posted on 7-Sep-2001 10:27:03 AM

Pilgrim Souls
by EmilyluvsRoswell

Disclaimer: Don't own the characters or the concepts; just borrowing them! If Jason Katims wants to pay me to do this, I'd be more than happy to oblige him, but meanwhile this is just for fun.
Category: Future. Various characters.
Summary: Six years past high school graduation and things are very different in Roswell.
Spoilers: Not really. Assume everything thru Wipeout! occurred, but no dupes, no trip to NYC, etc…
Rating: PG-13

* * *


When You Are Old Enough
by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.




* * * * *

Liz Parker - author. It sounds funny, even to me. At twenty-five I always expected to be buried in a bio lab at Harvard, doing graduate work. If I published anything, it was going to be a research article for some obscure scientific journal - at least obscure to the general public - in an attempt to enhance my marketability on the tenure track. The old "publish or perish." That was the plan, and Liz Parker always followed the plan. Well… except when I didn't. But hardly anyone knew about those other times. Let's face it - going up against the FBI and evil aliens aren't exactly subjects I could discuss at the dinner table. Still, even I never pictured myself writing fiction for a living. Science fiction, no less, though given the options I suppose that part made a certain amount of sense. Just not for the reasons my parents would give you.

I'd like to be able to blame someone for my abrupt about-face in career objectives. For a while I told people it was Sandra's fault. Sandy was my roommate freshman year. A die-hard English major, she was appalled at the general lack of variety in my course load and somehow talked me into taking Creative Writing with her first semester sophomore year. It didn't meet a single one of my requirements for graduation and I barely had time to breathe between my lab courses as it was, let alone to indulge in long fictional flights of fancy. But I had learned early the previous year that it was generally easier to just go along with whatever Sandy wanted you to do from the beginning, since she would hound you until you gave in anyway. She's a lot like Maria that way. I guess that's part of why we hit it off.

So there I was, registered for this writing class, pass/fail just to be on the safe side, and I had to find something to write about. And the funny thing is, I didn't even think twice. I mean, I know I was at Harvard - land of superior minds and all that - but it never occurred to me that I needed to produce some great literary work. The class was a lark and I figured the professor could hardly fail me as long as I turned something in. So, for the first assignment I wrote the opening of a novel - a science fiction adventure - about a young woman who falls in love with an alien who is stranded on Earth. Hey - they always say to write what you know. I guess they're right, too, since I got an A.

Except things went a little haywire from there. The professor, Mr. Kalet, asked me to meet him after class one day and we ended up talking for two hours over coffee. He wanted to know if I planned to continue writing - he was actually anxious to see where I'd take the story. Ideas I didn't know I had came tumbling out of my mouth. By the time I went back to the dorm that afternoon, I had an outline for the next five chapters. When the semester was over, I had the better part of a book, and my heroine was bound for the home planet with her alien lover. I suppose you could say I had finally crossed the line into fiction. Then, over my protestations, Mr. Kalet pulled a few strings, called in some favors, and sent the manuscript off to an agent. Somehow by May I had a book contract.

That's how it happened. It was that simple. Except it wasn't simple. Not really. Most of it was actually pretty gut-wrenching, to be perfectly honest. And as much as I liked to say it was all due to Sandy's nagging, or Mr. Kalet's connections, I knew there was more to it than that. Liz Parker, scientist, always had a fanciful streak. No matter how I tried to deny it, there was a part of me that craved excitement, adventure, the fantastic. In high school there was plenty of adventure to balance out the facts and equations of my scientific world. You don't get much more exciting than running from alien hunters with your otherworldly boyfriend or fighting for your life against enemy invaders. But then all of that came to an end, and suddenly I was just Liz Parker again. Liz Parker, valedictorian, who was headed off to Harvard University by herself. Once upon a time that was exactly who I had wanted to be. According to "the plan", I was smack on track. Yeah, right.

My life took on this endless quality - endlessly quiet, endlessly dull. I should have been on top of the world, considering all I had achieved, but there was something missing. A part of me still craved adventure. It had become a drug, as necessary to my daily existence as air or water. I needed to feel that rush of danger. So, I wrote about it.

I fooled myself for a little while. Convinced myself that it was the kick of adrenaline I was missing instead of Max. But in my heart I always knew the truth. I guess in some ways it was actually Max who made me a writer. When he saved my life, I started keeping my journal as a way to make sense of the chaos around me. When he left, I wrote stories to fill the void. It was my way of keeping him close.

* * * * *

Liz Parker hummed a Christmas carol under her breath as she wiped down the counter following the morning rush. In the six years since she moved away, she had discovered that she actually missed waiting tables at the Crashdown. Tucked away in her tiny Cambridge apartment, roughly two thousand miles from home, she found even memories of cleaning the milkshake machine could leave her feeling nostalgic at the oddest times. But mostly it was the people she thought about. The easy interaction with the regular customers, combined with the oddities of the tourists in town to "seek the truth," had always amused and entertained her. Strange as it seemed, she actually enjoyed helping her parents with the café when she came home for the holidays. Particularly since she had talked her father into letting her forgo the standard waitress uniform; the antennae were one thing she had not missed.

She moved automatically, filling sugar containers and replacing them, spilling a pot of stale coffee, preparing for the lunch crowd that would start to filter in over the next hour. The empty café seemed hollow, anxiously awaiting the customers that would fill it with sound and life. But she liked the contrast, appreciated the peaceful lull before the roar. The pattern was comfortable in its familiarity. Tables needed to be set. Specials had to be listed on the chalkboard. Still humming, she went into the back for the freshly baked pies Amy DeLuca had delivered early that morning. Passing through the break room, she smiled at José, who waved in acknowledgement, somehow aware of her despite having his nose buried in a car magazine and his walkman pumping at full volume. It was funny how quickly she could slip into the old routine.

The sound of the door chime sent her back into the café, carefully balancing three pie boxes as she eased hip first through the swinging door. She placed the pies on the counter, then glanced toward the front of the room. Standing in the window, nose pressed against the glass as she peered out into the street, was a little girl of perhaps seven. She was simply dressed in faded denim overalls and a red shirt, and her light brown hair fell in a tidy braid halfway to her waist. Liz looked quickly around the room, but the girl appeared to be alone.

Frowning slightly, Liz took a couple of steps forward, then stopped. "Hello there," she called softly.

"Hello," came the childish voice in reply. But she did not turn around, apparently absorbed in whatever she was watching outside.

"Are you playing hide and seek?" Liz asked, keeping her tone light as she took a few steps closer.

"No. Just hiding." A musical giggle followed her response.

Liz couldn't help but smile at the sound. "From your mom?" she asked, sliding onto the last stool at the end of the counter. She looked out the window over the little girl's head, half expecting to see a woman searching the sidewalk for her daughter.

"No," the child replied. "Mommy isn't here," she elaborated.

Liz frowned again, her focus dropping to the plump hands pressed against the window, still dimpled with baby fat. Despite the little girl's height, she sounded younger than Liz had first thought. Perhaps no more than five. "Your daddy then? Are you hiding from him?" she pressed.

"I'm 'posed to meet my daddy," she said.

"Oh, I see," Liz replied. "So, your daddy knows you're in here."

"No." She shook her head, sending her braid flipping back and forth.
"Maybe we should call him then," Liz suggested. She stood and went over to kneel beside the little girl. "We could have him come pick you up, all right?" When the child neither turned, nor responded to her question, Liz laid a gentle hand on one chubby arm. "What do you say? Hmmm? How about you tell me your name?" she coaxed. "I'm Liz."

"I know you are," the girl replied with a giggle. She pulled away from the window and looked at Liz with luminous golden brown eyes, and Liz felt the world sway.

The child before her had all of the grace and poise of a young princess, and merely returned Liz's searching gaze with one of her own. But it was her face that had Liz mesmerized and her heart leaping in her chest. The stubborn chin, the sculpted cheekbones, and those eyes - eyes such as Liz had only seen three times before. The girl so closely resembled a young Isabel Evans that there was no doubt in Liz's mind whose daughter she was, impossible as it seemed. Then suddenly the child smiled, a broad, face-splitting grin too wide for the rest of her features, and threw her arms around Liz. And the next unvoiced question was answered.

Hugging the little girl tightly in return, Liz rested her chin on her shoulder. "What's your name, sweetie?" she asked gently, her eyes filling with tears.

"Lexie."

***********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 10:33:38 AM

Part 2

*******

We never saw it coming.

They left the summer after high school graduation. Things had been calm for nearly a year - no mysterious enemies slipping into town, no more desert ambushes or attacks in the dead of night, no more danger. Max and I had allowed ourselves to dream, to make plans for a future together - Harvard in the fall, then later grad school, and eventually a family. We all danced beneath the stars on prom night, even Tess and Kyle. A few days later we all graduated. Life seemed perfect. I should have known it was too good to be true.

He came to me under cover of darkness as he had so many nights over the previous year, climbing the fire escape and slipping through my window long after my parents had gone to sleep. But that night was different. I could tell almost immediately. He hesitated before approaching the bed, his reticence pouring off of him in waves. I felt his fear and his pain before he even touched me. Yet when he drew near, he was holding a part of himself back. He sank down on the edge of the bed and took my hand in his with infinite care, and though I didn't know what he was about to tell me, I somehow knew enough to be frightened.

"What is it, Max?" I broke the silence because I couldn't stand to drag it out - whatever it was. Later I realized that if I hadn't spoken, he may never have told me. I don't think he knew how to say it until I asked him.

"We're leaving," he said simply, in a voice so devoid of emotion, so lacking in inflection that for a moment the actual words failed to penetrate my brain. But he kept talking. The flood gates had been opened and there was no turning back. "We found a way home. We're going tonight. The four of us."

"How?" Suddenly my voice sounded unused, and I realized that whatever had robbed his voice of its usual warmth had drained mine as well.

"Michael and I found a ship. A space craft. Out in the desert. We think it belonged to that last attack party. The ones that ambushed us out by the old highway over Thanksgiving."

I nodded. "When did you find it?"

I could tell he didn't want to answer. "April."

April. It was late July. More than three months and he hadn't said a word. Not only that, but he had given no sign, no indication that anything had changed. Three months of college preparation and moonlit strolls and making love in hushed tones so as not to wake our parents. All the time pretending things were fine.

It was the only time he ever kept anything from me - lied to me.

I slapped him.

And then his arms were around me and my face was buried against his chest and we were holding each other as if we'd never let go. I couldn't breathe - though whether it was because Max was crushing my ribs or because my lungs had simply shut down, I couldn't say. But I didn't cry. Not that night. We simply lay in each other's arms as the minutes ticked by. Neither of us spoke. Somehow we were beyond explanations and recriminations. I knew that he hadn't told me before because he hadn't been able to face the truth. And in the end, I was glad. Knowing ahead of time would have only made it harder.

I don't know what time he left - not because I fell asleep, but because I couldn't bring myself to look at the clock. Pinpointing the moment would have made it seem more real, and I desperately wanted to wake in the morning and discover it had all been a nightmare. So all I know is that it was still dark when he slipped away, and the moon hung full in the sky. He kissed me tenderly, climbed from my bed, and walked to the window without looking back. Then he was gone.

It was only later that I found the note. He must have brought it with him fearing that he wouldn't be able to tell me the truth, and so slipped it under my pillow for me to discover the next morning. Max was never the type to write love letters. He had no trouble telling me how he felt, so I suppose he never saw the need to write things down. Reading his note after he left, I was glad I had no more like it to remember him by. The beauty of his words made me ache. He said he would always love me. That I would always be in his heart. And that he would do anything in his power to come home to me one day. And then he told me to go on with my life, without him.

I burned the note the next night, out on the roof, and watched as the wind swept the fiery ashes up into the darkened sky and away from the earth.

* * * * *

Trembling slightly, Liz scooped Lexie up and sat her on a stool at the counter. Smoothing back the little girl's hair, she looked into her eyes. "It's very nice to meet you, Lexie," she said, managing to muster a smile.

But the child was not to be fooled. "What's wrong?" she asked, frowning slightly, her full lips falling into a natural pout.

"Nothing, sweetie," she assured her. "So, are you going to tell me who you're hiding from now?" Liz's brain was whirling, running through everything the girl had said. Her mother wasn't there. She was meeting her father. But Lexie's father didn't even know she existed. And if Isabel wasn't there, where was she? At the Evanses' house? Or was she still….? "Lexie, honey, how did you get here?"

The little girl's frown deepened slightly and her eyes flickered as she swiftly took in the empty café. Then she reached out and, as Max had so many years before, cupped Liz's face in her hands. The connection was instantaneous. A series of images flashed through Liz's mind - stars swirling through space, distant planets growing more distinct, flashing lights, and a spaceship in the desert. When Lexie pulled away, Liz leaned heavily against the counter. She had forgotten what it was like, what it felt like to share another's thoughts in that way. It left her shaken. Too many memories, too many emotions, came surging to the surface.

She became conscious of the child still watching her, her big brown eyes a touch apprehensive. Another thought crossed her mind. "How did you know who I was, Lexie?"

The girl grinned, eager to share. "Uncle Max showed you to me."

Liz froze. "What do you mean?" she asked slowly.

Lexie waved her hand through the air. "Like I just showed you." She brushed Liz's cheek gently. "He showed me all about you."

Barely able to breathe, Liz took the child's hand in hers and squeezed lightly. "Is that who you're hiding from? Lexie? Is your Uncle Max here?"

But she already knew the answer. Even as she spoke, the girl's eyes shifted and the door chime rang out and Liz felt a tingling sensation traveling through her body that she had not felt in more than six years. And then Lexie was sliding off her stool with a squeal and running past Liz toward whomever had just come into the café.

"I found her, Uncle Max!" the little girl cried. "I found Liz."

"I see that."

That voice. Smooth as satin and deeper than thunder. Liz clutched at the back of the stool in front of her for support. She could feel his eyes on her, but she couldn't bring herself to turn around. She was too afraid of what she might see - or worse, what she might not see.

"Liz," Lexie called out. "Liz, here's Uncle Max."

Her heart clenched tightly in her chest and she wondered briefly if she was having a heart attack. The thought snapped her to her senses. No way was Max Evans going to bring her back to life on the floor of the Crashdown a second time. She took a deep breath and turned around.

Her first thought was that this was a shell of the man she once knew. She actually gasped aloud before she was able to stop herself. Physically, he looked much the same. Tall, lean, dark, strong. He held Lexie easily with one arm. He wore black jeans, a black long-sleeved T-shirt, black boots - yet beneath the rebel façade she somehow knew there still dwelt the white knight. His hair was perhaps a touch longer than she remembered. His face looked older, more careworn, even more serious if that was possible. The youth had been replaced by the man. But it was his eyes that frightened her. Those deep brown eyes that once held the secrets of the universe - and more love than one woman could ever hope for - were dull and lifeless. There were dark shadows beneath them, as if he had not slept in months, and the spark of warmth that always comforted her regardless of the circumstances - that light in his eyes was gone.

"Max," she breathed.

"Hello, Liz," he said quietly. It was the voice from the night he left. The flat voice. And now his eyes matched. But when he turned to look at Lexie, Liz though she saw a glimmer of something behind the bleakness. "Lexie," he said, his tone gentle, but serious. "What did I tell you?"

Lexie looked down. "To stay with Grammy."

"And?"

The child sighed. "I'm sorry, Uncle Max."

Max bent down and set the girl on her feet, then took her hand. To Liz's astonishment, he walked her to the door. "Go see Grammy now, Lexie. I need to speak to Liz."

The little girl nodded. She turned and waved as Max pushed open the door. "Bye, Liz," she called. "See you later," she added with a grin.

Her expression was contagious. A smile tugged at Liz's lips. "Bye, Lexie. Have fun with your grandmother."

The child skipped outside and disappeared around the corner.

Max shut the door and ran his palm over the lock. Then he reached out and turned the sign in the window so the "Closed" side faced out.

"You're not going to go with her?" Liz asked, her shock evident.

"Lexie doesn't need to be watched," he said quietly, staring out the window. "Not here. But try explaining that to my mother."

"She must have been surprised."

Max finally turned to face Liz again. "I'm sorry," he said. "I should have known Lexie would take it upon herself to come looking for you. She's… heard a lot about you."

"So it would seem." Just looking at Max, Liz felt her head growing light. "I think I'd better sit," she murmured.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Liz nodded as she eased onto a stool. "Just a little… shocked." She pulled a handful of sugar packets out of the nearest dispenser and began to stack them nervously. It was too hard to look at Max, to risk seeing the despair in his eyes again.

"Mind if I get some coffee?"

"Of course not," she replied, but she didn't offer to get it for him. She just kept playing with the sugar.

Max crossed the café, his footsteps heavy on the tile floor. A moment later he was back with two cups. He slid onto a stool, leaving one empty as a buffer between them, and passed one of the cups to her.

"Thanks," Liz said, not looking up. She wrapped her hands around her coffee as if to warm them. She was conscious of her breathing, of trying to keep it even. It was all so unreal - knowing she hadn't seen Max in years, yet feeling as if they had spoken only hours ago. Was their connection really that strong, that permanent? God - she couldn't allow herself to go there. She tried to focus on the present. "So. Isabel's a mother," she said quietly. "And Alex… God, Max." Her heart flooded with emotions she couldn't even name. She closed her eyes.

"Yes, Lexie is Alex's. Isabel didn't find out she was pregnant until after we reached our planet," Max said. He spoke slowly, carefully, quietly - as if each word was an effort. Liz could feel his eyes on her, measuring her reaction. "She never wanted to talk about it, but I suspect it happened that night we left."

Liz just nodded, but she was thinking back, remembering Alex's quiet strength that summer, how he was the only one who did not fall to pieces. What would he have done if he had known? She shook away the thought, only to have others flood her brain and take its place. She picked up her coffee and sipped, oblivious to the heat. There were so many questions she wanted to ask, but she was afraid. Were they all back? Were they here for good? Why now? What had put that haunted look in Max's eyes? And most of all, did he still love her? But fear kept her silent.

"Is Alex here? In Roswell?"

She shook her head. "New York. But he's planning to come for Christmas."

"And you? Boston?"

His question brought a smile to her lips unbidden, though it made her heart hurt at the same time. He still knew her so well. "Yes. I'm home for a few weeks. Maria's in Taos," she added before he could ask. "She has a jewelry shop there. Amy was in this morning and she said she expects her over the weekend."

"Good."

Liz frowned and looked up. His face was expressionless, but she thought she had heard something in his voice. A hint of emotion. She liked to think she still knew him, too. "What?"

"I need to talk to all three of you," he said.

"You need?" she asked. "What about the others?" She waited, but he merely took a sip of coffee. "Max?" Something flickered in his eyes and she reached across the gap between them and lay her hand on his wrist, trying to ignore the jolt she felt at the touch of his warm skin. "Tell me. Don't play games with me, Max. It isn't fair."

"It's not a game," he said coldly.

Liz blinked at his tone and removed her hand. "I'm sorry. But you're the one who left and you're the one who's back, Max. What do you want me to say?"

He sighed. "No. I'm the one who should apologize. I've forgotten how to do this."

"Do what?"

He was silent for a moment. "Be human, I guess," he said finally, his voice so low she nearly missed his words.

He sounded infinitely tired and it scared her more than anything else had. "Max, what's wrong?" She took a deep breath and plunged forward. "Aren't you back to stay?"

Max stared into his coffee for a long time, as if the answer might suddenly float to the surface and reveal itself to him. Finally he shot her a sideways glance and his eyes were utterly blank. "I don't know."

*********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 10:37:41 AM

Part 3

*******

Have you ever tried to walk along the bottom of a swimming pool out at the deep end? So that you're completely submerged? It's hard to do, because your natural buoyancy keeps trying to make you float to the surface. Divers use weighted boots to help them stay on the ocean floor when they're exploring, but I've never gone diving so I can't say if the sensation is the same. All I know is how I felt that first morning after Max and the others left. Like I was pushing my way through deep, cold water, and I couldn't get clear of it. It closed me in, surrounding me, making my movements slow and sluggish. My lungs felt compressed, as if someone had sucked every last bit of air from them. At the same time, every nerve in my body was aware - heightened to the point of pain. My skin was unbearably sensitive. I was sure that if anyone touched me, I would shatter into a million pieces.

That was my state when I started my shift at the Crashdown that morning, and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't say anything to my parents because… well… what would I have told them? And I couldn't call Alex or Maria, because I knew they were going through the same thing. Later we would be ready to share, but it was still too fresh, too new. So there I was, pouring coffee and serving plates of eggs, figuring I might as well keep busy, yet all the while locked in my own insular world. Slowly dying.

That's why I had mixed feelings when Alex appeared halfway through my shift and parked himself at the counter. I was annoyed, because I wasn't prepared to cope with anything other than my own aching heart at that particular moment. But I was also glad to see him, because Alex has always been the brother I never had and I love that he instinctively comes to me when he's troubled, despite the ups and downs of our relationship since the Czechs came into our lives. Sometimes it's just good to have someone who knows you as well as they know themselves and vice versa. Even when you're busy telling yourself that you want to be left alone. Especially then. Because you don't really need to talk to each other unless you feel like it. You can just… be.

So that's what Alex and I did for a while. We took comfort in each other's presence. I brought him an orange soda on the rocks. He gave me a sort of half-smile of encouragement. He toyed with the alien-green straw that I'd stuck in his glass through force of habit, and I went back to serving the tourists. Still, the underlying tension was there, an acute awareness of the misery brewing beneath the surface. By the time the café quieted down, Alex was staring blankly at a half-inch of orange-colored ice water and I was more than willing to escape with him into the break room, even though it meant leaving Agnes alone on the floor.

I honestly thought we were going to talk - that we'd sit down on the couch and compare notes on being abandoned by our significant others in favor of the mysteries of the universe. But it didn't happen that way. Instead, the instant the swinging door closed behind us, I took one look at Alex and burst into tears. Not quiet, ladylike tears, either. Those great gulping sobs that make your body shake and rob you of your ability to breathe, which is just as well because you'd prefer to stop breathing anyhow. Alex put his arms around me and held me tightly as I soaked the front of his shirt and clung to him like he was the only thing keeping me on the earth. Kind of ironic, seeing how earth was the last place I wanted to be. And as I cried all over him, he didn't say a word. He didn't tell me it was going to be okay, or that I would get over it, or that they would be back. He merely hugged me and rubbed my shoulders and brushed my hair off my face. He let my emotions roll over him until I was so exhausted that I could barely stand. Then he sat me down and brought me a pint of vanilla ice cream and a box of tissues. It's good to be understood.

* * * * *

It wasn't the answer she was expecting. Though everything about Max screamed at her in warning, like flares in the road proclaiming danger ahead, Liz could not bring herself to believe he would come back only to leave again. It hurt too much to consider and a tiny part of her acknowledged that she had already reached the point of no return.

"Why are you here?" It was the obvious question - probably should have been her first question - but logic had taken a back seat, as it had always done where the aliens were concerned.

"I came to bring Lexie to Alex."

I. Not we. "Max?" She couldn't ask the questions running through her head.

"Isabel wanted…" He stopped, averting his eyes, but not before Liz saw the desperate flash of pain. He regained his control immediately, but the slip was there.

"Isabel wanted what, Max?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper. The pit in her stomach had turned into a knot and it was growing tighter by the second. "Max? Lexie said Isabel isn't here. Where is she, Max?"

She watched as he sat visibly straighter, his arms braced against the counter, his face still turned away. "Isabel adored Lexie," he said quietly. "She kept saying how much she was like Alex. And how we had to finish the war and get back, because he was missing his daughter's childhood and she couldn't stand to rob him of that."

"Max…"

He finally turned to look at her, holding her gaze for a long moment. Then his eyes flickered past her toward the kitchen.

Liz understood. "It's just José," she told him, "and he's probably in the alley smoking a cigarette. He would have come out by now if he'd heard you. You're not exactly his favorite person," she added somewhat reluctantly.

He nodded. Her words seemed to make no impression, other than to assure him it was safe to continue. "We're not really sure what happened," he said in that flat, emotionless voice. "I'm not sure we'll ever know. Isabel and Michael were trying to infiltrate an enemy strong hold on the far side of the planet. He came back. She didn't."

"Oh my God," Liz breathed feeling the knot shift from her stomach to her heart. "What do you mean, you don't know what happened? Was she taken captive? Doesn't Michael know? How did he escape?"

Max shook his head. Swiveling away from her, he stood and walked to the front window to stare at the street. "She's dead. I knew… instantly… Could feel our connection being severed. One moment she was out there… where she'd always been… an extension of myself," he said softly. "And then… nothing."

Liz fought the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. Swallowing hard, she got up and followed Max to the window. This time when she reached out her hand, he turned his so their fingers linked. "Max… I'm so… sorry," she said quietly.

"Michael was… devastated… when he finally made it back. Physically. Emotionally. He barely got out alive. They… tortured him. But whatever they did was nothing to what he's been doing to himself. He's barely spoken in the last two months. I healed his wounds, but this… I can't get through to him. He's blaming himself for Isabel, I know it, but he refuses to talk to me. Lexie's become frightened of him. I… I didn't know what to do. So, I… brought them here. Brought them home."

"Where is he now?"

"At my parents'. He just sits."

"And Tess?"

Max shrugged. "She stayed behind. She was never truly comfortable here. I'm not sure she totally approved of my coming, but she understood it."

"How are your parents taking it?"

"About as well as you might expect. Lexie provides a distraction for them, but they're both besides themselves. It was one thing thinking Isabel was alive and well and a couple of galaxies away, but I don't think they were prepared for something like this. I'm not sure any of us really were."

"Max, I…" Liz trailed off. The words wouldn't come and she was afraid to reach for them - afraid that if she did she would lose control and break down completely. As it was, she found herself brushing at tears that hovered on the brink of falling.

"Don't," he said quietly. He flexed his hand in hers, gently disengaging. "I'm sorry. I don't have the right to burden you with this. It's not your problem."

She looked up, incredulous. "How can you say that? Did you honestly think I wouldn't care? Max… Isabel was my friend. You… all of you… we were all…" She stopped and took a deep breath, feeling the tears flooding her eyes again. "You were right to come here," she said simply.

He stared at her for a moment, his gaze assessing. Then he merely nodded. He walked back to the counter and took a sip of his coffee. "Will you call them?" he asked finally.

She didn't need to ask whom he meant. "Yes," she said.

"And Liz… could you not tell them why? I'd like to…"

Liz hesitated.

"Please?"

She bit her lip. "I… I don't know that I can promise you that, Max. Alex, well… he'll come regardless and I think he can handle it, but Maria?"

Max looked her in the eye. "You don't think she'll take it well." It wasn't a question.

"I… I can't guarantee she'll come if I tell her why I'm asking," Liz said honestly. "But I can't not tell her, Max. I won't ambush her that way. He hurt her too much."

Max nodded slowly. "I understand. But Liz… she may be the only one who can get through to him."

Liz's expression hardened visibly. "I'm sorry for you and for Isabel, Max. But I can't be sorry for him. Not when it concerns Maria. You didn't see her after you all left."

"You haven't seen him now. I doubt it even compares."

"I…"

"Liz, please. I'm… I'm asking you. Please. I can't…" He trailed off as his voice cracked and he closed his eyes momentarily as if trying to block the pain.

Liz's heart skipped. She did still know him, could finish his sentence. He couldn't lose Michael, too. "I'll… I'll do my best."

"Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet," she warned. "My best may not be enough."

**********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 10:42:12 AM

Part 4

********

Once the ice cream was half gone and I had a garbage can filled with discarded Kleenex sitting at my feet, I managed to pull myself together sufficiently to ask Alex what had happened with Isabel. But he refused to talk about it. Not in a stubborn way - I didn't get the sense that he was being difficult or trying to spare me or anything like that. He just smiled a little and shook his head and told me it wasn't important. Yes, she had come to see him the previous night, and yes, they had talked. But he wasn't about to tell me anything beyond that. It was none of my business.

Normally, a line like that wouldn't have stopped me. I would have railed at him and pushed until he spilled his guts to my satisfaction. I was never a big one for secret-keeping among friends unless the secrets were my own. But for some reason I chose not to press him that day. There were probably a dozen things that contributed to my reasoning, among them the calm look in his blue eyes that somehow told me he really was all right. If he had been devastated - if he had seemed to be suffering even one tenth as much as I was - I would have been insistent. Instead I nodded and smiled a little sadly and pretended that I understood, figuring I would nag him about it later.

Of course, all of this was before Maria showed up. She came bursting through the back door, hair flying, her purse in one hand and her apron in the other, ten minutes late for her shift. She stopped short when she saw us huddled together on the couch - a make-shift pity party that had obviously started without her. I wasn't surprised by the fact that she was late - I would have been shocked had she arrived on time. What did come as a surprise was the look on her face. She looked perfectly fine. Like she didn't have a care in the world. At least until she saw us, and then she looked concerned.

"What happened?" she asked, her gaze flicking from my tear-stained face to the empty box of tissues to the ice cream carton that was sitting in a slightly soggy puddle on the floor. Since Alex was obviously the one in comfort mode, I was the one she attacked. "Lizzie?" She was at my side in a second. "Did you and Max have a fight? It's not Tess again, is it? I knew she hadn't really fallen for Kyle…"

It was Alex who finally managed to shut her up, since I had started to cry again the second she mentioned Max's name. Beneath my tears was a growing awareness - the realization that Maria truly had no idea what had happened - but I was still too wound up in my misery to let it register fully. Alex pulled her away from me and dragged her to the other side of the room, despite her objections. I couldn't hear the precise words he used, but it didn't matter since it was clear what he was saying regardless. I knew the second he told her. She went very still, her waving arms halting in mid-air. Always pale, she lost whatever color she had managed to pick up over the summer by sun bathing in her backyard on her days off; it drained right out of her. She turned to me, as if for confirmation, her green eyes wide and shocky. And then she simply spun on her heel and walked out the door.

I think that moment might have been the worst - at least the worst on that particular day. Alex looked terrible - like he'd just killed his best friend. As if he were the one who'd taken off for some unknown galaxy in the middle of the night without so much as a good bye. He turned to me questioningly and I waved him after Maria. Of the two of us I figured I was probably in the better condition, seeing as how I was sitting on the couch and she was heading for her car. He tore out the back door without a second glance, leaving me alone.

The reason I say that was the worst moment of that day was that things just went downhill from there, particularly for Maria. I'm ashamed to admit that it took me a while to notice. I can only say in my own defense that I was pretty much incapacitated for a few days - apparently I suffered from some sort of delayed reaction. I don't actually remember that much of what happened. Alex told me later that I basically lost my mind the next afternoon in the Crashdown and started hurling bottles of Tabasco sauce through the front window. I did quite a bit of damage before my parents showed up. Supposedly it took both my father and José to hold me down until the paramedics arrived and sedated me. There was talk of therapy for a while, but it didn't come to anything. Surprisingly enough it was my mother who vetoed that one. For some strange reason she actually seemed to understand what I was going through, even though she was basing her understanding on a heavily abbreviated version of the truth. She covered my shifts for the week that followed my little "episode" and left me alone to wallow in my room. No one even suggested that I pay for the new window pane. They all just tip-toed past my door, leaving meals on a tray in the hall for me to ignore. It was as if I was an invalid recovering from a bad case of the flu. So, the truth is, when I didn't hear from Maria, I just figured she was keeping away the same as everyone else.

It was Alex who finally pulled me bodily out of my stupor and made me realize what was going on around me. He shoved his way past my dad one morning and marched into my room, where he unceremoniously dragged me out of bed by the arm so that I dropped to the floor with a dull thud. It was such an un-Alex-like move that all I could do was stare at him for a full minute. But that was about all he allowed me. He pushed some clean clothes into my hands and announced we were going out. The next thing I knew, we were at Maria's.

If my reaction to Max's departure seemed straight from the DeLuca files, then it was pretty clear that Maria was getting her material from somewhere else. I would have expected her to react to Michael's leaving in one way - anger. But she hadn't gotten angry. She hadn't screamed or yelled or broken things. Nor, it would seem, was she moping in her room and pining for him. Instead, she had simply shut down. She was about as close to catatonic as you can get and still walk around. She would get up and dress and eat, but that was it. Not a word had passed her lips since she'd heard the news, and her mother was frantic.

Up until then, I had been vaguely upset with Michael, but I thought I understood why he had gone off without telling Maria. Michael was never very good with words, and though Maria had managed to break down his walls through the years, he was still basically the same person - afraid of emotional confrontations and reluctant to admit to his feelings unless the circumstances forced him to do so. Max and I had spoken about it once - when Hank first went missing and it looked like Michael might leave Roswell. It had been one of Max's greatest fears that Michael would disappear into the night without a word. My theory was that if he tried to say goodbye, Michael would never actually be able to go. And I somehow always believed that Maria understood that, too. It never occurred to me that, at some point along the way, Maria had convinced herself that Michael was here to stay. But one look at her face - at the emotional betrayal reflected in her eyes - and I knew that was exactly what had happened. Maria DeLuca, who had an unhealthy fear of abandonment from a very young age - had let down her guard and allowed herself to believe that Michael would never leave her. And he had proved her wrong.

* * * * *

After Max left, and the next shift of waitresses arrived, Liz went upstairs to make the phone calls. The first one was easy, as she knew it would be. The time difference worked in her favor. She dialed Alex's number in New York and waited for the familiar sound of his cheerful answering machine message. It would have never occurred to Alex to be anything but upbeat in the way he presented himself to the public. Unaccountably, Liz remembered the message that was on Michael's machine when they were in high school - at least whenever he and Maria were going through one of their "off" periods. It was brief and brusque - so exactly the image Michael cultivated for the world. "Talk," it said, followed by the harsh sound of the beep. Most people hung up without bothering to say anything, which, Liz had always supposed, was the goal.

She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she was surprised to hear Alex's recorded voice and was still somewhat flustered by the time she had to speak. "Alex," she said, trying to sound calm, "I need you to get on a plane and come home. Right away. It's nothing to panic over, but… just come home, Alex. Please." She hung up before she was tempted to say more. And before she started to cry. It was the least she could do for Max - and for Isabel. Just one more secret that wasn't hers to tell.

The next call was a crap shoot. She had no way of knowing whether or not Maria was at work; her hours were so irregular. Fingers suddenly cold, Liz punched in Maria's home number. If she got the machine, she would have to try again later. This was not something she could leave in a message. The sound of the phone ringing seemed to taunt her, daring her to hang up before it was too late. But then the ringing stopped, and Maria was on the other end of the line.

"Hello?"

Liz took a deep breath. This was her best friend in the world. They had just spoken the previous night. She could do this. "Hey, it's me."

"Liz? Didn't run the phone bill up enough yesterday, huh?" Maria sounded good. Upbeat. "What's up?"

"I…" Liz paused, wondering why she had agreed to do this. "Listen, Maria… is there any chance of you coming home? I mean, can you leave the store for a few days?"

"I'm coming for the weekend," Maria told her. "My mom nagged me into it last night. Didn't she tell you?"

"Yeah, she did," Liz said hurriedly. "But that's not for another three days. I meant tonight."

Static crackled briefly over the connection, and there was a rustling sound on Maria's end. "Liz, what's going on? Is there something wrong?" she asked finally, and Liz knew from the airy quality of the question that Maria had lit a cigarette and was exhaling as she spoke.

"It's important," she said, trying to postpone the inevitable. "You know I wouldn't ask if it wasn't."

"I love you, babe, but you're going to have to be a little more specific. I have a business to run, you know? I can't just take off whenever I feel like it. Not everyone's work is portable, and the holidays are my busiest time."

"I realize that." Liz sighed. "Are you sitting down?" she asked quietly.

"Should I be?"

"Maria…"

"Yes," she replied, her tone bordering on annoyed. "I'm sitting. Are you happy? Now will you tell me?"

"Yeah." Liz paused, trying to find the words. She wished she had thought this out more carefully. It was ironic that since she had become a writer she was unable to think on her feet. Now she needed rough drafts, note cards, time to revise.

Before she could begin, Maria made an impatient sound. "Liz? It's me, remember? We've been through pretty much everything together, so could you please just spit it out? Whatever it is, it can't be any worse than…" She trailed off, as if it had occurred to her that it could, in fact, be a great deal worse. "Please tell me this isn't an alien thing," she demanded in a hushed voice.

Liz closed her eyes. She should have known Maria would catch on. After all, as she had pointed out, they had lived through it all together. "Max came into the Crashdown today."

Neither of them said another word for several minutes, the silence between them almost audible. When Maria finally spoke, it was clear that she was battling to maintain her composure. "Just Max?"

Liz did not want to lie, but neither did she think Maria was ready to hear about Lexie. And besides that, she knew what her friend was really asking. "He wasn't with him," she said. "But he's here."

Maria took a deep breath. "And you expect me to come home? No. No way, Liz. How can you possibly…?"

"Max asked me to call," she interrupted softly. "I… there's something wrong with Michael. He's… withdrawn. Max thinks you might be able to help. He's… hoping you will."

"I see." She had gotten herself under control. Her voice was cold. "And why exactly should I give a damn?"

"Maria, I know it's a lot to ask." Liz paused, wondering how much more she should say - and whether it would make a difference. She marveled briefly at her involvement in this, and at Max's ability to suck her back into the middle after so much time. Already she was making requests on his behalf, and he had barely needed to ask. Still, she could not refuse him. "I know it sounds unfair of me. But please, trust me."

"I do trust you, Lizzie," came the soft reply. "But you're not the issue here. You said so yourself. You haven't even seen him."

