Veracity (M/L, CC, TEEN) – Repost, complete

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Tasyfa
Addicted Roswellian
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Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
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Post by Tasyfa » Sun Oct 14, 2007 1:43 pm

<center><b>Chapter 11</b></center>

"He's down," Tess reported tensely, grateful that she could convince Nicholas that Max's collapse had been her doing.

"Down how?" demanded Nicholas. His eyes glittered and the way he rubbed his hands together in glee made him look like a kid let loose in F.A.O. Schwartz. Tess suppressed a shudder at the knowledge that his excitement was inspired by someone else's pain.

"I can't get all the way in, he's in that protected place again. But his mind has turned completely inward. He's not responding to outside stimuli at all." <I>Not even Liz,</I> Tess added sadly to herself. She had done what she could to soften the effects of the breaking mindwarp, but it had still been strong enough to send him into a coma. Well, more like a trance, really. Coma patients had little in the way of brainwaves but if Max were hooked up to a monitor right now his brain activity would be off the chart.

"So basically he's Sleeping Beauty," Nicholas snorted.

"You could say that," Tess nodded, smiling.

"What's so funny?"

"Nothing much. I, I was just picturing Max in that—ball gown, you know, the one that changed colors. In the movie version," she added hastily at his look of incomprehension.

"Bah. I don't have time to watch that crap," Nicholas dismissed it, and Tess's smile faded as her mind reached back to the first time she had seen it: this past Christmas.


<i>Upon learning that Tess had never even read any fairy tales, Kyle promptly rented every Disney movie known to man. The two of them spent countless hours sprawled in front of the television over the holidays.

Occasionally Kyle indulged in a running commentary on the movie currently playing that had Tess in tears from laughing so hard. She loved <u>Sleeping Beauty</u>, though <u>Cinderella</u> irritated her. But her favorite by far was <u>The Little Mermaid</u>.

Kyle stayed uncharacteristically quiet throughout that movie, just listening to Ariel sing, and Tess kept sneaking looks at his absorbed face. When the credits rolled, she teased him about his silence and Kyle shrugged.

"Something about her reminds me of you," he surprised her by saying. "You discover things the same way, with the same—sense of joy and wonder. That's what makes this so fun," he indicated the pile of videotapes. "Seeing all the magic in your face makes me feel it, too."

He grimaced as if he had said too much and turned away, fiddling with the VCR. Tess stared at the back of Kyle's head with sudden knowledge breaking over her: Ariel also reminded Tess of herself. Because she, too, had fallen in love with a human.</I>


With a mental shake Tess brought her mind back to the present. She did not have the luxury to play "what might have been"; she needed to focus on what she could do to determine what <I>would</I> be. This had to fall out the right way, with the right team winning. The team to which Nicholas did not belong.

"Playing Sleeping Beauty is no good. I need a gibbering, flailing madman who looks like his restraints are a necessary security measure," Nicholas spat out.

"You could have mentioned that you wanted Max frothing at the mouth; you didn't get that specific. You just wanted him taken out but not killed or permanently harmed, which I've done. I don't read your mind, you know," Tess retorted, distorting the truth. She could and did read his mind, through the constant link she maintained with him. A one-way link she used to siphon knowledge from him, a smidgeon at a time.

It was risky but Tess considered it worth the risks. Her power and control had grown exponentially from using her gifts nearly every day, particularly when most of her actions were double layered now. There was the layer that Nicholas saw, and there was the layer that she called damage control, which she kept carefully concealed. Truth be told, it was frighteningly easy to mask her activities from him by this point but Tess did not allow herself to get overconfident. There was only so much damage control that she could hide while using her gifts in Nicholas's presence, so she had to pay extremely close attention. She could not afford to make a mistake. Tess knew that if she did, she and probably all of the others would die.

"Yes, I suppose I should have been more explicit," Nicholas sighed. "We work so well together, sweet Tess, I forget sometimes that you're not privy to all of my information." He smiled at her, the most genuine smile Tess had ever seen grace his face.

Her answering smile, on the other hand, was becoming harder to produce as she cleared the coercions from her own mind and began to understand the depth of what she had been used to do to Max. From somewhere she summoned the strength to respond as he expected her to.

"Well, sharing a goal does help us look at things from the same perspective," she simpered, fluttering her eyelashes at him. Nicholas laughed and squeezed her shoulder then quickly pressed his lips to hers. Tess remained in place throughout the unprecedented assault, keeping her lips pliant but not parting them even when his tongue swept across her mouth. When he drew back he smiled again, apparently pleased.

"Get some rest, Tess. We can work on a way to turn Max into a psychotic later; for now it's enough that he's out of the game," Nicholas gloated. "Good work."

She flashed him another dazzling smile, one that faded the second the door closed behind him. Abruptly Tess bolted for the curtained-off corner of the room and bent over the toilet, retching. When there was nothing left to come up she leaned her forehead against the cool porcelain, stubbornly refusing to give in to the tears as well as her stomach.

All she needed now was to contact Isabel or even Liz when one of them dreamwalked Max. She had formulated her plan based on the knowledge that she had garnered from her tap into Nicholas's brain, and on her expectation of Max's collapse when he broke free of the mindwarp. Everything was in place, and Tess prayed that she could put it in motion soon because if Nicholas kissed her again she did not think she would be able to wait until he left the room before vomiting or tearing him into little pieces.

<center>*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*</center>

Michael knocked softly on the door. When there was no answer he quietly opened it and smiled at the sight that greeted his eyes.

Sometime during the night Liz had kicked her blanket off the bed and wormed her way under Max's, snuggling up against his back. Michael noted their interlaced fingers, Max's hand covering Liz's smaller one. Apparently holding hands was yet another thing Max could do in his "sleep."

Michael gently shook Liz awake. She used her bottom hand to awkwardly brush her hair out of her face and smiled wryly at Michael's amused expression.

"So much for my notion of staying on my own side of the bed," Liz laughed at herself.

"I told you it was a stupid idea. Besides, he obviously responds to having you close, he's even holding your hand," Michael told her. Liz wiggled her trapped fingers and her smile widened.

"I could get used to this," she admitted shyly, resting her chin on Max's T-shirt clad shoulder.

Michael laughed. "After nearly two weeks, I'd say you are used to it. Just don't get too attached to having Max do exactly what you tell him to do because I guarantee he won't be like that when he wakes up!"

"I know, and I can't wait," she sighed.

"What, tired of it already? I thought all women got off on issuing orders," Michael teased.

Liz wrinkled her nose at him. "He's like an automaton, Michael. He follows instructions to the letter, no more and no less. As you well know!"

"What? It's not my fault that Max's world view has shampooing and rinsing as two separate steps!" Michael protested.

"That's why I tell him to <I>wash</I> his hair; it's more open to interpretation. I've figured out pretty much every command to get him to do everything he needs to. Everything except wake up," she added sadly.

Michael cleared his throat. "Yeah, I know, Liz. But he is getting better, a little more every day. You couldn't find any medical condition that matches what's going on so we have to just take it a day at a time and wait it out."

Liz sighed heavily and sat up, disentangling herself from Max. "I know, I'm frustrated is all, Michael. And I want—oh, Max!" she said exasperatedly. He had turned over when she had moved, and now he curled around her, one arm going around her waist.

"From the tone of your voice, can I assume he does that fairly often?" Michael asked, his lips twitching as he tried not to smile.

"Only about every time I get more than a foot away without saying I'm going somewhere first. I can see it now, I'm going to spend my life crowded into a little corner of the bed, and I probably won't have any blankets on me either!" she said with a lopsided smile, rolling her eyes. She took in Michael's raised eyebrows. "What?"

"You're absolutely sure he's still out, right?"

"What are you talking about? Of course I'm sure!" she huffed.

"I just thought I'd point it out that there's a distinct lack of incentive for Max to let on that he's awake if he gets to spend his day in bed with you," he drawled.

"I don't think incentive's an issue, Michael. Max could be doing all kinds of things that are more interesting than sleeping," Liz snorted. Her hand flew to her mouth as she realized what she had implied.

"I mean—I didn't mean—that sounded a lot less suggestive in my head," she complained, blushing furiously.

Michael laughed at her, clutching his stomach as her face grew redder. He caught his breath just as Maria stumbled sleepily into the room.

"I heard you and wanted to join the fun. What were you laughing at so hard?" she asked Michael as she ducked under his arm. Liz hid a smile at his unconscious reflex to place his arm around Maria's shoulders and pull her closer.

"Nothing much. Liz made a classic Freudian slip, that's all," he smirked.

"About?" Maria inquired, smiling at Liz.

"About what Max might be doing if he wasn't asleep," chuckled Michael.

"Uh-huh. And you were thinking, conversation, right, Lizzie?" she teased.

"Right. That's exactly what I was thinking, conversation. Can we like, move on?" Liz pleaded. She didn't particularly want to discuss what else she might have meant while Michael was in the room.

