posted on 9-Sep-2001 10:38:32 AM

You Can’t Go Home Again
by EmilyluvsRoswell

Disclaimer: Don’t own the characters or the concepts; just borrowing them!
Category: The whole gang.
Summary: Post-Destiny. What happens now?
Spoilers: Season 1 only.
Rating: PG-13 for language.
Feedback: Sure! Love it!
Author’s note: This is the first of a series. Sometimes things take a little time to get back on track.

* * * * *

Max stood in silence and watched as Liz Parker ran from him. He didn’t notice when Michael allowed his hand to drop from Max’s arm. He didn’t notice when Isabel and Tess came and stood beside them. All he felt was his heart ripping in two, his soul stretching thin as Liz grew further and further away. When he could no longer bear to watch, he dropped his gaze to the hard packed sand, the glare of the sun bouncing off the ground nearly blinding him. But he didn’t care. What good was sight if he could no longer see Liz?

It was Tess who broke the silence. "What happens now, Max?"

Max didn’t answer. He glanced at her briefly, then turned away. He had meant what he said in the cave; it was the four of them now. But not like this. Not only the four of them. The message from home seemed to indicate that Tess was one of them, but that was all he was willing to take on faith. And he refused to live his present life based on choices made in an earlier one. But he knew that the last few days had put a stress on the entire group, alien and human, and right now they all needed some time to absorb what they had learned. He just didn’t have to be happy about it.

He faced his sister. She had been nearly in tears at the sight of the woman who was their true mother. Now she seemed more composed, but he knew her well enough to know that she was as upset and confused as he was. He wanted badly to be able to comfort her, but there wasn’t time for that right now. "Isabel." His voice was even, betraying none of the emotions churning through his system.

She looked at him, a slight smile of understanding gracing her lips. "You want me to go?" she asked.

He nodded, pulling his keys from his pocket and tossing them to her. "I’m sure Nasedo took the security truck, which just leaves the Jeep. Make sure she gets home, then come back for us."

Tess looked at Max and Isabel, then to Michael. All three faces reflected the same perfect comprehension. "Max? What’s going on?"

"Isabel’s going to go after Liz and drive her back into Roswell," Michael told her.

She frowned, her lips drawing into a pout. "So we just sit and wait until she gets back? I can’t imagine Liz wants to see even Isabel right now. She’ll be fine walking. It isn’t that far back to town."

Max turned back toward Tess, his eyes fierce. "In the last three days, Liz has been abducted and terrorized, witnessed me snatched by the FBI, and faced off with Valenti. We were chased and shot at, dropped more than thirty feet into a river, forced to hide in an abandoned van, and nearly run over. She saw Pierce killed, her ex-boyfriend shot and learned that you and I were married in another life. All of this on a few hours sleep and, as far as I can tell, not a single decent meal. She is in no shape to walk four miles in the afternoon sun without so much as a bottle of water."

"Max…" Isabel put her hand on his shoulder, gently restraining him. She shot Tess a look of disgust, then turned concerned eyes on her brother. She could feel the barely withheld violence in his tense frame. "Max, I’m going." When he turned toward her, she slid her hand down his arm and squeezed his hand. "I’ll be back soon."

His face softened. "Thanks, Iz. We’ll talk when you get back. We have some tracks to cover."

She nodded, then headed off down the hill. Max merely stood and watched until she disappeared into the brush.

* * * * *

By the time she reached the road, Liz was panting. The tears still streaming down her cheeks, she slowed to a walk and started the long hike toward home. She didn’t care how long it took. She was in no hurry to return to a life without Max Evans in it.

She sensed the Jeep coming up behind her almost before she heard it. Brushing the tears from her face, she stiffened her spine and kept walking. "I will not look back, I will not look back," she whispered to herself. One foot in front of the other, she concentrated on moving forward, keeping a straight line, looking ahead as if she had blinders on. Even when the Jeep pulled up beside her and slowed to a crawl, matching her pace, she refused to turn her head, keeping her eyes focused on the waves of heat rising from the pavement and distorting the air in shimmery ripples in front of her.

"Liz. Liz, stop." Isabel’s voice finally registered, making its way past the pounding in her head, the buzzing in her ears. The Jeep suddenly pulled ahead of her and blocked her path. "Liz," Isabel said again. "Please, just get in."

Liz stopped walking and looked up. Only Isabel. No one else was in the Jeep. Still, she hesitated. But then Isabel sighed. It was the sound of someone tired to the bone and suddenly Liz realized that was how she felt as well. So tired. Too tired and drained to fight. Relenting, she stepped forward and climbed into the passenger seat. Without a word, she fastened her seat belt. Only after Isabel pulled back out onto the road and started to speed toward town did it occur to Liz that she hadn’t asked where they were headed. Isabel could just as easily have turned around and taken her back to Max.

Neither of them spoke during the short trip. Liz kept her eyes trained on the flat, barren scenery as it sped by, the gradual increase in trees and landscaping as they grew closer to town the only thing she allowed to register as her mind grew steadily more numb. Isabel kept her eyes on the road, glancing occasionally at Liz from the corner of her eye as if to assure herself that her passenger was still there and breathing.

When they reached the center of town, Isabel pulled into the alley next to the Crashdown and parked just beyond the back door. She turned to Liz, who didn’t seem to have realized they had stopped. "Liz," she said gently. "We’re here."

Liz turned and looked at her with eyes so filled with pain that Isabel nearly gasped. "Thanks," Liz said softly, unbuckling her seat belt.

"Liz, wait," Isabel said, reaching out and taking her arm before she could slip from the Jeep. "What are you going to tell your parents? I mean, about where you’ve been all night."

"That I was sleeping over with you and Maria. At Tess’s house, remember?" she asked, her voice edged with bitterness. "That’s the excuse we gave yesterday when we all took off. And the guys were at Michael’s." She paused. "Don’t forget to tell Max." She turned to go, but Isabel kept hold of her arm.

"Uh, Liz……"

"Isabel, please." Liz looked at her with tired, pleading eyes. "I can’t do this."

The other girl looked her up and down. "Just let me…." She swiftly passed her hand in front of Liz.

Looking down, Liz realized that her clothes, which had been rumpled and covered in dust, were now fresh and clean. She managed a tremulous smile. "Just like that night on the way to Marathon, when I spilled the hot chocolate," she said. "Thank you."

Isabel smiled back, her eyes tearing up. "You didn’t exactly look like you’d spent the night gossiping with the girls, you know?" Liz moved to leave and again Isabel stopped her. "Wait. Liz……I just want to tell you I’m sorry. I mean, for the hard time I gave you….before. I…wasn’t fair."

"You were scared. I understood."

"Still. I was…wrong."

Liz nodded. "Thanks." She reached out impulsively and squeezed Isabel’s hand. "Be careful, okay?"

Isabel squeezed back. "You too. And Liz? I know that these last few days….well…a lot has happened. I know it’s a lot to take in for all of us. But, please, don’t give up on him. He needs you."

Liz’s eyes filled with tears. "I’m not giving up on him, Isabel. I’m giving him up."

Isabel shook her head. "Keep an open mind. That’s what I’ve always admired about you. What amazed me the most. That in the face of our secrets, things that would have sent most people screaming into the night, you were able to just open up and accept what Max is. What we all are."

Liz looked down and let the tears fall. "That’s not what this is about. You know that." A tear dropped onto her hand where it rested in her lap and she brushed it away. "Thanks for the ride," she said, sliding from the Jeep. But, unable to stop herself, she turned to Isabel once more. She could read the other girl’s emotions so clearly it astonished her. The Ice Princess had truly thawed and all that remained was her raw pain and the sympathy reflected in her deep brown eyes. "Take care of him," Liz said softly. "What he went through….please, just take care of him."

Isabel’s eyes narrowed. "Liz, did he tell you what they did to him?"

Liz could see her fear. She shook her head. "He didn’t have to tell me." She chewed nervously on her bottom lip and looked away. "Last night, when we were hiding in that van, I kissed him – and I could see what they did."

"Oh, God, Liz."

"I know he won’t talk about it," she continued in a rush, before Isabel could press her for details. "I had tried to ask him before that, and all he’d say was that it was over. But it’s not that simple. It couldn’t possibly be." Liz trembled. "Take care. All of you." She turned and ran inside.

* * * * *

Max and Michael were talking quietly when Isabel got back. Tess was sitting on a rock a few yards away from them, her eyes focused on the horizon, seemingly deep in thought. As Isabel climbed from the Jeep, Max and Michael turned toward her and Max raised his eyebrows questioningly.

Isabel shrugged. "I took her home. She seems… as good as can be expected."

"Did you see anyone else while you were there?" Michael asked.

"I just dropped her off at the Crashdown. I didn’t go inside." Seeing the guarded look in Michael’s eyes, Isabel’s expression softened somewhat. "I don’t know if she was there, but I’m sure Liz will call her if she wasn’t."

Michael just nodded, then looked at the ground. He kicked at a small stone, unaware of the concerned look Max and Isabel shared.
Max glanced at Tess, who seemed completely uninterested in their conversation. "Tess," he called. "Isabel is back. We all need to talk."

She turned her head slowly, her eyes focusing on his face. With a slight nod, she stood and came over to join the group. Watching her approach, Isabel wondered briefly what had happened while she was gone that had left Tess so subdued. Looking at Max, she thought she sensed a certain annoyance in his eyes.

Michael stooped and picked up the rock he’d been worrying with the tip of his shoe. With a swift burst of movement, he threw the stone toward the outcropping of rocks that hid the cave. "Okay, fearless leader," he quipped. "Now what?"

Max relaxed somewhat at Michael’s tone. "Now we clean up our messes."

"What do you mean?" Isabel asked.

"We have a few things to take care of, is what I mean. And then we all need to go home and get some rest. Despite everything that has happened, we are still four high school students, and tomorrow is Monday." He turned back toward Michael with a stern look. "Have you all forgotten that we have final exams starting in a week?"

Michael groaned. "You’ve got to be kidding me, Maxwell. You get an intergalactic SOS from you mother and the only thing you can think
about is cramming for a Geometry exam?"

"He’s got a point, Max," Isabel agreed. "It does all seem kind of unimportant right now."

"I know," Max said. "But that won’t make it go away. We need time to determine what all of this means. We need to develop our powers. And that means we need to go back home and…"

"Act normal," Isabel finished for him with a small smile. "I seem to remember having this conversation before."

Max looked at Tess. "We need to figure out what to do about your situation now that Nasedo is Pierce. You can’t just go back to living in that house without any parents."

"I know," she said quietly. "But it should be fine for now."

He nodded. "Okay. We’ll work on that later. Come on. We can talk more while we drive." Taking the keys from his sister, he headed toward the Jeep. The others followed and they all climbed in, with Isabel sitting next to Max up front. He pulled out onto the highway and swung to the left, away from Roswell.

"I thought we were going home," Isabel said.

"I told you, we have some messes to clean up," Max said. "Liz and I ditched Maria’s car by the side of the road last night. We need to go pick it up and get it back to her, assuming no one has had it towed yet."

Michael caught Max glancing at him through the rearview mirror. "No. Don’t even think about it, Maximillian. I am not taking that car back."

"Fine. I’ll do it," Max said, but his voice was flat, with just a hint of anger.

They drove without speaking for several minutes. Finally the Jetta came into view, still parked at an awkward angle with both front doors open. Max made a swift U-turn and pulled up behind it.

Michael, Isabel and Tess stared at the little red car as Max climbed
out of the Jeep. The back window was completely gone, and shattered glass filled the back seat. "Max, what happened?" Michael asked.

Max turned and shrugged. "What do you think? They shot at us, hit the window. We got out and ran." He waved in the general direction of the ditch that ran parallel to the road.