"Maria - I just know that it's bad. Max is so… different. I can't imagine what Michael must be like to have him this upset." A part of her acknowledged the lie - the part that knew it was not Michael's condition alone that had left Max devastated. But she was afraid to say too much and be left with no more ammunition in the event that Maria refused to come to Roswell.

There was more rustling as Maria took out another cigarette, followed by the sharp flaring of her lighter. Liz could close her eyes and picture her friend curled up by the phone in her purple velvet chair, exhaling slowly as she collected her thoughts, flicking ash into the heavy green glass ashtray that rested in her lap. She could almost hear Maria considering, weighing her options. Remembering all of the good times, and how much the bad ones hurt.

"I'll think about it," Maria said eventually, sounding very far away. "I can't promise anything more than that."

"Thank you," Liz replied, struggling to repress a sudden surge of guilt. She crossed her fingers and said a quick prayer.

**********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 10:50:41 AM

Part 5

*******

Looking back, I realize just how much we changed after they left. In the weeks that followed, we became three very different people. The only one not affected was Kyle, and only because he had never allowed himself to get as involved as the rest of us. He liked Tess the same way she liked him - as a friend with a number of fringe benefits. Later he told me that he hadn't been surprised when she told him they were going home, since Tess had never seemed to settle into living on earth. She always intended to leave as soon as a way presented itself and she was upfront with Kyle from day one. He was not a priority for her, at least not enough of one to tempt her to give up her dreams. Which, I suppose, explains why Kyle was the only one of us who was prepared when they went. He headed off to college in Texas that fall and went on with the rest of his life. While we… well, it took us a little longer to recover.

I became a master of self-deception that August. I told myself that I knew it was always a possibility - their going. But knowing that something is a possibility is very different from figuring the odds. And the truth is that I always assumed the odds were in my favor - that the likelihood of Max discovering a way to travel back to his home planet was so slim that it might as well not exist at all. It was a major miscalculation on my part, and one that I paid for long past the start of school. But I spent a lot of time thinking about it those last few weeks before I left for college. I couldn't help it. I became more withdrawn, more introspective, spending less and less time with Maria and Alex. It was partially a need to heal, but I think I was also toughening up - growing a thicker shell. When you live your life following your instincts and those instincts suddenly drop you on your ass, you reassess. And my new way of dealing - at least to begin with - was to close myself off. By the time I left for Harvard, I was ready. No one was going to get past my defenses again.

Alex dealt in an entirely different and unexpected way. He grew stronger, too, but his strength was of a far healthier sort. For some inexplicable reason, Isabel's defection gave Alex a funny sort of confidence he had always been lacking. He developed a sense of self-worth that was really wonderful to see. It wasn't overly inflated or egotistical. He just seemed to understand that he was a warm, intelligent, giving person, and that he had a lot to offer the world. I think he had always known that, deep down inside. I mean, he and Isabel would never have lasted if he hadn't, since the last thing she was looking for was a guy she could walk over. But that self-esteem began to shine through in a different way after Isabel was gone. Girls started seeing Alex in a new light. I wouldn't say they started to throw themselves at him, but they were definitely more appreciative. I think Alex saw it, too. He might have even been flattered. But ultimately, it didn't matter, because he just wasn't interested. All he'd ever really wanted was Isabel.

Maria. I think Maria changed the most that summer. She went through more phases - more ups and downs - than Alex and I combined. It took a good week of constant coaxing and cajoling for us to snap her out of her initial depression, but once we had she became positively manic. I had never seen anything like it. She let it be known around town that Michael Guerin was out of her life and that she was in the market for a little fun, and the guys came swarming. Her skirts got shorter, her tops tighter, and she lopped off her hair to just below her chin in a style that caused it to swing whenever she moved. She went out with a different guy nearly every night for a month, to the point where Alex and I began to question where she was finding them all. Nothing either of us said could get through to her. She was a woman on a mission, though just what that mission was I doubt even she knew for sure.

Then she stopped going out, as abruptly as she had started, and began spending time with her mother. I admit that scared me almost as much as the parade of men. I love Amy DeLuca with all of my heart, but Maria can be a little extreme under her influence. She started spouting feminist jargon and meditating. And then she decided she wasn't going to college. That part alarmed even her mother, but there was nothing any of us could do to change her mind. So, come the end of August, as I was heading off to Harvard and Alex left for Cal Tech, Maria stayed in Roswell. And we all began to drift into our separate lives.

* * * * *

Liz spent the rest of the day pretending to be normal. As with working at the Crashdown, the routine came back easily, but this time she was not surprised. It was an act that she had never completely relinquished. She threw one of her mother's Elvis Costello CDs into the stereo and did a load of laundry. Though Christmas was still two weeks away, she wrapped the gifts she had brought with her from Boston, taking extra care that the ribbons curled perfectly, though it reminded her of Isabel. Or perhaps because it reminded her of Isabel. She wrote out a list of people for whom she had yet to buy presents and automatically put Lexie's name on the list. After a moment, she added Max's name, too. Then she put the list away.

When her parents came home from the mall, she did not tell them about Max. Instead she smiled and joked with them, and jumped every time the phone rang. She was waiting for Alex to call her back, demanding that she explain her message. Or Maria, to say she couldn't bring herself to face Michael. A part of her also feared that Max would call to check up on her - to make sure she had really called the others and to see if they were coming - though she knew in her heart that was something Max would never do. Then she forced herself to remember that this Max Evans was not the same boy she had once known, and that she could no longer predict his actions. She continued to jump at the sound of the phone.

After dinner, Liz went to her room and closed the door. She stared for a long time at the brick wall that ran behind her desk. With practiced fingers, she slid the single loose brick from its slot and reached into the dark hole behind it. Taking her journal, she climbed out onto the roof and curled up on the lawn chair, wrapping an old blanket around her shoulders to ward off the evening chill. The book in her hands was worn, the pages often thumbed, though it had been many years since she had read it and longer since she had written in it. There was another book that she kept in Boston - one where the pages were filled with ordinary occurrences and that she could leave on her desk without a moment's pause. This book - the first journal - had become a sort of talisman. She held it almost reverently and ran her hands over the cover, as if it were the fabled lamp and she could conjure a genie from its pages. Only in her story she would have conjured an alien - and he would have arrived by way of flying saucer and fire escape instead of by magic carpet.

She sat on the roof for a long time, simply holding the book, but he did not come. Finally, she went back inside and returned her journal to the safety of the wall. When she crawled into bed she was conscious of the stars outside her window and she realized that she had left the curtains open - a habit from her high school days. She had neither the heart nor the energy to get up again to close them. In the darkness, with only the stars watching, she cried herself to sleep.

**********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 10:58:44 AM

Part 6

*******

The thing about going off to college all by myself was that I no longer had to answer to anyone. There was no one looking over my shoulder, judging my friends or my habits or how much time I spent studying. No one knew me, so there was no way they could compare me to my previous self. It was like starting with a blank slate. I could get my hair cut and not a single person would comment. If I sang in the shower or stayed out all night or got falling-down drunk - who was to say I was acting out of character? I no longer had to be that good Parker girl who was going places, because no one was watching. For the first time in my life, it didn't matter to anyone but me. If I excelled, if I joined in, if I contributed to society, it was because I chose to do so. And if I didn't? Oh well. I was invisible. And I liked it.

It was surprisingly good to be alone those first few weeks in Cambridge. I would wander across campus, feeling the weight of the history of the town and the school and the scholars that came before me. Like a dense fog, the atmosphere crept into my pores and made me a part of my surroundings. I kept thinking about that old saying - about spreading your wings. That's what I was doing, even if it just meant I could sit in the corner of a coffee shop by myself and read a book in blissful anonymity. I felt free.

I mean, sure, there were people who knew me. My roommate was a social butterfly, so it would have been difficult for me to make it through that first year of college without meeting anyone at all; Sandy never would have allowed that to happen. But it was nothing like being in Roswell, where the only real strangers were the tourists who paraded through town. Boston was a huge city in comparison, and college students made up a major portion of the population. You could have hundreds of friends and still avoid them easily enough when you felt like it. There was a proverbial crowd in which to lose yourself, and I chose to do so frequently.

Yet somehow I was always separate and distinct, even while I was just another face in that crowd. Maybe no one else realized it, but I still knew. Having secrets does that to a person. And eventually, that was what started to get to me. That separate-ness. I missed having someone to talk to - someone who knew the ins and outs of my soul, including those dark places I couldn't afford to reveal to anyone new. Even though I had secrets back in Roswell, they were always shared secrets. When I wanted to talk, to confide, to complain, all I had to do was turn to Maria or Alex. And of course there had always been Max, Michael and Isabel. They were my walking, talking reminders of just how important it was to keep quiet. Their lives depended on my ability to remain silent - loyal. And it wasn't ever a burden, even when things spun totally out of control. I was a part of something. The secrets in my heart never left me feeling isolated until I was away from home. Suddenly, I was lonely.

I realize that I'm making it sound as if I had cut myself off from the others entirely, and that isn't the case. Alex, Maria and I kept in touch that fall, despite having gone in very different directions. But the truth is, that first year at least, we communicated more by email than by any other method. My parents had gotten me a new laptop for graduation, so I had given Maria my old one when I left for school. She had strict instructions to keep me up-to-date - and Alex never needed any coaxing to take advantage of the 'net. It was a cheap, easy way to keep in touch, which didn't require the other person to be awake or even home. So, despite the miles between us, I knew that Alex thought his Advanced Calculus professor was going easy on them, and that his roommate never slept at home. And I knew when Maria decided to take business classes part time at the community college, and whenever her mother was dating the Sheriff again. Just like they both knew Sandy thought I was a grind, and that she had managed to drag me to the Purple Shamrock on karaoke night - though she had as little luck convincing me to sing as Maria generally did.

But it wasn't the same. None of it. Because of the things we didn't talk about. Everything we couldn't say. We knew better than to discuss Max, Michael, and Isabel on the phone or in an email. Call it a healthy level of paranoia - certain things just weren't worth the risk. Of course, we could mention them casually, but what was the point? The things we really wanted to discuss were the very things we were scared to say. So, we didn't say anything. And that, more than anything else, made me feel very alone.

* * * * *

Liz woke with a start, straining to see across her darkened room. The starry night sky provided just enough light to illuminate a figure hovering in her doorway. Still half caught up in her dreams, Liz felt her heart beat faster as she reached slowly beneath her pillow for the flashlight she kept there - another habit that refused to die. Her hand gripped the base of the torch firmly, but as she debated whether to turn it on or to simply throw it at the intruder, the shape moved further into the room.

"Liz?"

The door closed softly, the quiet click drowning out Liz's sigh of relief. A moment later the light went on and she found herself blinking at Maria.

"Are you aware that you nearly gave me heart failure?" Liz asked as she shoved herself into a sitting position.

"I'm sorry," Maria told her. She dropped her overnight bag on the floor and flopped onto the bed and into Liz's outstretched arms. "It's so good to see you," she whispered as she hugged Liz tightly.

"I missed you," Liz replied, feeling tears come to her eyes. "You know, planes fly both ways. You could come see me in Boston instead of waiting for me to come home all the time," she chided.

"Don't start with me," Maria begged. "Please? It's too late for lectures and I'm way too tired."

"Yeah, speaking of which, what are you doing sneaking in here at…" She peered over Maria's shoulder at the clock beside the bed. "…four in the morning?"

Maria pulled back with a shrug. "When I decided to come, I just got in the car and started to drive. I figured I'd better, before I changed my mind again."

"You just got in from Taos? You must have left at midnight," Liz exclaimed quietly.

"Twelve-thirty, actually. I think I broke all sorts of records," she said with a wobbly smile. "I didn't want to freak my mom out - showing up in the middle of the night. So I came here."

"To freak me out instead," Liz said.

"Ah, and who called and asked me to come?" Maria reminded her.

"I know." Liz looked down. "I'm sorry."

Maria sighed. "I'm not gonna shoot the messenger, so don't worry."

"Thanks," she said. "But, hey," she continued, in an attempt to lighten the mood. "Now we can have a sleepover, just like the good old days. And you won't have to worry about walking in on your mom with the Sheriff," she added teasingly.

"Very funny," Maria laughed, whacking her in the arm. "You know they're in one of their off phases. I emailed you."

"Things change," Liz said with a shrug.

"No shit," Maria agreed. "Like monthly." She toyed nervously with the fringe of her scarf. "Um… I don't suppose… Have you seen him… since you called?" she asked tentatively. "Michael, I mean."

Liz's smile faded. She shook her head.

"Figures. What about Max? How is he?"

"He's… changed."

Maria looked serious. "We've all changed, Liz."

Liz swallowed and looked away. "Not like this, Maria. It's as if he's… broken," she whispered.

"Never mind," Maria said hurriedly. "Maybe I don't really want to hear this."

Liz shot her a knowing look. "You are here to see Michael, aren't you?" she asked. "That is why you came home."

"Yes," she admitted reluctantly. "Partly. I guess… I really want to face him down, you know? Show him I'm still standing," she added. "But if Max is… Then Michael…" She let out a long breath. "What about the others? Are Isabel and Tess back too?"

Liz shook her head slowly, unsure what to say. She was back to this - back to keeping secrets when all she wanted was to tell Maria every single detail of her conversation with Max. It had been years since she had withheld information from Maria or Alex, and she hated it. She had forgotten how isolating it could be.

Maria was silent, as if letting things sink in. "So, they're not planning to stay?"

"I don't know, Maria."

"Have you said anything to your parents?"

"Such as?" Liz asked.

"Good point," she sighed. "But what happens if they see him? Or if someone tells them he's back?"

Liz dropped her face into her hands and shook her head again. "I don't know," she repeated, her words muffled against her palms. "I just don't know. I'm an adult, damn it. I shouldn't have to answer to them about this - to anyone." She sat up again. "I hate small towns," she declared almost angrily.

"God, I need a cigarette," Maria muttered. She reached down and snagged her bag off the floor. "Let's go out on the roof."

"Okay." Liz climbed out of bed and shoved her feet into a pair of old sneakers. "Is it still chilly?"

Maria shrugged. "Well, I think so, but you're such a hardy Bostonian now…"

Liz snorted and grabbed her robe. "That's one adaptation I suspect I'll never make. That city is damn cold."

They crawled through the window and sat next to each other on the lawn chair. Maria immediately lit a cigarette and took a long drag.
"Oh, that's better," she sighed, letting out a puff of smoke.

"How can you?" Liz asked, wrinkling her nose.

Maria glanced at her. "Practice. And don't go all Miss Perfect Parker on me. We both know that you blew that image years ago."

"You make me sound like a degenerate," Liz muttered.

Maria shrugged. "I said no such thing."

"I never claimed to be perfect."

"Mmm."

"Maria…"

Silence. Maria took another drag off her cigarette.

"You haven't seen me in eight months and you think you're still an expert on my life?"

"Fine, Liz. Whatever," Maria said, quietly backing down. "So, tell me what happens now."

There was a slight pause. "What do you mean?"

"This," Maria replied, waving a hand absently. "The family reunion or whatever we're calling it. You called, I came. Now what?"

"I suspect we should wait for the sun to come up," Liz observed tiredly.

"Smart ass," she replied, but the words held no bite.

"I don't know how it works. I don't know how any of this is supposed to go."

"I should have stayed home," Maria grumbled unhappily.

Liz put her arm around Maria and rested her head on her shoulder. "I'm glad you didn't," she whispered.

They sat without speaking for a long moment. "You want some ice cream?" Liz asked finally.

Maria smiled a little sadly and stubbed her cigarette out on the ground, making sure to crush every tiny spark. "Sure," she agreed. "Why not?"

*********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:07:26 AM

Part 7

*******

Ironically enough, around the time I truly began missing Maria and Alex, all sorts of questions started to occur to me. The questions themselves were fairly logical. In fact, I was surprised that I hadn't thought of them sooner, given the fact that I'm generally the first one to question any situation. It's always been my way of maintaining control - I fill in all of the blanks until I have a complete picture, then determine the best course of action. Max's leaving may be the only time in my life when I acted first and thought about it afterwards. I guess it was just more of that delayed reaction. My brain sat back and waited for my emotions to run themselves down before it started to analyze things.

But I did eventually start to analyze things. To wonder, to speculate, to worry. What was I thinking about? All of those practical details that had failed to come to mind the night Max told me they were leaving. Despite everything we had learned, we had so little information. How did they know how to fly the spaceship? Did they know where they were going? How long would the trip take? What happened when - if - they arrived on their planet? After all - the four of them had been engineered with human bodies, but it was pretty safe to assume that was not their original form. Would they even be able to survive in a foreign atmosphere? And if they could, then what? No matter how often they claimed otherwise, they were still more human than not. On earth they at least looked like everyone else. Yes, they were the Royal Four, but would that be enough for them to be accepted?

Yet I think what frightened me the most was the knowledge that the first spaceship - the one that brought them to earth in 1947 - had crashed. Despite all the benefits of superior technology and advanced development, these beings had not been able to land here safely. What made Max think that the four of them, with no conscious training or skills or background in space travel, could do any better on the return trip?

So, there I was with a head-full of questions and no one to provide the answers. On top of that, I was thousands of miles from the only people on the planet who would even understand what I was worrying about. With Maria or Alex , I wouldn't have had to censor myself. We could have talked about everything - gotten it all out in the open. More than that, we could have provided each other with that moral support we'd all come to depend upon so much. Frightened as I was, I knew I would feel less so if I had Maria and Alex to hold onto. Were they sitting on the other side of the country and thinking the same things, asking the same questions, suffering from the same fears? I wanted to know - needed to know. Because not knowing made me feel somehow disconnected. It left me feeling even more lonely and… helpless.

Not having the answers that were so far out of reach was one thing. I could accept that even if the questions continued to swirl crazily in my head, tormenting me. Some things truly are out of your hands. Max had taught me that, though I doubt the lesson had been a conscious one. But Alex and Maria were still there - just beyond the horizon - hovering in a place that was so near, yet inaccessible nevertheless. I could fire off an email to them at any time, night or day, but I could not write about this. I could call them in the wee hours of the morning, secure in the knowledge that they would pick up the phone and be as willing to speak with me as if it were noon - or at least nearly as willing - yet I did not dare mention this. It was a form of self-preservation, based solely on my fear of being discovered. Because, while the others might be safely out of range of the long arm of the government, the three of us most definitely were not. Together or apart, it was something the we still needed to consider. All of which made Maria and Alex seem farther away.

I think that was when the dreams started. I've never really been completely sure, since I tend not to remember my dreams in the morning. It's possible I had been having them all along - from the time Max and the others left - and just didn't recall. But I do know I was having them by Halloween, because that was the night Sandy came home late and woke me up in the middle of one of them. She had assumed I was still out, since I had a tendency to study until the wee hours of the morning and then creep back to the room long after she had crawled into bed. But that night I had retreated to the dorm early, having no patience for the mostly drunken ghouls and goblins that had taken over the streets of Cambridge, and had fallen asleep with my nose in my Chemistry book. Sandy came in with Jared, her infatuation of the moment, laughing and singing in what sounded like Italian to my half-asleep ears. Needless to say, I woke up pretty abruptly, but I was sufficiently lucid to realize I had been in the middle of a dream. Once Sandy and Jared had removed their noisy selves in favor of some party in the South End, I started remembering bits and pieces. And none of what I remembered was particularly comforting.

* * * * *

Maria held out the keys to her Honda. "Please, Lizzie?"

Liz looked down at her friend's hand. It was trembling. She nodded briefly and took the keys. "Let's go," she said, climbing into the driver's seat and starting the car.

She barely noticed the roads as she drove. They were as familiar to her as her own bedroom. Instead she replayed the morning in her mind. Waking after only a few hours' sleep to find Maria had indeed appeared during the night and was not merely the product of an overactive imagination and frayed nerves; gulping black coffee in a misplaced effort to steel said nerves and to clear her head; calling Max - her fingers flying over the phone as if it hadn't been six years since she had dialed the number. She had been grateful when he answered himself, unsure whether she could speak to his mother without crying.

"Hello?"

"Max," she'd said, still not quite believing she was listening to the sound of his voice. "It's Liz."

"Have you heard anything?"

She had been taken aback by his tone - brisk and businesslike. "Maria's here," she told him.

"What did you tell her?"

"Just that you and Michael are back. And that Michael… isn't himself."

"My dad's at work. I'll have Mom take Lexie someplace. Can you come over? After nine?" A pause. "It's hard to get him out of the house," he had explained.

"We'll be there."

Another pause. "Thanks, Liz," he'd said, followed by the click of the phone.

"Liz?" Maria's voice dragged her back to the present. "Aren't you coming in?"

They were parked in front of the Evanses' house. Liz turned and looked at Maria who was eyeing her with a degree of apprehension. "Of course," she said, unfastening her seatbelt. Maria waited for her to come around the car and they headed up the front walk together.

The house looked the same. It always did. She had driven past when she was home the previous April, but she hadn't stopped. Sometimes she would see one of Max's parents around town when she was visiting, but she never went out of her way to seek them out. She found it too difficult to speak with them, to see the glimmer of something bitter in Mrs. Evans' eyes even as she asked how Liz was doing and told her to take care. There was always a hint of resentment because Liz had known the truth first - because Max had trusted her with their secret above anyone else. And there was also the unspoken accusation: 'Why didn't you stop them? Why didn't you ask Max to stay? He wouldn't have gone if you'd asked him not to.' It was a question she had asked herself too many times to be faced with its reflection in another face. She liked to believe that, given a second chance, she would still be strong enough to let Max go. But she couldn't blame the Evanses. She understood too well what it was like to miss someone with every fiber of your being.

The door swung open and Max filled the doorway, looking tired, his features strained. He wore a gray T-shirt that Liz recognized from high school. He was broader in the chest now and the shirt pulled slightly across the shoulders. For an instant his eyes met Liz's, and she thought he might say something, but then he turned toward Maria.

"Hi, Max," Maria said softly. "Welcome home."

Max's mouth twisted briefly. "Thanks for coming." He stepped back and let them into the house. He played host, taking their jackets and offering to get them something to drink.

"Where is he?" Maria's eyes were fixed on Max.

"In the living room. I need to tell you… Maria, wait." He grabbed at her arm, but she had slipped past him and headed for the other room. Max shot Liz a look and the two of them followed.

At one end of the room, Tom chased Jerry across the television screen as Beethoven played in the background, and it occurred to Liz that Lexie must have been watching cartoons before she and her grandmother left. Michael was sitting on the sofa, facing the TV, but his eyes were blank and unfocused. The air hung heavily around him, perfectly still, as if he was barely breathing enough to displace it. He appeared to have lost a great deal of weight. His face was gaunt, his skin pale, and his clothing hung loosely on his frame. He seemed unaware of their presence, though Maria had cried out when she saw him.

Maria stood a few feet away, her hands covering her mouth. Whatever her original intention had been - whether to throw her arms around him or to give him a piece of her mind - she was clearly unable to follow through with it. "Michael?"

He didn't answer. He didn't even blink.

Liz was about to go to Maria when Max stepped past her. She watched as he went up behind her best friend and put his hands on her shoulders. Ever so gently, as if she were Lexie, he turned her around and led her toward the doorway. He whispered softly in Maria's ear and she seemed to relax slightly as they left the room. Liz found herself wondering how they could all just slip back into their friendships, as if no time had past. She glanced once more toward Michael before she, too, headed out of the room.

They sat around the kitchen table and Liz listened as Max repeated his story for Maria. He told her about Lexie, about Isabel, and finally about Michael. His eyes had the same blank look as the previous day, and his voice was just as flat and lacking emotion. Liz felt drained and helpless in the face of his withdrawal. Maria, however, was not Max. She wasn't even Liz. By the time Max was done, Maria was crying silently, the tears streaming down her cheeks unchecked until Liz pulled a tissue from her bag and tucked it into her friend's hand.

"I know Michael hurt you by leaving the way he did," Max said gently. "But please, Maria. You have to help me… help him."

"What can I do?" she asked, dabbing at her eyes. "Max, he didn't even know I was there. You said he's not always like that, but…"

"He shuts down," Max explained. "It's like he goes some place in his head and completely ignores everything around him. When he snaps out of it…" He looked uncomfortable.

"What happens when he snaps out of it?" Liz pressed. This she knew how to do - to gather information, to piece together the whole story.
"He's bitter. Angry. He doesn't want anyone around him, not even Lexie, and they used to be inseparable. He won't say much, but what he does say is… ugly. Hurtful."

Maria shook her head a little ruefully. "At least that I would know how to handle. I can fight with an angry Michael."

"Can you force him to listen to her, Max? Or do we just have to wait for him to come out of it on his own?" Liz questioned.

Instead of replying, Max turned to Maria. "What do you think? Are you up for it?"

She nodded.

"Wait here," he told them.

As soon as Max left the kitchen, Maria grabbed Liz's hand.

"It'll be all right," Liz told her. "We'll get through to Michael somehow."

"We'd better," she sniffed in reply. "I want him to be completely aware of who's pounding the shit out of him," she added, the wobble in her voice betraying her true feelings.

Liz gave her a little hug. "I know."

"You were right about him," Maria whispered.

"About Michael?"

Maria shook her head. "Max. He's different. He reminds me of…" She trailed off as if she had changed her mind.

"Of what? What does he remind you of?" Liz asked, pulling away to look her in the eye.

"Not what. Who," Maria replied. "He reminds me of Michael. Before. When we first found out about them." She looked apologetic. "There's a wall there, Lizzie, and he's not letting anyone past it. Not even you."

Liz turned toward the doorway where Max had disappeared. "I know," she said.

***********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:18:33 AM

Part 8

*******

The thing about growing up that no one tells you, is that you're never really done. There is no elite status that you finally achieve, where they hand you a prize and say, "Congratulations, you are now an adult." Basically, adulthood is a man-made invention, designed to let you know that it's time to stop living off of your parents and to start paying income tax. It's a mindset, too. Adults supposedly make their own decisions, face ugly truths head on, and take responsibilities for their actions. By that reckoning, Maria, Alex, and I were adults long before we'd left for college. But the fact is, you keep growing, keep learning. Life keeps happening and, whatever choices you make, however you deal with things, all of that stays with you. Each event changes you a little bit more and you continue to evolve. And you never have all of the answers.

So, despite having been pretty grown up when we left, we discovered the first summer home from college that we had grown even more while we were away. Or at least changed. Without each other to rely on, we had developed different support systems, new ways of coping. Though I had spent countless hours wishing I could talk to Maria or Alex about all of my worries and fears, I had adjusted to the fact that I couldn't, and so had they. Now we were finally all together again, and it was… awkward.

Don't get me wrong. They still were, and are, my best friends in the whole world. But we hadn't all seen each other in nearly nine months and it took us a little while to get back into the swing of things. It was an odd sensation - having all of the ingrained shorthand that builds up over years of friendship, yet huge gaping holes in our knowledge regarding each others' lives. In many ways it reminded me of coming home after the summer I spent in Florida. The summer I ran from Destiny, as Maria likes to call it. When I got back to Roswell that fall, life had gone on without me. I mean, I obviously knew it would. But it was so strange to actually experience it. To know that my friends had been talking and joking and doing things I hadn't. Everything felt different, altered. Max and Maria were friends - not just hanging out because of me, but really friends. Alex and Isabel were apart again. Tess had been helping Michael with his powers. There were a hundred little things - moments - that I had missed out on. Moments I could never get back.

That's how I felt that summer after freshman year. It was as if I'd spent the previous nine months a step removed from everyone around me, only to come home and feel the same way. Oh - we caught up on each other fast enough. Maria seemed to have regained her tongue while Alex and I were away, and was more than willing to regale us with stories of the cute guys in her accounting class and the tourists stopping by at the Crashdown. She had also decided to take a class over the summer - on local gemstones and minerals, of all things. Seems her obsession with crystals had finally gotten the best of her, and she was bubbling over with enthusiasm. Alex was going to be working on some computer research project - basically summer school without the school - and so had managed to avoid the summer job issue. And me? Well, I told them about Boston and Sandy and my classes - and how little I was looking forward to yet another summer of waiting tables.

But none of us brought them up. We didn't mention that, at the same time the previous year, we had each been half of a couple. It was like an unspoken agreement - not to get into it for fear we'd each lose whatever measure of sanity we had managed to regain. So, I never said anything about my fears, my questions, even though I'd spent months anticipating the day when we could all sit down and speak freely. And I didn't mention my dreams. I suppose by then I was accustomed to coping with it all on my own. Why stir up trouble?

Of course, I was still having the dreams. If anything, they had become more frequent. The most disturbing thing about them was how vague they seemed. It was like being in a haze, with only certain images pushing their way to the foreground. Well, one image, to be specific. Not surprisingly, I always saw Max in those dreams. He was always alone, always in some remote, closed off place - though that was more something I felt than actually saw. His face would float through my mind, and with it would come a rush of sensations: fear, anger, confusion, loneliness. But nothing actually happened in those dreams, at least not that I could recall once I woke. Instead I'd be left with a sense of unease… and a lump in my throat. It was like slow torture. God, I missed him.

But I didn't tell anyone that - not even Maria and Alex. It was something they either already knew and understood - because they were living it themselves - or it was beyond their comprehension. Either way, there was little point in talking about it. As for the dreams, well, I did my best to ignore them.

* * * * *

Raised voices broke abruptly through the quiet house. Or to be more precise, one raised voice. Liz listened carefully, but was unable to make out the words, only the harsh tone. The angry voice was cut off by a low rumble, then started again almost immediately. She could have sworn the person shouting was…

"That's Michael," Maria said, springing to her feet, her voice tinged with hope. She was across the kitchen before Liz could react.

Liz rose and followed, her heart suddenly fluttering. Catching up with Maria, she slipped her hand into her friend's and held her back, squeezing her fingers as much in warning as in comfort.

"Liz, what?" Maria asked, turning on her impatiently. Her green eyes flashed, and it was clear her thoughts had already flown ahead to the other room.

"Max told us to wait here." As she spoke, the words clicked in her memory, an echo of the past, like history looping back upon itself - reordered events and recycled emotions.

"It's obvious he's gotten Michael out of that… stupor," Maria said. "Are you coming or not?" Not waiting for an answer, she tugged her hand free and continued toward the living room.

Liz sighed and went after her. Despite years of silence on the subject, she suspected Maria was still as attached to Michael as she was to Max. For the first time she found herself wishing she had pressed the issue - forced a conversation about the absent Czechs. At least if they had talked about it at some point, they would each know what the other was feeling in the face of the current situation. Now they were both dealing in their own ways - using whatever internal support systems they had developed through the years - and Liz was terribly afraid that it wasn't going to be enough.

As soon as they rounded the corner into the front hall, they pulled up short, and Liz let out a small gasp. Her cry went unnoticed, however. Michael had Max pinned to the wall next to the door, one hand planted firmly on his chest, the other around his throat. The muscles in his arms were bunched with the effort, and if that wasn't enough to prove his intent, Max's face was beginning to turn red. Yet, Max kept his hands at his sides, his eyes trained on Michael's, making no attempt to fight off his friend.

Liz forgot to breathe, her eyes glued to the scene unfolding before them. It was obvious there was a great deal more going on than Max had seen fit to share.

"We are not on Antar," Michael ground out, leaning in until his face was merely inches from Max's. "You are not King here."

"Michael, what are you doing?" Maria exclaimed.

He glanced in her direction, never loosening his hold on Max. His eyes were cool, detached. His steady gaze raked slowly down Maria's body, then back up until he was looking her in the eye. "Stay away from me," he told her, each word precise and distinct, then turned back toward Max.

"W-what?" Maria took a single, trembling step back, bumping into Liz who reached out to steady her. Neither of them able to bring themselves to leave, they stood side by side like statues.

But Michael was focused elsewhere, his attention entirely on the man before him. "You think you can fix this?" he demanded. When Max failed to respond, Michael moved in closer again. "You gonna make some royal proclamation? Declare everything back the way it was?" he sneered. His gaze flickered once more, his eyes darting briefly to Liz before settling on Max again. "Or are we just here so you can fuck her until you forget?"

Liz stiffened. She did not know these men - either of them. Not this angry, bitter, aggressive Michael, who was capable of spewing such hateful words to and about the people he once called family. Nor this broken, emotionless, silent Max, who could stand there stoically and allow Michael to run roughshod over him without so much as twitching a muscle. She could not claim to know anyone who had lived through a war, but if this was the result, she thought she would sooner see the entirety of civilization razed than witness this kind of pain again. Her heart pounded in her chest and suddenly she couldn't bear to stand there for another second. It was like being trapped in a nightmare. Clutching Maria's arm, she reached out with her other hand and grasped the doorknob. All she could think of was escape - of getting out of that house and into the air where she would be able to breathe again.

As she pulled the door open, Michael shifted his hand from Max's throat and blocked her with his arm. "Don't bother," he told her, his voice like gravel. "Wouldn't want to break up the love-fest." He shouldered her forcibly to one side and was gone before she realized what was happening. The slamming of the door shook the house to its foundation.

Liz and Maria stood staring at the closed door, neither of them moving, though Liz felt an occasional tremor run through Maria's body. No one spoke. After a moment, Max stepped away from the wall, breaking the spell. Liz glanced over and saw him passing a hand over his forehead, and it was only then that she realized he was sweating. He took a deep breath and looked at her, and for the first time since he had walked into the Crashdown the day before, there was real, recognizable emotion flooding his eyes. Regret.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. He turned to Maria and shook his head. "I didn't know he would… He's usually a little calmer than that."

"He tried to strangle you," Maria whispered. She was on the verge of tears.

"No," Max said. "Not really."

Liz felt her temper flare. It was as if the adrenaline that had failed to surface during the altercation was now pumping double time and demanding an outlet. She wanted to shake him. "Not really? Not really, Max? He was leaning on your windpipe." She sounded loud and shrill to her own ears and she swallowed hard in an attempt to rid herself of this stranger's voice that seemed to have been trapped in her throat.

Max shook his head again, his eyes focused on the rug at his feet. "He's not strong enough to take me out. Not even on a good day," he assured them softly. "And he hasn't had one of those in months." He moved toward the living room.

Liz and Maria followed, automatically looping their arms together the way they had when they were younger. They sat next to each other on the couch, shoulders touching, hands linked, while Max paced off the length of the floor like a caged animal. Liz could feel the energy pouring off of him even half-way across the room and realized that he, too, had an abundance of excess adrenaline and no place to spend it. She imagined it was even worse for him - that his fight-or-flight instinct was more sharply honed than hers, since he was used to going into battle. For the millionth time, she marveled at the depths of his self-control, and wondered just what it cost him to hold himself together that way. What was going through his head? And how could she have ever thought that she still knew him?

Maria broke the silence. "Where will he go?"

Max shrugged. "Around. No where in particular." He caught her worried look. "He'll be all right. He'll just wander until he… cools off." When Maria continued to appear apprehensive, Max sighed and turned away. "He won't hurt anyone, if that's what you're thinking."

Liz felt Maria squirm beside her and realized that was precisely her concern - and that she was ashamed of herself for considering the possibility. "And he'll just come back?" Liz asked.

"Eventually," Max replied. He stared out the window, holding the curtains bunched in one hand. "He's gone off this way a couple of times since we got back."

It seemed like the wrong time, but Liz suddenly found she was tired of waiting for the right time and place to get answers to her questions. "When did you get back, Max? How long have you been…" She hesitated to use the word home, remembering his face when Maria had used it earlier. "How long have you been here?"

"A week."

Liz turned toward Maria, wordlessly asking if there was anything she wanted to know, but her friend merely shrugged and shook her head, clearly still too upset. "Um… how… I mean…" Liz sighed, unsure where to start. When she glanced back at Max, she was surprised to find him watching her.

"What do you want to know?" he asked, and though she wouldn't have called his tone exactly loving, his voice seemed warmer than it had a moment ago. Almost… amused.

"How did you get back? Lexie showed me… a spaceship. In the desert."

"She what?" Maria asked.

Liz shook her head quickly. "No, Maria. She… you know… gave me a flash."

Maria's eyes widened. She dropped her head into her hands, muttering under her breath. Liz rubbed her back soothingly, but looked to Max.
"So, you basically know what happened then," he said.

"Not really. I mean… how did you land undetected? Or get back from the desert? I…"

"Want details," he supplied with a knowing nod. "Of course." He sank down in a chair across from them with a weary sigh. "The ship we used to get here is much more advanced than the ones from 1947," he said. "It travels at phenomenal speeds - faster than earth scientists could even imagine - and it has a highly sophisticated cloaking device. That's why there were no reports of a sighting. In fact the ship is still sitting out in the desert past the old pod chamber - in plain sight. Only no one can see it. As for getting into Roswell, we… um… called ahead, I guess you could say."

Maria sat up and shot him a look. "What? Like 'ET phone home?'" she quipped.

"Something like that," Max said, his lips twisting briefly. "Once we reached the earth's atmosphere, we could access the local cellular phone frequencies. I contacted Valenti. He met us and brought us into town."

"Jim Valenti," Liz repeated. "You… called the Sheriff to tell him you were coming back. What about your parents?"

"I didn't want to upset them."

"Right," Liz said quietly, realizing that the news he had had for his parents would have been hard enough to deliver in person. "So… the Sheriff picked the three of you up and brought you here. And Michael was…?"

"Subdued."

"How did you snap him out of that… trance or whatever?" Maria asked.

Max got up and began to pace again. "The only way I've found is to make a connection with him. But the result seems to be that I stir up… something inside of him. Memories. Fears. Maybe he thinks I'm trying to get details about what happened when he was being held. I'm not sure. But he becomes belligerent. Only very rarely is he both cognizant and calm."

