posted on 8-Nov-2002 3:09:35 AM
I just found this board and I just love it. I hope no one minds if I post this story here. Just a warning, if you're a big Max fan, might not want to read this. I don't necssarily hate the guy so much as I don't understand him. I'm a Michael girl what can I say?

I have a couple more stories if you guys are interested. *happy*

Title: Finding Ulysses
Author: Peachykin
Rating: PG for now will go NC-17
Pairing: Mi/L
Disclaimer: I don't own Roswell. Unfortunately Katims did and now we're all just cleaning up his mess.
Spoliers: None
Summary:Six years after Graduation, Michael's got someone on his mind.

Chapter 1


Michael looked down at his watch reading the late hour then turned his attentions to nearly deserted bar. There were a few stragglers sharing old stories or drowning their sorrows hoping to find salvation in at the bottom of a shot glass. The band had played their last set two hours earlier and the sad haunting voice of Billie Holiday serenaded the lonely souls that had picked the bar as company.

“Hey Sweet, “ Michael elbowed the old African-American bartender, “Better make this last call.”

“Got a hot date Boss man?” The much older man asked him, knowing already what the younger man’s answer would be.

Michael grinned, “Only with my pillow, Sweet.”

The old man chuckled, “Son, I still say you’re too young to have the blues.” His graveled voice drawling.

Michael slapped his weathered friend on the back, “And I still say you haven’t walked a mile in my shoes, Sweet.”

“Never could. You walk around in boats there, Boss.” Sweet returned, with a hearty chuckle, before letting out a loud whistle and announcing the night’s last call.

“When are gonna stop calling me Boss, sweet? I hate that.” Michael said with a smile, moving his lips to Sweet’s standard reply.

“I call you three things. Michael, cause that’s the name God gave ya. Son, because hell boy I’m a good forty years older than you. And Boss, because that what you are, my boss. Now unless any of those things change, that’s what I’m gonna call you.” He informed Michael, before taking a few final orders.

Michael shook his head laughing. Never in his life did he ever think anyone would be calling him, “Boss”. But here he stood behind a bar, twenty-four years old and the proud owner and proprietor of Ulysses. It was a small, but moderately successful bar just off Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Hank Guerin had one thing right about his boy; he made a helluva barman.

It had been six years since he’d left Roswell with his small family: Max, Isabel, Kyle, Maria and Liz. And it had been five years since he left the group, cutting all his ties. Life in the group had become too confined, too controlled and he was dying. Max had Liz, and while Isabel had loved Jesse, they couldn’t make their marriage work under such stressful conditions. But Michael felt she had Kyle to lean on.

Maria had left him, them, only two months before he had decided to leave. He should have known their relationship would never survive the hardships, the constant moving, the odd jobs, and the uncertainty. In the end they parted as friends, but he knew it was the last time they’d ever see each other. Surprisingly, he was okay with it.

The only ones who seemed to be thriving, at least outwardly, in their life on the run had been Max and Liz, or moreover, Max. He loved their life no matter where it seemed to take them, but Michael knew it was only because Max finally had Liz. They’d been so damn happy after their wedding it nearly made Michael sick, but as the months wore on Michael began to see a change in Liz, and not for the better.

Michael started to sense a sadness about Liz about six months into their departure from Roswell. Maybe she was missing her folks or the life of a small town girl. Maybe she resented missing out on Harvard and the opportunities she could have had with that kind of education. Maybe it was all those things. Max had promised to make her dreams come true; he’d even said it in their vows. But Michael couldn’t help but feel that somehow, not intentionally, Max had taken away those dreams.

What threw Michael was that even now nearly five years later he was still thinking about the dying light in Liz’s eyes. Maybe it had been the confined space they’d been forced to share in that first year, but Michael found himself caring about Liz. Not in a romantic way, or at least not that he’d admit to, but as a person.

In the two months before Michael left, he and Liz started talking about nothing and everything. They had helped each other through the finality of Maria’s departure, both finding acceptance in her reasons and while they would miss her, envied her freedom and her bold pursuit of her dreams.

Michael never told anyone he was leaving. No long letter explaining his regrets or reasons. Not even a damn post-it note. He hadn’t even told Liz how he was feeling. He never told anyone that. He simply packed his bags late one night, throwing everything he owned into the beat-up Nova he’d bought a few months earlier, and crept out of the house he shared with the remaining group.

He’d just thrown the last bag in when he caught Liz out of the corner of his eye standing on the bottom porch step. She looked so small and weary standing there wearing her worn cotton robe. Michael approached her with a guilty look on his face.

“I…” he started to say looking away nervously, but Liz just shook her head.

“I just wanted a chance to say goodbye, Michael.” She whispered, her voice catching with emotions.

Michael met her eyes, finding they had tears welled inside them, for him, and while it broke his heart, he was confused, “You aren’t gonna try and stop me?”

“Why would I?” she asked as though he should know, then let a smile touch the corners of her mouth, “Like you’d listen?”

“I might.” He found himself saying. He’d been so sure only minutes before that he could leave and never look back, but seeing Liz cry over him, he felt his resolve crumble.

“I won’t lie to you Michael, part of me wants you to stay.” She sighed in resignation, “But you have nothing holding you here. You’re stifled, living the life Max has chosen for you instead of the one you want. We envied Maria her freedom, now you have a real chance at it. How can I not let you go?”

Michael felt a lump forming in his own throat. Liz wasn’t giving him her permission to leave, she was giving him her blessing and in a way her hope that he could live the life she’d given up to be with Max, “Why do I feel the need to ask you to come with me?” he said scratching his eyebrow.

“Because you know I’m not happy.” Liz stated bluntly.

Michael’s eyes widened at her words. He’d been sensing it, but she never said it out loud, now there it was. “Liz… you could…”

Liz shook her head, “You need to find your own path Michael, without me, or Max, or Isabel…or anyone. If I came with you Max would be after us and we’d still be on the run. I couldn’t do that to you. That’s not freedom. That’s not what you deserve.”

Michael knew she was right, but he hated it. He wanted to take the girl, who’d become such a good friend to him, away from a life he knew was killing her, but she was right. If he was ever going to find his place in the world, he’d have to do it on his own.

He nodded at her looking back at the Nova then the house, “I…uh, didn’t leave a note or anything. I didn’t know what to say.” He told her.

Liz returned his nod, hugging her arms around her body for warmth, “Probably best. They’d all read into it what they wanted to, twist it to fit their needs. You know why your leaving and so do I.”

“That’s enough for me.” Michael told her.

There was a long silence as they stood in the cold night air prolonging their goodbye, once again feeling the finality of it. Liz finally spoke, breaking the quiet of the moment, “Just promise me you won’t look back, Michael. If you do, you’ll just get sucked back in. Please?”

Michael nodded, but it bothered him, “Liz if you hate it, why are you staying?” he asked boldly.

“For better or worse, Michael.” She offered lamely, seeing him roll his eyes she dropped her hands to her sides, “I forgot what my dreams were and I’m not brave like you.”

“Yes you are Liz.” Michael said unconsciously bringing his hand up to brush away the tear that had fallen down her cheek. “And when you figure that out, you come find me.”

Liz smiled for him, but Michael saw the doubt in her eyes and feared for her. He knew if she waited too long she’d lose whatever was left of her in Max’s dreams and that would be the worst crime in the world.

“You better go, Michael.” She whispered a sob catching in her throat.

Michael wrapped his arms around the tiny woman only the second time he’d ever done so. He didn’t want this to be goodbye. He didn’t want to lose their friendship and the undercurrent of love he knew would grow stronger if he stayed.

Uncharacteristic tears fell down Michael’s face as he held Liz’s sobbing frame, but he didn’t feel the need to wipe them away. He wanted her to see that this wasn’t easy for him. Leaving her was the hardest thing he’d ever have to do. Because no matter how stifled and confined he felt living in the confines of their group, in those two months after Maria had left and until that moment, he’d begun to feel he’d found a home, in Liz.

“Thank you.” Michael said, holding her face in his large hands. Liz knew he was thanking her for her friendship and understanding, and for letting him go even if now he wasn’t sure.

Michael wasn’t sure what possessed him but the knowledge that he may never see her again seemed to force his next action. He leaned down, brushing his mouth over Liz’s. He’d only meant it to be a light kiss, just to know, for once, what her lips felt and tasted like. But Liz wrapped her arms around his neck and he felt himself pulling her closer to his body deepening the kiss. Their tongues stroked the other and a soft moan escaped her throat as he held the back of her head, threading his fingers through her long dark locks.

Air was the devil, as it caused them to part, panting, their breaths clouding in the frigid air and dissipating a moment later. Liz rested her head on his shoulder and he rubbed her back absently. A moment later Michael tipped her head back up to his own.

“Just needed to see what that would feel like.” He told her with a smirk, belying the now stronger pull he felt to stay, just for her. The kiss had been that powerful.

“Thanks.” She returned his smile, because she had wanted the same thing, “See, I told you, you’re the brave one.” He chuckled softly kissing her forehead lightly.

Liz looked at the Nova then back at Michael, her eyes welling with tears again, “You really need to go Michael, before you wake anyone up.”

“I know.” He said mournfully, taking a step back, releasing Liz from his arms. He winced as she brought her arms back around her body to try and replace the warmth his body had given her. This couldn’t be goodbye. She’d come to mean too much to him. He needed to leave her with an option, or at the very least a sense of hope.

He pulled on her arms, taking her hands in his own, “Should you uncover your strength one day, Liz… look for me. Promise me.”

“Michael…” Liz protested, sure she would never find what he saw in her.

“Promise. Me.” He said insistently.

Liz softened and smiled, “I promise, Michael." she relented, “But how will I know where you are?”

Michael taxed his mind for a moment, then a grin spread over his face as he remembered a particularly spirited discussion they’d once had about the greatest novel ever written. Neither of them convinced the other in the end, but it had been a kick-start to their new friendship.

“Find Ulysses.” He whispered.

When Liz smiled Michael knew he’d gotten through to her. He only hoped someday she’d realize her own bravery. He gently dropped her hands, and before he could change his mind about leaving, he ran to the Nova. He started the engine catching a glimpse of her as he shut the door. Pulling out of the driveway he’d been tempted to take one last look at her through the rear view mirror, but she’d made him promise not to look back.

~*~

Sweet was wiping down tables and putting chairs up while Michael turned away from the bar bringing his attention to the till. It had been a good night and he’d be up at least another hour doing the books. He heard the door to the bar open, assuming Sweet hadn’t locked it yet.

“Oh I’m sorry Miss, but the bar is closed for the night.” The old man said in a kind voice. Michael smiled at his friend’s demeanor; he really lived up to his nickname.

“Even for a Shirley Temple?” the familiar female voice asked.

Michael’s heart leapt into his throat and his eyes widened. His eyes hot up to the mirrored wall of the bar and saw her standing there. But it couldn’t be her. She wasn’t real. It had to be a trick of the eyes. He was tired and seeing things.

“Michael?” she said. Apparently he was hearing them too.

Michael closed his eyes turning around, sure she’d be gone when he opened them, but she was really there. Still small and weary, but beautiful. He looked behind her to see if her husband was close by and found no one.

“Liz?” He finally rasped, “What are you...? How did you…”

Liz smiled, “I found Ulysses.”

~*~
TBC?








[ edited 17time(s), last at 21-Jan-2003 1:40:07 AM ]
posted on 24-Nov-2002 8:49:58 PM
Thanks for the great fb. Sorry I was without a computer for a couple weeks so I couldn't update.


Chapter 2

Michael heard Liz say the words. She’d “found Ulysses”, so that had to mean Max couldn’t be with here, but for so long it was never one without the other. Since the day Max had healed her, even during their separations it had been MaxandLiz. Seeing her without him seemed foreign and he couldn’t trust his eyes. He had to know…

“Where’s Max?”

He regretted the question when he saw Liz’s smile fall, and she cast her eyes to the floor. Her fists clenched at her sides and she squeezed her eyes shut for a moment before meeting Michael’s gaze again, a confidence he’d never heard lacing her voice, “I left him…nearly a year ago. I’ve been running ever since. I didn’t know you were here it was an accident…I saw and ad and I took a chance…” she began to back away, tears filling her eyes, “I didn’t mean to disrupt your life… I’ll just…”

Her words were lost somewhere in the fabric that covered Michael chest, when as quick as lightening Michael had jumped over the bar and pulled her into his arms, engulfing her in a crushing hug. She immediately wrapped her arms around his neck, letting her whole body relax at the safety, protection and most important, friendship he provided her with. Liz wasn’t sure what her feelings for Michael were, or if they had definition. All she knew is that they ran deep and that part of becoming, who she was now, had something to do with him. But for the moment she just felt right sharing the same space with him.

Once Liz had announced her freedom from her old life Michael’s felt his momentary paralyzation disappear, and as she began to retreat he practically flew to stop her. It was as though his heart wouldn’t allow him to embrace Liz without her newfound independence. It was like she said all those years ago, he’d, “…just get sucked back in.”

But there Liz was, without Max, without her old life, and he felt strength throughout her small body that had only been a flicker the night he left. He didn’t know or even trust his feelings for the girl in his arms, but all he knew was that she was part of who he was now and of everyone in his old life, she was the one he’d thought of the most.


Sweet watched the two old friends holding onto each other as if they were the other’s anchors. In the four years he’d known Michael, he’d never seen the boy this rattled by anyone, let alone a woman. Plenty of women tried, only to be rebuffed. Sweet had initially thought maybe Michael was gay, but when he saw the sadness in his eyes, he knew that no woman stood a chance with him because another one had either broken his heart, or still had an invisible hold on it.

Something, or someone, weighed heavily on that boy’s heart and the spark Sweet saw in Michael’s eyes the minute Liz walked in the door…. Well, Mrs. Johnston didn’t raise any fool; this girl brought his young friend to life.
Liz also seemed to be a part of Michael’s past that had been made clear early on in his friendship with Sweet he didn’t talk about. Sweet had never been inclined to press Michael, but seeing his near joy with Liz, he gathered she was a least a good part of that past. Maybe the only good part. The way the large boy held her in his arms, the reasons for the boy’s blues at such a young age became clearer to the weathered old man. Sweet finally felt he’d walked, at least a few steps, in Michael’s over-sized shoes.

“How did you find me?” Michael asked Liz as he pulled back, unconsciously wiping away the happy tears that had fallen down her cheeks.

Liz let out a giggle, “I told you, it was an accident. I saw an ad for a waitress at the college job board. When I saw the name of the club, Ulysses and then your name at the bottom…” she let out a small laugh, “Michael Joyce? Well I had to take a chance that it could be you. I wasn’t looking for you…”

“Guess I’m not that hard to find.” Michael chuckled.

“Oh you are, Max looked for you for over a year after you left. He just didn’t know where to look.” Liz explained.

“But you did.” He said softly, somehow knowing it would be her that would walk out of his past and back into his life. Like she was the only one who’d only really ever known him.

The urge to kiss her like he had the night he left was overwhelming, but he knew it was wrong, at least for now. Five years was a long time. He felt Liz had changed, but just how much and would he even fit in her life someway still had to be discovered. Or could she fit in his? Jesus, she was barely in his life again for two minutes and he was trying to figure out a way to make her a part of it? What happened to the hard edge he’d managed to maintain with everyone but Sweet? And why was he thinking about Liz that way?

The two old friends were so wrapped up in their reunion, they’d forgotten they weren’t the only people in the deserted bar until Sweet cleared his throat. Michael broke his focus on the dark chocolate eyes staring up at him and released Liz from his embrace, turning to Sweet.

“Damn Sweet, I’m sorry,” he took Liz’s hand and guided her down the stairs for introductions, “Manners have never been my strong suit.”

“Amen.” Liz and Sweet said in unison, causing them all to laugh. Seems Michael hadn’t completely changed everything about himself.

Sweet set down the broom and took Liz’s hand in his own, “Sweet, this is Liz…” Michael began, but stopped, widening his eyes, unsure of what name Liz was going by now. When she was married to Max it had been Phillips, homage to Max’s father, but she’d said she’d been on the run since leaving Max. She was bound to have changed it in that time.
“Jeffries.” Liz provided, winking at Michael, “ Liz Jeffries. I went back to my maiden name. Phillips doesn’t fit anymore. Or at least it stopped a long time ago.” Michael smiled; Liz had adopted her father’s name as her own, and so in a small way she really had taken her old name back. Seemed fitting.

Sweet pretended not to notice the secret smile that passed between Michael and Liz, shaking the girl’s hand gently, “Well it nice to meet you Ms. Jeffries. Melvin Walker Johnston, but everyone calls me Sweet. And anyone who can unravel the mystery of my boss here, is someone worth knowing.”

Liz arched an eyebrow at the old man, “Now if you know anything about Michael, Mr. Walker, Sweet, you know he loves being a mystery.” She grinned leaning into whisper, “He likes to keep people guessing.”

“And the crankiness?” Sweet asked as they both looked Michael over.

“Oh that’s real, but I’m sure you know by now, it’s one of his more charming features.”

Sweet laughed heartily, “You most definitely have spent time with Boss man here. Although, how he left a beautiful thing like you behind, is a mystery that needs some solving.”

“Well, there’s no mystery as to why you are called Sweet.” She mused at the old honey dripper.

“Okay, old timer,” Michael said pulling Liz gently away from Sweet, “No flirting with women nearly three times your junior. Her heart couldn’t take it.”

“Can I help it if the ladies love me?” Sweet asked holding his hands up in mock innocence.

“I’ll make sure to ask your four ex-wives, Sweet.” Michael joked, before turning his attention back to Liz, “Look, I gotta finish the books, but after that we can catch up. Where are you staying?”

“⊕#%$ son,” Sweet shook his head, “Go on up to your place, I’ll close up. You two have a lot to catch up on.”

“You sure?” Michael asked Sweet.

“Go on, Michael before I smack you on the head with this here broom. It’ll be a cheap thrill for this old timer, I haven’t ever seen you take a lady up to…”

“Uh…Thanks Sweet. See you tomorrow.” Michael interrupted, dragging Liz with him outside to her car.

“Sure thing Son.” The old man chuckled, waving at Liz as she tried to keep up with Michael’s long strides, “Welcome to New Orleans Ms. Jeffries.” He called out.

Once outside Michael immediately found Liz’s Jeep, worn and dirty from many months spent on the road, “I just got into town, Michael. Where’s a good place to stay?”

“With me.” Michael told her opening the back to the car and taking out her belongings.

“Michael, I don’t want to put you out…” Liz argued.

“Liz, I have three bedrooms one of which I’m not using and I told you to come find me. Now, if Max is still looking for you. You are staying with me.” He said emphatically.

“Michael,” Liz sighed, loving the fact that there were parts of his old persona he’d managed to hold onto, no matter how boorish they were, it was what made him Michael. “I don’t need you to protect me from Max…”

“I know that.” Michael said putting the bags down on the ground to scratch his eyebrow, “It’s just been so long since I was able to protect anyone besides myself, it just feels right. Please. Stay with me?”


Liz swallowed back the lump in her throat. It had felt like only yesterday that she’d told Michael to go without her and she’d watched his tail lights disappear into the darkness along with a piece of her heart. Now, here they stood a few years older and definitely wiser and he was asking her to stay with him. In some ways it was if time had stood still and they were still those same two teenagers standing in the darkness on the edge of discovery and in others it had been a million years. They were both very different people now leading very different lives, could their paths meet? Or would they merely pass each other by.

“Liz?” Michael asked seeing the far off look in her eye.

Liz shook her head of her thoughts and wiped at her eyes, “Sorry. Um, I’ll stay with you.”

Michael smiled and picked her bags up again, motioning with his head for her to follow him up the stairs to his apartment. Liz took a moment to look him over and giggle. “What?” he asked.

“Nothing.” She shook her head, “It’s just you look the same as you did the night you left. The long hair, the clothes…”

“For one thing the hair was never getting cut short again. Spikes were the statement of my youth. Besides chicks dig long hair…or so I’m told.” He explained as they climbed the stairs, “Besides, It’s only been five years.”

“It’s been a lifetime, Michael.” Liz said quietly and bit mournfully as they stopped at the landing.

“Yeah,” Michael agreed, “I guess you’re right.” He looked her over again, “But you still look the same Liz.” Then paused, “I take that back. You look… freer.”
Liz smiled, “I am.”

Michael opened the door to the apartment and let Liz go in first while he carried in her bags. Liz could hardly believe her eyes when she took in the spacious apartment. It was a far cry from the government subsidized one bedroom he had back in Roswell. From the shiny hardwood floors, the crystal chandelier above the large dining room table to the enormous chef grade kitchen, it was spartanly decorated, but it all screamed Michael. It was simply amazing.

“Michael…” she said, almost breathlessly, “How did you…I mean the bar…and this place? How…?”

Michael smirked, “How can I afford it?”

Liz nodded dumbly, embarrassed for asking Michael such a question. Michael shook his head at her, telling her not to be embarrassed. It’s not exactly like he’d ever been good with his money before, but time on the road and a little maturity had taught Michael the value of a dollar.

“I’ll show you.” He said cryptically, “After I put your stuff in your room.”

“Okay.” Liz agreed and followed him down the hall.

The first room they passed was small, the large unkempt bed taking up most of the room. It was obviously his. Liz chuckled to herself at the laundry strewn about the room, yet another sign that with Michael, old habits died hard. You can’t teach a perpetual slob new tricks. She wouldn’t want to.

She saw him disappear into the room a few feet down the hall from his. He set her bags on the neatly made double bed and passed his hand over the night stand and dresser, removing the layers of dust, “Sorry.” He said sheepishly, “I don’t exactly get a lot of guests.”

Liz looked around the room, it was the same size and design as his, just looked less used. The walls were a pale blue and were a bit bare, but clean.

“You can fix it up however you want or I can do it for you…I mean I don’t know how your powers…” He stuttered.

Liz grinned placing her hand on the wall, minute later a deep green replaced the pale blue, “I’ve been working on them.”

“Martha Stewart has nothing on you.” Michael joked.

Liz said she would unpack later and Michael quickly took her hand, “Where are we going?” she asked.

“You’ll see.” Michael said with an air of mystery.
“Michael, its one-o-clock in the morning…not my best mystery solving hour.” Liz mock whined.

“Keep your panties on Parker.” He threw back as he tool her to the last bedroom at the end of the hall.

He opened the door and Liz followed him inside. It was obviously the master bedroom, but Michael had converted into a studio for his art. Canvas, oil, acrylic and watercolor paints were strewn about the area along with numerous sketchpads, charcoal and pastels. He had about five unfinished pieces on the floor depicting the city they way he saw it, vibrant, alive, organic.

“God Michael…you kept up with your art…Are you selling these?” Liz said in amazement.

“Like hotcakes.” he said proudly, “Sweet, ‘discovered’, me not long after I got here. We were working in the same bar and he sorta stumbled onto my stuff. That man knows just about everyone in this damn town and introduced me to a friend of his. Gallery owner. She went nuts and took everything I had. The first batch I sold let me put a down payment on this building.”

Liz studied some of the finished pieces recognizing places she’d seen on her way through the Big Easy. Her eye caught one theme throughout each piece. Amid all the bright colors and lights was a small woman, seemingly walking away through each piece, her long dark hair caught on the breeze. Everyone in the pictures was either sitting or standing in and their faces were visible, but her. Liz couldn’t help but feel a kinship to this girl.

“Michael…is the m…” she started to ask, but Michael cleared his throat loudly and pointed at the large bay window, “I…uh… have a balcony. Do most of my sketching out there.”

He walked over to the French doors and threw them open gesturing for Liz to step outside. Forgetting her earlier question about the woman in the painting, she stepped out onto the first balcony she’d been on in six years.

“God, I missed this.” She said wistfully staring out onto the city. Her eye caught something off to the side and she giggled, “A lawn chair huh?”

“What?” Michael asked scratching his eyebrow, “It’s comfortable.”

Liz wiped her brow of the sweat that sparkled on it, “Well you went from the dry heat of the desert to the humid heat of the bayou.”

Michael shrugged his shoulders, “You get used to it. Besides, I figure New Orleans was made for an alien like me. I can eat all the hot food I want and not have people look at me twice.”

Liz laughed, “I remember you saying that when we first left Roswell.”
“Yeah, but Max said it was stupid reason and we wound up in Colorado.” Michael pointed out.

Liz nodded wiping her brow again. Michael realized, while he’d had time to adjust to the heat and humidity of a New Orleans mid-summer night, Liz had been traveling all over the place and hadn’t adjusted to much of anything.

“I got some lemonade in the fridge,” he told her, “Kind of a staple around here. You want some?”

“Yeah. Sounds good.” Liz accepted, “You mind if I stay out here…it’s been so long since…”

Michael nodded quickly, realizing how the balcony reminded her of the parents she’d left behind in Roswell and probably hadn’t seen since they left, “Then you can tell me what’s been going on in your life.” He said.

“You have a lifetime?” Liz called out to Michael’s retreating form.

“Lived two, Liz… think I can spare another.” He answered.

~*~

When Michael returned to the balcony with a pitcher full of lemonade and two glasses filled with ice, he found Liz curled up on the lawn chair staring up at the sky. She must have heard the clomping of his Doc Martens on the wood floor because she started talking before he reached the open doors.

“So Michael… Joyce huh?” She mused, “Well, I like it. Much better than Michael Hetfield, anyway.”

Michael rolled his eyes at her as he pulled out a chair from inside the studio and handed her a glass, “Hetfield, was a great name, but it was one of my youth. I wanted something that spoke of my adulthood.” He said with comical pomposity.

Liz laughed, “ I shouldn’t tease. Since I left Max, I’ve been Liz Curie, Pasteur, Saulk and Faulkner.”

“Jeffries is good name Liz.” Michael told her, “It suits you.”

“Well part of finding the new me, has to be rooted in who I was.” She said seriously, “If I can’t keep Parker, I might as well take some part of my parents.”

Michael nodded his understanding and they sat in silence for a few minutes, the ever-present question burning on Michael’s tongue. When the silence became too much he finally broke.

