posted on 15-Sep-2001 7:38:30 AM

Home Is Where the Heart Is
by EmilyluvsRoswell

Disclaimer: Don't own the characters or the concepts; just borrowing them!
Category: The whole gang.
Summary: Post-Destiny. What happens now?
Spoilers: Season one.
Rating: PG-13
Feedback: Sure! Love it!
Author's note: This is the third of a series. If you haven't read "You Can't Go Home Again" and its sequel, "House of Cards", you'll be lost.

* * *

Maria DeLuca woke up smiling. Even the prospect of her English final looming on the horizon could not dim her mood. She sang in the shower, she hummed as she poured herself a glass of orange juice, she grinned as she got dressed. For once her world was a happy place and she was bound and determined to enjoy it for as long as possible.

The sound of her phone ringing as she was headed out the door gave her only a moment's pause. It doesn't mean anything, she thought as she sprinted back to her room. "Hello?" she said.

"It's me."

Michael's voice sounded normal, but Maria wanted to be sure. "Hi," she said. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah," he said quickly. "It's just…" He broke off and Maria could hear someone's muffled voice in the background asking him something. "Are you driving to school?" he asked when he came back.

"Yeah, I was just leaving."

"Could you maybe give us a lift?"

"Us?"

"Me and Isabel," came the reply. "I'm at the Evanses' house."

Suddenly everything clicked inside Maria's head - he was still spending his nights over there. "Of course," she said. "Michael, is Max alright?"

"Yeah." Then in a lower tone, "We'll explain on the way. Just come get us. Iz has an exam first thing and she's panicking about being late."

"I'll be there in five minutes."

When she pulled into the driveway, Michael and Isabel were already waiting outside. They hopped into the Jetta almost before she came to a complete stop.

"Thanks," Isabel said as she situated herself in the back seat. Her expression was strained and the shadows under her eyes looked like light bruises in her pale face. "My mom took the Toyota and Alex can never get his mom's car during the day. I really appreciate this."

"Hey, it's not a problem," Maria assured her, uncomfortable with a grateful Isabel. She shot Michael a look as she steered onto Main Street. "So what happened? Another nightmare? And where is Max?"

Michael shook his head and stared out the passenger window. "I thought it was getting better. He actually slept through most of the night. But then he started screaming around four this morning. He's only done that the one time, and then I got him quieted right away."

"And this time?"

"It was like I couldn't get through to him. He was nearly hysterical. Isabel came running in. It took both of us to wake him up."

"Oh my God," Maria breathed.

"Our parents heard him," Isabel said.

"The whole block heard him," Michael interrupted.

Isabel glared at him. "I managed to convince them he was okay, but I can't keep telling them it's stress over finals and breaking up with Liz," she told them. "Max already talked to Mom once and got her to back off, but I'm not sure it'll work for much longer. He's really scaring her. He's scaring me."

"I don't understand how he can seem so together at school all day," Maria said.

"It isn't just the nightmares," Michael said. "It's this reaction he has afterwards. He's so drained physically. That's why we had to call you to come get us. He's in no shape to go to school. It'll wear off in a couple of hours and he'll be fine. That's why we left him the Jeep. But in the meantime, he's completely exhausted."

"I'll talk to Liz today," Maria promised. "She needs to know, regardless of what choice she makes about their relationship. She may be able to help. I mean, all that science stuff she knows has to be good for something."

"Thanks, Maria," Isabel said.

Maria looked into her rearview mirror and shot Isabel an encouraging smile. "Don't worry. After all, we're getting kinda good at fixing you guys up."

The other girl let out a sigh. "Sure, if it's physical. Hell, we brought Nasedo back from the dead. I just can't see the healing stones doing much for what's bothering Max."

Maria nodded and went back to concentrating on the road. They drove the rest of the way to school in silence.

* * * * *

Max stood beneath the shower head, both hands braced on the blue tile wall in front of him, and let the hot water flow over his body. He had no idea how long he had been standing there. Time had no meaning. Instead, he measured stages of recovery - the minute details of control regained. He had struggled to the shower, dragging his trembling body from the bed, forcing himself to the bathroom. Climbing into the stall had seemed a monumental effort. Now, as the water eased his muscles, he felt steadier on his feet. The waves of nausea had subsided. In the back of his mind, he was aware that he needed to get dressed and go to school. As the thought registered, he acknowledged it as another sign of improvement. If he was thinking clearly, he was almost back to normal.

He turned off the tap and pushed back the curtain. The mirror had disappeared behind a cloud of steam. He inhaled deeply, feeling his lungs expand and fill with warm, wet air, his breath even and free of tremors. Exhaling, he climbed from the shower, grabbed a towel, and briskly dried off. Aware that he was late, vague memories of Isabel and Michael leaving earlier floating through his mind, he rushed through his routine; brushed his teeth, shaved, ran a comb through his still-damp hair. Back in his room, he dressed quickly, an eye on the clock. He had missed first period and would be hard-pressed to catch second, where he had a final paper due.

Once he was driving down the street, Max allowed himself to reflect on what had happened. It was one thing to have nightmares, but it was another thing entirely to wake up screaming in the middle of the night. He couldn't keep relying on Isabel and Michael to snap him back to consciousness. Nor could he keep terrifying his parents with his behavior. But he didn't know what to do. Last night had been his worst reaction yet, and despite that, he could not remember a single detail of his dreams. It was the same each time. He woke in a fog, with a vague lingering sensation of terror, every muscle fist-tight and cramped, then suddenly completely lax, but he never remembered the events of the nightmare. And while he knew that he must be reliving being tortured at Eagle Rock, he didn't understand why his mind refused to let go. He had escaped. He was fine. They were all safe. And Pierce was dead. What more reassurance could his subconscious possibly want? His level of frustration was increasing by the day.

Shaking off the nightmare, Max turned his thoughts to his meeting with Nasedo. He hadn't mentioned it to Isabel or Michael the night before - partly because it had been late when Michael got back from Maria's. More importantly, however, he thought the entire group deserved to hear what he had learned, and that meant it was time to get everyone together again. He grimaced, knowing it wasn't going to be easy. Liz would be particularly hard to convince. On top of everything, he felt Tess needed to be included, which would no doubt cause tension. It was one thing to tolerate her presence around the lunch table at school, but to get together and actually have an intelligent exchange of ideas where she was a contributor was another thing entirely. Max knew that it would make Liz uncomfortable, and therefore make him uncomfortable, but he couldn't see a way around it.

He pulled into the school parking lot and scanned for a space. A quick glance at his watch told him he would just squeak into class before the bell. Two days of school left before summer vacation, he thought as he crossed the lot, and what was he doing? Gearing up to go to war. A dry chuckle escaped his lips and he headed into the building. Within moments he was enveloped by the crush of students pushing their way through the halls to their next class - just another high schooler being swept along for the ride.

* * * * *

Liz sifted through the items remaining in her locker. Much as she enjoyed school, she always took a certain satisfaction in watching her collection of textbooks dwindle the last week of classes. It gave her a sense of accomplishment to know that each subject no longer represented in her locker meant one more course she could cross off her mental check list - another kernel of knowledge attained. Right now, however, she was more relieved than anything else. For better or worse, she had just completed her Geometry final, the last exam of her sophomore year, and she was unofficially done with school until September. Oh, sure, technically there were still classes through tomorrow, but with no material left to cover, the time would pretty much be spent signing yearbooks and discussing summer plans.

Her hand closed over a book tucked beneath a sheaf of loose papers. She had hidden it there a couple of weeks before, unwilling to risk looking at it for even the short time required to return it to the school library. It was a book on astronomy - the one she had borrowed when she and Max were reading up on the V constellation, before they had decided to make use of Mr. Seligman's computer. But it was time to clean out her locker, and since she planned to eat lunch today in a corner of the library, it was the perfect time to get rid of the book.

Biting on her bottom lip, she allowed the text to fall open in her hands, gently flipping through the pages with their colorful photos and renderings of the galaxies. So many worlds they knew nothing about. A familiar cluster of stars caught her eye and she checked the caption: The Whirlwind Galaxy. That had been the one in the poster in her science class, the one she had recognized from her visions. Somewhat wistfully, she traced a finger over the starry spiral, wondering whether Max's home lay beyond it. Wondering if they would ever know. It seemed so unfair that they knew so little about themselves and where they came from, even now. Michael had made it sound like Max was trying to piece together their past from the scant information they had, using his own logic and suspicions as the glue to hold it all together. Her heart ached for him, knowing how frustrated he must be.

"Planning a trip?"

Startled, Liz slammed the book shut seconds before she identified the deep voice behind her. Then, feeling foolish, she turned slowly around. "Hey, Kyle," she said.

"Hey. Sorry. Didn't mean to sneak up on you."

"It's okay. I was just…"

"In another world?" he finished for her, a twinkle in his eye.

Liz couldn't help but smile. "Sort of. So, how have you…been?" It had been over a week since the shooting and she hadn't really seen him.

Kyle shrugged. "Better than I might have been," he muttered. "But I guess you know what that's like. Anyway, my dad explained things and I, uh, had a conversation with Max," he told her in a low voice.

"So, you're okay with everything?"

"As okay as I can be," he admitted. "It's still all sinking in." His eyes narrowed on her thin face. "How about you? Hate to say it, but you don't look so great. You feeling okay?"

She turned back to her locker, feeling him watching her. "Don't worry about it, Kyle. Finals, you know? I've just been studying too hard, trying to catch up."

"Right," he said, sounding unconvinced. "School stuff." He hadn't missed the fact that she and Max looked like twin zombies walking the halls of West Roswell, matching dark circles under their eyes. But he had learned not to pry. "Listen, Liz, I just wanted to say that I'm sorry for being such a jerk last fall. I know we kinda talked about this before, but I really mean it. Now I that I know what you were going through - the pressure and everything - well, I just feel bad."

"Thank you," she said.

"You know, I knew from the beginning that you guys had some kind of a connection. I just didn't want to face it," he said quietly. "I guess it really hit home that night I got Max drunk - he just kept blabbing about you. He admitted to me then that he was in love with you. What normal sixteen-year-old guy says stuff like that? Even when they're plastered?"

Liz shook her head, unable to look at him, not wanting him to see that she was on the verge of tears. She cursed her emotions, wondering why they had to rest constantly just below the surface, always ready to rise up and embarrass her at a moment's notice. Part of her wanted to spin around and ask Kyle a million questions about that night, to find out every detail of what Max had said and done. But she didn't. She couldn't. It was just asking for trouble. "I was so worried that he might have accidentally revealed himself to you that night," she said in a shaky voice.

"Yeah, well, I guess he kinda did," Kyle said. "Just not the part you had in mind." He shifted, uncomfortable with emotional females. "Look, I know something's going on right now, and it's probably none of my business, but I just wanted to tell you that I was sorry and I really hope you guys work it out."

Liz shot him a surprised look. "I thought you hated Max?"

Kyle looked sheepish. "Guess I'm running out of reasons to," he told her. "Besides, the guy's actually pretty likeable."

"Yeah," Liz said, suddenly looking sad.

"You wanna talk about it?" he asked hesitantly.

"Not really, but thanks," she told him.

"You're sure?"

"If I talk about it, I'll think about it, and I'm trying really hard not to do that right now."

His eyes fell to the book still clutched in her hand. "I'd say you're doing a lousy job. Maybe not thinking about it isn't the answer."

"There aren't any answers," she said matter-of-factly. "None that will make everyone happy."

"Oh. Well," he said awkwardly, "I gotta…get to class. I'll see ya?"

"Yeah. Come by the Crashdown, okay?"

Kyle smiled encouragingly at her, then headed down the hall. Liz watched him go, wondering briefly when all of her friends had gotten to be so interested in her love life. She scooped up her books and slammed her locker shut, wishing yet again that she could be invisible.

* * * * *

Alex and Isabel crossed the quad toward the table where Michael and Maria had already spread out their lunch. It wasn't their usual spot; this table stood further away from the building and had the advantage of being more isolated. Usually it was occupied by upperclassmen, but with finals nearly over, many students had already left for the day, leaving it available.

"So, did you talk to Liz yet?" Isabel asked Maria as soon as she was within range.

Maria sighed and shook her head. "I haven't seen her all morning. I know she's here - she had a test. I think she's hiding from me," she admitted.

Alex frowned as he and Isabel sat down across from the others. "Why? 'Cause you and Michael got back together?"

"I don't know. Maybe that's part of it. I think she's just avoiding a confrontation."

"Did Max make it to school?" Michael asked, his usually impassive voice edged with concern.

Alex nodded. "Saw him in the halls between second and third periods. Looked perfectly normal."

"I don't know how he does that," Isabel said. "He was a complete wreck when we left the house."

Alex put a comforting arm around her shoulders and gave a little squeeze. "One thing's for sure. If we can't get through to Liz, we're going to need another approach. I mean, we can't let him go on this way. At the very least, the guy needs a good night's sleep."

"But what do we do?" Michael asked. "He won't talk to us. Hell, he didn't even want us to tell you guys about the nightmares."

"Shhh," Maria hissed. "He's coming over."

Alex immediately launched into a comical and animated description of the guy who had arrived late for their History final, having obviously spent the previous class period locked in the eraser room with his girlfriend. "He had bright red lipstick stains on his neck, right behind his ear," Alex chuckled. Isabel and Maria laughed obligingly while Michael rolled his eyes.

"Hey, guys," Max said as he approached. His intelligent brown eyes surveyed the group, aware something was going on but not ready to press the issue. Instead he swung a leg over the bench and sat down next to his sister.

"Maxwell," Michael replied with a nod. "How's it going?"

"Fine," Max said. "We seem to be missing a few bodies," he observed. When no one offered more than a shrug in reply, he turned his attention toward Maria. "Are you guys all working tonight?"

Maria shook her head. "Just Liz. She's on late." Sensing his annoyance, she frowned. "Why? What's wrong?"