Liz watched Max's face as he spoke. He was back to keeping his emotions carefully in check. "Why was he so angry with you?" she asked softly.

Max stopped mid-stride and looked at her, and it was clear to Liz that she had asked the wrong question. Or, rather, the right one. His expression was still guarded, but his eyes were suddenly filled with pain. He seemed to realize that she had seen more than he wanted her to, and was instantly back in control. With a shrug, he began to pace again.

Liz refused to let it go. She stood up and moved to block his path. "What happened, Max?" When he tried to turn away, she grabbed his arm and held on, instinctively knowing that he would not pull away. "Max?" she pressed. "You asked me to get Maria here, and I did. You asked for our help with Michael, and we came. But we can't do anything if you won't tell us what's really going on. Damn it, talk to us!"

"Fine," he said, his voice deceptively low. "You want to know what happened? I'll tell you." He twisted his arm gently to break her hold, and returned to his pacing. His movements were jagged and restless, and Liz backed away to give him room. "The morning Michael and Isabel left for the far side of the planet, Michael came to me before daybreak. He told me he thought the mission was a bad idea, a waste of time. That we didn't need to break down that particular enemy garrison because it was insignificant in comparison to the ones closer to the capital. We argued about it. I told him he was wrong - that the base was vaster than he thought, with hidden underground arsenals that needed to be knocked out. He wanted to know how I knew, and I refused to tell him because there wasn't time to get into a long, drawn out explanation."

Max sighed and turned toward the sofa where Liz was now sitting next to Maria. He shook his head and looked away again, staring out the window into the backyard. "It was always the same with him," he continued softly. "Always why, always bucking my decisions, no matter how I came to them. Even when I asked his opinions, took his ideas into consideration. So I lost my temper, and I ordered him to go. It was the only time I did it in nearly six years of fighting - the first time since we had left earth that I gave him a direct command." Max glanced back at Liz. "I was right, too. The stronghold was five times the size of anything else on planet, with an enormous garrison of enemy fighters. I don't know if they were careless because they thought it was an easy mark, or if they were cautious and it just didn't matter. Michael and Isabel were both captured immediately upon breaching the outer line of defense. You know the rest."

Liz let out a slow breath. "So, he's blaming you. For sending them out when he thought it was a bad idea."

"No," Maria said quietly, drawing both Max's and Liz's attention. She wiped a stray tear off her cheek and sat up straighter. "That's not it."

Max nodded. "She's right."

"Well, what then?" Liz asked, suddenly feeling lost.

Maria looked hesitantly toward Max who indicated she should go ahead. "He's not blaming Max for sending him - Max was right about the importance of the mission. Michael's blaming himself for letting his guard down, for getting caught, for Isabel's death," she said. "He's turned everything around on himself, just like he always does."

"Then why his outburst toward Max?"

"It's typical Michael," Maria continued, her voice dropping to a whisper. "He's pushing away the only people he has left - the people he cares about most." She stood up. "Liz, I need my keys. Max, where's my coat?"

"No. You're not going after him," Max told her, coming over from the window.

Maria's eyes flashed. "You can't stop me."

"I can, and I will," he said, his voice firm. He moved closer until he was towering over her. "You don't want to corner him, Maria."

But she refused to be intimidated. "What are you saying? That you think Michael would hurt me?"

"I'm saying I don't know what he'd do," Max snapped. "You saw him, Maria. He's like a stick of dynamite and there's no telling when he'll blow. I won't take that risk." He grabbed hold of her shoulders and for a moment Liz thought he would shake her. "I brought you into this and I'll be damned if I'll let everything spin out of control. We do this my way."

"Max," Liz said, resting a gentle hand on his where he gripped Maria. She was relieved when he let go and took a step back. She turned to Maria. "He's right, you know."

"Maria, please," he said, his eyes boring into her.

Maria looked from Liz to Max, then back to Liz. "Fine," she relented. "But this doesn't mean I believe he would hurt me," she added quickly. "He wouldn't." She closed her eyes for a moment, collecting herself, then opened them again. "So," she said, looking to Max, "What do we do?"

He rubbed his eyes briefly, then ran his hands through his hair, letting out a long breath. "Why don't you two take off," he said. "I'll wait for Michael to get back. See if I can talk to him. Then I'll meet up with you later."

"Why can't we wait for Michael, too?" Maria asked.

"Do you really want to be here if he comes back in the same condition?" Max asked. "I didn't think so," he said when she shook her head, her eyes tearing up again. "Look, we'll figure something out. It's just going to take some time."

"All right then," Liz said. "So, later. At the Crashdown?"

Max nodded.

"Okay," Liz agreed. "Maria?"

"Yeah. Sure. Déjà vu all over again," she mumbled.

Max got them their coats and walked them to the door. Liz kept waiting for him to say something more, though she wasn't quite sure what that might be. She had a feeling he was still holding something back.

Shaking off the sensation, she pulled Maria's keys out of her jacket pocket. "You want to drive?" she asked.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Maria responded.

Liz handed over the key chain, the little brass 'M' catching the light, then turned to Max. "You'll let us know if anything happens?"

He nodded, but his eyes were resting on the car in front of the house. "Yours?" he asked Maria.

She followed his gaze. "Yeah, why?"

"What happened to the Jetta?"

Maria turned back with a rueful smile. "Feeling sentimental? Sorry, Max. It bit the big one about two years ago." She shrugged. "Things change."

"Right," he said.

Liz frowned. "You okay?"

"Yeah," he replied. "Drive safe." With that, he went back into the house and closed the door, leaving Liz feeling even more unsettled.

"Liz?"

She turned. Maria was half-way across the yard. "I'm coming," she called.

*********

TBC

posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:29:14 AM

Part 9

*******

One of the most difficult things about coming home to Roswell, particularly that summer after freshman year, was dealing with all of the questions. When Max and the others first left, I had to come up with something to tell my parents. Maria and Alex didn't have nearly as much trouble as I did. Hell, Mrs. DeLuca was more than willing to accept that Michael had decided to just take off on a whim without a word to Maria, experience having kicked her in the teeth in a similar way on several occasions. As for Alex's parents, they had never seen that much of Isabel, since Alex tended to hang out with her at the Evanses', and in any event, Alex and Isabel had planned to attend different colleges. But my parents? The fact of the matter was they had gotten pretty used to having Max around on a daily basis. If he wasn't spending time with me up in the apartment, then he was hanging around at the Crashdown while I worked. Not to say he didn't do plenty of other things as well, but when you got down to it the two of us were basically inseparable. So I had to do some quick thinking to come up with a viable explanation for why, instead of leaving for Harvard with me the end of August as planned, the love of my life had suddenly up and disappeared.

Part of the story was taken care of already. Max had his parents tell everyone he had decided to go to UCLA with Isabel, and that since they wanted to settle in and find an apartment together, they had gone out to Los Angeles early. But that still didn't answer the why. Why had he suddenly changed his mind? As wonderful as UCLA was, it still wasn't Harvard. Why would he give up the Ivy League after working so long and hard for it? When asked, the Evanses merely shrugged helplessly, though the implication was more of an unwillingness to discuss a delicate subject than a lack of knowledge. I suppose it was inevitable that all eyes would turn to me next.

Like Max's parents, I pretended ignorance, but in my case it just didn't fly. My little breakdown had coincided too neatly with Max's departure. Still, most people were too polite - or maybe too smug - to actually say anything to me. There was the odd whispered remark when I passed on the street, or from a back booth in the Crashdown when things weren't quite busy enough to drown out the comment. It was clear most of the town thought I'd done something terrible to drive Max away. All sorts of rumors sprang up, including half-remembered tales about my supposed reunion with Kyle during junior year. It was hard, given my state of mind, but I did my best to ignore the gossip, reminding myself frequently that there were only a couple of weeks left before I could leave for Boston.

But I could not ignore my parents. And the truth was, I didn't want to. I hated lying to them, particularly when it was clear how worried they were about me. They had been endlessly patient with my odd behavior, but I would catch them watching me when they thought I wasn't looking, their eyes filled with concern. So it wasn't entirely unexpected when they came knocking on my door one night about two weeks after Max had gone.

If it had been any sooner, I'm not sure I could have pulled it off. I don't think I would have been strong enough. I felt like I was tip-toeing through an emotional minefield, where the smallest misstep could lead to a massive explosion. The story I finally told them was as close to the truth as I could get without betraying Max's secrets, but it was a hard line to walk. I said Max felt he had to go with Isabel - because she was not prepared to face being all alone - and that Michael had gone out with them as well. That they had been a family as long as he could remember, even before he had become Max Evans, and that they relied on each other. That he didn't think it was fair to either of us to try to maintain a relationship long distance, though he loved me just as much as ever. And I said that I knew in my heart that Max was right - that he had made the right decision - but knowing didn't make it hurt any less.

My parents bought it, at least they did to begin with. But as time went by, it became apparent that neither Max nor Isabel was coming back to Roswell. Mr. and Mrs. Evans were careful to go away for the holidays that first year, but when summer rolled around there was little they could do except say that both kids had gotten jobs in California. That's when my parents started to get suspicious. They knew how close Max and Isabel were to their parents and found it difficult to believe that they weren't coming for even a short visit. So, a couple of weeks into summer vacation, they started asking questions. Had I spoken with Max? my mother asked. What about Isabel? Did they like California? my father continued. Was I thinking about going out for a visit, because he thought maybe they could spare me from the café for a week. It just kept escalating until one afternoon I lost my patience and admitted that I had no idea - that I hadn't spoken to Max since he'd left.

God bless Alex. He came to my rescue that day. He'd been sitting at the counter, sipping on a root beer float and trying to avoid Maria's attempts to set him up with some girl from her gemstone class - which, come to think of it, explains why he hurried into the back room so fast when he heard me shouting. All I know is, one minute I was on the verge of a repeat Tabasco-throwing session, and the next Alex was standing beside me, his arm around my shoulders, smiling understandingly at my parents. Somehow he managed to convey total sympathy toward them, without making it seem like I was a mental patient in need of humoring. He told them that he knew I was a little touchy on the subject of Max, that it had been hard on me, but that they shouldn't worry. And then - and this is the part I really loved - he told them that he spoke to Isabel all of the time and that he would convey their best wishes, and ask her to pass them on to Max as well. Then he whisked me back out into the dining room before my parents knew what hit them.

For the rest of that summer, as if by magic, Alex continued to pop up from time to time when I was at my lowest points. He seemed to have some sort of sixth sense that let him know when I was missing Max the most, or in the most danger of saying something I'd later regret. He would tell me what should have been endlessly dull stories about his computer research, somehow making even the most mundane details seem funny. His face would light up with that crazy grin of his and I'd end up rolling off the couch laughing. He, more than Maria, instigated that summer's Ben and Jerry's nights. And more than once he headed off some small-minded person bent on commenting on the Evans kids' extended absence.

I asked him once, just last year, if it had bothered him to lie about Isabel. It was one of the few times we talked about her, and even then the conversation was brief. He asked what I meant, and I reminded him of what he had said to my parents - about how he spoke to her all of the time and would pass along their good wishes. He gave me a kind of funny look and told me he hadn't lied. After all, he had never claimed that Isabel answered him.

* * * * *

"Maria, you agreed," Liz pointed out tiredly as they walked through the back door of the Crashdown.

"I agreed not to go looking for Michael alone," Maria replied. "And I didn't."

Liz sighed. "Taking the most circuitous route across town doesn't count, I suppose?"

"But I wasn't alone," Maria reiterated. "You were with me."

"And what would you have done if we had found him?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "But we didn't, so it hardly matters."

Liz noted her friend's discouraged expression and softened. "Did you really think he'd just be hanging out at the playground behind the elementary school?" she asked gently.

"No. Maybe." Maria shook her head. "Let's talk about something else, okay?"

Liz nodded. "How about some lunch? Neither of my parents are working today so it's probably safer down here than upstairs."

"Okay. You're gonna have to tell them something eventually, though. I mean, Max has already shown up here once unannounced. It's only a matter of time before one of your parents sees him."

"I know, I know," Liz muttered as she pushed open the door into the dining room. "I'll figure it out."

They slid into a booth at the back of the restaurant and Maria plucked a menu from the stand at the end of the table. Liz raised her eyebrows quizzically.

"What?" Maria asked.

"Maria, that menu hasn't changed since we were six."

"A girl can hope, can't she?"

Liz laughed. "Martian Melt and Space Fries?" she asked.

"Please," Maria said with a little smile.

"I'll go put it in." Liz stood up, waving away the waitress who was already headed their way. She came back a moment later with two colas and some extra napkins.

Maria took a long sip of her soda. "I don't suppose we could spike this," she sighed.

"Not a good idea, seeing as how my parents don't have a liquor license," Liz pointed out.

"I was kidding, Lizzie."

Liz just nodded, clearly humoring her. "So, how do you feel?" she asked quietly.

"I thought we weren't going to discuss this anymore?"

"What aren't we discussing?"

Liz and Maria both looked up abruptly at the sound of the deep voice. "Alex," Liz exclaimed, jumping to her feet and throwing her arms around him. Maria followed suit, and Alex went skidding backward under their joint onslaught.

"Whoa," he said, shifting to steady himself. "Take it easy." He gently untangled himself, grinning despite his words of warning. He eased a large leather tote bag off his shoulder onto the table. "Watch the laptop, ladies. My boss will have my hide if anything happens to this one," he added, blue eyes twinkling mischievously.

"Alex, what are you doing here?" Liz asked.

His eyebrows rose. "Excuse me?"

Liz shook her head, realizing how silly the question sounded. "I mean, I know why you're here, but how did you get here so fast? I told you it wasn't an emergency."

"Oh yeah, right," Alex said, nodding. "I come home at midnight to find a cryptic message from you telling me, 'Don't panic, but come home.' This is followed immediately by a babbling, incoherent message from you," he continued, shifting his gaze to Maria, "in which the only words I can make out are 'Liz' and 'Roswell'." He rolled his eyes. "What the hell did you think I would do? I got my ass out to Newark this morning and caught the 6:10 to Albuquerque, then one of those little prop deals down here."

"You called him?" Liz said, turning accusing eyes on Maria.

"How was I supposed to know you'd called him already?" her friend muttered defensively. "It's not like you actually told me the whole story on the phone."

"Maria!"

"Come on, Liz. Give me some credit for at least…"

"Okay, time out," Alex broke in. "Please. No bickering. I'm going on about three hours' sleep here. And must I remind you how much I hate spending those fifty minutes in a plane that rattles like a tin can?"

"Sorry, Alex," Liz said quickly. "Really. Look, why don't you sit and I'll go get you a root beer or something, okay?"

Alex eyed her suspiciously. "What's going on, Liz? You've never summoned me like this before, so I know it has to be major." He glanced at Maria who had sat back down and was carefully avoiding his eyes, then back to Liz. "Okay, ladies. You know you're both extremely out of practice at this secrets-keeping thing, and Liz, you were pretty much always a lousy liar, so one of you might as well spill it."

"I will, Alex. I swear," Liz said. "I just need to do one quick thing, and then I'll fill you in on everything." When Maria looked up, she nodded slightly. "Just wait for me, okay? I'll be right back."

Alex sighed. "Fine." He slid into the booth across from Maria. "Go on. I'm not going anywhere."

"Thanks," she said softly. With a final warning look in Maria's direction, Liz turned and headed into the break room.

She slipped quietly up the stairs to the apartment and was relieved to discover her parents had gone out. Grabbing the phone, she punched in Max's number. "Please be there, please be there," she whispered as the phone began to ring. After a moment, the answering machine picked up and Liz slammed the phone down in frustration.

"Okay," she said aloud. "You can do this." She smoothed her hair back and started downstairs. No matter what she had promised Max, her only choice was to tell Alex the truth. He already suspected something was going on, and the longer she tried to stall him, the more suspicious and annoyed he was going to become. Withholding information was one thing, but there was no way she would lie to him outright, and that's what she would be doing if she went back into the café and told him some story. That's something Max should understand better than anyone, she thought wryly.

Liz took a deep breath and pushed through the swinging door into the dining room. Her gaze was drawn immediately to the front of the restaurant, where Max Evans was just walking through the door, Lexie held in one arm. His eyes locked on hers across the length of the café and she froze, her suddenly wobbly knees the only thing assuring her she was still standing. The first thing to run through her mind was that he didn't look like someone who had nearly been strangled just a few hours ago. And then her brain struggled past her emotions and the reality of the situation hit her. Oh my God, she thought, feeling the panic bubbling up inside of her like a geyser. This could not be happening.

It was apparent the moment Max realized what had happened. Something seemed to click in his expression - understanding - as if he could glean her thoughts from the look in her eyes. For an instant she thought he was going to turn and leave, but then he seemed to steady himself. He broke away from her gaze, then continued into the room and began scanning the tables.

Liz dragged her eyes away from Max and glanced toward Alex. He was sitting facing Maria - and the front door - talking in his usual animated fashion. One hand was gesturing as he spoke, a habit he had picked up from the two of them back in high school, and that had earned him endless ribbing from Michael who considered it highly feminine behavior. Maybe, just maybe, she thought, she could get to Alex before he looked up. Not that she knew what difference it would make. But it didn't matter. Even as she watched, even as she took a step toward the booth, Alex stopped speaking and looked in Max's direction.

Later, Liz would think that it could have been a scene in a movie - one of those old black and white films she loved to watch on video when the snow was flying back in Boston. Everything seemed to happen in perfect sequence, each step precisely choreographed and falling neatly into place like a string of dominoes, only in slow motion. Alex rose, his eyes pinned to Max. Max, in turn, stopped where he stood between the row of booths and an empty table, and looked Alex in the eye. He seemed to draw himself up, almost as if preparing for a blow. Maria swiveled in her seat to see what was going on and let out a small cry of dismay. Lexie, still trapped in Max's arms, squirmed slightly against his chest at the sound, then turned and caught sight of Alex. Alex noticed her at the same moment, and their eyes met and held.

Suddenly Lexie was wiggling in earnest, shoving at Max until he was forced to loosen his grip and allow her to slide to the floor. At the sound of her sneakered feet hitting the tile, Alex dropped to one knee, and Lexie quickly closed the space between them. She threw herself into his arms, burying her face in the crook of his neck, and he hugged her against his chest. Oblivious to his friends' astonished expressions and the curiosity of the café patrons, Alex knelt on the floor and held the little girl, slowly rocking her back and forth as silent tears filled his blue eyes.

********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:42:00 AM

Part 10

*******

I don't think I ever really thought about how Maria and Alex were affected by Michael and Isabel leaving.

No - scratch that. It sounds self-centered and callous, and it isn't at all what I mean. Of course I thought about them and what they were going through - they're my best friends. I knew they were both lonely and hurting and I hated it. I watched Maria go off the deep end in any number of ways, and when she finally pulled herself back up onto dry land she was different. A little less open, not quite so brave. It wasn't anything overt, but it was obvious enough to the people who cared about her. I know I saw it, and I'm sure Alex did as well. As for Alex, he was the opposite. More open, a littler braver. As if he was overcompensating for a desire to hide himself away and simply watch the world go by from a safe distance. And while I knew in some ways it was good for him to push himself, I could still sense something false about it - the veneer of his popularity was just a little too sheer.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I had never really stopped to analyze their relationships. Not in depth. And I guess that's normal. Or it would be, if we had all had normal human relationships instead of interspecies love affairs. But the truth is, I had them all neatly tucked into their mental compartments. Both couples were very on-again, off-again all the way through school. Michael and Maria were always bickering about something, and the levels of their arguments varied so greatly that none of the rest of us ever bothered to take them seriously. Sometimes it was something real, like Michael being frightened of Maria getting hurt, and sometimes it was purely imagined, like the whole Courtney mess. It didn't really matter what their reason was. It was like that saying about the weather in certain cities; if you don't like it, wait an hour and it'll change. I think we all pretty much agreed that the two of them liked to fight. No one doubted their love for each other - just whether they'd survive expressing it.

Alex and Isabel, in their own way, were just as unpredictable. They never fought or even raised their voices at each other. Their friendship was a constant, if the only one in their relationship. It was Isabel who couldn't seem to settle into anything more than that, wanting to date other guys from time to time, though she always kept it casual. I could sense Alex's growing frustration with the situation all through the last couple of years of high school, but ultimately he showed more patience than anyone I have ever known. And it seemed to pay off. Around Christmas of our senior year, Alex and Isabel were a couple again, but we could tell it was different. Permanent. It was like Isabel had always known that no one else would understand her the way Alex did, but she had to be sure, and he was willing to wait for her to reach that point. I sometimes wonder if it was because she loved him that she held him off so long - wanting to spare him, and herself, the inevitable separation.

Yet, despite knowing their histories and watching their relationships evolve in front of me, I don't think I ever really knew how deep their feelings went. They were couples, but more in the way that everyone else I knew was coupled up in school. Maybe I thought of them as more long-term, because of the shared secrets that held us all together, but they were still different. And when I say different, I mean from me. My relationship with Max was my yardstick, and nothing Maria and Alex went through was quite the same as what I experienced.

I realize how that sounds - incredibly conceited. But don't we all cast ourselves as the protagonist in our own stories? I certainly did, in more ways than one. It's only natural. And I'm not trying to say I felt that Max or I was more important than any of the others, because I never thought that way. But what I experienced with Max was so far beyond what the others went through. Just the way we were brought together the day I was shot… it was dramatic and instantaneous. Nothing after that day could have ever been normal for us, and it wasn't. There were flashes and visions and sacrifices so great I thought they would crush the breath from me. Because Max was destined to be a leader, I was forced to be a different person. Whether we were together or apart, I always felt I owed it to Max to be… better. To think of more than just the two of us, because so much was riding on all of our decisions. Max and I were connected in a way that I had never imagined possible… and I just assumed that made us special.

I guess I always thought that if Maria or Alex had experienced anything… unusual… in their relationships, they would have mentioned it. Max and I had gotten used to being guinea pigs of sorts; whenever anything odd happened between us, the others found out about it fairly quickly. It was the only thing that would still divide us into two distinct groups - alien and human - with Max and I each filling in our respective audience. After we finally made love for the first time, the details of that somehow became public knowledge as well. I understood why it was necessary, but it didn't make me any happier about having to share what should have remained a strictly private moment. I would have been even less happy had I realized that we were the only ones sharing.

Anyway, the point is that I assumed it was just a tiny bit easier for Alex and Maria to get over Isabel and Michael leaving, than it was for me to live without Max. Part of me always felt that Max and I had the strongest bond - because of all we had been through together, because of the connection - because, as Maria once said, we had the "look-into-each-other's-eyes-soul-mate-thing". But I should have known that you can't make comparisons when it comes to things like love. Every relationship is different and special and unique unto itself, and that, I suspect, is universal.

* * * * *

"You knew me," Lexie said, her soft voice half muffled against Alex's shoulder.

Alex gently smoothed a hand down the child's untidy braid. "You've got your momma's eyes," he said simply.

Lexie pulled back, her expression serious. "Mommy said I have your smile."

"You do?" Alex asked. "Let's see then." He reached out and tickled her under her chin until she giggled, a broad smile splitting her face. Alex's answering grin matched perfectly. "Seems she's right. As always," he commented.

Liz flinched at Alex's use of the present tense, at the way he looked up briefly, searching the café for someone who was not there before he turned back to Lexie. Liz looked instinctively to Max and found him watching Alex also, his eyes bleak. "Why don't we all go in the back," she suggested quickly, wondering as she did if there was anyway this could end well. "Maria? Can you go add some stuff to our order? What do you guys want?" She squatted next to Alex and Lexie. "How about grilled cheese?" she asked the little girl. "That sound good?"

Lexie nodded. "Yes, please," she said, clearly on her best behavior.
Liz smiled and glanced toward Maria, who nodded and slid out of her seat.

"Alex?" Maria asked. "The usual?"

"Hmm? Oh sure. Thanks," he said. Already he was scooping Lexie up and heading toward the break room, bouncing her on his hip as if he had done so every day of her life.

Maria turned to Max, who stood staring after Alex and Lexie. "Max? What do you want for lunch? Max?"

Liz touched Maria lightly on the arm and shook her head. "Just order him a Blue Moon Burger," she told her. "I'll be back in a second and we can grab the drinks."

"Right," Maria said. She glanced worriedly at Max, then headed toward the order window.

"Max?" Liz took his hand and tugged gently. "Come on, Max. Let's go."

At her soft touch, he looked down and met her eyes. "How did he know? And how do I tell him? God, Liz… " He rubbed his free hand over his face. "I've fought battles that were easier than this," he murmured, half to himself.

"You have to tell him, Max. You don't want him to hear it from Lexie. It wouldn't be fair to either of them."

Her comment seemed to shake him out of his semi-dazed state. He looked at her for a long moment. "You're right," he said finally.

They headed into the back and found Alex sitting on the couch, Lexie on his knees. Maria hovered just inside the doorway, clearly making a concerted effort not to cry.

"Alex?" Max began.

Alex looked up expectantly. "How are you, Max? Been a long time."

"Yes, it has," Max replied.

Alex seemed not to notice that Max had ignored his question. "How is… everyone? Are you all back?" His tone was reserved, yet clearly hopeful. Liz saw Max tense in response. For a long moment no one spoke.

"Alex, how did you know?" Maria broke in suddenly. "About Lexie, I mean. And how could you have not told us all this time?" Her voice rose slightly, accusingly, her eyes bright with the beginnings of anger.

"I didn't know, Maria," Alex said, a sad smile touching his lips. "I just… thought. Maybe. I wasn't sure. That last night when Isabel and I… we didn't take any precautions. She didn't want to. Said it was a long shot, but she wanted to take it." His eyes shifted to the little girl on his lap. "Guess we got lucky."

"So, you just recognized her and…?" Liz trailed off questioningly.

"And knew," he finished for her. He looked thoughtfully at his daughter who was sitting quietly and listening to their discussion. "What's Lexie short for, anyway?" he asked her.

Lexie smiled shyly. "Alexandra," she replied.

"Meet Alexandra Elizabeth Evans Whitman," Max added softly.
Alex looked toward Liz, then Max, his eyes shining. "Thanks," he whispered.

Max cleared his throat. "Um, Alex? I need to talk to you. And it's… not something that should be discussed with an audience," he told him, his eyes dropping to Lexie.

Alex seemed to hesitate, but then he nodded. "Sure," he said. "Lexie, honey, you go on with Liz and Maria for a minute, okay? I have to talk to Max."

"Okay, Daddy," she said, clearly testing the title. "Don't go away, though," she added, her brow furrowed.

Alex smiled and brushed a stray hair off the child's face. "I'm not going anywhere. Promise." As he lifted the little girl and set her on her feet, his eyes were on Max, his expression serious. "Go on, sweetie."

Liz held out her hand and the little girl skipped over. "You can help us get the drinks, Lexie," Liz said.

Lexie slipped her hand into Liz's and smiled up at her. "I told you I was gonna meet my daddy," she said.

"Yes, you did," Liz replied. "Come on." With a worried glance toward Max, she steered the little girl out into the café, Maria following immediately behind them.

"Lexie, you haven't really met Maria, yet, have you?" Liz asked once they were clear of the break room.

"Hi, Lexie," Maria said, kneeling down so she was at the little girl's level.

"I know you," Lexie announced. "Uncle Michael used to tell me stories about you. Before he and Mommy went away and Uncle Michael came back… different," she added with a small frown.

"Really?" Maria asked. "What kind of stories?"

"All kinds. Like about the time he kidnapped you cuz he wanted to use your car."

Maria snickered. "Figures. Leave it to Michael to corrupt the morals of a minor."

"And how you helped him when he didn't have anywhere to go," Lexie continued.

Maria's face softened. "He said that?"

Lexie nodded. "It was raining and he was outside your window and you yelled at him," she recited. "But then you let him come inside."

"I… that's just how it happened. It's almost like you saw it," Maria whispered.

"I did," Lexie told her.

"What? How…"

"Flashes," Liz broke in quietly. She leaned a little closer so her voice wouldn't carry. "He showed her through flashes, Maria. You're talking to a little girl whose bedtime stories were home movies fed directly into her brain. That's why she knows all of us - she grew up with us. Isabel, Max, and Michael made sure of it."

"They did that?" Maria breathed. "They told her about us? Not just about Alex?"

Liz nodded.

"You wanna see?" Lexie asked. "I can show you. But," she looked around and dropped her voice a little lower, "Not here. Too busy," she whispered, suddenly sounding very adult.

"That's okay," Maria assured her. She ran a finger down the slope of Lexie's nose, then poked her gently in the stomach, teasing her gently back into childhood. She smiled when Lexie giggled. "Maybe a little later. You can tell me more after lunch, all right?"

Liz began loading their sodas on a tray, shooting nervous looks toward the door to the back. She couldn't forget Max's expression at the prospect of speaking with Alex.

Maria's voice broke through her thoughts. "Liz? Why don't you go on back and let me finish up here?"

Liz smiled gratefully at the understanding in Maria's eyes. Sometimes she forgot how good it was to be with someone who had known you forever. "Thanks," she whispered. "I'll be back in a minute."

"Take your time," Maria told her.

"I just… I know this is going to be hard for him. For both of them."

"I know, Liz. Go."

Liz hurried into the back. As she passed through the door, however, it became obvious that Max had already told Alex. Both men were pale and neither was speaking. Alex sat on the couch just staring into space, while Max perched on the steps up to the Parkers' apartment, his head resting in his hands. When the door swung closed behind Liz, Max looked up.

"I thought you might need some help," she said softly.

Max turned toward Alex, indicating that he was the one in need of real comfort, though from where Liz stood it seemed to be a toss up. But she went over and sat on the couch, knowing that of the two of them, Alex was the only one who would be willing to let her in.

"Alex?" She reached out and took his had, startled at how cold he was. "You all right?"

"I'm not sure," he replied slowly. "It hasn't really registered yet, you know?"

"I know," she said.

"I saw Lexie and realized who she was… and I thought, 'This is it. They're all back.' It didn't even occur to me to question why Max was here instead of Isabel. I was too busy being happy," he added wryly. "Even after we came in here, and I began to think maybe Isabel wasn't back, I figured it was just some kind of delay. I never imagined…" He shook his head, unable to voice the thought.

"I'm so sorry, Alex," Liz said. "I know it's an awful shock." She slipped an arm around his shoulders and felt him tremble. "You know she wanted to come back to you," she said gently, rubbing her hand up and down his back in soothing strokes.

"I know," he replied. "Max told me. And I knew regardless. But it doesn't change anything." He finally looked at Liz, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "It's like all of my emotions are misfiring. Part of me is overjoyed to learn I have a daughter, but then I think of Isabel… of never getting to hold her again… of her missing out on seeing Lexie grow up… Liz, I don't know what to feel," he said, his voice breaking.

"Shhh," Liz said, pulling him into her arms and hugging him tightly. "How could you know? It's so much to take in - you need time to absorb everything. And we're all here for you," she whispered, her own tears ignored as she rocked Alex the way he had rocked Lexie only minutes before.

"When she left, she swore she'd be back. She told me she couldn't stay away, not after all we had gone through to be together," he said. "She was sorry that she had to ask me to wait for her… just a little longer, she promised. It was enough. Her word. Because she had never once lied to me, you know? She was always upfront about all of it."

"Alex…"

"No, Liz, it's true. Even when she just wanted to be friends, she always came to me and told me. No going behind my back. That's why I knew she really loved me when she finally said it," he whispered. "And why I knew she'd come back one day. If it was at all possible…" He trailed off, as if suddenly hearing himself. "God, Liz… she's really gone this time, isn't she?" He gripped Liz convulsively and buried his face in her shoulder as a shudder wracked his body.

"Oh, Alex," Liz whispered, tightening her arms around him.

There was a creaking sound from the direction of the stairs. Liz shifted so she could see over Alex's shoulder, and watched as Max rose stiffly and headed toward the door to the dining room. He glanced back at her briefly, his eyes unreadable. Still, for an instant his gaze caught hers and Liz felt a desperate need to go to him. Instead, she sat motionless as Max nodded his thanks and disappeared into the café, leaving her locked in Alex's embrace.

*****

TBC

posted on 7-Sep-2001 11:49:15 AM

Part 11

********

It's hard for me to know exactly when we started to get on with our lives. Some things just creep up on you gradually until one day you turn around and realize you've changed. With Alex and Maria, I found myself measuring their recovery in terms of funny little indicators, seeing as how we were separated by thousands of miles and I couldn't just look at them to read the truth in their eyes. I had to rely on phone calls and emails - a turn of phrase, a pain-filled pause, what they said about each other. I became an emotional detective.

Of the two of them, Alex seemed to pull himself together faster, but I suppose that was understandable when you consider that he hadn't crumbled the way Maria had. He managed to keep things in perspective, to maintain a level head in the face of everything irrational. But his hurts still showed in small ways. I'd get a phone call from him early in the morning, before I left for class, and we'd talk right up until the moment I had to leave the dorm. More often than not I'd end up dashing across campus, my jacket half-off, because I couldn't bring myself to hang up the phone. Something kept me talking to him until the last possible minute. It wasn't anything he'd say, because he would never mention Isabel, or even Roswell, during those conversations. Generally we would talk about mundane, everyday things. Typical college stuff. School, books, roommates. Maybe one of us would have seen a good movie, or heard a new band, and we'd discuss that. Still, beneath the deceptively casual banter was the knowledge that it was three hours earlier at Cal Tech than it was at Harvard. It went without saying that, if my phone was ringing at seven am, something was probably wrong. Once, Alex actually went so far as to tell me he had just gotten back from star-gazing. He changed the subject pretty quickly, but the message was clear.

So, when I went an entire semester without an early-morning phone call, I knew Alex was getting stronger. It didn't mean that he wasn't still watching the stars. I knew he would always be a star-gazer, the way I knew that I would never escape my dreams. However, he no longer had to connect with someone after staring at the night sky for hours. He didn't feel the need to reground himself in reality. He was starting to move on.

But I think it was the end of junior year when I decided Alex had finally let go enough to truly get on with his life. That was about the time when all of the big computer companies started to actively pursue him. I don't think Maria or I fully appreciated what a whiz Alex was until those bidding wars started. Suddenly there were a dozen high-tech moguls, the kind who show up on the cover of magazines like "Wired" or "Fortune", eager to snatch him up and put him to work. It was crazy, like an auction in some sort of middle eastern bazaar. The salaries and perks just kept escalating. And Alex ate it up. He would call to tell us about the latest offer under the pretext of gloating, but his voice always betrayed his amazement. It boggled his mind to realize that he, Alex Charles Whitman, was such a highly desirable commodity on the open market.

But he proved himself a player. He haggled and angled and worked each offer against the others. It seemed most of these companies were just as anxious to keep him away from the competition as they were to have him working for them. By the time Alex was done, he had landed himself an impressive salary, a decent Manhattan apartment, and more vacation time than he would ever use, not to mention all sorts of stock options and other high-tech doodads that made his eyes glow. But the best part was his obvious enthusiasm. When he called to tell me about his deal, I could hear how excited he was, and it was an excitement that had very little to do with benefits packages. Somehow, that moment was the culmination of everything Alex had gone through since learning there were aliens living in Roswell. It was the first time he had taken his new-found self-confidence and put it to work for himself - with spectacular results. And although I'm sure he was wondering what Isabel would have said - if she'd have been proud of him if she were there - he didn't let the thought dampen his spirits.

With Maria, it was a little harder to tell how she was feeling. She had always been one for new projects and spur-of-the-moment ideas. When we were little it seemed like she had a million plans - things she wanted to do or be or see - and she would change the list at least twice a week. One day she would want to be a ballet dancer and travel to the capitals of Europe, the next she would be planning a safari or a river boat trip down the Mississippi Her dreams were filled with magical ways of escaping Roswell, of making something more of her life. So, once she got over the immediate shock of Michael's leaving, and had worked her way through her self-destructive phase, it was more difficult to determine whether each new interest was genuine or merely the next in a long line of distractions. Sometimes I think her endless wishing was just a way to keep herself busy, so she wouldn't notice how afraid she was of being alone.

That first year that Alex and I were gone, Maria managed to occupy virtually every minute of her day. Not only did she register for night classes, but she began helping her mother at her shop as well. She tacked on extra shifts at the Crashdown, squeezing her homework in during her breaks. It was as if she refused to allow herself a moment to stop and think. She emailed me frequently as promised, but her messages were always upbeat and cheerful - amusing, gossip-filled notes that held little substance. Whenever I called, her voice would take on this tone. Like she didn't trust herself to talk to me. She would sound too bright and a touch defensive, daring me to ask what was wrong while warning me wordlessly not to expect an answer. I never asked. Instead I played along, keeping the conversation as light and fluffy as I could. But I kept listening.

I thought the geology thing was just another lark at first. Something else to fill her time and to keep her from thinking too much. But she surprised me. The first course led to a second, which led to a beginning class in jewelry. By the time I started my last year at Harvard, Maria had taken an impressive, if eclectic, collection of classes, from Metal Work to History of Costume to Accounting for Small Businesses. She had fallen in love with making jewelry, with every aspect of the craft. It was wonderful to hear her rattle on about stones and gems and types of settings. I admit a part of me was amused by the mental image of my best friend wearing a welder's mask, but I was happy for her. And relieved. It seemed that, in all her running, she had finally stumbled across something that mattered to her.