"Moving on," Maria agreed. "Did you tell him about Max's memory?"

"Tell me what about it?" Michael asked, puzzled.

"No, I haven't had a chance yet," Liz made a face at Michael. "I think Max is sifting through his memories, maybe trying to figure out what's real. Anyway, he started way back when he was little, and,"

"Wait a sec, how do you know he's doing that?" Michael interrupted.

Maria sighed. "Don't you listen? I've been telling you that Max talks to her. Well, more like mumbles to himself, but Liz can understand what he's saying clearly enough. She was going to record him but decided not to."

"Why?"

"Well, a lot of what he's been saying is—really personal, and I—I didn't think anyone else should be listening," Liz avoided Michael's eyes, knowing she would start blushing again if he looked amused. "He's been doing it for a few days now, and I think—it's hard to tell, because I wasn't really, that involved in his life before then but I think he's almost up to when I got shot."

"OK, so what does that have to do with me?" Michael was confused.

"Nothing, really, at least not directly. I, uh, I thought you might—like to know that he, he remembers the day he saw you in the playground really clearly. He knew who you were immediately but he was too shy to just go up to you, so he dragged Isabel out of her hopscotch game and made her go with him to meet you," she said softly.

Liz saw a myriad of emotions flit across Michael's face before it smoothed into his customary mask. Maria tightened her arm around his waist.

"I remember that; I knew exactly who they were when I saw them, too. I never knew Max saw me first, though. Thanks, Liz," he said evenly, his voice as controlled as the rest of him. But demonstrated or not, both women knew he was affected.

"You're welcome. Anyway, Isabel's skipping today because Brody has this big group coming in late this afternoon and he needs her to stay, so between that and working open in the Crashdown she said she won't be up for it," Liz told him.

"It's amazing how spending her days working in the service industry covering for Max and Liz has knocked Isabel off her high horse some," Maria gloated, making Liz smile.

"Whatever. I take it she hasn't gotten in yet?" Michael directed his question to Liz.

She shook her head. "No, and not with me tagging along either—or Kyle. It's not that we can't get in, it's that—everything's obscured in this white fog. Isabel says it reminds her of the bright light she kept getting when she tried to dreamwalk him in the White Room, but she's not getting the same sense of danger so we're trying not to push."

"Makes sense that he'd react similarly to trauma. Anyway, Liz—I came in to ask if you wanted me to do anything before I go downstairs," Michael said. Liz cocked her head to one side for a moment then shook it.

"No, thanks Michael. He doesn't need anything right now," she declared.

"What, can you like read his mind or something now?" he asked, baffled by her listening pose.

"Hardly, I uh, I just—I can feel it, when he needs something. Like if he's hungry, then I feel hunger but like one step removed, if that makes any sense. I know it's not my body that feels hungry but I'm aware of it," Liz explained.

Michael scratched his eyebrow. "So, you feel…everything he needs, huh?"

"Michael!" Liz exclaimed as Maria elbowed him in the ribs.

"Oof! Maria, quit it! Sorry, Liz, I couldn't resist. You had to know that," Michael smiled.

"I suppose. But the answer isn't any of your business, Michael. I'll call you when one of us gets hungry, OK?"

"Yeah, fine," he agreed then kissed Maria's cheek. "See you downstairs in a couple of hours."

Liz sagged once he left them alone. Instantly Maria was at her side, sitting on the edge of the bed. She reached out and gave Liz a hug.

"Why don't you go have a long, hot shower? I'll sit with Max," Maria offered.

"Would you? That would be so great. I—I can't leave him alone right now," Liz murmured, on the verge of tears.

Maria stroked her hair soothingly. "Lizzie, what's going on? Really, I mean. You've been scared to death to even leave the room for the last three days. You weren't like that before, so what changed? And why haven't you told Michael?"

"I will, tomorrow when Isabel comes over to try again. I promise I will," Liz assured her. "I don't know if I can explain it exactly, Maria, but—there's something different happening inside Max."

"Different how? Like someone else is in there or something?" Maria immediately assumed the worst.

"No, nothing like that. It's completely internal to Max. It's like—it's like how I feel that he's hungry, except it's not a need, it's more like a—I don't know, a characteristic? An ability? I don't know what to call it," Liz said in frustration.

"Well, you've been getting more and more aware of him, right? Maybe," Maria hesitated, not wanting to freak her best friend out, "maybe you're feeling his alien side."

Liz nodded slowly. "I thought of that, actually, and the longer I think about it the more sense it makes. But it's—it isn't just my awareness that's growing, it's this—characteristic or whatever too, and something about it scares me. I know, you're going to say that's because it's an alien thing, but that's not it, Maria. I won't deny that sometimes it does—scare me still, that Max isn't human, but—not this time. I can feel this, this whatever it is—<I>changing</I>, and I know somehow that I have to stay close because if I don't, something really bad's going to happen."

Maria studied Liz's face for a moment, deciding that she was serious. "Well, I've always trusted your intuition and if that's how you feel, then there's got to be a good reason. So you explain to his Majesty here that his buddy Maria's going to baby-sit while his soul mate goes and relaxes in the tub," she said impudently.

"Maria!" Liz protested Maria's manner of speaking.

"Shoo! Go, get clean, forget everything for a little while. Max and I'll be fine. Got anything good I can read to him?"

"Um, you can read him some more Steinbeck. I didn't get very far, it makes me too sleepy," Liz yawned. She whispered to Max that she was getting up and he let her move away, lying flat on his stomach when she rose from the bed.
"I said anything good, Liz," Maria retorted, trailing her hand along the titles in Liz's bookcase. "Hey, now this is good! Not something I would've expected to find here, though." She pulled out a paperback Harlequin novel with a bookmark stuck in it, turning to look quizzically at Liz.
"Don't read that one, please," Liz exclaimed when she noticed what book it was. She reddened at Maria's raised eyebrows.
"I'm going to guess that the answer to Michael's question is a yes, then," Maria teased.
"Maria," Liz warned.

"All right, all right! Oh, I love this one! I'll read him this," she put the Harlequin back and grabbed <I>Alice in Wonderland</I>. Maria wheeled the desk chair over to the bedside, settling into it with her feet on the bed. "If you didn't read the Steinbeck crap to him, what did you read? I thought you wanted it to be something personal."

"It was something personal," Liz's voice was muffled as she rooted in her drawers for clean clothes to put on after her shower.

"Which was…" Maria prompted. Having found everything she wanted, Liz stood up clutching an armful of clothing.

"I—read him my journal," she admitted.

"Oooh, so we're talking <I>personal</I> personal! So how'd it go over?" Maria was pleasantly surprised at that news.

"It's kind of hard to tell, Maria, Max isn't exactly all there at the moment," Liz shot back.

"Oh please. If you can tell whether or not the man is hungry then you can certainly tell if he liked listening to your journal," Maria scoffed.

"All right, fine. You're right, OK? I could tell," Liz confessed with a little smile.

"And?" Maria goaded.

"And…he loved it. He was very attentive," Liz giggled. She headed into her bathroom, pausing at the door for a moment to look mischievously at her best friend.

"Oh, and about that question, Maria…I feel it all."

<center>*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*</center>

Sean stumbled over to the table, grabbing for the cell phone. Its shrill ringing cut off abruptly as he hit the talk button.

"This had better be good. I was up all night with a foaling mare," he growled into the phone.

"And good morning to you too, sunshine!" came Serena's sarcastic voice. Sean perked up a little at the confirmation that it was her. Not that anyone else had his number, but thinking it was her and hearing her voice were two different things.

"What's up, Reen?" he asked, a little more amiably.

"I need you back in Roswell by tonight," she declared. Sean sat down in the chair beside the table, rubbing his eyes with his free hand.

"What? Why? Did something happen to Max?" he was wide-awake now.

"Not exactly," Serena sighed. She sounded tired to Sean, or maybe frustrated. Neither was good.

"Care to explain that? Or what you need me for?" he pressed.

"I need you to get me in to see Liz, and everyone else I guess," was the shocking reply.

"I thought you didn't want to have any contact with them until Max was mature. Wasn't that the whole point behind what you had me doing before? And you said he was coming out of it naturally, and you didn't want to jeopardize that. I don't get it, what changed?"

"Max reached his physical maturity about three days ago. It shouldn't have been so early, shouldn't be for another couple of years in fact, but with everything that's happened over the <I>last</I> couple of years the process has been accelerated. His body's ready and he's started feeling around the edges of the Seal," Serena explained tersely.

"The Seal, that's the, uh, tattoo or whatever in his head, right? The one he can project like a 3-D model?" Sean grasped at his memory of what Serena had told him.

"Yes, that's it. Liz is acting as a calming influence right now, and she senses something because she's not left him alone at all since his mind started accessing the Seal. They're not going to dreamwalk him today, but they'll try again tomorrow and I have to be there. Since I'm linked to Max and a little to Liz, I should be able to use that plus their own connection to get her in past the fog. She <I>has</I> to wake him up. We don't have time to wait for it to happen naturally anymore, not if he can access the Seal," Serena's voice vibrated with intensity.

