the eye for the first time since his arrival. He was a nice guy. A nice hybrid alien guy. And he cared for her. If she could be sure she couldn't love him, then she'd know Alex was the one. She owed it to Alex to be sure. She suddenly remembered the day she had stood on Alex's front porch–comfortable with him and curious to explore what that meant.

"Kiss me."

Josh looked startled–just as Alex had. "Kiss you?" he asked–just as Alex had. She nodded. Josh scooted forward and leaned toward her, watching her eyes to be sure this is what she wanted. Then he tenderly touched his lips to hers and cautiously let some of his feelings flow toward her. Isabel felt warm and safe and, yes, comfortable with the kiss. She couldn't say it was more, though.

When he released her, she smiled at him. "Thank you. Let's just see how it goes, okay? And Josh?"

He looked at her questioningly. She had successfully blocked her own feelings. "Thanks for not pushing too hard."

Waiting for Liz and Max to return, they poured cold drinks and talked easily with each other. The initial tension was gone, and they enjoyed some "getting to know you better" chatting. Max and Liz were relieved to find the two so relaxed with each other. Maybe now they could get to work.

The three settled into their places on the floor and held hands, eyes closed. "Okay, Liz, you know how to pull into that place where you feel people's emotions," Isabel coached. "Once you feel comfortable, get centered, gather yourself in a concentrated ball, and try to imagine yourself filling that place."

Liz did as she was told. Josh and Isabel no longer seemed distracted by their own emotions, and Liz found that she was able to do as Isabel asked. Satisfied, Isabel continued.

"Okay, I'm going to place a suggestion in your mind. Try to push it away."

Isabel conjured up an image of the cold drink she'd just had and tried to make Liz think she was very thirsty. Liz mentally pushed at the suggestion, but found it harder than she had imagined. She did feel thirsty. She concentrated hard, dismissing the image of the cold drink and reminding herself that she had just had a drink of her own and wasn't thirsty at all.

She had some success. She managed not to act on the urge to drink, and even eased back on the desire, but it still lingered.

"Let's try something a little more out-of-character," Josh continued. "Just steel yourself against my influence," he reminded her.

Josh imagined a detailed scene in which Liz was angry with Maria. He projected her yelling at Maria and raising her hand to slap her. The animosity would be completely out their experience as best friends, and would be a mild test of Liz's ability to resist an uncharacteristic suggestion. Max was watching carefully, not knowing what Josh had put in her mind, but anxiously aware of Liz's reaction. Not only was her breathing labored and her facial expression pained, but he could feel her distress in his own mind.

Josh gradually increased the force with which he pressed the scene into Liz's mind until Liz broke the hold on his hand and reached across to slap him hard across the face. "Bitch!" she yelled.

The horror on her face when she realized what she'd done was only a small indication of what she was feeling inside. She had just betrayed every instinct in her soul. She would never yell at Maria like that, or strike her or call her names. But she had done it, or thought she had, because Josh had pushed her mind to do it.

She was more frightened than she'd ever been, and she suddenly felt sick to her stomach. She bolted for the bathroom, and Max followed her, holding her head until the spasms stopped. As she splashed her face, she looked in the mirror and started to cry.

"He controlled me, Max. If he can do that, what can Malek do?"

Max held her, stroking her back soothingly. "That's why we're here, Liz. So you can learn to fight back. This is only your first attempt. It'll get better, I promise." He looked up to see Josh and Isabel standing in the doorway.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Josh said grimly.


********

"Lewis Carroll took an opportunity to explain his own 'Jabberwocky' poem in the 'Humpty Dumpty' chapter of Through the Looking Glass. But even that translation can be seen as an allegory . . ." Mrs. Weber droned on, but Max couldn't follow at all. He picked nervously at the slip of paper that a student runner from the school office had dropped off right as class started.

Name: Max Evans
Rm: 215
Message: Report to Mr. Vidoni's office immediately after school.

It's all going to hit the fan now, he thought. What were they going to do to him? Suspend him? His parents knew about the incident, as did Liz's, but they couldn't protect him from school policy. He had assaulted the vice principal in front of a few hundred students and teachers. There was no getting around that one.

Last period. Gym class. Max was grateful for the chance to burn off some of the tension that was building inside him, made worse by the fact that he missed seeing Liz between classes. She hadn't been at the water fountain where they usually allowed themselves 30 seconds for a quick check-in and kiss. He could feel her, though.

He tried projecting his thoughts to her. He wasn't as good at it as she was. Ironic, since she'd only just become aware of her ability, but it was her special gift, not his, and it made him happy to share something so special with her. Concentrating, he sent her his thoughts–loving, reassuring, concerned. He smiled when he felt her own presence strengthen in his mind. There was a nervousness in her today, of course—after yesterday, he knew there would be—but she was fine and thinking of him. He grabbed the barbells and started to pump.

The final bell rang and Max headed for the vice principal's office. As he approached the door, he saw Liz coming from the opposite direction. Just the sight of her helped calm him. She always made him feel like there was nothing they couldn't do–together.

"Hey," he said softly, leaning down to claim the kiss he'd needed earlier. "Where were you after 6th period? I missed you."

"Sorry," she smiled back. "I got stopped by the office runner." She produced her slip of paper and handed it to him. "Look at this."

"No need." He showed her the slip in his own hand. They reached for each other, drawing strength from the contact. Reluctant to let go, they held on tight, until a classmate mumbled, "Get a room" as he shuffled by.

"Sounds like a plan," Max teased, hoping to ease her tension.

He was rewarded with a quick smile. "Hold that thought," she said, giving him a sexy, sidelong look. Then the smile faded, and she sighed deeply. "Let's do it." Their hands tightly clasped, they entered the office.

Liz and Max both stopped in their tracks when they found themselves facing not only Mr. Vidoni, but their parents as well. Philip gave Max a reassuring nod, and Jeff searched Liz's face to assure himself that she was okay. She gave him a small smile and turned her attention to the vice principal.

"Mr. Evans, Miss Parker. Join us." He waved in the direction of two straight wooden chairs next to his desk, arranged in such a way that Max and Liz felt they were on trial.

"I understand you have already told your parents about the incident at the dance on Saturday night. I must say, I'm surprised, but I'm glad we all know why we're here. First, Miss Parker, I'm glad to see you with us again. You gave us quite a scare."

"It looked worse than it was, Mr. Vidoni."

Jeff broke in abruptly. "I've already explained to Mr. Vidoni that it was a severe reaction to your medicine." He gave her a meaningful look, and Liz picked up on it immediately.

"Right, my medicine. I'm sorry I scared you."

"I'm sure we're all glad there were no lingering effects, Miss Parker, but that does not explain or dismiss Mr. Evans's actions Saturday night."

Diane spoke up. "I'm sure Max was just reacting emotionally, Mr. Vidoni. It was a very tense situation, and Liz is Max's ma . . . , uh, girlfriend. He was just trying to help her."

"I cannot see how attacking me was helping her in any way, Mrs. Evans. This was a school function where the safety of the students is my responsibility. I had taken appropriate action, and I had asked your son to back away and let me do my job. He came at me very aggressively, shouted, and pushed me to the floor. I could have him arrested."

"Mr. Vidoni," Jeff began in a conciliatory tone. "This is my daughter we're talking about. Max had seen this reaction once before. He knew what to do, and he knew how much Liz hates being in the hospital. He was trying to avoid that on her behalf, I'm sure."

Liz glanced at her mother as the lie began to snowball. She was looking at the wall behind the desk, biting at her lip. Liz swallowed nervously. What if she wouldn't play along? Liz kept thinking she looked like a tightly-wound spring.

Max's voice brought her back to the conversation.

"Mr. Vidoni, I'm very sorry I reacted the way I did. I didn't want to see Liz go through that mess at the hospital again when I already knew how to handle it. But I realize my actions were inappropriate, and I will make a public apology, if you think that will help."

Vidoni stared at Max for several uncomfortable seconds. "You're a smooth operator, Mr. Evans, I'll give you that." He turned back to the parents.

"I'm sure you all think you know your children, but some things I have to say might surprise you. Are you aware, for instance, that Max and Liz have limited themselves to a group of only 6 other friends? One of whom is your daughter, Mrs. Evans, so it’s really more like 5. And one of whom is a James Dean wanna-be with an unsavory and suspicious history. Mr. and Mrs. Parker, did you know that Liz has dropped out of all her extracurricular activities? And did you also know that these two have become–how can I say this delicately?–closer than I imagine you'd be comfortable with?

"As a professional, I can assure you that these are signs. I can't tell you what's at the center of all this–it could be drugs, a gang, a cult of some kind . . . But there is something going on, and it's up to you as parents to get to the bottom of it!"

He sat back, awaiting the shock that would surely settle over the parents after his impassioned speech.

"Mr. Vidoni," Philip retorted from behind clenched teeth. "I can assure you that Max and his friends are not involved with drugs or cults or any such nonsense. They are good students whose interests happen to be outside the school. That doesn't mean they are in some gang."

"Don't be too sure, Mr. Evans. In fact, I would venture to say that your son is the leader."

Max, who had been studiously quiet, flinched at the accidental accuracy of the statement.

"I've seen how they defer to him, wait for him to speak. I've seen them taking his orders or reacting to just a look. Whatever is happening, he's at the core. Believe me, I've been trained to assess these situations."

He turned to the Parkers, hoping to gain some ground. "Don't you realize what's happening? What do you think this school would be like, this country, if these kids were typical of what we're turning out these days?"

Nancy Parker exploded from her seat and came to rest leaning over the vice principal's desk, her weight supported on her fingertips, her face inches from his. Her words were spat out with barely controlled anger.

"Then this country would be devoid of the arrogant, pompous asses who strive to reinforce their own worth by wielding their power over those less powerful. We would be surrounded by caring, loving, intelligent, broad-minded people who strive to contribute to the greater good. In short, Mr. Vidoni, we would not be dealing with you at this very moment!"

She took advantage of his stunned silence. "Have Max's or Liz's grades fallen? No. Have they disrupted the school? Vandalized property? Stolen supplies? Cut class? No. Have they shown disrespect to their teachers or to us? No.

"We know our children, Mr. Vidoni. Better than you can possibly imagine. What I'm coming to know now, though, is the nature of this school's administration. Well, don't worry any more. After this academic year, Max and Liz will be graduating, and it won't be your problem any longer."

You could have heard a pin drop. Vice Principal Vidoni was probably the least shocked person in the room. Every eye was trained on Nancy Parker as she stood, trembling in anger, next to the desk. She, too, seemed stunned by her outburst. Gathering herself, she looked around the room.

"We're done here," she announced, and left the room.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:35:13 AM
Part 23

After a few moments of shocked silence, Jeff Parker stood and followed his wife from the vice principal’s office. His movement shook the others into action, and they filed out, afraid to look at each other in case the grins broke out on their faces too soon. They could hear Vidoni begin to sputter under his breath, and they hastened their retreat to the parking lot.

Once assembled, the smiles began to erupt. Liz approached her mom, pulling her into a heartfelt hug.

“Thank you, Mom. That’s the bravest, most wonderful thing you could ever have done for me.” Mother and daughter held each other tightly, healing the painful rift that had grown between them for so long. The others stood by, letting the tender moment run its course. When they finally let go, Liz kissed her mother and wiped away a few stray tears.

“What changed your mind, Mom?”

Nancy searched her heart for a way to describe the personal journey that had brought her to this point. “I’ve seen things in this past couple of months that I never would have believed possible. And not only were they unbelievable, they were dangerous—to you, to us, maybe to the world. My instincts told me to get you as far away from it all as possible.

“And your attraction to Max . . .” She looked over Liz’s shoulder at Max, who was hanging back, but listening intently to every word. “I feared you were overlooking the danger because of your feelings for him. I thought your heart might cost you your life.”

She focused back on Liz. “But I saw what good people Diane and Philip are, and knew they had done a good job raising Max. Then I met Rana, and saw what nobility had allowed her to make the sacrifice she did. And you, I saw you . . . with Max . . . and realized you weren’t a girl with a headstrong crush; you were a woman . . . in love, and for better or for worse, you were a critical part of this whole, strange situation.

“I know there is still danger, but I can’t protect you from it. I’ve watched Max with you, and I know now that you are bound to him, and that he is the one who can protect you, if anyone can. I believed him that night when he said he’d change your knowing about him if it meant keeping you safe. I saw him sleeping outside your window after the dance, just in case you needed him.” She turned to Max once again, this time extending her arm for him to join them. “He carries his family’s nobility in his heart, and it’s clear he loves you deeply. I guess I can’t ask for more than that.”

Max was standing next to Liz by this time. Nancy faced him, searching his soul with her eyes. “I’m not wrong, am I, Max? Your love for her is true? And you’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep her safe?”

“You’re not wrong, Mrs. Parker. Liz is my heart. She always has been. I would give my life for her. No harm will come to her as long as I have breath and strength to stop it.”

Liz slipped her hand into Max’s and looked up at him, her happiness shining from her eyes.

Nancy sighed deeply and nodded, speaking again to Liz. “I was just starting to reach that conclusion when we got the call from Mr. Vidoni. At first, I thought, ‘It’s beginning now. I was right all along.’ Then that old bastard started spouting his preconceived notions and trying to pretend he knew more about this than we did, and it hit me—that’s what I’d been doing. I’d pretended to know what was happening and what was best for you. I realized I had made up my mind about Max from the beginning without all the facts, and I hated that I’d been sounding a lot like Vidoni. I couldn’t stand it.”

She looked around her at the group of sympathetic eyes and pursed her lips sheepishly. “I guess I got a little carried away.”

Jeff Parker put his arms around his wife, and she looked up at him, guilt marring her lovely eyes. “Jeff, I’ve been so unfair to you. I’m sorry.”

Jeff’s smile could have lit up Roswell High’s football field. The weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders, and he wanted to shout from the rooftops. He hugged his wife fiercely, and the other couples followed suit. Once the emotional peak had passed, they let off some more pent-up emotion with handshakes, hugs, and laughter. For the first time, the two families shared a common secret and a common purpose: To help and protect the lives that had been entrusted to them—no matter what their origin.

Vidoni watched from his window in defeat. He wasn’t sure how, but he knew he’d lost the battle.

********

Michael grew restless, knowing that Zeval was due anytime. Having no communication with her during her trip was nerve-wracking. Any new ship was bound to have problems, and there would be no one in space to help them if they had trouble. And when she got here, what would she really think of him? He’d never had to please anyone before . . . well, maybe Maria. He was afraid of disappointing her. It sure didn’t look like he’d accomplished much, and now he felt he’d wasted so much time.

Zeval would need him to help her establish an identity on Earth. What did he know about stuff like that? Had he sharpened his computer skills? (Check with Alex.) Had he thought about what credentials she would need to get a job at the observatory? (Call Paul.) Had he scouted out places for her to live or shopped for the basic human essentials she’d need to have on hand? (Maria and Liz could have helped there.) How had he become so dependent on the humans in his life?

The strain of keeping his distance from a hurt and angry Maria hadn’t helped his disposition lately, either. His head told him he was doing the right thing, but his heart was hurting, and he didn’t like the feeling one bit. He was started to experience Max’s fantasy of just being a normal person building a normal Earthly life. He could picture Maria in that life.

Michael grabbed a piece of paper and started making a list. Maybe it wasn’t too late to make his sister proud.

********

There was a much different atmosphere at the Parker residence when Max arrived to pick Liz up for the evening. This time, he waved at Mr. Parker on his way through the Crashdown, and arrived confidently at the apartment door. When Nancy Parker opened the door, she greeted him warmly and called down the hall to Liz.

Liz appeared smiling and relaxed, dressed in jeans and a UNM sweatshirt.

“Have a good time,” was all her mother said to them as they left—no questions about where they were going, no curfew. They were definitely in a new place with her parents.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Liz ducked into the storeroom and emerged with a picnic basket and a blanket.

“What’s that for?” asked Max. A smug little smile broke out on Liz’s face.

“I have plans for you, Mr. Evans.” The look in her eye threw his body into instant alert, and he slipped his hands around her tiny waist.

“Is that right?” he asked, sliding his hands upwards. Liz’s hands were full of props for her surprise, and she was completely unable to fend off his touch that was already titillating her body. Knowing she could sense what he was feeling and thinking, Max let his mind indulge in flights of fancy involving their lovemaking, and Liz took a shaky breath.

“Max! Don’t. Oh, God, Max, let’s at least get out of here.” Max was enjoying her discomfort immensely. His power over her was a constant high for him, although she had the same power over him. With a fake innocence on his face, he watched her expression as he let his hands ride higher, brushing the underside of her breasts. Even with the heavy sweatshirt material between them, Liz’s reaction was abrupt; she jumped back a few inches and her breath hissed from between her teeth.

“I think maybe I’ve been wrong about you,” she told him in a strained voice. “You are evil.”

At that point, Max let his thumbs brush across her nipples. She let out a choked exclamation and dropped the basket and blanket. Throwing her arms around Max, she pressed her lips urgently to his. As her body began to rub against his, Max was the one fighting off erotic urges. He responded to her so quickly, so easily, that she had turned the tables on him. Now he was the one desperate to leave.

The noise of the basket falling to the floor had gotten Jeff’s attention. He rounded the corner of the storeroom and saw his daughter and Max locked in a passionate embrace. He stopped awkwardly just as Max was prying Liz off his body, saying, “We’d better get out of here.”

“That would be my suggestion,” Jeff said, embarrassed at having caught his daughter in that position. It was one thing to know they’d been making love for a while now; it was quite another to stumble across the foreplay. “Let me help you with your things.” He stooped to reach for the stray items that had fallen from the basket. There were two candles, a CD, and some fresh strawberries in a plastic container. He hesitated, turned an uncommon shade of pink, and spun on his heel, mumbling, “Maybe you should just get that.”

When he was out of sight, Liz clapped her hand over her mouth, stifling a nervous laugh. Eyes wide, she looked at Max, who was staring at the strawberries and turning the same color. Once Liz was sure she could trust her own voice, she lowered her hand. “I guess your little game backfired, huh?” He growled under his breath and began putting the things back in the basket. Liz laughed all the way to the car.

To Max’s surprise, Liz had insisted on doing the driving tonight. She didn’t want him to know right away where they were going. Once out on the old highway, though, he could predict their destination: the old radio tower where they had found the first orb. He smiled across at her and sat back to enjoy the warm breeze and the promise of things to come.

As they pulled off the road, dusk was settling over the desert, treating them to the remains of a spectacular sunset. They sat in the car, hand in hand, and watched the last minutes of color streak across the sky. Then, as the night crept toward them, they climbed out and spread their blanket in the same spot where they had almost given themselves to each other almost a year before. Liz told Max to lie back while she arranged the rest of her surprise.

Max lay looking at the stars gradually appearing above him, sneaking surreptitious looks at Liz happily setting the stage for their evening. He loved watching her. He loved how she concentrated on making everything perfect, and how her petite body moved so gracefully as she arranged everything, and how her eyes radiated love even as she scolded him for peeking.

When she was finished, there were candles burning around them, soft music playing on the mini-boombox, two white roses in a vase on a small tray, where strawberries and whipped cream rested in silver bowls. She knelt next to Max and spread her hands over his chest. Slowly leaning forward, she brought her mouth to his ear, and whispered, “Tonight is all about you, Max. This is your night for fantasies and pleasure. Tell me what you want.”

Max was astonished. He drew his head back to see Liz’s face, not sure if she was teasing him again. Meeting her seductive eyes, he drew his breath in, realizing that she was quite serious. Where had this temptress come from? Liz had always been quietly shy about their lovemaking. There had been flashes of abandon, yes, but always brought on by the explosiveness of their passion, never planned like this.

“Liz, all I’ve ever wanted is to be with you. I’m already living that fantasy. You are my fantasy.”

“No, Max. I mean, when you’re daydreaming about us, or when you have erotic dreams about us, what to you think about?”

Max couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How he loved her! All she had done since they had found each other was give of herself. He felt he could never even the score. But her question made him blush, and he was glad it was too dark for her to see. He could see her, though; the candlelight behind him flickered, casting an ethereal light over her face. Her eyes were burning into him, and he could see her desire to please him.

Fantasy number one was already taken care of: to see Liz offering herself to him, desire burning in her eyes, wanting only to take him to new heights of pleasure. He was already hard just seeing that promise in her eyes. Of course, fantasy number two would have to wait for another time. There was no way she could have anticipated it.

“Being here with you, looking at me like that, offering your love to me, is always at the top of my list.”

Liz bent over him again, this time brushing her lips over his, teasing his mouth with her tongue. “What’s next?” she breathed into his mouth.

“The next one might have to wait for another night.”

“Why? What is it?”

Max couldn’t believe he was about to say this out loud, but this was Liz, and she had asked. “Well, sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if you weren’t wearing . . . uh . . . you know, anything under . . .”

Liz gave him another deep kiss and smiled sexily. Then she stood, slowly peeling her sweatshirt over her head. Her breasts appeared almost iridescent in the candlelight, and he could see her nipples already standing taut for him. His body reacted violently, and he started to get up, so he could reach for her.

“I’m not done yet,” she cautioned him. “Lie down.”

Max’s mouth went dry as he saw her reach to unbutton her jeans. As she slid them down her tiny hips, he became painfully aware that she was not wearing panties, and he groaned aloud when the light reflected off the moist curls. Then she was standing before him, naked, in the desert, the dim light dancing across her body, waiting for his next request.

“Liz,” he gasped. He couldn’t speak, but he reached for her, and she slid into his arms, a warm, lithe, loving gift. For a moment, he just held her, overcome with love and gratitude. She had saved him—in so many ways—since he’d told her the truth. No matter what life dealt him, he would always have this. His hands began to move over her soft skin and need began to overshadow thought.

“Undress me, Liz,” he whispered, and seconds later, her small hands began to nimbly unbutton his shirt. She took her time lingering over his powerful chest and washboard stomach before she pushed the sleeves down each arm and helped him shed his shirt. The feel of her fingers lightly tracing the muscles of his chest and abs was electrifying. He fought the urge to grab her and take her immediately; he had promised himself not to rush, and Liz obviously wanted this to take a long time.

Expecting her to loosen his pants next, he sucked in his breath sharply when he felt her breasts graze across his chest, stopping to play, nipple to nipple, with his sensitive circles. He felt her reach out, and looked to see her bringing a strawberry, coated with whipped cream, toward him. She straddled him, and watched his face as she traced one rough-slick strawberry around his nipple and then lowered herself to lick it off. The nipple was immediately erect, as was the rest of him, and his breathing became shallow and raspy.

Once she had licked all of the whipped cream off of him, she took the strawberry into her own mouth and slowly bit into it. Max watched, mesmerized by the erotic scene before him. He barely registered that she had once again lowered herself to him until he became aware of the breasts and then the mouth making sweet contact.

He met her mouth eagerly, the taste of strawberries and Liz sending his head reeling. Too soon, she had lifted herself off of him, and was rubbing his throbbing erection with one hand while the other deftly unbuttoned and unzipped his pants. Helping her as best he could through his sexual haze, Max lifted his hips enough to allow Liz to pull his pants off, quickly realizing she had taken the boxers at the same time.

Another strawberry with whipped cream—this time headed for the tip of his straining flesh. When the cool cream coated the velvety skin, he shivered until her hot, moist mouth enclosed him and slid across, removing the cool cream and replacing it with a building friction. He began to tremble with anticipation, need, pending release.

“Liz, oh Liz!” He could no longer form a coherent thought. He was on autopilot as he pulled Liz up his body and positioned her over him. She read his thoughts and joyously took him in, moving her hips tentatively at first, and, feeling his urgent response, increasing her pace and pressure. The light they were generating tonight was bright and pulsing, and Liz’s heart burst to know this was something special that only she and Max shared.

Liz gloried in what she had done to him. His mind was a mass of sensation and pleasure. All she could “hear” from him was a litany of “Liz! Liz! Liz! Liz!” His desire and complete surrender to her fueled her own response, and soon they were both on the crest of a huge wave, riding a blissful release until they crashed into each other and slipped quietly to shore.

Liz could feel Max trembling for minutes after their climaxes had subsided. She just held him tightly and let her loving feelings flow into him.

“God, Liz, what did you do to me?” She lifted her torso up far enough to look at his face, illuminated now by the moon that had risen over the stark landscape. His eyes were filled with tears, and his whole body projected raw emotion.

“I loved you,” she said simply, and he pulled her against him tightly in silent gratitude and love.

Some time later, with Liz snuggled up to Max’s side, they pulled the excess blanket up and over top of them against the cool desert night air. Liz was lightly stroking Max’s chest, and he was still struggling to acknowledge that he actually had bone and muscle under his skin.

“Max, remember when we were here last year? We were on the verge of making love when the orb started to beep, and you had just asked me, ‘Are you sure?’” Liz hesitated. “I would have, you know.”

Max turned on his side and caressed her beautiful face. “I knew that, and I was blown away by it. But I was afraid that you were doing it for the wrong reasons. I wanted it to be about us, not about getting clues. I wanted you so badly, Liz, but I was afraid you would hate me for it someday, and I didn’t want to take that risk.”

“Hate you, Max? I love you more than life itself. You are my life.”

“Now, yes, thank God,” Max smiled. “But back then, there was still so much we didn’t know. You and I loved each other, but we weren’t ready then, Liz. I’m glad we didn’t have to go that far to find our answers. What we have now is so beautiful. This is how it should be.”

He stared into her adoring eyes and wondered if anyone else in the history of the universe had ever been so much in love.

“Liz?”

“Hmmm?”

“What are your fantasies?”

Part 24

The week that followed was one of intense focus on honing skills and preparing for Zeval's arrival. Max had contacted Rana to ask if she had any advice for them about Malek's effect on Liz. Rana had been alarmed, but only warned him that Malek was very powerful and that Liz must work hard on her resistance to him. He was still haunted by her poorly concealed anxiety and her whispered, "Be careful, my son," as she left him.

The group had decided to work together as much as possible this week for several reasons. For one thing, Max and Liz's experience with Vidoni sent a strong message that they needed to keep their grades up and not make waves. They had no intention of giving their vice principal any reason to turn up the heat. If they did homework together, they could give each other the benefit of their individual strengths, and get the work done faster and better. They also felt Liz needed to be able to focus on her gift even in the midst of distractions. No one knew what the circumstances might be when Liz needed to use her fledgling ability, but it seemed unlikely it would happen in quiet isolation.

Their main reason for sticking together, though, was–they needed it. They were finding strength in each other, developing a trust that would sustain them when their own courage and determination were tested. As they prepared for the ominous showdown, they were drawing together, creating a unit that represented the best of each of them, and a commitment to every member of the group. Even Maria and Michael had put aside their differences to concentrate on the group's welfare. Personal issues could wait.

Thursday afternoon found them all at the Evans home. Alex was helping Kyle with math homework. Michael was looking over Maria's shopping list of essentials (and some important non-essentials, according to Maria) for Zeval's first weeks on Earth. Tess was fixing everyone a snack in the kitchen, and Max was in the lounge chair taking notes for an English paper. On the floor were Isabel, Josh, and Liz, concentrating on mind resistance.

Max looked up from his notebook and watched Liz. He couldn't suppress a small smile as he thought about their night in the desert last weekend. Liz had taken him places he'd never been before, and he still got aroused just thinking about it. Later, when he'd pressed her about her own fantasies, the bold seductress had turned shy, and only his loving reassurances had coaxed a reluctant confession about her secret desire. As he watched her now, he revisited the many ways he'd already imagined fulfilling that fantasy, and as he played those scenarios out in his mind, his body started to react.

Liz was concentrating on pushing Isabel and Josh out of her mind when she felt Max's eyes and thoughts on her. As his emotions grew more lustful, she abandoned her efforts to resist. His urges penetrated her every thought; it was as if she could feel his hands on her, his mouth, his body. She could feel herself readying for him, and her skin tingled with anticipation. A whimper escaped her lips and she swung her head around to look at him. Their eyes locked; the tension was palpable.

"Max!" Isabel shouted in exasperation. "Do I have to ask you to leave? Liz needs to concentrate over here, so keep your horny thoughts to yourself."

Max blushed deeply and then glared at his sister. She really could be quite unsubtle when she wanted to be. "Sorry," he mumbled.

Liz smiled in embarrassment, looking up to see all eyes on her with varying expressions of surprise and amusement. "Let's get back to work," she ordered, trying to return to a calm and focused mindset.

Hours later, homework was done, Diane Evans's delicious dinner eaten, and Michael and Maria were out shopping for Zeval. Isabel and Josh were finishing up the last session of the day with Liz. She was obviously tired, and although she was gaining strength in her resistance exercises, she was nowhere near ready and they all knew it.

Liz was resisting Josh's favorite test now–dealing with her imagined anger with Maria. She was fending it off fairly successfully when a dark and ominous feeling descended on her. She felt herself losing control again and whimpered in reaction.

"Max, I warned you," Isabel protested. "Leave her alone. Go take a cold shower or something."

Max looked up, confused at first. He'd been rereading his English paper and had no idea what Isabel was talking about. "What? I didn't . . ."

Then he caught the destructive emotions coming from Liz; instantly, he flew across the room and dropped down next to her. "Isabel! This isn't me. It's Malek."

Soon Alex, Tess, and Kyle were watching spellbound as Liz worked to push Malek from her mind. Her heart was racing, and beads of perspiration broke out on her forehead. Small moans began to vibrate her throat, and Max began to panic.

"Do something!" he yelled at Josh and Isabel. "She's losing control!"

He held her to him, as if somehow his presence might give her strength.

"Join hands," instructed Josh. "Isabel, we have to get in there with her."

Isabel fought her own fears and reached for Josh's and Liz's hands. Entering Liz's thoughts, she was struck by the disorienting darkness and sense of instability. "Josh!" she called out.

"I'm here, Isabel, but we're losing Liz." Josh appeared in the swirling desolation that occupied Liz's mind, and Isabel breathed a brief sigh of relief. "Take my hand,"
he said again.

Isabel did as she was told. "Now call for Liz. We have to have her with us."

The two began to shout Liz's name, listening into the void for some response. They could hear nothing but the whooshing of nonexistent winds rushing by. Over and over they called to her. Finally, grasping at straws, Isabel shouted, "Liz! Max needs you! He's calling for you. Liz!"

A faint response came from behind them. They turned to see a translucent Liz reaching for them, pleading with her eyes. "Liz," Josh said calmly. "Come to us. We need to be together."

Liz's expression transformed from terror to determination. She pushed against Malek with all her might. As her image solidified, she made her way toward Josh and Isabel. Once joined, they focused intensely against Liz's attacker and felt his presence recede suddenly. Finding themselves once again in Max's living room, Josh and Isabel exchanged worried looks. Liz, feeling herself in the safety of Max's arms, began to tremble until the sobs burst forth against Max's chest.

Max looked fearfully at his sister, waiting for an explanation. Isabel didn't speak; she just returned her brother's fearful look and bit her lip. Max turned his silent plea to Josh. He sat stone-faced. "We'll never have her ready in time," he said grimly.

********

"Four days until we reach Earth, sir," the ship's Captain informed him. Malek acknowledged this information with a cursory nod and headed back to his quarters. It couldn't be too soon for him. He had decided to turn up the pressure a little on that pathetic excuse for a queen the hybrid "king" had found for himself, and had been surprised to encounter a heightened sense of resistance. If they had guessed what was causing her lapses, then they might be tutoring her on how to resist him. He couldn't afford to give her the time she needed to become strong against him. He needed her–or rather, he needed to use her for a little while. He would get rid of her as soon as she had fulfilled his purpose.

Four days. Maybe he didn't have to wait. Maybe he could do this without even setting foot on the planet.

He settled into a chair and watched the stars fly by, deep in thought.

********

Max helped Liz into her apartment and settled her in a chair. She’d been weak, but seemed fine otherwise. Nancy was folding laundry and looked at the two worriedly.

“Mrs. Parker, it almost happened again tonight. Josh and Isabel got in and helped her push him away, but she’s tired. Real tired.” He hesitated, but one look back at Liz pushed him on. “May I stay with her tonight?”

Nancy needed no explanation about what “it” was or who “him” was. Last weekend’s incident was more than fresh in her mind. She looked at her daughter, pale and drawn, her eyes begging for her mother’s consent. Nancy had come to terms with their relationship, although it was still uncomfortable for her to accept in a literal sense. Still, she could see that this was not a sexual request. This was about Max taking care of the woman he loved, and she didn’t have the heart to deny him.

“Yes, Max. I count on you to look after her now.” The fear in Nancy’s eyes was evidence enough that she understood the danger, and that her first priority was Liz’s safety, not inapplicable social norms.

“Thank you,” Max sighed. “I will.”

Back in Liz’s bedroom, Max helped her undress and slip on an oversized nightshirt. While she was in the bathroom, he stripped to his boxers and turned down the sheets. When Liz emerged, she smiled at the welcome sight of Max in her bed. Even in her exhausted state, the sight of him there made her body come alive.

“Get that look off your face,” he warned, feeling equally affected by her coming to bed with him. “You need to rest, and your mother asked me to take care of you. I’m not about to carry that to its logical conclusion tonight.”

Liz pretended to pout, but she recognized how tired she was, and found a warm contentment in just snuggling up to Max, cradled in his loving arms.

It seemed only minutes later when Jeff Parker knocked at the door, waking Max from a light sleep. Liz didn’t even move. Max roused himself as the door inched open, and Jeff stuck his head in. He worked to control his face as he took in the sight he knew he would see—Liz curled up in bed with Max. That was going to take some getting used to.

“Max, Michael’s here. He says it’s urgent that he speak to you.”

Max frowned. Should he put Michael off? Or should he take a chance on waking Liz as he got up? Finally, he asked, “Can Michael come in here?”

Jeff looked surprised, but nodded. “I’ll send him in.”

Michael appeared in the doorway seconds later, pretending to be shocked and offended by what he found. “Maxwell, give me a break? I can’t look at this!”

“Get over it, Michael. She’s exhausted, and I don’t want to wake her. What’s so urgent?”

“Zeval’s here.”

Max stiffened, and Liz shifted in her sleep. “Where is she?”

“They’re out near Frazier Woods; they used the same coordinates as our original ship. Valenti went to get ‘em. I told him to take them to your house. I was going to put Zeval up, but now I don’t know if they’re willing to be separated. Your house is nicer and I thought you’d be there, so I just . . .”

“Who’s they, Michael? Are we supposed to house the crew, too?”

“No, they won’t be staying, but Zeval . . . brought a friend.”

“A friend?”

“Yeah, I don’t know much about it yet, but she said she’d explain when she saw us.”

Max sighed. He had so many expectations and so many misgivings about the path they were following now, but they were committed to it, and he had to explore every avenue for keeping Liz safe.

“Call Isabel and tell her they’re coming. Have her tell my folks I’m staying here. They already knew we might be hosting Zeval, but they’ll have to accommodate one more. We have to go to school tomorrow for appearances sake, but I’ll call Paul and tell him we want to come down to Apache Point for the weekend. There are dorm rooms down there we can use, if they’re free.”

Michael nodded his agreement, then cringed as Liz flung a leg up on top of Max and sighed his name.

“I’m outta here,” he said with finality and headed out the door. Not only was it uncomfortable for him to watch such intimacy, but it made him miss Maria all the more. They had been working well together this week, acknowledging the urgency that drove them to do what needed to be done. But all week the undercurrent of tension between them had eaten at him, and he wondered how long he would have to endure this. Maybe his time to return home was nearing, and he could protect her by leaving. Maybe after all this, he would leave anyway.

********

Her first look at Earth. She’d heard about it her whole life. She even knew she had been destined to be here, but when Zeval had actually offered her the chance to come, she had been afraid. It was more barren than she’d expected, but she knew that wasn’t true of the whole planet.

Now she was waiting with Zeval for a human to come get them and take them to meet the others. It was a fantasy come true. She just hoped she could help them. Malek was coming, and she knew the hybrids couldn’t begin to know what they were up against. If she could help them, then maybe they’d learn to accept her. She’d never felt like she fit in on her own planet, but now that she was here, she wondered if she would fit in here, either. Maybe she didn’t have a home anywhere.

“Jasar! That’s the car Michael described. He’s here.”

Jasar followed Zeval from their hiding place. The human emerged from the car.

“Ladies, I’m your ride,” he said kindly. “Michael will be waiting for you.”

“Thank you,” Zeval responded. They climbed into the sheriff’s car, carrying only small bags containing their belongings. “Where are we going?”

“Michael has asked me to take you to Max’s house. We’ll be there soon.”

Max? Jasar had been told that “Max” was really Zan, their king. They were going to the king’s home? She stared into the night, the reality of where she was and what she was doing sinking in with chilling clarity. What was she doing here? And would she even live long enough to find out?

posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:37:01 AM
Part 25

"They're really nice, Michael. Your sister is wonderful! Funny, too. I loved how she took potshots at you even though she'd only just met you!"

It was lunchtime, and the group had gathered quickly at their usual table in the school quad, eager to exchange information about the new arrivals and their plans for the weekend.

"I'm glad you bonded, Isabel," Michael said sarcastically, though he was obviously pleased at the gentle ribbing. Having his sister here, "in the flesh" so to speak, was a feeling unlike any he had ever experienced. He had family. His own family, at last, and it made him feel he belonged like nothing ever had before. Maria was the only other person who . . .

He looked over at Maria, sitting stone-faced as she so often did lately. Part of the group, but apart from the group. She wore her hurt like armor, and it chipped away at his good mood. He hoped he'd made the right decision about her.

"And Jasar," Isabel continued. "What a sweetheart! She seems kind of shy, but really curious about everything. I think she's really happy to be here."

"What's her story?" Max asked, shifting Liz closer so she could lean against him. She was still so tired.

"We don't really know. Zeval was worried you would be upset she'd brought her. I think she's waiting to talk to you about it before discussing it with anyone else. You are her king, don't forget." There was a teasing tone to Isabel's comment. This was her brother, after all. But they were all beginning to realize that Max's position wasn't just a joke. There were a lot of people who took it quite seriously, and they knew they'd better get on board–for now–or they could all be in real danger. Max was a target, and by extension, so was Liz. In a way, they all were. They had to have a plan, and a leader, and that was Max. In a way, it always had been.

"I'm sure Zeval had good reason to bring her. We have to trust each other, right? Okay," Max announced, shifting into leader mode, "after school, we'll all meet at my house and hear what Zeval has to say. Mom's fixing dinner for everyone, and then we'll leave for Apache Point. It's a little over two hours from here, so we'll get in around 8. Paul will show us our rooms and fill us in on the layout, the new telescope, etc. Tomorrow, we'll get a tour, and Zeval can explain how she plans to track incoming ships.

"Michael, do you have the stuff Zeval will need already packed?"

Micheal nodded. "Yeah, but we didn’t know about Jasar."

"I'm sure they can share until we get out and do some shopping. What about IDs and references?"

Again, Michael was prepared. "I've got IDs for Zeval, and Paul has gotten his contacts to offer references. Of course, Jasar will need all those things, too. Maria? Would you be willing to help me put some things together for Jasar?"

"Sure." At least he was still including her, but she hated how much it hurt to be around him without being with him.

"How is everyone this afternoon?" a voice intruded. They looked up to see Lucas Austin standing by their table. Every pair of eyes swung toward Max, waiting to see how Lucas would be received.

"We're fine, Lucas. You?"

"Doing well, thanks. Max, could I have a minute?"

Max hesitated, not knowing what to feel about this man. On the one hand, he had stalked Maria, deduced their secret, and made no promises about what to do with the information. On the other hand, he had helped them out of a tight spot at the dance and called to check on Liz later.

The two men stood off to the side, as the group left at the table watched intently.

Max was the first to test the waters. "I never really thanked you for your help at the dance. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Lucas replied, obviously wanting to add something else, but struggling to get it out.

"To tell you the truth," Max told him, "when I saw you at the door, I wasn’t sure if you were leading us into a trap or trying to help. I guess I trusted you because I had no choice. I'm wondering why you did it."

Lucas's small chuckle was without humor. "If someone had asked me what I would have done in that situation even ten minutes before it happened, I wouldn't have been able to tell them." He stared over Max's shoulder, trying to put his thoughts into words. "I've been thinking of little else but you and your friends since that night at Maria’s house, wondering what the right thing to do was. I couldn't decide if I was sitting on a time bomb that would explode in our faces if I kept your secret, or whether I'd be unleashing a panicked witch-hunt if I went to the authorities.

"In that moment, when I saw the fear on your face as you held Liz, I went with my instincts." He looked directly into Max's eyes. "Was I right, Max? Tell me I was right."

Max watched Lucas watching him, and realized what a leap of faith he had taken that night. "Lucas, all we want is to survive and live our lives in peace. You not only helped us that night, you protected a whole society who's not ready to know about us yet. You were right, Lucas."

Max extended his hand. Lucas stared down at it for a minute and then back up at Max's face. Max could see another decision being made and was relieved to see Lucas visibly relax. He accepted Max's hand and shook it.

"I don't know if I'm ready to know it all yet, either, Max, but if you need me, call."

Max looked over at the tense faces watching them and gave them a slight nod. Seeing the handshake, they, too, relaxed. Perhaps they had one fewer potential enemy now, and maybe even a friend.

********

Zeval watched Jasar pace nervously, waiting for her first meeting with the king. "Jasar, calm down!" she urged. "He's not like you'd expect. He's very nice, very low-key. Remember, he wasn't raised as a king here."

Jasar stopped, raising her head as she heard voices outside. She sat stiffly next to Zeval and eyed the front door. It opened wide and a stream of people walked in. She picked Zan out immediately. It was the way he carried himself and the way the others followed him. He was the leader. And the tiny brunette tucked protectively under his arm must be his queen. Liz, was it?

Max stopped short when he saw them, effectively stopping the steady stream of people and chatter. They all turned their attention to the newcomers. Michael hurried over to his sister and her friend.

"Max, I know you remember Zeval."

"Of course I do. Welcome, Zeval. I'm sorry I couldn't get over here before this. And this is your friend?"

Jasar stood up quickly and bowed. "Yes, Your Highness. My name is Jasar."

"Oh, puleez!" groaned Kyle. "He's bad enough as it is."

Max grinned. "I appreciate the sentiment, Jasar, but we play down the king thing around here. Just call me Max."

Jasar looked horrified. "I'm sorry, Your High . . . I just thought . . ." She threw Zeval a pleading look. It was unthinkable that she had already made a mistake. A touch on her shoulder made her whirl around and she found herself face to face with Liz, her queen. Her queen with the kind eyes and reassuring smile.

"Jasar, don't worry about it. We're very informal here. You haven't done anything wrong. Please just sit down and tell us about yourself."

Jasar looked back at Max, and he gestured for her to sit. She watched in amazement as everyone took a seat, including Max and Liz–on the floor! Max was leaning against a chair in which Isabel was sitting, Alex perched on the opposite arm. Liz nestled between his legs and he wrapped his arms around her. There was something extraordinary about them that she couldn't put her finger on, an invisible bond that somehow made it clear they were one. She had to remind herself not to stare.

Kyle and Tess settled on the couch with their guests while Michael hovered, somewhat nervously, near his sister. Only Maria stood off to the side, and Zeval noticed the forced air of detachment and hurt in her eyes. Glancing up at Michael, she saw him look toward Maria, concern and guilt on his face. What was going on with those two?

"Zeval, we're so glad you made it alright. Two weeks was just about right, wasn't it? Did you have any trouble?" Max wanted to make his guests feel at home, but he was also anxious to get to the important work ahead.

"No, we're fine, thank you. I want to explain why I brought Jasar." She turned a fond gaze to her friend. "Jasar is a fine astronomer, but more than that, she is one of you–a hybrid." She took in their surprised faces, and hurried to explain. "Jasar should have been on one of the ships that was sent to Earth originally, but her pod was damaged during loading, and they determined it would have to stay behind for repair and monitoring. She was to have come on a later ship, but the conflict had escalated to the point where no more ships could leave by the time her pod was ready for the trip.

"She's the only hybrid ever to be raised on Voya, so when I realized I would need help here, I asked her to come. I hope you don't mind."

There was a moment of silence as everyone stared at Jasar and absorbed her strange story. Jasar sat uncomfortably, feeling too much like a specimen.

"Was it strange growing up as a hybrid on Voya?" Isabel asked, knowing she'd always felt out of place on Earth and wondering if it would have been better on Voya.

"Yes," Jasar nodded. "It's not that anyone was mean or anything, but I never quite fit in. I couldn't shapeshift at all, so I got teased some about that, and I couldn't participate in the exercises when they practiced that. And my gifts developed more slowly. I always felt like I should have been on Earth."

"What are your gifts?" asked Tess, curious about whether she could do something none of the others could.

"Nothing special," she shrugged. "Just the sensory thing is all."

"The sensory thing?" Maria had inched closer, fascinated by this young woman's story.

"Yes. You know, heightened sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. It's quite common." She saw the faces around her looking amazed. “Don’t any of you have that?” They all shook their heads no.

“That is so cool,” gushed Maria. “So you can, like, hear stuff being said upstairs or see things down the street?”

“If I concentrate,” admitted Jasar. “It’s not automatic or anything. That’s what I meant by being slower than the others.”

Zeval spoke up. “I don’t think I know what any of you can do. Michael? If I recall, you were always blasting things into oblivion. Still at it?”

Michael still wasn’t used to being teased by a sister, but he found he didn’t mind it at all. He grinned at her. “That’s my specialty, as a matter of fact. You’ll be relieved to know that I’ve tightened my control a little, though.”

“A little? Heaven help us.”

The laughter was contagious, and soon everyone was visiting easily. Jasar felt more comfortable than she had ever expected, perhaps more comfortable than she ever had on Voya. These people were like her. They understood her and made her feel special. She was glad she’d come.

She was even happier when the doorbell rang and in walked Josh Alexander. Jasar had seen plenty of human forms; kids on Voya were always turning themselves into human form for fun. She had never joined them, of course, but she was quite sure she’d never seen one as attractive as this. He was tall, with hair the color of nectar from the Voyan kanafruit and eyes as blue as the azula flower. When those eyes settled on her, they took her breath away.

He was cordial and interested when they were introduced, but it was soon clear that his real interest was in Isabel. To be expected, she thought to herself. She’s beautiful. She watched the slight tension between them and realized that Alex was the one currently with Isabel. So Josh was not her partner; he only wished to be. Interesting.

They all enjoyed the cookout the Evanses had prepared until Max announced it was time to leave. Jeff Parker had offered the Crashdown van, since it carried so many people, and Max was taking the Jeep. Isabel hurried over to Max and whispered in his ear, an exchange not lost on Josh. Max nodded, and she and Alex walked toward the Jeep. Diane was next in line. She gave Max a hug.

“Take care, Max. You know we’re here if you need anything.

Max hugged her tightly. “You’ve been incredible, Mom. Thank you.” He kissed her on the cheek. “I love you. Don’t worry. We’ll be fine. Look at all the help we have.”

She blinked back a tear and smiled at him. Philip approached him and joined the hug.

“Take the cell phone, Max. Let us know how it goes.”

“Thanks, Dad. We’ll be back on Sunday, okay?”

They waved goodbye and took off, charged with a strange combination of excitement and nervousness. The weekend was only supposed to be about familiarizing themselves with the observatory and getting Zeval settled. They wanted to understand what she would be doing and how it could help them. But the way things had gone lately, no one could be sure what the weekend would bring.

********

Paul greeted the group warmly, giving special hugs to Max and Liz. He led them around to the dormitories located near the Operations building, off of which the large telescope was mounted.

“Zeval, you have a resident apartment across the compound. It’s kind of small for a guest, but I assume Jasar would prefer to stay with you?”

Jasar bit her lip and scanned the group. “Actually, I’d really like to stay here and get to know the others a little better.” A trace of blush graced her cheeks when she realized her gaze had lingered on Josh. Fortunately, she didn’t think he’d noticed.

“That’s fine!” smiled Paul. “I was able to reserve the three suites in this dorm. Each one has two bedrooms with a double bed and a shared bathroom. He stopped in front of a door where the numbers 8/9 gleamed. “The guys are in here.” Max frowned and looked at Liz. She frowned back at him. Paul had never separated them before.

“The girls are in 6/7 next door, and Max and Liz are in 4/5 across the hall.”

Liz flashed Max a smile; Paul hadn’t let them down. Surprisingly, no one questioned the arrangement. “Company must have put them on their best behavior,” Liz chuckled. Max laughed softly at their friends’ restraint and opened the door to their room.

“Kitchen is down at the other end,” Paul added. “It’s fully outfitted and I took the liberty of stocking a few basics. Get settled and then join me over at the ops building. I’ll give you the nickel tour.”

An hour later, the group gathered again in the small kitchen area.

“Microwave popcorn!” Alex shouted jubilantly.

“I’ll get the drinks,” Kyle offered, equally enthused about a snack.

Once settled, Max filled Zeval and Jasar in on the seizures Liz had been experiencing. Jasar was horrified at what Malek was doing to her queen. Somehow she hadn’t expected any humans to be affected by this threat. Then again, Liz wasn’t completely human and she was the king’s mate. Jasar began to realize the risk these humans had accepted when they chose to befriend her people.

Zeval sat grimly, looking more worried than surprised. “I knew he was powerful, but I honestly hadn’t expected him to be a threat until he reached Earth.” She looked up at Liz. “You can feel these attacks coming?”

Liz nodded. “Yeah. I get a cold, hateful, sinking feeling and then he’s in my head. Last time, I needed help to get him out.” Her eyes looked haunted, and Max reached for her. She sank against him and shut her eyes.

“I think we’d better get some rest. We’ll meet out here around 9:00 tomorrow morning and check out the telescope. Zeval, do you want someone to walk you to your apartment?”

