A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Complete

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

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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-51- 11/11/12

Postby KindredKandies » Sun Nov 11, 2012 11:16 pm

xilaj: Oh thank you! Your review put a big grin on our faces. Kyle is one of our favorite characters to write. We feel he was underused in the series and have found his loyal friendship and sense of humor the glue that has held them all together these last six months. You're on target with Michael and Kyle in this situation of Kyle accidentally disappearing with Maria... Here's more ;)

Candyliciouslovah: We're glad you're enjoying our fic. Thank you for reading... Here's more. ;)

keepsmiling7: Left you on the edge of your seat? *Cindy says to not lean too much more forward or lean too far backward.* Thank you for the compliment. :) Oh yes, Isabel and Christmas go together. For her being here with them on the run it's her way of coping with being away from her family.

Beautiful family story.


Thank you! Here's more....

sarammlover: Lol, your reaction mirrored Michael's perfectly.

We're back though, and now... here's more. ;)

Alien_Friend:

What????????????????? Kyle can make people disappear!!!! That's crazy!! I love it! I wasn't expecting that at all.


:D Yay!!! Mission accomplished. We're so glad you like it. We've been working the story up to this point for a long time and so couldn't wait for Kyle to get his powers. Thank you for the compliment.

I love the details in your scene, you can really picture everything and feel like you are right there with the characters. I know that must take forever.


Thank you, and you're so right. It does, lol.

We're glad you enjoy the moments between the guys and the kids. We enjoy writing them. ;)

Yes, more updates are coming. Here's one for now...

Thank you for your wonderful review

"Wait." Maggie pulls KK’s arm. "Mama says to come to the kitchen, she has a pan of Macaroni and cheese, baked apples and magic bars for Alien_Friend."

*KK asks what the occasion is?* Maggie wrinkles her nose and turns to whisper into Cindy's ear and then turns back to KK after Cindy whispers back to her..* "Cindy says that Mama found out that it was her birthday a couple days ago."

Hmm, looks like we'll have to get someone to deliver it for us. ;)

Timelord31: Thanks!

Eva: Hey girl, so glad to see you again. ;) Yup, Kyle's power is similar to Liz's and to Isabel's. We'll be finding out more in this update. :)


Part 51

Jim Valenti wasn’t a man prone to pacing. But pace he did. Up and down, back and forth, any direction his feet carried him. He was a man who worked things out in his head, rationally, focused, and without falling back on nervous behaviors. But this involved his son and that threw rational right out the proverbial window. He hadn’t been able to rest since Kyle had appeared in the kitchen, trying to remember everything about the younger man as he had stood there, his expression a mix of hope, relief, fear, and confusion.

“Jim.”

He turned his head to look at the woman sitting in his living room. He had almost forgotten she was there. He had gone to see her only after his shift had started that morning, stopping in at her shop to ask her to stop by in the evening. As the days had passed and weeks had turned into months, the eyes on them had started to slowly withdraw from their small town. They operated under the assumption that they were still being watched, knowing it was too risky to think otherwise. Their children’s lives were at stake and they were careful when they met, spoke, made phone calls, or communicated in any way.

He had maintained communication with Agent Duff and she had provided him with the necessary equipment to perform regular sweeps of all their residences and places of employment. She had filtered information to him when she was able to and thanks to her help they knew their children had narrowly escaped the agents tracking them on more than one occasion. She couldn’t give them any real information about them because she had no way of knowing how they were holding up under the pressure of living on the run.

Just that morning he had swept the house again and the device hadn’t registered evidence of any surveillance equipment. He hadn’t slept since seeing his boy standing in the kitchen, afraid to leave the house in case he showed up again. He was beginning to think he had imagined the whole thing and had even ended his shift early, claiming he didn’t feel well and needed to go home. No one had questioned him because after hours of walking the floor, staring at the spot Kyle had stood in for barely more than a breath, he looked like he could be coming down with the flu.

“I saw him,” he said quietly. “He was here.”

Amy Deluca sat sideways on the couch, her right leg tucked beneath her and her chin resting in her hand. “I believe you, Jim.”

“He stood right there in the kitchen. He looked at me, called out to me, and just as he took a step towards me he disappeared.”

She bit her lip to keep from asking a bunch of questions that he didn’t have the answers to. His son had only been there for a moment, only uttered a single word, so she knew pressuring him for answers would only complicate the situation. “That isn’t a power or ability that any of them possess, is it?”

He shook his head as he retraced his steps. “No, not that I’m aware of. Max heals, Isabel dreamwalks, Michael blows things up, and Liz can teleport or project her image, I’m not very clear on her ability.”

“And she developed that ability because Max healed her, right?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I think it was a couple years after he…” His steps slowed and he stared at her. “He healed Kyle.”

“So you think maybe he’s developing some sort of alien ability?”

“It would make sense and the timeframe would be about right.” He wondered what it was that determined the kind of power they developed. Was it something that drew on the person’s inner strengths? Maybe all of that meditating Kyle had been doing was finally going to pay off. He planted his hands on his hips and turned to look at the Christmas tree he had put up recently and his eyes took on a faraway look. “He’s lost weight,” he murmured quietly.

Amy swallowed hard at the concern that was so visible on his unguarded features. She could only imagine that if she were to look at herself in the mirror she would see the same thing reflected back at her. “They’re…” she trailed off because whatever she was going to say was either going to be an empty platitude or something to fill the emptiness around them. “I’m sure they’re doing the best they can, Jim.”

He drew himself up to his full height and drew in a deep breath that he expelled loudly. “Yeah, I know.” He reached out and plucked one of the plastic branches. He could still remember that Christmas with Tess, could still hear his son telling her that he used their tree to dry his socks rather than bother dragging it in the house to be decorated. He was a cop, he should’ve seen through her lies. He was trained to see past the facades people presented but she had slipped past his radar and he had invited evil into his home.

She could see the self-recrimination slipping into his expression. “Jim, don’t go there.” She stood and crossed the room to stand next to the tree, reaching up to take his hand. “She wasn’t your average criminal and there’s no way you could’ve known just how devious she was. What she was able to do, getting into people’s heads and controlling their thoughts…” her teeth ground together as she recalled her own brush with the girl. Jim had been there to help her when the memories had started to return and the hours spent held hostage inside the UFO Center began to surface.

He squeezed her hand in an attempt to pull her away from the negative thoughts. “I noticed you put a tree up when I drove by the other day.”

She nodded. “Maria’s always loved Christmas and I just couldn’t bear the thought of not having one even though she won’t…”

“Why don’t we go in the kitchen and have a slice of that coconut cream pie you brought over? I’ll even make a fresh pot of coffee.”

She smiled and nodded, falling into step beside him as they walked into the kitchen. They worked in companionable silence and as they sat across from each other a short while later they let the sounds of water sizzling and snapping from the coffee pot fill the air around them. “You know, when Maria was little and I was getting the shop started I dragged her everywhere with me.” She took a sip of her coffee and then turned the mug between her hands. “Later, when she got older I was busy with work, in and out of town all the time and she was busy with school and working at the Crashdown, and somewhere along the way we started to spend so much time apart.”

Jim sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I know what you mean. I was right here and half the time I was so wrapped up in work that I just didn’t see my own son. He was growing up right in front of me and I missed it.” He smiled crookedly. “I never would’ve thought it’d take aliens to make me open my eyes.” He shook his head. “There were times when he seemed to take on the parental role because I just,” he laughed gruffly and pointed at his head, “I wasn’t here.”

“I know what you mean. Sometimes I wonder if I raised Maria or it was the other way around.” She sighed. “Sometimes I think we raised each other.”

He watched her as she toyed with a small box she had been carrying around for months. It always seemed to appear when they were talking about Maria. “There is an advantage to having that partner in your life when you have kids.” He lifted his mug and tapped the edge against hers as they drank in agreement, pausing when they heard a quiet sound from the living room. He frowned, wondering if another of the ornaments had fallen off of the tree to shatter and decorate the skirt below.

*****

Kyle barely registered the sound of fragile glass breaking as he reached out to stabilize Maria when she stumbled. He wasn’t as disoriented as he had been the first time this had happened but he could tell their trip had thrown her off balance.

Maria’s right hand covered her mouth as nausea rolled through her stomach and dinner threatened to make a reappearance. “Oh, my God, Kyle, what just happened?” she rasped.

He looked around the room, taking in the familiar furniture that was comfortably worn in, the few family photographs scattered around, and the Christmas decorations hung haphazardly with Dad’s special touch. “I think… I think we’re in my house.” He shifted back and glanced down when what was left of the ornament they had knocked off of the tree crunched loudly beneath the heel of his boot. He lifted his head to look at her and turned to stare at the sock tangled up in one of the branches of the Christmas tree. “Make that I’m certain we’re in my house.”

“Wait… you mean like we’re really there? Here? We’re in Roswell standing in your house,” she clarified, forgetting about the nausea.

Kyle nearly jumped out of his skin when she moved to pull her hand free of his, her intent to begin an exploration of their surroundings clear. “Whoa! Do not let go of my hand,” he said emphatically. “I go back without you and El Capitan won’t hesitate to line me up in front of a one-hybrid firing squad.” He squeezed her hand as a reminder to hold on. “I’m not ready to meet Buddha in person, got it?”

*****

Tension rolled off of Michael in waves as he did his best to wear a rut in the floor. He paced the area where Kyle and Maria had been when they had disappeared, his eyes locked on the spot where his girlfriend had been sitting. He had waited for them to rematerialize for several minutes after they had vanished into thin air but when the spot had remained vacant he had begun to prowl.

Isabel had known what to expect from Kyle’s description of events but she was still shaken at witnessing it for herself. She wondered if he had been able to reach his destination with his unintended companion, if his newfound abilities would allow for the extra passenger or if it would have derailed his focus in any way. She shot a glance at Michael before looking at her brother. “We shouldn’t have pushed him.”

“We had to know – “

She shook her head. “You have no idea how much this situation’s freaked him out, Max. He’s not like us, he wasn’t born like this. I mean, we were, and it took time for us to get used to being… different.”

Max rubbed his hands over his face as he glanced at Liz and he turned to follow her gaze across the room. The tic in Michael’s jaw seemed to match his agitated steps and he could see the weight of his decision to push Kyle written in his stiff posture. His fear for Maria was palpable though he tried to hide it. “Iz, he’s gonna be okay,” he said as his attention shifted to his sister once more. “He said the last time it lasted for maybe a minute before he found himself right back here in the cabin.”

“And it’s been more than a minute, Max,” she said insistently. “Do you see him?” She began to fidget with her necklace as she stared at the loveseat. “God,” she whispered, “first Grant, then Alex, and now…” her lower lip trembled in spite of her attempt to control the show of weakness. “I can’t lose Kyle too.”

Michael whirled around to face her and his voice had an edge to it when he spoke. “No one’s losing anyone here. That isn’t an option.”

Liz straightened up, visibly pulling herself together. “You guys, let’s just think about this for a minute, okay?”

*****

Jim and Amy stood frozen as the quiet voices from the living room filtered in and they stared at each other in shock. He grabbed her hand when she started to run from the kitchen and he lifted a finger to his lips in a bid for silence. He had seen too much over the past few years to just assume that what they were hearing was real. Keeping himself strategically between Amy and their unexpected ‘guests’ proved to be a challenge because the woman was constantly in motion as she tried to get around him. His knees locked as he entered the living room and she slammed into his back.

“Kyle?” He barely kept from reaching up to rub his eyes to make sure what he was seeing was real.

“Maria?” Amy cried out, almost afraid to hope that her daughter was really standing in front of her. “Maria, oh my God, honey, is it really you?”

Maria’s eyes widened when she saw her mom pushing to get past Jim and she bolted across the room, dragging Kyle with her as he struggled to maintain his hold on her hand.

Kyle tripped over his feet and cursed the bulky gear he was wearing because it made it more difficult to move around. He remained silent when she launched herself into her mother’s embrace and he hurried to move before she could rip his arm out of its socket.

Amy leaned back but was reluctant to release her daughter, afraid that if she did she would simply disappear again. “But… how?” she asked, her gaze moving from Maria to Kyle and back again.

“Son?” Jim asked quietly.

“It was me, Dad,” Kyle spoke up. “I’m the one who got us here.” He held up the hand that was tightly wrapped around Maria’s. “She hitched a ride accidentally. This’s pretty new to me. The first time it happened it was unintentional and it may have lasted a minute, tops.” He shrugged when Dad reached out to cup his hands around his neck, his blue eyes taking in every nuance of his features. “It’s really me, Dad.” He lifted his free hand to wrap it around his dad’s wrist. “I don’t know how long we’ll be able to stay.”

“Understood.” The older man shook his head. “I’m just glad to know I wasn’t seeing things the other day.”

Kyle’s eyes traveled over his dad, taking in the loss of weight and the eyes that seemed set deeper and filled with shadows. He was opening his mouth to ask how he was when Dad suddenly pulled him into a tight embrace.

“Merry Christmas, Son,” Jim whispered raggedly. “It’s so good to see you.” He leaned back and his hands clenched tightly around handfuls of the coat Kyle wore. “We need to talk. I know your time is limited but it’s important.”

He felt the familiar feeling of being pushed beneath a wave and he gripped Maria’s hand harder, unaware of her startled yelp.

“Ow!” Maria’s head snapped to the side to look at Kyle. She could see his expression and could only assume that he was losing his grip on their current position. “No, no, no, no, no, Kyle. We’re not ready to leave yet.” She released her mom and turned to face him. “Look at me.” His eyes locked on her and she nodded. “Breathe with me, okay? Breathe in slowly, hold it for a moment, and slowly – “

“Somehow this feels like a Lamaze class,” he muttered but followed her instructions.

She rolled her eyes at him. “Just let whatever it is that’s trying to pull you back pass.”

He nodded at Maria when the feeling began to pass as he relaxed and he breathed a sigh of relief. “Dad…”

“I know we don’t have much time, Kyle, so we’d best say as much as we can.” He waited for his son to nod before continuing. “We’re not safe here. We’ve been under close surveillance until recently. It has eased a bit but we routinely sweep our homes and businesses and we’re careful to monitor our conversations and when and where we meet.”

“We suspected as much.”

“We intend to leave. We have a plan in place and we’re just waiting until we have the details nailed down.”

Kyle glanced between his dad and Maria’s mom. “We?”

“I’d rather not list everyone. Even though I swept the place earlier today I don’t wanna risk mentioning someone who isn’t on their list. They have enough people they can use against you.”

“Okay, I understand. You’ve included Grandpa, right? He doesn’t need to be in that place, Dad, and if we can get him someplace safe…” He frowned when his dad swallowed with difficulty. “What?”

“Son…” his chest tightened and he shook his head.

“No.” His vision blurred and he dropped his gaze to the floor just as his dad’s arms came around him in a crushing grip.

“Kyle, I went to visit with him every day. You were with me every time.”

“When?” He shook his head. That croaking sound couldn’t be his voice.

“I’m sorry to hit you with this,” he apologized, seeing how hard his son was taking the news. “His heart gave out in September.” He nodded as they pulled themselves together, knowing they could run out of time at any moment. “With this ability and seeing that you were able to bring someone along for the ride, maybe we’ll be able to meet at some point. I need to talk to Max.”

Kyle straightened up and wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand. “Okay, where?”

Jim glanced at Maria who was safely ensconced in her mother’s embrace and then back at his son. “Where I took them when we rescued Max. He’ll know where.”

He nodded. “I’ll tell him. When?”

“You set it up and when you guys can manage it, come and get me.”

Amy brushed her daughter’s hair back as she tried so hard to hold her tears at bay. Relief at seeing her little girl, at knowing she was alive, and the chance to hold her again were causing her emotions to run in a dozen different directions. She knew what Jim was saying was important but she trusted him to relay what needed to be said and concentrated solely on her daughter. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“Mom…” Maria hugged her mom tightly, knowing that at any moment they could be pulled back to the cabin and torn from her mother’s arms.

Her forehead knitted together in question as she put just enough distance between them to let her eyes scan over the heavy winter coat Maria was wearing.

“I can’t tell you where we are, Mom,” she said regretfully when she saw the questions in the older woman’s eyes. “We’re in a good place for now.”

“How’re you doing, Maria? I mean, really.”

Maria swallowed hard. “I’m doing good. I miss you… I even miss Sean. But don’t worry, I’m okay.”

“And Michael?”

She sighed. “Michael, he’s been keeping us safe.”

“That’s not what I meant, Maria.”

“No, I know, but it’s true, and up until now we haven’t had much time together. You know, just us. We’re together, but it isn’t like we were before. I… Mom, I hurt him so badly when I broke up with him. I think he’s forgiven me but I’m scared that he doesn’t trust me like he used to.”

Amy looked at her daughter, drinking in her presence and marveling at the opportunity to have this moment. “Maria, I know more about what was going on back then now that I’ve had the chance to read the journal that Liz sent. It’s clear that Michael loves you. I knew that without ever reading what she had written. He stayed for you, honey. He’ll come around.”

*****

Max pulled Liz closer and glanced at Isabel before sneaking a look at the cheap lighthouse-shaped clock on the wall. It hung just a few steps from where Michael was making his turn to retrace his steps through the room. Liz had tried her best to be calm and rational as she attempted to talk her way through what had happened but had only succeeded in talking herself into a hole as Michael shot down everything she had to say. She had fallen silent and sought comfort in her husband’s arms, leaving Michael to prowl the room and burn holes in the walls with his glare.

He caught the slightest pause in Michael’s steps, letting him know he had been made by his friend. Seventeen minutes. Only seventeen minutes had passed since Maria and Kyle had pulled their disappearing act. They had no way of knowing if they had reached their destination, they had no real understanding of Kyle’s abilities, and it was wearing on all of them.

If Liz was right and they were actually with Kyle’s dad in Roswell then seventeen minutes wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things. There were so many things he wished he could tell his dad. And his mom especially, there were so many things he wanted to be able to tell her if he only had the chance. Seventeen minutes would fly by in a heartbeat if he were home again. He had accepted that he would never see home again, had toyed with the reality that he may never see his parents again, and he had learned to live with that ache in his chest.

Michael’s repetitive, heavy footfalls brought him back to the present and he realized just how insufferably slow those same seventeen minutes would pass if it were Liz that had disappeared with Kyle. One man’s paradise was another man’s hell, he thought as he pulled Liz closer before speaking. “We’ll give them five more minutes. If they don’t come back by then we’ll go after them.”

Michael stopped in his tracks and turned to face him, his eyes hard and harboring a mix of emotions he didn’t dare give name to.

“And just how do you suggest we go after them?” Isabel asked, her sharp voice underlined with a worry she couldn’t disguise.

“With everything we have,” Max answered but his gaze stayed locked on Michael. “Isabel, you can dreamwalk Kyle.” His eyes lowered to focus on his wife. “And Liz can try to reach Maria like she did with me when I was in New York.”

Liz nodded against his chest.

“What if that doesn’t work?” Fear dominated Isabel’s voice this time. “What if we can’t reach him?”

Michael’s mood shifted from agitated to dangerous in the blink of an eye. His footsteps became shorter, his pace increasing, and it indicated just how close he was to losing it. Time seemed to slow down as Max watched his friend, his brother, draw himself up to his full height. The anger rolled off of him in waves as his eyes darted around the room and landed on the small wastepaper basket on the floor by the kitchen. He directed a vicious kick at it and everyone in the room flinched when it slammed into the wall before landing on the floor.

“We do this now!” he demanded loudly. “We’re not waitin’ another minute without us doin’ somethin’ to bring them back.” He swallowed hard and his posture was rigid as he pulled his hands free of his pockets. They dangled loosely as his sides as he brought his gaze to rest on his friend.

Max was awed by the control Michael was exhibiting, amazed that the only thing in the room that had been affected was the one thing that had been targeted. Nothing else had been disrupted or damaged. He lifted his eyes and nodded as his gaze locked with Michael’s. He released his hold on Liz and took the few steps necessary to bring him close to the other man.

“She’s coming back to us, Michael, and so is Kyle. If Isabel and Liz can’t get to them, we have the healing stones. We’ll use them to try and amplify their powers.”

He had years of experience reading Michael and he could see the fractional relaxing in his stiff posture, could see his pupils reappear as the rings of his irises began to retract. He reached out and placed his right hand on Michael’s shoulder and then turned to look at his sister.

“Isabel?” he queried in a soft voice.

*****

Kyle tugged on Maria’s hand. “I hate to interrupt, but…” he waved their joined hands apologetically. “We need to give going back a shot.” He was silent as Amy nodded at him and then focused on her daughter once more before pulling her into her arms. His gaze dropped to her hand and he caught a flash of something red as she slipped something into Maria’s coat pocket.

“Be safe, honey. You and Michael, you take care of each other.” She sniffled and smiled shakily as she took a step back and reached up to brush the tears from her cheeks. “And you tell that boy his family misses him.”

Maria nodded, unable to speak. A part of her wanted so badly to hold onto her mom and never let go but she knew Kyle was right and it was time for them to go back. She had no idea how long they had been gone but it felt like it had only been a few minutes. “I have to go, Mom,” she whispered raggedly.

Amy swallowed hard, forcing down the lump in her throat and nodding wordlessly. She could only imagine what her only daughter’s life was like and it hurt to know that she couldn’t be there for her. “I love you, Maria.”

“I love you too, Mom.” A single tear forced its way out, escaping in spite of her intention to hold it at bay. She suddenly felt as if she was being pushed under water and the feeling of nausea intensified as everything around them disappeared.

“Maria!”

Jim’s hands shot out, grabbing Amy before she could fall as she lunged for her daughter just as she and Kyle disappeared. He pulled her to him and held her tightly as he stared at the spot where their children had stood. His own vision blurred as his gaze dropped to the floor and the small puddle of water surrounding a rapidly melting clump of snow that had fallen off of his son’s boot.

“They were really here,” she whispered as she leaned back to look up at him. She turned to follow his gaze and she gave in to the tears pushing to be free. “They’re alive, Jim.” She looked up at him. “Wherever they are, they’re alright.”

For now, he thought. He drew in a shaky breath and nodded as he shifted to rest his forehead against hers. “I don’t think I wanna be alone tonight,” he admitted gruffly. “Stay?”

She gave him a watery smile. “Yes,” she answered simply.

*****

Isabel squeezed her eyes shut and inhaled slowly when her brother addressed her. She was mentally kicking herself for not trying to develop her abilities, to sharpen them so that she could use them at will. She had used her abilities on a few occasions but she had avoided putting much focus on them. Why hadn’t she just made the effort? She sighed. Tess. She avoided anything that reminded her of Tess and honing those abilities took her right back to every single time she had used them and the other girl had been there.

Yeah, she had dreamwalked Max when he was in the White Room, drugged to the gills, but how much of that had been her and how much of it had been Tess? If she thought about it she could still feel the sensation of Tess there, guiding her… manipulating her. She had experienced it again when Tess had talked her through prying into Pierce’s head. It had scared her then, and it still scared her now, to think that if she pushed to try and develop those abilities that somehow that gift would begin to resemble Tess’. The last thing she wanted was to be anything like the monster that had betrayed them and killed Alex.

“You could never be like her, Isabel.”

She released a shaky breath and turned slowly, her stressed features relaxing slightly when she saw Alex leaning back against the kitchen counter.

“Isabel?” Liz walked over to her, easily reading the fear in her eyes. Fear that she knew mirrored her own. “I’m here with you. I’ll try to reach Maria while you’re trying to connect with Kyle. Maybe we should do this together, like when we reached out to Max in New York,” she suggested. She watched the taller girl struggle to come to a decision and she tipped her head to one side as she remembered something Isabel had said to Kyle before he had disappeared. She couldn’t help the quiet snort and she shook her head when her sister-in-law’s sharp gaze landed on her. “Um, so I was wondering what you meant when you told Kyle ‘No centerfolds being fed chocolate cake and no towel boys.’?”

The corners of her lips slowly lifted as she remembered facilitating Kyle’s little fantasy with Jodi Ann. They had both been awake at the time. It had happened so easily, she had connected with Kyle so effortlessly. Her forehead wrinkled as she wondered if it was because he had been right next to her in her room or if it was because… What if it had been so easy not because of proximity, but because it was him?

Michael cleared his throat when he caught the expression on her face that indicated something was going on behind her dark eyes. “Iz?” he said hoarsely.

Isabel turned her head to look at Michael. He was leaning up against a wall, his tall frame stiff with tension. She nodded to let him know she had things under control before glancing at Liz. “It means it’s gonna be okay. I should be able to reach him.” She led Liz into Kyle’s room, intent on finding something of his to hold onto when she heard something fall in the living area followed by Michael’s startled shout.

“Maria!”

*****

As fast as the living room of the home he had grown up in blinked out of sight, the living room of the cabin he shared with Isabel materialized around them. Beyond the initial feeling of being pushed under water and the feeling of falling backwards that immediately followed, there were no other sensations. At least not for him, he thought as he glanced at Maria. She looked a little green around the gills and he absentmindedly hoped that if she blew chow it wouldn’t be on him.

Even though he knew exactly where they were and that they were safe he still almost jumped out of his skin when Michael’s voice bellowed through the cabin. He waved his free hand in a bid for silence and with his other he squeezed Maria’s hand to draw her gaze to him. “Hey, we made it back. We’re okay.”

She swallowed hard and nodded, quickly stilling the movement when it felt like every single bite she’d had at dinner was lodged in her throat. We’re okay, we’re okay, we’re okay. She chanted the mantra over and over in her head but it did nothing to settle her stomach. She was just barely holding it together when she was suddenly pulled to her feet and she inhaled sharply to control the urge to give in to her nauseated stomach’s insistent demands.

“What the hell were you thinking?!” Michael demanded as he ran his hands over her to be certain she was alright. “And you!” His heated glare pinned Kyle to the cushions. “You just took off with her!”

“Me?!” Kyle yelled as he shot to his feet. Okay, maybe not the smartest move, he decided when it made his head swim for a moment. He could see the concern for Maria in the other man’s angry features but it did nothing to calm the emotions that were churning in his gut.

“Kyle didn’t do anything, Michael!” Maria tried to pull free of his tight grip and it infuriated her when he didn’t release her. “I’m the one who – “

“I know what you did! I saw it plain as day, Maria!” Fear, anger, the hole it would leave in his chest if he lost her, all of it came together and pushed him even closer to the edge. “What if he’d lost you? What if you’d gotten disconnected or whatever and you’d gotten stranded there? Huh? Did you even think of that? You’d be trapped with a target on your back and you wouldn’t have any backup!”

And there it was, she thought miserably. Her head was spinning lightly, her stomach was threatening to revolt, and Michael was throwing the reminder that she was the weak link in her face once again. Maybe he didn’t mean it the way she took it, but she couldn’t help correlating his fears with her inability to protect herself or anyone else.

“You can’t just do shit like that without thinking! Do you have any idea what – “

Maria tried to shake his hand off again and when he didn’t let go she jerked it free. She was debating between telling him off or going and sitting down to let her stomach calm. When he reached for her again she took a step back and shook her head. “I’m perfectly capable of making my own decisions and I can take care of myself. I did it before all of the craziness started and I can still…” Her rant was abruptly interrupted when her stomach made the decision for her. She slapped her hand over her mouth and sprinted for the bathroom.

Liz and Isabel had come out of the smaller bedroom as soon as they heard Michael’s shout but they had remained silent as his fear and concern blinded him to Maria’s nauseous state. She watched Maria dart from the room and she quickly moved to intercept him when his intention to follow her became clear.

“Get out of my way, Liz,” he growled menacingly.

There was a time when he had intimidated her. And even though she knew him so much better now and she understood him to a certain degree thanks to Maria, she had to admit that there were times when he was still intimidating. This was one of those times but her concern for her best friend overrode everything else. “Let me take care of her, Michael.”

His jaw clenched tightly and he gave a single sharp nod before stepping back and clearing the way. As the door closed behind Liz he jerked around to face Kyle, paying no heed to his state as he sat on the loveseat, his head resting in the palm of his hand. “What the fuck happened?”

Isabel had been watching Kyle, concerned by the slump to his shoulders and the dull gleam in his eyes. “Michael, back off.” She snapped the order off without so much as a glance at him, her focus concentrated on the silent man slouched into the loveseat cushions. She didn’t know what had happened while they had been gone, had no real understanding of what his ability was beyond what little he had told them, and she wondered if while they had been gone they had experienced time in the same manner. Did time pass the same once he had reached his destination? Had it only been a matter of minutes for them?

“Did you make it to Roswell?” Max asked as he shot a quick glance at Michael to let him know he’d handle the questions.

“Yeah,” Kyle mumbled. “Yeah, pictured myself in our living room and,” he snapped his fingers, “there we were.” He couldn’t even muster up enough energy to explain to Michael that Maria was just nauseated from the quick jump through what, space and time? He didn’t know. He had no idea how this ability worked, he just knew he could think of a place and he was there. It was why he had imagined the living room this time instead of the kitchen, just to see if he would land there.

“And you saw your dad?” He tamped down the jealousy that reared its ugly head. He didn’t know how their powers developed or how it was decided who got which ones, but what he’d give to have that one just for a brief time.

Michael glanced over his shoulder when he heard the exhaust fan come to life in the bathroom. It took an effort to force his mind back to the matter at hand but he knew he needed to know what had happened.

“Yeah, I saw him.” He decided to leave Amy’s presence there out of the current conversation and let Maria bring it up if and when she felt like it. It wasn’t really relevant and he didn’t feel like getting any deeper into this if he didn’t have to. “They’re bein’ watched.” He lifted his head when he felt Isabel’s hand settle on his shoulder and he reached up to cover her hand for a moment, letting it fall away when even that small move felt like too much of an exertion.

“Has something happened?” Michael demanded, straightening up and crossing his arms over his chest.

“Nothin’ more than the usual. He just knows they’re bein’ watched and he and the rest of your parents are workin’ on a plan to get outta Dodge. He said they’ve gotta nail down some details and then they’re gonna pull a disappearing act.” He rubbed his hands over his face before he raised his head to look directly at Max. “He said to tell you he wants to meet with you.”

Max scratched his neck where the zipper of his coat was brushing against his skin. “Where?”

“Uh, he didn’t say exactly.” He sat up. “Wherever you guys went after you rescued Max from Agent Pierce. He said you’d know the place.”

Max and Michael exchanged a look. “Yeah, we know the place.”

“Would that even be safe for you?” Isabel asked. “I mean, you’ve never been there so how do you see yourself someplace you’ve never been?”

Kyle shook his head. “I don’t know.” He slumped back against the cushions again. “I guess we’ll have to try it an’ find out. Maybe holdin’ El Presidente’s hand will connect us and that’ll act as navigation.” He frowned and rubbed his eyes. “How long were we gone?”

“Seventeen and a half minutes,” Michael muttered. “When does he wanna meet?”

Kyle shrugged. “I don’t know. He said to set up the time and let him know.” There you go, folks, he thought. Kyle Valenti, intergalactic messenger at your service. Continental messenger? He sighed and shook his head. He’d think about it later when he didn’t have a dozen different things bouncing around that he couldn’t quite get hold of.

He nodded in approval. “The silver mine in Gallinas. Makes sense. There’s nothin’ out there but the mine. How soon – “

“That’s enough for tonight,” Isabel interrupted, wondering what was weighing so heavily on his mind. “I want all of you out. Now.”

“I’m not goin’ any-damn-where without Maria,” Michael insisted stubbornly.

She was opening her mouth to argue with him when the door to the bathroom opened and a moment later Maria and Liz walked into the living room. Maria looked a bit shaky on her feet and when Michael immediately moved to her she just knew the other girl was going to blow.

“C’mon, Maria,” Michael said as he reached for her coat with the intention of closing it up for her. “We’ll get you back up to our – “

She pushed his hands away. “Stop it, Michael, I don’t need you fussing over me!” She and Liz had talked in the bathroom briefly, but she was still feeling inferior and she hated it. Why couldn’t he understand that she could take care of herself? “I’m capable of buttoning my own coat!”

Michael threw his hands up in irritation. “Then button the damn thing,” he snapped. “I just thought I’d – “

“Well, don’t!” She pushed her way past the others and jerked the door open, stepping out into the freezing cold and slamming the door behind her.

“What the hell’s goin’ on with her?” he muttered as he hurried to go after her. Women! If he ever understood them… What the hell was he thinking? He was never gonna understand them! He inhaled sharply as the cold wind hit him in the face, making his eyes water. He jerked the door closed behind him and took two steps before he tripped over a log that had rolled off of the pile stacked to the side of the door. He turned the air blue with every curse word he could think of as he struck out across the frozen ground in pursuit of his girlfriend.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-52 - 1/27/13

Postby KindredKandies » Sun Jan 27, 2013 8:56 pm

mary mary – Yup, it's time for that M&M talk. ;) As for Kyle there are so many possibilities... :)

Natalie36 – Yeah, we’ve had that scene with Kyle disappearing with Maria and visiting their parents in our heads since day one when we started this fic. We couldn't wait to get them to the place to write it. So happy you enjoyed it. :) And yup, we agree Maria is Michael's strength and comfort. ;)

Keepsmiling7 – Yay! Glad you were thrilled with this update. We also liked Agent Duff; it was good to be able to use her in this story, thank you.

Yup, Amy and Maria had to grow up together. It was just them against the world after Maria's father left. It's good to see someone comment on this. Amy was a kid herself when she had Maria.

Aww, we love Kyle's powers as well, thank you.;)

Hmm, time for an M&M talk? ;)

Alien_Friend –

Aww, you all are so sweet. Maggie my mom must've overheard you and Cindy talking because I got everything but the magic bars. Thank you
.

You are so very welcome! Maggie says that mama can email you the magic bar recipe for your mama. lol :D

We’re glad that Kyle and Maria had a visit with their parents as well. We’ve had this part of the story of their disappearing act and visit with their parents in our heads since day one and could not wait to write it. lol. Yes, Kyle's powers have so many possibilities…

Oh yeah, M&M need to have a talk. ;) Oh, and girl, wasn't it good to see Max step in as Michael's friend? Thank you, you were only one of two who commented on this. We love Michael and Max's friend/brother relationship.

Candyliciouslovah – Amy and Jim have a lot in common. They both raised their only child alone as single parents because their other parent abandoned them. They also have history together. She tells the story about how they met in A Roswell Christmas Carol at the dinner table. They've known each other over the years... Hmmm we asked Amy about her relationship with Jim Valenti and she said that he's a good friend then blushed as she added, "The rest of our relationship is private." :)

sarammlover – LOL, we think that Michael's pov is a tad different than Maria's. We'll get to see his side of things in this update.

So glad you love Kyle's ability, we do as well. We had Kyle's ability in our heads since day one and couldn't wait to write it. Thanks. :)

Hmm time for an M&M talk, eh? lol. Read on... ;)

Hugs backatcha. :)

Eva –

The tears came into my eyes when I was reading the piece when Maria met her mom again. It was very moving. Great stuff, girls!


Thank you! We thought so as well. It was what we were trying to accomplish. :)

Yes, it seems that Isabel is becoming more thoughtful about her friendship/relationship with Kyle. Hmm, we'll see how this all works out. :)

xilaj – So glad you enjoyed our little visit to Roswell. We had this in mind since day one and couldn't wait to get to the place in the story to write it. :)

Thank you for the compliment about the details. We were happy to read your comment about the sock in the Christmas tree and you were the only one to ask about what Amy slipped into Maria's pocket. :D Hmm, we'll find out more about what Amy put into Maria's pocket in this update.;)

We also liked that Max stepped in to be Michael's friend as well. Thank you, you were one of only two who commented on this. We love Michael and Max's friend/brother relationship.

Glad you enjoyed Michael tripping over the log; he however has a different opinion, lol.

Here's more...


Author’s Note: Some dialog in this part was borrowed from the Roswell Season Two episodes The End of the World, How the Other Half Lives, and the Roswell Season Three episode Ch-Ch-Changes.


Part 52

Michael chased after Maria as she stalked through the snow, her angry footsteps seeming to give her feet traction. He’d almost be willing to pay good money to see her slip and fall on her ass right about now, he thought uncharitably. She could be bullheaded about things and as much as that pissed him off he understood it… when he knew what the hell was going on. He wasn’t even sure why she was pissed off at him – he hadn’t done anything wrong!

There was no rhyme or reason to women. Overlook some weird mood, a new hairstyle, or a new outfit and you were in serious trouble because you just weren’t sensitive enough. But try not even knowing what it was that set them off in the first place and what happened? You were tagged and moved to the head of the line for castration. He shook his head. Upset, pissed off, angry, sad… how the hell was a guy supposed to keep up with a woman’s quicksilver moods?

Well, she wasn’t handing his balls to him on a silver platter. He and Maria were evenly matched, they could go toe to toe in a fight and once the dust settled they’d either both still be standing or they’d both be on the floor, but regardless they put everything they had into it. He almost smirked. Almost. But he was too pissed off to acknowledge any humor in the situation.

His right foot slipped on a slick patch of snow and he made a weird jump-hop combination off to the side where the snow was deeper to regain his footing. “Maria, damn it, would you just slow down before you hurt yourself?” he snapped.

“I’m not the one who can’t walk!” she bit out, paying no attention to the ground beneath her feet as she forged ahead. She winced against the wind and tiny bits of snow hitting her in the face. She whirled around to face him. “And don’t tell me – “ The shouted words ended on a short scream that was caught and whisked away on the wind when her right boot came down and her feet started to go out from under her.

Michael lunged for her just as she threw her hands up and latched onto a low branch hanging overhead. The snow piled on the branch was upset by the woman hanging from it and before he could reach her he was coated with snow from several branches. The unexpected snowfall made him draw up short as the cold crystals slipped beneath the collar of his coat and he just stood there and stared at her for several icy breath-stealing moments. He finally pulled himself together and reached for his girlfriend who was bobbing slightly as the branch bore the brunt of her weight.

“I told you I can take care of myself!” she growled and released the branch as she righted herself.

“What the hell is your problem?” he snapped.

“The problem is I’m not your problem!”

His eyebrows reached for the sky when she stalked off once again. “What the fuck does that even mean?” he shouted in frustration. He could hear the undercurrent of anger in his tone, could feel the fear that was still skating just beneath the surface of his skin and keeping his nerves on edge, and it only served to ignite his temper once again. He hurried to catch up with her, reaching her just as she faced the front door and started to take off her gloves to search her pockets for the keys.

Without bothering to wait he pressed up against her from behind and reached around her, his right hand making quick work of the lock. He shoved the door open and peered around to make sure things were as they had left them before he unceremoniously pushed her inside. He walked in behind her and slammed the door shut just as she whirled around to face him, her face mottled from a combination of rage and windburn.

*****

Max kept a close eye on Liz as she stood at the window straining to follow Maria’s retreating back as she disappeared into the night. The wind was howling and loose snow was being flung around, obscuring what little view there was. He glanced at his sister and nodded when she gestured to the front door. He didn’t miss the look of sympathy that crossed her features when her gaze moved past his wife and he was sure her thoughts were similar to his own.

“Why don’t we head on over to our cabin,” he suggested as he took her elbow and gently guided her to the door.

She was silent as he took her hand and led her out into the cold, windy night. She squinted and ducked her head against the snow, burrowing closer into her husband’s side and shamelessly using him as a shield. She kept going over and over the short conversation she’d had with Maria while they were in the bathroom and she kept coming back to the same conclusion: she was a horrible friend.

Maria had told her about seeing her mom and Kyle’s dad and as happy as she was for her friends, she was so jealous that she hadn’t been able to see her own parents. She was jealous that they had been given an opportunity to hug their parents and be hugged in return. She missed them and the holidays made that ache worse than normal.

If her life plan had gone according to plan and she had followed her dream of attending Harvard University and pursuing a degree in a field she loved she would’ve been away at college right now. They would’ve gone back home for the holidays. They, because in a perfect world it would’ve been her and Max, finding and making their place in the world. Together. But they were both family-oriented and she knew being with their families for holidays would’ve been important to both of them.

Max shouldered the door to their cabin open and stomped the snow off of his boots before stepping inside and glancing around. He tugged Liz in behind him and locked the door, hurrying to crank up the heat on the electric fireplace and giving it a little nudge with his powers before going back to help her out of her gear.

He rolled his shoulders back when they were finally free of the cumbersome outerwear. He could feel the sharp pang of disappointment in her as he took her hand again. He didn’t turn on any lights, letting the soft patches of light from a couple of strategically-placed nightlights illuminate the way to the bedroom. He crawled into bed behind her and draped his arms around her, shifting to accommodate her when she wiggled around to face him.

Liz wrapped her arms around his waist and her fingers clenched in his shirt as she squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her forehead against his neck. “Amy was there. She got to see her mom, Max,” she whispered raggedly.

His eyes closed tightly at the pain in her voice and her tears burned his skin like acid. He didn’t know how often they would be able to utilize Kyle’s abilities; the guy had been drained when he and Maria had returned. Whether that was from the physical and mental exertion of transporting himself and Maria or more of an emotional exertion from the experience, he didn’t know. He knew they would learn and understand in time, but for now he had nothing that might ease his wife’s pain.

Maybe one day, he thought. He would wait and see what happened when he and Kyle made contact with Jim at the old Gallinas silver mine. Maybe it would give him a better idea of how safe it was to travel. They had so many things they needed to find out. How many people could Kyle take with him? What would happen if the person or persons traveling with Kyle broke contact? He sighed and rubbed Liz’s back, feeling her calm fractionally as she settled more fully into him. He’d think about it later. For now, his focus needed to be here and now.

*****

Isabel watched the door close behind Max and Liz and she crossed the room to lock it behind them. She observed Kyle, trying to decipher his mood. The last time he had taken one of these trips he had been stressed afterwards, but this wasn’t stress. There was a quiet sadness about him and she wasn’t sure if it was seeing his dad only to lose him all over again or if there was more to it than that. The last time he hadn’t had time to do much more than see Jim before he had reappeared in the cabin, but this time he’d spent seventeen minutes back home, talking to his dad.

She swallowed with difficulty. What would it be like to be given just seventeen minutes with her parents? To be able to see them in person, to know they were okay and to let them know she was okay, and to experience the feeling of love and safety that had always enveloped her when she was with them. She set those thoughts aside when she noticed Kyle’s jaw clench repeatedly as he tried to control his emotions. She moved to sit beside him, leaving space between them and hoping her presence would be comfort enough.

She knew him well enough to know he wasn’t ready to talk and that when he was she would know it. Kyle didn’t talk things to death the way girls had a tendency to do but he was confident enough to talk things out when he needed to. She didn’t know if that was some kind of Buddhist thing, some sort of enlightened crap, or if it was just Kyle, but whatever it was it allowed him to handle things without bottling them up. She shoved away the niggling thought that recently he hadn’t really been talking to her.

She shivered as the temperature in the room reminded her of why Julia had suggested they stay up at the main house. They still had to get their things together and walk back up to the house. The thought of something hot to drink sounded good but it was just too cold to make anything and it’d be faster to just get their things and hurry up to the house.

Her gaze roamed over the cabin and landed on the doorway to the small room that had been Kyle’s since they had been staying there. Most nights he dragged one of the small mattresses down off of the bunks and squeezed it between the doorframes, sleeping there to soak up the warmth from the furnace. He had never said anything but she knew that was why he did it. Her brow furrowed as she realized just how much that bothered her.

He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn’t even notice when she got up and started gathering some of their things. His eyes followed her without realizing it but his mind was more than sixteen hundred miles away. He wanted to silence his thoughts, to just step outside of his own head for a little while. His head dropped back against the loveseat and eyes that felt like there was a film of gritty sand coating them stared sightlessly at the ceiling.

“C’mon, Kyle, we should go on up to the house,” Isabel said once she had tossed some of their things in a bag.

He was moving on autopilot as he got to his feet and reached for the bag she was holding. He was on his way to the door when she got in front of him and stopped him so she could close the fastenings on his coat and pull his hat over his head. He was always a good sport about things but the fact that he didn’t even comment on her fussing was just further proof that he needed some space.

*****

“What the fuck does it mean?!” Maria repeated. Her tone was incredulous, angry, and underlined by a combination of fear and hurt. “Are you seriously asking me that?!” She just stared at him, the venom flowing through her veins momentarily pausing as she took in his appearance. At any other time it would’ve struck her as funny. He was covered in snowflakes from head to toe, making the tip of his red nose and his crimson ears stand out. But it was his eyes, so piercingly dark that struck her the most.

He held his hands out away from his body, his expression still bordering on the clueless as he waited expectantly. “Well?” he demanded when she remained silent. “Are you gonna enlighten me or should we just stand here and freeze our asses off while you think about it?” He was only pushing the fight but at this point he didn’t care. He was sick of trying to figure out what she was thinking. He wasn’t a damned mind reader! “What does it mean?” He spoke slowly, enunciating every single word because he knew it would just piss her off even more than she already was.

Her eyes narrowed to thin slits and her right hand sliced the air between them. “It means, Michael,” she said, speaking just as deliberately slowly, “that you treat me like I’m the weak link. Like I’m the human, the liability,” she spat the word out as if it tasted bad, “that could get us all killed.”

His molars were grinding together so hard that pain was radiating down his jaw line and into his chin. His lips curled back over his teeth as his nearly black eyes bored into her. “That’s bullshit and you damn well know it, Maria!”

“I’m the only one you ever treat like that! The only one you treat like some fragile piece of glass that’s gonna shatter and ruin everything!” She drew in a deep breath. “The only one you’re so worried about every time something happens. We get into some dangerous situation and they’re not the ones you’re all over, making sure they’re in one piece, making sure they didn’t screw things up, or making sure they’re not stupid enough to get themselves into the situation in the first place.”

How the hell had she twisted things around like that? he wondered. Did she even hear the words that were coming out of her own mouth? “Do I worry about you when somethin’ happens? Hell, yes! Am I all over you makin’ sure you’re still in one piece when we come out of a dangerous situation? You can bet your ass I am! Am I gonna stand here and apologize because you think I’m wrong? Fuck, no! And don’t single yourself out when it comes to screwin’ up or doin’ somethin’ stupid because you know damn well I’m all over their asses about the same damn thing when it happens! You wanna be pissed off at me because I gave a damn when you came back lookin’ like you were about to puke your guts out, fine, be pissed off!” He paced around the room, agitated. “Seventeen and a half minutes, Maria. Seventeen and a half minutes that felt like a goddamned eternity because I didn’t know where you were or what was happening to you! Do you even understand that?!” he shouted as his fear once more pushed to the surface. “I’m the one that pushed Kyle to see if he could pull his disappearing act again and what the fuck did you do?”

Maria opened her mouth to protest but the words lodged in her throat when he whirled around to face her. The anger and fear in his features made her want to take a step back but her feet remained rooted to the spot. She wasn’t afraid of him, just stunned by the force of his emotions.

“You couldn’t know what would happen and in the rational part of my brain I know that! But all I knew was one minute you were there and the next second you had fuckin’ disappeared. We had no way of knowin’ if his last trip was a fluke or if he landed where he did because he has some control over his new powers. No way of knowin’ if he would return and if you’d return with him!” His footsteps paused and he stared at her. “Anything could’ve happened, do you get that? You could’ve been lost, killed, or trapped in Roswell – if that’s even where you were, and I would’ve had no one to blame but myself.”

She could feel the fire in her veins begin to wane as he finished speaking and as she stood there watching him she started to become more aware of their surroundings. Even though they were inside, protected from the biting wind, it was still bitterly cold and she was sure the temperature in the cabin was barely above freezing.

The sudden silence that fell between them seemed to snap them back to reality and Michael shook his head as he turned to the fireplace. His gaze locked on his hands as he stacked logs in the fireplace and set about lighting a fire. He was acutely aware of Maria’s quiet footsteps as she retreated into the bathroom and closed the door. She would be back before long. Whatever else happened tonight he knew they would be settling some things that had been hanging between them for too long.

*****

Kyle trudged through the snow, unaware and uncaring of the cold that found its way past every opening in his winter gear. He and Isabel had been welcomed into the Stevens’ home and Julia had suggested they take the futon in the office at Stephanie’s insistence. He had let Isabel handle the conversation, too wired to really think up a good reason why the separate couches in the living room would be a better solution.

He had waited until Julia and Edward had left them alone before he told Isabel he was going to take a walk to try and clear his head. She had let him go with nothing more than a request that he be careful. He tried to force the thoughts from his mind, wishing he could seek solace through meditation but not daring to risk being sent somewhere else based on a thought. Buddha was supposed to be there to provide a reprieve from the insanity of his life, not add to it.

Without conscious thought his feet took him across the road and up the drive to the barn on Mr. Tony’s property. He reached out and grabbed the door, sliding it open and stepping inside where it was only slightly warmer. He pushed the door closed and turned to lean back against it for a moment, barely registering the way it moved slightly with his weight. His gaze scanned the interior of the barn and settled on the pen holding the four reindeer at the center. He walked up to the pen and stood there, just watching the animals as they milled about.

“You guys don’t know how good you have it,” he muttered. He reached up to rub Cupid’s muzzle when the animal snuffled against his arm. He cradled the reindeer’s head in his hands and studied the soft brown eyes, his gaze trailing down to study several scars that were nearly hidden beneath his fur. “Guess you’ve got your own story, don’t you?”

“I think if he could talk his story would make most people cry.”

He slowly turned his head to look at Stefanie as she crossed the barn with a box of apples in her hands. “What’s his story?”

“Cupid’s our miracle, aren’t you, big guy?” She balanced the box on one of the rails and reached up to rub the reindeer’s flank. “A friend of ours called Travis to tell him a story someone had told him. He said he’d heard about a deer on a nearby farm that’d gotten tangled up in some old barbed wire. No one had been able to get close to it so there was no way of knowing how bad its injuries were. Well, Travis geared up and went out after it.”

“Why do I have a feeling you were right there with him?”

She grinned and shrugged. “An injured deer wandering around over acres and acres of nothing? Oh, yeah, I was right there with him. And so was our dad and Frankie. It took us a couple of days to track him and when we found him he was down. Imagine our surprise when we realized our rescue was actually a young reindeer. He had an infection from the wounds, the strand of barbed wire was wrapped around his neck and several of the barbs were embedded in his face, he was malnourished because he hadn’t been able to eat…” she swallowed hard and rubbed the reindeer’s neck. “We got him back to the clinic and it was touch and go with him for quite a while before he started to show any improvement.”

“How’d he get his name?” Kyle asked as he rested his chin on his folded arms and watched her.

“Mom named him.” She opened the box up and pulled out an apple that she offered to the reindeer. She smiled when the other three pushed their way up to the railing to get their treat. “We found him in February and she said he had to be all heart to survive what he’d gone through so he was given the name Cupid.”

He chuckled. “How long have you guys been doing the reindeer thing?”

“Oh, we’ve been doing this for a long time. Since I was a kid. My parents love the holidays and especially Christmas so they found a way to make a living doing what they love.”

“You love it too,” he said, watching her as she fed the reindeer.

“What’s not to love about taking care of God’s creatures and celebrating His son’s birth? We have a lot of fun and it’s something our family’s able to do together.”

“You love your family.” He smiled. “It’s very obvious.”

“So do you.” She closed the empty box up and placed it on the floor. “Which makes me wonder what you’re doing out here in the cold when your family’s tucked into warm cabins and your wife’s tucked in up at the Stevens’ place.”

“Thanks for offering your room,” he said, remembering what Julia had told them. “We’re good with the living room though, and you’re probably gonna be ready to hit the hay as soon as your shift’s over.” He shrugged when she turned to lean against the pen. “Sometimes you just need a few minutes to find some peace and settle your thoughts.”

Stefanie studied him for a few minutes before she spoke quietly. “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

Kyle’s eyebrows nearly shot off of his forehead. “You know Buddhism?”

She chuckled. “I enjoy learning about different religions and Buddhism struck me as very peaceful and grounding. But you know it too… you’re a practicing Buddhist?”

“I’ve found balance with his teachings.”

“You know, these guys are pretty settled for now. I’d love to hear your opinion of Buddhism as it pertains to today’s fast-paced existence.”

No one ever wanted to discuss Buddhism. He smiled and motioned to the hay stacked up against the wall. “If you’d love to listen, I’d love to share. Although, I encourage heated debate so don’t hold back if your opinion differs.” This was what he had needed, he thought. Sometimes all a guy needed was the chance to get away from everyone and everything and free his mind.

*****

Maria wrapped her arms tightly around herself as she leaned back against the door, making a face when she realized that it was even colder in the bathroom. How was that even possible? She sighed and reached over to turn on the light, frowning at her reflection. She was bundled up in an effort to ward off the cold but she was still cold and she looked like a giant marshmallow. She eyed her reflection critically. Ungh, a giant marshmallow without a neck, she thought. No way was she getting rid of the bulky layers though.

She pulled the door open just enough to peer around it to look at Michael. He was crouched in front of the fireplace feeding logs into the fire and using his powers to give it a boost. The flickering flames backlit his features, revealing the tension in the taut line of his jaw. She shifted back and reached up to rub her hands over her face as she went over the meeting with her mom.

She could still hear the chastising in her mom’s tone when she had deliberately answered her question about how Michael was by saying he was keeping them safe. She had known exactly what her mom was asking so why hadn’t she just given her an answer?

Mom was so sure Michael was going to come around. It wasn’t just him though and as hard as it was to admit that, she knew it was true. She knew he loved her, she didn’t doubt that. It was in his voice, in the way he looked at her, and… she shivered. It was in the way he touched her. She was secure in his love, but without trust, where did that leave them?

She squeezed her eyes shut as she recalled her mom’s parting words. How she had told her to make sure they took care of each other. She smiled and blinked back tears as her mom’s words echoed in her head.

“And you tell that boy his family misses him.”

She swallowed hard and pushed away from the doorframe, making herself go back out into the other room to face him. She was silent as she watched him use the poker to furiously jab the logs in the fireplace. He was frustrated with her, with the situation, and with his inability to understand what was going on with her and he was taking it out on the fiery logs.

Her steps grew heavier with each step she took and he turned from the waist to look at her just as one of her gloved hands came to rest on the back of her chair. They just watched each other warily for a few long moments before she pulled in a slow breath and forced the words out. “We need to talk, Michael. There’re so many things between us, so many things that we have to talk about if we’re ever gonna find ourselves again. The past week or so since we’ve been stuck here has been such a gift and we’ve had moments that have been so uniquely us, or at least who we were before our lives spun out of control. But it’s not enough, is it?”

He shrugged one shoulder and viciously poked one of the logs. “No, it’s not,” he said finally.

“Then I think we’ve put it off as long as we can. It won’t be much longer before we have to climb back in the van and head out into a future that’s just as uncertain as it’s ever been and I think before that happens we need to know where we stand with each other.”

He rested his left elbow on his raised knee and rubbed his forehead with his thumb before he shoved himself to his feet and put the poker away. “Alright, let’s do this.” He wasn’t thrilled with the situation or having this conversation in the freezing cold, but she was right. The Christmas on the Lake thing was the day after next and they were leaving once it was over so it would be better to know what they were looking at before they pulled out of the driveway for the last time.

*****

Isabel stood at the window in the living room, her eyes scanning the white landscape that seemed to stretch as far as she could see. She sighed and moved back to the couch, sitting down and staring at the woodstove. At Elliot, she reminded herself with a small smile as her mind took a short detour to earlier that night.

She had been trying to do everything she could think of to make herself stay in the house. Kyle needed some time to himself, some time to just clear his mind and get settled, and she wanted to respect his wishes. He always seemed to know what to do for them and she wanted to be able to do the same for him. He was better at reading people than she was though and he picked up on little subtleties that most people seemed to overlook. She didn’t think she was overlooking anything though; he had been completely open when he had told her he needed some space.

It just bothered her that he had stopped confiding in her, that he didn’t seem able to open up to her anymore. She knew something wasn’t right. She had seen it in his face and read it in his stiff posture when he had returned. She was certain something had happened while he was gone. She didn’t think it involved Maria in spite of her being sick when they returned. She had a feeling that whatever it was had hurt him badly though.

“It’s cold out tonight, Isabel.”

She turned her head to look at Alex. He was sitting at the piano, his fingertips ghosting soundlessly over the ivory keys. “Yes, it is,” she mused and a moment later she was pushing herself to her feet and going to get her outerwear.

Julia turned away from the counter where she was getting a pot of coffee ready for the next morning. “Going back out?”

“Going to check on Kyle,” she answered as she shrugged into the heavy coat. “He walked over to the barn.” Which she only knew because she had watched him until he disappeared from sight and it was the only thing in that direction.

“Would you like a ride over there?” Edward asked as he emerged from the pantry brushing crumbs from his mustache and then from the front of his shirt.

“No, I’ll be fine, thank you.” I’m the last person who has to worry about… The thought and the smile that accompanied it were short-lived as an old memory surfaced.

She could remember standing in the rain making a call to the sheriff from a roadside payphone. “Sheriff, I am the last person on Earth who has to worry about getting into a car with strangers.” It was true as far as everyday people were concerned. But the FBI weren’t normal everyday people, were they? They were people who came armed with weapons and drugs, people who wanted to capture and study them; people who would hurt them given half a chance.

“Isabel?” Julia held her hand out, pressing a key into the palm of her hand. “So you can get back inside once you’ve rounded up your husband,” she said with a wink. “You can just leave it on the hook on the wall by the fridge when you get back.”

“Thank you, Julia.”

The wind hit her in the face the moment she stepped outside and she was certain it froze the breath in her lungs. “I’m gonna kill him,” she chattered as she hugged the railing to avoid slipping as she made her way down the steps to the frozen ground.

“Dangerous as it is, I’m gonna assume you mean Kyle,” Alex said as he walked beside her. He flashed a grin at her when she turned her head to look at him.

“Well, it’s hard to decide,” she said thoughtfully. “I mean, it’s like fifty below and you’re out here in a sweatshirt and jeans and you don’t look the slightest bit cold.”

He rolled his eyes at her. “It’s an advantage to being on this side.” He chuckled. “I’m impervious to these temperatures.”

She was silent until they crossed the road and stepped onto Mr. Tony’s property. “He isn’t confiding in me, Alex.”

“That bothers you.”

“Well… yes!”

As they approached the barn her hand settled on the door to push it open and he saw her pause. “Worried what you’ll see on the other side is somehow related to his recent reluctance to confide in you?”

“No, of course not,” she denied.

“Good.” He smiled and gestured for her to go inside. “You shouldn’t be.”

“What makes you – “ The words died on her tongue when she turned to look at him and found only empty air next to her. She shook her head and pushed the door open, stepping into the barn and hurrying to shut the door behind her.

“Isabel?” Kyle sat up when he saw her come inside. He had been lounging back against a bale of hay, debating the similarities and differences between different religions and just enjoying himself when the door had opened. “What’re you doin’ over here?” He got up and ushered her over to the hay, urging her to sit down. “It’s freakin’ cold out there!”

“Yes, I know.”

Stefanie motioned to the thermos wedged between a couple bales of hay. “Coffee?”

“No, thank you. It’s getting late and we have an early morning.” She smiled brightly at Kyle. “You haven’t forgotten that tomorrow’s the big rehearsal have you, honey?”

He smiled and shook his head. “No, not at all, sugar muffin.”

Stefanie nearly choked on her coffee and got to her feet, excusing herself to check on the reindeer. Somehow the tall statuesque blonde didn’t strike her as a sugar muffin.

