posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:34:31 PM

Be It Ever So Humble…
by EmilyluvsRoswell

Disclaimer: Don't own the characters or the concepts; just borrowing them! If Jason Katims wants to pay me to do this, I'd be more than happy to oblige him, but meanwhile this is just for fun.
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 notes: This is the sixth story 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", "The Home Advantage", and "Home Bound", prior to reading this, or it won't make much sense. Also, as this title is the only one in the series not to include the words "home" or "house", I would like to mention that it is actually part of a phrase from an old song (my age is showing) - "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home". The second half of the phrase will be the title of the seventh and final story in this series.

* * * * *

Isabel Evans suddenly felt very tired. Sitting in the back seat of the unfamiliar car, she stared out the window as the forward motion of the vehicle combined with the noonday heat to lull her into a state of semi-consciousness. Her thoughts flowed where they wanted, taking strange and often unconnected turns. She brushed restlessly at her hair, wishing the strands surrounding her face were longer so they would stay tucked into her pony tail. She took shallow breaths through her mouth in an attempt to avoid the scent of burning metal and something else she'd rather not think about that still lingered in her nostrils though they were miles from the pod chamber. She realized she missed riding in the Jeep, missed the wind in her face and the sensation that, roaring down the highway, all she need do was reach out and touch the world and it would be hers if only for that one brief moment in time.

Facing forward, she focused on Max. She could see his reflection in the rearview mirror as he drove, see the fatigue he wore like a mask. His eyes were shadowed, heavy. She imagined he would like nothing better than to sleep for a week - and wondered when the last time was that he had even slept through an entire night. Yet here he was, driving them back to Roswell, his mind no doubt clicking three steps ahead to come up with a believable story for their parents. A reasonable lie to explain away the Jeep, and the sudden appearance of a large black Buick.

Even she found it hard to comprehend. She had understood the need to search the car, to determine if their enemies had left anything behind that might help locate others, that might provide them with answers. They had turned the car upside down, going through the trunk and the glove compartment, even padding down the carpeting in case something was hidden beneath it. It had proved a futile search, turning up nothing more than a few gray dust bunnies and a torn chewing gum wrapper. But then Max had suggested they drive the car home in lieu of the Jeep and no one had thought to disagree. So here they were, Max and Liz up front, while she stretched out in the back. Given a second chance, she would have preferred to squeeze the seven of them into the Jetta.

Max yawned broadly, drawing her attention once more. If anything, the weary look on his face seemed even more pronounced than a moment earlier, and there was something else now, as well. A haunted look glimmered in his eyes, as if the lack of sleep had interfered with his ability to maintain the façade, to appear to be in perfect control. She could see, if only for a split second, the stress that was wearing at his soul. Of course, he had been plagued by nightmares repeatedly the previous night - not exactly the ideal preparation for going into battle, she thought wryly. Was that what she saw reflected in his eyes? A glimpse of the evils that pursued him as he slept? Or was he reacting to the real live demons they now fought by day? What was he thinking about?

A slight smile suddenly graced Max's lips, and he glanced over to where Liz slept, curled in the seat beside him. Whatever he had been thinking of before, it was blatantly obvious what was on his mind now. The abrupt change from brooding leader to love-struck boyfriend was too much, and Isabel felt something inside of her snap.

"Max, what's wrong with us?" she asked, startling him from his reverie.

"What do you mean?" he asked, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb Liz. He caught Isabel's eye in the rearview mirror. "Iz?" he prompted, when she seemed unwilling to continue.

He looked worried about her. "I don't know," she admitted, feeling the fight drain out of her as swiftly as it had surfaced. "I feel so ….off. Like the pieces of a puzzle that don't fit together." She let out a long sigh, pushing her hair off her forehead in a restless gesture. "While we were fighting, I didn't have time to think. And in a way I didn't need to. Everything felt natural, like it was something I had done a million times before in…"

"Another life," he finished for her. "I know. I felt the same way."

"But then it was over. We'd won."

"That was the idea, Iz," he reminded her gently. "If we hadn't won, we'd be dead right now."

"I realize that, Max. And I'm not trying to sound like Michael did after he killed Pierce. I don't think this makes us evil or killers. I just wish I understood why I felt so strange all of a sudden. Why things that didn't bother me before are starting to nag at me."

"Like what?"

Isabel shrugged. "How we reacted afterwards. Liz saying she was great. Alex's crack about the marshmallows. It all seems… morbid. We were too… cavalier about it. Max, we had just taken four lives," she said. "I know it was kill or be killed, but that was no reason to be…"

"Relieved?" Max asked. "Isabel, I understand how it could look like we were making tasteless jokes in the face of a serious situation, but it's not that simple. We were grateful to be alive. And probably, to some extent, in a state of shock. Now we're coming down off of this immense adrenaline high. It's only natural that things are going to start to sink in."

"Is that how you feel?"

Max frowned. "Right now I'm trying hard to stay awake long enough to drive this boat back to town," he admitted. "I'm just glad we're all okay."

"You're thinking about what to say to Mom and Dad, aren't you?"

He nodded. "It isn't just a matter of the Jeep, Iz. Or just our parents. Things are getting complicated. I thought before that we would be the only ones in danger. Bad enough we've dragged Liz, Maria, and Alex into this. But we don't know anymore about who we're up against than we knew a day ago. How many are there? How much do they know about us? What lengths are they willing to go to in order to get what they want?"

"What about the key Tess was talking about?"

"I don't know," he said. "I wish I did. Just like I wish we knew if any of those flashes I got were real. More questions," he said, his frustration clear. "Every time we turn around, we just have more questions and no new answers."

"You're not being fair, Max. Think of how much more we know than we did a year ago," she reminded him.

"Yeah," he mused. He looked up and met her eyes in the mirror again. "Are you sorry?" he asked quietly. "I mean, if you could go back and undo it all, would you?"

Isabel looked thoughtful. "You know, if you had asked me that question six months ago, I think I would have gone back to knowing nothing," she admitted slowly. "But not anymore. I know that sounds crazy, given how much danger we're all in now, but I'd rather be where we are now than back there."

"Why?"

Isabel dropped her eyes. "A year ago I didn't know what it was like to have real friends. It was just the three of us." She paused. "A year ago I never would have looked twice at Alex," she concluded softly.

Max smiled. "You've changed a lot, Iz," he said.

"You too," she replied, her gaze shifting to Liz. "And let's not forget Michael," she added with a smile.

"It's been good for us, hasn't it?" he asked.

"Remember that day you told me we were stuck?" she asked.

"Yeah?"

Isabel smiled. "I don't think we're stuck anymore," she said.

"Me neither," Max agreed.

* * * * *

Tess was only half listening to Alex. He was telling Michael and Maria about Max's flashes and how they had discovered Tess in the pod chamber. She had already told her part of the story, recounting the morning's events, describing how their enemies had come after her, and how she had fled. Maybe she should have been helping Alex - explaining how they figured out that at least some of the images Max had gotten through the flashes had been false, planted for him to stumble over as a kind of trap. But it was too hard to focus on what he was saying right now, and it didn't really matter that much anyway. If Alex forgot to mention something, Max and Isabel would fill in the details later.

What she really wanted at that moment was to stop thinking, to stop seeing, and more than anything else, to stop feeling. She never knew it was possible to feel so much, until you thought the emotions would take control and burst from you like a geyser. She tried shutting her eyes, but that only made it worse. With her eyes closed the images flowed freely - flash after flash of Max and Liz together, bodies arching, limbs intertwined, hearts pounding in perfect unison - everything she had felt come pouring out of Max when he had tried to heal her began to fast forward through her mind like a film spinning loose from its reel. The fact that Max never meant for her to see, that he never led her to believe things would be any different between them, didn't really help. To see them that way, to know beyond any doubt that they were truly in love, that they had given themselves to each other - it had left her feeling as if someone had dropped her from a great height. And she was still falling.

The irony, she realized, was that she was not jealous. At least not in the traditional sense. It had been perhaps the biggest shock when she had finally begun to absorb what had happened, to discover that what Max had been telling her all along was true. She wasn't in love with Max Evans. Perhaps she never had been. Oh, she had been in love with the idea of him - her husband, the leader. She had clung to the fact that there was a place for her by his side. It was love for the fairy tale, love for the triumphant happy ending. But those emotions were false - ghosts from a past she had heard about in bedtime stories, but could remember only in the farthest reaches of her dreams.

Had she known from the beginning? Known that it would come to this? Despite ten years of Nasedo's assurances, had she suspected from the start that Max would never belong to her? She thought maybe she had. Something in her heart had whispered to her the first time she saw him - standing in the kitchen, giving Michael tips on wooing - that this man was untouchable, for the simple reason that his heart had already been claimed. And that was why she avoided approaching him directly for so long, taking the more circuitous route of befriending Isabel, who longed for a girl friend, and Michael, who ached for answers. In Max, she had seen the greatest challenge, because Max had always only wanted Liz - and he already had her. No amount of mind games or promises of truths revealed would ever sway him from that stance.

And perhaps he was right. Tess knew Liz had saved Max's life today, that Maria had saved Michael. She had seen what Alex did for Isabel. Her last objection - that the humans were a liability to them - had just been blown to pieces. Maybe destiny had been altered when they traveled through time and space. Perhaps these new relationships were meant.

But where did that leave her? Ten years of not belonging, ten years on the run, and every moment made bearable only by the knowledge that her family was out there waiting for her to find them. The thought of Max, Michael, and Isabel had been all that kept her going when she was tired and scared and lonely. But she was an outsider. They each had their place in the group, alien and human both. Except for her. She was the intruder, the one trying to upset the balance. Yet she had no where else to go. That was what overwhelmed her now - the hopelessness of the situation. She was completely and utterly alone. In all of the universe, there were only three other beings like herself - and still she was not one of them. No matter how kind Max was, or how hard Isabel worked to make here feel included, she would always be an afterthought, a step apart.

"What do you think, Tess?"

She started, looking up. Only when she noticed Maria and Alex's curious looks and saw Michael's concerned eyes reflected in the rearview mirror, did she realize someone had been speaking to her. "What?" she asked.

Michael frowned slightly. "We're going to swing past your place first. I know it's a mess, but we'll all come in with you while you pack some things. You can't stay there any more. After you've got what you need, we'll go to Alex's. Maria's is last, since she's closest to the Crashdown. With any luck, her mom will still be out with Valenti."

Tess nodded absently. "That's fine."

Michael's frown deepened and he looked to Maria, who merely shrugged.

Alex watched the exchanged, and also noted that Tess still appeared oblivious to the conversation. "Uh, not to cause any problems here, but if she's not staying at her house, where is she staying?" he asked pointedly.

Michael seemed to hesitate before coming to a decision. "She can stay at my place."

Maria's eyebrows shot up. "Really? You think so, do you?"

He rolled his eyes. "Where else would you suggest? You think your mom is gonna be in the mood to accept house guests after she gets through with us? And Max and Isabel's is out."

"Don't worry about it," Tess said suddenly. "I'll just stay where I am. I don't think they'll be coming back for me again," she added. "They'll try something else next time."

Maria tilted her head. "She has a point."

Michael glared at Maria. "Regardless, you're not staying by yourself," he told Tess firmly. "Either you stay with me or we ask Valenti to put you up for the next week."

Again Maria's brows danced upward. "You seem awfully buddy-buddy with the Sheriff these days, Spaceboy. Did I miss something?"

"Let's just say I've begun to appreciate his finer qualities," Michael muttered. Pleased that there appeared to be no further argument, he pulled the Jetta into Tess's driveway and parked behind her car. "All right. Everybody out."

* * * * *

Max parked the Buick around the corner from the house, well out of sight. "No point inviting trouble," he said when Isabel looked at him questioningly. Turning to Liz, he laid a gentle hand on her knee, stroking lightly. He hated to wake her up when she was so clearly exhausted, but there was no way he was leaving her in the car alone. "Liz," he said in a low voice. "Come on. We're here."

She woke abruptly, sitting straight with a start. Her eyes were glazed over and filled with apprehension. Blinking, she looked from Max to Isabel, clearly disoriented.

"Hey, you okay? Liz?" He reached out and brushed her hair from her face, his fingers soothing.

"What? Yeah. Sorry," she said slowly, shaking her head briefly. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she managed a small smile. "Bad dream, I guess."

Max frowned. "You want to talk about it?"

Liz shook her head. "It was nothing," she assured him. "Just, uh… you know. Being chased by evil aliens," she mumbled, concentrating on her hands which were twisted in her lap. A slight flush came over her face and she looked up. "I'm fine."

Max covered her hands with one of his and gave a light squeeze. "You're sure?"

Liz nodded. "I'm sure."

"We should get going," Isabel said.

They all climbed from the car. Max reached out and took Liz's knapsack from her hands, despite her protests. "I'll carry it," he said firmly, slipping it over one shoulder. He nodded toward Isabel. "Let's go."

The walk was both brief and silent, each of them trapped in their own thoughts. When they reached the house, Max automatically opened the front door and headed inside, despite Isabel's restraining hand on his arm.

"Max," she whispered urgently.

He turned to her as he stepped into the hallway, one eyebrow arched. "What?"

"Kids? Is that you?" Diane Evans's voice floated in from the living room.

Isabel rolled her eyes, as if to say, "That." Max's feet faltered as he took in Isabel and Liz's disheveled appearances and realized his own was probably not much better.

"Yeah, Mom," he called reluctantly.

Isabel closed the door, then turned toward Max and Liz, hand outstretched. At the last moment, she dropped her palm onto Max's shoulder and began dusting him off, ignoring his confused expression.

"I thought I heard you," Diane said, causing Max to jump and spin around. She was standing a foot behind him.

"You, uh, heard right," he said. The worried look that transformed his mother's face sent his heart plummeting into his stomach.

"Oh my God," Diane said, her brow furrowing with concern. Her gaze traveled over Max, then Isabel, and on to Liz. "What have you been doing? The three of you look like you just walked ten miles through the desert. Are you all right?"

"We're fine, Mom," Isabel assured her quickly, plastering on a sunny smile. "We just came home to wash up. We're meeting everybody at the Crashdown for lunch."

"How are you, Mrs. Evans?" Liz asked, mimicking Isabel's upbeat tone.

"I'm fine, thank you, Liz," Diane replied, sounding vaguely distracted. She was already shifting her attention back to Max. "Honey, can I talk to you for a moment? I'm sure Isabel wouldn't mind entertaining Liz for a bit." She smiled warmly, some of her tension seeming to dissipate.

"Um, yeah. Sure, Mom." He nodded to the others, thankful that his mother wasn't pressing them regarding the morning's activities. "I'll catch up with you guys in a minute."

Isabel met his eyes, panic shining in her own. "Okay," she said uneasily. "Come on, Liz."

Liz turned questioningly to Max, who nodded again. "Here," he said, easing her bag off his shoulder. "Your stuff." Seeing her hesitate, he took her hand and folded it around the strap of her knapsack. "I'll be right there," he whispered.

"Thanks," she said softly. With an encouraging smile, she headed down the hall after Isabel.

Max watched her go, feeling a very slight tug at his heart when she disappeared around the corner. Then he took a deep breath and followed his mother into the living room. The moment he saw his father sitting stiffly on the couch, obviously waiting for them, he realized he had made a grave error in allowing Isabel and Liz to leave him alone. He had just walked into his second ambush of the day - the only difference being that he hadn't really seen this one coming. Oh - he had known that eventually his parents were going to start asking questions again. It wasn't just the nightmares. He could hardly keep coming and going at all hours the way he had been and not arouse their suspicions. Plus, there was the little matter of the Jeep to contend with, since no amount of alien voodoo was going to bring it back from that great junkyard in the sky. He just hadn't expected the confrontation to come quite so soon. Feeling cornered, he continued into the room and sat down opposite his parents, knowing his only option was to hold his ground.

"Hey, Dad," he said.

"Max," Philip replied. His eyes roamed over his son, clearly taking note of his ripped jeans and generally soiled appearance.

Max shifted uncomfortably under his father's assessing gaze. "So. What's up?" He watched as his parents exchanged a worried look, and relaxed slightly. Worried was definitely preferable to angry, and he had to admit to himself that angry had been a distinct possibility.

"Max, your mother and I are concerned about you. You've told us repeatedly that you're fine - that you can handle whatever is happening on your own - but frankly, we just don't see it. Things are escalating and we think that you need our help."

"Dad, I am fine," Max said. "Honestly."

"Max, honey, you aren't," Diane said softly. "You're coming apart before our eyes. Do you really think we don't know what's been going on? That we can't see what's happening to you?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, his guard sliding securely back into place. Something in his mother's voice made him nervous. She sounded too sure of herself, too aware. What did they know?

"It's become obvious that your nightmares aren't getting any better," his father spoke up. "And it's more than that. Max, you've changed. You've withdrawn from the family. You're hardly ever home and when you are you just retreat to your room. Something is clearly on your mind, and you refuse to discuss it."

"Dad, my nightmares are getting better," Max insisted. "I hardly ever have them anymore. And I'm sorry I haven't been home, but that doesn't mean I'm withdrawn. I've had school, work..."

"Max, let your father finish."

Biting back a retort, Max nodded.

"Max, you don't talk to us anymore. You've become…" Philip let out a weary sigh. "You're secretive, for want of a better word."

"Secretive," Max repeated, trying not to laugh at the irony.

"I know I promised we wouldn't push," Diane said, sounding apologetic. "But I can't anymore. I can't sit back and watch what you're doing to yourself, Max. I'm your mother, and I love you."

"I know, Mom," Max said quietly. "I love you, too."

Diane met his steady gaze, but she looked sad, regretful.

"You've always been responsible, Max," Philip continued. "Mature. Sometimes that can blind us to the fact that you still need us. I know you think you're dealing with everything. That it's enough for you to turn to your sister and Liz and Michael for help. Don't say you don't," Philip said swiftly when Max started to interrupt. "We've seen how they all close ranks to protect you. But you need more support than they can give you right now," he said, obviously fighting his growing agitation. He took a steadying breath. "Max, we don't want you to think we're angry at you, because we aren't. What we are is worried. And you have to understand that, at a certain point, as your parents, it is our responsibility to intervene in a situation we perceive to be spiraling out of control."

"What exactly are you trying to say?" Max asked.

"Honey, we think that you should start seeing a psychiatrist," his mother said. "You need to talk to someone - someone other than your friends - and since you won't tell us what's wrong…" She trailed off, her anxious eyes pinned on Max.

"A psychiatrist," Max said. He shook his head and stood. That was the last thing he had expected. He had anticipated their shouting, pleading with him to open up. Grounding him for his own good. A dozen scenarios had crossed his mind, but therapy had not been one of them. Pacing to the front window, he stood quietly, staring out at the street.

"Max, you can't keep bottling things up the way you have been," his father said. "Whatever you're hiding, whatever you're not facing, it's eating away at you."

"And you think seeing a shrink is going to help?" Max asked, turning to face his parents. "I won't tell you what you want to know, but you think I'm going to pour my soul out to a perfect stranger?" His voice rose despite his best efforts.

"Haven't you already?" Diane asked.

Max looked at his mother, surprised at the underlying bitterness in her tone. "What?"

"Your father and I went to the Crashdown for breakfast this morning," she replied. "Funny. Jeff Parker was quite surprised to see us. Seems someone told him we were out of town for the weekend."

Sinking back down into his chair, Max sighed. Things were starting to fall into place. "What did Mr. Parker say?"

"He told us what happened, Max. Your nightmare. How it took Liz, Michael, and Maria to wake you up. What Liz told him about the car-jacking." Philip sounded stern, but Max could sense the fear beneath his father's words. And the disappointment. "Max, why didn't you just come to us? Jeff said you asked him specifically not to tell us, that you didn't want us to worry, but…"

"That's not it," Max said, abruptly.

"Then what is it?" his mother asked, her voice filled with emotion and a hint of impatience. "Tell us, please. Why can't you talk to us? Do you have any idea how it felt to hear what happened from someone else? Honey, we're your parents. It's our job to protect you. Is it so hard for you to trust us?"

"Stop, all right, Mom? Please. Just. Stop." Max pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, suddenly feeling as if the walls were closing in on him. His mother's words were ringing in his ears - our job to protect you - over and over. They couldn't protect him. Not any more. And in trying to, they might just get him - or themselves - killed. Or worse. He rubbed his hands once more over his face, then looked up, resigned.

"There was no car-jacking," he said quietly.

"Fine. Attempted car-jacking," his father said brusquely. "Let's not argue over the technicalities, Max. The point is…"

"No," Max broke in. "I mean, there was no car-jacking incident of any kind. Attempted, successful, failed, whatever. It didn't happen."

Philip and Diane looked at each other, clearly confused. Diane turned blank eyes toward her son. "But Max, Liz told her father… Jeff said…"

"I know what Liz told her father. I know what he said. But I'm telling you it isn't true," Max said, trying to keep his voice calm.

"Why would Liz lie to her father about something like this?" Philip asked.

Max shook his head. "Don't blame Liz, all right? It was my fault. I put her in a bad position. I had a nightmare out on her roof and woke her parents up with my screaming. Mr. Parker wanted answers, so Liz told him the first thing that popped into her head. She was just trying to protect me."

"Protect you from what? Jeff Parker's not the only one who wants answers, Max," his father said. "You're not making sense."

"I know, Dad," Max said. He stood up. "I think I'd better go get Isabel and Liz."

"Don't go dragging them into this, Max," Diane said. "This is about you and these nightmares, and your inability to tell us what is going on."

Max shook his head. "No, Mom. It's about a lot more than that. I'll be right back, okay?"

Diane looked to Philip, who sighed and shook his head. And Max realized his mother was worried he wouldn't really come back. That he would bolt through the nearest window rather than actually tell them the truth. "Mom. I'll just be a minute," he said gently.

Slowly, she nodded. "All right," she agreed. "We'll be waiting."

*****

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:39:06 PM

Part 2

*******

Isabel and Liz were sitting on Isabel's bed, worrying, when Max knocked quietly on the door and went inside.

"Max, what's going on?" Isabel asked, jumping to her feet.

Liz took one look at Max's grim expression and went to him. She wrapped her arms around his waist and held him as he shuddered. "It's going to be all right," she soothed. "Just tell us what happened."

Max allowed himself to pull Liz a little closer, taking comfort in her familiar warmth and softness. He dropped a kiss on her forehead, then pulled away. "They had breakfast at the Crashdown," he said.

Liz closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again there were tears just forming in the corners. "I'm going to kill my father," she breathed.

"No, Liz. It's not his fault. And it's not yours, either," he continued quickly when he saw the flicker in her eyes. He reached out and stroked her cheek.

"So, what did Mr. Parker say to them?" Isabel asked hesitantly.

"Well, I guess he wasn't too pleased to realize he'd been lied to," Max said. "He thought Mom and Dad were away for the weekend, so…"

"He told them everything, didn't he?" Liz groaned, sinking back down onto the bed.

Max nodded. "Pretty much. About my nightmare and the whole car-jacking story."

"What did you say?" Isabel asked.

"Hold on. There's more," Max told her, dropping down onto the bed next to Liz. "Mom and Dad think I need to see a psychiatrist. Since I clearly need help and I won't talk to them."

Liz's brow wrinkled in confusion. "If you won't talk to them, why would you talk to a therapist?"

"My point exactly," Max said.

"They won't make you go through with it," Isabel said, though she sounded less than confidant. "They're just feeling hurt, that's all, because you have a problem and you won't let them help. We'll talk them out of it."

"Well, I'm actually not so sure about that. By the time I'm done, they may have me committed instead," he finished under his breath. Max rubbed his hands nervously over his face. "I've been thinking, Iz. Mom was going on about how it's their job to protect us, but…"

Isabel's eyes narrowed. "But what, Max? You think they're the ones in danger now, don't you? That our enemies might try to use them to get to us."

"Possibly."

"So, what? Are you asking what I think you're asking?"

"Do you still think we should tell them?" Max said. "It's not just a question of guarding our own safety anymore. I'm worried what might happen if they don't know what's at stake. And…" He let out a long sigh. "We can't keep expending all of this energy worrying how to keep them from learning the truth. We have too many other things to think about. There's something ridiculous about waging a war within the confines of a curfew," he muttered.

"You already know how I feel," Isabel said quietly.

Max nodded. "Yeah, I guess I do." He took one of Liz's hands and cupped it between the two of his, marveling at how small her fingers were.

"What about Michael?" Isabel asked.

"I don't think we should say anything about him yet. Not without asking him. I've already done that once, and I won't go against his wishes again."

Liz squeezed Max's hand, knowing she was the time to which he referred. "I know Michael has a thing about adults being the enemy," she said slowly, "but I think he feels differently since the Sheriff proved to be trustworthy, Max."

"This isn't the same," Max said.

"You're right," Liz told him. "They're your parents, Max. They love you." When he looked into her eyes, she smiled. "It's going to be all right."

Max threaded his fingers through Liz's and stood, pulling her up after him. "I hope you're right." He shot his sister a look. "Coming?"

"What? You mean now?"

He nodded. "I told them that I would only be gone a minute," he said. "As it is, they probably think I'm half-way to Mexico by now."

"Maybe I should leave," Liz said quietly. "I mean…" she trailed off as she met Max's steady gaze.

"Why?" he asked.

"This is a family thing, Max," she said softly.

"I know," he said. "Which is why I need you there."

Isabel watched the exchange in silence, feeling for an instant as if she was intruding. Then Max turned and smiled at her, and the warmth in his eyes made her feel included again.

"Let's go," he said, reaching out and opening the door.

*****

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:40:32 PM

Part 3

********

Diane and Philip were standing side-by-side, heads bowed toward each other in quiet discussion, when Max, Liz, and Isabel entered the room. Seeing his parents so obviously distressed, Max wondered if he had made the right decision. Only the warmth of Liz's fingers still twined in his, and the comforting feel of Isabel's hand on his arm urging him forward, enabled him to keep his resolve. He had to remember that this was for their own good. No matter what their reaction to learning the truth, no matter how it changed their feelings toward him and Isabel, his parents would be safer once they knew.

Max cleared his throat, causing Philip and Diane to look up, startled. "Hey," he said quietly.

Diane's expression was a cross between relief and apprehension. "Kids," she said softly. "Why don't we all sit down?" Her gaze flickered to Isabel and then to Liz, observing the way they flanked Max protectively. "Why don't you three take the couch?" she offered. Taking her husband by the arm, she pushed him toward an overstuffed chair and took a seat on the accompanying ottoman.

Max felt Liz give his hand a reassuring squeeze. He sank down on the couch, pulling her down beside him, then glanced at Isabel, who sat on his other side. He took a deep breath. Staring at his mother and father, seeing the expectant look in their eyes, he was suddenly at a loss as to where to begin. So much had happened since he and Liz had had this conversation. There was so much more they knew about themselves, so much more to tell, it seemed an insurmountable task. He could feel everyone's eyes on him, waiting for him to explain, but the words just wouldn't come.

"All right, Max," his father said. "I think we've been more than reasonable. Now I expect some answers."

Max shook his head slowly, his eyes focused on some unidentifiable spot in the air. "I… don't know where to start," he admitted.

"How about at the beginning?" Philip suggested, his patience obviously wearing thin.

Liz leaned closer to Max. "You can do it," she whispered. "Start with the shooting. That's when everything started to come out," she reminded him.

He met her gaze and nodded, then turned to Isabel. "Iz?" he asked softly.

"She's right," Isabel replied. "It's as good a place as any."

"Probably," Max agreed. He stood, suddenly restless, and began to pace the width of the room. He rubbed one hand over the back of his neck, turning the words over in his brain as he tried to choose the best approach.

"Max," his mother said gently. "It's all right. Just tell us."

He looked up and met her eyes. All he could see was her love and concern, shining back at him from their blue depths. "Okay," he said. He sighed heavily. "Remember last fall when there was that shooting at the Crashdown?"

Diane nodded slowly. "Yes. I do. There was some confusion, wasn't there? Some tourists insisted that one of the waitresses was injured." Her eyes shifted to Liz. "The Sheriff told me about it," she added.

"Right," Max said, following his mother's gaze, seeing Liz squirm almost imperceptibly. He wondered briefly just how much Valenti had mentioned. "These tourists. They claimed that Liz was shot."

Again Diane nodded, turning back to Max. "But, she wasn't."

Max held her gaze silently for a split second. "No, Mom. She was. Liz was shot in the stomach. She almost died," he said, his voice breaking slightly.

"What are you saying, Max? How can that be?" his father asked.

"I was in the café that day," he replied. For an instant he was there again, the sound of the shot ringing in his ears. He blinked, forcing himself to focus. "After Liz was hit," he said slowly, "I went up to her and I… healed her."

"Max…" Philip began, sitting forward on his chair.

"I broke a bottle of ketchup over her, to hide the blood on her uniform," Max continued, oblivious to his father's attempt to interrupt. "Told her to pretend she fell. Asked her not to say anything. And I… ran. When the Sheriff showed up to investigate, Liz covered for me."

"Max, what you're saying is crazy," his father said, clearly upset.

"Philip," Diane said softly, "I don't think he's finished." Her eyes were still trained on her son.

"Do you really think we need to hear any more?" Philip asked, his tone incredulous. "All this does is prove that we were right. Diane, I know you hate to face it, but clearly Max needs professional help." He looked to Liz and Isabel where they sat silently on the couch. "Liz, will you please say something? Tell us what really happened."

"That is what happened, Mr. Evans," Liz said quietly, her eyes serious. "Max isn't crazy. He's telling the truth."

Philip shook his head. "No. That's not possible."

"It is possible, Dad," Isabel told him. "Liz was shot and Max healed her."

"Philip, please," Diane said, reaching back to place her hand on his knee. Her eyes were pleading. "Be quiet."

Max listened to the exchange between his parents, his lips pressed tightly together. He hated causing so much tension, hated knowing it was only going to get worse. "Dad. Just hear me out, all right?"

His father looked up, his face grim. "Fine. Go ahead," he said, suddenly sounding incredibly tired.

"When I healed Liz, I took a big risk," he continued. He turned toward his sister. "Isabel and I always knew we were different, and that we needed to hide that fact. Growing up in Roswell, you realize pretty quickly that certain things are best kept secret," he said, a wry smile touching his lips. "We thought our lives depended on it, so we never told anyone the truth about ourselves. Until Liz," he said, looking to her, his eyes softening. "Once I healed her, she began asking questions, and I decided to trust her. So, I… told her."

"Told her what, Max?" Diane asked.

He turned back to his parents. "That Isabel and I aren't from around here," he replied, his eyes serious.

"Max, what exactly are you trying to say?" Philip asked. "Stop talking in circles."

Max sighed, feeling his parents' frustration. "All right. We aren't… human. We're from someplace else. We don't know where - we just know it's not earth."

Neither of his parents said a word. Max could see the shock clearly etched on his father's face. His mother seemed surprised, but less so, which he supposed was understandable. He had known for a while that she suspected something about him was different. She just never knew precisely what.

Max decided to use their silence to explain as much as he could. He knew the questions would start again soon. "When the ship crashed here in 1947, one or more of the aliens must have survived long enough to hide these incubation pods in a cave near the crash site. The night you discovered us by the side of the road, we hadn't been abandoned by our parents the way everyone assumed. We had just come out of those pods. That's why we couldn't speak right away. Why there were so many things that we didn't know. Essentially, we had just been born." He glanced toward Isabel, who smiled encouragingly. "As we grew older, we realized we had these… powers… that other kids - normal kids - didn't have. We could manipulate the molecular structure of things… change them. That's how I healed that bird's wing when I was little, Mom," he said gently. "And it's how I healed Liz."

Diane let out a long, shuddering breath. "But Max, why are you so sure that you're from another planet? Why couldn't you just have these… talents? Like having ESP?"

Isabel leaned forward and took her mother's hand. "Mom, it's more than being able to heal people. We have other abilities. And we have these shared memories, too. Things that don't make sense any other way," she said.

"For a long time we didn't know much," Max admitted. "But after the shooting, we started to learn things. I guess, in a way, it forced us to start looking for answers. And part of what we've learned is that we were right to keep quiet all of these years, because there are a lot of people out there who …well, let's say they wouldn't understand."

"Like the Sheriff?" his mother asked hesitantly.

"At first," Max said. "He was sure I had something to do with the shooting at the Crashdown and he was on our tails for a long time. That's why he was so interested when I put out that grease fire last winter, Mom. Why he kept coming around, trying to make you suspicious. But he helped us out of a… tight… situation a couple of weeks ago," he said. "He knows the truth now, and he's helping us."

"You're saying that Jim Valenti believes that you and your sister are aliens?" Philip said.

Max could tell from his tone that his father thought the Sheriff must have lost his mind. "Dad, he believes us because it's true."

"Do something, Max," Isabel told him. "Show them."

Nodding, Max looked around the room, his eyes falling on the vase of roses sitting on the coffee table. "All right," he said, walking over and placing his hand over top of the crimson blooms. "Watch." He lowered his hand, draining the flowers of every shred of color, leaving them a stark white. Just as easily, he moved his hand again and the roses were red once more. Looking up, he couldn't help but smile at the startled expressions on his parents' faces. He sat back down between Liz and Isabel. "Now do you believe me?" he asked.

Philip Evans opened his mouth, but not a sound came out. He worked his jaw as if he were trying to speak, then closed his mouth again. Slowly, he looked away from the flowers toward his children. "And… you can… do these things, also, Isabel?" he asked finally.

"Yeah, Dad," she said, almost apologetically. "I can."

He nodded. "Okay, then."

Diane took her husband's hand. Max watched as his parents exchanged a look that he could only have described as bewildered acceptance. When his mother turned back to face him, she kept his father's hand clasped in her own.

"All right," Diane said, somewhat shakily. "Um… I have some… questions," she said slowly.

"Sure, Mom. What do you want to know?" Max asked. He suspected that both of his parents were taking the news just a little too well, and he was wondering how long it was going to last. He just hoped they weren't in shock.

"You said the Sheriff helped you out of a tight situation. Is that situation what's causing your nightmares?" she asked, her worried eyes studying his face.

Max felt his heart stutter. After everything he'd told them, his mother's first concern was still for him. He took a deep breath. "Yeah," he said, glad that Liz was once more holding his hand tightly. "I told you there were a lot of people… interested in us. The FBI began investigating us after the shooting. They have a special unit devoted to hunting aliens, and the head of that unit came after us." Max paused, realizing that his heart was racing. He felt Liz shift closer to him, reassuring him silently with her presence. He squeezed her hand, letting her know that he was all right.

"Agent Pierce," he continued. "He ran the special unit. He was determined to capture one of us and to… .examine us. Two weeks ago, when I was supposedly staying at Michael's, I was really being held out at Eagle Rock Military Base."

"What?" Diane exclaimed.

"I thought Eagle Rock was closed," his father said.

Max shook his head. "It's not closed. At least not completely." He concentrated on inhaling and exhaling, trying to block the mental pictures that kept forcing themselves to the front of his mind. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Isabel shudder, and reached out with his free hand to take hers. He knew he needed to clamp down on the beginning flutters of panic he felt in the pit of his stomach. He had to be strong, or they would all start to come apart. They couldn't afford to get off track that way. There was still too much to talk about. He took another cleansing breath.

"Pierce and a few other agents grabbed me and took me out to Eagle Rock. Isabel, Michael and Valenti managed to break me out, but not until after Pierce had been… running tests on me…for the better part of twenty-four hours." Max forced himself to look up and meet his parents' eyes. He could read the horror, disbelief, and helplessness they felt in their expressions. It was obvious his euphemisms had done little to still their imaginations. "I'm all right," he said quickly. "But… that's why I've been having nightmares. I don't remember them once I wake up, but I'm pretty sure they stem from what Pierce… did to me."

"There has to be something we can do. Someone we can call," his mother said. She stood and began to pace, nervous agitation visible in her every movement. "You can't just take someone off the street like that. It's not right. We need to talk to somebody higher up in the FBI. They can't know what this Pierce is doing. We have to report him, force them to hold him accountable."

"Mom, no," Max said, standing and catching hold of her hands, forcing her to look at him. "You're not paying attention. There is no one to call. This unit is an accepted part of the FBI. No one is going to stop them. We just have to protect ourselves."

"Max, you're only seventeen years old," she said. "How are you supposed to protect yourselves? This isn't anything you're equipped to deal with."

"Mom, there's more to all of this than just the FBI," Isabel broke in. "Max, we have to tell them the rest. About the message," she added.

"What message?" Philip asked.

Max looked uncomfortable, but he nodded. "Sit down, Mom," he urged. He looked from his mother to his father. "Isabel's right. You need to hear this." He sighed. "The night Liz and I spent in the desert we were looking for something. We weren't quite sure what it was, but every time we…" He hesitated, looking to Liz. Her cheeks were flushed, but she met his questioning gaze and nodded for him to continue. "When we… kissed," he said softly, "Liz would get these… visions… of something being buried out by the old radio tower near the crash site."

"Wait," his mother broke in, looking confused. "Visions? From kissing? Was this when Nancy and I got called into the principal's office?"

Max glanced down, conscious of a warmth spreading over his cheeks. He could almost feel his temperature rising. "Uh…yeah. It was," he confessed. He hurried on. "We found this orb. It turned out to be a communicator, which only worked when it was put with a second one like it. We discovered that the FBI had taken the other one after the crash, and we managed to… get it back. Once we had both of them, we were able to activate them. That's when we finally learned the whole truth about ourselves."

"Which is?" his father prompted.

"The planet we come from was enslaved by another alien race. There was a war, during which Isabel and I were both killed. Our… souls, were duplicated and mixed with human DNA, and we were sent to earth. Apparently, the aliens that took over our home planet have come here. We're supposed to learn how to use our powers to defeat them and then return to our planet to free our people," Max said.

"So, what you're saying is that…." Diane trailed off, clearly too shocked to be sure what she meant.

"We're not just a couple of seventeen year olds," Max said gently. "And we are equipped to deal with this. It's what we were meant to do. This is our duty, our…"

"Destiny," Liz finished for him.

"Our destiny," he agreed slowly, his voice barely above a whisper.

"And the two of you are supposed to do this all alone? Why?" Philip asked.

Isabel looked at Max, one eyebrow arched questioningly.

Max shook his head slightly. No matter how badly they wanted to be completely honest with their parents, they just couldn't tell them everything. At least not yet.

Isabel sighed quietly. "Max and I were sent because we were brother and sister, and Max was the leader of our people," she explained.

"And you're supposed to what?" Philip asked. "Save the world? I'm sorry, but this all just sounds so incredible to me." He stood and walked to the window, staring out into the backyard. "You're telling us that you're some kind of warriors, and all I can see is a couple of six-year-olds playing on the swings."

Isabel stood and went to her father, resting one hand tentatively on his arm. "We're still those kids, Dad. But that's only one part of who we are."

He looked at her for a moment, then pulled her tightly into his arms, brushing a kiss against her forehead. "Oh, Izzy," he whispered.

She slipped her arms around his waist and hugged him. "Nothing could ever change the way we feel about you and Mom. We love you, Dad. You're our parents, whatever else happens."

Diane looked to Max. "So, these enemies of yours. They're coming here? To earth?"

Max looked grim. "They're already here. We've already had two run ins with them."

"What?" Philip drew back and looked into his daughter's eyes. "Isabel?"

She nodded.

"One of them went after Isabel and Alex the other night," Max said. "They managed to outrun him, but not before Iz took a hit in the shoulder from some sort of laser gun."

"I'm okay," Isabel said quickly, catching her father's hands when he began searching her for signs of injury. "It was no big deal. Having healing powers can be very useful," she said, forcing herself to keep her voice light. "It was just a little burn, and I took care of it."

"You said there were two incidents," Diane said, doubt and fear at war in her eyes.

"This morning was the second," Max said.

"What happened?" his mother pressed, her gaze dropping to the gash in Max's jeans.