"We need to have a meeting," he said, addressing all of them. "Right after school. Out at the quarry," he added.

"Max, did something happen?" Isabel asked worriedly.

"I just think it's time we talked about some things," he said. "All of us." He pinned Maria with a look. "Can you get Liz there? I don't care what you have to do. It's important."

"I'll do my best."

"Tell her it's about her buddy with the straw hat," Max said. "That ought to convince her."

"What are you talking about?" Isabel asked quickly.

"Did you find out who he is? Is he really following us?" Alex asked, overlapping Isabel's question.

Max merely held up his hands and shook his head. "Later. Right now I need to go find Tess."

Michael looked surprised. "You want her there too?"

Max shot him a stern look. "I said everybody." He turned to Isabel. "Do you think you can get Mom's car? I'm going to need the Jeep to get to work when we're done."

Isabel nodded. "I'll call her right after lunch. It should be fine."

"Good. Maybe you can give Tess a ride out, too," he said quietly. "I'd…prefer not to."

"Sure," she agreed with an understanding smile.

"Thanks. Okay, that's all I had to say. Go on back to your discussion," he told them. He stood and headed back toward the school.

Alex watched him walk away, then turned to Michael. "You think he knew we were talking about him?"

Michael simply rolled his eyes again and went back to eating his lunch.

******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 7:40:13 AM

Part 2

*******

There were only so many places Tess could go during lunch, so Max expected he would track her down without too much trouble. He decided to start with the library. Their "No Food or Drink" rule was pretty much a joke and, since it was almost guaranteed to be deserted this late during finals, he thought it seemed a likely place for her to hide out. However, one step inside and Max realized his subconscious had been playing him for a fool. Yes, the library was quiet, and yes, it made a wonderful place to hide. But not for Tess.

He knew the moment the doors had closed behind him that Liz was somewhere in the library. There was no doubt in his mind that, if he chose to circle the room, he would find her curled up at one of the big corner tables, her lunch half-hidden in her bookbag, probably with an issue of "Scientific American" spread out in front of her. Every nerve in his body went on instant alert. More than anything, he wanted to go look for her, even if it meant slinking along through the stacks like a criminal, just to catch a glimpse of her from between the books. But, he resisted the temptation, great as it was. If Liz was hiding out during lunch, it was because she was still upset over seeing him the night before at the Crashdown. Approaching her would just make the situation worse, and he couldn't risk her refusing to come to the quarry after school - what he needed to tell everyone was too important. So he forced himself to turn around and leave.

Out in the hallway, he had to remind himself of his original purpose. He had to find Tess. After mentally x-ing out a few possibilities, he headed out of the building and toward the athletic fields. It was a beautiful day, and aside from the quad there were only a couple of spots where people went to eat outdoors. From a distance he could see a half dozen runners doing laps around the track and someone practicing hurdles, but only once he cleared the fence was he able to see into the bleachers. Tess was sitting halfway up, at the opposite end from where he stood. Her wavy blonde hair was caught in a ponytail and, at least from Max's perspective, she seemed very young sitting there all alone.

Once he got a little closer, he knew she would sense his presence, so he stayed where he was and simply watched her for a few minutes. Her attention appeared riveted on the field, her eyes following the runners as they sprinted past. Occasionally, she would reach for her soda by touch, but her gaze never wavered. Curious as to what was so fascinating, Max looked toward the track. No one seemed any faster or more athletic than the next, but as the group rounded the near turn, he suddenly thought he understood. Kyle Valenti, looking warm and only slightly out of breath, was the second runner to come around the bend.

Max allowed himself a small smile before he carefully schooled his expression and climbed up the bleachers. If Tess was developing an interest in Kyle that went beyond using him as a pawn in their merry little war, that was fine with him. The truth was, he felt sorry for her - the way she had been raised, the position she now found herself in as the odd one out. He knew she had to be terribly lonely. But there was only so far he could go to help her without putting himself in an uncomfortable position, and whatever else happened, he refused for one instant to give her the wrong idea. He had no intention of being anything more to Tess than a friend. As for Kyle, he was pretty sure Valenti could take care of himself where Tess was concerned. So, he was just going to sit back, play dumb, and see what developed.

As expected, she turned toward him when he was a few steps away, squinting into the sun and waiting expectantly. He climbed up beside her and sat down, taking in her rather eccentric meal, which seemed to consist of yogurt with added sugar, carrots, and a
Twinkie. He made a face. "Don't you ever eat any real food?"

She looked down and smiled slightly. "Sometimes." Then she met his gaze again and the smile faded. "So, what's going on, Max? I somehow doubt you're here to check up on the nutritional content of my lunch."

He grew serious. "You're right. We're meeting after school out at the quarry. Isabel said she'd give you a lift."

"Are we…practicing again?"

"Not today. There are some things that we need to talk about. Privately," he stressed. "The quarry is the only place we can be guaranteed no audience."

"All right."

"There's something else," he said. "It isn't going to be just the four of us. Liz, Alex, and Maria will be there also."

Tess turned her attention back to the track below. Kyle and a few others had stopped running and were stretching out. "Is this your way of telling me to behave myself?" she asked.

"Look, we all need to work together. I realize we've managed to eat lunch a few times without any bloodshed, but this is different. Everyone is affected by this and so everyone needs to be kept in the loop. And I am not going to run around town repeating myself because you have a problem handling the situation."

"I understand," came the terse reply.

"Tess," he said gently, "I'm sorry for the way things are. But… I can't change the way I feel."

The softness of his tone seemed to register. "I know, Max. I do understand. It's just… sometimes I feel like I have no one on my side, you know?" When she turned back to look at him, her eyes were a little brighter.

"We're on the same side," he told her.

"That's not what I mean."

"I know," he sighed. "But give it time. It'll work out." He shot a quick look at the field, where Kyle was picking up his things and heading back toward the school. "Sometimes you just have to have a little faith."

"He hates me," she said suddenly.

"I doubt that," Max replied as he watched Kyle walk off. "But I suspect you're not currently his favorite person," he added with a grin. "You might want to try to work on that. Your first impressions tend to be pretty good. It's the second one that needs some polishing." He glanced back at Tess and was pleased to see she no longer seemed ready to cry. "See you after school?"

"Yeah. I'll be there," she said with a little sigh of resignation. "And Max?" she said as he rose to go.

"What?"

"Thank you."

"I didn't do anything."

"Yeah, you did. You were nice to me. You didn't have to be," she acknowledged.

"We have to stick together," he told her. "I meant what I said about it being the four of us, okay?"

"Okay."

* * * * *

They arrived separately, a group at a time. Max made a point of getting there first; he had called the meeting and he didn't believe in making grand entrances. When Isabel pulled up, she parked a few yards from the Jeep, and she, Tess, and Alex made their way over to the rocky peak were Max was standing. From their vantage point they could see out over a large portion of the quarry, including the place where the water seeped from the ground and filled the low-lying areas. It was where they always met, always stood, a place where they felt safe. It was out of the way enough that you needed a car to get there, and sufficiently quiet that they would hear any vehicle approaching long before they actually saw it.

The Jetta arrived last, the familiar buzzing of the motor echoing distinctly through the canyon. Watching Maria maneuver off the dirt road, Max wondered if she and Michael had had trouble getting Liz to come with them. He could make out her silhouette in the back seat as the little red car rolled to a stop, and he imagined he could see her tuck her hair nervously behind her ears before she opened the door and climbed out. She appeared calm, however, as she followed Maria and Michael up the slope to join the rest of them.

Michael broke the silence. "Okay, Maxwell. We're all here. You plan to fill us in now?"

"Come on, Max," Isabel urged. "You made it sound like you knew something about the old man from the Crashdown. I thought we weren't going to keep secrets anymore," she said, her tone telling him just how many things she thought he was keeping to himself.

"I'm not holding out on you, Iz," he told her. "I just wanted everyone together." He gaze traveled over the six expectant faces before him, lingering slightly longer when he reached Liz, then moving on before she could look away. "This affects all of us. No matter what anyone here seems to think, our lives are linked now. We've been through too much together, know too much about each other, to be able to completely sever that tie." He stared out over the quarry, briefly turning his back to the group. He needed to watch his words. It was not his intention to turn the gathering into his own personal crusade to win back Liz.

"We aren't arguing with you," Alex pointed out. "We all came. So what's going on?"

Max looked toward Alex. He was standing next to Isabel, just close enough to hint at protectiveness. Tess was just beyond them, listening, her expression lacking the challenge it usually held. Michael stood to his other side, one arm circling Maria's waist from behind, his chin resting comfortably on top of her head. Liz was the furthest from him, standing just close enough to be able to hear. When he spoke, it was to her.

"You don't need to worry about the old man in the straw hat. He won't be following you anymore. It was Nasedo," he said. As he uttered the last words, he saw Liz shiver, a look of surprise mingled with something else he couldn't quite identify darting across her face. He went on quickly. "He came by last night when I was at the UFO Center and we talked. I made it clear what I expect him to do. And what I expect him not to do," he added forcefully. "From now on, if any of you think you're being watched or followed, I want you to act based on the assumption that you're right - and that whomever it is, is dangerous. You get to a public place and stay put. Does everyone understand? No heroics."

"But why was he at the Crashdown?" Maria asked. "I mean, none of you guys were there that day. Was he just waiting for one of you to show up?"

Max was still watching Liz closely, aware that something was wrong, that she was withdrawing from the conversation. She was no longer looking toward him and every inch of her seemed poised for flight. It suddenly occurred to him that they had never discussed what happened when Nasedo kidnapped her. Max himself had been taken and, after that, things had spiraled out of control. A growing fear gnawing at his gut, he forced himself to keep his tone light. "It isn't important," he said. "What is important is that he and I have come to an understanding. He's going to stay put within the FBI and work on getting us some information. If any of us need to contact him, we'll go through Valenti."

"The Sheriff?" Tess asked. "Why?"

"Because," Max told her, "we know we can trust him, and no one within the Bureau would question his call. He's certainly called frequently enough in the past."

"Okay, not to point out the obvious question here, but, if we're not worried about Nasedo or the FBI anymore, and Valenti's on our side, who exactly would be following us?" Alex asked.

"The aliens who took over our planet were supposedly coming to Earth next," Max said. Before he finished his sentence, Alex let out a groan. "There's a good chance that they detected the signal when we used the orbs," Max continued. "In which case…"

"They know where you are," Maria said flatly.

Michael tightened his arm around Maria. "So what did Nasedo say about all of this?"

"I have him tracing recent sighting activity, sifting out the kooks and the quacks. We'll see if there's a pattern."

"So you think they're coming to Roswell," Liz said softly.

Max met her gaze. He nodded, though he knew it hadn't been a question. "Which is why I need you all to be careful still."

"Okay," she agreed. "We'll be careful." She glanced at her watch, then at Maria. "Are we done? 'Cause I really need to get back. My shift starts soon."

Maria looked at her, startled. "Lizzie, hon, don't you think you could be a few minutes late?"

"No," she said. "I told you when I agreed to come out here that I would have to leave early. You said that was fine." She turned dark eyes on Max. "Is there anything else? I mean, anything that's a matter of life and death?"

She had gone from being upset to being perfectly composed in a matter of seconds. Max frowned, but shook his head. "Nothing you absolutely need to stay for," he said quietly.

"Thank you," she said. With two words she managed to convey that she was grateful for much more than his saying she could leave. "Maria?" she asked. "Do you mind?"

Maria shook her head. "'Course not." She looked up at Michael.

"Go ahead. Max or Iz can give me a ride back."

"Okay," she said. "You will fill me in later," she ordered.

Michael nodded, shooting her a meaningful look, gesturing toward Liz who was already heading back toward the car.

Understanding what he was trying to say, Maria nodded back. "See you later," she said and started after Liz.

Max watched the Jetta bump along the dusty road and disappear around the bend. Everyone else watched Max. Finally, Michael cleared his throat, raising his eyebrows questioningly when Max looked over. "She had work , Maxwell," he said. "Don't go reading anything else into it."

"What else did you find out from Nasedo?" Isabel asked.

"Not much, really," Max said, trying to refocus on the group. "Apparently our race communicates telepathically, which doesn't surprise me."

"You mean, we couldn't speak?" Michael asked.

"Oh, we could," Max assured him. "We just didn't bother. Nasedo seems to consider talking an enormous waste of time."

"Don't tell DeLuca that," Alex quipped. Then, noting the smirk on Michael's face, he shot Isabel a mischievous look. "Maria'd insist at least one of you agrees with that assessment."

Ignoring Isabel's laughter, Michael glared at Alex. "Is everything a joke with you, Whitman?"

"Whenever possible, yes," he grinned.

In an effort to get the discussion back on track, Max turned to Tess. "Did Nasedo ever talk to you about any of this?"

"No, he didn't," she said. She wrinkled her nose thoughtfully. "He had me work on my telepathic power, but never said that was how we communicated. When I would ask him questions, he'd tell me to be patient. That I'd learn what I needed to know, as I needed to know it."

"So he wouldn't talk about where we come from?" Isabel asked.

Tess shook her head. "I got the impression he preferred not to think about home. He didn't like to remember."

"Maybe because he didn't know if he'd ever get back," Michael said quietly.

They all looked at each other. The thought crossed Max's mind that, if they should figure out a way to get back to wherever they came from, he would probably feel the same way about Earth. Would he want to remember Earth if he were galaxies away, to torture himself with thoughts of a home he might never see again? Because, regardless of what biology and history told him, this really was his home. This was where he had grown up. Everything he knew and trusted was here - everyone he loved. An image of Liz popped into his mind, and he knew he'd have no choice but to remember. How could he forget his heart?

"Well, at least we know more than we did," Isabel said finally. "This whole telepathy thing would explain why we can sense each other."

Max nodded absently.