Zeval started to shake her head and then stopped. She looked over at Michael and caught another awkward look between him and Maria. “Yes, please. Michael, would you walk me over?”

Michael was caught unaware. “Uh, sure. No problem.”

Zeval took his arm. “Good. Because we need to have a nice brother-sister talk.”

Michael looked at her skeptically as they stepped out into the night.

********

Inside their room, Liz made her way over to the bed and sighed heavily as she let her body fall into it. Max lay down next to her and gently swept the hair away from her face.

“You’ve about had it for today, haven’t you?” he asked, worry creasing his brow.

“I’m tired, yes, but there’s something I need more than rest right now.” She looked up at his concerned, loving face and answered his unspoken question. “Make love to me, Max.”

His mind told him she needed to rest, but his heart told him they both needed the closeness tonight. And his body was always ready to experience his beautiful mate. Any cautious thoughts that flitted across his mind were quickly swept away as he bent to kiss her. She came to him with want and need and urgency, and he let her take the lead. The raw emotion that enveloped them drove them to join completely, sharing every thought, every sensation, as they gave themselves up to each other. The room was filled with light and their troubled hearts found some moments of peace.

As their spent bodies lay entangled in the bed, the glow they had created began to subside. Their last languid kiss was interrupted by their own laughter, though, when Alex was heard in the hall.

“Ahh! Don’t look at the door! Avert your eyes! Do not look directly into the light.” They could hear Isabel swat him, and the friendly bickering faded out as they fell asleep.

Hours later, Max was awakened by an unfamiliar sensation. He couldn’t feel Liz in his mind, so he opened his eyes and felt the bed next to him. She was gone, and a feeling of dread came over him. Instinctively, he whipped around in the bed to look behind him. There, in the faint glow of moonlight was Liz, a maniacal gleam in her eye and a chilling smile on her face, poised over him with her arm raised. Before he could react, her arm began to descend, and he caught the glint of light on the knife blade.


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 20-Apr-2002 11:52:07 AM ]
posted on 20-Apr-2002 11:58:26 AM
Part 26

Maria tried to join in the girl talk that Jasar seemed so eager for. Isabel was smiling shyly, as she always did when the others teased her about Alex. Tess had blushed–blushed!–when Jasar asked if Kyle was her mate. It was all too much, too painful.

"I'm going for a walk," she announced suddenly. Jasar looked confused, but Tess and Isabel nodded their understanding. They knew Maria was going through a hard time.

A star-encrusted dome hovered over Sunspot, New Mexico, and Maria gazed up at the stars, wondering which one had sent her the boy she loved so much, but who couldn't love her–at least not enough. Unable to keep still, she wandered down the circular drive that lined the grounds of the observatory. As she passed the second of the three buildings housing telescopes, she heard voices. Looking to her right, she saw Michael and Zeval on a park bench, silhouetted against the night sky. She stopped and listened.

"I'm no good for her, Zeval. Once I realized that I was responsible for her father's disappearance, I realized I'd been hurting her since the day I set foot on this planet. She's been put in at least a dozen dangerous situations since she's known me, and things could actually get worse from here." He was quiet a moment. "The only way I can protect her is to keep my distance."

"What about Max and Liz? Isn't this the same thing? Look at the danger Liz is in, but you couldn't separate them if you wanted to. I've seen that from the beginning."

Michael snickered. "I did want to separate them at first, but you're right. It didn't work. Anyway, that's different. Liz is part alien, and they have this bond, this connection thing . . . I don't know if I could have that with anyone."

"Michael, do you love Maria?"

Maria tensed as she waited for his answer. It was a long time coming.

"For a long time, I didn't think I could love anyone. And I sure didn't think anyone could love me. But from the very beginning, that girl got under my skin. It was like . . . I don't know . . . like a song you can't get out of your head."

"But Michael, what I asked was . . ."

"She can drive a person crazy, you know? I mean when you talk to her, you can't get a word in edgewise. Her mind leaps around at random like a Mexican jumping bean; you never know where it'll land. And she has weird taste in clothes, and she yells at me all the time. She even slapped me upside the head once, and I hadn't even done anything! She's always insulting me and telling me what an inferior boyfriend I am . . ."

"Michael! Do you love her?"

Another long pause. Then, "Yes."

Maria could hardly believe her ears. Her heart soared at his words, but then the confusion and anger set in again. She loved him. He loved her. Then why weren't they together? Couldn't he get anything right?

"Michael, when you introduced Maria to your grandfather and me, you said she was the first person who you thought could make you happy. Now you're pushing her away. For what? She's in danger now whether you are together or not. She knows your secret, and that's that. You can't change it. And her father's disappearance was not your fault. You can't help how some people have reacted to the knowledge of your existence. You have a wonderful group of friends who have accepted who and what you are. Others didn't. You aren't responsible for that.

"Listen to me, Michael. I was tutored a great deal on Earth customs and human norms. I've read much of the literature this culture has to offer. If there is one common theme, it's 'take hold of love where you find it.' You were sent here against overwhelming odds–that you would survive the trip, that you could keep your secret, that you would reveal yourself to people who would accept you. Against all those odds, you found someone who loves you for who you are. Don't throw that away. Remember, you're not just part alien; you're part human, too."

Maria listened for Michael's reaction to his sister's words. How much wiser Zeval was than Michael, and she'd only been on Earth one day! Maria knew she'd found an ally.

"It's too late, anyway. I've burned those bridges," Michael lamented. "I've hurt her too much, unintentionally and intentionally. She'll never forgive me now. And it's probably just as well."

"Don't sell her short, Michael."

Maria hurried out of sight when she saw them rise to continue their walk to Zeval's apartment. He loved her! Now all she had to do was convince him they should be together. She carefully worked her way around the grounds, taking care to avoid the resident quarters. Operation Guerin was already hatching.

********
It was two hours later when Michael returned to the dorm. He and Zeval had had so much to talk about, and he found it easy to open up to her. She may be his little sister, but circumstances had turned her into his big sister, and he felt her unqualified acceptance. That brought thoughts and emotions to the surface that he had worked hard to suppress his whole life. Getting so many things off his chest had been cathartic, and he felt more relaxed than he had in a long, long time.

He paused outside the girls' room, and thought of Maria's sweet face framed with golden hair against her pillow. What the . . . ? Since when did he romanticize her like that? Still, a smile played on his lips as he thought of her. Maybe Zeval was right. Maybe he should try again. Then reality came back and bit him. He had burned his bridges. She'd never trust him not to hurt her again.

His musings scattered as a shout punctured the air.

"Liz! Liz!"

The urgency in those two syllables turned Michael's blood to ice.

********

Max saw the light reflect off the knife blade and his hand shot out to grab Liz's wrist. A sharp pain penetrated his consciousness, but he ignored it.

"Liz! Liz!" He could feel the blood trickling down his arm, but the look on Liz's face was a hundred times more frightening. "Liz!" Her eyes, gleaming with the thrill of the kill, were focused on his chest. He fought off her attack, amazed at the strength she was using against him. Was Liz really this strong? Or was Malek's uncontrolled hatred exaggerating her adrenalin-induced power? He was afraid to use his powers for fear of hurting her.

"Liz! Look at me!" he pleaded. The gleaming eyes looked up at their victim's face and locked there.

"Liz, it's me. It's Max. You don't want to do this!"

The manic smile faded slowly, and the eyes clouded over. Liz's body began to tremble and beads of perspiration broke out on her forehead. Max watched helplessly as a war raged inside the woman he loved; Liz was struggling to regain control of her mind and body. One by one, her fingers loosened on the knife handle and a small growl of determination pushed from deep in her throat. It grew into a roar and when it subsided, Max saw Liz–his Liz–looking at him in confusion. Her eyes shifted to the knife in her hands, and then to Max's hand holding her at bay. As realization dawned, she stumbled back in horror. The knife dropped to the floor.

"Max!" His name was a wail that trailed from her lips as she crumbled to the floor.

Max leapt from the bed, leaning over her, fearing the worst. At that moment, Michael burst through the door to see a naked Max leaning over a naked Liz, near-panic on his face.

Max jerked around to see Michael standing in the doorway. "She's still alive! Help me!"

"Cover yourself, Maxwell. The others will be in here in seconds." Michael reached for a blanket to cover Liz while Max stepped quickly into his boxers. Maria was next through the door.

"Liz!" she cried, racing across the room to drop at her friend's side. "What happened?"

"It was Malek," Max gasped, trembling himself now that the immediate threat was past. "He tried to kill me."

"What?" Michael and Maria shouted in unison.

"She . . . He came after me with a knife." Max leaned over to pick up the knife, slamming home his point. "Liz fought it, and now . . ." He dropped to his knees, shaking more violently by the minute, "Now she's unconscious." He ran his hands over her body, looking for internal damage of some kind, but he felt nothing abnormal.

By now the room had filled with their other friends, looking on in horror as they heard Max explain. Michael moved Maria gently out of the way and bent to lift Liz's limp form to the bed. Max looked at him gratefully; he wasn't thinking clearly yet.

Max knelt next to her on the bed. "Liz," he called softly. "Liz, wake up. It's Max."

There was no response at all. Max took her shoulders and shook her gently. "Liz," he called a little louder. "Please, Liz. Wake up!"

Her body lay still, giving no indication she was hearing Max's voice.

"Liz!" Max fairly shouted, as he shook her harder. "Please!"

Michael took his friend's arm and pulled him away. "Max, she can't hear you." He looked down at his hand; it felt warm and sticky. "You're bleeding!"

Max shook Michael off and wiped his arm against his boxers.

"We'd better go in," Josh said quietly.

Everyone turned to look at him except Isabel. She knew what he was proposing, and she didn't like it.

"Go in where?" asked Kyle.

Josh didn't respond. He just moved toward Isabel and took her hand. Alex moved to protest, but Isabel raised her hand to quiet him.

"It's okay, Alex. We have to go get her."

Alex backed off reluctantly and watched with the others as Josh and Isabel approached the bed.

"Wait." Max stepped forward, placing himself between Liz and the others. "Give me a minute with her first. Let me at least get something on her and check her for injuries again before you do this."

"Max, we can't postpone this." Josh seemed insistent.

"Is there a reason to rush, Josh?" Tess was getting a bad feeling. Josh was keeping himself under rigid control, and it made her nervous.

Josh's eyes never left Max. "The longer he controls her, the stronger he becomes, Max."

Max fought back the tears. This was no time to lose his head.

"Okay, just give me five minutes."

The group filed out quickly, leaving Max to tend to Liz. He traced her features with his fingertips and kissed her lightly. She looked so small and frail. Gathering her into his arms, he cradled her for a moment, letting the tears fall. "I'm so sorry, Liz. God, I would do anything to keep this from happening to you, but I don't know how!" He held her tightly until he could force himself to let go and get her back in her nightshirt. She needed him thinking straight, he told himself. At least he could do that for her.

Hurrying now, he finished covering her and went to get Josh and Isabel. Josh's face was set determinedly. Isabel was fighting her own fear; she had almost gotten lost last time.

As the friends crowded the doorway, Max stepped aside to let Josh and Isabel sit on either edge of the bed. They joined hands and then each took one of Liz's. Focusing their concentration, they centered themselves internally and stepped into Liz's dark reality. Like the setting for a scary movie, Liz's mind swirled in virtual winds and dim shapes–a cold and ominous void.

Once again, Isabel found herself alone in the barren landscape and fear gripped her. She called out to Josh and heard him answer from what sounded like a great distance. She turned toward the sound of his voice and called again. This time, she could barely hear his response. Panic was setting in. She began to turn in circles, desperately looking for any clue, any familiar image or sound. What appeared to be a dark tunnel began to form in front of her, and she instinctively recoiled from the presence she suddenly felt. Inexplicably, she felt herself being pulled toward the tunnel, and a prickly sensation like static electricity made the hairs on her arm stand on end.

Screaming Josh's name, she pulled away from the tunnel, trying to flee in any other direction. She struggled to move her legs, but with every step, she seemed to be losing ground. The pull had strengthened to full-fledged suction, and soon she had no power to resist it. She felt the walls of the tunnel speed by until she was totally encased in an empty, chilling darkness.


Part 27

Alex watched in horror as Isabel slumped over Liz’s body. Josh, jolted from his dream state by the break in his connection with Isabel, looked momentarily confused until he focused on Isabel’s limp form. Even as Alex rushed across the room, Josh had pulled Isabel into his arms, cradling her head.

“Isabel! Isabel! I lost you—I’m so sorry.” He began to rock her back and forth as Alex reached his side.

“I’ll take care of her,” he said stiffly, making no effort to hide his anger.

You’ll take care of her?” Josh challenged mockingly. “What do you know about taking care of someone who’s been lost in someone else’s mind?”

Alex was not intimidated. “What do you know about it?”

Josh was momentarily speechless, since he really didn’t know how to help Isabel, except maybe to go back in. But if two of them hadn’t been able to stop Malek, he was sure he couldn’t do it alone. As he thought about it, Alex was already pulling Isabel away.

“Kyle, help me get her into the empty bedroom.”

Kyle stepped forward and helped Alex position Isabel in his arms. Then he hurried forward to open the door to the spare room across the common area. Josh rose to follow, but Max stopped him.

“Give them a few minutes,” he cautioned. “It won’t make any difference.” The hopelessness of his words weighed heavily in the air.

“I’ll call Zeval,” Jasar offered, and turned toward the common area. Maria pushed past Max and lay down with Liz, stroking her hair and mumbling comforting nothings. Grateful to have Liz’s close friend caring for her, Max addressed Josh again.

“Josh, there must be a way to get them back. You know more about this than any of us, so I’m counting on you to come up with alternatives. Isn’t there someone you can ask?”

Josh ran his fingers through his hair. “I’ll call a meeting of the Star Chamber. The elders may know what to do.”

“The sooner, the better,” Michael added sharply.

Josh had never felt more like an outsider with this group. After winning their trust and friendship over the last few months, he was now painfully aware how peripheral his presence really was. They had trusted him to bring Liz back and instead, he had lost Isabel. Now they were closing ranks, turning again to those they loved and trusted. He rose from the bed, looking to get away from the accusations that floated unspoken in the room. Brushing past Michael and Tess, he made his way outside. He needed to think.

Jasar had awakened Zeval, who promised to call Paul and hurry over. Once that task was done, she took in the actions of her new friends, learning more in those few minutes of observation than all the conversation she’d shared since her arrival. Max knelt next to Liz’s bed, assuming the task Maria had been performing—soothing Liz in hopes that she could hear or feel her loved ones. Maria looked on with a scowl, willing her friend to awaken. Michael stood, almost at attention, at the foot of the bed, poised to protect and defend even though no external foe existed.

In the other bedroom, Alex sat at the head of the bed, holding Isabel across his lap as if she were a small child, rocking her and humming softly. Off to the side, Kyle stood with an arm around Tess, who had come to find him. He looked confused and angry. Jasar had been told that he was the most recent friend to learn this group’s odd secret, and it was clear he hadn’t fully accepted all of its implications yet. That made it all the more strange that he found comfort in one of the hybrids. Tess just stood quietly, her head resting against his shoulder, a calming hand on his chest.

And so it was that Jasar, too, turned to go outside. Somehow, she felt she was intruding on a private moment.

********

Josh was in over his head and he knew it. He’d never run into anything like this before. Now, between his failure to bring Liz or even Isabel back, and his inadvertent show of affection for Isabel, he had alienated the very people he had worked so hard to befriend. He felt inadequate and defeated.

“Az tan omina anto le lumani.”

Josh jerked his head up in surprise. Jasar stood before him, a sympathetic look on her face. “Do you recognize that?”

He smiled. “An old saying from the home world. What you may not know is, they have pretty much the same saying here: ‘It’s darkest before the dawn.’”

“I guess that’s true no matter where you are. May I?” She motioned toward the empty half of the bench where Josh was seated.

“Of course.”

“Tell me, Josh, how many others are out there? How many of us, I mean? And are they willing to help?”

“We number over 100, I think, with actual powers. There are more who know of us and support us. There may be things our people can do; I know they’re willing. I just don’t know where to begin. I mean, I’ll call the meeting, but what do I tell them we need?”

“Let them tell you, Josh. And I’d like you to take me with you. Perhaps I can shed some light on Malek that will help them decide on a course of action.”

“Take you with me?”

“Yes. Don’t you take people with you sometimes?”

“No, never. Only dreamwalkers are in the meetings.”

Jasar smiled. “Not after tonight.” She raised her head and looked off toward the other side of the grounds. “She’s coming,” she announced softly.

He watched as she closed her eyes in concentration. Nodding to herself, she rose. “Zeval wants us to assemble quickly. Paul has gone to get the key to the Ops building so she and I can start to install the tracking device. She wants to talk to the rest of you first.”

“Did you just get that message telepathically?”

“No! I told you, I have heightened senses . . . when I concentrate, at least. Zeval is headed this way and just spoke to me.” She headed into the building to gather the others before Zeval arrived. Josh could only shake his head and follow her in. She was something of a surprise to him, and he couldn’t help but admire what he saw.

********

The group was crowded into the common room between the bedrooms where Liz and Isabel were still lying unconscious. Zeval had gone in to observe each one and then had come to the center room to talk to the group.

“Malek is worming his way into their minds, trying to make them truly his. Max, when Liz recognized you and let go of the knife, she was exerting herself to an extreme degree. Frankly, I’m surprised she could do it. He’s very powerful, and she’s so new at this. It’s a testament to the strength of her connection to you, and we need to take advantage of that.”

Max was at once touched by her words and stricken with guilt. He fought it off, knowing from experience that it wouldn’t help and it wouldn’t change anything, but it weighed on his mind, and he understood Michael’s reluctance to get in too deep with Maria. For now, he just vowed to do whatever it took to get Liz back. He returned his attention to Zeval.

“Isabel has never dreamwalked anyone who knew she was there, let alone anyone who could resist. She wasn’t ready.” She turned to Josh. “I want you to get a dreamwalk team together from your Star Chamber meetings. They need to know who they’re up against and what damage has already been done. They will be better able to tell you than I can how to accomplish our goals. Meanwhile, have them send cadre members here immediately. Malek must be close; each attack is stronger than the last.”

“Cadre members?” Max asked. “What’s that?”

“I guess the best translation for it is ‘soldier,’ but it really means more. Michael, you are the cadre member of your team. You are the protector and a leader of sorts. Cadres only use force as a last resort, but when they do, it’s formidable. If we coordinate this right, we’ll have the upper hand.

“First, we need the dreamwalkers to sever Malek’s connection to Liz and Isabel. If I can detect his ship’s arrival, we’ll have a location on him and his crew. Once we know where he is, the cadre can capture him. Then, Max, it’ll be up to you what happens to him.”

All eyes swung toward Max. He sat stunned, realizing for the first time just what it meant to be king. He could very well hold this man’s life in his hands, and in spite of the hatred that coursed through his veins when he thought of Malek, he didn’t know if he could order anyone’s death. Then his eyes flickered toward the bedroom door. Or maybe I could, he thought.

Max, shaking off his dark thoughts, and grateful for the information and advice, smiled at Zeval. “Thank you for helping us focus on what needs to be done.” Then he stood to address the whole group. “I suggest you all get as much rest as you can. We need to be on top of our game, and we can’t do that if we’re exhausted. I’ll stay in with Liz. Alex? I assume you’ll be in with Isabel?”

Alex looked pointedly at Josh. “Yes.”

Josh, you need to call the Star Chamber meeting immediately, but the rest of you should try to sleep. Zeval, let me know when the tracking device is installed. We’ll reconvene then and find out what Josh has learned.”

Everyone rose to leave as Paul came rushing in. “Here’s the key, Zeval, but I forgot to tell everyone an important detail.” He paused, trying to catch his breath. “I don’t know if anyone else thought of this, but the names Zeval and Jasar, especially with no last names, will attract too much attention, so I had your paperwork drawn up with more typical names. Zeval, you’ll be introduced as Zoe Vale. Jasar, you’re Jasmine Armand. I know it’s not much notice, but try to remember to respond to those names. Of course, Jasar is just a guest and won’t have much contact with the staff, but Zeval will undoubtedly have to interact with a lot of locals.”

“Thank you, Paul. I should have thought of that myself. I’m going to get started on the installation.” She left quickly, and the others began to file out behind her. Maria watched Michael head quickly for his room, a scowl on his face. She hesitated, not sure if he would welcome her. As she stood wondering what to do, Tess and Kyle walked by her, hand in hand, and headed for the same room. Watching from the doorway, she saw them head into the second bedroom. As careful as they had been with each other, the seriousness of the situation seemed to strip caution away, leaving only their need to hold each other.

That decided it for Maria. She walked toward the first bedroom and saw that the door had been pushed shut but hadn’t quite closed. She pushed it open silently to find Michael sitting on the edge of the bed, elbows on his knees, hands supporting his head. The sigh that rushed forth from him seemed to go on forever, as if it had started in his toes and gained momentum as it looked for release. Maria entered the room further until a shaft of light hit Michael’s feet, and he looked up. He knew instantly it was Maria silhouetted in the doorway, and in that moment, she looked like salvation to him.

Even before her presence fully registered with him, she was rushing to his side, and he wrapped his arms around her tightly, forgetting any resolve to keep his distance. They needed each other, and Zeval’s logic seemed more than acceptable to him at the moment. All he needed to know was that she had come to him; she had put the hurt aside and let her guard down. Now it was up to him to make her understand how much that meant to him.

“Maria,” he whispered, and his hands held her head to his chest while his heart reached out to her.

“I’m here, Michael,” she reassured him. “I’m here as long as you need me.”

Slowly, he drew her down to lie next to him. Molding his body to hers, he kept his arms around her, encircling her with his need and his love. He hadn’t said the words, but Maria didn’t need them. She knew she was where she belonged.

********

Josh had gone outside again, looking for a quiet place where he wouldn’t disturb anyone, but wouldn’t be seen, either. It would be light soon, and he wasn’t sure how long this would take. Finding a small grove of trees not far from the dorm, he sat quietly, collecting his thoughts and his resolve. In a way, he was openly admitting his inability to control the situation, but he realized his ego was the least important factor in this game of chess, and asking for help was an honorable plan of action.

He was about to begin when he heard a noise behind him. Startled, he turned quickly, holding out his hand in defense. Looking back at him, wide-eyed with surprise herself, was Jasar. “Wait, Josh! It’s just me. I told you I wanted to come tonight, right?”

Josh lowered his hand. “And I told you, I don’t know how to include someone else who’s not a dreamwalker.”

“But you can connect with people, can’t you? You know, let them into your mind? Let them see what you see?”

“Yeah, but . . .”

“No buts, Josh. Connect with me, and I’ll follow you in.”

Josh looked uncomfortable. “That’s a very private thing you’re suggesting,” he faltered. “Letting you into my mind is letting you see everything. I’m not sure I want to do that.”

Jasar’s eyes flashed angrily. “Josh, this is about saving two people right now, and a lot more later. Do you think you could just get over your little personal anxieties long enough to save some lives?”

Josh opened his mouth to issue a scathing retort, but nothing came to mind. She was right.

“Fine, but I trust you can be discreet about anything you might see?”

Jasar relaxed and bit back a grin. “My, my, Josh, you are making me so curious.”

Josh glared at her and then took a deep cleansing breath. “Make your mind a blank,” he instructed.

“I’m the one who knows how to do this, remember?” she told him sarcastically.

She closed the gap between them and looked directly into his eyes. Josh’s last thought before he began the connection was how incredibly intelligent and beautiful her eyes were.

Seconds later, the Star Chamber members had begun to gather. Among the first to arrive was Antul, the Chamber leader. Josh introduced him to Jasar and gave him a brief overview of the purpose of the meeting. Nodding his understanding, Antul addressed the assembly.

“A few weeks ago, we pledged our support for our king. He is in need of us now. Malek will be on Earth within days.” A murmur erupted, and Antul waited for the inevitable furor to die down. “A recent arrival from our planet has come to explain the situation.”

A loud roar went up as Jasar approached Antul, and she looked at him questioningly.

“You are the first visitor from home for hundreds of years, my dear. You represent a new day for us. Let them enjoy the moment.”

Jasar turned to the gathering and smiled through several minutes of celebration. Eventually, they calmed enough to let her begin speaking.

“Malek is close, very close. The queen has already succumbed to his mind control, as has the king’s sister.” Another murmur arose, louder this time. Again, Jasar waited.

“Josh Alexander, who has been the king’s liaison with you, has already made one attempt to rescue the queen, but he was unsuccessful. We all know that it will take more than one or two dreamwalkers to retrieve her.” Josh was silently grateful to Jasar for issuing this subtle absolution. He felt less embarrassed and more empowered as she spoke.

“We will convene an emergency dream circle in a few hours. Our first order of business is to release our queen and princess. Our second order of business is to capture and detain Malek. Zeval, sister to the king’s second, has arrived and is installing the tracking system on a powerful telescope at Apache Point Observatory. Once we know where he has landed, we will summon a cadre to that position. When we have Malek in custody, our king will decide his fate.”

She stepped away from Antul, indicating that she was finished. Josh watched her--confident, businesslike, controlled. She had handled herself remarkably well, considering how shy and insecure she had seemed meeting the royals for the first time.

“I trust we are all ready to make whatever arrangements are necessary to accommodate this plan?”

Antul surveyed the hushed group, giving a perfunctory nod to the possibility that anyone would disagree.

“Dream circle members are asked to return when summoned in a few hours. Please inform cadre members to make whatever personal arrangements are necessary for a quick departure when they are needed.”

He dismissed them, and turned to Jasar. “Thank you, Jasar, for coming to us. You have done your king and your people a valuable service.”

She made a modest bow and returned to Josh’s side. “Let’s go.”

Instantly, they found themselves in the grove of trees where they had begun. Josh released his connection with Jasar and looked at her warily, still wondering what she may have seen that he considered private.

“We’d better go tell Max that things are in motion.” Her eyes gave nothing away, and she appeared to be focused on the problem at hand. Josh sighed with relief. They walked purposefully back toward the dorm, stopping a moment to admire the brilliant colors playing across the sky just before sunrise. It was then that Jasar brought him up short.

“So, does Isabel know about those dreams?”

She smiled, batted her eyes innocently, and headed for the dorm.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 12:13:28 PM
Part 28

Max lay beside Liz, staring intently at her face, desperately watching for some sign that she was waking or at least aware of him. He’d spent the last few sleepless hours telling her stories of his years of loving her from afar. He told her about the time Mrs. Jenkins, their fourth-grade teacher, had assigned them as partners for the science fair, and he’d almost thrown up on the spot with nervousness and excitement about working so closely with her every day. Then he’d told her about seventh-grade Health class when they’d had their sex education unit. While the other boys had been making crude jokes or intensely studying their desks, he had been fantasizing about what that would be like with Liz. And in ninth grade, when she had accepted a date with Tony Garcia to the first school dance, he’d been furious, even though she had no idea he’d been thinking of asking her.

Through it all, there had been no sign from Liz that she could hear him, and he grew more terrified—and more angry—by the minute. He tried to take his own advice and get some sleep, but sleep would not come, and he began to despair. Once, he got up long enough to check on Isabel. He knew Alex would have come to him first if she had awakened, but he had to go see his sister for himself. Looking into the dimly lit room, he could see Alex was having the same problem as Max was. He was holding Isabel, stroking her arm, eyes glued to her face. Detecting movement at the doorway, Alex looked up to see Max standing there. A discouraged shake of his head told Max all he needed to know.

It was almost 11:00 a.m. when Zeval appeared with the news that the tracking device had been successfully installed on the telescope. Only one other employee had stopped by to see what she was doing, and he had easily accepted her story that she was simply familiarizing herself with the complex workings of the new telescope.

“Thank you, Zeval. Could you get everyone together again? We need to find out if Josh and Jasar had any luck.”

Fifteen minutes later, Josh was explaining what had happened during the Star Chamber meeting. Jasar blushed in pleased embarrassment when Josh relayed her impressive appearance before the Chamber, and Tess asked several questions about how Josh had been able to include Jasar in the meeting. Max thanked them both and instructed them to convene the dream circle as soon as possible.

“Zeval, you need to get some sleep, and Jasar is needed in the dream circle. Can you show someone what to watch for so you can get some rest?”

“I’ll do it,” volunteered Paul. “No one will question my presence there.”

“Thanks, Paul.” Max gave him a grateful smile.

“Max, you look like hell.” Leave it to Michael to tell it like it is. “You have got to get some rest. Maria and I will look after Liz.”

“I’m not leaving her,” stated Max firmly.

“Good grief, Maxwell. Do you think I could know you as well as I do and even suggest that? I’m just saying, relax and get some sleep. You don’t have to watch over her. Maria and I will stay here in the common room and listen for anything from either Liz or Isabel. That way you and Alex can get a little shut-eye.”

“Okay, but as soon as they’re ready with the dream circle, let me know. I don’t want Liz moved, so they’ll have to do it in there,” he instructed, tilting his head toward the bedroom. Michael nodded and Max returned to find Liz exactly as he had left her. He pulled her close against him, as much to allay his own fears as hers, should she wake up. Eventually he drifted off into a restless sleep.

********

There were a dozen Voyans assembled in the Star Chamber, awaiting instructions to begin. Josh and Jasar sat on the bed cross-legged, Liz between them. They each held one of her hands. Josh placed his free hand alongside Jasar’s head and looked into her serious green eyes. They connected quickly, and soon they had joined the waiting dreamwalkers in the Star Chamber.

“It is important that we all maintain a free and open connection with each other,” Antul reminded them. “The power of our minds must flow freely, gaining strength and momentum as it passes among us. Malek is well known for his mind control, and nothing but our own intense concentration will break his hold.”

The participants murmured their understanding, and they joined hands, following Josh into the dark void. Josh was struck by how much darker the mind in which Liz and Isabel were imprisoned had become since his previous attempt to rescue Liz. He looked behind him and saw that the entire group had made it into the void with him.

“I suggest we concentrate on a single goal. For now, each of us must focus on our queen. Summon her with your minds and try to pull her to us. She should be able to feel our presence and follow it.”

As the dreamwalkers focused their energy on reaching out to Liz, a single call went out from the group, piercing the drone of the nonexistent wind. Shaken by the unsettling desolation, some members glanced at each other nervously. No one had experienced a dreamwalk like this before.

“Focus!” Antul instructed sharply, and they set the minds anew to finding their queen.

After several intense minutes, a transparent vision of Liz hovered before them. She was reaching out to them, her face twisted in terror, her arms outstretched.

“There she is!” cried one woman. “We’ve got her!”

“No! Not yet, we don’t” cautioned Antul. “Concentrate! We need more!”

The faces of the group members contorted with the effort to reach Liz. The strain was taking its toll, but in spite of their redoubled efforts, the image of Liz began to fade. When one of the dreamwalkers fell to his knees, weakened from generating so much power, Antul called a halt to the attempt. He looked devastated at the failure, but was unwilling to risk another life.

Back in the Star Chamber, waiting medical personnel attended to the ailing dreamwalker, and Antul pulled Josh and Jasar aside.

“I don’t understand it. There should have been more than enough power in this group to subdue even Malek. Please tell the king that we must wait before trying again. These people are drained now, and we dare not make another attempt too soon.”

Josh dreaded being the one to bring Max news of their failure to find Liz, but there were no alternatives. He brought Jasar and himself back to Max’s bedroom and found himself face to face with Max’s expectant, hopeful eyes. One look at their faces, however, and those same eyes darkened into hate-filled, determined caverns of rage.

********

Max was a driven man. All afternoon, he was either pacing like a caged animal or sitting stone still in his room, staring at Liz. All the while, his active mind was devising plans for different scenarios. He had Josh contact Antul about how long they had to wait to reconvene the Star Chamber only to scowl furiously when Josh brought him the news that they must wait until tomorrow. He had someone checking with Paul every hour for a status report on any activity in the skies. He spoke to no one except to issue orders, and the others just steered clear, unwilling to release the coiled spring of anger and frustration their leader carried within him.

As afternoon turned into night, Max refused to eat, barking an order for everyone else to eat and then sleep. They would be needed soon enough, and he wanted them ready. No one argued. They just did as they were told, retiring again in pairs without a second thought. Soon, not even the quiet rustling of people moving in and out of the room could be heard. Everyone was settled in their own rooms, pretending that rest was possible.

Hours later, Max was kneeling beside Liz, his hands and forehead resting against her unresponsive arm, when he heard the dorm door open. Footsteps hurried down the hall, and he braced for the news.

Zeval strode through, giving no lip service to the late hour or the invasion of privacy.

“He’s here, Max. Malek had landed.”

The news hit Max like blow to the stomach. Everything tensed, but nothing moved. Then his eyes locked with Zeval’s, and her expectant look spurred him into action.

“Get everyone up, and send them in here. Then take Jasar and go back to the telescope. I want coordinates on his position as soon as you have them.”

Zeval turned on her heel and hurried out. Max could hear the perfunctory knocks, followed by doors opening and a sharp voice. “Get up. It’s time!”

The anxious faces appeared by twos in the room. Max began to spout instructions, the hours of planning spilling into reality.

“Zeval and Jasar are plotting Malek’s coordinates. As soon as they have them, Josh, you take Michael into the Star Chamber. He needs to know every plan that’s being considered.” Max missed the look of alarm that passed over Michael’s face at the thought of connecting with Josh. It didn’t matter. Everyone had a job to do now, and personal preferences would have to be sacrificed.

“Kyle, get a hold of Paul, and have him come over here. Tess, I don’t expect to have any sort of showdown here; I’m hoping we can cut Malek off in an isolated area, but just in case, you need to come up with a mindwarp that will keep the staff here calm if he gets this far. Maria, I need you to stay with Liz. I won’t be gone long, but I need to talk to Paul about what, if anything, is here at the observatory that we might be able to use.”

Maria nodded and immediately went in to Liz. The others all went to carry out their assignments with an odd sense of relief. They finally had something concrete to do; nothing was worse than helpless waiting.

********

An hour later, Max’s frustration had only increased. The observatory, predictably, had one purpose and one purpose only. Aside from Zeval’s tracking device and an enviable high-altitude location for observation and defense, there was nothing of use to their cause.

It didn’t help when Michael returned from his first Star Chamber meeting. He’d had to set aside his amazement at seeing so many Voyans gathered in one place and his awe at experiencing this dream-reality that had become such a part of Isabel’s life. His news for Max was mixed.

“There are about 25 cadre members on their way. At least 12 can be here within hours; the others won’t be here until about this time tomorrow. But Max, Antul wants to know who we have who knows this area.”

“Knows this area?” Max was confused. “We all know this area.”

“No, Max. Tactically. None of the others have any knowledge of the desert. They have trained in hills, forested areas, at sea. No one has any knowledge of desert tactics.”

Max stood stunned. In all his planning, he hadn’t considered that the forces on their way to help would need his help with strategy. His mind searched frantically for a solution. Who would know anything about desert warfare?

His frown turned to calm. “Michael, call Lucas.”


Part 29

Within the next four hours, Lucas and the first four cadre members arrived at the observatory. Zeval and Jasar had triangulated Malek’s touchdown point at about an hour north of Roswell, not very far from the original 1947 site. Zeval knew that their ship had cloaking capability, but she doubted they had much in the way of a conveyance, since the fast ships they had used for the journey were small and unable to accommodate terrestrial vehicles.

Max told Michael to get the Jeep ready for travel, and asked Zeval and Jasar to bring the new arrivals up to speed. Then he turned to Lucas, studying his demeanor to determine how he felt about being there.

“Let’s take a walk,” Max suggested, knowing Lucas had come on blind—and somewhat tentative—faith. His expression was wary. “You deserve some answers.”

As they walked the circular drive within the confines of the observatory, Max looked up at the sky. It briefly occurred to him that millions of people were also looking up at that sky, seeing nothing more than a beautiful blanket of stars. If they only knew. “Lucas, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your coming, especially on such short notice. What has Michael told you already?”

“Only that you needed someone with desert tactical expertise to help with an emergency down here. I still don’t know what you want.”

Max stopped and turned to watch Lucas’s face as he explained the truth. “Okay, here it is. You’ve already had confirmed what you suspected—that Michael, Isabel, Tess, and I are aliens. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. We’re human-alien hybrids who arrived in incubation pods in the ship that crashed near Roswell in 1947. What you don’t know is that we were sent here to survive and develop our powers in order to return home someday and help our people rise up against the domination of a malicious, power-hungry dictator.

“To make a long story short, we were able to help our people accomplish that right here from Earth by returning a powerful artifact that had been hidden on this planet centuries ago. Unfortunately, the end result is that although our enemy, Malek, has lost power in our solar system, he has come to Earth, looking to destroy me and my family. I’m . . . uh . . .” Max faltered, loathing the reference to his royal status. “Apparently, I was king of Voya, killed during the insurrection. My “essence” was combined with human DNA for the trip here. Malek thinks if he can kill or control me, it will shift the balance of power on Voya again, and therefore, in our whole system.”

Lucas’s furrowed brow and squinted eyes told Max that Lucas was struggling to digest all that he was being told. He was still there, though, and still listening intently. Max forged ahead.

“He arrived last night, Lucas, landing outside Roswell. I don’t have time to explain it all now, but we have links to a worldwide organization of beings like ourselves. They live on this planet as humans, and have no desire to reveal themselves or adversely affect life on Earth, but many of them are on their way here now to help defend against Malek. In general, they are trained soldiers with powers of their own, but they have no training in desert reconnaissance or warfare. I’m asking you to help us.”

Max waited patiently for Lucas to play and replay the tape in his mind of what Max had just told him. It was too fantastic to be true, Lucas thought, and yet he’d seen just enough back in Roswell to believe it. And even if he hadn’t, just looking into Max’s eyes would have convinced him. Ever since their original contact, he’d been impressed with the quiet strength and subtle wisdom he had seen in this boy . . . this man.

Lucas looked back over his shoulder and saw Michael and the other cadre members preparing. Looking back at Max, he knew his mind was made up. Once again, his instincts told him that this was the “right” side.

“What do you need, Max?”

Max allowed himself a half-smile. He placed his hand firmly on Lucas’s shoulder. “We need a plan,” Max told him.

They turned together and walked up to the small group of men waiting near the Jeep.


********

Two hours later, Michael, Lucas, Jasar, and two cadre members left in the Jeep to do the original reconnaissance on Malek and whatever support he had brought along. Tess and Josh had originally objected to Jasar’s accompanying this first group--Tess because she thought her own mindwarp capabilities would be of use, and Josh out of some unnamed and unexpected protective instinct that suddenly emerged regarding Jasar. But Jasar had made a strong case, saying that her ability to hear and see at great distances would be one of their greatest advantages. No one could think of a rational argument against her logic. Since they only wanted to send one vehicle now, they were limited to five people.

The additional cadre members would wait for the others who had not yet arrived, and when orders came from the advance team, they would lead the second group. Max and Tess would accompany them at that time.

Knowing that they probably had at least a 3-hour wait until they heard from Michael, Max went to check on Isabel and Liz. There had been no change in their condition, and the tension was beginning to fray Max’s nerves.

As he sat staring at Liz, he felt a soft touch on his shoulder. He looked around to see Maria standing there, affection illuminating her soft brown eyes. “Hey there. Don’t you think you ought to get some rest?”

“I know I should, but I can’t. My mind is too full.”

She began to knead his shoulders, and he could feel the knots begin to relax. “You know, Max? I’ve never been so proud of you.”

He turned to look at her, confusion on his face. “What?”

“I love Liz, Max. She’s my best friend, the sister I never had. And she loves you more than life itself. I’ve watched you flounder through this relationship for more than a year. But now, she’s in real trouble. You are in real trouble. I guess we all are. And you aren’t floundering at all. You’ve stepped up in the face of completely unknown danger and handled everything. And in the midst of all that, Liz is still your number one concern. I can see that in every decision, in every movement. And I love you for it.” She bent and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

Max stood to face her, gathering her into a hug that they both needed. “You’re not doing so badly yourself. I know you’re worried about Michael and Liz and Izzie. Thanks for being there for all of us. Especially for Michael. He needs you, you know.” He stood back to look at her, hoping she accepted the sincerity of his words. Her eyes were shining with unshed tears.

“He’s doing what he was born to do, Max. I can’t stop it. He’d hate me for trying.”

Max nodded his understanding. “Maybe we should both try to rest.”

Maria sighed. “You’ll let me know right away when you hear from them?”

He gave her one last hug. “You know I will.”

********

At least a mile from the coordinates Zeval had given them, Lucas brought the Jeep to a halt. They had stopped an hour ago to black out their faces and cover Jasar’s white top with a dark jacket; she had been shining like a beacon beneath the bright moon. They had driven the last several miles using only parking lights and speaking only when absolutely necessary to negotiate their way through the desert. Lucas’s knowledge of the area was already paying off. He had followed a somewhat circuitous but largely sheltered route up to this point. They felt sure no one could have detected them yet.

“From here, we walk,” Lucas whispered. “Jasar? Anything?”

Jasar was wearing one of the two pair of night vision goggles they had. Lucas had brought one and one of the cadre members, Mark, had brought the other.

“I can’t see anything yet,” she told them, “but I think I hear something from over in that direction.” She pointed north, and Lucas nodded. “That makes sense.”

Lucas attached a homing device to the Jeep—“just to be safe” he’d told them, but they knew it was a backup in case something happened to him. The group began to move forward.

“Pick up your feet, Michael! No scraping your boots as you walk. It makes too much noise.” Michael nodded. He had a lot to learn.

They’d been following whatever sparse cover was available for over half an hour when Jasar stopped short. Her head was immobile and her muscles tense as she strained to see and hear their enemies. She almost laughed. “I can smell them,” she whispered excitedly.

“Smell them?” Michael asked, wrinkling his nose at the thought.

“Well, not them exactly,” Jasar admitted. “But at least one of them is foolish enough to be drinking golask. It’s a rather pungent ale, for lack of a better description. I can hear the low rumble of voices, too. This way,” she pointed.

They veered slightly east and soon Jasar was able to see them in the distance. There were four of them standing in a group near a towering wall of rock, pointing and talking.

“I don’t see their ship,” Jasar said, peering into the dimly lit desert in a slow arc. “It’s either cloaked or they’ve come some distance from it already. But they seem pretty interested in those rocks.”

Lucas took the other pair of night goggles. “I can’t see them yet, but I can make out the rock formation. They’re looking for a home base,” he speculated. “They may have found it, too. That escarpment they’re standing in front of is littered with caves.”

As if to emphasize his words, they disappeared into the wall of rock. Jasar nodded to Lucas. “You’re right. They’ve found a cave.”

Lucas smiled. “Well, if we can keep from blowing our cover, that’s the perfect spot to trap them. Let’s get back to the Jeep and contact Max.”

“How will we find our way here again?” Michael asked. “Maybe I should stay here.”

Lucas turned to Michael, feigning a hurt look. “Michael, I know exactly where we are. That’s why you asked me here, isn’t it?”

Michael gave him a crooked smile. “Good point.”

********

It was hours later and a bright sun was heating up the unwelcoming desert. Max, Tess, and eight more cadre members pulled Josh’s car and a minivan rental into a gas station sporting the sign, “Last gas for 110 miles!” The Jeep sat out front.

“They must be inside,” Max told Tess. “Wait here a minute.”

Max approached the door cautiously and looked inside. Josh, Jasar, Michael, and the two cadre members—had Max even heard their names?—were sitting at an old-fashioned soda fountain counter. He caught Michael’s eye, and soon they were all gathered around the cars.

“We figure they’ll stay under cover in the cave during the day,” Lucas explained. “They’ll be too hot and too visible in the desert if they venture out before dark. I’ve mapped out a way to approach their position from behind. We’ll have to come up over the rock formation, but it’s really not that bad—decent footholds, even a crude path or two—and once we’re near the opening, we can use one of Tess’s mindwarps to get close enough to capture them before they’re even aware of us.”

He grinned at Tess, an uncharacteristic move for Lucas, but he was getting a real charge out of learning about all these powers. Michael had been filling him in on different people’s gifts, and that knowledge had allowed his tactical planning to take on a very creative edge.

“In the meantime, I suggest we find a cave a couple of miles from their location and get some sleep. I don’t know about you, but I could use it if I’m going to be sharp tonight.”

Jasar and Michael nodded their agreement.

“Lucas, I can’t thank you enough for your help. I hope you’ll understand someday what a great thing you’re doing—on a galactic scale.” Seeing Lucas’s embarrassment, Max smiled and turned his attention to the small band waiting for orders.

“I want all three vehicles gassed up. Then we’re going to go in here and buy out their supply of water. Grab some food, too. Michael, call Paul and have him get word to our folks that we won’t be home by tonight. They’ll need to call us in at school tomorrow, too.” The absurdity of their situation was not lost on him. Here they were, about to take on a powerful and evil alien force in order to maintain peace in a distant galaxy and release their loved ones from a crippling mind control, but they had to have their moms call them in sick to school. Not even a science fiction novel would create a situation that lame.

“For those who haven’t met him, this is Lucas Austin. He’s former military with training in this desert, and he’s agreed to help us.” He threw Lucas a smile. “He’s only recently found out about us, so take it easy on him. He’s already been a huge help.”

Lucas took in the new faces watching him, sizing him up, trying to ascertain his trustworthiness. He met their probing looks straight on, and he could read their expressions clearly. He knew what they were thinking: Yes, their king seemed to trust him, but their king was young and inexperienced. It was their job to protect him, and they would be watching this new member of the fold closely.

Max watched the silent exchange, confident now in Lucas, but appreciative of his troops’ skepticism and caution.

“Lucas will be leading us to a cave within a couple of miles of Malek’s position. We’ll rest there until just before dark. Our hope is to catch Malek and his support team in the cave before they emerge to travel into Roswell. Apparently, there are only three others with him, but we have no idea what their abilities might be. Questions?”

No one spoke, so Max issued the final order. “Let’s move.”

********

Late afternoon found the small band rested and gathering for a final run-through. Lucas would lead them to the backside of the rock formation housing the cave that Malek was using. Once there, he would take a position in the rear, and Tess would mindwarp a quiet landscape while the cadre took their prisoners. It sounded easy. Max doubted it would be.

It was deep dusk as they took up their positions near the cave. As ordered, Lucas retreated to the rear of the group. His expertise had gotten them this far, but he was totally defenseless against the powers that would accomplish the last leg of this mission. He wouldn’t miss the show for the world, though. He saw Max and Michael deep in conversation off to the side, and wondered what detail they were still debating at this stage. He made his way over to Jasar.

“Can you hear what they’re saying?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what is it?”

“That is my king and his second. Their conversations are not for others to hear.”

“You’re listening,” Lucas pointed out.

“My job on this mission is to see and hear everything. I only repeat what is relevant to our success.”

Lucas accepted her statement with pursed lips, but he had to acknowledge his deep respect at the same time. Jasar, meanwhile, was listening intently to the royal conversation, and found herself rooting strongly for Michael.

“Max, I am the cadre. You are the king. I am the one with the battle skills. You’re the leader. I’m supposed to protect you. Let me do my job!”

“Michael, I can’t ask people to do something I wouldn’t do myself. How can I lead if I hide behind others to do my dirty work?”

“How can you lead if you’re dead?”

The silence hung heavily between them. They stared heatedly at each other, each filled with anger and respect for the other.

“He has Liz, Michael. [I[And Isabel. They are counting on me to get them out.”

“They are counting on you, all right, Maxwell. To get the job done. That means putting the best team in place to accomplish that. Is that you, or me?”

Max looked away, and Michael knew he’d won.

“Good, then. I’ll tell Tess to start the mindwarp.”

Tess created the illusion of the still-empty spaces outside the cave. Michael and Mark spearheaded the quiet swarm of dark figures that encircled the entrance. Inside, they could see the four figures preparing to leave the cave, backs turned. Michael and Mark entered the opening to the cave, arms extended, ready to send their powerful pulses forward if their captives resisted. They were prepared for anything. Anything except . . .

“Why, here you are! I’ve been expecting you.” Malek smiled at his visitors.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 12:24:31 PM
Part 30

Michael and Mark exchanged confused glances. Malek was not only unafraid; he'd been expecting them.

"Who are you talking to?" asked one of Malek's companions.

Malek smiled even more broadly. "Why, I'm speaking to our new guests, who have obviously tricked you with a mindwarp." He turned his attention back to Michael. "I suggest you give your mindwarping friend a break. It won't do any good. I can easily block such simplistic attempts to affect my mind."

Seeing the small band of soldiers behind the two lead men, Malek searched their faces, approaching the group confidently. His eyes took in each person until he came to stand before Max.

"Your Highness, I presume," he drawled, one eyebrow arched skeptically.

"No! That's not him," Michael began, hurrying to Max's side.

"Nonsense. Of course it’s him. It's obvious. He exudes leadership, presence. Look at the men around him; they're standing just a little more apart from him than from each other. And see how he watches me, studying me, calculating his advantage. But his weakness shows as well. He cares for his troops, his aides. You can see the concern in his eyes. He tries to look cold, detached, but he can’t hide his sense of responsibility toward those beneath him. He would step up and die to save any of you. And die he might . . ."

Michael raised his arm toward Malek, but Max’s words stopped him.

"Never mind, Michael," Max said softly, keeping eye contact with Malek. "I’m unaffected by his taunting. And I'm sure Malek is eager to let us in on why he feels he has the upper hand here, so let's get to it."

"Good. Down to business. I like that."

