posted on 15-Sep-2001 7:57:39 AM

The Home Advantage
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; mostly for language and some suggestive behavior.
Feedback: Sure! Love it!
Author's note: This is the fourth in a series. I recommend that you read "You Can't Go Home Again" and its sequels, "House of Cards" and "Home Is Where the Heart Is", prior to reading this, or it won't make much sense.

* * *

Liz Parker stifled a yawn as she headed into the still-empty café. The first official day of summer vacation, and she had to work the breakfast shift, she grumbled to herself. Despite years of rising early, she would never be a morning person, and considering the amount of sleep she had gotten the night before, the idea of sleeping in was definitely more than a little appealing.

The gang's first-night-of-freedom dinner had lasted long past dessert, with everyone lingering to drink coffee and listen to Alex's seemingly endless supply of bad jokes and impressions. Once everyone had finally gone home and Liz had followed her parents upstairs, Max had reappeared on the roof outside her window and she had joined him there for some quiet time. Lying together on her battered lounge chair, they had stared up at the stars and whispered for hours. Eventually they had drifted into a peaceful sleep, thereby suspending the ongoing debate regarding what to do about his nightmares. For one more night at least, he slept without interruption, safely ensconced in Liz's arms.

Max had been awake at dawn. Liz had known the instant he had opened his eyes, but kept her own closed, too comfortable and relaxed to move. She had counted on his reluctance to wake her, hoping she might be able to lie there just a little longer, feeling his warmth wrapped around her like the lightest, most protective blanket. But he had simply picked her up, his arms flexing and lifting with no more effort than if she were a child, and gently carried her inside. Eyes still shut, Liz had wondered what molecules he had manipulated in order to maneuver her through the open window and into her room without so much as brushing her bare feet against the wall. Then he had set her down on the bed and she hadn't been able to feign sleep any longer, but instead had reached up and pulled him down beside her with a determined tug.

"Faker," he had whispered as she opened her eyes, his smile telling her that he had known all along.

"I was enjoying the ride," she'd replied, reaching up to kiss him.

He hadn't stayed long, however, both of them too conscious of her parents asleep down the hall. They had no intention of starting the summer off by getting grounded. So, Max had kissed her lovingly, and kissed her once more, then slipped from her bed, disappearing through the window into the early morning light. With him gone, Liz had been unable to fall asleep again, and so had dragged herself out of bed to get ready for her day.

She was scooping coffee into the filter when Maria came through the back door. Not bothering to fight her yawn this time, Liz flipped the coffee machine on as she threw her friend a little wave in greeting.

"Looks like you're gonna be your own first customer," Maria observed, gesturing toward the coffee pot.

Liz nodded. "Didn't get much sleep," she mumbled.

Maria's brows arched. "Really… and that would be because…?"

Rolling her eyes, Liz brushed past Maria and started checking the tables to make sure they were all set for the breakfast crowd. According to the clock, they had five minutes before they were due to open.

"Liz? Come on, girl. Spill."

"Fine," she said, coming closer to avoid having to raise her voice. "Max and I fell asleep out on the roof. It's no big deal, okay? But we woke up early so he could leave. Let's say I'm not thrilled with being on this morning." She rotated her shoulders, trying to get the kinks out, and made a face.

Maria smiled knowingly. "So," she began, her voice tinged with a hint of concern, "did Max sleep all right?"

"Yeah. No nightmares," Liz told her as she headed over to put the day's specials on the board. "I just wish I knew if he'd be okay sleeping alone. We *cannot* keep doing this," she said quietly.

"Well, obviously. You're bound to get caught. And somehow, after that whole night-in-the-desert thing, I can't see your mom settling for smacking Max on the head with a rolled up newspaper."

"Me either."

"So… what's Max doing while you're at work today?"

Liz shot her an incredulous look. "Did you really think he wouldn't tell me? I know they all went to Tess's house."

"Well, I thought he probably told you, but I wasn't sure."

"Maria, Max hasn't got anything to hide. He told me they were going to help her get ready to move, and that's fine with me."

"You're not at all worried?"

"I trust Max."

"It's not trusting Max that's the issue," Maria pointed out.

Liz leaned against the counter and sighed. "I think she's finally gotten the message," she said. "Max said Tess didn't try anything during the time we were split up. He told her that first day, after I left, that it didn't change things between them - that he doesn't feel that way toward her. It seems like she believed him."

"And you're willing to just accept that?"

"I don't have a choice. She's a part of all their lives, Maria, which makes her a part of ours. Alex said she's been making an effort. I know Max feels sorry for her, and I can understand that. I actually feel a little badly for her myself," she admitted.

"Liz! Are you nuts? Look at everything she did. All those tricks she pulled." Maria grabbed her by the shoulders and looked her directly in her eyes. "Liz Parker, have you lost your mind?"

"Maria, cut it out," she said, gently pushing her away. "I'm not crazy, okay? I just… I guess I've been trying to look at things from her point of view."

"Why?"

"Think how hard it must have been for her… growing up with just Nasedo." Liz shivered slightly. "Maria, he's so cold. How do you survive with someone like that for a parent? I mean, look at how difficult Michael's life has been, but at least he had Max and Isabel. Tess didn't have anyone. They just kept moving from place to place, never staying long enough to get caught, but never staying long enough to fit in, either." She shrugged. "Living like that, only having this idea of your missing family to hang on to all those years, I can see why she acted the way she did when she came to Roswell."

Maria nodded reluctantly. "Okay. When you put it that way. But I still don't have to like her."

"I didn't claim to like her," Liz said. "I just said I refuse to make a big deal when Max spends time in her presence."

"Just as long as it's not too much," Maria added.

Liz shook her head and went to unlock the door. She had just flipped the sign in the window so that the "Open" side faced out, when Jim Valenti stepped into the café. She smiled in greeting, glad she no longer worried at the very sight of him. She had hated always being suspicious of his motives when he came by, constantly wondering if he was looking for more than a refill of coffee for his thermos. There was something reassuring about having him know the truth, and knowing that he was on their side.

"Good morning, Sheriff," she said. "I just put the coffee on a couple of minutes ago. It should be nearly done."

He smiled in return, taking a seat at the counter and placing his hat on the stool next to him. "No hurry, ladies," he said, nodding in Maria's direction. "I think I'll actually have some breakfast here this morning."

Liz went to check the coffee while Maria brought him a menu and placed a cup and saucer in front of him. "So, Sheriff, what's the occasion? You're generally our best "to go" guy, assuming you don't want to grill us about anything," she said with a smile.

He let out a quick laugh. "Yes, I can see why you would accuse me of that," he said. "Well, I can't say as there is a particular occasion, frankly. Just thought it would be nicer to eat in your company than back at the station house staring at the computer. Bad for the digestion, you know."

Liz came over with the coffee and filled his cup. "What's Kyle up to this summer? He still training with the football team during the off season?"

Valenti nodded. "Doesn't start until after Fourth of July, though, so he's got some time on his hands. Hasn't really indicated what he plans to do, least not to me." He poured some sugar into his coffee, then looked up, pinning Liz with his bright blue eyes. "Seems to me he did mention to me that you and Max were having some problems." The eyes dropped again as he added a little milk and continued to stir. "I was real sorry to hear that."

Liz smiled at the Sheriff's gentle inquiry, knowing that only a few days earlier her temper would have snapped at this show of concern from yet another person. "Well, you don't have to worry about it," she told him. "Max and I… straightened everything out. But please thank Kyle for me. He said some very sweet things to me at school the other day. I'm afraid I wasn't too receptive at the time. But I do appreciate it."

"Glad to hear that things are working out," he said. "You kids having something admirable. All six of you, not just you and Max. There's a special bond there - I've never seen anything like it before. The way you depend on each other. The level of trust. Hold onto that," he said.

"We will."

"Good. And remember that you can come to me if you need to. I've told Michael and Maria, but I want you all to know. You can count on me."

"Thank you, Sheriff. That means a lot," she said softly.

He smiled, then took a sip of his coffee, wincing slightly at the sudden heat. Glancing down at the menu in front of him, he shook his head. "Well, what's good today?"

"Well, we have a waffle special," Liz said. "With strawberries or blueberries and a side of bacon."

"Sounds good. I'll have that then."

"Which kind of berries did you want?" Liz asked as she scribbled down his order.

"Whatever you recommend," he told her with a smile. "I trust your judgement."

"I'm partial to strawberries, myself," she told him, eliciting a muffled snort from Maria at the other end of the counter. Liz shook her head and went off to place the order, swatting her friend's butt with her order pad on the way.

* * * * *

Max pulled the Jeep into Alex's driveway and Isabel jumped out to get him. They returned a moment later, Alex looking puzzled. "I thought Michael was coming, too," he said as he slipped into the back seat.

"He's meeting us there," Max told him.

"But… didn't he stay at your house last night?"

"No," Isabel answered, her eyes on Max as she climbed in next to him. "In fact, there was a decided shortage of people at our house last night," she added.

Max glared at her, then backed out of the driveway and headed down the street.

Alex met Isabel's amused gaze as she grinned at him over her shoulder. He smiled back, nodding his comprehension. He was relieved to see the two of them engaged in light sibling banter, as opposed to the emotionally charged exchanges that had been the norm for the past few weeks. It was pretty obvious to him that Max hadn't made it back from the Crashdown until morning, something that just a few months ago would have had Isabel spitting fire. Her current reaction just proved how much things had changed, even while they struggled to restore them to normal. And though Max staying at Liz's could pose some new problems, at least it meant Michael had actually been able to sleep in his own apartment for two nights in a row.

Or so he thought, until Max parked in front of Tess's house. Then he wasn't too sure anymore. The three of them climbed out of the Jeep and stood on the sidewalk, gaping at the red Jetta parked in the driveway. Alex and Isabel traded looks, while Max just shook his head and chuckled under his breath.

"Isn't Maria working this morning?" Isabel asked slowly.

Max nodded, still grinning. "Yeah," he said. "She and Liz had the early shift."

"So, then, that would mean Michael has Maria's car - without Maria," Alex observed, his lips twitching.

"You don't think he took it again, do you?" Isabel asked, her tone almost hopeful.

Max started to laugh in earnest. Alex shook his head. "No, Isabel. Somehow I suspect Maria knows he has the car."

Isabel groaned, then whacked Max in the shoulder. "Cut it out," she told him. "Don't we have enough to deal with? What am I gonna do with the two of you? Maria's mother will beat Michael within an inch of his sorry life if she finds him sleeping there again, and the Parkers would string you up by the heels if they knew what was going on with you and Liz."

Max struggled to pull himself together, though her exasperated expression made it difficult. "Isabel," he said, fighting for his composure, "there isn't anything going on."

Isabel watched him, her brow creased, then just shook her head. "Try explaining that to Liz's dad when he walks in and finds you asleep in her bed, Max," she told him.

"Uh… actually.."

She closed her eyes. "No. I don't want any of the details, thank you very much," she said. Opening her eyes again, she shot him a warning look, then turned to Alex. "Come on. Let's get down to business."

She and Alex pulled a stash of trash bags and some broken-down cardboard boxes from the back of the Jeep and headed toward the house. Max gave up his attempt to explain and trailed after them, still clearly amused at the turn their lives had suddenly taken. He couldn't help but think there was something highly ridiculous in worrying that your girlfriend's parents might catch you in a compromising position, when you knew it was more than likely that an alien race was preparing to kill you.

They rang the bell and were a little taken aback when Michael answered the door a moment later. "What?" he asked when he saw their surprised looks. "You're late," he stated, as if that answered everything, then stalked off into the house, obviously expecting them to follow.

Isabel sighed and went inside, Alex on her heels. As Max stepped into the hallway and turned to shut the door, a delicate pattern of sunlight danced across the doorway, bouncing off the brass doorknocker before flickering out of sight. Frowning, Max looked out across the yard, his gaze searching the houses across the street, trying to determine where the reflection had originated. But there was no one outside and the houses themselves were quiet. Feeling as if something was not quite right, he waited a moment, keeping his eyes trained on the bushes that bordered the nearest property. Still nothing. Shaking off the sensation that they were being watched, yet not entirely satisfied, he backed into the house and closed the door.

He followed the sound of voices and discovered everyone in the kitchen with Tess, helping themselves to breakfast. There were bagels and cream cheese and a large bowl of fruit salad spread out on the counter, and a pot of coffee warming on the stove. Max turned to Tess, conscious that her eyes were on him, her look somewhat wary as if she was unsure of where they stood. The last time they'd spoken she had revealed more about herself than he suspected made her comfortable. "This is nice. You didn't have to go to so much trouble."

She nodded briefly, as if acknowledging the truth of his statement. "You guys didn't have to come help me," she replied.

"So, Michael," Isabel said, decidedly shifting the conversation, "how'd you end up with Maria's car?"

Michael turned from the bagel he was buttering and glared at her. "I borrowed it," he told her, carefully enunciating each syllable. "So I could get to work this afternoon without one of you having to give me a lift."

"When did you borrow it?" she asked.

"When?" he asked. "This morning. When I went by the Crashdown. Where she'd parked when she got to work." His eyebrows were arched and it was clear he had no idea what she was talking about until he registered the faint smile teasing her lips and caught sight of Alex trying to chew a hole in his bottom lip rather than laugh. "You're too much," he said, scowling at them. "Just because Max and Liz are attached at the hip, doesn't mean I have a death wish, all right. I've got enough to worry about without battling Amy DeLuca and her killer newspaper."

"Speaking of things to worry about," Max broke in, "did you see anything strange when you got here?"

Instantly alert, Michael shifted his gaze. "Like what?" he asked.

Max shrugged, keeping his tone casual. "Like someone watching the house, maybe."

"What do you mean, Max?" Isabel chimed in. "Did you see someone just now?"

"No. It was more like I felt someone - like a hunch." He turned to Tess. "Have you noticed anything?"

"No, I haven't. But then, I'm not around that much."

"Just the same, I'm glad we're going through this stuff and getting you packed up," Max said. "This place is too isolated. The Sunday paper should have some apartments listed. You should check them out." He glanced at Isabel, who nodded imperceptibly.

"Maybe Alex and I can go with you," she suggested immediately. "It'll be fun."

"Yeah," Alex agreed, catching on. "Besides, it's always best to take someone with you for this kind of thing. Don't want the landlord to take advantage of you."

But Tess had noticed the look that passed between Max and Isabel. "That's nice of you, but you don't really want to go look at a bunch of apartments with me. I'll be fine on my own."

Seeing the stubborn set of her chin, Max frowned. "No one is going to be doing anything on their own for quite a while," he informed her, then stared at each of the others in turn so they wouldn't think his words applied only to Tess. "I don't think I was imagining things just now. There's no telling who's out there. We go in groups, or we don't go at all."

"Max, that's not practical and you know it," Michael said. "I know we need to be careful, but we can't always be together. Like this afternoon. One of you plan to escort me to work? Then how do you get back? It's just unreasonable."

"You're right," he agreed. "But we need to try. Which means no checking out empty apartments alone," he said, pinning Tess with a look.

"Okay. I won't go by myself," she agreed, looking decidedly less argumentative.

"Good." He went and poured himself a cup of coffee and snagged a bagel from the platter on the counter, then looked at them expectantly. "So, let's get to work. It's too nice a day to spend the whole thing going through dusty old boxes, so the faster we get started, the sooner we'll be done."

*******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:00:00 AM

Part 2

*******

Normally busy at lunchtime, the Crashdown was mobbed, thanks to the influx of students liberated for the summer. Liz barely had time to catch her breath from eleven-thirty on, and when Michael arrived and joined José at the grill, she merely flashed him a quick smile as she hurried out to serve a table of five. Maria managed to sneak into the kitchen for a moment, but when she emerged, she merely shrugged at Liz's questioning gaze. By the time things finally quieted down enough for Liz to slip into the back, it was well after two.

"Hey," she said as she poked her head around the door. "How did it go this morning?"

Michael finished flipping the row of burgers in front of him before he turned to look at Liz. He had been both surprised and impressed when she had failed to make a fuss over Max going to Tess's house. The fact that she could trust Max, despite what had happened, amazed him. She had a strength of mind, a decided opinion about what was right and fair, that never seemed to waver. It was frightening how like Max she could be in that way.

"It went okay, I guess," he told her finally. He stepped away from the grill to escape the heat for a moment. "Never seen so much crap, though. All that stuff Nasedo's been trucking around."

"Like what? Max said Tess told him she had no idea what was in some of the boxes."

Michael shrugged. "Nothing all that interesting. Nothing to tell us about home, if that's what you thought. More pictures of Max, like the ones you found that night you were there. Plus pictures of me and Isabel, too. A lot of them." He scowled. "He must have been hanging around and following us for months. In some of the shots I was still living…"

"At your old place," Liz volunteered quietly when he trailed off.

"Yeah," he said. "Anyway, they were nearly done checking out the boxes when I left. I doubt they found much more than that."

"I'm sorry, Michael."

"It doesn't matter. I didn't really think there'd be anything. It would have been too dangerous for him to keep anything around that could be traced to the crash."

Liz just nodded, knowing he was more disappointed than he let on. Out of the three of them, he had been the most let down by Nasedo's apparent lack of knowledge - or at least his reluctance to share it - because he had had the highest hopes. "So," she said, "were they planning to stay long?" She winced when she heard the slightly hopeful tone to her voice.

Michael heard it too, but pretended that he hadn't. "No. Actually, they're probably gone by now. Max was going to run home and take care of some stuff. Said he'd meet you here tonight like you agreed."

"Okay, thanks." She watched as he started to flip the now-cooked burgers onto their buns. He was frowning intently. "Michael, did something else happen?"

He looked up, startled. "Why?"

She shook her head. "You seem to be thinking about something."

"Yeah, well, Max thought someone might have been watching the house today."

"Again? Was it Nasedo?"

"Search me. No one saw anything, including Max. He just felt like something was off. I think if he thought it was Nasedo he would have told us."

"But nothing else happened," she said.

"Nope. That was it." He slid the plates he was holding onto the counter and hit the bell to indicate an order was up. Then he turned to Liz, his expression serious. "Max is telling everyone to travel in groups again."

Liz couldn't help but smile at Michael's barely restrained displeasure. "You can't blame him," she said.

"We're hiding from shadows," he told her. "I'm all for preventative measures, but he's getting paranoid."

"You really think so?" she asked, her forehead wrinkled with concern.

"I don't know," he sighed. "It just seems he's pulling on the reins," he finished under his breath.

Liz heard him, despite the quiet tone. "He feels responsible for everyone's safety," she acknowledged. "You think he could be carrying things too far?" When Michael replied with a noncommittal grunt, she suddenly looked thoughtful. "Hmmm…" she mused, looking at her watch.

"What?"

"Oh, just seeing how long until the library closes," Liz said.

He shot her an odd look. "School's out, Liz."

She laughed. "Yeah, I know. What I want to look up has nothing to do with school."

Maria came into the kitchen, her face flushed, her hair drooping slightly. "It's going to be such a long summer," she sighed loudly. "It's one thing to serve the under-twelve crowd after school, but all day long falls into the category of cruel and unusual waitressing."

Liz smiled. "Come on, Maria. Shift's over. You'll feel fine the second you walk out that door."

Maria stared past Liz at Michael, the start of a smile just teasing her lips. Liz caught the look, then turned to find Michael staring back, his trademark smirk gracing his face.

"Um… I think I'm going to hang out here for a while," Maria said finally.

Liz smiled knowingly. "Okay. I'll see you two later, then. I have some things to take care of before I meet Max."

She left them virtually unnoticed and ran upstairs to change. Then she slipped out through the back door and headed for the public library. She felt a little odd, despite what she had told Michael, to be library-bound the day after school let out, and with research as her purpose. But Michael had gotten her thinking about Max - concerned about him again. She knew she would never convince Max to stop worrying about all of them, but that was hardly the most pressing issue on her mind. His nightmares were a far larger problem, and with the afternoon dwindling, she couldn't help but feel that she was racing against the clock. There had to be something she could discover that would help Max sleep peacefully.

On intimate terms with the Roswell public library since before she could actually read, Liz made a bee line for the computers in the back. Sitting at a workstation in a corner, where she would be less likely to be observed, she took out the pad of paper she had brought and opened it to a fresh page. Then she started running computer searches on nightmares, night terrors, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While the computer buzzed, she chewed on her pen cap, her eyes glued to the monitor. As the information started to scroll, her brown eyes darkened in concentration and she began to take copious notes. Somewhere in the blur of facts she was determined to find some answers.

* * * * *

Max arrived at the Crashdown earlier than he had planned, hoping that Liz wouldn't mind. They had left their plans casual, agreeing to meet at seven and see what they felt like doing, but the day had been stressful and he was acutely aware of having spent it entirely away from Liz. Spending his nights in her arms seemed to make him crave her that much more when she wasn't with him. It was like an addiction. More than anything, he wanted to spend a quiet evening with her, maybe grab some Chinese food, play a little pool. He smiled at the thought. It sounded so wonderfully normal. He cut through the café into the back and was somewhat disappointed to find only Maria, lounging in the doorway to the kitchen as she talked to Michael.

"Hey, guys," he said. "Either of you know if Liz is upstairs?"

Maria shook her head and Michael shrugged. "I think she went out for awhile," he said. "Aren't you a little early, Maxwell?" He shot him a quick look.

"Yeah, a little," he said, a frown wrinkling his forehead. "Wait, you mean she went someplace alone?"

Maria raised one eyebrow quizzically. "She just went to the library, Max. I doubt anyone's gonna attack her walking through the center of town in broad daylight."

"I guess," he said, trying to force his heart to beat normally. He rubbed the back of his neck, still worried. "I'll feel better when I get whatever information Nasedo manages to put together, but I don't expect to hear from him until Monday. I just want to know what we're up against."

"Chill, Maxwell," Michael told him. "One day at a time, that's all we can do."

"Since when are you the poster boy for patience?"

Michael smirked. "Since you became Mad Max."

"Cute," Max remarked.

Maria grinned. "You two need to get out more."

"That was the idea," Max commented. "Any idea when Liz thought she'd be back? And what did she need to go to the library for, anyway?"

"Mmmm…she shouldn't be too much longer," Maria said. "And I'm sure she was just picking up her summer reading or something," she hedged. "You know Liz."

"Who knows Liz?"

They turned to see Liz coming through the back door, her knapsack slung over one shoulder.

"Max does," Maria replied.

Liz's eyes lit up when Max stepped out of the kitchen and into view. "Hey," she said softly, going over and kissing him, at which point Maria quickly retreated further into the kitchen and let the door close behind her. "How come you're here already?"

"I thought maybe we could get an early start," Max told her.

"That would be nice. Any idea what we're doing?" she asked with a teasing smile.

"How does Senior Chow's sound? Some corny fortune cookies. You can whip my ass at pool again. What do you say?"

"I say it sounds perfect. Let me clean up a little and we can go."

He kissed the tip of her nose. "I'll be right here." As she turned to head upstairs, his eyes fell on her bag. "Liz?"

She stopped on the steps and turned back. "Yeah?"

"Maria said you were at the library. On the first day of summer vacation?" he asked.

