|posted on 16-Sep-2001 10:44:09 AM|
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 fifth in a series. I recommend that you read "You Can’t Go Home Again" and its sequels, "House of Cards", "Home Is Where the Heart Is", and "The Home Advantage", prior to reading this, or it won’t make much sense.
* * *
Michael Guerin slammed his hand against the living room wall, causing the window to rattle in its frame. There was still no sign of Max. Turning away from his view of the street, he paced the length of the small room for what seemed like the hundredth time, combing his fingers restlessly through hopelessly disheveled hair. The red numbers on the digital clock winked mockingly at him – 11:28. Max had been gone for nearly two hours. It was a short drive to the pod chamber and the meeting with Nasedo was supposed to have been brief, so Michael estimated that Max should have been safely back at the Crashdown by eleven at the latest. But if Max had come back, Maria would have called, and the phone had yet to ring. All of which told Michael that Max was still somewhere out in the desert, and that he had been a fool to go alone.
"Which makes you the bigger fool for letting him go," he spat out, wondering not for the first time why he had gone along with Max’s plan. It had seemed so logical at the time. The fate of two planets rested on their shoulders. How could they be so reckless as to put themselves both in danger? Max had been cool and clear-headed and rational as he explained the situation, despite his obvious doubt that Michael would listen to him. And so Michael had decided he could be just as reasonable as Max, and had agreed with him.
"Fat lot of good it does if he gets himself killed," he muttered, pacing back to the window and leaning his forehead against the cool glass. The more he thought about it, the more ridiculous Max’s actions seemed. He was their leader, but first he was their friend, brother, family. Nothing was more important than that. It had been only two weeks since they had rescued him from Pierce, and that night Michael had vowed there would be no more leaving anyone behind. Now Max had gone off and put himself in danger again. It was wrong. They were a team. It was the only way they would survive – Max had said as much. So what had he been thinking tonight? What had made Max so sure he had to do this alone? Michael thought of Max’s nightmares, and briefly wondered if his friend was really coming apart at the seams. Then he shook the thought off, reminding himself that Max was the most rational, pulled together person he knew, and that he was in no position to criticize him for the occasional reckless act.
But something was still off. The thought kept running through Michael’s head as he recalled his earlier conversation with Max. He couldn’t help but feel he was missing an important piece of the puzzle. Max had come to his apartment determined to go meet Nasedo alone. It was more than the chance that their enemies might show themselves – this went beyond a desire to protect the group. Under his logical, rational façade, Max had been angry, and it was that anger that seemed to be driving him. He’d said something about not trusting Nasedo with Liz, Maria, and Alex, but it wasn’t the first time he had questioned the alien’s attitude toward the humans. What could have happened to escalate Max’s emotions sufficiently to break through his iron self-control? Something would have had to have happened to Liz…
"Hell," Michael muttered, reaching for his keys. Here he had been torturing himself trying to figure out what was going on when it was perfectly obvious that he should ask Liz. She might not know outwardly why Max would feel the need to face Nasedo alone, but Michael was willing to bet his next paycheck that she inadvertently had something to do with it. All he needed to do was to ask the right questions.
He headed for the door, then stopped mid-stride, swearing hotly under his breath. Liz had told her parents he was in bed with the stomach flu in order to get him out of work that morning, which meant he couldn’t go to the café if there was any chance of the Parkers seeing him. He glanced once more at the clock. The Crashdown should be closed, but sometimes on a busy weekend night they would stay open late to give the last of the customers a chance to finish up and clear out. Often one of Liz’s parents would come down to help clean up on a particularly crowded evening, so that everything would be ready for the morning rush. Something told Michael that, it being the first Saturday of summer vacation, the café had been packed all night. Just the situation that would have required an extra set of hands.
Hesitating for just a moment, Michael stared at his keys. If he went to the café and was careless and the Parkers saw him, he might be out of a job. But Max’s life could very well be in danger. He shook his head. It wasn’t even a question. Without another second thought, Michael strode out the door, pocketing his keys on the way. He was done with waiting. It was time to get some answers.
* * * * *
Max felt as if the walls were closing in on him. The room was too dim for him to actually be able to see, but he could sense the narrowness of the quarters. It was becoming more difficult to breath by the minute as the air in the small cell seemed to grow thinner, and he felt a shiver of panic race along his spine, causing his skin to tingle with awareness. Then suddenly he was lying on the floor of a large, white room. The ceiling and walls were perfectly smooth, with no obvious definition to them and no visible door. Still, there was more air in the larger space and Max found himself inhaling deeply, his hungry lungs expanding greedily. But when he tried to get up, he discovered he was unable to move. He seemed to be paralyzed from the neck down, his muscles frozen in place. The most he could manage was to lift his head. Staring down at himself, he could see that his body appeared normal – there were no restraints of any kind holding him to the floor – but his limbs would not budge, as hard as he tried. He could feel himself thrashing around, struggling against whatever was holding him prisoner, but outwardly his body continued to lie motionless.
The panicky feeling was growing and Max forced himself to clamp down on it, trying desperately to maintain his self-control. It didn’t work. His thoughts were spinning away from him, allowing the fear to build. What was happening? Why couldn’t he move? Where was he and why couldn’t he remember how he had gotten here? It seemed that whatever had weighed down his body was having a similar effect on his brain. His memory was suddenly faulty, refusing to allow him access to anything but more questions, which only made him more afraid. Lifting his head again, he twisted from side to side as much as his limited mobility allowed, searching for answers in the surrounding space. But though he could see nearly three quarters of the room, all that stared back at him were endless white walls.
When the muscles in his neck began to scream, Max let his head fall back to the floor. He closed his eyes, shutting out the overbearing whiteness all around him, and tried to relax by concentrating on his breathing, fighting to ignore the hollow pit in his stomach and the frantic beating of his heart. In and out. In and out. As long as he was inhaling and exhaling at regular intervals, he knew he was still all right. Whatever was going on, he would get no where if he allowed himself to fall apart. He needed to be calm – to be able to think rationally.
The sound of footsteps behind him shattered his good intentions. He felt his body tense again in automatic reflex, and strained to see whom stood just out of his range of vision. There had been no opening of a door, no indication that anyone had entered the room. Had they been there all this time, watching him struggle, amused at his fear? He felt his pulse kick up a notch as his heart raced faster.
"Who’s there?" he called, but his voice was shaky and barely audible. Swallowing hard, Max tried again "Who are you? What do you want from me?"
There was no reply. The silence enveloped him once more. Twisting his neck to the right, Max lifted his head again, rolling his eyes upward in a last ditch effort to see the last corner of the room. Nothing. There was no one there. He went limp, confusion sweeping through him. He had heard someone, hadn’t he? He was sure that he had. And more than that – he had felt someone there. Was his mind playing tricks on him? Get a grip, he scolded himself. He had no idea what he was up against, but he knew that he had to keep his wits about him. It was the only way he would be able to escape.
Max closed his eyes again and tried to calm his racing heart. He needed to keep his fears in check, formidable as they were. It knew it was possible. He had done it before. But even as he attempted to control his breathing, he sensed someone in the room with him again. A presence. It was nothing like the awareness he felt around Michael, Isabel, and Tess. Nor was it similar to the bubbling rush of energy he got from Liz. This was different – dangerous – like a cold cloud over his heart. He fought the urge to look, trying to maintain his focus on his body’s rhythms. It was important to maintain control. He could not allow himself to be distracted by phantom sounds and random feelings. "There’s nothing there," he murmured quietly to himself.
And then he heard it. A laugh so close to him, so deeply chilling, that Max felt his heart freeze in his chest. His eyes snapped open, then grew wide. Kneeling next to him on the hard white floor, leaning over with a sneer on his face, was Agent Pierce. Max shook his head, struggling anew, desperate to get away from Pierce, yet as helpless as a fly in a web. "Nooooo," he breathed, unable to keep the fear from his voice. "It isn’t possible. You’re dead. We killed you."
Agent Pierce cocked his head, then sat back on his heels. "So you did," he replied, allowing the words to drip with Deputy Fisher’s Texas drawl. "Funny how death doesn’t stop some people."
Max blinked, some of the fog lifting from his brain. "Nasedo," he said.
The man grinned. "A little slower on the uptake than usual tonight, aren’t you?" he said. "I rather like this form, you know. Much as it appears to bother you. Though there was one I did find preferable." He stood and spun around, and when he faced forward once more Max was looking at himself. "Ah yes… the leader himself." He flexed his hands and stretched his arms high over his head. "So good to be young and strong, isn’t it Max? And of course, attractive. That definitely has its benefits."
Suddenly Max felt the floor start to spin rapidly, and it seemed like he was watching himself grow farther and farther away. Everything grew incredibly bright. He closed his eyes, trying to stave off the waves of nausea that assaulted him as the room turned into a gigantic kaleidoscope, the white walls a wash of brilliant colors – rich blue, amber, emerald green, violet, shiny gold, crimson – all twisting and morphing until he was dizzy with it. In the distance he could hear Nasedo’s laughter, though the voice was his own, echoing crazily through the chamber. Then completely without warning the room stopped moving and Max felt a jolt run through him as if he had been dropped from a great height. Insane laughter continued to surround him, reverberating through his body, making him cringe.
"Yes, definite benefits," Nasedo said, amusement clear in his voice. "But then you’re quite familiar with those, aren’t you Max?"
There was something about the satisfied tone of Nasedo’s voice that terrified Max. Almost against his will, he found himself opening his eyes, blinking at the light now filling the room, which had returned to its original sterile white. As soon as he was able to focus, his heart stopped. On the far end of the room, Nasedo once more resembled Pierce, but that wasn’t what had Max trembling. Cuffed to the wall, her hands high over her head, dressed only in a flimsy hospital gown, was Liz. Her face was streaked with tears, her long hair spilling haphazardly over her shoulders, and her eyes held an unfocused, haunted look.
"Oh, God," Max whispered, his voice hoarse. "No. Liz. Liz, look at me," he begged. When she refused to meet his eye, Max felt the bottom drop out of his entire world. He turned his gaze on Nasedo. "Let her go. Now," he said, his voice filled with all of the stern authority he could muster.
Nasedo threw back his head and laughed. "Really, Max, you can be most amusing." He reached out and ran a finger along Liz’s cheek, slowly tracing his way down her jaw and neck, drawing a line between her breasts, his hand following her as she whimpered and tried to shy away, flattening herself against the wall. The entire time he kept his eyes glued to Max, as if measuring every second of his reaction and enjoying his helplessness. "Why would I ever want to let her go? She’s proven to be quite entertaining company."
Max felt tears of frustration fill his eyes and blinked them back ruthlessly. "You don’t care about her. It’s me you want, me you hate. Liz has nothing to do with any of this."
With two long strides, Nasedo was by Max’s side. "Fool," he spat. "Always assuming you know what’s going on. Thinking you have the answers. That your way is always right. You’re no leader. You’ve become too weak – too human – to be of any use to anyone. Your emotions rule your every move, erasing any trace of objectivity you ever might have had. And these… friends of yours," he sneered, waving a hand at Liz, "these humans you hold so dear. They will get you killed if you let them."
"That’s not true," Max said, trying to keep his voice even, though the very proximity of this man who resembled Pierce had his nerves close to the breaking point. "They care about us, help us. They’ve stood by us through everything that’s happened."
"Nothing has happened yet," Nasedo shot back. "And I won’t allow them to distract you any longer." He spun back toward Liz and, taking her head in his hands, he twisted it with one swift, jerking movement, snapping her neck instantly.
"Nooooooo!" Max screamed, watching as Liz went limp, her wrists in the restraints the only thing holding her upright. "Nooooo, please, Liz, noooooo!" He struggled uselessly to rise from the floor and go to her, the cords in his neck standing out in angry relief as he lifted his head in vain. "Noooo… Liiiiiizzzzz…" His voice trailed off as his eyes filled with tears, his sobs shattering the silence, his devastation settling over him like a dark, wet blanket. "Nonononono," he cried, the tears streaming down his cheeks unnoticed as he began to tremble uncontrollably.
* * * * *
Liz had just finished wiping down the counter at the Crashdown when she heard the quiet knock at the front window. Looking up, she spied Michael lingering in the shadows outside. "Maria," she called toward the break room as she headed toward the door. "They’re back."
"Are they okay?" Maria asked as she came through the swinging door. Both girls had been getting worried, since they’d expected Max and Michael to return nearly an hour earlier.
"I’m sure they’re fine," Liz said as she twisted the key in the lock and swung open the door. She frowned as Michael came inside, clearly alone. "Where’s Max?" she asked, her tone more puzzled than worried. But her frown was swiftly transformed into a look of concern when she saw Michael’s harried expression.
"I was about to ask you two the same thing," he said, his eyes darting from Liz to Maria and back again.
"What do you mean?" Maria asked. "Weren’t you together?"
Michael shook his head. "He wouldn’t let me go with him. Said he’d call when he got here. He should have been back by now."
"You let him go meet Nasedo alone?" Liz asked, grabbing at his wrist.
"I know. It was stupid," Michael said, shaking her off so he could pace restlessly. "But he insisted that he had his reasons." He raked one hand through his hair and looked helplessly toward Maria. "I thought for sure he’d be here. The Jeep’s parked out in the alley."
"It is?" Liz asked quickly. "Where?"
"Out back, past the rear entrance," Michael replied.
"Liz, could he have just gone upstairs to wait for you?" Maria asked.
"I don’t know why he would have," Liz frowned, but she was already heading across the café. "He knew we’d be worried."
"But it’s possible," Michael said, looking almost hopeful as he followed.
"Only one way to find out." Liz headed through the swinging door, the others close at her heels. When they reached the stairs to her apartment, she stopped short. "Michael, you’d better go up the fire escape," she told him. "I’m not sure if my parents are still awake. We’ll meet you up there, okay?" He nodded wordlessly and slipped out the back door.
Liz swiveled and continued up the stairs, chewing nervously on her bottom lip. She just hoped her parents were asleep, because if she had to go out looking for Max, she really did not want them to notice her leaving. Slipping quietly inside, she waited for Maria to follow her, then eased the door shut behind them. The girls tiptoed through the living room and down the hall toward Liz’s room. Peering toward her parents’ bedroom, Liz was relieved to see their lights were out and the door closed.
She was reaching for her doorknob when she heard the scream. "Oh God, Maria, that’s Max." Liz pushed through the doorway, no longer worrying about keeping quiet, simply intent on reaching Max as soon as she could. Two steps into the empty room and she knew he had to be outside. She rushed to the window and slipped out onto the roof, Maria right behind her. Max was huddled on the ground next to the lawn chair, shaking and sobbing. Liz reached him in time to see Michael vaulting over the wall onto the roof to her right, just as her father climbed through her bedroom window to her left.
Ignoring everyone, she dropped to the ground, her bare knees scraping against the rough surface. She pulled Max into a sitting position, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and cradling him to her, only vaguely aware of Maria reaching down to help her, Michael kneeling beside them, her father calling her name. She was entirely focused on Max. His eyes were tightly shut, his cheeks wet with tears, his body nearly convulsing. He seemed completely oblivious to her presence, even when she tightened her hold on him. He just continued to cry, chanting her name quietly under his breath like a prayer. Liz rocked him gently, stroking his cheek with one hand, murmuring in his ear. "Max. Max, I’m right here. It’s okay, Max. You’re fine. You have to wake up."
"Liz," Jeff pressed, his voice urgent, edged with both fear and concern. "Lizzie. Honey, what’s going on? What’s wrong with Max?"
Lifting her head, Liz looked at her father for the first time. He was bare-chested, having only pulled on a pair of old jeans before rushing to investigate the commotion. His hair was tousled and his eyes fuzzy with the beginnings of sleep, but he was clearly taking measure of the scene before him. Seeing the combination of worry, confusion, and suspicion on his face, Liz knew she had to think fast. Still holding Max, she tried her best to look reassuring. "It’s a nightmare, Dad. He’s been having them for the past couple of nights. He was waiting for me to close up and must have dozed off out here. He’ll be fine in a few minutes."
Jeff looked unconvinced, his brow furrowed with concern. "Lizzie, this is more than just a nightmare." He crouched down in front of the little group, his blue eyes pinning each of them before scanning Max’s face. "He’s positively shaking and you can’t even wake him up. This is serious. What’s really going on, Liz?" He reached out and gently shook Max’s shoulder, with no result. "Is he on something?" he asked sternly.
"Dad, no! I swear he isn’t. It’s a nightmare, I promise you," she said, her tone pleading, her arms tightening protectively around Max.
"Liz, you have to tell me what’s happening. I want to help."
"I know, Dad," she relented, her bottom lip quivering slightly. She sensed Michael tensing beside her and bit down on her lip ruthlessly. "You’re right. Something… happened to Max. It… it was a couple of weeks ago," she stumbled. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Michael grabbing hold of Maria’s hand, as if bracing himself. She rushed on. "He was driving back from Albuquerque, and… this guy… he tried to car-jack him," she said quickly. "A state trooper came by and the guy took off, but not until after he’d held Max at gun point."
"Oh God, Liz!" Jeff said, transferring his worried look to his daughter.
Liz could almost hear his thoughts – could feel his gratitude that it hadn’t happened to her. Taking a deep breath, she kept going, hating that she had to lie to her father, yet knowing she had to keep him distracted long enough for Max to snap out of it. "Max thought he was fine. I mean, he wasn’t hurt or anything. He didn’t even tell his parents, because he didn’t want them to worry. But somehow the whole thing got wrapped up in his mind with the shooting at the café last fall. And… and he keeps having these nightmares, where I’m with him… and I get shot," she finished, her eyes glued to her father’s, seeing something flicker in his steady gaze, trying to determine if he believed her.
At that moment, Max shifted abruptly, wrenching away from her and sitting bolt upright. "Liz!" he cried out, his eyes snapping open, their amber depths reflecting his anguish and fear. He scrambled awkwardly, struggling to get to his feet, though it was unclear whether he was attempting to get to or away from something.
Michael leaned forward to stop him, but Liz had already reached out and pulled him quickly back into her arms. Max collapsed against her, his eyes wide. "I’m right here. Max! Max, I’m here," Liz soothed.
"Maxwell, you’re okay," Michael said, his voice gruff with emotion.
"Max, everyone’s fine," Maria added, reaching out to put a comforting hand on his arm.
All eyes were trained on Max, who continued to shake violently. His face was covered with a light sheen of sweat, his eyes glazed over as if from shock, the last dredges of his nightmare still holding him captive. Liz hugged him close, an errant tear sliding down her face. "Max. Please wake up, Max," she begged. "Come on. It’s okay."
Her voice finally seemed to penetrate the fog that surrounded him. He blinked hard several times, his head turning, his eyes searching Liz out. When he realized she was truly there, his face crumpled with relief and he grabbed at her desperately, crushing her in his embrace. "Liz" he whispered hoarsely, burying his face in her hair, "you’re safe. You’re all right."
"Shhh," she said, her voice low and gentle. "I’m fine, Max. We’re all fine. Hush. Don’t try and talk, just let yourself calm down," she urged, her eyes meeting Michael’s over Max’s shoulder. She continued to rock Max gently while the shaking that wracked his body gradually subsided, all too aware of her father watching them the entire time.
"Jeff? Liz? What’s going on?"
Liz froze at the sound of her mother’s voice calling through the bedroom window. She turned and met her father’s eyes. He nodded, then went to head his wife off as she climbed out onto the roof. Facing Michael, Liz slowly tried to disengage herself from Max’s iron grip. "I need to handle this," she whispered. "Can you guys get him down to the Jeep?"
Michael shot a look at Maria, who nodded. "We’ll manage," he said. "What about you?" His eyes dropped, noting the way Max still clung to Liz, seemingly unaware that the others were there. "Are your parents going to let you come?"
Liz glanced at the corner of the roof where her parents were huddled in discussion, her mother clearly upset. Turning back to Michael, she looked grim. "I’ll figure it out somehow. Just go. I’ll meet you downstairs in a few minutes."
"Okay," he agreed. He put a hand on Max’s shoulder. "Max. Maxwell, come on. It’s me, Michael."
"Max," Liz said in a low voice. "You’ve got to go with Michael and Maria now, okay? I’ll be right there."
Still trembling, Max shook his head. "Can’t let you go," he murmured. "Not safe."
Liz gently cupped his face in her hands and looked him in the eye. "Max," she said, trying to keep her tone firm though his shattered look had her close to tears. She ran a finger down his cheek, then leaned in and brushed her lips over his. "I’m fine," she whispered, pulling back. "I promise I’ll be down in a minute. Please go with Michael." Seeing a flicker of comprehension in his face, she smiled encouragingly at him, then looked up and nodded.
"Come on, Max. Let’s go." Michael swiftly took one of Max’s arms and put it across his shoulders, hoisting him up off the ground. Maria slid awkwardly under the other arm and the two of them half carried Max toward the windows. Max allowed them to help him, half stumbling as he went, fine tremors continuing to run through his body. Twice they were forced to stop, however, when Max twisted around to make sure Liz was still there. Standing there hugging herself, she flashed him a shaky smile each time, watching as they maneuvered carefully through the window and disappeared through her bedroom door.
As soon as they were out of sight, Liz took a deep breath and turned to face her parents. Nancy Parker was clutching her cotton wrap closed with one hand, her lips pinched tightly together. It was clear that she was upset by what her husband had been telling her. Liz could sense her mother’s displeasure coming off of her in waves before she even said a word. "Mom, I’m sorry we woke you," she said quietly.
Nancy shook her head, as if that was the last thing on her mind. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Liz nodded. "I’m fine, Mom."
Wondering at the restraint her mother was exhibiting, Liz nodded again hesitantly. "He’s still a little out of it," she said slowly. "I don’t think he’s entirely awake yet, but he’ll be all right."
"That’s good," Nancy said. "I’m glad. Now why don’t we go inside. It’s a little late, but I don’t think this should wait until morning."
Liz turned questioning eyes toward her father. "What shouldn’t wait until morning?"
Nancy frowned. "Calling the Evanses, of course."
"No," Liz said swiftly. "You can’t do that."
"What do you mean, we can’t? You don’t think after the scene that just went on here that we’re going to just go back to bed like nothing ever happened? Max clearly has a problem, one that his parents need to deal with," her mother said.
"No, Liz. No buts. What are you thinking? How can you possibly expect us not to say anything? It’s as if your relationship with this boy has robbed you of every ounce of common sense. I settled for grounding you after the two of you disappeared into the desert that night, but it was against my better judgement. I don’t like how you’ve changed since you’ve been seeing Max," she said, her voice rising.
"Mom, Max had a nightmare! He hasn’t done anything wrong, and none of this has anything to do with our relationship."
"He had a nightmare, fine. But Liz, why is he on our roof at midnight? What is going on here?"
"Mom, nothing’s going on. I told Dad," she said, turning to her father for back up. "Max was waiting for my shift to be over and he fell asleep. That’s all it was."
"Not good enough," she said firmly, lifting her chin. "Liz, I think it would be a good idea if you stopped seeing Max for a while." Nancy shook off the restraining hand her husband placed on her arm. "He is obviously a young man with some deep emotional problems and you can’t be expected to shoulder this type of a burden."
"Nancy," Jeff broke in. "Don’t you think you’re being a little unfair?"
"Unfair?" she asked, her voice tense. "I’m being unfair? What’s unfair is for this boy to think Liz is obligated to play nurse maid to him while he refuses to even confide in his own parents!"
"Mom, that’s not true," Liz said. "He doesn’t expect anything from me. God, he’d sooner die than hurt me. He cares about me. That’s what has him so upset to begin with, why his nightmares are so bad. He keeps dreaming about me getting killed and it has him terrified!"
"Liz, calm down, please," her father interjected. "Let’s all just try to be rational for a moment. No one’s questioning Max’s feelings for you, or yours for him. But your mother is right about one thing. We have to call his parents. They need to know what’s going on. Max needs help." Jeff sighed wearily. "Honey, we like Max. Really. We only want what’s best for him – and for you."
"We’re trying to get him to go talk to someone," Liz said quickly. "And his parents know about the nightmares, just not what’s causing them. Besides, they’re away for the weekend. Dad, please don’t say anything. Max doesn’t want to upset them and he has so much else to worry about right now," she pleaded.
Jeff shook his head. "How can we promise something like that, Liz? If the situations were reversed, I would hope Philip and Diane would let us know you were having problems."
"I know, Dad, I do. But it’s so important to him. It all comes from his being adopted – he doesn’t want to be a burden. I know his parents wouldn’t see it that way, but Max does. Please," she said softly, turning pleading eyes toward each parent in turn. "Just let me help him."
Liz’s mother shook her head, but her expression had relaxed somewhat. "Honey, this is too much for you. Can’t you see that? You’re barely seventeen years old. You should be out having fun, not dealing with your boyfriend’s issues."
"Mom, they aren’t issues. Something terrible happened to him, and I care enough to help him get through it," Liz said, her voice cracking as she tried to keep from screaming or crying, or both. "Can’t you understand? He’s been there for me through so much. He stayed with me when Grandma died, and we were only friends then. He needs me now, whether he’s asking for help or not. I won’t turn my back on him and I can’t go against his wishes by going to his parents. Please," she begged, turning to her father. "It’s just for a little while. He’s hurting, but he’s going to be okay. He just needs some time."
Jeff hesitated, then nodded slowly. "Okay, Liz. Seeing as how Max’s parents aren’t home anyway, we won’t say anything for now."
"Jeff…" Nancy began.
"But," he continued, shooting his wife a look, "I expect that if things don’t get any better you’ll either come to us, or tell the Evanses yourself. Understood?"
Liz nodded. "Thanks," she said quietly. "I promise." She glanced at her mother. "Mom?"
Clearly reluctant to go along, Nancy nodded slowly. "But I’m not happy about this, Liz. I just don’t want to see you get hurt."
"Max would never hurt me," Liz said, trying to squelch the annoyance she felt flaring up.
Nancy nodded again, rather stiffly. "Why don’t we all get to bed now. It must be late."
Liz traded looks with her father. "Uh…. I’m going to go make sure Max is okay," she said.
"What do you mean? Didn’t Michael and Maria take him home already?" her mother asked. "And speaking of which, I thought Michael was sick?"
"He was, Mom," Liz said. "But he was feeling better and there was nothing to eat at his place so he came by for some soup, okay? And they haven’t left yet. I told them to wait for me. I’m going with them."
"You’re what? Liz, there is no reason for you to go over to Max’s."
"I have to, Mom. I need to make sure he’s all right."
"Can’t Michael stay with him? And doesn’t he have a sister?" Nancy shot out, her temper flaring once more.
"Mom, Michael has been staying with Max every night for a week," Liz bit out, trying hard to keep her voice low. "He deserves a good night’s sleep. And yes, Isabel is there, but Max isn’t having nightmares about Isabel."
"Are you trying to tell me that you expect us to let you spend the night with your boyfriend? Is that what I’m hearing?"
"Nancy," Jeff interrupted, "would you prefer she not say anything and then slip out the window once we’ve gone to sleep? Because I think that’s the alternative here, am I right?" he asked, turning to look pointedly at Liz.
Liz shrugged, then nodded. "I’m going, Mom," she said softly, some of her anger drained by her father’s obvious understanding. "I’m sorry if you’re upset, but I have to do this."
Nancy turned tired eyes from her daughter to her husband. It was as if someone had knocked the fight out of her. "I should have known you’d be on her side," she said. "Fine," she added, turning back to Liz. "Do whatever you want. I give up." With a little shake of her head, she turned and climbed through the window.
Liz watched her mother leave. "Thanks, Dad," she said.
Jeff nodded. "You’re welcome. Why don’t you get going? And take a change of clothes," he added, indicating her uniform. "We’ll talk more tomorrow," he said.
"All right," Liz said.
They climbed back into her room. Liz grabbed her knapsack from the corner and tossed a couple of shirts and some shorts inside. Taking her cell phone, she threw it in on top. "I’m sorry, Dad," she said when she turned and found him watching her, a sad expression on his face. "About Mom."
Jeff sighed. "I know, sweetie. Your mother just wants to protect you. Me too."
Liz gave her father a quick hug. "That’s how I feel about Max."
"Yeah. I think I see that," he agreed, dropping a kiss on top of her head. "It’s just hard to face that you’re almost all grown up. You’re still my little girl, you know. Call if you need anything, okay?"