"Well, what about what Tess was doing? How does that fit in?" Sean was aware that he sounded kind of petulant, but being woken up after an all-nighter to be informed that your life was about to change—again—tended to do that to a person.

"I still don't entirely know what she's got in place, Sean. It's like she's taken pieces of her knowledge and pieces of Nicholas's and combined them with God knows what to create something completely new. I do know that its intent is to help Max, not hurt him, but if he touches the Seal none of that will matter," Serena's frustration at not knowing, at not being in complete control of the situation was evident in her voice, but there was also a touch of fear and that was so unlike her that Sean had to ask.

"Serena, what is it that has you frightened about Max touching the seal? It's like this brand on his brain, what difference does it make if he touches it?"

"You don't understand. The Royal Seal isn't merely a symbol, Sean; it is sheer, unadulterated power. And if Max tries to use it without being properly prepared and aware of what he's doing…let's just say that catastrophic doesn't begin to cover it," she said wearily.

Sean was beyond nervous now and getting into scared at what he could read in her voice, and what he thought she was saying. "So, if Max uses it to, say, defend himself from an imaginary person when Isabel and Liz try to dreamwalk him, it would be bye-bye Crashdown?"

He heard a heavy sigh from the other end of the line, one with the weight of too much knowledge and too many years behind it—the years he tried not to think about that often, and Sean knew suddenly that he did not want to hear the answer. Serena gave it to him anyway.

"No, Sean. Sooner or later Max will call on the power in the Royal Seal in response to some stimulus. If I can't wake him up and teach him how to use it before that happens, the casualties won't be limited to the Crashdown. It will be bye-bye New Mexico."

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Tasyfa
Addicted Roswellian
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Joined: Tue Oct 09, 2001 4:58 pm
Location: Canada

Post by Tasyfa » Sun Oct 14, 2007 1:47 pm

<center><b>Chapter 12</b></center>

Sean stood alone in front of the door, nervous as hell about what he was about to do. He knew that Serena was even more nervous, though she hid it skillfully. This was a moment for which she had been preparing for decades…the moment when she met her King. For Sean, it was a little less esoteric: it simply meant that his life was being turned upside down and inside out. But that's what happens when you fall in love with an alien.

He finally knocked heavily on the door and waited, heart pounding, for someone to answer it. The bolt and latch slithered open and the door yawned in front of him; the person opening it had not turned on a light. There was enough light from the street, however, for Sean to make out that it was Michael. He smiled inwardly. Serena wouldn't appreciate it much when she found out, but this might just be fun!

"Sean," Michael nodded once, acknowledging his presence. "It's the middle of the night, DeLuca. What the hell are you doing here?"

"I could say the same, Guerin. Or do best friends do everything together these days?" Sean quipped. Not even a flicker of reaction from Michael. Damn. He merely stared at Sean, his eyebrows drawing together in an unpleasant expression.

"I need to see Liz, Michael. It's urgent," he gave in to the hybrid's stare, knowing he needed to get off the street quickly.

"She's asleep."

"I figured as much. I'm sorry to show so late but I couldn't get here any earlier. Besides, there's less chance of being seen at this time of night," Sean said quietly. <I>That</I> piqued Michael's interest, and he glanced around the street to make sure that they were alone.

"Enough with the games, DeLuca. What do you need to see Liz for?" his voice was flat and Sean knew Michael's small store of patience had been exhausted.

"Look, Guerin, I know, all right? I know she's holed up in her room with a comatose alien King," Sean stated bluntly, figuring that would at least get him into the apartment.

It certainly did. In the blink of an eye Sean found himself kissing the inside surface of the closed door, one arm twisted up behind his back, the other around his own throat along with Michael's arm. He grunted as Michael twisted his arm even further.

"Who the hell are you?" Michael hissed.

"Gee, Michael, I didn't know you cared," Sean kicked himself the second the words were out of his mouth. He knew better than to prod Michael after thoroughly pissing him off. He had learned that lesson the hard way on the playground, a long time ago now.

Apparently he was not the only one who remembered that humiliating incident. "Gonna run home crying to Mommy?" Michael taunted as he twisted a little harder. Sean bit his lip; he would <I>not</I> give Michael the satisfaction of knowing how much pain the hybrid was actually inflicting.

"Yeah, maybe, if she was still alive," he ground out. "Then again, you haven't broken my nose yet so why bother?"

Michael's hold relaxed and Sean dragged air into his lungs. "Are you convinced now?" Sean inquired evenly when he could breathe properly.

"More or less," Michael told him. "But just in case, you're going to stay still while I let go, and when I say so you're going to turn around slowly. Any fast moves and you die…or maybe just lose a limb," he added flippantly.

<I>And people think I'm an inappropriate joker,</I> Sean thought to himself as he murmured an agreement. Uncomfortable as it was, he stayed motionless until Michael gave him the okay to turn. Sean dropped his arms with relief and faced into the apartment, noting Michael's outstretched palm.

"So, you got a microscope and a pocket knife?" Sean asked with a faint smile. He had to admit that he was impressed. Michael wasn't nearly as ineffective as Sean had thought he would be, considering that he was pretty much it in terms of security for Max right now.

"Say what?" Michael asked.

"Well, all my I.D. is going to tell you is that I know a guy, who knows a guy," Sean winked, implying that his identification cards were falsified. The corner of Michael's mouth lifted in a cynical smile. Sean continued, "But my blood will tell you that I'm human, at least."

Michael looked at him in consideration for a moment then shouted, "Maria!"

"Don't bellow at me, Michael, it's rude. Besides, I have finally gotten Liz to relax enough to fall asleep and stop—hello," Maria paused as she entered the room, raising her eyebrows at the two men. "Sean. What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be off like roping steers or something?"

Sean rolled his eyes; Maria's voice had acquired that grating tone with which she always spoke to him. It put his teeth on edge as usual. "Nice to see you too, M. Having a sleepover?" he indicated her satin nightgown.

She flushed. "For your information, I am staying with a sick friend. Are you here for any particular reason, or did you show up just to annoy me? Michael, why did you let him in?"

"Cut the crap, you two. Maria, he knows," Michael told her.

"Knows what? Sean doesn't know how to tie his own shoes, how could he know anything?" Maria snorted. Michael gave Sean a look, prompting him. Sean shrugged.

"Well, I know your oh-so-friendly boyfriend there is a hybrid alien, along with Max and Isabel Evans, and that Max is the Antarian King. I also know that he's in some kind of trance state and that Liz has been taking care of him. And a boatload of other stuff too that we don't have time to get into right now. I need to see Liz," Sean said persuasively. He sighed inwardly; the utter shock on Maria's face didn't bode well for a quick resolution.

"How long have you known?" Maria demanded.

"Over a year, since just after Tess came to Roswell," Sean admitted. Maria's eyes narrowed in thought.

"You broke into the school for something alien-related, didn't you?" she declared, smiling triumphantly when he nodded. "So, you knew the whole time you were staying with us! Why didn't you say anything, you bonehead? We could have used your help a few times!" She flung herself into the nearest chair, considering the crisis to be over. Michael was not so easily convinced.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"I couldn't," Sean answered. He figured he might as well explain a little now. "I was—sort of under orders not to."

Maria looked completely baffled but Michael nodded, matching the information with what Sean had already said. "The shapeshifter."

"He's dead, Michael," Maria said exasperatedly.

"Not Nasedo, another one. That's why you want to prove that you're human. You want to get this guy in to see Max, and you need us to trust you for that," Michael said with sudden insight. Sean was taken aback. It must have showed on his face because Maria giggled.

"He has a mind, he just doesn't believe in sullying it with school-related activities," she said dryly. "So, there's another one?"

"Yes, and it's critical that she talks to Liz. She's been…monitoring what's going on with Max, and there's something happening that could—that could be dangerous if she doesn't step in to help," Sean said vaguely.

"It's a girl?" Maria asked, stupefied by that idea. Sean half smiled.

"Yes, she's female," he nodded. "Are you satisfied that I'm me?"

Maria cocked her head at him. "Tell me the rules."

"Oh, please. Toilet seat down, underwear off the floor, don't drink from the carton and stay away from Liz," Sean recited. "That's way too easy, M."

"OK, then," Maria thought out loud. "Tell me something that happened to us together as kids. That's a standard measure for these things, right?"

Sean reflected for a moment then flashed a wicked smile. "All right. One summer, I let you talk me into playing Barbies with you on the condition that the Ken dolls could have sex with the Barbie dolls. You agreed, but only if there was a mass wedding first, and all the bridesmaid dolls wore purple." He slanted a glance at Michael then looked pointedly at Maria's bare left hand. "I guess some things change when you get older."