“You didn’t have to walk all the way over here, Isabel,” Kyle said as he sat down beside her. “I would’ve been back before long.”

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“So, you’re not here because we have an early day tomorrow?”

She snorted indelicately and looked at him. “Have you found any peace?”

“Enough to settle my nerves a bit,” he said with a nod.

“Julia and Edward have already gone to bed but they gave me the key so we can get back inside. They lock the door against the wind, remember?”

“Right.”

“Yeah, so…”

He smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I guess we’d better get back over there if we wanna settle on the couches while it’s still good and warm.”

She watched him as he got up and went to say goodnight to Stefanie. He smiled and laughed at something she said and then he reached out and gave one of the reindeer a gentle pat before running his hand over the animal’s neck in a slow motion.

*****

Michael watched Maria as she ran her gloved hands over the back of the chair, wondering if it was an unconscious gesture to calm her down. Now that she had his attention she looked unsure, as if she didn’t know how or where to start. He could probably count the number of times he had known Maria to be unsure of herself on one hand. More often than not her uncertainty had revolved around their relationship… around him.

He knew he had given her more than enough reason to pack her bags and hit the road over the years but she had only done it once. And that hadn’t been because of anything he had done. It would’ve been easier to swallow if it had been over some boneheaded stunt he had pulled. There was no denying it had shredded something inside of him when she had broken up with him, but as much as he had hated it there was a part of him that understood.

He had been born into the alien insanity; it was an integral part of him and he had little choice in the matter. Hell, they had only been 18 when she had come to him and told him she wanted to break up. He hadn’t understood in that moment, still reeling from seeing her with that wannabe musician Billy closely followed up by her dumping his ass. She had just left him sitting there holding the flowers he had brought for her. Flowers, he snorted. He wasn’t exactly a flowers kinda guy but he had brought the stupid things and look where it had landed him. He hoped she didn’t care about flowers because he’d be damned if he ever gave her flowers again.

Time had given him some clarity about that night and her decision. When people were 18 they were supposed to be worrying about things like college, whether their high school relationship was going to withstand the separation of college, the excitement of finally being out on their own, and exhilarated over getting their first real taste of life as adults. They were 18-year-olds who had been experiencing complications and realities for a couple of years already. They had been suffocating from an overdose of reality and they hadn’t really had a break from it.

From 16 to 18 they had been steeped in alien drama. Trying to mix relationships into that had only increased the drama and put more stress on them that they hadn’t known how to deal with. In just a little over two years they had been through the wringer. Liz had lost her grandma, they had lost Alex, he had lost Courtney, and Isabel had lost Grant. They had dealt with shape-shifting aliens, Skins, Kivar, and an alien-hunting FBI unit. Maria had given up a potential music career and Liz had lost out on Harvard. Max had been captured and tortured by the Special Unit, he had fathered a child with the person responsible for killing one of their own, and he had nearly destroyed his relationship with the parents he loved and ruined his future in his search for his son, not to mention what it had done to his relationship with Liz. Isabel had gotten married, and as much as he believed it was a rebound thing, who was he to judge? She had just been doing what she had to do to find her normal. And in the end she had lost that as well. He didn’t believe in that happily ever after fairytale crap, but he had a feeling something better was waiting for her if she would just open her eyes. They hadn’t even been able to enjoy graduation with family and friends…

Graduation, he thought. A time that should’ve been filled with excitement and hopeful visions of all the possibilities the future held. Instead they had been filled with a sense of dread as Liz’s premonition sent them scurrying to come up with a way to survive. He could remember Maria dragging him to Madame Vivian the day after learning that their graduation was ground zero for the next attack against them.

He hadn’t put any stock in the fortune-telling fake or her stupid crystal ball but he had let Maria drag him there anyway. Why? He didn’t really know. She had insisted the woman give her something to go on and while he might not be a genius in the relationship department, he had known she was seeking reassurance, confirmation that at some point in the future they were still alive and together.

He had blown it off, been flippant about the whole thing, and the moment Maria had turned to him and begged him to cooperate he had gone off on her. That whole thing with Billy was still simmering just below the surface, their breakup still fresh in his mind, and though he wouldn’t admit it, his heart had still felt like a giant gaping wound. She hadn’t sat there passively in response to his comment about her breaking up with him right after sucking face with Billy. No, she had come right back at him without taking a moment to consider her response. Courtney. It always seemed to boil down to those two issues.

They had both been hurt and the fact that they had verbally attacked using those weapons so deftly and without having to think about it should’ve been a red flag. They were intensely emotional people; whether they loved or fought they did it with everything they had. At the time though, Madam Vivian had been there and in the deafening silence that had fallen after hurling the accusations at each other they had turned to see her watching them. He could remember Maria apologizing for their behavior – not just his, but for both of them. And when the woman had asked to speak to him alone Maria had protested, insisting that she wanted to know what was about to be said.

When the fortune-telling fruitcake had patiently explained that what she had to say wasn’t about their relationship, it was much bigger than that, he had seen the resignation in Maria’s features. She had sounded defeated as she indicated that it was always more important, giving in and getting up and leaving without a fight. And then of course the fruitcake had gone on about “believe in the love” like he had any idea what that was all about. Afterwards he had blown Maria off, insisting the fortuneteller was a flake and refusing to talk about it.

He had gone into a library in some small town they had stopped in for a couple of days to pick up some day work and spent a little time reading up on tarot cards. The Lovers card was more about choices than anything else; it was about standing at a crossroad and having a choice to make. He still thought that fortuneteller was nuttier than a fruitcake, but what he had read had made sense to him.

He had never talked to Maria about what the woman had said to him. They had never discussed Billy or Courtney. They had danced around both subjects, occasionally taking a jab at each other, using the names as weapons and going in circles like two weary prizefighters. For the past six months those two topics had been shelved, festering like an infection in a closed wound. It wasn’t until recently that Courtney’s name had made an appearance and it had happened in a moment when Maria was stressed.

For so long they had kept their feelings about those incidents carefully buried, mistakenly hoping that if they ignored them they’d go away. Realistically, they knew that wasn’t possible, but being on the run had given them a buffer against their tumultuous past. Packed in the van with four other people made it impossible to discuss any issues that a couple needed to air out and no one wanted to be around when he and Maria got into it because they tended to be very vocal. And very loud.

There were other things of course. It wasn’t all about Billy and Courtney, but a lot of the hurt on both sides existed because of the way they had handled those situations. She was right. They had an opportunity here and they couldn’t afford to let it pass. They needed to know where they stood with each other and right now they were poised on the precipice of that uncertainty that had plagued their relationship.

He looked up when she moved and took a seat in the overstuffed chair that had become hers in the time they had been in the cabin. He knew if he remained standing it would make him appear confrontational; it was a psychological thing and it was something he knew to be true. He shifted and after a moment he moved to sit in his chair, his coat rustling against the cushions as he settled deeper into them.

Maria sighed, overwhelmed by the feeling that they had once more ended up in this position. They always seemed to end up in this same spot no matter the location. Her mind tossed last Christmas in her face and she could see them sitting similar to the way they were now. It had been cold in Roswell, but not this cold. They had been sitting on her porch and she had pulled away from him when he had moved in to kiss her, inanely offering him a cup of hot chocolate. Really, Maria? That’s the best you could do? Break his heart and then offer him a freakin’ cup of hot chocolate?

She mentally kicked herself as she remembered the confused look on his face when he had tried to look out for her with Dominique, the agent who had wanted to sign her to a music label and she had blown him off. She had casually thrown it in his face that their lives were no longer linked and it had been painfully obvious that as far as he was concerned they were. She could still hear that confusion in his voice, the words underlined with hints of anger and hurt as he had asked the question she could still hear so clearly.

“Didn’t we just sleep together?”

And she had looked at him like he should’ve understood that it had just happened. Her slow response, a single drawn-out ‘yeah’ had erased the confusion from his features and left a mask of acceptance and hurt in its place.

“But it doesn’t mean anything.”

His voice had been flat and even now she wished she could erase that moment. I abandoned him, she thought. I’m the one person he believed would never do that and what I did to him was unforgivable. You can be hard on yourself about that, her mind pushed, but don’t think you carry all the blame for the problems in your relationship.

She had just turned 18 when Billy had showed up, reminding her there was more to her than what she had allowed to surface in so long. When Michael had come into her life she had still been actively pursuing music, but over time it had been pushed to the background as she was pulled deeper into the alien abyss. And then with Alex’s death she had let it slip away. Until Billy had showed up and given her a push. Yeah, and that had gone over so well, she thought sadly. It was just another kick in the teeth that she had delivered to Michael, and it was something she knew bothered him to this day.

Billy had showed up and that passion she had for music had just reignited and flared to life. For the first time in a long time she had felt like she could breathe as the music poured from her fingertips and her lips, emotions that she had long suppressed finding voice in the words. It had felt like freedom and she had latched onto it like a drowning person would latch onto something to keep their head above water.

She had watched Liz make sacrifice after sacrifice for Max and it had depressed her. There were times she was sure her best friend was going to lose her identity to him and she knew at times Liz had felt that way. Not long after that her dream of singing and being something better than Roswell, New Mexico had rolled up outside Cow Patty’s in a shiny black limo.

And she had used it as an excuse to go off the Rez big time.

She swallowed hard and tugged her right glove off, the warmth seeming to stay within the confines of the glove as she dropped it to her lap. She drew in a shaky breath and reached for his hand as she released the words in a husky voice.

“I’m sorry, Michael. It wasn’t fair of me to go off on you like that back there. I was scared. It’s no excuse, but…” She let her fingertips trail over his sleeve, waiting for the warmth of his hand to envelope hers or to be left in the cold by his rejection of her tentative request. Her breath locked up in her chest when he brushed her hand away and she blinked furiously against the tears that threatened to erupt at any moment.

*****

Isabel hung the house key on the wall hook next to the refrigerator and paused to let her eyes wander over the collection of things stuck to the door with colorful magnets. Colored pictures torn from a coloring book, a school calendar, a few coupons, a recipe clipped from a magazine, and a picture of the kids and Edward that had been taken at what looked like a picnic. Her fingertips traced over the worn edges of a poem that had been written for Mother’s Day, the childish script smudged in a few spots, and her vision blurred for a moment. The words were far from elegant but they were heartfelt and she had a feeling the smudged letters were from motherly tears.

“Wanna bet that was Eddie?” Kyle asked when he saw what had captivated her interest.

“How do you know?”

“The spelling’s a dead giveaway that it’s not Maggie and trust me,” he flicked his finger against the paper, “Brian’s not gonna put himself out there like this.” He nodded when she rolled her eyes at him. “This is not the kinda thing a guy like Brian writes when he’s 13.”

“Eddie’s only a year younger than him.”

“And he’s the sensitive one. We’re talkin’ younger, tamer versions of your brother and Michael. Which one of them would’ve been more likely to write a sappy poem for Mother’s Day?” He rolled his eyes when she just looked at him. “Okay, even if El Capitan had’ve had a mother, can you really see him letting out his inner poet?”

Isabel snorted at that. She couldn’t imagine that in any way, shape, or form. Max, yes, but Michael? Just… no. “Point taken.” She busied herself fixing a couple mugs of hot chocolate when he went to the living room, mixing a small handful of the mint baking chips into his and stirring them until they melted. It was something she had seen him do before, mix a couple of mint-flavored chocolates into his hot chocolate.

He seemed more relaxed after spending an hour or so with the Reindeer Whisperer and in her head where she could be completely honest with herself she could admit she was a little jealous.

“A little?”

She lifted her head to look at Alex where he was lounging against the refrigerator. “You shouldn’t be here,” she murmured quietly.

His grin lit up his features. “I’m pretty sure no one will see me.”

“No, but I’ll talk to you and if someone overhears me…”

“They’ll think you’re crazy,” he teased. He cocked his head to one side as he studied her features. “You’re mad at me.” He pondered that for a moment. “Because I suggested you go to him?”

“Yes, if you must know. He was perfectly content to debate Buddhism or whatever they were debating before I showed up. He was relaxed and enjoying Reindeer Girl’s company, talking about a subject he enjoys, and I interrupted them,” she hissed.

“And yet he came back with you. Isabel, you didn’t have to twist his arm to get him back over here. He came willingly.”

“He didn’t really have a choice.”

Alex snorted at that. “Of course he had a choice. He could’ve easily chosen to spend his evening talking reindeer and religion with a young, attractive, blonde-haired woman, but he didn’t. He spent some time with her, unwinding after what was an incredibly stressful day, and when you showed up he said his goodnights and came back over here to sit in front of the woodstove and have hot chocolate.”

“He’s probably already sleeping.” She rolled her eyes when he just stared at her. “What do you suggest I do? I told you he’s not confiding in me and I can’t force him to talk.”

“No one forces Kyle to talk or do anything else.” He gave her a meaningful look. “Not even you, Isabel. What’s on his mind is something he’s trying to sort through and when he’s ready he’ll talk about it.” He glanced at the doorway before looking down at the mugs. “Add marshmallows, the little ones.”

“Add marshmallows,” she muttered.

“Yeah, the little ones,” Kyle said as he came into the kitchen and walked over to the wall where their coats were hanging. “Forgot to leave the hat,” he said and shoved it in one of the pockets. He glanced around her to look at the tray of Magic Bars wrapped and sitting on the counter. “Think Julia would mind if I snatched one of those?”

“I think she’d say that’s what they’re there for.”

“Want one?” He took two when she nodded and placed them on a napkin before wrapping the plate again. He took a bite of one and turned to lean back against the counter while Isabel washed the few things she had used to make hot chocolate. “Been some day, huh?”

The question served as a reminder of just how long the day had been and as the thought formed her body reacted, letting her know just how exhausted she was. She felt drained and as she looked at Kyle she knew he was experiencing the same thing. And he probably felt even worse, she thought as she remembered his experience earlier that evening. “Yeah,” she said finally, “it really has been.”

He poked at the marshmallows that were quickly melting into the hot chocolate. “Why don’t we go take a load off?”

“That might just be the best idea you’ve had all day, Kyle.”

He lifted his mug in a silent salute. “Kyle’s full of good ideas if people would just listen when he talks.” He chuckled as he rolled his shoulders and made his way into the living room.

*****

Michael jerked his glove off and caught her hand when he saw her slowly pulling away. He caught the surprise that flickered in the green eyes that shimmered with unshed tears when she looked at him. He gave her a nod before his gaze returned to the fireplace, but he squeezed her hand gently before threading his fingers through hers.

Maria looked at their interlaced hands and the sight made the stiff muscles in her face and throat begin to relax. Even with everything between them his touch warmed her, eased her in a way that nothing else could, and it astonished her. His touch was more soothing than any Cypress Oil or Grief Relief she had used in the past. His brand of calming didn’t leave that bad aftertaste either, she thought with a small smile as she recalled the taste of the Grief Relief. She stared as his thumb began to make slow sweeping movements against her hand and she sighed quietly. This was what she had wanted from the very beginning and this was her chance to make it right.

Michael shifted in his chair and finally pulled his gaze away from the fire to shoot a questioning look in her direction.

She swallowed and nodded before continuing. “It is kinda true that my status as the last remaining human in our group makes me uncomfortable at times.”

“You know for you to get access to your own set of secret powers you have to basically die, right?”

“That’s not what I’m saying, Michael. Sometimes I just feel like a liability, like I’m the one you have to worry about because you think I can’t protect myself.”

“The Special Unit gets close to us you can’t protect yourself, Maria. That’s just the reality of our situation. That doesn’t make you weak and it doesn’t make you a liability. As for worryin’ about you, I think we covered that earlier.”

“Yeah, I got that.” He had been quite emphatic on that point so there was no need to go over it again. “Maybe it makes me uncomfortable but it doesn’t really scare me. What scares me is that I’ll never be able to earn your trust again. That I destroyed that and,” her chest tightened at the thought, “and that I can never get it back.” She squeezed his hand and spoke before her throat totally closed up. “I love you, Michael.” The words felt heavy on her tongue. “And if I could change anything I’d take back what I said to you the day after we made love when I told you our lives were no longer linked.” She felt him tense up. “I’m so sorry, Michael.” Her eyes stung and her body was taut, every nerve feeling exposed as she waited for his reaction.

Her heart was pounding in the silence that followed, the crackling flames in the fireplace the only sound disturbing the quiet. She could feel the warmth from the fire beginning to seep into her body. She had to remind her lungs to breathe in and out as the seconds ticked by and he continued to stare into the fireplace. The tears that she was trying so hard to hold back began to quietly roll over her cheeks when his thumb moved to stroke her hand.

“Okay then.” He shifted and finally turned his head to look at her. His eyes softened as he squeezed her hand and after a moment he stood to work his arms free of his coat before moving to put it away. His palm brushed against her back before his hands settled on his chair, working it around until it was in the position he wanted – facing her. He rubbed his palms against his thighs, the thick fabric of the snow pants protesting with an abrasive, scratching sound. “Thanks, for sayin’ that,” he said finally. “That means a lot to me, but since we’re bein’ honest here, I’ve made mistakes too…”

She expelled a heavy breath, releasing the air that had been pent up in her chest and as quickly as the foggy expiration dissipated the tension in her body began to ease. She glanced at the painting of the interior of a cabin that just felt like a loving home and for the first time in so long she had hope that she would have that home with Michael one day. He had forgiven her with an ease she hadn’t expected or even felt that she deserved. She drew in a shaky breath and let it out slowly, her gaze dropping to his hands when they wrapped around hers.

“Maria, back when we first started this,” he gestured between them with their clasped hands, “I racked up the mistakes. I’m the one who walked away more times than I care to count but you knew I’d come for you. You always believed in me even when no one else did.”

She watched him as his demeanor suddenly shifted and she could feel the discomfort rolling off of him.

He struggled with the thoughts he was trying to verbalize and his hand brushed his jaw as the words of an old friend came to him. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done to Maria?!” Alex had been livid when he had showed up at his door and he had held nothing back as he threw a punch that Michael hadn’t expected, but at the same time, had respected. “She’s not just some girl!” He smiled grimly as the words he needed spilled out. “And then Courtney showed up.” He squeezed her hands lightly, closing his eyes as he debated what to say next.

Maria shook her head slowly and her eyes shifted away from his briefly. “Michael,” she said softly, her thumbs stroking over his fingers as she looked at him once more, “you don’t have to do this.” She shrugged one shoulder. “She was in that spaceship you were waiting for.” She smiled tightly. “Y’know, that something better than Roswell, New Mexico.”

He became restless at the turn the conversation had taken, releasing her hands and standing. He turned to face the fireplace as he tried to put his jumbled thoughts in order. He just wasn’t good at talks like this, he thought as he shoved his left hand in the pocket of his pants. The heat from the fireplace had warmed the cabin up considerably and he felt like he was roasting since he was standing so close to the damn thing.

“Michael, this isn’t necessary.”

His eyes held the reflection of the flames dancing in the fireplace as they met hers and then shifted away again. “Yeah, I do. If we’ve got any kinda chance of stoppin’ this dance we’ve been doin’ we’ve gotta deal with all this crap in our past. We’ve gotta be strong enough to break the cycle so we can move on, whether it’s as a couple or as friends.”

Maria’s breath caught in her throat as his last sentence ran through her head over and over. Friends, she thought. No, that’s not what she wanted. She wanted it all. She started to tell him again that it wasn’t necessary but he spoke before she could get the words out.

“She’s dead because of me. I screwed up and gave her information that ultimately got her killed.”

“No,” she insisted. “No, Michael. She was a soldier for years; she had been on the run with the resistance and she was dying. She knew the risk and she chose to take it. Don’t listen to that,” she made a face as a mental image of Nicholas was pulled up from her memory, “eww, that creepy, pubescent leprechaun. Like you, she was soldier. You’ve kept us alive and safe while we’ve been on the road and no one can or will ever tell me differently.” She was surprised by his momentarily stunned expression and she took the opportunity to say what she had intended to say before he interrupted her.

She stood and took the necessary steps to bring her closer to him. She gently reached out to take his hand. “That whole thing with Courtney, yes, it hurt, but it doesn’t matter to me anymore. On one level it hasn’t mattered since you came to my house to say goodbye on Graduation Day. And on another I just needed you to acknowledge what happened with her.” She paused for a moment. “Do you remember what you said that day in front of my house?” She didn’t wait for him to respond. “You said you knew I was the girl for you when you kidnapped me and stole my car and that no matter where you were gonna be you wanted me to know you loved me and you always had. I knew it was true when you said it.” Her eyes traced over his features and a tentative smile lifted the corners of her lips. “I could feel our connection that day just like I did that day in that hotel’s porno version of Aladdin. It’s strong, Michael, and I don’t want to let it go.”

His features softened and in that moment her Michael broke through. “Maria,” he said hoarsely.

Her hand lifted and her fingers played over his closed lips for a heartbeat before she fell into his familiar embrace. “Michael.” His arms came around her as he lowered his head. She returned his kiss and couldn’t help but giggle into his mouth when he growled at the bulky coat she wore that was coming between them.

Michael pulled away with the intention of helping her shrug out of her coat and he followed her gaze when she glanced at the floor. One of her gloves had fallen from her lap when she stood and he wondered at her smile as she retrieved it and shoved it in her right pocket.

Maria looked up at him again, recognizing his need, his desire for her. It made her heady with her own need and want of him. “Bed, Michael, we need to go to bed.”

He moved their chairs back away from the fireplace before moving to the bed with purpose. The room had warmed but it was still cold enough that sleeping anywhere but right in front of that fire was going to make for a long, miserable night. He scooped the covers up and then hauled the mattress to the floor, situating it close enough to the fire that they would be warm and far enough away that they would be safe. That task complete, he retrieved the covers and pillows and laid them over the mattress.

He looked up at Maria when she moved to stand next to the makeshift bed. She was still wearing her coat and in her hands she held a small red box with gold trim. She was staring at it with an expression of disbelief. “Maria…?”

Mom must’ve put it in her pocket when they said their goodbyes, she thought as she lifted the lid. She stared at the pearl stud earrings nestled inside and her vision began to blur as she registered Michael’s concerned voice.

“Maria?” He had moved to stand in front of her and as he glanced down to see what was in the box the worry in his features eased into a smile. “Where’d they come from?” he asked as he brushed his thumb against his eyebrow.

“My mom…” she cleared her voice in an effort to make it stop shaking. “Mom must’ve put them in my pocket when we were saying goodbye.”

His hand settled against her neck, his thumb stroking her throat as he searched her eyes. “You saw your mom?”

Her response was a silent nod, afraid if she opened her mouth to speak she would lose her tenuous grasp on her emotions. She carefully closed it, barely noticing the quiet snap as the top and bottom met. She turned to gently place it on the mantle above the fireplace and her eyes lifted to the cabin painting. She sniffed as she stealthily wiped a stray tear from her cheek.

“She was at the sheriff’s house?” Jim wasn’t the sheriff any longer, hadn’t been for a while now, but in his mind the man would always be the sheriff of Roswell. It was the mindset, the way he carried himself, it was such an integral part of who the man was, and he had earned that badge. “It doesn’t matter,” he said gently. “It can wait.” He shook his head and tugged her closer to start undressing her, beginning with the bulky outer gear. He stripped her down to her long underwear and guided her down onto the mattress, getting them situated under the covers.

He pulled her close and thought about how hard it must’ve been for Amy to have her only daughter just up and leave. How hard it must be to live with the knowledge that she may never see her again. He sighed as he mentally ran over what Maria had given up to be with him.

Maria burrowed deeper into his arms and murmured his name. “Michael, my mom had a message for you.”

“Yeah?” He braced himself for whatever she was going to say.

“She said, ‘Make sure that boy knows his family misses him’.” She felt him turn his head toward her and the subsequent response as the single word rumbled up from the depths of his chest.

“Yeah?”

She smiled at him and raised herself up on one elbow as the fingers of her free hand traced over his undershirt. “Um-hmm…”

He returned her smile with one of his own. “She say anything else?”

Maria nodded as her fingers traveled up to his lips and her thumb brushed over them, her eyes following the simple action. “Mmm-hmm, she said we should take care of each other.”

Michael deftly rolled her onto her back without exposing them to the cold air that still permeated the inside the cabin. His mouth was soft and warm as it fused to hers and he kissed her with a gentle but thorough urgency. He broke the kiss for a brief moment, inhaling a ragged breath as his eyes locked with hers. “Well… that’s what we’ll do then,” he said, his quiet voice giving way to the want building inside of him.

*****

The fire in the wood burning stove was no longer blazing as Kyle and Isabel stared at it from their respective couches, each lost in their own thoughts. The house was quiet, the only sound the sporadic creak as the house protested the wind that was blowing so violently. On occasion they could hear the wind howling as it was momentarily caught by the eaves of the house. The day had been long and stressful and the high-pitched whistling did nothing to soothe nerves already badly frayed.

Isabel shifted as the restlessness that was preventing her from getting comfortable made itself known in the man lying across the room. She glanced over at Kyle and she wondered once again what had happened while he and Maria had been gone. She knew something was bothering him, keeping him from sleeping, and whatever it was had driven him out of the warmth of the house and across to Reindeer Girl earlier that night.

“Trouble sleepin’?”

The quiet question reminded her yet again of the many times that he had been there for her, putting aside his own problems to deal with hers. He did the same thing for the others but when was the last time any of them had shelved their own issues to help him out with his? Granted, he hid his problems behind a wall of humor, but they knew each other well enough that if they really looked they could see that he was in pain too.

She pushed herself up on her elbow to look at him. “Yeah.” Normally she considered herself to be a fairly articulate woman but at the moment she couldn’t seem to get her tongue to cooperate.

“Workin’ out the plans for tomorrow?”

It would be so easy to just fall back on the crutch of organizing the dress rehearsal the next day. Just fade away into her happy place. But no, she could do better than that for him. “No, you know me, I had that all planned a week ago.” She rested her head on her pillow and tucked her hand up under it. “Kyle, about what happened tonight… I just wanna say I’m sorry for the way you were pushed into using – “

He cleared his throat and held a hand up as he sat up to glance over at the doorway, making sure no one was close enough to overhear their conversation. They hadn’t heard anyone stirring for well over an hour but he had no reason to think that Edward would pass up the chance to listen in if the opportunity presented itself. He rubbed his eyes and mentally shook himself. He had been spending way too much time with El Capitan.

“Kyle?”

He lifted a finger to his lips and slipped from his sofa, carefully wrapping the sheets and blanket around him as he crossed the room to settle down at the end of hers.

“It just wasn’t right that you had to do that without being given any real time to process what had happened to you the first time.”

He shook his head as he rubbed his face tiredly. “As scary as that was for me, I do understand why Michael was pushing so hard.” His eyes locked on the woodstove as he continued, his voice taking on a faraway note as he remembered the night in Oregon when they had nearly been captured. “When we were attacked in Oregon and they hit us with those tranquilizer darts loaded with the suppressant that kept you guys from bein’ able to really fight back… I’ve never felt so helpless, Isabel.” Liar, his conscience taunted. You felt pretty damn helpless when she got shot and you didn’t know if she was gonna live or die. He shoved that memory aside along with the nightmare of Oregon. “If Michael hadn’t been so damn stubborn and insisted on sleepin’ in the van with Maria that night I don’t know where we’d all be today.”

“Kyle, you don’t – “

“Lemme get this out, Isabel.” He was quiet a moment before continuing. “I had Michael in my face shouting orders, tellin’ me exactly what to do and how to do it to get you guys outta there. I guess him clockin’ me upside the head helped my focus although at the time I don’t recall appreciating it.” He smiled grimly. “We were lucky. Trust me, I know how to say no to your brother and Michael, but I also knew they were right. We had to know what I can do. We never know from one day to the next if we’ll be facing the Special Unit before the day’s over and if what I can do can work as an advantage for us,” he shrugged, “then we have to explore it to its fullest. I have to be able to step up if and when the situation calls for it.”

“No one thinks you would ever do any less, Kyle.”

He relaxed deeper into the cushions, resting his head against the back as he turned to face her. “I know I’ve been a little distant…”

She shook her head. “It’s okay,” she assured him. “I remember how I felt after I dreamwalked the first time. It wore me out physically and mentally I was a wreck.”

“How old were you when you did it the first time?”

“Seven. I dreamwalked my mom unintentionally; I was lying in bed crying because I missed Michael so badly. I would be fine for a while but sometimes something just triggered this sense of loss and the only person I could talk to about it was Max.” She rolled her eyes. “And I love my brother but sometimes he doesn’t have a clue.”

He snorted at that. “Sometimes I forget Michael wasn’t picked up with you guys.” He made a rolling motion with one hand. “Go on.”

“When I was little and something scared me or made me sad and I couldn’t go to one of my parents I’d fall back on one of my favorite memories.” She smiled. “When my mom and dad came to the orphanage to adopt me and Max she was wearing this yellow sweater that made me think of the sun. Maybe it’s ridiculous but I knew in my heart that from that moment on she was my mom. Anyway, I must’ve cried myself to sleep because the next thing I knew I was dreaming that I was in Mom and Dad’s room, climbing into their bed to be next to her.” She chuckled at the memory. “I suddenly woke up just as my mom let out this ear-piercing scream”

Kyle shifted to rest his arm along the back of the couch as she fell quiet and he was certain she was remembering her mom. He glanced at his arm and after a moment he pulled it closer and let his lower arm drop to rest against his chest. “I wasn’t freaked out as much this time,” he said quietly. “While we were there with my dad and her mom… did either of us mention that her mom was there?” He went on when she shook her head. “Yeah, anyway, we were about to leave and I thought about my grandpa. I told my dad he had to come with us… that we couldn’t just leave him there. I always hated that nursing home he was in. Not because of anything they did or didn’t do, just because it seemed to suck the life out of him.” He stopped and clenched his jaw, forcing his voice to even out before he continued. “That’s when Dad told me he’s been gone since September.”

Isabel slowly sat up so she could move over to sit close to him. She could see how hard he was trying to keep his emotions in check and it hurt to see the pain he was in. Her hand brushed over the blanket wrinkled up between them as she spoke quietly. “I’m so sorry, Kyle.”

His eyes didn’t move from the wood burning stove as he shook his head slowly. “Thanks.” He couldn’t dwell on his grandfather’s passing. He drew in a deep breath before turning to look at her. “So, dress rehearsal tomorrow, huh?” In spite of his face feeling stiff he felt his lips curve up in a grin at his insistence. “El Capitan and El Presidente in elf suits; I’m gonna like that. I’m gonna like that a lot.”

She knew he was changing the subject in an effort to lighten the mood and she smiled softly at him. She gnawed on her bottom lip for a moment when he started to gather up his covers and she knew he was getting ready to move back over to his own couch. “Kyle?”

He paused in the process of scooting to the edge of the cushions to give him some leverage to get to his feet. “Yeah?”

She shivered when the wind howled again and something knocked against the side of the house. “Stay a while?”

He shrugged and eased back into his former position. “Okay.” He sighed and closed his eyes as his linked hands settled over his stomach. “Wanna hear a story about the time my grandpa took me to a ghost town up in Colorado?” It was one of the rare times Grandpa hadn’t been insisting that there were aliens among them and they had spent a week roaming through the state doing fun stuff like hiking, rafting, and camping.

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

He opened one eye to look at her. “You got any fun grandparent stories?”

She made a face. “Well, there was this one time my grandparents took us to see one of those wax museums and one of the wax people had started to melt or something and the eye was kinda sliding down its face.” She tried hard not to laugh. “It made Max cry. I thought that was funny until we got to our next stop on Grandpa’s fun afternoon museum tour.” She made a face. “Did you know there’s an actual roach museum?” It was a story that she had sworn she would never share with anyone of her own free will but she could see the easing of the tension in him so she continued. “That one freaked me out.”

“Roaches… like the bugs?”

She shuddered. “Exactly like the bugs. They’re dressed up in little clothes and it’s… it’s just gross.”

He laughed and shook his head. “I think that really trumps my ghost town story.”

“That’s for me to judge, Valenti. Now share.”

He tugged the blankets closer and launched into the story, laughing with her when he shared the way his grandfather had walked him through the old saloon without telling him that it had been rigged so that cardboard people popped up unexpectedly. He lost himself in the stories as the night wore on and they shared stories about their families and for a while forgot about their current situation.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-53- 6/15/13

Postby KindredKandies » Sat Jun 15, 2013 11:44 pm

GreginClearwater- Thank you for your review! Your compliment had us speechless. Get a thank you from the bottom of our humble hearts. :)

Eva- Right? M&M can be so difficult sometimes. Lol. We’re relieved they finally talked as well. We’ll see more inside M&M's hearts in this update as well. ;) Glad you enjoy Kyle and Isabel's relationship, we do as well. ;)

keepsmiling7- Aww, thank you for the compliment and we’ve missed you as well. :) RL had been a pain these last months. No worries though, we're still here with the gang. :)

Michael does not understand women......and their/our quick silver moods.......you'd be ahead of most men if you did understand Michael!


LOL. We were trying to envision Michael being ahead of most men as far as understanding women and couldn't stop laughing at the thought.

Also see that Kyle didn't talk things to death like many women do......what insight you have!


Aww, thank you.

Our hearts hurt for Liz when she found out that Maria saw her mom as well. :(

Yup, the gang has given up a lot and has so far missed out on the time in their lives to explore their futures.

When is something good going to happen for them???


It's Christmas, a time of miracles...you just don't know what may be coming around the corner. It's coming. ;)

Timelord31- Thank you! :)

Candyliciouslovah-

Uh-huh, I hope she's right! I liked them a little bit on the show, but not as much as molding together the pairing of Jim & Charlotte (my female original character) for "My Heart Remembers".


Lol, well Amy and Jim aren't talking to us about their relationship. Their lips are sealed. Lol. Our focus in this fic is on M&M and the gang. :) We wish you happy writing of your fic "My Heart Remembers" and thank you for reading ours. ;)

mary mary- So happy you were able to come back from the dark side (lol, yes, we're teasing) to read our update. :)

We're glad you enjoyed the sharing, understanding, and caring in this update. Our gang has has finally come to the place where they can enjoy themselves more. Yup, we're hoping that RL will just leave us alone for a while so we can come back on a regular basis. :D

Alien_Friend- Thank you! We've missed you and being here as well!

I feel for Maria. It was tough when she had let go of Michael a little like that. It wasn't a normal situation though and I think in some ways they needed that separation they had to make them being together now mean that much more.


Oh yes, we feel this way about their separation as well. Thank you for this insightful comment. :) We just wished the writers in S3 hadn't taken Maria's separation from Michael to the level that they did. We'll read more about M&M's feelings in this update as well. ;)

That was a treat very nice and long just how I like it.


Lol. Thank you, but you can blame M&M for the length of the update. It's our longest in this fic so far, at 25 pages. :D

Cupid says thank you in a reindeer way and to tell you that he’s in good hands with Stephanie and Santa. :)

Aww Cupid, yeah, he had a tough time but now is in a good place. :)

We're glad you're enjoying the storyline with Kyle and Isabel. And yup, we're glad you enjoyed the stories they told each other. Thank you, we love writing Kyle and Isabel. :)

Ah, Kyle's powers, we think your ideas are interesting. Kyle does have a big part in this fic and it's not over yet. You're right, Kyle is very capable. We love Kyle. :)

sarammlover- Lol, we agree it was so time for M&M and K&I's talk. But you know how they are, everything moves at their speed. :)

Aww, thank you for the lovely compliment. :) Our hearts are in this story as well. Here's more and get a Cindy hug. :D

xilaj-

What a great update, lovely and long, and covering so much emotional ground


Thank you for the compliment.:) It put a grin on our faces. This update did indeed cover a lot of ground and was very intense emotionally especially for M&M. It was a challenge to write. We're glad you enjoyed it. :)

We love Alex. He loved your comments about him. He said, "What's Christmas without a Ghost from Christmas past? Okay, technically I never spent Christmas with Isabel, but I've always been with her in my heart. I'll be here for as long as she needs me."

I love the way you use humour to offset the deep emotions in your story. One minute my heart is breaking for Liz who just wants to see her parents again and the next I`m smiling at Maria being a giant marshmallow without a neck and remembering freezing cold bathrooms that I`ve known.


Thanks! Humor, even in the smallest things can really help balance the intensity of an emotionally charged update. The funny thing is, the characters really do lead us into those moments of levity. :) And oh, yeah, nothing like a freezing bathroom! Yup, both of us have memories in our past like that as well. Lol. ;)

I`m glad that both couples (and I can`t help seeing Isabel and Kyle as a couple, even if at the moment they`re just good friends) have finally been so open with each other and that this update leaves them in a much better place. I`m looking forward to Christmas in the Woods and to Max`s meeting with Valenti.


It's taken our couples, romantic or otherwise, time to reach a point where they can open up and say the things that have needed to be said for a long time. Even with everything that's come out between all of them Christmas and after may just hold a few more surprises. :D We're looking forward to Christmas on the Lake as well. It's almost here. :)


Author's note. - RL has been a real pain in the neck these last too many months that have gone by and is the only reason this story has been slow in updating. No worries this story is close to our hearts and will be completed as soon as the gang gets us there. Expect a happy ending and thank you for reading. :D
Cindy hugs for all, KK.


Part 53

It wasn’t the sound of snow-laden branches creaking. It wasn’t the sound of the wind howling around the corners of the silent cabin. It wasn’t even the icy cold air inside the cabin that woke him from a sound sleep. It was the disturbance created by Maria kicking off the covers and exposing his naked flesh to that arctic breeze that had him hissing and burrowing closer to her in an effort to hold onto the heat.

The arm around her waist flexed as he hauled her back against him and he swung his leg over both of hers to keep her still. He made a grab for the mountain of covers they had piled on top of them to ward off the chill that had been lurking outside the heated area created by the fire he had started. Once he was save from losing a layer of skin to frostbite he inhaled deeply, drawing her scent in before letting out a soft but languorous yawn and settling them back into the warmed spot.

He sighed contentedly and closed his eyes again. Something tickled his face and he quickly determined that it had to be her hair because no bug was brave enough to venture out in these temperatures. He blew at it and for a moment the sensation abated but just about the time he started to ease back into sleep it started again. He growled and reached up to bat it away and the motion was enough to chase away the last vestiges of sleep.

He looked around, taking in the darkness. After a few minutes his eyes had adjusted and he could make out the outlines of the furniture and the shadows that played on the wall across from them. The outline of the window was reflected on the television screen and he wondered absently if the stupid thing would crack if he turned it on. He stared up at the ceiling and rubbed his nose against the covers when it started to itch.

He tugged the covers down just enough to expose his mouth and he blew an experimental breath into the air. Yeah, that was just too damn cold to be inside, he thought with a shake of his head. His attention was pulled back to Maria when she snuggled back into him and tried to kick the covers off again. Oh, no you don’t. He couldn’t help but smile at how completely relaxed she was in his arms. It had been too long since they had been this close.

Her skin against his brought their earlier lovemaking to mind and the memory caused heat to rush through him, starkly contrasting with the freezing temperatures outside their little cocoon. He let his hand travel over her curves beneath the covers, drawing a quiet sigh from Maria before he withdrew it to take aim at the fireplace.

He craned his neck to glance around his splayed hand and he imagined the fireplace with a fire roaring and heating up their little corner of the cabin. He growled under his breath when the darkened interior of the fireplace remained dark and cold. He made a face and splayed his fingers wider, glaring at the fireplace as it gave it another shot. “Secret powers suck.” He released an exasperated breath before dropping his head back on the pillow. “Crap,” he muttered quietly, “must be outta wood.” He smirked to himself when Maria shifted again. Well, not completely outta wood.

The smirk was short-lived when her foot snaked past him and she succeeded in kicking her foot free of the covers. The intrusion of freezing air into their warm space made one of them hiss and he wasn’t sure if it had been her or him. He covered her up once again and his hand patted along the edge of the mattress in search of the thermal shirt he had been wearing earlier. He jerked forward and grabbed for the edge of the mattress above his head when he nearly fell off onto the floor. It didn’t matter that it was only 6-8 inches. That floor was going to be like sitting on a block of ice. What the hell was he doing on the edge anyway? Because his girlfriend had managed to move him across its wide expanse every time she had kicked the covers off. That in itself made him smile. She hadn’t slept so peacefully since before they had broken up.

His face felt like it was frozen and when he couldn’t find his shirt he settled for grabbing his coat instead. He gently rolled Maria and tucked the covers in around her to keep her warm while he slipped out for a few minutes. He shrugged into the coat and decided it would be quicker to get the fire started than it would be to try and find his pants. He took the few necessary steps to reach the fireplace; the temperatures that he was certain were below freezing making them feel like he had just walked a mile.

He worked quickly, stacking the logs in the fireplace and using his powers to boost the little fire into a roaring blaze. He smirked and blew across his fingertips before brushing them over the front of his jacket. He turned his head to stare at his girlfriend, his mind replaying every moment of the night before when he had really looked at her after responding to her apology.

It was the first time he’d done that since she had broken up with him. He had looked at her and felt her longing to be with him to the fullest extent. It was a physical ache she had held onto that had only begun to abate when he had accepted her apology. Taking her hands afterwards and opening up to her about Courtney had exposed a painful wound, but rather than hold onto it he had seen and felt her desire to release it the moment had had started to struggle with the words he needed to talk about his time with the other girl.

He watched her sleep, completely relaxed for the first time in months, and it was as if the weight of everything she had been carrying around had been lifted. In spite of his skin almost burning from the heat of the fire now raging in the fireplace his thoughts continued. He had been determined to confront their past, they had finally both been ready to tackle that old wound, and he winced as he recalled the way he had shut her out of his life. He had told her at one point that it was better for the both of them; that aliens and humans didn’t mix.

He had been reluctant to bring that topic up regardless of which of them got to it first. But as he had sat across from her trying to hold up his part of the deal and trying to confront that particular issue, he had been able to feel her compassionate, loving response in spite of the hurt it had caused her in the past. He had started to shake as he revealed the fear that he was responsible for Courtney’s death, that he had gotten her killed, and that Maria would be next because of something stupid he did.

She had stunned him into silence with her response: “You’ve kept us alive and safe while we’ve been on the road and no one can or will ever tell me differently.” He had been overwhelmed by her words, by the expression in her eyes, and mostly by the feelings he had gotten from her. His thoughts shifted to her explaining how she had felt inferior because of her status as the last remaining all-human in the group. His lips tightened into a thin line as he thought about the times he had shut her out and unknowingly making her think that she wasn’t a strong person.

He blinked when Maria stirred and he studied her face in the firelight. Truth be known, she was the strong one, the one who believed in him when he wouldn’t or couldn’t believe in himself. She didn’t need him to save her. The truth of the matter was she had saved him over and over again with nothing more than her belief in him. She was the miracle in him; she made him want to be the best he could be for her and for himself.

He began to sweat and he shifted in the heavy coat. It had felt good when he had grabbed it to prevent his body from turning to ice but the heavy material against sweating skin didn’t feel so great. He shrugged out of it and quickly took the few steps back to the mattress, spreading the coat out over the covers and then diving below them when the cold threatened again.

*****

Max was staring at the wall, his mind going over everything that had happened the day before. The temperature in the cabin was comfortable and he was sprawled out on the bed, his right foot sticking out from under the covers. He had slept like a rock once Liz had finally drifted off and he had woken first but hadn’t had the heart to disturb her. He had lain awake as dawn broke and the darkness had given way to a light grey skyline. As the minutes had passed the sky had slowly become more of a whitish grey and he imagined it was probably an imminent sign that more snow was on the way.

Michael would love that, he thought sarcastically. The girls actually would love it because the more snow that fell the likelier it was their stay would be extended. If things were different he could picture them staying for a while but he knew they would have to move on and it would have to be soon. It wasn’t just themselves they put in danger by staying in one place for so long and the Stevens’ had done so much for them. Not that they would intentionally put anyone at risk but this family, this community, had become so much more than just passing acquaintances in the short time they had been stranded there.

Eventually they were going to have to split up. They would be afforded a certain protection if they could safely cross into Canada, but even then putting some distance between them would be wise. He sighed as he considered what that would do to Liz. She had lost contact with her parents and when they split up it would just be the two of them; they wouldn’t lose all contact with the others but they wouldn’t have the constant interaction they were all so accustomed to.

He turned his head and his gaze settled on his wife’s pallid features. She had been a wreck the night before. Not just because Maria had seen her mom and it brought home just how much Liz missed her own parents, but because she felt guilty for the jealousy she felt over the brief meeting her best friend had been gifted with. He shifted onto his side when she sighed quietly and he realized she wasn’t asleep.

“How long have you been awake?” he asked quietly.

“Not long,” she whispered as if she was afraid speaking any louder might disturb the near silence in the cabin. “What’re you thinking about?”

“Moose Jaw.”

Her eyes snapped open and she looked at him in surprise. “What?”

“It’s a city in Canada. Straight shot up north from back home.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe one day it’ll be safe for your parents to visit.”

“And yours,” she said softly as she rolled onto her side to meet his gaze. She brought her hand up to rest alongside his jaw and her thumb traced over his bottom lip. She knew the reality of their situation as well as he did and she knew it may never really be an option for them. Not as long as there were Special Unit agents searching for them. But she appreciated his efforts to try and cheer her up. Her eyes dropped to their hands when he reached for hers and their fingers interlocked.

“What?” he asked when she smiled for the first time in what seemed like days.

“I was just remembering the morning we faced our parents after spending the night out in the desert. Remember? We went searching for that orb and…” She nodded when he grinned at the memory. “Yeah. They were so not happy with us.”

“Our moms more than our dads,” he said and laughed. “Your dad wasn’t ready to stake me out in the desert for the fire ants at that point.”

She elbowed him as she laughed with him. “I don’t think it ever would’ve come to that.”

Max snorted. “I beg to differ. There was a time when it could’ve.”

“Thank God for Jane Covendall.” The elderly woman had been such a help the night of the New Years’ party at the Crashdown, making her see things a little differently. Although she had a feeling Jim Valenti had helped too. She had seen him sitting at the bar talking to her dad that night although neither of them had ever said anything about that conversation.

*****

Travis wandered out of the den and headed for the kitchen, yawning widely and rubbing his stomach when it rumbled loudly. He wondered absently if the Stevens would mind if he had something to eat and then just as quickly discarded that thought. Julia had told him to make himself at home and he took her offer at face value. He paused in the living room doorway and started to walk over to the picture window to see if it had snowed overnight but the sound of snoring caught his attention before he could move.

His gaze settled on the couple tangled up on the couch peacefully sleeping and oblivious to the rest of the world. He chuckled to himself and turned back to go into the kitchen. He could check the snowfall from there just as easily without disturbing them. He was making himself a cup of coffee a few minutes later when he heard the sound of little feet coming down the stairs, the rapid patter indicating that someone wasn’t following the rules.

He poked his head around the corner to catch sight of the red and white blur that was Miss Maggie Stevens as she practically flew down the stairs. Her destination was clear judging by the intent look on her face as she eyed the living room doorway. He moved to block her path before she could catch Kyle and Isabel by surprise and he smiled when she came to a sudden stop on the third step.

Maggie looked up at Travis with wide eyes and she bit her bottom lip as she slowly turned her head to look over the railing and down the hallway to see if Mama and Daddy were there. After a few moments she relaxed and smiled as she looked at Travis again.

His eyebrows lifted as he watched her and after a few seconds of silence she dropped her gaze and dragged her right foot across the step unconsciously. He bit back a grin as the sound of the jingle bells her mama had sewn onto the toes of her little pointy elf shoes rang out cheerfully. “You must be the Christmas elf I’ve been hearin’ about.”

She looked down at herself. “It’s me, Mr. Travis. I’m Maggie.”

“No.” He shook his head. “Can’t be. I’ve seen Miss Maggie before and she’s never had one of these snazzy elf outfits on.”

Her nose crinkled. “What’s snazzy mean?”

“It means bright and colorful, kinda fancy like your elf outfit. I’ve heard about you, ya know? See, there’s this big to-do over at Mr. Tony’s place here pretty soon and I hear Santa’s gonna be there. There’s this pretty lady organizing the whole thing and she’s been tellin’ everybody about this special little elf that works directly with Santa.” He took a step back and looked at her for a moment before nodding. “Yep, that’s gotta be you.”

“Nuh-uh,” she said, shaking her head.

“Oh,” disappointment clouded his tone, “so you’re not Santa’s Chief Elf?”

She studied him for a moment and then giggled. “Mr. Travis, you’re funny. You know it’s just me. But I do get to help Santa. Isabel said so.”

“That’s gotta be the most important job there is.”

“Oh, yes, and I’m gonna do it real good.” She smiled widely and held up her beloved stuffed bear that was now wearing a tiny red hat. “Looky, Mama made it.” She shook the toy and the bell sewn onto the end of the hat jingled. “It’s just like mine. I’m gonna go show Isabel an’ Kyle.”

He chuckled at her enthusiastic comment. “Maybe you could help me with puttin’ some breakfast together first?”

“Well…” She leaned to the side to try to see around him.

“C’mon,” he cajoled, “you know how much you like it when you wake up to breakfast, right? And you guys have a big day today with that rehearsal. Probably wouldn’t hurt to make sure everyone’s got a full tummy before they get the day started.”

“Mama makes the best applesauce pancakes.”

“Not too sure about that but I can make blueberry pancakes.”

She made a face. “I like the kind with chocolate chips. Daddy tries to make them so they look like animals but they don’t really.” She took his hand and fell into step beside him, her silver bells jingling with every step and bob of her head. “I think Michael would like chocolate chip pancakes and sausage. Oh, the hot kind though. He likes things sweet an’ spicy like Santa does.” Her eyes widened and she covered her mouth with her hand as she tried to remember if that was a secret.

Travis held his forefinger to his lips. “The secret’s safe with me.” He lowered his hand to hold it out to her, his pinky raised. He had grown up with a younger sister so he understood just how sacred little girls held a pinky promise.

“Okay,” she said, clearly relieved once the sanctity of the secret had been upheld.

*****

It was the scent of bacon frying that teased his nostrils and began to lure him from the depths of the most restful sleep he’d had in a long time. He inhaled deeply as he mentally stretched and snuggled back into the warm comfortable spot his body had settled into overnight. His eyelids flickered for a few seconds before his blurry vision slowly began to clear and when it did it landed on the sofa across the room.

He frowned and tipped his head slightly as he studied the sofa that was suspiciously free of its occupant. Beneath the pillow he could feel the arm of the couch and he rubbed his head against it to scratch an itch. He was warm and content, he could smell breakfast cooking, and without thinking much beyond the moment his eyes started to drift closed. It wasn’t until he flexed his arm and stretched without conscious thought that he realized the cushions he was so comfortably snuggled into weren’t cushions at all.

His heart that had been so calmly beating a moment before suddenly started to pound and he forced his body to obey him and ignore its natural inclination. He could just imagine Isabel’s reaction if she woke up and realized that wasn’t a reindeer antler poking her in the back. He rolled his eyes and ever so slowly eased his hips back, pushing back into the sofa as far as he could. Please don’t let her wake up, he sent a silent prayer to Buddha.

He was vaguely aware of the quiet voices and the muted sounds of dishes clanking together as he began a painfully tense and slow twist and slide to the end of the sofa, hoping to make it off of the couch before she woke up. He froze and held his breath when she shifted and sighed softly as she settled into the spot he had just vacated.

“Buddha, I swear I’ll pray more and do better at keeping my soul open to your wisdom if you just get me off this couch with my dignity intact,” he muttered under his breath. He was so busy trying to covertly disengage his feet from the covers so he could make his escape that it caught him off guard when something jingled behind him and at the same time Isabel suddenly shifted to sit up.

Isabel frowned sleepily as she braced her forearm along the back of the couch and stared at Kyle. He was perched in an awkward position at the other end and looked like he’d just gotten caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to do. “Um… Kyle?”

He moved too quickly and ended up taking a dive rather than making the graceful exit he’d had planned. He landed on his back with a loud thud and for one stunned moment he stared up at the ceiling wondering just how it was he ended up in situations like this. The sound of laughter caught his attention and he turned his head to look at Maggie wearing her elf costume and holding Miss Cindy Bear. His gaze dropped when she shuffled her feet, causing the little bells on the tips of her pointy little toes to jingle.

“Kyle, you’re so funny,” she giggled.

He flipped over and started a demanding regimen of pushups before this situation managed to move any further from funny than it already was.

“Kyle, are you alright?” Isabel asked as she stood and moved to the end of the couch to look down at him.

“Sure, just doin’ my mornin’ exercise routine,” he panted while keeping up a punishing pace. “I always do pushups right outta bed.”

She looked at him skeptically. “Uh-huh, I don’t recall that morning routine ever including you taking a swan dive.”

“Like you’d know since you’re usually still asleep when I get up.”

“What’s a swan dive?”

She rolled her eyes at him and turned to look at Maggie when the little girl voiced her curiosity. Her eyes shone brightly as she took in the outfit she was wearing. “Oh, wow, your costume is just beautiful.”

“I know.” Maggie stood even taller and grinned widely. “Mama made it with just her scissors an’ needle an’ thread.” She stuck one foot out and shook it back and forth so that it jingled. “And look, she put jingle bells on my elf shoes too.”

Kyle was grateful for the inanity of the Santa’s elf costume conversation as he was finally able to haul himself up off of the floor, carefully shifting the waistband on his sweatpants to give him more room. “Think I’m gonna grab a quick shower before breakfast,” he said with a grin at Maggie.

“Travis an’ me made breakfast an’ it’s almost done.”

He reached out and tugged the jingle bell hidden in the fluffy white ball at the end of her hat. “Sounds good.”

“He’s keeping them warm in the oven so when everyone gets here they can have hot pancakes.”

Isabel smiled at Maggie as Kyle took off for the shower. She finished folding up the blankets and placed them at the end of the couch. “Are you all ready for rehearsal today?”

“Oh, yes! I can’t wait for tomorrow when Santa finally comes an’ Michael can give him my picture. You ‘member the one I made for him of my puppy? He’s gonna give it to Santa for me.” Her eyes sparkled gleefully and she suddenly switched gears. “Oh, Isabel, may I put in the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer DVD? Mama lets me do it if it’s after nine o’clock. Just not before, that’s not allowed.” She hurried over to the living room clock, the bells on her toes jingling cheerfully. She stopped and looked up at it, frowning as she tried to make sense of the hands.

Isabel squinted at the clock on the wall and nodded. “Sure you can, just don’t turn it up too loud, okay? Your mom and dad aren’t up yet.”

*****

Edward would’ve been hard-pressed to pin down what it was that roused him from a deep sleep. As his fuzzy mind slowly focused he began to identify the sounds of movement in the house: the footfalls coming down the hallway, the sound of the bathroom door creaking as it was opened and shut, and the quiet that reigned now that the wind was no longer howling and causing the windows to rattle. His eyes cracked open just enough to take notice of the gray light that was filtering into the room and heralded an overcast morning. No matter what it was that had woke him the fact was he was awake now.

What day was it?

After a week and a half of waking up alone before the dawn it was a shock to find himself in bed with his Julia sleeping peacefully beside him. He stretched, enjoying the movements, and in spite of the pleasure it gave him to settle against Julia and feel her skin against his, something felt off. There was a nagging thought just beyond his grasp that prevented him from fully enjoying the sight of his wife’s deep auburn hair spilling over the ice skate print pillowcase. He rose up on his elbow to peer at the bedside clock, noting the time and day of the week.

Just before nine on Friday morning.

He stared at the hand-carved woodpecker on the windowsill, a gift of apology presented to Julia a couple of summers back. His eyes were locked on it but he wasn’t really seeing it as he tried to navigate his foggy mind to latch onto that nagging thought. He sighed and eased back into his warm spot under the covers, his arm settling around Julia’s waist.

Ah, it’s Friday, he realized. That meant it was rehearsal day for the big Christmas on the Lake event that would take place tomorrow. He frowned. No, that wasn’t it.

He rolled onto his back, raising one arm up over his head and under the pillow as he began to tick off the previous day’s events. It had been a long one that had started at breakfast when their guests had shown up late for the meal looking like they were coming from a funeral. Especially Liz, he mused. One thought led to another and he frowned as he recalled the night before last. He had been watching when two of them had gotten into a physical confrontation only to be separated by Michael just before the door had closed and hidden them from view. Odd, he thought, if he were to choose which of the boys would be involved in a fight Max would’ve been his last choice.

His muscles tensed as he remembered Michael’s demeanor as he and Maria had walked back to Grandma and Grandpa’s cabin later that night. He had waited in the shadows of the garage, watching as Michael had turned and fixed his gaze on him with unerring accuracy. His hand flexed beneath his head as he recalled his intention to finally get some answers from his guests at dinner the night before.

And what had happened to that plan?

He sighed internally as he sorted through the cobwebs of his mind. They’d had dinner, all of his favorite foods and his comfortable recliner in front of the fire after a long day working in subzero temperatures. Later he’d offered to give Isabel a ride over to Mr. Tony’s when she’d decided to go and check on Kyle. A ride she had turned down in spite of the excessively cold temperatures. Somewhere in there he’d decided he was gonna take a walk out to his woodworking studio/office to do a little surveillance when… He frowned as he tried to get a grasp on what had happened next.

Of course, he thought and shook his head. Hot chocolate with little marshmallows, magic bars with walnuts, and Julia’s shining eyes matching the smile she had turned on when she presented him with all of his favorite treats. He rolled his eyes and expelled the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding in. Bingo, he’d been set up.

He was momentarily pulled out of his thoughts when the bathroom door creaked shut and the bed shifted when the sound caused Julia to stir. “One of these days, woman…” the words died on his lips when the covers slipped to expose her bare shoulder. Her eyes fluttered open and her face eased into a smile that effectively tamped down his annoyance with her obvious meddling tactics the night before.

Julia snuggled back down into the covers, watching Edward’s low-lidded eyes as they shifted to settle on her. She wasn’t a morning person by any means and she really hoped the look on his face was because he was sleep rather than anything else. Maybe if she just went back to sleep, she thought, snuffling happily as her own eyes became heavy.

“Hey,” he said, his voice raspy.

Or not. She stretched just enough to qualify her movements as a stretch. “Hey back.” She felt the bed shift beneath her and she watched as Edward moved to lie right next to her. He pulled his hand from under his pillow and reached over to gently run his fingers through her hair.

“G’mornin’.” His mind fumbled for what came next. After the past couple of weeks it was almost unprecedented to actually be in bed with her at the same time in the mornings. Here lately it was all about planning Christmas on the Lake, cooking, sewing, and coming up with chores for him to do. “Aren’t we late getting up this morning?” he mumbled finally.

“No,” she yawned, “we’re not late. Rehearsal isn’t ‘til 11.”

He tried to hide his grin as a thought occurred to him. He would be eternally grateful they’d had the master bathroom put in when he and her dad had built the house. “I could run us a shower,” he offered, wiggling his eyebrows.

A slow smile crept across her face as she contemplated her wonderful guy’s attempt to romance her. She snorted internally at that thought and then moved into a slow pleasurable stretch. “Hmm, not sure I’m so dirty I need a shower this morning,” she said with a teasing grin.

His fingers moved from her hair to stroke her shoulder. “Who said anything about you bein’ dirty?”