Alex noticed his preoccupation and nudged Isabel. She frowned. "Max? What is it?"

"Um, nothing," he replied.

Michael sighed. "Come off it, Max. Tell us."

He shook his head. "Just a theory."

"Like half of what you think you know isn't some kind of theory," Alex said.

Max let out a short laugh. "You've got a point. Okay. The four of us can sense each other's presence, like Isabel said. We feel some kind of a connection to each other, which, as Tess noted, is probably in some respect linked to our telepathic abilities."

"Follow you so far," Alex said.

"But there's more to it than that," Max went on. He glanced at Michael. "Isn't there?" he said.

Michael looked at him hesitantly. "Are you getting at what I think you're getting at?" he asked slowly.

Isabel looked confused. "Enough with the secret codes, guys. What are you talking about?"

"I'm saying we don't only sense each other," Max said.

"I'm still lost," Isabel told him.

Michael sighed. "He can feel Liz. He knows when she's around. It's the same with me. I know the minute Maria comes into the room."

"You mean, like some kind of intuition?" Alex asked.

Max shook his head. "It's more complicated than that. And it isn't the same as it is with each other. When Michael, Isabel, or Tess is nearby, I have a certain awareness. I know they're there, but I can't tell them apart or anything. With Liz…it's like the air changes. I know instantly that it's her."

"Do you think it has something to do with having healed her?" Isabel asked.

"I did," Max admitted. "But then I realized Michael felt the same thing with Maria."

"So, what does it mean?" Isabel asked.

Max looked baffled. "I wish I knew. And it may not mean anything other than that we're more attuned to them than to anyone else."

Alex looked hesitantly at Isabel. "Do you…?"

She shook her head quickly, then seeing the hurt look that crossed his face, reached out and squeezed his hand. "Not the way they're talking about, Alex," she said softly. "But we're kinda new at this whole relationship thing. Maybe we just haven't gotten to that point yet."

He smiled at her. "Thanks," he whispered. Then he turned to Max, a thoughtful look in his eye. "What about those flashes Liz was having?"

"What flashes?" Tess asked.

Max looked swiftly in her direction, but she seemed genuinely curious. "A few months ago, Liz started getting flashes from me whenever we…kissed. I had gotten them from her before - just little glimpses of her past, her thoughts. But suddenly she was seeing things too, and not my conscious memories. She kept getting flashes of space and stars, even what appeared to be the crash. Eventually they led us to where the orb was buried," he explained. Turning toward Alex, he shrugged. "They stopped once we found the orb, so I never really thought they meant anything. Actually, I suspected Nasedo was somehow causing them."

Isabel nodded. "That's what Michael and I thought, too, at the time. But Nasedo didn't want us to use the orbs, Max. So why lead us to one of them?"

Max looked blank. "I have no idea," he said. He let out a sigh. "Another thing to try to puzzle out."

"We should start to keep a list," Isabel said sarcastically.

"I actually considered it," Max said. "If it weren't so dangerous to leave a paper trail, I would. Things are getting so damned complex. Anyway, I guess that's basically all I wanted to talk about," Max said.

Michael shook his head. "The sum total of our knowledge about ourselves, recapped in an hour or less."

"Look at it this way, Michael," Isabel said, "That's an hour's worth more than we knew a year ago."

"Big deal," Michael replied.

Max turned to Tess. "With school out after tomorrow, we should have some time to find you an apartment. Are you going to need help going through the stuff in your house?"

Tess shrugged. "It would be nice. I figured I'd get rid of pretty much all of the furniture, but there are all of these boxes in the spare room and I have no idea what's in some of them."

"Right," Max said. "What do you all say? Anybody up for some house cleaning on Friday?"

Isabel nodded. "Sure."

"I have to work," Michael told them, "but I can help out in the morning."

Alex shrugged. "What's a little back-breaking work among friends?"

"Thanks," Tess said in a low voice, obviously unsure how to react to their willingness to help. "I'll…make sure there's something in the fridge besides yogurt and Cherry Coke."

"Okay then," Max said, glancing at his watch. "Speaking of work, I'm late. Michael? Want me to drop you?"

"Thanks," he said, and followed him to the Jeep. Everyone else followed Isabel to the car.

"See you later," Max said, nodding to the others as he climbed behind the wheel. He waited a moment until Isabel had pulled out onto the road, then swung the Jeep out after her.

******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 7:44:31 AM

Part 3

*******

They drove in silence, Liz staring blankly ahead, Maria throwing worried glances in her direction every few minutes. The lack of conversation was making Maria antsy. She had never been one of those people who characterized a good friendship by the ability to sit in each other's presence without speaking, primarily because she never ran out of things to say. Even now, she had plenty on her mind. It was just a question of where to begin.

Finally, she decided that she couldn't take it anymore. "Liz? Talk to me," she said.

"Please don't start, Maria. I've had about as much as I can take of everyone's concern and advice."

"I'm not everyone," Maria bristled.

"What's the difference?" Liz asked. "You just want what they all want. To know if I'm okay, to know what's going on, to tell me what to do," she listed in a dull, tired voice. "It's as if I've suddenly turned into this three-year-old with absolutely no decision making skills. None of you trust me to make the right choice. Did you know that my mother actually asked me last week if I was pregnant?"

"She didn't?" Maria gasped.

"She did," Liz said. "I just can't take it anymore. This is hard enough as it is without all of this hovering. I even had Kyle asking me how I was today."

"Stalker Valenti?"

"He's not that bad," Liz said. "But that's besides the point. I'm tired of justifying myself. I just wish you'd all leave me alone."

"Liz, this isn't about whether you're right or wrong. I'm your friend and I care about you. And I'm worried. This isn't like you. I know you love Max, and he loves you. Why does it have to be this difficult? He wants to be with you."

"Maria, we aren't talking about what we want. I didn't walk away from Max because of Tess; I left because I can't risk him getting hurt because of me."

"Liz…"

"No," Liz cut her off. "You wanted me to talk, so just listen. You know, I really thought it was going to be okay. That we could be together - that it was possible," she said, her voice cracking. "That day in the pod chamber, when Nasedo left to take Pierce's place, I thought that finally they would be safe. No more FBI trying to track them down and discover their secrets. No more Sheriff Valenti dogging our every move. I wasn't worried about Tess because I knew Max didn't care about her." She paused to brush away a tear as it streamed down her cheek. "And then they used the orbs," she continued. "And it all started over, but ten times worse than before. They're supposed to save their planet, Maria. They have to learn how to fight this unknown enemy and then they have to find a way home to rescue their people - their families. How can I get in the way of that?"

"Liz, how would your being with Max stand in the way of their doing what they have to do?" Maria asked. "He already told you he's going to try to save their home. Why does it have to be one thing or the other?"

"Because I distract him. When we're together he's careless. It isn't like you and Michael, Maria. You bring out the best in him. You give him something he's never had before - love, faith, strength. You're the reason Michael's getting control over his powers. Didn't you get that last night, what they were teasing him about? When he shot out all those tin cans, when he healed your arm, he was thinking about you, Maria. You're his focus. He was just too embarrassed to admit to it in front of all of us," Liz told her.

Maria looked stunned. "No, Liz, that can't be it. It can't be that simple."

"It is," Liz told her wearily. "He just needed someone to believe in him. Don't you remember that day at Atherton's, when we didn't know what to do next and Michael tried to get another vision with the key? It didn't work, did it? Not until you told him to try again. He'd kidnapped you and stolen your car and dragged you to Texas, and you went and blew his alien mind by showing some faith in his abilities."

For a whole sixty seconds, Maria was utter speechless. Then she glanced over at Liz, huddled in her seat, and realized that had been the idea. She shook her head. "Good try," she muttered. "But we're not talking about me and Michael. This is about you and Max. Max can control his powers, or at least he could until recently," said pointedly.

"Controlling his powers isn't the problem. Max puts himself in danger because of me," Liz said quietly, and Maria realized she was crying freely now. "He doesn't think. He just acts. It started that day when he saved my life. He put their lives in danger when he healed me and he didn't give it a thought. That's what started all of this - Valenti chasing them, Topolsky showing up. Pierce. If it hadn't been for me, Max would have never been at risk. Pierce wouldn't have even known he existed."

"Liz Parker, it is not your fault that Pierce captured Max!"

Liz turned teary eyes toward Maria. "Of course it is," she said. "Why am I the only one who sees that? Max came after me, even knowing Pierce would be there. He put himself at risk for me. Again. I can't allow him to keep doing that. And it won't ever stop, Maria. There will always be someone - another Pierce, some enemy alien - who will try to use me to get to Max."

Maria swore loudly and turned the steering wheel sharply to the right, pulling the Jetta well off the road.

"Maria, what are you doing?" Liz said.

"Stopping so we can finish wading through this bullshit you call logic," Maria said angrily.

"I'm gonna be late."

"Yes, Liz, you are," Maria snapped. "Deal with it."

"Maria…"

"Oh, come off it, Lizzie. What's your dad gonna do? Fire you? This is more important than punctuality, damn it." She unfastened her seatbelt and twisted around to rummage in the back seat. A moment later she dumped a box of tissues in Liz's lap. "Here. Use them. Enough of this stiff upper lip crap."

Liz shot her a look, but pulled out a bunch of tissues and started to wipe her eyes and cheeks. She blew her nose, then looked miserably out the window. "Can we please just go home?"

"Not a chance," Maria told her. "My turn to talk. I have a couple of questions for you. Just answer yes or no. Think you can handle that?"

Liz looked over, saw her friend's determined face, and nodded listlessly.

"Good. First question. Do you love Max?"

Liz sighed. "Yes."

"Okay. Does Max love you?"

"Yes," came the whispered reply.

"Even better. Do you trust Max? I mean really trust him. Like with your life?"

Liz closed her eyes, fresh tears squeezing out from beneath the lids. But she nodded.

"All right," Maria said, her tone softening. Shifting sideways in her seat, she reached out and took Liz's hands and squeezed. "Now pay close attention, because for a future valedictorian you're not catching on too quick these days. You mean everything to Max Evans. He loves you more than life. When Nasedo took you, I thought he was going to lose his mind. He was scared for you. But he wasn't reckless, Liz. He didn't panic. There was this look in his eyes, this fear, like he might lose you, but he was still in control. He called you on your cell to make sure you were okay. We all worked together to find a way to alert Valenti. He took Michael and Isabel and Tess with him when he went after you. I don't think there were any precautions that he didn't take. Yes, Pierce did catch him. But Liz, that risk is always there because of who they are, not because of anything you did or didn't do. It wasn't your fault. And if it weren't for you going to Valenti, they might never have gotten him out of Eagle Rock. You can't blame yourself for what happened."

A shudder wracked Liz's body and she pulled her hands from Maria's grasp. Curling up in her seat, she pressed her knees to her chest and hugged them close. "You don't know what they did to him in there," she said shakily. "The things they put him through, Maria… because of me. It was my fault. If I hadn't gone with Nasedo, Max never would have been caught."

"Liz, Nasedo looked exactly like Max. I saw him, too. There wasn't any way you could have known," Maria said.

She shook her head violently. "I should have known. How could I not know? I love Max. How could I think that… thing… was Max?" she sobbed. "I did… I knew. When he kissed me, I could tell, but it was too late… we were already gone."

Maria leaned forward and wrapped her arms tightly around Liz, frightened by the way she was trembling. "Shhh… Lizzie, it's okay," she whispered. "It's okay. We got him out. It's okay now." She rocked her gently as much as the confined space would allow, murmuring soothing nonsense until she felt Liz's tense frame relax and the shaking stop. Then she sat back and brushed the hair from her friend's face. "Okay? Better?" she asked worriedly.

Liz sniffed and nodded. "Yeah. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…"

"Don't apologize," Maria told her. "Do you really believe all that, Liz? About it being your fault?"

Liz looked up and nodded again.

"Does Max know how you feel about it?"

She shrugged. "Some of it."

"The last part?"

"No."

"I didn't think so," Maria sighed. "God, you two are just way too similar for your own good."

"What do you mean?" Liz asked, drying her eyes on a fresh wad of tissues.

"The control thing. This need to take care of everybody else. But you never let anyone return the favor. You're too busy protecting us to let us help you."

"I do not have a 'control thing'," Liz huffed.

Maria laughed. "I'm sure that's what Max says, too." Her eyes grew serious. "Listen, Liz. Max isn't doing so well. He really needs you to be there for him."

Liz's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What are you talking about? Max is fine. You just saw for yourself. He's taking control of things, just the way he should be."

"It's an act."

"It is not an act, Maria. Max is the strongest, most capable person I know. I know I've hurt him, but eventually he'll get over me and be better off."

Maria shook her head. "Do you really believe that, Liz? He isn't fine. No where near it. But he's too busy playing hero to let anyone know. He isn't sleeping. He's been having these horrific nightmares every single night since all of this happened."

Liz frowned. "Nightmares? How do you know?"

"Certainly not because he told anyone," Maria shot back. "'Cause then we might actually worry about him. Isabel and Michael know, pretty much because they were there. They weren't supposed to say anything, but they were too upset and scared to keep it a secret anymore."

"What do you mean, they were there?"

"The three of them were up late talking that first night, going over what the message meant and what they were going to do. Apparently, Max got really upset at one point and just lost it. He screamed at them, then curled up in a ball, shaking," Maria said quietly. "It was really late, and he'd frightened them, so Michael crashed on the floor in a sleeping bag. Max had his first nightmare that night. Michael had to wake him up."

"Oh, God, Maria," Liz said, her eyes filling again.

"Michael's been sleeping on the floor every night since. He says the nightmares are getting worse and a couple of times Max has called out in his sleep. It was so bad last night that it took Michael and Isabel both to wake him up, and he was so wiped out that he couldn't get out of bed. They had to call me to take them to school."

"And he has them every night?"

Maria nodded. "It's a miracle he's functioning at all. And Liz, when he screams in the middle of the night? He's calling out for you," Maria told her.