"I will," she promised. Picking up her bag, she flashed her father a quick smile and headed out the door.
|posted on 16-Sep-2001 10:46:16 AM|
Michael was worried. He didn’t like how long it was taking for Max to snap out of his nightmare. As they made their way through the Parkers’ apartment, it was clear that Max was still completely disoriented. He periodically shook his head and blinked repeatedly as if his vision was blurred, and the rest of the time he looked around like he had never seen Liz’s living room before. When they neared the stairs, he pulled away from them entirely and grabbed hold of the banister, clutching it as he sank against the wall.
"Max, what is it?" Michael asked.
Max closed his eyes and let his head rest against the hard brick surface. "Dizzy," he replied, his voice so low it was barely audible.
Michael glanced at Maria. "We’ll never fit three across down the stairs," he said. "We’re gonna have to wait a minute."
She nodded. "Is it always this bad?" she whispered.
"No," he said, looking grim. "Physically, yeah. The nightmares wipe him out. But mentally… I’m not sure he even realizes what’s going on. Normally he’s completely aware as soon as we wake him up."
"Could he still be asleep? Like sleepwalking?"
"Maybe." Michael frowned. Max was still using the wall and the handrail to hold himself up, and he had yet to open his eyes. "Max. Maxwell, we gotta go."
Opening his eyes with a jolt, Max pushed away from the wall so quickly that only Michael’s restraining arm kept him from toppling down the stairs. "Where’s Liz?" he asked, his eyes unfocused, a panicky look on his face.
"She’ll be here in a minute," Maria said soothingly. "Max, it’s okay. She’s just talking to her parents."
Max grabbed at Michael’s shirt. "No. Can’t leave her alone. Gotta stay together. Promise me, Michael." His eyes were wild and the veins in his neck were straining. "Too dangerous. If anything happens to me, promise you’ll watch out for everyone. Don’t let them get Liz. He killed Liz."
Michael held Max fast by the shoulders and gave him a little shake. "Max, wake up. You’re not making any sense. Liz is fine. You had a nightmare."
"No. Listen to me," Max said. "I am awake. You have to promise me."
Maria put a gentle hand on Michael’s arm to get his attention. "Just promise, Michael. He’s getting upset again," she said softly.
Michael nodded. "Okay," he said. "I promise, Max. I won’t let anything happen to anyone. You too, all right? Now calm down." He loosened his grip slightly as he felt him start to relax.
"Thanks," Max said. He leaned back against the wall again.
"Come on," Michael said, taking Max’s arm. "Think you can make it down the steps? You left the Jeep outside. We’re just gonna go down and wait for Liz, okay?"
Max nodded weakly and started slowly down the stairs, using Michael and the banister for support. Maria trailed behind. When they reached the ground floor, she slipped past them and opened the back door. They made it into the alley before Max pulled away from Michael again and tried to head back inside.
"No, Max, come on," Michael said.
"Liz, can’t forget Liz," Max muttered, swatting at Michael when he tried to steer him back out the door.
"We’re not forgetting her," Michael reminded him, his concern the only thing enabling him to hold onto his patience. "She’ll be down in a minute."
"I can’t let him take her."
"We won’t let anything happen to her, all right?" Michael pulled Max firmly through the doorway, motioning for Maria to shut the door behind them. "The Jeep’s right here, Max. Why don’t you sit down? You’ll feel better."
"Yeah, okay," Max said, sounding half-way normal. He shook his head again, and rubbed at his eyes. "Head hurts," he said. Using the rollbar, he managed to pull himself into the passenger side of the Jeep. Sitting back, he squinted as he looked around, his gaze finally landing on Michael and Maria’s concerned faces. He frowned. "What happened?"
"I wish I knew," Michael mumbled.
"You fell asleep up on Liz’s roof," Maria explained. "You must have had a nightmare, because we heard you screaming just before we found you."
Max rubbed both hands over his face. After a minute he looked back up, frowning, as if Maria’s words had just reached his brain. "How did I get on Liz’s roof?"
Maria looked helplessly to Michael, who shrugged. "We’re not sure," she said. "We got worried when you hadn’t come back from your meeting with Nasedo, and Michael saw the Jeep out here… so we thought maybe you were upstairs and we went looking for you."
His eyes pinned on Max’s face, Michael thought he saw him tense at mention of Nasedo. "What happened at the meeting, Max? Did Nasedo show?"
Max nodded slowly. "Yeah, he was there." He ran a hand over the back of his head. "Didn’t have much information, though." He reached down and pulled a binder from the floor in front of him, wincing as he sat back up. "I feel like I was run over by something really big and heavy," he commented weakly, handing the book to Michael and slumping back into the seat. "You did say Liz was coming, right?" he asked as Michael flipped open the cover and started scanning the first page.
"She’ll be right down," Maria said. "You woke her parents up," she told him gingerly. "Liz had to feed them this elaborate story about what was wrong with you. Now she’s talking them into letting her come with us."
Groaning, Max let his head rest back on the seat and closed his eyes. "Hell. Any idea what she told them?"
"Apparently you were car-jacked at gun point last week," Michael said with a smirk. "A trooper scared the guy off, but you were traumatized by the whole thing. Reminded you of the shooting at the Crashdown and now you’re dreaming of Liz getting shot," he finished with a grin. "Scary how fast your girlfriend can pull a lie out of her hat."
"Yeah, thanks to us," Max muttered. "She’s been getting plenty of practice."
"Her dad seemed to believe her," Maria offered.
"Well, I guess that’s something," he said, opening his eyes again and staring blankly at the sky.
"What were you dreaming about?" Michael asked, not really expecting Max to answer. "You said something about someone killing Liz before," he added quietly.
"Yeah," Max said, continuing to look at the stars.
Michael waited for a moment, but as he had thought, Max failed to say any more. Sighing, he shut the book and tossed it into the back of the Jeep, then pulled Maria against him and rested his chin on the top of her head, rubbing his hands up and down her arms. "We should call Isabel," he said softly. "You got your cell phone?"
"Yeah," she said, reaching into her purse. She handed it to him. "Go ahead. I’ll stay with Max."
Michael took the phone and pulled back to look Maria in the eyes. "You’ll be okay a minute?"
She smiled. "Yeah. Go on."
Michael shot a look at Max, who still hadn’t moved a muscle. "Don’t let him fall asleep again," he warned, then flipping open the phone he punched in Isabel’s number as he headed a little way down the alley.
Maria watched him go, then turned to Max. His eyes were open, but he seemed unfocused, like he was lost in thought instead of watching the stars above him. Maria frowned worriedly and reached out a tentative hand, brushing in gently over Max’s arm. When he slowly shifted his head in her direction, she smiled with relief.
"Hey," she said. "How are you doing?"
"Truth?" he said. When she nodded, he let out a long sigh. "I haven’t the slightest idea. I’m so tired."
"Yeah. I know."
He lifted his head carefully, as if he could feel his brains moving inside his skull. He held up his hand, and Maria could see that it was still trembling slightly. With a shrug, Max let it fall back into his lap. "Sometimes I think I’m losing my mind," he said, so softly Maria nearly didn’t hear him.
"You’re not, Max. You’ve been through hell. You just need some time to recover and you’re not giving it to yourself."
"We don’t have it, Maria. We’re out of time," he said wearily. The sound of a door closing caused him to start and he spun around quickly. "What was that?"
Liz walked out of the shadows, her bag over one shoulder. "It’s just me," she said swiftly. "I didn’t mean to scare you." She tossed her bag into the back and took one of Max’s outstretched hands. "You okay? You seem better."
He grasped her hand tightly, pulling her close. "I’m glad you’re here," he said quietly, his face pale, his jaw tense.
"Max, what happened? Why didn’t you just come into the café when you got back?" she asked, gently stroking his cheek, trying to ease the worry she saw in his eyes.
He shook his head. "Not here, okay? Let’s get going. What happened to Michael?"
"He’s talking to Isabel," Maria said.
With that, Michael walked up and handed Maria her phone. He looked upset.
"What is it? Did something happen to Iz?" Max asked anxiously.
Michael quickly shook his head. "She’s fine. But Alex had to get his mother’s car back, so she’s home with just your parents."
"She should be okay, though, don’t you think?" Maria asked, her nose crinkling with worry.
"Yeah. But she was all ready to come tearing down here to see how Max was," Michael said. "I told her to stay put. I’ll drop you guys off at my place and go get her. We can pick Alex up on the way, too."
Liz shook her head, her eyes focused on Max’s face. Exhaustion was written clearly on his features. "It’s way too late to talk about this tonight," she said. "Especially considering how little sleep we got last night. Plus there isn’t enough room for all of us to stay at your place, Michael. Max and I will stay here. I’ll go make up the guest room."
"Your parents will never let you stay in the room with him," Maria pointed out.
"She’s right. Look, you two take my place," Michael said firmly. "Maria and I can go hang out with Izzy. Okay?"
Maria nodded. Max, who seemed to have tuned out of the conversation once he heard that Isabel was safe, said nothing.
"All right," Liz said. "Maybe you should pick Alex up anyway."
"Right. Let’s go." Michael went around and climbed into the driver’s seat. Maria and Liz scrambled into the back seat, Liz sitting behind Max so she could lean forward with her arms draped around him comfortingly. Within a few minutes they had pulled up in front of Michael’s building. He pulled his keys out of his pocket and handed them to Liz. "Call if you need anything," he said, pointedly looking in Max’s direction.
Liz nodded as she shouldered her backpack and helped Max out of the Jeep. "Come on, Max," she said. "Let’s get inside."
He was able to walk, but it was clear that the night’s activities and the late hour were taking their toll. Bracing himself against the Jeep for a moment, he looked at Michael. "Be careful," he said. "And don’t leave anything in the Jeep overnight," he added meaningfully.
"Gotcha," Michael said. He turned serious eyes back toward Liz. "I’ll call if your parents try to reach you over at the Evanses’ for any reason."
"I’ll try to call them early and head them off," Liz told him. "But thanks."
"Be careful, Lizzie," Maria said as she climbed out of the back seat. She gave Liz a quick hug, then got in next to Michael.
Max and Liz turned and headed up the stairs into the apartment building. Michael waited until the door closed firmly behind them before he took off down the street.
* * * * *
Isabel sat curled up on the front steps of the house, feet bare, jeans faded and worn, hair pulled into a sloppy knot on the top of her head. Anyone driving by would have blinked twice at the sight of West Roswell High’s acknowledged fashion princess in such a disheveled state, but given the hour and the circumstances, her appearance was the last thing on her mind. She had changed her clothes when Alex left, comfort her main objective, figuring that she hardly needed to look good to wait for Max to come home. All she had been concerned with at the time was his safety, and whatever news he managed to glean from his meeting with Nasedo.
Now, her eyes pinned to the street, her ears straining for the familiar roar of the Jeep’s engine, what she was wearing mattered even less. The last twenty-four hours had brought yet more confusion and turmoil into their lives, and her only interest was in making it through each day with her sanity and health intact. She found it odd that she was more anxious and worried now than she had been the night before, despite the fact that she and Alex had been running for their lives. The previous night, with their enemy chasing them through the streets of town, her adrenaline had gone into overdrive, and while she admitted that she had been terrified at the time, the experience had also been strangely exhilarating. Tonight, however, the inactivity was making her insane. She hated not knowing what was going on, and Maria’s recent phone call to inform her of their change in plans hadn’t helped matters. Isabel wanted to see Max for herself, to talk to him, to find out what had happened. Knowing she would not get the chance until tomorrow wasn’t making waiting any easier now. For once, Isabel suspected she understood how Michael felt when he went off and did something rash.
When she finally heard the Jeep coming down the street, Isabel was on her feet and dashing down the front walk before they even pulled into the driveway. Alex was the first one to jump from the vehicle, barely waiting for it to roll to a stop. He had Isabel caught up in a tight hug within seconds.
"Hey," he soothed, when he realized she was trembling. "Relax. Nothing bad happened, okay?"
"I know," she said, her voice muffled against his shirt. "I’m just glad you’re back." She looked up and sent a half-smile in Michael and Maria’s direction. "No trouble getting here? You guys are all right?"
"We’re just dandy," Michael mumbled, tucking a large binder under one arm. "Not an evil alien in sight. But this slumber party crap has got to stop."
Maria elbowed him lightly in the ribs. "You’re one to complain. You’re not gonna have to explain to my mom when she figures out I haven’t been home for the past few nights."
"No. I’m just the one she’s gonna come after," he shot back. "And somehow I suspect she’ll arm herself better this time around."
The foursome crept quietly through the house to Isabel’s room, shutting the door behind them. "Okay," Isabel said as she settled on the bed with Alex next to her, his arm around her shoulders, "tell me what really happened. Was this just another one of Max’s nightmares or is there something more going on? I mean, what was he doing asleep up on the roof? Why didn’t he tell someone he was back?"
Michael tugged Maria down onto the floor so she was cradled in front of him, leaning back against his chest. "We really don’t know any more than you do at this point," he grumbled. "Max was being typically closed-mouthed about the entire thing, and Liz wasn’t about to let us grill him. And she was right – he was in really bad shape by the time we got to him."
Isabel frowned. "Worse than usual?"
"Yeah. It was more than the usual shaking and sweating. He couldn’t seem to get clear of the nightmare. I wasn’t always sure he even knew who we were. One thing he did say – someone killed Liz in his dream. He was obsessing about needing to protect her."
"Oh God," Isabel breathed. "No wonder he’s calling out for her in his sleep. If that’s what he’s seeing every night."
"Yeah. But that doesn’t explain why he went straight to the roof after meeting with Nasedo," Michael continued. "Something happened before he got back to town and it threw him."
"Do you think he was attacked?" Alex asked.
Maria wrinkled her nose. "He couldn’t have been. He looked fine, except for the obvious aftermath of the nightmare. And Max never would have come back to the Crashdown if someone was chasing him."
"She’s right," Isabel agreed.
"But something definitely went wrong," Michael said. "He got back, didn’t tell anyone he was here, crawled up onto the roof and fell asleep. Plus he left the keys to the Jeep in the ignition. And when he called out for Liz – he was really screaming this time, Iz. It was much worse than before."
"Maybe his meeting didn’t go so well," Alex suggested.
Michael paused, then picked up the binder from the floor next to him. "He brought this back. Nasedo’s report on alien sightings across the country since we used the orbs."
"Have you looked at it yet?" Isabel asked.
"Skimmed it. Max seemed to think it wasn’t worth much."
"Did he say anything else?" Isabel frowned, clearly suspecting Michael was hiding something.
Michael shook his head, his features carefully blank. "Nothing that made sense. Frankly, we were all more concerned with getting him the hell out of there. As it is, Liz had to do some fast talking to convince her parents not to call your parents," he said, his eyes trained on Isabel’s worried face. "It wasn’t exactly easy for her to explain why Max was sleeping on a chair outside her bedroom window. We’ll just have to wait and get our answers tomorrow."
"Assuming Max is willing to share," Isabel muttered.
Alex rubbed her arm comfortingly. "He can’t keep everything bottled up forever," he pointed out. "Sooner or later, he’s going to need to talk about what happened – and I don’t just mean about tonight. It seems Max is pretty close to the edge right now," he added quietly, his eyes meeting Michael’s across the room.
Maria caught Alex’s look and swiveled in Michael’s arms to see his expression. He was guarded, as usual, but there was a spark of something akin to fear in his deep brown eyes. She wrapped her arms around his waist and gave his a quick squeeze. "Why don’t we all get some sleep?" she suggested. "It’s been a long day, and yesterday wasn’t exactly uneventful either."
"You guys go ahead and take Max’s room," Isabel said. "I’ll come get you before my parents wake up."
Michael stood and reached down to tug Maria to her feet. He shot Isabel and Alex a grim smile. "See you in a few hours."
Maria reached out and gave Isabel’s hand a squeeze. "He’ll be fine with Liz you know."
Isabel nodded reluctantly. "I know. I just feel so…."
"Helpless," Michael finished for her. "Us too. Listen, Liz’s parents might call looking for her here," he warned. "I promised we’d get hold of her if they did. She has her cell."
"Okay," Isabel said. "I’ll make sure to answer the phone. See you later."
"Night guys," Alex said.
"Good night." With a final nod, Michael steered Maria out the door and trudged down the hall to Max’s room.
* * * * *
Max leaned heavily against the wall, his eyes half closed, as Liz fumbled with the keys. She finally managed to unlock the door and held it open as he stumbled wearily inside. Michael’s apartment was unusually tidy, a testament to Maria’s presence the previous night, but Max barely noticed. Feeling incredibly run down, he made a beeline for the couch, dropping with a muffled groan as Liz carefully locked the door and threw the dead bolt. Lying there with his eyes closed, he could sense her concern as she dropped her bag on the floor and sat down beside him.
"I’m okay," he said quietly, reaching out and taking her hand.
"Max, you’re not okay," she replied.
He said nothing for a moment, simply held her hand in both of his, making small circular motions with his thumbs as he caressed her soft skin. There was really no point in arguing. "What did you say to your parents?" he asked finally, opening his eyes so he could look at her, the feel of her alone still insufficient to assure him that she was safe. "I mean, Michael told me about the car-jacking thing, but how did you convince them to let you come?"
"It’s not important."
"Yes. It is," he said, his tone serious. "Liz, I am so sorry. Sorry for worrying you, for putting you in such a terrible position with your parents. I hate that you needed to lie to them. I never should have come over tonight."
"No, Max," she said. "You have nothing to be sorry for. I’m glad you came. I am exactly where I want to be, with the person I most want to be with," she said softly, reaching out with her free hand to brush a lock of hair off his forehead. "I told my parents that you needed me. That your parents were away for the weekend and I had to make sure you were all right."
"And they accepted that?"
She shrugged. "My father did. My mom wasn’t quite so understanding, but then she never is."
"Shhh," she said, covering his lips with one finger. "Don’t, okay? No apologies."
Too exhausted to protest, he kissed the tip of her finger and nodded reluctantly. "We should probably get some sleep," he said. "What?" he asked when she frowned at him.
"Max, we need to talk," she said slowly. "I know you don’t want to, but you have to see now how important it is that you get this off your chest. What would have happened if I hadn’t been home tonight? What would you have said to my parents? There has to be some way to end these nightmares."
Sighing, Max struggled to sit up. Swinging his legs off the couch, he rested his elbows on his knees, his head in his palms, and rubbed at his tired eyes. "Liz, do we have to do this tonight? Yes, I agree that things are getting out of control, and talking about them is undoubtedly the best thing to do, but…."
"No, Max. Please don’t make more excuses," she said softly. "I can’t stand seeing you this way."
He looked up, meeting her steady gaze. Her eyes were filled with tears. "God, Liz, don’t," he begged, reaching out and pulling her close. Lifting her easily, he settled her on his lap and cradled her against him. "Please don’t cry," he whispered.
Sniffling, she wiped angrily at her damp eyes. "I’m sorry," she said. "But Max, I can’t tell you what it was like tonight, climbing out my window and finding you curled up on the roof that way. You were crying and screaming like someone was torturing you….."
"Stop," he said, quickly brushing a hand over her lips to still them, then covering her mouth with his own in a long, deep kiss. When he pulled back, she looked stricken, and he cursed under his breath, wondering what she had just seen. But he could tell that she was determined, regardless. "Please don’t look like that," he said. "Tomorrow morning. I promise. We’ll get everyone together and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know." He smoothed his hand over her hair, pushing back the stray tendrils that had escaped her ponytail.
"Thank you," she said, blinking back the last of her tears. "It’s the only way you’ll ever be free of it," she added. "I know you don’t want to talk to us about it, but Max, anything we imagine has to be ten times worse than reality."
Looking into the depths of her brown eyes, Max shook his head. "Don’t be so sure," he warned, his expression grim. "But if you really want to know, I’ll tell you."
"I need to know," she said, with a stubborn set to her chin. "And you need to get it out. But Max, this isn’t just about Pierce," she said. "What about tonight? Why wouldn’t you let Michael go with you to meet Nasedo? And why didn’t you come find me when you got back?" When he simply shook his head, she slipped off his lap and began pacing, clearly frustrated. "Stop trying to protect me, Max. Something must have happened to make you go out there by yourself and to go up to the roof alone afterwards." She stopped directly in front of him and he could feel her glaring down at him.
"It was Nasedo," he said after a long pause, still not meeting her gaze, suddenly fascinated with the pattern of the rug. "We had a disagreement."
"What kind of disagreement?" she asked hesitantly.
He shrugged. "The kind where only one of you is left standing," he said quietly.
"Max," she breathed, kneeling to look in his eyes. "What are you talking about?"
He found it impossible to lie to her, to shelter her, when she was staring at him that way. Her gaze penetrated to the depths of his soul. He could feel her fear for him, and her love, a jumble of her emotions washing over him. "I said some things he didn’t like," Max said in a low voice. "So he decided to remind me that his powers are still stronger than mine, and sent me flying into the wall of the pod chamber. Nearly knocked me unconscious."
Liz’s eyes grew wide. "Oh my God, are you all right?" She began running her hands nervously over his arms, as if checking for injuries. "Max, how could he do that? He’s supposed to be on your side."
"I’m okay," he assured her, grabbing her wrists to stop her restless movements. "I was pretty shook up, but I managed to heal most of the damage," he continued softly. Loosening his hold on her, he reached out and cupped her face in his palms, running a thumb over one smooth cheek. "I think I missed a little, though, because I got the shakes driving home. That’s why I went up to your roof. I only intended to lie down for a while until I felt better. I didn’t want to scare you by coming into the café like that. I guess I wasn’t really thinking clearly."
She turned and kissed the palm of his hand, cupping her own hand over his. They sat silently for a moment, though Max could tell that Liz’s thoughts were churning as she processed what he’d said. He wasn’t surprised at her serious expression when she looked at him again.
"What did you say to Nasedo, Max? What was the disagreement about?" When he looked down to avoid her, she took his hands in hers and squeezed. "Max? It was about me, wasn’t it? Because of this afternoon in the café when I wasn’t sure it was you. You said something to him about…"
"I had to, Liz," he said in a hard voice. "He has to understand that you’re a permanent part of my life, and that he has to respect my choices. I have to be able to trust him."
"Is that why you wanted to meet with him alone?" she asked quietly.
He nodded. "I needed to do it. One on one. It didn’t have anything to do with Michael or anyone else. It was personal." His eyes softened. "You’re my whole life, Liz. Nothing matters without you in it. Nasedo has to know that I mean that."
"And so he hurt you because of me," she said, tears forming in her eyes again.
"No," he said quickly. "I think he was trying to teach me a lesson. He said something about not assuming everyone will follow my orders, simply because I’m the designated leader of the group. He was right. I’ve been guilty of that, with him and Tess especially. I can’t expect them to just fall in line no matter what I say." He looked sheepish. "And, if Nasedo had really wanted to hurt me, Liz, he could have. That may have been another lesson – to show me that I’m nowhere near battle-ready," he said grimly.
"So what does it mean, Max? Is Nasedo with you or against you? I don’t understand."
"I wish I knew," he admitted. "Come here," he coaxed, reaching down and lifting her from where she knelt in front of him. He pulled her onto the couch and she curled against him, her head on his shoulder. "Part of me believes that, in his own twisted way, Nasedo is on our side. But I’ve been wrong before," he said with a sigh. "We’re going to have to be careful."
"Why do I feel as if we keep finding ourselves right back where we started?"
"Because we do," he replied, sounding resigned. He turned and kissed the top of her head. "Did you bring a change of clothes, or are you going to sleep in your Crashdown uniform?" he asked, trying to lighten the moment.
Liz sat up, shooting him a funny look. "I brought clothes," she said. "Unless, of course, you prefer me like this," she added with a shy smile.
Max’s eyes dropped to the row of snaps keeping her dress closed. He had a sudden image of himself slowly tugging them open, one by one, revealing her smooth, soft flesh an inch at a time. He swallowed hard and glanced up to find Liz’s face flushed. He smiled. "Better change," he said.
She nodded. Scooping her bag up off the floor, she headed for the bathroom. "I’ll just be a minute," she said. She closed the door behind her, leaving it open a crack so they could hear each other.
Max stood slowly and, grabbing the light cotton blanket from the back of the couch, started to shake it out. Almost instantly he found that the movement made his head spin, and he was forced to sit back down. He closed his eyes and concentrated on taking slow, steady breaths. When Liz’s voice came from the bathroom, she sounded very far away.
"Max? Max, are you okay?"
He opened his eyes to find her coming across the room, a worried frown creasing her brow. She was wearing gray shorts and a large red T-shirt, her blue uniform folded over one arm.
"Just tired," he said.
Liz brushed cool fingers over his forehead, her expression no less concerned. Tossing her uniform on the nearby chair, she reached out her hand. "Give me that," she said, taking the blanket from him. She shook it out quickly, motioning for him to lie back, then with a final shake sent the soft fabric floating down over him. She went and flipped off the light, then padded quietly back to the couch.
Max shifted partially onto his side, making more room for her. Liz lay down and snuggled next to him, her head against his chest, making herself comfortable. "You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said, slipping an arm around his waist. "Except…" She shifted in his arms, scooting a little higher on the couch, and pressed her lips to his.
Max sank into the kiss instantly, his arms tightening around her. When Liz parted her lips, deepening the kiss, he groaned and pulled her closer. He angled his mouth, teasing her tongue with his own, then pulled back to nibble gently on her lips. When they finally came up for air, he rested his forehead against hers and stared down at her, somewhat out of breath and thoroughly distracted. Which, he realized, had been the idea.
Liz smiled, trailing her hand across his cheek. "Sweet dreams, Max," she whispered, settling into his arms again and resting her head on his chest.
He let out a short laugh, his palm running down the length of her back as she shifted against him. "I love you, Liz Parker."
"I love you, too. Good night, Max."
|posted on 16-Sep-2001 10:49:07 AM|
"I have this extreme sense of déjà vu," Alex said as he climbed into bed next to Isabel.
"I’m sorry, Alex," she said, rolling toward him with a apologetic look on her face.
"Hey, I was just joking," he said, turning concerned blue eyes in her direction. "Do you honestly think I mind spending the night with you in my arms?" he teased. To prove his point, he pulled her closer until her head was resting on his shoulder. Brushing a tender kiss over her forehead, he rubbed her back in an attempt to ease some of her tension.
Isabel sighed and tried to relax in the comfort of Alex’s embrace, but she couldn’t seem to turn off her brain. She shifted restlessly, snuggling against him until he finally tugged her more firmly across his body, so her head was pillowed against his chest and she lay half-way across him.
"Better?" he asked when she had finally settled.
"Yeah, thanks," she said.
They were quiet for a while, but it soon became obvious that neither of them was anywhere near falling asleep. "You want to talk about it?" Alex asked.
She sighed. "I guess I would feel better if I had gotten to see Max, or at least talk to him," she admitted. "I know Michael said he’s okay, and it’s not that I don’t trust him, but… I just want to know for myself. I can’t help but worry about him, Alex, and I hate feeling this way."
"Helpless," he filled in, using Michael’s earlier response.
"It’s more than that. It’s that all this is happening to Max. He’s always been the one we run to when something is wrong, you know? The one to bail Michael out of his latest jam, the one who cheers me up when I’m feeling resentful about being different or feeling lonely. But Max never comes to us for anything. If anything goes wrong in his life, he just handles it and moves on. I don’t think I realized how much that was true until all of this started. The first time he’s really needed us and we weren’t there for him."
"You mean when he was captured?"
"No, even before that," she said. "The stuff with Tess, where he was having those daydreams about her. He was upset and confused… I know he went to Michael… and Michael just blew him off. But even that wasn’t the beginning, really. It started with him saving Liz. Michael and I attacked him for it. We didn’t even try to see it from his side, to consider why he might have chosen to risk everything for her. All we did was think what it meant to us."
"Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself," Alex said, shocked to realize she was close to crying. "You were scared. And what Max did went against everything the three of you had ever said or done."
"Exactly," she said, lifting her head to look at him, sending twin tears streaming down her cheeks. "The one time he acts from the heart without worrying about us, and we can’t support him."
"You do now," Alex said gently. He pulled Isabel back down into his arms and hugged her. "And I’m sure he understood."
"Yeah, but he shouldn’t have had to," she whispered. "I’m just so scared, Alex. What if he doesn’t get better? What if the nightmares never go away?"