Michael visibly restrained himself from bursting into laughter at Maria's suddenly flaming face. She rose, gathering her tattered dignity around her, and huffed, "I'll go wake Liz up." Head high, she exited the room.

"You actually played dolls with her?" Michael grinned.

Sean shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah. It was the summer after her father left. Aunt Amy had started dating again, not very successfully, and Liz was at her grandmother's… She just needed someone, you know?"

"Thanks," Michael said quietly.

"No problem. She's family, Michael. She and my aunt are all the family I have left since my mother died and my father…well, the DeLuca men aren't exactly known for sticking around," Sean's voice was heavy with irony. He met Michael's eyes, astonished to see a deep understanding in them. They looked at each other a moment longer before Michael broke their eye contact and cleared his throat awkwardly.

"Yeah," Michael agreed. "Maybe that skipped a generation."

"What?" Sean inquired.

"That not sticking around thing. We don't seem to be able to get rid of you," Michael complimented him obliquely and Sean smiled.

Both men looked up as Maria came back, her brow creased with worry. "Liz says that if this person has any idea about what's going on with Max and what to do about it, get her in here right now. Liz can feel something building in Max and she's freaking out."

"Fuck!" Sean swore emphatically and the other two stared at him.

"What, you know this too? What's happening, Sean? What is it that's building up?" Maria asked urgently.

Sean forcibly calmed himself; now was not the time to panic. Too much was riding on this. He looked at Michael, realizing that the hybrid had some inkling of what it might be, then he turned to Maria and solemnly answered her question.

"Power."

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Tasyfa
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Post by Tasyfa » Sun Oct 14, 2007 1:48 pm

<center><b>Chapter 13</b></center>

Sean reached out and grasped Serena's arm. "Would you quit with the pacing? You're giving me the willies!"

She tossed her head and slanted him a look that spoke volumes. "As opposed to scaring you shitless, which is what you've been since I told you what was going on?" she flashed a mischievous smile and stood stock still, staring at Liz's closed bedroom door.

<I>Well, that was harsh. True, but harsh,</I> Sean thought wryly to himself. But that was Serena for you: she never backed down from the truth. It was one of the things he admired the most about her. Oddly enough, it was one of the qualities he had always liked in Liz as well. Neither woman tried to evade reality; they simply accepted it and dealt. <I>Definitely worth emulating. Too bad I suck at it.</I>

Aloud, he commented, "I've never seen you this nervous, Reen. What gives? I mean, Max is out of it so it's not meeting your King that's bugging you. Are you worried that it won't work?"

"No, I'm confident I can get Liz into his mind and we can bring him out, but…it's just, Liz. And the others. I've been watching them for so long, Sean, and it hasn't quite sunk in yet that I'm really going to talk to them," she said self-deprecatingly.

"It'll be fine," he reassured her. "They're all intelligent, reasonable people. With one notable exception, of course."

"Tell me you didn't provoke Michael," Serena spun to face him and he shrugged. "Oh, Sean!"

"See? There it is, that tone of voice," he jibed.

"What tone?"

"The one the women in my life always use. The one that says, "God, you're an idiot, and I'm so going to kick your ass,"" Sean grinned, irrepressible.

"You already know you're an idiot," she waved dismissively. A smile crept over her face as she admitted, "And I'm not really in the mood to kick your ass. Thanks."

He pulled Serena into his arms and she rested her head on his shoulder for a long moment before meeting his eyes.

"Sean, I—"

"They don't need to know about us yet; I know," he told her, brushing her cheek softly with his lips then stepping away. He waggled his eyebrows, making her smile, to let her know that it was all right.

"You, you're probably going to—learn things, about me, about who—I was, and where I'm from, that you didn't know before," Serena said gravely.

"Yeah," Sean nodded lightly. "I figured stuff would come out now since it had to and all. That's cool, Reen."

She stared at him, her dark gaze obscure and he found himself fighting to keep eye contact with her, sensing that it was important somehow. Sean tried to let his feelings show in his eyes, willing her to realize that he did understand. That he knew she had a past and he didn't care. Didn't care that they were such different people, or that they came from such dissimilar backgrounds, or any of it. He cared about her because of who she was—<I>all</I> of who she was.

He thought he might go blind at the brilliance of her sudden smile and Sean grinned back, uttering a soft, "Whoa!"

"Whoa what?" asked Maria's cheerful voice as she poked her head out of Liz's bedroom. Serena winked at Sean, her smile settling into an ordinary greeting, then she turned to face Maria. Sean beat her to answering the question, though.

"Whoa, you guys are taking a damn long time! So, are we mere mortals going to be graced with His Majesty's presence or what, Maria?" he asked impudently.

"And he does, in fact, know my whole name! Imagine that," Maria remarked snidely to Serena then looked disdainfully at Sean. "Keep talking to me like that and I'll show you exactly how mortal you are, buddy boy. I'll sic Michael on you!"

"Such love!" Sean exclaimed sarcastically, clutching his chest with a dramatic gesture. He and Maria both sobered at Serena's words.

"A cousin might be considered to be as protective as a sibling sometimes," she said quietly. Sean and Maria looked askance at each other; did she mean what it sounded like she meant? They both grimaced in distaste and Maria hurried to avoid any more discomfiting remarks.

"Liz said that you two can come in now," she graciously waved Serena ahead of her and followed close behind, leaving Sean to bring up the rear. He rolled his eyes at her typically callous behavior but let it lie, preferring not to start something when Serena needed him to play back up. Sean stepped into Liz's bedroom and closed the door behind him, his eyes automatically seeking out its owner.

<center>*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*</center>

Liz straightened in the bedside chair and smoothed the front of her pants legs, resisting the urge to check her neat ponytail in the same fashion. The second shapeshifter was not at all what she had expected. She was as petite as Liz herself, with even darker eyes and hair, which was currently cropped in a short pixie style. It made her look ageless somehow, although Liz knew she had to be at least sixty-five, seventy years old. But there was a trace of sadness in her eyes that spoke of life experience and Liz found that she felt a keen empathy towards this unknown woman.

She waited, increasingly nervously, for the woman to say something until it dawned on her that she—and everyone else—was waiting for Liz to speak first. Liz cleared her throat awkwardly.

"Michael tells us that you're a shapeshifter, that you survived the crash along with Nasedo and the pods," she said softly.

"That's right," the woman responded. She inclined her head respectfully as she spoke, and the gesture made Liz squirm inside. She hurried on, all too aware of how penetrating those other dark eyes were.

"I don't wish to be rude, but…would you demonstrate, please? Uh, just a small demonstration would be fine," Liz added.

Another polite nod, but Liz could see a sparkle in the woman's eyes at her request. Immediately her short hair began to lengthen, spilling down her shoulders and arms in a cascade of midnight silk until it nearly brushed the floor. It shone in the lamp light with the bluish silver highlights of truly black hair and then the woman shook her head, the light refracting with her motion, and as suddenly as it had appeared the immense curtain of hair was gone.

"Thank you," Liz managed, not sure what else to say. She realized that the choice of that particular demonstration had been deliberate, but to what end, Liz had no idea. <I>Unless it was meant to spark envy,</I> she thought ruefully.

"I'm also told that you know what's happening to Max, and that you can help me deal with it," Liz forged ahead. Was the sparkle a gleam of satisfaction now? It was so hard to tell what this woman was thinking!

"Do you know anything about the Royal Seal?" she asked Liz in return, glancing around the room.

"The image that's in Max's head, with the five planets. Yeah, we know," Michael answered. "What about it?"

"Do we need to activate it somehow to help Max?" Liz wanted to know, unconsciously reaching towards Max.

"No!" the woman exclaimed, leaping forward and slapping Liz's hand away. Liz was shocked by her audacity before she recognized that there had been fear in her voice. She motioned to Michael, who had raised his hand the instant the woman had moved, and reluctantly he lowered it.

"Michael?" the shapeshifter inquired, one perfect eyebrow arching in amusement. Liz could not quite hide the tiny smile on her own lips as she nodded. The other woman smiled broadly and turned around to face Michael.

"Why didn't you blast me?" she shot at him.

Astonished, Michael blurted out the truth. "I wasn't sure I could hit you without getting Max or Liz, too."

"Good," she said in satisfaction, bobbing her head briskly. Liz noticed that it was a much different motion than when she had nodded to Liz but dismissed it. Most everyone did things differently when it came to Michael.

"Why good? What's good about that?" Michael challenged her assessment, folding his arms across his chest. Liz repressed a smile at Maria's rolling eyes; she could almost hear her friend saying, "Here we go again!"

"It's good that you freely admitted that you need to work on your targeting. It means that your ego isn't going to get in the way when I teach you how to do it right," she told him, a wide smile gracing her lovely face as Michael's mouth hung open.

"You're going to teach me. You," he said disbelievingly.

"That's what I'm here for, Michael. It's why I was sent in the first place. I'm a Gifts teacher," she revealed. She turned back to Liz.

