posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:23:28 PM

House of Cards
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: Through the end of Season One.
Rating: PG-13
Feedback: Sure! Love it!
Author's note: This is the second of a series. If you haven't read "You Can't Go Home Again", you'll be lost.

* * *

Max Evans kept his eyes glued to the door. He had yet to see Liz today and Chemistry was the one class they had together. If she failed to show up, he could be pretty sure that she hadn't come to school at all. The possibility had him worried. It was one thing to respect her wishes and keep his distance - at least for now - but the idea of not seeing her at all was enough to make him panic. He needed to see her, to know that she was safe. He needed it the same way he needed to breathe.

A minute before the bell rang, Maria walked into class. Her eyes met Max's and she sent him a small, sympathetic smile before heading toward her desk. Next came Alex, his head turned away, obviously talking to whomever was walking behind him. Liz. Max felt the tightness in his chest ease slightly as she came into view. She looked tired, with dark circles under her eyes, and her sadness covered her like a cloak, making his heart ache. But she was here and, for the time being, he could be satisfied with that.

Max was so preoccupied with watching Liz, who carefully avoided turning toward him, that it took a moment for him to realize she and Alex had both headed over to the desk that Alex shared with Maria. There was a whispered argument taking place, one which appeared to be making Alex, in particular, extremely uncomfortable. Maria shook her head at Liz, and Alex looked as if he might be trying to convince her of something, but then Max saw Liz turn pleading brown eyes towards her friends. It was clear to him that, whatever she wanted, they would soon relent rather than risk her tears. At least he hoped they would. He didn't think he could stand to see Liz break down in front of everyone.

As the bell rang, Alex shrugged. A second later he headed across the room and slid into the empty seat next to Max. Liz's seat. "Sorry," he whispered to Max, looking embarrassed. "We tried."

"I know," Max said quietly. At that moment Liz looked toward him and their eyes met briefly. "It's okay," he said, and Alex seemed to know enough to realize the comment was not for his benefit.

Max opened his text book, trying not to think about the fact that Liz didn't even want to sit next to him. If he let himself think about it, he would never make it through the day. Instead, he kept his eyes trained on the page in front of him as Mr. Seligman began his lecture. At one point the teacher's eyes flicked appraisingly over the room, taking in the new seating arrangements. However, he said nothing, merely turned to the blackboard and began to outline the sections of the next week's exam.

The class seemed endless. Max found his mind wandering as the lecture went on, barely conscious of the voice droning interminably as background to his agitated thoughts. He kept shooting glances at Liz, but she kept her head down and her hand moving as she dutifully copied the notes from the board. Max took little comfort in his suspicion that she was merely writing the words by rote, and that she was as little conscious of the substance of the class as he was. Trying to pay attention, yet still failing miserably, Max concentrated all of his energy on not asking Alex any questions about Liz. It wouldn't be fair to put his friend in the middle.

When the bell rang signaling the end of class, Liz bolted out the door as if the FBI was on her tail. Maria watched her go, then came over to meet Max and Alex. "She's really stressing out," she told them.

Max grimaced. "I know. I have to talk to her, but I'm just not sure what to say. How do I convince her that she's wrong?"

Maria shrugged. "You have to figure it out and fast," she said as the three of them slowly exited the classroom. "She's never going to make it through finals in this shape. I doubt she slept an hour last night."

"She wasn't the only one," Max muttered.

"So," Maria said, shooting a glance at Alex, "where's Tess today?"

Max looked startled. He stopped in the middle of the hallway and looked from Maria to Alex, then back. "She wasn't in class," he said blankly.

"I'd say that means you not only don't know where she is, but you didn't even notice where she wasn't," Alex observed.

"Not exactly my top priority," Max admitted.

"We're not gonna fight you on that one," Maria said.

"What are we not fighting about?" Isabel asked as she walked up to them. "Hey," she added, shooting Alex a nervous look.

Alex swallowed hard at the sound of Isabel's voice. Suddenly his head was filled with all of the questions that he had been struggling to keep at bay. "Hey," he said. "Uh... we're not fighting over Max's priorities," he said quickly, venturing a glance in Isabel's direction. His eyes immediately found hers, and when he noticed her hopeful smile, he beamed at her. It was as if he could breathe again.

Isabel could have hugged Alex right then and there for the gleam in his eyes and the slight blush that swept over his face when he looked at her. Instead, she reached out and slipped her hand into his, marveling at how right it felt. "Which priorities would those be?"

Maria took in the exchange between her friends, and couldn't help but grin. It would appear that destiny had not quite managed to squash all of their relationships. "Max putting Liz first, of course," she replied. "As in, before noticing that Miss Harding failed to grace us with her presence today. Not that it's any great loss," she finished under her breath.

A look of comprehension crossed Isabel's face. "I know where she is," she told them as they moved down the hall toward the cafeteria.

"You do? How?" Max asked.

"She called me on my cell this morning. She had to go see an attorney in Albuquerque today and wanted me to pick up her assignments." Shooting a quick look around, Isabel lowered her voice. "Nasedo showed up at her place last night and handed over a bunch of paperwork to smooth over her emancipation."

Max frowned. "How neat and tidy," he commented.

Maria noted Max's expression. "What does this mean? Max? You don't seem too happy about this?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. It just seems a little too convenient."

"Like he knew he would be leaving?" Alex asked.

"We don't know, Alex," Isabel said softly. "We really don't know anymore than you guys at this point."

They made their way through the lunch line in silence, then headed across the quad to their usual table. Only once they were seated did something occur to Max. He looked around, frowning.

Maria noticed immediately. "He's over there," she said, pointing toward a bunch of trees at the other end of the lawn.

Max turned and looked in the direction she had indicated. He could just make out a pair of jean-clad legs sticking out from behind a tall oak. Squinting, he glanced at Maria. "How can you be sure that's him? You have x-ray vision or something?"

She shrugged. "It's him. I just know." She busied herself with unwrapping her straw and slipping it into her juice box.

Max nodded, understanding. She and Michael had a connection, just the way he and Liz did. He didn't know why he hadn't realized it sooner. "I'll be right back," he said, then headed across the grass.

* * * * *

Michael sat with his back against the tree trunk, his legs stretched out in front of him, eyes closed, trying not to feel the tugging at his heart. He had known the very instant she had come outside, as clearly and as surely as if someone had announced it over the P.A. The air had started to vibrate in that special way it did when she was around, as if her very own electricity sparked the atmosphere. It was making him insane.

Suddenly something, or someone, blocked the sun that had been warming his face. The vibes didn't feel any stronger, so he knew it wasn't Maria. Sighing, he opened his eyes. "How'd you know I was here?" he asked.

"Maria," was all Max said in reply.

"Figures." If he could tell where Maria was, why wouldn't she be able to sense him right back? This was getting more complicated by the day. "So, she send you over?"

Max crossed his legs and sat in the grass next to Michael. "No, actually she didn't." He turned probing eyes in his friend's direction. "Disappointed?"

Michael shook his head. "Nah. Not really surprised, either. Wouldn't be her style."

Max grinned. "You've got that right. My bet is, when she decides the time has come, she's gonna want to beat the crap out of you herself."

Michael winced. "Yeah. But it won't make any difference, Maxwell. I'm not backing down on this."

"Whatever, Michael. One of these days you're gonna realize that Maria is just as stubborn as you are and that you might as well give in."

"If we're both equally stubborn, what makes you so sure I'm the one who's going to back down?"

Max shot him a tired smile. "Because Maria wants to be with you with all of her heart. And only a part of yours wants to stay away."

The words were so simple, and true, they left Michael visibly shaken. He looked at Max, his mouth agape. His mind went blank and he couldn't think of a single rebuttal.

Max took pity on him. "Look, Michael, I didn't actually come over here to discuss Maria right now. We've got other problems."

Michael's eyes narrowed. "So what else is new," he muttered. "What happened?"

Rubbing his hands over his face, Max sighed. Half a dozen replies came to mind instantly, most dealing with Liz, but that wasn't what he had come over to tell Michael. "Tess isn't in school today. Isabel heard from her this morning. Something about going to Albuquerque to file for emancipation. Apparently Nasedo showed up at her house last night with the necessary paperwork."

"So, she just took off by herself to take care of it?"

Max nodded. "Yeah. I'm not too happy about it either. We don't know how safe it is for any of us to go anywhere alone yet. I should have mentioned it yesterday, but I wasn't thinking."

"Hey," Michael said quickly. "You were thinking plenty. You shouldn't have to spell everything out all the time."

"Yeah, well, regardless…"

"Cut yourself some slack, Maxwell. You'd been to hell and back. You shouldn't have to baby-sit all of us all the time." When Max raised his eyebrows, Michael looked mildly embarrassed. "Yeah, me too. I know. But I haven't gone off doing anything stupid this time, have I?"

That caused Max to smile. "I appreciate that, too, Michael. And I know you always act from the heart." His smile faded. "With Tess, well, I don't know what to expect. We don't know her. It keeps coming back to that. It isn't just a matter of trusting what she tells us. Can we trust her to keep herself safe? She's always had Nasedo looking out for her. How is she going to deal with being alone?"

Michael looked disconcerted. "So what do we do?"

"What can we do? We wait for her to get back. Then we have a little talk about being responsible."

"You sound like someone's father."

Max frowned, staring off into the distance. "It's not the role I was bucking for, believe me. And I have no intention of playing it out this way from now on. Everyone is going to have to carry their share of the responsibilities, because frankly, I'm tired and I can't do this alone."

Michael studied his friend quietly, noting the changes in him. If the night before he had seemed exhausted, today he appeared merely haggard. But there was a new look in his eyes; he seemed much older, more mature, but there was something else as well. If Michael had to place it, he would say Max looked haunted, scarred. Not for the first time he wondered exactly what Max had suffered at Pierce's hands during those hours in the white room. Max had given him the barest glimpse the night before when he'd broken down, and that in itself had terrified Michael. He couldn't imagine how much worse it must have been.

And then there was the other factor. Liz Parker. For the first time, Michael began to question whether he had done the right thing by stopping Max from pursuing Liz the previous day. Somehow he suspected that, when Max said he couldn't do this alone, he really meant he couldn't do it without Liz. And that was a problem Michael had never anticipated.

Reaching out a hand, Michael tentatively patted Max on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it for now," he advised. "Everything will shake itself out," he added in what he hoped was an encouraging voice. Being the one to reassure wasn't a role he was used to, at least when dealing with Max. He wasn't exactly sure how to proceed. When some of the tension seeped out of Max's frame, he thought maybe he had taken the right approach.

"Thanks," Max said. He levered himself up with one hand and stretched. Looking down at Michael, he smiled. "You sure you wouldn't rather come eat with us?"

Michael smiled back, but shook his head.

"You're gonna have to face her eventually," Max told him. "When do you work next?"

With a little groan, Michael closed his eyes. "Tonight," he mumbled. "We're all on tonight."

"Good luck," Max said. "I'll see ya later."

Michael squinted up at him and nodded. "Right. I suppose I know where you're dining this evening?"

"Keep a Will Smith hot for me," Max shot over his shoulder as he headed back toward the table, a smile on his face.

Michael watched him until he sat back down next to Maria, in the precise spot where Michael most wished to be. He groaned and closed his eyes again, trying to shut out the distant image of sunlight dancing across tousled blonde hair, but it didn't do any good. Max's words came back to haunt him almost immediately. Maria wanted to be with him with all her heart. Once upon a time that was something he wanted with every fiber in his being - for someone to love him that way, that intensely, just for who he was. Now he had it, and it terrified him.

* * * * *

Liz sighed with relief as she left the school grounds for the day. She had managed to escape after only a few more close encounters with Max and - since in each instance she had seen him from behind in the hallway, and had quickly turned in the opposite direction - she was pretty sure he hadn't spotted her. At least he hadn't looked at her again. She hadn't been forced to stare into his beautiful brown eyes, to face the misery she had seen earlier. Misery she knew she had put there. That moment in class when their eyes had met, it had all been so clear to her, his complete understanding, mingled with his love and his pain. It was as if they had connected from across the room and she had been able to feel everything he was feeling - and it hurt unbearably.

It had swallowed up her entire day, trying to avoid him, bracing herself against the sight of him. Every ounce of energy had gone toward keeping herself strong. Now it was all she could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She was so tired she ached with it. Yet she had to keep going. She had to work, had to study, had to somehow continue with her life. There had to be a way to keep moving fast enough to stay one step ahead of the emotions, to keep her brain numb. If she slowed down for an instant, if she dared to stop, it would all come crashing down on her like a house of cards, each precariously placed defense tumbling until she could no longer breathe.

Not for the first time, she wondered if this was how Max had felt when he told her they needed to take a step back. Had it been this hard for him then? Had he felt this despair, this crushing pressure in his chest? Did he feel like he was dying every moment? She remembered that night on the roof so clearly - he had tried so hard not to look at her, not to meet her teary gaze. Now she knew why. It was one thing to look into each other's eyes and connect, to see all of the love and desire they felt for one another, but it was another thing entirely to see pain there and know you were the cause of it. Whomever said that the eyes were the windows to soul, had no idea how truly right they were.

The Crashdown was quiet when she arrived home, not yet filled with the typical after school crowd. Liz headed upstairs to get ready for her shift, going mechanically through the routine of putting her books on her desk, hanging her clothes in the closet, tugging on her uniform, pulling her hair into a ponytail. She stared in the mirror at her pale face and carefully applied concealer to the dark circles beneath her eyes, blush to her cheeks, gloss over her lips, knowing that nothing would bring the sparkle back to her eyes. Even to her they seemed lifeless. Sighing, she grabbed her antenna headband and shoved it in place, then headed back downstairs.

The first thing that caught her eye was the work schedule, and it made her stop short. Both Michael and Maria were working the closing shift with her. Of course, it made perfect sense, as all three of them had been off the entire weekend, but she couldn't help but panic at the thought. Maria hadn't really said much about Michael's love-you-and-leave-you performance the day before, given that Liz had been going through some alien-upheavals of her own, but Liz could imagine the head of steam the other girl had developed in the last twenty-four hours. And knowing Michael, he had kept wisely out of harm's way all day at school. Which meant one of two things was bound to happen; either one or the other would skip out on work tonight, leaving her to cover way more ground than she felt capable of at the moment, or else Michael and Maria would provide some unscheduled entertainment for the café patrons that evening. Liz groaned, unable to decide which scenario sounded worse.

Glancing at her watch, she saw she had ten minutes before the shift started, which meant it was probably too late to call Maria's house and warn her off creating a major disturbance. She could probably catch Michael, assuming he was home, but given the events of late, Liz felt less than comfortable with that option. Too tired to do anything but give into the inevitable, she went out into the kitchen.

"Hola, chica!" José called from his place by the grill. He flipped two burgers with practiced ease as he shot her a teasing grin. "So, Lizzie, when you gonna dump that Max guy and let me show you a good time?"

Liz couldn't help but smile a little at the cook's familiar banter, despite the pang she felt at his words. José had been flirting with her since she was old enough to help out in the café, when he himself had been merely a busboy. "Sorry, José. Not gonna happen," she told him.

He shook his head and let out a slow whistle. "What is it with my girls? You and Maria, both of you going for these brooding guys. What you see in these long faces, eh?" He winked at her, then reached over to pull the fry basket out of the sizzling oil. Then he turned to the fridge and tossed her an apple. "Here you go, baby. On the house," he smirked. "You gonna fade away."

Liz caught the apple automatically, then moved to the sink to run it under the water. She might as well eat it as not, she thought. Just because she had no appetite and she knew the fruit would have no taste, that was no reason never to eat again, was it? Taking methodical bites, she ate the apple, nibbling around in perfect circles as she stared into space, not noticing the concerned look that passed over José's features as he watched her. When she was done, she dropped the core into the trash, flashed the cook a blank smile, then headed back to the break room.

"Hey honey," her father said as she came into the room.

Liz looked up, startled to find her father not three feet in front of her, coming down the back stairs. "Oh, hi, Dad."

He looked at her quizzically. "Everything okay, sweetie? You seem a little preoccupied."

"Oh, yeah, you know," she shrugged. "Lots going on. Finals coming up, that kinda thing." She went into the ladies room to wash her hands, hoping her father would leave it at that. But when she emerged, he was still there, patiently waiting for her. "Is something wrong, Dad?"

"Oh, no, no. Just wanted to make sure you were okay. And, well, since you are…"

"Dad?" she pressed. "What is it? Did Mom put you up to this? 'Cause I told her last night that everything is fine." She allowed herself to grow just the slightest bit annoyed with her father, knowing he would hear the trace of it in her voice and back off.

"We're just worried about you, Lizzie. That's all," he told her, looking a bit sheepish. "We want you to know that…"

"I can come to you with anything," she finished, nodding at him. "Dad. I know. It's fine. Now, I need to get to work. Don't you and Mom have some town council thing tonight? Just go."

Her father smiled at her, shaking his head. "So grown up and in control," he murmured. "Fine, sweetie. We won't be too late."

Liz shot him a quick smile as she turned to her locker. Grabbing her apron, she headed out into the café. If he only knew, she thought wryly. If he had a clue as to how out of control I feel, he'd never let me out of his sight again.


posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:25:48 PM

Part 2


Maria stood nervously at the back door to the Crashdown. She could not believe she was actually apprehensive about going to work. Damn Michael for making her feel this way. He had no right - she refused to be intimidated. He had avoided her all day at school, and she had let him, keeping her sanity by reminding herself that it was just another one of his phases and that eventually he would talk himself out of it. But there was no way she was going to tip-toe around the café just to make him happy. She had worked here first. If he didn't like being around her, he could get himself another job, she thought angrily, pulling open the door and marching inside.

It took all of ten seconds for her heart to sink to her toes. He wasn't here. She could feel it, or rather not feel it. Not feel him, that is. The air was missing that funny wavy, sparkly sensation it had when he was nearby. For one terrifying moment she though he might have quit. It would be just like him to do just that - to run away rather than risk having to face her. But then she remembered her dream. How sweet he was. How gentle. The warm phantom hands rubbing over her limbs, coating her with suntan oil. The even warmer hand stroking the hair off her forehead, a hand that felt too real for a dream. And she remembered that he loved her. At that instant, Maria DeLuca was sure of precisely one thing to the depths of her soul - whatever else Michael Guerin did, this time he wouldn't be able to run. At least not too far.

Glancing at her watch, she realized that for once she was a little ahead of schedule. She went over to her locker and tucked away her purse, then peered in the mirror to adjust her headband. When Liz came through the swinging door, Maria gave her hair a final pat and turned worried eyes on her friend, noting her tired expression and dull eyes. "Hey, Liz. How're you doing?"

Liz shrugged. "I'm hanging in," she admitted. "By a thread." She frowned at Maria, looking her friend in the eye. "How about you? Maria, you realize Michael's working tonight, right?" she asked slowly.

Maria smiled. "I know. Don't worry about me, Lizzie." She turned back to her locker and pulled out her apron. Humming slightly, she tied it firmly around her waist.

Liz watched her, growing even more concerned. "Okay, who are you and what have you done with Maria?" She paused at the shocked look on her friend's face, realized what she had just said, and retrenched. "Skip that. I know it's you. But, it's just, this was definitely not the reaction I was expecting. I mean, you seem… almost… well… happy," she said, her voice incredulous.

Maria laughed. "Liz, I swear to you that I have not gone off the deep end. I just refuse to let it get to me, that's all."

"God, whatever you're on, I could really use some of it," Liz muttered.

Maria reached out and put her hands firmly on Liz's shoulders. "Michael has done this to me before. And last time, I thought he hated me. Or at least that he was just using me. I won't pretend it didn't hurt," she admitted softly. "But I got over it, and we got past it. And in my heart, Liz, I know we're going to get past this too."

Liz shook her head. "Maria, this isn't the same."

"It isn't, but it is. Liz, I know why you think you had to walk away from Max, but I don't agree with you. And if you really look into your heart, I bet you'll discover even you don't agree with you." She rushed on when Liz seemed about to argue with her. "Look, my problems with Michael have nothing to do with destiny right now, and everything to do with his being afraid. He's gotten in deeper than he ever thought possible and he doesn't know what to do next. This thing with Pierce has him tied up in knots," Maria continued, her voice dropping to nearly a whisper. "I just have to get him through it."