"I was just working on a project," she said cryptically. "I'll fill you in over dinner." She dashed up the rest of the stairs and disappeared into the apartment.

The kitchen door swung open and Maria emerged, clearly having been listening for Liz's feet on the steps. "I've gotta go talk to her about something," she told Max, heading for the stairs. "I promise I won't keep her," she added with a quick grin.

Max shook his head and went into the kitchen to talk to Michael.

Michael happened to catch the look on his friend's face. "What?"

"Women," he replied, sounding puzzled.

Michael snorted. "Yeah, whatever."

"You'd think growing up with Isabel would have helped us understand them at least a little, wouldn't you? It's like they keep changing the rules."

"The rules, the signals, the entire game," Michael muttered. "They do it on purpose, so we don't get too comfortable."

"You think?"

"What are you complaining about? I thought you and Liz were practically at the mind-reading stage."

Max shrugged. "Sometimes I think I know exactly what she's thinking, Others… well… suffice it to say that I don't."

"Give it up, Maxwell. Just go with the flow. You can't analyze everything in your life. There aren't enough hours in the day."

"I suppose."

"Speaking of hours in the day, you want me to come over tonight?"

Max knew what he was asking. The last two nights Michael had been on his own thanks to Liz, but it was pretty clear that wasn't an ongoing arrangement. He hated relying on Michael or anyone else to make sure he slept through the night. It was such an imposition, and it made him feel so helpless, to have someone watching over him, ready to shake him awake if he started to thrash or to call out. Still, despite his having slept soundly for the last two nights, he wasn't entirely sure he would do so again without Liz tucked in beside him, and he was not going to risk either of them getting caught in bed together, no matter how innocent the circumstances.

He looked up and found Michael watching him, the expression in his eyes unreadable. Max merely nodded. "Thanks," he said.

Michael shrugged it off. "No problem. I'll be around later then." He turned back to the grill, leaving Max wondering exactly what Michael was thinking.

* * * * *

Maria tapped on the door to Liz's bedroom, then went inside without waiting for a reply. "Hey," she said in a hushed tone. "So, how'd it go?"

Liz turned from her perusal of her closet with a sigh. "I'm not sure," she said. "I found a lot of information, but I have no way of knowing what pertains to Max. He seems to have symptoms of a bunch of different things."

Maria dropped onto the bed and curled one leg under her. "Like what?"

"Well, nightmares are definitely a common reaction to trauma, but the physical symptoms he has - waking up sweating and screaming - those are generally connected to something called night terror. But, night terror tends to happen to children, and they mostly out grow it by the age of ten." She reached into her closet and pulled out a sundress, stared at it a moment, then threw it on the bed next to Maria with a distracted frown.

"What about that other thing you mentioned?" Maria asked. "The stress disorder the Vietnam vets got."

"Post-traumatic stress disorder," Liz supplied. "It's too early to tell. Anything happening to Max now is just an understandable reaction to being tortured," she said quietly, her eyes clouded with emotion. "If the nightmares persist, then it might turn into PTSD."

"How long 'til we know if it's that?"

"Six months."

"Six months? That's insane," Maria muttered. "So, what else. Was there anything on how to cure him?"

Liz sank down on the bed, ignoring the fact that she was wrinkling her dress beneath her. "Mostly what we've been telling him. He needs to talk about it. I mean, there are other things, but they're out of the question. Drugs. Hospitalization." She shuddered and bit down on her bottom lip. Maria reached out and put an arm around her shoulders and Liz allowed her to draw her down so her head was in her lap and she was stroking her long hair. "I just don't know what to do, Maria. If he won't talk to us, there's no other viable option."

"Liz, it'll be okay," Maria soothed, her fingers combing Liz's hair off her face. "Max isn't that bad. It's not like those guys who go around talking to trash cans in alleys and thinking they hear gun shots, right? He's having some really awful dreams, but you said yourself that it was understandable."

"But so much of what he's experiencing is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. The nightmares. Distress at anything that reminds him of the trauma. Difficulty concentrating. The cold sweats. Anxiety. What if his… biological differences… mean that the time table speeds up? He could be really sick, Maria, and we'd have no way to know."

Maria didn't allow herself to be fooled by Liz's relatively calm tone. "Liz, hon, think what you're saying. He doesn't want to talk about what happened. He doesn't want to think about it. He's feeling anxious. Well, of course he is - the guy went through hell only a couple of weeks ago! And yeah, he was having trouble concentrating, but that was when you guys were broken up, and in the middle of finals. I think he seems a lot better."

Liz sat up and looked Maria in the eye. "You do?"

"Yeah, I do. Talk to him, Lizzie. Tell him what you found out. He's a reasonable guy, despite the controlling thing," she said with a smile. "Sure, he was in pain and terrified and he's had a lot to deal with, but he'll listen to you. He's strong, Liz. Or else he wouldn't be functioning as well as he has been."

"That's true. I feel so helpless, though."

"Don't. You're doing everything you can to help him. And we'll all help. Whatever it takes. Michael said he'd probably sleep over there tonight, so you don't need to worry about Max being alone."

"Thanks," Liz said.

"Now why don't you stop ironing that dress with your butt and go put it on, before Max comes looking to see what I did with you," Maria said, grinning when Liz leapt up as if said dress was on fire.

She grabbed the hanger and sailed into the bathroom. "Maybe I'll just give him the information I printed out," she called back. "That way he won't feel like I'm pushing him and he can read it and draw his own conclusions." Her voice was temporarily muffled as she drew the dress down over her head. A moment later she emerged, pulling her hair free from the neckline. She twirled quickly. "What do you think?"

"The dress or the theory?"

"Both," Liz replied, making a face.

"Love the dress," Maria said of the casual red print. "The theory makes sense. Like I've said before, he's a smart guy. He'll figure it out."

Liz crossed to the mirror and quickly brushed her hair, but she was frowning worriedly. "I hope so. He can be so stubborn."

Maria laughed. "So can you."

"I guess," she agreed reluctantly, but some of the tension eased from her face. "I should get going." She turned and dug through her backpack, pulling out a sheaf of papers. Then she grabbed her purse and, folding the papers carefully, tucked them inside. She turned and caught Maria in a tight hug. "Thanks," she whispered. "You're the best."

"Any time," Maria said, wrapping her arms tightly around her. "Good luck."

"I'm gonna need it."

******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:01:41 AM

Part 3

********

Isabel watched Alex as he studied his menu, her own forgotten where she had propped it against the table. He had an intent look in his bright blue eyes, as if the choice of pasta was vitally important. That was part of what drew her to him; whatever he was doing always had his full attention. She smiled, recalling how mysterious he had been about their evening. He had asked her to dinner, but when she had wanted to know where they were going he had merely given her a smug smile and replied, "Not the Crashdown." It had been impossible to pry even the tiniest hint out of him. But then that morning he had been forced to ask her to drive because his mother's car was in the shop. One look and she knew he was crushed at the prospect of his surprise being spoiled, so when she'd gone to pick him up, she had simply handed him the keys to the Jeep with a smile and allowed the mystery to continue for the ten minutes more it took him to drive to Figaro's.

It was a nice little Italian restaurant - not exactly upscale, but definitely a step up from an alien-themed burger joint. There were checkered cloths on the tables and happy bunches of daisies in San Pellegrino water bottles. She wondered idly if someone had the imported water brought in from Albuquerque, since she doubted it was sold anywhere in Roswell. The atmosphere was pleasant, with low music and soft lighting. There were several couples at nearby tables, but also some families and one or two people eating alone. A delicious aroma came wafting from the kitchen, and Isabel quickly lowered her eyes to scan the menu, suddenly realizing how hungry she was.

"You know what you want?" Alex asked. He had been surreptitiously watching her as her eyes took in their surroundings, and he couldn't help but be pleased at the contented smile on her face.

"Hmmm," she mused. "I was thinking maybe the sausage and peppers," she admitted, realizing as she said it exactly how un-Isabel-like a meal it sounded. She should probably have said something like the chicken marsala or the scampi - some light and ladylike entrée. But when she looked up, Alex was grinning at her.

"Sweet and spicy?" he asked.

She laughed. "Yeah," she agreed with a little nod. It was so nice to be understood. "What are you having?"

"Spaghetti and meatballs," he said decidedly.

It was her turn to grin. "With a root beer?"

"The beverage of champions," he told her.

"So, how did you chose this place?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Pretty much the whole world likes Italian food. And I thought it would be nice to eat someplace where we weren't friends with half the wait staff for a change. Besides, DeLuca keeps complaining that I never order anything different."

"So, what do you usually eat here?" Isabel teased.

His eyebrows shot up in mock indignation. "I'll have you know that sometimes I order the spaghetti with just plain meat sauce," he informed her.

"How daring of you," she said.

"Hey, I get plenty of adventure in my daily life," he replied. "No need to add any excitement to my diet."

The waiter came over and took their order, then returned with their drinks and a basket of buttery garlic bread. They fought over the ends, with Isabel winning, and sat munching quietly for a few minutes. Alex played with his straw, using it to push the ice cubes down to the bottom of the glass, then watching as they bounced back up like little icebergs in the middle of the root beer. Isabel watched him, amused, then curious.

"What are you thinking?" she asked finally.

He looked up, startled. "Sorry," he said with a smirk. "I guess I was a little out of it. I was just thinking about stuff," he said.

She nodded. "Stuff" in the Alex handbook generally referred to something alien-related that couldn't be discussed in public. After his couple of slips, he had become extremely conscious of what he said when there were other people within hearing. "Is this something I should be worried about?"

"Nah," he said with a smile. "Just me being me. So, listen. What are you doing tomorrow? 'Cause it's supposed to be a really gorgeous day and I thought maybe a picnic?"

"I'm sorry, Alex. We're going out to the quarry tomorrow afternoon as soon as Michael gets off work," she said. She knew she didn't have to tell him what they were doing at the quarry. They hadn't had much time to work on their powers while they still had school, and now Max felt the need to put a concerted effort into playing catch up. Except for the days both Max and Michael were working, they had managed to schedule a practice session virtually every day for the next week.

"That's okay," he said understandingly.

"Maybe we can do something later?" she asked.

"That would be great," he said. Then, "As long as you're sure you want to."

Isabel frowned. "Why wouldn't I?"

"Well… I… uh, know we've been spending a lot of time together the last couple of weeks," he said quietly, toying with his straw wrapper and avoiding her gaze. "You can tell me if you don't want to do something, you know. I won't be hurt."

She reached across and put her hands over his, as much to still his fidgeting fingers as to reassure him. "Alex, I like spending time with you," she told him. "And I know I can tell you if I'd rather not do something. Didn't I just tell you that I needed to do something else tomorrow? But I wouldn't have suggested getting together tomorrow night if I hadn't really wanted to see you." She frowned. "That day I told you that you were suffocating me - I was so confused about how I felt and the way I suspected you felt that I just pushed you away instinctively. I didn't mean to hurt you, Alex."

He looked up, his eyebrows drawn together, but the expression was one of puzzlement. "What made you think of that just now? That was months ago."

"I… don't know. It just popped into my head."

Alex's eyes dropped to their joined hands. "Iz, that's exactly what I was thinking about - that day. I wasn't thinking that you felt suffocated now, but I wanted to make sure you knew that I'd understand if you needed alone time. You know, that I wouldn't think it was like that day if you told me to just back off for a while."

Isabel looked down to where their fingers were twined together in the middle of the table and smiled. "I know," she said softly. She squeezed his hand and felt him respond.

"So, was that one of those…."

"Flashes?" she supplied. "Yeah. A little one," she added. "Normally I would get a mental image. This just kind of fed me your thoughts. It was so fast, I guess I didn't even realize. Does it bother you?" she asked cautiously.

"Bother me?"

"That I might… know what you're thinking sometimes. Just by touching you."

Alex smiled at her. "You already know what I'm thinking most of the time," he said. "What's a little more insight between friends?" He leaned across the table and brushed his lips against hers. Pulling back, he grinned. "Not to mention a little garlic."

Isabel laughed, relieved. "Make that a lot of garlic," she told him, breaking her hold on him long enough to reach for the bread basket with one hand. "I see what you mean about not needing any excitement in your diet," she added quietly. "Things certainly are an adventure these days."

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he told her.

* * * * *

Max watched as Liz lined up her next shot. He loved her careful analysis of the angles, how she leaned over the pool table and took each ball into account before deciding what move to make, the way she brushed her hair back with an annoyed swipe when it drifted into her face and obstructed her view. But even as he observed her systematically consider her options, he knew she wasn't concentrating fully. It was obvious to him that she had something else on her mind. Not that she wasn't still beating the pants off of him, but her game wasn't up to its usual pool-shark standards. She seemed distracted and, since she had diligently steered their dinner conversation away from the topic of her library project, Max had to assume that was the subject worrying her.

He would bring it up if she didn't, but not yet. Right now he was enjoying the evening too much to ruin it with talk of danger and aliens and destiny. Whatever Liz had to say to him, it was clear she was reluctant to discuss it, and he knew that discussion, no matter the topic, would lead to his own warning about going off alone now that he suspected they were being followed again. It would probably start a long, drawn out disagreement, with both of them stubbornly holding fast to their opinions, their respect for each other the only thing outweighing their concern.

So, instead of saying something, he just watched as she sank another shot, flashing her a smile when she glanced at him, a twinkle in her eye. It was one of those inexplicable moments where he was conscious of loving her so much it hurt. His heart squeezed, trying to contain the emotion, but failed, and it flooded his body, traveling though his blood stream until he could feel it in every limb. The fact they were standing there, together, despite who he was and all that had happened, was nothing sort of a miracle.

Liz dropped two more balls in quick succession, then took aim once more. The eight ball went shooting across the felt and fell neatly into the targeted pocket. She stood and stretched, a satisfied smirk on her face. Then she saw Max's expression. He looked like he was remembering something - like he was in pain. The next moment she was in his arms. "What?" she asked, her voice tinged with concern. "What is it?" When he just held her tighter, she stroked one hand up his back, twining her fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck. "Hey, it's okay," she soothed. "You played much better this time," she teased gently.

He pulled back and smiled at her, the tension gone. "You were going easy on me," he said. Then his eyes darkened briefly. "Do you have any idea how much I love you?" he whispered.

Her eyes moistened and she nodded. Standing on tip-toe, she pressed her lips against his, kissing him hard. "I love you, too," she whispered back when she pulled away. "More than anything."

He rested his brow against hers. "What do you say we get out of here? Go someplace where we can talk."

"We haven't had our fortune cookies," she pointed out, relieved that his mood seemed lighter.

"We'll take them with us."

"Okay," she agreed. "My roof?"

"Yeah. Let's go."

* * * * *

The Crashdown had gotten quiet and Michael was bored. Maria had gone home when the dinner rush started, promising to come back later when things slowed down, but now that virtually every customer had vanished there was still no sign of her. Though he would have dunked his head in the fryer before admitting it, he missed her constant jabbering. Neither Michelle nor Tracy, the waitresses working the closing shift, provided much in the way of conversation, which was fine with him. It wasn't the sound of a voice he was itching for - it was the sound of Maria's voice.

But he was getting restless waiting for her. Each time the little chime over the door sounded, he found himself poking his head into the café to see who it was, though he knew it was more than likely she would come in through the back. He even debated calling her, then decided against it. God, I'm getting as paranoid as Max, he thought. The problem was, he actually was as paranoid as Max. Hadn't he trailed Maria all over town when Nasedo showed up? He rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head. He was really losing it.

The sound of the door chime had him peering thorough the pass-through window again. It was less than an hour until closing - late for new customers. He was surprised to see Tess come in and sit at the end of the counter. She caught his eye and smiled. He nodded in reply, but stayed where he was. Spending the morning at her house had been more than enough quality time for one day, as far as he was concerned. Maybe she was trying to fit in, but he wasn't ready to trust her quite yet. He watched as Tracy went over to take her order, then brought her a cherry cola before heading back to hand him the order slip. He was glad for something to do, even if that something was cooking a chicken breast for a Flying Alien special for Tess. Throwing it on the grill, he coated it with a layer of extra spicy barbecue sauce and stood watching it sizzle. A smirk crossed his face when the door to the kitchen squeaked open.

"What took you so long?" he asked.

"Miss me?" Maria asked as she leaned against the door frame.

He looked up and grinned. "You'd like to think so, wouldn't you?"

She shrugged. "Sorry. Got grilled by Mom," she said with a sigh. "'Where are you going? How late will you be?'"

"I'm sure she was thrilled when you told her you were coming to see me."

"My mom likes you," she insisted. "She just doesn't completely trust you," she added with a smirk. "Or maybe it's me she doesn't trust. I'm not too sure."

Michael flipped the chicken over, then wiped his hands on a towel and headed toward the door. He slipped his hands around Maria's waist and pulled her close for a kiss. "Mmmm… she's smarter than I thought," he murmured, kissing her again.

Maria wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back, then pulled back and gave him a hard shove. "Watch it, buddy. That's my mother you're talking about." But she had a smile on her face. "So, is it dead out there?" She turned and peered through the diamond-shaped glass in the café door. Almost immediately she turned back, nose wrinkled. "Tess is here."

"I know," he said, heading back to the grill. "She just got here. I guess it must get old eating home alone," he commented.

Maria caught the look on his face and thought briefly of all the nights he did just that. The frown was replaced with a look of sympathy, though even she wasn't entirely sure to whom the sentiment was directed. "I'll go talk to her," she said and sauntered through the door, leaving Michael staring after her in surprise.

Michael felt a brief flutter of panic. He didn't know what he had expected of her, but it wasn't this. Quickly, he flipped the chicken onto a roll, threw some lettuce and tomato on top, and slid a pickle onto the plate next to it. A handful of chips followed, and he turned and hit the bell on the counter to signal the order was ready. He was just in time to see Maria slip onto the stool next to Tess who looked up from her magazine in obvious surprise.

"Hi," Maria said. "Mind if I join you?"

"Uh… no," Tess said. "Hi."

"I hear you're going apartment hunting with Isabel and Alex on Sunday."

"Yes, I am."

"That should be fun. I remember when we all went to find Michael's apartment. I'm glad you're taking Alex along. Just between you and me, he's a little more realistic than Isabel. She'd have you in some three bedroom duplex with a Jacuzzi in the master bath," Maria told her.

Tess just stared at her, blue eyes wide. "Uh…. right. Yeah, it was nice of them to offer to help." She looked up as the waitress appeared with her dinner. "Thanks," she said. She turned hesitantly to Maria. "Did you want to order something?" Tess asked.

Maria shook her head. "I'm good. Just waiting for Michael to finish up."

The front door opened and Maria turned to see Max and Liz walk into the café. They headed for the counter, Max looking concerned to see Maria and Tess sitting side-by-side, and Liz with her eyebrows arched questioningly. Maria smiled and gave them a little wave.

"Hey," Max said. "What's up?" His eyes skipped to Tess, who seemed to be at a loss.

"Not much," Maria said. "We were just talking about Tess's upcoming apartment search. I was telling her Alex will keep things reasonable, or else Isabel would have her in something way out of her price range."

Max nodded and squeezed Liz's hand, as if questioning what they should do. Liz just smiled. "So, Tess," she began, aware that this was their first conversation in weeks, "do you have any idea where you want to live?"

"Not really," she replied. "I guess I don't have much to go by. It's not like I'm that familiar with Roswell. And I should also get myself some sort of job."

"I thought you were okay for money, what with the house and everything?" Max said with a frown. "Didn't… uh… your father set things up for you?"

Tess nodded. "There is plenty, but I just thought I should try to conserve it as much as possible." She dropped her voice to a whisper. "In case we need it for an emergency," she said.

"Right." Max looked embarrassed.

"It's nice of you, Tess," Liz said. "I mean, to think about Michael, Isabel, and Max that way. To think ahead," she said quietly, her tone sincere.

Tess shrugged. "I guess it really goes for all of you," she said, meeting Liz's gaze. "If we're all in this together, that is," she said.

Liz felt Max's arm slip around her waist and could tell he was smiling. "Thanks, Tess. I think maybe we are."

Maria watched the exchange between Liz and Tess and felt that maybe things would finally work out. Remembering her conversation with Liz earlier, she cleared her throat hesitantly. "Uh… Tess? My mom might need someone to work in her shop, if you're interested. I could check with her."

Tess turned to Maria, her eyes once more round with surprise. "You'd do that for me?"

"Yeah, why not?" Her eyes narrowed. "But you can't go doing anything to her, okay? She doesn't know anything about any of this."

"Maria!" Liz said, grabbing at her hand.

"What?" she asked Liz. "I'm not saying anything wrong," she insisted. "So," she continued, turning back to Tess. "Would you like me to ask her?"

"What kind of store is it?" Tess asked. "Just out of curiosity."

Liz suppressed a giggle, but Max started to laugh. Maria smiled and shrugged.

Tess started to smile. "I guess it was a silly question. I'm assuming we're talking something with an alien theme, aren't we?"

"If there is an alien doo dad within a thirty mile radius, Maria's mother sold it," Michael volunteered from where he had come up behind Maria unnoticed.

"What?" Maria snapped, spinning on her stool and swatting at him. "You have a problem with what my mother does for a living, pally?"

Having seen Michael and Maria in action often enough to know when an argument was brewing, Tess jumped in. "Maria, I'd be really grateful if you would ask your mom if she needs any help," she told her. "And thanks."

Maria turned back, softening. "You're welcome."

"I guess this makes you official," Max remarked. "We all work at some sort of alien-themed tourist trap - at least those of us who work," he said with a grin.

Michael snorted. "The day Princess Isabel gets a part time job is the day I give up looking for little green men."

"Hey, she did cover for me here that time," Liz pointed out in Isabel's defense.

Michael shook his head. "Doesn't count."

Max laughed. "But it was worth it to see her in the uniform." He slipped his hand into Liz's and gave a tug. "We're gonna go hang out upstairs, guys," he said. "We'll see you later."

Everyone said good night, and Liz and Max disappeared through the back to head upstairs. Michael grabbed himself a soda and perched on the stool next to Maria and the three of them chatted quietly until Tess was finished with her meal. When she had thanked them again and gone, Michael spun Maria's stool so she faced him.

"What?" she asked when he merely continued to stare at her.

"You're pretty amazing," he said quietly, smirking when a light blush suffused her face. "Really. What you did tonight. I thought you hated Tess."

Maria shrugged. "I hated what she was doing to all of us, especially what she did to Liz and Max. She showed up and it was like everything went haywire. But I can see that things are getting back to the way they should be."

"That doesn't explain why you were actually nice."

"Hey! I can be nice," Maria said kicking at his feet.

"I didn't say you couldn't. But you were nice to her, specifically."

"Yeah. Well, I was talking to Liz and she pointed out some things. I guess I realized how lonely she must feel."

Michael nodded, then leaned over and kissed her pouting mouth. "Softy," he commented.

"Don't knock it, buddy," she mumbled against his lips. "It got you through the door.


*******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:03:24 AM

Part 4

********

It was a clear night and the sky appeared more star-filled than usual. Once they had climbed out onto the roof, Max went and stood by the wall to stare out over the town, his eyes drinking in the spectacle that hovered above the horizon. Liz came up beside him and rested her head on his shoulder.