Liz quickly brushed at her eyes before the tears could fall. "Why didn't anyone tell me sooner?"

"Because, Liz. You were so dead set on what you were doing, on staying away. And he would sooner jump off a cliff than use what he's going through as a way to get you back. He wants your love, not pity."

"So then why tell me now?"

"He doesn't know I'm telling you. I'm not sure he even realizes that Michael told me, though we think he suspects something. But he's scaring us, Liz. Especially Isabel. She doesn't know how much longer they can keep feeding their parents excuses. What if they want him to see a doctor?"

"I don't know what you think I can do," she said quietly. "Even if he's calling for me, he must be dreaming about Pierce. I saw some of the things they did to him, Maria. That night, after we got him out, I kissed him and got this flash." She trembled. "It would give anyone nightmares," she whispered. "I've had a few myself."

"So, imagine what his must be like. Liz, he's going through hell. You're not helping him. What he needs is your love and support. And your trust."

"I do trust him, Maria. I told you that," Liz insisted.

She shook her head. "Prove it. If you really trust him, believe him when he tells you he needs you. Liz, you're being unfair to him. He has a right to have a say in his life. By walking away, you're telling him you believe more in some mission that was pre-programmed in another galaxy than in his right to make his own decisions. You're saying he doesn't deserve to be happy."

"That's not what I'm doing."

"Isn't it? He's willing to risk his life to try to save his planet, a place he doesn't remember filled with people he's never seen. All he asks for himself is the chance to be with you. And you're denying him that chance."

Liz stared at Maria for a long moment, then turned away.

"Fine, Liz. You just think about it for a while. But we're running out of time here, because Max isn't getting any better."

Maria swiftly wiped at the tears that had started to creep down her own cheeks. Then she fastened her seatbelt and turned the key in the ignition, setting her little alien-head key chain spinning wildly. The Jetta's engine sputtered once, then roared to life, and she pulled back onto the road. As she drove toward Roswell, she risked periodic glances in Liz's direction. It had been a long time since she'd been unable to tell what her best friend was thinking. She just hoped it was something good.

* * * * *

Max maintained an even speed on the drive back to town, wanting to keep Isabel and the others in view. He was glad that he was alone in the Jeep with Michael, however, because it would give them the chance to talk privately. Just because he had been spending his nights at the Evanses' recently, didn't mean Michael had been anything but his typically closed-mouthed self as pertained to a number of subjects, and Max had not been inclined to push him. He was painfully aware that their friendship had been strained to near breaking over the past few months, and that the events of the last two weeks had gone a long way toward mending a few fences. Max was in no hurry to do anything that would rock the boat. It was important for them to be able to count on each other.

Shooting a glance sideways, Max smiled at the look on his friend's face. Michael appeared calm, actually relaxed, for the first time since Topolsky had returned to Roswell. Despite the possible dangers ahead, he seemed happy, and Max knew exactly whom he should thank for Michael's vastly improved mood.

"It goes both ways, doesn't it?" he asked suddenly. "Your connection with Maria."

Michael snorted. "I was wondering when you were going to ask me that," he said. "I'm surprised you didn't bring it up before."

"I didn't want to mention it with everyone else around."

"How'd you know?" Michael asked, slanting a look his way.

Max considered. "I guess the other day at lunch tipped me off. You were by yourself, under a tree. Maria could tell where you were, even though there was no way she could see you from where she was sitting."

"She knew I'd been following her the past couple of days," Michael told him. He ran his hand through his hair, making it spike even more wildly. "I thought she must have seen me, but when I asked her she just gave me this look - like I was completely insane - and said she didn't need to see me to know I was there. That I send out 'vibes'."

Max laughed. "You said that about her once. Remember?"

Michael shrugged, but he was smiling. "So, I'm assuming it's like that with you and Liz? She can feel when you're there?"

"Yeah. We've never really talked about it, but I can tell. There have been times when I've walked up behind her and she just started talking to me without even turning around. And frankly, there's no way she could have avoided me so effectively the past week and a half if she hadn't been able to sense when I was nearby," he added, his voice dropping slightly.

Michael shot him a look. "She'll come around."

"I'm not so sure, Michael," Max admitted slowly. "She's so stubborn, and so sure what she's doing is for my own good. If I had known she would stay away this long, I never would have let her walk away to begin with."

"I'm sorry," Michael told him. "That I stopped you from going after her. That I couldn't change her mind last night."

"Don't be," Max told him. "You didn't really stop me. You couldn't have - not if I'd been determined to follow her," he said, giving him a pointed look, reminding him of a previous occasion when Max had been unstoppable. "As for last night, you tried your best. And I appreciate it."

"So, what now?"

Turning his eyes back to the road, Max concentrated on the tail end of the Toyota ahead of him. "We keep going," he said. "We train. We try to learn more about ourselves, and these mysterious enemies of ours. Whether they're really on Earth. Or maybe even in Roswell."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know. But those are the only answers I have right now," Max replied.

Michael grunted, settling himself lower into his seat. It was clear that wasn't the response he was looking for. After a pause, he cast a hesitant look in Max's direction. "What are you going to do about the nightmares?"

The reaction was instantaneous. Michael had never seen Max close himself off so fast. The shutters slammed over his face and he threw the bolts home. "I'm handling it," was his terse reply.

Michael shook his head and wondered why all of his friends were suddenly taking lessons from him. "Not good enough, Maxwell. You keep saying you'll talk to me or to Isabel, but you never do. You can't keep putting us off."

Max drove in silence, his eyes glued to the road.

"Maybe if you get it off your chest, you'll feel better," Michael pushed, looking for a chink in Max's defenses.

"I can't."

"Can't or won't?"

More silence. Michael sighed. "Fine. But don't think this is over." Neither of them uttered a word for the rest of the trip home.

*******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 7:46:31 AM

Part 4

*******

As soon as Max dropped him in front of his building, Michael took off down the street. The drive had made him restless, Max's silence rubbing at his nerves until he felt ready to jump out of his skin. Never before had he felt so agitated simply sitting and not speaking. I've been spending too much time with motor-mouth, he thought. I can't remember what it's like not to be surrounded by her constant jabbering.

His long-legged stride ate up the sidewalk as he hurried along, without purpose or direction, needing to exorcise the demons in his brain. He kept picturing Max struggling out of a nightmare, covered in sweat, eyes blank. Even though he had witnessed it himself, knew it was true, Michael found it difficult to reconcile the image with the under-control, determined leader who had just driven away. Max's ability to corral his fears, to suppress his weakness by the light of day, amazed him - just as it terrified him. How could they hope to get through to him while he continued to deny that there was anything wrong?

He walked for what seemed like hours, roaming the streets, staring at the houses, trying to distract himself from the constant whirling in his brain. After a while, he considered going by the Crashdown. His stomach told him it was time to eat, but that was just a convenient excuse. In reality, he wanted to see Liz, to find out if Maria had spoken with her. But recalling his own ineffectual attempt the previous night, he decided it was best to stay away. Maria would come by his apartment later and fill him in; he just had to be patient.

Deciding he might as well head home to wait for her, Michael crossed behind the elementary school, short-cutting through the now-deserted playground. He idly pushed at an old swing as he walked by, sending it flying in a gentle arc. The equipment seemed somehow melancholy in the early evening light, with the children called home to dinner and only the shadows for company. He tried to remember a time when he was young and had played here during recess. The memories came, but they seemed so far away, as if they belonged to someone else. The little boy he had been then would be surprised to see him now, to learn what he had become. He didn't want to go back to being that boy.

Michael climbed the steps to his building and went inside, fumbling in his pocket for his keys. The last thing he expected to see as he headed down the hallway was Maria, sitting on the floor, leaning up against his door. He saw her as soon as he rounded the corner, legs crossed, her blonde hair glowing despite the dim light. She was staring in his direction, obviously having sensed his return, and as he drew near she stood and ran into his outstretched arms. He wrapped her up and pulled her close, tucking her head beneath his chin, feeling her snuggling into him as if it would keep her safe. As they stood there, not saying a word, their breathing slowly synchronizing, it seemed to Michael that nothing in the world could touch them.

Finally he pulled back slightly and looked down. She peered back with huge green eyes that seemed on the verge of tears. "Were you waiting long?" he asked quietly.

She shook her head. "I went home first. But my mom was there and she was just too… happy," she said helplessly. "I didn't want to deal with her, so I came over here."

A smirk touched Michael's lips. "Where happy has been outlawed," he said. When she failed to so much as crack a smile, he frowned. "It was bad?"

"Yeah," she said. "It was. I have no idea…"

"Shhh," he said. "Not here. Let's go inside."

She nodded and he reached past her to unlock the door, then steered her carefully into the apartment. While she flopped on the couch, looking worn, he went into the kitchen and fumbled around for a few minutes.

"What's going on in there?" she asked finally.

"This," he said, coming back with a mug of tea and a plastic bear half-filled with honey.

Maria's eyes narrowed on the bear. "What is that?"

He glared at her. "The result of taking Isabel shopping with me when I first moved in, okay? Don't start."

She smiled and accepted the steaming mug. "Thanks," she said, taking a sip before setting it down on the battered end table. Pushing her bag onto the floor, she patted the cushion next to her. "Come here," she told him.

He sat, his arm around her shoulders, and she curled into him like a cat, her head against his chest, her arms circling him. Stroking her hair, he held her patiently, waiting for her to tell him what happened to upset her so badly. He could only assume that things hadn't gone well with Liz.

"I've never her seen her like that," Maria said eventually, just when Michael was beginning to think he would have to ask her what was wrong. "I know you said she was blaming herself for things that weren't her fault, but I had no idea how deep it went. She thinks it's all her fault - even Max getting captured. It's like she's fixating on every bad thing that's happened since September and putting it on her own shoulders."

"Did you tell her about Max?"

"Yeah. She got so upset. I think it made her pull herself together long enough to really see things from his side," Maria said. "But it may not make a difference. If she thinks she's responsible for Pierce taking Max, then that would mean the nightmares are her fault too. I'm not sure if she thinks she can help." Maria pulled back so she could look Michael in the eye. "She's almost as bad off as he is. She got hysterical, Michael. And she's had nightmares also. When she and Max were separated from the rest of us that night, after you got Max out of the base, she got a vision when they kissed. Of the things Pierce did to him."

Michael frowned. "Did she say what they were?" he asked cautiously.

Maria shook her head. "I didn't ask, either. The look in her eyes was more than enough to make me not want to know. I'm sorry."

"It's okay," he said, relieved. "So, you don't know what she's going to do."

"No," Maria admitted. "After we finished arguing about it, she just clamed right up. Stared out the window the rest of the way home and ran into the Crashdown the second I stopped the car."

Michael settled back on the couch and tugged her back down onto his chest. He twirled a silky strand of her hair between his fingers. "Max pulled the same thing with me," he told her. "I tried to get him to talk about the nightmares and that was it. Not another word the rest of the trip home."

Maria sighed and allowed herself to relax against him. "Stubborn idiots," she mumbled. "Perfect for each other."

"Yeah," Michael said. "I kinda guess they are."

Maria lifted her head so she could stare at him. "Did we just agree on something?"

Michael raised his eyebrows. "It isn't entirely unprecedented."

"It's not?"

"No. As I recall, we've agreed on quite a number of things before."

"Really," she said, looking skeptical. "Like what?"

Michael bent down and captured her lips with his, kissing her gently. "Like that," he whispered. "And these," he added, trailing tiny kisses up her jaw and across her cheekbone. "Mmmm, and maybe this too," he said, his mouth brushing her eyelids as they fluttered closed.

"Oh," she said on a long breath. "I guess I forgot about that," she told him. For a few minutes she was perfectly quiet, allowing him to tease her lips with his. When he moved to her neck and began to work his way toward her shoulder, she squirmed slightly until he lifted his head.

"What?" he asked.

"Are you trying to distract me?" she asked.

He seemed to think about it for a moment, then smirked at her. "Could be. Whatcha gonna do about it?"

She grinned. "Nothing. Just curious." Leaning forward, she ran her fingers up the sides of his neck and into his hair. "Mmmm….so soft," she murmured, just before her mouth connected with his.

Michael shifted lower on the couch, taking her with him, so they were lying side by side. "I missed you," he whispered.

"I missed you, too," she said. And went back to kissing him.

A few moments later, a shrill ringing broke the silence. Michael groaned as Maria shot into a sitting position, using the elbow resting on his stomach for leverage. "My phone," she said.

Michael reached past her with a growl and scooped her purse off the floor. Holding it out of her reach, he fumbled inside for her cell phone, clearly intent on sending it flying through yet another window. However, the warning look on her face stopped him and he merely snapped it open and, frowning, held it to his ear. "What?" he barked.

"Michael?"

Liz's tentative voice made him cringe. He found himself wishing it had been Maria's mother on the line. "Hey," he said, softening his tone. "Hold on." Reaching out, he handed the phone over to Maria. 'Liz', he mouthed.

Maria rolled her eyes at him. "Hello?" she said. "It's okay. Really."

Michael watched, wishing he could hear what Liz was saying, but when he leaned closer to try to listen, Maria frowned at him and slid to the far end of the couch.

"Are you sure?" Maria asked. "Liz, do you realize what you're saying? What if you want…" Another pause, where Maria looked concerned and Michael got up to pace.

"Of course I will," Maria said finally. "Don't worry about it… I love you, too." She shot Michael a look as she hung up.

"Well?" he prompted. "What was that about? What did she want?"

Maria still appeared worried. "She called to ask me to do her a favor."

"What kind of favor?"

"I'm supposed to make sure you don't go to Max's tonight."

Michael sat back down next to her. "She's going over?"

Maria nodded. "When she gets off work. She says she's going to try and talk some sense into him."

