A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Complete

Finished Canon/Conventional Couple Fics. These stories pick up from events in the show. All complete stories from the main Canon/CC board will eventually be moved here.

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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-61- 5/24/14

Postby KindredKandies » Sat May 24, 2014 10:06 pm

Eva- Thank you for such a great compliment!

keepsmiling7- Thank you for the wonderful compliment. They have been through so much. This time off the road gave them all, as couples and friends, a safe place to get back in touch with themselves and each other.

The binoculars......what a perfect idea. Only Max would come up with that. And of course with no help from Michael.


Thank you! We listened to Max. He knows better, lol.

Thank you, we've really enjoyed our ride with the gang as well. Here's more. :)

Natalie36- Thank you!

Roswelllostcause- Thank you! Lol, nothing like having "Hell" freeze over. We hear that their ice cream is to "scream" for. ;)

xmag- We agree completely. Being on the road aimlessly running for their lives still wearing her rings with every passing day made it that much harder for her to remove them. Her time off the road and Kyle's gift of seeing her parents gave her the closure in order to finally remove the only thing that linked her to Jessie.

sarammlover- Thank you! Glad you're enjoying the story. :)

Christmas is a holiday that celebrates past family gatherings with the present. It can be a wonderful time for close knit families who share food, favorite family dishes and stories about their loved ones past and present. For others who don't have this in their lives or have difficult relationships with the people who they're suppose to be close to, it can be a tough or at best a mixed emotional time. Glad you're interested in Edward's back story...

Here's more... ;)

xilaj-

Part 59

Thank you for the awesome compliment! We love writing Kyle, his humor and his common sense approach to difficult situations brings the best out of his friends and us as well. :)

I take that back, he's just romantic enough for Maria and you find just the right words for him to say to melt her heart (and mine)
.

Aww, thank you..lol. One can never underestimate Michael's recessive romantic gene when it comes to Maria. :)

They've already lost their families, they'd lose so much more if they have to split up and go their separate ways. Will Michael recognise that?


Michael does recognize that, but as the soldier in the group he's duty bound to ensure their safety above all else. It remains to be seen what the future holds on that front, but it's something that'll be decided based on the best interest of the entire group.

Thank you! The scene where Kyle takes Isabel home was in our minds from the beginning of the story and was one we couldn't wait to write. We're so glad you enjoyed the update. :)

Part 60

I really appreciate the way that this story honours the difficult past but finds ways for the characters to develop and grow so that they can come to terms and move on. Scenes like the one between Max and Liz where they're back to being able to tease and understand each other make me love this story.


Thank you for the awesome compliment! As Candy writers it is a big challenge to write Dreamer scenes and it's been especially so with AToTC because of the damage the show's writers did to their relationship.

Thank you! We are glad you are curious about Edward's relationship with his mother, we are as well. Here's more. :)


Part 61

Michael glanced up from slathering butter on what would be his last roll… well, maybe just one more, he thought. Julia had brought another pan of hot rolls out and there was no point letting them go to waste after she’d gone to all that effort. He piled turkey on and then doused it with hot sauce before squeezing the sides together and taking a big bite.

“You do like hot sauce, don’t you?” Candace asked.

He shrugged in response to the question posed by the kids’ grandmother, considering his answer while he chewed.

“It’s the only way he can taste anything,” Max answered for him. “His taste buds are practically non-existent.”

“I knew a man who suffered from that affliction once,” she said with a slight smile at the memory. “He couldn’t taste a thing.” She winked at the girls. “But he never complained about the food I put on the table.”

Michael watched Edward unobtrusively, noting the way his hands clenched around his utensils as his mother spoke fondly of some man in her past. He had a feeling the guy had probably been one in a long line and her son didn’t view those memories with the same affection. She played the role of the loving mother and doting grandmother to the hilt, but her features held a harshness that spoke of a life lived fast and hard. It was the kind of life that left its mark on others and it was apparent that Edward bore that mark.

“Daddy.”

Edward turned his head to the side when his little girl wrapped her hands around his wrist and tugged. “More turkey?” he asked with a smile. He had no idea where she put it, but Maggie could pack it away if it was something she really liked.

“No, Granma Candy has a gift for you.”

Michael didn’t miss the tension or the way it notched up at the name the kids all used for his mother. He was only listening with half an ear so he didn’t catch what the first part of the gift was but he glanced at the older woman when she explained that the second part of her gift was that she would babysit the kids so that Edward and Julia could spend their 15th anniversary alone on New Years’. She was obviously pleased with her gift and in his opinion, a little too pushy about it, but hey, that was just one more reason to avoid all the holiday bull.

In spite of her attempts to make up for whatever had happened in their past he could feel Edward’s lack of trust and respect for her. She was trying too hard and rather than achieving the desired results she was only pushing him further away. She couldn’t see it though. He wondered why people thought they could make up for years of neglect and abuse with presents or behavior changes. Well, he didn’t know the details, but he was sure he was in the right vicinity.

He missed Edward’s response but when the man of the house stood and started to collect the dishes he got up and grabbed a handful that he carried over to the sink. He listened as Julia graciously expressed their thanks for the gift, giving her husband the opportunity to make his escape and while Edward worked on filling the sink with soapy water he went back for the next load. He rested his hand on Maria’s shoulder when she started to get up, shaking his head slightly when she shot a questioning look at him.

Maria rubbed his arm when he reached past her to stack the dishes, the methodical placement of each dish speaking to his familiarity with bussing tables. She had noticed the tension that had been present in Edward throughout the evening and it had only increased each time his mother tried to pull him into a conversation. It was obvious he tried to be civil for the sake of his children but it was taking a toll on him.

Michael finished clearing the table and picked up a dishtowel, moving around to Edward’s right side to dry the dishes as they were rinsed and placed in the drying rack. They worked in silence for a while, Edward lost in his thoughts while Michael was busy trying to push the memories back. It didn’t matter how hard he tried to hold it at bay, being surrounded by the tension that arose from Grandma Candy’s seemingly well-intentioned gift, by her very presence, and the taut expression on Edward’s face he eventually lost the battle and the memory of a long-ago Christmas rose to the surface of his mind.

At eight years old he had still held out hope, had hung onto any little crumb Hank tossed his way in his more lucid moments. The occasional meal the man would make that he wanted so badly to believe meant Hank cared about him in some small way even if he didn’t say the words. He had to force his hand to relax when it clenched tightly around the plate he was drying. At that age the social workers had still made the rounds, checking up on his home situation, and allowing him to think that he mattered.

It had been Christmas Eve 1991. He had been alone in the trailer, standing at one of the dirty windows and peering out at one of the neighboring trailers that had been overly decorated, but to his childish, wondrous gaze, it had seemed like something right out of a storybook. He had stood at the window for a while almost every night while he was waiting for Hank to come home, his little boy’s heart aching for the love and acceptance he witnessed whenever Mr. Saunders from next door returned from work and Artie would run out the front door to welcome him home.

Artie was seven years old with red hair and freckles, skinny as a rail, and wore glasses that were always slipping down his nose. His dad worked in the oilfields and he always looked tired, but that had never stopped him from greeting his son with a look on his face that said he was happy to see him. Artie was one of the kids everyone at school made fun of. He was an easy target and he didn’t know how to stand up for himself. When the other kids started picking on him he just went off to a secluded corner on the playground and sat down with his arms wrapped around his thin frame.

Michael had caught a couple of the boys beating him up one time because he wouldn’t give them more money after they’d taken everything he had for lunch and he’d taken them on. Artie had been crying and as soon as the boys had been occupied with the fight he’d run off. He’d ended up getting sent home for a couple of days for fighting and Hank had been so mad at him he had thrown him in his room and hadn’t given him anything to eat until the next day. He hadn’t understood why Hank was mad at him. He had been helping someone else; someone smaller and weaker who had been getting kicked around by a couple of bullies. He didn’t care what Artie looked like or that he was a dork, but if someone could love him why couldn’t Hank care about him just a little?

He had been pulled out of his musings when the headlights swept across the window and he turned his head to look at the station wagon pulling up in front of the trailer. It was Hank and he wasn’t alone. He turned and ran from the room, hiding in the hallway and peering around the doorway just as the front door opened. He never knew what kind of mood the man was in and it was best to wait and see before making a nuisance of himself.

His eyebrows had lifted when a woman came inside and a moment later Hank had appeared with a small Christmas tree in one hand and a box with a few presents inside tucked under the other. He had crept out of his hiding place when his foster dad called him, for once calling him by his name rather than the despised nickname he had pinned on him not long after he’d been placed with Hank.

His little heart had nearly burst with happiness when Hank had not only introduced him using his given name, but called him his son. He could tell that Hank had been drinking but he hadn’t been completely trashed, probably because he was trying to impress the woman he had brought home. He hadn’t cared what the reason was though. While Hank had made dinner he’d gently pawed through the cardboard box that had come inside with the woman. She’d only been introduced as Wendy and she’d spent most of her time over in the kitchen with Hank, but every once in a while she would give him a little wave and smile in his direction.

They’d sat around the rickety little breakfast table and feasted on dinner and Michael had enjoyed every bite of it. He didn’t care that the ham and the vegetables all came out of cans, the mashed potatoes came out of a box, or that the rolls had come out of a frozen package. He’d been happy to clear the table afterwards, carrying the dishes over to the counter by the sink and swallowing with difficulty when he’d tipped them too far to one side as he lifted them and a few of the utensils fell to the floor with a clatter. He had expected anger when Hank had come up behind him, but he’d just leaned over to collect the forks and reached over Michael’s shoulder to drop them in the sink.

“Don’t worry ‘bout it.” He stretched up to open the cabinet over the sink and pulled out a bottle before moving to the side and rooting around in another cabinet to find a couple of glasses. “You wash those up while me an’ the lady have a few drinks to celebrate the holiday.”


Michael’s chest tightened and he couldn’t do anything to stop the rush of adrenaline that flooded through his body as the memory took the dark, albeit expected turn. The night had turned out like others had before and many more would in the years to come. The glasses had been filled over and over again, each celebratory drink increasing the alcohol-induced haze and fueling Hank’s temper when Wendy had said something to set him off.

What had started out so promising had ended with the two of them in a screaming match that had been accompanied by crushed ornaments and broken gifts. It was only later after Wendy had fled the trailer, her mascara running and her cheek already beginning to bruise, after Hank had passed out in his recliner, that he had dared to creep out of his hiding place and back into the living room.

He had gathered up the shattered pieces of a couple of the ornaments along with one of the broken toys and placed them all carefully into a shoebox. He picked it up and turned to go back to his room, freezing when Hank shifted and muttered, his glazed-over eyes opening for a moment and locking on him. As soon as the man slouched down further and slipped back into his alcoholic stupor he hurried back to his room and closed the door. He settled down at one end of the small closet, feeling a little safer once he was ensconced in the tiny space. He had taken to hiding there with his pillow and blanket a few months back and it had become his refuge at times like this.

He had spent hours painstakingly piecing the two ornaments back together and his child’s eyes hadn’t seen the small pieces that were still missing, the blobs of glue that had seeped out as he pressed the pieces together, or the way some of them had overlapped to lend a Frankenstein look to them. He had carefully laid them back in the box and started trying to put the toy back together. It was a fire engine, the kind that had the ladder with the bucket, but the bucket had been separated from the ladder and the ladder was broken in half. One of the tires was bent and the little plastic covers over the lights on top of the engine had been shattered.

He had glued the ladder and then ran scotch tape around it just to make sure it was secure. He had been tired by the time he was finished with his repairs and he had curled up with his back pressed against the wall so he could see Hank if he came after him. The fire engine had been held securely against his body, his little fingers stroking over the broken dreams that the damaged toy symbolized.


The muscles in his hands began to cramp, the motion unconsciously mirroring Edward’s own tightly fisted hand that held the silverware as he placed it in the hot soapy dishwater. He glanced over his shoulder as the sounds of chair legs scraping against the floor caught his attention and he watched Grandma Candace as she spoke to her grandchildren in warm hushed tones as the family left the table for the living room.

He made another attempt to force his mind to shut down, despising these little trips down the broken pothole-filled yellow brick road that led to his past. Regardless of his best efforts one more memory slipped past his defenses; the final nail in the coffin that was his relationship with Hank Whitmore. It had been bad enough to live through that hell, to face the humiliation day after day, but when Max and Isabel had walked right into the middle of it they had served as an unexpected catalyst.

They hadn’t grown up in a situation like his. They had parents that wanted them, that loved them… they had parents that would’ve done anything to protect them. He’d had Hank. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was all that he’d known growing up. They had come in thinking they could tell Hank off, take him home to their parents, and everything would be okay. But all it had done was blow up in their faces. It was the equivalent of finding a wild animal and bringing it home, expecting it to know how to behave and interact with domesticated animals. He knew they had meant well, but they’d had no way of understanding his situation because it was something so completely foreign to them.

Hank had come out right behind him while he’d been trying to get Max and Isabel to leave and he’d immediately locked his sights on her. He’d tried to intervene and he’d felt everything in him recoil when Hank raised his hand, prepared to backhand him. His foster dad’s behavior had been disgusting and Isabel had reacted by throwing Hank’s drink all over him and then threatening him if he ever touched him again. It had infuriated his foster dad and he’d gone for his gun, pointing it at them. He didn’t know if Hank would’ve pulled the trigger; he was a coward at heart, but alcohol tended to infuse even the greatest cowards with false courage.

Max had thought he could diffuse the situation by telling him to take it easy, that they were leaving. He didn’t know Hank the way Michael did, and he had seen the way it only further incensed the man. He could handle the abuse, the constant putdowns, and even the neglect, but in that moment his fear for their safety had pushed aside his own sense of self-preservation and he had reacted without thinking. In all of his years with Hank, all of the many times the man had come at him, he’d always been careful to hide his powers, to choke them down for fear he would not only reveal himself, but that he might actually hurt Hank. Or worse.

People assumed that just because someone was abused they automatically hated their abuser, that given the opportunity they would gladly see them dead by their hand or anyone else’s. People who assumed that generally weren’t the ones who had ever suffered abuse of that nature. It wasn’t that black and white. There was such a confusing mixture of emotions involved. He’d read somewhere once that there was a thin line between love and hate, and whoever had said that had hit the nail on the head. He didn’t love Hank, didn’t even like him, but there was a time when he’d so desperately craved love and acceptance from the man who had been responsible for him.

But that night… the night someone had finally dared to cross the threshold into that filthy trailer and enter his private hell, every ounce of hope that had ever resided in him that Hank cared for him even in the smallest increment had been shattered. He’d shown his hand, revealed himself for who he was, disarming Hank before he could hurt Max and Isabel, and he’d seen the look of fear and disgust in his eyes as he’d called him a freak. Spit the word out as if it could contain the full weight of his revulsion for the boy, the thing he’d been stuck with for years.

Yeah, he’d felt for a long time that he was nothing more to Hank than a monthly check, and part of that was a way to protect himself so that if and when the truth came out it wouldn’t hurt so badly. But it had. It had hurt worse than he’d ever imagined it could. With that one word Hank had driven home the truth of his feelings for him and it had shattered something inside of him with a finality he had never expected.

Michael turned his head when Aunt Connie came into the kitchen and began putting away the dishes he’d been drying and setting aside. He relinquished the roasting pan when she reached for it and she moved to Edward’s other side to put it in the cabinet where it belonged. She lingered for a moment as she straightened her spine and focused her attention on her nephew.

“Edward,” she said, her voice low.

He cut her off with a sharp shake of his head. “Don’t.”

“She’s put so much into this gift for the two of you. She’s been working two jobs to save for it.”

Michael shot a sideways glance at Edward, noting the tic that was worsening in his jaw. Yeah, that was his cue to exit stage left, he thought as he began to fold the dishtowel so he could place it on the counter.

“No, you stay. We’ll have the dishes done in half the time.”

He cleared his throat and nodded as he reached for a pie plate and started to dry it. He started to set it aside with the rest of the dishes he’d dried when Aunt Connie suddenly appeared next to him. He held the plate out to her when she stood there expectantly but she shook her head.

“They go in the cabinet over by Miss Cindy’s chair.” She waited until the young man had gathered up the matching plates and taken his leave before she turned to her nephew again. “Edward.”

Edward stared at the utensils that were in danger of having the silver stripped right off of them as he scrubbed at food particles that weren’t there. He wanted to tell his mother to take her gift and shove it but out deference for his children’s relationship with her he hadn’t. His mother was in total denial and the way she referred to their damaging past as her dark time was hard to deal with in the face of her new life as devoted mother and grandmother. “How do you want me to react?” he bit out, his back teeth grinding together. “She announces her gift to the entire family because she knows I can’t exactly say no in front of my kids without looking like an asshole and hurting Julia. It’s nothing more than a setup.” He shook his head. “Stop pushing,” he muttered under his breath.

Michael took his time putting the plates away and making his way back over to his side of the sink that was thankfully unoccupied now. He focused his attention on the wet dishes that had piled up in his brief absence, but it was hard to miss the woman’s demeanor that had quickly shifted from calm to tense.

“She’s been clean and sober for ten years, Edward. Do you have any idea what kind of strength it takes to get through a single day let alone ten long years?” She inhaled slowly. “Look, I know what she did and it was wrong, but she’s here now.”

It was impossible to miss Edward’s flinch in response to his aunt’s words.

“Wrong?” Edward growled, a hard edge to his voice. “No, it wasn’t wrong, it was criminal.”

Michael was doing some quick mental math, taking in Edward’s age along with how many years his mother had been sober. She obviously hadn’t gotten sober until well after he and Julia had gotten married. He shook his head slightly. Yeah, there was no making up for that. None at all. But, it was that fine line again.

Aunt Connie’s face flushed with the heat of frustration as she turned to face her nephew. “The war left your father seriously damaged and it just about killed your mother when he left. You didn’t have a choice back then, but you do now. It’s time to grow up here, Edward. We can’t keep blaming our parents for our misery as we get older. It’s Christmas; it’s time to let go of this mess. If you can’t forgive her then don’t. Decide to let it go for you, Julia, and the kids.”

Yeah, so much easier said than done, lady, Michael thought. It was easy to throw that advice in someone’s face when you hadn’t been in their shoes. And really, what did it matter what the reason was? There was no excuse for turning to alcohol or drugs because your life sucked. Very few people could honestly say their life was their own; there were family and friends, husbands and wives, damn it, there were kids who didn’t deserve it when that person chose to lose themselves in a bottle. No, there was no excuse for it. If there was one thing he’d learned over the past couple of years it was that you didn’t run from those obligations. It didn’t matter if it was alcohol, drugs, or running away. Running was running and the people who loved you and cared about you deserved a hell of a lot better than that.

He watched her leave the room, her stride filled with purpose, leaving her nephew standing there, his fisted hand just about bending the fork he held in half. He must have noticed what he was doing because he expelled a loud breath and dropped the fork as he leaned forward to let the water out of the sink. He watched the soap bubbles swirl around as the water emptied down the drain and after a moment he straightened up and rested his big hands on the edge of the sink.

“Could you forgive it?”

Michael paused, hiding his surprise at the question.

Beside him Edward could feel the younger man tense up and he knew at least some of his suspicions about him had been on target. He didn’t look at him as Michael set the last dish down, folding the dishtowel in half, and placing it over the oven handle to dry.