The call came in November, about a week before Thanksgiving. At the time I was ignoring my text books in favor of my writing - science fiction seeming preferable to French translations - and was glad to be interrupted by the phone. I'll never forget how excited Maria was. Her words were running together so quickly that I had to beg her to calm down. Not even a lifetime of exposure to DeLuca-babble was enough to help me understand her garbled story. Finally, after a couple of deep breaths and a lot of coaxing on my part, she was able to string together a few coherent sentences to tell me her news. It seemed that a few days before, her mother had agreed to let Maria put some of her jewelry designs on display at the store, despite the fact that none of the jewelry was alien-themed. Maria had given her a half-dozen pairs of earrings, plus a few bracelets and necklaces, and Amy had set them up in a small case near the register with the understanding that the display would revert to the more traditional merchandise in a few weeks. After all, Christmas was coming, and Amy would need the space for the new holiday items. It was purely an experiment.

That was about the point in the conversation where I interrupted Maria to congratulate her. After all, that's what good, supportive friends do. I was getting all ready to tell her how happy I was for her, and that I was sure the jewelry would sell, when she shushed me to say that it already had. Every single piece of Maria's jewelry had sold out in three days, and Amy had called that morning to ask if there was anything else tucked away that she could put in the store. Maria actually squealed when she finished telling me - something I hadn't heard her do in a very long time. I think that's the moment I knew that she had truly found her way - that this would be the last of the distractions. And even if I wasn't sure then, I was by Christmas when I went home to find Maria looking into small business loans and talking about opening a store. Whatever else she was thinking or feeling, her energy was focused on her new career, and it was wonderful to see a genuine sparkle in her eye again.

* * * * *

"So what are we going to do about Michael?"

Liz tore her eyes away from the counter where Alex and Lexie sat side by side eating their lunches. She still couldn't believe the way Alex had pulled himself together. One moment she had been sure he was going to break down, and the next he had gently untangled himself from her arms and headed back into the café to see his daughter. Now he was munching on a Galaxy Melt and pretending to swipe fries off of Lexie's plate, his too-bright eyes the only sign that anything was wrong.

"Well?" Maria's voice rose slightly.

Liz glanced across the table at her friend. She looked determined, as if prepared to go into battle. It was the same expression she had always worn when going up against Michael's stone wall, but somehow Liz was surprised to see it. It had been a long time since Maria had looked so fierce and Liz suddenly felt very tired in comparison. She shrugged.

But Maria didn't notice. She was now staring expectantly at Max, who sat between them picking listlessly at his food, as if she could will an answer from him through the force of her gaze. He didn't look up until she had said his name several times, and even then it seemed to take him a moment to focus.

"What?" he asked finally.

"Michael," she repeated. "What are we going to do about him? That is why we're here, right?" When Max failed to reply, Maria frowned. "He did come back to your house, didn't he?"

Max nodded. "Right after the two of you left," he said slowly. "I… suspect he was just waiting nearby until he was sure you were gone," he added.

Maria, on the verge of firing off another series of questions, paused, her green eyes surprised. "Oh," she said quietly.

"You didn't think it would be easy," Liz pointed out gently.

Maria sighed. "Nothing with Michael ever is." She glanced back at Max. "So, how was he?"

"About the same," Max admitted. "He wasn't gone long enough to calm down. That's why I brought Lexie along. My mother dropped her off at home and I won't leave her alone with Michael when he's that way. He'd never hurt her," he added quickly, "but it scares Lexie to see him so agitated." His eyes drifted toward the counter where Lexie was blowing bubbles in her cherry coke, to Alex's apparent amusement. "I never intended to spring her on Alex this way. I wanted to talk to him first."

"You couldn't have known that he'd get here so quickly," Liz said. "Besides, Lexie didn't seem to come as a complete surprise."

"How is he handling all of this? I mean, really?" Max asked, looking at Liz for the first time since she and Alex had emerged from the back room.

"It's probably too early to tell," she replied, wanting to reassure Max, yet knowing he would not appreciate a sugar-coated version of the truth. "He's thrilled about Lexie, naturally, but the news about Isabel… I don't think it's really sunk in yet." She paused, recalling Alex's quiet strength six years earlier when both she and Maria were crumbling to pieces. "He'll be all right, Max," she said after a moment. "No matter how hard it hits him, he'll deal with it."

"Liz is right," Maria agreed. "Alex won't let himself fall apart, especially now that there's Lexie to consider."

"So I guess that brings us back to Michael," Max said quietly. "I don't think we should try anything again today. He's in no condition and I can't imagine us making much progress." He eyed Maria appraisingly. "How long before you have to head back to Taos?"

"I'm covered through the weekend," she said. "There's no way I can stay any longer than that. Not so close to Christmas."

"I understand," Max replied. "I do appreciate you coming, Maria. It means a lot."

"Yeah, well…" She shifted her gaze to her soda and began playing with her straw. "You knew I'd come."

"No," he said. "I didn't. We've been gone a long time."

"And?" Maria prompted.

"And a lot changes in six years." He shifted back in his chair and glanced toward the counter. "I'm going to go speak with Alex a moment. I'll be right back." He rose and headed over to the others.

"So, Liz. Any ideas? You're Miss Science," Maria said.

"More like Miss Science Fiction, these days," Liz sighed.

"Come on, Lizzie. You graduated with honors in Biochemistry. Don't try to tell me you're a layman. I've known you way too long."

Liz smiled faintly. "You're right. Still, I wish that gave me some insight into what's wrong with Michael. Without knowing what happened to him while he was being held, there's not much to go on."

"I wonder if Max knows more than he's saying," Maria mused quietly.

Liz glanced over to where Max was talking to Alex. His expression was serious, though it had hardly been anything but since he had shown up in the café the day before. "It's possible," she said. "Maybe from connecting to Michael. He thought that might be part of what got Michael so upset - the idea that he was trying to get details from his memories. Maybe Max has seen something."

"Well, the one thing I know is that there has to be another way to get through to Michael," Maria said, somewhat hoarsely. "I can't stand to see him that way again."

"I know," Liz said, reaching across the table to give Maria's hand a quick squeeze. "You're right. It can't be doing him any good to be in that state."

Max came back and sat down. "Alex is going to take Lexie for the afternoon," he said. "He wants her to meet his parents."

"Oh, that should be interesting," Maria muttered. "What's he going to tell them? I mean… about Isabel."

"As much of the truth as he can," Max said. "That he didn't know about Lexie, but now he does, and that Isabel is… gone. Obviously there are a lot of details to work out."

"Of course there are," Liz said gently. "So… when do we get together again? Tomorrow?"

"If you can make it. Alex said he'd like to see Michael, so he's going to come over as well. About ten? I'll send Lexie somewhere with my mother again."

Liz nodded. "That's fine."

"Yeah, ten's okay with me," Maria said.

"Do we have a game plan?" Liz asked.

"We can discuss it in the morning," Max said. "When we can talk a little more… freely."

"Ah, yes," Maria said. "Of course. The walls have ears and all that," she mumbled. "So, tomorrow morning it is. Meanwhile…"

Liz's eyebrows rose. "Your mom?"

"Yeah," she sighed. "Better let her know I'm in Roswell before she finds out from someone else."

"Are you going to tell her why?" Liz asked.

"You mean about Michael? Hell, no. No point stirring up trouble. Besides," she added, "it's not like he's about to show up on her doorstep." She shot a nervous look at Max. "He's not, right? I mean, he wouldn't go…"

"No, I don't think so."

"Uncle Max!" Lexie came barreling across the café and scrambled onto Max's knee, throwing her arms around him.

"Hey, Lexie," he said, his tone softening slightly. "You finish your lunch?"

"Yup. Now I'm going with my daddy to meet my other gramma and grampa." She settled more comfortably onto Max's lap. "Are you gonna come, too?" she asked.

Max brushed the little girl's hair off her face and gave her a comforting squeeze. "Well, I wasn't going to, but I can if you want."
Lexie bit down on her bottom lip, then tugged on Max's shirt until he bent down so she could whisper in his ear. He listened carefully, then nodded. "Promise," he told her. "Okay? You feel better?"

"Yeah," she said, smiling.

"You set to go?" Alex asked as he came over to the table.

"Ready," Lexie announced, wiggling off of Max's lap.

"All right, then," Alex said. He hefted his laptop bag over his shoulder, then took Lexie's hand.

"Alex, aren't you going to… I don't know," Liz said. "Call your parents? Prepare them? Something?"

"It'll be fine," he assured her.

"If you're sure."

He smiled. "Positive. I'll talk to you later, okay? You, too, Maria." He turned to Max. "I'll see you in a few hours."

Max nodded. "Good luck," he told him.

"Thanks. For everything," Alex said, a hint of emotion in his voice.

"You don't have anything to thank me for," Max replied. He looked away, reaching out to tweak Lexie's nose. "See you later, Lexie."
"Okay, Uncle Max," Lexie replied. "Bye, Liz and Maria," she sang out.
"It was very nice meeting you, Lexie," Maria replied.

"We'll see you soon, sweetie," Liz told her. "Call me tonight," she added to Alex.

He nodded. "All right, Lexie. Let's go."

Liz stared after the two of them as they crossed the café.

"They're so sweet together," Maria remarked quietly.

"Yeah," Liz agreed. She looked at Max and saw him watching Lexie as she headed outside with her father. He had his expression carefully in control, but she thought his eyes held a touch of wistfulness.
"So, what did you promise Lexie?" she asked.

"Hmm? Oh, nothing important," he replied, glancing away from the door. "I should probably get going," he said. Standing, he reached into his pocket.

"Put away your wallet," Liz told him. When he looked slightly puzzled, she smiled a little sadly. "Some things don't change, Max. It's on the house." Looking at his plate, she laughed wryly. "Besides, it's not like you ate anything."

"Thanks," he said. "So, I guess I'll see you both tomorrow." He nodded toward Maria. "Thanks, again," he told her. He turned and, a moment later, he was gone.

"Okay, who was that?" Maria asked. "I thought the old Max had control issues, but this new model is just… I mean, I find myself wanting to shake him until he shows some kind of emotion. Anything." She sighed. "What are you going to do, Liz?"

Watching as Max turned and headed down the street alone, Liz shook her head. "I wish I knew," she whispered.

******

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:00:31 PM

Part 12

*********

Sometimes I wonder what things would have been like if Max hadn't come into my life - if I was never shot and he had no reason to let me into his world - and I had simply gone on according to my original plan. I suppose, having already altered at least one potential future, I'm more susceptible to playing 'what if' than most people. But I'm curious about more than just events; I wonder what kind of person I would have been. Would I have been as prone to keeping secrets? Was I always this reluctant to talk about myself? I try to remember what it was like before - what I was like - but I can't. My early years seem hazy and vague - unimportant in comparison to the sharply etched, heightened version of my life that began after Max Evans saved me. The only thing I know for sure is, once Max had gone, aliens weren't the only thing I refused to discuss.

There was a brief period, somewhere around the end of my sophomore year, when I considered changing my major. I didn't tell anyone what I was thinking - not my parents, not Alex and Maria, not Sandy or my academic advisor - no one. But there was no denying that I had caught the writing bug, and it seemed to me, given my professor's enthusiasm for my work, that it might make sense to become an English major. I'm not sure if I was ever really serious about it, but I did make a list of pros and cons, and I spent more than a few sleepless nights pondering the fork in my road and wondering which way to go. Ultimately, I decided to stick to science. After all, I had wanted to be a scientist for as long as I could remember, and it wasn't as if I had a crystal ball that could predict my success as a writer. I reminded myself that Michael Crichton had started out as a doctor and still gone on to produce novels and movies and television shows, so there was no reason to think I was limiting myself. I could major in biochemistry and still write.

Maybe it wasn't important that I chose not to discuss my decision with anyone, since I ended up continuing with my previous course of studies. But my potential switch in major wasn't the only thing I failed to mention. Somehow I managed to finish writing my novel, acquire an agent and a publisher, and never tell my friends or family. It wasn't exactly a secret; plenty of people at school knew, mostly thanks to Sandy, who was incapable of keeping her mouth shut for more than three consecutive minutes and had broadcasted the fact that I'd sold my book to the majority of the campus. But I never seemed to get around to telling anyone in Roswell.

At first I didn't say anything because it didn't seem important. It was just a class, an elective, and there wasn't a reason to talk about it. I was enjoying writing - much the way I enjoyed keeping my journal - and I think on some level I didn't want to share it with anyone back home. Then as the story got longer, and I began to suspect I had an actual novel on my hands, the subject matter became the problem. I knew that Maria or Alex would have been able to see through the guise of "fiction" that cloaked my story, and I didn't want to get into the inevitable discussion that would have followed if they read it. Then suddenly I was caught up in the publishing whirlwind, with phone calls from agents and a train trip to New York to have lunch with my editor. It seemed unreal and I just allowed myself to be carried along by the momentum and the newness of it. By the time I finally settled back to earth, it felt too late to say anything.

Of course, I eventually told them all, but not right away, and not before I had a major panic attack and considered trying to back out of the entire thing. The panic itself had nothing to do with telling my parents, Maria, or Alex that I had written a book and forgotten to tell them about it. It was a purely alien-related fear, complete with heart palpitations and dry mouth, the very last thing I expected to suffer with the four of them light years away. And the irony was, it was entirely my own fault.

It had never occurred to me as I was typing away on my laptop, about stars and space and alien lovers, that the publicity department of a major publishing house would one day be trying to sell my words. If it had, I would have written children's books about barnyard animals. You see, it didn't take me long to discover that, in the eyes of a sales person in New York City, a science fiction writer who hails from Roswell, New Mexico is apparently a gift from the PR gods. What could be better than to push your newest Harvard-educated author as the girl from the alien capitol of the country? Better yet, imagine said author has parents who run an alien-themed café… If they had known the true extent of my alien connections, and thought anyone would believe them, I have no doubt they would have tried to use them.

So there I was, listening to my agent gush about how lucky I was that my publisher was willing to put so much money into a first-time author's ad campaign, and trying not to hyperventilate. Somewhere in the back of my head a voice was busy chastising me, and that voice belonged to Michael Guerin. He was calling me all sorts of a fool for putting them in danger, for drawing attention to them with my carelessness. The fact that Michael was no where on the planet to either chew me out in person or to suffer from any resulting attention that my book may have brought was irrelevant. Because it had suddenly occurred to me that, while your average sci-fi reader would hardly pose a problem, there were FBI agents walking the streets who just might pick up a book from time to time. And they were ten times more likely to pick up my book if there was a life-sized cutout of me in front of the Crashdown propped up in their local Barnes and Noble.

Even if I had wanted to stop them from publishing the book, I couldn't have at that point. The contract was signed, the manuscript delivered. All of the wheels were in motion. I could, however, put the brakes on the ad campaign, and that's exactly what I did. I called my editor and explained that, while I appreciated their zeal on my behalf, I could not allow them to turn my home town into any more of a circus. It was important for me to be able to go back to Roswell and be normal, and that wouldn't be possible if every alien enthusiast in the country decided to come to town and look me up. I can't say my editor was pleased with my pronouncement, but she was cooperative. When my book hit the shelves, it was without my picture, and my bio said merely, "Born in Albuquerque, currently residing in Boston."

I finally told my parents about the book when I got the bound galleys in the mail. Those are the pretty, paperback copies that are sometimes produced prior to printing - they still generally need some editing and clean up, but they go to reviewers and to people who are likely to help promote the book and therefore need to see it in advance. I wrapped two copies in some alien-print paper from Amy DeLuca's store, and handed them to my mother and father. It took them a few minutes to figure out what they were, but I have to admit that they were remarkably pleased once they did. I knew they'd be proud of me, because despite the ups and downs of our relationship I have always known that much about my parents. But they were happy… excited. My dad even teared up a little. Yes, they were surprised, but for once it was a good surprise, and I guess that's why they didn't ask me why I hadn't told them sooner. It had been a long time since anything unexpected in our lives turned out to be so positive.

Maria and Alex were ecstatic, though they did give me a hard time for keeping it a secret. I think they understood after they'd read the book, though they restricted their comments to how much they'd liked it and some mild ribbing about the potential for a sequel. I know that they each must have had a few tough moments while reading, and that my story probably dug up a few unwelcome memories, though more than half of the book was pure fantasy, so I appreciated their restraint. The funny thing was that I could see the relief in their eyes. I think they saw in my writing what I saw in Maria's jewelry and Alex's job search. Something told them that, though I was writing about aliens, I had somehow managed to move past them. True, I had panicked over Michael's imagined reactions, and I still wondered what Max would say if he ever read my book. But deep down inside, in a hidden corner of my mind, I hoped that Maria and Alex were right.

* * * * *

Liz spent the afternoon out on the roof, only heading back inside when the rapidly cooling night air began to make her shiver. She returned her laptop to her desk, ignoring the fact that she'd done nothing more than write and rewrite the same sentence over and over until her battery had run low. It was, she supposed, ironic that the words would not flow now that Max was back, but she refused to allow it to mean anything. Given the events of the last two days, it would be ridiculous to expect herself to be able to concentrate. Her mind was focused on more important things than her next book.

Not bothering to turn on the lights, Liz sat at the end of the bed and tucked her feet up under herself. The room was half in shadows, but it didn't matter. She still knew it by heart - every corner, every detail - even after living away from home for the past few years. It wasn't just the physical characteristics, either. There were the memories, just so many images embedded in the walls like part of the décor, as real as the pictures or the furniture. Closing her eyes did nothing to shut them out. They crept under her eyelids, into her pores, swam through her blood and floated in her lungs, like phantoms refusing to let her rest.

She remembered the day Michael had collapsed and Max and Isabel had brought him here, to the Crashdown, up to her room. Max had asked for her help and she had given it freely, without question, though the sight of Michael thrashing and shaking on her bed had scared her in a way she would have never thought possible. None of them had known what to do then, anymore than they knew now. Everything always seemed to come back to that - a sense of helplessness, of feeling their way through uncharted territory like blind men going on instinct and hope alone.

She wondered if it had been different for them on their own planet - if there had been clear cut answers and decisive actions even in the midst of a war. She doubted it. Did Max know what to do when Michael and Isabel were taken prisoner, when he could feel them being tortured, when Isabel was killed? How had it differed from the night when Pierce took Max, leaving the rest of them to bicker among themselves, frightened and unsure, until finally Isabel had attempted to dreamwalk him? Did it matter that their powers had developed through the years, or that Max now had an army at his disposal? None of that had helped Isabel, or Michael, or even Max when it came down to it. He was as much of a hollowed-out shell as Michael - suffering silently the way he always had - bearing the brunt of everyone else's fears and guilt and need.

A quiet knock startled Liz out of her thoughts. "Come in," she called.

The door cracked open. "Lizzie?" Her father peered into the darkened room. "How about some lights in here?" He reached over and turned on the bedside lamp, causing Liz to blink abruptly.

"Hey, Dad."

"Mind if I come in?"

She shrugged. "Sure. Pull up a corner," she told him, shifting to make room on the bed. "When did you guys get home?"

"A little while ago," he replied, settling next to her. He looked out the window, as if trying to see what she had been staring at in the dark. "I remember coming up here when you were little and finding you curled up asleep out on the roof. You'd go out to name the stars and end up dozing off on that beat up old lawn chair. Your mother was furious when your grandmother got you your telescope. Said she was just encouraging you."

Liz smiled. "And Grandma said, 'Well, someone has to!'"

"You loved that thing. I'm surprised you never took it with you."

"Can't really use it in Boston. Between the lights from the city and the pollution, I wouldn't be able to see much."

"I suppose. For a long time I thought maybe you'd become an astronomer. Instead you write about traveling to the stars. Maybe it was inevitable, growing up in Roswell." His eyes fell on her computer. "Working on the next masterpiece?"

Liz smothered a snort. "I'd hardly call it that. But it's coming along. Slowly but surely."

"That's great, Lizzie. Really. I'm glad the series is doing so well."

"My editor says they're picking up momentum. I guess that's what they look for."

Her father nodded. "Sure. They want to know you're making progress." He rubbed his hands together. "We all want that."

Something in his voice caught Liz's attention. "Dad? What is it? Is something wrong?"

"Liz, why didn't you tell us Max Evans was back in town?"

She felt her heart sink into her stomach. "What? Dad, what are you…"

"We saw him, honey. Your mom and I ran into him. Seems he's been home for the past week."

"Oh. I see." Liz let out a slow breath. "Did you talk to him?"

"Just for a moment. He said he'd been by to see you yesterday." He paused. "Liz," he began tentatively, "Why didn't you say anything?"

She stood and walked to the window, then pressed her forehead against the cool glass. "I… I suppose I wasn't sure what to say," she admitted. "I didn't want it to turn into a big deal."

"But isn't it a big deal? Honey, I'm just concerned. Your mother and I worried about you for a long time after Max left for California. You scared us - the way you fell apart. And even before then, when you were with Max, you were a different person, Liz. So… private. The past couple of years everything has been going so well. We just don't want to see anything… knock you off course again."

Liz turned to face her father. "Dad, it's okay. I promise that I'm fine."

"Are you?" he asked, rising and going to stand in front of her. "Already the secrets are starting again, Liz. What is it about that young man that makes your world spin out of control?"

"Nothing is spinning out of control," she replied. "Look, Dad… I understand you're worried. But there's nothing for you to worry about, all right? I'm an adult. I can take care of myself. I'm sorry I didn't tell you I'd seen Max, but I was afraid of just this kind of scene - that you'd overreact and make a federal case out of what is nothing more than someone I used to be involved with coming to see his parents for Christmas."

Jeff's eyebrows arched. "Are you sure that's all there is to it?"

Liz looked her father in the eye. "As far as I'm concerned, it is," she said baldly. "Anything else that might be going on is Max's business, and his alone."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just what it sounds like, Dad. I'm not the reason he's here."

"Oh, sweetie," he sighed. Reaching out, he gently ruffled her hair off her face. "Are you okay with that?"

Liz smiled faintly. "I suppose I'll have to be." She took his hand and pulled it away from her hair. "I think I'll go help Mom with dinner, so she can see I'm still in one piece."

"We just love you, Lizzie."

"I know, Dad. I love you, too." Standing on tip-toe, she dropped a kiss on his forehead.

*******

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:08:02 PM

Part 13

********

I understood why everyone was relieved when I found a new focus in my writing. Much as I'd like to claim that everything was fine before that, I can't, and I know my parents and Alex and Maria were worried about me for a long time. I put up a good front for months, both during those last few weeks before I left for Harvard and then once I arrived in Cambridge. And to tell the truth, I really believed that I was handling my emotions. Certainly Max was still on my mind, but I was starting college - living in a new city with new people - and there was so much to think about that it was easy to use it all as a distraction.

Then the dreams started. I think at first I was glad for them. Even though I knew they were a product of my subconscious - my heart and my head joining to let me know how much I was missing Max - they were comforting on some level. If I couldn't be with Max, couldn't walk the halls at Harvard with him or meet him for lunch or even speak to him on the phone, at least I could see him in those dreams. And they seemed so real. I saw him so clearly - the way the front of his hair would fall down over his forehead and he would knock it back with an annoyed flick, the wrinkle between his brows as he tried to decipher something on a computer screen, the lines of fatigue that seemed to have multiplied around his eyes and mouth. Even in the half-light that always surrounded him, I could see his expression, sense his mood. It was all I could do not to reach out in my sleep to try to take him in my arms. The fact that I couldn't - that there was no way for me to connect with him, even in that dream world - was what eventually started to get to me. It was like saying goodbye again every time I woke up, though the details of the night were like so much smoke, drifting away in the morning light before I could grab hold of them. I always suffered the same sense of loss.

I began to avoid sleep. I would study late in the library or whatever coffee house I was currently frequenting, keeping awake through sheer nerves and a variety of caffeinated beverages. On the weekends I would go to the movies alone, to whichever theater had the latest showing, and try to lose myself in whatever drama played itself out on the screen. When my body protested, I caught short, unsatisfying naps in awkward positions that left me stiff-necked and grumpy, short-circuiting my sleep patterns any way I could.

Once again, the beauty of being miles from home, surrounded by strangers, was that no one questioned my behavior. Even Sandy assumed we just kept radically different hours, and never thought to question what was going on. Sometimes I wonder how long things could have continued that way before someone finally did notice. As it was, I managed to go through the majority of the first semester powered by determination and not much else. It's amazing how far a little will power can take you.

Two days before I was scheduled to go home to Roswell for Christmas, my carefully crafted existence finally collapsed. I was tearing up a flight of stairs, on my way to hand in a paper, when I suddenly felt lightheaded. The world went from Technicolor to black and white, then finally blurred entirely and I passed out. Fortunately, the stairwell was crowded, or I would have probably fallen all the way to the landing. Instead I tumbled down about half a dozen steps, sustaining a sprained ankle and some cuts and bruises. The bad news was that I didn't regain consciousness until I was in the ambulance.

At the hospital they ran a few tests and discovered that, in addition to being sleep deprived, I was extremely dehydrated - seems coffee isn't a good substitute for those eight daily glasses of water - and bordering on malnourished. Much to my surprise, I had dropped more than ten pounds since the beginning of the term. I knew I hadn't been eating very much - I honestly hadn't had much appetite - but the doctors were mumbling about anorexia, and I was horrified to think I had lost touch with myself to the extent that they could consider such a thing

They kept me in bed, hooked up to an I.V. for the next couple of days, while the doctors continued to hover. Apparently my willingness to eat convinced them that I wasn't actually suffering from an eating disorder, and my condition was written off to a combination of the stress of being away from home for the first time and the Ivy League work load. As for me, I think the experience scared me sufficiently that I began to pay more attention to how I was taking care of myself.
By the time I was released from the hospital, not only had I missed my flight home, but it had become virtually impossible to book a new one. It was so close to Christmas that most everything was full, and the few seats that were available came with a hefty price tag. There was a long, painful phone call to my parents, who, despite their fears regarding my health, eventually agreed that it wasn't practical for me to come home for break. Instead I took the train to Philadelphia with Sandy and spent the week hobbling around the city of brotherly love on my crutches, reveling in my first real white Christmas and a holiday dinner that included no less that twenty-three of Sandy's boisterous, joyful relatives.

I credit Sandy with bringing me back from the brink. We had a lot of quiet time together during that vacation - time she could have easily used to badger me into talking about my problems or to scold me for my behavior. But she didn't. She never said a word about what had happened, nor did she make me feel like she was watching over me. As a result, I felt myself wanting to talk to her. For the first time, I actually wanted to tell someone what I was going through, if only the edited version. And so, on the last night before we caught the train back to Boston, we stayed up late and I told her about Max. About loving him and missing him and dreaming about him.

Sandy was wonderful. She didn't ask me any stupid questions, or even any logical ones - like why didn't I call him or what had ended things between us - questions I wouldn't have been able to answer. She seemed to understand that the whys and the details of our separation weren't really important. Instead she just listened, remaining uncharacteristically quiet, until I had wound myself down and my voice was shot to hell and there were no more tears left for me to shed. Then she gave me a hug, and laughingly told me that she had known from the moment we'd met that there was some sort of melodrama brewing beneath my science dork surface. Soon I was laughing right along with her. After a while we realized the sun was peering through the blinds and that we'd been up all night. We crept down to the kitchen and ate leftover turkey right out of the fridge and drank about a gallon of orange juice between us. By the time we left for the train station, I actually felt ready to face going back to school.

We only talked about Max one other time, and it was a rather round about conversation when we did. It had been a couple of weeks since classes had resumed and I thought I was pretty much back in the swing of things. I was being careful not to skip meals and had taken to carrying around a bottle of water so that I wouldn't automatically reach for a cup of coffee every time I wanted something to drink. Of course, the dreams were still coming - almost every night by then - but I found that I was better able to deal with them now that I was taking care of the other aspects of my life. Then out of the blue, Sandy came home one afternoon and handed me a plain white business card with the name Dr. Rebecca Alan in elegant black type across the center. A psychologist. When I looked at Sandy questioningly, she shrugged and said she thought maybe I'd like to talk to someone about everything I had been going through.

I must have seemed upset, because she was quick to tell me she was proud of how well I had pulled myself together. But that doing better wasn't the same as being fine, and that, as far as she could tell, all of the things that had been bothering me - that had driven me to forget about food and to go days without sleep - all of those demons were still very much a part of my life. She said that sometimes it takes a strong person to realize that they can't always fix everything alone.

She picked up her books and headed to the library after that, leaving me standing in the middle of our room with the business card still clutched in my hand. I'll admit that I nearly tore it up. I kept remembering how Max and Isabel's parents made them go to a therapist back in high school, and how Max had complained endlessly to Maria about the futility of those visits - how ludicrous it was to talk to a man about his problems when he couldn't touch on anything real.

Then I remembered how good it had felt to talk to Sandy about Max - even though I had had to couch the entire conversation in terms of his being off in college in California instead of in another galaxy. The details hadn't been important because, ultimately, it was the bigger picture that was affecting me. It wasn't important where Max was - only that he wasn't with me.

I called Dr. Alan that afternoon and made an appointment. And while I can't say that I remained in therapy very long, I do admit that those conversations were helpful. It was good to be able to talk in a general way about all of the things that were bothering me, without worrying anyone, or being concerned that they were annoyed or bored by my complaints, or being afraid of dredging up the other person's painful memories. There was a strange sort of freedom in it - in admitting that I couldn't maintain perfect control every moment of the day and that sometimes I just wanted to scream for the sake of screaming. Silence can surround you, creep in upon itself until you become a prisoner of your own self-censorship, and that can be a very dangerous thing. Too much silence can be suffocating.

* * * * *

When Liz arrived at the Evanses' house, she was relieved to find both Maria and Alex already there. Even so, she took her time parking her mother's car by the curb, and sat for a moment before she got out and walked slowly up to the front door. She felt a general sense of apprehension that had more to do with facing Max, knowing that he had seen her parents the previous evening, than with anything she feared might happen with Michael.

If she had been anticipating a confrontation, or even a request for an explanation, she needn't have been concerned. When Max answered the door, he merely nodded and stepped back to let her in, then turned and ushered her into the kitchen where the others were already seated at the table sipping their coffee. Except for the addition of Alex, the scene was identical to the morning before and Liz felt a little shiver run down her spine, though it could have just as easily been from Max's cold reception as the sense of déjà vu. Still, she hoped there would be no further similarities to the previous day. She wasn't anxious to watch Michael strangle one of her friends. Taking the mug of coffee that Max handed her, she slipped into the chair next to Maria.

The mood was subdued, and it was clear to Liz that they had already been discussing their course of action. Maria had her eyes focused downward, staring blankly at her mug, and Liz could feel how tense she was. She knew how hard all of this was for her. After years of insisting to herself and the world that she was over Michael, she had been forced to open herself up to him again. It was like slicing open a vein and letting your blood flow freely - it left you vulnerable to infection. But the only other choice was to walk away, and no matter how Michael had hurt her, no matter how often he had been the one to walk, Maria would never be able to turn that particular table.

As for Alex, his blue eyes were unusually dark, his expression serious. Liz thought about their conversation the night before. He had called late, after dropping Lexie back at Max's, and his emotions had all been in his voice - elation at his afternoon with his daughter, amusement at his parents' reactions to meeting her. He had always claimed they found his relationship with Isabel hard to believe. Once he'd told Liz that his father suspected his inexplicable attraction was the result of money changing hands. She had been horrified at the suggestion, and he had passed it all off as a joke, but she had known that on a deeper level Alex had been hurt by his parents' obvious lack of confidence in their son. When he refused to call ahead to tell them about Lexie, Liz had known that those old wounds were still hiding beneath the armor he had built up over the years. But all of that aside, she had been able to hear his pride as he related the way Lexie had charmed his parents from the moment she walked through the door. And his pain as he repeated the explanation he had given for Isabel's death - a car crash on an LA freeway.
But none of those emotions were visible now. He was all business, clearly prepared to do whatever was necessary to help Michael. For what felt like the millionth time in two days, Liz wondered at their ability to rally this way after so many years. Just what was it about their relationships - this bond they'd formed as teenagers - that enabled them to look past their fractured hearts and support the very people responsible for turning their lives on end? While she was willing to ask the question, she was less sure about wanting an answer.

"So, where do we start?" Alex's low voice broke through her reverie. Liz looked up and found him watching Max, who was pacing restlessly across the kitchen floor.

"You can't connect with him," Maria said quickly.

Max ran a hand across his jaw. "I don't know any other way to get through to him," he replied. "I've tried to talk to him, tried pleading, yelling. Nothing seems to cut through that wall he's put up."

Maria snorted. "Don't tell me about Michael Guerin's walls, thank you very much. I know all about those. I find them preferable to the road warrior who exhibited himself yesterday," she said shakily.

"Maria." Liz took her friend's trembling hand and squeezed. "What do you think we should do then? What else did you have in mind?"

"I don't know," she whispered. "Talk to him. Something. Maybe he just doesn't want to talk to you, Max," she suggested, looking up.

"Yeah, well…" Max turned away. "I wouldn't be surprised. Let's go into the other room," he continued quickly. "Sitting here isn't getting us anywhere."

The four of them filed into the living room. The television was off this morning. Michael sat stiffly on the couch, his eyes vague and unfocused. Someone had left the window open a crack and the curtains were blowing lightly, causing the sunlight to ripple over the carpet. Max went over and shut the window firmly.

"Whoa," Alex said. "He looks like hell."

"Or like someone who's been there," Maria replied under her breath. She sighed softly and started across the room.

"Maria…" Max grabbed her by the arm.

"Max, let go." Her eyes were flashing emeralds when she turned to him.

"You saw what he was like yesterday."

"Max, this is me," she told him. "Remember? You couldn't tell me what to do when we were seventeen, and you're not starting now. I know, I know," she said, shaking her head when he started to interrupt. "You don't want me to get hurt. You never want anyone to get hurt, Max." Her expression softened slightly. "You're on the record and off the hook. Now let go of my arm."

Liz felt a flicker of a smile cross her lips at the startled look on Max's face. It was good to know that something could still surprise him, if only a little bit. She watched Maria tug gently, and Max's fingers relax enough to let her pull away, and silently applauded her friend's strength.

Sinking onto the couch, Maria took one of Michael's hands gently between her own, her eyes never leaving his face. When he seemed not to react, Maria shifted a little closer. Liz knew what she was doing; it was more than wanting to be close to Michael - she was forcing herself upon his senses. Maria had often joked about Michael's fascination with her collection of oils and scents, and she was counting on that to assist with her full-on assault.

"Okay, Spaceboy," she said, "I know you're in there. And I know you've never been much of a conversationalist, but surely you can make an effort on my account. Otherwise I'm liable to just talk your ear off," she teased. As she spoke, she clutched his hand and leaned a little closer. "Come on, Michael. Talk to me. It's been a long time. Even you must have something you want to say." She peered into his face for a moment, then turned to the others, eyes hopeful. "Anything?"

Liz shook her head. "Keep trying. You've just started."

Maria nodded and turned back to Michael. Pulling her legs up under her, she curled closer to him until she could rest her head on his shoulder. Liz could hear Max shifting nervously behind her and felt her own muscles tighten in apprehension. While Michael seemed unlikely to turn suddenly violent, there would be no getting Maria away from him if he did.

"Maybe we should help," Alex said, and Liz knew he was feeling the same tension.

"Michael, Alex is here, too," Maria said. She waved him over and Alex went and sat on the edge of the coffee table.

"Hey, man," he said. "Long time, no see." Alex shook his head briefly. "Listen, I, um… I'm not really sure what to say to you. I've got an idea of the kind of stuff you've been going through lately, and I… well, I guess if I were you I wouldn't want to talk about it either. And that's okay, you know? I just… well, I need your help, Michael. I've got this daughter… Lexie. And I don't know her. Not the way I should. I was kind of hoping you could give me a hand with that. Seeing as how you've known her since she was born." Alex's voice faded and he cleared his throat. "Yeah, well, you get the idea. She's this incredible kid, Michael. And I get the feeling I owe a lot of that to you. So, please…" He paused and glanced back at Liz. "Did you see that?"

"See what?"

"What did you see?" Maria asked, sitting up.

"I don't know," he said. "I just thought… his eyes dropped for a second." He looked to Max for affirmation, but Max shrugged.

"I didn't see anything, Alex," he told him.

"Michael?" Maria shoved lightly at his arm. "So help me, Michael Guerin, if I find out you're just sitting here ignoring us to be ornery, I will put you back in orbit myself," she shot out. "I can forgive a whole lot of things, including you taking off without saying goodbye like the chicken shit you are, but don't you do this to me now. Don't do this to us," she demanded.

Liz went over and sat on the table next to Alex. "Maria, yelling at him isn't the answer. You said yourself that he's pulled away from the people he cares about. You can't badger him out of that."

"Then what?" she whispered helplessly. "Lizzie, what do I do?"

Turning toward Michael, Liz tried to remember what it was like to be withdrawn from the world. She knew that she had done a pretty good job of that very thing not so long ago. How had she felt? And what had convinced her to go on with her life? She could feel Max crossing the room behind her - standing only a few feet away - and had to force herself to concentrate.

"Michael," she said softly. "It's Liz. Look, I won't pretend that you and I were ever the best of friends," she began. "But that doesn't mean I didn't care about you. I still do," she added. She paused and took a deep breath. "I know that you've convinced yourself that this is better. That it's better to cut yourself off than feel the hurt. But I'm here to tell you that you're wrong. It won't make it go away, Michael. Whatever you're feeling about Isabel getting killed, about the war, about your relationship with Max and Lexie and even with all of us… you can't hide from it. You have to deal with it. Running doesn't get you anywhere. And neither does silence. The silence can kill you faster than the pain. Trust me," she whispered. "I've been there."