"They're so beautiful," she said, the awe she felt reflected in her voice. "It reminds me of that night we spent out near the old radio tower, when we found the orb."

Max shifted, slipping his arm around her shoulders and leaning his head on top of hers. "And I told you that's what is out there, all the time," he recalled.

"If only we could see it," she finished with a wistful smile. "They're like the world's night-lights."

"Maybe that's why we seem to have most of our serious discussions out here in the dark," he said. "Night-lights can be comforting."

Liz pulled away and turned toward Max. "Are we going to have a serious discussion?"

"You tell me. You've obviously hd something on your mind all evening. You want to let me in on it?" he asked.

Liz sighed, her gaze falling to her feet. "It's about your… sleeping arrangements."

He smiled and dropped a kiss on her forehead. "I thought it might be something like that. Michael's going to come over later, so you can stop worrying."

"I know. Maria told me." She looked up, her face etched with concern. "But, Max, that doesn't solve anything. You can't go through life with one of us sleeping on your bedroom floor every night."

"I didn't notice you spending much time on the floor," he teased.

"Max, this is serious."

"I know," he said, quietly. "See, I knew it was going to be a serious conversation." He sighed. "Does this have something to do with your trip to the library this afternoon?"

"I wanted to do some research on what causes nightmares and how to stop them," she told him.

He stepped back and walked to the far end of the balcony, but when he turned to face her his expression was one of mild amusement mingled with love. "I should have known," he said with a smile. "Did you find anything useful?"

Liz shrugged. "Hard to tell. It's not like you're a typical subject," she reminded him. "So, you're not upset with me?"

"Upset that you're looking for a way to help me?" he asked softly. "Why would I be?"

She quickly crossed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around him. "I know you've been reluctant to talk about it," she said, her face buried in his chest as he held her close. "I wasn't sure how you'd feel about me pushing the issue."

"Liz," he said, cupping her chin and tilting her face up so he could meet her eyes, "Just because I don't want to talk about what happened at Eagle Rock, doesn't mean I don't want to find a way to stop the nightmares. You think I enjoy going to sleep wondering what the night will bring? Knowing I need someone nearby to wake me up if it gets really bad?"

"No," she whispered. "I know you hate it. And that you're just as worried about it as the rest of us." She reached up and stroked the side of his face. "I just wish I could have learned more. Everything points to the same things: you need to talk about it, however much it hurts you, if you're ever going to be free of it."

He looked into her soft brown eyes, glistening with unshed tears. "I promised that I would try, and I will," he told her. "I hate the way things are right now - everyone looking at me in the morning to see if I survived the night. Michael having to come over. I just need a little more time."

"Will you read the information I got at the library?"

"Of course. Every word. And I will get past this, Liz. I swear to you, we'll get through it somehow. Thank you," he said, brushing a kiss across her lips. "For caring enough to try to help. I just don't want you to worry, okay?"

"Max, that's like telling me not to breathe," she said softly.

He smiled. "Along those lines, do me a favor?"

"I bet I know what this is about," she smirked.

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "When did I get to be that predictable?"

She laughed. "Max, you tell me not to worry about you, but you still try to take care of every single one of us, every hour of the day. You're annoyed at me for going to the library alone, even after Michael told me that you thought someone was watching you this morning," she said, and her eyes were serious despite the smile lingering on her lips. "I promise I was careful," she told him.

He pulled her back into the circle of his arms, hugging her protectively against his chest. "I know you think I'm being controlling," he whispered. "I just couldn't stand it if anything happened to you."

"I know. But you have to trust me. Trust all of us." She looked up at him, her eyes full of love. "Max, we all know what we're up against. At least, as much as we can know. We'll be cautious, but we can't stop living our lives. There's more than one way to find yourself held captive," she said gently.

He nodded. "You're right. Just…"

"Be careful," she finished for him. "I promise." She sealed her words with a kiss, her mouth fitting perfectly to his. "I won't do anything that will put me in danger. If only to keep you from having to come rescue me."

"Liz, we've been over this…"

"I know," she said, stopping him by pressing two fingers over his mouth. "I'm not saying it was my fault that Pierce took you - just that I'm going to do my best to make sure we never find ourselves in that position again. Okay?"

He nodded. "Whatever keeps you safe," he said, his arms tightening around her.

"No," she corrected. "Whatever keeps all of us safe."

* * * * *

Isabel and Alex emerged from the movie theater, hand in hand, and strolled slowly down the street. They had left the Jeep by the restaurant, agreeing the walk would be welcome after their large dinner, and now they were glad for the chance to enjoy the starry night on the walk back. It was peaceful, the street deserted as most of the movie-goers had parked behind the theater. The tiny white lights that decorated the trees year-round twinkled merrily, imitating the stars above them.

"So, what did you think of the movie?" Isabel asked, a smile teasing her lips.

Alex grinned. "I'm used to chick flicks. One of the drawbacks of being best friends with two girls for the last five years. Or the advantages, I suppose, from your perspective. I'm well trained."

Isabel laughed. "Remind me to thank Liz and Maria. But, honestly, it wasn't that bad, was it?"

"Nah. After all, where do you think I got all my sensitivity training? I know a learning opportunity when I see one."

"Check it out," she said, pointing to the limousine parked on the side street. "Who do they think they are? A black stretch limo in Roswell? With tinted windows, no less." Her disdain clear, she shook her head. "There aren't any bands in town, are there?"

Alex snorted. "The closest we've gotten in the last year was the mystery group for the KROZ Blind Date Concert, and they never got out of Albuquerque. Besides," he noted as they walked past, "they've got New York plates."

"They drove from New York to Roswell in a limousine?"

Alex shrugged. "Maybe they're on their way to LA."

"Why not just fly?"

"Some people are afraid of flying," he pointed out.

"I guess," she said, though her tone indicated she thought the idea ridiculous. Stifling a yawn, she fumbled in her purse for her keys. "I'm glad Michael's working tomorrow morning," she said as they reached the Jeep. "At least I can sleep in before reporting for combat training," she muttered under her breath.

"Is it that bad?" Alex asked as he climbed into the passenger seat.

Isabel shrugged and got in next to him. "I guess not. It just seems strange, you know. Not how I envisioned spending my summer vacation, that's for sure."

"Isn't it a shame they stopped giving us those writing assignments back in elementary school? You know, the "what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation-in-500-words" paper. You'd have had a ball come September."

"Oh yeah. I can see it now. 'During my summer vacation, I practiced projecting energy in a fiery ball to hit a tin can at thirty yards.'"

"Hey, I'd give it an A."

Isabel smiled. "You're biased."

"Without a doubt," he agreed, leaning over and kissing her. Then he pulled back and smiled. "Why don't we get going so you can get some sleep?"

"Thanks," she said. She turned the key in the ignition and, checking her rearview mirror, slowly started to back into the street. A frown played across her lips and she turned to look over her shoulder.

"What?" Alex asked when he noticed her movement.

"I'm not sure," she said slowly. "I thought I saw a camera lens poking through the window of that limo."

Alex turned and looked. All of the limousine windows were closed. "I don't see anything."

"I don't either, now," she said. "But Max thought someone was watching Tess's house this morning. Remember, he said there was a strange reflection of light on the front door that caught his attention."

"Like light bouncing off a camera lens," Alex filled in the rest of her thought.

"Exactly. I keep thinking of all those pictures at Tess's that Nasedo took of us."

"You think it may be Nasedo?"

"I don't know. Max told him not to follow us, but how do we know if he listened?"

"We don't," Alex agreed. "Or it could be someone else."

"Or it could be my imagination," Isabel added, looking worriedly at Alex.

"One way to find out. Go around the block and come around the limo from the other end. See what they're doing."

"Okay." She checked the side mirror and continued to back up, then shifted into drive and headed down the street, making a right at the next corner. Taking another right turn, she glanced at Alex. "Is this a stupid thing to be doing?"

"Not if we want to know who they are," he said.

"Right," she agreed. "Besides, I have to get used to this, don't I?"

"We all do," he said.

She turned again and slowed the Jeep to a crawl, trying to see to the end of the block where the limo was parked. "Alex, do you see anything?"

Holding onto the frame of the Jeep, he leaned carefully to the side and peered down the street. "Uh, Iz, I don't see it anymore. I think they pulled out of their parking spot."

"So at least we know there was someone in there," she said. "I mean, the street was deserted and all of the stores are closed. They couldn't have come from one of the restaurants or the theater, gotten into the limo, and disappeared in the amount of time it took for us to go around the block." She pulled up to the stop sign at the corner and eyed the empty parking space. "I don't like this, Alex."

"I'm not exactly thrilled with it either," he agreed. "Let's go."

Isabel turned right once more and started down the street. Suddenly, she shivered.

"Are you okay?"

"I don't know," she said. "I just felt cold for a second."

"Isabel, it's like eighty-five degrees out," Alex pointed out.

"I know." She glanced in the rearview mirror. "Oh shit."

"What?"

"The limo. It's behind us."

"You mean as in following us?" Alex asked, his voice raising an octave.

"That's exactly what I mean. What do I do?"

"Go faster," he said immediately.

"You want me to try to outrun them? Are you crazy?"

"They're in a limo, Isabel. They don't exactly build them for speed. Just go."

"Okay." She bit down on her lip as she started to accelerate, darting nervous looks in the mirror. "They're speeding up, too."

"Damn. Look, the town is pretty much empty. We need to go someplace with people."

"Where, Alex?" she asked as she careened around a corner, completely disregarding the red light.

"Not the Crashdown. We can't lead them to the others, whoever they are. Try the Sheriff's office," he said. "Maybe Valenti's there."

"It's so late, Alex. What if it's just one of the deputies?" Her voice was taking on a desperate quality.

Alex risked a look behind them. The limo was still there, half a block back. "Look, we don't have much of a choice. Just head that way. We can always keep going. I don't have any other ideas."

"Okay, I'm sorry," she said. She skidded around another turn, sending the Jeep briefly onto two tires. "Hell," she muttered as the other wheels came down with a thump. "What do they want?"

"They probably figured out you spotted them," he said, tightening his grip on the side of his seat. "Just keep going." Suddenly something hot whizzed past his right ear. "Oh my God," he muttered. "Move," he ordered. "Faster. I think they're shooting at us."

"Shooting at us?" Isabel screeched. "What is this, revenge of the action films? I swear, next time we see a Bruce Willis…argh." She broke off with a scream as the Jeep swerved into the wrong side of the road.

Alex reached over and grabbed the wheel and pulled hard until they veered back to the right. "What happened? Did they hit a tire?" he asked, thanking the stars there was no oncoming traffic.

"No," Isabel said through clenched teeth. "They hit me."

"What?"

"My shoulder," she said, holding tight to the steering wheel, her knuckles white. "I think it just grazed it."

"Let me see," Alex ordered.

"Alex, we can't pull over," she said, blinking hard as she concentrated on the road. "I'm okay. I don't think it was a regular gun. I think maybe it's some kind of laser thing."

"A laser thing? You mean like…"

"Yeah," she said on a harsh breath. "We're talking set your phasers for stun." She shook her head briefly, as if trying to clear her vision. "Are they still firing?"

"I don't think so," he said. "But they're still back there," he added. "We need to shake them off."

"Alex, I need you to do something for me."

"Anything," he said quickly, his voice laced with concern.

"I need you to slide over and put your left foot on the gas," she said slowly. "Then I want you to take the wheel."

"What are you going to do?" he asked, already unfastening his seat belt and moving closer.

"Just keep going straight," she said. "I'm gonna try to stop them."

"How?"

She blinked again. "No time for details. Just do it."

He slid his foot in next to hers and took over the gas, then grabbed the steering wheel. "Okay, got it," he said.

Isabel swiveled to her left, grimacing as her shoulder bumped against the seat. She grabbed hold of the roll bar with her left hand, ignoring the pain shooting down her arm as best she could. Gritting her teeth, she extended her right arm out and took careful aim. "Alex, slow down a little. They're too far away," she ground out.

"You want them closer?" he asked, incredulous.

"Alex…."

"Fine." He let up on the gas and the limo suddenly shot forward.

Isabel held her breath and concentrated, blocking out the pain, the movement of the Jeep, the sound of Alex muttering to himself. Then she pushed with her mind, forcing every drop of energy out toward the limo. A burst of flame shot from her hand and flew straight out behind them, hitting the limousine squarely on the hood. There was a sudden crackle of electric current and sparks danced across the head lights, followed by a series of popping sounds. The limo sputtered and jerked from side to side before slowing to a stop in the middle of the road. The Jeep continued to shoot down the street, leaving its pursuer behind.

Turning back to face front, Isabel slumped to the side. Alex shot her a worried look, then quickly struggled to maneuver the Jeep around the corner and into the lot at the Sheriff's station. "Isabel," he urged as he hit the brake and skidded to a stop. He pulled up on the emergency brake, then turned to her and gently took the hand closest to him. "Isabel, are you okay?"

"Yeah," she managed. "Just really drained feeling. And my shoulder's on fire," she whispered.

"Come on," he said. He climbed out and hurried around the side of the car to help her out. "Valenti's cruiser's here. Let's get inside. I don't want to hang around and see if those guys come after us on foot." He winced when he saw the neat four-inch burn marring the width of her shoulder. "It's gonna be okay," he murmured. Slipping her right arm over his shoulders, he supported her as they half-stumbled into the Sheriff's station.


******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:05:14 AM

Part 5

********

The sound of an explosion on the street below had Jim Valenti leaping from behind his desk and grabbing for his holster. He buckled it in place as he sprinted for the stairs. The squeal of tires on asphalt assaulted his ears as he took the steps down three at a time, reaching the main level and turning the corner in time to see Isabel and Alex stagger through the front doors. "What happened?" he shot out, hurrying to help them. His eyes took in the shocky pallor of Isabel's skin and the way she leaned heavily on Alex's shoulders, and he swore under his breath. "Come on," he urged, not waiting for explanations. He led them toward the back room. "There's a couch in here."

The followed him into the office, Alex carefully maneuvering Isabel through the doorway and lowering her onto the green vinyl couch. She caught herself with her good arm and gingerly eased back, keeping her injured shoulder from jarring as she slowly allowed herself to relax. She closed her eyes for a moment, then took a deep breath. When she opened them again, two sets of blue eyes were staring at her, filled with concern.

"I'm all right," she said, her voice quiet, but even. "Just give me a minute."

Alex crouched in front of her, his hand on her knee. "We need to call Max," he said.

"No!" Isabel said.

"What do you mean, no? We have to. We need him to fix your shoulder, among other things," Alex argued.

"Not yet," she amended. "I can take care of my shoulder myself, okay? I just need to rest a little first. Then we can tell Max. Not before. You know how paranoid he is already. If he thinks we can't handle ourselves, he'll have us all under house arrest. Please, Alex."

Alex scowled, but nodded. "Okay."

The Sheriff looked worried. "One of you mind telling me what the hell's going on here? I heard some kind of an explosion." His eyes traveled to the bright red mark on Isabel's shoulder. "And what happened to you, Isabel?"

Isabel looked at Alex, who shrugged. "There was this limo with darkened windows parked down the street from us when we came out of the movies tonight. Isabel thought she saw someone taking pictures of us. When we went to leave, the limo followed us. We sped up, so did they. Then they started shooting at us."

"Jesus!"

"One of them got Isabel in the shoulder."

"That's no bullet wound," the Sheriff stated.

"No, it's not," Isabel agreed.

Valenti looked at the two teenagers in front of him and slowly shook his head. "Are you telling me what I think you're telling me?"

"They weren't from around here," Alex said. "And I don't say that simply because the limo had New York plates," he muttered. "I think it's safe to assume they came a little further than from the East Coast."

"Damn," he mumbled. "I thought three of you was …"

"Four," Isabel corrected.

"Tess," Alex added, when the Sheriff looked confused.

"Of course," he said, shaking his head. Then he seemed to snap back to attention. "What happened to the limo? Did it stop following you?"

"In a manner of speaking," Isabel muttered, shifting to a more comfortable position.

"That would be the explosion you heard," Alex supplied. "Isabel… stopped them."

The Sheriff turned to her. "With your powers," he said.

She nodded, though she knew it was unnecessary. "That's why I'm so worn out," she said. "My arm isn't really that bad. Just a flesh wound," she added, seeing Alex's worried look.

"But it's your flesh," he pointed out, causing her to smile.

"I'm okay, Alex."

"Where was that limo when you stopped it?" the Sheriff asked.

"Around the corner on Citrus," Alex said.

"Okay," he said. "You two stay here and get your breath back. I'm gonna go check it out."

"You can't," Isabel said, reaching out and grabbing him by the arm. "Sheriff, you don't understand. This isn't some punk, or even some crazy alien hunter. This is a genuine alien with weapons out of some bad science fiction movie. You can't just go knock on the window and ask to see some identification."

"Isabel, this is my job."

"No," Alex said, shaking his head. "Sheriff, *this* is not your job. No one ever trained you for this kind of thing."

"Son, I've lived my entire life in Roswell, New Mexico," he said with a grimace. "If I'm not prepared for this, no one is."

"I can't let you go out there," Isabel said, still holding tightly to his wrist. "You're not equipped."

"And you are?" he asked.

"Better than you," she told him.

"Maybe you were, but right now you're injured and you're exhausted. We're wasting time," he said, gently pulling out of her grasp. "I'll be careful," he said. "But I took an oath to serve and protect, and that's what I intend to do. Sit tight. I'll be back." He turned and headed out the door, the sound of his boots on the polished floor echoing through the empty hallway.

"We should have stopped him," Isabel said quietly.

"How? The man carries a gun. It'll be okay," Alex said, sounding more confident than he looked. "Are you feeling any better yet?"

"A little. Do you think maybe you can find me something to drink, though? Water would be okay, though a soda would be better."

"What kind?"

She smirked. "Anything with lots of sugar and caffeine."

"I'll be right back."

He returned a moment later balancing two cans of Coke and a can of root beer. "Here," he said, popping open the first soda and handing it to her. She gulped quickly while he watched.

"Thanks," she said, setting the half-empty can on the floor next to her. She took a deep breath and exhaled. "That helped."

"You're getting some of your color back," he observed.

She slowly rolled her injured shoulder experimentally and made a face. "Not as bad as it could be, I suppose." She reached down and picked up the soda and finished it off rapidly.

"Another?" Alex asked.

"No, thanks. Not right now. I need to do something about this first," she said. Cupping her right palm over her shoulder, she closed her eyes and concentrated. Alex could almost feel the energy coursing through her and after a minute he could see a dim light seeping out from under her hand, as if her shoulder was glowing. When she finally opened her eyes and removed her hand, the wound was gone.

"Wow," he said. "I mean, I saw Max heal Kyle at the UFO Center, but…. well, wow."

Isabel smiled. "I think I'll take that other soda now."

He nodded and handed her the can. Then he sank down next to her and opened his root beer. "So," he said after taking a long sip. "That really happened, didn't it?"

"Yeah, it did," she said, though she sounded less than sure herself. She turned abruptly at the sound of footsteps and looked relieved when the Sheriff came striding back into the room.

He looked at the exhausted faces turned toward him, then swiftly glanced down and noted that Isabel had been healed. Standing in front of them, he leaned back against the front of an old desk and shook his head. "Not a trace of anything," he told them. "The limo was gone. No one up or down the block. I'm guessing there weren't any witnesses, either?"

"God, I hope not," Isabel said, thinking of the show she had put on.

Alex shook his head. "There was no one around, Sheriff."

"You call Max and the others?"

"I was just going to," Isabel said. "Alex, can I have my phone, please?"

He picked up her bag from the floor where they had tossed it when they'd arrived. Fishing out her cell, he passed it to her. "What are you going to tell him?"

She met the Sheriff's gaze. "To round everyone up and get over here," she said. "It looks like it's time for another group meeting."

* * * * *

When Liz's cell phone rang, she was sitting curled on her lounge chair, a frown on her face, as Max peered down onto the street. He had been reading the information she had gotten at the library until some loud noises on the street had diverted his attention. It had been nearly fifteen minutes, yet he was still leaning over the wall as if he thought he could see something, the papers she had given him clutched in his hand, forgotten. She was so focused on his odd behavior that it took her a moment to identify the ringing sound.

She stood and looked at him, his back to her, and felt inexplicably afraid. "Max, it was just a truck backfiring," she said for the third time. He didn't even turn around. Liz sighed and reached through her window to grab the phone off her desk. "Hello?"

"Liz? It's Isabel. Where are you?"

"I'm home," Liz replied. "Is something wrong?" she asked, wanting to kick herself at the automatic assumption, but somehow sensing it was the right one.

"Is Max there?"

Liz's eyes flicked up to where Max still stood, statue-like. Barely, she thought. "Yeah. What's going on?"

"I'll explain in a minute. Do you know where Michael and Maria are?"

"I think they're still downstairs. Maria stayed to help Michael close up, but I don't think I heard them leave. Isabel, you're scaring me," she said, dropping her voice. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, for now. Listen, Alex and I are at the Sheriff's station. We need the four of you to get over here right now. Whatever you do, don't walk, okay? Take Maria's car. If she and Michael are gone, find them and have them come get you. Or else call me back and the Sheriff will come pick you up. Understand?"

"What happened?" Liz demanded.

"Max was right. Someone's been following us. And they're armed."

"Oh my God," she breathed. "We heard something, but…."

"We're okay. Liz, we're fine. Just please be careful. And hurry."

"We will." She hung up and stood perfectly still for a second, just allowing herself to breathe. It seemed they would never get a break. All she wanted was a few days where things could be normal - where they could have time to relax and Max could heal. Looking up, she realized he had turned and was watching her, his eyes serious.

"Something happened," he stated.

She nodded. "That was Isabel. Someone was following her and Alex tonight. She says they're fine, but they're at the Sheriff's station and she wants the four of us to go there now."

"Did she say what happened?" he asked.

"Not really. Just that whoever they were, they were armed," Liz said slowly. "That sound… Max… I was wrong. It wasn't a truck…"

Max crossed the space between them in three quick strides and had her in his arms. She clung to him, not realizing until she felt him holding her that she was trembling. "Shhh…," he soothed. "It's okay. It's gonna be okay. I swear, it'll be fine."

"How can you promise me that?" she asked, fighting the tears. "It's all so insane, Max. People are shooting at us, at our friends. It's so unreal."

"I know," he said, his arms tightening. "But we can do this." He pulled back and looked her in the eye, taking her face in his hands. "We can do this," he repeated. "We have to."

She looked at the determined set of his jaw and nodded, refusing to acknowledge what else she saw there - the haunted look, the fine creases to either side of his eyes, the fatigue. It was as if a previous lifetime's cares and worries had suddenly appeared on his face in the past few weeks, transforming the boy into this man - this warrior. She swallowed hard and nodded, pulling herself together. The only way they had a chance was if they all held firm. If he could be strong, with all the pressure that was bearing down on him, so could she. She would do it for him.

"Let's go see if Michael and Maria are still here," she said.

