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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Re: A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) - Part-40- 8/25/11

Postby KindredKandies » Tue Oct 25, 2011 10:49 pm

A/N Yay! RF is back. We've missed you all. Thank you to the powers that be for working to get this lovely site back up and running. ;)


Natlile36- LOL, that could be interesting. ;)

keepsmiling7- Yes, M&M seem to be getting along well in spite of their issues that haven't been fully addressed. M&M do everything in their own way and it shows here. LOL, it was fun having Maria interrupt Liz.

Aww, thank you! We hope you'll enjoy this Christmas with our gang. We're getting there. :D

Alien_Friend- Yes, Kyle is very approachable and easygoing. Add that to his striking blue eyes that light up his natural good looks and a mischievous sense of humor and we have a Kyle who is hard to resist. We feel our gang just kinda takes him for granted. We agree it's good to have Stefanie there to point it out, lol.

Oh yeah, it was good for Isabel to apologize to the girls. She was so determined that she had to do it at the earliest moment the next morning to get it off of her chest and check it off in her day planner, lol.!

We hope that they get to stay as well. We have our fingers crossed. ;)

Aww, thank you girl, we're so glad you enjoy the story. We have a lot of fun writing Michael's scenes with Maggie and we're glad that you like them together. :)

cjsl8ne- Thank you, we're glad you're enjoying our fic. We have a lot of fun writing Maggie and her family with the gang, lol. They just seem to create the humor all on their own, lol.

Thank you for the awesome compliment about how well Isabel's apology was written. :D

Timelord31- We are so happy that RF is back up and running, we've missed the board and our reviewers..:) Thank you, there is more to come. :D



Part 41

Maria leaned back against one of the makeshift tables, her eyes on Michael as she and Liz carried on a conversation about their morning visitor. She bit into a glazed donut and reached up to brush the shiny flakes off of her sweater. “You know, I thought about it, and I really don’t think Isabel meant what she said last night.”

Liz nodded, biting back a smile when Maggie leaned over, her small hand held out expectantly in Max’s direction. She watched as he reluctantly allowed the little girl to direct his hand to the reindeer’s side and followed her instructions as she shared her wealth of wisdom where the gentle giant was concerned. “I agree. She explained when she came by this morning to apologize.”

“We should really try to have a girls’ night while we’re here. I think she kinda feels like she’s on the outside of things, ya know?”

“I think you’re right. And it’s a good idea.”

“Hey, Maria,” Eddie said as he joined them and held out a cup of coffee. “Um, I wasn’t sure so I put cream in your coffee and left the sugar out since the donuts are so sweet.” He carefully transferred the cup into her hands, blushing when his fingers accidentally touched hers.

Maria smiled. “Thank you, Eddie, it’s perfect. It’s just the way I take my coffee in the mornings.”

Michael rolled his eyes at that comment. Whatever, he thought with a silent snort.

Liz glanced at the steaming cup of coffee. “Eddie, do you think I could get a cup of coffee?”

“Sure, it’s just on that table over there,” he said and pointed behind her.

She made a face at him when he turned to see what everyone else was doing.

Brian squeezed into the group gathered around the reindeer, interjecting himself into the conversation between Stefanie and Kyle. “So, hay’s all put out for the reindeer,” he said with a look at the pretty woman. “Anything I can do to help before I head out to give Dad a hand?”

Kyle snickered silently. Amazing what a pretty young woman could do to a bunch of guys. He hadn’t once heard the teenager offer to do anything that even remotely resembled work since they had gotten started with this thing.

Michael put Maggie down and started to excuse himself when Edward entered the barn and hollered for the boys. He eyed the older man when he paused to look around at everyone and he wondered what the man was thinking when he suddenly smirked.

Edward’s gaze bounced between his boys and chuckled to himself when he noticed that their attention was being held captive by two young women. Good thing we’re gonna be working without all these women around otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done, he thought. “We don’t have all day, boys!”

“Yes, and that lean-to still has to be built for the Living Nativity,” Isabel said as an opportunity to eject Kyle from the barn suddenly presented itself. The last thing she needed was to fall behind while he ran his mouth all afternoon and distracted the reindeer woman.

“You guys need a hand?” Michael asked, watching Max as he snuck away to talk to Liz.

“Dad, maybe Kyle and Michael would be better help for you,” Brian said helpfully. “I mean, they’re older so they’re gonna know more about that stuff.” He couldn’t care less about building some shack thing with his dad when he could be doing whatever Stefanie needed.

“Think you’re gonna know a lot more about this stuff than I am,” Kyle said before anyone else could speak up.

Brian shot a glare at him from the corner of his eye. “Stefanie might need more hay.” He pointed at the floor. “You suck at puttin’ hay out for the reindeer.”

Isabel looked between the two of them when Stefanie laughed and they both turned to smile at her as if she’d just said something fascinating. She nearly rolled her eyes when Kyle said something that made the other woman smile and she found herself watching Stefanie with a critical eye. Petite, maybe five foot three or four. She looked at Kyle, thinking that Stefanie’s petite frame made Kyle look taller. She couldn’t be more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, she thought cattily. She mentally slapped herself. Why did she suddenly care? Her gaze went back to Miss Reindeer Whisperer and she sighed. Probably because she felt like an Amazon next to her, she thought. Well, she mused, maybe the cover of a beauty magazine for Amazon women.

“And this is what I’ve been reduced to,” she muttered under her breath. “Comparing myself to a farm girl who pitches hay and cleans up after reindeer. Life is great.” She cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention, handing out job assignments for the day.

Kyle glanced up when she got to him and he frowned when she gave him his orders. “You want me to what?”

“Well, we can’t just assume that it’ll snow between now and Christmas, honey.”

“But… they’re outdoor trees, Isabel! You can’t honestly expect me to spend the afternoon out there spraying fake snow on live trees.”

“Oh, but I do.” She smiled at him. “And they’ll need a good, even coat.”

Stefanie lifted her eyebrows and grinned when Isabel turned to answer a question from one of the others. “Wow,” she said with a teasing grin. “So… honey?”

“Oh, yeah, they’re married,” Brian interrupted helpfully. “Kyle, Isabel… married.” He shot a superior look at Kyle.

“Don’t you have somethin’ to do?” Kyle growled. “Like building somethin’ with your dad?”

Brian just grinned slyly. “Yeah, but it won’t take all day. That job of yours though… sounded kinda like an all day kinda thing.”

*****

Liz sipped her coffee as she took a break from her assigned task, risking her sister-in-law’s wrath to watch Max as Stefanie went through the commands. She glanced at the other reindeer quietly milling about in their pen, contentedly munching on hay and lazily watching the activity in the barn. Her gaze was drawn back to Rudolph as he stamped one hoof on the floor several times in response to a question from his handler.

Stefanie had gone through a list of commands and Rudolph had responded appropriately to every one of them. Walk, easy, whoa, stand, gee to turn right, and haw to turn left. Why couldn’t she just say right or left? Wouldn’t that be less confusing? She shook her head at her internal ramblings. Maria was rubbing off on her.

Max paid careful attention to everything Stefanie did, quirking an eyebrow when she pulled a treat out of her pocket and held it out after Rudolph followed another command. She didn’t have to do much more than whisper a command and the large animal responded. It was odd the way he seemed to anticipate every command before she had issued them.

“That’s pretty much all there is to it.” She patted the reindeer’s neck. “Rudy responds well to his cues and commands.”

Maggie watched in fascination when Rudolph took advantage of the break and he wandered over the pen where the others were. He lowered his head to nuzzle the backpack sitting on the ground by the gate and after a few moments he grabbed one of the straps with his mouth, tugging it backwards. His antlers knocked against the rails of the pen and he snuffled as he pawed at the pack. “What’s he doing?” she asked with a laugh.

Stefanie turned around and smiled. “He knows my drink’s in my backpack and sometimes I share when he’s a real good boy.” She looked at Rudolph when he pushed the backpack across the floor. “Are you my good boy today?”

He snuffled again and unceremoniously shoved the backpack up against her foot.

“What’s his favorite drink?”

Stefanie leaned over to grab her backpack, unzipping it to pull out the bottle of Cherry Coke that had been spared a good stomping. “Their diets are specialized and it’s important to keep them on it, but once in a while it’s okay for them to get a little something special. He has no idea what’s good or bad for him and if he had his way he’d eat whatever he wanted.”

Across the barn Liz was doing her best to hold back her laughter as she thought about how much her husband loved that particular drink.

Max reached up to hold onto Rudolph’s halter while she carefully opened the drink so it wouldn’t spray everywhere.

“He’s pretty, don’t you think so, Max?” Maggie asked as she reached out to pet Rudolph. She tipped her head back to look up at him. “Do you think… Hey!” She frowned and shifted her hold on Cindy as she engaged in a tug-o-war with the reindeer that had suddenly developed an interest in the little polar bear’s scarf.

Liz smiled when the back of his hand brushed against Rudolph’s mouth as he wrapped his fingers around the scarf. The reindeer shook his head and snorted as he released the scarf and she knew he had been introduced to a little bit of hybrid persuasion. Max crouched down next to Maggie and reached for the scarf that she was frowning at.

“Here, let me take a look at it,” Max murmured, taking the end of the scarf between his hands and rubbing his palms together. “It’ll be good as new in no time.”

“Are you sure?”

He nodded. “I’m sure.” He lifted his right hand and brushed his fingers over the end of the scarf as he leaned in closer to take a look at it. “How’s that?”

Maggie smiled brightly and launched herself at Max, hugging him tightly. “You fixed it!” she exclaimed happily. “Thanks, Max!”

“You’re welcome.”

Stefanie smiled when Max stepped in and handled things without her input. Rudolph wouldn’t have damaged the toy intentionally and if Max hadn’t stepped in so quickly she would’ve spoken up. She chuckled when she opened the bottle fully and Rudolph’s head lifted so he could watch her every move.

Liz watched the reindeer greedily drink down the little bit of Cherry Coke that his handler allowed him to have. After a few moments her gaze was drawn back to Max and Maggie. He was great with kids when he allowed himself to open up with them, which wasn’t often after last Christmas. She could feel that old discomfort attempting to rear its ugly head but it was overridden by Maria’s voice. It was a bit of advice she had given her when Tess had appeared in Roswell with Zan.

“Either forgive Max or don’t.”

It was good advice. Her thoughts shifted to Zan. The little boy was fair like his mother but he had his daddy’s features. Her heart rate began to slow as she watched her husband and thought about his loss that even now was as fresh and painful as it ever was. Even now she felt guilty for the relief she had felt when Max had decided to put his son up for adoption to keep him safe.

There was no way to deny that Zan was a part of both Max and Tess, but as she remembered looking into the little boy’s smiling eyes it wasn’t Tess she saw. It was Max. As that thought washed over her she could feel a lessening of the resentment that weighed so heavily on her. She smiled as Maggie started talking a mile a minute, her excitement so innocent and infectious, and she moved forward to join them.

*****

Kyle stared at the five-gallon bucket Isabel had just hefted up to sit on the table. “You want me to what?” He leaned over and reached in to pick up a handful of the white flakes, sifting them through his fingers and shaking his head in disbelief. “I thought you said you wanted me to spray the trees?”

“Well, is sprinkling the snow really that much different?”

“Is sprinkling…” He stared at her incredulously. “Isabel, have you seen just how many trees are out there?”

She nodded. “Yes, and imagine how beautiful they’ll be with a fresh coat of snow!” she enthused.

“Yeah, I’m imagining,” he grumbled.

Isabel lifted an eyebrow at his unusual grumpiness. “Are you alright?”

“Why? Am I not expressing the appropriate level of excitement about this whole snow thing?

She made a face at him. “Make sure you read the directions because you only have to use a small amount of the flakes to make a lot of snow.”

He rubbed at his forehead before waving her off. “Go on, I’ve got this.” He grabbed the empty five-gallon bucket sitting on the floor and pried the top off of the powdered flakes that would magically turn into snow with the addition of water. “Make snow,” he growled under his breath. “This’s great. I’ll just go skipping around in the snow sprinkling snow on a bunch of trees like a damn snow fairy.”

Michael was walking through the barn, his eyes focused on the instructions in his hand when he overheard the muttering coming from his friend. “What’s up with you?” he asked, pausing next to the table.

“Nothin’.” Kyle lifted up the little scoop from out of the midst of the flakes, shooting a disparaging glance at it before scooping up some flakes and dumping them in the empty bucket. He lifted his head when Michael just stood there staring at him. “I’m makin’ snow, do you mind?”

He held his hands up and shook his head. “Whatever makes you happy.” He smirked. “More like whatever makes your wife happy’s more like it.” He continued on his way, his expression becoming more concentrated as he tried to understand the instructions for building the lean-to for the outdoor nativity set. He could care less about actually reading the stupid things but he didn’t want to look like he had no idea what he was doing once they got started.

Edward came back in from running an errand for Julia and he shook his head as he listened to the conversation between the boys.

Kyle tossed in another scoop of flakes. “Isn’t this crap hazardous to trees or something?”

He intercepted Michael and relieved him of the instructions and glancing over at Kyle.

“Uh, I thought you said that was important?”

Edward nodded and proceeded to wad the paper up into a tight little ball. “It is… we’ll use it later when it’s time to start the fire so we can warm up a bit.” He turned his head to look at Kyle. “As for your question… this stuff’s a lot more environment-friendly.” He nodded sympathetically. “It’s also a big pain in the backside.” He cleared his throat when Kyle frowned at the powder before tossing several more scoops inside the empty bucket and then reached for the water that had been set out on the table. “Uh, I wouldn’t…”

Kyle dumped the water into the bucket and jumped back when the white stuff suddenly started to expand and within seconds it was everywhere. “That’s just great.” He tried futilely to push the overflowing snow back into the bucket but it refused to do what he wanted so he just grabbed the bucket and headed for the door, silently cursing a blue streak.

“Hey, don’t mess up my decorations,” Michael yelled after him.

“It doesn’t seem to be your husband’s day,” Stefanie commented as she watched him stalk out of the barn, hauling the bucket of snow that was still growing.

“No,” Isabel said slowly. “Well, I’m sure my brother has the hang of this if you and your brothers need to get back on the road. You must have a long drive back home.”

“Oh, no worries,” the petite blonde said with a winning smile. “Frankie will be heading home here in a bit. He’ll bring the sleigh out in a couple of days so I can give your Santa a few lessons in driving it before the big day.”

“Well, what about you and Travis?”

“Oh, they’ll be staying with us, dear,” Julia spoke up with a smile. “Stefanie needs to stay close to the reindeer and Travis is a veterinarian.” She patted Isabel’s arm. “This Christmas is just getting better and better, isn’t it?”

Isabel made a sound low in her throat as she forced a smile. “Oh, so much better,” she said as she smiled at Reindeer girl.

“How’s your voice, Isabel?” Dayna asked.

“My voice?”

“Yes, for the night of the event.”

Max snorted. “You don’t want Iz to sing.” He turned back to Rudolph, scratching the reindeer under his chin to avoid his sister’s scathing look.

“Yeah, unless you’re lookin’ to attract every alley cat for a couple of miles you don’t want Isabel singin’,” Michael said. “You want someone who can sing, you want Maria.”

Maria stopped what she was doing, barely feeling the nudge Liz gave her when they overheard his comment. She looked up at him and smiled when he passed her.

“Hey, it’s not Vegas but I guess it doesn’t have to be.” He shrugged.

*****

Liz slid her arm around her husband’s waist, smiling when his arm settled across her shoulders. She watched Rudolph slurping down the Cherry Coke and she chuckled as she looked up at Max. “Looks like you and Rudy have something in common.”

“What’s that mean?” Maggie asked.

She slipped out from under his arm, smiling when his hand stayed on her shoulder as she crouched down in front of the little girl. “It just means that Max loves Cherry Coke as much as Rudy does.”

Maggie reached for Max’s hand and grinned up at him. “See, I knew you an’ Rudolph were gonna be friends.” She looked at Liz. “Don’t you think Rudolph’s pretty?”

“He’s very pretty,” Liz agreed as she reached out to pet the reindeer at the little girl’s urging.

Max was watching them when he realized it was the first time he had interacted with Maggie since their arrival that he hadn’t seen the ghost of old memories in her eyes.

Isabel joined them and knelt down beside Liz and Maggie. “Do you know anyone who might wanna give Kyle a hand with that snow?” she asked.

Maggie’s eyes widened. “Me!”

“You know, I was hoping you’d say that.” She smiled. “Kyle would really appreciate a little bit of help.” She held her forefinger against her lips. “Just don’t tell him I thought he needed any help.”

The little girl shook her head. “I won’t tell.” She looked down at the stuffed bear in her arms. “I’m just gonna go ask Michael if Cindy can stay with him, okay?”

“That sounds good.” She stood up to face Stefanie as soon as Maggie ran across the barn to find Michael.

“Are you ready for me to show your Santa the ropes?” she asked with a friendly smile.

“Yeah. He won’t be very excited about this so I sent his girlfriend over to convince him to be a little more agreeable.

*****

Kyle threw a handful of snow at the tree in front of him, watching as it smacked against one of the branches of the evergreen and only succeeded in knocking the snow already on the branches to the ground. He sighed and grabbed another handful, attempting to sprinkle it as suggested. He crinkled his nose up and tried to inhale deeply through his nose, nearly choking when he realized one side of his nose was stopped up.

“Great,” he muttered. “No wonder I can’t get rid of this headache.” He was probably coming down with a sinus infection. He sighed and stared at the pathetic distribution of snow on the branches. This crap just wasn’t spreading in an even manner. Isabel was going to have a fit over the way the tree looked. “Yeah, Isabel, sprinkling snow really is that different.”

“Oooh, it’s so pretty! Can I help you, Kyle?”

He looked down when Maggie suddenly appeared beside him. “Sure, you wanna get those lower branches?”

“Okay!” She leaned over the bucket and grabbed up two handfuls of snow, dropping most of it in her excitement.

“Here, be careful,” he warned as he picked her up and set her safely down on his other side. “That stuff gets slick underfoot.”

“Thanks, Kyle,” she said with a smile. “Isabel said you might need some help and I’m the best one ‘cause I help Daddy when he does this.”

“Your dad does this, huh?”

“Um-hmm.” She put more snow on the branches. “Mrs. Dayna likes snowy trees too!”

“Should’ve known,” he grumbled under his breath.

“What?” Maggie asked, peering around a particularly bushy branch.

“Huh? Oh, I said we need more snow.”

“Want me to go get it?”

Kyle looked up just as she ran around the tree and her left foot hit the snow she had dropped earlier. He saw her feet fly out from under her and he launched himself towards her, his own foot slipping on the slick stuff as he wrapped his arm around her. He caught himself with his other hand and managed to flip himself over, hitting the ground on his back. Maggie landed on his chest, her elbow impacting with his ribs, and her knee colliding with his stomach.

“That was fun! Let’s do it again!”

“Oh, I think once was enough for Kyle,” Edward said as he sidestepped the slick area and leaned over to collect his daughter. He had seen the slide and the fall and his heart was still pounding. “Nice catch,” he said as he held a hand out to the younger man.

He stood up and forced a smile as he rubbed the back of his head where it had smacked the ground. “Thanks.” Note to self. Next time, be the reindeer wrangler.

*****

Michael was busy trying to assemble one of the sides for the lean-to when he was suddenly thrown into shadow. He slowly turned his head and frowned at Max, Liz, and Maria where they were standing in a semi-circle around him. “You’re blockin’ my light.”

“You’re up, Michael,” Max said, his tone amused. “Stefanie’s waitin’ to introduce you to the reindeer and give you a lesson with the reins.”

“I’m busy. Gotta get this thing put together.” He turned back to what he was doing, intent on ignoring them.

Maria motioned for the other couple to leave them alone and she leaned against Michael’s back, her arms coming around his shoulders so she could link her hands. “You know you’ve gotta go over there and meet the other reindeer. They’ll be much more comfortable with you holding the reins if they know you.”

“Maria, that’s just dumb,” he huffed. “And I’m not gonna come ridin’ in here on a sleigh.”

“Aww, Michael… just think about how excited all the kids will be when they see you.”

“The suit’s bad enough, Maria. No reindeer and no sleigh.”

“Y’know, Michael, I had a weird dream last night.”

He snorted. “Yeah? Had a few of those myself.”

“Yeah, well, I dreamt that we lived out in the country in this little cabin in the woods. It was spring and while I was doing the dishes I looked out through the window and there was this little moose coming through the trees. His name was Wally and we had raised him from the time he was orphaned as a baby.”

Michael paused and dropped the hammer to rest against his calf as he tipped his head back to look up at her. “You’re right, babe.”

She smiled brilliantly at his capitulation but before she had the chance to speak he opened his mouth again.

“You’re right,” he repeated with a smirk, “that is weird.”

She smacked his shoulder. “Michael.”

He shook his head. “I’m not doin’ the reindeer thing.”

“Maggie expects it,” she said, pulling out her ace in the hole. She tugged on the little bear sticking up just above the zipper on his coat. “And you’re not gonna let her down are you?”

He grumbled out several colorful curses under his breath, ducking out of the way when Maria flicked his ear. “Ow! What was that for?”

“Using language like that when you’re assembling a shelter for the baby Jesus.”

He rubbed his ear and shrugged her off of his shoulders. “It’s not like He’s actually gonna be there.” He got up and grabbed her hand, dragging her along with him before she could say anything else. “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”

*****

As afternoon turned into evening the level of energy slowly began to wane. Julia and Dayna were talking out by the cars in the driveway at Mr. Tony’s house before the latter said her goodnights and left with a promise to catch up with them again the next day. Travis would get the couch in the living room and Stefanie would get the futon in the den for the duration of their stay so they had been over at the house getting things ready for their guests. She went back inside and started getting things together and straightening up.

She paused at the large picture window, taking a moment to watch Edward and Kyle making their way back to the barn. The sun was setting, its muted light filtering in through the window and casting a hazy glow over everything in sight. She smiled when they stopped near the entrance to the barn and Edward turned to gesture to something as he talked animatedly. She couldn’t make out their expressions from her position but she could easily see the weary slump to Kyle’s shoulders.

She wondered what was weighing so heavily on his mind, what was keeping him from sleeping. He was normally very talkative, his blue eyes filled with humor and an easy grin on his lips, but all day he had been reserved and quiet, the skin around his eyes tight with strain. There was a restlessness that was at odds with his normally calm and accepting demeanor. The mother in her wanted to bundle him up and take care of him. But the woman in her knew better than to call attention to him when he was apparently feeling under the weather. She made a mental note to see what she could do when they got back over to the house.

“Mom, we’re finished with that list of chores you gave us,” Brian grumbled as he came into the living room.

She turned away from the window when Edward and Kyle went their separate ways, her husband heading up to the house while the younger man went into the barn. Eddie followed his brother into the room and they threw themselves down on the couch noisily. Anyone who didn’t know better would think they had been forced into unfair labor all day. She was going over the list she had given them when Edward came inside, stomping his boots on the mat by the front door.

The boys looked at each other, a silent conversation passing between them before they quickly turned to look at Dad. They rolled their eyes when he walked over to wrap his arms around Mom, knowing if they didn’t get his attention right away they would be out of luck. Brian reached over and punched Eddie’s upper arm as hard as he could, motioning to their parents when his brother frowned at him and rubbed his arm before leaning over to return the gesture.

“Cut it out, Brian!”

“Wuss!”

“You boys wanna both cut it out?” Edward asked, silencing their protests with a look. He nodded to himself when they separated, moving as far apart as was possible on the couch.

“Can we go down to the barn to see the reindeer?” Eddie asked after several moments of silence.

Edward glanced between his boys, knowing full well that the reindeer were at the bottom of their list of things to see. “You finish your chores?” He looked down at Julia, fighting back a grin when she rolled her eyes at him. “Go on then,” he said when the boys nodded in response.

“You know very well that helping is the last thing on their minds.”

He chuckled and pulled her closer. “I’m sure those girls can handle themselves with a couple of teenage boys.”

Julia just shook her head at his amusement, sighing and melting into him when he snuggled up against her.

“You smell good, woman.”

She smiled and shivered when he pressed his cold lips to her neck. She was opening her mouth to say something when he followed up with what she was certain was one of the top three things on every man’s mind.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Brenda and Peter over at the Pizza Barn called and wanted to bring pizza and breadsticks out to the house for everyone.”

He paused and lifted his head to look at her. “I hope you didn’t turn it down.”

She rolled her eyes when Mr. Sweet and Sensitive fled to make room for Mr. Hungry. “No. We’ve got about 45 minutes before they’ll arrive so that should be plenty of time to lock up over here and get everyone over to the house and cleaned up.”

Edward nodded in agreement.

“Isn’t it wonderful how the whole community is coming together for this?” she asked, smiling widely as she looked around at the various projects going on.

“It’s wonderful that we’re havin’ pizza for dinner. I can’t wait to pop the top on a cold one and sit down with a slice of pizza.”

She smiled and rubbed his arm. “Let’s get things locked up and get everyone over to the house.”

He nodded and clapped his hands together in anticipation. “I’ll go get everyone rounded up and head ‘em over to the house.” Pizza was on the way and there was no need for it to get there first and get cold!

Julia snorted softly at his words. The way he had phrased it made it sound like he was rounding up a herd of stray cattle instead of their children and guests.

*****

Michael sank his teeth into a thick slice of pizza, his eyes following the elastic line of cheese between the pizza and his mouth that didn’t want to break. “That’s a sign of good pizza,” he mumbled.

Maria reached out and broke the sign in half when she realized Eddie was mimicking him. The cheese snapped back and landed against his chin and she rolled her eyes at him when he shot a look at her. Put him around a couple of teenage boys that thought he was the coolest guy they had met in a setting where he was more relaxed than normal and he regressed a couple of years.

“That’s not bad,” Travis said. “The trick is to see who can stretch that cheese out the farthest without pullin’ the entire layer of cheese off the top of the pizza.”

“Which is not something you will be doing,” Stefanie said and punched his thigh under the table.

“Ow, Stef! Jeez, Sis.” He rubbed his thigh and glared at her.

“Oh, whatever, you big baby.” She grinned at the others around the table and shrugged. “Growing up with two brothers leads to some very valuable lessons.” She nodded at Isabel. “You know what I mean.”

Max snorted at that. “Isabel’s always had more of an interest in blackmail rather than physical threats.”

Isabel just smiled. “It’s a method that never failed with you, little brother.” She glanced over at Kyle when he picked at his pizza with little interest.

“What’s that mean?” Maggie asked as she looked up from pulling the toppings off of her pizza and separating them into little piles on her plate.

“It just means that Isabel always wins,” Michael said as he reached over and picked the sausage off of her plate and popped it in his mouth. “C’mon, Valenti, whaddaya say, wanna see if you can do it?” he asked as he contemplated the toppings on his next slice of pizza.

“I’ll pass,” he said with a forced smile. He picked a piece of pepperoni off of his pizza and stared at it thoughtfully before nibbling on it.

“I hear you’re pretty good with a wrench,” Stefanie said with a smile. She nodded when Kyle looked at her inquisitively. “Yeah, you. The girls were saying you put the pen together.”

“Hey, I helped with the pen too,” Brian interjected before Kyle could speak up.

“You did not!” Eddie said, rolling his eyes. “You were s’posed to but you didn’t.”

Brian kicked his brother as hard as he could and gave a sharp shake of his head.

Maggie glanced between the boys, trying to figure out what was going on. After a few moments her interest faded and she glanced over at Kyle. “Aren’t you gonna eat?”

Julia stepped in before everyone could focus on Kyle and his lack of appetite. “How long have you had an interest in working with reindeer, Stefanie?”

“Since before she could walk,” Travis spoke up before his sister could answer. “Dad would take her down to the barn every night and carry her around to talk to the reindeer. Her first word was doe.” He grinned at her. “First time she walked was in the barn.” He nudged her shoulder. “Got her first kiss in the barn.”

Stefanie shoved him back. “Shut up, Travis.”

He chewed on a piece of ice and shrugged his right shoulder, not bothering to wipe the smug grin off of his face.

“I thought you said your brothers were younger than you,” Michael said, his dinner momentarily forgotten.

“That’s just how she introduces us to people,” Travis said as he leaned forward and snagged another slice of pizza. “Frankie’s the youngest, I’m the oldest… it kinda lessened her middle child complex to pretend she’s the oldest so we just let her keep up the act.”

“I’m the youngest,” Maggie spoke up. She tore her crust into little bits and made a pile on her plate before looking up at Michael. “Are you the youngest in your family?” she asked, glancing around at the others.

“You think I’m the youngest?”

She studied Max, Liz, Isabel, Kyle, and Maria for a few minutes, unconsciously munching on the bits of crust. “No,” she said finally.

Edward and Julia glanced at each other during the exchange, wondering why Maggie was looking to Michael’s friends to answer his question. She reached over and placed her hand over his, shaking her head and turning her attention to Kyle. He had managed to force down a slice and a half of pizza but it looked like he had reached the point where he wasn’t taking another bite. She had noticed him rubbing his temple on occasion and she was beginning to suspect that he must have a major headache.

She got up, disappearing for a few minutes before coming back and filling a mug with coffee. The sound of a fingernail tapping against a bottle let her know that Edward had emptied his beer so she grabbed one from the refrigerator on her way back to the table. She carried both drinks over to the table, setting the mug down by Kyle’s plate and nudging his hand.

Kyle glanced down at the red and white Tylenol caplets Julia had placed next to his plate where no one else would see them. He smiled faintly and nodded in appreciation as he picked the pills up and downed them before settling back with his coffee. He would give it another half an hour and then he was calling it a night with or without the others.

At the end of dinner Julia looked around the group and smiled. “I think we should watch a Christmas movie.” Cleanup from dinner wouldn’t take long thanks to the miracle of paper plates and pizza and she already knew the girls would jump in and offer to give her a hand. She shook her head when she saw Edward picking at the label on his bottle. Obviously he wasn’t in the mood for a Christmas film. “Or, if you guys would prefer us girls can watch a movie and you guys can head down to the man cave and watch something else?”

Edward placed his hand on her knee and grinned. “I’m good with a Christmas movie.” He held back a laugh when his boys groaned. “I was thinkin’ somethin’ along the lines of Die Hard.”

She smacked his arm. “That is not a Christmas movie!”

“It’s Christmastime in the movie, that counts,” he argued with a grin.

“I’m good with that logic,” Travis spoke up.

Maria shook her head and smiled at Michael. “Go on, you’re not gonna sit still through a Christmas movie anyway.”

“I think Edward just pointed out the flaw in your argument.”

Maggie stuck her bottom lip out. “You don’t wanna watch a movie with us?”

“I need to spend some time with Max.” He nodded at the other guy. “He’s feelin’ a little left out since me an’ you have been hangin’ out.”

“Sounds like your evening should be interesting,” Liz whispered as she leaned into Max.

He snorted softly at that. “Yeah, that’s one word for it.”

“Oh.” Maggie turned to look at Max, watching him talk to Liz and she nodded. “Okay.” She looked at Mama. “Can I pick the movie?”

“Maybe you could pick out two or three and then we’ll all vote on one, how’s that?”

“Okay!”

Kyle decided that was his cue to call it a night. His head was still throbbing and he felt like crap. He just wanted to lie down and sleep through the night. Hopefully no one would question him when he told them he was heading back to the cabin to catch up on some much-needed sleep. He would feel better in the morning, he was sure of it.
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KindredKandies
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Re: A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) - Part-41- 10/25/11

Postby KindredKandies » Fri Oct 28, 2011 11:39 pm

keepsmiling7- Thank you. LOL , glad you liked the movie choice of the boys...We had fun writing that. Die Hard is a fave one at our house and Lethal Weapon, lol.

Now, I'm still waiting for Max and Liz to discuss little Zan. This can't go on forever like this, can it?


No. ;)

Oh thank you Carolyn we missed you too.! We're glad to be back. :D


Timelord31- Thank you and as for Kyle ...We hope you'll continue to read. :D


mary mary- Awww thank you girl! Your sweet note made us grin ear to ear. :D


Natalie36- We love Maggie too, she has a way with the boys. We really enjoyed putting the scene with her and Max together Rudy was a real help. :D


Alien_Friend- Oh we so know what you mean, poor Kyle we want to hug him as well.

LOL, we enjoyed Eddie's answer to Liz about where to get her coffee. Yup he has it good for Maria.

Terrific stuff!! It's so great to back on RF. But I would still follow you guys anywhere. I am addicted.


Omgosh! *Thud* Thank you for the wonderful compliment! It's good to be back and to hear from everyone. :D





Part 42

The second hand crept around the clock, the minutes passing with agonizing slowness. The ticking of the second hand was painfully loud in the otherwise silent cabin and the sound was slowly driving him mad. He spent the night tossing and turning, his body sore and tense as he fought to find a comfortable spot on the mattress. He nearly got up three different times to steal a spot on Isabel’s bed but he knew the mattress wasn’t the problem.

He rubbed his gritty eyes as the hour hand finally and torturously slowly landed on the seven. It was still dark out and the lack of sunlight only seemed to make his jittery nerves worse. It felt like it had been nighttime for days on end and he finally rolled his aching body off of the mattress and onto his knees. The back of his neck was so tense and stiff that the slightest movement sent sharp pains radiating through his shoulders and made his head hurt worse. He inhaled deeply and sighed when he had no problem breathing through his nose. So much for the theory that he was coming down with a sinus infection, he thought morosely.

He left his mattress on the floor and grabbed his clothes as he moved through the cabin. He made a quick stop in the kitchen to turn a light on and start a pot of coffee before heading for the bathroom. He checked on Isabel to make sure she was still sleeping before he ducked into the tiny room and started the shower. He adjusted the water temperature until it was as hot as he could stand it and he stood under the spray, letting it beat down against his head, neck, and shoulders in the hope that it would loosen his muscles up and ease the pain ricocheting around in his body.

He rarely had problems sleeping and he didn’t recall ever having problems to this extent. He rolled his shoulders, groaning at the resulting pain. The muscles in his neck were so taut that he couldn’t give his head a good hard snap to relieve the pressure. He reached up to rub the back of his neck in an effort to release the tension, sighing raggedly when it eased just enough to allow him to drop his head down between his shoulders.

Kyle stayed in the shower until he had run every ounce of hot water out of the tank. He winced as he rolled his head along his shoulders. His muscles were a little bit looser, but he could already feel them tightening up again. If it were a different girl he’d feel bad about using up all the hot water, but Isabel had the advantage of using her powers to heat up the water so even though she might grumble about it she would get over it fairly quickly.

He could hear her moving around in the kitchen and he wondered what the chances were that she was making breakfast. She could cook but it wasn’t something she did very often. He didn’t smell anything cooking but he was more interested in coffee right now anyway. He toweled off and grabbed his jeans, frowning at the drops of water that had been sprayed on them at some point. He shook them out and shoved one foot into the first leg, hopping backwards and banging his elbow into the wall when he tripped on the other leg.

“Sonofa – “ He caught himself and smacked his head back against the wall. “Let’s just start this mornin’ out right, why don’t we?”

“Kyle, are you alright in there?” Isabel asked from the other side of the door.

“Fine,” he muttered as he rubbed the back of his head. He braced his back on the door and jerked his jeans up over his hips. He straightened up and leaned over the sink to stare at his reflection, shaking his head at the dark circles underlining his bloodshot eyes. His jaw was shadowed with stubble, giving him a scruffy look. “Good thing you’re not supposed to be Santa ‘cause you look more like a bum who’s been on a drinking binge.”

He pushed away from the sink and gathered his things up before jerking the door open and hurrying over to his room. He threw his things on the dresser and grabbed the mattress, hefting it up and tossing it on the top bunk. He grabbed a pair of socks and draped his shirt over his right shoulder before walking into the living room and sitting on the loveseat.

“I was gonna make scrambled eggs,” Isabel said as she placed a cup of coffee in front of him.

He rubbed his temples before reaching for the coffee and taking a sip of the hot bitter liquid. “I’m not really hungry, but you go ahead.”

He wasn’t hungry? He hadn’t eaten much at dinner the night before and she had known Kyle to put an entire pizza away in a single sitting before. “Well, alright, I’ll make breakfast and if you change your mind at least it’ll be there.”

He nodded and instantly regretted the movement when the sharp pains shot down through his shoulders again. Half an hour later he was lying on the loveseat, his legs dangling over the opposite arm as the weatherman droned on in the background. It didn’t seem to matter what was on TV the weather always seemed to interrupt at some point. His right arm was draped over his eyes, his left hand wrapped around the coffee cup that was balanced on his stomach. God, his worst hangover in high school hadn’t made him feel this bad!

Isabel was scraping the scrambled eggs into a bowl when the obnoxious pounding started on the door. She shot an irritated glare at the door before putting the pan in the sink and going over to jerk it open. “Do you mind?” she asked.

“No, I don’t,” Michael answered, giving Maria a push to get her inside. “Somethin’ smells good. You make those scrambled eggs with the jalapenos?”

Isabel rolled her eyes and started to shut the door when someone reached out to hold it open and she frowned when she saw her brother and his wife making their way inside. “Did we invite all of you to come over?”

“Unnecessary.” Michael was moving around in the kitchen, lifting lids off of dishes and making a nuisance of himself. “You must’ve been expectin’ us ‘cause you made an awful lot for just the two of you.”

“That’s for me, actually,” Kyle mumbled from the living room.

Michael moved to lean over the back of the loveseat. “What’s wrong with you, Valenti?”

“Not sleepin’ too well here lately.” His voice was gravelly and tired.

“You sure that’s all?” Michael asked when Kyle lowered his arm and slowly sat up. “You look like shit.”

“Michael!”

He turned when Maria and Isabel both yelled at him at the same time. He shrugged and reached out to slap Kyle on the back. “You guys mind? The guy looks an’ feels like shit. You think yelling’s gonna make him feel any better?”

Kyle winced when Michael tried to be helpful. “I’m really not all that hungry,” he said as he rubbed the back of his neck. “So, help yourself.”

Isabel frowned at that and elbowed Michael out of the way when he descended on the food as if he hadn’t eaten in days. She made a sandwich with eggs and bacon and took it over to Kyle. “Try to eat that, okay?”

He nodded and stared at it, feeling his stomach turn over at the thought of trying to force food on it. You can do this, he told himself. Hell, could it really make you feel any worse?

“Kyle, you said you wanted to do some work on the van today, didn’t you?” Isabel asked, thinking they could use that as an excuse to get him away from everyone for the day. Maybe if he had some time to himself he would start to feel better.

Michael paused, mid-chew as he looked between the two of them. “Work on the van?” he mumbled, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. “He can’t go alone.” His mind was several steps of his mouth, already seeing the silver lining of this particular dark cloud. “Wait, I’ll go with him.” It was perfect! Work on the van and get a break from Santa land. Kyle wasn’t the only one who needed a break from that insanity. “We’ll just have to get Dean to put somethin’ on besides that crap he listens to.”

“Well, if you guys are gonna go to the shop then we can go shopping,” Maria said with a look at Liz.

“Oh, yeah, you can just drop us off at the Wal-Mart!”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Isabel interrupted when all of her elves started to mutiny at the same time. “We have things to do.”

“I wouldn’t mind workin’ on the van.” Max looked around when silence fell over the room. Liz and Maria were both trying hard not to laugh while the latter smacked Michael on the back when he choked on whatever he was eating. “Okay, fine, maybe I have no idea what to do under the hood of a car, but I’d still rather be there than hangin’ out with reindeer all day.”

Isabel shook her head and took another bite of scrambled eggs and bacon. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Maria and Liz exchanged a look and came to stand on either side of her.

“Isabel, we can go shopping… Christmas shopping,” Maria cajoled.

“And it’s Wal-Mart,” Liz added. “You know they have everything… Makeup, party supplies, food, ice cream…”

“Christmas decorations,” the two girls chimed in at the same time.

Isabel rolled her eyes as she finished her breakfast. “Okay, I suppose we could pick up some of the finishing touches for our rehearsal of Christmas on the Lake.”

Michael’s eyes narrowed and the piece of bacon in his hand snapped in half, hitting the floor and crumbling all over the place. “What rehearsal?”

“You heard me. We have to have a dress rehearsal.”

Kyle pressed his fingertips to his temples as the conversation around him reverberated in his head. “Let’s just do it, okay? We’ll drop you girls off at the Wal-Mart and we’ll head over to the shop to do some work on the van.” He sighed and pushed his sandwich back, deciding that he wasn’t ready to face the consequences if he forced food on an already queasy stomach.

*****

Michael was watching Maria fiddle with the radio while they waited for Isabel to join them. She had instructed him to drive up to the main house so she could run in and let Julia know they were taking the day and spending some time together while the guys worked on the van. He lifted his head when a flash of green caught his eye and he raised the hand that was resting on the steering wheel to wave at Maggie. The little girl was watching them as Isabel walked back to the van, her nose pressed against the glass in the screen door and Cindy held tightly to her chest.

The drive to the Wal-Mart took under half an hour but as the miles flew by they each retreated into their own thoughts and the silence in the van grew. Without verbally acknowledging it they all knew what they were thinking. It was the first time since they had broken down that they had all been confined in a single vehicle again. It brought up the reminder that their situation was still untenable and that eventually they were going to have to leave this place where for a short time they had found peace with a family who had accepted them into their home and their hearts.

Kyle glanced down at the brown paper lunch sack sitting beside him on the seat. He smiled slightly as he remembered Isabel carefully wrapping it and tucking it safely in the sack before handing it to him, insisting he take it with him in case he felt like eating later. He just didn’t have the heart to tell her that if warm eggs didn’t sound good then cold eggs would only be worse. He closed his eyes behind his sunglasses in an attempt to block out more of the sun and he sighed as he crossed his arms over his chest. He cracked one eye open when he felt the van take a turn and as soon as he identified the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart he went back to staring at the backs of his eyelids.

Michael stopped at the furthest parking area in the lot and let the engine idle as he shifted in his seat so he could see everyone.

“I hope you don’t think we’re hiking across this parking lot, Michael,” Isabel said as she glared at him over her sunglasses.

“When have I ever expected that from you?” he asked, shaking his head at her. “It’s a tempting thought, but no, I think Max should stick with the girls.”

“Uh… why?” Max asked. He kicked the back of Kyle’s seat when he heard him snickering.

Liz pinched the back of his hand as hard as she could when she saw Kyle wince in pain.

“You and Isabel can keep an eye on things and if anything goes wrong there’s more backup. Three girls wandering around lookin’ at all the crap in a store this size? You know they’re gonna separate and wander off and when they do – “

“And when they do someone needs to be babysitting the human,” Maria grumbled. She rolled her eyes as she leaned against the door and stared out through the windshield.

“That thing you’re doin’? Quit it.” Michael shot a look at her before continuing. “Like I was sayin’, it makes more sense for Max and Isabel to both be here with Maria and Liz because the area of coverage is a lot larger than what we’ll be dealin’ with at the shop.”

“Kyle’s feeling like crap,” Maria pointed out. “Maybe it’d be better if he had more protection.”

“I think Kyle can handle himself,” Max interrupted.

“He isn’t feeling that great in case you missed it,” Isabel bit out as she turned to look at her brother. She had no idea what his issue was with Kyle but she was getting tired of his attitude.

“Stop it, all of you!” Kyle snapped. “I’m fine. The four of you go wander around the damn store and let me go work on the van in peace! I’m perfectly capable of handling myself if anything happens. I don’t need a babysitter. I’ve helped drag drugged out aliens to safety before if you recall.”

“Amen,” Maria muttered under her breath.