Isabel trembled slightly. Michael climbed out of the back of the Jeep and walked up to stand next to Max while he surveyed the damage. Even Tess seemed disturbed by the car’s condition.

"Maria is going to lose her mind when she sees this," Michael muttered.

Max looked at him, one eyebrow raised. "She isn’t going to see this, Michael." Turning back to the car, he raised his hand and frowned in concentration. The back of the car began to glow and the pieces of the window began to reassemble. Within a few moments the car was completely restored. He lowered his hand and cocked his head toward his best friend. "You sure you don’t want to take it back?" he asked quietly.

"I can’t. Because I want to, I can’t," Michael admitted, his voice so low Max could barely make out the words.

"Okay. At least for now," Max added meaningfully. He walked back toward the others. "Here’s the plan," he said. "I’ll take the Jetta back to Maria. Isabel, you take Tess and Michael back to town. Drop Tess off, then pick me up at the UFO Center. We have to get home before Mom and Dad call out the National Guard."

"What about me?" Michael asked.

"You, my friend, are going to go talk to Valenti."

"What?" Michael asked. "Why?"

Max shook his head. "Don’t tell me you still don’t trust him after all that’s happened?"

"No, it’s not that," Michael said quickly. "You were right about him. I just don’t understand why I need to talk to him now."

"Someone has to let him know that Nasedo is now Pierce. We also need to find out exactly what he told Kyle," Max pointed out. "And, depending on how resourceful he proves to have been, there may or may not be a federal agent still locked in Valenti’s hall closet. I melted the lock, but he may have broken through by now."

Michael was quiet for a long moment, as if trying to determine whether all of this was necessary. "Fine," he agreed, his voice a touch belligerent.

"If you’d rather I talk to him, I can do it," Max informed him. "But then you take Maria her car."

"I said I’d talk to Valenti."

Max nodded. "Good. Isabel can drop you off after she takes Tess home."

Michael climbed into the Jeep next to Isabel, mumbling under his breath about people letting power go to their heads. Max walked back toward the Jetta, feeling an urge to smile for the first time all day.

"Max?"

He turned back, the urge to smile suddenly gone. "What is it, Tess?"

"What am I supposed to do? I mean, you’re taking the car, Michael’s going to the Sheriff. Am I supposed to just go home and sit there?"

Max sighed. "I can’t help you with that. Everything that needs to be done is being taken care of. I’m sorry if you don’t want to be home alone, but right now that is how it has to be. You might want to look around the house and see if you can find anything else Nasedo may have stashed there. Anything he didn’t tell you about that might mean something."

She nodded. "I will."

Max stared at her for a moment, then got into Maria’s car. A few minutes later, the Jeep and the Jetta were headed for Roswell.

* * * * *

Maria flopped on her bed and pulled the covers haphazardly over her head. She and Alex had spent nearly an hour at the Crashdown listening to Liz’s account of what had happened out at the cave. Just seeing the exhaustion and heartbreak in Liz’s eyes had told Maria the news wouldn’t be good, but after hearing the story she no longer knew what to think. It all seemed so incredible, if anything could still be considered incredible once you accepted the fact that there were aliens living in Roswell. Max –the leader of his people. That was about the only part that did make sense. But holograms of mothers, missions to save planets, reincarnation with human bodies and alien souls? It was making Maria’s head spin just thinking about it. The worst of it was that Liz now seemed to have completely lost her mind. Max had told her in no uncertain terms that he loved her and wanted to be with her, destiny and child-brides be damned, and Liz had walked away. It was as if the entire planet had tilted on its axis.

Then again, it must have done just that, Maria thought, because Michael Guerin had told her that he loved her. At some point along the way, Spaceboy had leveled that stupid stonewall of his and let her in. She had known it for a while – that he cared, that he needed her despite his constant protestations to the contrary, just as much as she needed him. But never in a million light years had she expected him to admit to it.

Granted, he had done it in typical Michael fashion, in the middle of an argument, while she was busy yelling and he was busy running. But he had said it. Out loud. In front of witnesses. Just a few short words that had filled her heart and for a moment she forgot to breathe. And then he had said goodbye and walked away, and the breath that was caught in her lungs suddenly threatened to crush them and she could feel her heart crumble. She hadn’t believed it was possible to be the happiest she had ever been, and the saddest, all in the same moment. How ironic. All this time she had wanted them to have what Max and Liz had. And now they did.

Feeling somewhat claustrophobic, Maria pulled the covers down and took a deep breath. The light was growing dim, so she reached out and switched on a small bedside lamp, bringing a warm glow to the room. Sighing heavily, she shoved herself into a sitting position and rubbed her tired eyes. She felt like she hadn’t slept in weeks – and as if she might never sleep again. She couldn’t believe that, after all that had happened, she had to get up and go to school in the morning like it was just a normal day. She wondered if they would be there – would they ever come to school again? Would she ever see them again? She felt a sudden flurry of panic and reached for the phone, then stopped herself. Liz had enough to think about without her providing her with a new set of questions to whirl through her brain. Dropping her face into her hands, Maria resisted the urge to cry. She sat that way for a long time, until a quiet knock at her window brought her off the bed with a start.

* * * * *

Max saw the momentary hope reflected in Maria’s eyes when she swung toward the window, and felt a pang of guilt. He should have known she would think he was Michael. He smiled sadly at her as she came over and lifted the window, motioning for him to come inside.

"I brought your car back," he told her, holding out her keys, the little rubber alien dangling between his fingers. "Good as new."

She raised her brows questioningly. Liz had filled her in on the condition of the Jetta. "Thanks," she said. "Must have taken quite a bit of hocus pocus." She sank down on the bed and indicated that he should join her. "You okay? I mean, you didn’t look so hot last night and you’ve been using your powers a lot today."

"I feel like I could sleep for about a year," he admitted as he sat beside her. "How about you?" he asked, his eyes searching her face. "How’re you holding up?"

Maria shrugged. "I’m not sure it’s all really reached my brain yet."

"Yeah, I know how that feels," he muttered.

"So, what are you guys going to do now?"

Max shrugged. "Get some sleep. Try to make it through finals."

"Hardly seems like the type of plan I expected from a great leader," Maria quipped.

"I guess Liz told you what happened at the cave."

She nodded. "Alex and I were waiting at the Crashdown when Isabel dropped her off. She claims she gave us the abridged version, but I don’t think she left much out." Maria looked at Max’s weary face and sighed. "So, are you going to let her do this? I mean, does this whole destiny thing mean we all go our separate ways?"

"I don’t want to let her go, Maria," he replied softly. "And I’ll do whatever I can to convince Liz of that. But I also have to respect her decisions, just like she’s always respected mine."

"Right. I guess."

Max looked her. His love’s best friend. His best friend’s love. They hadn’t ever really talked this way before, but he still felt closer to her than to almost anyone. It was the same with Alex. The six of them had developed a bond through shared knowledge, shared experiences, that he truly believed could not be broken. "Maria, I know that things have all gone askew again. All I can tell you is that, in my heart, I believe it will all work out in the end. Not just for me and Liz. For all of us."

Maria lips curved, just the ghost of a smile. "Liz once told me you were the eternal optimist. I guess she was right. You’re always telling us everything will be okay."

"Have I been wrong yet?"

She shook her head and sighed. "You haven’t been wrong, Max, but the calls are getting closer."

"He’ll come around, Maria. He just needs to come to terms with things. He cares about you too much to give you up."

"Like Liz cares too much about you?"

It was his turn to sigh. "She believes that she’s standing between me and my destiny. I just have to show her that, without her, I have no future."

Maria leaned forward and hugged Max tightly. Startled, he wrapped his arms around her as her sudden tears dampened his shirt. "He’s afraid of hurting me, Max. As if he would ever do that. Except like this. By pushing me away, thinking I’m better off without him. I’m not. I need him."

"I know," he whispered, rubbing her back soothingly. He had never seen Maria react this way. The Maria he knew was a fighter, a fireball. She’d sooner go three rounds in a ring than let you see her cry. It was as if Michael had tapped into some inner reserve and drained the fight out of her. The same way she had blasted through his defenses, revealing his vulnerability. "I know," he whispered again. "It’ll be okay." Hearing himself, he smiled. "You’re right," he told her. "I guess I am the eternal optimist."

Pulling back, Maria sniffled and brushed the tears from her cheeks. "It’s okay," she assured him, attempting a wobbly smile. "Every group needs one."

*****
TBC
posted on 9-Sep-2001 10:45:14 AM

Part 2

*******

Michael stared at the Sheriff’s front door for a moment, then rang the bell. A part of him still couldn’t believe he was here. Despite everything that had happened, it was difficult to remember that Valenti was on their side. They had been hiding from him for so long, running from him. It was going to take some time to adjust to having him as an ally.

Then the door swung open and Jim Valenti was looking him in the eye. He looked tired, though he had obviously showered and shaved and was wearing fresh jeans and a clean white T-shirt. The fine lines around his eyes were more pronounced and the creases at the sides of his mouth seemed deeper. Still, he looked calmer, more pulled together than he had that morning, and not particularly surprised to see Michael standing on his front stoop. "Hello, Michael. Come on in." He stepped back, holding the door open.

"Thanks." Michael went inside, his eye drawn immediately to the closet in front of him, with its battered door and splintered frame. "I see he got out," he noted.

The Sheriff looked toward the door and nodded. "He was gone by the time we got home. Kyle told me Max had done something to the lock. I assume it held long enough that he didn’t give you any trouble?"

"We didn’t see any sign of him. He probably headed straight to Hondo to meet up with Pierce." Michael looked around briefly. "Is Kyle here?"

"No. He went for a drive. I think he just needed some time to absorb everything that happened this morning." The Sheriff rubbed his hands over his face. "It was a lot to take in."

"So, what exactly did you tell him?" Michael asked, his tone slightly wary.

"You don’t need to worry about Kyle. Yes, I told him who you three are, and that Max saved his life the same way he saved Liz Parker at the Crashdown last fall. I told him I’d been chasing after you since then, and that I was wrong to have done it. He won’t tell anyone," he finished. "I promise."

Michael nodded, his features relaxing very slightly.

Valenti sighed and headed into the den. "Have a seat. Can I get you anything?"

Michael shook his head. "I’m good, thanks." He sat awkwardly on the couch. "Max just asked me to come fill you in on a couple of things."

Valenti nodded and sat down opposite Michael. "I’m glad you came by. I wanted to talk to you about a few things, too. But why don’t you go ahead."

"Sure. Uh, first of all, there’s Pierce. Or rather, his replacement."

"They aren’t going to wait long. They’ll have someone else heading up the unit by tomorrow."

Michael shook his head. "That’s what we wanted to tell you. They won’t be replacing him because we already did."

"How?" Valenti looked confused.

"We sent someone in to take his place. Or rather, we sent Pierce back. As far as the FBI is concerned, Agent Pierce still heads up the Special Unit."

"You lost me."

Michael sighed inwardly, wondering exactly why Max thought he should be the one to have this conversation. He wasn’t good at explaining things. "Remember when you saw two Maxes at the carnival? Well, one was Max, and the other was Nasedo."

A look of comprehension crossed Valenti’s face. "The shapeshifter."

Michael nodded.

"But, I thought he was a killer? If he’s on your side, why did he take Liz? Why were you all going after him?"

"It’s complicated. He was trying to draw Pierce to him so he could kill him. He shapeshifted into Max and took Liz so Pierce would go after them."

"But why put Liz in danger that way?"

"He didn’t care about Liz," Michael said. "He doesn’t care about humans at all. His job was to protect us and that was it. No matter what that meant," he added, his face grim. "So now he’s protecting us from inside the Special Unit, as Pierce."