"Talk about the blind leading the blind," Michael muttered. "Does she think it's gonna be that easy? What about later, when Max has a nightmare?"

"She said she'd take care of it. She'll tell Isabel when she leaves." Maria chewed her lower lip nervously.

Michael's eyes narrowed. "You're keeping something from me," he said.

"I'm just worried about them," she said, a stray tear sliding down her cheek.

His eyes gentled and he put his arm around her, pulling her closer. "I know," he said, dropping a kiss on the top of her head. "Me too."

* * * * *

It had been a long, tiring shift, and by the time Liz dragged herself upstairs, the prospect of simply falling into bed had become immensely appealing. However, one of the side effects of not having Maria around to distract her all evening had been a great deal of time to think about what she had said. In fact, it had been impossible to think about anything else. Liz had known that it was going to be painful when she decided to walk away from Max, that both of them would have to go through a period of adjustment before they could move on. In her heart, she even suspected that they would never be entirely happy apart. Still, she had convinced herself that was a small price to pay if it meant Max would be safely focused on what he had to accomplish - if it would keep him alive. But the idea that Max was having nightmares, that he was reliving the torture he experienced at Pierce's hands, had her both frightened and questioning her decision. It was one thing to stay away from Max for his own good, but it was another thing to add to any anguish he was feeling. It had taken her a few hours, but she had finally called Maria. Whatever else might happen eventually, Liz know she needed to talk to Max. Tonight.

So, falling into bed was not an option. Instead, Liz showered quickly and threw on a pair of shorts and a shirt. She stared at herself in the mirror for a moment, taking a brief inventory of the changes she could detect in her face - the slight thinning of her cheeks, the shadows beneath her eyes. Surface changes - unimportant except for the fact that they represented alterations that went so much deeper. Shaking herself, she swiftly brushed her hair and put on a thin coating of lip gloss. She grabbed a sweater and ducked through her open window onto the roof, then hurried down the fire escape to the street below.

The town seemed deserted. She headed across Main Street, past the UFO Center and around the corner, taking the shortest route to Max's house. As she walked, she tried to tell herself that it didn't mean anything that she was going to see him. After all, she loved him. How could she rationalize staying away if there might be some way for her to help? She just had to talk to him. It was the only way to discover what was really going on, to see what she could do. Maybe it would be as simple as distracting him. If she spent some time with Max, if she could get him to think about something pleasant before he fell asleep, perhaps he would make it through the night without his subconscious dredging up all of his fears and worries. At least, that's what she was hoping.

She could see the Evanses' house from the end of the block, and felt a momentary pang when she saw the lights were out. However, as she crept through the side yard, she saw a soft glow coming from the back where the bedrooms were, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Crouching down, she sneaked beneath Isabel's window and around the corner. Max's window was cracked open, waiting for Michael, and the curtains were pulled back. Standing just out of sight, Liz leaned against the side of the house and listened to the soft music coming from the room, briefly closing her eyes when she realized it was the Counting Crows. She stood there until the track finished playing and everything grew silent. Though she questioned her wisdom in lingering alone in the darkened yard so late, a part of her wanted nothing more than to stay where she was so she could peek through the window and watch Max unobserved. She wanted to enjoy being near him, being able to see him, without any questions or guilt.

Taking a deep breath, she finally stepped in front of the window. The moment she looked into the room, she realized she might get her wish after all. Max was stretched out on his bed, fast asleep. He was lying on his side, a magazine open next to him, one arm cradling his head. Liz let her breath out slowly. Every time she saw him, her heart would stutter. He was so beautiful. Knowing she should turn around and go home, yet unable to bring herself to leave now that she was here, Liz leaned against the window sill and watched Max. It seemed like forever since she had been able to look at him this way, the graceful lines of his face, his sensual mouth. Her eyes fell to his broad shoulders, his strong arms, admiring the snug fit of his T-shirt. She watched his chest rise and fall. Her fingers ached to touch him, to run through his tousled brown hair. She felt the air speeding up around her, and finally had to close her eyes to keep the sensations from overwhelming her entirely.

When she opened them again, she noticed Max had shifted. As she watched, a frown creased his brow and he started to toss and turn, sending the magazine careening unnoticed to the floor. Liz realized he was having a nightmare and felt a shiver run down her spine. Opening the window a little wider, she carefully swung herself over the sill and hurried over to Max. Unsure as to whether or not she should wake him, she sat down on the edge of the bed and reached for his hand. He grabbed hold of her so tightly her fingers ground together, but still he slept, tossing restlessly.

"Shhh," she whispered, leaning over and brushing a lock of hair off his forehead with her free hand. "Shhh, Max, it's okay. You're safe. Everything's fine. Everyone is fine." She continued to stroke his forehead, his stubbley cheek, murmuring quietly under her breath until he seemed to relax. Slowly, his grip on her loosened and he appeared to be sleeping soundly again.

Liz brushed at her eyes, knocking away the tears that had formed. She looked at the clock next to the bed. Not even midnight. She had no idea what she should do. Should she wake Max up? Should she let him sleep and call Michael to come over after all? Glancing at the sleeping bag rolled up beneath Max's desk, she chewed her bottom lip nervously. She looked at Max again, his hand still wrapped around hers, his eyes darting back and forth beneath his lids, obviously dreaming despite his outwardly calm appearance. Asleep, unable to maintain his iron control, he looked exhausted. The dark circles beneath his eyes were twice as pronounced as her own. She could see why everyone had been so worried - he obviously needed sleep desperately. There was no way she could wake him up now.

As gently as she could, she pulled her hand free, then went to close the window. She started to shut the curtains as well, but the moon was so beautiful she decided to leave them open. Then she tugged the sleeping bag from beneath the desk and rolled it out on the far side of the bed where it would be hidden from the door. Before she turned off the light, she turned back to check on Max. His breathing seemed even. She relaxed slightly. Maybe it would be okay. She hit the light switch, then carefully made her way over to her little bed on the floor and lay down.

It took her all of ten seconds to realize the problem. From where she was, it was impossible to see Max. The only way she would know if he was having a nightmare would be for him to become extremely restless, and if she fell asleep, he would actually have to make noise to alert her. She sat up and peered over the side of the bed. So far he seemed fine, but would he stay that way? She lay back down and thought for a minute. How did Michael do this every night? He had to sleep at least part of the time. Then she recalled Maria saying how difficult it was for Michael to wake Max up sometimes, and that he'd needed Isabel to help him. She frowned. Of course he's having trouble, she thought. By the time he realizes Max is having a nightmare, he's probably nearly hysterical.

Liz could think of only one solution. She slowly got to her feet and stared down at Max. The partial moon shone through the window, giving off just enough light to see by and bathing the room in a soft silver glow. The effect made Max look even paler than he had before, and though rationally she knew it was an illusion, Liz felt her stomach clench. Her eyes fell to the empty portion of the bed. There's plenty of room, she told herself. And I'll know the moment he starts to get upset. He won't even realize I'm there.

Of course, she would know. But, she reminded herself, that wasn't what was important. Moving gingerly so she wouldn't wake him, Liz stretched out next to Max. The mattress was firm and she felt herself relax slightly when she realized that she wouldn't go rolling into the center of the bed. Glancing sideways, she could see that Max hadn't budged; he was still sleeping peacefully. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and willed herself to do the same.

Gradually, she felt her earlier tension begin to ease. As she did, she became more aware of Max lying next to her. She could hear his steady, even breathing. Even with her eyes shut, she could sense exactly where he was in relation to her, the precise amount of space that separated their bodies. He radiated heat, so much so that she had to remind herself that he didn't get sick - that he couldn't possibly have a fever. It was so strange to be in a bed with him. The only time they had actually slept together - quite literally all they had done - was the night they found the orb. It had started out as something more, something chemical that had made her feel like her blood was on fire. Just the memory of it made her restless and she clamped down hard on the errant thought. There was nothing romantic about their sleeping arrangements this time, she scolded herself. She was here as a friend only - to help Max get through the night.

Eventually, she began to grow sleepy. There was a certain peacefulness to just lying there, not having to wonder or worry about anything. The last week and a half had been so stressful, so wearing, that she felt as if she'd been dragging around a heavy weight. Though half-asleep, the irony of the situation didn't escape her; she was there to comfort Max, yet she felt safer and more comfortable than she had in days.

Max shifted, pulling her into wakefulness. Her eyes popped open and she turned to check on him. He was still asleep, but he was moving restlessly, pushing at his pillow and rolling slightly toward Liz. Suddenly he shifted forward again and his arm came down around her waist, pinning her in place. He curled around her, nuzzling his face gently into her hair, tugging her closer. Liz held her breath, waiting for him to wake up and say something, but he merely settled down in his new position and continued to sleep.

When she was sure he was really still asleep, Liz sighed quietly and closed her eyes again. Her heart was beating so fast, she doubted she would ever be able to calm it. She couldn't believe this was happening, how ridiculous it suddenly all seemed. Here she was, lying in Max's bed in the middle of the night, his parents down the hall, her own completely oblivious to her whereabouts, all because he was supposedly having terrifying nightmares. And what did he do? He rolled over and acted like she was a life-size teddy bear. It was all she could do to stifle a nervous giggle.

The low knock on the door quickly squelched any desire she had to laugh. Liz froze, her eyes glued to the door.

"Max, Michael, you guys awake?" came the whisper as the door cracked open. Isabel poked her head in, then stopped, her eyes wide.

Liz knew she had to look just as surprised as Isabel did at that moment, but the fact that it was her and not Mr. or Mrs. Evans allowed her to continue breathing. "Michael's not here," she told her quietly.

"I kinda guessed that," was the soft reply.

"Isabel," Liz whispered. "It's not…"

"Don't worry," Isabel cut in. She smiled slightly and shook her head. "It doesn't matter what it is," she said with a grateful look. "Thanks."

Liz smiled back. It helped to remember that she and Max were both sleeping fully clothed, and on top of the covers. "He was asleep when I got here," she offered as her only explanation.

"I'll come get you early," Isabel said softly. "Before our parents are up."

"Thanks," Liz whispered back.

With one last smile, Isabel quietly shut the door. Liz closed her eyes and envied Max's restful slumber. She suspected she would be lucky if she lived to see the light of day.

*******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 7:48:26 AM

Part 5

********

Max's first thought when he woke in the middle of the night was that he had not been having a nightmare. His heart was beating normally, he wasn't drenched in sweat, he didn't feel as if something terrible was about to happen. Michael and Isabel weren't hanging over him, their faces etched with concern as they tried to shake him into consciousness. The relief was immense. Lying there, his eyes closed, he could tell it was still dark outside. His body, accustomed to being jolted awake in the wee hours of the morning, must have simply reacted from habit.

But, he had been dreaming, that much he knew. He couldn't remember what it had been about, other than it had been pleasant, and it had been about Liz, but then that was really all he needed. Something about the dream made it seem so real, it was almost as if Liz was right there. Still half-asleep, he imagined he could sense her, that he could feel her in his arms, soft and warm. He sighed, wondering if he would be able to fall back to sleep and recapture the dream - or if only more nightmares awaited him.

And then he felt it. A shifting so barely perceptible that he might have thought he imagined it. Except he knew he hadn't. And he knew he hadn't been dreaming. However it had happened, Liz was lying there beside him, wrapped in his arms, and she was awake. He could almost feel her listening, trying to determine if he was awake as well, could actually sense her reaching out with her emotions to see if he was all right. His heart skipped wildly.

He opened his eyes and looked at her. He had one arm tucked securely around her waist, as if even in sleep he was afraid she might try to run away. She was lying on her back, half-facing him, her soft hair spread over the pillow. Her soft brown eyes were watching him, her concern for him revealed in the moonlight. "Liz?" he asked.

"Go back to sleep," she whispered with a hesitant smile.

"But, how…"

"Shhh," she said, reaching up and placing a finger over his lips. Her smile trembled briefly. "Not now. Sleep. We'll talk in the morning."

His eyes flicked briefly to the clock, as if to measure the time remaining until he could expect his answers. Nearly four a.m. He looked back into her luminous eyes and gave her a sad smile. "You promise you'll still be here?" he asked quietly.

The hurt look that crossed her face was swiftly replaced by understanding. "I promise," she said. "I won't run away."

He caught the hand that had stilled his lips and gently kissed her fingers one at a time, before placing a kiss in the center of her palm. Then he pulled her neatly against his chest with her head tucked under his chin. Her silky hair brushed against his cheek and he lowered his head to kiss her on the forehead. When she snuggled closer, he relaxed, knowing that she would keep her promise. She would be there when he woke.

* * * * *

Liz Parker didn't want to move. The sunlight came streaming through the window, telling her in no uncertain terms that it was morning. Any minute now, Isabel would knock on the door to warn her it was time to leave. But she didn't care. Lying in Max's arms, listening to the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear, she could imagine everything was just the way it was supposed to be. She felt warm and loved and completely safe. As far as she was concerned, all four of their parents plus the National Guard could come storming into the room, and it wouldn't make the least bit of difference.

After a few moments, she realized Max was awake. She opened her eyes and found that he was watching her, the same way she had watched him during the night. He looked calm, rested, in control. And worried. Liz just sighed. She didn't want the day to begin.

As if he could tell she was reluctant to start answering questions, Max merely smiled. "Good morning," he said quietly.

"Good morning," she whispered, returning his smile, though in truth she felt more like crying. How could make him understand that nothing had changed? Would he believe her? Hell, she didn't believe herself.

As if in answer to her question, Max leaned in and brushed his lips over hers. It was the softest, most hesitant kiss Liz had ever experienced - more tentative even than that very first kiss they had shared on her roof - and she had been sure that was his first kiss ever. He was asking her a question. Her lips moved beneath his before she had a chance to think. And then she no longer could. Fireworks exploded in the back of her head as the kiss deepened, and the only thing she could do was hold on tightly and fly with him. His every feeling and emotion came pouring into her almost faster than she could absorb them - a rush of images showing just how desperately he needed her, bringing tears to her eyes. Her nerve endings were on fire as his mouth traveled down her neck, beneath her chin, over her cheeks and eyes. Then he was kissing her mouth again and she could taste her tears on his lips, and she was kissing him back, over and over.