"I guess you could say we were ambushed," Max said. "We were out near the crash site, in the chamber where the pods were left. It was… we go out there to meet because it's isolated. We thought it was safe. But by the time we were ready to leave, we discovered that we had been followed."

"You mean you were trapped in this cave?" Diane asked, her voice trembling slightly.

"We'd been expecting something like this to happen," Max told them. "They've been watching us - waiting. We knew it was just a matter of time. So, we had to fight our way out."

"What do you mean, fight? How? I thought you said they were armed?" Philip asked, looking confused.

"Part of our abilities include…" Max paused, frowning. "I'm not sure how to explain it. We can direct our energy - use it as a kind of fire power."

"It looks like they're shooting balls of fire from their hands," Liz said. "They don't need any other weapons."

Diane's gaze fell on Liz. "And you were there when all of this was happening?"

Liz nodded. "Yes. We were all there."

"Who is all of you?" Philip asked.

"The three of us. Michael and Maria. Alex. Tess," Max replied.

Diane looked pale, her eyes still on Liz. "Weren't you frightened? I mean, you all could have been killed. What made you take such a risk? To go out there… in the middle of no where, alone?"

"We weren't alone - we were together," Liz said simply. "And, if it weren't for Max, I would have been dead last September. So, yes, I was scared. But that wasn't important. We've sworn to help them, any way we can," she said solemnly.

Diane frowned and turned to Max. "I think I understand why you feel you need to do this, Max. You and your sister. That you believe you have no choice - it's your mission, your… duty," she said slowly. "But Max, to bring your friends into it as well? To let them risk their lives? It's so dangerous…" She trailed off and ran her hands over her face. "Maybe I really don't understand," she went on helplessly.

Before Max had a chance to respond, Liz slipped off the couch and knelt before his mother, taking her hands between her own. Her bottom lip trembled slightly and she bit down on it briefly to bring it under control. "Mrs. Evans, I'm… I love your son," she said slowly, her voice thick with emotion. "I know how that must sound to you, but it's the truth. When Max saved my life, he… changed me somehow. I don't know how to explain it to you," she said. "But, we're… connected. He has tried to protect me - has tried to push me away time and again.. But I won't let him face this alone. I… can't. Somehow, all of us together, it… makes us stronger."

Diane reached out and wiped away the tears that Liz had shed unnoticed. "That's very sweet of you to say, Liz, but is it worth your life? Any of your lives?" She looked to Max. "Is it? What if we left Roswell?" she asked suddenly, her eyes lighting up. She turned to her husband. "Couldn't we do that, Philip? Go somewhere no one knows us? We'd take different names. You could figure it out somehow, so the children would be safe." She turned back to Max. "Then you could just go back to your lives, Max. You and Isabel wouldn't have to worry about any of this."

"Mom, I don't think it works that way," he said gently. "We're not being chased by a couple of second rate gangsters. There is no witness protection program for something like this. Our enemies have come across galaxies to find us. There's no place to hide." He met his father's steady gaze and was relieved to see understanding there.

But Diane was determined. "I can't believe that. I refuse to believe there's no way to protect you. You're our children, damn it," she bit out. She stood abruptly, rubbing her hands over her face. She pinned Max with serious eyes. "There has to be something we can do."

Max went to his mother, brushing a hand over Liz's arm in thanks as she stepped back to let him pass. "Mom," he said softly. "We will always be infinitely grateful that you and Dad were the ones to find us that day. Isabel and I couldn't have asked for better, more loving parents. But, you have to let us do this. There's no other choice. And even if there was - if there was somewhere we could go and be safe - I wouldn't leave. I'm not going to run from this."

Diane's eyes narrowed, as if something he had said had angered her. "Max, do you know what you're saying? Do you understand what you're up against? I've been listening to you talk about enemies and fighting and your ability to heal yourselves, but does that make you invulnerable? Max, honey, you could get hurt. You could get killed," she said, her voice rising with each sentence.

"You think I'm not aware of that?" he asked, taking a step back. "God, Mom, you've been listening, but you're not hearing me." He ran a hand through his hair and turned away, trying to control the sudden burst of fury he felt rising up inside of him. "Yes, I know what we're up against. Better than you do. What do you think happened to us this morning?" he asked, spinning back to face his parents, unable to keep himself in check. "Some sort of diplomatic tea party?"

"Max, don't," Isabel said.

He shot her a look. "No, Iz. I have to. They have to understand." But he clamped down on his anger before turning back to his mother. When he spoke it was without inflection, his voice devoid of emotion, but his hands were clenched into fists. "There were four of them. Each with a weapon. They didn't give up. There was no truce, no laying down of weapons and going home. They're not here looking for prisoners or hostages. They're here to kill us." He tugged at his jeans, pulling at the long hole in the denim. "This isn't a new fashion trend. When I closed up the hole in my leg, I didn't waste energy fixing the jeans. I know the risks we're taking. I know what can happen. I've seen it. Isabel's already been hurt. I've been hurt. But we survived, Mom. And the four who came after us… they didn't."

Diane sat down abruptly as the last bit of color drained from her face. Philip came and sat down behind her, his hands on her shoulders, stroking up and down comfortingly. He looked up at his son. "You do what you have to do, Max," he said quietly. "What you're facing, well… it's out of the range of anything your mother and I have ever experienced. But, I know… I know you'll do the right thing."

Max let out a long breath and rubbed at his eyes. "Thanks, Dad." He went and crouched down in front of his mother. "I'm sorry, Mom," he said. "But this is… it is war. There's no other word for it. I guess when Dad said we were warriors, he was right." He glanced toward Isabel and she immediately came and knelt down next to him. "We need you to understand. We need for you to trust us," Max told them.

Diane reached out with both hands, laying them on her children's cheeks. "You two are the most important things in our lives. Please, just… promise me. That you'll be careful."

"We will, Mom. We swear," Isabel said.

Looking up to include his father, Max frowned slightly. "It isn't just us. We don't know how far our enemies will go. You both have to be on your guard. As far as we can tell, they look the same as anyone else. So, please, watch out for strangers. Anyone you don't know. I don't want them using you to get to us."

Philip nodded. "We'll be cautious," he said.

Diane glanced past Max and Isabel to where Liz was sitting on the edge of sofa watching them, tears glistening in her eyes. Untangling herself from her children's arms, Diane stood and went to Liz, holding out her hands. Liz smiled and enveloped Max's mother in a swift hug.

"You be careful, too," Diane whispered.

"I promise," Liz said softly, her eyes meeting Max's and holding. Then, turning her head slightly, she whispered so no one else would hear. "I won't let anything happen to him."

Diane tightened her arms one last time before stepping back. She brushed at her eyes, then turned and forced a smile. "Why don't I fix us all some lunch?"

Max and Isabel exchanged looks. "Uh, Mom, we're really supposed to meet up with the others at the Crashdown," Isabel told her hesitantly. Her eyes flicked to her father. "I realize you probably want to talk more, but…"

"We have a lot to discuss as a group," Max said. "After this morning. We need to be better prepared next time."

His mother nodded. "That's all right. I understand."

Max felt a twinge of guilt. He looked at his sister and saw his feelings reflected on her face. "We'll try to be home for dinner, okay?" he asked.

Diane smiled. "Of course. Liz, you too," she said.

"I'd like that," Liz said. "Assuming I'm not grounded," she added softly.

"Ah, that's right," Philip said, looking somewhat disconcerted. "I'm guessing you don't intend to tell Jeff what you just told us?"

"No, I don't," Max said gravely. He took Liz's hand and rubbed it gently. "Don't worry. I'll talk to your dad and straighten everything out," he assured her. He turned and caught his father's eye. "I'm assuming you'll be okay with me continuing the car-jacking story?"

"Yeah, I guess that's probably for the best," Philip said. "Let us know if there's anything we need to say to him."

"Right. Uh, speaking of cars…"

Hearing the tone of his voice, Philip raised his eyebrows. "Out with it."

Max looked vaguely uncomfortable. "We had a little problem with the Jeep this morning. It kind of got torched."

"Torched?" he mother asked.

"Burned to a crisp, actually. I don't think we were meant to get away," Max replied quietly.

Philip nodded slowly. "I see. We'll talk about it later, all right? In the meantime, you can take my car. Just… bring it back, okay?"

"I'll do my best," Max replied. "Thanks, Dad."

His father smiled, dropping a hand on his shoulder. "You're welcome, son."

******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:42:08 PM

Part 4

*********

Michael pulled the Jetta into the driveway behind the Sheriff's truck and cut the engine. "Looks like we're in luck," he said.

Maria merely groaned in response.

"Come on, DeLuca," Alex teased. "It's not that bad."

"Just because you have your parents trained so that every time you disappear they assume you're safely parked in front of a computer somewhere, doesn't mean the rest of us are so fortunate," she shot out.

"Yeah. Your mother assumes you're parked in front of Michael," Alex quipped. Catching Michael's glare in the rearview mirror, he smothered a laugh.

"Just wait until your folks find out about Isabel, pally," Maria said. "You'll be singing a different tune."

"Look, we'll all come in with you. Between us and Valenti, you should be safe. She can't possibly kill you with so many witnesses," Alex pointed out.

Maria rolled her eyes. "Don't be so sure. At the very least, my mother has no qualms about chastising me in front of an audience. And I suspect she's worked up a pretty good head of steam by now."

"Let's get it over with then," Michael said.

The four of them climbed out of the car. "Wait a minute," Tess said. Three sets of eyes turned in unison, almost as if they had forgotten she was there. "Um… You probably don't want to go in looking like this," she said.

Maria looked briefly at Tess's bloodstained blouse and the dirt embedded in Alex's jeans. She looked at Michael with a shrug. "She's right. We all look like hell."

"I could…" Tess waved a hand over herself, freshening her clothes. The stains vanished.

"Better do us all," Michael told her. "I'm liable to set us on fire," he added with a smile.

"Thanks," Maria said as Tess passed her hand down the length of her body.

"You're welcome," Tess replied.

A moment later they started up the front steps. Before Maria could fit her key in the lock, the door flew open to reveal Amy DeLuca. Her eyes snapped from Maria to Michael. She glanced briefly to Alex and Tess before focusing on her daughter again.

"Nice of you to drop by," she said, one eyebrow raised, toe tapping rhythmically against the tile floor. "I see you brought bodyguards. They won't help, you know."

Maria sighed. "Hi, Mom. Yeah, I kinda already told them that."

There was a moment's pause and then suddenly Amy pulled Maria roughly into her arms, squeezing her tightly. "I was worried, damn you," she whispered, her voice cracking. "Not so much as a word. Off doing God-knows-what. Having to hear from Jeff Parker that you're off playing nursemaid. You should have called, Maria," she admonished.

Wrapping her arms around her mother, Maria hugged her back, guilt tugging at her heart. "I know. I'm sorry, Mom. I'm fine, I swear."

Jim Valenti appeared in the hallway behind Amy. "Kids," he said, meeting Michael's eyes. Spotting Tess, he relaxed visibly. "Miss Harding. Good to see you."

"Hello, Sheriff," she said quietly.

"All right," Amy said, pulling back, brushing at her suddenly damp eyes. "Inside," she ordered, ushering Maria through the door. "You're all welcome to come in, kids, but I'm warning you," she said sternly. "It's not going to be pretty." Her eyes landed on Michael. "Especially for you," she added pointedly.

Michael nodded briefly, and followed Maria into the house. Tess and Alex brought up the rear. Noting the unspoken question in the Sheriff's eyes, Alex pulled him aside before they headed into the DeLuca's living room. "Everyone's all right," he said in a low voice. "Max, Liz, and Isabel are back at the Evanses'."

"So there was no trouble then?" Valenti asked softly.

Alex's eyebrows arched as he recalled the morning's battle. "I wouldn't say that, exactly," he hedged. Realizing that Tess was lingering in the hall, waiting for them, he nodded his head in her direction. "Why don't we take this into the kitchen. Somehow I doubt Maria really wants us to witness the fireworks." Going over to Tess, he whispered a quick, "Come on," and headed into the other room.

In the living room, Maria perched on the couch next to Michael, looking very much as if she was about to face the firing squad. Michael had clearly been running his hands through his hair, as it was spiking more crazily than usual, and the relatively calm façade he had exhibited outside was showing signs of cracking. Amy paced restlessly in front of them, building momentum with each lap like a toy being wound. With each pass she made across the room, Maria got a little more nervous.

Amy suddenly stopped mid-stride and shot her daughter a look. "So, how's your friend, Max?"

Maria looked confused. "He's… all right," she said slowly.

"Jeff told me he's been having nightmares," Amy said, her tone deceptively calm. "What I would like to know is why this is cause for the lot of you to have slumber party at his house."

"Oh." There was an awkward pause while Maria merely sat there, absorbing her mother's words.

"I'm waiting, Maria." Amy glared at her daughter, her eyes sparking.

Maria felt Michael tensing beside her. She scrambled for a response, trying to think what was most likely to appeal to her mother's big heart. "Look, Mom. I'm sorry I didn't call last night. I know I should have, but it was really late and I figured you'd be asleep already. And truthfully, I.. I was upset, okay? Max was really scaring me - I've never seen anyone coming off of a nightmare like that. He was actually… screaming - he barely even recognized us. Imagine how that made Liz feel… seeing him that way. And Michael, too."

She took a deep breath, feeling rattled. Her mother's eyes were pinned on her, showing no indication as to whether or not she was going for the story. Maria held tight to Michael's hand and plunged on. "Max has been like this for days. Michael had been staying with him, 'cause Isabel hadn't been able to wake him up from his nightmares by herself. And then the two of them started having trouble. So… that's why I stayed last night. Why we all stayed. We were scared… scared that just one or two people wouldn't be able to wake Max up if he had another nightmare, and we thought maybe… with all of us there… at least everyone would be able to get a little sleep."

Nodding slowly, Amy began to pace again. "So, you're saying you were all there taking turns keeping watch over Max. And did he have another nightmare?" she asked.

"Uh… yeah. He did," Maria said.

"So then it was worth it," Amy said.

"Yeah. We… uh… were able to wake him up before it got too bad."

Stopping short, Amy turned and looked at Maria. Her eyes were unreadable. "I'm so glad, Maria. Now what about the night before last?" she shot out.

Maria froze.

"She was at my place, Mrs. DeLuca," Michael spoke up quickly.

Both mother and daughter turned to Michael, eyebrows arched, eyes wide. Never had the two women looked more alike, he thought.

"Your place," Amy said, exhaling slowly. "I see."

"It's not what you think," he continued swiftly. "I asked her to come over for a little while after work. It was the first night all week I hadn't headed straight to Max's. Alex was gonna stay in my place. So I asked Maria to just come hang out for a while. But I guess we were both exhausted. Between work and stuff… and I hadn't really been sleeping. So… we fell asleep. Both of us."

"Michael…" Maria began.

"What?" he asked, glaring at her. "It was my fault, all right? I shouldn't have asked you over. It was late."

She smiled slowly. "Thanks," she whispered.

Amy shook her head. "I just don't know what to do with you," she sighed. "Either of you." Rubbing at her eyes, she sank down onto the closest chair. "Maria, tell me. What should I do? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't just ground you for the rest of the summer."

Maria looked up. "Because I didn't do anything wrong. Well," she backtracked, "except for not calling. And I said I was sorry," she added quickly. "And I am. Really, really sorry, Mom."

"Honey, I just don't want to see you get hurt." Her gaze fell on Michael who was watching her warily. "Michael, I like you, all right? I do," she said, looking him in the eyes. "But this is my daughter we're talking about." When he didn't reply, she sighed again. "Why don't you go find the others a minute," she suggested. "I need to talk to Maria alone."

He glanced down at Maria, who nodded. Standing slowly, he headed for the door, but stopped when he reached Amy's chair. "Mrs. DeLuca, I know you're worried about Maria," he said awkwardly. "And I wish I could promise that I'd never hurt her, but I guess I can't do that, since I know I already have. More than once," he added, looking down. "But, just the idea of anything bad happening to her makes me… I… I don't want to hurt her," he finished quietly. Then he walked out of the room before anyone could ask him to elaborate.

Watching him go, Maria felt tears prick at her eyes. She knew he still worried about hurting her, and about the danger they were in. That morning had just been the beginning, and it had been a violent, bloody awakening as to the true nature of the situation. The fear in his eyes when she had wielded her wrench had been an exact reflection of her own concerns for him. But it didn't matter how much danger they were in, as long as they could face it together. She refused to give him an excuse to push her away again.

"Mom," she said, standing abruptly. "I know you're upset. I understand you were worried. But please, just listen to me for a minute."

"Fine, Maria," Amy said wearily. "What do you want to say?"

"Mom, I'm nearly seventeen years old. In another year, I'll technically be an adult. And… I know it's hard, but … you have to start trusting me. You have to believe me when I tell you that I'm fine. Really. I swear I'm not gonna do something crazy, like get pregnant or drop out of school, okay?" She went over and crouched in front of her mother. "I'm not having sex with Michael. Spending the night at his place doesn't mean I'm sleeping with him. And Mom… if I was having sex with him, I wouldn't have to spend the night with him to do it," she pointed out quietly. Seeing her mother pale, she rushed on. "But I'm not. All right? I'm not… ready, yet. And Michael would never push me into anything, either. He isn't like that."

Amy reached out and smoothed Maria's hair back. "Oh, honey, you know it isn't that I don't want you to be happy. To have a boyfriend. To go out and do things with your friends. I want you to enjoy being a teenager. But I also want you to be as carefree as possible, for as long as you can. Sex just… complicates things. It can be wonderful, but it also brings so many problems and responsibilities along with it."

Maria smiled. "I know. You've told me. And I understand that, Mom. I do."

"Just don't rush into anything, baby, all right? Promise me."

"I promise that I'll wait until I'm sure. And to be careful when the time comes. Okay?"

Amy nodded. "I guess so. I guess it'll have to be enough. You're just growing up so fast," she said wistfully. She stroked Maria's hair again, then caught hold of her chin, her eyes narrowing. "But no more of this sleeping over at Michael's. Understood? I mean it, Maria. I'm still your mother, and while you live under this roof, you will show me some courtesy. I want you home, in your own bed. Alone," she added firmly, looking stern. "And if there's something going on, some reason why you feel the need to stay out, I expect you to call me. No matter what time it is."

"Does this mean I'm not grounded?" Maria asked, her eyes hopeful.

"Let's just say you're on parole," Amy said, her brow wrinkling. "I reserve the right to review your sentence at a later date."

Maria threw her arms around her mother. "Thanks, Mom," she said, kissing her cheek.

"Yeah, well, just don't make me sorry." Hugging her daughter close, Amy continued to frown, wondering if she was making the right choice.

* * * * *

Jim Valenti looked grim. Between Alex's explanation , and Michael's elaboration, he had a fairly clear picture of what the group had been up against that morning, and he didn't like it. Not at all. Although he understood the extremity and unusual nature of the situation, it rubbed against his pride to think that anyone in his county had to resort to protecting themselves. Maybe if it had been just the four…. He realized Max, Michael, Isabel, and Tess had abilities that went far beyond whatever assistance he could possibly offer. But there were civilians involved now, and that changed things entirely in his mind. Regardless of what Max and his friends believed, the Sheriff's office was far better equipped to go up against alien invaders than Liz, Maria, and Alex. Even if the Sheriff was the only one involved.

"What's taking them so long?" Michael grumbled, his eyes wandering to the kitchen door.

"Relax," Alex urged him. "Mrs. DeLuca's mostly bark. Maria knows how to handle her."

Tess shifted restlessly, shooting a glance at the clock on the oven. "Maybe we should call the others," she suggested. "We were supposed to be at the Crashdown by now."
"Give them a few more minutes," Alex said.

"So, what are you all meeting about?" Valenti asked in a low voice. When Michael shot him a look, he raised his eyebrows in response. "I'm assuming you're not just getting together for a quiet lunch. Not after this morning."

"We didn't really get into it," Michael said gruffly. "I guess you could say we're using the time to regroup."

"You need an offensive, here, Michael," the Sheriff continued. "Can't just wait around for them to keep finding you. Next time you might not be in a position to defend yourselves."

"We know that," he agreed, sounding frustrated. "But it's pretty damn hard when we still don't know who we're fighting, or where the hell they are."

Alex looked up suddenly. "Shhh," he hissed.

The door swung open and Maria and her mother came into the room. Both looked somewhat tearful, but Maria was smiling and Amy had clearly gotten over her earlier anger.

"Everything okay?" Jim asked, his eyes on Amy.

"We'll live," she replied.

"Uh, Mom, we really need to get going," Maria said.

Amy sighed. "Right. Lunch. Just remember what I told you," she added, her eyes narrowing.

"I will. And don't forget I'm working tonight, okay?"

"I remember, I remember," her mother said. "Now give me a hug." She held out her arms and Maria slipped into them. "Have a good afternoon. I'll see you later."

"You too, Mom." Maria stepped back and glanced at Michael. His eyes were pinned to her, just a shadow of relief visible in his stony glare. She flashed him a smile. "Come on, you guys. They're gonna think we fell in a hole." Holding out her hand, she let out her breath slowly when Michael came over and took it.

"I guess I'll see you folks later," Valenti said. "Since I'm on duty, I'll be by the café this evening on my rounds." He nodded toward Maria. "Check in and say hello as usual."

Michael caught the subtle tilt of the Sheriff's head, saw his glance flicker up to meet his own. "We'll see you, then," he told him quietly. Turning to Amy, he took a deep breath. "Thank you," he said, somewhat awkwardly.

Amy nodded. "Have a good day, kids." She glanced toward Alex and Tess. "Sorry you had to sit through this week's drama," she sighed.

Alex grinned. "Come on, Mrs. DeLuca. You know I'm used to it," he told her, his eyes twinkling.

Chuckling, Amy shook her head. "I suppose you are."

Maria rolled her eyes, and poked Alex in the ribs. "Bye, Mom," she said, dropping a quick kiss on her cheek.

"Bye, Maria."

The four of them headed down the hallway and were out the door a moment later. Amy turned to Jim. "I must be getting soft," she told him.

"Why's that?" he asked with a sly smile.

She shook her head. "I can't believe I let her off the hook so easily. What am I thinking?"

Jim Valenti laughed. "You're thinking you've done a pretty darn good job, Amy. She's gonna be fine." Reaching out, he placed a tentative hand on the back on her neck and rubbed gently. "Don't go worrying yourself over nothing. She's got your strength. That'll go a long ways."

Amy's eyes suddenly filled with tears.

"Hey," he said, taking alarm. "Don't do that. There's no reason for that," he soothed, coaxing her into his arms. "Shhh, Amy. It's all right."

"I'm sorry," she said, but she allowed him to ease her head against his shoulder and to rub her back. "I just… I never wanted her to need my strength. I wanted things to be easier for her."

"We all want to protect our kids," he told her. "But you can't keep them safe forever. Eventually they need to go out into the world and do it themselves. And Maria's gonna be okay out there, Amy. She's got a lot of spunk."

Amy pulled back, wiping at her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said again, forcing a smile. "I'm not generally like this. I just have this terrible feeling that I'm making a mistake. Like I should have locked her in her room until she turns twenty-one."

Jim smiled. "I think we all feel that way at some point. Just not practical. Think of what would happen to your phone bill," he said, eyes wide in mock horror.

His humor had the desired affect. Amy began to laugh, shaking her head. "Thanks," she said, when she'd caught her breath. "I needed that. And thanks for spending the morning with me, too. It was a nice distraction," she added, somewhat shyly.

"Well, I enjoyed myself," he said. Looking regretful, he turned and took his hat from where in lay on the counter. "Unfortunately, I really do need to get to work."

"I understand," she said.

"But maybe…."

"Maybe what, Jim?" she asked softly.

He cocked his head to one side and smiled. "Dinner? Tomorrow night?"

Amy considered for a moment. "All right," she agreed finally. "Dinner would be nice."

Jim nodded and put on his hat. "I'll pick you up around seven."

"I'll see you then." A soft smile still gracing her face, she walked him to the door.

*****

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:43:41 PM

Part 5

******

Peering through the front window, Liz could see the Crashdown was only half full, and was relieved to find that neither of her parents appeared to be working. She followed Max and Isabel inside, where they made their way toward two tables that had been pushed together at the back of the room. The others were already seated, an assortment of soda glasses and Tabasco bottles spread before them. Michael raised his head abruptly as they approached.

"What kept you?" he asked tersely, obviously worried.

"Sorry. Had something to take care of," Max said quietly. He and Liz dropped down opposite Michael and Maria while Isabel took the empty seat between Tess and Alex. Lowering his voice even more, Max leaned toward the center of the table. "We all need to talk."

"Did you run into some more trouble?" Alex asked.

"Nothing like that," Isabel told him, her hand slipping into his. She met Max's gaze down the length of the tables. "Go ahead," she prompted.

"Our parents were home when we got there," he began. "They were kind of… waiting… for me."

Michael's eyebrows arched. "And?"

"They were here at the café for breakfast this morning and ran into Liz's dad. The whole nightmare thing and the supposed car-jacking and everything came out."

"Oh, that's great," Michael muttered, running a hand restlessly through his hair.

"Michael," Maria hissed, spotting Liz's guilty expression.

Max's eyes flickered briefly toward Michael. "We had a long talk," he said. "They told me they want me to start seeing a psychiatrist."

"Because of the nightmares," Alex concluded.

"And because they say I've been withdrawn. I guess due somewhat to the way I was acting when Liz and I were apart." Max shrugged. "They've been worried. It was only a matter of time before they refused to back off anymore."

"This isn't good, Maxwell," Michael told him. "There's too much happening for you to take time out twice a week to spend an hour lying on some guy's couch."

"Don't you think I realize that, Michael?"

"I just knew this was gonna come back and bite us in the…" Michael muttered until Maria elbowed him.

"You're not helping," she scolded. "Let him talk."

"What did you do, Max?" Tess asked quietly.

Max spared her a glance. She seemed genuinely concerned. Taking a deep breath, he turned back to Michael. "We told them the truth," he said quietly.

"What truth?" Michael asked slowly, his voice like steel.

"The truth about us. About who we are. What we are."

"You what?" Michael shouted, half-rising from his chair and drawing the attention of everyone in the café.

"Quiet," Max said, his eyes holding Michael's angry glare. "Sit down," he ground out.

"Michael, please," Maria whispered, placing a restraining hand over his.

Slowly, Michael sank back down. "I can't believe you," he bit out. "Aren't we in enough trouble as it is?"

"We had no choice, Michael," Max said in a low tone. "We didn't say anything about you and Tess," he continued.

"Oh gee, thanks," Michael replied, his voice laced with sarcasm. "Excuse me if I don't think that makes much of a difference. It's not like they won't put two and two together."

"Michael, don't," Isabel said. "You're not being fair."

"I'm not being fair?" he asked, shooting her an incredulous look. "Me? I'm not the one out making decisions for the rest of us right and left."

Isabel's eyes hardened. "It was our decision. Max's and mine. They're our parents and it was our right to choose to tell them."

"It's more complicated than that, Iz, and you know it," he shot back.

"Look," Max continued. "This is more than my not having the time to devote to therapy, all right? Things are getting dangerous. We need to be able to focus on what we're doing without constantly having to come up with excuses for being gone all night or coming home looking like a train wreck. Our parents knew something was going on, Michael. They've been suspicious, worried. It was just a matter of time before they did something that would put them in the line of fire. And I won't risk them getting hurt because of us - simply because they want to protect us."

"So instead you'll put the rest of us at risk," Michael snapped. "Incredible," he said. Standing abruptly, he turned and stormed through the back door of the café.

Max was on his feet and following Michael in an instant. Maria rose to go after them, but Liz caught her by the hand. "Let Max talk to him," she said softly.

Maria bit her bottom lip nervously, but she nodded and sat back down.

Tess turned to Isabel. "So, how did your parents take hearing the truth?"

Isabel smiled slightly, and looked at Liz. "Really well, actually," she said. "It took a little convincing before they believed us, and they were worried when we told them about what happened this morning, especially our mom. But I think it's going to be okay."

"You told them about this morning?" Alex asked. "How much about this morning?"

"Well, we were pretty vague," she admitted. "Especially since we didn't feel we had the right to say anything about Tess and Michael," she added.

"Thanks," Tess said. "But I don't care if you tell them about me. I… I like your mom. And if you trust them, that's good enough for me."

"Thank you," Isabel replied.

"So, how much did you tell them?" Alex pressed.

"They know enough, Alex," Isabel said in a serious tone. "About Pierce. About our enemies. That we had to fight them - and that we won." She tilted her head thoughtfully. "And about the Jeep," she added with a slight smile.

"So, they're going to be careful then," Maria said. She paused. "You guys think they might be targets, don't you?"

Isabel nodded, then sensing the other girl's apprehension, reached out and took her hand. "Don't worry, Maria," she soothed. "We won't let anything happen to your mom."

"Thanks," Maria said softly.

Liz glanced around as the back door swung open, but it was just one of the waitresses returning from break. She turned to Maria. "Speaking of mothers, have you seen either of my parents?"

Maria shook her head. "Not a sign of either of them since we got here," she told her.

Liz placed her hands flat on the table and slowly stood up. "I'm gonna run upstairs and check in with my mom and dad," she told the others. "My dad, at least, is probably pretty angry at me right now, and I really would prefer to see him before he sees Max," she added meaningfully.

"Good idea," Isabel said, flashing her an understanding smile.

"Good luck," Alex said.

"Thanks. You guys go ahead and eat," she said. "No telling how long all of this might take." It was clear she was referring to more than just her own pending discussion. She brushed a strand of hair back in a nervous gesture and headed into the back room.

"So, is she really going to talk to her parents or is she checking on Max and Michael?" Alex asked.

"Max and Michael," Maria voted.

Tess merely shrugged.

Isabel shook her head, frowning slightly. "No," she said with quiet confidence. "I'm pretty sure she's talking to her parents. If what my parents said was any indication, Liz's father was really mad at her this morning. She's going to have her work cut out for her."

* * * * *

Max found Michael pacing in the alley, his restless movements testament to both his anger and his frustration. There was also, Max realized, a healthy dose of fear mixed in for good measure. He understood only too well how his friend was feeling - like the world was closing in on him and things were completely out of his control. So many choices had been taken out of their hands, so many responsibilities suddenly thrust upon them. And Max knew he was only contributing to Michael's sense of helplessness.

"Michael," he said quietly.

"Stay away from me, Max," Michael growled in reply. When he spun around, his eyes were dark with anger. "You don't want to be out here right now."

"Yes, I do," Max said firmly. "We have to finish this."

"Finish what, Max? This round? Or do we actually go the distance this time? Because we've been at it for nearly a year."

"You're not starting that again," Max said. "My saving Liz is old news, Michael. And don't try to tell me you would rather I had let her bleed to death, because we both know that isn't true."

Michael shook his head. "You just don't get it."

"Maybe I don't," Max shot back. "Why don't you explain it to me? Tell me what you wish was different. What would you change? Should I have not saved Liz? Maybe she shouldn't have told Maria about us? Is that it, Michael? Would you rather Maria not know the truth?"

"Come off it, Maxwell. You know damn well this has nothing to do with them. It has to do with you taking chances with our lives every time you feel it's the right thing to do, and to hell with our opinions." Michael turned and took a swing at the brick wall, pulling up short just before his fist connected. "Why can't you see that? Damn it," he bit out. He turned so his back was to Max.

"I won't apologize for telling my parents the truth. I can't be sorry. They needed to know."

"According to you," Michael sputtered.

"Yes, according to me," Max replied. "And Isabel. It's not like I just spilled my guts with no thought, all right?"

"It's not all right. That's just it," Michael said. "We have no idea who our enemies are, Max. No clue what we're up against really. All it takes is for your parents to say the wrong thing in front of the wrong person and we're screwed."

"Which is why I had to tell them! So they would know to be careful, know to watch what they said and who they talk to. All my mother had to do was to brag about her beautiful daughter or her son the A student to some new bank teller, or the guy who does her dry cleaning, and we'd be in trouble - the focus of attention. Now they know not to do that," Max said.

"You think this makes things better?" Michael asked, spinning around, his face the picture of disbelief. "That we're safer with them knowing?"

"Yes, I do."

"You have got to be kidding me. How can you be so reckless? What makes you sure you can trust them all of a sudden? Huh? Last winter you wouldn't. Why now?"

"Things were different back then - less… serious. And Michael, they're my parents."

"No," Michael said. "They're not your parents, Max. You saw. You and Isabel, you both saw your mother. Don't try to pull this now."

Max shook his head. "What I saw out there was a hologram - just light and air. Some being claiming to be our mother, but using a human voice and a human face. I'm not saying she wasn't who she claimed to be, but Diane Evans is my mother. I denied that once, and I won't do it again."

"So that's what it all comes down to? You're willing to turn your back on who you really are? Forget that there's a whole other planet looking to us, relying on us?"

"I never said that," Max said, suddenly angry. "It isn't either/or, this world or that one. It's more complicated than that and you won't convince me that even you think any differently. I'm not turning my back on anyone. That's the whole point. But don't push me - don't even try to make me choose some other life over this one. Because I guarantee that if it comes down to that, you won't like the choice I make."

"You're not telling me anything I don't already know," Michael sneered. He turned and started for the street.

"Michael, wait," Max called out. When he kept going, Max went after him, catching hold of his arm.

Spinning around, Michael wrenched away. "We're done," he snapped.

"No, we're not. Michael, please, just listen to me." Max's tone had softened. "Hear me out."

"Like you listen to me? Like you hear me out?"

"You're the one who has the problem with what I did, Michael."

"Fine," he relented. He folded his arms over his chest and stared at Max, his expression sullen. "So, talk."

Max took a step back and gave his friend an assessing look. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he ran a hand over his chin thoughtfully and leaned back against the wall of the Crashdown.

"I owe so much of who I am to my parents, Michael. I'm not talking about alien versus human here, all right? Just… the little things. And the big things, too, I guess. Everything I've experienced growing up." He glanced at Michael before continuing. "I look at you, at everything that's happened to you since we came out of the pods, and I am so grateful that Isabel and I were adopted. I hate that you got shuttled through the system, that you had to stay with Hank so long, that you… Well, you know what I'm saying." His gaze dropped and he focused on a crack in the pavement at his feet.

"And then there's Tess. Growing up with Nasedo. I think that must have been even harder than what you faced with Hank. She's different because of it. It's like any real emotion has been smothered. Even after what she did to us, I can't condemn her. Watching her struggling to relate to us, to overcome all of those years - I can't help but pity her. So, you see, I know what the alternatives were. It could have been us, too. Isabel and me. Bounced into foster care. Or worse. But Philip and Diane Evans took us into their home and they cared for us and they loved us. They didn't have to do it, Michael. But they did. They became our parents. They chose us." Looking up again, Max found Michael watching him carefully, a funny look in his eyes. "You know what I'm talking about, Michael," he said gently. "You know because of Maria. Love comes in all kinds of packages, but it's not the kind of thing you can walk away from. And you'd die before you let the other person get hurt because of you."

"Fine. So you feel like you owe them. You don't want to put them in danger. I get it," Michael replied. He avoided meeting Max's eyes. "You still could have said something before you went ahead with it, Max." His tone now was more hurt than anything.

"If it had happened some other way, maybe," Max said quietly. "But I've been running from this for weeks, Michael. I've had more than one conversation with my mother over the nightmares. I'd pushed both her and my dad to their limits. There was no way I was getting out of that house today without a damn good explanation."

"So, you're saying you would have discussed it with me otherwise?" Michael asked.

Max nodded. "Didn't we discuss it the last time? After I put out that kitchen fire? You, me, and Iz, out at the quarry?"

Michael shrugged somewhat reluctantly.

"Look," Max said, "things are getting really crazy, Michael. I know that, okay? And there are going to be times when we're not gonna have time to check with each other on every little thing. Not just me. All of us. I understand that."

Michael met his gaze, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You're saying that if the tables were turned, you wouldn't have a problem with me doing something without your approval?"

Max smiled. "Let's just say I won't go ballistic on you. After all, isn't that what happened this morning? You and Maria showed up at the pod chamber despite my best efforts to keep you away."

"Good thing, too," Michael smirked.

"Yeah, it was. As I recall mentioning at the time," Max reminded him.

"I guess you did," Michael admitted slowly. "So," he continued, "how did your parents handle the news, anyway?"

"They're gonna be okay, Michael," Max assured him. "They aren't going to reveal us to anyone. And my dad finally stopped spouting about psychiatrists. Mom was upset, though more about the whole danger aspect than the fact that we hailed from another planet," he said in a low voice, shaking his head. A sad smile graced his lips. "She wanted to go after Pierce. Report him to the proper authorities."

Michael's eyebrows arched. "You obviously left out a few details."

"Yeah, well, there was plenty for her to deal with as it was. And I told you that I'd left you and Tess out. It was just easier to gloss over a lot of things. But I managed to convince her that we were pretty much on our own when it comes to protecting ourselves." He glanced at Michael. "So. Are we all right?"

"I suppose. After all, we have enough problems without fighting each other," Michael told him.

"True. By the way, how did things go with Maria's mom?"

Michael groaned. "Fine, though it was definitely touch and go for a while. I honestly don't know what Maria said to her, but she got her to calm down. It probably didn't hurt that Tess, Alex, and Valenti were all in the kitchen at the time."

Max chuckled. "Aren't you glad the Sheriff's on our side?"

"I admit, he does have his uses. Which reminds me. He wants to talk to us. Soon."

"You guys told him about the ambush?"

Michael nodded.

"Okay," Max said. He stifled a yawn. "Hell," he muttered. "We should get together later today."

"Maria and I both have to work."

"All right. Tonight then. After you close up. I'll let Valenti know."

Eyeing Max, Michael frowned. "You should try to get some sleep before then," he advised.

"You're telling me." He rubbed wearily at his eyes. "Like a week's worth. I don't suppose the war will wait, though." He yawned again, not bothering to stop himself.

"I'm guessing that nightmares weren't the only thing keeping you awake last night," Michael said quietly.

Max shot him a look. "Excuse me?" He kept his voice low, but it held an unmistakable combination of disbelief and warning.

Michael raised both hands, palms facing outward. "I'm not prying, okay? I know it's none of my business." He looked down somewhat sheepishly. "It's just… I guess I just want to know if Liz… if everything was… all right," he said quietly.

Max watched, amazed, as Michael's color deepened slightly. He smiled. "Um… yeah," he said finally. "Everything was… fine. I don't think any of us need to worry," he told him.

Michael exhaled slowly and nodded, still avoiding Max's gaze. "Thanks," he said.

"No problem," Max replied. "Listen, I'm going back inside. You coming?"

"In a minute."

"Okay. Don't be long, though, or Maria will start beating on me."

Michael looked up and smirked. "Yeah, probably. Serves you right," he added.

Max grinned. "Undoubtedly." Pulling open the back door, he nodded once more to Michael and headed into the Crashdown.

******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:45:54 PM

Part 6

********

The apartment was perfectly quiet, but Liz knew that someone was home because the living room window was open and her parents were fanatical about locking up when they went out. It only took a moment for her to find her mother, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and staring into space. Liz frowned, her gaze traveling from the full mug on the table to the nearly empty pot on the stove. Nancy Parker rarely drank more than one cup of coffee a day, and never past noon unless it was a holiday.

"Hey, Mom," she said softly.

Nancy turned tired eyes toward her daughter. "When did you get back?" she asked. "Your father seemed to think you'd be out all day."

Liz shrugged and turned to take another mug from the cupboard. "We all met up for lunch," she said. She poured herself half a cup of coffee. "Where's Dad?" she asked as she rummaged in the refrigerator for the milk.

"He went to run some errands."

"Oh." Liz poured a few drops of milk into her cup and stirred slowly. Then she put the milk container away and sat down across from her mother.

Nancy took a sip of her coffee, her eyes on Liz. "So. How's Max today?"

Liz ran a finger around the rim of her mug. "Better. Didn't Dad tell you?"