Her eyes locked on his as she bit her bottom lip. “I should probably make breakfast…”

His eyes glinted as they locked on her. “Breakfast is ready and that’s not what I’m hungry for,” he growled, making her laugh like the young girl he’d met as a teenager. He was reaching out to capture her in his arms when he was suddenly interrupted by his little girl singing along with the television. He unconsciously hummed along with her for a moment and that was all it took to identify the song and the video that had to be playing. We Are Santa’s Elves. He’d never be able to get it out of his head now.

Julia smiled and reached for him when he hesitated. Her kiss was slow and enticing. “No worries, she has 16 more songs to go,” she whispered as she broke the kiss.

*****

Maria awoke to the cool air in the cabin and it barely registered that while the air was frosty it wasn’t frigid the way it had been the night before. She stretched languorously and inhaled deeply, drawing in the freshest, cleanest breath she’d taken in a long while. Her sleepy gaze traveled over Michael’s sleeping form that was wrapped around her. His long muscled legs were draped over hers, effectively keeping her from kicking the covers off and exposing them to the cold.

She smiled at the rasp of his skin against hers as she stretched again just for the enjoyment of it. How long had it been since they had slept together? You could sleep with someone without really sleeping with them. Emotional distance could put miles between a couple no matter how close they were physically. For so long the ghosts of past decisions had haunted them, creating an ever-widening chasm, but they had finally confronted them the night before and laid them to rest. There was something to be said for sleeping without that weight bearing down on your shoulders, she mused as she shifted enough to face him. She reached up to let the tip of her forefinger trail down over his nose. Her thoughts slipped back to last Christmas as she studied him and she shook her head as she remembered part of that conversation.

“Michael, no. I… look, I… I want to, but it’s just… We’re just gonna wake up tomorrow and things’ll be… Like back to how they were.

His expression had been uncomprehending of why that wasn’t a good thing. “That’s not a problem for me.”


She mentally kicked herself. Just what the hell had she been thinking? She retraced her path and rubbed over the frown lines between his eyes, smiling when it eased with nothing more than her touch. No, this was where she wanted to be. It was where she’d always wanted to be. She shifted to run her hand lightly along his jaw line, carrying on the silent one-sided conversation. I’m not going anywhere without you. I’m gonna make you see that every time you look at me.

Her mom’s words floated across her mind, gently reminding her once again that Michael had stayed for her and given time he’d come around. Her heart filled to nearly bursting as she reveled in the peace of the night she had spent in Michael’s arms. Mom was right, she thought with a smile.

She shifted beneath the covers, loving the way her naked skin felt against his, and fully aware of where his hands were. Especially the one on her hip that slipped lower with her movements and created an instant burn that traveled across her nerve endings at lightening fast speed. The sensation spread to her core and her cheeks flushed deeply.

The quiet mew she gave in response caused Michael to stir and he sleepily opened his eyes. “Hey,” he said, his voice gravelly.

She ducked her head. “Hey,” her voice expressed the knowing smile on her face. Her hand slid down from his jaw to rest on his shoulder. “That was some talk, huh?”

He flexed the arm beneath her neck, curling it slightly to pull her closer. “Yeah.” His dark eyes followed her every move as her hand ghosted over the scar that had been left after Max removed the King’s seal. It was something she hadn’t done in the past six months.

“I love you, Michael.” She dipped her head, placing gentle kisses across the expanse of the scar.

“Maria.”

Her heart filled once again in response to her name being whispered in a way that only he could say it. It had been so long since she’d heard it said in just that way. She kissed her way up to his lips and her eyes locked on his as she placed a finger against them to still the words. “I know,” she said in a hushed voice.

He watched her, feeling his heart catch when she suddenly smiled and lifted herself up to look around the room. She turned her head and he craned his neck to brush his lips against hers before following her gaze. Maggie’s picture, he mused. The yellow puppy she wanted for Christmas. He had stuck it to the fridge with a magnet, the bright orange W that he had flipped around to make an M. He hadn’t even realized he had done it until the next time he’d been in the kitchen and seen it.

“Oooh, Michael, it’s rehearsal day and you know what that means.”

He yawned and slumped back against the mattress, enjoying the view she presented. It was warmer in the cabin but there was still a chill in the air, he thought with a smirk as his gaze dipped lower. It means we’re a day closer to pulling out of here. But he didn’t vocalize the thought. “It means the Christmas Nazi’s gonna be nagging everyone in earshot.”

Maria rolled her eyes. “No, it means Santa’s near and I can’t wait to see Santa.”

He couldn’t help but smile at the way she jumped from one subject to another, making him think of the happy child she must’ve been. It was something he had always loved about her – the ability to enjoy life. He caught himself almost smiling from ear to ear and commanded his facial muscles to revert to their default setting – the crooked half-smile that didn’t reveal very many teeth. “Yeah, well, he’s got the day off. The fat man doesn’t do rehearsals.” His eyes darkened as he lost control of the grin. “But Snowflake does.”

She turned her head to look at him. “Even Santa can’t say no to Isabel.”

He just snorted. “That’s what you think”

“We’ll see.” He would never make it though the day without being assigned some rehearsal task and they both knew it. “We should head over to Max and Liz’s so we can grab a shower.”

He took her hand and pulled her down to rest against his chest. “Shower’s not goin’ anywhere,” he murmured.

Maria grinned and leaned in for a short, noisy kiss. “Nope, but if we don’t put in an appearance pretty soon we’re gonna have a Christmas Nazi pounding on our front door and you know she won’t be happy if she has to come get us and then wait while we grab a shower.”

He growled deep in his chest, making her laugh when the rumbling sound radiated out and transferred itself to her body.

*****

Max finished wiping down the countertops with the blue kitchen cloth and then switched to the yellow sponge to scrub out the stainless steel sink, his hands moving on autopilot as his mind saw his mom’s kitchen at home. He smiled when he realized he was following her routine after washing dishes when dinner was done. The only thing missing was the rubber gloves and the fake manicured nails. He looked up as the sound of Liz’s voice pulled him from thoughts of his mom. Mom, he thought.

He took in his wife’s appearance. She was freshly showered and dressed, towel drying her hair as she spoke to him.

“Hey, do you know what time we’re supposed to be at the house to get ready for rehearsal?”

He thought back to last evening and shrugged. His focus had been on Liz and getting her to their cabin after all the stress at Kyle and Isabel’s cabin. No, if rehearsal time had been mentioned he hadn’t even been paying attention. He opened his mouth to reply and was interrupted by a knock at the door. He shot a quizzical look at Liz and then moved to answer the door. The knock came again, sharper and louder this time. He peered through the front window to get a glimpse of who was standing at the door just in time to see Michael take a step back to wrap his arm around Maria. “It’s Michael and Maria,” he said as he opened the door.

Liz straightened up and smiled, shaking out the towel she had been using to dry her hair as their friends entered. It was clear they were cold but there was a feeling of genuine warmth between them that she hadn’t seen in a long time. It had her wanting to get the scoop on what had changed between their ugly fight the night before and this morning. She flashed a look at Max as their friends stomped their boots to free them from excess snow and began to shrug out of their outerwear.

He nodded and looked at Michael. “Hey, so how’s it goin’?”

Damn. Just as he had expected, the King and Queen’s place was nice and warm, he thought with a smirk. “Cold, Maxwell.”

Maria snorted. “I think our cabin’s colder than your dad’s walkin at the café, Liz.”

Michael shook his head. “More like a meat locker, especially the bathroom.” He started to insist on using their shower but thought better of it when he looked at his girlfriend. “You think we can borrow your shower?”

Something lifted inside of Liz as she observed her best friend with her boyfriend. She couldn’t help but feel the smile that spread across her face. “Sure. I’ll get the towels out of the dryer.” She looked over shoulder at Maria. “Who’s first?”

He stuck his thumbs in his pockets and tipped his head in Maria’s direction. “You go ahead. I need to talk to Max.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I wanted to talk to Liz anyway.” With a soft smile at him she turned to follow Liz from the room.

The guys were silent as they watched the girls disappear through the bathroom door.

“Girls, huh?” Michael’s asked, his eyes locked on the doorway Maria and Liz had disappeared through. “Ever wonder what they do in there?”

Max snorted but didn’t comment. Instead he thought about his friend’s 180-degree turn from the night before. It was obvious something major had changed. It was different from their past we’re-over-it-and-getting-back-together sessions. It seemed more like a real reconciliation than a truce the way it had in the past. “So, you and Maria?”

“Yeah.”

“What changed?”

Michael rolled his shoulders. “We just went back to our cabin and I told her that we had to talk. That’s pretty much it.”

Max’s eyebrows lifted in astonishment and he just barely managed to stop his jaw from dropping when he caught his best friend’s wide grin. He couldn’t help the big snort that escaped though. “Coffee?” he offered.

“Sounds good.”

*****

Liz watched Maria as she brushed her hair in front of the full length mirror that hung on the bathroom door that had just closed behind Michael. She heard the water come on just as Maria ran her hand through her hair, the recently blow-dried locks slipping through her fingers like shimmering threads of silk. Her thoughts momentarily went back to the stressful evening before. The jealous feelings she’d had in response to learning that Maria had seen her mom came to mind and reminded her of how badly she’d felt afterwards.

But that was last night.

Things had changed. She had felt better after talking to Max earlier. But with the shocking civility of Michael’s knock on the door she had known they were all finding their way back together. Watching her best friend walk into the cabin, at ease with Michael in a way she hadn’t been in such a long time had caused her heart to lift. She couldn’t hold back the smile as Maria put the finishing touches on her appearance.

Maria glanced up and caught Liz watching her and she smiled as their eyes locked in the mirror. “What?”

“So… you and Michael, you guys talked, huh?” she asked with a soft smile.

“Is it that obvious?” She was so happy she could’ve burst from it. “Yeah, we did.”

Liz grabbed one of the decorative pillows and moved to lean back against the headboard as she made a spot for Maria. “So tell me what happened,” she said as she patted the mattress. “When you guys took off last night I wouldn’t have imagined a conversation in your near future.”

“Right?” Maria snorted and joined Liz on the bed. “I don’t know exactly. It started out as an argument. Big surprise, right? But at some point I was yelling at him and I realized it was the same old song and dance we’d done a hundred times before. Neither of us was listening or even talking to each other. It was sad, ya know? I was just standing there, looking at him, and all I could think was I wanted more than that for us, if there was gonna be an us.” She looked around the room before wiggling around to get comfortable. “I knew before we got back in that van to leave we had to know where we stood with each other. We both knew it, really.”

Liz nodded in understanding.

“But we really talked to each other, Liz. Stuff came out that neither of us has wanted to talk about, stuff that we didn’t wanna talk about, and when it was finally out, Michael forgave me.” She snapped her fingers to demonstrate. “In an instant, just like that.” She shook her head slowly. “That weight I feel like I’ve been carrying around in my heart for hurting him the way I did, it’s finally gone. I’ve never felt so free or so sure of us, and I could kick myself for ever breaking up with him.”

Liz shifted and opened her mouth to speak but before she could something fell in the bathroom and after several muffled curses they looked at each other and started to giggle. After several long seconds they calmed and she looked at Maria, her expression serious once more. “Maria, have you ever considered that maybe what you guys went through was necessary to get to a place where you were able to confront the cracks in your relationship?” She watched Maria’s features as she mulled over her question.

“You’re probably right,” she said after several moments of contemplation. “Before last night we couldn’t even really fight about it so there’s no way we could’ve really talked about it the way we did.” She rolled over to face Liz. “He even brought up Courtney on his own. I didn’t even have to prod him or throw it out there after he said something that just pissed me off, which is what usually happens.”

She lowered her voice as she continued. “As uncomfortable as it was watching him struggle with his feelings about her, and as much as I was dreading what he was gonna say, in that moment I could just feel how much he loved me. Him being willing to try to talk about it or at least acknowledge what happened with her, it made it so easy for me to just let it go.”

Liz thought about the conversation between her and Max when they had finally discussed Zan. Being open with each other had really helped them to find peace, feel hope, accept the past for what it was, and it had allowed them to find their new normal. Yeah, dealing with unresolved issues from the past really was necessary if moving forward was ever going to be an option.

“It sounds like you guys really made some progress this time.”

Maria sighed happily. “Yeah, I think we’re ready to go when it’s time.”

They sat up and leaned back against the headboard. “I’m really happy for you guys, Maria.”

“Thanks, Chica, I can’t tell you how freeing it is to really be with Michael, to finally have that weight off of me.” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t know why I thought I had to give him up to be me.” She shook her head slowly. “All it did was hurt both of us and that’s never what I wanted.”

“Even though he was hurt, I think deep down he knew that.” Liz reached over and took her hand, squeezing it. “And from the looks and sounds of things you guys are on the right path.”

“Thanks, I’m happy.” Maria’s smile faded a bit as she shifted to brush her hair behind her ear, her fingertips momentarily brushing over her naked earlobe. “Liz, about last night, ya know when I was a wreck in the bathroom? I’m sorry you found out I’d seen my mom like that. I know how much you miss your mom.”

“It’s okay, Maria. I mean, yeah, I miss Mom and Dad so much, but I’m glad you were able to see your mom.”

Maria pulled Liz into a hug and rested her chin on her shoulder. “There’s one more thing I should tell you. Mom, for some reason she had the pearl earrings Michael gave me for Christmas. Last night I found them in my coat pocket so she must’ve slipped them in there.” She felt her friend tense and she held her tighter. “You’re gonna see them again, Chica, I can feel it. Christmas is a time of miracles; we just have to believe it. And I believe it, Liz, now more than ever.”

Liz nodded and sniffled quietly. She did believe in miracles and seeing her parents again was probably the biggest miracle she could think of right now. But as much as she believed, she just couldn’t see it in the near future.

The silence that fell between them was interrupted by several loud pops in rapid succession followed by muttered cursing.

“Everything’s fine, I’ve got it under control,” Michael yelled from the bathroom.

The girls pulled apart to look at each other.

“Do we dare ask?” Liz asked.

“I told him to wipe the shower down after he got out.” She covered her face with one hand and shook her head. “I have a feeling he didn’t use the method I told him to use.”

“What’d he – “

She was interrupted by a loud thud accompanied by yet another round of colorful cursing before he barked out another ‘I’m fine’.

Maria used her sleeve to wipe her eyes as she chuckled. “That would be Santa forgetting to put a towel on the floor to step out on.”

The door was jerked open and the steam from the hot shower quickly escaped, billowing around Michael as he stood in the doorway, rubbing his head with one hand and holding several of the tiles from the shower wall in the other. “Gonna need the wrangler to wrangle up some reindeer glue for these.”

“Did you seriously blow up the shower?” Max asked as he joined them.

“I’m not about to wipe down or squeegee a shower wall.” Michael glared at him. “I’ve never heard anything like that in my life.”

“It helps prevent that black furry stuff from growing in your shower. Trust me, Santa, no one likes that.” He took the tiles from Michael and shoved him out of the way. “Especially not Mrs. Santa,” he said with a meaningful look.

Michael just shook his head and snapped his fingers. “Snowflake, Candy Cane, let’s get a move on.”

Before the girls had time to respond they heard a familiar thud from the bathroom and just a moment later Max was once again standing in the doorway, his shirt and jeans wet in several spots. “It’s not bad enough you blew tiles off the wall, you couldn’t even dry the floor?”

Michael looked at him, his gaze moving up and down. “Looks like you’ve got that under control.”

Max ground his back teeth together for a solid minute before he nodded. “I’m tellin’ Isabel what you said about reindeer glue. You think you’re gonna be untouched by this stupid rehearsal she insists on having today, but you’re not.”

“Whatever.”

“Reindeer glue, Michael.”

Liz and Maria collapsed in a fit of giggles as their guys stared each other down without a single hint of animosity or hostility. It was just a show, a flexing of muscles so to speak, and it was just further proof that things were really right between all of them.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-54- 8/27/13

Postby KindredKandies » Tue Aug 27, 2013 9:56 pm

Alien_Friend – Thank you, we're happy to be back!

"Your descriptions never fail to submerse me completely into the ATOTC world you have so talentedly created."


Thank you for the wonderful compliment! It means the world to us to be able to bring this story to life in a way that allows readers to be in the moment with the characters.

Oh yes, we're glad to have our couples getting to a place where they can enjoy each other and Christmas as well.

Thank you for commenting on your favorite moments, they’re ours as well. We really enjoy writing them. :D

LOL, we agree, it is funny to catch ourselves doing certain behaviors of our parents from growing up that we seemed to have just learned through osmosis. lol. Yup, we can see a future for Max and Liz to have children someday as well. :)

Your thoughts about Edward and Julia's relationship and comparing them with Michael & Maria were just beautiful.

keepsmiling7 – Thanks!

Michael and Maria have been working towards that conversation for a long time. In his mind he was responsible. He's the soldier and keeping them – all of them – safe and alive is his duty. But maybe now he's able to at least come to terms with it and allow it to rest.

Moose Jaw Canada...well, that has yet to be seen, but it's definitely in the running for consideration for the future.

LOL.....Maria's cabin was colder than the walk-in at the Crashdown. That says it all.


Lol, so is Maria.

Natalie36 – Thank you!

Eva – Thanks, it's good to be back :)

Thanks, we enjoyed writing the scene with Kyle wriggling off the couch, lol. As for Isabel & Kyle, they’re very much alone around the other couples. They both share a past with Tess who hurt them deeply. Their friendship is the bright spot between them and their connection to Alex. It’ll take time to get them on a path of healing that can get them both past what Tess did.

You’re right about Edward. He loves his family and is their protector, and not much gets past him. Hmm, yes, it’ll be interesting what he does with his suspicions. Right now, his family’s looking forward to Christmas on the Lake and he has Santa's buddy Michael, his Reindeer Wrangler, and his two special elves, Snowflake and Candy Cane living on his property. We have a feeling that if Edward felt really threatened they wouldn't have gotten this close to his wife and children no matter what Julia had to say. ;)
Timelord31 – Thanks!

sarammlover – Thanks!

Yes, we're happy to have M&M and M&L in a better place as well. :) As for K&I you're right, it’ll take real time to get them to a place of healing to get past the deep pain of what Tess did to them.

I really hope Edward turns out to be an ally.
We do as well. ;) Check out our response to Eva about Edward. :)

Aww, thank you for the compliment. :)

xilaj – Thanks. :) We're glad you enjoyed reading about Michael's creative bathroom maintenance, we had fun writing it. lol. :)

Your comments about how you can feel the renewal of the relationships in the gang and just how important the friendships are as the romantic ones, were so insightful. We feel this way as well. :)

Maybe finding their way back to each other would be enough of a Christmas miracle, but I wonder what else you two have up your sleeves?


Us? Nah, it's not us. We're just following the guiding light of a Christmas star. ;)

You’re so right, nothing gets by Edward. Hmm, we think he's wondering that as well.

I'm looking forward to the rehearsal for Christmas by the Lake. Who'll come out on top? Michael, the immovable object, or Isabel, the unstoppable force?


We posed that very question to Isabel and when she was finished laughing she just shook her head, turned back to her planner, and checked something off. After a few minutes she looked over at Michael as if pondering something and then that famous Christmas *cough* psycho *cough* gleam came into her eyes and she said, "If you have to ask that question, Michael obviously doesn't have enough to do yet."

Next to her Kyle started snickering as he glanced at the notations she was making in the planner. "He does now."

So... to answer your question... it's not looking very good for El Capitan.

Aww thanks and here is more. :)


Part 54

Michael leaned up against the kitchen doorway, arms crossed over his chest, and his expression one of boredom as he waited and watched. His position gave him a perfect view of both the front and rear entrances to Mr. Tony’s house as well as the closed door to the laundry room. The fingers of his right hand drummed against his upper left arm as he waited impatiently for Max to emerge from the depths of the small room that smelled like laundry soap and some kind of scented dryer sheets. He scratched the side of his head against the doorframe and smirked slightly as he realized that not only was Max going to be prancing around in tights, he was going to smell all fresh and clean. Like a spring meadow, he thought as the slogan for some laundry detergent commercial crossed his mind.

His gaze shifted over to the girls, bouncing dismissively over Liz’s costumed form to lock on Maria. He had seen bits and pieces of the costumes of course, but that was before Isabel had bestowed her personal touch on them. He could identify denim, flannel, and well, tee shirt material, whatever it was, but he had no clue what she had used to create the costumes. It looked soft and his hands were just itching to see if it was anywhere close to being as soft as the skin it covered. She shifted, drawing his attention to her legs that were encased in some kind of green tights decorated with glittering snowflakes. He knew from his brief passing glance that the ones Liz wore were different only in that they were decorated with glittering candy canes.

The girls were gathered around the table with Isabel as they ooh-ed and ah-ed over the 3D model the Christmas Nazi and her co-organizer, Mrs. Dayna, had created. He had no idea why this much planning was needed for what basically amounted to a nauseatingly overdone party. Battle strategies had probably been planned down to the most minute detail without this much fanfare.

He rolled his eyes and shifted restlessly as he listened to Isabel’s Christmas psychosis shift into full swing. All he wanted was for this absurdity of a rehearsal to be done so he could spend some time with Maria. They were facing a serious time crunch and as far as he was concerned, all of these little extracurricular activities were just putting more stress on an already overtaxed situation. They needed to focus on the meeting with the Sheriff after the insanity of tomorrow’s festivities and their subsequent departure the following morning.

His thoughts drifted back to their morning that had been cut short as he watched the animated expression on Maria’s face. She was talking to Liz mostly and as she gestured with such energy he realized it only enhanced the shining radiance that seemed to surround her. Like the others she had gotten lost in this crazy Christmas nonsense.

“I love you, Michael.”

He lifted his hand to settle over the scar as he remembered the feel of her lips gently moving over the rough patch of flesh. He was quickly losing the battle to keep his need for her under control. He shifted again and shot a glance at Kyle, hoping to see him urging Isabel to wrap things up so they could get the day moving. The sooner it was started the sooner it would be over. But did the ungrateful gnome cooperate? No, he only encouraged her interest in the days’ events and it nearly pushed him over the edge.

He moved to stand next to the laundry room door and rapped his knuckles on the wood insistently. “How long does it take to put on some tights, a sweater, and a friggin’ hat, Maxwell?” he growled. “You’ve been in there long enough to dress Santa’s entire elf department.”

Inside the laundry room Max barely caught himself before he snapped out an irritated “bite me”. He shuffled to the door, feeling like he had lost the ability to bend his knees thanks to the tights he was trying to pull on. His earlier thoughts of banging his head on the wall came to fruition when he tripped and smacked his forehead against the door. That was enough to cause his entire face to flush bright red even though no one had been there to witness it. He cursed under his breath and finished the arduous task of putting tights on before stepping back and yanking the door open.

“Two words, Michael,” he snarled under his breath, “Reindeer glue.”

He stood there staring at his friend and gave a valiant effort to not just laugh in his face. The costume that had been enhanced by the Christmas Nazi’s own hands now came complete with a scratchy-looking tunic that dropped down to cover his um… essentials. Personally he was grateful for the addition because anything else would’ve just been too much information. His gaze lifted to the elf hat that topped off the entire outfit and he just nodded when he saw the jingle bell attached to the end. It was while he was biting the inside of his cheek hard enough to nearly draw blood that he realized the room had gone dead silent.

That was immediately interrupted by Isabel as she joined them. “What was that, Michael?”

Crap! He turned to meet her intense stare as he took a step back. “What?” He could hear Max snickering behind him but as far as he was concerned he’d have the last laugh because he wasn’t the one prancing around in festive holiday tights and wearing a pointy little hat with a jingle bell.

Isabel’s eyes narrowed but her lips pulled up in a smile that just dared him to repeat what had just been said. “Reindeer…?” she asked, doing her best to lead him into the trap.

Across the room Kyle was rubbing his face and trying to avoid laughing out loud. He shot a glance at his friend who was doing his level best to not be pinned down for his remarks. He was enjoying the show as Michael tried his best to avoid Isabel’s clutches and she was having so much fun trying to nail him for the comment that he just didn’t have the heart to step in. This was much better than her quiet, introspective mood at breakfast as they had been surrounded by all of the couples that seemed to be so close.

Michael crossed the room to sit down next to Maria, buying time as his gaze zeroed in on the Christmas cookie tins at the center of the table. He glanced over his shoulder when he heard the impatient toe-tapping that indicated her highness was still waiting for an answer. “Wrangler,” he barked. “Reindeer Wrangler, okay?”

Liz cracked a smile when she caught Maria’s gaze.

Kyle was still watching Michael as he snatched one of the tins that Julia had placed on the table before they had arrived, wondering if he should warn him that they had been put there expressly to thaw for the next day. The guy was so confident that he had no role beyond tomorrow’s expectation that he arrive wearing the fat man’s suit. Confidence or denial? His musings were interrupted when Maria spoke up.

“Michael, what’re you doing?! Those cookies are clearly out to thaw for tomorrow.”

Next to drying the tub after a shower that was the next most absurd thing he’d ever heard. Thawing cookies? Why would you freeze them in the first place? He gave her a knowing look accompanied by a snort as he plowed through the cookies, searching for the perfect sugary, buttery treat. His big hand paused when he found a snowman missing its head. “Looks like this one goes first,” he said and bit into the cookie.

Maria just stared at him, fighting back a smile when he grinned and mumbled around a mouthful of cookie that it wasn’t frozen, it was perfectly thawed. She shook her head when he didn’t even finish chewing the first one before he began pawing through the tin for his next treat. “How can you be hungry after three plates of pancakes, six sausage patties, and four cups of hot chocolate for breakfast?” she asked incredulously.

He didn’t miss a beat as he plucked out a reindeer cookie and leaned back to pull a small bottle of hot sauce out of his front pocket. He opened it up and liberally sprinkled the hot liquid onto the sugary treat and gave her a brief glance. “Hey, Snowflake, what are you, the Christmas cookie police?”

She gave him a disbelieving look. “Where’d you get that bottle?” She pointed at the evidence that was plain as day. “That’s premeditation, buddy!”

Michael leveled his gaze on her and placed the bottle on the table as he slowly and deliberately shoved the rest of the cookie in his mouth. He chewed it slowly, savoring the blend of flavors on his tongue as he leaned towards her, his eyes locked on her lips. His voice was low to keep the words between them and husky enough to make her shiver when he murmured, “I’m still hungry, Snowflake.”

Kyle lifted the planner a good 10 inches off of the table and dropped it, hoping to break up the moment between his friends. When that didn’t seem to phase them he looked to Liz for help.

“You’re on your own,” she said, familiar enough with Michael and Maria’s moments to know when to leave them alone. “I think I’ll go check on Max.”

Isabel just rolled her eyes, unconcerned with interrupting their moment or with their annoyance over said interruption. “You two should get a room.”

Michael’s gaze remained locked on Maria. “You’re right, but Snowflake is on elf duty today.”

Maria looked over at Isabel and then back to Michael, so ready to wipe that know-in-all smirk off of his face. “Well, the same can be said for Santa.”

He just shook his head. “Santa doesn’t do rehearsal, Snowflake.”

And that was his cue. Kyle stood and reached for the planner, his laughing eyes meeting Isabel’s as he held it out. “Planner?”

She returned his grin. “Why, thank you, Mr. Valenti.” Her eyes flashed at Michael as she unsnapped the leather strap that bound the covers together and reached inside for the pen. She began sorting through the list, checking off a few of the items and moving to the bottom of the page to tack on a few new things as they came to mind. She peered over the top of the planner and flashed a smile at Michael. “Did you happen to notice just how beautifully made Maggie’s little costume is?”

He shrugged one shoulder and snapped a cookie in half. “What, you want a parade in your honor?”

She rolled her eyes. “I didn’t make it. Julia made it with her own hands,” she said with a bright smile. “Of course, that’s most likely due to the fact that her sewing machine is at our cabin as a cover.”

“Not really seein’ your point.”

She stared at him for a minute, her jaw working as she tried to come up with a suitable response. “Anyway, according to the planner you have an appointment with the Reindeer Whisperer.”

“No.”

“Um-hmm,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “You’ll need to learn how to handle the reins so you don’t scare the children by being dragged through their midst.”

“Yeah, not gonna happen. This Santa isn’t reindeer friendly. He’s a little more up-to-date. You wanna turn one of those fleabags into a Chevelle we can talk. Otherwise, you can go suck on a pine cone.”

Maria turned to look at him, ready with a response, but it was cut short when she saw his facial muscles shift as his body tensed. Her senses went on alert in response to his demeanor and she immediately picked up on the sound of the front doorknob turning. She turned in time to see the door fly open and absentmindedly noticed Kyle shifting to put himself between Isabel and whoever was coming through the door.

Maggie’s face was pale beneath the flush that nearly matched the red of her costume as she rushed into the room. Her eyes shone with tears as the words burst out of her so quickly that it was difficult to put the words together at first.

“What’s wrong with Cupid?” Maria asked as she knelt down in front of the little girl.

“You gotta come quick!” She rubbed the back of one gloved hand over her eyes. “Stefanie needs help with him.”

Julia came in behind her upset daughter, her tone of voice gentle and low as she knelt down to meet Maggie’s eyes. “Honey, it’s okay. Stefanie and Travis know how to handle him.”

“But he’s scared, Mama. He ran outta the barn when she tried to put his harness on an’ he’s so close to the driveway.”

Maria glanced back at Michael and Max, her own voice soothing as she spoke up. “Don’t you worry, Maggie, we have Santa’s Reindeer Wrangler here. And,” she held her hand out in her boyfriend’s direction, gesturing for him to join them, “your Captain of the Guard’s here too.” She lowered her voice. “He knows Santa, remember?”

Yeah, that’s right, Snowflake, Michael thought with an internal growl, just tell her how I’m gonna go out and save that fleabag. He wouldn’t though. He had rules. And putting himself out in front of a crazed four-legged coat rack was on the list of things he didn’t do.

Maggie inhaled raggedly as she looked past Santa’s special elves to let her watery gaze rest on the guys. She brought her sniffling under control and the trembling in her chin settled as her eyes locked on her Captain. “Please come help Cupid? He’s so scared.”

And there went every one of his rules about four-legged coat racks. Without consulting his brain about his opinion, he felt his feet take the few short steps over to Maggie and he saluted. “Your Captain, reporting for duty, Princess Maggie.”

Julia looked up at Michael and mouthed a thank you.

Michael gave a sharp nod in her direction and then turned to Max. “Princess Maggie requires the aid of Santa’s Reindeer Wrangler.” It wasn’t a question it was an order from the Princess’ Captain of the Guard.

Isabel bit down a laugh, working hard to stifle a snort at the expression on her brother’s face.

He reached for Maggie’s hand as Maria stood to meet him. “Lead the way, Princess Maggie.”

Travis, Stefanie, and Cupid came into view the moment they came around the corner of the barn and he glanced down when her gloved fingers tightened around his. He stopped and held his hand out behind him to warn the others coming up behind him, wanting them out of the animal’s line of sight just in case.

Maggie shifted and the quiet sound of the jingle bells drew his gaze to her more so than the movement. He reached down and picked her up, silencing the tiny alarms. His eyes never left Cupid’s position as he spoke quietly, “We need to be very quiet and still.”

She wrapped her arm around his neck tightly and leaned in to whisper in his ear, “Yes, my Captain.”

It only took a moment for Michael to size up the situation. Although Stefanie had Cupid’s lead rope and her brother was slowly working his way towards her to give her a hand it was clear the reindeer was still uneasy. His broad hooves pawed the ground and his eyes moved to Travis, noting the cautious way he slowed his approach to a stop.

How did he get into these situations? “Is Cupid doin’ any better since you saw him a few minutes ago?”

Maggie watched the reindeer, her eyes widening when he shook his head, snorting loudly and expelling a loud breath that hung in the air for a moment before dissipating. She nodded slowly and then looked at Michael. “He’s still too close to the driveway though.”

He shifted the little girl in his arms and turned to talk to the Reindeer Wrangler. “Got a plan that doesn’t involve me getting run over by a ton of muscle?”

“Pretty sure he doesn’t weigh anywhere close to that,” Kyle spoke up from his position leaning against the side of the barn. “Stefanie was saying they – “

“Stuff a sock in it, Secretary,” he growled quietly. “I was talkin’ to Santa’s Chief Reindeer Wrangler.”

Max just made a face at his sister before shifting his gaze back to Michael. His first thought was going out there in the outfit he had been stuck with would probably be enough to scare the reindeer into flight, but he decided against sharing that. “We need to think this out before we do anything.”

“Yes,” Kyle agreed with a solemn expression on his face. It almost hurt to keep a straight face as he lifted his gaze to the jingle bell dangling from the hat of Antar’s leading royal family member. “Yes, thinking it through, that’s probably the wisest thing we could do right now.”

Michael ignored the two of them as he mentally calculated just how much money he’d have lining his pockets if he got paid every time Max made one of those comments. He was just about to roll his eyes to punctuate his thoughts when Maggie suddenly shifted. “What is it?” he asked, eyebrows unconsciously lifting as her eyes grew wide and her mouth moved.

“Ohhhh,” she uttered, dragging the word out, “maybe we can get Cupid to come into the barn with some of Mama’s Christmas cookies.” She looked at him, her expression completely serious. “Like in my movie, Prancer.” She looked at Mama over his shoulder. “Mama, may we have some Christmas cookies?”

Yeah, let’s feed it, he thought. Load it up on cookies, because if it’s not crazy now, it will be after a sugar rush. He gave himself a mental shake and studied the reindeer, noting his demeanor and realizing he could identify with that feeling of being closed in. Travis was about five feet from getting his hands on the lead rope and his sister was the only thing between Cupid and the driveway that led out to the busy road. It was time to do something.

He slowly and carefully set Maggie back down on her own two feet, one hand on her shoulder to keep her beside him and prevent her from bolting out to help with Cupid. “The cookies on the kitchen table,” he said as he looked at Julia, “they out for tomorrow? The Princess may be onto something with her idea; she may just need to procure some for Plan B,” he said, giving her a wink.

“They were put out as refreshments for Santa’s special elves and helpers as they dressed for rehearsal. I told Edward and the boys they were out thawing for tomorrow’s event.” She stretched a hand out for her daughter. “I’ll take the Princess up to the house for the cookies just in case Plan B needs to be enacted.”

Maggie’s lower lip trembled for a brief moment as she stared at Mama’s hand. “But, what if the Captain needs me and I’m not here?”

Michael gave Julia a quick smile and hunkered down in front of Maggie. “I’m gonna talk to Santa’s Reindeer Wrangler and get Plan A goin’.” He reached up and pressed one gloved finger to the tip of her nose for a moment. “Your job’s to get those cookies just in case we need to move on to Plan B.” He grinned at her. “Every good soldier knows you’ve gotta have a backup plan just in case Plan A doesn’t work out the way you think it should.”

She looked at Cupid and then back at Michael, wiping her gloved hand over her eyes and nodding before whispering a solemn, “Okay.”

Maria came up behind Michael as Maggie and Julia walked back to Mr. Tony’s house and she stretched up on her tiptoes to get a look at Cupid. She pressed her lips together tightly and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly and forcing her mouth to relax. “Michael, what’re you gonna do? I know he’s not like huge or anything, but he does have antlers.”

“I’m not gonna do anything,” he said with a look in Max’s direction. “Got a reindeer wrangler here and last I heard he was thinking up a plan.”

Max shot a look at him. “Hey, I didn’t ask for this, remember? This foolishness is all Isabel’s idea.”

Liz reached over and placed a hand on her husband’s arm. “Max, maybe you can help. You remember when Rudy was chewing on Cindy’s scarf and you managed to get it free? Even though you gave him a little nudge he responded well to you afterwards. Maybe if you can get eye contact with him you could form a connection like you do when you heal.”

He glanced at the reindeer, trying not to lose focus by counting every point on the antlers sprouting from the animal’s head. His eyes softened as he met her hopeful gaze. “Liz, it doesn’t work that way. Even if I could get him to look at me without bolting I have to touch him in order to connect. Besides, I’ve never tried it on an animal before.”

“That’s not true,” Isabel offered helpfully. “Mom has that video of you healing a bird.”

Kyle stretched his neck and rolled his shoulders. “Looks like Plan A bombed so that leaves us with Plan B.” He rubbed his hands together as his gaze bounced between Max and Michael. “So which one of you plans to go out there and have cookie time with Cupid?”

Michael glared at him, the force of it easily outmatching that of both Max and Isabel.

“What?” He shrank back with a small but irrepressible grin. “What’d I say? Always seems to work on you, Mi Capitan, and when it comes to moods I’d say you easily leave Cupid in the dust.”

“Look.”

Maria and Liz’ hushed voices interrupted before Michael could respond and the others turned to follow their pointing fingers to look at the scene unfolding before them. Travis carefully wrapped one gloved hand around the lead rope dangling from Cupid’s halter and Stefanie was petting the side of the reindeer’s neck as her brother held his free hand out, palm side up, offering a shiny red apple. They all held their breath, releasing it collectively when Cupid snorted and tossed his head lightly before accepting the treat.

*****

Maggie walked into the barn and looked around, her eyes bouncing from the white lights interspersed with the garland that decorated the rafters to the activity around the reindeer pen. For a moment her gaze was pulled away and excitement fluttered in her chest when she saw Santa’s chair holding its prominent position in the center of the barn. She knew the tables set up around the large area would be filled to overflowing the next day, weighed down with cookies and hot cider.

She looked up at Mama and tugged on her hand. “Mama, can I go see Cupid?”

Julia smiled as she met her daughter’s eager expression. “I don’t know, can you?”

“Oh,” she smiled and she twisted and turned on the balls of her feet, “may I?”

“Why don’t we give him just a few minutes to settle back in first?” she suggested in that tone that made it clear the question wasn’t really a question at all.

Maggie heaved a weighted sigh. “Okay.” She pulled her hand free to point across the room. “But Max is going over.”

“Honey, Max is a grown man.” She bit back the smile that wanted so badly to surface when her little girl wrinkled her nose and turned back to watch Max. It was only a matter of moments before she was distracted again.

“Well, can I go see Michael? I can take the cookies to him.” She held up the little baggie holding a cookie for Cupid and a couple for her Captain.

“Go ahead, just stay back until I let you know it’s alright to go over to see Cupid.”

Maggie kicked a pile of straw out of her way as she moved over to stand next to Michael. She didn’t know why Mama had to say no. If it was okay for Max to go then it was okay for her to go too. She sighed heavily and her eyes stared at the jingle bells on her toes. Boys always got to have the most fun!

“What’s that look for, Princess Maggie?” Michael asked when he felt the little hand slip into his and he looked down to see her bottom lip sticking out as she stared across the barn. He turned to scoop her up in his arms, settling her against his side as he shifted to follow her gaze. “Oh, you’re wantin’ to go see Cupid, right?”

“Yeah, but Mama said not ‘til she said it’s okay.”

He nodded and kept his own expression serious. “Yeah, Moms are like that sometimes.”

“Why?” She pointed at Max. “Cupid’s being nice to him.”

Michael chuckled and watched his friend as he paused in front of the reindeer that was now calmly munching on an apple. He knew when Max reached out to pet the animal and he saw the way he was staring into the dark eyes watching his every move that he was forming a connection with Cupid. “Funny thing about that is most people, and animals too, seem to respond well to Max. But I’m sure once he’s had some time to visit we’ll be able to go over and see him.”

“I don’t wanna see Max.”

“No,” he laughed, “we’ll go over and see Cupid. If your mom says it’s okay, of course.” He patted her back. “Once she sees how well behaved he is with Max I bet she’ll say yes.”

“Okay.”

It didn’t take long before Max finished his visit and he started to walk away, only to be summoned by Isabel. She was manically checking things off in her planner, once again with Kyle’s full support and encouragement. She went over something with both of them for a minute or two and then sent Kyle off on an errand. Michael wondered what she was telling him when her expression turned serious but his attention was pulled away by Maggie tugging on his collar.

“What’s up?”

She pointed at Maria and Liz who were busy discussing something else a few feet away, motioning at the tables and nodding as they came to an agreement about whatever it was. “Look,” she whispered. “Look at their clothes.”

He cleared his throat. “Yo, Snowflake, Candy Cane, front and center.”

Maria just turned her head, flashing a condescending smile at him. “Can we help you?”

His right hand stretched out and he pointed at the floor in front of him. “Got a special elf over here that noticed your outfits.” And if this day didn’t end soon one of those outfits was either gonna kill him or get him in serious trouble.

She grinned when she saw his gaze roving over her elf costume and quickly decided she needed to shift his focus elsewhere. She and Liz moved to join them and she reached up to take Maggie’s hand when the little girl leaned forward to run her hand over the shoulder of her outfit.

“You’re secret elves,” she whispered reverently.

Liz pressed her forefinger to her lips. “Shhh,” she hushed, “we can’t tell anyone.”

Maggie’s eyes widened. “But your work for HIM.”

Michael chuckled at the little girl’s wondrous tone. “Someone has to fetch Santa’s Snapple and make sure he gets a good foot rub.”

The little girl made a face and looked at the girls. “You gotta rub his feet?”

“It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it,” Maria said with a nod.

“Hey, the guy’s feet probably hurt at the end of the day after lugging around those heavy boots for hours on end.”

“Oh, yeah, bet they hurt a lot, huh?” Maggie sympathized. “So you gotta rub ‘em real good, okay?”

He just grinned when the girls exchanged a look and then gave Maggie a smile and a promise to do just that.

“I’m not rubbing his feet,” Liz muttered under her breath.

Michael turned his head to look at her, lowering his voice so it wouldn’t carry to Maggie. “You have a Reindeer Wrangler who’s likely to have chafed body parts after wearing those tights all day.” He grinned unrepentantly. “You’re probably gonna have other things to rub.”

She made a face at him. “If I were you, I’d watch it. Isabel doesn’t need much encouragement to have you doing all kinds of things today and it wouldn’t take much to drag today out. I’m sure we’d all make the sacrifice just to see her having you jump through hoops.”

“Michael? Michael?” Maggie yanked on his collar to get his attention. “Can we go see Cupid now?”

He glared at Liz. “You try to drag this out and you’ll spend all day tomorrow itching,” he growled before turning his head to smile at the little girl he held. “Cupid, right. Let’s go make sure it’s okay with your mom and then we’ll take him a cookie.”

Liz rolled her eyes when he walked away and she smiled at Maggie when the little girl waved at them over his shoulder. “You do realize he’s still… Michael,” she grumbled finally.

Maria just laughed and nodded. “Yeah, I know.” Her eyes softened as she watched him talking to Julia before he and Maggie went over to the pen where Stefanie was standing next to Cupid.

Cupid was chewing on an apple, his teeth grinding it up and making a loud crunching sound as they approached. The dark eyes, so soft and warm now that he was once again calm, watched them curiously, and he made a sound low in his throat when Stefanie reached up to rub his neck.

“May we give Cupid a cookie?” Maggie asked when they were close enough to speak without startling the reindeer or his handler.

“Sure, I think he’d like that,” Stefanie said with a smile. She showed the little girl how to hold it so he wouldn’t accidentally nip her little fingers.

“So what happened back there?” Michael watched every move the reindeer made closely, ready to intervene if Cupid did anything that might risk his little Princess’s safety.

She smiled and gently ran her hands over Cupid’s shoulder and neck. “If you look you can see the scars where he was hurt.” She nodded when he shifted to follow her direction. “Sometimes he gets a little spooked when we’re harnessing him, the straps settle over the scarred areas and it triggers a fear response. See, when he received these injuries he was trapped by barbed wire and it kept him immobilized. The harder he fought against it, the worse he got hurt.”

Michael reached up and rubbed his chest unconsciously. “But he’s safe to have around the kids tomorrow?”

“Oh, yeah, he’ll be harnessed well before people start arriving. Once he’s ready and he’s had a little time to adjust he’s fine. We wouldn’t bring him if he was gonna spook and scare the kids.” She winked. “Not to mention, we don’t want him to take off running with Santa at the reins.” He swallowed hard as his gaze moved over the reindeer and she laughed as she reached out to pat his arm. “Don’t worry, Santa’s always in perfect control. He has elves that make sure everything runs the way it should.”

“Great,” he muttered. They wouldn’t really put Cupid in the rig to pull the sleigh would they?

*****

Max stomped his boots on the tiny porch outside of the cabin Isabel and Kyle were sharing and did his best to ignore the grumbling coming from behind him. Was it his fault his sister had decided it was time to redecorate her cabin and she had chosen them to do all the heavy lifting? He probably could’ve dealt with the rest of it, but like Michael, crossing the snow-covered driveway and hauling Julia’s sewing machine up to the main house hadn’t been anywhere on his agenda today. However, that didn’t mean he was having fun listening to Michael still griping about it after the fact.

“Just for the record,” he muttered as he turned to look at his friend, “I didn’t enjoy that either. But it’s what Isabel wanted so what was I supposed to say?”

“Uh, the word no comes to mind.”

“Yeah, and it’s worked so well for you every time you’ve said no to her since we got here.” He smirked. “Or practically every time you’ve said no to her since we were six years old.”

“I’m not the one who was standin’ there with my head bobbin’ up an’ down, agreeing to what she wanted like a mindless drone. And that’s fine, if you wanna be a mindless drone, go for it, but don’t drag me into it with you.”

Max just rolled his eyes and turned the door knob. “Look, if you wanna tell her we’re not gonna rearrange the cabin, then take your life in your own hands and tell her. You know how she gets when she has her mind set on something.”

He followed Max inside. “I have no problem tellin’ her. Someone needs to set her straight – “

“Tell me what?” Isabel asked, one eyebrow lifted in question.

Michael opened his mouth to unload on her but before he could get the first word out she turned around and started consulting the almighty planner once again.

“Alright, the first thing I want you to do is move the smaller furniture out of Kyle’s room.”

Max gawked at her. “Say what?”

“You’ll need room to take the bunk beds down and reassemble them as a single unit. Kyle works too hard to be cramming himself into one of those tiny beds every night.” She smiled and checked an item off of her list. “Oh, and when you’re finished with that you’ll need to put all of the other furniture back.”

“What’s the point?” Michael muttered.

“Excuse me?”

“Clean your ears out, you insane party planner. We’re leavin’ day after tomorrow. At first light we’re outta here. You can have your little Christmas thing and then we’re gone. That was the deal. So what I’m wantin’ to know is why adjust things now? He’s been bunkin’ in here with no problem so far, what’s a couple more nights?”

She waved the hand wielding the pen dismissively. They were not leaving before Christmas, she thought adamantly. “Like I said, smaller furniture out first. It shouldn’t take long, there really isn’t that much and there are two of you.” She snapped the planner closed and pivoted on her heel as she took in the room around them. “Alright, get to work. Kyle will only be busy helping Edward and the boys move things to the bowling alley for so long.” She handed a sheet of paper to her brother and graced him with a smile. “I’ll leave the diagram with you since I know you won’t tear it up and throw it away like some people.” She leveled a look on Michael, who only shrugged. “Now, I need to get back and check on the progress over at Mr. Tony’s.”

“Great job tellin’ her how we weren’t gonna do the heavy lifting,” Max said after his sister had taken her leave. He turned the diagram around to study it.

*****

Stefanie chuckled quietly and reached over to place her hand on top of Michael’s white-knuckled fists where they were clenched around the reins. “You’re gonna have to relax. These guys can feel your tension through the reins. What they need to feel is confidence and I can see you’re a confident guy. You’re used to being in charge, right?”

He sat up a little straighter but only gave a nonchalant shrug.

“You’ve watched westerns, right?”

“I guess. When nothin’ else was on.” Laughter caught his attention and his eyes tracked Maria as she helped Liz hang more decorations. He shook his head when Eddie ran over to her and started to flap his gums, gesturing excitedly as he told her about something he felt was worthy of her attention.

“Hey, Santa, you’re gonna need to stay focused,” Stefanie chastised gently. “I’ll be right here with you just in case but you don’t wanna lose control and take off with runaway reindeer because you can’t keep your eyes off of Snowflake.”

“I’m focused,” he growled.

“Um-hmm, I can tell. But we’ll wanna keep that focus on the reindeer. Now, what I was saying about westerns… have you ever noticed the way the cowboys held the reins? Or the way they sat in the saddle or on a wagon?”

He shrugged. “Not really.”

She nodded. “Okay, well, think about it now. They weren’t tense. They were relaxed, loose-limbed, and the reins were held,” she shook his hands, “without a death grip. Like those horses, the reindeer are trained to respond to cues, to pressure, and to the confidence of the person holding the reins.” She hid a smile. “Now, we can do this tomorrow and I can put on an elf costume and hold the reins for you…” Oh, yeah, that’d kick him into gear. He was not the kind of guy who wanted anyone, and certainly not a girl, showing that she was better at something than he was.

“What? Look, I may not be thrilled about this stupid Santa-fest, but I’m not gonna have a bunch of brats wantin’ to know why Santa’s got an elf steering the sleigh.” He rolled his shoulders and clenched his hands a couple of times before visibly forcing himself to relax. “Alright, I’ve got this.”

Stefanie hid a grin. “Yeah, that’s much better.” She reached over and demonstrated how to move the reins and give the correct commands to get her boys moving. “See? Easy as pie,” she said when they began to move, the reindeer calmly pulling the sleigh in a circle around the pen. “And the distance we just covered is less than what you’ll need for tomorrow’s shindig. According to Isabel you’ll enter through the barn doors as the snow flies around you, giving your arrival a truly magical moment.”

“Magical my ass,” he grumbled. “Maybe your brother would like to play Santa.”

She glanced over at Travis and snorted. “My brother would sooner walk around outside in his boxers in the dead of winter than put on a red velvet suit.”

“I can respect that.” He gently pulled back on the reins the way she had showed him and as soon as the brake had been set on the sleigh he made his escape.

Across the room Isabel was finally, finally, wrapping things up and he was so ready to snatch Snowflake up and head back to their cabin. He came up next to Maria and inhaled her scent, taking it in deeply and slowly releasing a breath as he wrapped his arm around her. He smirked at Eddie when he saw the look of disappointment on the boy’s face. Get over it, kid, she’s mine. “So, we’re all done here? We can go?”

“Oh, Michael, haven’t you been paying attention?”

His nerves grated when Isabel called out to him, her sickeningly sweet tone warning him that she was about to say something he did NOT want to hear. “What?”

“A bunch of the folks around here are so happy that Christmas on the Lake is happening that they’ve put together a little gathering for tonight.”

He grunted when she gave him a big smile laced with innocence. He knew better. “Great, bring us a plate when you come back.”

Isabel shook her head at him. “Oh, no, Michael, it’s for ALL of us, you included. It’d be rude for any of us not to go. And after everything the Stevens have done for us it wouldn’t do for us to be rude, would it?”

Maria bit her bottom lip when Isabel completely derailed Michael’s train of thought. She knew exactly what his plans were. He had been watching her like a hawk all day and she had taken several opportunities to tease him, knowing it was driving him insane to be able to look but not touch. “Don’t worry,” she whispered in his ear, “it’s just a few more hours.”

He groaned quietly and shot a glare at Isabel. She had probably orchestrated the entire idea, he thought grumpily.

“C’mon,” Maria took his big hand in one of her smaller ones, “let’s go get ready.”

“Freaking great,” he mumbled, “as if this day hasn’t been enough fun, let’s add a night at the bowling alley to it.” He could just picture the kind of gathering it was gonna be and nothing about his imaginary rendering of the scene made him want to attend.

Kyle came up behind him and slapped him on the back. “C’mon, El Capitan, it’ll be a blast. A little bit of bowling, a bunch of pizza, and hey, I know you’re gonna be thrilled when I tell you this next part… are you ready?” He nodded. “They’ve got karaoke!”

Michael just glared at him.

“Yep, I knew you’d be excited as soon as I saw the stage.” He grinned widely. “Now I know you’re a little shy about getting up in front of a crowd, but maybe we could get Evans up there, huh? I’m thinkin’ a rockin’ Christmas song, he can sport that little elf hat…”

“I think you can both bite me,” Max grumbled. “I don’t sing for anyone.” He rolled his eyes at them when they started debating whether or not they could actually get him on the stage.

Liz watched him thoughtfully, her mind running over a list of questions. She mentally kicked herself and started to go after him. “We’ll go get ready. How long do we have?”

Isabel checked the ever-present planner and then the time. “About half an hour to get ready, 15 more minutes to give us some breathing room, so, let’s say we all meet at the van in 45 minutes.” She smiled when her decree was met with silence that she took as ascent. “Very good. Kyle, let’s go. Julia said we could get ready up at the house.”

Michael snorted when Kyle just grinned and went to retrieve their coats so they could go.
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-55- 9/8/13

Postby KindredKandies » Sun Sep 08, 2013 10:52 pm

keepsmiling7- Thank you! We're glad you had fun reading this part and you're right we had fun writing it, lol.


Eva- Well Isabel has been known to be a tad bit over the top at Christmas, lol. We're so glad you enjoyed reading this part. We had fun writing it. We're also looking forward to Christmas..:D


Timelord31- Thank you.


Part 55

Kyle sat at the counter, his gaze on the woman next to him as she talked about Christmas with her family when she was growing up. She was an engaging conversationalist and he enjoyed that. She could carry on a conversation on just about anything and that made it easy to bounce from one topic to the next. There were no awkward silences, no pressure to fill the air with inane subjects just to keep things going. She was opinionated without being obnoxious, she was intelligent, she had a great sense of humor, and she didn't mind arguing her side if opinions differed.

“What about you, Kyle?”

“Me?” He shook his head and shrugged one shoulder carelessly when Stefanie rolled her eyes at him. “We didn’t really have a lot going on at Christmas when I was a kid. It was just me an’ Dad. We made the effort at first but after a while...” He could just imagine the look on El Capitan's face if he happened to walk by and overheard the conversation. Watch what you say, Valenti. He sighed quietly, knowing the reasons for revealing little truth about themselves was necessary. “Anyway, the most important thing is being with the people you care about, right?”

Stefanie’s eyes roamed around the bowling alley, following his gaze when it unconsciously moved over his wife and their friends. “If you have that you have everything,” she agreed. “Although judging by the production your wife’s made of getting ready for Christmas on the Lake you must stay busy this time of year.”

He smirked. “Yeah, I guess I do. She’s in her element with stuff like this.”

She chuckled and turned back to face the counter. “That’s easy to see. I have a feeling it’s gonna be a memorable Christmas this year.” She glanced at him. “Your dad must miss you since you’re not home for the holidays.”

“Hey, Stefanie,” Brian said as he hauled himself up on the barstool on her other side.

As much as Kyle was relieved to have her distracted from that topic he wasn't interested in sharing her attention with a 13-year-old. “Thought you were playin’ pool?” he asked as he leaned forward to look at the boy.

Brian rested his elbows on the counter and looked around Stefanie to see Kyle. “I was. Thought I’d take a break since I was winning.”

“You were winning until you decided to go up against Michael,” he countered, ignoring the little voice that was telling him trying to best a 13-year-old was absurd.

“Yeah, well... you couldn’t beat me.”

Stefanie bit her lips in an effort to keep from laughing. Guys, she thought, some things just never changed no matter how old they were. She had watched them playing pool and she had quickly surmised that Kyle didn’t spend a lot of time at the tables. She turned her head when she caught movement from the corner of her eye and she smiled at Eddie when he approached them.

“Hey, Dad says to come back to the table ‘cause the pizza’s here.”

“I’m old enough to sit at the bar if I want to.” His chin lifted and he gave his little brother a superior look. “I’m 14 and Dad was almost on his own at 14.”

“Whatever,” Eddie said and rolled his eyes. “You won’t even be 14 till next year.”

Brian shot a quick look at Stefanie before carefully sliding off of his barstool, one hand gripping the counter to keep from falling since he wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the floor in one smooth motion. “I’m 14 on the tenth of January. Next month, doofus.”

“Get you guys a drink?”

The male voice intruding on their banter immediately had their attention and their expressions weren’t that different as they looked at the man behind the bar. The guy sliding a frosted mug across the counter to Stefanie was tall, blonde, and blue-eyed.

And he definitely wasn’t the curmudgeonly older man who had been manning the counter most of the evening, Kyle thought. He shook his head when the guy flashed an easy smile at Stefanie and she returned it with one of her own.

“Paul, I’d like you to meet Kyle, Brian, and Eddie,” she introduced them by nodding in their respective directions. “Guys, this’s my boyfriend Paul.”

He shook their hands with a grin. “You’ve got a pretty good game, Brian.”

“I do okay,” the boy said with a shrug. “I’ll take a Root Beer.”

“You better come back to the table before Mom comes to get you,” Eddie said, knowing it would annoy his brother.

Brian glared at his younger – and considerably less cool – brother. “Guess I’ll get that drink later.” He shoved Eddie to get him moving. “No girl’s ever gonna like you,” he muttered.

“Like she even knew you were there.” Eddie just grinned to himself and led the way back to the table where their parents and Maggie were waiting with dinner.

“What’s your poison, Kyle?”

He looked at the beer on the counter in front of Stefanie and sighed. “Coke will be fine, thanks.” There was no point trying to order a beer and getting busted for being underage.

“You’re the one married to the pretty blonde, right?”

Kyle glanced over his shoulder, watching Isabel as she held court by the lanes. She was animated as she went on about the upcoming festivities no doubt. Pretty blonde, he thought with an internal snort. She was so much more than that. Pretty was just too tame a word to describe her. “Yeah, that’d be me.”

“Steph was tellin’ me she’s a terror about the details – ow!” He rubbed his arm when his girlfriend smacked it.

Kyle laughed and shrugged. “It’s true,” he admitted. And it was hard to dislike the guy popping the top off of a cold Coke and sliding it across the counter to him.

“Hey, Paul,” Travis greeted as he dropped down on Brian’s vacated barstool.

“How’s it going, Travis?”

“Can’t complain.”

“Get you a drink?”

*****

Alex watched the activity in the bowling alley and time after time his gaze returned to Isabel. She was talking to some of the townspeople, her enthusiasm about her subject infectious. He shifted and his eyes settled on Kyle, studying him as he sat at the bar silently, lost in thought. He knew Kyle had a lot on his mind and while the others had made it a point to stop by and check on him every once in a while he hadn't allowed them to talk him away from his corner of solitude.

He was only going to be drawn out of seclusion by one person. He never let his gaze rest on her for too long though, not even long enough to draw her attention. He was careful and it wasn’t even conscious; he was protecting himself from hurt and rejection.

His head turned when Buckeye paused in front of the jukebox, leaning forward and bracing his left hand on the back of it as his eyes roamed over the selection of available songs. Most of the music was older than him, he mused as he glanced over the titles. The majority of the songs people had been picking were Christmas songs and no one seemed to care that they weren't up to date.

He was certain everyone had been relieved when Edward had put a stop to the repetitive playing of Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer after Maggie and her friend Michelle had chosen it for the fifth time. The owners of the bowling alley had fixed the old jukebox so folks could play their selections free for the night and the little girls had taken advantage of it.

A slow grin graced his features when the man took a bite of his pizza before sliding his fingertip over the playlist.

“Oops,” Buckeye mumbled around the mouthful of pizza when he smeared sauce over the glass. He used the side of his fist to wipe it off and shoved the pizza in his mouth to hold it while he scrubbed his hand clean on his jeans. He reached up to retrieve the slice and his finger hovered over the old push buttons as he debated his selection.

“C11,” Alex murmured.