"I am not a protector, like," her speech stumbled and her smile twisted into a momentary grimace. "Nasedo and one other were meant to be the protectors. The fourth member of our team and myself were teachers, guides. Only two of us survived the crash, and after Nasedo and I got the pods to safety…something happened to him. He—the other protector was his mate, and I think he went a little insane at her death. He turned on me. We spent the next fifty years deceiving each other, setting traps… Mine were only to capture; his were to kill. I'm occasionally surprised I'm still alive, given that I wasn't the one trained for combat, but I adapted a lot better to humanity than he ever did."

"What was his real name?" Maria asked quietly. The woman smiled sadly.

"It doesn't matter. My friend died in the crash along with everyone else, and Nasedo was born. I could have forgiven him for killing off the agents but not for the deaths of innocents, and never for the corruption of Tess. She hatched early and he spirited her away. I didn't see her again until she appeared here in Roswell."

"The hair!" Kyle said suddenly. It was so incongruous with what had just been said that everyone stared at him, and he flushed. "Sorry. I mean, with the long hair, you looked kind of like one of the handprint victims. My dad showed me the photos that Hubble gave him."

She nodded slowly. "I did some secretarial work for Everett in the late sixties and early seventies. Nasedo had seen us together and made—certain assumptions," her voice took on a wry tone. "His wife died because he thought she was me."

"I'm sorry," Kyle apologized. "I—didn't mean to bring it up, it was just bugging me who you looked like with your hair long."

"It's all right, Kyle. It was a long time ago. At least the fact that it wasn't me meant that Max, Michael and Isabel got where they needed to go when they hatched."

"WHAT?" roared Michael. "Are you saying that you <I>chose</I> to put me through the foster care system? That it wasn't an accident, it was a <I>plan</I>?"

"I nudged your emotions so that you didn't take Max's hand in the desert. It had to be done, Michael; you couldn't learn what you needed to by becoming an Evans," she said gently. Michael moved to stand in front of her, towering over her, but it was Maria who asked the question.

"For God's sake, why?"

There was no answer, merely the calm face of the woman looking up at Michael. She was not in the least intimidated by his body language and Liz admired that. Sometimes Michael intimidated her and she knew he would never hurt her!

"Why?" Michael ground out, apparently having come to the conclusion that she was waiting for him to ask the question himself.

"Who do you trust, Michael?"

"Me," was the flat response. "Well, and Max and Isabel, and Maria, Liz, Kyle and his dad."

"And who does Max trust?"

"Liz, Isabel, me, Maria, Valenti, Kyle—mostly," he added with a snicker. Kyle shot him a quelling look and Michael chuckled.

The woman stepped closer to Michael, staring up into his eyes. "Max trusts Liz first; you trust <I>yourself</I>. You learned to put you ahead of everyone else, to "look out for number one," as the saying goes. It's a lesson you could have learned even better on the streets but that was much too risky."

Michael's voice evidenced his shock at her blunt answer as he sputtered, "Why me? Why not Max? Or Isabel, God forbid? Why didn't they need to learn that shit?"

"Putting oneself first is absolutely the <I>last</I> lesson that a King needs to learn, Michael. As for Isabel," she glanced sympathetically at the tall blonde, "it was unfortunately one of Vilandra's guiding principles and we didn't want her exposed to it. But for you, Michael, it was essential. You're the war leader. Max might have been giving the orders but you were the one carrying them out. You needed to learn to survive at all costs. Everything else can be taught to you later. You can learn strategy. You can learn finesse and diplomacy and tact—yes, you can," she smiled at Maria's snort.

"What can't be taught, Michael, is how to be a predator. It's something you either feel in your bones, or you don't. And it needed to be in your bones, so I did what I had to, to put it there."

Faced with such a bald explanation, Michael did the only thing he could do: he backed down. He nodded brusquely at the shapeshifter and moved away from her, going to Maria's side and putting an arm around her. She snuggled into his shoulder comfortingly.

"It's in your bones too, isn't it?" he asked quietly.

"It is now, yes," she admitted. "And for many of the same reasons. Max needs to care about every single person under his rule, but you and I, Michael, we're soldiers. We need to get the job done, and sometimes that means doing unpleasant things."

He stared at her, obviously thinking about something. Liz was beginning to have some idea of what, specifically, the woman might have been talking about and Michael arrived at the same thought.

"Hank?" he asked, something intense in his eyes.

"Yes," she confessed, but proudly. "Had I known earlier—but I didn't. I didn't know until Max knew."

Liz's scalp prickled. Was she somehow connected to Max, that his knowledge of something should transmit itself to her? A wave of possessiveness crashed over her, surprising in its intensity. <I>Max is mine,</I> she thought to herself.

Almost as if she had heard Liz's thought, the shapeshifter turned to her with a soothing smile. "I'm not a threat to you, Liz, nor to Max. Right now Max is the only threat, to us all."

How had she known? Or was it merely a coincidence? Liz was not sure but she regarded this unknown quantity from narrowed eyes as she spoke. "You were explaining about the Royal Seal."

The woman's mouth quirked up at one corner, acknowledging Liz's palpable distrust. "Yes, I was. Uh, let me backtrack some first, so this all makes sense."

She began to pace slowly as she explained, "Antarians come into their Gifts when they achieve physical maturity. Prior to that, they can use their Gifts a little—enough for them to be identified, and their probable level of strength and therefore instruction can be determined as well. As hybrids, Max, Michael, Isabel and Tess were clearly designed a bit differently. They had a touch of their Gifts available to them at their birth, as is normal for full-blooded Antarians, and the Gifts were supposed to grow stronger as they grew. But only slightly stronger—they were still supposed to truly activate when you four reached physical maturity. It was all going according to plan, at least in that area, and then—puberty hit."

She laughed at the scoffing looks. "We don't have an adolescence like humans do—Antarians are either children or adults, there's nothing in between. So we weren't familiar with the vast fluctuations of—well, of hormones and everything under the sun that happens within the human body. Puberty is when Gifted humans typically begin evidencing their abilities, and similarly your Gifts began to show signs of activity, to strengthen. Isabel, you started experimenting with your dreamwalking ability. Michael, you mostly tried to keep it under control, but when you didn't—or Max or Isabel talked you into it—you blew apart random rocks and chunks of ground. And Max healed a few small animals, like when the neighbor's dog slashed its leg on their fence. Otherwise, he kept it in complete check, until that day nearly two years ago when you were shot, Liz, and he reached for every scrap of power he could lay his mind on to heal you."

Liz found herself staring into the woman's dark eyes, feeling her words resonate through her body. <I>To heal me, he awakened his dormant Gifts,</I> she said to herself. At least, she thought she had said it to herself. But the shapeshifter nodded in reply.

"Exactly. Max's Gifts awakened completely at that moment. They were weak still but they weren't dormant any longer, and they haven't been since. That, and—other things, have led to the current predicament. He's reached full physical maturity early and he can access the Royal Seal, which is—a power storehouse, basically. With it, he—Michael, do you remember how utterly drained Max was after healing those five children last year?"

"Yeah, I had to carry him out the damn window when he passed out, and his powers were useless for the next two days," Michael snorted. "So if he used the Seal as a power source, he wouldn't have passed out?"

She smiled faintly. "No. He likely could have healed the entire pediatric wing without passing out. However," her voice became stern, "I don't suggest that as a course of action if Max wants to stay alive once he's back to normal. As a one time thing, fine, but if it happened again it would attract all the wrong attention and he'd wish he were back with Pierce."

Liz shuddered; she did not want to think about Max enduring anything like that again. It would not happen—she would not let it. She saw the pleased approval in the shapeshifter's eyes. Emboldened, she asked, "So why is he gathering power now? Sean said that's what I could feel building, and that seems—right, somehow. What can we do about it?"

"That's just it: I don't <I>know</I> why he's building it, I only know that he is and we have to dissipate it. I can't get a clear focus on his mind right now. I can touch the periphery but I can't get all the way in," she sounded frustrated.

"You are linked to him," Liz's voice was slightly accusatory, but the woman met her gaze without flinching.

"Yes. And a little to you, through Max," she admitted. "It's different than the link that you've been developing with him recently, which is more—personal, shall we say."

Somehow it did not bother Liz like she thought it would that this unknown person had a small window into her soul. Instinctively she knew that it was not a harmful thing, or a situation that this woman would take advantage of unless there was dire need. As there was now.

"So, because you and I are linked to Max on—different levels or whatever, you think that's going to be enough for us to get through the fog?" Liz asked intently.

"Yes," she said simply. Liz locked eyes with her for a long moment then nodded.

"OK, then let's do it, uh—you know, I never did hear your name. I'm sorry, that was kind of rude. You obviously knew who all of us were, it just didn't occur to me," Liz was flustered by having overlooked so basic a thing as introductions.