"They will," Alex said positively. "I think once he talks about them, they’ll ease up. At the very worst, when he’s feeling safe again – when everyone is out of danger – they’ll fade on their own."
"But what if we’re never out of danger?"
"You can’t think that way. Come on," Alex urged her. "What happened to the girl who blew up a limo last night?"
Isabel couldn’t help but laugh. "You’re right," she sniffed, wiping at her wet cheeks. "I’m sorry for being so negative."
"Everyone has an off night," he assured her. "And there’s been a lot going on. But I really believe Max is going to come through this, Iz, okay? We just need to pull together so he knows he’s not alone."
"He always feels so responsible for everyone," she sighed.
"We have to prove that he doesn’t need to be, that he isn’t everyone’s keeper," Alex said. "We can do it. The six of us make a good team," he added, giving her a comforting squeeze.
"It’s funny in a way. How we all ended up together," she said. She shifted onto her stomach and rested on her elbows so she could see him. "I mean, the three of us and the three of you."
"Two sets of best friends, you mean," he said.
"Yeah. But it’s more than that. Three humans, three aliens; three guys, three girls. Three couples," she finished. A grateful smile lit up her face. "Thank you for not giving up on me."
"There wasn’t much chance of that happening," he replied. Reaching down, he slipped his hands under her arms and dragged her up so their faces were even, then pulled her head down so he could kiss her.
Isabel hummed with pleasure as their lips met, deepening the kiss immediately. Alex wrapped his arms around her and rolled so she was tucked beneath him, never losing contact. He swept his tongue through her mouth, moaning when she responded in kind. After a moment he broke away and trailed tiny kisses across her jaw, nibbling his way up to her ear. "You’re all my dreams come true," he whispered, his words sending shivers along her spine.
"Alex," she breathed, pulling him back so she could kiss him again, her arms twined tightly around his neck.
It was a long time before they finally slept.
* * * * *
Maria had kicked off her sneakers and was sitting cross-legged in the middle of Max’s bed. Michael stood with his back to her, staring out the window. He had been there since they walked into the room, and showed no signs of moving anytime soon.
"All right," she said finally. "What is it?"
Michael grunted, then turned and looked at her blankly.
Sighing, she slid off the bed and padded over to stand next to him. "Talk to me," she said, slipping her hand into his.
He turned to stare out the window some more, but he pulled her in front of him and wrapped his arms around her. "I don’t think I’ve ever spent the night in here without Max," he said quietly. "It’s weird."
"You’re worried about him," she said.
"I never should have let him go out there alone tonight."
"Michael, don’t start that," she said. "You said yourself that Max insisted. And you don’t even know for sure that his nightmare tonight had anything to do with his meeting with Nasedo. He’s been having them for weeks now."
"Something happened out there. I know it."
"Even if it did, it was Max’s decision to go by himself."
"It’s not that simple," he said, pulling away. He flopped down on the edge of the bed. "Max hasn’t been right since we pulled him out of Eagle Rock. I know he’s doing the whole brave leader thing, but something’s off. It’s more than the nightmares, and I knew that, but I let him go off alone anyway."
"What do you mean that it’s more than the nightmares?"
"I’m not sure. It’s nothing I can pinpoint." He ran his hands restlessly through his hair. "It’s little things. Walking away so we couldn’t overhear his phone call with Nasedo at the quarry this morning. Storming off to meet him alone." Michael shook his head and looked helplessly at Maria. "I’m not sure how rational he is all of the time."
Maria sank down on the edge of the bed. "What was that look with Alex before?"
"What do you mean? What look?"
"You know what I’m talking about. When Alex said he thought Max was close to the edge, the two of you traded a look. What was that about, Michael?"
"Nothing. You’re imagining things."
Maria bounced to her feet. "Whoa, back up, buddy," she said. "I am not imagining things. You don’t want to tell me, that’s one thing. But don’t you try to turn this around and make it seem like I’m hallucinating, because I know perfectly well what I saw."
"Fine. I don’t want to tell you," he announced, his mouth set in a stubborn line.
"See, I knew that wouldn’t work," he muttered. "Look, stop jumping around. You’re making me dizzy." He grabbed hold of her arms and pulled her forcefully onto the bed next to him.
"I’m gonna tell you," he interrupted. "Just stop fidgeting." When she stopped fighting him, he cautiously let go of her. "Thanks," he said quietly, letting out a long breath.
"So, talk," she demanded, her face set in a scowl.
"Alex agrees with me that Max has been acting differently," he said finally.
"Is that why you took so long in his house when we picked him up tonight? You two were talking about Max?"
"Well, acting different how? What does Alex think?" she asked.
"That Max’s nightmares are getting worse. And some of the paranoia from them is spilling into his behavior during the day."
"Like being upset about Liz going to the library alone?"
Maria frowned. "Michael, what is it? You looked really worried before and you’re scaring me."
He looked her in the eye. "Alex wanted to know if I thought Liz would be okay alone with Max."
"Relax. I said I thought they’d be fine," he said quickly.
"But why was Alex concerned? I mean, what did he think would happen? Max would never do anything to hurt Liz."
"Not consciously," he agreed. "Alex was worried that he’d lash out in his sleep. But I reminded him that Max doesn’t seem to be having the nightmares when Liz is there."
"That’s true," Maria said.
"The catch is, if Max is getting worse, he thinks Liz might not be able to calm him down if he does have a nightmare. You saw how much trouble we had with him tonight."
"So what are you saying? Do you think we should go back to your place?" she asked, half rising.
"No," he said, pulling her back down. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Max and Liz are going to be fine. If anyone can get through to him, she can. And we have to get through to him, Maria. It’s the only way to put a stop to all of this. There’s too much going down for Max to be out of commission," he said pointedly.
Maria shuddered slightly and was grateful when Michael merely held her tighter in response. "How did everything get to be such a mess?"
"Just lucky I guess," he muttered, rubbing his palm across the back of her neck.
"I hate it. I hate what’s going on with Max, and that Liz has to deal with it. I wish it was all over."
"It will be. And on our terms, okay?" He pulled back and flashed her his trademark smirk. "Who knows what might happen by then? Maybe we’ll all get to ride in a spaceship," he said, winking at her.
"Oh, please," she said, but despite her sarcastic demeanor, she couldn’t prevent a giggle from escaping. He was positively leering at her, and he looked ridiculous.
"Much better," he said when he heard her laugh. And before she knew it, she was flat on her back and Michael was kissing her breathless.
"Mmmm," Maria moaned, wrapping her arms around his neck. "What a nice distraction," she mumbled against his lips.
"Glad you approve," he said between feathery kisses.
I know, I know," she whispered as he started kissing her nose and eyes and cheeks. "Still the only way to shut me up," she managed, just before his mouth came down on hers again. Arching against him, she allowed her tongue to war with his, stroking her hands down his back.
Michael rolled until she was lying on top of him and grinned up at her. "Okay?"
"Yeah," she said with a hesitant smile. "Thanks." But she sighed as he began to gently knead his way across her shoulders, and dropped her head onto his chest. She knew there was no point lying to him when he could feel the tension in her muscles. "I can’t help but worry, Michael. Liz has been my best friend since we were five."
"I know. I don’t know where I’d be without Max," he said, continuing to work out the kinks in her neck. "Nothing’s going to happen to either of them. I promise."
"I know it isn’t that simple," she said softy. "But thank you." She groaned as he found a particularly tight spot on her back. "That’s wonderful."
"So are you," he whispered, in a voice barely loud enough to hear. But he knew she had, because her arms tightened around him and he felt her kiss his chest through his shirt.
"I love you, Spaceboy."
"I love you, too."
* * * * *
Liz lay awake staring into the darkness, having given up on the idea of getting any rest. At first she had been waiting for Max to doze off, completely focused on the rhythm of his breathing and the tension in his body, tuned to any sign that he was relaxing into sleep. When his exhaustion had finally won out over his fear and he had drifted off, she’d thought she would be able to sleep as well. Instead, a thousand thoughts and worries started spinning through her brain. She was intensely aware of Max lying next to her, his strong arm pinning her to his chest protectively even as he slept. It was difficult to reconcile this Max with the one who had been shaking and crying just a couple of hours earlier. He was so solid up against her – so sturdy. His presence alone always made her feel warm and safe. Only… tonight she could sense faint waves of apprehension rolling off of him even now, negating any outward appearance of calm. He may have been sleeping, but he was far from peaceful.
For some reason, she kept replaying the night they had rescued him from Eagle Rock, running it over in her mind. She hadn’t allowed herself to think about it much since then, for any number of reasons. It had been the most terrifying, painful experience of her life, and when she had decided to walk away from Max the next day, she had tried hard to block it from her memory, despite everything she had seen and felt. Of course, she hadn’t been able to forget – had never really believed she would. She could picture the night so clearly – every detail – starting with the moment Michael and the Sheriff had climbed through the hole in the chain link fence, with Max supported between them. Max had been shivering, his chest marred by a long red gash, so weak he could barely stand. But as soon as they were in the car and she had started to drive away, he had begun to shut down, already fighting to regain control. "It’s over." That was what he had told her, and she knew that was what he had told himself as well. Whatever Pierce had done to him – said to him – Max had honestly believed that he could lock each memory away inside of himself and be done with it.
Instead those memories were becoming a part of him. He wasn’t getting any better – not if he couldn’t go to sleep without waking up screaming. She felt a little shudder run through her at the thought of everything Max had gone through, only to be tortured nightly by his own subconscious. She was startled when he pulled her closer in response, comforting her automatically. Snuggling against him, she marveled once again at the connection that bound them to each other, and at Max’s instinctive desire to put her needs before his own, no matter what it meant. Even in his sleep, he was taking care of her. But she couldn’t allow him to do that anymore. This time, he had to come first.
* * *
"Tell me what I want to know!"
Pierce’s words reverberated off the white walls of the room – and off every surface within Max’s mind. He could feel them ricocheting between his temples and bouncing off the back of his skull. It seemed Pierce had been going for hours, asking question after question, his voice as much a part of life now as breathing. Perhaps even more so; Pierce kept on, while breathing was becoming a questionable activity.
Max struggled to inhale, fought to shut his mind to the endless demands and to think of something else – anything else. But it was so hard. Strapped to a gurney, his existence had narrowed to the electrodes at his pulse points, the needles in his arms pumping him full of drugs, Pierce’s face – fuzzy around the edges – swimming in and out of his line of vision, and that voice pummeling him inside and out. Another wave of fatigue and nausea washed over him. Every inch of his body felt battered and bruised, but the chemicals surging through his system made it impossible for him to heal himself, or even to numb the pain. There was nothing he could do to protect himself – except to remain stubbornly silent.
Pierce zoomed into focus again, hovering only inches away, his features harsh and distorted. "Don’t think you can win, Max. I know what you are. And I know how to break you. I can take you apart, Max, remember? Piece by piece…"
The sound of a table being rolled into the room reached Max’s ears. Out of the corner of his eye he could see it – spread with a clean white cloth, the shiny metal instruments arranged in neat rows, gleaming under the florescent lighting. He strained frantically against the straps that held him down, clenching his fists, knowing it was useless but unable to just lie there and calmly await his fate. The exertion left him dizzy while accomplishing nothing.
* * *
Liz woke abruptly as she landed on the floor, a heavy mass coming down hard on top of her and pinning her in place. Momentarily unable to recall where she was, her first impulse was to shove desperately at whatever was lying on her as she opened her mouth to scream. But her hands connected with incredibly warm skin and in a rush she realized where she was and what had happened. Even as her fingers wrapped instinctively around Max’s arms, he began to move away from her, curling into himself in a way that indicated he was still asleep. She tried to sit up, but found she was caught between Max and the front of the couch, her hip wedged uncomfortably against a wooden leg. Wincing, she tried to get Max to move without waking him up, gently nudging at his side in the hopes that he would roll over. Instead, he let out a low moan.
"Max?" she said softly, freezing in place.
Still locked in sleep, he shied away from her, curling more tightly into a fetal position and beginning to whimper like a wounded animal. His slight shift was enough to free Liz from her confined position and she quickly pushed herself up and knelt beside him. In the half-light that came through the window from the street lamp, she could see that he had started to tremble. She took hold of his shoulders and shook him gently.
"Max, wake up. Max, you’re dreaming, wake up." When he failed to react, she held him more firmly and shook a little harder, raising her voice. "Max! Max, it’s me, Liz. You have to listen to me. You need to open your eyes." She crouched down low, trying to catch a glimpse of his face, but he was huddled with his head tucked into his knees and his shoulder blocked her view completely. He continued to make a keening sound low in his throat and the shaking was becoming more pronounced. She wasn’t getting through to him.
* * *
Max kept his eyes shut, blocking out the room and the scalpels and Pierce’s ever-present image. He knew what came next – it was unavoidable. Tense, braced for the first cut, he waited, resigned to dying on the cold, hard table at the hands of a madman. It had been his first real fear – Isabel’s and Michael’s too, he had no doubt – to be captured and questioned and dissected as if he was no better than a rodent. Deep in his heart, he had never really expected things to end any other way. Despite his faith in the basic good of humankind, he had always known such men were out there. Men who thought that to torture an innocent being, someone they perceived to be a threat, made them heroes.
"Max," the voice whispered in his ear. Insidious, taunting, Pierce lingered beside him, refusing to be ignored. "Open your eyes, Max."
The world shifted as the table slowly tilted upwards. Knowing it was a mistake, but unable to help himself, Max opened his eyes and felt his stomach lurch. He saw Isabel first, her mouth set in a stubborn line, her eyes filled with fear. Beyond her was Michael, a bruised jaw and a cut above one eye indicating he had begun to struggle well before he was cuffed to the wall. Alex and Maria came next, both clearly afraid, yet trying valiantly to maintain a brave façade. And finally, Liz, eyes focused only on him, somehow managing to look both courageous and beautiful, though her shirt was torn and her lip was bloody. Max felt a surge of anger mixed with a strong kick of panic.
"Noooooo… Let them go," he said, his voice faint. His thoughts were chaotic, but one thing stood out from the jumble. He had done this – they were all going to die and it was his fault.
"Ah, yes, that’s your weakness, isn’t it?" Pierce whispered, taking obvious delight in Max’s anguish. "Your feelings." Stopping at the table of instruments, he lifted a particularly sharp looking scalpel from the tray and began to toy with it. "But you will never be human, Max. No matter how hard you try, no matter whom you love. You don’t belong here. Despite that heart beating inside your chest, you are an alien." He reached out and ran one cold finger down the center of Max’s chest. "And I intend to prove it. After all," he continued, looking up and meeting Max’s eyes with his own icy glare, "I have plenty of other sources of information now, don’t I? So it makes no difference. If you die before you tell us anything." With one swift stroke, he ran the scalpel down the line he had traced, slicing through Max’s skin.
Gasping in agony, unable to hold back, Max screamed.
* * *
Liz was holding Max, trying to comfort him, when he suddenly jerked violently sending her toppling onto her side, and let out a howl that nearly shattered her ears. Sitting up, she saw that his eyes were open, but she could tell from the glazed expression on his face that he wasn’t really awake. With the look of one who is hunted, he scrambled backwards until he hit the wall, his eyes unfocused and terror-filled. He wrapped his arms around his knees and drew them into his chest, his gaze darting nervously around the room. Though his trembling had lessened while Liz had been holding him, he was shaking harder than ever now.
"Oh, Max…" Liz whispered, her eyes filling with tears. She could feel his fear rippling toward her from the other side of the room, her own pulse kicking up a notch in response. God, what had he been dreaming about? Very slowly, not at all sure how he was going to react, she started to inch her way across the floor. "Max," she said, louder this time, in the most soothing voice she could muster. "Max, wake up. It’s Liz. You’re having a nightmare."
At the sound of her voice, his eyes stilled, landing on her face. He watched her carefully as she approached, without the slightest flicker of recognition. When she was within arm’s length, Liz gingerly reached out one hand. Max flinched. She stopped, her hand frozen, suspended in mid-air between them. Several tears went streaming down her cheeks.
After waiting for what seemed like forever, Liz slowly moved forward a few more inches. When Max didn’t back away, she continued until she could wrap her fingers gently around one of his hands. With her other hand, she started stroking his arm using light, even movements. Max’s eyes stayed focused on her, allowing her to soothe him, but not appearing to know her. Liz could almost sense the protective wall he had put up around himself; he was shutting everything and everyone out – including her.
* * *
Max could feel his heart pounding in his chest. That couldn’t be right. Did you still feel your heart beating once you were dead? And he had to be dead, because the pain was gone. He could still feel the fear pulsing through him, but the agonizing pain of having his skin sliced through with the scalpel – that had stopped. He knew Pierce had to have killed him, had probably taken great pleasure in watching him bleed to death on the cold, hard autopsy table. Pierce had wanted him dead, and had no reason to keep him alive now that he had captured the others.
God, no. Guilt flooded through him, a heavy, suffocating tidal wave that wiped out all other thought. He could still see them, see their faces. What would Pierce do to them in order to get answers to his questions? Answers that none of them had. The five people he loved and trusted most in the world – and he had led them to their deaths.
For a moment he thought he was losing his mind. Was that possible? Could the dead go mad? But he could have sworn he felt Liz near, could sense her presence, smell the sweet scent of her shampoo. Maybe this was his own personal version of hell, where he would be tormented by the memories of the people he had let down. Huddling into himself, Max felt a shudder run through him. Why couldn’t it just be over? The thought, the hurt, the… being. He was so tired…
* * *
Liz sat curled next to Max, her arms wrapped around him, her hair a soft curtain that draped over both of their shoulders. It seemed they had been in that position forever, though in truth it had only been about twenty minutes. After begging and pleading and crying herself hoarse, she had finally just huddled against the wall as close to him as she could get, and started to rock him. The shaking had finally subsided, except for an occasional shudder, but Max still had not said a word.
She turned her head and kissed him gently on the temple. When she pulled back she realized his eyes were closed. He was sleeping again. Liz sat up, unsure of what to do, feeling a rush of panic. Should she let him rest? Or should she try to wake him up again? What if he had another nightmare? In the end, that was the deciding factor. As tired as he was, Liz couldn’t risk letting him sink into that torturous state again tonight. He had already suffered too much.
There had to be a way to wake him up. Liz shifted, feeling her muscles groan in complaint. Between sitting curled on the floor and her earlier spill off the couch, her legs and her back were stiffening rapidly. But it couldn’t be helped. Nothing mattered more than Max. Leaning forward, she kissed him lightly on the top of his head. He didn’t move a muscle. She prayed it was because he was just sleeping soundly.
"Max," she said. "Max, it’s me. Max, are you awake?"
Nothing. She hadn’t really expected a response. After trying everything she could think of for nearly an hour, she didn’t think a simple question would get through to him. Sighing, Liz wracked her brain for some other way to wake him. The idea of dousing him with ice water briefly skated across her brain, but it was chased by a distinct memory of the flashes she had gotten from Max after they rescued him – specifically an image of him being forced into an ice bath. There had to be another way. If she didn’t think of something soon, she was going to have to call the others, even if it meant waking the entire Evans household.
"Max, remember our night in the desert?" she said. Cuddling next to him, she rested her head on his shoulder and just began to talk. Even if he didn’t hear her, the recollections might spark an idea in her own mind of how to rouse him. "And our parents’ faces when we walked into the Crashdown the next morning? I could just see what your mother was thinking. ‘Who is this hussy and what has she done to my responsible son?’ And my mother… Well, I still don’t think she’s recovered. I’m afraid that, after tonight, it is going to take some pretty fancy footwork for you to get into her good graces." Squeezing Max’s arm, Liz continued. "What about the night I had that blind date? And you and Kyle broke into my room and you dragged me off? All those wonderful things you did – and said. That was such a bizarre, wonderful night, Max. Too bad you couldn’t remember it after you sobered up…"
She sat up abruptly. Kissing Max that night had sobered him up. And while she wasn’t so childish as to think that kissing him now would wake him like some reverse Sleeping Beauty story, there was a chance she would be able to connect with him. Scooting around so she was kneeling in front of him, Liz reached out and took Max’s face in her hands, gently stroking his cheeks with her thumbs. "Max, please…" she whispered. She pressed her lips to his.
* * *
No, Max thought. It’s a trick – a trap. That’s why I sense Liz here. Pierce didn’t kill me after all and now he wants to use Liz to get to me. But I won’t let him. If I ignore him, if I don’t let him know I’m still alive, then he’ll have to let Liz go…
His mind was spinning. Part of him was aware that his thoughts were irrational, that Pierce would never free Liz or the others, that none of them were safe. If he was really still alive, then Pierce knew it. It was his choice to let him live, after all. But it seemed so real. He could feel Liz – not just her presence – but actually feel her. He thought her hair brushed his face, that she had kissed his face, the top of his head. And he knew that couldn’t be, that Pierce would never let Liz near enough to him to touch him that way. But he could feel her – her soft lips against his, her thoughts swirling into his mind like gentle lifelines reaching out to rescue him. God, he wanted so badly for it to be true.
So that was it. He really was insane. Pierce had driven him into some far corner of his mind and that was where he was now. Funny… but it wasn’t so bad. Not if he could still feel Liz there – not if they could at least be together in his head. If only he could save the others, help them escape. He didn’t know how. How do you come back from insanity when you’ve already been pushed over the edge? How do you regain your control? Control. That was the key. He had to be strong. He needed to snap out of it. Tears of frustration coursed down his cheeks as he grappled with his errant thoughts.
* * *
It was the tears she felt first, streaming down Max’s cheeks and over her hands. Then his mouth responded to hers, hesitantly returning her kiss as if unsure whether it was real. Finally his hands sank into her hair and he pulled her close, moaning under his breath, dragging her between his knees until there wasn’t an inch of space between them.
"Max?" she asked, breathless, uttering his name against his lips, not wanting to break contact. "Max, are you all right?"
"Liz.." he whispered, the tears falling faster. "You’re real. Oh God…" He broke the kiss suddenly and pushed her away. "I nearly got you killed," he said, eyes wild, stumbling to his feet and staggering for the door.
"What? Max, it was a nightmare," she said, startled, then hurrying to scramble after him. Her stiff legs nearly gave way, but she managed to throw herself against the door before he finished undoing the locks. "Max, what are you doing?"
His fingers weren’t working well and he fumbled repeatedly before giving up on the deadbolt and dropping his forehead against the doorframe. He shook his head, brushing off Liz’s attempts to put her arms around him. "Not… just a nightmare," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "Get away from me. You were right to walk away. Knowing me… puts you all at risk. Won’t let them… hurt you."
"You mean the way they hurt you?" Liz asked softly.
Max turned and looked at her, his face tear-stained, eyes filled with pain. "I couldn’t bear it… if anything happened to you," he said hoarsely.
Liz nodded slowly, not entirely sure if Max was really awake, but thankful he was at least talking to her. "Come back and sit down," she coaxed.
"No. Need to leave. Need to get away from all of you."
"Max, please. Just for a little while." She took his hand and led him across the room. She felt a little stab in her heart when she saw how willingly he followed her, despite what he had said. He had no defenses left. He sank slowly onto the couch, blinking a few times when she turned on a nearby lamp. As he had before at the Crashdown, he shook his head and rubbed his hands over his face.
"Where are you going?" he asked, his voice panicky, when she moved toward the kitchen. He reached out and snagged her hand, pulling her back.
"I’m just going to get you something to drink, okay? I’m not going anywhere," she assured him, gently tugging her hand from his. She went into the kitchen and turned on the tap, then rummaged for a clean glass while the water ran cold. One eye on Max, she saw him look around the room as if trying to recall where he was, then rub at his eyes again. He seemed slightly more alert, though, and when she headed back with the water, he managed a weak smile.
Liz sat down next to him. "Here, drink this," she told him. She had to help him with the glass, as his hands were still trembling lightly, but he drank it down as if had just crawled out of the desert.
"Thanks," he said, his voice finally sounding more normal.
She nodded and set the glass down. "How do you feel?"
"I don’t know," he replied quietly.
"I’m trying to figure out if you’re really awake, Max. I need a little more to go on than that," she told him. "Are you okay?"
He dropped his head into his hands. "Apparently not."
"You don’t remember anything that happened?"
"No." He sat up cautiously and looked at her. "Though I’m guessing I had another nightmare, since it’s three in the morning and you’re looking at me like I’ve grown another head."
"No, don’t," he said, taking her hand. There was a clarity to his eyes, despite the apprehension, that made her breathe easier. "Liz, I’m so sorry to put you through this."
"I was really scared, Max," she admitted. "No matter what I did, I couldn’t wake you up."
He looked wary. "How long were you trying?"
"God…" he breathed, shutting his eyes. "That bad?"
"Yeah. Max, can you remember any of what you were dreaming?"
He shook his head. "Just the feelings. And those are residual – kind of faded. I can’t remember any of the actual nightmare."
Liz shifted, trying to get more comfortable, ignoring the pain in her hip. However, Max opened his eyes and shot her a concerned look. "What is it? Are you okay?"
"Fine," she assured him, unwilling to change to subject. "Max, this can’t wait any longer. Not even until morning. You need to talk about it." When he didn’t answer, she cupped his chin and forced him to look at her. "You have to."
"I know," he whispered, something akin to fear flashing across his face. "I do. I just… don’t know how."
"Why don’t I start?" she asked. "You know I got flashes from you – that night in the van and then again later at Buckley Point. Maybe if I tell you what I saw, you’ll be able to go from there."
He nodded. "Okay," he agreed. "Only…"
He reached out and scooped her up off the couch and sat her on his lap. "I just need… to know you’re safe right now," he said, leaning back and pulling her close to his chest.
Liz rested her head on his shoulder and her palm over his heart. "I’m in the safest place in the world," she said softly. "Are you ready?"
"As I’m going to be," he replied quietly.
"Okay. Keep in mind the flashes were very fast, just quick images. It wasn’t always clear what I was looking at." Realizing suddenly that she was holding her breath, she let it out slowly. "I saw you in a white room, in medical scrubs," she began. "You were holding your ears. I couldn’t hear what you were hearing, but I could tell it was high pitched because I could../ feel your pain," she said. She was aware of Max tensing beneath her and wrapped her arms around him comfortingly. Taking another deep breath, she went on. "I saw you being forced into a tub of ice and water. And… I saw them drugging you, putting needles into you," she continued, her voice hardly a whisper. She tightened her arms around him, as if to brace him. "I felt you… screaming."
Lifting her head, she saw the bleak look on Max’s face.
"I tried not to scream," he said. "I didn’t want to give him that. I just… it was too much…."
"No, Max, no!" she said. "You had every right to scream," she told him, wrapping her arms around his neck. "What Pierce did to you was horrible, inhuman…"
"I’m not human, remember?" he asked, his voice tinged with bitterness.
Liz held his face and looked him in the eye. "Max Evans, you are more human in the depths of your soul than anyone I have ever known," she said seriously. "Pierce was a monster. He refused to see past what he thought he knew." She leaned forward and kissed him, then pulled away and gently stroked his cheek. "I know he used your feelings for me, for all of us, against you. The fact that he could do that, Max – that shows how human you really are. And how cruel he was."
Max brushed a strand of hair back from her face, caressing her forehead lightly with his fingertips. "Thank you," he said. For a moment he just looked at her, as if coming to some kind of conclusion. "When they took me at the carnival, I was just praying that the rest of you would get away. I kept thinking of Michael and Isabel… and Tess… wandering around, not knowing what was happening. And you, with Nasedo again. But once they got me to the base, and I realized it was just me – that’s when it hit me. How much trouble I was in. They left me locked alone in that room for hours, not saying anything, just letting me wonder."
"I was so scared when I realized that it was Nasedo who had pulled me out of there," she whispered.
"At least he got you out," Max said, smoothing her hair. "I tried to play it straight at first. Telling them who I was, asking to call my parents. But it didn’t do any good. They ran tests on me, took blood and tissue samples, X-rays. And then Pierce came in. I didn’t know it was him at first. He was wearing some sort of protective suit with a facemask. Then he took it off and I recognized him as the new deputy who had stopped us the night before when we were leaving to look for you, and I figured it all out."
"Right. He went on to show me my X-rays and tell me that they were completely human – my bones and organs – everything. But my blood wasn’t. And you know, that’s when I realized that he probably knew more about me than I did, and that if I played it right, I would be able to get some answers of my own." He shook his head, the bitterness creeping back into his voice. "I figured it was ironic, seeing as how I’d probably be dead before I could pass on the information."