"Well, that’s good news, if you feel he can be trusted. It should eliminate the FBI threat for now, or at least slow it down. As for the real Pierce, he won’t be coming back to haunt anyone. Kyle and Alex helped me get the body over to the morgue and we switched it out with a John Doe that’s scheduled for cremation first thing tomorrow. By the time someone discovers John Doe’s corpse, there won’t be any way to find out who actually fed the fire."

As he spoke, Valenti watched a myriad of emotions flicker through Michael’s eyes and wondered at the differences in the normally guarded young man. Going on a hunch, the Sheriff leaned forward to meet Michael’s gaze. "I want to thank you, Michael."

A look of surprise flitted across Michael’s face. "What for?"

"For saving my life this morning."

Michael looked confused. "What do you mean?"

"Michael, Pierce was getting ready to shoot me when you killed him. If you hadn’t done whatever it was that you did, I would be dead."

Dark eyes dropped, then looked back up. Michael blinked rapidly several times, then looked away again.

Valenti watched him closely, reading the self-recriminations as if he had shouted them. "I’ve been a Sheriff in this town for over twenty years now. I haven’t seen as much trouble as some, but I’ve seen my fair share and I’ve killed men before, whether it was strictly in self defense or to protect someone else. It never gets any easier." He paused, as if trying to determine whether Michael was listening. Apparently satisfied, he went on, his words carefully chosen for maximum impact. "That night out toward Bitter Lake, when Everett Hubble pointed his gun at Max, do you think I was right to shoot him?"

Michael looked up quickly. "It isn’t the same. It’s your job. You shot him to protect Max. You didn’t want Hubble dead."

The Sheriff raised his brows. "I shot him. I killed him. He wasn’t an evil man, Michael, despite the fact that he was willing to kill Max. He was a sad man, a bitter man. He wanted vengeance for the murder of his wife and unborn child. That kind of thing can eat at you until you can’t see anything else. He ruined my father’s life. Nearly killed Max. I stopped him. Did I want him dead? I wanted to put him down. When I pulled the trigger, I shot to kill."

"You don’t understand. I wanted Pierce dead. I wanted to kill him." Michael stood and paced restlessly. "What does that make me?"

Valenti smiled briefly. "Well, Michael, despite recent events that indicate otherwise, I’d venture to say that makes you human," he drawled.

"What?" Michael stopped abruptly and stared at Valenti.

"Pierce was a monster, Michael. He was hunting for you. He tortured your friend and would have killed him without a second thought. He would have killed all of you. Do you know what he said to me? We were standing behind the stairs in the UFO Center this morning and Isabel and Liz had just walked by to signal to you and Max that we were there. Pierce turned to me and told me to wait until I could see all six of you and then to start shooting."

Michael sank back down on the couch, Valenti’s words draining the strength from his body. "All of us," he stated flatly. It wasn’t anything he didn’t know already, not technically, but hearing it somehow made it more real.

"I asked about the civilians and he made some comment about acceptable losses. Michael, he wanted all of you dead. And had I really been doing a deal with him, I doubt I would have walked out alive either. It wasn’t about saving the planet from alien invaders. He was willing to shoot a bunch of kids down in cold blood. You, Max, and Isabel. Liz, Alex, and Maria. He was going to shoot me, then keep right on shooting, and you stopped him. If you had had a gun, you would have used it. You didn’t, so you did what you had to, Michael."

The words hung in the air, seemed to float around the room. Michael could almost feel them circling him, swooping down to taunt him. He wanted to believe that it was that simple, that rational. He focused his eyes on Valenti’s face. He looked calm, serious, honest. "If that’s true, why do I feel this way?" he asked him softly, hesitantly. "Why do I feel like a killer?"

"I have two things to tell you. First, what you are feeling is a natural reaction. It’s when you can shoot someone and walk away without a thought that you need to worry. The feelings will fade. You just need a little time. Second, you saved all of our lives today. You deserve to feel proud of that, son." He stood and extended his hand.

Michael stared at the hand in front of him for a long moment. Finally he looked up and met Valenti in the eye. Standing, he took the man’s hand in his and shook it. "Thank you, Sheriff," he said, still sounding a bit unsure.

Blue eyes twinkled. "Call me Jim, Michael. And thank you. You saved my life, Max saved my son, and the six of you gave me back my father. I don’t think you can possibly understand what that means to me."

Michael nodded, then looked away, suddenly embarrassed. "I’d better get going." He shrugged. "School tomorrow."

Jim Valenti chuckled. "Seems kind of strange, doesn’t it? After all that’s happened, to just go on as if things are still normal."

"Things were never normal. We just got good at pretending."

* * * * *

Alex walked down the front steps of his house and sat with his back up against the top step. He lay his stargazing guide, the twin of the one he’d given Isabel, on the ground next to him and stared up at the sky. It was just growing dark and the stars had yet to come out, but he could see a sliver of moon through the trees hovering just above the horizon, a luminous silver crescent. Shifting his gaze, he peered down the street at the tidy houses with their perfectly manicured lawns that lined the block. A few sprinklers were on, and the gentle pulsing of water hitting the sidewalk broke the quiet of the evening. Everything looked so peaceful, so normal, that Alex found it difficult to believe he was in the same world where FBI agents hunted his friends, let alone the same town. But then, Roswell wasn’t just any town. And his were no ordinary friends.

He stood and started down the front path. It was still too light to look at stars, and somehow he didn’t really feel like it anyway. Stargazing was a passive activity, at least when done alone, and he was suddenly overflowing with excess energy. The events of the past few days should have left him exhausted, but instead he felt restless, almost desperate to walk, to move, to accomplish. He hit the sidewalk at a jog and built up to a comfortable run. Never athletic, with the exception of his beloved dodgeball, Alex didn’t think he had ever run anywhere voluntarily in his entire life. But somehow it felt good. The air filling his lungs. The slap of his Nikes hitting the pavement. The gentle night breeze ruffling his hair off of his forehead. He could concentrate on keeping his feet moving, on the feel of his blood rushing through his veins and his heart pumping in his chest.

Maybe if he kept on running, if he paid close attention to what his body was doing, then he wouldn’t have to think about anything else. Maybe he wouldn’t see Liz’s tear-streaked face as she told him she wasn’t going to stand between Max and his destiny. Or the blank look on Maria’s face when Michael told her goodbye. And maybe he wouldn’t remember the feel of Isabel’s lips on his when she’d kissed him this morning or the way she fit so perfectly in his arms. Because if he remembered that, if he allowed himself to think about Isabel, to see her beautiful brown eyes sparkling in his mind’s eye, then the flood gates would open and the questions would come rushing at him. He would start asking whether she loved him. Whether it mattered. If an earthly love was any match for one written long ago in the stars. And if he was ever going to see her again. You could drown in those kinds of questions.

So, this was better. Running down the street on a warm spring night when the air was clean and crisp and the stars were slowly winking into view one by one. Feeling your muscles clench and stretch and the jarring as each foot pounded against the ground, taking you one step further from a home that felt just the slightest bit off, that seemed altered somehow, on a night that seemed not quite right. Hoping that each step took you that much closer to forgetting.

* * * * *

Isabel parked the Jeep in the driveway next to their mother’s car and turned to Max. He was staring at the house as if he had never seen it before. "Does it look different?" she asked him.

He nodded. "Yeah, kind of. I can’t believe I haven’t been here since Friday morning." He glanced at Isabel. "And at the same time it feels like so much longer. Like we’re adults coming back to our childhood home after a long absence."

"I guess, in some ways, we are."

Max looked toward the front door. "There were a few moments when I wasn’t sure I’d be back at all," he admitted quietly, then swung himself out of the Jeep and headed across the driveway before Isabel was even sure she had heard him correctly.

"Max," she called, scrambling after him. "Max, wait."

He stopped at the door and waited until she caught up. "I’m sorry, Iz," he said. "I shouldn’t have said that."

"No, Max, don’t apologize. I’m the one who’s sorry. We should have talked about it. You need to talk about it."

He shook his head. "There wasn’t time. And we can’t now," he added softly, then pushed open the door and went inside. He looked back when she caught him by the arm, and smiled reassuringly. "Later," he mouthed.

Isabel’s eyes flashed her displeasure, but she nodded and followed him into the house.

Once inside, Max turned in a slow circle, his somber eyes taking in every detail around him. Isabel watched him, concerned. It was like bringing a friend home from school for the first time and taking them on a tour of the house. But once she looked away from Max and focused on the room, she realized it did seem different. Nothing had actually changed; the coat rack stood where it always had, the same pictures hung on the walls, the living room furniture all sat in the usual spots. But there was still a sense of separateness, as if they no longer fit in with their surroundings. She shivered slightly, her eyes meeting Max’s.

"Ready?" he asked softly.

She shrugged, then nodded.

"Hey, Mom! We’re home," Max called, heading toward the kitchen, and if there was a slight waver in his voice on the last word, it was too subtle for anyone but Isabel to notice.

* * * * *

Liz sat at her desk and stared out the window. She had begged off dinner with her parents, pleading a large, late lunch, thinking that she would be able to shut herself in the privacy of her room and lose herself in her schoolwork. She realized now that was an irrational hope at best. How could she concentrate on studying when her heart was shattered in a million pieces? And better yet, how could she study when every star in the sky was shining down on her, mocking her?

It was written in the stars. That phrase had always seemed so romantic. The idea that true love was fated and that the stars in the heavens would watch over destined lovers, memorizing their story and retelling it through the ages. When she learned the truth about Max Evans, the constellations took on another meaning altogether. Each twinkling star was just one more reminder of how special he was, and how special it made her feel to know that he loved her. Suddenly the stars spoke to her. She would take her journal and climb out on the roof at night to write under a magical, glittering sky, and feel enveloped by the wonders of a universe that had brought Max into her life. But, just as suddenly, that universe had taken him away from her. The stars now spoke another language, told another story, and Liz wondered if they had been laughing at her all along.

She tore her gaze from the night sky and tried once again to focus on the books in front of her. Chemistry. Geometry. She had to write a paper for English on the Romantic poets by Tuesday. If the stars weren’t laughing at her, she knew at least the gods were. Stacking the books in a neat pile, she rested her head on the top book and closed her eyes, opening them again almost immediately. With her eyes closed she had no way of controlling what she saw and that’s when the flashes would start – not the kind she got with Max, but memories that fired so quickly through her brain they left her breathless. Max pressing his hand against the glass that separated them in the maze at the carnival…..could it have been only two nights ago? Max stumbling through the wire fence, an angry red cut down the center of his chest, supported by Michael and the Sheriff. Max holding her hand and jumping off the bridge into the rushing water below. Max kissing her and telling her she was all that kept him alive while he was held captive. Lying in Max’s arms in the abandoned van, holding him through the night as he shuddered and trembled his way through endless nightmares. Max saving Kyle’s life, healing him the way he had healed her all those months before. Max’s face, his eyes filled with pain, as she turned and walked away, leaving him to his destiny.

"Honey?"

Liz turned with a jolt at her mother’s voice. She was standing in the doorway, her brow furrowed with concern. Liz hadn’t even heard the door open. "What, Mom?"

"I just wanted to see if everything was okay." Her mother came into the room and sat at the foot of the bed, eyes on Liz’s face. "You’ve been so quiet since you got home, and then not wanting dinner….Is there anything you want to talk about? Did something happen?"

Liz sighed. "I’m okay, Mom. I’m just really tired and I have a lot on my mind."

Mrs. Parker narrowed her eyes, as if trying to determine if her daughter was telling her the truth. She let out a weary sigh. "Liz, I know you don’t feel like you can discuss certain things with me, and I know I’ve said this before, but I want you to know that you can come to me with anything." She paused, waiting for a response, receiving none. "Honey, are you sure you’re alright? Did you and Max have a fight?"