A light knock on the door drove them apart. "Isabel," Liz whispered as they quickly sat up.

"Max? Liz?" Isabel's voice came tentatively through the door.

"It's okay, Iz," Max said quietly, trying to repress a smile. "We're awake."

The door opened slowly and Isabel peered in, her eyes travelling from her brother to Liz and back again. Whatever she saw seemed to satisfy her, because she merely nodded before disappearing back out into the hall.

Max turned to Liz and shook his head. "Okay, please tell me how it is that everyone seems to have known you're here, except for me?"

Liz looked at him questioningly. "What do you mean? It was just Isabel."

Max raised his eyebrows. "Where's Michael? Did he just not show up last night, or was he here and you sent him packing? I assume you know Michael's been sleeping here, since it's pretty clear you know I've been having nightmares."

Liz nodded, blushing slightly. "I had Maria keep Michael from coming over," she said.

"So Maria knows you're here too, then," he said. "Anyone else? My parents, maybe? Yours?" He started to laugh quietly. "Liz, just tell me what happened."

"I came to talk to you," Liz said, swatting him lightly on the arm. "That was all. How was I supposed to know you'd be asleep? Maria doesn't know I stayed the night. I told her I wanted to talk to you in private and that I'd have Isabel come keep watch when I left."

Max sobered. "Keep watch? What have they been saying about me?"

"That you've been having nightmares," Liz told him gently. "Bad ones. That you've been waking up screaming. And that you're in terrible shape afterwards."

"So, is that why you wanted to talk to me?"

"Partly," she said. "I thought maybe I could help. Distract you so you wouldn't go to sleep thinking about everything that's been happening, and then maybe you wouldn't have the nightmares. I was worried."

"But I had already fallen asleep. So why did you stay?" His eyes were serious.

Liz met his gaze without wavering. "I wasn't going to, but you started having a nightmare. I came in to calm you down. And I realized I couldn't just leave you alone all night without someone to wake you up if it got too bad."

"You could have asked Isabel, like you told Maria you were going to."

She didn't have an answer for that, because it was true. It hadn't been necessary for her to stay. But she'd wanted to. Max's eyes were still trained on her face as he patiently waited for her response. Liz dropped her gaze. "I couldn't just leave you like that, Max," she whispered. "Maybe I should have. But I couldn't do it."

"Why?"

One word, one question, but the answer was so complicated. Liz looked back up at him and shook her head helplessly. "I don't know," she said. "There were lots of reasons."

"No," he told her. "I don't think so." And suddenly they were talking about something entirely different. Max got up off the bed and started to pace. "Liz, I know that day was hard, that everything we learned was overwhelming. I understood why you ran, even though it killed me to watch you go. But I thought you would come back. That everything I told you the other night on your roof would sink in and we'd talk about it some more and go from there. I never thought it would take a bunch of bad dreams for you to be willing to talk to me again."

"Max, I don't know where to even start," she admitted softly.

"Start anyplace. Someplace. Please. I need to know," he said.

She nodded. "I guess….it was fear. Realizing how intertwined our lives had become and what repercussions that had for you. I told you that I wished we could go back, so I could stop you from saving my life. But that's just a part of it, Max. What happened that day, when you risked exposure because of me, we've been playing that out again and again for months. You keep putting yourself in danger, and whether or not you want to believe it, you can trace all of your troubles back to me."

"Liz, that's ridiculous," he started.

"No, Max," she broke in. "It isn't ridiculous. It isn't intentional, but it is real nonetheless. And Pierce was the worst," she said, looking away. "He never would have captured you if you weren't chasing after me. When Nasedo pretended to be you, he was just trying to get Pierce out of the way."

"We didn't know that," Max said.

"No, but it doesn't matter," Liz told him. "If we weren't involved, Nasedo would never have been able to use me as bait, and you never would have come after us. Pierce took you because I made you weak. And he broke you the same way. He used your love for me against you, Max, and I can't let that happen again. I won't," she said, her voice raspy from trying to hold back the tears.

"What?" Max took her by the shoulders and pulled her up off the bed, forcing her to look him in the eye. "What did you say?" he whispered. "Liz? Liz? Tell me, please….what you're talking about."

She couldn't answer. Instead she started to sob, the tears streaming down her face in torrents. Max looked at her, stunned. Then he sat on the bed, drew her down onto his lap and started to rock. He didn't need an answer. He already knew. His greatest fear…that Liz would somehow learn how Pierce had gotten through to him…had just been realized. And the irony was that no one had to tell her. Max knew exactly how she'd found out; he'd told her himself when he kissed her the night that he was freed.

It took a long time for Liz to stop crying. Max just held her, not asking any questions, nor demanding any answers. Eventually, she just started to talk. It all came pouring out, as if by admitting the worst of it she had unlocked the flood gates. "I know everyone thinks this had something to do with Tess," she said quietly. "But it doesn't. I can't pretend to like her, but I know she's not a threat. She's not the problem." She paused and took a deep breath. "I understand that there are only so many things in that message that you consider important, Max. It's those things that made me run. Until you activated the orbs, I thought the danger was over. You told Nasedo to take care of the FBI. Valenti knew the truth and was on our side. There was no one else after you - you were all safe. And then we heard that message, with all that talk of an enemy that followed you to earth, and suddenly I became a liability again. As long as you have enemies, there will be someone willing to use me to get to you. It would kill me, Max."

"Liz, it's worth any risk for me to be with you. You are more important to me than anything else in this world or any other. Please believe me. I need you, Liz."

"Part of me believes that, but part of me is so frightened of losing you. I'd rather know you're safe, even if it means I'm unhappy."

"What if I'm unhappy?"

"Maria said… that I wasn't being fair to you. That I couldn't just make a decision and not give you a say. That I had to trust you."

"Do you? Trust me?"

Liz buried her head in his neck, but her reply was still audible. "Of course I do."

"What about last night? Why did you come over here?"

"You know."

"Maybe. But I want you to tell me. Why you came. Why you stayed. Why you couldn't walk away and why you're here this morning," he coaxed. "I need to hear you tell me. Please, Liz."

"Max, please don't do this…"

"Do what?" he asked. His voice was gentle, but firm. "Why are you here? Liz, I can't afford to guess right now. I can't risk playing games. There's too much at stake and I need to know where we stand."

Her eyes filled with tears. He looked so serious, so strong, yet she could see the flicker of fear in his eyes. Suddenly she could sense his terror, the panic he was feeling as he waited for her answer, knowing that despite everything she might still walk away. And in that second she knew she couldn't do it. There was no way she could look him in the eye and tell him she was only there because she was worried, because she thought he needed a friend. She couldn't stand to hurt him by lying that way, anymore than she could stand to hurt herself any longer.

"I had to come. I couldn't stand knowing you were hurting so badly. I love you, Max," she told him, her voice just above a whisper, and watched as the fear flickered one last time before it disappeared.

"I love you, too," he said as he pulled her back into his arms. He held her tightly and she could feel the shallow trembling he was trying so hard to control.

For a long moment they sat there without speaking, their arms wrapped around each other. Occasionally, Max would kiss her gently. "I know this doesn't solve everything," he told her. "It isn't as simple as saying we're in love and walking off into the sunset."

"It's not?" she asked with the hint of a smile.

Max pulled back and looked her in the eye. "You said you trust me. And you love me. And you know I love you. But Liz, I trust you, too. I always have. All along. Even before you knew the truth about me. The things that have happened to us - the bad and the good - none of it is anyone's fault. It's just the way things turned out. You have been so wonderfully strong from the start, in the face of all of this craziness. I've hated to ask it of you - to put yourself in danger, to face the same things that Isabel, Michael, and I go up against every day. Because you don't have to do it, Liz. We were born to it - we have no choice. You… Liz, you deserve a safe, quiet life. Someone normal to love. The chance to do all those things I know you want to do. And I can't promise you any of that. I don't know what my future holds. I have no idea. Everyday I'm with you I feel incredibly lucky… and incredibly selfish. If anyone should be walking away, it's me. But Liz, I can't. I tried once. I can't do it. So I just keep telling myself that, if we love each other… well, maybe it's all worth it."

Liz leaned forward and kissed away the tears that were sliding silently down Max's cheeks. "I do love you," she said. "And you aren't selfish. My life has been so amazing since you came into it, Max." She offered him a wobbly smile. "I once read somewhere that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage. I'm beginning to think maybe it's true."

"Does your life seem particularly grand, Miss Parker?" he asked kissing her softly.

Liz sighed. "I guess you could say I'm feeling brave." She kissed him back, then pulled away. "But not so brave that I want your mother to find me here," she admitted. "I need to get home and change for school."

Max raised his eyebrows, then grinned. "School? Were you planning on going to school?"

"Max, it's the last day," she reminded him.

"Precisely my point," he said, scooping her off his lap and standing her up. "Not a thing going on. Exams done, papers turned in. What better day to play a little hooky?"

Liz saw the glimmer in his eye. She couldn't help but grin. "Okay," she said. "I give in. What should we do?"

"Something worthy of the best morning of my life," he said. Then he glanced at the clock and shook his head. "Let's discuss it on the way. Another five minutes and we'll never get out of here." Max kissed her quickly and began pushing her gently toward the window. "Meet me out by the Jeep," he told her. "I'm just gonna go tell Isabel she needs to get herself a ride to school again."

Laughing quietly, Liz climbed outside. "Max," she called back in a loud whisper.

He was half-way to the door, but he smiled and came back. Leaning through the window, he rested his forehead against hers. "What?" he asked in a soft, low voice.

"I love you," she told him.

"I love you, too, Liz," he said. "Always." He kissed her again, then playfully pushed her away. "Go," he said. "I'll be there in two minutes."

She flashed him one more smile, then disappeared around the corner.

* * * * *

Alex stood at his locker before school, scanning the hallway for any sign of his friends. Just when he was beginning to suspect that he was the only one there, he spotted Michael and Maria coming through the side door. Per usual, they were bickering, and he found that he took odd comfort in the sight of Maria tossing her head as she turned her back toward Michael and stomped in Alex's direction. Michael trailed after her, rolling his eyes. Unable to suppress a grin, Alex turned and busied himself with the contents of his locker.

"Alex," Maria said in a knowing voice as she approached, "all you have in there is your lunch, a picture of you, me, and Liz, and a really worn-out Nirvana tape. You're not fooling anyone."

"Sorry," he said, emerging from his locker still smiling. "So, what's up with you guys on this fine, sunny morning, which just happens to be the last day of school?"

"Can it, Whitman," Michael said impatiently. "Have you seen Isabel yet?"

"No, I haven't," Alex said slowly. "Why? Is something wrong?" He turned to Maria, suspecting she was more likely to answer. "What's going on?"

"Nothing," Maria said, then sighed resignedly when Michael glared at her. "Liz called last night to say she was going to go talk to Max and that Michael shouldn't go over to the Evanses' house. Now neither of them have shown up yet, and we haven't seen Isabel either." Her tone made it clear she saw no reason to panic.

Michael raked his hands through his hair. "You don't get it. Max has been getting worse each night. If he had a nightmare and Iz couldn't handle it, there's no telling what might have happened."

"The whole point of Liz going over there was to calm Max down. How do you know it didn't work?" Maria asked.

"How do you know it did?" Michael shot back.

Maria threw her hands up in the air. "You see what I have to contend with?" she asked Alex.

Michael shook his head. "What makes you so sure Liz could pull this off in one conversation, huh? You think just being with someone can make that kind of difference?"

"Yes, I do," Maria stated giving him a pointed glare. "Sometimes the *right* person can make all the difference."

Meeting her gaze, Michael backed off. "Fine. That still doesn't explain where everyone is, though, does it?"

"Uh, actually, there's one of the missing party now," Alex said, nodding toward Isabel who was walking down the hall in their direction. "Hey," he said, when she drew a little closer. "You're kinda late. Everything okay?"

"Yeah, fine," she said, taking in the three worried faces studying her. "I had to wait for my mom to give me a ride. Max took off in the Jeep," she said in response to the unasked question that hung in the air. "Early," she stressed.

Michael and Maria traded a look, then Michael spun away. "Hell," he muttered in the general direction of the exit. "So, what happened with Liz?"

Isabel looked hesitantly toward Maria, then at Alex. "Uh… actually," she said, "Liz was with him. I got the impression they had something better to do today than come to school," she added with a smile.

"What do you mean, 'Liz was with him'?" Maria asked slowly.

"Isabel?" Michael asked as he turned back and pinned her with a look.

Alex met Isabel's gaze and his eyebrows shot up. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

Isabel grinned and nodded. "Yeah. Liz spent the night. But before you go orbital on me," she said quickly, throwing Michael an icy glare, "she was just making sure he slept through the night, okay? Nothing happened."

"How do you know?" Michael asked.

"Not that it's really any of our business," Alex muttered.

Isabel smiled. "Trust me, okay? They were both fully dressed, among other things. Anyway, the point is, Max seemed to have an okay night, which was the idea, right?"

"Yeah," Michael said. "But what about the rest of it? I mean, are they together or not?"

Isabel shrugged. "I think that's what today is for. To figure it out. But my guess would be that they are," she said with a relieved look. "Max looked much happier this morning."

"Finally," Alex said. "Maybe now things can get back to normal." When three sets of eyes turned to him, he shrugged. "Well, aside from the enemy-aliens-attacking-the-planet part, of course."

Michael shook his head, grabbed Maria's hand and tugged her after him down the hall. Isabel grinned. "We're meeting later at the Crashdown, you guys," she called after them. "End-of-school dinner, okay?"