Malek made a great show of inviting Max to sit down on a makeshift chair, feigning respect and courtesy, but oozing malice. Max entered the cave, but remained standing, using his height to achieve at least an initial advantage. Word must have reached Tess to drop the mindwarp because the other members of Malek's group were suddenly aware of the new arrivals. Unlike their leader, they seemed intimidated by the appearance of Max and his forces. At least two of them did. The third one, a scruffy, bearded man, unlike his well-groomed companions, behaved very oddly, even drone-like. He seemed unaffected by any turn of events, simply continuing to pack up the few items the group had unpacked during their night in the cave.

"You've come to Earth to find me, Malek. Here I am. Give me one good reason I shouldn't let the cadre destroy you right now."

Malek eyed Max, walking around him in a circle, looking him up and down as if he were a product for sale at market. Max's clenched jaw was the only outward sign that Malek was straining his patience. He wasn't about to make any decisions or issue any orders until Malek had played his cards. He stood immobile as his arrogant enemy sized him up.

"Disappointingly human . . . for a Voyan king. Still, the people will respond to you. I'll tell you what to say, you'll say it, and the populace will fall in line." Max couldn’t help but think of the many snake villains he had seen in animated movies. Malek could have been the voice of any one of them. Smooth. Cold. Persuasive.

"If you think you've given me a reason to spare you, think again."

“I’ll give you two reasons, Your Highness. Your sister and your mate.”

Max froze, locked in a battle for control over his violent instincts. Malek continued.

“I have total control over them, Zan. I hear what they hear; I know what they know. I’ve been aware of your plans all along. But better than that, I know how to control you. I feel their connection to you, their love for you and you for them. I’m even privy to their memories of you. For instance, I know that you and your sister are very close, that in spite of your differences, your bond is strong. You will not let her die.”

Malek smiled—a sadistic, self-satisfied smile that turned Max’s stomach. “Your sister was a bonus, actually. I wasn’t expecting to snare her. The one I was interested in was your mate.”

Max’s eyes flared with hate.

“I know how deeply you are bonded with her. I know how you live in her soul. I know how the satisfactions of the flesh arouse her when you touch her skin, taste her intimately, join with her . . .”

Max’s clenched fists exploded into motion as he lunged for his tormenter. A primal roar erupted from his throat and all he could see was a vision of Malek’s head coming apart in his hands.

“Max! Max!” Michael threw his friend to the ground just as Max would have reached his target. Michael had been watching the two companions behind Malek. Two seconds later and Max would have been splattered all over the cave walls.

Malek only chuckled as he looked down at the young leader who he had so easily reduced to emotional chaos. “Your friend here just saved your life. And theirs. You see, Zan, if anything happens to me while they are in my mind, they will die, too.”

Max could taste the acid burn his throat as his stomach clenched in spasms. If there was such a thing as animate evil, he was looking at it.

“What do you want?” he spat, pulling himself back to a standing position.

“I want it all, Zan. And you’re going to give it to me.”

Max had no response. He couldn’t do anything to jeopardize Liz and Isabel. He, Michael, the cadre—they were all helpless against this menace.

“You don’t need the others,” he told Malek. “All you need is me. They’ll do as I say. Let them go, and I’ll stay with you.”

Malek laughed heartily, increasing Max’s anxiety about the safety of those who came to help him.

“You expect me to let them run off and launch some messy, inconvenient rescue attempt? Be serious. I don’t have time to swat flies, Zan. You will all stay here tonight. I hadn’t expected to catch quite so many fish with my net, but I can use them to my advantage. I just need to do some additional planning. Meanwhile, I would advise you to caution your little band of soldiers here to behave themselves. I can terminate either of the lives I control with a single thought.”

Max looked at Michael, and then at the cadre whose trusting eyes were waiting for his command. “Do as he says. For now.

Malek chuckled. “I’m glad to see at least some fire in you, Zan. Bring your people in here where my men and I can keep an eye on them.”

Max nodded to the cadre, and they began to file into the large chamber. He noticed Malek’s eyes light up and followed his gaze; Tess and Jasar had just entered. His anger and fear racheted up another notch. Then he noticed Lucas was missing. Good, Max thought to himself. Maybe he can get away, at least, and warn the others. Max pushed aside the small seed of doubt that wondered if Lucas would run for the hills. Or worse, the authorities.

********

Tess and Jasar were huddled together, backs flattened against the cave wall. Each had made a silent vow not to leave the other, no matter what. Sitting in the eerie silence, watching the men watch each other, Jasar felt her skin crawl. She turned her head, looking for the source of her uneasiness and found Malek watching her, a carnal gleam in his eye. Eventually, he turned away, drawn back into the planning with his two lieutenants. The drone-like man simply stood at attention nearby, waiting to do their bidding. Even as her blood ran cold, Jasar was struck with an idea.

Without making eye contact, Jasar barely whispered her idea to Tess. Tess’s face tensed, eyes wide. Had she been free to do so, she would have shaken her head no, shaken her new friend senseless to stop her, but she could do none of those things. She barely suppressed her gasp of horror as Jasar rose, looking back at Tess meaningfully. Tess’s eyes screamed for Jasar to stop, but Jasar gave her a determined nod and began to move through the sea of men seated on the floor.

Tess had to make an instant decision, but knew immediately there was no decision to make. Jasar had left her no choice. Closing her eyes, she concentrated hard, afraid there were too many of them to mindwarp. Just keep looping the current scene, she told herself. Make it all seem unchanged.

Sweeping her gaze across the room, Jasar could see that Tess had already begun the mindwarp. She took a deep breath to steady her and began a slow, seductive walk across the cave toward Malek. His head swiveled quickly, sensing her approach, and he eyed her appreciatively. His expression was a cross between amusement and arousal by the time she reached him.

“And to what do I owe the honor of your visit?” he baited her.

“I want to help you, Malek. I can see who the true leader is.”

Malek looked behind her, momentarily puzzled at the lack of protest about her speaking to him. Looking back at her, he observed her skeptically. “You are the mindwarper? I wouldn’t have guessed it.”

“No, not me. I’m only a sensor, I’m afraid. My friend Tess is the mindwarper. She’s helping me now, because she wants to join you, too.”

“Join?” Malek smiled at her unintentional pun. “That could be interesting,” he oozed, wondering how a “joining” might feel. He had never tried it while posing as human, and he was already aware of the effect she was having on his earthly body.

He waited for her to react to his implication, but his eyes jerked to hers when she remained silent. His eyebrows arched in surprise when he met her warm, steady gaze.

“What are you telling me?”

“I’m telling you that we have information that can help you, and that in return for this information . . . and possibly some extracurricular activities . . . we want to go back to Voya with you, and be kept as is fitting the elite and powerful.”

“And your friend is also willing to participate . . . with information and . . . ?”

Jasar stepped closer and leaned down to look in his eyes, but his eyes were busy eyeing the gap between her shirt and her skin where creamy mounds of flesh invited his attention. When he looked back up at her, he licked his lips, a foreign taste of nervousness setting him on edge.

“Why should I trust you? You were here to help capture me.”

“First, I have nothing to gain by staying with the losing team. I should be on Voya, where I belong. Second, I find power wildly attractive, and you, Malek, are power.”

She held his gaze, hiding her disgust at his overbearing ego and obvious carnal interest. When he raised his hand to cup her breast, she jerked uncontrollably, and he frowned at her, suspicious again. Jasar laughed lightly, passing her actions off as coy flirtation.

“Certainly even you wouldn’t expect a girl to come to you without some sort of preliminary attention, would you?” She looked over at the two lieutenants, who were watching the scene play out with open mouths and hungry looks on their faces.

“And a little privacy.”

A jerk of Malek’s head sent the reluctant aides to guard the entrance to the cave. When Jasar looked pointedly at the remaining man, Malek snorted derisively. “Don’t worry about him. He’s only a human drone—a shell of a former human who does my bidding as this whole race was meant to do. He means nothing.”

Jasar suppressed a shiver of revulsion at Malek’s casual dismissal of a race she’d already come to embrace as part of herself. She pasted a smile on her face, brazenly dragging her fingers across Malek’s back. “Got anything to drink?”

Malek sighed impatiently, but decided to let her have a minute or two of control before he took her. It made her all the more exciting to him. He reached into a pack and withdrew a brown flask, opening it with a flourish.

“I’m afraid we have no vessels, but please help yourself.”

Jasar smiled seductively. “Only if you join me.”

Malek nodded and threw his head back, letting his own excitement and ego dictate a long drink, then handing the flask to Jasar. She, too, threw her head back, letting the fluid coat her mouth, but swallowing none of it.

Jasar eyed Malek nervously from under half-closed eyes. She dare not let him look too closely; she knew she couldn’t hide what lay behind them. He was getting worked up now, and she wouldn’t be able to control him if she didn’t move quickly. She handed the bottle back to him, but he pushed it away.

“I want all my faculties sharp for this,” he leered at her.

“Malek, a woman needs certain niceties to respond the way a man likes. Your breath is foul. Please, the golask smells much better.” She rubbed her hands up his chest. “Besides, it will be more festive this way.”

“You’ll join me?”

“Of course,” she promised.

He took another long swig and handed her the bottle. Again, she pretended to drink, eyeing with trepidation the gleam that had again crept into his eyes. Then she noted with satisfaction the slight sway as he stood before her. She barely had time to react when he came at her, clumsily tearing at her shirt. Focusing all her energy on her goal, she kneed him in the groin with all her strength and felt him slide unceremoniously to the ground. At the entrance to the cave, the two sentries heard gasps and moans and smiled knowingly at each other. Maybe their turn would be next.

Afraid to call out, Jasar ran as best she could to Tess, breaking the mindwarp when she shook her. Tess looked over to see Malek on the ground. It took a few seconds for Max, Michael, and the others to realize something had changed. There was no time left for silence.

“Michael!” Jasar yelled. “Take out the two at the front of the cave!”

Michael turned and quickly assessed the situation. “Take them!” he shouted, and several cadre knocked the confused Voyans off their feet. Meanwhile, Tess was motioning for Max to come attend to Malek.

Max knelt at Malek’s side and placed his hand on his chest, slowing his heart rate until he passed out, but not endangering him. He would keep Malek alive until he had his sister and his precious Liz back in his arms. The human observed the scene with absolute serenity, as if none of it were relevant, or even real.

“What happened?” Max asked Tess, relief and confusion merging into an almost comical expression.

“Let’s just get out of here! We’ll explain later,” urged Tess.

The cadre had restrained Malek’s two men, awaiting Max’s instructions. Realizing he still didn’t know exactly what physical or mental powers they possessed, he put them into the same state of unconsciousness that he had forced on Malek.

“Just tie that one up,” he ordered, pointing to the human. “Josh, you and Mark and . . . I’m sorry, what’s your name?” he asked the other cadre member who had participated in the advance team.

“Gregory.”

“ . . . and you, Gregory, go back and get the cars. We’ll wait here.”

The three men began to jog across the desert, flashlights adding to the illumination of the moon. They were still in sight when headlights shot out across the desert coming straight toward them. The cadre formed a wall in front of Max, Tess, and Jasar, waiting to see what danger was tracking them now.

Within minutes, the headlights stopped next to the three men, and to everyone’s surprise, they hopped in to ride back toward the cave.

“Lucas!” Michael yelled. “Where the hell have you been?”

Lucas grinned. “When I realized Malek didn’t know I was here, I ran back to the other camp, called back to the observatory, and told the others to get a van and head here right away.”

“Why?” asked Max, angry that Lucas would bring his sister and wife . . . well, mate, anyway, closer to the danger.”

“Max, they can’t be in any more danger than they already are, and I figured you guys would find a way to get control of the situation. I knew when you did, you’d want to have another dream circle as soon as possible, so we needed them here.”

The simplicity of his logic left them speechless, so Lucas fired out a question of his own.

“Max, what happened?”

Max looked at Tess. “I have no idea.”

“I don’t know either, exactly, because I was busy mindwarping you guys, but Jasar found a way to get close enough to Malek to incapacitate him. What did you do, Jasar?”

It was then that everyone took in Jasar’s appearance—the mussed hair, the ripped shirt. Josh stormed toward her. “What did you do? What did you let him do?” he shouted. His face was red and he glared at her angrily.

“I did what needed to be done,” she said calmly, closing the tear in her shirt with her hands.

Max approached her gently. “Back off, Josh,” he said firmly. He reached toward one of the cadre members. “Give me your jacket.” Instantly, there was a jacket in his hand and he placed it around her shoulders.

“What happened, Jasar?”

“Malek kept leering at me while he was planning our futures,” she said bitterly. “I figured if he was interested, it might be our only chance to get close to him without his guard being up. I just told him I wanted to join his side in return for a trip home. I let him believe it was his power I was attracted to. An egotistical maniac like that eats that stuff up.” Her expression had turned into a sneer as she looked over at his prone form lying outside the cave. “Then, when he got close enough, I kneed him in his . . . sensitive . . . male . . . area . . .” She looked at the ground while her words sank in.

Michael was the first to react, with a loud barking laugh. “She rammed his nuts!” he cried delightedly. A low chuckle began through the group until most of the men were laughing openly.

Tess was beside herself. “That was your big plan? I thought you had some Vulcan death grip thing or something!”

“A what?” Jasar asked, confused by the reference.

The laughter escalated until even Max was forced to smile. He gave Jasar a quick hug. “You did great. Thank you.”

Meanwhile, Josh was the only one not laughing. He pulled Jasar into a fierce hug, speaking intensely in her ear. “You had no idea what might happen to you! He could have killed you, or mind-controlled you, or . . . or raped you.” The last words were a hoarse whisper, and Jasar felt a small thrill shoot through her at the fear in his voice.

Seeing Josh was otherwise occupied, Max sent Mark, Gregory, and Michael back to the camp in the Jeep to retrieve the other cars. As they settled down to wait, Max’s short-lived relief at having escaped at least this first encounter with Malek was replaced with another, more familiar worry. What if the second dream circle didn’t work either?

posted on 20-Apr-2002 12:27:03 PM
Part 31

Within a half hour, the group was once again gathered in and around the cave where they had rested during the afternoon. The three alien prisoners were bound and closely guarded in case they began to rouse. Max paced, his eyes alternately surveying the scene within the cave and scanning the horizon. He had sent Lucas to lead the others from the gas station where they had agreed to meet, and although he knew they wouldn’t arrive for at least another hour or two, he couldn’t keep himself from looking for them.

Stop it, he told himself. You have other things you could be doing. He swung his gaze back toward the cave, and found Jasar seated alone against the cave wall, deep in thought. He made his way over and slid down the wall to sit beside her.

“That was quite a stunt you pulled.”

Her head whipped around to see if she was being scolded. Max’s ready smile reassured her, and she smiled back.

“I didn’t see any other options,” she shrugged. “I figured the results couldn’t be any worse than what he had in mind for us anyway.”

“You have a point there,” Max agreed.

They sat quietly for a moment.

“Jasar?” Max asked tentatively. “Tell me about the dream circle. What happens in there? How do you get in?”

Jasar narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Why?”

Max took a deep breath and all tentativeness was gone from the expression that faced her now. “I’m going in.”

Jasar’s eyes widened. “No, Max! You know what happened to Isabel, and she was a dreamwalker. It almost killed another experienced dreamwalker. Max, you are our king. If Malek gets control of your mind, we’ve not only lost a good man, we’ve lost our leader.”

Max nodded. “I understand the risks, Jasar, but I can’t … I won’t lose Liz or Isabel to that monster.” The anger welled up inside him again, and his heart clenched in his chest.

“The circle failed last time, but they saw Liz’s image. I have to believe that our connection could have made the difference . . . brought her back to me.” He finished his sentence in a strangled whisper and Jasar’s heart melted. He’d already gone through so much, and she could see clearly that the famed bond between her king and queen was actually an understatement. She had heard about it on Voya. She had witnessed it for herself in Roswell. And she had seen what it had done to Max when it was jeopardized. He looked haunted and grim . . . and now, as her eyes met his . . . determined.

“Besides, with Malek unconscious, maybe his hold on them has weakened. So,” he commanded, and Jasar knew that’s exactly what it was, “tell me everything.”

********

Time had flown once he and Jasar started talking about dreamwalking and the dream circle. Max had been interrupted once when Malek had stirred, but other than that, Jasar had had his full and rapt attention. It was only the lookout’s “They’re coming!” that had pulled Max’s attention away. He hid the disappointment he felt that he still could not feel Liz. Malek’s hold hadn’t evaporated with his consciousness.

Max ran toward the approaching cars. Lucas saw his face and knew what he wanted to know.

“She’s in the van,” he shouted.

Max raced to the second vehicle and pulled the door open even as it was still coming to a stop. Inside he saw Alex cradling Isabel, looking every bit as tired and worried as Max was. Zeval was holding Liz’s head in her lap, but quickly extracted herself as Max swooped in and gathered Liz against him. When he emerged from the car and lifted Liz into his arms to carry her into the cave, the onlookers parted, watching in silence as he laid her reverently on a blanket that had been arranged for her. Alex followed closely with Isabel, laying her next to Liz.

After hugging Michael tightly, Maria hurried over to her two friends and sat at their heads. It was only after she was settled there that she noticed the armed guards on the far side of the cave, and deduced that Malek and his goons were being held there. Her eyes flickered briefly as they lit on the unkempt man being guarded nearby. She cast a questioning look toward Michael, but he shook his head, mouthing “later.”

“Where’s Paul?” asked Max.

“He thought he’d to more good staying behind in case you needed anything. He figured he could contact people or get something out to you better from there.”

“Let’s get started then,” Max ordered. “Michael, I’ve decided to go into the dream circle.” He held up his hand authoritatively as Michael opened his mouth to protest. “I’m going in and you’re in charge. Tess, please serve as his second. Your main job is to keep Malek and the others under control while I’m in there. The cadre will help you. Maria, you, Kyle, and Alex will have to wait here. Keep an eye on Liz and Isabel. If either of them look to be adversely affected by what we’re doing . . .” He stopped and looked at Josh. “Can they get me out if I’m needed?”

Josh nodded. “If they shake you or distract you enough to break your concentration, you’ll automatically leave the circle, but I warn you, that could disrupt the whole circle.”

Max turned back to Michael. “Okay, come get me only if Liz or Isabel are in some dangerous physical distress or if one of the prisoners wakes up.”

“I’m coming, too.”

A dozen heads swiveled in Alex’s direction.

“Alex,” Max began, sympathy tingeing his voice.

“Max, I can bring Isabel back. I know it. You have to let me try.”

Max looked at Alex hard and saw his own determination mirrored there. He nodded to Alex, silencing the gasps of protest with a look.

“Okay, how do you do this?”

Josh was their only true dreamwalker, so he would have to bring in Jasar, Max, and Alex one at a time. He knew connecting with three people would exhaust him, but he also knew his king was counting on him, and he wasn’t about to let him down. He wished he didn’t have to connect with Alex; their conflict of interest over Isabel was still a sore spot, but he knew it had to be done.

Seated by the two limp bodies, Max held Liz’s hand, Alex held Isabel’s, and Jasar put one hand on each of the girls’ heads. Josh knelt behind Jasar, taking her into the Star Chamber first; he explained that he would contact Antul to call the circle together and to connect with Jasar to help keep her there. Then he would come out for the others. When he stepped back into the cave’s reality, he knelt awkwardly beside Max.

“Max, you are my king. You realize that by connecting with me, you’ll be sharing a personal side of yourself.”

“I know that, Josh. I trust you.” He looked directly at his new friend. Josh had been willing to help them ever since that day last spring when he’d appeared in Michael’s doorway and offered his services to rescue Liz from the rogue FBI agents. He’d been there to train Isabel in the wider implications of dreamwalking. And here he was again. Max had learned to respect and trust him. “Josh, I have to get her out. No sense of my personal privacy can outweigh that.”

Josh pulled his lips into a tight line, but his eyes conveyed his understanding. “Okay, then.”

As soon as the connection opened, Josh almost fell backwards, struck by the release of Max’s tightly coiled spring of emotions. He could barely absorb the impact—the pressure of responsibility for his family, friends, and unknown worlds; memories of being hunted, captured, tortured; his loving bond with Isabel and Michael; and infusing all of it, his overpowering love for Liz. Those who were watching feared for Josh momentarily as he gasped and swayed precariously, his face contorting with multiple emotions.

Max must have been able to sense Josh's state of mind and pulled back some from the connection because soon Josh seemed to stabilize. A moment later, Josh returned to them yet again, visibly shaken. Tess approached him cautiously.

“Josh, are you okay?”

Josh took a deep, slow breath and nodded.

“Let’s just say that my respect for Max has just multiplied geometrically.” He scanned the worried faces and offered them a shaky smile. “It's not me you should be worrying about, folks. I suggest you save your helpful impulses for Max. You have no idea what he’s trying to juggle alone.”

He turned to Alex.

“Ready?”

“Ready,” he said tightly. “Don’t worry. I think you’ll find me as underwhelming as Max was overwhelming.”

“Yeah, well, let’s keep focused on why we’re doing this and not get distracted by what we might see in each other’s minds, okay?”

Alex knew exactly what he meant. Their feelings for Isabel were about to be exposed more graphically than either wanted, but it had to be done.

********

Inside the Star Chamber, dreamwalkers were already milling around, waiting to convene the circle. With the last of the visitors having arrived, Antul called them to order. He introduced Max to awestruck silence, followed by a mass bow that threw Max into a full-body blush. Then Antul asked Max to introduce Alex. Although curious about what this human was to Max that he was allowed into this intimate setting, the very fact that Max had authorized it was enough to warrant their acceptance. When Max added that Alex was there because of his bond with Isabel, their acceptance grew into respect.

Antul gave the order for the dream circle to form. Max let Josh stand between him and Alex to coach them through the process. Jasar stood apart until the last minute, when she joined Max, tossing him an uneasy smile. He frowned slightly at the tension he sensed in her, but Antul was giving final instructions.

“As most of you know, Malek is temporarily unconscious. It is our hope that this will give us some advantage, though we don’t know how much. We know from our first experience that this will take all our concentration. Is everyone ready?”

He surveyed the nodding heads and then, bowing his own, closed his eyes. “Let us begin.”

********

A wasteland. That was Max’s first thought as his mind broke through into Malek’s dark reality. He shuddered at the desolation, wondering briefly what horror could bring a soul to such despair. Would he, he wondered, experience despair like this if they couldn’t bring Liz back? But even now, he knew nothing could ever bring him to the point where he'd want to destroy others or to manipulate and disrupt their lives for his own personal power trip. His, he knew, would be a private, hidden despair.

He shook himself, rejecting even the possibility of failure. They would succeed. He would accept nothing less. Scanning the group, he was reassured to see the circle intact and concentrating. What was obvious to them, although Alex and Max were unaware, was that instead of the ominous sound of wind rushing through the desolate abyss of Malek’s mind, now there was an eerie silence, almost a void of sight, sound, or sensation. It made the atmosphere all the more frightening, and fighting that fear was affecting the whole group.

Alex was already concentrating with all his might, eyes closed, face intense. Max was struck with a new understanding of the depths of Alex’s devotion to his sister. He hoped Isabel was truly aware of what she had in him. Following Alex’s example, Max, too, focused his efforts on the task at hand. Holding Liz and Isabel at the forefront of his mind, he added his own substantial strength to the pull being generated throughout the circle. The tension was palpable, and the energy in the air almost hummed. Max wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, but he could feel his own energy feeding into the flow of the group, and he tried to focus on that flow, searching with his mind for the familiar connection with his sister and his mate. After a few minutes, he began to get a sense of Isabel, and he opened his eyes to see her translucent image hovering near the circle. Alex must have felt it, too, because even with his eyes still closed, he began to call to her.

“Isabel! Can you hear me? It’s Alex. We’ve come for you, Isabel. Try to find your way. We’re waiting to help you.”

Then he, too, opened his eyes to find her slowly strengthening image reaching for him. Instinctively, he dropped his hands from those in the circle and tried to pull her to him. At first, his hand seemed to pass through her form, but he never wavered. He continued to call to her and reach for her until, with a yelp of victory, he felt real contact. A moment later, he was hugging her to him, relief and joy flooding his heart and bursting onto his face in a jubilant smile. It faded seconds later, though, when Isabel smiled, whispered Alex’s name, and fainted in his arms.

Max rushed to her side.

“Max, let me get her out of here. Please, she’s weak. She can’t help us in here.”

Max knelt at her side and then looked at Alex’s stricken face. “Take her out, Alex. Get her whatever she needs. Ask Josh to go, too, and bring me a status report on the prisoners. We’ll wait.”

After they disappeared from the chamber, Max stood alone for a moment, frowning. Then he approached Antul. “Why did we find Isabel and not Liz?” he asked, a note of desperation tingeing his voice.

Antul shook his head, as perplexed as Max. “I don’t know. If we found one, we should have found both.”

He saw Max turn pale, and watched as he fought against the fear and anger. Max was still lost in his struggle when Jasar appeared at his side.

“We have a problem.”

“What’s wrong, child?” Antul asked.

“I sensed something wasn’t right even before we started, so I’ve been listening to the conversations in this room since Alex left with Isabel. I can hardly believe it, but . . . Max, there are two dreamwalkers doing their best to block our efforts to reach Liz.”

“What?!” Sparks flew from Max’s eyes, and he looked accusingly from one dreamwalker to another as they talked amongst themselves.

“Who? Which ones?”

Antul put a calming hand on Max’s shoulder. “Max, give nothing away. This must be handled carefully. Jasar, who are they?”

“The two over there by themselves. Apparently, they don’t believe the king of Voya should take a human for a queen. They seem to think that if Malek wins this—keeps Liz from returning to Max—that eventually, Max will return to Voya where he belongs and take a Voyan queen. Right now, though, they’re worried about holding out against the power of the circle. Max’s bond with Liz is weakening them, and they’re afraid it’s too strong.”

Antul frowned. “I don’t really know those two, Max,” he mumbled near Max’s ear. “But I’ve never met any Voyans who weren’t loyal to the royal family, even when we thought you’d died in the crash. I’m stunned that anyone would be working against us.”

Jasar's eyes darted nervously from Max, who looked ready to kill, to Antul, who was struggling to cope with this unheard of disloyalty.

“So, what do we do?”

“Antul, I don’t care how you do it, but get them out of here. I cannot . . . I will not have any interference. I want them out, and then we’re going to get my wife!”

“Of course. I’ll take care of it immediately. Give me a couple of minutes.”

As soon as Josh returned with the news that the prisoners were still unconscious, Antul strolled casually toward him and leaned in to whisper in his ear. A moment later, Josh had left them again.

“What are you doing?” Max asked when Antul returned to his side.

“I’ve sent Josh out to call their community’s leaders. When they leave the circle, they’ll be detained. We just have to give the leaders time to get in position so they’re waiting when these men come out. Josh will bring in a cadre member, just in case they grow suspicious and attempt anything while we wait.”

Max calmed a bit, reflecting on the fact that his people had no reason to support or respect him except tradition. He’d had almost no contact with his people, let alone an opportunity to show leadership or good judgment. He hadn’t earned their trust or loyalty, so how could he expect them to believe in him?

“What will happen to them now?” he asked tentatively, realizing he had no idea how their internal justice system worked.

“That’s up to you, Max,” Antul responded evenly.

Antul announced that as soon as Max was satisfied that his sister was stable, they would try to bring Liz home again, and to please be patient. The dreamwalkers seemed to accept the delay, and Max took the opportunity to meet each member of the group, expressing his sincere gratitude for their efforts. To keep up appearances, he met with the two who had been blocking their attempts as well. Though anger welled up within him as he faced them, he managed to control his emotions long enough to keep from arousing their suspicions.

As he finished talking with them, Josh reappeared with a cadre member in tow. Max recognized him as Gregory, one of the advance team. To his surprise, Gregory’s face reflected a tightly controlled anger, and Max was gratified by his loyalty.

At a nod from Josh, Antul called the group together once again. When the circle was complete, he paused until every eye was on him.

“I’m sorry to add a sad note to an already difficult situation, but I’m afraid we’ve identified at least part of the problem in retrieving our queen.”

Most faces reflected curiosity and concern. Two, Max noted, looked very nervous. Antul continued.

“Two among us have been blocking our flow.”

Now all but two faces displayed shock; the other two looked fearful. Fear turned to panic as Antul and Max turned their full attention to them. They pulled back, eyes wide and mouths open. Soon, every dreamwalker was looking at them in shock and disgust. Max stepped forward until he was face to face with the traitors. One began to sputter in unconvincing defense of himself. The other raised his bent arms, as if to shield himself from the king’s wrath.

Max examined their faces, his own stern one an impenetrable mask. Finally, he spoke so softly that those watching had to strain to hear.

“I am your king.” He let that sink in. “I realize you have no reason to put faith in that. We are strangers, and I have only just learned of my station. I understand if you have doubts about my ability.”

The two men looked only slightly relieved.

“What I do not understand is your fundamental crime against another being. This is not about rescuing your king’s queen; this is about bringing a man’s lifemate back to him. Choosing to sabotage any man’s efforts to reunite with his beloved flies in the face of decency and compassion on any planet. It is that crime that degrades you and sets you apart from your peers.

“When you leave this circle, you will be detained by one of our leadership. Your fate will be decided at a later date, but I would strongly advise you against making any trouble in the interim.”

The silence that followed Max’s short speech was deafening. Had he stopped to notice, he would have seen the first signs of earned respect on the faces of the dreamwalkers. Even Antul nodded approvingly. As it was, Max watched resigned defeat penetrate the two men’s consciousness. With shoulders sagging and heads down, they made a small bow and disappeared. Taking a deep, steadying sigh, Max turned to face the rest of the circle.

“Let’s go get her.”

Their focus renewed, the group closed into the somewhat smaller circle and began to concentrate on Liz. Even with Malek’s unconscious state and without the interference of the two traitorous dreamwalkers, every person there could feel the resistance.

It seemed like an eternity had passed without any progress. Max was fighting against the hopelessness that threatened to overwhelm him. He pushed it back with an iron will and searched the emptiness for any sign of his precious Liz. More time passed until, very gradually, he felt the faintest of connections tingle through his body.

“I can feel her!” Max whispered with barely suppressed excitement. Seconds later, Liz’s ethereal form appeared in their circle. She was holding her arms out to Max, and he could see her mouth forming his name, but he could hear nothing.

“Liz! Liz, come to me, love! Follow the flow of our energy. We’re reaching out to you. We’re trying to bring you home.”

Liz’s image strengthened briefly, then wavered and reverted to its weak, translucent state. Max intensified his efforts, reaching deep within himself to send out every bit of energy he could muster. He felt himself start to tremble until, without warning, his legs buckled and he fell to his knees. Beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead.

“Max!” Antul began.

“Concentrate!” Max yelled, obliterating any attempt to interrupt the process. He could feel Liz for the first time in days, and he wasn’t about to let her go.

Antul nodded to the other worried dreamwalkers. They could see their king was giving everything he had, and they would do no less. They redoubled their own efforts, sending out an energy flow unlike anything they had ever attempted before. The minutes dragged by, and exhaustion began to take its toll. Liz’s form was solidifying steadily, but agonizingly slowly.

A quiet gasp rippled through the circle when one man collapsed, but he pulled himself from the circle, allowing it to close up and continue. Liz’s body continued to fade in and out of total solidity in spite of the group’s total concentration. Suddenly, Max let out a roar, sending everything he had left into the flow. Liz’s body wavered, then solidified before them, and she crumpled to the ground in front of Max. Max collapsed next to her, weak and breathless.

Antul hurried to his side, but Max waved him off with a trembling hand. He pulled himself even with Liz’s still form and felt her pulse. Too fast, but strong.

He pulled her to him and cried with relief.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 12:32:13 PM
Part 32


He awoke to the sounds of low voices outside his door. It took a few minutes for the reality of where he was and why to sink in, and he experienced a moment of panic until he registered the feel of her wrapped tightly in his arms. He was back in the dorm room at the observatory, although he had no memory of the trip back from the desert, and Liz was curled up against him, tickling his chest with short, regular puffs of air. No matter what else was happening, his world was in sync again.

Anxious to know where Malek and his men were—and more important, in what condition—Max started to extract himself from Liz’s encompassing hold. Two things stopped him. One was a bone-deep weariness that he had never experienced before. His limbs felt like they weighed a hundred pounds apiece, and just shifting toward the edge of the bed left his head spinning and his muscles screaming. It was the second thing that stopped him cold, though.

“Max.”

The fragile whisper just reached his ear, though it was only inches from her mouth. It was the sweetest sound he had ever heard. He willingly gave up his attempt to sit up, easing back into the pillows and turning to look at her. Her eyes had fluttered open, and as her intermittent memory of the past few days played across her mind, Max watched the fear and horror and relief compete. A small moaning sound began in her throat and elongated into a low monotone wail as tears filled her eyes. Instantly her arms clamped around Max, as if her desperate hold on him would make the nightmare go away. Sobs replaced the chilling wail, and her body shuddered uncontrollably.

“Shhh,” he soothed her, stroking her hair, her arms, her back. “It’s okay. We’re safe now. You’re back where you belong, and I won’t let him hurt you anymore.”

Max knew that he couldn’t stop Malek alone, and he knew Liz knew it, too, but the words had to be said. Her heart needed to hear him promise, and that’s all that mattered in that moment. As the soft words and gentle stroking calmed her, the sobbing diminished, and she eventually released her hold just enough to pull back and look at him.

“How . . . ?”

“Not now, my love,” he hushed her. “We’ll talk about everything later, but for now, you need rest and food.”

He looked into her pale and trusting face, and as his heart melted with love for her, it hardened with hatred toward Malek. Those two contradictory emotions fought within him until Liz reached up and, placing trembling fingers along his jaw, coaxed him to look at her. Then all thoughts of Malek flew from his mind, and in spite of her frail condition, he began to place light kisses on her cheeks, her eyelids, her temple, and finally, her mouth. He felt her response, but as heartfelt as it was, it was also weak and labored. He drew back.

“I’m sorry, Liz. I’ve been crazy with worry, and having you back in my arms makes me crazy in another way. First things first, though. We need to help you get your strength back. Could you eat a little something?”

Liz managed a shaky smile, and she wiggled her eyebrows briefly. “And just what did you have in mind?”

Max looked stunned for just a moment, and then began to chuckle deep in his throat. She had barely escaped death and could hardly move, but she still found the will—and the humor—to come on to him. God, how he loved her! He looked down at her and found her smiling back at him, a glimmer of life in her eyes. It was salve to his soul, and he felt the first inkling of optimism.

“I was thinking more in the way of something nourishing,” he teased her.

“Oh,” she pouted. “Well, then, I think I’d rather sleep some more.” He felt her stiffen slightly. “You won’t leave, will you, Max?”

“I’ll be right here, love. Go to sleep.” He kissed her softly on the lips, and felt her immediately relax against him. Within seconds, her regular breathing told him she was already asleep.

Content to lie there for as long as she needed him, Max shifted slightly, again aware of how tired he was himself. The familiar hum of his connection with Liz brought peace to his heart, and he began to try to put the pieces of the last few days together. He realized the only thing that was fuzzy was the end of the dream circle and the return to Apache Point. The rest was quite clear. He had promised not to leave Liz, but he was very anxious to know what had become of Malek, and whether his friends were all right.

Max strained to hear the voices from outside in the common area. He was pretty sure the woman was Tess, but the deeper timbre of the masculine voice was indistinguishable. It seemed to be a pleasant conversation; he couldn’t detect any stress or anger, so that was a good sign. Then he heard a door open and close and another voice joined in. Maria. The voices got louder.

“I won’t wake them! I just want to check on them.”

“Michael said no one was to disturb either couple,” Tess protested. Max smiled. She was taking her job very seriously.

“Tess, I just want to look in, and you can’t stop me.” A quick beat. “Okay, you can stop me, but that’s what you’ll have to do because I’m going in there!”

“Let her go, Tess. She won’t bother them.” Okay, so the male in there was Kyle. Kyle and Tess seemed to be getting closer all the time. That could only be a good thing, as far as Max was concerned.

“Okay,” Tess sighed. “But just for a minute.”

Two seconds later, Max saw Maria’s blond head poke through the doorway. They made eye contact and he waved her in.

“How is she?” Maria stage-whispered to Max.

“She’s weak, but she’s okay. She woke up once, but only for a minute. She was terrified at first, but it passed and she fell back asleep. How’s Isabel?”

“She’s doing okay. She’s been awake some, but hasn’t come out of her room. Alex has been holed up in there with her the whole time. I took them some food a little while ago.”

Max nodded, satisfied that his sister was safe.

“Tell me what’s happening out there,” he asked with a nod toward the door.

“Michael has gone into command overdrive,” she sighed, flopping into a chair. “You wouldn’t recognize him. After you collapsed out there in the desert, he started giving orders like MacArthur or something.”

“Details, Maria, please.”

She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and pursed her lips. “Okay, here goes. Well, first he loaded you and Liz and Isabel and Alex into the van and sent you on your way back here with Zeval, Jasar, and a cadre member. Then he called Paul and told him to expect you and a bunch of others and to have food and lodging arranged. He also said that you’d need someplace private to stash Malek and the others. He sent about half the cadre home, but asked some of them to stick around to guard the bad guys. Kyle, Tess, and I came back with a cadre member and that weird human dude. I think that guy must be on something; I’ve never seen anybody look so zoned. And his looks! He reminds me of Tom Hanks in Castaway. I’m afraid to ask when he had a bath last . . .”

“Maria,” Max chimed in. “What about the others?”

“Oh, right. Well, let’s see. Michael, Mark, and Gregory came back with Malek and his goons. Josh and Lucas stayed behind to get rid of any evidence of our having been there. Oh! I almost forgot, Josh had Antul get hold of a doctor—one of you, that is—who came with that drug that suppresses your powers. You know, like Pierce used on you?”

Max’s look of alarm stopped Maria short. “I’m sorry, Max. I guess you don’t like to think about that, but the good part is, they’ve given it to Malek and those other two guys, so when they wake up, they can’t hurt anybody!”

“Maria, how long have we been here? What day is it?”

“Um, well, it’s Tuesday night. You’ve been here since last night. All of you slept for hours and hours, but Alex and Isabel woke up first. I was sort of getting worried about you two.”

“Who’s administering that drug? How long does it last?”

“Well, the doctor gave the first doses as an injection, and then showed Josh and Zeval how to do it, so they can keep up the shots until you decide what to do with those monsters. There’s enough for a few days, anyway.”

“Maria! You’re supposed to let them rest!” Michael appeared in the doorway, scowling at his girlfriend—at least he thought that’s what she was. They still hadn’t really had a chance to talk.

“Get over it, Michael. Max asked me to come in and bring him up to speed.”

“How’s Liz?” Michael asked, frowning at the still-sleeping girl. She looked thinner and paler than Michael had ever seen her.

“She’s wiped out, but she’ll be okay. She just needs time—her healing won’t just be physical.” He pushed her hair back from her face and leaned over to place a soft kiss on her forehead. “She’s been through so much, all because of me.”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” Maria jumped to her feet. “I’m not going through that again. You and Liz belong together, and she won’t tolerate “the blame game” anymore. Been there, done that. Same with you, Michael.” She turned her temper on the powerful alien at her side, making him shrink back slightly. “You keep pulling that crap, too, but it won’t fly anymore, got it? We are together. Get used to it. Deal with it. But don’t dump that martyr shit on me again. I’ve had enough.”

She turned on her heel and flounced toward the doorway. “Time to take food to Cro-Magnon man.” And she was gone.

Max grinned at Michael. “She has spoken.”

“Apparently,” Michael sighed, running his fingers through his long hair. And apparently the long talk about their romantic status wouldn’t be necessary, either. “Get some rest, Maxwell. We’ll talk in the morning.”

“Michael,” Max called to him. Michael half-turned toward Max. “Thank you. You’ve taken a lot of pressure off of me right now. I’m almost as tired as Liz, and I appreciate your taking charge. Sounds like you’re doing a great job. Just remember, I’m here if you need me.”

Michael looked at the floor, suddenly embarrassed by Max’s praise.

“No problem,” he mumbled, and headed out the door.

********

Josh made a mental note to thank Maria for distracting Tess and Kyle’s vigil to protect the resting couples because while they were engrossed in keeping Maria out of Max and Liz’s room, he ducked into Isabel and Alex’s across the way. As he slipped through the door, he took in the tender scene. Isabel was sitting up in bed, leaning against several pillows that had obviously been fluffed and placed to make her comfortable. Alex was seated on the edge of the bed next to a tray of food.

“You don’t have to feed me, Alex,” Isabel was protesting weakly, but the half-smile on her face and the love in her eyes made it clear that she wasn’t really unhappy with the pampering.

“Excuse me,” he began awkwardly. “I needed to talk to you, and it’s like breaking into Fort Knox getting past Kyle and Tess out there. Maria’s distracting them at the moment.”

“Not now,” Alex said with obvious irritation. “Isabel’s not up to this now.”

The two men had not had a chance to discuss their now-intimate knowledge of the other’s feelings for Isabel, but Alex had been less than happy with what he saw in Josh’s mind when they entered the Star Chamber. He knew Josh was interested in Isabel, and he now knew they had even kissed. Alex had tried not to go crazy about that; Isabel was not his property, and they had no formal commitment to each other. Still, it had hurt.

“I think you might both be glad I’m here,” Josh pressed.

“I can’t imagine why you’d think that,” Alex answered warily.

Isabel was just beginning to put the pieces together. Of course it had been Josh who took Alex into the Star Chamber; there was no one else to do it. And from what she’d heard so far, that meant a connection. The cold realization of what that meant they had both seen filled her with fear. She looked at Alex’s stony expression.

“Alex . . .”

Alex saw the fear in her eyes and his expression softened. “It’s okay, Isabel. I understand.” But he couldn’t keep looking her in the eye, and the guilt sliced her like a knife.

“Alex, it wasn’t . . .”

“If you’ll let me talk, I think I can resolve all this,” Josh tried again. Hearing no response, he plowed on. “We all know that when I took Alex into the Star Chamber, we had to form a connection. Isabel, I’ve told you how I feel, and now Alex knows, too. But don’t forget, that connection goes both ways.”

Josh now had their full attention, but he didn’t miss Isabel’s reaching for Alex’s hand even as her eyes pleaded with his own.

“Alex, you know I’ve tried to convince Isabel to give a relationship with me some thought. I’ve told her how much alike we are and how we understand what the other lives with every day. I even kissed her in hopes that she would at least be persuaded to take me seriously.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed and his mouth formed a thin line as he heard his worst fears spill into the air as concrete truth. Isabel’s desperate hold on his hand was all that kept him seated and out of Josh’s face.

“But like I said, that connection goes both ways, and now I’ve seen what you feel for Isabel. I have to admit, I really didn’t think a full-blooded human could accept what Isabel is. I figured you were just getting a high from the novelty of hanging out with aliens—especially beautiful ones, but I was wrong. I was pretty surprised when you insisted on going into the Chamber to find her, but when I saw the depth of your feelings, and the way you dismissed the danger of going in there after her . . . well, I realized that this isn’t just a lark for you. But the real kicker is, I was searching for Isabel in there, too—calling to her with my mind . . . and my heart. But it was you she came to, Alex. Your name she whispered. Your face she smiled into when she came back to us. And I knew . . . you two are the real thing.

“So that’s it. I just came to say that I won’t be bothering you anymore, Isabel. And Alex . . . you’re a good man. I hope I’ll still be welcome in Roswell, as a friend . . . to all of you.”

Alex’s face went from astonishment to relief to embarrassment. When he finally had the presence of mind to turn to Isabel, she was gracing him with a brilliant smile. It took his breath away, and he got lost in her luminous eyes. Movement at the door brought him back, though, and he realized Josh was quietly leaving.

“Josh!” he called. Josh stopped and twisted around. Alex rose and walked toward him, extending his hand. “I can’t blame you for falling for her. I sure did. Besides, you’re already a good friend . . . to all of us. You’ll always be welcome.”

“Josh?” Isabel was beaming at the two of them from her bed. Alex was sure she’d never looked more beautiful—like a porcelain angel backlit in a diffuse honey-colored light. “Thank you. For everything.”

Josh nodded, suddenly wanting to flee the warm fuzzies in the room. He made another move to leave when Isabel stopped him one more time.

“Could I just mention one thing?”

He looked at her curiously and nodded.

“There’s another lovely hybrid out there who thinks quite highly of you. Don’t overlook what’s right under your nose.” She winked at him, and then burst out laughing when he got that typical male bewildered look. Why were men so clueless?

She was shaking her head and chuckling until she looked up at Alex as he returned to the bed. This time, though, he crawled across it, gathered her into his arms, and drew her into the kiss she’d been waiting for since he’d pulled her from the darkness.

********

Josh looked over his shoulder one more time before leaving Isabel and Alex alone again. What he saw had both confirmed his belief that he'd done the right thing, and shaken him up, because he knew it was really over. The seed of hope that had been planted as he'd worked with Isabel on the Star Chamber skills had sprouted vigorously as their relationship changed from careful acquaintances to close friends. He had read things into her quick smile and excited eyes that had obviously been more about self-discovery than love.

Now there was a small but disconcerting empty place inside him, and he decided that what he needed was perspective. And there's nothing better for perspective, he told himself, than a little communing with nature. He headed out the door into a glorious evening—star-studded sky, warm breeze, a hint of pine scent in the air—turning left down the circle drive because–well, because it was his habit to go right whenever he had a choice, and tonight he wanted things to be different.

As he walked, he mulled over all the ways life had changed since learning that the Voyan king was alive and well and living in Roswell, New Mexico. New energy had been injected into the aliens' network. For some, it was about new plans for life on this planet; for others, it was the hope of returning to Voya. Josh had never considered the possibility of going home. He knew no home other than Earth, and he liked it here. Yes, he'd often felt lonely. Although he'd dated human girls, he'd always held back, afraid for them to know who he really was. In the end, he was always left with the same thing: loneliness. That was one reason he'd been so hopeful about Isabel.

But would going back to Voya be any better? After all, he'd not only be a stranger, he'd be largely ignorant of the customs, the history, the culture. Even the natural Voyan life form would be unfamiliar to him. There weren't even any other hybrids there. Talk about isolation. For all his apparent confidence and skill, he still felt like he would never belong–anywhere.

He stopped to take a deep breath and clear his head. The same old stuff kept bouncing around in his brain, getting him nowhere. As he stared off into the distance, a movement closer by drew his attention. There was a solitary figure sitting on a bench, staring off just as he was. Perhaps the last few days had driven more than one person to need perspective.

He continued around the drive, but stopped once again as he drew closer to the lone figure. He recognized her now–Jasar. The hitch in his breath was the first clue that he was experiencing that same feeling of . . . protectiveness? . . . that had hit him the other night. If anyone had a right to feel out of place, it was Jasar. She had come to Earth on relatively short notice to lend her abilities to saving her king and his family. On the one hand, she was one of them—a hybrid. On the other hand, she was a stranger to this planet. Even though she had said that she'd never felt like she belonged on Voya, looking at her now, he wondered if she felt she belonged here, either.

Suddenly he was hit with images of her lustrous and rare auburn hair, her lively, intelligent green eyes, and her astounding courage and resourcefulness in crises. Where would she go now? What would she do about making a life here? Would she want to return to Voya? He was surprised when that thought caused a decidedly disappointed feeling to well up inside him. Then Isabel's words echoed in his mind: "There's another lovely hybrid out there who thinks quite highly of you. Don't overlook what's right under your nose."

Changing directions, Josh made his way over to the bench. Starlight caught in two green eyes as they registered surprise, then pleasure, at his approach.

"Mind if I sit here?" he asked.

********

It had taken Lucas, Mark, and Gregory to clean up the empty shell of a human who had landed with Malek in the desert. The doctor had confirmed that he was human, but he acted for all the world like an automaton. He reacted to nothing; there was no emotion, no initiative, no glimmer of independent thought. They had stood him under a shower and washed him, hacked off some of that mane of hair, shaved him, and dressed him in some spare clothing they’d pieced together from their already sparse suitcases. When they were done, they had locked him in an interior dorm room and then gone to clean themselves up.

Not long afterwards, Maria stepped into the kitchen like a woman on a mission. “Time to feed our caveman,” she announced. She prepared a plate of food from the casual spread Paul had managed to assemble for the group and then turned to the few people still hanging around after dinner.

“I’m not supposed to go in there alone,” she reminded no one in particular. Her gaze wandered from one candidate to the next. “Well? Is somebody gonna get the key and come with me?”

“I’ll come,” Lucas offered. He’d been feeling like a fifth wheel since they’d returned from the desert, and he was thinking of going back to Roswell. He didn’t regret the trip out, though. He’d seen some amazing, frightening, impressive things, and he would never forget it. His reality was permanently changed—maybe even for the better. But he felt he didn’t fit in now, especially since the immediate danger had passed. And his absence from his job at the high school couldn’t be extended with another flimsy, “I’m not feeling well today.” It was time to go.

“I think she’s safer with one of us,” added one of the cadre. “We don’t know what he’s capable of.”

Lucas bristled, feeling a little defensive about the implication. “He’s been passive through this whole thing, Kurt. Besides, he’s human and in terrible shape. I don’t think he poses a risk.”

“Do you want to answer to Michael if anything happens to her?” Kurt asked, eyebrows raised in challenge. Maria couldn’t help but smile at the realization that all of these people saw her as being important to Michael. She like that feeling. A lot.

Lucas begrudgingly acquiesced. “We’ll both go.”

Glad to have something useful to do, he reached for the ring of keys and preceded Maria and Kurt down the hall. Stopping at the door, he held his ear against the wood for several seconds, trying to ascertain whether the man was asleep or not. Then he realized the silence meant nothing; this man made no sounds under any circumstances. He cautiously turned the key, and then, with one hand on his revolver, opened the door. The man was sitting very straight on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor. His cut, but still shaggy hair, hid his face.