"Liz…" Maria reached out and took her hand. "You don't have to…"

Liz shook her off. "I do," she told her. "I'm okay." She turned back to Michael, ignoring the blank expression on his face, willing him to listen to her. She had no doubt that he could hear her. "The silence will eat you alive. It'll fill every corner of your mind until you can't hear anything else. You might even think that's what you want, that it's preferable to whatever demons are floating around in there, but you're wrong. It will make you insane, strip away every last bit of reality. And you don't deserve that, Michael. None of us do. Don't stay there, torturing yourself in the dark. You have to believe that you're hurting everyone more this way. We were always stronger together," she trailed off, the tears starting to fall.

She closed her eyes and raised her hands to her face, wiping at her cheeks. She felt a warm arm around her shoulders and leaned into it, thankful for Alex's wordless comfort, hating herself for being so weak as to wish it had been Max. But Max had moved to the other side of the couch and was sitting on the arm next to Maria, silently taking in the exchange.

Alex hugged her once then shifted forward and when Liz opened her eyes he was kneeling on the floor in front of the couch. "Listen to her, Michael. She's right. You're not making anything better for anyone this way. Would Isabel have wanted you to do this? Hell, she'd have been the first one to knock you up the side of your head and tell you to start thinking about someone besides yourself."

Max stood up. "We're not getting anywhere," he said. "He's barely blinked since we came in the room." Sighing heavily, he walked over to the windows and stared out into the backyard.

"We've only been trying for a few minutes," Maria said. "It took more than that to get him this way, it's gonna take more to snap him out of it," she added testily. Leaning forward, she kissed Michael gently on the cheek. "He's not giving up on you," she whispered to him. "He's just scared and hurting like you. And you're not helping any." Resting her head on his shoulder again, she sniffed. "Please talk to me, Michael. I've missed you so much."

Alex eased himself up off the floor and sat back down next to Liz. "Maria, he'll come around," he told her. "You were right. He just needs time."

Maria rubbed at her eyes and sat up again. "Look at me," she muttered. "I was over him. I was. How does he do this? He hasn't said word one except to tell me to get the hell away from him and I'm still a whimpering mess."

"You're not whimpering, and you could never be a mess," Alex said with a smile.

She shrugged. "I can't help it. I can't help caring."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I just…" Maria stopped and looked at Alex. "That… wasn't you… was it?" Before he had time to shake his head, she had spun around. "Michael?"

Max was across the room in a moment. "Michael? Did he say something?"

Maria quickly shushed him. "Michael?"

The glazed look was gone from his eyes, replaced by a guarded expression. His gaze was focused on Maria. "Why do you give a damn about me? After all this time? All the shit I pulled?"

"I… I don't know," she whispered. "Does it matter?"

"You shouldn't."

"You've told me that before. You know how well it works."

Michael nodded slightly, his face impassive.

"Hey, Michael," Alex said.

Michael turned. "Whitman," he replied. Something flickered in his eyes. "Lexie?"

"Yeah," Alex said, a smile gracing his lips. "She's out with Mrs. Evans. She's.. a miracle."

"I…"

"Don't worry about it," Alex told him. "We'll fix it."

Michael's gaze shifted to Liz. He seemed to take in her tear-stained face, merely staring at her for a moment. Then he moved on to Max. "I need to talk to you."

Max nodded stiffly. "Fine."

Michael glanced at Maria. "Alone. I… I promise we'll talk later."
Maria looked momentarily reluctant, but then she stood. "No problem," she said calmly. "Liz?"

Liz looked at Alex, then back to Maria. "Let's go grab lunch."

"Pizza," Maria informed her. "I can't face the Crashdown right now." She turned to Michael, her hand drifting out as if of its own accord and brushing over his shoulder. "Max knows where to find me… all of us." She walked out of the room without a backward glance.

Alex nodded briefly toward Max and Michael. "Glad you decided to listen to us," he told Michael quietly. "Later, guys." He turned to Liz and cocked his head toward the door. "Let's go."

Liz trailed silently after him, all of her energy focused on following Maria's good example. She was halfway across the front lawn before she trusted herself to breathe.

*******

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:15:29 PM

Part 14

*******

So, life went on. I went to classes, wrote papers, took exams. There were long hours spent in the library or the lab, but I was careful not to over do things. My book was published toward the end of my junior year and sold fairly well for a science fiction novel by an unknown author. The reviews were mostly favorable, if not glowing, and my agent started making noises about pushing for a multi-book contract. By that time I had already written about half of my next book - a sequel that dealt with my heroine's adventures with her alien lover on his home planet. The more I wrote, the more ideas seemed to flow into my brain. It looked like I had found myself a career.

After graduation, I went back to Roswell for a few weeks to visit, as did Alex. He was packing up to move to New York, and I had taken a lease on a small apartment in Cambridge. Maria had applied for a bank loan to open a jewelry shop in Taos, and was planning to move as well. I don't suppose any of us would have settled in Roswell, even if the situation had been different, but as things stood there were too many reminders around town for us to even consider living there full time.
Though we had seen each other only six months earlier over Christmas, there was a measure of desperation in our reunion. Somehow there was a finality to everything we did, an ingrained realization that, without the structure of the school year to set our schedules, our time was suddenly our own. We would come and go as we pleased, vacation when we chose, and the chances were slim that we would all find ourselves in Roswell at the same time again except for holidays. I think we were also conscious of this being a major turning point in our lives. We couldn't help but compare it to the last one, and it left us apprehensive.

Alex came up with the idea of the picnic in Fraser Woods. It was one of those things we had done as kids, back before we knew that aliens were real, when life was much simpler. I packed up a basket from the Crashdown, Maria brought one of her mom's pies, and Alex provided the blankets and the music. We all piled into the Jetta and headed out to enjoy the beautiful day.

I'm not sure when I noticed how quite Maria had grown. She'd seemed fine on the drive, but as lunch progressed she had spoken less and less, allowing Alex to ramble about his new job long past the point when she ordinarily would have moaned and threatened to pummel him if he didn't change the subject. By the time we got to dessert, it was clear that something was wrong.

"Okay," I told her, poking her in the side. "Spill."

She had frowned a little and shaken her head.

"No way, Maria," Alex said, backing me up. "Liz's right. What gives?"

She sighed. "I heard from the bank this morning. They turned down my loan."

"What?" Alex cried.

"How can they do that? You've already been selling your jewelry. This is the next logical step," I said.

Maria merely shrugged. "Well, actually, they didn't turn me down entirely. But they're only willing to give me half of what I need, which is pretty much the same thing. Apparently I'm not a good enough risk," she snorted. "No real credit history. No degree."

"That's ridiculous," Alex said. "You've proven there's a market for your product and you're amazingly talented," he declared.

Maria smiled at that. "Thanks," she said. "But there's nothing I can do about it. My mom can't co-sign the loan for me, because she's still paying off the renovations to her store. I don't own anything I can sell to raise the extra cash… I guess I'll just have to wait."

I'm not sure what made me say what I did. I mean, it's not like I was rolling in money. Sure, my book had sold pretty well and the second one was about to hit the stores, but I wasn't even living off my royalties at that point. I was taking a break for the summer, but when I got back to Cambridge in the fall I would be working as a writing tutor at the middle school near my apartment to help pay the bills. But something in my heart told me this was possible - that if we stuck together we could accomplish anything. Maybe it was being out there in the woods where we had spent so many days as children - and where I'd spent a fair number of long afternoons with Max. It was as if a surge of confidence went through me. Or perhaps I was just looking for a way to hang on.

"I'll co-sign the loan," I told her.

Maria looked at me like I had grown another head. "You'll what?"

"You heard me. I want to help. You said part of the problem was that you don't have a degree yet. Well, mine has to be good for something. If you're good for half the money, I must be good for the other half."

"But Liz…"

"Count me in, too," Alex chimed in. "We can be your silent partners."

"No," Maria said. "I can't let you guys do that."

"Why not?" I demanded. "It makes perfect sense. We know you better than any idiot bank manager. Why shouldn't we help you?"

"But what if the store fails? What if I default on the loan? You guys would be accountable and you've both got student loans to worry about."

"That's not going to happen," Alex said. "You're going to be a huge hit. Tourists are gonna flock from all over for a Maria DeLuca original," he teased. "Let us worry about our school loans."
"We have faith in you," I added. "Hey, don't do that," I went on, when she looked about to cry.

"What did I ever do to deserve you two?" Maria sniffed.

"That works all the way around," I told her.

"The three musketeers ride again," Alex grinned, pulling us both in for a hug. "Looks like you're stuck with us for good."

For some reason that made me tear up. "We don't need a business deal to link us together," I told them.

"I know," Alex replied, his tone suddenly serious.

"I love you guys so much," Maria said, her voice muffled against Alex's shoulder.

"We have to stick together," I said, and they both knew I had more than a bank loan in mind. "No matter how many miles divide us."

The rest of that afternoon was much more upbeat, and the next day the three of us marched into the bank manager's office and Maria reapplied for her loan. By the end of the following week the paperwork had been processed and the check issued. Maria, Alex, and I went to a lawyer to draw up papers giving her the majority of the control over the business, but it was more a formality than anything. We all understood that this partnership had nothing to do with money and everything to do with being there for each other. It was just one more thing that bound us together.

* * * * *

Once they reached the curb, it was decided that they would forgo the pizza lunch after all, Maria having realized that she needed to hurry home and warn her mother that Michael was back in town. "Can you just imagine what she will do if he calls and she answers the phone?" she groaned. "Do you guys mind if I take off?"

"Go ahead," Liz told her. "You're right. Better safe than sorry," she added with a rueful smile, thinking of her own encounter with her father the night before.

"I'm gonna beg off, too," Alex announced. "Max said Lexie was down at his parents' office, so I think I'll swing by and pick her up."

"That's a good idea," Liz told him. "I guess I'll catch up with both of you later?"

"I can bring Lexie by the Crashdown," Alex offered.

"Don't worry about me," Liz told him. "It's too nice a day to spend it cooped up in the café. Come by tonight if you feel like it." She hugged both of them quickly. "Let me know how it goes with your mom," she told Maria.

"I will," Maria promised, then hurried toward her car.

Alex and Liz stood for a moment and watched her drive away. "You realize she just wants to be there if Michael tries to get hold of her," Alex said.

"I know," Liz replied. She thought of how she had sat out on her roof a few nights earlier, hoping a certain alien would appear. "I can't blame her, though."

"No," he agreed. "I just hope she doesn't get hurt. Michael may be talking again, but he's never been one to make things easy."

"No, he hasn't."

Alex stared down at Liz for a moment. "What about you? Have you been sucked in again, too? You and Max seem to be keeping your distance."

"I don't know what's going on," Liz said quietly.

"You know I'm here for you," Alex told her. "Maria, too, even if she is a little, uh… distracted right now."

"Thanks," Liz said. "But I'm okay. Why don't you go get Lexie now, Daddy," she said, making him smile. She pushed him playfully toward his car. "I'll talk to you tonight."

Alex dropped a kiss on her forehead and they each got into their cars and left.

Despite what she had told the others, Liz headed back to the Crashdown. Discovering one of the waitresses had called in sick, she immediately pitched in to help with the lunch crowd. Things were busy, but not so much so that she didn't have time to think about the morning's events. She found herself worrying about Max and Michael, wondering how their discussion was going. Her mind kept flashing back to Michael's angry tone and threatening behavior on the previous day, the memory leaving her feeling uneasy.

It was late afternoon when the next shift arrived and Liz was able to hang up her apron. She grabbed a soda and was about to head upstairs when the front door opened and Lexie came running into the café.

"Liz!" came the high-pitched squeal.

There was just enough time for Liz to put down her drink before the little girl barreled into her. "Hi, sweetie," she said, returning the child's enthusiastic embrace. Looking up, she saw Alex coming in behind his daughter, grinning in amusement. "What have you guys been up to?" she asked.

"I took her to the UFO Center," he said with a chuckle.

"It was so silly," Lexie reported.

"You got a big laugh out of it, didn't you?" Alex asked, reaching over to tweak the little girl's nose. "She took great pride in telling me everything they got wrong," he continued quietly.

Liz laughed. "I'll bet. So, you guys hungry?"

"Kinda early for dinner," Alex said. "How about a couple of root beers?"

"Coming right up," Liz said. She headed behind the counter and took down two glasses. Half-listening to Lexie's excited chatter, she placed a glass beneath the root beer dispenser and pressed the button.
"How was your afternoon?" Alex asked.

Liz shrugged. "I got stuck here," she said. She slid the soda in front of Lexie and added a crazy straw. When she looked up, she found Alex watching here. "What?"

"I had a quick word with Mrs. Evans when I picked Lexie up," he said. "Filled her in. She was going to head by the house. I would have heard by now if there was any bloodshed," he added with a reassuring smile.

Liz let out a long breath all at once, feeling the tension in her neck and shoulders lessen. She hadn't realized until that moment just how anxious she had been. "Thanks, Alex," she said, smiling slightly. "I appreciate it."

"All for one, and one for all," he whispered, then winked at her. "Any word from DeLuca?"

"No. I wonder if she's heard from Michael." Liz handed Alex his soda.

"What? No crazy straw?" he pouted.

Lexie giggled. Liz just smirked and dropped a straw into his glass. "There you go." She took her own drink and sat down next to Alex. "So, how are you handling all of this?"

"Stop trying to change the subject, Parker. We're talking about you."

"We were. And then we mentioned Maria. And now we're talking about you," she replied.

"No good. You're not getting off that easily."

"I'm not sure what you want to know," Liz said with a sigh.

Suddenly the door chime rang out and they all turned to find Michael standing in the doorway.

"Saved by the bell," Alex murmured. Next to him, Lexie stiffened. "Hey, sweetie, it's okay," he soothed quickly, putting his arm around the child.

Liz slid off her stool as Michael approached. He appeared hesitant, as if unsure of his welcome. "Michael?"

"Hey," he said quietly. "I… um… I'm meeting Maria here."

"I see," Liz replied. "How… how are you?" His eyes dropped to the floor, but not before something flickered through his eyes. Annoyance? "Never mind," Liz said quickly. "You don't have to…"

"No…" he said, looking up again. He seemed embarrassed. "I… Liz, about yesterday. What I… said."

"Forget it," Liz told him, comprehension dawning.

"I was…"

"You weren't yourself," she said. She glanced toward Lexie. "There are some other fences for you to mend, though."

He glanced past her to where the little girl was hiding behind her father's arm. A pained look crossed his face. "Lexie?" he asked.

Alex gave the child a quick hug. "Come on, baby. It's all right. Uncle Michael's feeling better," he coaxed.

Michael shot him a grateful look. "Lexie?" he tried again.

Very slowly, she shifted to peek out at him past Alex's shoulder. Her eyes were hopeful.

"Hey, munchkin," he said gently. "How you doing?"

Lexie sat up a little more, her movements tentative. "Okay. Are you… are you still mad at me, Uncle Michael?"

Michael blinked. "Munchkin, I was never mad at you. I was… mad at myself… because of all of the bad things that happened. Because of what happened to your mommy."

"But that wasn't your fault," Lexie told him. "Uncle Max said so."

"He did?"

Lexie nodded earnestly. "He said it was the bad people's fault. And that you got hurt, too, but that you were hurt most in your heart and that was why you were being mean."

Liz watched, stunned, as Michael's eyes filled with tears.

"Is your heart all better now?" Lexie asked.

Michael swallowed hard. "I don't know, but I think it might be getting there," he said. "I'm sorry I scared you, munchkin."

Lexie slid off her stool and ran to him. Michael reached down and scooped her into his arms, swinging her off the floor in a bear hug. "I missed you," Lexie whispered.

Michael pressed a kiss to her cheek, the movement causing several tears to shake free and stream down his face unnoticed. "I missed you, too, Lex."

Liz and Alex stood watching them for a moment, then Liz slipped behind the counter and got a cherry cola. "Michael, why don't you sit down," she suggested, placing the drink on the counter and pushing a bottle of Tabasco toward him. "Here."

Still holding Lexie, Michael sat down next to Alex, arranging the child on his lap. He glanced to his side. "Whitman," he said by way of greeting, but he was obviously uncomfortable.

"We'll talk later, Michael," Alex said. "I… I need to know some things, that is if you feel like you can…" He sighed. "There's no hurry."

Michael looked about to reply, but remained quiet. Watching the way he shifted Lexie on his lap, Liz suspected he was holding back for the little girl's sake. It amazed her to see how gentle he was with Lexie. She never would have imagined this side of him.

The front door opened again, and Liz was not surprised when Maria entered. She headed straight for the counter, her bright green eyes taking in everything. Liz smiled at her friend's deceptively casual demeanor as she slid onto the stool next to Michael.

"Hi, Lexie," Maria said. "Guys," she added, shifting her gaze to Michael.

"Uncle Michael's better now, Aunt Maria," the little girl said in a serious tone. "Did you help fix him?" she asked quietly.

"I don't know," Maria whispered, still staring at Michael. "Did I?"

He nodded. "Yeah," he said. "You did. All three of you."

"How?" Maria demanded, the query no less forceful for being softly stated.

Michael seemed to be expecting the question. "You all… reminded me of some things," he said.

"What things?" Maria pressed.

"That you can't just keep running," he said quietly. "What it was like to belong to something." He looked down. "I had… forgotten how determined you could be. And how it made me feel to be around you…" he trailed off, a faraway look in his eyes. "I think we all forgot that. We stopped talking about home with each other. It hurt too much to remember. We would tell Lexie, but it wasn't the same. There was this void… and we fell into it."

"Michael, why… why did you…" Maria began.

"I know what you're asking," Michael broke in. "I… I thought it would be better. That if you hated me you'd be able to forget about me sooner," he said.

"You really thought that?" Maria breathed.

"Well didn't you?"

"I… No. Yes." Maria sighed and rubbed a hand over her face. "I don't know," she said wearily. "Maybe I hated you for a while. But I could never forget you, Michael."

Liz cleared her throat. "Why don't you two go into the back to talk," she said.

"That's a good idea," Alex agreed. He reached for his daughter. "Lexie, sweetie, why don't you come here and let Uncle Michael go with Aunt Maria, all right?"

Lexie reached up and kissed Michael's cheek. "I'm glad you're better, Uncle Michael."

"Me, too, munchkin," he said, passing her to Alex. "Thanks, man," he added.

"No problem," Alex replied.

Michael and Maria stood and headed toward the break room.

"Um… Michael?" Liz called out. "Just one thing. When you left to come over here, uh… was Max still home?"

Michael nodded. "Yeah, he's there," he said. He looked at her for a moment, again leaving Liz with the impression that he wanted to say something further. But instead he merely turned and followed Maria into the back.

Liz continued to stand behind the counter, staring after Michael, until Alex snapped his fingers in front of her face. "Yo, Parker," he said. "Get a move on."

She blinked and looked at him. "What did you say?"

Alex shook his head. "We just got Guerin out of zombie land. Don't think it's your turn to take up residence. You know you want to talk to Max, so go."

"I don't know, Alex," she said.

"Yeah, and you won't until you go find out." Alex's expression softened. "It isn't about him, Liz. Everything else aside, you need this."

"I'm fine, Alex."

Alex's eyebrows arched. "Don't give me that. There are too many subjects we've been avoiding since they all left, and I'm tired of walking on eggshells. Looks like they were doing the same thing, and you can see how far it got them. Liz, you used to be the straight shooter in the group - the first one to dive in, to figure things out, to face facts. What happened to you?"

Liz stood motionless, her gaze unwavering.

Alex frowned. "Go get your answers, Liz. Be selfish. Something's been eating at you for six years. Put it to rest."

There was a long silence before Liz nodded. "My mom has her car," she said quietly.

Alex pulled the keys to his rental out of his jacket pocket and held them out. "It's parked out front."

Liz took the keys and smiled, but her hand was trembling and her eyes were filled with tears. "What did I ever do to deserve you?"

"It all goes around," he told her with a smile. "Now get out of here."

"Thanks," Liz said. She grabbed her purse from beneath the counter and headed out the door.

*******

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:24:49 PM

Part 15

********

How do you heal a broken heart? Is there some sure fire miracle cure? A balm or salve that, when applied, will speed up the process? And, when all is said and done, will that heart ever be the same? Or is it like a precious piece of porcelain, where, once cracked, you just piece it together as best you can and hope the glue holds. Because the line - the scar - will always be there.

It took a long time for me to admit to myself that my heart broke when Max left. I knew I missed him, and that, in my loneliness, I had turned in on myself and become withdrawn and depressed. It took time, but eventually I pulled out of it and got on with my life. I told myself I could be strong - brave. That I understood why Max had to go, that I supported his decision and that I knew it didn't have anything to do with me.

But I couldn't move past it. The truth was, I had no interest in dating anyone else. There were guys who asked me out, nice guys that I'd met in classes or the dorm, but I could never see them as anything more than friends. Sandy tried to set me up a couple of times, too. I went, because I knew if I didn't she would just continue to hound me, but nothing ever came of it. There was no spark, no connection. I knew it was me - that I was the one closed to the possibility. I felt like I was cut off from anything emotional. I guess, someplace deep down inside, I was still holding onto the hope that Max would come back. He had told me he would try, even as he told me to go on with my life, and I think it was that promise that I was clinging to more than anything. I wish I could say it was all on a subconscious level, but it would be a lie. I knew what I was doing. I just couldn't help myself.

Still, by the time I graduated from college I knew that it was more a matter of protecting myself than waiting for Max to return. They had all been gone for four years - longer than Max and I had been together. I'm not stupid. The rational side of me - the scientific side - had faced up to the fact that he probably wasn't coming back. Maybe it wasn't possible, maybe he was still at war - or maybe the role of leader was more palatable than he had ever anticipated. The reason wasn't important - only the end result.

So why was I spending my Friday nights home in front of the computer, or out with my friends who were between relationships? Good question. One I ignored for as long as I could - until Sandy quite pointedly asked me one day. Even then I had to think about it for a while, but once I did, the answer became pretty clear.

You see, the thing about mending something is that it never is quite as strong as it was before it broke. Take that piece of precious porcelain. If you break a china cup or a vase, then glue it back together, there is still an excellent chance that it will leak. And if you apply pressure? Well, there's an even better than average chance that it will break again. The structure has been altered - the stress points weakened - the strength compromised.

Of course, when we say we're heartbroken, we don't mean it literally. Your heart is just a muscle that pumps blood and oxygen throughout your body, and it tends to keep right on beating no matter how badly love fails you. Even though you might wish it would stop. You can fall in love a thousand times and suffer no real physical damage. But that doesn't make the pain any less real - nor the instinct to avoid it. What I had felt for Max had been beyond anything I had ever thought possible - and the resulting trauma was in direct proportion. Not to say that my heart didn't take a battering during our relationship, as well. Every time we turned around it seemed there was something or someone trying to come between us, from Kyle to Tess to Max himself. But it was different somehow because, at the end of the day, Max was still there loving me despite all the odds. Until the day he left.

Deep down I knew he had never wanted to hurt me, but the fact was that he had. And while my head knew I had to get past it and move on, my heart wasn't ready. I just didn't see anything worth the risk.

* * * * *

It never occurred to Liz to use the front door. She parked Alex's rental down the street, then cut up the Evanses' driveway and through the gate into the backyard. The sun was low in the sky, throwing long shadows across the lawn, and she could see the light coming from Max's old room as she rounded the corner of the house. Sheer momentum had brought her this far, but as she approached the window she began to get nervous. What was she doing? Hadn't Max made it clear that none of this was about her - about them? If he had wanted to talk to her, he would have done so by now. But then she remembered what Alex had said - that she should be selfish. She braced herself and stepped in front of the window.

He was sitting on the bed, back against the wall, knees at an angle. His head was bent and he appeared to be reading, but the moment Liz raised her hand to tap on the glass, he looked up. If he was surprised to see her, she saw no indication. He merely set his book aside and came over to open the window.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi," she replied. "Uh… can we talk?"

He nodded - his hesitant half-nod that she remembered well. "Sure. You want to come in?" He stepped back as he asked, his hand extended to help her over the sill.

Liz stared at his hand and shook her head. There were too many ghosts in that room. "Do you mind if we go somewhere? For a drive?"

Max dropped his hand. "We could do that." He glanced past her. "Um… Just hold on a sec." He turned and walked out of the room, only to reappear a moment later wearing his old leather jacket. He swung himself easily through the window. "Let's go."

She hadn't expected it to be that simple. "Right," she said. "Okay." She headed back through the yard, conscious of him following just a few steps behind, and suddenly she wondered if he had known she was at the window because she had blocked the light or because he had felt her presence. But then they were in the driveway and she was pulling the keys out of her pocket and she didn't feel like she could ask him.

"Isn't that Alex's car?"

Liz looked up, startled. "Oh, yeah. My mom has hers, so… Alex said I could borrow his. Did you want to drive?" she questioned, holding out the keys.

"No, I… uh… I can't, actually."

She frowned. "Why not?"

"My driver's license lapsed a few years back," Max replied.

Liz laughed, and the sound seemed overly loud as it carried through the late afternoon silence.

"What's so funny?"

She thought she could almost see the hint of a smile tugging at his lips. "I guess you don't need a driver's license on Antar," she replied.

"Somehow I suspect it wouldn't be valid here," Max told her.

"No, probably not," she agreed as she unlocked the door.

They drove in silence for a while. Out of the corner of her eye, Liz could tell that Max was looking out the window, watching the scenery go by. "Hasn't changed much," she said eventually.

"Hmm? No, I guess not," he agreed. "I haven't really been out a whole lot since we got back. But you're right. Everything seems the same."

"Well, not quite everything," she said. When Max turned toward her questioningly, she shrugged, careful to keep her eyes on the road. "The Delgados sold the hardware store a couple of years ago and moved to Austin to be closer to their son. The new owner turned it into a video store."

"Oh. What do people do for hardware?"

"They opened up a Home Depot in Artesia."

"Right." Max went back to staring out his window. She wondered if he could tell where they were going - if he had picked up on the old landmarks.

Fifteen minutes later, Liz pulled onto the narrow unpaved road that led out to the abandoned quarry. She had not been there in years, but it had seemed the most logical place to go - private, removed from Roswell, and with no romantic associations for either of them. It was clear no one else had been there recently. No tire tracks marked the dusty path and the area appeared deserted. She parked at the top of the overhang where they used to hold their meetings back in high school, and for an instant she was sixteen years old again. The sensation was disturbing and she shook her head to clear out the cobwebs.

"What?" Max asked.

"Nothing."

"Déjà vu?"

Liz turned to him. "Maybe a little."

"Look, Liz…" Max's eyes darted away and he gazed out the front window. "Before you say anything, I just want to thank you for everything you've done the last couple of days. Getting Alex and Maria to come, being there for them, talking to Michael. I… I know it took all three of you to get through to Michael this morning. I… I guess I don't really know what to say," he finished a little awkwardly.

"You don't have to say anything else," Liz told him. "And you're welcome." She paused, trying to order her thoughts. He had taken her off track and she couldn't remember where she had planned to start. "You want to get out and walk?" she asked abruptly, already opening her door. Maybe if she could move, her brain would start working again.

"Okay," he agreed.

They got out of the car and Max followed as Liz headed toward the path into the quarry. In the distance, the rocks were bathed in a reddish-gold light as the sun began to sink below the horizon. "Um… Liz? Maybe we should stay up top. It's going to be dark soon," Max pointed out.

"We'll be fine," Liz called back, not bothering to turn. "There's a full moon," she added, waving toward the eastern sky. She worked her way a few yards further down the path until she had an unobstructed view of the sunset.

"Wow," Max said, coming up behind her. "I'd forgotten how beautiful this could be," he breathed.

"Didn't you have sunsets there?" she asked quietly.

"Yes. Just no time to watch them," he replied.

Liz felt the tension in the air between them kick up a notch and sighed. She turned toward Max. His face was bathed in pinkish light and his expression was carefully guarded. "Max, talk to me. Ever since you walked into the Crashdown the other day, it's all been about Lexie and Isabel and Michael. And I understand why. But what about you?"

"What about me?"

"Max, don't…"

"No, I mean it," he said. "What do you want to know? I've been gone six years. You want a blow-by-blow from the night we left?"

"I didn't say that."

"I know." He shoved his hands in his pockets and shifted toward the newly risen moon. "Look at it," he said. "So peaceful. Serene. Like nothing's going on out there. What did you believe when you were a kid, Liz? Before you knew about us. Did you think you were alone in the universe? That earth was the only inhabited planet?"

"I… I don't really remember."

"I can't remember a time when I didn't know there was life out there. It was just a given. But I never realized what that really meant. None of us did. Not until we got there."

"You mean because of the war."

"That was only part of it," he told her. "The rest…" He trailed off.

"What is it like out there?" Liz prompted.

"Space? Or Antar?"

"Either. Both. What was the trip like?"

Max rubbed a hand wearily over his face. "We were in suspended animation for most of the trip itself, but I remember coming out of it as we neared the Antarian system. It was disorienting. None of the stars looked familiar. I think that made it all more real."

"And Antar?"

"Antar. It must have been beautiful once, before it was ravaged by war. I wish I could remember that far back. Now it's just a shell of a planet. Cities in ruins. Natural resources squandered. It's a desert planet by nature, but there was enough water to support life until the invasions began. There's a permanent haze to the atmosphere, the product of exhaust and fumes from transports and faulty weapons. The Antarian population has dwindled to a fraction of what it was when my father was alive."

"What about your family, Max? Your mother?"

"Dead. Long ago," he replied quietly.

"But the message…"

"Recorded when we were still in our pods. Kivar rounded up what remained of the royal family shortly after our ship left for Earth and had them all executed."

"Oh, God, I'm so sorry," Liz whispered.

He shook his head. "I don't remember her. But it didn't make learning the truth any less difficult. Isabel was heartbroken when we found out what had happened."

"How did you find out? What exactly happened when you arrived?"

"We had a good idea of the geography of the planet from the charts on the ship. And, since the craft had originally belonged to one of Kivar's groups of assassins, we had detailed information as to what parts of the planet were under his control. It's the only reason we were able to land safely. The fact that we also ended up near a small Antarian rebel base was pure luck. They found us fairly quickly once we left the confines of the ship."

"And they told you about your mother?"

Max laughed bitterly. "They told us everything. Taught us everything. We thought we were ready. That a few squirmishes here meant we were prepared to go to war - that I could lead a planet and overthrow a tyrant. The wonders of the nineteen-year-old ego. We had no idea what would be required of us. It was a full year before we could come out of hiding."

"A year? What did you do all that time?"

"Trained. Learned to fight. Worked on our powers. Listened to stories of mistakes that had been made, battles lost. And of course Isabel was pregnant with Lexie. We didn't know what to do with her. She insisted on training with the rest of us, refused to take it easy. She said she was as fit as she had ever been and that she couldn't afford to sit around doing nothing for six months."

Liz shifted uncomfortably. He was talking to her, answering her questions, but in that same dull tone he had used to tell her that Isabel was dead. "You make it all sound so… bleak."

"It wasn't all bad," he admitted slowly. "Lexie was born there, after all. It was amazing to see how Isabel changed after she became a mother. She was wonderful with Lexie from the very first."

"I can see how she would have been," Liz told him.

Max frowned. "I thought having Lexie would slow her down, make her see reason, but I was wrong. She loved to remind me that she had been a warrior in that past life. And I think she felt she had a lot to make up for, too."

"Because of Vilandra's betrayal?" Liz asked cautiously.

He nodded. "No matter how many times Michael and I told her that she wasn't the same person, that the circumstances were different, she never quite believed it. Or if she did, she still felt the need to atone. When we started leaving the compound, going on raids, she demanded to go with us. That's when we decided that the four of us could never patrol at the same time - that no more than two of us would go out at once. It was Isabel's one concession. She may have been fierce on the outside, but inside she was still Lexie's mother, and she wouldn't risk leaving her with no family at all."

"So that's why you weren't with Michael and Isabel when they were captured," Liz said.

"We would switch off. Tess was working on breaking a code that Isabel and I had intercepted the previous day. She had gotten part of it, but the central section was giving her trouble. I could have gone with Michael, but Isabel was fresher than I was and insisted on going herself."

"Max, you can't think that it's your fault because…"

"I don't," he said, cutting her off. "I blame myself for a lot of things, Liz, but not letting Isabel go on that mission. We promised ourselves and each other that we would do our best for Antar and for our people. There was to be no cowering in the corner or sparing ourselves danger or hardship. We understood what we were up
against."

He let out a long breath. "The night we took back the capital, the four of us marched into the royal compound as a unit. We felt invincible. And then the next morning we woke up and realized that all that we had done was turn the tables. We were where Kivar had been the week before - and he was in our place. Nothing was irrevocably settled. Things could revert just as easily."

"I don't understand. If you had taken back the capital, what happened to Kivar?"

Max looked subdued. "There was a difference of opinion regarding what to do with him. Michael thought we should take him and his followers and execute them publicly, the way Kivar had done with our families."

Liz noted the closed off look in Max's eyes. "You didn't do that, did you?"

He shook his head. "A part of me wanted to, believe me. When I thought of the suffering he had imposed on the planet, his cruelty… But I refused to become him, and if I had executed him out of hand that way, I would have been no better. I had him imprisoned pending a formal trial and he escaped."

"So, the war went on."

"The war would have gone on regardless. I could have had Kivar killed, but it wouldn't have changed anything. Another leader would simply have stepped into his place. Antar suffers from having three separate peoples living together in cramped quarters. The planet cannot support them all, so they vie for control. That will continue until someone can convince them to work together to find a solution to the planet's problems."

"Until a single leader unites them," Liz concluded.

"That's not going to be me. I don't have what it takes."

The light was fading quickly, and Liz squinted in order not to miss Max's reaction. "What makes you so sure?" she asked.

"A strong leader makes rational decisions under pressure," he replied.

"Max, you're one of the most rational people I've ever known."

"You don't know me anymore, Liz."

She swallowed, trying to ignore the sting of his words. "Don't I? Have you really changed that much?"

Max turned to look her and his eyes glowed hot in the shadows. "The day after Michael returned alone from that last mission, broken and bloody and silent, I took a group of pilots up and we bombed the stronghold where he had been tortured until it was nothing more than a burning crater. We used so much firepower that they could see the sky blazing fifty miles away. Yes, it was an enemy enclave, but one that included women and children and probably at least one medical facility. I didn't care. I ignored all rules of decency and fair play and took out every last living being in the vicinity. It was revenge, pure and simple. So go ahead, Liz," he ground out. "Tell me that I haven't changed." Without waiting for her reaction, he turned and headed back to the car.

********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:36:26 PM

Part 16

********

When I was a child, I had a definite image of what my life was going to be like. As I grew older, that image changed, altered as my goals shifted and became more focused. But the picture always included a few very specific factors - a successful career doing something important, a husband, children, a home. Some of the details were more consistent than others. I had a tendency to imagine Maria living in the house next door, with Alex down the street, all of our children growing up together. And once I was old enough to put a face on my phantom husband, it was always Max's features I saw. Even after he left, I could never quite revise that part of the daydream.

I think becoming a writer made me realize that not all of your choices lead to the life you're expecting. It had been years since I'd strayed from that original plan - since I'd left my safe and normal existence and gone willingly into the unknown - but I had convinced myself that I could mold my new and different life into the framework left behind by the old one. That loving Max and accepting who he was could somehow align with the American Dream. I wanted it all - and I thought I could make it happen if I just tried hard enough. It was who I was - the girl with the plan - despite the detours I had taken along the way. I think I believed that not following that plan, not fulfilling those dreams, would make me a failure. There were no allowances made for changes in circumstances or credit given for hurdles taken at a run. I had developed an image of who I thought I had to be and was determined to live up to it - or lose myself trying.

Some lessons take a long time to learn. They are generally the hardest ones. The most unpleasant. They are the kinds of things that go against the grain, that you refuse to accept, that keep you locked in the land of denial - but your not liking them or believing them doesn't make them any less true. The fact is that no one is perfect. You don't always get what you want. The good guys don't always win. No one has all the answers. True love can't really conquer all. Life is full of those kinds of lessons. Maybe realizing that is what finally makes you an adult.

* * * * *

Liz watched Max as he disappeared over the ridge that led back to the car, but she made no attempt to follow. She knew he couldn't go far and she needed a moment to absorb everything he had told her - to sift the facts from the emotions, her own feelings from his. Pain and guilt seemed to linger in the air where he had been standing, a dark shimmer in the clear air. No, he hadn't changed - at least not in the essentials. He still insisted on taking everything onto his own shoulders.

But if Max was very much the same, then so, it would appear, was she. Her heart went out to him - for the suffering of a brother, an uncle, a friend. She knew he had never asked to be a leader, but he had dutifully taken on the responsibility he was born to - for which he had been destined. Yet along with her sympathy she felt a growing anger, a desperate sense of frustration with Max's behavior, which crept in around the edges of her softer feelings. He was still struggling to maintain his precious self-control, still took any sign of weakness - or humanity - as an indication of failure. Why couldn't he see that the world wasn't neatly divided between black and white, good and evil, the right choice and the wrong one? How could he insist on that kind of perfection from himself? No one could live up to such stringent ideals.

It was the urge to shake him forcibly into reality that finally propelled her up the slope. She found him leaning against the hood of the car, arms crossed over his chest, staring blankly toward the road. His face was in shadows, but at that moment she didn't need to see his eyes - no longer cared to know what he was feeling.

"Do you think you've cornered the market on bad choices?" she demanded. Planting herself firmly in front on him, she met his startled expression head on. "Do you? You think you're the only one who's ever done something rash or acted from the gut and then regretted it later?"

"We're not talking about a simple mistake, Liz," he replied, his tone ever so slightly condescending, as if she hadn't fully grasped the situation.