His movements were methodical as he completed his task, but his mind had gone back to the little boy who had never felt anyone on Earth wanted him. He inhaled deeply, holding it for a moment before slowly releasing it. “No one ever asked.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and disappeared through the doorway to go and find Maria.

He stood there for several minutes as he contemplated those four little words. “No one ever asked.” Michael had said so much with so little. He had harbored a lot of resentment towards his mother over the years. Resentment, anger, disappointment, they had all continued to fester over time and all of her attempts to make things right only made it worse.

He was glad she’d finally gotten her act together and sobered up, but it did little to make up for all the times she’d missed games or other events, all the times he’d had to clean her up and put her to bed, or all the times he’d run into some guy he’d never met before coming out of her bedroom in the mornings when he was on his way to grab a bowl of cereal or a piece of toast on his way to school. Could anything ever make up for that?

He had children of his own and God forbid anything should ever happen to Julia, but if it did he swore he’d do anything it took to hold it together for them. They deserved that from him. His father had been a different man when he’d come home from the war and he knew it had torn his mother up when his father left, but what right had that given her to basically abandon him? To put responsibilities on his young shoulders that never should’ve been his to carry?

There wasn’t anything that could be done to change the past. There wasn’t any amount of gifts or behavior changes that could ever make up for what had been done. So much of his childhood was wrapped up in the chaotic aftermath of his father’s leaving. His mother’s response to that abandonment had been to do whatever she could to help her forget and half the time it had allowed her to forget about him too.

“Daddy?”

He looked down when his littlest one latched onto his fingers and he automatically tightened his grip on her hand when she leaned back with all of her weight, trusting him to not let her fall. His heart swelled at the simple gesture and he vowed yet again to try his damnedest to never do anything to break that trust.

“Can Puppy come outta his crate now?”

They had crated the puppy when dinnertime had rolled around and he could imagine the little bundle of energy was ready to rejoin his new playmate. “Why don’t you go get him and let’s take him out for a few minutes?”

“Can Michael come with me, Daddy? You an’ Granma Candy can be together for a little while.”

She had no idea what her words did to him. “You can ask him and if he says yes then he can go with you.”

Maggie straightened up and tugged on his hand, launching herself into his arms when he crouched down beside her. “Thank you, Daddy.” She kissed his stubbled cheek and hugged his neck tightly. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Princess,” he murmured, savoring her openness and hoping against hope that she never lost it. He released her after a few moments, knowing how eager she was to get to Puppy, and he remained there for a minute, just thinking about things.

By the time he made it into the living room Michael had been coerced into taking a walk outside and Maria was watching him with a look that Edward didn’t have a name for, but he recognized it all the same. He’d seen it on Julia’s face often enough when he did something that just touched something inside of her. He watched the two of them leave the room, his little girl’s hand swallowed up by Michael’s big paw and the young man listening attentively as Maggie went on and on about Puppy.

He shook his head and crossed the room to offer a mug of hot coffee to his mother. He shrugged at the look of surprise on her face when she looked at him. “You take it black, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer. Too many years of making her coffee and trying to sober her up had imprinted her coffee preference on his brain. He settled on the couch at his wife’s side and she accepted the mug he’d brought for her with a soft smile that said what she wouldn’t verbalize. “It’s just coffee,” he mumbled.

Julia set her mug on a coaster on the end table and took his hand, lifting it to press a kiss to his knuckles as she met his uncomfortable gaze. “I know,” she whispered and lowered their hands to rest on her thigh. “I know.”

*****

The space next to the kitchen door was piled up with the vintage luggage and the gifts they had received from the Stevens family and the only thing left now was to bid them goodnight. They had vaguely discussed their plans to leave out early the next morning and as much as Michael would’ve preferred to leave before the sun rose so he could avoid the goodbye scene that was sure to present itself if they didn’t, the girls had managed to sideswipe his plans.

“Well, I suppose we’d best be on our way,” Aunt Connie said as she made the rounds, gathering up anything she and her sister needed to take with them. Candace didn’t move and she couldn’t say she had expected her to.

Across the room Grandma Candace was watching her grandchildren as they interacted with her son’s visitors. Her little granddaughter was completely enamored with the young man who seemed to be itching to make his escape from the house. The boys had been more accepting of the fact that their guests would be taking their leave the next day, but Maggie had been quieter than normal and it was obvious that she was saddened by the realization that they would soon be gone.

Michael turned his head when a small hand landed on his arm, gently but insistently tugging on his sleeve. Maggie stood there, watching him, and in spite of all her protests that she wasn’t sleepy he could see the truth in the blue eyes that were struggling to appear awake and alert.

“Do you really gotta go tomorrow?” she asked quietly.

“Yeah, I’m afraid we do.” He covered her hand. “Our friend’s waitin’ for us and we’ve kept him waitin’ long enough, don’t you think?”

She gnawed on her bottom lip for a moment before nodding slowly. Her eyes suddenly widened and she clambered up to sit in his lap. “Can’t your friend just come here?”

He’d heard the girls talking one day recently, discussing how much they wished their story about going to visit a friend was true, how much they wished that friend was Alex. Somewhere along the way he’d named the nonexistent friend in their cover story after their fallen friend and it was easy to think he was waiting for them. He wished he was. “I wish he could, Maggie, but that’s just not possible.”

“Are you gonna come back an’ see me?”

Maria reached over to rub his arm when he swallowed with difficulty. They had no way of knowing if they’d ever have the opportunity to visit the Stevens’ family again and he didn’t want to make a promise he didn’t know he could keep. A promise was something sacred to him, it was a matter of giving his word, and he put a lot of stock in that.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said finally, “if we ever get the chance to come by here again I can promise you we will.”

She nodded and rested her head on his shoulder. “Would you an’ Maria read me a story before you go?”

“Yeah, I think we can do that,” he said after glancing up to check with her parents.

She got up and went to say her goodbyes to her grandmother and aunt before picking Puppy up from where he was sleeping in Daddy’s lap and making her way upstairs to get ready for bed. As soon as she was ready she hollered down the stairs and Julia smiled at them, nodding for the couple to go ahead.

“We’ll be up to tuck her in once you’ve finished the story.”

Kyle stood up and stretched. “Well, while you guys are sending the little one over the rainbow into dreamland I’m gonna go grab the van because I know how you are and I’ll be the one who ends up hauling this stuff down to the cabins like a pack mule.”

Michael shrugged, not bothering to deny it. “Good idea.”

“Maggie’s very attached to him,” Candace mused as the young couple disappeared up the stairs.

“He’s deserving of it,” Edward said as he reached for his cup and got to his feet. “Think I’m gonna get a refill.” He glanced at his wife in question, nodding when she shook her head. He shuffled into the kitchen and took his time refreshing his coffee. He was grateful when it was finally time for his mother and aunt to leave and he said his goodnights and dutifully stood at the door while they carefully made their way up the driveway and out onto the old highway.

Julia leaned against his side and looked up at him, rubbing his arm when she could still feel the tension in him even though it was lessening now that the taillights were out of sight. “C’mon, that story should be finished by now. Let’s go tuck Maggie in.”

They paused in the doorway to their daughter’s room a few minutes later, watching as Maggie stretched up to wrap her arms around Michael’s neck. There was a little pout on her face as she quietly spoke up. “I’m gonna miss you, Michael.” She pressed her nose into his neck as he brought his arms around her. “An’ Snowflake too.”

Julia could see the discomfort on Michael’s face as he tried to find the words to express what he was feeling and drew a blank. She nudged her husband and they stepped into Maggie’s room. “Did you have a good Christmas, Maggie?” she asked, giving Michael time to compose himself.

“It was the best ever, Mama!” she answered excitedly. She looked at Michael and Maria, smiling widely. “Maybe for next Christmas Michael, Snowflake, Candycane, an’ the Reindeer Wrangler can all come back with Kyle an’ Isabel.”

“That’d be great,” Michael said with a small smile as he pulled Maria close with an arm around her shoulders. “But just remember that we can’t make any promises about that.”

Julia redirected her daughter’s attention to the puppy sleeping on the bed. “Have you decided on a name for your puppy yet?” The boys had been very helpful in making suggestions but each one had been worse than the one before and Maggie had been quick to tell them so.

She shook her head. “I want a real special name for him.”

Edward moved around the bed to tuck his little girl in. “Time for you to go to sleep. You can think on it more in the mornin’.” He tucked her in and kissed her forehead. “Sleep tight and don’t let the dragons bite.”

That drew a quiet snort from Michael. “Princess Maggie, looks like you’ve gotta dragon guard dog there,” he said and nodded at the puppy. “Did you know that one of the greatest dragon slayers ever was named George?”

Maria looked up at him, unable to hold back the smile. “Um, Michael, did you read that somewhere?”

He shrugged and smiled at her. “Read about St. George and the dragon in my European History class.”

“C’mon, you didn’t take European History.”

“Did too.”

She snuggled into his side. “Then quote me a page.”

He chuckled and looked at Maggie with a wink. “Yeah, well, I did, but it doesn’t matter ‘cause Santa told me the story again.”

“Yeah, I’ll just bet he did,” she laughed under her breath.

Maggie giggled. “Really?” She looked at her puppy when he opened his eyes in response to the noise she had made and he yawned widely before snuggling down again. “Do you like the name George?”

He lifted his head and his tail started to thump against the mattress when his young mistress spoke to him. She laughed happily and leaned over to pick him up, holding him out to look at him and ducking her head when he stretched to lick her cheek. “Hi, George.”

Julia smiled as Edward put his arm around her. “Alright, time for sleep. Say goodnight, Maggie.”

“G’night, Maggie.” Michael leaned over to give her a hug and then gave the newly named George a pat on his way out with Maria. “Okay, George, you’re on Princess Guard duty now.”

*****

Kyle rubbed his hands together as he sat in the cold drivers’ seat, his legs bouncing up and down as he waited for the engine to warm up. He cupped his hands and covered his mouth, blowing on them and immediately shoved them up under his thighs when his heated breath only ended up chilling them. He had been happy to escape the house and all of the holiday festivities when Michael had started to make it known that he was ready to head out. He hadn’t said or done anything overt, but it was apparent that he’d endured just about as much as he was going to.

He leaned his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes as pinched the bridge of his nose, holding the pressure there for a moment. Michael had his own reasons for being ready to leave Christmas behind and he could respect that. Personally he would be glad to see the day end and take all the old holiday ghosts with it. It helped to know that he hadn’t had a hand in Alex’s death, but the truth of it was that Tess had managed to suck the joy out of quite a few of his memories.

Maybe they were tainted beyond repair, but as Alex had suggested earlier, perhaps as time passed he would be able to replace them with other memories. He smiled slightly as he thought about some of their finer moments as they turned Isabel’s vision for Christmas on the Lake into a reality. There was no denying he’d gotten plenty of enjoyment out of El Presidente and El Capitan’s roles and costume predicaments and he knew those memories were already filed away, just waiting for the appropriate moment to be useful blackmail material.

He reached out to hold his hands over the vents, rolling his eyes at the lukewarm air it was finally starting to kick out. He sighed and rested his hand on the gearshift, deciding he didn’t need the air to be hot before driving the van up to the main house to load their gifts up. It would be nice but there was no point putting off the inevitable. The air would continue to get hotter the longer the engine ran and there probably wasn’t much point cutting the engine once he got up to the house anyway.

Before he could drop the gearshift down into drive the passengers’ side door was pulled open and he jumped, startled. He nearly pressed on the horn to warn the others but in a split second he recognized Max and he forced himself to relax.

“Why don’t you warn people instead of sneaking up on them?” he growled.

Max quirked an eyebrow and shook his head. “What were you gonna do? Honk me to death?” he asked dryly.

Kyle ignored the question and faced the windshield again. “There some reason you decided to come out here and interrupt my meditation?”

He leaned forward and flicked the hula girl on the dashboard, sending her into a frenzied dance. “That’s classy. Bet sugar muffin finds a way to get rid of it.”

“I’ll bet it stays right where it’s at.” He tipped his head to one side. “I kinda like it.”

Max snorted. “You would.”

“So…?” He made a rolling motion with his hand after several minutes had passed in silence. “You wanna tell me what you’re doin’ out here?”

“Before he could answer the back door slid open and Michael clambered inside and dropped down into one of the seats. He leaned over to shove the door closed and then stretched his arms out along the back of the seat as he lifted his hands up slightly. “There a reason it takes two of you to come get the van?”

“El Presidente apparently had somethin’ he needed to get off his chest.”

Max shrugged when they both looked at him. “I know what you did last night.”

That wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting. “Say what?”

Michael kicked the back of the drivers’ seat. “You don’t really think anyone missed your near perfect exit from Isabel’s bed this morning, do you?”

There was no point defending his actions. That would just make him look even guiltier than he already looked. “I don’t really see how it’s anyone else’s business.”

“You sleep with her last night?”

Kyle shifted around and hooked his arm around the headrest as he met Michael’s challenging gaze head-on. “You got somethin’ to say, just say it.”

“She’s not wearin’ her wedding rings anymore.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Just not somethin’ I see her doin’ lightly.”

“I know what you did last night,” Max repeated softly.

“Yeah, well, why don’t you enlighten me,” he growled. “Obviously you think she can do better so why don’t you just – “

“Little sensitive tonight,” Michael muttered under his breath and waved Max on when he shot a look at him over his shoulder.

“You took her home to see Mom and Dad.” He shook his head when Kyle’s gaze shot to him. “She hasn’t said a word, but as much joy as this Christmas on the Lake nightmare’s given her, she was more at peace today than she has been in I don’t even know how long. All I’m sayin’ is that you make her happy and I don’t really care how you do it, all that matters is that you do.”

“Wait,” Michael leaned forward, his elbows braced on the front seats as his gaze bounced back and forth, “so you didn’t sleep with her?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, like I already said,” Kyle reiterated, “but we slept together in the fact that we were both sleeping in the same bed.”

“Huh.” He sat back and shrugged.

“So anyway, that’s all I wanted to say,” Max said and settled back into his own seat.

“Yeah, well, she deserved somethin’ for Christmas too.”

A soft smile settled over his face as he thought about his sister and how happy the visit with their parents had made her. “Yeah, she did.” His expression became somber as he thought about what he’d give for Liz to see her parents, something he didn’t even know if it would be possible since they didn’t know where they were now. He glanced down when a hand settled on his shoulder for just a moment before Kyle drew it back.

“We’ll find a way.” Kyle shrugged. “We always figure somethin’ out, right?”

Michael was still trying to make sense of Kyle’s statement of fact. “She get you somethin’?”

Yeah, Kyle thought, I got to see her happy. And finally free. Rather than answer though he shifted into drive and started to maneuver up the driveway to the house.

*****

The cabin was quiet with the exception of the muted sounds of the shower. Liz was sitting on the couch in the living room, dressed in her pajamas, and waiting for her husband to finish what had become his evening routine so they could go to bed. Life on the run hadn’t allowed for things like daily showers that they had all taken for granted just a few months ago. She stared at the suitcases lying open beside her, checking, double checking, and then triple checking to make sure everything that could be packed had been packed.

Her orderly brain had already organized the layout of the packing job, starting with the things they wouldn’t need right away and working her way up. Last to be packed was the small bag containing essential items they would need to get them through the first few days if they couldn’t get to the suitcases.

Her mom did things like that, organized and orderly. House chores had been scheduled, wash day was always on Wednesdays; everything had its time and place. She smiled slightly at that thought. That must be where her obsessive compulsive organization skills came from. Although she could just imagine what Mr. and Mrs. Sugar Muffin’s suitcases would look like, she thought with a chuckle. Sugar Muffin… how in the world was Kyle still walking around after coming up with that little endearment?

She did one last visual sweep of their suitcases before turning to the side to reach over on the coffee table for the final item. She lifted the new journal and opened it up, hearing the quiet crackles that indicated its lack of use. She brought it up to her nose and inhaled the scent of the leather cover and the crisp white pages, closing her eyes as she mentally wrote a letter to her parents, sharing her Christmas with them and introducing her to the family that had taken them in and opened their home and hearts to them.

She opened her eyes to look around the room, feeling her heart swell as she thought about what a blessing their unexpected breakdown had been. This place, the Stevens family, and the time it had given them to put the pieces of their relationships back together so that they could begin to mend. It had all helped to ease some of the pain she felt at not being able to be with her own parents over the holidays.

She was ready, she realized. She was finally at a place where opening her heart and putting her thoughts down on paper again felt right. She stretched her hand out to pick up the pen she had brushed aside when she retrieved the journal and she froze for the space of a moment as an impressionistic flash passed through her field of vision.

“Liz?” Max stood in the doorway, his hand paused in the act of towel-drying his hair when he saw the way she was sitting. “Hey, the packing can wait until morning. We’ve got that nice warm bed just waiting for us in the next room.”

She straightened up and placed the journal and pen in the smaller bag. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said with a small smile. “I’m just about done.”

His gaze was scrutinizing as he watched her, familiar with the look on her face. He dropped the towel on the back of the couch as he leaned over to cup her cheek. “Liz, what happened?”

She wasn’t even sure herself what had happened. “I’m not really sure.” She brushed her hair back behind her ear. “It came and went so quickly.”

“Did you happen to touch the surface of the table?” He motioned to one corner. “Right about there?”

“Yeah, I was…” Her eyes widened for a moment. “That’s where you hid the envelope the Sheriff gave you.”

“C’mon, let’s go to bed.” He placed a kiss on her forehead and pulled her up and around the couch, wrapping his arm around her shoulder with the intention of taking her into the bedroom.

“Max…” She shot a pointed glance at the wet towel he had left lying on the back of the couch.

He grinned and grabbed it before continuing with his original route. As soon as he had her in bed and she was busy searching for that perfect spot to settle in for the night he dropped the towel around his waist and changed into a pair of boxers. He was about to climb into bed when Liz cleared her throat and he rolled his eyes as he backed away and grabbed both towels off of the floor. He backtracked to the bathroom and flung them up to hang over the shower rod and then hurried back to bed.

She settled into his arms and nuzzled her face into the crook of his neck. She could feel him patiently waiting, intentionally not pressing her for answers. “It wasn’t like the other times, Max,” she said finally. “It wasn’t just what I saw. It was what I felt too.”

His arm around her tightened for a moment before it relaxed again. “What’d you see?”

She pulled away and sat up, her eyes scanning the darkened room as she attempted to gather her thoughts into some semblance of order. She brought her knees up and looped her arms around them, resting her chin on them for a moment before turning to brace her cheek on them as she looked at her husband. “I saw a house.” She shook her head. “Brick, I think, two stories at least with a big front porch. But there were feelings that came with it.” She sighed after a moment and shook her head again. “I don’t really know how to describe it.”

He held his hand out and waited for her to take it so he could pull her down next to him. He didn’t know what she’d felt but if there had been danger or some sort of threat he was certain it would’ve been more pronounced. It always had been before. “It’ll sort itself out, Liz.”

Liz lifted her hand to rest against his cheek, her thumb brushing over his clean-shaven skin. “You’re right,” she whispered and leaned into him at his urging.

Their lips met in a gentle kiss, the sort of soft exploring kiss that could go on forever and she sighed when his arms came around her and he rolled her onto her back. He came to rest against her without breaking the kiss and he made a silent wish for the night to last.