“Liz, why did you finally leave? I mean, what happened that made you decide to walk away?” he asked.

Liz hung her head for a moment and Michael watched fresh tears spring to her eyes immediately regretting asking her, “Shit Liz, I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer…”

Liz held up her hand, “No it’s okay, Michael.” She wiped her eyes taking a deep breath, “A big part of the why I left was for me. You and I both know how much I was suffocating… But what made me finally walk away… was Alexis.”

“Alexis?” Michael asked puzzled then felt his anger rise, “Who the hell is Alexis? Some girl Max cheated on you with?”

Liz shook her head; slightly amused that Michael would get so riled on her behalf, “No. Nothing like that.” Another tear feel down her cheek and she wiped it away, “Alexis is your niece, Michael.”

~*~

TBC…

posted on 26-Nov-2002 3:28:30 PM
Chapter 3

“My niece?” Michael asked stunned. If he had a niece that could only mean one of two things and he could barely allow himself to believe it, “Liz? Did you and Max have a…”

Liz shook her head emphatically, “No. No, Michael. Alexis, is Kyle and Isabel’s daughter. They got married about three years ago and Miss Alexis Michaela James, made her grand entrance a little over a year later.” Her voice caught with emotion, “She’d be two by now.”

Michael could hardly believe what he was hearing and a strange sense of relief that the child wasn’t Liz and Max’s. “Alexis Michaela? After Alex and…me?”

Liz nodded and smiled, “Yeah. You know you’re Isabel’s brother too. She misses you. She understands, but she still misses you.”

“I miss them too.” Michael said regretfully, then his eyes widened as something Liz said, and the sorrowful tone of her voice, caught up with him, “D-Did something happen to Alexis? You said ‘She’d be two by now.’ I mean, is she d…” His heart constricted already breaking for the niece he might never know.

Liz’s own eyes widened at what Michael had thought, “Oh God! No Michael. She’s perfectly healthy. I just miss her is all. I was there or the first year of her life and now I’ve missed one.” When she saw Michael let out a relieved breath she continued, laughing softly, “You’d love her Michael. She has a smile that lights up the room. Reminds me a lot of Kyle. Keeps Isabel on her toes.”

Michael could help but share in Liz’s laughter, “I would expect the spawn of Kyle Valenti…I mean, Kyle James, to do nothing less.” He scratched his eyebrow, “I don’t suppose you have any pictures do you?”

Liz stood up, pulling a worn photo out of her back pocket, handing it to him. It was a candid, “family” shot, obviously taken by Max, as Liz Isabel, Kyle and a smiling baby girl, Alexis, were huddled into the picture. She was a pretty little thing, light brown, loosely curled hair and a toothy grin, well as toothy as a still teething child could be. But what also stuck Michael about the picture was Liz’s smile. It seemed genuine, unforced. She was looking down at Alexis, the little girl, Michael imagined, being the only one who could get her to smile like that. It was stunning.

After staring at the picture for another minute, Liz spoke, “That was taken at her first birthday party,” she told him, “I have a whole album full of photos you can look at later. I mean if you want to.”

Michael nodded, still smiling down at the photo, “I’d like that.” He chuckled, “Alexis is beautiful, like Isabel. But you’re right, she does have Kyle’s smile. She is definitely going to be trouble.”

Liz saw the sadness in Michael’s eyes at missing out on his niece’s life. Michael had always been great with kids, despite his gruff exterior. She surmised it had something to do with having little or no childhood of his own.
“Alexis knows who you are, Michael.” She told him, knowing he needed to hear it.

Michael looked up at her in confusion, “She does? How?”

“Pictures Isabel and I have of you.” Liz explained, “When I left she was just learning how to talk, but she calls you ‘Unca Grumpy’. Because in nearly every picture you’re scowling.”

Michael snorted, but knew it was probably accurate, “Thanks, I mean for telling her about me.”

“You’re her family, Michael. It’s important she at least knows about you.” Liz said gently.

He tried to hand the picture back to Liz, but she waved him off telling him to hold onto it. He thanked her then shook his head as he looked at again, “Kyle and Isabel James…. and parents to boot. I can’t believe it. I mean I had a feeling they might hook up, but…Wow. The whole domesticated life?”

Liz laughed, she too had been amazed by Kyle and Isabel’s transformation and she’d seen it with her own eyes, “Yeah, but it really suits them. Kyle owns an auto shop; makes decent money and Isabel works part-time at an interior design firm, but Alexis is their life. Kyle is such a great dad. And Isabel… you’d hardly recognize her Michael. She gets down in the mud and plays with her. Finger paints, food fights…”

Michael’s jaw dropped, “You mean Isabel actually gets…messy?”

Liz nodded proudly, “Gone are the days of designer handbags and two hundred dollar shoes. She’s a down and dirty jeans and t-shirt mommy now. Her job at the design firm gives her all the fashion fix she needs.”

“Well, they say parenthood changes you.” Michael observed.

“Yeah.” Liz replied quietly and a bit mournfully. “I left two weeks after that photo was taken.”

Michael tore his eyes away from the photo to see the smile Liz had been wearing a moment early had faded. It had obviously torn Liz apart to leave the little sprite, “Liz? If you loved Alexis so much, what about her made you leave?”

Liz shook her head and sat back down facing Michael, “It wasn’t Alexis’ fault I left. If anything, she made it more difficult to leave.” She sighed heavily, “I’m not explaining this very well. I’m sorry.” She bit her lips against the tears she was fighting.

On instinct, Michael took her hands in his own, a small gesture of reassurance, “You’re doing fine.”

Liz smiled slightly and took a calming breath, “It wasn’t so much Alexis, specifically. It was what her birth brought out in Max.” she explained.

Michael could practically hear the autopilot switch on inside Liz. He had always hated it when she did that, and she’d done it a lot in the months before he left the group, but he knew if she were going to get through her story, she’d have to try and detach herself a bit.

“When Isabel got pregnant,” Liz began, “Max was furious to say the least. He felt that she and Kyle should have learned from his experience with Tess and Zan, that our lives are far too dangerous to bring a baby in to.”

Michael raised an eyebrow; “I’m guessing Mr. and Mrs. James set him straight about that?” He knew at least Isabel, wouldn’t take crap from Max, especially when it came to her life…and her body.

“Oh, there were more than a few screaming matches and royal tantrums on both sides.” Liz confirmed, “Kyle even decked Max one night.”

Michael couldn’t help blurting out an amused laugh, but apologized quickly. Liz shook her head, “Don’t be sorry. I won’t repeat what he said, but sufficed to say, Max deserved it.”

“So what happened after Alexis was born?” Michael pressed.

“Alexis, like Kyle and Isabel, is the consummate charmer, and knows how to wrap any man around her tiny, little finger; Max was no exception.” Liz said with a genuine smile, but it quickly faded, “Max saw that we could lead normal lives, have families. The FBI or extraterrestrial enemies stopped looking for us a long time ago. Seeing Kyle, Isabel and Alexis…it made Max realize what he’d given up when he put Zan up for adoption.”

Michael ran a hand over his face roughly, knowing what was coming next, “Oh Christ…”

“Yeah… He wanted us to start a family of or own.” Liz said mournfully, “Things were falling apart between Max and I before you left, Michael. You saw it yourself. You can just imagine how it had deteriorated even more over the years. How could I possibly even consider the idea of bring a child into a marriage that had died years ago?”

“What did you tell him?” Michael asked, wondering how the hell Liz had managed to get out of that situation.

“I told him I wasn’t ready yet.” Liz explained, “That there were things I still wanted to do… He was disappointed, of course, but I think he just figured I needed a little more time and that eventually I’d be ready. The truth was…”

“You never would be.” Michael finished. How could Max expect her to… was he really that blind?
Liz nodded silently, “It worked for about six months and Alexis actually provided Max with his ‘baby’ fix, but every time we’d go back to our house after visiting her… I could tell it was weighing on Max. And he’s never really been that patient. So he started bringing it up again.”

“And when Max gets an idea in his head…” Michael rolled his eyes.

“He’s immoveable. He became obsessed, Michael.” Liz concurred with a heavy sigh. She stood up off the chair and leaned against the balcony railing, “Of course the fact that we hadn’t had sex since he’d first brought up having a baby didn’t exactly escape his notice either. By the time I left it had been nearly a year. Figures that would agitate him.”

“Pffft. Try more than five years without it. Now that’s agitation.” Michael muttered a little too loudly.

Liz turned around, her eyes wide, “You mean…you haven’t had…since…”

“Since before Maria left? Yeah.” Michael said, his face reddening. He cleared his throat, “But we’re not talking about me right now. So…what was the final straw with Max? I mean I can tell you loved Alexis…and Kyle and Isabel.”

Liz pushed of the balcony railing settling back on the lawn chair, staring up at the stairs as she remembered the night that closed the chapter of Max Evans in her life.

“We’d just come back from Alexis’ birthday party and Max started in on me again about a baby the second we stepped inside the house. He said ‘It was time to get serious and a start a family of our own instead of living through Kyle and Isabel. Besides, Alexis needs a cousin, Liz. Someone to play with.’

He said a baby would ‘…bring us closer together. Fix the problems we’ve been having.’ He felt he had something missing from his life since giving Zan up, and that a baby of our own might help fill that empty space. Space? It was a fucking chasm nothing could fill.” The anger in her voice palpable, “It was all the same arguments he made before…just more adamantly.

“So…He figured what? He could bully you into having a baby?” Michael asked, incredulous that Max would do that to Liz. You couldn’t just force someone to have a baby against her will?

“Why not?” Liz said sarcastically, “ I’d let him bully me into giving up on all of my dreams. Why not one more thing? Remember me Liz Phillips… no spine included.”

A fear gripped Michael at what Max might have been capable of and she has said he was… “Adamant”. “Liz? Did Max…did he hurt you at all?”

Liz sat up, her heart softening at the concern she read on Michael’s face. They’d all felt the brunt end of Max’s notorious temper at one time or another. When backed into a corner, he tended to lash out violently.
Liz shook her head, “Sorta,.. I mean, I don’t know. He grabbed me, hard, and shook me.” She unconsciously rubbed her upper arms, still feeling the bruises Max’s crushing and angry grip had left behind, even a year later. “He demanded to know the real reason why I had been putting him off and that he’d indulged me for too long.”

She took a heavy breath, before continuing, “How could I bring a child into that? I snapped. Told him how dead I was inside and that not only had I stopped loving myself, but also I had long since stopped loving him. That there was no way in hell I could have a baby with him. Ever.”

“Wow.” Michael said numbly, “I’m betting Max didn’t take that well.”

“To say the least.” Liz confirmed, her brow furrowing, ‘But something happened Michael. He got so quiet. I’ll never forget it. I have never heard a silence like that.”

“Calm before the storm?” Michael provided, remembering the hushed way Max liked to fume before exploding completely.

“Kinda.” She replied, “He let go of my arms and just sat in his armchair. Just still. I don’t even think he breathed. Then an hour later he snapped his fingers and stood up. He started pacing back and forth frantically. He said we could get marriage counseling and that we could find our way back to each other. Then we could start a family.”

Liz let out a frustrated growl as every word of that conversation came back to her, “I knew then that Max would never give up and while, somehow, I had justified sacrificing my own happiness, I could never subject an innocent child to that.”

“I’m sorry, Liz.” Michael whispered, now regretting ever leaving her on those porch steps all those years ago. He should have stayed and protected her.

“I knew that night I had to find a way to leave. So, for the next two weeks I planned and packed. With a little help from Kyle and Isabel, I pulled off a Michael. No note. No letter. Just disappeared into the night.” She told him.

“Kyle and Isabel helped you leave Max?” Michael asked a little stunned.

Liz nodded, “They knew how unhappy I was and when I told them Max’s plan… they didn’t want to see me go, but they knew I had no other options, so they helped.” Liz wiped tears away from her eyes, “I call them when I can, to let them know I’m okay and to check on Alexis.”

“Does Max know anything? What does he think happened?” Michael asked, trying to gauge what kind of threat Max might be, if at all.
“He doesn’t know why I left, even though everyone else does. For a while he thought I’d been kidnapped, until Isabel finally told him that she had heard from me and that I was fine. Up until that point he couldn’t be convinced that I’d left of my own free will. Kyle says that just made him want to look harder, so we could work things out.” She said, wearing the frustration in her body language and in her voice.

Michael shook his head, “So, you’ve been running this whole time?”

“Not really.” She shrugged her shoulders, “Max has never really come close to finding me. Kyle and Isabel usually give me a heads up if he’s getting too close and I move on. I wanted to find a place that fit you know? A place where I can face him, and when he finds me, it's because I let him. Besides, I have to get a divorce eventually.”

“Yeah.” Michael agreed, “You know, New Orleans is a great lady. And if you treat her right, she’ll do right by you. Sweet told me that when we met and I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right.”

Liz chuckled, “You sound like a local.”

Michael shrugged his shoulders, “I’ve kinda become one. This is home. A little on the lonely side, but it’s home. So, what’s mine is yours for as long as you like. If you need to move on at some point I won’t stop you.”

“I know.” Liz said unconsciously placing her hand on his knee, the gave him an amused smile, “Since when did you learn how to share?”

Michael kept a straight face, holding her eyes with his own, “Since I stopped having anyone to share anything with.” He saw Liz’s loss for words and he realized what he’d said held a little more meaning for himself than he’d intended, even if it was the truth.

He shifted in his chair and swiftly changed the subject, “So, where did you go when you left? Your parents? Maria?”

Liz let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and took her hand off Michael’s knee when he shifted, trying to focus on his words, “My parents? No. I call them from various places, but I haven’t seen them since we all left. We all hate it, but until we’re sure the FBI has stopped watching them…” her voice choked at the sadness of missing her parents, but she quickly pushed it aside, “As for Maria. No. That would have been the first place Max would have looked. And while I adore the diva, she would have told him where I was.”

“Still needing to believe in perfect love.” Michael scoffed.

Liz rolled her eyes, “Lofty ideal, but there’s no such thing. It shouldn’t be perfect, where’s the fun? But I don’t love Max anymore, and neither he nor Maria can accept that. Not exactly the environment needed to find ones self.”

“To say the least.” Michael added.

“Anyway,” Liz continued, “When I left, I took about half of our savings and just traveled. Trying to figure out who I am without Max. I needed to find out if Liz Jeffries has the same dreams Liz Parker did. Which I do, but I found some new ones and I’m letting go of some old ones. I knew that’s what I had to do before I really started looking for ‘Ulysses’. Turns out in a way, Ulysses found me.”

“Ah,” Michael said folding his hands, “Kyle would call the karmic direction.”

“Or one hell of a coincidence. Either way, I think I’m supposed to be here now. It feels right.” She said taking the last sip of her sweltering lemonade.

Michael merely nodded, keeping his gratefulness at her presence to himself at the moment. But something did bother him a bit, “I know I told you to find me, Liz…and I knew someday you might, but why would you want to?”

Liz looked up at him in confusion, “I don’t understand.”

Michael scratched his eyebrow, trying to find the right words, “Like it or not, I’m part of that old life that dragged you down. I’m a constant reminder of the precise moment your life changed. I guess I figured part of you independence would mean avoiding reminders like me. I mean, I would have understood.”

Liz smiled, Michael still wore his insecurities on his sleeve, and she was grateful that part of him hadn’t changed. Here he was offering her a place in his home, and in a sense his life and he was worried about intruding on hers.

“You are right in more ways than one, Michael.” She told him cryptically, “Yes, you are a part of that old life, but a good part. In finding my new future I have to look to my past and one thing I found that had been a constant, was you. I realized I counted on you more than anyone, even Max. With you there were no pretenses and niceties. You lay it all out on the table no matter what.

So, blow me a way when I discover, that upon reflection, you didn’t hate me or resent me, at least not after a while. You always had my back, believed in me, even when it scared you to do so. Not because you felt you had to, but because you wanted to.”

“Well, and don’t go spreading this around,” Michael whispered, “more often than not…you were right, Liz.” He hung his head for moment then looked back up, “But I stopped being your constant when I left.”

Liz shook her head in disagreement, “Even when you left, you showed me that freedom, and life without Max was possible. I didn’t know where you were or if you had found any kind of happiness, but just knowing someone I knew was really free… that got me through the years and helped me eventually get away. If I didn’t know it was possible…I might not have done it.”

“Yeah you would have.” Michael countered, “You’re a lot stronger than you realize. I told you that when I left. I still mean it. You can be strong without me in your life.”

“I know I can, Michael. I have been for the past year.” She looked heaven ward to pluck some kind of answer from the sky, but found nothing, “I don’t pretend to know why I need you in my life. I just know I do. Yours is the one friendship I have truly missed over these past five years…” she ran a hand through her hair in frustration, “I’m not making any kind of sense am I?”

“You are.” Michael reassured her, giving her a patented Guerin smirk, “I missed you too, Parker.”

“Jeffries. Mr. Joyce.” Liz corrected with a smile, “Jeffries.”

“You’ll always be Parker to me, Liz.” He countered.

Liz could no longer stifle he fatigue and let out a rather large yawn. Michael realized how tired she must have been and stood up off his chair extending his hand, “Let’s get you to bed. Bar doesn’t open until eleven anyway. We can talk more in the morning.”

Liz took his hand graciously, more than ready for what she knew would be her first good night’s sleep since he’d left her all those years earlier. She wasn’t sure why, but she kept her hand locked with Michael’s as they walked through the studio and into the hallway until they were in front of her room. It was almost as if she was afraid that if she took her hand away, he might disappear. In the past year she had enjoyed her freedom, independence and discovery, but she found that she’d really missed the comfort and safety Michael’s presence provided her with.

Michael opened the door to Liz’s room for her and she stepped inside, releasing his hand. He shook his head as he watched her seat herself on the bed, “I still can’t believe you’re here, Liz.”

“Me either.” She laughed, then bit her lip, “You sure it’s okay?”

“Yeah.” Michael said confidently, reassuring her, “ It’s okay. Really. It’s kinda nice to have the company. Sweet’s a great friend, but he has a terrible body.” He half joked, “ Now, get some sleep.”

“Okay.” Liz nodded with a yawn, and then remembered something else, calling out to Michael as he was closing the door behind him, “Michael?”

“Yeah?” he asked, popping his head back into the room.

“Um, that waitress job… Is it still open?” she asked a bit nervously.
“Nope.” Michael said shaking his head, “Already filled it.”

Liz’s shoulders sagged in disappointment and she avoided his eyes, “Oh…well then I’ll guess I’ll find something…”

“Liz.” Michael chuckled, “You start tomorrow night.”

Liz smiled brightly for a moment, before glaring comically at the tall man’s amusement. She grabbed a pillow, throwing at Michael’s well coiffed noggin, mussing the hair before her ducked.

“Jerk.” She muttered, trying not to laugh.

Michael laughed heartily, and then winked at her, “You know you love me.” He said shutting the door before she could reload.

“Or I could” Liz whispered wistfully.

“If only you could.” Michael mumbled, on the other side of the door, before retiring to his room.

~*~
TBC…



posted on 26-Nov-2002 10:17:41 PM
LizMix-
Wow I'm really flattered. That's a tremendous compliment. Thank you so much. My other stories are posted on this board. Memory of Her and Selling the Drama

Thanks again and I hope you enjoy the other stories as well.

Peachy
posted on 27-Nov-2002 8:05:53 PM
Chapter 4

Despite getting to bed late the night before, Michael rose early the next morning, out of habit. The mornings were his best creative time. He’d spend hours in his studio painting and sketching, Sweet even got him to try sculpture. Clay was fun, but he really enjoyed marble. Chipping away and smoothing a piece of stone into something beautiful. The metaphor wasn’t lost on him.

Michael’s paintings were in demand at the moment and he had a show in one of Sweet’s “lady friend’s”, Miriam, gallery next month. He had plenty of pieces for the show and he knew they’d sell, but lately they hadn’t been giving him the sense of satisfaction he used to get from them. He felt, bored, uninspired and idle. He felt like he was just churning out what people wanted, instead of painting for himself. But while he wasn’t happy with what he’d been putting out, at least it was something. It wasn’t as though he’d felt inspired to really create anything new and his sculptures were far too amateurish to even consider showing.

He grabbed a cup of coffee and headed for the studio. He didn’t really feel like drawing or painting, so he grabbed an old sketchpad and sat on the balcony and decided to wait for inspiration to come to him. But all he could think about was the dark haired girl still fast asleep in his guest room.

Michael knew Liz would never let him regret leaving, but after hearing how suffocating her life had become with Max, he couldn’t help but wonder if things might have been different, better for her, if he’d stayed. At least then she would have had someone to stand up for her. And he would have.

“But then Liz wouldn’t have stood up for herself.” He muttered to no one.

Michael flipped open the sketchbook finding he’d grabbed the he’d managed to take out maybe once a year, just for sentimental reasons. It was worn and the pages had yellowed with age and from the humid bayou air, but the drawings inside never lost their luster.

He should have thrown it out for the pain it caused him to look at it, but he needed to remember her face. Every page was filled with Liz’s face, as he remembered her, sad, but still with a little glimmer left in her eyes. She was all he could draw the first six months after he left. He had no photos of her, or any of the group, but she stood out in his mind so vividly that he had to preserve her on those pages with charcoal. It was no mystery to as to why. Michael missed the hell out of Liz.

But one morning, after Michael had first arrived in New Orleans, he drew his final sketch of the girl who haunted his heart. He realized that he’d never truly begin his new life if he couldn’t let go of his old one. He’d never forget Liz; she was permanently etched on his heart and he didn’t need a drawing to see her.

Michael ran a finger over the lines of the final sketch. It was Liz, the last night he saw her. Her hair was hanging loosely over her shoulders and her tiny body was wrapped in that worn out robe. Her arms were wrapped her waist looking as if she wanted to disappear inside herself. Her dark eyes were glistening with tears, for him, and her lips… those lips, swollen with their kiss.
The kiss. The one he could still taste, and feel the softness of her lips against his, five years later, even stronger now that Liz was there. They hadn’t talked about it last night and in a way Michael was glad. When he’d kissed Liz that night he’d thought it was goodbye, but instead it woke something up in him. He crossed the lines of friendship in so many ways with that kiss, but he would never have taken it back, because it was then he realized he loved her.

Somewhere between the day she was shot in the Crashdown to that night on the porch, Michael had fallen in love with Liz. What Michael didn’t realize until that kiss, was that Liz, or at least a part of her, loved him back.

Michael had told himself that it was just going to be one kiss, one less regret, a need to taste what he could never, in is mind, have. But then she had to go return the kiss. Liz loved him. She couldn’t say it, but did he ever feel it.

Michael knew then, it wouldn’t be the last time he saw Liz. It’s why he asked her to look for him when she found her feet, to “Find Ulysses.” He wanted her to know that when she did leave Max, that she wouldn’t be alone and that someone out there would be waiting for the woman she could become, once she found her strength.

It had taken five long years, but here she was, back in Michael’s life, filling a void he hadn’t realized existed until he held her in his arms again. But she also wasn’t the same woman he imagined she could become. God, she was so much better. Stronger, happier, despite the pain, and most importantly, free.

Michael never forgot he loved her, he just set it aside to live his own life, but it slammed into him full force, the second he saw her reflection in the bar’s mirror, how much he wanted her in his life. But he also knew it was way too soon to even consider pursuing anything but a friendship with Liz at this point. Michael was still very guarded about giving away his heart, despite the ever-increasing hold Liz’s mere presence, had on it. He’d waited five years he could wait longer.

Liz was still discovering who she was without Max. Not to mention the fact that she was still married to him. It might have been in name only, but married was married. The way she talked about Max the night before, he saw there was no love left for her husband, but for some reason Liz wasn’t ready to cut that final thread that tied her to Max. Michael knew it was because she was scared, not necessarily of Max, but of letting go of the very thing she gave up her “normal” life for.

Michael knew Liz, even after the years apart. She still had the same doubts she told him about when the two of them would sit on the roof of the house they’d all shared. If her marriage to Max failed, was it worth everything she sacrificed? Alex? Never seeing her parents? Never being able to go home? Giving up her education? It couldn’t have all been for nothing. Michael knew then that was what was holding her marriage together with a man she was falling out of love with, but was so proud of her for leaving despite those same questions.
Michael also had questions he knew Liz couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer for him. He needed to talk to someone who was there during the years he’d missed, someone who was inside the group, but outside Max and Liz’s relationship. And he knew there was only one person who fit that description.

He quickly finished his coffee, already having forgone his ritual of painting that morning, and went back into the apartment. He knew Liz was the only one who would have the phone number he needed, but she was still sleeping and he didn’t exactly want her to know whom he was calling. Not yet anyway.

Michael knew that Liz kept her address book in her purse and the last place he’d seen that was on the armchair in her room. This was going to require covert actions, and he was a little out of practice. But it was like riding a bike, right? God, he hoped so.

Trying to be as stealthy as possible, Michael carefully opened Liz’s door. Cursing under his breath at the creaking the hinges made. Looking across the room he spotted her purse on the armchair and slipped into the room, absently letting his eyes fall to a slumbering Liz. Maybe those teachers in elementary school were right; if you keep staring straight ahead, you’ll be less distracted. And Liz made for quite a distraction, as Michael’s breath caught at the simple glimpse of her sleeping peacefully.

She laid on her stomach, obviously naked, the olive skin of her bare back bathing in the morning sun, and the sheets gathered at her waist. Her impossibly long hair spilled all around her, wisps of it floating in the gentle breeze of her bedside fan. Michael could just make out the curve of the underside of one breast when he forced himself to close her eyes, though it did little good. His artists mind had already imprinted her every line, curve, and dip into the forbidden, onto his brain.

Michael forgot the universal truth when it came to sleeping in bayou country. No one wore pajamas to bed, especially in the summer. Hell, he didn’t either. It was far too muggy and sticky for anything aside from a sheet. He just hadn’t counted on seeing so much of Liz’s body when he walked in or he might have just saved his phone call for later.