"I’m sure. And no, we didn’t." Liz looked down, too tired to argue with her mother, too emotionally drained to feel even her usual impatience with the parental badgering, yet knowing there was no way she could hide the pain in her eyes. It ran too deep, felt too permanent. "I’d tell you if there was anything you could do."

"Liz, you aren’t…honey, you’re not pregnant, are you?"

Liz looked up, a flicker of anger temporarily pushing her misery to the background. "No. I am not pregnant, Mom. How could you even think that? And if I were pregnant, I would tell you, Mom. I can’t believe you don’t even know me well enough to realize that," she shot out.

Her mother looked both relieved and worried. "I’m sorry, sweetie. You just look so….mature all of a sudden. Different. Like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders."

"Well, maybe I do," Liz muttered under her breath, marveling at that place her mother inhabited where a teen pregnancy was the worst thing she could imagine happening to her child. "Look, Mom. I’m fine. I am. I’m not pregnant or on drugs or flunking any classes, okay?" she snapped. "Now, please just leave me alone. Please. Not everything is something I can share with you. Not everything is something you can fix. Some things I just have to deal with on my own."

Her mother stood, looking a little hurt, but just nodded. "Fine, Liz. You deal with whatever this is by yourself, then. And if you decide you can’t, well, you know where to find me." She turned and walked from the room, closing the door softly behind her.

Liz stared at the closed door for a moment, then went over and did something she couldn’t remember ever having done before – she locked it. Then she turned and pressed her back to the wall and slid down to the floor. There was no way her mother could understand what she had been going through the last few days, what she was going through right now. And what could she ever say to explain it? A shapeshifter who looked like Max had held her hostage and used her as bait? The man she loved was nearly tortured to death by an alien-hunting FBI agent? Her boyfriend’s bride from a previous life had come back to claim him? Oh, and by the way, Max was the leader of his people, destined to free them from slavery? Hardly. Even to her it sounded like an Old Testament-based melodrama for the late night movie.

It struck Liz that her parents were suddenly too sheltered, too naïve, to be able to actually parent her. At some point over the past seventy-two hours, Liz had become an adult in a way they would never be. The worries she had, the dangers she faced, didn’t touch that place where her parents lived – her reality was much more serious. The thought sent a shiver down her spine, and made her feel incredibly alone. Now what? The FBI was no longer a problem and the Sheriff was on their side, so why was it she suddenly felt less safe than ever? Pulling her knees tightly into her chest, she dropped her head forward and allowed the tears to fall.

* * * * *

Maria was standing in the kitchen, staring at the contents of the half-empty refrigerator, when her mother came through the back door.

"Honey, are you trying to air condition the entire house that way?" she asked, when Maria failed to turn around.

Maria glanced at her mother as if she didn’t recognize her, then shook her head and peered back into the fridge. "Nothing looks good," she commented, almost to herself.

Amy DeLuca frowned as she set her purse on the counter and turned her attention back to her daughter. "Well, are you looking for something for dinner? ‘Cause I thought I’d just order us some pizza."

"I’m not really all that hungry," Maria replied somewhat listlessly, letting the refrigerator door drift closed. She headed down the hall toward her room, unaware of her mother trailing after her until she flopped onto the bed and caught sight of her lingering in the doorway. "What, Mom? I just don’t feel like pizza."

"So, what were you rummaging for just now, if you’re not hungry?"

"I don’t know. I just felt like I should eat something, even though I really don’t want to eat something, you know?"

Amy came in and sat on the edge of the bed and smoothed Maria’s hair back off her forehead. "You feel okay? You don’t seem warm."

"I’m fine. Just….I don’t know. Antsy. Like I don’t know what to do with myself."

"Maria, you’ve been out practically all weekend. I would think you’d be exhausted," her mother remarked. "And surely you have a little studying you could be doing, young lady."

With a groan, Maria sat up. "Look, Mom, I said I’m fine. You don’t need to go into parental overdrive, okay?"

Amy sighed. "Alright. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s your choice."

"Mom. There’s nothing to talk about," Maria insisted.

"Right. Okay." Her mother stood and looked at her pointedly. "I’m here if you change your mind." She walked out of the room.

Maria dropped back onto her bed with an exaggerated moan. As if things weren’t hard enough without her having to field questions from her mother. Ever since that morning Amy found Michael in Maria’s bed, the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy had apparently gone out the window. Yet another thing I have to thank Spaceboy for, Maria thought heatedly before she could stop herself, then dragged a pillow over her face to muffle another groan. Since Max had gone she had been trying her hardest not to think of anything remotely alien-related. Unfortunately, the longest she had been able to last was about three minutes, give or take a minute, and it was starting to grate on her nerves.

That was what had prompted her purposeless foray into the wilds of the refrigerator. She desperately needed a distraction. Normally, she would have called Liz and Alex and suggested the three of them get together for a night of bad movies and Ben and Jerry’s, but she knew that wasn’t the answer. They were both nursing their own wounded hearts and this was one instance when misery didn’t love company. Their problems had moved way beyond the typical teen angst boyfriend/girlfriend stuff that could be solved by an evening of bingeing and bitching.

Giving into the inevitable, Maria tossed the pillow away and rolled over to stare out her window. It was a clear night and the sky was filled with stars. Figures, she thought. Of course, it hardly mattered. She didn’t need a starry sky to make her think of Michael. He was etched on her brain and no amount of Grief Relief was going to erase him.

Her eyes darted toward the napkin holder on her desk and the alien voodoo doll propped against it. Somehow those two items defined the borders of her relationship with Michael. One represented his first unguarded moments with her, while the other stood for the pain he had inflicted. It had taken her a long time to forgive him for that night at the soap factory. She had been so hurt, felt so used. She had built up a good head of anger, and that was what kept her going through the long nights when all she had really wanted to do was cry.

Trouble was, this time, she couldn’t seem to get angry. Trouble was, this time, she understood why he was pushing her away. That night at the rave, when he told her that maybe they never should have started this, whatever "this" was, he was being selfish. Yes, he was scared, but he was scared for himself. He thought that being with her would make him feel too much, make him vulnerable, make him attached. And that terrified him. But now he was afraid for her. His concern was for her vulnerability. Because he already felt too much, loved her too much. He wanted to protect her because he loved her, and that was about as unselfish as you could get. And how could she get mad at him for that?

Which was not to say that she agreed with him, or that she was going to just sit back and accept his goodbye as the final word. She had been completely sincere when she told him the danger didn’t matter. It didn’t. Because none of that danger came from him. He would never hurt her, could never hurt her, no matter how out of control his powers were. It scared her to realize how much she trusted him, she who trusted so few people. She had complete faith in his gentleness, in that sweet and caring side that he rarely let surface but that was there nevertheless, hidden beneath the spiky hair and the scowl. Loving Michael was still a dangerous thing, for all sorts of reasons. Because the FBI was still a threat. Because Nasedo had no consideration for human life. But mostly because one day Michael might really have to leave her, might have to go home, and on that day she would have to let him go. But she wasn’t willing to do so a minute before then.

With a little smile, she slid off the bed and went over to her desk. She picked up the little stuffed alien and stared at it thoughtfully. Then, one by one, she pulled the toothpicks out and threw them away.

* * * * *

Diane Evans watched her children across the dinner table. Something had happened, something that had made her normally chatty daughter silent and her taciturn son even more withdrawn. Her husband seemed unaware of the change, entertaining them all with stories of his upcoming court cases and an in-depth analysis of the new lawnmower he intended to buy, not noticing that both kids appeared unusually fatigued and that Max especially had dark circles beneath his eyes. A knot slowly tightened deep in her stomach as she searched her children’s faces. She couldn’t imagine what could have possibly transpired in the last few days that had suddenly given them this world-weary look. And a mother’s instinct told Diane that they would never tell her.

"Anyone want seconds?" she asked, taking refuge in the routine of offering edible comforts. "There’s more chicken."

Isabel looked up from a half-full plate and graced her with a smile. "No, thanks. I guess I’m not all that hungry."

Turning to her son who didn’t appear to have registered the question, Diane prompted him. "Max?"

He looked up, startled, his mind clearly far away. "What? Oh, no thanks, Mom." He paused and glanced at Isabel and as their eyes met Diane thought she could see the exchange of some sort of message, almost apologetic. After that, he seemed to be making a concerted effort to eat. It reminded her of when he was small and would methodically eat all of his vegetables first in order to get them out of the way. There was no pleasure involved, just an acceptance that this was what he needed to do to please his parents. Not for the first time, she wondered how much of Max’s responsible, serious nature stemmed from a fear of losing his adoptive parents’ love. She had always tried to be supportive of both her children, to assure them that she would love them no matter what, but she suspected that a part of Max could never truly believe it. The incident over the kitchen fire a few months back had only reaffirmed her suspicions. Whatever secret was tormenting her son, he had not been willing to share it with his mother. It broke her heart, but she had backed away. For now it was enough that he knew that she loved and trusted him.

It had helped that he had recently begun to come out of his shell. Diane knew she had Liz Parker to thank for the smile she had frequently seen on Max’s lips the past few months, and for the light that shone in his eyes. It had eased her heart to know that someone had been able to break through his protective shield, that someone had made a connection with him. And if that connection was also responsible for Max’s first trip to the principal’s office and a crazy, ill-advised night spent in the desert, well, she was grateful enough that her son was finally behaving like a normal teenager that she could almost be amused. Because, underneath the sudden impulsive behavior, was still the responsible young man, and Diane ultimately had faith in the choices he would make.

She wondered if something had happened with Liz, but then swiftly dismissed the idea. If Max and Liz were having problems, it could very well account for the haunted look in his eyes, but it wouldn’t explain Isabel’s reserved behavior. No. Something else was going on, and Diane couldn’t help but feel afraid.

Turning, she caught her husband watching her, a look of concern on his face, and realized he was more aware of what was happening than she had given him credit for. He had seen how quiet Max and Izzy were, and tried to fill the void with his ongoing prattle. After all these years, she should have known. It was his version of offering seconds. She smiled at him reassuringly, and was rewarded when he smiled back, easing the tension around his eyes. Her Philip. Always there for her, through the heartbreak and tragedy of their early lives together, through the miracles that followed. Her love. She could only hope that her children would be as blessed in their future relationships.

The doorbell rang, startling her out of her reverie. Placing her napkin beside her plate, she automatically started to rise.

"I’ll get in, Mom," Max said, putting a gentle hand over hers. He and Isabel shared another cryptic moment, and then he walked out of the room. A moment later, she heard low, masculine voices in the front hall, before Max called out, "I’ll be back in a few minutes."

Diane rose and began clearing the table and Isabel started to help. Whatever else was going on, it was clear that dinner was over.

*****

TBC

posted on 9-Sep-2001 10:52:40 AM

Part 3

*******

Kyle was relieved when Max opened the door. After driving around aimlessly for most of the afternoon, he had finally found himself in front of the Evans’ house, but once he rang the bell he had panicked. After everything that had happened, after the crazy things his father had told him, he wasn’t sure what he was going to say. Then Max was standing in front of him, looking tired and stressed, but basically the same as always, and Kyle knew that, while everything had changed over the course of the day, things were fundamentally the same.

"Hey, Kyle," Max said. "How’re you doing?"

"I’m okay," Kyle admitted slowly. "Thanks to you. Listen, maybe I should have called or something before coming over, but do you think we could talk?"

"Sure. No problem. Just a sec." Max tucked his head back into the house and shouted something before coming back outside and closing the door. "Let’s go down here," he said, nodding toward the wall that separated the driveway from the front lawn.

They both sat, partially facing each other, wearing equally serious expressions. "So," Max said, "I guess your father filled you in on….?"

"On who you guys are? Yeah. He did."

"Right." Max paused, studying Kyle, trying to determine just where this was going.