She saw the shapeshifter's eyes flicker to Sean, and he stepped forward, looking at Liz. The movement attracted Liz's attention and she met his smiling gaze.

"Liz, I'd like you to meet Serena," he said warmly.

<I>Serena!</I> Liz's eyes flew back to the shapeshifter's face, absently noting her slight smile. Remembered words crashed over her, <I>"Serena said—she's going to be a friend of yours one day…" </I>Was this the person that Future Max had been talking about? How could she find out? That little smile seemed to hint at a lot of knowledge; did Liz dare ask?

"Hi, Serena, it's nice to meet you," the name felt strange on Liz's tongue and Serena's little smile grew. "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Ask away. If it's too personal I'll let you know," she winked, startling a smile out of Liz.

"All right. Say that you were going to modify the granolith. What modifications might you make?" Liz inquired, ignoring the strangled sounds that Michael was making and the glare from Isabel. She leaned forward, concentrating on Serena's answer.

Serena's black eyes snapped with laughter as they slid over to Max's supine body and back to Liz. "Well," she drawled, "I might alter it to produce a lot of leather."

"OK, that's it! Isabel, I do not know where you shop but once Max is out of his coma you must drag him there and get that boy a pair of leather pants. I have <I>got</I> to see this!" Maria exclaimed.

"Maria!" Liz and Michael chorused. Liz added, "That was private!"

"Oh, please. Her answer isn't going to make any sense unless we all know that Future Max was decked out in black leather and had hair almost as long as yours," Maria teased.

"It was not that long! Only—only about shoulder length. The part that was—down, anyway," Liz faltered. There were open grins around the room. "What?"

"I just don't see it. Max has always been so anal about cutting his hair," Isabel laughed.

"Well—war changes people," Liz said defensively. "Haircuts probably weren't a priority."

That statement dimmed the mirth and Serena nodded. "You're right. And given the generally warm, dry climate here, leather is actually a practical choice of clothing. It is warm but it breathes, it's flexible once properly broken in and the smooth finish doesn't catch on anything. I always wear black leather to do reconnaissance work and the like myself," she admitted.

"See?" Liz spread her hands then something occurred to her. "Wait, how do you know about Future Max's clothes? I didn't tell any of that part to Max."

Serena heaved a sigh. "I spoke with him while you were at school. He—used what was left of our connection to call me in. I thought it was Max—that Max," she gestured towards the bed. "In any case, he—we talked and he told me some things. Liz…don't ask me what, all right? It's—when the time comes, I'll tell you more, but not until then."

Liz stared at her for a long moment and slowly nodded in agreement. It was peculiar, but knowing that Future Max had trusted her so absolutely in both incarnations only augmented her own instinct to trust Serena.

"I can live with that. What I can't live with—literally—is if Max blows Roswell off the map," she stated.

"More like the entire state," Serena admitted, evidently realizing that Liz had extrapolated the amount of energy available to Max from the Royal Seal from what she had said about healing the children.

Liz swallowed then ran a hand over her hair, finally allowing herself the nervous gesture. "What do you need me to do?"

"Just lie down beside Max and take his hand," Serena instructed. Liz did as she had asked, wiggling to get comfortable and intertwining her fingers with Max's. Serena sat between them at the foot of the bed and reached up to lay her hand over their clasped ones.

"Are you ready?" Serena asked gently. Liz looked up into her dark eyes then over at Max. His face was pale and even now, his lips moved restlessly as if he were mumbling again, but no sound emerged. Even more than the imminent danger frightened her, seeing Max like this tore at her heart. She wanted him whole. She <I>needed</I> him whole.

Liz returned her gaze to Serena's face and her voice was steady as she answered, "Yes, I'm ready. Take me in."

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Tasyfa
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Post by Tasyfa » Sun Oct 14, 2007 1:49 pm

<center><b>Chapter 14</b></center>

Liz opened her eyes to a sea of white fog and her gut twisted in acrid disappointment. "It didn't work."

"Now, now, don't go jumping to conclusions," Serena said as she swam into focus. She was standing beside Liz, holding her hand. It was so bizarre to see her there, to see anything that was not washed out in the fog.

"Well, this is as far as I got with Isabel. What now?" Liz asked, releasing Serena's hand and turning. Featureless, colorless nothingness; it made her sick to think of Max trapped in here.

"Now, you call him," came the simple reply. Liz spun to face her.

"Don't you think I tried that? That we tried that, Isabel and Kyle and I?"

"Not with your voice, Liz," she admonished. "Call to Max with your heart."

<I>"It couldn't be that easy, could it?" </I>Liz thought, startled when the unspoken words echoed.

"It's only your mind that's here, Liz—there are no such things as unspoken thoughts in the mind," Serena smiled. "To answer your question, no, it won't be that easy. But it will be a beginning. We can't get through to Max without Max being present."

"That—seems logical enough," Liz said hesitantly. She closed her eyes and concentrated on Max.
Liz sifted through her memories, pulling out the ones that held the strongest emotions. The flashes when Max had healed her—and when he had reversed the connection, trying to prove that she could trust him. And every flash after that, <I>"Like when he grabbed me in the kitchen,"</I> Liz thought with a wry smile, oblivious to the echoing sound. The first, and the second time that he had given her the pendant. When he had first told her that he loved her, and every time since. When she had given him those words back, scarcely two weeks ago, and the salty warmth of his tears had splashed onto her skin. She held onto that moment, willing Max to remember, reaching for him with everything she had. It was enough.

Had she kept her eyes open, Liz would have seen the rapid flicker of her memories across the whiteness of the space, the color blinding in its silence. But she did not open her eyes until she heard the sound of footsteps, slow and heavy and not her own, nor Serena's.

"Liz?"

The husky sound of her name filled her with a wild joy and she flung herself into Max's arms. He held her tightly for a long moment, stroking her hair, then set her on her feet and backed away.

"You can't stay here, Liz. You have to move on," he told her. Liz looked up at him, seeing the pain in his face and not understanding.

"What are you talking about?" she cried.

"You don't belong here. And—and there are things you—shouldn't see," he murmured sadly.

"What? There's nothing to see, Max! Nothing here but you and me and…" Liz's voice trailed off as she noticed that Serena was gone. A shiver ran down her spine; that meant that Serena had not been able to follow her to Max. Liz was trapped here, just like Max. She had to get them both out.

"Max, listen to me. You have been in—some kind of trance state for the last couple of weeks, since Michael and I showed you a videotape. Do you remember that?" she asked urgently.

"You mean the one where Tess and I didn't do anything? Yeah, I remember, Liz," he smiled, then added in a strange tone, "It's all clear now."

"What's clear?" Liz demanded, unintentionally following her question with the statement, <I>"Because it's getting less clear to me by the second!"</I>

Max suddenly grinned. "You always needed to know why. It's one of the things I loved most about you."

"Wait, why are you talking about me in the past tense?"

"Because you're dead," he said simply.

"What?!"

"You're dead, Liz. I saw it with my own eyes," Max moved closer, brushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "I'm so sorry I couldn't keep you safe."

"I am so not dead, Max! I am lying on my bed, in my room, with you, right this very minute!" Liz exclaimed, disturbed by the grief etched on his features. Now that she knew what he believed, it was easy to recognize.

"I wish you were," he smiled sadly. "I've never been in your bed, Liz; that was that other Max, in another lifetime. I—could wish that I—we—it would have been nice."

She blushed hotly, stammering, "Um, me—me too. Nice?"

"You caught me," he laughed. "More like a cherished dream coming true. Liz, I—know you aren't really here, and it's—wrong, I shouldn't do it, but, may I kiss you? One last, farewell kiss?"

Liz stared up at him, feeling him draw her against his body. Lord, but it felt real! He was warm and solid but she knew very well that neither of them was truly corporeal here. "Max, I—<I>don't think it's such a good idea," </I>her sentence finished in her mind as his lips claimed hers.

<I>"It's not real, it's not real," </I>she chanted. But the feel and taste of his mouth were intoxicating and his scent surrounded her, enveloping her in heat to which she could not help responding. Liz's hands slipped up Max's arms, encircling his neck as her lips parted under his. Gently he slid his tongue into her mouth, caressing hers tenderly and it was all so achingly familiar and beloved that Liz felt the prickle of tears behind her closed eyes even as her heart hammered in her chest. This was <I>her</I> Max!

He broke away from her abruptly, breathing heavily. "God, Liz, you feel warm and—and perfect. I'm sorry, I can't—you have to go! It's not enough to lose you; I keep—remembering you, imagining you—hearing your voice, and you're not here. You're <I>not</I> here, you're <I>not</I> real, and I need to stop doing this to myself," his voice was anguished.

"But, Max…" she tried to protest.

"Liz, please. Go, just—go. I can't—it hurts too much," he whispered. Max pressed a swift kiss to her forehead and then he disappeared, leaving her alone in the whiteness.