"I think I preferred you in your down-with-all-men mode," Liz sighed. "You still have that Aqua bra? It should work better now that the weather's warmer," she pointed out, hoping to sway the topic in a different direction.

"Liz, I'm sure about this. About him."

"I hope you're right. I'm just afraid you're not."

"Don't worry about me," Maria told her again. "I know what I'm doing. Just be sure you do." She pulled Liz into a tight hug. "Stop being so selfless. You're killing yourself, and him too," she whispered. She pulled back and looked Liz in the eye. "You're too smart for this."

Liz shook her head, obviously fighting the tears that suddenly threatened to spill down her cheeks. "I can't do it to him. I can't stand in his way," she insisted. "You don't understand. You weren't there." Then she turned and dashed up the stairs, leaving Maria to stare after her and sigh.

Which was exactly what she was doing when the back door opened and Michael walked into the room.

* * * * *

Michael stopped and stared. He had known Maria would be there. Hell, he had felt her presence as he opened the door. The sparks shooting through space and lighting up the air gave her away. He just hadn't expected to find her standing right there, looking sadly up the stairs, so close he could reach out and touch her. And he certainly hadn't expected her reaction to him. She simply turned as he walked through the door and shook her head. "We have to do something about her," she said, as if picking up a conversation mid-stream, then turned and headed into the café, leaving Michael in the open doorway.

He stood there dumbly for a moment and watched the swinging door as it bounced back and forth, eventually coming to a stop. Through the diamond-shaped glass, he caught a glimpse of Maria as she filled glasses at the soda dispenser, then turned to place them on the counter, her familiar smile intact. He blinked, wondering what exactly he had missed. Shaking himself from his stupor, he closed the back door behind him and went to get his kerchief from his locker, tugging it into place over his hair with barely a glance in the mirror. He quickly washed his hands and headed into the kitchen, knowing José was sure to be annoyed at him for being late.

Unfortunately, flipping burgers over a hot stove was not the type of work to keep the mind occupied. Michael had plenty of time to wonder exactly what was going on. Maria seemed all business now, almost as if the exchange in the other room hadn't occurred. She dropped off her orders, picked up the filled plates, all with minimal comments. When he mistakenly dropped an order of Saturn Rings along side a Sigourney Weaver that called for fries, she simply pointed it out, not bothering to insult him or make some snappy comment. Her behavior was, in all respects, precisely what he had expected of her given the way he had treated her the previous day. She was cold and detached. And it was better that way, he told himself. Or at least it might have been, if he hadn't caught that other glimpse of her on the way in the door.

He'd been there about half an hour when Liz emerged from the back and started working the floor. It was only then that Michael realized that Maria had been covering most of the café by herself, with Agnes the only other waitress on duty. The restaurant had gotten more crowded and orders were starting to get backed up. "Doesn't anyone just order soda anymore?" he grumbled to himself as he lined up a series of plates with buns and plopped a greasy burger onto each one.

"Don't wish that on us," Liz said softly, causing him to look up with a start. "We'd never be able to cover the rent on this place if no one ordered food."

"Hey," he said, passing the plates over the counter. His eyes narrowed on her pale face, but he didn't comment, knowing he was in no position to say anything. But it was obvious to him what Maria had been talking about. Liz looked like hell. Turning back to the grill, he cursed silently. This was what came of getting involved, in developing friendships. No matter what they did, someone they cared about was going to get hurt, and he hated it.

"Michael?" Liz's voice floated back to him.

He sighed and turned. "What?"

"Thanks for showing up," she said softly. Then she balanced two plates along one arm, scooped up the third in her free hand, and headed back to serve them.

Michael watched her go as he allowed her words to register. She really thought he would bail on her to avoid seeing Maria, he thought, a frown creasing his brow. His eyes trailed after Liz for another moment, then darted instinctively to the other end of the café where Maria was taking an order. Isabel and Alex, he noted, sitting at the front booth, their feet entwined under the table. His eyes refocused on Maria, on the soft curve of her neck as she bent over her order pad. As if she knew he was watching, she suddenly straightened and turned her head toward him and their eyes met briefly across the room. Held. Until he very deliberately turned and went back to the grill.

* * * * *

Isabel watched the exchange between Michael and Maria, then reached across the table and took Alex's hand in hers. At that moment, she wouldn't have traded places with either of her brothers for anything on this planet or any other. Feeling Alex squeeze her hand, she knew he felt the same way. They traded quick smiles, their affection for each other and their relief in each knowing how the other one felt, shining clearly in their eyes.

The sound of Maria tapping her pencil impatiently on the table drew Isabel's attention, but when she saw the amused smirk on her friend's face she couldn't help but grin. Despite everything that had happened, all that might still happen, her constant worries for her friends, Isabel was suddenly deliriously happy. It felt amazing, defiantly out of character, and she wondered if this was how Max had felt the time he got drunk.

"Okay, enough of that," Maria announced. "You still haven't told me what you want to eat."

Scanning the menu quickly, as if she didn't already know it by heart, Isabel shrugged. "I guess I'll just have some fries," she decided.

Alex laughed. "That's just 'cause you know you're gonna end up picking off of my plate," he teased.

Maria shook her head. "You guys never order anything different. Any of you. Why do I even bother to take your orders? I'll be right back with your drinks," she told them and headed back toward the counter.

Once she was out of earshot, Isabel leaned across the table. "She seems remarkably okay, doesn't she? I mean, except for that one deep and meaningful look she and Michael shot at each other, everything seems normal. Did I miss something? I thought for sure she'd be firing with both guns by now."

"You're witnessing the new-and-improved Maria DeLuca," Alex informed her. "She's decided to basically play along, figuring Michael will cave sooner if she throws him off by not reacting to him."

"Interesting theory," Isabel mused. Glancing across the room, she caught Michael watching Maria as she bustled across the floor. "May actually work, too."

Alex turned to see what she was looking at and grinned. "He's too far gone to hold out for very long. I know that look all too well."

"Oh, really?" Isabel asked. "And how is that?"

He swiveled back to face her. "I've been looking at it in the mirror for years."

Isabel realized she was actually blushing. She could feel her face growing warm and was surprised to find it was not an unpleasant sensation.

"Jeez, guys, this is a family place," Maria commented with an exaggerated groan. "Enough with the steamy looks, at least until prime time, okay? Here you go. One root beer, one house cherry coke." She slid the glasses onto the table. When Isabel raised her brows questioningly, Maria smiled. "You know, with special sauce," she whispered. "Anyway, wish I had time to chat, but the masses await. Be back with your food in a bit."

Alex watched her go, then shook his head. "I wish Liz was holding up that well."

Isabel sighed. "I know. Max, too. He's a wreck. If Liz doesn't back down on this whole 'leave him to his destiny' deal pretty soon, I'm going to be scraping pieces of him off the ceiling."

Alex looked at her, concerned. "He didn't seem that bad at school. I mean, sure, he's upset, but he was holding it together."

"You didn't see him last night, Alex," she confessed. "He had me really scared. Whatever happened in that room out at the base…." she broke off, a shiver wracking her body. "It changed him, Alex. How could it not?"

"Changed him how?"

"I don't know. He was always quiet, kind of withdrawn, you know? But we were always connected, the three of us, in everything important. Now he's holding things back, not just to protect us but to protect himself as well, and instead it's only hurting him. I can feel him trying to be this person for us, this leader. It's like he's playing a role, and the real Max is slipping further and further away."

"Did you try to get him to talk about what happened?"

Isabel nodded. "He won't. He says he needs time, but I know he just wants us to forget about it. He doesn't want to tell us."

"Don't worry," Alex said softly. "We'll figure out how to get through to him. One step at a time, okay?"

"Okay," she agreed, taking a deep breath. "You're right. God, I can't believe it's only been a couple of days."

"Not to open a can of worms, but any word from Tess?"

She shook her head. "Not since that call this morning. Max wanted to go by her house on his way here to see if she was back, but I talked him out of it."

"You still don't trust him alone with her?"

"He's not the one I don't trust," she replied. "He'll just meet us here later." She looked across the room to where Liz was heading into the back. "I wonder how that's gonna go over."

"My prediction? Not real well. He's going to have to get her alone," Alex said. "That's the only way he'll have a shot at getting her to listen to him. If he tries here or at school, she's just going to start to get upset and he'll end up letting her run again rather than cause a scene."

"My brother, knight in shining armor," she muttered.

Alex shrugged. "He's the hero. We knew that before, didn't we? It's just been confirmed, that's all."

"What does that make me?"

A mischievous grin spread over Alex's face. "Princess Isabel, of course. We already knew that, too." He ducked as she threw her straw wrapper at his head, then burst out laughing, effectively lightening the mood once more.

* * * * *

Mondays were generally Michael's favorite nights to work because they were rarely busy. Oh sure, there were a couple hours after school let out when things could get a little crazed, but then it generally got pretty quiet. A family or two would wander in, a group of high school kids looking for a study break, but that would be it. No after-movie rush, no dates, just a peaceful evening where he could pretty much guarantee they would close up early. Tonight, however, he wished half of Roswell would come order a Blue Moon Burger, just to keep him occupied.

But luck was rarely with him, and this night was no exception. Customers started to drift out the doors and by seven o'clock the place was virtually empty. Alex and Isabel still sat in their booth, nursing sodas and chatting quietly. He recognized a couple of juniors from West Roswell at a back table, text books and study notes sharing space with cups of coffee and a plate of cold Saturn Rings. The only other customer was an elderly woman at the counter, carefully studying the dessert menu while Liz stood patiently waiting for her to make a decision. Michael sighed, wondering what had happened to Max, then, seeing no sign of Maria, headed out to bus the tables.

He piled dishes into the plastic bucket methodically, moving from table to table, keeping carefully away from the front of the restaurant. Isabel and Alex looked just a little too happy for him to deal with right now. The ease with which Isabel had continued that relationship made him uncomfortable, and truth be told, somewhat jealous. Not of Alex, because Michael himself had no romantic feelings for Isabel despite those stupid dreams and all of Tess's babbling about destiny. He loved her as a sister and always would, but it could never be anything else. No - he was jealous of their closeness, of their easy conversation, of the fact that they had each other to lean on. Just watching them together made him miss Maria that much more and that was something he couldn't afford to feel.

He lugged the heavy load of dishes into the kitchen and began to rinse them off and pile them into the dilapidated old dishwasher. It was only after he started the machine and turned to wash off his hands that he caught sight of Maria standing in the doorway to the break room. She had propped the door open with her hip and was watching him silently. Their eyes met and they stared at each other without a word for a long moment. This time she was the one to turn and walk away, letting the door swing closed behind her.

Only, this time, Michael couldn't bring himself to leave it at that, and followed her. He reached the back room to find she had plopped down on the old couch and was staring into space. "Okay, what was that?" he demanded without preamble.

Slowly, she turned luminous green eyes in his direction. Her face was expressionless. "What was what?"

"That!" he said, waving his hand back toward the kitchen. "This. This staring contest we have going on. And that thing before, when I got here. What's going on?"

"What's going on?" she repeated stupidly.

"Stop answering my questions with more questions," he growled, advancing on the couch, then stopping abruptly a few feet away. "It's not going to work, Maria," he told her.

She sighed, suddenly looking tired. "Michael, I don't know what you're talking about. You wanna spend the whole day avoiding me at school? Fine. You don't want to talk to me at work? Fine. I've stayed away from you, I haven't pushed. If I happen to look in your direction occasionally, I'm sorry. I can't help myself." She ran a hand through her hair, pushing her headband off, then started to knead her temples with the tips of her fingers. "We don't all have your superhuman self-control. This isn't easy for me," she finished quietly.

Michael felt a wave of guilt. "I'm sorry," he offered softly, starting to back away.

"No, you're not sorry," she said, catching him by surprise and stopping him in his tracks.

"What do you mean?"

"If you were really sorry, you wouldn't do this to me," she told him, but there was little of the DeLuca punch in the accusation. Instead, she sounded resigned.

"Maria, you know why I have to do this. It isn't safe for us to be together. If anything happened to you because of me…." His voice trailed off as he started pacing nervously back and forth across the room, his level of frustration starting to build. "I can't do it. I could never forgive myself, don't you see that?"

She stood up suddenly, blocking his path, a glimmer of fire beginning to light her eyes. "What I don't see is how you can think you're a danger to me, Michael. You would never hurt me - ever. You couldn't."

He stopped short to avoid colliding with her. "Never on purpose," he agreed, "but I can't control what I can do. I have to be sure."

"Nothing in life is sure, Michael," she threw out. She grabbed his hands and held them cupped palms up in her much smaller ones, her firm grip preventing him from pulling away. "You have never once touched me in anything but the most gentle way. Even when you wanted to wring my neck. Even before you trusted me. Do you remember the night of the CrashFest?" she asked suddenly.

He nodded. "The night you found out about us."

"Right. Liz told me that night and I freaked. I ran out of her apartment screaming. Did you know that?"

He shrugged. He had heard about it, although much later, when it had no longer worried him because by then he knew she was on their side. "What's your point?"

"My point, Michael, is that I was scared of you then. All of you. Even Max. Even knowing that he'd healed Liz. I was terrified. Then Liz came up with that hair-brained plot to throw Valenti off your trail and I had to trust you. I had to trust Isabel not to run me over with my own car, and I had to lie there on the ground with my eyes closed and wait for you to put a silver handprint on me. And you put your hand on my chest, and it was so warm, and you were so gentle, Michael. I was this flaky nut case who knew your secret and could potentially get you killed or worse, and you touched me like I was breakable china."

Michael felt like he was being hypnotized. Shaking his head, he pulled his hands gently from hers. "It doesn't matter," he said softly. "That doesn't mean anything."

"Argh!" She turned away and pounded a fist into a couch cushion. "Damn it, Michael Guerin, why are you so thick headed?"

"I'm thick headed?" he asked. "Me? You're the one who refuses to see. Maria, I killed Pierce!" he shouted at her back. "I wanted him dead and it was all over. I know I would never do anything to hurt you that way, but that doesn't mean I won't use my powers to hurt anyone else. If you're around, there's no telling what might happen. You could get caught in the crossfire and that would kill me! I mean it. It's too dangerous. Don't you get it?"

"No, I guess I don't," she admitted, her voice thick with tears. "I'm just some dizzy blonde who's too stupid to understand why you aren't willing to take the risk if I am. You're not the only one who's in love, you know."

Not even a sledgehammer to his skull could have stopped Michael quite so effectively. He stood, speechless, watching as she continued with her back to him, her thin shoulders starting to tremble. He wanted to pull her into his arms and kiss her until she stopped crying, to take away the harsh words and this insane existence that had brought them to this point. He was so close to reaching out to her that he had to force himself to lace his hands together behind his back, just to keep his arms from moving of their own accord. Using every ounce of willpower he could muster, he took one step backwards so that she was out of reach.

"You're not stupid or dizzy," he said gently. He hesitated, then took a deep breath. "And I do know," he added meaningfully. " I wish things could be different."

Maria wiped at her eyes and stood a little straighter, but she still didn't turn around. "They could be," she said. "You just won't let them." She picked up her headband and moved briskly past him into the ladies room, where she proceeded to splash cold water on her face while he watched. Catching his eye in the mirror, she shook her head. "Go back to work, Michael," she told him. Then reaching back with one hand, she shut the door in his face.


posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:27:53 PM

Part 3


Instead of going back to the kitchen, Michael headed into the café and made a beeline for the front booth. "Do me a favor?" he asked Isabel, abruptly breaking into her conversation with Alex.

Isabel started to glare at him for being so rude, then saw the look on his face. "What?"

"Go talk to Maria."

"Where is she?" Isabel queried, looking around the deserted restaurant.

"In the restroom." Michael rubbed one hand across his eyes. "She's upset," he added.

Isabel glanced at Alex, then slid out of the booth. She stood in front of Michael until she met his eye. "Why me?" she asked softly. "Why not get Liz to go?"

He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "Liz'll probably just tell her that I'm right, and that's not what she needs. She needs someone who'll agree with her when she calls me an asshole," he mumbled.

With a sympathetic smile, Isabel gave him a little nod and headed for the ladies' room. Michael slid into the seat she'd vacated and looked at Alex. "How did I get to be the villain here?"

"Y-chromosome," was the automatic reply. Then, after a brief pause, "Or whatever your equivalent might be. Look, Michael, I know you think you're protecting Maria with all of this self-sacrifice stuff, but you're just pulling a Max."

"Excuse me?"

Alex sighed. "You're taking utter control of a situation where there is clearly no right answer and declaring your way law. You don't have the right to make that kind of decision for her. Maria has to make up her own mind as to how much she's willing to risk."

Michael scowled. "Whitman…"

"Look, you asked," Alex interrupted. "And frankly, I doubt anyone is going to give you a different answer, except maybe Liz, and she's suffering from the same malady."

Michael raised his eyebrows. "Y-chromosome?"

"Okay, so maybe that isn't the only problem. How about over exposure to Max Evans, noble alien extraordinaire? If anyone else on our particular Good Ship Lollipop decides they want to steer, we're not gonna have any sailors left to swab the decks."

"You are one strange bird, Whitman. I've no idea what Isabel sees in you," Michael commented, softening the jibe with a smirk.

"Me either, but I'm not complaining," Alex replied.

"So, is it worth it?" Michael asked soberly. "I mean, is being with Isabel worth the possibility of getting killed? Have you really thought about it?"

Alex looked him in the eye, something he was conscious of never having done before. "Yes. Absolutely. You're forgetting that one of Pierce's goons - or maybe even Pierce himself - came pretty darn close to dragging me off the street just a few nights ago. I was there when you and Valenti pulled Max out of that base. I don't know what Pierce did to him, but it doesn't take a degree in medieval torture devices to take a wild guess. I saw Kyle get shot. I know there's some evil race coming to destroy the world, or whatever. I'm not in the dark here."

"And you're willing to go up against all of that?" Michael asked, more than a little amazed.

"It isn't anything you guys aren't up against yourselves."

"But not by choice. This is who we are. You don't have to be a part of this."

"Michael," Alex said pointedly, "I am a part of this. We all are. Isabel and Max know it. Maria knows it. It isn't a choice anymore. It's just the way things are."

"I can't accept that," Michael said. "Not if it means Maria gets hurt."

"Fine," Alex sighed. "I don't want to argue with you about this. It's something the two of you are going to have to settle yourselves." He looked up as the door chime rang out. "Looks like Max is here." Alex turned just in time to see Liz hurry to the far end of the café and busy herself scrubbing the counter. "Round two, anyone?" he muttered.

Max came over and slid into the booth next to Michael. "You guys are a pretty sorry twosome," he commented. "What's going on?" His eyes focused on Alex. "Isabel here?"

"In the back," Alex answered. "Picking Maria up off the floor," he added pointedly.

"I see," Max said slowly, shooting Michael a look out of the corner of his eye. "Well, Michael…"

"I don't want to hear it," came the quick retort.

Max held both hands up, an innocent look on his face. "Hey, can't a guy ask for a burger without getting his head handed to him?"

"Yeah. Whatever. Will Smith?"


"Slide out. I'll go throw one on and get you a cherry coke." Max looked at Michael questioningly as he stood to let him out of the booth. Michael rolled his eyes. "You don't think Liz is gonna actually come take your order, do you?"

Max sighed and slid back into the seat. "I guess this isn't the best approach, huh?" he asked Alex.

"I don't think so, no. So, where ya been? We'd begun to think you'd ditched the lot of us."

"I went past Tess's house."

Alex's eyebrows shot up. "I thought you promised Isabel that you wouldn't go over there by yourself?"

"I said I wouldn't go see her," Max replied, slightly annoyed. "I just did a drive by to see if she was back. There were some lights on, so I'd say it's a safe bet. Maybe you and Iz can swing by when you leave here. Isabel was supposed to take Tess her assignments, but I'd rather she not go over by herself."