Buckeye was eyeing an old Pink Floyd number when something drew his gaze back to the right. Well, yeah, that was a good song, he thought. But he hadn’t heard anything by Pink Floyd in a while. His hand moved back to the left. A3, he decided with a nod to himself.

“Pick C11,” Alex said as he moved slightly.

“Can you pick that one, Mr. Buckeye?” Maggie asked as she stretched up on her tiptoes to point at a selection on the right.

Buckeye’s eyebrows lifted when the Stevens’ little girl appeared next to him and picked out the song he had just been considering. That had to be some kinda sign, he mused with a nod. “Sure.” He could always play his later.

Kyle lifted his head and turned to look in the direction of the jukebox when the familiar music began to play. For a moment he could’ve sworn he could see Alex leaning up against the wall but then it passed and he turned back to the counter, absentmindedly humming along with the song as his mind took him back to a day that seemed so long ago.

Isabel paused behind Kyle and lifted an eyebrow as he very quietly sang along with the song on the jukebox. She moved just enough to get a look at his profile without drawing his attention and she watched as he turned the bottle on the counter between his hands and a sad smile slipped over his face as he started the chorus. When his voice choked up partway through she started to back away and leave him alone, but something made her change her mind.

He cleared his throat and looked away when he realized someone was sitting down on the stool Stefanie had vacated a while ago to hit the dance floor with her boyfriend. He blinked a few times and picked his Coke up, taking a drink to buy him a little more time to pull himself together.

“Kind of a sad song choice for Christmas,” she said, not commenting on the sheen of moisture in his eyes.

He shrugged. “Yes and no, I guess.” He took another drink and set the bottle down, tapping his thumbnail against the glass in time with the music. “Did Alex ever tell you anything about that time we got stuck in that crystal pit?”

She glanced around, double checking the area for eavesdroppers before shaking her head. He had told her recently, but she didn’t feel the need that she’d been having conversations with someone who wasn’t really there. “No, not really.” It was her turn to swallow hard. “He probably would’ve, if we’d had more time.”

“We thought it was over. Max and,” his throat tightened momentarily and then forced her name out, “Tess couldn’t break through the crystal ceiling and our air was runnin’ out.” He chuckled but the sound held little in the way of amusement. “Don’t ask me why but we started singin’ this song. Morbid entertainment, I guess.”

“He shouldn’t have been…” She shook her head. “He paid the ultimate price for something he never should’ve been involved in, something he never even asked to be part of.”

“You know what he said to me that day, Isabel?” He turned and placed two fingers on her hand where it rested on the counter. He watched her, deciding not to share Alex’s comment about not only meeting aliens but being killed by them too. She didn’t need to know that. “We knew we were running outta time and unless something miraculous happened that was gonna be it. But, he looked at me with this serious expression he tells me we’re part of this amazing thing, that we had this amazing knowledge that six billion people on this rock aren’t part of. Then he asks me if I’d wanna be outta that cave if it meant I was gonna just be another dumb jock.” He shifted slightly, resting his weight on his elbow. “And I wouldn’t have made that trade, Isabel. No more than he would have. Alex understood what a gift knowing you guys is and somehow I doubt he regrets the ride even now. It gave us the chance to be part of something so much bigger than ourselves.”

She gave him a small smile. “So you guys sang together, huh?”

“Yeah,” he turned his head when he heard the annoying high-pitched sound of something scraping against a microphone. Eddie was up on the stage, his guitar held close as his slightly nervous gaze scanned the crowd. The boy’s voice cracked as he made the announcement for open mic night and he tried in vain to hide the crimson flush that suffused his features. He chuckled and shook his head as he turned back to Isabel. That was something he would never miss, he thought.

“I think Maria’s gonna take advantage of the stage,” she mused when she saw the other girl browsing through the available songs.

“Um-hmm,” he agreed as he followed her gaze. He grinned when he saw Max heading towards Maria and before long the two were deep in discussion about something. “Wanna bet he’s gonna ask her to sing some sappy love song?”

She laughed and turned back to the counter, asking the bartender for a soda when he paused in front of her. “Well, as long as he doesn’t get up there and sing he can ask her to do any song he likes.” She shuddered comically as she thought about the conversation she’d had with Maria and Liz about her brother singing. And in such a manner! There was just no way she could picture that and find it credible.

*****

Michael glanced up from his position leaning over the pool table when he caught a flash of movement near the stage. He watched Maria mount the three steps leading up to the small stage area with a confidence that made him smile. She paused at the microphone, her hands deftly adjusting the height while she talked to the awestruck 12-year-old standing beside her. Someone had apparently put the kid in charge of putting the music on for those brave enough to get up in front of the hometown crowd and belt out a song.

They weren’t gonna know what hit ‘em, he thought when she turned back to the crowd and flashed a smile.

He slowly straightened, his gaze moving around the room to locate the others as music began to play. He recognized it but couldn’t put a name to it. His gaze locked on Max and he rolled his eyes when he realized he was leading Liz out onto the dance floor. Now he knew why the music sounded so familiar. He scanned the rest of the room to find Kyle and Isabel and spotted them making their way through the crowd towards him.

“Are you gonna take your shot?”

He frowned at Brian’s annoyed question. He had completely forgotten that he was engaged in a competitive game with the teenager. “I’m done.” He nodded at the couple joining them. “You can play Kyle again.”

Brian sighed and shook his head. “He’s not real competition.”

“Good point.” He shoved his pool cue at Isabel. “Play her.”

“What?” the boy yelped. “She’s a girl!”

“Wow.” Isabel’s right hand wrapped around the pool cue and she handed her drink to Kyle as she watched the teenager. He was clearly insulted at having been left to play against a girl, so certain she wouldn’t be a challenge. She nodded at the table and her eyes took on a challenging gleam. “Rack ‘em up.”

Kyle leaned into Michael’s path. “Is she any good?”

He just smirked and slapped his friend’s arm as he shouldered past him. “Don’t worry, you won’t be payin’ for the next round of Yoo-Hoo.” He skimmed the perimeter of the room, his eyes searching out the entry and exit points and making sure they were accessible if need be. He found a space at the end of the bar that wasn’t crowded and he took up residence there, nodding when the bartender asked if he wanted a Coke.

Maria’s voice filled the room and couples danced to the song, but to one young couple slowly moving in a shadowy corner of the floor it was so much more than just a random music choice. Eyes closed, her head resting against her husband’s chest, Liz listened to the strong, steady beat of his heart. She inhaled deeply, drawing strength from his very presence. She smiled when she realized he was humming along with the song but a moment later she registered the fact that he was off-key and her eyes slowly opened.

She tipped her head back to look up at him. “You keep time with the music better when you’re singing in Spanish,” she said with a teasing laugh.

His eyebrows lifted in question. “What’s that?”

“When that whole thing with your future self happened,” she shrugged, “or didn’t happen, he was there when you showed up on the street below my balcony to serenade me with the mariachi band. I have to admit, it surprised me.”

His expression revealed his confusion. “Me? Have you ever so much as heard me sing in the shower?”

She thought about that and realized she couldn’t recall that ever happening. “Well… no.”

“There’s a reason for that, Liz.” He grinned and shook his head. “And in Spanish? I didn’t…” he trailed off when he saw the smile on her face slip away. “What’s going on?” He cradled her cheek in his hand and lifted her gaze to his when she tried to look away. “I did come to you and it had to be the night you’re talking about, but Liz, I came alone. You know me; I’m the guy that’s most comfortable behind the tree.”

“But you were there that night?”

“I came to your door with roses but you wouldn’t answer so I went around to the balcony because I knew it was where you went to collect your thoughts, sort them out, and make sense of them. I didn’t wanna push it by climbing up, so I stood there just waiting and eventually you did come out.”

“I came out because I heard the singing.” She studied his somber expression, seeing the truth in his eyes. “But you weren’t singing, were you?”

He shook his head. “You finally came out but you wouldn’t talk to me.”

“So you threw the roses up to me?” she asked and relief washed through her when he nodded. “And you remembered I preferred white.” He nodded again. “That’s why you changed the color from red to white when…” She sighed when his brows pulled together in a frown. “But they were white. After Future Max left they were still there and they were white.”

“They were white when I bought them, Liz.”

“Okay, but… my dad came out. He wanted to know what all the noise was. He came out and saw you and you left.”

“The noise was me begging you to talk to me and, yeah, I left when he came out. He made it a point of letting me know it was 11 o’clock on a school night.” He shook his head and kissed her gently. “Let it go, Liz. We’ll probably never know the truth and all you’re gonna do is drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out.” He watched her in the dim light, vaguely aware of the song coming to an end and something more rousing and upbeat beginning. She constantly amazed him. After all they had been through, all she had been through, she had not only left with him, she had married him. “I don’t deserve you. Everything you’ve given me…”

She shook her head and pressed a finger to his lips. “No, you’re right; the past stops here. This is where we are. Wherever our future takes us, we’re gonna live it to the fullest.” She met his gaze. “Together, Max, with no recriminations or regrets.”

He stilled. “I love you, Liz. You deserve a future with the freedom to pursue your dreams and I can’t promise you that. All I can promise is that I’ll spend my life loving you the way you deserve to be loved.”

She gave him a nudge to get him moving again, following his lead as he automatically started to move. She looked over at the pool tables where Kyle was playing a game of pool with Isabel. His powers were developing and as her mind started going over the possibilities of their futures she couldn’t help but smile.

“What?” Max asked when he noticed the smile on her face. He shifted to follow her gaze to where his sister and Kyle were playing pool, but before he could get distracted his wife’s hand came to rest against his jaw and she pulled his attention back to her.

“I was just thinking that after being on the road for so long we couldn’t have foreseen breaking down here; a place that’s allowed us to rest, to heal, and that’s given us the possibility of a new beginning for all of us. And Max,” she looked deeply into his eyes, “I want you to remember something. Always…” She paused a moment, looking away as her mind searched for the words she wanted and as they settled in her grasp her eyes moved to him once more. “You are the love of my life and where you are is more than just where I belong; it’s where I want to be. Don’t ever forget that. It’s a choice and it’s my choice.”

*****

Kyle had shifted his barstool around so he could slouch back against the wall, his left hand balancing a bottle of Coke on his thigh while he unceremoniously dug into a basket of nachos with the other. Michael was close by, enjoying the music while keeping an eye on everyone and everything. He hadn’t been able to talk him into bowling but the sight of the two blue bowling balls sitting on the counter between him made them smirk.

Close to half an hour earlier he had sauntered up to the other man, the blue bowling balls balanced in his palms and held against his chest just like he had done in the bowling alley back home quite a while ago. He’d suggested a game and Michael’s only response was a negative grunt, which was not unlike most of his responses. But the fact that his attention was focused on the stage had amused him to no end and he’d carefully shifted around, making sure there was no way Michael could miss the bowling balls, and he’d nodded wisely. “Ah, I get it.”

That had been enough to make Michael look at him and his brow had furrowed in a frown. “What?” The smirk on Kyle’s face had been enough to clue him in and he’d smacked his arm and shoved him back. “Whatever.”


“What the…?”

He paused with a meaty, cheesy, jalapeno-laden nacho halfway to his mouth as he turned his head to follow Michael’s gaze to the stage. He bit back a grin at the guy who stepped up on the stage without bothering with the steps. He was probably a good six feet tall, dressed in denim and flannel, and sporting a baseball cap.

“What’s this guy think he’s doin’?” Michael muttered, annoyed when Maria smiled and nodded in response to a question.

“Looks to me like he wants to hook up.” He couldn’t be sure, but he had a feeling the annoyance emanating from the hybrid next to him actually caused his nacho to tremble… which, in turn, caused the gooey goodness piled on it to fall… right in his lap. “I meant for a song, El Capitan. Y’know, like a duet?”

“Not happening.”

“Looks to me like…” He paused when familiar music started to play and for a moment the giant splotch of cheese stuck to his thigh went forgotten. “No, no, no, no, no,” he groaned as he identified the song. The backs of his eyelids would forever be imprinted with the visual of his dad and Maria on stage performing this very song. There was just no way to rid himself of that nightmarish image. “Please make it stop… make it stop…”

Michael frowned at him. “What is wrong with you?”

He snorted. Oh, if you only knew, he thought. But, Michael had been absent from that performance, which was probably a good thing.

“I hate this song.”

Across the room Alex snickered at Kyle’s response. He had been having just a little too much fun with Michael so he’d decided to level the field. He had to admit, if he’d been there to see that performance in person he would’ve asked her what she was thinking. And she would’ve looked at him like he was crazy. He smiled faintly. She had been so in that moment, just having a good time, and for a little while the insanity of her life had taken the backseat.

“What’re you laughing at?”

He glanced at Isabel where she was leaning back against the wall next to him, her expression calm but wistful as she watched their friends enjoying a bit of Christmas. She had taken the opportunity to cut out from the crowd for a little while, overwhelmed by the evening in spite of how much she was enjoying it.

“Just having a little fun.” He gave it a few more seconds before he used a little of his own brand of magic to sabotage the music track and he had to laugh at the way Kyle suddenly looked so relieved. He leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest while he watched the people who had come to mean so much to him before his death. He sighed. They were the people who still meant so much to him. Death may have put an end to things like hunger, physical pain, and done away with the need for a corporeal body, but it couldn’t make the ache of loneliness disappear.

Isabel’s gaze landed on one of the deer heads mounted on the walls around the room and she shook her head. She didn’t have a problem with people who hunted but she could probably live without seeing the poor creatures staring sightlessly at her. And even though some well meaning individual had put Santa Claus hats on them and strung lights on some of their antlers she wasn’t sure it helped.

“It doesn’t,” he said with an amused snort. He followed her gaze as she soaked up the warm, friendly atmosphere of The Huron Pub & Pins. The pub was lodge style, sort of built like a log cabin. The stone fireplace served as the center and it was flanked by a large Christmas tree that he knew Isabel had helped to design. Overhead, twinkling lights were strung along the rafters and he looked at her as her thoughts telegraphed themselves to him.

She smiled slightly as her gaze shifted to Max and Liz, caught up in their own little world as they swayed to music only they could hear in their little corner of the room. Michael and Kyle were engaged in their normal banter, and Maria was talking to Eddie now that her would-be singing partner had been dissuaded. The boy was so infatuated with her and he hung on her every word.

Alex could relate; he had so been there.

He smiled when little Maggie Stevens walked up to the stage at Maria’s urging, dragging her shy friend Michelle with her. The two girls accepted the large jingle bells she gave them and then the four of them spent several minutes consulting about the song they were going to perform. That poor little kid had to be hot, he thought when Michelle joined her best friend next to Maria at the microphone. The girl was wearing her jacket with her hood up and he knew it was because she was shy. Maggie might be able to talk her into getting up there and shaking the jingle bells, but she wouldn’t do it without her security blanket.

His gaze shifted to Michael, seeing the way he was so attuned to Maria, and it made him happy to see that his friends were finally getting their acts together. The girls gave the bells a few good shakes and then Eddie started in with the music, his adolescent fingers much more adept at keeping time and rhythm when he wasn’t making eye contact with his crush. He smiled and nodded. “Good choice, Maria,” he said quietly.

She shook her head at Kyle as he shoved a handful of cheesy nachos in his mouth, apparently giving up on engaging his companion in conversation. She could understand why the moment the music started and Michael’s attention locked solely on Maria. On the stage Eddie was beaming, so obviously thrilled to be sharing the small space with her. Next to her Maggie and Michelle were following her cues, shaking the jingle bells in the appropriate places. There was no doubt every word of the song All I Want for Christmas is You was directed at the stubborn hybrid who couldn’t take his eyes off of her.

The adrenaline that had rushed through her system as she planned, plotted, and detailed every moment of Christmas on the Lake had slowed considerably now that she had nothing to do, and it allowed her mind to wander places she’d rather it not go. She felt the tug on her heart as she went over Christmas memories with her family and friends. As it always did, those thoughts eventually turned to Alex and her vision blurred as she spoke unconsciously.

“How is it we never spent a Christmas together?”

“Who says we never did?” he interrupted her thoughts.

She frowned. “You know we didn’t.”

“Not in the traditional sense, no.” He chuckled at her confused look and reached up to tap his temple. “I spent Christmas with you in my dreams.”

Isabel smiled briefly and forced down the lump in her throat. “Did we dance?”

He tipped his head back to rest against the wall. “There was candlelight and soft music.” He paused a moment before looking at her, their eyes locking intimately. “My lady looked lovely in red.”

Her eyes sparkled with the tears she was fighting back and her voice was so hoarse it was barely a whisper as she spoke, “Alex, I wish I had…”

He shook his head as he reached out to lift her chin up, achieving the action without actually touching her. “No regrets, Isabel. Not between us.” He looked deeply into her troubled eyes. “The past is just that; nothing you or anyone else does today will change it. Tess may have scrambled my brain up, but the one thing I do know is you made me very happy. We had our ups and downs for sure and you could make me crazy,” he said with a laugh, “but crazy isn’t always a bad thing.” He sobered and his gray eyes were serious when they locked on her. “Let the past go. I have. I had before my last day, don’t ever think any differently.”

She nodded and drew in a shaky breath. “I love you, Alex.”

“And I you,” he smiled warmly. “I always have.” And always will.

*****

Kyle glanced up from trying in vain to wipe the blob of cheese from his jeans, vaguely noting that all he was doing was smearing the greasy mess. He grinned at Maria as she joined them, giving her a high-five and ignoring the eye roll she gave him when she saw what he was doing.

She leaned into Michael, wrapping her arms around his neck as she looked into his eyes. “So, how’s Santa doing?”

Michael stretched and made a production of yawning. “The fat man has a busy day ahead of him and it’s time to get Snowflake in for the night.”

“So don’t need to hear this,” Kyle mumbled and made a gagging sound. He ducked the elbow Michael aimed at his ribcage, standing as his gaze located Isabel with ease. He recognized her expression, her posture, and in the dim lighting he could see her lips moving quietly. He knew who she was talking to.

He went completely ignored as their banter continued.

In response to the fake yawn Maria gave a fake pout. “I was hoping to have a little time with Liz tonight.” She switched gears and her lips lifted in a smile. “I have an idea.” She shook her head at his groan of frustration. “Someone was saying they have new air hockey tables and they look free now that people are starting to call it a night.”

“Callin’ it a night sounds like a good idea to me.”

She sighed. “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?”

Could he really say no? After watching her sing and knowing it was directed at him? He looked at her and after a moment he caved. “If that’s what you want.” His elbow hit Kyle in the ribs with deadly accuracy when the other man mimicked the sound of a whip cracking. “I guess we could check the tables out, maybe play a couple games.”

“I’ll go find Evans and head over that way,” Kyle huffed, shifting as he tried to make sure his ribs were still intact. He would give Isabel her space, let her carry on her conversation with Alex, and when she was ready she would talk to him. He knew her connection to their dead friend helped her to maintain her sanity, but in a way it allowed her to maintain distance between her and others too. Maybe if he and the guys were busy doing whatever, and the girls were busy talking, they’d include Isabel.

*****

Liz stood in the shadows watching her husband as he and Kyle faced off on opposite sides of an air hockey table. She didn’t know if Max had ever played, but she had a feeling Kyle and Michael were probably familiar with the game. Michael and Maria were taking their time joining them and she debated going over and asking Isabel if she wanted to hang out with her and Maria.

“Watch me, Daddy!”

A little girl’s voice carried across the bowling alley and her gaze was drawn to the opposite end of the sizeable room. Most of the lanes were deserted as the families had said their goodnights and left for home, but there were still a few stragglers, people who were reluctant to end the pleasant evening. She located the owner of the exuberant voice and she smiled without realizing it. The little girl was waving to a man watching her from the snack counter and his bearded cheeks lifting when he smiled.

As she watched the little girl kicked her shoes off and she took a running start towards the lane. Her small body seemed weightless as she glided down the lane, her arms outstretched at her sides and her head thrown back as she laughed, the sound so young and carefree.

Lane walking, she thought. It was funny, she’d never even heard of it, hadn’t even thought about it, before Sean had introduced her to it. She sighed and leaned back against the wall. She had treated him so badly. He wasn’t a fool and she had a feeling he’d seen through her actions better than she had at the time, but he had also been interested in her and she’d used that to her advantage. He wasn’t the only one she’d hurt; she’d unintentionally hurt Maria by her treatment of him. Had she ever really apologized to them for it?

No, she realized, she hadn’t. She’d given Sean an apology when she’d gone to him in the middle of the night after Max leaving, intent on returning to Antar with the others. But then and now, she didn’t know what she’d been apologizing for. Going to him and using him again? Allowing him to get involved in something that was not only illegal, but that could’ve jeopardized his freedom? She had been so messed up, she hadn’t been thinking rationally, but she had known what she was doing with Sean was wrong.

“What’s on your mind, Chica?”

She reached up to wipe away a stray tear and gave Maria a smile that trembled a bit at the edges. “I’m sorry, Maria.”

The blonde frowned. “Okay, but why?”

“The way I treated Sean. I never told you I was sorry and I know it really bothered you… no, it hurt you when I got him in trouble.”

Maria snorted. “You didn’t get him in trouble, Liz.” She hugged her friend. “Sean’s a big boy and he made his own decisions. No, I didn’t like what you were doing but I know why you did it. Been there, done that, remember? It’s easy to project when you’re blinded by hurt or anger. You don’t necessarily do it intentionally, or sometimes you do,” she said with a pointed look, “but even then, it’s not meant maliciously.”

“You’re too forgiving,” she mumbled against her friend’s shoulder.

“I know,” she sighed heavily and then laughed. “No, just… we’re starting fresh, right? We’ve unloaded the past and we have no reason to revisit it, right?”

Liz laughed and nodded. “Have you ever been lane walking, Maria?”

“He really did corrupt you, didn’t he?” she teased lightly. “Wanna see if we can get an alien princess to take her shoes off and slide down a bowling lane?”

They looked at Isabel and then at each other and started laughing at the image of the tall blonde gliding down a lane.

“Well, we might be able to talk her into observing,” Liz said when they finally had their laughter under control. She nodded across the lanes when the little girl’s daddy called out to her, letting her know it was time to go home. “Looks like we have the lanes all to ourselves; let’s go ask.”

*****

Michael’s eyes followed the puck as it connected with Kyle’s mallet and he pulled his own back quickly to block the bank shot. He slammed the puck back towards the other man’s goal and growled when it was blocked and returned to his side. He shifted slightly and connected with the puck again.

“Where’s Max? It’s time to get movin’.”

“He went to the little boy’s room,” he said, groaning when his efforts to block the last shot failed.

“That’s been a while.”

“Maybe he’s regretting that bean and jalapeno burrito he had a while ago.”

Michael laughed and shook his head. “You’re just jealous ‘cause Isabel nixed it when you said you were gonna order one.”

He straightened up and looked at Michael with a shake of his head. “I seem to recall Maria giving you the same warning.” He stretched and then put the puck back into play.

He shrugged. “So it’s a married thing, right? Just kinda part of the whole package.”

Kyle thought about that for a moment before nodding. “Good enough reason for me.”

Michael glanced around and finally spotted Max standing in front of the glass doors that separated the pub from the bowling alley. He focused on the puck and after a couple more back-and-forth shots, he sent it home again. “Game’s over, Valenti.”

“Uh, no,” Kyle denied. “I demand a replay and this time, no ali… no funny business.”

He frowned and shook his head. “Where’re the girls?”

“You found Max, you found the girls.”

They walked over to join him at the glass doors and they followed his contemplative gaze. Liz and Maria were in their sock feet, sliding down the lanes while Isabel watched them.

“I don’t know if she’ll ever really relax,” Max murmured as his eyes rested on his sister. He could see the conflict on her face; part of her wanting to join in and get out there with the girls, the other part warring with that desire because such behavior was beneath her. It wasn’t anything new; she had always been like this. As much as she wanted to be a part of things there was something inside of her that always set her apart. He didn’t believe it had anything to do with being part alien. It was more a way of protecting herself, and he could understand that.

“I hate to be the bad guy here,” Michael said as he observed the girls, “but we need to get goin’. It’s time to pay a visit to the sheriff and we need to be ready to leave on Sunday mornin’.”

Kyle held his breath as he waited for Max to respond. He watched the girls tease and cajole, gently bullying Isabel into joining them. He silently cheered when he saw her lean over to take her shoes off. The girls slipped their way along the lanes and held their hands out to her, urging her to take them. She did so, hesitantly, and he sent up a silent request to Buddha that he protect her dignity by making sure she didn’t take a spill. He knew the lanes were slick and if she lost her balance and fell on her backside it would embarrass her and she’d easily become defensive. It was a slow process getting someone like her to relax and open up and they were patient enough to wait her out, but her temper could be trying.

“I agree we need to be ready,” Max said finally. “But maybe we can give the girls one last night before we deal with the reality of getting back on the road.”

Kyle released a relieved breath when the words were finally spoken. He hadn’t wanted to be the one to cancel the flight home, but he would’ve. He just wasn’t ready for it tonight.

Michael nodded after several minutes of contemplative silence. One corner of his mouth lifted in a half-smile when the girls got tangled up by some miracle they managed to stay upright. “One more night,” he agreed with a sharp nod, “but that’s it. We can’t afford to put this off any longer. We do this thing tomorrow night.”

“Christmas on the Lake and afterwards we go back to the cabins for dinner. We’ll do it then,” Max nodded.

They both turned to look at Kyle and he shrugged his right shoulder. “You’ve got my vote. We see my dad tomorrow night.”

The three of them fell silent as they turned back to the glass doors, unified in their decision. For a while longer they observed the girls, soaking up the joy on their faces, and lost in their individual thoughts.

*****

Liz felt like she was walking on air as she nearly floated through the cabin that was dimly lit courtesy of her husband’s touch. She kept going over their conversation on the dance floor and she could just feel those feelings wash over her again. No, they would never know the truth about what had happened that night but she could now shelve it and file it away. It didn’t matter now. What mattered was that they were back on track and embracing their new normal.

Her eyes landed on their bed and she felt the weight that had been pressing down on her since the entire Future Max revelation had come out lift. The suffocating feeling that had been a heavy pressure on her chest just melted away. “It’s a new day,” she said to herself. Her hands smoothed over the covers before she grasped them and pulled them back.

She began to undress, aware that Max was nearly finished in the bathroom and he would be joining her at any moment. She dropped her clothes, kicking them to one side and purposely leaving them on the floor instead of neatly folding them and leaving them on the chair like she normally would. She looked down at her shirt and kicked it across the room, reveling in the freeing feeling that accompanied the motion.

She heard Max tapping his toothbrush against the glass that sat on the back of the sink and rolled her eyes. Why was he taking his time tonight? She unhooked her bra and removed it in one sweeping motion, tossing it across the room to join the rest of her clothes. Her heart pounded and heat rushed through her veins, igniting the fire of anticipation in her body as she slipped her panties off and sent them flying.

“Um, Max, what’re you doing?” she asked, grinning as she slipped between the sheets. The cabin was warm but the sheets were cool and they felt good against her overheated body.

If he’d been a dog his ears would’ve been standing straight up at the slightly husky sound in her voice. He checked his appearance in the mirror one more time, making sure he hadn’t missed any stubble while shaving. He grinned at himself and straightened up, lightly slapping his chest before cutting the light off. Inhaling deeply he held the breath for a moment before releasing it and stepping out into the bedroom.

He was greeted by the sight of his wife’s clothes scattered across the floor, something that was decidedly un-Liz-like. He lifted his gaze to the bed, sliding up over the outline of her body that was shifting restlessly beneath the sheets. He felt the familiar buzz of arousal snap to life, setting his nerve endings on fire the way a tiny spark could suddenly ignite an entire forest.

“Maria sings our song beautifully, don’t you think?”

“Huh?” The blood pounding in his ears in tandem with the pulsating rush of heat that was shooting through him drowned out her words. If he hadn’t been watching her he likely wouldn’t have even realized she had spoken. He wasn’t paying attention as she repeated herself, lost in the feelings that assaulted him in response to her leisurely perusal of his body.

His breath hitched when her eyes suddenly lifted to lock on his and he moved to the bed on autopilot. Her eyes were sparkling the way they had back in the very beginning of their relationship, back before things had gotten complicated. Back before he had messed things up between them.

Liz watched his every move, shifting against the cool sheets that felt so good against her overheated body. She grinned at her speechless man as he climbed into bed and over her, his graceful moves reminding her of a black panther she had seen once. She reached up to touch him, her finger tracing a path from shoulder to waist.

A sensual smile replaced the teasing grin as her fingertip toyed with the waistband of his boxers. His heated breath ghosted over her skin, intensifying the feelings already causing her hormones to jump into overdrive. She dipped her finger behind the elastic, sliding it back and forth against his skin for several breath stealing moments before retracting the teasing digit.

Max’s eyes followed her hand when it moved over the fabric of his boxers, smoothing down over his hip before moving to the inside of his thigh. He caught her hand, stopping her. “Do you have any idea what you do to me?” he rasped.

All of her senses were on overload. His eyes dark and piercing were locked on her lips, his chest rose and fell with every ragged breath he was trying and failing to control, his scent, and his body, so close she could feel the heat coming off of him, but at the same time she felt like he could never be close enough. “Why don’t you show me?”

In direct contrast to the slight trembling in his aroused body, his movements were sure and steady as he deftly removed his boxers and tossed them onto the floor to join their more feminine counterparts. His arms wrapped around her, nipping her bottom lip and pulling her against him as he pushed his hips forward. He held her tightly as his forehead rested against hers and he uttered her name on a hoarse breath.

*****

Kyle walked into the cabin, shedding his outer gear and hanging it up, and bending over to pull his boots off without turning the lights on. Isabel was standing right behind him but her back was to him, her face upturned to take in the night sky. It was still freezing cold but at least for the moment the wind had died down. He shivered slightly as he hurried over to the loveseat, snatching up the throw from the back of the cushions and pulling it around his shoulders.

He slouched down into the soft cushions and pulled the throw up over his head to avoid the icy breeze that wafted over him. He was tired but it didn’t stop him from reaching for the remote to turn the television on. It was a good kind of tired; the kind that meant a good night of sleep was waiting for him. Even if he was scrunched up on a twin mattress and wedged in the doorframe of the smaller bedroom so he didn’t freeze to death.

He yawned widely and stretched his legs out, flipping through the channels as Isabel finally closed the door and began pulling her gear off. “Looks like we’re in for more snow.” He snorted and went to the next channel. “Big surprise there.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” She glanced into his room and smiled to herself as she went into the kitchen. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“We got any hot chocolate?”

She shook her head. “You just want the little marshmallows.”

He chuckled and paused on one of the channels, tipping his head to the side as he tried to figure out why there was a large rat in a little soldier costume running around. “What the hell…?” he muttered.

“Oh, leave it here, Kyle.”

“What is it?”

“The Nutcracker Ballet.”

“Of course it is,” he mumbled but left the channel where it was. He listened to her moving around in the kitchen, the domestic sounds comforting. He frowned when guys in white tights started dancing across the stage. “TMI right there, boys.”

Isabel joined him and curled up next to him after handing him a mug of hot chocolate. “When we were little my parents took us to the ballet in Albuquerque to see this. It was a much more elaborate production but I just loved it. Max didn’t get into it at all and my dad didn’t either, but for a long time he took me to see it every year. It was kinda our thing. Mom would take Max to see whatever Christmas movie was on and Dad and I would go to the ballet.” She smiled at the memory. “He’d get all dressed up and so would I and we’d go to dinner at a really nice restaurant before going to the ballet. It was so magical. My dad really is the best.”

Kyle reached over to pat her leg. “Yeah, he is.” He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, seeing the hint of sadness creeping into her features. “I guess he beats my dad hands down.” He shrugged when he felt her look at him. “Well, we never went to the ballet.”

She laughed at the absurdity of his comment and reached over to shove his shoulder. “You’re so goofy sometimes, Kyle.”

He just smirked when she leaned against him, her eyes locked on the screen. He had no idea how long they sat there watching the ballet – something he would deny if the truth ever came out, but when it reached the conclusion he straightened slightly and rolled his eyes. “So, the whole thing was just a dream?”

“A beautiful dream though don’t you think?” she asked, trying and failing to fight off a yawn.

“It was different. It wasn’t that bad.” Something else he would deny. “It just sucks that the dream is where she’d rather be.”

“It’s where she’s happiest; it’s where her Prince is.”

“Yeah.” He flipped back to the weather channel. “But eventually she has to face reality.”

“Is it so wrong for her to get lost in the fantasy for a while?”

“No, not at all. But there’s a danger to getting lost in the fantasy.”

“What’s the danger?” she asked curiously.

“At some point the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur and without even realizing it the fantasy could become her reality. And the fantasy may be preferable to her reality, but she has to be willing to put herself out there again at some point. She has to be willing to risk the hurt or she’ll never experience everything good that life can offer.”

Isabel sighed as she thought about her visits with Alex. “She will, when she’s ready.”

He got to his feet and leaned over to kiss the top of her head. “I’m gonna hit the sack. Make sure you get some sleep because we’re gonna be busy as soon as dawn breaks.”

“You’d better think again if you think you get to sleep until dawn, Valenti,” she threatened with a smile. “I’m gonna take a shower so if you need the bathroom…?”

He nodded and made quick use of the facilities before moving back to the living area to collect their mugs off of the coffee table. “I’ll get these.”

She studied him for a moment as she stood. “Thanks for everything, Kyle.”

“Always.” He motioned at the doorway to her room. “Go on, hit the shower. I’ll probably have these washed and be in bed before you even make it to the bathroom.”

“That’s probably true.” She smiled to herself as she went to her room and started getting her things together to take a shower. She’d love to see his face when he found what was waiting for him in his room but she knew it would be enough to know he would really sleep comfortably tonight.

Kyle was surprised when he heard the shower come on as he placed the last cup in the dish drain. He dried his hands on his jeans and hit the light switch with his elbow before giving the front door one more check to be sure it was locked. He turned the television off and then hit the light switch with his elbow, rolling his shoulders as he made his way into his room.

He walked through the doorway, his eyes still adjusting to the darkness as he turned and reached up to grab the mattress. “What the hell?” He frowned when his hands sliced through the air without coming into contact with anything. He scratched his head in confusion and leaned over to turn the creature lamp on but again found empty air. He growled and turned, jumping back and grabbing his shin when it contacted with something hard. “Damn it, what the…” He reached up, fumbling for the string hanging from the overhead light and gave it a vicious yank.

The irritation drained out of him as the light illuminated the lone bed in the room. The bunk beds had been taken down and reassembled to create one double bed. Well, maybe not quite a double, but more than big enough to give him a decent night’s sleep. He reached for one corner of the covers to peek beneath, lifting an eyebrow at the plain white sheets and wondering where cowboy Mickey had gone. He dropped the blanket back down but reached for it again when he noticed the weight. He peeled the layers back and found additional covers. “Nice,” he murmured.

He sat on the bed and bounced up and down experimentally, smiling to himself when it remained solid and in one piece. He stretched out and linked his fingers behind his head, closing his eyes and just relishing the moment. He listened to the sound of the shower running and forced his mind away from the visual that tried to attach itself. He was relaxing and wondering how she had managed to handle the rearrangements without him knowing it when he realized she must’ve contracted outside help. Who better to rearrange the room than Santa and his Chief Reindeer Wrangler? He chuckled to himself and his eyes shot open as a thought occurred to him. He hurried to change positions, hanging over the edge of the bed on his stomach as he lifted the sheet out of the way to peer into the dark recesses below.

“Ah, there you are,” he muttered as he grabbed the hideous clown pushed it up against the wall where it would be sure to remain out of sight. He got up to change clothes and turned the lights out, sliding under the covers and sighing softly at the feel of the crisp sheets. He would thank her in the morning; cast it off in passing, because he knew if he drew too much attention to it it’d only make her uncomfortable. His last thought as he began to drift off was that having Chucky hidden under his bed must’ve raised a couple of alien eyebrows.

Isabel waited around until she was sure he was asleep, something that became fact the moment he began to snore, and she crept out of her room. For the first time in too long he actually looked like he was comfortable. He was stretched out taking up every possible inch of space and even if it was still a little cooler in his room he looked peaceful and relaxed. She smiled and turned to go back to her own room, ready to catch a few hours of sleep herself before their big day began.

She paused at the window to look outside and she chuckled quietly as she stared at the sky and thought about the weatherman’s prediction of more snow. She tapped her finger against the windowpane and winked at the sliver of moon visible behind a cloud and started to sing under her breath as she walked to her room.

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…”

*****

The little cabin, surrounded by snow and the occasional brisk wind, was comfortably warm inside as Michael hauled the mattress back over to toss it on the box springs. He had lit the candles on the mantle above the fireplace with a quick snap of his fingers and now the room was filled with the scent of cinnamon. He tossed the blankets on the bed and made a token gesture of straightening them as he glanced over at the bathroom door.

“What’s takin’ so long in there, Snowflake? Santa has a big day and the Christmas Nazi’s gonna have us on the move before sunup.” Yeah, like that was gonna happen, he thought with an internal eye roll. But if it got her moving… He grinned. “Santa’s got an early present for you.”

Her mouth dropped open and she just barely managed to slap her hand over it before the snort of laughter escaped. Really? That was his idea of a romantic line? Well, she thought with a sigh, he was Michael. She shook her head when she heard the impatient knock at the door. “C’mon, Snowflake, I’m gonna be needin’ a foot rub too.” Oh, yeah, he thought triumphantly when the door was finally pulled open and she stood there all perfect and stealing his breath with nothing more than her very existence.

“You’re in need of a foot rub?” Her green eyes sparkled with mischief.

His eyes moved over her as he took a couple of steps backwards, big hands clenching at his sides. “Santa’ll just go ahead and assume the position for that foot rub.”

“Santa should do that.” She bit the inside of her cheek to control the smile. “Snowflake will just go and get Santa’s favorite lotion, hmm?”

“Maria,” he groaned, “don’t tease.”

The grin broke free. “Maria? Who’s Maria?” She shook her head. “Snowflake, remember, Santa?”

“Yeah, that’s real funny.” His eyes shadowed her every move as she walked around the bed to retrieve the lotion from the small bedside table.

Maria popped the top on the small bottle, lifting it to her nose to inhale its scent, well aware of his heated gaze tracking her every move. He was ready to pounce but he was reining himself in for the moment. It wouldn’t take long and it wouldn’t take much. She smiled secretively before turning her head to look at him through her eyelashes. “Snowflake’s all ready for Santa.”

That look. It felt like his skin had just burst into flames and it took the space of a heartbeat for him to reach her. He shook his head in denial and his heated breath ghosted across the back of her neck when he spoke, “She’s not naked in Santa’s bed.”

Her eyes widened and she gasped lightly, feigning shock. “Snowflake, naked in Santa’s bed? What would Mrs. Claus have to say about that?”

“Huh?”

“Mrs. Claus,” she said, deliberately speaking slowly. In his defense he wasn’t thinking clearly and she was quite proud to be responsible for his inability to follow the conversation. “You know, Santa’s wife?”

“That old bag?” He made a sound of disgust. “No way. It’s Santa an’ Snowflake.”

“Hmm, you sure about that?” She tapped the lotion bottle against her chin thoughtfully. “I’ve always been under the impression he was married.” He reached for her and she deftly ducked out of his reach, moving to the other side of the bed before he could catch her. “I’m a little confused.”

He shook his head and stepped to the left, growling low in his throat when she moved to her left, the bed between them providing an annoying barrier. “There’s nothin’ to be confused about. Naked Snowflake,” he pointed at her. “Santa,” he pointed at himself. “Bed,” he pointed to the space between them. “Put all three together and you’ve got your answer.”

“No,” she shook her head and pretended to think about that. “See, I’m a little confused about this relationship between Santa and Snowflake. They’re… friends?”

“Maria…” It wasn’t whining, not really.

“Snowflake,” she reminded him. “And you haven’t answered the question.”

He moved around the bed, his movements confident, his entire being exuding arousal and need. “It’s not a real question,” he rumbled as he reached her and lifted her up in his arms. It was absolute perfection as her legs came around his waist and he turned in one fluid move, lowering her to the bed and settling over her.

The lotion fell to the floor unnoticed as his lips took possession of hers and she gave in to him.

Maria met his crushing kisses, mewing in protest when he broke away to draw in more air. She reached up to touch his jaw, to pull him back, but before she could make contact her hand was captured in his. His fingers slowly slid through hers, interlocking them just before he pinned her hand to the bed just above her head. His heated breath ghosted over her neck in ragged bursts as he murmured against the skin just below her ear.

“Santa’s elf, remember?”

With his free hand he tugged on the bottom of the shirt she had confiscated from his stash, desperate to feel her skin. He released a moan as his hips pushed forward, his mouth lowering to suck on the tender pulse point of her neck just as his hand found her breast. His thumb grazed her nipple and he paused briefly, a knowing grin on his face when the action caused her to writhe in response.

“Michael, pleeeeeeeeeeeease…”

He shifted to push himself up on his left forearm, allowing just enough space between them to meet her gaze. Her eyes were possibly more revealing than anything else, her pupils blown and reminding him of dark pools with just a thin ring of emerald green surrounding them. He squeezed the hand he still held against the mattress above her head. “Michael, huh?” he teased, carrying on with the game she had started as his other hand began to slowly move downward.

Her breath caught, the sound reaching his ears and immediately requiring a response from him. His free hand was suddenly busy, removing her panties before rolling just enough to rid himself of his sweatpants. A moment later their eyes were locked as intimately as their bodies. He trembled but forced himself to still as she attempted to free her hand from his gentle grip.

He lowered his head, his lips hovering just above hers. “Who am I again, Snowflake?” he whispered raggedly.

Maria’s free hand lifted to curl around his neck and try as she might she couldn’t control her breathing. “Please,” she whimpered, “I’ve missed you.”

His eyes never left hers as his hips pulled back and then after a moment that seemed to last forever he surged forward, reclaiming Maria as his. His senses were heightened and every look, every sound, drove him to increase the pace of their rhythm. His eyes bored into hers as she let out a cry of completion and came apart beneath him. He lost the ability to maintain the intense eye contact as he gasped sharply and his head snapped back. His back arched as he answered her release with his own, sending them both into a powerful spiral that suddenly exploded and shattered their senses.

Seconds, minutes, time lost all meaning as they lay there collapsed in each other’s arms. He responded to her hand pressing against his shoulder, a not so gentle reminder that he was not as light as the proverbial feather, and he rolled over. He didn’t release her, holding her close and giving her just enough freedom to grab the covers and pull them up over them. Once they were settled in for the night and she was secure in his arms he allowed his eyes to drift shut.

“I’ve missed you too…” were the last words that passed his lips as he gave in and allowed sleep to claim him.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-56- 9/27/13

Postby KindredKandies » Thu Sep 26, 2013 11:41 pm

Eva- Glad you enjoyed it. We enjoyed exploring our gang as they enjoyed an evening together. Thank you!

Natalie36- Thanks for reading!

sarammlover- We agree, hot, sweaty weather isn’t our favorite either. Yup, we're ready for cooler weather as well. We're hanging out with our gang at Tawas Lake to keep cool. lol.

Oh yes, the time that the gang has had off the road at the Stevens' Sanctuary has been good for all of them. We're glad to see the gang acting more like themselves again.

Alex reappeared because Isabel needed him. He won't, he can't, leave until she no longer needs him to be there.

As for Michael and his departure plans, we'll have to see what happens. ;)

keepsmiling7- Enjoying their evening out, getting a break from the stress of all of the past that's recently been dredged up, gave them all an opportunity to nudge those memories into the back and forge newer, happier memories. ;)

GregInClearwater- Thank you! Things are looking up for our gang and it's getting closer to Christmas!

Timelord31- Thank you. :)


Author’s Note: The lyrics in this part do not belong to us. Credit goes to Sheryl Crow for several lines borrowed from “I Shall Believe”.


Part 56

Liz gave the covers a good shake and then with a flex of her wrists, snapped them out so that they settled over the bed pretty close to where she wanted them. She walked around it, humming to herself as she gave the covers a tug here and there, and smoothed out the occasional wrinkle. The cabin was comfortably warm and she absentmindedly wondered how low the temperatures had dipped overnight. She lifted the blinds to peer outside, recognizing the signs of fresh snowfall. She smiled as she placed her fingertip on the windowpane, drawing a heart in the frost that had collected there.

She chuckled as she remembered Max, drunk on her rooftop, proudly illuminating the heart he had drawn on the faded bricks. He had placed their initials inside the heart, expressing his feelings in a way that had been unmistakable, and as much as the cheesy, cliché symbol of love would’ve made her cringe with anyone else it had only made her love him more. But she hadn’t been able to completely trust his feelings enough to just let go, an instinct that had served her well considering the moment he had sobered up he had gone right back into his shell.

She could just imagine her dad’s face if he’d walked in and caught her with not one guy, but three of them in her bedroom. Kyle, with his paws in her underwear drawer, Max just standing there with that drunken, goofy grin on his handsome face, and Doug Shellow, her blind date who had nearly bored her to tears. She shook her head at the memory as bits and pieces of the scuffle going on inside her bedroom rose to the surface. Kyle’s drunken orders as he wrestled with her date so Max could escape with her. She laughed quietly at the absurdity of that night.

She added their initials to the heart and turned away from the window as she heard the water in the shower suddenly stop. She had known it wouldn’t be long before Isabel was taking morning attendance for her big production so she had snuck out of bed and grabbed a shower before waking her husband and pushing him in the direction of the bathroom. As a rule Max was awake and alert with little prompting, but after a night like the one they had just shared, well, he could be like a sloth. She grinned. Yeah, she loved him, and as much as she had wanted to crawl right back into bed and snuggle with her sloth, she hadn’t wanted to be responsible for bringing her sister-in-law’s ire down on them.

Although, to get him moving she had also promised breakfast would be ready and she had gotten caught up in memories and spaced out. She rolled her eyes as she caught her reflection in the mirror hanging on the bathroom door. She hadn’t even gotten dressed yet! She tipped her head to one side as she studied her appearance, running her hand down over her favorite camisole and matching panties as she thought about last night. Really, how upset would Isabel be if they were just a little bitty bit late? The overhead light caught the diamond and she lifted her hand to look at her wedding band where it rested above her engagement ring. For just the space of a moment she was taken back to another day and another mirror as she twirled around, playing a bride and dreaming of her wedding day.

She thought about the conversation she’d had with Future Max after his shocking revelation that they’d eloped and gotten married at 19. They’d had their wedding and it absolutely had not been at the Elvis Chapel in Vegas. She shuddered at the thought.

Ungh, Vegas? And why would they go all the way to Vegas? Why not just get married right there in New Mexico? If they were 19 they were old enough to get married without anyone’s permission. Huh, and why would she get married without even her best friend there? He had said she’d called the others and they’d met them halfway, but how had they ended up in Phoenix? Not only was that not halfway, they would’ve had to go more than a hundred miles out of their way to get to Phoenix. That just didn’t make any sense. And why wouldn’t they have invited Kyle too? Hadn’t he really become part of the group?

She shook her head to rid herself of the thoughts and laughed quietly. “Whoever or whatever you were, you couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Max singing along with the radio. His voice was low so she had to move even closer to the door and she winced at the racket.

“Hey, Liz?”

She jumped when he suddenly stopped singing and yelled as loud as he could. She waited a moment before answering. “What is it?”

“I thought you were gonna make breakfast?”

“Oh, I am. It won’t be long!” She smiled to herself when he mumbled something under his breath and went back to brushing his teeth. Her arms came up to cross her heart as she soaked up the memory of their evening dancing in each other’s arms. “It’s gonna be a beautiful day,” she said, grinning as the words of their song, sung in Maria’s voice, played through her head.

Without conscious thought she closed her eyes, humming along with the song as she stretched her arms out and began to move to the music only she could hear.

“Show me your face tonight
I know it’s true
No one heals me like you
And you hold the key”


Max leaned in the doorway, his body in a comfortable slouch as he watched his wife swaying to music he couldn’t hear. He grinned when he realized that she really couldn’t carry a tune, but it didn’t matter. He could listen to her all day and be perfectly content. He pushed away from the doorframe as she turned and he caught one of her outstretched hands.

Liz’ eyes shot open and her surprised expression slowly melted into a smile and she settled into his arms, feeling as if she was coming home all over again. This was where she belonged, where she wanted to be, and it was on her terms. It wasn’t ideal, it was far from perfect, but it was them, together.

*****

The scent of bacon frying pulled Isabel from a sound sleep and as she rolled over she heard quiet whistling accompanying the subtle sizzling of breakfast meat. She forced herself out of bed and crept to the doorway, peering around the edge to look into the kitchen. Kyle was moving around the kitchen area, whistling along with the radio she had left tuned to a Christmas station last time she’d had it on. He had recently showered, his hair still damp, his bare feet slapping against the floor, and a white tee shirt slung over his shoulder.

He was loose-limbed and his movements were fluid, a good sign that he’d slept well and was feeling relaxed. The bacon suddenly sizzled loudly and a loud pop followed, making him jump back in an effort to avoid the hot grease.

“Ow, ow, ow!” He grabbed his shirt and hurried to wipe the grease off of his chest. “And this’s why sausage is the better choice for breakfast meat,” he said with a glare at the frying pan. He shook his head and pulled the shirt on before flipping the bacon over.

Isabel chuckled to herself and backed away, leaving him to the breakfast preparations while she took a long hot shower. When she came out she heard him putting plates on the table and she was pulling on a pair of socks when he started making a racket by beating the bottom of a pot with a wooden spoon.

“Come an’ get it before it’s gone!”

She rolled her eyes and got to her feet. “This isn’t a bunkhouse, Kyle, and I’m not a ranch hand.”

He grinned and flipped the last pancake onto the plate at the center of the table. He turned to look at her, using the spatula to tip back an imaginary hat. “Got some good eats here, little lady,” he said with an exaggerated drawl. “C’mon over an’ rustle up a plate.”

She laughed and ended up snorting. “Can you call a woman ‘little lady’ when she’s a good inch and a half taller than you are?”

He pointed at her with the spatula, his mouth open to make a comeback, but as his eyes moved up, taking notice of the fact that she was indeed taller, he closed his mouth and nodded. “Point taken and I’ll refrain from any Amazon woman comments as long as you keep a lid on the midget comments.”

Isabel shook her head as she took her seat and reached for the pancakes. He made the best pancakes, she thought as she took two. She was sure it was probably all those years fending for him and his dad when it came to eating. “I have no such comments,” she denied and took a piece of bacon. “You’re one of the biggest men I know.” She pointed at him with the bacon. “If you intentionally take that the wrong way I’ll have to make good on an old threat.”

He smiled and shook his head. “I know how to take a compliment.” He set the pan on the stove and nodded at the planner waiting on the counter. “So, how much trouble you think you’re gonna have getting El Capitan into his Santa getup?”

They fell into conversation easily, enjoying each other’s company as they discussed the day’s production and lost themselves in the details.

*****

Dawn was just beginning to break as Michael pulled the refrigerator door open and glanced over the thinning contents. He grabbed the half-empty package of sausage and nodded in satisfaction, content with the fact that they wouldn’t be wasting anything when it was time to leave the next morning. He tore the wrapper open and slapped the patties in the pan already heating on the stove and tossed the used carton in the trash. He poured a little grease into another pan and waited for it to heat while he turned the sausage over. He reached for the bowl waiting on the counter and ladled the pancake batter he’d prepared earlier into the frying pan.

He turned to open a drawer, sorting through the cooking utensils, and pulling out a spatula. He glanced over at his girl, her body in a boneless sprawl beneath the covers. His grin was smug as he watched her for a few moments but as he moved to go back to the stove, his gaze slid over the rest of the cabin and he sighed regretfully. She was happy here; she had carved a little niche, not just for herself, but for both of them, and he hated to take that from her. It had been a break from the nonstop adrenaline rush of the road and it had given them an opportunity to work through old issues and finally break down that wall that had been keeping them apart.

He heard Maria stir and he reached for the mug she had taken ownership of, filling it with hot coffee and fixing it the way she liked. He flipped the last pancake over onto a warmed plate and turned the burner off.

Maria opened one eye and took a look around her. She smiled lazily when she saw her Spaceboy tearing open the small package of chocolate chips and eating a fistful as he set about making her favorite pancakes. She had been enjoying the opportunity to lounge around in bed, soaking up the joyous feeling of a night of the most perfect sleep she’d had in months when the smell of food had filtered in and drawn her into the land of the conscious. She closed her eyes and reached out, grabbing Michael’s pillows and pulling them up against her, dozing off again with little effort.

Time had little meaning as she settled in that blissful place somewhere between awake and asleep. Her body had melted into the mattress, the weight of the body-warmed covers never more perfect, and the safe, loved feeling of Michael’s presence surrounding her. It was the movement of the mattress dipping that brought her eyes open again and her body eased into a languorous stretch. The blankets obediently followed the laws of gravity and she chuckled when Michael’s gaze automatically followed their downward slide. Her arm shifted to hold them in place and after a moment his unapologetic gaze lifted to meet the amusement in hers.

“Thought maybe you could use the extra zzz’s after the paces Santa put you through last night,” he said, smirking as he held out the mug of fresh coffee.

“You make it sound like you were exercising an animal.” She rolled her eyes and slapped his chest half-heartedly as her cheeks flushed. She took the mug from him when he grinned unrepentantly at her response and nodded at the coffee. “Winnie the Pooh and breakfast too?”

“Made your favorites,” he said with a shrug. “Chocolate chip pancakes with extra chocolate chips and sausage patties. I can keep ‘em warm for a while if you wanna grab a shower first.”

Maria gently blew on the steaming coffee before taking a sip. Her mind tugged her back to another moment in time when he had made all of her favorites. Dinner, the last meal of the day, and what they had believed to be a final goodbye. This was different. Breakfast, that first meal of the day, and their future, while uncertain, was something they were ready to face together. She smiled and glanced up at him from under her eyelashes. “Well, I’m really in need of a shower.” Her lips lifted at the edges in a small, knowing smile. “Thanks, I’ll be out in 10. “Well,” she lifted the mug and paused before it could touch her lips, “make that 15.”

He scratched his eyebrow with his thumb and grinned. “Yeah, just keep it at 15 or less. It’s about time for Snowflake to get to hoppin’.” He pushed himself to his feet. “Got a long day ahead of us.”

She lifted an eyebrow at him. “What do you think the chances are of Snowflake making it through that shower in 15 if Santa joins her?”

*****

Snowflake crouched down next to Maggie as she looked around at all of the kids waiting to see Santa. “Maggie, I was wondering if you could do Santa a big favor?”

The little girl nodded but before she could answer a sound from outside caught her attention and she turned. She watched, wide-eyed, as the barn doors were suddenly opened, the bells on the reindeers’ harnesses jingling merrily and announcing their arrival. “It’s him!” Her voice was low but held so much excitement as the sleigh came into view, snow swirling around and blowing through the doors as the jolly old elf appeared. Her gloved hands came up to cover her mouth and her eyebrows rose so high they nearly touched the edge of her elf hat.

“Ho, ho, ho!” Santa boomed as he strode through the throng of children clamoring for his attention. “Merry Christmas!”

“Maggie, Santa knows you’re his special helper elf today and he has a big request for you.”

“Okay.” She looked up at Maria when she motioned to Liz and a moment later the other girl was moving through the crowd, trying to clear a path for Santa.

“He’s really here.” Maggie’s smile was set for the day as she watched him coming closer. He was so much bigger than she had thought he was. She looked back at Maria when she called her name again.

“Santa lost his good glasses so he’s gonna need some help reading the letters.”

“Help from me?”

“Yes, see, the mailbox has everyone’s letters inside but once they go through the slot the writing is changed so that it’s invisible and only Santa can read it.”

“But his glasses don’t work?” Maggie frowned as she studied Santa. “Well, how will he read the letters?”

“That’s where he was hoping you could help. If you don’t mind, of course. He’s asked if you would mind reaching inside before each child comes up, tell him that child’s name, then take a look at the letters and tell him the one special thing they want more than anything else.”

“But, if it’s not there how can I see it?”

“Because as Santa’s special helper elf he’s granted you the ability to see the invisible letters while you’re helping him. No one else will be able to see what’s on them, only you. You just tell Santa that child’s name and then when you open it up you’ll see what that child’s special request is. Do you think you can do that for him?”

Maggie nodded and her insides were just bubbling with excitement. She could read Santa’s magic invisible ink, something no other elf could do! She looked down at Cindy and lifted her up until they were nose to nose. “You gotta wait for me while I help Santa, okay?” She hugged the little polar bear tightly and then gently placed her next to the magic mailbox where she could watch everything that was going on. They would have so much to talk about at bedtime!

Snowflake smiled and gently squeezed the little girl’s arm before she stood up with a wink. Isabel was off to the side, set up at her table with a giant card for everyone to sign as they left. She had all of the cards that the children had filled out and dropped in the mailbox and with a little hybrid magic she had changed them so that they looked like regular papers. As Maggie pulled the cards with invisible writing out she would give Santa the child’s name and while he was greeting the child she would be opening up his or her card and she would seek out the special gift and make it appear on the card Maggie was looking at.

As much as she would’ve loved to take credit for that one, Kyle had come up with the idea when Michael had thrown a monkey wrench in the works and asked how he was supposed to know every kid’s name. She watched as Snowflake and Candy Cane cleared a path and she hid a smile at the sight of Michael trying as gently as possible to pry a child off of his leg.

Michael finally made it to Santa’s throne and he gratefully sank down into the padded seat, free of the clinging monkeys for the moment. He looked to his left and met his helper elf’s adoring gaze and he smiled, remembering at the last second to reach up and adjust his glasses. He squinted as he leaned in closer to her, his voice a little gruffer than normal in an effort to disguise it as he spoke to her.

“Maggie Stevens,” he boomed, “I had hoped you would accept the position of special helper elf for today’s special event. Has Snowflake made my special request?”

Her eyes widened as she nodded mutely. He knew her name! She turned from the waist up but her head never moved as she continued to stare at him. She pointed at the magic mailbox.

“Let’s get started then.”

Maggie turned her head to look at the line that had quickly formed and she nodded when Maria led the first boy up the path to Santa. She reached inside for the first card and then leaned against Santa’s shoulder. “That’s Bobby Dawson.”

Isabel scanned the letters she had alphabetized and glanced over his list, spotting the number one item, and then making it appear on the card just as Maggie opened it.

The little girl’s eyes expressed her surprise as the letters and a picture appeared on the card, sparkling and glittering in silver and blue for a moment before disappearing again. “Wow,” she whispered.

“Maggie?”

“Oh, he wants a toy helicopter.” She frowned at that and shook her head. “I don’t think that’s right, Santa,” she whispered.

Michael turned to look at her. “Why’s that?”

“’Cause his daddy don’t got a job anymore since the place he worked closed.” She gnawed on her bottom lip for a moment. “I know what he wants ‘cause I heard him say at school.”

“And what’s that?”

“A new pair of hockey skates ‘cause his old ones don’t fit no more.”

Michael’s gaze was thoughtful as he looked at the little boy, taking in the hand-me-down clothes, the patch on the leg of his jeans, and the haircut he’d obviously gotten at home. He looked over the line of children waiting to see Santa and he saw a similar pattern with most of them. They were well cared for, neatly groomed, but it was apparent this community was hurting. It was amazing how different things could be. Most of the people in Roswell were by no means wealthy, but the things the kids had asked for had been much more costly.