"We weren’t going to let that happen," Liz said fiercely.
Max hugged her tightly. "I didn’t see anyway for you to get me out," he said honestly. "I should have known better."
"Keep going," she urged.
"He wanted to know about the agents Nasedo had killed. Most of them seemed to have been former heads of the Special Unit. And he let me know he knew there were more of us. After the crash they captured two aliens who were still alive – Nasedo and one other. Somehow Nasedo managed to escape, but they had the other in that room for three years."
"Three years? Max, that’s… I can’t even imagine…"
"I know. And I was imagining right then, believe me." He kissed her cheek briefly, but the gesture seemed intended to reassure himself more than it was to calm her. "I think he wanted me to have that in the back of my mind the entire time they were… doing things to me. So I would envision what it would be like if it all just went on and on." He paused, running his hand over Liz’s hair, playing with the ends.
"Max? You okay?" She sat up a little so she could see his face.
He nodded, but his expression was tense. "Just… trying to put the pieces in order," he said slowly. "They started drugging me, and a lot isn’t too clear. I know… I know that Pierce kept asking me questions, but I was so… looped… I could barely stay conscious. That’s when Isabel came into my head."
"She tried to dream walk you."
"I wasn’t sure she was real, at first. I tried to do what she asked – to give her something to go on to help find me – but I didn’t think it would do any good. Then I made her leave. I didn’t know what was going to happen next and I… I didn’t want her to go through any of it with me." He pulled Liz a little closer and rested his chin on the top of her head. "After that they did something to get the drugs out of my system. That’s when they started with the…."
"It’s all right," she said in a low voice. "Go ahead, Max."
"The things you saw," he continued. "The high pitched tones, the ice bath. They strapped me to some kind of voltage meter… with electrodes… and cranked the dial. Rather, Pierce cranked it. He didn’t ask any questions, though. I guess he wanted to wear me down… and it worked," he said wryly. "I was exhausted, and they were using some drug to block me from using my powers. That’s when he put a headset on me. One of those virtual reality things, but I didn’t know that’s what it was." He stopped, his voice thick with emotion.
Liz sat up again. She wasn’t surprised to see the pain on Max’s face, but it still broke her heart. "That was how he showed you the pictures of us, wasn’t it?" she ventured.
It took him a minute to answer. "Yeah," he said finally. "It was bad enough for him to do that – to show me Michael and Isabel. Maria and Alex." He closed his eyes briefly. "You." He paused, and she instantly held him tighter. Opening his eyes, he went on. "To know beyond any doubt that he was.. aware… of everyone. But then he.. it was you again, bleeding, lying there… on a stretcher… I couldn’t…" He broke down, burying his head against Liz and clutching her so hard he crushed the breath from her lungs.
She held him as he cried, her own tears ignored as she tried to put all of her love into her embrace. "Max," she said, "Max, it’s okay. Shhh." Stroking his head and neck, she did her best to soothe him, all the while trying to suppress her burgeoning anger at Pierce, knowing it was useless to rail against a dead man. When Max had quieted somewhat, she gently tugged him up so he was looking at her and wiped at his wet cheeks.
"I’m sorry," he said.
"What for?" she asked. "Actually letting yourself feel what you went through? Max, I hate what happened to you, but I hate even more that it keeps tormenting you every night." Cupping his face, she forced him to meet her own teary eyes. "Listen to me, okay? I can only imagine what it did to you – to have Pierce turn your feelings for us against you. But we’re all right, Max. All of us. We won the first battle and we’re going to win the rest, too."
"I’m sorry for getting you into this," he said.
"Don’t be. The other day you told me that nothing that’s happened to you is my fault, Max. Your secret being revealed, Pierce capturing you…."
"It’s *not* your fault," he broke in.
"Shhh…." she said, putting a finger to his lips. "All I’m saying is, if none of that is my fault, none of this is your fault either. Maybe it’s time we both stop blaming ourselves for putting the other in danger, and just accept that the situation is what’s dangerous. But we’re together, Max. Isn’t that what’s really important?" She replaced her finger with her lips, kissing him hard, relieved when he responded automatically, his arms tightening around her as he returned her kiss. "I love you," she whispered as she sat back and looked into the depths of his brown eyes.
"I love you," he said.
"You think you can keep going?" she asked gently.
He nodded. Suddenly restless, he shifted her onto the couch and stood up. But instead of pacing as she had expected, he shoved his hands into his pockets and went to stand by the window. He gazed out onto the dark, deserted street, his expression hidden from her. "There’s not that much more, really. He had… threatened to hurt you. It wasn’t a question, really. I told him. Where the orb was. Once he had both of them, he expected me to make them work, and he wouldn’t believe that I didn’t know how." He stopped abruptly, obviously trapped in the memory.
"What did he do, Max?" she pressed. When he remained silent, she rose and went to him, wrapping her arms around him from behind. "Max, please," she whispered, her cheek pressed against his back.
Max took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Liz tensed slightly, but didn’t let go. "He… brought in a table with some instruments on it."
"What kind of instruments?" she asked.
"Medical instruments. The kind used to perform autopsies."
"Oh, Max…," she whispered, closing her eyes against the tears threatening to fall.
A shudder ran through him and he shook it off, his hands moving to cover hers where they were linked at his waist. "Of course, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t tell him how to work them if I didn’t know. I said as much, but he still didn’t believe me. He had them strap me onto the table. That’s when Isabel came into my head again. Told me to get Pierce alone and Michael and Nasedo would do the rest."
"But they had already started, hadn’t they?" Liz asked, her voice unsteady as she thought of the long cut down Max’s chest when they had pulled him out of Eagle Rock. It had healed by the next morning, but she would never forget the frightening reality of it in those brief seconds before he had put his shirt on.
"Yeah," he said, clearly fighting to keep from breaking down again. He gently pulled her hands apart and tugged her so she was facing him. Taking her into his arms, he rested his chin on top of her head and ran a hand over her hair, tangling his fingers in its silky length. "The rest is blurry. Things happened so fast and I was… kind of out of it. I was holding the orbs, not sure what to expect, when the wall shattered and Michael was there," he said, his relief reflected in his lighter tone. "I know Nasedo was with him, but I don’t remember being conscious of him at the time. I just recall Michael dragging me out of there, saying something to an agent who stopped us in the hall. Then some kind of alarm was sounding and Valenti was there. Next thing I remember was seeing you and Isabel waiting by the fence."
"I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved in my entire life as I was when you came into view," she whispered.
"I know." He pulled back and frowned slightly. Ever so gently, he brushed a finger across her eyelashes, knocking away the tears that were glittering there.
Liz forced a smile. "How do you feel?" she asked, reaching up to caress the side of his face.
"I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s fully registered yet – talking about it."
"Thank you for telling me," she said. "I know how hard it was for you, but Max, I really believe it’s going to help."
"Even if it doesn’t, I’m glad I told you," he said slowly. "I don’t want to have any secrets from you, Liz. There are too many secrets in my life already."
Her smile came naturally this time, though it was accompanied by more tears. "I love you, Max. There’s nothing you could ever tell me that would change that. And I’ll always be here for you, no matter what."
"Thank you," he whispered, kissing her tenderly.
Liz sighed and pulled back, resting her cheek against his heart, thankful that it was once more beating at a normal, steady pace. "You know, you’re going to have tell Michael and Isabel, too," she said quietly.
"Yeah," he grimaced. "They’re not going to be too thrilled that I told you first."
"I think they may surprise you," she told him. "They’ve been really worried, Max."
"I know." He let out a long sigh. "I’m just not sure how soon I’ll be up to going through this again," he admitted.
"It’ll get easier, I think. But they need to know. It affects them, too."
"You’re right," he agreed. Taking her by the hand, he tugged her toward the couch. He sank down and pulled her back onto his lap, cradling her against him. For a few minutes they simply sat there, arms around each other, Max occasionally running his hand down Liz’s back in a soothing manner.
"Now what do we do?" he asked finally, sounding drained.
Liz took Max’s wrist and peered at his watch. Twenty past four. "I don’t know," she admitted. "We could try going back to sleep – see if any of this helped," she suggested cautiously.
Max tensed beneath her. "And if it didn’t? Liz, I don’t think I can handle another nightmare right now," he said.
"That’s all right," she said quickly. "We don’t have to sleep. It’s nearly morning, anyway. Everyone’ll probably be over in a few hours."
He groaned. "Quick. Let’s get out of here before they show up."
"And go where?" she asked, sitting back so she could look at him. "Besides, Michael took the Jeep last night. And you have to face them eventually, Max. They’ll be patient if you ask them to be," she said, smiling understandingly.
"Right." He looked infinitely tired and worn. "So, at the risk of sounding repetitive, now what? Liz, I really don’t want to fall asleep."
"I know," she said gently, reaching out to cup his cheek. "We’ll find something to keep you awake." Shifting forward, she eased her arms around him, so that one hand stroked the nape of his neck while the other ruffled his hair. A sudden twinkle in her eye, she leaned over and kissed him.
|posted on 16-Sep-2001 10:51:54 AM|
Max felt Liz’s lips curve briefly beneath his, and then he was lost in the kiss. He allowed himself to fall into it, his mouth opening over hers hungrily. Whether his need for her was a reaction to the strain of unburdening his soul, or the aftermath of his nightmares, or simply because she was who she was and he loved her, he could not have said. And at that moment, it really didn’t matter. The last thing he wanted to do was think.
Her tongue brushed teasingly against his and he deepened the kiss, his arms snaking up her back until his hands twined in her hair. With one finger he lightly stroked the soft skin behind her ear, causing her to shiver. As Liz shifted closer to him, he felt her stiffen slightly. Quickly breaking away, he looked at her with concern.
"Something’s wrong. What is it?"
She shook her head. "It’s nothing, really. I think I bruised my hip, that’s all."
Max’s eyes narrowed. "Bruised it?" he asked suspiciously.
"When we fell off the couch," she replied.
"We fell off the couch?" he asked, eyes wide.
Liz smiled, clearly amused. "Well, to be more precise, you fell off the couch. You just happened to take me with you." When he started to apologize, she laughed. "Max, it’s just a little bump, okay? Don’t get all upset. You were restless and the couch isn’t that wide. I would have been fine except that I managed to clunk myself on the leg."
Max frowned, but his eyes were dancing. "Klutz," he whispered teasingly. He slid one warm palm slowly down the length of her back, then eased it over the curve of her sore hip, cupping her gently. "You don’t mind if you’re a little silver here for a day or so, do you?" he asked in a low voice.
Mesmerized by the look in his eyes, Liz shook her head. "I’ll take silver over black and blue."
Smiling, Max pressed lightly against her and concentrated for a moment. "There," he said. "Feel better?"
"Yeah, thanks," she said, her voice throaty. "You’re sure handy to have around."
"It’s the least I could do," he said, the words hushed, whispered against the skin just below her chin as he began to brush tiny kisses down her neck.
Liz arched against his mouth and let out a breathy sigh. She ran her fingers across Max’s shoulders and up into his hair, ruffling it slightly as she drew him closer. He dropped slow, hot kisses over her collarbone and she trembled. Cupping his face, she pulled him back up and covered his mouth with hers, drowning in the sweet, spicy taste of him. She nibbled his bottom lip, teasing it between her teeth until he growled low in his throat and swept his tongue over hers.
Max’s kisses grew harder, more aggressive. He tightened his arms around Liz and shifted, sending the room spinning until they were lying stretched out on the couch, their legs tangled together. Hovering over her, he captured her mouth again, enjoying the waves of emotion pouring off her skin as she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him closer. Their feelings were almost tangible, filling the air, encircling them like a warm, golden halo. He trailed soft kisses along her jaw, over her forehead, across her cheeks. Impatient, she turned her head so their lips met once more, and he instantly got a flash from her – an image so startling, so filled with passion, that he felt his temperature kick skyward.
"Liz," he groaned, forcing himself to break the heated kiss, resting his forehead against hers, his breathing erratic. "God, Liz," he panted.
"What? What’s wrong?" she asked, her breathing just as ragged.
"Nothing," he bit out. "Only… too many thoughts like that and … you’re gonna be sorry," he managed.
Liz let out a low chuckle. "I sincerely doubt that."
Max lifted his head abruptly, then caught a glimpse of the wicked sparkle in her eyes. "Liz?"
"Please, Max," she said, pulling him back down. "Make love to me," she whispered against his lips.
He kissed her gently, then drew back, though the effort it took was immense. But he knew if he allowed himself to let go now, if he allowed himself to drown in her – with her words still ringing in his ears – then there would be no turning back. He loved her too much to jump into this impulsively, no matter how badly he wanted her. She needed to be sure. And if he was going to give her that choice, if he was going to give her the time to be certain, he needed some space. He sat up carefully, pulling her after him, then shifted so they were sitting a few inches apart.
"Why now, Liz?" he asked gently. "I mean, last night we were so close to… but you stopped me. What’s different tonight?"
"You mean aside from the fact that Isabel, Alex, and your parents aren’t sleeping down the hall?" she asked with a smile.
He smiled back, relieved that she wasn’t taking offense at his question. "Yeah, besides that."
She reached out and took his hand, turning it over so she could trace the fine veins that crossed his palm with the tip of her finger. "Max," she began, "last night it was more than just the chance of being interrupted. You were looking for a way to cope with everything that had happened, with the new threat to all of us, with Isabel getting hurt. I told you – you would have regretted it later, and I couldn’t live with that."
"And now? I’m not trying to cope with anything?" he asked.
She shook her head. "You just took steps toward coping with everything, Max. And I’m so proud of you," she whispered. "And I also know that your kissing me just now had nothing to do with hiding from your pain. Because if it did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation."
"Because I wouldn’t have pulled away," he finished quietly, a note of comprehension in his voice.
"Yeah," she said. She looked up, her eyes swimming. "Max, I have so many reasons for wanting to be with you," she said. "Tonight. We’re alone, we’re together, we’re alive. No one is chasing us or beating down the door." Kneeling beside him, she took his face between her hands and gazed into his eyes. "I never knew I could… I never expected to feel like this about anyone. Not in my wildest imagination. When you look at me, it changes me. And it has nothing to do with where you come from, or what your cells look like. You touch my heart, Max. I love you."
He cupped his hand over hers, taking it so he could kiss her palm. "Liz, I love you, too. I have for so long. But I don’t want to hurt you."
"You won’t," she said softly. When he looked doubtful, she leaned forward and kissed him quickly. "Max," she whispered, "I don’t mean that as a kind of pressure on you. I don’t expect you to work miracles for me, or to change what can’t be changed. All I’m saying is that I trust you never to hurt me if you can help it. You couldn’t possibly. And I want to be with you, no matter what. You mean everything to me," she added with a smile.
He looked into her eyes, trying to read her, unable to see even the barest glimmer of fear. "Are you really sure?"
"I’ve never been more sure of anything."
"You amaze me, you know. I love you so much," Max murmured. He slipped his arms around her waist and drew her onto his lap. As if he was holding a precious glass ornament, he ran his fingers delicately over her face, tracing her nose and cheek bones, outlining her lips until she smiled wickedly and flicked her tongue out to catch the tip of one finger. Returning her smile, he sat back, taking her with him, so she was cradled against his chest. "Do you have any idea what you’re doing to me?" he whispered in her ear.
A husky laugh was the only reply before Liz twisted around and kissed him hard. Within moments they were once again lying in each other’s arms, bodies pressed close in the narrow space the couch afforded. Lips caressed, hands roamed, clothes shifted, skin met. Soft sighs, low moans, and the occasional giggle filled the air, accompanied by muted whispers of love. Leisurely explorations grew more urgent, until finally Max lifted his head to look questioningly into Liz’s eyes.
Her heart melted. They were so close she could feel his heart pounding in his chest. Yet despite his obvious need, despite everything she had said to him earlier, he was still holding himself in check, exercising his infamous self-control, in order to ask her permission to continue. "Max," she breathed, too moved to say anything more. She threaded her fingers through his hair and kissed him.
He returned her kiss, then broke away with a shy smile. Reaching for his jeans where they lay crumpled on the floor, he fumbled in the pocket for a moment. "Have to keep you safe," he whispered.
When she realized what he was doing, Liz flushed with pleasure, while mentally kicking herself for her own carelessness. He had turned her brain to mush. "Thank you," she said softly, trailing a finger down his cheek.
And then they were leaving the last vestiges of childhood far behind them. Later, looking back, Liz thought the phrase "to become one with each other" had never seemed more appropriate. Though she knew no one would ever understand exactly what that meant to her, as she suspected the experience was uniquely alien. She had wanted to be closer to Max. Instead she became Max, and he became her. They were united in everything. The heart beating in her chest was Max’s. Each breath he took, she felt in her lungs. Their thoughts swirled together – no barriers, no secrets – more closely joined than any connection she had ever thought possible, and the universe exploded around them.
Afterwards, when the fireworks were over and the stars had stilled in the sky, they lay in each other’s arms and exchanged tender kisses as their heartbeats slowed to a more regular pace. Looking into Max’s eyes, Liz saw the same blend of awe and bliss she felt stirring in her own soul. At that moment she knew, beyond all doubt, that she had truly left normal behind forever. And that it had always been her destiny to do so.
* * * * *
Michael was already awake when Isabel knocked quietly on the door and poked her head in. He nodded to her in acknowledgement, putting a finger to his lips to warn her not to disturb Maria, who was still curled against him, sleeping soundly.
"Five minutes," Isabel whispered, then disappeared back into the hall.
Once she was gone, he looked down thoughtfully at the golden hair spread over his shoulder, hiding Maria’s face from view. It had taken her a long time to fall asleep the night before, even after he had worked the knots out of her shoulders. The events of the past few weeks were starting to wear on her – on all of them. He just hoped they would get a break soon. Everyone needed a few days to feel safe, where they didn’t have to worry about arming themselves or protecting themselves or someone else discovering their secret.
Waking up in Max’s room, in Max’s bed, only further served to drive the point home for Michael. Out of the three of them, Max had always had the strongest will, even as a child, and to see him falling apart was more than a little disturbing. Not that the guy didn’t have plenty of reasons to crack, but that worried Michael most of all. It was clear that he was getting worse, that he needed time to recover from the life-altering events that had been thrown in his direction. The scene at Liz’s last night was bad enough that, if Max didn’t show signs of pulling it together soon, Michael knew they were going to have to do something drastic. He just wished he knew what.
Lying there thinking about it wasn’t getting him anywhere, however, and they had to get going before the Evanses woke up. Michael eased his shoulder out from under Maria’s head and gently brushed her hair off her face. He so infrequently saw her this way – peaceful, quiet. She was such an animated person; it was strange to see her with calm features. He ran a finger over the tip of her nose and smiled when she twitched and moved away.
"Maria," he said softly. "Wake up." He poked lightly at her ribs.
She opened her eyes with a start and stared up at him unseeingly for a moment, then blinked rapidly a couple of times. "Hey," she said in a rusty voice, running her hands over her face.
"Morning," he said. "We need to get a move on."
She stretched briefly and nodded. "I know. I’m awake."
He dropped a kiss on the top of her head, then got up and went to the window.
Maria sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed, her eyes on Michael. "You okay?"
"Yeah," he said. "Just wondering what kind of day we’re going to have."
"Right." Not sure what else to say, she stood and went to him, sliding her arms around his waist and giving him a warm hug. "You think Max and Liz are all right?"
"They should be. We’ll see them soon enough." But he slipped his arm around her shoulders and returned her embrace. "Why don’t you go wash up? Isabel was already dressed when she came by a couple of minutes ago."
"Okay," she said. "Michael, are you sure nothing happened?" she asked as she turned to go.
He shook his head. "Nothing happened. At least not anything new."
"You just seem… never mind," she finished. "I’ll be right back."
Michael turned back to stare out the window. The yard was bathed in the half-light that comes just before the sun clears the horizon. He thought of all the times he had crept through the window and across that yard at just this time over the past few weeks, having stayed the night to keep watch over Max. The memory left him unsettled. He glanced at the phone by the bed and wondered if he should call Liz to see how she had fared. Only the hope that she and Max were still asleep kept him from picking up the receiver.
Muffled laughter out in the hall drew his attention. He was halfway across the room when the door opened and Maria burst in, cheeks red, one hand clamped over her mouth, obviously trying to stifle a fit of giggles. Alex and Isabel followed a few steps behind her. Alex was grinning from ear to ear, clearly on the verge of laughter himself, while Isabel’s face was unusually flushed. The second the door clicked shut, Maria threw herself face first onto the bed and dissolved into hysterics. Isabel seemed intent on avoiding Michael’s eyes and Alex busied himself straightening the collar on his shirt.
"What’s going on?" Michael asked.
Maria rolled over, still laughing, clutching her side with her hand. She pointed toward Alex and shook her head, indicating she was incapable of speech.
Michael sighed. "Would someone please tell me what’s so funny?" he asked.
"Nothing," Isabel insisted. "Her brain is just warped from spending so much time with you."
Gesturing wildly, Maria sat up and gulped in air, trying to calm down. Barely in control, she managed to stand up and grab hold of Alex, tugging unceremoniously at his shirt collar before he was able to stop her. "This…" she said breathlessly, "is what’s so funny," she managed.
Michael’s eyes went from the hickey on Alex’s collarbone, to Isabel’s red face, to Maria’s dancing eyes. When he finally looked at Alex, he was amused to see his friend appeared not the least bit embarrassed. "Nice, Whitman," he said with a smirk. Turning to Isabel, he raised his eyebrows briefly, his gaze drifting to the neckline of her shirt. "How about you, Iz? Got one to match?"
Isabel glared at him, but she couldn’t keep it up for long. One look at Alex’s mischievous grin and she started to laugh, too. "Wouldn’t you like to know," she said, causing Michael to look vaguely impressed and Maria to start giggling again.
Alex sat on the edge of the bed, casually swatting Maria in the arm. "Now that we’ve suitably amused everyone, what’s on the agenda for today?"
"We go round up Liz and Max from my place and see what kind of shape Max is in," Michael replied. "After that, I’m not sure."
Mention of Max sobered Maria rapidly. "I keep remembering how out of it he was last night," she said softly. "Right after we woke him up."
"He’s bound to be better this morning," Isabel said. "After spending some time with Liz, I mean."
"Yeah," Michael agreed, but his expression was serious again. "Just let me go clean up and we can get going. You guys about ready?" They all nodded. "Okay. And Iz, maybe you can check the kitchen for some portable breakfast?" he asked. "Somehow I don’t think I want to start the morning at the Crashdown."
* * * * *
Amy DeLuca sat on her daughter’s bed and stared at the clock. Six-thirty in the morning and Maria had not been home all night. In fact, this was the second night in a row that Maria had failed to sleep in her bed. Only, on the previous evening, Amy hadn’t realized that she wasn’t home until she had heard her slipping in through the kitchen door. It had been barely light out, and Maria had only stayed long enough to grab some things from her room and to leave a glass in the sink – clearly hoping Amy would assume she gotten an early start on the day. And that was exactly what Amy would have assumed, but she’d been awakened by the neighbor’s car alarm an hour earlier and had been unable to get back to sleep. So, when Maria hadn’t come home again last night, Amy had been determined to wait up for her.
What part of "no sleepovers with boys" did Maria not understand? Did she honestly believe it made a difference where she slept with Michael? That it was okay as long as they stayed at his place? Amy chewed nervously on her fingernails, wondering what had become of her sweet, naïve, bubbly girl. In a matter of months she had been transformed into a typical teenager – secretive, moody, and hell-bent for trouble. Only a few days before she had been moping around the house, acting as though the world had come screeching to an end. Now she was off with Michael at all hours, doing God-knows-what. What possible explanation could there be, other than the obvious one?
It had been a long night, and Amy had had plenty of time to think about it. Her daughter had lied to her – that was what it all came down to. She had said she wasn’t having sex, she had claimed she could be trusted, but in the end, she was no different than any other sixteen year old girl who thought she was in love. No different than Amy herself had been at the same age. God, when she thought of the things she had done as a teenager, of the wild explanations she had dreamed up to rationalize her behavior to her parents, it set her back to biting her nails. Maybe it was true what they said – about your sins coming back to revisit you through your children.
Well, she wasn’t going to stand for it. Amy sat up a little straighter and shook her head. There was only one thing to do. She would go get Maria and bring her home where she belonged. And once she had her here, she would give her a good talking to. Amy stood determinedly and marched out of the room. If Maria thought she could come and go as she pleased, without answering to her mother, she had another thing coming. As for Michael – well – next time he got into trouble, Amy had half a mind to let him rot in jail. Who did he think he was, throwing her kindness back in her face this way? Maybe she should stop by the Sheriff’s station and bring Jim along for back up, she mused. The idea held a great deal of appeal. Too bad it was so early. She doubted Jim was up yet. It doesn’t matter, she thought vehemently. "There’s nothing to be done here that you can’t take care of yourself," she reminded herself. Grabbing her purse and her keys, Amy stormed out to the Jetta.
* * * * *
Max smiled at the contented, sleepy sound of her voice. Her head was resting on his chest, one arm draped over his waist, so it was impossible for him to see her face. But he would have bet anything that her eyes were closed. "Liz, you can’t go to sleep," he said softly.
"Hmmm," she replied again.
"Liz?" He traced a circle lazily around the freckle on her shoulder.
"Hmmm? Why not?" She shifted slightly, cuddling against him.
"Because," he said, going on to draw little star shapes with his finger down the length of her arm. He was half-tempted to put some power behind the effort, so they would actually show, but he suspected Liz wouldn’t appreciate having a series of silver stars trailing toward her wrist. "Everyone is going to be here soon. I don’t know about you, but I’m not anxious to have Michael catch us in this position. Let alone Isabel."
Liz sat up abruptly, panic in her eyes. "Oh my God, what time is it?"
"Hey, it’s okay," he soothed, pulling her back into his arms. "It’s twenty past six. We have a little time."
"Not much," she said, but she relaxed against him. "There are a few things I’d like to do before they get here."
"Really?" he asked, his voice low.
Liz raised her head and shot him an amused look, her eyes twinkling. "That’s not what I meant," she said. "I was actually thinking along the lines of a shower."
Max ran his hand down her bare back. "You all right?"
"Yeah," she said softly. "Actually, much better than all right."
"Me too," he whispered, leaning down and kissing her. Then he pulled back and, for a moment, they simply looked into each other’s eyes.
"Shower," she said finally.
"Right," he said. "Want company?"
Liz smiled, her face suddenly rosy. "That might not be the best idea if we want to finish up before the others get here."
"Why not? One shower instead of two. Takes half the time," he said, trying to keep from laughing.
"Uh, no. I don’t think so." She dropped a kiss on his chest, then shifted, taking the blanket with her. "I’ll only be a few minutes," she said as she picked up her bag and padded into the bathroom.
Max waited until he heard the water running, then tugged on his jeans and began to survey the room for any signs of what had taken place over the last couple of hours. The last thing he wanted was to have to explain himself to Michael. Some things were just none of his business. A few strategic waves of his hand and Max had effectively removed any trace of sexual activity. He was straightening the couch cushions when Liz emerged, freshly dressed in clean shorts and a red tank top. Her wet hair hung down her back.
"Michael doesn’t have a hair dryer," she said with a pout.
"You’re lucky Michael had clean towels," he observed. "Come here." When she drew near, he placed his hand palm down on the top of her head and slowly dragged it over the length of her hair. "All dry."
"Thank you." Her eyes darted around the room. "You’ve been busy."
"I just don’t want to field any questions. I have enough to talk to them about."
"Yeah. You know, that’s going to be fine, Max."
"I know," he agreed.
Suddenly Liz turned to him, eyes wide. "Max, what about the…." She glanced toward the garbage can.
"Don’t worry," he assured her, taking her hand and giving it a little squeeze. "I took care of it. Gone. Even the wrapper."
"You mean you…." She waved her hand vaguely through the air.
"A little hocus pocus, as Maria would say."
She looked relieved. "I guess I’m not too anxious to answer any questions, either."
"You’re not sorry, are you?" he asked, looking concerned.
"No, Max. Of course not," she said swiftly. "I just… it’s no one’s business but our own, you know?" The look in her eyes was warm.
"Yeah," he said, relaxing again. "I guess I’ll go hit the shower, too, then." He brushed his lips over hers and headed for the bathroom.