“Do you think I should just put it on the desk?” Maria asked. She could well imagine this guy staring at the floor until someone told him otherwise and starving to death with food only a few feet away.

Having seen Malek order this man around, Lucas decided on his approach. Clearing his throat, he spoke loudly. “We’ve brought food. Come eat it.”

The man rose and walked toward the desk. Maria set the tray down quickly and stepped away, intent on keeping her distance. She hated to admit it, but having Lucas there with his gun, and Kurt in the doorway with his Michael-like powers was all that kept her from running full-tilt down the hall. As she looked at this pathetic figure, though, she was caught in a tangle of revulsion, curiosity, and sympathy. What sick joke of fate had resulted in his becoming a human drone for an alien power-monger? When he reached the desk, he slid the chair out, sat down, and picked up a fork. Then, shaking his hair out of the way, he stabbed at the first bite. He froze with the fork halfway to his mouth, though, when Lucas spoke.

“Maria, I’ll stay with him while he eats. You go on.”

Slowly, the man’s head turned toward them. His lips worked awkwardly, as if they hadn’t moved from their grim, closed position in a very long time, and his eyes . . . Maria locked onto his eyes immediately. There was a glimmer of life, a hint of recognition floating behind them. Her heart skipped a beat as he focused on her. A hoarse whisper escaped his lips. “Maria?”

Her breathing started to come in short gasps, her mind flipping in panic over why her name was the first sound anyone had heard from this mysterious freak. Lucas squinted at the shadow of human expression that had crossed the stranger’s features until his mouth dropped open in astonishment.

“Tom?”

Maria looked anxiously from one to the other, afraid to ask the question that burst from her anyway. “Tom who?”

A pale Lucas finally turned to face her. “Tom DeLuca.”

posted on 20-Apr-2002 12:33:53 PM
Part 33

Liz’s eyes fluttered open to see Max’s looking back, scrolling through the emotions of the moment—worry, hope, relief. Eyes locked, they exchanged unspoken words of love and came into each other’s arms, cherishing the security of being together again. Liz’s hand trailed down Max’s arm and he felt her stiffen.

“Max! What’s this?” She gently fingered the nasty cut on his forearm and then eyed him questioningly.

“It’s nothing,” he said carelessly. “A little scuffle.”

Liz’s eyes flew open as the memory assailed her. She had done this! She had come at Max with a knife! The horror of that single act caused her to recoil from him, guilt ripping at her. How could he touch her now? How could he even look at her?

Liz instinctively pulled further away, trying to scramble off the bed. Dizziness set the room to spinning, and she crumpled into a pile on the floor. Max was at her side in an instant.

“Liz! What is it? Are you remembering something? Is it Malek?”

The look on Liz’s face tore at Max’s heart. She was obviously remembering about her nightmare inside Malek’s mind, and he didn’t know what to do for her.

“Max,” she choked. “It was me. I’m the one who cut you, aren’t I?”

When he didn’t answer, but dropped his gaze, she knew she hadn’t imagined it. “Aren’t I?” she yelled, self-loathing evident in her voice and her face.

“Liz, it wasn’t you,” he told her, his voice steady, confident. “It was Malek. He was only using you. It wasn’t your fault.” He reached for her, but she scooted further away.

“Max, how could I do something like that? I wouldn’t have believed that anyone could make me hurt you. How could I?”

“Liz, stop it! You didn’t hurt me. As soon as you looked into my eyes, you came back to me. You let go of the knife. You didn’t let him win.” He searched her eyes, willing her to understand that he knew she hadn’t hurt him . . . could never hurt him. He could see her trying to remember what had happened, wanting to believe him, but unwilling to ignore the evidence on his arm.

“Believe me, Liz. You fought him. You fought the most powerful mind control on two planets, and won. Your love for me was more powerful than his hatred. I will always remember that. I will always be awed by it.”

He reached for her again, and this time she reluctantly allowed herself to be wrapped up in his warm embrace. Then something snapped inside her, an abrupt acknowledgment of what she’d been through, and she began to cry. Loud, gulping sobs wracked her weakened body, and her fingers clutched at Max’s shirt. Max held her, rocking her gently, whispering comforting words of love and reassurance, letting her pour out the anger, the terror, and the hate. Finally, he helped her back to the bed and took her tear-streaked face in his large, gentle hands. Wiping the last of the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs, he leaned in to kiss her forehead, lingering there, relishing the feel of her against his lips once again.

“Don’t think about it now, Liz. You’re not ready. All that matters is that you’re here, with me, and Malek can’t get to you anymore.”

His kisses continued to brush lightly over her cheeks, nose, eyelids, and finally, her mouth. Without warning, the powerful flashes tore through them—the eerie desolation of Malek’s mind, the mind-numbing fear Liz felt, the failed attempt to bring Liz home, Liz’s hopelessness as she fought to find her way back to Max, the dream circle that left Max weaker than he’d ever been. They pulled back, breathing heavily, each staring in amazement at the other.

“Max, you could have died trying to get me out of there! You almost lost yourself! It was too dangerous! What were you thinking?”

He stared at her for a long time. Then he said softly, “I was thinking that my life wasn’t worth living if you were lost to me.”

It was Max’s turn to shed a tear, and Liz leaned forward to kiss it away, succeeding only in mixing her own tears with his. She took his lips, and this time, their emotions centered only on each other; the kiss deepened into a desperate attempt to bond their souls so completely that nothing could come between them. Their tongues mated fiercely, and the hold they had on each other barely allowed for breathing, but the vow was made between them—nothing would keep them apart again.

********

Maria stared in undisguised shock at the man Lucas Austin had just identified as her father. He was staring back at her with the squinty-eyed look of someone who was waking from a deep sleep and trying to remember where he was. There was nothing familiar about him, nothing identifiable or recognizable, nothing—father-like.

Anger welled up in her, and she turned it on Lucas. “You’re lying! You sick bastard! That is not my father! Where do you get off pulling a stunt like that? This? My father? Look at him! He’s a shaggy, mindless drone from a spaceship. He doesn’t know his own name, let alone how to father a child! How dare you!”

Lucas was taken aback by her outburst. He could hardly believe it himself. Could he have been wrong? He stepped closer to the pathetic figure and peered at him intently.

“Tom?”

The man didn’t acknowledge Lucas at all, still staring at the near-hysterical blond who was trembling before him. “Maria?”

“Nooooo!” Maria screamed, pushing at Kurt as she fled the room. She ran blindly down the hall, gulping air in rapid-fire spasms. She screamed again as two arms encircled her and stopped her flight.

“Maria! What the hell is wrong with you?” Michael was scared, too. He was used to Maria being excitable, but he’d never seen her like this. Kurt bounded around the corner at that moment and saw Michael wrestling with a writhing Maria. Michael eyed him accusingly.

“What did you do to her?”

“Nothing! I didn’t do anything. She’s freaked because . . . because Lucas thinks the human drone is Tom DeLuca. I gather that’s her father.”

Michael’s jaw couldn’t have dropped any lower if it had been unhinged. Still fighting to calm a ranting, hysterical Maria, he maneuvered her toward a chair and then fell into it, with her in his lap.

“Maria! Maria! It’s Michael. Calm down. Tell me what happened. Is that really your father in there?”

“NO! It’s not my father. You think I’m the daughter of a filthy, mindless drone who works for an evil alien? Is that what you think of me? Lucas is sick. He’s having a joke at my expense. That is not my father. Punish him, Michael. Zap him or throw him across a room or . . . something! He’s jerking me around!”

She glared at Lucas as he appeared in the hallway. “There he is, Michael! Get him!”

Michael raised his eyebrows at Lucas. “Is it really him, Lucas? Is it Tom DeLuca?”

Lucas nodded. “Yeah, I really think it is. I haven’t got a clue how to explain it, but I think it’s him.”

“Michael! Make him stop! I won’t listen to this! Do something.” She started to launch herself at Lucas, and Michael had to act quickly to drag her back to him.

“Excuse us,” he mumbled as he opened the door to Max and Liz’s suite. Holding Maria tightly to his side, they entered the living area, and Michael shut the door behind them. The commotion had pulled Isabel and Alex out of their room to join Kyle and Tess, and a moment later, Max appeared in his doorway, supporting a shaky Liz.

“Michael, what the hell . . .”

“Max, Lucas is pretty sure that our drone in there is Tom DeLuca.”

Max was dumbstruck. How could that possibly be?

“Maria’s not so sure.”

“I am sure,” she protested savagely. “It’s not my father. Why does everyone keep saying that?”

Liz straightened, finally having something else to concentrate on besides her own nightmarish experience. She pulled away from Max and rushed to Maria’s side, pulling her into her arms, petting her hair gently.

“Shhh, Maria. We’ll figure this out. Calm down.”

The two fell slowly to the sofa, and Liz looked up at Michael helplessly. “Please, go talk to Lucas. Find out what’s going on.”

Michael nodded and turned to leave.

“I’ll go with you,” Max offered.

“Me, too,” Alex piped up. “I sort of remember him a little.”

“You do?” asked Liz, surprised because she had very little memory of him.

“He took me fishing a couple of times—kinda borrowing a son, I guess,” Alex shrugged.

Leaving Isabel with her two friends, Michael, Max, and Alex stepped into the hall.

“Where is he, Lucas?” Max asked. Lucas motioned down the hall and began to lead the way. When they entered the room, the man actually looked up at them, a new reaction in his limited repertoire.

“What do you think, Alex?” Max asked.

Alex took a moment to watch the man staring back at them. He moved to the side and back to the front. “Could be. Could actually be. It’s been a long time, though.”

Lucas made an attempt at introductions. “Tom, this is Max, also known as Zan, king of Voya. This is Michael, his second, and Alex, a human friend. Max would like to ask you some questions.”

Tom looked fearful, obviously lumping all aliens into one cruel category.

“I won’t hurt you, Tom. I’m a friend of Maria’s. Michael is her boyfriend. And Alex here has been one of her best friends her whole life. Do you remember Alex? He says you used to take him fishing.”

Tom turned very slowly to Alex, but there was no reaction or hint of recognition. His still-fearful look returned to Max.

“I guess I’ve changed since I was 6,” Alex quipped. Michael threw him a sarcastic glare.

Max squatted down so as not to be so intimidating. “Tom, is that your name? Do you know who you are? Are you Tom DeLuca?”

“Maria?” he asked, looking around the room.

“Maria’s safe. She’s with a friend. Do you remember her?”

The tiniest hint of a smile twitched at Tom’s mouth. “Maria,” he said more firmly.

Lucas and Max exchanged looks. Max gave him a subtle nod, asking him to take over. After all, they had been friends.

“Tom,” Lucas began, “do you remember Amy, your wife?”

A sadness clouded Tom’s features, and he whispered to himself. “Amy.”

“This has got to be him, Max. He knows those names,” Michael said excitedly. “Ask him what happened!”

Max looked at the broken man before them. “I don’t think he can tell us anything right now,” Max concluded. “Lucas, will you stay with him? Make sure he eats, and keep talking to him. Remind him of familiar people and events. It looks like some things might come back to him.”

“Of course I will,” Lucas agreed.

The others filed out, their minds racing at the implications of this astonishing turn of events.

“Whoa,” Michael sighed quietly.

“What?” Max could see something big had just occurred to Michael.

“What is Jim Valenti going to think?”

********

Malek awoke in a fog, unsure of where he was or why. Attempting to stretch the muscles of his human body, he winced in pain. Ropes tied around his wrists behind his back had rubbed them raw, and his quiet yelp was muffled by the tight, sticky covering on his mouth. One more attempt to shift position brought him a new wave of pain, and he realized his ankles were tied to the same rope as his wrists.

Lying on his side on the cool, concrete floor, he tried to take in his surroundings. He detected a window, but it was obviously night because only a weak starlight penetrated the room. He appeared to be in a workshop or storage unit of some kind, but it had been carefully cleared of anything useful.

He worked to clear the fog from his memory. He had been in the cave, holding Zan and his entourage prisoner. Then the girl . . . that red-haired bitch, had played him for a fool, arousing his weak and disobedient human body to the point where he let his guard down. He’d only gotten distracted for a moment, but that was all she’d needed. She had attacked him in the human male’s most vulnerable spot, and his lieutenants had done nothing to help him.

As he peered through the darkness, he could make out two more forms on the floor—obviously his men had been captured with him. Worthless wretches. Why hadn’t they reacted when she threw her knee into him and watched him slide to the floor? Disgust didn’t begin to describe his contempt for them.

He stiffened suddenly, registering for the first time that he was no longer controlling . . . anyone! The king’s mate and sister were gone! Even that lowly human slave of his was gone! How had he lost them? This was unprecedented . . . and terrifying. Mind control was the hub of his power, the basis upon which he built every plan, every vision of the future. He searched his mind for them. Nothing. Then he reached out into the human energies that should have been there for the taking. Only vague, ethereal energy signatures swirled in his mind.

Something small. Try something easy, he told himself.

He concentrated on the ropes binding his hands. They released easily. Good. He had some powers left. Perhaps he just needed a little time. Perhaps they had drugged him. He sent an image of the redhead to his two pathetic flunkies and was gratified when they stirred. Then he projected the image and the pain of her attack. He smiled broadly as they convulsively drew their knees up and moaned loudly. He was more than happy to share that with them. They deserved it.

Somewhat encouraged by the limited control he still had, Malek began to feed on his anger at being temporarily bested like this. The seeds of a plan began to form in his mind, and as he sat up more comfortably, he set his sights on King Zan’s ultimate downfall.

********

Max, Michael, and Alex returned to the suite just as Liz was coaxing a tearful Maria into the bedroom. Glancing over her shoulder, Liz saw Max’s slight nod, confirming her sense that it was all right with him. Their connection was gradually flowing again, and Liz welcomed the peace and security it offered.

“Michael, it looks like we’ve got our hands full again already. I need to know everything that’s going on.”

“Well, you know as much about this thing with Tom DeLuca as anybody. As for Malek and his goons, Paul cleaned out one of the out-buildings—a storage shed—and I have guards outside the door non-stop. Zeval has been giving them shots every 8 hours. It only suppresses powers, so we’ve been waiting for them to wake up, but nothing yet. Kurt and I are supposed to relieve Mark and Stefan in about an hour. We’re changing every two hours so that no one gets so bored or sleepy that they lose concentration.

“I only asked about 8 cadre to stay; there was too little room and too much explaining to do to keep more, but that way, no one has a shift more than every 8 hours. We’ve got enough of the drug to last about 5 days, but frankly, I don’t think we can keep them under wraps that long. We’re gonna have to decide what to do with them, Max.”

At that moment, Paul stuck his head in the door. Max hadn’t seen him since their return, and he greeted his friend warmly.

“Paul, I’ve been hearing about all your help on this end—the lodging, food, the shed. I can’t thank you enough.”

“I told you I’d do what I could. Claudia would have my hide otherwise,” he chuckled modestly.

Max raised his eyebrows at the reference to Liz’s grandmother. It was her close relationship with Paul during life . . . and after . . . that had brought them all together months ago at the Anasazi Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde, but Max hadn’t thought about her for a while. He wondered if she was watching all of this unfold from whatever plane of existence was now home to her indomitable spirit.

“I’ll bet she would,” he smiled back. “We’re just talking about what to do with the three prisoners. None of us really knows what they’re capable of, especially Malek. We do know, though, that he’s no longer controlling Liz or Isabel or his human servant. I’d better tell you, we think we know who he is.”

“Yeah? Who?”

“It’s quite possible he’s Tom DeLuca, Maria’s father.”

“What? How can that be? How did he wind up with Malek?”

“I don’t know, but he has some memory of Maria and Amy, so we’re hoping he’ll remember more.”

“Wow.” Paul mulled over this new piece of information for a moment, then shook it off. “I’m just bringing in some more supplies, and I wanted to tell you that Jasar and Zeval are taking turns keeping an eye on the skies, just to make sure Malek doesn’t have reinforcements on the way.

“Okay, Paul. Thanks.”

Paul nodded and backed out of the doorway, almost backing into Lucas. Lucas slid past him. “Max, I think there’s a good chance Tom will start to remember more, but I can’t talk to him any more tonight. He’s exhausted and still incoherent. Whatever hold Malek had on him seems to be waning, but his mind is still a mess. He needs rest.”

Max sighed. He needed answers, and he was sure that a coherent Tom DeLuca had plenty. An old expression his human grandfather had used a lot popped into his mind: pushing a rope. That’s what badgering Tom would be at this point, pushing a rope. Useless.

“I guess we have no choice but to wait until morning,” Max conceded, obviously frustrated.

“Not necessarily,” stated Isabel as she stepped from the bedroom.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 12:35:15 PM
Part 34

Max turned on his sister, his expression grim. “If you’re suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, don’t say it. You haven’t fully recovered from that nightmare with Malek; I won’t let you risk a relapse.”

Isabel smiled tolerantly at her brother. “So I gather you are the only person allowed to give 110% to help a loved one?”

Max glared at her, but couldn’t think of a convincing comeback. Alex took some of the pressure off by working his way across the room to Isabel. “Iz,” he whispered, saying all he needed to with his eyes. He’d almost lost her once, he didn’t want to go through that again. Isabel stroked his cheek, knowing better than anyone what her experience had cost him. Then she looked back at Max.

“I’ll just go take a quick look. Alex can stay with me; he always keeps me grounded. Once I know if Tom’s having any rational thoughts at all, I’ll come tell you. At least that way, you’ll know if it’s worth pumping him for information.”

All eyes were on Max as he struggled with his priorities. Chances were, Isabel would be fine, and if Tom was able to give them any information at all, it could save untold numbers of lives. Knowing already which path he had to take, Max still fought saying it out loud. He didn’t want to make a decision that potentially threatened his sister in any way.

Reading his thoughts with practiced expertise, Isabel left Alex’s side and walked toward Max, surprising him with a warm hug. “It’ll be okay, Max. Just hang out here; we’ll be out soon.”

She turned to Alex and extended her hand. With a quick glance at Max, Alex reached for her, and they walked quietly into the far bedroom, closing the door. Max threw himself on the sofa, sitting forward with his elbows on his knees, running his hands through his hair, until Liz’s soft touch broke his troubled train of thought.

“Maria’s calmer now.” She looked up at Michael. “She wants you to come in.” Michael didn’t need to be asked twice. He practically leapt from the chair and headed toward the bedroom.

“And how are you doing?” she asked Max gently. He pulled her into his lap without a word, and they sat quietly, letting their connection calm their nerves and soothe their hearts.

********

Malek scrambled to assume his position on the floor when he heard voices outside the shed door. Seconds later, a man and a woman entered carrying a small case. Feigning sleep, he peered through almost closed eyelids as the man lit a small lantern, and the woman filled a syringe.

They were being drugged. How often? How long did the effects last? He couldn’t allow himself to receive another injection. Who knew how long another dose would suppress his powers; by the time it wore off again, they might have killed or disposed of him in some other manner. He had been gaining confidence, trying small things here and there over the last couple of hours. Now was the time to try something bigger.
He watched as they injected the first of his two lieutenants. The man roused briefly, startling the woman, but he fell back against the floor after only a moment. She swabbed the point of injection quickly and moved back.

Malek focused his mental powers as well as he could. He knew he was still considerably weaker than usual, but he had been able to affect things directly around him quite successfully; he hoped a simple mindwarp of those in the same room would not be beyond his limited abilities. Reaching out to both of the visitors, he worked to imprint on their minds that the man who had just received the shot was the last of the three, not the first. It was an effort not to sigh with relief when he heard the woman’s next words.

“Well, that should do it for another 8 hours,” Zeval announced. “They should be waking any time. Has Max decided what to do with them?”

“I don’t think so,” replied Mark. “Kurt came down a while ago and said they had some sort of run-in with that human drone. Turns out he might be related to . . . uh . . . Maria, I think he said. She’s not taking it too well, so they’ve had their hands full.”

“Related to Maria? That’s got to be a strange story.” She packed up the instruments, doused the lantern, and walked out the door. “There’ll be a new shift down in about 15 minutes, Mark,” he heard her say. “I’m going back up to the dorm to see what’s going on.” And she was gone.

Malek’s eyes gleamed. That had been a most informative and successful experiment. Not only had he learned that he could wield his powers within a limited area, but he also learned that he wasn’t far from the royal four, that he only had a couple of guards to contend with, and that they hadn’t decided his fate. The young king was not only inexperienced, he was soft. Malek had suspected that early on.

He chuckled to himself. This would be easy. Almost too easy. It wasn’t enough to defeat the pathetically humanized king. Malek wanted him to suffer loss and humiliation. He needed Max’s followers to know without a doubt that the king they had sworn to defend was unworthy of their loyalty.

Malek sat up again, intent on using his newfound knowledge to design the final confrontation.

********

The atmosphere was quietly expectant. Liz sat snuggled into Max’s lap, his arms encircling her protectively, one hand absently tracing the curve of her knee. She nestled her head on his shoulder, and stroked his chest in restless circles. Tess and Kyle were holding each other closely in the loveseat on the opposite wall. Kyle held Tess’s hand, fingers entwined, while his other arm kept her pulled tightly to him. Through the open door to Max and Liz’s room, Michael and Maria were visible stretched out in each other’s arms on the bed. Every once in a while, the soothing sounds of Michael’s low voice could barely be heard above the hum of activity in the rest of the dorm. No one had heard a sound from Isabel’s room.

The carefree laughter from the hall contrasted sharply with the quiet solitude in the room, but it was a welcome change as Josh and Jasar walked casually through the door, smiles on their faces, Josh’s hand barely touching Jasar’s back. Their expressions froze, though, as they scanned the room quickly and registered the palpable anxiety. Their smiles faded, and the familiar wariness returned.

“What’s going on?” asked Jasar.

“We’re waiting for Isabel,” Max told her. “She’s dreamwalking Tom DeLuca.”

“Who?” she asked, puzzled.

“Our human drone that arrived with Malek. It looks like he’s Maria’s missing father.”

“How do you know that?” Josh frowned. “Is he talking?”

“He’s said a little, but our first clue was Lucas. When Tom reacted to Maria’s name, Lucas took a good look and realized who he was.”

“Son of a bitch,” Lucas sighed, then straightened. “I’m sorry, Jasar. It just caught me by surprise.”

She smiled at him, amused at his discomfort. “I’m quite familiar with English vernacular,” she assured him. “I think you’ll find I don’t offend easily.”

He flipped her a quick grin, and then turned his attention back to Max. “How’s Maria taking it?”

“Maria is fine,” a determined voice said from the bedroom doorway. They turned in unison to see Maria standing before them. Only the tight grasp she had on Michael’s hand hinted at her inner turmoil.

“No word from Isabel?”

“Not yet,” Liz said. “Are you really okay, Maria?”

She nodded. “I’m okay enough to hear what Isabel has to say. I’m not completely convinced, but I’m keeping an open mind.” She looked over at Jasar and Josh, noting a new closeness in their body language, and raised her eyebrows.

“So, what’s up with you two?”

“Maria!” Michael hissed. Leave it to Maria to pick up on the signs of romance even in the midst of crisis. He flashed the couple an apologetic look, but the blush creeping up their faces said it all. When they finally had the courage to look at the others, they were greeted with genuine smiles.

“We’ve just been getting to know each other,” Josh explained. “Jasar is pretty amazing.”

Jasar’s blush grew deeper. “I could say the same about Josh,” she countered.

Their embarrassed exchange threatened to turn awkward until they heard the door to Isabel’s room open. Everyone turned to her expectantly. She looked tired, but calm. Max breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

“You got in?” Maria’s voice was tight with tension.

“Yeah.” Isabel joined Max and Liz on the sofa, and Alex perched on the arm, holding her hand.

“Let’s hear it,” Maria urged.

“Well, even though it was pretty jumbled in there, I got the impression things were flooding back. There were so many images, some of which I could recognize and some of which meant nothing to me. It was almost as if his brain was fast-forwarding through a slide show, trying to make sense of everything. I saw lots of Maria as a little girl, lots of Amy, some of Lucas, and even some of Malek.”

She hesitated, glancing up at Alex, who gave her a reassuring smile. “Tell them,” he urged.

“What?” Maria was on full alert, anticipation shooting through her.

Isabel broke into a pleased smile. “Well, I tried something I’ve never done before, and I think it may have helped.” She looked up at Alex again and squeezed his hand. “It’s gotten so I’m actually aware of Alex when he’s holding me during a dreamwalk. It grounds me and makes me less afraid when the dream is confusing or upsetting. Well, tonight, I knew how upset Maria was, and I could tell how desperately Tom wanted to make sense of what was happening to him, so . . . I tried talking to him.”

“Talking to him? Isabel! You can’t do that!” Max objected. He and Isabel had often been at odds about her dreamwalking, but she’d rarely actually interfered with a dream.

“Wait, Max! Wait until you hear the whole thing.”

“Let her explain, Max, please,” Liz murmured, and Max settled back, scowling.

“I could see how chaotic Tom’s thoughts were, and I knew he’d be too restless to sleep well. I thought if he could stay calm, he would sleep better, and if he slept better, he’d be able to answer more of your questions, so . . . I just started talking to him, you know, just talking softly and soothingly, like you would to a child. I related happy childhood memories that Maria has told before. I told him how well Amy is doing with her business, and how beautifully Maria sings . . .” She looked shyly at Maria; she’d never told Maria how much she admired her voice before. Maria was looking at her, dumbfounded.

“Anyway, after a few minutes, the images running through his dream slowed down to where I could actually see some things that sort of made sense. I saw that same scene, Maria, where they took him from your home. I think he was held somewhere before Malek dragged him off to . . . Krona, is it? Isn’t that Malek’s planet?

“Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that this is Tom DeLuca. There were too many specific memories of Maria.” She looked at her astonished friend, wanting to reassure her that Tom’s memories were loving and happy. “There was an image of when he tried to teach you to tie your shoes—red sneakers, right? And there was a dog. Did you have a dog, Maria?”

Maria nodded mutely. She leaned back into Michael as he wrapped his arms around her, familiar with those same memories from his flashes with Maria.

“And there were a few flashes of the three of you in the park, laughing and playing on the swings.”

Maria’s tears were falling freely now, and she turned into Michael’s chest, clutching at his shirtsleeves with white-knuckled ferocity.

“Isabel,” Max said softly. “Anything else? More . . . recent?”

Maria turned back around to face Isabel, bracing herself for less comforting flashbacks.

“A little. Actually, there seemed to be some images of his captivity and abduction to another planet, but not anything that seemed real recent.” She looked at Maria with sorrowful eyes. “I hope he can give you some answers, Maria.”

“Maria’s had enough,” Michael said firmly, bringing a close to their meeting. “She needs rest, and I have to get down to take my shift at the shed.”

Max nodded, and the couples went arm in arm to their respective rooms. It would be a long, restless night.

********

Malek’s two lieutenants stirred, gradually coming out of their deep sleep. Their grunts and groans as they tried to sit up, only to be foiled by their bonds, made them aware of each other as well. Once awkwardly propped against the wall, their eyes fell on Malek, who was watching them with disdain. Fear gripped them as he approached, completely unfettered.

“Well, you’ve finally decided to join me in our new accommodations. How wonderful. I was getting lonely.”

As the insincere words slithered from his tongue, their fear mounted. They’d seen him lure enemies with the same soft-spoken venom, and they knew it never ended well.

“We’re being drugged. My powers have limited range, but seem relatively intact within close proximity. When they came to deliver the last dose, I was able to mindwarp the female enough to convince her that she had given the drug to all three of us, when, in fact, she had only injected Quon.”

He eyed them both, deciding how to proceed with the plan he’d developed. “Quon, release your bonds.”

Quon closed his eyes and concentrated, but realized quickly he had no powers at all. He looked at Malek helplessly, knowing there was nothing Malek detested more than weakness. Malek only shrugged. “Veshnu, you try. You have not been drugged recently.”

Veshnu focused his thoughts and pictured the bonds parting easily, but he knew immediately that he had failed. He’d had no more luck than his unfortunate friend, and he awaited Malek’s wrath.

“No matter,” Malek smiled. “When they come again, I will mindwarp them into believing we have all been drugged, and in the morning, I will explain my plan. You will still be of use, don’t worry.”

Suppressing the great sighs of relief that threatened to escape, Quon and Veshnu exchanged glances. Perhaps Malek understood that this wasn’t their fault. They had been loyal followers, and he wouldn’t forget that. After all, they weren’t the enemy.

Malek fell silent and retreated to his dark corner. His nervous comrades didn’t question why he hadn’t untied them; they were happy to be alive. It was going to be a long, restless night.

********

The next morning, Max and Liz walked down the hall to Tom DeLuca’s room. Mark stood outside the door, pulling to attention as Max approached. Max winced uncomfortably; he would never get used to being a king.

“Mark, how did Tom sleep, do you know?”

“I don’t know, really. He’s always quiet. But Maria can probably tell you.”

“Maria?” Liz asked, confused.

“Yeah, she came in a couple hours ago and asked to just sit with him. Michael’s been in and out, bringing her coffee and sitting with her.”

Max opened the door to find Maria sitting in a straight-back chair a few feet from Tom’s bed. An empty chair was pulled up next to hers, and the cold remains of a mug of coffee sat on the floor at her feet. She smiled weakly as Max and Liz entered. Liz bent to hug her best friend.

“Hon, are you okay? What are you doing here?”

Maria sat staring at Tom for a few seconds before answering. “This is my dad. I didn’t even know him when I saw him. Now . . . look at him. Think what he’s been through.” The pain in her eyes reflected compassion, guilt, and regret. So much time lost. Such a wasted life.

The quiet conversation must have penetrated Tom’s light sleep because he awoke with a start, sitting up abruptly and looking from one of his visitors to the other with a panicked expression. He pulled the covers closely around him and scooted back against the wall.

Liz glanced at Maria, who was staring wide-eyed at her father, seeing him awake for the first time since her original shock yesterday. Realizing that Maria was not able to talk to him just yet, Liz stepped forward.

“Mr. DeLuca? It’s Liz. Liz Parker. Remember me? Maria and I used to play together all the time.”

He peered at her, nodding slowly. “Liz.”

She smiled at him. “Yes. Maria and I are still good friends. We’re so glad to have found you. We’re here to help you. We know you’ve been through a terrible ordeal.”

He digested her words, then looked warily at Max. Liz caught the look and hurried to reintroduce Max.

“You met Max yesterday. He’s here to help, too. He’s my . . . boyfriend, and he only wants to help you remember what’s happened to you and help you get settled again, even in Roswell, if you want.”

Tom scowled, pushing in vain against the wall, trying to distance himself from Max.

“He’s one of them.”

“No, Mr. DeLuca. He’s a hybrid, and he’s lived in Roswell his whole life. He won’t do anything to hurt you. He only wants to help.” She thought for a moment, then added, “Malek is his enemy, Mr. DeLuca. He needs to know what you know so Malek can’t ever hurt anyone else.”

Tom scrutinized Max, still uneasy. Max stood still, careful not to make any moves that Tom might consider threatening or intimidating. Then he spoke very softly.

“It’s true, Mr. DeLuca. I’m so sorry for what’s happened to you. I want to find a way to keep everyone safe, including Maria. She’s a good friend.”

Tom pondered his words, finally relaxing slightly. Then his eyes came back to Maria. “Maria?” Those eyes were pleading with her, for comfort, for reassurance, for basic acknowledgment. The sadness in them broke her heart, and she stood, walking toward him with slow, hesitant steps. She stopped momentarily when she felt Michael at her side; he had returned with another cup of coffee, which now sat forgotten on the desk.

Tom shrank back from the new arrival, and this time, Maria was the one to speak.

“It’s okay . . . Dad. Michael is my boyfriend, and good friends with Max and Liz. He’s been helping me adjust to finding you. He’s a good guy.”

Maria stepped away from Michael and toward her father. She extended a hand to him as she reached the bedside, and Tom startled her by pulling his hand from under the blanket and grabbing it firmly. Then he began to cry, and she fell into his arms.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 12:36:53 PM
Part 35

Liz’s ability to sense others’ strong emotions had resurfaced at a very opportune time. Once Maria and her father had spent some quiet bonding time together, Max had been eager to question him, but Tom’s nervousness had resulted in scattered, choppy responses, and Max was growing impatient.

Liz had focused on Tom DeLuca and eventually turned to Max. “I think he feels too confined. He doesn’t like being in this small room. Why don’t we gather at one of those secluded campsites around the perimeter? We’ll have some food sent over, and maybe he’ll relax enough to answer your questions coherently.”

She had been so right. They had reassembled at a scenic campsite, near enough to the dorms for convenience, but far enough away to allow for some privacy. The view was magnificent, and the sun beat down on them, warming the cool morning air to a comfortable level. Seated on crude wooden benches that formed a circle around a long-unused fire pit, Tom appeared much more relaxed. He didn’t take his eyes from Maria for more than a few seconds at a time, but he was still aware of the urgency within the group, and he was now convinced that helping them was the right thing to do.

They sat silently as Stefan and Kurt arrived with a large carafe of coffee and a tray of pastries. Stefan started a low fire with a wave of his hand and set the carafe on the grate. Max looked quickly at Tom to see if this feat had surprised or upset him, but he barely noticed, accepting it as routine. Why not? thought Max. He’s probably seen this and more every day of his life for the past 10 years.

“Kurt, I want four cadre posted around this site at a distance of about 100 feet. Keep your eyes and ears open. Double security at the shed; I think we’ll be moving the prisoners this afternoon. Make sure Zeval has given them their latest injections. Then ask Paul to call Sheriff Valenti; don’t tell him Tom’s identity just yet, but let him know we’ve recovered an abducted human who will need some help when we get back.”

Kurt nodded in understanding and left to carry out his orders. Liz couldn’t help but smile. Max might not know it, but he was definitely acting like the leader his people expected him to be. It was becoming second nature, though Max would have been the first to deny it. It suited him, she decided. He was smart, compassionate, and wise beyond his years. He would be a good leader, and she felt proud of him. Her thoughts must have filtered through to Max because he looked at her quickly, eyebrows raised, a faint smile on his lips. He leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead before turning back to Tom DeLuca.

Tom had been taking in the group of people who had gathered to hear his story. Except for Lucas, he only knew who a few of them were, but it was obvious that they were seated as couples. His daughter had automatically taken a seat beside the one she had introduced as Michael, rather than by him. He hadn’t been surprised, but he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of hurt. He’d been grateful when Lucas had come to join him.

“Mr. DeLuca, I want to be sure you know everyone here. I know you remember Lucas.”

Tom looked at the man sitting next to him and smiled. “Yes, of course.”

“There are six hybrids sitting here. You know Michael and me already. You don’t know my sister Isabel or our friends Tess, Josh, and Jasar. Jasar only just arrived from Voya with Michael’s sister Zeval. She’s not with us now because she’s using the telescope here at the observatory to watch for any other ships Malek may have ordered as backup. But the rest of us have lived in Roswell our whole lives, part of a fleet of ships sent here in 1947 to preserve the royal family and a remnant of our civilization when it looked as if Voya might fall to its enemies.

“During our time here, we’ve shared our secret with some humans who have become very important to us. Liz, whom you knew as a child, introduced me as her boyfriend. I think she didn’t want to scare or confuse you, but you are probably well aware of our customs, so I will tell you that we are joined. Liz is my mate and the queen of Voya.”

This announcement elicited genuine surprise. “Liz?” Tom stammered. “You . . . you have joined with . . . a Voyan? The king? How . . . I mean, did you realize . . .?”

Liz smiled happily. “The truth is, Mr. DeLuca, I fell for Max before I ever knew who he truly was. But once I knew, I grew to understand how special and extraordinary he really is. By the time we joined, I knew exactly what I was doing. In fact, there’s a whole history in the Parker family that relates to all this. I’ll tell you about it someday. As for being a king, unless we’re with other Voyans, Max doesn’t really act like a king. The people of Roswell just see him as a normal human teenager.”

Tom’s gaze swung back to Maria. “Maria, are you joined with . . . this Voyan?” he asked, pointing to Michael.

“Well, no . . . not exactly. We . . . uh, we . . . he’s just my boyfriend. I don’t know . . .”

Michael tensed next to Maria, wanting to tell Tom DeLuca that as far as he was concerned, their joining was just a matter of time, but he and Maria hadn’t really talked about it yet. Maybe she wasn’t ready for that big of a commitment yet. Maybe she never would be. Meanwhile, he didn’t know what to say to help Maria over this awkward moment.

“We’re figuring all that out . . . sir,” Michael choked out.

Isabel and Max couldn’t help the grins that broke out on their faces when Michael used the word “sir.” That would be the subject of some ribbing . . . later.

Max hurried through the rest of the introductions, anxious to start asking some questions of his own. “Alex and Kyle have been good friends as well. Back in Roswell, the only others who know about this are Isabel’s and my parents, Liz’s parents, the sheriff, and . . . Amy.”

At the mention of Amy’s name, Tom’s head whipped around. “Amy knows?” He sat, mulling that over for a moment. “That’s irony for you. I would have done anything to keep that from her.” He looked at Maria. “How long has she known?”

“Only a few weeks, actually. When we found Lucas skulking around in our house, we didn’t know who he was. We thought he was an enemy, and she saw Max and Michael do some things that . . . well, that she shouldn’t have seen. We had to tell her. Fortunately, the sheriff was there to . . .”

She froze mid-sentence, wanting to grab those words and push them back down her throat. She looked from one person to another around the circle, hoping for . . . what? Finally, Tom finished for her.

“Amy’s remarried?”

“No, she . . . they’re just . . . you know, they’ve . . . They’re dating.”

There. She said it.

“Is he a good man?”

“He’s my father,” Kyle said quietly. “And yes, he’s the best.” Kyle wasn’t sure what to feel about Tom DeLuca. He was happy for Maria, but he knew his dad was happier than he’d been in years with Amy. Everything was about to change, and he feared it would be incredibly hard on his dad.

Tom just looked at him sadly and nodded. “I certainly couldn’t expect her to wait for a man who disappeared 10 years ago, now could I?”

“Mr. DeLuca. I need to ask you some questions.”

“I’ll answer what I can. My thoughts are my own for the first time in a very, very long time, thanks to you. But my memory is a little spotty. Funny, yesterday everything was racing around in my head making no sense, but this morning, I could feel myself again. I felt so much calmer and more in control.”

Isabel smiled as the teens threw her grateful looks; she had helped more than any of them had realized.

“Can we go back to the night you disappeared, Mr. DeLuca? Maria has had dreams about your being taken away by two men. Is that what happened?”

“You saw that?” Tom asked his daughter.

“Yeah, I guess I did, although I never remembered anything about it until the dreams recently. Then when we saw the letter you left for Lucas . . .”

Tom looked sharply at his friend. “So you believed me?”

Lucas looked at the ground guiltily. “I believed your family needed looking after. I didn’t really believe the rest until a few weeks ago.”

Tom sighed. “I guess the letter still served its purpose, then. Well, I remember pretty clearly what happened before they took me. It’s what happened later that’s fuzzy. For what it’s worth, here’s what I remember.

“Once I had accidentally opened those files and learned about the crash and surviving aliens, it wasn’t long before I realized I was being followed. I tried to do more research from the school computers, but everything I tried to see was locked for security. No surprise there, I guess. I did wonder, though, if those kids found in the desert had anything to do with it. I knew Amy had talked about how they didn’t speak or anything when they came to the restaurant, and I realized they were about the same age as Maria. Roswell’s a small town. I was afraid she’d get mixed up with them somehow, and I worried about how dangerous that might be for her.”

He looked over at Maria holding tightly to Michael’s hand and shook his head. “I guess that part wasn’t paranoid, was it?”

A smattering of nervous laughter reflected the tension in the air, and he realized that Maria was not the only person for whom this story held extreme significance. Every face was glued to his; every word had their rapt attention. He could never have predicted the extent to which his family’s life would be affected, but he couldn’t ignore the closeness of this group, and for the first time he acknowledged the possibility that the interaction between species that had been his own life’s nightmare had not been such a bad thing for them.

Where had he left off? Oh, yes. “I was nervous, but not scared, until I started getting phone calls threatening my family if I told what I’d seen. I had no intention of telling; I would have looked ridiculous, and I certainly wasn’t going to jeopardize my family.

“One day, Amy and I had a terrible fight. She suspected my late nights out and my nervousness had to do with another woman, and I didn’t know what to tell her. I couldn’t tell the truth, but I never wanted anyone but Amy. I loved her! She was so mad that night when I got home that she left for work without even speaking to me. After I put Maria to bed, I was working in the kitchen when the professor whose computer I’d been using—and remember, he’d also been military and had helped with the cover-up—and another man walked in without knocking and took me forcibly from the house. I kept telling them my little daughter was in there alone, but they didn’t care!

“They took me to the military base nearby and held me in isolation for a few days. Only two people ever came into my room to bring food or a basin to wash in. One was called Jackson and the other Pierce, I think.”

A gasp stopped Tom’s story cold; something he’d said had come as a shock to his listeners.

“Go on,” Max ground out from between clenched teeth. Tom frowned, but continued.

“I was taken from my room only three times for questioning. I kept telling them that I wouldn’t say anything, that my family needed me, but they ignored me. I kept asking how the government could hold me with no charges against me, but they only laughed, saying that the government barely knew of their unit’s existence. Then one night, . . .”

Tom paled as the memory washed over him in all its horrifying detail. Lucas put a hand on his shoulder. “Tom?”

Tom shuddered and straightened, beginning again with grim determination. “One night, Jackson came in and told me I was going home. He wouldn’t give me any details, but I didn’t question it. I was just glad to be going home to my family. I wasn’t surprised when he escorted me out to the Jeep alone. After all, if they were letting me go, they didn’t need security, right? But as we drove past the turn-off to Roswell and further into the desert, I started to get scared. I demanded he tell me where he was taking me.

“Suddenly, he was . . . morphing, I guess it was, and he turned into . . . Malek.” Tom’s breathing grew more rapid and he rose, pacing around the circle. “The next thing I knew, I was being pushed into a shuttle of some kind. And even though they didn’t have me physically restrained, I couldn’t move. From a window, I could see my home, and then the whole planet getting smaller and smaller. I’d never been so terrified . . .”

Maria stood and walked quickly to her father. She slid her slender arms around him, offering the security of her warmth and affection. She still didn’t feel as close as a daughter should to her father, but she had accepted who he was. Appalled at what he had been through and touched by his brave efforts to protect his family, her heart went out to this man who had loved her after all. Her lifelong burden of wondering why her father had left them had been lifted, and in its place was admiration for his courage and sorrow for time lost and life wasted.

“You don’t have to do this now,” she whispered.

At her words, he straightened, pulling himself together with sheer will. “This is important. It must be now.” He withdrew from her, already trying to refocus his memories. It was getting harder now. Maria returned to Michael’s waiting arms.

“I remember listening to everything that was said, trying to figure out where we were going, what they wanted from me. Malek was bragging, telling his shipmates how his patience had paid off. He now had a human to flaunt in front of his people. He said that when the people of Corona? Karola? . . .”

“Krona?” Max suggested.

“Yes, Krona,” Tom answered, surprised. “He said that when the people of Krona saw how inferior humans were, and when he told them that the Voyan king was part human, they would see the Voyan party line about their wonderful hybrid king as the propaganda it was and join his effort to overthrow Voya for the sake of their system’s racial purity. Once he had control of his planetary system, he would expand his vision. He thought if he proved how easily humans could be enslaved, it would add impetus to his ultimate plan to subjugate the Earth.

“My memories get dimmer and dimmer after that. I know that at first, when I wasn’t serving Malek, I was kept in a tiny room with only enough food to survive. I soon realized that I was having fewer and fewer thoughts of my own. I would snap out of it sometimes only to realize that I was preparing his food, washing his clothes, cleaning his rooms. I fought his mind control as long as I could, but finally . . .”

A sob erupted from his throat, and his last words were torn from him in an anguished moan, “I . . . lost . . . myself!”

Once again, Maria was on her feet, this time rushing to her father’s side. He was openly crying now, bent at the waist and trembling uncontrollably. Maria tried to hold him, but she wasn’t strong enough to stabilize his unsteady body. Lucas came to her aid, clamping an arm around his old friend and guiding him to a seat.

“I’m going to be sick,” Tom warned him.

Lucas looked up at Max, who had also risen to help. “I’ll take him.”

Max nodded and then found himself reaching for Maria as she faltered. Michael stood to retrieve his heartbroken girlfriend, but a noise in the woods behind them caused everyone to tense, straining to hear.

“Michael!” Max nodded toward the trees, and Michael was instantly on the run.

From the far side of the clearing, Mark’s voice could be heard. “We’re on it!”

As the cadre converged on the source of the noise, Max was left holding a tearful Maria.

********

Malek welcomed the new day by silently congratulating himself on another successful mindwarp. The woman who had come to inject the three prisoners had left without inflicting a single dose of the drug on any of them. Quon and Veshnu were equally pleased since Malek’s happiness usually meant life was easier for them, too.

Malek had noticed that the usual two guards had been replaced with four. How naïve this boy-king was! These guards were putty in his hands; Zan had no idea what he was up against. The only real fly in the ointment was that Quon still had no powers, and Veshnu’s were so weakened, they were virtually useless. Being adaptable, though, Malek had revised his plan, and his two lieutenants would be very useful indeed.

Rising from his uncomfortable seat on the shed floor, Malek walked toward Quon and Veshnu. He leaned forward to rip the tape from their mouths, choosing the more painful option of removal. They deserved no merciful treatment from him, that was certain.

“It’s time to put my plan into motion. Which of you wants to implement the first part?”

“I do!” they answered in unison.

“I’m touched by your support,” he crooned. “Quon, you seem most eager. I will grant you this honor.”

Quon beamed, afraid to look at Veshnu. Who knew what fate would befall him?

“I need to test my physical powers. I’ve been unable to do that fully because I was reluctant to attract attention, and a multiple mindwarp is so tiring. But now is the time to give it our all. Today we are on the brink of victory!”

Quon’s eyes brightened. He would be given the chance to redeem himself and claim a powerful position at Malek’s side in the new order. He nodded eagerly. “Just tell me what to do.”

“Ah, but you need do nothing, my faithful servant, just as you did nothing in the cave when I was rendered helpless.”

Quon’s face fell; he could see the malice now in Malek’s eyes.

“You, my friend, are my test subject. If my powers are intact, as I believe them to be, your dead body will be the first sign that we will succeed. Your sacrifice will be remembered. Be proud; you are giving your life for a great cause.”

Before the panicked victim could utter a single sound of protest, Malek had raised his hand and let loose a fatal beam of power. Quon’s bound figure collapsed in on itself and slowly slid sideways until he was lying lifeless on the ground.

Malek turned to Veshnu, whose eyes were wide as saucers as he trembled in fear. Malek only smiled. “Well, it looks as though my physical powers are returning. How fortunate. I think we are ready to proceed with the plan.”

Veshnu didn’t respond; he just watched Malek’s every move, anticipating his own death.

“Come, come, my friend. Rejoice in your comrade’s proud death. He would have died anyway. His powers were completely gone. You, however, have shown signs of returning powers. I can use you for the rest of my plan.”

Veshnu wasn’t sure he believed this master of deceit, but he was in no position to argue, so he offered a jerky nod while fear ate at him from the inside out.

“Good man! Here’s what we shall do. First, I will mindwarp the guards into thinking all is as it should be. Then you and I will simply walk out of here, taking one of the Earth weapons with us. I won’t kill them yet because I don’t want anyone to realize anything is amiss.”

He stopped momentarily, as if puzzling over a detail. “I still can’t detect exactly where the royal family is; my mental powers still have limited range. However, I am confident that as we near the housing units, I will be able to find them. Once we do, I will do a group mindwarp on his cadre. You, dear Veshnu, will hold a gun on our weak hybrid king; he will watch helplessly as I destroy the royal family, including his queen, one at a time. His powers are no match for mine; he will be broken in heart, mind, and spirit when I’m finished with him, and the people of the alliance will recognize their true leader.”

Veshnu watched Malek pacing and spouting his plan, and he knew. After following him all this time, after seeing him as the light of hope for Krona’s and Durin’s bleak existence, after devoting everything to his cause, Veshnu knew: Malek was evil. Evil and crazy.

“What will you do with the king?”

Malek’s eyes sparkled. “That could go either way. If he’s completely submissive, I might take him back with me, so the people can see how misplaced their loyalty has been. If he continues to resist, I’ll kill him and return with his body as a trophy of war. Either way, the alliance is mine!”

With gleeful exuberance, Malek released Veshnu’s bonds, and Veshnu slowly unfolded to a standing position, his muscles screaming in protest after days bound on the floor.

“It begins,” Malek said reverently, closing his eyes to begin the mindwarp. A moment later, his glowing hand released the lock on the door, and they stepped into the sunshine. Two guards posted at the front of the building were undisturbed as Malek lifted the guns from their hands. He smiled at Veshnu and waved for him to follow.

They proceeded up the path, stopping briefly when the observatory buildings came into view. Concentrating, Malek attempted to locate Zan and the others, and was surprised when he sensed them not in the buildings, but in the woods. He smiled to himself. Even better.

Motioning to Veshnu, they circled undetected to a vantage point that offered a view of the campsite. Almost too easy, Malek thought again. Immediately, he created a rustling noise out in the woods in the opposite direction and watched with satisfaction as the king’s second sprinted toward the noise followed by others who had been hidden among the surrounding trees. No one was left but the king and his ragtag band of hybrids and humans.

Surveying the scene, Malek watched Zan holding a pretty blond girl. He was stroking her back and kissing the top of her head as she clung to him. “Somehow, that’s not how I pictured her,” he mused to Veshna. “But I would say we have just seen our queen.”

********

“Max,” Liz whispered urgently. “Something’s wrong. I feel . . . Max, I think it’s Malek!”