"I'm flattered you consider me any kind of protection," Alex observed. "I'm not exactly much of a match for our Miss Harding."

"Safety in numbers."

"Right. Sure."


Michael brought over Max's drink and set it on the table. "You want fries, too?"

Max shook his head. "Not that hungry."

Michael nodded knowingly. "Right. Alex? You just gonna keep the booth warm for a while longer?"

Alex looked around the mostly-empty room. "What? You need the seat for someone else?"

"I just meant, do you want anything else?"

"Oh, no. Thanks," he added somewhat sheepishly.


The back door swung open and Max, Michael, and Alex turned to see Isabel emerge with Maria just behind her. Maria went straight to Liz, murmured something, then gave her a quick hug and disappeared into the break room again. Isabel came back to the booth and sat down next to Alex.

"Hey, Max," she said.

"What happened?" Michael demanded.

Isabel shook her head. "She's going home early. She isn't up to being here with you right now, okay?"

Instead of answering, Michael turned and stomped off to the kitchen. Max shook his head. "Is Maria okay?"

"Yeah, more or less. They had some sort of run in. She tried to convince him he was wrong, he stood fast, she ended up in tears." Isabel looked at Alex. "So much for the new-and-improved version. The old Maria seems to be back full force. She's upset, but she's mad too. Michael had better just stay clear of her until she settles down again."

Almost in unison, Alex and Isabel turned and looked at Max. "What?" he asked. "I didn't do anything."

"Exactly," Isabel commented. "Are you planning to talk to Liz?"

Max sagged into the booth, his eyes traveling automatically to the other end of the room where Liz was filling napkin holders and keeping her back to him. "I was planning on it, but now I'm not so sure."

"Max, you have to say something to her," Alex told him. "I just wouldn't do it here."

He nodded. "I know. Part of me thought that if I cornered her in the café with a bunch of customers around, at least she wouldn't be able to run away. But I know it wasn't that good of an idea."

"To say the least," Isabel muttered, but she watched him with clear concern. "Max, are you okay?"

"What?" He looked up, straightening in his seat. "Yeah. Just, you know… a lot on my mind."

Max flashed her a smile, but Isabel was acutely aware that it didn't reach his eyes. Reflected in the front windows, she could see Liz Parker moving at the counter in the same zombie mode that seemed to have possessed Max, and Isabel felt herself growing even more worried. She couldn't help but feel that things were sinking from bad to worse.

* * * * *

Tess picked listlessly at the pizza in front of her. After her trip to the lawyer in Albuquerque, she was more tired than hungry, and the greasy meal suddenly held less appeal than when she'd stopped at the take-out place on the way home. Instead of eating, she turned her attention to the To Do list she was trying to compile. Being an emancipated minor appeared to be rather more complicated than she had thought. She needed to find a new, smaller place to live, and then there was the contents of the house to sort through. Sighing she looked around at the objects d'art and heavy furniture. None of it meant anything to her, so deciding what to sell shouldn't really pose a problem. As far as she was concerned, it could all go.

The sound of the door bell startled her. Wiping her hands, she made her way out of the kitchen to the front of the house. When she opened the door, she discovered Isabel and Alex standing on the front step.

"Hey," Isabel said, obviously slightly uncomfortable. "I figured you'd be home by now. I brought your assignments," she said.

"Thanks," Tess said. She quickly took in Alex's protective stance and somewhat rebellious look, as well as how close he was standing to Isabel. She forced herself to smile. "You guys wanna come in?"

"Sure," Isabel said, ignoring Alex's quick tug on her arm. She filed through the door, giving him no choice but to follow. "So, how did it go today?" she asked Tess.

Tess shrugged as she closed the door behind them and led the way into the kitchen. "It was a little strange, I guess. I mean, explaining to some judge that my father had to leave the country indefinitely and thought it best that I remain here." She turned and gave them her best polite-hostess smile. "Would you like anything? I've got pizza."

Alex shook his head warily. "Thanks, but we already ate."

"So, that's it, then? You're emancipated?" Isabel asked.

Tess reached across the counter and grabbed a sheaf of papers. "All here in black and white," she said. "I'm on my own."

Isabel and Alex traded a quick look. "Tess, you may be on your own, but you still aren't alone, okay?" Isabel said gently. "I know that things have been really crazy, but Max meant it when he said we have to stick together."

Tess stared at the couple, almost defiantly. Something passed through her expression, as if she were making a decision. She pulled herself up so she was sitting on the counter and looked pointedly at Alex. "Look," she began, "I want you to know that I don't have anything against you, personally," she told him, then turned back to Isabel. "I've gone my entire life holding onto one idea - that you, Max, and Michael were my family. That we belonged together. It's just a little hard for me to adjust to the fact that you would rather spend your time with a bunch of humans, that's all."

"Tess, it doesn't have to be one or the other," Isabel told her cautiously. "Liz, Maria, and Alex have been there for us. They've kept our secrets and put themselves in danger and we care about them. You've only just come into our lives, and while we do feel some sort of connection, it's going to take some time for us to really get to know each other. Not who we used to be, but who we are. Can you understand that?"

"So, what does that mean?"

"It means we need to work together to improve our powers, so we can destroy these evil beings. And that we need to spend time together. Just don't expect that we're going to cut everything and everyone else out of our lives," Isabel said.

Tess nodded. "Where do we start?"

Alex had been looking aimlessly around the room and found himself jumping into the conversation. "You planning on staying here?"

Tess looked somewhat surprised at the question, and unsure as to whether or not to answer. But both Alex and Isabel looked at her expectantly. "Uh, no," she replied finally. "It's a rental and way too big and expensive. I guess I'm going to need to find an apartment."

Alex looked at Isabel and shrugged. "I guess that's a good place to start, then. We can all help you find a place. I'm afraid there aren't too many choices in Roswell."

Tess hesitated briefly, then smiled. "Thanks, Alex," she said, making a point to stress his name.

"Yeah, no problem," he answered with a nod, clearly reserving judgement, but willing to play along for now.

Isabel gave Alex's hand a grateful squeeze and smiled at Tess. "Good," she said quietly. "So, we'll see you in school tomorrow, right?" When the other girl nodded, Isabel pulled a pad from her bag and tore a sheet of paper from it. "Here," she told her. "Your homework."

Tess took the paper and smiled slightly. "Thank you." Her gaze shifted to Alex. "Both," she added. "I guess I'll walk you out."

After they had gone and Tess had bolted the door behind them, she leaned against it and slid so she sat on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest. Seeing Isabel and Alex had made her even more aware of how little she fit in here. She was different from Max, Michael and Isabel because they genuinely cared about their human friends, and she didn't think she ever could. She didn't wish Liz, Maria and Alex any harm, but they were another species, another race, and she failed to see how they had any connection to the rest of them. But the others obviously saw something she didn't. There was more to their relationships than simply marking time with humans. She had witnessed it in the way Isabel and Alex seemed to communicate without words. It was the same link she had already seen between Max and Liz and Michael and Maria. They had some ability she lacked.

She wondered if there was something wrong with her. Had being raised by Nasedo made her like him? Uncaring, unfeeling? That wasn't the way she wanted to be, but she didn't know how to be different. How did you find emotion where there was none? For now, she would accept things the way they were, but she could not help but wonder what would happen next.


posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:30:19 PM

Part 4


Liz stood in the shower and let the hot spray pound against her shoulders, sighing as the water worked on the day's tensions. She knew she couldn't wash away all of her worries, but it felt good nonetheless. It had been a long, stressful day - the first of many, she suspected - so she was determined to take whatever relief she could get.

Oddly enough, she had felt the most relaxed during the last hour while closing the Crashdown with Michael. At first she had thought it would be awkward with Maria not there - though reason dictated that Maria's presence would have made things even more strained. But she and Michael had actually worked well together, falling into an easy silence as he helped her put the chairs on the tables and clean the floor. It had been good to spend time with someone who knew what she was feeling, understood what she was going through, and yet wasn't hell bent on changing her mind or checking to see how she was holding up every ten minutes. Michael had run interference for her earlier - no questions asked - taking care of Max's dinner order and then ringing him up when he, Alex, and Isabel had been ready to leave. Since waiting on tables was most definitely not part of Michael's job description, Liz knew he had done it to spare her and she was grateful.

Liz shut off the shower and quickly dried herself with a fluffy green bath towel. Using the side of her hand, she wiped the steam from the mirror and made a face. With her hair pulled up and her skin scrubbed clean, she looked even more pale and worn out than before. Unfortunately, she no longer felt tired - at least not in the sense of being able to sleep. She tugged on a pair of baggy shorts and an old tank top and padded out of the hot bathroom. Barefoot in the center of her room, she stared at the books piled on her desk. Finals were only days away, but she couldn't imagine studying any more than she could imagine sleeping. Studying would require her to focus her unruly thoughts and that seemed an unlikely possibility. Instead, her eyes shifted to the wall that ran behind her dresser. She hesitated for a moment, then crossed the room and let her fingers run over the familiar brick surface, searching out one brick in particular. A quick tap on one end, a jiggle back and forth, and the brick slid neatly out of place. Liz reached through the wall and pulled out her journal. Grabbing a pen, she opened the window and slipped out onto the roof.

Settling on her old lawn chair, Liz flipped open the book. It had been more than a week since she'd written - things had been so crazy there had been no time. Now, staring at the blank page, she acknowledged that by even taking the journal out, she was surrendering to the inevitable. To chronicle the past week, to record the events and her accompanying emotions, was to give herself permission to think about Max. She had started keeping the journal because of Max, and the two would always be inextricably linked in her mind. After Max had saved her life and she had learned the truth about him and Michael and Isabel, she had needed some tangible way to sort her thoughts and feelings. It had been important for her to somehow take the incredible and make it real. The time she took to write enabled her to see more clearly what her emotions were. It was how she first knew that she loved Max. Even after her journal had gone missing and she'd realized how potentially dangerous a document it was, she'd been unable to give it up. When Michael returned it, she had simply found a better hiding place and continued to write.

So now, despite her resolve to stay out of Max's life, she still felt a compulsion to write it all down, no matter how hard she found reliving the last few days. The only question was where to start. Their discoveries about Tess, her own abduction by Nasedo, what Pierce did to Max, the message from their planet - she had yet to write a word about any of it. Suddenly, it all seemed overwhelming. The page before her was endlessly white and empty and she had no idea how to begin to fill it. Using her pen to mark her place, Liz closed the journal and set it gently on the ground, then pulled her knees into her chest and rested her forehead against them.

"Writer's block?" The question came quietly out of the darkness.

Liz stiffened at the sound of his voice. He had been so much on her mind, especially since he had shown up at the café earlier. All night she had felt him near, her skin sensitized, every nerve ending aware. After she'd come upstairs, the feeling had remained, but she'd assumed her mind was playing tricks on her. It had never occurred to her that he was actually still there. "How long have you been here?" she asked softly, not raising her head, refusing to look at him.

Max crossed slowly out of the shadows. "I never left," he admitted. "I was sitting out in the Jeep, waiting for you to close up." He sat down on the edge of her chair. "But I've only been up on the roof for a few minutes," he added.

"Please go, Max," she asked.

"Liz, we need to talk."

"There's nothing to say."

"That's not true," he told her. "Liz, please." He paused. "Can't you even look at me?" he asked finally.

Liz looked up slowly until their eyes met. As always, his were loving, gentle, understanding, endless. But they were also hurt. Her heart skipped a beat. "Max, please," she whispered. "This is so hard."

"I know it is," he replied quietly. "What isn't hard these days?" he asked, looking rather grim. "But please hear me out. This is too important."

She shook her head, knowing what he wanted to say. "It doesn't matter anymore. Don't you see?"

"I only see one thing, Liz. Eyes open or closed, I see you running down that hill. Since the day you learned who I am, what I am, you have never turned away from me. Even when things got dangerous or weird, you had faith in me. Until yesterday. Yesterday you turned your back on me and you ran."

"Max!" she gasped. "That isn't fair…"

"Fair?" he asked, pining her with a hot look that held more than a hint of his anger at their circumstances. He stood and began to pace restlessly. "Look around you, Liz," he sighed. "Exactly what part of our lives is fair? Was it fair when I made you a part of this? Was it fair the way Kyle got dragged into things? Is it fair the way Michael is pushing Maria away? Is it fair that I've gone from worrying about a handful of people I love and care for to suddenly being responsible for the fate of two planets worth of strangers?" He stopped short, frowning.

Liz watched as his eyes darkened, her thoughts flying to all of the things that had been happening recently - things that had happened to Max that were anything but fair. A vision of Pierce flashed through her mind. It was all she could do to keep from crying out. As she watched, she detected a slight shudder run through Max's body, and she could no longer help herself. "Max," she said softly, standing up and going to him.

But he stopped her. An arm's length away. He looked at her, met her gaze, and held out his hand as if to push her back. "I'm fine," he said. "I'm not trying to guilt you into anything, Liz. None of this was your fault." He dropped his hand, but continued to hold her eyes with his. "Look, if you were scared - if you wanted out because you were afraid of getting hurt - I'd let you go. As hard as that would be, I would understand. But I know that isn't what's motivating you, okay? So, please. Just listen."

There was nothing else she could do. Chewing nervously on her bottom lip, Liz nodded. "I'm listening," she said.

He seemed to relax, tension easing from his features. He shot her a grateful look, then turned and leaned his elbows on the wall. It was as if he knew she found looking in his eyes difficult and was giving her a brief respite. Instead of staring at her, he gazed out over the rooftops of Roswell and at the world beyond. The night sky surrounded him and, from her vantage point, it appeared as if shooting stars were careening toward him.

"I guess a part of me has always believed that we each have a destiny," he began. "And for me, that destiny was you. I knew it the moment I set eyes on you, eight years ago. We were just kids, but it didn't matter. Somehow, I always understood that we belonged together, however unlikely it may have seemed at times." He paused, as if anticipating an argument, giving her a chance to contradict him, but she continued to listen, waiting patiently for him to continue.

"The thing is, I don't believe you can determine someone else's destiny for them," he said. "A parent may wish things for their child, but ultimately, only fate can tell what the future will bring. Whatever Tess and I were to each other before, this is a different life, another time. We aren't the same people. You're the scientist - look at all of the variables that have changed. We're living on the earth; we're part human. How can the outcome possibly be the same? That message from our mother was a cry for help, and I can't ignore it, but I refuse to live my entire life based on what happened in some previous existence." He turned and looked at her. "Liz, all I'm asking is that you think about what I'm saying."

"But what about your feelings for Tess?" she asked softly. "I know you feel something toward her, Max."

His eyes were filled with regret. "Nothing I felt for her was real. You have to believe that. She used her powers to manipulate all of us. We suspect she even caused the dreams that Isabel and Michael were having. Liz, I swear to you that I don't feel that way about her."

"How do you feel about her?"

"I accept that she's one of us," he admitted. "There is some sort of connection there, but it's more protective than anything else. Even taking that into consideration, I'm still not ready to trust her completely. She's been feeding us information since she arrived, much of which has been unreliable. In fact, this whole concept of us as destined mates originated with her. Whether Nasedo raised her to believe that, or she was simply trying to control us, I haven't decided yet, but we all intend to keep our guard up."

"But Max, even if I accept that you and Tess aren't meant to be together," Liz said, her voice wavering slightly, "you still have so much on your shoulders. You can't turn your back on your people, and I can't keep you from doing whatever you need to do in order to save them. You said so yourself - you can't ignore their cry for help."

"I won't ignore it, Liz. But discovering why we're here and what we're supposed to do hasn't really altered our circumstances that much. Our chances of going home are just as slim as they were a month ago. We don't know where home is, and even if we did, we have no way of getting there. Yes, one day we might figure it all out. And on that day I'll have a decision to make. But that was always true," he pointed out gently. "Meanwhile, we'll do what we can to develop our skills and to learn more about ourselves. But Liz, I don't want to do any of it without you."

Liz sank back down on her chair, her eyes filled with tears. He looked so earnest, was so persuasive, and she loved him so much. He had known that she would do her best to keep her emotions from swaying her decision, so he had approached her with the best argument he could build that was most likely to wear down her defenses. He'd appealed to her logic. "I…think I need a little time," she told him in a shaky voice, trying hard to keep the tears from spilling over. "I have to think about all of this, Max."

He came over and sat down next to her. "Thank you for listening to my side," he said. "And don't think that I don't understand why you walked away. I love that you want to be noble and that you want me to be free to follow my destiny. But I'm going to remind you of something someone very wise once told me. That's not your decision to make." With gentle fingers, he reached out and caught the tear that ran down her cheek, brushing it away. "I also want you to promise me that you'll be careful. I know we think the FBI is taken care of for now, but we have no way of knowing who else may be watching us. So please, keep your eyes open, okay?"

Liz nodded, sending a cascade of tears down her cheeks. She reached up and brushed them away herself. "I'll watch out," she promised, knowing that whatever she decided, she couldn't give him anything else to worry about.

"Thank you," he said. Then he leaned forward and brushed a kiss over her lips, one hand stroking her hair off her face. It was over in an instant and he pulled back, meeting her surprised eyes with his warm ones. "I just wanted you to remember," he whispered.

Standing, he kissed her quickly on the top of her head. A moment later he was gone, and all that remained was the echo of his feet as he climbed down the fire escape. It was a very long time before Liz was able to get up and go inside.

* * * * *

Diane Evans had always considered herself to be a morning person, but on this particular Saturday she rose with the sun. For nearly a week, she had watched her children with anxious eyes, waiting for a sign that whatever was wrong had somehow righted itself, hoping they would come to her for help if it had not. In Isabel she thought she detected some small indications of improvement. Though her daughter still seemed more reserved than usual, Diane attributed it at least partially to studying for exams. Her friend Tess had been by several times, and Alex Whitman had become a frequent visitor as well. Although unsure of the precise nature of Isabel and Alex's relationship, Diane couldn't help but smile at the thought of them together. Alex had put a light in her Izzy's eyes that had gone a long way toward relieving Diane's mind.

But it was her concern for Max that had her out of bed so early that morning. His behavior over the last few days had Diane genuinely worried. Every night he came home after work and closeted himself in his room, barely emerging to pick at his dinner before disappearing behind closed doors again. Although he claimed to be cramming for finals, she doubted that exams were the cause of the dark circles under his eyes or the tightness around his jawline. He seemed to have something constantly on his mind, and Diane suspected that something was Liz Parker. The week had been most notably marked by Liz's absence. No phone messages, no study dates, no trips to the Crashdown. As far as she could tell, Max had neither seen nor spoken to Liz outside of school for days. In fact, he seemed to be pushing everyone away, though Diane was fairly sure she'd caught Michael's voice coming from behind Max's door several nights as she headed up to bed. Since she heard Michael neither come nor go, she could only assume he had been using the window to slip in and out of Max's room. Just one more mystery to fuel her fears.

But last night had been worse than anything else, and had driven Diane to push aside her need to respect her son's privacy and his desire to handle things on his own. In the middle of the night, she'd woken to a sound that left her blood chilled even now. A scream had cut through the darkness, sounding almost tortured, breaking the silence of the house for a split second before being muffled. Never a sound sleeper when her husband was away on business, Diane had leapt from her bed, instantly alert. There hadn't been any doubt in her mind - the cry had come from Max's room. Straining her ears, she had been able to make out the sound of doors being quietly opened and closed. She had tip-toed noiselessly into the hall, barely breathing, and pressed her ear against her son's bedroom door, pushing away any feelings of guilt she might have at eavesdropping as only a worried mother could. Inside the room she'd heard soft, soothing murmurs. Although she'd been unable to make out the words, the voices had clearly been Isabel's and Michael's.

At the time, it was all she could do to keep herself from barging through the door and demanding to know what was going on, what had her son so traumatized that he was screaming his way out of his nightmares. Even as a child, newly adopted and clearly distraught at his unfamiliar surroundings, Max had never cried out in the night. But Diane had forced herself to go back to bed, though she knew she would not sleep, to allow her son to be comforted by the only people he truly trusted. Lying there, staring at the ceiling as the house grew quiet once more, she asked herself over and over what she should do. She had told Max she believed in him, and it was true. But whatever was going on now had her frightened for him in a way she had never imagined possible. So, as the first light crept through her curtains, she had climbed out of bed and splashed cold water on her tired eyes and dressed for her day, knowing what needed to be done.