"He said you two came in for breakfast. And that Max seemed all right. That was it."

Nodding, Liz took her spoon and laid it carefully on the place mat, lining it up with the striped pattern. "Yeah. He didn't get much sleep last night, but he's better. We talked a lot."

"You must be tired," Nancy said quietly.

Liz looked up and saw the worry in her mother's eyes. "Maybe a little. I'm all right, Mom," she said softly.

Nancy sighed. "Honey, I don't want you to think I have anything against Max, because I don't. I just want to protect you. You're so young and the two of you have gotten so serious all of a sudden. There's so much for you to do, so many things to look forward to in life… I don't want to see you give up on those things because you feel tied to your boyfriend. There's plenty of time for relationships, baby."

"I know. You're right. We are young," Liz said. "And I do have plenty of time. But Max is special, Mom." She shrugged. "I know last night scared you."

"And it didn't scare you? Liz?"

"It did. But not the way you mean, Mom." She looked into her mother's eyes. "I was frightened for Max, not for myself. I was upset because he was in pain. I wasn't in any danger. He would never hurt me."

Nancy looked agitated. She rose abruptly and took her mug to the sink and began rinsing it out, her movements choppy. Liz watched as her mother turned the cup upside down in the dish rack and ran one wet hand restlessly through her hair.

"Why?" she asked, turning around and leaning against the counter. "Why this boy? Why this blind faith, despite the fact that he continues to get you into trouble? I've tried to keep quiet, Liz. I have. I just can't sit back and ignore it anymore. You disappear at all hours, closing down the restaurant or leaving it with a skeleton staff. You're missing from your bed in the middle of the night." She held up one hand when Liz started to protest. "I know you are. Don't lie to me." Nancy sighed, rubbing at her temples. "I've heard you slipping in and out, all right? You've become totally irresponsible. And it isn't just you, either, Liz. It's the group of you. All of your friends. Just because I haven't said something, doesn't mean I haven't noticed. Yes, you've always done as you were told, you've always been a good student and helped around the café. I've tried to remember that, to keep it in mind. But ever since Max Evans came into your life, you've been a different person. And I want to know why. What kind of power does this boy have over you?"

Looking down at the table, Liz realized she had completely shredded a paper napkin while her mother was talking. The pieces were spread over the place mat in long strips, making a nest around her coffee cup. Sighing, she began gathering them into a neat pile. How could she have been so stupid as to think her mother wasn't paying any attention to her? Especially after that night she and Max had spent in the desert. Of course her mother had been listening for her, watching what she did. God, this was going to be even harder than she had anticipated. She could feel her mother's eyes boring into her as she waited for an answer.

"I'm in love with Max, Mom," she said finally. "I can't explain that to you. There aren't enough words for what I feel for him," she admitted softly.

Nancy let out a long sigh and sat down again. She reached out and stilled her daughter's hands. "That doesn't tell me why, Liz. I know there's something going on. I want to know what it is. What are you kids involved in?"

Liz looked up and shook her head. "Nothing bad. I can just see what you're thinking," she said wryly. "We're not selling drugs or having wild parties or robbing banks, all right, Mom?"

"I never said you were," her mother said tersely, sitting back again. "But there is something going on. I have eyes, Liz."

"Right," Liz said. "You have eyes. Remember once I told you that you don't really see me, Mom? You asked me to help you. To show you who I really was."

"You still haven't, Liz. You won't let me in. How can I help you if you won't let me in?"

Liz shook her head. "You don't get it. I don't need your help, Mom. I'm not in trouble. Max went through something terrible, and he's needed my help. Not yours, not Dad's. Mine. I'm sorry if you don't like that, but it's the truth. You asked me what I saw in Max? Max sees the real me, Mom. He always has. And he didn't need to ask me to show him. He figured it out all on his own because he cared enough to take the trouble." Liz picked up her mug and pushed back from the table. "That's more than you've been able to manage in a lifetime," she said softly, tears in her eyes. She rose and poured her coffee down the drain.

"Liz…"

"Don't," Liz said. "I don't want to hear that you've tried, that I won't let you, that you care. I know all that. I do. I'm not blaming you, all right? It still doesn't change the facts," she said. "I'm not trying to hurt you, Mom. I swear. But I'm almost an adult. I don't need for you and Dad to swoop in and fix it every time I turn around. If you can't understand me, the least you can do is trust me."

The sound of the front door closing made Liz glance up.

"That'll be your father," Nancy said. She sounded exhausted.

Liz nodded. "Dad?" she called out.

Jeff Parker appeared in the kitchen doorway. His eyes were stern. "Liz," he said.

Letting out a sigh, Liz stepped away from the table. "Hi, Dad. Why don't you sit down. I have to tell you something." Her gaze dropped to her mother. "Both of you."

"Yeah," Jeff agreed. "I would say that you do." He pulled a chair out and sat next to his wife. "Go ahead," he prompted his daughter.

Liz took a deep breath. "I lied to you last night. About Max's parents being away. I knew they were home, but I couldn't have you calling them. I'm sorry."

Jeff nodded slowly. "Being sorry doesn't make it right, Liz. You know that."

"I do," she agreed. "And the truth is, I can't say I'd do things any differently if given the chance," she admitted. "I had promised Max that I wouldn't say anything to his parents."

"I guess by now you know that I spoke with Philip and Diane this morning."

Nancy turned and looked at her husband, eyes wide. "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked.

"I would have," Jeff told her, "but you were still so upset from last night. You weren't even up yet when they came by."

"You could have mentioned it before you went out," she said, a hint of anger in her voice.

"Can we please stick to the subject?" Liz broke in, realizing her mother was spoiling for an argument and that she was mostly to blame. "Max had a long discussion with his parents this morning, all right? They know everything."

Jeff's expression softened. "How did it go?"

Liz smiled at her father's obvious concern. "Not too badly," she said honestly. "They were upset, but they understood why he was reluctant to worry them."

"It's good that they talked," Nancy said quietly. "He shouldn't have to deal with it on his own, no matter how supportive you and the rest of his friends are. Regardless of what you think, Liz, everyone needs a little help sometimes."

"I know that, Mom," Liz said. "But you can't force it down their throats. They have to be ready to accept it."

"I'm your mother," Nancy replied sharply, rising to her feet so she looked down on Liz. "You may think you're all grown up, but the fact is that you are still a child. And you are still living under my roof. I expect you to abide by my rules until you are prepared to move out and support yourself," she said pointedly. "That means keeping normal hours and in general acting like the responsible person I know you are capable of being. Is that clear?"

Liz's eyes sparked, but she nodded. "Perfectly," she replied. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go take a shower," she announced. Looking briefly at her father, she turned and headed down the hall.

Jeff sighed when he heard Liz's door close with a firm thud. "Nancy, you can't protect her forever," he said.

Sinking down into her chair, Nancy rubbed at her neck with one hand. "I realize that. But she's scaring me, Jeff. Don't tell me you aren't worried."

"You're right. I can't pretend not to be concerned. But she's always been headstrong." He smiled wryly. "With us for parents, she could hardly be otherwise. And she has good horse sense. I have to believe she knows what she's doing."

"But she's being so… reckless. You see it too. I'm frightened for her. I sometimes think she'd do anything for him. How did she fall so far so fast?"

He shrugged. "She's in love," he said quietly. "And it goes both ways, from the look of things. She could have chosen worse."

"I know," she admitted slowly. "I've always thought Max was a nice boy. Quiet, polite. I like his parents. But there's more to this," Nancy continued, frowning. "There's something else going on, Jeff. And they have some sort of conspiracy of silence going. The six of them. They're always running off in a hurry, dropping whatever they're doing. Something isn't right."

"They're all good kids. And Liz's old enough to make her own mistakes. We have to trust her, sweetie. Try not to worry so much," he told her, reaching out to rub a hand over her cheek. "After all, there isn't too much trouble they can get into in Roswell."

Nancy smiled reluctantly, turning to kiss his palm. But her smile failed to reach her eyes "I suppose you're right," she agreed quietly. "But she's my baby. And she's just growing up so fast."

"I know," he agreed with a sigh. "Believe me, I know."

* * * * *

The first thing Max encountered when he walked back into the café was Maria DeLuca's worried green gaze. She was standing so close to the back door that he had to pull up short to avoid running into her.

"Where's Michael?" she asked when she saw he was alone. "What happened? Is he all right?" Her eyes narrowed. "Max?"

Max forced himself to suppress a smile. "He's fine. He'll be back in a minute." When Maria continued to glare at him suspiciously, he raised one eyebrow. "Come on, Maria," he said gently.

She slowly relaxed. "Sorry," she mumbled. "It's just you were gone for a while."

"We had a lot to talk about," he said quietly. "Why don't we go ahead and get lunch?"

Maria nodded and headed back to the table. Max followed her, frowning slightly. "Where's Liz?" he asked, glancing at her empty chair.

"She's upstairs," Maria replied. "Talking to her parents."

"By herself? I told her I'd go with her," he said, looking worried.

"I think she wanted to get it over with," Isabel commented.

"Sit down, Max," Maria said. "It'll be okay. Liz can handle her parents and, frankly, it's probably better if she does it alone. All right?" She smiled comfortingly.

Nodding, Max reluctantly sank into his seat. To keep from staring at the door, he turned his attention toward Tess. "How you holding up?" he asked.

"I'm fine, Max," Tess replied.

"Good." He sighed. "We need to figure out somewhere for you to stay. You can't go back to the house after what happened."

"Taken care of," Alex chimed in.

"Michael and the Sheriff already talked it over this morning," Tess elaborated. "The Sheriff said I can stay with him for a few days."

"You're staying at the Valenti's?" Isabel asked, her voice rising.

Max shot his sister a warning look. "That's nice of the Sheriff," he said quietly.

Tess shrugged. "Yeah. It was either there or Michael's place and he," she looked toward Maria with a small smile, "really doesn't have enough space."

Max nodded. "You're right. His apartment is definitely a little… cramped." He smiled. "You'll be fine with Valenti until we can figure out something more permanent."

"Don't worry about it, Max. You have enough to deal with without thinking about my housing arrangements," Tess told him. "It'll sort itself out eventually."

"What will?" Michael asked as he approached the table. Dropping down beside Maria, he smirked at Max. "What did I miss, fearless leader?"

Max rolled his eyes. "Tess was filling me in on your talk with Valenti."

Michael snaked a hand up under the back of Maria's hair and began rubbing absently at her neck as her arm slipped automatically around his waist. "You mean about her staying with him?"

"Yeah."

"Well, it seemed like the best solution. Safest, at least."

"It's a good idea, Michael," Max said with a smile.

Michael met Max's gaze and nodded slightly, acknowledging the remark. "So," he said, obviously looking to change the subject. "Food? I'm starved."

"Shouldn't we wait for Liz?" Alex asked.

"She won't be much longer," Maria said knowingly. "We'll put in an order for her, too. If she's not down in a couple of minutes, I'll go rescue her," she added quietly, smiling at Max.

"Thanks," he said. "I hope her parents aren't too angry," he added.

Maria shrugged. "Knowing the Parkers, her mother will yell, then back off and pout for a few days. Her dad will be more hurt than mad, and Liz will feel guilty, but it'll end up all right."

"Yeah," Alex agreed. "Mr. Parker can't stay angry with Liz for long," he said quietly. "She's got that "Daddy's little girl" thing going."

Michael smirked. "That was pretty obvious last night," he said. "I couldn't believe they let Liz come with us," he told Max.

"I know," Max sighed. "I just hate that this had caused her problems."

"This is probably the least of it, Max, and you know it," Isabel pointed out, though her voice was gentle. "Liz can handle herself."

"I just wish it wasn't necessary," he replied. He glanced at Maria.

"Okay, I'm going," she said with an indulgent smile. "Shove over, Spaceboy," she told Michael, giving his arm a quick squeeze. "I'll be right back." She slipped past Michael's chair and headed into the back room.

* * * * *

Tying her robe securely around her waist, Liz walked out of the steamy bathroom into her bedroom and immediately jumped a foot in the air. Maria was sitting on her bed, thumbing through an old issue of Scientific American. She looked up with a smirk.

"Your dad let me in," she said.

"You scared me out of my mind," Liz admonished. Shaking her head at her friend, she went over to the mirror. With a quick tug, she pulled the clip out of her hair, sending its long length cascading over her shoulders. "What did my dad say to you?"

"Not much. He was fiddling with your TV hookup," Maria said, wrinkling her nose.

"Was my mom around?"

"Didn't see her."

Liz sighed. "They probably had another fight about me," she said, sounding dejected.

Maria frowned. "Are you grounded till the end of time?"

Liz ran a comb through her hair, studying her reflection thoughtfully. "Honestly, I'm not sure. It was weird. We kind of left a lot up in the air." She turned toward the bed. "Dad wasn't here when I came upstairs, so I got stuck with my mom for a while. She called me on a bunch of stuff - us sneaking out of work early, the nights I've been out all night."

"Oops," Maria said, her eyebrows drawing together. "That's bad."

"Yeah," Liz agreed. Sighing, she plopped down next to Maria. "I don't know what I can say that will keep her from worrying about me."

"I know. But Lizzie, it isn't like her worrying is so off track," Maria pointed out. "I mean, what we've been doing - it's dangerous."

"I realize that, but it's not like I can come out and tell her. And this thing with her and my dad is just making it all worse. He never mentioned that Max's parents were here this morning until he came in a few minutes ago. So, of course, Mom was pissed off that he was keeping stuff from her again and felt like he was siding with me. The fact that I lied to them last night didn't do a whole lot for my case either." Restless, she stood and began pulling clothes from her dresser. "I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I promised to keep normal hours and whatever… Mom seemed pretty satisfied with that."

"Did you cross your fingers behind your back when you promised?" Maria asked.

"I probably should have," Liz said. "They're gonna kill me before the summer's over."

"If no one beats them to it," Maria muttered.

Liz shot her a look. "Speaking of violence and mayhem, how did it go with Max and Michael?" she asked as she stepped into a soft green skirt. "Did they manage to avoid coming to blows?"

"Yeah, I think so. They were both pretty calm when they came inside. Teasing each other and stuff. I'm not sure what Max said, but he definitely diffused Michael." Maria frowned as she watched Liz discard the shirt she was holding for a different one. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"What do you mean?" Liz asked, turning from the dresser with a puzzled look on her face.

Maria shook her head. "The whole wardrobe thing. You seem awfully concerned with what you're wearing for lunch at the Crashdown. What gives?"

Liz blushed. "Uh… Max's mother invited me to dinner," she said quietly, her eyes dropping.

"You're kidding," Maria chuckled. "Is this like the official "my children are aliens" celebratory feast or something?"

"Maria!" Liz swatted her with her shirt. "Cut it out. I'm nervous enough."

"Come on, Liz. It's not like you've never met his parents before."

"I know, but this is… different," she finished helplessly. She sank back down on the edge of the bed. "Now they know about Max, and they know that I've known for so much longer - I feel kind of guilty about it."

"You mean because he trusted you first?" she asked softly. "It's not like he had a choice, Liz. And besides, he spent years mooning over you."

"He did not," Liz said,

"Uh, excuse me," Maria said. "Who was it who kept pointing out that Max Evans had the hots for you? Long before the whole shooting thing?"

"You did," Liz replied reluctantly.

"It'll be okay, Lizzie," Maria said, giving her friend a quick hug. "You know the Evanses like you. And Max'll be there. No reason for you to get all panicky." Pulling back suddenly, she frowned.

Catching sight of her expression, Liz's eyes grew wide. "What? What is it?"

Maria glared at her. "I just remembered something. You and I were going to have a little chat before all of this alien ambush stuff started," she replied. Her voice was soft, but her tone was unmistakable.

Liz knew instantly what her friend was getting at. "No. Maria, we are not having this discussion," she said, trying to stand up.

However, Maria was too quick for her. Grabbing her by the arm, she kept her pinned to the bed. "Lizzie, come on, now. It's only fair," she said. "I'm not blind. I saw the way you and Max were acting this morning."

"How were we acting, Maria?" Liz asked hurriedly. "We'd just had this gut-wrenching night - nightmares and talking about Pierce. We were exhausted and we… we were emotionally drained. How were we supposed to act?"

Maria gave her a knowing look. "No way am I buying that, Liz. This is me, okay? We've been best friends since like forever. I know you and Max… well, you know. Please, Lizzie," she begged. "We're talking human-alien relations here," she whispered. "I'm not asking for details. I just… I need to know, Liz."

Recognizing the hint of fear in her friend's eyes, Liz relented. She stopped trying to pull away and instead leaned closer. "Okay," she agreed. "But… just … I don't want to talk about it after this, all right? I mean, it's… well, private," she said softly. "But you don't have to be scared, Maria. I promise. Everything was… perfect. By the book," she added, blushing slightly. She looked down, tracing the pattern on her comforter with one finger. "It was wonderful," she whispered. "So, if you and Michael decide to… it's gonna be fine, Maria," she finished, glancing up and looking her in the eye. "Just… make sure you're careful. You know. Use protection and all that."

"I'm not saying I'm ready," Maria told her quickly. "It's just… well… I was pretty sure everything would be okay if we decided to go ahead. I mean, I've told Michael I'm not scared or anything." She shrugged. "I guess I just wanted to be sure." She paused, then shot Liz a mischievous look. "Wonderful, huh? Like fireworks? Like more shooting through space?"

Liz grinned. "Better than wonderful," she replied. "I don't think I could explain it even if I wanted to."

"So, again… does this ruin it for us, you think? I mean, will anyone ever be able to live up to Max?" Maria asked hesitantly.

"I don't know. And I don't care," Liz admitted. "I'm not interested in finding out."

"What are you saying? That Max is it for you? The one? You're only seventeen, Lizzie. You can't know what's gonna happen."

"All I know is how I feel, Maria. I'm connected to Max. I have been since the day he saved my life. This only made that bond stronger. It feels… permanent. Like we're meant to be together."

"Oh my God," Maria breathed.

"I know it sounds weird. It's just how I feel. And I think Max feels the same way." Liz stood and went into the bathroom.

Maria trailed after her. "So, for all intents and purposes, you guys are like… married."

Liz shrugged as she put on a coat of lip-gloss. "I'm not thinking of it in those terms. All I'm saying is that I love Max. And I don't want to be with anyone else."

"I can just hear your parents now…"

"It is gonna be… awkward," Liz admitted. "I think my mom would still like me to stop seeing Max."

"Will your dad talk her out of that?"

"I think so. As long as he doesn't get too mad at me." She shut the bathroom light and motioned Maria into the bedroom. "Let's see if I can sneak out of here before they change their minds and chain me to my footboard," she suggested.

"Good idea," Maria agreed with an amused smile.

Liz grabbed her purse and took a final peek in the mirror. "God, life is complicated," she sighed, then followed Maria out of the room.

******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:47:23 PM

Part 7

*******

Lunch was, by necessity, a fairly mellow affair. Jeff Parker walked back into the café shortly after Liz and Maria returned, which meant there was no further discussion of aliens, wars, weapons, or destinies for fear of him overhearing. Instead, the group laughed, ate, teased, and in general behaved like a group of teenagers enjoying their summer vacation, despite everything else weighing on their minds. However, Max couldn't help but glance at Liz's father from time to time, and invariably discovered Mr. Parker returning his steady gaze. The whole thing left him feeling uneasy.

When Michael and Maria rose to start their shifts, Max nodded in their direction. "I guess you guys won't be able to come to dinner, then, huh?"

Michael leaned over so that only Max would hear him. "If it's all the same to you, I'd rather keep clear of your parents for the next couple of days," he told him. "Just to be on the safe side."

Max smiled. "I understand."

"So, uh…. when and where do we meet up?" Maria asked quietly.

"I'm thinking either the Sheriff's station or his house," Max replied. "I'll let you know once I talk to Valenti.

"I can ask him if you want," Tess offered. "He's supposed to swing by here in a little while anyway. He said he'd come pick me up."

Max shot a questioning look to Michael, who shrugged and nodded. "All right," Max agreed, turning back to Tess. "One of you call and let me know where, okay?"

Tess nodded.

Max hesitated a minute. "You sure you don't want to have dinner with us? My parents would be happy to have you."

"I'm sure," she said, mustering a small smile. "Thanks, but it's better if I settle in at the Valentis' tonight."

"So, you guys ready then?" Isabel asked. "Don't forget you're dropping Alex and me at his house so he can change."

"You're fine the way you are, Alex," Max said for the third time. Catching the gleam in his sister's eyes, he shook his head. "Fine. Just give me a minute. I'll be right back."

Liz caught him by the wrist. "Where are you going?"

Max looked into her eyes. "I know you talked to your father, but he's been glaring at me for the past hour. You stay here. I'll just be a minute, all right?" He brushed a kiss over her forehead and started across the café.

Alex let out a slow whistle. "Your dad does look kind of annoyed, Liz."

Liz watched somewhat nervously as Max approached her father. "I can't really blame him," she sighed. "He must have been so angry when Max's parents showed up for breakfast."

Jeff Parker eyed Max as he wiped down the counter. Max was glad that most of the lunch crowd was gone. Slipping between two stools, he noted the suspicious look in Jeff's eyes. It reminded him of playing poker during the camping trip in Fraser Woods and letting Liz's father win. He had looked at Max just the same way that night.

Max cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "Mr. Parker, I just wanted to apologize for last night. And to thank you."

Jeff raised one eyebrow. Whatever he had expected, clearly it was not to be thanked. "What exactly are you thanking me for, Max?"

"For telling my parents. For forcing me to talk to them. You were right, Mr. Parker. I should have been straight with them before this," Max admitted. "I guess I was just… scared. That they would treat me differently. That they'd be upset."

Jeff's expression softened. "Your parents love you, Max. Of course, they'd be worried about you - particularly seeing as how the incident has affected you. But that's what parents are for. To take care of you, help you through the rough spots. No matter how capable you are of handling it yourself. You don't stop worrying about your kids just because they grow up on you," he added, his gaze focusing just past Max.

Max turned and saw Liz watching them anxiously from the table a few yards away. He smiled reassuringly before turning back to Jeff. "I know," he said. "I'm sorry I put Liz in a position where she felt she needed to lie to you. It was entirely my fault, so please don't be angry at her."

"Well, I don't think you can take all the blame, Max," Jeff said, frowning slightly. "Liz isn't the type to be swayed by someone else, and you weren't exactly up to convincing her to do anything after that nightmare last night. Still, I wouldn't worry too much, if I were you. I may not approve of Liz's lying to me, but I guess I can understand it," he said reluctantly. "However," he continued with a frown, "there are some other things that have been bothering me. Things Nancy or I have noticed. Most seem to involve losing half of my staff in the middle of a shift with no explanation," he said sternly.

Max shifted uncomfortably. This was an unexpected twist. He held his breath, waiting for the bomb to drop.

Mr. Parker regarded Max carefully before he went on. "For some reason I suspect you're behind these disappearances, Max. But," he added, "I'm going to do you a favor. This one time. Because I like you, and I don't think any of you are up to anything that bad. So, I'm not going to ask where you all take off to from time to time. As long as it stops," he said firmly. He looked Max directly in the eye. "I want your word, Max. No more late night vanishing acts, or closing down the café early. I expect Liz, Michael, and Maria to work as scheduled unless they're ill or make arrangements ahead. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir. It is," Max agreed. He exhaled slowly. "I'm sure that can be arranged."

Jeff frowned slightly, but nodded. "All right then." He glanced briefly toward Liz. "Why don't you go on. I can see you all have plans of some sort." He pinned Max with a look. "But Maria and Michael are both working."

Max smiled slightly, too relieved to worry about anything else. "I know. My parents invited everyone to dinner, but I told them Michael and Maria wouldn't be able to make it."

Jeff held out his hand and Max shook it firmly. "Not too late a night, Max," he said pointedly.

Max nodded. "I know," he said. "I think we could all use a good night's sleep."

Noting the shadows beneath Max's tired eyes, Jeff nodded. "I think you're right."

"Thank you again," Max said, doubting Liz's father understood just how much he had to thank him for. With a final smile, he turned and headed back to Liz and the others.

* * * * *

Tess sat at the counter, her bags at her feet, and tried not to think about Kyle Valenti. When Michael had suggested she stay at the Valentis', she had known immediately that it was a bad idea. There was no way she could subject Kyle to the indignities of having her for a housemate after the way she'd treated him. She had been adamant; she would stay at her own house. But then the Sheriff had insisted, pointing out it was only temporary and that she couldn't possibly stay alone, and Michael had made some noises that sounded vaguely brotherly and concerned, and finally she had relented. So now here she was, waiting for the Sheriff to come and get her, wondering what Kyle had said when he heard the news. Had he been angry? Upset? Or worse - had it simply not mattered to him whatsoever?

"More soda?"

Looking up, Tess found Maria hovering over her from the opposite side of the counter, her antennas bobbing. It was still a little disconcerting to her, knowing there were humans who knew about them, and that two of them persisted in wearing such ridiculous outfits. But then, they were all being exceedingly nice to her since that morning. Michael was treating her almost as if she were Isabel, and Maria and Alex had both gone out of their way to include her in the conversation at lunch. Even Liz had seemed less reserved around her. Almost as if they were all actually starting to trust her instead of just pretending. She forced herself to smile. "No, thanks," she replied. "If I drink much more I'll be able to float down the street."

"Okay," Maria said with a nod. "Let me know if you change your mind," she added before heading out to the floor to take an order.

Tess watched her go. The antennas actually shook more when she walked, since Maria herself had a natural spring to her step. It was amazing, really, that she could still be so happy and friendly after everything that had happened. Tess thought maybe she should try to be more like that, but she wasn't sure how to go about it. Or if anyone would even believe her if she appeared to be in a good mood for no apparent reason. She suspected they were getting used to her new, more subdued persona. The real her, whomever that was, she thought with a sigh.

Using her straw, she stabbed the lime in the bottom of her glass until it got the mashed appearance that comes from being squeezed too hard, with the pulpy insides coating the last of the ice. She felt like that lime wedge. Drained and useless, not that it was all that important to begin with.

"What did that lime ever do to you?"

Tess froze the instant she heard Kyle's voice. How did he sound? Was he being sarcastic? Or did he really want to know what had her upset? She peeked sideways, trying to see him out of the corner of her eye. Her hair was hanging down, blocking her view. There was no way she could brush it back without being obvious, so she decided to go with the bold approach. After all, he couldn't possibly hate her more than he already did. She sat up a little straighter and turned to look at him.

Kyle Valenti stood just to her left, one eyebrow raised curiously. "Well?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I guess it was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," she told him softly, then immediately bit down on her tongue. Would he think she was talking about more than the lime? God, how could she be so stupid. She turned back to her glass and began twirling the straw nervously. So much for being bold. What the hell was wrong with her?

"I see," Kyle said, though his tone indicated that he didn't really. "Mind if I sit?"

"Go ahead." She could feel his eyes on her as she played with the straw, making her feel self-conscious, so she stopped.

"You about ready to go?" he asked.

That got her attention. Without a second thought, she turned back to him, eyes wide. "I thought your dad… I mean…"

"He was," Kyle nodded. "But he got held up with something at the station, so I told him I'd swing by and get you." His blue eyes were appraising. "So, are you ready?" he asked again.

"Yeah," she said slowly. "Let me just… uh… pay for my drink." She began fumbling for her purse. She dropped a couple of singles and some change on the counter.

Maria came over in an instant. "You taking off?" she asked, glancing warningly toward Kyle.

Tess nodded. "Thanks for the soda and everything," she said. Turning, she saw Michael hovering in the pass through window from the kitchen. She returned his wave, then stooped to pick up her bags.

"I'll take those," Kyle said hurriedly, dragging the straps from her hands. "Come on." He nodded to Maria and headed out the door.

Tess trailed down the street after Kyle. He was taking long strides and moving quickly, despite the two heavy tote bags, and it was difficult for her to keep up with him. By the time she reached the car, he had already tossed her things in the back seat and was looking at her expectantly. She merely climbed into the passenger seat and occupied herself with fastening her seatbelt as they pulled away from the curb.

They drove in silence for a few minutes. Finally she couldn't take it any longer. "I know this is awkward," she began. "My staying at your house. I swear it's just until I find someplace else."

Kyle shot her a look before turning his eyes back to the road. "There isn't anywhere else. Isn't that the whole point? If there was, you wouldn't be staying with us to begin with," he told her.

"I'm sorry, Kyle," she said. "I just…"

"Look, forget about it," he said somewhat gruffly. "You have no choice. I understand. Just don't think this makes us friends, all right? You do your thing, I do mine."

"What I wanted to say was that I'm sorry for the way I treated you," she said slowly. She was looking out the window, so she had no way of knowing how he was reacting. Still, she forged ahead. "I needed Max to pay attention to me, to listen to me, and nothing I had tried was working. When I realized that I could get to him through you, by making Liz worry about you, well - I did what I thought I had to do. I didn't stop to think how it might affect you, and I should have. I was wrong," she finished quietly.

"Yeah, well…" Kyle sighed. "Look, my dad told me some of what's been going on with you guys. Whatever else has happened… I'm glad none of you got hurt." When she didn't respond, he shook his head. "So what is it about Max Evans, anyway? I mean, aside from the whole E.T. angle, what's he got that makes all the girls swoon?"

"I was raised believing Max and I were destined to be together," Tess said with a shrug.

"Right, I get that, but you'd never even met the guy. I mean, if someone told me I was like, betrothed from birth or something, to a girl I didn't even know, I think I'd fight it every step of the way."

Tess tilted her head and looked at him. "It wasn't something I'd even considered until we found them and I learned Max thought he was in love with Liz. That he is in love with her," she amended.

Kyle snorted. "I could have told you there was no prying those two apart. And no offense to your destiny or whatever, but… even I can see they belong together. There's just something about the way they look at each other."

"Yeah, I know."

"Really. You mean you've accepted that you and Evans are never gonna be a …"

"I know he loves Liz. And that he doesn't… feel anything for me." Tess sighed. "I've been trying to figure out if I ever felt anything for him either. Like you said, I didn't even know him."

"Come to any conclusions?"

"Not really. I mean, if you aren't the person you've always thought you were, then who does that make you?"

"Interesting point," Kyle admitted. He maneuvered the car into the driveway and cut the engine. Turning to Tess, he raised an eyebrow. "Maybe that's what life is all about. Finding the answer to that question. Who are you, anyway? It really doesn't matter what your folks say or what some prophecy claims. In the end, it's up to you."

"You make it sound so simple."

"Why shouldn't it be? Once you throw away all the baggage of other people's expectations, things can be pretty easy. Maybe you should think about it." He nodded as if for emphasis, then climbed out of the car. "Besides," he added, leaning down and looking her in the eye. "Seems to me that Max, Michael, and Isabel have just found out they're not exactly who they thought they were, too. Just 'cause they don't need you the way you thought they did, doesn't mean you don't belong together." Clearly finished, he began pulling her bags from the back of the car, leaving her with her thoughts spinning.

* * * * *

Jim Valenti frowned at the data scrolling across the computer screen - county real estate transactions dating from mid-May, arranged in chronological order. The list was longer than he had expected. He quickly punched a couple of keys, then stood and paced to the window as the printer began to churn. There had to be something there, some clue as to where these evil aliens were hiding. He didn't care where they had come from - they still needed a base of operations. And a base of operations could be found. He rubbed one hand thoughtfully over the stubble covering his chin. All he wanted was a break - something to help him help those kids. He owed them that much. Hell - he owed them a lot more than that.

The door to his office swung open and Jim glanced over, half-expecting his overly eager deputy to be bringing him a fresh cup of coffee. Instead he saw Agent Pierce. It took him a split second to remember what that meant - that Nasedo had shape-shifted into Pierce. It was one thing to talk to him on the phone, but entirely different to see a dead man standing in front of him. He found it disconcerting. The slow smile on the other man's face told the Sheriff his reaction had been noted.

"Agent," he said slowly. "What brings you into town on a Sunday afternoon?"

Nasedo closed the door behind him and raised one eyebrow. "I could ask you what you were doing working on a Sunday afternoon, Sheriff," he drawled lightly.

Valenti shrugged. "Law is a full time job."

"So it is." Nasedo's gaze flicked to the computer screen. He appeared momentarily impressed. "Find anything useful?" he asked. His voice had lost the hint of amusement it held previously.

The Sheriff pulled several sheets from the printer. "Hard to say. Quite a list. But they have to be staying someplace."

Nasedo nodded. There was no need to say who they were discussing.

Valenti looked up, his eyes narrowing. "You talk to Max lately?"

"No. We had agreed to go through you, I believe," Nasedo said.

"Then you don't know about this morning."

"What about this morning?"

Valenti shook his head. "Better have a seat," he said, moving behind his desk and dropping into his own chair. "There was an incident this morning. Out near the crash site," he added, lowering his voice. "They're all right, but apparently there was a sort of ambush."

Nasedo frowned. "Tell me."

Quickly, the Sheriff outlined what he knew of Tess's disappearance and the others' attempts to find her, ending with a brief explanation of the battle at the pod chamber. "I only got this from Michael, Tess, and Alex," he concluded. "I haven't had a chance to speak with Max yet. Tess called a while back to arrange a group meeting this evening."

"Where?"

Valenti paused and his eyes flickered. "Odd that Tess didn't mention that I should contact you about it," he replied.

Nasedo frowned. "Sheriff, when and where is this meeting to be held?"

"Also strange that she didn't ask me to let you know about the fight." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, fingering the gun in his holster. "Any reason you can think of why she would have neglected to include you?"

"Sheriff Valenti, you are a part of this because Max trusts you," Nasedo told him. "And despite everything, Max is my leader. But that does not mean that I must unburden my soul to you at your will."

"I suppose that goes both ways, now doesn't it?" Valenti pointed out.

Nasedo cocked his head to one side and smiled. "Touché, Sheriff. Very well. Max and I had an altercation of sorts last night. Words were exchanged. It is possible he is questioning my position at this point. However, I can assure you that I only have their best interests at heart. It is my job to keep them alive."

The Sheriff stared at him for a long minute, then nodded slowly. "All right, then. The meeting is here. Ten-thirty."

"Thank you, Sheriff. I'll be here." He rose to go. "If you would be so good as to give me a copy of that list," he said, indicating the papers on the desk between them, "I'll see if I can narrow things down somewhat before then."

"Right." Valenti picked up the list and stood. "Copy machine is on the way out," he said pointedly.

"I'm right behind you, Sheriff," Nasedo said. "Shall we?"

Valenti opened the door and led the way down the hall.

* * * * *

Max pulled his father's Audi into the garage and cut the engine. Turning to Liz, he smiled. "Looks like we may have the house to ourselves for a while," he said quietly. "Mom's car is gone."

"That doesn't mean no one's home, Max," she pointed out with an answering smile.

"True," he agreed. "Let's go see." He climbed out of the car, then went around to open Liz's door with a flourish.

"You idiot," she giggled as he took her hand and helped her from the car with a courtly bow.

Instead of answering, he planted a kiss on the back of her hand before tucking it through his arm. He hit the automatic garage door controls on the wall, then led her into the house.

"Mom! Dad!" he called. "Anyone here?" There was no reply. Still holding Liz's hand, he headed into the kitchen. "Want something to drink?" he asked.

"Um, no thanks. I'm good." Max smiled, one eyebrow arching, and Liz blushed swiftly. "You know what I meant," she said.

He just grinned. "Come on," he said, tugging her across the room.

She followed him down the hall. However, when they reached his room, Liz pulled away from him and lingered just outside the door.

"Max," she said softly. "Haven't your parents had enough of a shock already today? You want to risk them coming home and finding us in bed?" Her cheeks were still flushed, but her eyes were somber.

He smiled understandingly and reached for her again. "It's all right," he said gently, pulling her into his arms and dropping a kiss on her brow. "We'll just lie down for a while, okay?" He looked into her eyes and with one finger traced the line of her jaw, tipping her chin up and kissing her on the mouth. "Much as I want you, I wouldn't want to do anything that might make you uncomfortable," he whispered against her lips. "Besides which, I can barely keep my eyes open right now," he admitted.

Liz reached up and cupped his cheek. "I'm sorry," she said. "So much has happened, I keep forgetting how little sleep you got last night."

"I'm fine," he told her, easing his thumb over the little wrinkle between her brows, smoothing the skin gently. "You don't have to worry. All I need is a nap. Just lie down with me for a little bit," he urged her, tugging her toward the bed. "We'll leave the door open. My parents won't care," he added with a smile. "Come on. You didn't sleep much more than I did," he reminded her. He pushed gently on her shoulders until she smiled and sat on the edge of the bed. Kneeling down, he slipped her sandals off her feet, his thumbs rubbing over her delicate arches. Then he looked up and smiled, his eyes warm. "It's all right," he said again.

"Okay," she agreed. She lay back, stretching out the length of the bed. She watched as he walked around to the other side and sat on the edge to kick off his shoes. When he lay down next to her and held out his arms, she smiled and shifted closer. Max cradled her against him so her head was pillowed on his shoulder and stroked her back gently.

"Comfortable?" he asked.

"Yes," she said with a contented sigh, snuggling against him. "But just so you know, I am not going to show up at dinner with bed head. You may have to use a little hocus pocus," she teased.

Max let out a low chuckle. "I'm at your service," he told her. He ran his palm up her side and along her arm, then up to her cheek. Leaning down, he kissed her slowly, thoroughly, enjoying the warmth of her response. He deepened the kiss and she moaned, arching up to give him better access to her mouth. Max could feel Liz's heart beating slightly faster, her pulse strong beneath his fingers as he stroked her face and neck. With a final kiss, he pulled back gently, smiling as she clutched at his shoulders in an attempt to keep him close.

"Mmmm, not fair," she mumbled, dropping her head against his chest and nuzzling against him.

"I know. I'm sorry," he said, rubbing her back soothingly. "I just can't seem to help myself," he confessed.

"I'm glad," she told him, wrapping her arms around him and closing her eyes. "I can't help myself either," she said softly. "I love you so much."

"I love you, too. You're my life, Liz," he whispered against her hair.

"And you're mine. Now go to sleep," she coaxed.

Max brushed a kiss against the top of her head and shifted slightly, angling so their bodies fit more easily against each other. When he closed his eyes, he was smiling contentedly. Within moments, both he and Liz were fast asleep.

* * *

An hour later, Philip Evans walked quietly down the hall, wondering where everyone was. He had helped Diane bring the groceries in from the car and left her happily chopping vegetables in the kitchen, but now he was puzzled as to where the kids were. His car was back in the garage, but the house was deathly quiet and there was no sign of either Max or Isabel. Frowning, he peered down the hallway toward the kids' rooms. Both doors were wide open, a sure sign that they were unoccupied.

He was about to head back to check the family room when a rustling sound caught his attention and he froze where he stood. What was it Max had said about being careful? Could something have happened to him? What if he and Isabel had come home to a trap? There hadn't been any signs of a struggle, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. Philip looked nervously around the hall, but there was nothing he could use as a weapon. The rustling sound came again, followed by a strange squeak. It was coming from Max's room.

Unable to help himself, Philip began to walk slowly toward Max's bedroom. As he approached, he could see the late afternoon sunshine streaming through the window and making patterns on the floor. Moving carefully, barely breathing, he crept toward the doorway. The sounds had stopped, but there was no way anyone could have left the room without being seen. Finally, Philip reached the door. He held his breath and leaned forward slowly - just enough so that he could peer around the corner - then let the breath out in a quiet rush.

There on the bed, fast asleep, were Max and Liz. They lay on top of the covers, fully dressed, arms around each other, their foreheads just touching. Max was smiling slightly in his sleep, nightmares obviously not a problem at the moment. For the first time in months, his son looked truly relaxed. Philip shook his head slowly, thinking of everything these young people had to face, all the terrible things they were up against, and marveled at their ability to discover a moment of peace and tranquility in the midst of it. Reaching out, he eased the door closed so they wouldn't be disturbed, and headed back down to the kitchen to help his wife with dinner.