*****

Maria was lounging back in the tub, surrounded by the fragrant bubbles, her eyes closed as she listened to the racket Michael made as he made repeated trips out to the van. She smiled to herself when she heard a piece of luggage knock against something, deciding it was probably the front door when a muttered curse followed right on the heels of the first sound. He was busy getting everything ready so when morning came there would be nothing to delay their departure. As much as she would like to put it off she knew the time had come to say their goodbyes and begin their journey into the unknown again.

She felt better prepared to face the future now that things between her and Michael were no longer in limbo. That stability gave her the courage to face the uncertainty of what was to come, secure in the knowledge that while her place in the world at large may be unknown, her place with Michael was more certain than it had ever been. She was at peace with her situation. It wasn’t perfect but as far as she was concerned perfection was overrated anyway.

A quiet knock brought her out of her thoughts and she opened her eyes just in time to see the door being nudged open. Michael was leaning in the doorframe and she drank in his appearance; the thermal shirt she had grown very fond of during their stay, worn blue jeans, and bare feet. Her heart turned over when he smiled at her and motioned to the cabinet beneath the sink.

“Any signs of Mickey?”

“Thankfully no, and don’t think I don’t know you’ve been leaving cheese for him,” she said as she gripped the sides of the tub to glance at the cabinet for a moment before looking up at him. Heat rushed through her as her eyes moved over him and her legs shifted through the scented water, increasing that warmth.

“Figured that was better than him starvin’ to death. Ever smelled a dead mouse?”

She made a face. “Ungh, Michael, that’s disgusting!”

He laughed and pushed away from the doorframe, hunkering down next to the tub. “Looks like you’re enjoying the tub.”

Her eyes locked on his and her lips lifted in a teasing smile. “Yes, I am.”

Michael snorted with a grin and reached out to touch the hand closest to him, his fingertips gliding across her flesh and coming to rest over her knuckles. “Guess they weren’t lyin’ when they said it was supposed to make your skin soft,” he said, jerking his chin towards the bottle she had carefully balanced on the rim of the tub by the wall. “Feels pretty soft to me.”

She released a quiet breath, pursing her lips at the sensation of his light touch that seemed to travel through her body with all the subtlety of a lightning strike. “Mmm-hmm,” she murmured.

His gaze darkened even more at the sound of her sensually lazy response. He reached behind him to snag the fluffy turquoise towel from the hook on the wall and his eyes never left hers as he stood and shook it open, waiting for her to stand and step into his arms.

It was easy for Maria to give him the answer to his silent invitation, rising from the water and taking the single step into his embrace. She leaned into him and her lips paused, just a hairs breadth from his, as she whispered his name.

His kiss was slow and gentle yet driven by need. He shifted and picked her up, cradling her against him as he carried her to the bed he’d had the foresight to turn down already. He continued to kiss her, his lips traversing every inch of skin he could reach as he lay her down on the bed. He released her long enough to divest himself of his clothes and then settled over her, his weight braced on his elbows. He groaned softly, the sound almost nonexistent, enjoying the feeling of being cradled by her body. He stared into her eyes, easily losing himself in the emerald pools as he blindly reached up to touch her hair. “You smell good,” he murmured as he inhaled her scent.

She gave him a slow grin and took his hand that was playing with her hair. “I smell like food, Michael,” she whispered hoarsely.

He dropped his head, his eyes savoring the sight of her full lips. “Not just food, M’ria,” he brushed her lips with his, tasting them and humming contentedly. “Dessert.”

She would’ve rolled her eyes but before the thought could connect to the motion, his lips were on hers and she forgot all about it. Their kisses were a mixture of soft and needy, their touches a combination of exploration and possession, and when their need was greatest and his every stroke demanded an answer, her hips granted that reply. Her nails dug into his shoulders, his name a whisper on her lips as she came apart beneath him, and afterwards they came to rest in each other’s arms.

As she lay there listening to the sound of his pounding heart slowing to its normal rhythm, she closed her eyes and ran her thumb over his. Their hands were held together, their fingers loosely intertwined, and she was listening to his breathing evening out when she realized something was missing. She unlaced their fingers and drew his hand closer, her eyes searching for the ring he wore on his right ring finger. Her fingertips brushed over the white band of skin there for a moment before she called his name, rousing him from sleep’s embrace. She glanced up at him when he grunted out a half-asleep response.

“Where’s your ring?”

“Dunno, must’ve left it by the sink after dinner…”

The words were mumbled at best, slurred at worst, and to be honest, didn’t make much sense. He hadn’t been washing dishes so why would he have taken it off? She would’ve questioned him further but his breath caught in that way that indicated he was well off into the land of the sleeping and getting an answer now would be next to impossible. She’d have to ask him again tomorrow, she thought as the pull of sleep became impossible to resist and she gave in, following Michael into a peaceful sleep.

*****

Kyle stretched out, taking up every available inch of space and soaking up the freedom to sprawl as he settled in for his last night of sleep in an actual bed for God only knew how long. He had no idea what was coming their way when they left the next morning, but whatever it was, he knew they could handle it. He yawned and rolled over, shuffling around and finding that perfect spot as his eyes began to drift closed.

He could picture the desert back home, the night air cold but far from the arctic and often negative temperatures that seemed so at home in the north. He missed home. Growing up he’d had dreams that would’ve taken him away from Roswell and he’d never thought twice about it. Hindsight’s 20/20, boy, his grandfather had always said. Grandpa had been right. Of course, now that Dad and the others were all leaving, almost everything that had made Roswell home would be gone before long.

Home now meant wherever his family was; the friends, the family that drove him nuts and kept him sane on a daily basis. He snorted softly at that thought. Two sides of the same coin.

Michael, who had a tendency to react without thinking, although he was getting better on that front, the guy who treated him as an equal and who had taken to looking to him when making decisions. Trust.

Maria, who had a way of finding something positive in most situations, even though sometimes it took an effort to follow her train of thought, the slightly odd but always entertaining girl who found comfort in his comedic moments as much as the silent ones, the one who ran interference when things just got to be too much. Solace.

Max, who was about as uptight as anyone he’d ever come across, but who was also beginning to ease up a little now that he knew the truth about what had happened the night he’d caught him in bed with his future wife, the guy who was slowly coming to trust him. Solidarity.

Liz, ever the rational mind unless Max was involved, who managed to put things in perspective and keep things focused when things got rough, the girl who could laugh with him and commiserate over being different. Companionship.

And Isabel, the girl who in could turn him inside out with a look, infuriate him with a single word, and nearly drop him like a sack of rocks with her tears, she was the one who unknowingly held his heart, the girl who kept him going when it seemed like throwing in the towel might be an acceptable option. The one most easily understood and yet the most complicated and complex of all. Love.

He sighed quietly as he slipped into sleep, a smile on his lips as his thoughts lingered on Isabel.

Just a room away Isabel ran her fingertips over the framed photograph she had brought back with her from her childhood home. It had been a family picture, one Mom had insisted they have taken in an actual studio, and in spite of Max’s grumbling and Dad insisting they could just take a picture at home, Mom had managed to get them all to the studio.

It was professional quality and the photographer had succeeded in making everyone appear very casual and relaxed. She placed it on the nightstand and ran her fingertips around the frame, feeling the slight notch on one side where it had been knocked over and landed on the hearth. She could so easily picture the momentary look of shock on Michael’s face when he’d upended the photograph while he and Max had been horsing around one afternoon after school before their lives had gotten so complicated.

At the time she’d brushed off the fleeting look of fear she’d seen, certain she’d somehow had her wires crossed. Later, after learning the cruelty he’d endured at his foster father’s hands, she’d recalled the picture incident and she’d had a better understanding of what she’d seen in his eyes. She’d never hated anyone before Hank, had never had any reason to. But what he’d done to Michael, no, she could never forgive that.

Her hand fell away from the photograph and she lay back on the bed, her eyes staring at the ceiling as she let her memories take her back to the day that monster had disappeared. She had asked Michael if he had done anything, had thought the worst, and it wasn’t his immediate denial that she remembered most. No, it was the look in his eyes when faced with a question he’d never expected from someone he trusted; the reality that she had believed him capable of hurting someone, hurting them badly enough to make them disappear… capable of murder.

That look had stayed with her. A combination of shock, hurt, and disbelief, but it was the hurt that stood out most of all. She’d immediately denied it when he’d asked if she thought he’d done something to Hank, but they’d both known it was a lie. It had been written all over his face. She hadn’t understood it at the time, still didn’t fully understand it. The relationship between an abuser and the abused was something she wasn’t sure she’d ever comprehend. She hated Hank, had ever since she’d learned what he was doing to Michael, but on the flipside, she’d never had the feeling that Michael hated him. His feelings for the man who was supposed to take care of him and had done everything but that were more complex. It was a conundrum and one she had a feeling could only be understood if a person had been through it.

Her gaze shifted back to the photograph of her family and warm feelings of home and family rushed through her. Maybe Michael didn’t have that in his past but she had a feeling it was in his future. And with someone that at one time she had been so certain she had nothing in common with, could never speak to socially, much less befriend. That thought made her smile. Maria was the one she’d been so sure would crack under the pressure of the secret, but she had a quiet strength that she hadn’t anticipated.

She looked at her mom’s features and smiled as she recalled the conversation she’d had with Maria just before she’d freaked the other girl out by giving the air conditioner a burst of life to help break the sweltering heat in the car. Moms, she thought. It was the one thing they’d had in common at the time. They’d come so far since that day.

She snuggled down under the covers and sighed contentedly as her sleepy mind wandered back to the visit with her parents that Kyle had made possible. She had known him most of her life. Not that they’d been friends most of that time, but they had run in the same social circles and they’d both been in the upper echelon of their cliques. She’d never thought much about him beyond the fact that he was the captain of every sport he was involved in and despite being a jock, was worthy of being acknowledged. Then of course when Max had healed Liz and things between them had started to grow Kyle had been determined to beat his rival.

He was so much more than that though. He was genuinely kind and caring, and he had become the best friend and confidant she’d ever had. She shook her head as she thought about all he’d been through with them. For them. He’d been shot, he’d been buried alive by alien crystals, he’d been betrayed by a girl he’d cared about, his dad had been stripped of his badge and lost his position as the Sheriff of Roswell, he’d lost his grandfather and never had the chance to say goodbye, and he’d been put on a list along with the rest of them to be hunted by a government-sanctioned organization.

Yet he kept his spirits up and he was a tower of strength for the rest of them. She wondered if there really was something to the Buddhist thing he was into. Happiness welled up in her as she thought about their visit with her parents the night before. It had been so unexpected and so unselfish and it meant so much to her that he’d done that for her.

The wind blew and she lifted her face to feel it, welcoming the warm breeze and even the fine grains of sand that brushed against her skin. Her eyes opened and she scanned the night sky, taking in the star strewn canvas. It was breathtaking and so familiar it nearly broke her heart. The wind stilled and she inhaled the warm air deeply, drawing in the familiar scents of the New Mexico desert.

She felt a familiar presence and she dropped her gaze, turning her head to look at the man standing beside her. His eyes were searching the arid landscape, his spirit so peaceful, and his expression contemplative. As he turned to look at her they both froze, staring at each other for the space of a heartbeat.

Isabel sat up, suddenly wide awake. She looked around the room in confusion and strained to hear Kyle’s breathing as he slept just a room away. She lay back against the pillows when she heard him shift in bed and she released a quiet breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding.

Kyle jerked upright, running his hand through his hair as he tried to figure out what was going on. He sat motionless for a moment, listening for Isabel, and lying back down when he identified the sound of her quiet breathing.

Unknown to them their thoughts were running in the same direction as they tried to figure out what the dream meant. There had to be an explanation, something to make sense of why the other person had appeared so vividly in their dream.

And nearby, Alex stood between their rooms, his keen unearthly hearing easily detecting their near-silent breathing as they each slipped back into a dreamless sleep. He smiled to himself as he watched over them. They didn’t yet understand the significance of the dream, but he did. He’d patiently waited for this moment, knowing it was coming and anticipating its arrival. It was yet one more way Isabel and Kyle would complement and complete each other.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-62- 7/24/14

Postby KindredKandies » Thu Jul 24, 2014 10:56 pm

Eva: There are some parallels that can be drawn between Edward and Michael’s situations growing up, and while they faced some difficult obstacles that have left deep scars, they survived their childhood and they’ve grown into good men with a strong sense of right and wrong. They know what it’s like to grow up in bad situations and they’ll break the cycle.

The holiday has come to an end and the time has come for our gang to prepare to get back on the road. The story isn’t over just yet and there’s always room for hope. ;)

keepsmiling7: Thank you! Each of these characters has taken us on a different journey and it’s been a real joy to explore them and watch them grow over the course of this story.

Max is finding his way around dealing with Kyle. Who knows? The two of them could actually end up being friends down the road.

Stay tuned, we may get more of a glimpse into that vision.

Natalie36: Thanks! Michael is amazing with his girls. Alex is a calming presence for Isabel. He helps keep her grounded and he’s taken a lot of pressure off of his friends. You just never know what the future might hold for Kyle and Isabel.

Roswelllostcause: Thanks! Yep, as nice as it’s been for them to be off of the road for a while, the time is fast approaching for them to hit the road again.

Timelord31: Thanks for reading!

sarammlover: Lol, you’re so right! We don’t think Isabel will get away with pulling another ‘snow day’ on the gang though. Michael might have a fit if that happens. Maggie’s a real sweetheart and we have a feeling Michael’s gonna miss her as much as she’s gonna miss him. It does look like Michael and Edward have finally accepted that there’s some common ground between them. The gang is hoping for the same thing! Yep, taking Alex out of the show left a pretty big hole, but we’ve appreciated his efforts as he extended his otherworldly guidance and support to his friends and loved ones.



Part 62

Maria’s eyes were locked on her reflection in the bathroom mirror as she finished applying her lipstick. She put the cap back on the tube and rubbed her lips together before presenting them for inspection and nodding to herself in satisfaction. Yep, she decided, she still had it. She reached over to drop the tube in her bag and gave herself one more onceover to make sure she was ready just as the front door shut again.

Even though Michael had done the majority of the packing the night before he was busy going over everything to make sure nothing was missed. He had gotten up early; not waking her until he’d showered, dressed, and put the coffee on. She knew he didn’t want to uproot her from this place and take her back out on the road, but it was the reality that they lived with. It was a weight he would carry until he found a way for them to have a life somewhere without being hunted. Stevens Sanctuary had provided them with a safe haven, but they had all known it was only temporary. The inevitable could only be put off for so long.

Her fingertips ghosted along the soft sleeve of the emerald green sweater she had decided on for the day. She shook her head and her freshly washed and styled hair settled, cascading over her shoulders. She smiled at the final result, pleased with the way her hair framed her face and highlighted her lips. While listening to her boyfriend moving around as he made the final preparations for their impending departure, she had made a decision.

She had soaked up the heat from the shower and vowed to make this as easy for him as possible. She would dress for him, smile for him, and when he took her hand to exit the cabin she was going to leave with him as if they were going on a date rather than heading out into the unknown. She was ready to go, ready to face anything just as long as she had Michael at her side.

She stepped out of the bathroom and did a quick sweep of the cabin, noting that the sheets had been stripped from the bed and the kitchen had been cleaned before her eyes landed on the Christmas tree. She was surprised to see that the lights had been plugged in and even more surprised to see Michael standing between the tree and the door. The worn coat Edward had given him that first day when he’d gone to wait for the tow truck driver was settled comfortably on his shoulders and his hands were shoved deeply in the pockets of his jeans.

She watched as he pursed his lips for a moment before exhaling quietly and locking his eyes on hers. He looked away as he pulled one of his hands free of his pocket, lifting it to brush his eyebrow with his thumb. He caught himself before he could complete the motion and his hand eased back into his pocket, the move carefully controlled. She couldn’t stop the blush in response to his reaction to her appearance and she turned her own head to the side for a moment to collect herself.

Michael watched her gaze move around for a moment before finally coming to rest on the tree and like a moth to a flame, the twinkling lights drew her to stand at its side. She reached out to ever so gently brush her fingertips over the tips of one of the branches and he had a feeling that if it was possible she’d be packing it up and taking it with them.

“I don’t remember turning the lights on,” she murmured after a moment. She was memorizing the wonder before her; the feeling of the pliant needles, the fragrance of them, the oddly sweet scent that emanated from the trunk, and the beauty of something so simple as a tree whose branches had been lovingly intertwined with gently blinking lights and handmade ornaments.

He shrugged. “Probably ‘cause you didn’t.” He didn’t look at her when she turned her head in his direction, letting his gaze rest on the tree as she had done just a moment ago as he gestured at it awkwardly. “I figured you’d wanna pack the ornaments so they didn’t get lost or broken.”

Her eyes were drawn to his hand when he jerked it back to shove it through his hair before it returned to his pocket. She couldn’t help wondering about it. She couldn’t remember a time she’d ever seen him without any of his rings. He’d mentioned leaving it up at the house the night before but he hadn’t seemed concerned about it in the least. They were probably his most prized possession and if they left the way he’d planned, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to get them from the house.

“Here, I got the boxes they came in.”

She accepted the first box and moved around the tree in search of the Santa ornament, carefully unhooking it and wrapping it in the tissue before easing it back into the box. She closed the lid and gave the box a shake, satisfied when it didn’t move around too much. She held it out to him, trading one for the other and reaching for the next ornament only to pull her hand back when it wasn’t where she had hung it.

“Well, where’s…” she trailed off as she scanned the branches, smiling to herself when she finally located it. “There you are.” She stretched up her tiptoes, using both hands to unhook it from the branch when it felt a little heavier than it had when she put it up. She carefully brought it down, blindly reaching for the tissue paper in the box Michael was still holding, and freezing when it reached eye level and the lights from the tree reflected off of the silver band dangling on the hook beside the snowflake.

Michael couldn’t look away from her, mesmerized by the emotions racing across her animated features. He forced his body to remain motionless while he waited for her to speak, refusing to give in to the urge to fidget nervously.

“Michael…” His name was a whisper on her lips as she turned to face him fully, lifting her eyes to him and feeling her heart pound in response to the possessive look he wore.

“Wear my ring.”

Only three words, yet she clearly heard the question, the demand, the declaration of love, the hope for a positive response, and the fear of rejection all rolled into them. Three little words and they carried so much weight. Three little words and they deserved a response just as powerful.

“Yes.”

His arms opened to catch her when she threw herself at him, knowing without question that he would catch her. Her response was more than he had dared to hope for as her mouth crashed into his and he soaked up the love and acceptance emanating from her embrace.

*****

Max slouched down on the couch and propped his feet on the coffee table, his eyes resting on the sealed envelope he held. Their bags were packed and waiting by the door and they had already checked the cabin several times over to make sure everything belonging to them had been packed and that they hadn’t missed anything while cleaning up after themselves.

Liz was taking her time in the shower and he wasn’t inclined to rush her. They were still running ahead of schedule, even accounting for Michael’s impatient nudging of the clock. It wouldn’t be long before he was at their front door, but it would be long enough. He wasn’t in any hurry personally. They were packed, the cabin had been cleaned, and he was just waiting for his wife to get ready to hit the road.