Liz wanted to scream in frustration. <I>"What is going on? Who told him I was dead?"</I>

"I did. I had to; Nicholas was linked to me when Max dredged up the image," came a steady, familiar voice behind her. Liz spun around, greeting the sight of the small blonde woman with a snort of derision. Of course. Tess. Who else would royally screw up her life?

"Why can't you just stay the hell away from my boyfriend?" she flung the accusation at the hybrid.

"Believe me, Liz, I would love to, but I don't exactly have a lot of choice in the matter," Tess said bitterly. Liz looked closely at her; something was different.

"Why <I>are</I> you here? I know that you've been playing in Max's head for a long time—I saw the tape of what really happened in the observatory, Tess. And Max even said to me right before he collapsed that he could feel you. What are you doing to him?" Liz winced when the rest of her thought unintentionally echoed, <I>"He did say that she didn't feel evil."</I>

Tess's mouth quirked up in a half smile. "At least he was coherent enough to recognize that much. Look, Liz, it's—a really long story and we don't have time for me to explain it all right now. The short version is that Nicholas is holding me prisoner and using the link between Max and I to try to drive Max insane. The reason there's a link is because Nicholas mindwarped me when we were in New York and that's when I started to "play in Max's head," as you so quaintly put it. I was in and out of his mind so often that it forged a link. At the moment, I am playing dumb for Nicholas and trying to minimize the damage to Max at the same time—Nicholas doesn't realize how powerful I am and I've been fixing everything I could without tipping him off."

Liz blinked at the frank admission, taken aback by the other woman's uncharacteristic bluntness. "Why is he going through you? And—wait, you are still on Earth, aren't you? You couldn't do this from Antar, it's too far away," she snapped her fingers in enlightenment.

"Yeah, I'm still on Earth," Tess nodded. "Nicholas is going through me instead of just using me because he doesn't need to use any of his own power this way. Plus, I've convinced him that I'm working with him willingly." Her lip curled in revulsion and she unconsciously wiped at her mouth, as if trying to rid herself of a foul taste.

"Tess, did he—never mind," Liz's eyes softened in compassion as Tess's hardened at the question. "So do you know why Max is gathering power then?"

"Unfortunately, yes. I have a—a way to score on Nicholas, but I need more power than I can generate on my own, even at full strength. Max agreed to lend me his, but once we started pooling it something went—weird. All this energy flooded into him from, I don't even know where, and he doesn't know how to control it. I've been helping him as much as I can but I don't understand it either," she exclaimed, frustrated.

"Well, that much I do know—it's the Royal Seal. It's a storehouse of power and Max is able to access it now because his body's fully mature. Yeah, it's early, mainly—mainly because he kind of jumpstarted everything when he healed me," Liz admitted.

"Jesus, no wonder Nicholas just wants him nuts and not dead," Tess breathed in horror. "If he can get into Max's head and use that, there's no telling what he could do!"

"Oh my God!" Liz echoed the sentiment. "We can't let that happen, Tess, we have to do something."

"You didn't even choke on that "we,"" Tess arched one eyebrow sardonically and Liz flushed.

"Tess, I—"

"No, Liz, it's all right. You never trusted me, and—you had reason. I've done about everything I could to mess up your life and take Max away from you, and I—I didn't understand. I didn't know—or want to know—how different it is, for you two. It's—what's between you, Liz, is special and—really strong. In the last few weeks, I have come to—to see you through Max's eyes. Well, not completely," she giggled, surprising them both. "I haven't started like swinging your way or anything! But I—I understand now, and—I'm sorry. I can't change what happened, but I am sorry."

"Thank you," Liz responded automatically, more than a little shocked. She gave herself a mental shake and sternly reminded herself to focus. "So, what's your plan? Can it still work with all the extra power? Because if he doesn't let go of it soon he'll completely lose control and that will be the end of life as we know it."

"Yeah. Yeah, I've been tinkering with it to use the excess and I think I've found a way, but it has to be soon—that's why I'm here. I'm—using power with Nicholas on a regular basis, I'm linked to him as well so he won't be able to shield from me like he did in the school when I—when I unleashed that firestorm. I can get at him from the inside this time. He, he's…Khivar is going to contact him sometime in the next hour or so, and I've found a way to use Nicholas as a channel. But I—I needed you first. Or Isabel might have done too, but—you have to get Max out, keep his mind from following the power burst. I knew that—well, that he'd stay for you."

"We couldn't get in before today; we've been trying constantly. The only reason I even got in now was because of a boost from Serena," Liz explained.

"Serena!" Tess pulled back with an expression of fear and loathing. Then she laughed ruefully. "I guess that she's probably pretty trustworthy since Nasedo taught me to hate her."

"You knew about her," Liz said flatly.

"Yes," she confessed. "I—there are a lot of things that I know, that I never told any of you. After—after this is over, you'll know it all. I swear."

Liz nodded slowly, unsure as yet. Tess moved closer, staring into Liz's eyes, and Liz noticed for the first time that they were exactly the same height.

"Liz, I know I'm—asking a lot. A monumental amount, actually," her laugh held little humor. "But I need you to trust me here. I can—when we do this, I can give you something that will…that will help you keep Max safe in the future."

"What?" Liz wanted to know.

"I can't tell you that; it's nearly impossible to explain verbally. In order to do this, though, I need your permission, Liz."

Liz searched the hybrid's intensely blue eyes. The first time that she had seen Tess, she had gotten a vibe from her that had led her to instantly distrust the blonde. That instinct had never wavered, until now. Liz saw nothing but sincerity in the blue depths of her gaze. She opened herself a little, feeling for Tess through her connection to Max in the hopes that since she was faintly linked to Serena through Max, she would also be linked to Tess. There, she could feel the blonde's presence in Max's mind, her energy crackling as blue as her eyes. Liz knew that Tess was hiding something—she had admitted as much by refusing to explain her request—but she sensed that it was not something harmful to herself or to Max. All the layers of deception seemed to have been peeled away, leaving a remarkably vulnerable woman in front of her whose small frame carried a heavy load of guilt. Guilt that bore a name: Alex.

Tess jerked in reaction to the realization that Liz had forged a weak connection with her. "Liz…"

"No. Don't apologize for that, Tess; it's not enough. I don't know if anything you could do would ever be enough," Liz spoke the unvarnished truth.

"I know. In spite of—that, will you trust me?"

Liz broke off the connection, having sensed enough to make her decision. "Yes. You have my permission to give me—whatever it is that will help me keep Max safe."

She did not need a connection to feel the relief that flooded through Tess at her words, though the blonde merely nodded.

"Good. We don't have much time; we have to get Max to listen to reason and believe that you're not dead, or he will follow his power. He's been so—do you even know, what you mean to him?"

"I know what he means to me," Liz smiled shyly and Tess smiled back.

"Yeah, you're two of a kind. I—I'm going to, call him. Please—don't be upset when he comes since he was ignoring you. He knows I'm not a figment of his imagination, that's all," she said gently. Liz watched curiously as Tess closed her eyes, startled when Max appeared right beside them.

"Tess, what—Liz? I thought you—please, can't you leave me alone? And you should have known better," he pointed at Tess accusingly. "You know what this is doing to me!"

"Max…she's here. Really here, she's dreamwalking you, just like I am. Liz is not dead," Tess insisted softly.

"Right. You've finally decided to join Nicholas on his quest to drive me crazy, right? It's working, Tess. Get her out of here," Max growled.

Tess flinched at the harsh words but stood her ground. "Think, Max. Think about what you've just said. You know that some of what I've shown you was on Nicholas's orders. Why wouldn't that include Liz's death? What do you think would unbalance you more than that?"

"But I <I>saw</I> her, Tess. I watched it happen, and I couldn't do anything about it," he whispered. Liz ached to go to him, to soothe away his pain but she was powerless until he accepted her existence as reality.

"Max, listen to me. Listen. Watch," Tess commanded. Unwillingly he turned towards her, continuing to ignore the dark-haired woman at her side. She raised her hand and images began to flow against the whiteness. The featureless quality of their surroundings shimmered and firmed into a square room, its dimensions more solid but its lack of color unchanged. Liz gasped as she recognized the sterile environment from the few flashes she had received of Max's atrocious experience in this room.

"Tess, what," she began but the blonde cut her off.

"I'm sorry, Liz, but it's the only way. We don't have time to convince him normally; he has to relive where he first saw the image," her voice was pained as well.

"Pierce showed it to him?" she cried.

"That's why he gave up the location of the orb—to protect you. Hush, Liz, and pay attention. He still needs to be healed of this; all these long months, he's pushed it away. None of the others know what happened. Michael knows the little that he witnessed, but none of them <I>know</I>. Not the way I know now; not the way you will. I am trusting you to heal him," Tess declared fiercely, glancing at Liz.

Liz's throat closed at the fury in Tess's eyes. She suddenly felt a kinship with the blonde alien that she had never experienced before, and her chin firmed as she nodded sharply, unable to speak. Tess smiled, as fiercely as she had spoken.