The door to Max's room was closed, as it always was these days. Diane hesitated, not wanting to wake him after so restless a night when he was obviously in need of sleep. But she knew if she waited, he would find some way to slip away from her again, to leave for work or the library or wherever he thought he could go to escape her prying eyes. So, she knocked quietly on the door and waited.

When there was no response, she knocked a little louder. "Max?" she called. "Are you awake yet, honey?" Her hand found the door knob, turned, and the door slid open a crack. "Max?"

When she finally pushed the door all the way open, the reason for his silence became obvious. He was not there. She headed back down the hall and knocked swiftly on Isabel's door. Again she received no reply. A quick look into the room proved her suspicion correct - Isabel was gone as well. Diane walked slowly back into Max's room and looked around. The window was slightly open. A sleeping bag, obviously rolled in haste, spilled out from beneath the desk. Next to the computer a pile of books appeared ready to fall to the floor, as if they had been sorted through quickly. Noting that Max's bookbag was missing, Diane sighed. More studying for exams, though where they could have gone to study so early was beyond her. She moved to push the books to a more secure place on the desk then stopped, her attention caught by the titles. Several books on telekinesis. A thick volume on astronomy. And Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." She slid the pile further onto the desk, wondering what classes Max could possibly be taking that required such eclectic reading.

As she turned to go, something familiar danced into view. Diane crossed to the bed and sat down. There on the night stand, perched beside a framed photo of Liz in her Crashdown uniform, was Max's house - the little one Diane had given him when he first came to live with them. For the longest time it had sat up on a shelf, covered in dust, propping up a few odd books. Then a few months ago, Max had tried to give it back to her, on that terrible, wonderful day, when he'd offered to leave, then told her he wanted to stay. She had refused the gift, telling him she thought he still needed it. And here it was again, keeping a beside vigil. Diane picked it up and traced the edges with her finger, marveling at the tiny details of the piece. Tears filled her eyes as she carefully returned the little house to the table. Now, more than ever before, she just wanted her babies to come home to her.

* * * * *

Michael sat on the front steps of his apartment building and squinted through the pre-dawn light. No sign of the Jeep. Groaning, he locked his hands behind his head and twisted his torso slowly, first to the right, then left, sighing as he felt the tiny bones in his spine crackle into place. A week of sleeping on Max's floor was doing nothing for his back, and even less for his disposition.

Normally, he had no problem with a spot in the sleeping bag. God knows he'd slept there often enough when he still lived with Hank, and the truth was the floor was only slightly less comfortable than the couch he currently used as a bed. But the nightmares were starting to get to him. It was bad enough when Michael woke to Max tossing and turning, but the sound of Max screaming last night had catapulted him into wakefulness with a terrifying jolt. Every muscle in his body had tensed, then cramped in complaint. It was obvious that Max's nightmares were growing worse, and what scared Michael was that neither he nor Isabel could convince Max to talk about them. They had no idea what they could do, except continue to keep watch over him through the night and to calm him when he woke from whatever hell tortured his sleep. They had assumed he was reliving the hours he spent at Pierce's mercy, but now Michael wasn't so sure it was that simple. It was the scream that had changed his mind. What he hadn't told Isabel, since Max had been there, still shaking to the bone, was that the scream had actually been a word - a word Michael had recognized. Max had been crying out for Liz.

A rumbling sound down the street signaled the Jeep's approach. Michael hauled himself up off the steps and hefted his knapsack over his shoulder. Isabel pulled up to the curb, with Max riding shotgun and Tess already in the back seat. "Get in," she told him.

"What kept you?" he asked as he climbed into the back next to Tess. He had escaped the Evanses' house through the window shortly after Max's nightmare. Max and Isabel had both been concerned that their mother might have heard and didn't want Michael there in the event that she came to investigate. They had promised to pull some stuff together and pick him up within the hour. It had been closer to two and the sun was starting to peek over the horizon.

"It took longer than we thought," Max mumbled, his only concession to the fact that he moved more slowly after one of his nightmares. It was as if the shock rendered him partially paralyzed for several hours. "And we decided to pick up Tess first. It made more sense if we're going to the quarry."

Michael didn't comment. The truth was, if he had been really worried he would have gone looking for them. He was complaining more due to fatigue than anything else. Fatigue caused by the aforementioned nightmares of his best friend. And while he might be prone to grumbling, especially before he'd snagged a cup of coffee, he would never tell Max what was causing his mild bouts of temper. Max had enough to worry him, and in the end, Michael was more than willing to suffer through the nightmares along side of him. It was the least he could do.

"You guys see your mom on the way out?" he asked.

Max swiveled in his seat. "At this time of the morning?"

Michael shrugged. "I just wondered."

"Clean getaway," Max replied. "So, what's in the bag?" he asked, eyeing Michael's bookbag. "Isabel and I took our textbooks along so Mom would think we were studying, but that can't possibly be your excuse."

"Cans," he replied, shooting Tess a look. "You did say we needed something to use as targets, didn't you?"

Tess nodded. "It's kind of like learning to shoot a rifle," she explained to Max. "You all need to learn to focus and aim your energy."

Max's eyebrows rose in apparent amusement. "You're telling me we're going to be shooting at beer cans using our powers?"

"Actually, soda cans," Michael supplied.

"You said you wanted me to teach you what I know," Tess said. "Nasedo taught me a lot. I'm not necessarily good at all of it, but then we practiced some skills more than others."

"Like your mind control trick," Isabel offered.

Tess looked uncomfortable. "Yes," she agreed. "Like that. But just because I'm not as skilled in some of the uses for our powers, doesn't mean I don't understand the principals behind using them." She looked pointedly at Max. "It seemed to me, if we're going to have to fight, this was the thing to practice first."

Max gave her a grudging nod of approval. "You're right," he said. "We do need to learn to fight, much as I detest the idea. At the very least, we have to be able to defend ourselves better."

"Well, if we're going to learn to fight, can it at least be on a full stomach? How about we stop and pick up some coffee and doughnuts before we head out of town?" Michael suggested. In response, Isabel let out a chuckle and Max cracked a smile. Michael had always had a weakness for doughnuts.

posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:32:23 PM

Part 5


Maria walked into the Crashdown a few minutes before they were scheduled to open for breakfast. Normally she didn't mind the early shift, but she'd had difficulty sleeping the night before and woke tired and irritable. It didn't help to know that Michael was also scheduled to work this morning. She considered it far too early to be forced to deal with his scowling face, especially since she could trace her poor night's sleep back to a number of dreams about him. Unable to recall any of the details, she only knew she'd woken around four am, longing for Michael. She'd been awake ever since.

As she tossed her bag into her locker, the door swung open and Liz came into the back room, humming a tuneless little string of notes under her breath. Maria's eyes narrowed appraisingly. Her best friend still looked pale and it was becoming obvious that she had barely eaten all week, but the dark circles beneath her eyes seemed a little less pronounced. After her near-breakdown on Monday, Liz had stopped working so hard to avoid Max. Although she still sat next to Maria in Chemistry, she had actually joined them all for lunch several times on the quad. However, since Tess had also been sitting with them, there had been some creative instances of musical chairs. Liz fled to one end of the table and Tess to the other, and Max perched someplace in the middle so as to avoid sitting next to either one, though he kept glancing longingly at Liz while they ate. Unfortunately, since Alex and Isabel were inseparable these days, that generally left Maria staring across the table at Michael's stubbornly maintained blank expression. Stonewall Guerin was back with a vengeance. It was enough to ruin your appetite, Maria thought.

"So, why exactly are you so happy this morning?" Maria asked Liz, wincing slightly when she heard how harsh she sounded.

Liz shrugged as she peered into the mirror and slipped on her headband. "I'm not, really," she said. "It's just I somehow managed to concentrate long enough to outline my final paper for History last night. You know, the one I was so panicked about?" She turned back to Maria. "It was such a relief. I've been so stressed over finals and… everything," she said quietly with a small frown, waving her hand through the air in a vague gesture that somehow covered aliens and destinies and parents all rolled into one untidy package. "I refuse to let my GPA drop as a result of my soap-opera life."

"I thought maybe you'd been… rethinking things," Maria ventured hesitantly.

Liz sighed and flopped onto the couch, causing her antennas to shake violently. "I have been," she admitted in a deflated tone that made Maria wish she'd held her tongue. "I think and rethink practically all day and all night. I just can't seem to come to any conclusions."

Maria noticed that Liz was no longer insisting she was right to walk away from Max, though she decided it was probably a good idea not to point out that fact. She sighed as Liz got up and went over to the lockers. At least someone is making progress, she thought.

Her reverie was interrupted by a loud clatter from the kitchen. "I see Spaceboy is here already," Maria commented.

Liz shook her head as she searched through her locker for something. "Actually it's José. Michael needed the day off for something, so they switched shifts."

Maria wrinkled her nose. "What could he possibly need the day for? It's not like he's actually going to study for finals or anything," she observed wryly.

Pulling a tube of lip-gloss from a little bag, Liz shrugged. "He didn't say. Just that he had something to do."

"Well," Maria continued, trying hard to look uninterested, "it's not like it has anything to do with me. I couldn't care less."

Liz smirked into the mirror, then blotted her lips on a tissue. "You keep telling yourself that," she murmured.

"I heard that," Maria told her. "Anyway, I'm glad he's not here. It's impossible working with someone who refuses to talk to you."

"I haven't noticed you holding up your end of that particular conversation either," Liz said. She turned sympathetic eyes toward her friend. "I know it's hard," she said softly. "But you'll get through it."

Maria sighed. Right, she thought. Then something occurred to her. "Liz? What shift is Michael taking for José?" Her heart sank when Liz quickly turned back to her locker and busied herself with tucking things away. "Lizzie? Please don't tell me…."

"Tuesday night," Liz answered, her voice apologetic.

"Oh God, Liz, no," Maria whined. "I close alone Tuesday night. You can't do this to me."

"Maria, I'm sorry," Liz said. "But I had to let them switch. And you know under any other circumstances I would come work with you, but I have my Geometry final Wednesday morning and I really need to study." She gave her friend a quick hug. "You'll be fine," she assured her. "You've worked with Michael four times this week and both lived to tell the tale."

Maria groaned. "There was always someone else on with us. Tuesday's are always dead. It's going to be pure torture."

"I'm sorry," Liz told her. "But you'll live. I promise. Just bring some school stuff and ignore him."

Maria nodded half-heartedly as Liz preceded her into the café. "Easier said than done," she mumbled.

* * * * *

The quarry rang out with the metallic echo of exploding soda cans. One after another, half a dozen flaming cans flew through the air and crashed into the wall beyond. When the smoke cleared, not a single target remained, and three pairs of eyes, wide with astonishment, turned toward Michael.

Thirty feet away from where the cans once stood, Michael appeared as surprised as the others. He had volunteered to go first, more to get it over with than for any other reason, though he'd claimed it was because he had used his powers this way before, while Max and Isabel had not. As Tess droned on about clearing your mind and maintaining your focus, he had only half listened, not really seeing much point. Besides, it was impossible for him to concentrate on her lecture when his thoughts kept returning to the last time he had come to the quarry. Then it had been the six of them, trying to figure out what to do about Topolsky. He had taken Maria in his arms that day, intending to tell her that he loved her, unsure as to whether he would ever see her again. Hard to believe it was only a couple of weeks ago.

The trouble was, he couldn't get her out of his thoughts. Tess had said to let his mind blank out, but how could he when Maria was constantly spinning around in there, lecturing him on how relationships worked, flashing her quirky smile, mumbling about nookie motels and Tabasco breath? It had been a mistake to go past her house on the way home from Max's this morning. Each time he crept in her window to watch her sleep, it was harder to leave without taking her into his arms and telling her he was wrong to push her away. Plus, each time he climbed over that sill, he risked her waking up. He supposed that was half the point. Part of him wanted her to catch him, needed her to know he was still watching over her despite everything that had happened.

Then he had realized that Tess had stopped talking and everyone was looking at him expectantly. Tess must have known he wasn't really paying attention, because she suggested he start off aiming for the jagged quarry wall in the distance, instead of the cans. "That way you can get a feel for your power and get used to controlling speed and direction," she'd said in what he was sure she thought was a helpful tone, but which in reality sounded condescending. She succeeded in pissing him off, so he had done what he did best - he'd ignored her.

He had stretched out his hand toward the cans and pushed at them with his mind. Before he could think any further, a sudden burst of energy had shot forward, swift and straight, blasting the first can to ashes. Five consecutive bursts of energy followed in rapid succession and within moments the cans were gone.

"Michael? Michael, are you all right?"

Feeling Max gently shaking his shoulder, Michael shook himself out of his daze. "I'm fine," he said, turning toward Max and Isabel, who now looked more concerned than surprised. Tess seemed to have faded into the background, though she, too, was watching him carefully. I wonder if I scared her, he thought briefly. "I'm okay," he repeated, managing to smile at Isabel who was frowning at him. "Really. I guess I just surprised myself," he admitted.

"Us too," Isabel told him, looking only slightly less worried. "Michael, that was amazing."

"Yeah, Michael," Max agreed.

"That's me," Michael said. "Mr. Amazing." He looked at his half-empty bag, then toward the place where the last scrap of flaming metal was just sputtering out. "I guess I should have brought more cans," he said.

Isabel smiled and Max patted him on the back. "So," Max said, "you think you could give us a few pointers?"

Laughing, they went to set up another row of cans. Under Tess's supervision, Isabel took careful aim and, after a few misfires, managed to hit three out of the six. When Max took his turn, bursts of energy flew in all directions and he failed to hit a single target. After several attempts, he shrugged. "I guess I'm having trouble focusing," he said philosophically. "Better luck next time. I'm gonna head up to the Jeep and grab the stuff we brought for lunch. I'll be right back," he told them.

Isabel, Michael and Tess watched as Max made his way up the steep quarry path to where they had parked. As soon as he was out of sight, Isabel turned to Michael, visibly shaken. "Michael, what's wrong with him? This is more than just trouble concentrating."

Aware of Tess's eyes on him, Michael shrugged. "He hasn't been sleeping well, Iz. You know that. He's dead tired and he has a lot on his mind."

Tess shook her head. "He wasn't even trying. Couldn't you feel it? He was barely generating enough energy to reach the targets, let alone to get them to explode."

"I just said he's exhausted. He can barely generate enough energy to get out of bed in the mornings," Michael snapped.

"I'm worried about him," Isabel said.

"I know," Michael told her, his voice softening.

"He can't afford to let things get to him this way," Tess said, turning and gazing up the path where Max had disappeared. "It's a good way to get himself killed. He's the one who said it - we need to be able to protect ourselves."

"It'll be okay," Michael said, thinking as the words came out of his mouth that, ironic as it seemed, he was beginning to sound like Max. "Once finals are over and school is out, he'll have more time to pull himself together and then he'll be as good as new," he assured them, shooting Isabel a warning look to keep her from arguing.

Catching his eye, Isabel nodded reluctantly. "I guess you're right," she sighed. "It is only one more week, after all."

* * * * *

Max climbed slowly into the driver's seat of the Jeep and rested his head on the steering wheel. It had taken an act of sheer will, but he had managed to hold himself together in front of the others. He knew Michael and Isabel were already worrying about his nightmares - no need to add to their list of concerns by collapsing in the light of day, too. The hike up the hill had helped him get himself back under control, but, though he felt less likely to fly into a million pieces, he was still drained.

Closing his eyes, he sat back and took a couple of deep breaths. He hadn't expected to have that kind of reaction. Watching Michael take out the row of cans had instantly thrown him back a week to that day at the UFO Center, when Michael had taken Pierce out the same way. The thought had been fleeting, though. Max supposed his astonishment at the precision with which Michael wielded his firepower had distracted him. But as soon as his turn had come, the thought had flooded back, and with it came all of the emotional memories that were tied to his being held captive by Pierce. Fear. Pain. But mostly anger. Max had felt the rage building within him so quickly that it nearly overwhelmed him. So, taking aim at the row of soda cans, he'd deliberately held back, knowing instinctively that the kind of anger fueling his power would produce far more than a series of small explosions.

From the look in Tess's eyes as he made his excuses, he could tell she knew that he had popped his shots, but he didn't feel that he owed her any explanations at this point. As for Michael and Isabel - better for them to think him sleep deprived than to watch him blast a hole into the wall of the quarry. The energy pulsing through his body had been extreme, and he couldn't risk hurting anyone. He was beginning to see why Michael had been so shaken, though, if today was any indication, control was no longer an issue for his friend. Sometime over the last week, Michael seemed to have found a way to focus.

He stood and rummaged through the back seat, coming up with the bag of deli sandwiches and sodas that they had bought on the way out of town. He could feel through the paper sack that the sodas were no longer cold. He pulled out one of the cans and stared at it absently. If he used his powers to slow down the molecules, would the beverage get colder? Could he do it without combining the structure of the soda and the can itself? Now was not the time to try, since they only had enough drinks to go around and he didn't want to risk his experiment backfiring, but it was something else to think about. He had been coming up with these little projects for himself as ways of testing the limits of their abilities. It seemed that each discovery they made brought up a new set of questions, but he welcomed the distraction. He put the soda back in the bag and started down the path into the quarry. By the time he reached the others, he was perfectly calm and deep in thought.

Michael noticed the look of concentration on his face. "What gives, Maxwell?"

Max pulled a sandwich out of the bag and tossed it to him. "Just thinking," he said.

Michael raised his eyebrows as he caught the sandwich. "Nothing new there," he said. "What about?"

Isabel and Tess joined them and they began dividing up the food. Max sat down on a low rock and squinted up toward the sun. "I've been wondering about our powers. Why we each have different strengths. Whether we can eventually all learn to do the same things. I mean, could I dream walk like Isabel? I've never even tried."

Isabel sat down next to Max and shrugged. "You never wanted to, Max," she pointed out. "You kept telling me it was an invasion of privacy."

"I know," he agreed, "but that's not the point. How did you first discover you could do it? It just happened one night, didn't it? So why didn't I ever do it inadvertently, before I had made a conscious choice not to?"

They all turned toward Tess, questioning looks on their faces. "I don't know," she told them. "I never had anyone to compare my skills with," she reminded them. "Nasedo taught me everything I know, but it was clear early on that I was better at some things than at others, just like you seem to be."

"Nasedo told me that all of our powers were human, just highly advanced," Michael told them. "So, you would think that we would all have the same abilities. But if we were engineered, why not make sure we were equally strong in everything?"

"That's what I mean," Max said. "We may well be equally strong in all of our powers. It's just that not everything went according to plan. We weren't supposed to crash," he reminded them. He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully before he continued. "Originally there were at least four adult aliens on the ship with us, not just Nasedo. No doubt part of their duties included training us in whatever powers we have, helping us to develop them fully. Instead we were raised as humans, with no guidance. Anything we know how to do, we just stumbled upon, and we avoided practicing our skills for fear of being caught. Tess is clearly way ahead of us because she had Nasedo to teach her."

She nodded. "And even my training was spotty," she filled in. "We were on the run so much. There wasn't always a safe place for us to do things like this," she said waving a hand at their impromptu target range. "That's probably why my mental powers are more developed than my physical ones."

"That brings up another question I have," Max said. "We can all manipulate molecular structure and connect with people on some level. But then our strengths seem to divide by gender. Isabel and Tess both seem much more comfortable with their mental abilities, while Michael and I tend toward the physical. It's like those behavior tests they run on children to see if boys will play with dolls and girls with trucks. We've all somehow reverted to stereotypes."

"But there are exceptions," Isabel pointed out. "Michael gets flashes from things much more often than you and I do, Max. Think about the whole thing with the key and the dome."

Tess looked confused. "What key?"

Max shook his head. "Long story. It was one of the first clues we had to finding out all of this stuff about ourselves. Michael found a key in Valenti's office and had a vision and it snowballed from there."