"Max?" she called out.
He turned at the door and looked at her expectantly.
"Uh… before. When you said you had to keep me safe."
He smiled. "Yeah?"
"When did you… I mean, what made you decide to…."
"How did I happened to have a condom in my wallet?"
"Yeah," she said.
"Your dad?" she squeaked.
Max laughed and went back over to stand in front of her. "After that night we spent in the desert, my father sat me down and gave me this long lecture on responsibility. He said he wasn’t advocating that I jump into anything, but that if I chose to, he expected me to be prepared and to protect my partner." He shook his head ruefully. "Of course, he had no idea what else I was reading into that statement. It occurred to me that we had been so close to making love that night, without giving the slightest bit of thought to the consequences. Even though we had no idea what some of those consequences might be. When my dad handed me a condom at the end of our little talk, I put it in my wallet." He reached out and gently stroked her cheek. "So, if the time ever came, I could keep you safe."
Liz caught his hand and drew it to her lips. "I love you."
"I love you, too." He pulled her close and kissed her, feeling his pulse speed up at the contact. Drawing back a few inches, he rested his forehead on hers. "Shower," he said.
Liz grinned. "Right."
He kissed her again quickly and made his way toward the bathroom.
|posted on 16-Sep-2001 10:53:30 AM|
It had drained a bit of her momentum when Amy realized a block from home that, while she was familiar with the building, she didn’t actually know which apartment was Michael’s. She lost a little more steam when she discovered upon arriving that the residents’ names were not posted, either by the door or near their mail boxes. Now she stood across the street, partly hidden in the entrance to a small shoe store, wondering what to do next. She had it in the back of her mind to simply wait for them to leave. They had to go out eventually, and when they did, she would march back across the street and confront them. But she had also calmed down enough that she was beginning to feel ridiculous. She knew she was perfectly justified in her anger with Maria, but perhaps it was an overreaction to stoop to stalking.
She was on the verge of turning around and heading up the street to where she had parked, when the sound of an approaching car caught her attention. Her eyes narrowed as a Jeep pulled hastily up to the curb, Isabel Evans behind the wheel. Michael and Maria jumped out of the back and, once Isabel climbed out, Amy could see Alex was with them as well. The four kids rushed up the front steps and hurried into Michael’s building.
Amy blinked, then realized that she should have been following them. She started across the street, then stopped, knowing they would have already disappeared down a hall or into a stairwell. Backtracking to her previous position, she watched the door for several minutes, but they did not come back out. Sighing heavily, she leaned against the side of the shoe store and closed her eyes. What on earth was going on? It was Sunday, for crying out loud. When she was seventeen, the last thing she wanted to be on a Sunday morning was awake. What were they doing out so early? Hell – what was she doing out so early? She was losing her mind.
"Coffee," she muttered to herself. Opening her eyes, she squinted at her watch. Seven in the morning meant the Crashdown was open for business. "Thank God," she said, yawning widely. She trudged back to the Jetta, continuing to talk to herself on the way. "What was I thinking? No sleep, no caffeine, and I expected to make a rational decision?"
She parked in front of the diner and went inside. It appeared she was the first customer. Stifling a yawn, she took a seat at the counter just as Jeff Parker came out from the back.
"Amy," he said, sounding surprised. "You’re in awfully early today. Always thought you were the type to sleep in Sundays."
"I am," she grumbled. "In fact, I was just wondering what I’m doing here."
"Coffee?" he asked with a knowing smile.
She rolled her eyes. "The Parents’ Handbook? You and Nancy obviously got your copy, but someone neglected to give me one," she said with a groan.
Jeff shook his head as he placed a cup and saucer before her and filled it with steaming liquid. "I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that," he told her.
Amy lifted the cup and sipped gingerly at the hot coffee, wincing slightly. "Ah," she sighed, inhaling the aroma. "You’re a god, Jeff."
"Thanks," he grinned. He set the coffee pot back on the warmer and leaned an elbow on the counter. "So, you want to talk about it?"
"Maria is determined to make me old before me time," she said with a frown.
"I’m sure it’s not that bad, Amy. Maria’s a good kid."
"She is, she is, or at least she always was. But since she’s been seeing Michael…." Amy trailed off, her brow furrowed.
"I know he’s a little rough around the edges," Jeff said, "but he’s basically a good kid, too, Amy. He’s had a bad time of it, but he’s crazy about Maria. I’m not sure even he realizes how much. And he’d never do anything to hurt her."
"That’s not it." She took another sip of coffee.
Jeff waited, a thoughtful look on his face. When Amy didn’t continue, he leaned forward. "Look, I know it’s hard. I’m facing the same thing with Liz and Max right now. They’re so young to get so serious, to be so… wrapped up in each other. But Amy, they’re growing up." He shrugged helplessly. "We have to let them."
"It’s just that Maria’s grown so secretive lately. I can’t help but worry. I never know what’s going on with her anymore."
"Liz calls it the need for privacy," Jeff said with a sigh.
"How much privacy? Maria didn’t come home last night, Jeff." Amy brushed a strand of hair off her face. "I don’t know what to do. I thought she was at Michael’s so I went over there, only to have the two of them drive up with Alex and Isabel and go inside. I can’t imagine where they all were. I don’t know what to think anymore."
"Actually, I think I know where they were," Jeff said slowly.
Amy looked up quickly. "You do? Where? What’s going on?"
Jeff looked uncomfortable. "You can’t talk about this to anyone, Amy, all right? I promised Lizzie."
"Fine, whatever. My lips are sealed. Just tell me."
"They were all at the Evanses’ house. Liz too. Max has been having these nightmares. Fell asleep here last night, waiting for Liz to close up, nearly screamed the roof down. I’m telling you, I have never heard a sound like that. Scared me half to death. Anyway, Philip and Diane are gone for the weekend, so I told Liz she could go on to Max’s and make sure he was okay."
"God, Jeff, how awful," she said. "I feel bad for the boy, I do. But frankly, I don’t see what this has to do with Maria."
"Well, Michael and Maria were here when it happened, and they helped take Max home. It never occurred to me they would all stay, but I guess that’s what they did. I’m sure Maria just didn’t want to call and wake you. It was pretty late."
Amy shook her head. "That’s no excuse, but I suppose I can’t be too angry with her. Maria’s always had a soft spot for people in distress," she sighed. She chewed her bottom lip, not wanting to mention that Maria had stayed out the night before as well. "So, you and Nancy were all right with this? I mean, having Liz stay the night at her boyfriend’s house?"
Jeff looked away. "Well, Nancy isn’t all that thrilled about it, I’ll admit." Turning back he smiled ruefully. "We’ve got to trust them to do the right thing. I mean, we can’t watch them every second. Just have to hope we taught them well and rely on those teachings to carry them through. And maybe cross our fingers that, if things go wrong, they’ll come to us for help."
"I know all of that in theory," Amy said. She took a long gulp of coffee, then set the cup back in the saucer with a gentle clink. "It’s just hard to put into practice."
"Tell me about it."
Amy looked up, one eyebrow arched. "What is Max having nightmares about, anyway? Sounds serious, if he’s waking up screaming."
"I’m afraid I’ve been sworn to secrecy. Apparently he’s been trying to cope on his own. Hasn’t gone to his parents yet," he said with a frown.
"And you’re going along?"
"For now. Liz says they’re all trying to talk him into talking to someone, if not his parents." He sighed. "They come to you for everything for so long. Then suddenly they think they have it all under control."
"It doesn’t sound like they do with this one," Amy observed.
"I know. Which is why I told Liz that I’ll only keep quiet for a while. It’s not just that she’s dating the boy. I like Max, and I’m worried about him."
"Sorry to dump all of my problems on you, Jeff. Sounds like you have your own set," Amy said with an understanding smile.
"Told you." Jeff peered into her empty cup. "Refill?"
"No, thanks. I think I’m going to head home. See if I can get some sleep before Maria comes home." She fished a couple of singles out of her purse.
Jeff waved away the money. "On the house. I’ll see you later, Amy."
"Thanks, Jeff," she said. "I owe you."
"It was just coffee," he pointed out.
"I don’t mean for the coffee." She smiled, then turned and left.
* * * * *
Michael stood staring stupidly at the door to his apartment.
"What are we waiting for?" Maria asked. "Go in."
"Liz has my keys," he said, turning to look at Isabel.
Isabel raised one perfectly arched brow. "And that’s stopping you why? Just open the door, Michael. You do live here, after all. It isn’t as if they aren’t expecting us."
"Fine." He held his hand over each of the locks, listening for the tell-tale click of the tumbler, then opened the door slowly. With a final backward glance, he headed inside, the others following him. His eyes immediately fell on Liz, who was curled up in one corner of the sofa, eyes closed. From behind him came the sound of the door being firmly closed again, causing Liz to open her eyes and sit up with a start. "Hey," Michael said.
"Hi," she said, blinking at them.
"Where’s Max?" Isabel asked.
"I’m in here," came the reply as Max peeked out from behind the bathroom door. "I’ll be right out." He shot Liz a quick look, then retreated.
Maria and Alex went and sat by Liz, Maria leaning in to give her a quick hug. "You okay?" she asked.
"Yeah," Liz replied. "Just tired." She looked up at Michael and Isabel. "He had another nightmare."
"With you here?" Isabel asked.
Liz nodded. "We didn’t get a whole lot of sleep," she said with a frown.
Michael began to pace restlessly. "How bad?"
"Pretty bad," Liz said. "I had a hard time waking him up. Then he was disoriented and really upset once I did."
The bathroom door swung open and Max came out. Isabel immediately caught him up in a hug.
"I was so worried about you," she whispered.
"I’m okay," he said, rubbing her back. He met Liz’s eyes over Isabel’s shoulder.
"I told them you had another nightmare," Liz said.
He gave Isabel a final hug, then pulled gently away. "Why don’t we all sit down? I need to explain some things to all of you."
Isabel’s eyes narrowed as she looked at her brother. "Are you sure you’re all right, Max?"
Max smiled. "I’m sure. Come on, Iz."
She nodded and went to sit on the arm of the couch, but Alex reached out and took her hand. "Come here," he said softly, and tugged her onto his lap instead. Michael dropped to the floor at Maria’s feet. Max pulled up a chair and sat down across from them.
"First I want to tell you how sorry I am that I’ve been putting you through all of this."
"It isn’t your fault, Max," Isabel said, causing him to smile.
"I realize that, Iz. But like so many things that haven’t been my fault, this still affects all of us. And I am sorry." His eyes fell on Liz. "I’m sorry I scared you last night," he said.
Liz shook her head. "It’s okay."
"No, it isn’t." He focused on the group again. "I was probably worse last night than I’ve ever been before. But, I still couldn’t remember the nightmare when I woke up." He sighed heavily. "Regardless, it shook me up enough that when Liz asked me to talk to her about Eagle Rock, I did."
Max paused, watching the exchange of looks among his friends. He turned to Liz again. She smiled encouragingly, her eyes loving. He relaxed somewhat, and looked back to the others. "Michael, Isabel – I’m sorry I didn’t tell the two of you first. I know you’re upset, but…"
"It’s okay, Max," Isabel interrupted. "We understand."
Max looked surprised, his eyes wandering to Michael.
Michael shrugged. "Yeah. Liz was here, not us. What’s important is that you stopped bottling it all up."
"I thought for sure you guys would be mad," Max said.
Isabel shrugged. "I like to think we’ve gotten past that point, Max. And it isn’t like before – like the cave drawings. You haven’t been keeping secrets from us. This has been eating at you. Of course, we wanted answers, but we were more worried about what it was doing to you to not talk about it."
Max sat back. "Thanks," he said simply.
Isabel smiled. "That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, though. We still want to know."
"I know." Max’s gaze encompassed all of them. "You all have the right to know. And I promise to tell you everything. Just as soon as I recover from telling it the first time," he said with a nervous laugh.
"Do you think talking about it helped you?" Maria asked, her brows drawn together in concern.
"You mean with the nightmares? I don’t know," Max said. His eyes met Isabel’s. "But if it hasn’t… Iz, would you dreamwalk me?" he asked hesitantly. "I hate to ask you – to put you through it – but I need to know what’s in those nightmares."
"I’ll do it if you need me to," she promised.
"Max," Liz said. "Tell them the other part."
"What other part?" Michael asked.
"About my meeting with Nasedo," Max replied.
Michael turned and glanced at the others. "I knew something happened," he muttered.
"Chill, Spaceboy," Maria soothed, reaching down to rub at his shoulders. "We never disagreed with you. Let him talk."
Michael settled back again, his hands resting on hers.
Max took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Okay," he said. "Last night, the reason I met with Nasedo alone is that I wanted to confront him about what he did to Liz when he took her."
"What did he do to Liz?" Alex asked, an edge to his voice.
"Nothing, really," Liz said quickly. "Max just means that Nasedo used Max’s face to get to me. And that, sometimes, when I look at Max, I…"
"You remember," Maria said softly, giving Liz’s hand a quick squeeze.
"Yeah," Liz said, turning to look at Max. "But it’s getting better," she added quietly.
Max met her gaze, smiling gratefully at her.
Michael looked from Max to Liz, then back. They were totally focused on each other, as if they had suddenly been transported to their own little world. He glanced up and saw Maria watching them also, a puzzled look on her face. Great, he thought.
"Okay, you two. Break it up," Michael growled, causing Liz to blush. He narrowed his eyes. "Max, keep going," he said, turning a suspicious glare on his friend.
"Right. Well, apparently Nasedo wasn’t too thrilled with my approach. He used his powers to slam me into the wall of the cave."
"Oh my God, Max!" Isabel cried. Only Alex’s arm snaked around her waist kept her from jumping up to pace. "What are you saying? That Nasedo is really our enemy? That we can’t trust him?"
"Terrific," Alex said. "Just another alien who’s out to get us."
"I’m not saying any of that," Max said quickly. "Just let me finish, all right?" When everyone nodded, he continued. "Anyway, the physical damage was really minimal, but I don’t think I did the best job healing myself, and that’s why I was a little out of it last night. At the time I was too distracted by what Nasedo told me." Max paused, rubbing briefly at his eyes. "Look, I can’t say for certain if he’s for us or against us, but the things he said lead me to believe that he’s still on our side. He was just teaching me a lesson of sorts."
"What kind of lesson calls for trying to bash your brains in?" Maria asked, her voice edged with fear.
"He knew I could heal myself. He could have done much worse," Max pointed out. "I think it was his way of telling me to be careful whom I trust. And of showing me how much work we still need to do on our powers if we’re going to be battle-ready."
"How do we know for sure?" Isabel asked.
"Come on, Iz. He helped us get Max out, didn’t he?" Michael reminded her. "Why do that if he just wants to kill us?"
"Michael’s right," Max said. "But that doesn’t mean I trust him completely. Not the way I trust the five of you," he added, looking each of them in the eye. "So, be careful."
"I can’t say I was totally comfortable with him anyway," Alex remarked. "He doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of humans, from what you’ve said."
"He’s said he won’t harm you," Max said. "But I’m not sure what his definition of "harm" is anymore."
"So now what?" Michael asked.
"This morning we split up. Isabel, you and Alex are supposed to be helping Tess apartment hunt, right?"
Isabel groaned. "Yes. How did we get roped into this?"
"You offered our services?" Alex quipped.
Isabel elbowed him lightly, but nodded. "Right," she said, sounding vaguely resigned.
"Just go with her, okay?" Max said. "Then meet up with us later. And bring Tess, too."
"Speaking of people we don’t trust," Michael broke it. "How much are we telling Miss Mindmeld?"
"She knows about the nightmares already. But don’t say anything about what Nasedo did. As far as everyone knows, the meeting went according to plan," Max said. "Michael, you and Maria go ahead with whatever you were going to do this morning."
"When and where are we meeting?" Isabel asked.
"Let’s say around two?" Max asked. "And we’re meeting at the pod chamber."
Michael frowned. "Why there?"
"You’ll see," Max said, standing up and stretching. "Okay, guys, Liz and I are going to take off now. We’ll see you later."
Liz stood and began gathering her things. Michael shot Max a questioning look. "What are you two doing this morning?" he asked.
Max looked sheepish. "Heading over to the Crashdown. I need to have a little talk with the Parkers."
Liz looked up, clearly surprised. "Max, what are you going to say to them?"
"Don’t worry," he said, catching equally concerned glances from Michael and Isabel. "I just want to apologize to them. And to thank them for lending me their daughter for the night," he finished. His eyes were warm and tender as he looked at Liz, and she began to blush ever so slightly. As soon as he realized the effect he was having on her, Max quickly looked away, a smile on his lips.
Alex cleared his throat. "That should be interesting," he remarked. "Can I come watch?" He grunted when Isabel thwaped him on the shoulder. "What? I’ve never seen Liz blush like that, okay?"
"Okay, you guys," Liz interjected swiftly. "We’ll see you later." Grabbing Max’s hand, she started for the door.
Max stood firm, turning to Isabel. "See if Tess will drive? We’ll never fit the seven of us into the Jeep. Unless you have your mom’s car?" he asked, turning to Maria.
She shook her head. "I haven’t even been home yet. We’ll figure it out." Turning a pointed look toward Liz, she frowned slightly. "Later, Lizzie," she said, the tone more of a threat than a promise.
"Yeah," Liz said. "Later."
As soon as she and Max had cleared the door, Liz groaned softly. "Why do we have to have such nosy friends?"
Max let out a dry chuckle. "They aren’t nosy. We’re just all used to looking behind every closed door for some kind of trouble."
"You mean we have paranoid friends," she said with a grin.
"Hey, paranoia works for me," Max said, drawing her into his arms and quickly kissing her. "We’ve certainly been followed on enough occasions to justify it."
"I know," she sighed against his lips.
"Come on," he smiled, taking her hand and tugging her down the hall. "Time to face the music."
* * * * *
Alex stared at the door for a moment, frowning. "Okay. Is it just me, or was that weird?"
"Was what weird?" Isabel asked.
"The whole Liz/Max thing. You know – the long looks, the blushing," he elaborated.
Isabel stood up, rolling her eyes. "Alex, aren’t you used to them yet? They’ve been looking at each other like that all year."
"That’s not what I meant," he said. "It wasn’t just the looks. It was the way they kept their distance from each other. Do you realize they didn’t touch the entire time we were here? I haven’t seen that much space between them in days – not since Liz was still trying to stay away from Max for the whole destiny deal." He turned questioning eyes toward Maria. "Help me out, here, DeLuca. You know what I’m saying, right? They showed remarkable restraint, I thought. It’s like they were afraid of what they might do if they got too close."
Maria’s eyes widened, but before she could say anything, Isabel let out a groan.
"Alex, please! This is my brother we’re talking about here. Can you not go there?"
"Sorry," he muttered, looking down.
Michael pushed himself to his feet. "Look, we’ve got more important things to worry about right now," he said. "Let’s just hope talking about all of this is going to help Max, because if it doesn’t we’re in deep shit."
Maria looked up, startled at the vehemence in his tone. "Michael? Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said, deflating a little at the concern in her voice. "Just frustrated with the situation."
"You mean Max? Or Tess?"
He met her worried eyes and shrugged. "Tess," he admitted. "I don’t like the idea of her being at the meeting this afternoon. What’s Max thinking?"
"Wasn’t the whole idea to keep her close?" Isabel pointed out. "We need to know what’s going on with her, Michael. And we don’t want her thinking we don’t trust her."
"Why not? We *don’t* trust her."
Isabel sighed. "This isn’t going to get us anywhere. Let’s just see what Max has in mind, okay? Considering the night he had, he seemed pretty pulled together this morning."
"Fine," Michael agreed with obvious reluctance. "But you guys be careful on your little apartment hunting jaunt."
"We will," she said. "Just remember, Michael. There’s more out there to keep an eye on than Tess."
"I know," he said.
"Well, I don’t know about you folks, but all of this intrigue has made me hungry. Breakfast, anyone?" Alex piped up.
Michael shot Maria a look and shook his head. "You two go on," he said.
"How are you guys going to get out to the chamber?" Isabel asked.
"We’ll call if we need a ride," Michael said.
Isabel nodded, then looked to Alex. "You realize Max and Liz probably took the Jeep," she pointed out.
Alex grinned. He stood and extended his hand toward Isabel with a little bow. "House of Pancakes is walkable from here. What do you say? A little maple syrup with your Tabasco, milady?"
Maria wrinkled her nose. "God, Alex. It’s bad enough they eat that way, without you talking about it too."
Isabel and Alex just laughed. "We’ll see you later," Isabel said.
"Good luck," Maria said, her tone more serious.
"Yeah," Michael said. "And whatever you do, don’t let Tess get an apartment in this building."
Isabel smiled. "Don’t worry. We’ll keep her at a safe distance."
As soon as Isabel and Alex had gone, Michael went into the kitchen and started to rummage through the refrigerator. "Eggs okay?" he called to Maria.
"Fine," she said, frowning slightly. "Michael, what’s going on?"
He pulled his head out of the fridge and looked at her. "What are you talking about?"
"What am I talking about?" she asked, hands waving through the air. She crossed the room and leaned on the kitchen counter, her eyes narrowed. "Gee, I don’t know. Maybe the looks you kept flashing at me. Not wanting to go to breakfast with Alex and Isabel. The sudden urge to cook. What’s going on, Michael?" she repeated.
Michael shook his head and turned away. He began cracking eggs into a glass bowl with one hand while he searched through a drawer with the other. Pulling out a fork, he began to beat the eggs rapidly.
Maria watched in silence for a moment, then let out a long sigh. "Look, either you have a personal grudge against those poor yolks, or something is wrong. Why don’t you just tell me?"
He stopped mid-stroke, his arm frozen in the air. Keeping his back to her, he stood quietly for a minute, then set the fork down with a gentle clink against the side of the bowl. "Do you think… that Max and Liz…."
"Do I think they had sex?" Maria filled in for him in a small voice.
"Yeah. Do you?"
"I don’t know," she said slowly. "But I agree with Alex that they were acting different."
There was something in her voice – a note of sadness – that made Michael turn and look at her. "What?"
She shrugged. "It’s silly."
"Possibly," he said with a smirk. "But tell me anyway."
Maria couldn’t meet his eyes. Instead she concentrated on a crack in the top of the counter, tracing it with one short red nail. "It’s nothing. I just feel funny. If it’s true, I mean. Like it makes Liz… different somehow."
"You mean because of Max being a….?" Michael trailed off, conscious that he was holding his breath waiting for her response. When she shook her head he let out a sigh that caught her attention.
"Michael," she said, suddenly serious, her eyes meeting his. "That’s not something I’m worried about," she said softly. "I mean, yeah, sure, maybe at first I was a little nervous about the idea. We’re talking inter-species relationships, you know?" she half-whispered, gentling her words with a smile. "But I know that if we decide to…" She looked down again, feeling her face growing warm. "Well, I know it’ll be okay, that’s all."
Michael felt the clutching in his heart gradually ease. He took her hand from where it rested on the counter. Turning it over, he ran a finger over her palm, then pressed a kiss into the center in an uncharacteristically tender gesture. When he looked up, he saw the surprise in her eyes, and a little spark of something else. He smiled. "Thank you," he said. He placed her hand back where it had been and went back to scrambling the eggs.
Maria sat watching him, a smile on her face. After a minute, she rose and took two plates out of the cupboard and poured the juice. There was something comfortable and cozy about the actions. It was ironic that they both took such obvious pleasure in performing the same duties that elicited groans from them when done at the Crashdown.
"Michael?" she asked, as he carried the plates to the counter and pulled up a stool next to hers.
"Hmmm?" he asked, reaching for the Tabasco.
"Why were you so upset before? Was it just the Max and Liz thing? And Tess? Or is there something else?"
He set the bottle down on the counter and shot her a look. "Why?"
"Because," she replied emphatically, clearly waiting for his answer.
He shook his head. "Just eat your breakfast, all right?"
"No, it’s not all right."
He shoveled a forkful of eggs into his mouth, drowning it with a swig of orange juice. But she continued to stare at him, eyebrows raised, and he could feel the vibrations of her tapping her foot against the wall of the counter. He groaned. "Fine. It’s the whole thing with Nasedo."
Maria wrinkled her nose. "I thought you were the one who said he wouldn’t have bothered to help save Max if he just wanted to kill all of you."
"I know. I did. But I can’t stop thinking about it. There are a lot of things in between saving us and killing us."
"You’re worried about us," Maria said suddenly, nodding in understanding. "Me, Liz, and Alex."
"Yeah," he agreed under his breath. "And it isn’t right. He’s supposed to be on our side." He moved his eggs around on his plate with the tip of his fork. "He was supposed to bring answers, not give us something else to watch out for. It’s like for every answer he gave, he brought ten times as many questions and problems."
"I know," she said softly. Reaching out, she laid her hand over his. "He didn’t solve anything for you. But Michael, you’re going to get those answers someday. I promise."
"You can’t know that," he pointed out. But he turned his hand over and laced his fingers through hers.
"It’ll work out somehow," she said.
Leaning sideways, he kissed her on the forehead. "I hope you’re right," he murmured against her skin.
"Me too," she said.
They sat for a few minutes, heads resting against each other. Finally Michael sat up and shot her half a smile. "Your eggs are getting cold," he told her. "Eat."
"Yes, sir," she said.
They finished their meal in silence, each wondering what it would mean to find the answers they all sought.
|posted on 16-Sep-2001 10:55:11 AM|
"Max, are you sure you want to do this?" Liz asked. They were sitting in the Jeep outside of the café, and she could see her father inside serving a table of four. He was wearing an oversized white kitchen apron over his jeans and looked both hot and harassed.
"I have to," Max replied. "He’s your father, Liz. I can’t go around wondering what he’s thinking of me. Besides, he’s probably already seen us out here. It would look strange if we didn’t go in." Reaching over, he clasped his hand over both of hers where they rested in her lap, frowning when he discovered they were cold. "Liz? Are you okay?"
She nodded, but her gaze dropped to their joined hands. "I just feel… funny, you know? To see my dad after…" Sensing she was beginning to blush, she rolled her eyes in frustration. "He trusted me, Max. To stay with you last night. What if he can tell that we…?"
"Liz," Max said gently. "Look at me." When she turned, he smiled slightly, but his eyes were serious. "Are you sure you’re not sorry?"
"I’m positive," she replied. Slipping one hand from his, she cupped his face, running her thumb over his lips. "I’m not sorry."
"Then it’ll be all right," he promised, kissing the tip of her finger. "He won’t be able to tell, Liz, but if you’re really worried, I’ll go talk to him alone. You stay here."
Liz smiled, touched by his desire to shelter her. "No, Max. We’ll both go. You’re right. I’m just feeling self-conscious, I guess."
They climbed out of the Jeep and headed into the café, hands linked between them. Jeff Parker looked up as the chime over the door sang out. He gave them a quick nod as they passed, then went back to taking an order.
Liz tugged Max over to the far end of the counter, nearest the kitchen. "Sit," she ordered. "I’ll get us some coffee." She slipped automatically into waitress-mode, proceeding to fill two cups and set them on the counter as Max slid onto a stool. Scanning the room, she frowned slightly.
"What?" Max asked.
She shook her head. "Nothing. I thought my mom was working this morning. Guess not." She forced a smile. "So. Breakfast?"
Max raised one eyebrow, giving her a look that said he was well aware that she was attempting to change the subject, but he didn’t press her. "Yeah. Breakfast sounds good. I’m actually starving this morning," he told her as he lifted his cup.
"Me too," she confessed. Sure that her father was still on the other end of the café, she allowed herself, for just one moment, to look into his eyes, blocking out everyone around them. "Guess we built up an appetite," she whispered, grinning when he nearly choked on a mouthful of coffee.
"Liz," he hissed, "if you want to keep this quiet, you probably shouldn’t say things like that."
"But that wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?" she said with a knowing smile.
"Liz Parker," he mused. "Who would have thought you were such a little devil?" But there was a pleased glimmer in his eye as he asked.
She shrugged. Catching sight of her father heading over, she slipped out from behind the counter. "Hey, Dad," she said swiftly.
Jeff gave his daughter a quick hug. "’Morning, Lizzie." He turned assessing eyes on her companion. "Max."
"Good morning, Mr. Parker," Max said.
"Uh, where’s Mom?" Liz asked, drawing her father’s attention.
Jeff frowned slightly. "In bed with a headache."