"Look, Max," Kyle finally continued, "I just wanted to thank you for what you did today. You know," he looked around quickly as if making sure they were alone, "Saving my life. I…uh…well, I guess I’m not really sure what to say," he confessed, his eyes on the gravel beneath his feet.

"You don’t need to say anything, Kyle."

"Yeah. I do. I mean, I’ve been a real ass to you all year, ever since the whole thing with Liz started, and I want to apologize."

"You don’t need to. The one has nothing to do with the other. And I guess if the situations had been reversed, I wouldn’t have been too fond of me either," Max said, trying to keep the tone light. Though he understood Kyle’s need to talk about what happened, he wasn’t up to a deep and meaningful conversation, especially since he knew they would end up talking about Liz.

Kyle glanced up, the ghost of a smile playing on his lips. "So, that’s what you did to Liz last September, huh? She really was shot at the Crashdown and you healed her."

Max just nodded.

"How long does the souvenir last?" Kyle asked. "You know, the silver handprint on my chest."

"Just a day or so."

"Right. Okay. So that’s why the one I saw on Liz’s stomach was gone by the time my dad questioned her." He nodded, the pieces clearly starting to click into place. "Well, I’ll admit that things make a lot more sense now. You know, that trip you guys took down to Texas. The way you were so freaked when I showed up. Liz keeping all of those secrets all the time. My dad’s obsession with you."

"Yeah, I can see how they might." Max looked uncomfortable. Kyle seemed a little too calm.

Almost as if reading his thoughts, Kyle smiled. "Look, Max, you don’t have to worry about me spilling the beans on you guys. I mean, you saved my life and Guerin saved my dad. I owe you. And even if I didn’t, well, I guess you’re basically a pretty good guy. I mean, for an alien." He laughed.

Max relaxed somewhat. "You’re okay too, Kyle. For a jackass."

They both laughed, remembering their night of drunken bonding. "I guess now I know why you can’t hold your liquor," Kyle said. "That was one weird night."

"Not half as weird as some of the nights I’ve spent lately," Max muttered.

Kyle grew serious. "My dad told me about Fisher. What’s his real name? Pierce? He told me what happened to you. You okay, man?"

Max’s expression turned carefully blank. "Yeah. It’s over."

Kyle noted Max’s instant detachment and decided to change the subject. "Good." He paused, taking in the sudden tension in the air. "Listen, Max, I’m sorry for all the times I pushed you about Liz. I was just, I guess I was just bitter. It wasn’t even that I thought what we had was that great or anything. I just resented the way I thought you had horned in. But you two, well, I can see what you have is special. It’s the real thing, you know?"

Max smiled a little sadly. "Yeah. I know." He looked up at the sound of the front door opening. Isabel came slowly across the yard.

"Mom asked me to come see what was keeping you. She wants to know if you want any dessert." She dropped down onto the wall next to Max. "As if strawberry shortcake will make everything all better," she sighed. "Hey, Kyle," she added softly.

"Hey Isabel," he smiled in return. "So, I’m assuming your folks have no idea about any of this?"

Max shook his head.

"That must be tough. Keeping it from them. Feeling like you have to keep it from them."

Max shot a glance at Isabel, who reached out and gave his hand a quick squeeze, as if to tell him she understood how he felt. "It’s hard," she admitted to Kyle. "But it’s for the best. The fewer people who know the better."

"So, until Liz found out, no one knew?"

"No one," Max said. "After I saved Liz, I kind of had to tell her. And she told Maria, because she had been there and knew something was up."

"What about Alex?"

Isabel sighed. "Liz kept it from him for a long time. It almost ended their friendship. She finally ended up telling him that night after the party at the old soap factory. Your dad had thrown the two of them in jail. He was trying to get the truth out of them and Alex was so angry with Liz, he was ready to talk. So she told him about us and he became part of our secret."

Kyle arched his eyebrows. "Well, I guess there’s two more of us. I know my dad wants to help you guys. He feels really bad about going after you all this time. And if there’s ever anything I can do, just name it."

"Thanks, Kyle. But your father has saved my life twice in the past couple of months. I’d say we’re pretty much even," Max told him. "But I appreciate it."

"Right. Okay. Well, I guess I’m gonna take off."

"You want to come in for some strawberry shortcake?" Isabel asked softly.

"Nah. Thanks anyway. I better get home before the ol’ man sends out a posse." He smiled. "I guess I’ll see you guys in school tomorrow."

"Yeah. Good night, Kyle," Max said. They both stood, facing each other, and after a second Max put out his hand. Kyle took it and they shook hands firmly. "Thanks again."

"That’s my line, Evans," Kyle replied, then turned and headed for his car.

Max and Isabel stood and watched as he got in and drove away. "If you had told me a week ago that we were going to become friends with the Sheriff and his son, I would have tried to have you committed," Isabel informed her brother as Kyle’s car vanished around the corner.

"I know," Max said. "Come on. Let’s go inside."

* * * * *

She hadn’t realized how big the house was until she found herself alone in it. Sitting cross-legged on the dining room table in the semi-darkness, she was aware of the settling of floor boards, the quiet that permeated every room, the solitude that enveloped her so completely. The night seemed to have crept into the house, sneaking under the doors and slipping through the window panes until she was surrounded. It was different when he was here. There was life, sounds, a presence besides her own. She had never fooled herself into thinking he brought any warmth to her existence, but he provided companionship, the feeling that someone was protecting her. And now he was gone, and the spacious rooms crammed with antiques seemed that much colder than before.

The cold came from within. She knew it the way she knew which stars were theirs. She trembled at the realization that nothing was going to end up as it should. After all she had survived, the years of loneliness, the travelling from place to place, in the end it would be for nothing. Together they had lived and fought and died. Together they had crossed the galaxies – only to become strangers in this place so far from home, where they needed each other more than ever. Ah….but they had each other, didn’t they? And the others they had found here. They had changed, adapted, and she had been left behind.

What was she supposed to do now? Just sit back, fade away, leave them to their human lives at the risk of all they used to hold dear? Would they sacrifice their home, their people for a few years’ happiness in a world where they cannot even admit their true identities? That would seem to be the ultimate in selfishness.

She played restlessly with the sugar packets on the table in front of her, ignoring her half-eaten yogurt, building tiny sugar walls and forts and cities. Somewhere in the house a clock chimed once. She wondered what they were doing now. Were they sleeping peacefully in their beds? Or were they tossing and turning, trying to make sense of the deluge of information suddenly confronting them? Did they think of her at all?

She suspected that Max thought of her, though not in the way she would wish. Instead of considering her his destined mate, she was an obstacle which kept him from Liz. Even now that Liz had walked away, Max would continue to pursue her. If anything had survived from the life before, it was his stubborn singleness of purpose. What he believed in, he fought for; what he wanted, he took; what he loved, he would possess. It was what had made him a great leader. And husband.

There was no choice now. Surely they could see that. Too much depended on them. Lives were at stake. How could they ignore their destinies when it would mean turning their backs on the people who depended upon them? From her earliest memories, this was what she had been taught, this was what she had known. It was meant to be.

A noise in the other room made her look up. Before she could move to slide off the table, a dark figure appeared in the doorway. Her blue eyes grew wide.

"That’s hardly much of a dinner."

"What are you doing here?" she breathed. "You were supposed to go back, to be Pierce?"

Moving into the light of the room, he revealed the face of Ed Harding. "I could hardly leave my Tessy here all alone without providing for her, could I?" he asked, his voice saccharine sweet.

"What do you mean?" She pulled herself to the edge of the table and let her legs dangle over the side.

"I needed to take care of a few legalities," he told her. "Before I disappear into the FBI, I wanted to give you this." He handed her a large manila envelope. "Documents required for your emancipation, giving you control of your assets and the property in the house. The furnishings, as you know, are worth a tidy sum. There are detailed instructions for both you and for an attorney who can take care of the necessary arrangements."

She stared at the envelope in her hands for a moment before setting it on the table. "You knew this was going to happen?"

"I’m hardly clairvoyant," he remarked. "Given the circumstances of our daily existence, there was always the chance that something such as this would be necessary. I was merely prepared." He studied her serious expression. "You used the orbs, didn’t you?"

"Yes. Max wanted to know."

He swore quietly. "Headstrong," he muttered. "So, now you all know. Who you were and what you are meant to do. Where are they? Off with their humans?" he sneered.

She shook her head. "They went home. They…Michael ended things with Maria. And then at the cave, after we watched the message from the orbs, Liz told Max that she couldn’t stand in the way of his destiny."

He raised his eyebrows. "The girl walked away from him? How very unexpected of her. I thought he would come to his senses long before she would cease her ridiculous babbling about seeing into each other’s souls. I suppose she was frightened, finally." He clapped his hands together once. "Why so grim? This is good news, isn’t it? You can have your little family and everything will proceed as it was destined."

"No," she replied. "Max didn’t want to let Liz go, but he did anyway. I think he feels it will protect her. But he told me after she left that he has no feelings for me." Her eyes dropped to the floor. "He is willing to accept that the four of us must work together to fight our enemies, but no more. He will always love Liz."

"Hmmm." He rubbed his chin as he thought, a stupid human gesture but one that had become a habit. "He only thinks that now, because it is all so new and she is still fresh in his mind. Whatever insanity has possessed him will end soon enough. And if not, there are always other steps that can be taken. For the time being you must be satisfied with what progress you have made. And you must all take great care as I will no longer be here to watch your every move. The FBI is not the only danger you have to face now. Those orbs could quite possibly have alerted any number of enemies. Remain on your guard."

She sighed. "We will. So, you’re really going back in?"

"Those are my instructions," he replied. "He remembers much, without even realizing it," he told her. "Despite the years spent with these sluggish humans, he has retained his quick mind. Now, don’t forget. Caution in all things." Then he turned and slipped back into the shadows. Once again, she was alone.

* * * * *

It was late by the time Michael finally headed home. He had wandered for hours after leaving the Sheriff’s house, thinking about everything he had learned over the course of the day. Not all of the knowledge was good. Yes, he had learned they could trust Valenti, had discovered that he really did have a purpose in life, had found that there was more power in him than he had ever suspected. But he had also learned that he was capable of killing, and no matter how justified the act had been, the ease of it still chilled him to the core of his being. Perhaps Valenti was right, and in time he would accept that killing Pierce, wanting him dead, did not mean that he was bad. However, that didn’t make him any less dangerous to the people around him.
.
His steps were heavy as he made his way down the hall to his apartment. It had taken every ounce of strength he had to turn his feet down his own street, toward his own home. Each step felt like a victory – and a failure. Because what he desperately wanted was to go to her. To head down her street. To peer through her window in the hopes of catching just a glimpse of tousled blond waves and sparking green eyes. He had no illusions as to what her reaction would be if she caught him. This time there would be no understanding words or comforting arms or invitations to crawl into the warmth and softness of her bed. And he couldn’t blame her. After months of running hot and cold, after throwing her words in her face, hiding behind walls, accusing her of manipulating him, and taking her for granted, he had no doubt that he had finally succeeded in pushing her away. It had been inevitable. He knew from the start that it couldn’t last, that he would only hurt her in the end. She was so much better off without all of the craziness and danger he brought to her existence. She deserved so much more than what he was, what he could give her. For once in his life he was doing the right thing.

He just never thought it would hurt so much. He hadn’t known being noble could rip your heart out by the roots while it still beat in your chest. It hurt to breathe. His skin felt tight, his nerve endings sending off flares at the slightest touch. It would kill him if anything happened to her, but it was killing him to stay away. If it felt like this after just one day, how would he survive the week? A voice inside his head pressed him to go to her, just to reassure himself that she was safe. But he knew it wouldn’t work. The instant he saw her he would crumble. A furtive glimpse wouldn’t be enough. He would need to hear her voice, touch her skin, inhale her unique fragrance, feel her arms around him. One moment in her presence and he would be pleading for forgiveness.