Tess raised her eyebrows at the mention of Valenti. "I don't think I want to know," she murmured.

"I'll explain later," Isabel said.

"Anyway, you're right," Max said. "There are exceptions. Which is exactly why I'm pretty sure we all have the same powers. We just need to develop them further. I just would really like to know why we've excelled in the areas we have."

Michael shrugged. "Does it really matter?"

"I guess not," Max admitted. "But I'm curious. It's just one more unanswered question."

Isabel sipped at her soda. "You know," she said as she stared at the horizon, "what Tess and I do is really kind of similar. She goes into people's heads and makes them sees things. When I dream walk, I'm essentially going into someone's head too."

Max nodded. "And I wasn't asleep when you dream walked me the last time," he pointed out.

"You were drugged," Isabel said gently. "But Pierce was fully conscious. I've never tried to make anyone see or do anything while I was in their dreams, but now I'm wondering if maybe I could."

"It isn't that hard," Tess told her. "I just concentrate on blocking outside sounds so I don't get distracted."

"Looks like you have a new project, Iz," Michael said.

"I've gotten some books on psychic abilities from the library. Since these powers are human, we might as well know as much as we can about the research being done, even if it's primitive in relation to what we can do. Maybe we'll get some insights on how to tap into our abilities."

"That's a good idea," Michael said and the others nodded in agreement.

"So, what do we do after lunch?" Isabel asked. "More shooting at cans?" She looked at Max hesitantly.

Max didn't seem to notice. "You know, that night out at Bitter Lake, when I was struggling with Hubble, I used my powers to push the gun out of his reach."

"Like telekinesis?" Isabel asked.

Max nodded, turning toward her. "Have any of you ever done anything like that before?" he asked. They all shook their heads.

"So that's what you want to work on this afternoon?" Tess asked. "Moving things with our minds."

"I think it might be useful," Max said. "And potentially less destructive," he added with the ghost of a smile. "We don't have too many soda cans left."

"I'm game," Michael said. He downed the rest of his cherry cola and hauled himself to his feet. "I'll go find some small stones and stuff that we can practice on."

"I'll come too," Isabel volunteered. She stood, dusting off the seat of her jeans, and followed him further into the quarry.

"You sure it's safe leaving the two of them back there alone?" Michael asked when they were out of earshot.

"We can still see them," Isabel said as she stooped to scoop up a handful of rocks from the rubble at her feet. "You were keeping something back before, when we were talking about Max. What was it Michael?" she asked, peering up at him.

He squatted next to her and started to help her sift through the stones. "I didn't want to say anything in front of Tess."

"I kind of figured that. So tell me now."

"Last night, when Max had his nightmare, he wasn't just screaming when he woke up."

"What do you mean?" she asked, her voice filled with worry.

"He was calling for Liz," Michael told her.

She sat back on her heels and looked at him. "Oh, Michael," she breathed.

"I know."

"I thought it was nightmares about Pierce."

"It still may be," he said. "He told us that Pierce used his feelings for us against him. Who knows what that's doing to him?"

"So what do we do? Do you think we should talk to Liz? Would it do any good?"

"I don't know." He stared down at the stones in his hands, then stood up. "Come on. We'd better go before they come to see what's taking us so long."

"But what are we going to do about Max?" she asked softly as they started back.

"We'll think of something," Michael replied as he focused on Max and Tess where they stood, just far enough away from each other to make conversation unlikely. "It'll be okay."


posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:34:21 PM

Part 6


Alex had spent his entire morning in front of the computer, completely engrossed in a program he was working on for his AP tutorial in computer languages. It was his favorite course, even if it occasionally freaked him out to remember that Miss Topolsky had arranged for him to take it, and he was determined to get an A on his final project. But by around one-thirty his eyes were starting to blur, and his stomach began reminding him that he'd skipped breakfast. He carefully backed up his work, then powered down, confident that he had made enough progress to justify a little time off. Then he grabbed his keys and wallet and headed for the Crashdown.

The last of the lunch crowd was occupying every table when Alex walked into the café, but he didn't mind. He plopped down at the counter, taking a stool between an older man in a summer blue pin stripe and a straw boater who seemed intent on working his crossword, and a girl who looked like a reject from the last UFO convention, with green hair and several pierced body parts in plain view. Maria caught his eye and threw him a harried wave from the far end of the counter, but it was a few minutes before she managed to work her way over.

"Sorry," she said as she pulled her order pad from her apron pocket and tugged an alien pen out from behind her ear. "It's just a zoo today. What do you want?"

"Root beer and a Galaxy Melt," he replied with a grin.

Maria rolled her eyes. "Of course you do," she remarked as she scribbled down the order. "I'll be back," she promised.

"Hey, Alex," Liz called out as she swung past with a bin-full of dirty dishes.

"Miss Parker," he returned with a little mock salute. He smiled and settled back to wait for the café to empty out. He was used to the Saturday mob scene and knew that it should quiet down soon, around the same time the girls were done with their shift. Then he'd be able to have a nice long chat with his two oldest friends.

Sure enough, by the time he had finished his lunch and was happily sucking on an ice cube, the majority of the customers were gone. Liz sighed and settled onto the stool the green-haired girl had vacated, resting her elbows on the counter. Maria refilled coffee cups for the few people still remaining, then brought a couple of sodas over for herself and Liz.

"Alex?" she questioned, indicating his empty glass.

"I'm good," he said.

Maria shrugged, then leaned on the counter from the other side and played with her straw wrapper. "So, Alex," she began, "where's Isabel? I don't think I've seen either of you separately in the last week."

"I'm solo today," he told her. "She had something she had to do."

Maria stopped fiddling with the paper wrapper and looked at Liz. "Something to do," she repeated. "Now why does that sound so familiar?"

Liz shook her head. "It doesn't mean anything, Maria."

"What doesn't mean anything?" Alex asked.

"Michael needed today off," Maria replied in a tight voice. "He had something he had to do, too."

"I see," Alex said. "Well, if that was a question, Miss DeLuca, then the answer is yes. They did have the same thing to do. All four of them did, in fact."

Maria looked confused, but Liz seemed to understand perfectly. Catching her little nod of comprehension, Maria frowned. "Okay, I'll bite. What exactly is going on and why am I the only one who appears to be clueless?"

Liz caught Alex's eye and looked pointedly past him. The man in the straw hat was still sitting to his other side. Alex nodded in agreement. "Why don't we discuss this out back?" he asked Maria. "Isn't your shift over?"

Realizing the way the conversation was heading, Maria sighed. "Yeah, we're off now." She looked around at the half empty café. "I guess Michelle can handle things alone until Denise shows, can't she Liz?"

"Of course," Liz agreed. She had already slid off her stool and was heading toward the break room.

The moment the door closed behind the three of them, Maria pounced. "So what are they up to and why don't I know about it?"

Alex shook his head. "Maria, relax. They went out to the quarry for the day to work on improving their powers. I only know because Isabel told me."

Maria swung her gaze in Liz's direction. "And you?"

"I didn't really know," she said. "I mean, not in detail. I just kind of figured it out when Alex said they all went. I knew they intended to start practicing."

Maria flopped on the couch. "Practice their powers," she said. "What are they going to do? Take turns trying to walk through each other's dreams?"

"Actually, they were going to try to focus their energy to shoot at things. Like the way Michael killed Pierce," Alex remarked. "Isabel called it target practice."

"Target practice?" Maria shot back, incredulous. "You mean they're gonna practice *being* the target," she muttered angrily.

"Seems to me you've been using Michael for a target for months now," Alex said. "I don't think he needs any more work in that area."

Liz stepped between them before Maria could leap at Alex. "Guys, guys, cut it out, okay? Why are you fighting over this?"

Maria sank back down into the couch cushions. "I don't know," she admitted. "Sorry, Alex."

"Me too," he told her, dropping down next to her. "I guess I just don't like the idea of Isabel having to protect herself this way," he said.

Maria nodded understandingly. "Yeah," she agreed. "And Michael was so upset about killing Pierce. How is he going to handle using his powers that way again?"

"Well, actually, he's doing okay over that," Alex told her. He looked up at Liz, who nodded for him to continue. "He still feels like he can't control his power, that he's dangerous, but he's no longer convinced that he's a killer, just because he killed Pierce."

"But how?" Maria asked. "He was so…single-minded about it."

"Max sent him over to talk to Valenti under the pretense of filling him in on what had happened with Nasedo," Alex continued. "Valenti made him see that he'd saved us all by killing Pierce the way he did. That there hadn't been a choice."

"I'm glad," Maria said quietly.

The three of them sat in silence for a minute. Then Liz went over and peeked around the door into the café. When she turned back, she looked slightly worried.

Alex tuned in immediately. "What is it?"

Liz shrugged. "Maybe nothing. But that guy at the counter, the one who was next to you before?"

"You mean the old guy who looked like he just came from some turn-of-the-century small town Independence Day celebration?" Alex quipped.

"Yeah, him," Liz said. "He's gone."

"So what?"

Now Maria was frowning as well. "Alex, he's been here since we opened the doors this morning. He ate breakfast and lunch and drank about a million cups of coffee in between."

"Maybe he had no place to go?" Alex asked, but he sounded wary.

"I think he left because we did," Liz said nervously.

"We're just being paranoid, Lizzie," Maria said. "I mean, he was just a sweet old man killing time. He could have been waiting to go meet someone."

"Could be," Liz agreed. "But Max told me to keep my eyes open. He said that we have no way of knowing who might be out there watching us."

Maria focused only on the part of the sentence she wanted to hear. "When did Max tell you this?"

Liz blushed, looking uncomfortable. "The other night. He came by to talk to me about some stuff."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Maria asked.

Liz turned toward Alex as if for help, but he merely shook his head. Sighing, Liz turned back to Maria. "It didn't mean anything. He wanted to talk and I felt I owed it to him to listen to his side of things. I promised to think about what he told me. That's all, Maria."

"And have you thought about it?" Maria pushed.

"I still am, okay? Now can we get back to the subject at hand? What do we do about the old man? Do we assume it's nothing or do we tell them?"

"I vote we tell them," Alex declared. "If we're wrong, then it won't matter. We'll just all have been that much more cautious. But we aren't the ones to decide whether or not it's nothing."

Maria nodded. "He's right. We need to tell them."

Liz turned to Alex. "Will you do it? Say something to Isabel?"

Alex hesitated, then nodded. "I'll do it."

"Thanks, Alex," Liz said.

"Right," he said. "Now, back to the purpose of my visit. What are you lovely ladies up to this evening?"

Liz groaned. "Studying, what else?"

"Me too," Maria sighed. "I'm in serious trouble in Chemistry."

"Now, now," Alex piped up. "All work and no play and all that jazz. I propose a night of videos and serious ice cream eating. You two up for it? The Three Musketeers, together again?"

Liz and Maria traded looks, then grinned broadly. The past week had been entirely too serious. "What the hell?" Maria asked.

"I'm in," Liz agreed. "I'll hate myself tomorrow, but too bad."

Alex grinned and reached out his arms to hug them both. "It's good to have friends," he told them. "And I'll even let you guys pick the flicks."

Maria giggled. "I think you're safe, Alex. The last thing I need tonight is a chick flick."

"Me either," Liz said. "And please, no sci-fi."

Alex laughed. "I see your point. Okay, let's go check it out together. Maybe a nice western…"

The girls ducked into the bathroom and quickly changed out of their uniforms. The three of them left through the back door, the rare sound of their laughter wafting through the alley as Alex entertained them with bad impressions of various television actors. None of them noticed the straw hat resting on top of the dumpster out back, or the car that paused before continuing down the far end of the street.

* * * * *

All through dinner, Max could sense his mother watching him. She didn't say anything out of the ordinary. In fact, she said very little at all, allowing her husband to fill them in on the events of his three-day legal conference in Dallas, as if the rights of Mexican immigrants in the Southwest made for the most fascinating conversation she could imagine. But Max was still aware of her throwing frequent glances in his direction and frowning. On top of that, he had to contend with Isabel glaring at him periodically, signaling him to eat more, as if that would put an end to their mother's worries. It was a very long meal.

As soon as he could, Max escaped to his room and shut the door. Pulling a random textbook from his bag, he threw himself down on the bed and stared blankly at the cover. Chemistry. It figured. Sighing, he cracked open the book and began to read the next-to-last chapter. Anything they had covered in class since Topolsky's return was pretty much a blur. He wondered how Liz was doing and if she felt prepared for the exam on Tuesday. Then he wondered if she was thinking about him - about what he had said. And finally he wondered why she hadn't called. All in all, not the train of thought most conducive to studying. Sighing, he shut the book and tossed it to the floor, then reached for his French text instead.

When the knock came at the door, it was so quiet he almost didn't hear it. In fact, he probably only heard it because he was expecting it. "Come in," he called, marking his spot in the book with an old homework assignment. "Hey, Mom," he said when the door cracked open.

Diane seemed a little startled when she realized Max wasn't even looking toward her. She came into the room, shutting the door behind her. "Honey," she said gently, "We need to talk."

Max pushed some papers and a French dictionary to the far side of the bed. "Have a seat," he offered, but he could hear how closed off his voice sounded.

That didn't keep his mother from sitting down, however. She sighed, looking at the signs of school work all around her. "Max, I think you might be working too hard," she began.

"I'm not, Mom," he told her. "And I know this isn't about homework. So just say whatever it is you feel you need to say."

"Oh, Max. I don't know where to begin," she admitted. "I'm worried about you. You're so withdrawn. You seem so unhappy. I just want to help you, honey, but you won't even let me in."

Max sighed. He didn't have any answers for her. "Mom, I know you're worried. I'm sorry for that, because the last thing I want is for you to worry. But it isn't anything we can discuss. There's nothing you can do."

"Is this about Liz? Did you two break up? Is that it?"

"It's not that simple. Yes, I guess you could say we're taking a break from each other, but that's not the problem. Liz and my relationship isn't what you're asking about. I know what you really want me to tell you, and I can't."

"Max, I heard you last night. I heard you scream. I know Michael's been sleeping on the floor. Something has been going on since last weekend. You've changed, your sister has changed. You're scaring me, Max. Why can't you just tell me? Maybe I could help." Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke, knowing with each word that Max wasn't going to answer her questions.

"You can't," he said simply. Two words that spoke volumes. You can't help. You can't know. You can't ask. You can't make me change my mind. Max was firm, as much as it hurt him. "I love you, Mom, and I'm sorry. I know I'm just seventeen, and to you that must seem young. I know you think I need you to take care of me and protect me. But I don't. I'm not a child and I can handle what I have to face right now. I promise."

Diane listened to this man who was her little boy and realized he was right. He was exactly what he claimed to be - an adult. Always old for his age, overnight he had grown up. The new level of maturity she had sensed last week had now solidified. Her baby was gone. She could see it in his eyes. She reached out and gently brushed his hair off his forehead, then nodded.

"I love you, Max. And I guess I have no choice but to accept what you're telling me. I don't necessarily like it, but I suppose part of letting your children grow up is realizing that you won't always like the choices they make. But whatever is going on, I can tell that it is dangerous. I don't know how I know that, but I do. So, please remember that your father and I love you and Isabel very much. And be careful."

Max smiled sadly at her, then leaned forward and hugged her tight. "I will. And thank you. I know I'm asking a lot of you, and I can't tell you how grateful I am that you can trust me."

Diane hugged him back quickly, then stood and brushed away her tears. "I've always considered myself so blessed to have the two of you in my life. I think part of me was always afraid you were just on loan - that someday someone was going to come and take you away from me. That I would lose you."

Max grabbed her hand and squeezed. "You'll always be our Mom."

She forced a smile and nodded. "I know." Reaching out, she opened the door and slipped out, leaving Max to wonder for the first time in his life if she hadn't suspected they were different all along.

* * * * *

It was late when Isabel got off the phone, but she knew her brothers would be awake. Sure enough, as she crept down the hall she could see a crack of light coming from beneath Max's door. She knocked once, then went inside. Michael was sitting at the desk and Max was leaning over his shoulder, both of them apparently fascinated by whatever was on the computer screen. When Isabel cleared her throat, they both swiveled toward her.

"Internet," Michael said.

"We're trying to get more data on the constellation," Max elaborated.

Isabel perched cross-legged at the foot of the bed. "Alex just called."

Michael glanced at the clock and rolled his eyes. "What's next, Iz? He gonna start coming over to tuck you in?"

Isabel shot him one of her patented glares, but refrained from slinging one of the numerous quips that instantly came to mind, all of which revolved around his nocturnal climbs through a certain blonde's window. Instead, she turned to Max. "We have a potential problem."

"What kind of a problem?" Max asked as he came over and sat down next to her.

She hesitated, not wanting to alarm them. "Alex said it was probably nothing, but they felt we should know."

"Know what?" Michael asked, his attention captured.

Isabel sighed. "He went by the Crashdown for lunch today. There was this old man sitting next to him at the counter. Alex only noticed him because he was apparently a fashion reject from some other century."

Michael blinked rapidly. "Your point, Iz," he prompted.

"Sorry. Well, after he ate, Alex went into the break room to talk with Maria and Liz, since their shift was over. When Liz looked out front a minute later, the old man was gone. Turns out he had been there for the entire day, but Liz wasn't really suspicious until he took off. She thinks he was watching them."

"Coincidence," Michael announced quickly.

Max frowned. "Maybe."

"Liz said you'd told her to keep her eyes open," Isabel continued. "That's why they decided to tell us about it."

Max nodded. "Where are Liz and Maria now?"

"They were at Alex's earlier, but he drove them both home. He waited to make sure they got inside safely."

"Terrific," Michael said, getting up to pace. "So much for protecting them by staying away."

"We don't know that they're in any danger," Isabel rationalized. "Alex thought the guy looked pretty harmless - just an old man in a silly straw hat doing his crossword puzzles. It was probably nothing."

"It won't hurt to be cautious," Max told them. "We thought Topolsky was crazy and look how wrong we turned out to be there. No going off alone, okay? We stay in groups, preferably in public places."

Isabel nodded. "Alex, Liz, and Maria already agreed to that."

"Good," Max said. "We'll call Tess and warn her in the morning. As soon as finals are done, we need to find her an apartment. She's not safe in that big house alone. And it won't hurt to pay Valenti a visit. I'll go by Monday after school and see if he's heard of anyone new in town."

Michael frowned. "You think the other aliens are here?"

"I don't know," Max said. "It's possible, though. You heard Nasedo. We don't know who we might have alerted when we activated the orbs."

"Don't do that, Max," Isabel said. "Don't start blaming yourself for using the orbs. We needed that information."

"I'm not blaming myself," he assured her. "It was my decision and I stand by it. I'm glad we know who we were and why we're here. I'll admit things might be simpler right now if we were still in the dark, but given the chance to do it over, I think I'd use the orbs again. Still, our actions have consequences. We can't be reckless." He turned to Michael, who had grown very quiet. "What is it, Michael? What are you thinking?"

"What about the FBI? Could it have been them?"

"In a straw hat?" Isabel asked, wrinkling her nose in distaste.

"She's actually right," Max said. "The Feds would never wear a get up like that. Even they would find it too obvious. Besides, Nasedo should have called off the hounds by now."

"Could it have been Nasedo?" Isabel asked suddenly.

"Why would it be?" Max asked. "As Pierce, he should be keeping track of things within the bureau."

Michael considered. "Even a hotshot agent must get a Saturday off now and then."

"So he came into town to contact us?" Max asked. "Then why wait all day at the Crashdown and not say anything to the others? He may not like our dealings with humans, but at least he knows that they could get us a message."

"What if he wasn't here to see us?" Isabel suggested slowly. "Maybe it was Alex, Liz, and Maria he was keeping an eye on."

They all looked at each other, no one willing to deny the possibility.

"You think he doesn't trust them to keep quiet?" Max asked finally.

"I don't know. I'm just throwing out options," Isabel told him.

Max shook his head.

"What is it, Maxwell?" Michael looked agitated.