“This’s settled.” Michael’s hand clenched around the steering wheel and he gritted his teeth. “Max, you’re goin’ with them.” He turned around and put the van into gear, driving up to the front of the store and letting them out by the double doors. He leaned over to grab Maria’s hand as the others climbed out through the side door. “Hey, don’t be pissed at me; this is not a matter of not trusting you to take care of yourself. It’s a safer division of forces, okay? That’s it, nothin’ more.”

She stared into his eyes as she reached up to brush her fingers over his cheek. “Alright,” she said after a moment. She leaned in to kiss him slowly.

“You guys wanna hurry it up?” Max growled. “It’s a little bit windy out here today.”

Maria laughed at the disgruntled comment as she pulled back. “Be safe. And keep an eye on Kyle, okay? I think he must be comin’ down with a cold or something.”

“We’ll be back around 1pm, meet you guys at the McDonalds.”

She smiled and nodded. “See ya then.”

*****

Kyle walked into the shop at the dealership with Michael right behind him. He raised the hand holding the paper sack and tossed it towards a nearby trashcan.

“Hey, hey, what’re you doin’?” Michael asked as he intercepted the lunch sack before it could hit its target. He smoothed the creases out of the sack and shook his head at the other guy. “Okay, Valenti, what gives?”

Kyle shook his head and tried to move past the taller hybrid.

“You know, last time Isabel gave me a sandwich we were in grade school and it was her sandwich. She’s never cooked anything for me.” He unwrapped the sandwich and took a big bite out of it. “So what’s up with that anyway?”

“I don’t know… manners? It’d be rude to only cook for herself when I’m right there too.”

Michael just snorted at that. “Whatever. Isabel does what she wants to do.”

“That much is true,” Kyle said, waving when Dean hollered over the noise coming from the radio. They hadn’t made it into the shop yet, still safely on the other side of the glass, but he could already feel the beat of the music. He appreciated Isabel’s attempt to be helpful, he really did, but this was one time she could’ve not been helpful and it would’ve been okay. “However, we both know she was raised better than that.”

He just shrugged and polished off the sandwich.

*****

The double doors slid open with a quiet whoosh and the large heaters overhead ushered the four of them in with a welcome burst of warmth. The scent of freshly baked goodies in the bakery combined with the heartier scent of roasted chicken and other meats from the deli. Intermingled with those scents came the familiar smell of cheeseburgers and French fries from the McDonalds tucked in the corner near the entrance.

“Oooh, Liz, do you smell that?” Maria asked as she looked around. “We’ve got to check out what they’re making over there.”

“Definitely,” Liz agreed happily. She was tucked in against Max’s side, enjoying the feeling of being with him openly.

Isabel whipped her planner out and flipped it open. “We’ll need to find a decent star for the Nativity, and we’re gonna need at least 10 more strands of lights.” She glanced up for just a moment, snapping her fingers to get her brother’s attention. “Max, go and get a cart.” She continued without waiting to see if he would follow her orders. “Then of course, we’ll need to find a suitable corkboard to pin the thank you cards for the Tony family from the community. Don’t you think it’ll be a nice way for everyone to express their gratitude for their years of service?” Her eyes lifted and she clutched the planner to her chest with both hands as she smiled widely. “Can’t you just see it? Cards signed by Santa, his elves, and the children. And anyone else who wishes to leave a message of thanks.”

“Um, and who’s gonna explain these expenses to Michael? Because he’s gonna blow a gasket over any,” Maria raised her hands to make air quotes, “unapproved spending.”

Isabel just smiled. “Let’s just say I have a rainy day fund.”

Maria snorted and looked to the side when Max rejoined them with a cart. “Not me, it rained hard that first couple weeks we were on the road.”

Liz shot a smirk at Maria and said, “Yeah, a rainy day fund named Kyle.”

The tall blonde wrinkled her nose at that and moved ahead of them, stopping near an aisle to look around and get her bearings. Liz patted her husband’s hand and motioned ahead to his sister. “Why don’t you go see if you can soothe her ruffled feathers?”

“You ruffled ‘em,” he muttered. He looked at Liz and then Maria and gave a long-suffering sigh. “Fine, just gimme a minute with her.”

Isabel didn’t look up from her perusal of a sale ad when her brother came to stand beside her, choosing to ignore his presence. Until he made it a point to roll the cart back and forth beside her and the sound of one of the wheels constantly squealing began to grate on her nerves. She whirled around to look at him. “What do you want?”

Max leaned on the cart and grinned at her. “So, you’ve separated Kyle from the money clip?” he teased.

“No,” she huffed indignantly, “I have not. I have my own money, thank you.”

“Uh-huh, sell it somewhere else. We all carry pocket money and the rest we pooled together and Kyle carries it since he pretty much handles expenses.”

Isabel glared at him. “I am in the middle of going over some very important things here, Max, so unless you need something that pertains to Christmas on the Lake…”

He nodded at the warning and held his hands up in defense. “You said we needed lights? Do we need colored lights? All white? Solid or blinking?” He really couldn’t care less about the lights but pursuing the other conversation was going to get him in trouble and he wasn’t willing to risk that.

“So,” Liz said after he had joined his sister, “that was some kiss out in the van, Maria. You and Michael seem like you’re really back together.”

“Oh, that.” Maria grinned even as she felt the blush rising across her cheeks.

“Well, it was kinda hard to miss.” She gave her best friend a one-harmed hug. “I’m really happy for you, Maria.”

“The last few days have been so good, Liz, but he’s still holding back.” She sighed and looked around for a moment. “I really hurt him and I can see just how much every time we’re together. He hasn’t opened up our connection.” She bit her bottom lip and shook her head. “I don’t get the flashes.”

“It’ll probably just take time,” she rushed to assure her friend. “Maria, the change in him over the past few days since we’ve been off the road has been amazing. I think it’ll happen.”

Maria nodded, but redirected instead of responding. “Sugar rush, Liz. Can you smell it?” She pointed to the bakery they were approaching, smiling at the woman standing near a sample tray. “Let’s go.”

“I’m right there with you.”

They made small talk with the woman as they each took a sample and Maria popped the warm bite of cinnamon goodness into her mouth. The cinnamon and icing melded together, the flavors bursting on her tongue, and she chewed the fluffy bread slowly. “Mmm, I remember my mom bringing these to the Crashdown on Saturday mornings.”

Liz nodded at the shared memory. “Um-hmm, hers were much better though.”

Isabel could hear their conversation in spite of her efforts to ignore it and she felt a wave of isolation wash through her. She watched Max as he joined the girls, easily slipping in between them and draping his arm around his wife’s shoulders. Her eyes moved over them when Liz settled against him, sliding her arm around his waist as she reached up with her free hand to feed him a cinnamon bite. It was nauseating to watch but at the same time it opened up that dark chasm of loneliness and she looked away as memories rose up before her, easing that pain and opening old wounds at the same time.

“I’m sorry, Alex,” she whispered, her voice barely audible.

“For what?”

She turned to the right and saw him lounging up against a display of cases of soda arranged to resemble an igloo. She moved closer to him as she nodded at her brother and his wife. “That I fought against us being together for so long. We had so little time together.”

“I’m not,” he said, reaching out to brush his fingers against her cheek. “You needed to be sure before you could open yourself up like that. We did have too little time together, but that time meant more to me than anything else, Isabel.”

She could feel the threat of tears as she thought about Prom night. She had allowed him to have a part of her that she had never given Jesse access to.

“Christmas stockings,” he said out of the blue.

Her head snapped up and her brows pulled together in a frown. “What?”

“The others are headed this way.” He tapped the flyer she still held, drawing her attention to the picture of Christmas stockings. “When they offer you that little bit of cinnamon roll… eat it.”

“But I don’t…”

“I miss things like taste on this side.” His gray eyes twinkled as he watched her debating whether what he was saying was true or not.

“What’re you doing over here, Isabel?” Maria asked as they joined her.

“I was just checking out these Christmas stockings,” she said, showing them the flyer. “They’re on sale and I think we should buy some.”

“Oh, cool.” She held out a little square napkin with the cinnamon bite sitting at its center. “Here, we brought one for you.”

Max watched her as she looked back at the display for a moment before a soft smile lifted her lips. He shook his head when she nodded to herself before taking the sweet offering and thanking Maria for thinking of her. Some days he had no idea what was going on in his sister’s mind.

“Oh, look, they have a jewelry case at this Walmart,” Liz said.

He followed along when she took off, drawn to the glass cases like a raven to shiny things. He listened with interest as the girls debated gold, white gold, platinum, and sterling silver. These things only interested him as far as they might influence future gifts for his wife so he endured an insufferable amount of time taking mental notes.

Isabel paid little attention to the jewelry as she watched a couple across from her. The man stood behind the woman, his arms wrapped around her and his chin resting on her shoulder as they looked at wedding band sets. Her gaze lowered to the woman’s left hand and she smiled at the small diamond engagement ring that caught the light and sparkled.

Maria wandered away from the others when she spotted a small section of faux pearl bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. Her fingers traced over the glass above the earrings, looking up when an elderly woman behind the counter approached her.

“See something you like, dear?” she asked with a friendly smile.

She returned the woman’s smile and nodded. “May I see the earrings?”

“An excellent choice.” She unlocked the case and lifted the velvet box out, her hands trembling slightly as she placed them on the counter. “Every woman should have a string of pearls. Or a pair of pearl earrings if nothing else,” she said with a wink.

“Oh, I have the earrings. Had them,” she corrected herself as she gently ran her fingers over the earrings. “The genuine article too.”

“You have a young man with taste then.”

On the opposite side of the counter Isabel did her best to hold in her laughter at the mere thought of Michael having any taste where jewelry was concerned.

“A young man who is surprisingly thoughtful when he chooses to be,” she said softly.

“Why don’t I leave you to look at these for a moment? I have another customer to tend to and then I’ll be right back.”

“Thank you.” Maria smiled as her eyes filled, the faux pearls blurring through the tears. She could recall her excitement the day Michael had presented her with the pearl earrings, quickly followed by the shock at the realization that the pearls were genuine and not fake. She hated that she hadn’t thought to grab them the day they had fled Roswell. She rolled her eyes as she thought about the fuss she had made over Christmas presents and she sighed regretfully as she remembered the mess she had made of Christmas the year before. “Oh, Michael,” she whispered as she placed the earrings back on the counter, “all I want this Christmas is you.”

“You guys think we can go check out the electronics department?” Max asked.

Isabel pulled her gaze away from Maria. She hadn’t intended to witness the unguarded moment of vulnerability and she was sure it would make Maria uncomfortable if she were to realize that she had seen it. “Why?”

“Because as the only guy here I think it’s only fair if we look at somethin’ that interests me. Even if it’s just for a few minutes.”

“Well, it couldn’t hurt to check out the music,” she agreed. “That van only has a cassette deck in it and you know how limited music is for tapes these days.”

They made their way to the back of the store where the electronics department was housed and Max wandered over to check out stereos and televisions while the girls set up camp in the music section.

“Couldn’t find anything you liked in the tape selection Shane’s aunt left in the van?” Liz asked, already knowing the answer.

“The Bee Gees? James Taylor?” She snorted and bypassed the relatively small selection of cassette tapes to flip through the much larger selection of CDs. “Please, my parents have better taste in music.”

“Well, there’re always radio stations,” Maria suggested as she joined Isabel to check out the CDs. “Look, Liz!” She pulled a CD out and held it up. “Nelly Furtado, we got to see her sing, remember?”

Their matching smiles faded at the memory and with a quiet look at each other they resumed their search. Isabel wondered what the story was behind their sudden silence but she didn’t pursue it because there was a very good chance she didn’t want to know the answer.

Maria moved on, reaching the M section and flipping through several before she grabbed another one and held it up. She frowned at the black cover, squinting as she tried to make out the name of the band or the album. “I know this one,” she muttered. “Why’s it so hard to read?”

“You probably saw it in Michael’s extensive Metallica collection,” Max said helpfully as he came over to stand next to her.

“Look, Mommy, I found Daddy’s present!” an excited little voice called.

Isabel turned to look at the little boy hurrying over to his mother, his arms wrapped around a box that contained a tool set, and she smiled. The woman crouched down next to her son, making the appropriate sounds of approval and complimenting his choice. She turned back to the music, but her interest in searching for something more along the lines of her taste had disappeared.

“Henry, we’ll need at least one more 20-pound turkey.”

“Diane,” the man’s voice was exasperated, “we have more than enough food to feed everyone you’ve invited.

She looked up when she heard the woman’s name and her eyes immediately settled on the couple who looked to be in their early to mid-forties. The woman bore no resemblance to her mother but as she listened to them bicker over whether or not to purchase another Christmas turkey a wave of homesickness washed over her and she felt like she couldn’t breathe.

Max looked up when his sister suddenly bolted and he dropped the CD he’d been looking at back in its slot. “I’ll go after her.”

“Do you want us to come with you?” Maria asked.

He looked away from her retreating back so he could face the girls. Michael would kill him if they separated and anything happened to Maria. “Stay close, just let me talk to her.” He caught up with her in the parking lot, the lightly falling snow dotting her hair and coat. He could see her struggling to bring her breathing under control and he approached her slowly. “Isabel,” he called quietly, “hey, you okay?” He reached out to touch her arm when he saw her swallow hard and he realized that she couldn’t get the words past her throat. “Hey, it’s gonna be okay.” He leaned up against the wall beside her, his shoulder brushing against hers.

Isabel felt like her chest was going to burst as she shook her head in denial.

“Sure it is. C’mon, we’ve got each other. We’ve got Michael, his bad attitude, and the others. We survived the desert, didn’t we? Huh? Survived grade school? Okay, you pretty much hit the schoolyard and took over, but we still survived.” He was quiet a moment as he stared out into the parking lot and listened to her breathing. She was still on the verge of a major meltdown. “Want me to put on a pair of those reindeer antlers? I’m sure they sell ‘em and they made you pretty happy when we were little, remember? I’ll even wear the stupid bell for you.”

She choked out a laugh that was tinged with an edge of hysteria.

“This sucks for all of us, Iz, but I know what Christmas means to you. I know how much it hurts you to be away from everything you know and love.” He nodded when she shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut, knowing it wasn’t so much a denial as it was a plea to change the subject. He reached up to rub his ear when it started to sting and he glanced around before looking at her again. “Hey, you remember that game we used to play? Mom and Dad would take us shopping at the Walmart back home and we’d pick out the weirdest shoppers in the store?” He nudged her with his shoulder. “C’mon, you remember, the one who picked out the most weirdly dressed shoppers would win. Check this one out over here to your left.”

Isabel turned to look and she shook her head at the man’s outfit. He was wearing a checkered flannel shirt and a pair of long red shorts over yellow tights.

“Now what’s that all about, huh?” He grinned when she looked at him and he saw the small smile. “I’ll bet you that damn jingle bell you won’t find a shopper dressed worse than that.”

Isabel suddenly turned and hugged him tightly. “Thanks, Max.”

“I’ve got your back, Iz.” He shook off the memory of a time when he had nearly destroyed their relationship. “Always.”

“I know,” she whispered. “And I’ve got yours.”

*****

The minutes were ticking by faster than Michael would’ve liked as he watched the clock in the shop. The only sounds in the shop were the tools against the engine and the occasional irritated curse coming from below the van. “So, what’s goin’ on with you an’ Isabel?” he asked with all the subtlety of a jackhammer.

“Damn it, Guerin,” Kyle muttered when he smacked his forehead against the bumper as he rolled out from under the van. Well, that helped the pounding headache that had started to recede to come right back to life. “There’s nothin’ goin’ on between me and Isabel.”

“Uh-huh.” He bit off a hunk of the beef stick he had gotten out of the snack machine and braced his right hand on the van as he looked down at Kyle. “She’s been pretty wound up.”

Kyle snorted. “Yeah, you’re one to talk about anyone bein’ wound up.” He ignored the dark look the other guy shot at him. “Look, it’s Christmas, okay? You know how she gets this time of year.”

“Yeah, but she’s been a little… I don’t know, more uptight than usual.”

“It’s her favorite time of year and she’s away from her parents and everything she knows for the first time. That’s hard enough when that happens because you’re away at college, but this?” He shook his head and pulled a couple of tools out, handing one to Michael before disappearing beneath the van again.

“And it’s not because there’s anything goin’ on between the two of you?”

Kyle rolled his eyes and locked the wrench into place around the bolt. Michael was like a damn dog with a bone! “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but again, no, there’s nothin’ goin’ on between us.” He turned on a small flashlight and pointed it at another bolt. “Hey, use that wrench for somethin’ besides s drumstick. See that bolt right there?” he asked as he directed the beam of light at a bolt.

Michael leaned as far into the engine compartment as he could and reached down to find the bolt, following Kyle’s direction when he lost sight of it. “But you’d be okay with it if there was somethin’ goin’ on.”

“Turn that bolt and stop flappin’ your gums,” Kyle grunted as he fought to turn the stubborn bolt.

“Stop flappin’ my gums?” Michael repeated with a snort.

“Somethin’ my granddad used to say when I was a kid and I was talkin’ too much.”

“How’re you guys doin’ over here?” Dean asked as he joined them.

“I think we’ve just about got these bolts ready to cooperate,” Kyle said as he switched his wrench for a ratchet. He snapped on the appropriate socket and went to work on the loosened bolt. “Are we keepin’ you from anything?”

“Nah, my girl’s gonna swing by here in a bit to pick up her car and I thought if you boys were okay on your own I’d take her out to lunch.”

“Go on, Dean, I think we’re good to go.” Kyle dropped the bolt in the pan next to his elbow and reached up to find the bolt he had told Michael to try and loosen. He locked the socket onto the bolt after pushing Michael’s hand out of the way and started working it free.

“Cool, if you guys aren’t too busy when she gets here I’ll bring ‘er over and introduce you.”

Michael watched Dean as he retreated back to the office and he tapped the wrench against the engine absentmindedly.

“Hey, would you cut it out?” Kyle barked.

“So if it’s not Isabel, what’s keepin’ you up all night?”

That brought Kyle out from under the van again and he glared up at Michael. “What?!”

“Man, have you looked in a mirror lately?”

“Why? You lookin’ for a date?” He eased back under the van and wondered why he had gotten stuck with Michael when he was in one of his rare talkative moods. “It’s just insomnia, alright? It’ll pass. And I’d like for it to pass without any further commentary on it.”

Michael shrugged. “Whatever, man. We’re runnin’ outta time. We’re supposed to be over at the Walmart by one o’clock so what d’you need me to do next?” He glanced at the clock again. He was ready to get this finished and get out of the shop. He didn’t like that they were separated from the others and the longer they were separated the more anxious he was feeling.

*****

Max was bored. He had been dragged through the cosmetics section and spent a good half hour watching the girls discuss makeup and the pros and cons of something he hadn’t understood. Then they had spent at least 45 minutes checking out perfume before moving on to smell every single kind of body wash known to the Walmart world. He didn’t know why there had to be like a hundred different kinds of soap and shampoo, but they had taken it upon themselves to not only test the scents, but then they had stood in a little group and actually discussed them. That had taken well over an hour.

When they headed for the clothes department he had grabbed a magazine off of a shelf that some other poor sap had left. It had been thumbed through repeatedly and he could only imagine another man stuck in shopping hell trying to lose himself in a magazine in a desperate escape from his reality. He had hung back when the girls had disappeared into the underwear department. He knew just enough about his sister’s preferences to know that she wouldn’t be caught dead shopping for underclothes at the local Walmart, and he didn’t want to know anything about Maria’s preferences.

That little slice of agony had lasted for more than two hours. Isabel had been a good sport for the rest of their little exploration, but now she was really getting into it. She was not a Walmart shopper; this was a huge step down for her. Granted, she had gotten a little more used to it over the past six months, but she was never going to develop a taste for the world frequented by the discount shopper. For the past hour they had been collectively ooh-ing and ah-ing over Christmas decorations. How long could it possibly take to do whatever it was Kyle was doing? He didn’t mind shopping with the girls, but this was going well above and beyond the call of duty.

When one o’clock had rolled around they had gone to the McDonalds to meet the guys but after half an hour of waiting he had gone to find a payphone and a phonebook. He had called the dealership and talked to Michael only to find out that his stay in purgatory had been extended because of some sort of mechanical problem. Kyle hadn’t had an estimated time for the repair so they had been told to continue their shopping excursion and when the guys were finished they would meet them in the Christmas decorations department.

He shifted to change positions so the shelf digging into his back could dig in from another angle as he watched the girls going through the boxes of lights one by one. Maria and Liz had been extremely helpful and they were patiently taking each strand out of the box and unrolling them so Isabel could inspect them for defects. After 17 boxes only three had made it into the cart and he didn’t even want to think of how many more they would go through before the requirement of 10 boxes had been met.

The girls were giving it everything they had but he could see that it was beginning to wear on them. Isabel was in her happy place though and after her earlier episode they had gone out of their way to occupy her mind and keep her from getting upset again. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and turned his head, coming nose to nose with a stuffed snowman. His eyes roved over the line of stuffed animals on the shelf and his right eyebrow lifted in interest when he saw the little white tag on the snowman’s hand with little red letters that said ‘press here’. He pushed the little tag and watched as the snowman came to life, dancing and singing Frosty the Snowman. He moved right down the line, pressing the little tag on all of them, reindeer, Santa Clause, snowmen, and even Christmas trees.

“Young man,” a harried clerk said, her voice expressing barely concealed annoyance.

“Sorry.” He cleared his throat and started pressing the buttons again to make the toys stop dancing and singing.

Liz came over to grab his hand, pulling him away from temptation and placing his hand on the cart. “Be still.”

“I’m bored.” He refused to think of just how whiny that sounded. He frowned when she rolled her eyes at him.

“Evans, what’re you wearin’?”

He turned to see Michael and Kyle walking towards them and he unconsciously reached up to wrap his hand around the three jingle bells hanging from his neck. “Please tell me you guys are here because you’re finished with the van and we can leave.”

Maria leaned back to see Michael and she shook her head when she saw him carrying a sack from McDonalds and eating a double cheeseburger. He had a milkshake tucked under his arm and if she wasn’t sure he had already dumped half a dozen packets of hot sauce into it she would’ve asked for a drink. Searching for perfect strands of light was exhausting and thirsty work.

“Hey,” he said, leaning down to give her a kiss. He lowered his voice as he glanced at Isabel. “You look like you’re ready for a break.”

“We have seven more strands to find first.”

“Great.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a chocolate milkshake. “Here.” He patted his shirt pockets and grabbed the straw he had put away. He glanced into the cart that Max was leaning on, frowning at the items piling up. “What exactly is all that crap? We didn’t agree to spend – “

“Kyle did,” Liz interrupted.

When Kyle and Michael both looked like they were about to respond to that Maria got their attention and made a sharp slicing motion below her chin. The guys exchanged a matching look of confusion before shrugging and nodding.

“How’s the search for the perfect light strands goin’?” Kyle asked as he moved to stand beside Isabel.

“It’s going.” She motioned to the boxes of lights she still had to sort through. “I’ve only found three that are acceptable so far.”

He studied her features for a moment before nodding and reaching for a box. “Let’s get to work then.” He could only assume from the look they had gotten from Liz and the gesture from Maria that something had happened.

Isabel covered his hand and met his gaze. “I picked up some cough medicine for you.”

He smiled. “Thanks.” He grabbed a couple of boxes, tossing one to Michael and another one to Max. “Here, let’s knock this out.” He lowered his head as he worked to undo the tabs at the opening of the box, using it as an excuse to close his eyes for a moment. His eyes stung as his closed lids allowed moisture to flood over his eyes but he knew it was only a brief reprieve. It wouldn’t be long before they were dry and burning again.

“Hey, maybe we could have dinner together tonight,” Maria suggested. “Just the six of us.”

Michael was digging around in his takeout sack for a handful of French fries when she nudged him with her elbow. “Huh?”

“Dinner tonight, the six of us.”

“Oh, well… who’s cookin’?” he mumbled as he shoved the fries in his mouth.

“We are.”

“We are? What, like me an’ you?” He washed his fries down with his milkshake and nodded when she gave him the look. “Okay, but you’re gonna owe me.”

She just smiled and grabbed his collar to tug him down for a kiss. “I can live with that.”

“Me too,” he growled.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) - Part-43- 11/6/11

Postby KindredKandies » Sat Nov 05, 2011 11:49 pm

Timelord31 – Thank you. :)

keepsmiling7 – We agree and so feel for Kyle here.
I love the memories of Michael/Maria and the pearl earrings. This reminds me of why I fell in love with Roswell and all of the characters. Thanks to you and the other outstanding authors are keeping this alive for us.

Oh my gosh, thank you! You were the only one who commented on Maria's memories while looking at the pearl earrings. Get a hug from Cindy. ;)
We're speechless, thank you for the awesome compliment. We hope you'll continue to enjoy. :D

Natalie36 – Thank you. ;)

Alien_Friend – Good. Thank you, we so had fun writing Max at Walmart with the girls. lol.
Oh the holidays, it can make you happy for what you have and remember to grieve what you've lost. I feel for Isabel. It made for a very nice rare moment between the siblings. I think it was great how Max knew how to help her.

Yes, you so understand this. We feel for Isabel also and we were glad Max was there for her.
Thank you for the awesome compliment! Here's more....:D

mary mary – Kyle was so totally desperate for some relief. He knew that Isabel could handle making some more hot water. ;) It's good to have you back on RF. :)

Part 43

Kyle rubbed his hands together in anticipation as he lurked behind Michael’s right shoulder and watched every move he made. After more than half an hour of listening to Michael and Maria argue over what to cook for dinner he had been ready to head back to the cabin and leave them standing there. He wanted beef, she wanted chicken. He wanted something they could cook fast, and she wanted something tasty and filling, unconcerned with the amount of time it would take to cook. It was doubtful that they would’ve even noticed if the rest of them had just left them in the meat department as they argued over menu options. He had been on the verge of tackling Michael and forcibly taking the van keys from him when Liz had offered up three words that had paused the feud.

“What about fajitas?”

It had paused the feud momentarily anyway. That had sparked off a heated debate about steak versus chicken and as he had been waiting for the verbal tennis match to stop Max had jumped in and suggested they compromise and just make both. Luckily that had seemed to satisfy everyone concerned. Max and Liz had wandered off to find the tortillas while he and Isabel had taken off in search of fresh vegetables to go with dinner. She had been quieter than normal and he knew something had happened but he hadn’t pushed, knowing she would talk to him when she was ready.

Everyone had seemed to relax until they had climbed back into the van to drive back to Stevens’ Sanctuary. Silence had once again fallen over them as the close quarters had reminded them of their situation and their impending departure. It wasn’t something any of them could forget for long but as the doors had closed, locking them in the increasingly shrinking space it had been an unpleasant and abrupt reminder that their reprieve was coming to an end. It was amazing just how quickly the mood could shift

The pervasive feeling had hung over them like a dark cloud as they had pulled up outside of Michael and Maria’s cabin. He had used the excuse that he needed to clean up so he could escape and Isabel had caught up with him after a few minutes. Her excuse had been that she had the keys and he wouldn’t be able to get in without them. A bald-faced lie. The keys had been in his pocket but he hadn’t bothered disputing it later when they had gotten back to the others and Maria had asked him how long he’d had to wait before Isabel had arrived with the keys.

He had taken his time cleaning up while Isabel had used the opportunity to sleep for about an hour. They knew there was no rush to get back over there. Michael and Maria would bicker through the dinner preparations and they were perfectly content to work together without anyone else’s help. He could understand that. He would’ve been content to work on the van without a certain hybrid’s help earlier. Help that had cost them an extra two hours of work when Michael had gotten impatient and stripped out a bolt that was in a difficult place to reach.

He knew the time it had taken to make the repairs would save them time and money down the road, but explaining that to his companion had been a waste of time. Rationally, Michael might have known what he was saying was true, but the hours separated from the others had made him antsy and he had been irritable by the time they finally rolled out of the shop. It had been his idea to stop and grab something to eat but Michael had only agreed after they had walked all the way to the back of the store to check on the others. He had felt the easing of tension in his friend once Maria had been located and Michael had seen her goofing off with Max as she made him try on an elf hat.

He had known better than to comment on the slight smile that had momentarily erased the frown lines from Michael’s features as he watched her. Once he was convinced that she was alright they had made the journey back to the front of the store to order a couple of cheeseburgers. He had left it alone when the hybrid ordered a chocolate milkshake and tucked it in his coat pocket. No need to poke a sleeping bear he thought to himself.

“Hey, Valenti, you wanna stop breathin’ down the back of my neck?” Michael growled as he turned the burner off and picked the frying pan up to empty the contents onto a waiting plate.

“I don’t think he’s tall enough for that,” Max commented without looking up from the book he was reading.

“Sue me, I’m hungry,” Kyle grumbled. “What can I do to help so we can move this along?”

Michael shook his head and smirked. That was pretty much what he had said to Kyle that afternoon when they had been working on the van. “We’ve got it covered. Just grab a seat at the table.”

“You got more chairs around here somewhere?”

He turned and leveled a look at Kyle. “What you see is what you get. You an’ Max go over and get the trunk at the end of the bed. Two of you can sit on it and the other two can use the chairs.”

“There’re six of us.”

“Uh-huh.” Michael popped a piece of chicken in his mouth and chewed it as he turned and motioned to the two armchairs in the living area currently occupied by Isabel and Liz. “Me an’ Maria will sit over there.”

“Hey, I thought you didn’t want chicken,” Maria said as she pushed his hand away from the dish. “Stick to your steak.”

“I cooked it, didn’t I?”

“So? I cut up all the vegetables.”

“That I also cooked.” He stared her down. “Next?”

“I should just make you sleep in one of those chairs tonight.”

He just smirked at that. “You can try.” He leaned in to kiss her. “But we both know better.”

Maria rolled her eyes at his know-it-all tone and let it go. For the past couple of hours she had been working on getting him to relax again. He hadn’t been happy about the amount of time he and Kyle had spent at the shop and she knew being out of contact for so long had been enough to put him on edge. She had seen the telltale signs of tension settling over him as he covertly checked out the cameras following the shoppers’ moves as they navigated the store. It had only worsened once they had gotten back into the van and by the time they had pulled up next to the cabin she had known he was contemplating how soon they could leave.

She knew it was their reality. They would have to pick up and move on soon but she really wanted to stay off the road just a little bit longer. At least through Christmas. But she could see the wheels turning as he weighed the risks and she knew it was going to come up sometime that night, and when it did she had a feeling it wasn’t going to go well. After Isabel’s earlier meltdown she knew hearing that they needed to leave wasn’t going to be received well. Max and Liz were just starting to unwind and they were finally getting to a place where the lines of communication were really being opened up between them again. She and Michael still needed more time to find the balance in their relationship and sort out some old issues. She glanced at Kyle as he and Max moved the trunk and she wondered if he would side with Michael about leaving. Her gaze moved to Isabel. If he was as attuned to the tall blonde’s moods the way she believed he was he would attempt to talk Michael into staying a while longer. Would it make a difference? Or would the opposition only convince him that they were becoming too relaxed and opening themselves up to potential threats?

Normally Kyle could be counted on to make a rational argument but she knew the past couple of days he hadn’t been feeling well. He had snapped at them several times the day before and he had been grumpy; behaviors that were unusual for him. Maybe after dinner and then taking some of the medicine Isabel had picked up for him he’d feel better. His appetite was making a reappearance so that had to be a good sign. She wasn’t certain Michael would wait until after dinner to bring it up though.

She grabbed a dishtowel and nudged Michael out of the way so she could open the oven door and pull out the foil-wrapped tortillas. She slid them on the stovetop and carefully unwrapped them before checking the Spanish rice in the pot on the back burner. “Michael, if you’ll grab the salad out of the fridge, I think we’re ready to eat.”

Michael set the salad on the counter and grabbed the top plate off of the stack, handing it to Kyle before motioning to the food. “Knock yourself out.” He knew Maria would wait until the others had their food before she helped herself so he leaned back against the counter and waited with her. He watched Kyle fix the plate, lifting an eyebrow when he piled the pico de gallo on the chicken and steak fajita before dousing it with hot salsa and sprinkling a little sugar over the top. He knew the plate was for Isabel; Kyle had developed a taste for the sweet/spicy mix but he wouldn’t mix steak and chicken.

Wordlessly he handed over another plate and watched as Kyle filled it before carrying both of them over to the table. He set them down before going over and getting Isabel to let her know dinner was ready. Once more he wondered what had happened at the store to cause her current mood but he bit his tongue before he could let the question slip out.

“Maria, is this…?”

His attention was drawn away from Isabel and Kyle when Liz spoke up and he glanced at the girls as they discussed the dressing Maria had made for the salad. It was her mom’s recipe and her eyes had shimmered with tears more than once while she had been making it and telling him how much he would love it. He hadn’t loved it. She had fed him a small bite of the salad so he could taste it and it had taken a monumental effort not to spit it right back out. He had forced it down and nodded in agreement when she had asked if he thought it was the best homemade dressing he’d ever had.

He listened to the conversation around him throughout dinner, contributing little as he worked his way through three fajitas, rice, and chips and salsa. He had managed to avoid having to eat anymore of the salad and Maria hadn’t commented on it. They had turned his chair around so that they were facing the others and she had made herself comfortable in his lap. He knew she was aware of his silence and more than once he had caught her watching him when she thought he wasn’t looking. She was waiting for him to bring up what was on his mind even though the slight hum of tension he could feel in her told him she didn’t want to hear it.

He set his plate on the end table and cleared his throat.

Five pairs of eyes locked on him and the apprehension in the room skyrocketed. Food that just moments before had been appetizing and packed with flavor suddenly felt like sawdust in their mouths and lead in their stomachs as they waited for him to speak.

“It’s time to leave.”

“Wait, Michael,” Maria interrupted. “We can’t just leave.”

He shook his head at her as his jaw clenched and he turned his head to look at Isabel. “This thing goes down on Saturday, right? We leave on Sunday.” The silence was like a living thing as it settled over them and he felt his temper spike in response. “Look, don’t make me the bad guy here. This was never gonna be a permanent thing. We’re on the run from the FBI. You do remember that, don’t you? The same guys who ambushed us at graduation? The same guys who ambushed us again in Oregon?”

Kyle shot a glance at Isabel at the reminder. It was after the run-in with the Special Unit back at the end of July that she had seen Alex again. The first couple of months they’d had several close calls but that one had been the worst. It had only been a small unit of three agents but they had caught up with them at a hotel outside of Happy Valley, Oregon. The hotel had been on the outer edge of the small town; old but clean and it had at least offered a hot shower and a warm place to sleep. Liz had woken from a nightmare that had turned out to be a premonition in the early hours of the morning just as the agents had busted down the door.

They had been armed to the teeth, coming through the door and hitting both Max and Isabel with tranquilizer darts within the first few seconds. The only thing that had saved them that night was the fact that Michael and Maria had opted to sleep in the van just to get a break from the others. He had come through the door just as the agents had realized that they only had four of their subjects in custody but before they could report in he had blasted them across the room. He had disarmed them and Kyle had helped him to tie them up and blindfold them. His movements had been sluggish as he tried to work through the drug they had shot him up with, but he had fought its effects.

“Find their car, Kyle.” He had grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him and then smacking him hard across the face. “Hey, shake it off and get with the program.”

He had followed Michael’s instructions, finding the agents’ vehicle not far away and using the keys he had taken from one of them to move it up close to their room. Michael had taken out a couple of the weak bulbs along the walkway and they had herded the agents to the car, shoving them into the backseat. They had taken all of the communications devices off of the agents, destroying them before taking their weapons and discarding them. He and Maria had helped Michael get Max, Liz, and Isabel into the van and then he had handed the keys over to Michael, nodding when the other guy told him to ride with Maria and for them to follow him.

They had zigzagged across several counties before backtracking and dumping the car with the restrained agents less than 20 miles from the hotel. He had taken over driving, staying on the move for nearly 21 hours, following Maria’s navigational skills as she took them through Oregon, Nevada, up into Idaho, and then back down into Utah before they had stopped to rest at a remote campsite in Cache National Forest. With the others groggy and sleeping off the effects of whatever they had been doped up with there had been no way to alter the appearance of the van. Michael had given it a shot but he had ended up leaving it splotchy and discolored and he had melted the license plate because his adrenaline was running so high. The only good thing about that was it looked like the old bucket of bolts it was and no one really gave it a second glance. The license plate had been switched out with one of the spares they had collected as they moved from state to state.

They had been silent as they set up camp, but the tension had been seething below the surface. It was the closest they had come to falling into their pursuers hands and they had nearly lost their tenuous grasp on freedom. Maria had worked on making dinner while Michael oversaw the tent setup and paced around the perimeter. It was during dinner that Max had spoken up. The night was dark, the only light coming from the fire crackling in the center of their circle.

“That stuff they hit us with… it’s some kinda suppressant the Special Unit created.” He flexed his right hand, staring at it as if it belonged to someone else. “The effects wear off in time. Physically there are no lasting effects.”

“Max, just drop it,” Isabel snapped. “Let’s not talk this into the ground. It happened and we escaped, now let it go.”

Michael had finished chewing his last bite before he threw his plate on the ground. “We’re not gonna sit around and fight about this. Last night was close and we didn’t escape by much. We’re all tired and we need to get some sleep. We can’t risk stayin’ here for long. When the sun comes up we’re outta here.”

“No! No, I’m not getting back in that van!” Isabel yelled as she threw her own plate down and shot to her feet. “I’m sick of running, I’m sick of living like this, and I’m sick of all of it! I want out. I don’t even care if they catch me anymore!”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Max insisted.

“Max, man, let it go,” Kyle interrupted. She was upset and scared, she wasn’t thinking about what she was saying.

“You have no idea what you’re saying!” Max exploded angrily.

Isabel rushed her brother, her intent to make him shut up, but before she could get her hands on him Kyle got between them. It took everything he had to pull her away because she fought him tooth and nail. Luckily her powers hadn’t come back online yet because if they had she might’ve hurt him unintentionally.

“Max, let’s just take a walk,” Liz said, hoping to calm him down. “We all need to cool down and she’s just really upset right now.”

Maria had watched the others, her insides churning at just how close they had come to capture the night before. She turned her head to the side when Michael got up and went to the van, knowing he couldn’t deal with the rest of them breaking down right now. She got to her feet and followed him after a few minutes, having no idea what to say to help him. He had been against them staying at the hotel the night before but with all the rain they had needed to be inside and out of the elements.

He had shoved the side door open and sat down on the floorboard and she frowned when he reached around and pulled something from the waistband of his jeans. Her eyes widened when the moonlight glinted off of the gun in his hand and she shook her head. “What’re you doing with that, Michael?”

“It’s called protection,” he ground out, his fingertips gliding over the barrel. He leaned his head against the door and he looked years older than 19 as he stared out into the night. “What if they’d gotten me with that crap they shot the others up with?” He thumped his forehead against the frame and sighed raggedly. “They would’ve had us. Hell, they almost had us anyway. If we’d stayed in the room…”

“But we didn’t, Michael.” She shook her head. “You can’t just keep that thing. Even if you have a valid argument, if we ever had to use it they could trace it back to one of those agents and they’d know we’re the ones who have it.”

Back at camp Kyle was still fighting to control Isabel but the adrenaline was pumping through her veins and it wasn’t easy. “Isabel, listen to me,” he growled, “I know this’s hard, but you can’t give up, do you hear me?”

“What’s the point?!” she screamed. “We’ve left everything behind, everyone we love, everything we know… and this’s all we have now. Running for our lives and being hunted like animals, and I’m sick of it. I’m tired of living like this. I miss my parents and I want my life back.”

Kyle could hear the defeat in her voice and he could feel the fight going out of her. “Don’t give up on me now, Isabel.” He dragged her with him as he moved closer to their tent, sticking his foot inside and pulling his sleeping bag out. He kicked it open and dropped down when she collapsed against him, taking the brunt of their combined weight with his shoulder and back. He settled on his side and held her tightly, his heart breaking with every sob torn from her body. It was the first time she had broken down since they had left and he was sure it was long overdue.

It had happened when she started to calm down. She lay there in Kyle’s arms, emotionally spent and feeling horrible when she felt the lightest brush of a touch against her hand. She lifted her red, swollen eyes to look into a pair of concerned gray eyes that watched her with a mixture of worry and sadness.

“Alex,” she whispered, her voice rough.

“You’ve had a pretty rough 24 hours,” he said, gently brushing her hair back. He glanced up to see the concern in Kyle’s expression as he looked around but after a moment the guy settled back into his uncomfortable position, quietly murmuring words of comfort. “You’re gonna be okay, Isabel. I know how rough this is on you and I know how much you’ve given up, but don’t throw the towel in now. That’s not who you are.” He smiled faintly. “You’re a fighter and you’re not gonna let a bunch of fanatics take that away from you.” He reached out to nudge her chin up, forcing her exhausted gaze to his. “Hey, promise me.”

“Don’t leave me again, Alex,” she whispered tiredly.

“Promise for a promise?” he cajoled.

A ghost of a smile crossed her features and her hand curled around his. “Promise.”

Kyle had a feeling it was the stress that had brought Alex back into her life. She had needed that connection with home and it had appeared in the form of someone she trusted, someone she could see… someone she had needed badly to see in order to calm down. He had never seen Alex and he didn’t know what the others would say if they were aware that she not only saw him but also had conversations with him.

Sometimes he thought maybe she was the most rational of all of them.


He could feel the tautness in Isabel and he braced his elbow on the table, dropping his forehead into his hand so he could press against the bridge of his nose. For a moment the pressure helped to ease the headache that had exploded behind his eyes again and then the relief took a flying leap out the nearest window. He could still remember how hysterical she had been that night and that protective streak that surfaced when she was hurt or distraught kicked in.

“Michael’s right,” he said finally and beside him Isabel stiffened even more. He shifted and pressed his thigh against hers as he lifted his head to look at the others. “I do agree that stayin’ in one place too long is risky, but we could get caught out on the road just as easily as we could get caught here. Somethin’ as routine as a damn traffic stop could put us in danger.” He glanced at Isabel, checking her reaction as he continued. “Look, all I’m sayin’ is that the Stevens family has taken us in despite our admittedly shaky cover story, and we haven’t seen a single cop in the time that we’ve been here.”

Michael nudged Maria, standing up as soon as she was off of his lap. “Have you noticed what this place and old Mr. Tony’s place have in common?” He put his plate in the sink, uncaring of the racket he was making. “One-way driveways, people! If we get boxed in it’s an indefensible position.”

Maria moved towards him, cornering him in the tiny kitchen. “Michael,” she said, her voice low, “the people here are grateful that we’re here to keep their little community tradition alive. It was hard for them losing Mr. Tony the way they did and this has done so much for them. Do you really think it’d be a good idea for the FBI to show up and run us out in front of all these people?”

“Maria,” Michael growled as he leaned in close to her, “do you honestly think the people hunting us give a damn about who’s around when they come after us? These people operate outside the realm of laws and regulations.”

“We need this,” she said quietly. “It’s not just about getting out of that van.”

“The longer we stay here the bigger the risk – “ His head turned sharply when someone knocked on the door and his eyes lowered to the doorknob that for the first time wasn’t being braced with one of the kitchen chairs.

“You hold it.”

“No, you hold it.”

Maria smiled softly at the back and forth banter between the Stevens brothers. “Let the boys in, Spaceboy.”