His wife. He smiled at that thought and his gaze dropped to his wedding band, catching himself unconsciously turning it on his finger with his thumb. How many times had he walked in on his dad while he was working on a case and caught him doing the exact same thing? Most of the time Dad had been caught up in his work, his thumb working his ring unconsciously, but once in a while Dad would be completely lost in thought, his eyes unfocused as he stared at his ring with a mysterious smile on his face.

He understood it now. Oh, their thoughts were probably completely different but he had a feeling if they were to ever vocalize them, there would be some pretty similar parallels. He could picture Mom sitting close by or standing in the doorway, a soft smile on her face as she watched Dad. His parents had always been close, attentive to each other, verbally and physically affectionate, and while that had grossed him out for a good part of his life growing up, he had eventually grown to appreciate it and hope to have that in his own relationship one day.

He had that with Liz and he had a feeling as the years passed those feelings would only deepen and hopefully they would expand to include children. His throat suddenly felt tight and he forced down the lump that had come out of nowhere as he thought about her words the night before. She had accepted his son; she had called Zan their son and asked about maybe one day being able to bring him home.

Could it ever be possible? Or was it a dream that would always remain just out of reach? He gnawed on his bottom lip as he considered the possibilities. A home somewhere, probably up in Canada, a decent job, and his family together. Right now that family was the people he was about to pile in the van with, but if one day he was able to have his parents and Zan back in his life… He swallowed hard. He’d never let them go again.

“Max?”

He turned his head to look at Liz and he shook his head at her. “It’s not fair for you to look that good when we’re about to have an antsy hybrid beating down our front door.”

Liz smoothed her hands over the sides of the black turtleneck before hooking the thumb of her left hand in the back pocket of her black jeans. She dropped her head slightly and looked up at him through her eyelashes when he stood to cross the room and stand in front of her. His hands came up to frame her face and he was lowering his head to kiss her when the anticipated pounding on the front door started.

He paused for a heartbeat, his eyes lifting to hers and a slow smile graced his features when she giggled. The sound was so lighthearted, so carefree, and it took him back to when things had been so much simpler. Maybe they didn’t know what they were heading into, but whatever it was, he swore to make the best of it. They were going to have their life together. They were going to have their normal. He didn’t know how, but they were going to do it. The persistent knocking sounded again but he chose to ignore it for a moment longer. “Told you,” he mumbled against her lips.

*****

Isabel ran her hands over her suitcase one more time before nodding and closing it, snapping the clasps closed and carrying it out of her bedroom. Kyle passed her, stuffing his face with another cookie, and took the suitcase from her. He carried it over and set it down beside the front door on his way into his own room.

“You aren’t finished packing yet?” she asked, following him and frowning when she spotted the open suitcase lying on his bed.

“I’ve got it under control,” he mumbled around the cookie he was busy chewing up.

She cringed when he wiped his hand on his jeans and she could swear she heard cookie crumbs dancing across the floor. She was shaking her head when he pulled the top dresser drawer free and turned to dump its contents into the suitcase.

“Um, Kyle…” He didn’t intend to actually pack his things that way, did he?

“Um-hmm.” He lined up the drawer and slid it back in before yanking out the next one and repeating the process all over again. He was well aware of every cringe that passed across her features, the fingernails that were digging into her palms and the disbelieving stare as she watched his every move. It was driving her nuts and he knew it. She’d be certifiable in no time.

“You’ll get a much better fit for your things if you pack them differently.” Isabel tried not to stare at the mismatched socks mixing in with everything else.

“I’ve been takin’ care of myself long enough to know what does and doesn’t work, Sugar Muffin.”

“That name stays here, Kyle Valenti, do you understand me?”

He reached up to place a hand over his heart. “It deeply wounds me that you don’t care for my pet name.”

Isabel smiled slowly. “I’m not your pet and if you continue with this nonsense when we leave this cabin you will be deeply wounded.”

“What’s wrong with pet names?” He refrained from giving her the onceover in spite of the desire to do so. “Babe, baby, honey,” he made a rolling motion with his hand. “You get the picture.”

She nodded to herself. “I see, and which of those names would you like to be called?”

“Me?” He snorted and tossed the last of his clothes in the case and slammed it shut. “I’m a guy, we don’t need pet names.”

“But you think women do?”

He shrugged. “It’s just more acceptable. What?” He held his hands up when he caught the glare she was sending in his direction. “I didn’t make the rules. That’s just the way it is.”

“And since you’re not the kinda guy who necessarily does things simply because it’s what’s accepted, you won’t be maintaining that stance on pet names once we pull out of this driveway, will you?” She lifted an eyebrow when he seemed to be considering his options. “I can’t imagine that Buddha would approve. Can you picture him calling any woman ‘babe’ or ‘baby’ or ‘honey’?”

Kyle made a face. “I think that question might be somehow sacrilegious.”

“This from a man who I know for a fact has prayed to get laid on a Friday night.”

He grabbed his suitcase and carried it into the main room, tossing it to land right next to hers by the front door. “I’ve never claimed to be a saint. What do you think the chances are we can talk Michael into stoppin’ at the first McDonalds we pass?”

“I’d say all he had for breakfast was coffee so it probably won’t be too hard to convince him.”

“Perfect, I could go for a breakfast platter right about now.” He looked around and slapped his hands together. “Okay, I think we’re about ready to roll. Just need to do a final sweep and make my room look like it’s ready for a couple eight- or nine-year-olds and we’ll be on our way.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder when a barrage of knocking alerted them to Michael’s arrival. “And I’ll just haul our stuff out and get it situated while you do that.”

She rolled her eyes at him as he hurried to get into his coat and let him in and she smirked slightly when Michael neatly sidestepped him to avoid the suitcase he tried to hand off.

“Aren’t you ready yet?” he growled as he gave Kyle a shove out the door. He ignored the sound of tripping, hissed swearing, and the final thump as the luggage was sacrificed in order for Kyle to maintain his footing.

“No problem, Sugar Muffin,” he hollered back through the still open front door, “it’s kinda like the three-second rule. I’ll have your underwear outta the snow in no time and they’ll be fit to wear.” He grinned to himself as he collected the suitcases that hadn’t opened and lugged them over to the van.

“How is it she hasn’t killed you yet?” Max asked from his position. He was leaning up against the back of the van with the tailgate raised. “Seriously, I’d like to know.”

Kyle shrugged and grinned. “How’d she get you into tights and an elf hat? She’s Isabel.”

“Yeah,” he crossed his arms over his chest, “that really doesn’t answer the question.”

“It really bothers you, doesn’t it?” He laughed and shook his head. “Some things are just a mystery, Evans. You’re gonna have to deal with it and move on.” He hauled Isabel’s suitcase up into the back, shoving it in between the others and putting his shoulder into it to make it fit when he suddenly had a thought. He turned to hurry back inside. “Evans, finish this so I can…” His words faded into nothing as he ran as fast as he could, trying to get there before she finished changing his room back and found that stupid clown doll.

Max smirked when he heard his sister scream and before the words had the chance to evaporate on the air Kyle’s name was shouted and he could hear the ire in her voice. “Yeah, let’s see you walk away from this one without a mark, Secretary Boy,” he muttered and reached for the second suitcase to toss it inside. He’d known Kyle was just waiting for the right opportunity to spring that creepy clown doll on Isabel, but somehow he had the feeling this wasn’t what the guy had been planning.

Michael stepped out on the porch and snapped his fingers to get Max’s attention. “Hey, you wanna get your head outta the clouds and focus? Get the girls and get in here. There’s somethin’ we need to discuss before we roll outta here.”

“Another meeting?” Isabel muttered under her breath, her heart still pounding from the unexpected scare. She turned her head to glare at the clown, hating the way the painted mouth and too large eyes seemed to be mocking her.

“Yes, another meeting, wife of mine,” Kyle said cheerfully as he threw himself down on the loveseat.

“Our divorce will be finalized in a matter of minutes so soak it up.”

“Oh, I am.” He grinned at her and reached over to grab one of the small pillows, placing it on his lap just as a safety precaution.

Isabel shook her head at him. “You do realize with one look I could decimate that pillow and anything else I choose, right?”

Kyle glanced down at the pillow and then at Michael. “Can she do that?”

“That was an indirect threat to your stones, does it matter?”

“Good point.”

“Alright, we’re all here,” Max said as he ushered the girls inside and closed the door behind them. “What’s up?”

“Just a quick pre-departure meeting,” Michael answered. “We’ve had a little time off the road; time to decompress, time to fix some things that were well past their maintenance date, and time to make peace with past issues and our current situation. We’re getting ready to get back in the van and head out into the unknown.” His gaze moved around the room. “Again. We don’t have any control over that and we don’t have any control over what might happen. What we do have control over is how we handle any situations that arise as a result.”

Kyle raised a hand, more in a bid for recognition than permission. “Is this about whether we’re gonna handle decisions as a group?”

“Yes and no.”

“We handle decisions as a group,” Max spoke up. “We’re all in this together and it’s only right that everyone has a say in everyday things. But we need a clear chain of command if it all goes to hell and we have to make a decision at a moment’s notice.” He glanced at Michael and nodded. “You’ve carried the weight of pretty much every decision since we left and that hasn’t been fair to you.” He smiled slightly. “And at times it hasn’t been fair to anyone else either.”

“I’ll second that,” Kyle muttered under his breath.

Michael shot a penetrating glare around the room when the response drew quiet laughter from the girls.

“But for the most part you’ve been right. I don’t know if it’s genetic or what, but you’ve got a head for that stuff, so I say if it all goes to hell you call the shots.”

Kyle nodded and his tone was serious when he said, “I’ll second that too.”

The girls all responded affirmatively and then Liz looked at Michael as she voiced the question that had to be asked. “And if something happens and you’re unable to make that call?”

He looked at Max, waiting to see what he would say.

He was silent for several minutes before he came to a decision. “If it comes to that Kyle’s qualified to make the call.” He shook his head when the man in question cleared his throat. “Since we left Roswell you’ve been Michael’s right hand. He’s looked to you when he needed a second opinion, to bounce ideas off of, and you’ve never faltered. Tactically, you’re the best choice as his backup. Now that we’ve cleared the air and I’ve got my head on straight, you might wanna look out ‘cause I’ll be paying a lot more attention to tactics and maneuvers than I ever have before.”

Kyle nodded and leaned forward to shake Max’s hand. “I look forward to the challenge, El Presidente.”

“Okay, let’s get outta here before you two decide to hug it out and I lose my appetite,” Michael growled. He took Maria’s hand and headed for the door, rolling his eyes at the turn the meeting had taken. He glanced up at the sky, taking in the streaks of predawn that were beginning to appear. If they were going to make it to the highway before the Stevens family were up and about they needed to move now. He wasn’t interested in dragging out their goodbyes. As far as he was concerned they’d already been said and it was best for all of them if they didn’t have to go over it again.

“I kinda thought we’d at least wait until daylight to make a break for it,” Maria said as she slid into the front passenger’s seat. She glanced at Michael when he grabbed the steering wheel and started to climb in behind it, biting back the giggle that threatened to break free when he immediately backed out again and glared at her over the console.

“What’d we say about the driver’s seat?” he growled.

“That only the driver can change the seating position,” Kyle responded dutifully as he piled in the very back next to Isabel.

Michael shot a look at him. “No one asked for your input, Secretary Boy.”

“Thanks for that, Evans.” The grumbled response was only for show because the new nickname had put a smile on Isabel’s face. He’d let it pass. For now. He could always address it later.

“Well, I was sitting in the driver’s seat,” Maria said as she reached for the map to study it since he insisted on holding the door open.

He huffed in annoyance and reached down to jerk on the lever so he could push the seat back, ignoring Max’s indignant protest when it invaded his legroom. “I suppose it’s a safe bet you’ve already adjusted the radio too,” he grunted as he landed in the seat and adjusted it again, this time to his satisfaction.

“I didn’t think your choice was any way to start the morning.” She continued viewing the map, easily feeling his stupefied gaze on her as he reached for the ignition and came up empty handed. Without looking at him she lifted her right hand and jingled the keys.

“Maria…” he growled warningly.

“Michael…” she teased, her lips lifting in a smile when she finally looked at him.

“Can we please just go?” Isabel pleaded from the back. “I can’t handle the two of you flirting first thing in the morning.”

Kyle dropped his head back against the seat and closed his eyes as he crossed his arms over his chest and shifted around to get comfortable. “Well, at least you don’t have to worry about losing your breakfast.” He opened one eye to look at her. “You guys don’t do that, right?”

Isabel lifted one perfect eyebrow as she slowly turned her head to look at him. “We don’t do what?”

“Puke, barf, toss your cookies, blow chow, hurl, spew…” He just grinned when she narrowed her eyes at him. “No?”

Liz turned in her seat to look at Isabel. “I don’t think anyone would protest if you wanted to gag him for a while.”

“Um, hello?” Kyle raised his hand. “I’d protest.”

She grinned and shook her head. “But you’d be gagged and I’m sure if Isabel was the one who silenced you there would be no protesting because it wouldn’t be an option.”

“Fine, shutting up. Let’s head ‘em up and roll ‘em out, El Capitan!”

Michael and Maria exchanged a look as he slid the key into the ignition and turned it. He exhaled slowly when the engine came to life without the slightest hint of protest and he checked their surroundings one more time before putting the van in gear and heading up the driveway. All they had to do was make it past the main house and they were home free.

“My grandma drove faster than this,” Kyle muttered under his breath. He slid further down in his seat when Michael’s eyes locked on him in the rearview mirror. There was no proof that any of the hybrids could actually shoot laser beams from their eyes, but better to be safe than sorry, he thought. He glanced up at Isabel and he caught her wistful gaze as it lingered on the cabin that would soon be a memory and without thinking about it he reached over and took her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

“You’re doing fine,” Maria said quietly as she placed a hand on her boyfriend’s tense arm. She felt him relax fractionally as he navigated the driveway, knowing how intimidating it was for someone who had grown up in a desert climate to drive in the wintry conditions. He would never admit it, but she knew it without him having to say a word. She also knew how much he wanted to escape without running into the Stevens’ family, but the moment the porch light snapped on that flew out the window.

“It would appear our plan to escape without detection has just gone up in smoke,” Liz said, trying hard not to laugh when she heard Michael’s heavy sigh.

“It’d be rude to just drive by and not stop,” Isabel put her two cents in.

“Oh, and look, there’s George.” Maria tugged on his arm. “Isabel’s right, and it’d just be for a minute or two, Michael.” She smiled when she saw Maggie appear next to her daddy, her hand held in his as she waved her free hand to get their attention. “And I know for a fact you can’t resist your little Princess.”

“Alright, alright, we’ll stop, but just for a minute, and no one gets outta the van.”

She faked a stern expression and looked at him as she snapped off a salute. “Aye aye, Captain.” Of course, then she ruined it by giggling and was immediately joined by Liz and Isabel.

Michael grumbled under his breath as he slowed the van to a stop in front of the house just in time for Julia to come out behind them. She was wearing a coat in deference to the weather, but it was apparent by her sleeping clothes visible below it that she had been in a hurry and hadn’t taken the time to get dressed. Brian wasn’t far behind her, carrying a box in his hands, and Eddie was nowhere to be seen yet. This was just great, he fumed. He’d had everything set for a clean getaway; no messy goodbyes, no weepy girls, none of those uncomfortable ‘moments’, and especially no tears in a certain little girl’s eyes. But no. No, that would’ve been too easy.

Max leaned forward and placed his hand on Michael’s shoulder. “Easy,” he murmured, “I’ve got this.” He nodded at his wife and Liz reached for the handle, pulling it and putting her weight behind it as she gave the side door a push so that it slid open just as Julia reached them.

“Maggie and I made lunch for you,” she said, motioning for her oldest son to join her. “You’ve got a decent drive ahead of you and you’ll probably want to stop for lunch at some point. There are ham and turkey sandwiches, some drinks,” she smiled at Michael, “a Snapple for Santa’s special friend, and some of Santa’s Christmas cookies as well.”

“We appreciate it,” Max said as he placed a hand under the box that had been handed up to Liz, balancing it and taking it from her so he could pass it back to Kyle. “Here, find a home for that.”

Edward could hear the slight hitch in Julia’s voice and he knew she was trying to force down the sadness she felt at their guests leaving. He cleared his throat to get Brian’s attention and as soon as the boy turned to look at him he nodded, letting him know to join him. He handed George off to his son and lifted his sleepy little girl up into his arms, settling her against his side as he took the few steps down to join his wife. As much as she had wanted to come out to see their guests off she was having a hard time staying awake and her eyes closed about the same time her head landed on his shoulder. He took Julia’s hand just as she sniffed and cleared her throat so she could speak.

“Maggie made one for your friend as well.”

Liz smiled at the thoughtful gesture. “That’s so sweet of you.” She only wished that Alex was there to enjoy the sandwich. “Thank you.”

“I know you kids need to get goin’,” Edward said before things could be drawn out any longer. He could tell Michael was itching to get on the road and as for himself, well, he liked the kids and had enjoyed their company, but he was ready to have things fall back into their normal routine.

After everyone had said their goodbyes one last time Max and Liz reached for the door at the same time and they looked at each other when their hands collided. After a moment they started to laugh and Max held his hands up and moved to drop back into his seat.

“You know what, I think me and my hand will stay away from the door while you shut it.”

“Are you gonna remind me of that every time I close this door?”

“Not every time, no,” he said with a teasing grin.

“Can we go now?” Michael growled.

“On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again…” Kyle sang.

“KYLE!”

He rolled his eyes and slouched down in his seat when the rest of the van’s occupants shared their lack of enthusiasm for his singing abilities.

Standing next to his wife, Edward chuckled quietly. “That is one vanload you couldn’t pay me to take a road trip with.”

“Oh, Edward,” Julia chastised with a small laugh.

Michael was easing his foot off of the brake, ready to finally hit the end of the driveway and get on the road when the front door banged shut. He buried the flinch he could feel wanting to break free between his shoulder blades at the sound and kept his eyes focused on the snow-blanketed driveway. His gaze dropped to Maria’s hand when it suddenly settled on his arm and he caught a blur of movement from the corner of his eye.

“Michael, wait.”

In spite of his desire to keep going and make their escape he deferred to the request in her tone and the muscles in his leg tightened in response, depressing the brake and once again stopping the van. His back teeth were grinding with impatience as his eyes shifted to the boy and he gave an internal sigh when he saw the boy hold up the guitar case he was carrying. A few words that he couldn’t make out were exchanged and a soft smile settled on Julia’s face as she turned to look at Edward and spoke for a moment. The man’s features gentled and he said something to her just before they turned back to their son and nodded.

The boy rushed over to the van, his steps eager yet cautious as he maneuvered the frozen ground. “I’m so glad you haven’t left yet,” he said breathlessly.

“Hey!” Michael made a grab for Maria’s arm when she reached for the door handle. “No one gets outta the van, remember?”

She flashed a smile at him. “Extenuating circumstances and I’ll only be a quick minute.”

The light from the overhead dome light glinted off of the silver ring she wore on her left hand and he bit back the sharp protest that was lodged on his tongue. The sight of the ring, his ring, residing there caused a myriad of emotions that he didn’t care to examine too closely to roll through him. He released a pent-up breath and nodded. “Fine, but hurry it up.” The words were more for show than anything else because she was already on her way out of the van.