“Thanks for the heads up, Maggie.” He picked the little boy up and sat him on his knee, going through the rigmarole of ho-ho-ho-ing and walking the kid through the process of asking if he’d been a good boy and what he wanted for Christmas this year.

He had a feeling it was gonna be a long day.

*****

Max was handing out apples to the reindeer when he caught movement from the corner of his eye and he turned his head to look at the boy approaching. He couldn’t help but feel self-conscious when the kid gave him the onceover and snickered as he walked up to the pen and hooked his feet on the bottom rail. He wrapped his arms around the top rail and rested his chin on his arm.

“Aren’t you kinda big for an elf?” he asked as he shoved a donut in his mouth.

“Not all elves are small,” Max countered.

“Are they all as old as you?”

“Old?”

Elliott Gentry pushed his glasses higher up on his nose and turned his head to look at him. “Yeah, old. How come you don’t have a real job?”

Because I’m an alien king on the run from the FBI, he thought.

“It’s okay, I get it,” the little know-it-all said finally. “My mom works some dumb job she doesn’t like ‘cause it’s the only work she could find too.” He rolled his eyes as he scanned over the elf outfit again. “I’m sure glad she doesn’t have to dress up like that though.” He pointed at the reindeer with his half-eaten donut. “It’s completely illogical that reindeer can fly.”

“It’s Christmas magic.”

“I’m 11 and I know you’re not a real elf, Santa isn’t real, and reindeer don’t fly.”

Max narrowed his eyes. “Can you prove they can’t?”

“Can you prove they can?”

“It’s not Christmas Eve.”

The kid polished off the donut and shook his head as he crossed his arms over his chest. “How does,” he raised his hands to make air quotes, “Santa deliver all the presents all over the world?” His gaze was challenging. “Tell me about the magic. Or the different time zones. Or how not everyone believes in him. Or maybe how he can stop time.”

“Wow, could you be more negative if you tried?”

He shrugged. “Probably.”

What was this kid’s problem? “Why are you here if you don’t buy into the Santa thing?” he asked as he rubbed his neck.

“Why’re you here?”

“Because my sister would have a fit if I wasn’t,” he answered honestly.

“Yeah.” He turned to point at a little girl sitting on Santa’s knee. “I’m only here ‘cause of my little sister. She’s still a kid and she believes in Santa.”

“But you don’t.”

“What’s the point? Last time I asked for somethin’ he blew me off.”

“Yeah?”

“They closed down the factory where my dad worked and he couldn’t find a job.” He looked at the elf again. “You’re old, so if Santa could find a job for you, why not my dad? He just needed work but he couldn’t get any so he left.”

Ah, now his hostility towards Santa made sense, Max mused. “So you’re the man of the house now.”

He straightened up. “Yeah, so I don’t have time for stuff like this.”

“That’s too bad. Even when things are tough you’ve gotta have something to believe in. Used to be I didn’t believe in much of anything either, but my wife’s been workin’ on me and these days it’s a little easier to see that there are possibilities out there.”

“Is your wife an elf too?” he asked skeptically, his tone making it known that he still wasn’t buying into the elf business.

Max chuckled and nodded at Liz. “Yeah, she’s an elf too.”

The boy’s mouth dropped open. “That’s your wife? Really?”

“Um-hmm.”

“She’s really pretty. I was talkin’ to Eddie earlier – he’s in my class at school, and he thinks that other girl elf’s the prettiest, but,” he shook his head, “I think that one is.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I’m biased, but I have to agree. So, you’re just here for your sister?”

“Yeah, she still believes in this stuff and my mom says it’s good for her to be happy.” He looked at him again. “She knows I know the truth though.”

“I thought I knew the truth too.” Max glanced around, making sure everyone was busy watching Santa and all the little kids excitedly waiting for their turn to sit on his lap. “See, my sister roped me into working for the big guy – “

“Are you about to say you believe all this?”

“Well, I didn’t, but then I saw something that made me wonder if maybe there’s more to it.”

“What’d you see?”

He hooked his thumb over his shoulder, indicating the reindeer. “See Dancer over there? The way he kicks his hooves up every once in a while? Watch him long enough and you’ll see him stay airborne for a few seconds at a time. I’m not a science genius or anything, but, what goes up must come down, right? Well, based on that little fact, he shouldn’t stay up in the air at all, right?”

“Are you foolin’ with me?”

“Nope, just watch him.” He let the suspense build for several minutes, his gaze constantly scanning over the people in the barn. When Dancer finally moved back behind the others and kicked his feet up, Max placed a calming hand on Cupid’s flank and focused on the other reindeer, lifting him up and keeping him there for several seconds before carefully easing him down again.

Elliott’s eyes widened and he moved around the pen, following the reindeer and studying his hooves. He had seen it, but he didn’t believe it. He ducked down, his eyes locked on the animal he was tracking. His mind was going over the possibilities as he waited to see if the reindeer would do it again.

*****

Michael adjusted his fake glasses and looked down at the little girl waiting for her turn to climb up in his lap. He had been watching her for a while as she hung back, letting other kids go in front of her and staying at the end of the line. He leaned to the side when Maggie, his most helpful assistant elf, tugged on the sleeve of his coat. She had inside information on all of the kids in the community and thanks to Kyle’s quick thinking, she was sharing names and any helpful hints she had about special things they wanted.

“That’s Evelyn Finch, she’s real quiet but she’s nice.” Maggie pulled the next slip of paper from the mailbox and opened it up, scanning the inside and then giving Santa a confused look. “Santa?”

Michael looked down at her, wondering at her expression. “What’s up, Maggie?”

“She just asked for a tree and presents, she didn’t say what she wants most.”

He pushed the glasses up higher on his nose and looked over her shoulder at the slip of paper before turning to shoot a glance at Isabel. He sighed when she shook her head and shrugged, but he quickly covered it up when Snowflake touched his arm and called his name.

“Merry Christmas, Evelyn,” he boomed as he picked her up and placed her on his knee. “My list says you’ve been very good this year.”

She smiled and stared down at her fingers.

Her behavior was setting off warning bells. He lowered his voice as he spoke to her. “Did I understand your letter correctly? You’d like a Christmas tree?”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “And some presents for my sister and my mommy.”

“Evelyn, get finished up,” a male voice called loudly. “Your mom and sister are headin’ out to the car.”

She looked up at the man who had appeared out of nowhere. “Yes, Daddy.”

Michael tensed up when the man cracked open a beer and took a long drink while he waited for the girl to wrap things up so they could go. His head snapped to the side when a hand landed on his shoulder and he looked up at Edward. The older man gave a gentle shake of his head, tightened his grip for a moment, and then looked down at the little girl. He spoke with her for a moment and then smiled, urging her to take her time and finish her business with Santa before he stepped around his own little girl and walked over to Evelyn’s dad.

“Ray, how’s it goin’ today?” he asked.

The man blinked slowly and then he focused on Edward. “It happened again?” His voice expressed confusion and even a bit of shame.

Edward smiled as he reached over and removed the beer from his hand. “Why don’t we have a cup of hot cider, huh? It’s just too cold for one of these today.”

The man, Ray, nodded, his head down as he walked with Edward to the refreshment table.

“And, maybe you could make my daddy better.”

Michael’s gaze dropped to the little girl in his lap and he hugged her. “Don’t you worry, Evelyn, you’re on Santa’s list.” He lowered his head, tipping her chin up so he could meet her downcast eyes. It wasn’t just embarrassment, he realized. She was accustomed to her situation and it saddened her. “You remember one thing for me, okay?”

She wiped her fisted hand over her right eye and nodded.

“You’re a very good girl and there’s nothing wrong with asking for help and accepting it. It’s easier to ask for help,” he winked, “or gifts for others, but it’s okay to ask for you too. You deserve good things and you’re gonna get them.”

She studied him for a moment, looking into his kind eyes, and finding what she was looking for. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly and he tried not to wince when it pulled on the glue Isabel had used to stick the stupid beard to his face. He looked at his helper when Evelyn slid down off of his lap, nodding and holding up two fingers when she reached for the tray of Santa cookies she handed out to the kids after their visit with him.

“Thank you, Santa,” Evelyn said with a soft smile before she saw her mother and sister and scampered off to join them.

*****

Michael was leaning over to set little Robbie Wilson down when he caught a flash of color in his peripheral vision. The reaction was instantaneous; sweat began to form at the center of his back, his heart started to pound, his blood began to rush in his ears, and every protective instinct he possessed kicked into overdrive.

Standing next to him, Maria caught his reaction, and she rested a hand on his shoulder as she turned her head to see what had caused it. Her own instincts reared their head as she saw the black SUV with some sort of official local government emblem emblazoned on the door. She heard him snap out an order for Liz to come closer, using a request for fresh cookies to cover the real reason.

The uniformed officer did nothing to calm Michael’s nerves and the serious expression on her face only added to his concerns. The air around him was practically crackling with electricity and he only remembered to breathe when his girlfriend squeezed his shoulder. The badge on the cop’s jacket caught the overhead light, drawing attention to the fact that she was a law enforcement officer.

“Edward, I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it,” she called out as she neared Santa and his elves.

The older man smiled and shook her hand. “I’m glad you did.” He hadn’t missed Michael’s reaction, but after seeing how protective he was with little Evelyn Finch, his previous thoughts that he’d had his own struggles that made him so overprotective with his friends had solidified in his mind.

“So am I.” She smiled as she neared the man of the hour. “Santa, I’m glad I had the opportunity to get down here to meet you and your elves.” She lowered her voice slightly so it wouldn’t carry to the kids milling around impatiently, waiting to see the big man himself. “I never dreamed we had a genuine celebrity in our midst when I heard about you folks breaking down out here.”

Michael smiled tightly, grateful for the beard that covered the majority of his face. It had only taken a moment to check the patch on her uniform jacket to determine that she wasn’t a regular cop. The patch proudly stated: Tawas Lake Peace Officer, Constable. Constable or cop, it didn’t matter. A cop was a cop. What exactly had Edward told her? What if she had done a background on them and their cover story hadn’t held water? What if she had discovered who they really were? That they were wanted by the FBI? What if she was just keeping it casual, passing the time until the Special Unit could arrive and cart them off?

Max moved closer, his hands flexing as he took up a position close to his wife. Without looking he was aware of Kyle coming in and taking his place between Maria and Isabel. He hoped things weren’t about to go south but he could feel the tension radiating out from all of them.

Before Michael’s thoughts could go much further she smiled easily, but it was plain to see by the look in her eyes that she didn’t miss anything.

“Merry Christmas, Santa.”

His hands gripped the armrests as he pushed himself to his feet in response to the hand she held out in his direction. He accepted her hand, almost holding his breath as he waited to see if she was gonna slap handcuffs on him.

“I don’t suppose introductions are necessary on your side,” she said with a laugh. “I’m Constable Stone. It’s a pleasure to have you here.” She smiled with a sideways nod at Edward. “He’s kind of an old woman about things, but you can’t blame a man with a family for being concerned when a bunch of strangers show up at his door in the middle of the night, can you? I told him not to worry, but just to be safe, ran your plates.” She chuckled and shook her head. “Poor man was relieved when I assured him nothing out of the ordinary had showed up. Like Julia, I kinda just had a feeling there was a reason you had broken down in our neck of the woods.”

Edward shrugged and reached up to scratch his neck when he felt Julia’s eyes on him. He turned his attention back to Constable Stone in an effort to ignore that itchy feeling that warned him his loving wife hadn’t missed a word. He had known the Constable for years though at nearly 50 she was older than him. She was part Chippewa with long dark hair that was interspersed with wisps of grey, though she wore it in a ponytail beneath her uniform hat so someone casually speaking with her probably wouldn’t even notice.

She was medium height with a medium build and dark eyes. Her right cheek had a tendency to dimple when she smiled and she was a woman used to working hard. Her family raised horses and she had grown up working hard and she had the strength of body and mind to prove it. She wore little jewelry, the single exception being the wide white gold band with a star pattern carved into it on her left ring finger. She was a fiercely independent woman and she had served their community well.

“I suppose presenting something like a key to the city is kinda hokey,” she said with a laugh, “and probably something a mayor would do anyway. However, I was asked to present you and your elves with a small symbol of our appreciation for your hard work, your kindness, and your generosity in making this evening happen for our little community.” She reached up to unzip her jacket and brought out a small wooden plaque that she held out to him.

Michael looked down at the hard-carved wooden plaque, his fingers tracing over the figures of Santa Claus and a handful of elves and between them, the words: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.

“The Michigan state motto,” she said with a smile. “We thought it’d be easier to read if we didn’t put it in Latin. It’s just our way of saying thanks and you’ll always be welcome here.” She stepped back and motioned to the children behind her. “I think you have your work cut out for you, Santa. If I don’t get the chance to talk to you again later, I do hope you and your elves will all have a very Merry Christmas.”

He nodded mutely and sat back down, grateful when Maria reached for the plaque and used the motion to cover for her rubbing his arm to calm him down.

“Need to take a break, Spaceboy?” she asked quietly.

He shook his head. “No, but I could sure use a drink,” he said, his voice rough. His throat felt like sandpaper. He looked over at Edward and nodded when the man smiled and sent Maggie back over to pull out the next card from the magic mailbox.

*****

Maggie pulled the lid up on the cooler hidden behind Santa’s throne and pulled a bottle drink out, knocking the lid back down with her elbow and stepping back up beside Santa to offer him the refreshment. She looked around the barn and spotted her best friend standing over by the reindeer pen. Kyle was crouched down next to her, talking while showing her that it was okay to pet the large animals.

“Santa?”

Michael was enjoying the lull in the rush of children when Maggie called him. He looked at her and raised an eyebrow in question, following her gaze as he accepted the Snapple she held out to him. He watched her little friend, well aware that her eyes kept darting to him before skirting away again. She had moved with the line a few times but each time she got close to the front of the line she would disappear.

He kept an eye on her as what appeared to be the last wave of curious, beard-pulling, wish-mongers were unleashed on him. They really weren’t that bad as long as he ignored the ones who thought pulling his beard was necessary to proving he was who he said he was. They didn’t ask for gifts that were unrealistic or expensive, and if Santa was the emotional type a few of them probably would’ve brought a tear to his eye.

As the line dwindled down and he was faced with his last little visitor he smiled at quiet, shy Michelle. She stood next to her grandmother, clutching her hand tightly. She was wearing leggings that matched her blue coat, the hood pulled up protectively. Her eyes would lift every once in a while, trying to decide about actually climbing up on his knee.

“She’s just a bit shy, Santa,” Mrs. Dayna said with a smile. She patted her granddaughter’s hand when she felt the little girl’s grip tighten.

“Me an’ Michelle, we’re best friends, Santa. We do everything together.”

“Everything?” he asked.

“Oh, yes. See, sometimes Michelle likes me to talk ‘cause she’s kinda quiet. Last year we even saw you together, remember?”

He pursed his lips and squinted his eyes thoughtfully as he looked between the two girls, pretending not to notice when Michelle quickly looked away when their eyes met. “Hmm… I think I do.”

“Watch this, Michelle!” Maggie whispered loudly. Her eyes locked on Santa and she leaned on the arm of his throne, bouncing on the tips of her toes and making the little bells jingle incessantly.

Don’t screw this one up, Santa, Michael thought. He had never been to see Santa, had only ever really been around the whole fat elf thing when he had played the role the year before. He wasn’t surprised that Maggie was the mouthpiece for her friend; that had been apparent the night they had strung popcorn and cranberries up at Mr. Tony’s house.

Dayna reached up under the guise of scratching her nose and held two fingers up as she nodded at the girls.

He gave a brief nod and adjusted the glasses that kept slipping down his nose. “Seems to me I recall the two of you sitting together.”

“See?!” Maggie ran over and grabbed Michelle’s hand, giving her an encouraging tug. “C’mon, Michelle, let’s take our turn.”

“You go first,” Michelle mumbled as she squeezed her grandmother’s hand again.

“Okay, it’s not scary. I’ll show you.” She ran over to Santa and he caught her, lifting her up and sitting her on his knee.

Dayna picked her granddaughter up when she whispered a request and she settled her on Santa’s knee, right next to Maggie. She stepped back, careful to stay in sight in case Michelle changed her mind.

Michael glanced up when Snowflake appeared at his left shoulder, holding out the magic wish list, and he thanked her as he accepted it. He grabbed his empty Snapple bottle off of the opposite arm of the throne and handed it to her. “Thanks, Snowflake.” He was oblivious to her eye roll as he opened the card up and then looked at Michelle over his glasses.

“You like to draw,” he mused. “Santa has tried that in the past with limited success.” He glanced down when he realized she was twisting something in her hands and he tipped his head slightly to see what it was before he looked over the list again. “Hmm… and you’re a reader too. That’s good. Santa enjoys a good book.” He patted her arm reassuringly. “There’s something else here…”

Michelle looked up at him, her eyes shining hopefully. “You see something else?” Her eyes widened as if she was surprised to hear herself speak. She leaned forward to look at the list but couldn’t see anything but the paper.

“It’s special writing, Michelle,” Maggie said when she saw the disappointed look on her best friend’s face. “Only Santa can see it.”

“Oh.” She looked up at him again. “What’s it say?”

“It says here that what you really want…” he squinted and brought the card up close to his face, “yes, here it is… you want a puppy.”

She gasped loudly and looked at the card again. “It’s magic,” she whispered. She turned to look at Maggie. “You’re right, he’s really him.” She smiled timidly up at Santa. “Do you think maybe I’ll get my puppy?”

Michael glanced at Dayna and he caught the subtle nod in response to his questioning look. “Don’t wait too long to open your gifts on Christmas morning,” he said with a warm smile.

Her shyness took a backseat at his answer and she hugged him tightly before leaning back and pushing Maggie towards him. “Now you gotta do yours,” she whispered loudly.

“Well…” Maggie smiled at Santa. “I didn’t put a card in the mailbox.”

“No, you didn’t,” he said with a nod. “Snowflake, there’s one last card in that mailbox. Be a good elf and fetch it for me.” His eyes twinkled mirthfully as he held his hand out expectantly. He would pay for it later and he’d love every minute of it.

Maggie’s eyes were huge when she saw the paper that was placed in Santa’s hand. “He gave it to you. Michael said he’d give it to you and he did! I knew he would! He said he knows you an’ I believed him! He knows everything about you!”

“Yes, we’re old friends.” He smiled as he unfolded the paper and he carefully smoothed it out to avoid tearing it. “Maggie, you’ve been the best elf helper Santa’s ever had and that’s important, but it’s not the most important thing. You’ve been very good this year and Santa knows that. You look for that puppy this Christmas,” he said with a wink. “And you make sure not to overlook Miss Cindy’s new scarf. I understand Rudolph tried to take a nibble and he’s very sorry he did that. So the new scarf is from both of us.”

Maria smiled and brushed back tears of happiness as she watched her boyfriend, once again being adored by the two little girls. He could pretend to be unaffected but she knew better. He was in his element and having just as much fun as they were.

*****

Michael was finally out of the Santa suit and lounging against a support post by the refreshment table. The kids, while annoying at times, had really made him realize just how important what they were doing was. He was glad Isabel had insisted they put on the Christmas on the Lake production, but he would never admit it out loud. He turned his head when someone joined him and he nodded at Edward. “Long day, huh?”

The older man chuckled as he checked his watch. “And it isn’t even dinnertime yet.” He sobered as he took up residence on the other side of the post. “You were good with Evelyn Finch this afternoon.”

He shrugged. “She made it easy.”

“Raymond, her dad, he was injured at the factory he worked at.” He motioned at his head. “It messed with him pretty badly and caused some neurological issues.”

“So he self medicates with alcohol? Great answer to the problem,” he muttered.

“I’m not sayin’ I condone it. He wasn’t always like this, Michael.” He shrugged one shoulder. “He’s a good man, just hit a rough patch that hasn’t let up. His family has a community here to help them.”

“Havin’ a parent that lives in the bottle, it’s isolating for a kid.”

“We do our best, that’s all anyone can do.”

“Yeah.” He sighed. “It was nice, what you did. Taking him aside and getting the spotlight off of her.” He knew from experience what it was like to have that unwanted attention. “All she wanted was a Christmas tree and some friggin’ presents, not even anything specific.”

Edward clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Michael; Santa always stops in at the Finch house on Christmas Eve.” He pushed away from the post when his wife called him. “They’ll be okay.”

“You okay?”

He looked down when Maria sidled up next to him and his arm settled around her shoulders as hers slid around his waist. “Could be worse,” he murmured with a nod at the Reindeer Wrangler. Max was still in costume as he finished up with the reindeer.

“I heard he had a difficult little boy earlier.”

“Yeah, probably the same one that tried his damnedest to pull that stupid beard off. Kid probably took a couple layers of flesh with him.”

She chuckled and reached up to turn his head, brushing her fingers over a reddened patch of skin where the glue that had held the beard in place had been pulled and jerked more than once that day. “I think you’ll live.”

“Probably. Don’t know how long it’ll take for the skin to grow back.”

“Could be anywhere from a couple days to a few weeks,” a helpful voice spoke up.

Michael rolled his eyes and turned to look at Buckeye as he passed them. He was helping some of the others carry things out before leaving. “That a fact?” he asked.

“Yup, it’s a fact.” He nodded at them and continued on his way.

“That guy ever went on a game show he’d clean up.” He looked down when he felt something pulling on his coat and he smiled at Maggie. “Heard you did a pretty amazing job today,” he said as he picked her up.

She smiled and nodded enthusiastically as she squished Cindy between her body and his shoulder. “It was fun, Michael! And Santa got my picture you gave him!” She hugged his neck. “I’m gonna get my puppy!”

He patted her back and smiled. “I kinda thought maybe you would.”

“Can we go say goodbye to Rudy an’ Cupid an’ the others?”

Maria gave him a little push. “Go ahead, I’ll check with Isabel and see if there’re any last minute elf instructions before we head back to the cabins.”

He nodded and shifted Maggie, catching Maria’s hand and squeezing it as he met her gaze. He sighed quietly at the slight, welcome weight as the little girl rested her head on his shoulder and her body relaxed in his arms. There were things in the world that moved people, great works of art, impressive structures, and grandiose acts, but to him those things meant nothing. It was this right here, the simple unquestioning trust and faith of a little girl that moved him. He walked over to the pen where the reindeer were milling around, pawing at the hay on the ground and occasionally using their antlers to rattle the sides of the pen.

“Michael?”

“Um-hmm?”

“Where were you today? I seen everybody else, but I never did see you.”

“Oh, I was close by,” he assured her. “Isabel kept me busy.”

She lifted her head to look at him. “She’s real good at tellin’ people what to do, huh?”

“She’s real good at that,” he agreed.

“But you didn’t get to see Santa an’ he was so nice.” She reached out to pat his cheek, rubbing her soft palm over the coarse stubble starting to make its early evening appearance. With the tips of her fingers she traced over the reddened area on his cheek and she stared into his eyes, her expression thoughtful.

Michael was sure he was on the verge of being unmasked as she studied him. Was it possible she might see through the rather thin disguise and figure it out? He didn’t want the last little bit of time he had with her to be spent with her thinking he had been playing a prank on her, pretending to be Santa.

“I’m glad you know Santa,” she said finally. “He must be a very nice friend to have. I think he’s the luckiest one though ‘cause you’re his friend.” She leaned in to kiss his cheek. “I’m glad you’re my friend too, Michael.”

“Yeah, me too.” He cleared his throat and nodded. He had his select, but small, group of friends but they didn’t exactly talk about it. Their friendship just… was. He smiled tightly. “I’m glad you’re my friend too, Maggie,” he said gruffly. He hugged her just a little tighter. He was gonna miss her. And he was gonna miss her a lot.

She frowned as she watched the reindeer for a moment. “Do you think these are really the reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh? ‘Cause they’re a long ways from the North Pole an’ it’s getting close to Christmas.”

“Santa told me you’d wonder about that.”

She looked at him. “Really?”

“Yeah, and he wanted me to tell you that they’ll be home in plenty of time to rest before the big night. He said it’s real important for Rudolph to rest because there’s gonna be some rough patches of weather.”

“Michael? Do you think they’ll be okay if the weather’s bad?”

“Oh, yeah. He’s got that red nose that blinks and stuff, right?”

She tipped her head to the side as she watched Rudolph, her eyes locked on his nose as he lifted his head to sniff the air. “Do you think his nose is hidden, like Donner did in the movie?” She leaned in to whisper, “It made him talk all funny like when Daddy has a cold.” She giggled and buried her face against his shoulder for a moment before looking at the reindeer again.

“Well, y’know, he doesn’t let just anybody see it.” He scratched his chin and glanced around while she was watching Rudolph. Kyle and the boys were helping Stefanie load the trailer with the reindeers’ gear, Isabel was busy organizing the cleanup, the girls were busy gathering up the dishes and leftover treats, and Julia and Dayna were talking over by the barn doors, watching Edward and some of the other men as they talked out by the vehicles. He caught Max’s eye and nodded at Cupid, letting him know to keep him occupied.

Maggie reached out to pet Rudolph when he shuffled over to them. Her eyes widened and her mouth formed a surprised O when his nose suddenly turned red and blinked a couple of times before holding steady for several long seconds. Her hand moved down to touch it before it dimmed and his nose was once again black. “Michael, did you see it?” she whispered excitedly.

“Shhh, it’s one of those Santa secrets.”

“I won’t tell.” She hugged him. “I love you, Michael.”

She said it so easily, so honestly, and he cleared his throat, forcing down the lump that had appeared out of nowhere. “Love you too, Maggie.” He kissed her forehead and patted her back. “We’d better say our goodbyes,” he said when he saw Travis coming in with a lead in his hand. “I think they’re getting ready to start back to the North Pole.”

Yeah, he was gonna miss her and he knew he’d never forget her no matter how many miles or years were between them.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-57- 10/28/13

Postby KindredKandies » Mon Oct 28, 2013 10:33 pm

Eva- Thank you for the lovely compliment! We enjoyed writing Michael in his element along with Snowflake and the gang. Like you our hearts felt for Michael when he was confronted by little Evelyn's situation that reminded him of his own childhood. We ran your comment on his ability to keep it together and give the kids a great afternoon. "Like I told Mr. Stevens', the kids made it easy."

keepsmiling7- Thank you! We're glad you enjoy Kyle and Isabel, we have fun writing them.
[quote]"Max was handy with the reindeer"[quote/] Liz just smiled at your remark. "Isn't' he though?" We love Max the Reindeer Wrangler. :)
Maria agrees with you. :)

Natalie36- Thank you, it was a labor of love to write.

Timelord31- Thank you. :)

Author’s Note: A few lines in this part were borrowed from the Roswell Season One episode Sexual Healing and the Roswell Season Three episode A Tale of Two Parties.


Part 57

Kyle was slouched down on the loveseat; his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles below the coffee table. The six of them had separated after cleaning up over at Mr. Tony’s and they had gone to their own cabins to have a bite to eat before meeting up again. Isabel had insisted on making dinner and he had been happy to kick back while she did. She had made hamburger steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, dinner rolls, and a salad. She must’ve asked Julia or someone to pick the stuff up at some point because he knew they hadn’t had any of that in the kitchen before they set out that morning.

He pointed the remote at the television and switched to the next station, shifting to one side when Isabel leaned in to inch the table over and blocked his view of the screen. He shifted the other way when she switched sides and when she was finally satisfied that it was in the correct position she moved on. He watched her as she moved around the room, rearranging the smaller pieces of furniture.

Since the moment she had discovered that her talents could be used for the Christmas on the Lake production she had been able to keep herself occupied. But now that it was over she was left with too much time on her hands and she was looking for something to keep her busy. He flipped to the next station and sighed when he ran into the weather station yet again. He watched as the reporter rattled off the forecast for the following day, glancing at Isabel when she muttered something under her breath.

They would be leaving in the morning, slipping out before dawn if El Capitan had anything to say about it. He hadn’t missed Michael’s interaction with Maggie at the end of the evening and he knew without asking he had said goodbye in his own indomitable way. He wondered if the little girl had somehow, unknowingly, sensed it. He had seen the way she had hugged him, seen the hybrid hug her back just as tightly after saying their goodbyes to the reindeer.

“And it looks like we’ll be seeing another five to eight inches of snow by morning,” the weather reporter droned on. He turned and made a circling motion over the map. “If conditions are right we may just be seeing an additional five to eight inches of snow in the afternoon.” Great, just when they were supposed to be on the road. Not the kind of news that would make a certain cranky hybrid happy.

Who made these forecasts up? How much knowledge was necessary to tell people what the weather was like at that moment or the day before? Hell, he could do that. If you wanted to know what the weather was like at the moment, walk outside! They got the forecast wrong at least half of the time if not more. Most of the time the forecast was preceded by the words, “we could”, “we may”, or “there’s a chance of…” It was ridiculous. What was the point of watching the weather report?

He shook his head at the television and then shifted to glance at the door when the knock he had been waiting for finally came. He shut the TV off and leaned forward to place the remote on the coffee table, glancing around as he got up and realizing that Isabel had retreated to her room. “Hey, they’re here,” he called as he walked to the door.

“Be out in a minute,” she yelled back.

He pulled the door open wide and stepped to the side as Michael and Maria hurried inside. “Hey, how’s it…” he watched as Michael took off like a shot, heading for the kitchen, “going?”

Michael moved around the tiny kitchen, lifting the lids off of pots and pans as he inspected what little remained from dinner. His eyebrows lifted in interest when he spotted several tempting morsels in the frying pan and he scrounged up a fork to scarf up the last few bites of hamburger steak.

“I would say you’ll have to excuse him,” Maria said as she rolled her eyes at his behavior, “but really, there’s no excuse.”

Kyle shrugged as he followed the hybrid around, kicking bits of snow that had fallen off of Michael’s boots back towards the door.

By the time Isabel came into the room, Max and Liz had arrived and they were shedding their outerwear, and Michael had discovered the gravy. “So, we gotta talk about what happens when you take off with someone else on these little disappearing acts,” he mumbled around a bite of gravy-drenched meat. “Maria came back sick as a dog and you looked like crap.” He was tossing the fork in the sink when he spotted a half-eaten roll on one of the plates waiting to be scraped and washed. “Oooh, yeah.” He snatched it up and dragged it through the gravy before shoving the whole thing in his mouth.

“God, Michael, that’s gross,” Isabel muttered. “Didn’t you eat before coming over?”

“Yeah, we had see food,” Maria spoke up.

“No point lettin’ leftovers go bad,” he mumbled as he searched for the bread and undid the tie to pull out a slice. “Like this? See?” He held up what had to be a new loaf of bread as he twisted the tie back into place. “Clear out the leftovers before we leave in the mornin’.”

“Yeah,” Maria said dryly, “and that fried spam sandwich really hit the spot. I can’t imagine how it could’ve been any better.”

Michael frowned as he soaked up the gravy with the bread and took a big bite. Why’d their leftover food look better than theirs? Well, besides the fact that they hadn’t had any leftovers when they’d finished dinner. He knew Isabel was a finicky eater and she didn’t care for leftovers but she’d learned to deal with them the past few months. “Anyway, like I was sayin’ about the last time you guys took a trip down the yellow brick road…”

“We were fine.”

He leveled a look at his girlfriend’s obviously incorrect statement. “You were not fine.” He shook his head and wiped his hands on his pants as he took a couple of steps toward Maria.

“I was fine,” she insisted.

“Oh, so that wasn’t you that high-tailed it to the john to blow chow?”

She made a face at his less than eloquent question. “No, that’s not what I meant, Michael. We were fine when we got to the Sheriff’s house. I was nauseous, but it wasn’t any worse than if I’d been on a rollercoaster after a big lunch. And Kyle was fine.”

“Michael, it only makes sense there would be some disorientation with something like this,” Liz said, hoping to break the tension in the room. “It’s not just a projection thing; they were physically transported what, like 1,600 miles in a split second. Even Kyle experienced the nausea that first time.”

Kyle nodded when all eyes turned to him. “Yeah, I just didn’t pay tribute to the porcelain god afterwards.” He shrugged when Maria glared at him. “What? I have a lot more experience controlling that reflex.”

“Yeah,” Liz muttered to Max when she felt him move to stand next to her, “he didn’t have that kind of control freshman year.”

“Yeah, that whole barfing after a beer blast thing?” He chuckled and shook his head. “I can’t imagine how the magic slipped away.”

She rolled her eyes at him and shoved her elbow in his ribs for effect.

“Michael, if you’re done licking the plates clean maybe we can get this show on the road,” he suggested.

“Yeah.” He dropped the lid on the now empty gravy pan and started snooping around again.

“Was there something else you needed, Michael?” Isabel asked when he reached for the refrigerator door.

“You guys have dessert?”

“Really? No, we didn’t have dessert. But as I recall Maria said you’re rather fond of pop tarts, so have one of those.”

“You got the cookies an’ cream ones?”

Her back teeth ground together. “No.”

He shrugged and moved back into the living area. “Alright, let’s get this thing rollin’.”

Max scratched the back of his head as he looked at Kyle. “So, um, how does this work exactly?”

“Well…” Kyle’s eyebrows were mobile as he shifted from one foot to the other and smiled uncomfortably. “We, y’know, have to be in contact, and then I focus on my dad.”

“Okay, so you two need to hold hands,” Michael said and motioned for them to move closer together. “Let’s go, c’mon.” He shook his head at their hesitant movements. “You’re gonna have to get over yourselves and man up here.”

“Maybe you could skip the pep talk, Michael, ‘cause it’s really not helping,” Max growled. He looked at Kyle’s hand for a moment before lifting his gaze to meet his eyes. “Look, I know things haven’t been easy between us lately, but I just wanted you to know…”

Kyle’s hand shot up to stop the flow of words. “We’re about to hold hands, El Presidente, so I think we can skip the chick talk. The needle in the creep meter’s spiking dangerously close to nightmare territory.” He forced a smile. “I got it though, thanks.”

“I don’t like this,” Michael said suddenly.

“Yeah, we’re not that happy about it either, El Capitan.”

“Not the holdin’ hands thing.” He shook his head as he went over the last time they had done this… unintentionally. “The sheriff said the surveillance on them’s calmed down.” He looked at Max. “Why would the Special Unit just back off like that?”

Kyle rolled his shoulders as he considered the question. “Maybe it put a drain on their resources following them around 24/7.”

“What if it’s more a matter of giving them a false sense of security?” Liz asked.

Michael glanced at Maria and saw the tension draw her features tight as she came to the same conclusion he and everyone else in the room had come to.

“You’re saying our parents could be taken at any time,” Isabel spoke up. “They’d use them to get to us, to force us out of hiding.” She looked at her brother. “Max?” Her eyes locked on him, seeking reassurance and finding it in his response.

“It’s gonna be okay, Iz.” His chin dropped as he looked up into her eyes. “There’s a plan in place, remember? They’re planning to leave when the time’s right and as of the last time Kyle and Maria saw his dad they’re all safe.”

Maria reached for Michael, slipping her arm around his waist as she looked up at him. “So, Max and Kyle go and meet the sheriff to get the details. We’ll know more after the meeting.”

“No.” He shook his head as his arm tightened around her shoulders. “No one goes with Valenti. We can’t be separated. If we’re wrong the price is too high and one of us could be taken as well. We can’t risk putting the entire group at risk.”

Kyle sighed and started to pace, aware of Michael’s gaze following his every move. The longer they waited to get this thing underway the more it was wearing on his nerves.

“All I’m sayin’ is if Kyle were to get caught he could make it back. He has the best chance of getting away if he’s spotted.”

“And what if they drug him the way they did Max?” Isabel demanded. “Then what? We can’t just send him in without backup.”

Kyle’s steps slowed as he neared Isabel and he held his hands up. “Let’s all just stop this right now. Nobody’s gonna drug anybody. Let’s just make this easier on all of us, okay? I’ll go back alone, get my dad, and bring him back here.” He looked around the room, meeting their uncertain eyes. “I’m the only one who can get to my dad. Michael’s right, we shouldn’t be separated tonight. If something goes wrong we have a better chance of helping them if we’re all together. So… I have this… this power that I didn’t ask for, but if I can use it to save my dad or anyone else I’m gonna use it.”

A small knowing smile appeared on Max’s face and he reached up to rub his jaw as he addressed Kyle. “Make sure you’re not seen and if you feel like you’re at risk at any time…”

He nodded. “Got it.” He turned to look at Isabel and reached over to squeeze her hand. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in no time.”

Max cleared his throat to get their attention. “Kyle, maybe you should bring him back to our cabin,” he suggested. “It’s warmer there.”

Kyle snorted and shook his head. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell him to bring a coat. We’re already here so there’s no reason to haul ass back over to your place. I’ll be back before you’d even be geared up and I think right here works fine.” He grinned and took a step back. He gave Isabel one last look and a teasing wink. “Leave a light on, Sugar Muffin.”

Michael pulled Maria up against him and turned to look at Kyle just as he disappeared from sight.

*****

Jim parked in the driveway and grabbed his thermos before opening the door and ducking his head against the wind. He leaned in for his hat, putting it on and pushing it down. He shoved the door closed and looked around. As had become habit, he did a perimeter check of the house and made sure nothing was out of place before pulling his keys off of his belt and unlocking the front door.

He used the toe of his boot to close it again before turning to drop the small panel at the bottom of the alarm that was steadily beeping. Silence fell over the house again as soon as the security code had been entered and he shook his head. In all of his years he’d never once felt the need for his doors to be locked or to have every potential entrance or exit wired to alert him to an intruders presence. And truth be told, it probably wouldn’t make a difference if the Special Unit paid him a visit – they had ways around these things. He sighed and wished he’d thought twice about stopping at the Crashdown and grabbing a bite to eat. But it wasn’t the same. He cursed under his breath and crossed the room, fumbling around to turn on the Christmas tree. He stared at it for a moment before turning it off again. Nothing was the same anymore.

He shook his head and turned to go into the kitchen, navigating the rooms in the dark and wondering if he had anything in the refrigerator to make a sandwich with. He set the thermos on the counter, ignoring the clatter when he knocked over the empty coffee mug he’d left there that morning and opening the refrigerator to peruse its contents. There were a few bottles of beer, a bottle of ketchup, and numerous takeout boxes shoved on the shelves. Not much different than when he’d been on his own at 21. Ungh, 25 years and change and here he was basically in the same spot.

Well, that was a depressing thought. He pushed the door closed and left the kitchen. Maybe he’d feel better after a hot shower. Once again navigating in the dark he moved through the hall that led to his bedroom, not expecting it when he ran into something that felt suspiciously like a body. He reacted instinctively, reaching for his service weapon as he grabbed the person and spun them around, shoving them up against the wall.

The sounds of something falling, glass shattering, and his thumb releasing the safety barely registered as he pressed the gun to the base of the intruder’s neck.

“Dad, Dad, it’s me!”

Jim’s heart was racing as he quickly lowered his weapon to his side and he stretched his arm out, feeling along the wall until he found the light switch. They blinked owlishly against the light that flooded the hallway and his features relaxed when he saw his son standing before him. “Jeez Louise, Kyle.”

“So much for checking your gun at the front door, huh?” He released a shuddering breath when he heard the quiet sound of the safety being reset on the gun his dad held.

“The Special Unit doesn’t stop to ask questions. You’re here for the meeting?” He looked around. “Where’s Max?”

“Change of plans. We decided it’d be safer if you came to us.” He held his hand out. “Don’t let go of me no matter what. I have no idea what happens if you let go.”

“Hold on, Kyle, there’s somethin’ I need to take with us.”

He nodded. “I’ll wait here.”

Jim hurried back the way he had come but paused at the end of the hall to turn and look at his son. “Don’t… Just don’t go anywhere.”

“I won’t. Hey, Dad? Maria’s mom, she’s been hanging around a lot?”

“Yeah, it helps to be with someone who understands what the other person’s goin’ through.” He took his hat off and scratched his head. “We haven’t talked about it or anything so I don’t know that it’s goin’ anywhere – “

“No, no, no, Dad! Really, you don’t have to share. I was just wondering if she’s brought over anything homemade she makes?” He shrugged. “Just be nice to have a piece of home to take back to the others.”

A wide grin lit up Jim’s face and he retraced his steps to pull his son into a bear hug. He hadn’t been thinking about anything that fell in the dessert category when he had been searching for food a few minutes earlier. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve got somethin’ in the fridge. I’ll grab it and the other thing and be right back.”

*****

Time felt like it had ground to a near stop as Maria’s gaze kept up a constant back and forth between the clock and Michael. He was doing his best to wear a trench in the floor, his eyes constantly straying back to the spot Kyle had disappeared from. If five minutes was this agonizing she could only imagine what seventeen and a half minutes had been like for the others. She watched Michael take another turn. It must’ve been even worse for him.

“How long does it take to get the sheriff and come back?” Isabel muttered as she began to pace, her path and Michael’s crossing but amazingly enough never conflicting.

“I’m guessing the two of them have done this before,” Liz said as she watched them.

Max snorted softly. “Yeah.”

“It shouldn’t be takin’ this long,” Michael growled. “It’s a simple in an’ out mission.”

“Unless the sheriff wasn’t home,” Liz pointed out. “We’re two hours ahead of them up here. He could’ve been at work, out for dinner, or… you know, out doing something else.”

Michael and Isabel reached their respective corners and turned to make another pass but before they had taken more than a few steps Kyle and Jim appeared in the center of the room.

Kyle heard the sharp call of Isabel’s voice as he felt himself phase back in at their cabin and he grinned as he was able to control the feeling of vertigo this time. “Honey, I’m home,” he responded.

Isabel was so relieved to see them that she let the comment pass unchallenged. She watched him as he turned to check on his dad, noting the way the older Valenti was doing his best to maintain his balance.

“Dad, you alright?”

“I’m good, Son,” he insisted, his voice holding just the slightest tremble. He shook his head and then wished he hadn’t made that move. “That’s a heck of a way to travel.”

Uh-huh, Michael thought as he watched the sheriff trying to get his bearings. He was a strong man, but he could see that crossing more than a thousand miles in the blink of an eye was a little more than he’d been prepared for.

He felt Kyle’s steadying hand on his arm and he pulled in a couple of deep breaths as he glanced around at the kids he hadn’t seen in six months. “I’m a little wobbly on my feet but I come bearing gifts.” He looked down at the tin he’d grabbed from the freezer. “I uh, I have no idea what’s in it, but I know your mom made it for the holidays, Maria.”

“Let me take that for you, Sheriff,” Isabel offered as she stepped forward, breaking the silence that seemed to have taken hold of everyone else. She relieved him of the tin and motioned to the furniture. “Would you like to have a seat?”

Kyle was so busy watching his dad for any signs that the ‘flight’ had adversely affected him that he wasn’t paying attention when he pulled his hand free to reach up and adjust his hat. Before he could shout a warning he realized that his dad was still there and that apparently he was staying there with no problem. He looked down at his hand and then back up at his dad, wondering if it would last or if it was a temporary thing.

Jim cleared his throat as his hat settled into the right position and he tipped it back just a tad as he took a moment to really look at the kids. “You’re certainly conserving space, aren’t you?” he asked with a smile. In spite of the coat he wore he felt a slight shiver race down his spine and his gaze moved around the interior of what he determined to be a cabin. A small cabin, he reiterated silently. It wasn’t warm enough but he knew they were already aware of that fact. He studied each of them in turn for a few minutes, barely aware of Isabel maneuvering him over to a chair so he could sit down.

He bit back the protest when he became aware of her actions, easily reading the nervousness in her that was just looking for an outlet. It was obvious his son was also aware of it because after a moment or two of her fussing over making him comfortable, Kyle called her and asked about coffee. It provided a brief respite and in the matter of minutes it took her to make a pot of coffee he took in the kids’ appearances.

They were thinner, all of them. Even with the layers of clothing they wore it was evident to him. Their faces told the story of a life being lived on the run. It was there in the wary expression in their eyes that they couldn’t quite suppress, it was there in their postures that just couldn’t quite fully relax, and it was there in the weary acceptance that surrounded them. It hurt to see such weight on their young shoulders and know that no matter what the future held they would always carry this with them.

He was pulled out of his thoughts when Max took a step forward and his eyes were drawn to the hand that rested on Liz’s shoulder. His gaze dropped to find her left hand, seeking the mate to the ring that resided on the third finger of Max’s hand. They were too young and too old at the same time, he thought, still not surprised to know that the two of them had wed.

“Thanks for coming to meet us, Sheriff,” Max said and that was as far as he got before Isabel came rushing back into the room. Apparently she had decided the man had been given enough time to recover from his trip, he thought with a mental eye roll.

“Kyle said there’s a plan in place for you and our parents to leave Roswell.” She stared at the sheriff as she waited for confirmation and without consciously doing so she began to twist her wedding rings.

“Are they safe?” Maria jumped in. “I know I just saw Mom but, are they all safe?”

Jim was suddenly reminded just how much of a challenge it was to keep up with a conversation when multiple women were involved. Somehow age never seemed to be a factor. “We’ve started to implement our plan.”

Michael reached for Maria and pulled her closer, feeling the relieved breath she released in response to the sheriff’s answer.

“What’s the plan, Sheriff?” Liz asked, her arm tightening around her husband’s waist.

“The plan is for us to take our lives back.” He glanced between Isabel and Max. “It’s the plan your father began to put together the night you had to leave and we all have a heavy stake in it because all of our children’s lives are being threatened.” He paused to swallow with difficulty as he took in their world-weary appearances once more. “When Liz’s journal came and we all had a chance to read it we knew it was even more urgent that the plan become a reality.”

“And that’s where you are with the plan now?” Michael asked. “Making it a reality?”

Jim nodded. “The plan is to leave separately and to live in plain sight; to do that we knew we’d have to leave the country legally. It’s taken time to nail down everything we needed so we could do that and also help you out if we had the opportunity to make contact with you again.” None of them had known if they would ever have that chance and just saying the words caused his throat to thicken. He rubbed the back of his neck in an effort to keep his emotions in check.

Michael released Maria and started to move around the confined space, vaguely aware of the others moving to give him room to prowl. “Let me guess: we’re goin’ to Canada.”

“That’s the plan, yes. We thought it’d be the safest and most realistic option.” He reached into his coat and pulled out a large envelope. “Obtaining safe passage across the border was much easier than trying to get you out of the country by air or water.” He glanced down at the envelope as he stood. “We were able to set it up so that you’d have a safe place that’ll get you off the road.” He took a couple of steps forward and held it out to Max. “You’ll find what you need to cross the border legally.”

Michael leaned up against the kitchen counter, arms crossed over his chest as he mulled over the sheriff’s words. “You don’t know where we’re goin’,” he said after a moment.

“No, it’s easy enough to slip up so it was agreed that none of us would know where the others were gonna be in case any of us were…” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other but before he could continue Liz finished the sentence for him.

“Kidnapped before you could leave,” she said quietly.

Maria frowned. “Wait, if none of you knows where you’re going or where our safe place is, then who set the plan up?”

The sheriff’s gaze locked on Michael even though Maria was the one who had voiced the question. “We pooled our resources to make this happen. Philip and I both have contacts that either work in the government or are influential in areas that could be helpful. I’ve been working with Agent Duff through back channels since you left.”

Michael straightened up, his hands clenching around the edge of the counter behind him, and his eyes narrowing at the thought of anyone in the FBI or the government being involved in setting up the plan. “How do we know they’re not just setting all of us up with this plan?”

“I trust Agent Duff, Michael. We all know what’s at stake if we trust the wrong person and we’ve been very careful to that end. None of us would ever do anything to jeopardize your safety or your wellbeing.”

He nodded after giving that some thought. The sheriff had never trusted blindly and he knew how seriously he took his job as a protector.

“I knew if she had any information about your whereabouts then maybe we could anticipate where you’d end up. Instead the only report she managed to see was one detailing your narrow escape from the Special Unit in Oregon.” He held his hands up when he saw the worried glances being exchanged. “If anything had happened to any of you I would’ve told your parents, but when she told me that you’d all escaped without being injured I decided it was best not to put that burden on them.” He ran a hand over his face and shook his head. “She hasn’t heard anything since and I took that as a good sign.”

“I’m glad you didn’t tell them,” Liz murmured.

Jim shook his head. “They deserve the truth and one day I hope you’re able to somehow let them know what happened and that you’re safe.” He cleared his throat and he watched his son as he reached over to rub Isabel’s arm in a gesture of comfort. “Agent Duff was able to handle the paperwork for the van you left in that night so that everything was legitimate.”

“Well, that could throw a monkey wrench in the works,” Kyle said. “The engine tanked a week or so back, that’s how we ended up here. We managed to replace the van but there’s no title and we’re using the same plates.”

“Can you get me the VIN number before our return flight? I should be able to get that fixed by Monday.”

“Good, because we’re leaving before daybreak tomorrow,” Michael said.

“Um, Michael?” Maria tugged on his sleeve to get his attention. “Tomorrow’s Sunday.”

He leveled a look at her, one that simply said: And your point is?

“Um, Sheriff, you said the plan to leave is ready to be put into action,” Liz said and her fingers clenched in Max’s coat. “How will that work and when will you leave?”

Max’s heart clenched in his chest at the underlying pain he could hear in his wife’s voice as she asked about their parents’ plan for leaving Roswell for good. As much as he wanted to believe that one day they’d be able to safely return he knew the likelihood of that was slim. But having their parents there, knowing they were there in the homes they’d grown up in, and waiting for them to return had helped him to hold on to that hope.

Jim took in their anxious expressions before answering her question. “The plan’s for us to leave at different times to avoid drawing unwanted attention to ourselves.” He nodded at the envelope Max was crushing in his tightly fisted hand. “Each of us has one of those for when it’s time to leave. We figure if we split up we increase our chances of avoiding surveillance and successfully reaching our destinations.”

“You said destinations,” Isabel whispered hoarsely. “You’re not going to the same place are you?”

He rubbed a hand over his face, suddenly feeling a lot older than he was. “The safest way for us to avoid detection is for all of us to head in a different direction and for none of us to know each other’s destination. We won’t even know our own destinations until we’re on the road. I know it’s not what you wanted to hear, and it’s not what I wanted to be the one to tell you, but it’s what’s best for everyone.”

“Wait, what about my mom?” Maria asked, moving forward to stand in front of him. “Is she gonna be leaving all alone and heading off to God only knows where?”

Michael came up behind her, his arms coming around her to pull her back against him. He had a feeling Amy wouldn’t be leaving Roswell alone. She might be the epitome of the independent woman, but she wasn’t a fool. And Jim Valenti wouldn’t stand back while she was put in that kind of danger. He would have made provisions to ensure she wasn’t alone.

“Maria, your mom and I discussed that very thing and we agreed that traveling alone presented too much of a risk,” Jim assured her. “She has a convention coming up, one that’s out-of-state and will require nearly a weeks’ time just for traveling, setup, and participation. We’ll be leaving in a day or two and it’ll be our cover story.” He smiled and reached out to rest his hand on her arm. “This’s been in the works for a while now, it’s not a last-minute cover; I put in for the time off from work a while back and Hanson’s under the impression that I’ll be back after the first of the year.”

“What about Liz’s parents?” Max asked, feeling the tension in his wife’s body.

The smile faded. “They left the other day, not long before Maria and Kyle showed up at home.”

They were gone, Liz thought as the news hit her like a ton of bricks. They were gone and would probably never be able to return to the home they’d spent a lifetime making. She wondered if Kyle would be able to reach them since they had no way of knowing where they were. No way of knowing if they were alright or if they were still… She squeezed her eyes shut and inhaled deeply, drawing strength from Max’s embrace. Don’t go there, Liz, she ordered herself.

“What about the Crashdown?” she wondered aloud.

“Open and running as usual,” Jim answered. “Anyone who needed to know about their plans for the next couple of weeks believes they’re getting away until the holidays are over. They sold the café to a silent partner with the understanding that it would remain open and operating as usual. It was very important to them that it stay that way.”

“What about Mr. and Mrs. Evans?” Kyle asked as his hand slipped down to take Isabel’s. She was so tense there were fine tremors running through her and he knew it was taking everything she had to hold it together.

Jim flexed his hands before shoving them in his pockets, his gaze moving between brother and sister. “Philip thought it’d be best for he and Diane wait until the rest of us had left before they made their move.” He watched the way the two of them exchanged quick glances. “Your dad’s worked with his contacts to make sure there were countermeasures in place in the event anything prevented one or more of us from leaving as planned.”

Max caught the look of relief that swept across his sister’s features, momentarily easing the tension there. He wondered if she was even conscious of how easily she accepted the comfort that Kyle offered without reservation. She moved away from the rest of them, going to the window and staring out into the darkness beyond. He watched her as she reached for her left hand, worrying the rings resting there. Jesse, he thought as realization dawned. Even though she had remained silent he could hear the unasked question that she wouldn’t or couldn’t ask. Was she afraid of the answer? Afraid that he was still in Roswell or more afraid that he’d finally given up and had moved on? He felt for his sister. She was in a position he didn’t envy.

Liz drew in a shaky breath, releasing it along with the words weighing on her mind. “So, I guess this’s really goodbye.”

Jim looked each of them in the eye before responding to her statement. “No, I won’t accept that. I have to believe that one day we’ll be safe enough to meet again.” He shook his head and inhaled slowly as he checked his watch, wanting to stay but knowing he needed to get back. He looked between Michael and Max, seeing the bond between them was strengthening. “I want you to remember what I said about that envelope,” he said, needing to get that point across. “And while I know my place is clean of listening devices I can’t be sure I’m not being watched, so as much as I’d rather spend more time here with you, I’d best be getting back home.”

Kyle nodded and he reluctantly reached for his dad’s hand. He focused on his breathing, drawing on every bit of meditation he’d studied in order to keep his emotions from running him over.

“You… all of you,” Jim said, his voice gruff, “your parents and I are so very proud of all of you.” He swallowed past the lump in his throat. “I know what they’d give to be standin’ in my shoes right now and I know how far they’d go to keep you safe.” He smiled tightly. “There are no boundaries, no walls, and no limits to the love a parents has for his or her child.” He looked at Max and then Isabel, nodding slightly when he saw the emotions welling up in her eyes. “I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but someday, we’ll see each other again. Until that day comes you do what’s necessary and know that your parents and I love you without condition.” He glanced down at his son’s hand, wrapped so securely around his, and he squeezed it tightly. His eyes were damp as he straightened. “Godspeed until we meet again.” He turned his head to look at his son, drinking in the sight of the man he’d become. “It’s time.”

As the men disappeared from sight the girls followed suit; beating a path to the bathroom and slamming the door behind them. Max stood there with his mouth hanging open. His intention had been to comfort his wife, knowing she would be upset after the meeting with the sheriff but apparently it was unnecessary at the moment.

“Who knows,” Michael muttered in response to the dumbfounded look on his friend’s face.

“What now?” He nodded at the envelope clenched in his hand.

“I think we should do what the sheriff advised. Keep it in a safe place and don’t open it up until we leave in the mornin’. That way if anything should happen, the majority of the group will be headed someplace safe.”

“Do you think they were really able to secure someplace safe?”

“They wouldn’t run the risk of sending us into somethin’ that hadn’t been well thought out. I say we hide it and wait.”

“Good enough for me,” Max agreed.

Michael crossed his arms over his chest and watched Max as he began to move around the room. “Somethin’ else on your mind?” he asked, not missing the furtive glances the other man kept shooting towards the bathroom.

“I know being separated is a risk, but when we get to wherever this safe place is, Liz needs to be able to see her parents again, Michael, even if that means askin’ Kyle to take her to see them. I don’t know how all the logistics would work out, but if that’s what I’ve gotta do to make it happen, that’s what I’m gonna do.”

His back teeth were grinding together in an effort to keep his mouth shut and prevent his initial reaction from being verbalized. After a moment he uncrossed his arms and lowered them to a less defensive posture and pulled himself up straight. He studied Max’s demeanor, buying time to mull over the reasoning behind the statement. He glanced back at the direction the girls had taken and nodded. Maria had seen her mom and if nothing else, it had given her the hope that maybe one day in the future they would see each other again. Liz hadn’t been given that and in Max’s shoes he’d probably be considering the same thing. Maybe. “We’ll figure it out.”

There was nothing to figure out as far as Max was concerned but he nodded anyway. He knew the way Michael’s mind worked, knew he was weighing the pros and cons of such an action, but the separation and uncertainty was putting a strain on Liz and he needed to find a way to ease that. Kyle and his newfound powers was the only solution he had at the moment. Michael was being supportive and he could appreciate the restraint he had shown by not just outright insisting it was too dangerous and refusing to even consider it. “Yeah, thanks.”

The bathroom door opened, drawing their attention as the girls emerged in similar states of barely disguised distress. Liz was smoothing down her hair, her freshly washed face making her appear less stressed than when she had sought sanctuary in the tiny room. Her eyes didn’t quite meet his as she approached him, a dead giveaway that her emotions hadn’t quite caught up with her appearance. Maria didn’t seem too concerned about hiding her feelings as she made her way over to Michael and slid into his embrace with practiced ease. His sister gave him a smile, but it was one of those phony smiles she pasted on when she wanted the world to think she was fine when she was falling apart inside. And he knew better than to question her about it in front of anyone else.

His focus quickly shifted when Liz slid her hand into his, her fingers slipping through his and locking tightly. She looked up at him, her soft eyes shimmering, and a quiet sniffle escaping as she spoke in a near whisper.

“Can we go back to our cabin now?”

Maria nodded in agreement, taking comfort from the weight of Michael’s arm over her shoulders. “That’s a good idea.”

“We’ll go as soon as Valenti gets back,” Michael promised. “We’re – “

“Kyle!” Isabel called as he rematerialized in the center of the room.

“How many people do you know who can just zip in an’ outta places?” he joked. He must be adjusting, he thought, because he wasn’t getting hit with the nausea like he had that first time.

“You’re alright?”

He grinned and held his arms out at his sides. “All in one piece, but I wouldn’t say no to a hot shower and a long night of sleep.” He bit back a yawn and looked at Michael. “Speakin’ of which… what time are you wantin’ to hit the bricks in the mornin’?”

It was really time to leave. The girls exchanged a look that didn’t go unnoticed by the guys but remained unspoken.

“We should be over at Max and Liz’s cabin by six at the absolute latest. That gives us time to pack everything in and be on the road before daylight.”

“Okay, fine, time’s set,” Isabel said and began gathering up coats and scarves. “Time for everyone to go now.” She shoved the winter gear into hands, unmindful and uncaring who got what. “We all need to get some rest and it’s getting late.”

*****

Kyle sighed tiredly as he flopped down on the loveseat, propping his feet up on the coffee table but keeping the soles of his boots hanging off one corner. He could smell Dad’s cologne clinging to his clothes, could almost feel the bone-crushing hug they’d exchanged before he left his dad at home. Alone. Oh, he knew Jim Valenti could take care of himself with or without the designation as Roswell’s sheriff, but there was safety in numbers, and their numbers were steadily dwindling.

Liz’s parents had already left Roswell. Dad and Ms. Deluca would be leaving in the next few days, and the Evans’ wouldn’t be far behind them. All fleeing their homes and going on the run, heading in different directions, and who knew if any of them would ever see each other again? They were on the run too, but at least they had each other. Not to mention three of them were armed and dangerous and two of them were… well, he wasn’t sure how dangerous he was but he could recall with vivid clarity the way Liz had flung Tess across the room the night the fourth alien had reappeared.