"He took Liz for bait without a thought for her safety. What's to stop him from hurting any of them? Damn! Why didn't I think of this before?" Max stood abruptly, clearly distraught. "He's here to protect *us*, but he's made it clear how he feels about humans. They know who we are. What happens if he decides that puts us in danger?"

"Max, you're our leader. When you told him to go under cover as Pierce, he did it without an argument. He wouldn't go against you," Isabel said.

"Iz, he'd been watching us at a distance for months. He had to know how I felt about Liz, yet he put her at risk."

"We need to get in touch with him," Michael stated. "You have to tell him that they're off limits."

Max nodded. "You're right. Both of you. He won't go against a direct order." He sank back down onto the bed, letting out a dry laugh. "And we still don't even know if it was him at the café. Or if it was anyone at all, for that matter."

Isabel brushed a loose strand of hair off her face and sighed. "Is this how it's going to be from now on? Always looking over our shoulders? Bordering on paranoia?"

"I hope not. I like to think that eventually we'll win whatever battle we're waging here - that we'll be able to get on with our lives."

Michael groaned. "Not even you can put an optimistic spin on this one, Maximillian."

Max actually smiled. "Let's get some sleep. We have plenty of time to worry about this tomorrow."


posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:36:33 PM

Part 7


Jim Valenti could not remember the last time he had taken an entire Sunday off from work. Usually he would go into the office for at least four or five hours, even if it was quiet, just to catch up on the week's paperwork. It was a habit ingrained years ago, back when he and Michelle first split up and work had been the only thing that could take his mind off the hurt. The irony was that Michelle left because she claimed he worked too much. And she'd been right.

Now here he was, kicked back on the couch with a glass of iced tea, waiting for Kyle to come home from the library. They'd throw a couple of steaks on the grill, check out the game on TV, maybe even have a real conversation. Something else he'd let go too long. A lifetime of hiding behind his badge, of burying the pain of his father's seeming indifference and his hostile divorce, and he'd ended up doing the one thing he'd always sworn he would never do. There had been signs along the way, of course. Clues that he was losing his son the way his father had lost him, that their relationship was heading for the same precarious waters that had drowned his marriage. But he had believed there was plenty of time, that Kyle understood, that he could fix things later. Always a thousand excuses to put off dealing with his life until he had the answers he thought he needed.

Well, he'd gotten those answers, and with them a wake up call he had never anticipated. The funny thing was, as sheriff he was acutely aware of how quickly life could be snuffed out - of the fragility of human beings. Every morning, strapping on his holster, he realized that particular day could be his last and, while not courting danger, he was prepared for it, regardless of the outcome. But he'd never imagined that the near-death experience he would live through would be his son's. That, more than any sight he'd seen, any secret he'd unearthed, made him realize how precious time could be. There were no guarantees. You could plan and prepare and build for the future, but it only took a good strong wind to knock everything down.

His philosophizing was cut short by the doorbell. He set down his glass and went to answer it, briefly admiring the new closet door - his morning project - on the way. Reaching the front entry, he was surprised to discover Maria DeLuca peering nervously through the screen. Her blonde hair gleamed in the early afternoon sunshine and she had a pink square box clutched in her hands that looked suspiciously like the kind her mother used for her pies.

Swinging open the door, he favored her with a lazy smile. "Good afternoon, Miss DeLuca," he drawled. "What an unexpected pleasure. Won't you come in?"

She ducked past him into the house, clearly uncomfortable but determined. Smiling hesitantly, she handed him the box. "I brought you a pie," she told him. "Coconut. I…uh…remembered you said it was your favorite."

He took the box and peeked under the lid with a smile. "From your mom?" he asked as he led the way into the kitchen.

"No, actually," she said as she followed him down the hall. "It's from me. Kind of as a thank you."

He placed the pie gently on the counter. "Care for some iced tea?" he offered.

"No, thank you, Sheriff," she said.

A fatherly smile. "Why don't we go sit down," he told her, indicating the den just past the kitchen door. "Then maybe you can tell me just what you're thanking me for, okay Maria?"

She nodded and went into the other room and sat on the old leather sofa. "I heard what you did," she began as he sat across from her. "For Michael. Talking to him about what he did to Pierce. Making him understand that it doesn't make him….bad." Maria looked down. Her hands were in her lap and she was playing nervously with the strap to her purse.

"And that merits a pie?"

She shook her head. "It's worth so much more than that," she said quietly. "I just didn't know what else to do." Looking up, her eyes bright, she shrugged. "So, I brought the pie."

Jim Valenti sat back in his chair and sighed. "Maria, I owe all of you kids more than you will ever know. Whatever I said to Michael - they were just words. They certainly don't make up for the months I was hounding Max and the rest of you."

"Maybe. But I know it still meant a lot to him."

"And to you?" he asked.

She looked away. "He's a good guy. He deserves peace of mind. I want him to have it."

"He's lucky to have you, Maria," he observed. "You're a fine young woman." He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. "I know that there are still things I don't know. That there's more going on than Max and Michael told me. And for once I'm okay with that. I don't need to know more. But I want you all to feel free to come to me for help whenever you need it. I'll back you."

Maria nodded. "Thanks. I'm sorry for the times we had to lie to you," she said awkwardly.

He smiled. "I'm sorry I wasn't worthy of the truth any earlier. But it isn't important now. What is important is that you all stay safe. I know your mother would be besides herself if anything happened to you, and I never want to be the one to bring her that kind of news. So, you need anything at all, just let me know."

"Um…Sheriff…if you wanted to come by the house to see my mom, I'm pretty sure she wouldn't mind seeing you." Maria looked embarrassed. "I'm afraid I'm part of the reason she pushed you away. I was afraid…that you were using her to get to us." She paused. "I told her I didn't trust you."

"I see." He didn't look particularly surprised. "If it makes you feel better, the thought had never crossed my mind," he admitted. "Amy's a good woman, and I had a crush on her way back when. But, I can see how you might have been worried."

Maria smiled shyly and nodded. "Thanks. Of course, that doesn't mean you can break her heart," she warned him quickly as she stood up. "She's still my mom. Just… don't hurt her."

"I'll do my best," he promised as he walked her out.

* * * * *

With Monday morning came the hell known as finals week. Liz rolled out of bed feeling fuzzy brained and wondering how she was going to make it through alive. But by the time she reached school, her adrenaline had kicked in and she was pumping the kind of nervous energy no cup of coffee could produce. This was her element and, even if she felt poorly prepared for her exams, she was determined to throw herself into them and do her best. Once she had cleared her various academic hurdles, she would have time to think through the mess that was her life.

She felt badly for having put Max off for so long. It had been a week since he had approached her and he deserved an answer, but she just didn't know what to tell him. Every time she stopped to think about what he'd said, to consider whether it might be possible for them to be together, her knees turned to jelly and her heart beat a little faster. She felt like she was going through withdrawal. Just a glimpse of him could set her off for the rest of the day. She missed him. Missed talking to him, touching him, being near him. It killed her not to know what was going on in his life, especially now when she knew he must be brimming over with things to say. Everything had changed so rapidly and they had never really had an opportunity to discuss it all. With the exception of the other night on her roof, they hadn't had a single conversation. She accepted total responsibility for that fact, yet at the same time she was kicking herself. Somehow she needed to put an end to this - had to choose once and for all and stick to that choice. But how could she make a rational decision when her emotions kept taking over?

"Finals. Just get through finals, then you can worry about it," she told herself. "Stick to the plan and everything will be fine."

Heading for her first exam, Liz mumbled to herself as she walked down the hall. Standing by his locker unnoticed, Michael watched her go by and shook his head.

* * * * *

Isabel and Alex stood outside after school, and pretended to discuss their exams. In reality, they were keeping watch. As their friends emerged from the building, one of them would peer cautiously around the parking lot to see if they were followed, while the other checked to see if they themselves were being watched. Trying to keep things light, Alex made frequent references to James Bond movies and thought up various "Bond-Girl" type names for Isabel, such as Goddess Galactic, until she was giggling so hard she begged him to stop.

When Maria started toward her car, however, Alex grew quiet and poked Isabel in the side to get her attention. "Check that out," he told her as he nodded to the far entrance to the school.

"What?" Isabel asked, turning to look where he indicated.

"Someone's taking an interest in DeLuca, but I don't think we need to be overly worried about it."

Catching sight of Michael, Isabel nodded her agreement. "He was really upset at the idea of you guys being watched," she told him. As she spoke, Michael made his way slowly across the parking lot, keeping enough distance between himself and Maria that she wouldn't notice him trailing her to her car.

Alex sighed. "I just wish things could get back to normal. It's like somebody came along and shook the ark and all the pairs got screwed up."

Isabel gave him a little smile. "Not all of the pairs."

"Yeah, actually," he said. "Back when Michael and Maria and Max and Liz were all hot and heavy, we were still just friends."

"Are you saying you'd rather go back to the way things were then?"

Alex slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her close. It still amazed him sometimes, to see this vulnerable side to Isabel's personality. Beneath the proud exterior she was still the insecure little girl. "No, that's not what I want," he assured her. "Next time that ark shakes, I'm holding on tight."

"Thanks," she said.

"For what?"

She leaned over and kissed him gently. "For holding on."

* * * * *

By Tuesday Max was batting oh-for-two and starting to get frustrated. A cryptic conversation with Tess the day before had ended in his being no closer to tracking down Nasedo. Although she acknowledged that he had come by the house once since her emancipation, Tess claimed she had no means of contacting him. Since taking over as Pierce, he had only appeared twice and she didn't seem to think he would return. Max hadn't been completely sure Tess was telling him the truth, but there was nothing he could do.

After school he had stopped by to see the Sheriff. Although much more forthcoming in his conversation and anxious to help in any way he could, Valenti hadn't been able to provide Max with anything that indicated the other aliens had arrived in Roswell. Max had given him the sketchiest details of the situation, as well as a description of the old man at the Crashdown, but he had little hope of it leading to anything. The most Valenti would be able to do was notify them if any large groups suddenly arrived in town. Because Max had no clear idea of what his enemies looked like, he was unable to give the Sheriff much to go on.

Now Max had to walk into his Chemistry class and not sit next to Liz. He had to take a test for which he had not studied. And then, in his somewhat educated opinion, he would probably proceed to not pass. Oh, he'd pass the class without any problem His grades for the semester were high enough to carry virtually any score on the final. But the test itself was pretty much a lost cause - just like so many things seemed to be these days.

The door to the Chem lab was closed when he got there and about half of his class was milling in the hall, talking quietly or reviewing their notes. Seeing Alex leaning against the wall across the hall, Max went over to wish him luck.

"The last class is still in there," Alex complained when Max approached. "You'd think they'd kick them out. They're going to cut into our time."

Max shrugged. "I'm sure they'll be done soon."

Just then, someone came flying around the corner, nearly knocking Max to the ground. He reached out automatically and found himself holding Liz in his arms.

She looked up at him and her pale cheeks flushed. "Sorry," she said quietly as she disengaged herself. "I thought I was late."

Max nodded. "No problem. You okay?"

"Uh, yeah. Thanks. You?"

He cocked his head and smiled slightly. "I'm surviving."

Liz chewed her bottom lip as she looked into his eyes. Max eyes were drawn down by the movement. Suddenly all he wanted to do was kiss her and he cursed himself for allowing her to pull away.

Then the door to the class room opened and students came pouring out. They were forced to move closer to the wall in order to avoid being caught in the crush. Liz seemed to notice Alex standing there for the first time and turned slightly toward him.

"Hey, Alex. You ready?"

He looked toward Max, then turned to Liz. "As I'll ever be," he replied.

Liz nodded. Then she leaned back against the wall so she could see them both. "How about you, Max?" she asked softly.

Max blinked. He hadn't expected her to say anything else to him. "I think I'm gonna flunk," he replied baldly, shocked into honesty.

To his surprise, Liz let out a short laugh - almost a snort - and nodded. "Me too," she said as she started toward class. "I think I am too." As she walked through the door, Maria came dashing up, and the two of them sat down together.

Max and Alex followed them inside, Max shaking his head. Things still weren't fine, but maybe there was hope.


posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:38:35 PM

Part 8


Michael was beginning to feel like an overgrown babysitter. He was still sleeping at Max's, dragging his friend from the throes of his haunted dream world at least once each night. By day, he kept watch over his friends. He followed Maria primarily - trying to convince himself it was because she was alone more than the others and therefore most vulnerable. At other times he would search out Alex and Isabel to see if they had spotted anyone suspicious, or else he would check up on Tess, who seemed stubbornly insistent on doing as she pleased. Liz was nearly always at work or at home when she wasn't at school, so he worried about her less. But, though he'd spent the better part of three days keeping tabs on everyone, he had yet to catch a glimpse of anyone else who seemed to be watching them.

Walking into the Crashdown, a scowl plastered on his face, he felt frustrated with the situation. The last time they had suspected someone was following them, it had united the group, forcing them to work together to figure out what was going on. This time it only highlighted how divided they were, and since he knew he was partly responsible for that division, he hardly welcomed the reminder. Heading into the kitchen, he could see that Liz was stationed behind the counter - the other divider of their little gang. She was staring intently at a textbook she had propped against a napkin holder. Her lips were moving and he thought he caught her mumble something about bisecting triangles. Clearly, Maria was running late for her shift. When Liz looked up briefly to see if anyone needed anything, Michael waved.

Liz tucked her book under the counter and came over. "Hey," she said. "How're your exams going?"

Michael shrugged. "Almost done," he told her. "Just have to finish my American Lit. paper." He nodded toward where she had been studying. "Geometry?"

She nodded. "Tomorrow." Glancing at the clock, she let out a little sigh.

"She's not too thrilled about my working tonight, is she?" Michael asked.

Liz shook her head. "I think she was a little annoyed, but it'll be fine. Just don't push her buttons, okay? I need to study and I don't want to have to come down here and break up a fight," she added, half-teasing, half-serious.

Michael just nodded. Part of him wanted to tell her about Max - about the nightmares he was having - but he knew that doing so was the same as pressing her to go to him, and that was something he couldn't ask of her. If he accepted that it was safe for Liz to be with Max, then he would have to back down on the stand he had taken with Maria, and that wasn't something he was prepared to do.

A locker door slammed in the break room, announcing Maria's arrival. Liz grabbed her Geometry book and ducked into the back. Michael could hear the soft rise and fall of their voices, followed by the sound of someone - Liz - running upstairs. Maria appeared a moment later. Ignoring Michael, she picked up a pot of fresh coffee and sailed out onto the floor. Her behavior came as little surprise. She had been studiously avoiding him for the better part of a week, though he could feel her watching him sometimes when she thought he wasn't paying attention. His eyes followed her as she moved around the room, topping off a coffee cup here and there, bringing extra napkins to a mother with two small children. He took in the gentle sway of her hips, the way her long legs stretched forever beneath her short uniform, the smile that touched her lips when a little girl waved at her shyly. Even from across the café, he could sense her easing into the routine, her mood softening as she made conversation with the regulars.

The evening proved uneventful. Michael found himself paying close attention to the customers as the night wore on, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary. No one stayed too long or seemed particularly interested in anything other than the food. Liz came down briefly just as the dinner crowd was starting to thin out, supposedly for a piece of Men in Blackberry pie, but Michael knew she was just making sure he and Maria hadn't killed each other yet. As if it were possible to even start an argument when they were both maintaining a stony silence. But Liz disappeared again fairly quickly, leaving them virtually alone.

When they were down to a single couple, nursing their coffee in the corner, Maria began clearing tables, leaving a plastic bin in one of the booths and systematically filling it with dishes and glasses. Michael started tidying the kitchen, storing bags of hamburger and hotdog buns in the pantry and organizing things for the next morning's crew. He shut down the fryer, then turned up the heat on the grill in order to burn off some of the accumulated layers of grease. When he heard the tinkling of the door chimes, he knew the dawdlers were gone, and he and Maria were the only ones left in the café.

It took him all of two minutes to give in to temptation and peek around the corner to see what she was doing. Two seconds later he was hurrying into the dining area. "Let me do that," he said, his voice low, effectively masking his annoyance at the sight of her trying to pick up the load of dirty dishes. "You'll put your back out," he told her.

Maria spun on him with cold eyes. "I'm perfectly capable of carrying this," she told him, then returned to what she'd been doing.

"Fine. You're perfectly capable. I'll do it anyway," he said, sliding his arms around the bin and lifting it past her. Ignoring her glare, he headed back to the kitchen.

He could tell she was angry. It wasn't just the way she stomped off to lock the front door, or the muttering he heard coming from her general vicinity as she wiped down the tables. He knew the same way he knew when she was near - the air shimmered a little faster and there was a kind of static electricity sparking the atmosphere, as if her temper was stirring things up all on its own. There had to be a way to settle this - a way he could calm her down and make her understand, so that they could both continue to work at the Crashdown without making everyone around them crazy.

Michael started to scrape down the grill with a long metal spatula. He hated this part of the job; it was hot and dirty and it always made him wish he had better control of his powers so he could just wave his hand over everything and leave it spotless. Max would be able to clean the grill without a second thought. Of course, these days, he was rather glad not to be in Max's shoes. For the first time since they had known each other, Michael was not envious of Max's position. Sure, he was still the golden boy with the perfect parents and nice house, but he was also their leader with all of the responsibilities that accompanied that title. For once Michael was perfectly content to be second. It was hard enough absorbing everything that was going on without feeling you needed to take charge as well.

Even Max, always in control, was having trouble with his role. Michael wondered again whether he should have said something to Liz about Max's nightmares. He kept picturing the way Max looked when he woke up that one night, screaming, sweat pouring down his face, his eyes glassy and filled with fear. Michael had never seen Max look like that - had never seen that much terror in anyone's eyes.

Maria came into the kitchen and started rattling around with the mop and bucket, getting them ready to take out front. Michael turned to her, noting she'd removed her head band and her hair was falling softly in her face, getting in her way. She looked infinitely approachable, despite her obvious annoyance. He made a snap decision. "Can I talk to you about something?" he asked.

She jumped at the sound of his voice, spinning around, eyes wary. "What?"

"It's about Liz," he said. "What did you mean the other day when you said we had to do something about her?"

Maria looked at him as if he were speaking in tongues. "What did I mean?" she asked, incredulous. "What do you think I meant? Something to stop her from mooning around like a wounded animal. Something to get her back with Max, of course." She turned and tossed the mop back in the closet and slammed the door, shaking her head in exasperation. "We are not going to have this conversation," she announced.

Michael looked confused. "Why not?"

"Why not?" she repeated. "Why not, he asks?" she said, looking skyward. "Unbelievable." She closed the distance between them and proceeded to poke him in the chest. "Michael, I don't know what it's like in your world, but here in reality, you and I are not speaking, remember? We haven't said two non-work-related words to each other in the last week. And now you want to talk about Liz? Uh uh. I don't think so, pal. You want to make sure she stays clear of Max, that's your business. You're wrong, but I can't stop you. But no way am I gonna help you by letting you pump me for information."

Michael grabbed at the finger she was using to drill a hole through him. "That's not what I'm doing," he said.

"Right," she snapped, pulling her hand free of his. "Let me guess. You've seen the light and don't know how to tell me, so you thought you'd start with a little matchmaking as a warm up. Forgive me if I can't exactly picture it," she said.

"It's about Max, Maria. I'm worried about him. I actually thought Liz might be able to help, but I didn't know how to approach her about it." Michael took a step back, shutting down. He shook his head. "Forget it."

But Maria had seen the look of concern cross his face when he mentioned Max. "What about Max?" she asked. "He seemed okay at school today."

Michael paused, weighing his decision. If he kept going, if he told Maria what was going on, there was no going back. She would say something to Liz and he had a pretty good idea of what would happen then.

"He's my friend, too," Maria pressed gently, moving toward him and closing the gap he'd left by stepping back.

Michael nodded, agreeing. "He's been having nightmares. Bad ones. The kind that leave you shaking. And he doesn't always wake up from them on his own."

Maria's brow drew together in concern. "Is it about what happened when Pierce had him?"

"Maybe. But he woke up screaming for Liz the other night."

"I see. Isabel heard him?"