Maria closed the door, conscious of Eddie’s awkwardness and seeing no reason to broadcast it. She could see him struggling to get his words out, an effort that was no doubt impeded by his older brother standing close by, watching him like a hawk.

“We… I mean, I…” the boy’s voice cracked and his cheeks flushed when his brother snickered behind him. Instead of trying to repair his first speaking attempt he shoved the guitar case towards her. “Somethin’ for the road. Thought maybe you’d like some music on the ride. Merry Christmas.”

Maria hesitated to accept the guitar. “Eddie, that’s your first guitar.” She was touched by the offer, but she knew how important the instrument was to him. How important it would be to any musician. “It’s a very special thing to hold onto.” She stopped the flow of words when she caught his anxious demeanor, his fear that she wouldn’t accept his gift. Rather than continue her current direction, she altered her response. “Are you sure?”

He smiled at her, his relief palpable. “I’m sure,” he whispered, his movements a little more sure as he held the case out and she accepted it this time. He felt his face heat up when her fingers brushed his as she took possession of the guitar case.

“This’s such a thoughtful gift and I’ll always treasure it.” She leaned forward to give him a kiss on the cheek, not commenting when the perpetual blush he wore around her deepened. “Keep singing, playing and writing music, Eddie.” She patted the case with her free hand. “Thank you, and Merry Christmas.” Once again she said goodbye to his family who were all still waiting to see them off and her eyes misted. “Thank you all.”

From the drivers’ seat Michael could see the change in her posture and he knew if he could see her face there would be fresh tears in her eyes that were just waiting to spill over. He leaned over, stretching his right arm out to grab the door handle and shove the door open. “C’mon, Dorothy, load Toto up and let’s head for Kansas.”

Max opened the sliding door to accept the guitar when she responded to Michael’s gruff but gentle prodding. He handed it back to Kyle, letting Secretary Boy deal with the logistics of finding space for the case. He settled back into his seat and reached up to rap his knuckles against the roof of the van when Maria’s door finally closed again. “We’re good to go.”

Michael squeezed Maria’s hand when she reached for him and after a moment, when he was sure she had herself under control, he placed their joined hands on his thigh. He glanced out through her window, his eyes locking with Eddie’s for a few seconds before he shot one of his patented Guerin smiles at him. He looked up, checking the rearview mirror and taking just a moment to let his gaze move over his family, and assured that they were ready to go, his foot eased up on the brake and they headed for the end of the driveway.

The silence was heavy, but contemplative rather than oppressive as they finally reached the end of the driveway and turned onto Old US 23. They were each lost in their thoughts and at the back of the van Kyle had to bite his tongue to keep from commenting on Maria having no idea what she’d just done to Eddie. He could save it for later; just another bit of ammunition for his arsenal. One just never knew when some tense moment would need to be broken by a bit of comedy.

“Okay, when’re we stopping to grab breakfast?” he asked as he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “I could seriously use a breakfast platter from Mickey D’s about now.”

“We’re not,” Michael decided and went on before a protest could break out. “Have a sandwich. Maxwell, where’re we goin’?”

“That didn’t feel like a very democratic vote to me,” Kyle grumbled. “I’m pretty sure this isn’t a case where it’s all gone to hell and you’re calling the shots.”

“Is the breakfast platter that important to you?”

He turned his head to look at Isabel. “It’s the principal of the matter, and yes, it is.” His stomach growled, lending veracity to his claim.

Michael glanced up in the rearview mirror, listening to the conversation with half an ear while Max worked on pulling out the contents of the envelope. “Have a sandwich, Valenti.”

“Okay,” Max said after dumping the contents out in his lap and sorting through them, “we’ve got IDs, a couple maps, a license plate, a bumper sticker,” he raised an eyebrow and showed it to Liz, “and what looks like an address.”

“Well, if there are plates we’ll need to switch them out with the ones on the van, right?” Isabel asked.

“Yeah,” Michael shook his head at her reflection, “and it’ll take all of two minutes.”

“Then what would it hurt to stop at a McDonalds and order breakfast before we get on the road? I’m kinda in the mood for a McMuffin.”

“I wouldn’t mind some pancakes,” Liz said, smiling at the bumper sticker she was holding.

“Breakfast Burrito,” Max said as he leaned over the seat to hand the maps to Maria since she had been the primary navigator during their time on the road.

Michael rolled his eyes at the breakfast discussion and he sighed in annoyance when his stomach grumbled in response, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten breakfast yet either.

“Probably couldn’t hurt to just run through the drive-thru and pick something up before we get underway,” Maria murmured for his ears only. “They’re cheap and quick, and we could be back on the road in practically no time.”

“Fine, Maria’s hungry so we’re gonna make a quick pit-stop,” Michael announced. “Maxwell, how long does it take to read an address? Where’re we goin’?”

Max chuckled at the impatience in his tone. “Toronto. Looks like we’re headed to Toronto.”
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Complete- 10/29/14

Postby KindredKandies » Tue Oct 28, 2014 10:28 pm

keepsmiling7: Glad you loved the pre-departure meeting, lol. Michael really insisted as we began to write. Thanks for the wonderful compliments about our story!

Eva: It was sad to write their goodbyes, but the Stevens’ and the gang knew it was time. We asked Michael if he thought it was possible they might be able to return for a future visit with Maggie and her family. He just put his hands on his hips and gave that one-sided smile accompanied by a soft snort. “If it’s ever safe enough and only in July.” He was adamant about both provisions.

Yup, feeling recharged and having an idea of where you’re going certainly helps the heart! :)

Roswelllostcause: An excellent question! Michael was tight-lipped about their route, but whichever way they went, we’re sure it went as smoothly as possible. Or at least we hope it did, lol. That’ll definitely give him something to look forward to!

Natalie36: Goodbyes are sad and difficult, but they open the door to a new world without fully closing the door to the old one. Perhaps we’ll have the answer to your question in this update.

sarammlover: It was hard to leave the Stevens family, but it was time. Being off of the road for a brief time, having the opportunity to heal, and being surrounded by such a warm group of people, it made all the difference in the world to our gang. Lol, well, that’s Michael! He’s still intense and a pain at times, but we love him, right? Maria’s still working on him. He’s just not the type to be rushed.

GregInClearwater: Thank you! At one point we did toy with some issue arising that might require the alien superpowers, but, the issues at the heart of our gang, they were really what needed to be resolved. And in the end, superpowers weren’t going to fix what was wrong so we followed their lead and the miracle they experienced was far greater. The gang didn’t give us the exact route, but we have a feeling you’re on target.

Timelord31: One journey’s end is another’s beginning. :)

Alien_Friend: Alex has helped them all in one way or another, directly or indirectly, and it’s been nice to spend some time with him. Tess sure did a number on our gang, but it looks like they’re finally mending and finding their way. Together.

The memory of this Christmas and their time with the Stevens, it’s going to stay with them.

Did Kyle go into her dream? Or did Isabel go into his? It’s a good question, but one that we won’t be getting the answer to today. Perhaps one day we may learn what happened and why it happened.

What Michael endured as a child was hard and it’ll stay with him. He’s still dealing with it, but as time passes and he allows the others in, he’s able to distance himself from it bit by bit. The guys do have many things in common, and Edward was especially helpful in providing some guidance although he may never know it.

It is sad to see them leave, but there’s hope for the future now. So much more hope than they had before breaking down.

No way Eddie was gonna let Maria leave without a little something that would put a smile on her face.

Lol, poor Michael. He should know by now that even the best plans somehow end up derailing at some point or other.

We’ll see some of those group dynamics revealed in this new part.


Author’s Note #1: Some of the dialog in this part was borrowed from Roswell Season One episode Toy House, Roswell Season Two episodes Max in the City and Disturbing Behavior, Roswell Season Three episodes Behind the Music, Michael, the Guys and the Great Snapple Caper, and Busted! And since there was no way Kyle would behave himself completely there’s also a small bit borrowed from Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.


Epilogue

The soft strains of an instrumental version of Silent Night played over the van’s speakers as the weary group drove through a residential neighborhood in Toronto. Maria had managed to find the only station around that was still playing Christmas music the day after the holiday and even though he’d made a show of griping about it at first he’d given in and let her have her way. He normally would’ve argued it out until he got his way because he’d overdosed on Christmas music days ago, but given the fact that it served a purpose he’d left it alone.

Maria thought she’d won and he was okay with her misinterpretation of his capitulation. He was done with all the upbeat music and jolly elves, but all it had taken was one look at Isabel and he’d caved. That was normally reserved for his girlfriend, but Isabel was the closest thing he had to a sister and even if she had conned him into taking on the role of the fat man supreme he still had a soft spot for her. And if he’d had to listen to it and felt the urge to rip his hair out more than once, well, after tonight there would be at least three hundred days before he had to endure another merry marathon.

As darkness had fallen the girls had started to drift off and he’d had the opportunity to turn the volume down so it was more like background noise. He couldn’t handle one more round of The Twelve Days of Christmas. He couldn’t believe how many versions there were of that horrible song and each one was worse than the last! And what was worse than that? The fact that the girls had enthusiastically belted out the lyrics of every one of them with Kyle accompanying them! Max at least had kept his trap shut, and while Isabel was never going to win any awards for singing, he hoped he never had to hear Liz sing again. The girl could not carry a tune and he’d even caught Max wincing more than once.

At the back of the van Kyle was roused from a light doze and he blinked a few times in an effort to bring his surroundings into focus. He needed to move, needed to pop his neck to work the kink out of it, but too much movement would startle Isabel awake and she hadn’t slept much since their departure early that morning. He sighed as he peered out through the window. Snow, snow, and more snow. He closed his eyes as he worked his jaw, settling down in the hope he might go right back to sleep. Somehow sleeping made road trips so much more bearable. That wish was quickly dashed when Maria spoke up, her voice loud enough to bring Isabel out of her sleep. Bleary-eyed he watched as their navigator contorted her body in the front passengers’ seat in an attempt to get a look at the numbers on the houses they were passing.

“Michael, will you please slow down?!”

Kyle shook his head when she reached over and thumped Michael’s shoulder with the map of Toronto.

“I think we just drove past it.” She pointed even though he couldn’t see what she was trying to indicate. “That one, the one with the little white twinkling lights framing the porch. See it? It has the big Christmas tree in the front window.”

“Maria,” he growled, “half of these houses have trees in the front window.”

He turned his head slightly, trying to make out what was being said as Max and Liz carried on a whispered conversation in the seat in front of him. He didn’t catch it, but El Capitan obviously did because his dark gaze was suddenly burning a hole in the rearview mirror as he watched them.

Oblivious to the conversation, Maria tried to duck down to keep the house numbers in sight when Michael kept the van in motion. “Michael, I’m telling you, that’s the house back there.” She huffed in annoyance. “Why didn’t you slow down?”

Kyle gave up the pretense of trying to doze off again when Isabel lifted her head from his shoulder. He pushed himself fully upright and stretched as much as possible in the confined space and yawned widely. He exhaled loudly and leaned forward to rest his forearms on the seat in front of him. “Are we there yet?”

Michael slowed the van to a stop at an intersection and he contemplated a turn for a moment as he met his friend’s gaze in the mirror. “Care to share with the rest of the class, Maxwell?”

“There really isn’t anything to tell,” Max answered with a shrug.

Um-hmm, somehow he didn’t think that was the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Kyle thought as he observed Liz’ body language while her husband spoke. He watched as Maria released her seatbelt to turn in her seat to look at her best friend. Let the inquisition begin.

“Liz?”

The brunette leaned forward and shook her head. “Maria, it really wasn’t much of anything. I touched the coffee table where Max had hidden the envelope and there was just… I don’t know, it wasn’t even really a flash. There were no feelings that accompanied it, nothing that really provided anything in the way of information…” she shrugged. “I just didn’t see a need to bring it up.”

“Wrong answer,” Michael bit out before Maria could reach out to her. “Don’t you get it? Listen up, all of you. We can’t afford to keep information to ourselves that could even in the most remote sense compromise the safety of any person here. Not for any reason.”

Isabel leaned forward, her gaze lifting to lock on Michael’s in the rearview mirror. “You’re not helping.” She waited until he gave a tight nod before she rested her hand on the seat next to her sister-in-law’s shoulder. “Liz, do you think you could try and focus on what little you did see? Maybe you can connect with any feelings that might be attached to it.”

Liz turned to look at her and slowly released a pent-up breath as she nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”

Kyle moved back out of the way when Max shifted to rest his arm along the back of the seat, his hand rubbing his wife’s shoulder as she closed her eyes.

“I’m here, Liz.” Max shot a quick glance at Michael, his voice quiet but authoritative when he spoke. “Take it around the block and let’s go by the house again. Take it slow and easy.”

Maria was watching Michael, taking in the way his focus had sharpened as he scanned the houses, the neighborhood. He was doing what he always did. He was threat assessing, mapping out escape routes, identifying problematic areas. She glanced back at Max and grinned. “Way ahead of you, boss.”

“Try to reach out with your mind. Utilize your feelings and tell me what you see.”

Kyle’s attention was pulled back to Isabel when she spoke up, her voice hushed. She was still trying to help Liz pull the flash into focus so he bit back a comment about the Vulcan mind meld and forced himself to study their surroundings instead.

Liz’s brows were knit together over her closed eyes and she exhaled slowly as she nodded. “Okay. I see a red brick house, two, maybe three stories with a gabled roof.”

“What the hell is a gabled roof?” Michael growled and was immediately silenced when Maria whacked him with the rolled up map. Like mother, like daughter, he thought, his lips curling up in a smile at the memory that automatically followed.

“Go on, Liz, what else do you see and feel?” Isabel murmured, ignoring the disturbance from the front seat.

“There’s a large bay window on the first floor, maybe a matching one on the second, I’m not sure. It feels… I don’t know, it feels calm, but there’s an underlying feeling of tension… no, not tension, maybe it’s anxiety.” Her eyes snapped open as she came out of it, feeling as if she were waking from a dozing state rather than what she had been doing. “Maybe I was just reading my own feelings into it. I’m not sure how to really describe it. The feelings are just too distant, like I can’t reach them.”

“Maybe we should focus on the feelings you aren’t feeling,” Maria suggested.

Next to her Michael rolled his eyes. This was ridiculous. They’d been hanging around Kyle too long.

“That’s true,” Liz agreed. “I mean, I don’t feel any fear, there’re no feelings of panic or terror when I picture the house. There are no negative feelings.”

“That’s good, right?” Maria turned to her boyfriend, unconsciously turning his ring on her finger. “The last time things went wrong she was flooded with fear, remember?”

Did he remember? He turned his head to shoot a look at her before slowing the van to take another look at the house. “Alright, two stories,” he craned his neck, “I don’t know, that might be three. Big front porch, bay windows, roof… gabled or not, no clue.” His hands clenched on the steering wheel. “Time for a plan. When we approach the house, we treat it as hostile.” His right hand shot up to stop the expected reactions.

“My dad and your parents set this up,” Kyle said, risking Michael’s wrath by ignoring the signal.

“Yeah, they did,” Michael said as he reached for the rearview mirror and gave it a sharp twist that surprisingly didn’t snap it clean off of the windshield, “and I trust them with our lives, but we have no way of knowin’ if there’s been any kind of compromise since the plan was implemented and now. Our safety comes first. We can always apologize later.”

“Who is ‘we’, Kemosabe?”

“Fine, you can apologize later.”

“Great, I always wanted to play the peacekeeper,” Kyle muttered.

“Good, the position’s yours.” Michael ran a hand through his hair. “Max, you and the girls take the front porch, ring the doorbell. I’ll take the peacekeeper with me.” He picked a spot that would be easy to get out of if they had to make a quick exit. “We’re going in through the back. When whoever’s inside answers the door, play it cool. If they’re expecting us and they’re friendly then they should probably recognize you. If not, we do what we have to do to get back out in one piece.”

*****

The house at 420 Cambridge rose against the night sky, three stories outlined by the light of the moon. It was a large brick home with wide bay windows on the first and second floor that were sheltered by the gabled roof above. The large front porch was covered, the eaves decorated with strands of twinkling white lights. The bay window on the first floor was draped with tasteful curtains and framed a full Christmas tree that was lit and welcomed passersby to pause for a look.

The houses were built close together with narrow pathways between them. The surrounding neighborhood was quiet, settled for the evening, and most of the homes had windows that were lit with warm light spilling out onto the snow-covered ground. The streets and sidewalks were clear of snow and the branches of the leafless trees lining the walkways formed a lattice-work archway that cast spindly shadows over everything.

The serenity so apparent from the outside seemed to be at odds with the armed man who moved through the house with purpose. He entered the kitchen, his movements stealthy, purposeful, and his footsteps nearly silent as he crossed the tiled floor. A woman stood at the stove and she turned her head to smile at the man when he shrugged out of the stylish tweed jacket he wore to drape it over one of the chairs at the small breakfast table set up in one corner of the kitchen.

“Dinner smells good,” he commented with a smile that lifted his shadowed cheeks.

“You always say that.”

His shoulders lifted, drawing attention to the 1911 Colt .45 he wore in a holster on his right side. “It’s always true.” He moved to the stove, gently nudging her out of the way as he examined the side dishes being cooked to accompany the prime rib he knew was roasting in the oven. A knife rested in a sheath at the center of his back, easily accessible if he reached behind him.

“Would you select a red to go with tonight’s dinner, Ian?”

“No problem,” he answered agreeably. “We have several very nice choices in the wine cellar.” He straightened to his full five-foot-eleven-inch height and stepped away from the stove to move to the window and scan the street that ran in front of the house. He ran a hand through his dark hair and nodded to himself when he found nothing out of the ordinary. He changed directions and went over to the sideboard, moving several of the desserts arranged there and smiling in satisfaction.

“I know that look.”

He chuckled and turned one of the decorative serving dishes once more.

“I’ve never known any man to take as much pride in his cooking skills as you do.”

He winked at her as he turned away from the sideboard and headed for the wine cellar. “It’s the way to a man’s heart, isn’t it?”

As his hand was reaching for the light switch for the cellar, and before she could answer, he heard a nearly silent clicking sound and his clear blue eyes sharpened as they locked on the doorway that led to the back of the house. His head turned slightly at the accompanying sound of the doorbell and he shook his head sharply before she could move to answer the door.

“We have company. Check on Luke,” he ordered quietly, his voice a commanding rasp. He watched her until she had left the room and as she finally disappeared up the stairs and out of his sight he heard the telltale sound of the back door opening. There was a near silent shuffle of feet and he turned his head to catch the sound, identifying at least two intruders.

He released his weapon from its holster and his thumb ghosted over the safety as he moved out of direct sight and made his way to the back of the house.

*****

Kyle’s muscles were tensed as he prepared for what was coming. It almost reminded him of the tension that used to wind him up when he played football in high school. Those moments just before the snap, the way his gut would tighten in anticipation, and then that sudden release of tension as the center snapped the ball into his waiting hands. From that point on it had been a constant rush of adrenaline and the scrambling on the field had passed by in a blur as they ran a play that would hopefully put them in the end zone.