She had done this to him. Weakened him. She had knocked down every level of his defenses against emotion until he no longer knew how not to feel. His need for her was a physical thing – not in a sexual way, although that was certainly one part of it – but a tangible yearning that made him clench his hands, that made his pulse skip a beat. He could so easily allow that desperation to cloud his judgement. So he would stay away. For her. For his peace of mind. Better to go insane from wanting her, than from losing her.

He let himself into his apartment and flipped on the light. It had been days since he had been home. The past few nights he hadn’t really slept, and before that he had been staying on Max’s floor, tortured by those dreams about Isabel. Now he wondered if they were even real. Despite the message from their home planet, he wasn’t entirely convinced that the dreams had been a manifestation of their destiny. Given the timing of recent events, it seemed more likely that Tess had planted them instead. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking on his part. He supposed he would know for sure soon enough. Assuming he could even fall asleep.

Everything was as he had left it. A couple of shirts tossed over a chair, his sheets in a twist on the couch. He picked up his pillow from the floor and pulled the sheets into some semblance of order before dropping onto the couch and stretching out. He kicked his shoes off and curled onto his side, feeling his tired body sink into the cushions. Every muscle ached with days worth of stress. Turning his head, he buried his face in the pillow, inhaling deeply when he caught the faintest whiff of cypress oil clinging to the pillow case. He groaned. No way was he going to be able to sleep tonight.

* * * * *

Alex lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He was exhausted, but sleep refused to come. His body was still, yet his mind continued to whirl, the thoughts he had worked so diligently to block all day swirling to the foreground to torment him. Mostly he thought about what Liz had told him – the hologram at the cave and what Isabel’s mother had said. He knew how Isabel longed to tell her mother – her Earth mother, that is – the truth about who she and Max were. The love and gratitude she felt for the woman who had raised her was enormous, and Alex knew she regretted keeping secrets from her. He could only imagine what Isabel was feeling now, in the face of her new knowledge. He wondered if she felt a divided loyalty between the only mother she had ever known and this woman who had given her life, apparently not just once but twice.

It surprised him that he was not more disturbed by the idea that Isabel had lived before. In some ways, he was actually intrigued by the concept. It was hard to imagine Isabel looking any other way than she did now, not because he was shallow or because he placed undue emphasis on her beauty, but because that beauty was such an integral part of who she was. Her sweetness and vulnerability came, not just from the pressures of hiding her true self from the world, but from the way the people around her reacted to her looks. It had to have affected her personality, living with the knowledge that people were attracted to her exterior and, as a result, rarely took the time to know the real Isabel. She built up walls, defenses. She obsessed over clothes and makeup, projected her carefully crafted image, wore the mantle of the Ice Princess.

But Alex knew much of that was a façade. Beneath the glamour girl was a daughter, a sister, a loyal and loving friend. A strong woman with a passionate streak and a gentleness that would have surprised the population of West Roswell High. How different had she been in that other life? She couldn’t have been the same – his Isabel with a different face, a different body. That would discount every moment she had spent growing up on this planet, every interaction she ever had with the human beings surrounding her. The old "nature versus nurture" question. Just how much did genetics determine who you were, and how much was the result of how you were raised? Alex yawned, almost amused at himself. He was starting to sound like Liz.

Shifting onto his side, Alex tried to get more comfortable. He was feeling a little sleepier, a little calmer than he had before. Somehow he had managed to talk himself out of that panic-stricken place where he had been sure he would never see Isabel again. It had helped to think about things from her perspective, and to remember that she was a thinker, a planner. Michael was the impulsive one, Max the one in charge, but Isabel followed her own path in her own time and wouldn’t be rushed into her decisions by either of them. Alex smiled, recalling how long it had taken for her to open up to him, how patient he had needed to be while she gradually learned to trust him. He could be that patient again, or more so if necessary. And in the meantime, he determined, he would go on with business as usual. He was Isabel’s friend before he was anything else, and nothing had happened that could change that fact.

* * * * *

In the darkest part of the night, a light flickered on in the Evans house. Max Evans sat bolt upright in bed, shaking uncontrollably, sweat drenching his body. Terror traveled his veins like a fast-acting poison, affecting every limb and ligament. With trembling hands, he brushed a damp lock of hair from his forehead as he attempted to regain control of his breathing. His heart was pounding at an inhumanly fast rate and he wondered why it didn’t leap from his chest and get it over with. His glazed eyes darted around the room, taking in the comforting surroundings as he tried to convince his beleaguered brain that he was indeed home, in his own bedroom, and not in some white-walled government lab. He was safe.

But he didn’t feel safe. In the harsh light of day with his friends and family depending on him, he could be that other person – the in-control, strong, brave Max Evans. They needed him to lead them, to protect them. But alone in the darkness with his defenses down, he was the real Max, and he couldn’t see a clear path for them to take. He felt the burdens of responsibility – the weight of two planets now sitting on his shoulders. How was he supposed to know what to do? He didn’t feel like a leader, a warrior. Instead he felt afraid. They would look to him for answers and he had none.

His eyes fell on the framed photo by his bed. Liz. In the picture she was smiling, her long brown hair loose around her sweet face. He reached out and traced her smile with one unsteady finger. He loved her beyond reason. She made him whole, kept him sane. Last night she had held him in her arms through a few hours of fitful sleep, whispering in his ear, chasing the nightmares away. This morning she had set him free to follow his destiny. Her strength humbled him.

He rose on still-shaky legs and stripped off his wet shirt, then went to his bureau and pulled out a fresh one. He tugged at the towel that hung over the back of his chair and swiftly rubbed it over his face and bare chest, then put on the dry shirt. Standing by the window, staring up at the stars, he felt slightly more in control. He took a deep breath and exhaled, concentrating on filling his lungs and emptying them completely. As he stood there, breathing in and out, he felt as if the stars were watching him, judging, waiting for him to make a decision.

How do you choose between your head and your heart? he mused. And why did he have to make a choice? His head told him that he must fulfill his destiny, that he must find a way to free his people, that he must live up to the honor of their trust. He could not let them down. But his heart clung to Liz. She was his destiny. Perhaps once he and Tess had belonged together, but that was so long ago, in a world he didn’t remember. How would being with Tess now help him save their planet?

When Liz had walked away and Michael held him back, Max had not fought either of them. A small part of him acknowledged that they might both be right. The part that had once told Liz they weren’t meant to be – that they were different. The part of him that knew that, by loving her, he put her in danger every single day. The part that couldn’t stand to see her hurt. Fear had always been so intertwined with his life; was it fair to weave it through hers as well? By letting her go now, he freed her to live a life of safety. He could give her a normal life if he let her walk away. Protect her from whatever was in store for them now. He could not fool himself into thinking the hard part was over. Whatever they were going to face, the things they went up against from now on would most likely make Pierce and the Special Unit look like a summer holiday. He shivered once, a fleeting image from his nightmares flashing before his eyes.

But that was not what Liz had walked away from today. She hadn’t run from the danger – she never had. Liz’s fears were fuelled by her heart, by her love for him, by her need to see him rise to the heights for which he was destined. Hers was the bravest, most unselfish act he had ever known. If she had been merely afraid for herself, he could have let her go. But knowing that she wanted to be with him whatever the risks, he could not bring himself to let her slip away. "You’re with who you choose to be with." She had told him that, but it wasn’t true. He didn’t have a choice, couldn’t help how he felt. He loved her and always would. He needed her at his side. And tomorrow he would tell her, and pray she understood. Without Liz, the future was nothing.

* * * * *

Maria DeLuca was asleep. She lay curled on her side, a few strands of blonde hair creeping across her forehead, one hand tucked beneath her pillow, the other clutching a slightly-worse-for-wear stuffed alien. Before going to bed, she had opened one window halfway and left the curtains parted so she could gaze at the sky. Now, light from the sliver of moon and twinkling stars spilled into her room and made her sleeping face glow. Her eyes flicked rapidly back and forth beneath their lids as she dreamed.

Had she been awake, Maria would have been surprised and a little amused at the turn her subconscious had taken. After days of being afraid and unsure, she would have guessed that her dreams would have taken a nightmarish twist. Instead, she found herself reclining on a pristine beach, warm waves lapping at her outstretched toes. The sun beat down on her tired body, infusing her with new energy and feelings of contentment. As a shadow fell across her, blocking the sun, she opened her eyes and squinted, trying to see who was standing there. It appeared to be a waiter, decked out in a trim bathing suit and a bow tie. He carried a tray with a tall, fruity looking drink, a slice of pineapple suspended over the side of the glass. Even before he came fully into focus, Maria could tell from his spiky-topped silhouette that it was Michael.

He leaned over and placed the glass on the small table next to her deck chair. Then, seemingly from thin air, he produced a bottle of sunblock. His face stern, he poured a generous amount into his hand, and, kneeling down, started working the lotion over her arms and legs. His strong hands were warm from the sun and the sunblock smelled pleasantly of coconuts. Maria relaxed, feeling the tension leave her body, enjoying the sensation of Michael taking care of her.

When he was done, he gently brushed a strand of hair from her forehead, then kissed the top of her head. "I love you too much to let you get hurt," he whispered. "I need you too much to leave you all alone. I’ll be back," he promised quietly. "Good bye." Then he was gone and the sun was once again shining down on her.

Shifting in her sleep, Maria sighed, a small smile creeping across her moon-lit face. Settling more comfortably into her pillow, she failed to wake long enough to see the spiky-haired figure that slipped through the window and made its way down the dark street.

* * * * *

Isabel felt as if she were being torn in countless directions. She was worried about everything and everyone. Learning who they were and why they were here was only the beginning. How were they supposed to proceed from here? How could they fight a nameless, faceless enemy simply by looking for the evil in their hearts? Half of the people they came across, it seemed, had evil in their hearts. Stretched out on her bed, staring into the darkness, she felt as if her brain was marching double time. Why did it seem that, the more answers they found, the more questions they had? Things just kept spinning more and more out of control.

Their relationships were more out of control than anything. Had it only been a few days since she thought she was pregnant with Michael’s child? When Max told her it was impossible, she had actually breathed easy, thinking maybe things were on the way back to being normal. Normal. Hah. Whatever that was. For the first time she suspected she knew what it was like to be Max, always concerned, always trying to take care of all of them. She just wanted to get back to that place, a few months ago, where the worst thing in her life was having to watch her brother fawn all over Liz at the Crashdown, while Maria and Michael bickered across the booth and Alex tried to tease her into going out with him. Just simple teenage days. When there were things to make her smile. That made her laugh. When she felt safe.

Now she just felt worried. Under siege. She was scared for Michael, thinking of his face when he realized that he had killed Pierce. How would he get past that? If she had killed Pierce, or Max had, or even one of the others, it would have been so much easier. None of them had the associations with violence that Michael did in his mind. All he could see was his inability to control his powers, his rage. And, perhaps worst of all, when he struck out he believed it made him like Hank. She thought if he would just let Maria in, she would be able to make him see that he was wrong. Though Isabel hated to admit it, she admired the little blonde’s stubborn tenacity and her ability to break down Michael’s walls. Maria had been good for him in a way that Isabel never could be. At first she had been jealous, but now she was grateful. Whatever destiny claimed, Isabel knew Michael would never be more to her than her brother, and she wanted him to have someone to love. He deserved to be happy, if only he would see it.