But it was too late now; he was already in the room and more than obviously affected by seeing so much of Liz’s skin. He could have dismissed his physical reaction as a result of his self-imposed celibacy, but he wouldn’t cheapen her beauty like that. Liz was just that simply beautiful and he’d have to be stone cold dead, not to be affected by her.

Michael’s eyes flew open when Liz began to shift and mumble incoherently, as she sensed another presence in the room. Remembering why he was there, Michael grabbed Liz’s purse and darted out of the room before she could turn over.

Once he’d shut the door, Michael leaned his forehead against it, hearing Liz settle back into sleep. While his hormone driven body was chastising him for not at least getting a glimpse of the full body Liz, he knew by his suddenly labored breathing, that it might have been too much for him.

“That was dangerous.” He whispered, shaking his head.
Yeah, Michael Joyce’s life was considerably different than Michael’s Guerin’s, when the biggest danger in Joyce’s life was a naked Liz…Jeffries.

Removing himself from the temptation Ms. Jeffries unwittingly provided, Michael settled himself in the kitchen, pulling out the red address book from the purse. As he opened it to the name he sought a sudden fear gripped at Michael. It had been five years since they’d heard anything from him and he was just calling out of the clear blue sky? Would they even want to talk to him? What was he thinking?

Just as Michael was talking himself out of making the call, a picture tucked into the book fell into his hands. He held it up, immediately captured by the utterly charming little girl staring back at him. Isabel must have sent it to Liz at her last stop. He flipped the photo over and read the writing on the back:

Alexis Michaela James: Age 2

Auntie Liz,
We miss you.
Kyle, Isabel and Alexis





Michael trepidation was still there, but even in just a picture Alexis had already wrapped her Uncle Michael around her dainty pinky. If only for that little sprite, Michael could stop being afraid of his past and those he left behind. He picked up the phone, dialing the number and unconsciously holding his breath.

After two rings, Michael glanced up at the clock, admonishing himself. They were at least an hour behind him and he was probably going to wake them up. He was about to hang up the when a chipper little voice answered the phone.

“Hi!” the child said, “Whatcha want?”

Michael’s eyes widened and a smile crept on his face as he realized who he was talking to, ‘Uh…Alexis. Is your mommy or daddy around?”

“Mommy workin’. Daddy’s watchin’ cartoons wit me.” The little girl replied.

“Lexi…” Michael heard Kyle grumble in the background, “Give Daddy the phone.”

“No Daddy. I talkin’.” Alexis said obstinately, before turning her attention back to her caller, “Who dis?” Definitely Isabel’s daughter
“Um… my name is Mich…” he paused, grinning, “This is your Uncle Grumpy.” He took the phone away from his ear at the child’s high-pitched squeal.

“When you come see me?” Alexis asked her uncle when he managed to put his ear back to the phone. He could hear Kyle in the background demanding the phone from his precocious child.

“Sorry, Alexis. I just don’t know.” Michael answered her honestly.

“Alexis James!” Kyle raised his voice, before giving her a surrendering sigh, “At least tell Daddy who it is.”

Michael chuckled as he heard Alexis growl in annoyance and he could practically see her rolling her eyes dismissively, just like Isabel, “It’s Unca Grumpy, Daddy. You go back to Scooby.”

Michael heard a “Holy. Fuck." from Kyle and a sudden tussle for the phone.

“That really you Guerin?” Kyle asked, his shock obvious.

Michael was about to answer when he hear Alexis giggling in the background, chanting, Fuck, fuck, fuck. fuck, fuck...” to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

“Lexi. No.” Kyle scolded her half-heartedly, “Daddy shouldn’t have said that. Please stop.”

Michael nearly fell off the chair when Lexi began to sing louder and as Kyle tried to stop his daughter’s bout with cursing.

“Baby girl.” Kyle pleaded with his daughter, “If you love your Daddy at all, you’ll stop. Or Mommy will cut off Daddy’s… well you won’t be getting a brother or sister, even if you ask Santa.”

Alexis stopped her blue tune immediately, “Kay, Daddy. Gonna watch Scooby. Bye Unca Grumpy!” Michael could hear here skipping away singing, “Daddy said a bad wo-rd.”

“I am such a dead man.” Kyle sighed into the phone, before perking up, “So. Michael. You don’t call. You don’t write. How the hell are ya? Where the hell are you? And most importantly…How’s Liz?”

Michael was a little thrown, but hearing no malice in Kyle’s voice he fell in step, “Phone calls are overrated and expensive. I hate writing my name, let alone a letter. I’m okay and in New Orleans. And Liz is sleeping, but how the hell did you know she was here?”

“Deduction, my wayward friend. I was raised by a sheriff you know?” Kyle quipped, “First, the only possible way you could know that Lexi calls you ‘Uncle Grumpy’, was if Liz told you and I just have a gut feeling Liz wouldn’t just call you. Second, I knew once Liz found your invisible ass; you’d call wanting the full skinny on the past five years. Or am I wrong?”

“You’re not wrong.” Michael admitted.

“The third reason, “Kyle offered, “Is that out of all of us, I think Liz missed you the most. Or at least it became pretty damn obvious to those of us who were not Max.”

“What are you talking about? You know cryptic always annoyed me, Kyle.” Michael grumbled, trying to hide his curiosity

Kyle chuckled, “Okay. Okay. Well, the first clue was the day she went into town, shopping with Isabel, and came back with just about every Metallica album ever made. Liz Parker… Phillips…. Whatever, never gave Metallica a second listen until you left.”

Michael scratched his eyebrow; “I used to play them in the garage in the morning when I worked on the Nova, or in my room after work…”

“Yeah, well thanks a ton, because until Isabel and I got our own place we were rudely awakened every morning by Master of Puppets. When Max asked her to quit it she switched to Unforgiven. My particular favorite,” Kyle snickered, “was when she was pissed at Max, which was more often towards the end, she’d play King Nothing.”

Michael laughed loudly, clamping his hand over his mouth so as not to wake Liz, “I used to do that when Max pissed me off, and that was all the time.” He shook his head, “I still can’t believe she got into Metallica.

“Believe it, Michael.” Kyle said emphatically, “Don’t believe me? Play some when she gets up. The woman knows every damn one of those songs by heart. And Liz mouthing the words to Whiskey In the Jar, is an experience not to be forgotten.”

“I’ll have to try that.” Michael said with an amused chuckle. “Not that a change in music taste proves anything, but what else?” he asked unable to hide his curiosity.

“Let’s see, there was the denim jacket, that you left behind. If she still has it, the thing is about ten sizes too big for her, because lets face it Michael, you’re a friggin’ giant compared to her, but it was practically the only coat she’d ever wear.”

“I wondered where that was.” Michael mused, wondering if Liz really did still have it with her. The thought alone of her scent mixing with his on the fabric nearly gave him goose bumps.

“I remember we were going out one night, I think it was when Isabel and I got engaged and Max shrunk the coat to fit her when she went to put it on.” Kyle half chuckled, “Dude, I have never seen Liz get that angry. Pure fury, man. We’re talking beyond a Maria-sized tantrum. She demanded he restore it, which he did, because he valued his own life, and I believe he slept on the couch for a couple nights after that.”

“Okay,” Michael said, trying not to sound amused, “I get it. She missed me.”

“To say the least.” Kyle said in mock exhaustion, “So, did you take on any Parker-esque traits when you left?” he teased.

Michael rolled his eyes, deciding against telling Kyle about his propensity to sit out on the balcony of his apartment and the reason he bought the particular building in the first pace was for the balcony, “Uh yeah, I grew my hair down to my ass and I’ve started listening to chick rock.” He joked, “I’ve also taken an interest in molecular biology. I’m getting my doctorate some time next to never.”

Kyle knew Michael was covering any hidden truths with humor and also knew not to press, so he changed the subject, “So…Liz is sleeping huh?” he asked playfully, “Wear her out did ya?”

“Shut up Valen…I mean James. She walked into my bar late last night and we caught up a little. She’s staying in my guest bedroom.” Michael tossed back.

“For now.” Kyle coughed, and then quickly moved on before Michael could say anything, “You. Owning a bar? Wonder what Dr, Freud would have to say about?”

“He’d say I’m good with drunks.” Michael joked, then chuckled, “So you and Isabel huh?”

“Yeah.” Kyle said in a mock sheepish tone, “Finally gave into her incessant come-ons.”

“More like the other way around, Cowboy.” Michael returned.

Kyle laughed, “Okay so you’re right. Glad she did though, now I’ve got two girls attached to my name… well my dad’s… but you know what I mean?”

“Yeah. Uh…Lexi’s beautiful, man. Liz showed me a couple pictures. But I still can’t believe you’re a dad.” Michael said, amused.

“Me either.” Kyle laughed, “The fact that I’m responsible for another life is completely ridiculous. But God I love it.” He paused for a moment, “So, do you still go by Hetfield, or have you moved on to Ulrich, Hammet or maybe another band all together?”

“Joyce.” Michael provided.

“Joyce?” Kyle said in comical confusion, “Okay Miss, you win the prize for Most Changed. Geez, I’ve heard of going undercover Michael, but don’t you think that was taking it a bit too far?”

“Michael Joyce you idiot.” Michael snickered, “After James Joyce…the author.” He was met with silence, “ Ulysses.”

Kyle snapped his fingers, “So that’s what that meant?”

“What are you talking about?” Michael asked.

Kyle sighed dramatically, “Well, since you’ve decided on popping out of the woodwork and all I might as well tell you the fourth reason I knew Liz was with you.”

“Please. Enlighten me.” Michael said, waiting for another round of Kyle’s playful sarcasm.

“Because Liz wasn’t the only one who saw you leave that night. I was coming back from Isabel’s room, nothing happened by the way, just talking. If you remember right, my bedroom window faced the driveway.”

“Oh.” Was all Michael could say realizing what Kyle had seen.

“Yeah. Oh.” Kyle replied, knowing he and Michael were on the same page, “I saw that kiss, Michael. Now, you know I’ve never bullshitted you. I think that’s why we got along so well. So, I gotta tell you what I saw between you and Liz that night sure as hell wasn’t, ‘Goodbye’. That was ‘I love you’, whether you want to admit it or not. Or am I wrong?”

This time Michael sighed, he never could bullshit Kyle, “You are definitely not wrong.”

~*~

TBC…


posted on 1-Dec-2002 2:34:15 AM
:lol Thanks for the great feedback guys. Can you tell I have a toddler of my own. Lexi's little sing a long was based on a true event involving my husband and our three year old son.

Here's the next chapter. *happy*

Chapter 5

“Wow,” Kyle said, in mild shock at the ease in which Michael had just admitted he was in love with Liz, “Time has really mellowed the perpetual grump, or at least eroded the chip on your shoulder. There’s no way you would have admitted that five years ago.”

“True.” Michael sighed, “Stonewalls crumble over time Kyle, and besides, like you said we’ve never bullshitted each other before. And Liz is here…somewhat free…” he trailed off, “Shit man, I don’t know.”

“Just give it time, Michael. From where I was standing the night you left, Liz was on the same page with you. I guess she has been since that night. Think about it; why would she be there if she wasn’t feeling something too?”

Michael thought for a moment, his ever-present self doubt creeping in, “Protection?” he offered, “Max is still looking for her…”

“No way, Paul Bunyan.” Kyle admonished, “Don’t do that.”

“Do what?” Michael asked in confusion.

“This whole, ‘I’m Not Good Enough For Liz” routine. You are and you always have been. Don’t put her on that pedestal like Max did. You’re better than that.” Kyle argued, “The only thing that’s gonna keep you from pursing anything with Liz is your own damn paranoia about Max. Liz left Max for a reason. Even if he did find her, no amount of sunshine and false promises he’d manage to blow up her ass would get her to go back with him. She doesn’t want the life Max has planned for them. The fact that she’s with you now, should give you some clue.”

“Geez, Midget, tell me how you really feel” Michael joked, but knew Kyle spoke the truth, “I mean, don’t hold back or anything.”

“Well, ya piece a shit,” Kyle said exasperated, “I’ve been holding this in since Liz left. Buddha teaches us to channel our energy and I’m channeling through all that damn hair of yours and into that puny brain.”

Michael knew everything Kyle was saying was true. They’d always been straight with each other. It was one of the things Michael missed about his friendship with Kyle the most. But he also knew that only Liz could really bring Kyle’s point home.

“So,” Michael said changing the subject, “You have to tell me something.”

“I’ll try Segue Boy” Kyle said chuckling at Michael’s lack of subtlety.

Michael scratched his eyebrow, “I understand why you would help Liz leave Max, but Isabel? She’s always been fiercely loyal to Max. She had to know how much it would hurt him.”
Kyle sighed, “She did, but a lot of things changed over the years. The main reason? Alexis.”

“That’s why Liz told me she left.” Michael whispered, almost to himself.

“You’ve gotta understand that Liz and Isabel always got along, but were never really close.” Kyle explained.

“Well, yeah. Liz always had Maria…” Michael agreed.

“And you.” Kyle interrupted, “Even after you left Liz and Isabel didn’t really gravitate towards the other. They were both hurting in their own ways over you leaving. Isabel, because she just lost one of her brothers, and Liz, well, that’s more complicated isn’t it?”

Michael nodded over the phone, letting his silence speak for him. He knew his leaving had hurt Isabel, but hearing about it brought it home. He didn’t regret leaving, but he did regret the tears shed over his departure.

Kyle continued, “It wasn’t until Isabel got pregnant with Lexi that she and Liz really connect. When Is and I told Max about the baby, he was…”

“Furious.” Michael provided, “Liz told me. Heard you got less than Zen-like on his ass.”

Kyle chuckled at the memory, “Not one of my prouder moments, but I think even Buddha himself would’ve decked his royal ass if he’d heard some of the things he’d said.”

“Someday you or Liz will have to tell me what he said.” Michael said.

“Will do. Maybe after Lexi’s graduated from college. I should be over it by then.” Kyle said through his teeth, “ Anyway, Isabel, and more importantly Max, was more than a little surprised that Liz was her strongest defender. He expected her to stand with him, and she didn’t. From that moment on, Liz and Isabel were tight. Liz even delivered Lexi. Thank god, because Max and I were nervous wrecks.”

“Wow.” Was all Michael could say. It didn’t surprise him that Liz had been the one to bring Lexi into the world. She could always keep a cool head in the most chaotic of situations, but the mental picture he had awed him.

“Yeah.” Kyle continued, “After that Isabel, Lexi and Liz were inseparable. So, that much time together gave Isabel a whole new perspective on her brother’s marriage, Liz’s. Is knew things were rocky and it hardly escaped her notice that her sister-in-law had taken on decidedly Michael-like quirks, but it was like the blinders were off. She saw how unhappy Liz was.

“See, the other thing is, that parenthood changes everything. Your perspective on life, yourself, and others around you is totally changed by this one little person. You become more focused, clear, and suddenly what goes on around you, is all about how it affects your child.
“When Max started in on Liz her about having a baby of their own, Liz started shutting down. The only time she’d really come to life was when she was just with Lexi, Is and I. Isabel couldn’t ignore that. Liz was withering away inside and Max was trying to use a baby as some sort of magic glue that would hold their relationship together. Not exactly a reason, in anyone’s mind to have a baby.”

“So what was the last straw, for Isabel?” Michael asked, entranced by Kyle’s story, and filled with pride that his sister finally opened her eyes when it came to Max.

Kyle sighed heavily, debating on whether to pass the next bit of information on, knowing it might anger Michael the most, but he needed to know, regardless of whether or not Liz had told him, “Liz came over for breakfast one morning after Lexi’s first birthday party…and she had very distinct hand shaped bruises on her upper arms. She finally took herself off autopilot, broke down and told us what happened. Of course it had been Max, trying to get his point across, too roughly.”

Michael clenched his jaw at the mental image of Max yanking Liz from the couch and shaking her violently, “I know.” He growled, “She told me.”

Kyle sighed in relief. He could hear Michael’s anger, but was glad that Liz had been able to at least tell him, “So then you know there was no way in hell Liz could stay. Isabel and I knew we’d all miss her, but how could we not help her? Liz was dying right in front of us and Max wanted to have a baby? No amount of sibling loyalty to her brother would have stopped Isabel from helping her.”

“I’m just glad she did.” Michael said gratefully.

“Me too.” Kyle replied, “So, Liz calls us when he settles somewhere and we send her pictures of Lexi. We miss like crazy, but she’s better off out there, than here with Max. And I know Is will feel a million times better knowing she’s with you.”

“And Max?” Michael asked the obligatory question.

“I think we both know Max won’t give up. He still believes that they can work things out, because he wants them to. It’s a fruitless effort to try and convince him otherwise.” Kyle said in an exhausted tone.

Michael knew that was the truth, but surely it would take something, “Not even a divorce?” he asked.

“Guess we won’t know until Liz files will we?” Kyle countered.

“She will.” Michael said confidently, although unsure at the moment where the certainty came from.

Kyle laughed softly, “Sound pretty sure of that, Michael. You know something we don’t?”

“She doesn’t love him, Kyle.” Michael said, finding his answer. He’d seen it last night, heard it in her voice when she talked about him. All that was left with Max was pain.
“Yeah…. She loves you.” Kyle told him bluntly.

Michael coughed reflexively at Kyle’s words. It was one thing to entertain the idea of Liz loving him, but to have someone else point it out was another and he suddenly felt uncomfortable, “I…uhh… think I better go, Kyle.”

Kyle laughed, “Sure. Run away from love, Guerin…Joyce…whoever.”

Michael felt a low growl rise from his throat, “ She ran into me.”He said without thought.

“Um, yeah Michael, you might want to ponder that one.” Kyle returned, “Liz could have cut all her ties to us. She could have made a clean break like Maria…and you, but she didn’t. Liz went out into the world to rediscover who she was and somehow ended up on your doorstep. I hardly call that a coincidence.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Michael rolled his eyes, “Karmic direction. I know.”

“Hey, do not mock, my friend.” Kyle argued, “The universe has a plan, whether you like it or not. Liz is with you for a reason. Your job is to figure out what it is, and accept it.”

Michael growled again, hating to admit that Kyle had once again pegged his situation with an eerie pin point accuracy, “Look, I really should get going, before Liz wakes up and finds out I stole her address book.”

Kyle laughed heartily, “What? Old habits die hard?”

“I guess so.” Michael joined in Kyle’s reverie, and then sighed, “I just wanted you guys to know that Liz and I are okay,”

“Or you will be.” Kyle added.

“Don’t push it, Hobbit.” Michael warned.

“No need to get mean, Jolly Green Giant.” Kyle joked, “ Just try to call soon okay? I know my wife will want to talk to you, scream at you…whatever. We all miss you. I think even Max does.”

“I will.” Michael said, easily making the promise as he held Lexi’s photo in his hand, “Hey, put Lexi back on the phone.”

“Sure.” Kyle said setting the phone down and called out to his daughter.

Michael heard the little girl come bounding into the room, roughing picking up the phone, “Whatcha want Unca Grumpy?”

“I…uh… just wanted to say goodbye and tell you to listen to your daddy. He can’t help it if he’s goofy looking’, but he usually knows what he’s talking about.” Michael told her.

Lexi giggled, “Mommy say dat too.”

Michael snickered, ‘Well, your mommy always has been a smart lady, but don’t go telling’ her that. Wouldn’t want her to get a big head.”

Lexi giggled even harder, “”Dat what Daddy say.”

Michael held his sides, the little girl's angelic laughter so very contagious. “Maybe you, Mommy and Daddy can come visit me soon.”

“And Auntie Liz?” Lexi pressed.

Michael was a little taken aback that she knew about Liz being with him, but then again he was discovering what an exceptional child Alexis James was, “Um… Yeah… Aunt Liz too. Uh… Lex? You might not want to mention me or your Auntie Liz to Uncle Max.”

“Oh I know.” Lexi said matter-of-factly, “I keep secret.”

“Good.” Michael breathed, thinking to himself that this little girl would have to get used to keeping more than a few secrets over her lifetime. He just wished she didn’t have to do it at such a young age.

“Unca Grumpy? Will you give Auntie Liz a kiss for me?” she asked sweetly.

Michael’s eyes widened at Lexi’s request and could distinctly hear Kyle laughing heartily in the background, “Uh… sure thing, Lex.” He sheepishly answered.

Lexi found her father’s laughter contagious, “Daddy’s weird.” She commented.

“He’s always been that way, kiddo.” Michael informed her.

“Okay. Bye Unca Grumpy.” Lexi sang, “I wuv you.”

Michael felt a lump form in his throat, but managed to get some words past it, “Love you too Lexi.” His voice cracked with emotion, “Bye.”

He hung up the phone, staring down at Lexi’s picture, the image blurring with the tears that stung his eyes.

“So how is the little munchkin? Liz asked quietly.
Michael’s head shot up, seeing her standing in the kitchen’s entryway. Her was pulled up loosely in a messy bun and an oversized hockey jersey that ended just above her knee, swallowed her lithe form.

He quickly wiped the tears away trying to pass them off with yawn, “She’s… amazing.” He said with a proud grin.

His eyes widened as he realized he’d been caught red-handed with Liz’s purse and address book, “Uh…damn… Liz I’m sorry… I just wanted them to know…” he stammered.

Liz held her hand up, smiling, “It’s okay. I was going to call them this morning anyway and Lexi is pretty hard to resist.” She said, gesturing at the photo clutched between Michael’s long fingers. She shrugged her shoulders absently, “Besides, I’m sorta used to you stealing my stuff. Journal. Address book… can’t really hide anything from you.”

Michael gave her a sheepish grin, acknowledging the accuracy of her statement, and then rose off the barstool, “I talked to Kyle. Isabel was at work.”

“How’d that go?” Liz asked making her way over to a cupboard in search of a coffee mug.

Michael let her search, knowing if she was going to make her home with him, she’d want to find tings for herself, “Well, once he got Lexi to stop swearing? It went fine. He’s still…Kyle.”

Liz laughed, knowing Kyle’s propensity for swearing in front of his impressionable young daughter. She found the coffee mugs, but groaned and stared up at them forlornly on the second shelf, forgetting she was living with a giant.

Michael smirked at her, the reached up pulling a mug down for her, fixing it the way she liked; cream, no sugar. “I’ll move those down. Forgot what it was like living with a little person.”

Liz punched his arm playfully, and accepted the coffee. Michael rubbed his arm, disappearing into the living room for a moment, making a b-line for the stereo. He had a little experiment he wanted to try; as a result of something Kyle had told him about his new roomie.

“Since when did you get into hockey?” he called out, finding the cd he needed.

Liz looked down at her morning attire, realizing she’d been caught, “Someone had to pick up the slack after you left or hockey would have fallen by the wayside at the house.” She told him, “Besides, it’s kinda therapeutic. The body checks, fights and the occasional game breaking out.”

Michael chuckled, trying to picture Liz watching a hockey game with same amount of fervor he did. He pressed play on the stereo and walked back into the kitchen to join Liz. He was more than amused to find she’d absently began bobbing her head to the beat of the song, mouthing the words to Metallica cover of Whiskey In The Jar..

“I’ll be damned.” Michael mumbled under his breath. Kyle was right. But he forgot to mention how sexy it was. Or maybe he was counting it. Impish bastard.

Amused, Michael sat next to Liz arching an eyebrow at her. He watched her mouth another verse to the song, before becoming aware of Michael’s scrutiny. She looked up at him, blushing slightly.

“Metallica huh? He asked, taking another sip from his coffee.

Liz straightened up in her chair, taking on an air of feigned indignance, “Well, I heard them enough when we all lived together. I saw the light. If you can get into Billie Holliday and Miles Davis, I can certainly find the brilliance that is metal. It’s called evolving.”

“Fair enough.” Michael nodded, “And I sure as hell won’t complain. Although, some might consider your new taste in music a step down.”

Liz shook her head, rolling her eyes, “Yeah, well one can only take so much Moby and Counting Crows before one’s head feels it’s about to explode.”

Michael chuckled, “No argument here.” Guessing that when Liz and Max had gotten married, Max had expected her to adopt all things his.

He could sense any talk of Max wouldn’t be the best way to start the morning, so he changed the subject, “Did you sleep okay?”

Liz nodded emphatically, “Better than I have since you… um, better than I have in a long time. It’s a really comfortable bed and the fan helped.”

“Good.” Michael said trying to ignore Liz’s slip of the tongue. Better than she had since he’d left. Her mention of the fan brought back the imprinted image of the smooth skin of her back and her dark hair spilling everywhere, “Uh…” his voice cracked, “Because the heat can be hard to get used to.”

“I barely noticed.” She reassured him. It was true.

She’d never felt more at home anywhere and not even the heat of Death Valley could have kept her awake. Not to mention the dreams that danced through her mind that night, which sent an involuntary blush to her cheeks. She decided to avoid telling Michael that when she’d awakened that morning, she felt a great disappointment that the breeze on her back was the electric fan on her dresser and not his breath seducing her.

“I’m not interrupting your morning routine am I?” she asked, needing to get her mind off of anything related to bedrooms and Michael being in them. Too tempting.
Michael shook his head, “Nah. I mean normally I’d be painting, but that hasn’t been happening for the last week. Stuck I guess.”

“Why?” Liz asked, genuinely curious as to what would cause Michael’s creative flowed to be interrupted.

Michael shrugged his shoulders, “Don’t know. Uninspired, I think.” He sighed, “In any case, Miriam won’t be happy.”

“Miriam?” Liz asked in confusion, feeling a sudden twinge of jealousy. Sure, Michael had told her they hadn’t been anyone in more than five years, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t seeing someone. Taking things slow. But why wouldn’t he have mentioned her.

Michael couldn’t help the amused smirk that came over his face at the flicker of jealousy her heard in Liz’s voice and flashed in her eyes. Maybe Kyle wasn’t so far off the mark. Even if she didn’t love him, at the very least she didn’t like the idea of him with another woman.

“Miriam, is the gallery owner who sells my paintings for me.” He supplied, “She’s one of Sweet’s ‘friends.”

“Oh.” Liz said, slightly embarrassed, but unable to hide her relief, “But I saw all those paintings in your studio. Don’t you have enough for the show?”

“Yeah.” Michael agreed, “But the show is in a month and I promised Miriam something different.”