Max smiled. "Good idea." He kissed her quickly and released her. Then he bent down and picked up the papers he had dropped when he'd taken her in his arms. He folded them carefully and tucked them in his back pocket, then looked up and caught her watching him. "I wasn't going to forget them," he said, reaching out and stroking a finger down her cheek.

Liz caught his hand and kissed it. "Thanks," she whispered.

"Okay, let's go," he said. Taking her hand, he helped her through the window, then swung himself in after her.

* * * * *

Michael stood in the front window of the Crashdown, his eyes scanning the street. He and Maria had been getting ready to leave when they'd heard the explosion, and though it sounded like it had come from the next block over, they had both dashed to the window to see what had happened. The street had been deserted. Michael had thought it peculiar that the noise hadn't produced any signs of activity - no ambulance, no fire truck, no police. It had briefly crossed his mind to take a short walk to see if he could find anything, but he knew that he wouldn't make it out the door without Maria tagging along, and his instincts told him that was a bad idea. So instead, he stood watching the empty street anxiously, while Maria paced back and forth restlessly behind him.

"I don't know what you expect to see from here," she said. "Michael?"

"Would you go sit down or something," he told her, finally tearing his eyes from the silent shadows and turning to her. "You're gonna wear a trench in the floor," he said, his patience starting to fail.

She stopped pacing and stared at him. "I thought we were going to leave, Michael. Why should I sit down? You said you wanted to go to your place for a while before you go to Max's, and now you're more interested in the view. What am I missing here?"

He ran his hands through his hair and sighed heavily. "I'm not sure. Something's not right, that's all I know." He left his post by the window and came over to where she stood, one hip propped against a stool, her lips forming a perfect pout. "Sorry," he murmured, kissing her gently. He rubbed the palms of his hands up and down her arms in a comforting caress.

Maria softened. "No" she said, "I'm sorry. You really think that exploding sound means something?"

He shrugged. "It's just a feeling… I can't place it." He looked up at a series of thumping sounds on the back stairs. An uncharacteristic grin transformed his face. "I guess Max and Liz finally got tired of walking in on us," he said.

Maria rolled her eyes and headed toward the back just as the door swung open and Liz and Max appeared. "Hey, you guys," she said.

"What is it?" Michael asked, registering the other two's serious expressions.

"Isabel called," Max said. "She and Alex are holed up with Valenti at the Sheriff's station. Someone was following them. And from the sounds of things, taking pot shots at them."

"Oh my God, are they all right?" Maria asked.

Liz nodded. "Yeah, Isabel said they're both fine. But she wants us over there ASAP."

Michael scowled and shook his head. "We heard…"

"So did we," Max broke in. "We don't have time for speculations. Let's just get over there and hear what they have to say."

Michael reached out and slipped his hand into Maria's, tugging her close. When he realized she was trembling slightly, he dropped her hand and pulled her into a quick, hard hug, kissing the top of her head. She melted into him, her arms winding around his waist. "Come on," he whispered in her ear.

She nodded and pulled away, flashing him a small, brave smile. "I'll go get my keys."

The four of them exited through the back, with Max going first and Michael bringing up the rear. Neither Liz nor Maria protested when the guys insisted on checking out the parking lot before allowing them near the car. Michael drove and Max sat shotgun. No one spoke during the brief ride to the Sheriff's station. Only when they pulled into the parking lot, and saw the haphazard way Isabel had parked the Jeep, did anyone say a word.

"That looks…"

"Bad," Max finished for Maria. He exchanged a quick look with Michael. "Don't park in a space," he told him. "Pull up closer to the front doors."

"Right." Michael carefully eased the Jetta over the curb and parked on the sidewalk.

"Okay," Max said, swiveling in his seat. "Liz, open your door and head straight inside. Don't stop, don't wait for us, just go. Maria, slide over as soon as she's out of the car and follow her. Same thing. Right inside."

The girls nodded. Liz popped open the door and the two of them hurried into the building. Max and Michael were just seconds behind them. As soon as Michael cleared the front door, the four of them headed down the hall.

********

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:06:54 AM

Part 6

*******

At the sound of footsteps, Isabel tore out of the office and around the corner, straight into Max's arms. "God, I was so worried you wouldn't get here," she told him, her voice muffled against his shoulder as he hugged her close.

"We're here and we're fine. No sign of trouble," he assured her. His eyes met with Alex's as he and the Sheriff appeared. Max frowned, stroking Isabel's back with long soothing motions. Alex looked pale and Valenti had a stern expression on his face. "Now, tell us what happened," he said, pulling back. "The whole thing, from the beginning."

"Why don't we go sit down," the Sheriff suggested, turning back the way they had come. The six of them followed, falling into pairs. Isabel gravitated back to Alex, Michael and Maria followed, and Max held his hand out for Liz to join him. They all piled into the cramped office, sitting on the sofa and the desk and leaning against walls, taking up every inch of available space.

Curled on the sofa next to Alex, Isabel began to recount the evening's events, telling them about spotting the limousine and then suspecting that whoever was inside was taking pictures of them. Alex interjected from time to time, explaining it had been his idea to go around the block to try and get a better look.

"It was a stupid idea," he said, shaking his head. "Maybe they wouldn't have come after us if we had just pulled out of the parking space and gone home."

"No, Alex, that's not true," Isabel told him. "They must have started following us almost immediately, or else they wouldn't have pulled up behind us that fast."

"She's right," Max told him. "It sounds like they probably had an eye on you before you went into the movies. You just didn't notice because it was early and there were more people around."

Alex looked doubtful. Isabel pulled away and gave him a hard shove. "Don't you dare do this. We have enough people here who try to take the blame for things that are completely out of their hands," she snapped at him. "I'm not putting up with another one, do you hear me?"

He nodded. "Yes ma'am," he said slowly, bringing a sheepish smile to Isabel's face.

"Sorry," she said. "But I'm sick of it. We're all doing the best we can." She shot a look toward Max who avoided her gaze. "It was no more your fault they chased us than it was my fault, okay? We had no way of knowing what would happen."

Alex waited for her to continue, knowing what part of the story came next, but she suddenly seemed extremely interested in the hem of her dress. He looked toward the others and realized they were also patiently awaiting the rest of Isabel's explanation. "Go on, Iz," he prompted finally. "Tell them," he urged when she looked up.

Isabel sighed. "Right. Anyway, I sped up and so did they. Alex thought we should try to make it over here, hoping the Sheriff would be around. We were afraid to go to the Crashdown because we figured you would all be there and there wasn't any time to warn you." She turned to Alex, her eyes nervous. He smiled and took her hand encouragingly. "Well, uh, they started shooting at us about then," Isabel continued. "And then they got me in the shoulder," she said softly.

"They what?" Max flew from his seat on the desk and was kneeling in front of Isabel in an instant. "Iz, are you okay? Why didn't you tell me? Let me see." Liz, Maria, and Michael crowded forward as well, anxiously looking for signs of injury.

"You said you were fine," Liz said, in an almost accusatory tone.

Isabel held up both hands to try to quiet everyone. "You guys, I *am* fine. Really. Max, stop it," she demanded as her brother reached for her and started running his hands gingerly up and down her arms. "Cut it out, all of you."

"Enough!" Alex announced, suddenly standing up, causing Max to fall backwards onto the floor and forcing the rest of them back a step. "Jesus, you are too much. Leave her alone. Don't you think she'd have said before if she needed help?" he demanded. "She healed herself. She's perfectly fine. It was amazing. She stopped those guys cold, got back here and patched up her shoulder. It was like something out of the movies," he finished, sitting back down again, his voice calm and just tinged with awe.

Isabel sat, her eyes glued to Alex, a grin plastered on her face. "Thanks," she said when he was seated once more.

"You're welcome," he told her, his blue eyes having regained their twinkle for the first time since the night's craziness began.

Max stood up, looking somewhat sheepish, and brushed off the seat of his jeans. "Sorry, Iz," he told her as he went and sat back down next to Liz.

"That's okay," she said, her look encompassing all of them. "I guess I'd be hurt if you weren't worried," she added with a hint of a smile. "But really, I'm perfectly fine."

The Sheriff cleared his throat. "I hate to interrupt, folks, but I feel the need to point out one very important detail that's been neglected so far. Whatever was used to shoot Isabel, it wasn't a gun."

"What do you mean, it wasn't a gun?" Michael asked. "What else do you shoot?"

Valenti shrugged, but his words belied his casual stance. "I don't really know the answer to that, I'm afraid. But that was no bullet that grazed her arm. There was no blood, as if the wound had been cauterized."

Alex nodded in agreement. "It looked like she'd been hit by some kind of laser beam."

"A laser beam," Max repeated slowly. Everyone turned and looked at him. He shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment. "You realize what this means?" he asked when he opened his eyes again.

"Yeah," Isabel said.

"I'm sorry, but I'm confused," Maria said. "What does it mean to be shot with a laser?"

"It basically tells us that we can stop wondering whether we alerted our enemies to our presence in Roswell," Isabel explained. "Because it would seem that they're already here."

"Oh," Maria said. There seemed to be no other appropriate response. She inched closer to Michael and he reached out and took her hand.

Liz leaned against Max and took his hand in hers. She knew that, though he had never regretted using the orbs and receiving the message from their planet, he was bound to be second guessing his decision now that he had proof of the consequences of his actions. It was simply his nature to feel responsible. She squeezed his hand in both of hers and was relieved when he turned and brushed a kiss on her forehead.

"So, what now?" Michael asked.

"How did you stop them, Isabel?" Max asked. "How did you guys get away?"

"I shot a ball of energy at the limo and it seemed to short circuit it," she replied. "I remembered what you said you did, Michael, when you stopped the Hummer that was chasing Max and Liz."

"It didn't last long, though," Alex said. "By the time we got back here and the Sheriff went to check it out, they were gone and the limo was gone with them."

Max turned questioning eyes toward Valenti.

"Couldn't have been more than ten, fifteen minutes tops," the Sheriff told him.

"So, they could fix whatever was wrong and just drive away," Michael surmised.

"Either that or they travel with their own tow truck," Alex offered.

Michael shook his head, but couldn't keep himself from smirking. "Max? What do you think?"

"I think that I wish we'd had more time to train," Max admitted. "And that I would like to know more about our nameless, faceless enemies. We don't even know if there's more than one of them."

"I would think that's a pretty safe assumption," Liz said. "The four of you were sent here with four adults. That's eight. I would think they'd send at least the same number to come after you and destroy you."

"If not more," Michael said.

"We should call Tess and fill her in," Max said. "She has to know what's going on. This is getting serious."

"It's late," Michael told him. "She'll be okay until tomorrow. She went home hours ago."

"What do we do?" Maria asked. "Is it even safe for us to go home?"

Isabel turned horrified eyes toward Max. "Mom and Dad! You don't think…."

"No," Max said quickly. "I'm sure Mom and Dad are fine. It sounds like they only came after you because it was late and there was no one around and they thought you'd seen something. If they were going to risk being seen by the general population, they would have kept coming after you, even once you got here. I don't think our families are in any danger at this point."

"So, we just go home, is that it?" Michael asked.

"For tonight," Max said. "Tomorrow we go out to the quarry as planned. But early. Can you get off work?" he asked Michael.

Michael turned to Liz. "Can I?"

Liz nodded. "We all can."

"No," Max said quickly. "Not you. This is just the four of us. You three are to stay out of the line of fire, you hear me?"

"Max, no," Liz said. "We've been through all of this. We're in this together."

"She's right," Maria agreed.

"I'm in," Alex said.

Max shook his head. "Out of the question. It's one thing for us to all be together, but we are not dragging you onto the battle field with us."

"It's not your decision, Max," Liz told him, her voice determined. "We're going to help, whether you like it or not."

"It isn't safe," he insisted.

"Damn it, Max," Liz flared. "Despite appearances to the contrary, you are not Superman, okay? Bullets do not reflect off of your chest. You are just as vulnerable as the rest of us, so you are not going to sit here and tell me that it is more dangerous for me than it is for you."

"We have ways of protecting ourselves," he pointed out. His eyes sought out Michael, looking for back-up, and was surprised to find everyone just watching them in silence, their eyes appraising.

"Fine," Liz said, snapping his attention back to her. "Then we'll learn to protect ourselves also." She turned to Valenti. "Sheriff, what would it take for Maria, Alex, and me to learn how to fire a handgun?"

"Excuse me?" the Sheriff asked, his eyes opening wide.

"You heard what I said."

"Liz, no," Max said.

She simply held up her hand and glared at him. "Don't tell me no, Max." Her brown eyes were hard. "You are not going to be able to convince me that I'm best off on the sidelines." She turned back to the Sheriff. "And if you won't teach me to shoot, I'll get Kyle to do it. He offered once when we were dating, and I'm sure that, given the present circumstances, he'd be more than happy to follow through on that offer now."

"It's not that simple," Valenti began, but stopped when he saw the determined set of her chin. If there was one thing he had learned about these kids it was not to fly in the face of their determination. He would ultimately lose. So he just sighed and nodded.

"Thank you," she said.

"Excuse us a moment," Max said. He took Liz by the arm and tugged her firmly out of the room. "What are you doing? Trying to get yourself killed?"

"Max, I love you. I am not letting you do this alone, do you understand? I promise to be careful. I won't do anything stupid."

"And what do you call getting the Sheriff to teach you to shoot?"

"I call it taking reasonable measures," she told him. "What do you call having a loaded handgun in your dresser drawer?" she hissed.

Max's jaw dropped open. "What are you talking about?"

"Don't tell me it isn't there, Max, because I know it is. You still have Pierce's gun - the one you took off of him that day at the UFO Center. You held it on him and then you tucked it into the waist band of your slacks and you never got rid of it. You still have it at home, in your bedroom, hidden away. And you wake up screaming in the night because of what he did to you, and no gun in the drawer is going to stop that." Tears were streaming down her face, but she ignored them. "I am not going to lose you, Max Evans. I came so close and it's not going to happen again, do you hear me? Not if I have to shoot a dozen aliens in cold blood. I need you and, damn it, you need me too."

He pulled her roughly into his arms and held her as she broke down and began crying in earnest. "You're right, you are. I do need you. Shhh, please don't cry," he begged, his own eyes bright with tears. But he was trembling as her arms came around his waist and held tightly, because until that moment he had completely forgotten about the gun in the drawer - Pierce's gun - the weapon he had slipped between his sweaters like a terrible souvenir of his time in hell. It still lay there, though his mind had buried it deep, and his only question now was, how had Liz known?

They were interrupted by a low cough. Max looked up and found Michael watching them with obvious concern. "Sorry," Michael said. "Uh, Max, can I talk to you a minute?" His eyes were apologetic.

Max sighed and looked down. Liz had loosened her grip and was wiping away her tears with the back of her hand. "I'm fine," she assured him. She flashed Michael a shaky smile. "I'm gonna go talk to Maria and Alex. See if they're ready to lynch me for turning us into the Daltons," she added with a watery chuckle.

"Okay, Michael. What is it?" Max asked, his tone weary.

"This may not be the best time to bring this up, but I might not get a chance tomorrow and it needs to be said before things get worse and we really don't have the time."

"What?"

"I'm a little concerned about Tess," Michael told him.

Max frowned. "Why? Did something happen with her after Liz and I left tonight?"

Michael shook his head. "Not really. It's just…"

"Spit it out, Michael."

"Look, both you and Isabel said that you didn't trust her. Then all of a sudden she's becoming part of the group. Alex has been trying to help her fit in because he knows Isabel wants her to feel comfortable. You're worried about her feeling lonely. Hell, even Liz has been nice to her, and she has Maria feeling sorry for her to the point of offering her a job in her mother's shop."

"Your point being?" Max prompted.

Michael ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "Max, what happened to not trusting her? For people who don't trust her, you're all being so nice it's sickening. Have you forgotten what she did to you, Maxwell? To all of us?"

"Among other things, she helped get me out of Eagle Rock," Max pointed out.

Michael shook his head. "So what? That just served her purposes. It's you she wants, Max, or has that slipped your mind? You really think she's given up on this whole destiny thing?"

"Yeah, I do. Michael, she doesn't know me, how can she want to be with me? It was just something she was raised to expect."

"Precisely."

Max sighed. "Michael, we don't have time for this right now."

"This is important," he pressed. "Look, I'm not saying she's out to get us. Just that I'm not convinced she's on our side. Max, what she did with our dreams…."

"We can't be sure that was her."

"Max, face it. Isabel and I haven't had a single dream about each other in weeks. Have you had any about Tess?"

Max looked away.

"Well, have you?" Michael pushed. "You haven't."

"No, I haven't," Max said. "But that doesn't mean anything."

"You know what I think? I think she's still playing mind games and you just don't realize it," Michael told him. "Damn it, what she did to you was unconscionable. I know I wrote it off to begin with, and I'm sorry. I was pissed off and I ignored what you were trying to tell me and I was wrong."

Max swung around and looked at Michael. "Did I just hear you say that you were wrong?"

Michael scowled. "Can we keep to the subject please? She went into your head and planted sex fantasies starring the two of you. If some guy had done that to Liz you'd be outraged. But because it happened to you, you're willing to write it off as some little mistake Tess made because she had a lonely childhood. Get real, Maxwell. Living with Hank was no bed of roses, but you don't catch me committing weird-ass mind rape."

"You're exaggerating."

"Am I? Think about it. For someone who prides himself on being in control, you've been at the mercy of quite a few people recently, Max," he said quietly. "No wonder you're having nightmares."

Max stared at Michael for a moment, then shook his head. "You're wrong."

Michael shrugged. "I hope so. But I don't think I am."

Max just walked back into the office, leaving Michael standing alone in the hall.

* * * * *

Four weary, expectant faces turned toward the door as Max walked through it. Liz and Maria had squeezed onto the sofa next to Isabel and Alex. It was clear the stress of the night was starting to get to them, with Isabel looking by far the most worn. Max frowned, wondering how much of her fatigue was due to using her powers and how much was simply due to the late hour. The clock on the wall indicated it was nearly one in the morning. He was going to have to start making some decisions.

He turned toward Valenti, who was staring out the window and appeared not to have noticed that Max had returned. "Sheriff?"

"Hmmm?" came the distracted reply before he turned and focused on Max.

"Sheriff," Max continued, "I think we're going to try to get home now."

The older man nodded, though he seemed displeased. "I realize you kids have your folks to consider, but I think you'd be best off if you stick together. Max, you and Isabel are fine, but the rest of you… I don't like the idea of you going off to your individual homes."

Max nodded. "Thanks for the concern, but I've already got that worked out." He turned back to the others.

Maria was frowning. "Max, what happened to Michael?"

"He's still out in the hall," Max told her. "Look," he said, ignoring the puzzled expression on Maria's face, "we have two choices. Either we split up, three and three, guys at one house and girls at another, or we go home by couple. Those are the only options. It's up to you."

The four of them exchanged looks. "What do you want to do, Max?" Isabel asked. He shrugged, but his eyes fell on Liz. They knew his choice. Isabel nodded and slipped her hand into Alex's.

Maria stood up. "I'm going to go find Michael," she said, then headed out the door.

Liz got up and walked over to Max, slipping into the circle of his arms. He ran one hand down her hair and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "You okay?" she whispered.

He pulled back and looked into her eyes. Concern was swimming in the dark brown depths. "Yeah," he said. "I'm okay." He traced his thumb over her cheek bone and smiled slightly.

Maria came back into the room with Michael trailing behind. Maria's face was impassive and Max could tell that Michael had refused to tell her what they had been talking about. He wondered idly how long that would last. It didn't matter. He had other things to think about right now. His left arm draped around Liz's shoulders, he turned back to the Sheriff. "Thank you for your help," he said, holding out his hand.

Valenti shook Max's hand and nodded. "I told you before that I'm here for you."

"I appreciate it. Any chance of you joining us tomorrow morning? We'll be out at the quarry by nine. The ridge above the lake area."

"I'll see what I can do." Valenti's eyes scanned the group, ending up on Liz. "And I'll see about bringing some things for target practice," he added.

Liz smiled. Max just nodded and turned back to the others. "It's late. We should get going." He looked at Michael. "You gonna stay at Maria's place or yours?"

Michael shrugged and looked to Maria. "Which do you think?"

"Yours, I guess," she said. "Better for me not to come home at all than for my mom to find you sleeping over again," she told him.

"Okay. Swing by in the morning and we'll all drive out to the quarry together," Max said. "Which leaves the rest of us at our place?" he asked. He could feel Liz nod in agreement and Alex gave him a quick thumbs up. "Right. Let's go."

Isabel and Alex stood and Isabel walked over to Valenti. "Thank you," she said, taking his hand and squeezing it. "You know, I used to be so afraid of you," she added softly.

"I'm glad you're not anymore," he told her. "Though after tonight, I find it hard to believe that you're afraid of much," he added with a smile.

She smiled. "You'd be surprised."

The Sheriff walked them all down the hall. When they reached the front door, he had them wait while he went outside and briefly checked out the parking lot. After determining that no one seemed to be lurking in the shadows, he motioned for them to head to their cars. Michael and Maria climbed into the Jetta and were pulling off the sidewalk and onto the street in a matter of moments. Max waited for the others to climb into the Jeep, scanning the area cautiously himself before taking a seat behind the wheel. Then he too pulled out of the parking lot and, with a final wave of thanks toward the Sheriff, headed toward home.


******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:08:58 AM

Part 7

*******

Maria kept her eyes on Michael as he drove. He was staring straight ahead, but she sensed he barely saw the road in front of them. His hands were clenched so tightly on the wheel that his knuckles were white. Whatever he had wanted to say to Max, it was obvious the reply had left him anything but satisfied. Maria's automatic response was to push him to tell her - to badger and nag him until she annoyed him so much he would spill his guts just to shut her up. But she swallowed down her instincts and waited, something telling her that he would confide in her soon enough.

Michael pulled the car into a space around the corner from his building, then proceeded to sit quietly for a moment, toying with the alien hanging from her key chain. "What will you say to your mother?"

His question startled her. "You mean about tonight? Nothing, if I can avoid it," she admitted.

"If she asks?"

"I guess that we fell asleep watching TV," she said with a shrug. When he still made no move to get out of the car, Maria touched his knee. "Michael? What is it?"

He shook his head and looked around, as if only now realizing where they were. "Inside," he told her. "Stay there until I come around," he added, throwing a stern glance her way.

She nodded and waited while he got out and walked around the car to open her door. She knew that safety, not gallantry, was the motivator, but she didn't really care as long as it kept them both in one piece.

They were silent as they walked into the building, Michael looking from side to side, then steering her down the hallway toward his apartment. She was inside and half-way to the couch when the slamming of the door jolted her into spinning to face him. Gone was the careful veneer of self-control that he had maintained since she'd gone looking for him at the Sheriff's station and discovered him restlessly pacing the hall. He looked ready to explode as he strode into the room, every movement vibrating with anger and frustration. Maria took an involuntary step back, then forced herself to stop. She knew his fierce mood was not directed at her.

"Michael?" she asked tentatively.

He looked up, his eyes filled with fire. "Does your mother really need help at the store?" he asked, his voice carefully held in check.