Thoughts of Maria made Isabel wonder what they were all feeling tonight – the human counterparts to their little group. Had Liz cried herself to sleep? Was Maria cursing Michael’s name? Did Alex fall asleep thinking of her? Alex. She had wanted so badly to go see him, to talk to him. She hated that he had had to rely on Liz in her overwrought state to fill him in on everything that had happened. It wasn’t fair. But the truth was, she didn’t know what she would say to him. She had no idea which way to go, what the status of their relationship was, if he even wanted to have a relationship with her anymore. Michael was pushing Maria away, Liz had left Max; it seemed reasonable to assume that her relationship with Alex, so much more recent and tentative than those of the other couples, would just fade away into the background. If her brothers couldn’t bring the girls into the reality of their new, more dangerous life, how could she demand differently of Alex? But…the truth was, she had waited so long and been so cautious about letting him into her life, she didn’t want to let him go now that he was there. Maybe it was childish and selfish, but he had become too important to her to give up without a fight. She just hoped the others felt the same way. They all needed each other, now more than ever.

Rolling on her side, she stared at the wall that separated her room from her brother’s and wondered how he was. She was unaccustomed to having to worry about Max – he was always so strong and in control – but now she was more concerned for him than for any of them. He had been through so much over the last week and, with the final blow of Liz’s departure, he seemed to be withdrawing into himself more than ever. Isabel only had the barest idea of what Max had suffered at Pierce’s hands from her brief walks through his subconscious, but that coupled with Liz’s plea earlier that day was enough to scare her. How was it going to affect him once he slowed down long enough to think about it? Granted, he had seemed remarkably pulled together all day. In some ways it was as if his ordeal had made him even stronger, more determined. Adult. But Isabel couldn’t help but remember the look on his face when they had finally come home. He’d seemed lost. Deflated. And she had wondered which was hurting him more – memories of being tortured or losing Liz.

******

TBC
posted on 9-Sep-2001 10:58:55 AM

Part 4

********

The night seemed endlessly long. Liz had finally given up on the idea of getting anything accomplished and had crawled into bed in the same clothes she had been wearing all day…or was it two days? She didn’t know. Didn’t care. Time had somehow run together until it had lost all meaning or order and everything that had happened had taken on the appearance of a dark, blurry watercolor. All she knew for sure was she had to be up and on her way to school in a few hours, and she was dreading it.

Never in her life had Liz Parker dreaded going to school. It had always been a haven, a place where she fit in easily and excelled naturally. But things had changed. Everything had changed. Why should school be immune to that? She was going to have to walk through the halls, go to class, and somehow stay away from Max. Avoid talking to him. Avoid looking at him. It seemed an impossible task, both because their paths crossed innumerable times every single day, and because she wanted so desperately to see him. How was she ever going to be strong enough to stay away?

The connection she had with Max had been growing steadily since the day of the shooting. She could hardly believe it was less than nine months ago – life had changed so radically, she had changed so radically. And that was really the key, wasn’t it? She had changed. Grown up. A split second, a bullet, a pair of gentle hands and warm brown eyes, and her entire life had been permanently up-ended. She had told Max she wished they could go back so she could stop him from saving her life, but only if that meant he would be safe. She wouldn’t give up a moment of those last months otherwise – the danger, the chaos, the love, even the pain. Because the past nine months with Max had been more real, more special, than anything she had ever known. Feelings that intense were unique, and to be cherished.

But what she felt now, the pain of giving him up, was killing her. She had to do it, had to close her eyes and her heart and let him live the life he was meant to live. It would be selfish to stand in his way, and so wrong. She couldn’t be the one to deny him his future. She loved him too much. But it hurt so badly, she didn’t see how she could possibly survive. Anyone who claimed the heart was only an organ to pump blood had never truly been in love, because her heart was breaking and it was a very real physical sensation, science be damned. Something was crushing her chest from the inside, making it nearly impossible to draw breath.

She dragged her exhausted body from the bed and stumbled to the windows. She had closed and locked them earlier, fearing Max might make one of his evening forays to her rooftop to try to change her mind. While she knew the locks couldn’t keep him out, she also knew they would. Max would never use his powers to enter her room uninvited. Now she opened the window wide and inhaled deeply, letting the night air fill her lungs and cool her feverish face. Leaning her forehead against the sill, she closed her eyes and tried to let her mind go blank. Somehow she had to get a hold of herself. This was no different than the night Max had told her he wanted to take a step back. It had been hard and she had hurt, but she had gotten through it. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder if this was how he had felt that night – wanting to be with her, but knowing that it wasn’t meant to be. Because, ultimately, he had been right all along. No matter what they wanted, no matter how they felt, the truth was inevitable. They were just…different. Their entire lives were like that moment in the maze when they had finally found each other – they could see each other and hear each other, but a clear pane of glass divided them.

Knowing that only true exhaustion could make her wax philosophical, Liz slid the window closed and once again locked it in place. Then she made her way back to her bed and collapsed on top of the sheets. The red numbers on her clock glowered at her menacingly: 2:38. She groaned. Regardless of the state of her mind, she had been going for days on only a few hours of rest and it was catching up to her. Physically and emotionally worn, she allowed her tired, red-rimmed eyes to drift closed. Her body, pushed to the limits of her endurance, slipped easily into a fitful sleep.

Outside on the roof, a tall anonymous figure emerged from the shadows and swung over the wall. He had been watching her for sometime with interest, searching for indications of her weakening. He was not at all pleased with what he had witnessed. Experience told him that humans, especially of the female variety, frequently changed their minds. And, while he was admittedly surprised that she had willingly relinquished her hold on Max, there was no still guarantee that this one was really any different. He would have to watch her closely to be sure that she did not interfere again. Too much depended on it.

* * * * *

Max was sitting on his bed with his back against the wall, his eyes closed, when the rap came at the window. He smiled to himself as he opened his eyes. At least some things remained the same. He swung his legs off the bed and went to let Michael in.

"Max. Glad to see I’m not the only one having trouble sleeping." Michael reached back and closed the window behind him.

"Yeah. I was asleep for a little while, but…" his voice trailed off as he went and sat back down. "I hope Isabel’s getting some shut eye. One of us needs to be awake enough to drive to school."

Michael flopped at the foot of Max’s bed, eyebrows raised. "Well, then you better be planning on calling a cab, ‘cause Isabel’s light was on too."

Max sighed. "I should have figured. Be right back." He got up and quietly opened the door to his bedroom. A moment later he slipped back inside with Isabel in tow. She smiled at Michael, then climbed onto the bed and pulled her knees up to her chest.

Resuming his spot at the head of the bed, Max rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands, then sighed. He was so tired, but beneath the fatigue he could feel the anger building again. It was the same anger he had felt earlier when he had declared they were going to take their lives back. He had worked hard to mask the rage from everyone, knowing they needed him to be in control, but it had been there, bubbling below the surface. It had made him furious to see the looks in their eyes – fear, misery, defeat. They had been ready to run because of Pierce, because of what Pierce had done to him. Michael, ready to throw it all in and skip town, Maria trying to be brave, but clinging tightly to Michael, Alex without his ever-present grin, Isabel looking more terrified than he’d ever seen her. And Liz. It had killed him to look at Liz and know that she felt responsible for what was happening to them. She believed in her heart that, had he not saved her, everyone’s lives would be safe – normal. What made it even worse was the knowledge that she had seen exactly what Pierce had done to him – and it had put a haunted look in her beautiful brown eyes. It had made Max so angry, to see these people he loved in fear for their lives, when not one of them had done a thing to deserve it. And he had snapped. Whatever quiet reserve of strength lived deep inside of him, that place he could always depend upon to keep him under control, suddenly broke free. And Max had known the time had come to do something.

Looking at Michael and Isabel, seeing the dark circles beneath their eyes that he knew matched his own, Max realized not much had changed. Oh, they had taken their lives back, but they had lost them again almost immediately. Once again they were facing unknown dangers and feeling vulnerable. Worse still, in their attempt to discover who they really were, they had succeeded in losing their identities.

"Okay," he said, sitting up a little straighter. "We can’t go on this way. We need to talk this out, right now, and come to some decisions."

Isabel looked confused. "How can we make any decisions, Max? We barely have anything to go on."

Michael rubbed his eyes. "She’s right, Maxwell. What are we supposed to do?"

"We work with what we have," he replied, looking them each in the eye in turn. "What do we know?" he asked, standing and beginning to pace beside the bed. "And I mean know. Not what we think, or what Tess has told us. What we are absolutely sure is fact."

Isabel and Michael traded looks. "So, you don’t believe Tess, is what you’re saying," Isabel stated.

Max sighed. "I believe Tess is the fourth alien. I believe she was in the pods with us. We have to work with her to do whatever it is we are supposed to be doing. But I…" he paused, shrugging his shoulders. "I just don’t trust her."

Some of the tension left Isabel’s body. "Me neither," she confessed. "Ever since I realized that she can use her powers to manipulate what someone thinks they’re seeing, I’ve just felt…uncomfortable, I guess. I’m sure she planted those dreams Michael and I were having about each other. And she did it to you, too, Max. Made you think about her that way."

"You don’t know that for sure," Michael said. "You saw the book. How can you be so sure the dreams weren’t real?"

"Because, Michael, why did the dreams only start after she moved to town? Why didn’t we ever have those kinds of feelings for each other?" Isabel argued.

"Take it easy," Max broke in. He turned to Michael. "She’s right. I wasn’t even asleep when I was having those…daydreams…or whatever they were. And Tess was always there when they happened."

"It could have been a coincidence," Michael muttered.

"What are you saying, Michael?" Isabel asked. "That you want it to be true? That you want to be with me?" Her voice had grown gentle.

He shook his head, then looked up, his eyes sad. "No, Iz. I don’t. But, part of me can’t help feeling it would make things so much easier."

Max dropped a hand onto Michael’s shoulder. "Easier because then you could use Isabel to help you forget about Maria?"

Michael didn’t answer, but his gaze dropped back down to the bed.

Isabel sighed, looking up at Max. He nodded. "Okay," he continued. "So, we keep our guard up around Tess. That’s part of the reason I wanted to have this discussion now, without her around. We can fill her in later on whatever pertains to her. Now, let’s get back to what we were talking about. What we really know."

"We know we were sent here on purpose," Isabel volunteered.

"Right. We were genetically engineered, combining human genetic material with…whatever part of our alien selves had survived our deaths," Max said. He shook his head. "It sounds so strange. That we lived before and died and were…put back together in this other form."

Michael snorted. "You make us sound like something thrown together in a blender."

Max smiled ruefully. "That’s kind of how I feel, to tell you the truth. It seems like whatever way you look at it, we’re somebody’s science experiments." He leaned against his desk and rolled his head, feeling the stiffness in his shoulders. "Let’s keep going. What else?"

"In our previous lives, you were the leader of our people and Michael was your second in command," Isabel continued. "You were married to Tess and I was engaged to Michael."

"Okay, let’s talk about that for a sec," Max said, knowing that this fact made all of them more uncomfortable than they had yet to admit. "Think about how our relationships have developed in this life. What are the similarities and what are the differences?"

Michael shrugged. "You and Isabel are still brother and sister." He looked up and caught Max’s eye. "And you’re still bossy as hell."

Isabel smiled. "And Michael’s still second in command."

"How do you figure that?" Michael asked.

"Think about how you react to everything," she said. "When Max tells you to do something, you bristle and go off and try to take care of it yourself. Look at the way you went to see River Dog, and to meet Topolsky. You’re either trying to one-up Max, or to protect him. To protect all of us. You’re always looking out for me, too, especially when Max isn’t around."

Max nodded. "Yeah, Iz. I think you have a point there." Noting that Michael wasn’t looking at either of them, he made a motion to Isabel to move on.

"I think that’s about it for the similarities," she said.

"Okay. So, differences then? I’d say they’re pretty obvious. Iz, you and Michael have always related as brother and sister. Nothing more. And I haven’t had any natural feelings toward Tess, except for suspecting that she had some connection to us."