Jasar snapped to attention. “Oh my god, Max. I’ve been so caught up in Tom’s story, I wasn’t concentrating on anything else. Liz is right! I just heard him speak. I’ll never forget that slimy voice.” Her eyes searched the area, but there were too many trees. She could hear the footsteps, though. “Max, he’s coming!”

Bells went off in Max’s head. “Jasar? Josh? Go check on the cadre. Something’s not right.”

Jasar and Josh took off in a sprint. Turning, Max pushed Maria away just in time to see Malek step through the trees. One of his lieutenants emerged behind him, a gun trained on Max. He was shaking, and Max filed that little detail away.

“Michael!” Max yelled at the top of his lungs. “He’s here!”

Malek chuckled patronizingly. “Not much of a welcome, Zan. You needn’t look for your second, by the way. He’s busy fending off the cadre. He thinks they’re attacking him.”

Max looked momentarily confused until he digested what Malek was telling him. Malek was making the cadre and Michael think they had turned on each other. Max prayed that Michael would see through Malek’s ruse and trust his instincts. What had he just sent Josh and Jasar into? He needed Michael back here. Rana had told him the four of them had to be together to defeat Malek.

“How did you get here?” Max asked, stalling for time.

“Dear Zan, your biggest weakness is underestimating me. Did you think your inexperienced little group of Earth-bound hybrids could really contain me? Rana didn’t prepare you very thoroughly if she let you believe you could win this.” He turned his gaze to Maria.

“Your queen is a lovely little thing, Zan. Not how I would have pictured her, but that’s really not what’s important, is it? How noble she is to willingly die at your side.”

Maria looked up at Max, frantically looking for guidance on how to handle this. If she denied being Max’s mate, it would only put one of the other women in danger. If she went along with it, she could die. Hell, she’d probably die anyway.

Liz opened her mouth to speak. She had to step forward; she had to draw the danger away from Maria by telling Malek that she was the queen. She felt Max’s presence slam into her, and she looked at him with startled eyes. He shook his head imperceptibly. Liz hesitated. Was Max sacrificing Maria to save her? No, he wasn’t capable of that. He had something else in mind. She would put her trust in him and pray for the best.

“Lest you underestimate me again, Zan,” Malek continued, “let me introduce you to Veshnu, my loyal servant.” He motioned Veshnu closer. “Here, let me take that.” A surprised Veshnu surrendered the gun to Malek, who dropped it at his side.

“Perhaps you are confident that my physical powers have been subdued by the drug you’ve been pumping into us. Let me assure you . . .” He lifted his arm and sent Veshnu flying back against a tree, where his lifeless body landed with a thud. “. . . nothing could be further from the truth.”

Liz’s hand flew to her mouth as she watched a murder take place right before her eyes. She was afraid she’d be sick. She looked over to Max, whose face blazed with anger. Maria, shaking violently at what she had just witnessed, fell against Max again, and he instinctively put his arm around her.

Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, Max yelled, “No, Isabel!” His sister had begun to raise her arm against Malek, but Max knew even three of them would not be enough. Tess’s mindwarp was useless, too. It would take all four of them, but Malek had used the oldest trick in the book. Divide and conquer.

********

Michael ran full-speed toward the noise in the brush. When he arrived, he saw only the disturbed area where a few dead branches had fallen from a rotting tree. He turned as the other cadre members rushed to help. He shook his head disgustedly. “Sorry, guys, it was only falling branches.”

To his surprise, Gregory snorted derisively. “You and our so-called king have bungled everything since we got here. I’m beginning to wonder if we’re on the right side.”

“What?” gaped Michael.

“Yeah, I’ve been having those same thoughts myself,” agreed Kurt. “You and Max know less about Voya and our people than anyone here. Why are we following your orders?”

Michael watched warily as the four cadre had formed a menacing circle around him. He was stunned . . . and very nervous.

“Look, guys, we never asked for this. If you have a problem with anything, we can talk about it. No need for violence.”

He held his hands out in front of him, attempting to calm them. At that moment, another tree branch crashed loudly to the ground, making Michael jump. What he realized almost immediately was that none of the others even noticed. Suddenly, it started to make sense. They were being mindwarped to keep them away from Max and the others. He remembered their talk back in Roswell when they had discussed this possibility. Max had warned them to be suspicious of anything that seemed illogical, especially issues of trust. These men were loyal. And certainly four of them didn’t simultaneously decide to rebel against the royal family.

These thoughts raced through his mind in a matter of seconds, and he made an instantaneous decision. Ignoring what seemed to be certain injury, if not death, Michael plowed between two of the cadre and ran as fast as he could toward the campsite, almost running into Josh and Jasar.

“It’s a mindwarp,” he panted, risking a glance over his shoulder. The cadre members were searching the area, completely unaware of what had just happened.

“Michael, get back to the camp! Malek’s on his way.” Josh was already headed toward the four meandering cadre. “Jasar and I will check on the guards. We’ll join you as soon as we can!”

Michael nodded and took off. There was no time for conversation.

********

“What exactly do you want from me?” Max asked Malek, trying to appease him long enough for more help to arrive.

“I told you before, Zan. I want everything, and you’re going to give it to me. But first, I want you to suffer, like you’ve made me suffer.” Gone were all vestiges of courtesy or cooperation. The mask of civility was ripped away, leaving only hatred and evil to forge the true face of Malek of Krona.

“You have caused me no end of trouble, humiliation, and grief. I have lost power and the respect of my people on Krona and Durin. I was so close . . .”

Max took a huge risk. If he baited Malek, perhaps his emotions would cloud his judgment, just as it had Max’s back in the cave. Then perhaps the three of them would be enough. It was his only hope. “I’m sure you’ve never had anyone’s respect, Malek. You have governed with fear and greed as your mantra. Your people cower before you; they don’t respect you.”

Malek shook with fury. He raised his hand toward Maria and shouted, “Watch your queen die, Zan!!!”

Max immediately raised the defensive shield against Malek, intending to block the flow of destructive energy. Appalled, he watched the beam, visible within the green cloud, push slowly through.

“Maria!” Liz screamed. Maria was frozen in terror, watching as the beam approached her in slow motion. Max turned to push Maria away as the beam broke through the cloud and burst forward again. Instead, he found himself careening to the ground, Maria on top of him, a primal “Noooooooooo!!!!” ringing in his ears.

Max scrambled to his feet to see Tom DeLuca unconscious on the ground. Michael was bursting through the trees. “NOW!” he yelled.

Immediately Tess, Isabel, Michael, and Max turned on Malek and let loose all of their combined power. Shocked at first, his body was thrown back, but he was still alive. Writhing on the ground, his face slowly contorted into an inhuman form as a silent scream formed on his lips. The four kept the flow focused on him as they walked closer and closer. All of Max’s rage and fear poured from him and into this incarnation of evil who had threatened everything he held dear.

Eventually, Malek's body was reduced to a non-cohesive mass, and the four hybrids dropped their arms, exhausted. Turning to see if everyone was all right, Max raced to Liz, who was holding Maria as she hunched over Tom DeLuca. Maria lifted her tear-stained face to Max. “He’s dead,” she sobbed.

Michael dropped to his knees next to her, checking for Tom’s pulse one more time. As he withdrew his fingers from Tom’s neck, his shoulders sagged, and he looked up into Maria’s tormented eyes. Then he did the only thing left to him; he gathered her in his arms and shared her pain.

The cadre members, followed closely by Josh and Jasar, crashed through the brush, looking at Max expectantly.

“What happened?” Gregory asked.

“Watch that pile of toxic waste over there,” Max ordered, pointing to Malek’s remains. “Make sure it doesn’t move.”

Then he turned back to the group of friends who had faced death with him, and pulled Liz into a fierce hug. Surveying the shaken group, his gaze came to a stop over the martyred body of Tom DeLuca. A heart-wrenching sigh escaped his lips.

“It’s over.”

posted on 20-Apr-2002 12:38:13 PM
Part 36

Late-afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees as the weary group settled around the campsite. Everyone was there—aliens, hybrids, the few humans who were privy to this bizarre drama, and the royal family. Max and Liz were the last to arrive, emerging from the shadow-darkened path hand in hand. The low murmur of conversation halted at their appearance, and everyone turned to hear what their leader had to say.

Liz took a seat, but Max remained standing, letting his gaze travel around the band of family and friends who had put their lives on the line for him and for the good of their people.

“I don’t think it’s possible to be more grateful than I am at this moment,” Max told them. “There isn’t a person here who hasn’t earned my undying gratitude and my utmost respect. I will be talking to my mother very soon, and when I do, she will make sure the people of our planet and all of the alliance know of your loyalty, your bravery, and your patriotism. I know that I, personally, have done very little to deserve such devotion. That you chose to give it to me anyway fills me with humility. As inadequate as the words are, thank you.”

Mark rose to his feet. “May I be heard?”

Max nodded.

“While it’s true that it was your position as our king that brought us here, I think I speak for everyone when I say that is was your attitude, your actions, and your character that made us want to stay and help. You embody what is best in our people, and I, for one, was inspired by your leadership and strength in the face of an unknown evil, especially when you had so much at stake personally.” His eyes shifted to Liz, and his meaning was clear to everyone.

“As we return to our own homes, we’ll take with us a stronger sense of who we are as a people and an enduring loyalty to you and your family.”

Liz rose and took Max’s hand, sensing the strong emotions that threatened to spill out into the open. She knew he wanted to maintain some sense of dignity, but he was struggling. She could feel him regaining control as she shared the spotlight with him.

“Once again, I’m humbled. Thank you,” Max managed to force out.

Immediately, a few isolated claps grew to rousing applause, and Max found himself smiling at these people who had become friends in such a short time. He turned to Liz, who was looking up at him with love and pride. Unable to contain his reflex reaction, he bent to kiss her quickly. The ovation took on a new energy, and Liz found herself smiling and blushing, just as Max was.

Once the spontaneous ovation had subsided, Max took a few seconds to regain control of his emotions. Clearing his throat, and with a stronger, more confident voice, he began to address some immediate concerns.

“I’d like to extend an additional thank you to those members of the cadre who performed the unenviable task of disposing of the bodies of Malek, Veshnu, and the third one, whose name we may never know. Their special talents have made it possible to reduce the bodies to a form that will never be recovered or recognized in any way. That’s a real blessing for all of us.

“There is another body, though. One deserving of our respect and gratitude—that of Tom DeLuca, Maria’s father, who not only suffered under Malek’s mind control for ten years, but who saved the life of his daughter, Maria, and possibly mine as well. Unfortunately, we can’t give this hero the public thank you he deserves. As far as the outside world is concerned, he disappeared ten years ago, and his reappearance, even deceased, will raise too many questions.”

Max looked at Maria with deep regret. Michael was holding her tightly, but she looked stronger than she had earlier—proud, even. “I’m sorry there’s not more we can do to honor your father, Maria.”

“But there is.” Zeval stood and faced Max. “There is a ceremony reserved for those who have died honorably in defense of their people. It is called ‘DonVie.’ I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking it would be appropriate to celebrate this ritual. Tom DeLuca may not have been Voyan, but he is still a hero to our people. We could do it here on the grounds, if you like.”

Max exchanged a look with Maria; it was her decision. The first smile he had seen from her since Tom’s death brightened her face, and he turned to Zeval. “What’s involved?”

“Well, we only need a few of us on hand, but everyone is welcome. We could even ask Maria’s mother, if Maria thinks that would be appropriate. There are no special requirements to observe.”

All eyes trained on Maria. The impact of Zeval’s words showed clearly on her face. She had avoided thinking about telling her mother about Tom, but she knew that this ceremony could provide her mother with a real understanding of what had happened, and a sense of closure that could make it easier to face the future. She looked up at Michael, searching for reassurance.

“It might help her to accept all this, Maria. She should be allowed to decide whether to come or not, don’t you think?”

Maria turned back to Zeval. “Could Jim come? And maybe the Evanses and the Parkers, too?”

“They would all be welcome,” Zeval assured her.

“It’s settled, then,” Max confirmed. “We’ll call them this afternoon and ask them to come in the morning. Zeval, we’ll go over the details after the meeting.”

Zeval nodded in agreement and took her seat.

“Finally, I guess everyone’s wondering what happens now. Well, I don’t know,” Max confessed. “But here’s how I see it now. Those of us from Roswell must get home. As far as our community is concerned, there are eight of us who have been sick for a week. We need to get back and resume our life as typical teenagers. We have homework to catch up on.”

A chuckle rumbled through the group. It was easy to forget how the royal family lived most of their lives, and the reality of it bordered on the absurd. Max chuckled, too.

“As for the political situation, now that the immediate threat is gone, we can concentrate on making some changes that will contribute to an equitable peace within the alliance. I have a few ideas, but I want to consult with Rana before I talk about them. I also imagine that more travel between Earth and Voya will be possible in the future. It might be a good idea to give some thought to where you want to live, or what people you might want to contact.

“Which brings me to our newest arrivals. Zeval informs me that she will stay on here at the observatory for at least awhile. She’ll be keeping an eye out for any additional ships coming to Earth, and I’m sure she’ll be spending some time getting to know her brother a little better.” This comment elicited broad smiles from Zeval and Michael. Their quiet time together had been severely limited, and they were both looking forward to really getting to know one another.

“Jasar? I don’t know if you have plans. You’re welcome to come to Roswell. I’m sure we can find you a job and a place to live, if you care to stay. Or do you want to return to Voya?”

Josh and Jasar had been sitting on the fringes of the small gathering. Liz was the first to register that they were holding hands; seconds later, everyone had noticed. Suddenly in the spotlight, the two turned shy, looking askance at each other, then down at the ground. As the seconds stretched silently, Josh finally spoke. “We’ve been talking and . . . I’ve invited Jasar to settle in my hometown. There is a fairly good-sized hybrid community there, and plenty of jobs, and . . . well, we . . . it’s a nice place. So, she agreed . . . you know . . . to try it.”

His unspoken meaning hung in the air as smile upon smile greeted his announcement. Jasar suddenly straightened, a puzzled look on her face.

“Josh? Where do you live?”

At Josh’s surprised expression, the laughter began to build on itself until everyone was holding their sides as they watched Josh and Jasar blush deeply.

“Meeting adjourned!” shouted Max, and the group began to disperse, still laughing.

********

After a couple of hours during which people had gone off in pairs or small groups to calm their nerves and reflect on the recent past and immediate future, the smells of dinner pulled them back toward the dorm. Once again, Paul had been a rock of practicality, taking the initiative to drive into town for large quantities of Italian take-out. As Max and Liz approached the door, Paul greeted them with a grin.

“You can’t come in,” he announced cheerfully.

“Excuse me?” Max asked, taken aback by Paul words even as his expression belied their meaning.

Paul bent over and picked up one of three picnic baskets. “Here. Everything you need for a picnic dinner is inside the basket. Get lost.”

Liz leaned forward and kissed their trusted friend on the cheek. “You’re the best, Paul!” Happily, she grabbed the basket and linked her arm through Max’s. “Where shall we go?”

“Wherever you go, keep an eye out for company,” Paul cautioned.

“What?” Liz asked, confused.

“Well,” Paul chortled. “Michael and Maria are already headed in that direction.” He pointed across the way. Michael was holding a similar basket with one hand, his other arm draped casually over Maria’s shoulder. They were headed toward the woods.

“And the other two couples will be picking up their baskets momentarily.”

Max frowned, scanning the horizon. “Okay, Paul, we’re going over there toward the rim overlooking the valley. Steer the others in a different direction, okay?”

“You got it, boss!” Paul saluted and clicked his heels, enjoying the laughter that Max and Liz shared as they walked off hand in hand. Seconds later, they could hear Paul’s voice.

“You can’t come in!” Looking back over their shoulders at Alex and Isabel, their laughter bubbled forth yet again as they saw Isabel draw up to her full height, several inches above Paul, and ask, “What?”

********

A blanket, mouthwatering smells, and a bottle of sparkling grape juice greeted them when they opened up the picnic basket. Paul knew how alcohol affected Max, and besides, technically, they were underage, so he’d included the next best thing. Liz smiled happily at Max, who looked relaxed for the first time in recent memory.

“I’ve never picnicked on Italian food before,” she giggled.

“It smells great, though,” Max said eagerly, already unpacking the delectable dishes.

Spreading out the feast, Max served the food while Liz poured their drinks. Sitting cross-legged, they took in the breathtaking view before them. Behind the neighboring mountain, the setting sun was a reddish-orange ball of fire, its flame licking at the wispy clouds that were scattered across the darkening sky, turning them every hue of pink, purple, and gray. Max felt real contentment for the first time in weeks, but he detected something coming from Liz that bothered him. He watched her profile. Anyone else would have seen a calm, satisfied woman admiring the view. Max, however, knew her so intimately that it didn’t even take that slight crease in her forehead for him to detect that something was eating at her.

“Liz?” She turned to him, her large eyes giving away what he already knew.

Setting their plates to one side, Max slid closer to Liz and gathered her in his arms, kissing her forehead where that small crease persisted. “Love, what is it?”

Frowning more severely now, Liz succumbed to an old habit. “What are you talking about?”

Max pulled back and looked into her eyes, a small smirk twitching at his mouth. “You’re kidding, right? You don’t really expect to keep whatever’s bothering you to yourself, do you? Haven’t you accepted how pointless that is?”

He was rewarded with a small smile, but the worry still tinged her eyes. She sighed deeply. “Max, I don’t know how to say this without it coming out wrong.” She hesitated again.

“Just say it, Liz. You can say anything to me.”

“Max, I know how deeply you love me, and I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world, but . . .”

Max waited patiently for her to organize her thoughts. He didn’t think he liked any “buts” after a statement like that.

“Max, what were you thinking when Malek thought Maria was me? You wouldn’t let me tell him the truth, and . . . well, it seemed like you were willing to sacrifice Maria’s life to save me.” She turned to him, eyes glowing with unshed tears. “I couldn’t live with that, Max. I could never accept that Maria died in my place.”

A tear slid down her cheek, and she concentrated on the cool path it left when the slight breeze touched it. Max gently rubbed the tear aside and held her gaze intently.

“I wouldn’t do that, Liz. You’re right about one thing. My love for you runs deeper in me than any other feeling or instinct or emotion. You are a part of me, and without you, I do believe I would cease to exist at some level. But I had no intention of sacrificing Maria to save you.”

He shifted so he could look at Liz more directly; it was important that she understand and believe what he was about to say.

“The reason I asked you not to reveal yourself is because it was clear that Malek’s focus was entirely on Maria and me, and I wanted it that way. I was counting on two things just then: that help was on the way from around the perimeter of the campsite, and I didn’t want Malek picking up on any movement or noise; and that the defensive shield would stop his energy beam, but only if it were aimed toward me. I didn't have a good enough angle on you. The beam would have gotten to you instantly.

“If you had said anything, at that point, he would have become more aware of the others in the group and the surrounding area. I needed him to focus all of that hate on one point in hopes that he would dismiss the rest of you as insignificant.”

It was Max’s turn to hesitate. He dropped his eyes momentarily, but looked back up quickly. “I admit, I was scared when I realized that all the shield had done was slow the beam down, but I swear to you, Liz, I was a split second from pushing Maria out of the way when Tom dove in front of us and took the hit himself. She wouldn’t have been hurt.”

Liz’s eyes grew wide. “If you had pushed Maria away, it would have hit you, Max!”

Max sat immobile, unable to deny the image Liz was fighting. Suddenly, she was in his arms, squeezing him with a strength he didn’t know she had. “Max, you weren’t sacrificing Maria for me; you were sacrificing yourself for her . . . and me. Max, you would have been the one to die!”

Her tears were flowing freely now, and he held her to him fiercely. He couldn’t even count all the emotions that battled within him at that moment: relief, regret, love, gratitude, fear, love, anger, loathing, love. No matter what happened in his life, it always came back to Liz, to love . . . one in the same.

“Believe me,” he choked out, “it was never my intention to die.”

He kissed her then, and the connection took their breath away. At first, the images were frightening, a slide show of the terrifying experiences that had changed both of them forever while bringing them even closer to each other. Soon, though, the images evolved into a passionate series of loving moments—moments when their oneness and the inevitability of their union were so powerful, they knew there would never be another.

When Liz broke off the kiss, it was to whisper a hoarse “thank you” in his ear, and they held each other for a long time. Darkness had descended fully now, and Liz reached for the two candles that had been buried at the bottom of the picnic basket. As soon as they were lit, the mood changed. Gone was the anxious intensity. In its place grew an isolated island of romance.

Max had always enjoyed watching Liz in candlelight, loving how it reflected in those beautiful dark eyes and long, silken hair. He spent a leisurely couple of minutes reveling in that sight while Liz unbuttoned his shirt. As her fingers came into contact with his skin here and there, little jolts tickled him. Just her light touch did amazing things to his whole system.

Little did he know how it aroused Liz to watch his bronzed skin glow under a candle’s spell. It would always be a mystery to her how Max could be so unaware of what his incredibly toned and muscular body did to her. She knew there was a trail of drooling girls at school who would give anything to touch that body, be seduced by that body, make love with that wonderful, sexy body. And although Liz knew that Max’s body would never be what she loved most about him, it was the most delightful perk she could have wished for.

Lost in erotic thoughts and memories of making love to Max, Liz was almost startled when she felt his hand slip under her tank top, and the touch sent shivers through her. She was more than ready; it had been so terribly long.

She met him in a long, soft kiss that teased the sensitive nerves in her lips. As she felt him lower her to the blanket, she snaked her tongue out to trace his mouth and heard his involuntary whimper. He deepened the kiss immediately, seeking her warmth and her taste in every sweep of his tongue. She responded eagerly, and soon her hands were wandering helplessly over his body.

Sharply defined muscles bunched and released under her light touch, and she delighted in his reactions. Her concentration was cut short, though, when his hand slid up to cup her breast. His thumb traced a wide circle around her hard nipple, never quite touching it, and she arched beneath him, desperate for him to stimulate the straining peak.

His mouth dropped to her neck, licking and nipping a feathery trail toward her other breast, still covered by the thin cloth. Again, she could feel the warmth of his breath, the faint moisture of his mouth as he planted light kisses all around her now-aching tips, but never taking them in. Sensing his satisfaction at driving her crazy with want, Liz devised a torture of her own.

Pushing him onto his back, she quickly straddled him, spreading his shirt wide and exposing his chest, which rose and fell more quickly now. Splaying her hands across his warm skin, she moved them slowly upwards, brushing his own hardened nipples with her fingertips. He started to reach for her, but she gently nudged his hands away, straightening slowly, a seductive look in her eye.

Raising her hips slightly, she grazed his straining erection through their shorts and heard him bite back a moan. Then, she watched his eyes widen lustfully as she reached for the hem of her top, slowly peeling it from her body, inch by inch. By now, the candlelight paled in comparison to the golden glow that was taking form around them. Feeling each other’s sensations and emotions when they loved like this heightened every response, and the pleasure became a cocoon; it was their world.

Liz’s firm white mounds seemed to reach for Max, and he sat up to take one into his mouth, playing right into Liz’s heated desire. She pressed his head against her, wanting to be inside him as she would soon accept him into her. His tongue danced across her nipple while his other hand granted her wish with the other breast, rubbing and twirling the rock-hard nipple until she was writhing in his lap, stimulating him almost beyond endurance.

Knowing what was on his mind, Liz shifted back just enough to reach between them to unbutton his shorts. His heated member was pressing so hard against the confining material that she had trouble opening it, and Max finally abandoned his loving attention to her breasts to help. He lay down to give her easier access to the fastening, and looked up in surprise when she stood up instead.

It didn’t take long to see what she had in mind. His radiant mate was going to continue her torturous strip tease for him. Basking in their loving glow, she reached for the button of her own shorts, and then began the agonizingly slow process of unzipping them. Every second exposed another millimeter of glowing skin that would eventually trace a trail to his ultimate prize.

At that moment, he caught a whiff of her scent, and he almost leapt up to take her, but her eyes caught his, and warned him against any sudden moves. She was in charge, and he clamped down on his own desire. It almost felt good to let someone else have control for a change.

He watched, enthralled, as Liz slid her hand into her shorts, rubbing herself erotically as Max sucked in his breath, a pained look on his face. “Liz!” he whispered, begging for a reprieve. Eyebrows raised at his impatience, she slid the shorts over her hips and let them drop to her ankles, stepping out of them one slim leg at a time. All that was left between Max and heaven was the red thong, already damp with desire.

Enough was enough. Max was on his knees in an instant, burying his face between her legs, seeking the nectar he knew awaited him there. He pulled the offending scrap of material down her legs and buried his tongue in her folds, laving her with long strokes, taking time to swirl quick circles around her sensitive nub. Control switched instantly, and Liz’s legs threatened to buckle under her. Max lifted one of her legs over his shoulder, giving him unlimited access to her glistening warmth. Leaning on him for support, Liz reeled under his spell. This was the most intimate, erotic, soul-searing sensation she had ever experienced, and she gave herself up to it. It was her own moan that broke the silence, but she was totally unaware of it; every bit of her consciousness lived in a tiny bundle of nerves between her legs. Nothing else existed.

When she came against him, it was hard and powerful and all-consuming. Her muscles throbbed against him, her skeletal structure became liquid, and a warmth raced through her body at the speed of light. She thought maybe she was falling, but she didn’t land and she didn’t care.

When some sense of reality returned, she found herself on the blanket looking up into Max’s smiling face, his eyes radiating a love that brought tears to her own. She suddenly heard his name being whispered, and vaguely wondered where it was coming from until she recognized her own voice, repeating his name like a mantra.

At the look of surprise on her face, he chuckled softly. “So, was it good for you?” he teased.

She mustered her waning strength to roll toward him for a kiss when she felt the heat of his erection through his shorts. He had done all that for her, but he was still hard as a rock! Feeling his desire reenergized her, and she swiftly released him from the shorts. Although she knew how much he wanted her, she was surprised at how incredibly hot his erection felt, even through the boxers.

He cooperated fully as she pulled his shorts and boxers off, and she slid partway up his body to kiss his moist tip.

“No, Liz! You do that, and it’s all over. I don’t want to come that way tonight. I want to be inside you. I want us to be one.”

She wanted that, too, so she pulled herself further up and took him in, listening to his loud moan and ragged breathing with such joy. How glorious to give to him what he gave to her!

She began a slow rocking motion, but Max increased the pace quickly. Feeling her body enfold him so fully, stretching around him to stroke him tightly—it was heaven. And this was his angel. At that moment, he didn’t know how there could be enough love left in the world for anyone else, he felt so much for just this one person.

No sooner had that thought flickered across his mind than he felt her fingertips brush his nipples and he exploded into her, releasing a long, hot stream of unadulterated love. To his surprise, he felt Liz come with him, pulsing around him with a strength that prolonged his own climax. He forced his eyes open long enough to take in his most cherished image. Her head was thrown back, her mouth open, her eyes closed, a rapturous expression softening her features. She rode the waves with him until her sated body collapsed onto his. Then, he enfolded this gift from heaven in his arms, and said a silent prayer of thanks.

A small gasp brought his attention back to reality, and he tensed.

“What’s wrong?”

Liz pulled back and smiled. “Our little glow? Ummm, it’s not so little . . . and it’s not going away.”

Max looked around and was astonished to see the intense glow still swirling and pulsing around them. He was caught between supreme satisfaction that their love just seemed to grow stronger all the time and the worry that the light would be seen by others.

“What’ll we do?” he asked, knowing there was no answer to his question.

Liz kissed him tenderly. “We’ll love each other forever.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he grinned at her, “but it’s the best answer I’ve ever heard.”

********

Lucas, Maria, Michael, Kyle, Tess, Alex, and Isabel sat at a picnic table outside the dorm. It was getting late, and Max and Liz hadn’t returned from their picnic.

“Should we look for them?” Maria asked nervously.

“He’d kill us,” Isabel stated matter-of-factly. “Let them have their time together. It’s been a rough few weeks.”

“What if something happened, though?” Kyle worried. “What if Malek did have backup and Zeval didn’t pick up on it. Or what if there were more traitors here on Earth?”

At that moment, Josh and Jasar returned from a late walk with Stefan and Gregory. They had become friends during the preceding week, and tomorrow Stefan and Gregory would be returning to their families in distant states.

“Guess I’ll turn in, everybody. Goodnight.” Stefan waved as he turned toward the door. When he froze in place, everyone turned to follow his gaze.

“Oh my god!” he shouted. “I think there’s a fire! Call the forest preserve!”

Isabel stood up, realizing almost immediately what was causing the pulsing light in the distance.

“It’s nothing. It’s okay,” she assured the others.

“What do you mean it’s okay!” yelled Stefan incredulously.

“I’ll make the call,” agreed Gregory, as he reached for the door.

“NO!” shouted Isabel, earning confused looks from the five who were relatively new to the world of Max and Liz, and amused smirks from her friends.

“It’s not a fire,” she explained reluctantly. “It’s . . . when Max and Liz . . . uh . . .”

“It means that your king and queen are in love, and all is right with the world,” Alex chimed in.

Josh and Jasar understood immediately, avoiding looking at each other in their embarrassment. Lucas, Stefan, and Gregory were still confused, though, and exchanged uncertain looks. Then, taking in the smiling faces from the others in their king’s inner circle, the truth began to dawn. Smiles broke out on their own faces.

“Well, damn,” Gregory said under his breath, shaking his head.

Stefan looked over at the glow again, his smile broadening.

“Damn, indeed,” he replied. “And here I thought it sucked to be him.”

Laughter floated on the air for the second time that day. In fact, for the second time in weeks. It felt good. Really good.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 1:11:54 PM
Part 37

The morning dawned on a bevy of activity. Preparations would take most of the day, and the ceremony was scheduled for dusk, the traditional time of day. Kyle had called his father the night before, asking him to alert the other parents about the invitation to come to the observatory. He’d filled him in on the highlights of the last couple of days; even the abbreviated version had horrified Jim, and he was angry that he hadn’t been called sooner.

Maria had taken the phone then, completely disarming the worried father and friend with her ambivalent request: tell her mother about Tom.

“Maria,” he’d argued, “don’t you want to do that? This is your father we’re talking about.”

That had brought the tears back to Maria’s eyes, but she explained, “If I tell her on the phone, there will be more questions than I can answer, and more tears than I can comfort. She needs to be with someone who will hold her, love her, and let her cry. I can’t be there for her. . . . You can.”

She had waited through a long silence, and then heard what she knew she would. “Okay, Maria. I’ll let everyone know. We’ll be down by early afternoon.”

All that was left was to prepare for the ceremony. To that end, everyone gathered at the campsite to hear Zeval’s instructions. Somehow, the scene of Malek’s death had become sacred ground, and its naturally private setting made it a practical and emotional choice.

“The ‘DonVie’ is a ritual reserved to honor our most revered dead,” Zeval began. “Through its components, we offer our respect and gratitude for one who has performed heroic deeds and made the supreme sacrifice. It offers those left behind an opportunity to grieve our loss and to celebrate the deceased’s life. Through our actions and our words, we share our pride and our prayers with our fellow beings and ask the Creator to welcome our loved one’s spirit to the next plane of existence.”

Liz smiled softly at Zeval’s words, and she felt Max squeeze her hand. Their thoughts continued to merge more each day, and he knew she was thinking of her Grandma Claudia. He leaned toward her.

“It’s nice to think Claudia might be there to greet him, isn’t it?” Max asked, warmed by the shining eyes that turned to him gratefully.

“Although the preparations could be easily accomplished using our special gifts, it is part of our show of respect that we do everything by hand. Normally, this is a two-day process, so I will need everyone’s help to accomplish this in one day.

“The first component is the fruits of nature. We will weave a ceremonial mat from materials the earth has provided. The usual plant material that we use doesn’t grow on this planet, but Paul has made a wonderful suggestion.”

She nodded at him, and he stood to address the group. “As some of you know, I am part Hopi Indian. We, too, look to mother earth to fill our physical and spiritual needs. We often incorporate cornhusks into weaving for ceremonial purposes. Zeval has described the process to me, and I think they will work very well. I’ve already contacted a reservation nearby because they store the husks, rather than dispose of them. They will be here shortly with a tub of husks for our use.”

He sat down, looking pleased when Zeval flashed him a smile.

“The second component is water. I will need volunteers to bathe and dress the body. It is customary for volunteers who did not know the deceased to carry out this part, so that he may be presented at his best to family and friends. We don’t have the usual ceremonial robes, but I will fashion the symbol of honor from the pines of this woods to lay on his chest.

“The final component could be termed fire, but not in the usual sense. Let me explain.”

Zeval’s audience sat spellbound as she described this most sacred of rituals. For most, it was the first they had ever heard of this, but it represented yet another link to their past, their roots so long forgotten. The bond that had been gradually forged all week among those who had lived in hiding on this Earth became stronger with every word. Originally, they had united behind their king. Now they had something else uniting them, too. When Zeval finished, there was an emotional silence.

Acknowledging their moment of reflection, Zeval stood before them, juggling her own emotions. As she looked around the group, she spotted Michael returning her gaze with such pride and awe. She so looked forward to sharing all she knew with her brother. He was hungry for answers, for knowledge of his past. They both had much to learn.

“I have already spoken with some of you about organizing individual efforts. Paul will oversee the preparation of the husks, Jasar will instruct those who will weave the mat, Lucas will lead a group to scout a desert location for the ceremony and prepare the site. Josh will select cadre to help prepare the body. Let’s begin.”

As people rose to join a group, Max and Liz joined Michael and Maria. Liz embraced her dear friend. “He was a good man, Maria. Your father loved you so much.”

Maria wept quietly, burying her face in her friend’s shoulder. When she felt Michael’s hand on her back, she turned quickly into his chest, letting him stroke her hair. Zeval approached them.

“I’ll let you all know when everything is prepared,” she told them.

Max frowned in confusion. “What do you mean? We want to help.”

Zeval’s mouth dropped open, but she quickly closed it, trying in vain to cover her shock. “Max, you and Liz don’t need to do anything. You preside over the ceremony. And Maria is Tom’s daughter and Michael her . . .” She stopped short, realizing her assumptions about their relationship could be unfounded. She and Michael hadn’t talked much about this since that night a week ago when Michael revealed how he felt about Maria, complete with insecurities. Things between them had warmed up considerably since then, she thought, but . . .

“Her mate,” Michael finished, causing Maria to jerk her head up and stare at him in astonishment. That look was enough to chase his bravado right back to Roswell, and his commanding tone turned low and stuttering. “That is . . . if that’s what you want. I . . . uh, I mean . . .”

He never finished what he couldn’t manage to say because Maria’s arms were suddenly wrapped around his neck and her lips were pressing hard on his. Zeval looked embarrassed, but Max and Liz were beaming at their two best friends, and Max couldn’t resist turning Liz into his arms for a celebratory kiss.

Zeval tried to beat a hasty retreat, but Max’s voice stopped her cold.

“Zeval!” She turned respectfully toward her king. “I mean it. None of this king and queen stuff until tonight, okay? We want to help. We want to do this for Tom.”

A slow, disbelieving smile brightened Zeval’s face. “You are the most unusual king Voya has ever had,” she grinned.

“Thank you,” Max said with mock dignity, making a small bow. “Now put us to work.”

********

The next few hours passed quickly. Some people were tearing the fresh cornhusks into strips and setting them to soak in a tub of watered-down milk to soften them. They had been startled when Max came to join them, but soon they were all working in companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts of what the future might hold for Voya’s earthly descendants. Jasar had shown others how to tie the soaked strips together and weave them tightly. This is where Maria, Liz, Isabel, and Tess had come to work, glad to have something to busy their hands while their minds turned inward.

Every so often, Jasar would appear with an armful of freshly soaked husks, distributing a small pile next to each worker.

“Jasar?” Maria asked. “I’ve been thinking about the name of this ceremony: DonVie. It sounds French to me. ‘Vie’ means ‘life’ in French, and ‘Don’ could have something to do with ‘donner,’ ‘to give.’ That makes sense, you know? ‘DonVie’? ‘Give life’?”

Jasar smiled. “You’d be surprised how many elements of Earth’s languages have penetrated our own, and vice versa. After over a thousand years of exposure to the cultures of this planet, they are so enmeshed that it’s hard to say which has influenced which. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I think you may be right. There’s a definite connection there. This is to honor those who have given their lives for a greater good.”

Maria chuckled. “I wish I could share that little tidbit with the French club.”

Liz laughed, glad to see her friend’s irrepressible sense of humor surfacing again.

The groups had returned to work after a light lunch when the Parker’s van pulled up. The teens jumped up from their work to greet their parents. The Parkers crushed Liz into a smothering hug, still horrified by the ordeal their daughter had survived. They would never feel totally at peace again, knowing she would be vulnerable the rest of her life, but there was no turning back now.

Diane Evans spread her arms to gather her two children in, her tears of happiness and relief mixed with those of fear and anguish. Her two beautiful children shouldn’t have to live with their dangerous secrets or cope with an intergalactic cold war. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t over. For now, though, she was just grateful to hold them in her arms. Phillip completed the circle, caring little for the small audience that watched the touching reunion.

The most emotional reunion, though, was over by the van where Amy DeLuca sobbed against her weeping daughter. They held each other tightly, letting the pain and grief wash over them. The guilt was unspoken between them, but they both felt it deep in their souls. Knowing they could never make it right just deepened the anguish. So they let themselves hold each other, finding a mutual understanding and comfort in their shared loss. Jim Valenti stood silently by, a hand on Kyle’s shoulder.

********

In the waning hours of daylight, Josh emerged from the shed where Malek had been held with his two lieutenants, only this time, the body being removed was handled gently, reverently. A small group had assembled to see him before the body was taken to the ceremonial site. Maria and Jim had agreed that Amy should see him ahead of time so that the shock wouldn’t be too great later on.

Laid out on a gurney, Tom looked more peaceful than he had in life—at least those few hours of life they had shared with him. Amy’s trembling hand reached out to touch his cheek, all bitterness and anger gone. He hadn’t left them; he had been trying to protect them, and it cost him his life.

She reached for Maria, but when Maria didn’t respond, Amy turned to find her studying Tom’s clothing. He was handsomely covered with soft, loose, off-white pants of brushed cotton, over which lay a tunic of the same color, with a crest of gold embroidered on it and a crimson sash bearing the same symbol on its two ends.

“Zeval?” Maria asked. “Didn’t you say there were no ceremonial robes for him? Only the wooden symbol you were going to make?”

Zeval smiled and looked proudly at her brother. “Michael had other ideas,” she said softly.

Maria looked at Michael in confusion. “What did you do? Where did you get these?”

“I . . . just . . . I made them.” He raised his chin and looked at her with a challenge in his eye, defying her to make a typical Maria crack about his abilities.

Nothing could have been further from her mind. “Michael?” she whispered in amazement. She reached out and touched the soft material. “How, Michael? How did you do it? How did you know what to do?”

Michael was groping for words when Zeval stepped in, eager to share her brother’s achievement.

“Michael came to me and asked if it would be permissible to use his powers for this, under the circumstances. I thought it was appropriate, so he took every last piece of clothing he’d brought, except what he was wearing, and worked for hours crafting it into a ceremonial robe, going only by my description, until it was perfect. The crest is that of our family because we both hope you’ll be a part of it someday, and that would make Tom a part of it, too.”

Maria’s lip was trembling, and her hand groped clumsily for Michael’s. At his first touch, she abandoned the handholding and threw herself into his arms. He held her gladly, overjoyed at what his gift had meant to her, even in the midst of his embarrassment.

“Class act, man,” Alex muttered, while Isabel leaned in to kiss her almost-brother on the cheek.

“It’s wonderful, Michael,” Max agreed. “Just wonderful. A work of art.” Liz indulged her impulse, as well, pushing up on her toes to kiss Michael, touched beyond words at his loving gesture.

Amy was stunned. In the space of a single moment, she had heard words that made Michael the sweetest man in the world and potentially her future son-in-law. Appreciation won out over misgivings, and she took his hand, her eyes glistening with tears. “Michael, thank you. I don’t know what to say.”

He smiled awkwardly at her. “I wanted him to have the best. He saved Maria’s life.”

Amy nodded her understanding, and the small group prepared to leave.

********

It was almost dark as the honoree’s family and close friends joined the gathering. Tom was laid out on the handwoven mat supported by a crude platform about 4΄ high, looking very much like the hero he was. At each corner of the mat stood his pallbearers: Kyle, Alex, Josh, and Lucas. The others in attendance formed about 300º of a circle, and then lined the path that led toward the opening. Down that path, a small processional approached. Max, in his position as king, and Liz, as his queen, walked on either side of Amy, arms linked. Amy looked strained, but proud. Michael, in both his position as the king’s second and as Maria’s significant other, followed closely behind with Maria on his arm. Isabel and Tess, the other members of the royal family, brought up the rear. Jim had arranged to find Jasar and stand with her during the ceremony.

Once the royals and the family had entered the circle, those along the path filled in the missing arc. They took their places around Tom, hands joined.

“Who will speak for he who has died with honor?” Max asked, reciting the predetermined words as Zeval had instructed him earlier.

“I will speak,” Lucas answered. “Tom DeLuca was my friend. He stood for truth and courage. His love for his family came above all else. I know that he is at peace this night because his wife and daughter stand here to honor him. I will miss him.”

“I will speak,” Maria said shakily, and she felt both Michael and Liz squeezing her hands. “I never really knew my father, and all these years I’ve wondered what I did to drive him away. Now I know . . .” She faltered, trying valiantly to keep it together for just a while longer. “Now I know that his absence wasn’t his own will, and that he never stopped loving me. I will grieve for the time we lost, but I thank God that . . . at the end . . .” Her throat was almost too constricted to speak now. She choked out her last few words. “At the end, I had my father back.” It was all she could manage, and she bowed her head and let the tears come.

“I will speak,” Amy almost whispered. She caught Jim’s eye across the circle, and she saw him nod encouragingly. “My husband was relentless in his pursuit of a better life for Maria and me. I know that I was hard on him sometimes. I’d forget that he was working just as hard as I was, and I’d blame him for what we didn’t have, forgetting that we already had the most important thing—a deep and abiding love.” She squeezed her eyes shut, pushing herself to this public apology that she hoped would relieve some of the dreadful guilt that weighed her down.

“In the end, it was his effort to make a better life for us that led to his learning more than he ever should have known. He was lost to us, then, and I knew . . . I knew that the only thing that really mattered to me besides my daughter was gone.” Sobs of grief and guilt wracked her slight body, but she pushed on. “If you can hear me now, Tom, know that I’m sorry, and that I loved you. You saved our daughter, and I will be forever grateful to you for that. Please forgive me, Tom.”

As her body shook, Max released her hand and put his arm around her. She accepted his shoulder gratefully, and the seconds passed as she struggled to regain her composure. When she was able to stand on her own again, Max lifted his voice to the waiting company.

“Tonight we honor Tom DeLuca. He suffered at the hands of our enemies, but never truly lost his humanity.”

With that, each of the family and friends who made up the inner circle around Tom’s body took two steps back. Then, the Voyans—Max, Michael, Isabel, Tess, and Josh—raised their hands toward him. Concentrating, they began a slow transfer of energy to Tom’s body. Gradually, the body began to glow, getting brighter and brighter until it was only a shape alive with energy. As the glow intensified, the body’s shape began to blur and the energy seemed to pull in toward itself, condensing into a pulsing mass about 2´ in circumference.

With the ball hovering just above it, the mat ignited, giving off a searing heat. Flames leapt skyward, lapping at the teeming orb until it shot into the air, leaving a fiery streak in its wake. Every eye followed its flight until it came to rest in the distant heavens, looking for all the world like a star.

A shared sense of awe settled over the gathering, for only Zeval and Jasar had ever witnessed this ceremony before. Nancy and Jeff held each other, caught in that familiar place where they were both amazed and afraid for their daughter. They knew so little of the life she would live at Max’s side. Diane and Philip marveled again at what their children had been hiding their whole lives, and thanked heaven that they could be a real part of those lives now. Paul smiled, thinking of Claudia who would surely make Tom welcome, wherever they were.

It was only after several minutes, when the glowing embers of the mat floated silently to the ground, that Amy uttered her first question. “How long will it stay up there?”

“It varies, but several days, at least,” Zeval assured her.

Paul walked up behind her. “What will the astronomers think of that?” he asked. “They’re bound to notice it.”

Zeval shrugged. “On Voya, the astronomers know what it is. I can’t say what they’ll make of it here.”

“It’ll just be one of the many mysteries of the heavens they can’t explain, I guess,” Jasar added. “Once it disappears, they’ll move on to other, more enduring questions.”

The group began to disassemble. Most of the cadre planned to leave for home yet tonight, and all of the Roswell residents were headed home, too. The events of the week had touched the life of everyone here; friendships had been forged and loyalties confirmed. The community of Voyans, on Earth and on their distant planet, was now bound in a new and exciting way. None of them would ever be the same.

From Part 37

With that, each of the family and friends who made up the inner circle around Tom’s body took two steps back. Then, the Voyans—Max, Michael, Isabel, Tess, and Josh—raised their hands toward him. Concentrating, they began a slow transfer of energy to Tom’s body. Gradually, the body began to glow, getting brighter and brighter until it was only a shape alive with energy. As the glow intensified, the body’s shape began to blur and the energy seemed to pull in toward itself, condensing into a pulsing mass about 2´ in circumference.

With the ball hovering just above it, the mat ignited, giving off a searing heat. Flames leapt skyward, lapping at the teeming orb until it shot into the air, leaving a fiery streak in its wake. Every eye followed its flight until it came to rest in the distant heavens, looking for all the world like a star.

A shared sense of awe settled over the gathering, for only Zeval and Jasar had ever witnessed this ceremony before. Nancy and Jeff held each other, caught in that familiar place where they were both amazed and afraid for their daughter. They knew so little of the life she would live at Max’s side. Diane and Philip marveled again at what their children had been hiding their whole lives, and thanked heaven that they could be a real part of those lives now. Paul smiled, thinking of Claudia who would surely make Tom welcome, wherever they were.

It was only after several minutes, when the glowing embers of the mat floated silently to the ground, that Amy uttered her first question. “How long will it stay up there?”

“It varies, but several days, at least,” Zeval assured her.

Paul walked up behind her. “What will the astronomers think of that?” he asked. “They’re bound to notice it.”

Zeval shrugged. “On Voya, the astronomers know what it is. I can’t say what they’ll make of it here.”

“It’ll just be one of the many mysteries of the heavens they can’t explain, I guess,” Jasar added. “Once it disappears, they’ll move on to other, more enduring questions.”

The group began to disassemble. Most of the cadre planned to leave for home yet tonight, and all of the Roswell residents were headed home, too. The events of the week had touched the life of everyone here; friendships had been forged and loyalties confirmed. The community of Voyans, on Earth and on their distant planet, was now bound in a new and exciting way. None of them would ever be the same.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 1:15:06 PM
Part 38

Surreal. That’s how her life felt now—like a dream that you dismiss in the morning because it’s too absurd to share with anyone. Yet as Nancy Parker stared down into the alley, their trip to the observatory fresh in her mind, it still didn’t seem possible. They looked so normal down there in the Jeep. Two teens talking, kissing, touching. That didn’t really bother her anymore. She’d come to terms with the fact that Liz and Max were intimate. Once she got past that, though, she had come to understand that it didn’t stop with the physical, and in a way, that made it easier because she knew that they shared something deeper – almost spiritual. Looking at them now, she could see it, sense it. It was as undeniable as it was inexplicable.

She shivered involuntarily as she watched Max’s hand slip casually beneath Liz’s light sweater to rub her back. It was the loving touch of a person who is totally familiar and at ease with the other. It was a lover’s touch. Nancy welcomed the warmth of Jeff’s body as he enfolded her in his arms from behind. Propping his chin on her shoulder, he looked down on his daughter and her . . . what were they supposed to call him? Boyfriend was too casual. Mate sounded like a strictly physical designation. Husband certainly wouldn’t work.

Then, as they watched, they saw Max lean forward to press his forehead to hers, his hand rising to cup her face tenderly. Soft words were spoken, and their eyes locked just before they came together for a lingering kiss. Nancy sighed, and Jeff gave her a squeeze.

“Come to bed, Nancy. Let them have their goodnight.”

Nancy nodded but didn’t move, unable to tear her eyes away from what she saw . . . or rather what it meant. She would never worry again about Liz’s heart being broken. Max loved her beyond reason, and she knew in the depths of her soul that he would die for her, if it came to that. No, that didn’t worry her. All that worried her now was whether her daughter would survive it.

********

“What you did for me, Alex, I still can’t believe it. I honestly don’t know if I would have survived without you. I … I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Yes, you do,” Alex responded softly, trailing his fingers through her light tresses. “I love you, Isabel, and as unbelievable as it is, I think you love me, too. So for now, let’s just see where that takes us.”

“You know, I had a feeling, right from the beginning, that we should include you in all this. Once Liz and Maria found out, it seemed natural. But Max and Michael thought it was too dangerous, and I was afraid to challenge them. I couldn’t afford to be wrong.”

“Funny how they were willing to live with the women knowing, isn’t it?” he teased.

Isabel leaned toward Alex and kissed the boy she’d once seen as a geek and a pest. He had wormed his way into her heart with unshakable faith in her; he was a pillar of strength no matter what happened, and he had been as true a friend to her and her brothers as he had been to Liz and Maria for all those years. She’d learned a lot from Alex Whitman, and she planned to go right on learning.

Stifling a yawn, she wrapped her arms around him in one last, grateful hug. “Goodnight, Alex Whitman. Oh, and you’re right.”

“Of course, I am,” he agreed quickly. “About what?”

“I do love you.” She smiled at his slack-jawed expression and waltzed happily into the house.