He shook his head. "The whole house probably heard him, but I was there. I had to shake him out of it." Michael stared off into the distance, remembering. "His eyes were open, but he wasn't really there. It was like he was still trapped in the dream."

"And you think Liz can do…what?"

"I don't know. But he's getting worse," Michael told her. "Isabel and I can't get him to talk to us. He's under all of this pressure, and instead of letting us help he keeps pushing us away."

"And you figure if Liz backs down and goes to him, he'll have one less thing to worry about."

He shrugged. "I don't know what I think. Maybe. But it's worth a try."

"What about the danger?"

He looked at her. He should have known it would come back to this. He did know - he'd just refused to believe it. He was backing himself slowly into a corner and there was nothing he could do about it.

"What about it?" he asked. His face was expressionless.

"Isn't it too dangerous for Liz to be with Max? Couldn't she get hurt? Or is Max's welfare more important than Liz's?"

"I never said that," he replied.

"Oh, so it's okay for Liz and Max to be together, but not for us? Is that it?" Her green eyes snapped at him. She stood firm, holding his gaze. Demanding an answer.

"This isn't about being together. It's about helping each other. Max needs her right now."

Maria nodded. "Right. So it's all about Max. Just like it was all about Isabel. It's always about somebody else. Well, tell me something, Michael. When is it going to be about us, huh? When are you going to realize that I need you? Or doesn't that count?"

He pushed past her, feeling his temper flare. "I knew I should have kept my mouth shut," he sputtered. "I was an idiot to think I could ask you for help without it getting personal."

"How can it not be personal, Michael? That's the whole problem. You can't have it both ways. You tell me we can't be together, that it's too dangerous. Well either it is or it isn't! It can't only be dangerous when it's convenient for you. Staying away from each other means you don't ask me for favors or advice or help, even if you're doing it for someone else."

He turned back and looked her in the eye, half expecting to find her close to tears. Instead he discovered that she was furious, her face flushed with anger and her jaw set.

"It isn't that I don't care," she continued. "I'm sorry Max is hurting. But I can't help him and I can't help you. Not if you're going to keep pushing me away. And you are just going to have to get used to the fact that you no longer have any rights in my life," she told him, her voice steely. "That means you let me do my own work and you don't follow me around town and you don't come creeping into my room in the middle of the night," she said, ignoring his look of guilty surprise. "If you're out of my life, you're out of it, Michael."

His mouth opened and closed a few times, the way it always did when he didn't know what to say. She was right, but that didn't help matters. "I'm sorry," he finally said.

Maria shook her head, golden strands of hair flying back and forth. "It took you forever to learn to say that," she snapped, "but you still have no idea what it means. You aren't sorry, Michael. Maybe you feel bad, but that it isn't the same. People who are truly sorry understand what they've done wrong and try to fix it. You tell me you're sorry and then do the same damn thing all over again." She gave him a hard shove, trying to get past him. "I need to go clean the floors. Just get out of my way," she told him, pushing at him with both hands.

Michael automatically grabbed her by the wrists and held fast. "I am sorry," he insisted. "I'm sorry that I hurt you, I'm sorry things are the way they are, but I don't know how to change them," he said roughly.

"It doesn't matter anymore," she said, trying to pull away. "Let me go, Michael." She struggled against him, but his grip was too strong.

"What do you mean, it doesn't matter? What do you want me to do? Should I quit? Leave Roswell? How do I make this easier?"

She looked him in the eye, her gaze bright with a combination of tears and fury. "Do what you want. Run away if it makes you feel better. Nothing could possibly make me hurt more than I already do," she finished in a hoarse whisper. "Now let go of me." She tugged hard, trying to loosen his grip.

Except he chose that moment to listen to her, and let go. The force she had used to pull back sent her flying. Michael realized what was happening just as Maria went spinning sideways across the kitchen. He reached out instantly, but his fingers only grazed her sleeve and she toppled onto the still-hot surface of the grill, landing hard on her right forearm. She screamed in shock and pain as her skin began to burn.

Within seconds his hands wrapped around her shoulders and he was dragging her toward the sink. He swiftly turned on the tap and let the water run cold. His worried eyes searched Maria's face. Her formerly flushed cheeks were pale and the rest of her face was ashen. The green eyes that had danced with anger were now blank with shock. Swearing under his breath, Michael gently guided her arm under the cold water. He winced at the sight of her pale flesh seared in strips from elbow to wrist. "Shhh," he said as he felt her starting to tremble. He stood behind her, his arms wrapped around her, supporting her injured arm beneath the tap.

As they stood there, with Michael half supporting Maria's weight, he muttered to himself until the words "stupid idiot" and "how could I have done this" managed to penetrate the fog around Maria's brain. Not realizing she was tuned into his every word, Michael continued to berate himself quietly, until he felt Maria shift in his arms. "It's okay," he soothed when she started to pull away from him.

She shook her head, struggling harder to get out of his arms. "Don't help me," she demanded through clenched teeth. When he relaxed his hold, she slipped past him sideways toward the far end of the room. She was shaking slightly, though it was suddenly unclear as to whether it was from pain or from anger. The shock of the burn seemed to be wearing off, leaving her glaring at Michael. "This is not your fault," she spit out. "I won't let you do this, damn you."

He stared at her, flabbergasted. "How can you say it's not my fault?" he roared at her. His eyes dropped to her arm, the bright red welts starting to blister as she cradled it carefully with her free hand, icy water dripping on the kitchen floor. "I let go of you and you fell," he said. "Of course it was my fault. No matter what I do, I just keep hurting you."

"It was an accident, Michael," she yelled at him. "Accidents happen. Life happens. It isn't your fault I got burned, anymore than it's your fault if someone is following us. Tomorrow I could get killed by a bus speeding down Citrus. Will that be your fault too? You plan to track down the driver, see if maybe he was some evil alien?"

"Maria, come on," he said, dropping his voice, trying to reason with her. "You're going into shock. We can't just stand here fighting. We need to put something on that," he urged, unable to look away from her arm.

"What? Not gonna try some hocus pocus? Wave a hand and make it all better?" she taunted him, ignoring the pained look in his eyes. "Just gonna try the old first aid kit, huh? Do a patch job and walk away. Well don't bother, buddy. I can take care of it myself. I don't need your help. On second thought…" She looked around quickly then grabbed a salt shaker with her left hand and, smiling maniacally, sent it flying past his head into the far wall. Though she obviously aimed to miss him, he flinched at the sound. "Rub some of this on if you really want to help. Go ahead, try. See if I'll hate you then, Michael, cause that's the only way you'll ever get rid of me," she cried, her voice starting to crack.

"You guys?" Liz's voice came drifting down the back stairs, causing them both to freeze where they stood. "What are you doing down here? I can hear you all the way upstairs." Her voice got louder as she drew closer to the kitchen. "Can't you even manage to close without tearing each other limb from….oh my God! Maria!" Liz caught sight of Maria's arm as she came through the door. She started forward, then saw the looks on their faces. "Maria? Michael? What's going on? What happened?"

"Liz, go back upstairs," Maria said. Her voice had steadied, but she was back to speaking through clenched teeth. It was obvious that her arm was starting to hurt badly.

"But Maria, your arm…"

"I mean it, Lizzie. Get out of here. I'm fine." She turned to Liz and met her gaze.

Seeing her look of determination, Liz nodded hesitantly. "Okay," she said softly. "If you're sure." She shot one more questioning look at Michael, then slipped out of the kitchen.


"No," she said, cutting him off. "I don't want to hear your excuses anymore, Michael. I know them by heart." She leaned carefully back against the counter, holding her arm gently in front of her. She closed her eyes briefly, as if trying to get a hold of herself. But she snapped them open a moment later and they were as filled with fire as they had been before.

"See, the thing is, I don't need you. I don't, Michael. I won't die without you in my life, anymore than you will without me. But what you don't realize is, that's completely besides the point. It isn't about need, it's about want. I want to be with you, and I know that, deep down, you want to be with me. And it's really just that simple, if you would let it be. Life is so short, so…fragile. For everyone. You haven't cornered the market on danger and risk and chances. Those things are a part of life, in different degrees, for all of us. The crime is to take something precious and throw it away because you're too scared of what might be to enjoy the here and now."

As Michael watched her, tears started to stream steadily down her face. He knew they had nothing to do with the pain she felt from her burn. "I'm just so scared," he whispered finally, his voice thick, and realized his own eyes were damp.

Maria shrugged, wincing at the slight movement. "Join the club," she said quietly. "But I'd rather be scared with you. That's what it's all about. Do you know what you want? 'Cause if you do, you owe it to yourself to take it. No one's stopping you but you. You have just as much right to happiness as anyone else. But you don't get endless opportunities. Grab it while it's there, 'cause tomorrow the rules may change." She stopped and stared at him for a moment. "You can do whatever you want," she said finally. "But you have to believe in yourself. You already know that I do."

His eyes dropped back to her arm. The angry marks looked like they were on fire and he couldn't imagine how she was still standing. He swallowed hard and walked slowly toward her. When he was only a foot in front of her, he looked questioningly into her eyes. "Can I try?"

She didn't say a word. Instead she extended her arm gingerly until it was resting on the palm of his outstretched hand. Then she focused her eyes on his and simply waited.

Michael took a deep breath and gazed into her tear-stained face. He concentrated on her sea-green eyes, focusing until he could no longer distinguish between her steady pulse and his own. Their hearts beat in unison, their breath mingled in the space between them, and he could feel the sparks in the air spinning out of control. He pictured her soft skin, smooth and unmarked, a perfect pale covering over her graceful arm. Then, unable to stop himself, as if drawn by a magnetic force too powerful to fight, he leaned into her and brushed his lips over hers.

The connection was immediate. He recognized her as a little girl from his previous visions, her long blonde hair falling in curls around her sweet round face. Flashes of her childhood skimmed through his mind as he deepened the kiss. Maria running across a playground, Maria on the swings with Liz and Alex, Maria helping the Parkers at the Crashdown, Maria crying when her father left. Angling his mouth, he swept his tongue over her pouty bottom lip, nibbling gently. More flashes followed, these more familiar. Maria yakking beside him as they drove home from Marathon, in tears at the rave, looking beautiful and brave and relieved after they had saved him at the cave.

He pulled back and looked at her. She was staring at him, her eyes wide. "What?" he said, glancing down at her arm. It was completely healed. He gaped for a moment, then smiled slightly. "At least I didn't blow you up." When she still didn't say anything, he looked at her again, confused. "Maria? Are you okay? What's wrong?" He put his hands on her shoulders, frowning when he realized she was shaking slightly. "What?" he asked anxiously.

"I…saw things," she said, her voice wobbly with emotion. "When you kissed me." A stray tear slid down his cheek.

Michael suddenly panicked. "What did you see? What?" All he could imagine was visions of the orphanage where he'd first lived after coming out of the pod, Hank coming after him, the day he killed Pierce, terrifying images she should never have to confront.

Maria shook her head slowly. "It was…beautiful," she said quietly. She raised a shaky hand and cupped his cheek. "I saw you…us. It was amazing." Then she rose on tip-toe and, wrapping her arms around his neck, she drew him close and kissed him back.

Michael trembled at the feel of her holding him. Then he slipped his arms around her waist, marveling at how wonderful it felt to hold her again. It felt so right. Relaxing for the first time in weeks, Michael tightened his grip. Then he reached down and swooped her off her feet, causing her to pull back with a giggle.

"What are you doing?" she asked. "Where are we going?" she pressed, when he merely smiled and carried her out of the kitchen and into the back room. She let another chuckle escape when he dropped down on the battered old couch, cradling her on his lap. Then she saw the serious expression on his face and felt her heart skip crazily. "Michael?" she asked.

A smile suddenly graced his lips, making her relax again. "I just thought maybe I should do it right this time," he said softly.

"Do what right?"

"This." He leaned into her and kissed his way up her jaw to her cheek, then down and across to her mouth. After one deep, heartfelt kiss on her lips, he pulled back a few inches so he could look into her eyes. "I love you," he breathed.

Maria leaned forward and rested her forehead against his. "I love you, too," she whispered. "Too much to let you go."


posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:40:54 PM

Part 9


Liz paced in front of the rear entrance to the Crashdown, nervously glancing at her watch every few minutes. It seemed forever since she had phoned Alex, and he had sworn he would be right over. She wondered if she should go back inside and check on Michael and Maria, but Maria had been so adamant about being left alone, and Liz could see they had both been trying to resolve whatever was going on. Still, even if she was pretty sure they wouldn't actually kill each other, Maria clearly needed medical attention of some sort. Liz winced, remembering how her friend's arm had looked. That was why she had decided to call Alex; it was obvious she needed some sort of backup if she was going to get Michael and Maria to listen to reason.

The sound of a car stopping short around the corner made her jump, but a moment later Alex was running down the alley, followed closely by Isabel, who looked nearly as worried as he did. Liz frowned slightly, then froze when Max came into view as well.

"Isabel was over studying," Alex said by way of explanation. Then registering Liz's surprised expression, looked somewhat sheepish. "You said Maria was hurt. We thought we should bring along the big guns."

Liz merely nodded and went to let them in. As she held the door open, Isabel and Alex hurried inside. Max shot Liz a look of apology before following the others.

Isabel stopped short a few feet into the break room, causing Alex and Max to barely avoid running into her. Her mouth gaped as she stared at the sofa. Maria was curled up on Michael's lap, the two of them caught in a lip-lock that left no doubt about their feelings for each other. All four of their hands were thankfully visible, Michael stroking Maria's back and the nape of her neck, while she ran her fingers through his hair.

The sound of Liz dropping the back door in surprise was loud enough to drive the pair apart, though just barely. Maria pulled a few inches back and met Michael's intense gaze, then they both turned amused eyes toward their shocked friends.

"You know, guys, this is kinda getting old," Michael observed as he shifted Maria off his lap and sat her on the couch next to him, their thighs still touching, his arm wrapped protectively around her.

"Uh…I think we missed something here," Alex observed as his initial smile widened to a grin.

Isabel, once recovered from her surprise, appeared both happy and relieved. Max registered his pleasure with a smile and a nod toward Michael.

Liz, unsure of how to react, sat down on the back stairs and tried to take it all in. "Maria…" she began. "What…happened? I mean, your arm?" she said, staring at her friend who seemed anything but injured.

Maria watched Liz's gradual mental retreat and, giving Michael a quick hug, disentangled herself and went to her friend. "I'm okay," she told her as she sat down on the step below her. "It was an accident. I slipped and landed on the grill." She turned sparkling eyes toward Michael who was watching her closely and looking the slightest bit guilty. Maria shot him a quick frown and shook her head. "Spaceboy over there healed me up," she finished.

Liz's eyes wandered to Maria's arms. They both seemed perfectly fine. She leaned forward and gave Maria a quick hug. "You scared me," she whispered. "You both looked so….I don't know. Passionate, I guess. Angry. I was worried."

Maria hugged her back. "I know. I'm sorry I kicked you out, but I needed to go through it." Pulling back, she looked Liz in the eye. "I had to make him see and it felt like my last chance. I couldn't give that up for something as minor as a little burn."

Liz's eyebrows titled up at the casual way Maria brushed aside her injury and the pain she must have felt. She couldn't help but smile.

Maria looked up to see the others all watching them. Max seemed to be paying especially close attention. She sent him a smile, hoping he would understand what she wished for him.

Max returned Maria's smile, but his gaze fell to her arms. "Mind if I take a look?" he asked.

"Of course not, Dr. Max," she said with a grin and extended her right arm for him to check over. "Sorry to bring you out on a house call for no reason."

He laughed a little as he gently ran his fingers over her unblemished skin. He turned and smiled at Michael. "You did a good job."

Michael shrugged and looked slightly embarrassed. "I wasn't even really conscious of doing it. It just worked this time."

"Not just this time," Isabel told him. "You're really getting good at this," she said. "I mean, look at Saturday. That obviously wasn't just a fluke or luck or something."

"What about Saturday?" Maria asked. When the three aliens traded looks, she sighed. "We know all about your little target practice, so what happened?"

Max and Michael shot Isabel disbelieving looks, but all she did was shrug. "So, I told Alex? Big deal. I wasn't aware it was a state secret."

Max let out a quick chuckle, remembering Michael's unprecedented success on their makeshift target range. "Let's just say Michael has good aim," he told Maria.

"Not that good," Michael insisted.

Isabel raised her eyebrows. "And how many shots did I miss?" she asked him.

Michael shrugged. "Three."

"And how many did Max miss?" she continued to press.

"All of them."

Alex, Maria, and Liz all swung toward Max in surprise.

"What?" he said quickly. "I had other things on my mind."

Isabel ignored them and kept pushing Michael. "And so, Mr. Can't-Control-My-Powers, how many shots did you miss?"

Michael mumbled something under his breath.

"What was that?" Maria asked. "It sounded like he said none," she said, turning questioningly to Isabel.

"He did," Isabel said. "He didn't miss a single shot. Six cans in a row. Sent them all flying into flames."

Maria let out a squeal and launched herself off the stairs toward the couch, landing on Michael and sending him backward into the cushions.

"What the hell….What are you doing?" he asked, trying to untangle himself from her arms.

She ignored him, kissing across his face and hugging him hard. "You big dorkbutt," she said between kisses.

Michael finally managed to shift so he was at least sitting up. Wrapping his arms around her, he pulled away and looked at her with a puzzled expression. "I don't get it. They tell you I excel at blowing stuff up and you're happy about that?"

Maria shook her head, still grinning, her pride in him shining in her eyes. "Don't you see? It's just what I told you. When you want to badly enough, you can control what you do. I always knew you could do whatever Max and Isabel could. It was just a matter of focusing and wanting it badly enough."

Michael shook his head. "It just happened. I wasn't even really trying."

"What were you thinking about that morning?" Max asked, a mischievous light in his eyes. "I mean, you must have been thinking about something. You were really quiet heading out to the quarry."

Isabel looked at Max and grinned, suspecting she knew what her brother's theory was. "Yeah, Michael. What was on your mind?"

Michael looked at Maria, who was patiently waiting for him to reply. She looked genuinely interested. Then he turned and saw Max and Isabel's amused faces and Liz and Alex's vaguely curious ones. He sighed. "I don't remember," he said. "Why don't we all go get something to drink, huh?" he asked, lifting Maria off his lap so he could stand. "Cherry colas, on me."

Isabel let out an snort of laughter and headed through the swinging door. The rest of them followed, Liz slowly bringing up the rear. She and Michael grabbed a bunch of clean glasses off the shelf and went to get the drinks, while the others slid into a booth. Isabel and Alex took one side and Maria the other, while Max pulled a small table over to the end of the booth and lifted the two chairs down off the top.

"So," Alex said as he swung an arm over Isabel's shoulders, "are you guys gonna tell us what went down here tonight or do we have to wait for the book?"

"Yeah, right," Maria said. "Like we could ever publish. It's like being one of those high-level security clearance guys in the CIA. We're under a permanent gag order. Can you imagine the bestseller we'd have if we could ever write all this down?"

"Well, forget about it," Michael told her as he slid sodas in front of her and Isabel, then plopped down next to her.

"I guess we'll have to stick to the lottery," Alex said with an exaggerated sigh. "Or maybe Vegas." His eyes lit up. "I bet you guys would be killer at Roulette."

Liz set a tray with the remaining drinks down on the table, taking in the group in front of her, all seemingly happy and back to normal. She swallowed hard, trying to clear the lump lodged in her throat. "Look, guys, I need to go study for that Geometry final," she said. "I'm really glad you're okay, Maria - catch me up tomorrow, alright?" As she finished, her voice trailed off as she caught Max's eye. They stared at each other for an awkward moment before she turned away. "Just make sure you lock up when you leave," she called back as she hurried into the back.

Max stood to go after her, but Michael reached out and stopped him. Max started to push free, an angry retort on the tip of his tongue, then saw Michael's look of sympathy.

"Lemme go," Michael offered.

Max looked at him for a moment, then sat back down with a nod. "Thanks," he said.

Michael tilted his head toward Maria, who smiled encouragingly. "Tell her," she mouthed to him. He nodded briefly, then headed after Liz.