Michael nodded, not bothering to turn around. Maria waved over her shoulder.

"So," Alex said, snaking an arm around Isabel's waist, "you feel better now?"

"Yeah," she said. "I mean, I'm realistic. This isn't the end of our problems," she told him, growing serious. "But it's a relief to know we're going to face them together."

"Good." He stared into her deep brown eyes for a moment, as if puzzling something out.

"What?" she asked, leaning into him slightly. "What are you thinking?"

"I was just wondering… why you never tried to break up with me? I mean, I'm not complaining or anything," he said swiftly, "but I'm curious."

"You mean like Max and Liz or Michael and Maria?"

He nodded. "Yeah. You came back from seeing that message and didn't skip a beat. Didn't you question it at all? Whether it was meant to be?"

Isabel looked up and down the partially empty hall, then took Alex's hand. "Come on," she said. She pulled him to the eraser room and they ducked inside. After locking the door, she settled her arms around his neck. "This is a better place to talk," she told him.

Alex smiled. "So, are you going to tell me then?"

Isabel looked thoughtful. "Did I question whether we were meant to be," she repeated. "Well, I did think about it, but not then. I had been thinking about it for months, Alex. That's why I held you off so long to begin with. It wasn't that I didn't like you, or have feelings for you," she said quietly. "I just had to be sure. That I could take that kind of risk, open up, and be willing to stick to my decision. I didn't want to be constantly backtracking every time we learned something about ourselves that made me feel less… human. So I thought about it for a long time. I guess by the time we saw that message it didn't matter anymore. I had already considered what it meant to chose to be with you."

"You mean because of Michael and the dreams."

"Partly," she admitted. "But even before that, Alex. You were so sweet and patient. I could trust you, not just with our secret, but with everything. With the real me. And you weren't afraid of that. That day when I thought I was pregnant, and you told me you were there for me… you just reminded me of what I already knew," she said softly. "So, there wasn't any question in my mind when I came back from the pod chamber. I wanted the same thing coming out as I did going in. You."

Alex gently wiped away the single tear that threatened to slide down Isabel's cheek. He flashed her a bright smile. "I didn't ask to make you sad. None of that waterworks stuff," he teased. "I get enough of that with DeLuca and Parker." He leaned in and kissed her, an emotional, loving kiss that was in direct contrast to his light tone.

When the kiss ended, Isabel pulled back and grinned. "I should have gotten you in here months ago," she told him with a warm smile. "Come on. We better get to class." She slipped her hand into his and together they headed out of the tiny room and down the hall.

******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 7:50:08 AM

Part 6

*******

Max felt alive for the first time in weeks. He had dropped Liz off at home that morning just in time for her to sneak upstairs and change before her parents noticed she was missing. Twenty minutes later she had met him out front, a take-out bag from the Crashdown in tow, grinning from ear to ear. Now they were speeding down the road - just the two of them - and everything else had faded into the background.

"When was the last time we did this?" he asked.

"Skipped school? Uh…excuse me, Max Evans, but I happen to have a stellar attendance record," she said in mock indignation.

"I meant did something alone," he said, his voice low.

"I suppose it doesn't count if it involved being chased by the FBI, huh?" she said quietly.

"No, it doesn't," he said sternly. "And there will be no mention of any groups that go only by their initials today. Agreed?"

Liz let out a giddy laugh. "And here I wanted to tell you about my mom's PTA days."

Max grinned at her.

"Uh… eyes on the road, please," she told him, only half kidding. "We have a lousy track record in the romantic getaway area, as I seem to recall. I don't want to spend the afternoon in the Emergency Room."

He faced forward quickly, but he was still smiling. "So, you didn't answer my question."

Liz thought for a minute. "I'm not sure," she admitted finally. "I mean, first Topolsky showed up. And then there was the whole Tess thing…" She trailed off, shaking her head. "Let's just say we're over due and leave it at that. Where are we going, anyway?"

Max looked sheepish. "Buckley Point."

"Max! It's eight in the morning," Liz exclaimed.

"I'm not being…" He stopped, feeling himself growing unaccountably warm.

"Max Evans, are you blushing?" she asked.

"Liz, I'm not trying to… It's a beautiful day and the park should be pretty empty and I just wanted a quiet place for us to sit and talk," he managed finally.

"That's sounds nice," she said, letting him off the hook.

He risked a glance at her and was relieved to see she was smiling understandingly at him. "Thanks," he said.

"And we can have a picnic," she said brightly. "I'm not even sure what I brought," she admitted. "I just grabbed whatever was handy."

"I hope coffee was handy," he said.

"That, I remembered. And the Tabasco sauce," she added with a smirk. "After all, they say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach."

"You already have my heart," he pointed out.

"See? It's obviously working."

They were still laughing when Max pulled into a clearing at Buckley Point. He parked the Jeep near a small grove of trees and climbed out. After helping Liz out as well, he fished a blanket out of the back and they headed for a quiet shady spot in the grass. Within a few minutes they were spread out on the blanket and Liz was ceremoniously unpacking their breakfast.

"Ta da! Coffee," she said, pulling out a huge thermos and a stack of Styrofoam cups and passing them to Max. "And juice, too," she added, pulling out a quart of orange juice. She peered into the bag. "I may have gotten carried away," she said with a giggle. Out came four oversized muffins, a Tupperware container of strawberries, and a half-dozen hard boiled eggs.

Max laughed. "That's okay," he said. "I'm actually pretty hungry," he told her.

"Me too," Liz said. "I guess that's good. Maybe now my mom will stop glaring at me over the dinner table."

"Yours too, huh?" Max poured them each a juice, then looked around with a frown.

"Here," she said, shaking her head as she tossed him a little bottle of Tabasco. "I don't know how you can do that," she told him, wrinkling her nose.

He shrugged as he dumped a generous portion into his cup, turning the juice a fiery color. "No accounting for taste, I guess," he said with a wink.

They ate in companionable silence for a while, passing the food back and forth, Liz occasionally commenting on his sweet-and-spicy combinations. When she went to pry the lid off the strawberries, Max seemed to become hypnotized by her movements.

"What?" she asked when she caught him staring.

He raised his eyebrows suggestively. "Can't you guess what I think of when I see strawberries?"

Liz knew immediately what he was referring to, and that, plus the seductive gleam in his eye, had her flushing nearly the color of the fruit in front of her. "Max…"

"I know," he said agreeably. "But you're the one who brought them," he pointed out.

When they'd polished off the majority of the food, Max leaned back against the nearest tree and patted the grass next to him. Smiling, Liz scooted over and snuggled against him, her head resting on his shoulder, his arm wrapped around her. "This is nice," she said.

"It is," he agreed. "Thank you."

"It was your idea," Liz said.

"That's not what I was thanking you for," he told her quietly.

Liz tensed slightly in response to the serious note she detected in his voice. "Max," she said hesitantly, "I thought we agreed not to talk about…"

"I know," he said. "But we've put off talking about some things too long, Liz," he told her. "Part of it was just circumstance. Things kept happening so fast, we could hardly keep score, let alone go back and analyze our last moves. But I don't want to keep avoiding what needs to be said."

"Like what?" she asked cautiously.

Max sighed, pulling her closer. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "You brought up a few things this morning. Like Nasedo. Liz, what happened when he took you?"

Liz stiffened and tried to pull away, but Max wouldn't let her.

"Please tell me," he said quietly. "I need to know. Did he… hurt you at all?"

"No, Max," she said quickly, turning to look him in the eyes. "Nothing like that. It's just… he scared me. That was all. And the fact that he looked like you," she said. "It was so creepy to look at your face, into your eyes, and realize that there was… nothing there," she said quietly, resting her head on his shoulder again.

He hugged her tightly, stroking her hair back off her face. "I'm sorry you had to go through that," he whispered. "And I know it's scary to talk about it, but you need to. I don't want you to ever look at me again and have to doubt that I am who you think I am."

"I…" she trailed off helplessly.

Feeling the renewed tension in her body, Max stroked her head soothingly. "You what?" he asked. "Tell me, Liz."

"I keep thinking that I should have been able to tell the difference," she whispered. "How could I not know it wasn't you, Max? He has… no heart. Why couldn't I tell? I should have seen it in his eyes."

"Liz, there wasn't anyway you could have known," he assured her. "I saw him myself at the carnival, remember? It was like looking in a mirror," he said.

"By the time I figured out who he was, we were already half-way to Hondo," she told him.

"How did you find out? Did he tell you?"

Liz shook her head. "He… I…"

"It's okay," he coaxed.

"He pulled over and I kissed him," she said slowly. "I thought it was you…."

"Shhh… I know you did," he said gently. "It's all right. I understand. You kissed him and what?"

A shudder of revulsion went through her and she cuddled closer to Max. "He… he kissed me back. I know he had to, if he wanted me to believe it was you, but… he… it was like he enjoyed it. And I don't think it had anything to do with me. Later, when I asked him why he had to look like you… he said he liked being you." She buried her head into his chest, trying to keep herself from crying, concentrating on his strong arms wrapped protectively around her.

Max clenched his jaw, but forced himself to maintain his composure. He had a nearly irresistible urge to find Nasedo and somehow blast him into oblivion, but it was more important that he stay calm for Liz. She needed him to be there for her. Continuing to stroke her hair and her back, he murmured soothingly, dropping gentle kisses on her head. "I'm sorry, Liz. I'm so sorry."

Pulling herself together, Liz sat up and looked at him. "Don't be sorry," she said firmly. "It wasn't your fault." She met his gaze and saw the doubt there. "Max," she said, "I mean it. You couldn't have known, and you couldn't have stopped him, and I'm fine. Really."

He cupped her face and leaned in to kiss her determined mouth, coaxing a response from her. "You are an amazing woman, Liz Parker," he whispered, feeling her smile beneath his lips.

"You're not so bad yourself, Max Evans," she said, kissing him again. Then she pulled back, serious again. "There's more. You wanted to know how I guessed Nasedo wasn't you."

Max frowned slightly, but nodded. He needed to know and she needed to tell him. "Go ahead."

"I got a flash from him, Max."

"You what? Really?"

She nodded. "It wasn't anything like the ones with you. It was so… dark, barren. Frightening." She paused, clearly remembering, her eyes shadowed.

"Liz?" Max asked, brushing her hair back, bringing her out of her reverie.

"He… um… I pulled back and just looked at him," she said. "I couldn't even hide my shock. I didn't know what to think… just that something wasn't right. He asked me what was wrong and I said nothing, and then we started to drive again. I wasn't positive it was him until the next time we stopped. That was when you called, and he was taking something out of the trunk. He came back and took the phone… and I knew."

"He was pulling that agent's body out of the trunk, wasn't he?" Max asked slowly.

"Yeah, he was," she said.

"God, Liz," he breathed, taking her face in both hands and kissing her, then pulling her back down into his arms. "I swear that he won't use you again that way. Not ever. I made it clear what happens if he does anything to any of you."

"What happens, Max?"

"He becomes the enemy," he said simply.

Liz slipped her arms around his waist. "Is that why he was in the café that day? You think he was planning to do something to us?"

"No, I'm sure he wouldn't have hurt you," Max said quickly.

Pulling back, Liz looked him sternly in the eye. "Please don't lie to me," she said quietly. "I've accepted that we're in this together, all of us, no matter what the future holds, but you have to be honest with us, Max. No holding back because you're trying to protect us. No more secrets."

Max stared into her soft brown eyes for a moment, measuring her resolve. "Okay," he said finally.

"I know it's hard for you," she said, softening slightly. "But it's important. I will not stand by and let you destroy yourself in an attempt to keep us all safe, Max. You say you need me, well fine. But that can't only be when it's convenient for you. I swear not to do anything reckless, but I won't be excluded. We're a team."

"I'll do my best," he said honestly. "You just might have to remind me every once in a while," he said with a small smile.

"Starting now," she prodded. "Why was Nasedo watching us?"

He sighed. "I really don't know for sure, but I got the impression he was keeping tabs to see if the three of you were staying away from us."

"And if we hadn't been?"

"I'm not sure. But I believe he saw you as a threat. I wouldn't have put it past him to try to get you out of the way," he said reluctantly.

"Okay," she said, putting the fact away to absorb later. "Now, was that so hard?"

He smiled. "I guess I'm still breathing."

"Good. 'Cause this one's harder," she said. "I want you to tell me about your nightmares, Max," she said gently.

He froze, then looked off into the distance. Even in the light of day, with Liz curled beside him, his nightmares were not a topic he wished to discuss.

Sensing his fear, having anticipated his reluctance, Liz reached down and took his hand and squeezed. "Max, you have to talk about them. I know you were okay last night, but I can't just sleep with you all the time. There has to be some way to get rid of them for good."

Forcing himself to relax, Max turned and looked at her. Her eyes were warm with concern, her brow furrowed. He reached out and traced the lines on her forehead, smoothing them with his gentle touch. "In my heart, I know you're right," he sighed. "But it isn't that simple. For one thing, I never remember anything when I wake up," he admitted.

Liz raised her eyebrows. "No one told me that," she said.

Max shrugged. "I never told anyone. I mean, I know I'm having them. I wake up sweating and my heart's trying to leap out of my chest and I can barely stand up," he said quietly. "There's this sense of enormous fear, but I can't tell what I'm afraid of and the memory gets even fuzzier as I calm down."

"But it has to be about Pierce," she said.

"I know. But I still can't remember."

"Michael told Maria that you were calling out for me in your sleep," Liz said softly.

"He did?" Max rubbed his temples. "So that's how they really got you to come over, huh?"

"Max, I'm sure they didn't make it up just to get me to talk to you."

"No," he agreed, "I'm sure they didn't. That doesn't mean I'm happy about them using my nightmares to manipulate you. Much as I'm pleased with the outcome," he added with a warm look.

"They were worried." She reached up and stroked his cheek. "Max, have you talked about it at all? What happened at Eagle Rock?"