********

Diane and Philip sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and talking quietly. Isabel had already bid them goodnight, and the house seemed empty and quiet. Normal was a thing of the past, but neither of them was sure what was next.

They heard the Jeep come to a stop in the driveway, and seconds later Max came in, tossing his keys on the counter.

“Hey,” he smiled. “Do you really think coffee is a smart move right before bed?”

“Decaf,” Diane assured him. “Can you sit for a minute?”

“Sure.” Max pulled up a chair and faced his parents. “Something you want to talk about?”

“Nothing, really,” Philip answered. “And everything.”

Max smiled. “Yeah, I know that feeling. Where to begin, right?”

Diane rested her hand on his arm. “Oh, Max. When did you stop being our little boy? I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand the life you’ve lead . . . or will lead. One day, you’re my angelic, beautiful child, and the next thing I know, you’re an alien king with powers and a lifemate and a race of people looking to you for guidance. It’s hard to believe it’s all real, . . . and it’s hard to accept that you don’t need us anymore.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Maybe you never did.”

Max covered her hand with his own. “You’re wrong, Mom. I needed you desperately then, and in a way, I still do. Just having your support since you learned the truth has been the answer to a prayer. I’m just sorry now for all the closeness we lost when I was afraid to tell you. And as for needing you, my needs may have changed, but they’re still very real.”

“What happens now, Max?”

Max broke into a pained smile. “You wouldn’t believe how often I’m asked that. And I have yet to come up with a good answer. However, I do have a favor to ask you.” He watched their expectant faces, grateful for the openness he found there.

“Dad, I want to talk to Rana about some changes in the Voyan vision of the alliance, and I may need your legal advice. Would you help me with it, maybe even come with me to talk to her?”

Philip beamed, incredibly excited at the thought that he could make an impact on the future of another civilization. This was something he could give Max, a way to be a part of his life. “I would be honored, Max. Of course.”

“Thanks, I really appreciate it. And Mom, I need your advice, too.”

“Anything,” Diane smiled encouragingly.

“I want to marry Liz, and I want you to help me convince the Parkers to allow it.”

********

“Michael?”

“Hmmm?”

“Down at Apache Point, at the campsite this morning, you said you were my mate. Were you just trying to impress your sister, or did you mean it?”

Silence.

“You know, Michael, I’m tired of never knowing where I stand with you. You run hot and cold and I don’t know which one I’m gonna get on a given day. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the heartache in the world stems from misunderstanding – thinking you know something when really, you don’t. So just tell me. What am I to you?”

Suddenly, Michael’s arms were around her and he was kissing her, a searing mind-blowing kiss that almost made her want to forget all her doubts and questions. Almost.

“Wow,” she sighed when he released her. “That was one of those ‘hot’ moments I was talking about.” She hesitated, reluctant to temper the passion of the moment with cold, hard reason. Determined, she plowed on. “Michael, that’s not all I need to know. I know I turn you on. You’re a regular horndog sometimes. But that’s not love, and it doesn’t answer my question.”

Michael pursed his lips and squinted into the distance. This was the worst part. Opening himself up. Putting words to the feelings that raged through him day and night. He had always felt in extremes: anger, loneliness, frustration, helplessness. Maria had helped him discover a new one: love. And it was no less extreme or controllable than the others. He truly couldn’t imagine returning to life without her.

“Maria, I can think of about a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t be together. The biggest one is, you could get hurt. Your life has sucked less than mine, but it’s still sucked, and even that is partly my fault. I’m moody, I’m an alien – who doesn’t even control his powers that well yet – and I’m not exactly the man-about-town you seem to want. But dammit Maria, I keep coming back to the one reason we’re still here, together.” He finally turned to face her, looking into her eyes with more honesty than she’d ever seen there before.

“I love you.”

Maria held her breath. She wanted to kiss this unpredictable alien senseless, but they weren’t through yet.

“And?” Maria breathed. “What does that mean for us?”

Michael’s face relaxed, resigned to his fate. “It means screw all those other reasons; I want to be with you . . . if you’ll have me.”

“No changing your mind tomorrow? No denying it to our friends?”

Michael had to smile at her persistent questions. He guessed he deserved her doubt. “No changing, no denying.”

“No more asshole?”

Now Michael’s smile graduated to a grin. “Don’t push it,” he cautioned her.

Maria finally relented, planting a fierce kiss on her favorite alien. Michael, finally free to let his feelings show, quickly changed the tenor of the kiss, reaching out to Maria with his heart in a beautiful, loving kiss that Maria barely recognized. She eagerly returned it, feeling closer to Michael than she ever had before. After that, there were only murmured words of love punctuating marathon kisses, caresses, gazes. For the first time, they were a couple secure in each other and confident in their love.

********

Jim Valenti wasn’t sure if Amy was asleep on his shoulder, or just quiet. He could see Maria and Michael out on the porch talking. Well, they’d started out talking. Now it was turning into a regular make-out session, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to watch, but if he moved, he’d disturb Amy, and she’d been through enough.

“Amy?” he whispered. “You awake?”

“Yeah,” she sighed, taking his hand. “I just can’t get my brain to slow down. I keep going over things in my mind, and it all looks so different now than it did before.”

“The truth’ll do that,” Jim agreed. “I should leave you to your thoughts. I’m sure you don’t need me for that.”

He made a slight move to shift away from her, but she squeezed his hand. “Stay, Jim. Please.”

“Sure, I’ll stay a few more minutes.”

“No, stay the night. I need someone with me tonight.”

Jim stiffened. He and Amy had been having a great time, and had enjoyed some passionate moments, but he really didn’t know where he stood with her, and they certainly hadn’t had sex, so he was a little wary of what she was asking him.

“Amy? Are you sure about this? I . . . This might be a, ya know, a bad time to make a decision like that.”

Amy pushed away with a chuckle. “I’m not asking you to sleep with me, Jim. Just . . . sleep with me. You know, hold me. Do you think you could do that?”

“What about Maria?” he asked.

“Maria of all people should understand that one. She’s used that one on me!”

Jim grinned. “I’ll bet.” His mind raced quickly. Dare he leave Kyle and Tess alone for the night? Hell, they’d been at Apache Point for a week alone. He couldn’t control what would happen between them. Even so, he was already planning a phone call filled with threats as soon as Amy was out of earshot.

Amy pushed up from the sofa, walked to the front door, and cleared her throat loudly. Michael and Maria pulled apart reluctantly.

“Hey, kids. Time to call it a night. Maria, I’ve asked Jim to stay tonight. I just don’t want to be alone, and I’d appreciate it if you kept your cracks to yourself. Nothing’s going on, okay?”

“Sure, Mom! Can Michael . . .”

“NO! Goodnight, Michael.”

Michael stood, looking back at Amy. Then three jaws dropped as he stepped toward the door, kissed Amy on the cheek, and left.

********
Kyle hung up the phone and looked at Tess, half asleep on the sofa. “Dad’s staying at DeLuca’s tonight.” He watched for her reaction.

“He is?” she asked, sitting up. “What does that mean, exactly?”

“He says it doesn’t mean anything, that Amy just wants comforting.” He watched her face closely, but couldn’t tell what she was thinking. He tried again.

“What does that mean for us?”

Tess looked up, startled at the implication, and then wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

“What do you want it to mean?”

“What do you want it to mean?” he replied evasively.

Laughter broke the tension as Tess rose and walked into Kyle’s arms. “You know you’re just as spooked at the thought as I am, so let’s not torment each other. On the other hand, a little ‘comforting’ sounds like a pretty good plan.”

Kyle relaxed, glad that one of them had had the courage to admit they weren’t really ready for anything more just yet.

“How ‘bout a movie before bed?” he suggested, opening the sizeable video cabinet. “Here’s a classic—The Dirty Dozen.”

“Not in this lifetime,” Tess declared, perusing the testosterone-generated collection. “How about we go rent My Best Friend’s Wedding?”

They bickered amiably for several minutes, eventually settling down with popcorn and Monty Python, just glad to be in each other’s company.

********
Max welcomed the week that followed. He worked with his father on a proposal for Rana and the alliance to bring a new order to their world. It should have been the most rewarding project of his life. It wasn’t.

What he took the most pleasure in was spending typical, routine, normal downtime with Liz, because in the granddaddy of all ironies, there was nothing typical about it – for them. Normal was a gift he rarely dreamed of, and he realized that he had finally answered one of his own lifelong questions: What’s so great about normal?

The answer was – everything, when it meant touching Liz whenever the mood struck—which was pretty much all the time, kissing her, making love to her, waking with her on those mornings when they’d needed each other so much, they’d been unable to part. Their parents, quietly accepting of their relationship, had turned a blind eye to their transparent scams to be together. In fact, they’d even chuckled among themselves that it was probably more fun for the young lovers than if the parents had just given their permission.

Adding to Max’s good mood was his completely out-of-character plan to fulfill Liz’s fantasy. A few weeks ago, Liz had blown him away with an erotic, fantasy-filled night in the desert. That same night, he’d pleaded and coaxed until she’d confessed to a fantasy of her own. He’d been stunned when his (publicly, at least) responsible, practical, and un-wild girlfriend had shyly admitted that she’d often fantasized about making love to Max in a situation where they might be caught. Evidently, the danger factor excited her, and even as he listened to her describe her flights of fancy, his own aroused body reacted as well. Whatever got her juices flowing couldn’t help but carry him right along with her. She’d fantasized about them in the bio lab, under the bleachers, and in the back room of the Crashdown. Once, she said, she’d even imagined Pam Troy catching them in the car, and she’d laughed heartily at the shocked look on her face.

Max knew that Liz was sure he would never allow them to take a risk like that, but after many pleasurable hours pondering the possibilities and at least a dozen possible scenarios, an ideal scheme had presented itself. Strangely enough, it had all started with Michael’s news that Zeval had been invited to speak about the Apache Point observatory at the November school assembly. Not long after, Mr. Seligman had asked Liz to introduce their guest at the assembly, since she had such an interest in astronomy and had recently visited the observatory and met Dr. Zoe Vale. After that, the pieces had fallen neatly into place. Now it was only a matter of time. The only real trick was keeping Liz from seeing it in his thoughts.

Liz, too, was reveling in their stress-free time together. Now able to merge their thoughts and feelings at will, they had silently agreed not to discuss the past week, or anything else too serious, for at least a few days. They needed some peace. They’d earned it.

Only one thing was niggling at Liz’s mind, and she finally decided to ask Max straight out. He had come into the break room behind the Crashdown’s kitchen to “help” Liz change clothes after her shift, but he was doing his best to keep her from accomplishing her task. Tempting as that was, she couldn’t push the question out of her mind.

“Max, we’ll be late! Besides, I have to ask you something.”

Max stopped at the concern in her voice.

“Tell me the truth, Max. Have you been blocking me? Because usually, I can feel you, and I know how you’re feeling and it . . . it completely fills me. But the past couple of days, sometimes it’s like I . . . I don’t know, like I lose you.”

He turned sly eyes toward her. “And what if I am?” he taunted.

Hurt flashed across her eyes. “I thought we had no secrets, Max.”

He relented immediately, not wanting to cause her any more pain, ever again. “Yes, Liz, I am blocking you . . . a little. But trust me, it’s for a good cause. A little mystery keeps a relationship fresh, right?”

She squinted suspiciously. “I hardly think we’ve gone stale already, especially if last night is any indication.”

Max’s eyes widened, then drifted closed as he remembered their lovemaking the night before. His memories of her lithe body pleasuring his blended with her own, and they fell into each other’s arms, locked in passionate kiss.

“Do you two think you could possible pry yourselves apart long enough to go to that movie we planned?” Maria interrupted with mock disgust, unceremoniously pushing through the door without so much as a knock.

Max reluctantly released Liz from his vice-like grip, grinning at her as they shared their struggle to slow their racing hearts and labored breathing.

“Give us a minute,” he panted, his eyes never leaving Liz’s.

“You get one minute. Then we’re leaving without you,” Michael threatened.

As soon as the door was closed again, Max pressed one more kiss to Liz’s forehead. “Don’t worry, Liz. I just like to have a few things between us be a surprise. It’ll be worth it, I promise.”

Reassured, Liz hurried to finish dressing, but she couldn’t help wondering about the smirk on Max’s face.

********

She felt him the minute he entered the back of the auditorium. The school was assembled, and Liz was waiting for Zeval to approve the set-up of the projector and slides.

“You come crash into me
And I come into you.
I come into you in a boy’s dream
In a boy’s dream.”


Liz could hear Dave Matthews’ “Crash into Me” floating through her mind, and her eyes searched the darkness behind the stage lights. That song had always spoken to her. Somehow it captured just a part of what she had felt for Max from the beginning. They’d even talked about it once. She knew Max felt the same way.

“Touch your lips just so I know
In your eyes, love, it glows so
I’m bare-boned and crazy for you
When you come crash into me, baby.”


She could almost feel his lips on her mouth, his hands on her arms. She wriggled self-consciously. What was he doing to her? She had to introduce a guest speaker in front of hundreds of students!

Zeval gave her a nod, and Liz stepped up to the podium. The crowd settled down and waited.

“I’m honored today to introduce one of the most interesting women I have ever met. Dr. Zoe Vale is a recent addition to the staff of the Apache Point observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, and has been instrumental in the installation, calibration, and initial trials of their powerful new telescope.”

“If I’ve gone overboard
Then I’m begging you to forgive me
In my haste, when I’m holding you so, girl, close to me.”


Liz paused, feeling her breath leave her body and her skin heat up. He was out there, watching her, planting his devilish thoughts into her mind, making her want him. Wait. She was supposed to be talking. Saying something. What was it?

Oh, yeah.

“Uh, Dr. Vale has been tracking stars that were previously impossible to see with less powerful lenses, and in the process, has begun to re-map some areas of our galaxy.”

“Oh and you come crash into me, baby
And I come into you.
Hike up your skirt a little more
And show the world to me.”


Liz reached for the glass of water that was sitting on the podium for Zeval’s use. Her hand was trembling. In her mind, she saw Max, bare-chested, gazing at her with those penetrating eyes. He was unbuttoning her blouse slowly, seductively, and she felt the warmth between her legs as he coaxed the juices from her body even from across a crowded room.

“Zeval . . . I mean, Dr. Vale, uh . . . was k-kind enough to show my Max . . . my family around the . . . observatory recently. It was . . .”

“Oh, I watch you there through the window
And I stare at you
You wear nothing
But you wear it so well.”


Her voice was quavering now, too, and her only thought was to get off the stage. Where was he? Why was he doing this to her now?

“So without further ado, Dr. . . .” What was her name? Zeval . . . Zeval . . . Oh! “Dr. Zoe Vale.”

Polite applause accompanied Liz’s flight from the stage, and Mr. Seligman watched, bewildered, as his best student succumbed to stage fright. He would never have suspected it. Zeval, on the other hand, recognized the signs. She didn’t know what Max was up to, but Liz didn’t have a chance. She suppressed a smile, stepping confidently to the podium, and began to speak.

Off-stage, Liz was gripping the back of a folding chair, trying to get herself under control. She jumped slightly when two warm hands snaked around her waist, and two sexy lips whispered into her ear.

“Tied up and twisted
The way I’d like to be for you, for me
Come crash into me.”


Realization hit. He wouldn’t. Not Max Evans. He would never seduce her in a public place. It wasn’t who he was. It wasn’t who she was – usually. Yet there he was, his intentions blatantly obvious in his thoughts and his hands and those lips! This was it. This was her fantasy. She just wasn’t sure she was ready for it to be a reality.

Before she could process what was happening, Max pulled her tightly to him, making her instantly aware of his firm arousal against the small of her back. He walked her slowly backwards behind the heavy velveteen curtain that hid backstage from view, retreating still further toward the doorway into the large dressing room. To her surprise, they didn’t enter the dressing room, though, ducking instead into the small alcove that hid the access ladder to the catwalk and the pulleys for raising and lowering the backdrops.

All the while, his hands roamed freely over the silky white blouse she’d chosen for her foray into public speaking. Teasing her with feathery strokes down her arms, then sliding upwards to her breasts, he traced gradually smaller and smaller concentric circles around her erect nipples, careful to avoid touching them just yet. Liz was rapidly losing herself, and she didn’t have the presence of mind to care. The glow that signaled their escalating passion was beginning to form around them, and she idly wondered if it was visible beyond the curtain, but her body was too focused on what Max’s magic hands were doing to her to let that small detail derail her concentration.

She could hear Zeval’s voice humming in the background, and she could picture the hundreds of faces aimed right at her, at them. What would Zeval’s audience do if they could see through that curtain right now? What if someone came after her to see if she was all right? She gasped in excitement at the thought, adrenalin pumping wildly through her system. Were they really doing this?

********

Mr. Vidoni, the vice principal, was sitting in a rickety folding chair near the edge of the stage next to Mr. Seligman. He was carefully scanning the dim auditorium for students who were not paying attention to Dr. Vale. He made a mental note of anyone who was talking to a neighbor, dozing off, or just zoning out. In the middle of his inventory, he thought he heard a sound backstage. He concentrated, filtering out the hum of the slide projector and the droning of the speaker, straining to hear it again. When it didn’t recur, he relaxed and started watching the students again.

For the most part, they were enthralled by the presentation. Often, their speakers were dry and out-of-touch with teens, but this woman seemed to have their full attention, weaving fact and lore into an accessible and fascinating introduction to astronomy. Even Mr. Vidoni found himself drawn into her tales about how ancient cultures used the stars to predict seasons, to explain their world, and to guide their decisions. He made a mental note to visit the observatory some weekend soon.

********

Max leaned against the metal rungs bolted to the wall and pulled Liz to him fiercely, plunging into her eager mouth with a dizzying kiss, tasting, searching, ravishing. No sooner had he felt her return his passion with a strong tug on his swollen lower lip then he left her mouth to trail hard, wet kisses down her décolletage, eventually coming to rest just above the top fabric-covered button of her open-necked blouse. Sucking tenderly on her alabaster skin, his lip grazed the silky button, and he mischievously grabbed it with his teeth. Liz gasped, taking in a sharp breath as he bit it. Pop! One down, three to go.

As Max’s mouth worked on the buttons, his hands worked their way up Liz’s black gabardine skirt. He was thrilled to find she was wearing thigh-high stockings as his fingers deftly maneuvered up the inside of her thigh, coaxing the stockings down toward her knees. Liz began to ache with lust. She bit her lip hard to keep the moans building up inside of her from escaping.

Liz let her blouse cascade from her shoulders, revealing a lacy camisole that did nothing to camouflage her protruding nipples. Max stared at them in wide-eyed wonder before burying his face once again in the crook of her neck, tickling her playfully with his tongue. Meanwhile, his fingers gently slid under the spaghetti straps of her camisole, easing them off her shoulders. He guided her arms through to let the garment tumble to her waist, exposing her heaving breasts. They seemed to be reaching for him, seducing him. Max drew in a deep breath as one would to swim to the bottom of a pool, only he was diving into something much more inviting. He buried his face between her breasts and massaged her supple flesh firmly with his strong hands. His mouth sought out the right one first, then the left, sucking, stroking, nipping their tips with his teeth.

Instantly, Liz’s fingers wove themselves into his thick, dark hair, and she pressed him firmly against her, praying that the exquisite pleasure would never end. She sighed his name into the dark recesses above them, tingling wherever she felt his hand stroking the inside of her thigh. She felt lightheaded, weak, and quivery. Seconds later, she was shocked by the sudden sensation of cool air coming into contact with the damp heat between her legs, and she looked down to see the remnants of her lace panties floating to the floor like a shower of yellow rose petals.

********

Once again, Mr. Vidoni heard what he thought was a voice backstage. He turned in his chair to look behind Dr. Vale, only to see a bright light coming from under the curtain. He found it strange that the stage lights would be on, since the only lights that should be on in the auditorium were the spotlight on Dr. Vale and the slide projector. Again he strained to hear what might be back there, but to no avail. He leaned over to Mr. Seligman, whispering, “Hey Pete, did you hear somebody backstage?”

Mr. Seligman had been engrossed in the presentation. “Would you relax, Bill? It’s nothing. You’re being paranoid.”

Vidoni shot Seligman a glare, not appreciating the paranoid remark in the least, and turned to face forward again, shaking his head in disgust. This time he was going to keep his ears peeled for anything that might be going on back there.

Zeval noticed as Vidoni restlessly turned to check out the light coming from under the curtain. She knew its source immediately and redoubled her efforts to keep the audience as focused on her as possible. It was times like these when the realization that their leader was but a hormone-soaked teenager hit home.


Liz’s amazed eyes met Max’s sparkling ones, and she opened her mouth to speak, but her lips could only form a surprised “oh” when his nimble fingers claimed her, two pumping into her with the expertise of a practiced lover, one electrifying her clit with a matching circular motion.

“Sweet like candy to my soul
Sweet you rock and sweet you roll
Lost for you, I’m so … lost for you.”


Liz could feel her orgasm on the brink, but she desperately wanted Max to climax with her. She steeled herself against the familiar feeling of loss and forced herself to pull away from his hand. Part of her fantasy involved Max’s heated skin against her own, and suddenly her need for that contact bordered on urgent. She clawed at his shirt until he helped her lift it over his head, and she pressed against him, vibrating with the pounding of his heart against her cheek and breasts. Her hand crept down his spine, leaving tingling trails with her fingernails. Then she stopped to massage his firm buttocks before tracing a path to the bulge that was radiating heat right through his jeans. She cupped him eagerly, and he sucked his breath in, letting it out in a slow, ragged sigh.

“You know, I’m the king of the castle
You’re the dirty rascal, crash into me
Please crash into me, baby.”


Impatient now, Liz worked quickly to unfasten Max’s 501’s, her fingers flying down each button. To her delighted astonishment, Max was sans boxers. She whispered in sultry tones, “Commando, Mr. Evans? I take it this was a premeditated attack.” Max chuckled his acknowledgment, stopping short as she began to stroke his swollen member. Twitching under her touch, it seemed to beckon her, and she slid downward to taste him. The slick head glided easily into her eager mouth--salty, sweet, and yes, maybe even a hint of spicy. ‘It must be all that Tabasco sauce,’ she thought with amusement. She was snapped out of her fleeting distraction by Max’s involuntary plunge into her mouth. Liz began to lave and suck, thrilling to the sounds of obvious pleasure emanating from the man of her dreams. She could tell he was struggling to contain his moans but they would not be denied; they surrounded her, spurring her on. She could feel him tensing, on the verge of climax, so she stood abruptly, determined that they would come in unison for this fantasy fulfilled.

********
This time there was no mistaking it. Vidoni heard moaning coming from the back of the stage, and it didn’t sound like pain. He turned to see that the light that trickled out from under the curtain had grown more intense. What the hell is going on back there? he wondered to himself. If somebody is back there copping a feel instead of watching the presentation, heads will roll! He snorted like a bull about to charge a matador, stood resolutely, and slipped behind the curtain. He stood frozen, listening intently.

********

”Yes, I see the waves
Come and crash into me
See the waves
Come and crash into me
Crash into me.”


With feline agility, Max hoisted Liz up to his waist. She wrapped her legs around him and clung to the rung just above his head, hanging on for dear life. This was no longer just about Max fulfilling Liz’s fantasy; this was about getting lost in the woman he loved more than life itself; the detailed plan he had mapped out was forgotten, and he pounded into her with a frantic, urgent rhythm, a guttural moan escaping from him with each thrust. He bent to take one overly sensitive nipple into his mouth, and immediately felt her come—hard and long, her walls squeezing him tightly over and over until his release was wrung from him. A long, raspy “Ma-a-a-a-x” spilled from her lips as he spilled into her, and in that moment, they were one—one body, one heart, one soul, and the brilliance of the light that surrounded them would have hurt their eyes, had it been possible to open them in the midst of such all-consuming bliss.

********
Guided by the rhythmic groans escaping from the dark recesses of the stage, Vidoni crept stealthily, like a hunter stalking his prey. Then, from up ahead, he heard a more feminine moan. “Max.” It was unmistakable! If that damn Max Evans was fooling around with his underage girlfriend again, in his school, he was going to hoist his sorry butt up the flagpole. As he approached the alcove, he was sure he heard heavy breathing, and his face contorted into an angry grimace. He flattened himself against the wall, inching his way toward the opening. Pivoting into it, he was suddenly blinded by a brilliant pulse of light. He recoiled in pain, raising his hands to block the fierce intensity. It was as if a star had gone supernova right in his face.

Back in the auditorium, the surge of power caused the spotlight and projector bulb to glow more brightly for a few seconds. Then, with a loud pop and a shattering of glass, the projector bulb exploded, and the spotlight went out, along with the power, leaving the auditorium in almost complete darkness.

********

The sharp noise was enough to snap Max and Liz out of their reverie. Shocked, they realized they were no longer alone. In a panic, they gathered their disheveled clothing, and under the cover of darkness, Max swept Liz into the dressing room, unlocking and relocking it with his powers. They both sighed with relief as they realized they had narrowly escaped discovery, and they hastily put on their clothes. Liz went to close her blouse only to remember that her buttons were lying on the floor on the other side of the door. She looked at Max in desperation, realizing that it was far too risky to go back to retrieve them now.

********

Turning impulsively to his right in reaction to the small explosions, Vidoni stumbled forward, struggling to see past the stars exploding in his eyes. Weaving precariously, he groped his way toward the chaos echoing from beyond the stage. He began to flail wildly when the oppressive weight of the stage curtain impeded his progress, and he beat at it as a frustrated wail erupted from his throat. Throwing his weight against the offending material, he battled his way out of its velveteen tentacles only to go sprawling when his foot caught the edge of a music stand. The momentum hurtled him through the projection screen and deposited him unceremoniously onto the stage floor at Dr. Zoe Vale’s feet.

Dazed and disoriented, Vidoni tried in vain to regain his composure while the entire auditorium erupted in convulsive bursts of uproarious laughter.

“Mr. Vidoni! Are you all right? Let me help you up.”

Mr. Vidoni opened his eyes. Sparkles surrounded the blurry image of Mr. Seligman, who was babbling urgently, and the vice principal’s frustration and humiliation were only exacerbated when he squinted toward Dr. Vale, who sat red-faced, trying to stifle her own mirth. Struggling valiantly to regain some of his lost dignity, he let the science teacher help him to his feet and addressed the unruly crowd angrily.

“Excuse me, people. People! May I have your attention!” The din decreased by a few decibels. “We are checking on the problem now. Please keep your seats. We expect to have the power back on momentarily. Thank you.”

At that moment, the emergency lights blinked on, and Mr. Vidoni’s vision cleared. He turned his back to the students to make his apologies to their guest speaker, but he didn’t get so much as a word out when a new wave of laughter erupted in the auditorium. He turned back quickly to find the cause of the outburst. He was in no mood for levity of any kind. Glowering at the students, he opened his mouth to shout a reprimand when Mr. Seligman hurried to his side, looking nervous.

Leaning toward the vice principal’s ear, he whispered, “Bill, you split your pants when you fell.”

********

Max could hear the noise spill from the auditorium. He wondered why everyone was laughing so hard, but figured this was his best shot. He slipped out the door and into their lair to retrieve Liz’s buttons. Where did they go? He hunted in corners and behind the backdrop. Belatedly, he regretted how he had yanked them off and chucked them aside with such abandon. In his haste, he managed to find only three of the four.

He rushed back into the dressing room, using his powers to help Liz refasten them to her blouse. This was the second time he had managed to detach all of Liz’s buttons in his blind need to savor her tantalizing body. He was going to have to find a more expedient way to get Liz out of her clothes. He smiled wryly, and Liz knew immediately what he was thinking.

“Yeah, I guess you will, Mr. Impulsive,” Liz smiled back at him.

“Oops, I’m missing one,” she pointed out when she reached the top of her blouse.

“That’s all I could find,” Max apologized. Quickly, he removed the bottom button and replaced it at the low-cut neck of her blouse so her camisole wouldn’t show. “There you go,” he announced with pride. “No one will ever know the difference.”

Liz tucked her blouse into her skirt and realized that now they were both “going commando.” What was left of her panties lay scattered like dry leaves across the floor of the alcove. This time is was Max’s turn to catch Liz’s thoughts. He looked at her with a wanton smirk.

“Oh, no you don’t,” she warned. “We have some damage control to take care of.”

********

Mr. Vidoni froze in his tracks as the nightmare of what Mr. Seligman had just said sank in. He turned beet red as he looked out upon the tittering masses. How could he get off the stage without further exposing himself? He couldn’t very well go on standing there. Not about to turn around and refuel the mayhem, he pulled down his blazer and backed toward the curtain, almost in a bow. He slipped back though the slit, but with a bit more aplomb this time. The students rose in a standing ovation.

Backstage, he was determined to confirm his original suspicions. If he was going to suffer this embarrassment, it was not going to be in vain. He wasn’t about to let those kids get away with having a tryst again under his watch. He was more convinced than ever that his suspicions about their activities in the Eraser Room a few weeks ago were justified, and he was looking forward to giving their parents the reality check he’d been dying to serve up ever since Mrs. Parker had gone ballistic in his office that day.

He searched the corners, straining his eyes as they adjusted to the dim light in the dark recesses at the rear of the stage. He reached to investigate what, incongruously, looked like yellow flower petals when his eye caught a glimpse of a small white object. He picked it up, discovering that it was a satin-covered button. He slyly dropped it in his pocket, letting out a huff of self-satisfaction. “Evidence,” he muttered to himself.

He walked over to the dressing room doors and checked to see that they were locked. He couldn’t imagine where those two troublemakers could have gotten to so fast that he’d missed them. The only other way off the stage was past the curtain, and he didn’t think they could have evaded him that way without being seen. Well, he had what he needed. He’d track Liz Parker down in class, and when it was revealed that she had a missing button, her ass was his.

********

As Mr. Vidoni was snooping around backstage, the lights flipped on, and Mr. Seligman did his best to restore order. “Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. I’m sure Dr. Vale would like to resume her presentation.”

Zeval looked at Mr. Seligman sympathetically. She wasn’t fazed a bit by what happened, and was rather glad that it had, since she knew what Max and Liz were up to as soon as she saw the light. Those two gave off an incredible amount of energy when they were together. She could feel it from a mile away. Today’s release, however, was quite unprecedented. Their intensity seemed to escalate with each encounter. The photon burst alone could probably have blown a hole in the wall, she thought to herself.

A moment later, Liz trotted down the aisle with a new projector bulb and set about replacing the one that had exploded. Max followed close on her heels.

“It was a tripped circuit-breaker,” he informed Mr. Seligman.

Zeval was checking the slide tray when Mr. Vidoni motioned to her and Mr. Seligman from the stage wings.

“Dr. Vale, I’m very sorry, but this assembly is over. Students are to leave the auditorium in an orderly fashion and proceed to their regularly scheduled classes.”

Mr. Seligman began to protest, but Zeval silenced him with a nod of her head.

“It’s quite all right; I was pretty much done anyway,” she declared. “I don’t think your student body will be too focused after the . . . the power outage. But I’ll be happy to come again, perhaps next semester.”

Mr. Seligman was clearly disappointed. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a more interesting speaker, Dr. Vale. It’s such a shame this had to happen.”

“Think nothing of it,” Zeval smiled graciously. “At least you can be sure of one thing: the students will never forget it!”

Mr. Seligman nodded in reluctant agreement.

As the students cleared the auditorium, Mr. Vidoni looked on disapprovingly. He noticed Max and Liz standing close together next to the projector. “Ms. Parker and Mr. Evans, I don’t suppose either of you can tell me what the hell just happened here?”

posted on 20-Apr-2002 1:16:47 PM
Part 39

Liz looked up sharply when Mr. Vidoni called to them, his tone challenging and aggressive.

"Well?" he persisted. He started to walk toward them, then halted, undoubtedly feeling a draft near his posterior. "Come here. I'd like to show you something."

Liz looked at Max worriedly. She knew he didn't like to be noticed, especially by a school administrator who seemed to be out to get him. To her surprise, though, his eyes were sparkling with barely concealed humor. He put his hand against her lower back and steered them forward.

Mr. Vidoni reached into his pocket and pulled out a small button, holding it forward in the palm of his hand. At that moment, Zeval brushed past, and the button dropped to the floor.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she apologized, reaching to recover the button. She enclosed it tightly in the palm of her hand as she rose, winking surreptitiously at Max and Liz. "Here you go," she said brightly, handing the "evidence" back to Mr. Vidoni.

"Thank you, Dr. Vale," Mr. Vidoni replied with a tight smile. "Mr. Evans, Ms. Parker, you have been flouting my authority and bending the rules of this school all semester. It's time to pay the piper. Ms. Parker, are you, by any chance, missing a button on your blouse?"

Liz swallowed hard, struggling to maintain a look of surprised innocence. "I . . . I don't think so, sir," she answered, checking her blouse carefully.

Mr Vidoni frowned, noting for himself that they all seemed to be there. "What about the part of the blouse that's hidden?" he insisted. The best defense is a good offense, she remembered hearing once. She pasted an indignant look on her face and opened her mouth to retort when Max jumped in.

"Is that the button you think belongs to Liz?" he asked, seemingly perplexed. "Because it's not even the right color."

Vidoni frowned in confusion, then held the button next to Liz's blouse. The off-white button looked yellowed compared to the bright whiteness of her blouse. "But . . ." he stammered, starting to shift from foot to foot nervously. In a last-ditch effort to regroup, he came at them again.

"Where were you during Dr. Vale's presentation, Ms. Parker? Mr. Evans?"

Liz spoke up first. "I guess I got a little stage fright," she confessed. "I felt like I was gonna be sick and I bolted for the girls' room. I splashed my face and took some deep breaths . . . it took me a while to calm down. I've never stood in front of such a large crowd before." She pushed her hair back from her face, and Mr. Vidoni noticed the dampness around the hairline. Was she really in the restroom?

"And I was sitting in the back," Max told him. I came in a couple of minutes late from running laps in PE and took the first seat I found."

Max's flushed face was testament to his story, and Mr. Vidoni suppressed a defeated sigh. "I have my eye on you two," he warned lamely, and turned to leave. Thinking better of it, he shuffled backwards until he could use the curtain to hide his retreating figure.

At that moment, the bell rang signaling the close of school. Max grabbed Liz's hand and pulled her down the steps, into the hall, and out the door. Spontaneous laughter erupted from his smiling lips as he began to run with her toward the large tree near the parking lot. Liz couldn't help but laugh with him as she struggled to keep up with his long strides. When they reached the tree, Max fell into the pile of dry leaves at its base, laughing harder by the minute. He held his stomach and rolled from side to side, the leaves crunching noisily.

Liz watched him, alive with mirth, truly relaxed for the first time in weeks, and her heart warmed with joy–pure, innocent, healing joy. She’d never seem him laugh with such abandon before; he was always so in control, even in life’s lighter moments. But ever since returning from Apache Point, he’d seemed less stressed, more focused on enjoying his life. With Malek dead, some of the fear had been lifted, and everything about him had been more positive.

He’d told her he had a plan, and he would share it with her as soon as he had worked out the details. When she’d offered to help, he’d taken her face in his gentle hands, and said, “Let me do this, Liz. For the first time, I feel like I know what I have to do. I’ve never been master of my own destiny before, and it feels good. I promise, if everything works out the way I’ve planned, you won’t be disappointed.” He’d kissed her then, freely sharing his love and devotion, and she could feel his determination to set this path for the future. So, she agreed to wait for him to come to her with specifics, knowing beyond a doubt that her trust in him was well founded.

Enjoying his playful mood, Liz sprawled next to him. He stopped to grace her with a delighted smile when he realized that she, too, was half-submerged in leaves.

"I knew that fantasy of yours would be dangerous,” he grinned, stroking her cheek. “I just never knew how exciting it would be . . . or funny!" He began to laugh again, and Liz joined him. What would the people of Voya think of their king and queen if they could see them now!

"I almost died when I realized Vidoni was in the doorway," she gasped. "That light of ours did us a favor that time!"

"Yeah, except that's part of what tipped him off in the first place, I'll bet," mused Max. "We really have to be careful now. It's getting brighter and brighter all the time."

"Just like my love for you," she breathed, leaning in to kiss him lightly on the nose. "Well, it's a good thing there's a door from the dressing room to the hallway. Blinded or not, we'd never have made it past him if we’d had to come out the stage door again."

"How' did you know where those extra projector bulbs were?" he wondered.

Liz smiled. "Well, I was vice president of the science club last year, which meant I was in charge of equipment for our meetings. The supply cabinet and I became very close."

"Figures," Max teased. "So, is there a sewing kit in there, too? Because Vidoni might need one!" Gales of laughter seized him again, and Liz giggled, too, picturing their embarrassed vice principal pseudo-mooning the student body.

Max's laughter died down, but the sparkle in his eye remained as he pulled Liz on top of him.

"You know what I think?" he asked softly.

"What?"

"I think you're the best thing that ever happened to me, and I'm the luckiest guy in the world."

Liz smiled modestly. "Yeah? Well, I feel the same way about you."

"You know what else I think?" he asked, sliding his hand over her gabardine-covered behind.

"What?"

"I think that anybody coming into this parking lot right now can tell you're not wearing any underwear."

Liz's pleased expression grew instantly horrified. She smacked Max on the chest and scrambled to her feet, tugging at her skirt. Then she glared at him as his laughter bubbled forth all over again, echoing through the school campus. It was music to her ears.

********

Max walked into the Crashdown, eyes alert, palms sweating. He wasn’t sure which was worse, facing down Malek, or facing Liz's parents to ask their permission to marry their daughter. His mom had talked to him at length about how to approach them, and both of his parents had role-played the scene with him, bombarding him with questions that the Parkers were likely to ask. All that preparation, however, did little to calm his stomach or slow his breathing.

"Hey, Max," Jeff greeted him. "Liz isn't here just now. She went shopping with Maria."

"I know," Max said, struggling furiously to give the impression that he wasn't a quivering mass of nerves. "I came to talk to you and Mrs. Parker . . . that is, if you . . . uh, have time, . . . you know, if it's not . . . inconvenient." Very slick, Max. Very polished.

Jeff watched Max's adam's apple bob up and down as his fingers picked at the edge of a discarded napkin on the counter.

"Has something happened to Liz?" he frowned warily.

"No! Nothing like that. She's fine. I just . . . wanted to talk to you . . . both."

"Okay, Max. Nancy's upstairs. Follow me."

He led the nervous young man up the stairs and through their apartment door. "Nancy! Max is here. He wants to talk to us."

Nancy hurried into the living room. "Is everything okay?"

Max winced inwardly. They already expected bad news whenever he was around. He hoped they didn't see what he had to say today as bad news.

"Everything's fine, Mrs. Parker. I wanted to talk to you both. I have something to ask you."

The look that passed between them only jangled his nerves more. Would they ever learn to look at him without such blatant wariness? Suddenly he couldn’t remember anything he and his parents had talked about.

"Sit down, Max," Jeff offered. "What's on your mind?"

Max perched stiffly on the edge of the chair opposite the waiting couple. They were holding hands and looking at him, waiting for whatever bombshell he was poised to drop this time.

"This may or may not come as a surprise to you," he began. "but I mentioned a while back that I hoped Liz and I could graduate early and marry before going to college next fall." He hesitated when he saw Nancy Parker bring her hand up to her mouth. She was already trembling. He continued with a rush of words, attempting to stave off any objections.

"Well, I've thought about it a lot since then, and I think it's a good idea. You’ve already told Mr. Vidoni that we’ll be graduating early, so I guess that part’s all right with you. And I believe that you understand now what Liz and I mean to each other. We could never be with anyone else. And I also think Liz is safest if she's with me. I'm hopeful that the worst is behind us as far as Voyan enemies go, but I know I'd feel better—and I'm betting you would, too—if she were close enough for me to protect her."

Jeff watched the nervous boy, comparing him with the confident and regal king he had observed such a short time ago at Apache Point. Love reduces us all to bumbling idiots sometimes, he thought with surprisingly detached amusement. He knew that look. He’d worn that look to go visit Nancy’s parents a long time ago.

"Have you talked to Liz about this?" Jeff asked him.

"Not officially, sir," Max explained. "I know if I ask her, she'll say yes, but then if you say no, she'll be torn, and I don't want her to go through that. She loves you both so much. You're important to her, and she wouldn't want to do anything to upset you. I couldn't put her in that position."

"She's only 17," whispered Nancy from between tight lips. She looked like she was about to cry, and Max was afraid he'd be sick on the spot.

"She'll be 18 next summer," he argued. "I thought we could get married then. We both want to go to college–that hasn't changed. It's just we'd be doing it together, as a married couple."

"And what will you live on?" Jeff asked. Max's parents had prepared him for that one.

"Well, if you're still willing to pay for college, our combined expenses would actually be less living together than they would be living separately. We could get an apartment, use our board money for food and necessities, and the tuition would be the same either way. We'd also expect to work part-time jobs for any additional cash we need."

There was an awkward silence while Nancy stared at her hands and Max stared at the floor. Only Jeff seemed to be analyzing the situation with any detachment.

"What do you plan to study, Max?"

Max felt his feet meeting firmer ground. "I have a lot of work to do with the Voyans, politically, that is."

"You're leaving Earth?" choked Nancy, straightening suddenly, fear in her eyes.

“No! That’s the beauty of it. I’ve been working with my father on a proposal for Rana and the alliance. If all goes well, I don’t have to leave Earth at all, and the risk of danger to my friends and family will be greatly reduced. When I have the details worked out, I plan to get everyone together to explain it and make sure we all agree before taking it to Rana. I’d want you to be there, too, of course.

“Anyway, I think it would be most useful for me to major in Political Science. That would help me in my leadership role on Voya, and at the same time, I could teach around here. Eventually, I’d get my doctorate and maybe even join the faculty at UNM so we could stay nearby. Liz could work on her degree in Molecular Biology, too. She wants to participate in the research my people started on hybrid/human biology.”

Max was starting to feel good about how things were going when Jeff stopped him cold.

“What would you do if we said no?”

Nancy and Jeff saw the color drain from Max’s face, his eyes darting nervously. When he looked back to them, there was fear in his eyes. As the seconds passed, though, the fear retreated and determination won out.

“I would change your minds,” he answered with resolve.

Nancy wiped away a solitary tear and stood up shakily. Without a word, she left the room, leaving Max speechless behind her. What had just happened? Were Liz’s parents saying no? Could they possibly still expect to keep Liz from him?

He turned back to see Jeff staring after her, too, a perplexed crease in his brow. He looked back at Max and shrugged. “I think this is something of a shock,” he explained. “It’s been hard enough to imagine Liz going off to college in a year, let alone getting married.”

They sat in awkward silence for a few moments. “I guess I should go,” Max mumbled dejectedly, reeling under the realization that the whole meeting had resulted in an outcome that he found intolerable.

He’d pushed heavily to his feet when he heard movement behind him. Turning, he saw Nancy Parker making her way toward him, slowly extending her hand. In it was a tiny box.

“Open it,” she whispered.

Max carefully opened the black velvet box. Nestled against the white satin lining was a sparkling wedding set. The modest marquis diamond sat at a proud angle above an asymmetrical gold band. It was simple, but highly unique and elegant. The amazing part, though, was the pattern it formed with the matching wedding band, for when the two combined, the contours of the second ring encircled the solitaire with diamond chips. The end result was a star-studded swirl, and Max immediately thought of the symbol from the pendant, from the cave, and from the promise ring he had made for Liz just a few months ago.

He looked in confusion from Nancy to Jeff and back to Nancy, his mouth unable to do anything but gape.

“That’s a wonderful idea, Nancy,” Jeff smiled approvingly. Max knew he was missing something important, but he was still marveling at the design of the ring set and wondering how he was supposed to react. What were they telling him?

“They were Claudia’s,” Nancy told him reverently. “Years ago, her hands had swollen with a touch of arthritis, and her work in the archeological digs was too harsh for fine jewelry, so she gave her rings to me, and asked me to hand them down to Liz when the time came. I guess the time is now.”

The power of speech drained right out of Max. His hand shook slightly as the implication of Nancy’s words took hold. Did they have the Parkers’ blessing, then? Was this the final piece of the puzzle that made them all one family? His fingertip traced the top of the rings, wondering if the design was an amazing coincidence or a conscious effort meant to represent their heritage.

“Thank you,” he finally whispered. “How . . .? Is this design . . .? I mean, it almost looks like . . .”

Jeff nodded. “I’d forgotten about these rings, but now that I think about it, I remember Mom telling me that she and Dad had had these designed especially for them. Their value didn’t lie so much in the size of the stones, but rather in the uniqueness of the design. I never thought it had a meaning beyond being unique, but I realize now that she had a definite pattern in mind.”

He looked at Max, his eyes friendly and welcoming. “I can’t think of a more appropriate symbol for you and Liz, can you?”

“Does Liz know about these?” he asked.

“She saw them a few years ago,” Nancy recalled. “She was barely a teenager, but they made quite an impression on her. She told me it was the most beautiful and unique set she’d ever seen, and she knew it stood for a special love. Then she said she would never wear them unless she found someone as unique and special to share her love with.”

Nancy reached out and touched his trembling hands with her own. “I think she’s found that love, Max.”

Max wanted to jump out of his skin with joy. It was really going to happen! He was going to marry his beloved Liz, [I[with all the parents’ blessings, and they could begin their new life as soon as next summer. He was visibly shaking now, even as a grin sliced a broad swath across his face, and he snapped the box closed before the rings were jarred from their perch.

Jeff chuckled at Max’s reaction. “I think you’d better sit down, son,” he coaxed gently, guiding him to sit again in the chair. Even Nancy smiled to see how happy he was. She’d known it was just a matter of time for these young lovers, and she’d also known that no matter when it happened, she wouldn’t be ready. Looking at Max now, though, she knew Liz couldn’t have found a truer love, and that’s what this was all about, after all.

“When will you ask her?” Nancy asked, acknowledging the seeds of excitement over the coming event.

Max’s happiness radiated from his eyes when he looked at her, but the thought processes were clearly still jumbled.

“Ask her?” he responded vaguely. A beat.

“Oh, ask her!” he clarified, as if to himself. “Soon! Very soon! But I want it to be perfect. I have to think. I have to think.” He was muttering now, reopening the box to examine the rings. He could already picture them on her tiny hands, and the thought of her wearing this public symbol of their union filled him with love and pride and gratitude. It had happened! She would be his! He would be hers! Nothing could come between them again.

His lips worked to form another thank you, but the adrenalin seemed to have shot his ability to function. A single tear of joy slid down his face, and in his eyes, the Parkers saw all the gratitude they’d ever need.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 1:19:20 PM
Part 40

Thanksgiving held special meaning for Roswell’s alien inner circle this year. The bonds among them were stronger than ever, as was their faith in the future. The Parker and Evans families had celebrated the holiday together with a great feast and a new closeness, and although Liz was pleased by the mutual acceptance, she had to admit to being confused, especially by the open familiarity between her parents and the Evanses. She could tell Max was blocking her sometimes, too, but her burgeoning gift for sensing others’ emotions reassured her that whatever was happening was a good thing, and she was content to let it play out.

Max had asked her to reserve Sunday just for him, and she had happily agreed. Although they spent as much time together as possible, it was never enough, and a carefree day alone sounded like heaven. Her confusion mounted, though, as she became increasingly aware of Max’s nervousness over the course of the weekend, but she didn’t question him. As long as what she felt wasn’t alarm, she could wait.

Max, of course, had spent the last two weeks thinking about the perfect way to ask the perfect girl to make his life perfect. Although the romantic possibilities were exciting, the cautious voice that spoke to him so often from deep within kept reminding him of one sobering fact: Liz still didn’t know everything about him—because he didn’t know himself—and he couldn’t ask her to commit to the unknown. So he and Rana had spent some “quality time” together, and what he’d learned made him even more nervous now than he had been before. The reality of being Liz Evans, wife to a high school graduate with a promising future, was insecure enough. Marrying Max Evans aka Zan, king of Voya, was intimidating as hell. At least that’s how Max saw it.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that Max knocked on the Parkers’ door that Sunday to pick Liz up. Before she even touched the doorknob, his anxiety swept over her, and she opened the door with a frown of concern.

“Are you okay?” she asked, reaching to soothe the tense jaw muscles with her fingertips. He gazed into her concerned face and began to wonder why he’d worked himself into such a state. ‘Because she holds your future happiness in the palm of her hand, he reminded himself.

He responded with a tight smile, and she pushed up on her toes to kiss him. He responded immediately, melting into her loving embrace and returning her kiss with fervor. Just the familiar feel of Liz in his arms, flooding his heart and mind with her eager love, settled him, and when they pulled apart, he was visibly calmer.

“Shall we go, Ms. Parker?” he asked formally, offering her his arm.

“Indeed we shall, Mr. Evans,” she accepted, and moments later, they were driving off to one of the most momentous days of their lives.

********

Liz’s curiosity was in overdrive as she realized Max was taking her to the old quarry, the site of so many secret meetings and critical decisions. What could be out there that was so special? She sneaked a peek at Max, trying to decipher his expression or probe his thoughts, but he was on to her and squeezed her hand.

“Soon” was all he would say.

Arriving at their destination, Max walked around the Jeep to help Liz out, then reached behind the seat to retrieve a small duffel bag. Leading her carefully toward the mammoth pit, they looked out over the expanse of rock and water. Liz tried to wait patiently, feeling Max’s intensity, but not understanding it. Finally, he heaved a sigh and turned to her, his eyes glowing with anticipation.

“I have so much I want to tell you and show you, but I’m afraid I might fumble it a little. Please, just let me get this out before you respond, okay?”

Liz nodded. Whatever had been building up inside of Max was finally going to spill forth, and she had no idea what to expect.

“First, I want you to know that anything you see today that you’re not seeing right now is a mindwarp.”