******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:48:58 PM

Part 8

********

"Um, Isabel, you do realize that I haven't actually met your parents yet, right?" Alex asked as he maneuvered his mother's station wagon into the Evanses' driveway.

"What are you talking about, Alex? You know my parents."

"I know who your parents are. The same way I know every parent of every kid I've gone to school with since elementary school," he clarified. "But unless you count a brief nod to your dad during that whole camping fiasco last winter, I've never been introduced. And I certainly haven't seen them since you and I became a… couple." He turned off the car and shot her a pointed look. "Do they even know I'm coming to dinner?"

"Of course they know," she said softly. "I'm sorry, Alex. I guess with everything that's been going on I didn't think." She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "It wasn't on purpose. You know that, don't you?"

"Yeah, I know," he said with a smile. "And I know things have been insane. But I'm really glad you invited me tonight," he added quietly.

"Me too," she said, flashing him a bright smile. "Come on. I bet you anything my mom is making pasta." With that she jumped out of the car.

"Hey, I never bet against the house," he replied with a grin as he got out and closed his door.

Isabel was already halfway up the front walk, but she turned and laughed. "It's Max's favorite," she elaborated. "Mine too, I guess, but it's different with Max. There wasn't a problem he had when we were little that my mother couldn't solve with a big bowl of spaghetti."

Alex caught up with her and grabbed her hand, swinging it lightly as they continued toward the front door. "Does Liz know about this?"

Rolling her eyes, Isabel shook her head. "I suspect with Liz around, pasta's gonna fall to a distant second in the cures-what-ails-you department."

"I have a feeling you're right," Alex replied with a chuckle. "With Liz and Maria it's always been a Ben and Jerry's orgy." He glanced sideways toward Isabel. "So, how about you? If spaghetti wasn't the answer to your problems, what was?"

Isabel smiled a secretive little smile. "That's for me to know and you to find out," she said. With a quick wink, she opened the door and led him inside.

"No fair," he complained, following her. "Come on, Iz," he coaxed. "I could always ask your mom," he teased.

"Fine," she moaned, knowing her mother would take great pleasure in giving Alex a blow-by-blow of every second of her childhood if given an opening. "When I was really little, it was hair bows," she admitted. "My mom would always know when I was feeling blue about something, though most of the time she didn't know what exactly was bothering me. But she wouldn't push me to talk about it." Isabel got a far away look in her eyes as she remembered. "She would come into my bedroom and sit on the bed behind me and brush my hair. And then she would braid it and fasten the bottom with a bright new bow. She always had some scrap of ribbon tucked away, just waiting for me."

Alex smiled. "That's nice."

Isabel focused on Alex's blue eyes and smiled back. "Yeah. It was," she said. "When I got older she'd bring me other things. Lipstick. Nail polish. Or she'd take me shopping. You know - girl time."

"And you'd tell her what was wrong by the time you got done?"

"No," she admitted quietly. "Generally it was something alien-related. Feeling different, left out, scared." Isabel shrugged, looking suddenly sad. "I couldn't ever tell her, Alex. No matter how badly I wanted to. Sometimes I'd go to Max, but it wasn't the same as being able to go to my mother."

"Hey," he said, drawing her into his arms and hugging her. "She knows now, right? So you can tell her about all those fears and worries and she'll understand."

Isabel hugged him back, then pulled away and smiled. "You're right. Thanks," she said.

Alex grinned. "No problem." He looked up thoughtfully. "You know, I think I smell oregano." He winked at her. "Must be pasta sauce," he whispered.

Giggling, Isabel took his hand. "Come meet my mom, Alex," she said. Turning, she tugged him toward the kitchen.

* * *

Diane Evans looked up from the pot she was stirring when her daughter came into the kitchen, and smiled at the sight of the tall, thin young man Isabel was dragging behind her. "Hi, kids," she said warmly. "Dinner should be ready in about twenty minutes."

"Hi, Mom," Isabel said, smiling at her mother. "This is Alex Whitman. My boyfriend," she added softly, glancing in Alex's direction just in time to see him flush slightly.

Diane held out her hand to shake hands with Alex. "It's wonderful to finally meet you officially, Alex," she told him.

"Nice to meet you, too, Mrs. Evans," Alex said, taking her hand. "Thank you for inviting me to dinner."

"Well, it's an occasion, isn't it?" she asked, turning to look at her daughter.

Isabel nodded. "Yeah, Mom," she said. "It definitely is." Reaching into the large salad bowl on the counter, she grabbed a slice of cucumber before her mother could stop her. "So, where is everyone else?" she asked, frowning slightly. "Max and Liz are here, aren't they?"

"They're upstairs. Asleep, actually," Diane said with a slight smile.

Isabel swallowed abruptly and began to cough. Alex patted her on the back and her mother looked at her worriedly.

"Honey, are you all right?" Diane asked.

Nodding, Isabel cleared her throat. "Yeah," she said, somewhat hoarsely. Her eyes met Alex's. "Um, Mom, you said Max is asleep?"

Diane nodded. "Your father said both he and Liz were dead to the world when we came home from the store, and that was at least an hour ago. And it's been perfectly peaceful," she added, noting her daughter's worried expression. "No signs of nightmares."

"You're sure?" Isabel asked.

"Positive, honey. Maybe his exhaustion finally got the better of him," she suggested quietly, though the furrow of her brow revealed the level of her own concern.

"I hope so."

"I thought he didn't have the nightmares when Liz was there?" Alex asked Isabel.

"Alex," she hissed, shooting him a look.

His eyes opened wide when he realized what he had said and he looked quickly toward Mrs. Evans. However, Diane was merely smiling.

"It's all right," she said. "I believe you all mentioned earlier that you'd been taking turns staying the night with Max," she reminded Isabel. She dropped a hand over her daughter's and squeezed. "I understand that things are... different for you and your brother, honey. I'm just glad you both found people you trust - that you can confide in." Turning to Alex, Diane raised her eyebrows slightly. "How exactly did you learn the truth, Alex? I mean, I know how Liz ended up getting involved, but I feel like I'm missing so many details."

"Mom, I'm sorry," Isabel said swiftly. "I wish we could have told you sooner and…"

"No, Izzy, honey, I'm not blaming you." Diane sighed. "I've been thinking about this since you and Max left this morning. I can't say that I don't wish you had been able to come to us before, because of course I do. But I understand why you and your brother were so careful with your secret all this time. And it's all right."

Isabel blinked back the tears that were threatening to fall and pulled her mother into a tight embrace. "I love you so much, Mom," she whispered.

"I love you too, honey." Stepping back, Diane smiled at her daughter and brushed her hair off her face.

"Um, so where's Dad?" Isabel asked. She glanced at Alex to find him smiling understandingly. "It doesn't seem fair to start telling all of these stories without him here," she explained. "We'd just end up having to repeat everything."

"He wanted to run a few errands before dinner," Diane replied. "He should be back any minute." She glanced at the clock. "Would you two mind setting the table?" she asked. "And keeping an eye on the pasta water? I'm just going to run up and check on Max and Liz." She frowned. "Or do you think I should let them sleep? They were so tired."

Isabel gave her mother a gentle push. "Go ahead, Mom. Max would never forgive you if you let him sleep through a spaghetti dinner," she teased.

"You're sure?"

"Go," Isabel told her. "We'll finish up down here." So saying, Isabel went to the cupboard and began gathering things to make salad dressing.

"Thank you, honey. You too, Alex. And I still want to hear all about… everything, I guess," she finished with a smile. "I'll be right back."

"No problem, Mrs. Evans," Alex said.

Diane walked quietly down the hallway toward Max's room. The door was still closed most of the way and she leaned close for a moment, listening. Not a sound. With one hand, she eased the door open and stepped into the room.

Max and Liz were still asleep. Liz had shifted so her back was to Max, and he had pulled her tightly into the arc of his body, her head tucked neatly under his chin. Liz's arms rested over Max's, holding him close. Their expressions were perfectly peaceful and content.

Standing there, watching them sleep, Diane felt tears come to her eyes. When had her little boy turned into this handsome, powerful young man? And when exactly had he fallen so deeply in love? She had seen the way he looked at Liz - that day in the hospital after he had run the Jeep off the road to avoid a wild horse - but it hadn't registered then just how serious things were. And something told her they had been serious even all those months ago - that her silent, secretive son would never have allowed a girl into his heart unless it was forever. Looking at Liz, so deceptively slight and frail in Max's arms, Diane felt infinitely grateful that this strong young woman had been able to accept her son despite his differences.

Brushing quickly at her eyes, Diane took a deep breath and made an effort to compose herself. Then she leaned over and gently ruffled Max's hair off his forehead the way she had countless times since he was small. Only now the gesture seemed somehow final - as if she were saying good bye to the child he had been.

Max's eyes opened and he smiled up at his mother. He could tell she was getting nostalgic on him, just from the expression on her face. "I love you, Mom," he whispered.

Diane smiled back. "I love you too," she replied.

"We'll be down in a few minutes," he told her, his voice still low to keep from waking Liz.

His mother nodded. With a final wistful look, she turned and slipped out of the room.

* * * * *

Max lay there for a few minutes, just listening to the even sound of Liz breathing beside him. Part of him still had trouble believing she was actually there in his arms, when just a few days before she hadn't even been speaking to him. He inhaled, taking in the sweet scent of her hair. Leaning forward, he kissed her lightly on the temple, his lips brushing gently over her silky skin. He smiled when she stirred in her sleep, snuggling closer to him.

"Liz," he whispered. "Liz, baby wake up."

"Hmmm," she murmured. "Baby?" Her nose wrinkled slightly at the word.

He chuckled, a low rumble in his chest. "No, huh?"

"No," she mumbled sleepily. "Not a baby. Not even yours."

Max brushed Liz's hair back off her forehead. Her eyes were still closed. "Let's see," he said thoughtfully. "How about this? Wake up, love." His voice was smooth and warm as he spoke the words against her ear.

"Better," she smiled, rolling toward him. Opening her eyes, she met his heated gaze. "So, how long 'til dinner?"

"Not long enough," he replied, then brought his mouth down over hers. "I don't suppose your parents would let you move in with me?" he muttered against her lips between kisses, his hands lightly massaging her back.

"Um, I don't think so."

Max groaned and pulled away, resting his forehead against hers. "How long until you turn eighteen?"

Liz chose to ignore his question and kissed him lightly again instead. "What time is it?"

"Dinner time," Max sighed. He pushed himself into a sitting position. "Ready?"

"As soon as you do something about my hair," she replied with a smirk. Her eyes traveled down the length of her skirt. "And maybe these wrinkles? Please?"

Max laughed. "Come on," he said, and held out his hand.

They climbed out of bed and Liz went to look in the mirror. "Ack!"

"You look beautiful," Max said as he came up behind her. But he ran a hand over her hair and then down the length of her clothes.

"Thank you," she said softly, her brown eyes meeting his through her reflection.

"My pleasure." He glanced toward the door at the sound of voices in the hall. "We'd better get a move on. Sounds like the natives are restless."

No sooner had he spoken than there was a soft knock. "Max?" Isabel called. "You guys up?"

"Come on in, Iz," he answered.

The door cracked open and Isabel poked her head in. "Hey," she smiled at the two of them. "Dad just got back. Dinner's ready."

"We're coming."

Isabel grinned. "Good. I'm starving."

"What are we having?" Max asked.

"Three guesses, but you won't need them," she told him with a quick wink as she disappeared back into the hall.

Max laughed.

Liz looked at him questioningly. "What was that all about?"

"Nothing, really," he told her, dropping a quick kiss on her smiling mouth. "We're having spaghetti." With that, he took her hand and they headed out of the room.

Wonderful smells assaulted them as they entered the kitchen. Liz inhaled deeply and sighed. "I don't think I realized how hungry I was. It looks wonderful, Mrs. Evans," she told Diane. "Can I do anything to help?"

Diane looked up from the stove with a smile. "I think we're all set, dear, but thank you." Her gaze shifted to Isabel and Alex who were over by the table. "I think Izzy and Alex have everything covered," she added quietly.

The table had been extended to accommodate the additional guests, and Isabel and Alex had set it with candles and flowers. The salad and a basket of warm garlic bread was already sitting on the table, as well as two bottles of Tabasco sauce. Liz smiled and poked Max in the side. "Easy to see where you and Isabel sit," she teased.

"Yeah," he admitted sheepishly. "So, Mom. I guess now you can stop wondering why Iz and I have a thing for hot sauce, huh?"

"I guess so, honey," she agreed. She passed a huge bowl of pasta to her son, her eyes narrowing. "Can I trust you with this?"

Max laughed. "I think I can make it the six feet to the table without eating it all," he promised.

"Now, that's a sound I haven't heard in a long time." Philip Evans came into the kitchen carrying a large paper bag. "I can't recall the last time you laughed that way, Max," he told his son. "It's good to hear."

Liz watched the look exchanged between father and son and smiled.

"Hey, guys?" Isabel said, breaking the moment of silence. "Can we eat now?"

Everyone laughed and headed over to the table.

"Kids, this looks lovely," Diane said. "What would everyone like to drink?"

"Actually, I picked up some wine," Philip said. "I thought it might be nice to have a toast."

Max and Liz looked at each other. Catching their amused expressions, Alex burst out laughing. Isabel just shook her head.

Philip looked confused. "I think I missed something."

"Sorry, Dad," Max said. "Um, Isabel and I can't really drink."

"Just a sip, then," he said, clearly not understanding.

"No, Dad. Not even a sip," Max said, a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. Then Liz began to giggle and he lost it. Laughing openly, he clutched at his side as he tried to pull himself together.

Philip looked to his wife, who shrugged and turned to Isabel who was the only one not laughing, though she was grinning broadly. "Izzy, what's going on?"

Isabel shook her head. "There's something about our biological make up," she explained. "Even a small amount of alcohol gets us very drunk. Pretty much immediately."

"Ah," Philip said, nodding. "I see." He looked at the other three, who were finally regaining a measure of control. "I'm guessing from your reactions that you learned this the hard way?"

"Not me. Max. I wasn't even there," Isabel said.

Max shot her a look. "Some help you are."

"Actually, it was really Kyle's fault," Alex pointed out with a grin.

"Kyle Valenti?" Diane asked. "The Sheriff's son?"

"Now, don't blame Kyle," Liz said. "It was really my fault."

"Um, no. I don't think so," Max said. "I'm a big boy. I could have said no to Kyle. And Liz, how do you figure that it was your fault?" he asked, eyebrows raised.

"You never would have been with Kyle that night if you weren't upset about me," she pointed out.

"And you never would have been with Doug What's-His-Face if I hadn't pushed you away," Max told her.

"Um, excuse me?" Isabel broke in. "Why don't you two just tell the story from the beginning? Hmm?"

Max looked across the table at his sister and chuckled. "It is kind of funny."

"Yeah," Liz agreed. "At least it is now."

"Well, why don't I get some water and soda for everyone and you tell us what happened," Diane said. "Go ahead and start passing the food around."

Everyone began to serve themselves, but it was clear all attention was on the couple to one side of the table. Max finally looked to Liz with a somewhat embarrassed smile. "Maybe you'd better. I'm a little fuzzy on some of the details," he reminded her.

Liz slipped her hand into his beneath the cover of the table and held it comfortingly. She knew he had eventually remembered most of that night, but she understood his hesitancy to speak of it. Turning back to the group, she briefly recounted the events leading up to her blind date with Doug Shellow the previous Valentine's Day. Even now, she suffered a slight pang of guilt over the entire incident. Only when Max squeezed her hand lightly did she realize that he understood how she felt as well.

"Anyway, the radio announcer just kept quoting us on the air all through dinner," she continued. "And then he expected Doug to kiss me, in front of all those people who were watching us through the window of Chez Pierre." Liz shook her head slightly.

"I never did understand that part," Isabel said. "I mean, it was radio. It's not like anyone listening could see you or anything."

Liz shrugged. "Doug just played along. He dipped me to kiss me, but what he really wanted to do was tell me we were going to slip out the back to ditch the radio crew. Still, when he pulled me back up I was looking right at Max through the window." She glanced over and was glad to see Max was still calm. "I felt so awful," she said quietly. "Like I'd hit him."

"It wasn't your fault," Max told her.

"So what happened then?" Diane asked, trying to imagine the scene. "Max?"

"Yeah," he confessed. "I tried to take off, but Kyle came after me. He was ragging on me the whole night, taking great pleasure in watching me squirm. But I guess he actually felt sorry for me by then. So he offered me a sip from his flask. I wasn't going to have any, but he kept pushing, and I figured what could one sip hurt?" He shook his head with a wry smile. "Boy, was I wrong. I was instantly drunk."

"That fast?" Philip asked.

Max nodded. "And talk about lowering your inhibitions," he groaned. "It was really bad. The things I said. The things I did. I could have really put us in a lot of danger."

"I didn't know what was happening until later," Liz said. "Doug and I managed to lose the radio people and we went back to the Crashdown. But then somehow they found us and we went upstairs to try to avoid them and that's when I found Max and Kyle in my room."

"In your bedroom?" Diane asked, brows raised.

Max groaned. "That part was Kyle's idea, okay?"

Liz laughed. "They were pretty funny, truthfully. But I was mostly worried about what Max might have said in that condition. And then he basically kidnapped me off my roof."

"Not before I lit up the heart," he reminded her.

"What heart?" Alex asked.

Liz blushed. "I never told anyone about that," she whispered.

"Why not? That's the best part," Max said with a mock-pout. "I used my powers to paint a red heart on the wall outside her window with our initials in it," he said. "And then I lit it."

"You put graffiti on her wall?" Isabel laughed.

"Hey, I got rid of it later," he said defensively.

"That was you?" Liz asked. "I thought it just faded," she said a little sadly. "Like the handprint."

Max looked apologetic. "I didn't think your parents would be too thrilled. And it seemed best after everything else that happened."

"I know," she agreed. "You were right."

"So, you said he kidnapped you, Liz," Diane said. "What does that mean?"

"He didn't really," Liz explained. "He got me to go with him, that's all. He told me he'd only had one tiny sip, but it wasn't wearing off, and I was worried. We left Kyle and Doug and the DJ in my room and just took off down the fire escape." She got a wistful smile of her face. "Max did all of these crazy, reckless, romantic things," she said, meeting his warm gaze. "He made the street lamp twinkle and a car alarm play like a music box. He set off sparklers from the parking meters." Her smile faded. "Then we got to the blind date concert and they pulled us all out on stage. Kyle and Doug, too. And Max kissed me on the stage in front of all those people, and it sobered him up in a second."

"That's all it took?" Philip asked.

Max shrugged. "It may have just been bad timing," he admitted. "I suddenly realized I was standing there with Liz on this stage, with what seemed like half of Roswell staring at us. I just took off."

"I followed him," Liz said. "And that's when he told me he didn't remember what had happened. After that night, we pretty much knew that drinking wasn't such a good idea," she finished with a chuckle.

"Oh, I don't know," Alex piped up. "That little contest Kyle and Max had going was kinda fun to watch. Don't tell me you didn't get the tiniest bit of a thrill watching them trying to win you back," he teased.

Liz cheeks flushed rosily. "There was nothing thrilling about it. I was mortified."

Max slipped his arm around her shoulders and kissed her temple. "I'm so sorry," he whispered.

"Max, it's all right. I survived. We've been through worse," she reminded him, careful to keep her tone light. "And it is really funny now," she added, a smile touching her lips.

"Yeah," Isabel said. "I think Liz is right. After all, it must have been way more embarrassing when the principal walked in on you in the eraser room," she reminded them.

Max shot his sister a look that clearly said she would pay later, while everyone else burst out laughing, except for Liz, who turned and hid her face against his arm. "What is this?" Max asked. "You guys can't think of any stories that don't involve our abject humiliation?"

Isabel grinned. "Sorry," she replied insincerely.

Philip smiled across the table at his wife. "As I recall, Max, you and Liz already explained that you two had started having… what do you call them? Flashes? I think we're beyond worrying about the eraser room at this point."

"Of course, it doesn't hurt that school's out," Isabel added.

"Uh, Iz? I seem to recall Michael telling me something about walking in on you and Alex in the eraser room a couple of weeks ago," Max pointed out. "And you two aren't having any flashes that you've mentioned."

Alex elbowed Isabel quickly in the ribs.

"Thanks a lot, Max," Isabel said.

Max grinned. "Anytime."

"You guys are so obviously brother and sister," Liz commented, shaking her head.

Everyone laughed.

******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:50:52 PM

Part 9

*******

"Michael. Michael, the burgers are burning." Maria leaned through the pass-through into the kitchen and swatted Michael on the shoulder.

He turned with a start, his brow furrowed. "What?"

"Burgers? Burning?" she said pointedly, her eyebrows raised.

Michael spun toward the grill, muttering under his breath, and hastily flipped the meat over.

Maria watched him, a concerned look on her face. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong."

"Try again, pally," she said, tapping one toe impatiently. "You were bringing a whole new meaning to the term 'lost in space'. Now what gives?"

He merely shook his head.

Maria shot a glance at the café. The dinner rush, such as it was on a Sunday night, was pretty much over. She only had two tables, both of which were waiting for orders that now most closely resembled charcoal. If she didn't pry Michael's head out of the clouds, she could kiss her tips good bye. It only took her a couple of quick strides and she was through the back door and into the kitchen.

Michael looked up with a scowl. "Now what? I'm flipping, aren't I?"

Her expression softened. He was obviously worried about something. "Michael, what is it?" she asked quietly. "Are you thinking about this morning?"

He stared at her for a moment, then sighed. "Not really," he admitted.

"What then?" She paused. "Is this about Max and Isabel talking to their parents?" she guessed.

Michael shrugged. He busied himself straightening the plates he had lined up next to the grill, laying tomato and lettuce on each of the rolls.

Bingo, Maria thought. "Why does it upset you that much?"

"It doesn't," he admitted. "I mean, it did but…"

"But what?"

"Once Max explained, I understood why he felt it was so important."

"So, then what has you so preoccupied?" she pressed. Taking a step closer, she laid a hand on his arm. "Michael?"

He let out a sigh of frustration. "Look, I don't think the Evanses are gonna tell anyone about us. Not on purpose anyway. It's just… every time we turn around, someone else is finding out the truth. And each time it gets easier to tell them. I can't help but think that one of these days we're gonna say something to the wrong person."

Maria looked at him thoughtfully for a minute.

"What?" he asked finally, clearly confused by her silence.

"Nothing," she said, shaking her head. "I was just thinking that there isn't anyone left to tell. I mean, not really."

"How do you figure? Roswell may be a small town, but it's not that small."

"Michael, it's not like any of us were intending to take a banner ad out in the paper," she shot out. "The only people who know are the people directly involved in our lives."

Michael began scooping the burgers off the grill and placing them on the waiting rolls. "You mother doesn't know. Liz's parents. Alex's."

"Oh, please. Like I would ever tell my mother," Maria said, eyes rolling. "I love her, Michael, but I am definitely aware of her limits. An alien boyfriend definitely crosses them," she muttered quietly. She watched as he dumped fries onto the plates in front of him. "And I seriously can't see Liz saying anything either. As for Alex," she sighed, "he really doesn't have much in the way of a speaking relationship with his parents." Smiling a little sadly, she picked up the plates and balanced them along her arm. "Don't worry so much, Spaceboy. We've reached the bottom of the barrel, so I'd say you're all pretty safe." With that she turned and headed back out into the café.

Watching her go, Michael frowned. "Yeah, but are they?"

* * * * *

When the food was gone and the dishes had been washed, everyone took their coffee and headed into the living room.

"It was so sweet of you to bring the pie, Liz," Diane said as she dropped into a chair with a groan. "But I'm afraid I ate way too much of it."

Liz smiled as Max pulled her down onto the couch beside him. "I don't see how you could have. I think Max had at least half," she teased, grinning as he poked her in response.

"That's what you get for bringing Men in Blackberry Pie," he told her with a grin. "You know it's my favorite."

Chuckling, Liz leaned into him and settled herself more comfortably. "That was kind of the point, actually," she told him.

"Either way, it was delicious," Philip declared.

Isabel and Alex curled up on the other couch, and Isabel looked at Max. "Um… I hate to do this, seeing as how this is probably the first semi-relaxed evening we've had in weeks, but I think there were a few other things we needed to discuss," she said quietly.

Max met his sister's gaze and nodded. "Isabel's right." His arm tightened reflexively around Liz's shoulders.

"What did you want to talk about?" Philip asked, shifting toward his son.

"Dad, Mom, my nightmares weren't the only reason everyone has spent so many nights sleeping over here," he said. "The truth is, we didn't want to leave anyone alone. On the nights Liz wasn't here, I was over at her place. Or else she was with Maria. Michael's been going to Maria's or vice versa, and once or twice they both slept here as well. Alex, too," he concluded, shooting his friend a supportive look.

Philip nodded, his expression grave. "You're thinking there's safety in numbers."

"That's what we've been hoping, yes," Max agreed.

Diane rubbed her hands over her face. "It all seems so unreal," she said.

"I know, Mom," Isabel said. "We've been living it and it doesn't seem real to us, either. At least not most of the time. But we're the ones who dragged everyone into this. We have to make sure they're all safe." Her eyes fell on Alex, who smiled encouragingly at her.

"Of course you do," Diane said. She looked from Isabel to Alex, and then to Liz. "How can we help?"

"I was hoping you'd ask that," Max admitted. "As things stand, both the Parkers and Mrs. DeLuca are pretty much at the end of their patience, for a number of reasons. I don't want to get Liz or Maria into more trouble, but on the other hand, I won't risk their safety. There's no way to know when our enemies will strike and I refuse to leave anyone in a vulnerable position."

"What do you propose?" Philip asked.

"I'm going to be spending the night at Liz's," Max said slowly. "With a little luck, her parents won't even know I'm there. All I ask is that you please understand why it's necessary." He squeezed Liz's hand lightly as he spoke. "It isn't safe any other way. As for Maria, well, the Sheriff seems to have a certain amount of influence with Mrs. DeLuca. I'm hoping he'll be able to help us out there." He turned to Alex. "Can you stay here?"

Alex glanced from Isabel's warm eyes to her parents. His apprehension was clear. "Um…"

Diane Evans smiled at his discomfort. "Since Max won't be here, Alex, I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you took his room."

Exhaling slowly, Alex nodded. "Thank you, ma'am. I appreciate that."

"So do I, Mom," Isabel said with a smile.

Diane nodded. "What about your parents, though, Alex? Won't they be upset if you're out too many nights?"

Alex squirmed slightly. "They pretty much let me do my own thing," he said quietly.

"Oh," Diane said slowly. She sat absorbing his words for a few moments. "Max," she said finally, turning back to her son, "this is all well and good for the next couple of days, but it can't go on indefinitely. You do realize that, don't you? I mean, unless you plan on telling everyone's parents what's going on, I don't see how you can keep up these endless slumber parties. Eventually someone will realize what's going on." Her brow furrowed with worry. "Do you have any idea what you're going to do?"

Max glanced at Isabel, who nodded. "We're not entirely sure," Max said slowly. "We have no intention of telling anyone else the truth about us. It's just too risky for everyone concerned. We're all meeting with the Sheriff tonight to discuss what our next move is going to be. The one thing I can tell you for sure is that we aren't just going to sit and wait for them to attack again if we can help it. In the meantime, we'll do the best we can." His eyes shifted momentarily to Liz, then back to his mother. "It's Liz I'm most worried about," he said quietly. "If they're watching us, if they want a way to get to me, she's the most likely target."

"Max, don't…" Liz said softly. "Don't go looking for trouble."

His eyes dropped to hers. "I'm not looking for it. It's come all by itself," he told her. "I'm trying to be practical. If the situations were reversed, I know what I would do. And I'm not losing you," he finished in a voice meant only for her.

Diane and Philip exchanged a look. "Maybe we can talk to the Parkers," Diane suggested. "I'm not exactly sure what we'd say, but we can assure them that you're all right, at least. That the nightmares are lessening - something that will ease their minds."

Liz managed to tear her gaze from Max's long enough to give his mother a grateful look. "Thank you, Mrs. Evans."

Diane returned the girl's smile. "You're welcome, honey." She frowned thoughtfully. "Isabel," she continued, "you and Max said earlier that your friend, Tess, was involved in all of this as well. Didn't her father recently go out of the country? Is she safe on her own?"

"Actually, Mom, she's staying with the Sheriff now," Isabel replied.

"Now there's something I'm not quite clear on," Philip broke in with a puzzled look. "I can understand how Michael, Maria, Liz, and Alex ended up helping you. You kids have known each other since you were small. But didn't Tess just move to Roswell? Where does she fit into all of this? How did she manage to get involved so quickly?"

"Well, you see, Tess is…"

"Isabel," Max interrupted her, his voice stern.

"It's okay, Max," she told him. "She said so this afternoon." She turned back to her parents. "Tess is like us. She was in the crash also."

"She was?" Diane asked, eyes wide. "And you realized this when she came to town?"

"We didn't know at first," Max filled in. "We were drawn to her, but we had no idea why. It took a… little while."

"So, her father is also…"

"He's not really her father," Isabel said. "He was one of the guardians sent to protect us. When the ship crashed, he was captured by the FBI, but he managed to escape." She took a deep breath, her eyes pinned on Max. "We're not quite sure where he was after that, but we know he came back looking for us. When he arrived at the pod chamber, Tess was the only one still there. The two of them spent the last ten years on the run, but they were looking for us, too."

"So, where is he now?" Philip asked.

Max and Isabel exchanged a worried look. Telling them what Nasedo was doing would inevitably lead to everything that had happened to Pierce.

"He's working undercover," Alex piped up. Both Max and Isabel relaxed visibly and Liz shot Alex a smile. "He's got the Special Unit of the FBI chasing their tails instead of aliens," he added with a grin.

"Don't worry about Tess," Max said, his tone indicating an end to the subject, though a smile tugged at his lips. "We have that covered."

"So, you're meeting with the Sheriff tonight. Then what?" Philip asked.

"That's pretty much what we're going to determine," Max said. He took a deep breath. "Look, I realize you both want to help. And I'm not saying that we don't appreciate that. But the best thing you can do is to be careful and to give us the space we need to do what we have to do." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I know you want to protect us, but you just can't."

"Max," Diane said gently, " you can't expect us to just sit and wait while you go out and…"

"And fight?" he finished for her, a look of love and understanding on his face. "Yes, Mom. That's exactly what I expect. I know it's hard. But please." He glanced at his father. "Please understand. If we have to stop to worry about your safety, it'll only take our concentration away from what we're doing. That could be very dangerous. For everyone."

"We'll do whatever you think is best, Max," his father said, sighing. "Just so long as you know we're not entirely happy about it."

"Believe us, Dad," Isabel told him. "None of us are entirely happy about this. But it's the way things are."

Max nodded his agreement. His eye fell on the clock at the far end of the room and he frowned. "We should get going," he said. "I want a minute with the Sheriff before everyone else gets there," he told them.

"Do we have time to swing past my house?" Alex asked. "I need to pick up some things."

"Yeah, we'll make it," Max said.

Everyone stood and Diane began collecting coffee cups.

"Mom, let me," Isabel said, trying to take the tray from her mother.

"No, Izzy," she said softly, reaching out to brush a lock of hair off her daughter's forehead. "You kids go ahead."

"Thanks," Isabel replied, knowing her mother's blessing was included in the simple words. She dropped a kiss on her cheek. "See you later, Mom," she promised.

Max ran upstairs and returned a moment later with his knapsack - clearly full - and several binders. Everyone was in the hall, saying good bye, and Philip's eyes narrowed when how much his son was carrying.

"Quite a bit of stuff there. If I didn't know better, I'd say you'd registered for summer school," he said.

"In a manner of speaking, I suppose I have," Max said wryly. "We have to go." He brushed a kiss over his mother's cheek. "Dinner was great, Mom. Thank you. For everything," he added, his gaze encompassing his father as well.

"Be careful, kids," Diane said.

"We will," Max said, his eyes serious. Taking Liz's hand, he smiled at his parents, then turned and headed for his father's car. Alex and Isabel followed close at their heels.

* * * * *

The flood lights outside the Sheriff's station blazed brightly as Max pulled into the parking lot. The Sheriff's truck and two cruisers were the only vehicles in sight. Max parked as close to the door as he could and cut the engine, then motioned for everyone to stay put while he scanned the area carefully for any indication that they had been followed. His casual, relaxed demeanor from earlier that evening was gone. Instead he was on full alert, his body noticeably tense.

"All right," he said finally. "Let's go." He held the door open and ushered the others into the building, still watching the street for any sudden movement. As soon as they were all inside, he followed them in, making sure the door shut securely behind him. Slipping his hand into Liz's, he nodded to Isabel and Alex. "Come on."

The four of them headed up the stairs. It became obvious that the Sheriff had brought the staff down to a minimum for the evening, as the station was virtually deserted. One office appeared lit at the far end of the main level, but there was no other sign of life until they rounded the landing on the second floor. The Sheriff's door was open and light was streaming out into the darkened hall. They headed for the office, Max still leading the way. But as they approached, the sound of hushed voices met their ears and it became apparent that Valenti was not alone.

Frowning, Max slowed his pace, treading more quietly as they reached the end of the hall and indicating that the others should do the same. As soon as he was able to see into the office, he stopped short, stiffening, and instinctively pulled Liz behind him. Standing side by side with their backs to the door, examining something on the Sheriff's desk, were Valenti and Agent Pierce.

Stepping back, Max felt Liz squeeze his hand. Glancing down, he saw concern in her deep brown eyes. She had seen Pierce as well. One look told him that Isabel and Alex also understood what was going on.

"What's he doing here?" Isabel mouthed.

Max just shook his head. "Go back downstairs," he whispered, releasing Liz's hand and pushing her gently toward the others. When Isabel opened her mouth to protest, Max shot her a stern look. "All of you. Downstairs. Wait for the others to show up. And whatever you do, don't let Michael come charging up here, understood?"

Liz frowned. "Max, what are you going to do?"

"Don't worry," he told them, though his eyes had focused on Liz once again. "I'll be on my guard this time. I need to find out what's going on."

"Come on," Alex said softly, tugging at Isabel's hand.

Isabel shot Max a final cautionary look, then nodded. "Liz?"

"I'm coming," she whispered. Standing on tiptoe, she brushed a quick kiss over Max's lips. "Be careful," she told him. Then she turned and followed the others back toward the stairs.

Max waited until the three of them were out of sight before he strode toward the office. He deliberately brushed against the door as he entered the office so it bounced noisily off the back wall and caused the Sheriff and Pierce to look up, startled. Max's expression was deceptively calm, but his eyes were darkened with anger.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded in a steely voice. He ignored the Sheriff, his gaze never wavering from Pierce.

Valenti took saw the look in Max's eyes and immediately knew he had misjudged the situation when he had told Pierce about the meeting. There was clearly a problem. "Max, I'm sorry…"

Max held up one hand, stopping him mid-sentence. "Sheriff, could you leave us, please?"

Sighing, Valenti walked toward the door. "Of course," he said, though somewhat reluctantly. He stopped briefly next to Max. The young man's attention was still focused on Pierce. "I didn't realize," Valenti said simply.

"I know," Max replied. "Just please wait downstairs."

"All right." With that, the older man walked out the door. The click of his boots on the tile floor gradually faded as he made his way down the hall.

When they were alone, Max closed the distance between himself and Pierce, who had been watching the exchange with the Sheriff with mild amusement. "I asked you a question, Nasedo," Max said. "What are you doing here?"

The shape-shifter's eyes narrowed and he appeared to be studying Max. "I told the Sheriff that you probably were unsure as to my position in all of this after last night. But my job is still to protect the four of you." He cocked his head thoughtfully. "Or perhaps the seven of you, now, since you seem so intent when it comes to including these humans."

"So Valenti told you about the meeting," Max said simply.

Pierce nodded. "He did. He also was good enough to fill me in on your morning adventures." He paused, again seeming to assess Max's reactions. "I understand no one was injured."

"Not permanently," Max clarified.

"That is the goal, is it not?"

"Was that your goal last night? To injure me, just not permanently?" Max voice was firm, but more curious than accusatory.

"My goal was to make you open your eyes. To see what you're up against."

"I am well aware of what we're up against," Max replied.

"Ah, but were you prepared for it?" Pierce took a deliberate step toward Max, then smiled. "If I had done that a week ago, wearing this face, you would have backed away, or at the very least have flinched. Tonight you stand your ground. Why is that Max?"

"What are you saying?"

"What happened after I left you in the pod chamber? What did you do?"

Max's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Something tells me you already know."

Pierce laughed. "You always had good instincts," he said. He paced toward the window and stared out into the night. "You ran to Liz. You were in turmoil, both mentally and physically, and sought comfort. Frankly, I can't say I blame you," he said in a low voice. "There are some things about being human that are most… enjoyable." He turned and looked at Max, eyebrows raised. "Interesting," he said, almost to himself. "It's better than I'd hoped."

"What are you talking about?"

"Your reaction," Pierce replied. "Or rather, the lack of. A few nights ago you would have handed me my head for that comment, or tried to. You're holding yourself in check again, Max. Waiting for the facts." The man nodded in approval. "The nightmares?"

Max blinked. "What do you know about my nightmares?"

Pierce shook his head. "You honestly believe I don't know what you've been going through these past weeks?" he snapped. "I know what happened to you in that white room, Max. I lived it. For a hell of a lot longer than one night. And when I escaped there was no one waiting for me on the other side of that chain fence." In three strides he was standing face to face with Max. "I know what it's like to scream in the night," he said quietly. "Those fears that follow you wherever you go, that creep up out of your subconscious and threaten to strangle you. The only way to rid yourself of that kind of demon is to let it out, let it take over until it bleeds out of your system."

Abruptly, he turned away. "I saw what it was doing to you. Crippling you, even as you struggled to play the leader. You pushed away the ones who would understand, buried the memories until the only place they could roam free was in your dreams. You were this close to snapping," he continued.

"You did it on purpose," Max said quietly, things suddenly coming clear.

Pierce looked at him, a sad smile touching his lips. "I had no choice. The first attack had been made - however accidental it was. After you told me what happened to Isabel and the human boy, I knew I had to act. We were out of time, options. You needed to get past the white room, past your terror. Telling you wouldn't get it done. You needed to collapse, to lose control sufficiently so that you would be forced to confront those fears that were haunting you day and night. So, I pushed you to the breaking point, until you had no choice but to let the demons out."

"You knew I'd go to Liz?"

He shrugged. "It made no difference who you ran to that night, as long as you went to one of them. I cannot pretend to understand or approve of this obsession with the human girl, but it seems she had the strength you needed."

Max ran one hand over his face, shaking his head slowly. "Why?"

"Why? Why do you think, Max? It is my sworn duty to protect you. That includes making sure you are fit to take your rightful place as leader. When you learned your destiny, part of you was willing to step into that role, but part of you feared the responsibility. I could see the hesitation in you. Too much, too soon." He sighed. "These human concepts of youth and coming of age are so primitive. On our planet, a youth is ready to lead when the necessity dictates, not according to a mark on the calendar. You have everything you need in your mind, in your heart, Max. It was put there before you were sent to Earth. All you have to do is search your soul for what you know is there. Instead you panicked, allowed yourself to become overwhelmed. You held back, second-guessed your decisions, were reluctant to believe in your abilities."

"And now?"

He looked Max in the eye. "You have accepted it. You allowed yourself to let go of the terror that crippled you. And not just your experiences in the white room," he continued slowly, as if the longer he looked, the more truth he could see. "There was another edge there - an anger - that is gone. You have regained the control you lost. That belief in yourself, Max - trust it."