"Oh," Liz said slowly. "You want me to fill in for her? I can go change into my uniform. It’ll just take a…"
"No, no, that’s okay," Jeff said quickly. He released Liz, giving her a light pat on the back, then continued behind the counter. "I called Karen and she’ll be here in a little while." He paused, eyes focused once more on Max. "So. You two are up pretty early. Sleep all right?"
Max looked down somewhat nervously. "Not that well, truthfully." He took a deep breath before meeting Jeff’s steady blue gaze. "I wanted to apologize, Mr. Parker. For last night. And to thank you for letting Liz stay with me, and for understanding about my not wanting to worry my parents with all of this. I know that I’ve put you in an awkward situation and I’m sorry. I really appreciate your trusting me."
Jeff nodded slowly. "Well, you’re welcome, son. But I’m assuming that Liz told you the conditions of my silence? I don’t like doing it at all, frankly, but if you agree to get some help – to talk to someone – well, then, I guess that’ll have to be good enough."
"Yes, sir," Max said. "I will. I promise."
"Max, I realize that you have your reasons for not wanting to talk to your parents, but as a parent myself, I feel I need to interject on their behalf. I’ve known Philip and Diane for a lot of years now, and they would want to know about this. They would want to help."
"I know, but…" Max looked helplessly toward Liz, who just nodded that he should go on. He sighed. "Mr. Parker, I love my parents. Their adopting Isabel and me – it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to either of us. But things are really… complicated. That’s all I can say. I’m sorry I can’t make more sense of it than that."
"Well, you’re right. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but I suppose it doesn’t have to. I’ll respect your wishes for the time being, Max. But I won’t lie to you. I’m concerned by what I saw last night, and not just because of how it affects Liz." He looked at Max pointedly. "You’re a good kid, Max. And it’s obvious that you’re going through something right now that’s weighing heavily on your mind. I just want you to be able to get past it."
"So do I, sir," Max admitted, giving Liz’s hand a hard squeeze beneath the cover of the counter. "And I’ve arranged to speak to someone. I’ll be all right."
"Thanks, Dad," Liz said.
Jeff reached over and ruffled her hair. "Yeah," he said. He looked wistful. "So. Waffles anyone?"
Liz started. "Uh, no, I don’t think so."
Max looked at her questioningly, surprised by her abrupt reply.
Her father seemed confused. "But Lizzie," he said, "I thought waffles with strawberries were your favorite?"
Understanding dawned quickly and Max was forced to smother a laugh. Liz shook her head, knowing it was hopeless. "You’re right, Dad. They are." She risked a look at Max, who had succeeded in keeping himself in control. "How about you, Max? Feel like waffles?"
Shaking his head, Max refrained from turning toward Liz. Instead he focused on Jeff. "I was thinking about scrambled eggs, myself," he said.
* * * * *
Isabel frowned as she flipped her cell phone closed.
"Still no answer?" Alex asked.
"No." She set the phone down next to her half-empty plate of pancakes and stirred her iced tea restlessly with her straw. "Where can she be? It’s barely eight-thirty."
Setting down his fork, Alex reached across and picked up her phone.
"What are you doing? Who are you calling?" Isabel asked.
"Maria," he said shortly, punching at the numbers. "She and Michael need to know that Tess is missing."
"We don’t know if she’s missing, Alex," Isabel pointed out. "She could be out picking up breakfast."
Alex shook his head. "No going off alone, remember?" He held up a finger as the phone clicked. "Maria? Can you get your mom’s car and come pick us up? We’ve got to get out to Tess’s. She’s not answering her phone."
Isabel began poking half-heartedly at the remains of her breakfast with the end of her knife, her eyes trained on Alex. She could hear the steady flow of Maria’s questions when he held the phone away from his ear and rolled his eyes heavenward. Then a lower voice cut through the chatter and Isabel held out her hand.
"Michael?" she asked when Alex had passed her the phone. "I don’t know. We called when we got here and twice while we were eating, plus just now." Her worried eyes met Alex’s and she nodded. "Okay. We’ll be out front. See you soon. And be careful." She hung up again. "They’ll be here in ten minutes, assuming they can get the Jetta."
"Right." Alex reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. "I’ll go take care of the bill, and then we can go." Registering the tense look on Isabel’s face, he stopped. "Hey," he said. "It’ll be okay. You’re probably right and she just took off on her own, despite everything Max said."
"I hope so," she said, her voice thick. She shook her head quickly and Alex realized she was on the verge of tears. He took her hand and squeezed gently. "I’m sorry," she whispered.
"It’s all right. Go ahead."
She shrugged. "I know Tess has manipulated us all – that she’s been terrible to you and Maria, and especially to Liz. And what she did to Max… But she also helped us to save him. And… she’s one of us, you know? I can’t help but be worried."
"Of course, you’re worried. Isabel, none of us want anything bad to happen to Tess," he said quickly. "Come on. Let’s go."
Isabel nodded, managing a watery smile. "Thanks."
They paid and went outside. The restaurant was located a few blocks from the center of town, somewhat removed from the main shopping district. Alex took Isabel by the hand and the two of them sat on the curb to wait for Michael and Maria, Isabel resting her head on Alex’s shoulder.
"Maybe I should try calling her again," she said.
"If you want."
She hesitated a moment, then pulled out her phone again. Staring out into space, she dialed quickly and let it ring and ring and ring. Finally, she snapped the phone shut and closed her eyes. "Nothing," she whispered.
Alex slipped his arm around her shoulders, tipping his head to meet hers. For once he had no witty line, no clever remark to lighten the mood. After a moment, he turned and brushed a kiss over her temple, hugging her close. "Should we call Max?"
"No." Her voice was decisive. "He doesn’t need to worry about this right now. And I don’t want to drag him and Liz over to Tess’s just to find out that everything’s fine."
"Yeah, okay." He shifted so she could lean against him more comfortably. "So all we can do now is wait," he said, thinking as he spoke that he sounded far calmer than he felt.
* * * * *
Maria stopped short at the foot of her driveway, grabbing at Michael’s arm.
"What?" he asked, glancing at her, noting her brow was furrowed. "I thought you said you needed to go inside?"
"My mom’s awake," she said, nodding toward the window where a light was shining.
"Michael, I haven’t seen her in like days," Maria shot out. "If she’s up, she knows I didn’t come home last night. I cannot talk to her right now," she said, tugging him toward the Jetta. "She’ll probably ground me the second she sees me. Let’s just go."
Michael hesitated, obviously torn. On the one hand, they were in a hurry. But he didn’t want Maria to end up in even worse trouble because of him. Things were bad enough as it was. "Are you sure?"
"Positive." She handed him her keys and shoved him toward the driver’s side. "Get in."
He opened the door and climbed behind the wheel. When Maria was seated beside him, he started the car and backed into the street, half expecting to see Amy DeLuca come charging out of the house after them. When nothing happened, he let go of the breath he had been holding and shifted into drive.
"Your mother is going to hate me forever, isn’t she?" he muttered as they drove down the street.
Maria smiled. "I thought you didn’t care about making an impression?"
Michael shot her a look. "Funny. Do you remember everything I say?"
"Pretty much," she said.
Neither one of them said much the rest of the trip. By the time they pulled up in front of the House of Pancakes, the car was practically throbbing with tension. Maria was acutely aware of how quickly things seemed to be escalating, and she could tell from the worried look in Michael’s eyes that he was concerned about Tess. When Isabel and Alex got into the back seat, it was obvious from their tense expressions that they were just as nervous.
"She’s still not answering the phone," Isabel said as Michael peeled away from the curb.
"Did you call Max?" Michael asked.
"No," Isabel said. She met the reflection of his eyes in the rearview mirror. "I thought we should check it out first."
"Good idea," Maria said, turning in her seat. "Max has enough to think about."
"Yeah," Isabel said, settling against Alex.
Silence fell over the car once more. Michael drove quickly across town, weaving through the sparse traffic and barely heeding the stop signs. Maria glanced over at him once when he cut across an intersection as the light turned red, but refrained from commenting. When they zipped past the high school, rueful laughter came from the back seat.
"What?" Maria asked.
"Sorry," Isabel replied. "It’s just kind of hard to believe we’re only three days into summer break. It feels like a lifetime."
"Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?" Alex asked.
"Whether we’ll live to see junior year?" Michael threw out.
"Actually, yeah," Alex agreed. "That’s pretty much exactly what I was wondering."
"Yeah, well, much as I could care less about school, there are better ways to avoid going back," Michael mumbled.
Maria closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the head rest. A moment later she felt Michael’s warm hand brush at her arm, then drop lower and wind his fingers through hers. She responded with a light squeeze, but she didn’t open her eyes.
"We’re here," Michael said, tugging at her hand.
"Oh," she said. Sitting up, she realized he had parked down the street from Tess’s house. "Why are we way back here?"
"So we can scope things out from a distance in case anyone’s still watching the house," Michael replied, climbing out of the car.
"Hell, they probably followed us here," Alex commented.
Michael threw him an irritated look. "Will you just come on?"
The four of them walked slowly down the sidewalk in a tight cluster, with Michael leading the way. When they rounded the corner, Tess’s house came into view. Michael looked to the others. "Her car’s there. When was the last time you called?"
"Right before you picked us up," Isabel said.
He nodded. "Okay. Stay here a second." He ran lightly across the street, looking from side to side, and went up to the car. Placing his hand on the hood, he continued to scan the yard for signs of anyone watching. Finally, he waved them over.
"Engine’s cold," he said when they had reassembled in Tess’s driveway. He looked grim.
"So, if she went anywhere it was on foot," Alex said.
Isabel glanced at him, then back to Michael. "Why don’t we go around back and see if we can get in that way? Less obvious."
Taking Maria’s hand, Michael headed around the side of the house. Isabel and Alex followed. The house itself gave nothing away. Curtains were drawn, windows closed, the yard tidy without being overly manicured. When they reached the back, Isabel shrugged and went straight to the kitchen door. "If she’s home, she’ll understand." Placing her palm over the lock, she concentrated for a moment, then turned the door knob. "Come on," she said, waving the others inside.
Michael went first, stopping short just into the house so that Maria plowed into him. "Hey, Spaceboy, there are more of us out here. Keep going," she told him as she thumped on his back.
He grabbed her and pulled her the rest of the way inside, keeping her huddled against him. As soon as she turned, she realized why he had stopped so abruptly.
"Jesus," Alex breathed as he entered the room.
"What is it?" Isabel asked, her back to them as she brought up the rear and closed the door. Spinning around, she clutched at Alex’s hand.
The kitchen had been tossed from top to bottom. The contents of the cupboards and refrigerator were all over the counters and floor, broken dishes and cutlery lying in heaps. A cup of coffee had been overturned on the table and had soaked the real estate section of the morning paper.
"Quietly," Michael said, his voice just above a whisper. Pulling Maria after him, he slowly advanced through the room, stopping every so often to listen. Isabel and Alex tiptoed after him, careful to avoid shifting the debris on the floor as they walked.
They soon discovered the rest of the house was in a similar condition. Sofa cushions had been cut open, pillows shredded, chairs lay on their sides, carpeting had been ripped from the floor. Every art object had been smashed and nothing remained hanging on the walls. When they reached the storage rooms on the upper floor, they found the carefully packed boxes had been emptied, with photos of Max and Michael and Isabel strewn across the room.
"Oh, God, Michael. They have her, don’t they?" Isabel asked. Trembling slightly, she slid down the nearest wall and sat on the floor, her knees pulled to her chest.
"Hey, we don’t know that," Alex said, dropping down beside her. "Tess still could be here. We haven’t really looked. Is there an attic?"
Isabel shook her head. "She’s not here, Alex. We would feel her if she was anywhere in the house."
"Oh," he said.
Michael kicked angrily at an empty cardboard box. "We never should have left her out here alone."
"It looks like whoever did this was searching for something," Maria said. "If that’s true, they would have come after Tess no matter where she was staying."
"But what were they looking for?" Alex asked. "The orbs?"
"We left them in the pod chamber," Isabel said. "No one else can get to them there."
"But would anyone have known that?" Alex pointed out.
"We can’t worry about that right now. We need to find Tess," Michael said. "I’m betting the guy who shot at you two the other night is the one who has her."
"At least it’s not the FBI," Isabel said.
"Why is that a good thing?" Michael muttered. "With them, we’d have an idea of what we were up against."
"I guess it’s time to call Max and Liz," Maria said quietly.
Michael looked at her, his dark eyes unreadable, and held out his hand for her phone.
* * * * *
Attempting to look perfectly innocent, Max reached out and casually stole another strawberry off of Liz’s plate. She tried to whack him in the arm, but he was too quick. When she shook her head in mock frustration, he grinned at her, then popped the berry in his mouth.
Liz laughed. "You should have just ordered the waffles, too," she said.
"I like eggs," he protested, his eyes wandering to the last bit of fruit in front of her.
Looking at Max’s empty dish, Liz couldn’t help but smile. "I meant in addition to the eggs," she told him, pushing her plate in his direction.
"It’s not actually the waffles that hold the appeal," he admitted, picking up the final strawberry. He looked around the café and smirked when he spotted Liz’s father at the far end of the room, his back to them. Max turned back and held the berry up, tracing it over Liz’s mouth until her lips parted and she took it from him.
Liz chewed slowly, her eyes never leaving Max’s. Then she leaned over and kissed him, licking at the bit of syrup clinging to his bottom lip. "Mmmm," she said when she pulled back.
Max’s eyes dropped to Liz’s mouth, watching as she licked her lips and smiled. "Uh… maybe we should get out of here," he suggested.
"I think that’s a really good idea. Let me just clean up a little, okay?" She was stacking her plate on top of his when her cell phone rang.
"Here," Max offered, standing up and taking the dishes from her hands.
"Thanks," she said. While he slipped behind the counter, she reached down and pulled her phone from her bag. "Hello?" She paused, her brows drawn together in a frown. "Yeah, sure. Hold on a second." Reaching out, she tapped Max on the shoulder.
The instant he turned to her, he knew something was wrong. "What is it?"
Liz held out the phone. "It’s Michael."
Max smile faded as he took the cell phone. "Michael? What happened?" His eyes darkened and he held his jaw stiffly. "When? Are you sure?" He paused, his mouth tightening to a mere slash. "Right. Where are you now? Okay, stay there. Yes, I’m coming." He hung up, his expression bleak.
"What is it, Max?"
He set the phone on the counter and looked away, running his hands over his face as if to erase any trace of emotion.
"Max, you’re scaring me," Liz said quietly, putting her hand on his shoulder.
Max flinched, then turned quickly, apology in his eyes. He reached out and grabbed her hand. "I’m sorry. It’s just… they took Tess."
"What? Who took Tess?"
"Michael’s not sure, but the best bet is the one who went after Isabel and Alex the other night." He pulled her close, tucking her head under his chin. "I’m so sorry, Liz, but I have to go after her."
Liz pulled back and looked up into his eyes. "Max, of course you do. Did you think I would ask you not to?" She stroked her hand over his cheek. "She helped us rescue you, Max. Whatever else she’s done, she did that. We’ll all help get her back."
"No, Liz, it’s too dangerous," Max whispered.
"It’s not up for discussion," she said firmly. "Come on. Let’s go."
She stopped him with a hand over his mouth. Leaning close, she stared up into his eyes. "Max, we’re in this together. That includes the danger. We agreed. It’s just the way things are," she said softly.
He nodded slowly. Pulling her hand away, he kissed her palm. "Okay. We’d better go. They’re all at Tess’s house. Isabel’s been trying to get a flash of who took her – apparently they wrecked the place – but she’s not having any luck. They’re hoping I might sense something more."
"It’s gonna be all right." She glanced toward her father, who was clearing several booths. "We better say something."
"Right." Max made a conscious effort to relax, easing some of the more obvious tension in his face.
They crossed the room, hands linked. "Dad? We’re gonna take off now, okay? We promised to meet up with the others."
Jeff looked up with a start. "Oh, Lizzie, I almost forgot to tell you." His eyes flicked to Max, then back to Liz. "Amy was here early this morning. It would seem Maria didn’t go home last night," he said, his voice growing stern.
"Oh, God, Dad. She was with us… I mean all of us… at Max’s."
"That’s what I thought. But sweetie, she should have called home. Amy was very upset."
Max squeezed Liz’s hand quickly. "I’m really sorry, Mr. Parker. I’ll talk to Mrs. DeLuca."
"Well, that’s good of you, Max. But I suspect that Michael’s the one who’s going to be hearing about this," Jeff said. "You two might want to give Maria the heads up, hmmm? Tell her to get on home and straighten things out."
"We will, Dad. Thanks," Liz said, giving him a swift hug. "I’ll see you later."
"Okay, honey. Not too late, all right? Your mom isn’t… well, you know how she worries."
"Yeah, okay." Liz nodded, clutching Max’s hand tightly.
"Have a good day, kids," Jeff told them, going back to clearing tables.
"Thanks for breakfast, Mr. Parker," Max said.
Jeff turned again, intending to give Max some last minute advice about talking to his parents. But Max and Liz were already half-way out the door, the chimes ringing out through the café to signal their departure. Shaking his head, Jeff wondered why they were always in such a hurry, then hefted the bin of dirty dishes and headed for the kitchen.
* * * * *
Max pulled the Jeep into the driveway behind Tess’s car and swung himself out in one fluid motion. Taking Liz’s hand, he strode toward the front door and they went inside. They hadn’t spoken much on the way over, and watching Max, Liz had been aware of a transformation taking place. His face now held the same look he’d had when they had taken the offensive against Pierce – strong, determined, a touch angry. He had gone from lover to leader in the span of a few blocks, though his grip on her hand was as gentle as it was protective. Even when he stopped short at the sight of the devastation in the living room, his expression did not waver.
"Max," Liz breathed, her eyes wide at the destruction before them.
"Certainly made quite a mess," he said in a low tone. "They were searching for something."
"I hope so," she said, not wanting to think about what type of being could cause such chaos without purpose.
"Come on," he said, tugging her along toward the back of the house.
They found the others in the kitchen. Michael was holding onto the back of a chair, eyes closed, his brow wrinkled with concentration. Isabel and Maria stood to either side of him, their attention entirely focused on his face, while Alex leaned against the wall beside Isabel, his eyes on her. He turned briefly to nod when Liz and Max entered, but the others didn’t even notice that they were there. Lingering in the doorway, Max gave Liz’s hand a slight squeeze, keeping her from moving any further into the room.
Finally Michael’s grip on the chair loosened and he opened his eyes, his frustration obvious. "Nothing." His gaze shifted to Max and Liz. "We’ve been trying all over the house. Isabel and I. Neither one of us has gotten a thing."
All eyes fell on Max. "Let me try," he said. He crossed the kitchen, carefully stepping over the wreckage of dishes and food. Isabel moved out of the way to let him through. "I’m assuming this was Tess’s chair?" he asked, eyeing the newspaper and cup on the table.
"Yeah, we’re pretty sure," Michael told him, taking a step back. "It had been flipped over when we got here, but it looks like this is where she was sitting when they showed up."
Max nodded. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and took hold of the back of the chair. Instantly he was assaulted by a rush of flashes so powerful he felt the air sucked from his lungs. A piercing scream shot through his ears and he let go of the chair, falling back against the kitchen counter, his face contorted with pain.
"Max!" Liz cried. She pushed her way past Alex and Isabel and grabbed at his arm.
"I’m okay," he said slowly, opening his eyes. The pain had stopped the moment he’d released the chair. He shook his head to stop the ringing in his ears, blinking quickly. He looked at Isabel. "You guys didn’t feel anything at all?" he asked, his tone incredulous.
"No, nothing," Isabel said with a frown. "Max, what happened?"
He looked at each of them in turn. "I saw them. Two men. One came at Tess and she screamed…" He frowned, as if trying to piece together the images. "They wanted something and she just kept saying she didn’t know. Then it all went black."
"What did they want?" Michael asked.
Max shook his head. "I couldn’t tell." His frown deepened.
Almost absently, Max pulled Liz into the circle of his arms and began stroking one hand through her hair. Maria snaked an arm around Michael and let her head rest on his chest. Alex and Isabel stood hip to hip, leaning against the far wall. The six of them stood, lost in thought, a silence blanketing the house.
"Let’s get out of here," Max said softly after a few minutes. "I can’t think. It’s like the whole place is vibrating."
Liz looked up at him curiously. "What do you mean, the house is vibrating, Max?"
"I don’t know. It’s as if, once I made that first connection, the rest of the images and events that are lingering started fighting to be heard." He looked up at Michael and Isabel. "As if the images had been masked somehow and are breaking free."
"You think that these other aliens can do that? Somehow cloak their actions?" Isabel asked.
Alex stood up a little straighter. "That would mean they’re hiding clues from you. And it would explain why Isabel and Michael couldn’t get flashes off of anything."
"But then why was Max able to?" Maria asked.
Liz felt Max tense in her arms. Looking up, she smiled understandingly. "Because when Tess screamed, she called for Max." It wasn’t a question.
Max looked into her eyes. "Yeah," he said quietly. "She did."
Liz just nodded. "Let’s go outside then."
They exited through the back door. Max seemed more relaxed almost immediately. Taking a deep breath, he walked a little way into the yard, then stopped and turned around.
"What is it, Maxwell?" Michael asked.
"I’m not sure. Just stay back a minute." Max knelt and ran his and over the grass. A puzzled look on his face, he continued to stare at the ground. Suddenly he rocked back, catching himself with one hand before he toppled over completely. He looked up, clearly startled.
Five pairs of eyes were riveted on him. "Max, what happened?" Isabel asked.
He just shook his head. Standing up, he started purposefully across the yard. "We need to go now."
"Max, what did you see?" Michael pressed.
Max stopped short and held up a hand. "There isn’t time right now. You’re just going to have to trust me." His eyes fell on Maria. "Michael, take Maria home. Her mother’s been out looking for her. You have to smooth things over."
Michael looked incredulous. "What are you talking about? We can worry about that later."
"No, Michael. Now. Just go. I have to handle this alone."
"Max, no," Liz said. "We do this together."
"Don’t you get it? I can’t risk you getting hurt. It’s a trap." Max said. "They took Tess to get to me."
Maria shook her head. "But why would they think taking Tess would get to you? Why not take Liz then?"
Max sighed. "They aren’t dealing with this reality. They only know the last one. And back then, the way to me was through Tess," he said, his expression grim.
"It doesn’t matter why they took her, Max," Isabel said. "Trap or no, we’ll all work to get her back."
"Fine," he said, his patience clearly wearing thin. "Michael, you have to go talk to Maria’s mother first. We can’t afford for anyone else to get mixed up in this right now. The last thing we need is for her to come looking for Maria and stumble onto something dangerous, you understand? Talk to her, then meet up with us. Will that satisfy you?"
Michael nodded. "Meet up where?"
"The pod chamber."
"But wasn’t that where we were going anyway?" Alex asked. "I don’t get it."
"There isn’t time to explain. Liz, Alex, and Isabel, come with me," Max shot out. "Michael?"
"All right," Michael said. "We’ll catch up with you out there. But don’t go off half-cocked without us, Max."
"Isn’t that supposed to be my line?" Max bit out.
"Yeah, well, not much is the way it used to be, is it?" Michael said.
"Be careful," Max warned.
"You too," came the reply.
They split into their groups and climbed into the cars. Michael waited for Max to pull out, then they each drove off in opposite directions.
|posted on 16-Sep-2001 10:57:36 AM|
Michael turned the corner, drove half-way down the block, then quickly pulled the Jetta over to the side of the street. Engine still running, he looked at Maria. "Okay. Any idea what we tell your mother? I mean, that’ll be good enough for her to let you leave the house again before Christmas?"
Maria raised one eyebrow. "Now you choose to ask me? What the hell is going on, Michael? You know my mom is gonna go ballistic the minute she sees us."
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I know. But try explaining that to Max. He has a heart-to-heart with the Parkers and figures all is right with the world. It wasn’t worth arguing with him."
"So what do we do?"
"Trouble is, Max is right about needing to make sure your mom’s safe, too."
"This is getting so out of control."
"Maybe not," Michael said. He let off the brake and pulled away from the curb.
"Michael? Michael, where are we going?" Maria asked.
Maria stared at him. "You’re gonna have the Sheriff do what? Go after Tess?" she asked, looking confused.
Michael shook his head. "No. He’s gonna go distract your mom for the afternoon."
"Oh God," she moaned. "I’m gonna end up with a step-father yet, and it’s gonna be your fault."
Michael snorted. "If I were you, I’d be more worried about having Kyle as a step-brother."
"Don’t remind me," she groaned. She whacked him half-heartedly in the shoulder. "Thanks," she said quietly.
"For taking care of my mom."
Michael glanced over briefly and smirked. "Yeah, well. We’ll see how much good it does when she comes to take my head off later."
Maria smiled gently. "I’ll protect you, Spaceboy."
* * * * *
"Max," Isabel said. "What’s going on? Why are we home?"
Max pulled the Jeep into the driveway. "I’ll be right back. I just need to get something." He swung out of his seat and sprinted around the side of the house.
Liz looked worried. "What could he have seen before at Tess’s? He seems so …"
"Closed off?" Isabel asked.
Liz turned in her seat and met the other girl’s eyes. "Yeah. Like he’s withdrawn from us."
"Why don’t we try asking him again?" Alex suggested. "He said there was no time before, but he can talk and drive, right?"
"Maybe," Liz said, not at all certain that time was Max’s real issue.
A moment later, Max reappeared, a folded sweatshirt tucked under his arm.
"It’s like ninety degrees already, Max," Isabel pointed out as he got back behind the wheel.
"I realize that," Max said, dropping the shirt onto Liz’s lap.
Liz looked at him nervously, comprehension in her eyes. "Max…"
He turned to her, eyebrows raised. "How’s your shooting arm this morning?"
"What?" Alex asked. Both he and Isabel leaned forward.
Liz slowly unfolded the shirt to reveal the handgun nestled within.
"Holy shit," Alex said, letting out a slow whistle.
"Max, where did you get that?" Isabel asked in a low voice.
Max didn’t reply. Instead he turned the key in the ignition and shot out of the driveway, tires squealing as he shifted and zipped down the street.
Liz carefully refolded the shirt around the gun. Swiveling in her seat, she turned toward Isabel and Alex. "It was Pierce’s."
* * * * *
Jeff Parker looked up from the cash register with a start as Philip and Diane Evans walked into the café. They were hardly infrequent customers, often dropping by for coffee or brunch. In fact, their visits had become fairly regular since they had all bonded over Max and Liz’s overnight disappearance in February. But, Liz had distinctly told him the night before that Max’s parents were away for the weekend, and nine on a Sunday morning seemed a little early for them to be back. Jeff returned Diane’s wave and watched as she and Philip made their way to the back booth, but he felt a growing sense of unease. Something was definitely not right.
He finished ringing up a customer, then grabbed a coffee pot from behind the counter and went over to greet the Evanses. "Philip, Diane, how are you this morning?" he asked, flipping their cups over and pouring coffee into each of them.
"Good, Jeff, good. You?" Philip replied.
"Not too bad. Busy, but I’m not complaining."
Diane scanned the café. "We were kind of hoping to see the kids," she said. "Max and Isabel have taken to disappearing at the crack of dawn lately." She shook her head ruefully. "Remember when summer vacation meant sleeping half the day away? Anyway, I thought maybe they were having breakfast here."
"Well, Max was here with Liz," Jeff said. "Took off a while ago. Said something about meeting up with everyone, so I would assume that includes Isabel."
Diane smiled. "Seems you know more about our children these days than we do," she said, sounding a bit wistful.
"Well, I can tell you what they eat," Jeff agreed.
"They do seem to spend a lot of time here," Philip agreed. "It would be nice to see them home for dinner occasionally. Don’t mean to cut into your business, Jeff, but maybe you could send them our way from time to time," he said with a laugh. "Liz is welcome, too, of course."
Jeff looked Philip in the eye. "I kind of got the impression they were over at your place last night," he said slowly.
Philip frowned and looked at Diane. "I don’t think I saw either Max or Isabel once yesterday. They were up with the sun, as usual, then came home long after we were in bed."
"I think I heard them come in," Diane said. "But it was definitely late." She turned puzzled eyes on Jeff. "What made you think they were at our house?"