Of course, there was no football here. No cheering crowd, no deafening roar in response to the play, and there wouldn’t be a party waiting to end the evening. No, the game he played now had a completely different set of rules, save one. Protect the quarterback at all cost. Surprisingly enough, it was a role he found himself accepting of. Knowing that someone trusted you enough to have their back was something that should never be taken lightly. And if Michael Guerin put that much trust in you, you’d damn well better not screw it up.

He caught sight of a shadow but before its owner could be seen there was an electric humming that was quickly followed by sudden darkness. He heard the near silent metallic whisper as the safety was switched off of a gun and in a fleeting moment he wondered when exactly he had learned to identify that sound. But it was in that single moment that the tension fell away to be replaced by the familiar rush of adrenaline. He was aware of every move Michael made as he inched towards the doorway and even though his eyes hadn’t yet accustomed to the darkness he followed his lead by instinct.

He heard rather than saw Michael throw his body forward in a hard tackle and he heard something drop and slide across the floor.

“Valenti, get the gun!”

He was forced to rely on his other senses since the darkness had temporarily compromised his vision, and in spite of the sounds of struggle going on to his left he listened as the gun came to a stop, smacking up against something and thankfully not discharging. He’d been shot once, he didn’t care to experience it again. Ever, if he could help it. He went after the weapon as Michael had ordered, not questioning it or defying it, just following it.

His hand wrapped around it just as the lights flickered on and he turned, his body in a crouched position as he took aim. He exhaled slowly and lowered the gun when he saw that Michael had managed to pin the other man to the wall, his forearm pressed into his windpipe. He had twisted the man’s wrist and had his thumb bent at an angle that kept their attacker under control. For the moment.

The guy looked dangerous. There was something in his eyes that said he could kill without a second thought and he wondered what the hell they had just walked into. The man hadn’t looked away from Michael and Kyle could see his jaw working as he tried to speak, but with the pressure on his windpipe he couldn’t do much more than gasp.

“Let him talk,” Kyle said.

Michael shot a look at him over his shoulder, taking in the solid stance and the steady aim of the gun his friend held trained on his prisoner. The Sheriff would be proud, he thought. His gaze shifted back to the man and he leaned in closer to him until they were almost nose to nose. “You flinch, you die,” he growled menacingly as he relaxed the pressure just slightly.

He didn’t look like the type to flinch, but Kyle could appreciate the threat regardless. He nodded at the man, motioning with the gun. “Who are you?”

Ian drew in a raspy breath before choking out, “Valenti? You’re Kyle Valenti?”

He shifted his weight ever so slightly and suppressed the urge to roll his shoulders. His face slipped into an expressionless mask as he met the man’s gaze head on. “What’s it to you?”

He coughed and tried to work up enough spit to moisten his throat. “I work with your father.”

Kyle shook his head. “No, you don’t.”

Michael pressed his forearm harder into the man’s throat and his eyes darkened dangerously. “The man asked you a question. Don’t waste our time with lies.” He added even more pressure until he could hear the man’s fight to draw breath. “You’re strapped, you were expecting us, and given the opportunity you’d have us on the floor with that gun to our heads. Now you tell us who you are or…” His eyes shifted to the right when he heard footsteps and he caught movement from the corner of his eye as Kyle whirled to take aim at the doorway.

He increased the pressure of his hold on the man’s wrist and on his windpipe, fully conscious of how much more he could apply before he did any permanent damage. He nodded when Kyle’s gaze flicked to him for just a moment and he watched him take a couple of quiet steps back into the shadows so he could get the drop on the person approaching them.

“Let’s take it easy, boys.”

“Sheriff?”

“Dad?!”

Jim Valenti grinned at them and nodded. “Michael, you wanna release Ian? Kyle, give the man his gun.”

Ian resisted the desire to reach up and rub his throat when the brute that had attacked him reluctantly released him. The kid’s eyes were locked on him, assessing, challenging, and under other circumstances he knew he’d take him up on it. However, that wasn’t why he was here. He checked his weapon before returning the safety to its correct position and holstering it in his shoulder rig. He stepped around them and shot a look at Jim. “I’m gonna check on her,” he said, his voice gruff from the recent abuse his windpipe had taken.

Michael’s gaze followed the man as he disappeared from sight and his eyes narrowed as he tried to figure out how he fit into things. He wasn’t just some security guy and he wasn’t local law enforcement for sure. He was older, but not as old as the Sheriff was. Maybe thirty or so, he decided. He was short and stocky but he had catlike reflexes and he’d been hell to keep under control. It had taken everything he’d had to keep his powers in check while making sure the guy couldn’t get out of his grip and gain the upper hand.

“What the hell’s goin’ on, Sheriff?” he demanded, his voice laced with irritation at this unexpected turn of events.

“Let’s go into the living room. We’ll get to that explanation soon enough. The others are waiting for us there and there’s really no need to go through this more than once tonight.” He chuckled as he motioned for the boys to come with him. “That was a smart move, having Isabel disrupt the power long enough for you to get the upper hand. Ian’s not an easy guy to take down.”

“Yeah, well, you’ve gotta be prepared,” Michael grumbled, intentionally shoving his elbow in Kyle’s ribs when he started to say something that would probably blow his cover. He’d speak with Isabel later about that little stunt. Yeah, it had worked out, but he had said absolutely nothing about improvising when he’d handed out assignments earlier.

*****

Max’s gaze roamed around the room he found himself in as he waited with the girls for Michael and Kyle to come back. To say they had been shocked when the Sheriff had answered the door would be the understatement of the year. He had given them nothing to go on, just ushered them inside and told them to wait for him in the living room before turning and running down another hall.

Liz was busy trying to keep Maria occupied by pointing out different decorations on the massive Christmas tree that dominated the floor space in front of the large bay window. She was doing her best to steer her best friend’s mind away from the back of the house and the obvious sounds of a struggle that had greeted them upon their entry. It was hard to ignore, but the Sheriff’s features hadn’t revealed any signs of stress and in spite of his rush to get to the back of the house, he hadn’t seemed overly concerned about what he would find.

Isabel’s gaze was locked on the Christmas tree, her fingertips working the pendant she wore around her neck. It was a diversion tactic as she tried to keep her nerves under control. It wouldn’t take much more for her to start pacing. Her movements would be cagey and they’d remind him of Michael when he couldn’t stand still.

He checked the time on the clock over the carved mantle that framed the lit fireplace for the fourth or fifth time since they had been left there. Not even two minutes had passed. The room was warm and inviting, but he hadn’t let his guard down. He was trying to do as the Sheriff had asked, but it was too quiet now and it was taking too long. He took a few steps towards the entry to the hall and with nothing more than a look the girls were right behind him. He peered around the corner, his eyes searching the shadowed areas along its length, freezing when he caught sight of several figures approaching him.

His right hand flexed as they came closer, but before he could lift it up and move into a defensive stance, their features came into view. He released a pent-up breath when he recognized the Sheriff, and right behind him Michael and Kyle. It was easy to see that Kyle was relaxed, most likely due to the fact that he had seen his dad, and to him that signified safety. Michael, of course, was anything but relaxed. He was tense; his eyes were constantly in motion, scanning the area, mapping out entries and exits, and threat assessing. He also looked a little disheveled, something that indicated he had been involved in whatever had gone on at the back of the house.

“Alright, I know you’ve all got a lot of questions,” the Sheriff said as he watched the boys take their places by the girls. Boys, he thought with an unnoticeable shake of his head. They weren’t boys any longer. Circumstances had turned them into men.

“Yeah, let’s start with the ninja cop back there,” Michael growled as he ran his free hand through his hair. His other arm was wrapped around his girl, keeping her close. He didn’t know what was going on. The Sheriff’s presence took some of the edge off, but it by no means relaxed him. He damn sure wanted answers. He lifted his head slightly when the Sheriff’s gaze locked on him.

“I have the answers, but before we can speak freely I need to take care of a few things.” He nodded, making sure Michael understood what he was saying. “It’ll just take a minute or two. You’re safe here. Wait here until I get back.”

Max and Michael exchanged a look and after a moment Michael gave a sharp nod.

“A few minutes.”

The promised few minutes passed in tense silence and when finally the sound of footsteps neared the doorway once more their eyes locked on the entry. The Sheriff was there and he had assured them everything was fine, they were safe, but it was impossible for them to relax when they had no idea what was coming.

*****

“Max.”

His gaze was drawn to his sister when she called his name.

Isabel’s voice was subdued but the undertone of awe was easily detectible as she spoke, her eyes locked on the first person to step through the doorway. “It’s our mother.”

Max turned and stared. Shock, disbelief, hope, and an overwhelming sense of joy, so many emotions burst to life when he found himself facing his parents. In spite of his recent reassurances to Liz he hadn’t honestly believed that he’d ever really see them again. Somewhere in the darkest corners of his mind there was the fear that he had irreparably damaged his relationship with his parents after everything he had put them through. It contradicted his own certainty that his love for his son would never be diminished, that nothing would ever have enough power to take that away, but even knowing the strength of a parents’ love for a child he couldn’t keep those fears at bay.

He’d grown up knowing he was loved; he’d grown up safe and secure in the knowledge that his parents would provide everything he needed and more. In spite of the proof that had surrounded him on a daily basis he had questioned that unfailing love and he didn’t know if he could forgive himself for that transgression above all others.

How many times in his life had he chosen to keep them at arms’ length? How many times had they, even in the smallest of ways, asked him to trust them with himself? And how many times had he put up a wall between them to protect his own self? He’d accused Michael of pushing people away, and while his friend had done that on multiple occasions, he’d had reason. No one had ever given him reason to trust them. He’d gotten a raw deal from the beginning; he hadn’t been taken into a home and loved without condition and he hadn’t been given a childhood full of happy memories. Yet Michael loved with a ferocity that astounded him.

When they’d been prepared to leave Earth, to travel to the home they’d searched for their entire lives, he wasn’t the one who had walked away. It was Michael, the one most dedicated to locating their alien home, who had chosen to turn his back on that road. Isabel had been willing to leave with him, to take a journey whose conclusion didn’t bear thinking about, and to this day he couldn’t help but wonder if Tess had given her that nudge.

He could remember the brief conversation he’d had with her over the phone when he’d been in New York City. She had balked at the idea of leaving Earth. No, she had balked at the idea of leaving their parents and rather than consider the emotional turmoil just the question alone had created he had pushed forward, insisting that he needed an answer from her and Michael. The memory alone made her sudden decision to go to Antar questionable, and it made his idea that maybe Tess had orchestrated her agreement that much more plausible.

Isabel’s connection to their parents had been so strong from the beginning and he knew it had torn her apart to have to keep their secret from them. He admired her strength and her ability to love. One of these days he’d have to tell her that. He had been content to keep the secret, but looking back now he realized that his desire to protect them from exposure had actually isolated and further exposed them to danger.

He had royally screwed things up with his dad. And he hadn’t just done it once. Over and over he’d messed up; he’d refused to answer questions, he’d invented lie after lie, and in the process he’d alienated everyone around him. Liz, his sister, his friends, at least they knew the truth. And even if they didn’t agree with every decision he’d made, they had understood to a certain degree the pressure he had been under. Even if they hadn’t liked him at times because of his decisions or behavior, they had understood him in ways he’d never allowed his parents to know him.

He pushed away the memory of two specific conversations with his dad, but regardless of his desire to ignore them they pushed to the surface of his mind anyway. A little trust, a little honesty, and Dad wouldn’t have been investigating him. He had been hurt when he’d learned he was being investigated by his own father, but it hadn’t been hurt that had driven him to spend time on the lake with his dad. When the questions had followed them to the lake he’d felt like he was being interrogated and he’d had enough.

“I saw the board in your office. I know what you’re doing.”

“And what am I doing?”

“It isn’t right to spy on your own son.”

Dad had denied the accusation, insisting he was only trying to figure out what was going on.

“Is my concern for you a threat?”

He had taken the question out of context, not intentionally, but everything had been spinning out of control and his mind had twisted the words to fit his fears. “Do I threaten you?”

“You frighten me, Max. I don’t think I know who you are anymore. I’m beginning to think I’ve never known you.”

“I’m your son.”

“With secrets. And my biggest fear is that they’re terrible secrets, that you’re in trouble and I can’t help.”


He’d had the moment of truth in his grasp and he’d let it get away from him. It had served to put more distance between them and it had increased his father’s need to understand what was suddenly going on in his son’s life. Dad would do anything to protect him. He would use everything he possessed to move heaven and earth if it meant protecting his children, but at the time he’d only been able to see the situation from his own side.

With that decision he had allowed the chasm between them to widen and his father had continued his investigation. Over time it had grown to include others in his circle and when his father had eventually brought in an investigator it could’ve unmasked them and put them all in even more danger. As time passed he had become more focused on finding his own son and while undertaking that mission he’d really stepped in it. That was when it had really started.

Armed robbery. And he’d let Liz hold the gun. He was a fool. When that mess had finally ended he had gone back to the scene of the crime. He shouldn’t have been surprised that his dad had followed him. But he was. He was sure that had been in his voice when he’d turned to look at him and asked that very question.

“Yes. Yes, I followed you here. Because I can no longer trust you to tell me the truth. I thought you were involved in drugs. But this is clearly something else. What were you looking for down here, Max? What is this place?”

“If I told you what this was about, it would put you and Mom in danger.”

“You didn’t do it for the money. I never believed you did it for some adolescent thrill. You did it because you wanted to get down those stairs into that room. And I need you to tell me why.”

“I can’t ever tell you the truth. Please, don’t make me lie to you.”


That time his refusal to be honest and tell the truth had cost him dearly. His parents had dropped everything and come to his rescue and even after Dad managed to get the charges dropped against Liz he still hadn’t been able to open up to him. What more did they have to do to prove that they loved him and had his best interests at heart? While he knew there was work to be done to repair his relationship with his father, it was his mother he needed reassurance from the most.

Years ago he had sat in the park back home and he knew without a doubt he’d wounded her deeply with his refusal to confide in her. He could only imagine how much it had hurt her to suggest that maybe they weren’t enough for him, that maybe he couldn’t open up to her because he needed real parents to be able to do so. He’d denied that.

“Mom, I don’t think we’ll ever find out real parents. And… maybe it would, you know… give us some answers, but please don’t ever think that you’re not enough. I mean… without you, I… I don’t know where I would even be.”

“Max… nothing you are could ever turn me away from you. I mean… I love you. And you’re my son. Do you understand that?” Her eyes had pleaded with him to trust her with his secrets and he’d wasted the opportunity to unburden himself and ease her mind.

“Yeah.”


Oh, but he hadn’t understood. He hadn’t been anywhere close to understanding the kind of love a parent has for a child. It was unconditional, it was all-encompassing, and it was a combination of such joy and pain that there just were no words to adequately sum it up. But now he understood. He’d had to give his son up. He’d lost one of the most precious gifts anyone could ever receive and he hoped Zan would be spared the sins of his father.

All his mom had wanted to do was understand him and he’d pushed her away, put a barrier up between them. He’d even suggested leaving and he had known that would effectively silence further questions. Her children were everything to her and he’d played dirty to keep her from searching for answers.

How much hurt could a person endure before it was just too much?

His mind was relentless as it threw up the memory of his phone call to Isabel while he’d been in New York City. He’d asked about Mom and then basically dismissed his sister’s answer, too wrapped up in what was going on to really pay her words much attention. Unfortunately, his mind had locked the words away, satisfied to toss them out on occasion just to torture him with the reminder.

“I wanted to call and see how everything was going. So how… how was Thanksgiving?”

“It was… Mom cried all the way from the cranberry sauce to the peach cobbler. So did I.”


He’d brushed her words off and moved on.

He wanted to go home and it was standing within reach, just waiting for a sign from him. The scared little boy inside of him wondered if they could forgive him for all he had put them through… if they could still love him. He finally forced his eyes up to meet his mother’s gaze and he had his answer. Her eyes shone with a glistening sheen of tears and a smile of love and acceptance spread across her features as she opened her arms to him and welcomed him home.

“Mom.” His voice cracked as he crossed the small distance separating them and he was immediately wrapped up in the warm embrace of both his parents.

*****

Tears welled up in Liz’s eyes as she watched her husband’s reunion with his parents. She knew Max harbored the fear that he had lost any chance of ever having his relationship with them back. She didn’t believe it was as damaged as he felt it was, but in spite of the easing they had experienced after learning the truth so quickly after Tess’ return, in spite of their acceptance of Zan, and in spite of their conversations between the truth coming out and their sudden departure after graduation, she knew he felt so much had been left unsaid.

“Liz?”

Her head snapped to the side when she heard a pair of voices she had feared she would never hear again. She felt her throat working as she struggled to find her own voice but it refused to cooperate. Max wasn’t the only one who felt like there were things left unsaid, but while so much of his feelings stemmed from guilt, hers were a jumble of so many things. She had finally made peace with her dad, but her relationship with her mom had been riddled with contention. She had a better grasp on that now, but she probably wouldn’t fully understand it until she had a teenage daughter of her own one day.

“Mom, Dad,” she cried as she was enveloped in their embrace. She had hoped one day she’d be able to see them again, but she’d been scared to believe in that hope too much.

Nancy held her daughter tightly, terrified that if she let her go she’d lose her again. It had been six months since she’d lost her little girl; six months of sleepless nights, six months of worrying, fearing the worst while praying for the best, six months of wondering if her baby girl was safe, warm and sheltered.

Tears spilled over to track down her cheeks when her daughter burrowed deeper into her embrace, seeking and drawing comfort from her presence. She glanced over at her son-in-law and smiled at the young man’s reaction to his own parents. Her little girl was married. She had finally gotten over the shock that her son-in-law was an alien, a hybrid, but it had taken time. It wasn’t until Max had come into her daughter’s life that she and Liz had really had a problem seeing things eye to eye.

She didn’t blame Max for that though. It hadn’t been easy to acknowledge that her little girl was becoming a woman. She’d wanted so desperately to handle it better than her own mother had, but in the end it had come down to a battle that had been going on as long as mothers had been faced with teenage daughters and the raging hormones that accompanied the journey into womanhood.

She turned her head to look up at her husband, seeing the glistening sheen of unshed tears in his eyes. He had promised her they would see their daughter again and she hadn’t had a single doubt that he meant it. She’d had no idea how he intended to make it happen, but she had believed him when he said it. Somehow she’d envisioned it taking years, that she would miss so much of her only child’s life, and that by the time they were finally reunited Liz would have little ones of her own. Months of working covertly with Jim and Philip had paid off though and when Jeff had come to her just a few weeks ago and told her they would be leaving soon she had been scared to believe it could happen so quickly.

They hadn’t known exactly where they were going or where they were going to end up when they left but somehow she hadn’t been surprised to learn they were leaving the country. It had been the safest way for all of them to get out, to escape the people constantly watching and monitoring their movements. She knew surveillance on them had eased considerably as the months had passed, but they’d still had to be extremely cautious and their journey to reach this destination had been quite unconventional. But she didn’t care. She had her little girl in her arms and they had a plan to keep their children safe and in one place. That was what was important, that was all that mattered.

*****

Max was still trying to get his feet under him after being quietly welcomed into the family by Liz’s mother. She was still high on the reunion with her daughter and he wondered if that had somehow softened her feelings towards him. He glanced over her shoulder at her husband. He hadn’t stepped forward and joined his wife to welcome him and he was far from being sure of the man’s reaction.