He shook his head. "I can't, Liz. Please don't ask me to. This isn't a question of keeping secrets or protecting everyone, because I know you saw a lot of it already when I kissed you that night," he said with a frown. "I just… don't want to think about it."

"Max, you're having nightmares about it. It's pretty obvious you're thinking about it, on some level at least. Maybe if you let it out, the nightmares will stop."

"I don't know," he said. "I keep thinking if enough time goes by…"

"What? You'll forget? Max, it's not the kind of thing that just goes away," she said. "It keeps getting worse. Please, talk to me."

"I… If I talk about it, it will be like going through it again," he said helplessly. "I'm just not ready for that, Liz." He looked into her deep brown eyes, his own suddenly damp. "I know you want to help, but please understand… you can't help me with this." A slight shudder shook his body, and he looked away.

Liz quickly crawled over Max until she was sitting on his lap, straddling his legs, and wrapped her arms tightly around him, pulling him to her so his head was buried in the side of her neck. She felt him shudder once more as his arms snaked around her. He clung to her desperately and they slowly rocked back and forth, his tears dampening her skin. As they continued to sway, she stroked the nape of his neck and whispered softly in his ear that everything was going to be all right, desperately hoping it was the truth.


******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 7:52:42 AM

Part 7

*******

After one final visit to her locker, Maria stood scanning the hall for Michael. He had promised to meet her as soon as school was over, so they could go hang out together until it was time to meet the others at the Crashdown. She frowned, wondering if he was annoyed with her over their argument that morning. It wasn't as if she wasn't worried about Max, too. She was. But she was also tired of panicking over every sign of trouble; for once she wanted to assume the best instead of the worst. Besides, she had faith in Liz's ability to get to the bottom of the situation.

Suddenly, an arm reached out of nowhere and strong fingers closed on her wrist. One yank and she went flying into the eraser room, only to find herself staring up at Michael in surprise. Before she could comment, however, he was kissing her, backing her gently against the utility shelving that lined the walls. Maria's eyes fluttered closed automatically and her hands found their way into his soft, spiky hair. She relaxed into his arms with a sigh, her previous thoughts forgotten.

"You do know that you're insane, right?" she murmured eventually, when he left her mouth to brush his lips over the delicate spot behind her ear. She shivered at the teasing contact, and her voice had an airy quality that took the sting from her words.

"Um… I've heard rumors," he mumbled against her skin as he trailed small kisses along the length of her jaw.

"Michael…," she said. "Uh… school's out. Over. We're free to go," she pointed out.

"Uh huh," he agreed, making no move to stop his exploration of her neck.

"As in, free to go do this somewhere else," she added, arching into his caresses.

Instead of replying, he kissed her mouth again, effectively silencing her. If his kisses prior to this had been gentle and teasing, this one was forceful - overwhelming her with emotions. When her knees buckled, Michael's arms were the only things that kept her from sliding to the floor. When he finally pulled back, she was too absorbed in the amazing tingling sensation she was experiencing to be annoyed at his pleased smirk.

Michael dropped a quick kiss on the tip of her nose, then rested his forehead against hers. "We have the whole summer to do this somewhere else," he told her.

Maria smiled at his teasing tone. "Don't tell me you're getting nostalgic over the eraser room, Spaceboy," she whispered.

"Maybe," he said.

"I guess it's hardly surprising," she murmured against his lips. "You've spent more time here than any other room in the school," she said.

"I think I had the right idea before," he muttered, pressing his lips firmly against hers. "Still the only way to shut you up," he announced between kisses.

She swatted at him half-heartedly, but she grinned when they finally broke apart. "Let's get out of here," she said. Taking his hand, she dragged him out of the room, then out of the building, not stopping until they were standing in the afternoon sunshine. "Now isn't it nicer out here?"

He raised one eyebrow questioningly, not bothering to respond. "So, now where?" he asked.

Maria shrugged. "Anywhere but school."

Michael pretended to think about it for a moment. "My place?"

"I'm parked over there," Maria replied with a mischievous smile and headed across the parking lot.

They hopped into the Jetta and Maria deftly maneuvered through the half-empty parking lot and down the street. The traffic was light and they didn't hit a single red light. Driving down Main Street, they passed the Crashdown and the UFO Center, but as they were rounding the corner to Michael's street, Maria slowed down.

"What?" Michael asked noticing her frown.

"Was Max supposed to work this afternoon?"

"No, he has the day off. Why?"

Maria pointed at the Jeep parked neatly next to the museum. She pulled over behind it and turned puzzled eyes in Michael's direction. "Why skip school only to end up here?" she asked.

He shrugged, but looked somewhat apprehensive. "Only one way to find out. Come on," he said, climbing out of the car. He waited for her to join him on the curb, then started for the doors.

Maria didn't miss the fact that Michael was less than thrilled to be going into the UFO Center. She knew it was unlikely that he'd been back since the episode with Pierce. It was just a measure of his concern for Max that he was willing to go in now. She gave his hand a comforting squeeze and was glad when he shot her a grateful smile. He knew she understood.

* * * * *

Liz peered curiously over Max's shoulder, marveling at the number of hits Milton's UFO search engine was locating for their seemingly simple request. She idly stroked Max's hair where it curled at the nape of his neck, until finally he reached up and gently stilled her hand. When she looked at him questioningly, he merely smiled and kissed her fingers.

"Am I distracting you?" she asked, more embarrassed than coy.

"Just a little," he told her. He could still see traces of concern in her eyes and knew the contact had been meant in a comforting way. It had taken him a long time to regain his control that morning, and he hated that Liz was worrying about him even now. Part of the reason he'd suggested coming by the UFO Center was to give them something practical to do for a few hours. He wanted to get their minds off the more emotional aspects of their situation, and cross referencing reported alien encounters with their own known powers seemed a good way to kill the afternoon without bringing up anything overly volatile.

"Sorry," she said, blushing slightly.

He smiled reassuringly. "I don't mind," he said quietly, placing her hand back on his shoulder.

Liz smiled and focused on the computer screen again. "I didn't think there'd be so many," she said.

Max swiveled back to the desk and frowned a little. "Most of these are probably hoaxes. Maybe a few will be of some use, though." He hit a few switches and tapped a couple of keys. The prehistoric printer started working noisily.

Liz made a face and put her hands over her ears. "Too loud," she mouthed.

With a wicked grin, Max pushed back from the desk and tugged her down onto his lap. "Allow me to distract you," he said over the churning of the printer. Liz's arms twined around his neck, and she smiled as he cupped his palms gently over her ears before pulling her closer for a kiss.

Neither of them heard the door crack open. Nor did they see Maria's quick start of surprise, or the grin that followed, as she turned and herded Michael back out of the office. Had the printer made slightly less noise, however, they might possibly have caught Michael's wry comment about horn dogs looking for a place to make out, just before the door closed firmly behind him.

* * * * *

Max and Liz walked slowly across the street toward the Crashdown, hands linked. While they were looking forward to an evening with their friends - to just having a normal night where they talked and laughed and pretended their world was safe - they were nevertheless reluctant to see their private time together end. Despite the tears, it had been a wonderful day, one that had allowed them to remember all of the things that drew them to each other and that strengthened the bond they shared.

As they drew closer to the café, Max stopped Liz with a gentle tug. "Liz," he said, "I need to ask you something."

She frowned at his serious tone, but nodded. "What is it?"

He gazed down the street, not meeting her eyes, and worked his mouth the way he did when he was about to say something that made him uncomfortable. "I know we said no more secrets," he began, "but I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell the others about what happened earlier."

"Is that all you're worried about?" she asked quietly, reaching up to cup his cheek and turn his face to look at her. "Max, I would never share anything that you said to me in confidence," she told him. "You were upset… and that was a private moment between you and me," she said gently. "I still think you need to discuss all of this with someone," she added. "If you can't talk to me, tell Michael or Isabel. You have to get it off your chest, Max, and you don't have the luxury of seeing a professional." She stepped closer so that she could wrap her arms around him, glad to feel his arms slip around her waist in return. "But I understand your not wanting anyone to know just how hard this is for you. They have an idea - they don't need the specifics," she said gently.

"Thanks," he said. "For understanding. I should have known you would. It isn't a matter of control, you know…"

"I know," she whispered. "You're hurting, and it scares you, because you've never faced something like this before. But Max, you don't have to face it alone. I don't even think you can."

Max sighed, nuzzling her neck as he pulled her a little closer. "Just tonight I want there to be no worries. School's out for the summer and we're all safe and together. That's what tonight should be about."

Liz pulled back. "What will we say when they ask? You know they will, Max. And what about tonight? Do you just go home and suffer through another bout of nightmares?"

"I got such a good night's sleep last night, it should keep me for a week," he teased.

"Max, that's not funny," she said, a little frown worrying her brow. "I mean it. What are you going to do? I can't sleep at your house again tonight. I'm on the breakfast shift tomorrow."

"Don't worry about it," he said. "I don't want you to risk getting in trouble, anyway. But I can only solve one problem a day. Who knows? Maybe I'll be fine tonight."

Liz looked skeptical. "I don't think it's that easy. And what problem did you solve today?"

He raised an eyebrow. "I got you back." Smiling at the rosy flush that graced her cheeks, he leaned down and kissed her on the mouth. "Now let's go join the others. If they ask, I'll tell them last night was an improvement. One step at a time, okay?"

"Okay," she whispered back, standing on tip-toe to brush a kiss over his cheek.

Walking through the front doors of the Crashdown, they immediately spotted their table, drawn as much by the noise as by the sight of Alex waving his hands dramatically in the air. Two smaller tables had been shoved together at the back of the restaurant, and the rest of their group was already seated, and laughing so hard they didn't notice Max and Liz approach.

"So, what did we miss?" Liz asked loudly.

"You mean besides school today?" Maria asked, causing Liz's eyes to grow wide as she quickly searched the café for her parents.

Maria just laughed. "Relax, hon, they're in the back. Grab a chair," she said, patting the seat next to her and wiggling her eyebrows up and down. "Come tell me all about your day. And night," she added with a wink.

Liz turned to Max with a groan and buried her face in his shirt. "Oh God, what was I thinking suggesting this?"

Max just patted her on the back and smiled. He turned her around and steered her to the chair Maria had indicated, then dropped down next to her.

"So, Maxwell," Michael began, shooting Maria a warning look, "get any sleep last night?"

Max sighed. "Yes, thank you. Though I can't say I approve of your methods," he added pointedly, including Maria in his glare.

Michael shrugged. "I'm just glad it worked."

Isabel frowned. "But for how long, Max? I mean, as happy as I am for you and Liz, do you think your getting back together is going to solve the nightmare problem?"

"I don't know, Iz," Max said. He turned to Liz, who shrugged. It wasn't as if she hadn't expected this conversation.

"Well, at least you've made some progress," Alex pointed out, earning a grateful look from Max. "And I for one think we've been spending way too much time analyzing the drama that is our collective lives. This is supposed to be a party."

Liz seized on his diversion and ran with it. "You're right, Alex. You guys, Alex, Maria and I have been having these end-of-school dinners every year since we first became friends. And I'm really glad that now it's the six of us here."

Max reached for the pitcher of soda that stood in the center of the table and poured glasses for himself and Liz. Then raising his, he clinked on the side with a spoon. "Okay, guys, I propose a toast," he said. He turned to Liz, his eyes intense. "To Liz Parker… who brought us all together and changed our lives. For the better."

Everyone raised their glasses and murmured their approval. Liz's eyes filled with tears. "Thanks, you guys," she said, though her eyes were pinned to Max. "I'd like to make a toast, too," she said. "To friendships, old and new. And to sticking together, no matter what."

As soon as they finished drinking, Alex cleared his throat as if in preparation for his own toast. "Okay everyone," he announced, "that was just way too serious, so I feel the need to lighten the mood. Again," he pointed out.

"And how are you going to do this?" Maria asked.

Alex winked at her. "You'll be interested in this one. I have it on good authority that we have a genius in our midst."

"Well, we all know Lizzie's smart, Alex…" Maria began.

But Alex shook his head quickly, cutting her off. "Not our Miss Parker, though she is undeniably made of quite stellar material. No, no, we're talking someone who's talents were previously unknown to us, one with a natural raw ability that is only now being nurtured and encouraged to develop," he went on.

"Enough, Alex," Isabel said. "What are you talking about?"

"It would appear that, upon the final tabulation of our final exam grades for the semester, one Michael Guerin has made the honor roll," Alex announced, quickly shoving closer to Isabel as he spoke, since he was unfortunately seated next to said Michael Guerin.

Four pairs of eyes opened wide and turned toward Michael, who looked down and mumbled something.

"Michael?" Maria asked. "Is it true?"

He looked up with a frown. "What? You think I'm some kind of idiot?"

"You know I don't," she said quickly. "But honor roll? How? I mean, you never pay any attention to school."

"Actually," Max said quietly, "Michael's been going to classes since he's been on his own."

"It's not that big a deal," Michael said, glaring at Alex.

"Yes, it is," Maria insisted, snaking one arm around him and hugging him. "I'm proud of you," she whispered.

"We're all proud of you, Michael," Liz told him with a smile. "So that makes this an even more special occasion," she declared.

Michael rolled his eyes, then threw Alex a disgusted look. "How'd you find out?"

Alex shrugged. "I was doing some hacking in the school files and stumbled across it."

Isabel laughed. "My boyfriend, the criminal," she said.

Alex turned to her, his mouth hanging open.

"What?" she asked.

"Did you just call me your boyfriend?" he stuttered.

Isabel smiled. "Well, what else would I call you?"

Alex shook his head, looking stunned, until Isabel caught his face in her hands and kissed him.

Maria and Liz smiled, Michael groaned, and Max laughed. "This is gonna be one hell of a summer," he said.


END

* * *

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."
-- Anais Nin


Continued in The Home Advantage