“And nothing’s coming?” Liz asked.

Michael shook his head, “She won’t be epically pissed or anything. She’ll take what I have, and they’ll sell, but she wants me to… ‘expand my horizons’.”

Liz sipped her coffee, mulling over what Michael had told her. Michael nearly laughed, Liz ever the problem solver. Liz knew not everything in the world could be fixed, but it never hurt to try.

“Well, it’s obvious to me, from those paintings, that you love New Orleans. You paint her as you see her, like a lady. You have, or at least had, a passion for her.” She observed.

“Once Sweet taught me how to see her, I just took off.” Michael agreed.

Liz set down her mug to face him, “Maybe you just need to find something else that you’re passionate about and paint that. What else do you love?”

Michael swallowed his coffee in a hard gulp, “ Now that’s a loaded question.” he thought to himself. Hell, he was staring right at it. But there was no way he could admit that to her. Not yet. Things were too tenuous and Michael hated to admit it but he needed a sure thing, especially if he was going to lay his heart on the line for her.

But there was no reason he couldn’t at least test the waters, at least a little. He leaned in a little closer to Liz while she was taking a sip of her coffee, “I’ll let you know when I find it.” He whispered.

This time Liz swallowed hard and Michael missed how her eyes fluttered closed for a moment when his breath danced across her neck. She turned her head to meet his eyes, intent on breaking the moment of temptation, only to be met with more. How could she keep her promise to try and discover or rediscover who Michael is, was, had become, when all she could see was his face so close, those darkened amber eyes, and those full inviting lips. God, those sinful lips that had awakened her to the possibility of freedom all those years ago, now mere inches from her own.


Hadn’t she been waiting for this moment since Michael left?

She had to look back at him. Damnit. She had to stare back up at him with those dark brown eyes that men lose their souls in. Temptation came in a variety of forms, just one never so tempting as the slightly parted lips of Liz, waiting, inviting and mere inches from his own.

Hadn’t he been waiting for this since the moment he’d left?

~*~

TBC….




[ edited 1 time(s), last at 1-Dec-2002 2:35:52 AM ]
posted on 3-Dec-2002 1:18:47 PM
Chapter 6


Michael and Liz sat at the kitchen island, their faces far too close for two people who claimed they were “just friends.” They were about to take a giant leap off that cliff into something they both so desperately wanted, but weren’t entirely sure they were ready for.

Salvation, and disappointment, came in the form of a gentle knocking at the front door. Michael’s eyes still held Liz’s their faces stopped, but not parting. After a more insistent knock, Michael smiled, “Sweet…” he whispered.

“What?” Liz asked dimly aware of the knocking, still entranced by Michael’s heated gaze and inviting lips. Sweet, yeah, she remembered Michael’s lips tasting surprisingly sweet…

Abruptly Michael pulled back and got off of his barstool, removing himself from the temptation Liz’s lips so effectively provided, and leaving her utterly confused, “Michael?”

“Uh…Another morning routine.” He explained, running an absent hand through his hair, “Sweet comes by around nine to harass me.”

“Oh… oh right.” Liz nodded her head; sure her cheeks had discovered an entirely new shade of red. She let out a shuddering breath as Michael walked out of the kitchen and to the door. “Not even twenty-four hours, Jeffries and you’re all ready to jump his bones… will power girl.” She muttered with a slight groan.

Since when do you knock, Old Man?” Michael asked Sweet as he opened the door.

Sweet smiled brightly as he stepped inside, “Since you got someone, doing a fair impression of a beautiful young lady, to stay the night, Son.” His eyes raked over Michael’s form and the state of his undress, no shirt and a pair of old sweats, “Not interrupting anything am I? I’m more than willing to forego our morning ritual, if you were getting a little fancy.”

“Fancy?” Michael chuckled, holding up his hand, “Liz and I are…uh… friends.” He insisted weakly.

Sweet shook his head as Michael closed the door, “You’ve been out of the game far too long, Michael. A perfectly stunning young woman like Liz, huggin’ you like she was last night…and you have no idea what to do with her?”

The two men stepped into the kitchen where Liz greeted them with a smile, “Cryin’ shame, Michael.” Sweet teased, before turning his attention to the exquisite brunette in front of him, “Good morning fair lady. Boss man here been humane to you at this hour?”

“Surprisingly, yes.” Liz answered, winking at Michael. Humane? Hell, she’d been about to let him be inhumane all over her body.
Michael pulled down a coffee mug for Sweet, handing the wise cracking old man his morning cup of joe. “Great.” He said in mock disdain, “Now I’m gonna have two of you busting my chops.”

“Someone has to keep you on Earth.” Liz quipped, earning a warning, but hardly threatening, glance from Michael. She quickly looked back over at Sweet and the paper bag clutched in his weathered hands, “Come bearing gifts, Sweet?” she asked.

“Breakfast.” He answered shaking the bag, “Will that do?”

He pulled out a still warm croissant; fresh from the bakery a few doors down, and waved it at Liz. Her eyes widened immediately and her stomach grumbled, reminding her it had been awhile since she’d eaten. She hoped down from the barstool and snatched the bag out of Sweet’s hands.

“I think I’ve just found my second husband.” Liz mused as she opened the bag and smelled the heavenly pastry.

Sweet chuckled, “Well that would make you Number Five, Liz. Maybe that’s my lucky number.”

Michael rolled his eyes at Sweet’s shameless flirting, “Uh, sorry, Pop, but she still has to divorce the first one.”

Michael’s own errant observation caused both he and Liz to freeze, and a sudden understanding passed between them. Michael hadn’t meant any malice by it, but it was the truth. And in that truth they’d both found the reason they weren’t ready to admit their feelings, give in to their desires, for one another. Liz had to cut that final thread with Max before either of them could allow anything to happen. Liz was freer, not free.

“D-Did everything get closed up okay last night?” Michael asked Sweet quickly, wanting to rid the room of the awkward silence that had settled in.

“No problems.” Sweet said, pretending he hadn’t noticed yet another secretive glance pass between the two young people in front of him, “But I did fax an order for some more Jack Daniels. That should be here in about an hour.”

Michael nodded, “I’ll take care of it. I need to show Liz around the bar anyway since she’s the new waitress.”

Sweet let out an exaggerated sigh of relief; “ Finally we’ll have some decent scenery ‘round the place. No offense, Son, but you don’t exactly make men’s hearts sing when they look at ya. Now Liz here…I definitely see an increase in business with her waiting tables.”

Michael furrowed his brow and folded his arms over his chest, “I take it back Liz, you can stay behind the bar…I’ll wait tables…
Liz laughed at Michael’s protective nature shining through, “I do know my way around bars, Michael…and it’s more rowdy patrons. How many did you and I work in before you left?”

“A few.” Michael grumbled, “And I do recall having to acquaint more than few ‘rowdy patrons’ with my fist on your behalf, Liz.”

“And it was always appreciated.” Liz said gripping his chin, squeezing his cheeks together comically. “Just promise me I won’t have to wear a uniform that was anything like the one I wore at that dive in Boulder…”

“Cheeky’s?” Michael laughed, raising an amused eyebrow, “I always had a great view.”

“I take it they left little to the imagination?” Sweet inquired.

“To say the least.” Liz rolled her eyes, “Think, normal sized women squeezed into Barbie sized clothes and then shrink it in the dryer.”

Michael tapped his chin with his finger in thought, “Remind me to order uniforms, Sweet…New look for the bar.”

Liz arched an eyebrow at Michael, “Fine, but you have to wear it too, Boss Man.”

“Oh no, Son.” Sweet said holding his hands up in protest, “I could go the rest of my life without that burned into my addled brain. Liz, baby, you wear what you want. No dress code at the bar.”

“Not even ‘No shirt. No shoes. No problem?’” Liz kidded.

“Yeah, like I’m gonna complain if you walk around without a shirt.” Michael teased back, and then looked down at himself; “In fact I’m following that particular dress code at the moment. Come on Liz. Apartment policy, effective immediately.”

“You wish.” Liz dismissed him with a wave, unable to hide the blush on her cheeks. She turned to Sweet for a distraction, “Now how is it that you have four ex-wives, Sweet?”

The elderly Lothario shook his head and placed his hand over his heart, “Alas Liz, I am a man with a great capacity for love in my heart. Every single one of my exes was beautiful, unique and I loved them completely. Not to mention all the near Mrs.”

“What Sweet’s not telling you, “Michael remarked dryly, “Is that he didn’t bother to stop loving Number One before falling for Number Two…Then Number Three… and…”

“Can’t help the way the good Lord made me, Michael.” Sweet sighed.
Liz giggled, “So is there a Number Five on the horizon?”

“Oh I’m sure out there somewhere is the greatest love of my life. Maybe that’s why my other marriages never worked. My true love still hasn’t found me.”

Michael watched Liz’s face fall and she took a deep breath, “Trust me, Sweet. While it’s a nice notion, I’m not sure there is such a thing as true love.”

“Ah now…” Sweet tutted her, “You sure it doesn’t exist? Or is that maybe you’ve yet to feel it or recognize it?”

Michael hung his head, knowing what Liz’s answer would be. She had known true love and it failed her. Max.

Liz thought for a moment, looking over at Michael and his undeniably defeated stance, “You know something Sweet?” she grinned, “You just might be right.”

Michael’s head shot up in astonishment. That certainly hadn’t been the answer he’d been expecting from her. Liz still had a bit of the romantic inside her. Perhaps Max hadn’t completely jaded her. Or maybe he’d jaded her just enough to be realistic. To know that love should exist without massive amounts of pain. Whatever it was she believed now, Michael saw her hope, and in that found he still had some hope of his own.

“So tell me Sweet,” Liz said, quickly changing the subject, “How did you and Michael meet?”

Michael’s eyes widened, “Uh…you don’t really want to know that do you?” he said nervously.

Sweet chuckled, “Oh come on, Michael. It’s not that embarrassing.”

“Now I definitely want to know.” Liz said, excitedly.

Michael was about to protest again when Liz stuffed a croissant in his mouth. He growled through the pastry, “Fine.” He said chewing, “Just keep in mind that I did a lot of stupid things for money.”

Liz mind went to places forbidden and she burst out laughing, “Oh Sweet, please tell me you met Michael at a male stripper review.”

Michael coughed, choking on his croissant at Liz’s notion, “In you dreams, Jeffries. I don’t dance. Period. Although, feel free to add that to your fantasy file.”

“No, Liz. I met Michael at a bar I used to work at on Bourbon Street.” Sweet provided, before Michael got himself in any more trouble. “Hard not to notice a kid in a jazz bar, sporting a Metallica T-shirt and a sketchpad. Not to mention what he was drawing…” He paused for a moment studying Liz, “Well I’ll be damned…”

Michael cleared his throat at Sweet and shook his head subtly. Sweet nodded and continued with his story.

“Things were pretty boring for yours truly. Wife number Four had walked out on my foolish hide a few moths earlier and I found comfort in the woes of my patrons. Not that I enjoyed them being down mind you. It just reminded me that there were people worse off than I was. You get a lot of perspective when you’re behind the bar instead staring at the bottom of the glass.

“Anyway, this bar I worked at had a gimmick. A contest, if you will. One thing you have to know about New Orleans, Liz, is that we love our food Satan hot and leaving us in pain. So this contest was five hundred dollars to anyone who could eat a pepper. Not just any peeper, but a Scotch Bonnet. You familiar with those?”

Liz nodded, “I think it’s used in Jamaican cooking. But isn’t that something like the hottest pepper in the world?”

“If not, “Sweet confirmed, “It should be. You can’t pick one up without wearing rubber gloves. So hot we had the paramedics take away some of the weaker fools. At any rate we had a crowd of dumbass and drunken college boys there one night, throwing around their testosterone trying to prove who was the alpha male by taking on the Scotch Bonnet challenge, all failing miserably.

“After about the fifth college boy ran out of the room sputtering and crying ‘bout the devil trying to burn him from the inside out with the pepper, I notice Michael shaking his head at them from his corner table. You know how quiet Michael can be, but when you to take notice you don’t forget.”

“He does make an impression.” Liz agreed. Michael blew out a puff of air, trying not to seem amused.

“Well, I wasn’t the only one who noticed Michael.” Sweet continued, “Those college boys saw him shaking his head and didn’t take kindly to that. No M’am, not at all.”

Liz groaned, “You didn’t get in a fight did you? Because you know you have this uncanny ability to mock…” she asked Michael.

“Shhh.” Michael said putting a finger to her lips, “Let Pop finish the story. Besides it can’t be helped if some people just beg to be mocked. A lot.”

“So,” Sweet pressed on, although enjoying the none-too-subtle flirting happening between Michael and Liz, “These boys called Michael over and challenged him…to eat the pepper. But just to make it more interesting, not only would he get the cash prize from the bar, but each of those boys put up a hundred dollars of their own beer money.”
Liz ran a had over her face, looking between her fingers at Michael, “You didn’t…”

Michael smirked, “Oh, but I did, Liz. I needed the money and I had a talent that needed to be exploited.” Liz widened her eyes a Michael and he laughed, “Don’t worry I told Sweet about my being born with uh… weird taste buds.”

Liz relaxed a bit and then smirked, “You know genetics is not talent, Michael.”

Michael shrugged his shoulders, “Got me a fifteen hundred bucks and a job.” He returned, quite satisfied wit the end result.

“That’s true enough, Sweet laughed, wiping his eyes, “You should have seen the looks on those college boy’s faces when Michael bit into one Scotch Bonnet, didn’t flinch and then proceeded to eat another one. Oh, the Lord was smiling down on Michael that day. Yes M’am.

“Now those boys were drunk, but honorable and they paid Michael every red cent. Afterwards, Michael and I got to talkin’, all night if I recall. We’d just lost a bartender, so we needed a new one. I needed someone somewhat interesting…”

“Michael does qualify as interesting.” Liz quipped, “Somewhat.”

Before Michael could retaliate, Sweet continued with his story, “So I gave him the job. I asked him about his art and while he was reluctant at first…well I can charm anyone, though Michael was definitely more difficult.”

“Don’t even think about it, Liz.” Michael warned as he saw her smirk and open her mouth to comment.

Sweet laughed at Liz’s pout and pressed on, “Michael finally showed me his sketchbook and I was immediately struck. The boy had the most stunning portraits I’d ever seen. The emotion. The little details…” He looked at Liz then up at Michael winking, “Just stunning. Then he showed me some of the newer ones he’s been working on. They were different places around New Orleans. They were rough, but they had potential. Just needed the right eye. He needed to really see the beauty of the city and capture it, like he did in his sketches of y…”

Sweet’s last word was cut off quickly when Michael coughed purposely. The old man realized what he’d almost said and gave Michael an apologetic look, “Well, like in his portraits.” He covered, “ So the next day I took Michael out and showed him my lady, New Orleans.”

“Never seen her the same way since.” Michael told Liz.

“Any chance I could get that tour?” Liz asked Sweet.

“Exactly what I had in mind, lady fair. Go get dressed and I’ll introduce you to Her.”
Liz’s eyes lit up with excitement and she looked to Michael, making sure he didn’t need her at the bar immediately, “Yeah. Go on” he told her, like he could have said no if he wanted to, “I just need you back here by five.”

Liz’s excitement faded a bit, “Oh. You aren’t coming with us?”

Michael shook his head, “Got a bar to run. You remember what it was like running your own business.” He said with a wink. Liz grew up in her parent’s café. She knew how to run a business better than anyone. “I’ll see ya when you get back. I swear you’ll be a different person.”

“Is that what it did for you?” Liz asked, having no doubt that Michael’s love affair with New Orleans and the way Sweet had taught him to see Her had turned Michael into the man he was today.

“Among other things.” He told her holding Liz’s eyes with his own, leaving little doubt that she, even in her absence from his life, had been a part of it too.

They were reminded of Sweet’s presence in the room when he cleared his throat and encouraged Liz to get ready, “Well… go on girl. Scoot! New Orleans waits for no man…. and especially no woman. She’s a beauty, but She gets jealous.”

Liz nodded and disappeared into her bedroom. Sweet turned to Michael, finding his young friend’s eyes on Liz’s door, “I can’t believe I didn’t recognize her last night.” Sweet admonished himself. The sketches. I mean you hardly forget a face like that.”

“Yeah.” Michael said in a slightly defeated sigh, “You hardly do.” He snapped out of his wistful tone and scratched at his eyebrow, “Just. Uh, do me a favor and don’t tell her about those sketches you saw when we met. I’m, not sure I’m ready for her to…”

Sweet held up his hand and nodded, “I understand, Michael.” His voice was gentle and fatherly; “I’m beginning to understand a lot of things with Liz in the picture.”

~*~

Sweet and Liz spent the whole day together and she easily began to see New Orleans through the old man’s eyes. Her moods, Her unending beauty, and Her overwhelming charm.

“How can you not fall in love with Her after seeing Her through your eyes?” Liz thanked him as they sat at a sidewalk café sipping afternoon tea.

Sweet chuckled at her excitement, thinking the same thing about Liz through Michael’s eyes, through those sketches. Her moods, her unending beauty, and her overwhelming charm. Although it had been four years since he’d seen those pictures Michael drew, Sweet now marveled at how he’d captured all of Liz. But there was one thing the live model lacked now, that every one of those sketches held in some way.

“Sadness…” Sweet whispered.

“Pardon?” Liz asked, not having heard his utterance.

“Oh sorry Liz,” Sweet began to explain, “But being an old barman I don’t just notice things about my city, but Her people too.”

“And you notice something about me?” she asked intrigued, “Should I be worried?”

Sweet chuckled “Don’t worry. I’m honest, but I’m kind.”

Liz nodded, “I think that’s why Michael likes you so much, your honesty. Michael never liked…”

“To beat around the bush?” Sweet finished, “Yeah, I kinda figured that the minute I met him.”

“So, what is it you ‘notice’ about me?” Liz asked, a little less fearful of what Sweet might have observed about her. He was such a charming and disarming man; it was easy to let your guard down around him.

Sweet studied Liz for a moment, although he really didn’t need to. The whole day spent with her had given him quite a glimpse into this remarkable young woman and namely, why it was Michael was so very much in love with her. “I get the sense that you used to be a lot sadder than you are now.”

Liz worried her lip a bit, but nodded, “Yeah.”

“And I sense that Michael has played a big part in your return to happiness… as well as the lingering sadness. How am I doin’?” sweet observed.

“Too well.” Liz said with a nervous laugh.

“I’m sorry Darlin’.” Sweet apologized regretting any discomfort he’d brought to her with his observations, “Reading people is a gift. Not exactly one I can turn off.”

Liz chuckled, “Believe me Sweet, I know a little something about that.”

Sweet was admittedly confused by her last comment, but shrugged it off, “Well, I won’t push. You’re part of Michael’s past…present and well… He and I came to an agreement when we met, that I wouldn’t push him about his past no matter how curious I am. After all, part of what shapes a man in what he left behind, right?”
“That’s an understatement.” Liz mused. “What has Michael told you?” She was curious as to what he’d shared with his kind old man, given Michael’s tendency to trust no one.

“Not much really. Just that he left behind some people he cared about. Family. But that he had to go. It hurt him too much to stay.” Sweet provided, “That was enough for me. I could see that hurt in his eyes. Though I must say that hurt diminished substantially when you showed up.”

Liz blushed involuntarily, and then shook her head in amazement. “What’s wrong, Liz?” he asked.

“Oh it nothing.” She tried to brush it off, but then decided against it, “It’s just that you got Michael to admit to even half of what he was feeling. You have to understand what an incredible feat that is for anyone.” Liz explained, “He’s not exactly one to trust people in general, let alone older men.”

Sweet nodded, “I sensed that about Michael. What he doesn’t know is how much he…”

“Wears his every emotion in his eyes? Body?” Liz finished, “Yeah. Only it took me a while to figure that out. I was so damn preoccupied with… my life.”

“You don’t have to answer me, Darlin’, but I take it Michael had a less than loving childhood.” Sweet said.

Liz sighed, “Michael, didn’t have a childhood, Sweet. I can’t tell you much, except that Michael lived with a man who saw fit to take out his problems on Michael’s face, body…” she trailed off, “It was bad. And nobody really knew or did anything about it until he was in high school.”

“Sweet shook his head, “I figured as much and that’s a shame, but it makes me appreciate his trust in me a lot more. Thank you, Liz.” He closed his eyes trying not to think about what a younger bruised Michael might have looked like. Pained his heart too much to see it. “I guess Michael is the closest thing to a son I’ve ever had.”

Liz’s eyes widened a bit, “All those ex-wives and you don’t have any children?

Sweet smiled, “The good Lord gave me a great many gifts, Liz, but he did not give me seeds to sow.”

“Oh…” Liz said, “I … uh… I’m sorry.”

Sweet patted her hand in reassurance, “Don’t be sorry. I figure He was just waitin’ to send Michael my way.”

Liz’s face brightened with her smile, “I’m so glad He did.”

“Sent you here too, He did.” Sweet pointed out, “And Michael is more alive than I have ever seen him.”

Liz blushed again, “ Well, I don’t know…” Liz protested.
“I do.” Sweet told her matter-of-factly. “I see it in you too, but you’re both afraid to let go of that last little bit of the past. Both been burned. In your case, that husband of yours.”

Liz marveled at Sweet’s uncanny ability to get right to the source of the problem on very little information. It was no wonder Michael could open up to this man.

“I guess you’re right.” Liz conceded, “But it is a little more complicated than that. My ex…husband, is for all intents and purposes Michael’s brother.”

“I know.” Sweet nodded, “The same brother who has to everything his way and everyone under his control like some sort of…monarch. Especially you.”

Liz couldn’t deny it, “Yeah. That’s Max alright.”

“But you left him Liz…To be with Michael.” Sweet pointed out.

“I… not just for that…I mean…” Liz stammered.

Sweet squeezed Liz’s delicate hand in his old weathered one, “I know you left for reasons other that Michael and I know he’s proud of you for those reasons alone, but a big part of you was looking for Michael, even if you won’t admit it. And I can tell you he’s glad to have you back in his life. Question becomes: How big a part do you want in his life?”

“Huge.” Liz admitted effortlessly.

Sweet chuckled at her honesty and Liz was entranced by the way Sweet’s laughter seemed to touch even his dark eyes, “Well, we both know Michael pretty well. He’s an all or nothing kinda fella. Which means you got ta let go of the past if you want to be part of his future.”


“I know.” Liz said a bit mournfully, “And by staying tied to Max I’m just letting him keep some control over me and that crutch will only last so long.”

“Exactly, Darlin’. So now you know what you have do?” he asked her.

Liz nodded, putting on her best Louisiana drawl, “I need to buy me a big ol’ pair o’ scissors.”

~*~

Michael rose at his usual time the next morning and readied the coffee. He took his place out on the balcony watching the business owners open their shops up. Last night when Liz got back from her tour of the city with Sweet, she was definitely changed. She seemed lighter and if a weight had been lifted off her. He was fairly certain it had little do with New Orleans Herself and everything to do with his grinning bartender.

Sweet was mum about their discussion no matter how much Michael pressed. He just watched as Liz practically skipped from table to table, taking orders and delivering drinks.

She’d regaled him with all the sites sweet had taken her to see, the rich history of the city. It was the same look she got n her face when she’d find a class to take at the university in whatever new state they were in all those years ago. Liz was hopelessly in love with The Big Easy.

Michael thumbed through his old sketchbook with her face on every page and something Sweet had said to him last night, echoed through his mind. Liz was charming a table of Shriners, when she looked up at Michael and her smile widened.

“That smile alone belongs on a canvas.” Sweet had told him, almost an air of mischief in his age graveled voice.

“Yeah.” Michael whispered on the balcony, closing the sketchbook, “It sure as hell does.”

He rose off the lawn chair and strode into the studio. He found a blank canvas and began pulling paints out, mixing them to find just the right golden hue to his subject’s skin. His muse had returned, in more ways than one.

~*~

Liz was awakened by the sounds of Billie Holiday and paint tubes hitting the hardwood floor in Michael’s studio. She smiled and stretched out; glad she wasn’t the only one to have been inspired the previous day. Maybe her talk with him about all the sites Sweet had shown her had reawakened Michael’s muse for his adopted city.

Whatever the reason Liz was grateful he was distracted. She rose out of bed throwing on her hockey jersey and fished out her address book, smiling as she remembered Michael’s boyish look of guilt the previous morning having been caught with it. She quietly padded into the kitchen and picked up the phone.

Finding the number in her little red book she dialed the numbers, determined but still feeling the nervousness that came with what she was about to do. The phone rang twice before it was answered.

“This Jesse Ramirez. How can I help you?” the voice said.

“Jesse? It’s Liz. And I think you know how you can help me.”

~*~
TBC…



posted on 5-Dec-2002 3:53:27 PM
Thanks again for the great feedback. It keeps the sotry going. *happy*

psdreamer- As for making Max the bad guy, I can't promise he won't be stubborn and pig-headed when it comes to Liz, but trust that everything has a purpose and just because he's "bad" now, doesn't make him necessarily "bad". It'll make sense later I promise. *happy*

Chapter 7

After the initial shock of hearing his former sister-in-law’s voice on the other end of the line, Jesse was more than happy to help Liz. He and Isabel had parted amicably and he helped the group out with legal affairs when he could. After his and Isabel’s divorce had been finalized, he settled down with his current wife, Melinda, finally having the life he’d sought with Isabel.

Rather than being jealous, Isabel was thrilled for Jesse, finally realizing she could never give him the normalcy he so craved, and she having fallen for Kyle, someone who could embrace her life and it’s many quirks. So she stayed in touch with Jesse, exchanging photos of their new families, Jess now had a son that was a few months older than Alexis. Their contact also allowed Jesse a window into the rubble that had become Max and Liz’s marriage and when he heard she’d left, he’d been anticipating a call from Liz, but the shock of actually hearing her voice was a bit jarring.

Liz explained calmly and plainly her requests, which were few, but important, pertaining to the divorce from Max. The most important request was that Jesse not reveal her current location. Liz may have been ready to break from Max completely, but she wasn’t ready for him to come barging in on the new life she was building.