For a long moment, Max stood looking into the other man's eyes. He no longer saw Agent Pierce, but the being within. It was true that a few days ago he would have been unable to merely stand there and look at the man, even knowing his true identity. Just the image of Pierce had been enough to reach deep into his gut and twist until he could no longer breath. Something had enabled him to break free of the fear that had been paralyzing him. He didn't know whether it was talking about his experiences at Pierce's hands or something else that had changed him. He suspected it was a combination of events, not the least of which was making love to Liz. But at that moment it occurred to him that he no longer felt like he was trying to be a leader - he simply was one.

"We'd better go downstairs and see if the others have arrived," he said finally. "It's time to turn the tables on our enemies."

Pierce nodded. His serious eyes held a glimmer of understanding. "An excellent plan," he said.


******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:52:34 PM

Part 10

********

"What do you mean he's upstairs with Nasedo?" Michael demanded. He and Maria had just arrived at the Sheriff's station to find Liz, Alex, Isabel, and Valenti standing around in the hall, looking more worried than not. Max was no where to be seen.

"Michael, calm down," Isabel said. "Max can handle himself."

"Like last time?" Michael shot back. "Stay here," he told them, his eyes landing on Maria.

He was halfway to the stairs when Liz caught hold of his arm. "Michael, no," she said.

Michael shook his head, his eyes just hinting at the panic he felt. "Liz, you know what Nasedo did to him last night."

"So does Max," she reminded him gently. "He told us to stay down here and that's what we need to do."

"No way. I listened to him before and he nearly got his brains splattered all over the pod chamber." Michael shook Liz off and continued down the hall.

Liz turned helplessly toward the others.

"Michael, Max specifically told us to keep you from coming after him," Alex called.

Michael snorted, not even looking back. "Great, Whitman. You go ahead and try." He started up the stairs, two at a time.

"Max is gonna be pissed," Isabel sighed.

Maria shrugged. "He's probably expecting him," she said. "He knows how Michael is."

The door swung open behind them and Tess and Kyle walked in. Tess took one look at the group and frowned. "What happened?"

Isabel shot the others a warning look. No one had told Tess about Max's run in with Nasedo, and now was not the time for long explanations. "Nothing. Max and Nasedo are upstairs. Michael just went to get them," she said.

The Sheriff looked momentarily confused, but he had pretty much given up trying to decipher the dynamics of these relationships. Instead he turned to Kyle. "Any trouble?"

Kyle shook his head. "Nah. You know what a hopping place Roswell is on a Sunday night," he drawled. "We would have noticed if anyone was following us." He lounged casually against the front desk. "So. Now what?"

* * *

Max was halfway down the hall when he heard heavy footsteps pounding up the stairs. He shook his head. "Damn it, Michael," he muttered.

Nasedo shot Max a vaguely amused look. "I take it he fancies himself the cavalry?"

"He means well," Max sighed. He stood at the head of the stairs and watched as Michael came tearing around the landing, caught sight of him, and stopped abruptly, grabbing onto the handrail to keep from skidding.

Max raised one eyebrow. "Michael."

"Maxwell?" Michael's eyes darted warily to Nasedo. "Everything all right?"

Max smiled slightly. "We've straightened things out. Is everyone here?"

"Um… more or less," Michael replied, shoving his hands in his pockets. He shifted his weight restlessly, as if he was waiting for something more to happen.

"Then I guess we should go downstairs," Max said simply. He started down the steps, pausing briefly on the landing and resting his hand on Michael's shoulder. "Come on."

"Uh… Max…"

"I know. Don't worry about it."

Michael nodded, managing a sheepish smile, and the three of them continued downstairs.

* * *

"Is there a reason we're all hanging around in the hall?" Kyle asked.

"We're waiting for Max and Michael," Isabel said in a clipped tone.

Kyle rolled his eyes. "I realize that. But does it require us to stand around like we're waiting for the next bus out of town, or can we actually go sit down someplace?"

"What's keeping them, anyway?" Maria questioned, her tone a touch apprehensive.

"We're here," Max said, emerging from the stairwell. Michael and Nasedo were directly behind him. "Let's get started." Max shifted his knapsack more securely over his shoulder, then held out one hand to Liz, who immediately took it and squeezed. Max met her questioning gaze and smiled, then glanced at the others. He simply nodded to indicate everything was fine.

Kyle stood straight, mouth agape, his eyes glued to Nasedo. "Um, I'm a little lost here…"

Alex caught the direction Kyle was looking and patted him on the arm. "Don't worry about it, Kyle. There's more to this alien thing than meets the eye," he said with a quiet chuckle. "Guess we haven't quite gotten you up to speed yet."

"He's not really Pierce," Tess explained softly. "That's Nasedo. He shape-shifted to look like Pierce. To protect us."

Kyle nodded slowly, his eyes still wary. He did, however, manage to close his mouth.

"Why don't we take this into the back room," Valenti suggested.

"Good idea," Max said. He pushed past the group and led the way.

They used the same back office they had used two nights earlier. It had been cramped before and the addition of three more people only served to make things worse. Michael dropped onto the couch, pulling Maria onto his lap, and Alex followed his example, though Isabel protested that she was going to crush him. Tess and Liz casually positioned themselves at opposite ends of the room, with Liz ending up near Max and the Sheriff and Tess with Kyle and Nasedo, who had resumed the guise of Ed Harding. The atmosphere was tense and all eyes were focused expectantly on Max.

Max quickly recapped everything that had happened during the day, both to bring Nasedo, Valenti, and Kyle up to speed, and to refresh everyone else's memories. "We know they're here and that there are more of them than we've seen so far," he wrapped up swiftly. "What we don't know is precisely where they're hiding, or what they're after."

"I thought they just wanted to kill you," Kyle said baldly.

Max smiled faintly. "No doubt that's high on the agenda," he agreed. "But when they went after Tess they wanted more than to use her for bait. They tossed the house looking for something and kept asking her about a key."

"They were looking for a key?" Nasedo asked.

Nodding, Max turned to Tess. "Isn't that what they said?"

"Yeah. I had no idea what they were talking about," Tess said. She looked questioningly toward Nasedo. "Do you?"

"Perhaps," he mused.

"Well, so, tell us," Michael said. "And none of that bull about it not being your job."

Nasedo frowned. "There is only one key, but it isn't a tangible thing. I don't know how they would have learned of it, however."

"What is it?" Isabel asked.

"The key is in your minds. The four of you. To guarantee your safety, the star charts, our orders - everything necessary to complete the mission and return home - was encoded. The key to the codes is inside of you. Programmed."

Max nodded. "The key deciphers the codes."

"Correct," Nasedo replied. "But everything was lost in the crash. What wasn't destroyed was taken by the FBI. Since I infiltrated the Special Unit, I've been trying to determine where the recovered items are being stored, but with everything that's been happening, most of my time has been occupied with more pressing matters."

"So, you're saying that without these coded documents, we can't get home?" Michael asked slowly, voicing everyone's thoughts. He felt Maria tense on his lap and automatically held her a little tighter.

"I'm afraid not," Nasedo replied. "Space travel is not like flying a plane. There is no pilot. The destination and route are entered into the navigational system and the passengers are put into suspended animation. Hence the ability to travel light-years. No living organism could withstand the speeds under normal conditions."

"We can't worry about that now," Max said. "Our immediate concern needs to be the enemy we face here. I want to know where they're hiding."

"I printed out a list of possible locations this afternoon," the Sheriff said. "It's based on real estate transactions county-wide since that date you gave me." He sighed. "Afraid it's a pretty long list."

"I've managed to eliminate several of the choices," Nasedo said. "But it will take time to cover this much ground. I'd use the FBI's resources, but I don't want to raise any suspicions."

"Don't use the bureau," Max said swiftly. His eyes fell on Alex. "Can you eliminate some of the options?"

Alex glanced at the Sheriff. "What did you do to narrow the list?"

Valenti shook his head. "Not much I could do within the confines of an official search."

Alex nodded and turned back to Max. "I should be able to cut it by at least half, then. If I hack into the local utilities, run a search on new bank and credit apps, that sort of thing."

Isabel groaned as she saw Valenti's eyebrows rise. "Alex," she hissed.

"I'm gonna pretend I didn't hear that Mr. Whitman," the Sheriff said slowly.

Max smiled. "Thanks, Sheriff. Alex? How long?"

Alex shrugged. "A day. Two at most."

"It'll have to do," Max replied. "Let us know if we can help."

"Not much to it, really, other than time in front of the computer. Though I wouldn't complain about a little company," he added, smiling almost shyly.

"I think we can manage that," Isabel told him.

"Actually, I'm going to insist on it," Max said. "We stay in groups of at least two when we aren't in busy public places. That goes for all of us," he said, shooting Tess a look.

"I know, Max," Tess said. "I won't do anything to cause trouble."

He shook his head. "This is a matter of safety, Tess," he said softly. "It's not because we had to come after you - something like that was bound to happen eventually. I just don't want to have to worry needlessly."

Something flickered in the depths of her blue eyes and she smiled slightly. "Thanks. It won't happen again."

"Good. Now," Max continued, his eyes falling on Nasedo. "A few quick updates. For those of you who don't already know, Isabel and I spoke to our parents this morning and told them about us. We felt it was necessary both for their safety and to enable us the freedom to come and go without endless explanations and threat of punishment."

Nasedo bristled slightly. "You realize that each time you open yourself up to someone new, you put yourselves in greater danger."

"It was necessary. And our parents are hardly 'someone new'," Max pointed out sternly.

"The decision is yours, of course. I'm assuming from your attitude that the revelation went well?"

"Yes. And, more importantly, they now understand the gravity of the situation and why they have to allow us our freedom." Max held Nasedo's gaze for a moment before continuing. "That leaves the other parents. The Whitmans really haven't had much contact with any of us," he said, glancing at Alex, "so they're unlikely to ask any questions. I'm most concerned about Maria's mother and the Parkers. They don't know anything and I would prefer to keep it that way. But we can't endanger them," Max said firmly. He turned to the Sheriff.

Valenti nodded. "I'll keep an eye on Amy, Max. You don't need to worry," he added, looking over at Maria who smiled gratefully.

"My parents won't be a problem as long as I'm not missing again for a while," Liz said. "They need a little time to cool off, especially my mother."

Max gently ruffled her hair. "Which leaves us with the sleeping arrangements. I'll be spending nights at Liz's, since we can't risk her coming to my house. Isabel and Alex are taken care of, as is Tess." He glanced over at Michael and Maria.

"No way can I spend the night somewhere other than home, Max," Maria said quickly. "My mom was really great when I talked to her today, but if I push her any further she's going to murder me."

"Don't worry about it," Michael said. "I've got it covered."

Maria's eyebrows arched as she swiveled on his lap to look him in the eye. "You do realize what my mom is going to do if she finds you in my bed again, right?" The minute she realized what she had said, her cheeks flushed, but she continued to hold Michael's gaze.

"She won't find me there," he replied with a faint smile, one hand snaking up to massage the back of her neck. "Relax. All in all, I'd prefer the wrath of DeLuca over murderous aliens any day."

Maria's expression softened. "Thanks."

"So that's settled," Max said.

"What are you planning to do once we locate your enemies?" Valenti asked.

"That's going to depend on what we learn about them," Max said. He reached down and pulled something out of his bag. "Recognize this?" he asked, passing the object to Nasedo.

"Yes." Nasedo's eyes darkened as he examined the foreign weapon. "You took this off of one of the casualties this morning?"

"Maria took one during the fight," Max replied. "Later, when we were cleaning up, we found two more. Do you know how they work?"

"They traditionally operate using a palm recognition trigger system."

"So, they only fire for the owner," Isabel said, sounding discouraged.

"Generally, yes," Nasedo said. He smiled slightly. "This model, however, has been reprogrammed in the past."

"Can you do it?" Max asked.

"I believe so. It may take a little time, however."

"Just do your best," Max told him. Pausing, he glanced toward Tess. "There are a few other things I'd like to talk to you about," he told Nasedo. "Regarding our past."

"Everything you need to know is in the book," Nasedo replied.

"I can't read the book," Max pointed out.

Nasedo smiled. "Yes, you can. You just haven't tried."

"You mean everything about our past is in there?" Michael asked.

"It's your history," Nasedo said. "The story of your previous lives - and your deaths."

"Why couldn't we read it when we tried before?" Isabel asked.

Nasedo shrugged. "Your minds hold the key, as I've explained. The book is in the same code as everything else. It was the only thing I salvaged from the wreckage after the crash, once I returned from hiding your incubation pods. If you really want to, you will be able to read the book." He looked at Max. "Of course, if you wish me to answer your questions, I will do so to the best of my ability."

"Thank you," Max said sincerely. "I agree we need to translate the book, but I think I'd still like to speak with you." Looking at the clock, he sighed. "Tomorrow, though. It's getting late. I think we've covered just about everything for now. Anyone want to add anything?"

"What's next?" Michael asked.

"Once Alex narrows down that list of possible hiding places, we'll be splitting up to check them out. Until then, everyone should just be careful. We don't know when our enemies might strike again. Michael, Iz, and Tess - the four of us need to get together and work on decoding that book. Tess, have you ever actually read any of it?"

She shook her head. "I just know what Nasedo told me."

"I'm assuming it contains much more than my simple bedtime stories," Nasedo said.

"All right," Max said. "I'm working tomorrow morning. Michael?"

"Me too," he said.

"Then that leaves Isabel and Tess to start working on the code." Max glanced down at Liz. "What about you? Work?"

"Maria and I are on in the morning with Michael," Liz said.

"Okay. Tomorrow night, then," Max said. "Mandatory meeting for the seven of us to go over whatever we've learned," he added. "Sheriff? You and Kyle are welcome to come if you'd like, but it isn't necessary. I appreciate all of your help, but this isn't your fight."

Valenti smiled. "Max, it's our planet too. I'm in as long as you need me." He looked toward his son. "Kyle?"

Kyle shrugged. "Not much else to do until football camp starts. Might as well help save the world."

Max turned to Nasedo. "I'd like you to come, but I don't want you jeopardizing your progress with the Special Unit."

Nasedo nodded. "I'll do my best."

"So, where and when?" Alex asked.

"Well, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, this office is getting a little tight for these get togethers," Max said. "Iz? Our house? What do you think?"

Isabel smiled. "Mom's gonna be ecstatic," she replied.

"Yeah. She's gonna regret knowing the truth before this is all over," Max said with a half smile. "Okay. That's it then. Everyone meets at our house. Nine o'clock?" There was a general rumble of approval from the group. "All right. Let's get out of here, then," Max finished. "Some of us need to get home."

Valenti pulled Max aside as everyone started to stand and stretch. "I may be a little late tomorrow. Something I can't get out of," he told him.

Max smiled. "I don't suppose that something would have to do with Mrs. DeLuca?"

The Sheriff's eyes widened. "I don't suppose reading minds is one of your talents?"

Max chuckled. "No, it isn't. Just a hunch. Don't worry, I'm sure someone will be able to catch you up." He turned and noticed Tess hovering nearby.

"Max? Can I talk to you for a minute," she asked hesitantly. She glanced toward Liz. "Alone? It's important."

Liz, who had been waiting quietly for Max to finish speaking with Valenti, overheard Tess's request. "Go ahead, Max," she said softly. "I'll meet you outside." With an understanding smile, she followed the Sheriff out into the hall where everyone else was getting ready to leave.

For the first time since he'd met her, Tess looked apprehensive. Max frowned. "Is something wrong?"

"Not really. I mean, it is, but not the way you mean," she replied. Taking a deep breath, she met Max's steady gaze. "I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry."

Max's brow wrinkled further. "For what?"

"For playing all of those mind games with you when I first came to Roswell," she said slowly. "I know you all must have figured out that I was manipulating you, but after everything that's happened… well… I feel like I need to tell you myself." She dropped her eyes to the ground and fidgeted slightly. "When I first saw how you felt about Liz, I just didn't believe it. I guess I always assumed that somehow you knew about me, the same way I knew about you. I realize now how silly that was, since I learned about you from Nasedo and you didn't have anyone like that in your life." She sighed and walked a few steps away to stare out the window. "I thought if I could make you see, plant those images of the two of us in your mind, then you would remember how it was meant to be. That it would trigger your memories of us being together. I didn't stop to think what a violation it was, or how it might hurt you. I'm sorry, Max," she said again, her voice barely more than a whisper.

"I think I understand," Max said slowly. "It must have been hard to realize how many things weren't the way you expected. I appreciate your being honest with me, Tess. It means a lot."

"Well, that's really all I wanted to say," Tess told him. "I… um… I want to talk to Liz, also. To apologize. I just wanted to speak with you first."

Max nodded. "Thanks. And Tess, I hope you realize that..; even though things are different, you still belong with the rest of us." He smiled gently. "Things have a way of sorting themselves out."

Tess smiled a little sadly. "I hope so."

"I thought Kyle seemed a little… um… friendlier," Max said.

She shrugged. "We talked. I guess he doesn't hate me, but we're far from being friends. It's going to be really awkward staying at his house."

"Give him a little time."

Tess nodded and the two of them walked out into the hall where everyone was waiting. Max went over to Liz and slipped an arm around her waist.

"Everything all right?" she asked quietly.

Max smiled. "Yeah. Ready to go?"

"Definitely." She looked toward Maria, who was lounging against Michael, half asleep. Isabel had her head on Alex's shoulder. The Sheriff, Kyle, and Tess were standing near the doors talking softly. Nasedo was gone. "I'd say everyone else looks about done in, too," Liz said.

"I'd say you're right." Taking her hand, he headed outside, with the rest of the group following. "Everyone have a good night," he said as the group began to split up and head for the cars. "And be careful driving home." He glanced toward his sister, one hand extended. "Drop us off?"

Isabel nodded. She took the keys from him and unlocked the Audi. Liz slid into the back seat while Alex went around to the front.

"Max?" Isabel placed a gentle hand on his arm.

"What?" he asked, taking note of her concerned look.

She stepped closer so her voice wouldn't carry. "Are you sure you won't have any more nightmares?" she asked quietly.

"Don't worry about it."

"But Max, if you call out in your sleep at the Parker's again…."

"Iz, I said don't worry about it, okay? I'll handle it," he assured her, his eyes warm.

"All right," she agreed, though her brow was furrowed. "Just be careful."

"I will." With a reassuring smile, he turned and climbed in next to Liz.


*******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:54:32 PM

Part 11

********

Alex lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Max Evans' ceiling. It was kind of weird, considering that as of a year ago he and Max had never exchanged more than two consecutive sentences. Now he could safely count him among his best friends. Of course, that wasn't half as weird as the fact that Isabel was his girlfriend. Isabel Evans, the undisputed goddess of West Roswell High, who happened to be sleeping just next door. The grin came unbidden. Life was good. Well, with the small of exception of having enemy aliens trying to kill them. And there was the possibility that the aforementioned girlfriend might one day take off for planets unknown. But other than that… life was definitely good. Weird, but good.

A light tapping from out in the hallway broke through his musings. The door cracked open and Isabel's face came into view. "Alex?" she whispered. "You awake?"

"Yeah," he whispered back.

Flashing him a quick smile, she crept into the room and shut the door quietly behind her. "Hey," she said.

"Hey yourself," he teased. "What's up?"

Isabel's smile faded slightly. "Aren't you glad to see me?"

"Of course," he said hurriedly, sitting up. "Just a little surprised. I mean… what about your parents?"

"Don't worry about them," she said, sitting on the opposite side of the bed. "They're asleep. I suspect they were pretty drained by today," she added. "It was a lot to take in." She eyed him hesitantly. "If you'd rather, I could go…"

"No, no," Alex assured her. "I didn't mean… I'm glad you're here," he said, smiling sheepishly. He reached out and brushed his hand over hers. "I was kinda getting used to us sleeping in the same bed," he admitted.

"Me too," she said quietly. Shifting, she pulled back the sheet and slipped into bed next to him. "I don't know what we're going to do about that," she added, sounding a little embarrassed as she snuggled into Alex's waiting arms.

"Hmmm… I know what you mean." He angled her more comfortably against his chest, dropping a kiss on the top of her head.

"So, what do you think about today?"

"Which part?" he asked wryly.

"All of it. Any of it. I don't know."

Alex sighed. "This morning was probably one of the most terrifying experiences of my life," he said slowly. He tightened his arms around her protectively. "I was scared the other night when we were being chased, but today was so much more intense somehow. All of us out there in the middle of no where, in broad daylight, trading all of that fire power. It was like something out of an old western. Only I wasn't sure if we were the cowboys or the Indians. And then I wasn't sure whether it was one of the movies where the cowboys win."

"I'm sorry you've gotten dragged into all of this, Alex," Isabel said softly, her words half muffled against his chest.

"Don't be," he told her. "Because the thing is, when we were finished and we had all made it through alive… it was just the most incredible feeling. I'm not used to getting that kind of rush, Isabel. I mean, I'm not saying I wasn't a little queasy, or that I didn't feel weak in the knees the whole time. I'm the computer geek, the bass player, the guy who's best friends with a couple of girls. I know who I am and it is not *that* guy… the action hero… the one who storms the castle and slays the dragon all before breakfast without batting an eye. I never wanted to… No, that's not quite true. I never *thought* I could be that guy, but it doesn't mean I didn't wish for it sometimes. And now I feel like a little part of me can be that strong. Can stand up and be counted when it matters. And it's okay to be a chess-loving nerd, because that's not all I am. It's a good thing to learn about yourself."

"I already knew that about you."

"You did?" Alex shifted and looked curiously into her face. "How?"

"That night you told me you didn't want anything bad to happen to me," she said softly. "You were so brave, even though you had to have been terrified of what was happening. Even after Pierce or whoever almost got you. You were so protective of me. I'll never forget how it made me feel."

"How did it make you feel?"

"Safe. Cared for." She reached up and cupped his cheek. "You're really an amazing person, Alex."

"So are you," he whispered. Leaning over, he pressed his lips to hers in a gentle kiss. When he pulled back, he smiled and stroked her hair off of her face. "And how are you feeling about today? It's been a much bigger day for you than it was for me. Telling your parents the truth. Learning from Nasedo tonight that the answers to your past are probably all in that book. How are you holding up?"

Isabel smiled. "I'm actually… terrific. Isn't that strange? There's so much to be worried about and scared of, but all I can think is that our mother finally knows the truth. I've wanted to tell her for so long, Alex. Always, really. Since Max and I first began to realize we were different. I was watching her face today while Max was talking and I just knew it was going to be all right. I guess I always knew."

"And your dad?"

"I wanted to tell him too, but it felt more important for our mother to know. I can't explain why. I just… she's my mother. I didn't want to keep secrets from her."

Alex kissed the tip of her nose. "So, now she knows just how special you really are."

"I suppose that's part of it. She always made me feel special, even when I was being my most plain and ordinary."

Gasping, eyebrows raised, Alex pulled back slightly. "What? Isabel Evans plain? Ordinary? Surely you jest!"

Giggling, Isabel swatted him in the shoulder. "Idiot. Stop making fun. You know what I mean."

His expression suddenly serious, he nodded. "I do," he said softly. "I know exactly what you mean. And I'm glad your parents took it well and that everything is fine."

"Well, the fine part remains to be seen," she sighed, eyes clouding over, and he knew she was thinking about the meeting that night. "But at least I feel like we're making progress, you know? Not just sitting around waiting to get picked off one by one. Thank you, Alex, for helping to narrow down that list of Valenti's," she said earnestly.

"You know I'll do whatever I can," he told her, lying back down and pulling her close. "Besides, that's what us computer geeks do best," he teased.

Yawning, Isabel wrapped her arms around Alex's waist and rested her head against his chest. "I suppose we should get some sleep," she said somewhat wistfully. "Seeing as you have a big day of hacking ahead."

"Don't forget your own little project."

"Ah, yes. The book," she said, followed by what could very well have been interpreted as a snort. "Too bad I neglected to register for Code Breaking 101."

"Nasedo seems to think you won't have any trouble."

"We tried to read it before, Alex, when Tess gave it to us. None of us could make heads or tails of it."

Alex hummed softly.

"What? What are you thinking?"

"Well, when did Tess give you the book? What was going on?"

"We had just found the pod chamber," she explained. "Michael and I went after Tess and Max and … Oh."

"Oh?"

"It was when Michael and I were having those Tess-induced dreams," she elaborated in a soft voice.

"The ones that made you think you were pregnant?" he questioned gently.

"Right."

"So, you and Michael were a little… overwrought at the time? Maybe?"

"Definitely. Max was too. Tess did some sort of mind manipulation to get him to go with her. That's when he found out she wasn't Nasedo like we had thought."

"So, I'd say none of you were thinking too clearly right then. And I doubt it would have occurred to you that you were capable of reading the book, so you probably didn't try too hard."

"You're right," Isabel admitted with a sigh. "I never thought of it that way."

"Let's just wait and see what happens tomorrow," Alex suggested.

"Thanks," she whispered, turning and kissing him.

"Mmmm…. You're welcome," he mumbled against her lips.

Isabel pulled away and grinned. "Good night, Alex."

He laughed. "Good night." Pulling her back down against him, he tucked her head under his chin and closed his eyes. "Sweet dreams."

"You too," she murmured sleepily.

* * * * *

Maria rolled over to snuggle closer to Michael and discovered nothing but air. She opened one eye and peered sleepily at the other side of the bed. Empty. She frowned and opened her other eye. Where had he gone? She could feel him nearby, so he couldn't have gotten far. Blinking, she pushed herself up onto one elbow and looked around the room. Both the door and the window were still shut, but no Spaceboy.

"Michael?" she whispered.

"Hmmm?" he grunted, the sound coming from the other side of the bed. But lower.

Maria shook her head and scooted sideways so she could see over the edge of the mattress. Sure enough, Michael was nestled on the floor with a pillow and her spare blanket. "What are you doing down there?" she asked.

"Sleepin'," he muttered, his voice muffled against the pillow. "Or I was 'til you piped up. Whattya want?"

"Why are you sleeping on the floor?"

"Told you your mom wouldn't catch me in your bed again," he said. "With any luck, she won't even be able to see me down here from the doorway." He lifted his head and shot her a tired look. "Assuming you quit hanging over the side of the bed yakking at me, that is."

Maria felt her heart flip. She wondered if he was even aware that he was being sweet. She suspected not. "Michael, you can't sleep down there. The floor's too hard."

"I've done it plenty of time at Max's," he reminded her.

"That's besides the point."

"Not really."

She sighed. "Would you just get back into bed?"

"Maria, if your mother finds me in bed with you again, there's gonna be hell to pay. You said so yourself."

"Lock the door," she said softly.

"What?"

"You heard me. We'll lock the door. That way we'll know if she's coming and you can hide."

Michael shook his head. "Like she won't figure that one out."

Frustrated, she flopped back down onto her pillow. "It's just …"

"What?"

"It's not right. You're here to protect me. You shouldn't be on the floor," she told him, her voice trembling slightly.

"Hey," he said, sitting up. "It's okay. I don't mind."

"Well, I mind." She closed her eyes to keep the tears from coming, not even sure why she was getting so emotional. It was quiet for a moment, but just as she was about to tell him to forget about it, she felt the other side of the bed dip. Opening her eyes, she found him lying beside her, propped on one elbow, staring at her.

"Happy now?" he asked.

Maria managed a small smile. "Yeah."

"Why is this such a big deal, anyway? Is this your way of getting rid of me? Cuz you know this time your mom'll use something worse than a newspaper. Like maybe a meat cleaver." His voice was teasing, but his eyes were serious.

"She won't come in," Maria said, rolling on her side to face him. "Not in the middle of the night. We'll be up and out of here for work before she notices anything."

"Fine, but that doesn't answer the first part of my question."

She didn't pretend not to know what he was talking about. "I don't know," she said, reaching out and cupping his cheek with her hand. She rubbed her thumb gently over his skin, feeling the light stubble, and smiled. "I guess I've gotten used to having you around," she whispered.

Michael's eyebrows arched. "Really," he said. He caught her hand with his and brought it to his lips, kissing the fleshy pad at the base of her thumb. "You know, technically, I was still around when I was lying on the floor."

"Smart ass," she said, her voice slightly lower than it had been. "I meant… I like sleeping in the same bed with you. It feels …."

"Natural," he whispered. His eyes bore into hers, filled with heat.

Maria felt her heart beat speed up. "Yeah," she said breathlessly. "Natural. And… right."

Michael took her by the shoulder and gently pushed her back into the pillows so he was hovering over her. "You know you're asking for trouble," he muttered.

"I don't care," she whispered. "I …"

His mouth came down over hers before she could finish. The kiss was hot and deep and filled with a new kind of longing. Maria wrapped her arms around Michael's neck and tugged until he slipped his arms under her and pulled her into a tight embrace. His tongue swept over hers, teasing and light, then more demanding. She moaned softly.

Michael pulled back at the sound, panting slightly. He rained kisses over her cheeks, along her jaw, over the delicate skin of her neck. He laved the skin that covered her collarbone, kissing his way across to her right shoulder, nuzzling gently. She sank her hands into his hair and arched against his hot mouth. Every inch of skin he touched was left tingling.

"Oh, Michael," she breathed. She took his face in her hands and pulled him back up so she could kiss him again.

"Maria," he whispered against her lips. He kissed her again, before gently disengaging. "Hey, easy," he murmured, his hands stroking her back soothingly. "Come here," he coaxed, pulling her down so her head rested on his shoulder.

"What happened to asking for trouble?" she complained, her head bobbing back up.

Michael groaned. "Just go to sleep, all right?"

"No. I want to know what's wrong?" She frowned down at him. "Michael? What is it?" A hurt look suddenly replaced the puzzled one and she drew back. "Is it me? I mean…"

"What? No," he said quickly. "Where do you come up with this stuff?" he muttered. He pulled her forcefully back into his arms. "It's just… after everything that's happened to day, um… my self control is a little… if we do much more I'm… not sure I'll be able to stop," he admitted softly. "All right?"

"Really?" Her tone was hopeful.

Michael groaned again. "Are you trying to kill me?"

Maria giggled. "No. Um… sorry."

"Go to sleep, okay?" he asked, his voice gentle.

"Okay. Good night, Michael," she whispered, her arms tightening around him briefly.

Michael relaxed noticeably. "Good night," he said, dropping a kiss on the top of her head. "And don't let me over sleep."

"I won't," she promised. Snuggling into his warmth, she closed her eyes, feeling cared for and safe. It was a good feeling, she noted, as the first wave of sleep overtook her.

* * * * *

Liz knew Max had left her bed before she even opened her eyes. She could sense his absence, feel the emptiness beside her, the cooling of the sheets when she stretched out her hand telling her he had been absent more than a few minutes. She opened her eyes to discover it was nearly morning, the predawn light brightening her room. Pushing herself up on her elbows, she caught sight of Max out on the roof, his back to her. Grabbing her robe from the end of the bed, she slipped out of bed gingerly, taking care not to move too quickly. Two nights of making love with Max had made her aware of all sorts of previously unused muscles.

She climbed out the window, wrapping her robe tightly around herself. Her heart flipped when she realized Max hadn't bothered with a shirt, but had merely slipped into his jeans before coming outside. It wasn't fair what he did to her hormones, she mused, as her eyes took in the smooth curves of his shoulders and biceps.

Max looked up as she approached him and smiled. "Hey there," he said, reaching out a hand and pulling her down onto his lap, causing the lounge chair to creak under their joined weight. "How come you're up so early? It's not like we got a lot of sleep," he teased.

Snuggling against him, enjoying the feel of his warm skin, Liz dropped a kiss on his cheek. "I was missing you, I guess," she said. "How come you're out here?"

"Couldn't sleep," he told her. "Must have been that long nap yesterday. I'm not used to getting so much rest lately."

Liz frowned at him. "Couldn't sleep or wouldn't? You sure you didn't stay up to make sure you didn't have any nightmares again?"

Max smiled indulgently. "I slept for a while. I promise," he told her. "But then I woke up and, rather than toss and turn and keep you awake, I just came out here."

"What are you thinking about?"

He sighed. "What am I not thinking about, would be more like it."

"The book?"

"Yeah, among other things. I keep thinking about what Nasedo told us. That it holds everything we need to know."

"You don't believe him?"

"No, I do. That's part of the problem. So much suddenly relies on our ability to move forward. Decoding the book. Finding out where our enemies are hiding."

Liz stroked his arm soothingly. "Don't make yourself crazy over it, Max. You can't do much about it during the middle of the night."

"But what am I going to do about it today? I'm going to go down to the UFO Center and run tours for Milton," he snorted. "It's all such a waste of time."

"Alex will be working on that list of the Sheriff's. And Isabel and Tess will be working on the book. Max, this isn't something you can do all by yourself. You have to let everyone do their share. And you could quit your job, and not go back to school in the fall, and concentrate everything on finding your enemies... but what would that make you? All of you? You'd lose yourselves to this mission and make yourselves crazy in the bargain."

Max pulled her closer, resting his cheek on the top of her head and inhaling deeply. "You're right," he said. "I can't help but feel anxious, though. We're suddenly getting somewhere and I just want to know."

"You want to know your history," she said quietly.

"I can't help it. It's part of who I am," he replied helplessly.

"Of course it is," she said swiftly. "Max, I would never ask you not to look for answers. You know that!"

"That's not what I mean. I know you wouldn't. I just don't want you to think any of it is more important than who I am now, or than my life here with you."

"I don't think that. And I want to know, too, Max. Because it's a part of you, and I love you."

He took her head in his hands and looked into her eyes. "You're the most remarkable person, Liz Parker," he whispered, brushing a tender kiss over her lips.

Liz smiled. "You're not so bad yourself, Max Evans." She deepened the kiss, her arms snaking up around his neck. "So, my suggestion is that you go talk to Nasedo after you get off of work today," she said when she pulled back. "You told him you wanted to ask him more about who you all were in your previous lives. Well, do it. Don't wait to figure out what the book says."

"You won't mind? I mean, we haven't had much time to ourselves the last day or so."

"Max, we had the whole night to ourselves," she reminded him, blushing slightly. "Go talk to him. I'll see you later."

He stroked her hair off her face and smiled. "I'll come by here afterwards," he said.

"I'll be here," she promised softly. "Now you'd better finish getting dressed and get out of here before my parents wake up," she warned.

Max chuckled quietly as he lifted her from his lap and settled her on her feet. "I thought you were enjoying the view," he said, his laugh a low rumble in his chest.

Groaning, Liz rolled her eyes. "That may well be," she admitted, "but I can tell you for certain my father will not appreciate it."

"Point taken," he said quickly. "I love you," he told her. He kissed her gently, then ducked back through her bedroom window.

"And Max," she called quietly after him, "don't forget to unmelt the lock to my door."


*****

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 7:56:41 PM

Part 12

*********

Kyle Valenti was bored. He thought he had been a pretty good sport up until then - playing bodyguard for Tess and making sure she got safely to Whitman's house - but now she was absorbed in decoding that weird looking book with Isabel, and Alex was doing whatever it was he did to his computer, and so Kyle saw no purpose to his sticking around. Yet there he was, restlessly pacing the length of Whitman's bedroom while the others did their thing, because Tess wanted him to hang out. She'd given no reason, no rationalization, just those big blue eyes looking up at him as she quietly asked him to stay. Shit, was he ever in trouble.

For the fifth time that hour, he tried to focus on something else. Oddly enough, Whitman's room gave him plenty to think about. It told an entirely different story about the guy he'd always looked upon as a kind of geeky chess nerd. And clearly he was still that - Kyle could see the chessboard set up in the corner of the room. But there was more to Whitman than first met the eye, and his room was testament to all of the things that seemed to lurk below the surface. An electric guitar and bass leaned against the dresser, reminding Kyle that Alex and his band had played at that dumb blind date concert. The dresser itself was covered with photos of Alex with Liz and Maria, but there were also a couple with Isabel and one of her by herself. There was even a shot that included Michael and Max, all six of them crowded around a table at the Crashdown and grinning like a bunch of fools. The photo appeared recent - it wasn't even framed yet - and had been tucked into the corner of the mirror.

Shifting his attention to Alex, who was staring at the computer screen, frowning intently and tapping away at the keys, Kyle wondered exactly what it was about him that had managed to thaw the ice princess. Whitman seemed more likely to stage a corporate raid of Microsoft than of Isabel Evans. Was it just knowing the truth about her being an alien that did it? Kyle turned a curious eye toward the bed where Isabel and Tess sat side by side, blonde heads bowed over the book and a number of loose sheets of paper, each scribbling their impressions on their own legal pad. Isabel had always seemed aloof and proud, but he had to admit that she was different around Whitman. Different with all of them, really. More relaxed. Fun to be with. Something told him that was her real personality - the one reserved for the people she trusted and loved. Knowing what he now knew about the FBI and such, he couldn't blame her for being careful the rest of the time.

It was unavoidable. Kyle turned toward Tess again. A wavy lock of hair had fallen over her forehead and, as he watched, she brushed it restlessly back behind her ear. Her brow was furrowed in concentration and she was chewing her bottom lip. How much of her public persona, he wondered, was just that? Public. A defense against a world filled with people who were out to get her, or who just didn't give a damn. He had to admit that she had been nicer the past couple of days. She was definitely making an effort. She'd apologized to him, and to Max, which Kyle knew must have been extraordinarily difficult. He also had to admit that he was drawn to her, despite her alien background and the fact that she had already used him mercilessly once. Part of him was still a little wary, but he was sorely tempted to throw caution off the roof and see if maybe things between them couldn't …

God, she was sucking on her pen. She was trying to kill him, that's all there was to it. Did she have any idea what she was doing to him? He groaned inwardly, acknowledging that she probably didn't. She was so focused on that book, on trying to come up with something productive and thereby making herself useful to the others, that she was oblivious to the effect she was having on him. He closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. This bodyguard stuff really sucked. He let out a long breath and, opening his eyes, shifted his gaze toward the wall.

"Anyone feel like lunch?" he asked quickly, breaking through the quiet.

"Hmmm," Alex mumbled, hitting a series of keys and squinting as a list of names went scrolling across the screen. "I think we have some cold cuts in the fridge," he said without looking up.

"I was thinking more along the lines of the Crashdown," Kyle said. "You know, burgers and fries. That kind of thing." When no one answered, he tried again. "You all could probably do with a break. Won't help if you burn yourself out."

"Kyle, we've only been at it for an hour," Isabel said, frowning as she crossed out several lines worth of her notes.

"Try more than two," Kyle muttered.

"What?" Tess asked, looking up from what she was writing. She glanced at the clock. "Wow, is it really one o'clock?"

"Yeah," Kyle replied.

Tess looked at him, her expression guilty. "I'm sorry, Kyle. I didn't realize you'd been hanging around that long. You can go if you want. Maybe Alex and Isabel can give me a ride home when we're done."

"No problem," said Isabel, who had stopped writing long enough to take note of the conversation.

Alex looked up from his work as well, his eyes narrowing as he assessed Kyle's expression. "No, I think lunch sounds like a good idea," he chimed in.

"But Alex…" Isabel began.

"No, really. I think we should take a break. Maybe call for pizza," he suggested, flashing her a warning look. "This can run on its own for a while," he said, waving a hand at the computer. "It's a sorting program. "I can check on its progress after we eat. And you guys must be getting bleary-eyed staring at those things," he added, nodding at the symbol-covered sheets of paper that littered the bed. Isabel and Tess had carefully copied several pages of the book, thinking that the act of writing out the text might spark their memories.

"Is any of that starting to make sense?" Kyle asked, his tone clearly skeptical.

Tess rubbed a hand wearily over her forehead. "We won't be sure until we compare our impressions. Right now we're just concentrating on what we think it says. If we discover that we agree, then we'll know we're getting someplace."

"Why not just compare what you've got now?"

"It's not that simple, Kyle," Isabel responded. "If we talk about it while we're working on it, we risk influencing each other. This way we'll know if we can really read it, or if we're just stabbing in the dark. It's not like there's an answer key someplace to tell us when we've got it right."

"Actually, you guys are the answer key," Alex pointed out with a grin. "At least if we believe Nasedo."