Jeff frowned. "That’s actually a rather long story." He took a deep breath. He hated to betray his daughter’s trust, but it was clear to him that she had been lying the previous night. As far as he was concerned, that nullified any promises he made. "I think we need to have a talk."
"Why? Is something wrong?" Diane asked, her eyes narrowing at the uncomfortable expression on Jeff’s face.
"Maybe," he replied. He looked around the café quickly, then shook his head. "It’s too busy for me to stop with your right now. Why don’t I get you some breakfast? I’ve got two waitresses due in half an hour. We can discuss this then."
"Jeff, you can’t leave us hanging this way," Philip said. "If there’s some kind of problem with the kids, we want to know about it."
"I didn’t mean to alarm you," Jeff said. Seeing he was failing to convince them, he sighed. "Okay. Hold on a second and I’ll be right back." He returned the coffee pot to its burner and had a quick word with the one waitress on duty, before hurrying back across the café.
Pulling up a chair, Jeff sat at the end of the booth and met Philip and Diane’s worried faces. "I’m afraid I’m going to have to be quick."
"That’s fine, Jeff. Just please tell us what’s going on," Diane urged.
Jeff hesitated for a moment, feeling unaccountably guilty and wondering how much he should actually reveal. Despite the obvious lies that had been told, he loved and trusted Liz, and something told him that she had lied to him for a reason. Shaking off the sensation that he was making a mistake, he began. "Max was here last night, waiting for Liz to close up the café. I’m not sure what their plans were, but apparently he dozed off while he was waiting and had a nightmare. Nancy and I were half asleep when we heard a scream."
Diane and Philip exchanged looks. "He’s been having nightmares for the past few weeks," Philip said quietly.
"That’s what Liz said. By the time I got there, she was already trying to calm him down. It took Liz, Michael, and Maria just to wake him up. Then Michael and Maria whisked him out of here so fast I didn’t even get a chance to talk to him."
"Jeff, we’re so sorry. We’ve been worried about the nightmares, but I honestly thought they had gotten better," Diane said. "Max was adamant about not wanting to discuss them, so I was rather relieved when he stopped calling out at night. I thought he’d stopped having them." She reached out and took Philip’s hand. "It looks like I was wrong."
"Liz said that Max hadn’t talked to you about what was causing the nightmares," Jeff said.
"That’s right," Philip said. "Why? Did he tell Liz? Did she say something to you?"
"I have to tell you that I promised Liz that I wouldn’t repeat any of this. And Max asked me again this morning not to tell you."
"Jeff, please," Diane said. "He’s our son."
"I know," Jeff said. He let out a long sigh. "Apparently Max had some sort of incident a few weeks ago. He was nearly car-jacked."
"He was what?" Diane said, her voice rising a notch.
Jeff nodded. "A trooper drove by and chased the guy off, but he had supposedly held a gun on Max. Max didn’t want to worry you, so he didn’t say anything. But it’s obviously weighing on him. And Liz says he’s somehow mixed her into the nightmares, even though she wasn’t with him at the time, and in his dream she gets killed. She thinks he’s tying the incident to the shooting here at the café last fall."
Diane looked up abruptly. "When someone claimed that Liz was shot?"
"Yeah, well, she wasn’t, thank God," Jeff said. "But there was a mix up for a bit, seeing as how they couldn’t find the bullet and Liz was drenched in ketchup from when she fell. A couple of tourists here for the CrashFest caused most of the confusion. Anyway, that’s not important. What is important is that clearly Max isn’t dealing with this well on this own."
"I don’t know why he wouldn’t just come to us with something like this," Philip said, his voice holding a touch of sadness.
"I got the impression he was trying to protect you. Didn’t want to worry you," Jeff said.
"Jeff, thank you so much for telling us, but I have to ask. What made you decide to say something after promising Liz you wouldn’t?" Diane asked.
"Well… Liz told me last night that you and Philip were out of town for the weekend, and clearly she was lying. I think it was partly because she didn’t want me calling you. But also…"
"What else?" Diane asked.
Jeff looked down. "Liz went with Michael and Maria to take Max home. And she was planning to spend the night to make sure he was all right, since supposedly the only one there was Isabel. I agreed, since Max was in pretty bad shape when they left and had seemed reluctant to let Liz out of his sight."
The three of sat quietly, absorbing the implications. "But Jeff, surely we would have known if Liz was there," Diane said finally. "Michael’s been sneaking through Max’s window for weeks," she admitted, "and I generally hear him."
"I don’t know," Jeff said. "And I’m not saying that the whole thing was an excuse for them to sleep together, because they’re good kids and I honestly don’t think they would go to such trouble for something like that. God knows there are enough opportunities for kids to hook up these days without lying to do it. Liz was genuinely worried for Max last night, and the fact that his nightmares are about her… well, I’m sure it played a part in her wanting to be there. I just think this entire situation is out of hand."
"You’re right, Jeff," Philip said. "We’ve been wrong to let Max try to work through this on his own." He held up a hand when Diane began to protest. "I know he’s unusually capable and mature about most things, but we can’t confuse being responsible with being an adult. He still needs us to make certain choices for him. And he needs our help now."
"I’m sorry to be the one to dump all of this on you," Jeff said.
"No, Jeff, thank you. Really," Diane said, patting his hand. "We’re grateful."
"I have to get back to work. Can I get you anything? Breakfast? More coffee?"
Diane looked at Philip and shook her head. "No, thanks. I think we’re going to head on home. We have some things to discuss before we talk to Max."
"Please tell him…"
"Don’t worry," Philip said. "He won’t blame you for telling us, Jeff."
Jeff stood and pushed his chair back. "Good luck. He’s a fine boy."
"Thanks again," Philip said, shaking Jeff’s hand. "We’ll be talking."
* * * * *
Jim Valenti peered through the front window at the sound of the bell, then hurriedly pulled back the deadbolt and opened the door. After the bizarre events of two nights past, he had spent the previous day monitoring the radio for suspicious activity, and had been only minorly relieved when everything seemed normal. Long years of experience had taught him that things didn’t quiet down quite so quickly, and that it was wise to pay even closer attention when all appeared calm. Having Michael and Maria appear on his doorstep early on a Sunday only served to further emphasize that theory.
He could sense their nervous energy the moment they cleared the door. "What’s wrong?" he asked, stepping back so they could come all the way inside.
Michael lingered just through the entrance, shooting Maria a hesitant look. "Well, several things, actually," he admitted. "But we only need your help with one of them."
The Sheriff’s blue eyes narrowed as he shifted his gaze from Michael to Maria. "Want to be a little more specific about that?" When Maria nodded, he shut the door and headed into the den. "Come on in, then."
They followed him, sinking side-by-side on the couch as if they were somehow linked. Dropping down in a chair opposite them, Valenti hunched forward, propping his elbows on his jean-clad knees. "So, what do you need my help with?"
Maria licked her lips. "Uh, well…." She turned to Michael.
"Just start at the beginning, maybe?" the Sheriff suggested.
Michael gave Maria’s hand a quick squeeze. "We’ve been staying together in groups since the other night, for safety. So, Maria stayed with me last night. But her mom figured out that she never came home."
"I see." Valenti struggled with the smile that was threatening to spoil his serious expression. "What else?"
"Tess is missing. Well, actually… she’s been taken," Michael continued.
"What? When did this happen?" Jumping from his chair, the Sheriff strode toward his desk. "I’ll get someone out looking…"
"No," Michael said, beside him in an instant, his hand over Valenti’s, slamming the phone back down. "What are you going to tell your deputies, Sheriff? You’re putting out an APB on an unidentified alien? I don’t think so."
"But if Tess is in danger…"
"We can handle that," Michael said. He looked over toward Maria. "What we need help with is Maria’s mother. We can’t risk her coming looking for us and there’s no time to go see her. Besides, there’s not much we could say to her anyway. She’s only going to overreact and ground Maria until she’s thirty."
Valenti looked thoughtful. "You know, it might be safer for Maria to just go home. I realize the scene with Amy could get ugly," he said, "but I can’t imagine what you’re going up against is preferable."
Maria shook her head, her mouth set in a stubborn pout. "I’m going with Michael regardless, Sheriff."
"All right." The older man nodded reluctantly, recognizing the determination in her eyes for what it was. "So, what do you need me to do?"
Maria got up and walked over to the desk. "Could you spend the day with her? Please? Maybe calm her down a little? Just make sure she doesn’t get into any trouble."
"You’re worried if she comes after you she’ll run into whoever it is that took Tess?"
Maria and Michael both nodded.
Jim Valenti let out a long sigh, noting the concern in their eyes. "I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be reduced to playing bodyguard while a bunch of high-schoolers fought the bad guys," he drawled. He nodded slowly. "I’ll make sure your mom’s all right, Maria. But you two be careful."
"Thank you, Sheriff," Maria said with a grateful smile. "We will."
Michael nodded, then shook the hand Valenti extended. "Thanks."
* * * * *
"Max, what did you see at Tess’s?" Isabel leaned forward in her seat so that Max could hear her over the rush of wind as they sped down the highway out of town.
"Just hold on a few more minutes," Max replied.
Isabel looked at Alex and shook her head, sitting back in her seat. She caught Liz’s worried glance from the front and shrugged. But a moment later, Max slowed the Jeep and pulled over to the side of the road, maneuvering so they were positioned to see the oncoming traffic from both directions. He put on the emergency brake, but left the motor running.
"It’s not that I don’t want to tell you," he said, shifting so he could see all of them. "I just wanted to get out of town a ways, so we could see if anyone is following us."
"And if they are?" Alex asked.
Max shot him a look. "We get the hell out of here."
"Go ahead, Max," Liz urged. "What did you want to tell us?"
"You have a right to know what we’re going into, as best as I can decipher," Max said. "They may not have Tess."
"What? Why didn’t you say so?" Isabel asked.
"Because I’m not sure. When we stopped in the yard, I got a series of flashes, but they were jumbled and hard to make out. I know Tess struggled and got away, but what I don’t know is if they caught up with her again. If they didn’t, we should find her at the pod chamber. But that doesn’t mean that’s all we’ll find," he added, looking grim.
"You mean they might have followed her to the chamber, in which case they’re probably waiting outside," Liz said.
Max nodded. "Or else they just waited until we realized that Tess was missing, and are now following us."
"Hence the gun," Alex said.
"I’m sorry I can’t arm you, too, Alex," Max said. "But I only had the one gun at home, and Liz was the most accurate in target practice."
Alex nodded. "That’s okay. I understand. I’ll just hide behind the women."
"Wait," Isabel broke in. "What do you mean, you only had the one gun at home? That would seem to imply that you have more guns somewhere else?"
Three sets of eyes turned toward Max. He simply nodded.
"Max, where did you get more guns?" Liz asked.
"Nasedo," he replied.
"And you’re storing them in the pod chamber," Alex said slowly.
Max didn’t bother to answer. "Look, I know they intended this to be a trap. What I don’t know is how many variables have changed. And I can’t ask you to go into this with me. It’s too dangerous."
"Max, I’m not letting you go into this alone," Isabel said.
"Me neither," Alex chimed in.
Liz just smiled and gave his hand a squeeze.
Max shook his head. "It’s not that simple." He took a deep breath, his eyes on Isabel. "The flashes I got at Tess’s? The first ones – before I realized she had managed to escape – they were meant as a message. Someone left them behind for me to stumble over."
"What kind of message?" Isabel asked. "What did you see Max?"
"Memories," he replied. "My memories. Of before."
"You mean… from when we were…?" Isabel looked apprehensive.
"From our previous lives," Max said. "I don’t know how they tapped into them, but they did."
"What did you remember, Max?" Liz asked softly.
He turned to her, his eyes filled with pain. "Liz, I…"
"You can tell us," she assured him. "Don’t worry about it. It was another time and place, Max. It doesn’t have anything to do with now."
"That’s just it," he said, his voice edged with raw emotion. "This is what happened the first time. They took Tess and we chased after and…."
"Max," Isabel broke in. "Start at the beginning. Tell us all of it."
His eyes still on Liz, Max nodded. "I was right about our marriages," he began. "They were arranged from birth. We were raised together, the four of us. Tess was much younger than the rest of us, and we all looked upon her more as a little sister than anything, though I knew that one day we were supposed to marry." Max took a deep breath, shifting his gaze to the horizon. "When the fighting started, they pushed through our wedding, thinking it would be good for morale. Tess had only just come of age, and the ceremony was set for the lunar cycle following her birthday." He stopped, frowning slightly.
"I guess a lunar cycle would be a month, huh?" Alex asked.
Max looked up. "I’m not sure, but I suppose it would be the equivalent."
"Keep going," Isabel prompted, her expression a mixture of fascination and trepidation.
Almost in a trance, Max continued. "The marriage took place as planned, but immediately following the ceremony Tess disappeared. She was snatched from the strong hold right beneath our very noses. Not only was it an action designed to bring us out in force, but it was a blow to the people’s faith in my leadership abilities," he said, a trace of bitterness tingeing his voice. "What kind of leader can’t even keep his bride safe?"
"Max," Liz said gently, rubbing her hand over his, which had tightened into a fist.
He shook his head slightly, some of the tension easing from his face. "The three of us went out with a small group of fighters. We knew where they had taken her. But they knew we would come and they were prepared. The three of us managed to sneak into the place where they were holding Tess, but their forces attacked as soon as we were inside. Isabel remained behind with our troops, engaged in battle, while Michael and I searched for Tess. But when we found her, she was already dead." Max stopped, all color drained from his face as if he were reliving the moment. He seemed oblivious to Isabel and Liz’s gasps, or the warm hands reaching out to comfort him. "A group of eight warriors were waiting for us. They took the two of us out in a matter of minutes. I don’t know what happened to Isabel, though I can’t imagine she made it out alive either."
"Max," Isabel said, taking his face roughly in her hands, pulling him back to the present. "Max, we’re all right. And Tess will be all right too. We aren’t going to let history repeat itself," she promised, tears coursing down her cheeks.
"Iz," he said softly. "I can’t lose you. Any of you," he said, his eyes traveling to Liz and Alex. "But I can’t promise to keep you safe, anymore than I could have promised in that other lifetime. They wanted me to remember what happened before – to show me how easily it was happening again."
"Max," Liz said. "We understood the risks coming into this. I know this makes it all seem that much more real, but it doesn’t change anything. We can do anything together. You’ve said it yourself."
"She’s right, Max," Alex said. "The group of us still stands a better chance than just the four of you. Remember what you told us before we went after Pierce? I asked how we were supposed to fight the most elite unit of the FBI, and you said we were stronger than they thought we were. Maybe even stronger than we thought we were. You were right that day. We won. And we can do it again."
"We have no choice, Max," Isabel said, her tears replaced by a determined gleam in her eye. "We can’t let them win. Now let’s get going. You said yourself, Tess might have gotten away. We need to find out."
Max nodded, giving Isabel and Liz’s hands a quick squeeze. "All right. Ready?"
"Ready," came the unified reply.
"Then we do it." Max released the brake and pulled back out onto the highway. Within seconds they were speeding down the road once more.
* * * * *
Amy DeLuca opened the door to find the Sheriff on her front stoop. "Jim, is something wrong?" she immediately asked, her hand fluttering to her throat. "Is it Maria?"
"Everything’s fine, Amy," he assured her quickly. He brought a paper sack out from behind his back. "I just thought I’d stop by, bring you some doughnuts." A sheepish expression on his face, he glanced down at the toes of his boots.
"I see," she said slowly. She studied him for a moment, taking in the hopeful look in his eyes when he glanced up, and smiled slightly. "I guess you had better come in then," she said, stepping back to let him pass. "Let me go put on a fresh pot of coffee." She headed down the hall to the kitchen, intensely aware of him dogging her footsteps.
Putting the bag down on the table, Jim Valenti took off his hat and leaned against the counter. "Anything I can do to help?"
Amy shot him a look as she spooned coffee into the filter. "No, I’ve got it. Thanks." Her eyes narrowed. "So, Jim, tell me. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? Bearing gifts, no less."
"Well, Amy, I guess you’ve been on my mind," he said, again staring down at his feet. "And I suppose I got to wondering if, maybe, you’d been thinking of me. At all?" he asked, his blue eyes suddenly rising to meet hers.
Flustered, Amy turned back to filling the coffee pot. "Of course I have," she mumbled. "But I thought we went over this. I have to consider Maria right now." She stopped mid-scoop and turned to him. "You’re sure nothing’s wrong?"
"Positive. Why would something be wrong?"
"It’s just…" Trailing off, she shoved the glass pot under the faucet and filled it with water, then poured it slowly into the coffee maker. She thwacked the on button and put the pot on the burner.
"Amy, what is it?" Jim asked in a soothing voice. "Can I help?"
She sighed. "I guess it’s just that my little girl’s growing up. And it’s happening so fast. One minute they’re running across the playground in tears because some boy pushed them off a swing, and the next… Well, the next they’re in tears because some boy broke their heart. But they don’t run to you anymore."
"Is that what happened? Did Maria’s boyfriend break her heart?" he asked.
"I thought that’s what happened. I almost wish that’s what did happen," she said, turning misty eyes toward him. "Does that make me a terrible mother? What kind of woman wants her baby’s heart to get stomped on?"
"Now, Amy, I don’t think that’s what you really want."
"I suppose you’re right." Reaching up, she took two red ceramic mugs from the cupboard.
"So, if Maria’s heart’s in one piece, what is this all about?"
Amy shrugged and shook her head. "We’re just at that point. We have this tug of war going to see who’s in control. Only I didn’t know we were having it and I think I dropped my end of the rope a long time ago."
"Well, that’s pretty cryptic," Jim said with a teasing grin.
Amy traced the raised floral design on one of the mugs with her finger. "Maria stayed out all night last night. It turns out she was probably just at a friend’s house, helping with… a problem, but that isn’t the point. She didn’t call last night and she didn’t call this morning. She never used to do this kind of thing, Jim."
He nodded understandingly. "I’m sure there’s a good explanation, Amy. Maria’s a good kid. So are her friends. I don’t think you have to worry about her getting into trouble, if that’s what you’re thinking about," he said, but there was a slight strain to his voice. "Why don’t we have some of this coffee," he said, taking the pot and pouring the steaming liquid into the mugs.
Amy watched him curiously. His back was to her, and by the time he turned and handed her a cup, his expression was completely under control. Yet she could have sworn that for an instant she had seen a flicker of concern in his eyes. "Jim," she said slowly. "Is there something you’re not telling me? Should I be worried about something else?"
Jim looked up, caught slightly off guard. He could see the hint of suspicion in her face, in the faint wrinkling of her brow. Smiling, he shook his head. "Amy, you’ve got to have a little faith. You’ve done a good job raising her. You have to trust her to make the best of things."
She nodded, thinking his words sounded very much like Jeff Parker’s had earlier. Turning, she pulled the milk from the fridge and set it on the table next to the sugar bowl, then set out two plates. "All right, Jim," she said. "Why don’t we give these doughnuts a try." But as she sat down across from him and watched him spoon sugar into his mug, she was acutely aware of the fact that he hadn’t really answered her question.
|posted on 16-Sep-2001 10:59:16 AM|
"Uh, you do know where you’re going, right?" Alex asked in a somewhat nervous tone, as Max veered off the road and proceeded to drive toward what looked very much like the middle of no where.
"Relax, Alex," Isabel said. "This area used to be Puhlman Ranch, but the government took it over after the crash. It’s not exactly a well traveled road."
"That’s an understatement," Alex muttered as they bumped along, dust and sand kicking up to either side.
Liz stared at the barren landscape, barely registering the quiet banter coming from the back seat. It was hard not to remember the last time she had been here – the day Max had learned his destiny – the day she had turned her back on him and tried to walk away. A shudder ran through her as she recalled running mindlessly toward the road, blinded by her tears, led only by instinct.
She looked up to find Max watching her, understanding in his eyes. "Yeah," she said. Reaching over, she took the hand he held out to her, allowing his warmth to seep into her bones. "How about you?" Max’s memories of this place could hardly be any less turbulent than hers, she realized. This was where his entire life had changed.
He nodded, turning his eyes back to the road. "I’ll be better once we’ve made it home in one piece."
Liz could feel the tension coursing through him, but she didn’t say anything. In the back of her mind she knew that tension was a necessary part of what Max needed to face. It helped prepare him, made him stronger. She just wished that things could be different.
Max slowed the Jeep to a crawl as they approached the rocky peak that hid the pod chamber. The area at the base appeared deserted except for a single car, a battered Toyota, parked at a sharp angle to the path that led to the chamber entrance. The driver’s side door hung open as if someone had abandoned the vehicle in haste. Parking a dozen yards behind the car, Max regarded the others. "Stay here a minute," he said.
"Max, I…" Isabel began, but the look in her brother’s eyes cut her argument abruptly short. She merely nodded.
He climbed out of the Jeep and approached the Toyota cautiously, his eyes flicking from side to side. Seeing no one around, he leaned into the driver’s side and examined the seat and floor, finding several fresh blood stains. Backing away, he crouched down and examined the ground, running his hand over the sandy surface. Frowning, he headed back to the others.
"Well? Did you find anything?" Isabel asked.
"I don’t recognize the car," he said, "but it can’t have been sitting there for very long. There’s blood on the seat and car mat and it’s still wet."
"Blood?" Alex asked. "Whose blood?"
"I don’t know," Max said. "There’s no sign of blood on the ground, though, so I’d hazard a guess that the driver of the car did something to cover their trail."
"Like manipulating the molecular structure of the blood to match the sand," Liz said softly.
Max nodded. He reached past Liz into the glove compartment and pulled out two large flashlights. "Here," he said, tossing one to Alex.
"Great. When we get attacked by enemy aliens, I can blind them to death," he quipped.
"Alex," Isabel warned.
"Sorry," he said.
"Come on," Max said. "I don’t see anything to indicate there’s anyone else around, but I don’t want to take any chances. Everyone stay close. Liz, don’t forget the gun."
She nodded. Carefully unwrapping the gun, she tucked the sweatshirt into her bag and slung it over her shoulder. "Ready," she said, her hands flexing over the barrel.
"We all are," Isabel said, nodding to Max.
"All right then." He turned and headed up the path, keeping close to the rocky side of the incline. Liz followed close behind, with Alex and Isabel bringing up the rear. Max was aware of the vulnerability of their position, out in the open the way they were, and kept glancing nervously at the surrounding area.
When they reached the entrance to the chamber, Max held up his hand, gesturing for them to stay back. "We don’t know what we’re going to find," he reminded them. When he was satisfied that they had moved back sufficiently, he waved his hand over the stone surface, revealing the glowing silver handprint, then fit his own hand to the spot. With a rumbling sound, the door to the chamber shifted aside.
Max walked slowly through the opening, then suddenly dropped to his knees, swearing loudly. His unprecedented stream of curses brought the others tearing into the entryway.
"Oh my God," Liz whispered.
Tess lay on the hard ground, eyes closed, blood trickling from a deep gash on her forehead. Her clothes were torn and covered in dirt and more blood. Max supported her head gently as he fumbled at her wrist for a pulse.
"Max, is she…" Isabel swallowed hard.
"She’s alive," he said, his voice unsteady. He looked up, his eyes bright with barely restrained rage. "Close us in, Iz," he told her, glancing at the open door behind her.
She nodded and placed her hand against the wall. As the rocky surface slid closed once more, Liz and Alex flipped on their flashlights. Liz knelt beside Max, holding her torch so he could see what he was doing.
"There should be some candles and blankets in the back," Max said. "Alex?"
"Right. I’m on it," he said, making his way slowly into the rear of the chamber. He paused briefly when he saw the empty pods, but continued past them until another sight caused him to pull up short. "Uh, Max? Would those be the blankets and candles next to the arsenal?"
"Alex," Isabel muttered, going to help him. "You know he said he had some more… oh, God! Max…" she gasped, eyes glued to stacked crates filled with ammunition.
"Not now," Max snapped. "Liz, can you hold the flashlight a little closer?" he asked, his voice softening.
She did as he asked. Next she laid the gun down carefully and shifted her knapsack onto the ground next to it. Rummaging with one hand, she pulled Max’s sweatshirt out and passed it to him. "Here," she said. "Put this under her head."
He pillowed the shirt on the ground and gently lowered Tess’s head onto it. "Tess," he said, "Tess, can you hear me?" He swiftly chaffed her hand between both of his, then reached out and stroked her cheek gingerly. "Tess, you have to look at me," he said, his voice taking on a commanding tone.
The room began to lighten as Alex and Isabel lit a series of candles and placed them strategically around the chamber. Isabel brought a blanket over and tucked it around Tess before backing away again to give Max room to maneuver.
"Max, keep talking to her," Liz said softly.
He shot her a grateful look before focusing on Tess again. "Tess, open your eyes," he demanded firmly. "You have to wake up."
She shifted slightly and let out a quiet moan.
"Tess," Max continued, brushing a stray curl from her face, careful to avoid her wound. "Come on. Open your eyes." Tess’s eyes fluttered open, their blue depths unfocused, then closed again. Max grabbed her hand and squeezed. "No, no, Tess, you can do it. Look at me."
She slowly opened her eyes again. "Max," she whispered, her voice wobbly.
"There we go, that’s good. Don’t worry," he said, keeping his voice low and soothing. "We’re here. You’re going to be all right. Just look in my eyes, Tess," he coaxed. He cradled her head in his hands and in an instant he had connected with her.
Her reaction was almost immediate. Eyes widening, she began to squirm, her hands coming up to clutch at his. She tried to wrench away, but she was too weak to manage it. Her shocked expression became more tortured. She closed her eyes in a desperate attempt to sever the connection.
Liz grabbed Max by the shoulders and tried to pull him away from Tess. "Max, stop. You have to let go of her. Now. Max!" Using all of her strength, she threw herself backwards, dragging him with her until he was forced to loosen his hold on Tess or pull her backwards with him.
"Liz, what are you doing?" he asked, turning half-angry eyes on her.
"Max, look at her. Can’t you see what you’re doing to her?" she asked, tears starting to stream down her cheeks.
"I was trying to heal her," he said, but Liz’s tears brought him up short.
Liz shook her head. She had recognized the look in Tess’s eyes when Max had made their connection. It was the look of someone who was seeing something they could not believe, could not stand to witness. The look of someone who was shattering inside. That had been the look in her own eyes the night she had seen Max kissing Tess in the rain. And at that moment she had understood what was happening. "Max, you connected with her," she whispered. "She saw inside your head."
Max’s eyes grew wide. He looked down at Tess where she huddled in a ball beneath the blanket. "Oh God," he said under his breath. He closed his eyes briefly, reaching out blindly to take Liz’s hand. "Iz, could you…" He looked up at his sister where she stood watching them, her eyes filled with tears.
Isabel came and knelt next to Max. "I’ll do it," she said gently.
"Thank you," he said. "I’m sorry," he added, his eyes on Tess.
"Max, come on," Liz urged, tugging him away. "Let Isabel take care of her. It’ll be all right."
"I should have realized," he said as he allowed her to draw him into her arms.
"No, Max. You were just trying to help her," Liz soothed. "It was just… bad timing."
"More like stupidity," he muttered. He shifted so he could watch as Isabel put her hands to either side of Tess’s face.
"It’s me. Isabel. Come on, Tess," she coaxed.
Tess opened her eyes slowly, as if reluctant to trust her ears. When she saw Isabel, she relaxed visibly. "I’m sorry…" she whispered.
"Shhh, it’s okay," Isabel said. "Just look at me. You’re going to be all right." Looking into the other girl’s eyes, Isabel concentrated, the connection kicking in strongly. This time Tess didn’t fight it, but lay calmly as the healing took place. The wound on her head slowly mended before their eyes, as did a small cut on her lip. Finally, the glazed look in her eyes faded until they were bright and alert once more.
"How do you feel?" Isabel asked as Tess struggled to sit up.
"A little fuzzy around the edges," she said slowly. "But basically all right." She smiled weakly at Isabel. "Thanks," she said softly. After a brief hesitation, she turned toward Max and Liz. "I’m okay," she said quietly, meeting Max’s eyes. "Really."
"You’re sure?" he asked tentatively.
She nodded. "Yeah. It was just a… surprise. But I’m fine."
"I’m sorry, Tess. I never meant for you to…" Max began.
Tess shook her head. "Don’t. You don’t owe me any explanations." Her eyes shifted to Liz. "Things are different here. It’s just the way it is."