“Liz…” Jesse said with some trepidation, “of course I understand you not wanting to see Max…But you do realize he’ll want to see you.”

Liz sighed into the phone, “I know, Jesse. But he’s just going to have to accept that I don’t feel the same way. I don’t want him telling me how we can work things out, when we can’t and never will. I don’t love him… I love…” she stopped herself before she spilled her feelings for Michael to Jesse, quickly changing the subject, “Um…Look I realize this is awkward Jesse…and I’d understand if you would rather hand this divorce to someone else…”

Jesse chuckled, “Someone who understands that you were on the run from the FBI because my ex-wife, your husband, and Michael are aliens? That you had to change your names more often than you changed your socks and that your estranged husband has never quite gotten over his king complex from a former life? Sorry Liz, I think I’m the only one qualified to handle such a delicate case.”

Liz laughed at the absurdity of the situation, “Well, when you put it that way…” she let her laughter fade, “Thanks Jesse. You’ve always been good to us despite everything. I guess I’m kinda throwing you into the lion’s mouth aren’t I. I mean we all know how belligerent Max can get. Especially…”

“When it comes to you.” Jesse finished knowingly, “I know. But I’m your attorney Liz, I work for you. You can trust me. Max might have been family once, but that won’t stop me from protecting your needs. You were family too.”

Liz was rendered speechless for a moment, touched by Jesse’s selflessness. She took a deep breath and continued, “I can’t believe I’m really doing this.”
“Long overdue from what I hear from Isabel and Kyle.” Jesse told her.

“Unfortunately you’re correct. “ Liz sighed, “So… All correspondence will go through you, right?”

“Exactly.” Jesse confirmed, “I’ll call you when I hear from Max… and I will hear a lot I can imagine. If he has anything to say to you it will have to go through me first.”

“Good.” Liz said relieved.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking,” Jesse said a lilt of confusion in his voice, “But why so secretive about your location? I mean I can understand not wanting to see Max, but New Orleans is a big place…”

“It’s not just me I’m thinking about Jesse.” Liz explained, “I’m not exactly alone here.”

“Pardon?” Jesse asked even more confused.

“I’m staying with Michael.” She confessed.

There was a long silence on the Jesse’s end that worried Liz a bit. She was about to call out to her lawyer friend when she heard him chuckle a bit, “Well, they were right… although how you found him I’ll never know. Isabel had me looking for him forever when he left.”

“Michael’s very good at hiding, you just have to know where to look.” Liz mused, then it occurred to her that Jesse didn’t sound entirely shocked, “What do you mean ‘They were right’?”

“Isabel and Kyle said you’d probably be the one to find Michael.” Jesse admitted.

Liz rolled her eyes, “I give those two far too little credit when it comes to figuring things out.”

“So, I take it Michael isn’t exactly anxious to reunite with his brother either?” Jesse asked.

“Not really.” Liz provided, “And he doesn’t know I’m doing this, so if you call and Michael answers…Tell him…tell him…”

“Liz,” Jesse said, “I’m a lawyer. I think I can bullshit my way through a conversation with Michael.”

“Bless you.” Liz laughed.

“You not wanting Max to know your location gets clearer by the second.” Jesse laughed. “I mean it gives you that much more time alone with Michael.” He teased.

Liz snorted, he was right, but did he have to be so damn right? “Okay, you, Mr. Ramirez, have been talking to Isabel way too much. You’re damn lucky your spouses are so understanding.”
“Way to evade the subject Liz.” Jesse chided.

“I’m not evading.” Liz said a bit defensively, “It’s just…”

“Complicated.” Jesse finished with an amused sigh, “It always is with you guys.”

Liz heard Michael’s music turn off in the studio and the heavy sound of his footsteps as he headed towards the door. She said a quick “Goodbye” to Jesse and hung up the phone just as Michael entered the kitchen.

“Who was that?” he asked. Refilling his coffee mug and snagging one for her, reminding himself that he needed to move some stuff down for her.

“Uh, no one. Solicitor.” She half lied. Well, that’s what they called lawyers them in England.

“Really?” Michael asked with a furrowed brow. “I didn’t hear the phone ring.”

“How could you?” Liz laughed, “ You had our stereo on pretty loud.”

Michael looked at her sheepishly, “Damn. Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

Liz shrugged her shoulders at him accepting the coffee mug, “Ms. Holiday can wake me up any day. Actually she’s a bit more easing that Lars and the boys.” Her eyes roamed over Michael’s body admiring how his jeans slung low on hips, leaving just enough to the imagination and traveled upward finding speckles and tiny streaks of paint on his bare torso and arms.

“Um…you’ve been busy.” She observed, unconsciously wetting her lips.

Michael looked down at his paint-spattered body and smirked, “Just a little.”

The urge to tease the tiny brunette about her none too subtle once over of him, had Michael chomping at the bit. But he could hardly justify the ribbing when he’d been doing the same thing since he walked in the kitchen. Two great loves in one deadly package, Liz in a hockey jersey…and only a hockey jersey. The red cloth may have ended at her knee, but Michael’s imagination couldn’t. No, it kept going straight up to the slight curve of her thigh muscle and the tan skin that surrounded it. Didn’t they make hockey jerseys in a smaller size? If the didn’t, they should.

Michael of course allowed himself the mental torture of wondering if Liz chose to wear anything underneath that material, but never answered the question. That was something, maybe in time, he’d discover on his own.

“So,” Liz said, unknowingly rescuing Michael from reverting back to telling time with a sundial, “You’re muse has returned.” Her voice had the lilt of discovery and the determination to uncover Michael’s newfound creative streak.

“Yup.” Michael answered cryptically, folding his arms over his chest. They may have been apart for several years, but Michael could always tell when Nancy Drew was on a fact-finding mission.

“Anything you care to share with your roommate?” She asked sweetly, even batting her eyes.

Michael grinned, “Nope.”

Liz’s shoulders slump with animated disappointment, “You mean I have to await your next masterpiece with the rest of your adoring public?”

“Yup.” Michael answered, knowing full well he was annoying the hell out of Liz with his monosyllabic answers. But it brought that same redness to her cheeks as when she was… well he enjoyed it.

Liz growled at him in frustration, “You know ‘mysterious’, only holds a small amount of charm, Michael.”

He chuckled, shaking his head, “Fine. You can see what I’m painting,” He said in what appeared to be surrender, but he leaned in closer, trapping Liz, willingly, against the kitchen counter, fixing his gaze on her, “If you tell me what, and who, that phone call was really about.”

Liz narrowed her eyes at Michael, inwardly cursing his uncanny knowledge of her and when she was lying or covering something up. Seems he was the only one in the house allowed to be something of an enigma

“So,” he asked he continued, not moving from his spot, “You gonna tell me?”

Liz looked up at him, her eyes losing their glare and a grin coming over her deceptively angelic face, “Nope.”

Michael grinned back, “And you said ‘mysterious’ wasn’t charming.” Laughing again as Liz’s brow furrowed at her own quip being used against her.

Just behind her on the counter Michael noticed that next to her red address book sat a worn leather journal. He’d imagined she’d gone through a few of them in the years since he’d left. He’d been the one to encourage her to start writing in them again, knowing she’d need an outlet when he wasn’t around.

He leaned in even closer, closing his eyes as Liz’s breath danced across his collarbone, sending goose bumps to the sweat laced skin. Liz was hardly unaffected, barely believing that Michael was letting himself get so close to her, given their unspoken agreement. She had just taken a major step for them, but was hardly as free as she knew she needed to be for Michael.
What kind of resolve were they supposed to have when temptations like this were presenting themselves? Did he even know what his scent, the paint, thinner, sweat, mixed with the fading smell of the previous days cologne, did to her senses? Did he know how easily he could throw her up on the counter and…?

“Were you planning on doing this here?” he asked, inadvertently flustering the poor woman in front of him.

“What?” Liz asked, her eyes flying open, not having realized until that moment that they had been closed.

“This.” Michael said tapping her nose with the journal, now in his hand, “Were you planning on working on this here in the kitchen?” he clarified.

Liz blushed furiously, before taking the journal from his hand, “I…uh, was planning on doing it…I mean writing, here…or maybe on the couch… I could do it in my bedroom. Write, I mean.” She stammered, finding innuendo in nearly every word she spoke.

Michael broke out in a grin again as an idea struck him, “I know the perfect spot to do it.” He told her turning around, then turning back to face her, “Write that is.” He corrected, apparently Liz’s penchant for innuendo was contagious.

Liz arched an eyebrow at him, but kept quiet as Michael took her and led her out of the kitchen, and down the hall. They stopped abruptly at the studio door when realized the “spot” he’d picked.

“Michael,” she protested, “ The studio is your space. I don’t want to invade that.”

Michael held his hand up, “The balcony, however, is not in my space, therefore it’s yours.”

“But the balcony is attached to the studio and therefore part of your space.” Liz argued, deciding two could play the frustration game, and enjoying the red that was coming to Michael’s cheeks, biting back said frustration.

“Technically,” he corrected, “the balcony is outside the studio, therefore outside my space.”

“But…” Liz began again, but Michael gripped Liz’s hand, neither of them realizing he’d never let go of it.

“Liz…Please. If I wanted to argue I’d call Isabel. Take the balcony please.” He told her sincerely, absently running his thumb over the back of her hand.

Liz bit her lip, trying to hide her suddenly labored breathing and Michael gentle gestures, physically and emotionally. “Okay.” She said quietly and thankfully.

Michael hung his head a bit grateful to have at least semi-won the argument and discovered he’d been holding Liz’s hand far to long for someone who was doing his damndest to be her “friend”. The line was getting easier and easier to cross and he was allowing himself far too many liberties. He reluctantly dropped her hand and put his own through his hair.

Liz sensed the awkwardness Michael was feeling and covered with some humor, “Are you sure?” she asked in an impish tone, “I could, accidentally of course, see one of your new pieces in progress.”

Michael smirked, “Honor system. I’m gonna trust you not to peek.”

Liz nodded thoughtfully, “Although… by all rights I think I am allowed at least one casual glance. You did tip toe through my journal once if I recall.”

Michael rolled his eyes and shook his head, “Even eight years later, I’m still paying for that?”

“Well, you read some pretty personal stuff,” Liz answered, placing her hands on her hips “I figure I should get a sneak peek at something that’s equally as… personal, to you.”

Michael laughed, “How long have you been waiting to use that particular card, Liz?”

“Forever.” She answered in an exhausted tone.

“Fine.” Michael conceded, “But will you at least let me choose which piece you see, and when?”

“Of course.” Liz agreed, “But don’t keep me waiting too long.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Michael returned, opening the door for her, neither of them missing the other’s innuendo.

~*~

One week later Jesse finalized the divorce papers and sent them off to Liz. All she needed to do was sign her name in the designated spots, return the documents to Jesse and he would send them off to Max. After that, it was up to her estranged husband, a wholly unappealing scenario in Liz’s mind. Once again she was relying on Max to determine her fate and the prospect of him even remotely being understanding about her need for freedom from him, seemed, to say the least, very grim.

The night she’d received the paperwork, Sweet and Michael noticed that Liz was distracted, but neither of them knew why. Normally a diligent and attentive waitress, Liz messed up orders left and right and almost ignored customers flagging her down. When things slowed down later into the evening Michael sent her upstairs, sensing she needed some time alone. To his surprise she didn’t argue.

When he and Sweet finished closing up the bar, Michael ran straight up to the apartment making a direct path to the balcony, where he and Liz would stay up for an extra hour talking, like they used to when they lived together all those years ago. Only on this night, to his disappointment, Liz was nowhere near the balcony.

Dismayed he went back inside the studio and headed down the hall, seeing light coming out from under Liz’s bedroom door. Needing to make sure she was all right, Michael gently knocked on her door, hearing papers rustling as she scrambled out of her bed. She opened the door slightly, peering out at him.

“Is everything okay?” Michael asked the obligatory question, “You, uh… seemed a little distracted tonight.” He scratched his eyebrow, debating on his next observation, knowing it might leave him a little vulnerable, “And um… you weren’t out on the balcony… like you usually are… so…”

“Oh!” Liz said raising a hand to her mouth.

She’d lost all track of time going over the paperwork, like Jesse had advised her too, and had forgotten about her nightly ritual with Michael. She too had come to love their talks about nothing and everything and her heart sank that her distraction might have hurt Michael in any way.

“I’m sorry Michael.” She apologized, “ I just um… had some stuff on my mind… I uh…”

“You don’t have to tell me, Liz.” Michael rescued her. He was admittedly disappointed that she felt she couldn’t confide in him about whatever was bothering her, but he was unwilling to force the issue, “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Liz gave him a small smile and touched his forearm gently, “I will be.”

She shut the door behind her, leaving Michael more confused than when he’d first knocked.

The next morning Michael woke, feeling more tired than usual. He’d been unable to sleep until he he’d heard Liz finally go to bed in her own room. Why couldn’t she just tell him what was wrong, if there was anything? Maybe she’d just been writing a letter to her parents and the pain of missing them was catching up to her.

He rubbed a hand over his face and trudged out to the kitchen immediately heading for the coffee maker to brew his “de-grumpinator”, as Liz liked to call it, only to find a fresh pot all ready and a note from Liz explaining that she’d gone to the post office that morning and would be back soon. Once again Michael felt the sting of disappointment at another foregone ritual he and Liz were settling into.

In the past week, after “giving” her the balcony, Michael would rise first, fixing the coffee, and then knocked on her bedroom door to wake her up, as he made his way to the studio. He’d be pulling out paints and a canvas when she’d come in ten minutes later, coffee in one hand and her journal in the other, swathed in that same beguiling hockey jersey.

She’d greet Michael with a mumbled “Good morning” and a small smile. He’d grunt back in feigned grouchiness, but maintain his trademark smirk. After their pleasantries were exchanged, Liz would head out to the balcony, settle in the lawn chair and would begin writing. They’d remain that way until Sweet showed up at his usual time. And Liz kept her promise not to peek at Michael’s paintings despite the overwhelming temptation.

But Michael was finding that this particular morning was proving to be different in more ways than one as Sweet walked in the door. Michael looked up at the clock and found that he’d slept in, no doubt a result of his restless night worrying about the pain that seemed to lay heavy on Liz’s heart.

Sweet was a bit perplexed to find his young artist friend not in the studio, and the charming brunette nowhere in sight.

“Where’s our girl Elizabeth?” he asked, setting down the bag of baked breakfast goodies and accepting a cup of coffee from a bewildered Michael.

“Post office.” Michael replied, “Left early. Be back soon.”

Sweet chuckled Michael’s attempt at coherent speech when it was clearly obvious that he’d just risen from bed, “Shouldn’t you be in your cave drawing prehistoric elk?” he teased.

“Ha. Ha. Old Man.” Michael said dryly, rubbing a hand over his face, “I didn’t sleep very well last night, if you must know.”

“That have anything to do with Liz?” Sweet asked, trying to project innocence in his question.

“Yeah.” Michael answered honestly, then saw his elderly friend’s smile turn devilish, “Whoa Sweet. Not that way, you old pervert. Something was bugging her last night and she wouldn’t tell me. She just holed up in her room all night and didn’t go to bed until three. And now this morning she got up early and went out…”

Sweet patted the concerned young man’s back, “I’m sure Liz is fine, Son. Women are a truly strange breed. I’m sure she’d tell you if it was serious.”

Michael nodded, but was hardly soothed by Sweet’s advice. He would have to resign himself to trusting that Liz would come to him if it were serious. He wouldn’t be like Max. He wouldn’t push, no matter how much it was killing him.

Five minutes later a decidedly different, and much happier, Liz came through the door at a near skip. She held the day’s mail in her hands and a smile on her face that no one could take away.

“Well, if it isn’t my two favorite men.” She said flirtatiously, accepting a good morning hug and kiss on the cheek from Sweet.

Michael stood dumbfounded at Liz’s transformation, “I know you were up early this morning, Liz. There is no way you should be this chipper.” He told her, “It’s inhuman.”

Liz’s eyes widened and she smacked her forehead lightly, “Oh! So that’s why you’re so grouchy in the morning.” She teased.

Michael growled low at her and sent a less than threaten glare for joking about his not-exactly-human status. She snuggled into Sweet’s one-arm embrace in counterfeit fear.

“Now, now, Boss Man,” Sweet played along, “We can’t all be like you… Born grumpy.”

Liz giggled and mouthed, “Hatched,” to Michael as she left Sweet’s arm and scurried past the brooding alien, to the coffee pot. Michael did not miss the opportunity, slapping Liz’s backside playfully, eliciting a yelp from her.

Sweet cleared his throat at Michael in mild admonishment. Michael just shook his head, “Trust me, Old Man, she earned that.”

Liz turned around a dangerous grin plastered on her face, “Don’t worry, Sweet. It’s been so long since Michael’s had a piece of ass he has to justify it when he can.”

Michael choked on his coffee while Liz and Sweet burst into laughter. When he recovered Michael once again shook his head, “I’d love to argue, but she’s right.” He winked at her suggestively, “Thanks Liz.”

In far to good a mood to take offense, Liz curtsied at Michael batting her eyes, “Glad my ass could be of service, Sir.”

Before his young friends got any more suggestive, Sweet interrupted them, “So Ms. Liz… does your cheery disposition have anything to do with that envelope in your dainty hands?”

Michael glanced down at the manila envelope clutched in Liz’s hands, watching her draw it closer to her chest when attention was brought to it. “Yeah Liz.” He spoke up, “What’s in the envelope?”

“Nothing.” Liz said quickly bringing the envelope behind her back and out of view, a small giggle escaping her throat.

“Yeah right.” Michael rolled his eyes and began advancing on her, determined to find out what had her so damn amused.

Liz squealed and began running away from Michael protecting the envelope from his grasping hands. Liz soon found herself in trouble when Michael trapped her by the couch. She could have used her powers to zap Michael enough to move, but with Sweet wiping away tears of laughter watching them, powers were hardly an option. And from the glint in Michael’s eyes, he knew it too. Michael wiggled his fingers Liz, knowing that the mere threat of tickling would send her into a fit of laughter.

“Michael…” Liz said already giggling, “No… Don’t even… Michael!”

It was too later as he had already pounced, pinning the tiny woman to the couch as he straddled her hips, careful to rest his formidable weight on his own haunches. Liz, never one to give up easily, fruitlessly tried to keep the envelope away from Michael, but as his wiggling fingers drew closer to her hyper ticklish ribs she felt herself utterly weak.

“Michael!” she panted almost breathlessly between her giggles, “Please! You’ll make me bend the photos!”

Michael immediately halted his comical assault, but remained seated on his helpless prey, “Photos?”

“Yeah.” She answered her laughter subsiding, “Don’t you remember? A few days ago… when you called Isabel? Once you got her to stop talking nonstop, you made her promise to send us new pictures of Lexi.”

Liz watched the recognition pass over Michael’s face and she handed him the now precious envelope. He handled it so delicately, Sweet thought Liz might have handed him the finest crystal.

The old man cleared his throat again to gain Michael’s attention, “Now, I could be wrong, but my momma always taught me that it was rude to sit on someone bearing gifts. Especially such a lovely delivery person.”

Michael looked back at Sweet in confusion then felt Liz wiggle beneath him; “Oh!” he said quickly leaping off of her and seating himself at the other end of the couch. If she’d wiggled one more time… “Uh…sorry Liz.”

Liz shook her head laughing and sat up moving herself next to him, “It’s okay. Now, will you hurry up and open it?”

Michael looked over at her with a furrowed brow, “You mean you haven’t looked at them already?”

Liz shook her head, “No. I wanted to wait so we could see them…um… together.”

“Oh.” Michael said touched by Liz’s gesture and finding a great amount of rightness in the moment, “Uh… thanks.”

After Michael and Liz opened the photos, he, Liz and Sweet gushed over the pictures Isabel had sent of her precocious toddler. Michael was thoroughly convinced that Lexi was the second most beautiful woman on the planet. The first seated next to him clinging to his shoulder as they flipped through the new pictures, her laughter bouncing off of the walls of the apartment and straight into his still semi-guarded heart.

Michael was still on the couch marveling at the pictures when Liz excused herself to get more coffee, fatigue quickly catching up with her after the previous night’s restlessness. Sweet followed her into the kitchen on the premise of refilling his own cup.

“Are those photos the only reason you’re so chipper this morning?” he asked her.

“Partly.” Liz answered, knowing Sweet could read her, so it would be useless to try and hide anything from the wise old sage.

“And the other part?” he pressed on.

Liz smiled, taking a sip from her coffee, “It a ‘big ol’ scissor’ thing.” She whispered to him as she headed back out to the couch to join Michael.

Sweet chuckled at the woman, ‘Devious Ms. Liz. And with the face of an angel”

~*~

Another two weeks passed and even though she’d been anxious about Max’s response to the divorce papers, Liz made a concerted effort to not let it affect her time with Michael. They’d, gratefully, fallen back into their routines after the brief interruption and Michael had really thrown himself into his painting. So much so, that Liz had taken to opening the bar for him a task she was more than happy to take on and found she enjoyed. Running a business seemed to suit her and Michael trusted her with his bar implicitly. And with a week before his show, Liz certainly did not want to interrupt his creative flow with her worries. Silly girl.

One morning while Michael was in the studio and Liz was retrieving her coffee, journal in hand, when the phone rang. She answered it mumbling a groggy, “Hello.”

“Hey Liz. It’s Jesse. Did I wake you up?”

“No.” Liz said quickly finding little need for coffee, “I was up. Um…so…”

“So, I just got off the phone with Max.” he supplied an exasperation lingering in his voice.

Liz heard his defeat and her shoulders slumped, ‘Well, we knew he wasn’t going to take my serving him with divorce papers with a smile.”

“That is an understatement.” Jesse mused, deciding to skip the various colorful expletives Max had leveled at him that morning, “I’m not sure furious even begins to describe his state. He’s demanding I give him your location. He wants to see you. I, of course, told him ‘No’.”
“But that didn’t do a thing.” Liz observed.

“Right. He says he won’t sign the papers. Period. And said he’d contest it. Along with more demands to see you immediately. I’m sorry Liz, but there’s not much more I can do. I’ll fight everything. No judge can make you see him I can tell you that.”

“It’s okay Jesse…” Liz sighed, “And thanks. Not that it’ll do any good, but I’ll wait him out a little longer. I’m just not ready to see him yet.”

“Take all the time you need. You absolutely do not have to do anything you don’t want to. Max has no legal recourse aside from contesting the divorce.” Jesse reassured her.

Liz felt a little lost. She knew Max wouldn’t just simply give her up, but a small part of her had hoped that seeing the divorce papers might actually make Max see how over their marriage was.

“Liz?” Jesse asked a bit worried by the silence and shaking breath on the other end of the line.

“I’m okay.” Liz answered, “I was just holding out a little hope…you know?” Thanks Jesse.” She quietly hung up the phone, staring at it for a moment as it blurred with her unshed tears.

“Why can’t he just let me go?” Liz asked no one in a strangled whisper, one tear finding it’s way down her cheek.

She glanced down at her journal and heard Michael whistling along to some B.B. King on the local jazz station; unable to help the smile it brought to her face. A little time spent in Michael’s presence and letting out her sorrows in her journal might be just the balm to sooth her aching heart. She wiped her eyes, erasing any trace of sadness from her face, and headed into the studio, intent on keeping this as normal as possible.

“Hey.” She greeted Michael as she walked into the studio.

Michael peered out from behind the canvas, a brush between his teeth and simply winked his “Good morning”. He might have been content to go back to his painting, but the sadness Liz had been trying to hide glistened in her eyes and took Michael back to that night two weeks prior when Liz seemed so lost, without an anchor.

He removed the brush from his teeth and stood back holding her gaze, “Who was on the phone?” he asked, sensing that the call might have been the source of her apparent sadness.

Liz shrugged her shoulder, “Solicitor.” She said quietly.

Michael knew she was lying and his heart constricted a bit, but he was determined to hold to his promise and not press Liz. She was sure as hell taking her time getting around to telling him what was wrong, but he was not going to push. Pushing could send her out of his life, not a prospect that held a great amount of appeal for him.

He couldn’t stand to see her looking so sad and lost again and felt the need to do something to cheer her up or at least momentarily forget her troubles. He glanced at his canvas remembering his promise from a few weeks prior. Yeah, this would definitely brighten her spirits.


He set his brush down and approached Liz, taking her journal and coffee out of her hands, resting them on the worn and paint spattered table. He held his hand out to her, and while she was confused as to what exactly Michael had in mind, Liz trusted him.

“What are we...?” she began to ask as Michael pulled her towards the canvas.

“Need your opinion on something.” He told her with a wry smile.

“Okay.” Liz said a bit of excitement filling her voice at finally getting to see one of Michael’s new paintings.

Michael asked her to close her eyes and he she complied as he placed her in front of the canvas.

“Okay.” Michael whispered, “Open them.”

Liz opened her eyes and tears; happy ones sprang to her eyes. Michael had taken one of the photos Isabel had sent them of Lexi and turned it into a portrait of their niece. The beaming smile, the impish glint in her eyes her sandy hair, even the cowlick that Isabel was always fighting.

“Oh Michael…” Liz whispered, stepping back and gripping his arm, “Its beautiful. No wonder you were so excited about those photos.”

“You really like it?” he asked a bit nervously. Liz nodded emphatically, letting her tears run freely down her face. “Um actually,” he continued, “This isn’t part of the show.”

Liz looked up at him in bewilderment, “So Lexi isn’t your new muse? But I thought…” she pointed to the canvas.

Michael shook his head, “My stuff for the show is already done. I was saving this for last. I’m gonna send it to Isabel as soon as I’m finished. Surprise her you know? It doesn’t make up for missing out on Lex…but…”

“It’s absolutely perfect, Michael.” Liz said almost breathlessly, feeling as though Lexi were right in the room with them the painting contained that much life in it.
Liz’s tears, it seemed, would not stop and Michael felt her shaking beside him. Her happy tears had turned sad again and she was unable to keep her stifling sobs at bay. Michael pulled her into his chest, wrapping his arms around her in protection and stroked her hair in an effort to soothe her, knowing she needed to let out whatever grief her heart held. Wishing he truly could take it away with the stroke of a brush.