“Here, Maggie, you hold it and…”

Michael went to open the door, interrupting Eddie’s instructions to his little sister. His gaze moved over them, taking in the pie that the boys obviously didn’t want to be seen carrying and he reached out to steady it in Maggie’s gloved hands when she lifted one side too high and nearly tipped it over. He smiled in response when she looked up at him and grinned widely. “Hi, Michael. Mama made apple pie; it’s for you an’ Maria, and Max an’ Liz, an’ Kyle an’ Isabel.”

Eddie made a show of sniffing the air as he tried to squeeze his way past Michael. “Wow, somethin’ smells really good. What’d you have for dinner?”

Michael shifted, blocking the walking hormone. Not that smooth, kid, keep working on it, he thought.

Maria nudged Michael out of the way, rolling her eyes at his alpha dog stare-down contest with a boy Eddie’s age. “We had fajitas for dinner,” she said, the word rolling off of her tongue with a musical inflection.

Maggie wrinkled her nose at the unfamiliar word. “We had what Mama calls seefood with apple pie for dessert.”

She rested her hand on Michael’s arm, sliding it from shoulder to elbow and back again in a soothing manner as she grinned at the kids. “My mom had that a lot at our house too.” She shot a look at the man beside her when he didn’t relax much in spite of her ministrations. His gaze was still locked on Eddie and it wasn’t wavering in the least. Her hand slid down over his forearm, seeking out his hand and lacing their fingers together. “Michael, it’s cold out there. Let’s move out of the way so they can come in.”

Michael wondered if she had any idea whatsoever what she had just done to the kid gaping at her. All she had to do was breath to have the kid’s attention, but tossing out that answer in response to Eddie’s question about dinner and adding the sexy accent to her voice? She was gonna have the kid’s hormones in overdrive.

Eddie was just about to ask Maria if she liked apple pie when Brian suddenly blocked him from entering behind Maggie. He aimed a solid punch at his brother’s shoulder and grunted when Brian shot back with an elbow in his chest.

Brian glanced at Michael, measuring his expression. He sidestepped to let his brother enter the cabin, hissing at him as he walked past, “Knock it off, doofus.” What a moron! The least he could do was learn a few things from him! Did he act like a doofus when Stefanie was around? No, he played it cool. He shoved Eddie inside and then turned to Michael. “So, Dad has the outside lights on over at the hockey rink at Mr. Tony’s and he wanted us to come over and see if you guys wanted to take some practice shots at the net.”

Maria elbowed Michael. “Why don’t you and Max go play for a while?” She glanced over at Kyle and nodded when she saw him shake his head. “You can leave Kyle here with us, we’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, I’m not much of a skater,” Max spoke up.

Kyle snorted at that. “Have you seen El Capitan’s face, El Presidente?” He picked at the bits of steak that were scattered around his plate, pushing them into a happy face.

Michael narrowed his eyes at his friend. “Valenti, if you didn’t already look like you’d taken a beating, I’d be kicking your a-“ He reached up to rub his ear when Maria gave it a vicious flick. “Ow! What now?!”

Maria leaned over to take the pie out of Maggie’s hands. “Remember your P’s and Q’s,” she said with an unsubtle nod at the little girl. “We have little people company.”

“Valenti, you don’t wanna hit the ice?” he asked, going back to his original topic.

“When there’s perfectly good hot apple pie up for grabs?” Kyle glanced at Maria. “Can I go on the assumption that you have ice cream to go with it?”

“Is there any other way to have hot apple pie?”

He shook his head, hiding a wince when he felt the stiffness reasserting itself. “Nope.”

Max shifted unconsciously as his gaze bounced around the room. “Pie can be reheated,” he muttered.

“Max.”

He held his hands up at the warning in his wife’s tone. “Fine, stay here and eat pie.” Suddenly he had the urge to beat the crap out of something and in the absence of anything else he’d settle for slapping around a damn hockey puck.

*****

Kyle was slouched down in Michael’s chair, his eyes following the movement on the television screen without really realizing it. He had been left alone with the girls and they were in the kitchen talking to each other about Christmas with Maggie chiming in from time to time about the dog she was sure she was getting. Because, after all, Michael knew Santa Claus and he had promised to make sure her picture got to the jolly old elf.

He listened to the conversation with half an ear, smiling when Isabel laughed at the way Maggie described something in reference to Michael. The little girl adored the moody hybrid and when she was around he relaxed and opened up in a way that was endearing. At least that was what the girls said. Michael was a great friend and he was loyal to a fault, but he wasn’t sure he would ever use the word endearing to describe anything he did. He snorted softly to himself at that thought and leaned his head back against the chair as he closed his eyes.

“Kyle, don’t you wanna come have some pie an’ ice cream? Daddy says it’ll cure what ails ya,” she said with a big grin when he opened one eye to look at her.

“He does, huh?”

“Uh-huh. That means if you feel bad it’ll make you feel better.” She crossed her arms on the armrest and leaned her weight on it as she studied him. “I think you need a really big piece of pie.”

“Hook me up with two scoops of ice cream on top of that big piece of pie and you’ve got yourself a deal,” he said with a forced smile. As much as he loved hot apple pie and ice cream he really didn’t want it. But when she gave him a big smile and patted his arm he knew he’d force it down. He looked over his shoulder when she scampered off to tell the girls how to make his dessert. He winced at the shrill sound of her excited voice when they began to discuss Christmas again and he considered just turning around and burying his face in the cushions to stop the sound.

“Hey, if you don’t really want pie and ice cream it’s okay,” Isabel said as she leaned against the back of his chair.

Kyle tipped his head back where it was resting in one corner and glanced up at her. “I’ll be fine. Who knows, maybe it’ll help.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.” She turned her head when Maria squeezed in beside her and she reached out to rest the back of her hand against his forehead.

“Maria,” Kyle groaned, “I’m not five years old.” He pushed her hand away and made a face at the water droplets she had left on his forehead. “What’re you doin’ touchin’ me with wet hands?”

She rolled her eyes at his grumbling. “Well, in spite of your grumpy mood you’re not running a fever.”

“Thanks, Mom, I already knew that.”

She stuck her tongue out at him and flicked his ear before running back over to give Liz and Maggie a hand.

*****

Michael was slightly bent over, the blade of his stick impatiently tapping against the ice when his good buddy Max completely overlooked him and took a swing at the defenseless puck. He winced at the force behind the shot as he straightened up a bit to skate over and join his friend. It was safer for him to skate since Max wasn’t that steady on his feet. “So, Evans, you wanna tell me what’s eatin’ your lunch?”

“Nothin’,” Max bit out as he cautiously skated over to retrieve the puck from the net.

“If I notice it, you know the girls are probably discussin’ it to death. Whatever your issue with Kyle is, you’d better just face up to it and get it outta the way.” He skated a circle around Max and on his next pass he reached out with his stick to steal the puck. “Deal with it before we climb back in the van, that’s all I’m sayin’.”

“Why don’t you quit giving me advice?” Max huffed as he chased after the nosy hybrid. “You think just because I stepped down I need you to tell me what to do?”

“You threw in the crown, remember?”

Max slowed down and glanced at the boys and Edward where they were taking practice shots at the opposite end. “You gonna throw that in my face for the rest of my life?”

“Let me remind you again that I never needed or wanted the king,” he said as he slowed his pace and used his stick to knock the puck back and forth. He looked at Max and shook his head. “We never needed that shit to define us, we never needed it to tell us what to do… we figured that out on our own, remember? Who we are is ingrained in us without titles.”

“Then why bring it up? Don’t you think I have a detailed list of every damn thing I’ve done wrong since all of this started?”

Michael frowned at him. He hadn’t brought it up. “My point is whatever’s goin’ on between you and Valenti needs to be settled. There’s enough pressure in this group, and all keepin’ a lid on it does is make for a bigger explosion. You an’ Liz, you an’ Kyle… whatever it is, deal with it before we get back in that van.”

“What makes you think one issue has anything to do with the other?” Max asked with a frown.

“I don’t know or care if they do. What I’m tellin’ you is this Christmas thing is comin’ to an end, and when it does, we’ll be piling in that tin can and hauling ass outta here. If we don’t get shit settled we’re gonna be at each other’s throats before we hit the state line.”

“Hey, Michael,” Brian yelled, “c’mon, let’s play!”

Michael skated backwards a few feet and lifted his stick to poke Max in the chest. “Get it settled, that’s all I’m sayin’.” He jerked his stick back when Max reached out to smack it away and he hit an uneven spot on the ice.

Max shook his head and smirked when Michael hit the ice. “Maybe Maria can kiss your boo-boo and make it all better,” he said smugly as he leaned on his stick and looked down at Michael.

“Bite me, jackass.” He grunted when he tried to sit up and his back protested. “Gimme a hand.” As soon as he had a solid grip on Max’s hand he gave it a jerk, pulling him off of his feet and sending him skidding across the ice. And that’s just another advantage of being the soldier over the king, he thought smugly. While Liz was busy fawning all over Max and murmuring sweet nothings in his ear over the new scrape on his forehead, Maria would be giving him a backrub that would inevitably lead to sex. “And they say it’s good to be king,” he snickered as he got to his feet and hauled Max up. He snagged the puck with the tip of his stick and took off down the ice, grinning at the sound of muttered cursing as Max wobbled his way down the ice behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure his friend hadn’t fallen too far behind and snapped off a sloppy salute. “Let’s go, Max. I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t end up with your nose matching your forehead.”

“What’s wrong with my forehead?” Max demanded as he reached up to press against it. He winced at the slight burning sensation.

“Nothin’, just a bit red. We don’t want you lookin’ too much like that reindeer of yours.”

Max shoved Michael with his elbow as he passed him. “Try to keep up, Michael.”

Michael grinned and took up the chase. He was gonna wipe the ice with Max just for that comment.

*****

Isabel sat at the table after the last of the dishes had been washed. Kyle had left a few minutes ago to walk Maggie back up to the main house. Her eyes locked on the velvety soft stocking she held in her left hand. The fingertips of her right hand played over the pure white ruff at the top of the stocking before she slowly drew out her name and she smiled faintly as it appeared in a vibrant green complete with silver sparkles embedded into the color. Satisfied with it she picked up the next one and repeated the procedure, frowning when the K came out slightly sideways. She waved her hand over it, clearing the surface and starting again.

“Maybe not in purple,” Kyle spoke up from behind her. He had come inside a few moments ago, watching her as she tried varying shades of the color.

She lifted her head to shoot a small smile at him before changing the color to a deep blue. “How’s that?” she asked, holding it up.

“Better.” He looked past her to watch Maria and Liz for a minute. They fell into sync with each other so effortlessly and he wished Isabel had just a piece of that ease with them. He caught Maria’s eye when she laughed at something Liz said, turning to flick water from her fingertips at her best friend.

“What color were you thinking about for Michael’s stocking?” Maria asked as she came over to the table, drying her hands off.

Isabel looked up, shrugging one shoulder. “I’m not sure yet.” She wrinkled her nose. “I can tell you that it won’t be black.”

“You could always make his stocking black and then the black letters wouldn’t stick out so badly.”

“I could also shave my head and join a cult but I’m not gonna do that either.”

Maria stuck her tongue out at the tall blonde before tossing the dishtowel on the counter and sitting at the table. “That’s a relief. I don’t think it’d be a very good look for you.”

“I’m pretty sure that whole cult thing’s overrated anyway,” Liz commented as she joined them, sitting across from Isabel and pulling her feet up to rest on the edge of her seat. “I don’t see you ever conforming like that.”

Isabel snorted. “Never.”

“Not to mention all those crazy wacko cults always have like some guy running things and nine times out of ten he’s sleeping with like, all the women in the cult,” Maria added and shuddered for effect. “And seriously, these guys have to have some sort of mind control going on because have you ever noticed what they look like?”

Kyle wondered how they’d gotten off on this tangent as he rolled his eyes. It was only a matter of time before this conversation turned into one of those ‘all men are pigs’ rants and he’d just as soon not be there for it. His brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders and he just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to keep up with them. He rolled his shoulders as he moved across the room to pull the door open. “Okay, girls, this is where Kyle calls it a night.”

*****

Kyle leaned back against the door, eyes closed as he absorbed the silence. He rubbed his temples before opening his eyes and giving himself a push to get moving. He turned on the lamp by the couch, cursing under his breath and turning it right back off when pain exploded in his sensitive eyes. He was exhausted; his body ached, his eyes felt dry and light made them hurt, and his head hurt like it had never hurt before.

He waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, letting the moonlight streaming in through the windows provide him with enough light to see by. He took his boots off and shrugged out of his outerwear, sloppily hanging it up and then turning back around. He sighed and glanced around the room, shooting a dismissive glance at the television before wandering into the kitchen to root around for the candles he had run across the day before.

As he struck a match and set the flame to the wick his gaze was drawn to the flickering light and he found himself mesmerized by it. His gaze went out of focus as he stared at it and he quickly shook his hand to extinguish it when the flame crawled up the small wooden stick to lick at his fingertips. He disposed of the burnt matchstick and brought his fingertips to his mouth, blowing on them for a moment as he carried the candle to his room. He pulled one of the drawers out of the dresser and flipped it over in the center of the floor. He went back into the kitchen to grab the other two candles, and paused in the living room long enough to snatch one of the cushions off of the loveseat. He dropped the cushion on the floor of his room in front of his makeshift altar and set up the other two candles before lowering himself to sit down.

He winced at the stiffness in his muscles as he folded his legs, pulling them in towards him and resting his hands on his knees. He deliberately slowed his breathing, closing his eyes and concentrating on the steady beat of his heart as each breath came closer to falling into sync with his heartbeat. He opened his mental doors, feeling the cobwebs blow away as he slowly felt himself finding his center again.

Inhale positive… exhale negative… inhale positive… exhale negative. He welcomed the calm that fell over him and he inhaled deeply, holding his breath for the space of one long heartbeat before releasing it again. In his minds’ eye he could see the kitchen at home, could smell the slightest hint of Dad’s spicy chili – guaranteed to induce a monster case of heartburn – and he looked down as he shifted and felt the give in that one loose tile. He smiled at the familiarity of the memory and the aches and pains fell away as he heard boots scuffing against the floor and as he turned his head to see his dad enter the room he suddenly felt as if someone were pushing him underwater.

His heart started to jackhammer as he really took in his surroundings. Confusion welled up in him when his dad looked directly at him and he fought to understand what was happening. He tried to shake his head and he felt like he couldn’t move when his dad suddenly spoke, his voice hushed.

“Kyle?” The senior Valenti ran his hands over his eyes and squinted in an effort to prove that what he was seeing was true. “Son?”

This isn’t happening, Kyle thought as panic warred with the craving for safety and love that his father represented. His eyes stung and he realized that they were filling of their own accord as he took a stumbling step forward. “Dad?”

The feeling of pressure, of being pushed underwater, began to build again, but before it could swallow him whole he suddenly experienced the sensation of falling backwards. He shut his eyes tightly, hoping to stop the feeling and hold onto this moment with his dad but as it abated he opened them again. Disappointment flooded his entire being when his moist eyes scanned the inside of the cabin he shared with Isabel.

He scrambled to his feet, just barely avoiding knocking his alter over in his haste to get upright. “Shit!” He stumbled backwards, his hip banging against the table. He had to jerk around to avoid upsetting the sewing machine that he had carted down from the main house not that long ago.

“Kyle?”

He jerked around when he heard Isabel speak, wondering how long she had been standing there. It just barely registered that the door was still open and she wasn’t even all the way inside as she watched him with concern in her eyes.

Isabel frowned and studied him as she slowly moved into the cabin and closed the door without taking her eyes off of him. “Are you alright?”

He was trembling on the inside and hoping to Buddha that it wasn’t showing on the outside as he steadied his stance and leveled out his voice. “Nah, I’m good.”

“You sure?”

He nodded. “Positive.” He moved so that he was blocking the doorway to his room, hoping if she noticed the light from the candles that she wouldn’t mention it.

In spite of her desire to pry she let it go, giving him a bit of the care he showed her by dropping the subject and nodding.

“Michael or Max walk you back here? I didn’t hear them.”

“No, they hadn’t come back when I left. I walked with Liz until we split up to go to our own cabins.”

He nodded. “I’m gonna go out for a bit, take a walk and clear my head.” He sat down to pull his boots on and then moved to the door to grab his coat and shrug into it. “I’ve got the keys, so don’t wait up for me, okay?”

Isabel watched him for a moment, wanting to demand that he tell her what was wrong but knowing he would tell her when he was ready. “Okay. I was just gonna get something to drink and maybe watch something on TV.” She glanced at it and made a face. “Well, if anything’s on.”

“The weather channel’s pretty reliable,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “I’ll be back in a while.” He was out the door before she could respond.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) - Part-44- 11/8/11

Postby KindredKandies » Tue Nov 08, 2011 3:12 pm

keepsmiling7 - Thank you. Yes, it's just a matter of time before our gang will have to leave. But for now there is Christmas on the Lake. Christmas is a season for miracles. ;)

Alex is someone that Kyle and Isabel have in common. They both share the pain of his loss in different ways. Isabel has trusted Kyle with her heart for a while. Kyle understands her and his other friends for that matter. He's a good and caring friend.

Like the others, Max and Liz are slowly working to find the balance between their past and present..:)

Timelord31 - Thank you. :D

Alien_Friend - About Kyle... Thank you for your wonderful comments...We'll see. ;)

That scene where they almost got caught is so intense! You two are so great at that. You can just feel the anxiety and fear. They have been through a lot. I don't blame them for having to leave and for Michael insisting that they do.


Thank you for the awesome compliment. :) You so get what the gang has been through and why Michael is so hyper vigilant.

We liked your idea of a fic dealing with the gang being captured. You're so right it would be a story of its own. Thank you for thinking of us to write it. :D

I'm disappointed in Max right now. I get he doesn't want to be the leader but he could be more of helping hand that hindrance.


Just like the others in the gang Max is wrestling with his emotions about unresolved issues. He internalizes his feelings and is uncomfortable confronting them. He tends to take it out on others when he's overwhelmed Give him some time. Max loves Liz, he'll work it out. :D

As for Michael taking in stride his new position, he glared at me. "I didn't have a choice; our lives are at stake and Max is my friend."

Max reached the end of his rope with being the leader. When he stepped down Michael did what came natural - he picked up the slack. He's a born protector, a strategist, and he's also loyal to Max. It's in his genes to make sure anyone under their command is taken care of. It's what we love about Michael and his relationship with Max.

Thank you... Here's more...



Author’s Note: A small scene in this part was borrowed from the Season Two Roswell episode How the Other Half Lives.


Part 44

Isabel was still staring at the door five minutes after it closed behind Kyle. She was finally pulled out of her musings when she became aware of a flickering light coming from his room. She moved to his doorway and looked around, taking in the cushion belonging to the loveseat and the candles resting on an upended drawer. She entered his room and blew the candles out, putting them aside and replacing the drawer before picking the cushion up and carrying it out into the living area. She wedged it back into place on the loveseat before sitting down to stare at the blank television screen.

She reached for the remote, not to turn the television on, but just to have something in her hands. She turned it over and over as she thought about Kyle and wondered what was bothering him. He never complained, not even now when something was so obviously wrong with him. It had become noticeable the past couple of days. He was so laid-back and easygoing that when he was grumpy or snapping at people it was impossible to miss. It seemed strange that a simple cold would affect him so badly. She worried her thumbnail with her teeth as her thoughts started off on another, darker course. What if wasn’t just a cold? What if there was something seriously wrong with him?

She had just assumed it was a cold. His lack of sleep, the irritability, the headache that seemed to be hanging on in spite of his efforts to rid himself of it. Maybe she should’ve just asked Max to do something, fix whatever was wrong. She didn’t have that ability and she hadn’t said anything to her brother because there was something there that she couldn’t quite get a grip on. He seemed to have some kind of issue with Kyle and the last thing she wanted to do was make it any worse. She couldn’t imagine that he wasn’t aware of it but Kyle had never mentioned it. Whatever the problem was Max hadn’t brought it up in front of anyone else. She sighed and shook her head. Maybe it was time to dreamwalk her brother, see if she could figure out what his issue with Kyle was.

It was like some sort of curse, she thought. Every guy she ever got close to ended up getting hurt… or worse. “Why did you come with us, Kyle? You had your dad… you might’ve been safer if you’d stayed behind.”

“He came because he’s a good friend.” Alex sat on the rickety coffee table in front of her and waited patiently for her to look at him.

Isabel shook her head as her mind wandered over the many times she had relied on Kyle. “This whole thing has been nothing but trouble for him, Alex. He could be in college right now, playing sports and going to parties. He’s given up too much for this thing… for us. For me,” she added quietly.

“Do you really think he’d trade this crazy, sometimes dangerous ride, just to be another glory hound out on a football field?”

“He’d be safer if he had.”

“Safer isn’t always the better option. Safer isn’t necessarily living.” He reached out to lift her chin so he could look into her eyes. “Safer isn’t a guarantee, Isabel.”

She covered his hand with hers, amazed at how real, how alive, he felt. “If he could go back and make a different choice…”

“He’d make the same choice,” he said with certainty.

“You can’t know that.”

“I do know that.” He was silent for a few moments, lost in thought. “Remember when we were searching for the Gandarium hive? Kyle and I ended up trapped beneath the surface when those vindictive blue crystals decided to take us hostage.”

“More proof that neither of you ever should’ve been involved.”

“Let me show you something.” He smiled quietly. “You think given the chance he’d make a different decision?”

“Why wouldn’t he? Alex, he’s been shot and died, he’s being hunted like some kind of fugitive, he’s been shot up with drugs that we have no way of knowing if they have long-term side effects, he’s been taken away from his dad and may never see him again… There’s no way he’d turn down an opportunity to go back and make a different choice.”

Alex just held his free hand out to her, nodding at her and indicating she should take it.

Isabel sighed and slid her hand into his, inhaling sharply and closing her eyes at the sudden flash of bright light. “What was that?” She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her spotty vision. As the black spots began to dissipate her surroundings came into focus and she frowned at the patches of blue crystals, pulsating with an otherworldly light. “Where are we?” She turned to follow his pointing finger and she froze when she saw him dropping down to stand next to Kyle.

He laughed in response to something Kyle said but there was the slightest hint of nervousness in his voice as he looked around. “Alright, Columbus. You claimed the land for the Queen of Spain. What do you say we go tell the others?” He turned when the sunlight from above was suddenly stamped out and his eyes widened when he saw the blue crystals moving across the hole they had used to access the nest. “Oh, oh no! Oh, oh…”

Kyle looked around, the beam of his flashlight bouncing erratically off of the walls. “I don’t know why I’m looking around.” He glanced at his companion. “I suppose stuff like this happens all the time. Right?”

Alex slowly turned his head to look up at the Gandarium covering their only means of escape. “Yeah, sure.”

She watched them as they made contact with Liz and learned that their hybrid friends couldn’t get through the crystals and she couldn’t stop the laughter when the two of them started singing American Pie. She fought off the memories of where she had been at the time they discovered that cutting off the crystal’s oxygen would kill the alien creatures. She was saved from that trip down memory lane when the scene shifted and the two guys were suddenly lying on the floor of the nest, staring up at the ceiling.

Alex waved his flashlight, sending the beam dancing over the walls and ceiling of the nest. “So this is how it ends…”

Kyle had been staring at some point on the far wall, illuminated by the beam of his own flashlight as he spoke up. “Somehow this is NOT how I pictured it.”

“It was a hell of a ride though.”

“I guess.”

“I mean, think about it,” Alex said with a small laugh. “We not only MET aliens, but they killed us.” He didn’t seem to notice when Kyle turned and swung the beam of his flashlight towards him. “How many people can say that?”

“You’re getting delirious, is that it?”

“Nah, take… take a step away from your life, Kyle.”

Isabel listened to his slow speech pattern and wondered if he had been suffering from oxygen deprivation.

“You know, I mean, you’re part of this… this amazing thing. This… amazing knowledge that you HAVE that 6 BILLION people on this planet don’t. You really want to step out of this cave if it meant that you were gonna be another dumb jock?”

The silence in the cave continued for several long seconds before Kyle answered him.

“You know what, I wouldn’t.”

It wasn’t long after that something fell from the ceiling and Kyle jumped up, yelling that they were being attacked. It had taken a moment before Alex had denied that assumption and proclaimed that the aliens were dying instead. She watched their reunion with the others and wished she had been with them rather than where she had been at the time.

“So you see,” Alex said as the scene faded to black for a moment before the living area of the cabin rematerialized around them once more, “he made the choice that was right for him.” He shook his head when she started to protest. “Kyle’s a man who knows exactly what he wants, Isabel. He’s loyal to a fault and you’re never gonna have to wonder if he’s got your back. None of you will ever have to wonder about that. It’s who he is.”

Isabel mulled over his words for a while. Since he had become a part of their group Kyle had always been there for her. He had never judged her, never questioned her when she just showed up out of the blue needing his companionship, and he had easily become the best friend she’d ever had. He had taken care of all of them in his quiet, unassuming way over the past six months. Longer, if the truth were to be told, she realized. In spite of his denial earlier though, something was bothering him. She hadn’t missed the way he had straightened his spine before going out the door. Why was he taking whatever his burden was on his own shoulders? Why didn’t he feel that he could share it with her?

She glanced at the clock and nodded decisively. Half an hour. She would give him half an hour and if he wasn’t back by then she was going over to Michael and Maria’s cabin to talk to Maria about him.

*****

Liz looked up from her contemplation of her rapidly cooling hot chocolate when she heard a knock at the door. She hated that her heart rate automatically sped up in response to the simple sound of a visitor announcing their arrival. She crossed the living room to reach the front door, her hand resting on the knob for a moment as she drew in a deep breath. She flexed her fingers, knowing that if necessary she could and would defend herself.

She unlocked the door without making a sound, slowly turning the knob and pulling the door open. Her eyebrows lifted in surprise when she saw Kyle standing there, his left hand braced on the doorframe and his right hand shoved deep in the pocket of his jeans. He looked haggard and weighed down by something unseen. She reached out to grab a handful of his coat and pulled him inside.

“Kyle, what’s wrong? Are you still feeling bad?” She pushed the door closed and herded him over to the couch. “Here, sit down.”

He shook his head tiredly as he unbuttoned his coat and sat down. “You remember when you came to me complaining about feelin’ fatigued? I was workin’ at the garage at the time.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes. “Didn’t you mention something about hallucinations?”

Liz stilled for a moment before sitting down next to him. “Um, why? Has something happened?”

“I’m not sure.” Maybe he had jumped the gun and it wasn’t anything to be concerned about. “I mean, it could just be stress, right?” He pushed himself to his feet and shoved his hands deep in his pockets as he started to pace restlessly.

“Kyle, whatever it is, you know you can tell me. You were there for me, now let me be here for you.”

He pulled in a deep breath, holding it for several seconds before releasing it slowly and turning to look at her. “Well, for starters, I haven’t slept in two nights, like at all, and I have this dull headache that’s hangin’ in the background just waitin’ for any excuse to explode. I’ve taken Tylenol, which usually kills a headache for me, but it’s not workin’ this time.” He stopped and snorted quietly. “Maybe it is just stress. I mean, you were tired all the time and you couldn’t stay awake, right?”

“Did you see or hear something?”

“Yeah, I saw my dad. At least, I think I did.” He sighed in frustration and began to pace again. “I’m not even sure it was real. I mean, I haven’t slept in several days and I’ve been zoning out for seconds at a time.” He rubbed his face with both hands. “I’m really freakin’ out here, Liz.”

She stood up, tugging the hem of her shirt down and planting her hands on her hips. “Okay, let’s try to sort it out by going over everything you were doing just before it happened. Maybe if we do that we can figure out if it’s just stress or…” her eyes shifted across the room. “Or something else.” She watched him for a moment before speaking again. “For the record me and Maria just thought you were coming down with the flu.”

Kyle’s lips quirked in a tight smile. “Isn’t that the same thing you told everyone when you were seeing things?” He gave her a slightly sarcastic look. “I’m feeling so much better here.”

“Kyle, I…”

“No worries, it’s just stress and between the two of us we’re gonna prove it.”

Her mind automatically shifted into scientific mode. “Okay, so what were you doing before you saw your dad?”

He fell silent, his eyes locked on the window across the room as he mentally went over everything he had done. “I went back to the cabin to spend some quality time with Buddha, figuring if I cleared my mind and cleansed my soul I’d be able to get some sleep. Meditation and prayer’s been kinda slim on the run, ya know? Anyway, I was just sitting there, clearing my mind, and I guess thinking about where I felt most at rest.”

Liz smiled when he unconsciously inhaled deeply and released it slowly. He did that any time he was stressed or when he was trying to find peace within himself and most of the time she doubted he even knew he was doing it.

He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. “I started to picture the inside of our kitchen back home and for a minute I thought…” He shook his head. “Ah, you know, it has to be the stress. I’m sure that’s all it is.”

“Kyle,” Liz said, her tone encouraging.

He ran his hands over his face again. “Oh, alright, but let it be noted that I think my sleep-deprived brain imagined it.”

“Consider it noted.”

Kyle shook his head back and forth slightly as he weighed his next words.

“So you were in your dad’s kitchen and you thought… what?”

“I could’ve sworn I could smell Dad’s chili cookin’. And the really weird thing? I kinda shifted my weight and I swear, Liz, I could feel the give in that one loose tile that’s over by the sink. Dad’s been sayin’ he was gonna fix that thing for years and he’s never…” he shook his head. “Not important.” He started to pace again as he ran one hand through his hair. “It’s like my brain forgot that I was sitting on the floor of the cabin.”

“Keep going, Kyle. What were you feeling?”

He stopped mid-pace and looked at her. “It was like all of the sudden every ache and pain I’ve felt for the past couple days just disappeared. I felt good for the first time since I started feelin’ like crap.” He frowned at the next memory that surfaced. “Anyway, then I heard scuffing noises and it’s like they were right there in the room with me. I turned and saw my dad coming into the kitchen. And that’s when I started to feel like someone was pushin’ me underwater. You know how when you’re in the pool and someone dunks you unexpectedly? That’s what it was like. And next thing I know I heard my dad say my name. He looked right at me, Liz, like, directly at me. He started rubbing his face with his hands and then he called me again.”

Liz remained silent, waiting for him to gather his thoughts and pull himself together. He had grown quiet and she could see his blue eyes shining as he recalled seeing his dad.

“I took a few steps forward and answered him but then that feeling of being pushed underwater started to build again and outta nowhere I felt like I was fallin’ backwards. Next thing I know I’m back on the floor in my room over at the cabin.” He sat down and looked at Liz, waiting for her to say something, to make sense out of this waking nightmare.

“Kyle, we really need to talk to Max about this,” she said as she sat down on the couch again.

He stood up abruptly. “Somehow I was afraid you were gonna say that.” He started to pace again, his movements agitated. “You know what the worst thing about it is? Buddha was like my safe place, my escape from all the alien chaos.” Well, okay, there was that one really freaky dream where Buddha was quoting Shakespeare, had a cell phone, and was making plans to be beamed aboard a spaceship. He shuddered at that memory. “I know not everyone gets the Buddha thing, but it’s helped keep me sane.”

“Kyle, I understand this’s difficult, but Max needs to know. I mean, maybe he can help you.”

He thought about that for a few minutes before shaking his head. “I think I’ll pass. Can we just keep this between us for now?” He paused by the counter in the kitchen and held his hand over the cold mug of hot chocolate, shrugging his shoulders when it didn’t heat after a couple of seconds. “So, how’re you doin’ with your otherworldly abilities?”

Liz smiled when he shoved his hand in his pocket and turned back to face her. “I’m good, Kyle, and you’re gonna be okay,” she said, accepting the change of subject.

He dropped back down on the couch beside her and slouched back into the cushions. “Yeah.”

*****

Max walked beside Michael, his thoughts on their disagreement on the ice. He knew there were still things that needed to be addressed but as a rule as long as those things weren’t front and center he was content to let sleeping dogs lie. There were just some things in his and Liz’s past that he didn’t want to deal with and his issues with Kyle were damn close to the top of that list.

“Keep what I said in mind, Maxwell,” Michael said as they reached the road that stretched between the cabins. He stopped and reached out to grab Max’s arm, making him stop and face him. “We both know I’m not into all that touchy-feely let’s-talk-about-our-feelings crap, but you’re not me.”

“Being more open to talking about feelings doesn’t necessarily make it easier to talk about some things, Michael.” He looked him in the eye. “Me and Liz aren’t the only ones who have things that need to be dealt with but I don’t go around pointing it out to you.”

Michael nodded and stared at the stars overhead for a moment. “Me an’ Maria, we’ve got our issues, no denyin’ that. The difference is, we’re not makin’ it a problem for other people. And Kyle? The guy’s easygoing, but one of these days you’re gonna push it too far with him.”

“I’m gonna push it too far with him?” Max asked incredulously. “You don’t even know what the issue is!”

“So tell me.”

“No thanks, I’ll pass.” He shrugged Michael’s hand off and waved over his shoulder as he headed in the direction of his own cabin. “Yeah,” he muttered, “I’d like to deal with it.” He shoved away the memories that rose up before him and drew in a deep breath. Being in such cramped quarters with Kyle had kept those memories close to the surface and every time he had seen the other guy with Liz it just grated on his nerves. After months of that constant irritation his nerves felt raw and exposed.

He rolled his shoulders back and sighed when he spotted the warm lights spilling from the windows of the Honeymoon cabin. Finally he could put all of this nonsense out of his head and just spend a quiet evening with Liz. He hated that Michael had decided to bring it up just after he’d been forced to leave Liz with Kyle. He checked his pocket for the key out of habit before realizing that he’d left it with Liz earlier.

*****

Michael glanced back and forth between Maria and Isabel, taking in the open looks of concern on their faces. “What’s wrong?” he asked as he closed the door and ran his hand through his hair to brush out the snowflakes that had started to fall. Again.

“Did Kyle happen to find you?” Isabel asked, bypassing his question.

“No.” He frowned. “Was he lookin’ for me?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then why’d you think I might’ve run into him?”

“He was just… acting a bit off when I got back to our cabin and he took off, said he needed some air or something.”

“And you just let him go?” He started zipping his coat up again.

Isabel glared at him. “He’s not the family dog that got off the leash, Michael,” she snapped. “Something’s bothering him.”

“You two get your coats on.” He couldn’t just have his soldiers running AWOL. “We’re goin’ down to Max’s cabin and you’re gonna stay there while I go find Valenti. And after I get done kickin’ his ass for takin’ off on his own like that we’re gonna have another meeting.”

Maria and Isabel exchanged a look but followed his orders since finding Kyle and making sure he was alright was their priority.

*****

Max rested his hand over the brass plate and gave the tumbler a mental nudge, nodding in satisfaction when he heard the accompanying metallic clicks as it unlocked. He turned the knob and pushed the door open, putting one foot over the threshold and freezing as he took in the scene in his living room. Kyle was slouched down, his upper body leaning in toward Liz where she sat next to him, the smiles on their faces frozen as they turned to look at him. He could feel the blood in his veins start to boil as his mind quickly replaced the current scene with one of the two of them under the covers, naked in her bed.

His gaze locked on the man sitting next to Liz as he cleared that image from his sight. He looked between Kyle and Liz, feeling every muscle in his body tense. Trust warred with the old feelings of betrayal and hurt as he took in their relaxed demeanors and the ease they had with each other. “What’s going on here?” he demanded, his eyes narrowed.

Kyle met his gaze directly. “Nothing, we were just talkin’.” He stood and played with the buttons on his coat. “And I was just about to leave.” He shot a glance at Liz. “I’ll catch you later. Thanks for the talk.”

Max shifted, intentionally blocking Kyle’s path when he tried to leave.

“Let’s not do this tonight, Evans,” Kyle said as he started to push past him.

He ignored the underlying note of warning in the other guy’s tone and bumped his shoulder against him as he started to move past him. “Watch your step, Kyle.”

Blue eyes clashed with brown as they stared at each other as the intended physical taunt hit its goal with deadly accuracy. He was mentally and physically fried and the insomnia had his temper on edge so when he responded his tone was pure acid. “Yes, Your Highness.” He added a slight bow just to piss Max off.

Max pulled back and shoved Kyle as hard as he could. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Max!” Liz got to her feet and crossed the room with the intention of intervening. “He didn’t mean anything, Max. Stop this!”

His temper skyrocketed and his eyes were challenging as they locked on Max. He checked to make sure Liz was out of the way before he shoved him, forcing him back. “Don’t you ever touch me like that again!”

The sound of Liz calling out to him to stop him from going after Kyle, her defending his presence in their cabin, and her insistence that he stop defending what was his all came together in a single instant and he saw red. He pulled his arm back, his hand balled up in a tight fist, and he let it fly.

The satisfying feeling of bone on bone never came as Michael suddenly appeared between them, shoving them apart and shouting at him. “Max, what the hell are you doing?!”

Maria and Isabel squeezed inside and quickly took in the guys’ combative stances. “Oh, my God, what is going on here?”

Kyle didn’t acknowledge either of them as he tried to get around Michael’s hand on his chest, holding him back. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he shouted at Max.

Michael used his powers just enough to nudge Kyle back even as he was pulling Max forward. He couldn’t believe Max had been about to punch Kyle. He had been on the receiving end of that fist before and he wasn’t about to let him turn it on one of their own. Not to mention the last thing they needed was to bring negative attention on themselves. He released his hold on Kyle when Isabel shifted to get in front of him.

Max shoved Michael. “Get out of my way,” he growled.

“Just stop it, both of you!” Isabel shouted, her gaze bouncing back and forth between them.

Michael’s expression was lethal as he locked gazes with Max. “You’re not hittin’ anyone on my watch, you got it?” he said, his voice cold and calm. “Now back off and cool off!”

Kyle paid no attention to Isabel as she tried to calm him down. “He’s crazy!” he yelled, the words aimed at Michael. “What the hell is wrong with him?! I mean, I was just here talkin’ to Liz and everything was fine. Then he comes in and – “

Max attempted to break free of Michael’s hold again and when he couldn’t break the iron grip his temper spiked and his powers surged. He pushed against Michael and shoved him across the room, unaware of it when he stumbled and fell, hitting his head on the coffee table.

Maria rushed over to him and knelt down, her fingers carefully probing his head where it had impacted with the table. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” he grumbled as he reached up to brush her fingers away. “Help me up so I can get over there before they kill each other.”

“You don’t know?!” Max screamed, getting in Kyle’s face when he shook Isabel off to face off with him again. “How can you not know?! I find you alone with MY WIFE in our home and you, what? You think I could ever forget about finding you naked in bed with her last year?!”

Kyle suddenly stepped back and he stared at him in shock. “What? You’ve… you’ve been together for like, a year and a half… You’ve been married for months.” He still didn’t even know what that whole thing had been about, but how could they have gotten this far in their relationship without talking about it? “Wait,” he turned his head to look at Liz, “you guys never talked about that?” He looked at Max and shook his head. “Nothing happened.”

Maria moved closer but was careful not to get between them. “It’s true, Max, nothing happened between them. Liz was just doing whatever she could to get you to accept your destiny.” She nodded when his gaze bounced around the room before focusing on her. “Think about it, girlfriend, you know nothing happened.”

Michael looked at her suspiciously. “You know what they’re talkin’ about?”

Liz got in between all of them, hands held out as she raised her voice. “Stop! Just stop it, all of you! This’s all my fault!”

Kyle moved to stand closer to Isabel, watching Max’s expression shift to one of stunned confusion as he turned to look at Liz.

“What the hell’s goin’ on now?” Michael demanded.

Max held a hand up in a bid for silence. His eyes were locked on Liz. She was trembling and her beautiful eyes were welling up with tears.

“Because you asked me to.”

“I asked you to what, sleep with Kyle?” His voice had dropped dangerously low as his heart and mind battled for dominance. Her pain was real and that made him take a mental step back. “You wanted to make me believe it, but why? I never would’ve asked you to do somethin’ like that.”

“But you did,” she insisted miserably. “Not that scenario exactly, but you wanted me to make you fall out of love with me.”

His confusion played across his features clearly as he shook his head. “Liz, what’re you talking about?”

“Liz, just tell him,” Maria whispered as she gave her friend a supportive nod. “It’s time.” She could feel Michael’s eyes burning into the back of her head as he tried to figure out what was going on and why she hadn’t told him about it.

“Max, you came back from 14 years in the future and told me that we couldn’t be together, that if we stayed together the world would end.”

He shook his head in denial. There was no way simply telling her something like that would’ve convinced her to go to the lengths she had gone to in an effort to alter their futures. He looked at her, searching the depths of her dark eyes for answers only she had possession of. “There has to be more to it than that. What could some future version of me have said to make you think hurting me, us, like that was a good idea?”

Michael was listening, taking in everything that was being said. He had put the revelation about Kyle and Liz being in bed together on the back burner; it was only relevant as far as Max being able to deal with his wife and Kyle being friends. They could deal with that later. The fact that some supposed future version of Max had paid Liz a visit and she and Maria had kept that information from all of them was the more pertinent issue.

“What the hell were the two of you thinking, not tellin’ the rest of us about this?” Michael exploded. “Do you have any idea what could’ve happened? Hell, for all we know the guy could’ve been dangerous.”

“He wasn’t dangerous,” Liz insisted. “He was Max.”

Michael advanced on her. “What reason could you possibly have for keeping information like this to yourself?”

“Michael,” Maria spoke up in an effort to calm him down and let Liz finish what had been started.

He whirled around to face her and his expression was thunderous. “And you! Whether anyone else was informed or not, you should’ve told me about this!”

“It wasn’t exactly my secret to tell.”

“Not good enough.” He shook his head. “Not nearly good enough, Maria.”

Isabel glanced up from her perusal of the floor and her gaze bounced back and forth between Michael and Maria as they stood locked in a battle of wills. He wasn’t yelling now but there were times when he would lower his voice and it was worse than him yelling the roof down. “Michael, this isn’t helping anything,” she bit out after a moment of watching them. “Let Liz say what she has to say.”

“I didn’t want to keep anything from you,” Liz interrupted. “From any of you.” She looked at her husband. “My first instinct was to run to you but when he told me what had happened… That Tess would eventually leave because of us and without her we were unable to stop Khivar’s invasion…” she shook her head, swallowing hard. “Max, when that future version of you came to me he told me that Michael had just died, that he’d held him in his arms as he died, just minutes before he came to me. He said Isabel had been killed two weeks before that…” She looked around at them, her emotional distress open to everyone. “How could I take the chance that what he said wouldn’t come true?”

Her tears spilled over and each one tore at Max’s heart. He felt his anger melt away at the distress seeping from her pores and he crossed the room to take her in his arms, his voice low and soothing as he murmured apologies amid other nonsense in an effort to calm her down and let her know everything would be alright.

Michael was still pissed at being kept in the dark but his features softened slightly as he looked at Liz. He had read her journal not long after she had found out the truth about them, and in addition to what he had learned about her over the past few years, he knew that she had not made the decisions she had made lightly. She believed that Max had come from the future and considering the agony the two of them had put each other through time after time he could only imagine what it had cost her to push the boy she had loved more than anything into Tess’ arms.

Isabel had been pacing quietly, the small pendant at the end of her necklace pinched between her thumb and forefinger as she dragged it back and forth against the chain. Her steps slowed and she tapped the pendant against her pursed lips as she brought her chaotic thoughts into some semblance of order. “It was Tess,” she said finally, breaking the heavy silence. “It wasn’t your fault, Liz, it was mine. I’m the one who let her in.”