* * * * *

Michael knocked on the door to the Parkers' apartment and waited. Despite the fact that this had been his idea, he felt a little self-conscious. He knew what he wanted to say to Liz, but knowing and saying were two different things, and it was his experience that his thoughts frequently got lost in the translation.

The door swung open and Michael found himself facing Jeff Parker, Liz's father and his boss. The man was so low key, so infrequently around at work, that sometimes Michael forgot he even existed. But here he was, in the flesh, and Michael kicked himself mentally for not considering that Liz's parents would be home.

"Michael, hi," Mr. Parker said. "Come on in." He stood back to let Michael enter. "Everything under control downstairs? That was quite a ruckus. Liz said you had some trouble with an unruly customer?"

Michael blinked, his brain scrambling. Then he remembered what Liz had said when she came down in the middle of his argument with Maria - that she could hear them all the way upstairs. He nodded and shot his boss his most polite smile. "Yes, sir. All under control," he told him, going along with what had obviously been Liz's cover story.

"Well, good. I'm glad you could handle it. Just remember, son, you ever have any problems down there, feel free to give a holler. I'll be more than happy to come and give a hand. Or if I'm not around and there's trouble, just call the Sheriff. Okay?" Jeff shot him an appraising look. "I don't want anything happening to any of you guys. After that shot in the café last fall, well, better safe than sorry."

"Right. I'll remember, sir. Um…is Liz around? I mean, could I talk to her a minute?"

"Sure. She's in her room studying. I'll show you the way."

Not wanting to tell Mr. Parker that he already knew the way, Michael obligingly followed him down the hall. When they reached Liz's room, her father knocked once and, when she called out, opened the door and stuck his head in.

"Honey, Michael's here to see you." Opening the door a little wider, Mr. Parker gave Michael a quick nod, then walked off the way they had come.

Liz stood up from her desk and motioned Michael inside. He went in and started to close the door behind him, then caught Liz's little shake of her head and left it open part way. He stood staring at her a moment, feeling slightly uncomfortable. It wasn't like he hadn't been in her room before, but the circumstances had always been rather bizarre. First he had climbed up the fire escape and broken in to steal her journal. Then there was the time he had been sick; he pretty much had no memory of that night. Finally there had been the wee hours of the morning when Max had been taken and they had all come upstairs so that Isabel could try to dream walk him. That had been the last time. Seeing the clouded look come over Liz's face, he suspected that was the time she was remembering.

Shaking herself a little she turned and slid open a window. "Let's go talk on the roof," she said. "As long as we're quiet they won't be able to hear us."

Michael followed her outside and sat down on the lawn chair she indicated opposite her own. Now that he was here, he was even less sure of what he was doing.

As it turned out, he didn't need to figure out how to start. "Michael, I know what you're trying to do," she said quietly.

"You do?" he asked.

She nodded. "And I appreciate it. But just because you decided it was alright for you and Maria to be together, doesn't mean it's okay for me and Max. We aren't apart for the same reasons," she reminded him. "Nothing's changed." She sighed and stared out at the stars. "Max came up here last week and gave me all of these reasons why we can be together, but I keep coming back to the one reason why we can't."

"And that is?" Michael asked. He actually wanted to know her reasoning. There were so many possibilities, and he hadn't wanted to ask Max exactly why Liz thought they needed to break up.

"Max has this huge responsibility," she began. "So much he needs to learn. You guys have this mission, and he's supposed to lead you. How can he do something that monumental if he always has to stop and worry about me? I'll be a distraction if we're together. He'll constantly be wondering if I'm safe or happy or whatever. He needs to be able to focus and that means I have to stay away from him," she finished sadly.

Michael nodded in comprehension. "So, the fact that Max doesn't agree with you doesn't matter?" he probed.

Liz sighed. "I know what he wants. I want the same thing, in my heart. But a long time ago Max said we weren't meant to be, and he was basically right. I don't fit into his life."

"Liz, I can't claim to be an expert on this stuff. Just ask Maria," he said with a dry laugh. "But I know how you guys feel about each other. And, you know, if Isabel and Alex think they can make it work, and Maria's convinced me we should try, I don't see how you think that you and Max shouldn't be together. You're our couple most likely to…well, you know what I mean."

"Funny," she said. "When all of this started, you know….when I was shot, you and Isabel hated us all so much. I was thinking about it the other day. Trying to figure out when things changed. I never would have thought either of you would try to get us back together."

"I guess we learned to trust you. That was always it. It wasn't really you we disliked," he said.

Liz tilted her head and smiled at him. "Isabel didn't like me," she said. "That wasn't just a trust thing. She really did not like me."

He snorted. "Nah. You know, the ice princess thing was getting in the way. Plus, she didn't like that she wasn't the only woman in our lives anymore."

"Yeah, I knew that. But anyway….thanks. For trusting us. Me. I'm not sure why you did."

"Didn't have much choice."

"See, that's what I mean. Look at all of the problems I brought down on you guys. I told Max the other night that I wished we could go back, you know, so I could stop him from saving my life that day at the café." Liz had returned to staring out at the stars, and missed the horrified look on Michael's face. "Everything bad that's happened, all of it, can be traced back to that day. To me."

"Liz, whatever Isabel and I felt about all this, we never wished that Max hadn't saved you."

"I'm not sure why. I wouldn't have blamed you. So much has been my fault. Valenti following you. Kyle going all stalker. Topolsky coming to town. Pierce." She shuddered. "Your lives are in danger because of me."

Michael was silent for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts into some sort of order. What she was saying was the truth, but it was only a part of it. He was beginning to realize just how relative reality could be. Everything seemed to depend on your point of view. "Liz," he began, "you brought a lot of stuff down on us. I won't deny that. But there are a lot of things we have to thank you for."

She swiveled to look at him, obviously unsure what he was talking about.

"If you hadn't gotten shot that day, we might never have learned all of these things about ourselves," he told her. "Valenti showed you that picture of the corpse with the silver handprint. Until then, we thought we were completely alone. Because of you we found the key, the dome, River Dog, the symbols. All of the things we've discovered the past few months, it's all been because of you."

Liz looked down at her hands. "You would have learned all of that eventually, Michael. Nasedo and Tess would have found you and told you about your mission and who you were."

"Maybe. But when? The only reason they found us now was because that whole thing at the Crashdown last September forced us into the open. We'd been hiding our whole lives. They didn't even know who we were. So, yeah, we might have learned all of this one day, but it also might have been because some enemy of ours showed up and killed us." When Liz looked up, started at the prospect, Michael just shrugged. "I'm not saying that's how it would have gone down, but it could have."

"I guess," she said hesitantly, as if unwilling to give him an inch.

"You changed our lives in a lot of ways," Michael said. "I'm not sure we really had lives before," he added.

"But that doesn't mean I'm meant to be a part of Max's life now," she whispered.

Michael suddenly pinned her with a stern look. "This isn't about meant to be," he said. "Max has a lot of theories about this destiny stuff. I don't know if he's right, or it's wishful thinking, but, Max being Max, it mostly makes sense. Did he tell you he thinks our past-life marriages were arranged? Like political alliances or something?"

Liz shook her head.

"Yeah, well, he was trying to figure out why we should remember some of our feelings for each other and not others. The connection lasted, the sense of being siblings, so why not still be in love with each other? He figured we never were in love, just all raised together as family, then paired off to keep the peace."

"If it was just a question of Tess, I wouldn't give him up," Liz said, fire in her eyes. "I'm not some simpering fool, Michael. I know he doesn't feel that way toward her. But how can he go off and fight some war with me tagging along, or left behind? What if someone tried to use me against him? I couldn't stand that. And Michael, how will he leave when you find a way to go home? I'll just make things harder for him, for all of you."

Michael stood up and went to stand by the wall and look at the stars. The pose was almost identical to the one Max held when he had been there the previous week and Liz bit her lip.

"We don't really know what's out there, do we?" Michael said, his voice almost wistful. He turned back to look at her. "I'm more worried about right now. Max needs you Liz. And he wants you. If you think being with him makes you a distraction, give some thought to what it's doing to him not having you around. We went out to the quarry Saturday and he couldn't knock out a single target. He couldn't concentrate. Why was that?"

Liz sucked in a breath at his accusatory tone, then jumped to her feet. "Don't put that on me, Michael," she hissed at him. "I know this is hurting him. I can see it. You think I'm enjoying this? But, we will get past it and then he'll be better off. Don't stand here and tell me it's my fault. And don't think that I'm gonna go back on what I know is right because you finally decided you needed to be with Maria. It isn't fair. I saw you all down there, acting like everything was fine and I was gonna cave just so we could be one big happy family again. I made my choice and I'm sticking to it. Max will get over me."
She turned away quickly, but not before he caught a glimpse of the tears in her eyes. "I think you better go. I need to study."

He watched her a moment, making a quick appraisal of her stiffened spine, the straightened shoulders, and he knew he wasn't going to get anywhere by arguing more tonight. "Fine, I'll go," he told her. "But think about what you've been telling me. And decide whether you really believe it," he tossed out. He climbed back through the window and headed across the room. When he reached the door, he glanced back. Liz was still standing out on the roof, staring at the stars.

* * * * *

Maria and the others had just finished cleaning up the café when Michael came back downstairs, looking grim. Max took one look at his friend's face and just nodded in understanding. "Thanks anyway," he said. "Look, I'll see you guys later back home." Then, instead of going upstairs as they expected, he headed out of the café and down the street.

Michael shook his head. "I didn't know what else to do. She was so logical about everything. Had an answer for every argument."

"What did she say?" Isabel asked.

"Oh, a bunch of stuff," Michael said, not wanting to rehash everything. "She thinks she'd put him in danger, weaken him, distract him. She's got a list," he muttered.

Maria frowned. "Did you tell her everything? About Max, I mean?"

He shook his head. "Didn't get a chance. She threw me out just when I was getting ready to."

Maria rolled his eyes. "Men," she grumbled. "I'll talk to her tomorrow." She turned and looked out the front window. "Where do you think Max ran off to? What happened to not going off alone?"

Isabel shook her head. "He thinks he's above the rules. Anyway, he just went back to the UFO Center. He was using the computer there when we dragged him out. I think he needed to go lock up more securely."

"I guess we should get going then," Alex said.

Isabel nodded. She turned to Michael and Maria. "You guys need a ride?"

Michael shook his head. "I'm gonna make sure she gets home, then I'll be over."

"Just let me get the lights," Maria told them, "and we can all head out together."

They locked up the building and left through the back door. Alex and Isabel gave a little wave, then headed around the corner to where Alex had parked. Michael and Maria went the other way and climbed into the Jetta. When their doors were locked and their seat belts fastened, Maria turned questioning eyes toward Michael.

"Okay, so what was the rest of it?" she asked him.

"Rest of what?"

"Whatever went on with Liz has you upset," she observed. "What was it?"

He shrugged. "I never realized how much she feels responsible for," he told her. "She actually wishes Max didn't save her, because she thinks we'd all be safe if he hadn't. She's blaming herself for things completely out of her control."

Maria raised her eyebrows. "Gee, sounds familiar."

He shot her a look. "I sound like that?"

"Sometimes," she told him.

"I guess that's why I understood what she was saying." He ran a hand haphazardly through his hair. "It's not gonna be easy to change her mind. By the time I left I wanted to shake her. She was being so damned rational. It was frustrating."

Maria smiled, reaching out to stroke his cheek. "Yeah," she mused. "I'm sure it was."

"Thanks. For putting up with me," he told her.

She leaned forward and kissed his frowning mouth. "Ditto," she whispered.


posted on 14-Sep-2001 9:42:40 PM

Part 10


Max crossed the floor of the dark UFO Center and went upstairs to the office. He had shut down the computer hastily when Isabel called to say she and Alex were on their way, so he needed to power up again in order to print out some information. Milton's UFO search engine allowed him to track reported sightings across the country, and he had been tracing all events taking place since they'd activated the orbs. What he had found left him concerned. There appeared to be a disturbing increase in supposed UFO encounters in the past week and a half.

Finding the information he had bookmarked, Max flipped on the printer and hit Enter. The carriage buzzed, then paper started chugging noisily through the feed. He sighed and sat back, watching as the printer spit the documents out one by one. Then he erased his bookmark and fiddled with a few buttons until he was sure he'd eliminated the search from the computer's memory. Shutting off the machine, he folded the sheets in half, tucked them in his pocket, then grabbed his keys and started to lock up the office.

A rustling noise caught his attention as he was flipping off the lights. Listening closely, Max thought he heard someone making their way quietly through the exhibits on the main level. He eased the door open, glad he hadn't bothered to turn on any other lights. Only the emergency beams and the exit signs were on, giving the museum an eerie red glow. Hoping it was dark enough to mask his movements, he made his way slowly down the stairs. He could no longer hear anyone as he headed toward the center of the room. But when he rounded the corner of one of the displays, he saw him. The man was standing out in the open, his back to Max, studying the "Theories of 1947" exhibit in the dim light. He was neatly dressed in a dark suit and appeared to have either light-colored or gray hair. Over one wrist was hooked an elegant cane. Max froze, staying close to the wall, and waited to see what would happen next.

He didn't have long to wait. The man shook his head and chuckled lightly. "Rather ridiculous, isn't it?" he said, turning to Max, as if they had been in the middle of a conversation. "I mean," he added, "once you know what really happened."

Max's eyes narrowed as he advanced into the room. "Lose your straw hat?" he asked, his voice taking on an uncharacteristic sneer.

The man tilted his head and smiled. "I decided it was a bit much," he confessed. "Even for Roswell." He gestured around the room with his free hand. "Remarkable, on the whole. If you enjoy fiction. I've never had the opportunity to visit before now."

"Most people come by when we're open," Max observed.

"Ah, yes. But then I'm not most people, am I? I admit, I'm amazed your little friends recognized me."

"They didn't. They were suspicious of you and so they told us. I came to my own conclusions. Why did you come into town? Doesn't the FBI keep you busy enough?"

"I understood you wanted to discuss something with me. Was I misinformed?"

"That's true, I did," Max told him. "But that was only after you paid your little visit to the Crashdown. What were you doing there? Were you waiting for us to come in, or were you spying on Alex, Maria, and Liz?"

"It always comes back to your precious friends, doesn't it? When are you going to realize that they are a liability?"

"I don't consider them to be liabilities. I trust them. That's all you need to know."

"It isn't their ability to keep your secret that I question," Nasedo said. "They make you weak, distract you. You allow your emotions to rule your decisions when they're involved. Look at what happened when you came after Liz. If you hadn't followed us, Pierce never would have captured you."

"If you hadn't taken Liz, I never would have had to follow you," Max shot back. "And the only thing distracting me right now is worrying about what you might do next."

"You should stay away from the humans. They will only cause trouble."

"You forget that the four of us are part human," Max declared, glaring at the older man. "This discussion is over. Our relationships with Alex, Maria, and Liz, not to mention anyone else we choose to include in our lives, are none of your business. My understanding is that you are here to protect the four of us. Is that correct?"

Nasedo nodded.

"Fine. Then do your job. And let me make myself perfectly clear on this count. Our friends are not to be harmed. They are not to be threatened, intimidated, used as bait, or hurt in any way whatsoever. Do we understand each other?"

"Yes, we do," Nasedo replied, tilting his head slightly in acknowledgement.

"Good," Max said, his voice like steel. "Because from now on, if I discover anyone following any of us, I am going to assume they are the enemy. And act accordingly." He sent one more piercing stare in Nasedo's direction, then turned and started to pace.

"I'll assume this wasn't the only topic you wished to discuss?"

"No. There's more," Max said, his tone business-like. "I need to be able to get in touch with you within the FBI. Obviously, it's impossible for me to just pick up the phone and call Agent Pierce, so we're going to need a system."

"What did you have in mind?"

"The only one who would logically call Pierce is the Sheriff. So, if I need to make contact, I'll have Valenti call and leave a message for Pierce."

"And I'll know to get in touch with you," Nasedo replied. "It should work. Of course, they'll tell the Sheriff that there is no Agent Pierce," he added with a sly smile. "But we know better."

"Another thing. There have been increased UFO sightings reported since we used the orbs."

Nasedo frowned. "I told you that it was dangerous to activate them."

Max shook him off. "I knew the risks. What I need now is for you to use FBI resources to get me more in-depth information about these sightings. Rule out the obvious hoaxes, that type of thing. Then get back to me."

"Many of our enemies must have been on Earth as long as we have," Nasedo commented. "They were just waiting to detect the signal from the orbs so they could trace it back to you. It's doubtful that would have generated increased UFO activity."

"I still want the information." He frowned. "There's so much we don't know still." He turned questioning eyes toward Nasedo. "We don't even know where we come from. What is our planet called?"

Nasedo shook his head.

"What?" Max asked. "Why won't you tell me? What could it matter?"

"It isn't that," Nasedo said, his expression almost sympathetic. "Ours is not a verbal culture, so I cannot really tell you what our planet is called," he explained. "We communicate telepathically - have for centuries. Oh, there is a spoken form of our language, but it is used so infrequently that virtually all of the old words have been lost. Why bother with long, drawn out sentences, when through thought you can transmit images, entire concepts? A much more efficient means of communication, I assure you."

"Is that why we couldn't speak when we first came out of the pods?" Max asked. "I remember being able to communicate with Isabel, but not knowing how to talk."

"Yes. As you grew older, you most likely lost all but the most rudimentary telepathic abilities. We did not know that would happen. It is why I was unable to find you when I came back and you had already left the cave. You had already begun to forget."

"Could we relearn the skill?"

Nasedo nodded. "I believe so. Tess has been working on it. It is how she developed her ability to manipulate thoughts."

"Is there a way to keep others out of your head?"

Nasedo laughed. "Yes, Tess told me how upset you were at her trespassing in your minds. Once you develop your own skill, it will negate hers. You'll become aware of her presence in your mind."

Max's eyes narrowed at his reply. "Exactly how much do you know about us from before? What we were like…"

"Before your deaths?" Nasedo shook his head. "I knew little about you. You were our leaders, beloved by all, but private in your lives. The people knew only that you ruled fairly and well. What went on within your compound was not a matter for discussion. Not like these humans with their never-ending desire to drag their leaders down."

Max nodded. "Thank you," he said.

Nasedo looked surprised. "What for?"

"You've told me more than I knew before," Max replied. "I appreciate it. Just remember what I told you," he went on, growing stern once again. "I meant it."

Nasedo studied him for a long moment, his eyes appraising. "Perhaps you will succeed," he said. "I confess that I've been worried. Watching the three of you these past months, you seemed reckless. Immature, if you will. But I suspect that I might have been wrong."

"We've changed a great deal in that time," Max mused. "If you had come a year ago, we wouldn't have been ready for this kind of challenge. Which is not to say we're completely prepared for it now, but at least I think we have a fighting chance."

"Ah, time will tell, won't it?"

Max nodded. "For now, it's time to go. You can leave through the back. I assume you're capable of locking the door behind you?"

Nasedo smiled. "Of course."

"I'll expect to hear from you on the sightings by the beginning of next week," Max told him. Then he turned and headed out of the museum.

It was a warm summer night, the sky brilliant with stars. Max drove the Jeep around the corner and, as was his habit, passed the Crashdown to check that everything was as it should be. Then he turned down the alley and drove by the fire escape that led to Liz's roof, allowing himself to feel her nearness for just a moment before he continued on his way.

As he pulled up to a stop sign just before turning onto his street, Max spotted a star shooting across the sky. He shut his eyes and, like a small child, he wished; wished that things could go back to the way they used to be, when the world was safe and the only thing he dreamed about was Liz Parker's smile; wished he could go back to being a little boy for one day, so he could crawl onto his mother's lap and feel the comfort of her embrace; wished for the strength to get them all through the days ahead, to help them all survive. Everything seemed so precarious; despite the burden on his shoulders, he felt small and insignificant. He opened his eyes and stared briefly at the billions of far-away worlds illuminating the night, and wondered what the future held in store. Then he turned toward home.



Continued in Home Is Where the Heart Is