~*~

Michael’s show was fast approaching and he spent the few days before it transporting his new pieces to Miriam’s gallery, going over placement of the paintings, which ones were for sale and which ones were staying with him. Too personal to give up.

Liz had graciously taken over the bar during the hectic time, just enjoying the excitement and nervousness that seemed to consume Michael as the show drew closer. She had to admit the feeling was contagious. She’d been there since the inception of these new masterpieces and had yet to see them. Michael seemed most nervous about her reaction, though she couldn’t imagine why. There were going to be art critics from all over the country coming to the show and he was fussing over her?

Liz woke gently the morning of Michael’s show, stretching out in an almost catlike fashion. Her eyes widened as she caught her first sight of her bedside alarm clock and read the numbers. She sat up in her bed listening for the familiar heavy steps of Michael’s feet in the kitchen, but was met with silence.

“Shit!” she hissed, jumping out of bed and throwing on her jersey.

She threw open her door and scampered down one to Michael’s, knocking loudly before entering. Michael sat bolt upright as Liz jumped onto his bed shaking him roughly.

“What? What’s wrong?” he asked trying to process in his sleep-addled brain, exactly what Liz was doing in his bed, although far from opposed to the idea.

“We forgot to set our alarms, Michael!” she said frantically, pointing at his silent clock. When she saw he was still too groggy to comprehend she continued, “Someone in this room has a big art show tonight and promised Miriam that he’d be at the gallery by ten to go over the last minute stuff…”

Michael blinked looking back at the clock a second time, “Shit! I only have twenty minutes. Damnit!”

“Calm down, Michael.” Liz said trying to follow her own advice, “You go get in the shower. I mean, I think it’s a bad omen if the artist literally stinks at his own show. I’ll make you some coffee and toast while you’re getting ready.”

“Okay.” Michael breathed, finding some humor and calm in Liz’s words, and then furrowed his brow as a thought occurred to him, “Wait a sec. You said ‘we’ forgot to set our alarms. You aren’t coming until tonight, with Sweet, right?”
Liz smiled, “Yeah. But I wanted to get up with you. I know how nervous you are about this show” she down cast her eyes for a moment, playing with a loose thread on her jersey, before meeting his gaze once more, “I didn’t want you to be alone.”

Michael nodded, “Uh…Thanks.”

Liz glanced over at the clock, “Nineteen minutes Mr. Matisse. Go on and get in the shower. What are you waiting for?”

Michael laughed for a moment and then arched an amused eyebrow at Liz, “Well, unless you want a whole other, X-rated, show…” he cast his glance down to his sheet-covered lower body.

Liz’s eyes widened, realizing she’d forgotten about their mutual propensity for sleeping in the nude. She rose off the bed backing out of the room, “Right. Okay. Coffee. You. Shower.”

Liz quickly shut Michael’s door, pausing for a moment, “Coffee? You? Shower?” she repeated sarcastically, “Liz. Big. Ditz.” She shook her head and padded into the kitchen.

When Michael emerged from his room, he was dressed in his only pair of clean khakis, his requisite Doc Martens, and was throwing on a black button down shirt. His hair was still dripping from he shower and he only had eleven minutes to get to the gallery, but the sight of Liz buzzing around the kitchen, trying to do everything she could to make sure she could get him to that gallery on time gave him pause. He was nervous as hell about tonight for more reasons than he could count, but seeing her like she was gave him momentary calm.

Liz caught Michael out of the corner of her eye and rushed at him with a piece of toast in her hand. Michael didn’t blink opening his mouth to accept the toast chewing one bite as quickly as he could before taking a sip of the scalding coffee, grimacing at it’s temperature.

“Uh…Liz could you dry my hair. I’m kinda nervous and you…uh know my powers get sorta…wacky…I don’t want to burn it off.”

Liz smiled. Michael was embarrassed that he had difficulty keeping his powers in check when nervous, but it was one of the things she’d come to love about him. Too much control could be just that, too much.

She raised her hands into Michael locks and closed her eyes sending the heat to her hands. She didn’t notice Michael watching her, and gripping at the counter at the feel of her hands running through his hair. Liz felt the wet strands dry and slip through her fingers like silken waves and she opened her eyes.

“There.” She said proudly, if not a little exhausted, not from the effort, but the sensations it sent through her body.

Michael turned looking at his reflection in the microwave and nodding his head, “Not bad, Liz. And under pressure. I think I’ll keep you around.”

Liz punched his arm lightly, “Drink your coffee.” She grumbled.

Michael obeyed picking up his mug, vaguely noticing that Liz was buttoning up his shirt for him, until she’d reached the third button. She left the top button undone and smoothed the lapels. She glanced at the kitchen clock with a grimace.

“Okay. You’ve got eight minutes to get to he gallery. I think you’ll make it. I can put your coffee in a travel mug if you want, because let’s face it, Miriam’s coffee sucks.”

“I’ll do without it.” Michael laughed, “Probably drink too much of it anyway.”

Liz reached into an old wicker basket handing Michael his wallet and keys, brushing imaginary lint from off of his shoulder. “Okay then. You’re set. Sweet and I will be there at seven. On time.” She teased.

“Good.” Michael breathed a sigh of relief, “I’ll need someone there who won’t tell me how brilliant I am.”

“You will be…are brilliant, Michael.” Liz said seriously, and then smiled, “I just happen to mean it.”

She took the coffee cup from his hand and took another look at the clock, “Seven minutes. Go.”

Without thinking Liz rose up on her tiptoes brushing her soft lips over Michael’s for a normal “goodbye” or “good luck” kiss. Except this wasn’t exactly normal for them. In the frenzy of the morning she’d forgotten her agreement with Michael and not only crossed the line, but bound over it. But he wasn’t resisting, if anything he was just as shocked, but definitely kissing her back.

Liz pulled back abruptly covering her mouth, unsure of what to say and the look on his face told her he was feeling the same thing. She would have apologized, but she wasn’t sorry. If anything she wanted more. She licked her lips once again tasting Michael on her and almost moaned. The question became did Michael want to cross that line with her?

Amidst the silence there was a blur of movement and a coffee mug crashed to the floor.

~*~
TBC…


posted on 8-Dec-2002 3:06:10 AM
Chapter 8

Michael had always prided himself on his ability to anticipate people’s moves. He figured it was the years spent in paranoia as a human and his days of battle on Antar. He could read opponents and allies alike. He even felt he could read Liz, but he never saw the kiss coming. Sure they’d been close, many times over the past month, but somehow or another, they’d managed to remember their agreement and one or the other would pull back, but this time was different. She didn’t pull back and he didn’t stop her.

It happened so fast. One moment she was standing before him with infinite pride shining in her eyes and the next moment, Michael had made the mistake of blinking. Warm, soft lips he hadn’t felt in over five years were now brushing over his own, and while he was surprised, apparently his lips were not. As if acting on instinct they accepted her light kiss, even returning it. He wondered if so many nights dreaming about those lips on his own had trained his body to ignore his fool-hearted defense mechanisms and give into his love for her.

The kiss was over far too soon, when Michael felt Liz literally take his breath away with her gasp against his mouth. She pulled away quickly, looking shocked by her own actions and brought a hand up to her mouth as though the kiss had burned. She wasn’t wrong.

Liz had unwittingly lit a fuse inside Michael that weeks of denial had put fuel on. It was a spark, hot an immediate, reminding him of the sizable fire he carried for her. Always carried for her. Calling such fire as merely a torch would be far too understated a description for what he felt for Liz. A raging inferno that would make Mt. Vesuvius look like a high school science project would seem the more accurate analogy. Everything inside Michael burned for this woman and the effort it took to stave off the consumption of the flames had weakened him to this point. A point where his body, and if he was being honest, his heart would no longer be ignored.

Michael studied Liz’s eyes and body, able to deny the sexually charged air that hung between them. He had to remind himself that only a few seconds had passed since her lips had left his, so she still wore a look of surprise, but the shock was fading and being replaced with something else. It wasn’t regret or remorse, which he feared he might find. No, what he saw was anticipation and a pleading for him to decide their course. They, not just her, were crossing a line that had become so blurry over the weeks that neither of them were sure if a boundary even existed. She’d merely taken the first step, now it was his turn.

In Michael’s mind Liz’s kiss should have been simple, but there he was questioning everything that told him not to act on his feelings, finding the well built wall around his heart had been turned to dust by that simple kiss. Michael had never felt so indecisive in his life, but this was possibly the most important decision of his life.

Again, unwittingly, Liz helped Michael make his decision, helped his body and his heart overrule the nagging doubts he had about pursuing her, with the subtle passing of her tongue over her lips. The simple act of tasting him once again on her lips...it was too much for Michael to bear.

As slowly as those seconds of unnecessary indecision had passed, Michael’s next actions were lightening quick. He took a step forward reaching out to Liz, gripping her waist in both hands and pulling her flush against his body. He held her eyes with his own for a split second, needing her to see that amber did indeed burn, and only for her, before capturing her mouth in a fevered kiss.

He was dimly aware that the coffee mug Liz had been holding had crashed to the floor, but couldn’t bring himself to care as her arms immediately wrapped around his neck and a moan of relief escaped her throat vibrating against his lips. His senses were doubled in intensity with her finally where she belonged, but God, the taste of her was so powerful as her mouth opened to tangle her tongue intimately with his.

She tasted the same as she did all those years ago and he nearly whimpered at the privilege of being able to drink from her once again. That she wanted him too. That she wanted him. That she had opened herself so immediately to him as though kissing him were a base instinct and the games they’d been playing since her return into his life were too much.

How was it possible that someone with lips so soft and delicate could consume him so possessively. He’d expected her to be surprised by his ardor, but there he was, amazed , at how she hadn’t skipped a beat. Like she’d been waiting just as long and tortured herself just as much as he had. He could suppress the moan that seemed to start at his stomach, when she pulled his bottom lip into her mouth, almost suckling on it. Hey, wasn’t that his move? And who cared?

Necessity to breathe reared it’s bothersome head, and Michael tore his mouth reluctantly away from Liz’s, his lungs burning, but what a blissful pain. With Liz’s arms still tightly wrapped around his neck, he became aware of the effort it took her just to reach him, her entire body stretched to its limits, the tips of her toes barely touching the floor. All that just to kiss his ugly mug.

The hands that gripped at Liz’s waist, holding her to him, slid down over her hips, passing lightly over her backside and settled on her thighs before lifting her easily off the ground. Needing no further encouragement Liz wrapped her legs around Michael’s waist, giving him control of their destination, her only request, made through increasingly deeper kisses on his neck, was that he find the destination as quickly as possible.

It wasn’t his first choice, but with his knees threatening to buckle beneath him, from Liz’s mouth making a meal out of his sensitive neck, Michael pressed them roughly against the refrigerator. The force, while not distraction for the ardent couple, had sent a few of their chintzy magnets and the photos of their niece scattering on the floor. Michael might have apologized to the precocious tot staring up at them from the floor, but Liz’s hands tangling in his hair and her lips leaving his neck to claim his mouth sent any and all coherent thoughts out the window.

Michael vaguely remembered that he had somewhere he needed to be and that it was important, but nothing was more important to him, in that moment, than Liz pressed against his body, her mouth locked with his own and their lower bodies beginning to create an erotic friction blurred any other prior engagements from his mind. How could he think about the damn gallery when they were finally taking step, a hop, a God damn leap of faith with each other?

No words had been exchanged, nor did there need to be. Their low, lusty moans and passion labored breathing seemed to be the only vocalization they required. Even so Michael felt a nagging in the back of his mind that they were acting too hastily. She’d been so withholding from him in the past week. Words might break the delicious tension between them, but so much was going unsaid.

His body kicked into overdrive sending the thoughts away, reminding him that she was the reason he’d never known a woman’s touch in their time apart, that his body rejected anyone but her and now she was in his arms, his hand was kneading her small breast, his thumb grazing over the already hardened nipple beneath the fabric of her jersey and she was arching into him, begging for more. Damn their unspoken agreement. Whatever was heavy on Liz’s heart, she’d tell him eventually. He had to start truly believing that.

“Michael....” Liz panted, as his lips ran down her jaw line, deepening each kiss as he made his way down her neck.

He felt her once again arch into the hand caressing her breast and grew frustrated with the material. He took his hand away causing Liz to whimper in disappointment, but it was short lived as Michael pressed his lower body further against hers pinning her to the refrigerator with his hips, freeing his other hand. He brought his head up from her neck distracting her eyes with his as his hands gripped at the v-neck of her jersey.

“Michael...” she breathed again, “There’s something... I need... to tell...”

Her words ended in a small, surprised shriek as he easily tore the jersey partly open. Sure, he could have lifted the confounding material over her head, but that meant putting her down and there was no way her was ready to let go of her. Michael watched Liz’s eyes go from surprised to throughly aroused at his wild actions. There was no admonishment for ruining the material, something either of them could mend later, if anything she appeared grateful for his fervency.

Liz held perfectly still as Michael parted the material he’d torn, revealing her breasts to him for the first time, He’d only caught a faint glimpse, a teasing glance, at them the morning he’d stolen her address book and he was left only to wonder at their beauty. He glanced up into her eyes after taking them in and saw hesitancy, no, worry in her eyes. Had he been staring too long? No, that wasn’t it, she was insecure, about what he couldn’t imagine, but then again Liz never realized how truly beautiful she was. It was yet another thing Michael loved about Liz, her still girlish modesty.

While her eyes were still blackened with desire, Michael saw through her and the thought occurred to him that he was only the second man in her life to ever see her this vulnerable, naked. And while he cared not to think about that other man, Michael wanted to show her she had nothing to feel insecure about, but as always, words failed Michael, so his actions would have to speak for him.


Lowering his head he brushed his lips over Liz’s tenderly, distracting her with his tongue wetting her lips, while his hand slid over the soft skin of her breast, cradling its sleight weight in his palm. She let out a sigh of relief that pressed her breast even further into Michael’s hand, causing him to growl low in his throat. He passed his thumb lightly over her nipple, once again having his breath taken away by the gasp their skin to skin contact had caused her.

Liz unconsciously shifted her hips against Michael’s sending a rush of heat through both of their bodies, Michael lowered his mouth from Liz’s to taste the flesh beneath his hand, light, teasing her with his tongue avoiding her nipple, before closing his lips over it and suckling deeply. Liz tangled her hands in Michael’s hair, gripping it tightly against the sensations he was delivering upon her sensitive skin. Tears pricked her eyes, not from sadness, but the sheer emotion that came from being so physically close to Michael.

The motion of Liz’s hips against Michael’s arousal was driving him on, drawing him further into her and only her. He heard her trying to speak, but her words were half mumbled and half moaned. She was trying to tell him something, but he couldn’t hear. All he wanted was to hear his name on her lips in a lusty cry.

Liz tugged at his head, caught between needing him to know about her filing for divorce from Max, knowing Michael needed to hear it, and not want him to stop what was bringing her an insane amount of pleasure. When she felt Michael’s hand beginning to push up the hem of her shirt and his fingers began to make its way to her heat, she knew she’d be well past rational to form words and needed to tell him right then.

“Michael...” Liz said insistently, pulling his face away from her breast to met hers. He tried to kiss her again, but she put a hand over his mouth, “Wait....” she panted, watching his brow furrow in confusion, “I need to...ah...God...”

Her word were cut off by Michael’s fingers having made contact with her unencumbered folds. Well, that answered that question. He clenched his jaw and shut his eyes at the feel of her heat on his hand, so soft, wet and...God... hot. If this was what she felt like against his hand, Jesus... He couldn’t allow himself the next thought for it would definitely bring him a premature release.

Michael respected the Liz had something to say to him, but was puzzled as to why she found that moment to do so. And he did want to hear it, hoping it would be the thing that had weighed so heavily on her heart in the past week. But now? He watched her mouth work, to try and form words and began to push his fingers inside her soft walls in an effort to stave off whatever her confession maybe until after they were through with this little dance. Surely it could wait.

“Michael!” Liz gasped, and with all her strength she grasped at his hand pulling it away from her cleft abruptly.

She watched his brow furrow again, but was undeterred. He needed to know, so there was nothing left to hide between them. So he knew exactly how free she was to him. However, it would seem to backfire as their actions had left her with little breath to form words and they came out in a monosyllabic sentences that tore everything apart.

“Its...About...Max....” Liz breathed.

It was like a cold bucket of water had been thrown on Michael and Liz felt his whole body stiffen at the mention of his brother’s name. Her husband. How could he have forgotten the very reason he’d kept himself from acting on these very impulses and let himself get this close to Liz? It was one thing if they were friends, but they’d leapt over that line and things could never be the same. Now his worst fears were coming true. The thread that still tied Liz to Max was cutting off any forward progress Michael could have made with her. Why did he have to be so fucking impulsive? It only ever brought him heartache.

Michael was certain that Liz’s feelings for Max, or lack of them, had gone unchanged, but why would she bring him up when they were about to...? Did he have anything to do with her sadness over the past week? Is that why she’d closed herself off from this one aspect of her life? If there was one person Liz would guard him against, it was Max. Was she as free as he’d felt she was?

Michael’s eyes flashed with discovery as he remembered Liz staring at the painting of Alexis only a week earlier, how she wept in his arms, but never gave him an explanation. Could she miss the little girl so much that she’d go back? Not necessarily to Max, but to the same vicinity, just to be in Lexi’s life?

He knew he was being paranoid, but Max’s name on Liz’s lips, tended to throw Michael into that state and the fear that once again, he’d be relegated to second behind his brother. But Michael also knew that, on some level, Liz was in love with him, but was it enough to keep her with him?

He felt Liz’s breath against his chest, slow, along with his own, the air still electrically charged, but this time from the confusion, pain, and burgeoning anger inside of Michael. All of it playing on his face, hiding nothing from Liz.

“Just tell me.” Michael finally ground out, pulling his body away for a moment, to settle her on the floor, but pressed forward again, never giving her an inch of space, Whatever she had to tell him about Max, he didn’t want to make it easy for her.

He watched her worry her bottom lip, swollen with his kisses as she seemed to be searching for the right words, “I know I should have told you this sooner, but...I don’t know... I wanted to...” she stuttered, unnerved by his closeness and intensity.

“Wanted to wait until I was completely vulnerable?” Michael interrupted, unable to hide his pain in the sarcasm.

Liz looked up at him, confused. She knew he was annoyed, but the clear resonation of pain in his voice struck her at the heart, “What?”

“You’re leaving aren’t you?” He growled, letting his sorrow at the prospect lay bare for Liz to see, his voice softened, “You’re going back to Max. We’ve been dancing around each other for the past month, Liz. Hell, we’ve been doing this dance since I left. Is it not what you expected? Wanted? Am I not enough for you?”

Liz’s eyes widened as the source of Michael’s pain became blatantly clear and raw before her eyes and she knew she’d made a mistake in not telling him sooner. She shook her head adamantly and damned her heavy tongue for she couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

“What?” the panic heavy in her voice, “Michael I....”

“Hey, Mr. Van Gogh!” Sweet’s voice rang out from the front door, immediately halting Liz’s protests at Michael’s assumptions, “What the hell are you still doing home?” he asked as he drew near the kitchen, “I saw your car parked outside and I know Miriam is expecting you at ten. Trust me Son, you do not want to face that lovely woman’s wrath if you’re la... Oh... uh...Oh....”

Sweet instantly forgot his playful ribbing when he entered the kitchen, greeted by the sight of his two young friends pressed together against the refrigerator. Liz’s jersey was ripped at the top and she quickly pulled it together to protect her modesty, leaving Sweet with little doubt as to what he’d walked in on.

Michael stepped away from Liz angrily, glancing at the clock, “Shit!” he hissed, “Miriam is gonna kill me!”

He took a step to walk away, when he felt Liz reach her free hand out to grab his, “Michael...” she whispered, begging him to stay so they could clear things up, but if he was right he didn’t need to hear it. Max still hung between them and it couldn’t come at a worse time.

Michael shook his head at Liz, taking his hand away from hers, “Not now, Liz.” he said hoarsely, “I just can’t right now.”

He watched her nod as tears well in her eyes and fought to keep his own at bay. She was crying. Good. At least it wasn’t easy for her, because it sure as hell was killing him.

Sweet had no idea what was going on between Michael and Liz, they seemed to be all over the board and his normally honed intuition about their feelings seemed to be jammed by the amount of conflicting emotions in the room. All he knew was that he didn’t want Michael to leave Liz. Not with them being as broken as they both looked.

“Hell Michael, don’t worry about Miriam.” he said breaking the tension in an attempt at innocent cheer, “You tell her why you were late and she’ll understand.”

“She’d be about the only one.” Michael said plaintively, not take his eyes away from Liz. Without another word Michael strode out of the kitchen slamming the front door on his way out.

Sweet raised a hand to his cover his heart, dumbfounded at what he’d seen and the pain it caused him to witness love falling apart before his eyes. What had gone so wrong? He looked to Liz, who was raising a shaky hand to wipe away the cascade of tears spilling from her eyes. He held his arms open to her and she immediately shuffled into his comforting embrace, letting out the sobs she could no longer hold inside.

“Shhh... Baby girl.” Sweet said trying to soothe the distraught young woman in his arms, “Tell me what happened.”

Liz sniffled, looking up at the weathered old soul and shaking her head, “God Sweet, I really screwed up. I hurt Michael. I should have told him about filing for divorce from Max weeks ago, but...”

“You wanted to handle it on your own. Your marriage. Your problem.” Sweet stated.

Liz nodded wiping away a fresh tear, “But all I’ve done is put up this wall between us, not letting him in and now he’s just confused. I just wanted to handle this so once I was really free...we could be together.”

“And something broke this morning.” Sweet observed with a slight chuckle.

Liz nodded again still clutching her torn jersey together, “I was so stupid. One second I’m handing him his keys and the next, I’m kissing him. It was just a small kiss, but then he kissed me back and....” she trailed off knowing that her state was pretty much telling the tale of what happened next.

Sweet furrowed his brow at her, “Darlin’, I missed the part where Michael kissing you back is a bad thing.”

“It wasn’t.” Liz said almost wistfully, unconsciously bring her fingers to her swollen lips in memory of Michael’s burning kisses, but then shook her head of the thought as the pain in Michael’s eyes came forward, “It was when I decided that would be the perfect moment to tell him about Max and the divorce.”

“Okaaay.” Sweet said still very confused, “Again, I’m missin’ the part where you telling Michael about your impendin’ divorce would have put the fury in his eyes that I saw.”

Liz covered her face with her hands and they sat on the couch, “Well, when Michael kisses you, words sorta loose their order or get lost all together. And all I managed to get out was Max’s name.”

“Oh Lord...” Sweet shook his own head and looked the heavenward.

“Yeah. So Michael, not being the most secure when it comes to Max, jumped to the conclusion that I was leaving. Going back to Max., like this ‘dance” as he called it, we’ve been doing this past month, hasn’t been enough. Like he’s not enough for me.” Let out a small growl of frustration as fresh tears pricked her eyes, “God, when all I want to tell the stubborn jackass is that...I love him.”

Sweet let out a small laugh at the situation, and the forlorn woman seated next to him, “You’re right, Liz. You did screw up.”

Liz arched an eyebrow at him, “You know for a guy who’s nickname is ‘Sweet’, you sure didn’t sugarcoat that, did you?”

Sweet shrugged his shoulders, “Can’t have everythin’ with a spoonful of molasses, Baby girl.” he mused, the wrapped an arm around her shoulders. You shoulda told Michael about the divorce and about all the trouble that husband of yours has been givin’ you. Now the poor boy is confused. He loves you so much, Liz, he can’t hide it, but he won’t let himself settle for only part of you.”

“He shouldn’t have to, Sweet.” Liz agreed, “And he can have all of me. I just need to tell him.” she worried her lips in thought, “If it’s not too late. He was so...wounded.”

“Well to be fair, I didn’t help things along, did I?. I’m sure if my meddlin’ old ass hadn’t walked in it would have been said and the stubborn jackass might have actually heard the words for once.”

“What if its too late?” Liz pondered, refusing to blame any of the situation she was in on Sweet. This was her problem to own.

Sweet tapped Liz’s nose with his index finger, his kind eyes smiling at her, “I said you screwed up, Liz. Don’t mean you can’t salvage things with Michael, now did I?”

“You think so?” Liz asked a little less than hopeful. She knew how Michael could be when he was hurt. That stone wall he was so damn good at building would be fortified.

“Trust me, Liz.” Sweet offered, “Michael hasn’t given up on you yet. You’ll see at that show of his tonight.”

Liz gave Sweet a quizzical look and he shook his head, telling her she wasn’t getting anymore out of him. With the shrug of her shoulders she retired to the bathroom to shower and dress for the few hours she had to run the bar.

~*~

Michael stormed into Miriam’s gallery, the last thing on his mind being the lighting on his artwork, though it provided him with something to occupy his time other than the thoughts of Liz leaving, the tears in her eyes, and the jumbled mess that were his emotions.

He couldn’t bring himself to care that he was late, it was only a lousy five minutes and to anyone else they would have been insignificant. But to Miriam Toussant, on show day, every single one of those missed minutes counted.

“Yes. I’m late and I don’t want to talk about it. It’s five minutes, get over it.” Michael grumbled at the older redhead as he saw her scowl on her face.

“Well good God damn mornin’ to you, Michael.” Miriam said a little shocked by Michael’s apparent grumpiness, sensing this was beyond oversleeping. There was an edge in his voice.

Michael softened a bit when he realized how rude he’d been to her. She’d been working just as hard as he was to make sure the show went off with a hitch and he was taking out his pain on her, “Sorry, Miriam.” he said, then watched her open her mouth to ask him what was wrong, “But I still don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fine.” Miriam surrendered raising her hands in the air, “But if this grouchiness of yours is an attempt at playing the brooding and moody artist stereotype...Knock it off.”