Kyle sat in the rocking chair, unaware of the stuffed grizzly bear he was squishing. He propped his elbows on his knees and dropped his head in his hands as he sighed. He rubbed his hands over his face and then raked his fingers through his hair. “Dad brought her into our home and I accepted her… add my name to the list of people to blame.”

“No.” Michael stood at the window looking out into the night. “No, it’s no one’s fault.” He lifted his eyes to catch Max’s reflection as he held his wife, his embrace tender and comforting. “Tess did this, no one else is to blame.” He shook his head. “Blaming each other or ourselves for anything she did stops tonight. No one made her turn on us; she came to Roswell with the intention of gaining our trust, translating that damn book, and then getting us back to Antar so she could turn us over to our enemies.” He turned to look at each of them in turn. “She’s the only one to blame. The fact that she went after Max had nothing to do with who we were in our previous lives. Claiming that they had a connection or whatever was obviously a lie because he wasn’t gonna be spared when we showed up on Antar. He was slated for execution just like me an’ Isabel.”

Liz rested the side of her head against Max’s chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart as she took in what Michael was saying. She wanted to believe him, wanted to believe that she wasn’t at fault, but was it true? How many times had she questioned her role in Alex’s death? If she had refused to help Future Max, if Tess had done as he said and left Roswell, would he be dead now?

“Questions like that serve no purpose,” Michael snapped as he moved closer to Liz. He knew by the widening of her eyes that she had no idea that she had spoken aloud.

“Michael, back off,” Max said quietly but insistently.

Their gazes locked for a moment before Michael nodded and stepped back. “Maybe we should call it a night and we’ll regroup in the mornin’.”

*****

The four of them stepped out into the crisp, cold night air and the cabin door shut behind them, leaving them in silence. The stillness of the night was broken only by the sound of the snow crunching under their feet as they made their way along the driveway. When they reached the fork in the road Kyle and Isabel went off to the left and Michael and Maria continued on their own path.

Michael slowed his steps and pushed his thoughts behind closed doors as he felt that prickling sensation at the back of his neck. He turned under the guise of checking to see that the other couple had made it safely to their own cabin, using the opportunity to scan their surroundings. He forced his hand to stay at his side, refusing to reach up and rub his neck and reveal his uneasiness.

“Michael, what is it?” Maria asked as she linked her arm with his.

His sharp gaze settled on the garage and after a moment he shook his head. “Nothin’.”

“Are you sure?”

“I said it’s nothin’.”

Standing in the shadows close to the garage wall Edward watched the last couple disappear from sight. If he hadn’t been cast in shadow he and Michael would’ve been making eye contact as the younger man located his position with unerring accuracy. There was something uncanny about the boy; he had instincts that only fit someone his age when the uglier side of life had left its mark on that person.

He had been on his way back into the house when he had heard the shouting coming from down the driveway. He couldn’t make out the particulars of what was being said but it had been impossible to miss the signs of a fight brewing between two of the boys. He had seen Michael push his way in to break it up and the door had closed at that point, preventing him from seeing anything else.

He wondered what was going on between the six of them and what they were really doing in his neck of the woods. As he watched the little Honeymoon cabin he found his curiosity about his guests spiking. He could practically hear Julia telling him to mind his business and that thought made him smile. What she didn’t understand was that this was his business; anything that had the potential of affecting his family, especially in a negative manner, was his business.
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) - Part-45- 11/12/11

Postby KindredKandies » Sat Nov 12, 2011 12:10 am

keepsmiling7- Yes, everything is coming together now that Christmas is fast approaching :)

We couldn't resist having Alex show Isabel how Kyle feels about knowing them and especially her. It also felt like a Christmas story thing to do. ;)

Yup we agree. Being on the road for six months in constant fear for their lives without any down time or time for themselves alone had them in survival mode. Just stopping to get something to eat was enough to deal with let alone deal with difficult subjects.

Well after tonight's revelation it looks like Max and Liz will have to spend some time talking soon.;)


Alien_Friend-

This part has so much of my favourite scenes. The end was just so awesome. The tension has been building all this time and to see it all explode in that unexpected and extremely revealing way was so exciting to read.


Thank you for the fantastic compliment! This was a pivotal key scene that we so wanted to pull off. We're glad that you enjoyed it so much. It made our day. Could you hear us shout with delight from where you live? :D

We couldn't resist having Alex show Isabel how Kyle feels about knowing them and especially her. It also felt like a Christmas story thing to do. ;)

It still shocks me how Max and Liz haven't talked about that incident this whole time. I thought Max knew they didn't sleep together and was okay with that. But I guess he wasn't.


Yes, he knew that Kyle hadn't slept with Liz. It was just easier not to talk about this after everything they'd been through. In his mind he knew she was trying to get him to accept his destiny. He was stressed out when he walked in on Kyle and Liz's moment on the sofa in their cabin. His gut twisted and for a hair breath of a moment he saw them together like it was yesterday and he reacted sans his calm and cool head.;)

Michael's DNA has had a work out these last six months; his instincts are fine edged and not missed by Edward. Not to worry Edward has his Julia. ;)


Part 45

Isabel tossed and turned, unable to relax after Liz’s unexpected revelation several hours earlier. The light from the television flickered across the walls but she barely noticed it. She knew Kyle was in the living area, probably zoning out as he stared at the screen. He had been surfing the ten channels since they had come back, the volume turned down just low enough that the sound was muffled and she couldn’t make out what was being said. She wondered what had made him go along with Liz when she had hatched her plan to make Max believe she had slept with Kyle. He had seemed to be interested in Tess at that point so it didn’t really make sense why he would go along with that particular request.

She finally rolled over and got out of bed, annoyed at her inability to do something as simple as sleep. She stretched, wincing when her body protested at even more movement. She walked into the living area and wandered past Kyle to sit down next to his bent legs. He was lying on the loveseat, legs bent at the knees and the remote tapping rhythmically against his right knee. His eyes flicked away from the screen for a moment before going back to the infomercial he had stopped on for a moment.

“Can’t sleep?” she asked after a few minutes.

“Not likely to happen after tonight,” he said, reaching up to rub his forehead. He nodded at the television. “If this is botherin’ you I can turn it off.”

She shook her head. “No, like you said, probably won’t happen tonight.” She watched him unobtrusively, taking in the pinched look in his features.

“Can you believe that people actually buy this stuff?” He turned up the volume minimally, listening as the advertiser on the screen enthusiastically went on about a dog collar that stopped the animal from barking. “Like that’s gonna work.” He snorted. “Although, if it did really work, maybe we could get one for Maria for Christmas. Maybe she could use it on El Capitan.”

Isabel laughed slightly at that mental image as she got up and went to grab the fleece blanket off of her bed. She dropped it on the back of the loveseat before disappearing into the bathroom for a minute. “Shift down a bit,” she said when she returned.

Kyle tipped his head back to look at her, acquiescing to her quiet, but insistent, demand. He settled his head in her lap at her gentle urging and he sighed when she placed the warm, damp washcloth across his forehead.

“The TV isn’t bothering me, but that light flickering is only gonna make your headache worse.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “S’okay.” He turned the volume down all the way and resumed his channel surfing.

She leaned over just enough to take the remote from him, leaving the television on the weather channel. “Close your eyes.” When he complied with her request she placed her fingertips at his temples and started to rub them slowly, applying just enough pressure to work on the tension there. She smiled to herself when he stretched out and let his legs dangle over the opposite arm of the loveseat.

How many times had he been there for her? Or for the others? How many times had they returned the favor? They needed him, relied on him, and now she was realizing just how much he needed her. As the pressure behind his temples began to ease she removed her hands and reached up to rest her right arm along the back of the loveseat. She stared at the television, wondering if the forecast of more snow would keep them stationary for just a while longer.

She glanced down at Kyle when he shifted to cross his arms over his chest and she pulled the fleece blanket down, covering him. She tugged it around so that she had a corner of it before turning her attention back to the weather. She played with the ends of his hair where it brushed against her hand and after a while she began to absentmindedly run her fingers through it. She felt herself begin to relax when his breathing began to slow and before long it evened out, indicating that he had fallen asleep.

*****

Max dropped down to sit on the bed after Liz excused herself to go to the bathroom to collect herself. He stared down at his hands, watching the light catch his ring and throw a reflection against the wall. This is my fault, he thought. Every bit of it, it was all on him. I’m the one who did this to her. Why had he dragged his feet with Tess? He hadn’t fought hard enough or been the leader they needed him to be when it had counted.

He had nearly walked them all right into a trap. If it hadn’t been for Michael doing the one thing he would never have expected him to do they would all be dead right now. Or at least he and Michael would be dead. Given Khivar’s obsession with Isabel he didn’t know if she would’ve been spared or not. His son would be in Khivar’s hands. He hadn’t known how to be a leader. What did he know at 16 or 17 years old?

He listened to the sound of water running in the bathroom sink and shook his head. Had he come back from the future to enlist her help in making him fall out of love with her? 14 years older and he had really believed such nonsense was possible? How could he ask her to even attempt such a thing after spending those years with her? He had to know that there was no way that what he felt for her was a passing thing. After seeing her in bed with Kyle he had felt betrayed but he had never come close to falling out of love with her.

You may not have fallen out of love with her but you let it push you apart, his conscience taunted. He had known something was all wrong with that scene but it had hit him like a punch in the gut. It wasn’t just seeing her and Kyle together like that. No, it was so much more than that. She had been smiling, laughing openly at something the other guy had said. At a time when he couldn’t seem to make her happy Kyle had managed to give her a moment of carefree laughter. In that moment he had seen her the way she had been before he had come into her life and screwed everything up.

He dropped his head in his hands as he thought about the repercussions of his future self’s decision to come back and alter the timeline. Tess was still gone, which meant they were missing their fourth. Their unit was incomplete. They were running for their lives with no clue what they were doing next. Alex was dead. Had that happened in that other timeline? He had gotten Tess pregnant; something that he could only assume hadn’t happened before he had come back and royally screwed up his present timeline. Now he had a son that he would probably never see again.

He winced as he thought about what he and Liz had done during his search for his son. What he had done to Isabel when she had so desperately wanted to escape from everything and go to San Francisco to go to college. His sister had been shot and nearly died. She had tried to move on with Jesse only to have that taken away from her too. He lifted his head and stared at the bathroom door when he heard the water shut off again. He wiped his palms on his thighs as he waited for the door to open.

He had no idea what to say to her. She had carried the burden of his request, suffering the pain of that decision in silence. She wouldn’t have given in to such a thing easily. To make her believe him he had put the guilt of Isabel and Michael’s deaths on her shoulders. He had watched her and hurt with her and for her as she had described what had happened. How selfish could he be that he would put her in a position like that and expect her to carry that weight around for the rest of her life?

Every thought fled as he watched the doorknob turn and without realizing it he stopped breathing as the door opened. He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t even sure what he should do. All he knew was she needed him to be the man she believed him to be. He swallowed hard as he stood up and crossed the room to meet her.

*****

The door shut behind Michael with a quiet click, the sound somehow louder than if he had slammed it. Maria could feel the anger rolling off of him in waves and the fact that he was containing it so well made it all the more volatile. His eyes were burning into her as she pulled off her outer gear and hung her things up. She glanced at the darkened doorway that led to the bathroom and decided she needed to make her escape.

Michael turned to wedge the chair up under the doorknob, unconsciously giving her a momentary reprieve. He stared at his hands where they were wrapped around the back of the chair and he forced his fingers to uncurl. Almost two years, he thought. Why hadn’t she told him about what had happened in all that time? He turned when he caught movement from the corner of his eye and he saw Maria heading out of the room. “Goin’ somewhere?”

“I thought I’d take a bath,” she started, but knew by the look on his face that she wasn’t going to be making that escape any time soon.

“Tell me how you know what Liz was talkin’ about.” He reached up to unzip his coat, never taking his eyes off of her. “And I mean exactly, Maria. Don’t leave anything out.”

Maria felt terrible as she watched him methodically strip off his outerwear and put it away, piece by piece. His words back at the other cabin were ringing in her ears and her heart thumped heavily in her chest, hurting at the knowledge that he now had one more reason to doubt his trust in her.

“Did you or Liz ever consider that guy was dangerous? What made you think some artifact claimin’ to be Max from the future was the genuine article? I know why Liz believed it, but damn it, Maria! You should’ve known better! Did you even stop to think that by keepin’ that secret you were deciding for all of us how our futures would end up?!” His eyes, blazing with anger, followed every movement she made and he softened fractionally when he saw her shiver and he noticed just how cold it was in the cabin now that the fire had been out for a while.

Maria flinched when his right hand shot up, setting the logs in the fireplace ablaze. She wasn’t afraid of him, wasn’t worried that he would ever hurt her, but she hadn’t been expecting the sudden move. She could see the tension pulling his tall frame taut and she knew he was releasing some of his pent-up frustration with the situation. It was a safety valve to vent some of the pressure from the anger boiling up inside of him.

“Do you have any idea just how much of a risk you took by keepin’ this a secret?! Fine, Liz had an obligation to some time traveler who may or may not have been Max. But you should’ve told me! I had a right to know that you and Liz were makin’ decisions that affected, and possibly altered, my future!”

Maria was watching him, wide-eyed and incredulous as he hurled accusations. Yes, she felt like she had let him down again, but damn it, she wasn’t going to take this line of questioning! “You really wanna talk about rights?” she shouted as she recalled just how tumultuous things had been between them at the time. “Really? That’s where you wanna go with this… this… conversation?!”

Michael crowded her as her anger sparked off of his and he saw her green eyes darken as her temper ignited. “You’re the one who’s been keepin’ secrets!”

“Me?! When should I have told you? When you were ignoring me? When you were chasing after Courtney like a slobbering dog? When you were risking your life to haul out that creepy husk when we were trying to escape Halloween town?” Rationally, she knew the things were unrelated, but the fact was he didn’t know when exactly Liz had received a visit from Future Max and that whole thing with Courtney had just complicated her already complicated relationship with Michael.

“I told you there was somethin’ off about her! Someone needed to find out what she was doin’ in Roswell.”

“And you needed to do that in her apartment? Down to your tee shirt and her running around in a bath towel? Maybe we could’ve sat down and had a heart to heart talk about Future Max when Courtney showed up at the Crashdown in her new husk thingy… and isn’t it funny how you had that thing and for her to slip it on or whatever she needed access to a bathtub? How stupid do you think I am, Michael?”

“What does one thing have to do with the other?” he yelled, not wanting to revisit that timeframe. “That doesn’t have a damn thing to do with this. I can add, Maria! I know exactly when Liz started to push Max at Tess… and when his dumb ass gave in!” He shook his head at her. “You had plenty of opportunities to bring this up to me.”

“What does one thing have to do with the other?” she repeated stupidly. “I don’t know, Michael. What could catching you with her in her apartment, in a towel, have to do with me feeling disconnected from you? We weren’t exactly in a good place at the time if you’ll recall!”

A heavy silence fell between them in the aftermath of her outburst and she moved to stand at the kitchen sink, arms folded over her chest defensively as she stared at her reflection in the window. The truth about Future Max had come out and somehow things had gotten turned around and she and Michael were caught up in another stalemate. He wasn’t giving an inch on that damn Courtney situation and she just knew pursuing it would only reignite the argument that was running them in circles.

She barely registered a nearly inaudible humming sound before something popped loudly and they were plunged into darkness.

*****

Liz sat on the rim of the bathtub, her blurry eyes staring unseeingly at the water running from the faucet to swirl around the sink before disappearing down the drain. Her tears ran down her face unchecked, dripping off of her chin and falling to the floor to be absorbed by the thick bathmat underfoot. More tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over as the bathroom around her seemed to shift and in her mind’s eye it transformed into her bathroom back home.

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying hard to force the images away but it was no use. She could see herself standing in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to psyche herself up to climb into bed with Kyle. Trying to convince herself that she was doing the right thing, that crushing Max and destroying his trust in her was what had to be done. She could remember how unnerving it had been to be in the cramped space with an older Max who had claimed to know things about her that hadn’t even happened yet. She had been scared to believe him and terrified that he was telling the truth and everyone they cared about was going to die because of them.

She could still recall his scoffing tone at the mere thought that she would enlist Kyle’s help, so certain that he would never be jealous of the other guy. It wasn’t about jealousy though. She had seen the look in his eyes when he had seen them together. In her bed, just enough skin exposed to make him think the worst of them. He had been devastated, he had felt betrayed, and she had been responsible for putting that look in his eyes. She had hurt him more deeply with that single moment in time than everything else he had ever experienced combined and it had nearly killed her to do it.

She swallowed hard, her throat burning as she tried to force the lump there back down. His future self had no idea what he had done to her by asking her to betray him. On the rare occasion that she let her thoughts drift back to that night she wondered why the future version of him had disappeared. Max hadn’t really believed that she had slept with Kyle, not at first anyway. He had fought against it. He had hounded her for a while, trying to get her to tell him the truth. If he had ever really believed it he had known the truth on their wedding night. There was no faking that.

Had they really altered the future? Did it even matter anymore? His last words to her were a contradiction to what he had demanded that she do. “It’s what I’ve always said to you, Liz. We create our own destiny.” God, what if she had been fooled by some shape-shifter or some other kind of alien? Her breath caught in her throat and she leaned forward, her arms crossed over her middle as she tried to hold herself together. What if that decision had altered events and led to Alex’s death? Had one of her dearest friends died because of something she had done? She clenched her teeth together in an effort to hold the pain inside.

Her throat felt raw and it hurt to swallow. She nearly choked when she drew in a deep breath and her eyes burned as more moisture was forced to the surface. She turned her head to stare at the door, knowing that her husband was on the other side reliving his own pain. Pain that she was responsible for causing. She knew Max though, and as much as his own pain would be surfacing, it would be vying for recognition between his guilt for his future self putting her in that position and the pain he would be feeling for her because she was hurting and he couldn’t fix it.

She knew she should’ve talked to him about this long ago but somehow it had slipped through the cracks in their relationship and they had been content to leave it there. Like Tess and Zan, it had become a topic that was swept under the rug and left ignored because neither of them wanted to deal with it. Her grip on her waist eased at the realization that the truth was out. He knew what she had done and why she had done it. She slowly unfolded herself, lifting her hands to wipe her face. Part of the weight that she had been carrying for so long melted away as she straightened up and she winced as she reached for the toilet paper, unrolling a few sheets so she could blow her nose.

She stood up on rubbery legs and made her way over to the sink, bending over and cupping her hands to catch the cool water so she could splash it in her face. The cool water was a contrast to the heated flesh of her face and she sighed as she patted handfuls of water against her skin. She sighed and reached for a hand towel to pat her face dry, carefully avoiding her reflection as she stood upright again. No need to scare herself. If she had visual confirmation of just how bad she looked she might be tempted to just hide in the bathroom and avoid her husband for the rest of the night.

She ran her hands over her hair out of habit before straightening her clothes once more and reaching for the doorknob.

*****

Maria barely had time to register the darkness when Michael’s solid body suddenly slammed into her, knocking the breath from her lungs. She could feel his arms around her waist pinning her against him as he swung her around, pulling her away from the exposure of the window. Her pounding heart was beating in time with his and she could feel it thumping madly beneath his skin.

He was already in overdrive after everything that had come out tonight and his senses were screaming at him to pack them all up and run. In the space of just a few seconds his eyes had swept over the darkened interior of the cabin and come to rest on the window over the kitchen sink. He lifted his gaze to the little light over the sink that had been burning brightly just moments before and he released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

He could still feel the adrenaline flooding his system, a combination of fear from being so suddenly thrown into darkness and the latent anger coursing through his veins in the aftermath of the argument and her throwing Courtney in his face. He didn’t want to deal with that situation or with his guilt for the way he had treated her. After learning about the situation with Liz and her visit with some future version of Max he was on edge. He had no idea if it had really happened or if it had just been set up to make her think the guy was from the future. He also didn’t know how it affected them in the present… if it affected them. The thought that Maria had known about it and never once told him pushed another barrier between them and set his frustration off again.

His gaze dropped, colliding with hers, and need spiked inside of him, hard and hot. The need to make her his, to drive any doubts from her mind, united with the want setting him on fire and he allowed his actions to speak for him. He hated feeling like there was any distance between them and without thought he sought to bridge that gap. His mouth crashed onto hers and he used his body to propel her across the kitchen and away from the window.

Maria grunted when she was suddenly sandwiched between Michael and the wall between the refrigerator and the hot water tank. The old phrase ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’ entered her mind and struck her as funny for the space a heartbeat. What little air remained in her lungs after colliding with the wall was stolen from her beneath the force of his kisses. She could feel his frustration when he attempted to reach her skin and the sweater she was wearing refused to cooperate with his impatient grasping.

He growled low in his throat, a sound of combined irritation and frustration, and she reached up to release the top three buttons, granting him the access he wanted. His mouth moved from hers, hotly trailing down along her throat and over her collarbone to reach the sensitive tip of her breast. His vocabulary had been reduced to simple grunts interspersed with the occasional groan, but it was a language she had learned to decipher.

Michael shifted, reaching for the fastening on her jeans and grunting when it gave under his insistent tugging. His heart was hammering in his chest, his blood racing through his veins as his rough palm slid over her silky skin. He suckled her nipple and felt his body’s reaction to her intensify when she moaned and dug her nails into his shoulders.

Mine, mine, mine. The mantra pounded through his head as he touched her in places no other man had ever been permitted to touch. She was his. She whimpered as her hips fell into rhythm with his hand and he nipped her with his teeth when she started panting her pleasure into his ear.

“Michael… Don’t… Don’t stop.”

He had no intention of stopping. He didn’t let up, his mouth and hand pushing her to the edge of ecstasy and culminating in her release.

Maria flexed the fingers of her right hand where they were tangled in his hair as her breathing began to slow. She became aware of Michael’s ragged breathing as every hot breath gusted against her flesh. She could feel the trembling in his large frame as he buried his face in the crook of her neck. Her fingers moved over his neck in a soothing manner, giving him time to collect himself. She didn’t speak, didn’t make a move to touch him any further, knowing as soon as he had himself under control he would take her to bed. She had pushed his buttons and now it was like he had something to prove. She just wasn’t sure if he was trying to prove something to himself or to her.

As his breathing began to even out he shifted again and in a single fluid movement he freed his hand and stepped back to lift her up in his arms. He lifted his head and his eyes were filled with hunger and intent. Absent-mindedly she noticed the overstuffed chairs that had become theirs, the shapes outlined by the firelight dancing in the background. He laid her down, his every move filled with purpose as he stripped her and then himself, discarding their clothes before climbing on the bed and moving over her. He was silent as his eyes locked with hers, using his knees to make room for himself. He watched every nuance of emotion flash through across her face as he claimed her and he grunted at the feeling of her body cradling his in the most intimate of embraces.

Maria’s arms slid around him, her hands curling over his shoulders as his body rocked against hers. His arms were wrapped around her lower back so tightly she was surprised she didn’t snap in half with every thrust. His hot panting breaths left moist imprints on the skin just above her ear, making her shiver. The feeling spread down through her body, radiating out until it seemed to gather where they were joined, intensifying the feeling.

She responded instinctively, her hips returning every demanding thrust. She could feel the stutter of his breath in his chest and her arms tightened around his shoulders. He inhaled deeply, dragging in one last gasp of air in order to sustain his release. She ran her hands over his back, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before he moved away from her and she sighed when it happened sooner than she would’ve liked. She could feel the silence between them like a physical thing and it made her ache inside. In spite of the blankets that he pulled up over them she felt cold and the chasm between them only seemed to widen as they both stared up at the ceiling.

*****

Max felt tongue-tied when Liz finally stepped out of the bathroom and he got a good look at her. Her pain was palpable and it hurt to see how much she had suffered because of him. He was at a loss as to how to handle the situation. He wanted to make it better for her but he didn’t know what to say or do to achieve that goal.

Liz drew up short when she nearly collided with Max. Her eyes, that had been shedding tears nonstop since she had locked herself in the bathroom had dried up and now felt as dry as the desert she had called home. She could see the indecision in his expression and read it in his body language. She knew how much he hated not knowing what to do, and she knew how powerless it made him feel, so she took the decision out of his hands.

He released a ragged sigh of relief when she walked into his arms and he held her tightly against him. He could feel the fine tremors dancing along her frame and he rubbed his hands over her arms even though he knew it had nothing to do with the temperature in the cabin. “I’m sorry, Liz,” he whispered. “I should’ve done something. What happened, that whole future me thing, that’s not your fault… none of it.”

She pressed her forehead against his chest and one of her hands came up to curl into the fabric of his shirt. “Don’t, Max. I can’t… not right now.”

He nodded and leaned back to take her hands in his, holding them against his chest when she lifted her gaze to his. “We could just go to bed.” He backpedaled when her hands twitched under his. “Just to sleep, it’s late and you’re exhausted.”

Liz didn’t deny his statement, simply nodding and allowing him to lead her over to their bed. She crawled under the covers fully clothed, too drained physically and emotionally to bother getting undressed. She hardly noticed when he turned the lights out, only moving when he slid into bed and reached for her. She went into his arms willingly, clinging to him and sighing tiredly.

Max held her close, one hand rubbing her back in soothing circles in an effort to calm her down. They would talk about this after she’d had some rest. He had so many questions but he knew as much as he wanted answers, right now she only wanted the peaceful oblivion of sleep. She had been living with this burden for a couple of years so the least he could do was wait for her to be ready to talk about it.

*****

Julia sighed happily as the soft pillow gently cradled her head in its soft embrace. It had been a long day and without their guests so helpfully keeping the kids occupied, Maggie, Eddie, and Brian had done their best to run her ragged. She loved them dearly but they could be a handful when they put their collective minds to it. In such a short time their guests had become so involved with their family and she smiled sleepily as she recalled the numerous questions her children had posed throughout the day in regard to their guests.

She yawned widely and shifted around, making a happy sound when she found that perfect spot and her body settled in for the night ahead. Her eyes drifted closed as the day caught up with her and she was vaguely aware of Edward coming into the house. He had gone out to work in his shop earlier and she had savored the rare quiet that had fallen over the rooms while he was out and the kids were in bed. Sleep began to pull her under as he went through his nightly routine, checking the windows and doors before making a pit-stop in the kitchen for a late night snack.

The blessed quiet of her evening was ruined when the man she loved more than life itself came into their bedroom and set up a ruckus that could wake the dead. Her eyes squeezed shut and she pulled the pillow over her head in an attempt to block the noise he was making. Edward was a strong, loving man, but dear God in heaven he was clueless when it came to how noisy he was.

She heard his jeans hit the floor, followed quickly by the sound of the handful of coins he carried everywhere escaping the confines of his pocket and bouncing across the wood floor. The racket finally ceased when the last coin found a resting place on the rug and beneath her eyelids she rolled her eyes. All these years and the man hadn’t figured out the concept of emptying out his pockets first! She was almost to the point where she could identify just how much change he was carrying just by his nightly ritual of the change chase. She groaned inwardly and shifted when she heard him set his coffee mug on the dresser. There were at least half a dozen ugly whitish rings on what used to be a pretty surface, all courtesy of his blasted coffee mug.

“Oh, good, you’re awake,” he said when he caught her movements.

Julia just rolled her eyes again and released her grip on the pillow that she had been holding over her ears. A wasted motion for certain. Her husband had selective sight and hearing. “Well, I am now.”

He bulldozed on ahead, heedless of the light sarcasm in her tone. “I was comin’ back in from the shop and what do you think I saw?”

She groaned quietly, knowing this could take all night. She would be perfectly content to wait until morning but she knew better. Edward was a man of few words, but when he had something to say he could go on and on.

“There’s something going on with those kids, Julia. Haven’t I been tellin’ you that? They were arguing about something, and whatever it was, it was serious. Max and Kyle, those two boys were just about to fight when Michael broke it up.”

“Edward, we’re agreed that whatever their story is, it’s not the one they’ve told us. No, we don’t know why they’re really traveling the way they are and truthfully, we may not even know who they really are. But whatever else is going on with them, I believe they’re good people. And so do you.”

He grunted and moved to the window to look out into the night, his gaze settling on the area where the cabins were located.

“You can grunt and mutter and grumble under your breath all you want to, but you wouldn’t have allowed them to stay if you felt they were dangerous.”

“Yeah, well… Michael… that boy’s seen the uglier side of life. You can see it in the way he watches everyone and everything around him, the way he cares for the people close to him.” He sighed and raised his left arm to rest his fist on the frame above his head. “It’s an internal awareness of surroundings, a wariness and suspicion of people you don’t know, it’s in the way you isolate yourself even when you’re surrounded by those you trust.”

“Edward…” Julia knew where his thoughts were residing and she climbed out of bed to go to him. She reached for the hand at his side, knowing before she touched him that it would be fisted. “I agree with you that the telltale signs are there, but it’s really not any of our business. Whatever he’s been through he doesn’t need us to dredge it up. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that whatever it is, the others know about it. Or at least they know what he’s able and willing to share. He’s made it through the fire and he’s come out stronger for it.” She reached up to frame his face with her hands, grazing her fingertips over his stubbled cheeks as she gently guided his eyes to hers. “Just like someone else I know.”

“What if they’re in trouble?” he asked after several long minutes of silence.

“Maybe they are.” She smiled up at him. “It’s not our place to judge, Edward. They were sent to us because they needed help and they’ve done nothing harmful. They’ve been sweet and caring, they’ve brought the Christmas spirit back to our little community, and they’ve also been a welcome addition to our family.”

He sighed and nodded, but his gaze was once more drawn to the cabins beyond the window.

“Let it rest, Edward.” She stretched up to kiss him when his gaze met hers once more. “Come to bed.” He wouldn’t be able to fully let it go but maybe for tonight he would give it a rest. In time she was certain he would accept that the kids had been brought to them for a reason but until he was certain he would remain alert to anything questionable that might justify his suspicions.

Edward glanced between the window and then back to her before one corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. She squealed in surprise when he swept her up in his strong arms and carried her to their bed.

“Are you trying to throw your back out again?” she asked, laughing as she looked up at him.

“I don’t recall that,” he denied as he lowered his mouth to hers.

Um-hmm, it was that selective male memory, she thought before she was otherwise distracted.

*****

The silence was oppressive.

Maria lay there in the semi-darkness, her eyes following the shadows cast by the tree branches outside the bedroom window. The spindly arms curved over the walls in a grotesque embrace and she blinked the image away. Her thoughts automatically went back to the distance between her and Michael and she struggled to come up with a way to bridge that separation. She had to do something before the weight pressing against her chest suffocated her.

She drew in a deep breath, holding it for a moment before slowly releasing it. She gathered up her courage and risked rejection by daring to seek out his hand beneath the blankets. Her relief was evident when he not only allowed the touch, but took her hand in his in a loose grip. Even though his body language wasn’t open or inviting, he had accepted the small gesture.

She squeezed her eyes shut and began to speak, fervently wishing for some of her cedar oil and praying that he wouldn’t shut her out. Her voice was low, but easily audible in the otherwise quiet cabin. The branches occasionally dragging against the side of the cabin, the fire crackling in the fireplace, and the low moan of the wind through the trees provided a muted soundtrack to her words.

“I heard a rumor at school about Liz and Kyle. Pam Troy actually got off of her high horse to come up to me and tell me about them becoming… oh, how did she put it?” she mumbled to herself. “Oh, I remember, ‘an intimate couple in plain sight of her boyfriend, Max Evans’.” She shifted, turning fractionally towards Michael. “I didn’t see Liz until my shift at the café later that evening. I asked her about it and told her just how vicious the rumor mill was getting so we could straighten them out, like pronto, but she just stopped me and in this completely blasé way, announced that it was true!”

She shifted again, bunching the pillow up under her head and taking a deep breath as more of the story poured out. “I was so shocked, Michael! I didn’t believe her, but then she insisted it was true, and that really hurt. I mean, there was my best friend keeping something like that from me! You know? How could she do that to me? And, Max, how could she do that to him? She wasn’t making any sense to me and she wasn’t even really talking to me…” She swallowed hard at the memory, relieved all over again that it wasn’t true.

Maria glanced at Michael. He was still lying motionless but he hadn’t pulled away from her. Her hand was still clasped warmly in his much larger one. “I would’ve talked to Alex, but as far as we all knew he was in Sweden at the time, and well, you and I weren’t really… anyway, I just went home and went to bed.” Her eyes filled with tears at the thought of Alex, knowing now that he hadn’t been in Sweden on a foreign exchange. She drew in a shaky breath and sighed.

Michael’s hand flexed around hers and it relaxed after a moment as his thumb began to stroke her wrist in a soothing manner.

“I woke up to a phone call at like, 3am, to Liz insisting that we meet. You know the fountain at the park in town? She wanted to meet there. When we met up she admitted that she hadn’t slept with Kyle but that there was a reason for her making Max think she had.” She inhaled slowly. “I had to promise I’d never tell anyone or she wouldn’t have told me why she did it… or didn’t do it.” She made a face. “Whatever. Anyway, that’s when she told me about Future Max’s visit and what he told her about the world ending because they got married and pushed Tess away, eventually causing her to leave town.” She shrugged. “You know the rest of it.”

Silence once more descended upon them and she gnawed on her bottom lip as she waited for his response. When they had come into the cabin earlier he had demanded that she tell him what had happened. Now she had told him everything and she was left to wait out the silence that was quickly becoming her enemy.

Michael’s mind was turning over what she had told him while balancing it against his own guilt. While he was busy thinking Maria was better off without him and trying to figure out who Courtney was, Liz had coincidentally gotten a visit from some future version of Max. A version of his friend who had convinced her to alienate herself. He shook his head. He didn’t believe in coincidence and he was having a serious problem with this whole Future Max story. What had it accomplished? It had alienated Liz from Max and Maria had ended up being drawn into that nightmare.

He didn’t like that they had been meeting in the park in the middle of the night. His gut twisted at his next thought. What if it had all been a setup? What if it had been a ploy to cause conflict in the group and separate them? What if Maria had gotten hurt or worse because of it? His back teeth started to grind as his imagination went wild on him.

Michael squeezed her hand and turned to look at her, forcing his jaw to relax before he spoke. He couldn’t free himself of the feeling that he was partly responsible for her not seeking him out and telling him what Liz had told her. He carefully leveled his tone when he started to speak. “We have no idea if that visit ever really happened or if it was somethin’ set up to make Liz think the guy was from the future. If anything, it leaves us in an even more precarious position than we’re already in. If it is true, we don’t know how it’ll affect us now or in the future.” His dark gaze pierced her. “We can’t afford anymore secrets between us. Not you an’ me, and not in the group. It’s too dangerous.”

Maria nodded silently, wondering what was coming next when his eyes sharpened and his nose wrinkled as he stared at her.

“What I wanna know is: Why was Valenti alone with her in their cabin tonight?”

She thought about that for a few minutes, feeling herself relax when his tone and demeanor changed. “Well, he’s been fighting the flu and he’s been kinda pissy with everyone for the past couple of days. Maybe he just needed a break so he went to see Liz. They’re friends and they do share a common bond.”

He frowned at her when her eyes widened and her mouth opened as she inhaled deeply only to turn around and release it on a long, “Ohhhhh!” She suddenly sat up. “Oh my God, Michael!”

He sat up, quickly losing patience with her behavior. “What?”

“Think about it, Guerin,” she said excitedly, smacking his shoulder with the back of her hand. “What do Liz and Kyle have in common?”

“Maria,” he growled out on an exasperated breath. “Would you just – “

“Michael, they were both shot!” She grabbed his arm and shook him. “They both died and were brought back to life by Max!”

His jaw tightened and he pursed his lips thoughtfully. “His powers are comin’ online.” He shoved the covers off of himself and got out of bed, looking around on the floor.

“Michael, what’re you doing?”

“Get dressed,” he shot back at her. “We’re gonna go see Valenti.”

“Michael, no! It’s almost 2am,” she pleaded. “Look, it’s been a crazy night and Kyle must’ve needed some time to himself.”

He ignored her and stalked around the bed to snatch his jeans up. “You can get dressed or stay here.”

Maria swung her legs over the side of the bed, hugging the blankets to herself in an effort to retain their warmth. She watched him as he pulled on his jeans, momentarily admiring the view before he covered up. She sighed in annoyance when he bent over to grab his thermal undershirt and pulled it on. “Michael, please! Would you just stop and think about this? He’s alone with Isabel in their cabin… did you happen to see her face when Max went after Kyle?” She released her grip on the blankets and slipped out of bed to stand before him.

She reached up, her fingertips ghosting across his jaw line and up over his cheek. “Please let them have this time alone. Kyle’s her confidant. Maybe she’ll get him to open up to her.”

His stubborn gaze moved to the clock on the nightstand and then back to her. He could see the gooseflesh breaking out on her body and his voice was markedly softer when he spoke again. “You’re cold. You should get back in bed.”

“It’s cold without you,” she said softly. “Come with me?”

“We’re up early to talk to him,” he insisted.

“Alright.”

His eyes traveled over her body, making a more thorough journey this time. The firelight played over her soft skin and he quickly stripped his shirt off again. His gaze was predatory as he followed her movements when she climbed back into bed, hiding her beautiful body beneath the covers. He growled low in his throat when she lifted the blanket in invitation and he hurried to rid himself of his jeans.

Their joining earlier had been about him. He made no apologies for it and she wouldn’t ask for them. She understood. This time would be different, he thought as he slid in beside her and let her pull him into her arms.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) - Part-46- 12/1/11

Postby KindredKandies » Thu Dec 01, 2011 4:07 pm

Alien_Friend- Thank you! It just seemed so Maria for her to figure out what is going on with Kyle.

Edward indeed has his own story and is suspicious and mindful of Michael.

I found it fascinating how they all dealt with the aftermath of that. Max and Liz's reactions were pretty typical for them, with both blaming themselves. I was happy to see that Max set everything aside and was just there for Liz.



Yay! Thank you for the compliment. It was so good to see that this scene came across like it was intended to do. :)

Now I'm super intrigued by the thoughts they are all having about FM being real or not?


Thank you. :D


Oh yeah, we were so glad to see Isabel finally take notice of Kyle and to take the initiative to care for him. It's about time that someone pays attention to him. ;)


We're glad you liked M&M's reaction to the fall out as well. The two of them kind of just took over that scene. Angel and I tried not to get in the way. *lol*



Natalie36- Awww thank you girl!



keepsmiling- Omgosh! *thud* thank you for the compliment on Max and Liz's reflections on their unresolved issues.

Max used good wisdom in just letting Liz sleep that night, and not pushing to have questions answered. Maybe they will be getting closer to that much needed talk.


Didn't he though? And yup, they just might. ;)

Good for Maria.....she needed to bring Courtney out into the open too.......they need to air out that situation.


Thank you! You're the only one who mentioned this. We think so as well. :)

Yup thank goodness that Maria was able to persuade Michael not to go barging in on Kyle. The guy has plenty on his plate for the night.

Here is more.....:D


Timelord31- Thank you!

when we getting another chapter.. its about time for the 2 christmas.. just 24 days.


LOL, thanks for the bump. We had a double dose of RL and hit a tiny snag with the ud so it delayed our posting. Here's more....:D


sarammlover- LOL Yup things are coming together in the story. You're right there is a lot going on.

I am glad all couples are starting to get this stuff out in the open. Its needed to happen for a LONG time.



Thank you and we so agree it's hard to truly move forward when there is so much stuff unresolved in their relationships with each other.

Glad to have you back girl and hugs backatcha! ;)





Part 46

Max lay awake long into the night, unconsciously turning his ring on his finger and frowning up at the ceiling. Beside him Liz slept lightly, her restless movements waking her on a frequent basis. Beyond letting him know that she wasn’t ready to talk she hadn’t spoken to him and even though she had woken up at least half a dozen times she hadn’t uttered a word. He glanced at her when she shifted again, rolling to her side and pulling the knotted blankets with her. He had given up trying to keep them untangled when his efforts had startled her out of sleep. His gaze traveled over her distraught features, hurting at the pain so evident in the pinched lines on her face.

She had withdrawn once sleep had finally claimed her, physically pulling away from him. As much as it hurt he had respected her obvious need for space, forcing himself to be patient and wait for her to come to him. He wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and let her know he didn’t fault her for anything that had happened and that everything would be alright, but she wasn’t ready for that. He squeezed his eyes shut and sighed raggedly when she inched closer to the edge of the bed, making a sound that was somewhere between a whimper and a moan.

How many ways could he hurt her before she couldn’t take anymore? He thought about a time not that long ago when she had started to change, developing abilities that she had never wanted. He held his hand up to stare at it, thinking about the way he had pushed when he had taken her out into the desert with the intention of healing her. Instead of helping her he had only managed to cause her more pain. If it hadn’t been for Kyle yelling at him to stop he didn’t know what he might have done out of his sheer desperation as he tried to help her.

“Max?”

He was sure his heart stuttered in his chest when he heard Liz call his name so quietly he was afraid his mind was conjuring her voice up. He swallowed hard, his throat suddenly feeling so dry that it was difficult to convince it to work. “I’m here,” he said, cringing internally at his response. I’m here. Of course you’re here, you idiot.

“I’m sorry about…”

“No.” He sat up quickly and shook his head. “Liz, no, you have nothing to be sorry for!” he said insistently. “What happened wasn’t your fault, it was mine. You’ve never failed me, Liz.” He ran a hand over his face. “I failed you. I knew you’d never betray me like that, but I let it push us apart. If I’d been the guy you believed I was I never would’ve allowed that to happen.”

She shook her head negatively.

“I never saw this guy so I have no way of knowing the truth about him. I can speculate… and what I can speculate is that if that guy was me then I only lost more of my common sense as I got older.” He snorted softly, hiding his relief when she moved closer and reached out to touch his arm. “Because there’s no way I would’ve been jealous of Kyle.”

“You said…” she trailed off. “He said the same thing.”

“Well, then maybe I hadn’t lost all my faculties. That’s something I guess.”

“You knew I hadn’t slept with him, Max.” She blushed lightly. “There are some things that a lie can’t hide and our wedding night…” She cleared her throat and mentally rolled her eyes at the hint of a smile on his face. “So when you found him here with me earlier, why were you so upset?”

“Because finding him here alone with you, it just put me back in that moment, Liz.” His back teeth started to grind. “Seeing you with him in your bed, that hurt. Even then my mind fought against the obvious conclusion. But, watching you with him,” he swallowed hard, “seeing him make you laugh so openly at a time when I couldn’t seem to do anything to make you happy…”

Liz shook her head as the smallest of smiles graced her lips. “We were talking about you, Max.”

His eyebrows shot up at her confession. “Me?”

“Yeah, you. You were this amazing person in my life, even with everything going on. I asked Kyle if he felt different after you healed him because I wanted to know if he had similar feelings… that it had somehow changed me. And then when I asked him if he saw things when you healed him he said no, but then he turned right around and made me laugh when he said…”

Max shifted to look at her more fully when she paused. “What’d he say?”

“I was trying to remember what it was he said exactly.” Her brow furrowed as she thought, trying to get the words right. “I’ve got it,” she said after mulling it over for a few moments. “He had this completely serious look on his face when he said he hadn’t seen any flashes or images and then he went on to say that since you healed him he kept getting flashes of you naked.”

He frowned when she giggled at the memory. “That was funny?”

“Max, he has a great sense of humor, and at that moment I really needed to laugh. It wasn’t just what he said; it was his expression and the way he said it.” She sobered. “He made me laugh.” She took a deep breath and fell silent, giving him time to absorb what she had told him. “You know, it’s weird, but while I was in the bathroom trying to psyche myself up for that moment your future self was in there with me. You… he kept saying he didn’t think it was a good plan.”