"I know that," she snapped angrily. "But it was still an understandable one, given the circumstances."

"No. It wasn't."

"Yes, it was," she declared. "You're a leader, Max, not a god. No one ever said you were perfect. What you did… maybe it wasn't the right course of action, but you were devastated and you acted from the heart. Your enemies tortured and killed your sister. Don't tell me they didn't know the risks involved."

"That doesn't make what I did right."

"No," she agreed, glad to see the surprise register in his eyes once more. "Probably not. But you're allowed to get it wrong occasionally, Max. It doesn't make you some kind of monster. This isn't a sci-fi movie. One bad choice doesn't turn you to the dark side. War is ugly and cruel for everyone involved."

His expression was blank and she could tell he wasn't convinced. He turned and walked a few yards away from the car, but she followed, unwilling to allow him to put any distance between them. She wasn't interested in his comfort at the moment.

"Tell me more," she said.

"More what? More about my stupidity?" he asked, jerking his head to look at her. "You want me to tell you about all the times I regretted leaving? How I wished I had left Antar to rot while I went on with my nice human life on earth?"

"You're not on trial for your decisions, Max," she bit out. "You made your choices, and I respected them. I never expected you to stay forever. I'm just trying to understand what you've been going through."

He ran a hand over his face and turned away again. "I'm sorry," he said, quietly deflating. "None of this is your fault. I have no right to take it out on you."

"What happened after you bombed the stronghold?" she pressed, determined to stay on topic.

Max shrugged, but she could see he was still struggling to control his temper. "Things were quiet for a couple of days. They needed to bring in resources from off-planet in order to retaliate. By the time they did, we'd fortified the capital. It was an ugly battle, but we came out on top."

"What do you mean, they got resources from off-planet?"

He let out a rueful laugh. "There are five planets in our system. Three remain neutral, but one of them…"

"Sided with Kivar," she finished.

"Not really. Actually, they take great pleasure in popping in and out of the war when it suits them, in a purely mercenary capacity, of course. We rarely know whose side they're on. I've made a point of not doing business with them, but I suspect some of my commanders have been known to cut deals behind my back."

"And you can't stop them?"

"I can't be everywhere at once, and I never had any real proof. Sometimes Isabel could tell what was going on. But most of the time it was just suspicion on my part, and it just wasn't enough of a priority for me to allocate time and man power to stopping them." His tone was bitter.

"Max, what you're describing to me is a full time job. Being leader of a people and an army, every hour of every day for years. You have to allow for the stress that caused you - for the pressure of it all and how it affected you," she said gently.

"I don't have that luxury. You can't make excuses when you have that many people depending on you," he said, but the harshness had leached out of his voice, leaving him sounding weary. "Sometimes, late at night when I couldn't sleep, I'd sit in this room at the top of the royal compound. It was round, with walls made of a special type of glass - completely see through from within, but dark and impenetrable from outside. It was like sitting in a bubble at the top of the city. I could look out over everything. At least, what was left of it. The buildings would give off a silver glimmer beneath the stars, and sometimes I would watch for hours and see nothing more threatening than the occasional vagrant slipping through the streets looking for shelter. I prayed for those times. Most nights I'd spot small fires dotting the city, from vandals or enemy explosives. Troops marching on patrol. But regardless, it was all mine. My responsibility, in my care. Hundreds of thousands of lives hanging in the balance, at the mercy of my decisions." He ran a hand restlessly through his hair. "Who the hell was I to pretend to that type of wisdom? To claim to know how to save them?"

Liz let out a quiet sigh. "Their king," she replied. "Whether you wanted to be or not, that is who you were to them, Max."

"They would have been better off without me."

"Do you honestly believe that? After telling me how this war has raped your planet? About all those deaths? You think they would have been better without you to guide them?"

"To guide them? I can't even guide those closest to me without landing them in hell," he ground out, his voice hoarse. "That's what I did, Liz. Michael, Tess, Isabel. I took them out of their safe existence and dropped them into a roaring inferno. Oh, sure, Tess didn't care. She wanted it. She was still harboring images of herself as Queen of Antar. But Michael and Isabel… I forced them to go, Liz. What kind of a leader does that make me? What kind of a man?"

"What do you mean, you forced them to go? I thought…"

"You thought that it was a unanimous decision," he bit out. "Of course you did. Michael was always so gung ho to go back, after all. That is until we finally had the chance to, and then he decided he couldn't leave Maria. And Isabel had never been big on the idea of leaving earth. Tess was the only one who went willingly."

Liz stared at him for a moment, unable to believe what she was hearing. "Max," she said slowly, working hard to keep her voice controlled. "You said it wasn't unanimous. That you forced them to go. That means that you… that you wanted to go. That it was your decision."

His expression was unreadable. "Yes."

"I see," she said softly.

"Do you? I made a choice, Liz. I told them it was our duty - that we owed it to the people who had sent us to earth to return and help them if we could. And because they loved me - trusted me - they agreed to go, even though it was the last thing they wanted to do. Now Isabel's dead and Michael will barely speak to me."

"Max…"

"Stop. Don't tell me they knew what they were getting themselves into, Liz, because they didn't. I know they didn't, because I didn't. I had no idea. And I had no business - no right - making that kind of life-altering decision for all of us without a thought for their feelings."

"That's not what I was going to say," she informed him. "I realize you had no concept of what you would be up against, but that doesn't change the facts. You went because you felt obligated - because you wanted to help. And I suspect Michael and Isabel agreed with you, despite any outward reluctance. They wouldn't have gone with you otherwise, Max. Neither of them ever had any difficulty standing up to you."

"And what about the three of you?"

Liz stepped back at his abrupt question. "What do you mean? What about us?"

Max shook his head. "What choice did I give the three of you?" he said, his voice deceptively soft. "My decision affected you, Maria, and Alex - changed your lives just as drastically as it changed ours. Because of me, Alex missed out on nearly six years of Lexie's childhood. Michael left Maria without a word."

"Stop," Liz demanded. "Isabel got pregnant the night you left, Max. That was her choice - hers and Alex's. And no one forced Michael to leave without telling Maria what was going on. He made that decision all by himself."

"And you?" His eyes bore into hers, emotionless and unrelenting.

"What about me? You told me you were leaving. You came and said goodbye." But she had to drop her gaze. She could feel him still watching her, as if he could will her to look at him again. Finally she turned away and walked back toward the car.

"Liz," he called. "Liz, stop."

"What?" she asked, continuing around to the driver's side. She could hear him following her, the dull thud of his boots on the hard-packed earth. "You and I are fine, Max," she added.

"If you and I are fine, then what are we doing out here?"

"What are we doing out here?" she repeated, spinning to face him, hands clenched. "What do you think we're doing? Max, since the moment you walked into the Crashdown, you've been a walking zombie. Your sister is dead, your best friend disturbed, and you show about as much emotion as a rock. I watched Michael try to strangle you in your front hall and you barely reacted. That's not normal, Max. And it certainly is not fine. Damn it, we're here because you're scaring me," she shouted. "You talk to me like we're these old casual acquaintances or something. Like I won't understand. Do you feel anything anymore? For me? For anyone?" she demanded. "The only one who seems to get through to you at all is Lexie." When he made no reply, she took a balled fist and hit him squarely in the chest. "Damn you, Max. Say something!"

He didn't even flinch. Instead, he shook his head slowly, his expression guarded. "This was never about me, Liz. I came because of Lexie and Michael. I don't know what you want me to do."

Liz let out a long breath, trying to calm herself. She had never intended to allow herself to get upset, yet here she was ranting like a crazy woman. "I don't want you to do anything," she said finally. "We might as well go back to town. Looks like we're done," she told him. Turning, she climbed into the driver's seat, still fighting for her composure. She started the car and waited for him to get in beside her.

It took him a minute. She kept her eyes trained carefully on the dashboard, so she had no idea whether he was standing and staring at her or if he had simply walked slowly around the car. When she heard the door shut behind him, she eased her foot off the brake and swung back toward the road.

They drove in silence for the first ten minutes. Despite her best efforts, Liz could feel her blood pressure sky-rocketing as her temper flared. She was angry at Max, but she was more angry at herself for reacting so irrationally. Part of the problem was her - she acknowledged that. She wanted some sign from him - some reassurance that he still cared about her, even a little bit. It didn't seem right that he appeared totally impervious to her while she could still feel the air tingling whenever she was near him. How could she still be in love with him after all this time?

She sneaked a look at him out of the corner of her eye. He was staring out the side window again, just as he had during the drive out. It seemed he did that a lot lately - look away. She turned her attention back to the road and tried to ignore him, wishing it was as easy as it seemed to be for him. The road was deserted, though, and offered her little distraction.

The past few days seemed surreal when she thought about it. In some respects it was like old times - all of them working together toward a common goal. But then it wasn't all of them, with Isabel gone. And now there was Lexie. She let her thoughts drift to the little girl - so full of life and love. It was clear that Max adored her, yet even with his niece he seemed to exhibit a measure of reserve. As if he couldn't bear the idea of losing someone else he loved, and so he kept her at a distance to cushion his heart.

"Oh my God," Liz said, slamming on the brakes.

"What is it?" Max demanded, swinging toward her as she jerked the car to the side of the road. "Liz? What happened?"

She pulled up on the emergency brake the instant the car stopped moving, then turned to stare at him. Her heart was fluttering in her chest as if it wanted to escape.

"Liz?" Max repeated. He reached out and took her by the shoulders, giving her a gentle shake.

On some level, Liz was conscious that he was touching her - that it was one of the only times he had done so since he had returned. But it was a fleeting thought. "I know why you've been so distant," she told him.

"What?" he asked, but there was a flicker of something in his eyes, and he let go of her shoulders.

"You're going back, aren't you?" she said. "That's why. Why you won't really talk to any of us. Why you're holding back. I see you doing it with Lexie. You know you're leaving her here with Alex and so you're starting to detach."

He sat and stared at her, his jaw clenched.

"What did Lexie make you promise yesterday? Before she went with Alex to meet his parents?"

Max shook his head.

"I was there, Max. When she found out you weren't going with them, she whispered something in your ear and you told her you promised. What did she make you promise?"

He looked away and let out a long breath, as if he had been holding it since she began to speak. "I promised not to leave without saying goodbye," he admitted.

Liz nodded, letting his words sink in. "So you've known all along. That you were going back to Antar."

"I don't really have a choice," he replied quietly.

"And that's why you've been so distant. Why you won't allow yourself to get close to any of us again." She inhaled slowly. "Why you won't come near me." She watched as a shudder ran through him. Every fiber in her being was screaming for her to reach out and take his hand - to take him into her arms - but she resisted. She simply waited.

"It was never about you," he said after a few minutes. "Not my leaving before or my going back now."

"I know that," she replied.

"If I could have done things differently… If I had been someone else - anyone else - I never would have left you." He turned and met her eyes, and for the first time in days she could see a glimmer of his former self shining through them. "Liz, it killed me to walk away from you that day - to leave you behind and know what it would do to you. To think about my life without you. And I knew what it would do to me to come back - to see you again and be near you. I was so afraid that, once I saw you - touched you - held you - I'd never be able to let go again," he whispered. Even now she could tell he was making a concerted effort not to reach out for her. "But I had to come. Had to bring Michael and Lexie."

"I understand, Max," she told him, tears shining in her eyes. "I do. And, what's more, you were probably right to keep away. Because I'm not sure I'm strong enough to let you go twice," she whispered.

They sat there for a moment, each keeping carefully to their own side of the car. "We should probably head back," he said finally.

Liz nodded. She eased the car back onto the road, and continued toward Roswell, focusing on maintaining the speed limit though she felt as if they were moving in slow motion. Neither of them said another word for the rest of the drive.

******

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:44:34 PM

Part 17

********

Have you ever noticed the way a child interacts with the world? They're so naturally open - willing to trust. We beat that out of them as they get older. Society does. We abuse them and let them down, threaten and warn them, until eventually they grow wary. Cautious. Reluctant to let others in for fear of getting hurt. They develop a hard shell of self-preservation and become… adults.

Sometimes it's more than just the normal cuts and scrapes of growing up. There are children who suffer unspeakable torment. I think of Michael - of how he was treated those years he lived with Hank. Bad enough that he was different, that he felt separate and cut off from other children his age. On top of that he had a foster father who would take his belt and whip him, who would call him names and make him feel worthless - less than nothing. I can't even imagine what that does to a child's soul, except I saw in part what it did to Michael. How it made him quiet, sullen, withdrawn. Always angry with the world. You'd think no one would be able to get through to him after something like that.

But Michael let us in. Despite his distrust of humans - of anyone other than Max and Isabel. He overcame his fear long enough to open himself up, make himself vulnerable, and he let us in. Maria was first, of course. It took persistence, and badgering, and a great deal of love, but somehow she managed to creep beneath those walls of his and get him to lower his guard. And then he let the rest of us through. Me. Alex. The Sheriff and Kyle. Even my father and Mrs. DeLuca, though neither of them knew his secrets. Michael learned to trust again - to love - despite his nature and his upbringing. He let down his defenses and took a risk. Only he can say for sure whether it was worth it. But I like to think I know his answer.

See, the thing Michael learned was what all children know from the time they are born - to follow his instincts. Despite the thin veneer of civilization, man is just another animal, one with primitive urges and simple needs. If we allowed ourselves to listen to that part deep down inside - that little voice whispering advice to our souls - we would probably all be much better off. But we ignore our gut, instead choosing to use our supposedly superior intellect to determine what we should be doing and how we should go about it. We plot and graph and chart until we've reduced our lives to the parameters of a business plan. And instead of things getting clearer, they grow more murky and incomprehensible until we haven't the slightest idea what's going on.

A child doesn't always understand what's going on. But then again, a child doesn't expect to know everything. They trust that they'll pick it up as they go along, figuring things out on the way, and that the people who love them will help them if they need it. If a child stumbles and falls, sure, they might cry. It hurts to fall, so to cry is a normal reaction. But after the crying is over, the child gets back up and continues on its way. Yes, there's the chance of falling again, but so what? After all, the only other option is to keep sitting on the floor, and that never got anyone anywhere.

* * * * *

By the time she reached the Crashdown, Liz felt as if she was holding herself together through an act of sheer will. She made her way across the café to the back booth where Alex and Lexie were sharing an ice cream sundae, Lexie having managed to smear a good portion of the hot fudge across her cheeks in the process. The little girl looked up as Liz approached, a grin lighting up her chocolate-coated face.

"Liz!" she cried. "Do you want some ice cream with me and Daddy?"

"No thanks, sweetie," she replied, forcing herself to smile. She met Alex's concerned look with a barely perceptible shake of the head. "I haven't had my dinner yet."

"Why don't you have a seat?" Alex suggested quietly.

"Not right now," Liz told him, knowing he would understand. "I just wanted to bring you these." She dropped the keys to his rental on the table beside his plate. "It's parked out front," she added.

"Liz, are you all right?" he asked.

"Not really. I just need some time alone. Are Maria and Michael still…?" She gestured toward the break room.

Alex shook his head. "They went for a walk a while ago. I'm not sure they're coming back tonight."

"Okay. I'll talk to you later. Promise," she added when he frowned. Turning to Lexie, she could tell the little girl sensed that something was wrong. "I'm not feeling so well, sweetie, so I'm going to go take a little nap, all right?"

Lexie nodded slowly, her expression suddenly wise. "I love you, Liz," she said in a solemn tone.

Liz felt tears prick at her eyes and knew she had to get away before she broke down. "I love you, too, Lexie. I'll see you later," she said. "You too," she added, flashing Alex a brittle smile. Then she turned and headed toward the back, leaving Alex to stare after her worriedly.

She managed to reach her room before she started to cry in earnest, creeping down the hall and shutting the door quietly so her parents wouldn't realize she was home. The last thing she needed was for her father to come ask how her day had gone, or her mother to appear looking for help with dinner. What she wanted was a little privacy so she could flop face down on her bed and cry her eyes out. No matter if it made her feel like she was sixteen again. As far as she could tell, there was very little about Max Evans that didn't send her emotions into a rapid tail spin back to high school.

It felt good to let it all out. She pressed her face against her pillow to muffle the sound and simply allowed herself to let go, crying until she felt that heaviness in her chest that came from too many tears and not quite enough oxygen. Her muscles felt limp and her head slightly fuzzy when she finally rolled over onto her back. The light hurt her eyes, which felt tired and raw. She suspected they were puffy, too, but it didn't matter. Staring up at the ceiling, she waited for her breathing to return to normal, feeling the rise and fall of her chest gradually even out until she no longer noticed the pattern or rhythm of her breaths. It felt basic - peaceful - and was somehow comforting.

She wasn't surprised when she heard a light tapping at her door. Sighing, she pushed herself upright. "Come in," she called softly.

The door cracked open and Maria appeared. "Hey," she said, her brow furrowed with concern.

Liz shook her head. "What did Alex do? Call you on your cell?"

Maria nodded. "He said you came back looking like a train wreck. I'm thinking he was being generous."

"He shouldn't have called you. I'm sorry he dragged you back here. I'm fine," Liz told her.

"Yeah, and I'm Sister Mary Margaret DeLuca," Maria quipped. Coming the rest of the way into the room, she shut the door and sat down on the bed next to Liz. "Let it all out, babe. What happened?"

Liz shook her head. "It doesn't matter."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean? Did you and Max even talk?"

Liz sighed, knowing no amount of evasive action was going to help her. "Yes, we talked. But it doesn't change anything, Maria. So now I know all about Antar and the war and how hard it's been for Max. I knew all that before he opened his mouth," she said.

"But what about you? What did you tell him?"

"What do you mean?"

Maria made a frustrated sound. "Did you happen to mention what you've been going through the past few years? How hard it's been for you to cope with the love of your life in a galaxy far, far away? You didn't, did you? Not one word about nervous breakdowns or your little identity crisis or the fact that you haven't had a date in six years?"

"I have too had a date in the past six years," Liz huffed.

"Oh, excuse me," Maria said, rolling her eyes. "Forgive my mistake. I meant to say that you hadn't had sex in the past six years. Big difference."

Liz closed her eyes and flopped back on the bed. "I don't recall you having a particularly active social life the last few years, Maria, so just don't go there. The point of talking to Max was to find out what was wrong with him - why he's been so distant since he's been back - and I did that."

"So? Why has he been so distant?" Maria asked.

Liz took a deep breath, then let it go slowly. "Because," she said.

"Good one, Lizzie. And you're supposed to be this great wordsmith. Spit it out."

"Funny," Liz muttered. "Fine. He's been holding himself back because he's going back to Antar," she said quietly. "And he was afraid if he let his guard down and allowed himself to get close to us again it would only make things more difficult for everyone."

"He told you that?"

"No. I pretty much figured it out. He was working too hard to stay away. To… not touch me. I called him on it, and a couple of other things, and he finally admitted it."

"And after that you didn't have the heart to tell him your side," Maria said.

"What my side? What do you want me to do? Tell him every miserable detail of my life without him? That I missed him every day and that I can't get over him?" Liz demanded, her voice cracking with emotion. "What good would it do, Maria? I'd just make him feel that much more guilty about having to leave again."

"Liz, hon, what about how you feel? What about your take on this? Don't you get a say in any of it? Ever? Shouldn't he at least know what you're going through? I mean, how did it make you feel all these days that he's been holding back and not talking to you? Was it better not knowing why he was doing it? Thinking he didn't care anymore?"

"He knows I care, Maria," Liz said quietly.

"Does he? Maybe," she agreed. "Maybe he knows on some level. But he doesn't know the whole truth, Liz, and he deserves to. Just like you deserved to know. The two of you have always spent way too much time being noble."

"Maria…"

"No, Liz. No buts, okay? I know what I'm talking about here."

Liz stopped, recalling just how much Maria knew about being kept in the dark. "Oh, God," she said. "I'm sorry. I am. How did it go with you and Michael?" she asked. "Did you guys talk everything through?"

Maria's eyes narrowed. "No changing the subject," she replied, but she tilted her head slightly and nodded. "We did talk. About a lot of things," she said cryptically. "We both had stuff we had to get out in the open, and we're not done yet. But it was a good start. And… well… Michael's not going back, Liz. He… I don't know if Max thought he would, but Michael told me tonight that he just can't do it anymore. Be that person - that warrior."

Liz nodded understandingly. "I figured as much," she said. "Max said some things that… well… led me to believe that Michael wanted to be here. With you. I don't think Max will be surprised."

"Oh, Lizzie, I'm…"

"It's okay," Liz told her, reaching out and giving her a hug. "I'm happy for you. And for Michael. After seeing the way he was just a few days ago, I can't imagine him ever going back to that life. I'm glad he's chosen to stay."

"Thanks," Maria whispered. "But I can't help but feel a little guilty."

"Don't."

"Talk to Max. Liz, you have to tell him everything. He has the right to know where he stands. Don't ask him to make this decision without all the facts."

"Maria, there is no decision to make. He's going back. He cares too much - feels too responsible - to do things any other way. Not just because someone told him he was destined to be the leader of Antar. Because he is that leader."

Maria pulled back and looked Liz in the eye. "Tell him anyway. Or you'll regret it later, Liz. You can't keep shouldering all of the burdens for your love. He has a right to share them."

"You think he doesn't?"

"I think he's very good at convincing himself you've gone on with your life," Maria said gently. "And that isn't the case, is it?"

Liz hesitated, then shook her head.

"Nothing's ever changed for you when it comes to Max," Maria continued. "Not since the day you fell for him. You can't let go of him - even though you think you should - because you just don't want to let go. That's the war you've been fighting within yourself since the day he left."

*********

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:49:15 PM

Part 18

********

If my grandmother was still alive, I think she would probably tell me that there's a reason for everything. That none of us are ever given more to deal with than we are capable of handling, and that life's lessons are necessary to help us become whomever it is we are supposed to become. Grandma always had very strong beliefs, and she had a way of sharing them that made me feel strong - invincible. She convinced me there was nothing I couldn't do, because she had faith in me. I wish I had remembered that a little more often in those years after she died.

The first couple of years after I graduated from college, I dutifully came home to spend Christmas with my parents. It wasn't as if I had any reason not to - at least in their eyes - and truthfully, I would have missed them if I had stayed in Boston alone. But it was hard for me to be in Roswell during the holidays, when everyone was so happy and wrapped up in their families. I'd inevitably see the Evanses somewhere around town and all of my partially healed wounds would break open again, the emotions suddenly new and raw.

I'm not sure when I decided to remain in Boston for that third Christmas. I think it was probably sometime in late October, when I normally would have been lining up my plane tickets. I told myself that it was because I was behind on my latest book and that there was no way I would get any work done if I went home. And with my first book tour scheduled to coincide with the release of my third book in March, I was very much aware that I had to get the bulk of my manuscript completed before I left. At least that's what I told my parents.

They were less than pleased, particularly my mother, but they said they understood. Still, I could feel their disappointment pouring through the phone as, separately, they tried to convince me to come for at least a few days. My mother tried to guilt me into it, pointing out I hadn't been there since April and that I was the only child they had. My father pretended to be a good sport, telling me how proud he was of my work ethic, and effectively made me feel ten times guiltier than my mother had. But I held fast, telling myself I was being strong and responsible, desperately trying to drown out the little voice inside my head that was calling me a coward. Funny how, no matter how hard you try to protect yourself, a tiny portion of your brain will refuse to let you get away with it.

I made a valiant effort. I managed to get quite a bit of writing done, and in my spare time I continued with what I had dubbed my remedial education. The irony of my writing science fiction novels was that, despite my personal connections to all things extraterrestrial, I had never really been a fan of the genre. When I was little I was more interested in hard science than the fantastical variety, and then when Max came into my life it somehow felt wrong to read those types of books. Like a betrayal. I'm not sure why, since I know for a fact that he read them himself on occasion. But once I started writing, I realized I had better become more aware of both the classics and the competition. It wouldn't do to inadvertently trespass on well-covered territory. So, I was slowly working my way through a monumental list of titles, and that fall found me engrossed in the works of Frank Herbert. Not necessarily the best choice of distractions, given the circumstances.

By November, the voice had gotten louder. I tried to convince myself that there was no reason why I should spend Christmas in Roswell - that I wasn't running away from anything by choosing not to go. After all, there was nothing left there from which to run. The only demons remaining were the ones within myself, and I could hide from those pretty much anywhere in the country. If there were a few sights in Roswell that were more likely to remind me of how miserable I actually was, well, didn't I have the right to avoid them? I deserved a happy holiday. And I did have all that work to do.

Then something happened to make me change my mind, and it had nothing to do with guilt or the nagging voice of my subconscious. It scared me to the bone, because I had no idea how to react. Technically, I suppose I should have been glad - should have seen it as a good sign - but I couldn't just take things at face value that way. It's never been my nature to accept without question. I want to know why… need to find the answers. And something told me that the answers to my questions this time around were to be found back in Roswell.

So, I called the airlines and booked a flight. It was probably the most impulsive thing I'd done in years, and it did manage to alleviate the worst of the panicky feeling that had lodged in my stomach. Three weeks later I was on a plane home for Christmas - and for answers. Whatever else I had to face, I needed to know why, after six long years, my dreams about Max had suddenly stopped.

* * * * *

After Maria left, Liz sat down to dinner with her parents. Recalling her conversation with her father the previous evening, she forced herself to eat enough to avoid any worried looks, though it became increasingly difficult to swallow past the lump in her throat as the meal progressed. Still, she managed to make it through the main course without breaking down in tears, and as soon as the plates were cleared she escaped to her room, pleading the need to work on her manuscript. If her parents thought she was acting strangely, or wondered at her skipping dessert, they said nothing, and for once Liz was grateful that adulthood seemed to include the occasional advantage.

Safely ensconced behind closed doors, she sank wearily onto her bed and rubbed at her eyes, willing the tears away. She was so tired and her head ached in a steady rhythm. All she really wanted was to lay down and allow sleep to take her. But after the day's events, she knew that wasn't likely to happen any time soon. Instead she stretched out and stared up at the ceiling. Her thoughts were a jumble of voices - Alex, Michael, Lexie, Maria, and, of course, Max. Funny how many of them echoed each other. Alex telling her to get her answers; Maria scolding her for being noble and saying nothing; even Max, admitting he had never given her a choice in his decision to leave - that he had radically altered her life with barely a word.

Did she even know what she wanted? That was the ironic part. Maria had claimed Liz was protecting Max by not telling him everything she had been going through, but wasn't she protecting herself as well? How much nobility was there in the act if she was sheltering her own feelings and emotions? Just the idea of repeating all of it out loud - even Maria didn't know the entire truth - was enough to make her stomach twist painfully.

Liz flipped over and pressed her face into the coolness of her pillow, her palms cradling her abdomen. Logically, she knew she was merely experiencing a mild bout of anxiety, but the knowledge did nothing to assuage the pain in her gut, nor to slow the pounding in her temples or the whirling in her brain. She turned her head slightly so she could draw a deep breath, wincing as her stomach muscles contracted. Exhaling slowly, she focused on the photos lining her dresser - herself with Maria and Alex, her parents' wedding photo, her grandmother. The pictures of Max had been put away some time ago, with the exception of the ones she had in her apartment in Boston. In light of her efforts to relax, she was glad not to have his smiling face staring back at her.

She lay there for a long time, concentrating on letting go of her tension. At some point a fire truck passed on the street below, the mournful siren causing her to jolt abruptly, but she forced herself to calm down again, inch by inch, muscle by muscle. Eventually, she carefully pushed herself into a sitting position. It never ceased to amaze her just how powerful the human mind could be. Her thoughts alone had been sufficient to make her feel ill, yet those same thoughts had enabled her to recover. The concept tugged at her, making her wonder if part of her problem wasn't that she was simply over thinking the entire situation.

Moving gingerly, Liz went into the bathroom and turned on the faucet, letting the water run cold. She stared at her flushed cheeks, then splashed her face several times, pressing a cool, damp hand around the back of her neck beneath her hair. "What do you really want?" she whispered to her reflection. "Forget all the rest. Throw logic out the door. When was the last time you followed your heart?"

Liz could almost feel her heart stutter in reply. How long had it been since she had made that promise to her grandmother? It seemed like a lifetime. Staring at herself in the mirror, she knew beyond a doubt that it had been almost as long since she had followed the advice. Those first few years, when she and Max had been ripped apart so frequently, she had managed to let her heart lead the way, no matter how insane the situation. Time after time she had shut out the questions in her mind and let her love and trust bring her back to Max's side. And she had never been sorry. But then things had changed. They had changed.

When had they stopped being totally honest with each other? Was it when she had tried to push Max toward Tess? That had been the first real lie - an entire hurtful deception orchestrated to save the world. Eventually the truth had come out and Max had understood, but had things ever been the same? From that moment, they had both realized what they were capable of doing to protect each other. That they would go to any lengths to shield each other from danger. Even if, she realized, those lengths included not entirely trusting each other.
They had never gotten that back. That level of utterly complete and total faith. How had she gone so long without seeing that? Max had believed he couldn't tell her he was going to Antar until mere hours before he left. And she had been unable to tell him how badly she wanted him to stay. Each of them keeping silent with the best of intentions, yet only hurting each other in the end. And here they were, six years later, doing the exact same thing. Falling back into old patterns and getting absolutely nowhere.

Even as she went back into her bedroom, Liz could feel something clicking deep inside of her, like interlocking pieces finally snapping into place. She glanced at the clock and was surprised to see how late it was - past midnight - but she refused to let it matter. If she paused long enough to consider waiting until morning, she might never again locate this position of confidence. For a split second she had seen everything with perfect clarity, and it was that clarity - that sense of rightness - that she was going to trust.

She grabbed her leather jacket and nearly headed out the door, then reversed direction and climbed out the window instead. It was possible her parents were still awake and she just didn't have time to stop for explanations. Outside on the roof, however, she allowed herself a moment to stare at the full moon illuminating the night with the aid of a myriad of swirling stars. The sky seemed to pulse with life, the light streaming down all around her until she felt she might almost reach out and touch it. It felt appropriate.

Zipping her jacket against the cool night air, Liz made her way to the fire escape and swung herself over the edge of the roof. She climbed down easily, her feet remembering from years past, and in moments she was standing on the ground. She wondered if she could start her mother's car without her parents hearing, or if she should simply walk across town, and the very thought made her feel like she was sixteen again. Suppressing a giggle, Liz turned to head down the alley, and slammed directly into Max.

******

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 12:57:53 PM

Part 19

********

Fear is a funny thing. It can take root deep inside, twisting and growing, getting tangled in your thoughts and breath until it becomes a part of you. But at the same time, you can learn to overcome your fears - facing up to their demands and refusing to allow them to best you. That's what I remember most about those days in high school, with Max and the others. Everything we went through was incredibly dangerous, in ways I couldn't have begun to explain to anyone outside of our group. We were afraid so often, from such varying threats. But we did get through it, because we faced our fears together. It was our greatest strength - our unity - and that, more than anything, is what we lost when we went our separate ways.

When I got on the plane in Boston that December, I was terrified. The fear had been building slowly for weeks until I had no control over it. It was more than the fact that the dreams had stopped; on some instinctive level I believed that something important had happened. I just didn't know what that something was.

The moment I set foot within the Roswell city limits, I felt a little bit of that anxiety slip away. I forget, when I'm in Boston, that there are things I miss about home. Things that bring back good memories and warm feelings. Roswell is, after all, the town of my childhood. It's the place where I was born and raised, where I made my best friends in the world - and where I fell in love. My life is inextricably linked with all of its landmarks. It is part of who I am.

Maybe it was being home that helped soothe my nerves. Sometimes it's enough just to be in the place where you once were brave. Or maybe it was the distraction of physical labor; waiting tables was a far cry from sitting at a keyboard all day. It could even have been the knowledge that Maria and Alex would soon be back to visit for the holidays, too. It had been a long time since we had all been in the same place at once.

So, those were some of the reasons I gave myself when I began to feel less frightened. Explanations and rationalizations for why it seemed as if things were starting to settle into place. But I don't think even I believed them. Because when Max Evans walked into the Crashdown on my second day home, a part of me felt as if I had been expecting him.

* * * * *

"Max…" Liz felt the laughter die on her lips as her startled gaze met Max's serious one. His hands cupped her elbows as her palms rested against his chest, his old leather jacket cool and familiar to the touch. He was so close she could see the tiny flecks of gold in his eyes that changed with his mood, darkening to a glowing amber even as she watched. For a moment they simply stood there in a puddle of light from the streetlamp, staring at each other, and Liz felt something deep inside of her - something that had been fighting its way up for days - surge abruptly to the surface.

"Liz, I…" He stepped back, releasing her arms. "I'm sorry to just show up like this," he said. "I didn't want to call and wake everyone. I was hoping you'd still be up. Look, I know we agreed earlier - to maintain the distance between us - that it'd be easier. But I need to talk to you… to ask you something," he finished quickly.

"Max, it's all right," she assured him. "Where did you think I was off to in the middle of the night?" she asked, smiling slightly.

He looked vaguely confused, as if he hadn't even realized that she, too, was standing in the alley. "To see me?" he asked hesitantly.

Liz nodded. "I needed to talk to you, too. Before, I didn't really… There are a lot of things I didn't tell you. Things you should know," she admitted. "Things I need you to know."

"I can't say I'm surprised," he replied in a low voice. "Where do you want to go? Back up to the roof?" he asked, indicating the ladder behind her.

She shrugged. "It's as good a place as any." Liz turned and put a foot on the bottom rung, then glanced back. "Max? What made you change your mind?"

"What do you mean?"

"About staying away from each other," she elaborated. "You said you needed to ask me something, but you didn't say what it was about. What happened all of a sudden to make you come over so late?"

He looked hesitant, and for a second she didn't think he was going to answer, or that he would merely turn the question around and ask her why she had been heading over to his house in the middle of the night. Instead he unzipped his jacket part of the way, and reached inside.

"This happened," he told her, handing over a worn paperback.

Liz took the book, knowing even before she glanced down that it was her book. "Where did you get this?" she asked, her thumb rubbing over the title.

"Maria brought it with her when she came to see Michael this morning. She gave it to me before you and Alex got there."

"I'm assuming you've read it."

Max nodded. "I had just started it when you showed up earlier. I finished the rest of it this evening."

Liz sighed. "Come on, then." She handed back the book and resumed climbing, aware of Max following just behind her until they both stood on the roof.

"Wow," he said, looking around. "This is strange."

"Being up here?"

"Yeah. It's… uh… been awhile."

Liz smiled slightly. "I know." She went over and pulled the old lawn chairs further away from the window. "Just to be safe," she told him. "In case my parents aren't asleep."

He frowned slightly. "Liz, why didn't you tell them I was back?"

"Oh…" She swallowed hard and sank down onto the nearest of the two chairs. How could she have forgotten that he had run into her parents? "I… I guess I just didn't know how to explain it to them," she replied. "And I didn't want them to start looking at me as if I might suddenly explode or something."

Max sat down opposite her, leaning forward so his elbows rested on his knees. "Why would they have?"

Liz let out a brief snort. "Let's just say they have reason to believe I'm capable of losing my mind where you're concerned." She sighed. "I didn't handle it too well when you left," she admitted softly. Looking up, she saw the guilt flooding his eyes. "Max, I'm not saying this to make you feel bad."

"I know, but it doesn't make me feel better about it."

"Don't," she said. "Please. This is already hard for me."

"I'll try. So, what happened? After I'd gone?"

"Well, I thought I was all right. I mean, I was miserable, but I was holding it together," she said. Pulling her legs up under herself, she shifted until she was more comfortably settled. "Then one day I lost it. I was working and I just hauled off and started screaming and throwing bottles of Tabasco through the front window of the café," she told him, glancing down in embarrassment.

"God, Liz."

"I was out of it for a few days," she continued swiftly, not letting him interrupt. "But that was pretty much it. Alex and I spent most of our time trying to get through to Maria. That kept my mind off you until it was time to leave for school."

"Can I just ask you one thing?"

Meeting his gaze, Liz nodded.

Max took a deep breath, edging forward until he could take her hand between both of his. "Did you… do you… understand why I didn't ask you to come with me? Why I couldn't?"

"Oh, Max, of course I understand," she told him, turning her hand palm up between his and squeezing. "I knew it was too dangerous - that you had no idea what you were getting into when you left."

"It wasn't just that, Liz. I wasn't even sure if we could survive on Antar in our human form, let alone if you would have been able to live there. I couldn't risk it."

"I know," she said in a soothing voice. "I do. Even then, I knew why it wasn't possible," she whispered.

He loosened his grip slightly and let her hand slip free. "It's just, reading your book… I wish it could have been like that, Liz. Both of us going off together to conquer the universe."

"So, you weren't angry when you read it?" she asked cautiously.

Max frowned. "Why would I have been angry?"

"Because I wrote about you. All of you," she said quietly. "Because I took your secret and made it so… public."

"Liz, no one reading this would know it was based on fact," he said gently. "Unless they already knew the truth. This book couldn't have put us in any danger, even if we'd been on the planet when it was published."

"It's a whole series," she told him, feeling unaccountably shy. "The third one's due out in a few months."

A smile teased the corners of Max's mouth. "So, do I get an autographed copy?"

"Of course," Liz replied, smiling in return. "In fact, I can even get it to you ahead of time."

"Ah… I see it pays to have friends in high places."

"Definitely," she responded.

"How did that happen, anyway?"

"The book? Long story," Liz said. "I kind of fell into it in college and it ran away with me."

"You don't miss science?"

Liz shrugged. "I don't regret the choice I made," she replied. "I got my degree, so I can always go back if I want. But I really like writing. It was mostly cathartic to start, but once I got past that… I don't know. It feels right."