“It’s not an act, Mir.” Michael said trying to lighten the mood, not only to get her off his case, but to make himself feel a little better, “I’m always brooding and moody, you’re just too busy telling me how talented I am to notice.”

Miriam rolled her eyes at the smart aleck young man, “Not so talented that I won’t smack that perfectly combed noggin of yours, Wiseass.”

Michael gave her a crooked half-hearted smile, “I really am sorry I’m late.” he sighed cryptically “You have no idea how sorry.”

While Michael stood back studying the placement of his paintings in the large gallery, Miriam took the opportunity to study him. The furrowed brow and the clenched fist the way he was trying to pretend to be thinking about his art when it was so clear to her that his art could have been lying on the floor in a puddle and he wouldn’t have paid any mind. Then Miriam’s eye caught something on Michael that she found wholly amusing and the reason for his tardiness had become all too clear.

“Oh Michael...” she tutted shaking her head at him, “Baby, you’ve never been on time for anything as long as I’ve known you.” She shook her head and pointed up at him, “But, Casanova, I’d have let you be hours late if this had anything to do with it.”

Michael squinted down at the woman in confusion, staring at her pointed finger. He looked down at his clothes and found them in order despite his hasty retreat from home and for once they actually matched, “What are you talking about?”

Miriam giggled at the befuddled young artist, “I mean, dear boy, unless you’ve been spending some quality time with a Hoover, I’m gonna assume that you and Liz finally came to your senses.”

Michael’s eyes widened slightly and he caught his reflection in the mirrored wall, behind the receptionist’s desk. Just beneath his long hair, resting quite obviously on his neck, was a dark purple bruise that matched the shape of Liz’s mouth exactly. He raised his hand up to the mark, closing his eyes at the memory only a few minutes old, of how those lips had felt on his neck.

“Bout damn time if you ask me...or Sweet... or just about anyone else with in five feet of the two of you.” Miriam mused. “Cuz that’s the distance you have to keep the amount of electricity you two have.”

Michael’s head and heart were still reeling from the mornings events. How could Liz kiss him like that, let him touch her... if she was going to leave? It didn’t make any God damn sense. But it wasn’t something he wanted to explore....with anyone, despite his friendship with Miriam. At least not today.

“You so sure it was Liz?” Michael joked, hoping Miriam might drop the subject if he even hinted at the prospect of another woman.

Miriam blew out an unamused puff of air at the notion, “Please Michael. If I thought it was anyone other than Liz, I’d knock you over the head with one of your paintings.”

“Feeling a bit violent this morning, aren’t we?” Michael teased, it being the second time Miriam had threatened him with physical violence since he walked in the door.

“Don’t change the subject.” Miriam mildly scolded, trying, unsuccessfully, to hide a smirk “I see through you Michael Joyce. When it comes to you, there’s no there woman, but Liz.”

Michael looked away from Miriam, not wanting her to give her the satisfaction of seeing how right she was. Miriam wasn’t content to let him shut her out, but she didn’t want to make him any angrier or raw than he already seemed to be. Her face grew serious and she placed a gentle hand on Michael’s shoulder.

“You sure you don’t want to talk about it , Sugar?” she asked, almost motherly.

Michael shook his head, “It’s between Liz and I, Mir. You’ve been great to me, but...”

Miriam held up her hands, “I got it, Michael. You’re sticking with the whole brooding and moody artist thing... I know when to keep my nose out of your business.”

“Can I get that in writing?” Michael teased with a smirk.

Miriam narrowed her eyes at Michael, “You know, you’re paintings would triple in value if you died. Don’t tempt me.”

Michael mock shivered, “I, uh, think I’m gonna just go adjust the lighting on that one.” He pointed aimlessly to no painting in particular, realizing he was pushing his luck with Miriam.

“You do that , Boy.” Miriam returned in feigned menace, “Run.”

When Michael was half way across the room Miriam called out to him, “Is Liz coming tonight?”

Michael turned on his heel and shrugged his shoulders. An answer that seemed so clear only twenty minutes earlier, was now so uncertain. “Don’t know.” he answered.

The older woman watched as Michael, picked out a painting and needlessly distracted himself with already perfect lighting.

“Oh Michael, “ she whispered to herself, “If Liz doesn’t know how you feel about her yet, she sure as hell will if she comes tonight. What are you gonna do then, Sug?”

~*~
TBC...




posted on 11-Dec-2002 1:15:03 AM
Chapter 9 (The Show)

Michael could have spent the rest of the day being nervous about the various art critics who would come to pick apart his paintings, but Michael Guerin never gave two shits about what other people thought about his creative expression, and that was a sentiment that had carried over to Michael Joyce. He saw the critics even being at his show as arbitrary and never did anything to cozy up to them, hoping for a better review.

Miriam had made the suggestion to drop the icy act upon his very first show, but she learned quickly that she should thank her lucky stars that Michael’s middle finger at people telling other people what’s good and what’s crap, was purely figurative, and if she kept pushing he might just make that analogy literal.

Michael wasn’t even fretting about his potential buyers. He respected most of them, because they’d found something in his work that touched them enough to part with a few thousand dollars and take home. Most of them liked to pull him aside and ask about his inspiration, hoping for some insight into the artist, but never got it. It was yet another thing Miriam had encouraged him loosen up on, until Michael pointed out to her that, most people didn’t really want to know him, they just wanted to see if they were right. The buyers got what they needed from the painting and just needed confirmation of their feelings, not something Michael was willing to give.

So if it wasn’t the buyers and it wasn’t the critics that made Michael uncharacteristically distracted throughout the day leading up to the show, that what could it be? Miriam had little doubt as to whom, by the way Michael kept reaching up and almost caressing the dark bruise on his neck. Liz.

It tore at the Miriam’s heart to see Michael with such a heavy heart and unwilling to burden his troubles upon a another sympathetic soul. But one thing she knew about Michael Joyce, was that while he might have enjoyed playing a man of mystery, he wore his every emotion in his body and face, if you just knew how to look, and few people cared to try and see that. She only hoped Liz did.

Michael had tortured himself all day with the memory of Liz’s body pressed against his. Her soft skin beneath his fingers and her lips, God those lips, not only accepting his ardent kisses, but returning them. Why did she kiss him? Why did she have to step over that line? And why did he have to follow her so willingly over it?

Michael looked around the gallery, first to his standards, the ones of New Orleans and her various characters, loves and charms, and then to his new pieces, towards the back, the ones that he knew were so revealing, but only to one person. He was tempted to call the bar and tell Liz not to come. After what had happened between them that morning, nothing could ever be the same again. He and Liz had taken down walls they’d both put up and let each other in, or at least he thought they had. If Liz had truly taken her wall down, why did Michael still see Max lurking behind it?

Fear wanted her to stay away. That scared little boy inside of Michael, tired of having his hand smacked away from the brass ring no matter how hard he tried, wanted him to give up and stop feeling the horrible sensation of falling off the damn merry-go-round and spinning into disappointment and heartache. Love was not a horse easily hopped back upon. Most wild things aren’t.

But as strong as that fear might have been, he knew not wanting her there was a lie to himself. When he painted his pieces he knew she’d be there to see them. That she’d see every last vestige of his soul poured into those paintings and laid bare for her to see. He knew that he was living on borrowed time when it came to suppressing his feelings for her. Maybe that was why his resolve had crumbled so easily that morning. He knew she’d see his love in those simple brush strokes, because she could always do that, see him.

Liz already had Michael on his knees, emotionally, for her, why not show her how much. That despite the “dance” they’d been doing, it was more than just that to him. She touched him in a place that no one had ever gotten to before, and for once in his life, he’d invited it. As much at peace as he was, when she walked in those bar doors a month earlier, he knew everlasting peace could only come from completion with her. Not just sexually, although that held high appeal for him, but emotionally.

He wanted Liz in his life, but would never say needed. If she left, he would still go on breathing, painting and living, but something would always be missing and all he would have left of her were these paintings and even most of them would find new homes after that night. Could he really let her extract herself from his life that easily? Would asking her not to, make him just as bad as Max? He could hardly believe it, but for once in a very long while, Michael understood what the pain of losing Liz’s love must have meant to Max.

As seven quickly approached, Michael kept a close eye on the door, unconsciously, or maybe not so much, to see if Liz would indeed show up. The thought, among the many that day, had occurred to him that after their exchange, and from what he could see, mutual heartache, she might just make her retreat that night. He put a hand over his heart at that proposition, still having so many things to say to her.

He’d tried his best to keep up his end of the social conversation with critics, guests and buyers, but Michael was never a man of many words. He preferred to keep things simple and to the point. And when it came to his paintings he felt they should speak for themselves, what the each person took away from them was their’s to own, not his. In his opinion, no one had copyright on free thought.

Miriam watched Michael from across the room as he was vaguely listening to a wealthy female admirer of his. She, having bought several of his earlier works, seemed obviously intent on adding him to her collection rather than his art. But if this woman had really looked at his new pieces, she would have seen that Michael saw no other woman but Liz.

Michael had been listening to the early thirties, attractive brunette divorcee drone on about the mood behind one of his new pieces, doing everything she could to detach the relationship of the “model” to him , when it was so clear that she meant something to him, consumed him.

This woman was trying to overanalyze what, to Michael, was entirely simple. Yes, while his feelings were laid bare, that need not mean they were in anyway complicated. He’d followed some advice and painted what he loved, there was nothing existential or metaphorical about it.

His attention was mercifully and torturously taken away from the woman when, promptly at seven, he saw Sweet walk into the gallery with a stunning Liz on his arm. Her dark hair was piled loosely on her head and her eyes were dark and smokey, but still did nothing to hide the deep brown that seemed to be Michael’s siren song. His eyes traveled further down to her attire She was clad in a black, loose-fitting cocktail dress held together up by flimsy ties on each shoulder and had no adornment or design. When she wasn’t walking held nicely to her curves and when she was, swayed perfectly around her legs, accented by her strappy, slightly heeled sandals. She was the epitome of simple and beautiful.

He couldn’t help but smile at the way she clung to Sweet’s arm for support. She’d told him it’d been a while since she’d worn high heels and she looked as though she was on very unsure footing, but in only the way she could made her look like the most graceful woman in the room.

Michael watched Liz’s eyes dart around the room, and by the look on her face , had yet seen his new paintings. Moreover she was looking for him, biting her lip and marring her carefully applied lipstick in the process. She seemed, worried and anxious, much like Michael felt.

“...And the model for this particular painting, she’s more as a point of reference for the light you’re playing with here. I see it as more the dark and the light contrasting creating a tunnel effect. She’s almost insignificant....” the woman next to him carried on, stopping when she realized Michael wasn’t even looking at her let alone paying attention to one word she’d said.

“Ahem.” she cleared her throat a bit haughtily when she saw that Michael attention had turned to the very girl in the painting, “Ahem, Mr. Joyce are you even listening to me?”

“What?” Michael asked, taking his eyes away from Liz for a moment when he heard the woman next to him trying to gain his attention.

He looked back up at the painting she’d been talking about and shook his head, “No, I haven’t really been listening to you, because for once I feel like the viewer has no fucking clue what they’re looking at. It’s not about darkness and light, nor is it about a tunnel effect. The model is central, as she is in all my new pieces.”

He pointed a finger up to the painting, titled The More Things Change..., and let out an exasperated sigh, “It was closing time and the rest of the damn bar was dark. She had the light on so she could do the books. Sometimes, there isn’t deep meaning in my paintings. It just is what it is.”

The brunette stood, mouth agape at the dressing down the hunky artist had just given her. Michael gathered she’d never actually been told the truth by anyone before and especially not someone she was about to spend thousands of dollars on. Michael looked once more at the painting, then back towards the front of the gallery and then back down that the divorcee still reeling from his honesty.

“That model, is not insignificant. She’s everything.” he said narrowing his eyes at the woman, far from fooled by her growing indignance. “Excuse me.” he added, turning away from her to make his way towards Liz.

Sure he was about to lose the divorcee’s business with his cantankerous rant, but it was business he was more than willing part with. It was one thing to criticize the work, Michael could deal with that, but the model, never. Liz deserved better than to be put on the walls of a woman more interested in his strokes in the bedroom than his talent as an artist..

Liz looked up at Sweet anxiously as Miriam led the older man away, knowing the couple would need to be alone. He patted her hand and winked at her, trying to reassure the worried girl that indeed everything would be okay. Liz’s faith in Sweet was infinite, but this was her heart, and Michael’s they were dealing with, tow very fragile and unsure things at the moment.

Liz turned her attention to Michael now only a feet away and for the first time since she’d returned to him, she couldn’t read his face, for it seemed to read so many different emotions. Confusion, pain, relief and trepidation. One that was surprisingly missing though was his anger. What had been burning so brightly on his face that morning seemed to be gone, or at the very least deeply buried inside him. She wondered if he’d tucked it away for the show and was content to release it afterwards and she wondered how much it pained him to do so.

“You came.” he said, caught somewhere between relief and surprise.

“Of course I did, Michael. I know how important this is to you.” she answered, deliberate in her double meaning, seeing what kind of response he would have.

And awkward silence settled between them and the hum of the crowd noise surrounding them assaulted their ears. Liz wanted to yell ,scream, or shout to Michael that his fears about her leaving were unwarranted. That she had never given a moments thought to leaving him, because she never wanted to know what a day without Michael felt like again. But it was far too public a place to make such a declaration. She couldn’t count on Michael’s discretion nor her own when she told him about the divorce and she needed them to be someplace where discretion wasn’t a factor.

“Look Michael,” she said after taking a deep breath, “we obviously need to talk. There are some things I need you to understand. Some things I’ve been keeping from you, but this isn’t the right place is it?”

Michael looked around at the increasingly crowding gallery and nodded, “No it really isn’t.” he let out a puff of air, annoyed at himself, “And the truth is I’ve been keeping some stuff from you too, Liz.”

Liz furrowed her brow at him in surprise. Of the two of them she’d felt Michael had been the more honest and forthcoming, or at least it appeared that way. What could he possibly have kept from her besides his suppressed feelings for her?

Michael smiled at her confusion, “Trust me. You’ll see.” he answered her cryptically.

Tempted to ask him exactly what he meant Liz grew distracted by the various people calling out Michael’s name, trying to gain the young artist’s attention. This was his night, they could clear the air later.

“I should let you get back to your teeming masses.” she gestured at the crowd of people with a smile, “I’ll be with Sweet if you need me.”

“Not like I could miss you.” Michael told her raising an eyebrow.

Liz blushed, unconsciously smoothing a nonexistent wrinkle on her dress. Her eyes widened when she caught the dark purple mark her mouth had left on his neck that morning and she let out a small gasp. She immediately grabbed her purse and began searching for her compact, much to Michael’s confusion.

“Liz, seriously you look...uh... beautiful.” he reassured her.

Liz brought out the compact opening it and removing the pad, “Its not for me, “she tried to explain, “Its for you, I...um.... gave you a...” she raised her hand to his neck. When Michael gently grabbed her wrist halting her movements she rolled her eyes, “I’m not going to put make-up on you, Michael. I’m just going to heal it through the pad. Make it look like I cov...”

Michael shook his head, lowering his voice so only she could hear him, “Don’t Liz. Don’t cover it up or make it go away. I earned it.”

Liz nodded her understanding. She had similar marks on her body that were hidden by make up or clothing, she having been unable to make them disappear as well, proud of the way Michael had claimed her without apology.

Liz could only watch, her tongue once again heavy, as Michael walked back into the crowd shaking hands with journalists and collectors.

“I’m not leaving.” she whispered, mentally chastising herself for not at least giving Michael that reassurance.

~*~

Liz caught sight of Sweet and Miriam toward the back of the gallery where Michael’s new artwork was being showcased. As she made her way towards them, she got the odd feeling of being watched and caught the conspiratorial whispers of the gallery patrons.

“Do you really think that’s her?”

“Well, I saw him talking to her.”

“That doesn’t prove anything. Maybe it’s just a coincidence.”

“Come on. The hair. The eyes. I’m tellin’ you it’s her.”

“I guess... but she seems so much smaller... Are you sure?”

‘Sure about what?’ Liz wanted to know, unable to shake the feeling that she was the exhibit. As she rounded the corner joining Miriam and Sweet everything became suddenly clear. She looked up at the canvas Miriam and Sweet were studying and was met with her own chocolate brown eyes staring back at her.

Sweet felt the tiny girl grasp his arm in order to steady herself and heard the tiny whistle of her breath being taken away. He wrapped an arm around her waist and squeezed her, “Breathe, Baby girl.”

Breathe. How does one do that after seeing yourself up on a canvas? Liz stared up at the painting marveling at the moment Michael had captured. It was her the night Michael had left. She was standing on the porch step in her worn robe, eyes glistening with tears and arms wrapped around her body in an attempt to replace the warmth Michael’s embrace had provided her with only moments before it.

Liz shivered, remembering the chill she felt that night and every night after it until she walked back into Michael’s life. She glanced down at the title, Last Look, and realized that the painting was exactly as Michael had seen her before he’d closed the door to the Nova and drove away, obeying her request to not look back.

“I-Its m-me.” She stammered, overwhelmed. No wonder Michael had been so secretive about his new muse. It was her.

“Sug,” Miriam said softly, laying a hand on Liz’s arm, “They’re all you. Every single one of them.”

Liz tore her fixed gaze away from her anguished twin in the tattered flannel robe and looked around the room. Miriam was right. Every single new piece by Michael Joyce had the same dark-haired beauty in them. Some were happy, others sad. They were all seemingly innocuous moments in time. Moments Liz hadn’t even realized Michael was watching her. And in every single one of them, even the not so glamorous ones, she was, and truly felt, beautiful.

Foresaking Faulkner, a portrait of Liz in the park, she serious look of concentration on her face, trying for the umpteenth time to get through Ulysses.

The painting of her doing the books, having a conversation with Sweet, entitled Old Souls and Millenium Eve was a brief trip the farmer’s market. He even painted her writing in her journal on the balcony, clad in that red jersey, steaming mug of coffee by her side, Morning Confessions

Liz let out a nervous giggle and blushed when she saw Rock Star, a picture of her during one of her many impromptu Metallica concerts in the kitchen. Michael captured it all. And while the recurring theme was this woman, another one screamed out of the paintings at her, Michael’s intense love.

Liz recalled the time when her life truly changed, Max had shared flashes of her, how he saw her, and she remembered feeling beautiful in his eyes. But she also remembered feeling almost idolized, put on a pedestal that left her only room to fall from grace in Max’s eyes every time she shattered that image. At one time she wanted to strived to be that beautiful for Max, but found it an impossible goal to reach no matter how much he wanted to and how much she wanted to be for him.

But in these pieces, these seemingly arbitrary, but, in fact, carefully chosen moments, Liz felt as beautiful as Michael had painted her. He didn’t leave out her flaws or paint her in some ethereal light. He let her hair be messy and her eyes be puffy or her mouth be a open a little too wide in laughter and it was all beautiful because that’s how Michael saw her, loved her. She wasn’t an angel there on earth who never made a mistake. She was a woman, human, flawed. She wasn’t perfection incarnate, she was just perfection for him. Real. Attainable, and yet just out of his reach. If only he knew all he had to do was try.

Liz had been so quiet throughout their entire walk through of Michael’s paintings. A myriad of emotions seemed to play out on her face, each one reflecting the mood of each piece and the particular memory it brought about. Sweet didn’t dare let go of Liz feeling her tremble against him, weakened by what she was seeing.

“You okay, Liz?” he asked her as they reached a small section containing Michael paintings that weren’t for sale.

“Hmm?” Liz asked as if being snapped out of a trance, “Um... yeah... I think so...”

Miriam and Sweet exchanged a worried glance, wondering if seeing Michael’s loved laid bare for her was too much to take in. Even to te casual observer Michael’s passion for Liz tugged at the heart, but being the object of that passion had to be a whole other experience entirely.

“Mir?” Liz asked, “Did Michael tell you why he wasn’t selling these?”

Miriam smiled and nodded, “As much as Michael tells anyone anything about his paintings.”

“What about this one?” Liz pointed to the one titled, Little Miss Scientist, and raising an amused eyebrow.

It was Liz at the university, looking at the college board where she’d found Michael’s ad for a waitress. They’d stopped by there one afternoon to take down the ad and Michael must have caught her looking at the various flyers on guest lecturers for the upcoming fall semester. But what struck Liz was the reflection in the glass of the board. From behind Liz was clad in a pair of denim shorts, tank top and back pack, but her reflection shone her in blue hospital scrubs, a crisp white lab coat and a clipboard at her hip.

“Michael said something about saving this one for a friend,” Miriam told her, “Then changed the subject when I pressed about who the friend was. He said he’s taking some of the money he gets from the sale of his paintings and putting it into a scholarship of some sort. Hadn’t really worked out the details yet.”

It hardly surprised Liz that Michael would be doing something to give back to the community he’d come to love and be a part of and while Michael had never been one for the confines of the classroom, he knew how important education was. He also knew that while Liz never regretted much in her life, even the bad things, she did regret never realizing her dream of going to college. During their balcony chats after closing the bar, Liz mused about how by now she thought she might be interning at some big lab or hospital, making her name in the field of molecular biology. Some of Liz Parker’s dreams still lived inside Liz Jeffries.

She and Michael had discussed her taking some classes or even a lecture or two at the university, just to keep her mind sharp. And since sculpting wasn’t really working out like Michael had liked, she suggested he take a photography class, given his eye for things around New Orleans. Who better to capture the great lady’s children and charms?

Miriam, Sweet and Liz moved onto the next painting and Sweet let out a small chuckle, I’ll bet my fool heart that this one is going up in the bar.”

Liz, with a tearful smile, looked up at the painting she knew would be her favorite and Michael’s. Titled Finding Ulysses, it was Liz standing in the doorway of the bar the night she’d walked back into Michael’s life. She was small and weary, but still beautiful, and now free.

God, why had he kept all of this from her? To protect himself? Her? How could she blame him for hiding? Hadn’t she done her fair share of that?

Liz looked away from the paintings and searched for Michael, finding him standing in a darkened corner by himself watching her reactions to the paintings. The boy, man, who preferred to remain in the shadows was now staring out from them, daring her to deny his feelings for her. The proof of his love splashed up on the canvas in the red of her hockey jersey and the blackness of her hair. All that love she saw on the canvas now danced in his eyes and she wondered why she’d been so blind to it before.

By some unknown force she found herself walking towards Michael, when all she wanted to do was get out of that gallery. She wanted to cry, weep like a baby at the privilege of being the object of Michael’s love, the thing he cherished, not worshiped. And the weeping model would ruin his show for him. She should have just run, but she just kept walking towards him.

Liz felt the weight of Michael’s love, and she suddenly felt very weak, not physically, but emotionally. Her whole world, idea of what love was supposed to be had just been turned on its axis by this man. It was as if she was opening her eyes for the first time and seeing what love was supposed to look like. Michael.

Love through Michael’s eyes was bright and almost painful to look at, in a blissful way. He was opening her arms and showing her what love was supposed to feel like and it’s power was overwhelming and frightening. Love through Michael’s eyes was intense and was more than just to be felt it was to be lived. It was to accept something so uncontrollable into your life and let it guide you. It was trust, never something easily given by Michael, and he was giving it to her without apology.

She felt herself breaking apart and tried to pull any lingering strength she could to just remain upright as she kept her slow and steady journey to Michael, holding his eyes. She thought she’d known how Michael felt about her, but never on this level. Not until she saw it in the medium he felt best expressed his soul. Loving her caused him pain, but only because he was unable to adequately express it in the way she felt she deserved it.

Liz chastised herself once again for not telling him about the divorce. That her selfish need to prove to him that she was his completely had caused Michael so much pain. She believed that in order for Michael to love her completely she had to be totally free of Max, when it was so obvious that despite their unspoken agreement, Michael would have her anyway he could. All she had to do was ask.

She was also angry at him. In a purely childish way, she would admit. Here she thought she had the ultimate proof of her love and devotion for him. Her filing for divorce and then he had to go an out do her by making her his muse. By telling the world he loved her, but knowing only the true meaning behind each brush stroke would hit home with her. She loved that he’d chosen her as his muse, but a little warning would have been nice.

Now she stood a mere inches from him, not hiding the tears she’d been trying to keep at bay. God, she loved this man. This frustrating, complex, sexy, talented, deep, intense man. She loved him with her whole being and she was so frightened that she wouldn’t be able to convey that enough. Not like he had.

Liz stood before Michael, remembering her words to Sweet that morning. That all she wanted to do was tell the stubborn jackass that she loved him, and now she was sure it just wasn’t enough to tell him. That he wouldn’t see that she ran just as deep as he did. That despite being married to Max, he, Michael, was the one who coursed through her veins occupied her heart and melded with her soul. How could he think she’d leave him when he’d managed to not only capture his love for her on those canvases, but hers for him? The jerk.

“Liz?” Michael asked softly, seeing she had something to say to him. Something through the tears that ran down her face. “Do you not like them? I mean I probably should have asked you...”

Liz held her hand up asking him to stop talking, “Michael, they’re beautiful.” her breath caught with the sob that had lurched into her throat. She could hold her tears in any longer, “They are so beautiful... and you... God.. you...”

“I’m what Liz?” Michael asked, dying to know what Liz had to say. She looked like she was feeling so much. Was it enough to get her to stay with him?

Liz looked up at him with water filled eyes, “You are a jackass, Michael.”

Michael watched her, run out of the gallery stunned by what he’d heard. This wasn’t how he’d thought she’d react. He thought she’d see everything and understand. Had he just pushed her out of his life forever. Were the paintings to much. Had his love, like Max’s, suffocated her?

Damning his admirers Michael took the lead weights that seemed to have kept his legs form moving the second she’d turned away and began running after her. He was stopped by a strong hand and was about to shove his obstacle out of the way when he realized the hand was connected to his surrogate father, Sweet.

“Let her go, Michael.” he said insistently. “Can’t expect someone to experience love like yours undiluted and not be overwhelmed. She’ll come to you when she’s ready.”

Michael couldn’t help the tears that stung his eyes, “Jesus Sweet... I’m losing her.”