And now it was time for some redirection, he thought as he forced himself to his feet and over to the kitchen. No way was he getting caught up in those memories again. His mind was too tired to fight them back and it would send him someplace he really didn’t wanna go when he finally fell asleep. He could hear the shower running and he wondered how long he’d been sitting there. He turned his head to find the time and winced when he felt the painful stiffness in his neck.

He glanced over the small pile of dishes and decided he’d go ahead and wash them since Isabel had made dinner. It was the least he could do after that meal she had whipped up. And it would keep him busy until he could take his turn in the shower and hopefully work some of the knots out of his neck. He was halfway through the dishes and squeezing more soap onto the sponge by the time she had succeeded in draining every bit of hot water from the water heater. He glanced at her as she padded out of her room and he couldn’t help but smile at her casual, relaxed appearance.

Isabel paused by the hot water tank near the kitchen and pressed her palm against it for a few moments, ensuring Kyle’s shower would be a nice hot one. She watched him for a moment before moving around him to lean against the counter on his other side. “I think your day’s been long enough without getting stuck with the dishes,” she said.

He shrugged one shoulder. “S’alright, I don’t mind,” he said, shooting a tired grin at her.

“Shower’s all yours, go make use of it.”

He shook his head. His body might not be thrilled about doing dishes but it kept him focused on a mundane task rather than letting it wander into dangerous territory.

She knew what he was doing and she understood. She also knew he was bone tired and needed to relax his muscles before he crashed. His mind wouldn’t take him anyplace he didn’t want to go tonight, she’d see to that. She reached over and placed her hand on his shoulder, not surprised when she felt the tension coiled so tightly in him. “Go, Kyle. Take a hot shower and then stretch out in your bed. Enjoy it because who knows when we’re gonna get the chance to have this much space to ourselves again.” She smiled when he finally looked up and met her gaze. “It’ll be a peaceful night,” she promised.

Kyle nodded after a few minutes. He knew what her promise meant and he accepted the offer gratefully.

Minutes later the only sound in the cabin was the steady fall of the water in the shower and Isabel looked around at the mess he had left in the sink. Why did guys always think if you squeezed half of the dishwashing liquid into the sponge it meant the dishes would be magically cleaner? She shook her head and started to reach into the bubbling mess before changing her mind.

What were secret powers for if a girl couldn’t use them at a time like this?

*****

The sound of the buzzer on the dryer going off would’ve been annoying in the past, but now it symbolized permanence and home. Liz could feel the warmth coming from the machine as she reached for the handle to pull the door open, marveling at the simple luxury of pulling her favorite PJs out right after a long hot shower. It was comforting to wrap up in one of the few things she’d taken from home just before leaving Roswell.

She thought about Mom and as she pulled the warm PJs on she could almost imagine the feel of her mom’s embrace. She mused over the distance between them, not so much miles but emotional distance. Her mom had been quiet and reserved in many ways and she had used that to keep her from getting too close, especially after she had started dating Max. She had been teetering on the precipice of something she hadn’t fully understood at the time. Standing at the edge of childhood and peering into the unknown mysteries of womanhood. Looking back now she could appreciate her mom’s attempts to reach her, to hold onto her, but she had wanted so badly to break free of everything she knew and grab onto something she wanted so badly.

She could see that moment in her bedroom so clearly. Her frustration at what she had felt was her mom smothering her, trying to hold on too tightly had burst free of her as an angry tirade. And she hadn’t understood the confusion that was rioting through her physically and emotionally. She had felt like a mass of contradictions pitted against each other in an unending internal battle. She had been so sure that her mom couldn’t possibly understand that she had pushed her away, created distance, and it was only now when that distance might as well have been light years that she could appreciate that effort.

She closed her eyes and she could almost feel the emotions seething inside of her as she faced off against her mother that night she had snuck back into the house and gotten caught. She hadn’t been able to see it at the time, but who would understand better than someone who had already been there? But, she supposed, that was something all mothers and daughters went through. Her thoughts shifted forward to another conversation between them, not long after the confrontation.

“Don’t ever leave this house. Don’t stop being my baby girl.”

She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the warmth from the heated material seep into her skin. Her fingertips rubbed over the soft sleeves and she forced the tears back. I’ll always be your baby girl, she thought resolutely. She inhaled deeply and released it slowly, feeling her muscles relax with the motion. Calmer, she made her way out of the bathroom, pausing long enough to hit the light switch.

She took the few steps through their darkened bedroom and into the living room where Max was sitting on the couch, ready for bed. She stood still for a moment, just watching him. His upper body hunched over, right elbow on his knee, chin balanced on his fisted hand, and his expression one of concentration. It was the pose she’d come to associate with the statue ‘The Thinker’. He was unaware of his emulation of the statue and no one else had ever made a comment to bring it to his attention, though she wasn’t sure how anyone could miss it. But until they did, she would just enjoy keeping it to herself.

He was staring at the envelope the sheriff had given him and as she watched he suddenly relaxed and reached for it. She could tell he was unaware of her presence, his focus solely on the envelope. She always knew when he became aware of her, there were telltale signs and he was exhibiting none of them at the moment.

“Something on your mind, Mr. Evans?” she asked with a small smile.

He reached for her without looking up, his hand unerringly latching onto hers and pulling her down to sit beside him. He dropped the envelope on the coffee table and stretched before dropping back to settle into the cushions. He was quiet for a moment before he turned his head to look at her. “I was thinkin’ about my dad, wishing I could tell him how proud I am that he’s my dad.” He dropped his gaze. “And that I could tell my mom how much I miss being home.” He swallowed hard. “How much I miss both of them.”

She squeezed his hand, letting him share what he was comfortable with. She watched him as he leaned forward to stare at the envelope once more.

“I was about to hide it and,” his fingertips ghosted over the surface, “I thought maybe…”

“You’d get a flash,” she said, remembering him telling her that when things were intense sometimes they’d get flashes. “But you didn’t.”

He sighed and shook his head. “No.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing, Max. You have no control over the flashes and for all we know you might see something about what’s in that envelope.” She nudged him. “Put it away for tonight. It’ll work itself out when the time’s right.”

“Liz, when the time’s right I want you to see your…” He was silenced when she placed a finger against his lips and shook her head. He wanted her to know he would do everything in his power to make sure she saw her parents again, but he could see in her eyes that she knew and believed it.

“I’m here because I love you. My choice, Max, and like I said last night, never forget that.”

He reached for her, cradling her face in his hands and moving in for a kiss that quickly had both of them forgetting their regrets. With a wave of his hand over the envelope he used a trick Isabel had taught him and within moments it had become part of the table. His hand free again he gathered his wife up in his arms and got to his feet to carry her to bed.

*****

Maria tugged on the collar of Michael’s thermal shirt that she had put on after the long bath she had taken to help calm her after their meeting with the sheriff. She inhaled deeply, taking in his scent along with the smoky smell from the fireplace that seemed to cling to everything. She checked her reflection in the mirror as her hands smoothed over the shirt and she caught sight of the yellow ducky shower curtain behind her. It made her think of the day they had purchased it at Dave’s Hardware that day they’d gone in for supplies not long after breaking down and the memory brought a smile to her face.

She turned the light out and left the bathroom, stepping into the larger room and immediately smelled the fresh aroma of dry coffee grounds. Her gaze moved over the counter, pausing on the Winnie the Pooh and Tigger mugs where they stood like sentries next to the coffee maker that was set and ready to brew when morning came. She turned her head slightly, unable to stop the tired smile when she saw the kitchen chair that had been singled out and assigned its usual guard duty for the night. She wondered absently if the chair would have a permanent notch at its top where it had been wedged up under the doorknob for so many nights now.

Her train of thought was sidetracked by the sound of a loud horn blaring on the TV and it took her a moment to determine that it served to announce a score by one of the teams playing. Her eyes shifted to Michael and she noted that he hadn’t even reacted to the sound, something that should’ve had his attention whether it was the team he was rooting for or not. He was slouched down in the overstuffed chair that he had claimed during their stay, leaning to one side with his weight braced on his elbow. Watching the game or not, as soon as the commercials started he began to channel surf.

She made her way over to him with just a few strides, noticing that he had managed to make his way around the 10-channel dial at least twice already. When she reached his chair she leaned over to wrap her arms around his neck and released a tired sigh. “Think I’m gonna go to bed,” she murmured. “I’m beat.”

He lifted one hand, resting it on her crossed arms for a moment before giving them a squeeze that was accompanied by a nod.

She kissed his cheek and retraced her steps, diverting from her previous path to make her way over to the bed. As much as she wanted to push the thoughts away she couldn’t stop the realization that tonight would be the last time she and Michael shared the comfortable old bed. As she climbed into bed and snuggled down on her side she became aware of the lack of sound coming from the living area.

She closed her eyes and listened, taking in the sounds that had become familiar so quickly. His sure movements as he banked the fire, his footsteps, surprisingly almost silent for a man his size, the quiet jingle of an assortment of loose change as he emptied his pockets out onto the nightstand, the raspy slither of his wallet chain as it was added to the pile, and finally the rustling sound of him getting undressed. Although their impending departure the next day was heavy on their minds they were closer than they had been as a couple in a long time.

The mattress dipped as he slipped into bed, his long arm settling over her waist and pulling her into his body. She closed her eyes and sighed in contentment, taking comfort from the moment and letting everything else slip away. Morning would come soon enough and then there would be no choice but to face what was coming, but for now… for now they would simply… be.

For a moment her mind wandered to Liz and Isabel. It had been a difficult evening for all of them, but she knew they would be finding their own comfort that night so she let those thoughts float away as well. She smiled as she thought about Michael playing Santa, especially those precious moments when he’d had Maggie and Michelle on his lap. Her heart filled as she recalled that one amazing moment when he had been so in his element. She reached for his hand where it rested at her waist, sliding her fingers through his. “How long before we need to be up?”

He buried his face in her hair for a moment before shifting around so that his chin could find that perfect spot on her shoulder. “Six hours, give or take a few minutes.” He didn’t want to take her from this place that had become a home in such a short time, didn’t want to take her away from the people she had quickly come to care about, but he didn’t have the words to express himself. No matter how much time passed, he just wasn’t very good at the touchy-feely stuff. “Maria, if things were different…”

She sighed and nodded, hearing the regret in his voice and the things he couldn’t seem to verbalize, and she turned in his arms to face him. Her arms wrapped around his neck, urging his head to drop so she could place her lips on his. “I love you, Michael,” she said quietly.

He rolled her onto her back and settled over her. “Maria, look at me.”

Her eyes locked on his and for just a moment she saw herself in her Snowflake outfit and she could feel the way he felt as he watched her. It was a fleeting moment, but filled with his feelings for her. She tried to hold back the tears that had formed without her knowledge or permission, but against her will a few of them escaped. She reached for him, her hand tangling in his hair and as she opened her mouth to say his name, he captured her lips and took what he was now certain was his.

*****

There was a bite to the night air as Kyle leaned against the side of his car waiting for Isabel to return with what could possibly be the next clue in their search for Enigma. Even though he clearly remembered the sequence of events he was well aware they had been altered because in reality he had been knocked out of the running by some guy with a smart mouth. He paid little attention to the altered scenes as he stepped back from the dream and let his mind wander back to that night as it had happened.

He chuckled as he recalled Isabel telling him that she was sure the girls had liked him. He was still sure that had been her reassuring him because as soon as that Neanderthal had come along the girls had taken off with him. She had sensed the sarcasm in his voice when he had responded and he smiled as that moment materialized in front of him and he watched the scene play out.

“Is this a confidence issue? Because women can detect insecurity a mile away, Kyle.”

“Do you detect it?”

He couldn’t help but laugh at the thoughtful look that shifted to slight disgust as she responded.

“No. I’m married. My radar’s been dismantled.”

They had gone back and forth for a few minutes before she had suddenly decided it was time to go. She had said they were going to find him a social life and then given his snack a disdainful look.

“Drop the jerky.”

He had dropped it without a second thought and they had been off to a college party. He could feel the too-warm air in the room as they sat on a couch looking around while Isabel pointed out different girls for him. There was definitely a visual buffet of women for him to feast his eyes on but really there was only one girl he was interested in.

He glanced around, making sure he was alone as he observed the dream and rather than sit there and talk to Bitsy he followed Isabel as she went to get drinks. He shivered when the temperature suddenly dropped and he glanced around at the partygoers. He didn’t remember that happening but he blew it off until a chill moved through his body and he realized how cold it really was.


The cabin was dark, which was to be expected since he knew it was late, but he blinked owlishly as he looked around. He had gotten used to it being cool in the cabin at night, but as a rule the pile of blankets was sufficient enough to keep the worst of it out. He rolled over to look at the doorway when he thought he heard the sound of a door shutting and he rubbed his eyes when he saw a shadow cross through the patch of moonlight that lay across the floor.

He tried to focus but he lost sight of the shadow and after a moment he sighed and forced himself to sit up. He rolled out of bed, biting his tongue to hold in the sharp hiss when his feet made contact with the ice cold floor. He rubbed his arms as he crept to the doorway, squinting to see what was creating the shadow

He grimaced when the cold air swept across his bare feet before hitting him with a full frontal assault. He moved around the cabin quietly, searching for anything out of place, but finally gave up when he decided that nothing was stirring.

Not even the proverbial mouse, he thought as he quietly padded back to his room and slipped back into bed. He burrowed under the covers and snuggled into the pillow, rubbing his head against it as he searched for that perfect spot and sighing happily when he found it. The last thing he heard was the sound of the wind blowing and the branches gently scraping against the window.

*****

Liz carefully eased out from under her husband’s arm, wiggling across the mattress and slipping out of bed. She stood and grabbed his shirt, pulling it on and wrapping it around her as she crept from their room. She moved to stand at one of the windows, moving the curtain aside to peer out into the sky. She sighed as she took in the sky, unable to tell if it was the normal grayish-white that seemed to be so normal here or if it was cloudy and overcast.

She missed the black velvet of the late night sky, missed the millions of tiny pinpoints of light that danced across that dark canvas. In the desert they had seemed so close it had almost felt like she could reach up and pick them from the sky if she had wanted to. Even if she could see the stars she knew they wouldn’t be the same. There was just something about viewing them from the desert; being surrounded by the arid air and the nighttime chorus of nocturnal insects and birds. She sighed and moved away from the window and before long she found herself holding the cabin journal.

How many nights had she spent on her rooftop balcony making entries in her own journal? She could still feel the itch in her fingers to pick up a pen and put her thoughts onto paper, the words coming together to create an equation her mind could organize and make sense of. She missed the freedom of putting her thoughts down, missed the naivety that had accompanied the belief that her words were sacred and for her eyes alone.

She smiled tightly as she remembered the day she had realized her journal had disappeared. The day she had realized that just because they were her words, thoughts, and feelings, they weren’t protected and they weren’t safe simply because they existed between the covers of her journal. The suspect list had included Alex, her mom, and even Kyle at one point. She rolled her eyes at the memory of breaking into Sheriff Valenti’s home so she and Max could search for the journal.

And all along it had been safe in the hands of the one person she never would’ve suspected. To this day it amazed her that Michael hadn’t simply destroyed it, and given his feelings about her knowing the truth at that time, she still didn’t really understand why he hadn’t. Yeah, he had commented that anyone reading it would know about her and left it at that, but the truth was, had anyone ever gotten their hands on that journal they would’ve known the truth. It just would’ve been told through her eyes.

He had made her so nervous, the way he so calmly spoke and moved, things so un-Michael-like, especially at that time. She could remember the surreal quality of that moment when he had revealed his part in the disappearance of her journal. And then he had done something else she would’ve never expected. He had returned the journal undamaged and called her a friend. She smiled at the memory. She had been true to her word; she had never revealed him as the culprit and she wondered what it was she had said, what he had read in her words that had given him one more reason to be jealous of Max.

She put the cabin journal back in its place on the mantel and gave it a fond pat before turning and looking around the dimly lit room. She would love to stay here a while longer, have more time for her and Max to enjoy being a newlywed couple, but she knew the time had come for them to move on. They didn’t know what the future held but they were finally at the place where they were really facing it together.

She made her way back to the bedroom and watched him sleeping for several long minutes before she slipped out of his shirt and eased back under the covers and into his arms. It didn’t matter if their future was Moose Jaw or Mars; what mattered was that they were together and even with an uncertain future that was everything.

*****

Maria awoke to darkness, but after a moment her eyes adjusted and she began to make out shapes. It wasn’t as dark as she had first thought, but she had become accustomed to the gray light that filtered in on the cold, wintry nights. It was just those first few moments after waking that made it seem darker than it really was. Her sleepy gaze locked on Michael where he stood in front of the window that faced the big lake.

“Michael? What’re you doin’ up?” She got up and quickly made her way over to him. “You should be in bed, you need your rest.” She stopped in front of him and immediately saw what had captured his attention.

“It’s snowing,” he said and pointed unnecessarily.

“Well, maybe it’s just a few inches.” She craned her neck around to locate the alarm clock and internally groaned at the time: 4:45am. She sighed when he pulled away from her and went to turn the TV on to check the weather. She shook her head and let him be. There would be no talking him back to bed until he had checked the weather, she thought as she crawled back under the covers and snuggled down.

“Son of a bitch!”

She had just found that one perfect spot when he snarled at the report and his loud epithet had her bolting upright. “What is it?” Her little voice chimed in at that moment. Do you really wanna know?

“Blizzard warnings,” he bit out. “The airports are closed along with the Interstates. I-75’s a two-track right now with 12 inches on the ground and more on the way.”

She rolled her eyes. I-75’s a two-track, she recited silently. What did that even mean? It means he’s been watching the weather up north too long.

“I can’t believe this,” he ranted, paying no attention to her when she climbed out of bed with a long-suffering sigh. “How could Isabel do this?!”

“We don’t know she did this,” Maria said as she pried the remote out of his hand and turned the television off. “The earlier reports did say we could get 5-8 inches.” She shrugged and turned him, giving him a nudge back towards the bed. “Even if it was Isabel, then look at it this way: she’s leveling the playing field. I mean, think about it, Guerin. If we can’t move, neither can they.” She finally maneuvered him into bed and under the covers. She kissed him gently and fussed with the covers, making sure the cold would stay out. He wasn’t happy but she could feel him calming.

She continued to talk, her voice soothing as his breathing began to change and he finally drifted off to sleep again. Her gaze left his relaxed features to settle on the window, her vision blurring and obscuring the falling snow as she thought back to earlier that night. She recalled Liz and Isabel’s raw silent pain after learning about the plan their parents had put into motion, a plan that had included a separation that might well mean they never had the opportunity to see each other again.

Her eyelids began to droop but in her minds’ eye she could see the three of them standing in the tiny bathroom trying in vain to make themselves presentable before going back out to join the others. As they had struggled to hold their emotions at bay for each other as well as for their own selves, Isabel had spoken up, the words seeming to give her strength.

“We need a little Christmas.”
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-58- 12/15/13

Postby KindredKandies » Sun Dec 15, 2013 6:11 pm

keepsmiling7: Lol, we’re pretty sure Isabel wanted it that way.

Even though they’re so far away from home the threat of danger still exists for those they left behind. The good news is that they have a plan and even though it isn’t what any of their kids wanted to hear, leaving their homes is the best option at this point.

Leaving will be sad, for all of them, but there’s the hope for a better future down the road.

Eva: The Stevens’ Sanctuary has become a true sanctuary for our gang over the short time they’ve been there. The little cabins have become a home, the Stevens themselves a sort of extended family. The future is uncertain, and when they pull out of that driveway they don’t know where they’re going or what’ll happen. What they will know is that they have each other and they’re stronger than they were before they broke down that cold, wintry night.

Somehow, we have a feeling that the weather will be on Isabel’s side… whether it intends to be or not, lol.

Timelord31: Thanks so much for reading!

sarammlover: Lol, don’t ya just hate it when that happens? Michael was wonderful as Santa and in spite of his grumblings we have a feeling he enjoyed it… not that he’d ever admit as much. But we all know the truth, don’t we? ;)

Isabel certainly threw a monkey wrench into Michael’s plans didn’t she? Lol. We have a feeling that the gang would love to stay if it were possible. In such a short time the little cabins have become a home and the Stevens an extended family to them.

You know, we can’t believe it either! When we started AToTC, we thought a little Christmas fic to brighten the holidays… and well, what we were so sure would be a little fic of maybe 100 pages or so and be completed in a couple of months has grown to more than 600+ pages and continued on for more than three years! Once the characters get a storyline in their heads though, you just have to let them go and follow them on that merry chase to hammer the story out. But we’ve had a blast on this journey as the bits and pieces have begun to come together!


Author’s note: A few short lines in this part were borrowed from Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.


Part 58

Kyle was pulled from a deep sleep when someone started raising a racket outside. He blinked fuzzily and decided chances were better that it was Michael than Santa making a practice run. Ungh, he so wasn’t ready for El Capitan first thing this morning, he thought as he rolled out of bed. He caught sight of Isabel crossing the living area as he stumbled to the doorway of his room. “Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” he mumbled, taking note of her completely coherent movements when she reached the front door.

She peered through the small peephole before taking a step back and flinging the door open wide, presenting their visitors with one of her most festive smiles. She had met Buckeye and Carl Barry on Friday night at the bowling alley and he knew they’d been around on Saturday too. He just wasn’t sure what they were doing there so early in the morning on Christmas Eve. He took a couple of steps forward and peered around the door before taking another look at her. Even though he only had a profile shot of her, he could see the gleam in her eyes when they landed on the Christmas tree being supported between the two men.

Snow clung to the branches where they poked through the mesh wrap that surrounded them, keeping them close to the trunk to protect them from being broken. He could hear Buckeye prattling on about something or other but he wasn’t paying much attention because his gaze was focused on the snowdrifts that glistened in the weak sunlight. The ice crystals had formed the thin surface layer made it appear as if it was solid enough to walk across but he knew better. He let his thoughts wander back to Sunday morning and another knock that, while expected, had not necessarily been as welcome.

He had been enjoying a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns when Michael had pounded his fist against the door hard enough to rattle the windows next to it. He had given their meal a slightly guilty look before shrugging one shoulder and digging in when Isabel told him to eat.

She had answered the door and quickly stepped out of the way when Michael barged inside, already ranting before the door had even closed behind him and Maria. Of course, before it could close Max and Liz had joined them and he suddenly found himself surrounded by the girls.

“Ooh, Kyle, sharing is caring,” Maria said as she rubbed her hands together.

He looked back and forth between the two of them and he shook his head at the image of two praying mantis’ preparing for a meal. He motioned to the stack of plates on the kitchen counter. “Got plenty of eggs and hash browns but the bacon’s a little on the slim side,” he mumbled.

“You’re the best,” Liz said, giving him a quick hug on her way to the counter.

“It’s true.” And no one was listening to him. He turned his head to watch as Isabel listened to Michael go on about being boxed in, his big feet making too much noise as he stomped back and forth in front of her.

“And it’s pretty apparent you were prepared to dig in for the winter,” Michael growled with an irritated nod at the food that was in abundant supply.

“Not the whole winter,” she hedged.

“Enough of it,” he snapped. “We were clear to hit the road this mornin’ and you ruined it! Are you out of your mind? We can’t afford to be trapped here.”

“You know, the forecast was calling for snow anyway,” Maria spoke up as she scooped up a spoonful of the fluffy eggs. She rolled her eyes. Yeah, like any eggs Isabel cooked would dare be less than perfect.

“I don’t think you’re helping things,” Liz whispered when Michael’s glare practically singed her on its way to Maria.

“Freak snowstorm,” Isabel said dismissively.

“That shit might fly in Roswell, but we’re in the snow capital and you just dumped several feet on an area with a ten-mile radius. How do you explain that?”

“I didn’t like major in weather or anything,” Max spoke up, “but it’s not like it couldn’t happen.”

“I’ve got snow up to my ass, Maxwell. We’re supposed to be on our way outta here and now we’re stuck. There’s no getting out in this mess.”

A quip about frozen nuts entered Kyle’s mind but he decided to save it for later.

“Yeah, and if we can’t get out, the FBI can’t get in,” he pointed out rationally. “Look, Michael, maybe this isn’t such a bad idea. It’s a couple more days and when we hit the road we’re back to facing our reality, and in addition to that, there’re the contents of that envelope looming in our near future.”

Michael wasn’t happy about the turn of events but even he could see that for the girls’ sake maybe it wasn’t the worst idea. Although it was definitely in the top ten as far as he was concerned. He turned his head to pin Isabel with his glare. “Next time, we table any weather modifications.”

“That’s right,” Maria said, gently mocking his stern tone, “this plan wasn’t on the list of approved lies.” She and Liz started giggling and in an effort to redirect his attention she held up a plate of eggs. “Breakfast?”

Before he could respond there was a knock on the door and he moved past Isabel, jerking the door open to the Stevens’ boys. He was nearly brained by a snow shovel when Brian held it out to him with a big grin. “Dad says it looks like you guys are stuck for a few more days.”

“Fan-freaking-tastic,” he muttered.


Kyle was pulled from his thoughts as the tree landed on the floor with a solid thud and he looked down to see the large tree stand supporting it at its base. They had placed it in the only available spot in their tiny living area and for once he found himself grateful for the cabin’s miniscule size. His back and arms directed him to send up a prayer of thanks to whoever had designed the tiny living space.

He endured a rousing round of handshaking from Buckeye and for just a moment he was worried that the man was going to walk away with his arm. He wondered if there was anything the guy wasn’t enthusiastic about. Mr. Barry’s handshake was calmer; solid, but more relaxed. He closed the door behind the men, shutting out the cold, and turning to watch Isabel as she moved around the tree. Or at least as far around as she could get without running into the wall.

“Isn’t it a wonderful gift?” she asked as she shot a smile in his direction. She reached out to touch the branches that had been released from the restrictive netting, her fingertips gently brushing over the surprisingly soft needles. She turned to pick up the small box of ornaments and lights that had been gifted to them along with the tree.

He watched her as her attention was pulled away from the tree that hadn’t received a single word of critique, chuckling to himself when she poked through the handmade decorations and her nose wrinkled in distaste at some that she found to be tacky. One in particular earned a muttered, “How quaint,” and he nodded. That’s my girl, he thought with a fond smile.

“I’m sure it’ll look great once you’ve graced it with your special talents.”

“My spec… No, Kyle, you can’t just wave your hand and decorate a tree like this. It’s special, and that means it needs a special touch.”

“Well, have at it then.”

“But, it’s our tree. We have to decorate it together.”

“Uh, yeah, see, the thing is, I’m not really into tree decorating. Now if you want me to use it to dry my socks on, I can help you out.” He slapped one hand against his stomach. “There you go, just leave one side bare and I’ll use it to dry my socks.”

“Well, that’s just ridiculous. Why would we need to dry socks on the tree? Even if we didn’t have the washer and dryer over at the Honeymoon Cabin, I can dry socks with a wave of my hand.” She shot a quizzical look at him. Sometimes she wondered which of them was really from another planet.

He didn’t really know what to say to that so he just shrugged and gave her his trademark grin. His stomach chose that moment to rumble, ending that conversation and sending them in another direction. One that was much easier to navigate. “Guess I overslept and missed breakfast.”

“Well, you’ve been busy clearing snow for the past two days so I figured you needed the rest. I thought you could have breakfast when you got up.” She turned back to the ornaments, picking one up and frowning at the thing. What was it? She turned it this way and that, trying to figure it out when the right angle suddenly revealed it as a bird in a nest. A cardinal maybe. It was hard to tell but the fake feathers – she sincerely hoped they were fake – appeared to be a faded red. “Kyle, you don’t think this was a real bird at one time do you?”

“It’s quite possible.” He’d seen the hideous ornament and recognized it because he could remember his grandma having them on her tree when he was little. The bodies were made of Styrofoam balls and then decorated to look like real birds. “You got the nest and the little bird too,” he crowed in an attempt to sound like the Wicked Witch of the West.

“Oh, that is so gross!”

He chuckled when she flung it aside and he started nosing through the cabinets, closing the door when he ran across the bucket of oatmeal. Yes, it stuck to the ribs, and no, he didn’t want any. He redirected his efforts in the direction of the refrigerator. “We’re gonna be up at the Stevens’ tonight, right?”

“Um-hmm,” she murmured as she focused her attention on checking the lights and pretending that the bird that may or may not have been alive at one time sat ignored across the room.

*****

Max went to answer the door, bleary-eyed and still half-asleep. He could hear the shower running and the sound of Liz singing along quietly with the radio she had put on the counter in the bathroom. He smiled when he heard her hit a sour note and shook his head as he wrapped his hand around the doorknob and gave it a pull. He was expecting one of his own so he was a little surprised to see two men standing there, but he relaxed when he recognized them.

“Mr. Barry, Buckeye,” he greeted, extending his hand.

“Edward’s been keepin’ you boys busy,” the man said, chuckling as he shook his hand.

“Yes, sir.” He blinked and focused on the tree held upright between them. “You guys been out chopping down trees?”

Buckeye laughed and gave it a good shake, tipping it so he could get a good hold on it. He shouldered his way past Max and carried the tree inside while Mr. Barry held out the box of ornaments and lights. He listened with half an ear as he was given the instructions for caring for the tree interspersed with bits of Christmas trivia. He rubbed the back of his neck and wondered if this was how Michael felt every time he ended up in a conversation with the guy.

By the time they left he felt like he’d been run over by a train. He put the box of ornaments on the couch and went into the kitchen to throw something together for breakfast. Twenty minutes and a little bit of alien powers later he had two plates of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast that he was sliding on the table just as his wife vacated the bathroom.

“I thought you’d still be asleep,” she said, going into his arms when he reached for her.

“Mornin’,” he murmured as he lowered his head to brush a kiss against her lips. He nodded at the tree dominating one corner of the room a moment later. “Got a Christmas tree delivery and thought it’d be rude to tell them to just leave it outside.”

“A Christmas tree…” Her eyes widened as she followed the direction of his nod and she inhaled a surprised gasp. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered as she moved closer to it. She reached out to touch the branches, rubbing them between her fingertips as she leaned in to draw in its fresh scent. “Fraser Fir.”

“They brought some decorations too.”

“Don’t you just love Christmas?”

He watched her as she moved around the tree, touching it, smelling it, and just feeling it. “Let’s go skating tonight, Liz,” he said suddenly.

“We’re helping the Stevens’ after the kids go to bed.”

“But we can make time can’t we?”

She smiled as she thought about last year and finally getting him on the ice. “We’ll do our best,” she promised. “Now let’s get that breakfast before it gets cold.”

*****

Maria checked the time as she reached over to turn on the coffee pot. It was just after 10am and Michael was still sound asleep. She knew how little it took to wake him though so she kept her movements slow and quiet in an effort to avoid disturbing him. For the past 48 hours he had been working with the other guys as Edward directed snow removal. Growing up in the desert, it was still a shock to know that snow had to be cleared off of the roofs to avoid cave-ins. Roofs, driveways, steps, porches… they had been working nonstop to clear them and she knew the guys were exhausted.

She was trying so hard to be quiet that when the pounding knock came at the door she nearly jumped out of her skin. Shaking it off, she rushed for the door, hoping to get there and stop the noise before it could wake Michael. But before she could go more than a few steps his sleep-roughened voice interrupted her intentions.

“I’ll get it.” He moved on autopilot as he got out of bed and pulled his jeans on, all without wasting a single move.

She reached the window and grinned as she peered out through the frosted pane. As Michael was prying their trusty kitchen chair from under the doorknob she leaned over and turned the knob, yanking it open before he could stop her. Before he could utter a single negative word she insinuated herself in front of him and greeted Mr. Barry and Buckeye with a big smile and a cheerful, “Merry Christmas!” Her gaze shifted to the tree that had been carefully wrapped to protect its branches. “Oooh, is that what I think it is?”

Michael pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. What else could it be? An elephant?

“Yes, it is,” Mr. Barry said, his breath expelling on a frosty cloud that hung in the air for a moment before dissipating. “We’re hoping you’ll accept this tree as a token of our thanks for all you’ve done for our little community.”

Maria wrapped her arm around Michael’s waist, shifting and using him as a windbreak against the cold air that came in uninvited. “Our very own Christmas tree,” she murmured. “Isn’t that just wonderful, Michael?”

Buckeye didn’t bother waiting to hear how wonderful Michael thought it was. He stepped inside with the tree, his eyes on Maria. “This here’s a Fraser Fir. They’re hearty little trees; just make sure they have plenty to drink and they’ll stay happy and warm.”

“Warm?” Michael muttered.

“Well,” the tow truck driver/Christmas tree farmer/who-knew-what-else said with a teasing grin, “you don’t give ‘em enough water an’ all these needles will fall off. Naked tree’s gonna be mighty cold on a winter’s night.” He situated the tree in front of the window next to the door, oblivious to the look of annoyance being directed at his back. “You’ll wanna keep it away from the fireplace of course.” He cut the wire from around it and the branches sprang free. “She is a pretty little thing, isn’t she? Want me to give ‘er a drink before we go?”

“Sure,” Maria said, just barely managing to cut Michael off before he could send Buckeye packing.

“You know these little trees are the most popular Christmas tree in North America?” he asked as he retrieved the water pitcher from Mr. Barry and crossed the room to fill it from the kitchen sink. “They grow ‘em by the millions down in North Carolina and ship ‘em all over the world. Everybody loves these little trees. Yup, it’s a fact.”

Michael watched every move he made, listening with half an ear as Mr. Barry rattled off his appreciation for all they had done on behalf of the community. He just wanted them to leave, especially Mr. Useless Information. The guy was traipsing all over their cabin, leaving traces of snow from the treads on his boots on the floor. Their cabin, he mused. If only it was true. He could feel his irritation slipping away when his eyes landed on Maria and he saw the happiness on her face as she talked to Mr. Barry. Her features were animated and her eyes kept moving to the tree that she couldn’t stop touching.

“We’d best be going,” Mr. Barry said. “We have more deliveries to make.” He shifted to check on his helper. “Buckeye, you about ready?”

“Good to go, Mr. Barry.” He stepped out of the cabin to stand next to the older man as he took his right glove off and extended his hand in Michael’s direction.

“Thanks again.”

Michael shook his hand. “Glad we could be here. Thank you for the tree, sir.” He was just about to close the door as they turned to leave when a thought occurred to him. “Mr. Barry?”

The man turned, his eyebrows lifted in question. “Yes?”

“You said you were makin’ more deliveries today.”

He nodded. “Got quite a few lined up.”

“The other night one of the kids, a little girl named Evelyn, asked for a tree…”

“Don’t you worry, Santa, we’ve got the Finch family covered.” He winked. “You did your part; now let the Christmas tree elves do theirs.”

Maria hugged Michael as the door closed. “It’s our first tree, Michael, I’m so happy.” She pointed to the box Mr. Barry had placed on the floor by the door. “Look, they even brought lights and ornaments.”

“Let’s be happy about the tree later,” he murmured as he pulled her into his arms and nuzzled her neck. He stretched his right arm out behind him, blindly fumbling for the chair. His fingers finally curled around it just as his mouth settled over hers and he was dragging it closer when another knock sounded at the door.

Maria couldn’t help but laugh at the irritated growl and the disgruntled expression on his face as he pulled back. His knuckles were white, the skin stretched taut across them as he dragged the chair out of the way to jerk the door open. His mouth almost dropped open before he caught himself when he found himself facing Edward, his two boys, Max, and Kyle. They were all carrying hockey equipment and looked like they were ready to hit the ice.

“We’ve been exiled by the girls,” Edward explained. “Apparently they’ve got some sort of top secret work that needs to be done so I thought we could use a little guy time on the ice.”

Michael rolled his shoulders and looked at his friends. “You two wanna play hockey?”

“Hockey’s not my game but I figure if you and Evans can spin around on the ice I can’t do any worse,” Kyle said as he shouldered his way in. “You mind? I’m freezin’ my ass off out here.”

“Well, we wouldn’t want your delicate ass out in the cold, would we?” He smirked as the opening he’d been looking for presented itself. “You can stay here and keep the girls company.”

Edward watched them, silently observing the wordless conversation being carried on between the young men in the wake of Michael’s statement. It didn’t escape his notice that they hadn’t been invited inside but it didn’t surprise him either. Michael wasn’t the type of person who cared for too many people in his space.

Eddie lifted his eyebrows as he shifted in an effort to see around Michael. “So, is Maria ready to get rid of you for a while?” he asked innocently.

“Go,” Maria said, waving her hand at her boyfriend, “have some guy time.” She was pawing through the box of ornaments, smiling at the clothespins decorated to look like reindeer. “Liz and I might get with Isabel and see about coordinating the cabin decorations.” She smirked to herself. “Unless you think you might like to stick around and give us a hand.”

Images of ribbons, bows, and his fingertips poked full of holes from stringing popcorn and cranberries nearly made him nauseous. And the memory of sitting in a grade school class while the teacher made them do ‘art’ that consisted of cutting strips of colored construction paper, rolling them into rings, and then gluing them into a chain of paper garland that would never hang on a tree was something he could do without. “Pass. You can have Kyle,” he offered generously and shoved the guy deeper into the cabin. “There you go, Merry Christmas.”

“Kyle might like to have a say,” the other guy muttered. He held his hands up when Michael turned a glare on him. “Just saying I might like that once in a while. Not today of course. Today apparently I’d prefer to just hang out with the girls and decorate.”

Michael ignored him and stepped back, motioning for the others to come inside. “Just gimme a couple minutes and I’ll be ready to go.” He looked at Max. “You still got that pack of extra shoestrings? I busted one.”

Well, as far as hints went it was better than some he’d come up with, Max thought as he nodded and made a show of checking his pockets. He followed Michael across the room and produced a pack of shoestrings for show. “Isabel’s with Liz and they’ll be here before we leave.”

He grunted in response and crouched down, hunching over the boots and pretending to restring one of them. That was good to know because they weren’t taking so much as one step out the door until the girls arrived.

*****

The rustic interior of Big Dave’s Hardware enveloped him in warmth the moment he stepped through the front door. His frozen face burned as it began to thaw but he had grown familiar with the sensation and he knew it wouldn’t last long. He smirked as the sound of another snowmobile engine made itself known. He and Max had stayed on the ice horsing around well after Edward and the boys had left, having other things that needed to be done. But when they’d finally had enough they’d gone up to the main house to ask about borrowing a couple of the snowmobiles to make a quick run to the store. Julia had given her permission in her husband’s absence and before he and Max had cleared the doors of the storage shed he had issued a challenge, daring his best friend to beat him to Big Dave’s front door.

“Hi, Michael!” Maggie called, drawing his gaze to her and Edward where they stood at the counter talking to Big Dave. She ran over to him and grabbed his hand, pulling on it as she looked up at him. “Guess what? Me an’ Daddy came to get Mama’s presents. Daddy’s is really special an’ he didn’t tell nobody what it is.” She grinned in response to his smile. “Did you come to buy Maria’s present?”

Before he could answer the door opened again and Max came in, still brushing the snow off of his entire body. He shot a look at Michael, a promise to pay him back for the snow shower he’d been given when his good friend cut in front of him and took the lead in their impromptu race to the hardware store.

“You guys do know it’s Christmas Eve, this’s a hardware store, and I close up shop in thirty, right?” Big Dave asked when he overheard the little girl’s curiosity vocalized.

Edward smirked at his long-time friend and neighbor. “You got my package, Dave?”

The big man flashed a smile at Maggie’s wide-eyed expression as she waited for his answer. “Sure do, got it locked up in back.” He leaned over the counter and winked at the little girl. “Would you watch the desk for me while I go get your dad’s present for your mama, Maggie?”

“We’ve got you covered,” Edward answered as he turned his attention to his daughter. “Wanna go look at the shampoo and bath stuff for your present to Mama?”

Michael crouched down in front of her. “Your Captain of the Guard requests permission to accompany you, Princess Maggie.”

She hugged herself as she twisted back and forth from the waist up, giggling as she watched him. “I gotta find Mama a Christmas present. I kinda know what I wanna get.” She leaned forward and braced her hands on his steady shoulders. “You really wanna see?”

From several aisles over Max watched as the little girl took Michael’s hand and led him over to the aisle where the limited supply of health and beauty aid products lined the shelves. He glanced up when Big Dave came back and handed a small package over to Edward. For nearly ten minutes he wandered the aisles without a clue. Never in his life had he found himself without a present for anyone on his list on Christmas Eve. And never in his life had he ever shopped for any of those people in a hardware store. He finally found his way over to the aisle Michael and Maggie had taken ownership of, partly out of curiosity and partly out of desperation as he continued to come up empty-handed.

His eyebrows shot up when he came around the corner and he saw Michael crouched down, his knees braced on the lowest shelf as he sniffed the purple bottle of body lotion Maggie was holding out. He pretended to look at the available selection of bar soap, listening to the conversation going on between the two of them.

“It smells pretty, doesn’t it?” She turned the bottle so that the label was facing him. “What’s it called?”

“Um…” he had to lean back to avoid crossing his eyes as he read the lettering. No way was he telling her it was called Midnight Passion. “I think it’s some kinda flower.” He nodded at the shelf. “Let’s try that next one.”

Between the two of them they finally managed to pick out their gifts and Michael stood with a mixture of shampoo, bubble bath, body wash, and lotion in his arms. He juggled them carefully when Maggie stretched up on her tiptoes to make a grab for one of the bottles, chattering excitedly about their findings. He watched Max inch his way down the aisle, pausing to look at things that obviously held no meaning for him until he finally reached the small section of cologne.

His mind took him back to an evening spent shopping for Christmas trees and he couldn’t help the small smile at the memory. He’d been so impatient to be finished searching for the Christmas Nazi’s perfect tree that he was convinced didn’t exist anyway. He felt bad for Max because the guy was so out of his depth as he searched the aisles of the hardware store for a gift for his wife. His friend, his brother was the type of guy who understood that whole being romantic thing and with that whole sensitive thing he had going on, having to shop for his girl in a backwater hardware store had to be tearing him up inside because he wanted better for her.

“Hey, Max, what’s up?”

Max gave a snort that revealed discomfort rather than disdain. “Christmas shopping for Liz.”

He grinned and without missing a beat asked, “Gonna buy her a ratchet set?” He reached over and placed a hand on one of those tense shoulders. He understood the need to be alone when he was uncomfortable. “Me an’ Maggie are done here so I’ll see you later.” He walked to the end of the aisle before turning and calling his friend. “Max?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s not where you buy it or the price tag that matters, you know that and so does she. Just do what you always do and listen to your ticker.”

Max smiled and nodded. “Go on, your little princess is waiting for you. I won’t be far behind.”

Edward and Big Dave were laughing together over some old Christmas story and as they approached Michael couldn’t help but stare at the open package sitting on the counter and revealing a string of pearls. Just the sight of them sent him back to Christmas two years ago and once again he had to thank Isabel for saving him with a pair of pearl earrings.

He looked down at the bottles in his arms and he knew if he had the money he’d have sprung for something a little nicer. But sitting in the Stevens’ driveway before taking off he’d taken a moment to check his wallet and pockets. Sixty-five bucks and change along with that little Candyland token he’d snatched that night he and the guys had gotten involved in the game.

“Mama an’ Maria are gonna be so surprised!”

He smiled at her as he unloaded the items on the counter. “That’s some gift there, Edward.”

Big Dave erupted with a loud bark of laughter. “I wouldn’t be too impressed, Michael. I was here when he bought his bride a Timex windup watch just before closing on Christmas Eve the very year they were married.”

“Gotta knock one outta the park every once in a while,” Michael muttered as he leaned in to get a better look at the necklace. “It’s a beautiful piece.”

Edward was pulling his wallet out to pay for Maggie’s gifts when she reached up and placed one of her little hands over his. Her expression was so sincere as she looked up at him, her pretty blue eyes sparkling.

“No, Daddy, it’s my gift an’ I saved my ‘lowance,” she said as she pulled her little pink Hello Kitty wallet out of her coat pocket. She stretched up on her tiptoes to dump the contents on the counter and three pairs of hands quickly moved to form a barricade in an effort to prevent the coins rolling all over the place from escaping and falling to the floor.

“Would it be alright if Maggie rode back with me, Sir?” Michael asked a few minutes later when Big Dave handed him a sack with his purchases. “We kinda made plans to wrap presents together.”

Max was only listening with half an ear when something across the store caught his eye and, mindful of the time, he hurried to search the shelves for that one perfect gift.

*****

Isabel listened with half an ear as Maria and Liz carried on a conversation about their nights with their guys while making a batch of cookies. They weren’t intentionally excluding her, but she wasn’t involved with anyone and there were very, very few things she wanted to know about her brother when it came to things like this, so she really didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. It wasn’t that they were being tacky or graphic, but the innuendo was enough that she knew what they were talking about.

She was genuinely happy for them; it sounded like things were getting back on track and they were finding solid ground in their relationships. But she focused a little harder than necessary on the strand of lights she was trying to make work when they started discussing the flashes. She could hear the excitement in Maria’s voice as she confided in Liz about finally having gotten a flash from Michael. And she knew how big a deal that was in light of the ups and downs the couple had been through over the course of their relationship. But the past year had really been rocky and if they had been going to break, she had a feeling that was what would’ve done it.

Apparently Liz had also begun having flashes again recently, something that wasn’t surprising given the fact that the couple had gotten back together and married all without ever talking out everything that had been between them. Tess, Zan, Kyle, anger, betrayal, hurt, confusion, etc… For the flashes to occur she knew it required more than the bond of intimacy; there had to be absolute trust because opening yourself up that way gave the other person a certain power over you. The power to hurt as well as the power to heal. It was the greatest of exposures because it laid the heart and soul bare. It wasn’t a matter of just trusting the other person with a secret; it was a matter of trusting them with every part of your being.

She had never had that with Jesse. Not even after he’d learned the truth. She knew why she’d never allowed that connection to open between them now. She had loved him, she had married him, but she hadn’t been able to trust him with her secrets. She could’ve, should’ve told him the truth but she hadn’t; he’d learned it in the worst possible way and they’d never really recovered from the shock. She didn’t doubt that he’d truly loved her but knowing that she hadn’t trusted him enough to share the truth about herself, to willingly place her secret in his hands, no matter how much he loved her, she believed in time that knowledge would’ve destroyed their marriage.

She hadn’t told Alex either, she mused.

“But you wanted to tell me.”

She looked up from the lights to meet his gray eyes. She had wanted to tell him. She’d known they could trust him. She’d felt it and it had made her feel safer than anything else ever had. “I did,” she whispered.

“I think you would’ve,” he said with a wink, “if Liz hadn’t already blown the big surprise while we were sitting in that jail cell.” He crouched down in front of her and nodded at the tree. “Why don’t you have Kyle over here helping you with this?”

She shrugged and glanced over her shoulder at Kyle where he was stretched out on the loveseat pretending to sleep. He’d managed to find ways around helping to decorate at the other two cabins and when they’d finally made it back to their own cabin he’d just thrown himself down on the loveseat and said he was taking a nap. “I don’t think he likes Christmas.” She turned her attention back to the lights. “Too many bad memories.”

“So give him some good ones.” He reached out and touched the strand of lights that stubbornly refused to cooperate and a moment later they flickered to life. “No one knows how to do Christmas better than you do.”

“I could work wonders on a Grinch,” Isabel sighed and shook her head. “The problem isn’t that his heart’s two sizes too small, Alex. The problem is his heart’s just too big.”

He smiled as he watched her puzzle over the problem. “I’ll see you soon, Isabel.”

She nodded absentmindedly and turned to look at Kyle again. He was restless, his movements fidgety as he sought to find that elusive comfortable spot. The television was on, tuned to a Christmas movie that he wasn’t watching and had only been left on for the girls. “Kyle.” She reached over and grabbed one of the foam Christmas bulbs and threw it at him to get his attention. “Kyle!” She rolled her eyes when he threw it back at her without ever opening his eyes. “Come over here and help me put these lights on the tree.”

“I’m busy.”

“You’ve been doing the same thing all afternoon.”

“I’m saving my energy for the tree trimming festivities at the Stevens’ house.” He snorted. Yeah, there was something he was looking forward to. He could just imagine Julia coming up with one of her many ‘what’s your favorite…?’ games.

“Well, right now we’re in the Evans house and I’d like to put these lights on the damn tree.”

“Uh, no, we’re in the Valenti house, Sugar Muffin.” He pushed himself up just enough to shove a pillow under his head so he could look at her. “Now I know we didn’t discuss it before we got married, but I’m kind of a traditional guy. I don’t mind if you’d like to hyphenate your last name, but now that we’re married you’re stuck with the Valenti name.”

She smiled slowly. “And you’re stuck with a wife who will make you miserable if you don’t get your ass over here and string these lights.”

Sitting at the table, hands paused over the cookies waiting to be decorated Maria and Liz exchanged an amused look.

“Frustrated much?” Maria muttered under her breath.

“Right?” Liz dusted a coating of the glittery green sprinkles over a Christmas tree shaped cookie. “Do you think they have any idea?”

The girls looked at their friends and then back at each other. “No,” they said at the same time.

“Fine, I’ll do it, but only because I don’t wanna wake up from a nightmare where some squirrel’s run off with my nuts.”

Isabel narrowed her eyes at him. “We’re sooo getting a divorce when we leave here.”

“Fine by me, but don’t expect any alimony because I’m pretty much wearing all of my earthly possessions and you don’t get the shirt off of my back.”

“Well, I sure don’t want that thing. You’ve been wearing it for the past six months.” Inside she was smiling though because the shadows that had turned his blue eyes into a murky blue-gray most of the day disappeared as he lost himself in their bickering banter.

They were finally putting the finishing touches on the decorating when they heard footsteps stomping on the tiny porch and a moment later the front door opened and Max walked in. He brushed snow off of his coat and pulled his hat off of his head, leaning leaned back against the door as it shut behind him. His cheeks were flushed red from the cold wind but his eyes radiated happiness.

“Where’s Michael?” Maria asked when her boyfriend didn’t barge in right behind him.

“He and the little princess went straight to the castle.” He scratched the back of his head. “We’re under orders to head that way.” He leaned over to pick up what looked like a ball of twine and he almost laughed when he looked at it. “I think you left one of your decorations off the tree, Sis.”

Isabel turned, automatically putting her hand out to catch the ornament and immediately shrieked and threw it back at him when she saw what it was. “That is not going on our tree.”

He smirked at the bird’s nest and the poor little bird clinging onto the twigs with its little wire feet. “Jeez, Iz, someone put a lot of work into this thing, and you know the people here are so grateful for all that you’ve done. It’d sure be a shame if one of them stopped by and the ornament they’d made so special wasn’t on your tree.”

She walked over to him, pulling herself up to her full height and staring down her nose at him for a full ten seconds before she reached out and snatched it out of his hand. She stalked back over to the tree and shoved the offensive thing into Kyle’s hands. “Put that on your side when I won’t see it.”

Liz shook her head at Max when he insisted on baiting his sister. She got to her feet and stretched, grabbing one of the warm cookies and carrying it over to him. “Here, just for you.” She pulled it back when he smiled and reached for it. “Only if you promise to leave her alone.”

“For now,” he said and reached around her, pulling her close and taking hold of the cookie before she could get away. He dropped a kiss on her lips and smiled as he pulled back to savor the treat. “We’d better get going before El Capitan comes down here to see what’s taking so long.” He clapped his hands when no one made a move to get ready. “Hey, he’s in one of those rare good moods right now, do we want to screw that up?”

He nodded in satisfaction when that seemed to do the trick.

*****

It was so quiet she could hear the snowflakes as they fell atop the snow already on the ground. There was a stillness, a calm that soothed her nerves as she stood on the Stevens’ back porch surrounded by the Christmas lights that ran along the eaves and the railing. She missed the desert, but in spite of the temperatures that she was certain had to be dipping into the subzero category again, she could understand why people would be drawn to these cold, clear nights.

Her arms wrapped around her body in an attempt to ward off the chill when the wind picked up. She could handle the cold even though she had a preference for that hot, dry heat, but she hated getting a chill. She didn’t turn around when the door behind her opened, knowing it was Max without looking. They’d shared a sort of sixth sense for as long as she could remember; an awareness of the other that was both comforting and annoying at times.

“You know it makes Michael nervous when any of us are out of his sight for very long.”

She sighed and leaned against the support post next to the steps. “In our next life he should be an old woman.” She glanced at him for a moment before looking to the sky once more. “Did he send you out here?”

He chuckled and moved to lean against the opposite support post, turning his head to follow her gaze as she stared out into the night sky. “Not in so many words.”

“The suggestive glare?”

“Does he have another kind? If he could verbalize half of what he says with just one of those looks we’d never shut him up.” He shook his head. “Seriously though, Kyle told him to chill out and since he was keeping an eye on you it seemed to calm El Capitan down a little. Besides, Maggie’s trying to teach him all the words to that Whoville song in the Grinch cartoon.”

That got a quiet laugh out of her. “Yeah, can’t you just see him standing there in a circle holding hands and singing?”

“Welcome Christmas
While we stand
Heart to heart
And hand to hand”


They glanced at each other in a moment of shared humor.

“You remember Dad trying to figure out what they were saying because you wanted to learn the song?”

“He still has some of the words wrong,” she said as her eyes locked on the sky once more. It made her smile, but it hurt to think about her parents being alone at Christmas. Alone and on the run, she thought sadly.

“You were right, you know,” Max said quietly. “We should’ve told them.”

She shook her head.

“Don’t do that.”

Her tone was genuinely confused. “Don’t do what?”

“That thing you do where you put your own feelings aside to make me feel better.” He shifted, taking most of his weight on his shoulder. “You’ve always done that.” He sighed and focused on the stars above. “You wanted to tell Mom and Dad the truth about us and I refused, you were all set to graduate early and you wanted to get away and go to college out of state and I threw my weight around, just trampled all over your feelings and completely ignored what you were going through.”

“Max, you had just found out you were gonna be a father and you were falling apart.”

“And so were you. We had just lost Alex and you were so… lost. I knew it, Isabel. I just couldn’t seem to see past my own problems. You were so pissed at me that night, so hurt, but as soon as you saw the state I was in you put all of that aside.” He held a hand up when she started to speak. “If we’d told them we would’ve been stronger for it. We would’ve been safer.” He shrugged. “My actions caused Dad to be suspicious of me and then when you tried to cover for me, those suspicions began to include you and it just caused so many problems that could’ve been prevented.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” She smiled slightly. “It doesn’t do any good to go over and over the past, Max. It happened, it’s over, and I think like Liz said before we just need to leave it there and focus on moving forward.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re…” His head snapped around when she gasped and he strained to follow her gaze, understanding when he saw the light streaking across the sky. “Haven’t seen a shooting star in a long time.”

“Did you make a wish?” she asked.

He watched the disappearing star before looking at her. “Did you?” She had. He knew she had. How many nights had she sat at her window or out in the backyard with Dad just waiting for one of those little stars to shoot across the sky? “Anything good?”

She smirked. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Max straightened away from the post. “I hope it wasn’t for more snow.” He moved to stand beside her. “You know you nearly sent Michael into orbit with that little stunt the other morning.”

“We needed to be here for Christmas, Max. I can’t explain it, but I believe it.”

He hugged her tightly. “I know,” he murmured. “We’re gonna get through this, Isabel.”

“Promise?”

“Would you believe me if I promised?”

She could hear the sincerity in his question and she leaned back to look at him. “Always, Max. Maybe you can’t pull a rabbit out of your hat every time, but I know you, and I know that you’ll always do everything you can to keep a promise.”

He felt like a weight had been taken off of his shoulders. “I love you. You know that, don’t you?”

“No matter how angry I’ve been with you I’ve never doubted that.” She gave him another hug. “And just for the record, I’m kinda fond of you too.”

He chuckled. “So you wanna tell me what’s up with you and Kyle?”

“Why don’t we go inside and see if Michael’s made any progress with that song?” she asked rather than answer his question.

*****

Michael watched a pajama-clad Maggie as she moved around the living room, her excitement over Christmas apparently contagious. He wasn’t sure which one was the most infectious Christmas cheer carrier – the little girl or the Christmas Nazi. Although he had a feeling all of the merriment had gotten a little overwhelming for Isabel because she’d retreated a while ago and Max had finally gotten off of his ass and gone after her. He shook his head. Sometimes he wondered what they’d do if he wasn’t there to remind them that being separated was dangerous.

He was ensconced in one corner of the couch with Maria nestled against him, her slight weight a comforting warmth. Throughout the evening they had watched at least half a dozen children’s Christmas movies and they’d all had songs that Maggie had wanted to sing with him. She hadn’t understood why he didn’t know the words to the songs and he’d been uncomfortable when that had drawn unwanted attention to him. He’d been tongue-tied when she’d asked why he didn’t know any of the songs and Maria had been in the kitchen helping with post-dinner cleanup.

He hadn’t been expecting it when Kyle had stepped in and explained that Michael hadn’t been very good at memorizing the lines when he was little. It was a dumb explanation but for some reason she’d bought it. And then his good buddy had spoken up and suggested that maybe between her help and it being the time of Christmas miracles maybe she could teach him the songs. Obviously being subjected to the Christmas Nazi’s special brand of holiday cheer 24/7 had started to affect him.

He’d see that Valenti paid for every word he’d been stuck learning as the night wore on.

“Get rid of that Grinch-y look,” Maria said and pinched his side lightly.

“Would you keep it down,” he growled under his breath, watching Maggie to make sure she hadn’t overheard her speak. “She so much as hears the word Grinch and I’m gonna get stuck singing another round of that Wa-Hoo song.” He glared at her when she chuckled and started to hum the chorus of that awful song. “It’s not funny, Maria.”

“Oh, it’s not that it’s funny, Spaceboy. You just have no idea how it affects me to watch you with her.” She reached up to catch his chin and turn his head so she could look into his eyes. “One day, when the time’s right, you’re gonna make a wonderful dad.”

Before he could respond to that the door opened and he heard Max and Isabel come back inside. It took less than a heartbeat for Maggie to make a beeline for them, excitedly announcing that it was time for the kids to open up a single present before bedtime. He let the voices fade into the background, feeling more settled now that everyone was once again inside the house. Between the warmth in the room, his girlfriend snuggled up against him, and the hypnotizing flames dancing in the wood burning stove his eyelids began to feel heavy.

He blinked in an effort to dodge the sandman and shifted his gaze to the small table that held the hand-carved Nativity set. He’d listened when Liz had asked about it out of curiosity and he hadn’t been too surprised when Julia had shared the story of how it’d come to rest in their living room. Edward had carved it himself, presenting it to her the year after he’d gifted her with the watch Big Dave had mentioned earlier that evening.

The girls had all laughed, apparently sharing that mystical understanding of what did and did not constitute the perfect gift regardless of the occasion. He’d gathered that a windup Timex watch ranked right up there with the economy size two-in-one shampoo and conditioner. He still didn’t get it. Edward’s gift had been something his wife could use, his gift had also fallen within that realm, but neither of them had fit into the gift parameters women used to gauge the worthiness of the gift itself. He hadn’t missed the looks between the women in the room, the shared solidarity that obviously meant they’d all been presented with gifts that while meant well, had fallen short of the expected goal. He’d listened as they discussed the men they loved and there had been a sort of amused acceptance in their tones as they agreed that the most important thing was that those same men tried to please them.