“It wasn’t,” he agreed. He sighed heavily and returned to staring at the ceiling. “I knew that whole thing wasn’t right. It felt wrong, and not just because you and Kyle were in bed together. Naked,” he bit out. “Was that part really necessary?”

“And you say you’d never be jealous of Kyle.” She snorted and folded her pillow in half, resting her head on it as she rolled onto her side to face him. “He and I never got that involved at any point in our shared history.”

“He got to second base.”

“I don’t even want to know how you know that,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “But since you make it to home plate on a fairly regular basis I think we should just leave my history with Kyle in the past. Where it belongs.”

He nodded and shifted to mimic her pose as he met her gaze in the muted moonlight filtering in through the window. “I’m sorry, Liz. If I had been the person you needed me to be I wouldn’t have allowed that to push us apart. I dragged my feet with Tess and I can see that so clearly now. It was there at the time, the knowledge that I wasn’t fighting hard enough, but…” he shook his head. “I let it get away from me. You deserved so much more than I gave you. Time after time you gave me everything you had and all I did was screw it up for you.”

“Max, you make it sound like I had no will of my own. I’m not a mindless drone.”

He reached out to press his forefinger against her lips, silencing her. “Liz, I’m the reason your shot at Harvard got blown, I’m the guy you got arrested for because I put a gun in your hands and you helped me hold up a gas station – “

“You didn’t make me do that. You can take responsibility for a lot of things, but my actions aren’t one of them. You put the gun in my hands, yes, but I was more than willing to help you. Do you remember what I said to you that night? Before we went inside you told me I didn’t have to do it, remember? What’d I say to you?”

“That we were in it together.” He swallowed hard. “Together till the end.”

“Holding up the station wasn’t one of our brightest moves.” She smiled and it was tinged with exhaustion. “But that vow still holds true, Max.”

He wrapped his hand around hers and brought it up to hold it against his chest. “You said that you believed him… me… when he came to you because of what he said about Isabel and Michael, but I don’t understand why he wanted you to go to such lengths to drive a wedge between us.”

“I told you he wanted me to help him, you, fall out of love with me.”

“That’s ridiculous. He still didn’t achieve that goal. I never fell out of love with you. Sounds to me like he wanted you to do all the work, come up with the plans.”

“He insisted. He told me about Michael and Isabel after I gave you that whole Romeo and Juliet speech and told you… I said…”

He could see how difficult it was for her to bring that up. “That I couldn’t stop what was happening to me and that my life would always be dangerous but yours didn’t have to be. You were only in danger if you were with me.” His eyes burned as he remembered every wound she had inflicted with those words. “You said you wanted to be in love with normal boys, see your 21st birthday, a wedding day, to have children, and for them to be safe.” His throat burned as he forced the next words out. “That you loved me but you didn’t want to die for me.”

She could see the pain in his eyes as he said the words aloud, each one seeming to cut him deeper. “You don’t know what it cost me to say those words to you, Max.”

“Wasn’t that enough? Why pour salt in the wound by having me see you with Kyle?”

“You… He said it wasn’t enough, that it wasn’t working.”

“No,” he mused quietly. “It hurt like hell, but it didn’t make me fall out of love with you.” He sighed raggedly. “Neither did that whole mess with Kyle, so why did that make him think his mission was successful?”

“I don’t know.” She frowned. That was a good point.

“How did that setup happen? What made you choose that scenario?”

“Maria,” she said quietly. “She was telling me about finding Michael and Courtney together and how awful it made her feel when she saw the guilty look on his face.”

“But how could you know when I’d be there? Oh,” he said, answering his own question, “he told you I’d come to you with the tickets. It must’ve been a hell of a concert if he needed you to derail me that quickly.”

“He said we never made it to the concert.” She stared at her forefinger as she traced random patterns on his chest. “Apparently we never made it past my bedroom the night of the concert.” She gave him a shove when he smirked at her revelation.

“So, if things hadn’t been changed we would’ve had sex that night.” His expression turned speculative. “I won’t deny that I wanted us to make that move, but you hadn’t indicated you were ready…”

“Because I wasn’t! But according to your future self you were carrying protection around in your back pocket.”

He smiled slightly at the annoyed tone in her voice. “Liz, every guy my age has a condom in his wallet.”

“Then why didn’t you use it?” she asked before she could stop the words.

His gaze dropped and he sighed. “I don’t know. I should have, I know that, but if I had Zan wouldn’t exist now. He’s my son, Liz, and even though I can’t be with him I can’t just wish him away. I know that would make things so much easier and as much as I want to take that pain from you…” he shook his head.

“He’s your son, Max.” She forced herself to meet his gaze. “I know we weren’t together when you and Tess… but it still hurt. Seeing me with Kyle like that, it was designed to push you at Tess, but I wasn’t ready to face what that meant when the two of you really started spending time together.”

“Seeing you and Kyle together didn’t make me do anything, Liz. Okay, yeah, I started spending time with Tess, but choosing to have sex with her…” he shrugged one shoulder. “Yes, I was hurt, I felt betrayed, and I was angry, but I also let Tess play her mind games with me. She fed my ego and I let her, she used learning about our past as an excuse and I played along. Part of me did want it and I wish I could blame it all on her screwing with my head but I know I’ve gotta take responsibility for what happened. The choices were mine to make, and I’m the only one responsible for them.”

“We’ve both made choices, Max. Choices that have turned out good and bad…” she trailed off and averted her gaze. “Some of them were just harder to make than others.”

“I hurt so many people with mine, Liz,” he murmured quietly. “You, Isabel, my parents, Michael…” he inhaled deeply. “Your parents, Langley… some of the things I’ve done there’s no forgiveness for.” His brow furrowed as his thoughts took him back over the things she had done for him. “I never should’ve involved you in the search for my son.” He shook his head when she started to protest. “Liz, I know you were willing to do whatever was necessary to help me, and you proved that over and over, but I should’ve seen what it was costing you to be a part of that.”

“Max, that’s…” she fell silent when he looked at her, his eyes begging her to let him finish.

“I was blind to everything around me and that includes the pain you felt at the constant reminder that I’d slept with Tess and that I’d gotten her pregnant. It was selfish on my part to include you in that search. I needed someone who would support me and be there for me and I completely overlooked what you needed.”

“You needed that closure.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t need to be involved in that mess.”

“Maybe not, but I could’ve said no at any time.”

“You put yourself through all of that for me, Liz.”

“That was a big part of it but even I’m not all that altruistic, Max.”

His eyebrow quirked at her admission. “What?”

“She got her claws into you once, Max, and as much as I wanted to blame her for all of it I couldn’t. I knew when we found Zan we’d find her. You let her in once and I wasn’t willing to risk it happening again.”

He sat up slowly and rubbed his face with his hands. “You didn’t trust me.”

Liz looked at him, hearing the flat note in his voice. “Max, it was a lot to take in and we ended up back together without ever really dealing with what had happened.” She shifted to sit up beside him. “What would’ve happened if Michael hadn’t come out of the chamber that day? He stayed for Maria and you… God, I know you had your son to think about, but it still hurt, Max. You would’ve gone to Antar with her and at the time you made that decision you were willing to leave us with Alex’s killer still on the loose. If Michael hadn’t decided to stay we would’ve been safe, but you… the rest of you…”

“Would’ve been killed,” he said softly.

“Why did you believe me? You refused to listen when I said it was an alien that had killed Alex, but when we got into the chamber I told you that Tess had killed him and Kyle backed me up… what made you believe it then? You didn’t even question the validity of the claim at that point.”

“Relief,” he answered honestly. “Michael did something that I should’ve done. Something I should’ve been strong enough to do. You think I saved you, Liz, but the truth is you saved me. Over and over.”

Her eyes that had been so dry that it hurt to blink suddenly welled up again and she swallowed with difficulty as she turned to face him, reaching out to cradle his face in her hands. “As much as I wanted to help you find Zan I was scared to death of what would happen to us when we did.”

Max reached up to cover her hands, taking them in his and bringing them together against his chest. “I know that was…” he searched for the appropriate word, “an impossible situation for you and living with Zan in our lives might not be something we could survive.” He took a deep breath and released it slowly. “There’s a part of me that’ll never be whole because he’s not in my life and that part, it aches, Liz.” He swallowed hard, pushing the sudden lump in his throat down. “Every kid I see just pushes it back to the surface and the closer they are to his age the more it makes me think about Zan and who he’s becoming. He’s changing every day, Liz, growing up, and I’m not there to see it.” He cleared his throat. “I know he’s completely human, that amazingly enough he wasn’t cursed with anything alien that would set him apart and make him a target, but even without that he’s a part of me.”

She moved her hands just slightly so that she could wrap her fingers around his. “Max, I could see how badly it hurt you to let him go, how much it still hurts you every day, and I only wish there was a way I could take back the relief I felt when you decided to give him up for adoption.”

“You’re not the only one who was relieved,” he admitted, the words coming out with difficulty. “As much as I wanted to keep him I knew things were different and my life wasn’t in danger it could mean eventually having to choose between the two of you.” He dropped his gaze to their joined hands. “I didn’t want that responsibility and because I’ll most likely always be in danger of exposure it made the decision…” he shook his head. “Not easy but, easier than if that threat didn’t exist. If I’d been able to keep him I know he would’ve reminded you every day that I slept with Tess. I can only imagine how difficult that would’ve been for you and when we were searching for him I never let myself think about how that would affect you.”

“I wish I could say that I would’ve been able to look at Zan without remembering how he…” she cleared her throat. “I want to say I’m a big enough person that I could see past that and just be in awe of how great he was because he was a part of you, but I don’t know if I could’ve done that.”

He nodded. “I know.”

“I remember watching you with him and thinking that he had your features.” She gave him a small smile when he looked up at her. “I looked into your son’s eyes and I could see you. I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t had to make the choice to give him up, if I could’ve seen past who his mother was. For his sake and yours, if we ever get the opportunity to have him in our lives, I hope I’m strong enough to see him for who he is.”

Max looked up at her, the tears in his eyes making his irises darker. “I’m sorry, Liz.”

“Max,” she whispered, shaking her head as she studied his face and absentmindedly noted that the dim light coming in through the window announced the arrival of morning. “We can’t make up for the past, neither of us.” She stroked his jaw with her fingertips. “All we can do is to do our best going forward.”

He nodded. “I am.” He covered her hand with his, turning his head to press a kiss into her palm. “I promise you I’ll do everything I can to be the man I should be. The man you deserve.”

“We need to let the past stay in the past. It’s time for us to move forward and for the first time I think we’re really at a place where we can do that.”

“I love you, Liz. No matter what mistakes I’ve made in the past, that’s never changed. The depth of that love has grown, deepened, but loving you has never been in question.”

“Do me a favor, Max?” She waited until he nodded in response. “Stop referring to the mistakes in the past as yours alone. We’ve both made mistakes and we’ll make more, that’s a given. I think our biggest problem is our lack of communication, so let’s just promise right now that from this point on we’ll talk about things no matter how small they are. Just get everything out in the open and stop our problems from getting so big that they seem impossible to deal with. Okay?”

“Deal,” he said with a tired smile.

“I love you so much, Max. So much,” she whispered.

“Maybe I should get up and make some breakfast,” he said after a while. “Think you could eat a little somethin’?”

She smiled at his offer. She wasn’t really hungry but she knew neither of them would sleep any more. “Sure, but just something small.”

He leaned over to kiss her, watching her for a moment before climbing out of bed with a promise to keep it small. He wandered into the kitchen and started looking through the refrigerator and cabinets, searching for something nourishing that wouldn’t be too heavy. He finally settled on oatmeal and put a pot of water on to boil. He tore open a packet of the instant oatmeal and dumped it into a bowl, pushing the dry mix around and making a face. He didn’t much care for the sticky, lumpy mush, but for some reason he didn’t understand Liz loved it.

He thought about everything they had talked about and he finally felt peace settle over some of the old wounds. She was right, they did have a habit of letting things get swept under the rug and then just ignoring them, and they needed to make an effort to really deal with problems when they crept up. They had the opportunity to start fresh and keep the lines of communication open between them. He knew it would take work because they had become accustomed to talking around their problems instead of facing them. Their situation hadn’t helped things either. Being stuck in the van with four other people made it easy to let the problems remain buried because who wanted to have a confrontation with an audience?

He rolled his shoulders back and turned his head to the side when he heard the water come on in the shower. He listened to the subtle change in the sound the water made as it was prevented from directly hitting the shower floor. Without even giving it a second thought he reached out blindly and turned the stove off.

Liz felt herself really beginning to relax for the first time in longer than she could remember. Talking to Max about things had made a difference, she could feel it. The hot water from the showerhead pounded against her shoulders and her muscles began to loosen up. Her nerves were humming below the surface in trepidation of the meeting that waited for them once everyone was up and ready to talk. Hopefully it would go a lot smoother than it had the night before, she mused with a roll of her eyes. Her thoughts were interrupted by a quiet knock on the door and she tipped her head back in order to hear. “Yes?” She heard the creak of the hinges as the door was pushed open partially.

“Would you like to…” Max started, ducking his head inside and peering around the door. He froze, his gaze riveted to her form that was out of focus courtesy of the frosted glass. Not that he needed a clear view to see her; his wife’s body was indelibly imprinted in his mind. “Um… postpone breakfast?”

She opened the door slightly, unable to hear him clearly between the running water and the enclosed space. “What’s that?” She blinked away a few droplets of water and as her eyes landed on him she felt her body’s automatic reaction to him.

Max felt his confidence notch up significantly when he recognized the look on her face. “Not hungry?” He shrugged one shoulder when she gave him a slight smile. The first one in what felt like days. “I mean, not for breakfast?”

“No, I’m, uh, I’m not really hungry this morning.” Her eyes followed his every move as he pulled his shirt off and then reached for the button at the top of his jeans. “Not for breakfast,” she said, her tone softly mocking.

He finished stripping his clothes off and shouldered his way into the shower. He ducked his head under the spray, soaking himself and then backing away to shake his head.

Liz laughed when his actions reminded her of a wet dog. She watched him as he shifted around her and reached for the bottle of shampoo sitting on the shelf. “What’re you doing?” she asked when he popped the top open on the heather-scented Luscious Locks. He didn’t answer for a moment as he paused to inhale the shampoo’s scent and lifted his gaze to meet hers. She felt her breath catch in her throat when he gave her the look that never failed to make her stomach flutter like crazy. Even those his eyes showed his weariness she saw some of it lift from him as he relaxed and when he spoke she heard the change in his tone and demeanor.

“Thought I’d give you a hand bathing… wash your hair.”

Her smile turned coy and she suddenly felt energized. “Just a shampoo?” She gave him a nod of consent and he backed her under the spray, wetting her hair down before tugging her forward again.

Max squeezed a small amount of shampoo into his palm and set the bottle aside, rubbing his hands together before beginning to slowly run his hands through her hair. He worked the shampoo into a lather, massaging her scalp and smiling when she started making a quiet purring sound.

Liz sighed in pleasure as her muscles began to unknot under his careful touch. “Oh, that feels good.”

I’m gonna spend the rest of my life making you feel good, he thought. “Close your eyes,” he murmured, waiting until she complied before he tipped her chin up so the water was running over her head and rinsing the shampoo away. His eyes followed the water as it ran over her closed mouth, separating at her chin, and hitting her shoulders to cascade over her soft breasts. His mouth felt dry as the desert as she came out from under the spray and wiped her hands over her eyes before looking up at him.

“That was wonderful,” she said as she turned. She caught her hair in her right hand, moving it over her shoulder. “Wash my back?”

His gaze traveled over her and he reached out to graze her shoulder with the backs of his knuckles. He was holding himself in check as he quietly asked, “Just your back?” He saw her cheek curve in a quiet smile and he nodded as he looked around for a washcloth. When he didn’t spot one he squeezed some of the body wash into his palm and put the bottle aside before using both hands to work it into a good lather. He started at her shoulders, massaging them with just enough pressure to make her groan and sigh. Every sound she made sent more of his blood rushing south.

Liz felt like she was going to combust when his hands changed direction and started to run over her back in long sweeping strokes. She tipped her head back and her eyes slid closed when his touches became feather-light along her lower back. His fingers spread out to grip her waist, applying just enough pressure to turn her around and rinse the soap from her body.

Max could see the flush of arousal staining her skin and it amazed him that his touch affected her so deeply. “I can continue…” he said and it came out sounding more like a question.

“You could…” she whispered as her hand trailed up over his chest. “Or…” Her eyes followed the teasing touch and she smiled when he took a step towards her. His body, taut and aroused, called out to her in the most elemental way, speaking to something deep inside of her. Her eyes lifted to his when he caught her hand, entwining their fingers before lifting their joined hands to his lips. The brush of his lips against her knuckles sent an electrical current straight through her and she knew from the way his eyes darkened that he could feel the effect he was having on her.

He felt the tenuous hold on his control snap when her lips turned up at the corners and she gave an almost unnoticeable shake of her head. They reached for each other at the same time, their mouths coming together in a kiss that ignited the passion lying below the surface just waiting to explode. Without breaking contact he grasped the backs of her thighs and lifted her up, holding her steady until he felt her legs lock around his waist. He turned, reaching behind her with his right hand long enough to place his palm flat against the tiled wall, heating it so she wouldn’t get a rude surprise when her back came in contact with it.

Her fingers combed through his wet hair, leaving it standing up in spikes before tangling in the short hair at the back of his neck. Her back settled against the warmed tiles and she moved against him, letting him know without words what she wanted. She tightened her grip, giving his hair a sharp tug to get his attention.

Max slowly broke the kiss but put less than a breath of distance between them as he met her gaze. He could see the need in her eyes, could feel the heat searing him straight through, and he maintained eye contact as their bodies came together in a passionate, healing union.

Cradled in her husband’s loving arms, Liz basked in the aftermath of their lovemaking. For the first time in too long she could see their future together and it felt so right. Her lips curved upwards as she reveled in the memory of the flashes she had experienced as they made love. It had been so long since she had experienced them and it was just further proof that things between them were coming together and stabilizing.

She didn’t completely understand some of the scenes in the flashes, but she had also learned that not all of what she saw in the flashes could be rationalized. The stars were a predominant feature in the flashes and they were usually accompanied by other things, snapshots that blended together but not necessarily in any kind of order. She was roused from her euphoric thoughts at Max’s touch and she complied easily when he walked them under the spray so they could wash off.

He was silent as he turned the water off and he stepped out, offering her a hand to steady her as she followed him. He pulled down a large fluffy towel, drying her off before wrapping her in it and lifting his hands to sift through her hair. He lips quirked in a hint of a smile as he used his powers to leave her hair dry and soft as silk. He toweled off quickly and scooped her up in his arms, carrying her to bed and placing her on the mattress.

His expression was pensive as he settled beside her, bracing his weight on his elbow and letting her hair slide through his fingers. It was a habit that soothed him, calmed his nerves for no reason he could think of. “Do you remember me tellin’ you we had to take a step back when we were in high school? That you made me forget anything else existed and that it wasn’t real?”

Liz had been watching him, wondering what was on his mind. Whatever she had been expecting, it hadn’t been that. “Kinda hard to forget that,” she said with a slight smile.

“I was wrong.” His hand slipped down to cradle her jaw and he looked into her eyes for several long moments before he spoke again. “I told you it had thrown me off balance, and it did. But not for the reason I thought. What we had… what we have, it’s real. It’s the most real thing in my life. The reason I was off balance was because I shut everything else out and put all of my focus on you, on us, and I forgot about everything around me. Being with you, it’s right. When I’m with you I have balance.”

She stretched up to brush her lips against his. “We can do this, Max.” She smiled and her misty eyes sparkled. “Together we can do anything.” She pulled him down next to her and shifted around until she was cradled against his body.

*****

Maria shivered as she rolled over, blindly searching out Michael’s warmth. If it weren’t for the cold draft that she couldn’t seem to escape from she’d be content to stay cocooned in the sheets and blankets after their long night. She mentally groaned when the cold insistently brought her awake to face the dark of a too early morning. She reached across the sheets, seeking out Michael and frowning when she came up empty-handed.

One green eye cracked open, blearily glancing at the little red blobs that linked together to form the 8:15am on the alarm clock. She shivered again and turned her head to the side, rubbing her eyes and sighing when she recognized the sound of the shower running. She vaguely registered the dim light emanating from the low fire burning in the fireplace as her brain began to kick in and helpfully reminded her of the deal she had made with Michael to keep him from going over to Kyle and Isabel’s cabin in the middle of the night.

Her mind rebelled at that memory as she silently counted to three, sitting up and swinging her legs over the edge of the bed as she sought out Michael’s thermal shirt from the night before. As the cold made itself known she began to shuffle the blankets around near the bottom of the bed, quickly advancing from shivering to all out shaking. She chattered out a triumphant “yes!” as she caught sight of the familiar cotton weave pinned beneath her hand and just barely holding on to the edge of the bed.

She gave the material a quick jerk, pulling it into her hands and hurrying to pull it on. As she pulled her hair free from the shirt’s collar she caught Michael’s scent and she snuggled into it, enjoying the combination of warmth and his smell. The oversized shirt began to chase the chill away and as her body unfolded in a pleasurable stretch she finished with a languorous yawn.

Okay, DeLuca, time to make good on that deal you made with Michael. She shot a glare at the floor that she already knew was going to feel like ice under her feet and shivered at the thought of leaving the bed. Time to get up. She made a face and leaned over the edge of the bed, dreading what was waiting for her. She shook her head at the mess. Boxers, jeans, an open box of condoms with several of the foil packets spilled out. Just the way her messy hybrid had left things the night before.

She hissed when the soles of her feet made contact with the floor, but it was all the incentive to move into the kitchen area and take refuge on the small rug in front of the sink. She debated between starting a pot of coffee and joining him in the shower. Just the thought was enough to stoke the heat deep inside of her and it brought a smile to her lips as her memory wandered to his lips and large hands gently mapping her body the night before. That was all it took to decide on the shower, but just as her brain made a decision the water was abruptly turned off.

The metal shower rings screeched in protest as the curtain was thrown open. She listened to him stomping around the bathroom as he dried himself off and she reached for the coffee pot. She turned when the door was jerked open, feeling her breath catch in her throat when she caught sight of him. His hair was shaggy and damp and he was doing his best to keep a hold on the towel slung low around his hips.

Michael’s hurried movements slowed for a moment as he took Maria’s appearance in but he quickly shook himself out of it. “You’ve got 10 minutes,” he barked, forcing his mind to stay on business.

Maria crossed her arms over her chest as he moved to the bedroom, searching his clean clothes and the bed for another thermal shirt. She smirked slightly as she watched him, knowing that in his hurry he had forgotten that she was wearing the really warm one. She followed him over to the bed and gave him a sweet smile.

“Michael, we need coffee first.” She lowered her voice and injected just a hint of pleading into her tone. “Please?”

He huffed out an impatient breath as he pulled his jeans up over his hips. “Maria, this isn’t some kissy-kissy morning. We’ve gotta get goin’.”

Her bottom lip jutted out in a pout. “Michael, it’s cold in here. You didn’t even start a fire in the fireplace. Can I at least get a kiss?”

Michael shifted his attention to the dirty clothes, searching for the elusive shirt and answering her without bothering to look at her. “I don’t know… can you?”

Maria rolled her eyes. Did Michael Guerin just correct my grammar? Oh, no, buddy, so not happening. She narrowed her eyes at him and placed her hands on her hips. “Looking for your thermal shirt?”

His eyes locked on hers for a split second before dropping to her shoulders and then roaming over the tight points of her breasts. His mouth opened and closed several times before he was able to get the words out. “Gimme my shirt.”

She shifted her weight and pushed one hip out as she put on a thoughtful expression.

He took a step towards her. “C’mon, Maria, we don’t have time for this.”

She shook her head negatively but her eyes sparkled with amusement. “You want this shirt, you have to ask nicely.”

His lips pulled tight for a moment before he uttered a, “Fine. Maria, give me that shirt.”

Her expressive eyes rolled again. “Try again.” She smirked at him. “You can do it.”

Michael growled in annoyance but finally gritted the words out from between clenched teeth. “Maria… may I have my shirt back?”

She snorted and then grinned at him. “This shirt’s being worn right now ‘cause it’s cold in here. Maybe if you make some hot coffee and start a fire in the fireplace…” she began to back up towards the bathroom.

He took notice of the sudden gleam in her eyes as she turned to make a run for the bathroom. He rushed after her, tackling her and making sure he took the hit to the floor with his own body, landing with her in his arms.

“Michael!” she squealed in surprise.

He pulled her up against him, lowering his head and nuzzling his nose in the crook of her neck. “My shirt.”

She relaxed in his arms and leaned her head against his. “Yes, Michael, it’s your shirt.” She hid a smile and gave him a nudge. “Let me up so you can have your shirt.”

His voice softened but it still held an edge of seriousness when he spoke. “We really do have to go. We’ve gotta find out what’s going on with Kyle.”

She nodded in agreement, fully understanding the gravity of the situation. He released his grip on her and he got to his feet, holding his hand out to her and pulling her up when she took it. As she faced him her eyes shimmered mirthfully and in one smooth motion she pulled his shirt up and over her head. She held it out to him, enjoying his slack-jawed expression as he blindly reached for it. Before he could string two words together she turned to walk into the bathroom, leaving him standing there with a stunned look on his face.

It was the memory of the gooseflesh prickling her skin that had him moving and with a flick of his wrist the fire in the fireplace burst into life. He moved to the kitchen, pulling the shirt on over his head and tugging the neckline up to his nose and inhaling Maria’s scent. He smiled slowly as he released it to start the coffee, reaching over to snag the Tigger and Winnie the Pooh mugs sitting side by side next to the sink.

*****

It was the burning sensation at the back of her neck that woke Isabel from a deep sleep. Her body was stiff and demanded that she stretch, but as she opened her eyes and looked around she realized that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Kyle was still sleeping, his head a heavy weight in her lap. There was no evidence of the insomnia that had been dogging him recently, his relaxed features appearing boyish and reflecting the caring person he had always been with her.

Her attention was pulled away from him when the light flickered, drawing her gaze to the television that was still tuned to the weather channel. Red letters scrolled across the bottom of the screen, displaying the forecast for Tawas Lake and its surrounding areas. Low temperatures this afternoon accompanied by winds from the north will bring a sharp drop in the mercury, bringing in subzero temperatures by early evening. Extreme cold health hazard. Extreme caution for those who must be outside tonight.

The warning alone was enough to make her shiver. She glanced around, searching for the remote and finally locating it lying on Kyle’s stomach just above his jeans. Her eyes flicked over his silver belt buckle and her eyes widened slightly as she quickly averted her gaze. Oh my God, was she checking out Kyle Valenti?!

No, she reassured herself. He was a good friend and confidant. She was only concerned for her friend. That’s all. Nothing else. She frowned as her mind scrambled around, searching for some semblance of sanity. Her friend, her confidant… when had that happened? She thought about it, selecting moments in the past when she had sought him out because she didn’t know what to do with herself. Moments when she had been upset or unsettled and somehow, some way, Kyle had become an anchor for her.

Her lips turned down in a frown again as she tried to pinpoint the moment when she had started to rely on him for help and comfort. After Alex’s death, that much she was sure of. It had really become evident when she was dating Jesse and she had broken up with him. She had gone to Kyle without even thinking about it. She had just needed someone to talk to. That’s all it was, she reminded herself. He knew her, knew all of them, and he had kept their secret. She trusted him.

She loved Jesse. He was smart and kind, ambitious, but like her dad he was a family man. She’d had a future with him, an opportunity to live a normal life and have a relationship that was warm and caring like her parents had. But there had been times when she had relied on Kyle, needed a friend who understood… The frown furrowing her brow deepened as she realized she couldn’t pinpoint a single moment when she had completely opened herself up to Jesse. The next thought swept through her mind like a breeze pushing the cobwebs away.

It’s why you left him behind. You let him go because the moment he showed up with the van you knew this was permanent. His life was over and everything he’d worked for would be wasted if he left with you. There had been no way to pretend they would ever have a normal life. Who they were would always be there, the danger would always exist, and she couldn’t let him give up anymore of his life. He had already killed for her.

In that moment she knew the truth. It had been staring her in the face all along but she hadn’t been able to see it. She loved Jesse fiercely, but she wasn’t in love with him the way she should’ve been. She squeezed her eyes shut as the next thought rolled through her mind. Why wasn’t she?

A lump formed in her throat and she swallowed several times in an attempt to force it down. She could feel the skin of her face tightening as she tried to hold her emotions back. Her head slowly dropped back to rest against the loveseat as his name whispered across her lips.

“Alex.”

Kyle stirred in his sleep as she reached up to wipe away the single tear that had escaped. She shifted with him, stretching her back as well as she could without disturbing him. She glanced at the window, wondering what time it was as she noticed that night was slowly giving way to the early morning gray of dawn. She sighed when Kyle settled against her and as his breathing began to even out once more her own eyes started to slip closed and without realizing it she dozed off.

*****

Maria walked beside Michael, using his larger frame as a windbreak against the biting breeze that blew every few minutes. She grabbed his arm as he approached the door to Kyle and Isabel’s cabin, his hand fisted and ready to cut loose with what was sure to be a rude awakening. “Maybe we could be a little less obnoxious this morning. They might be sleeping.” She reached up when he gestured to the door, knocking quietly.

A look of impatience settled across Michael’s features when the knock didn’t receive an immediate response. He placed his hands on her arms, moving her aside and resting his hand over the lock on the door. He used his powers, mentally turning the tumbler and unlocking it. He pushed the door open and walked inside, glancing around and doing a double take when he saw Isabel and Kyle on the loveseat.

Isabel awoke with a start and just barely caught herself before she upended Kyle and tossed him on the floor. “Don’t you know how to knock?” she grumbled.

“Tried that,” Michael bit out, still trying to make sense of what he was seeing.

Maria came in behind him, closing the door and speaking quietly. “Michael, did you just unlock the door and walk in? You can’t do that.”

“We tried your way and you didn’t want me pounding on the door.” He shrugged. “It was a compromise.”

She noticed Isabel and she stepped around Michael to stand in front of him. “I’m so sorry, Isabel. I tried to stop him but he’s…” She trailed off as she took in the scene. Kyle was just waking up, half-asleep and clumsily trying to sit up. She watched as he pulled the fleece blanket around so that Isabel had some of it while he stretched and rubbed his face.

Kyle froze mid-yawn when he turned his head and noticed their company. He worked his jaw to rid himself of a cramp before he looked at Isabel. “How long was I out?” He glanced back at Michael, taking in his expression. “Not long enough,” he muttered. He rubbed his neck and turned to check the front door when it opened again and he rolled his eyes when Max and Liz walked in. He shoved himself to his feet, wincing at the rush of tingles that raced through his legs as he put his weight on them and heading for the bathroom. “Let me guess, it’s meeting time again,” he tossed over his shoulder.
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part 47- 1/19/12

Postby KindredKandies » Thu Jan 19, 2012 11:59 pm

Natalie36-

great part. m/l part was brilliant


Oh thank you for the awesome compliment! Getting M&L to cooperate with us to get them to talk was something else. lol.


mary mary- Lol, well yeah when Michael is on a mission for their safety he can be very Michael at times. :)

We're glad that M&L finally talked as well. Getting those two to cooperate was something else. lol.

Yup, we hope that Isabel will begin to sort out her emotions. She has a lot to work through. ;)

Aww thank you for the compliment on the chapter. :)


keepsmiling7-

Wow....I have been waiting for Max and Liz to talk, and you did not disappoint me.


Omgosh! Yay! We are so glad that you loved the M&L talk. Your feedback made our day! Getting M&L to cooperate for the talk was something else.

Liz was right, they both made mistakes and I really did like that Liz admitted that she pushed Max towards Tess, but then wasn't ready to see them together. Haven't we all had feelings like that??


We're glad you liked Liz's admission about not being ready for the reality of pushing Max toward Tess. Yes, we agree this can happen to any of us trying to make a good and difficult decision and then living with it afterwards. Poor Liz she had the mother of all decisions to make.

I don't know what you have planned for the rest of the story, but I feel like all of the gang is beginning to have a better understanding of their relationships and will be able to face what lies ahead.


*big smile.*

Now I can't wait for the next part, thanks for this awesome part.
Carolyn


Aww girl thank you for your awesome fb. :D

Get a hug from Cindy,

KindredKandies


Alein_Friend- LOl, we've so missed you too! ;)

Fantastic stuff. All that work you put into that talk between Max and Liz was just perfect. I love how simple and intimate it was.


Oh wow, Thank You!!!! The M&L talk really took the time to put together and was the reason that we posted later than usual. We are so happy that you enjoyed the scene. After reading your feedback we were on cloud nine.:D

That was a big realization Isabel came to. I am happy.


Glad you liked Isabel's thoughts here Yup until being stranded at the Stevens' place she had been on the road that kept her mind in a numb like state. Now that she's had time her unaddressed past is starting to bubble to the surface. Isabel has a lot to work through. We'll see more of her story in future uds. :)

Lol thanks we do so love M&M and Michael just makes life more interesting. lol.

Well girl here's more. ;)

Get a hug from Cindy,

~KindredKandies


Timelord31- Thank you! :)



Eva- Yup this chapter has the peak of our story coming together it has a lot going on. ;)

First of all: Max and Liz talked! Finally!! I can't say how happy I'm for those two.


Thank you! We are as well. It took time to get them to cooperate with us to get them to finally talk.lol. We're so glad that you liked it. :)

Michael & Maria are still the same intense couple as before. They make out and have sex but I'm still hoping they will talk soon too. They needed it as badly as M&L had and K&I still do.


Very true. :)

The way Michael barged in like that, was so Michael. I had to smirk when I was reading the whole scene.


Lol, thank you we thought it was so him. ;)

Isabel finally opened her eyes and saw what was in front of her: Kyle! The man who has been there for her all along. The man who knows her better than her own brother does.


We're glad that you like this part of the story we do as well. We'll have to see where Isabel's reflections on her unaddressed past lead her. For now she has a lot to work through emotionally. We agree Isabel and Kyle deserve to have some good things happen in their lives. ;)

As for what will happen to Kyle with his changes....We'll find out more of his story in upcoming uds. :D

Here's more. :)

Loved hearing from you after we posted our A/N. Hugs


GreagInClearwater- Welcome new reader! RL is slowly getting better, thanks. ;)

Here's more...:)





Author’s Note: A small scene in this part was borrowed from the Season One episode Four Square, a few lines were borrowed from the Season One episode Tess, Lies & Video Tape, and a couple of lines were borrowed from the Season Two episode Harvest.


Part 47

Michael glanced over his shoulder, shooting a quick look at the new arrivals and deciding that somewhere in the night something had been settled between them. He turned back to Isabel, his speculative gaze moving over the loveseat and then to the blanket she was folding up. Her eyes were searing into him like laser beams, just daring him to say a single word about what they had walked in on. Normally he was smart enough to know when to stick a sock in it but he wanted answers.

Beside him, Maria took an unsubtle shot at his ribs with her elbow. “I think if I were you I’d rethink what you’re about to say.”

He opened his mouth, ready to charge ahead despite the warnings coming at him from all directions but before he could get a word out, Max spoke.

“Whatever you’re about to ask probably isn’t what we need to focus on,” Max said

Isabel snorted, drawing their gazes. “Whatever the two of you think you need to talk about isn’t up for a group discussion.”

Before one or both of them could ruin the moment and risk releasing Isabel’s wrath Liz stepped forward. “We’re all pretty strung out after last night,” she said quietly. “Was Kyle able to get any rest?” She slipped her hand into Max’s, interlacing their fingers and squeezing his hand tightly. “He hasn’t slept in days and I’m worried about him.”

“He said what’s bothering him?” Michael barreled straight into the conversation in an attempt to get it moving along.

“He did finally fall asleep early this morning,” Isabel said and put the perfectly folded up blanket on the loveseat. “He’d still be asleep if you hadn’t all come barging in here like you had any right to just come in and make yourselves at home.”

In the bathroom Kyle was staring at his bloodshot eyes in the mirror and listening to the stilted conversation going on in the living area. He leaned over and placed his cupped hands under the faucet, filling them and splashing it in his face. He repeated the move several times and while it didn’t make him feel any better it did fully wake him up. He grabbed a towel and dried his face, running it over his hair to get rid of the loose droplets of water that had splashed into his hair.

He left his hair standing up in several directions, not really caring that he looked a hungover insomniac. He stumbled back out into the living area, paying no attention to the looks he knew he was receiving. He didn’t care about the meeting, he ignored the empty coffee pot sitting on the kitchen counter, and he didn’t bother with a single pleasantry. He dropped down on the loveseat, falling sideways to prop his head on the blanket Isabel had folded up.

Michael grabbed one of the chairs from the kitchen table and flipped it around, straddling it and resting his forearms on the high back. “Okay, let’s get down to business.”

Kyle glanced around the room, taking in the different expressions on everyone’s faces. The one thing they all had in common was the weariness hanging on their shoulders like heavy cloaks. Max and Liz seemed more at ease with each other. No, he decided, not at ease so much as more confident of their place with each other. His gaze shifted to Michael as he settled into his interrogation position and he shook himself slightly when the authoritative move caused Liz to tense up. Max responded by wrapping his free hand around their joined hands, rubbing her fingers unconsciously. After everything that had happened the night before he could understand the fear and uncertainty he could see in her eyes.

He was shifting when his eyes moved to Michael and his movements slowed when the guy’s eyes drilled into him. He could see the hybrid’s left forefinger tapping agitatedly against his arm as he settled into a more comfortable position, ignoring the impatient gesture.

Michael’s right hand shot up, stopping Max when he saw him open his mouth to speak. “Spit it out, Valenti. What’s goin’ on?”

Max cleared his throat. “I think that’s my question to ask, so if you don’t mind – “

“You wanna let him answer the question?”

Maria rolled her eyes at both of them.

“Both of you just zip it,” Isabel demanded.

From his chair Michael started drumming his fingers as he waited for Kyle to speak up. “Care to share with the rest of the class?” he gritted out when Kyle didn’t immediately respond to his nonverbal cues.

“I was kinda in the middle of confiding in a friend last night when that whole scene went south. So, no, I’m not really in a sharin’ mood right now.”

The muscle in Michael’s jaw began to tic as he clenched his teeth together. “We don’t have the luxury of waitin’ until you’re – “

“He just woke up, Michael,” Isabel interrupted before he could go on. “Why don’t you give him some time to really wake up before you begin with the inquisition?”

“Isabel, whatever’s goin’ on affects all of us so he needs to just put whatever’s goin’ on out there so we can figure out how to handle it.”

She glared at him. “Maybe so, but whatever it is let him – “

“What part of ‘we don’t have the luxury of waiting’ did you not understand?” he snapped.

“Would you both cut it out?” Kyle rubbed his temples and rolled into a sitting position. “Look, this whole thing started because I went to see Liz.” He was starting to get a headache thanks to all of the arguing and it was beginning to annoy him. “I went to see Liz because apparently the side effects of bein’ healed have started kicking in.”

“What’s that mean?” Michael demanded.

“It means, El Capitan, Kyle’s special power is… I don’t know what it is, other than disturbing.”

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, Valenti. Havin’ secrets is killin’ this group. It’s too dangerous so just tell us – “

“He just said he doesn’t know what it is,” Liz spoke up. “It takes time to come to terms with changing. Not all of us were born with these powers so when they suddenly become a part of us we don’t become accustomed to it overnight.”

“Liz has a point, Michael,” Max said, remembering what she had gone through when her powers had started to reveal themselves. “Maybe we should just let it rest for now.”

Michael rubbed his jaw as he considered Max’s suggestion. “You showin’ any physical signs that your powers are comin’ online?”

“I’m not glowin’ in the dark or anything,” Kyle answered with a roll of his eyes. “Not shootin’ sparks from my fingers an’ toes, my head’s not spinnin’ around on my shoulders…”

Max was rubbing his face when he happened to glance at his sister and he paused when he saw the look on her face at Kyle’s answer. All their lives all she had wanted was to be normal; to have a normal family, to live a normal life, and to do things that were… well… extraordinary. He knew nothing malicious was meant by Kyle’s diatribe and he was certain that if he’d stopped to think his comments most likely would have been censored to protect her feelings. His thoughts were interrupted when the chair legs scraped across the floor and Michael spoke up.

“I’ll just take that as a no, smartass,” Michael growled. “Alright, we’ll table this issue for now.” He shot a pointed look at Kyle. “But we’ll pick it up again. Soon.” He scrubbed his hands over his face before looking around at the others. “For now we’ll just focus on last night and this Future Max fiasco.”

Liz shifted uncomfortably, relaxing slightly when Max squeezed her hand. She knew they were going to have to discuss it but the last thing she wanted was to go over that again. Especially so soon after that last blowup.

“I think we can all discuss this a little more rationally,” Maria said as she glanced at Liz. She knew how hard this situation was on her best friend and she wished there was a way to make it easier. She could still remember how emotionally torn up Liz had been when she had told her about Future Max. That time seemed so distant now. “We’ve all had time to calm down since last night and we’ve had time to think about what that visit could’ve really been.”

“Does anyone else find that whole scenario a little too convenient?” Michael asked after a few minutes of silence.

Maria’s gaze settled on Liz in the silence that followed on the heels of her boyfriend’s question. Her best friend’s features were drawn, her body language giving away her unease as he refused to drop the subject. She reached over and placed her hand on Michael’s shoulder, giving it a gentle but firm squeeze to get his attention. His position was threatening, his demeanor that of an interrogator rather than a friend, and she had a feeling it was only putting everyone on edge.

Michael looked up at Maria, frowning at her and almost asking her what was wrong with her when she nodded across the room. His hands clenched and unclenched unconsciously as he turned to follow her gaze, watching Max pull Liz into his arms. He shifted to glance at Isabel, watching her for a moment and gnawing on the inside of his bottom lip when he recognized the agitated movements. He forced his posture to relax so that he didn’t come across as intimidating, knowing it was what Maria had wanted as soon as her grip on his shoulder eased and she started rubbing instead.

“I’ll agree with you on that,” Max said, bringing them back to Michael’s question. “There’re definitely some things that don’t add up.”

Michael nodded. “The guy – if he was even there in the first place – went to Liz because it’s common knowledge you two are each other’s weak spots. No one else would’ve been able to convince you to do what you did.” He rushed to continue when Maria’s hand flexed, her nails digging into his shoulder. “What I mean is the guy guilted Liz into doing somethin’ that went against her better judgment. For all we know it was a setup to push the group apart.”

Max shook his head. “The only thing it accomplished was getting me to let Tess in.” He rubbed his forehead. “Something that I should’ve fought harder against. I allowed my resolve to weaken where she was concerned, that’s on me.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Whoever, whatever, he was, he couldn’t have been me,” he denied. “And not just because I really don’t want that responsibility on my shoulders, but because I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, have put Liz through that.”

Kyle closed his eyes and covered them with his forearm. Did it really matter now? Whatever Future Max, or whatever the guy was, had intended to do by visiting Liz had already been done. It was in the past and whatever the repercussions were it was too late to stop them.

“I agree.” Michael thumped his thumb on the chair’s high back. “It had to be a setup, designed to push the group apart.”

“That’s possible.”

“Wait, no, it had to be real,” Maria said, stopping them before they could go any further. “He was right in front of Liz, he told her she had to make him fall out of love with her to save the world.”