"And do you?" Kyle questioned.

Alex shrugged. "I just follow Max's lead. He seems to be more comfortable with Nasedo after last night, so I'm willing to trust him. Doesn't mean I want to be alone with the guy, though."

Kyle looked quickly toward Tess, conscious that they were discussing the man who had essentially raised her, but Tess merely shrugged. "He's right," she admitted. "Nasedo's opinion of human beings isn't very high." She looked down, somewhat embarrassed. "I don't think he's had much experience with humans that he could… trust."

"What about you?" Kyle asked.

Tess glanced up, clearly surprised. "What do you mean?"

Kyle shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. Both Alex and Isabel were watching him intently, but he could tell they were just as interested as he was to hear Tess's response. "I mean, how many humans have you known that you could trust?"

"Oh." She looked thoughtful. "Not that many, I suppose. I'd say none, until recently." Her gaze dropped again. "It took me a while to realize that I could trust all of you," she admitted. "Nasedo's been through a lot more than I have, though," she added. "I don't imagine he'll ever be entirely sure of you."

"Can't teach an old dog new tricks, huh?" Kyle mumbled.

Tess shrugged. "Something like that. But he won't go against Max," she said swiftly. "You can be sure of that."

"What I really want to know," Alex said, leaning in confidentially, "is what aliens prefer on their pizza. Cuz I'm starving."

Isabel laughed, and the mood was instantly lightened. "I'll go get the take out menu for the Flying Pepperoni," she said. "Tess? Come with?"

"Sure," Tess replied. "I need to stretch my legs."

The girls carefully stacked their work to one side of the bed in two neat piles, then headed out of the room. Kyle found himself staring at the empty doorway long after they'd vanished.

"So," Alex said finally, breaking through Kyle's thoughts. "What's up, Valenti?"

"What do you mean?" Kyle turned to find Alex watching him. "Nothing's up."

"Right. Which is why you've been staring at Tess all morning like she's your new favorite flavor."

"You're delusional, Whitman." Kyle stalked over to the bed and sat down abruptly.

Alex shook his head. "No, I don't think so. Look, Kyle. I know we've never been what you might call… friends. But, the way things are now, you're kind of stuck with me. So let me just tell you something. I don't know a whole lot about Tess, but I do know about Isabel. This whole thing… their secret… made it really hard for her to trust anyone outside of Max and Michael. To open up. I can't imagine things are any easier for Tess. So, whatever you're thinking about doing, just remember that she's got feelings the same as anyone else. I know she got off to a rough start with all of us, but don't go stomping her into the ground. She doesn't deserve it."

Kyle raised an eyebrow. "Who died and made you Mr. Sensitivity?"

"Funny. Let me put it to you another way. She's got Max, Michael, and Isabel behind her. That's four sets of alien powers for you to contend with if you fuck things up."

Kyle snorted. "I get the idea, Whitman. No need to resort to petty threats."

Alex smirked. "You think that was petty? Fine. Wait until Michael gets a hold of you."

Kyle groaned. "Let's go check out the pizza situation. I want to get in my say before we end up with a bunch of girly toppings."

"Kyle, my man, you have obviously never seen these girls eat," Alex replied with a grin as he headed out of the room. "You're gonna need a fire extinguisher."

* * * * *

Max leaned against the hood of the Hummer and stared out across the quarry. Nasedo had arrived at the UFO Center in the guise of Pierce and the two of them had driven out of town in complete silence. It had relieved Max to realize that, first sitting next to him during the drive, now standing in this isolated place alone, he felt no fear when he looked at Pierce's face. Despite the obvious features, all he really saw was Nasedo.

But now it was time for answers. The only question was where to begin. There were so many things he wanted to know, and he realized a great deal of the information he sought had no direct bearing on their immediate situation. But he couldn't help but be curious. There was an entire world out there, an entire life, that he could not remember. Who had he really been back then? What had he loved? Whom had he loved? He recalled the flashes he had gotten in Tess's yard, the emotional ghosts that had crashed through his mind. How much of what he had seen was real? No matter what the future held, the past was still a mystery - one he very much wished to unravel once and for all. Somehow, he doubted he could truly move forward until he did.

"You have questions," Nasedo said. "I suspect it hardly matters where you begin."

Max fought the urge to smile. He supposed Nasedo was right. "When we went to Tess's house yesterday, I had a series of flashes," he said. "In the yard. I need to know if what I saw really happened."

"You saw flashes of the past?"

"Yes."

Nasedo frowned. "If they are real, you realize what this means." It wasn't a question.

Max nodded. "Our enemies can leave memories behind like a calling card."

"What did you see?"

"It was more a series of impressions. As if the memories had suddenly been planted in my mind. The four of us were young, growing up together. My marriage to Tess was arranged when we were children, but our relationship was always more that of siblings." Max looked at Nasedo, trying to read his reactions, but he merely nodded for Max to continue. "Our wedding date was set earlier than originally planned because of the war. We felt it would improve morale, give the people something to celebrate in the middle of the fighting. It was to be a symbol of hope and continuity," Max said slowly. "But the night of the marriage, just after the ceremony, our enemies kidnapped Tess from the compound. Michael, Isabel, and I took a small group of soldiers and went after her, but by the time we arrived they had killed her. None of us made it out alive." Max's jaw tightened. "I know the images were supposed to unnerve me - to show me they could take us out just as easily in this life as they did in the last. To prove how vulnerable we are. But what I need to know is whether that is what really happened or if it was merely an idea they wanted to plant in my mind."

Nasedo looked grim. "The memories are authentic. That is what happened. It was only by chance that we had already obtained genetic material from the four of you with the idea of sending your human doubles to earth. Our spies had learned that our enemies planned to move on as soon as they had overthrown our world, and that earth was the next target. Your mother felt that it was our duty to prevent this from happening. Little did she know that the human clones would be all that remained to save us as well."

Max nodded slowly. "I see. So, the plan was altered when we were all killed."

"Yes. The capital fell immediately once the word spread that you had been slain. Our spaceship barely made it off planet with your incubation pods before the city was officially occupied."

Max looked thoughtful. He turned and reached into the back of the Hummer, pulling out a bottle of water. Walking to the edge of the rocky embankment, he took a long drink as he stared down at the quarry below.

"You're wondering about the pairings," Nasedo said quietly.

"Yes, actually," Max agreed, not bothering to turn around. "You were obviously adamant about them with Tess while she was growing up. Why? If the marriages were political before, why was it so important to carry the relationships into this life?"

Nasedo stepped forward to stand next to Max. "It was important to ensure that you eventually returned home. You were supposed to be a unit, complete unto yourselves. Raised together as you had been before. There weren't supposed to be any attachments that might make you regret leaving earth, or that might keep you here."

"I see. So, in a way Michael was right every time he said we couldn't get attached," Max mused. "But why push Tess so hard?" he asked quietly.

"I was hard on Tess because it was up to her to make things right. She had to convince you that you were meant to be together. And… I wanted her to make up for my own mistakes."

Max looked up, his brow furrowed. "Your mistakes?"

"It was my fault, you see, that the three of you were raised as humans. I was late returning to the pod chamber. If I had been there, the four of you would have grown up together as was intended."

"Weren't you being chased by the FBI at the time?"

"That is no excuse. I was the only one left. It was my duty to see to your safety and upbringing."

Max sighed . "I hardly think it was something you had control over. And no one blames you."

Nasedo looked questioningly at Max.

"No, not even Michael. He might have, at first. But despite everything he says, despite what he went through with Hank, I think I can safely say that there are things about being human that Michael wouldn't trade for anything."

"The girl," Nasedo said. "That is just what I wished to prevent. Human entanglements."

"I'm afraid it's too late now," Max said quietly.

"Yes."

Max turned, his eyes serious. "I give you my word that, if there is a way to save our planet - if we can find a way to go back and rescue our people - we will do it. I won't let our world suffer because we've fallen in love with humans."

Nasedo looked at him a moment before nodding. "I am sorry I questioned your ability to fulfill your role as leader in this life. I was wrong to do so."

"Thank you. And thank you for not telling me that I belong with Tess."

"As you said, it's rather late for that, now."

Max frowned as he took another sip of water. "Not that I'm complaining, but what finally convinced you? I somehow doubt that it was any of my ranting."

"I knew last night that there was no longer any point to resisting this obsession you have developed. Clearly, you and Liz have mated."

"What?" Max sputtered, spraying a mouthful of water onto the ground.

Nasedo was nonplused. "Our kind mates for life," he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Once the relationship has been consummated, there is nothing to be done. Didn't you realize you are joined until death?"

Max stared at Nasedo, open-mouthed. "Are you telling me that you could tell… by looking at us… that we had….? And that essentially makes us married?"

Nasedo nodded. "It is a bond that cannot be broken. I just hope she is prepared. Human relationships tend to be much less… committed."

Max's lips curved into a slow smile. "Not this one," he replied softly.

* * * * *

Maria leaned through the pass-through window at the Crashdown and smiled as she watched Michael flip burgers. "Do you realize that just one week ago we weren't even speaking to each other?" she asked.

"Excuse me," Michael replied, "but I can't recall any point in time when you were not speaking."

"Very funny," she said, too happy to rise to his baiting remark. "I suppose I shouldn't tempt fate by talking about it."

"Let's not talk about fate either," he requested. "It sounds way too much like destiny for my taste."

Maria wrinkled her nose. "I don't think they're quite the same thing. Lizzie would know for sure."

Michael snorted and shot her a look. "Would that be Liz Parker you're referring to? The waitress who is actually singing while cleaning the milkshake machine?" He nodded past Maria. "Maybe she knew the difference once, but I'd say there's not much left in her mind that hasn't turned to mush as of this morning."

"You have a point," Maria admitted, her eyes following his. Liz was indeed singing as she ran a dishtowel over the top of the blender, a silly grin plastered on her face. "What is he doing to her?" Maria muttered under her breath, her tone half disbelief, half pure jealousy.

"Search me, but if you want to know you're gonna have to ask her yourself. No way am I asking Max."

"Speaking of which, where is the-man-who-would-be-king, anyway? He didn't come in for lunch and there's still no sign of him. Shouldn't he have gotten off of work by now?"

Michael slid two platters onto the counter next to her and glanced at the clock. "He was done an hour ago. Had to talk to Nasedo."

Maria swiveled toward him, frowning. "Alone?"

"Nasedo was going to pick him up at the UFO Center." When he realized Maria still looked dubious, Michael shrugged. "Max says we can trust him."

Maria sighed. "I feel like we need a score card."

"Whatever. Order up," he said pointedly and turned back to the grill.

Shaking her head, she scooped up the plates and sailed back out onto the floor. The café was fairly full and she occupied herself with refilling drinks and taking orders for the next few minutes. When she looked up again, Mr. Parker was standing in the middle of the restaurant, his eyes pinned on Liz. As Maria watched, he shifted his gaze toward the front booth where Max usually sat, then looked toward Liz again with a puzzled look on his face. Turning slightly, Maria could see that her friend was still singing softly as she worked behind the counter. Great, Maria thought. But just as she was about to go ask Mr. Parker some inane question to distract him, he continued across the room to the register where he deposited a box of fresh receipt tapes in the bin beneath the counter before heading through the front door.

As soon as he was out of sight, Maria slipped behind the corner and took Liz firmly by the shoulders. "Lizzie, babe, can it with the morning-after happy, okay?"

Liz looked at her friend, startled. "What are you talking about, Maria?"

"I'm talking about the little song-and-dance routine you've got going back here. Your dad just looked at you like your antennae had set down permanent roots. No one gets that happy over a shift at this place, all right? It's not like Prince Charming's currently in residence."

Liz blushed and looked down. "Was I really singing?"

"Yeah, but don't worry about it. You're not that bad. Just cool it. You've got this whole… glowing thing going."

Liz looked up abruptly, eyes wide. "I what?"

"No, Lizzie, no." Maria said swiftly. "I don't mean that you're… actually glowing," she assured her, dropping her voice. "You just look …" Maria sighed. "Elated. Ecstatic. Blissful."

"Maria…."

"No, I'm fine," Maria assured her with a smile. "It's my decision to wait and I'm good with that. And I'm glad you and Max are so… um… compatible." Maria's smile widened to a grin. "Just try not to glow so much where your dad can see you."

Liz let out a chuckle. "Yeah. Right. I'll see what I can do."

"Anyway," Maria continued, "shift's over. What are you doing until the meeting tonight?"

"I'm just going to hang out here until Max gets back."

Maria wrinkled her nose. "Maybe Michael and I should stay until then."

"You don't have to. Go do whatever you were going to do."

"But Liz, Max said to stay together Not to go anywhere alone."

Liz looked at her pointedly. "Maria, I live here, remember? My mom's upstairs and the café is full of customers and staff. You can hardly call that alone."

"Oh. Right. Well, if you're sure."

"Positive. I'm probably just going to take a nap, anyway."

Maria nodded knowingly, her eyes twinkling. "Yeah. That's a good idea."

Liz raised her eyebrows in warning. "I'll see you guys later, all right?"

Chuckling softly, Maria nodded. "Will do. I'm gonna go round up Spaceboy. See you at Max and Isabel's."

No sooner had Maria disappeared into the back room, than Max came flying through the front door. Liz hurried out from behind the counter as he came striding across the room.

"What's wrong?" she asked immediately.

"Nothing's wrong," he assured her quickly, enfolding her in a tight hug and kissing her soundly.

"Max," she protested, pulling back slightly. "What?"

He dropped another kiss on the tip of her nose and looked at her. His eyes were shining. "I'll tell you later, I promise," he said softly. "But right now I need to talk to Michael. Is he still here?"

"I think so. He and Maria were just getting ready to take off, but I don't think they've left yet."

Together, they headed into the break room. Michael was lounging on the couch while Maria rummaged through her locker.

"Maxwell," Michael said. "How'd it go?"

"Very informative. Listen, I need to talk to you. Isabel and Tess, too," he added slowly. He glanced at Maria, who was glaring at him suspiciously. "I'm not keeping secrets," he told her. "This is just something the four of us need to discuss first. We'll fill you all in later, I swear."

"Why not just tell us now and save time?" Maria shot out.

"Maria!" Liz broke in with a meaningful look.

Max gave Liz's hand a small squeeze of thanks. "Maria, please. Can I borrow Michael? For a little while?"

"Fine," Maria huffed. "Just make sure you bring him back the way you found him."

Max stifled a laugh and nodded. "Right. Michael? You ready?"

"Sure thing," Michael said. He'd been watching the exchange with a mix of amusement and curiosity. "I think Isabel and Tess are still at Whitman's."

"Yeah, I called before I came over. They're meeting us at your apartment."

Michael raised his eyebrows. "Right. Let's go then."

Max tugged Liz back into his arms. "We'll be back for you guys in an hour? That all right?"

Liz smiled. "Fine. We'll see you then." Standing on tip-toe, she pressed a kiss against his lips.

Michael slipped an arm around Maria's waist and pulled her close. "You okay?" he asked softly. "You know I'll tell you whatever it is, right?"

Maria looked up into Michael's hesitant eyes and softened. "Yeah," she relented. "A week ago I wouldn't have been so sure, though, so don't go regressing on me," she added, slapping him playfully on the arm.

Michael grinned and leaned in to kiss her. "Not much chance of that," he whispered. "See you later."


******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 8:00:08 PM

Part 13

********

Max and Michael found Isabel and Tess already waiting for them. The girls were sitting on Michael's couch, deep in discussion, when Michael opened the door.

"You guys made record time," Max remarked as he followed Michael into the apartment.

"You made it sound important," Isabel replied. She shot Tess a questioning look. "And… um… we've got some things to discuss too, once you're done."

Max paused, his eyes shifting from his sister to Tess, then to Michael. "About the book?" he asked, turning back to Isabel.

"Yeah."

"Were you able to read it?" Michael asked.

Isabel glanced at Tess again.

Michael noticed the look and frowned. "Iz? What? What did you guys find out?"

"Let Max go first," Tess said. "He's the one who called the meeting."

Michael hesitated, then nodded. "Fine. Maxwell?" he asked.

"Right." Max paced across the room briefly, then turned to face them. "Those flashes I had at Tess's were real," he said. His eyes were on Tess, measuring her reaction. "Our marriages were arranged. Political. Our feelings for each other seem to have been more… fraternal than romantic."

Tess met Max's eyes and smiled warmly in reassurance. "It's okay, Max," she said softly. "I was kind of expecting that's what you would say."

"You were?"

She nodded. "Yeah. The more I've thought about it, the more it made sense." She shrugged. "I just wish Nasedo had told me before."

"Yeah, why didn't he?" Michael questioned.

Max sighed. "It seems that the goal was still for us to pair up in this life. The idea being that we would be more likely to return home and save our planet if we had no earthly ties." His attention was focused on Michael as he spoke, so that this time he missed the look that passed between Isabel and Tess.

"So, I was right about us not getting involved. Technically," Michael said, his expression pained.

"Yeah, you were," Max acknowledged. "But it doesn't matter. I told Nasedo that we would do whatever we can to rescue our people, regardless of our attachments here."

Michael nodded. "So, if your flashes were true, then… that's really how we died," he said quietly.

"Yes," Max said. "It was. Apparently there was already a plan in the works to send us… meaning the human versions of us… to earth. The idea was to head off our enemies, who were planning to attack here next. In the end, we… the clones… were all that was left."

"The last hope," Isabel whispered.

"In a sense," Max agreed.

"No pressure there," Michael muttered.

"No more pressure than an hour ago," Tess pointed out. "We already knew that they were counting on us. It was in the message."

Isabel shrugged. "It still seems different. Sadder, somehow." She turned to Max, a frown wrinkling her brow. "Was that it? Why didn't you want to tell the others?"

"No, actually. There's more," Max said quietly. "I'm going to talk to Liz after we're done here, but I thought I'd leave it up to the rest of you what to do with this information."

Isabel's frown deepened. "What information?"

"Let's have it, Max," Michael said, his tone indicating he was braced for bad news.

Max shook his head. "It's nothing terrible. Just a little… inconvenient, maybe." He took a deep breath. "According to Nasedo, our people mate for life."

Michael looked confused. "So? What are you telling us? Divorce isn't an option? Not exactly high up on my list of worries, Maxwell."

Max shook his head. "That's not what I'm saying, Michael. It means that when we choose who we are going to be with… the relationship is permanent. Until one of us dies."

Isabel's eyes narrowed. "Max, are you saying what I think you're saying?"

Michael continued to look confused. He glanced at Tess, who had a look of acceptance on her face. "Okay, am I the only one not getting this?" he asked.

"Michael, the way we choose our mate is by… making love," Max said slowly, his eyes focused somewhere near his feet.

The room was utterly silent.

"Okaaay," Isabel said finally, looking a little pale. "That's what I thought you were trying to say."

"You all right, Iz?" Max asked, clearly concerned.

"Well, I'm not married yet, if that's what you're asking," she shot back. "Which is apparently more than we can say for you."

Max's eyebrows arched abruptly and he turned to stare at Michael accusingly.

"Hey, don't look at me," Michael said quickly. "I didn't say a word. We all just came to the same conclusion on our own. It's not like you two are subtle or anything."

Max closed his eyes briefly, but he was unable to suppress a small smile. "Fine. So you all know. And I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that I'm not in the least phased by this new piece of information." His smile faded slightly. "I just hope Liz doesn't feel trapped by it."

Michael snorted. "Maxwell, you've got the girl singing in the middle of the café. Somehow I don't think she'll be too broken up about this."

"Yeah, well, that remains to be seen," Max said, but his smile was back. "Anyway, as I said, I'm going to talk to Liz as soon as we're finished here, and it's up to the rest of you to decide how you want to handle things. And keep in mind that, just because this is how things work for us, doesn't mean it will necessarily be the same for any human we're involved with," he pointed out.

"Exactly what does it mean to be bound for life?" Isabel asked. "What supposedly happens?"

"According to Nasedo, the bond between two people is deepened in such a way that they just naturally turn to each other," Max explained. "It never occurs to them to want to be with anyone else."

"But you don't know if it would be the same for the others," Tess reiterated quietly. "So if we were… bound together… and they changed their minds…"

"If it's not the same for them, they could leave us," Max admitted. "And while it wouldn't kill us, we would be left alone. Because we wouldn't be able to get over it."

"So, what you're saying is that they get an ironclad guarantee and we get to take our chances," Michael muttered.

"Michael…" Isabel said. "We don't know that for sure. And do you really think Maria would just walk away from you?" she asked softly.

He shrugged, but the hint of a smirk teased at his lips.

Max watched his friend and couldn't help but smile. "All right. That's pretty much what I had to tell you," he said. His eyes grew serious and he turned toward Isabel and Tess. "What about the book? What were you able to learn?"

Isabel glanced at Tess once more. "We actually wanted the two of you to take a look and see if you could read it. You know, to see if you came up with the same things we did."

"How did you go about making your translation?" Max queried.

"We worked separately, then compared our notes," Tess replied.

"And you both agreed on what it said?"

Isabel and Tess nodded.

"That's good enough for me," Max announced. "How far did you get?"

"Not that far, really. About a quarter of the way through," Isabel said. "I… we… there's a lot here that Nasedo never mentioned, Max. The book seems to be divided in sections and the part with our pictures seems to be dealing more with our past lives than anything." She looked toward Tess for support.

"One section was some sort of scientific report," Tess continued in a soft voice. "It was pretty complicated, so we skipped that and translated what appeared to be a general description of our mission on earth."

"Okay," Max prompted when she paused. "So, what did it say?"

"That's what was confusing. It went directly against a lot of what Nasedo has always told me," Tess admitted. "That's why we wanted you and Michael to look at it also. To see if we were reading it correctly."

"Come on, Tess. What did it say?" Michael pressed.

When Tess failed to continue, looking genuinely uncomfortable, Isabel resumed the explanation. "It seems that when we were engineered, we were designed to be compatible with humans," she said. "The idea was that we would be able to mix with the people on earth and eventually have children with them."

"So, you're saying that we'll be able to…" Max trailed off, his eyes glued to his sister's.

"Yeah," she said slowly, an understanding smile gracing her lips.

"But what about all that stuff about us mating with each other?" Michael said. "Which is the real deal?"

Max shrugged. "Nasedo said we were originally supposed to come here to save earth from our enemies. It was only after our original selves were killed that we suddenly needed to save the home planet as well. That may very well be the reason we received the message of our destinies as a hologram. It was essentially a change in plans."

Michael merely nodded. "So, Iz, did you translate any more than that?"

"Not really," Isabel said. "There's a lot more to do."

"Did you have a hard time?" Max asked.

"It wasn't that difficult once we got started," Tess said. "It was just a matter of trusting our first impressions."

Max nodded. "We'll help tomorrow. Hopefully between the four of us we'll be able to finish it. How far had Alex gotten with that list when you came over?"

Isabel looked discouraged. "I don't think he was making as much progress as he would have liked," she confessed. "He was muttering at his computer and threatening it."

"Threatening it?" Michael asked. "Terrific. Just what we need is for computer boy to go delusional on us."

"That's not what I mean," Isabel said. "He was just… frustrated."

Max looked grim. "I know he's doing the best he can, but we need that information. It's more important than all the rest of it put together."
"I know," Isabel said. "Maybe we can figure out a way to help him. And… um… I think maybe Kyle shouldn't be there tomorrow," she added, shooting a cautious look at Tess who was suddenly very interested in the trim on the couch cushion. "He's a little… distracting."

Max looked vaguely amused, but nodded. "We'll find Kyle a project to keep him from… distracting anyone. And maybe Liz can help Alex. She's almost as good with computers as he is."

"You two and your science geeks," Michael quipped.

"Hey, we're lucky to have them," Max said, his words obviously having a double meaning. He glanced at his watch. "We should go pick up Maria and Liz," he said. "You two all right getting back to Alex's?" he asked Isabel and Tess.

"Yeah, we're good," Isabel replied. "So I guess we'll catch you at home."

"Right," Max agreed. "And good luck," he added with a smile.

* * * * *

By the time they arrived at Michael's apartment, Maria was starting to get worried. He and Max had shown up at the Crashdown as promised, and Max had proceeded to sweep Liz upstairs to the roof to talk. Michael had suggested that the two of them walk back to his place and she'd agreed. Though the walk wasn't a particularly long one, he had yet to utter another word. Instead he kept sneaking glances at her when he thought she wasn't paying attention. Whatever he had to tell her, it couldn't possibly be good.

Once they were inside, Maria turned expectantly toward Michael, trying to keep an open mind. His eyes met hers briefly, then swiftly shied away. They were filled with indecision and something more. Fear? Suddenly she could feel her heart beating faster, apprehension making her mouth dry.

"Michael? What is it?" When he still refused to look at her, she cursed Max Evans under her breath. It had taken her more than six months to get Michael Guerin to talk to her, and in one hour Max had managed to reconstruct all of his stone walls. That was not what she had meant when she asked Max to return him the way he had found him. "Michael?" she asked again. "You're starting to scare me."

That got his attention. His head bobbed up and he caught her worried frown. "Why don't you sit down?" he asked quietly.

His tone did little to comfort her, but she nodded and went over to the couch. She left room for him next to her, but he remained standing, starting to pace now that she no longer occupied any part of the floor. "So, tell me," she told him, trying to brace herself for whatever was coming.

Michael glanced at her again, a little frown creasing his forehead. "You know how you told me about how hard it was for you and your mom when your father left?" he asked suddenly.

Maria felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. "You're leaving," she said, her voice panicky, her thoughts running a million miles per minute. "That's what Max told you. He found a way home and you're all going back to wherever it is you come from. You're leaving us here and…" She didn't realize he was kneeling in front of her until she felt his warm palm stop her mouth.

"No," he said firmly. "I'm not leaving. We're not leaving. That's not it." His voice was emphatic, his eyes pinned to hers. "Now will you just listen?"

Maria relaxed slowly and nodded. The look in Michael's eyes told her that whatever he wanted to tell her was important. And difficult for him. When he took his hand away, she forced herself to smile. "Sorry," she whispered. "Go ahead."

His expression softened. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"It's okay. Just tell me whatever it is."

Michael sank down on the couch next to her and took her hand between both of his. He concentrated on tracing her fingers as he spoke. "Nasedo told Max that we… when we mate, it's for life," he said, so low she could barely distinguish his words. "We develop some kind of bond that means we never even consider leaving… so…"

Maria sat perfectly still, waiting for him to continue. Eventually, he looked up and met her steady gaze. "Maria?"

"What are you trying to tell me, Michael?" she asked softly. "That if we were to get married someday, you'd never leave me?"

"Um… yeah… kind of."

"Kind of?"

He looked uncomfortable. "It's not marriage that does it. It's not a social thing. It's more… physical."

"Physical," she repeated slowly. "Which means that this bond comes when you…"

"When we have sex," he said.

Maria nodded slowly. "I see."

"You do?"

"Yeah," she said, pulling her hand away. "It's a good thing we decided to wait, huh?" she said, her voice thick. "Don't worry, Michael. I understand."

Michael froze beside her. "What exactly do you understand?" he asked slowly. Maria turned and started to get up, but he grabbed her and pulled her back down next to him. "What do you think this means?" he asked.

Now it was her turn to shy away from his penetrating gaze. "That we can't… that it would be…" Her voice broke and she struggled to get away from him.

"Stop," he said, holding her tighter. He pulled her securely into his arms, tucking her head against his chest. As she began to cry in earnest, he dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "Maria, I'm not saying I don't want to be with you," he told her. "I'm saying that… when you're ready to move forward… you know… you don't have to worry about my… disappearing on you." He stroked her back gently, willing her to hear him through her tears. "You don't have to be afraid," he said.

Maria slowly sat up, brushing at the tears still streaming down her face. She stared into Michael's eyes, waiting for him to back down. "Michael…"

He smirked at her and reached out to catch a tear that was about to fall from her chin. "I love you," he said softly. "You okay?"

"I… it's a lot to take in," she replied, slipping her hand into his. "I guess… I never…" she paused. "Michael, are you sure?"

"Am I sure about what?"

She looked down. "I know you never wanted anything to… keep you here. What about going home?"

Michael took a deep breath. "Come here," he coaxed, pulling her back into the circle of his arms. He brushed a kiss over her forehead. "If we can find a way to go save our planet, we will. We won't let our ties to earth keep us from doing our duty. But, Maria… I swear I'll do everything I can to come back. I… I am home."

Maria felt a shudder run through her body. Pulling away slightly, she looked up at him with eyes bright with tears. "I love you so much," she whispered. Knowing words were never enough for the two of them, she pressed her lips to his and poured all of the emotions surging through her into the kiss. Michael angled his mouth over hers and returned the kiss, deepening it as he pressed her slowly back onto the couch.

They lay there for several minutes, kissing and whispering, their arms and legs twined together. Then suddenly Maria sat bolt upright, nearly knocking Michael to the floor.

"What?" he asked, alarmed at her abrupt movements. "Maria, what is it?"

Her wide eyes met his worried ones. "Oh my God… Max and Liz!"

The look of shock on her face was enough to send Michael rolling off of the couch, laughing.

* * * * *

Isabel could feel Tess glancing at her occasionally during the drive back to Alex's house, and was glad that she refrained from asking what was wrong. This wasn't the type of thing she felt comfortable discussing with Tess at this juncture in their friendship. Yes, she was beginning to trust her more the last few days, but it wasn't as if they were truly close. Isabel wasn't truly close to anyone.

Staring out the window, she wished she could go to her mother. She wanted nothing more than to curl up on the couch with Diane and let all of her fears and worries come spilling out. But she couldn't. Telling her mother she was an alien had been one thing, but talking about love and marriage and sex? That was another matter entirely. She was afraid her mother would just fall back on her parental instincts and tell Isabel she was too young to be making decisions that affected the rest of her life. And while that might be true on some level, it wasn't exactly practical given the things they had learned today. And it did nothing to help her deal with her feelings for Alex. Whatever they were.

The real question was, could she actually talk to Alex about them? She knew she cared for Alex. Hell, she suspected she was falling in love with him. But what did that mean at seventeen? Was this it? Was she ready to make a commitment for life when she hadn't even finished high school? And could she ask that of Alex? Sure, she knew how he felt about her - or at least how he thought he felt - but that didn't mean he would always feel the same way. He'd been following her around for so long, watching her from afar, dreaming about her at night. What if, now that he finally had her, he decided she wasn't really what he wanted? And didn't she owe it to him to allow him to change his mind, even if it happened next month or next year?

Watching Max with Liz, especially the last couple of days, Isabel had to admit that they were perfect for each other. She had no doubt that they were destined to be together always. But she and Alex were not Max and Liz. They weren't soul mates joined by some miracle of fate. They weren't even Michael and Maria, who had somehow come together through their own unique trial-by-fire. So, who exactly were they? And did their story have a happily-ever-after?

She barely noticed when Tess pulled into the Whitman's driveway. It wasn't until she felt a gentle hand on her arm that she was startled from her thoughts.

Tess frowned at her. "Isabel? Is everything all right?"

Isabel smiled broadly, her mouth feeling stiff as she did so. "Of course it is. Why wouldn't it be?"

"Well, you haven't said a word since we left Michael's."

"I'm fine," Isabel assured her, then turned and climbed out of the car.

Tess didn't press the issue, instead heading up the front walk to the house and ringing the bell. A moment later the door swung open to reveal Kyle.

"Welcome back, ladies. All the fires put out?"

Tess wrinkled her nose and brushed past him into the house. "No fires, Kyle. We just needed to discuss some things with Max and Michael."

"Whatever," he muttered. "Listen, if it's just the same with you guys, I'm gonna take off now that you're back."

Isabel shot him a look. "Was everything okay?"

Kyle's eyebrows arched. "Sure. Swell. I love watching Whitman pound the crap out of his keyboard."

Looking concerned, Isabel hurried down the hall toward Alex's room, leaving Tess and Kyle standing in the foyer.

"So," he continued, focusing on Tess. "You want me to swing by and get you later?"

"Um, actually, I think maybe I'll come with you now. If that's okay," she added swiftly.

Kyle stared at her for a moment. "Yeah. Sure, if you want. I… uh… I was just gonna go home for a while. You know, hang out before we've got to head to the Evanses'."

Tess nodded. "That's good. I could use some time away from everyone," she said. "I'm not used to…" She trailed off when she noticed his amused expression.

"It's work, isn't it?"

"What is?" she asked.

He smiled in understanding. "Trying too hard."

A flicker of annoyance past briefly over her features before she gave up and sighed. "Yeah," she admitted. "It is."

"Relax," he advised. "It'll all sort itself out."

She looked up, meeting his deep blue gaze. "You think so?"

"Sure. They're coming around, aren't they?"

"Right." Tess shook her head slightly. "I'm going to go tell Isabel and Alex that I'm going, too. I'll meet you at the car." She turned and started down the hall.

"I'll wait here," he told her.

Tess looked back questioningly.

Kyle shrugged. "No one goes anywhere alone, remember? That includes walking across the yard."

"I can take care of myself, you know. I do have my powers," she reminded him. When he merely leaned back against the wall, clearly settling in to wait for her, she smiled softly. "I'll just be a sec."


*****

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 8:02:10 PM

Part 14

********

Alex frowned at the computer screen and typed in a new command. He was vaguely aware of Isabel watching him from the doorway, but he was too immersed in the list scrolling in front of him to do more than wave at her distractedly. The work was going slowly and he was acutely aware of being up against a self-imposed deadline. They had no way of knowing when the enemy would strike next and, although Max hadn't told him in so many words, it had been clear to Alex that a great deal was riding on whether or not he could determine where the other aliens were hiding. Until they came up with something they could use to their advantage, they were basically sitting ducks.

"Yes, finally," he muttered as a series of beeps indicated he had managed to decode the password he had been working on.

"What did you get?" Isabel asked softly.

Alex looked up, startled to discover Isabel standing directly behind him. "Hey," he said. "I didn't hear you come into the room."

"Sorry. I didn't want to disturb you," she told him.

"Thanks. Um… I broke into the power company's records," he explained, waving a hand at the screen. "I'm trying to see what new accounts have been established over the last month." He turned toward the computer and hit a few more keys before backing away from the desk and facing her. "So, what was up with Max? What did he find out?"

"Oh, uh… not much," Isabel replied, turning away. She sat down on the edge of the bed, tucking her feet up under her.

Alex's eyes narrowed. "It had to be important for Max to drag you guys out of here like that instead of waiting until tonight," he said. "Iz? What is it?"

She shook her head. "Those flashes he had were real. The ones about our past."

Alex rose from his chair and was sitting next to Isabel in a flash. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a comforting embrace. "Oh, Isabel, I'm sorry," he whispered. "God, how freaky. To know how you died." He pulled back slightly and looked her in the eye, his own blue eyes filled with concern. "Are you all right?"

Isabel smiled a little and nodded. "Yeah. It's just… weird."

"So, what did Nasedo say exactly? Was Max right about everything?"

"He seems to have been. Nasedo confirmed that our marriages were arranged and that Tess was taken by our enemies the night of her wedding to Max." Isabel shifted uncomfortably, effectively moving out of the circle of his arms. "Alex, would you mind if we don't talk about it? I mean, right now? I just… there's a lot for me to absorb and I… I need to think it all through before I tell you," she said carefully.

Alex hesitated for a moment. He didn't like the way she was avoiding his eyes. "Isabel, was there something else?" he asked finally. "Did Max have bad news?"

"No, no, nothing like that," she assured him quickly. Pausing, she reached out and took his hand. "Alex, it's nothing to worry about. I promise," she said. "Please. I just need a little time."

He nodded slowly. "All right. But you know, Iz, you can tell me anything, okay? I can handle it, whatever it is."

"I know, Alex. I do," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "But this is something I need to handle on my own, first." She cupped his cheek and brushed a gentle kiss over his lips. "It's going to be okay. Just be patient with me."

Alex smiled despite himself. "I think we both know I can manage that one."

"Thanks," she said gratefully. She glanced toward his computer. "I suppose you should get back to work," she sighed.

His expression grew serious. "Yeah. I've got a lot to do."

"Okay. I'm going to see if I can get some more of the book translated."

Alex frowned and looked around the room, as if just noticing they were alone. "What happened to Tess and Kyle?"

"They took off. They said they'd catch up with us later at the house."

Alex wriggled his eyebrows suggestively. "So, that means we're all alone."

Isabel smiled. "Not like it's going to do us any good. We both have a lot to do. Plus, we're supposed to pick up Michael and Maria at his apartment on the way to the meeting."

"Figures," he sighed heavily in mock despair. "I knew it was too good to be true."

"Okay, back to work," Isabel commanded, giving him a gentle shove.

"Yes, mi'lady," he quipped. He moved off the bed and returned to his desk chair. "I just hope this proves more useful than the real estate records."

"What was wrong with the real estate records?"

"I'm not sure. Either they're totally inept when it comes to their record keeping, or they've suffered some sort of massive server damage lately and it wiped part of the data. Regardless, it was a complete waste of time."

"Just keep trying. You'll find something," she told him.

"Let's hope so," he mumbled, already staring intently at the data on the screen. "Just let me know when we need to leave," he said.

"I will," Isabel said softly. She quietly fished the book and the papers she and Tess had been studying off of the floor and spread them over the bed. With a final glance at Alex, she settled against the headboard and tried to focus on the work in front of her. It only took a few moments for her thoughts to wander.

* * * * *

Liz would have been scared by Max's abrupt actions if it hadn't been for the kiss. Yes, he had grabbed her by the hand and dragged her through the back door of the Crashdown before even saying hello. But then he had stopped in the alley and pulled her into his arms, gracing her with the most searing, passionate kiss she could remember - and she could remember quite a few. It was filled with love and desire and possession… and something else she couldn't place until he pulled back and stared into her eyes. His eyes told the rest of the story. Max Evans was happy. For one brief moment in time, he was completely joyful, without a single worry. As he traced her cheek with a reverent hand, Liz had wished she could stop time, that she could press a pause button somewhere and suspend them forever in that instant of perfection. Because she never wanted Max to look any other way.

Then they were moving again, and he was gently urging her up the fire escape to the roof. She climbed quickly, knowing he was following behind. When she reached the top she could feel Max's hands at her hips, gently guiding her over the wall, keeping her safe. As soon as she was standing firmly on both feet, he swung over the top of the ladder, reminding her of so many other times when he had done the same thing - always causing her to marvel at his grace and agility. It brought a smile to her lips.

"What?" he asked, catching the look on her face.

Liz laughed quietly. "It's still impressive," she told him.

Max grinned. "Glad you approve." He reached out and took her hand. "Come sit down."

Liz followed him to the deck chair and sat down next to him. "All right," she said. "I'm sitting. So, tell me."

"I will," he said, the grin fading. "I mean, I am. Just… give me a minute. This is important, Liz."

She looked down at their intertwined hands. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Thank you," Max said quietly. He swallowed, then licked his lips nervously. "I guess the first thing I should tell you is that those flashes I had were real. Everything I saw about our past lives was true. How we were raised, that our marriages were arranged, how we were killed."

"Oh, Max," Liz said, her brow furrowed with concern. "I'm so sorry."

"No, it's all right," he said. "I'm fine. I… it's kind of strange to remember it, actually. It makes it seem… more real. But I'm not upset. In a way I'm glad that I remembered, because it explains so much."

Liz smiled and gave his hand a warm squeeze. "So, Nasedo was willing to talk to you about all of this?"

Max nodded. "Yeah. And he filled in some of the gaps for me, too. The mission… sending hybrids to earth to fight our enemies… that was determined before we died. Our DNA had already been cloned and the project was underway. Then the four of us were killed and the hybrids became the only chance for the home planet's survival as well as earth's. Originally, no one expected us to return."

"So, the rest of it… your destiny and the message from your mother?"

"It was a last minute change to the plan."

Liz nodded thoughtfully. "So that's why Nasedo was so adamant about the four of you pairing up," she said. "It was the only way to make sure you didn't fall in love with humans and stay here."