He’d looked at Maggie during one of the breaks between movies and she’d tipped her head back to look up at him when he poked her. She’d given him a smile, the very one that one day about ten or twelve years in the future would break the boys’ hearts.

“One day, when you’re old enough to date – “

“That’s gonna be a long time,” she’d interrupted. “Daddy says I gotta be really old first.”

“Your daddy’s right about that, Princess. But when that day comes, and some boy gives you a gift that maybe isn’t so perfect, would you do me a favor?”

She had nodded solemnly. “Okay.”

“Just tell him thanks and even if it isn’t what you wanted, don’t bust his chops over it, okay?”

She’d wrinkled her nose at that. “What’s that mean?”

“Well, even if it sucks and it’s somethin’ you never ever wanted, maybe you could just give the poor sap a hug and say thanks.”

Maggie had smiled brightly. “Oh, I will, Michael, promise! Mama says you should always be thankful for every gift.” She’d shifted to get up on her knees to lean against his shoulder. “Like, every year we always get boring stuff like socks an’ that’s not really a fun gift. But I ‘member when Brian was kinda mad about that Mama told him he oughta be thankful ‘cause some kids don’t got no socks and so even when I get socks I say thank you.”

“That’s good. Always remember that for me, okay?”

“Okay.” She had hugged him and then started to get down, but after a moment resumed her former position leaning against his shoulder. “Do you really think one day when there’s a boy that likes me he’ll give me socks?”

He hadn’t been able to stop the unexpected bark of laughter at her innocent question. “No, I can’t imagine any boy ever giving you socks.”

“Did you ever give Maria socks?”

He had shaken his head. “No, can’t say as I have.”

She had stared at him for a moment before looking over his shoulder at Maria where she and the rest of the women were huddled in the corner working on some project. “I think she’d like socks if you gave them to her.” She’d smiled widely as her gaze swung back to him. “Do you wanna watch Frosty the Snowman now? It gots songs we can sing too!”


He focused on the empty manger at the center of the Nativity. He hadn’t ever really gone to church or spent any time learning about Jesus, but even he knew the Christmas story that the season centered around. So it had struck him as odd that the baby Jesus had been absent from the Nativity but Liz had unknowingly saved him from asking when she’d posed the question herself.

Julia had explained that Santa would leave the baby Jesus carving in the manger before he left their home for the night after decorating the tree and leaving the gifts. Like him, Liz had been confused as to why Santa would be responsible for leaving the baby Jesus in the manger, but Julia had just smiled, her eyes misting slightly as they settled on the Nativity set her husband had lovingly carved and painted himself. It was symbolic, she had said. It represented the birth of their Savior and when the kids saw that the baby Jesus had been placed in the manger they knew it was Christmas Day.

His gaze was pulled away when Max and Isabel came into the living room with Maggie excitedly chattering as she pulled on their hands. He could see Edward and Julia coming down the hall; he held a book in one hand and she had a few presents cradled in her left arm. Without his permission his eyes dropped and for a moment he stared at their joined hands.

Max shook his head as he looked at Michael, his second in command, the one who constantly worried about all of them. He was slouched down at one end of the couch half-dozing while Kyle was sprawled out at the opposite end fully dozing. He glanced at his sister. “I think your husband's about to start snoring.”

Isabel smiled sweetly at him and he was glad to see that most of the shadows in her dark eyes had disappeared for the moment. “Max, if I were you I wouldn’t talk.”

He turned to follow her gaze and he spotted Liz sitting in a chair across the room, snuggled down on one side, head tipped back, mouth hanging open, sleeping peacefully. He cleared his throat. “Um, I’d better wake her up.”

Maggie ran across the room to stand before the other couch, facing her brothers as she announced that their presents were finally there.

The younger Stevens’ boy smiled at his little sister. “Cool!”

Sitting at the other end of the couch Brian just rolled his eyes and muttered, “We already know what it is. It’s the same thing we get every year on Christmas Eve, doofus.”

Eddie narrowed his eyes at Brian but before he could get a response out his mom and dad came into the room and took their places. He reached out to help Maggie when she scrambled up on the couch, holding his hand out to accept his gift when Mama came by to pass them out. Even though they knew what was inside they tore into them with abandon, shredding the paper that had so painstakingly been wrapped around the small boxes.

Maria smiled at Isabel when she sat down next to her, the tall blonde shifting just enough to jostle Kyle awake. She watched as the kids showed off the gifts they had received and saw that they were ornaments for the tree. Eddie had received one in the shape of a guitar, Brian’s was in the shape of a pair of hockey skates, and last, but never least, Maggie had received an ornament in the shape of a little yellow Labrador puppy.

After disposing of the wrapping paper, the ornaments were carefully placed on Santa’s table that was now the proud presenter of a plate of homemade cookies, Snapple, and of course, carrots for the reindeer.

“So, what’s Santa do with the ornaments?” Michael asked, his tone relaxed and lazy.

“When Santa brings the tree and decorates it he’ll see the new ornaments on the table and he’ll hand them on the tree.” Edward leaned forward to pick Maggie up when she started to climb up on his knee. He settled her in his lap, smiling when her little arms wrapped around his neck and Miss Cindy Bear’s hard little nose pressed into his Adam’s apple.

“Daddy, Cindy’s ready for you to read us her story,” she said and tried valiantly to fight off a yawn.

He picked up the book that was tucked between his thigh and the arm of the chair and he held it out to her so she could open the cover. Her little hand smoothed over each of the pages lovingly as she carefully turned them to reach the beginning of the story. He could feel his family and their guests relaxing around him; could feel the warmth that came from being surrounded by those most important to him, and in turn that allowed him to relax. He could feel the eyes of their guests on him as he began to read the story he could’ve recited in his sleep but before long even that faded into the background.
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-59- 2/18/14

Postby KindredKandies » Tue Feb 18, 2014 11:55 am

Eva: This Christmas Eve was something they all needed. Lol, you’re right about Kyle, he’d never admit to needing any such thing.

Timelord31: Thanks! Nah, it’s only been three Christmases in real time… fic time, we’re only covering the two.

keepsmiling7: They’re all waiting right there with you. Christmas with the Stevens family has been a special event that none of them will ever forget.

Isabel is a young woman who’s spent a lifetime being guarded and really relaxing that guard… it’ll take time, patience, and someone who really understands her.

GregInClearwater: Thank you for reading! RL’s finally given us a break and we’re ready to unveil the next part.

xilaj: The good thing about being so far behind… there’s more to catch up on at once!

Grumpy and Grumpier are definitely the words to suit Santa and his Chief Reindeer Wrangler. Oh, you know Kyle had a ball messing with them the whole time too, lol. Michael really does have a soft spot for little Maggie Stevens. Alex has to settle for being with them and there for them in whatever way he can. Isabel really needed that little break with the girls. It’s important for her to be included and while they’ve never meant to exclude her, it makes these moments all the more precious. Max and Liz are finally at a place where they can accept that they’ll never have all of those answers and that the only direction they can take now is to move forward. Ah, the Nutcracker… having had the opportunity a few years back to attend the Nutcracker Ballet, it struck a chord and when we were writing this scene the connection just jumped out.

This break has afforded them all the opportunity to begin to heal and reconnect with each other and with themselves.

The guys have had several very big moments as they dealt with some of the children from Tawas and its surrounding area. Like many small towns it’s struggling, but it’s a community filled with people with big hearts and a willingness to extend a helping hand to their neighbors.

Ah, yes, there’s no escaping the reality that their existence is shrouded in danger. Christmas with the Stevens has given them a much needed break and allowed them to decompress a bit. Michael was so certain that was his goodbye to Maggie… How will he ever top Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? We have to agree with you, Michael and Maggie… they’ll never forget each other.

Isabel said so much with those five little words. They have been and still are dealing with so much that at times it’s hard to believe they’re still teenagers. Spending this Christmas together is so important because when they pull out of the Stevens’ driveway for the last time they don’t know what they’re heading into. There has been a significant decrease in the tensions that were tearing them apart at the beginning of the story.

Lol, the image of Max and Kyle in that scene, their discomfort at the prospect of holding hands… yeah, that makes for a hilarious moment. It was good to see Jim again and we’re pretty sure the guys won’t let the contents in that tin go to waste.

Michael wasn’t prepared to wake up to a blizzard and he certainly wasn’t happy about it. The others did seem to accept the forced extension with grace, didn’t they? A Tale of Two Christmases really took on a life of its own as we began to write and we’re so blessed to have been able to work together to bring this story to life. Max and Michael have found the balance in their relationship as brothers and friends, as soldier and king, and they’re happy without the titles to bog them down. Lol, we’re pretty sure Max left the ratchets on the shelf. He may yet show us what it was that caught his eye.

Max and Isabel have also found their balance as they’ve dealt with some pretty serious issues in their past. But that’s the great thing in a solid brother/sister relationship… you’ll argue, you’ll fight, and from time to time you’ll lose your way, but when it all comes down to the wire you’ll also find your way back together. Kyle and Isabel you say? We’re so happy that you enjoy their relationship here! The potential is there. And we’ll be checking in with them again in this update.

LOL, can’t you just picture Michael Guerin mumbling along with Maggie as she teaches him all the words to her very favorite Christmas songs? We’re back and we have a long part for you today!

Alien_Friend: Well… okay, but we can only accept your apology for being a sucky feedbacker if you’ll accept out apology for being sucky updaters. RL… it gets us all and we make no apologies for it. ;)

Yep, Michael and Max were not pleased with Isabel’s plans.

Michael’s so great with Maggie and he handled things well. You really see his true colors shine through in those moments.

The Nutcracker is actually the perfect accompaniment to Christmas – something that a trip to see the Nutcracker Ballet at Christmastime a few years back revealed. At the time there wasn’t even the slightest inkling that it would provide the muse for that scene.

Yep, the guys would do anything for Isabel even if they grumble about whatever she’s asking, er, telling them to do.

Maggie had such a wonderful time being Santa’s special helper elf.

Regardless of what else is going on between them, they’ll always have each others’ backs.

It would be interesting to see Michael and Maggie’s paths crossing again at some point in the future.

The group would’ve been devastated to make it back home at some time in the future and discover everyone they loved was gone. Kyle’s new power has really come in handy.

Agent Duff really came across as a character that would’ve been an asset to the group. She and Sheriff Valenti worked well together.

Yup, it really was Isabel, lol. She just wasn’t ready to let Christmas go.

Maybe someday down the road the gang will be safe and have the chance to settle down so they can have some semblance of normalcy.

The Stevens family have so many beautiful and special traditions.

Can you picture Michael sitting there with Maggie while she teaches him all the words to her favorite Christmas songs?

A Tale of Two Christmases has been a joy for us to write. The companionship and camaraderie that has accompanied our characters has in many ways been an extension of our friendship and that’s made it even more special to us. Here’s to RL giving all of us a break!



Author’s Note: A few small parts and/or quotes in this part were borrowed from the Season Two episodes “A Roswell Christmas Carol” and “Cry Your Name”, and also the Season Three episodes “A Tale of Two Parties”.


Part 59

Christmas Eve was magical. It was when a years’ worth of dreams and wishes were realized, hidden in packages so carefully wrapped by loved ones. It was a night that made even the most distant possibilities seem attainable, a night when hope shined as brightly as the stars above, and a night that even history had shown to turn enemies into friends for a few short hours. It was a night for families to celebrate being with their loved ones, to open their eyes to the gift they had been given and should cherish openly for more than just one day a year.

Inside the Stevens’ home, two families had come together to celebrate and prepare, to create a Christmas that not a single one of them would ever forget. The atmosphere inside the family home was one of warmth and love, peace and hope, comfort and acceptance. The assignments had been handed out and everyone was busy fulfilling his or her task as the tree was decorated and presents were assembled and wrapped.

Isabel was standing back, slowly moving back and forth as she observed the overall picture. At Julia’s request she was the person responsible for directing this production so she was overseeing the placement of each and every ornament. “No, Max, move it to the right.”

Her brother heaved a longsuffering sigh and untangled the thin gold string from the branch and moved it as directed. He held it in place for her approval before leaning over so he could hook it over the appropriate branch. He used his position to glance at the picture window, easily seeing the reflections of his friends and loved ones.

Liz and Maria had been charged with retrieving the ornaments from their packing and they reminded him of two little girls as they sat on the floor sorting through them. Michael had managed to get himself assigned to toy assembly duty because he’d been smart enough to act clumsier than he actually was and after nearly dropping multiple ornaments Isabel had ordered him to make himself useful by helping Edward. Lastly there was Kyle, settled in one corner of the couch drinking hot chocolate and eating Magic Bars while helpfully providing suggestions like a good assistant. He was being pampered because he’d helped place the tree in the stand out on the porch and then later helped get it set up inside. Yeah, how much of a job could that have been?

Julia was giving them a history of the ornaments as they were unwrapped and carefully handed up to him, unless they were on the lower branches and then the lady of the house would place them herself. His gaze landed on the first one that had gone on the tree and he recalled the story she had told of Grandma and Grandpa when they’d lived in the cabin Michael and Maria were staying in as she directed his placement of the ornament.

Liz carefully unwrapped an ornament and was immediately captivated by what appeared to be an old Santa wearing a long red robe that was faded and made out of felt. It was trimmed in white and just came to the tops of his black felt boots. The felt was old, giving it the appearance of suede. She stood and held it up to Julia. “He looks more like a woodsman than Santa.”

“And old too,” Maria chimed in. “I’ll bet there’s a story behind him.”

“Yes, Santa was Grandma’s gift to Grandpa,” Julia said, her eyes lighting up as she accepted it and she gazed at it with a soft smile on her face. “She made it for Grandpa the year they were married. She made him to resemble her idea of the man who would soon become her husband. See, he built their first home on the lake. Grandpa loved to work with his hands and he especially loved woodworking. It was the very first ornament on their Christmas tree.”

Liz looked up at her own husband and then back to Julia. “That’s a wonderful story,” she said softly.

“Would you do me a favor, Liz, and hand it up to your husband? We have a special spot for it near the top of the tree, just beneath the star.”

Maria watched the couple’s eyes lock as Liz reached up to pass the special ornament to Max, their hands touching and staying there for a moment. It was the first Christmas together for her best friend and her ‘girlfriend’ and even though the ornament was a part of Julia’s family history, the moment between her friends was theirs alone.

Her mind wandered to Grandma and Grandpa’s cabin. It was comfortable and warm, an inviting home away from home that had provided a place of solace and allowed her and Michael to finally come to terms with their relationship and their past and given them the opportunity to begin to heal. “Their cabin is so special,” she said with a smile. “We’re so glad we were chosen to stay there. It’s so… enchanting.”

Michael rolled his eyes. Enchanting, he thought. Now there was a word to describe a refrigerated box that came with its own mouse.

“When were they married?” Maria asked, choosing to ignore her boyfriend when she caught the quiet snort he probably wasn’t even aware he’d let out.

Across the room Edward and Michael paused, not moving until Julia spoke up to answer the question. “They were married inside the cabin in front of the fireplace on New Years’ Eve, 1927.”

Isabel smiled at the look exchanged between the older couple. “Something tells me there’s more to the story.”

“You’d be right about that,” Edward said. “When I proposed to Julia in the spring of ’87 I’d pictured a wedding on the beach between the big lake and the cabin in June or July when it’s good an’ warm and the sun doesn’t set till well after 9pm.”

Julia smiled at him as the memory crossed her mind. “We had a lovely wedding on New Years’ Eve in the cabin in front of the fireplace just like Grandma and Grandpa.”

Edward looked at Michael. “It snowed unexpectedly the next day, just like it did a couple days ago.” He shook his head. “I spent two days digging us out by hand with a shovel. Very romantic.”

Isabel shot a triumphant look at Michael that he chose to ignore.


He was pulled out of his thoughts when the girls started making those sounds that almost always preceded some story about somebody’s baby. He watched as Maria lifted out an ornament and held it up with care. Yeah, he thought, the special ‘First Christmas’ ornaments for each of the kids were next.

“Ooh, is this Eddie as a baby?” Maria asked as she handed it to Julia.

The woman looked at it for a moment, a gentle smile on her face as she turned to hand it up to Max. “Yes, he had those cute cheeks and the dimples.”

His fingers traced over the ornament as he studied it and he couldn’t stop himself from wondering if Zan’s new parents would’ve gotten one of these for him. Technically it wasn’t his first Christmas, but it would be the first one with his new family.

Maria pulled the next two ornaments out, Maggie’s and Brian’s, and Liz’s thoughts shifted. It was funny how at Christmas babies seemed to be everywhere. During Christmas on the Lake they’d come out in droves to see Santa. And now, as her eyes fell on the Nativity set on the table her mind paused to think about the real Christmas story, that of a baby born on a cold dark night. A child whose life would change the world.

Liz watched her husband as he finally, seemingly reluctantly, hung the ornament on the tree and in that moment she felt the sharp pang of loss. All of these months she had watched him struggle with his own loss and she had hurt for him. She could remember the brief time she had spent with him as he’d waited for his dad to make arrangements for Zan to be adopted by a good family. She knew how much he’d wanted to hold his son close and never let him go, she’d seen the way it’d torn him apart to give him up, and watching him now, she suddenly felt that loss as if it were her own.

It was her loss, she realized with startling clarity. Zan was so much more than just Tess’ son; he was a part of Max, and for that alone she loved him. There was a connection there, most likely because her connection to her husband, Zan’s father, had been reestablished and was now stronger than ever. It was allowing her to really open herself up to the possibility that maybe someday, somehow, they would find a way to bring his son home. Their son, she thought and as she lifted her head she caught his gaze and smiled. Yes, Zan was their son.

*****

Michael took the opportunity to take a break, taking a seat and helping himself to the Snapple and Christmas tree shaped cookies left out for Santa. He frowned at the carrot arranged on one side of the plate of treats, peeled and cut into thin rectangular sticks. Oh, well, he’d had to eat worse, he decided and picked one up.

“Whoa there, Santa,” Edward said with a laugh. “You don’t have to eat those; they’re for your reindeer.” He nodded at his wife. “Julia will use them along with a few celery ribs in the roasting pan to rest the turkey on.” He took a drink of his bourbon-laced eggnog and set the glass down so he could remove the electric and acoustic guitar they’d bought for Eddie out of its box. He was reaching inside for the amp and mic when a pair of bright headlights cut through the room.

Max was using one hand to balance himself against the ceiling, the other stretched out to receive the next ornament from Julia when the lights nearly blinded him and he squinted against them, freezing when he saw the large vehicle coming up the driveway. His gaze swept around the room, seeing the girls freeze in response, and he shared a look with Michael and Kyle.

“Looks like Santa’s sleigh’s here,” Edward said as he got to his feet. “It’s my Aunt Connie and the kids’ grandmother.”

Julia turned to her husband. “She’s your mother, Edward.”

Michael watched them, easily detecting the tension rolling off of the man of the house.

“They came down with Maggie’s gift and they’ll be staying the night in the big cabin.”

Max accepted the ornament, carefully cradling it in his palm. “Did they have to come far?” The road conditions still weren’t optimum the last he’d heard.

“No, not too far. Aunt Connie and Edward’s mom Candace live over by the old decommissioned air base.”

He nearly lost his balance but quickly recovered.

Edward was getting an eggnog refill as the lights outside were suddenly switched off. “Aunt Connie’s truck can handle it. She’s got four-wheel drive and tire chains if she needs them. By the look of those headlights a second ago I’d say she left the snowblade at home.”

“Go easy on the eggnog, Edward, we’re almost done here,” Julia suggested quietly.

“So,” Michael shoved half of a cookie in his mouth, “want some help settin’ up the mic an’ amp?” His head turned sharply when he heard his girlfriend’s snort and he leveled a look at her. “I have a girlfriend who sings,” he said before she could open her trap and ask him when and where he’d learned that particular skill. And then he gave her a small smile when she just stared at him. He turned to Edward, scratching his thumb against his eyebrow as he muttered low enough that the words wouldn’t carry to Maria, “The instructions are on the box, right? I mean, not that we’ll need them or anything.”

Julia stood back, taking in the decorated tree that had been lovingly decorated by Santa’s very own elves and her eyes glistened as she looked at Edward. He was finally finished setting up their children’s gifts and she reached out to him. “So many memories here, Edward. Can you believe it? 15 married years of Christmases together.”

Michael glanced over at Kyle where he was now peacefully sleeping on the couch and his inner child that rarely made an appearance, and strangely enough only seemed to appear when he was screwing around with Valenti, decided to come out to play. While everyone was otherwise occupied he scooped up the carrot sticks and hung over the back of the couch, careful not to jostle his good friend while he arranged them to his satisfaction. He snickered under his breath as he viewed his handiwork and then flicked Kyle’s ear.

“C’mon, Valenti, time to get back to the cabins.”

His voice drew Julia’s attention and she hid a smile, choosing not to comment on Michael’s artistic talents. Had he been one of her boys he’d be in trouble, but he wasn’t so she turned her gaze to Isabel who was watching him with a disapproving look on her face.

“Michael…”

“Hmm?” He was leaning on the back of the couch, chin resting on his crossed arms as Valenti slowly woke up.

Kyle glanced around blearily and suddenly realized his nose was partially stopped up. He reached up to press against it and scrambled to his feet when he realized something was stuck in his nose. He pulled the carrot sticks free and pinched his nose before breathing through it, the passageways now clear but filled with the strong scent of fresh carrot. He glared at Michael who was laughing like the big idiot he was. “That’s not funny.”

“Yeah, it was.”

“Oh, the stockings still need to be hung.” Julia moved out of Edward’s embrace to go and collect them.

Kyle was still trying to figure out how to get rid of that damn carrot smell when he caught sight of Isabel. She had that gleam in her eyes as she watched Julia sifting through the sack containing the stockings she and the girls had decorated. It would be her last official job as the Christmas Nazi this year and he had a feeling she’d be a little sad when it was over.

She accepted the sack when Julia was finished sorting, nodding with a smile and motioning for Liz and Maria to join her.

Edward frowned as he looked at Julia. “Three elves to put up five stockings?”

“There’re 13 this year, Edward.”

“Thirteen?” he echoed in disbelief.

“Thirteen,” she said with a smile and a kiss on the cheek. “Isabel and the girls have a surprise for us. All of us including Aunt Connie and Grandma Candace.”

Michael’s amusement over the carrot sticks had dissipated and now he was starting to get grumpy. He’d had enough of all the Christmas stuff and as much as he loved Maria and wanted to make her happy he was ready for a break.

As the evening drew to a close Julia presented each couple with their own ornament to hang on the trees that were now dressed and waiting for them in their cabins. “Just like Grandma and Grandpa have their first ornament on our tree. We want you to have your first ornaments from us to take with you after putting them on your trees to start your own memories.” Her eyes watered as she gave them a smile. “We hope to see you for Christmas dinner. There’s no rush to come up to the house, we won’t eat until five.”

She gave each of them a hug and thanked them before stepping back and letting Edward move in to shake their hands. He gave Michael a look as he took his hand, and out of earshot of his wife said, “You will be here for dinner. My Julia has it all planned, starting with a 24-pound turkey and a 12-pound ham.”

Kyle snorted. “How could I possibly forget that 24-pound block of ice in my lap?”

Edward watched as Kyle’s wife silenced her husband with a look before shifting her gaze to him.

“I can’t seem to take him anywhere,” Isabel said with a smile.

Maria squeezed Michael’s hand as she cast about for something to say before he could speak up, but before she had the chance to run interference Max took a step forward, his hand held out to Edward. Their host accepted the proffered hand and shook it as he studied its owner.

“We appreciate everything you’ve done for us, Edward, and you can be sure we’ll see you at dinner.”

The man of the house nodded as his hand was released. “Until dinner, then.” He watched them as they donned their winter gear, preparing to face the cold on the short trek down to the cabins. He observed them casually, taking in the silent conversation that passed between Michael and Max and in that moment he realized his belief all along had been nothing more than a misconception. Whatever their story was, it wasn’t Michael that held the position as the group’s leader. That role belonged to Max and while it went unspoken and unnoticed by outsiders, it was obvious it was understood within the group. Understood and respected. He wondered yet again what it was these kids had been through to form such a strong bond, but he had a feeling it was something he would never know.

*****

Maria shivered as she put the two small boxes down, her gaze lingering on the Christmas wrapping paper that covered them. She knew without looking that Michael had gone to start a fire in the fireplace and she shifted to turn on the lamp that sat on the table between the two chairs in the living area.

Even though it was just after three in the morning she was still feeling good. She felt energized. She smiled to herself. She felt alive. Spending Christmas Eve with the Stevens family and continuing their role-playing for a few more hours as they played Santa’s elves was partly responsible for that. But most of it she knew, lay with the man crouched down in front of the fireplace.

She was excited for the kids, especially Maggie, and she couldn’t wait to see them after they’d received their gifts. She turned slightly, her eyes moving back to Michael as he took his time with the fire even though it was already roaring. He hadn’t commented on Max making a commitment to dinner the following night and extending their stay at Stevens Sanctuary beyond what he’d already decided would be their departure date. As a matter of fact, he hadn’t said anything at all.

She knew he was on overload and needed his space. It had been a day filled with Christmas activities, putting the big day together for the kids, and it wasn’t the kind of thing he was used to or comfortable with. He had been fine while he was busy, his mind occupied and keeping his thoughts away from old memories. Memories that she knew held little if any joy for him.

She reached for the small gift boxes and carried them over to their chairs, dropping down into the soft cushions of hers and giving the one with her name on it a shake. There was a quiet scratchy sound that intrigued her so she shook it again. She smiled when the slight noise drew Michael’s attention and she held the one with his name out to him.

He got to his feet and reached out to take the box from her, the slick green wrapping paper nearly disappearing when he wrapped his big hand around it. He turned his hand palm-side up, staring at the gift for a moment before he slouched down in his own chair. He shifted a little to the right to avoid that one loose spring that liked to announce itself at the most unexpected moments.

Maria played with the ribbon on her box as a familiar feeling washed over her; the desire to stay in this place, to be able to put down roots and live their lives as part of this warm, accepting little community. Before that thought could take hold though, she tamped it down. They still had time; more than expected, thanks to Max’s intervention. He had given them all the gift of one more night of enjoying this brief reprieve from their lives. She inhaled slowly, drawing in a deep breath that she held for a moment before slowly releasing it. She rolled her head along the back of the chair to look at her boyfriend.

“Beat?” she asked quietly.

“Doesn’t even begin to describe it,” he answered after a moment.

“Why don’t we open our gifts and put them on the tree and just go to bed? How’s that sound?”

He nodded slowly, his eyes locked on the flames dancing in the fireplace.

She got up out of her chair, her box clutched in her hand, and she nudged him. He shifted to make room for her on his lap and as soon as she’d settled down his arms came around her, pulling her in close to his body. She laid her head in the crook of his shoulder and sighed in contentment. “This feels so good.”

His right hand rested on her thigh and he was just about to agree with her when she suddenly sat up, her eyes meeting his with a challenging gleam. He didn’t know what was coming but whatever it was he’d go along with it.

“I’ll bet I can open mine up first,” she said with a grin.

Michael sat up straighter and snorted. “You’re on.” And with nothing more than that he snatched the small box from her hand and tucked it under his arm as he ripped the paper open on the one he held.

“Michael,” she shrieked, the sound filled with chastising laughter, “you’re cheating!”

“I think that only applies if you have the foresight to actually include conditions in the challenge.” He looked at her for a moment before pulling her closer for a short kiss. “You’ll wanna remember that for next time.” He released her box and handed it back to her as he reached inside his own and pulled out a glittering Santa ornament.

Maria smiled as she pulled hers out and held it up next to his. Hers was a snowflake ornament and like Michael’s it looked like a cut-out cookie decorated with sparkling frosting. Her eyes were shining as she looked at him. “Aww, Michael, it’s us, Santa and Snowflake.”

“Um-hmm.” He held his out to her. “Why don’t you stick ‘em on the tree and let’s hit the sack.”

She rolled her eyes at him but got up to find a home for them on their tree. She knew even though he appreciated the gesture he just wasn’t comfortable receiving gifts and it was easier to blow it off than try to find the words to express himself in these moments. “Well,” she said as she moved around the tree, “since you made that romantic proposal so inviting…”

Michael pulled his shirt over his head with one hand and yanked the covers back with the other. “You wanna light a fire over there, Snowflake?”

“And suddenly you’re in a big hurry.”

He flopped back on the bed, stacking the pillows behind him to raise his upper body enough to allow him to watch her in comfort. “When it comes to getting you in bed I have an extremely low tolerance for waiting.”

Maria snorted and shook her head at him as she found a suitable branch. “Michael, waiting is something you have a low tolerance for regardless of the reason.” She smiled when she heard him shifting restlessly and she took her time seeking out the perfect branch for the second ornament and then leaning over to plug the strand of Christmas lights in. She crossed the room to turn the lamp off, leaving the room cast in the warm light from the fireplace with the colored lights from the tree blinking cheerfully.

She turned to look at him, taking in the pose that in spite of appearing relaxed was anything but. “Close your eyes and promise you won’t peek.”

“Maria,” he growled impatiently.

“Michael,” she said, her amused tone holding just as much patience. She could practically hear the wheels turning in his head as he tried to figure out what she was up to. “Just close your eyes and keep them closed.”

“Is this really necessary?”

She moved to stand at the foot of the bed, resting one knee against the trunk that resided there. “I guess that depends on how badly Santa wants to see the surprise Snowflake has for him.”

“C’mon over here an’ let’s check out Santa’s surprise first.” He grinned unrepentantly when she just rolled her eyes at him.

Maria motioned to his face. “Close those eyes.”

He huffed in annoyance but did it anyway.

“And no peeking or the surprise will be rescinded.”

“Rescinded,” he muttered. “What’ve you been doin’, reading the dictionary?” He felt stupid just lying there with his eyes closed. He cracked one eyelid just a bit and his eyebrow lifted in interest when he caught sight of her bending over her bag. He heard her humming under her breath and saw a flash of something green being pulled out of the bag. He tilted his head to one side in an attempt to figure out what she had in her hand and her hips began to sway as she started to sing Santa Baby quietly.

He listened to her. She had talent, but it was so much more than that. She had a gift, one that deserved to be known outside of their small circle. He knew they had no way of knowing what the future held but he wanted so badly for her to have the opportunity to share that gift. He hoped one day maybe she could have that.

“I know your eyes aren’t closed, Santa. Close them or the surprise gets put away,” she warned softly.

“What makes you think I’m lookin’?” he muttered.

“Because I can feel it.”

He smirked smugly and closed his eyes. “Fine, but hurry it up.”

Maria waited a few moments, waited for that feeling of being the focus of his intense gaze to pass, and when it did she knew he’d closed his eyes. She moved closer to the fireplace and kept an eye on Michael to make sure he behaved himself as she stripped out of her clothes so she could shimmy into the Snowflake lingerie Isabel had given her a hand with. That had been a little awkward but they’d gotten over it quickly enough. She smoothed her hands over the outfit and took a moment to soak up the heat from the fireplace before turning to face the man waiting for her.

“Santa baby,” she sang as she glided across the floor. And the slight embarrassment she’d experienced over asking Isabel for this favor was worth it the moment he opened his eyes and she saw the heat flare to life as he took her in from head to toe. His gaze lingered in all the right places and it still took her breath away that she could draw such a reaction from him.

Michael sat up and motioned wordlessly for her to take the last few steps that would bring her into touching distance. “I don’t know that I’d go around tellin’ anybody that you’ve been an awful good girl,” he said as he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her into bed.

“No?” she asked breathlessly when he immediately rolled her onto her back and braced his weight over her.

“Huh-uh.” He met her gaze as his hand skimmed her back and side, searching for the snaps or zipper or whatever it was that held the scraps of material together.

“So if I’m not a good girl, what am I, Santa? A bad girl?”

He studied her features in the firelight and he shook his head as his big hand slid down to settle on her bare thigh. He lowered his head to kiss her, taking it slow for just a few moments and drawing it out so that by the time they pulled apart they were both breathing heavily. “You’re not a good girl or a bad girl.” His hand moved once again but this time he found what he was looking for with perfect precision and he set about slowly sliding the zipper down as he met her gaze. “You’re my girl, Maria.”

The declaration brought tears to her eyes and she threw her arms around his neck as her lips locked with his and their bodies crashed together. That was what she wanted more than anything else. To be his again, in every sense of the word.

And as Christmas morning drew closer he made sure she knew in no uncertain terms that she was his.

*****

The cabin was comfortably warm, the couple inside enjoying the simple act of sharing the same space as they settled in for the night. There wasn’t much left of the night as the predawn hours slowly passed. They had spent more than an hour on the ice before the cold had finally forced them to leave that moment behind and walk away with the memories of skating under the stars on a night so cold and silent that it felt like they were the only two people in the universe.

Upon returning they had warmed up with hot chocolate and then opened the gifts the Stevens had given them. Ornaments that resembled Christmas cookies made in the shape of a reindeer wearing a Santa Claus hat and striped scarf, and a red and white striped candy cane.

“They’re cute,” Liz said with a smile.

Max held the reindeer up and made a face at her. “Every time you look at this thing you’re gonna think of me aren’t you?”

“Every year.” That thought caused a flood of warmth to rush through her. “Every year, Max.” She motioned to the tree. “Hang yours first.”

He walked over to the tree that she had already plugged in and he stuck it on the first branch he came to. She shook her head at him and carefully chose a branch to hang the candy cane on and then took a step back to look at it. “Our very own ornaments on our first tree.”

Max reached for her, pulling her into his arms. “I wish this was real, Liz.” He hugged her tighter and rested his chin on her head as he stared at the ornaments. “I want that so bad for you.”

She pressed a kiss against his chest. “Want it for both of us, Max.” She sighed quietly. “We’ll have that one day. And we had tonight. It was special, helping the Stevens decorate their tree and get everything ready for morning. They have so many memories on their tree.”

“Kind of a nice tradition, huh? We finally get settled somewhere maybe we can do something like that and put our own twist on it.”

“That would be nice,” she admitted. “I was watching you while you were decorating the tree and I saw the way you looked when the baby ornaments were given to you.” She rubbed his back when she felt him tense. “You were thinking of Zan.”

“Yeah.”

“So was I,” she admitted and immediately felt his heart rate increase. “Do you think there’s any chance that one day we could bring him home?”

His heart stuttered in his chest. “I’ve always been scared to allow myself to hope for that.”

“Because you didn’t think I could handle it.”

“That’s part of it, but there’s also the reality of our situation. I hope one day we’ll be safe enough and stable enough to have kids and raise them, but bringing Zan home…” he swallowed with difficulty. “What made you change your mind?”

“I had a moment while I was watching you and I realized that Tess may have given birth to him but Zan is our son. I’m connected to him through you and I hope one day we can bring him home, to our home, and we can be a family.”

Max drew in a shaky breath at her unexpected revelation. He couldn’t imagine a better gift that she could’ve given him. At that moment it didn’t seem possible to feel any closer to her. He had lost the ability to speak and he was overcome with the need to show her just how much he loved her. He swept her up in his arms and carried her to the bed in a few short strides, his eyes never leaving hers.

His mouth crashed into hers just as her back made contact with the mattress beneath her. She returned his demanding kisses with a need that uncurled deep within her. She began to tug at his clothes, desperately needing to make contact with his skin.

He pulled away long enough to draw air into his oxygen-starved lungs. Liz had his shirt nearly up over his head as she called out his name, his muscles tightening in response to the needy sound. In one fluid motion he rid himself of the shirt and he called her name roughly, his hot breath singing her neck. His hand traveled up under her sweater, finding the clasp of her bra with unerring accuracy. His hand made contact with warm damp skin and he heard her hiss when his thumb found its way to the rigid tip just begging for attention.

His hips arched forward when she reached for his belt and he drew in a ragged breath as he forced himself to pull back slowly. His hand slid across her belly, finally coming to rest at the button of her jeans. Removing clothing, reaching for protection, it all happened so fast, but in spite of that it felt as though time had slowed down.

The moment of clarity had Liz contemplating the way her body felt as if it was on fire as every cell in her body seemed to call out for his touch. Their gazes, locked and unbroken, were suddenly sprinkled with black specks that heralded what was to come next. She blinked as her head dropped back, arching in tandem with her hips.

Max’s arms came around her, lifting her and holding her in his embrace as his hips flexed forward, bringing them together with one deliberate thrust. The connection was powerful; joining them together physically, emotionally, and mentally. Their connection was wide open and it only enhanced their joining.

“Max, please… Max…” She felt him draw back and move forward again, repeating the move over and over, the demanding rhythm building and answering her cries. Her hips rose to meet his and she rocked forward, digging her nails into his taut shoulders. The black specks that had appeared in her field of vision suddenly swirled and came together, exploding into a series of rapid flashes.

It was overwhelming and it all came together as her release claimed her. She held on tightly as Max broke eye contact, his head snapping back as her name spilled from his lips on a low, guttural cry that accompanied his own completion. Every muscle in his body was trembling and his dark eyes were damp as he rolled to bring her into his arms so they could catch their breath.

They lay there in silence, their embrace warm and loving as time once again began to pass, and he fumbled tiredly for the covers. He hauled them up over them and then draped his arm over her waist, smiling an exhausted but content smile that was mirrored on her face as they slid into a peaceful sleep.

*****

The lights on the Christmas tree blinked cheerfully and images of the lights danced on every available reflective surface. The joyful feeling the holidays always brought with them had begun to slip away as each step took them further from the Stevens warm family home. It almost felt as if they’d left Christmas there, tucked safely away inside its walls. It was quiet in the cabin, so quiet she could almost hear the nearly silent plink that accompanied every blink of the lights.

Kyle was still in the living room, probably staring sightlessly at the very same lights as they reflected against the darkened television screen. He had turned it on at nearly the same moment she had turned the Christmas tree lights on. She had hung the ornaments they had been given, but it had felt more like a duty than a joyous occasion. The ornaments were lovely and the gesture was appreciated, but Kyle wasn’t interested in the festivities of Christmas and she was just… drained.

By some unspoken agreement they had maintained their silence and while he had taken up residence on the couch flipping through the muted channels she had moved from room to room like a ghost. Every bit of the energy that had coursed through her veins during the preparations for Christmas on the Lake, the event itself, and helping the Stevens family on Christmas Eve itself had simply fallen away, leaving her as easily as water left the sink to slip down a drain. If only it was that easy to wash away the damaged feelings that refused to let her go. Now that it was over she couldn’t stop her thoughts from treading through the minefield of her mind.

She had finally retreated to her room and prepared for bed, crawling under the covers, and hoped for the oblivion of deep sleep. But as of yet that wish had been denied. She glanced down when she realized she was unconsciously twisting her wedding rings around her finger and she held her hand up, watching the diamond catch the lights from the Christmas tree. Why hadn’t she ever tried to contact Jesse? She stared at the rings until the lights lost their sparkle and began to blur into a kaleidoscope of color. She sighed. She knew why she hadn’t tried to contact him.

But what about her parents? No, she didn’t have a picture of them, but she’d managed to connect on the dreamplane without the benefit of a visual aid before. It had been a while, but she knew it was possible. It wasn’t as easy of course, but it could be done. A memory of the time she’d done that when she was younger rose to the surface and a sad smile crossed her features. She’d managed to scare Mom badly enough that she hadn’t been able to sleep for a week.

She linked her fingers on top of the covers and stared at the ceiling until her eyes began to burn and she closed them, allowing them a moment to moisten. She sighed quietly and concentrated on the silence once more, turning her head just a bit when she heard the rustle of material as Kyle shifted restlessly. She rolled over to face the wall and made another furtive wish for sleep. How could it be so difficult to fall asleep? She was exhausted but it seemed even that wasn’t enough incentive for her mind to let her body rest.

She rolled over again, blinking against the darkness and reaching out for the lamp beside the bed. Her hand collided with something unexpectedly and she muttered under her breath as she tried to remember what it could’ve been. She fumbled around for the switch and after the quiet click warm light flooded the room. She was swinging her legs over the side of the bed when she suddenly froze and a confused smile crept across her face as she reached out to touch the surface of the nightstand next to the bed.

It felt real.

She pulled her legs up, hugging them as she looked around the room. Her bedroom in the house she’d grown up in. And everything was just as she’d left it. She glanced at the alarm clock next to the bed, smiling at its familiar face. 10:30pm… That was strange, she thought as her brow furrowed. It must not be working. She reached over and picked it up, shaking it lightly before bringing it up to her ear. No, it was ticking off the seconds.

She knew it had been well after midnight when they left the Stevens home and it had been at least another hour before she’d finally given in and crawled into bed. In an effort to hold onto her parents she’d quickly become adept at tracking the time zones so she knew what time it was at home no matter where she was. Who cared what time it was? She was home.

She sighed happily and slid down, laying her head on her pillow and allowing herself to relax into what was certainly the most comfortable mattress in the world. Her eyes were just closing when a quiet knock at the door had them snapping open again. It had to be Mom, she thought, Mom, coming to bestow the same goodnight wish she’d made so many times over the years. That thought had her quickly climbing out of bed and her heart soared with anticipation as she grabbed the knob and turned, pulling it open.

“Alex!” His name came out on a whisper. “What’re you doing here?” she hissed as she grabbed his hand and pulled him inside. She hurried to shut the door before anyone could see him.

“Oh, ya know, I was in the neighborhood and it is Christmas Eve…” His arms came around her and he held her close.

She hugged him back, her hands clenching in the fabric of his gray sweatshirt. “But you can’t be here!” What would her parents think of finding him in the house at this hour?! She paused and she closed her eyes as she rubbed her forehead against the soft material at his shoulder. They wouldn’t see him though, would they? Her eyes began to water as she leaned back to look up at him. “I’m not really here with you, am I?”

“No,” he murmured quietly, “you’re talking in your sleep.”

Isabel swallowed hard, forcing the tears down as she looked up at him. “I want to be here.”

“I know.” He pressed his lips against her forehead for a moment. “But it’s a dream and you’ll eventually wake up.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and turned her, walking her over to the bed and helping her under the covers.

“Alex… Please stay?”

He hesitated for the space of a heartbeat before he nodded and settled down beside her, pulling her into his arms. “I’ll always be here for you, Isabel.”

“I don’t know where I belong anymore,” she whispered.

“I’ll hold onto you and maybe that way you won’t be so lost.”

She settled into his arms, releasing a sigh of contentment. She wondered just how long she could hold onto the dream even as a warning about the danger of getting caught up in the dream drifted across her mind. A slight frown creased her brow but she burrowed closer to Alex, relaxing as his comforting presence surrounded her. “Thank you for staying.” She smiled when she felt his lips brush against her neck as he wished her a Merry Christmas.

Her eyes grew heavy as she sank even further into his embrace. It took an effort to form the words and work them past her lips, but just as sleep claimed her she managed a sleepy, “Merry Christmas, Alex.”

*****

The silence in the cabin was comforting after the constant noise that had accompanied yet another busy day. They had left the Stevens a couple of hours ago and Isabel had been quiet. Not the kind of quiet that was calm and relaxing. It was the kind of quiet that came at the end of an adrenaline high; a quiet that was so loud it almost hurt. She had moved from room to room for a while, restless in the Christmas aftermath. He had dropped down on the couch and sent up a silent prayer to Buddha for getting him through the anxiety-inducing festivities in once piece.

Oh, they still had Christmas to wade through before the fun times were over, but for him the worst of it was finished with. At least Christmas Day would be spent amongst themselves and he had a feeling they’d probably just stay in their own cabins until it was time to trudge up to the main house for the big feast. He’d be happy to forego that joyous occasion but after everything the Stevens had done for them it would just be rude. Buddha wouldn’t approve.

He had waited until Isabel had gone to sleep before he’s turned the lights off on the Christmas tree and the darkness only seemed to enhance the quiet. He sighed in exhaustion as he sank into the mattress, pulling the covers up over him and rolling over to face the wall. The branches of the leafless trees outside cast spindly shadows on the walls, the sinister tendrils creeping across everything in sight. Somehow that seemed fitting. He closed his eyes and wondered offhandedly if she would try to dreamwalk her parents tonight. Or maybe Jesse.

Nah. His tired mind discarded that thought before tugging him into a light doze that was soon interrupted by familiar sounds.

He frowned and moved to find the source of the noise, smiling as his surroundings suddenly began to morph and transform around him and he recognized the living room of the house he’d grown up in. The television was turned on, the channel tuned to the football game, and the coffee table littered with drinks and munchies.

But where was Dad? He should be there. They always watched the game together.

“Okay. I think we’re just about ready.”


He recoiled, mind and body, in response to the sound of her voice. He jerked and the sudden jarring motion pulled him from the dream and back to consciousness. His eyes snapped open and his gaze sought out the familiar shadows in the cabin as he reached up to run his palm across his damp forehead. He kicked his right foot out as if the motion alone could eject her from his memory. “Not goin’ there,” he muttered under his breath as he rolled over to find a new position that would bring sleep without another visit from the snow witch.

For a moment he considered getting up and walking it off but he was too worn out to bother getting out of bed and making the effort. Without even realizing it his eyes fluttered shut and he gave in to the siren call of deep sleep.

The table had been set with Christmas dinner and he was sitting on the barstool he had grabbed so Amy could have the third chair. He watched as Dad and Amy laughed about anything, everything, and nothing. Dad was in his element and Maria’s mom would blush like a school girl from time to time as they managed to sneak the occasional flirtatious comment into the conversation.

He sighed quietly and hung his head, wanting to shut out the images as Tess made the rounds with the rolls. He blinked and looked up just as she reappeared with his favorite dish in her hands and placed it on the table. Try as he might he couldn’t stop the question he knew was coming.

“Is that three-cheese potato gratin?”

“With bacon on the bottom. Your favorite.”

Their eyes met and as they did he felt the pressure begin to build behind his eyes. His tired, foggy mind was fighting to make the connection. It was her eyes, he thought. Bright, a beautiful blue, and so sharp they never missed a thing. And they held his attention. He drew in a shallow breath and shook his head, breaking that contact.

Rather than follow her into the kitchen when he excused himself, he got up from the table and turned to go in the opposite direction. He moved away from her and into the living room. The pressure began to subside and he was just about to drop down on the sofa when there was a knock at the door.


He frowned for a moment as his muddled mind attempted to make sense of the changes. But before he had time to put any thought into it his mind urged him to move to the door and he obeyed it without hesitation. As he watched his hand reach for the doorknob, turn it, and pull it open he felt the pressure slip away completely.

Isabel’s grin was infectious and it lit her face up as she hit him with a cheerful, “Hi!”

His response was a little more low-key. He had plans. He was a man on a mission. “Hey.”

“Kyle Valenti, it is your lucky night.” And her right hand shot up to present him with a close-up of the movie she held.

He smiled at that familiar and loveable Christmas-crazed gleam in her eyes before turning to glance back at the dining room. It was empty and relief washed over him as he realized that Christmas dinner with Tess was gone, wiped away by a better memory.

He turned back to her, intending to ask her inside, but his eyes collided with empty space. He ran a hand over his chest absentmindedly and took a step forward to look for her when he was suddenly shoved backwards as Michael barreled through the door. His mind scrambled to make sense of it when Dad came in behind him, Isabel cradled in his arms as her life bled out of her from an unmistakable gunshot wound.

His chest constricted. “Oh, my God, what happened?!” He could hear the fear in his own voice, could feel it causing tremors to run through him.

“Get the trauma kit out of the garage!”

He ran to the garage, rummaging around for the kit Michael had ordered him to retrieve, but things were hazy and he couldn’t find it.


Even in sleep the memory caused fear to rush through his veins, pushing his heart into overdrive as his thoughts automatically shot back to Isabel. Unaware, he spoke, though the words were whispered. “This can’t be happening again.”

Suddenly the haze around him cleared and his hand landed on the kit and he ran back into the house that was quiet.

His brow furrowed in sleep. It shouldn’t be quiet. It should be chaotic as the guy Jesse had called showed up to remove the bullet.

He dropped the bag and walked through the house, finding a pale Isabel lying in his bed. In a heartbeat he was at her side, his hand gripping hers as he wished desperately for the power to heal the way Max did. If ever there was a good reason to be jealous of Max Evans that was the moment. His grip on her hand tightened and he reached out with the other, carefully placing his palm over the wound and focusing as hard as he could. He expelled the frustrated breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding as his attempt to save her failed. Tears rolled down his face as the reminder that he couldn’t help her flashed in front of him once again.

He suddenly sat up, waking as a thought occurred to him. She was lonely and she desperately wanted to see her parents. He scratched his jaw as he recalled his promise to her that she would see home again. He got out of bed and padded quietly to her room, sitting beside her restless form and taking her hand.

“Maybe I can channel my focus in another direction.”

He frowned as the scene shifted and he looked down at her and realized his mind had taken him right back to his room and her still form. He wasn’t awake. She was still shot and her life was slipping away. He was still trapped in the nightmare and it didn’t matter what he did, he couldn’t save her. A few more tears escaped, hot with anger and frustration.

“I have alien powers but what good are they if I can transport people with nothing more than a thought but I can’t save her when she needs me?” He stood abruptly, letting go of her hand and running his fingers through his hair just as a sharp cramp shot through his leg and woke him.


He sat up, wide awake and sweating as he looked around his room. For just the space of a heartbeat he thought he wasn’t alone, but he brushed it off and attributed the feeling to the nightmares. “Useless friggin’ alien powers,” he muttered as he leaned forward to massage the cramp out of his leg.

“You have the power to save her.”

He froze and his gaze darted around the room. “Alex?”

“You warned her about the danger of losing oneself in the dream.”

He rubbed his eyes and blinked as he tried to decipher his friend’s presence but he never materialized.

“Save her now. You know what to do.”

The whispered words faded into the howl of the wind as it whipped around the side of the cabin and he scratched the back of his head as he looked out through the doorway of his room.

*****

The sound of her name being whispered roused Isabel from the peaceful dream and at first she fought it, wanting so desperately to hold onto something happier. But the quiet voice was insistent and eventually she could no longer ignore it in spite of her wishes to do so. She tried to shift, to reach up and rub her eyes, when she realized that her hand was being held. Her heart leapt in her chest when she opened her eyes and saw Kyle sitting there, his hair in disarray and looking like he’d woken up and pulled on a pair of jeans and a thermal shirt.

“Kyle,” she mumbled tiredly, “what’re you doing in my room?” She pushed herself into a sitting position, her eyes finally focusing and trying to make sense of his hand holding hers. She blinked and lifted her gaze to his.

He put a finger to his lips and shook his head. “Don’t let go of my hand.”

“I’m still dreaming.” It was a dream within a dream, she thought as her free hand sought out Alex. Her head snapped to the side when she found nothing but empty space beside her. A quick look around the room identified the location and she realized she was indeed still in her bedroom at home.

“You’re home, Isabel,” Kyle whispered. “We’ve gotta be careful though.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. Why was her mind doing this to her? She opened her eyes again and they settled on the alarm clock that now read 12:45am. She looked at Kyle again, opening her mouth to ask what he was doing when the muffled sound of her parents’ voices registered in her ears and her heart leapt in her chest.

Kyle never said a word as he gave her hand a gentle tug, helping up out of bed and leading her over to the open bedroom doorway. His hand tightened around hers when she started to pull it free and he held her still when she would’ve bolted down the hall to the living room. He shook his head sharply in warning and crept out into the hall, leading the way. He could feel her nerves in the slight trembling that coursed through their clasped hands and he paused to turn and look at her, his voice low as he finally spoke.

“Whatever you do, don’t let go of my hand. I don’t know how long I can keep us here and if we get separated – “

“I can handle my brother and Michael.”

“So can I, but I’d just as soon not end up back in the Arctic Circle and leave you here.” He tightened his grip in warning as started to move again. “So don’t let go of me.”

Isabel rolled her eyes at him when he pulled her along behind him. “You do know it’s kinda hard to be the little woman when I can see over your head, right?”

“Pick on my height again and I’ll tell your parents we got married during a layover in Atlantic City.”

Well, at least he hadn’t said Vegas, she mused, running into his back when he stopped suddenly in the entryway that led into the living room.

*****

Diane stared at the Christmas tree that was decorated and lit up, her damp eyes causing the multi-colored lights to blur. She hadn’t wanted to put it up, had resisted when Philip had suggested it, but he’d insisted it was necessary to keep up appearances. Her heart had broken a little more with every ornament she’d unwrapped, feeling as if each one was a symbol of the shattered pieces of her soul.

Almost every ornament had a story behind it. There were a few boxes of ornaments that were just decoration, but some of them had such special meaning and she’d shed more than a few tears while unwrapping them and finding that perfect spot for them on the tree. She looked up at her husband where he sat on the couch beside her, his eyes locked sightlessly on the tree. She had come into the room earlier and caught him standing next to the tree, a strand of the garland tugged away from the branches and clenched in his fisted hands as he held it to his nose. They’d caught Max doing that very thing so many times when he was younger and they’d never really thought much about his claim that the way the garland smelled after being warmed against the lights made him think of Christmas. Philip’s eyes had been closed and she’d quietly backed out of the room to let him have that moment.

She was pulled out of her thoughts when he kissed her temple and rubbed her shoulder before pulling her tighter against his side. She glanced down when she felt him pressing something into her hand and her eyebrows lifted when she saw the small green velvet box with a glittering red ribbon tied around it.

She accepted the gift and shifted slightly, carefully untying the ribbon and laying it across her lap. She looked up into his eyes, seeing his love for her and the quiet strength that had drawn her to him from the beginning. She lifted the lid, feeling the quiet protest of the tiny hinges and gasped quietly when she saw the ring nestled inside the box.

“Oh, Philip,” she whispered as a small smile settled on her lips. She lifted the ring out, identifying it as a mother’s ring when she pinpointed the birthstones of their children flanked by their own birthstones. Her thumb ghosted over the stones and her heart swelled when she saw the tiny stone between his and Max’. Zan, she thought, her heart aching for the grandson she would never hold again. Her hand rose to cover her heart as her eyes watered for what must have been the hundredth time that day. “It’s beautiful.”

Diane was watching him as he took the ring from her, the diminutive piece of jewelry dwarfed between his fingers. His hand shook just the slightest bit and she knew as much as he tried to hide it, to protect her from his own fears, that he held so much worry for their children and their grandson.

“So you always remember to believe,” he whispered, his thumb rubbing over the stones for a moment before lifting her hand up to press a warm kiss to the skin just above the ring.

She wrapped her arms around him and settled into his embrace, closing her eyes and listening to the reassuring beat of his heart. She smiled to herself as she imagined the sound of footsteps coming down the hallway, the looks on her children’s faces as they saw the tree and the look on Zan’s face when he saw the pile of presents bursting beneath the lowest branches. If only it was real. She rubbed her forehead against his shoulder and opened her eyes, freezing when she saw the two people standing in the doorway.

“Philip…”

*****

Kyle’s arm was nearly pulled out of its socket when Isabel barreled past him and yanked him behind her in her haste to reach her parents. But he just went along with it and hurried to keep up with her as they approached the couple who were now on their feet, the shock on their faces clearly expressed.

“Mom! Dad! It’s really me and I’m home!”

She threw herself into their arms and he was forced to endure a hug that felt like it would never end. Although it wasn’t as awkward as it could’ve been and it did put off the explanation as to why he hadn’t let go of their daughter’s hand.

“Isabel, honey, how is this possible?” Philip asked when he finally released her to take a step back.

Diane did the same, her hand staying on her daughter’s arm as her motherly gaze traveled over them. “Isabel, you’re… honey, you’re in your PJs and you’re both barefooted! Come over here and sit down.”

She could see the questions in their faces when their eyes landed on her hand, still firmly clasped in Kyle’s warm grip. Without giving it a second thought she pulled free of his hold and cut off his protest. “There has to be another way for you to keep us here. Try focusing on something in the room.”

Try focusing on something in the room, he mocked silently. Alright, well, there was the Christmas tree that looked remarkably similar to the one that had appeared in their cabin the night Isabel had gotten plastered on the beer batter Edward had used for the fish fry. Or there was the mantle above the fireplace that was dressed with fresh greens and scented candles. He released a pent-up breath and his gaze settled on her again. Her features were animated; filled with joy and contentment and he felt himself cave. His hand brushed her arm as he leaned in close to her.

“Okay, but promise to stick close, got it? If I start to do a fade-out I need to make sure I can get to you.” Her only response was to flash a quick smile in his direction and then her attention went right back to her parents.

Philip was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that his daughter and Jim Valenti’s son were standing in his living room. “So I take it you have some sort of ability that’s allowed you to bring Isabel home?”

Isabel reached for her parents’ hands before he had the opportunity to explain. “Mom, Dad, we probably don’t have much time. If you’re being watched we don’t wanna put you in more danger than you already are. The less you know the better off you are.”

“Don’t you worry about that, honey,” her dad assured her. “We have contingency plans in place.”

Diane made a shushing motion with her hand to stop the question-and-answer session. “How’s your brother? How’s Max? Didn’t he want to come home with you?”

She glanced at Kyle. “This was a last-minute decision. Mom, Max misses you guys so much. We were just talking about that recently and he told me how much he regrets not telling you and Dad about us when I wanted to tell you.” She looked between them and her heart contracted when she saw the love and acceptance in their eyes. “I always wanted to tell you.” She shut her eyes for a moment and swallowed hard before changing the subject. “Um… Jesse?”

Kyle turned to look at her fully, his eyes filled with concern as he watched her. He was unaware of the way her mother was watching him. He could see the tremors moving just under her skin, could almost feel the hot tears forming in her eyes. He moved to give her some space, facing away from her to allow her the privacy to deal with the emotions, but stayed close enough to grab her if it became necessary.

Diane’s thumb stroked her over her daughter’s hand as she contemplated her next words. She glanced down for just a moment when she felt the stone on the engagement ring her son-in-law had given to Isabel. She wasn’t surprised that she was still wearing it, certain that it was her way of trying to hold onto the life that had been ripped away from her.

Philip cleared his throat quietly and his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes that were soft but direct. “He stayed for a few months and when he didn’t hear from you, he left.”

Behind her Kyle could feel his muscles tensing up in response to the catch in her breath as she tried desperately to keep herself from falling apart.

“He’s in a safe place, honey.” Philip squeezed her hand. “He left you something. I’m gonna go get it, okay?” He paused at the doorway to look back at his little girl, praying she wouldn’t disappear before he got back.

She watched her dad get up and leave the living room, his steady gait taking him to his study. The air in her lungs suddenly gave way and in spite of her best efforts to hold it back a hiccup escaped and worked its way up to a sob. “Oh, Mom, you were right. I made a mistake with Jesse. I should’ve listened to you. To all of you; Max, Michael, even Alex… you all tried to tell me but I wouldn’t listen. I…”

Kyle was acutely aware of the moment Isabel fell into her mother’s waiting arms. He bit down hard on his bottom lip as the woman’s warm soothing voice began to calm her only daughter. He shoved his hands in his pockets and let his gaze wander around the room that was a reflection of the woman who had decorated it. He didn’t want to eavesdrop on the private conversation but he couldn’t exactly leave the room either.