Maria blinked. "Uh, no, not that I know of," she replied. "Why?" She watched him pace the short distance from the door to the wall and back. "Michael? What happened with Max? Does all of this have something to do with Tess?"

He stopped short and looked at her, then ran his hands over his face, rubbing at his eyes. Suddenly, he seemed tired. And somehow very young. Maria walked slowly toward him and took both of his hands in hers. At her gentle touch, the fight seemed to drain out of him. He looked at her helplessly and just shook his head - neither negating her actions nor answering her question - simply unable to push her away on either count. She drew him back, pulling him over to the couch and urging him to sit before curling up next to him.

"Talk to me," she coaxed, nestling her head on his shoulder. She took the hand resting closest to her and wove their fingers together. "What happened?"

"I told myself no more secrets," Michael muttered. "Once we got Max back, I swore things weren't going to be the way they had been. I'm tired of fighting among ourselves," he sighed.

"You're right," she said quietly. "We have enough to deal with. So, you went out into the hall to tell Max something. What?"

"It's Tess," he admitted. "I don't understand when everyone became so accepting of her. Max says it's because she helped rescue him, but I don't think that's it."

Maria sat up and looked at him. "You think she's getting inside our heads still?"

"I don't know. All I know for sure is that Max and Isabel both told me they didn't trust her. And suddenly they seem to be forgetting about the things she did." Maria shuddered briefly and Michael put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. "I'm not saying she's evil or even that she's up to anything," Michael said. "Maybe she is everything she seems to be now. Contrite. Anxious to help. Accepting of our decisions to be with the three of you. But it would be a pretty major turn around, wouldn't it?"

"What if she has turned over a new leaf?" Maria asked.

Michael sighed. "Does it matter? How does it make up for what she did to us? Maria, she made Isabel think she was pregnant with my child," he reminded her, his voice just above a whisper as if he were afraid to bring it up. "Iz was so upset and worried it nearly made her sick. It drove a wedge between the two of us. Hurt Alex. And never mind what she did to Max."

"Did Max say anything to you?" Maria asked.

"Not recently. He tried, before we knew who Tess really was. That day in science class? When Max was so distracted he caught on fire? He was having fantasies about Tess."

"What kind of fantasies?"

"What kind do you think?" Michael asked.

"Oh."

"Yeah. And she was planting them in his head. Sex on the lab table or whatever the hell it was. Right there in the middle of class, with Liz just a couple of desks away." Michael swore under his breath. "How the hell does Max just excuse that? Even if Tess is sorry now, it doesn't change what she did to us. It's an invasion…."

"And that's what you told Max?"

"Yeah, for all the good it did. I suggested that what she did to him might be contributing to his nightmares."

"You think that's possible?" Maria asked, sitting up again and swiveling to look Michael in the eye. She frowned. "But what about the stuff with Pierce?"

"Oh, sure, that's there too. No doubt that's causing the worst of it. But what Tess did stripped Max of his precious self-control before Pierce was even in the picture. In some ways, she set him up for that whole thing emotionally. I mean, she had him questioning his sanity. Liz ended up questioning his feelings for her. And then I told him I didn't look up to him anymore," he added with a sneer. "The guy has been there for me every single moment of my life. Every time I fucked up, he came in and cleaned up my messes, no questions asked. And the first time he comes to me, I turn my back on him. No wonder he doesn't want to believe me now."

"Michael, that's not true. Max trusts and believes in you. You know he does. Or else he never would have come to you in the first place. Don't blame yourself for what happened before. We had Topolsky and Tess and Nasedo to worry about. The orbs. Valenti after us still. Things were confusing enough, and Max was acting so peculiar and out of character. It wasn't your fault."

"See, that's just it. Max was acting out of character. I should have listened to him."

"You did, ultimately. Isn't that when you went and spied on Tess's house?"

"Yeah," he admitted.

"So cut yourself some slack, okay? I'm sure Max will think about what you told him and see that we need to be more careful around Tess." She curled against him, her arms wrapping around his neck to pull him closer so she could plant a kiss on his cheek. "I'm proud of you, you know," she whispered.

He turned to her, surprise clear on his face. "What for?"

"For being the only one of us to keep a level head and see things for how they are instead of through a layer of guilt. We were all so worried about helping Tess fit in once Max declared her part of the group - thinking that we weren't being fair to her because she had such a hard life - that we didn't realize she really had yet to do anything that justified the effort. Alex was nice for Iz, Liz did it for Max and managed to convince me, too." She frowned.

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure I want her working with my mom after all," she confessed.

He tugged her close and dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Tell her your mom doesn't need anyone else at the store right now, okay? She'll never suspect since you're the one who offered to begin with."

"Okay," she said with a relieved sigh.

He leaned down and brushed his lips over hers, deepening the kiss until their tongues twined together and he felt his temperature start to skyrocket. Forcing himself to pull away, he rested his forehead on hers and just enjoyed the feeling of holding her in his arms.

"Tired?" he asked after a few minutes, sensing that she was trying to smother a yawn.

"Yeah," she said. "Kinda."

"Come here," he coaxed. He swiveled so he was stretched out on the sofa and pulled her down to join him. She snuggled against his chest and felt his strong arms wrap around her. "Go to sleep," he mumbled. "Early day tomorrow."

Maria groaned. "Don't remind me. Thanks to Liz, I get to become Annie Oakley."

Michael snorted. "This I've gotta see."

She kicked at him half-heartedly, smirked when he grunted. "Watch it, Spaceboy," she said. "You're not the only one with good aim."

* * * * *

Isabel and Max went into the house through the front door, just in case either of their parents had decided to wait up for them, then crept quietly through the darkened hallway to Max's room so they could let Liz and Alex in through the window. The four of them stood looking at each other for an awkward moment until Isabel seemed to focus on Liz, registering her sundress and high-heeled sandals.

"Come with me," she said. "I'll find you something you can sleep in," she said. Then catching Alex's eye, she smiled. "I'll be back in a minute."

Liz followed Isabel quietly out of the room, leaving Max and Alex alone. Max looked questioningly at Alex. "How about you?" he asked. "You want some shorts or something?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess. Thanks."

Max turned to his dresser, staring at it briefly before shaking his head abruptly and pulling open the bottom drawer. He tugged out a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and tossed them to Alex, who caught them neatly but continued to stand there as if unsure what to do. Max sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. "Sorry about all of this."

"Hey, it's not your fault."

Max raised an eyebrow, but didn't bother to argue the point. "Regardless, I know this must be kind of strange. The whole sleeping over thing, I mean." He watched the door to make sure Isabel and Liz hadn't come back yet. "I realize that it's none of my business… the state of your relationship with Isabel," he said, looking somewhat uncomfortable. "Frankly, I really don't want to know," he added sheepishly. "She's my sister, after all. But I appreciate you going along."

"Don't sweat it, Max. Yeah, it's a little strange, but then so was getting shot at." Alex held up one hand before Max could interrupt. "And before you start apologizing again, it's okay. If I had to chose someone to get shot over, it would be you guys, every time," he said with a grin.

Max shook his head, but he was smiling. "Thanks."

"What are friends for?"

"Not this."

Alex grew serious. "Yes, they are. If you can't count on your friends when things are tough, they aren't really your friends, are they? Besides, you'd do the same for us. In fact, you have," he pointed out. He watched Max for a moment as a dozen emotions seemed to shoot across his face. Apparently satisfied with his reaction, he smiled again. "On that note, I think I'll go use the rest room." He opened the door quietly and peered out, then slipped out into the hall.

* * * * *

Liz watched as Isabel rifled through her dresser, finally pulling out a nightshirt and holding it up with a critical eye. "This should be okay," she declared, handing it to Liz. "Anything else is just going to be way too long. As it is, this is probably going to swim on you," she said, frowning slightly.

"It's fine, Isabel. Thanks," Liz said.

Isabel dropped onto the side of the bed and sighed.

"You okay?" Liz asked her.

"I guess. Physically, at least," she clarified.

Liz sat down next to her. "I know what it's like, you know. To go through that," she said. "Being chased. Shot at." A slight shiver ran down her spine, causing her to tremble briefly. "You must have been so scared."

Isabel looked thoughtful. "Actually, I think I was more angry at the time. I was scared afterwards - once we got to the Sheriff's station and it all had time to sink in. While it was happening we were moving too fast, trying to take it all in and figure out what to do. I could barely think straight."

"An adrenaline rush," Liz said. "I know what you mean."

"Was it like that when you got shot? I don't mean when the FBI was after you and Max, but the first time - at the café?"

"No, not then. I just froze that day," Liz told her, her eyes glassy as if she was focusing on the memory. "I remember someone shouting and then I just dropped. The next thing I knew, Max was hanging over me, telling me to look at him. There wasn't any time for the adrenaline to kick in. And when the FBI chased us, I was just thinking about getting Max away from them. But that night at the CrashFest, when we were trying to fool Valenti, I felt it then." She looked up and met Isabel's curious gaze. "Hearing the sound of glass breaking when you were "hitting" Maria with her car. Running over and screaming. Knowing that Jennifer and Larry were following me. Having the Sheriff come over with Max in handcuffs. I felt such a rush kick in. Like I could wrestle someone to the ground, you know?"

"Yeah. It was like that. I got shot with that laser and I felt the impact - I was vaguely aware that it hurt like hell - but it didn't matter. My brain was spinning on auto pilot, trying to figure out what to do, and then it all just came to me."

"It's a good thing, too," Liz said.

"You're telling me," Isabel agreed. "So, you wanna shoot a gun, huh?"

Liz smiled wryly. "Why not? Just because you guys have built in fire power, doesn't mean we can't help too."

"No, I think it's a really good idea," Isabel told her. "I think Max does too, deep down," she added with a smirk. "He's just annoyed because he didn't come up with it."

Liz laughed. "You know that's not true. He's not like that."

"You're right. He's just worried about you getting hurt. But he'll see this is for the best."

Liz frowned. "I hope so. He's got so much on his mind - I didn't mean to give him something else to dwell on. He just got me so mad, assuming the three of us were going to go hide under the bed while you fought without us."

"He's protective. It's who he is."

"I know," Liz admitted. "In some ways, it's his most attractive quality. It makes you feel safe, special."

Isabel grinned. "When it doesn't drive you insane."

Liz matched her smile. "Exactly."

* * * * *

Alex stood at the foot of Isabel's bed, looking self-conscious and feeling like the temperature in the room was steadily rising. Isabel was wearing pajamas that consisted of red silk shorts and a matching red T-shirt. They fit loosely and covered everything that modesty demanded, yet still made his heart race a mile a minute. He loved the way she looked in red.

Isabel, of course, appeared oblivious to the effect she was having on his overheated system. In fact, she seemed virtually oblivious to his presence. Her back was turned and she stood on tip-toe, trying to pull something off the top shelf of her closet. Whatever it was, it was not cooperating, but that was fine with Alex. Each time she reached for the mystery item, her shirt hiked up, exposing exactly one inch of perfect skin around her middle. It was a fascinating sight.

Eventually he became aware that her shirt had stopped riding up and down. "Alex? Alex, can you please give me a hand?" Isabel's voice penetrated the haze that seemed to have enveloped his brain. His head snapped up and his mouth snapped shut.

"Huh?" he asked.

Her expression was an interesting combination of amusement and exasperation. "Alex, would you help me get these down? I can't quite reach and you've got a couple of inches on me."

"Oh, sure," he agreed quickly. "What are you trying to get?" he asked as he approached the closet.

She smiled indulgently, the look in her eye letting him know she was repeating herself. "The extra pillows," she told him. "Up there." She pointed to the pillows stashed high in the closet, perched on top of several hat boxes.

Alex blushed. Here she was struggling to reach the extra pillows - for him - and all he could do was ogle her mid-drift. He reached up and gave the pillows a swipe, sending them tumbling down onto his head. He grinned when he heard the muffled chuckle behind him. Turning, he took the clean white pillow case Isabel held out to him and started wrestling it over the one of the pillows.

"Thanks," she said.

"Thank you," he told her.

She picked up the second pillow from the floor, where it had landed after bouncing off his head. Taking another pillow case, she slipped it over the pillow, smoothing it down with a practiced hand and tossing it onto the bed. Then she pulled back the sheets and looked shyly toward Alex.

"You know, I can just sleep on the floor," he told her softly. "If you'd rather."

Isabel sat on the side of the bed, watching him. He stood in front of her, the pillow held like a shield, his eyes filled with love and understanding. Her heart melted. "Don't be silly," she told him. "It's sweet of you to offer, but it's fine. Really." She patted the empty side of the bed. "Come on, Alex. It's late and we're gonna be up again in a few hours."

"Okay." He tossed his pillow on top of the first one, then went around the bed and climbed in next to her.

Isabel reached out and turned off the light, then settled down, tugging the sheet over them. She slowly let out the breath she hadn't realized that she was holding. It was silly to be nervous, she told herself. After all, she had fallen asleep leaning on Alex's shoulder before, and he had held her when she dream walked Max just a few weeks ago. Still, this was different. They were lying in her bed, under the covers, with her parents sleeping just down the hall.

"You all right?" Alex asked, his voice quiet in the darkness.

"Yeah, you?" she asked.

"Fine," he said.

She could feel him holding himself perfectly still, trying not to brush against her or invade her half of the bed. The tension was palpable. And it was ridiculous, she realized. This was Alex. She was more comfortable with him than with almost anyone else in the world. There was no reason to get worked up over sleeping in the same bed for a few hours.

Isabel sighed and rolled onto her side. "Come here," she said, reaching out and taking Alex's arm.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Just come here," she coaxed. She gave him a tug until he shifted slightly toward her. Then she lifted up so she could pull his arm around her, and rested her head on his shoulder. "Isn't this better?" she asked, relaxing into the curve of his body.

Alex curled into her, pulling her slightly closer, feeling the silkiness of her hair against his cheek. "Much," he said.

She could almost hear his smile as she snuggled against him. "Good night, Alex."

He dropped a kiss on top of her head. "Good night, Isabel."

******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:10:51 AM

Part 8

*******

When Liz walked into the bedroom, she found Max double-checking the locks on the windows. He had changed into shorts and a T-shirt, and every rippling muscle in his back and shoulders was clearly visible when he moved. Liz sucked in her breath audibly as she watched, causing him to spin around abruptly. His warm brown eyes met hers and she felt herself flush, then mentally kicked herself. It wasn't as if she had never seen him dressed this way.

A slow smile curved Max's lips, and Liz knew he was trying not to laugh. She suddenly felt incredibly self-conscious. Isabel's nightshirt hung past her knees, making her feel like a little girl playing dress up in her mother's clothes. She tugged at the neckline, which was steadily sliding off her right shoulder, trying to keep the garment in place, yet only succeeded in sending it falling off the other side. She gave up and smiled. "Isabel's a little taller than me," she said.

"So I've noticed," Max replied. His eyes fell to her bare shoulder as he started slowly toward her. "Works for me," he told her, his voice slightly husky.

Liz felt her heart do a little flip. The look Max was giving her was nothing short of scalding. An instant later she was in his arms, twining her own around his neck and sinking her fingers into his hair as he kissed her, his lips trailing along her jawline, across her cheeks, over her eyes, only to find her mouth again. She rose on her toes as his strong arms nearly lifted her off the ground, returning his kisses, her lips caressing his, their tongues dueling. There were no flashes, no distractions, just skin on skin, mingled breaths, and heat to rival the sun. Liz could feel Max steering her backward, both of them stumbling awkwardly until the bed bumped against her legs, and then they were tumbling down on top of the covers, a confusion of intertwined limbs, neither of them willing to let the other go.

Max levered himself up, dragging them both more fully onto the bed. He continued to kiss her frantically, moving down the graceful column of her neck, his lips playing over her collarbone before he worked his way toward her shoulder. She could feel her heart pounding, his heart pounding, unable to tell which was which as her blood hammered in her ears. Reaching down, she slipped her hands up under his shirt and across his smooth, warm back, pulling him closer, urging him upward, trying to recapture his mouth with her own. His lips fit over hers, angling perfectly. Each kiss was hungry, devouring, desperate.

Bells went off in the back of her head. Something was wrong. It was too much, too fast, too needy. She felt Max's hand cradling her bare knee, inching upwards. The sensations were amazing, each kiss, each touch launching a new set of fireworks. The intensity kept building until she could hardly breathe. She pulled back, struggling for air, pressing her hands against his shoulders. What were they doing? Isabel and Alex were next door, his parents down the hall, and they were just moments from….

"Max," she gasped. "Max, stop."

He lifted his head and looked down at her, his eyes glassy, his face flushed. "What? Are you okay?" He stroked her hair back with his free hand. Then he froze, suddenly realizing what they was doing, his other hand coming to a standstill on her upper thigh. He released her and pulled back a little further, clearly stunned. "God, Liz, I'm sorry." He ran a hand over his face, took a deep breath. "I don't know what happened. I almost… We were about to…" He looked horrified.

She reached out and grabbed his arm before he pulled back any further, refusing to allow him to disengage that way. "Max, we just got a little carried away, that's all," she said, smiling at him. "You certainly can't take all the credit," she added sheepishly as she smoothed his shirt back down. "And it's not like we haven't come close before," she said softly.

He shifted so he was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking somewhat relieved, his breathing slowly becoming less ragged. Liz slid across the bed, readjusting her nightshirt as she went, and settled next to him. She rested her head on his shoulder. When he took one of her hands in both of his, she allowed herself to relax. He lifted her hand and gently kissed her fingers.

"I'm still sorry," he told her after a minute. "I don't know what got into me. I practically mauled you," he said, his tone tinged with regret.

"No, you didn't," she said, closing her hand over his. "It's just the stress of everything that's been going on. We needed an outlet. And frankly, if that's getting mauled, I could definitely get used to it," she said.

"God, how I love you," he whispered hoarsely, turning to kiss her forehead.

"And I love you. Which makes all of this perfectly natural, if just a little awkward," she said.

They simply sat there for a few minutes, heads touching, holding hands. Liz was about to suggest that they try to get some sleep when she became aware of the tension gradually building in Max's body. He was holding himself more stiffly, no longer relaxed against her. She shifted slightly and realized he was staring at his dresser. She suspected she had found the source for some of his sudden desperation. Squeezing his hand tightly, she turned and kissed his cheek.

"Go and get it," she told him.

He turned, startled. "What?"

"Get the gun out, Max."

He looked at her for a moment, then stood and went to the dresser. His hands were trembling as he slid open the middle drawer and reached beneath a pile of sweaters. He drew out the gun slowly, turning it over several times. "How did you know it was here?" he asked, his back still turned to her.

"You told me…" He spun around, ready to deny it, but she silenced him with a raised hand. "I don't mean that you said something. It was out at Buckley Point yesterday. When you…"

He smiled bitterly when she trailed off. "Broke down on you?"

"Max…."

"No, it's okay," he said. "That's what I did, after all. Go ahead."

"Well, when I was comforting you, kissing you, I got a series of flashes. Dealing with Pierce," she added, watching his face for his reaction. When there was none, she frowned. "I saw you putting the gun in the drawer. That's how I knew it was there."

He nodded. He sat down next to her, cradling the gun in both hands, keeping it pointed carefully away from her. "You were wrong about one thing. It's not loaded," he assured her. "I'd never keep a loaded gun in the house." He sighed. "Of course, until you mentioned it tonight, I didn't remember having it here at all."

"What? You mean you blocked it out somehow?"

"So it would seem." He ran a finger over the barrel. "You know," he began, "taking it away from Pierce was…freeing. It made me feel utterly in control. Like I was taking back my life. Standing there, holding this, I could see the fear in his eyes. He thought he was hiding it from me, but he couldn't. It would have been so simple to just shoot him," Max said, extending his arm and aiming the gun at an invisible spot on the wall in front of them. "To pull the trigger and send him to hell where he belonged. But I didn't. Not because he deserved to live," he told her quietly, "but because it was too quick, too easy. Too easy for him. All those things he did to me in that place," he said, his voice cracking with barely restrained emotion, "I figured he was due a little payback. Some fear, some pain. Something to even the score." Max slowly lowered the gun. "But that's not how it worked out in the end, so I guess it doesn't really matter."

Liz reached out and gently took the gun out of his hands, surprised at its weight. It was all she could do to keep herself from trembling, from crying, but she knew Max needed her to be as strong as she could right now. She bit down on her bottom lip, concentrating on the pain. "Of course it matters," she told him finally, her voice steady.

He turned and looked at her and she realized that tears were streaming silently down his face. "Don't you get it? He's gone, but I'm still here, and I'm the one who's different. I'm the one who changed that day. Liz, never in my life could I have imagined wanting someone dead."

"Max, we all wanted Pierce dead." Her eyes sparked with anger. "Don't you dare sit there and judge yourself for hating that monster after what he did to you. That's as ridiculous as Michael thinking himself a killer. The world is a better place without Pierce in it. Knowing and believing that doesn't make you any worse a person."

"I just can't get it out of my head. Any of it. It's like it's locked in my subconscious, ready to blindside me the second I let my guard down."

Liz stood and slipped the gun back into the dresser and closed the drawer. She sat back down and wiped the tears from his face, then put her arms around him and pulled him into a comforting embrace. "Talk to me," she said. "Tell me. Talk to me about tonight," she amended, when she felt him stiffen. "What happened with Michael?"

He shuddered briefly before she felt him let out a deep breath and slip his arms around her waist. "Michael thinks that Tess has something to do with all of this."

"What?" She pulled back slightly so she could look at him. "How?"

"Not that she's still manipulating us, though I think he suspects she may be on some level, because he doesn't think we'd be giving her a chance otherwise. But he thinks what she did before, planting those…fantasies about her…that the invasiveness of the act is akin to some sort of metal rape," he told her. "He thinks it may be contributing to my nightmares."

"Do you agree with him?" she asked cautiously.

Max sighed. "I don't know. I told him he was wrong, but…"

"You've been thinking about it."

"Yeah. And it does make some sort of sense. I just don't know what to do about it," he said reluctantly.

"I agreed with you when you said she was a part of our lives now. I mean, with everything else that's happening, it makes sense to assume we need her. But not if she's causing trouble, Max, or hurting you. It isn't worth it." She ran a gentle hand down his cheek, feeling the light stubble against her palm. She sighed. "Ultimately, the choice is yours. None of us can make this decision for you."

"Part of me says we do need her - that we need all the help we can get. But how can I entrust our lives to someone we aren't sure we can trust at all?"

"I don't know. I guess we'll just have to see what happens," she said, though she didn't seem pleased with the prospect. "We'll all go back to being careful around her. I have to admit, it was killing me to be nice to her," she said sheepishly.

Max laughed. "I know. And I appreciate your deep seeded urge to rip her hair out by the roots, really I do."

"Max! I never said I wanted to do that," Liz declared.

"Ah, but you imagined it pretty vividly," he told her with a low laugh, nuzzling her cheek.

Liz was forced to smile. She leaned in and kissed him, tasting the salt of his recent tears. She drew him into her arms and hugged him fiercely. "It's going to be fine, you know," she whispered.