Her startled protest died on her lips as he hurried to explain.

“Don’t worry. It’s safe and carefully monitored. Rana, with the help of a trusted advisor, is helping me. It’s important to me that you see the things I want to show you. Will you allow it?”

Liz felt herself pulled into his amber depths and saw how fervently he wanted this. In spite of her misgivings, she nodded her assent.

Max opened the bag he’d carried from the Jeep and removed the orb. Joining hands with Liz, they closed their eyes in concentration until the beam of light had burst forth and then receded, bringing Rana and an old man into their midst.

“Greetings, my son,” Rana smiled warmly. “And to you, dear daughter.”

Liz blushed at the familiarity.

“Max, are we ready to begin?”

“Yes, Rana.”

“Liz, do you understand that my advisor Savanal and I will be supplying images that Max has requested? It’s quite safe,” she smiled reassuringly, sensing Liz’s reluctance. “Are you ready?”

Liz sought Max’s reassurance, too, and felt his confidence bolster her resolve. “Yes, Rana. I’m ready.”

“Very well. Let us begin.”

Immediately, a lovely gazebo materialized around them. Its cross-hatched railing was covered with blooming morning glories, and the polished wooden benches that lined its interior beckoned them to sit. Liz smiled with delight as Max led her to a seat opposite the full opening that offered a panoramic view of what was to become their stage. He took both of her hands in his and began to speak.

“The most important thing I have to tell you is how much I love you.”

At Liz’s knowing smile, he pushed forward. “I know you’re thinking ‘I knew that already,’ but I don’t know if you can ever imagine what that means to me. My whole life, I’ve been a lost soul, never knowing if or where I belonged. My parents loved me, but they had no inkling of who or what I was, and my original home and family were a complete mystery to me. I didn’t know if I’d been abandoned, orphaned . . . I even thought maybe my existence was the result of some freak science experiment. But ever since the first day I saw you, I felt you in my heart, and you felt like home. Somehow, you filled a place in me that no one else had ever even touched.”

Liz’s eyes were already shining with unshed tears, and she opened her mouth to speak, but he silenced her with a finger to her lips and the barest shake of his head.

“I used to live for a glimpse of you at school; I used to badger my family into eating at the Crashdown just in case you might walk through. It was always bittersweet because seeing you gave me a sense of peace, but knowing you could never be mine gave me such pain.

“The day you were shot and we connected, I knew that everything I’d been thinking all those years was true—you were the most beautiful person I’d ever known—inside and out. That made everything better and everything worse all at once.”

It was all Liz could do to sit quietly as this gentle man bared his soul to her. She loved him beyond all reason, and it hurt to think about the pain and anguish she knew he had suffered. Knowing she was both cause and cure for much of it left her feeling ambivalent. She wouldn’t trade a moment of their time together for her own sake, but she would have sacrificed it if it meant life would have been easier for him. There was too much between them to ever turn back now, though. They’d known that long ago. So the conflicting emotions tumbled chaotically through her, and the tears spilled down her cheeks. Still, as he had asked, she remained silent.

Max reached to gently brush her tears away before continuing.

“The most wonderful day of my life was the day I gave up the fight to stay away from you, and with that first kiss, I felt hope for the future for the first time. It was like waking up and realizing that your nightmare wasn’t real after all. I felt . . . alive.

“But after that, things just went crazy—Michael getting sick, Topolsky spying on us, the hologram telling us things that we didn’t understand, your walking away . . .”

His voice broke as the familiar pain ripped through him, a vivid reminder of the worst moment of his life. Liz lifted his hand to her face and leaned her cheek into it, kissing the palm tenderly. It was Max’s tears that threatened to fall now, and he paused to collect himself.

“I could feel my very soul begin to die that day. I knew nothing would ever be right again, and for weeks, I stopped caring if I lived or died. Only worrying about Michael and Izzy gave me any reason to keep going. Then those FBI agents kidnapped you, and I knew that if I ever found you again, I’d never let you go.

“You saved me, Liz. You gave me back my soul, my hope, and you’ve stuck it out through more fear and danger and alien fallout than I ever hope to experience again. The people of Voya may never know what they owe you, but I do. And it’s brought me here to ask you for one more thing.”

Liz looked into his eyes and saw the nervousness returning to cloud their usually clear depths.

“Anything, Max. You know that. You say I’ve given you so much. Don’t you know it can never repay what you’ve given me? You’re my life, Max. I don’t think I was ever really alive before you, either. You’ve shared the greatest gift you could ever give—your heart. Ask anything of me and it’s yours.”

Max slowly lowered his mouth to hers and pulled her into an impulsive kiss, despite his plan to get everything out first. He wanted her to make this decision with her mind engaged as well as her heart, and he knew it was wrong to flood her with his raw emotions. But sometimes, when the woman you love looks at you with liquid chocolate eyes and professes her love for you and offers you the world . . . well, you just have to kiss her.

Straightening, Max struggled to get back to his game plan.

“Liz, I’m going to ask you a question, but first, you must promise me to watch carefully the images Rana and Savanal have prepared. There are things you need to know about me before you can answer, okay?”

Liz nodded. “Okay, Max.”

Liz’s attention was drawn to the quarry pit as it quickly transformed into a city, but a city unlike any she had ever seen.

“This is Voya’s capital city, Liz. This is where I once lived with Michael and Isabel and . . . and Tess, briefly.”

Liz gasped in amazement. Above the tall, sleek structures swooped rectangular enclosures that Liz deduced must be transportation of some kind. The city was clearly conceived and built in three dimensions, with city blocks extending upwards as well as out from the city’s center. A sun glowed red in the sky, and abundant vegetation flourished in brilliant colors on every level.

“It’s beautiful, Max!” Liz breathed. “I could never have imagined such a place.”

Next, luminescent figures appeared, populating the streets, vehicles, and buildings. Their appearance was humanoid, but they seemed softer, sleeker, more fluid.

“Those figures are Voyans, Liz. That’s what I once was.”

Hearing the edge in Max’s voice, Liz tore her eyes from the spectacular scene before her. His nervousness was palpable now, pressing on her, enveloping her.

“Is this what you’ve been afraid to tell me, Max? Have you been afraid I would turn from you because your form was once different from mine?”

His silence was answer enough.

“Max!” Liz exclaimed, extending her arm to the scene teeming in front of them. “This is beautiful, wonderful, miraculous! This is a part of who you are. I could never turn from that.”

“But that’s not all, Liz.”

The scene changed. Suddenly, Liz was looking at orange mountains cut sharply against the sky. The figures in this scene were bent to what appeared to be an arduous task, mining perhaps.

“This is Krona, Malek’s planet. The people here work hard and have little. It is a harsh and unyielding environment, and Voya benefits greatly from their labors.”

Liz frowned. “That doesn’t seem very fair, Max.”

“It isn’t. But apparently I did little to rectify the situation as king. It’s no wonder that an evil manipulator like Malek could recruit their support.”

“Surely this isn’t your fault, Max,” Liz offered, knowing Max couldn’t have seen this and done nothing.

“I’m told I never went to see it. I took the word of my advisors that things were not so bad as their emissaries let on.”

Max was frowning now, angry that as king, he had taken so little note of the complaints that were brought to him. “I guess that is part of who I was, too, Liz.”

The scene changed again and again as Max took Liz on a virtual tour of the five-planet system for which Voya was the crowned jewel. When it was over, he looked at Liz expectantly.

“And what would you do differently now, Max?” Liz asked.

Max was instantly animated. “Someone needs to do a comprehensive and unbiased tour of all five planets, logging and documenting the resources and conditions of each. Then, representatives need to meet to discuss how their resources can be equitably distributed while improving conditions on the harsher and poorer planets. We need to form a council . . .”

He was cut off abruptly when Liz launched herself against him, planting an abrupt kiss on his still-moving mouth. Taken aback, Max leaned against the railing.

“What was that for?”

“For being the man I know you to be, for learning from your mistakes, and for giving me yet one more reason to love that big heart of yours,” she replied, grinning. “So, is there anything else I need to see?”

“No, that’s it,” he sighed.

“Okay, then. What did you want to ask me?”

A touch of the old nervousness returned, and Max swallowed hard.

“Okay, here goes.”

Liz’s eyes grew big as saucers as Max lowered himself to one knee in front of her.

“Liz Parker, there is nothing in this world I want more than to marry you. I want to love you in this life and any other that may await. I want to live with you, make love to you, have babies with you, and grow old with you. I want to be the first person you see in the morning and the last you see at night, and then I want to hold you until we wake up again.”

Liz was reeling with surprise and excitement at his heartfelt declaration. She wasn’t sure at what point the tears had started again, but as the droplets hit her trembling fingers, she looked down and gasped. Max had pulled a small velvet box from his pocket and, with his own hands shaking even more than hers, he opened it.

Lying there, gleaming regally against a background of white satin, were her Grandma Claudia’s rings. She had forgotten about them long ago, but seeing them now, for the first time in years, she suddenly recognized the meaning behind their unique configuration.

“Liz, will you be my wife?”

“Oh my god!” she whispered, raising her eyes to Max’s hopeful ones. “Oh my god! Oh my god!” she repeated in short bursts, blinking over and over to clear her tear-blurred vision. Once Max’s face came into focus, she saw his hopeful expression falter, and she realized she hadn’t given him an answer.

“Yes, Max! Oh, yes! Yes! Yes!” She threw herself forward and wrapped her slender arms around his neck, almost knocking them both to the ground. Max steadied them quickly and wrapped her in a fierce hug, relieved laughter bubbling from lips that happily planted kisses in her hair. The air was lit with a brilliant pulsing glow, and the two lovers clung to each other in ultimate joy.

Eventually, they eased their embrace enough to share giddy smiles. “Max, the rings. They’re my Grandma Claudia’s, aren’t they? How did you get them?”

“Your mother,” he answered simply.

Liz was struck dumb. She stared at him, trying to determine if he was being serious. But of course he was! Where else could they have come from? He couldn’t have known of their existence to even create a copy!

“My mother?” she choked. “My parents know about this? And approve?”

“Yes,” he replied, a pleased, newly confident expression relaxing his features. “I went to them a couple of weeks ago. I knew it wasn’t fair to ask you to be my wife until I was sure they weren’t going to fight it. I wanted this day to be our happiest yet, and if you were worried about their reaction, it might spoil it.”

“You went to them? To ask for my hand?” Liz asked incredulously. “Max! You must have been scared to death!”

“I was,” he readily admitted. “And they weren’t exactly easy sells, either. In fact, when your mother left the room crying, I thought she was upset and basically saying no. But then she came back . . . with these.”

He pulled the engagement ring from the pairing in the box and reached for Liz’s hand. She offered it willingly, and her heart leapt against her chest as she watched Max slide it onto her trembling finger.

Their eyes met.

“I am and always will be yours,” she whispered.

Their kiss shook them to their very core, every shred of barrier that had ever existed between them gone. Encompassed by the blinding glow, a loving Rana looked on, her heart full. At last, her son had fulfilled his destiny.



[ edited 1 time(s), last at 20-Apr-2002 1:37:26 PM ]
posted on 20-Apr-2002 1:21:11 PM
Part 41

What a night it was. All the way to the pod chamber, Max and Liz couldn’t stop touching. Liz quickly picked up the pattern on the stick shift so she wouldn’t have to let go of Max’s hand, and he grinned at her with a happiness that took her breath away. Their sense of each other was heightened, too, and for the first time, it wasn't just emotions Liz was sensitive to; Max's actual thoughts tugged at the edges of her mind as well. She could feel them reaching for her, searching for their second home, and the air between them crackled with pent-up energy and emotion. Even their signature glow, so bright and obvious when they made love, hovered around them like a shadow of light.

Liz watched Max’s profile as he drove, at least in between loving glances at her, and she thought she might burst with the wonder of it all. A year and a half had brought her from bored small-town girl to queen of a faraway planet whose king made all other men pale in comparison. Even on Earth, she was about to be acknowledged as belonging to Max just as he belonged to her, and the very thought shot such euphoria through her that she could barely think. Her ring winked at her, reflecting a ray toward the sky whenever the light caught it just right, and her heart soared with it every single time.

Max could feel her joy and excitement easily now, both through her radiant face and through the ecstatic thoughts that fairly ricocheted in her mind and, therefore, in his. At this moment, there were no enemies, no problems, no other people. Tonight, it was only about the two of them.

Settled comfortably in the pod chamber, Max created an atmosphere charged with romance, and as they loved each other, the reality of how far they’d come began to dawn on them. Had someone asked them if they had held anything back from each other over the last few months, their answer would have been a resounding “no.” They had given themselves to each other heart, body, and soul over and over, and they would have sworn nothing stood between them. But as they came together tonight, something was different. Every shadow of insecurity in Max’s mind, every unacknowledged doubt about the future with an alien king in the recesses of Liz’s thoughts, every ignored concern about what their differences might mean for them, for their children, for their planets—all of it dissolved in the presence of unprecedented honesty, acceptance, and love. The chamber shone brightly as the sun, and they closed their eyes against its intensity.

Later, lying limply on Max, Liz concentrated only on the fingertips that stroked her back in large circles and the rapid puffs of air that tickled her shoulder as Max’s racing heart slowly calmed. If there had been a way to get closer to him, she would have done it in a heartbeat. Or maybe, she thought, sighing happily, she was already there, for when they had found that ultimate release in each other's bodies, the final connection was forged. Now, not only were their bodies and hearts joined, but like floodgates opening, their minds were joined. She was conscious of his every thought and sensation, and she knew she would never tire of being completely tuned in to this wonderful man.

His awe at their newfound closeness pressed into her, and she raised herself up to look into his amazed eyes.

“I feel like I can never go to sleep again, for fear this will all disappear,” he confessed to Liz as he caressed her face hovering close above him. Even though the light within the cave had diminished, their skin still glowed as the candlelight reflected off the sheen of perspiration their lovemaking had produced. “Will this last?” he asked her simply.

Liz was still breathing hard, but she didn’t miss the wonder in his eyes that matched her own. She nodded slowly, then lowered her head to nuzzle his neck.

“When I said ‘always,’ I meant ‘always,’ Max. This is real. We have found our future, right here, in each other’s arms. Never doubt it. Never doubt us.”

Max closed his eyes and let the sensation of her voice’s vibrations in his ear filter down his neck and into his chest. “I know,” he assured her. “It’s just that anytime I’ve thought my life could include some happiness, something has always come along to take it away or threaten it. It’s a hard reflex to control.”

“What you need,” she advised, “is some serious convincing.” All thought shut down as Max felt her hands on him once again, leaving a trail of fire over his arms, his chest, his stomach. He hardened instantly. Oh, God! Had anyone else ever felt such love, such happiness? He grabbed his fiancée and rolled her underneath him. It was time to show her that he believed.

********
Succumbing to the ongoing irony of their lives, Max and Liz pulled themselves together to return home. It was, after all, a school night. And they knew their parents would be waiting to congratulate them, never doubting what Liz’s answer would be. Besides, Max wanted to run some things by Liz about plans for their future and the future of Voya. She was an integral part of this now; as his queen, his mate, and soon-to-be wife, Liz was a part of him, and every decision, every action affected them both. He wanted her approval first and foremost. But in spite of his most noble intentions, as long as they stayed in the pod chamber, he couldn’t seem to keep his hands off of her. The long ride home would provide just the setting he needed to test the waters about his startling ideas.

True to their expectations, they entered the Crashdown to find both sets of parents talking and drinking coffee. Unlike the last time, though, when they had returned from an unauthorized overnight in the desert, there were no accusatory glares or stern punishments. There were only shining eyes in expectant faces, taking in the happiness that overflowed from the young couple.

Liz threw her arms around her mother, tears already sliding down her face. “Mom! You knew about this! You let Max have Grandma’s rings! I love you so much!

Her mother’s tears mingled with her own, and they held each other tightly.

“Just be happy, my little one. And safe. I know Max loves you. ”

Jeff Parker waited impatiently for a turn with his daughter as he watched the Evanses hug their son, offering congratulations. He knew Diane well enough now to understand what it meant to her to see Max so happy. She had always worried about him, even in the best of times. But now, his uncharacteristically broad smile was only one indication that he had found peace. In spite of the emotional scene, there was a confidence in Max now that didn’t exist before, and when he saw Liz’s eyes meet Max’s over their parents’ shoulders, it was easy to tell where it came from.

After each set of parents’ hugged and congratulated their own child, they exchanged children, and welcomed another person into their family. Philip gathered Liz into a big bear hug, saying nothing for fear the emotion would betray him. Diane pressed her soon-to-be daughter-in-law against her.

“You’ve given him something we never could, Liz. I’ll always be grateful to you for that,” she choked against Liz’s ear. Liz pulled back and looked with open affection into Diane’s loving eyes.

“Diane, Max wouldn’t be the man . . . the leader . . . that he is becoming without you and the love you’ve shown him all these years. He loves you so much, and so do I.”

Diane bit her lip, helpless against the new flood of happy tears that coursed down her cheeks, leaving dark, wet spots on her blouse. She smoothed Liz’s hair and nodded her gratitude for Liz’s reassuring words. Looking up, she saw perhaps the most reassuring sight of all—Jeff Parker shaking Max’s hand and clapping him on the back with barely disguised emotion.

“You take care of my little girl, Max. She’s precious to us.”

“You can count on it, Mr. Par . . . Jeff,” he promised. Then Max turned to Nancy Parker.

“Mrs. Parker . . .”

“Nancy,” she corrected him.

He smiled. “Nancy, I can’t thank you enough for accepting this, for allowing me to use Grandma’s rings, and for giving us your blessing.”

Liz whimpered and her hands flew to her mouth as Nancy pushed up and kissed Max tenderly on the cheek. “Make me glad I did,” she whispered. A stunned Max stared into her eyes.

“That’s a promise,” he said sincerely.

The silence grew heavy with emotion until Jeff broke the spell. “Let’s break out the cherry cola!” he yelled, and the room erupted into conversation, plans, and laughter. Eventually, the happy families realized the time and began to say their goodbyes.

“One more thing,” Max interrupted over the noise of happy conversation. They quieted immediately, more aware than ever of the aura of command that Max carried with greater ease each day. “We’d like to keep this quiet for one more day. We want our close friends to hear this from us, not from anyone else, so I propose we meet tomorrow night at our house. We’ll tell everyone else about the engagement and also about my . . . our proposal to Rana and the alliance. It affects all of us, and I want everyone’s approval before I take any action.”

Max paused as the others looked at him with varying degrees of surprise and respect. He realized he’d come across as giving an order. “I mean . . . if that works for everyone,” he finished awkwardly.

The Evanses looked at the Parkers for confirmation.

“We’ll be there, Max,” Jeff offered, and Nancy nodded.

Max reached automatically for Liz, hating to say goodnight, but willing to at least pretend to go along with normal behavior for now. Her arms snaked up around his neck and pulled him down. Aware at first of their audience, Max had every intention of making this a quick, chaste kiss, but Liz had other ideas, and only seconds later, they were lost in each other. As the kiss deepened, his arms wrapped tightly around her and she whimpered deep in her throat. Tongue met tongue and thoughts merged, sending signals to the rest of their bodies.

The glow began to swirl around them, and it was the unexpected gasps that brought them back to reality. Liz backed away from Max, suddenly self-conscious.

“I’m sorry. That was my fault,” she admitted shyly, embarrassed she had let the kiss intensify. Looking up, though, she realized the gasp was not about the kiss; it was about the pulsing glow that had already begun to diminish.

“What the hell?” Philip mumbled. "I thought that only happened when you were in that 'alien zone' with Rana."

“Uh, yeah,” Max stammered, biting his lower lip. “I guess maybe we should talk about that tomorrow night, too. I'm hoping Rana can help us find a way to control that.” Suddenly self-conscious about the blatant way their consuming passion manifested itself, he gave Liz a light kiss on the forehead and herded his dazed parents out the door.

********

Poor Slade Pelpamas. How could she have known what her first day at West Roswell High would bring? She had every reason to be confident. After all, back at her old high school in Illinois, she’d been a cheerleader, a Homecoming attendant, and the darling of the drama club. Every guy in the school fantasized about her, and she knew she could have her pick. This school was smaller and less urban; she’d have them eating out of her hand within days.

As people entered and left the busy office, Slade waited impatiently for the vice principal to introduce her to her guide for the day. Mr. Vidoni had seemed downright delighted when she arrived, telling her he knew just the right student to show her around. From her perch on an uncomfortable wooden chair next to the secretary's desk, she took an informal inventory. So far, she’d say the guys were average and the girls were substandard. Not much competition. So much the better.

Her breath caught in her throat as the door to the office opened yet again, and she stared at the Adonis who had just walked through. He had raven hair that fell over his eyes with a sexy yet boyish charm. His muscular arms stretched the fabric of his black t-shirt, and his fitted jeans did little to disguise his firm thighs and perfect behind. Tearing her eyes from his great body, she looked up at his face—beautiful mouth, perfect nose, cute ears that seemed just a little too large for his head, and the eyes . . . Her mouth fell open as he looked casually at her. She could fall forever into those soulful amber eyes!

“Dean Shepherd said Mr. Vidoni wanted to see me.” Was that his voice? Sultry, magnetic, masculine. This was definitely her first target.

“He’s on the phone. He’ll be out in a minute.”

Adonis nodded and walked a few paces toward her, never making eye contact. He leaned against the wall and rested one foot on a chair rung, pulling the jeans even tighter across his front. Slade knew she was staring, but he didn’t seem to notice, so she indulged herself a while longer.

Slade watched as he rubbed his eyes absently. Then he seemed to breathe in deeply. What was he doing? Smelling his own hand? Okay, that was a little weird, but something about it pleased him, because a small smile tugged at his lips and his eyes closed dreamily. Dear god, was it getting hot in here?

“Mr. Evans. I’m so glad you could finally join us. I’ve been waiting.”

Max looked momentarily confused. “I just got to school. Ms. Shepherd said you wanted to see me. Did you . . . was I supposed to . . . did I have an appointment with you or something?”

Mr. Vidoni looked with satisfaction on Max Evans. He’d rattled the boy, and that suited the vice principal just fine. This guy thought he was so smart, smarter than the administration, smarter than him, and throwing a wrench in his day—and maybe his oversexed relationship—would be the high point of Mr. Vidoni’s week.

Vidoni’s smug look had a very different effect on Max, though. Taking in the superior attitude and the obvious pleasure he derived from keeping Max off balance broke the spell Vidoni had attempted to weave. Something in Max just snapped. He’d taken enough crap from this bozo, and for the life of him, Max couldn’t figure out why he was allowing it to continue. He straightened and his expression became calm and steady. Vidoni faltered ever so slightly.

“What did you need, Mr. Vidoni?”

“Uh, I . . . we have a new student,” Mr. Vidoni hurried to say, extending his arm to Slade. “I took the liberty of checking her schedule against other students’ and realized that you and she have several classes together, so you’ll be showing her around today.”

Slade couldn’t believe her luck. This was perfect. She’d spend the whole day with him and by the end of it, he’d want her. And for the first time, she could imagine herself wanting him, too. She flashed her most endearing smile and stepped forward.

“Well, Mr. Evans, do you have a first name?” She was taken aback momentarily as Max’s expression reflected more irritation than eagerness—not the usual reaction at all. Then she saw him glance toward Vidoni, and it looked as if he’d made a decision of some kind. Suddenly, he was all smiles.

“Hi, I’m Max. And you are . . .?”

“Slade. Slade Pelpamas. Nice to meet you.”

“Well, Slade Pelpamas, first period is about to begin, so let’s find out where you need to be.”

She offered her schedule to him, and they walked into the hall, talking easily. Vidoni frowned. Just where had he lost control of that exchange? He’d hoped to shake the Evans boy’s cage a little by throwing him together with this stunning new girl. Maybe Liz Parker would realize that Max Evans was just another hormone-crazed boy and they’d both stop acting like they were so special. He knew it was spiteful and petty. He didn’t care. No one played him for a fool and got away with it.

Liz sat in Anatomy and felt Max’s irritation from two floors away. And to her surprise, she could even hear some of his thoughts. This intensified connection of theirs would take some getting used to, but she loved that she was so aware of him. She closed her eyes and concentrated.

That bastard thinks he can mess with me . . . with us. I’ll play his game, and win. Wait til Liz hears this.

I heard.

Max froze. Was that Liz? Had they really reached this point? He grinned. Liz?

Yeah. Wow, this is bizarre.

I’ll say. But cool. I like knowing you’re really with me all the time. Vidoni tossed me some hot new girl to show around. I know he’s just trying to cause trouble, but I plan to beat him at his own game. I’ll kill him with kindness. It’ll be fun to watch him squirm.

Hot new girl?

Max faltered and replayed what he’d said. No, Liz, not hot to me. I just mean . . . she’s . . . Liz, I didn’t mean it that way.

Laughter registered in his mind, and he realized Liz was having some fun with him.

I’ll get you for that.

Promise? Max’s mind filled with the images Liz was projecting, and his body reacted immediately. He clamped down on his thoughts, struggling to block Liz, and shifted his books so that he was carrying them in front of him. This could be rough, he winced as he resumed the walk to class.

Slade watched Max curiously. His facial expressions kept changing, almost as if he were having a conversation. Occasionally, he would just stop dead in his tracks, then resume walking, only to stop again. She tried to keep pace with him, but she was never sure which way they were going or how fast.

She touched his arm and he focused back on her. “Max? Is something wrong?”

Max surprised her with a chuckle. “Nothing that a little practice won’t fix,” he commented amiably, and he looked back at her schedule. “We start with English together,” he stated, as if they hadn’t already established that. “Second floor. Take those stairs.”

Slade sighed. Well, he may be a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but he’s luscious to look at. That’ll do for now.

********

Max spent the morning playing the perfect host. He introduced Slade to people in every class and watched with amusement as the boys hovered like bees and the girls glared suspiciously. He couldn’t imagine falling for her. She was so obvious and, he’d deduced, shallow. But her looks were the stuff of teen dreams, and she had a practiced charm that made every guy think that just maybe he had a chance with her. He’d noticed her sidelong glances at him, though, as he waited for the crowd to thin after every class. And she’d taken to sliding her arm through his as they navigated the hallway. He had been about to explain about Liz when Vidoni approached them, oozing smiles and arrogance.

“Well, Ms. Hampton, I trust Mr. Evans has been a satisfactory guide?”

Slade oozed back, “Oh, yes. He’s been so wonderfully helpful and attentive.” She looked up at him, batting her eyes slightly and Max almost laughed out loud. He was anxious to get to Trig, where he knew Liz would be waiting for him.

“We’d better get to math, Mr. Vidoni,” he smiled. “Can’t keep Mr. Chambers waiting.”

Vidoni watched them walking arm in arm down the hall and smiled. It was only a matter of time.

Slade walked contentedly into math class on Max’s arm. She had taken every opportunity to brush up against this fabulous specimen and quickly realized that there were seriously toned muscles under that t-shirt. He was deceptively slender, but there were rewards to be had just beneath that piece of fabric. Snapping out of her reverie, she sensed his hesitation and looked up. His eyes . . . his gorgeous eyes . . . were doing a sweep of the room, as if he were looking for someone. Sighing with disappointment, he made his way to a seat. Slade began to sit next to him.

“That’s Liz’s seat,” he blurted.

“Liz?”

“Yeah, my girlfriend.”

The words hit Slade harder than she could have ever expected, but she pushed a smile out over the pang of disappointment.

“Well, she doesn’t seem to be here, so maybe it’ll be alright this once.”

Max looked around the room again and frowned. Opening up his thoughts, he searched for her. Liz?

Max, I’m sorry. I won’t be in Trig today. Vidoni has me scheduled in with a counselor for a college conference. I just saw Lucas. He thinks Vidoni is really bent about us for some reason. I guess this is just the beginning. But we can handle him, right?

Max smiled suddenly, much to the surprise of the girl watching him. You bet, my love. See you at lunch.

“Turn to Chapter 7,” Mr. Chambers ordered, and Max flipped open his Trig book.

********

Max and Slade walked into the quad at lunchtime. Max was tired of his new appendage, and was aching for some time alone with Liz, or at least with their close friends. He had no intention of including Slade in that crowd.

“Pam!” Max shouted, silencing an entire table of girls. They stared as he approached them, a beautiful blond on his arm. Their eyes were wide with surprise, and several of them forgot to chew the food in their mouths.

“Pam Troy, I’d like you to meet Slade Hampton. She’s new here, and I’ve been showing her around. I’m sure she’s sick of me, so I thought she might like to join you for lunch.”

Without waiting for an answer, he turned and left a gaping Slade standing next to a table full of strangers.

Once the shock had subsided, Pam scooted over to make room for her new charge.

“How did you get Max Evans to take you around school?” she asked, not even bothering with the usual introductions.

“Why?” Slade sniffed, insulted that they would show surprise at her having a desirable guide, in spite of the fact that she’d really had no say in it.

“I guess you wouldn’t know,” sympathized another girl. “He is so taken, it’s pathetic.”

“Well, forgive me,” preened Slade, “but I’m aware he has a girlfriend. I just wouldn’t count on that lasting too much longer. We sort of hit it off. A definite spark.”

Two of the girls laughed out loud while the others just looked at her with thinly veiled amusement. “You think so, huh?”

“It’s been known to happen,” Slade bragged. “In my old school . . .”

“Your old school had nothing like this,” Pam said, a note of disgust in her voice.

“Like what?” Slade demanded, sensing that she was losing the advantage here.

“Like that,” Pam pointed.

Slade looked across the quad and saw Max’s face turn from expressionless to passionate, and her mouth dropped open. What had done that? What had turned him from detached hunk to a sexy lover in seconds? She followed his gaze and saw a petite brunette with long hair homing in on him.

“Her?” she whispered incredulously. “That’s what has him all wired?”

“Wait for it,” another girl whispered back.

The general din of the quad had hushed somewhat as a sea of eyes waited breathlessly for their daily treat. Slade watched open-mouthed as the space closed between Max and the girl he was fixated on. Wordlessly, he reached for her with one hand, sliding it around to the back of her head and pulling her into a deep, gentle kiss. Her hand grazed his cheek before pressing flat against his chest and sliding up and down his solidly defined muscles. When they parted, there was a moment of suspended time before the din resumed.

Slade blinked. What was that? She could have sworn she detected a . . . a glow. Must be this hot New Mexico sun playing tricks on her. Blinking again, her eyes followed the couple, apparently oblivious to their audience, to a back table where they joined friends, never losing touch with one another.

“You’ll catch flies in there if you’re not careful,” Pam drawled, pleased to see the new girl put in her place. She didn’t like that Max Evans seemed to be permanently off the market, but there was some satisfaction in gaining the upper hand against a stiff competitor right out of the gate.

Slade realized her mouth was open and shut it quickly. There would be no winning over that. She shook herself and forced her gaze away. That had been intense . . . and beautiful . . . and . . . intimidating. Moments later, she began to survey the rest of the quad. Surely there was another likely candidate.


[ edited 2 time(s), last at 20-Apr-2002 1:51:14 PM ]
posted on 20-Apr-2002 1:41:05 PM
Part 42

Every eye was on Max. The casual banter had been a little strained as they waited for everyone to arrive, and the air was charged. They all seemed to sense a big announcement; they just weren’t sure what it was. Now Max stood before them, fidgeting nervously, and the room grew hushed.

“In this room are all the people I hold most dear,” he began. “You are the ones who’ve turned my life from behrly tolerable into a life full of acceptance and trust, friendship and love.” He reached for Liz’s hand, and she grasped it tightly, her eyes shining with pride. “That’s why I wanted you all here to share this important day.”

“Maxwell, get to the point,” Michael goaded him. “Your talent for drama is starting to rival Maria’s.”

Maria jabbed him sharply in the ribs, and he winced.

“Don’t underestimate Maria, my friend,” Alex laughed. “She’ll whip your sorry alien a . . .” He choked back the last word of his sentence, glancing self-consciously at the parents. “Uh, she’ll, uh . . .”

“Alex!” Isabel muttered under her breath amidst scattered chuckles.

“Go on, Max,” Jim Valenti urged. “Some of us want to hear what you have to say,” he teased, flashing Michael a grin.

The doorbell rang, and Max sighed in frustration. Looking helplessly at Liz, he saw the same sentiment mirrored in her eyes—that is, until she leapt from her chair squealing in excitement. Turning, Max broke into a wide smile as Zeval and Paul stepped into the room.

“This is great!” enthused Liz, hugging them both. As soon as she released Zeval, Michael grabbed his sister, grinning broadly. They had grown closer over the last few weeks, sharing long, honest talks. Maria was grateful to Zeval for helping Michael open up, making him more accepting—not only of others, but of himself. He belonged to a family now, and it made all the difference.

“I thought you couldn’t make it! What happened?” Michael asked, shaking Paul’s hand enthusiastically.

“Clouds,” Paul stated simply. “We had to cancel the scheduled workshop at the observatory, so we hopped in the car and got here as quickly as we could.”

“What’d we miss?” asked Zeval, as she hugged Maria.

“Nothing yet,” Michael snickered. “Max can’t seem to get it out.”

As they began to settle into their seats, spilling comfortably onto the floor, Liz put an end to their grumbling. Pulling Max close, her face shone.

“Max and I are engaged.”

The two longest seconds of their lives ticked by while the abrupt announcement sunk in. Diane and Nancy exchanged secret smiles, enjoying the impact of the news on their families and friends. Then the room spontaneously combusted—squeals, clapping, laughter, hugs, shouts, questions . . .

Laughing, Max and Liz tried to absorb all of the good wishes, and Liz could feel the strong surge of happiness throughout the room.

“When’s the wedding?” asked Isabel.

“How did he propose?” Maria wanted to know.

“Your parents are okay with this?” gasped the ever-practical Alex.

“Great, now Maria will have a bug up her butt,” Michael complained good-naturedly as he pulled Max into a rough hug.

“What about a ring?” Izzie and Maria chimed in together.

“Everybody, calm down,” Max begged, smiling happily as he pulled Liz back into his arms.

Aware of the expectant eyes trained on her, Liz slowly tugged at the chain around her neck, easing the ring into view. She slipped it off the necklace and onto her finger.

Isabel gasped. “Is that . . . is that what it looks like? How . . .?”

“I think Nancy should have the pleasure of telling that story,” Max answered, grateful that he could now see his prospective mother-in-law as an ally. Nancy gladly shared the history of the rings, and when she finished, her amazed audience admired them again—both for their beauty and their deep meaning. Then Max and Liz answered the avalanche of questions about the proposal and wedding plans—at least, to a point. Some of what they had said and done was for them alone, to be tucked away in that private place in their hearts where what was most sacred between them was protected and cherished.

“Well, you gotta give ‘em one thing,” quipped Alex. “When they say ‘big announcement,’ they mean ‘big announcement’!”

“Actually, that’s not all,” Max said quietly. That brought all conversation to a standstill.

“There’s something else we need to talk about—all of us. It has to do with my proposal for Voya’s future, and what that means for everyone here. I won’t take this to Rana until we are all agreed.”

Waiting expectantly, they watched Liz give him an encouraging nod as she grasped his hand tightly. Then Phillip came to stand beside his son. Taking a deep breath, Max tried to make eye contact with each person.

“I’m thinking of abdicating the throne.”

Almost every face gaped in shock. With the exception of Liz and Max’s parents, no one had anticipated this startling pronouncement.

“What are you talking about?” Isabel shouted in confusion.

“Max, you can’t just abandon them,” Tess reminded him. “They need you now, more than ever.”

“What’s this about, man?” Michael asked quietly, watching his friend carefully.

“Hear me out,” Max pleaded. “Let me explain what I have in mind. I promise you, we will all have to agree before I take any action, okay?”

Mollified for the moment, they reined in their questions and let him speak.

“First, let me tell you what I’ve been thinking, and then what I want to propose. You should know that Liz supports this, and that my dad has helped me shape this plan, so it’s not just one person’s ideas.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about being a king, or even the concept of royalty. Think about it. There are very few places left on Earth that have kings, and those that do, see them mostly as figureheads. I haven't been raised to think or act like a king, let alone believe in the principals that support it.

"More important, though, I've spent a lot of time with Rana lately, and seen more of the other planets in our system. To be honest, I'd have to say they have some reason for their animosity and discontent. They don't need a king. They need a voice. So I got to thinking that maybe what they need is a democracy."

Max looked around the room, trying to gauge the reaction of this group whose approval he so desperately wanted. How would Isabel react to losing the title of "princess"? How would Michael deal with giving up some of the little control he'd finally found? And Tess. He wasn't sure he'd ever known what she wanted.

To his relief, Tess was smiling, Isabel was eyeing him with approval, and even Michael offered him a slight nod. He should have known they would understand.

"That's an awfully big change for your people, Max," Paul commented. "Do you have a plan?"

"I'd bet on it," Jeff chuckled. "I've learned Max always has a plan. He's a lot like Liz that way."

Amy snorted. "Yeah, I always hoped that would rub off on Maria."

Maria glared at her mother as Max exchanged smiles with Liz. Then he turned to his father. "With Dad's help, yes, I do have a proposal, but it affects us all, so I want everyone to understand it." Philip handed his son a folder.

"Max is being too modest about this," he told them. "I've answered Max's questions and done a little research on his behalf, but the plan is his own, and I, for one, feel honored to be a part of it." He turned to Max proudly. "Tell them, son."

Max looked down, embarrassed, but quickly turned his attention to explaining his vision for Voya and their sister planets. His eyes began to sparkle with excitement, and his manner became calm and confident. Jim Valenti watched him with interest. One of the things he looked for among his young deputies was leadership ability, and he'd found it was always accompanied by a certain way of carrying oneself–a manor of speaking and interacting with others that made them hear you, support you, trust you. Max had those qualities. He would be a leader for his people, no matter what his title was.

“Well, here it is. I agree, Paul, that this is a big change, and we can’t expect 5 planets that already don’t get along to agree on something this big, so we have to start small and prove that it’s in their best interests every step of the way. First, it’ll be a while before we can know who to trust, who will be fair and reasonable, so I propose we start with a small council. It would consist of Rana and one of her most trusted advisors, plus Michael, Isabel, Tess, Jasar, Zeval, Josh, Antul, Liz, and me because that’s who I trust, and then two people from each of the other planets. That’s a total of 19 people—a combination of full-blooded, if you will, natives of each planet and hybrids. That’s good because it’s an uneven number, so no vote can ever be tied. For the time being, I guess mine would have to be the deciding vote in a tie just because the idea that I’m king won’t go away quickly, but I won’t really make those decisions without all of you. Granted, it’s a little lopsided in Voya’s favor, if you count the Earthbound contingent at Voyans, but we have to maintain control until there is some real trust built up and the others begin to understand what a democracy is. And Liz had an interesting spin on this, too. Tell them, Liz.”

Liz stood next to Max, her face serious. “I think that there will be a lot of suspicion and doubt about this whole process on every planet, including Voya. There will be those who want the royal family to stay in place and rule as they’ve always done, and others who will be glad to see them step down but will also be suspicious about adopting a form of government from Earth. I think it’s important that all of the Royal Four show allegiance to their alien ancestry in order to gain trust while making their ties to Earth very clear, so the others will know that the ultimate goal is not to take over that system or exploit them, but to find a way for us all to live together. And I think the best way to do that is to have our human . . . um, I guess ‘significant others’ is the best way to put it . . . with us whenever we meet.

“I’ve also suggested that Antul and Rana advise us about the best environment for these meetings . . . you know, a room or place that will look traditional to the alien members of the group to put them at ease.”

Max nodded in agreement and launched into more detail—needed evaluations of each planet’s resources and assets, publicity to explain how these changes will improve lives on the poorer planets, guarantees about stability in finance, transportation, government. In effect, it was the outline for an ambitious master plan to bring unity and trust to five planets that had lived without it for a long, long time. By evening’s end, each member of the group had made suggestions, asked questions, and ultimately come to support the plan.

“Once these revisions and additional details are written up,” Max announced, “I’ll go to Rana to ask for her support. Anyone of you who wants to be there is more than welcome. I wouldn’t mind her seeing that this is a united request.”

There was general agreement, and Max breathed a sigh of relief. There were good things ahead . . . for all of them. He could just feel it.


********

That night, Liz lay awake. She could feel his need across the blocks that separated them. Her body hummed in response, and she knew he was on his way. She hugged herself in an attempt to calm her racing heart and dull the pulsing ache deep within her. Even his thoughts, which she read so easily now, were very nearly enough to send her body to a lonely completion, and more than once she’d been tempted to give in to that release, but she never had. That was only for Max, in the flesh and in her arms, and she would wait for him.

She slid out of bed and into the bathroom. She pranced anxiously as she brushed her teeth and hair. She washed carefully with the scented soap he loved so much, and she slid her underpants off and dropped them in the hamper. Then she lay back down on the bed and listened for the quiet rustling she knew she would hear out on her patio.

Record time, she smiled to herself when she heard him. Thank heaven.

He approached her window, completely aware that she was waiting for him, aching for his touch. It had kept him hard all the way over, and he had been grateful for the empty streets that allowed him to fly across town. When he reached the window, he stopped to take in the erotic scene before him. There she was, moonlight laying softly across her features, her hair fanned against the pillowcase, her little nightshirt hiding the treasure he would soon uncover. Her eyes were closed, but she couldn’t hide the intensity of her awareness of him, and he smiled to himself.

Without a word, he knelt at the foot of the bed, fighting a playful war of wills about who would make the first move. Then she launched an attack, brilliant in its subtlety, that triggered his quick surrender. She bent one leg. That’s all. She bent one leg, and it pulled her skimpy nightshirt up just enough to give him a glimpse of dark, glistening curls, and he was undone.

His hands reached for her calves, sliding them up the insides of her silky legs, slowly parting them. He found a measure of satisfaction in the reflexive lifting of her hips, so eager for his touch, and he wondered for a moment if he might win after all when a whiff of strawberries hit him, and his senses betrayed him again. Pushing her legs wide, he brought his mouth down on the moist bouquet she offered, running his tongue over the length of her, plunging it into her rhythmically, then drawing out to trace a delicious trail to her clit, which was standing taut, reaching to share the magic.

Liz was already so primed for him, she almost lost herself then and there, and Max knew it. He wanted it, too. He wanted just those first few seconds of contact to make her come. They had reached the point where he shared in the sensation of her orgasm when it seized her, as she did his. And knowing that he was the cause of her extreme pleasure, that it was only to him that she totally and willingly gave herself up, was the headiest feeling he had ever experienced. Once she had found that first release, they could take their time with the next part—if he could last, that is. Sharing that explosive moment with her often brought him to the brink as well.

Max could feel her desire building to the breaking point; she was writhing against his mouth, moaning uncontrollably, pressing her fingers into his hair to pull him impossibly closer. But at the same time, she was resisting letting go, trying to hold on for him. He knew how to resolve that conflict. His hands released her legs and slid under her nightshirt, gliding easily toward the rock-hard nipples that pushed firmly against the fabric. When his fingers encountered the upward slopes, another long, low moan escaped her lips, and he prepared for the onslaught. Kneading the mounds gently, he slid his thumbs up and over her nipples. The reaction was instantaneous.

She came against him, her muscles pulsing fast and hard, and through the ecstasy that filled her mind and heart, he heard his name spill from her over and over like a prayer. With gargantuan effort, he kept himself from spilling as well, wanting to be inside his Liz when that release came.

Swimming in a heavenly world of erotic sensation and Max, one in the same to Liz, she floated gently back to her bed to find herself wrapped safely in his strong, loving arms.

“God, Max, did you feel that? Do you know what you do to me? You’re . . . incredible.”

“Are you saying you only love me for my body?” he goaded her as he stroked the hair away from her face.

She sighed deeply. “Well, that would be reason enough,” she replied thoughtfully. “I mean, relationships have been based on less.”

She enjoyed the two seconds of silence that followed her playful insult. She could almost hear the wheels turning as he weighed his options for getting back at her, so she took her advantage. She shifted to her knees beside him.

“I mean, you have the cutest tush and those great rippling abs that make my mouth water.” She pushed his shirt up, revealing his sharply defined rows of muscles, and bent to kiss each one lightly. She heard him suck in his breath. “And those pecs are the stuff dreams are made of.” She pushed the shirt higher and leaned over to lick the rosy nipples, which turned to pebbles beneath her tongue.

Forcing his arms up, she lifted the shirt over his head, tossed it aside, and brought her hands down his arms. “These biceps make the girls at school swoon, you know. And they don’t know the half of it.” She risked a look at his face and almost gasped at the intensity of his gaze. He looked like a human volcano, ready to erupt at the barest provocation. She looked away quickly, unwilling to be distracted from her torture just yet.

“And what’s this?” Her hand trailed gently over the firm ridge bulging against his jeans. His breath was coming in short spurts now. She began to unbutton the jeans, but they were stretched so tightly against the fabric, she was struggling with it. She couldn’t suppress her smile when his hand passed quickly over the buttons and they were suddenly unfastened.

“I think that’s cheating,” she scolded, reaching to enfold the erection that had found some relief, but was now straining against the cotton boxers. “But I’ll overlook it this time.” She began to stroke him, too slowly, too gently. He reached for her hand, covering it with his own, increasing the speed and pressure.

“Ah-ah-ah,” she warned. “Not so fast.” She removed his hand, and he heaved a great sigh. “And what do you think the girls would think of this?” She reached one finger inside the opening at the front of the boxers and traced it down his length. A choked whimper followed. “From what I’ve heard, this surpasses anything the other guys have.”

“What?” Max almost sat straight up. “What do you girls talk about? Are you telling me . . . ?” Liz laughed out loud at his embarrassment and outrage. “Well, okay, I haven’t really talked about it with anyone, but I just know, okay?” She pushed him back down on the bed with a giggle. “My, aren’t we prudish?” she teased him, and laughed again at his scowl.

Resuming her stroking, she saw the wet spot begin to spread on the front of his boxers, and she finally slipped the offending material over his hips and down his legs. Crawling back up his legs, she slid her full body over them until her mouth was poised over his shining tip. She licked at it tentatively. “Mmmmmm,” she moaned. “And the taste. I just know you taste the best.”

At that, she took him in, and he almost shouted at the warm, nerve-tingling sensation that shot through him. Feeling him tighten, she released him and pulled herself up to straddle his hips. She had felt his desire to come inside her, and she wanted whatever he wanted. As she looked down at his fiery eyes, she was hit with an inspiration. Turning quickly, she straddled him again, this time with her back to him.

“Liz?” he asked weakly.

Without responding, she pushed down, completely encasing him in a whole new way. His sharp intake of breath could have been taken as surprise or pleasure, but seeing easily into his thoughts, she knew it was both. He was awash in the new sensations this different angle had triggered, and she, too, was caught up in the effect it was having on both of them.

Leaning her hands back on either side of him, she began a slow, steady rhythm. Max’s breath was ragged, and his hands had come to rest on her hips, giving her support. Soon they were both lost, keenly aware only of the feel of each other pushing their desire to new heights and their bodies to unspeakable pleasure. Liz didn’t even realize that Max, too, had changed position. He was now almost sitting behind her, one hand caressing her breast, the other stroking between her legs, which were spread so wide in this position, he had unlimited access. He was panting into her shoulder, and she could feel his magnificent abdominal muscles working furiously behind her to maintain his partially upright position.

Thrusting uncontrollably into her, feeling her on the brink of another glorious orgasm, Max held tightly to the frail thread of control he had left until he felt her convulse around him. Just the first tremor sent him flying over the edge with her and they clung to one another helplessly for what seemed an eternity.

Eventually, Max lay back down, pulling Liz against him. Still happily buried within his beautiful mate’s body, he rested his hands over her breasts and sighed contentedly. Liz shifted easily against him, the layer of sweat between them offering little resistance. Stretching her arms above her head, Liz nestled her hands behind his head, and as Max looked down the naked length of her, he gave thanks yet again. She was completely open to him, sharing her thoughts, her love, and her glorious body with him every moment of their lives. After years of hating who and what he was, he had come full circle. There was no luckier being anywhere.

After a catnap, the two lovers awoke to find themselves in the same position, Liz stretched out, long and lithe, on top of Max, his hands resting lightly against her breasts.

“Liz?”

“Hmmmm?”

“Do the girls really talk about the guys at school? I mean, compare them . . . physically?”

Liz chuckled. “Some do,” she replied. “I’ve never been one of them because I never had any experience in that area until you. And I’m keeping you as much of a secret as I can. They’re already more than aware of some of your . . . assets. I’d just as soon keep the rest to myself.”

“Not a problem, Liz. I’ve spent most of my life ‘behind the tree,’ remember? I don’t think they’ve paid much attention to me.”

Liz smiled up at the ceiling. He just didn’t get it, did he?

“Max, I’ve told you before. You are considered one of the sexiest hunks in the school!”

“You say that, Liz, to stroke my ego. I’m not buying it, but thank you.”

Liz sighed. Should she tell him, or not? Yes, she’d tell him. He should know the effect he had on people, especially women. He was always putting himself down, and it wasn’t right.

“Max, if I tell you something, promise me not to get a big head?”

She felt the rumble of Max’s chest as he laughed quietly, and she felt a little twitch between her legs. “Max! I mean, don’t let it go to your head. Wait! I mean, don’t let it inflate your ego, okay?”

Max had started to rub his hands against her breasts, slowly, provocatively, and she wriggled against him. Another twitch.

“Max, I’m just saying that what I’ve been telling you is not my attempt to stroke your ego. Nobody talks about you in front of me, but Maria hears things all the time--girls who’ve had erotic dreams about you, guys who wonder what kind of workout you do to get this body, the way girls rake their eyes across you when you are walking down the hall. Sometimes, those eyes of yours get people in trouble and you don’t even know it. Do you have any idea what you can do with those eyes? But the worst one . . . no, I can’t even tell you.”