“Shush, Isabel,” Diane whispered as she rubbed her little girl’s back. “Oh, honey, you and Max have had way too much to shoulder in your young lives and you’ve been alone in it.” Her eyes flicked up to take in the sheriff’s son. They didn’t know him that well, but she could feel the connection between him and her daughter. He was a source of strength for Isabel and his efforts to give them privacy while staying close by in case she needed him spoke volumes. She leaned back slightly and reached up to brush the hair out of Isabel’s eyes before letting her fingers drift down to wipe the tears from her cheeks. “You have nothing to apologize for here.” She didn’t comment on the inclusion of Alex in the list of people who had tried to convince Isabel that Jesse wasn’t right for her or that at the very least she was rushing things. She glanced up when her husband came back into the room with a folder in his hand.

Isabel smiled weakly at her dad when he sat down next to her mom and pulled a handkerchief out of his pants pocket. She accepted it with a teary laugh, clinging to the linen cloth like a lifeline. She pressed it to her nose, catching a whiff of his aftershave mixed in with the laundry detergent her mom had been using for as long as she could remember. She swallowed with difficulty when her eyes landed on the folder Dad was opening up and she dabbed at her face with the handkerchief when he held a pen out to her.

Philip pointed to two lines with X’s marked next to him. “Just sign and initial the document and it’s done.”

Her vision blurred until the letters on the divorce papers began to run together and she drew in a shaky breath when she felt a familiar hand settle on her shoulder, giving it a supportive squeeze before Kyle returned to his post. He was just there. His presence was reassuring, his easy acceptance a soothing balm to her wounded soul, and she wanted him to know just how much she appreciated everything he did for her. Of course, it would also embarrass him like nothing else if she ever came right out and told him.

Diane watched as her husband led Isabel through the signatures and initials even though they were clearly marked. Her gaze lifted to the sheriff’s son once again. He had stepped back, giving her plenty of space to do what needed to be done. His features were carefully blank, but when Isabel removed her rings and placed them in her father’s palm, she saw that mask slip and in her opinion the relief, the hope… the love there, said so much. And as she turned her attention back to her daughter she knew she hadn’t yet realized that the young man who had become her best friend and confidant was in love with her.

“Isabel.”

She turned her head, looking at Kyle and seeing the exhaustion in his features. Not just from the day, but from the strain of maintaining their presence in Roswell. They really didn’t know much about his new power yet and she could only imagine the toll it was taking on him. She could also see the regret in his eyes, the silent apology for interrupting her time with her parents. She nodded and looked at her parents once again.

“Mom, Dad, I don’t want to, but we have to go.” She gave a shaky laugh. “If Max and Michael knew he had done this they’d be having fits.” She shot a quick glance at him. “And this ability’s relatively new and Kyle’s never maintained it for this long.”

Diane and Philip stood and pulled their daughter into their arms, holding her tightly and wanting to never let her go. Eventually though, the reality of their situation intruded and they released their hold on her. Isabel smiled tightly as she looked around the room and her gaze paused on a framed picture that rested on a shelf.

“Mom, would you mind if I take that with me?”

Diane turned to follow her gaze and she hurried across the room to grab it even as Philip stepped around his daughter to extend his hand in Kyle’s direction.

“Kyle, we appreciate what you’ve done.” He lowered his voice as Diane and Isabel spoke in hushed tones over the photograph. “And thank you for taking such good care of her.”

“We take care of each other, Sir,” he said as he returned the man’s handshake.

Philip just nodded with a smile that said he understood what it took to take care of his little girl before going back over to his wife and daughter. He watched as Diane took a few steps in the young man’s direction, hugging him tightly as the heat of embarrassment flooded his cheeks.

“I can’t thank you enough, Kyle.” Her eyes were glistening as she met his gaze. “You’ll have to wait a while, but she’s worth the wait.” She patted his cheek and moved back away when her husband called her over, no doubt to save the poor boy from more discomfort.

Isabel wondered what all of that hushed conversation was about and hoped that her parents hadn’t completely embarrassed Kyle with their well-meaning gratitude. “Mom, Dad, I hope you know how much Max and I love you.” She threw herself back into their arms and clung to them with every ounce of strength she had. “Tell me you believe we’ll see each other again.”

Philip closed his eyes as he felt them begin to burn in response to his little girl’s plea and he inhaled deeply. “We’ll see each other again.” He didn’t know how, he didn’t know when, and he had no idea where, but he did believe every word he was saying as he made a promise to her. “You’re not alone in this anymore, honey.”

“No,” Diane whispered, her gaze locking with Kyle’s over Isabel’s shoulder, “no, you’re not.”

Isabel felt Kyle’s presence next to her and in spite of the momentary thought that they could take her parents back with them she stepped back and her hand slid into his without hesitation. “I love you both so much.” She blinked and in less than a heartbeat her surroundings changed and they were once again in their darkened cabin.

“Thank you, Kyle,” she said, her voice hushed and filled with tears of happiness as she hugged him. “Going home was the best gift anyone could’ve given me.”

He wrapped his arms around her, savoring the freedom to hold her for a moment before he dropped his arms and stepped back to give her a grin. “Well, even though you cut me off before I could get Jodi Ann into the showers…” He chuckled when she punched his arm. “I’m glad it worked out.” He pressed his forefinger to his lips. “But not a word of it to El Capitan or El Presidente, otherwise we’re gonna be in for it.”

She smiled and nodded. “You have my word.”

“C’mon, you’re beat.” He gestured to her bed. “You should get some sleep before it’s time to get up and make breakfast.”

Isabel slipped under the covers, smiling tiredly as he fussed over them for a moment. She reached over and set the framed 5x7 photograph on the table next to the bed, running her fingers over the edges before easing back into bed. She shuffled over and patted the mattress. “It’s warmer in here, Kyle, why don’t you stay?”

Yeah, because you’re in the friend zone so I can sleep next to you just like I could if you were Max or Michael, he thought, mimicking her voice in his head. He made a face and considered just going back to his own room but hers really was warmer and it wouldn’t be the first time he’d slept with her. He really had to do something before he did end up joining the monkhood. He got comfortable, leaving a blanket between him and the mattress, keeping something between them in an effort to avoid any completely embarrassing situations the next morning and sighed tiredly when she curled up next to him, already on her way back to dreamland. He turned his head to brush a kiss against her head and closed his eyes, hopping on that train right behind her.

She smiled a sleepy smile as the memories of the trip home infiltrated that hazy state between awake and asleep and she hoped it would lead her dreams in that direction. She snuggled up against Kyle’s side and sighed contentedly as she surrendered fully to sleep and just as the night sounds around her began to blur into white noise she heard him whisper, “Merry Christmas, Isabel.”
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KindredKandies
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A Tale of Two Christmases (Mature) -Part-60- 4/23/14

Postby KindredKandies » Wed Apr 23, 2014 7:05 pm

sarammlover: Kyle’s just been waiting for that moment. We’re so glad you enjoyed that little visit! Stevens Sanctuary really has provided our gang with the perfect place to rest and find their way back together.

keepsmiling7: Thanks!

Liz has had quite an emotional journey to reach the point where she could embrace the thought of having Zan in her life.

Philip and Diane definitely haven’t forgotten their grandson.

Isabel was ready to let Jesse go. Really, she had done it every way but officially.

Natalie36: Thank you so much! We’re glad you enjoyed it!

GregInClearwater: Thank you for the compliment!

Eva: Thanks!

Our couples are all showing the signs of finally being right with themselves and each other. That closure is so important and Isabel really needed it. Diane really did pick up on that right away, didn’t she? It was important for Kyle to have some hope too.

Timelord31: Thanks for reading!

Roswelllostcause: Welcome to our little world! Lol, and wasn’t that just the best place of all for a breakdown? Isabel wasn’t taking any chances on missing out on Christmas with the Stevens family. She knew how important it was to her and her family and friends. Kyle’s just been waiting to spring that surprise!

Alien_Friend: Thanks! Closure is so important and something that she was so far from being able to even think about finding it. Kyle did an amazing thing for Isabel and it’s something she won’t ever forget. He is a special guy and he has a big heart and so much caring inside of him for his friends and family.

Liz has had quite an emotional journey to reach the point where she could embrace the thought of having Zan in her life. It’s something that will really bring Max and Liz even closer.

Lol, definitely nothing awkward about that one!

This brief time over Christmas has really left an imprint on our gang and on the Stevens family. It’s a time they’re not likely to forget!

ceg: Welcome to our little world! We’re glad you’re enjoying the story!


Part 60

“Liz.”

“Hmm-mm,” she mumbled and burrowed deeper into the covers.

“Liz, wake up.” Max’s lips curved up in a smile as he whispered against her ear. “C’mon.” He shook her gently and chuckled when she shot a badly aimed elbow into his gut.

“Max, not now, I’m sleeping.”

Her mumbling was escalating to grumbling and he couldn’t help his amusement. “I’m not trying to wake you up at five in the morning so we can have sex. Not that I’m against the idea.”

Liz rolled her eyes even as she was trying to force them open. She flopped over onto her back and tried to glare at him, but it was so dark she could hardly make out his features. “Max…” she complained, trailing off when the fuzzy edges began to fade and his words suddenly untangled and became clear. “Wait, why’re you waking me up in the middle of the night?”

“You have to get up and get dressed.”

“This’s a first,” she muttered. Usually when he woke her up like this – rare though the occasions were – it wasn’t to put clothes on.

“We can take ‘em back off in a little while,” he said with a grin as he settled back to watch her, fingers laced behind his head.

“I don’t know what you’re up to but it’d better be worth getting outta bed this early.” She stumbled around in the dark, still not awake enough to really have her bearings, but finally succeeding in pulling her clothes on. “Now what?”

“C’mon, I got you a gift for Christmas.”

She froze in her tracks and turned to level a look at him, finding it easier to see now that her eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness. “You did not get me up to tell me Santa just stopped by.”

“Nope.” He grinned widely and held up the wrapped gift she hadn’t noticed before. “Just his Chief Reindeer Wrangler.” He shook the box but it didn’t make a sound. “C’mon, you know you wanna know what it is.”

“You know how much I love you, right?”

He smiled and nodded. “Of course.”

“Um-hmm, and you know how much sleeping straight through the night in an actual bed means to me, right?”

“Yeah.” His smile slipped when he realized every one of her calculated steps was bringing her closer to the bed and the look on her face said if she got her hands on him it wasn’t gonna be in a way he’d welcome at the moment. He scrambled up from the bed just as she launched herself at him and he laughed at her indignant shout.

“Max Evans, if I get my hands on you…”

“You’ll what?” he taunted. He knew it wouldn’t be long before he was able to get a smile out of her. He just had to stay alive long enough to get her to that point, he thought as he ducked the pillow she threw at him and shifted to the right when she made a move to get off of the bed again. He tried waving the box in her direction to get her attention.

“When did you even have time to go Christmas shopping?”

“Hey, Michael and I have been out a couple of times to pick things up.”

That gave her pause. He and Michael had been out a few times since they’d been stranded there, but each time they’d either been to the mechanic’s shop or to the hardware store. Oh, no, she thought, recalling discussions with Maria and Isabel about Michael’s inclination to shop for his girlfriend’s gifts at the hardware store. No, she consoled herself, Max would never do that. Unlike Michael, he actually had a romantic bone in his body… more than one really. But what if Michael had corrupted him? What if she had to find some odd, albeit useful gift wonderful?

Max looked down at the gift in his hands and then back at his wife, trying to figure out what was behind her speculative expression. It suddenly dawned on him and he laughed out loud. “You don’t actually think I let Michael pick it out, do you?”

“What? No, of course not!”

“Elizabeth Evans, you’re lying right through your teeth!” he accused, his voice laced with humor.

She held her hand in his direction, refusing to admit that he was right. “May I have it, please?”

“Huh-uh, no way, not now.”

“Max…”

He rolled off of the bed, keeping the gift close. “C’mon, let’s get ready.”

Liz looked down at herself. “I’m already dressed.”

“You can’t go outside like that.” He grabbed her hand and practically dragged her out of the bedroom and into the living room.

“It’s not enough I have to be up? Now we have to go outside? If it was cold before it’s gotta be even colder now.”

“Keep complaining and I won’t give you my present.”

She sighed and gave up. He wasn’t going to let it go until they’d done whatever crazy thing he’d come up with. She rolled her eyes and got ready, certain she could feel the satisfaction rolling off of him now that he’d gotten his way.

Fifteen minutes later she was certain she had been right about the temperature. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that it was even colder now than it had been before. Her eyes widened when they stopped at the edge of what appeared to be a field of ice that stretched as far as she could see. The wind gusted, sending an icy blast straight through them but as it settled and she looked up, her breath caught for a different reason.

“It’s somethin’ else, isn’t it?” Max asked quietly. He held the small box out to her and held his breath, shielding her from the wind while she opened it. He could just imagine she was hoping and praying it wasn’t something he was gonna teach her to use that might be useful at some point since they were running for their lives. He shoved the wrapping paper and ribbon in his coat pocket and gnawed on his bottom lip as she studied the box.

“Max…” her voice wavered as she ran her gloved fingertips over the picture on the front.

“It’s not a telescope, but I figured it’ll still get you closer to the stars.”

“No, this’s perfect,” she assured him as she fumbled with the box in her haste to open it up. “Can you imagine trying to use a telescope in the van?”

“I can imagine Michael’s suggestions about where we could put it,” he said with a laugh, holding the box when she finally succeeded in liberating its contents. “I know it’s not a ratchet set…”

She threw her arms around him and held on tightly as she whispered, “Thank you.” She leaned back and looked up at him, smiling at the soft look in his eyes as he watched her. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” he said with a smile and kissed her before turning her loose so she could try them out.

Liz ran her hands over the binoculars, wanting to really touch them but knowing better in this cold. She carefully pulled the protective covers off of the lenses and dropped them in the box Max was holding before bringing the binoculars up to her eyes and scanning the sky. “Max, they’re wonderful,” she breathed.

For a moment she was taken back to a cold night on her rooftop balcony while Alex prepared to show off his slides from his month in Sweden. He’d called them sissies and after a few days of these arctic temperatures, she’d have to agree with him. Later they’d sat there in companionable silence watching the slides and occasionally commenting on them and he’d insisted that she had to travel. She smiled slightly and looked up at the sky and the millions of stars sparkling like diamonds against a velvet backdrop.

It’s not exactly what you meant, but I’m definitely traveling, Alex, she thought and wondered if there was any chance he knew she was speaking to him.

Should she have been paying more attention, she wondered. Should it have somehow sounded the alarms when she had teasingly asked if she knew him and he’d admitted that there were times he looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize himself?

“Forgive yourself, Liz, and let it go. I never blamed you.”

She turned her head when the wind blew slightly, but somehow it wasn’t as cold as before, and she could’ve sworn she heard Alex speaking to her. She smiled and turned to her husband, urging him to look up at the stars while she pointed out constellations visible in the night sky. Even in the middle of nowhere he’d managed to find the perfect gift and she had to kick herself for thinking he would’ve ever been influenced by Michael’s gift-giving ideas.

*****

Maria rolled over and stretched, wiggling her toes and enjoying the warmth and comfort that accompanied the move. The cooled bed sheets on Michael’s side of the bed made her pause, but a heartbeat later she recognized the sounds of the water running in the shower and she relaxed back into the mattress. Childish joy spread through her at the realization that it was Christmas morning and she couldn’t hold back the face-splitting grin that broke free at the thought that they were celebrating the most wondrous holiday of the year in such a magical place.

Before today that magical place had been waking at home, lying in bed as the scent of her mom’s cooking wafted through the house. She closed her eyes and she could almost imagine walking down the hall in her PJs, the warmth surrounding her, and the mouthwatering scent of warm cinnamon beckoning her to come into the kitchen and indulge in the rolls Mom would be pulling out of the oven as she walked into the room.

Right now though they were safe, they were warm, they were together, and they were happy. Reality was waiting for them at the edge of the driveway and soon enough they would have to face it again, but for this brief moment in time she could pretend that this small corner of the world was theirs alone and that nothing could intrude on the peace they had found at Stevens’ Sanctuary. She rolled over again, snagging his pillow and wrapping her arms around it as she burrowed her face into it, soaking up his scent.

She yawned and turned her head to scan the cabin, taking in every inch of it that she could see from her position. A fire was roaring in the fireplace, she could smell the coffee brewing, and a hazy light seemed to lend a ghostly appearance to everything in the room. She glanced over her shoulder and realized that the light peeking around the edges of the curtains indicated daylight had finally broken and she wondered what time it was.

In spite of her wonderings she didn’t bother checking the time. She didn’t want any constraints put on the day, didn’t want to know how many hours they had left before their impending departure from this place. She just wanted to enjoy the day and made the decision to avoid consciously looking at the clock for the remainder of Christmas. Rolling out of bed she grabbed Michael’s shirt and pulled it on before digging around to unearth the present she’d been hiding since their trip to the Wal-Mart.

She practically floated across the room, her spirits lifted by the feeling of Christmas, warmth, and love that permeated her entire being. She found the perfect spot for his present and carefully nestled it into the white tree skirt that sparkled with red, green, and silver glitter. It was wrapped simply; she had used a page from the Sunday comics that Julia had said she could have and then used colored construction paper and Maggie’s assistance to create the tiny paper ring chain that wrapped around the gift in lieu of a ribbon.

She checked the water level at the base of the trunk and remembering Buckeye’s instructions decided to add a bit. Finished with that she dried her hands and went back to the tree, leaning in to cradle one of the branches and draw in its fresh scent. She closed her eyes for a moment and smiled to herself before she released it and reached for the plug. She had just plugged the cord in and was stepping back to take in the tree’s simple beauty when a pair of strong arms encircled her from behind and Michael kissed her neck.

“Merry Christmas.”

He was warm and damp and it wasn’t necessary to look at him to know he wasn’t wearing anything but the towel he’d used to whisk away the water that shaking like a wet dog hadn’t taken care of after getting out of the shower. “It is,” she agreed with a smile and leaned back into him, shooting a smile at him over her shoulder. “And Merry Christmas to you too.” She nodded at the tree. “Oh, and look! There’s a present for you!”

Michael’s eyes dropped to the bottom of the tree before lifting to meet her green eyes, easily reading the excitement and anticipation there. He wished he had that feeling, not for himself, because the holidays didn’t mean that much to him, but he wished he had it for her. He dropped his arms from around her to adjust the towel and shot a grin at her. “I’m thinkin’ clothes and coffee first.”

“Ungh, Michael! You can’t just pause the Christmas magic!”

“I’m Santa, watch me.” He was grinning as he walked away, knowing it was driving her mad to be put on hold, even temporarily.

“But, it’s Christmas morning and there’s a present under the tree!” How could he possibly just walk away when there was a little something there calling his name?!

“You missed elf roll call, Snowflake. It’s already afternoon and in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a draft that’d seriously put a damper on things for a guy sittin’ around in a damp towel.” Without bothering to comment any further he dropped the towel and reached for a pair of jeans, watching Maria as she gave a longsuffering sigh and padded over to fill his mug with hot coffee.

She was reaching for his mug when she noticed the brown paper lunch sack sitting next to it and blocking her own mug. “What’s…” Her eyes moved over the sack that looked like it’d been wadded up and possibly run over a couple of times and she reached over to pick it up, her fingers tracing over the bright Christmas-green glitter that spelled out her name. She smiled at the spongy feel of the glue beneath the glitter and her eyes watered as she took in the stickers in the shape of Santa Clause and snowflakes that had been used as decoration. “The wrapping’s so cute.” She smiled and turned to look at him. “Is this for me?”

Michael rolled his eyes. Sometimes she asked the dumbest questions! “No, it’s for my other girlfriend named Maria,” he deadpanned.

Maria smiled when she recognized her name written in Michael’s handwriting, the print sharp and precise. There was nothing soft about the letters, nothing rounded or looped, just crisp, concise lines, a clear reflection of the man who had written them. Even something as pliable as glue had bent to his will and formed perfect lines. She shook her head and smiled. “You decorated it.”

“Yeah, well, I had some help. There was a little elf helper who insisted on givin’ me a hand otherwise it would’ve just been a plain ol’ brown paper bag.”

She rolled her eyes at him, knowing what he was saying without him having to say anything. “Can we open our presents now?” she asked with glee.

“I don’t know, can we?”

“Michael!” she huffed, but couldn’t stop the smile. “Why don’t we start one of our new Christmas traditions right now? I’ll take our presents over to our chairs and you can go and get the coffee. Oh, and Michael? Don’t forget the half and half in mine.”

He shook his head and chuckled, wordlessly conceding defeat. Before he had even finished filling their mugs she was already in her chair, gift in hand. He could hear the telltale rustle of the tissue paper and he turned his head slightly. “No cheating over there, Snowflake.”

“Well, hurry up, Spaceboy, I can’t wait much longer.”

He smirked as he tapped the spoon against the edge of the Winnie the Pooh mug and then tossed it in the sink. “On my way, Snowflake.” He picked the mugs up, taking a drink of his and nodding in satisfaction. He carried them over and set them down on the small table that resided between their chairs. “Oh, and before you get too excited and implode, I want you to remember that we’re kinda in the middle of nowhere and there’s the added inconvenience of limited income, so…”

“Like I care about that.”

“Well, it’s not a bumper but it’s not pearl earrings either,” he said in an effort to cover the feeling of awkwardness that came over him as he picked up the gift waiting for him in his chair.

“Okay, so our tradition’s gonna be to see who can open their gift up the fastest,” she said, picking up on his discomfort when he sat down and fiddled with an edge of the small package. “And no stealing my gift and keeping it away from me while you open yours.”

“Any other terms?”

She paused, her eyes narrowed, mentally going over the so-called terms as if she was making sure she had covered everything. “No,” she said finally.

Michael raised an eyebrow, trying to play it cool while fighting down the desire to be doing anything but this. “Say when.”

She lifted the bag up, her fingers dancing over the red and green tissue paper peeking from the opening as she prepared for attack. “Okay… Ready… Set… WHEN!” And of course, being a professional Christmas gift opener, she had the tissue discarded in no time. The paper was still falling like confetti at midnight on New Years’ Eve when Michael dropped his gift in his lap, waved his hand over it, and the paper simply fell away to reveal his gift.

“Done!”

Maria shot a look at him, one of those [/i]‘Oh, no, you didn’t just do that, buddy’[/i] looks, and just a matter of seconds later she had successfully retrieved two bottles from their wrapping. She was on the verge of telling him a thing or two about cheating when she caught him looking at the Metallica CD with a genuine expression of surprise and pleasure and she swallowed the words. Instead, she uttered a soft, “Merry Christmas, Michael,” before turning her attention back to her gifts.

“Ah, shampoo and conditioner… and what’s this?” she asked with a knowing grin.

“Figured I’d stick with what was a hit last time. It’s a real time saver,” he said with a smirk and then shrugged. “And the bubble bath’s supposed to make your skin soft.” He nodded at the bottle. “At least that’s what it says.”

Maria laughed, the sound carefree and happy, and turned her gaze back to the label on the bottle. Both were made with organic ingredients; rich oils and spices, and she wondered if he knew how nice they really were as she opened one of the bottles to inhale the unusual but pleasing scent. “Michael, this’s wonderful.” She sniffed at the opening again. “Sweet and spicy.” She screwed the cap back on and got up long enough to reseat herself in his lap.

His arms came around her, holding her close and enjoying the feel of her against him. “Like that? Probably oughta tell you I had some help picking it out. My little elf helper advised me to pick the one with the smell that reminded me of you.”

She felt her body melt into him as she nuzzled his neck and inhaled the smell of his damp hair, the clean scent holding hints of smoke from the fireplace. “Thank you, Michael. All I wanted for Christmas was you.”

Michael’s arms tightened around her as he nodded. “Merry Christmas, Maria.”

*****

Isabel tossed her hair back over her shoulder and tugged on the hem of her red sweater as she looked around the tiny kitchen. Miniscule was really the most fitting word, but regardless she would miss it when they left the next morning. She had known the impromptu blizzard would only buy them a small amount of time, but it would get them through Christmas and that suited her just fine.

She paused to listen to the occasional snort interspersed with the soft snoring coming from the other room and it brought a smile to her face. Kyle had to be exhausted after their roundtrip to Roswell last night. She didn’t really understand how it worked but she was so grateful that it did and that he had taken the time to give her the best Christmas she could’ve hoped for. She’d be lying if she denied that she’d wanted to ask him to take her to see her parents, but as desperately as she’d wanted that she had seen the toll his new power took on him and she couldn’t in good conscience ask him to put himself through that for her.

Her thoughts still on the visit with Mom and Dad, she moved to the freezer and pulled the door open, waving the palm of her hand over the bottom to reveal the tin the Sheriff had brought to them on his visit. In spite of the guys’ protests, they had all agreed that they wouldn’t look inside until it was time to indulge in whatever treat Maria’s mom had lovingly sealed within the containers’ walls. She pried the lid off and even frozen the scent of the contents rose to greet her.

It was perfect, she thought as she moved to the counter and reached over to turn the oven on. She was smoothing a sheet of tin foil over a baking pan when her gaze caught the thin white lines on her third finger and she reached over to run her fingers across the naked skin where her rings had resided until a few short hours ago. She fisted her hand for a moment before flexing it a couple of times and then stretching her fingers out so she could really look at it.

Sometimes it felt like a lifetime had passed since she’d accepted Jesse’s proposal, since she’d put his ring on and promised to be his wife. Ever since she was a little girl she’d wanted to someday have what her parents had; a strong, loving relationship filled with a million memories and held together by love, trust, understanding, and the desire to make it work. How had she expected to have that with Jesse? Trust, the very foundation of any good relationship, hadn’t been there. On the surface it was there, but if she’d trusted him completely she would’ve ignored Max and Michael’s directive that she not tell him the truth.

Had Max consulted either of them before he had spilled the entire story to Liz, who in turn, had told Maria? No. Had Michael consulted either of them before making the majority of his decisions? No. She had told the guys that she wanted to tell Jesse the truth, but if she were being completely honest with herself, what she had wanted was what everyone important in her life had: a real connection with their significant other, something that just couldn’t exist if the truth wasn’t laid out between them.

She knew now that Jesse wouldn’t have handled the truth well. Oh, she didn’t believe he would’ve turned her in or anything, but she didn’t believe they would’ve made it very far either. She flexed her left hand again and shook her head. She hadn’t realized just how much weight she had been carrying around by holding onto the rings. She hoped that Jesse would continue to move on and find someone who really deserved him. He was a good guy, a decent guy, but he wasn’t wired to deal with the alien insanity. She tried to imagine him in their current situation, running from the FBI, living in the van with no sense of privacy, and not knowing what was coming at them next, and she just couldn’t do it. He was a man who liked order in his life and all of the chaos that surrounded them would’ve made him miserable to a completely different degree than what the rest of them dealt with on a daily basis.

But he was moving on. She ran her thumb over the thin white strips on her ring finger. And now so was she. That thought brought a smile to her face and as she once again lost herself in the memory of seeing her parents, hugging them, and just soaking up their presence, she reached for the tin and began singing quietly to herself.

*****

Kyle yawned and stretched lazily before relaxing back into the mattress. It took a moment before he realized that he hadn’t come into contact with the wall he’d slept against and he moved his limbs experimentally. The discovery that he was sprawled out in the center of the bed made him grin like a loon. Lots of room and it was all his. Oh, yeah, that was great! He rolled over and flopped on his belly, sinking into the fluffy pillows and drawing in Isabel’s scent. Um-hmm, he could start his day like this with no complaint, he thought as he wrapped his arms around the pillow and let himself begin to doze off again.

He cringed at the intrusive sound of a metallic squeal of protest but just a moment later the racket was gone. The strong aroma of freshly brewed coffee teased his senses but it was something else that began to pull him from his comfortable sleep. Something that had him rolling over again as he reached for it, tried to identify it, and his brows pulled down in a frown as he lost it. The frown relaxed as the elusive sound came back into focus and he could picture Isabel in the kitchen, moving around and getting ready for the morning as her voice began to filter in to him again. She was humming something familiar that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

He brought his hands up to his face, giving it a rough rubdown before wiping his eyes. What was it? He knew it, he was sure of it. He started to hum along with her very quietly and after a few minutes the words came to him and he rolled his eyes. Home for the Holidays. Of course, he thought with a slight smile. As the words of the song fell into place he found he could appreciate them a lot more than he ever had before. In the past it had just been one of those sappy Christmas songs that he switched off before the overly-sentimental lyrics could make him barf.

He blinked a few times in an effort to clear his blurry vision and he glanced around at his surroundings. His smiled widened when his gaze landed on the comforter from his room that had been added to the pile of blankets. It was probably the warmest, most comfortable night he’d had since they’d been there. He didn’t let his thoughts go any further, slamming the door on them before he could read more into her caring gesture. It was cold and it was just an extra blanket to keep a friend warm, that’s all there was to it.

He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that it didn’t occur to him that her humming had suddenly fallen silent until he realized it had been replaced with an elf rendition of Jingle Bells. Isabel was many things, but an elf she wasn’t, which could only mean one thing: they were about to have company. His half-awake brain registered the sound of the door opening and boots striking the floorboards even as his body fought to free him of the blankets that just moments before had been so comforting. Now they were like a prison, determined to keep him from escaping and thwarting his every attempt to kick them off.

Damn it, they were suddenly like some sort of living thing! He kicked at them and bit back a curse when his toes made direct contact with the wall. His eyes watered in response to the sharp pain, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. The fight continued and he could hear the voices as the girls greeted each other cheerfully. Another few moments and he took the upper hand, freeing himself from the confines of his prison and catapulting himself to his feet unsteadily. His toes burned where he had cracked them against the wall but he ignored them in favor of ducking into the bathroom.

His escape was nearly complete when he made the mistake of glancing up and locking gazes with Michael. He could see Max standing right there beside him but one speculative look was enough for him and he shot into the bathroom and shut the door, leaning back against it heavily and expelling the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding as the lock clicked into place.

Michael was just being Michael. He consoled himself with that thought as he went about his morning routine. The guy watched everyone like a hawk. That was just his thing. He nodded to himself as he stared at the water running in the sink, rinsing the soap from his hands and creating a small mountain of bubbles that hid the drain. Okay, it was a little awkward that Michael had caught him ducking out like that, but he could avoid making it any worse. Yeah, he thought as he cupped his hands and filled them with water so he could splash his face. Yeah, he could just play it cool and no one would be the wiser. He was Kyle Valenti after all. He knew how to play it cool and avoid drawing unwanted attention.

He relaxed fractionally. No problem, he had it all under control. Or so he thought until he lifted his head and caught his reflection in the mirror and his little fantasy was blown right out of the water. He had major bed-head going on and he was wearing his clothes from the day before. He snatched up a towel to dry his hands and face, jumping when a heavy knock sounded on the door.

“Yo, Valenti, you wanna move it along? The Christmas Nazi’s holdin’ breakfast up until you grace the place with your presence.”

Kyle grabbed Isabel’s comb and started to run it through his hair. “Hold your reindeer, Santa, I’m on my way.”

“Uh-huh, it’s takin’ you an awful long time in there. Speaking of movin’ things along… maybe you need to start incorporating prunes into your diet.”

“And maybe I could suggest where you could stick a pair of reindeer antlers,” he growled when he jerked the door open and shouldered his way past the other guy.

“Y’know, constipation can really screw with your mood,” he continued, shooting a glance at the bed as he followed Kyle out of the bedroom and into the main room of the cabin. He stopped when his friend suddenly whirled around and thumped his fist right into the center of his chest.

“I guess you’d know all about that then, wouldn’t you?” He turned on his heel and walked into the kitchen area, gratefully accepting the mug of coffee Isabel held out to him while shooting a reproachful look at Michael. He smirked when the look was enough to cool the hybrid’s heels for a while and it gave him a momentary reprieve. By no means did he think he was off the hook, but at least for now there wouldn’t be any awkward questions about where he had spent the night.

The girls were gathered around the stove and they turned to look at him, smiling and coming over to give him a hug and wish him a Merry Christmas. He returned the sentiment and then shifted his gaze to look at Isabel, lifting the mug and giving her a slight nod. He tried not to think about what her smile did to him when she gave him the real thing and instead focused on the stove when he caught another scent, something sweet that overrode the strong aroma of hot coffee.

“It smells so good, doesn’t it?” Liz asked, not missing the looks being exchanged between him and Isabel, but not commenting on them either.

“And so perfect for Christmas morning,” Maria enthused as she and Liz grabbed his arms and led him over to the stove. If they kept things light Michael and Max would keep their thoughts to themselves and let that earlier moment go until later when they could have one of their ‘guy talks’ rather than call him on what was going on right there in front of all of them. As far as she was concerned it wasn’t any of their business and if Kyle and Isabel didn’t want to share she saw no reason to pry into their… whatever. “Mom makes these cinnamon rolls every Christmas morning and I’m so glad that’s what was in the tin your dad brought with him.”

“Yeah, it’s funny, huh? He didn’t even know what he was getting when he grabbed it.”

“So, are we gonna talk about how great they are or actually eat them?” Michael asked, his tone laced with impatience.

Max just laughed and shook his head as he took a seat at the little table and watched the others. He hadn’t missed that little moment as Kyle made his escape either, but there was something different about Isabel this morning; something he couldn’t put his finger on, but whatever it was he knew it was a good thing. There was a sort of freedom in her movements, as though she had shed some heavy burden, and if Kyle was in some way responsible for that then that was fine with him.

He looked up and smiled at his wife when she placed a plate with two cinnamon rolls on it before him and as he lifted it up and his senses were assaulted by the sticky sweet scent he was suddenly back in the Crashdown Café. He had never gone there for the food, sweet or not, but he knew he’d eaten the cinnamon rolls on more than one occasion. He preferred the ones his own mom made, but in this moment he was sure she’d forgive him for thinking they were possibly the best thing he’d eaten since leaving home.

The easy conversation ebbed and flowed as the gang indulged in the homemade goodness of warm gooey cinnamon rolls from home, most of them liberally dashing the treats with hot sauce. The atmosphere was relaxed and as Michael observed his friends, his family, he considered bringing up a few things that he felt they needed to settle before they got back on the road. His eyes shifted to his girlfriend when she launched into a story of Christmas when she was eight years old. Before long Liz was chiming in to add her memories and even Isabel shared a story or two, and he let it go for now.

There would be time enough for that later. For this moment the world outside didn’t exist. They were safely ensconced in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, celebrating Christmas together and just soaking up this rare moment of peace. He gave Maria a small smile when she slipped her hand into his and he nodded, letting her know he would wait even as he wondered how she had known what he was thinking.

His attention shifted to Isabel when she and Max started talking over each other in an attempt to tell some story about one of their many childhood Christmases. Her features were animated and her happiness drew a like reaction from her brother and he saw Max completely relax as he got into the storytelling. She gestured a lot as she talked and it wasn’t until her hands dropped to wrap around her coffee mug that he was able to pinpoint what it was that was different about her today.

She wasn’t wearing her rings.

His speculative gaze slid over to Kyle who was busy stuffing his face and looking like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter. He wondered if they were doing it. Not that he really cared one way or the other, he was just curious. The fact that she had taken her rings off was a pretty big deal. In all the time since they’d been gone from Roswell he’d never see her without them and now suddenly Kyle was sleeping in her bed and she wasn’t wearing her rings. Uh-huh, definitely worth wondering about, he mused.

He popped the last bite of his cinnamon roll in his mouth – the center because everyone knew it was the best part – and chewed slowly as his gaze shifted to the lone roll sitting on the pan on the stovetop. It was crying out for someone to take notice of it and he was prepared to alleviate its loneliness when he noticed that someone else was moving in on his target.

Kyle and Michael met up at the stove, facing off over the last cinnamon roll.

“My cabin, my roll.”

“My girlfriend’s mom made it, my roll.”

Isabel rolled her eyes, not even bothering to look at them as she called over her shoulder, “Just split it down the middle and each of you take half.” She shook her head as she looked at Maria and Liz. “I swear, sometimes it’s like dealing with children.”

Max snorted at that description. “You’re surprised why?”

Liz rolled her eyes at him before looking at her sister-in-law. “I think it’s one of those things that’s definitely ingrained in the male gender.”

“You want that last roll?” Kyle’s eyes gleamed with challenge. “Take the Candy Castle.”

Michael straightened up. “You cheated last time!”

“I didn’t cheat,” he denied. “I simply took the most direct route.”

“Cheater!”

Kyle just snorted and shrugged. “Hey, if you don’t think you can beat me we’ll just do as Isabel suggested and you can have half of the roll.” He smirked. “Or you can play me for it and you can maybe have the whole thing.”

“Set up the board, Valenti,” he growled. He turned to look at Maria when Kyle nodded and backed away, his eyes locked on the roll to make sure it didn’t move from the pan. “Watch this roll until I come back for it.”

She bit back a grin and saluted, laughing out loud when he shot a glare at her before following Kyle over to the battlefield of Candy Land. It only took a matter of minutes before the guys were completely absorbed in the game and neither of them noticed Max standing over them until he cleared his throat and pointed out the error of Michael’s current move.

“Don’t correct my moves when you’re not even playing. If you…” His eyes narrowed when he looked up in time to see Max pop the last bite of a cinnamon roll in his mouth and lick his fingers clean.

“That better not have been the victory roll,” Kyle growled as he pushed himself up on his knees to see the stovetop.

Max shrugged. “It was getting cold and they’re best when they’re hot.”

“It’s like watching someone eating while standing in front of the bear cage at the zoo,” Liz mumbled.

“Yeah, a bear cage with no door,” Maria agreed.

“This could get ugly,” Isabel said, watching as the opponents facing off across the board suddenly exchanged a look.

The girls winced when the Candy Land board went flying as Michael and Kyle launched themselves at Max. They watched the boys wrestle for a few minutes, clueless as to what it was going to achieve and finally deciding there was no understanding why guys did some of the things they did.

Isabel stood and looked at the girls. “More coffee?”

Maria and Liz both nodded and shook their heads at the guys before turning their attention back to their conversation about past Christmases. Between the three of them they had plenty of stories to share and as the afternoon wore on and the guys finally collapsed on the furniture in the living area to watch TV, the girls continued to reminisce and bond over holiday memories even as they created new ones they would look back on in years to come.

*****

The fire was crackling in the wood-burning stove, throwing off heat and lending a cozy ambience to the room. Edward was settled in his chair, enjoying the comfort provided by a piece of furniture that was nearly as old as Brian. He watched his wife for a few minutes as she made small talk with his mother and aunt, grateful for her ability to so easily do something that was so foreign and unnatural for him.

He tolerated visits from Aunt Connie with a lot more ease than he did visits from his mother, but when they came together his aunt had a way of insinuating her opinion about the strained relationship between mother and son and he couldn’t say he appreciated it. Some things simply couldn’t be mended but unfortunately that didn’t stop her from trying. He knew she meant well; he just wished she wouldn’t meddle.

His fingers unconsciously tapped out a rhythm against the side of his beer bottle, keeping time with the tune Eddie was playing on his new electric guitar. His youngest boy couldn’t decide whether to stick with the electric or acoustic guitar and he continued switching between them. The kids had made out like little bandits, but as much of a hassle as it was to spend hours assembling and wrapping gifts every year, this was what made it all worthwhile. Sitting back and watching his kids enjoy their hard-earned presents.

His gaze shifted to Brian. His oldest and of course, the coolest if his opinion of himself was to be believed, had reacted to his own presents with the exuberance and enthusiasm of a child and it had brought tears to Julia’s eyes. As soon as the boy had realized he wasn’t acting like Mr. Cool he’d tried his best to cover, but he’d given his mother more happiness in those few minutes than he would ever know. He had donned the personalized Red Wings jersey he’d been given and now he was busy channel surfing. The new hockey skates he’d received were close by and every once in a while he’d reach out and his fingers would ghost over the protected blades.

He was contemplating tickets for an early April game at “The Joe” in Detroit when his thoughts were interrupted by his baby girl. Maggie was tugging on his hand, her wide blue eyes focused on him as she directed her question at him for what had to be the fourth or fifth time in the past two minutes or so.

“Daddy, is it time for me an’ Puppy to wait in the kitchen with Miss Cindy for Michael an’ Maria?”

“I’m sure you’ll hear them knock when they get here, sweetie,” Julia said with a smile.

“But Mama…” she trailed off as she shifted to resituate the yellow Labrador puppy and Miss Cindy.

“That’s two of the young people staying with you?” Candace asked, the question directed at her son.

Edward sighed quietly. Even the attempt at making simple conversation grated on his nerves but he forced a smile and nodded. It was times like these when he really missed Julia’s parents. He wasn’t the type to enjoy big crowds, but having her parents around at Christmas had given him a buffer between him and his mother.

“Granma Candy,” Maggie giggled, “you ‘member I told you all ‘bout Michael an’ Maria.”

“Oh, that’s right, dear, you did, didn’t you?” Candace smiled at her granddaughter’s openness, regretting that she didn’t that level of ease with her son and probably never would.

Edward relaxed back into his chair when his youngest picked up the conversation with the ease her mother approached such situations with. Well, he might not have Julia’s parents around this year, but he did have six guests who would provide a nice buffer, he thought. His mind wandered to the next day, the much anticipated – if only for fathers – day after Christmas when things would fall back into a normal, quieter routine. Fishing trips with the boys and meals of leftovers he’d make that week, giving Julia a chance to rest a bit in the holiday aftermath. He took a drink of his beer, absentmindedly listening to Maggie go on and on about her Captain of the Guard and almost missing it when a sharp knock sounded on the kitchen door. He sat up straighter and glanced at his wife.

“I’ll get that.”

In spite of his longer legs and his desire to leave the room, Maggie managed to beat him to the door, her speed no doubt fueled by her excitement at introducing her new puppy to their guests, Michael in particular. She pulled the door open and before Michael had so much as gotten his foot over the threshold he had been attacked by a bundle of golden fur.

Puppy, as he would be known until a suitable name could be bestowed upon him, barked and growled at Michael. The puppy reared up on his back legs, his stocky body twisting slightly before his front paws landed on the floor at Michael’s feet while his rump stuck up in the air. His tail snapped back and forth like an out of control windshield wiper as he growled and snapped at a shoestring.

“No, Puppy,” Maggie scolded joyfully as she scooped him up off of the floor, “this’s Michael an’ he knows Santa.”

But Puppy didn’t seem to care about Michael’s elevated status, making his opinion known when he leaned forward and nipped at the man’s coat.

“Smart dog,” Kyle muttered as he shoved his way past Michael, nudging him far enough out of the way that the rest of them could get inside. The mouthwatering scent of too many good things to name greeted them, carried on the warm air and welcoming them inside.

Michael ignored him in favor of crouching down to Maggie’s level, soaking up her warmth and love when she launched herself into his arms for a hug. He gave Puppy a good rub and a scratch behind the ears when his wiggles of protest finally made his mistress move back. Between the jingle bells on the dog’s red collar and the ones decorating the elf outfit she was wearing again it was hard to tell which of them was making the most noise. “Bet he’s gonna be a good guard dog.”

“Yeah, like you’d know a good guard dog if you ever saw one.”

He just smirked at the grumbled words and shot a look at Kyle over his shoulder. “I’m thinkin’ maybe we should get Isabel one. Somethin’ that’d protect her at night, keep the boogeyman away.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Maggie was right in plain view Kyle would’ve flipped him off. But, as it was, they had a young audience so it’d have to wait. Instead, he turned and let his gaze wander over the veritable feast laid out on every available surface. The extra leaves had been added extending the tables’ length and it was draped with a festive Christmas tablecloth and decorated with candles and some kind of greenery with flowers at its center. To the side another smaller table had been set up in a similar manner.

Max was helping Liz out of her coat when his gaze shifted to Isabel where she stood, taking it all in with a level of enjoyment that hadn’t been there before. Oh, she’d enjoyed taking the helm for Christmas on the Lake and of course, overseeing the Christmas Eve festivities, but now there was a peacefulness in her that had been missing. He watched her reach out to Kyle, her hand resting briefly on his shoulder as she directed his attention to the Christmas-themed dinnerware and the mistletoe-shaped napkin rings that encircled the silverware next to each place setting. He had a feeling the guy couldn’t care less about any of that, but his body language spoke volumes when he shifted slightly into her space at the contact.

“Isn’t he just the most adorable puppy,” Maria enthused as she joined her boyfriend and Maggie.

Puppy’s nose traced a path along Maggie’s arm, inhaling deeply every inch or so, snuffling loudly when he reached the bend in her elbow and burying his nose there. She giggled and hugged Puppy tighter for a moment before she stepped back, giving Michael room to rid himself of his winter gear.

“Looks like that letter to Santa paid off,” he said as he leaned over to untie his boots.

Maggie’s eyes widened as she nodded. “Santa left Puppy with Aunt Connie and Granma Candy. There was a box with shiny green paper and a big silver bow an’ can you guess what was inside?”

“Hmm…” he pretended to think about it for a minute, smiling to himself at the impatient jingle of little elf feet. “Oh, I know.” He glanced at her and winked. “Pooper scooper.”

She laughed and shook her head with a long, drawn-out, “Noooo.”

“You’d think Santa would’ve thought of that.” He pursed his lips and tried again. “Oh, I know. I’ve got it this time. Flea collar.”

“No!” she laughed even louder.

“I give up. What’d Santa leave in that big box with shiny green paper and a big silver bow?”

“Puppy food an’ a note from Santa.”

He stood and toed his boots off, placing them on the rug beneath the line of hooks where the others had already hung their winter gear and placed their boots, wondering how they’d managed to move so fast. He was straightening up when he heard footsteps and he turned to see Julia come into the kitchen. She was dressed in black jeans and a red sweater that really showed off the string of pearls hanging around her neck. He paid little attention to Isabel’s comment about how lovely the woman looked with her new pearls, but as his searching gaze moved to Maria, seeking his own less recent gift of pearl earrings, he caught sight of Edward’s chest puffing up with pride at a well chosen gift and he could relate to that feeling. Okay, technically he hadn’t picked them out, but he was the one who had given them to her.

“Dinner’s all ready,” Julia said, her cheeks still showing off the slight blush that had graced them in response to the memory of Edward gifting her with the pearls. “We’re just gonna let the turkey rest before carving it up. Why don’t you come into the living room for a few minutes?”

“Why’s the turkey resting?” Michael muttered to Maria. The stupid thing couldn’t be tired. It was dead and roasted.

Maggie giggled and pressed Miss Cindy into the crook of his arm. “You’re so funny, Michael.”

“Oh, yeah,” Kyle said with a roll of his eyes, “he’s a real riot.”

She shot an odd look at Kyle before looking back up at Michael, smiling when she saw him shift Miss Cindy deeper into the crook of his arm. “C’mon, I can interduce you to Granma Candy an’ Aunt Connie.”

Maria slid her hand into his and rubbed his arm when she felt the tension thrumming through him in spite of the smile he gave his little admirer. She knew he wouldn’t like going in and meeting more new people, knew how much he’d rather be back at the cabin going over their plan to leave the next morning, and overseeing everyone’s packing to make sure they were ready on time. But while she had no doubt he was mentally doing all of that, he was making this effort for his friends, his family, and one very special little girl.

She knew how much he appreciated everything the Stevens family had done for them, but this was seriously pushing him out of his comfort zone. Just spending the day amongst themselves, with only the six of them, could sometimes push the limits of his tolerance for gatherings of any kind, so add in their hosts and now a grandmother and an aunt and he was ready to rush the closest exit. She had a feeling he’d settle a bit during dinner as long as the attention wasn’t focused on him, so she hoped Julia was right and it wouldn’t be but a few minutes before they sat down at the tables that were dressed for the feast.

Michael caught the smile on his girlfriend’s face, felt her fingers moving on his arm and keeping time with the music coming from the living room. He doubted she even knew she was doing it. Music spoke to her the way paint and charcoal called to an artist. It was ingrained in her soul and one way or another it demanded an outlet so that it could simply be. It was some Christmas song that she no doubt knew by heart but the moment they stepped into the room and the little bundle of raging hormones noticed her, the tune quickly switched to something a little more suited for a boy Eddie’s age.

He could appreciate the music choice as the boy settled into Nothing Else Matters by Metallica and he almost laughed at the shocked and confused look on the face of the older woman standing next to him. Has to be Grandma, he thought with an internal snort. She looked down at what was probably sheet music, frowning in consternation as she studied it. He could even appreciate the fact that the kid obviously had good taste in the opposite sex, but that was as far as his appreciation of the boy’s attentions toward Maria went.

*****

Kyle watched his friends as they sat around the table, more animated than usual as they talked and laughed. It was good to see them all so relaxed. Even Michael was more relaxed than normal, which was fairly unusual, but given the atmosphere and their friends’ moods, it made sense. He knew him well enough to see the underlying signs of impatience that he was keeping a lid on in an effort to prolong their joy for the duration of the evening, but he was also ready to go. He could only imagine how foreign this was to his friend, but it spoke volumes that he was willing to endure it for the rest of them. Maria mostly, he conceded, but he was fine with that.

Michael had looked ready to bolt not long after they’d arrived, his discomfort notched up several levels as he was hit with introductions to the kids’ grandmother and aunt, quickly followed by the presentation of filled stockings complete with new scarves and hats, and right after that had been the gift of luggage that had been brought by for them earlier by Big Dave. Apparently Mrs. Tony had gotten wind of what they’d done for the community and she’d insisted the man give them anything they might need. Thanks to Edward, their luggage situation – or the lack thereof, had become known to the storekeeper and he’d seen an opportunity to unload it.

Oh, the girls had expressed their appreciation for the fine gifts and he could only commend the ability of the fairer sex to gush over receiving a well-intentioned gift that they wouldn’t give to their worst enemy. The luggage itself was certainly appreciated, it was just the fact that it looked like something he’d seen Grandpa hauling around as he followed Grandma into the house on one of their visits when he was little. He had a feeling the luggage would be getting a makeover the second they pulled out of the driveway.

His gaze shifted to Maria, not missing the way she reached over to place her hand on Michael’s arm. The touches calmed him and seemed to soothe her at the same time. It was amazing to him how far they had come from the unstable relationship they’d had in the beginning. Just a few short weeks ago he wouldn’t have seen this coming. It had been unspoken that they were together but not together. There was an ease between them now, an acceptance that hadn’t been there before and it looked good on them.

He turned his head to look at Max and Liz, chuckling when he saw them talking quietly, their heads close together. She blushed lightly at something he said and pushed her shoulder into his chest but there was a smile on their faces. It was good to see that things between them were finally settling into something resembling normal. When things were right with the two of them the rest of them had to suffer with the overly-sentimental, romantic, and toothache-inducing sweetness that suffused their relationship, but even he would admit that he’d rather deal with that than the painful silences and distance that had been there for so long.

He was pulled out of his thoughts when Julia came over to the table with a large baking dish that she placed before Edward. He sighed quietly at the familiar scent of cheesy potatoes complete with crumpled bacon on top wafted past him as she peeled the foil cover off. She patted her husband’s shoulder and pressed a kiss to the top of his head before backing away to retrieve one last dish. The scent was as enticing as it was nauseating and he had to swallow down the urge to excuse himself from the table.

He didn’t hate Christmas… exactly. But there were other holidays that he’d much rather celebrate. New Years’ Eve for one, now there was a holiday he could get behind. Kick back on the couch and watch Rudolph’s Shiny New Year with a beautiful blonde hybrid. Or the Fourth of July with beer and fireworks out on the lake. It might not be the most ambitious of ideas, but right now he’d take either of them over the feast laid out before him.

He was pulled out of his musings when Maggie started chattering to Michael and he forced himself to listen, hoping it would shove down the memories that were trying to surface once again.

“When Big Dave came over to bring your big present Mrs. Dayna and Michelle came too an’ she brought her new puppy. He’s black and she named him Coal.” The little girl’s eyes twinkled and she giggled as she continued. “He’s Puppy’s brother an’ Santa brought him for Michelle. Oh, an’ guess why she named him Coal, Michael!”

As always, he noticed that any time the guy interacted with the little girl he relaxed to a certain degree. Michael stopped with a serving spoon piled high with homemade mashed potatoes halfway between his plate and the bowl so he could look at her. He had to applaud anyone who could actually get the guy to so much as pause when he was fixing a plate or eating.

Michael shot a small smile at Maria before looking over at Maggie where she sat at the smaller table with her brothers in spite of her numerous attempts to convince her mother she should be allowed to sit at the big table with the grownups. “Just a guess, but is it because he’s the same color as the coal Santa leaves in the stockings of kids who aren’t on the nice list?”

“Guessing you’d know all about that,” Kyle muttered under his breath and then jerked back when the comment earned him a kick under the table that would leave a bruise for certain.

Kyle rolled his eyes when Maggie grinned and nodded, oblivious to the fact that her knowledgeable hero had just kicked the hell out of him. A very un-Santa-like behavior he was sure. He was leaning over to rub his leg as unobtrusively as possible when Julia returned with one last dish that she placed in the empty spot in front of Michael.

Whoever said revenge was a dish best served cold couldn’t have been more wrong, he thought when he saw the sickly green tint that momentarily passed across Michael’s features at the sight of green bean casserole. Personally he hated it, but based on the look on his good friend’s face, his dislike of the stuff went so much deeper. It didn’t matter how anyone cooked it or how they dressed it up, to him it was always gonna look like something a camel with a bad sinus infection coughed up. “Wow, Julia, I have to admit I’m not a big fan of that particular casserole, but you have just made Michael’s Christmas! He was just saying earlier that he was really gonna miss that this year and here you’ve gone and made it. Will you look at that, buddy?” His eyebrows did a little forehead dance as he nodded, enjoying the rare opportunity to have the upper hand.

“Julia, you’ve done enough work, woman,” Edward said as he reached for her hand and gave it a small tug. “Sit down and let’s eat.”

Julia allowed him to urge her into her seat. “Say grace and afterwards I’ll just grab the rolls so they’re nice and hot, right out of the oven.”

In spite of their silent war, Kyle and Michael exchanged a look as everyone around the table bowed their heads respectfully while Edward said grace. He could remember his grandma always insisting that his grandpa said grace before meals, but it hadn’t really been practice in his own home unless his grandparents had been visiting. He knew without asking that it had never been a part of Michael’s upbringing so it was just one more foreign concept to endure as they celebrated Christmas with the Stevens family.

Afterwards while Julia went to get the rolls Edward stood to carve the turkey. He shifted things to make room, sliding the dish of cheesy potatoes over to rest directly in front of Kyle’s plate and he reached for the platter holding the large turkey. He nodded when Brian showed up at his elbow with his plate, reminding him that he wanted one of the legs. It wasn’t long before Eddie showed up on his other side insisting that he wanted the other one. He quickly placed the legs on the boys’ plates and sent them back to their table, uninterested in listening to them bicker over which one could eat an entire turkey leg the fastest. He glanced at Kyle and used the carving knife to motion to the potatoes. “Go ahead and serve yourself.”

“I think I’ll just have mashed potatoes and gravy,” Kyle said with a shake of his head. He wasn’t sure he could stomach the others, not today.

Edward nodded and went back to carving. “Dark or white?”

“Ham, I’ll just have ham.”

“Figured you for a turkey man.” He glanced up from the turkey to smile at his guest, turning deftly to slide a few slivers of thinly cut white meat onto Maggie’s plate when she appeared next to him.

It was stupid how a conversation about turkey and cheesy potatoes was turning his stomach into a knotted mess. “Would you mind if I just stepped outside for a minute?” He tugged at his collar.

Isabel turned to look at him. “Kyle?”

He shook his head. “I’m fine, just a little warm.” He rested a hand on her shoulder, unaware of the fine tremors racing through his frame. “I’ll be back in just a few minutes.” Before anyone could stop him or call him back he grabbed his coat and stepped out onto the porch. He rubbed his hands together and moved to the furthest end so that he was out of view, closing his eyes and lowering his head so that his mouth and nose were buried in the upturned collar of his coat so he could breathe in deeply.

“You’ve got to let this go.”

His head turned sharply and he stared in wonder. He couldn’t stop his hand from reaching out and trying to touch his fallen friend. “I knew she could see you,” he whispered hoarsely and jerked his hand back when it moved right through Alex.

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Kyle.”

“I carried you and put you in that car!” he hissed. “You’re dead because of…” He’d never said it out loud, but somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, part of him had always wondered if he’d been strong enough to resist her mind games if Alex could’ve been saved.

“Because of you?” Alex shook his head. “Not because of you. I was dead before you ever even came into the picture that night. What Tess did to you is unforgiveable.”

“What she did to me?” he asked incredulously. “Alex, I’m not the one who’s dead!”

“No, you’re not. You had some good memories that she was a part of and I know her betrayal tainted everything associated with her, but don’t let it take your enjoyment of certain things away from you. You have every right to be in there eating the things you like and enjoying the company of your family and friends. If you let her take that away from you she wins and if there’s one thing you can do for me, it’s enjoy life’s little pleasures without letting her memory suck the joy out of them just because she was there.” He smiled sadly. “That and take care of Isabel.”

“I can only promise to try as far as the first thing.”

“You’re doing a good job with the second,” Alex assured him. “You complement each other well and in ways you haven’t even dreamed of.” He chuckled when Kyle’s surprised gaze flew up to meet his. “No, I haven’t intruded on your dreams and believe me when I tell you I’ll steer clear of any inclinations I should ever have to do so.” He reached out to place his hand on his friend’s shoulder, turning him back towards the door. “Go on, they’re worried about you and it’s your Christmas too.”

Kyle glanced down at the hand resting on his shoulder, amazed when he could feel Alex’s grip for a moment. “How is it you’re not resentful, Alex?”

He shrugged. “You’re all alive and safe. It’s not ideal, it’s not what any of you ever saw in your futures,” he chuckled and amended, “well, Michael may have seen something similar. The point is you’re safe and you’re heading into a future that while uncertain has so much potential you can’t even imagine it yet. You’re good about giving your friends advice, but sometimes you have to take it too.”

“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” he asked cautiously.

“No. I was gone before you put me in the car, Kyle. I was too far gone at that point for Max to bring me back. Nothing that happened that night rests on your shoulders. The blame belongs to Tess and nothing will ever change that. They don’t blame you for anything that happened that night.” He shook his head. “I don’t, they don’t, and most importantly Isabel doesn’t. Now go on before you end up having Christmas dinner out here on the porch.”

Kyle chuckled and took a couple of steps before he turned to say something else but the spot where Alex had stood moments before was empty. He shoved his hands deeper into his coat pockets and stared out into the darkness. He buried his nose in his collar again and drew a deep shuddering breath as he closed his eyes and whispered a grateful thank you into the cold Christmas night.

Alex wasn’t dead because of him.

He turned and went back inside, waving a hand to let Isabel know he was alright when she started to rise from her chair. Dinner was well underway and he quickly shed his outerwear and slipped back into his own chair, smiling when he saw that his plate had been covered with tin foil to keep the food warm. He glanced at Isabel and nodded. “Thanks,” he whispered. He looked at the cheesy potatoes that had been put on his plate as he picked up his fork and after a moment he speared a bite and lifted it. This one’s for you, Alex. He was expecting the potatoes to taste familiar, but while they were cheesy potatoes with bacon that was where their similarity to those he had always favored ended.

He dug into his meal with a renewed interest and he shrugged when he caught the look Michael shot in his direction. It was one of those looks that expressed concern and annoyance all rolled into one. It was an expressly Michael look, but it settled in response to his indication that he was okay. The others managed to keep the conversation rolling around the table and the focus quickly turned to different topics and left him to eat with a feeling of peace that he hadn’t felt in a while.
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