"I know," he said, holding her close. He kissed her gently, then pulled back to stare into her deep brown eyes. "I know because we make a good team. And we're just getting started. Now, what do you say to a few hours of sleep?" he asked, glancing at the clock. He groaned. "Tell me again why we have to get up early?

Liz chuckled as they climbed under the covers and huddled together in the middle of the bed, his arm around her, her head tucked against his shoulder. "To save the world," she reminded him.

"Right," he said. His arm tightened around her protectively, despite his light tone. "Good night, Liz."

"Good night, Max," she whispered back, snuggling against him. "Sleep well," she added.

"Always, with you." He kissed her once, then rested his head against hers and closed his eyes.

* * * * *

Michael scowled as he pulled the Jetta into the Evanses' driveway.

"What?" Maria asked as she tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn.

"Jeep's gone," he said.

Maria frowned. "What do you mean, it's gone? They couldn't have left already." She peered sleepily at her watch. "Too early," she confirmed. "Where would they have gone?"

"I don't know," he grunted. "Come on." He climbed out of the car and waited impatiently for her to get out and make her way to his side. Then he took her by the hand and led her around the side of the house. When they got to the backyard, he relaxed slightly. "Isabel's light's on, but the curtains are still shut," he whispered as they crept past. "Let's check Max's room."

The next window was open a crack and light was streaming through. But when they sneaked a peek through the glass, they saw the room was empty. Michael shrugged and pushed the window open a little wider. "Let me go first," he cautioned. He hoisted himself over the sill and swung his legs inside, then turned back to help Maria.

After throwing him a dubious look, she took the hand he offered and climbed over the sill, then tripped so he was forced to catch her. "What?" she snapped when he rolled his eyes. "Some of us haven't been doing this for years, okay?"

"Will you keep it down," he hissed at her. "You want the whole house to hear us?"

She pulled away, straightening her clothes and shaking her head. But when the bedroom door suddenly cracked open, she grabbed Michael's arm and took a step back before she realized it was only Isabel.

"Hey," Isabel said softly. "I thought you might be Max."

"Where is he?" Michael asked as Isabel slipped into the room, followed by Alex who closed the door behind them.

"Ran Liz home for a change of clothes. She wasn't exactly dressed in her best Rambo gear," Alex quipped.

"So, how'd it go last night?" Maria asked.

Isabel and Alex exchanged a quick look and Maria could have sworn Isabel flushed slightly. "Fine," Isabel said.

"I think she meant with Max," Michael informed them with a smirk.

"Oh." Isabel just smiled. "Yeah, he seemed okay. At least we didn't hear anything that led us to believe otherwise."

"I think I'd feel better if you said you didn't hear anything at all," Michael muttered.

Maria squeezed his hand hard and glared at him. "When did they leave?" she asked the others.

"They should be back soon," Alex said, clearly amused by the exchange.

Maria sat on the end of the bed and rolled her shoulders. "Why did we have to do this so early?"

Michael sat down behind her and started rubbing her neck. "Gee, I dunno," he said. "Maybe because we want to get a jump start on the guys who're trying to kill us?"

"Funny, Spaceboy," Maria murmured as she closed her eyes and enjoyed the feeling of his fingers easing her tense muscles. "Oh…yeah, right there. Damn it, Michael, you need to get a real bed. That couch is what's gonna kill us."

Alex smothered a laugh.

Isabel smirked, knowing what Maria meant. "How do you do that?"

Both Michael and Maria looked up. "Do what?" Maria asked as she arched her neck beneath Michael's hands.

Isabel shook her head. "That," she said, waving her hands at them. "Argue and be nice to each other all at the same time. I don't get it."

Alex slipped an arm around her waist and dropped a kiss on her cheek. "Don't go there," he advised. "It's one of the mysteries of the universe. Ranks up with why do you always end up with odd socks after doing the wash."

Isabel just shook her head and laughed.

* * * * *

The silence was starting to concern Liz. Max had driven her home without uttering a word and she hadn't thought much of it, assuming it was a combination of the early hour, too little sleep, and having too much on his mind. But they were nearly back to his house and he continued to stare at the road, driving by rote, apparently oblivious to her sitting next to him. It wasn't that she needed constant attention - she had never been the type of girl who whined if she wasn't the center of her boyfriend's universe at every waking moment. She and Max had spent their fair share of time merely sitting, not speaking, just happy to be together. After everything they had been through, they didn't take each other for granted. But this was different. This silence involved brooding and guilt and something else Liz couldn't quite place. She could feel it coming off of Max in waves.

"Stop it," she said finally. "Whatever you're thinking, just stop right now," she added when he glanced at her.

"Liz…"

"No, Max. Don't tell me you're fine or that everything is going to be okay. I'm talking about you, right now, sitting there and mentally berating yourself for something that is, no doubt, completely out of your control," she said.

He eased the Jeep over and pulled on the brake. "What do you want me to say? That I have nothing on my mind? That I have everything on my mind? That everything that's on my mind is driving me insane?" He sounded tired, resigned.

"Max, I don't want to fight with you. And I don't want you to tell me something just to keep me from worrying," she said softly. "I know that all of this is an enormous burden for you, and that in many ways you're not ready for it. None of this is fair to anyone, but it's worse for you because you insist on taking everything on yourself." She reached out and took his hand. "Just because you're in charge, doesn't mean you're alone. You're not personally responsible for the whole group. Lean on me. Lean on all of us. Let us help."

He turned to her, his expression guarded. "Liz, do you realize what you're asking? Do you really know?"

"I'm asking you to trust that I can handle this. That we all can. To believe you don't have to shelter us from every little thing. Let us help find the answers, Max."

"It's more than that," he sighed, turning away again.

"What are you worrying about? Is it Michael?"

"Partly," he admitted. "We were finally getting back to normal. We felt connected again. And I just screwed that up."

"No, you didn't," she declared firmly. "Talk to him. Tell him you thought about what he said. Admit you don't know. Max, no one expects you to be the authority on everything. You're only…" She trailed off, looking sheepish.

"Human?" he asked with a wry smile. "Not quite. But I suppose the principal still applies."

"What else are you brooding over?"

He shook his head. "I know what you're going to say…"

"When did I get that predictable?" she asked with a laugh.

"All right," he relented, his tone indicating he was merely giving in to the inevitable. "Last night…," he began. "When we were…uh…"

"Yeah," she said, her voice dropping slightly. "What about it?"

"What were you thinking about? When you stopped me?" he asked quietly.

Liz looked surprised. "You mean, why did I stop?" she asked slowly.

"Yeah, I guess," he said, avoiding her eyes. "Not that I'm saying you weren't right to stop, but…"

"You still want to know why." Liz reached out and cupped his chin, gently forcing him to look at her. "Max, I love you. That night, before we found the orb? I was ready to make love with you," she said softly, her brown eyes serious. "Just because we didn't that night, doesn't mean I ever changed my mind. Whatever was causing those flashes, whatever had us going crazy for those couple of days - that had nothing to do with how I really feel about you."

"But last night I was completely out of control," he said, his voice laden with guilt, "and you still managed to stop. What made you? I know you were just as far gone as I was," he said quietly. "Then suddenly you were pulling away."

"Did you think I was backing down? That I was scared? Max, last night there was something else going on with you. You were upset about Isabel, about Michael, about me - I could feel it when you kissed me," she told him gently. "You were running from the pressure, from every terrible thing that has happened in the last month. And I would have gladly kept going, allowed you that escape, if I had thought it would help." She leaned over and rested her forehead against his, her palm caressing his cheek. "Max, don't you see? It wasn't that I didn't want you," she told him in a low voice. "When we stopped, it was all I could do to convince you that you hadn't hurt me in any way. You kept saying how sorry you were. How would you have reacted if we'd kept going?"

Max closed his eyes. "You're right," he admitted.

"Look at me," she said. When he opened his eyes again, she pulled back slightly and smiled. "No matter what happens, I will love you Max Evans. And we will be together, I promise," she said softly, her cheeks flushing a light rose color, "But it won't be with your parents and Isabel sleeping down the hall," she told him.

He wrapped a hand around the back of her neck and pulled her closer, kissing her deeply, his mouth warm and demanding. When he pulled back he smiled, seeing the spark in her eyes. "Liz, I don't know what might happen if we make love," he told her softly. "I wish I could give you some sort of guarantee that everything will be fine, but I can't. Whatever else we know or don't know about ourselves, I know this much - I'm not normal," he said gently.

"What's so great about normal?" she whispered, then leaned in and kissed him. "I'm willing to take my chances. We'll just make it up as we go," she murmured against his lips.

He returned her kiss, then put his hands on her shoulders and gently pushed her away. He traced one finger over her lips. "We better get going," he said reluctantly. "They'll send out a search party if we don't get back soon."

She dropped a quick kiss on his finger. "Wouldn't do for the fearless leader to be late," she grinned.

"Leader maybe. Fearless is another story," he said, turning to start the Jeep.

"Max, no one expects you to be fearless. The day you tell me you're not afraid is the day I start to question your sanity," Liz said seriously.

He shot her a smile, then pulled the Jeep back out onto the road.


*******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:13:17 AM

Part 9

********

Michael paced restlessly across the driveway. Maria sat on top of the trunk of her car, watching him go back and forth with the regularity of a pendulum. Isabel and Alex stood a few feet away, talking quietly. When the sound of a motor drifted from the end of the block, they all looked up expectantly. A moment later, the Jeep came to a stop in front of the curb.

Changing direction abruptly, Michael strode toward Max and Liz as they came across the lawn. "Are you all right?"

"We're fine," Max said calmly. He glanced at his watch. "Sorry. We didn't mean to keep you waiting." Then he looked up and saw the barely masked concern lingering in Michael's eyes. He reached out and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Nothing happened," he said quietly, his tone apologetic.

With a curt nod, Michael turned and headed back toward the others.

Max shot Liz a look and shook his head. "I just have to grab some stuff from inside," he told everyone. "Then we can go." He disappeared around the side of the house.

Liz walked over to where Michael was lounging in a deceptively casual pose against the Jetta, his hip just brushing Maria's dangling legs. Alex was propped on Maria's other side, one elbow resting on the car. Isabel had started to pace in Michael's stead, though in her case it seemed a case of excess energy. She stopped as Liz approached.

"Did something happen?" Isabel asked. "I mean, obviously you weren't attacked, but you both seem so subdued," she said with a frown.

"We were talking," Liz told her. "Don't worry." She turned to Michael, who was watching her intently. "I told my dad that you called in sick. Some kind of stomach flu."

He nodded. "Thanks."

"What about us?" Maria asked. "We're both on later."

"If it looks like we're not going to make it, I'll call home on the cell."

"And tell them what?" Maria groaned. "When was the last time all three of us worked as scheduled?"

"It's not that bad," Liz said. "And we'll think of something. I can tell them we ran out of gas."

"Where?" Alex asked. "Albuquerque?"

Isabel sighed. "I'm really sorry about this, you guys. I know how Max and I hate to keep lying to our parents, and we just keep dragging you deeper with us."

Liz smiled reassuringly. "Don't feel bad. It's our decision."

Max returned, his book bag slung over one shoulder. "Okay, let's go," he said. Meeting Liz's questioning glance, he nodded slightly. "Michael, why don't you come with me? That is, if you don't mind taking everyone else?" he asked Maria.

Maria hopped down off the back of the Jetta. "No problem." She gave Michael a quick kiss and held her hand out for her keys.

Michael looked at Max suspiciously, as he dug the keys out of his pocket and gave them to Maria. He turned and ran his thumb over her cheek briefly, then silently followed Max out to the Jeep.

Max pulled out and idled a moment just past the driveway, waiting for Maria to pull up behind them. When he caught her little wave in his rearview mirror, he continued down the street. Neither he nor Michael spoke as they drove through town.

Once the shops and houses had been replaced by small trees and dusty slopes, Michael decided enough was enough. "Okay, Maxwell, what's this all about?"

"I just thought we should talk," Max replied.

"Which is why you haven't said a word in the last ten minutes," Michael shot back. "Look, Iz told me about you asking Valenti to pick up Tess."

"I've been thinking about what you said last night."

"And?"

"And I'm really sorry I brushed you off," Max said quietly, glancing over. "I was wrong to dismiss your concerns out of hand like that."

Michael didn't say anything for a moment. "So, you mean you think I'm right?" he asked cautiously.

Max sighed. "Honestly? I haven't a clue. But I agree we need to be careful around Tess. I'm not sure why we've all let our guard down so much - if she had something to do with it, or it's just rationalizations on our part. I guess part of me wanted to accept her because of the message."

"You've got a habit of letting your big heart rule your brain," Michael observed.

"What do you mean?"

"Face it, Max. You feel sorry for Tess. You know she grew up with Nasedo. You know she's lonely. And I think some part of you feels guilty about leaving her behind in the pod chamber," he added.

"Maybe," Max said slowly.

"Just remember what she pulled before we knew who she was. And how she acted toward Liz, Alex, and Maria all along. Even before our secret got out, we never treated humans like they didn't count."

"She seems to be getting along better now, though."

"Only if she's being up-front with us," Michael pointed out, his voice rising. "That day at the mine, before we went after Pierce, she wanted the four of us to go hide out in the pod chamber and to hell with the others. Don't tell me she believed for one minute they'd be safe. She didn't care. That was only a couple of weeks ago."

"Damn, how could I have forgotten about that?"

"You may have had some help."

Max looked thoughtful. "Nasedo said that Tess wouldn't be able to manipulate us once we'd developed that power for ourselves. That we'd sense her presence in our minds."

"I guess we add that to today's schedule, huh?" Michael said.

"We can't make her suspicious of us, though. I want to be able to watch her without having to wonder if she's censoring her actions."

"Right."

Max groaned. "Like we didn't have enough to deal with."

"We don't exactly have a choice." Michael frowned at his own words. "You know, Maxwell. We all just assumed this whole thing was okay with you. The leadership deal, I mean. You do kinda come to it naturally, after all. But we don't expect you to carry us."

Max chuckled. "Funny. Liz said the same thing this morning. Thanks, Michael," he added in a more serious tone. "I know. We can handle it. Besides, as you said, it's not like we have a choice."

Michael eyed him for a moment, then nodded for lack of a better response. It was obvious Max was getting slightly more sleep, but that seemed to be the only improvement in the situation, and even that was tentative at best. He suddenly found himself wishing for one of Alex's comic relief moments. If anyone could use a good laugh, it was Max.

* * * * *

"From summer camp to boot camp in just a few short years," Alex announced with a grimace as he climbed out of the back seat of the Jetta. "Why does that not feel like a step up to me?"

Isabel stood next to him and stretched. "Don't worry, Alex. I'm sure the Sheriff won't make you wear fatigues." She looked toward the Jeep where Max and Michael were standing, deep in conversation. "Of course, maybe Max will," she added thoughtfully, earning a swat in the arm from Alex.

"Are you saying drab green's not my color?"

Isabel rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.

Liz and Maria stood listening to the quiet banter, but their eyes were on Max and Michael. Maria had started over to them as soon as she had gotten out of the car, but Liz had held her back. Even from where she stood, she had been able to see the serious expression on Max's face. Whatever they were discussing, she suspected they would not appreciate an interruption.

"It's good that they're talking," she said in a low voice.

Maria nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Michael hates being at odds with Max. He feels so helpless."

"There's a lot of that going around these days," Liz said.

"What do you mean? I thought Max was okay?"

"It's not that simple," Liz told her. "Things are too crazy right now and too much has happened for a few night's sleep to be a quick fix. I'm so worried how this is affecting him, Maria," she said softly. "He needs time to deal with what he's gone through, and instead new problems keep popping up one after another. And Max being Max, he just keeps right on shouldering the responsibilities."

Maria took one look at the sadness in Liz's eyes and swiftly enveloped her in a hug. "Just hang in, Lizzie," she whispered in her ear. "Hang on for the ride like the rest of us. And cross your fingers."

"I am," Liz whispered back. "What else can I do?" She gave her friend a hard squeeze, then pulled away. "They're coming over," she said, putting on a smile.

Max was looking at his watch. "It's only eight-thirty," he said, so we have some time before the others get here. I need to say something to all of you." Everyone gathered around, their faces attentive. "I'm sure you've heard Michael's theories about Tess," he began. "Well, I agree with him. I don't know if she has really changed and wants to work as a group, or if she has a hidden agenda, but as Michael pointed out, she has demonstrated a willingness to manipulate all of us through extraordinary means. And it hasn't been that long since she last did so. For all we know, she's still at it. But I want to keep her close. So, please, be careful, but try not to let her know we've become suspicious."

"But if she's manipulating our thoughts, how can we stop her?" Alex asked.

"Unfortunately, I don't know of any way to protect the three of you from her, except to warn you to question whatever you see," Max said. "Michael, Isabel, and I should be able to learn to manipulate thoughts as well, which, at least according to Nasedo, will make us aware of any attempts Tess makes on us."

"And that's why we can't tip our hand," Michael finished for him. "If she thinks we trust her completely, she may try to get into our heads not realizing we can tell. Then we'll know for sure."

"We need to practice," Max said, "and I don't want to do it with Tess around. Let her assume we're considering the physical side of our abilities more important, given the attack last night." He looked a little hesitant. "The thing is, the three of us are so connected, it's hard to try this among ourselves. We're too open to each other already."

"So try on us," Liz said immediately.

"It makes the most sense," Alex agreed.

Maria nodded. "We trust you."

Max smiled thankfully. "I didn't want to ask…"

"Max," Liz cut him off. "Don't be silly. Of course it's okay."

"There's a catch," Michael said.

Maria frowned. "What do you mean, a catch?"

"We don't think we should split up into couples, either," Max told them. His eyes fell on Liz. "Same reason. We're already susceptible to connecting to each other."

"Okay," said Alex. "So we do a mix-and-match deal. Who's with whom?"

Max smiled again. "Alex, you come with me. Liz with Michael and Maria with Isabel. Okay?" Everyone murmured their agreement. "Good," Max said. "Now let's start, because we don't have much time before Tess arrives."

They divided up, each pair moving a short distance from the others so as not to distract each other. Liz found herself standing with Michael about a dozen yards from the Jeep. He looked uncharacteristically nervous. "Michael, it's okay," she told him. "Go ahead."

"I can't believe Max thought this was a good idea," he muttered.

"What?" she asked. "Learning mind control?"

"No, trusting me not to blow up your brain," he said.

Liz laughed, surprising Michael. "So, what? It would have been okay to blow up Maria's head?" she asked, unaccountably amused.

"That's not what I meant…"

"I know," she said, still smiling. "Relax, Michael. I'm not worried."

"Why not?"

"Well, for one thing, you've been getting much better at controlling your powers. And for another, you already know most of what's inside my head," she said softly.

Michael nodded. "I guess I do." He let out a sigh. "All right then. Let's give this a whirl." He closed his eyes and concentrated.

Liz stood in front of him, feeling rather foolish. There was nothing she could do but wait and see if she saw… something. She didn't even know what he was trying to plant in her mind. How would she know if it was working? She looked around, trying to determine if there was anything out of the ordinary in the area. Everything looked just as it always did. The quarry, the water beneath them, the jagged cliffs, the sun low in the morning sky. What was different? Anything?

Michael opened his eyes and ran his hands over his face, clearly frustrated. "This isn't working," he growled.

"Maybe you're trying too hard," Liz suggested. "I don't pretend to know how this works, but I do know that when I'm studying something for school that isn't making sense, I can get so tense trying to understand that I make myself nuts. But if I walk away from it and relax, then come back, it seems perfectly logical."

He looked at her, clearly considering what she had said. "Okay," he said. He refocused on the horizon for a minute and took a few deep breaths, shaking out his arms a little. Then he turned back toward Liz and closed his eyes again.

Liz waited expectantly, her eyes on Michael. He was obviously concentrating, but he'd lost a little of the tension around his face. She couldn't help but smile at his willingness to try her advice. It wasn't that long since his opinion of her ideas had lurked somewhere below ground level.

And then she saw it. There was no doubt in her mind that Michael had created the image. It was the symbol from the orbs, hovering in the air just to her right. It looked like a bright blue brand, glowing roughly four feet above the ground. As she watched, it shimmered slightly before fading away. When she turned back to Michael, his eyes were open again.

"You saw it, didn't you?" he asked, just the barest hint of pleasure in his voice.

Liz smiled. There was something so endearing about the way Michael lit up when his powers were working properly. She ached for him, thinking of all that had happened to make him doubt his abilities. "I saw it," she said quietly. "The symbol, right?"

He nodded, looking even more pleased with himself. "What color was it?"

"Blue," she said. "It looked beautiful," she added, earning herself a smirk.

A few yards away, Isabel and Maria were positioned facing each other. Isabel had closed her eyes and was trying to concentrate, but she kept breaking out laughing.

"What?" Maria finally asked. "What is so funny? I'm just standing here!"

Isabel opened her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to control her giggling. "It's not you," she told Maria. "I swear. Look, I'll try again, okay? Just hold on." She closed her eyes again and took another breath. Then she bit down on her lower lip and forced herself to focus. She pushed her energy gently outward, thinking of Maria as she did so.

Maria let out a sudden yelp and whacked Isabel in the arm. Isabel instantly opened her eyes and started to laugh hysterically.

"I cannot believe you showed my Michael in a tux," Maria hissed at her. "You are just plain evil," she declared. But she smiled a little as she shook her head. "He does look good that way, doesn't he?" she asked in a low voice, eliciting another series of chuckles from Isabel.

Alex stood in front of Max, his mouth gaping wide. The air around him was shooting with sparklers in a rainbow of colors, zipping and circling him like acrobatic fireflies. Max opened his eyes and smiled at the look on his friend's face. It taken him a couple of tries, but he had finally succeeded in planting the thoughts in Alex's mind. He managed to keep the images going for another moment before allowing them to fade.

"Wow," Alex said. "That's a handy little trick to pull on dates. You should try that with Liz," he said, leaning close in mock confidentiality. "I'm sure she'd be impressed."

Max laughed and patted Alex on the back. "I'll keep that in mind," he told him.

Alex's grin dimmed slightly and he straightened up. "Uh… Max?"

"What is it?"

"Well, either you're still making me see things, or the Sheriff's on the way."

Max turned and looked in the direction Alex pointed. "Yeah," he said. "They're here." He noticed everyone else had gradually moved back into the group. "Well, guys, looks like we finished up without a moment to spare. We'll practice some more later," he told them. "It appears to be show time."

******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:15:24 AM

Part 10

********

The Sheriff parked next to the Jetta. When he opened his door and climbed out, his expression was drawn. A moment later, both of the passenger-side doors swung open and Tess and Kyle emerged. Tess appeared even more tense than Valenti, her lips pressed tightly together. Her eyes found Max as she slammed her door shut.

"Uh oh," Alex said. "Someone's not happy," he muttered under his breath, earning a poke in the ribs from Isabel.

Kyle remained half-hidden, his back to them as he reached into the rear of the car and rummaged for a minute. He proceeded to pull out several small cases, and a large tote bag with "Roswell Sheriff's Department" emblazoned on the side. Unlike Tess and his father, Kyle seemed at ease when he finally turned toward the group. He shouldered the bag and headed over, a placid look on his face.