Sweet shook his head, “You didn’t do anything wrong, Son. Trust me.”

“If I didn’t, then why did she run?” Michael asked, still trying to move forward to go after her.

“Why did you?” Sweet asked, referring to Michael’s hasty retreat that morning.

Michael relaxed his body as the answer hit him, “Because its terrifying to love her this much.”

~*~

Hours passed and after the show was over Michael, Miriam and Sweet headed back to Ulysses in hopes that Liz might return there. The bar had been closed that night because of Michael’s show, so there were no patrons to fuss over. However, Sweet and Miriam were getting dizzy watching Michael pace back and forth with worry about Liz. Where she was. What she was thinking. If she was safe.

Sweet and Miriam sat at the bar sipping warm brandy, tempted to pour a snifter full down Michael’s throat if only to get the boy to relax. But years ago Michael explained that he didn’t drink. Period. And it wasn’t until Liz told Sweet about Hank that they thought they understood why.

Sweet rubbed at the arm Liz had kept a tight grip on that night feeling a slight, dull twinge of pain that had decided to reside there. Miriam looked over at her sometime paramour with a furrowed brow.

“You okay there. Sweet?”

Sweet nodded and chuckled, “Oh sure. I just think Liz held onto my arm a little too tight this evening. Who knew she had such a strong grip.”

Miriam laughed along with him and they’re gaze once again fell to Michael. He’d stopped pacing and now stood at the glass door entrance to the bar, searching for any sign of Liz.

“Sweet, if Liz doesn’t come back, that boy is gonna die of a broken heart, I just know it.” Miriam told him, a near mother’s concern touching her voice.

Sweet shook his head, “She’ll be back. I can feel it in my heart.” he moved a hand to tap his heart in emphasis then returned the hand to his sore arm.

Michael rested his forehead against the glass door, cursing that even with his heightened senses he couldn’t find Liz in the dark. The not knowing was killing him. He might have said his heart was breaking, but the pieces, at this point were merely cracked, waiting for a negative word from Liz to completely shatter to the ground.

Michael shook his head, he could hardly blame Liz for calling him a jackass. He’d broken a promise to her that he’d made a month ago. They’d sat up on the balcony and he promised her that if, at some point, she felt the need to move on, he wouldn’t try and stop her. Yet, with his paintings, his silent declaration, he’d done just that.

But how could he live with himself and not at least try to get Liz to stay. He ‘d also told her what was his was hers. How was he to know that would come to encompass so many things. That not having been able to share anything with her over the years they’d been apart, had led him to share everything, and now maybe too much.

Michael had been so lost in thought he didn’t notice movement from the sidewalk until, a moment later, he was face to face with Liz on the other side of the glass. Her eyes were puffy with her tears, and her arms were wrapped around her waist. It was my no means a cold night, but Michael swore he saw goose bumps on her skin.

Michael swallowed thickly, waiting for some sign from her. Something that told him where she stood with them. If he would always be stuck inside looking out at her or if all he had to do was open the door and let her in.

His answer came when her eyes fell to the door handle, a silent request to open the door and let her in. Michael did so, unsure of why his hand moved so slowly to do so. Maybe a part of him was still nervous about what she might have to say to him. But hadn’t he been running scared his whole life? Wasn’t it time to be brave?

Michael turned the lock and opened the door part way, holding it ajar for her. She had to take the next step...

The next step, was unfortunately taken for her when the sound of a glass shattering on the floor tingled in both their ears. The sounds of Miriam’s gasp and strangled scream came next and both Michael and Liz turned to see what the commotion was about, only to find Sweet , hand over his heart slumping off the barstool and onto the floor. Agony consumed the old man’s face and his breathing became shallow. It seemed the pain he’d been feeling in his heart that evening had little to do with love.

“Oh God!” Miriam practically screamed, panic setting in as she realize what was happening to her friend, “Sweet, what...Michael! Liz! Call 911!”

~*~

TBC... Bricks can be thrown in this direction. Thank you. *happy*


posted on 15-Dec-2002 1:52:02 PM
Chapter 10

Michael and Liz shared a frightened glance before instincts took hold and they rushed to the floor, both falling on their knees at Sweet’s side. The old man writhed in agony his hand clutching his chest, a massive heart attack quickly draining him of life.

Behind them Miriam was frantic, she was hyperventilating and her hands were shaking violently. She kept rasping out, that they needed to call an ambulance, but her brain had seemed to shut off and her voice couldn’t work, “Hospital... help....!”

Sweet shook his head at the hysterical woman, despite the pain he was in, “No good....” he panted, “Lord....gonna take me... before then....”

Liz and Michael could feel the truth of Sweet’s word, both feeling their friend’s life force ebbing away with each struggling beat of his heart. A heart Michael felt could keep the whole world running with its sympathetic beat, was suddenly unable to keep time and it seemed Sweet’s gentle soul was not long for this world.

Michael’s own heart was shattering at witnessing the slow painful death of a man whom not only was his best friend, but had become so much more. Sweet had become something Michael never realized he needed, even as a grown man, a father. He’d given Michael someone to look up to, admire. His love had been unconditional, kind, and oddly, natural.

Sweet had unknowingly worn down the edges of Michael’s soul, with their ever changing friendship. Michael saw that a man could love deeply and without apology and still be very much a man. Sweet had taken the blinders off of Michael’s eyes and shown him a world worth watching. Not just New Orleans, but people. He’d shown him that not everyone was out to get him or that hidden agendas were the basis of every relationship. Friendship and respect were sometimes just enough.

Michael stared down into the gentle face of the man he was proud to know as Father, and knew he wasn’t ready to give him up. There is no greater love than that of a son to his father and just because he and Sweet were separated by genetics, generations and galaxies, didn’t make the relationship any less true. In Michael’s opinion, the Lord was gonna have to take a damn rain check on Melvin Walker Johnston’s soul.

Without a second thought to what revealing his secret might later mean, Michael pried Sweet’s hand from his chest and tore open the old man’s shirt, placing his own large palm over Sweet’s failing heart.

“Michael...” Liz said softly, placing a gentle had on his forearm.

Michael took his eyes away from Sweet’s for a moment to look up at Liz. Tears ran down his face at the very real threat beneath his palm, ripping his surrogate father’s life away from him.

“Don’t stop me, Liz.” Michael pleaded, “I can’t lose two of you in one night....I need him....”

Liz shook her head at Michael, reaching her other hand up to wipe away his tears, “I’m not stopping you, Michael. I would never...” a sob choked her words, “I just need to know if you’re strong enough.”

“I-I don’t know.” Michael answered her honestly, “But I have to try. He’s... I have to...”

Yes, Michael had always had the ability to heal, it was his weakest power, even after his brief stint as king. But in the years since, he’d never really had the need to test the limits of his ability aside from healing the minor cut or bruise. And even if he was strong enough, this wasn’t some random stranger he was rescuing. He was beyond emotionally invested in Sweet. He was so scared of losing him, his focus might not be clear enough. He was so damn scared.

Sweet let out a groan and Michael looked over at Liz desperately, “I-I don’t know if I can do it....”

Liz nodded, moving the hand clutching Michael’s forearm down and lifting his palm away from Sweet’s chest, replacing it with her own, “Together...” she said with a shaky breath, and replacing Michael’s hand on her own, “You aren’t going to lose either of us.”

Michael understood what Liz meant, buy “Together...”, but was too wrapped up in saving his father to weigh the meaning of Liz’s following sentence. Even though Liz was a changed human and her powers weren’t as concentrated as her hybrid counterpart, her ability to heal exceeded Michael’s. A gift from Max that she only now fully appreciated.

Separately Liz and Michael would not have been able to heal the increasing damage to Sweet’s faltering heart. But together, Liz’s healing energy combined with Michael’s, they believed they just might be able to save their friend.

Miriam, still in a frenzy and never having been a cool head in stressful situation, could barely believe the inaction she was witnessing and the eerie calm between Michael and Liz. “This is no time to be laying hands, Michael! Liz! Sweet needs a real doctor! A hospital! Damnit! You aren’t even religious!”

When neither Liz or Michael acknowledged her pleas, merely closing their eyes to find their focus Miriam balked, “Well, someone has to call!”

She picked up the phone that was just behind the bar and with shaking hands raised her fingers to the buttons, willing herself to hold it together, get Sweet help. Miriam didn’t notice Michael’s eyes had flown open and his free hand was extended. She shrieked when the phone was yanked from her hands, by some unseen force, and smashed into the mirrored wall behind the bar shattering it into a million pieces.

“Sweet will be dead before they even get in the fucking ambulance!” Michael hollered at the shell shocked woman. He took a deep breath trying to calm himself, “I adore you Mir, but right now I need you to shut up and trust me! Liz and I can help Sweet!”

Miriam nodded slowly, too shaken by what Michael had just done to speak, or even question how it was that he and Liz could accomplish what only trained professionals could. Michael turned back to Sweet, who was noticeably fading and weak, and cradled the nearly unconscious old man’s head in his hand.

A tear slid down Michael’s cheek, a son shaken by his father’s fragile and blue appearance, “Sweet... Come on, Pop...” Michael whispered, his tears strangling his voice, “...Open your eyes... let us help you...”

Liz let loose new tears at the boyish tone in Michael’s voice and watched as Sweet obeyed Michael’s request, fluttering his eyes, his chest rising and falling with his strangled breaths. He raised a weather old hand up to Michael’s face, patting his cheek.

“S’ok Son... my time to go...” he tried to reassure Michael.

“Bullshit old man.” Michael told him insistently, “I’m still too stupid for you to die. Liz and I are gonna take care of you, but you have to keep your eyes open and look at me.”

Sweet couldn’t understand what Michael or Liz could possibly do for him, the death rattle already beginning to shake, but he did as Michael asked, staring deeply into Michael’s amber eyes. They both took a sharp breath as the felt their minds connect when Liz began to emit her healing energy.

Michael felt Liz’s initial struggle to keep the energy flowing and as promised, willed his own through his hand into hers. Michael had never felt more powerful and clear in his whole life and he would later wonder if Max felt the same thing when he’d healed all those people. Liz, Kyle, Jim, the children in the hospital...

Flashes of Sweet’s life danced before Michael’s eyes, from boyhood to the present. He felt Sweet’s fatherly pride in him. His love for his “son”. Never being more happy and content in his life than he was in this time, seeing his son truly in love and loved in return. He didn’t want to die, but he was resigned, knowing he’d be leaving Michael in good hands, Liz’s.

Miriam watched from her place at the bar, gripping the counter, unable to fathom what she was witnessing. Michael, had somehow thrown the phone from her hands, yet hadn’t moved from his place on the floor, nor had he even come close to touching the phone. And now she saw an unearthly glowing coming from both Michael and Liz’s hands, concentrating some sort of energy on Sweet’s chest. Was it God working through these two fallen angels?

After a few more seconds the soft glow began to fade. Sweet took a large deep breath, as though a baby getting its first lung full of life. Gone were the short desperate breaths of a life ending. Liz opened her eyes and looked across Sweet at Michael. A thin sheen of sweat had broken out on both their brows and their own breathing seemed labored. Michael squeezed Liz’s hand still resting on Sweet’s chest, unable to verbalize his thanks for her help. For not questioning him, or stopping him. For knowing how much Sweet meant to him. No words could pass between them if they tried. Together, they’d saved a life. How does one express that feeling?

Their hands parted as Sweet slowly sat up. Michael steadied the still weary and wholly confused man. Sweet could hardly believe what had happened, didn’t know how to explain it, despite being a child of God. One moment he felt as if an elephant had sat on his chest, and it seemed he was heading for the pearly gates. And in the next moment he was staring into his “son’s” amber eyes, finding a calm unexplainable. He felt Liz and Michael’s hands resting on his chest and a soothing warmth, some sort of electric energy replacing the excruciating pain that had taken up residence in his heart. He knew he should have been frightened, but something in Michael’s eyes told him he had nothing to fear, almost as if it was Michael’s voice in his head reassuring him.

Sweet had heard tell of ones life passing before their eyes when death was closing in, but he couldn’t understand the images he was seeing. It was as if it were someone else’s life, Michael’s. He saw a small boy of maybe six struggling to get out of some sort of encasement, He was naked, cold and incredibly frightened. He ran and ran into the night until he thought his lungs might burst. He didn’t know who to trust, how to communicate or even who he was.

Next Sweet saw that same boy a few years later, crouched inside a small closet, his bloody lip staining his t-shirt and a dam of tears, being fought not to shed, filled his amber eyes. The stench of alcohol hung in the air, raised voices filled his ears and the boy covered his head in an effort to drown out the madness around him.

Years seemed to fly by as Sweet stared at those same haunting eyes, only now in the form of a teenage Michael. His hair was wild and unruly, his clothes worn and faded, his eyes narrowing at anyone who so much as looked in his general direction and in his gate he tried to project confidence when all he’d done his whole life was live in fear.

He was in a diner of some sort, with a dark-haired boy, when a familiar brunette passed their table in a green uniform, plastic antennae bobbing on her head. Liz. The dark- haired boy stared after Liz wistfully and while Michael appreciated Liz’s beauty he could only roll his eyes at his friend’s crush. Moments later their was a struggle in the diner. A gun went off and Michael watched as Liz fell to the floor, blood staining the front of her uniform. The dark-haired boy, without thought, rushed to her side, tearing open her top despite Michael’s protests.

Michael ran to a vehicle, honking for the dark-haired boy catching a glimpse of Liz, holding her uniform together, not only alive, but her stomach unmarred by the violence that should have killed her. Sweet got the feeling that it was the beginning of where life led them to. Where, although for the most part separate, this was the moment Michael and Liz’s lives were inextricably melded together.

After that the images came too fast for Sweet to get any sort of real information on. There were dark suits and military fatigues. Guns and loud explosions went off around them. There was a ship, unlike anything he’d ever seen before shooting out from a rock formation. Liz in white, a bride to the dark haired boy. The kiss Michael shared with her when he left. There was love, heartache, hate, anger and fear. And death. Far to much to be experienced by two people still in the spring of their years.

Sweet looked over at Michael and saw worry in they young man’s eyes. He was scared of what Sweet’s reaction would be to what just happened, “You okay?” Michael panted, his breathing still very labored from his and Liz’s efforts.

Sweet nodded numbly, glancing at Liz and finding her in the same state as Michael, exhausted and scared. Michael turned back to Michael patting his shoulder, “Jesus Son... I always knew you was touched by God, but...”

“God...” Liz breathed, her eyes dropping with fatigue, “...had very little to do with this, Sweet.”

“Would someone tell me what the hell just happened?” Miriam asked, finally feeling confident enough to move, joining them on the floor to check Sweet over.

Michael took what energy he had left and crawled over to Liz, knowing the drain of energy would take a far greater toll on her small, human body. He knew she wouldn’t want him to fuss over her so he merely lent his body as a support, letting her lean against him, so she wouldn’t topple over.

“We,” Liz said in answer to Miriam’s question, gesturing between herself and Michael, “... just cheated Death out of one soul too soon to be taken.”

“B-But how?” Miriam asked, wiping Sweet’s damp brow with a bar towel, still in shock and needing a rational explanation for what she’d just seen, “I mean Sweet was dying right before our eyes... You said yourself that there was no time... There is no earthly reason Sweet should be alive right now.”

Sweet watched Michael and Liz give each other a tired smirk at Miriam’s choice of words and though dumbfounded at what the answer indeed was, he couldn’t help but smile, “I think you’re right Miriam. There is no earthly reason... is there, Michael?”

Michael looked to Liz nervously for approval not needed, “Its your story to tell, Michael.” she told him, knowing it should be Michael who told people who’d become like real parents to him, about his origins, his journeys, everything that brought him to here and now.

Michael had finally found someone he could trust enough to share his story with. The good, the bad and the ugly. Liz already knew the tale chapter and verse. She’d been through it with him for the most part, but now his story could be told to fresh ears, without fear of reprisal or condemnation for what he was. Sweet would never turn his back on him, no matter what and while Miriam was shocked, Michael knew her feelings were the same. He was tired of holding back something from people he’d come to love. He’d done that far too much lately and the weight of that load was becoming unbearable.

Michael nodded at Liz, acknowledging that in the wake of nearly losing someone, so dear to them forever, whatever was left unsettled between the two of them would have to wait. Liz slid her hand into Michael’s, in an unconscious lending of strength, what little was left in her possession. Michael took a deep breath and scratched his eyebrow only now realizing the difficult task of beginning his story. Where to start? How does one begin a tale like this?

“I guess I’ll start in Roswell, New Mexico, 1947 when the ship I was housed in crashed landed in the desert...”

“I knew that was no weather balloon.” Miriam whispered to Sweet.

~*~

Michael spent the better part of three hours explaining everything he could to Sweet and Miriam. Occasionally he’d look to Liz to fill in any gaps, but essentially, as Liz had said earlier, it was Michael’s story to tell.

“So, Liz here, is human? But when Max saved her, healed her, she changed?” Sweet asked, a little befuddled.

“Well, it took a couple years, but yeah....” Michael confirmed.

“Don’t worry,” Liz said winking at Sweet. He’d been staring at the now shimmering silver handprint on his chest for some time, “That goes away in a couple days.”

Miriam snorted, “Just don’t wear anything with low necklines. She teased, finally able to relax once she’d heard Michael’s story and knew there was nothing to fear, not that she could have ever imagined being afraid of Michael.

Michael seemed visibly relieved that Miriam had Sweet had taken the news so well, and had never once questioned if what he was telling them wasn’t the truth. Once again he realized he’d underestimated the capacity of the human heart, even his own.

“Well, this certainly explains your tendency for the mysterious.” Sweet chuckled, and then sobered placing a gentle hand on Michael’s shoulder, “I always knew you were special Michael, this just makes things a lot clearer. Thank you, Son.”

Michael nodded, but a blush crept to his cheeks at Sweet’s gratitude, when he felt he was the one who should be the one thanking Sweet. Since leaving his life behind five year earlier, Michael had strode to create a new life for himself. To realize a few dreams he’d kept tucked away in his heart. His painting. Making it on his own. And for the most part he’d done just that, but it was Sweet who gave him one thing he believed he was too old to have or even want, but craved nonetheless. And honest to God father. How could Michael not open his world up to this man, when Sweet had opened so many things for him?

Fatigue was widespread among the four friends and Miriam decided Sweet needed rest. Batting away the old man’s protests that he was perfectly fine, she promised Michael that she’d keep and eye on the stubborn codger just in case.

Michael and Liz were secure in the knowledge that their secret was safe with these two gentle souls and there was still much to talk about, but they were asking a lot of Miriam and Sweet to soak in what information had been given. But they weren’t scared of their two young friends. If anything they felt honored by their trust and Sweet by Michael’s devotion to him, enough to save his old life.

Before they left Miriam pulled Michael into a fierce hug, “Sug, I always believed there was something more out there than just us. I just never thought I’d be selling that ‘something more’s’ paintings in my gallery.”

Michael smiled, “You said my pieces would triple in price if I died. Imagine what they’d do if people found out I was an alien.”

Miriam raised an amused eyebrow at Michael, “ So... this secret thing...You’re really attached to it?”

“Our lives sorta depend on it.” Liz answered with a chuckle.

“Fine...” Miriam sighed comically, “We’ll just have to get by with Michael’s considerable talent.”

~*~
more coming...long chapter...
posted on 15-Dec-2002 1:54:54 PM
Chapter 10 continued...


After seeing Miriam and Sweet out, Michael and Liz walked upstairs to the apartment in silence, the overall emotion of the night having rendered them speechless. It had been a merciful long while since either of them had tasted death, and once again with someone they loved deeply. Just that taste alone would have depleted them, but combined with the euphoria of working together to reclaim the life of their loved one, left them utterly exhausted.

“I ...um ...think I’m just gonna go lie down.” Liz said softly, once they were inside.

“Um yeah...” Michael agreed, “ Me too.”

The day’s and night’s events played over and over again in Michael’s mind as he watched Liz carry her sandals down the hall to her room. He followed behind her, unsure of how to tell her how grateful he was she’d been there to help him with Sweet.

“Liz....” he called out gently. When she turned to look up at him he continued, “Thanks... for Sweet...”

Liz nodded knowing how difficult it was for Michael to express his gratitude over something that meant so much to him. Michael gave her a small smile and brought his hand up to the doorknob of his room.

“Michael....” she said in a tear harshened voice, asking him to meet her eyes, “I filed for divorce from Max.”

And there it was, her confession, said merely in passing instead of the grand announcement she’d planned on. Given yet another brush with death they’d experienced together, Liz felt her news held far less importance than it had before. The way Michael’s eyes widened slightly and his whole body seemed to relax, Liz knew her point had been made, and that Michael would going to bed with one less burden on his heart. She wasn’t going to leave him. For tonight, that could be enough.

~*~

Michael had watched Liz disappear into her bedroom and found himself unable to move into his own. That’s what she had been trying to tell him that morning. That’s why it was about Max, but all he could manage to feel was simple relief, followed by the unknown. Liz was free. But could he still have her? Was that really the only thing standing in between them?

Michael’s fatigue was forgotten and he made his way down the hall and into the studio. As he walked in the room he immediately glanced over at a paint-cloth covered canvas against the wall. A piece too personal to even show. He removed the cloth studying it intently. He hadn’t even be sure why he’d painted it, except that it seemed to answer so many questions and held the true measure of the dilemma that raged inside him. To have Liz, or not.

Here and now, it seemed that having Liz was becoming more and more a reality, so why was he still terrified. Shouldn’t he be grateful? Isn’t that what he’d desired for so long? Was he so not used to getting what he wanted, that when it was presented to him, he ran?

Michael took one last look at the painting before turning towards the balcony shaking his head, “She’s wrong.” he muttered, “I’m not a jackass.... I’m a fucking coward.”

~*~

Liz was about to undress for bed, her fatigue so measurable she felt she could sleep for a week and still be tired, but she remembered she’d left her purse on the dining room table and with the headache she was forming, she knew she’d need aspirin soon. Michael never took any drugs, so the only bottle they had was in that purse.

With a heavy sigh Liz shuffled out of her bedroom, past Michael’s, retrieving her purse from where she’d left it. She was digging around for the aspirin, when she passed Michael’s room and noticed the door wide open, but he was nowhere to be found. He was as tired as she was, where could he be?

Her eyes fell to the to the studio’s door, finding it slightly ajar, took a chance he was there and pushed it open. She stepped inside quietly scanning the room for him finally catching him out on the balcony leaning over the railing with his head in his hands. The gentle breeze of the night air caused wisps of his long hair to dance in the moonlight. He created quite a portrait himself, if he could only see the beauty inside of him, Liz thought.

Sensing Michael needed the time alone for quiet reflection, after everything that had happened that night, she stepped back to return to her bedroom. She paused suddenly when her eye caught the painting Michael, only minutes earlier had uncovered. At first she thought it was just one of his New Orleans pieces, but upon a second look she realized it was another one of her. Why hadn’t she seen this at the gallery? Why didn’t Michael want this one shown? Was it unfinished? Or was it just too powerful, too personal to submit to the public?

Curiosity got the better of Liz and she walked slowly towards the painting, every step making the image clearer and making her weaker. His other paintings had the same effect, why should this one be any different? But it was different and so powerful with emotion that the purse in Liz’s hands dropped to the floor and she felt herself sway.

She should have been surprised when she felt Michael’s hand at the small of her back, steadying her, but she wasn’t. She welcomed the support she knew she would always have with him, even when she didn’t know she needed it. Michael always let her lean on him and he still managed to make her stand on her own two feet.

Michael had heard Liz come in, recognizing the soft padding her feet made on the hardwood floors and the squeaky board in the studio’s entryway she always forgot about. A mild panic had settled inside him when he realized he hadn’t covered the painting. That she’d see his most raw and naked piece and he wasn’t sure if she was ready, given her reaction to his other works. Last time, she ran.

Not wanting to alarm her he crept inside slowly, taking as cautious and quiet steps as she did, doing his best to read her body language, for any hint of distress. When she stopped, standing only a few feet away from the painting, Michael saw her sway and reached a hand out instinctively to steady her. He found himself unafraid of what she was she felt because what ever it was, it was powerful and that was the point of the piece.

Liz just stared, tears she’d thought she’d cried out dropped onto her cheeks. Why was this piece so different from the others? Because in this one, Michael had included himself. All of his other paintings were taken from his point of view, but not this one.

It was a cross section of Liz’s room and the hallway. On one side, in her room, Liz lay sleeping peacefully on her stomach, naked from the waist up and her skin was bathed in the morning sunlight. On the other side of the door was Michael, wearing grey sweats and no shirt, the hallway was darkened and his hair was hiding some of his features, but Liz could make out that his eyes were closed and he was leaning his head against her bedroom door an almost pained expression on his face.

Liz wondered if this piece had come from Michael’s imagination, because she didn’t remember anything like what was on that canvas, ever happening. She was about to ask Michael where it had come from when her eye caught something red in his hand. Her address book. Her breath caught when she realized that it had been nearly a month ago that he’d stolen her address book to call Kyle. He must’ve seen her ... he’d loved her, even then?

She reached back with her hand sliding it into Michael’s, feeling his breath on her neck and shoulders as he wrapped the arm steadying her back, around her waist, spreading his palm against her stomach.

“What’s it called?” Liz asked him in a strangled whisper.

Dangerous.” Michael answered pulling Liz closer to him.

Liz shivered at the low huskiness in Michael’s voice, wondering how he knew the perfect pitch at which to make his seduction of her that much easier. He must have felt her shake because a moment later she was pressed even closer to his hard body, flush against muscles she’d only had moments to appreciate that morning. The hand tangled with her own loosened its gentle grip and began tracing delicate circles up her arm, causing goose bumps on an otherwise humid Louisiana night.

“Am I? Dangerous?” Liz breathed, sure that Michael was the only thing holding her upright, because her legs sure has hell weren’t.

She felt Michael nod against her hair, “To me... Yes, you are very dangerous.”

“Why?”

“Fear.” Michael answered simply, not needing to think about his answer.

W