Isabel laid a gentle hand on Tess’s arm, drawing her attention away from Liz and Max. "Tess, what happened? Max got some flashes at your house, but not enough for us to piece together any real explanations."
She frowned, rubbing absently at her temple. "It’s a little blurry. I woke up early this morning, so I went down and got the paper, thinking I’d get a jump on the apartment search. I was sitting, drinking my coffee, when I heard something crash in the living room. Just as I was about to go see what it was, this strange man stormed into the kitchen, ranting about a… a key… and demanding to know where it was."
"A key?" Alex asked. "We figured they were looking for the orbs."
Tess shook her head. "He never mentioned the orbs. Just this key. He seemed positive that we had it." She looked to Max. "Does it sound at all familiar to you?"
Max frowned. "The only key we ever had was the one to the secret room at Atherton’s. Somehow I doubt that’s what he meant."
"No," she agreed. "When I wouldn’t answer him, he came after me. I tried to run, but he grabbed me before I could get to the door. That’s when I realized there were more of them."
"How many?" Max asked.
"Four all together, I think. Unless there were more outside that I didn’t see."
"How did you get away?" Liz asked softly.
Tess looked down. "I got them to argue with each other, then slipped out the back door."
"By making them see something that wasn’t there?" Isabel asked with a half smile.
"Actually, I made them hear something…." Tess said. "Each one thought the other wanted to let me go," she said quietly.
Max frowned. "Whatever works," he said. "Uh… when you screamed, Tess, how did you.."
"I never screamed," she said, turning to Max, looking puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I got a flash at your house," he said, his frown deepening. "You screamed for me when the guy came after you."
Tess shook her head. "I may have cried out a little when he hit me," she admitted. "When they finally came after me, the one guy caught up and back handed me. I fell and hit my head on a rock. That’s how I got this," she said, gesturing to where her forehead had been cut open. "But I didn’t scream, Max. And I wouldn’t have called out for you," she added quietly. "There wouldn’t have been any point."
Max looked uncomfortable, but he shook off the feeling and pressed forward. "So, I was right," he said. "If you didn’t call out for me, they somehow planted that idea for me to find. It was a trap."
"But if that flash wasn’t true, Max, then what about the other ones?" Isabel asked.
"What other ones?" Tess said, turning toward Isabel.
"Max got a series of flashes out in your yard, too. Of the past," she explained.
"So, you’re saying those weren’t actual memories, but what they wanted me to think happened?" Max asked.
"I don’t know," Isabel admitted. "And I don’t know how we can find out, either."
Alex sighed. "Lost memories, fake memories. This is all getting way too confusing."
"How do you think we feel?" Isabel muttered.
"Look, we can deal with all of that later," Max said. "Right now I think we should get out of here." He stood and dusted his jeans off, then held out a hand to help Liz up. Turning, he looked down at Tess. "You think you’re up to moving around?"
"Yeah," she said. "I’ll be all right." She hesitated, then took the hand he offered and stood up slowly. "I’m okay," she said, when she realized everyone was watching her.
"Max, what about Michael and Maria?" Isabel asked. "You told them to meet us here."
"With any luck, Mrs. DeLuca is still giving them a piece of her mind," he said.
Isabel rolled her eyes. "Michael’s not going to be happy with you, Max."
"I know. But I’m not particularly worried about that right now." Stopping abruptly, he turned to Tess. "Uh, Tess? Where did you get the old Toyota from?"
"Oh. That." Tess blushed slightly. "I… um… I’m afraid I took it."
"You stole a car?" Alex blurted out, grunting when Isabel whacked him in the arm.
"I didn’t have much of a choice," she said. "I couldn’t risk going around the front of the house to get my car. They came after me too fast. And then after I hit my head, I just couldn’t run anymore. I was too dizzy, and even though I kicked the one guy pretty hard, the others were still right behind me." She shrugged. "I was running across one of the neighbor’s yards when I saw that old junker. The keys were in the ignition, so…"
"You took it," Max said. "We’ll get it back to them. Don’t worry about it," he said, shooting Alex a warning look.
"You did what you had to," Liz said, earning a surprised, but thankful look from Tess.
"Okay, let’s get going," Max said. "Iz, you and Alex take the… uh… loaner, all right?"
Isabel nodded. "We’ll follow you."
Max went over to the wall and placed his hand flat against the handprint. "Stand back," he warned.
As the door began to slide slowly open, the sun brightened the chamber, shining off the walls and ricocheting off the empty pods. Suddenly there was a sparking sound. Max lifted his hand abruptly, halting the motion of the door.
"What’s wrong?" Liz asked.
"Keep against the back wall," Max ordered harshly. He moved forward slowly, keeping low, and peered slowly through the gap. Something sputtered against the rock a foot above his head and he leapt back quickly.
"Max?" Isabel said, her voice rising.
He turned to them, his face grim. "Looks like we’ve got company." Fitting his hand to the wall, he sent the door sliding back into place, sealing them inside.
* * * * *
The Jetta started to rattle and Michael eased his foot off the gas, watching as the speedometer dropped back below eighty. He shook his head, muttering under his breath.
"Watch it, Spaceboy. It’s still faster than walking," Maria reminded him.
Rolling her eyes, Maria turned to stare out the window. The landscape was singularly unimpressive, with the exception of the tall, mountainous peak in the distance. It was jagged and, appropriately enough, looked like it belonged on another planet. "What makes it glimmer that way?" she asked after a moment.
"What are you talking about?"
"The peak. Up there," she said, pointing toward the top. "It’s like the sun’s reflecting off of it."
Michael brought the Jetta to an abrupt halt and turned to see what she was mumbling about, his annoyance clear. "Maria, it doesn’t glimmer. It’s a cliff, not a Christmas ornament," he said. Then he stopped talking.
"See, there," she said, pointing as another bright spark flew off the rocks.
"That’s not the sun doing that," he said.
"Then what is it?"
Michael shook his head. "Trouble." Hitting the gas, they shot forward. This time Michael ignored the car’s rhythmic rattling, pushing it until they were going ninety.
"Michael, what’s wrong?" Maria asked.
"From the look of it, I’d say our friends with the laser guns have found the pod chamber," he said in a tight voice.
"Oh God." She clung to the edge of her seat as they bounced along, her eyes now glued to the flashes of light.
Michael slowed the car as they neared the base of the peak, stopping before they got too close. In the distance he could see a dark, nondescript car parked near what looked like two small bonfires. "This doesn’t look good," he muttered.
"What is that? What’s burning?"
"Just stay in the car," he said, climbing out. "And if I’m not back in twenty minutes, get the hell out of here."
"Michael, I am not going to sit here while you go off and get yourself killed," she announced, jumping out and slamming her door.
"Shhh," he hissed.
"Fine," she said, dropping her voice to an angry whisper. "But you are not leaving me here."
"Maria, please. For once. Just do what I say."
Tapping one foot, she seemed to consider.
"Look, you’re only gonna distract me, all right? You have no way to protect yourself, and we don’t know how many of them there are."
That seemed to convince her. "All right," she said quietly, a trace of petulance in her tone. "But I’m not leaving without you."
"We’re wasting time," he said. "Just stay here. And keep your eyes open."
"Okay." Her expression softened. "Be careful."
"You too." He smirked at her, then started toward the other car, keeping low to take advantage of the rocky terrain and scattered brush in the area.
Maria watched as he crept along. Squinting, she focused on the mystery car and the two burning objects, wondering what they could be. And then suddenly it struck her – at least one of those burning objects had to be the Jeep. Her heart in her throat, she shifted her gaze back to Michael. He was even with the cars and had started working his way slowly up the steep incline. Looking up, she could still see an occasional flash of light higher up the hill, and she realized that Michael was trying to reach the place where they seemed to originate.
"Reckless idiot," she muttered, chewing her bottom lip. She brushed a strand of hair from her face, and that’s when she saw him. A burly man was climbing from the car at the foot of the path, perhaps a dozen yards behind where Michael was crouching down. How Michael had missed seeing him, she didn’t know, but then she had only just noticed him herself, so perhaps he had been bending over.
She knew the instant the man spotted Michael. She saw his body tense and suddenly she felt about to fly out of her skin. There was no way for her to warn Michael without shouting, and that would draw not only his attention, but that of the burly guy, and possibly anyone else in the vicinity. Looking around, she reached into the Jetta and popped the trunk, then began rifling through the back of the car. Ten seconds later she took off at a dead run, a heavy wrench clutched in her hand, heading straight toward the base of the hill.
The man had started to go after Michael, his movements slow and even. Maria pulled up short as she grew closer, slowing down enough to move more quietly, but not so much that she wasn’t still gaining ground. And that was when Michael glanced up. The look on his face told her instantly that he had sensed her approach, but whatever smart comment he was preparing to throw in her direction died on his lips as he caught sight of his pursuer. He froze, his eyes narrowing on the silver device the man held, which was now pointed straight at him.
Maria raised the hand that held the wrench so that Michael could see it. He didn’t even seem to register her movement, but he began to talk, and she realized he was making noise to cover her approach. She began moving forward again, stepping carefully so as to be as silent as possible.
"Who are you? And where were you? How could I have missed a guy as big as you?" Michael asked. He spoke quickly so the man had no chance to reply, rambling on so fast that Maria wondered briefly if he was impersonating her. "Well? Don’t you talk? Didn’t you guys bother to learn English before you came here? How do you expect to get along if you don’t speak the language? What about Spanish? No, never mind. I always skip that class. Won’t do much good if you learned Spanish."
Maria held the wrench tightly in both hands and swung with all her might at the back of the man’s head. She heard the metal connect with a dull thwap, then jumped back as the man staggered forward, dropping his weapon. Not waiting to see if he would fall, and knowing she wouldn’t get a second chance to knock him out, Maria darted sideways as fast as she could.
The instant she was clear, Michael raised his hand and sent a bolt of energy flying toward the man. He hit him dead on, hurdling him back until he hit the ground and was still. Advancing slowly, one eye on Maria, Michael kicked the man’s weapon clear, then glanced nervously toward the hill behind him to make sure they hadn’t attracted any attention.
"You all right?" he asked finally, turning toward Maria.
"Yeah," she replied, inching her way toward him again. "You?"
"Except for those ten seconds after I saw you standing there and my heart stopped beating," he threw out, "yeah. Perfect."
"Is he… dead?"
Michael poked at the man with the toe of his boot. "Yup."
Reaching out, Michael grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. "What did you think you were doing? I told you to stay back," he said, his voice harsh.
"I was saving your butt, in case you didn’t notice," she shot out. "What was I supposed to do, Michael? Let tall, dark, and ugly just sneak up on you?"
"You could have been killed!"
"Yeah, I know. I was next after you," she snapped.
Something flickered in his eyes and for a moment Maria thought he might shake her. Instead he brought his mouth down hard on hers in a bruising kiss that took her breath away. His arms slid down and wrapped around her, pulling her into a tight embrace.
"God, you scared me," he whispered when he finally pulled back.
"Same here," she said softly.
Michael looked into her eyes, then shook his head. "Come on," he said quietly. "And don’t forget your wrench. Just stay behind me, okay?"
Maria nodded. She bent down and retrieved her makeshift weapon from where she had dropped it, then grabbed the little laser gun as well. The two of them started slowly up the path.
* * * * *
While the others looked on, Max began sifting quickly through the crates at the back of the pod chamber. Finding what he was looking for, he wrenched open the lid and pulled four handguns out of the straw-filled container. "Liz, Alex," he said. "Come take these." They came forward and each began loading a gun with the clips Max handed them. He then proceeded to load the other two weapons, his hands clicking everything into place with practiced ease. Noticing Alex’s assessing gaze, he shrugged. "I have no idea," he replied to the unvoiced question. "There are some things I just seem to… know." He handed them each another gun. "Back up," he told them. "Liz, leave Pierce’s gun here. These are lighter, like what you were using in practice."
"Max, do you really think that’s necessary?" Isabel asked. "I mean, how many of them are out there?"
"I don’t know yet," he replied. "But better to be over prepared than to have to stop to reload." His eyes darted to Tess. "How do you really feel? Are you up for this?"
Tess shrugged. "It’s not like I have any choice, is it? I can hold my own."
"Iz, how about you? How drained do you feel from healing Tess?"
"I’m fine," she said. She glanced at Alex who was staring down at the guns in his hands. "So, I’m assuming you have a plan, Max."
"Something like," he said. "I’m going to open the door again, just enough for us to fit through one at a time. I’ll go first, low. Iz, I want you to cover me, then come next. Tess, you follow Isabel. You should all duck and roll coming though the opening, all right? It’ll give you enough momentum to get clear while still giving them a moving target."
"What do we do, Max?" asked Liz.
Max met her steady gaze. "The two of you come last. Keep your eyes open, and watch where you fire."
"Don’t worry," she said with a small smile. "We won’t shoot you guys."
"Assuming the three of us are still standing, you may not need to shoot anyone," he said quietly.
Liz paled slightly, but stood firm. "We’re ready."
Max brushed a kiss over her forehead, then strode to the door. "Isabel." He waved her in the direction of the opposite wall.
Isabel stood to the side of where the door would open, keeping back enough so that she wouldn’t provide an easy target. Tess crouched behind her.
"Alex, Liz, can you guys blow out the candles over there?" Max asked. "We don’t want it any brighter in here than necessary." As they complied with his request, Max held his palm over the handprint on the wall. "Listen," he said, focusing on Isabel and Tess. "Once this doorway is open, it stays that way, understand? Liz and Alex have no way of opening it again if something should happen to the rest of us, and I won’t have them getting trapped."
"We understand," Tess said in a quiet voice. "We won’t close it."
Max waited for Liz and Alex to get in position against the far wall behind Tess. "Okay. We’re going to wait after I slide the door open. They’ll expect us to come out right away, but if we hold off we may be able to gain a certain element of surprise. Ready?" They all nodded. Max pressed his hand against the wall and watched as the entrance to the chamber began to appear.
The moment the gap became visible, bright flashes of light began to bounce off the rocky side of the cliff beyond the opening. Max lifted his hand and the door came to an abrupt halt. "Wait," he cautioned them. He seemed to be counting off in his head as the seconds ticked away. Each moment that past brought a fresh barrage of fire from outside, every blast chipping away at the craggy surface of the chamber’s exterior walls. Finally, Max nodded and dropped to his knees to one side of the entrance. His eyes met Isabel’s in silent communication and she shifted so she had a clear view through the narrow opening. Reaching out with one arm, she leaned forward and began sending pulses of energy streaming into the air, as Max tucked himself into a tight ball and somersaulted out of the chamber, rolling neatly to his feet.
Squinting in the bright light, Max found himself crouching just beyond the chamber entrance, a shower of sparks raining down all around him as laser blasts continued to ricochet off the side of the cliff. He could make out a figure coming up the path, arm extended, and he had just enough time to lunge sideways before a stream of fire came hurdling his way. Barely aware of the blast sputtering against the rocks behind him, he reached out instinctively and sent a burst of energy flying down the hill, knocking the man to the ground. There was no time to see if he got back up, as a fresh series of blasts assaulted him. Knowing he had to keep moving, Max started off the path, heading down the steepest part of the incline and staying as low to the ground as he could, taking advantage of the rocky terrain. Behind him he could hear a constant hiss as Isabel, and then Tess, shot off burst after burst of energy as they emerged from the pod chamber.
The moment Isabel cleared the doors, she started down the path, hugging the jagged side of the cliff, firing randomly down the hill, dimly aware that Tess had followed her out and was also sending out fiery blasts. They had no clear target, as their enemies had taken cover behind the low shrubs and rocks that surrounded the peak, so they were each forced to concentrate on the flashes of light caused by the laser blasts and try to aim for their source. At one point, Isabel thought she heard someone cry out as if they had been hit, but there was no way to be certain. The only thing she knew was that someone was still out there firing at them.
Alex and Liz crept slowly out of the chamber, crouched low, each of them holding a gun clutched tightly in one hand. Max, Isabel, and Tess had drawn the fire from the top of the peak, but they still had no wish to attract any attention. "Let’s split up," Liz whispered. "I’m going to try to head down the other way," she told Alex, waving toward the sheer surface of the rock.
"Liz, there’s no cover that way," he hissed. "You’ll be completely out in the open."
"But there’s also no one firing over there," she pointed out. "Maybe I can get to the bottom, then come around from behind them."
Alex looked at her warily. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, Alex. I went down that way the last time. It’s not as steep as it looks. I’ll be fine."
He looked doubtful, but he knew the stubborn gleam in her eye well enough not to argue with her. "Be careful," he said. "I’m going to follow Isabel and Tess."
Liz nodded. "Don’t forget to stay down."
"I won’t," he promised. "See you at the bottom."
As Alex watched, Liz turned and started down the steep back slope of the cliff. It wasn’t an obvious exit, and she was counting on that fact to dissuade any of their assailants from keeping watch over the route. However, as she began her descent, she was conscious of the fact that her bright red tank top made her an easy target against the light-colored stone should anyone look in her direction. By the time she reached the end of the incline, her knees were wobbly and a light sheen of sweat covered her body. She whispered a small prayer of thanks as she sank down behind the coarse, dry brush.
Once Alex lost sight of Liz around the far side of the chamber, he ducked down and headed after Tess and Isabel. Tess had passed Isabel, moving away from the side of the cliff, and the two of them were sending a constant barrage of fire power toward a small outcropping of rocks, all of their attention seemingly focused on the one spot. Alex watched, mesmerized, as the rocks grew smaller and smaller until they disintegrated completely. However, no one was hiding behind them.
Startled, Isabel looked toward Tess. In that instant, a light-haired man rose from the ground where he had flattened himself behind another group of rocks. Seeing the laser in his hand, Alex launched himself at Isabel, knocking her flat as a flash of fire zipped through the air where her head had been. Tess quickly set off a number of blasts, and the man collapsed, tumbling down the incline to the bottom of the hill.
"Thanks," Isabel said swiftly, squeezing Alex’s hand even as she rolled back onto her feet.
"You okay?" Tess asked, shifting a little closer, but not looking toward them.
"Yeah," Isabel said. "Nice shot."
"Do you see any more?" Alex asked, scanning the area.
"No, but that doesn’t mean anything," Tess said. "That’s only two between him and the one Max hit. There must be more than that."
While they continued to creep down the path, Liz worked her way around the base of the cliff. She soon spotted Max, half-way down the incline, his movements so slow they were barely detectable. His eyes were trained upwards and, even from where she stood, Liz could sense his fierce concentration. A spark of light caught her attention and she strained to see where it had come from, but between the angle and the strong sun reflecting off the sandy surface, it was difficult to tell. Suddenly there was another flash of light, this one accompanied by abrupt movement. All at once she could see the man lying in the grass, his weapon aimed directly at Max several yards above him.
As Liz raised her arms, steadying her shooting arm with her other hand, she knew she wasn’t going to be fast enough. "Max! Behind you!" she shouted, though her eyes never left the man with the laser gun.
Max spun swiftly at the sound of Liz’s voice, even as he saw a brilliant flash and heard the echoing report of a gun being fired. He felt a quick, searing pain in his right leg as he blinked hard, trying to bring his vision back into focus. As soon as his eyes were clear, he saw a man at the foot of the hill, clutching at his shoulder. Without hesitation, he sent a pulse of energy spinning through the air, knocking the man onto his back. Wincing, Max eased himself onto his side, only to discover a six inch burn down his right thigh. A part of him acknowledged that, had he not moved when he did, he would have been dead. Even so, the pain in his leg was intense. Ordering himself to ignore it, he clenched his teeth and began to move slowly down through the brush toward flatter ground.
Liz crept through the grass toward Max, not wanting to call out again and bring attention to her position. "Max," she said softly, when there were only a few feet between them. "Max, are you all right?"
Max stopped moving and allowed himself to lie flat on his back. "Yeah. Flesh wound," he managed. "Where did you come from?"
"Down the back way," she told him. Inching closer, she reached out and grabbed his hand. "I saw that guy taking aim for you and my heart just stopped."
"Did you shoot him?" Max asked. "I thought I heard a gun go off."
"I only got him in the shoulder," she said. "You’re the one who blasted him to kingdom come," she added with a smile. She knew she should be horrified by what she was saying, yet felt strangely pleased with herself.
"Liz, if you hadn’t yelled when you did…."
"But I did," she said. "That’s all that matters." She paused. "Max, does it seem really quiet all of a sudden?"
He listened. "The firing stopped."
"Does that mean we got them all?"
"I hope so." Max rolled over, stifling a moan, then pushed himself up on one elbow. He scanned the area, but saw no one. "Iz?" he called tentatively.
"Max?" came the reply. "You all right?"
"Yeah," he said. "Liz is with me. Can you see Tess or Alex?"
"We’re here, too, Max," Alex called.
"Maxwell, where the hell are you?"
Max looked toward Liz, eyebrows raised. "Michael?"
"You were expecting someone else, maybe? Listen, Maria and I just took out the big lug who was guarding the car. Anything else we can do for you?"
Max smiled. "Give me a hand," he said to Liz. Using her for support, he pulled himself slowly to his feet.
Everyone converged at the foot of the hill. Maria grabbed Liz into a tight hug, while Michael punched Max lightly in the arm, his eyes lingering on his friend’s injury.
"Max," Isabel said, looking pointedly at his leg. "Is that your idea of being fine?"
Max stared at the body of one of their enemies, lying just a few feet away. "Yeah," he said. "It is. Compared to that," he added, meeting his sister’s gaze.
Isabel’s eyes softened. "You planning on healing it?"
"In a minute." He turned back to Michael. "So, how’d it go with Mrs. DeLuca?" he asked, one eyebrow raised.
Michael shook his head. "You didn’t really think you could get rid of me that easily, did you?"
"Sheriff Valenti is hanging out with my mom this morning," Maria said, smirking at Michael.
Max laughed. "I should have known." Sobering, he looked Michael in the eye. "I admit, I’ve never been so glad to have you not listen to me," he told him.
Michael smiled, then glanced toward Maria. "Yeah. I know what you mean. Looks like we’ve all got to trust each other a little more, doesn’t it."
"Max, please fix that," Isabel said, still eyeing his wound. "It looks awful."
"All right," he said, smiling almost indulgently, as if his leg didn’t feel like it was on fire. Leaning over slightly, he placed his palm over his thigh and closed his eyes. A moment later the only sign of the injury was the long rip in his jeans. "Better?" he asked his sister.
"How about you?" Max asked, turning to Tess.
"I feel okay," she said softly. "Just a little tired."
Michael frowned at Tess. "So, what exactly happened? What did we miss?"
"Long story," Isabel said.
"Saga," Alex chimed in.
"We’ll catch you up on the way home," Max told Michael, who was beginning to look vaguely irritated. "Why don’t we all head back and get cleaned up, then meet for a late lunch at the Crashdown?"
"Uh, Max, small problem," Michael said, cocking his mouth to one side.
"What do you mean?"
"The Jeep. It’s kind of gone."
"You mean someone took it?" Isabel asked.
"Not exactly," Maria offered. "Burned to a crisp."
"What?" Max bit out.
"I’m surprised you didn’t hear the explosion," Michael said. "You must have still been in the chamber."
"Great. Mom and Dad are gonna love this one," Isabel groaned.
Max let out a long sigh. "Frankly, that’s the least of our worries," he said. He looked over the minor destruction their battle had caused. "We need to do something with these bodies," he said.
"Why don’t we just stick them in the Jeep?" Alex asked. "You can say it was stolen and everyone will assume these idiots were the thieves."
"Car-jacked?" Max asked.
Michael started to laugh. "Figures."
"Actually, it’s not a bad idea," Max admitted. "We just have to set fire to the Jeep again once the bodies are inside so that everything looks consistent."
"I cannot believe we are actually having this conversation," Isabel said.
"Whereas shooting balls of fire at a bunch of enemy aliens is your usual Sunday morning activity?" Alex asked with a grin, ducking when Isabel tried to hit him.
Max looked around suddenly, realizing Liz had separated from the group. She was standing at a short distance, staring off at the horizon. Frowning, he pulled Michael over. "Can you guys take care of this? I’ll be right back."
Catching sight of Liz, Michael nodded. "No sweat. We’ll wait for you guys by the car."
"Thanks." While Michael rounded the others up and started dispensing chores, Max walked over to Liz.
"Hey, you all right?" he asked, slipping his arms around her waist from behind, relieved when she relaxed automatically against him.
"I’m fine. Just thinking."
"All of this," she said. "It’s so much more real now, you know? Your destiny."
"I hate that word," he said, tightening his grip on her.
"You shouldn’t. It’s like Michael said that day you all found out. You have something important to do, Max."
Max turned her around to face him and looked into her eyes. "None of this changes how I feel about you," he said.
"I know that. But I can’t help but think about it. Not after something like this."
"You mean us killing people," he said slowly. "Or, if not people, killing our… enemies. Hell, I don’t even know what to call them," he muttered. Sighing, he rested his forehead against hers. "Are you sure you’re all right? I mean, after shooting at…"
"Max, that’s not it. It’s funny, because I would have thought it would bother me. But it doesn’t. No more than when Michael killed Pierce. I’m not feeling guilty or like a monster or anything like that," she said quietly.
"So what is it then? I know it’s something," he pressed. "I can feel it."
"I guess I’m wondering what the big picture is," she said after a moment. "I mean, today we just had to wait a few minutes to realize there was no one left trying to kill us. But how many more are out there? How do we know when it ends?"
"I’m not sure. I don’t really have any more answers than you do, Liz."
"I know. But just because we don’t have the answers, doesn’t mean I can stop asking the questions."
"So, what other questions do you have?" he asked.
Liz paused. Pulling back, she cupped his cheek with her hand, a half-smile gracing her face. "What happens when there are no more enemies to fight on earth, Max? What happens when it’s time for you to go home?"
"Liz, we don’t know where home is. Or how to get there. That’s not anything we’re going to have to face anytime soon."
"You don’t know that. Things have been happening so fast the past few weeks. You’ve learned so much. One of these days, you’ll walk out the door and the answers to your questions will be waiting for you." Liz wrapped her arms around him and pressed her cheek against his chest. "I want you to know that I am so proud of you. Of everything you’re doing and how you’ve just accepted all of these responsibilities. You didn’t ask for any of this, and yet you just shoulder it all and go on."
Max gently pulled her away and looked into her eyes. "What are you saying, Liz?"
"That I love you. And I want you to know that I’ll be all right when you have to go home one day – when you have to save your planet. I guess it didn’t seem real until I saw you today, taking charge, protecting the rest of us, dealing with everything you had to deal with and not backing down. You’ll be going home one day in the not-so-distant future. Because it really is your destiny. It’s what you were meant to do." Standing on her toes, she gave him a swift, hard kiss.
Max held onto her when she tried to pull back. "Liz," he breathed, tugging her into the circle of his arms. "I don’t know where all of this ends, or even what we have to face tomorrow. It’s true that one day we may have to go back to our planet to rescue our people. I don’t know how, but we may find a way. But one thing I do know, to the very depths of my soul. When I’m with you, I am home." Looking into the soft brown depths of her eyes, he smiled. "Liz Parker, I am bound to you as surely as I breathe. And no matter where I go, or what responsibilities I have to meet, I will always come back to you. I’ll find a way. I swear."
"Oh, Max," she whispered, tears in her eyes. She blinked, sending them coursing down her cheeks. "I love you so much."
"I love you too," he whispered against her hair, hugging her close.
They stood there for a moment, the sun beating down on them, their hearts beating in unison. Then Max loosened his hold and pulled back, running his hand over her ponytail, smoothing it gently. "What do you say to getting out of here?" he asked.
"I say it’s a very good idea," she replied.
Max took her hand and they slowly walked toward where the others were watching the Jeep burn for a second time.
"Hey," Michael said when he saw them approach. His eyes dropped to Liz. "Everything all right?"
"Everything’s great," she said with a small smile.
Maria shot her best friend a curious look. "You’re gonna have to lend me your dictionary on this one, Lizzie. You have a strange definition of great."
"Come on, Maria," Liz teased. "Where’s your spirit? We just won our first battle and we’re all of us still standing. What more could you possibly ask for?"
His eyes on the blazing Jeep, Alex grinned. "Marshmallows?"
All seven of them dissolved in a fit of strained laughter.
Continued in Be It Ever So Humble...
Edited by - EmilyluvsRoswell on 09/17/2001 11:00:28