"Well, you clearly have a talent for it," he told her warmly. "Though I suppose I'm prejudiced."

"Thanks," she whispered.

"Um… how was Harvard? Everything you'd hoped?"

"You would have loved it there," Liz said softly, noting the wistful look in Max's eyes. "It was a great experience. But I admit that I didn't make as much of it as I should have. I… kept to myself. The funny thing about being away from Roswell, away from everyone I knew, was that it made me lonely. I felt cut off. Not that there weren't plenty of people to do things with," she explained. "I've made some good friends in Boston. It's just that none of them understand where I'm coming from. I have this secret that's so much a part of me, Max. The way you're a part of me." She brushed a restless hand through her hair. "I'm sorry. I'm not making any sense, am I?"

"No," he said quietly. "It makes perfect sense." He sat back slightly, avoiding her gaze, instead staring into the distance at the starlit sky. "I know just how you felt," he sighed. "When we got to Antar, we rarely talked about Roswell or the people we'd left behind. It was like an unspoken vow we all took. I suppose we all realized it would hurt too much. Later, after Lexie was born, Isabel started telling her about Alex and you and Maria… about her heritage. Michael and I joined in, so that no matter which of us was out on patrol, Lexie would never go without her bedtime story." He shook his head. "Sometimes I think the stories were more for us than for her. To keep us connected to home."

"That's how it was with my books," Liz said. "As long as I kept writing, I felt like you weren't so far away."

"I kept trying to picture what you were doing," Max went on. "I'd close my eyes and imagine you strolling across campus with your old knapsack filled with text books, your cheeks flushed from the cold." He let out a long breath. "I'd wonder if you'd moved on yet. If maybe you'd met someone else."

"Max…"

"I meant what I wrote in that note when I left, Liz. That I wanted you to go on with your life. You deserve to be happy."
"Max, look at me." She waited for him to shift so that he was facing her, and was somewhat dismayed to realized he had begun rebuilding his walls, that his eyes were dark and unreadable. She slid forward on her chair so there was barely a foot between them.

"Max, I know you meant it," she began gently. "And I won't insult you by saying the thought hasn't crossed my mind in the past six years. But the truth is, even if I wanted to move on, I can't. Not a day goes by when you're not on my mind. I meant it when I said you're a part of me. You're in my blood, my soul, my heart. Max, I can't help how I feel. The very worst moments I've had since you left were while I was trying to deny my feelings for you."

"But, Liz…"

"Shhh," she whispered, placing a finger over his lips. "Hear me out. I've faced some hard truths the last few days. I've spent years lying to everyone, Max, but especially to myself. I kept telling myself I was fine. That I'd gotten over you and that I was happy with my life the way it's turned out. And to some extent that's true," she admitted. "I like being a writer. Living in Boston. But I've shut love out, Max. And it doesn't matter how many times I tell myself that I'm just waiting for the right guy to come along," she admitted softly. "The truth is that you're the only one I want. I don't want second best or almost as good. I want you. I always have."

"Liz, I… God," he said, brushing his hands over his face. "You know how I feel. There will never be anyone for me but you. I just can't…" He trailed off, his eyes glistening with tears.

Liz reached out and gently cupped Max's cheek in her hand. "I'm not asking you to stay," she told him. "Part of me wishes I had asked you back then, even if you had gone ahead anyway. I should have made sure you knew how I felt instead of trying to make it easier for you. Because I realize now that not knowing is always worse."

"Liz, I'd stay if I could. You know that."

She forced a shaky smile. "I do know. And I know you have to go back to Antar. That your people need you." She took a deep breath. "What I am asking is that you take me with you."

Max raised a hand to cover hers, drawing it gently away from his face. "You don't know what you're asking," he said, shaking his head.

"Yes, I do, Max. I'm saying I want to be with you, and if that means going to another planet, then so be it. If you could survive in the Antarian atmosphere, and Lexie didn't have any problems, then I'm sure I'll be all right."

"No, Liz, there's more to it than that," he said.

"What? What more could there be?" she asked, sliding the rest of the way off her chair so she was kneeling between his legs. She wasn't going to let him be noble this time. "Max, I understand that this is a big decision. I know what I'd be giving up. But I've thought about it, and I want to go. I love you."

Max reached down and tucked a stray strand of hair behind Liz's ear, his fingers gently grazing her cheek as he did so. He smiled slightly, as if he were remembering a time when the gesture was a natural part of his day. Then he slid his hands beneath her forearms and lifted her back into her chair, restoring the distance between them. "Liz, thank you for being willing to do this, but I can't take you to Antar," he said.

Liz felt her eyes tear up. "Why not?"

"Because it's a war zone, and I won't put you in the middle of that. You'd be in constant danger, not just because of the circumstances, but because of what you mean to me. It's not safe."

"I don't care," she replied.

Max shook his head, his mouth set in a determined line. "You'd be a target. And I'd be completely useless if anything happened to you."

Liz deflated slightly, realizing he was right. It had been one of her greatest fears in high school, that his enemies would somehow find a way to use her against him. After all, hadn't Agent Pierce done just that?

As if sensing her weakening, Max took her hand again, chaffing it gently between his palms. "Or what if something happened to me? What would you do, alone on a strange world? Michael won't be returning. The only one you'd know would be Tess," he pointed out, a teasing note creeping into his voice.

"Oh, well, if you're going to put it that way," she managed, fighting back her tears. "Hell," she muttered, swiping at her eyes.

"I'm sorry."

"I know," she sighed, because she did. She knew if he could change things, and yet still be who he was, he would do it in a heartbeat. But knowing did nothing to ease her frustration. "So, now what? You leave and I stay? You promise to try to come back, and I wonder each day if you're alive or dead? Damn it, I'm not sure how long I can go on only seeing you in my dreams, Max." She could hear the hysteria building in her voice, but there was nothing she could do about it. For good or ill, she had decided to be open with him, and this was part of it.

Something flickered in Max's eyes and he reached into his jacket, drawing out the book again. "Would you do something for me?" he asked suddenly.

"What?" Liz asked, ashamed at how childish she sounded, but puzzled by his apparent change of subject.

He began flipping pages, scanning quickly as if looking for something. "Here it is," he murmured. "Just listen a minute, okay?" he requested, glancing up at her.

"All right," she sniffed.

Max began to read, his voice even and steady. "'When the door to the ship finally shimmered, then evaporated, she was able to catch her first glimpse of the foreign landscape. The ground was dry and virtually colorless where they had landed. They appeared to be surrounded by harsh terrain that rose in sheer rock formations in all directions, as if they were in a valley of sorts. Yet, if the planet itself was drab and barren in this isolated spot, the sky was alive with color and light. A dozen shades of blue and green swirled above them, the gasses mixing and dancing, light bouncing between them, causing each to glow in turn. The air itself seemed thick, and she experienced a moment of panic, though the ship's databanks had assured them that the atmosphere was livable. And indeed, she soon realized that she could breathe easily enough, though she continued to be aware of the air around her, touching her, filling her lungs, closing in on her as she moved. But her observations were cut short by a sudden explosion, and she felt a hand grabbing her and pulling, forcing her to run. She was barely aware of the spongy, sand-like surface beneath her feet as they all made for the nearest rocky shelter, diving for cover from whatever it was that had abruptly set the sky on fire.'"

When he had finished, he set the book down and looked at Liz expectantly. "Why did you write that?"

Liz frowned. "What do you mean? I started to write it for a class I took sophomore year, and then…"

"No, not why did you decide to write the story, Liz. Why that particular description? The thick air, the barren landscape."

"I… I don't know. Are you asking where the idea itself came from? For what the planet looked like? I just made it up," she replied, watching him as she spoke. Somehow she knew, even before he began to slowly shake his head, that there was more to his question than simple curiosity. "Why?"

"Liz, this description - what you wrote - matches the place where we landed when we reached Antar. Almost exactly. The ground, the air, the colors of the sky," he said. "There wasn't any explosion when we landed. We didn't need to run for cover. But you've described the terrain here, almost as if you had seen it yourself."

"But… that's impossible," she breathed.

"Maybe. Maybe not. Liz, what exactly have you been dreaming since I left?"

Liz felt her mouth drop open in shock. "Max, what are you saying?" she asked finally. "I mean, even if it were possible at that kind of distance, you were never able to dream walk before."

"Our powers were much stronger on Antar. Aside from the amount of work we put into developing them, there was something about being there that seemed to enhance our abilities."

"But, Max…"

"I don't know, Liz. All I do know for sure is that there are parts of your book that are startlingly accurate, assuming you were writing about Antar. Since you've never been there, you had to have had another source of information. So, talk to me."

She let out a long breath. "Okay. Um… I started to have the dreams once I got to school that fall after you'd gone." She paused, then shook her head. "Well, not quite that soon," she corrected. "Maybe late October. Definitely by Halloween."

Max seemed to absorb this. "What were they about?"

"You," she replied. "But nothing ever happened in them. You didn't do anything. I could see you, almost feel you there, all alone. Just sitting and thinking, worrying. It was like I was channeling your emotions sometimes, and you seemed so near. As if I could touch you. Of course, every time I tried, I woke up," she added, her eyes filling with tears again.

"Hey, come here," he whispered, tugging at her hand, reminding her that he was actually there - right in front of her. When she looked up, he smiled reassuringly. Liz shifted off her chair and onto his lap in an instant, refusing to allow herself time to reconsider the wisdom of the move. Curling closer to him, she sighed as his arms wrapped around her, pulling her securely against his chest, her head tucked beneath his chin. She felt warm and safe, her body tingling at his familiar touch. "Tell me more," he whispered, the words rumbling beneath her ear.

"The dreams were… inconsistent," she continued. "Sometimes I would go a week or two without one, then suddenly I'd have them every night. By the time I graduated they had built in frequency and severity. You would be more upset in the dreams, never happy, rarely calm. I'd wake up aching for you, needing to help you somehow, and then I'd remember you were gone."

"Are you still having them?"

"No. They stopped a few weeks ago. At first I thought maybe they'd just died down again, but it's been years since I've gone a full week without one. I panicked. I'd been planning on staying in Boston for Christmas this year, but instead I got on a plane and came home."

"Why?" Max asked curiously, pulling back so he could see her eyes.

Liz shrugged. "I don't know. I just felt like I had to be here. I thought it was a comfort thing," she told him. "You know - wanting to be in a place where I could feel closer you," she whispered. "And then you showed up and I didn't have time to think about it again."

Max pressed a gentle kiss against her temple. "Liz, that first trip back to Antar took us a few months. It would have been October here by the time we got there. Whereas the trip home took much less time. We had access to far more advanced technology, so we were able to get here in just a few weeks."

Liz sat up abruptly. "Are you saying that my dreams stopped because you were on the ship coming home?"

"I'm just saying that the timing is about right."

"But why haven't the dreams started again? You've been here more than a week."

"Maybe the connection doesn't work the same way here. Remember what I said about our powers being stronger once we reached Antar," he reminded her. "And the truth is, I spent most of my free time there thinking about you. Even when I was strategizing or going over reports," he admitted, "you were the main thing on my mind."

"Did you… dream of me, too?" Liz asked tentatively.

"What do you think?" he asked, eyebrows arched.

"But then, why didn't you know that… I mean, shouldn't you have realized that there was some sort of connection between us?"

"Liz, any dream I had of you always had earth as a backdrop. If I felt your emotions clearly, well, that was only logical. I was much more preoccupied with how you were feeling than where you were. I just assumed they were dreams - my own subconscious ramblings."

She looked at him for a moment, then pushed herself up off his lap and walked slowly to the edge of the roof that afforded a clear view of the town. She leaned against the wall, feeling a shudder run through her. The idea that they could be that closely connected to each other - that their souls could be so intertwined without their realizing it - overwhelmed her. Would it have made the time easier, knowing that she was somehow experiencing Max's true feelings all those years, and not just her own thoughts and fears manifested in the dream world? Perhaps. But how would she have dealt with suddenly losing that connection? If she thought the loss of her dreams had frightened her before, she knew it would have terrified her had she been aware of what they truly were. She would have believed that Max had been killed.

"Liz, what is it?"

She jumped at the sound of his voice right behind her. "I was just thinking," she said.

Max took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. "Thinking about what?" he asked pointedly.

Liz took a deep breath, meeting his demanding gaze head on. "Max, how will I know the difference the next time the dreams stop? How will I know that you're on your way back to me, and not…"

"Shhh," he said. "Liz, I wish I could promise you that nothing is going to happen to me, but I can't. Not knowing what I'm facing on Antar. Not after Isabel. I can only swear that I'll be careful. That I'll come back to you if I can. I know it's not much as promises go, but I've made it back once already," he said lightly, though the dark glow of his eyes reflected the depth of his emotions. "Surely that counts for something."

"Max, I'm not asking for guarantees," she said. "I know that's impossible. I just want you to know how I feel. It's the thing I've regretted most all these years, that I didn't trust you enough to be totally honest with you."

"What do you mean? Liz, I knew how you felt. You didn't owe me any words or explanations."

"That's not it, Max. I owed it to myself as much as I owed you. Somewhere along the line we stopped confiding in each other. We started keeping secrets, thinking it was for the best. I don't want to be that way with you, Max. I want us to believe in each other. In our strength as well as our love. Do you understand?"

"I think so. And I see what you're getting at," he admitted.

A smile touched her lips. "Maria said we're both too busy being noble."

Max laughed. "She did, huh? Well, far be it for me to disagree with Maria." His expression grew serious again. "I'm guessing this honestly thing goes both ways?"

"I would hope so."

He let out a long breath. "Okay. I know I've been guilty of always trying to shield you from things, but I don't want you to think that means I don't trust you to take care of yourself. Liz, you're the strongest, most incredible woman. All of those things we went through in high school. The FBI, the Skins, all of it. You faced it all without question. Wanting to protect you and take care of you - that's only because I love you, not because I don't have faith in you. I don't think I ever could have left if I hadn't believed that you'd be all right." He reached out and wiped away the tears that were streaming down her cheeks. "And now, tonight, wanting to come to Antar, even knowing that it would mean leaving your family and everything familiar… I can't tell you what it means to me that you would want to do that, Liz."

Reaching up, Liz gently brushed Max's tears away as well, her hand lingering on his cheek. "Remember when I said that, if we got too close again, I didn't think I'd be able to let you go?"

"Liz, I…"

"No, Max, listen to me. I will let you go, because I have no choice. But I don't want to deny ourselves the chance to be together while we can. That would be the worst sort of conceit, for us to assume that we'll keep getting another chance, Max." She slipped her hand from the side of his face into his hair, ruffling it. "I love you," she whispered.

"I love you, too," he replied, pulling her firmly into the circle of his arms. Leaning down, he pressed his lips against hers in a searing kiss. "But this is definitely going to make it more difficult to leave," he added, his mouth nipping gently at hers.

Liz deepened the kiss, standing on her toes to reach him more easily. The world began to spin around her until suddenly it seemed to slip out from under her feet. Startled, she broke the kiss, only to realize that Max had swept her into his arms. He looked at her questioningly, his amber eyes filled with love and desire. She brushed her hand over his lips, feeling him kiss her palm, and nodded.

"You're sure?" he asked.

"I'm sure," she told him.

He kissed her again, gently, lovingly. Then he set her back on her feet, and led her across the roof to her room.

******

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 1:04:34 PM

Part 20

********

Sometimes I think my entire relationship with Max has been about second chances. Chances he's given me; chances I've given him. After all, I learned his secret because he gave me the ultimate second chance by healing me that day in the café. He brought me back from the brink of death and, in so doing, enabled me to look at life from a fresh perspective. It's amazing how much you take for granted until you're faced with losing it all.

That's a lesson I've tried to remember, but you'd be surprised how difficult it is to live each day as if it's your last. Old habits are hard to break, and you fall back on your old assumptions. There's always tomorrow. Things will work out eventually. And for someone whose nature it is to plan everything ahead, it is infinitely harder to take it one day at a time. I think maybe the key is to strike a happy medium, to find a balance between living each day to the fullest and believing that tomorrow will indeed come. Don't waste time or ignore opportunities when they present themselves, but at the same time, trust in the magic. Have a little faith.

Faith. Isn't that what it's all about? Faith is a more complicated version of trust. It's believing without proof, listening to your heart. Funny how it always seems to come back to that. And what does my heart tell me?

It was only after I saw Max again that I realized that my heart had not been saying much of anything for years. It was like it was in hibernation until Max Evans came back to claim it. Because that is what he did, whatever his intentions were. My heart belonged to Max and always did. And only in his presence could it truly sing. I had allowed myself to forget just how intense my feelings were for Max. How he made me feel safe and cherished, loved and wanted, and especially how he had made me feel strong. When we were together, I felt invincible, and that is what my heart told me when he came back.

Being with Max again, even for a little while, somehow brought me back into myself. He reminded me what I was capable of, and all that we had endured. Sometimes that's what you really need to keep going forward - a memory of where you have been. And faith.

* * * * *

Liz woke slowly to the sensation of warm fingers tracing her features. They ran gently down the slope of her nose, over her brows, across her chin, before brushing ever so slightly along her lips. She kept her eyes closed and resisted the urge to kiss the finger circling her mouth, simply enjoying the light touch. Then a shadow fell over her face and soft lips whispered over her cheek.

"I know you're awake," Max said.

She smiled and opened her eyes. "Hi," she said.

"Hi." He dropped a kiss on the tip of her nose and pulled back. "I think your parents are up. I can hear someone moving around in their room."

Liz shifted so she could see the clock, then moaned and dropped back down on the bed. She and Max had been awake until at least four o'clock and it was only six now. "My dad's opening in an hour," she confirmed.

"I should probably get going."

"No, Max," she said. "I'm an adult now and they can't say anything. They won't be too thrilled that I snuck you through the window, but I refuse to be embarrassed about this."

"So you're just going to tell them we're back together?" he asked, eyebrows arched.

"Yes."

Max shook his head. "And what happens when I disappear again?" he asked, his voice gentle.

Liz sighed. "I hadn't thought of that. They'll hate you," she admitted. "You're right."

"I'm sorry," he said, pulling her into his arms and smoothing her hair off her face.

She snuggled against him. "Don't be." She ran a hand over his broad chest, marveling at the play of muscles beneath her palm. He had always had a beautiful physique, but it was more than that now. Back in high school he had lifted weights to keep in shape, but this body was the result of both intense physical training and military maneuvers. Tracing his ribs, she slid her hand down around his side and located the faint scar she had discovered the previous night. It was longer than the span of her fingers and wrapped around toward his kidney. She knew instinctively that it must have been a severe injury for him not to have healed it completely.

"We were on the run," he said quietly, reaching down and capturing her hand. "I had one platoon and Isabel had another, but we'd both lost so many people that we had combined our forces. Not that it made much difference," he said. "I had just called the retreat when I was hit. We managed to take cover, with them carrying me more than anything. I started to heal myself, but there wasn't enough time to finish the job before we were forced to flee again."

"So, why didn't you finish later?"

"It had already mended the rest of the way on its own."

Liz leaned across him and brushed her lips over the marred skin. "It must have hurt."

Max took her face in his hands and pulled her up so he could kiss her. "Let's not talk about it."

She sank into the kiss, feeling their connection flare to life. For an instant she saw Max lying on the ground, writhing in pain, blood coating the right side of his torso and seeping into the dust beneath him.

"Don't," he said, pushing her back abruptly. "I didn't mean for you…"

"Shhh," she said. "You don't have to protect me from the truth."

"It isn't that. You don't need to see every ugly detail, Liz. It doesn't serve a purpose." His eyes, so open since he had taken her to bed the night before, were closed off again.

"Maybe not. But that doesn't mean you have to shield me, either. I'll see what I see. I can handle it." She reached out and brushed a lock of hair off his forehead.

Max seemed to relax. He took her hand and kissed her palm. "I love you," he whispered against her skin.

"I love you, too." She paused, her brow furrowing slightly.

"What?"

"How long until you leave?" she asked slowly.

He released her hand and just looked at her.

"I'm not trying to spoil the morning, Max. I just want to know." When he still didn't answer, she sighed. "You intended to leave last night, didn't you?"

His eyes dropped and he nodded. "The plan was always to go as soon as Michael seemed better."

"When did you change your mind?"

He smiled, glancing up again. "When you showed up at my window wanting to talk. I knew then that a simple goodbye wasn't going to be enough."

"I'm glad."

"Me too," he sighed. "But Liz, the longer I stay, the harder it's going to make things."

"I know."

A rustling in the hallway caused them both to glance toward the door.

"I'd better get out of here," Max said. "I'll just run home and grab a shower and some clean clothes, then come back, okay?"

"Yeah. But my dad is working, so we'll have to keep things casual," she reminded him.

"I know. I think everyone else was planning on coming by for breakfast anyway."

Liz reached down and tugged her robe off the floor where it had fallen sometime during the night. She turned to see Max stepping into his jeans and smiled at the sight.

"Something amusing, Miss Parker?"

She shook her head. "Just enjoying the view while I can," she replied.

Max grew serious. He came around the bed and pulled Liz into his arms. "The sooner I go, the sooner I can get back."

Liz nodded, her smile fading. They were no longer talking about showers and breakfast. "You're right. It'll only get harder. I think… I think you should leave tonight."

She felt him stiffen. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah," she said. "I am. It'll be okay."

"How did you get to be so strong?" Max whispered, brushing a kiss over her forehead.

"We can do anything together, remember? Even if what we have to do is be apart." Rising on her toes, she graced him with a searing kiss. "Now get going," she said. "I'll see you downstairs in a bit."

Liz watched as Max pulled on the rest of his clothes, then grabbed his jacket and slipped through the window. He stopped and blew her a kiss before disappearing over the side of the roof. Her eyes remained focused on the empty space where he had stood just seconds earlier, almost as if she could still see him. Then she shook herself out of her daze and headed into the bathroom to take a shower.

As she got dressed, Liz wondered at the serenity of her thoughts. She would have expected herself to be at least a little upset at the prospect of saying goodbye to Max again so soon, even if she had been the one to tell him to go. Maybe it would hit her later, after he had gone. Right now she just felt grateful for the night they had spent in each other's arms, and for the knowledge that their love had been strong enough to survive the separation. If they had made it once, they could do so again.

She waited what she considered a reasonable amount of time and then headed down to the café. On the one hand she did not want to leave Max alone with her father, but on the other she was reluctant to get cornered herself. Entering through the back room, she was relieved to find the restaurant doing the usual brisk Saturday morning business. However, relief was quickly replaced by dismay when she spied Michael and Maria seated at a booth, with her father ignoring the rest of the customers in favor of catching up with his former cook. Stifling a groan, she hurried across the room.

"Hey guys," she said, trying to angle between her father and Michael.

Jeff looked up, his eyes clouded. "Lizzie, honey, why didn't you say anything about Isabel?" he asked quietly, his voice laced with sorrow.

Liz gulped and glanced toward her friends. Maria looked subdued and Michael avoided her gaze. "I… uh… I just couldn't," she said.

Her father wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into a quick hug, brushing a kiss over her forehead. "I understand. You let your mom and me know if you need to talk, okay?" he whispered. "That goes for you, too," he added, glancing at Michael. "I know how hard this must be."

"Thanks, Mr. Parker," Michael said.

"Thanks, Dad," Liz echoed, managing a smile.

"I've got to get back to work. Good seeing you, Michael. Don't be such a stranger." Jeff gave Liz's shoulder a final squeeze and headed back onto the floor.

Liz let out a long sigh and sank into the booth next to Maria. "I am so sorry, you guys."

"I figured you hadn't said anything," Maria said. "Alex is coming over with Lexie and I just thought it would be better if Michael and I tackled your dad before they got here."

Liz groaned and dropped her head into her hands. "Did you tell him everything?"

"Well, we left out the part about us being from another planet," Michael muttered. Catching Liz's eye, he smirked. "And the part about Max not making it back to his folks' last night."

"Gee, thanks." Liz smiled despite herself, glad that Michael was up to light teasing.

Maria poked Liz lightly in the ribs. "So? What happened?"

"That is none of your business," Liz told her.

Maria grinned. "Guess you guys kissed and made up."

"Maria."

"What?"

Liz struggled to look stern, then nodded toward the door. "Alex and Lexie are here."

Maria looked up. "Max, too," she said with a smirk.

Seeing that Max was indeed coming into the café behind Alex, Liz nodded. She watched as Alex stopped to shake hands with her father and introduce him to Lexie. Max and Jeff also exchanged handshakes and Liz could tell that her father was saying something about Isabel from the way Max's expression tightened and his eyes dropped to Lexie. Alex managed to extricate all three of them with a quick comment and Liz was relieved when they finally headed for the table.

"Hi, Liz," Lexie beamed, reaching toward her for a hug.

"Hey there, Lexie," Liz said, squeezing the little girl tightly. "You ready for breakfast?"

"Daddy said I could have pancakes," she announced as she went around the table and climbed onto Michael's lap. "Are you having breakfast with us, Uncle Michael?"

Maria smiled as Michael's arms slipped automatically around the child. "We're all having breakfast together, sweetie," she told her.

Lexie smiled. "Hi, Aunt Maria." Before Michael could stop her, she was standing on his lap and leaning across the table to kiss Maria, causing everyone to laugh.

"Hey, Alex. Max," Liz said, slipping from the booth. Her eyes met Max's and he smiled at her. "Why don't you guys have a seat and I'll get menus," she told them.

Max touched her wrist gently. "Sit, Liz. I think we all know what we want," he said. "Come on, Alex. Let's pull up another table."

They maneuvered a second table to the end of the booth and soon the six of them were seated. Max took the chair diagonally across from Liz to help minimize her father's concerns about his presence. Even so, Liz found herself unable to sit still. Just being near Max was sending energy coursing through her body and she knew she needed to put more distance between them until she could calm down. She went to get a pot of coffee and could feel his eyes following her as she crossed the café, and suddenly realized that she was affecting him the same way. She wondered idly if it was the result of suppressing their feelings for so long and then letting them run free.

By the time Liz returned with the coffee and a glass of milk for Lexie, everyone was deep in conversation. She could tell as she approached that they were deliberately keeping their voices low, and when Max met her questioning gaze she understood. He had told them that he was leaving again. She forced herself to smile encouragingly at him, then slipped into her seat. No matter how brave and strong she was feeling at that moment, she knew it was going to be a difficult day.

Breakfast was more lively than it might have been, however. Much to Liz's surprise, it was Michael who livened up the conversation by asking what everyone had been doing the past few years. He then proceeded to poke fun of their replies, particularly Alex's, informing him he had always known he would never be anything other than a computer geek. Nervous about describing her books, Liz had been relieved to discover Maria had already filled Michael in and that he was looking forward to reading them. "After all, I've always been a fan of your writing skills," he told her, and Liz blushed, recalling that Michael had read her journal many years earlier.

But by the time the meal was over, the tension had returned. It was as if they were all waiting for someone to say something regarding Max leaving, but no one was willing to take the first step. Liz could not help but feel that she should be the one to begin, since she had urged Max to make a clean break, but she had no idea what to say. And so the conversation faded and everyone sat awkwardly picking at the remains of their food and avoiding making eye contact.

"Guys, this isn't a wake," Max said finally, and Liz could feel the mood lighten measurably at the sound of his teasing voice. "Look, I need to go home and spend some time with my parents before I go. And then I would really like to spend the rest of the day alone with Liz. I hope you all understand," he said gently.

"Of course we do," Alex said.

"You do what you need to, Max," Maria told him.

"Sure, Max," Michael agreed. "But we're all going to come see you off later."

Max frowned. "No, Michael. I'll come by here and we can all say our goodbyes before I head out, but I don't want you all standing there watching me walk into the desert," he said in a low voice.

"No go, Maxwell."

"He's right, Max," Liz said. "We're all going to come."

"Liz, please," he said, turning to look at her, his expression pleading.

She reached across the table and took his hand, not caring who might see. "Max, we've discussed a lot of things over the past twenty-four hours, and we've agreed on most of them. But I'm not backing down on this one. I want to be with you until the last possible minute," she said softly. "And everyone else has the right to be there to say goodbye as well. It won't make it any harder, Max. This one isn't up for discussion."

He stared at her for a moment and she realized there were tears in his eyes. Finally he gave her hand a quick squeeze and nodded. "Okay," he said, letting her fingers slip through his. "You win."

Lexie slipped out of the booth where she was sitting and climbed onto Max's lap. "Don't be sad, Uncle Max. I'll take care of everyone until you come back," she whispered.

Max managed a watery smile. "I'm glad to hear that, sweetie. Thank you."

"I love you," she told him, wrapping her arms around his neck.

"And I love you, Lexie," he said, returning her hug. But his eyes were on Liz as a single tear slid down his cheek.

*******

TBC
posted on 7-Sep-2001 1:17:46 PM

Part 21

*********

In the end, I could have asked him to stay. He would have done it, for me, because right or wrong he wanted it just as badly as I did. Or I could have gone with him, though he'd said that I couldn't. He was right that I shouldn't - that I would be a distraction for him on Antar and the danger would have been greater for both of us - but if I had pressed the issue, he would have backed down and let me go. It wasn't in him to deny me. Not with any conviction. I was his weakness, just as he was mine.

The funny thing is, knowing that was enough. When Max left the first time around, there was no discussion. He came to me and told me the plan in such a way as to leave no room for argument. There was barely time to absorb the news before he was gone. In some ways, it was just as bad as if he had never bothered to say goodbye. I felt nearly as left out of the process as Maria, and it hurt. Never mind that I knew Max well enough to understand why he did it, that I realized why he couldn't risk asking me to go with him. What I really needed was to hear the words, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he wanted the impossible just as much as I did. To know he loved me enough to take the risk. Instead he kept silent - sparing me - and left me with a void where my heart had been.

It's hard to keep believing when you're living with doubts. You keep building up arguments inside your head, then tearing them down again. It's like a mini war where you play both sides because your opponent hasn't bothered to show. And I can't blame Max for putting me in that position, because I did the same to him. I never asked him to stay - didn't even tell him that I wished he could. I thought I was making things easier, but I was wrong. Like Maria said… noble.

There's something comforting in knowing you can learn from your mistakes. This time neither of us kept any secrets. We each knew where the other one stood because we had both been completely honest, and it gave us a new kind of faith.

Knowledge breeds strength. Max had asked me how I'd gotten so strong, and I told him we could face anything together. Even if what we faced was separation. That was truer than either of us realized. Sometimes just knowing you need to move a mountain can show you the path through the middle. You just have to be brave, and willing to travel uncharted territory. Certainly nothing new for us.

* * * * *

As if by unspoken agreement, Liz and Max kept the afternoon casual. They met for a late lunch at Senior Chow's, where they laughed over fortune cookies and pool and reminiscences of high school. Afterward, Liz told Max college stories, and about her life in Boston. She kept the mood light, sticking to her more amusing adventures with Sandy and to various weather-related mishaps that always seemed to involve great quantities of snow and holes in her boots. Each time Max smiled or laughed, Liz felt a little thrill of triumph shooting to her toes. She was painfully aware of how much of the past few days had been spent in serious conversation. A little humor made for a nice change of pace, even though she knew it was temporary.

It was just starting to get dark when they loaded up the car and Liz began the drive into the desert. The setting sun illuminated the horizon, turning the distant hills a reddish gold. By the time they reached the hill that concealed the pod chamber, a few stars were blinking into view. Liz parked the car and cut the engine, and they sat quietly for a moment, just staring at the darkening sky.

"Looks like it's going to be a clear night," Liz said finally.

"Mmm," Max agreed. All of his attention was focused outward, upward, as if he were waiting for some kind of sign.

"Max," Liz said softly.

"I don't know if I'm ready," he confessed.

"To go back?"

He nodded. "I think about what's waiting for me and I know I have no choice. But it's so hard, Liz."

She reached out and took his hand. "I know it is. For me, too." She watched him as he watched the sky, then tugged gently on his fingers. "Come on."

They got out of the car and Liz handed Max a blanket to spread on the ground. He chose a place a little way from the car, carefully smoothing away the pebbles before laying the blanket over the hard-packed sand. He took the rest of the things Liz passed to him - some throw pillows, a take-out bag from the Crashdown - and rested them on the edge of the cloth.

"Is this going to be enough food?" he questioned, eyeing the bag.

"Maria and Michael are bringing some, too," she replied.

Max glanced at his watch and nodded. They had deliberately left themselves a little extra time before the rest of the gang were due to arrive.

"None of that," Liz told him, swatting his wrist lightly. "We're not paying attention to the clock tonight." She drew him down onto the blanket next to her. "Besides, I have something for you."

"For me?"

She pulled a package from behind her back, wrapped in festive Christmas paper. "For you," she repeated, handing him the gift. "I… It's your Christmas present. I wish it was more, but…"

"Liz, hush," he said, placing a finger over her mouth. He caressed her bottom lip with his thumb before pulling back. "Thank you."

"You haven't even opened it yet."

Max smiled. "I guess I'll have to remedy that." Carefully slipping his finger beneath a flap of paper, he began to unwrap the package. "Your books," he said, as he removed the gift wrap and set it aside. He turned each volume over in his hands. There were three of them, each in hardcover.

"The last one is an advance copy," she said. "It's not even in the stores yet."

"I'm honored," he said. Flipping open the cover of the first book, Max stared at the inscription in the flyleaf. 'Max-You gave me hope and love and life; you showed me the magic in the universe; you made me believe in second chances. You will always be the love of my life. With all my heart, Liz.'

Max blinked away the tears that were threatening to spill down his face and set the books down. "Was this supposed to make things easier?" he asked, clearly trying to make light of the moment, but failing miserably. "Come here."

Liz shifted closer and slipped into his arms. "I love you," she whispered as his hands stroked over her back and pulled her more securely against his chest.

"I love you, too. And I love the books. I'll be able to sit and read them at night and think of you. Not that I wouldn't be thinking of you anyway," he said with a low chuckle. "That's never been something I could control. I have something for you, also," he added, kissing her on the forehead. "But you have to wait a minute because right now all I want to do is hold you."

She snuggled closer, aware of the feel of his jacket beneath her palms, his warmth enveloping her, the scent of soap that clung to his skin. This was all she needed. Not gifts or words or noble gestures, but to be held in Max's arms, to feel safe and loved and close to him for the rest of her life. Squeezing her eyes shut, she told herself she would have all that one day. Just not quite yet.

Liz didn't realize that she was crying until she felt Max wipe away a tear that had slipped down her cheek. Opening her eyes, she met his concerned look. "I'm okay," she told him with a weak smile. "Just thinking too much." Untangling herself from his arms, she gave him a little shove. "Go get my present."

Max stroked her cheek once more and nodded. He went and fumbled in the back of the car for a moment, then came back and sat down close to Liz. "Remember when I told you I couldn't drive because my license had expired? And you joked about not needing one on Antar?"

Liz nodded. "I remember."

"The irony is that, on Antar, the four of us had no need for identification of any kind because we looked human. No one ever had to ask who we were. The entire planet knew us on sight," he sighed. "Rather awkward when you're trying to blend in, but handy when you're issuing orders. But everyone else on Antar has a form of identification. It consists of their family crest with some sort of modification to indicate their generation and family branch." Max handed Liz a small box. "We were curious about what ours would look like."

Liz looked at the box. "This is your Antarian identification?"

"Open it," he replied.

"Okay." She carefully slipped the lid off the box. Inside was what looked like a round locket, only without a loop for a chain. Frowning slightly, Liz gently slid the object into her hand. The moment it touched her skin, the smooth metal began to glow with a bluish light.
"Just hold it," Max told her, reaching out to cup her hands with his.
She glanced up and met his amber gaze, then back down at their joined hands. The small orb was glowing more brightly, and the light was beginning to shift into a beam that ended approximately eight inches above her palm. A symbol began forming at the apex of the beam, shaping itself until Liz recognized it as the symbol from the pendant they had found in Texas, so many years before. Only this image was three dimensional, a hologram that moved through the air and continued to extend itself upward until it morphed into a circle of light that began to spin as the color went from a bright blue to a deep purple, to black, and finally silver. It hung suspended for a moment and then vanished, as if the energy and light had been sucked back into the metal object in her hand.

Liz let out a long breath. "It's beautiful, Max. Much more impressive than a driver's license," she added with a smile.

"The colors represent the royal house of Antar," he explained. "The silver ring at the end is reserved for the current ruler."

"Like a crown."

"Something like that."

"Max, it's lovely, but… I get the feeling it's more than that. Why are you giving me this?"

"You asked me what would happen if you stopped having the dreams again. How you would know that I was coming back instead of… This is how," he finished quickly. "It's designed to reflect my current status, no matter where it is, or where I am. If anything should happen to me, you'll be able to tell by the final color and shape of the symbol."

Liz's eyes widened. "You mean, if you're no longer ruler, the silver circle will vanish by itself?"

Max nodded. "A deposed ruler would have a black circle. That's what I had prior to taking the capital back. When we first left Antar in our pods, the circle was a solid black sphere, to indicate death."

"So what would it look like if you gave up the throne and came back to earth?"

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "But as long as the circle is hollow, you'll know I'm all right."

Liz returned the small orb to its box and carefully replaced the lid. She slipped the box into her jacket pocket, patting it into place as if assuring its safety. "It's the perfect present," she told Max quietly, her dark eyes serious. "Thank you."

"It's for me as much as it is for you," he responded. "I swear to do everything in my power to come back to you, Liz. But you know there aren't any guarantees. I want you to promise me something."

She shifted uncomfortably under his steady gaze. "I thought we weren't going to do this," she said. "We agreed not to get all gloom and doom."