Jeff Parker’s hands were tucked in the back pockets of his jeans as he observed everything going on around him. Every time the man’s eyes ghosted over him every memory of every time he had put Liz in danger flashed before his eyes. Her dad had given him a second chance, but for all he knew that decision was the biggest regret of his life now. How did he feel about him now that armed assassins had done their best to take them out at Graduation? Since she had left her home, her family, and gone on the run with him? Since he had taken their little girl away from them for what might have been forever?

That implacable stare was hard to read and every time it swept his way it felt like it cut right through him. His gaze was pulled away when his mother-in-law said something and he heard Liz laugh quietly. It was so good to hear that relaxed laugh. He lifted his head and shot another quick glance over Nancy’s shoulder and when he realized his father-in-law’s jaw line was free of the tic that indicated several different negative emotions, he felt himself relax fractionally. He took a deep breath and stepped around Nancy to face the man directly. It took a moment to remember to release that breath and when he did he lifted his eyes to his father-in-law’s.

“Mr. Parker.”

He had to force himself to stand still when the man’s gave moved over him searchingly. He saw Jeff’s eyes pause when they reached his left hand and it took an effort to keep his fingers from curling into a fist. He wanted so badly to move, to somehow evade that probing stare, but he forced himself to remain still until the man’s eyes locked on his once more.

He had controlled the urge to fidget, he had managed to avoid breaking out in a major sweat, and he had even avoided the instinctive need to look away, but nothing he did could prevent his heart from racing or his thoughts from running rampant. Yeah, Mr. Parker had given him a second chance, and for a moment that thought had calmed him. But the man’s unrelenting gaze as he watched him and just waited… it sent his brain into overdrive. All he could see as he waited for the man to speak, to damn him to hell for what he’d done, what he’d taken from them, was their meeting after he had brought Liz home after one of their secret dates. Mr. Parker hadn’t wanted to see him with Liz but even after she’d gone upstairs he had tried to make the man see reason, told him he loved her, and it hadn’t made a difference. If anything it had only seemed to fuel his anger.

“I don’t give a damn about your love. Because of you, my daughter was arrested for armed robbery. She could’ve been killed. Did you ever think about that? Tell me you’re not dangerous, Max. Tell me that being with you doesn’t put my little girl’s life in jeopardy.”

He knew how Mr. Parker had reacted after that mess in Utah. What would it be like now that he knew the truth about him? Now that he knew who and what he was? Now that he had taken his daughter from her home without so much as a word of goodbye to her parents to live a life on the run with him? Now that he knew she was marked for capture or death because of him?

He glanced down when he felt her fingers brush his, and for a moment everything else disappeared. He flexed his hand and he locked his fingers around hers.

“Max.” There was a smile on her face and in her voice when she said his name. And before he could do more than acknowledge it she turned to look at the man still silently observing. “Dad.”

One word and he watched as his father-in-law’s features softened into a smile as his gaze shifted to settle on his little girl.

“Daughter.” The smile gained momentum until it was a grin, but in spite of his obvious happiness at seeing his only child, he nodded at the young man holding her hand. “I’d like a couple minutes with Max, Lizzie.”

Max felt her hand tighten around his and as his eyes met hers he injected confidence into his gaze and voice. “It’s just a couple of minutes,” he assured her.

Her gaze bounced between her husband and her father for a moment, doing her best to let them know they should play nice. “Yeah, okay,” she pointed at Maria and her mom, “I’ll be right over there.”

It was difficult to pull his gaze from her as she backed away, releasing his hand only when it became a matter of letting him go or pulling him with her. He almost wanted her to hold on and drag him across the room to talk to Maria and her mom. He waited until she was out of earshot and then he cleared his throat as inconspicuously as possible and faced her dad again. He drew in a calming breath and straightened, his hands dangling at his sides because he didn’t know what else to do with them.

“You’ve read her journal.” It wasn’t exactly a question, but he didn’t quite manage to pull it off as a statement either. He held his father-in-law’s gaze, watching as his lips pressed together, and he gave a sharp nod before looking away. “You were right about me, Mr. Parker. I am dangerous and because of who I am, what I am, those people are after me, and she’s given up a lot for me.” He turned for a moment, following Mr. Parker’s gaze and smiling slightly when he saw her animated features as she and Maria carried on a conversation with Amy. “She’s given up almost everything for me and I want you to – “

Jeff’s hand came up, silencing the younger man as his gaze once more returned to him. He stared at Max, his eyes unashamedly glistening with unshed tears. “I learned all I needed to know about you in her first two entries.” He swallowed and his eyes never left the boy as he continued. “You’re the man who put himself and his friends at terrible risk to save my little girl’s life that day in the Crashdown.” He paused a moment, releasing a controlled breath in an effort to maintain his composure.

Max suddenly realized he was holding his breath and he exhaled as his muscles began to unlock incrementally. He was struck speechless by the man’s words. He had expected nothing like them to pass Jeff Parker’s lips.

“I have one question,” he said, his voice level as he took a single step forward.

“Of course, anything.”

“Why? That day in the Crashdown you risked everything, everyone close to you, you risked it all… why?”

Max felt the skin around his eyes tighten and he could taste the salty tang of tears but he forced them down. He ordered his voice to remain steady as he replied, but as he watched the tears in his father-in-law’s eyes slowly spill over to run down his weathered cheeks, his voice betrayed him. “Because it was her,” he said hoarsely.

Jeff was mindless of the tears tracking down his face as he smiled and reached for his son-in-law’s hand. As soon as the younger man relinquished his hand he was pulled into a one-armed hug. “There’s no way we can ever thank you enough for giving her back to us, Max. Her mother and I will never forget that.” He closed his eyes tightly for a moment, opening them to look straight into his daughter’s happy eyes. A daughter he would no longer have if not for the young man he had fought so hard to keep away from her. “Welcome to the family, Son.”

*****

Amy stepped back but didn’t release her daughter as her eyes roved over her features. Her hands squeezed around Maria’s as she took in the happiness shining in her green eyes. The familiar feelings of unwavering love and fierce protectiveness washed over her and her own eyes started to fill. Her baby girl had grown into a woman. The lights on the Christmas tree reflected off of one of the pearl earrings Maria wore and her gaze shifted to the quiet young man standing guard over the room from his vantage point in one of the corners.

It wasn’t that long ago that most of her worries had revolved around her daughter’s involvement with Michael, and she’d had every reason to be concerned. She didn’t want her only child to repeat her mistakes, to have to make decisions that someone her age had no business making. She wanted Maria to have the life she hadn’t had, to have the opportunity to experience what life had to offer, in whatever capacity that might be. She had come into motherhood too young and while she would never regret having and keeping her daughter, she wanted to spare Maria the toll that path would take on her.

She had observed her daughter’s relationship with Michael, a relationship that was tumultuous at the best of times, and she’d worried that they were moving too fast. She’d never forget walking into Maria’s bedroom that morning to find the two of them in bed together. It didn’t matter how innocent it was, all that had mattered was the immediate flashback to her own past and the fear that her daughter was headed in the same direction.

Over time she’d grown very fond of Michael, but she’d had her doubts the two of them would make it together past high school. She hadn’t been sure what Michael wanted to do with his life, but she’d known Maria had big dreams. That fiasco in New York with that woman from the record label had left her little girl a little jaded about the music scene but it hadn’t quelled that thirst for more than Roswell had to offer.

She shook her head and smiled as her attention was once more drawn back to her daughter. “You found the earrings,” she said as she tried to compose herself.

“I can’t believe I didn’t have them when we left.” She reached up to touch one of them, rubbing it gently between her thumb and forefinger as she cleared her throat.

Amy smiled. “I found them not long after you left and I carried them everywhere with me. I knew you’d want to have them and I knew if I kept them with me I’d eventually see you again.” She glanced at Michael again and released one of Maria’s hands to motion for him to join them.

Maria pinched her lips between her teeth to keep from laughing when her mom turned back to her and Michael gave a sharp shake of his head. He crossed his arms over his chest and remained rooted to the spot. She lifted her free hand and curled her forefinger insistently but he only repeated the negative motion.

“He’s still…”

Amy exchanged a glance with her daughter and smiled as she finished the sentence. “Michael.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I guess we’ll just go to him.” She reached for Maria’s hand again and her gaze dropped when her fingertips ghosted over a ring she didn’t recall her daughter wearing before. She lifted her hand, holding it out to inspect the silver band. “Maria, is this…?”

Maria laughed at her mom’s quietly shocked question. “It’s a promise, Mom, we haven’t decided to run out and get married.”

Amy’s right hand came up to toy with the necklace she wore. “Oh, good, that’s good.” She swallowed with difficulty and smiled. “There’s no need to rush these things.”

“No, we’ll leave the rushing for the soulmates,” she said with a fond look at her best friend. Liz was standing between her parents while her mom talked to Max, hugging the poor guy who was so uncomfortable he looked as if he might bolt for the door at any second. She followed her mom when Amy took off in Michael’s direction, her stride determined.

“Michael, what’re you doing by yourself all the way over here?”

He shrugged and his crossed arms barely had time to drop to his sides when the woman suddenly threw her arms around him and nearly hugged the breath out of him. “Hey, Mrs. Deluca,” he grunted out.

Amy leaned back and looked up at him. “Well, this’s been much longer than a glorious, lost weekend, hasn’t it?” She glanced between them. “No matching tattoos?”

“What? No.”

“Has she pierced any part of her body that can’t be shown in polite company?”

Michael snorted and shook his head. “Haven’t had the time.”

“Good.” Her eyes twinkled mirthfully. “Do I need to hunt you down and kill you like the mangy dog you are?”

He eyed her warily for a moment, struck speechless. There was no way to answer that question without giving the truth away. He’d sure as hell had sex with her baby girl and there was no way she didn’t know that. The woman knew way too much without giving her anymore ammunition.

She reached up and patted his cheek. “Good answer, Michael. Don’t ever let anyone else call you a mangy dog. You’re part of this family now and don’t you forget it,” she said as she pulled him into another hug. “But if you ever hurt her,” she whispered for his ears only, “I will make good on my earlier threat.”

“Yes ma’am,” he muttered and rolled his eyes at Maria as he returned the embrace. He slowly dropped his arms back to his sides when movement caught his attention and he noticed the woman standing in the doorway with the Sheriff. “What the hell?” he muttered.

*****

Jim stepped into the room as soon as Michael left his position and headed in their direction. He held a hand up, hoping to stop the questions he could see building behind the irritated expression, and knowing nothing would stop it.

“What the hell is she doin’ here?”

“Michael, son, before you get any further with that – “

“No, Sheriff, she isn’t part of the deal! She didn’t need to be dragged into this!” He glanced at the young woman in question as he raked a hand through his hair. “If they know she’s involved it puts her at risk!”

“Agent Duff was careful, but it’s still on the record that two of you were involved when she was found after being kidnapped.”

Rapid footsteps on the steps beyond the doorway followed heavily on the heels of a lighter clicking sound and a moment later a small black and white blur ran into the room. “Sorry, he got away from me when I ran upstairs to grab my overcoat,” Ian said, unable to hold back a grin when the Boston terrier found something to fight with. The dog had latched onto the cuff of Michael’s jeans and his small body was jerking wildly as he fought with the heavy material. “Always said that dog was smart.”

“Aren’t you just the sweetest thing,” Maria cooed as she crouched down next to the dog, hoping to diffuse the situation.

His hindquarters swung back and forth as he paused long enough to look at the owner of the new voice, but a moment later he was back at work.

“Luke.”

He immediately released the material and ran to his mistress, using an area rug and launching himself into her waiting arms. The tags on his collar jingled as he wiggled excitedly, licking her face for several moments before calming down and resting in her hold.

Michael eyed the guy they had encountered upon entering the house and he glared at him as he moved to position himself between him and the others. He was aware of the Sheriff squeezing in between them but his eyes didn’t move from the jerk with the gun.

“Michael, this’s Ian Kelly. He’s on his way out and he won’t be back until tomorrow morning at eight.”

Ian’s eyes were locked on Michael and he didn’t look away as he responded to Valenti’s statement. “With all due respect, sir, I don’t work for you,” he said, his voice a tight rasp.

Kyle snorted and shot a look at Michael. “Well, there’s a surprise.”

Ian ignored the rest of them and his eyes softened as he turned to look at the woman he had been watching over for more than a year now. “Are you sure you’re good?” He shook his head, still not sure about all of the new faces. “You say the word and my plans for tonight are gone.”

She was aware of the questioning look Michael sent in her direction. “It’s alright,” she assured him, “he’s with me.” She turned her attention back to Ian. “And yes, I’m good. I trust him and he trusts everyone in this room.” She tried hard to control the urge to fidget when everyone seemed to be watching her.

He turned from the waist to look at the other man. “Ian Kelly, bodyguard,” he said.

His eyes narrowed when the man shifted, certain the move was intentional to expose the holstered gun. “Michael Guerin, brother.”

Ian straightened up, dropping his hands so that his overcoat fell into place, and he sent a genuine smile in Laurie’s direction. “I’ll be back in the morning at eight as we discussed.” He could feel her brother’s intense stare as he watched every move he made. “You need anything, call.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Michael growled.

The other man ignored him in favor of focusing on his charge. He was more than just a bodyguard. She hadn’t wanted some armed bodyguard who just stood around watching her all the time and he had enjoyed the freedom and opportunity his new position afforded him. He had been Laurie’s companion and he had sensed the loneliness that resided in the young woman right from the beginning. He had made it his personal mission to erase at least some of the fears he could see in her eyes and over time he’d seen them begin to shift into the background.

“I’ll be fine tonight, Ian.” Laurie smiled at him when he nodded in response. “And if I need you I’ll call.”

His thumb rubbed over his car key and his assessing gaze moved over the group once more before he rolled his shoulders and took his leave.

*****

Isabel looked around the room, hardly noticing that everything was tinged with blurry edges because of the tears pooling in her eyes. She had moved away from everyone else, giving them space to engage in their reunions while she observed from a distance. She’d had the chance to visit with her parents and Max deserved to have his time alone with them. She knew how much he needed it.

Like the others she had been shocked when the Sheriff stepped into the room with Laurie Dupree. And like the others she had fully expected it when Michael and the bodyguard got into an alpha male pissing contest before the man took his leave. Some things would never change and surprisingly enough she took comfort in that fact.

Laurie still had that underlying nervousness that seemed to have become a part of her personality but after years of the abuse she’d endured it was to be expected. In spite of that there was a vein of strength that now ran through her and seemed to take the edge off of her nerves. She was visibly fidgety being surrounded by so many people, but she seemed to take comfort from the bodyguard as well as Michael and Maria.

She was light years away from the terrified girl they had encountered after she had started having the dreams. Laurie had been wild and understandably so. The young woman before them now was calmer, more in control, and it was apparent she had found something that settled her. She had a feeling a lot of that was due to Michael’s influence. She had listened to Maria recount his heroics more than once, and while there was always a special gleam in her eyes when she talked about him saving the day, it was that quiet smile that settled over her features when she described the way he had dealt with Laurie that really stood out. And it was probably what had made the difference with the girl.

His sister. How strange, she mused. She honestly hadn’t ever given it much thought before today. Michael had a sister and somehow, some way, she had ended up in Toronto with the rest of them. Was that why she’d been able to connect with Laurie when she’d been taken and buried alive? Could it be their mutual connection to Michael that had made it possible?

“It would make sense, wouldn’t it?”

A smile graced her features as she turned to look at Alex. “You’re still here.”

“Whenever you need me I’ll be here.”

“It does make sense. She’s related to Michael in some way,” she shrugged. “Sister makes the most sense and like Maria says, it does take some of the creep factor out of it.”

He nodded. “A sister he wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you.” He held a hand up when she shook her head. “It’s true, Isabel. Think about it. Who somehow connected with her? Who found her? If not for you it’s unlikely she would’ve survived that. It’s unlikely anyone would’ve survived because she would’ve become infected with the gandarium and in time she’d have infected the entire planet.”

He watched her turn to observe Michael and Maria as they conversed with Laurie. “Do you remember telling me you thought you were cursed?”

Isabel sighed and nodded. “Too many people have died, Alex.” She looked back at him. “You included.”

“That’s true, but none of those losses are on your head. Isabel, look at her. She’s here because of you. She’s alive and she’s stronger than before. Michael has someone he can call family. Yeah, he’s always had you and Max, but a brother or a sister who’s directly related to you is different. You know how that is. Michael’s like a brother to you, but there’s a difference between your relationship with him and your relationship with Max.” He nudged her. “You gave that to him, Isabel. You’re not cursed. You never were.”

She smiled at him. “Thank you, Alex.”

He grinned and shook his head. “Get over there, Isabel. It’s your reunion too, and from the looks of it there’s someone waiting to talk to you.”

She turned and quickly took a step back when she nearly bumped into her mother. “Mom!”

“You still talk to him, don’t you?”

“What?” She leaned back to search her mom’s expression. “How did you…?”

Diane smiled as she took her daughter in her arms. “Honey, I’m your mother.” She brushed her daughter’s hair back and cradled her face in her hands. “You cared about him so much and I caught you talking to him more than once.” She shook her head when she saw the look that entered Isabel’s eyes. “You’re not crazy. You miss him and it gives you comfort to talk to him. When you’re ready he’ll go.”

Isabel threw herself into her mother’s arms, hugging her tightly. “I don’t want him to ever go, Mom,” she whispered.

“Oh, honey, I know that.” She smoothed her hand over her daughter’s back. “And I also know that one day you’ll be ready to let him go.”

She turned her head to look at the Christmas tree Alex had been standing beside, her eyes misting when she realized he wasn’t there any longer. He’d be back. Mom was right. She wasn’t ready to let him go yet. She smiled against her mom’s shoulder and closed her eyes, just soaking up the comfort of the familiar embrace.

She was home.

*****

Kyle’s gaze bounced around the formal dining room that was festively decorated to match the holiday theme that was prevalent throughout the house in spite of the fact Christmas had come and gone. The table was beautifully laid out with a lace tablecloth, linen napkins, and more utensils than he had any idea what to do with. There were two rectangular floral arrangements that held tall red tapered candles among the greenery and a glance at Isabel told him just how much the table setter’s efforts was appreciated.

He wondered for just a moment if Ian, the bodyguard slash whatever else he was, had in any way had a hand in the settings. Nah, he decided after a moment, no way that guy knew one fork from the other however many there were. There were also several glasses by each setting, something that along with multiple forks, he’d never understood. A person could only drink one thing at a time and it wasn’t like anyone ate with a fork in each hand. He shrugged, deciding he’d never figure it out, and just as he was leaning back he caught Michael frowning as he mentally counted off the number of utensils next to his plate.

Oh, well, at least it had him occupied for a moment. It had taken everything the guy had to keep from demanding answers the moment Ian had departed and he knew Michael was waiting to make sure he was really gone this time. It wasn’t like they wouldn’t get answers this time. Their parents had no reason to hold back on them. And maybe Michael could’ve dealt with that a little more easily if he hadn’t been blindsided by his sister’s presence. But, the fact was, Laurie Dupree was there, and as far as Michael was concerned that just threw a completely unexpected monkey wrench in the works. He shook his head when El Capitan caught him watching him and shot a glare in his direction. “Not a clue,” he muttered.