Michael nudged Max. "What's Kyle doing here?" he whispered.

"It was my idea," Max replied in a low voice. "When I called the Sheriff this morning, I asked if Kyle would mind coming too."

Michael raised his eyebrows, but Max shot him a warning look, then went to greet the newcomers. He turned first to Valenti and shook hands. "Sheriff, thanks for coming out. We appreciate the help." Pivoting toward Kyle, Max extended his hand again. "You too, Kyle," he added. "Thanks."

Kyle took Max's hand and shook it firmly. "No problem, Evans. I told you I'd help out anyway I could." Shooting an amused look toward Liz and Maria who stood a little to one side, he chuckled. "Can't say I ever thought this was what you'd ask for, though."

Max smiled uncomfortably. "Frankly, neither did I."

"Kyle, give me a hand here?" Valenti asked. "Max, we're going to head down and set up the targets," he said, indicating the path into the quarry.

"Thanks," Max said. "We'll be right down."

Tess had been hanging back, keeping away from Kyle and his father, but as soon as they picked up their equipment and started down the hill, she stepped forward. "Max, the Sheriff told me what happened last night," she said. "Is everyone all right?"

"Fine, Tess," he said.

"Why didn't anyone call me?" she asked.

"There wasn't any point in worrying you before it was necessary," he told her. "There was nothing you could have done. You were safer where you were."

"You'd gone home hours before it all went down," added Michael, who had casually joined Max when he saw Tess approach.

She nodded slowly, though she seemed less than pleased with their explanation. "Well, I'm just glad no one was hurt," she said.

Max and Michael exchanged looks. "Actually," Max said, "Isabel got hit in the shoulder," he said. "With some kind of laser weapon."

"What?" Tess's voice rose an octave. "Isabel? Oh my God!" She spun around toward where Isabel had been talking with Alex and Maria. "Isabel, I just heard you were hurt," she said. "Are you okay?"

Isabel looked up, torn by the concern she heard in Tess's voice. On the one hand, she wanted to believe that Tess was genuinely on their side, but now that Max had reminded them of how Tess had manipulated them, she found herself uncomfortable in the other girl's presence. She realized she would have to be extremely guarded if she wanted Tess to think she still trusted her fully. "I'm fine, Tess. Thanks. It really wasn't that bad," she told her with a smile.

"But it could have been…," Tess started to say, then obviously thought better of it. "So, Max healed you?"

"Actually, she did it herself," Alex said, his voice full of pride.

Isabel's smile widened and she gave a little laugh. "I keep telling him I haven't mastered walking on water quite yet, but he doesn't seem to believe me," she said.

Maria snorted. "I knew there was something about you - as I recall, only witches float."

Isabel glared at Maria, then in an uncharacteristic moment of playfulness, stuck out her tongue. Both Michael and Alex instantly burst out laughing, setting off Maria, Liz, and Isabel as well. Tess frowned, apparently not seeing any humor in the situation.

Smothering a smile, Max decided it was time to intervene. "Let's get down to business, guys," he said. "The reason we're here is to get some training in."

"What about Alex, Liz, and Maria? What are they going to do?" Tess asked.

"They have their own target practice to work on," Michael said with a smirk.

"They're going to learn to protect themselves, too," Max explained. "Things are getting serious and we all need to be prepared."

Liz smiled. "Don't go acting like it was your idea," she teased.

"Did I say it was my idea?" he asked her, a look of mock innocence on his face.

"No," she admitted. "But you also left out how you thought I'd lost my mind."

He reached out and gave her hand a quick squeeze, tugging her a little closer. "I never thought that," he whispered.

Alex cleared his throat noisily. "Uh… did someone say something about work? Not that I'm really anxious to become a gun wielding maniac, mind you, but we should really get started if Liz and Maria are going to make it to work on time."

"Yeah," Maria agreed unenthusiastically. "Might as well get it over with." She smiled when Michael dropped a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"Right," Max agreed. He reached into the back of the Jeep for his backpack and slung it over his shoulder. "Let's go." Still holding Liz's hand, he started to lead the way down into the quarry.

Everyone headed down the steep path to the level area where the Sheriff and Kyle had set up a make-shift target area. There was a sturdy looking frame that held the standard target, an outline of a man with circles drawn to indicate the most desirable target spots. Kyle had pulled several sets of hearing protectors out of his bag and lined them up neatly on a small boulder, following them with protective glasses. The Sheriff was removing a gun from one of the cases and checking it over thoroughly. He looked up when Max approached.

"We're about ready here, Max." His eyes dropped to Liz. "How about you? Ready to learn to shoot, Miss Parker?"

"As I'll ever be," she said with a smile.

Max took her by the shoulder and made her face him. "You don't have to go through with this you know," he told her.

Liz shook her head. "It's important, Max. I'm ready."

"So, I guess that means you go first," Alex told her. "The rest of us will just watch and learn."

"You'll all watch for now," the Sheriff said sternly. "I'm going to start off with how you care for and handle a weapon." He turned to Max. "You four sitting in on this or are you doing your own thing?"

Max considered, his eyes travelling over the group. "We have our own skills to work on," he admitted. "But I would like to watch for a few minutes. See how things go." He edged closer to the Sheriff. "Did you make that call we discussed?"

Valenti nodded. "Left the message that I could be reached on my cell."

"Good. Okay, I guess we should get moving." Max turned, aware of Liz's eyes on him. "Don't worry," he said with a smile. "I just need the information I asked Nasedo for, and I can't wait until Monday."

Something resembling apprehension flickered through Liz's eyes, but she nodded and it was gone. "Where do we start, Sheriff?"

He gestured to the rest of them to gather around. Isabel looked pointedly toward Max as they all moved closer. "I thought this was just for Liz, Alex, and Maria?"

"It is," he agreed. "Why don't the three of you go ahead and start. I'll be there in a minute."

"You sure?" Michael asked.

"You had a really hard time with this last week, Max," Tess reminded him, her blue eyes studying him carefully. "You can't afford to lose any practice time."

Max met Tess's gaze for a long moment. Then he took three purposeful strides past all of them, extended one hand, and sent out a series of blasts into the distance that exploded three small rocks in a row. From where he stood behind the others, the Sheriff let out a long whistle.

"Holy shit," Kyle muttered, his mouth hanging open slightly.

Turning back to his amazed friends, Max raised one eyebrow in Tess's direction. "I told you, I was having an off day last week," he said. "Now, if you're satisfied, I suggest you go ahead with Michael and Isabel."

Tess looked taken aback, but started in the direction he had indicated. Isabel followed, a smile playing across her lips. Michael scowled, his eyes on Tess's departing back. "You think that was a good idea, Maxwell?"

Max shrugged. "I haven't a clue. But you know what? It felt good," he told him with a smile.

Michael shook his head. "Fine. At least that's something," he muttered, heading after the others.

* * * * *

"All right, kids," Valenti said. "School is now in session. Before we start I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I do not believe in arming teenagers. These are extraordinary circumstances and that is the only reason I've agreed to do this." His stern gaze fell on Max. "Mr. Evans, you do realize that, although I've agreed to Miss Parker's request to learn to handle firearms, these weapons are coming home with me when we're done?"

Max nodded. "Yes, sir, I do. And you're right to do that. I'm not asking you to break any laws for us, Sheriff," he said simply.

"Fine then. Let's begin." He turned and took the gun that Kyle was holding out for him. "This is a SIG Sauer, 9mm. We'll start with it as it's lighter than a .45 and has less kickback. Once you get a feel for shooting, we may give something else a try."

Alex raised his hand. "Uh, why bother? I mean, a gun is a gun, right?"

Valenti glared sternly at Kyle, who was attempting unsuccessfully to muffle a snort. "Technically, Mr. Whitman, the principal is the same, yes. But the difference in heft can affect your ability to shoot properly, especially for someone of Miss Parker's stature. The added weight might prevent her from holding the gun steady long enough to fire off more than a few rounds."

"So, this gun is lighter and easier to handle," Maria said.

"Well, lighter," the Sheriff said with a smile. "Now, I want you all to stand around me, but keep back. I'm going to demonstrate how to check your weapon and load your clip. Normally, you never load a gun unless you plan to use it, understood? An idle weapon should always be empty."

They all gathered behind the Sheriff, close enough to have a clear view, but still back far enough that he had an open area where he could safely point the gun. As they watched, he ran through the steps required to prepare the gun, loaded the clip, and demonstrated the safety. Then he reversed the procedure and went through it once again. Finally, he handed both the gun and clip to Liz.

"You're up," he informed her. "Think you're ready to tackle it?"

Liz chewed on her bottom lip, but nodded. She could feel everyone's eyes on her, particularly Max's, but she focused on the weapon in her hand. For a moment she thought of Pierce's gun and how she had felt taking it from Max the night before. A slight shiver ran down her spine, but she braced herself and pushed the memory away. Step by step, her nimble fingers ran over the gun, repeating what the Sheriff had done until it was loaded. She looked up and met his steady blue gaze. "How's this, Sheriff?"

Valenti nodded his approval. "Good. Now take it apart."

Liz carefully reversed the steps. When she was finished, the Sheriff had her reload the gun before he took it from her.

"All right. Now we learn to shoot. Kyle? Wanna help with this?"

Kyle came forward and handed everyone hearing protectors and glasses, then took the gun from his father. He faced the target, standing approximately ten yards away, the gun held down at his side.

"When you shoot a handgun, don't try to aim. Statistics say that people are very accurate when they merely point at a target, but the moment they get concerned with aiming the weapon they start missing by a mile." The Sheriff waited while everyone donned their protective gear. "Okay then. Kyle?"

Pointing the gun straight ahead, Kyle fired several shots, each clearly puncturing the target. The others watched.

"Notice that he's relaxed, supporting his shooting arm with his free hand. Of course, this is an ideal situation," the Sheriff pointed out. "No one is shooting back. Liz, think you're ready to try?"

"Okay," she said. She stepped up and took the gun from Kyle, smiling weakly when he winked at her. "What do I do?"

The Sheriff came up behind her as Kyle stepped back. He reached around her and showed her how to position her arms. "Now, you're just going to squeeze the trigger, okay? Point and shoot. You'll feel some kickback, but it shouldn't be too bad."

Liz pointed the gun at the target, trying to concentrate on the chest area. She braced her right hand with her left, took a deep breath, and squeezed. The gun jumped in her hands. With the hearing protectors on, the shot sounded dull and flat. A mixture of smoke and cordite reached her nose, causing it to twitch. She steadied the weapon, and fired again. Each shot jolted her arms, but she kept going until she had run through the entire clip. Then she slowly lowered her arms, relaxing the iron grip she had on the gun. She rolled her shoulders experimentally, suspecting she would be stiff tomorrow from just this small effort. Her elbows felt like jelly.

She turned and handed the gun to the Sheriff. When she met his gaze, he smiled. "Well done, Miss Parker," he told her. "Let's see how you did."

Liz shot a glance toward the others while Valenti went to retrieve the target. Maria looked relieved, while both Alex and Kyle looked vaguely impressed. When her eyes met Max's, she saw love and pride in equal measure. He came toward her and kissed her forehead gently. His hands strayed to her neck and he eased his fingers over the stiffening muscles, gently rubbing the tension away. "We'll take care of this later," he whispered. "No aches and pains for you, I promise."

His words brought a smile to her lips. "Thanks," she replied, relaxing against him for a moment.

"Impressive," the Sheriff remarked when he returned, target in hand. "These three shots here in the center were Kyle's, but the rest were yours, Liz." He held up the paper so they could see the holes in the chest and stomach area. "Four clean shots. Not bad for a beginner."

Liz smiled. "Thanks, Sheriff."

"So," he said, turning to Alex and Maria. "Who's next?"

"Ladies, first," Alex said, shooting Maria a mischievous smile.

Maria groaned. "Fine."

Max laughed. "Okay, guys. I'll leave you to it. I'm sure you'll both do wonderfully." He squeezed Liz's shoulder one last time, then tossed his hearing protectors to Kyle. "I'm going to go do some work of my own."

"Good luck," Liz said, throwing him a cautionary look.

"Thanks," Max replied. Then he headed toward the spot where Michael, Tess, and Isabel were having their own target practice.


*****

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:17:14 AM

Part 11

*********

Isabel sent out a pulse of energy that pulverized the small rock serving as her target.

"Pretty impressive."

She turned at Max's comment and grinned. "Thanks. I think I could get to like this," she admitted.

Michael snorted. "First Liz, now you. When did girls get to be so blood-thirsty?"

"You know that has nothing to do with it," Isabel said. "We need to be able to protect ourselves - to fight. And it feels good to have a practical use for our powers. Something more important than reheating coffee or changing the shade of my lipstick."

"Personally, I'd be fine with reheating coffee. Worst thing that happens, you burn your tongue," Michael muttered.

"How did Liz do?" Isabel asked Max, ignoring Michael.

"She hit the target," he replied, a half-smile playing across his lips. "More than once. Valenti seemed pleased." Max broke out in a grin. "Kyle looked kinda shocked."

Isabel laughed. "Bet he's sorry he ever gave her the idea."

"Maria's up next," Max said, glancing over at Michael. "Just in case you want to go watch."

Michael hesitated, then shook his head. "I'd only make her nervous."

Max didn't argue the point. Instead he shot a look at Tess, who had been standing quietly, taking in their conversation. "So, what do we work on next?"

"I'd say you're a bit beyond target practice," Tess replied archly. "Did you want to work on thought manipulation?"

After pretending to consider her suggestion, Max shook his head. "It's an important skill, granted, but I think we should concentrate on improving what we know we can do. We might need to defend ourselves at any turn. We don't have the luxury of starting from scratch with a new ability. I think maybe we should continue with target practice, working on distance and aim," Max said. "See if we can hone the skill, become as accurate as possible."

"That makes sense," Tess replied.

Max thought she seemed just the slightest bit relieved by his response, but her expression was too carefully guarded for him to be certain. Trying to shake off his suspicions for the time being, he turned to the task at hand. "How far have you been standing from your targets?" he asked.

"We've been firing from here," Isabel said as she took a few steps back to where Michael was standing.

"What do you say we take it back another ten yards?"

Michael grimaced, but dutifully paced back a dozen paces. "Here?"

"Looks good," Max told him. "What do you say, Tess? You going to practice with us?"

"I might as well. Seeing as how our lives are probably at stake," she said.

The four of them lined up and took turns firing at the rocky outcroppings more than thirty yards away, the blasts serving as counterpoint to the gun shots coming from the other side of the ridge. As they progressed it became apparent that in this, as with everything else, they had their individual strengths. Michael clearly demonstrated the most destructive firepower, while Max came a close second. However, Max had more control over his bursts of energy and was able to direct them with more accuracy. Isabel had more trouble reaching the target at the greater distance, but up close she had the most precision of the group. Tess had the best precision mid-range, but seemed unable to muster the power necessary to shoot over a long span.

When they had all taken a turn, Max went over to check out the damage they had caused. Waving his hand over the rocks, he managed to mask any signs of their handiwork. Although they had never seen anyone else at the quarry - hence the decision to use it for their practice grounds - he didn't want to risk someone noticing the unusual blast marks in the rocks.

"Max, Valenti's calling you," Michael called to him.

He looked up and saw the Sheriff waving to him from the distance. Nodding toward the others, he started up the slope that separated them from the area where the other target practice was taking place. As he drew nearer, he saw the Sheriff was holding his cell phone, and picked up his pace.

"That call you've been waiting for," Valenti told him, handing him the phone.

Max nodded his thanks and took the cell. His eyes fell on Liz. She had followed the Sheriff part of the way and was standing nearby, quietly watching him. Max flashed her a quick smile, then deliberately turned and started to walk out of ear-shot.

"Yes," he said into the phone.

"I understand you've had some trouble."

Max froze at the sound of the voice. Although logically he knew he was talking to Nasedo, the voice was that of Agent Pierce. It sank into his brain, stirring unwanted memories, threatening to wrench away his hard-won self-control. He took a deep breath before answering.

"Yes. I need that information. Now. And I'm going to need some other things. Supplies."

There was a pause at the other end of the phone. "The information isn't a problem. What type of supplies did you have in mind."

"Weapons," Max said curtly. "Handguns. Ammunition. Whatever you can get your hands on."

"And just what do you propose to do with them? Hide them under you bed?"

Max clamped down on his temper. Both the questions and the tone were enough to set him off, but to hear them couched in Pierce's voice was too much. He clenched his teeth. "Take everything to the pod chamber. Meet me there, tonight."

"That might be difficult, under the circumstances. I need time to fill this type of request."

"Just be there. With whatever you can bring. Someone tried to take a piece out of my sister last night," Max hissed. "I can't give you any more time. Ten o'clock." Without waiting for a reply, he flipped the phone shut with a snap.

Looking up, Max discovered he had drawn quite a bit of attention. Michael, Isabel, and Tess had followed him up the ridge and were standing a short distance away. Tess appeared mildly curious, but Michael wore his trademark scowl and Isabel was frowning in concern. They were too far away to have overheard, but Max suspected they were still close enough to interpret his body language. Clearly, they did not like what they saw. Which meant Liz was probably having the same reaction.

Sure enough, when he turned in the other direction, he found Liz standing precisely where she had been a few moments earlier, her brown eyes following his every move, her forehead wrinkled in concern. Maria and Alex stood just a few feet behind her, and while not exhibiting the same worry he could sense in Liz, neither of them looked pleased. Kyle and Valenti were standing to one side, attentive, but apparently reserving judgement.

Max walked over and handed the Sheriff his phone. "Thank you," he said. "Okay, everyone. Back to what you were doing."

Michael shook his head as he came closer. "No way, Maxwell. What did Nasedo say?"

"Nothing much. He's going to meet me tonight with the information I requested."

"Meet you where?" Liz asked.

"Don't worry about it," Max hedged.

"Max, you can't meet him alone," Isabel said.

"She's right, Maxwell. Your rules, remember? No one goes anywhere alone."

Max sighed and rubbed at his face. "Fine. Michael, you can come. We'll discuss it later." His eyes met Liz's . "We do not have time to talk about this right now," he said pointedly. "There's too much to do." He turned to Maria and Alex. "Did both of you get a chance to shoot?"

Maria nodded, rubbing her forearms absently. "Yeah. Liz has us both beat, though."

Alex shrugged. "Come on, DeLuca. Don't tell me that surprises you? Liz was always the best shot at those stupid games of chance at the CrashFest." He shot Max a grin. "Seems she started training to kill the evil aliens at a young age."

Liz whacked him in the shoulder, eliciting a quiet groan. Alex reached up and rubbed at his stiff muscles and shot Isabel a pleading look.

Kyle snorted. "Good, Whitman. Can't wait to see what you do with the .45 next time." However, when Isabel walked over and started to gently rub Alex's shoulders, Kyle stopped talking and shook his head disbelievingly.

"I don't get it," Maria said abruptly.

"What don't you get?" asked Michael as he came up behind her. He reached around and started gently massaging her arms, causing her to moan softly.

"Uh… I don't get how we think this is going to work," she replied in a soft voice.

Everyone was quiet, their faces turned toward Max.

Max smiled wryly. "I guess what you want to know is if we're all heading out to get ourselves killed, is that it?"

"Max, no…" Liz began, but stopped when he touched a finger to her lips.

"It's a perfectly valid question," he said. "We don't know what we're up against. And if anyone wants out, now is the time to say so, because there's no way of knowing if you'll get another chance." When no one said anything, Max nodded, but his expression was serious. "I can't give you any guarantees," he said. "All I can do is promise that I will do my best to make sure every one of us comes through this in one piece."

Liz reached out and took Max's hand, giving it an encouraging squeeze. "We know that, Max. We're all in this together."

Max sighed. "I wish we had more answers. Hopefully, Nasedo will be able to shed some light on things. Give us an idea of how many of these enemies of ours we might have to face. But we do have one thing going for us."

"What's that? Our sparkling personalities?" Alex asked.

Max chuckled. "No. Though that doesn't hurt," he said. "I'll bet Kyle knows what we have that these evil alien beings don't." He shot a glance at Kyle.

"Me? How would I know?"

"Come on, Kyle. You're our resident athlete. You know what I'm talking about."

Kyle raised his eyebrows, then smirked. "Of course. We've got the home advantage."

"The what?" Michael asked.

"Home advantage," Max repeated. "This is our territory. We know the area. We all grew up here. And when you get right down to it, we're basically human. These beings are strangers - unfamiliar with Roswell. That's one thing in our favor."

Isabel smiled. "We'll take what we can get."

"Okay," Max said, clearly looking to change the subject. His eyes landed on Maria. "Why don't you guys head back to town. Liz and Maria, you two need to be at work soon anyway. Besides, it won't do you any good to get so stiff you can't move tomorrow."

"What about you?" Liz asked.

"The four of us will get some more practice in and head back this afternoon." Max rubbed a hand over the back of Liz's neck. "I'll come by the Crashdown later."

"Okay," Liz said with obviously reluctance.

"Kyle, why don't you start packing this stuff up," Valenti said. "I'll give you a hand in a minute." He started carefully cleaning the handgun they'd used for practice.

"Right, Dad," Kyle said. He turned and started dismantling the target.

"I'll help," Tess offered quietly.

Kyle looked up, his gaze wary. "That's okay. I've got it."

Tess nodded and backed away as he went about gathering the hearing protectors and stowing them in the duffel bag.

Isabel watched the exchange in silence. She noted that, even after Kyle refused her assistance, Tess's eyes followed him as he continued to clean up. Looking to Max, she saw her brother was already paying attention to Tess's behavior. Catching his eye, she raised one eyebrow questioningly. Max merely shrugged, apparently no more sure of what to believe than Isabel was.

Max, Michael, Isabel, and Tess walked the others back to the cars, then stood and watched as they drove off, leaving just the Jeep parked near the path into the quarry. Max held up a hand to shield his eyes from the sun as the Jetta's tail lights faded from view.

"You think they'll be okay driving back?" Michael asked, putting to words what had been running through Max and Isabel's minds as well.

Isabel sighed. "Let's hope so."

"Valenti's with them," Max pointed out.

"For what that's worth," Michael added.

"No one's after them," Tess said. "They're fine as long as we're not around."

Max and Michael exchanged a quick look and Michael shook his head. "Why don't we get back to work," Max said. Then the four of them started back down the slope into the quarry.

******

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:18:57 AM

Part 12

*********

For once, Liz was grateful for the Saturday crowd at the Crashdown. She and Maria kept busy all afternoon, bustling to keep up with the constant flow of customers, left with little time to worry or to wonder what the others were doing at the quarry. Unfortunately, when her mind did start to wander, Liz found herself thinking about whomever or whatever had gone after Isabel and Alex the previous night. Aliens in a limo - it seemed almost surreal. What did they look like? Would they look human, like Max, Michael, and Isabel? She knew it was not only possible, but also likely, which meant they could be anyone - anywhere. That would be their plan, to blend in and mingle with the locals in order to avoid being spotted. With that in mind, Liz suddenly found herself studying every face at every table, trying to determine whom among the strangers were ordinary tourists and who might be something more.