"Liz, listen to me," Max urged, taking her face in his hands and forcing her to meet his eyes. "I love you more than anything, and I know you feel the same way about me. But if something should happen and I can't come back, you have to go on with your life. I'm not asking you not to wait for me, because I can't do that again. I can't be that selfless. But Liz, I got my share of flashes last night while we were making love," he told her quietly. Leaning close, he brushed a kiss over her cheek. "I know just how hard it's been for you, and everything you've gone through," he whispered. "Promise me to take care of yourself. Promise me you won't let it break you. You're the strongest person I know, Liz, and I know you can do this for me. I couldn't stand it if I thought you weren't living life to the fullest."

When Max pulled back and looked into her eyes, Liz could see that he was crying. Tears streamed down his face unchecked and his expression was pained. She reached out and brushed at the tears on his cheek, fresh ones falling over her fingers even as she did.

"I promise," she said. "But it doesn't matter either way, because you're coming back to me, Max Evans, if I have to come up there and bring you back myself."

He smiled then, shaking his head slowly. "You, Liz Parker, are amazing."

"Not so amazing," she said. "Just hopelessly in love." Shifting onto her knees, she kissed him hard on the mouth.

Max returned her kiss, wrapping his arms tightly around her as if she might fly away. After a moment he pulled back and they sat, foreheads touching. "I hear a car," he whispered.

"Me, too," Liz said, but she didn't move away from him. They continued to sit that way, hands linked, until Maria's headlights swept over them and they were forced to turn away or be blinded.

"I guess it's getting pretty dark," Max said with a chuckle.

"Good thing. They won't be able to see what a mess we both are. I'll get the flashlights," Liz said. She kissed him gently, then slipped her hand from his and stood up.

"Uncle Max!" Lexie shot from the car and came bounding across the blanket, throwing herself into Max's arms as Liz headed back toward the car.

"Hey there, Lexie," Max said, catching the little girl easily. "What have you been up to all day?"

Lexie settled herself comfortably on his lap, her head resting against his chest and one arm looped around his waist possessively. "We went to the park and Daddy and Michael showed me how to play Frisbee," she told him. "And Maria wouldn't play with us."

"She wouldn't, huh?" Max asked, glancing toward Maria who was spreading out a second blanket. "How come?"

"Got her nails done this morning," Michael snorted as he carried over an enormous picnic basket. "What the hell's in here, Blondie?" he asked as he set his burden down.

Maria's eyebrows arched threateningly. "You're the one who'll probably eat most of it, Spaceboy, so I wouldn't complain if I were you."

"Isn't it nice to have them back to normal?" Alex asked, as he brought up the rear.

"Very nice," Max said, his eyes meeting Michael's.

Liz came back and set a couple of flashlights on the blanket, then passed Max a large box of candles. "Want to see if you can do something with these?"

"Sure." Shifting Lexie off his lap, he began placing the fat candles around the periphery of the blankets, driving them a few inches into the hard ground to secure them.

"Can I light them, Uncle Max?" asked Lexie.

"Okay. Be careful though," Max warned. "Let me finish first."

As soon as Max set the last candle in place, he turned to Lexie and nodded. Smiling, the little girl snapped her fingers and all of the candles flickered to life.

"Like mother, like daughter," Liz whispered, sitting down in front of Max and leaning back into his arms.

"Exactly," he agreed.

When everyone had settled onto the blankets, they began passing the food around. Conversation remained minimal while they ate, but as the meal came to an end the mood remained subdued. Maria began to clean up automatically, tucking garbage into a large plastic bag and storing plates and leftovers back in the basket.

"Maria, stop," Liz told her. "That can wait."

"I just want to get things straightened up," Maria replied.

"Maria, stop fussing," Michael said, taking her hands and tugging her to his side.

"It's too cold to sit still," she protested. "Only we would have a picnic in the middle of December."

"There's an extra blanket in the car," Alex said. "Lexie, why don't you go get it, okay?"

"Okay," she agreed and skipped off toward Maria's car.

"Now what's really going on?" Michael asked, pulling Maria closer. "This is more than being cold."

She shook her head and looked toward Liz, green eyes filling with tears. "It's not fair, okay? I want you to stay, Michael, but then I think of Max going and Liz getting left behind again and… I just feel guilty," she finished, turning to burrow her face into his shoulder.

"Hey, it's all right," Michael soothed. He looked helplessly toward Max and Liz.

"Maria, please don't cry," Max began. "You have nothing to feel guilty about. We're talking about two entirely different set of circumstances."

"I know that in my head," she said, her voice muffled. Turning slightly, she rubbed at her damp cheeks and shook her head. "But I can't help how I feel."

"Here's the blanket, Aunt Maria," Lexie announced, returning to the group. She carefully unfolded the blanket and wrapped it around Maria's shoulders, patting her gently. "Is that better?"

"Much," Maria said, pulling herself together. "Thanks, sweetie."

Lexie leaned over and gave Maria a hug. "I love you, Aunt Maria," she said.

"I love you, too, baby."

"Come here, rascal," Alex said, snaking out an arm and grabbing Lexie around the middle. Tugging her backward, he swept her up and flipped her upside down, causing her to burst out in a fit of giggles.

Liz smiled at how comfortable Alex already was with Lexie. Turning back to Maria, she found Michael rocking her gently, rubbing her back. But Maria's eyes were still on Liz and Max. Squeezing Max's hand, Liz shifted out of his arms and scooted to the other side of the blanket.

"Maria," she said quietly, "I need you to pull yourself together. I can do this, but only if you're there to back me up. I can't be strong if you aren't. Please."

"Are you sure, Lizzie?" Maria asked in a low voice. "He'll stay if you ask. You know he will."

"I do know. And I am sure," Liz replied. "He has to do this, and I have to let him. It's so much bigger than just the two of us." Glancing up, she met Michael's watchful gaze. "Michael, you know I'm right."

He nodded. "It's their decision," he told Maria. "And they've both made it."

"I just want you to be happy," Maria said.

"I know. And I love you for that. But this is how things have to be for the present."

Maria sighed and struggled to sit up. "Okay, Liz. If you're sure." She shook her head. "I had to choose now to give up smoking," she muttered, glaring at Michael.

Liz laughed. "Give me a hug."

Maria leaned forward and Liz soon found herself wrapped, not just in Maria's arms, but in Michael's as well. "We're here for you," Maria whispered.

"I know. Thanks," Liz said.

A shadow fell across the blanket where they were sitting and, looking up, Liz saw Max standing a few feet away, watching the exchange. Just behind him, Alex had Lexie tucked under his arm like a sack of potatoes and was spinning her wildly, making her laugh. Liz shook her head.

"You might want to stop them," she told Max, "before Alex is very sorry."

Turning, Max suddenly took a step back as Alex flew Lexie straight at him. Tripping over a fold in the blanket, he reached out to get his balance and all three of them tumbled to the ground. Liz, Michael, and Maria burst out laughing, with Liz squealing abruptly when Max rolled over and started to tickle her.

"Max, stop. Please stop," she begged breathlessly. She could hear Lexie's giggles grow more desperate and knew Alex or someone had begun to tickle the little girl as well. Gasping for air, Liz pushed at Max's creeping fingers, but he had managed to get up under both her jacket and sweater, and had attacked the sensitive skin around her waist. "No. More. Can't. Breathe," she managed. "Max, please."
"Okay, okay," he laughed, releasing her. She rolled quickly to the edge of the blanket and collapsed flat on her back, breathing hard.
"You all right?" he asked.

Liz waved her hand, then let it fall to the ground. Panting slightly, she pushed herself up on one elbow. "You're evil," she declared, glaring at Max. "You know I hate to be tickled."

Crawling over to her, Max dropped a quick kiss on her pouting mouth. "I know. But that's what makes it so much fun," he said with a smile.

"You realize you get privileged treatment," Alex pointed out. "If I had tried to tickle Parker that way, she'd have had me in a headlock by now."

"That's because she can put you in a headlock," Maria pointed out. "I doubt Max would go down quite so easy."

"Hell, Max was down for the count the first day of third grade," Michael said.

"Excuse me," Liz said. "You guys do realize that we're both sitting here, right?"

"What's a headlock?" Lexie asked, and everyone burst out laughing again.

"I'm sure Uncle Michael will be happy to teach you how to put someone in a headlock," Alex told her.

"Or Aunt Maria will," Michael added, smirking when Maria swatted him half-heartedly.

"Stop corrupting my niece," Max said teasingly. "Come here, Lexie."

Lexie crawled over and climbed onto Max's lap. "I'm gonna miss you, Uncle Max," she said softly, and suddenly everyone grew quiet.

Max took a deep breath. "I know, baby. I'm gonna miss you, too. You're my favorite little girl in the whole universe, you know that?"
Lexie nodded and wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her face against his chest. Her shoulders began to tremble.

"Oh, Lexie," Max sighed, rubbing her back. "Sweetie, please don't cry. You and I have talked all about this," he said gently. "Do you remember?"

The little girl nodded again, but kept her face hidden.

Max nudged her cheek with his nose. "Lex? What did we say?"

Pulling back, Lexie sniffed. "That you had to go back to help everyone, but that you weren't going to stay long cuz you'd miss us all too much," she recited. "And I have to be brave and take care of Daddy and Uncle Michael and Aunt Maria and Aunt Liz."

"That's right," Max said, hugging her close. "I'll be back before you know it, and you have to promise to remember all the exciting things that happen to you while I'm gone so you can tell me about them," he whispered against her hair, his eyes tearing up. "You think you can do all that?"

"Yes," Lexie sniffled. "But I'm still going to miss you."

"I know, baby," Max said, brushing a kiss over her forehead. "Me too." With one last hug, he lifted her off his lap and passed her to Alex. Then standing stiffly, he looked out over the desert. "I hate to say this, guys, but I should get going." Glancing down at Liz, he held out a hand to help her up. "It's not going to get any easier."

Liz nodded and accepted his hand. Everyone else stood as well, Alex cuddling Lexie in his arms.

Maria stepped forward first, looking up at Max with tears in her eyes. "Thank you," she said, her voice muffled against his jacket as he pulled her into a hug. "Thank you for bringing him back to me, and for not asking him to leave again."

"Thank you, Maria," Max said. "For bringing him back to me, in more ways than one. You're a good friend."

"You, too," she whispered. "Be safe."

"I'll do my best," he said, pulling back. He kissed her on the cheek and wiped away a stray tear. "Take care."

Alex came forward next, Lexie still clinging to him. He held out his hand awkwardly, shifting the little girl in his arms. "Max, I don't even know where to start," he said.

Max slipped his hand into Alex's and pulled him and Lexie both into his arms. "You meant everything to her," he said in a low voice. "The two of you. I wish…"

"I know," Alex said. "I do. Thank you for bringing Lexie to me."

"You're welcome. I wish it were more."

"Just come back again, Max," Alex told him. "That's all any of us wants now."

Nodding, Max pat him once more on the back, ran his hand over Lexie's braid, then stepped back. Turning, he wiped quickly at the tears threatening to spill down his cheeks.

"Maxwell." Michael walked over and stood in front of Max.

"Michael," Max said. The two men stood looking at each other until finally, almost as one, they pulled each other into a tight hug.

"Be careful," Michael said. "Fearless leader or no, you're just as mortal as the rest of us," he added quietly.

"I know. Michael, I'm sorry for everything that happened. For the arguing and the pettiness and…"

"No, Max. You were right. You were always right. I guess I just got tired of it occasionally."

"No. I wasn't right a lot of the time, and I should have listened to you more."

Michael shook his head slightly, then pulled back. "I'm gonna miss you, man. Even if you are a pain in the…" His eyes flicked to Lexie, then back. "Well, you know where."

Max let out a short bark of a laugh. "Yeah, I know. Same here."

"Be careful."

"You, too. And, uh, keep an eye out for me, okay?" Leaning closer, Max lowered his voice. "Take care of Liz. She's going to need your support."

Michael glanced toward Liz, who had clearly heard despite Max's efforts, and nodded. "Will do." Turning back to Max, he patted him briefly on the shoulder, then walked over to Maria.

No one said anything else. Alex carried Lexie back to Maria's car while Max got his bag out of Liz's trunk. He lovingly tucked the books she had given him into the knapsack and zipped it shut. Throwing the strap over his shoulder, he held out his hand to Liz.

"Walk with me for a bit?"

Liz nodded and slipped her hand into his. They started around the left side of the path that led to the pod chamber, walking slowly. Max never turned back to see if their friends were watching them.

When the lights from the candles and flashlights behind them had dimmed and the moon and stars were providing most of the night's illumination, Max stopped and turned to Liz. "We'd better say good bye here," he said. "You didn't bring a flashlight and I don't want you stumbling around out here, trying to find your way back to the others."

"Okay," Liz said, trying to keep her voice steady. She looked up at Max, the star-filled sky serving as a backdrop to his beautiful face. "Oh, God," she said, and threw herself into his arms. He crushed her to his chest and she could barely breathe, but she didn't care. "Why is this so much harder than before?" she asked.

"I don't know. Maybe because we already know how long the days are when we're not together," he whispered. Pulling back, he looked down at her with damp eyes. "I love you, Liz Parker. And I will come back to you."

"I love you, too. More than I ever thought it was possible to love anyone," Liz said. "Please be careful, Max."

He traced her tear tracks with gentle fingers. "I will. For you." Leaning down, he kissed her hard, all of his emotions pouring into her. Stroking his hands over her back, he fell to his knees and cupped her hips. He traced over her stomach, placing a gentle hand over the place where he had healed her so many years earlier. "One moment, just one split second," he breathed. "That's all it takes to change a life."

Kneeling so she could look into his eyes, Liz took Max's face in her hands. "You are my life," she told him. "The day that you saved me, everything changed. I changed, Max. You did more than bring me back to life - you gave me a whole new world, with you at the center." She brushed her lips over his once more. "I love you, Max Evans," she said, silent tears streaming down her face. "Now go finish saving your planet, so you can come back home to me."

"Whatever you say," Max replied. He helped her up, then stood holding both of her hands. "Remember what I said. Take care of yourself. If you need anything, I want you to ask someone. Talk to Michael and Maria, or go to Alex. I spoke with my mother and she told me how sorry she is for the way she's been acting toward you," he said, leaning down to rest his forehead against Liz's. "She's wanted to approach you for a while, but she was too embarrassed. Go to her if you need to talk, okay? She really does care about you."

"Okay, I will," Liz promised. "Now, please, Max, before I really lose it." Standing on tip-toe, she pulled him down and kissed him soundly. "I love you."

"I love you," Max said. He closed his eyes briefly, as if committing the moment to memory. "I'll see you in your dreams," he whispered. He opened his eyes and pulled her into one final hug, brushing a kiss over her forehead. Then, adjusting his bag on his shoulder, he turned and walked into the darkness.

Liz stood and watched until she could no longer see Max's shape in the distance. Then she waited a few more minutes, imagining him in every shadow. Finally, she headed back toward the others. Just before she reached them, something made her turn one last time. Beyond the hill, she caught sight of a slight shimmer in the air and a sudden breeze caused her hair to flutter around her. Then everything was still once more.

******

TBC
posted on 8-Sep-2001 7:57:51 AM

Part 22

********

Epilogue

It was the week after Christmas when the dreams resumed. I can't say I wasn't expecting them - even waiting for them - but the first one still took me by surprise. The snow was flying back in Boston, and I had gone to bed early, crawling under my down quilt to escape the cold. I woke in the middle of the night, feeling toasty warm and wrapped in love, and for a moment I had no idea why. Then the dream came flooding back to me, and I felt the most profound sense of relief. It was comforting to know that the Max in my dreams, however distant, was real, and that if I was dreaming of him now it meant he had arrived safely. I could feel his fatigue, the heaviness of his thoughts, but I could also feel his love for me, and with it the understanding that all he had to do was reach out with his mind, and I would be there. It might have been a poor form of communication, but when you're separated by galaxies, you take what you can get.

Four days later, the morning sickness kicked in. Truthfully, that was less of a surprise. After six years of abstinence, neither Max nor I had been exactly prepared the night we made love. I can't claim to have given it much thought at the time, but I believe we both understood on some level that we were willing to take the risk. The idea of having Max's baby - a little piece of each of us that would go on no matter what - well, all I had to do was think of Alex with Lexie to know how important that could be.

It didn't take me long to tame my queasy stomach. Once I realized I had to eat a little something every two hours, life became more manageable. Dealing with everything else was another matter entirely. I had some major decisions to make and I wasn't quite sure where to start. So, I called Maria and Michael.

They were great. Both of them. Maria was wonderfully supportive and happy for me. She didn't lecture or lose her cool, just bubbled over with love and enthusiasm. But it was Michael who was the real surprise. He actually got on a plane and flew to Boston to see me. I mean, I knew he was at loose ends; he'd moved in with Maria and was helping her in the store while he figured out what to do next. But Michael and I had never been close, so it meant a lot that he was willing to go out of his way to come talk to me. Somehow I knew he that he wasn't coming to scold, but because he cared.

If Michael coming to visit was unexpected, his advice left me speechless. He told me he thought I should come home to Roswell, to the people who cared about me, and that I should tell my parents the truth. And he didn't mean the truth about being pregnant - he meant the truth about Max.

I suppose it might have been my hormones ruling my emotions, but I told Michael he was insane. That my parents were going to go crazy enough when I told them I was pregnant. They were bound to realize that Max was the father, and his being gone again would hardly help the situation. I didn't think telling them he was off fighting a war on another planet was the wisest choice. The last thing I needed was for them to try to have me committed.

Looking back, I think that conversation was the first real indication of just how much Michael had changed while he was on Antar. What he went through - the battles, Lexie's birth, losing Isabel - shaped him into a calmer, wiser man. I know that sounds strange, given his behavior those first days after he came back, but it's the truth. While I was busy calling him all sorts of crazy, he just listened patiently until I had worn myself down. Then he took my hand and reminded me that Max's parents already knew the truth about his origins. They were going to be ecstatic to learn about my pregnancy and would be more than happy to help me face my own parents. And he and Lexie would pitch in as well, if my parents required convincing of the off-world variety. He was so… reasonable about it. Logical. I had to admit it was a perfectly sensible argument, even if it was coming from Michael.

But I needed to think about it. Returning to Roswell meant putting myself back in the fish bowl. I would be Jeff and Nancy Parker's daughter again; only now, instead of being the shining example, I would be unmarried and pregnant. It had taken me years to achieve a measure of independence and anonymity, and I was loathe to give that up.

So, that spring I went ahead with my book tour as planned. As luck would have it, my pregnancy barely showed for a long time, though by the end of the trip I was well into my sixth month and had to find myself a couple of strategically cut dresses. Still, no one could tell, and I began to realize that it made me a little sad. I didn't want to keep my baby a secret. I already loved it more that I would have thought possible, and I wanted to share that love with my friends and family.

I went home at the end of June to face the music. As predicted, my parents were upset, though I found it interesting that they were angrier over how long it had taken me to tell them than over the fact that I was pregnant. I tried to explain that I had wanted to finish my book tour before coming home, but they didn't seem to feel that was a valid explanation.

Also as predicted, they were furious with Max. They couldn't understand how he could do such a thing and just take off again. My mother, in particular, launched into her list of Max's past transgressions, going all the way back to our getting caught making out in the eraser room sophomore year. And that was when I realized that Michael was right. There was no need to keep my parents in the dark any longer - no reason to keep making Max the villain in their eyes. They deserved the truth. If Michael, of all people, was comfortable with my spilling his secret, then I had no doubt that Max would be fine with it as well. So I called the Evanses, and my friends, and had them all come over to help me tell my parents that Max Evans, the love of my life and father of my child, was an alien.

My parents actually handled the news fairly well. It took a little convincing, and a few demonstrations from Michael, but they finally understood that none of us had lost our minds. In many ways, it was the perfect time to tell them. I was an adult, so they could hardly forbid me to see Max or to have his child, and because I was pregnant, they were concerned for my well-being and less likely to make an ugly scene that might upset me. And I think they were also relieved to learn that Max had a noble reason for taking off for parts unknown, though they were still less than pleased with his absence.

Their main concern was for my health. I could put their minds at ease to some extent, because of Isabel; clearly Lexie was a happy, healthy child. But they still worried. I suppose it was inevitable, especially after Maria brought up the fact that Isabel herself was alien, while I was human. I couldn't really use the success of her pregnancy as a yardstick for my own. There are times when I really regret helping Maria pass high school biology.

I moved back to Roswell in early August. Alex had found me a two-bedroom house with a handkerchief-sized garden, a den I could use as an office, and a monthly rent that was half of what I paid for my tiny apartment in Boston. Best of all, it was only one street over from the house where Alex and Lexie lived, and the back yards butted up against each other diagonally. Everyone helped out with the unpacking, since I was starting to feel a little sluggish by then, and it didn't take long for the house to seem lived in and homey. When it came time to decorate the nursery, however, I did most of the work myself, sticking to deep blues and greens. The exception was the mural on the ceiling, which Michael painted for me. I left it completely to his own judgement, but I can't say I was surprised at the results. Stars and planets seemed appropriate, and it was unlikely anyone would ever ask what galaxy it was.

The baby was born in September, just a few days late by my best calculations. He came into the world with a tuft of dark brown hair and deep amber eyes just like his father's. My mother said he had an expression of intelligence from the moment he drew his first breath, as if he could see into your soul just by looking at you. I can't say I was surprised by that, either.

He's the image of Max. Oh, there's a little of me there, too, but overall he's his father's son. Not just the way he looks, either. I see Max in his quiet shyness, his serious nature, in the way he concentrates when he's trying to understand something. It's hard sometimes, to watch him getting bigger each day, see him learning about the world around him, and know how much Max is missing. I understand what Isabel must have felt, watching Lexie grow up on Antar so far away from Alex.

What's hardest is to keep believing Max is actually coming back. It's been two years. Another Christmas is coming up and there's only one thing I want Santa to bring. But the dreams have stopped again, and I'm petrified. The silver orb Max gave me hasn't changed the way he said it would and I don't know what that means. I wish I could feel him, sense him, but he's just gone. It makes me feel weak to give into my fears, so I'm trying to stay strong. One way or another, I should know soon, but I'm so afraid that he isn't coming back to me. I hate myself for doubting, for worrying, but it's not just my life anymore. The trouble with allowing yourself to hope is that it hurts that much more when you discover you've been let down. In my heart I know Max would do anything to come back to me, but what if the choice isn't his to make?

* * * * *

Liz Parker put the cap on her pen and stared down at the pages of her journal. It had been a long time since she had written in it; writing tended to make her feel melancholy these days. But she had needed to get the words out, to put her doubts on paper in an effort to exorcise them. Most of the time she was able to go on as usual - cheerful, busy, involved with her life. And, if she was being honest with herself, she would have to admit that in most things she was deliriously happy. She had a son she adored, a nice home, family and friends whom she loved, a thriving career as a writer. It was just at night, when she was so terribly alone, that she found herself feeling the slightest bit depressed.

She knew it was because she was no longer having the dreams. It had been weeks, and the lack of them was taking its toll on her. She felt like her connection to Max had been broken, abruptly and cruelly, and she missed him more than she could say. Funny, how such a tenuous and faint link had grown so vital over the past two years. It wasn't as if they could really communicate through the dreams. But they had given her comfort and made her feel reassured. Now she just lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling, dreading the moment when sleep would finally take her and leave her stranded in that empty void.

The sound of something hitting the floor in the next room brought her out of her musings. Closing her journal, she rose and headed into the hallway. A soft stream of light from the baby's nightlight shone through the half-open doorway.

"What's going on in here?" she asked, her voice warm and loving. Pushing the door open, she saw a number of stuffed toys littering the bedroom floor. As she flicked on the over head light, a fuzzy yellow duck joined his friends on the carpet just inches from her feet. Across the room, big brown eyes blinked at the sudden brightness.

"James Michael Evans, why are you still awake?" Liz admonished in a teasing tone as she went over to the crib where her son stood, his small hands curled around the railing. His hair was tousled and his cheeks pink, but his eyes were alert.

"Mama," he replied, reaching toward her with both arms. His fingers flexed, as if he was grabbing the air. "Mama, uppy. Go buh-bye?"

"Oh, Jamie, baby, it's too late to go bye-bye." Liz picked him up and hugged him close. There was nothing like the feeling of his arms closing around her neck, his pajama-clad legs wrapping around her waist. She walked over to the rocker and sat down, stroking his hair back from his warm face and kissing him on the forehead.

But Jamie didn't cuddle against her the way he normally did when he was having trouble sleeping. Instead he sat straight up on her lap, pulling on her sweater. "Buh-bye," he declared, his full lips turning down in a pout. "Uppy," he said.

Liz frowned. "Sweetie, it's after eleven o'clock. Time for you to be asleep. Time for Mama to be asleep, too."

Jamie scrunched his face up and pulled harder at her top. "Go. Mama go."

"You want me to go bye-bye?" Liz asked, confused. He had been restless all day, but this insistence on going out was new. "What are you trying to tell me, baby?"

Wiggling determinedly, Jamie slipped out of her arms and onto the floor. On unsure feet, he toddled over to the low bookshelves that ran under the windows. At first Liz thought he wanted another bedtime story, but instead of reaching for his books, Jamie braced himself with both hands and proceeded to try to climb onto the top of the shelves.

"Be careful," Liz said, rushing over to cup a palm beneath his bottom so she could catch him if he fell.

"Uppy," Jamie said again. He shoved hard and suddenly toppled forward, barely catching himself before he swayed into the wall. Ignoring his mother as she gripped the waist of his pajama bottoms, he balanced on his knees on the top shelf and pointed out the window toward the sky. "Buh-bye," he said, turning to look at Liz.

Liz felt her knees go weak, and she slowly sank down on the top of the shelves next to her son. "What's up in the sky, Jamie?"

The baby's forehead wrinkled briefly, but he continued to point upward. "Mama buh-bye."

Liz eyed Jamie for a moment, taking in his serious expression. "Okay, sweetie. Mama will go bye-bye," she said softly. She scooped him up and sat him on her hip as she headed back to her bedroom. Picking up the phone, she hit the auto-dial with her thumb, cursing the hour.

"Hello?"

"Alex, it's me."

"Liz, what's wrong? Is it Jamie?"

"No, he's fine. I'm sorry to call so late," Liz said in a rush. "I just need you to watch him for me. Can you?"

"Of course." Alex paused, and Liz could almost hear his thoughts through the line. "Liz, are you sure everything is all right?"

"Positive. I just need to run out for a bit. I'll drop Jamie off on my way, okay?"

"You know it is. Lexie will be thrilled."

"Lexie's awake?" Liz asked.

"Yeah. Said she couldn't sleep so she's in her room reading. Not like she's got school tomorrow, what with Christmas break and all."

"Right," Liz said. "I'll be over in a minute. Thanks, Alex."

"Anytime."

Liz quickly threw some diapers, a spare bottle, and Jamie's favorite bear into a tote bag. Then she bundled him into his parka and headed across the yard, figuring it would be faster than strapping him into his car seat just to drive around the block. As if he had read her mind, Alex met her at the back door.

"Hey, pal," he said, taking Jamie from Liz's arms. "You gonna hang with us while Mommy goes out partying?" he asked as the baby rested his head on his shoulder.

"Funny," Liz told him as she handed over the tote as well. "I don't know how long I'll be, so…"

"We won't wait up," Alex said. "If the lights are out you can just come pick him up in the morning."

"Thanks."

"Liz, where are you going?" Alex asked, his eyes faintly concerned.

"I'm not exactly sure," she muttered. "I'll explain later, okay?"

Alex nodded and Liz thanked the stars that she had friends who truly understood her. She kissed Jamie once more and left.

She drove carefully, conscious of the speedometer creeping steadily upward whenever she allowed her thoughts to drift. Her heart was fluttering unnaturally fast, but she wouldn't let herself worry about it. All she could do was assure herself that she was too young to have a heart attack and leave it at that.

Once she passed the Roswell city limits, the road was deserted. No one out for a midnight stroll in the middle of no where, she thought. Just me, the woman who sees signs in her fifteen-month-old son's baby talk. "God, I'm really cracking up," she mumbled.

It was a clear night - the kind where the stars seem etched in bold relief across the sky, each one brighter than the last. Liz opened her window a crack to let the cool, dry air wash over her, but she still felt ready to jump out of her skin. She turned on the radio and played with the dial, but all she seemed to find was bad country music or static so she turned it off again. Each mile she drove made her feel more restless, and she wondered if she was simply having a nervous breakdown.

By the time she reached the bridge, Liz was trembling. She steered carefully around the curve and through the tunnel, trying to take even breaths. No matter what happened, she couldn't afford to have an accident. Jamie needed her.

The mile marker was barely visible behind a cluster of tall weeds, but she didn't need to see it to know it was there. She turned off the road and onto the dusty, hard-packed ground. The mountainous peak that hid the pod chamber was just visible through the darkness and she headed straight toward it, her car bumping and dipping over the uneven terrain. The angle of the path and the size of peak were deceptive, making them seem closer to the road than they actually were. It always took longer to reach the entrance to the pod chamber than Liz thought it would and she pressed harder on the accelerator, impatience pulsing through her veins.

Finally, she brought the car to a stop around the side of the hill, cutting the engine but leaving her headlights on. Leaning over, she fumbled in the glove compartment for the flashlight she kept for emergencies, praying the batteries held out. The light was dim as she got out of the car, the beam swallowed by the wide open space and seemingly endless darkness. Reaching back, she flicked on her brights before closing the car door.

The desert landscape was perfectly quiet, only the occasional breeze disturbing the stillness. Yet something seemed off. The air was charged, even without the wind. She was conscious of how if felt against her skin, cold and crisp, but alive. Clutching the flashlight, Liz started slowly around the other side of the peak. The angle meant she would soon disappear around the corner, losing sight of the car and the headlights, but she didn't care. She forged on, instinctively heading for the place where she had last seen Max, two years earlier, before he had disappeared into the night. The light grew dimmer until all she had was the weak torch she pointed toward the ground just ahead of her.

Suddenly, Liz froze. Just around the bend in front of her there was a pale glow to the air, and it seemed to be growing closer. Panicking, she flicked the switch on her flashlight, plunging herself into virtual darkness with only the faint light ahead and the scattered stars to guide her. She remained perfectly still, praying her eyes would adjust. Listening for the slightest sound, she kept her eyes trained on the approaching glow as it grew nearer, brighter, and tried to ignore the pounding of her heart.

Later, she would be unable to recall the precise order of events. It all seemed to happen in a rush, her thoughts and emotions jumbling so quickly that they blended together in a kind of joyous collage. The light dropped and she could see the figure of a man, his hands cupped in front of him, fingers glowing softly. She felt a tug at her heart - her soul - and heard a single word whispered through the hush of the night - her name. The flashlight dropped from her fingers and she was running, only to be enveloped an instant later by warm, powerful arms that swept her off her feet and crushed the breath from her body.

"Oh, God, Max," she whispered, tears making her voice sound distant.

"Liz," he said, threading his fingers through her hair. His lips came down on hers, hot and desperate.

She groaned and returned his kisses. "It feels like a million years," she managed to get out. Tugging on his jacket, she pulled him closer. "I was so scared. I couldn't feel you and the orb didn't change and…"

"Shhh," he said, dropping soothing kisses over her forehead. "It's okay. It's over. I'm never leaving you again, I swear."

"I'm never giving you the chance," she said. "I can't let you go again."

"You won't have to. I promise, Liz."

"But Antar…?"

"Taken care of," he interrupted. "I'll tell you everything later. Right now I just need to hold you," he said. He kissed her again, deeper, harder, and she felt her blood rush faster in response.

"Max, the orb," she said. "It didn't change. I thought… I thought you weren't coming back. That maybe you had decided to stay."

He pulled back and stared down at her. "Only death could have kept me away from you, Liz. I don't know why the orb didn't change. I'm sorry."

Liz ran her fingers over his face, wishing she could see him better. It was so dark, only his eyes caught the starlight, glowing warm and familiar. "I've missed you so much."

"I know. Only too well. Come on," he urged. "Let's get out of here. I want to be able to really see you," he added, brushing his hand down the length of her silky hair.

"The car's around the other side."

"So, let's go home," Max said, his voice breaking with emotion. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, keeping her tucked close to his side, and they walked slowly through the darkness until the bright beam of Liz's headlights came into view.

"Max, I have so much to tell you," Liz said. "So many things about what's been going on since you left, I don't even know where to start."

"It's okay," Max told her, pulling her around so they were face to face again. The light from the car illuminated both of their faces and she could see he was smiling. "All I really want to know is what you named him," Max said gently.

Liz stared at him, shocked. "You knew? I…" She swallowed. "That last night, when you touched my stomach. You weren't thinking of when you healed me, were you?"

"No," he said. "I wasn't." He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and traced the contour of her cheek with the tip of his finger.

"Jamie," Liz said. "James Michael Evans."

Max smiled. "For Valenti?"

Liz nodded, a smile gracing her lips. "He's done so much for all of us through the years. So, you've really known all this time?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry I didn't say anything before I left. I wasn't sure I'd be able to leave if I did, and it was important that I go back. It was so much harder, knowing you would have to go through it all alone," he whispered, pulling her back into his arms. "I'm so sorry I wasn't here for you, Liz. I wished with all my heart that I could have been. Was it bad?"

"No, it was a miracle," she said, her words muffled against his chest. "He's a miracle. He's so much like you, Max. So sweet and smart and loving. And… God…" She pushed away from him, amazement in her eyes. "Max, he knew. Tonight. He's the reason I came out here. All day he was fussy, and he's never fussy. Then tonight he started throwing things out of his crib and telling me I had to go bye-bye and pointing toward the stars. Max, how did he know you were coming home?"

Max smiled, his eyes glowing. "Let's just say you aren't the only one on the planet with whom I have a connection."

"You mean…"

"I've been visiting his dreams since he was born, Liz. He's our son. How could I not?"

Tears began streaming down Liz's face. "God, I love you so much," she said.

"I love you, too. Now how about we go home so I can show you?" he asked, leaning down and nuzzling her neck. "And so I can meet Jamie in person. And see my parents and Lexie and everyone."

"They'll all be asleep," Liz murmured as she kissed her way across his jawline.

"Hmmm? Well then we'll just have to wake them up." Max angled his mouth down over Liz's and kissed her deeply. "But first I have a very important question to ask."

Liz hummed in agreement, trying to pull him down for another kiss.

"Liz?"

"What?" she asked, a touch annoyed that he wouldn't kiss her. "Max, come here," she said, tugging on his collar.

He let out a deep laugh. "God, here I am trying to propose and all you want me for is my body."

Liz pulled back so abruptly that only Max's arms kept her upright. "What did you just say?"

Max grew serious and looked her in the eye. "I said I'm trying to propose. Liz Parker, love of my life, would you do me the honor of marrying me?" he whispered.

"You're serious?"

"Never more so. Are you really that surprised?" he asked, his expression reserved.

But Liz could see the hurt in his eyes. "Max, nothing would make me happier than to marry you," she told him, tearing up again. "I just… I'm already bursting with joy to have you back. I think you may have just sent me into overload," she said, letting out a hiccuppy sob. Throwing her arms around his neck, she hugged him tightly. "I love you more than anything in the world. Any world."

"I will love you forever, Liz. Till death do us part," Max swore. He sealed the vow with a searing kiss. Then, resting his forehead against hers, he gently brushed her hair off her face and looked deep into her eyes. "How about we go wake everyone up now?"

Liz smiled, tears still falling over her cheeks. "Good idea. After all. We have a wedding to plan."

He took her hands and led her to the car. "Keys?" he asked, holding out his hand.

Liz handed them over automatically and let him guide her into the passenger seat. "Wait," she said, as he climbed in beside her. "What happened to not having a valid driver's license?"

Max shrugged. "I'm willing to risk it if you are. After all, I need to keep a little danger in my life."

Liz laughed. "Somehow I doubt that's going to be a problem," she told him. Resting her hand on his thigh, she squeezed lightly. "Let's go home, Max."

"I like the sound of that," he confessed quietly as he started the car.

"Me, too," Liz told him.

He steered the car into an easy U-turn and drove steadily toward the road. Liz marveled at how much faster the trip seemed, now that she was no longer afraid. Max maneuvered the car back onto the main highway and they gradually gained speed until they were shooting along at just over the legal limit. Within ten minutes they passed the first sign for Roswell.

"Does it seem strange?" Liz asked.

"Being back again?"

"Yeah."

Max reached over and took her hand. "I've seen a lot of things - a lot of places. Entire worlds that most people only dream of, but never believe are truly real. Hell, I'm one of those things they don't believe in. But those places - those worlds? Liz, those were the oddities for me. They're real, but still like an illusion. I've only ever felt normal - whole - when I'm with you. You're my reality, Liz. My normal. Wherever you are is my home, and that includes Roswell. It's the only place I've ever been happy."

"Oh, Max…"

"No," he said quickly. "I'm not feeling sorry for myself, or bemoaning my fate. I'm a far luckier man than almost anyone I can think of, in fact. All I'm saying is that it isn't important where I am, as long as we're together. I've earned that right - we both have. We've taken all the risks, made the journey, put up a brave front. This is our time, now. Yours and mine. To be together, have a family, live our own lives."

"Max, I don't think you could have said anything that would make me happier," Liz said.

He gave her hand a quick squeeze. "Good. Because making you happy is all I ever want to do. I love you."

"I love you, too." Liz scooted over so she could lean on his shoulder, his hand still holding hers. The night sky glittered above as they drove on in silence toward the lights of Roswell, and home.

END