In spite of himself, Max had gotten harder and harder as she talked, his fingers rubbing her nipples more aggressively, making it hard for Liz to maintain her train of thought.

“Don’t stop now, Liz,” he whispered hoarsely in her ear. A shiver shot through her, and she realized they were both getting turned on just talking about this. On impish impulse, she slid off of Max to tell him the rest, but he immediately brought her under him, his eyes dark with desire.

“What’s the rest, Liz? Tell me.”

Liz was amazed at how this was affecting him. Not one to let an opportunity pass by, she plowed forward.

“A few weeks ago, the volleyball team had played an away game, and Gina Graham hadn’t come out to get on the bus. The coach sent somebody in to get her and they found her alone in the shower. She was . . . ,” Liz blushed, questioning her decision to tell him this, but as he pressed his hardness against her thighs, she couldn’t believe what this was doing to him . . . and to her!

“She was . . . pleasuring herself, and . . . and calling your name. The volleyball team couldn’t stop talking about it, and Maria said that some of them confessed to doing the same thing.”

He entered her abruptly, and she gasped with pleasure. She just might have to ask Maria for more stories. Their effect was . . . impressive! Liz threw herself into loving her Max, and thanked her lucky stars that she had the real thing.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 1:43:03 PM
Part 43

It was a deliriously happy and sated couple who pulled into the school parking lot the next morning. Max yawned as he killed the engine and leaned back against the seat, reaching for Liz’s hand.

“Don’t do that,” she complained, stifling a yawn herself. “It’s contagious.”

“I wish we didn’t have to waste time sleeping,” he agreed with a grin. “I much prefer spending our nights like we did last night.”

“How about we just stay here and nap for a while,” she mumbled, leaning across the gearshift to nestle into his shoulder. It wasn’t working too well. “We can tell everyone you had a flat tire on the way to school.”

“At least you got an extra half hour of sleep. Between leaving you to go shower at home and then getting out early to pick you up again, I don’t think I slept at all. Anyway, I don’t think the flat tire trick will work,” he chuckled. “We only live a few blocks from school.”

Sighing, Liz straightened. “Okay, school it is.”

They climbed from the Jeep, and Max hurried to help her with her backpack. “So, we’re not telling anyone about the engagement yet, right?”

Liz looked at him, her inner debate obvious in her frown. “I guess not. I think you’re right. It’ll just cause a stir, Vidoni will get on his high horse again, and it’ll bring too much attention down on you. Still,” she smiled wistfully, “I’m so happy, I want to share it with anyone who’ll listen! We’ll tell in the spring, won’t we, Max?”

“Absolutely. I want everyone to know that we’re forever, Liz. I’d shout about it all day long, if I could. I sure as hell think about it all day long. I just don’t think it’s the right time yet.” He stroked her cheek, searching her eyes for sadness or disappointment. “Okay?”

Her smile melted his heart. “I know about it, Max. That’s all that counts.” She took his hand and they headed toward the building.

********

Max had never been so self-conscious in his life. Last night’s revelations about how the female population of Roswell High saw him had turned him on beyond belief. He and Liz had ridden a wave of hormones through the night, and it had been incredible. Now, though, as he walked the halls of the school, he felt naked. Every glance in his direction, every burst of laughter from behind him, every brush against him in the crowded hallways took on a whole new meaning. He had always felt invisible, had cultivated his invisibility. Never had he interpreted a word or sound or look that had been directed at him in any but the most casual way. Now . . . now he felt like a neon sign on a dark street, and he felt his skin prickle with sweat.

Liz, entering a distant classroom, paused, feeling a strange sensation building in her own body. She searched Max’s thoughts and grinned. Max, calm down. They’re not all staring at you!

I was glad you told me those things last night, Liz. It made me crazy for you. But today . . . I feel like I can’t look anyone in the eye!

Just be yourself, Max. That’s who I love, and that’s who they respond to. Don’t think about it.

I’ll try, he promised, and quickly tried to shut her off from his thoughts. No use making her nervous all morning, too.

In English, he sought out Slade. After her first day of school, when she had been so obviously flirting with him, she had backed way off. He never knew why she’d done such a sudden turn-around, but he’d been relieved, and since then, they’d developed an easy friendship. She never pressed him or turned that now-infamous killer smile on him. They just chatted amiably about unimportant things, and Max had discovered her wicked sense of humor. More than once, she’d hit the nail on the head with her whispered characterization of a classmate and forced a chuckle from Max, in spite of himself.

“Hey, Max,” she yawned, as he took his seat next to her.

“Don’t get me started, Slade,” he chastised her. “I can’t stop yawning, either. Why are you so tired?”

“Well, three guys called and asked me out last night—some hayride thing the school’s sponsoring—and I can’t decide who to go with. Kept me up all night.”

Max grinned at her. “Tough one. Who are the candidates?”

“Jeff Tiller asked first. He’s cute, but he thinks he’s James Dean and I’m afraid all that grease might make me slip off his motorcycle.”

Max chuckled. “Okay, next?”

“Phil Juarez. He has a Corvette and great eyes, but his ego is bigger than his brain, and I don’t know if I can take a whole night of South Park impersonations, ya know?”

Max was laughing openly now. “And bachelor number 3?”

“Ryan Peterson. He’s been real nice to me, but everyone says he treats girls well until they fall for him, and then he dumps them. I’m not into jerks.”

“Some choice. What’re you going to do?”

Slade eyed him tentatively. “Kyle Valenti is really sweet. You think I have a shot with him?”

Max pulled his mouth to one side in thought. “I can’t speak for Kyle, Slade, but I know he’s been working on something with Tess Harding. I think it’s working out pretty well. You’ll have to decide whether you want to test those waters or not.”

Slade frowned. “Nah. I’ve watched your group, Max. Everybody seems really tight, close. I envy that, actually. We always seem to be moving, so I’ve never really had super close friends or long-term boyfriends. Man, you and Liz . . .”

Max knitted his brows in confusion. “What about us?”

Slade smiled at him, a smile of open friendship. “I saw you two at lunch that first day—remember, you pushed me off on Pam Troy?”

Max looked down in embarrassment. “Sorry about that.”

“No, I deserved it. I was coming after you hard, I admit, but that day at lunch, I saw your face change when you saw Liz. I watched you kiss her, and I swear, Max, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. You guys have something special, and I realized right then that I didn’t want to mess up anything that beautiful.”

Max stared at her in obvious surprise. “You could see that?”

“See it, Max? The whole school can see it. It’s like having our very own Romeo and Juliet on campus!”

Max blushed again but couldn’t keep the broad smile from his face . . . or his eyes. Slade grinned in response. “See? There it is. That look. I hope I put that look on someone’s face someday.”

“Of course, you will,” Max mumbled encouragingly. “I . . .”

Waiting for Godot,” their teacher began. “Thoughts?”

Max reached for his book with one last glance at Slade. Her grin was still there, a teasing in her eyes. He looked away. Girls fantasizing? Classmates analyzing his kisses with Liz? Vidoni watching his every move? Had he ever been behind that tree he’d always imagined?

********
The morning dragged by, and Max’s self-consciousness had only escalated. He was afraid to scratch his ear or smile or . . . or anything, wondering constantly who might be watching or what they might be thinking. He hurried to Trig, anxious for Liz’s calming presence. As soon as he swung through the door, he caught her eye and every other thought left his mind.

He lowered himself into the desk adjacent to hers and she reached for his hand, acutely aware of his difficult morning. “You okay?” she asked gently.

“Yes, now that I’m with you.”

Focusing well for the first time today, Max was working through the sample problems their teacher had just written on the board when an office messenger entered the room. Curious eyes watched the teacher unfold the piece of paper and read it. When he raised his eyes, he searched the room, his gaze landing on Max and then Liz.

“Max, Liz? You’re needed in the school office right after this class.” He tossed the paper away and turned to answer a question about the problem on the board. Max and Liz exchanged glances, and this time, they shared their nervousness through the rest of 4th period.

As soon as the bell rang, they made their way to the main office. Dismayed to find Mr. Vidoni waiting for them, they approached the counter. Liz looked up at the vice-principal. Was he taller today? He sure seemed taller.

“Did you need to see us, sir?” Liz began politely.

“Yes. When I last spoke with your parents, I was led to believe you two planned to graduate in the spring.” His scowl left no doubt as to his feelings about that meeting or about this decision. “I trust you’ve all come to your senses since then, but we are compiling the list of graduates who need to be measured for caps and gowns right after winter break, and I need to know what your plans are.”

“Yes, sir,” Max said firmly. “We are going to graduate.” Good grief, Max thought. Is this guy standing on something or what?

Liz suppressed a giggle. She wondered if this pathetic man’s insecurities were as obvious to everyone else as they were to Max and her. Vidoni moved to reach for a binder that was lying toward the end of the countertop when he suddenly pitched sideways. Papers went flying, the intercom microphone tipped, and a loud “Ummpphhh, shit!” erupted from the floor behind the counter.

“Goddammit!” Vidoni sputtered as he scrambled back to his feet, his face contorted in pain and anger, his stature visibly diminished. Max and Liz’s shocked expressions did little to hide the humor fairly bursting from their eyes and lips, and Vidoni became furious.

“You find this funny? Let me tell you something, Mr. Evans, Ms. Parker. You two have been a thorn in my side all semester. I won’t be sorry to see either of you go. You want to graduate early? So be it. But when you’ve left high school behind and found out that the world out there is not full of fun and romance and naïve parents fixing your messes, I’ll be the one laughing. You think you’ve got it made, but college will be harder than you think, and what you see as love right now will be a painful memory when one of you trots off with someone new.” He stopped abruptly, suddenly aware of the extent of his outburst.

The humor had left Max’s eyes, and now they burned with anger. “Mr. Vidoni. I’m not sure why you see us as trouble, but I assure you, we’ve never done anything to hurt you or this school. We will graduate early, we will succeed in college, and we will be together. We’re getting married in August. So please put our names down on your list and get the hell off our backs.”

He took Liz’s hand and they left just as Principal Forester burst through the office doors. They weren’t there to see him march grimly to the counter, pick up the microphone, switch it to “off,” and yell, “Vidoni! In my office. NOW!

********

The hum of lunchtime conversation and laughter bounced off the walls surrounding the quad. The weather was unusually warm, and most students had chosen to eat outside in the sunshine and fresh air.

“Hey, where are Max and Liz?” Maria asked as she sat at the gang’s usual table.

“I don’t know,” Isabel shrugged. “I saw Max in the hall after third period. He was headed to Trig. Actually, he looked a little nervous. You don’t think something’s wrong, do you?”

“Ummpphhh, shit!”

The quad fell silent as the crowd of students stopped talking, chewing, or moving. Every eye stared at the large speaker mounted against the building.

“Goddammit!”

Quiet laughter bubbled up from scattered tables, and almost every face broke into a smile. They waited, frozen, for the next words.

“You find this funny? Let me tell you something, Mr. Evans, Ms. Parker. You two have been a thorn in my side all semester. I won’t be sorry to see either of you go. You want to graduate early? So be it. But when you’ve left high school behind and found out that the world out there is not full of fun and romance and naïve parents fixing your messes, I’ll be the one laughing. You think you’ve got it made, but college will be harder than you think, and what you see as love right now will be a painful memory when one of you trots off with someone new.”

Michael stood suddenly, almost tipping the bench where Maria, Tess, and Kyle were also sitting. Isabel looked at him, then to Alex.

“Oh my god!” she breathed. Their eyes were wide as they waited to hear what was happening. Then it came.

“Mr. Vidoni. I’m not sure why you see us as trouble, but I assure you, we’ve never done anything to hurt you or this school. We will graduate early, we will succeed in college, and we will be together. We’re getting married in August. So please put our names down on your list and get the hell off our backs.”

A whoosh, then a clanking, then silence. The quad remained in suspended animation, hoping for more, but it was soon obvious that today’s eavesdropping session was over. Like a light switch, the noise level zoomed from nonexistent to deafening. Everyone was laughing, speculating, and cheering at the verbal whipping Vidoni had just taken. Michael sat down as quickly as he’d stood up, a smirk on his face.

“This is gonna be good,” he observed. Everyone at their table turned to watch the entrance to the quad, knowing that Max and Liz would be joining them shortly.

It was only a moment before the unsuspecting couple appeared in the doorway. They stopped short as they heard the unusually loud crowd noise dim to a whisper and realized everyone was staring at them. They exchanged looks nervously. This was turning into a seriously weird day.

They were startled yet again when the quiet gave way to loud cheering, whistling, and clapping. Liz was starting to get frightened, and she looked at Max to see his reaction was much the same. Soon Isabel and Maria reached their side.

“Oh my god, Max! What was that all about?”

“What was what all about?” he asked, more confused by the minute.

“That whole thing in the office with Vidoni!” Maria explained. “It was on the PA system! Everybody heard it!”

“What?” gasped Liz, taking in the cheering crowd with embarrassment.

“Oh, and Max?” Maria giggled. “You know how you wanted to keep the wedding a secret for a while?” She smiled and batted her eyes. “Forget it.”

The crowd noise had started to take shape, and soon a chant of “Kiss her! Kiss her! Kiss her!” was vibrating the walls. This crowd had gotten their happy ending to the Romeo and Juliet story that played out daily in their school, even though they only knew the tip of the iceberg. Max saw Slade standing off to the side, and she winked at him. What she’d told him had been right on . . . again.

Max looked at Liz, struck by the happiness in her eyes. So everybody knew. Big deal. Max asked her silently for a decision, and she nodded. He gathered her into his arms and descended to her lips, letting the familiar magic control him. In spite of the huge audience and deafening roar, they stood apart from it, wrapped in the protective cocoon of their love, and savored each other for a rare, public moment. As soon as they felt the beginning warmth that signaled the formation of their unique glow, they pulled apart amidst shouts of approval.

“Well, Mr. Evans,” Liz whispered in his ear. “I guess the cat’s out of the bag.”

“Well, Mrs. Evans,” he answered her, eyes radiating happiness, “I guess I couldn’t care less.”

The cheering accompanied them all the way back to their lunch table. Their friends greeted them, laughing at the irony of the situation.

“Way to be inconspicuous, Max,” Alex drawled.

Max could only grin. His tree days were definitely behind him.

********


The next few days were busy ones for the friends and families of Max Evans and Liz Parker. Max and Michael got in touch with Josh and Jasar, who agreed to take responsibility for contacting Antul. It had also been decided that Mark, Gregory, and Kurt, who had shown their ability and loyalty during the hard days at Apache Point, would serve as ex officio members of the Council, taking notes and communicating decisions to the Earthbound Voyans. They would also be available if one of the regular members was unable to attend a meeting.

Josh, Tess, Isabel, Alex, and Philip worked with Max and Liz to write up a formal proposal to present to Rana, while Jasar and Zeval brainstormed the specifics for an appropriate meeting environment. Sheriff Valenti was going to arrange for an official-looking but fictional reason for the area around the pod chamber to be blocked off for the big meeting, and Kyle was helping him with the physical follow-through.

The other focus was lighter in nature but every bit as intense. At first, Amy, Maria, Diane, and Nancy (drafting a reluctant Jeff to help) began to make plans for an August wedding, but at the first brief meeting about the general theme and nature of the wedding, Max and Liz reminded them of a crucial detail.

“Mom, Diane, I think if you take a minute, you’ll realize we can’t have a regular church wedding in town.”

They stared at her blankly.

I guess that was too subtle, Liz thought, as she glanced up at Max. He bit his lip and returned her look. He cleared his throat uncomfortably.

“Uh, you’ve all seen what happens when Liz and I . . . you know, kiss or . . . or when our feelings get too strong . . .”

“The glowy thing!” Maria squealed. “I forgot. Can’t you control that? Even just for a few minutes at a wedding?”

Max felt his face get warm, and he looked helplessly at Liz. She blew out a deep breath.

“It comes on pretty quickly now,” she explained, trying not to look anyone in the eye. “We’re hoping Rana can help us figure out how to control it, but she’s never seen this before either, if you recall. The fact is, I don’t see how I can say my wedding vows to Max and then kiss him . . .” She smiled at him shyly, and he squeezed her hand. “How can I do that and keep my emotions under control?”

“I couldn’t do it, either,” he agreed. “I don’t want to have to try to feel less on my wedding day.”

“So what do we do?” asked Nancy. “I don’t want you to just stand in some courtroom.”

“No, not a court room,” Liz said softly. She looked to Max to continue.

“We want Rana to be there, and Michael’s grandfather Marcus,” he began excitedly, “and all of the cadre who helped us so much at Apache Point.” He looked at their expectant, confused faces. “We want to be married in the Star Chamber, with all the people who love us and support us—the people who know the truth and will share in this new beginning.”

Understanding dawned on them, and they began to smile. “I can’t think of anything more appropriate,” Diane said, awed by the possibility her son had just presented. “But how? We have no idea what to do!”

“Rana and Antul,” Max answered hopefully. “Once we’ve secured approval of our plan for political change, we’ll ask for help with this.”

Nancy and Diane exchanged a look. “Well, we’ve adjusted to everything else,” shrugged Nancy. “I guess we’ll figure this one out, too.”

Liz stooped to give her mother a happy hug. Everything would work out in the end. She just knew it.

********

The orbs had worked their magic, and the desert was alight with the contained glow of another interplanetary meeting. Rana had been surprised at the number of people waiting for her arrival, but the happy looks on Max and Liz’s faces assured her immediately that nothing was amiss.

“My son, we are many tonight. Is this a celebration?”

“That’s going to be up to you, I guess,” Max told her. Hand in hand, Max and Liz approached his Voyan mother. “Mother, you have taught me so much over the last few weeks about our planet and the others in our system, the turmoil that plagues them, your hopes for the future. I’m here now, with my queen, my family, and my friends to present a plan that I hope will offer our world a better future. Those you see here have helped formulate the plan and support it. May I tell you about it?”

Rana smiled. “Of course, my son. You are our king, and whatever you say is of importance to us.”

“Well, you’ve stumbled on the first and most important element of the plan,” Max said tentatively. “My plan involves abdicating the throne, dissolving the royal line, and introducing democracy in which every planet would have a say.”

Every onlooker tensed as Rana absorbed her son’s—her king’s—shocking statement. She surveyed the faces of Max’s supporters and came back to look on Liz and then Max. “This is what you want? To cease to be our king? I had not expected this.”

“Mother, that doesn’t mean I’m turning my back on you or our people. On the contrary, I want to help lead them to a new way of life, a way of thinking that could drastically reduce the animosity in our system and give the planets a way to resolve differences without violence.”

“Rana,” Liz interrupted softly. “We know this requires a huge leap of faith on your part, and on the part of every being in your system, but Max plans to start slowly and carefully. Let us explain how this would work.”

Rana nodded her agreement, still looking shaken. For the first time ever, she called for a seat and folded her hands in her lap, waiting to hear the details of this astonishing new proposal. Max began with an outline of the slow evolution from a monarchy to a democracy. As he continued, others who had worked on the plan jumped in with clarifications and reassurances. What struck Rana most was the group effort this represented. Through his presentation, Max was demonstrating the very plan he was endorsing. He had enlisted the support and advice of full-blooded Voyans, hybrids, and humans. He planned to include residents of each planet, including Earth. He had foreseen the need for slow, incremental progress toward the final goal. And he intended to provide the leadership to which he was born without exercising the privileges and authority that usually came with it. She watched as he welcomed every interruption from a participant who could add more detail or a different perspective. She noted when he invited someone with more experience or expertise to correct him if he misstated something. She realized she was witnessing the group thinking, the give-and-take, and the mutual respect that this plan embraced.

The enthusiasm among the group charged the atmosphere, and Rana sat back, impressed with the genuine respect that governed the proceedings. Granted, all of these people were predisposed to democracy and to support Max, but she saw real potential in their ideas and for the first time, a tangible hope for her people.

At her extended silence, Max tensed once again. He’d been caught up in his presentation, and had lost track of how Rana might be responding to it. Now, as he looked at his Voyan mother, Max could tell she was thinking deeply about what she had seen. He just couldn’t tell how she felt about it. He looked at Liz for a hint, but Liz shook her head. She couldn’t read Rana.

“Rana?”

Her gaze fell on him, and his heart leapt at what her eyes were saying. He saw pride and determination, and his breath caught as she rose and walked toward the royal couple.

“Zan. Max. You are truly the leader of our people as you were meant to be. Liz, you are truly his soulmate, his strength and solace. Do you remember the night you came to me to meet your Earth families?”

They nodded.

“Your joining symbols melded together that night, and a shower of sparks descended on you. I told you then that this seemed to be the realization of an ancient prophecy that said after centuries of political unrest, we would one day have a king and queen whose joining embodied a perfect love--a love for the ages, and that they would turn the tide of our history and lead us to a lasting peace.”

She raised her hands toward them, eyes shining. “What you have shown me tonight is that path to peace. You and Liz have fulfilled the prophecy we almost dared not believe anymore. You have my blessing, dear ones, and you have my support in thought and deed whenever you need it. I will choose my advisor, and we will be at your disposal. Just let me know what I can do.”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Rana pledged her love and support. Max had never wished so hard that he could hold his mother in his arms, but he knew that was impossible. Instead, he clung to Liz and let his eyes speak of his gratitude.

“There is one thing,” Max smiled.

“Anything, my son.”

“There’s the small matter of the wedding. We have a few questions for you.”

Laughter rang out in the desert, and the bond among the members of this extraordinary group grew stronger yet again. Max and Liz surveyed the wondrous scene, and the joy in their hearts burst upon the gathering with a blinding glow. Max bent to kiss his soulmate, his queen, his bride, and a cheer went up. The destiny they had lost sight of for a brief time had finally found its fulfillment in this time, in this place, and with these people. As they always knew they would, even in the darkest of times, they had found it in each other.

posted on 20-Apr-2002 1:45:43 PM
Epilog

I love you.

Liz stopped adjusting her wedding dress abruptly, closed her eyes, and let a smile soften her tense features. She could feel Max so strongly, and it calmed her to know that he was close by, fighting his impatience for the wedding to begin so he could call her his wife in front of all the world. The ceremony was only an external ritual; in their hearts, they'd been married for a long time.

"Hey, the groom isn't supposed to see the bride before the ceremony!" Maria scolded, correctly diagnosing Liz’s faraway expression. "And I'm pretty sure that includes telepathically."

I love you, too, Max. I'll see you in a few minutes, and then no one will ever keep us apart again. She felt his happiness and excitement, and it warmed her all over. She opened her eyes and smiled affectionately at her best friend. "It was just a peek," she assured her, "and it calmed my nerves, so you should be thanking him."

Maria tried to frown, but her friend was radiating happiness, and she just couldn't pretend not to feel it, too. It hadn't been easy reaching this point. Everything about the ceremony represented a compromise between Earth custom and Voyan tradition: the setting, the clothing, the symbols, the ritual. Only the vows had been left out of the discussions. Max and Liz were adamant that they be allowed to say what they wanted to each other. There was so little they were unwilling to negotiate that the families and advisors wisely left that one alone. In the end, Liz and Max were both thrilled with the result. The wedding would be unique to them, as was everything else about their lives.

The immediate families of the bride and groom had rented a large vacation home in the mountains near Flagstaff, Arizona, away from Roswell’s well-meaning but prying eyes. It was there that everyone prepared for the wedding, and it was from there that Isabel and Josh would accompany each member of the wedding party into the Star Chamber. The home's three levels had been ideal, with the Evans family settling in on the sub-level, the Parkers on the second floor, and the main floor open to everyone. It had worked out beautifully—except for the part where Max and Liz weren’t supposed to see each other the night before or the day of the wedding. Although the bride and groom had agreed to honor this tradition from both cultures, they found themselves struggling to contain their thoughts and emotions on the eve of the realization of their dream.

********

Flashback: Last night

Max stretched unconvincingly. “I’m bushed. Think I’ll turn in,” he yawned, rising from the chair.

Isabel’s radar sounded. Max was wound too tight to sleep just yet. Her eyes narrowed as they followed him down the stairs to the lower level. Instantly, she went in search of Maria only to find her suspicions confirmed. Liz, too, had claimed to need a good night’s sleep before the next day’s activities and had skipped off to bed, looking decidedly unsleepy. Sighing with amused frustration, Isabel grabbed Alex and hauled him toward a bedroom. Grinning suggestively, he slid his arms around her waist.

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to keep your hands off me the whole night.”

Isabel rolled her eyes and kissed him soundly. “Sorry, loverboy, this is about keeping the bride and groom’s hands off each other. They’ve gone to bed. Early. Why do you suppose they did that?”

Alex nodded knowingly. “We couldn’t give them a few minutes?” he pleaded, understanding their need.

“No!” Isabel retorted. “They’re not supposed to see each other. It’s bad luck.”

Alex resigned himself to his role as “calming influence” for Isabel, and they climbed onto the bed. Deep breaths signified Isabel’s effort to will herself to sleep and into her brother’s dream. This had gotten her in trouble before, and she hoped she wasn’t too late to avoid catching them “in the act.” When she emerged into Max’s dream, though, she was greeted by a warm and loving sight. Max and Liz were standing on a promontory overlooking a calm sea that sparkled under a red sunset.

“I’ll make you happy, Liz,” she heard him say as he framed Liz’s face with his large, gentle hands.

“You already have,” she sighed, raising her lips to his.

The Kiss. Isabel could feel the intense emotion radiating from that kiss, and her eyes teared up in spite of herself. She loved Max so much, and she knew the fear and loneliness of their lives had weighed on him even more heavily than it had her. She couldn’t help but rejoice in the peace of mind and great love that was finally his. She let them have their moment.

Then she cleared her throat loudly, and they looked back at her, totally unsurprised at her appearance.

“Looks like the Gestapo didn’t waste any time,” Max chuckled, watching his sister bristle at the reference. Then he surprised her by letting go of Liz and walking toward her, sweeping her into a great bear hug. “I love you, Izzy,” he whispered, his voice brimming with happiness.

She threw her arms around her brother and hugged him fiercely. “Be happy, Max.”

Now Liz was the one to tear up, and she sighed contentedly. Max needed this, too—this closeness with his family. And he deserved it; he had been their strength for so long.

Isabel finally pulled back. “You’re breaking the rules,” she scolded weakly.

Max put on his little boy face. “I couldn’t go all night without seeing Liz, Izzy. I had to at least say goodnight.” His puppy-dog eyes melted her heart, and she laughed.

“Then mission accomplished,” she said firmly, winking at Liz. “Let’s see, what’ll it take to keep me out of your dreams tomorrow night,” she mused loudly.

At the horrified expression on his face, the dream had dissipated, Isabel’s laughter echoing into nothingness.

********

Isabel poked her head in the door. "Ten minutes!" she reminded everyone excitedly. Then her eyes lit on Liz, and she stopped cold, her mouth agape. She walked slowly toward her future sister-in-law and bit back an emotional sigh.

"Liz, you've made my brother so happy. I know I can never make up for my original attitude toward you, but I want you to know, I believe in you–in both of you. You are meant for each other, and for this future we're forging together. God bless you." She leaned forward and placed a light kiss on Liz's cheek, smiled shakily, and left. Liz stared at the door that closed behind her. Isabel had just improved upon what Liz had already considered the perfect day. Sometimes, Liz could almost see why Max loved her so.

A tiny sob escaped Nancy Parker's lips as she gazed upon her beautiful daughter. In spite of the many astonishing truths she had struggled to accept over the last year, she realized there was one central truth she would never doubt: Max Evans loved her daughter to the core of his being, and he would keep her as happy and as safe as was humanly (or otherwise) possible. She'd never seen such devotion and electricity between two people before, and she couldn't bring herself to wish for anything more "normal" for her daughter. She had finally accepted that this was meant to be.

Her daughter's image blurred as the tears threatened to spill down Nancy's cheeks. Liz was a vision in white. Her dress's off-the-shoulder lace bodice draped gracefully in the front, tracing a soft line from arm to arm, and the empire waist gave way to a textured satin that lightly skimmed her tiny figure all the way to the floor. The train was a flat panel that attached at the top of the dress between her shoulder blades and fanned out modestly to trail only a couple of feet behind her. Down its length, burgundy stitching, the only nod to the Voyan royal color, outlined the new symbol of the evolving alliance: a circle around which perched the symbols of each of the six planets. From each symbol, a vine grew toward the talishe in the center, the only bird native to each of the planets in the alliance except Earth. The vine was meant to symbolize both strength and flexibility leading to common ground as symbolized by the talishe. The same symbol appeared in the center of the wide satin choker that graced Liz's neck, which had been left uncharacteristically bare beneath the thick, shining waves atop her head. Graceful tendrils escaped around her face, and a wreath of white flowers crowned the elegant effect. It was perfect. It was Liz.

********

Max paced in the large room that had been set aside for his entourage. He had insisted on limiting the "help" that was offered, wanting only his and Liz's fathers, Michael, Alex, and Kyle to wait with him. Alex and Kyle had kept him laughing, a godsend for his frayed nerves, and the dads were so busy reminiscing about their own weddings that they stayed blissfully unaware of Max's growing impatience. Michael saw it, of course. But instead of trying to calm his friend, he just kept picturing himself in that position in the not-too-distant future, and soon he was as nervous as the groom.

"I'm eloping!" he blurted out unexpectedly. "I would never survive this shit."

Alex eyed him skeptically. "Have you mentioned this to the girl who teethed on 'How to Find the Perfect Man and Plan the Perfect Wedding'?" he asked straight-faced.

Michael paled, and laughter filled the room.

"I'm supposed to be the nervous one," teased Max, relaxing suddenly. He reached out for Liz, even though they'd agreed not to.

I love you, he told her, sensing her tension. Then he felt her relax, too.

I love you, too, Max. I'll see you in a few minutes, and then no one will ever keep us apart again.

Tess knocked and then opened the door. "Ten minutes, guys!"

Everyone left the room to assume their places, leaving Max alone for a few minutes. The quiet moment prompted a reflective train of thought, and Max smiled to think how far they'd come. The preceding months had been both frightening and exhilarating. There had been plenty of skepticism and suspicion when Max's plan was first introduced, and his abdication had been postponed to ensure stability during the initial stages of the transition. Their first serious crisis had come to a head when Durin wanted to raise the price of a valuable ore they mined. The Voyan and Theronian representatives were outraged, and the Council vote was tied. After reviewing the claim, Max cast the deciding vote in favor of Durin, and the shocked Council members began to realize that Max’s decisions would not always be “Voyan” decisions, and that maybe, just maybe, this could work.

Since these seeds of trust were planted, the Council had expanded to include four representatives per planet, and Max had abdicated the throne, assuming the role of Prelate. From that position, he was currently nurturing the fledgling democracy and gaining the support and respect of a growing segment of the alliance's population.

Liz had also become a respected member of the Council, offering reasoned opinions and a compassionate perspective on a wide range of issues. The easy and open way of communicating and the spirit of compromise modeled by the hybrids quickly put the alien Council members at ease, and there was more optimism about the future than had been evident for generations. As a result, there were layers and layers of officials vying for the honor of attending their leaders’ wedding, and their guest list had grown by leaps and bounds.

Fortunately, the very nature of the Star Chamber gave them unlimited resources. It was, after all, more a state of mind than a tangible place. As a result, their imaginations took flight, and the result was idyllic. The setting was the valley where Claudia had taken them so many months ago to explain the journey they would take to find their Anasazi roots. The large meadow at the base of a mountain was home to abundant flowers and a meandering stream. The night was calm and, at first, very dark, but that was by design, for one of the most cherished Voyan traditions was being observed.

At each distant location, Star Chamber members were on hand to bring the guests into the ceremony. As each guest entered the Star Chamber, they were greeted by one of the wedding party: Kurt, Mark, Gregory, Josh, Jasar, or Zeval. Enfolding the new guest’s hands in their own, the greeter asked the guest to put their good wishes for the newlyweds at the forefront of their minds. As the guest complied, the greeter would draw out the essence of these positive thoughts until they became a shimmering globe of light—“lunettes” Rana had called them. Once released, the small globe floated upwards and came to rest above the gathering. As more people arrived, the dark sky began to sparkle with more and more of these lunettes until the night was alight with the love and good thoughts of the guests.

The strings of the Voyan lutan and the airy notes of the flute combined into a light, festive strain, and the guests quieted, standing at all times out of respect for their former king and his mate. In many minds, they would always be the royal couple, in spite of their protestations. King or Prelate, Queen or Council member, these two had already earned loyalty and respect.

Max strode to the front of the gathering, where a raised platform allowed all of the guests to see the ceremony. Marble stairs leading to the burgundy-carpeted platform were placed at each side and up the center. It was the only non-natural element in this rustic setting, but most of the advisors from both Earth and Voya had felt it would be expected that the site of their official “joining” impart a sense of importance and leadership. Feeling their obligation to their people, Max and Liz had agreed.

Taking his place on the top step of the center stairs, Max spread his arms to quiet the last hushed whispers among the guests. Looking toward the rear, his eyes searched for the light of his life. He could feel her so near, but he couldn’t see her. Liz, on the other hand, peeked surreptitiously from behind a tree and drank in the sight of the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on. He, too, was dressed in white. The fitted pants were only visible from the mid-thigh down, being covered above that by the long white jacket that hugged his hard, muscular body. Its stand-up collar was trimmed in burgundy, and the long sleeves touched the tops of the white gloves. The wide sash that encircled his trim waist folded over at the front, allowing the two ends to hang crisply down his front. The outer panel of the sash carried the new alliance’s symbol, matching the stitching on Liz’s gown and choker. His tanned skin, dark hair, and piercing golden eyes contrasted starkly with his suit, and Liz was immobilized by the striking beauty of her husband. Had she never known the kindness of his heart or the gentleness of his soul, she would still have felt herself drawn to this gorgeous, dignified, intense man. She was giddy with anticipation.

Max could feel Liz’s intense scrutiny from just beyond his sight. He knew he had pleased her, and he wasn’t sure just how much more happiness he could hold. His smile to their guests was genuine as he uttered the traditional Voyan wedding greeting.

“ Gratan tu venissur scearar summitta tut dies. Thank you for coming to share the best of all days.”

Then Max descended the stairs and made his way to the rear of the gathering, where the attendants prepared to precede the bride and groom to the front. Unlike Earth weddings, they were arranged not by gender, but by ancestry: Tess, Isabel, and Michael for Max; Kyle, Alex, and Maria for Liz. They paired themselves off for the regal procession to the front, where Pastor Lancaster was waiting. He was a hybrid who had actually become a minister, finding great peace and purpose in the God that he believed had created them all. He was the perfect answer to making this a legal union on Earth while understanding the unique other-worldliness of the proceedings. His sense of humor and flexibility about the ceremony had relieved a lot of tension along the way, and Max and Liz had come to call him friend.

Michael and Maria were the first couple in the procession, followed by Isabel and Alex and then Tess and Kyle. As each couple reached the platform, the hybrid would take the hands of the human and draw out a lunette for each of them. Then they would separate, walking to either side of the platform and taking their places up the side stairs. By the time all three couples had done so, an arch of lunettes hung suspended above the spot where the couple would say their vows.

Max, flanked by his Earth parents, came solemnly down the aisle. He glanced at the faces of their guests, human and alien, and was momentarily overwhelmed by the unlikely place he’d found himself today. No guest had hidden his or her identity behind a human form. The Voyans and their closely related neighbors from other planets in the alliance were there as themselves, and the trust, honesty, and acceptance this represented was a strong testament to the difference Max and the Council had made in less than a year. His tendency to loathe what he was had long since passed, and he realized he’d lost count of the many blessings that made up his life now.

A collective gasp rippled through the crowd, and Max knew that Liz, his greatest blessing, had appeared at the entrance to the ceremony. He felt her thoughts surging with excitement in spite of their Herculean efforts to keep them bottled up for just a while longer. Max beamed; Liz would have been enough to make his life complete all by herself. He wasn’t surprised that her beauty had awed their guests, but he resented the fact that he would be the last to see her, not the first. He fought the urge to turn and look at her, but it would have been considered a breach of protocol. He’d just about had it with protocol.

As Liz started down the path, her parents on either side of her, the shake of a tambourine marked each step, building a sense of excitement. Liz didn’t need any help being excited. As soon as she had appeared, she felt Max’s acknowledgment of her presence, sensed his sudden response to her powerful emotions, even through her enormous restraint. Linking her arms through her parents’, she held on tightly as the first startling vibrations of the tambourine reverberated around her.

When Max and his parents finished their interminable march to the front of the gathering, Max turned with them to gaze on his bride stepping slowly toward him up the aisle. Their eyes met and time stood still. God, how beautiful she was! And how she looked at him! They loosed their emotions, flooding each other with wave after wave of love, excitement, happiness, gratitude, and hope. A tear slid down Max’s face, shocking the guests who observed this tumultuous but silent exchange. Most of the guests had the ability to pick up on strong emotions, and the impact in the room was visible. Wide eyes, open mouths, and a marked increase in what had been the subtle glowing of the natural Voyan forms left the room in eerie quiet. Even the lutan and flute were silenced momentarily as everyone adjusted to the heightened electricity in the room.

The parents flinched when actual physical sensations tingled through their bodies as a result of the contact with their children. “Max!” Diane Evans whispered, looking worriedly at her son. “What’s happening?”

Shaken from his strong connection with Liz by the worry in his mother’s voice, he looked at her, assessing quickly what impact they were having on his parents, and from the look of it, Liz’s parents, too. Having released the explosive build-up of emotion, they were able to reign themselves in, and the charged atmosphere in the room subsided a notch, although the glow that had become routine when they touched had already begun to swirl. The music resumed, and Liz and her parents joined them at the front.

Liz was lost in Max’s eyes, and it took a squeeze of her father’s hand to bring her back to the ceremony. Smiling with embarrassment, she looked at Max’s parents, still standing on either side of him. They smiled back, understanding and a hint of humor in their eyes. They had long since realized how totally besotted these two were with each other. They just hoped they'd make it through the next 15 minutes!

Liz and her parents faced Max and his parents for several seconds as Rana and Pastor Lancaster said a blessing in both Voyan and English. Then the six of them joined hands, forming a circle. Adhering to Voyan custom again, the two fathers stepped forward to kiss Liz’s cheeks; then the two mothers kissed Max. Finally, the parents lifted Max’s and Liz’s hands, pressed them together, and stepped back, leaving Max and Liz, palm to palm, alone at the base of the center stairs.

It was Max’s turn to fall into Liz’s loving eyes. Finally being able to see her, touch her, meld his thoughts to hers, he felt he had already satisfied all of his goals for the ceremony. His heart was racing and his body burned for her. Liz’s reaction was no less extreme. His urgency brought color to her cheeks and her shallow breathing threatened to make speech impossible. Rana made a rare intrusion into their thoughts, and smiled in satisfaction as they blinked, the spell broken . . . for the moment.

They turned toward the platform and slowly ascended the steps, Max’s left hand on the small of Liz’s back, his right hand holding her right hand until they reached the top.

“Honored guests,” Rana began, “this is truly the best of days. My son, Zan of Voya, Max Evans of Earth, has found his soulmate in his bride, Liz Parker. They have come together in love and joy, fulfilling a destiny foretold long ago. It not only brings happiness to them and to our people, it brings a new way of life that bodes well for our future with each other. Their union represents the fruition of 1000 years of hope and the promise of a lineage of leadership to come. Their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren will be a source of strength and promise for generations.”

No pressure, Max teased Liz without changing his outwardly dignified expression. Think of the fun we’ll have practicing those kids’ conceptions!

Liz reacted with a wide-eyed glance at her mate, surprised at his lighthearted thoughts. Seeing him working to contain a smile, the resultant smirk struck her funny, and she choked on her laughter, covering it up quickly with a light clearing of her throat.

“Liz, Max?” Rana continued, giving them a gentle warning with her eyes. “Are you ready for the joining?”

“We are.”

They extended their palms, as they had done twice before with Rana. Rana’s hand hovered over Max’s, then Liz’s; immediately, the identical glowing joining symbols appeared in their palms. There was a murmur of approval throughout the crowd at the outward confirmation that this joining was meant to be. Everyone watched, mesmerized, as the symbols rose into the air, high above the couple’s heads, and then began to float toward each other until they touched. It was what happened next that began a rush of astonished whispers, for the symbols began to merge into one identical but larger, brighter symbol. The glow grew more and more intense until the onlookers were forced to shield their eyes. Then, with a burst, the symbol shattered, showering the happy couple with tiny shards of glowing energy.

The stunned crowd was quiet for a moment, and Rana waited patiently for the inevitable reaction. Then it came. A loud burst of applause, cheering, and shouts of approval filled the meadow and bounced off the mountain’s walls. No one except Rana and the parents had ever witnessed such a thing before, and it almost sent them into a frenzy of excitement. If any doubts had existed about this union, they had been wiped out in those few seconds. Word of this would reach the few skeptics who remained and who had stubbornly refused to attend this ceremony. No one would argue with this. It was the stuff of legends.

Max and Liz could only grin at each other. Even though they had experienced this once before, there was a certain thrill in seeing such a spectacular stamp of approval for their love. Max broke tradition and pulled Liz to him.

“That’s how my heart feels every time I look at you,” he told her softly, his voice easily hidden by the noise of the crowd.

“Funny, that’s just what I was thinking,” she smiled at him.

Once the bedlam had settled down, Rana nodded at Pastor Lancaster to continue the ceremony.

“I have only known Max and Liz a short time, but that’s all it took for me to be convinced that each of them is the best thing that could have happened to the other. They each bring something strong and selfless to this union, and together, they have answered each other’s prayers as well as the prayers of nations.

“Max? Liz? You have written your own vows. Are you ready to share them now?”

They nodded, already withdrawing into the private space that encircled them whenever they focused only on each other. Again, the golden glow began to form, giving the already surprised guests one more thing to tell everyone about when they got home.

“Max, I always hoped that someday I would find that one special man, a man I could love with all my heart and who would love and cherish me with that same depth of feeling. I wanted someone who would open my eyes to new ideas and new experiences, who would know what I needed before I did, who would be someone I could look up to, respect, and honor. I prayed for someone who would accept all of me, who would acknowledge me as an equal, and who would find that my value enhanced his own.

“Never in a million years could I have anticipated finding that man, with the noblest of human qualities and the amazing gifts of an alien king, in my own hometown. You saved my life one day, and you’ve saved it every day since. I know there is a God, because only God could have opened that world to me, created the man of my dreams, and allowed me to feel such happiness and love as I never imagined.

“I will love you to the depths of my soul for eternity, Max. I will honor you, offering all of my love, my skills, and my support to our marriage and our mission. I will hold you first in my life forever, trying each day to deserve the happiness and love you have given me."

She turned to look at Maria, who stepped forward with Max’s ring in her hand. Liz had insisted on keeping Max’s ring a surprise, since hers had been a surprise from Max when he proposed. She’d had one of the hybrid craftsmen create a wide gold band encrusted with diamonds in the shape of the same spiral symbol that her matched set formed. She heard him take in his breath as its design registered. He looked at her in awe and offered his hand to her.

“Max Evans, you have gone through me like thread through a needle. Now everything I do is stitched with your color.” She slipped the ring on his finger and then bent to kiss it. She could feel him shaking.

Max took a moment to gather himself. Her words, the design of the ring, her pledge had touched him to his very core. She was always surprising him, even with their intimate connection, and he just didn’t know how he would ever deserve this incredible woman.

“Liz, you are my heart. All of my life, you have been the center of my universe. I knew from the first day I saw you that somehow, you would be the most important part of my life. Now we have come so far together; we have learned so much about each other, about our history, about ourselves, that I know our union was truly written in the stars. If I am strong, it is because you support me; if I am wise, it is because you council me; if I love, it is because I am loved beyond my wildest dreams.

“Our worlds may never know what they owe you, Liz, but I know, and I will never forget. I will love you and care for you and cherish you above all else with every fiber of my being. And if, one day, we are blessed with the children I long to have with you, know that they have been conceived from the truest love the world has ever known.”

Max saw the tears slipping down Liz’s cheeks and felt the honest intensity of her response to his words. Turning, he took the ring from Michael’s hand and lifted Liz’s trembling fingers.

“Liz Parker, my life is not my own. It is yours. Do with it as you will.” He slid Claudia’s ring onto her granddaughter’s hand, then leaned down to kiss it. The glow around them was brilliant now, and onlookers were squinting into it, unwilling to miss a magical second.

Having been warned, Pastor Lancaster donned his sunglasses and proceeded happily.

“Unatant! They are joined!”

Liz and Max leaned in for their kiss, a passionate, electrical, mind-blowing kiss. They had done it! They were officially, publicly, eternally bound on Earth and any other planet in the universe life might take them. Max had never felt such a feeling of well-being and joy. His Liz was in his arms, and no force in the universe would ever take her away from him!

Liz was dizzy with happiness. She could feel Max’s love invading every cell of her body, every corner of her mind, and she was swept away in the avalanche. Neither of them even noticed what was happening, totally absorbed in each other’s thoughts and lips.

The crowd of onlookers, though, quieted once again as they witnessed another unprecedented phenomenon. The glow began to take shape, focusing in on itself until it had formed their joining symbol, this time rotating and pulsing as if it were alive. As the oblivious couple shared their wedding kiss, the symbol began to spin wildly until it narrowed into a thin shaft, forking at the base. Then, it shot down into the two newlyweds, terrifying the alarmed parents. Even Rana looked stunned.

Max and Liz felt a strong tingling in their bodies and they broke off their kiss, breathing heavily. “What was that?” gasped Liz.

“I don’t know,” answered Max, looking around for answers but finding only shocked faces watching them.

Then the faces broke out into smiles and Rana stepped toward the couple. Max and Liz were literally glowing—from within! They looked down at their hands and feet and saw the glow emanating from them, just as it did from the true Voyans. Max turned to Rana, half pleased, half worried, but his questions died on his lips as his Voyan mother enfolded him in her arms. Max’s shock lasted only seconds when he joyously responded, wrapping her in their first hug in over 50 years.

As a hushed crowed looked on at the unbelievable reunion, Liz tried to understand what had just happened. When Max and Rana finally pulled back, Max turned immediately to Liz and pulled her to him.

“What does this mean?” he asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

“I didn’t tell you this before, my son, because it was only hypothesis, and I didn’t want to get your hopes up, but after I witnessed this glow you and Liz share, I went to my people for an explanation. There was some well-founded speculation that this was the combination of your mutual Voyan ancestry growing stronger when you two combined your life forces—a perfect example of the total being more than the sum of its parts, if you will. It just grew to such an extent today that it has become a part of you. It has elevated your Voyan side to a higher level, and now you are truly one of us. You both are. It’s possible now for us to touch, and for you to tolerate the Voyan environment!”

Liz listened to Rana’s words with mixed feelings. “Does this mean we have to be on Voya?” she asked warily.

Rana turned understanding eyes toward her new daughter. “If the same people who came up with this explanation are correct,” she assured her, “these tendencies will only be obvious when you are in a Voyan environment, as you are now. When you leave the Star Chamber, I expect you will return to normal—your normal. This shouldn’t change your lives, dear ones; it only gives you more options.”

Liz and Max turned to face their guests, a little stunned but deeply happy. No matter where they were, they would be together, and that, above all, meant everything to them. They had one last surprise waiting for them. At the base of the steps stood Zeval and Jasar, each holding a gold replica of their joining symbols. They climbed the steps to the platform and handed them each one of the symbols.

“Do you remember,” Rana asked, “when I first told you Zeval was coming to Earth? I said she was bringing you a special gift? This is your gift—a permanent reminder of your joining symbols and the love that brought you together. I hope every time you see them, it will remind you both to cherish each other with all your hearts.”

“I won’t need reminding,” Max smiled, “but the gift is beautiful. Thank you.”

“They will hold a place of honor in our home,” Liz promised, leaning in for her first hug from Rana.

Max and Liz kissed lightly this time and descended the stairs amidst a wild ovation. They greeted as many guests as they could and did their best to honor their friends by enjoying the party that followed. Eventually, though, their urgent need to be alone together won out.

I want you. Her thoughts interrupted him mid-sentence.

Max looked up from across the room and locked eyes with her. Without breaking their gaze, he said something to the people around him and strode toward her, intent on his goal. His single-minded look thrilled her, and she fought to stay in one place, waiting for him to take charge. When he reached her, he picked her up and shouted, “Isabel!”

Isabel assessed the situation immediately and hurried to her brother’s side, a sisterly smirk on her face. “In a hurry?” she asked.

“Get us out of here,” he growled.

Laughter faded behind them as Isabel helped them out of the Star Chamber, and Liz sighed with relief to see that her body no longer glowed—at least not visibly. Inside, she was glowing brightly. Max read her thoughts and fixed a penetrating gaze on her exuberant face.

“Remember how I told you once that I was glowing on the inside?” Liz felt an erotic jolt as she recalled the circumstances that night. He had touched her and made her glow, but she hadn’t been able to do it to him. He had told her then that he was glowing on the inside. It all took on a whole new meaning now.

“Well, I’m dying to see if this has any . . . um . . . affect on our lovemaking, aren’t you?” she asked breathlessly.

She hardly knew what hit her. All she knew was, seconds later she was tearing down a mountain road in a Jeep with Max, hair flying, heart soaring, the universe at her doorstep.

Not a bad destiny for a couple of kids from Roswell, New Mexico. She remembered Maria telling her once, “Destiny sucks.” Now she was prepared to disagree.

“You got that right!” Max shouted over the rush of wind, and he reached for her hand.

Destiny was damn wonderful!

posted on 11-Jul-2002 2:11:14 PM
A bump to help people find this who have been asking.

Carol