By late afternoon, Liz began to wonder what was keeping Max. Catching Maria's worried glance, she could tell that she was also concerned. They had all gotten such an early start that morning that it seemed unlikely the others were still out at the quarry. As the café began to grow quiet in what was the usual pre-dinner lull, Liz found herself checking the clock more and more frequently, until she realized she'd had a forced smile plastered to her face for more than an hour. It didn't help that her forearms were starting to ache and her shoulders to stiffen, serving as constant reminders of the morning's adventure. Each time she lifted more than one plate, she winced at the pull on her muscles.

She rang up a customer, brought out some fresh pies for the evening crowd, wiped down the counter - all the while trying to keep her imagination in check. Was this the way things were going to be from now on? Always wondering, always thinking the worst the moment one of them was late or unaccounted for? She refused to allow herself to succumb to paranoia. There were any number of things they could be doing on the way back to town, like dropping off Tess or picking up Alex. Michael was supposed to be out with the stomach flu, which meant he wouldn't come to the café at all, for fear of being spotted by one of her parents. Taking him home made for another stop. The logic of her own argument gradually helped her to relax a little. Then, noting the obvious tension in Maria's expression, Liz decided to try to calm her friend's nerves as well.

Maria was clearing dirty dishes from one of the booths, her movements slow and precise. Liz smiled. "You're starting to feel it, too, aren't you?"

"Yeah. My arms are like rubber bands that were stretched too much. Kind of all over the place," Maria said with a grimace. She piled another dish in the bin in front of her. "What's taking them?" she asked, turning worried green eyes toward Liz.

"I'm sure everything's fine. It's not that late."

Maria shook her head. "I know. I just feel so wound up. Like something's going to happen. Do you think I'm crazy?"

"No, you're not crazy," Liz said in a low voice. "After everything that's been going on, we'd be crazy not to be on our guard. But whatever eventually happens, I don't think it'll be tonight."

"Why not?"

Liz shrugged. "I'm not sure. But I don't think the four of them together are in any danger right now."

"You mean that whoever's after them would try to pick them off one at a time first," Maria said.

"Yeah," Liz agreed reluctantly. The thought hardly seemed reassuring. "Look, why don't you go take your break now? I'll finish up with this."

Maria eyed her. "You sure? Your arms must hurt as much as mine do."

"I'll be okay. Go on, so I can get a few minutes before the rush starts, too."

"Right. I guess I'll be in the back. Holler if you need me."

Liz nodded and turned to finish clearing the table. She stacked a few more dishes into the bin, then decided to see if she could still lift it. It wouldn't do to drop the entire load because her arms chose that moment to go on strike. Grabbing securely onto the sides, she lifted it a few inches over the table, then set it back down and added two more plates. Her arms would complain, but she didn't think they would give out.

Suddenly a tingling awareness suffused her entire body, causing her to smile. A moment later a pair of strong arms wrapped around her from behind and Max nuzzled the side of her neck. "Miss me?" he whispered.

Liz let go of the bin and swiveled in his arms so she was facing him. "Yes," she whispered, kissing him hard. "I did. What kept you?"

Max kissed her back, his tongue just teasing at her lips, then pulled away. "Had to make a few stops on the way."

Out of the corner of her eye, Liz noticed Isabel and Alex sliding into a booth. "What about Michael? Did he go home?"

"Nah, he's out in the Jeep. Didn't want your parents to spot him, but he still wanted to see Maria. We sent her out when we got here."

"Ahh. You came in the back," Liz smiled. "That explains why I didn't hear you guys come in."

Max frowned. "You were too busy trying to lug that thing," he said, indicating the load of dishes behind her. "Aren't your arms sore?"

"Maybe a little, but I still have to do my job, Max," she reminded him.

"Time for a rest," Max informed her. He took her by the shoulders and gently moved her to one side. Brushing past her, he quickly cleared the remaining dishes, then lifted the bin easily despite the added weight. "Where do you want it?"

Liz shook her head, but allowed him a small, pleased smile. "In the kitchen," she told him. She couldn't help but admire the definition of his back and arms as he turned and walked across the café. Partly in an attempt to keep her hormones in check, she went over to the counter to get him a soda.

"Thanks," she said when he returned a moment later. "Cherry Coke," she added, handing him the glass.

"Thank you," he said, taking a long drink as he leaned against the counter next to her. "So, you want me to do something about your shoulders?" he asked softly. "At least to tide you over," he added cryptically.

"What do you mean, to tide me over?" she asked, wrinkling her nose at him.

Max leaned close so that his lips brushed her ear. "I mean, until I can do a more thorough job tonight," he whispered, his tone deeply suggestive.

Liz felt herself growing warm and wondered if she was blushing. "Um… I should wait… for Maria to get back from her break," she stammered.

Max grinned wickedly as he moved away. "All right," he said. His grin faded when he saw something flicker briefly in Liz's eyes. "What?" he asked.

She dropped her gaze and shook her head. "Nothing," she told him quickly.

"Liz… tell me."

When she looked back up, his heart dropped. Her eyes were teary. "It's just that, for a split second…"

Max gently cupped her chin with one hand and brushed a strand of hair off her cheek. He could read guilt, misery, and shame in equal measures in her deep brown eyes. He hated it. "For a split second you weren't sure it was me," he finished.

"Max, I'm sorry…."

"Shhh," he said, pressing a finger to her lips. "I'm the one who's sorry. I'm sorry you ever had reason to question it for even an instant." He drew her into his arms and held her, rubbing her back soothingly.

"But I knew it was you," she said, clinging to him. "I did. I felt you when you came into the café. There was just something about the way you smiled… I'm not being rational."

"Nothing that's happened to us the past few weeks has been rational," he reminded her.

"I know," she sighed. "But I'm still sorry." She pulled back and gave him a quick kiss. "I guess I was a little worried before you got here," she admitted. "It seemed so late and I was letting my imagination get the best of me."

He ran a finger along her cheek. "We'll get past this," he said. "Just like we've gotten past the rest of it."

Liz forced herself to smile. Though in reality she felt far from reassured, she refused to compound Max's worries if she could help it. "I know," she said. "Why don't you have a seat? I'll go see if Isabel and Alex want anything to eat, and then I'll be back." She pulled out her order pad and headed across the floor as Max perched himself on a stool.

She could feel his eyes following her as she worked - as she took Isabel and Alex their drinks, topped off a customer's coffee, swept a handful of change off one of the tables. He shook his head when she came back to the counter, watching as she pocketed the measly tip.

"Cheap," he observed.

"Kids," she replied with an accepting smile.

The door to the back swung open and Maria came into the café. Liz smirked, observing her friend's freshly applied lipstick and crooked antenna. "Maria," she said, tapping her own headpiece and looking at her pointedly.

Maria reached up and grinned, adjusting her headband so the antenna were straight. "You wanna take your break now, Lizzie?" she asked with a sideways glance at Max.

Liz laughed. "Yeah. Thanks. Come on," she told Max.

The moment they reached the back room, Liz flopped on the sofa with a groan.

"Hurts, doesn't it?" Max asked.

"Yes, it does," she said with a little pout. "And if you say one thing about it being my own fault, I'll never speak to you again."

"I was just going to say that waiting tables all afternoon probably hasn't helped any," he said. "Are your parents home?"

"Yeah, upstairs. Why?"

"Well, I was going to tell you to stretch out on your stomach, because it would give me better leverage," he said. "But I suspect your parents wouldn't be thrilled with that pose if they came down the stairs and saw us."

"So I take it this means you're using the standard backrub method?" Liz asked.

"Unless you want to be covered in silver handprints," he pointed out.

"Right," she said. Shifting slightly, she made a face as her muscles complained. "An old fashioned massage sounds fine to me," she said.

Max kneeled on the couch behind her, gently pulling off her headband and putting it to one side. "Let your head drop forward," he coaxed, running his fingers over the back of her neck. When she complied, he started making gentle circular sweeps with his fingertips, gradually increasing the pressure as he worked his way down. He rolled the collar of her uniform away from her neck and began kneading the muscles along the top of her shoulders, using his thumbs to work the tension from her back.

Liz moaned as she felt Max's hands massaging away the aches. His touch was light, but firm, and he was sending warm waves of electricity through her tired frame. When he wrapped his hands around the top of her arms and began rubbing his way inch by inch toward her wrists, she thought it was the most incredible thing she had ever felt. Each manipulation of his fingers made her sore muscles relax just a little bit more. By the time he took first one hand, then the other, and massaged the tendons with gentle, even strokes, she felt completely limp from head to toe. She felt him brush a kiss against the nape of her neck. Then she was vaguely aware of him saying something.

"Liz? Liz, are you awake?" Max asked, sounding more than a little amused.

"Mmmm," she murmured. "I say super powers are vastly overrated," she whispered softly as she leaned back, dropping against his chest. "You definitely have magic fingers, Max Evans, silver handprints or not."

"I guess that means you feel better," he said, unable to keep the satisfied smirk off his face.

"Much. Thank you," she said, shifting to snuggle against him.

"Uh, Liz? I thought you had to go back to work."

"In a minute," she said, lifting her head and looking up at him with a gleam in her eye. She snaked an arm around his neck and pulled him down so she could kiss him.

"Remind me to give you backrubs more often," Max mumbled against her lips between kisses.

"I thought I was getting another one later," she reminded him, her voice husky.

Max pulled back and looked into Liz's eyes, then gently cupped her cheek with his hand. "I'll see what I can do," he said before angling his mouth over hers one last time. "Okay," he said, forcing himself to pull away. "Back to work for you."

Liz frowned, but stood up. "Are you going to hang around for a while?"

"Yeah," he said, standing and giving her her headband. "I told Michael I'd pick him up at his place after dinner."

"And then afterwards, you'll come back, right?"

"Of course," he assured her. "How else can I give you another backrub?"

"Good," she said softly. She hesitated a moment, chewing on her bottom lip.

"What?" he asked, his tone soft.

"Promise me you'll be careful?"

"I promise," he said. Dropping a kiss on her nose, he turned her around and gave her a gentle shove toward the door. "Work. Before Maria sends out a search party."

Liz shot him an annoyed look, then headed back into the café.

*****

TBC
posted on 15-Sep-2001 8:20:33 AM

Part 13

********

It was dark when Max parked the Jeep in front of Michael's building. Inside, the dim hallway smelled vaguely of boiled cabbage, causing him to wrinkle his nose as he made his way toward Michael's apartment. He knocked quickly, then opened the door and went in.

Michael was sitting on the couch in front of the TV, eating a bowl of corn flakes. He glanced at Max with a look of mild surprise. "You're early," he commented.

Max nodded as he eyed Michael's makeshift meal. "Dinner?" he asked as he sat down on a rickety chair.

"No time to shop." He eyed him suspiciously. "What's up, Maxwell?"

"I need you to do something for me."

Michael didn't say anything, but he leaned forward and turned off the television. Setting his bowl on the coffee table, he sat back and waited.

"You're not going to like it," Max warned.

"Just spit it out."

"I need to meet with Nasedo alone tonight."

Michael scowled. "What happened to traveling in packs?" he asked.

"I know what I said, but…."

"But you think you're immune to the same dangers that could lay the rest of us low, is that it?" Michael demanded.

"No, Michael," Max replied firmly. "Just the opposite," he said. "Will you let me explain?"

"Fine. Explain."

Max sighed heavily. He got up out of his chair and started pacing the length of the small room, his long, restless strides eating up the space. "There are a couple of reasons," he said. "Part of my motivation is purely selfish and I'll admit it. I need to have it out with Nasedo and I have to do it one-on-one. Much as I'd like to believe he's on our side, I'm still not totally convinced we can trust him when it comes to Liz, Maria, and Alex." He turned to look at Michael, trying to gauge his reaction, but unable to do so.

"I don't see why I can't be there for that," Michael said flatly, his voice edged with challenge. "It affects all of us."

"I know," Max agreed. "And if that was all this was about, we wouldn't be having this conversation. But there's more."

"What else?"

Max stopped pacing and met Michael's gaze head on. "I can't risk something happening to both of us," he said baldly. "If anything happens to me, you're it, Michael. That's what being second in command means."

"Then I should go instead of you," Michael said after a long pause.

"No good. We don't know if Nasedo will listen to you. Hell, I'm not sure how much attention he's paying to me."

Michael got up and walked over to Max, his expression remarkably soft. "Maxwell, why think of this now?" he asked quietly. "What are you not telling me?"

"Nothing. I promise," he said, his eyes serious. "But things are getting out of control. We can't take any needless risks. I don't think anything is going to happen tonight, but I don't want to chance it. It's too important." He laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Please, Michael."

"Would this have anything to do with the fact that you're meeting at the pod chamber?"

"Why would it?"

"That's where we set off the signal, where we used the orbs," Michael remarked. "Stands to reason that the signal was traced back to that exact spot, doesn't it?"

Max turned and walked to the window. His back to Michael, he nodded.

"So, you actually do expect trouble tonight, don't you? That's why you don't want me there."

Again Max nodded.

Michael sighed. "I don't like it. It's too dangerous for you. Too many things can go wrong."

"It's just as likely that nothing will happen at all. I actually suspect that what happened last night with Iz and Alex was an accident," Max told him, continuing to stare out the window. "Whoever was watching didn't intend to tip their hand, but they thought Isabel had spotted them. If that's the case, I shouldn't have any problems tonight."

"It's a theory," Michael admitted. "Maybe even the right one. Either way it doesn't matter…"

"Michael, I have to do this," he said, cutting him off.

"I know you do. And, much as I hate to sit around and do nothing, I'll stay here."

Max spun around, his mouth agape. "You will?"

"Did you really think I wouldn't understand?"

"It isn't a question of understanding, Michael. And I don't like it any more than you do. But it's the way things are."

"You're right. We don't have much of a choice. And I trust you," he said quietly. "Just watch your back," he added, his tone steely. "I'm not bucking for a promotion."

Max looked grim, but he nodded. "I'll be careful. And thanks."

* * * * *

The drive out of town was uneventful. Max maintained a reasonable speed the entire time and kept one eye carefully trained on his rearview mirror, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, there wasn't much behind him to be seen - no cars, no trucks, no limousines driven by enemy aliens. He half expected to spot Michael trailing after him in Maria's Jetta, having stubbornly decided it was his duty to help Max. But all he found reflected in the mirror was a sky full of stars and the steadily shrinking lights of Roswell.

Try as he might to jog his memory, he had only the barest recollection of making this same trip with Tess just a few weeks before. He remembered waking up to find her in his bedroom in the middle of the night, and he remembered feeling compelled to take her hand, but after that everything was foggy. It frightened him to think that her abilities were so advanced that she had been able to coax him into following her blindly into the desert without a second thought. It was only once she had pulled off the road near the rocks concealing the pod chamber that he finally had snapped out of his daze. And then be had gotten angry. Of course, he had believed her to be Nasedo at the time. But it had been more than that - more than the idea that she was a shapeshifter, a killer, someone who was endangering the people he loved. The anger stemmed from a sense of having been violated, of having her crawling inside his mind like a burglar, invading his thoughts so that his mind was no longer truly his own. She had trespassed - and made herself at home - and had sent him spinning over the edge of his control.

The sight of the rocks looming ahead jarred Max's thoughts back to the present. How ironic, he thought, to be coming here now to meet with Nasedo - who was posing as Pierce. Everything felt tied up together in his brain, like a Gordian knot that he had no clue how to unravel. This was the place where the answers first began to flow freely, where the four of them began their sojourn on this planet, where they brought Nasedo back from the dead - and apparently where they had alerted their enemies to their presence. It was also where he had nearly lost Liz. What more would this place witness before they were done?

He spotted an army-green Hummer parked at the foot of the path that led to the pod chamber and pulled up next to it. Before he climbed out of the Jeep, he grabbed a large flashlight from his book bag and, covering the head to douse the light, flicked it on and off swiftly to test it. While the half-moon and stars provided ample light to see by now, it would be a different story entirely once he was inside the rocky chamber at the top of the hill. Max surveyed the area swiftly, then started up the path, stepping as lightly as he could to keep noise to a minimum. When he reached the chamber, he waved his hand over the rock until the handprint became visible, then fit his palm to the glowing mark and waited until the wall shifted to reveal the entrance. Then he flipped on the flashlight and slowly went inside.

Max saw him the moment he cleared the doorway. He was still in the guise of Pierce, with his dark hair and dark suit and his penetrating eyes that seemed to look directly into your mind. Max's first instinct was to lower the beam of his flashlight so that it no longer illuminated that face - a face he had no desire to see again, no matter who was wearing it. "Would you mind?" he asked, concentrating on keeping the waver from his voice. "I think I'd prefer to be speaking with someone else."

"Of course," Nasedo replied, with just a hint of Deputy Fisher's Texas drawl. He held out his hand and it began to glow, forcing Max to shield his eyes. A moment later, Agent Pierce was gone and Ed Harding stood in his place. "Better?" he asked, seemingly amused.

Max merely nodded. "Thank you." His eyes fell to the binder in Nasedo's hand. "Is that the report?"

"Yes." Nasedo handed him the book. "I'm afraid it does little more than verify what you already know. There are aliens headed to Roswell."

"There are aliens already in Roswell," Max snapped. "And one or more of them decided to pursue my sister and my friend in a high speed chase through the center of town last night, shooting lasers at them while they were at it. I need specifics. How many? Who are they?""

"You don't actually believe that the FBI has that kind of information, do you?" he sneered. "The only reason they know so much about us is that we crashed in their backyard and they had the good fortune to capture a few specimens. The rest is rumor and innuendo."

"So you're saying that we're working completely in the dark."

"In effect. Though it sounds like you at least have some idea as to their weapons technology. What I don't understand is why you feel the need to build an arsenal. I've managed to bring you an assortment of handguns and ammunition, but your powers are much more effective. Particularly if what you say is true and your enemies are armed. It implies their abilities don't match your own."

Max crossed to the boxes resting on the floor of the cave and began sorting through the contents. "The guns are for the others. They need to be able to protect themselves. We can't always be with them."

"You're arming the humans?" Nasedo asked, his tone incredulous.

"If necessary," Max amended. "I'm hoping it won't be."

"That's a sight I would dearly love to see - your little girlfriend toting a gun. Be careful she doesn't shoot you in the foot."

Max rose and stepped menacingly toward Nasedo. "Leave Liz out of it."

Nasedo merely arched an eyebrow. "Gladly. You're the one who seems hell-bent on dragging her into it."

"My relationship with Liz is none of your business. I've told you before that none of our friends are to be hurt. I'm taking it a step further." Max inched closer to Nasedo, his eyes fierce. "Stay away from Liz. Don't even think of touching her," he said, his voice barely a growl. "Or so help me, I'll make you wish you never set foot on this planet. You're not the only one with hands that glow."

Nasedo remained silent until Max finally backed away. "I see you've been hearing about our little road trip," he observed. "You shouldn't let it bother you. After all, she was under the impression that I was you," he said, an amused smile gracing his lips. "And you really should remember that you still need me. The last thing you want right now is to have the FBI breathing down your neck."

"That's business. This isn't," Max hissed. "You know where I stand."

"Ah, yes. But there's one more thing, Max," Nasedo said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "My powers are still a bit stronger than yours." So saying, he raised one hand and, before Max realized what was happening, he'd sent him flying into the nearest cave wall. The impact as his back slammed into the rock made Max's eyes roll and he slumped to the ground, fighting to hold onto consciousness.

"Sorry about that," Nasedo said. "But you're strong. You'll bounce back. And rest assured that I'll continue to maintain my cover within the Bureau." He took a few steps toward the door, then turned and shot Max a smile. "You've just learned two of the more important rules of combat. Don't allow your opponent to make you lose your temper. And never assume that just because you lead, everyone will automatically follow. You know how to reach me." With that, he was gone.

Max remained sitting on the ground, his head spinning, waiting for the waves of nausea to cease. Reaching up with one hand, he gingerly prodded the back of his head to make sure his brains weren't spilling out unnoticed. He had a lump already forming, but other than that, the surface damage appeared to be minimal. After a few minutes, he slowly stood up, bracing himself with one hand to guard against dizziness. When he realized that he was actually upright, he closed his eyes and concentrated, running mental fingers over his spine and shoulders and head, healing the bruises caused by the collision. It took him several minutes, but when he was finished he was able to move normally again, and his head no longer felt like it was orbiting his body.

Unfortunately, this thoughts were spinning faster than ever. He had no idea what had just happened. Of all the possible scenarios he had considered for the meeting, this one had never entered his mind. What did it mean? Was Nasedo really on their side, as he claimed? And if he was, what did that make this evening's performance - some sort of psychotic alien version of tough love? The leader of your people is getting too cocky - so you beat some sense into him by throwing him into a wall? Not the teaching method Max would have preferred.

Still feeling a bit bruised, emotionally if not physically, Max carefully bent down and picked up his flashlight, then headed for the doorway. Peering through the opening, he could see that Nasedo was long gone. He turned off the flashlight and slipped cautiously through the door, waving his hand to close it firmly behind him. Within moments there was no trace of the entrance. Standing with his back to the rock face, Max remained perfectly still, listening for any sounds that seemed out of place. When he had assured himself that all was quiet, he began to gradually make his way down the path. His eyes darted back and forth, scanning the area for signs of movement. Once he finally reached the Jeep, he kneeled down and checked beneath it to make sure there was no one hiding there, then glanced into the back seat as well. Satisfied that he was truly alone, Max tossed his flashlight into his bag, climbed behind the wheel, and started back toward home.

He was a little more than a mile from town when the shaking began. It started with his hand. He was reaching for the radio dial to turn up the volume on a particularly sappy love song, thinking how Michael would roll his eyes and Isabel would groan if they were with him, when he noticed fine tremors running through his hand. He flexed his fingers a couple of times, then put his hand back on the wheel, thinking it merely a slight reaction to the shock. But it didn't stop. Instead, it grew worse, and by the time he parked the Jeep in the alley next to the Crashdown, Max was shaking from head to toe as if the temperature had dropped down to freezing.

It took a great deal of effort for Max to climb the fire escape up to Liz's roof. The muscles in his neck and shoulders had tensed in response to his trembling, and the stiffer he became, the more difficult it was for him to reach for the next rung on the ladder. Finally, he was able to haul himself over the wall. There was no sign of Liz, either on the roof or in her room, but Max was in no shape to go anywhere. He collapsed onto Liz's lawn chair with a low moan.

By concentrating all of his energy, Max found he could isolate his muscles, one by one, and force them to relax. Lying there, focusing as best he could, he slowly coaxed his body to let go until the shaking finally stopped completely. The effort left him utterly exhausted. His eyes fluttered closed, shutting out the stars, and he felt himself drifting toward sleep. A part of his mind ordered him to fight it - told him to drag himself up off the chair and to go in search of Liz. But he was too tired to move, and he knew Liz would come upstairs sooner or later. With every inch of his frame finally lulled into a state of blissful rest, Max gradually allowed his mind to do the same. Just a little nap, he told himself, as he eased into sleep. A nap until Liz came to look for him.


END

******

Continued in Home Bound