Max smiled at her quick understanding. "Yeah, basically. He was afraid we would get attached and refuse to go home to save our people."

Liz looked confused. "But Max, why has he backed down? He's stopped trying to push you and Tess together. Why does he suddenly believe you'll go back to your planet? Or haven't you been telling me everything?" She pulled back slightly. "Has he still been doing things? Following us?" she asked, her voice growing panicky.

"No, he hasn't been following you," Max soothed. "He knows he'll never convince me to give you up. There's nothing to worry about," he promised.

"Are you sure?"

"Positive." Max looped an arm around Liz's shoulders and hugged her closer. "But there is something I need to tell you," he said, his voice growing serious. "And I want you to promise me that you'll be totally honest with me about how you feel, Liz, all right? I mean it. Whatever you think, you have to tell me the truth."

"Max," she said, looking truly worried for the first time, "you're starting to scare me. What happened? What did he say to you?"

"Nothing happened," Max said. "Look, it's nothing to worry about. Just promise me, okay? Can you do that?"

"Of course," she said quietly. "I'd never lie to you, Max."

"I know," he said softly. "I don't mean that you'd lie. But you might hold back to spare my feelings, and I don't want you to do that. This is too important."

She nodded, feeling nervous knots starting to form in her stomach. "I promise. Just please tell me."

"It's something Nasedo told me, but he assumed I already knew, given the way I had been behaving regarding our relationship." Max took a deep breath. "It seems that on my planet… we mate for life."

The corners of Liz's mouth turned up slightly. "Unlike the fickle humans, who have a 57% divorce rate?"

Max chuckled lightly, and some of the tension eased from his face. "Leave it to you to know the statistics," he grumbled teasingly. "But that's not what I'm talking about. It isn't a question of taking vows and not breaking them. It goes deeper than that," he said, resuming his serious tone. "It's a physical bond between two people, a link that only gets stronger through time. It means that the people joined never even think of another person - of being with anyone else."

Liz reached up and cupped Max's cheek gently. "Are you trying to tell me that when we made love, I bound myself to you for life?"

He nodded, his eyes pinned to hers. "Yes," he whispered.

"Max, I didn't need Nasedo to tell me that," she replied. "And I don't believe that you did either. Whatever else happens, this much I know; I will always be yours, Max Evans. I could never love anyone else."

"God, Liz. You know how much I love you. I just… I didn't want you to feel trapped into it. It may not be the same for you as it is for us, since you're human. If you wanted to leave me for any reason…"

"Shhh," she said, placing a finger over his lips. "Max, I love you. That could never be a trap. And I already told you that I'm not going anywhere."

Max's eyes were warm with love, as well as a touch of relief. He leaned in and kissed her, his lips caressing hers gently. But when Liz tried to deepen the kiss, he pulled back. "Wait," he said. "There's more."

Liz's eyebrows arched. "Hurry up, then," she teased. "I'm feeling way off my kissing quota today."

Laughing quietly, Max shifted so that Liz was cradled against him. "I promise to make it up to you later," he said.

Settling comfortably, Liz smiled at the sound of Max's laughter rumbling in his chest. It was such a wonderful sound. "I'm going to hold you to that," she said. "So, what else did you find out?"

"Isabel and Tess were able to translate part of the book. There was a section on our mission on earth. It appears that, since we were originally meant to remain here and mingle with humans, we were genetically engineered with that in mind. Which means that we're physically compatible with humans."

"I thought we'd already figured that out, too," Liz said, the teasing note in her voice taking on a more suggestive tone.

Max gave her a light squeeze. "I'm talking about our blood. It may be different, but it's still compatible. Which means there's nothing to prevent us from having children one day," he finished.

Liz turned to look at him. "It said that? You're sure?"

Max nodded. "Both Isabel and Tess came to the same conclusion." He frowned when he saw the tears flooding Liz's eyes. "Liz? What is it? It doesn't mean we have to have children," he said hurriedly. "I'm not trying to…" He trailed off as she shook her head vehemently.

"No, Max. It's not that I don't want children. I do. Of course I do," she told him. "It's just I never imagined…"

Comprehension flooded his face as Max tightened his embrace. "You thought it wouldn't be possible for us to have a family," he said softly. Looking down into her teary eyes, he smiled tenderly. "And you were willing to give all of that up for me?"

"None of it would have mattered without you, so it wasn't much of a sacrifice," she said gently. "Biologically… well, I assumed we wouldn't be able to conceive, or that even if we could the child might be… I didn't think it would work," she told him. "I figured maybe we would adopt or…" She blushed slightly and dropped her eyes, embarrassed to admit that she had given the situation so much consideration, given the fact that only a few days ago she had been insisting she could have no part in his life. Staring at her lap, she smiled when he took her hand. "And just so you know, Max," she continued, "I felt this way before we made love. Being… intimate with you… has only made everything I feel more… there. More present." She peered up through her lashes to check his reaction and was moved to see tears in his eyes. "So, you don't have to worry that you somehow changed me by making love to me," she told him. "I wanted to be with you more than anything."

"How come you know me so well?" he asked, his voice light despite his expression.

"Because I love you. And because you wear your heart on your sleeve," she teased gently.

Max smiled. "No. You took my heart a long time ago, Liz Parker. It's yours."

"And you have mine," she told him. She paused, peering up at him questioningly. "Does that mean I get my kisses now?" she asked finally, a mischievous look creeping over her face.

"Not quite yet."

Liz pouted, though her eyes were twinkling. "You mean there's still more? I think I liked it better when you got new information in small doses."

"This has nothing to do with Nasedo or the book," Max told her. "Sit up a second." When she moved away, he stood up and reached into the pocket of his jeans. He pulled out a small velvet bag with a drawstring tie.

Liz felt her mouth go dry. "Max…"

"Shhh," he said, sitting back down. "Don't panic," he told her with a knowing look. "I… I wanted to get you something after… after the other night. Something special. I picked this out this afternoon, before I had even spoken with Nasedo, but now it means that much more." Reaching out, he took Liz's hand and placed the little pouch on her palm, gently curving her fingers around it.

Looking into his eyes, Liz saw love and vague amusement. She glanced down at the little velvet bag in her hand. Taking a deep breath, she pulled lightly at the drawstring to loosen it.

"It won't bite," Max teased.

Liz tipped the bag over so the contents slid into her hand. It was a solid silver heart, roughly the size of a quarter, hanging from a matching silver chain. When she turned it over, she saw their initials engraved on the smooth surface: M.E. + L.P. - just like the heart he had put on the wall outside her bedroom window so many months ago.

"Oh, Max," she said, feeling the tears well up. "It's beautiful."

"I wanted to get you something you could wear all the time without worrying about your parents noticing," he said meaningfully. "No more wearing of hearts on sleeves," he added. When she looked up, he smiled and took the pendant from her hand. He undid the clasp and held it out.

Liz scooted forward and swiveled so her back was to Max. When he had the necklace positioned around her neck, she lifted her hair for him and he fastened the clasp, dropping a kiss on the warm skin where her neck met her shoulder as he did. Turning to face him again, she smiled shyly.

"How does it look?" she asked.

Max traced the fine silver chain with one finger. "Beautiful. You're beautiful," he said, looking into her eyes.

Liz felt her face growing slightly warm. "Thank you," she whispered, fingering the heart lovingly. Then she reached out and wrapped her arms around Max's neck and pulled him down. "I love you, Max Evans." Her soft words melted against his mouth as she kissed him. This time when she parted her lips to deepen the kiss, he was one step ahead of her.

* * * * *

Michael woke to the sound of the phone ringing. Groaning, he rolled over and pulled the pillow over his head. He had spent the previous night lying four inches away from Maria, worrying that her mother would barge in and find him there. It had not been exactly conducive to sleep. Now he couldn't even take a nap in peace. This was definitely some kind of conspiracy. But maybe, if he was very lucky - if he lay perfectly still and seemed to be sleeping - Maria would answer the phone for him.

The ringing continued, the noise penetrating the layers of fabric and feathers that threatened to smother him. It showed no signs of stopping. Peeking out from beneath the pillow, Michael realized that, beyond the piercing sound of the phone, was the soft music of water running. Suddenly, he had a vague recollection of Maria whispering something to him about a shower. He moaned and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Someone was going to be very sorry.

Yawning, he shuffled across the room and grabbed at the phone. "What?"

"It's about time. And please. Don't tell me what you were doing," Isabel snapped, her voice unrepentant.

"I was asleep," Michael mumbled, sounding distinctly annoyed. "What do you want, Iz?"

Isabel's tone softened. "It's nearly time for the meeting. I just wanted to let you guys know that Alex and I will be over to pick you up soon. Is ten minutes okay?"

Michael shot a glance toward the bathroom. The water was no longer running and he could hear Maria singing softly to herself. "Better make it twenty," he said. He yawned again. "So?"

"So, what?"

"How did it go with computer boy?"

"Oh. Um, listen, Michael…."

Michael snorted. "Didn't tell him, did you?"

Isabel sighed. "Did you tell Maria?"

"Yeah."

"You did?"

"Don't sound so surprised," Michael muttered. "So, why didn't you say anything to Whitman?"

Her voice dropped to just above a whisper. "Look, it's complicated, all right. This is… it changes things. I need some time to think about it."

"Yeah. I guess I can understand that," Michael said. "Look, you want me to tell Maria not to mention it?"

"You think she would?"

"I guess that's a yes."

"Um… yeah. Thanks. I… appreciate it. I don't want him to find out from anyone but me."

"Right. Better tell Max and Liz, too."

"I will. It's probably just as well that we don't discuss it tonight anyway. I doubt that Tess was planning on saying anything to Kyle."

Michael made a choking sound. "Tess and Kyle? You're kidding me!"

Isabel chuckled. "I don't think there's anything going on yet, but I see potential."

"Terrific," Michael mumbled.

"Come on, Michael. He's not that bad."

"Yeah, well, I'm still reserving judgement." He looked up as the bathroom door opened and Maria walked out in a cloud of steam, her damp hair dripping onto her shoulders and making dark patches on her clean T-shirt. "Look, Iz, I gotta go. We'll see you in a little while."

"Okay. Thanks, Michael," she replied, her tone heartfelt.

Maria cocked her head questioningly at Michael as he placed the phone in the cradle. "What's up?"

"That was Isabel. They're picking us up in twenty minutes, so you better get a move on."

She flopped onto the couch and started rubbing absently at her hair with a hand towel. "One of these days I'm gonna get you a hair dryer," she complained. "So, what else did Isabel say? Did Alex find anything?"

Michael shrugged and sat down next to her. "I don't know. She didn't mention anything." He turned and took the towel from her hands and started gently massaging her scalp through the soft cotton.

Maria hummed softly. "That feels good." She closed her eyes and let him work on her hair. "So?"

"What?"

"What did she say, Michael? I know there was more to the conversation than rendezvous times."

He shook his head, wondering yet again how she could read his mind so accurately. "Look, Maria, she hasn't said anything to Alex yet. About the whole mating for life thing."

Maria's eyes snapped open again. "Why not?" she asked, frowning slightly. "I thought things were going well between them."

"I'm not sure. She said something about needing time to think. She said she's going to tell him. I guess she's just not ready yet."

Maria was quiet for a moment. "I guess it must be a lot for her to deal with," she acknowledged finally. "I mean, she and Alex aren't really as… involved, I guess. Not like the rest of us."

"Forever is a long time," Michael said softly. "Anyway, I promised we wouldn't say anything in front of Alex, all right? She wants to be the one to tell him."

"Okay. I can do that."

"You're sure?"

Maria swiveled to pin him with a stern glare. "Are you trying to imply that I can't keep a secret?"

Michael smirked. "Not me," he told her. He gave a quick tug and pulled her back into his arms. He dropped a quick kiss on her pouting lips, then pulled away and grinned at her. "I know better."

Maria smiled. "I should think so."

******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 8:04:03 PM

Part 15

********

Philip Evans yawned broadly and put down the brief he had been trying to read. He had escaped to his den just after dinner in hopes of catching up on some work, but it hadn't taken him long to discover that his powers of concentration had deserted him. It didn't help that he had slept poorly the previous night. He had tossed and turned, plagued by nightmares of little green men shooting oversized ray guns at his children. Though his dreams had taken on a comic-book quality, they had still disturbed him sufficiently that he had failed to get any real rest. He'd been tired all day - even coming home from work early with the idea of catching a quick nap. But he'd found Diane watching home movies of Max and Isabel, taken in the year following their adoption. Unable to help himself, Philip had spent two hours curled on the couch with his wife, watching their very special children dance across the screen.

He rubbed restlessly at his eyes and began to put his papers back into his briefcase. It was no use pretending to himself that he was actually going to get anything accomplished, particularly since his children and their friends were due to take over the house any minute. He sighed, wondering how Max and Isabel could be so casual about turning the living room into a war room. And how he could be so accepting of such a bizarre situation. As easy going as he had always considered himself, even he was surprised at how well he was taking the recent turn in events.

The smell of warm baked goods wafted into the room, distracting him from his thoughts. Philip smiled. The world could be coming to an end, and Diane would still insist that everyone have dessert first. He rose and turned off his desk lamp, then headed for the kitchen. There he found his wife, in apron and oven mitts, carefully sliding warm chocolate chip cookies onto a cooling rack. Her hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, revealing part of her neck. Smiling, he walked over and dropped a kiss on the exposed skin.

Diane smiled and leaned back. "They're still hot," she warned as he snaked an arm around her and reached for a cookie.

"They're best that way," he teased. Breaking the cookie in half, he popped a piece into her mouth. "I'll get the milk."

Diane chewed thoughtfully as she finished taking the cookies off the baking sheet, then took off her mitts and turned to accept the glass from her husband. "So," she said. "What do you think?"

Philip raised his eyebrows. "Delicious, as always," he replied.

"I meant about Max and Liz," she said.

"Ah…" He took a sip of milk, then set his glass down on the counter. "Where are they, by the way? I thought I heard them."

"In Max's room," Diane told him. "With the door open," she added with a smile.

"Oh," Philip said, nodding. "Now I understand the question." He sighed. "You know I talked to him last winter, Diane. He's an intelligent young man. Hell - look at everything he's been dealing with. And she's a smart young woman - sweet. I don't think we need to worry about them."

"That's not what I'm asking. I'm not worried about whether or not they're having sex. Actually," she said in a low voice, "I suspect they are. But that's besides the point."

Philip looked at her questioningly. "What makes you think they are?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Just a hunch. It's not that they're acting any differently." She stopped, reconsidering. "No, I take that back. They are. It's not an overtly sexual thing, though. They suddenly seem… connected somehow." Diane smiled wistfully. "Couldn't you see it yesterday? The way they seem in tune to each other. To know what the other is thinking - to anticipate each other. It's beautiful to watch," she finished softly.

Philip reached out and took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. "You're not going to get all weepy on me over this, are you? He was bound to take an interest in girls eventually. And he's always been mature. Somehow it stands to reason he would pick well the first time out."

Diane smiled. "I know. And I guess that's exactly what I'm asking you. If you think this is really it."

"What do you think?"

She looked into her husband's eyes and saw all the love that had sustained her through more than twenty years. "Yeah. I think it is."

"And how does that make you feel?" he asked, pulling her into his arms.

"Happy. A little sad. But most of all, blessed." Diane rested her head on Philip's shoulder with a sigh. "I like her," she said. "She's good for him. And so… brave. Knowing what I know… I don't know what I'd do if I were in her shoes. She's a strong young woman."

"She's definitely that," Philip agreed, stroking his wife's back soothingly. "And it's a good thing, too. Because that's just what Max is going to need."

* * * * *

Max hung up the phone and turned to Liz, who was sitting cross-legged at the foot of his bed watching him intently. She played absently with the silver heart he had given her earlier, one hand tracing its smooth edges, and he couldn't help but smile.

"Is everything all right?" Liz asked. She had seen the worried frown that had creased his brow while he spoke to Isabel.

He shrugged. "She hasn't said anything to Alex. She says she's not ready to talk to him about it."

Liz nodded. "So, she just wanted to make sure it wasn't going to be a topic of conversation tonight," she said.

"Yeah. Not that I was planning to bring it up. Not with my parents there. I think at this point that would be giving them just a little too much information," he said. "And then there's Tess and Kyle. I can't imagine Tess said anything either."

"You're right," Liz told. "So, how did Isabel sound?"

"Fine. I mean…." Max sighed. "She's my sister. I'm not used to thinking about her in relation to a guy, other than being prepared to beat the crap out of anyone who gives her a hard time. But I really like Alex," he said. "Not just as my friend, but with Isabel. I think he brings out the best in her. And I trust him. But it's her decision and I'm not going to try to tell her what to do just because…"

Liz smiled, one eyebrow raised. "Just because he knows the truth. Or because it would come in handy to have a brother-in-law with his particular talent for hacking into computers."

Max chuckled lightly and sank down next to her, pulling her close so she could rest her head on his shoulder. "That's about the extent of it. Brother-in-law." He let out a low whistle. "It seems so strange when you put it that way. I can't imagine Isabel as a married woman."

"I suspect she can't either. And that's the problem. It's too much, too fast, and I'm willing to bet that she's looking at the entire package instead of concentrating on what makes her happy now. She thinks she has to make up her mind about forever, and she's not prepared for that."

"How about you?" Max asked, looking down. "Do you feel like it's too much, too fast?"

"No," Liz said softly. "But it isn't fair to compare Alex and Isabel to us, Max. Our relationship has always been…."

"Different?" he asked, a smile teasing his lips.

Liz laughed. "Yeah. Something like that. I'm sure Isabel just needs to let everything sink in."

"You're probably right." The sound of the doorbell ringing caused him to groan. "I should get that, shouldn't I?"

"Well, the meeting was your idea," Liz pointed out.

"Come on, then," he said, taking her hand and tugging her to her feet.

They headed down the hall, with Liz veering off into the kitchen where Max's parents were washing the last of the cookie sheets.

"Can I help with anything, Mrs. Evans?" Liz asked.

"Thanks, honey, but I think we've got everything covered in here," Diane replied. "Why don't you just go ahead and take the cookies into the living room?"

"And make sure you try one before Max and Michael get a hold of them," Philip added.

Liz laughed as she scooped up the cookie-laden platters that were resting on the counter. "Don't worry, Mr. Evans," she said. "I've seen them in action before."

"I heard that," Max called as he came into the kitchen, Tess and Kyle behind him.

There was a brief round of introductions, and then Max's parents excused themselves. Liz, still balancing the plates of cookies, started to take them into the other room.

"Let me help you with those," Tess told her.

Liz smiled. "Thanks, Tess," she said, handing over one of the platters. The two of them headed toward the living room.

"Kyle, could you help me with drinks?" Max asked as he started getting glasses out of the cupboard.

"Um… sure. No problem," Kyle replied. "Listen, my dad wanted me to remind you that he's going to be late."

"Right. Thanks." Max nodded toward the pantry. "Could you grab a couple of bottles of soda from in there?"

Kyle raised his eyebrows, but turned and did as Max had asked. The sound of cracking ice made him look back. Max had pulled several ice cube trays from the freezer and was filling the glasses.

"Look, Evans, if you have something you want to say to me, just spit it out."

Max turned, clearly surprised. "What are you talking about?"

Kyle shook his head slowly. "I don't know. Never mind."

"Kyle? What is it?"

"I just… I was jumping to conclusions, okay? After Whitman read me the riot act this afternoon, I assumed you were next in line."

"Alex?" Max looked confused. "What did he say to you?"

"Forget it. Some stuff about Tess. Not important," he mumbled.

"Okay," Max said, and went back to filling the glasses with ice.

"Okay?" Kyle asked. "That's it?"

"You said to forget it."

"Right. I did, didn't I?" Kyle stared at Max's back. "Right," he said again, more to himself this time. "I'm gonna just go put these in the other room."

"Thanks, Kyle." Max waited a moment, until he was sure he wasn't going to burst out laughing, then took the tray of glasses and followed Kyle into the living room.

A ruckus in the hall signaled the arrival of the rest of the group. Michael, Maria, and Alex filed into the living room, apparently arguing over Alex's refusal to discuss what he had learned during the drive over.

Max took one look at the bickering trio and shook his head. "Hey," he said, raising his voice so he could be heard over their argument. "Stop. Now." He sighed as they stopped talking and turned to look at him. "Thank you. Where's Isabel?"

"She headed for her room. Said she'd be right back," Alex said.

"Okay," Max replied. "Why don't you all help yourself to something to drink? Have some cookies. Relax."

"Is Nasedo coming?" Michael asked as he grabbed a cookie.

Max shrugged. "Maybe. Hopefully."

"Why wouldn't he be here?" Maria asked.

"If he can't get away from the Special Unit," Max replied. "We can't risk him exposing himself."

Michael poured soda into several glasses and began handing them around. When Liz realized what he was doing, she jumped up and dashed into the kitchen. "Has to be here somewhere," she muttered as she opened the door to the pantry and began to rummage around.

"Top shelf," said a voice directly behind her.

Liz jumped slightly, then turned to find Isabel standing less than two feet away. "You startled me," she said.

"Sorry." Isabel reached past her and took down a large bottle of Tabasco sauce. "This is what you were looking for, isn't it?"

Liz smiled sheepishly. "Yeah. I realized we forgot it and Michael was getting drinks and…"

"Whatever," Isabel said, handing over the bottle.

"Thanks." Liz said, her eyes narrowing on the other girl's face . "You okay?"

Isabel shrugged. "Sure. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Well, you've all learned a lot about yourselves today. On top of everything else that's happened, I just thought maybe you were feeling a little… you know… overwhelmed."

"I'm fine."

Liz nodded. "Good. That's great." She eyed Isabel for another moment, then shook her head a little and headed back toward the living room. She paused in the doorway the instant she caught sight of Max. He was talking to Michael about something, and grinning broadly. Everyone else was laughing. The Evanses had joined the group and were sitting to one side, smiling, their hands linked as they watched Max entertaining his friends.

"He's so happy," Isabel observed, a hint of awe in her voice.

"Yeah," Liz said. "I think it was a huge weight on his shoulders all this time. Your parents not knowing, I mean. He never would have admitted it, but he was really terrified of telling them."

"I know," Isabel agreed. "I'm glad he finally decided to trust them and that it went so well. But that's not what's making him look like that," she continued. "You did that, Liz."

Liz turned and looked at Isabel. It was clear that she was serious. Liz felt her face flush. "He makes me feel the same way," she stated softly.

"I'm glad," Isabel said. She swiveled and headed back into the kitchen, waving for Liz to follow her. Leaning against the counter, Isabel brushed a strand of hair off of her face. "There was a time when I was… worried. About you. I thought… I thought maybe the novelty of an alien boyfriend would wear off and that you… that you'd break his heart," she admitted, looking down.

Liz stared at her, aghast. "I could never turn my back on him, Isabel. I… I love him."

"I know," Isabel sighed. "At least now I do. I'm sorry it took me so long to realize it."

"Thanks. That means a lot,"Liz said. She paused, thoughtful, but her eyes were focused on Isabel as if she was trying to read her. "Isabel, you don't have to be afraid to talk to Alex. You can trust him," she said softly.

Isabel glanced up swiftly. "It's not that I don't trust him," she said quickly. "I do. More than I've ever trusted anyone. Well, except for Max and Michael," she amended with a smile. "Alex is an amazing guy. This isn't about Alex, Liz. It's about me. How I feel."

"You're not sure," Liz said.

She shook her head. "How can I be? I mean, I know what I feel now. This minute. But do I know if that will last? If it's forever? I'm only seventeen years old." Isabel looked Liz in the eyes. "I… I look at you and Max and I'm just… amazed. How do you know, Liz?"

Liz returned her steady gaze, but she had no answers. "I just do," she replied helplessly. "I know that doesn't help you. I… I can't imagine my life without Max in it," she whispered.

"Me either," Isabel admitted. "Alex is… well, sometimes I think he's the best thing that ever happened to me. But will I always feel this way? And can I ask him to know if he'll always feel the same?"

"You don't have to decide anything now," Liz told her. "There's plenty of time. And he would never push you to make up your mind before you're ready. Or before he's ready either. Talk to him, Iz. Work it out together. Otherwise it's going to end up a wedge between the two of you. You'll be worrying and he'll be wondering what's going on."

"I don't want him to look at me in a few years and… and think that he got trapped into something. He spent so much time thinking of me as this… I don't know. This person he wanted but thought he couldn't have. What if the reality doesn't live up to his expectations?"

"That won't happen," Liz assured her. "Isabel, the reason you fell for Alex is that he knows the real you," she reminded her. "He doesn't have you up on some pedestal. He's seen you with your hair falling down and your cheeks tear-stained. That's not what matters to him. You're no more the ice princess to him than he is the chess geek to you."

Isabel smiled at that. "You used to think of me that way, didn't you? As an ice princess."

Liz gave her a wide-eyed look of innocence. "Me? Of course not. And you never thought of me as a science dork."

Isabel laughed. "Okay. I guess that makes us even."

"What does?" Max asked, coming into the kitchen. "You two gonna stand out here yakking all night?"

Isabel rolled her eyes. "You've been spending too much time with Michael," she declared.

"Here," Liz said, handing Max the bottle of Tabasco sauce. "Something tells me this is what you're really looking for."

Max took the bottle, but grabbed her hand as well. He tugged her forward and brushed his lips over hers. "Only partly. Michael was starting to whine." He shot a look toward his sister. "Everything okay?"

Isabel smiled. "Yeah. Just a little girl talk. Not everyday I get a sister, you know," she said quietly. "Why don't I take this?" she asked, ignoring the stunned looks on their faces. She plucked the bottle of hot sauce from her brother's hand and, with a grateful glance to Liz, sailed out of the room.

* * * * *

Amy DeLuca took another sip of her coffee. It was hot and creamy and laced with Kahlua, but it was doing nothing to calm her down. What was it about Jim Valenti that made her head spin? She couldn't claim a weakness for a man in uniform, seeing as how jeans and denim shirts made up the backbone of his wardrobe. And the hat was just a little too cowboy to really be a turn on. The badge? Hell, that had gotten her into more trouble than it was worth, between his arresting her all those years ago and his tendency to get called away to work. Kind of like tonight, she though wryly. A delicious dinner out, soft music, good conversation, and then… nothing. The rest of her evening stretched out in front of her, long and empty, because he had to go off to some late meeting. What could she possibly see in the man?

Jim dropped a number of bills on top of the check and tucked his wallet away. Then he looked up at Amy and smiled, his eyes twinkling. "You about done?"

Oh yeah, she thought, as her heart did a slow flip in her chest. That's right. His eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes that lit up his face and made her every nerve tingle. It was definitely the eyes. Just stick a fork in me, she groaned to herself.

"Amy?"

"What?" she asked.

He raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Are you done with your coffee?"

"Oh." She glanced down into her mug, then lifted it to her lips and drained the last bit of liquid. "Yes," she replied with a smile. "Now I am."

"I'm sorry about this Amy," Jim said, his voice tinged with regret. "This meeting just came up…"

"All of a sudden," she finished for him. "You told me. Jim, really. It's fine. I understand."

He stood and came around to pull out her chair for her. "It's just… I know the last time you told me that my job was coming between us. I don't want that to happen again. If it wasn't important, I swear I'd blow it off and take you dancing," he said in a low tone.

"I'm going to hold you to that," she told him, surprised at how appealing the thought sounded.

They walked out to his cruiser in silence, his hand warm and gentle at her elbow. She thought how easily such a gesture could be misconstrued - taken as proprietary, possessive - and how comfortable it was in this particular instance, with this particular man. It wasn't just his eyes she acknowledged reluctantly, as he opened the passenger door and helped her up into the vehicle. It wasn't just the quick smile or the sexy fit of his jeans. He was a good man, a gentleman. He had manners that covered over just enough of the rough edges, so he came across as neither crass nor overly polished. There was something about him that made her feel safe and protected, and she knew instinctively that it had nothing to do with his being Sheriff.

"So, Jim," she began, once he was seated beside her. "How long is this meeting of yours going to run?"

He shot her a sideways glance as he fitted the key into the ignition. "I can't say as I know, exactly," he replied. The engine roared to life. He flicked on the headlights, but made no move to pull out of the parking spot. "Why? Did you have something in mind?"

Amy felt herself blush and was thankful for the darkness. My God, she thought. When did I get transformed into a teenager again? "Um… I just thought maybe you'd like to drop by on your way home. For a nightcap," she added swiftly.

Jim smiled, his teeth shining white in the pale light. "What about Maria? I thought you said…"

"Actually, Maria's planning on spending the night at Liz's. And I… I meant it about the drink, Jim. I'm inviting you over for a brandy. That's all," she said firmly, looking down at her hands.

"Well, then," he said. "I'd like that. Assuming it's not too late, that is. I… uh… I think I understand a little better these days what you were talking about. Wanting to be there for Maria and to set a good example," he admitted. "It's different with a son. Kyle… he's… well, let's just say you don't need to keep an eye on boys in quite the same way. I realize that sounds sexist, but…"

"No," Amy jumped in. "I know you don't mean it that way."

"Anyway, now that I've got Tess living with us…"

"Oh, that's right! That poor girl! What was her father thinking, going off and leaving her in that big house alone?"

"Well, Amy, it's not exactly as if she's a child. But I do feel responsible now that she's under my roof."

"Of course you do." Amy paused, watching as he let up the emergency brake and carefully maneuvered out of the parking space. "It must be strange," she said finally. "Having a woman in the house after all this time."

He nodded. His eyes remained on the road, his expression guarded. "It has been a while. More than ten years," he added, whistling softly under his breath. "Not that it's the same, of course. Actually, I think it's hardest on Kyle."

"How?"

"Well, I think Kyle kind of had a thing for Tess when she first got to town. Then something happened. Not really sure what," he admitted. "They both seem a little on edge whenever they're in the same room. Makes things awkward."

"I seem to remember Maria saying something about Tess going after Max," Amy said with a frown. "Not that she ever really discusses any of this with me these days, but she was ranting about it with Liz on the phone one day and I couldn't help but overhear bits and pieces. But they all seemed to be getting on all right at the house yesterday."

"I think they've sorted some things out," he agreed. "I try not to ask, frankly. Better that way. Teenagers," he said with a grin. "I don't pretend to understand them."

Amy laughed. "I know what you mean. It's like they're a whole other species sometimes. Hard to believe we went through it all ourselves."

"That it is," Jim said, shaking his head. "That it certainly is."

******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 8:05:46 PM

Part 16

********

Max stared down at the map of Roswell that was spread out on the coffee table, a frown on his face. A number of areas were marked with red Xs, indicating regions they had eliminated as possible hiding sites for their enemies, but they were few and far between. He was conscious of everyone's eyes on him, waiting for his verdict, but he felt no closer to having any answers than when they'd started the meeting nearly two hours earlier.

"We're not making much headway," he stated, trying not to sound discouraged.

"I'm sorry I haven't made more progress," Alex said.

"No, Alex," Max said quickly, glancing across at his friend. "It is not your fault. You've been doing your best," he said sincerely. "I can't thank you enough."

Alex shrugged, looking unconvinced. "What I can't figure out is why I'm not getting anywhere," he muttered, clearly frustrated. "It's as if someone knows what I'm looking for."

"What did you say?" Liz asked, her eyes narrowing. She met Max's gaze. "Could they have done that? Gone in and somehow blocked him?"

"I don't know," Max replied. He turned back to Alex. "What do you think? Is that the problem? Someone hacked in ahead of you and covered their tracks?"

"Hmmm… I guess it could be," he admitted. "I mean, if I can get in, why not them?"

"Because they'd have to be computer geniuses," Maria piped up loyally.

"We don't know how much more advanced their technology is," Max pointed out. "They could be light-years ahead for all we know."

"Great," Alex groaned. "We couldn't have thought of this sooner?"

"Come on, Alex," Liz coaxed. "Don't get discouraged."

"She's right," Isabel agreed, trying to sound encouraging. "Look at it as a challenge."

Michael shook his head. "Leave him alone. He's gonna short circuit from staring at that damn box all day as it is."

Maria picked up a chart from the floor in front of her and stared at the colored lines. "I can't say I blame him," she said. "Looking at this stuff for too long would make me go cross-eyed."

Liz reached out and took the paper from Maria's hand and looked at it thoughtfully. "Alex, where's this from? The power company?"

He glanced over and nodded. "I graphed the shifts in power usage in the areas with the lowest population, figuring our friends were more likely to gravitate to places where they were less likely to be spotted. Trouble is, the corresponding billing information is missing, so I can't pinpoint exactly which customers the spikes were coming from."

"What if we were able to figure out what real estate transactions took place in that area over the last month? So we could determine new users. If we compare a map listing new purchases or rentals with a map showing the areas where the power usage increased, we would at least know if it was due to an increase in the population. Would that help narrow it down?" she asked.

"Maybe," he said. "Of course, it wouldn't take into account people who suddenly had an increased need for electricity."

"How many of those could there possibly be?" Michael asked.

They were interrupted by the doorbell ringing. "I'll go," Isabel said. She returned a moment later with the Sheriff.

"Sorry I'm so late," he said. "Philip, Diane," he added, nodding at the Evanses. "Good to see you."

Philip stood awkwardly, obviously at a loss for words. "Jim, I just want to thank you," he said quietly, glancing toward the kids. "For everything you've done for Max and Isabel. They told us how you helped rescue Max."

Jim looked down. "No need for thanks, Philip," he replied. "Just doing my job."

"You risked your life for our children, Sheriff," Diane said softly. "You went up against the FBI. I'd say that's doing more than your job."

"No ma'am," Jim said. "I owe them more than they could ever owe me," he said quietly, his eyes resting briefly on Kyle before he turned toward Max. "So, what did I miss?"

"Have a seat," Max said, indicating a free chair. "You didn't miss anything particularly useful. All we've managed to do is to come to the conclusion that they know we're doing computer searches. We suspect they've somehow eliminated a lot of the information we're looking for," he told him. "I don't suppose you have anything more upbeat to report?"

Valenti shrugged. "Remember the Buick you… um… inherited after your Jeep got torched the other morning? I got the data back on that search I ran. Registered in Arizona, reported stolen two weeks ago. No fingerprints that didn't match either the original owners or your own. No significant findings whatsoever. No fibers, hairs, skin samples. Nada. The report's disappeared, by the way," he added pointedly when Michael began shifting nervously in his seat.

"Terrific," Michael muttered, though he relaxed slightly. "It's like dealing with ghosts."

"Maybe we're going about this the wrong way," Tess suggested quietly. Ten sets of eyes turned questioningly in her direction.

"Why do you think that?" Max asked gently.

Tess looked down uncomfortably. "Never mind."

"No," Max said. "Seriously. I want to know."

"Okay," she said slowly. "We've been relying on computers to help us with this, but if Alex is right, then that information can be altered and we could just end up running around in circles. Why don't we just get out on foot and start asking questions?"

"Like what kind of questions?" Maria asked.

"Well… Alex and Isabel were chased by a limo. How often do you guys get limos in Roswell?"

"Not too often," Alex said.

"Try freakin' never," Kyle chimed in.

"So, someone else must have noticed it, don't you think?" Tess said. "Maybe they took off after that night, but what about before? And the Buick, too. Someone might remember seeing it in a particular neighborhood."

"So, who exactly are we asking about all of this?" Michael asked.

"Real estate agents. Cable company, phone company. All the same people Alex has been trying to access by computer," Liz joined in. "Tess is right. We're getting so wrapped up in our modern technology, we're ignoring the old fashioned methods." She smiled hesitantly at the other girl.

Max nodded. "Okay. Tomorrow we start going around in groups. Tess, you and Kyle deal with the real estate people. You need an apartment anyway, so it's the perfect cover. Michael? You and Maria want to take the utilities people? See what you can find out?"

"You got it."

"Too bad we don't have any pictures we can use," Isabel said. "We're asking people to identify faces we can't show them."

"I can get you some shots of the Buick," the Sheriff said.

"If I might interrupt a minute?" Philip asked.

"Sure, Dad," Max said, turning to his father. "What is it?"

"Well, from the sounds of things, you're operating under the assumption these guys are doing everything above board. What makes you so sure they've even bothered with niceties like rental agencies? There are plenty of abandoned properties in Roswell - things sitting empty for years. Wouldn't be too hard for someone to take one over, make it habitable, and no one would be the wiser."

Valenti nodded. "Squatters. You're right, Philip," he said. "We've had trouble with them on and off through the years. Less so lately, seeing as how security has become so much more advanced."

"But if these… aliens… are so advanced themselves, wouldn't they be able to get around security?" Diane asked.

"It's another angle," Max admitted with a sigh.

Liz reached over and rubbed his back soothingly. "It's okay," she told him. "We'll just keep working our way through them all until we get the answers we need."

"I know," he said tiredly. He looked around at everyone, taking in the weary faces. "Look, guys," he said. "We've been at this more than two hours. I doubt that Nasedo will show up this late, so there's no point in hanging around waiting for him. " He turned to the Sheriff. "Can you call tomorrow and fill him in?"

"Will do."

"Hey, what about that book thing that Tess and Isabel were trying to read?" Kyle asked.

Max caught the nervous looks in both Tess's and Isabel's eyes and sighed. "We'll get into it tomorrow, Kyle, all right? Tonight it's more important that we all get some sleep."

"What book is he referring to?" Diane asked.

"It's this book that was sent with us from our planet," Isabel said quietly. "It's in some sort of code and Tess and I are trying to decipher it, but we didn't get very far."

"We'll talk about it tomorrow," Max repeated firmly. "Okay? Does everyone know where they're staying tonight?"

"Here, I guess," Alex said, looking questioningly at Isabel, who nodded.

"We're at Michael's tonight," Maria said. When Michael raised his eyebrows, she shrugged. "I told my mom I was staying with Liz. I can't take another night of you tossing and turning," she added quietly.

"Right," Max said. "And I'm at Liz's. Sheriff, could you drop us off?"

"No problem," he agreed.

"Kyle?" Max continued. "Can you and Tess take Michael and Maria?"

"No problem," Kyle echoed. "So, does that mean the meeting's adjourned?"

"Yeah," Max said. "That's it for tonight. We've got another busy day ahead. Everyone be careful getting home," he told them.

They all started to pack up their belongings. Sheriff Valenti and the Evanses lingered in one corner of the living room, talking quietly. Kyle and Michael started toward the hallway until they realized that both Maria and Tess were lingering behind. Tess stood a few steps back while Maria gave Liz a hug and turned to follow the guys.

"Tess?" Liz asked expectantly.

"I just wanted to thank you," Tess told her. "For backing me up before. You didn't have to."

"It was a good idea," Liz said honestly.

"Still. Thanks." She paused awkwardly for a moment.

"Was there something else?" Liz prompted.

"Um… yeah. I wanted to apologize," Tess told her. "For before. For making things so difficult between you and Max."

Liz nodded slowly. "Well… thanks," she said. "I like to think we've all gotten past that. And… and I guess a part of me understands why you did what you did," she admitted. "It didn't make it hurt any less at the time, but you did have this whole previous life with him. Whatever that meant."

"It doesn't make it right," Tess said. "But thanks. And I really hope someday maybe we can be friends," she added softly.

"I'd like to work toward that," Liz said. "I… you're always going to be a part of his life, you know. He does care about you. And so does Isabel. And Michael, in his way." She stopped and smiled. "Maybe even Kyle."

Tess looked up, startled.

"Don't worry," Liz said. "He's a good guy. He couldn't even keep a grudge against Max."

"He sure tried, though," Max pointed out as he walked up to join them. He slipped an arm automatically around Liz's waist. "Thanks, Tess. You made a good point tonight."

Tess shrugged. "It just seemed logical."

"That doesn't make it any less important." He looked up and saw Michael watching them impatiently. "We'll talk more later."

Tess glanced over and rolled her eyes. "Right. See you guys tomorrow." She nodded once more to Liz, then turned and headed after the others.