Michael snorted. “First, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” He turned his head to look at her. “You really think the survival of this planet hangs in the balance because of them? This isn’t some sci-fi fairy tale, Maria. Planets aren’t saved or destroyed for love.”

“What if he wasn’t really there?” Isabel asked, her voice low. “Maybe he was a mindwarp. Or maybe he was from a different timeline altogether.” She sighed and walked over to the window to stare outside. “I don’t really see why it even matters now.”

“It matters because we have no idea what was set into motion by that meeting,” Michael insisted. “It matters because these two were runnin’ around having secret meetings in the middle of the night, making themselves vulnerable, putting their lives at risk – “

“It was a conversation between two friends,” Liz said, jumping back slightly when he shot up out of his chair.

“It wasn’t just a conversation,” he bit out. “Risk, vulnerability, what part of that don’t you understand? You go out in the middle of the night, you’re unprotected, at the mercy of anyone or anything that might be out there, and after meeting what you believed to be a future version of Max, a moron who convinced you he was supposed to be with Tess, you never thought twice about bein’ out alone? Did you even consider what could’ve happened to you?”

Max shifted, placing himself between his wife and Michael. “Ease up, Michael,” he said quietly.

Maria reached out to wrap her fingers around his arm, pulling him back away from them and wrapping her arms around his waist. She could see the anguish in his dark eyes and knew it was a combination of fear for her safety, hurt that she hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him about what had been going on, and anger… she just wasn’t sure if that last one was aimed at her or himself.

“The biggest problem with this whole thing is his whole reason for being there was to convince Liz to make me fall out of love with her. If the guy had been me there’s no way he ever would’ve even considered that possibility. I don’t care if it was 10 years down the road or a hundred, it would never occur to me that falling out of love with Liz was an option. And that whole setup with me seeing her with Kyle,” he shook his head and shot a sharp glance at Kyle who remained unaffected since he wasn’t looking at him. “Yeah, it hurt, it pissed me off, but did it make me fall out of love with her? No. And if the guy had been me he would’ve known that.”

What a romantic notion. It was straight out of a romance novel, Isabel thought. She stood at the window, her gaze focused on the little swirls of snow dancing over the surface of the snow-covered ground. The wind seemed to be blowing with greater frequency the longer she stared outside. As nauseating as it was, Max was right. She turned away from the hypnotizing scenery and looked at the others. “If that future version of you knew the impossibility of that task then it had to be important. What could’ve been so important that he believed falling out of love with Liz would change the course of history?”

Kyle snorted at that. “Think about it. If he’d accomplished that goal it would’ve changed everything. If Tess had gotten her way he would’ve completely forgotten that Liz even existed.”

“That’s true,” Maria added, warming up to the topic. She had latched onto what Kyle was saying and she tackled the topic with enthusiasm. “She was after Max from the beginning. For all we know that business about the deal with Khivar was a bunch of bull. She got pregnant, which could’ve been intentional because, please, she was a conniving little witch and she had a motive for everything she did. It’s the oldest trick in the book for holding onto a guy. She knew Max wouldn’t be able to turn his back on an obligation like that. If she had succeeded in getting Max to fall out of love with Liz would she have gone that far?” She looked at Liz. “You said Future Max told you that Tess left, and she did, but there was nothing said about her being pregnant. That’s not something you would’ve forgotten.”

“No,” Liz agreed, “but he said she left because of us.”

“Okay, so obviously the pregnancy thing didn’t happen in that timeline or whatever,” Michael said as he leaned back and considered this new theory. “So what you’re suggesting is this whole thing was one of her mind tricks. She manipulated the entire thing to fit her agenda.”

“It makes perfect sense!” Maria continued. “Think about it! She wanted Max from the very beginning, right? Right! She obviously lied about Zan being able to survive on Earth. Future Max said she left… not that she punched a one-way ticket to Antar. That’s something pretty significant so he probably would’ve mentioned that. If her goal in our timeline was to trick the three of you into going to Antar to be executed why the whole ruse with Max? I think that was a last-ditch attempt to get what she wanted. She obviously didn’t expect what happened when she got there… if that’s even where she went. We have no way of really knowing whether she actually went to Antar or not.”

Max looked between the two of them. “You think Tess manipulated that entire situation?”

Kyle rubbed his forehead as he stood up and he sighed before looking at Max. “I think she had the ability. What I know is Tess and I were in the middle of… things when Liz showed up and wanted to talk to her.”

Michael pinched the bridge of his nose. He had let Tess get past his radar. The warning signs had been there but he had been too stubborn to see them. His mind slipped back into the past, to a day when Max had come to him, needing help, needing someone to confide in, and he had shut him down.

“Michael, I’m worried.”

“You should be.” He had been preoccupied, his thoughts otherwise engaged.

“It’s not about Valenti,” Max said, accurately reading Michael’s posture. “It’s about Tess, Isabel’s friend. I’m having these daydreams about her.”

That had slightly piqued his curiosity. “Daydreams?”

“Yeah, where we’re together…” He’d felt completely uncomfortable talking about this with Michael. “You know, together.”

Michael hadn’t had any sympathy for him. “I guess you’re only human after all, huh?”

“It’s me,” Max insisted. “I’m the problem. Something’s happening to me.”

His patience had quickly worn thin. “Haven’t you ever had a fantasy before?”

“This is different. It’s out of my control. I can’t stop it.”

“We’ll work it out.”


Michael frowned. He had been so focused on Valenti having the communicator that he had dismissed their most dangerous problem. He had been so busy being pissed off because Max wasn’t listening to him or taking him seriously that he had been unwilling to listen when he had come to him with his concerns about Tess.

Thanks for the compassion.

He cringed internally as Nicholas’ words taunted him.

“And who do we have here? That gleam of dull stupidity in the eyes. If I’m not mistaken, you must be the king’s second in command.”

Yeah, he’d royally screwed that one up. He sighed quietly. Never again, Max, he vowed silently. He stood and reached for Maria’s hand, pulling her up against his side. He watched Kyle for several unnerving minutes before the other guy held his hands up in aggravation.

“What?”

“So you don’t remember anything that happened between the time you and Tess were getting it on and – “

“Michael!”

“What? He said it, not me,” Michael muttered. “You don’t remember anything between then and when Liz asked you for help?”

Max straightened up and watched agitation set in as Kyle began to pace. He recognized the behavior. He had seen it at least twice before now; once when he had backed Liz up in the pod chamber when Liz had told them that Tess had killed Alex, and later when he had come face to face with Tess after she returned with Zan.

Kyle could feel the familiar throbbing pressure that indicated he had another headache coming on as he sorted through the memories. He clearly remembered the way he had felt just moments before Liz had knocked on his front door. His feelings for Tess at that moment had been strong and hot and if Liz hadn’t interrupted the moment… He shook that thought off, rubbing the back of his neck and trying to ease the knot of tension that was forming.

How had he ‘forgot’ what they had been about to do? The pain in his head exploded as he tried to force the memory in an effort to recall what had been lost, taken from him. The agonizing knife-in-the-base-of-his-skull pain stopped him in his tracks and he lifted his hands to grip his head.

Isabel moved to stand beside him and she rested her hand on his shoulder.

Kyle lifted his head to look at Max. “All I know is I had her on my radar and I was definitely on hers, and we got interrupted when Liz came by to talk to Tess.” He gingerly shook his head. “After that it’s all like a bad episode of the Twilight Zone. It’s like I can’t remember how I got from wantin’ some alone time with Tess to wantin’ to help Liz the second time she showed up at my door.” He didn’t look away as he continued. “I won’t lie. I helped Liz because I wanted to. She was miserable and I couldn’t just say no.”

Maria tapped her forefinger against her lips. “I still don’t get it,” she confessed. “If Tess was mindwarping Liz and we all agree she never had a chance of making him fall out of love with her… what happened to make her stop the mindwarp? It only makes sense that something had to happen to reassure her that things were going the way she wanted to because he disappeared.” She snapped her fingers. “End of mindwarp.”

Beside her Michael shifted, his eyes meeting Max’s for a moment before he lowered his gaze to Maria. “She knew she’d never get him to fall outta love with Liz so she took the next best thing.”

She shook her head. “What’re you talking about?”

Max felt his chest tighten and his throat felt like it was closing when he heard Michael’s quiet answer.

“She just had to get him to a point where he accepted he and Liz could never be together. He as much as conceded defeat when he gave up on her.”

Maria shook her head sharply. “Huh-uh, I don’t believe that,” she denied. “Max never gave up on Liz.” She held a hand up when Michael started to protest. “He may have accepted that he had lost any chance of being with her, but no, he never gave up on her.”

Michael rubbed the back of his neck as he considered everything that had been said. He didn’t want to get into a conversation on who did or didn’t give up on whom. “What’d he tell you about the future? I mean, if you hadn’t agreed to go along with him what would’ve happened?”

“I don’t know,” Liz answered honestly. “Just knowing about him, about what he had said would happen, that was bound to change things in some way.” She trailed off and her eyes suddenly widened. “Alex wasn’t dead in the other timeline,” she choked out. “He wasn’t killed by Tess.” She shook her head, trying to deny what she had remembered. “When Future Max was telling me about our wedding night he said we eloped.” She frowned. “He said I called Maria, Michael, Isabel, and Alex… we were 19 when we eloped and Alex was still alive.”

“Oh, Liz,” Maria whispered, shaking her head as Liz fought back the tears welling in her eyes. She swallowed hard, trying to force down the lump in her throat as she watched Liz blame herself for Alex’s death; a death whose blame could only be placed on the shoulders of that witch Tess. It only took the space of a heartbeat before she was moving, quickly going to her friend. She smoothed Liz’s hair back before taking her face in her hands.

Max wanted badly to take his wife in his arms, to comfort her and make her believe that nothing about this situation was her fault. But he could see that she needed Maria in that moment so he stayed close and let her best friend handle things.

Isabel urged Kyle over to the loveseat, pushing him to sit down. She was sick of going over and over what Tess had done… and she hated seeing what it had done to Kyle. Her stomach twisted into knots in response to the sudden revelation that a single choice may have been responsible for taking Alex from them.

“No, Liz, don’t even go there. It isn’t your fault that witch killed Alex.” Maria smoothed her hands over her hair, keeping their gazes locked. “There’s no way you could’ve predicted what would happen whether or not you chose to believe Future Max. Look at me,” she insisted when Liz lowered her eyes. “If Alex were here he’d tell you that and you know it.”

Isabel stood next to Kyle and she glanced past the others to the corner of the room. Alex stood there watching what was going on and she could see the concern on his face. His steady gray eyes met hers and when he nodded she knew he was agreeing with Maria’s statement. A flash of memory suddenly hit her and for a moment she was standing in her mother’s kitchen as Tess took her hand. Nausea began to set in and she looked away when her mind wandered down a path she had no interest in revisiting.

“I have feelings for Max, Isabel. Strong feelings. I know Max loves Liz. That’s what everyone tells me. But don’t you ever get signals from someone, Isabel?”

“Signals?”

“You know… moments when you connect with someone. And there’s no mistaking what’s going on. Like no matter who you may be with, or what you may think, that you and this other person are destined to be together.”


Quickly on the heels of that memory came a flash of her and Michael together. Her brain slammed the door on that particular memory, shutting it down before it could go any farther. No one was expecting it when she suddenly erupted.

“Enough about Tess and Future Max! Tess killed Alex, and no one else is responsible! Like Michael said yesterday, placing the blame serves no purpose. We have no idea what’s true or not true, especially if the truth relies on what Tess said or did.” She drew in a sharp breath. “She lied about almost everything. She made us see and believe things that weren’t there.” She shot a quick look at Michael, seeing in his expression that he knew what she was referring to. Her hands clenched involuntarily as she bit out, “She took too much from us and I’m not gonna let her take another minute of my time. This meeting is over!”

Kyle rubbed his temple with one hand and reached for Isabel’s arm with the other, his fingers sliding down to take her hand in an effort to calm her. “Hey,” he said quietly. He knew the others were paying no attention to them. Michael was making his way over to Maria and she had relinquished her hold on Liz, allowing Max to take his devastated wife into his arms. He had no idea what Max was saying and he figured it was none of his business; it was a private moment between husband and wife.

“You’ve done nothin’ but love me, Liz. You’ve loved all of us,” he insisted, his voice low and his tone comforting. “This is not your fault.”

Michael’s arm settled around Maria’s shoulders and he pulled her up close as he faced the other couple. He was silent for a moment before his gaze locked on Liz. “Like I said last night, blaming each other, blaming ourselves for anything she did stops right now. If anyone should shoulder the blame for this cluster-fuck it’s me, okay? I’m the one who sent the damn signal and brought Nacedo and Tess right to our front door.”

Kyle could feel the tension running through Isabel and setting her on edge. His own tension had notched up over the past… he glanced at the clock. Had it really been less than half an hour? He pinched the bridge of his nose, holding the pressure there for a moment before letting go again. He stood up and rolled his shoulders. “Isabel, didn’t you tell me we were due up at the Stevens’ place here pretty soon?”

Her startled gaze flew to him but she quickly brought it under control. “Actually, we’re already late. We have breakfast to attend to and then we have some things to finish up over at Mr. Tony’s house.”

He nodded. “If you’ll get the planner I’ll get our coats.” He glanced at the others, not even realizing he was still holding her hand until she slipped it free to go and retrieve the planner. “Let’s get a move on, people. I’ve seen what’s on the schedule for the day and if we don’t get started on it soon we’re likely to be working long into the night and I for one would prefer to be inside before nightfall.”

*****

Maggie’s legs swung back and forth as she stared at the second hand slowly creeping around the face of the clock. She suddenly sat up straighter when she heard something outside and all of her concentration zeroed in on it. Her gaze shifted to the window and then to the door and she frowned slightly at the silence that followed. She turned her head to look at Daddy’s newspaper when she heard the paper rustling as he turned the page and her eyes widened momentarily at the snapping sound it made when he straightened it out. She sighed and turned in her seat to look at Mama, holding onto the high back of the chair as she leaned sideways in an attempt to see what she was doing. She dropped her gaze to Cindy. The little polar bear was sitting next to her on the table, a clean bowl, spoon, and glass in front of her.

“Mama, what time is it?”

“Thirty seconds later than the last time you asked,” Edward said as he licked the pad of his thumb and turned to the next page.

“Maybe they forgot when breakfast is.”

That earned a snort from behind the paper.

Julia slid a pan into the oven before turning to look at her daughter. “They’re probably just finishing up breakfast, Maggie.”

“But they were s’posed to come here for breakfast, Mama. Don’t you remember? Yesterday you an’ Isabel talked ‘bout it.”

“Yes, that’s true.” She picked up a baking pan with melted butter in it and carried it over to the table. “Here, why don’t you give me a hand with these magic bars?” she suggested in an attempt to keep the little girl occupied.

“Um-hmm, that’ll do it.”

She shot a look at her husband that he ducked by lifting the paper higher. She rolled her eyes and leaned over Maggie to help her arrange the ingredients.

“Mama, are they gonna be here soon?” Maggie asked as she tipped her head back.

“Makes you wonder what’s takin’ so long,” Edward muttered. “Must’ve been a busy night.” He had no idea what had gone down between their guests but whatever it was it’d been serious.

The oven timer went off, the annoying buzzing sound interrupting Edward’s ramblings and Julia reached out to smack his newspaper as she reached for the potholders.

“Hey,” he lowered his paper to glance at her, “what was that for?”

“That was funny, Mama,” Maggie giggled. “The pictures of the reindeer on Daddy’s newspaper jumped when you did that.”

“Mmmm, smells good in here,” Eddie said as he joined them. “Are you makin’ magic bars?”

“Yes, I am. I thought we’d have some with something hot this evening when it gets really cold,” Julia answered.

Edward flipped the top of his paper forward to peer at his little girl as he spoke to his wife, his tone teasing. “What makes you think they’ll be here this evening?” He winked at Maggie, making her giggle. “Magic bars are made to disappear.”

Julia pulled the hot pan out of the oven and slid it onto a cooling rack. She gave her boys a look as she pulled a spatula out of the drawer, waving it at them as she threatened, “No touchy until this evening.”

She’s got that look in her eyes again. Her husband just grinned and went back to reading his paper. He remembered one time he and the boys had snuck up on her and tried to steal a few of the magic bars before they had been deemed ready. That had earned all three of them a swift smack on the rear end, leaving her to bend the spatula back into shape afterwards.

“Look, Daddy, Mama has her pancake flipper out. ‘Member when you an’ Brian tried to get some last year before Mama said they were ready?” She laughed at that and went back to working on the next batch of magic bars.

“Mom, did you make some without the nuts?” Eddie asked.

“Of course.”

Eddie looked around for the kitchen before scratching his head. “Um, where’s Brian?” His older brother was always around, especially when Mom was making anything edible.

“He got up early this mornin’,” Edward answered as he folded his paper and stretched his arms over his head. “Went over to the barn with Stefanie and Travis to handle reindeer chores.” He got up and crossed the room to wrap his arms around his wife and nuzzle her neck. He chuckled when he saw Eddie’s longing look at the cooling magic bars. “Looks like your brother had somethin’ better than comin’ up with the best way to snatch an early dessert.” He lowered his head to Julia’s shoulder as he whispered, “Girls have a way of distracting us boys.” He shot a sideways glance at his youngest boy, knowing full well that as helpful as he was around his mother he had his own agenda that involved a certain guest.

“Go on, Edward, I know what you want and it’s not happening,” Julia said with a smile. “Now shoo, it’s time to cut the cooled bars.”

And opportunity began to knock. Eddie’s ears perked up and he sidled up to the counter. “Mom, you want me to make another pot of coffee? Maybe put some water on to heat for when the others get here?”

She smiled at him. “Why thank you, Eddie. Yes, please do that.”

Edward snorted and excused himself to get into his thermals so he would be ready when the others showed up.

Julia finished cutting the cooled bars and gave Eddie and Maggie a couple that had been broken accidentally. They were working on layering the next batch when the sound of stomping boots and the door opening interrupted them. Her little girl was out of her chair like a shot, running over to stand before Michael. She smiled as she listened to Maggie going on about how she was helping her make magic bars.

Edward came back into the room just as Maggie started rattling off how magic bars were their favorite Christmas dessert. He listened to her absentmindedly as he assessed the state of their visitors.

“Yep, Mama only makes them at Christmas.” Maggie ran to the table to snatch up one of her broken pieces and hurried back to Michael. “Here, you can try it. You’re gonna love it and then you’ll wanna steal some too, but you can’t. The boys always try to steal some before Mama says it’s okay to eat them but she’s got the pancake flipper to shoo them away,” she said with a laugh.

The group was somber; their demeanors ranged from withdrawn to haggard. Isabel came in first, planner in hand and wearing a smile that appeared forced. The small brunette had his attention the moment she came through the door though. He watched her young husband as he spoke in low tones and helped her out of her outerwear. Dark circles underlined her eyes and her distant, distracted behavior reminded him of someone who was grieving. Maria stayed close as she hung up her coat. She was watching over her friend, he realized.

“Doesn’t it smell wonderful in here?” she commented, her hand brushing her friend’s arm. “It’s so warm and smells so… mmm, so good!”

Kyle came inside last and started to hang up his and Isabel’s outerwear and he unknowingly nodded in agreement with Maria. “Wow, something smells great!”

Edward’s gaze was drawn to Michael as it always was. It was Michael who acted as his gauge for determining the condition of the group. There was something different about him. There was normally an air of protectiveness about him, a guarded awareness, but this was different. He appeared weighed down, burdened by something. The younger man was struggling to focus on Maggie and he could tell he was having a difficult time following her childish ramblings this morning.

Julia followed her husband’s gaze to their guests and she knew he wanted to comment on their later than normal arrival. It didn’t take more than a glance to know that something wasn’t right with them and she knew if she didn’t intervene on their behalf he would begin questioning them. “Have you had a chance to eat breakfast this morning?”

“We kinda slept in this mornin’,” Michael said with a shrug.

Eddie looked at them as he got a mug down and filled it with coffee. He snorted under his breath. No one was gonna buy that one, he thought with a roll of his eyes. None of them looked like they’d slept in about a week. He carried cups over to the table and set them down, giving Maria a bright smile as he placed a mug in front of her. “I made it just like you like it.” He looked at Liz and Isabel as he motioned to the sugar and cream sitting out on the table. “You guys can have some too if you want.”

“Michael, you an’ Maria come watch me an’ Mama make magic bars,” Maggie said excitedly. “Do you like nuts in yours, Michael?” She shook her head as she latched onto his hand and led him over to the table. “Oh! Do you know if Santa likes them too?”

Michael felt like he’d been run over by a very large truck… possibly more than once. He was drained mentally and exhausted physically and his brain was fighting a losing battle as it tried to keep up with the little girl’s questions.

“Maggie, maybe you and Cindy should ask if they’d like some breakfast,” Julia suggested as she waved them into chairs around the table.

Her eyes widened in anticipation. “Oh, can I? Oops, I mean, may I?” As soon as Mama nodded she looked up at Michael again. “Cindy saved a bowl for you.”

Eddie scrambled to get a bowl that he filled with Frosted Flakes and milk. He carried it over to the table and set it down in front of Maria. “These are for you,” he said and handed her a spoon. “They’re the frosted kind, not the gross ones you have to put your own sugar on.”

Michael turned his head to scowl at the boy and he was just opening his mouth to tell him that Maria couldn’t stand frosted flakes when she kicked him under the table.

The thought of cold cereal caused Isabel’s stomach to give a warning roll. “Maybe I’ll just have toast and coffee.” She reached over to stop Kyle when he started to get up, knowing he was on his way to do it for her. “I’ve got it. My toast always comes out perfect.”

“I don’t doubt it,” he said with a slight smile. He listened as she asked Julia if she had any cinnamon, thinking to himself that it was doubtful there was any baking ingredient the woman didn’t have in her kitchen.

Julia’s gaze moved over their guests, feeling for them when she saw their worn, exhausted features. Liz looked like she was suffering from some sort of loss and her husband looked worried, concerned as he hovered close by. Maria appeared to be emotionally drained and her boyfriend, who was doing his best to interact with Maggie, looked physically exhausted. Kyle’s features were pinched and every once in a while he would rub his temples or pinch the bridge of his nose, a clear indicator that the stubborn headache he’d been fighting was hanging on. Out of all of them Isabel looked the most ready to face the day but closer inspection showed an edge of pain shadowing her eyes but she hid it better than the others.

She watched them for a few minutes before suggesting a warm breakfast. She held her hands up and smiled when they automatically declined, insisting that a heavy meal wasn’t necessary. She easily translated that to mean that they weren’t ready to face a big breakfast because whatever was going on with them had left them with little to no appetite. She gave in gracefully, turning them loose in her kitchen to put their breakfasts together. It was going to get viciously cold as the day passed but getting something in their stomachs was better than nothing.

While Isabel was busy at the toaster Julia went to collect a couple of Tylenol that she placed next to Kyle before moving on to finish the next batch of magic bars. She took the long way around, placing a warning hand on Edward’s shoulder when she saw him gearing up for a round of questioning.

Max got up, his hand lingering on his wife’s shoulder for a moment before he asked Julia if she had any oatmeal. He moved to the cabinet she directed him to and he started the simple process of fixing a bowl of instant oatmeal.

Eddie made a face. “You get a choice of cereal and you choose oatmeal?” He moved to the pantry and pulled the door open. “Here, we’ve got more cold cereal.” He took a step back out of the way when Max joined him while he was waiting for the water to heat up in the microwave and he rolled his eyes when the guy’s gaze bounced between a box of bran flakes and some other cereal that his parents ate. “You’re gonna eat that?” he asked in disbelief when Max grabbed the box of bran flakes.

Kyle stared at the box of bran flakes in Max’s hand. Half a dozen different kinds of cereal lined one of the pantry shelves and El Presidente chose bran flakes? Somewhere deep inside, the comedian in him that desperately wanted to come back out to play latched onto the moment. It was really too good to pass up but the words just wouldn’t come. He looked up when Isabel sat down beside him, sliding a small plate in front of him with two slices of golden toast generously slathered with butter and topped with a cinnamon/sugar mix. The cinnamon was darker where it was settling into the melted butter and his mouth watered at the sight and smell.

“Bran Flakes or Shredded Wheat,” she mused quietly so her voice wouldn’t carry past him. “Is it really that much of a choice?”

“Well, I suppose he made the appropriate choice. Help restore the balance so to speak.” He snorted when he saw her answering smile just before she bit into a slice of toast.

They ate in companionable silence, watching Maggie as she brought a bowl of cocoa puffs over to the table and placed it before Michael. She motioned for him to wait and she ran back to the refrigerator, pulling out the milk that was only half-full and carrying it over to the table. Michael took the jug and poured milk over the cereal before capping it and handing it back to her.

She looked up at him with a big smile as she cradled the jug to her chest. “You like Cocoa Puffs don’t you?”

He controlled his revulsion at the thought of the too-sweet chocolaty cereal and gave her a smile. “Can’t think of anything I’d like more this mornin’.” Maybe to have someone run over his foot.

“You can start eating while I make you toast.” She looked at Maria before her gaze dropped to the bowl of soggy cereal on the table, practically untouched. She wrinkled her nose and chewed on her bottom lip for a moment as she turned her head to study Michael’s cereal bowl. After giving it thoughtful contemplation she looked at Maria again. “Eddie loves Frosted Flakes,” she commented. I like Tony the Tiger but his cereal gets all yucky in milk.” She turned back and forth on the balls of her feet. “Do you want some Cocoa Puffs too?”

Michael leaned over, one elbow resting on his thigh. “Maria would really like the Honey Nut Cheerios,” he confided. After the morning they’d had all the chocolate would turn her stomach upside down and there was no reason for both of them to suffer.

“Really?” She shifted to one side to look around him at Maria. “You like them old Cheerios better than the Cocoa Puffs?”

Maria nodded, rubbing Michael’s thigh in gratitude. All that chocolate first thing would only send her stomach into upheaval.

Maggie made a face and slid the milk jug on the table while she went to retrieve the bowl of Cheerios.

Julia slipped up behind them, leaning past Maria to scoop up the bowl of soggy cereal. “I’ll get rid of this for you,” she said with a wink and an understanding pat on the shoulder. Eddie was momentarily occupied and there was no point letting him know that his crush couldn’t stomach his offering.

Maria nodded in thanks and looked up when Max came over to the table with two bowls in his hands. He placed the oatmeal topped with bananas and sprinkled with cinnamon in front of Liz and he rubbed her arm as he sat down. He shifted his chair closer to hers and his hand moved down her arm, searching hers out and linking their fingers on the table between them.

Edward’s gaze followed his little girl as she buzzed around the kitchen and he smiled slightly. She was a miniature version of his Julia. She fussed over anyone who would sit still long enough to let her, filling their stomachs, and comforting and soothing them just by being who she was. She came back with Maria’s breakfast choice and waited patiently while Michael poured the milk before taking it from him and scurrying back to the refrigerator to put it away. He winced as Michael took a bite of the Cocoa Puffs drenched in milk that would now be a thick chocolaty-sweet liquid. His teeth hurt just thinking of how sweet it would be.

Before long Maggie was back, squeezing between the couple to slide a plate of toast smeared with butter and jam. She looked up at Michael, tipping her head sideways as she watched him eating. “Is your breakfast good?”

He nodded without answering.

“Cindy said you’d like it,” she said with a smile.

“Well, she’s a smart polar bear,” he said, returning her smile.

“Michael, can I ask you a question?”

He nodded at the empty chair next to him. “C’mon over here and ask.” It wasn’t much, but with her standing between them he felt like Maria was too far away.

She clambered up on the chair and rested her forearm on his shoulder as she watched him taste the toast. A grin erupted on her face when he hummed happily and took another big bite before looking at her. “Do you think Santa might need some help while he’s here?”

“Help?” he echoed as he polished off the first slice of toast.

“Yeah, you know, like if he needs somethin’?”

The others watched as he slowly chewed on a mouthful of toast, his expression considering. It was the first time he had shown any sign of relaxing in quite a while.

“Well,” he said finally, “maybe.” He brushed crumbs off of his shirt before giving her his full attention. “Now, you’d have to check with Isabel to be sure, but I heard that Santa might be lookin’ for an elf helper.” He nodded. “She kinda handles all of Santa’s plans an’ stuff.”

The little girl’s hopeful gaze swung to Isabel. “Does he, Isabel?”

Isabel smiled at Kyle when he reached for the ever-present planner and handed it to her. She flipped it open and turned the pages under the pretense of searching for the information. “Will you look at that?”

“What?” Maggie asked excitedly. “What’s it say?”

She placed the planner on the table between her and Kyle. “Look at that.”

Kyle shifted closer, angling his head to look at the doodles he had drawn the other day when she and Dayna had been hitting him from both sides with ideas. “Huh, looks like Santa’s in the market for an elf helper. Looks like you’re just the helper the big guy’s been lookin’ for.”

“Michael, didja hear that?” she asked with an excited shout and threw her arms around his neck to hug him. “I get to be Santa’s helper!” Her eyes widened. “Oooh, do I get to wear an elf costume?”

Edward chuckled and shook his head. It was time to get things moving because Maggie was just warming up to the subject. “Eddie, are you about ready, boy?”

Eddie looked up at his dad. “Ready?” he mumbled.

“Ready, yes, to head over to Mr. Tony’s and knock the work out before we get the worst of that cold front that’s movin’ through.” He nodded when the boy started to protest. “Good, go get yourself ready.”

Michael glanced at the man of the house. “Guess that’s out cue to get movin’.” He glanced at Max and then at Kyle, nodding when his friend shook his head. “Max, if you’d rather hang back with the girls while they’re doin’ whatever it is they’re plannin’ to do today…” He trailed off when Liz shook her head. “No?”

She looked at her husband. “Max, you should go with Michael.”

“Liz,” he shook his head, obviously reluctant to leave her.

“It’s fine.” She looked at Michael. “Max will be more of a help to you. Kyle’s got a splitting headache and he shouldn’t be out in that biting cold all day.” And she didn’t want Max to spend all afternoon blaming himself for what had happened. He needed a break even if he didn’t know it. “You guys probably won’t be out there more than a few hours. Kyle can keep us company while we’re doing laundry.”

Michael snorted at that. He knew what would happen. Kyle would spend the day being pampered and babied by all three girls. Yeah, there was a tough job. He looked back at Max. “Your call.”

Max shook his head. “Liz, I really think I should stay with you.”

She shifted in her chair to look at him fully. “Max, I’m okay, and you guys will get this done faster if you’re helping. We don’t want Kyle to be out there and have his condition worsen.”

He bit his lip, not certain he could leave her alone. He lifted his gaze to settle on Kyle as he debated what he should do.

“Don’t worry, Max,” Kyle said quietly. “I’ll take care of her.”

One corner of his mouth lifted in the slightest of smiles as he recalled the last time he had heard those words and he checked with Liz again before finally nodding. It was time to start putting the past in the past and to begin moving forward.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part 48 - 3/28/12

Postby KindredKandies » Wed Mar 28, 2012 12:18 am

Alein_Friend- Omgosh we're finally here to say how much we loved your review. It put a huge grin on our faces that got us through RL getting in our way thank you! :)

Overall I think the talk was a good start for everyone to start letting go of the hurt and anger and guilty they have for their different roles in situation.


The meeting scenes are huge and have a lot of details to keep track of we're glad that you liked them. We agree having the gang dealing with the fallout of the Future Max secret will help them in the end to be stronger as couples and as a group.

I would love to believe it was all just Tess but I'm not completely convinced. But I do think you raised some excellent points on how that would totally serve her purpose and give her a way to get close to Max. If Tess was faking going to Antar that would be very interesting.


Yup the whole Future Max thing and Tess' abilities to mind warp to get what she wanted has its possibilities. It'll be interesting as the gang explores what they believe may or may not have happened. ;)

Loved how cute that moment was when they made Maggie Santa's helper.


Lol, thanks we so enjoyed writing that scene and we are looking forward to Christmas on the Lake getting here as well. :)

We love Eddie as well. He can't see past Maria when she's in the room. lol. He's a joy to write as well, thanks.

Glad the Cindy hug made you feel special, mission accomplished. ;)

Quality stuff ladies! I really love the in depth look at things.


Aww, thanks...It's been a real challenge to pick up the pieces from what the writers did in S3. It is our humble opinion that our beloved characters deserve a better ending. ;)



Timelord31- Thank you. :)


keepsmiling7- Aww girl thanks for waiting for our update. Yup RL is slowing us down but no worries we're still writing. :)

Max and Liz finally talking and expressing their feelings was such a good part, and now the entire group has needed to have this FMax talk for a long time. Michael will always be Michael, and of course Kyle would go to Liz when he felt these changes taking place. After all, she went through the same thing, just a little earlier.


It really put a smile on our faces to read that you liked our gang's talk and understand how they all interact. Thank you. ;)

Who and what was FMax? He really knew which buttons to push.......and I too would love to believe that all of this was Tess's misdoing.


Yup the whole Future Max thing and Tess' abilities to mind warp to get what she wanted has its possibilities. It'll be interesting as the gang explores what they believe may or may not have happened. And ditto , girl! We'd love it to prove that Tess was responsible. The thing is the episode had elements that could support both theories. It should be interesting how the gang views it from their prospective and what conclusions they may draw in the end. :D

Michael was right when he realized he missed the signs of Tess's mind warping..


Thank you!!! You were the only one who mentions this. We felt it was important for Michael to see how he played into what had happened to them all as well.

No worries about Kyle's headaches it's just a symptom of his powers coming online. Like Liz she had flu like symptoms and audio visual hallucinations when her powers started to show up.

I like the direction Kyle and Isabel are heading.


Thank you. Kyle wants to know just what direction that might be. lol.

Yup Tess really did a number on Kyle's heart. :(

Thank you for the wonderful compliment. As far as more Future Max fallout well.... keep reading. It's such an emotionally charged situation. It will take some time for them to digest it all. At the same time Christmas on the lake is getting closer. :)

Thanks for the note girl...We miss being here!

Cindy hugs,

KK


Natalie36- Thank you! Yup right now the gang is working through some issues that haven't been addressed in the past No worries Christmas will come because "Michael knows Santa." ;)

sarammlover Yes we so agree the gang has way too much to shoulder at such a young age but we feel that having the gang confront their past will help make them really move on and become stronger and to insure a healthy and happier future. :)

I want to cuddle Kyle and even though I LOVE Michael....he is being a dick. I want to cuddle kyle and smack Michael....UGH!


LOL we'll take that as a compliment if we managed to make you feel all of that. Yup Kyle is cuddly...And Michael is a tad overbearing here. No worries though Christmas is coming and Maggie has her heart set on Santa. Michael doesn't stand a chance remaining as the overbearing "Richard" for long. lol.

Thank you for the review. :)

eagle219406-

This was a great chapter, and definitely worth the wait.


Thank you for the compliment. :)

I know there are many Roswell fans that have theorized that Future Max was a mindwarp. But there were 2 factors in the episode itself that disproved that.

1. The opening scene where Future Max said goodbye to Future Liz and used the Granolith to go back in time.

2. Unless Max with the Mariachi band was a mindwarp as well, there was no way Tess could have known what Max was going to do, just before he did it.


Mmmm not sure what to say er , uh thank you?

The thing is in our humble opinion the episode (TEoTW) had elements that could support both theories. It should be interesting how the gang views it from their perspective and what conclusions they may draw in the end. As for the opening scene, our gang wasn't privy to the opening scene.


Part 48

Kyle trudged through the snow, squinting to avoid the worst of the snow being blown in his face as the wind kicked up from time to time. His thoughts were centered on the girls and what he was feeling about everything that had happened in the past 24 hours. It was easy to picture Isabel as she had gone off about Tess being solely responsible for Alex’s death. Listening to Liz recounting what had happened, going over it, and finally realizing that had she never pushed Max at Tess they might never have lost Alex had pushed her to snap at everyone. Emotionally he didn’t think she had ever really let go of him, hadn’t really allowed herself to move on. If she had he was pretty sure she wouldn’t be conversing with his ghost.

He tripped over a snow-covered log and cursed under his breath when he nearly plowed into the snow face-first. The sacks of laundry he was carrying flipped over his shoulder and provided him with a soft landing. He scrambled up and glanced around, brushing the snow from his clothes and clearing his throat as he hefted the bags up again. His mind went back to the girls, going to Maria this time. It had been pretty obvious that she’d had a rough night with Michael. Which made sense, he mused. El Capitan had been pissed when he discovered she had known about that whole Future Max situation and she hadn’t told him about it. The two of them seemed pretty solid, but something was still off about them. Well, they’d had their ups and downs over the past couple of years and with everything that was coming out they probably had their own issues that were coming to the surface.

It was an easy transition for his thoughts to shift to Liz. She had insisted that she was alright but there was no doubt her assurances were for her husband’s benefit. She was devastated by the thought that the sacrifice she had made had been for nothing. That in the end they had all paid a price they hadn’t been ready for and that loss had been the result of a lie.

And what about you? The thumping at the back of his skull started up in response to his thoughts and he tried to shake it off as he hefted his load higher on his shoulder. He hated the feelings that had rushed over him as he struggled to remember another time when he had probably been mind warped. Tess and his feelings regarding her were all a tangled mess that still had the ability to knot his stomach. Unwanted sensations threatened to suffocate him and he ruthlessly pushed those emotions back down. It was sort of like sticking your hand into a tackle box full of fish hooks. The more he allowed himself to think about her the more he bled.

His thoughts went back to Isabel. She had lost every guy she had ever cared for. She had lost Jesse, but that was a pain that would heal in time. He would become a pleasant memory, one probably wrapped up with a few regrets. Regret for involving him, regret for turning his life upside down, and regret for the pain he had suffered. Most of all she had lost Alex. What had happened to him was unthinkable.

He sighed as the Honeymoon cabin finally came into view. He was done going back over all of this. Like Michael had said, it served no purpose. Isabel’s voice rose in his head.

“She took too much from us and I’m not gonna let her take another minute of my time.”

He could remember the feel of her hand in his as he had tried to calm her with a touch. There were so many losses she had faced and he knew the past 24 hours was really bringing the memories to the surface. She also had to contend with the loss of her parents, and until they could manage to find a way to bridge the necessary gap between them she would hurt over that loss. There hadn’t been time for her parents to become accustomed to who she was once they knew the truth, time to say goodbye, or time to make sure they would be safe.

He inhaled deeply in an effort to redirect his thoughts. He had his own mission here. He had three girls who were in serious need of a mood lift. He snorted to himself. “Buddha, Kyle needs a hand. We all need a break from the doom and gloom,” he muttered. He reached the door to the cabin just as the wind gusted, strong enough to give him and the laundry a good shove. He turned the knob and pushed the door open, thankful that the girls had left it unlocked for him. That would give Michael fits, but it could be their little secret, he thought with a mental grin.

*****

The naked frame of the lean-to stood strong against the gusting wind and whorls of snow whipped up and danced around it. The snow underfoot had a crisp layer that crunched underfoot with every step, providing an accompanying backdrop of sound as they walked up the driveway to Mr. Tony’s house. The air was cold, but the wind had a sharp bite to it that seemed to cut through the many layers of clothing the silent duo wore.

Michael was freezing in spite of thermals, one of Edward’s old hunting sweatshirts, and all the heavy winter gear he was wearing on top of that. He adjusted his hood and scarf in an attempt to block out the wind that was increasing in both frequency and intensity. He was certain the stupid scarf was gathering the moisture from every breath he took and the bitter wind was causing it to freeze. Yeah, and why didn’t we just go to Mexico? Right now that was looking like a much better locale for being on the run. Well, as far as the weather went, he decided.

He glanced over at Max. The fact that he seemed to be unaffected by the cold spoke to his state of mind. He was dressed much the same only he wasn’t wearing a hood or the scarf with the patch of ice over his mouth. He reached up to tug on the scarf at that thought, wondering if it would stick to his face. Max had been given a knitted hat that sort of reminded him of those stupid sock monkeys he’d seen in some of the roadside stores they’d stopped in from time to time. If it weren’t for the fact that the last 24 hours had just about beat the crap out of all of them he probably would’ve laughed.

Another glance at Max and he saw the dark circles under his eyes. Set against his skin that was pale and stretched taut over his cheekbones gave them a sunken, hollow look. Max’s misery was palpable and he knew how hard it had been for his friend to leave Liz. Leaving her side had been even harder than leaving her in Kyle’s care. He knew what it had taken for him to grant her request and somehow, in some way he wasn’t sure he understood at the moment, it was her way of taking care of Max.

Max’s melancholic mood only served to intensify the feelings he had being separated from Maria right now. She had held it together as she consoled Liz and he knew she was suffering as that old wound was torn open again. It hadn’t been long enough for it to scar, to build up a resistance to the pain the reminders could bring. Some memories were good but even those could and would flush the loss right back to the surface.

She put on a brave front and she tried to hide it from him but he knew it was there. He could feel it deep inside and he ached to take her in his arms and hold her. Alex’s death had been hard on all of them and the events right after had made it doubly difficult. He knew Liz’s actions had been warranted and if she hadn’t pushed ahead with her investigation and risked everything for it there was a good chance they wouldn’t be alive right now. Having to face the questions that had arisen from Liz’s revelation the night before had not only ripped open old wounds, it had made all of them question themselves, blame themselves, as they tried to figure out what they could have done differently. What they could have done to prevent something that might or might not have happened.

Did it even matter now? Whether Future Max was the result of a mindwarp or if he really existed and he had paid her a visit, it didn’t make a difference. What was done was done. They couldn’t do anything to change the past and he couldn’t see how it mattered to their future one way or the other. He glanced up, his eyes stinging when the wind whipped crystallized snow into his face.

Up ahead the barn door creaked as Edward emerged with his boys. Brian looked less than pleased at having his ‘work’ with Stefanie interrupted. The teenager’s body language spoke volumes and he snorted under his breath. They had to be careful around Edward. And Julia too, he reminded himself. The woman didn’t pry and she didn’t act suspicious of them but he knew she was far from being blind or stupid. She just wasn’t as overt as her husband when it came to trying to figure out why they were there. There was no way she had bought their cover story anymore than Edward had.

He gave his thoughts a nudge, pushing them back into the corner of his mind to be dealt with later. They were supposed to finish constructing the lean-to and there were a few other chores on the list to complete before temperature dropped below zero with a little help from the arctic wind Edward had said they were expecting later in the afternoon. He had no intention of being outdoors with temperatures like that. He already hated this weather and it was supposed to get worse? No way was he going to be outside for that.

He sighed as they reached the framed structure and he stared balefully at the supplies Edward had already dropped off. Hammer, bag of nails, and a lot of wood. He leaned over to pick up the bag of nails and then wrapped one gloved hand around the wooden handle of the hammer. He shook the bag in front of Max’s face, the sound of the nails knocking against each other just noisy enough to disrupt his friend’s thoughts.

“What?”

“You look like hell, Maxwell.” He motioned to the frame with his hammer. “Let’s get this knocked out so we can get indoors before body parts start freezin’ and fallin’ off out here.”

Max took the bag of nails and stared into the depths of the little bag for several long seconds before dumping a bunch of them in his left hand. He watched Michael as he grabbed one of the boards and placed it against the frame. He had no idea if it was in the right place or not but he couldn’t really say he cared. He held his hand out when Michael turned to him and he shrugged when the other guy stared at the pile of nails for a while before holding up his gloved hand.

“Just one at a time,” Michael growled. He shook his head when Max used his other gloved hand to push the nails around in an effort to separate one from the bunch. “Two words,” he muttered under his breath. “Nail gun.”