“It’s so beautiful,” Isabel said as she reached out to run a fingertip over the rim of one of the crystal glasses.

“Isn’t it?” Maria spoke up. “It’s just like when we had dinner with Laurie, remember?” She reached over to shake Michael’s arm when he didn’t immediately respond.

“What?” he growled, annoyed when she interrupted his thoughts.

“I was just saying it’s like kinda like when we had dinner with Laurie. Remember the way the table was set?”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Laurie smiled at his brisk response. “We have root beer,” she said. “But I thought we’d save the nineteenth century Bavarian crystal for another occasion.”

Michael glanced at her and smiled at the quiet, almost shy smile that graced her features at the private joke. It was something he knew she’d never done enough of, but her presence here concerned him. He was a magnet for danger and that was bad enough, but all of them in one location? At this rate they’d have their own satellite orbiting the planet soon.

“I know you’re waiting for answers, Michael,” Jim said as he nudged his son aside to place a serving dish on the table, “so just give us a few more minutes to get dinner on the table and we’ll all sit down and you can have at it.”

Maria’s hand settled on his thigh under the table in an attempt to calm his nerves. And to stop the incessant leg-bouncing that was about to drive her crazy. She looked up when her mom came up beside her to place another dish on the table and she couldn’t do anything to stop the tears that immediately sprang to her eyes in response to the warm touch on her shoulder. Her mom’s hand squeezed reassuringly and she leaned down to kiss the top of her head before disappearing into the kitchen once again.

All of the parents were busy running back and forth between the rooms and it didn’t take long before the table was full to bursting with a mouth-watering variety of foods. The glasses were filled, the candles were lit, and one by one the parents moved around the table to settle beside their children.

Isabel rolled her eyes when Kyle rubbed his hands together in anticipation as he eyed the platter of roast beef. She knew exactly what was coming next. Maybe not the exact words, but she knew what was coming.

“And he… he himself carved the roast beast.” He grinned at Michael when he received an annoyed glare in response. “We’re gonna wanna work on that Grinch transformation thing before next Christmas.”

“Oh, Michael’s not a Grinch,” Amy denied as she reached for a dish to serve herself. She turned to hand it to her daughter’s boyfriend and pulled it back when he shook his head vehemently.

“Michael doesn’t care for green bean delight,” Isabel spoke up, accepting the dish from Maria’s mom. “If he can’t actually see the green beans he won’t eat it.” She however was going to eat it if for no other reason than it was probably her mom’s recipe and she’d probably had a hand in making it.

“Look, I don’t wanna be the one to bring everyone down here, but this isn’t smart,” Michael said before anyone else decided to keep the current conversation going.

“The running stops here,” Jim said as he served himself a generous helping of roast beef and passed the platter to his son. “You’re not in this alone anymore. We’ve got a plan and we’re in the process of constructing contingency plans that you’ll be involved in as they’re made. We chose Toronto for many reasons, one of them being the fact that it has a population of nearly two and a half million people.”

Michael shot a look at Max and he nodded.

“Dad, these people aren’t gonna stop.” He shook his head when his mom offered him a dish of something, but a moment later his wife accepted it and whatever it was ended up on his plate anyway. “I told you before they’re not gonna stop and if it’s not them it’s just gonna be someone else.”

His dad considered his words before nodding thoughtfully. “You’re right about that, Son, but if you continue running it’s also just a matter of time before that same group finds you or possibly people you’ve come into contact with just to flush you out. They’ll have no qualms about using them against you and locking you up where no one can find you.”

“This way you have a chance to live your lives while getting an education,” Jeff added. “This’ll give you the opportunity to live in a community where you can get into professions that may help you in the future, maybe even allow you to take the offensive in this battle.”

“You’re not alone in this anymore, Max,” Diane said as she turned to rest her hand on her son’s shoulder. “We’re your family and we’re gonna do this together.”

Michael fought the urge to roll his eyes or possibly even gag. At any moment they were all gonna hold hands and someone was gonna break into some goofy song. He grunted when he got an elbow to the ribs – from both sides. That’s all he needed, he thought, Maria and her mother in the same zip code.

“They’re right,” Philip agreed and reached for a dish filled with mashed potatoes. “But before we get into all that, how was the border crossing? Any problems?”

“The student IDs for me, Liz and Isabel were the perfect cover. They kinda gave Michael’s birth certificate a little more scrutiny than anyone else’s ID, but we managed to cross without incident.”

“Score another one for the state,” Michael muttered. He nudged his girlfriend. “Hand over the rolls.”

“Yorkshire pudding,” Laurie said, watching him frown with amusement that caused the bridge of her nose to crinkle just a bit.

“No, the rolls.”

She reached for the basket he was motioning to and passed it to Maria. “It’s Yorkshire pudding.”

He shook his head. “There’s nothin’ pudding about it,” he muttered as he grabbed one.

“Ian made it. He’s been teaching me to cook all kinds of things but they’re his creation.”

“The University of Toronto bumper sticker was a nice touch,” Liz said before Michael had the opportunity to ask if Ian had an apron or something.

Her mom chuckled next to her, easily recognizing the tactic. “Good job, honey,” she whispered, hugging her daughter when the compliment earned her a big smile.

“The student IDs weren’t just for cover,” Philip continued. “The three of you are actually enrolled for the winter semester.”

“You’ll like it there, Lizzie,” Jeff said, his expression proud as he looked at his little girl. “We know how interested you were in pursuing a degree in microbiology and the school here’s one of the top-rated schools in all of North America. The discovery of insulin, the invention of some kind of electron microscope, there’ve been all kinds of good things to come outta this school. They’re very lucky to have you, sweetie.”

Maria smiled at her best friend. Liz looked so happy she was about to burst. “So the plan’s for them to go to school?”

“That’s what we have worked out for Max, Liz and Isabel, yes.” He looked at his son. “We weren’t sure what you were interested in so for now you’re enrolled in general studies.”

“I’ve put a lot of thought into what I’d like to do if I had the chance,” Max said after a moment. “And I’d like to be a lawyer like my dad.”

Philip nodded as his emotions got the best of him and he squeezed his wife’s hand when it found his with unerring accuracy. “You’ll make a damn fine lawyer, Son,” he said, his voice full of pride when he was finally able to speak.

“Well, I’ve about had enough of sittin’ in classes,” Michael said after a while.

“Yeah, I’m with El Capitan,” Kyle mumbled around a mouthful of roast beef.

“Then I think you two will ease right into your positions at my new towing and snow removal service,” Jim said with a grin.

“Excellent. Yet another manual labor job.” He glanced at his dad and shook his head. “That’s exactly what I was hopin’ for.”

Jim just grinned and clapped his son on the shoulder. “Good, I was hoping you’d say that.” He dipped his roll in the gravy overflowing from the small mountain of mashed potatoes on his plate and bit into it. “It’ll give you both a place to start, steady income, and – “

“Not to interrupt the fairy tale ending or anything, but,” Michael swallowed the big bite of roast he’d just taken after hurriedly chewing it, “like Max said, we’ve still got people after us. A steady paycheck and a lot more civilians isn’t gonna stop them.”

Kyle held a hand up before anyone could respond to that. “Before anyone has the opportunity to take offense to that well thought out comment, he actually doesn’t mean it to be as insulting as it sounded.” He glanced at his friend and rolled his eyes. “El Capitan has a tendency to ride the fine edge of hyperawareness.” He reached for another roll without even looking at the basket. “However, he’s got a good point because it was tough enough with just the six of us and now there’s practically a small country, which makes us a much bigger target.”

“The six of you have been on the run for the past six months, unable to rely on anyone other than yourselves, and we know that’s been a heavy burden for you to carry on your own.” Philip’s gaze moved around the table, making direct contact with each of them in turn. “Let me reiterate that you’re no longer alone in this. We may be a small country, but there is a certain safety in numbers.” He held a hand up when Michael opened his mouth to protest. “Hear me out before you say anything. We’ve already applied for Permanent Residency cards for all of us. The idea is to live and work in plain sight. The Canadian government doesn’t allow shadow governments to abduct residents that are contemplating citizenship in the future, and certainly not when those potential future citizens are attending one of its most prestigious universities. This gives us a cushion. We’ll still have to be careful and we’ll need more planning to deal with whatever may come our way, but for now we’re safer here than we were in Roswell or you were on the road.”

“Getting college student residency cards was a bit easier than getting our cards,” Jim said. “Kyle and Maria still meet the requirements to enter with family.” He cleared his throat and shifted to look at Michael.

“Yeah, lemme guess, I was the odd man out, right?” Nothin’ new there, he mused and went for another roll. Yorkshire pudding… whatever. He knew a roll when he saw one.

“Working full time helps a lot, but it’d be better if you had family and were enrolled in some kind of schooling.”

Michael coated his roll with butter, his mind busy mulling over the position he and Maria held in this plan when he caught Laurie smiling at him. “What?”

“Try the gravy on it, it’s really good.”

“Gravy, huh?” One side of his mouth quirked up in a half-smile and he nodded when she passed the gravy his way. He glanced back at the Sheriff and shrugged one shoulder as he reached for his napkin to wipe off the melted butter that was dripping down his hand.

“Michael has a case of diplomus interruptus,” Kyle tossed out and ignored the glare coming at him full force.

“The graduating thing would have to be in there somewhere.” Michael finished wiping his hands off and sat up straighter. “I’m not interested in college though. What I want is military skills, something that would provide training without joining the military. I won’t run the risk of being a part of somethin’ that might ship me out away from everyone.”

“Enrolling you to earn your diploma shouldn’t be difficult,” Philip said, “and there are plenty of opportunities in law enforcement here that could lead to the type of training you’re interested in. For now though, the most pressing matter is finding a way to keep you here longer than a visitor.”

“Michael,” Maria said quietly, “maybe we…?”

He glanced down and caught the movement of her fingers as they toyed with the ring he had given her and he shook his head when he realized where her suggestion was going. “No, not now. You’ve got your dreams.”

Jim’s gaze was following their every move. “Michael, I’d be proud to call you son, but when I suggested it someone else who thinks a great deal of you wanted the chance to ask you.”

Isabel was soaking up everything that was being said, her attention equally divided between her parents and the situation developing around them. She paused when her eyes landed on Laurie and she detected more than just a hint of nervousness in her features. “So, you named your dog Luke?”

Laurie smiled as she reached down to pet him where he was sitting next to her chair, patiently waiting for her to finish dinner. As the spotlight was refocused she relaxed slightly and brushed her hair back over one ear and nodded. “Last Christmas Ian found Luke in a rescue for Boston Terriers. He’d been abandoned by his owners and needed a home. He took me to meet him. Ian thought it was meant to be. He’s a big Luke Skywalker fan. It’s his favorite movie.”

“Meant to be?” Michael muttered under his breath.

Kyle snickered and reached for his empty water glass, bringing it up to his mouth and breathing into it heavily as he spoke. “Luke, I am your father.”

Isabel’s eyes narrowed at him. “Really? What was that supposed to be?”

“My Darth Vader impression.”

“More like some heavy-breathing pervert making a crank call.”

“Get many of those do you, Sugar Muffin?”

Philip choked on the drink of wine he’d just taken and he reached up to wipe his rapidly watering eyes as his wife patted his back helpfully. “Thank you,” he rasped.

Laurie used the moment while everyone was distracted to compose herself before looking at Michael. “You told Ian you’re my brother and,” she inhaled deeply, “I’d like it if you really were.”

His mind drifted back to a conversation he’d had with Maria, wanting her opinion about asking Laurie to move in with him. She’d listened, provided the appropriate responses, and in the end he’d come to the answer on his own. “I told the goof with the gun that I’m your brother because it’s true, doesn’t matter if it’s on paper or not.”

Maria smiled reassuringly at Laurie when the other girl looked at her. “In Michael speak that translates to even though it isn’t necessary for him to know who you are to each other he appreciates the offer.”

Amy smiled as she watched Michael’s interaction with Laurie and before he could ask about Ian she let out a happy sigh and began to get up out of her chair. “I’d say this is the perfect time to have dessert. I made a chocolate kahlua cake to compliment Ian and Laurie’s wonderful roast beef dinner. I thought I’d serve it in the living room in front of the fireplace to help us relax.” She glanced over at Jim. “Would you stoke up the fire in the fireplace?”

Jim nodded even as he leaned towards Michael. “Listen I know you have questions about Ian. We can talk while eating dessert.”

Michael gave an affirmative response and glanced at his girlfriend, noting the look on her face. “So, we’re all kinda locked into one thing or another, what about Maria?”

“Oh, I didn’t want to clip my baby girl’s wings,” Amy said with a smile as she stood and started to clear some of the dishes. “Maria’s never expressed an interest in college. Her interests have always leaned towards the musical and I wanted her to follow her heart. There are plenty of opportunities here for her too.” She leaned over her daughter’s chair to hug her from behind. “There are music schools, there are places to audition, the options are endless, and whatever she chooses to do, it’ll be right for her.” She straightened up again. “Alright, we have dessert to get to.”

Kyle cut in, his gleaming eyes matching his grin. “Say, that kahlua cake wouldn’t by chance be made with real kahlua would it?”

She paused with a smile. “It is, but most of the alcohol bakes out of it in the oven.”

“That’s what you think.” Kyle leaned his chair back on two legs. “I’ve got a big fish story to tell.”

Isabel had no intention of having that particular story shared with all of these people, family or not. “Kyle Valenti, you set that chair back on all four legs or get a timeout.”

“And Mrs. Valenti speaks,” Max said, shooting a teasing grin at his sister.

Philip froze, the napkin he’d been using to wipe himself off after the near catastrophe he’d almost had with the wine after Jim’s son had let that unfortunate endearment slip still pressed to his chin. “Mrs. Valenti?” he mumbled with a shocked look at his daughter.

“Hope you packed your Mickey Mouse sheets,” Michael snorted. “You’re gonna need ‘em.”

*****

December 26th, 2002. Journal entry one. I'm Liz Evans and five hours ago our lives started again.

She looked down at the pen in her hand, sliding her thumb over it and feeling the fine imprint of the brand name on the side. She turned her head to look at Max, smiling at him as he slept so peacefully next to her. Her gaze moved back to her first entry in the journal her husband had given her some time back and she closed her eyes for a moment, savoring the sweet feeling of freedom. She exhaled slowly and brushed the side of her hand over the page before placing the tip of the pen against the paper, beginning right beneath the first word. It took less time than it took the human heart to beat for the words to begin to flow, taking on a life of their own as the ink brought them into existence.

It all started with a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. A freezing cold night, colder than anything I’ve ever felt before. Colder than any of us had ever felt before. What would’ve happened if we’d broken down someplace else? What if we hadn’t met the Stevens family?

She paused, her mind slipping back to the Christmas lights beckoning in the distance. Not exactly the Christmas Star, but in many ways that light had led them to salvation of a different kind.

The Stevens family. Their kindness, caring and generosity saved us in more ways than one. We had been on the road for six months and we were falling apart. We practically lived in each other’s back pockets and we had never been further apart. They welcomed us into their home and gave us shelter, clothing and food. Total strangers with a story full of holes and Julia never thought twice before bringing us inside. Edward, he’s a protector and his family’s safety comes first. He was suspicious and watchful, but thank God he listened to his wife.

She glanced at Max when he snuffled in his sleep and burrowed deeper into the pillow. She’d never understand why he did that because in less than fifteen seconds he’d nearly inhale the pillowcase and snort before turning his face in the opposite direction. She reached over to run her fingers through his mussed hair before focusing on her journal again.

Things were strained enough before Kyle’s powers started to come online. But in a way it really provided the catalyst Max and I needed to really begin dealing with the issues that had been causing so much strain on our marriage. What would’ve happened if his abilities hadn’t chosen that time to reveal themselves? What if we had missed the opportunity to make contact with the Sheriff? We still don’t know exactly how his gift works, but it does and because of it we’ve really landed somewhere safe.

Just a few days ago we thought we’d be taking off in separate directions at the earliest opportunity. We all know Michael’s right, it’s the safest option. Or it was. But the thought of being separated from everyone, from Maria, that hurt the most. Me and Maria, we need each other. We’re kinda necessary to each other’s existence. Yeah, yeah, I know, I can just picture Michael’s reaction to reading that. It’d probably look a lot like his expression the morning we woke up to find an unexpected blizzard had fallen over the Stevens’ home and surrounding area.


She chuckled quietly as she thought about his reaction to Isabel’s weather interference.

Was it just this morning that we rolled out of the Stevens’ driveway and headed north into the unknown? It seems like so long ago now. In less than twenty-four hours we’ve moved from uncertainty to the potential for a promising future. We’re together, we’re with our families, and we’re not alone any longer. We have a home.

I was sure Michael was going to blow something up when the most unexpected thing happened and Laurie Dupree, his sister, walked through the door. LOL, if only there was a way to capture his expression on this paper. That’s one I’d love to preserve for future laughs.

Speaking of future laughs, there’s no way to close out my first official journal entry without mentioning my sister-in-law and her ‘husband’, the intrepid Kyle Valenti. Yes, after my dear husband’s humorous comment at dinner, followed quickly by Michael’s remark about cartoon sheets, there was no doubt their parents would expect an explanation. My poor father-in-law looked ready to eat his fine linen napkin when Max called Isabel ‘Mrs. Valenti’.

She may not be Mrs. Valenti right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen one day. There’s something there, something born of the fire of friendship, something that in the future we may see forged into an even more permanent bond.


She finished filling in other bits and pieces about their Christmas with the Stevens family and their Christmas with their own families before sitting back to stretch and then glance over what she had written. There was so much more to write and she was bursting to get it all down but it had been a long day and her eyelids were getting heavy.

She could just see the story this entry would make when it was complete. It would be a story they would be able to tell their children in the future, a story for Christmas Eves spent sitting in a comfortable living room, sharing the love of family and the warmth of a roaring fireplace. She smiled as the title for that story came to mind, a title so fitting it demanded to be written down before it got lost after a night of sleep. She brushed the side of her thumb over the tip of the pen and then pressed it to the page, immortalizing the title that would one day be a story their children demanded to hear every Christmas. The pen danced across the page, each letter written with a precise stroke…

A Tale of Two Christmases



Author’s Note #2: Well, folks, after four years we’ve finally reached the grand finale of A Tale of Two Christmases. We just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who’s taken the time to read, review and patiently wait for Real Life to get its act together so we could pen another update. We’ve had so much enjoyment as the gang led us into an unexpected adventure. As they were enveloped in the warm embrace of a caring family, accepted into a community that needed them as much they needed that community, and adopted by a precocious five-year-old they were able to open themselves up and deal with some pretty heavy issues.

From the moment we climbed into that cramped bus with them until the moment we sat with them around the dinner table with their own families, it’s been an adventure. We set out to write a little Christmas story and instead we ended up with an epic story full of surprises because once they started leading we had to follow. Now that they’ve led us to Toronto and their parents have set things into motion with Laurie’s help, it looks like it’s time to wish them luck and say we’ll see them ‘round. We wouldn’t be surprised if someday they sent out an invitation for us to pay them another visit, maybe catch up and see how things have turned out a few years in the future.

But until then, thank you all and while it’s early, we hope you all have a Merry Christmas and have the opportunity to experience your own miracles!

Cindy hugs, KK (a.k.a) ArchAngel1973&Marsis
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