"Which leaves us," Max said.

"I'm ready," Liz told him. "Let me just say goodnight to your parents."

Max nodded. "I need to talk to Isabel. Meet you at the door."

Isabel stood at the far end of the room, alone, staring out the window at the stars. "You heading out?" she asked when Max came up beside her.

"Yeah," he said. "Where's Alex?"

"Your room," she said with a sigh.

"And you're here because…?"

She shrugged. "Working up my nerve, I guess."

"You've decided to talk to him," he said, understanding in his voice.

"Yeah. And I'm terrified," she admitted.

"Isabel," Max said gently. "He's going to be fine with this. I swear he will."

She turned and looked at him, her eyes sad. "I wouldn't count on that," she said quietly. "Goodnight, Max."

Max frowned. "Iz? What aren't you telling me?"

"Nothing. I'll see you tomorrow."

Max watched as Isabel crossed the room, stopping to kiss their mother before she headed down the hall. He caught Liz's worried look and shook his head. Much as he loved his sister, her relationships were her own. And, frankly, he had enough to worry about as things stood. He walked slowly across the room and into Liz's waiting arms, and sighed as the rest of world faded briefly into the background.


******

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 8:08:34 PM

Part 17

********

Alex sat on Max's bed and tried to focus his roving thoughts. His mind was a jumble, filled with enemy aliens, real estate listings, maps and charts and computer passwords. Yet one thought in particular kept pushing its way to the forefront: Isabel was avoiding him. There was nothing overt in her actions, no obvious sign that something was wrong, But he still knew. After all, he had spent enough time adoring her from afar to know how she operated, and she was exhibiting all of the symptoms of Isabel Evans in stealth mode. Which only left one question. Why?

He sighed and flopped back on the bed so he could stare blankly at the ceiling. It somehow seemed the appropriate response to the current situation. Despite the fact that his two best friends were girls, he fully admitted that he had no real insight into the workings of the female mind, human or alien. Occasionally he liked to believe he was kind of getting the hang of it. After all, he knew how to react when Liz or Maria broke down in tears - had perfected the proper balance between sympathy, tough love, and ice cream. And as far as Isabel was concerned, he had thought they were really coming to an understanding - that they were comfortable enough with each other so they could just be themselves, without worrying about all of the image crap that could get in the way. But now she was keeping secrets. Oh, she said she would tell him whatever it was, and he knew she probably would eventually. But it was also fairly obvious from this evening's meeting that neither Liz nor Maria had been left out of the loop. There was no tension between them and their respective significant others. Which left him, once again; Alex Whitman - last to know. He had really believed they were beyond that.

Hearing soft footsteps in the hall, Alex closed his eyes. The footsteps stopped just outside the room and there was a quiet knock, followed by the sound of the door opening.

"Alex?" Isabel whispered. She came inside and closed the door behind her. "Alex?" she repeated. "I know you're awake. You haven't even taken off your shoes."

He opened one eye and peered up at her. Her blonde hair fell in shining waves around her shoulders and her brown eyes held a spark of warmth. She looked goddess-like as always, but for once Alex was not feeling particularly worshipful.

"Did you want something?"

Isabel looked slightly taken aback. "We… need to talk."

"Oh," he said, sitting up slowly. "Now we need to talk. Well, maybe I don't feel like talking now."

"Alex?"

He sighed at the hint of apprehension in her expression. He hated people who played games and he wasn't about to turn into one. "I'm sorry," he said. "Look, go ahead and say it, whatever it is."

Isabel walked over and sat down next to him on the bed. "You're mad," she said.

He shrugged. "Not mad. Tired. Tired of feeling like some sort of second rate member of the group."

"Alex, you know that's not true."

"Max tells Liz everything. Michael somehow manages to tell Maria, or else Liz does. And I just sit in some dark corner until it occurs to everyone that maybe someone should tell me too."

Isabel winced at the bitterness in his tone. "Alex, it's not like that. I swear."

"Well then, what is it? Are you going to tell me that Liz and Maria don't know today's big secret? How about Kyle? Is he in on it this time?"

"Look," Isabel said slowly. "I'm sorry. I realize that it seems like this is just one more case of us not trusting you, but it isn't. I trust you with my life, Alex. You know I do," she said, taking his hand.

Alex looked into her eyes and sighed again. What was it about her that turned him into a quivering mass of jelly? "Fine," he said. "Then what is it about? Can you tell me that much?"

"Max got some information from Nasedo and he passed it on to the three of us earlier."

"When he called that little emergency meeting."

"Right," Isabel said. "And then Tess and I also had some things to tell Max and Michael, based on what we had been able to translate from the book."

"So, you did make some progress?" he asked.

"Yeah," Isabel said. "Some. But that's not the point. Look, Alex, the things we learned affect all of us, as couples. And that's why Max told us and left it up to us individually to decide what we would say to the rest of you."

Alex looked at her nervously. "If you're going to tell me that you and Michael are really meant to be together, please just get it over with."

"No, no! That's not it at all," she said quickly. "Yes, I was a little shocked by some of the things we learned, but not because it was anything destiny-related. None of it is bad, Alex. It just takes some getting used to. Or at least it does for me," she added. "Max and Michael didn't seem to have any trouble."

"Isabel, it's really hard to know what you're saying when you insist on not saying anything."

"Sorry," she said, eyes dropping to her lap. "Our purpose was to come save earth from our enemies. At first, there was no plan for us to go back to our home planet, because our original selves were supposedly going to save the day there. But then just before the ship left, we - the original versions of us - were killed. And the four of us became the last hope for both planets instead of just one."

"So, what does that mean, exactly?" Alex asked.

"It means we were designed to stay on earth. Not only do we look human, but genetically we are completely compatible," Isabel said softly. "We weren't meant to pair up with each other, Alex. They intended us to find human mates. Which means we can have children with humans."

"But Isabel, that's wonderful, isn't it?" Alex asked quietly, confused by her tentative expression. "Aren't you happy? I think you'll make a great mother one day."

She looked up, tears instantly coming to her eyes. "You do?"

"Of course," he told her gently. "Hey, come here," he coaxed, pulling her into his arms. "Is that what had you worried? Iz, you're the warmest, most loving person. Under that tough exterior is a thoughtful, caring, nurturing woman. Don't you dare doubt that for one minute," he whispered. She cuddled against him briefly, but he could still feel the tension in her body. He wasn't surprised when she pulled away and brushed quickly at her eyes.

"Thanks," she said, forcing a smile. "But there's more, Alex."

"Okay," he said slowly. "So, shoot. What else did you learn?"

"Nasedo told Max that, on our planet, everyone mates for life. It's some kind of a physical bonding that takes place the first time you're… intimate. And it's permanent."

"Permanent," Alex repeated. "And by intimate you mean… make love?"

She nodded. "So…"

"So you're saying that Max and Liz are technically ….?"

"Married. For all intents and purposes, they are joined until death."

"How?" he questioned. "I mean, did Max get the particulars? What happens if one of them changes their mind? Not that I could imagine that happening," he added with a quiet chuckle.

Isabel shrugged. "We're not entirely sure of all the details, or how it works with humans. Basically, Max will never even want to be with anyone else. It's as if his mind and heart are tuned to Liz and that's it."

"And Liz? You don't know if it's the same for her?"

"Well, she's human. We're not sure if her bond is permanent or if one day she could fall out of love with Max and leave him. If that were to happen, his feelings wouldn't change."

"So he'd be alone. I wouldn't worry about Max," Alex said swiftly. "Liz would never do anything to hurt him, let alone leave him."

"I know," Isabel said.

Alex watched her for a moment, eyes narrowed. "Isabel, why didn't you want to tell me about this? I mean, it's actually kind of tame when you compare it to Michael's Spiderman imitation last winter. Or the Special Unit. Or our buddies with the laser blasters."

"I guess I wanted to tell you everything and then be able to tell you how it makes me feel."

"And you can't?"

"Not really," she admitted. "I can tell you that it scares me. And that I'm afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing," she told him, her eyes tearing up again. "But I just don't know what to do."

Alex slipped an arm around her and gave a light tug until her head rested on his shoulder. "So, why tell me then?" he asked. "I know I pushed, but I got the feeling you were coming to tell me anyway. So what changed your mind?"

"Liz," she said, sniffling. "She said you would understand. And that I didn't have to have all of the answers right away."

Alex smiled as he stroked her back soothingly. "Remind me to thank Liz," he said, brushing a kiss over Isabel's brow.

"So, what do you think now that I've told you?" Isabel asked hesitantly.

"I think that nothing's really changed," he said.

Isabel sat up abruptly. "How can you say that? Alex, do you realize what I just told you? If we were to have sex, we would basically be….."

"Yeah, I get that," he told her. "But last time I checked, we weren't even discussing having sex, were we? I mean, unless you've been making plans without me?" he teased, pleased when she smiled. "Isabel, I understand what you're saying, okay? And I'm fine with this. It's no different than being with a girl who wants to wait until she's married, right?"

Isabel rolled her eyes. "I think it's a little bit different," she told him.

"Why? Because if we get carried away one day we'll find ourselves joined for life? I can think of worse problems," he said. "And no, that's not an offer." He sighed. "I know we're young, and that we're both a long way off from making any decisions like this. You say you don't know what to do - well, neither do I, all right? Which tells me we shouldn't do anything. Don't worry about it, Iz. It'll work out."

"And that's it? We just don't deal with it?"

"What's to deal with? Unless one of us suddenly decides we're ready and the other one isn't, we don't have a problem. And frankly, I don't see that coming up for a while. Hell, it took a major crisis for you to even kiss me," he reminded her. "I'm not in a hurry," he said quietly, suddenly serious. "I don't get the feeling you are, either. If you change your mind, tell me. We'll deal with it then."

"And vice versa?" she asked.

"You mean if I suddenly have an urge to attack you?" he grinned. "You'll be the first to know."

"So, we're okay then?"

"Actually, no," he said, the grin fading. "We still have one major problem," he told her sternly.

"What?" she asked, looking vaguely panicked again.

"There is still the little matter of your not telling me until Liz pushed you to," he said.

"You are mad," she said slowly. "Alex, I said I was sorry."

"I know you are," he said, standing up and going to the window. "But I'm not sure that's enough. You can't say you trust me and then turn around and prove that you don't. You trust me with your life, but not your heart. I don't know how I can make you believe that I would never do anything to hurt you," he said quietly.

"Alex, this had nothing to do with my thinking you'd hurt me," she said. "I told you why I wanted to wait."

"Right. You wanted to let it sink in," he said. "But what that really means is that you wanted to make up your mind, before I even heard the facts, exactly how you thought everything should play out. Instead of talking with me about it and having the two of us come to a conclusion together. You couldn't figure out what you wanted to do, so you gave in and said something, but it doesn't make you any less manipulative for withholding the information to begin with."

"That's not what I was…"

"Yes, it was," he said simply, turning and pinning her with a reproachful look. "Isabel, I know it was really hard for you to open up to me. But I've never given you any reason to think I would try to force you into anything. Please, do me the same courtesy, all right?"

Isabel nodded. "I am sorry," she said softly.

"I know. I guess I'm just the one who needs a little time now, all right?"

"Okay," she agreed. "I'll guess I should go back to my room. I'll see you in the morning?"

"Yeah," he said. "Have a good night."

"You too," she said. She hesitated for a moment, then walked over and kissed him lightly. "Sleep well," she whispered.

Alex returned the kiss, giving her a quick hug. "And I'm not mad," he said quietly. "Just… disappointed, okay?"

"Okay," she agreed, looking a little less anxious.

Alex brushed her hair off her face and dropped another kiss on her forehead. "See you later." He watched as she crept out into the hall and closed the door behind her, itching all the while to pull her back into his arms. Then he sighed heavily and flopped onto the bed. All right, Whitman, he thought. You have officially lost your mind.

* * * * *

"So, was it hard?"

Tess turned to look at Kyle. He hadn't uttered a word since they'd dropped Michael and Maria off, leaving her to stare out the window and wonder what exactly she had done this time. Now here they were, a block from home, and he was coming at her with riddles. She sighed quietly. Would humans ever make sense to her?

"Was what hard?" she asked.

"Talking to Liz. You know, the whole apology thing."

"Oh." She paused, surprised that Kyle had actually realized why she'd wanted to speak with Liz. "Um… no. It wasn't so hard," she told him. "Actually, it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. It helped that she agreed with me earlier, during the meeting."

"Why wouldn't she have agreed with you? You were right."

Tess shrugged. "That doesn't seem to matter with a lot of people."

Kyle grunted under his breath as he pulled the car into the driveway. "Guess you don't know the right people," he said. "Liz doesn't pull that kind of stuff."

"I'm beginning to realize that," Tess sighed.

Kyle glanced over at her, his gaze assessing. "It was hard for me… when I began to see what Liz saw in Max. I wanted to hate him because… she chose him. Instead of me, you know? Took a while to admit that she'd made the right choice."

"I know Max made the right choice. That's not the issue. Max saved your life Kyle. I think it's pretty obvious he didn't hold any grudges against you."

"You think Liz has a grudge against you?" Kyle asked, clearly surprised.

"I don't know why she wouldn't. I did some pretty awful things to them."

Kyle snorted. "I wasn't exactly a saint myself. I actually followed them to some crappy motel in Texas last fall and…" He trailed off when he saw Tess's eyebrows arch. "Um… never mind. Long story. Anyway, my point is that Max got past it, obviously. Not that I think he ever would have just let me bleed to death," he added. "He's not that kind of a guy. Part of what makes it so damn hard to hate him. I just… we've reached a sort of truce, I guess." He looked at Tess pointedly. "It's a start."

Tess nodded. They both got out of the car and started toward the house, but Tess stopped halfway to the door. "What about us?" she asked.

Kyle looked at her. "Be more specific."

"I mean, have we reached a sort of truce, too?"

"We're standing here talking to each other, aren't we?" Kyle replied. He turned and continued up the walk.

Tess scrambled to follow him. "Kyle," she called. "Kyle, please."

He stopped at the front steps and sighed. "What do you want from me, Tess? Huh? I'm trying here. I really am."

"I know you are. And I appreciate it, I do. I just want to know …why?"

Still facing the door, Kyle rubbed a hand over his face. "Why," he repeated. "You want to know why." He glanced down, a look of frustration marring his features. "Why what, Tess?"

"Why are you bothering to be nice to me. To help me. You made it pretty clear that you were only being civil because you had no choice. So why are you suddenly…" She looked down at her feet, unable to hold his penetrating blue gaze.

"You're right. We need to talk," he said quietly. He unlocked the door and, taking her hand, pulled her inside. "Go sit down," he told her. "I'll be right there."

Tess sat on the couch in the living room and listened as Kyle made a quick tour of the house. She knew he was checking to make sure none of the windows or doors had been tampered with in their absence. One more thing he had to do because of her, because she was staying in the Valenti house, yet he followed the routine without complaint.

"Everything okay?" she asked when he came into the room.

"Yeah, fine," he said. He dropped down next to her and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Look, Tess, I'm not sure what's going on here, all right? That's the God's honest truth." He sighed wearily. "I… I won't say that I've forgotten what went down, but if anyone understands the need to give people second chances, it's me."

"Yesterday you said that I shouldn't think this made us friends," she said. "Just because I'm staying here and you're helping keep us all safe."

"Yeah, well, I didn't want you to jump to any conclusions."

"I'm trying not to, Kyle. So, I'm asking. What are we, exactly?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "I… why don't we say we're starting over, okay? From the beginning. Slowly," he added.

Tess smiled slightly. "That might be a little difficult," she told him. "Most people I've just met have no idea that I'm an alien."

He glanced up at her with a smirk. "You know what I meant."

"So, does that mean we're friends now?"

He seemed to consider for a moment. "Yeah, I guess so," he agreed finally. "Friends." He reached out and took her hand as if to shake it, but at the last minute simply gave it a light squeeze.

"Thanks, Kyle," she said.

"So," he said, starting to grin. "How do you feel about baseball?"

Tess just laughed.

* * * * *

As was his habit, Max came awake all at once. Eyes still closed, he lay in bed for a moment and simply enjoyed the pleasures that came from knowing he had passed a restful night. No tossing and turning. No nightmares. He was better. Maybe not cured - he was reasonable enough to suspect he would fight his demons again from time to time - but definitely improved. Whether it was talking about his ordeal in the white room, or simply being with Liz that had proved cathartic, he didn't know. And frankly, he didn't care. He was grateful, and for now that was enough.

He stretched lazily. Without having to reach for her, he knew Liz was no longer in bed beside him, yet he could feel her presence nearby and it made him smile. Danger aside, he could definitely get used to spending his nights with Liz Parker. They had simply slept in each other's arms last night, agreeing they were both too exhausted for anything more. But even that managed to leave him feeling like the luckiest man in the universe. Time spent with Liz was precious, and not something he was likely to take for granted after so many years of watching her from a distance.

Opening one eye, Max peered at the bedside clock, its red numbers shining brightly in the dim morning light. It was nearly six. He knew Liz's father was probably already up and getting ready to open the Crashdown, which meant he, too, needed to get a move on. Sitting up, he began scanning the room for his clothes, but something else - a slight flutter of movement - caught his attention. Liz was outside on the roof, wearing his T-shirt and, from the looks of it, not much else. Max groaned. He had a perfect view of her bare legs through the open window and his first instinct was to go get her and drag her back to bed. Not exactly a good idea, he reminded himself, assuming they wanted to avoid getting caught by her parents. Taking a deep breath, he turned away from the temptation staring him in the face and resumed his search for the rest of his clothing.

He located his jeans easily and pulled them on over his boxers. His sneakers, however, proved more difficult. He was kneeling down to peer under the bed, thinking he might have kicked them in that general direction the previous evening, when a sharp bolt of fear shot through his body, nearly knocking him over. As he pushed to his feet, he heard Liz call his name in a panicky voice. Max turned toward the windows just in time to see Liz go flying across the roof, her scream piercing the air as she slammed backwards into the brick wall then slumped to the ground. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood on the opposite side of the roof. His muscular arms were extended and he was closing in on Liz.

Max didn't wait to get outside. Running lightly across the room, he fired two fast blasts out the open window. The first caught the man in the shoulder, pushing him back and away from Liz, spinning him so he faced Max. Just as he appeared to register the counterattack, the second blast hit him squarely in the chest. The man toppled backwards into a grouping of flower pots, sending pieces of shattered pottery scattering over the floor. As the man attempted to steady himself, using the low wall behind him for balance, Max rolled through the window and fired once more. There was a deep-pitched cry as the blast caught the man in the face and the force of the hit flipped him backwards over the wall.

Grim-faced, his heart in his throat, Max turned toward Liz, who still lay crumpled on the ground, her eyes closed. "Liz," he called softly, his voice hoarse. "Liz, please." He knelt beside her and reached for her hand, relieved to feel her pulse beating strongly. "Come on, love," he said, gently brushing her hair off her face. "Open your eyes." He bent over to kiss her and felt something hiss through the air directly above him before it exploded against the brick wall in a shower of sparks. He pivoted to discover a second man barreling toward him, a laser gun in his hand.

Careful to shield Liz with his body, Max stretched out his hand and fired at the newcomer, aiming at the weapon. The blast sent the gun flying into a corner, but the man had managed to close the distance between them. He grabbed Max by the arm and hurled him across the roof. Max landed hard on his back. He was vaguely aware of the broken pottery slicing into his skin as he skidded along the ground, but he instinctively closed his mind off to the pain. All of his attention was focused on his enemy, who was coming after him once again. Recovering quickly, Max rolled to his feet just as the burly man reached him. Unsure of the effects of firing at such close range, Max threw himself at the man instead, his one thought to keep him as far from Liz as possible. The man grunted at the impact and struggled to get a grip on Max. Arms locked around each other, they tumbled to the ground and rolled, each trying to gain the advantage. They crashed into Liz's lawn chair and a half dozen planters, demolishing everything in their path as they continued to fight.


****

TBC
posted on 16-Sep-2001 8:11:08 PM

Part 18

*********

Jeff Parker was about to go downstairs to the café when he heard Liz scream. "Lizzie?" he called, turning and heading for her room. "Liz, is everything all right?" As he neared her door, a loud crash echoed through the apartment, followed by the sound of a man crying out. Not bothering to knock, Jeff reached for the doorknob, but it wouldn't budge. "Liz!"

"Jeff, what's going on?" Nancy Parker emerged from the master bedroom, hair damp, tugging her bathrobe closed. "Was that Liz?"

"Call the Sheriff," Jeff ordered. "Now, Nancy," he told her when she stared at him, wide-eyed. He leaned heavily against the door, feeling it give slightly under his weight.

"Oh my God," Nancy breathed. She hurried past her husband and into the other room.

"Lizzie! Open up," Jeff called. He could hear faint noises from beyond the door - groaning, combined with the sound of something shattering. Turning sideways, he took a step back, then rammed into the door with his shoulder. The door frame cracked, but the lock held fast. Jeff backed up and tried again. On his third attempt, the frame finally gave way completely, the wood splitting apart, and he crashed into the room.

The first thing he saw was the rumpled, empty bed. Then a noise on the roof drew his attention and Jeff turned to see his daughter's boyfriend, his bare back streaked with blood, driving his fist into a strange man's face. Jeff started for the window, then pulled up short when the struggling men shifted and he caught a glimpse of Max's expression. Quiet, polite, reserved Max Evans, had a fire in his eyes that Jeff had never seen before. His teeth were clenched, his jaw hard, and there was a powerful determination that seemed to pour off of him as he pulled back and hit the other man again. At that moment, Max looked fully capable of murder and Jeff felt a shudder run down his spine.

There was a quiet groan and suddenly the top of Liz's head came into view. Jeff gasped and crawled through the window. "Oh God, Lizzie. Honey, are you hurt?"

Liz slowly pushed herself up off the ground until she was sitting, her legs curled under her. Her eyes were glassy and she appeared disoriented. "Dad?" she asked, her voice wobbly. "What happened?"

"I'm not sure. Don't try to move, Liz," he said as he knelt beside her. "Your mom's calling the Sheriff. Are you okay? What hurts, Lizzie?"

She turned, squinting at him. "My head," she said weakly. Reaching up, she probed gingerly at the back of her head, then winced. When she pulled her hand away it was covered with blood.

"Oh, God," Jeff whispered. He took her by the shoulders and tried to halt her movement. "You might have a concussion, Liz. Just keep still, okay? Let me get you something to lean on."

Liz grabbed at his hand and shook her head. "No, Dad, I'm all right," she said, blinking. "Max," she said. "Where's…" Her gaze shifted to the far side of the roof and her eyes widened. "No!" she shouted. "Max, stop!"

Jeff turned and saw what had Liz so upset. Max had pinned the other man to the ground and was sitting on his chest, anchoring him in place. Though his back partially obstructed the view, it was still apparent that Max had a hold of the man by the throat. But at the sound of Liz's voice, Max turned. His eyes met hers and Jeff saw relief sweep over the young man's face.

"Max, I'm all right," Liz said.

Max's gaze flickered from Liz's worried face to Jeff's. He nodded once, then turned back to the man beneath him. Suddenly Jeff was sure that he saw Max's hand begin to glow. It was only for an instant - and it was hard to see because of the angle - but there didn't seem to be any other explanation. Jeff's eyes opened wide and he looked questioningly at Liz. She, however, had her eyes glued to Max.

After a moment, Max rose and walked slowly over to where Jeff and Liz were sitting. The man on the ground didn't move. Jeff watched as Max fell to his knees in front of Liz, his eyes filled with tears, and took her gently in his arms. "I saw you lying there and I thought…."

"I'm okay," she whispered. "Is he…?"

Max pulled back and glanced once more at Jeff. "He's unconscious," he said. He turned back to Liz. "I constricted the blood vessels leading to his brain to minimize the flow of oxygen," he said, in reply to her questioning look. "He'll be out for a while."

Liz nodded slowly, wincing at the movement.

Max's eyes narrowed, his concern immediate. "What is it? Your head?"

"She's bleeding," Jeff said quickly. "I'm gonna go call an ambulance. And the Sheriff should be here any moment," he added.

"No, wait," Max said. "You don't need to call the ambulance," he said quietly.

"Max," Liz said, her eyes wild, a note of warning in her tone.

"It's okay," Max told her gently. "Let me."

Jeff watched as a silent battle of wills took place in front of him, before Liz slowly nodded. With infinite care, Max cradled Liz's head in his hands, slipping one palm to cup the back of her scalp. Liz closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again and gazed steadily at Max. As Jeff looked on, open-mouthed, a pale light began to emanate from Max's hands until it bathed both Liz and Max in a soft glow. It was over almost as soon as it began, and Max released Liz.

"Better?" he asked her.

Liz smiled at him lovingly. "Better. Thank you," she said quietly.

Max traced one finger down her cheek. "Good." Taking a deep breath, he turned to Jeff. "We need to talk," he told him.

Jeff shut his mouth and nodded slowly. He let out a long, ragged breath. "I think that's a good idea," he agreed.

* * *

Nancy's fingers shook as she punched in the number for the Sheriff's office. Behind her she could hear Jeff breaking down the door to Liz's room, the final bullet-like crack as he shoved through causing her to jump. "Oh God, oh God," she murmured as she listened to the phone ringing at the other end. "Pick up, damn it." Her heart was beating a mile a minute. "Where the hell is everyone?"

A sudden clicking at the other end indicated someone had finally answered the phone. "Roswell Sheriff's Station," came a sleepy male voice.

"I need the Sheriff," Nancy said quickly, clutching nervously at the phone cord and twisting it around her free hand. "It's an emergency."

"Yes ma'am," the voice stated, sounding more alert. "Where are you now and what precisely is the situation?"

"I'm at the Crashdown. I mean… I'm upstairs. This is Nancy Parker," she replied, tripping over her words. "Please… hurry."

"Yes, Miz Parker. Just take a deep breath and try to remain calm, now. This is Deputy Hanson. Can you tell me what's happened, ma'am?"

"I'm not sure," she said. "There was a scream… my daughter… door's locked… something breaking… not answering," Nancy rambled, her voice getting higher and louder. She could hear herself getting hysterical, but she couldn't seem to stop herself. "Please send someone, anyone, please…"

"Do you think you have an intruder? Are you still inside the house, ma'am?"

"I don't know," she said. "My husband went to check… I don't know if there's anyone… course I'm still inside… You think I'd just leave without knowing what's going on?" she cried.

"All right, ma'am," the Deputy soothed. "Just hold on then. Sheriff Valenti's given orders that he be notified if you folks have any trouble, so just hang tight. Please stay on the line, Miz Parker, okay? I'm gonna contact the Sheriff and then I'll be right with you. Meantime, you get any indication of trouble, you get on out of there, hear? You understand, ma'am?"

Nancy took a deep breath and tried to steady her nerves. "Yes, Deputy. I understand. Just please, hurry." There was a click as she was put on hold. After a split-second the silence was replaced by vaguely annoying music. Nancy strained to hear what was going on down the hall, but everything had grown disturbingly quiet. She closed her eyes and said a quick prayer. "Jeff?" she called out. No one answered.

"Miz Parker?" The Deputy was back.

"Yes, I'm here."

"Sheriff Valenti's on his way over, ma'am. Should be there in about five minutes. Anything more you can tell me about the situation?"

"No… I don't… I have to go now, Deputy," she said and swiftly hung up the phone.

Nancy made her way down the hallway and slowly eased into Liz's room, carefully stepping over the shattered pieces of wood that had once been the door. When she saw the room was empty, she turned and headed toward the windows, relaxing slightly at the sight of her husband crouched on the roof, his back toward her.

"Jeff? Liz?" she called. "The Sheriff's on his way. What…?" She trailed off as Jeff turned to look at her. His expression made her heart stutter. "Is everything all right? What's going on? Jeff, where's Liz?" Nancy reached the window and stopped abruptly when she saw Liz and Max sitting on the ground just beyond Jeff. "Max," she said, her voice tight. "What are you doing here?"

"Nancy," Jeff began.

"No," she said, shooting him an angry look. "Are you going to make excuses for them again? What was it? Another nightmare?" she asked, turning angrily back toward Max. "Or something else this time? We got the Sheriff out of bed at the crack of dawn, Max. What exactly are we supposed to tell him?"

Liz shifted slightly, her eyes pleading. "Mom," she said softly.

Nancy stopped mid-rant as she felt her stomach drop out from beneath her. Now that Liz had moved, Nancy had a clear view of the rest of the roof. There was debris everywhere - the wreckage of nearly every potted plant and candle that had once adorned the area. And in the middle of it all lay a man, obviously unconscious. Nancy slowly focused on Max and Liz again, and this time she really looked at them. Max was sitting close to Liz, holding her hand tightly, his posture protective. Leaning forward slightly, Nancy could see several vicious cuts and welts along Max's back and the beginning of a bruise along his jawline. She closed her eyes briefly and let out a long breath.

"I'm sorry," she said slowly, opening her eyes again to meet Max's steady gaze. "I am so sorry," she whispered. She turned to Liz. "Baby, are you all right?"

Liz nodded. "Yeah," she said. "Thanks, Mom."

Jeff cleared his throat. "I'm guessing the Sheriff is going to be here soon," he said. "We can all discuss this together, hmm? Honey, why don't you go put on some coffee? And stick a sign in the door downstairs saying we'll be opening late. I'll be down in a minute, okay?"

Nancy nodded. "Um… Max? Why don't you let Liz take a look at your back, all right?" she said gently.

"What?" Liz asked. She scooted around Max to see what her mother was talking about and gasped. It was obvious that she had failed to notice his injuries earlier. "Max," she whispered.

"It's not that bad," he insisted.

"Use some antiseptic, honey," Nancy said.

Max smiled slightly at her words. "Thanks, Mrs. Parker."

"I suspect I'm the one who owes all the thanks," Nancy told him. She turned and headed across the room, pausing briefly at her daughter's disheveled bed. Well, most of the thanks, she thought wryly. Sighing at the inevitability of life, she continued out of the room.

* * *

Liz let out a long breath as her mother disappeared into the hall.

"It's going to be fine," Max told her.

"I thought you didn't want to tell them," she said quietly.

"I know. But they obviously won't be safe until they know the truth," he replied.

Jeff cleared his throat again. "About that talk?"

Max nodded. "Yes, sir," he said. "But you were right about waiting for the Sheriff to get here." He turned to Liz. "You should probably get dressed. And I should call the others."

"Right," Liz said, suddenly realizing she was sitting there wearing nothing more than Max's T-shirt and her underwear. She felt her face grow warm, shooting Max a warning look when he smiled. "Um… Dad? Maybe you want to go help Mom. We'll be down in a minute, okay?"

Jeff eyed his daughter, then glanced over at her attacker. "What about him?" he asked. He turned to Max. "You said something about oxygen to the brain?"

"He won't wake up until I wake him up," Max replied, his voice steely. "I'll explain everything when everyone's here."

"Everyone?" Jeff asked.

"Dad, please?"

Jeff nodded. "Okay, honey. I suppose I can wait a few more minutes." He turned and crawled back through the window.

Liz stood up, smiling when Max took her hand supportively. "I'm fine," she assured him. "You do good work," she teased. She headed over to the window and slipped back into her room. She frowned when Max didn't follow her. "What are you doing?"

"This," he said, holding up the laser gun he had retrieved from the corner of the roof.

"I thought you said he was unconscious," Liz said, nodding at the man lying prone at Max's feet.

"Better safe than sorry," he replied. He tucked the weapon into his waistband and climbed through the window.

Liz watched him carefully. "What about your back?" she asked when he was standing beside her.

"I'll take care of it if it really bothers you," he shrugged. "Doesn't hurt."

"If you're sure," she said, trailing a hand gently down his arm. Turning, she realized her father was still standing there, watching them. "Dad?"

Jeff sighed. "I knew something was different," he said quietly. "You were suddenly… radiant," he told her, his voice a little sad. He looked at Max. "I'd like to be able to say that I'll kill you if you hurt her, but I guess you've already proven that I don't need to worry on that score."

"I'd sooner die than see Liz hurt, Mr. Parker," Max said seriously.

"Well, something tells me that's a good thing," Jeff said. He looked out the window once more. "This is more than you catching someone trying to rob us, isn't it?"

Liz felt Max stiffen and squeezed his hand quickly. "Dad, we'll explain everything. I promise," she said softly.

"All right," he agreed. "I'll see you both downstairs." He nodded once more at Max, then left.

"Oh, God," Liz said, finally registering the damage to the room. "Look at my door."

"I melted the lock, remember? I'm impressed that he got through at all," Max said, his voice suddenly shaky.

"Oh, Max." Liz turned and slipped quietly into his arms. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"No," he said hoarsely, pulling her close. "I looked up and you were flying into a wall. No warning. Nothing. I was so scared I'd lost you," he said, burying his hands in her hair.

"Shhh…" Liz soothed. "I'm all right. Max, I'm okay." She tightened her grip around his waist. "Thank you for not killing him," she said softly.

"I wanted to," he said grimly. "I wanted him dead, just like the other one."

Liz pulled back. "What other one?"

"There were two of them," he said. "I sent the first one over the side of the roof. He's the one who hurt you. I'm guessing Valenti will find him down in the alley on his way in."

Liz groaned. "I'm glad my father missed that part. He did, right?"

"Yeah," Max said, pulling back. "I'm pretty sure. Listen, go get some clothes on, okay? Your own clothes," he added pointedly. "I'd like to be wearing a shirt for the rest of this."

"Right," she said. She headed toward her closet and began rummaging for something to wear.

Max picked up her phone and dialed quickly. "Isabel, it's me," he said. "Yes, I know it's early, but I need you to get over to the Crashdown." Liz smiled as Max held the phone away from his ear for a moment and rolled his eyes. "No, Iz. It's important. Get Alex up, and bring Mom and Dad too." He paused. "We're okay, but we had some early morning visitors." Max sighed and closed his eyes. "Yes, the Parkers, too, but I was referring to the laser-packing alien type visitor." He held the phone away from his ear once more, but when he spoke again, his voice was gentle. "No, I swear we're fine. Just come over as soon as you can. And be careful."

"She's upset," Liz said sympathetically after Max had hung up.

"Understatement," Max replied.

There was a slam below them and Liz shook her head. "Sounds like the Sheriff's here."

Max eyed the ruined door. "Go ahead and change in the bathroom, okay? I'm just going to call Michael."

Liz nodded. Taking the clothes she had selected, she slipped past Max. Just before she went into the bathroom, she pulled his shirt over her head and tossed it at him, smiling when it landed on his head. The sound of his laughter echoed through the room as she closed the bathroom door.

Once she was alone, Liz eyed the tub longingly. Although Max had healed her, the idea of a hot shower to soothe her aches was immensely appealing. But she knew there wasn't enough time. Sighing, she dressed quickly, vowing to make up for it later with a nice long bubble bath. She was pulling her hair into a ponytail when a sharp knock at the door made her jump.

"What's wrong?" she asked, opening the door to Max's worried face.

"What's Maria's cell number?"

She rattled it off quickly and watched as Max punched the numbers into the phone. "Max? What's going on?"

"Michael's not picking up," he said, his expression tense. "Damn," he said after a long moment, banging down the receiver. "Maria's cell's going into voice mail."

"Directly?" Liz asked. "She could be using it."

"At six in the morning?" he asked pointedly. "Besides, it rang first. Are you sure they didn't stay at Maria's?"

Liz shook her head. "Positive. Maria told her mom she was staying here."

"Come on," Max said, grabbing her by the hand.

They leapt over the remains of the door and dashed through the apartment. Just as they started down the stairs, Sheriff Valenti appeared below them.

"Sheriff, we've got a problem," Max said quickly.

"So I've heard. Saw the one problem out in the alley," he said. "And I understand there's a second upstairs? Jeff and Nancy were just telling me you have everything under control," the Sheriff replied.

"Maybe not," Max said tersely. He nodded at the Sheriff to head back down, then continued after him, pulling Liz along. "We can't seem to find Michael and Maria."

Jim wheeled around the moment the words were out of Max's mouth. "What?"

"Max just called them and there was no answer," Liz explained. "Not on Maria's cell either. Sheriff, it's too early for them to have gone anywhere."

"Hold on," Jim said. "Kyle?" he called out.

They crossed the back room and headed into the café. Kyle and Tess were seated at the counter with Nancy, while Jeff Parker poured out several cups of coffee.

"Yeah, Dad?" Kyle said. He took one look at Max and Liz and frowned. "What is it? I thought everything was fine."

"You and Tess dropped Michael and Maria off at Michael's last night, right?"

"Yeah. Right after the meeting." Kyle turned toward Tess, eyebrows raised.

Tess nodded in confirmation. "We waited until they went inside, then headed home."

"Why?" Kyle asked, turning back to his father.

"And what does this have to do with the man who attacked Liz?" Nancy asked.

Jim turned questioningly toward Max.

"It's okay, Sheriff," Max said. "I'm planning on telling them everything." He turned to Kyle. "Michael and Maria might be missing."

"Hell," Kyle muttered.

"Missing?" Nancy asked. "What's going on?"

"You think who ever came after you, also went after them?" Jim asked.

Max nodded. "Stands to reason. They made an attempt on Tess and it backfired. Now they're coming after the rest of us."

"Who is?" Jeff questioned.

The Sheriff spared him a glance. "Hold on, Jeff," he said, not unkindly. He turned back to Max, all business again. "What about your sister?"

"Already spoke to her. She and Alex are on the way over with my parents."

Liz glanced at her own parents. Their expressions were a cross between anger and confusion. "Max," she said. "We have to tell them something."

At that moment front door burst open and Isabel came running into the café. "Max!" she cried. She launched herself at her brother and hugged him tightly, then turned and pulled Liz into her embrace.

"Isabel, we're fine," Max assured her.

Alex came into the café next, followed by Philip and Diane Evans. Liz, still trying to pull away from Isabel, sighed in relief. Somehow she felt as if the cavalry had arrived.

"Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Evans," she said as Diane approached them. From the corner of her eye, she could see Philip going over to her parents. Alex was standing with Kyle and Tess, obviously getting filled in on the morning's events, and Isabel was heading in their direction, clearly satisfied that they were all in one piece.

"Liz, dear, are you two all right?" Diane asked worriedly.

"We're fine, really," Liz told her. "But we could definitely use a little help with my parents." She glanced toward Max, who was talking to the Sheriff. "Max used his powers in front of my father," she continued in a low voice.

"Oh," Diane said softly, looking vaguely surprised.

"But what's worse is we suspect Michael and Maria may have been taken," Liz said, her voice cracking slightly. "There's no time to explain things to my parents right now, and everything's so crazy…" She trailed off, waving helplessly at the three-ring circus taking place before them. Everyone was talking at once and the volume in the room seemed to be increasing exponentially.

Diane took her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. "Why don't you let me worry about your parents, okay?" she said, following Liz's gaze. "You just worry about Max."

Liz gave her a grateful smile and nodded. "Thank you," she whispered.

"No, dear," Diane said. "Thank you." She gave Liz a gentle push toward Max, then turned and walked behind the counter to where the Parkers were talking with her husband.

Max turned as Liz approached and reached out a hand. "Come here," he said. He slipped an arm around her waist and drew her close, smiling briefly in encouragement. "Can I please have everyone's attention?" he called.

Silence blanketed the café as ten pairs of eyes focused on Max. He took a deep breath and began. His voice was low and authoritative, and despite the fear she felt for Maria and Michael and her apprehension regarding her parents, Liz's heart swelled with pride as she watched Max take control. Suddenly, he was every inch the leader.

"I have a great deal to say, and I'm asking that everyone please just listen until I'm finished. I promise to explain everything that's going on, and everything that needs to be done. If you still have questions after that, well, I'll do my best to answer them." One by one, Max looked each person present in the eye, and waited for them to nod in agreement. "All right," he said finally. "Here's the situation…."

END

*****

Continued in ...There's No Place Like Home