“What’s that?” Max yelled when the wind picked up again. His lips lifted at the corners, a ghost of a smile when Michael did his best to flip him off in spite of the thick work gloves he was wearing. He looked around to make sure there was no way the others could see what he was doing and once he was certain they couldn’t be seen he pinned his right hand under his other arm and pulled his hand free of the glove. He quickly grabbed the nails, pressing them into the wood where Michael pointed out and giving them just enough of a nudge to get them seated so he wouldn’t have to hold them while hammering.

Michael nodded in thanks and motioned for Max to hold up one end of the board while he set about driving the nails through the boards and into the frame.

*****

Kyle hauled the last of the laundry in and then used the bottom of his boot to push the door shut. He slumped back against it and exhaled loudly. “Ladies, I’ve gotta tell you… hauling dirty laundry in from the other cabins isn’t exactly what I had anticipated doing when I got out of working with the guys.”

“You’re not out in that cold wind, are you?” Maria asked as she looked up from sorting clothes into two piles.

He snorted. “Well, not now. But for the past 45 minutes I’ve been hauling dirty clothes across the frozen tundra so I’m not sure that hanging out with the three of you qualifies as restful.”

She made a face at him. “Does your head still hurt?”

“No, but I really don’t think that’s the point.” It was mostly true, he mused. The headache was still there but it had dulled and disappeared into the background.

The sound of a buzzer going off drew his gaze away from them and before he could comment Maria was up like a shot. He dropped the pillowcase full of laundry on the floor and started pulling his gear off to hang it up. He was working his boots off when he overheard his name and then muffled laughter. That was worth investigating, he decided and grabbed the overstuffed pillowcase, hooking it over his shoulder as he went in search of the girls.

“Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down honeymoon lane,” he sang under his breath. He shook his head and chuckled to himself as he padded through the cabin and into the bathroom. He paused in the doorway and his mouth nearly dropped open as he looked around the spacious interior. A bathtub with a separate shower, a large hot water tank, and lo and behold, what to his wandering eye should appear? Yes, Kyle, that is indeed a stackable washer and dryer.

He glanced at Liz, watching her for a moment as she pulled jeans out of the dryer, shaking them out and hanging them over the dryer door. He could see that her mind was still otherwise occupied as she finished emptying out the machine.

“Oh, my turn!” Maria squeezed past him to take over the washer that was now available.

He watched her toss clothes in the washer, sorted by color. That would be enough to make Isabel cringe, he decided. He knew her well enough to know she would be sorting by fabric, color, temperature, and load size. It was no wonder no one enjoyed spending laundry time with her. The room felt small in spite of its size and he knew that could be attributed to the tension that was still hanging over them as a group. “Hey, if you guys need any help unmentionables, I’m your guy,” offered just as Maria reached for the knob on the washer to start the cycle.

She shot a droll stare over her shoulder. “If you’re that excited about getting your hands on someone’s underwear I’m sure Michael’s boxers – “

“No! Do not go any farther with that statement!” He shuddered comically and turned to head back to the living room.

“Kyle.”

He turned when Liz spoke up, his name coming out on a heavy sigh. She was barely looking at him but he recognized the expression on her face. Her mouth was tight, her features set, and dark circles underlined eyes that told him whatever she had on her mind was serious. He wanted to put his hand on her shoulder, offer a bit of comfort, but changed his mind. After what had happened the night before he decided maybe distance was the better option.

“This’s serious,” she said, her tone somber.

He rubbed his open palm over his jean-clad thigh and then shoved it in his pocket as he leveled his voice to quietly agree with her. “Yeah, I know how serious it is, but if I don’t lighten the mood I’m gonna lose it.”

“C’mon, you guys,” Maria said as she moved closer to them.

“I keep going over it.” Liz started to pace in the confined space. “What Future Max said to me and the time he spent with me. I keep trying to make sense out of what he said. At the time I remember thinking I should tell Max regardless of what his future self said but… but he was Max and he said…” she sighed and shook her head.

Maria intercepted her friend, stopping the restless pacing and pulling her into her arms. She was in the process of putting a response together but before she could speak Kyle stepped forward.

“Look, Liz, you’ve gotta give yourself some slack here. You were confronted with an impossible situation that was…” he searched for an appropriate word, “the mother of all situations. And let’s not forget you were 17 years old. I think it’s too damn easy for all of us to lose sight of the fact that we’re still teenagers dealing with things that’d send seasoned adults into a rabbit hole of madness. Just be good to yourself, would you? Not a single one of us can say with any certainty how we would’ve reacted in a similar situation.”

She drew in a shaky breath as she thought about never seeing Alex again and her eyes darted to her friends. She could see the weariness in them. Keeping the secret about Future Max at his insistence had cost all of them. Michael was right. They couldn’t keep secrets from each other anymore. It wasn’t just killing them as a group; it was taking them apart at the seams as couples.

Isabel paused in the doorway with her laundry and her arrival pulled Liz out of her thoughts. She took the moment that she so desperately needed for her logical mind to reboot so she could deal with the issues at hand. She breathed in deeply, inhaling the warm damp air and holding it for a moment before exhaling slowly.

The tall blonde watched the three of them standing there, Maria holding onto Liz and Kyle standing close by. It was like a déjà vu moment for her. Only in her mind she was seeing the girls standing with Alex. What was it they had called themselves?

“The three musketeers,” a familiar voice murmured from beside her.

Even as Alex spoke her gaze was pulled to Kyle. Without realizing it her thoughts settled on him and the way she was drawn to his comforting presence. Kyle and his steady advice, his quiet loyalty, his low soothing voice that could deliver words to calm her and their friends or turn around and crack a joke that could diffuse tense situations. She placed the neatly regimented piles of dirty laundry next to the washer and shot a quick glance at the others before turning to leave the room.

Kyle glanced up and caught her retreat, quickly taking a couple of steps that put him between her and the other two girls. She paused as he leaned back against the dryer, his hands curling around the machine and feeling its warmth soak into his palms. He hung his head to stare at the marble pattern on the tiled floor as if lost in thought while Liz spoke about Future Max. From the corner of his eye he caught Isabel beginning to move again and his left hand slipped off of the dryer to catch her hand. “Stay.”

Liz nodded slowly, acknowledging Kyle’s words as she pulled out of Maria’s embrace. She moved closer to Isabel to include her in the conversation. She thought about the secrets she had kept since she had met Max, and the secret she had kept for Future Max that she, in turn, had asked her best friend to keep. She glanced at Kyle, thinking of the secret she had asked him to keep when she had started to change. How poetic that it would be him coming to her, confiding in her, and then asking her to keep his secret that had caused everything to blow up in their faces the night before. She thought about her dad and remembered something he used to say to her.

“Nothing weighs on us so heavily as a secret.”

Maria nodded wearily. And wasn’t that the truth?

Kyle glanced around at the girls as his own thoughts followed the pattern being established by them. Secrets. They were necessary to their survival but they had to break out of the pattern of using them amongst themselves. The atmosphere in the room was heavy with tension, with leftover pain from the damage of those same secrets. It was well past the point where they needed to leave that habit in the past. He quietly cleared his throat and wondered if he was brave enough to share his experience with them. Discussing it one-on-one with someone who had already experienced something similar was one thing. Opening up to the others was a different story altogether.

“Liz, maybe we should go over it from the beginning,” Maria suggested.

Isabel listened to them as they tossed information from the secret visit back and forth, debating the points. She shifted to stand next to Kyle, leaning back against the dryer and unconsciously leaning against him. As far as she was concerned the visit from some future version of her brother had never happened. It didn’t make sense to her way of thinking. There were too many things that just didn’t fit into the way her brother operated. She was mentally ticking them off when her ears caught Liz’s next statement and she nearly unleashed an indelicate snort of derision.

“Max did what?” she asked, certain Liz meant so say something else.

“He serenaded me.”

“My brother? Max Evans. No.” She shook her head. “Unlike most guys his age he does have that romantic bone in his body but a mariachi band? There’s a thin line between romantic and foolish and I’ve never seen him cross that line. Not to mention I’ve heard him sing.”

“I was there, Isabel, and I’m telling you he sang.”

“In Spanish,” Maria added. “You said he sang in Spanish.”

“He spent a week learning the lyrics from Mr. Delgado over at the hardware store.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll admit I didn’t think he’d do anything that cheesy but… I saw him do it. I mean, we’re talking the full deal with the sombrero and everything. Future Max said he was desperate and had to do something to get my attention.”

Isabel shook her head and stifled a giggle at the absurdity of the mental picture. “I’m sorry but we’re talking about Max. Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to get you alone somewhere and use his powers to lock you in until you listened to him? I can get behind him sending flowers, calling KROZ to dedicate some disgustingly romantic song to you, or making some romantic gesture that would make any other 17-year-old guy cringe, but singing with a mariachi band? That’s really too much. Max was too uptight to get up onstage for karaoke night at the Pizza Pan back home but you really think he learned a song in Spanish, hooked up with a mariachi band, and serenaded you outside your home?”

Liz made a face. “Well, when you put it like that it does make it seem even more implausible.”

“Well, the roses definitely sound like Max,” Kyle said.

“Yeah,” Isabel said with a shake of her head, “until we get to the part where he changes the color midair. Desperate or not, would he really take that risk with the mariachi band right there to witness it?”

“I’m so exhausted.” Liz rubbed her face with both hands. “You’re right, it really doesn’t make sense.”

*****

Michael dropped the last of the wood on the porch next to the door at Kyle and Isabel’s cabin. The temperatures were continuing to drop and when he and Max had finished working on the lean-to they had decided to stock firewood at the cabins before heading inside. At first they were going to leave Kyle to collect his own wood but after considering that he’d been trapped in a small space with three women for the past few hours they had decided to give him a break.

Max leaned over to stack the wood when several of the split logs rolled to scatter across the porch. “You think I came back from 14 years in the future?”

“To tell Liz she had to make you fall outta love with her?” Michael snorted. “No. If you did that’s an awful lot of ego.” He leaned back against the rough-hewn column that supported the tiny cover for the porch and his gaze raked over his friend. “Considerably more than you currently have.”

“So you don’t buy me coming back and asking Liz to do that,” he mused aloud.

“Maxwell, you’re many things and I don’t like all of them. But I don’t see you putting her in a position that’d cause her so much pain. It’s not who you are.”

“And if it was to save the world?”

Michael pushed away from the column and moved to stand right in front of Max. They were nearly nose to nose as they stared at each other. “14 years from now the world has gone all to hell, you’ve watched your friends and your sister die one by one, and you’ve been given the opportunity to go back and change the course of history, prevent all of that from happening. Tell me, Max, do you go to the one person you live and breathe for and ask her to not only do the impossible, but then burden her with keeping that secret and breaking her heart?”

Max shook his head. “No, I couldn’t do that.”

“No, you couldn’t.” He rolled his shoulders and took a step back. “When Tess first showed up she bothered you and not in a good way. You told me that first time when you kissed her it felt like something was controlling you and something was. She was. We know that now. You knew she wasn’t right. She made you uncomfortable. When you’re attracted to someone naturally you don’t feel like that.” He shrugged. “Besides that, if Tess was so damn important to the survival of Earth why wouldn’t he just ask her to find a way to make peace with Tess? At that point she seemed to be kinda getting into Kyle. I didn’t hear anything last night that made it sound like that whole destiny thing is what made the difference in Earth’s survival. If that was the case why wouldn’t he have insisted on pushing me and Isabel together too?”

Max winced when the wind blew snow down off of the roof and into his eyes. “That’s a good point.”

“What about that whole thing with her and Kyle in bed together? Where the hell did she get that idea?” His eyes narrowed when Max shuffled to the side and peered around the side of the cabin. “Max?”

“Michael, what’s it matter?”

“Don’t avoid the question. Last night it didn’t sound like that was your idea, so how’d she come up with it?”

“From Maria, okay?”

“Maria?” He frowned at that. “Why the hell would Maria suggest somethin’ so stupid?”

“She didn’t suggest it. When Liz was talking to her about something… I don’t even think it was related to this mess, but they were talking and Maria was upset. Liz said Maria was talking about finding you and Courtney together and when she saw just how devastated Maria was she thought it’d be the one thing that’d push me over the edge.”

And again part of his past with Maria that hadn’t been dealt with rose up to rear its ugly head. He thought about seeing her with Billy at her house and easily remembered the anger, hurt, and betrayal that had burst to life inside of him. He could understand how successful something like that would be in inflicting maximum damage. It had certainly worked on him with Billy and Maria and on her with him and Courtney. He could only imagine what it would’ve done to him if he’d caught her in bed with that loser, the bedcovers arranged to make it appear as if they were naked beneath them.

He would’ve lost it, he admitted to himself. He didn’t want to think about that. “Let’s get back over to your place.”

Max nodded. “We need to grab the rest of the wood. I don’t wanna have to make another trip out for it tonight.”

They set out to collect the last load of wood so the Honeymoon cabin would be well stocked for the night. They were silent, lost in their own thoughts and paying no attention to the wind that was slowly picking up strength.

*****

Maria watched her best friend as she mulled over Isabel’s points, her expression troubled. “There are definitely some parts of the story that seem to be questionable.”

Liz rubbed her temples. “Like what?”

“Other than the mention of us joining you when you got married he never said anything about the rest of us. Me, Kyle, Alex… where were we?”

“Well, it’d make sense that I didn’t get an honorable mention,” Kyle said with a brief smile. “I may have been part of the club at that time but I wasn’t exactly a welcome addition.” He squeezed Isabel’s hand when he felt her tense. “Not your fault, not my fault, just the reality of the situation at the time.”

Isabel relaxed. The words were meant for her even though he was directing them at everyone in the room.

“I don’t know,” Liz said with a shake of her head. “He only mentioned Isabel and Michael and they were… already gone.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time with the girlfriend and he knows how much we mean to each other,” Maria spoke up. “So why wouldn’t his future self mention the rest of us?”

She pushed down the dark thoughts as she considered that maybe they were already dead in that timeline.

Kyle noted the dark look on her face and had his suspicions where her thoughts were. “I’ve got a better question for you. Where were you, Liz? Did he ever tell you that?” He shifted and his thumb started to rub over Isabel’s knuckles.

Maria chewed on her bottom lip at Kyle’s question. Why hadn’t she seen that one? “Well, none of us got a visit from a future you so that means either he left you behind or…”

Isabel denied that outright. “No, you couldn’t have been dead. I know that for a fact. My brother wouldn’t… no, he couldn’t function if something had happened to you and us.”

Before anyone could respond to her adamant statement they heard the front door open followed by the sound of stomping boots. Liz swallowed hard as the interruption successfully derailed her thoughts that were heading towards a possibility that she didn’t really want to contemplate. What if her future self had sent Max back and she had been left there to die alone? “I don’t know. Maybe I’m the one who sent him to save the world. Maybe it was me who pushed him to come back on the brink of the end of that last battle.”

Maria shook her head as the sound of logs dropping to the hearth punctuated her thoughts. “No way. Even if that was true…”

“There’s no way he’d leave you behind,” Kyle finished. “Why would he leave you there? So you could die alone? Huh-uh, I’m with Maria on this one. If the guy’s Max no way he leaves you there like that.”

Movement in the doorway drew their attention and Max paused to give Kyle a nod before locking eyes with his wife. “That’d never happen, Liz.”

Liz looked at him. He stood there, the man she loved, his stance rigid and proud. The alien side was featured prominently and she could see the demanding, self-determining man he had been on Antar. His demeanor spoke of authority and made it known that his word would go without challenge. His word was law and it was final.

“Liz, it’s one more piece of that story that doesn’t fit. It would never happen. I would never leave you to die alone. Never.” The words were intense, his piercing eyes never leaving hers.

Michael stood at Max’s shoulder, his own eyes on Maria. He shot a glance at his best friend. “Hell, I’ve known that since the day you healed her in the café.”

Liz shook her head. “Maybe I had to stay behind to operate the granolith. Don’t you have to have a key or something to make it work?”

Max moved forward, into her space. “Liz, look at me. Even if that were the case, I wouldn’t leave you.”

“Maybe I convinced you we could change the past to restore our lives.”

He was beginning to get frustrated. “Not without you coming with me,” he ground out.

“What if only one of us could go back? We don’t know how the granolith works when used for time travel.”

He clenched his hands into fists at his sides. His chin dropped, his head tipped forward as his defiant eyes locked on hers. “I said no. NO, do you hear me?”

Kyle moved forward, pausing to pull his hand free of Isabel’s when he realized he had been holding hers, and he brought both hands up. “Hey, this doesn’t matter. The story that Future Max told you is flawed but he came at you with all this information about his sister and best friend dying, the world ending, and putting all of that weight on your shoulders. Nothing in that conversation he had with you indicated he and Tess needed to be together. He said Tess left when you two got together because of the way HE treated her.” He shrugged. “Okay, so why wouldn’t he just suggest you do something to help him treat her better?”

“That’s another good point,” Maria said with a nod. “He didn’t say anything about Michael and Isabel being together, right?” She continued when Liz shook her head. “So why would it matter if Max and Tess were a couple?”

“It didn’t.” Michael moved into the room, shrinking its space further. “The only reason Liz capitulated was because she was guilted into it by Future Max. He put a lot of weight on your shoulders that should’ve never been put there. He or Tess or whatever was controlling that situation knew exactly which buttons to push.”

Max glanced at Michael. “Capitulated?”

He rolled his eyes. “To surrender under specified conditions; come to terms. To give up all resistance… Yes, Maxwell, I know what capitulate means. It’s somethin’ we’ll never do with our enemies. And maybe I don’t always agree with what Liz does but I’ve never seen her just roll over.”

Kyle cleared his throat. “It’s time to drop this. We’re never gonna know the answer. The best we can do is speculate. What’s happened has already happened and we can’t go back and change it. We’re all agreed we need to move forward so let’s start right here and right now.” He took a deep breath and made eye contact with each of them. “Let’s focus on the present. You guys wanna know what happened to me… well, here goes.”

They listened as he explained his experience, giving them the short version but including all of the pertinent facts. “Maybe it was wrong of me to ask Liz to keep it to herself and after hearing what all she’s been asked to carry on her shoulders I wish I’d thought twice about it. When I saw my dad it freaked me out because I’m almost positive I was somehow there. I just wasn’t ready to make a group announcement about it because I know it’s gonna be guinea pig time for Kyle.”

“You’re right about that,” Michael said, not bothering to deny it or sugarcoat it. “First things first though. We’ve got damage control to do with the Stevens after this mornin’ and the best way for us to do that is to grab a nap before dinner. The last thing we need is for us to be up there while we’re exhausted because that makes us vulnerable to making mistakes.”

“I’m good with a nap,” Kyle admitted, not bothering to hide a yawn.

“I’ll second that.” Max draped his right arm over his wife’s shoulders and hugged her close to his body.

Michael’s gaze made the rounds, checking with the girls and nodding when they all gave their agreement. “Alright, dinner’s at six so we’ll meet here about five-thirty.” He looked directly at Kyle. “And after dinner we’ll see what you can do.”

*****

Once everyone had gone, leaving them alone in the cabin, Max locked the door and turned to look at his wife. The silence was loud in the aftermath of the departure of their friends and family. His gaze moved over her as she stood there, one hip leaning against the couch and her arms wrapped around her. If not for the couch he was sure she’d just topple over. They’d all had a rough 24 hours but he could see the toll it was taking on her; physically because he knew she’d had very little sleep the night before, and mentally and emotionally because some of the most painful moments in her young life had been brought to the surface and thrown in her face.

He turned the lights out one by one and moved to stand before her. “Hey,” he said quietly as he reached up to brush his fingertips over her cheek.

“I’m so tired, Max,” she whispered as she leaned into him.

“I know.” His arms came around her and for a minute they just stood there, drawing strength from each other.

She rested her ear against his chest, listening to the reassuring beat of his heart. She hated that Tess had ever come between them, that they had ever allowed it. She didn’t know where the lies ended and the truth began. Even in the worst deception there was usually some form of truth hidden beneath the layers of lies. What if they couldn’t survive without their fourth? What if they had paid such significant costs, suffered such considerable losses, only to buy themselves time but without really changing anything in the end?

“Let it go tonight, Liz,” Max murmured. He had felt her start to tense up and in spite of their agreement as a group to leave the past in the past he knew it could never be that easy.

“What if we can’t survive without having that fourth hybrid in the group?”

“What if we can survive with three hybrids and two humans that’ve developed their own powers? She couldn’t have foreseen this, Liz. We don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future and we can’t control it. Maybe I did come back from the future, maybe I didn’t and it was all one of her mind games, and no matter which one it was we’ll never know. Obsessing over it’s only gonna make your head hurt worse than it already does.” He kissed her temple. “And in the end it’s not gonna change a thing.”

“What’s done is done,” she said quietly.

“Yeah.” He took her hand in his and led her over to the bed, using his free hand to toss the covers back and urging her to lie down. “Do me a favor though, okay?” he whispered as he settled down next to her.

“Anything,” she answered without a second thought.

“If 14 years in the future we decide to go back into the past for whatever reason… just put an end to that suggestion before it gets any further.” He pulled her into his arms and she settled against him with a tired sigh.

“Promise.” His fingers combed through her hair rhythmically, the feeling soothing as it chased the pain away and made her drowsy. Her eyes started to drift closed and she felt his arm tighten around her, felt his lips brush her forehead, and a feeling of safety settled over her as she went boneless in his arms.

Max struggled to stay awake, wanting to make sure she was asleep before he let himself go. He knew the moment she succumbed to sleep and he shifted slightly as his mind went back to the absurdity that he would ever leave her. “I’d never leave you to die alone,” he whispered against her temple. “And one of these days you’re gonna believe it with the same certainty.” The words were a promise, an oath sworn in a slightly slurred voice as he followed her into an exhausted and well-deserved sleep.

*****

Maria lay beside Michael, her eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling as her mind bounced from one possibility to the next like an overactive hamster keeping the wheels in motion. She wondered how and even if their future had been affected because of Liz’s actions with Future Max. If he had even existed in the first place, she thought. It wasn’t like they would ever know for certain if he had. Whether he had or not the damage had been done.

Kyle’s alien ability making an appearance was unexpected but she supposed if they had been paying more attention they would’ve connected the dots earlier. The way he had described his experience intrigued her. Maybe his secret power would somehow change their future for the better. It was possible, she mused. And combined with the powers the others had who knew what they could do?

“Michael?”

“Hmm?”

The sound was drawn out, a clear indicator that he was well on his way to sleep. “Do you think Kyle could’ve really been there?” When he didn’t answer she reached over and shook him to get his attention.

“What?” he grumbled irritably. “Tryin’ to sleep here, Maria.”

“And I’m trying to have an intelligent conversation with you, Michael.”

“Save it.” He tried to roll over and she prevented it be shifting and pinning him in place with her body. He huffed out an impatient breath. “What is so important that it can’t wait until after I’ve had a couple hours of sleep?”

“Do you think Kyle was really in his dad’s kitchen? That Jim could really see him standing there?”

“I don’t know. Maria, can’t this wait ‘til later?”

“It could, yes, but I want to discuss it now while it’s fresh.” She shifted up onto her elbow to look down into his exhausted features. “Don’t you think it’s fascinating? How do you think he got there? Maybe he can like travel through thought waves or something, you think?” Her eyes widened as another thought occurred to her. “What if he can travel through space and time… and take someone with him?” She shook him in her excitement. “Michael, do you know what that’d mean?”

He yawned. “Yeah, it means now I’m gonna have a picture of Valenti in green tights with a little green hat stuck on his head flying through the air hollering about pixie dust.” He grimaced at the mental image of Peter Pan with Kyle’s face. “Thanks for that. I’ll probably have nightmares now.”

Maria stuck her tongue out at him. “It’d serve you right for not taking this seriously.”

“I do take it seriously, Maria, just I’d like to take it seriously when I can think about it seriously. Right now my brain’s too tired to think.”

She rolled her eyes and lay down next to him again. She resumed her perusal of the ceiling and started ticking off the positive aspects of such a power. “Hey, what if he could take more than one person at a time? Or what if he can go wherever and bring someone back with him? Can you imagine the possibilities?”

Silence was her only response and she turned to look at Michael. His features were relaxed, his mouth slack and on its way to hanging open. Not his most attractive look, she decided. She settled down beside him and her temple came to rest against his bare shoulder. They now had three hybrids and two humans with powers. Which just left her. The lone human in the group. How much of a liability was she? It was her last thought as her eyelids slid closed and sleep pulled her into its soothing embrace.

*****

Kyle stared at the stack of firewood next to the door, tipping his head to one side as he tried to figure out why it was there. They didn’t have a fireplace in their cabin so there was no need for firewood. He supposed Max and Michael must’ve brought it over because it was unlikely either of them had paid much attention to how the cabin was heated. He hunched his shoulders against the wind that brought the dropping temperatures along with an additional bite to wrap around them.

He hefted the laundry that wasn’t helping to protect him from the wind. “Damn, that’s cold,” he muttered.

Isabel brushed his hand aside and unlocked the door, pushing it in and rushing inside when he motioned for her to enter first. It was a thoughtful gesture and one she had seen him make many times since they had been on the run. Did he do that for Maria or Liz? Funny, she couldn’t seem to recall whether he had or not.

She found herself wondering again why he hadn’t wanted to talk to her about the changes he was going through. It made sense that he would want to confide in Liz since she had been through the process, one similar if not the same. But why couldn’t he talk to her? Confide in her? For the first time there was something between them that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Was it lack of trust? Or did he not want anything to do with her because he blamed her for the changes? Maybe it was bringing on the resentment over having to run from the only home he had ever known and leaving his dad behind.

He dropped the clean laundry on the loveseat and rushed over to the wall furnace to crank the heat up before returning to the front door and ridding himself of his outerwear. He was relieved to have the secrets out, most if not all. His anxiety over his whole alien experience had notched down considerably and he was feeling a little bit better about that. He was beat and for the first time in days he felt like he could lie down and just fall asleep.

He glanced over at Isabel as she moved around the room, already free of the heavy outdoor clothing. He had felt her pulling away, distancing herself from him since he had opened up and told the others about his newly-emerging powers. He wondered if she was angry that he hadn’t confided in her and then discounted that. There was no reason for her to be mad with him over that. He watched her pick things up and put them down again before finally turning to look at him.

“I think I’ll see if I can sleep for a little while.”

He nodded, not liking the quiet tone of her voice. “You want anything to drink first? Guess coffee’s out but I could make you a hot chocolate?”

She shook her head. “Just… No, I’m just gonna take a nap.” She turned and walked into the bedroom without another word.

Kyle sighed and turned, doing a visual sweep of the room. He rubbed the back of his neck as he crossed to the door to double check the lock and then made a face when he stepped into a small puddle of icy water that had melted. He wiggled his toes and shook his foot in an effort to un-stick the wet spot from the bottom of his foot.

He went back to the loveseat and picked up the two pillowcases filled with freshly washed and folded laundry. He walked over to the main bedroom and quietly crossed to the dresser to set Isabel’s on one end before retreating to his own room. He tossed the Cowboy Mickey Mouse pillowcase on the bottom bunk and folded himself onto the mattress next to it so he could take his socks off. He hung them over one of the rungs on the ladder and stood to grab the mattress off of the upper bunk.

He was situating it on the floor when he paused to look around. He scratched his jaw as he stared at the floor and tried to figure out what was missing. He had been in there that morning to grab a change of clothes before going up to the main house for breakfast and he didn’t remember noticing anything out of the ordinary at the time. His gaze landed on the dresser and the drawer he had pulled out the night before, using it as a makeshift altar.

After his weird experience he had jumped up and taken off, leaving everything in the middle of the floor. He hadn’t even noticed it had been cleaned up when he came back the night before or even that morning. He smiled to himself as he put the mattress down, pulling it towards the doorway and wedging it in before spreading his blankets out over it. He grabbed a fresh pair of socks and pulled them on before pulling the covers up over him and snuggling in for a nap.

He smiled at the thought that Isabel had straightened up after him. There was something nice about that. It wasn’t anything he expected anymore than he expected her to cook or do his laundry. He chuckled and pulled the covers up higher as he thought about the first time she had taken his laundry from him after declaring that he had no idea what he was doing. As far as he was concerned if it would fit in the washer it made a load. She’d had a fit about that. He liked the way it felt when she fussed over him but sometimes… sometimes he really wished there was more behind it. She cared about him and he tried to never take that for granted but every once in a while… The thought wandered through his mind as warmth finally seeped into his body and his eyes slid closed, easing him into the most relaxed sleep he’d had in a while.
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Re: A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part 49- 9/30/12

Postby KindredKandies » Sun Sep 30, 2012 11:02 pm

mary mary: Lol, guys do have their own way of doing things!

Timelord31: Really? Lol, that’s great.

Well, our goal is to have things wrapped up by this Christmas, but a lot depends on RL and whether or not the gang continues to come out to play.

Natalie36: Thanks! We’ll find out how things go soon.

keepsmiling7: Thanks!

Kyle’s a fun character to write and he makes it easy for us most of the time.

Thinking of Tess does tend to tie the group up in knots. If only it was so simple as deciding to no longer think of her.

LOL, not everyone is quite as discriminating when it comes to doing the laundry.

True, did FMax really make that visit? Was he something dredged up to create an even worse rift between them? Hard to say, but provides good food for thought.

Alien_Friend: We’ll see them really start working together now.

Thanks! Lol, it’s hard to say if Max really did that… for the sake of this story though, we’ll find out eventually.

Ah, you so get this! Liz does have the power to convince him and we’ll see her thoughts on that very thing in this part. The writers on the show did leave some rather large holes in the plot, but that’s what gives all of us so many directions to take with ficland.

We’ll be getting to the Kyle experiment in Part 50. Kyle and Isabel are definitely moving at their own pace.

Maria feels a bit… well, like the weak link as the only remaining human in the group. That is something else that will be addressed in time.

Eva: The issue with Tess really did cast a long shadow, so it was long past due for them to get that conversation out of the way. Peace is something they need so badly!

sarammlover: Oh, perhaps in time. ;) Liz has been carrying a lot of weight on her young shoulders. As have all of them. The gang’s been getting some rest, but it’s time now for them to wake up and come back out to play!

cjsl8ne: Thanks, we’ve got more coming up today!



Part 49

Michael stretched his arms over his head and glanced at Maria where she lay sleeping beside him. She was curled up tightly, a clear indicator that she wasn’t relaxed. She had a tendency of sprawling when she was relaxed and for someone her size she could take up more than her fair share of the bed. He knew her mind was going over everything that had happened over the past 24 hours, sorting through the information, picking it apart, and then settling on the parts that centered around Alex.

There was no way of knowing what had really happened the night Liz had maybe been visited by a future version of Max. It was an unknown factor. He sighed and ran a hand over his face. There were too many unknown factors in their situation and he hated all of the uncertainty. He had never been the kind of guy that needed to have every step of his life planned out. That had been Max’s cross to bear and he had been content to let him haul that burden around.

Now that they were living on the run he had a better appreciation of having a good plan. He shifted onto his side and pulled Maria into him when he heard the nearly inaudible sound of distress as she tried to curl up even tighter. He rubbed her arm and felt the rigidity in her body ease fractionally. He hated what this life had done to her.

Maria had never exactly been naïve, but any innocence she’d had left was slowly being whittled away. He could see the changes in her, could see the signs that this life was taking more from her than it could ever give back. These days there was a moment of hesitation before she jumped into a conversation with someone she didn’t know. The hesitation was fine. He wanted her to be careful, to exercise caution around strangers and unknown situations, but it was the rest of it that worried him.

Sometimes he would see a flash of fear in her eyes when they were around people. Sometimes it was suspicion that caused her green eyes to dull. He knew how heavily this life was weighing on her and he hated it. Life was never predictable but being on the run had forced them to adapt in a way none of them had ever imagined.

They had to find a way to get off of the road. That thought had been picking at the back of his mind before they had gotten stranded but after seeing her as she relaxed around the Stevens family, watching her smile and laugh openly for the first time in so long, that thought had really started to take root.

They were gonna have to split up. It was their best chance for ever having anything that might come close to resembling a normal life. She hadn’t liked it when he’d mentioned splitting the group up before. They lived under constant stress but he couldn’t help but wonder if her reluctance to split the group up had more to do with leaving Liz or staying with him. It was a big decision and one he knew had to be made. Soon.

He knew the decision had basically been made. At least as far as he was concerned. It was just a matter of timing. There were certain things that had to fall into place first. The others knew it had to happen eventually even if they weren’t ready to face that fact. He was certain that Canada was the key; if they could cross the border undetected their chances for some sort of normalcy would increase exponentially. He rolled his eyes. Exponentially, he thought with a mental snort. Obviously he’d been spending too much time around Liz.

He turned his head to take a quick look at the bedside alarm clock. They were supposed to be meeting up over at Max and Liz’s cabin at five-thirty and it was coming up on five o’clock already. It would take a good 45 minutes to get Maria up, motivated, and out the door. At the very least, he mused as he gently shook her to wake her. They needed to get their act together because Edward’s suspicion of them was still on high alert. The man hid it well but it was there. He could see it, could feel it, every time they were under the man’s watchful eye.

Maria grumbled and burrowed deeper into him, doing her best to avoid waking up. He muttered under his breath and leaned over to press a kiss to her temple before rolling out of bed. Coffee might ease the annoyance of being disturbed from her nap. Coffee and maybe a little heat, he decided when his feet hit the cold floor. Drag her out of bed and into the cold and pleasant wasn’t going to be a word he would be using to describe her mood. The cabin did feel colder than it normally did in the mornings.

He pulled on clothes, started the fire, got a pot of coffee going, and wandered over to look outside. The tree branches swayed in response to the forceful bursts of howling wind and the sky overhead hinted at the possibility of more snow. He let the back of his hand rest against the glass for a moment before jerking it back and shoving it in his pocket. The glass was so cold he was surprised it didn’t shatter.

Daylight was quickly slipping away and making way for the seemingly endless night. Sure, the days had been shorter in the wintertime back home too, but they hadn’t felt this short. Maybe it was because they were so far north? Maybe he should’ve paid more attention in… well, whatever class that kind of information would’ve been taught. Or maybe it was because the frigid temperatures made it feel so much more confining.

“Is it already time to get up?”

He smiled slightly at the sleepy question and turned away from the window. “Yeah, I don’t wanna be late. No reason to give Edward anymore reason to be suspicious of us. We’ve given him more than enough reasons already.”

She didn’t comment, just nodded and got up. She hissed at the cold and quickly pulled her feet back up off of the floor. “What’re the chances we can hideout in Jamaica?” God, Canada was even farther north and it would probably be even colder.

“Slim to none,” he said, watching her as she jerked a pair of socks on.

“Jamaica would mean sandy beaches, lots of sun, temperatures that would encourage a woman to reveal more skin…” she trailed off and looked up at him through her eyelashes.

“Yeah,” he said slowly. Yeah, he could live with that.

She smiled at his gruff response. “Well, Canada has to have summer too, right?”

“I hope so.”

“That wind sounds bad,” she said as she forced herself out of bed.

“Yeah, and it’s colder than it was earlier too.”

“You should warm the van up.”

“Why? It’s not that far to walk.”

“No, but it’s freezing cold and there’s no reason to end up with frostbite before we get up to the house either. Besides, it’ll be dark when we come back and that means it’ll be even colder than it is now.”

He rolled his eyes and moved into the kitchen to grab their mugs. “Waste of gas.”

“Michael.”

He sighed and nodded. “Fine.”

She rolled her eyes and made her way into the bathroom to splash water on her face. He would never admit it but he didn’t want to walk up to the house in that cold either. He would grumble about it but he would do it for her. She didn’t care why he did it, she decided when she heard the front door open and close, just as long as he did it. Even if he insisted the walk wouldn’t be that bad she knew he didn’t care for the bitterly cold weather. She also knew most of his grumbling was for show because as soon as he realized just how cold it was he would’ve decided on the van himself. She smiled at that thought and went into the kitchen to scoop up the mug he had filled for her.

*****

Liz awoke to the dual sensations of comforting warmth and paralyzing cold. From the neck down her body was a nice toasty temperature but from the neck up her face felt like a frozen mask. She tried to move her facial muscles and they felt like taut rubber bands. Well, that was an interesting sensation, she thought as she pulled the blankets up over her head in an attempt to thaw her face out.

Max was asleep behind her, not seeming to be bothered by the cold permeating the room. She had learned that he could sleep through just about anything when he was relaxed, which wasn’t very often. She was glad that he was sleeping so deeply after everything that had happened. Her eyes snapped open and her heart started to race as the memories of all that had been revealed so recently came back against her will.

Questions continued to plague her and she knew they wouldn’t stop until she could find a way to quell the doubts running through her head. Realistically she knew the chances of ever knowing the truth were slim, but she just needed something that would allow her to close the door on that event. Was that version of so-called future events possible? Did she have the ability to push Max to leave her behind to die alone if it meant his leaving could change the past and save all of them?

She closed her eyes as she tried to imagine the end of the world as he had described it. Their world at the mercy of their enemies, their friends and loved ones dead, and no hope of survival. Tears squeezed past her tightly-closed eyelids as she imagined Maria, Kyle, all of their parents, most likely all dead before Isabel and Michael.

It was unthinkable.

She felt Max frown against her shoulder when her stomach knotted with nausea and she trembled slightly. She slipped out of bed, needing space as much as she wanted to avoid disturbing his sleep. She wandered into the living room, desperately needing relief from the oppressive thoughts. She grabbed the thick flannel shirt buried amid the pile of winter gear hanging behind the door and pulled it on, wrapping it around her and burrowing her nose into the soft material. The fact that it smelled like Max slipped past her as her mind continued to taunt her with the odd pieces of the unfinished puzzle in her head.

She stood before the fireplace, the only light in the cabin coming from the nightlight over the sink in the kitchen. She sighed as she reached out to trace a finger over the journal lying on the mantle. She reached for one of the pieces, mentally turning it over before fitting it into place as she came to a conclusion in regard to the question that wouldn’t leave her alone. The answer was yes, she decided. She could see herself pushing Max to go back in time to attempt to prevent what had happened to all of them.

It’s who she was. She looked for the answers; she was driven to search for the answers to even the most complex problems. It was why she loved science so much. There was an order to collecting data, it was method. She smiled slightly. It was sanity. It was classifying the data, categorizing it, and searching for the patterns that would eventually lead to a conclusion. Yes, in the situation that Future Max had described she could see herself pushing him to leave her behind if there was even the slightest chance that they could all be saved from certain death.

She knew Max was certain that he wouldn’t leave her regardless of the circumstances, but she knew the man she had married. His alien side had once been a king. She had no doubt that in that situation he would have known she was right and he would have done whatever was necessary to save everyone they loved. She let out a groan that was nearly audible before drawing in a sharp breath as she thought about the sacrifice she had made to give him up because what she believed to be a future version of him had insisted it was the only way to save them.

Her fingertips brushed over the journal again and she picked it up, following the worn edge of the paper in search of the ribbon bookmark. In spite of the darkness surrounding her she sought the comfort she knew the tactile sensation would provide. The journal lay open in her left hand and she closed her eyes for a moment as she ran her fingers over the paper and soaked up the feeling of the letters indented in the slightly rough paper. If she concentrated hard enough she could make out some of the words and she smiled as a moment of peace descended over her.

Her serenity was short-lived as she felt herself being pulled back down into the memories that surrounded her and pulled her under like quicksand. The more she fought to get away from them the more they sucked her in and refused to let go. Had Future Max been real? Had he simply tried to change the past using a plan that was flawed? Anger coursed through her. If it was real, how had HE changed the past? She was the one he had been pushing to come up with a way to make him fall out of love with her. Had he come up with the plan that had proved to be the mother of all mistakes? No, he had pushed her to come up with something that would essentially crush him and destroy his trust.

She sighed as the anger began to slide into the background. Before she had enough time to relax, she felt the heat of rage beginning to build once again. Maybe it was all a lie and Tess had gotten into her head. The alien girl would’ve known that she would’ve done anything for the love of Max. It didn’t matter now, she reminded herself. There was no way to discover the truth and even if she could it wouldn’t change anything. There was no magically-altered Granolith that was going to take her back in time to prevent Tess from killing Alex, to stop the Special Unit from coming after them, or to fix things so that they were able to live like normal people with normal lives.

She shuddered, releasing a heavy sigh as she uttered a single grief-laced word. “Alex.” A tear spilled over and rolled down her cheek and barely a breath passed before a second one took up the chase in an effort to catch up with the first one. She stumbled over to the couch, heedless of banging her knee against the edge of the coffee table. She closed the journal with a ragged sigh and placed it on the table, reaching up at the same time to wipe away the tear that was clinging to her chin. She slowly sat up and reminded herself to breathe, inhaling and exhaling methodically as she brought herself under control.

Liz leaned back and stared up at the ceiling as she mentally organized the pieces of the puzzle to take a clearer look at them. There were things now that were so glaringly obvious. Things that hadn’t made sense, things that had nagged at her at the time but there had been no time to process them and lay out an intelligent argument.

Her spine stiffened as she recalled his insistence that she had given herself to him, cementing their relationship in his words, the night of the Gomez concert. He had been so sure of himself. So… so… almost smug in what he claimed to be first-hand knowledge. He had stood there, claiming to have the memory of something she knew she hadn’t been ready for at the time. Hindsight really was 20/20, she thought, so incensed that it stilled her tears.

And then of course, there was the mariachi band question. Isabel was so sure that Max would never stoop so low. Even though her brother had been acting like a lovesick puppy she insisted there was a line he wouldn’t cross. Not to mention, Isabel had made a good point about him using his powers in front of others.

She sat back and rested her head against the cushions, looking around the cabin in a futile effort to get off the Future Max merry-go-round. Her gaze landed on the window, momentarily distracting herself with the snow and Christmas coming. Thoughts of her parents popped into her head and her eyes widened at the memory of her dad interrupting them that night, calling out and asking, “Is that Max again?” He had even walked up to the wall bordering the balcony in time to catch a glimpse of Max as he made his escape.

How had she forgotten that?

She started to gnaw on her bottom lip. Why hadn’t she just asked Max directly about the mariachi band? She shook her head, annoyed that the question only now seemed to be so obvious. She was pulled out of her thoughts when the wind started to gust and the temperature in the cabin seemed to drop a little more each time it blew.

She rubbed her arms, the soft flannel feeling like sandpaper against her frozen skin. She got to her feet and walked over to the window, straining to see the Christmas lights on the Stevens’ porch and whispering a prayer of thanks for the gift of being off the road and safe for a little while.

The others were right, she decided as she stared at the tiny dots of blurry light she could now make out. The wind was blowing the freshest snow around, giving the cheery lights a hazy appearance. Obsessing over the Future Max thing didn’t serve a purpose. She had to find a way to let it go.

She turned to stare at Max. Her eyes had acclimated enough to the darkness to make out his form if not his features. She made her way back over the bed and slipped beneath the covers. She was quickly enveloped in her husband’s warm, loving arms. She would do it, she vowed. It was going to be her mantra. To embrace Max and reach for the future, and let go of Future Max and everything associated with that time in their painful past.

*****

The atmosphere felt confined, as if the endless boundaries of his mind had become solid walls that were slowly closing in on her. She reached out and felt resistance, which confused her. She was surrounded by white and that didn’t make sense either. His mind could be complex at times, strangely intriguing at times, and disgustingly male at others, but the one thing his mind never was, was closed off.