"But Max, we know you and Tess were married. We know Michael was my fiancé. It was in the message from our mother," Isabel insisted.

"I’m not denying that. And I’ll get to the message in a minute. First, I want to suggest a theory – pure conjecture, mind you. In our previous lives, we meant certain things to each other, some of which seemed to carry into our present lives. So, why only some of those feelings? We’ve had this fierce sense of loyalty to each other since we can remember. We consider each other siblings, Michael included. We knew we belonged together. But there was never anything romantic about it, even once we got old enough. I propose that there never was anything romantic in our relationships. We were the leaders of our people, warriors of some sort and heads of state." He paused and took a deep breath. "I suspect that our marriages were arranged," he said quickly.

The three of them sat in silence as Michael and Isabel allowed the idea to sink in. Finally, Michael looked up. "You know, Max, I hate to say it, but that kind of actually makes sense."

Max let out a small chuckle. "Thanks, Michael."

Isabel nodded. "Yeah. I think you might be right. It…feels right somehow."

"So, what about the message?" Michael asked.

"I’ve been running it over in my head," Max said. "At no time did our mother say we were destined to be two couples. She only said that’s what we used to be. It explains why the choice of the four of us to come here, but nothing more."

"So that isn’t part of our destiny?" Isabel asked cautiously.

"You know, the only one who has even mentioned the concept of destiny is Tess." Max came over and sat back down. "She kept telling us that all of this was our destiny. It was meant to be. You two together, the two of us together. She claims it’s all in the book. But none of the three of us can read that book, and the pictures could mean almost anything, seeing as how we know we were together before. It could be a history of our people for all we know."

"So it comes back down to trusting Tess," Michael said.

"Which we don’t," Max stated.

Michael stood up and went to the window. "It doesn’t matter, Max. I know where you’re going with this – what your next leap of logic is gonna be, and I’m telling you it doesn’t change things."

"Yes, Michael. It does," Max said, watching his friend. Michael’s back was stiff and Max could see that his fists were clenched tightly. "Don’t tell me you don’t want to be with Maria, because I know you do. And don’t give me some bullshit about not being able to control your powers, because that’s just an excuse."

"I can’t, Maxwell. I can’t risk her getting hurt."

"What do you think you’re doing to her right now? You think this isn’t hurting her? You think she’s not lying in bed right now, crying or cursing or trying to figure out someway to change your mind?" Max shot out.

"She’s fast asleep right now, which is more than I can say for the three of us," Michael shot back.

"What?" Max said. He waited a second, then, getting no reply, he stood and went over to Michael. "You went by her house on the way here, didn’t you?" he asked softly. "To make sure she was okay."

"What if I did?" Michael asked, but the anger had left his voice. He sighed. "Don’t think this isn’t killing me, okay? She’s like a drug, a physical addiction. But it’s too dangerous, and not just because of what I might inadvertently do. They’re all in constant danger because of us. We can’t do that to them. It isn’t fair."

"Michael, it’s too late to change that," Isabel said. "They all knew the danger and they made the choice to stay with us. And we have a better chance of protecting them if we’re together. If we’re all working to avoid each other, God only knows what might happen."

"No," he insisted. "Don’t you get it? If they stay away from us, no one will know how we feel. No one can hurt them or use them against us."

"Don’t talk to me about that like you know what you’re saying," Max snapped at him. It was like someone had thrown a switch in his head and suddenly all he could see was the images Pierce had shown him of his friends and family. "Don’t tell me what they can and cannot use against us, Michael. You haven’t got a clue. Pierce sat me down and showed me pictures. Alex and Maria. You and Isabel. Liz. I was strapped in a chair, drugged and utterly helpless, and he showed me Liz lying dead in the street with blood pouring out of her mouth. Let someone show you a picture of Maria broken and bleeding and see how far your denials get you. I took one look at Liz and went insane. I just caved," he admitted, tears in his eyes. "I cried like a baby. I told him anything and everything I could and it still wasn’t enough. He would have killed her. He would’ve killed all of you, in whatever sick and twisted way popped into his perverted brain, and I couldn’t have done a damn thing to stop him. You think Liz walking away from me is going to change that? You think they won’t be able to figure out how I feel? That it’ll be some big secret somehow? That she’s suddenly safe? Get your head out of the fucking clouds, Michael. They don’t need an excuse to cut us open. And they’ll take Alex, Maria, and Liz down too, just for the pleasure of seeing us scream. You feel bad about wanting to kill Pierce? You have no idea what it’s like to want someone dead, Michael. When I was holding the gun on him, it was all I could do to keep myself from blowing him to hell where he belonged. I would have ripped him to pieces with my bare hands and been glad."
.
As Michael and Isabel watched in horror, Max collapsed completely. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he fell to his knees and cradled his head in his hands, rocking back and forth. He sobbed uncontrollably, tremors wracking his body. When Isabel knelt down and tried put her arms around him, he curled tighter into himself as if seeking protection from any level of comfort.

Michael pulled Isabel away from Max, squeezing her arm gently, then got down on the floor in her place. With firm hands, he grabbed Max by the shoulders and gave him a shake. "Maxwell," he said in a low voice. "Snap out of it, Max. You’re home. It’s okay. Everyone’s safe. You’ve gotta pull it together." He leaned over his friend and spoke quietly, continuing to hold him steady, preventing him from rocking in place.

Eventually Max’s shuddering ceased and he grew calmer. When he appeared to have stopped crying, Michael looked up and motioned to Isabel. She nodded and, grabbing a box of tissues, climbed around her brothers so she was kneeling in the corner of the room next to Max. She reached out and rubbed Max’s back in long soothing strokes as she passed him the box.

Max finally sat up, looking exhausted and mildly embarrassed at his outburst. He took a couple of deep breaths and shot them a sheepish smile. "Sorry about that," he mumbled.

"Hey, if that what comes of always being in control, give me wacked out and impulsive anytime," Michael quipped, relieved when both Max and Isabel smiled. "Now, ya think we can get up off the floor before my knees set at this angle permanently?"

That brought a laugh, if a quiet one, and they all hefted themselves back up onto the bed. "Max," Isabel said. "I think you need to talk about it. I know that you’re just trying to protect us, but we have a right to know what happened. It could just as easily have been one of us in there."

Max took another deep breath. "I’m sorry I lost it. Really. But, I’m not sure I can tell you right now. It’s too close. And you’re right. You deserve answers. But, I’m asking, please, give me some time, okay?" He looked at his sister with pleading eyes. "Iz, I just can’t."

She nodded, reaching out to take his hand. "If you’re sure. But I mean it, Max. You can’t just bottle it all up and think that it’ll go away."

"I know. But we have other things to deal with, and I need to be able to focus. If I start dredging it all up, reminding myself, I won’t be able to concentrate on anything else."

"Okay," she agreed. She looked at Michael questioningly. "Maybe we should all try to get some sleep. It’s getting really late."

"Yeah," Michael agreed.

"No," Max said, his voice firm again. "We need to finish hashing this out."

"Time enough tomorrow, Max," Michael told him.

But Max shook his head decidedly. "We aren’t done. Tomorrow we need to be ready to walk into school and know precisely where we stand. We’re gonna have to face Liz and Maria and Alex and Valenti. And Tess. We have to finish this tonight."

Michael glanced at the clock, then shrugged. "Whatever."

"Look," Max continued. "I know what I want. I want Liz. In my heart, I know we’re meant to be together. And I intend to convince her of that." He turned to Isabel. "What about you and Alex?"

Isabel surprised them both by blushing. Max grinned. "I guess that’s our answer."

She swatted him across the shoulder and smiled. "It’s all your fault," she told him. "You started all of this mooning over humans." She looked down and played with the hem of her pajamas bottoms. "It took me a long time to trust Alex," she said quietly. "He was just there, you know? I knew how he felt, but he didn’t push it. He was willing to wait. And he put up with all of my shit," she added with a grin. "He matters to me. I feel safe with him. He really sees me, not just the outside, you know? And I think…I think I might be falling in love with him," she whispered.

Max turned piercing eyes toward Michael. "What about you? We all know how you feel."

"I don’t know, Max," he said helplessly. "I…."

"Michael, what do you want? Close your eyes and tell me what you want."

His eyes fluttered closed. "You know the answer to that, Maxwell."

Max sighed. "You deserve to have what you want, Michael. We all do."

Eyes still shut, Michael slowly shook his head.

Isabel looked at Max, the pain she felt for Michael clear on her face. But Max shrugged. There was only so much they could do to convince him. Ultimately, the decision was Michael’s.

"Fine. We can revisit this later," he added, not wanting Michael to assume the subject was closed. "Now, about the rest of the message."

"You mean about overthrowing our enemies?" Isabel asked.

Max nodded. "What do you think?"

"Do we have a choice?" Michael asked. "We have to do something. I mean, according to the message, these beings are here on Earth with us. We need to figure out how to stop them."

Isabel nodded. "I agree, but the question is how? Our mother said something about the evil in their hearts. It couldn’t be more vague than that."

"I know," Max agreed. "So, the logical thing is to continue to hone our powers and hope that can help us."

"And how do you propose we do that?" Michael asked.

"Look, Michael, you’ve become a lot more powerful in just the last couple of days, especially after your talk with Nasedo," Max told him. "It’s just a matter of practicing until you develop enough focus to contain the energy."

Isabel shot Max a look. "Contain the energy? Where did that come from?"

Max looked startled. "I don’t know. But it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?"

The other two nodded. "Like something out of a handbook," Michael commented.

Max shook it off. "Doesn’t matter. We have to assume that the more we work on it, the more will come back to us."

"So, we work on our powers until we figure out who the evil aliens are, and then we wipe them out," Michael stated matter-of-factly.

"That’s the theory," Max sighed.

"What’s wrong, Max?" Isabel asked, although she had a pretty good idea.

"I’m trying to see how any of this makes sense," he admitted.

"It doesn’t have to make sense, Maxwell. It’s what we were sent here to do."

"It isn’t that simple, Michael." The tension was back in Max’s voice. "How the hell can the four of us wipe out an alien race that that already killed us once, along with God knows how many of our people? And even if we somehow manage that one, then what?"

"We go home and rescue our planet," Michael told him.

"This isn’t a comic book," Max informed him. "We can’t just pile into our trusty spaceship and zoom on home. Has it escaped your attention that we don’t know where home is, let alone how to get there? God damn it, Michael, we crashed here more than fifty years ago. There may not even be a home to go back to."

Michael looked stunned. It was clear the idea had never entered his mind. He had always just assumed that home was there, they had just never seen fit to come looking for him. It had never occurred to him that maybe they couldn’t.

"Max," Isabel said gently, wanting more than anything to erase the sudden look of hopelessness she saw in Michael’s eyes. "We don’t know that. And as for the rest, well, give it some time. Think of how much we’ve learned in just a few months."

He nodded. "I’m sorry," he said. "You’re right. It’s just…"

"What, Max?" Michael asked, and there was no challenge in the question. He genuinely wanted to know.

Max sighed. "Things are so difficult the way they are. We’re constantly fighting for the right to live a normal life. I feel like I’m constantly leading you both into some sort of battle. I don’t feel I have the right to just tell you we have to do this. We all need to agree. How far are we willing to go for a home we don’t even remember, that may not even exist anymore? We already gave our lives for our planet once. Are you both willing to do it again?"

Michael and Isabel traded serious looks, then turned back to Max. Their expressions said it all. "We’re with you, Max," Michael said solemnly. Isabel nodded.

Max smiled and reached out with both hands to take one of each of theirs. "Okay. So that’s it then. We follow the path set out for us, at least in this. From now on we work to figure out a way to save our homes." He squeezed their hands tightly. "Both of them."

END

Continued in House of Cards