“He’ll never be an open book.”

She turned as the dreamscape changed from the confusing and blinding sea of white, a multitude of colors slowly lending vibrant life to the scene. Alex stood there, his appearance as surprising as it was comforting. “You can’t be here,” she said as the moment from her past, from another foray into the dream world that would be forever immortalized in her mind, leapt to life.

“It’s the upside to this existence,” he said patiently.

It didn’t make any sense. “But it’s not even my dream.”

“No,” he shrugged. “It was always one of my favorites though.” He smiled as he cued the music and offered his hand to her.

Isabel slipped her hand into his, feeling the familiar pang in the vicinity of her heart at the contact. He felt so real and she knew he wasn’t, knew he couldn’t be. For an endless moment in time she allowed herself to get lost in the moment, letting her heart believe that he was still alive and they were dancing to their song.

Reality couldn’t intrude in this place, but even on the dreamplane there were distractions. It was there, just beyond the borders of the intimate setting. Something flickered in the darkness, the insistence irresistibly drawing her gaze time after time. Kyle. Her gaze shifted to focus on those flickers and after a while her palm moved to rest against Alex’s cheek, shocked once again at how alive he felt in these moments.

“It’s Kyle,” she murmured as she kissed him gently. “I need to go check on him. There’s so much going on with him and he isn’t confiding in me the way he normally does. I just need to find out what I can do to help him.” She stared into his gray eyes that had always seen so much more than she was comfortable revealing. “Promise me you won’t leave.”

He shook his head. “As long as you need me I’ll never leave you, Isabel.” His hand came up to brush her hair back and he smiled as he stepped back, putting space between them. “Go now, I’ll be waiting when you get back.”

She left the warmth of Alex’s presence and ventured further out, surprised when the flicker began to take shape and white walls began to erupt from the equally white floor below her feet to stand high on all sides. She experienced a bout of vertigo when she was suddenly thrust up into the air and her arms shot out at her sides so she could maintain her balance. She frowned as she looked around, trying to place why the white walls below seemed so familiar.

She stood, precariously balanced on one short wall as she studied the sharp turns, dead ends, and endless possibility of directional choices. It was a maze, she realized. A maze with interior walls made of mirrors. Okay, that was a little weird. Out of all the dreams she had ever visited this had to be one of the more confusing. No, Kyle wasn’t an open book exactly, but usually there was a sense of order to the dreams.

She nearly jumped out of her skin when a large hand reached down beside her to pull up one of the partitions. Obviously Kyle shouldn’t have eaten whatever he’d found to snack on after she had gone to take a nap because it was giving him nightmares. Her eyebrows lifted when she saw Kyle enter through the opening created by the Hand and a moment later the partition was replaced and the Hand withdrew.

He took a few steps, one hand reaching out to touch the mirrored wall and she moved to see what he was looking at when he jumped back and emitted what could only be described as a high-pitched squeal. “We’ve officially moved beyond weird and confusing,” she muttered when she caught sight of his reflection. Instead of his own reflection, the image reflected back at him looked like a white lab rat. With his face. He shrank back into a corner as he looked up and she turned her head to follow his gaze. Appearing in the form of giants hovering above the maze, Michael, Max, Liz, Maria, and herself were gathered around the maze, faces close together as they waited to see what their experiment would yield.

If the realization of his fear wasn’t so palpable she would’ve laughed at the expressions of demented glee on their faces when their experiment took a few halting steps. Michael, hair in disarray and spiked as if he’d recently been struck by a high-voltage shock, dark eyes crazed, laughed maniacally and demanded that the subject perform.

She wondered if this was how he saw them. How he saw her. That thought hurt and she hoped it was just his overactive mind creating these images. She hadn’t known just how freaked out he was at the thought of developing his powers. They would be an asset, something that could be beneficial to all of them, and she couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t want them.

“Did you want to be different?” Alex appeared beside her, hands deep in the pockets of his jeans, his gray sweatshirt hanging comfortably on his tall frame. “When you were little and you discovered that you had abilities that set you apart from everyone else? When you realized that those differences could be dangerous?”

“No, I guess I didn’t.”

“He’s a human developing alien powers. Liz had a difficult time with it too. What Maria likes to refer to as your ‘secret powers’ isn’t exactly something any of them want.” He smiled at her when she rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I know, but the main reason she refers to them as such is because it drives a certain hybrid nuts.”

“It’s not a bad thing.” She paused for a moment, watching Kyle as he fumbled his way through the maze, occasionally poked and prodded by his observers. “Is it?”

“Not if it’s something you want, something you asked for. It’s not just that they’re developing abilities that’re alien, Isabel; they’re changing, becoming different. You don’t see them as some other life form because this’s who you are; having the ability to heal, to blow things up, to make the occasional trip into someone’s subconscious, those are things you three have spent your lives coming to terms with. They’re running for their lives and trying to adapt to changes to not only what they can do, but who they are. Liz, she’s had some time to begin adjusting to it, to accept that she’s still the same person inside. But Kyle? This’s not only new to him but he’s got Michael breathing fire down his back about showing everyone what he can do.” He chuckled. “I know he means well, but it wouldn’t hurt for someone to remind him that Kyle’s not a trained seal.”

“Michael doesn’t come across like that intentionally. He’s just…”

“I know, he’s wired. There’s a lot going on and it’s got him on edge. Under what passes for normal circumstances for you guys these days that edge is a good thing. It keeps him alert but if it’s not balanced out it tips the scales and he loses sight of what’s right in front of him. Kyle’s weirded out by his new abilities and I think this nightmare demonstrates just how cornered he feels right now.”

Isabel turned to look at the maze and she frowned when the rat released a terrified squeal and jumped back as a wall slammed down, effectively trapping him in a small cubicle. He stood and felt along the walls that were suddenly seamless and she followed his gaze when he glanced up in time to see a net dropping down to ensnare him. She felt the familiar tug as the dream began to fade out and she awoke abruptly.

Kyle drew in a harsh breath as he fought against the net that had wrapped around him, panicking when his struggling only seemed to draw it tighter. He hit the wall behind him and he froze for a moment before clawing at the net again. He snarled in frustration and jerked back, smacking his head hard just as he broke free of the net and his eyes snapped open.

“Damn it,” he muttered as he reached behind him to rub the back of his head. He looked at the mangled mess of his blanket, making a sound of annoyance when he realized it was twisted and wrapped around him. He pushed at it, unknotting it and kicking free of it so he could get to his feet. He gave the pillow a vicious kick and then leaned over to grab the mattress, tossing it back on the bunk and then grabbing the pillow and throwing it in the same general direction. He folded his arms on the top bunk and sighed heavily as he rested his forehead on one fisted hand.

Isabel watched him from the living room and her heart went out to him. He was under a completely different kind of pressure right now and it was taking its toll on him. She moved to the kitchen, making enough noise to let him know he wasn’t alone without intruding into his space.

It wasn’t the sound of movement that caught his attention so much as the scent of freshly brewed coffee. Kyle lifted his head and slowly turned around before shuffling out of his room. He passed by the kitchen, appreciating it when Isabel let him pass without comment. In the bathroom he got himself ready to go to dinner and shook his head as he caught his reflection in the mirror. His hair looked worse than Michael’s had looked back in high school, he thought as he tried in vain to smooth it down.

“Crap,” he muttered. He had no idea how his powers worked and he wasn’t about to try any of that on his head. With the way his luck seemed to be going here lately he’d probably set his hair on fire or something. He looked around and finally ducked out of the bathroom long enough to snatch a comb off of Isabel’s dresser. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. He ran the comb under the faucet and shook it out before running it through his hair, nodding to himself when that did the trick.

He shook off the remnants of the nightmare and wiped the comb on his jeans before leaving the bathroom. He placed the comb right back where he had found it and then left her room to join her in the kitchen.

*****

Michael nearly lost his footing as he rounded the van and he inhaled sharply as he caught himself by grabbing onto the door handle. He cursed under his breath as the sensation of broken glass creeping down his esophagus began to fade. Why would anyone voluntarily live anywhere that had weather this cold? It made no sense to him. He had a feeling Canada was even colder and he was certain he would have moments where he wondered what he had been thinking, but their situation was different.

He wrapped his hand tighter around the handle and gave it a solid tug. And frowned when it didn’t so much as budge. He gripped it with his left hand, pressed the release with his right thumb and gave it another yank. Nothing. What the hell was wrong with it? The damn thing had worked fine the day before.

That would be the day before when it was inside the slightly warmer mechanic shop, right, El Capitan? He could practically hear Kyle’s mocking voice taunting him. He arranged his hands into the position he had just attempted and did a rapid push/pull that would have anyone watching in stitches. The van rocked back and forth but the door stubbornly remained closed. The damn thing was frozen solid. Okay, fine, that was easy enough to fix.

He shook his head and glanced around, making sure he wasn’t being observed. He pulled the glove off of his right hand and placed his palm over the thin gap between the door and the frame, putting all of his concentration into heating the frame so he could get the door open. For just a moment the metal glowed but it quickly faded and he grasped the handle once more, gave it a good solid yank… and frowned when it didn’t open.

He leaned in closer and studied the door before snarling out a curse and jerking on the handle erratically. He finally stopped pulling on it and sighed heavily, his breath appearing in the freezing air for just a moment before melting away. His hand fell away from the door and he stomped around the van to grab the handle for the sliding door, giving it a rough yank and rolling his eyes when it complied with ease.

He reached over the front seat and popped the lock on the passengers’ side door. He pulled his hand back but before he could attempt opening the front door Maria appeared beside him, placed her small hand on the handle, and pulled it open without an ounce of resistance. He cupped one hand under her elbow to make sure she didn’t slip as she climbed up into the front seat and then shut the door after her.

He clambered inside and shoved the sliding door closed before squeezing himself between the front seats. He dropped into the drivers’ seat and shoved the key into the ignition, huffing and puffing as he wiggled and squirmed around to get himself behind the steering wheel.

Maria watched him as he grunted and cursed his way into position. The bulky winter gear was doing nothing to help things along and it took an effort to wait until he was finally situated before she spoke. “Um… Michael?”

He placed his hands on the dashboard, silently insisting that the engine heat faster. “What?” he rumbled when warm air finally began to kick out through the vents.

“Is there a reason you didn’t just get in on the drivers’ side?”

“Do you know how long it took to get up here from the back?”

“Well, yeah.” She motioned to herself. “I was here for that entire production.”

“If someone had to get up here in a heartbeat we’d be screwed. We’re gonna have to figure something out should that situation ever arise.”

“Um-hmm.” Frozen door, she decided.

He turned to glare at her but because of the bulky clothing he didn’t quite pull it off. “What’re you not sayin’?”

“You tried to thaw out the lock and melted it,” she deduced with a knowing smile.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.”

“No, I… I’m not gonna argue with you about this.”

Well, that’d be a first, she thought with an amused smirk on her face. She watched him for a few moments, seeing him as she had the night he had stood in front of her car, surrounded by a cloud of smoke after essentially frying her battery. She chuckled quietly. “Feels like old times,” she murmured. She reached over to put her hand into his, giving it a squeeze. “Try it again.”

“Maria, it’s not even gonna take a minute to get over to pick up Kyle and Isabel,” he complained.

For a split second her mind took her back to that raunchy porno-Aladdin hotel room she had shared with him and she leaned into him, bringing her other hand up to touch his jaw. “Please, Michael?”

His eyes locked onto hers as he released a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding and he gently pulled his hand free of hers to tug his glove off. He shifted around, twisting his body until he was completely uncomfortable, so he could rest his hand over the spot he had melted on the opposite side. He focused on the task at hand and he heard a nearly inaudible ‘pop’ as the door’s locking mechanism became un-welded.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-50-10/26/12

Postby KindredKandies » Thu Oct 25, 2012 11:57 pm

Timelord31: Thanks!

Natalie36: Oh, thank you! We've missed being here with the gang as well. :)


keepsmiling7: Yay! We're glad you liked the update :) Yes, everyone in the group has had some time to reconnect with themselves and each other while off the road with the Stevens' family.

Yes, Michael is correct, decisions have to be made and the question about splitting up will come up again. ;)

I loved the reference to Max being so smug regarding the "cementing" revelation to Liz. That is a visual I will never forget.


Thank you! :D

Thank you for the compliment on the update. As for what's next? Here's more....... ;)

sarammlover- Thank you! As for Kyle and Isabel we'll find out soon... M&M will have their moment as well in coming updates... Yup, we agree with Liz, it's time for her to let go and move on with the man she loves. :)

Alien_Friend: Thank you! Yup, we're glad the gang woke up and came out to play as well, lol.

I like what Alex said about Kyle trying to get use to a whole state of being that Isabel, Max, and Michael have known their whole lives. That's so true. It's a lot to take in.


Thank you! We did as well.
I'll never get tired of the force Maria Deluca has on Michael Guerin.


Ditto! :lol:

Aww, thank you for the compliment. :D

Here's more... ;)

mary mary- Thank you. :) We're glad to be back. Yup, it's our goal to finish at Christmas. Hopefully, the gang will continue to come out to play and RL will behave. lol.


xilaj- So glad that you're reading and enjoying the fic! Thank you for the review. ;)

Oh yeah, we were glad to see Maria teasing Michael and Liz working through her thoughts to move on as well. :)

Kyle and Isabel do have a ways to go and slowly but surely they'll find their way. His dream was a good indicator of where his thoughts are but he has a good support system and Isabel won't let him down.

Eva- Thank you! Oh, so good to see you! We've missed being here as well. :)

Yup, you've got Isabel nailed here, you're on target. :)

Greetings :)

KK


Part 50

Subzero temperatures really sucked the big one, Michael thought as he reached around Maria to knock on the Stevens’ back door. The six of them were huddled up on the porch as the wind did its level best to knock them off of their feet. It hadn’t even been a minute since they had climbed out of the van to navigate their way up to the house but the heat that had poured from the vents and made the albeit brief ride pleasant had dissipated the moment they set foot in the snow. The icy wind was like a living thing, the glacial blast assaulting them without mercy.

Maria stood in front of him, shaking hard enough that he was sure he could hear her teeth chattering. He couldn’t help but be reminded of the night they had stood in this very spot, half-frozen and relying on the kindness of strangers. There were similarities, but some very big differences as well. They hadn’t been dressed to deal with the elements that night and he could remember thinking how cold it was at the time. He snorted silently. Yeah, they were dressed for it now and he was freezing his alien ass off! Damn, what if they had gotten caught unprepared out in this weather?

He glanced at the guys standing on either side of him. Max was using his body to shield Liz from the worst of the wind and Kyle was… well, he was blocking most of the wind for Isabel. She didn’t exactly tower over him but there was a noticeable difference in height. So it was probably good her head was covered otherwise… He frowned. Could you get frostbite on your head? He had no clue. And the cold had to be affecting his ability to concentrate, he decided as he realized the door was still closed.

The wind viciously gusted again and his arms tightened around Maria, bringing her flush against him so that she was practically standing on the toes of his boots. He was tucking his chin into her shoulder when the door suddenly opened wide and Julia was ushering them inside, her voice slightly apologetic and warm with concern.

“Oh, come on inside! I am sooo sorry! We had the door locked because it has a tendency to blow open. You must be freezing!” She pushed the door shut against the wind and slapped the lock into place. She shot a baleful glance at it when it creaked slightly in protest. “Here,” she said as she turned back to their guests, “let me help you out of those coats so you can get right into the living room and warm yourselves up in front of the stove. Once you’ve thawed out we’ll have a nice hot, relaxing dinner.”

Michael’s stomach growled at the very mention of food. It was like déjà vu, he thought as the warmth of the kitchen hit him, almost making his face feel like it was on fire. This time though, the scent of what might be apple pie mingled with the aroma of hot coffee to permeate the air. His eyes followed his stomach’s directive and he sought out the source of the other scent that he couldn’t quite pinpoint. Three large foil-covered pans sat on the stove alongside a large covered pot. Two baskets covered with dishtowels rested on the counter and he wondered what was inside. He barely noticed Julia moving away once their outerwear was put away but she had his full attention when she cracked the oven door open and the scents of apple and cinnamon intensified.

A collective sound of mmm broke out but Maria was the first to speak up.

“Oooh, what is that wonderful smell?”

Julia beamed at their comments. “Why thank you. I thought tonight we’d just keep it casual, have dinner in the living room. And what’s better for a windy, freezing night than comfort food in front of the woodstove?” She motioned to the covered dishes. “Two types of macaroni and cheese, green beans, fresh baked rolls with butter, baked apples with cinnamon sugar, and Magic Bars for dessert.”

The uncharacteristic quiet in the house caught Michael’s attention as Julia ushered them into the living room. Just like she had done that very first night, he mused. He scanned the room, taking notice of the two couches that were once again corralled around the stove along with Edward’s recliner. Brian had wrangled the seat next to Stefanie and Travis was dozing at the other end of the couch. He snorted silently at the kid’s attempt at pretending he was cool enough to be right beside her. His eyes narrowed slightly when he detected movement and he noticed Eddie on the opposite couch, hopefully holding up a blanket as he looked at Maria.

Not happening, kid, he thought as his arms came around his girlfriend who was still trembling from the cold.

Maria rolled her eyes when he pulled her back against him, knowing very well he could see it. She knew it was pointless because he took hints poorly… or just ignored them altogether, she decided when his chin settled into her shoulder. She gave him a hint he couldn’t ignore and shoved her elbow into his ribs, pointing across the room.

It was the unusually small voice rather than the rib jab that drew his focus away from Eddie. He followed the sound over to the corner near the piano where Maggie stood, her expression and stance clear indicators that she was attempting bravery in the face of fear.

“Um, Daddy?” She craned her neck to peer at him. “Cindy wants to know if you’re almost done feeding Elliott.”

Edward glanced at his little girl as he fed the last of the wood through the opening of the woodstove. “Yes, tell Miss Cindy I’m about to close his mouth. It makes a little noise when I close it, but there’s nothing to be scared of.”

It was all Michael could do to hold back a smile as he watched her. She was clutching her polar bear tightly in both arms, her cheek pressed up against the little bear as she waited for Cindy’s next words. She was standing her ground in spite of her fear. A lot like someone else he knew. He brushed a kiss against Maria’s cheek and gave her a gentle hug.

Maggie straightened up and loosened her grip on the bear in her arms. She swallowed hard as she tipped her chin up just a bit. “It’s okay, Daddy. I’m not afraid of Elliott closing his mouth. It just makes Cindy jump a little.”

“Who’s Elliot?” Maria asked curiously.

Maggie smiled up at the couple and pointed at the woodstove. “He’s a good dragon, not like the bad dragon in that movie Brian an’ Eddie made me watch.”

“A dragon movie, huh?” Michael asked as he hunkered down next to the little girl. “What movie are we talkin’ about?”

Maggie’s lips thinned and she squeezed Cindy tighter but before she could say anything Edward spoke up.

“That would be The Dragon Slayer,” he said, shooting a hard look at his boys.

Kyle, who was animatedly talking to Stephanie, heard the title of the movie and paused his conversation with her to throw in his two cents. “Oh, hey, that’s the one with that really cool scene where the dragon comes up outta the water…”

Isabel rolled her eyes when his arms lifted in mimicry of the dragon rising from the water. She wondered if he had any idea just how ridiculous he looked at that moment.

“Yeah, he comes up right behind the dragon slayer and all the guy hears is this intake of breath before the dragon just lets loose with that flamethrower. It was an awesome…” he cleared his throat when he caught the glare being aimed at him by El Capitan. “Right, that was just an awesomely horrible scene.”

“Good try,” Liz whispered when Max smirked at the way Kyle was backpedaling.

“Yeah, Elliot’s not like that mean dragon,” Maggie said, once again directing her words at Michael and Maria. Her voice dropped to a stage whisper. “That was a bad movie!”

“It wasn’t a bad movie,” Eddie insisted. “Brian talked me into watchin’ it when Mom an’ Dad were out on New Years’ Eve. And Maggie said she wanted to watch it.”

“Did not!” Maggie denied.

“You did too,” Eddie argued. “Not that it matters, you got that goofy kids’ movie about the good dragon for Christmas.” He made a face at the memory. He knew the name of the stupid movie because Dad had made him watch it with her like a hundred times for letting her see The Dragon Slayer. And he hadn’t complained at first since the movie had made her have bad dreams for a while and he’d felt bad about that, but after like the tenth time he had stopped feeling bad and just never wanted to see the movie again.

“What about you, Michael?” Maggie asked as she looked at Michael.

“Me?”

“Did you see Pete’s Dragon? Or did you watch Brian an’ Eddie’s bad movie?”

“Uh, no, can’t say as I’ve seen it.” He glanced up when Edward closed the grate and it squeaked in protest. “That’s who you named the um…” he pointed at the woodstove, “dragon after?”

“Um-hmm, ‘cause he’s a nice dragon.” She smiled and pointed out the body of the ‘dragon’. “Don’t you think he looks like a nice dragon?”

He followed her pointing finger, taking in the wide iron grated door that carefully guarded the hot coals and flames. He took note of the shape of the stove and the rough metal segmented cylinder exhaust that twisted around to connect to a vent in the wall. “Yeah, he looks like a pretty nice dragon.”

“Alright, everyone, let’s go, dinner’s ready,” Julia announced from the doorway. She ushered her family and guests into the kitchen, having them form a line and pick up a plate and utensils to serve themselves. Once their plates were full she sent them back out into the living room to settle down and enjoy their meal.

Half an hour later Isabel was sitting on the sofa close to Kyle, wondering why Stephanie seemed to think he was so hilarious. Sure, he could be funny, but really? She knew while he was busy running his mouth and entertaining the Reindeer Whisperer at least he wasn’t solely focused on what was waiting for him back at the cabin and she couldn’t really fault him for that. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something just wasn’t setting right as she watched the two of them making small talk and laughing.

Kyle was reaching over to grab another roll from the basket Julia had placed on the coffee table and he caught sight of Isabel as she shifted her gaze to the empty tree stand in front of the window, still waiting to be filled for Christmas. He could almost see the kaleidoscope of colors go off over her head as the proverbial light bulb switched on.

Isabel looked at Maggie, smiling at the little girl who was sitting in her chair next to her daddy, her empty plate balanced precariously on her lap. “Maggie, are you just about ready to be Santa’s Little Elf Helper?” she asked.

Maggie started to bounce up and down in her seat, nearly upsetting her plate. “Oh, yes! Christmas on the Lake is the day after tomorrow! Mama an’ me, we have Santa’s arrival marked on the calendar and we put an X on every day to see how many days is left.” She turned her head to look at Mama. “Is it time yet to put an X on today?”

Julia smiled. “Soon. After you’ve cleaned up for bed and have your PJs on.”

The little girl stood up, oblivious to the ‘dragon’ behind her as she faced Mama, her plate in hand. “Is it time for Magic Bars? Cindy’s ready for hers.” A log shifted in the woodstove and made a crackling sound and her gaze shot to it as she took a step back towards Daddy.

“Y’know, I don’t know what a Magic Bar is,” Michael said as he shifted to sit on the edge of the cushion. He turned from the waist to take his girlfriend’s empty plate and stacked it on top of his before getting to his feet. “Princess Maggie, maybe you could introduce your Captain to dessert,” he said to draw her attention away from the woodstove.

Maggie’s eyes widened as she turned to look up at him. “You never had a Magic Bar?” She crossed the room and reached up to take his free hand and started to tug him along with her. “You gotta have one, Michael. It’s like that commercial for tater chips… you can’t eat just one.”

“I think we should limit Michael to just one,” Kyle said with a grin. “Too much sugar and he’ll be bouncing off the walls. Maria will never be able to put him to bed tonight.”

“You’re a funny guy, Valenti,” Michael muttered, leaning over the back of the couch and freeing his hand long enough to give Kyle’s ear a hard flick. He lowered his voice so his words didn’t carry past his intended target. “At least I’m not sleepin’ with Mickey Mouse.”

“Hey,” he rubbed his stinging ear and turned to glare at Michael, “keep it up and you could be.”

Michael just snorted at that and glanced down when Maggie’s little hand slipped into his again. “In your dreams.”

Isabel could’ve kicked him when she saw Kyle swallow hard at the unintentional reminder of the nightmare he’d had before they had come up to the house. “Michael…”

He looked at Isabel when she called him. “Yeah?”

“Don’t overdo it,” she warned and knew from the way he glanced between her and Kyle that he had gotten the message loud and clear.

“So anyway,” Kyle said as his attention focused on Stephanie once again, “you were explaining why you’re sleepin’ down at the barn tonight instead of in a nice warm bed.”

“The wind’s getting worse and it helps settle the reindeer.” She smiled and flipped her hair back over her shoulder. “They were born in captivity so they’re not accustomed to the elements the way that wild reindeer are.”

Travis settled deeper into the cushions and yawned widely. “What she means to say is she needs to be there to keep an eye on the space heaters she’ll be using to keep the temperature in the barn from freezing our furry friends.”

“Mom, may I be excused?” Eddie asked as he finished his dinner. “I’m ready for dessert.”

“Yeah, me too,” Brian said as he got to his feet.

Julia nodded and motioned for them to make themselves scarce. “Speaking of the temperatures,” she said, drawing the gazes of the others in the room, “they are dipping down very low tonight.” She looked at Isabel. “Two of the cabins will fare well in these situations, but I’m afraid the cabin you and Kyle have won’t provide you with adequate heat to get through the night. Edward and I thought you’d be more comfortable staying here at the house tonight.”

“Oh, well…” she and Kyle exchanged a look. As much as she knew he would like to avoid what was waiting for them at the cabin after dinner, they both knew putting it off was only going to put Michael more on edge.

He caught the sympathetic look in her eyes and he reached over to take her hand as he looked at Julia. “We appreciate that. We had plans to spend a little time together after dinner, so if it’s alright, maybe we could come back a little later?” Part of him wanted so badly to avoid what was coming, but the other part wanted to get it over with. Who knew, maybe somehow he would get some answers about what was happening to him. At least he didn’t have green sparks arcing off of his skin the way Liz had when she had started to develop her powers.

“Oh, no, of course.” Julia smiled. “Every couple needs their alone time.”

Max snickered at that, earning him a glare from his sister that promised revenge when he least expected it. He didn’t care. It would be worth it.

“Stop teasing them,” Liz murmured as she stood and took his plate. “Would you like some dessert?”

He looked up at her and smiled as he wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

She couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled up at his expression and she didn’t try. She felt freer than she had in so long and she wanted to embrace it. “I’m gonna clean up a little bit and then I’ll bring you something.”

Max felt his heart nearly trip over itself when she laughed and it sounded so carefree and unburdened. “Could I talk you out of a coffee too?”

She sighed and rolled her eyes playfully. “Well, I guess I could bring you a cup of coffee. I’ll expect payment later, Mr. Evans.”

He grinned as he nodded. “And you shall have it, Mrs. Evans.”

“I think I’m gonna barf,” Kyle muttered when he overheard the quiet, teasing conversation.

“Don’t you save that for after a beer blast?” Max asked with a quick glance at him.

He looked at Liz. “Is nothing sacred?”

“Not only is that not sacred, it wasn’t exactly a secret, Valenti,” Michael said as he came back into the room with a small plate and sat down next to Maria. He lifted his elbow to block his friend’s hand when he reached for one of the treats on his plate. “Hey, you want someone to bring you dessert, ask your wife nicely.” He snorted and held the plate out towards Maria to offer her one of the sweets. “Although, if I were you, I think I’d ask very nicely.” He watched Maggie settle down next to her daddy again before turning his attention back to Maria.

Maria broke off one corner of the dessert and popped it in her mouth, her eyes widening as the chocolaty-buttery goodness melted on her tongue. The flavors of coconut and graham cracker crumbs combined with the sweeter flavors to create a taste that was simply unbelievable. “Oh, my gosh,” she mumbled, “that’s so good!” She looked at her boyfriend. “Did you…” she reached up to wipe a smudge of chocolate from the corner of his mouth. “Nevermind.” She broke off another small bite and leaned forward to kiss him before getting up. “Don’t eat all that because I’ll be back before long and I’d like to enjoy the rest of it.”

He popped part of the Magic Bar in his mouth and his gaze bounced between her and Liz. “Where’re you goin’?”

She reached down to press her forefinger under his chin and he obediently closed his mouth. “Not attractive,” she whispered. “I’m gonna help Liz clean up the kitchen.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Julia insisted when she realized what the girls intended to do.

“We’d like to do it,” Maria said as she and Liz moved to the doorway.

Michael and Kyle looked at each other and rolled their eyes.

We’d like to do it? Kyle mouthed.

Girls, they thought at the same time.

“Hey, Maria, where’re you goin’?” Eddie asked as he came out of the kitchen with dessert.

“Liz and I were just gonna clean up the kitchen.”

“Oh.” He looked around them at the living room. “Well, I could help you.”

“You know what? That’s really sweet and I appreciate it, but we thought maybe we’d have a little girl time while we’re cleaning up.”

“Girl time?” he echoed with a confused look on his face.

Brian smirked at his clueless little brother as he squeezed past them to go back to the living room. “That’s what they call it when they go off together to talk about guys,” he said wisely.

“You’ve cracked the secret girl code,” Liz said, shaking her head.

The teenager bit into a Magic Bar and grinned smugly. “I know.” He continued on his way into the living room with his brother trailing behind him.

Maria snorted as she and Liz went to work in the kitchen, working around each other with practiced ease. “We go off together to talk about guys,” she muttered under her breath. “Can you believe that?”

Liz laughed quietly. “Isn’t it true?”

The blonde paused for a moment and thought about that. “Well, okay, most of the time it probably is true but that’s not the point.” She giggled and handed Liz another dish to place in the soapy water she had filled the sink with before going back to drying the silverware and placing them in the proper drawer.

She watched Liz as she scrubbed the baked-on apple and cinnamon and noted the easing of her facial muscles and the gleam in her eyes. For the past couple of days her complexion had appeared dull, her eyes lifeless, and her own heart just felt lighter in response to her best friend’s more relaxed features. She smiled when Liz glanced up at her and her lips lifted in response to the look on her face. How many times had they looked at each other and without a word between them known exactly what was on the other’s mind?

It was a moment of comfort, the sort she would’ve experienced back home when they were closing up for the night at the Crashdown or maybe just sharing a meal together before starting their shift. She smiled when the scent of cinnamon wafted through the air as the water in the sink sloshed in response to Liz’s vigorous scrubbing.

“That smell reminds me so much of Mom’s cinnamon rolls. Remember the ones she’d bake for Christmas morning?”

Liz’s hands stilled as she lost herself in the pleasant memory. “Yeah, she’d always drop some off at the café on Christmas Eve and the customers would take an order to go so they’d have them to share with their families on Christmas morning.”

Maria felt her chest squeeze at the memory and she swallowed hard as she wondered if her mom would be making the cinnamon rolls this year. Would Jeff Parker even care about selling them to his customers this Christmas? She cleared her throat and steered the conversation to a safer topic. “Okay, so keeping with tradition, Chica… how’re you doing? You and Max look like maybe things have gotten better.”

“Yeah,” Liz said and smiled, “yeah, I think maybe we’re getting back on track.”

“You’ve found a way to leave what happened in the past?”

“Some of it’s a little… well, not easier, but certainly less difficult than others, so I’m just trying to focus on finding acceptance with them one thing at a time.” She shrugged. “There’s no way we’ll ever know what happened with,” she turned to make sure they were alone and lowered her voice, “Future Max, but other than a question or two I’ve put it where it needs to be.”

Maria nodded and threw her arms around her best friend. “I’m so glad things are getting better for you and Max. And you’re right, Chica, it’s best to let that go. Sometimes we have to accept that we’re never gonna have all the answers.” She laughed quietly as she leaned back. “I know for someone with a brain that works like yours doesn’t find that easy to accept, but you’re less likely to drive yourself crazy this way.”

“What about you, Maria?” Liz asked. “How’re things going with you and Michael?” She reached into the sink to pull the plug so the water could drain and then took the dishtowel from Maria to dry her hands. “Have you guys really talked? Maybe dug up a few of your own issues that needs to be dealt with?”

“Things have been pretty hectic,” she hedged. She sighed and turned to lean back against the counter as she twisted the towel in her hands. After several minutes she shook her head. “No, we haven’t really sat down and talked. And I know we’re running out of time because he’s ready to pack everyone into the van and hit the road again as soon as Christmas on the Lake is over.”

Liz snorted. “You know we’re not leaving before Christmas. Isabel won’t allow it.”

“I know how he can be when he feels boxed in and he’s restless. I understand where he’s coming from, ya know? And I know we can’t stay here forever, but if we could just stay through Christmas.”

“He sounded pretty serious the other night when he was talking about all of us splitting up.” She shook her head. “I like the thought of not being on the road all the time, but… the six of us not being together? I can’t even imagine it.”

“It would be nice to live someplace that didn’t have wheels.” Maria laughed. “I wouldn’t miss Michael propping his feet on the dashboard and clipping his toenails, Kyle snoring loud enough to rattle the windows, or Max eating those damn sunflower seeds and leaving the shells everywhere.”

They looked at each other and spoke at the same time, “And Isabel griping about all of them.”

Liz chuckled. “I’ll take the sunflower seeds over toenail clippings any day.”

“Both of those habits suck for everyone else riding with them.”

Maggie ran into the kitchen and looked up at them. “Are you guys done yet?” She was clutching something red and white to her chest, nearly suffocating Cindy who was buried behind the material.

Liz looked around and nodded. “Yeah, I think we’re finished.”

“What’ve you got there?” Maria asked as she dropped to one knee in front of the little girl.

Maggie’s eyes widened and she grinned. “Isabel wants to see my elf costume and so Mama said I could get the Santa hats for everyone!”

“Everyone?” Liz almost choked on the word.

“Well, there’s not enough for everyone, but Michael and Max were really nice an’ said they’d let you wear theirs.” Her smile widened and she lowered her voice. “I got an elf hat though an’ since Max is an elf too I’m gonna give it to him.”

“That was nice of them, wasn’t it?” Maria asked as she and Liz each took a hat. She stifled a laugh when Liz reached out to run her fingers over the rougher green material of the elf hat… that had large elf ears sewn onto the sides. “That’s a pretty cool hat, Maggie.” She had a feeling he was going to be happy to see the one his sister had picked out for him to wear for the Christmas on the Lake festivities after seeing the atrocity the little girl was going to present him with.

“Eddie picked that one out last year.” Maggie grinned. “He put it on Daddy when he was sleeping and Mama took a picture of him.”

“I’ll bet that’s a great picture,” Liz said with a laugh.

They walked into the living room, hearing Isabel as she went over the planner that was never far out of reach. Kyle was leaning forward, his chin resting in his hand as he reached over to point something out.

Maria’s gaze immediately sought out Michael, easily picking up on the tension in him as he listened to Isabel assigning more duties and making notes. He was ready to leave, to go back to the cabin so he could find out what Kyle could do.

The girls sat down next to Michael and Max, looking up to catch Julia and Isabel looking at them before they had time to wiggle around and get comfortable. The glanced at each other and smiled as they faced the head of the holiday insanity and only encouraged her when they asked, “Is there something we can do?”

Beside her Maria could feel Michael tense up even more and she shifted to lean into him as she slid her hand into his, lacing their fingers together.

Isabel checked something off of her list as she smiled in satisfaction. “Yes, there is.”

Maggie leaned against the arm of the couch closest to Isabel and peered at the planner over her shoulder. “Is there gonna be practice for Santa’s Elf Helper?”

Liz leaned forward and smiled warmly at her. “Oh, yeah, if us elves have to be there, so does Santa’s Elf Helper.”

The little girl squeezed her beloved toy tightly to her chest. “Here that, Cindy?” She looked around the room before her gaze settled on Isabel once more. “Oooh, can Cindy help too?”

“I’ll bet Isabel doesn’t have anyone down for cookie duty yet,” Max said as he draped an arm around his wife’s shoulders. She settled into his side, her body relaxed and the smile on her face telling him everything he needed to know. He glanced over at Michael, noticing the way he was watching Isabel and Kyle so intently. His gaze dropped to the couple’s linked hands and he wondered if either of them was conscious of Maria’s free hand softly stroking his arm in a soothing gesture.

“Max?”

He looked down when Maggie called his name and he focused his attention on her. “Hey, Maggie.”

“I brought you an elf hat. I forgot you already got one though.”

He held his hand out for the hat and cringed internally when he got a good look at it. “That’s really somethin’, isn’t it?”

“Now that is impressive,” Kyle spoke up. “Finally a set of ears that rivals yours, El Presidente.”

Max shot a look at him. “You know, Isabel does have my costume all picked out, but… if it’s okay with you, and only if it’s okay with you, I’d really like to share with my good friend Kyle.” He turned the hat in his hands, fingertips brushing over the obscenely large ears poking out from the sides of it. “I know he’s not an actual elf, but, I think Santa would probably be willing to make him an honorary elf for Christmas on the Lake, don’t you?”

She smiled brightly and turned to look at Isabel. “Would Santa do that?”

Isabel could practically feel the negative energy pouring off of Kyle at that moment. “Well… I tell you what. I’ll definitely check on that because that hat is too special to miss the big event.”

Kyle glared at her. “I’m not worthy of that hat.”

Max snickered. “Oh, Kyle, no one is more worthy of that hat than you.”

Michael shifted and his eyes moved around the room, slowly checking on everyone and noting where they were. Edward was passed out in the recliner, sleeping soundly while conversation flowed around him. Travis had excused himself a while ago to go and check on the reindeer, giving his sister a little more time to enjoy the warmth of the house. The boys had taken off to play a video game for a bit before bed and Maggie of course, was busy working out her busy elf schedule with Isabel.

Time to get this show on the road, he thought. He gave Kyle a pointed look before he turned to brush a brief kiss to Maria’s cheek. He eased his hand from hers and stood to stretch, faking an impressive yawn before dropping his hands to his sides again. “Time for Santa’s elves, wranglers, assistants, and elf helpers to get some sleep,” he said, his tone leaving no room for argument.

*****

Kyle could feel them staring at him as he dropped down on the loveseat, still bundled in his winter gear because it was so freaking cold in the cabin. His first stop upon arrival had been the thermostat, but it was doing little to break the chill. Break the chill, he snorted silently. Nothing was going to help the cold front that had settled over the cabin. No wonder Julia had suggested he and Isabel sleep up at the main house for the night. With these temperatures about the only resident it would be fit for would be Frosty the Snowman. Or maybe the Snow Bumble. That thought hit him when Michael started to move through the rooms restlessly, his movements slowed considerably by the bulky outerwear he was still wearing.

Isabel watched him as he played with the remote, certain that he probably had no idea it was even in his hand. Without even realizing it she started to mimic his movements, the pendant on her necklace rasping against the chain as she drew it back and forth. His nerves were stretched thin even though he tried to hide it. His nightmare played over and over in her mind and she could only imagine how terrifying his new abilities were to him. She understood how important it was for them to know what he could do and she knew their situation only added more pressure. No matter how much she wished they could take things at a pace that was comfortable for him she knew it wasn’t possible.

“Kyle, do you remember when I started to develop my powers?” Liz asked as she released Max’s hand to move closer to her friend.

He glanced up at her, his right hand in constant motion as he flipped the remote over and over. “Yeah.” He chuckled and it sounded strained. “Kinda hard to forget that.”

“You supported me through that whole thing. We’re all here, Kyle, we’ll get you through this.”

Maria nodded. “I know this’s scary…” she trailed off when he shot a baleful glance at her. “Terrifying?” Another look, this one bordering on a glare. “Um, intimidating?” That earned her a derisive snort. “Okay, I can’t think up an appropriate word to describe masculine fear at the moment, but what I was trying to say is that it’s gonna be alright.”

“Uh-huh, and if I don’t come back? What happens if I end up traveling through the alien version of the Twilight Zone?”

“You kinda know what you can do,” Liz reassured him, “so maybe your power somehow allows you to connect to an object, place, or person you know.”

“You said you were trying to meditate, right?” Maria asked. “You let your mind go blank and then you started to think about…?”

He shrugged helplessly. “That’s the thing! I’m not sure. I don’t recall actively thinking about bein’ back home in our kitchen, so I don’t know if that’s what happened.”

“What about after?” Liz sat on the arm of the loveseat next to him. “Any idea what brought you back?”

“Sheer panic,” he responded with a shrug. “I mean, it was so real. I could see Dad, I could feel that damn loose tile rocking under my boot, I could smell his five-alarm chili, and when he saw me he looked shocked.”

Maria glanced up when Michael shifted and she realized he had stopped pacing, a sure sign that he was at the end of his patience. “Kyle, do you remember that time when everyone back home disappeared? We were all alone outside of town at the ‘Welcome to Roswell’ sign and Liz had just disappeared right in front of us? You remember that huge Skin guy that attacked us?”

Michael frowned as he listened to her recounting the story. Where had he been when that had happened?

Kyle shrugged. “Yeah, I remember.” He remembered turning the Skin to dust and then disappearing into the great unknown right after. He had no memory of where he had been, of how long he had been gone, all he could remember was that for that brief time he simply hadn’t existed. He swallowed hard. He didn’t want to just fade from existence again. Maybe their lives weren’t ideal but that didn’t mean he was ready to just let it go.

“We made it, Kyle,” Maria said quietly. “We survived that and we’ll survive this. Just try and see if you can do it again. You’re not alone in this. We’re here and we won’t let you get lost. Maybe try to concentrate on your dad or your house back home and let’s see what happens.”

“And if it’s a one-way ticket and I don’t return to my current position as Assistant to the Christmas Nazi?”

“You will,” she said, her voice insistent. “And if worst comes to worst Isabel can dreamwalk you.”

“No centerfolds being fed chocolate cake and no towel boys,” Isabel muttered.

“Okay, Kyle’s starting to feel a bit like a trained monkey and he’s not a trained monkey.” He rolled his head from side to side, the sound of vertebrae popping into place making the girls wince. He linked his hands together and cracked his knuckles and Liz got up to move away from the sound. He was attempting to relax but between the cold and the tension humming inside of him that was an impossible feat.

Maria watched him for a moment before speaking up. “Is there anything we can get for you that’d make this any easier?”

“Maybe a life-size statue of Buddha would help,” Max offered, taking a step back when all his comment earned him was twin glares from his sister and his wife. “Or not.”

“Lay off, Max,” Isabel insisted. “He’s been through enough without your smartass comments.”

“Valenti, we’ve gotta know what you can do,” Michael said, the words ringing through the cabin like a directive rather than a request.

He slouched down further into the cushions and dropped his head back to stare at the ceiling as he released a pent-up breath. “Okay already, I get it,” he said sharply. He focused on calming his breathing and inhaled shakily. “The things I do for my friends.”

The room fell silent as they all stopped to watch him and after a moment Michael resumed his pacing but his gaze never moved from Kyle.

He shifted his position slightly, straightening up and closing his eyes as he forced his mind to go blank while he cleared his thoughts. Once he had pushed everything else aside he formed a picture of his dad in his head and slowly the scene began to fill itself in as the living room came into focus. His heart started to race as the feeling of being pushed underwater began to come over him and his expression revealed that panic.

Maria moved to sit next to him, watching him carefully and wondering if they could stop whatever was happening to him if they needed to. His breathing began to increase and behind his closed eyelids his eyes were moving rapidly. He reached out blindly as if he was grasping for something to anchor him and without thinking Maria lifted her hand.

“Maria, no!” Michael shouted as he realized what her intention was but it was too late. Her hand wrapped around Kyle’s and as soon as she touched him they vanished from sight.
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