"He said you were the strong one," she remarked then turned her concentration to the events unfolding before them.

Liz watched in mounting horror as Pierce tortured Max, feeling each blow, each cut as if it were her own body in that room. She saw Isabel wink in and out, seeing how that gave Max a little more strength. At last Pierce forced a pair of virtual reality goggles onto Max's head and the red-tinted images projected against the wall. A stab of pain lanced through her at Alex's laughing face, and then her own face stared up at her, blood trickling from her nose. <I>"Ick,"</I> she thought aloud before the deafening sound of Max's protest roared through her.

"NO! <I>NO!</I>" echoed in his mind, her mind, Tess's. Was there a difference anymore? Liz found herself gasping under the weight of the pain that crashed into her from Max. She struggled to breathe, dimly hearing Pierce tell him that it was not real. More clearly, she heard Tess's voice, close to her ear and edged with urgency.

"Liz, go to him. Damn it, get up and go <I>now</I>! Rip that thing off him and make him believe!"

Liz staggered to her feet, her forward progress towards Max more a result of her inability to stop herself from falling than from any conscious movement. She reached him and backhanded Pierce across the room. He hit the wall and dissolved into nothingness, followed by the goggles as Liz flung them away. She knelt in front of Max, her fingers popping open the restraints on his wrists and ankles.

"Liz? Are you—it wasn't real? He didn't kill you?" Max asked wonderingly. Hesitantly he reached for her hair, the long strands sliding through his fingertips in a silken fall. "You—feel real. You feel solid, like a real person," he added as he touched her face, his fingers tenderly caressing the wetness on her cheeks.

"Max. I'm here. I am here, and I am real, and I love you," Liz choked out. She reached up to him, her arms going around his neck and he crushed her to him, murmuring brokenly. Liz felt a vague presence behind her and realized that it was Tess.

"I don't mean to break it up, guys, but we have to do this <I>now</I>. Khivar just made contact and I have a direct line to Nicholas wide open. We'll never get another chance like this," she declared.

Liz saw a look pass between Max and Tess and realized that Max knew the part that Tess had not told her.

"You're still sure?" he asked her, an odd note in his voice, and Liz started to understand what was going to happen.

"Tess?" she spoke the blonde's name as Tess knelt behind her, her arms going around Liz to clasp Max's shoulders. Locked in between them, Liz felt the world spin away as the White Room dissolved back into nothingness, only now there were swirls of electric color dancing across the empty space. She screamed soundlessly as a fountain of energy surged forth from Max, outlining him in incandescence and racing through her body to Tess. Behind her she felt Tess stiffen and heard her cry out, her words just barely coherent enough for Liz to understand them.

"Nicholas, you bastard, this is for Alex!"

Liz felt a wave of impotent fury from the leader of the Skins as he realized what was happening and then her awareness of him faded away. So faintly she almost did not hear her, she heard Tess whisper, "Tell Isabel—tell her—she'll understand. And Kyle, tell Kyle that I loved him, and the Sheriff that I wish I had been his daughter, and—Liz, you'll know. You'll know it all soon. I'm sorry!"

"I forgive you," she whispered back, tears streaming down her face. "Tess, you didn't need to—"

"I did. It was the only way, Liz—for Alex. Take care of Max; he needs you," she commanded, a thread of laughter in her weakening voice. "It was always you, Liz, from the first moment he laid eyes on you. It was you."

"Tess!" Liz yelled as she felt the warmth behind her melt away. She clung to Max as the brilliant energy roiled and surged around only the two of them and realized that she had to help him contain it.

"Max, focus. Focus! I'm here, let me help," she begged. In answer Max funneled energy to her and she reached for the Earth, knowing somehow that she needed to ground it. How she knew that, she had no idea but she was right: the eddies spun and coalesced into a smoothly flowing river that arched out into the huge pool of energy that was the planet. Once the path had been laid the power followed it, floating away calmly as if it knew it had been tamed. She felt Max's body try to follow it and clung harder to him.

"No! Don't you <b>dare</b> leave me, Maxwell Evans! We have been through way too much for me to let you go now," Liz shouted. In answer she felt Max's arms tighten around her as he whispered in her ear.

"Then hold on, Liz, and fall with me," his voice was seductive and she shivered in response, wrapping her limbs around him as securely as she could. The world darkened around them and a rushing sound filled the air as points of lights sparked briefly against the blackness and died away, and then suddenly they <I>were</I> falling, hurtling through the empty space locked in each other's arms, and the scream building in Liz's throat never sounded as, bodies entwined, they impacted.

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Tasyfa
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Post by Tasyfa » Sun Oct 14, 2007 1:50 pm

<center><b>Chapter 15</b></center>

Max struggled to open his eyes. The lids felt like dead weights pressing on his eyeballs; it was an uncomfortable sensation, to say the least. But he knew that there was something he was supposed to do. Something…

Sound rushed into his ears and Max frowned, trying to separate out the different types of noise. He heard several voices floating in the room.

"Oh, I think I'm going to be sick!"

"Thought aliens didn't get sick. Here, drink some water."

"Lock it down, hon."

"What is with the dancing polka dots?"

"I hate polka dots. Somebody get rid of them!"

"What the hell happened?"

Laboriously Max picked out Isabel, Maria, Michael and Kyle's voices, along with another vaguely familiar male and a woman's voice that he did not know. He grew anxious as he noticed whose voice he could not hear.

"Liz," he croaked. Or tried to. His tongue did not seem to want to work, nor did the rest of him as he finally pried his eyes open. Max swallowed hard at the jumping black dots that swam hazily in front of him, telling his stomach to quit churning. He was <I>not</I> going to get sick!

"Michael, she's totally out of it. I can't get her under control without putting her to sleep. Is that all right?"

"Will it kill the dots?"

"Yes it will," she sounded amused, whoever she was.

"Do it!"

"Wait, is she all right?" Ah, Maria. Who was she so concerned about?

"I think so. A little singed by that much power, I guess, but Liz is strong. She'll be fine."

Liz! Vague reassurances by someone he did not even know were not good enough. With a tremendous effort Max sat up, only to be blinded by the pain in his throbbing temples. He slumped back down.

"That's not good," he mumbled and winced as Maria squealed.

"Oh my God, he's awake! Look, Max is awake!"

"Please don't," Max whimpered as Maria, Michael, Isabel and Kyle gathered around him, all talking at once. He placed his hands over his ears in a vain attempt to halt the barrage of noise, supremely grateful when someone hissed at them to hush.

"I need to see Liz," he insisted when they quieted. Max heaved himself upright again and nearly vomited from the pain. "Oh, God."

"Relax, Maxwell, Liz is all right," Michael tried to reassure him. Max shook off the hands that tried to push him back down and placed his own hands flat on the bed to try to get enough leverage to actually move him forward through the fog of pain.

"You don't understand, I have to see her, Michael," he insisted, hearing the edges of panic in his voice. Michael must have heard it too because his eyes softened. <I>Which is remarkable in and of itself, </I>Max thought crazily.

"Max, I swear to you that Liz is fine. She is shaken up by what happened, and she probably has a headache to match yours but she is <I>fine</I>," Michael declared firmly. "You can kill me yourself if I'm lying."

"I'm holding you to that," Max told him and he nodded. Max took his complete unconcern as a further sign that Michael was telling the truth and he relaxed a tiny bit.

"Help me sit up, please," Max instructed. He sighed at the reluctant looks. "Just humor me, OK?"

Carefully Michael pulled him forward while Isabel stuffed pillows in behind Max to prop him up. Max discovered that if he moved slowly enough, the pain in his head was bearable.

"Evans, you look like you've been on a week long binge drinking Prairie Fires," Kyle commented with a grin.

"What's that, something alcoholic?" Maria wanted to know. Sean laughed as he joined the group.

"It's a shot of tequila with Tabasco added, just for fun," he informed her.

"Right up an alien's alley," Kyle waggled his eyebrows.

"You two are so not helping my stomach problem," Isabel glared at Sean and Kyle, who both shrugged it off.

"Can we not do the arguing thing right now? The less sound, the better," Max requested, holding his head. For the moment he did not even care that Sean DeLuca was there and obviously knew the truth. "I have never been in this much pain. This whole—situation is kind of—humiliating. I feel like a newborn or a—a kitten, or something—equally helpless," he said in disgust.

"Well, you've been pretty damned helpless for the last couple of weeks, Maxwell," Michael laughed.

"Hence the 24/7 wonder, Nurse Liz," Maria said brightly.

"The—what?" Max asked.

"Nurse Liz," she repeated.

"Liz has been—taking care of me. While I was—in a—coma, or whatever," Max stated uncertainly. He looked at Michael with a sinking feeling, seeing the way his friend was trying not to smile.

"Complete 24-hour care, yes," Michael answered, unable to suppress the smirk at the alarm Max knew was on his face.

"Oh," was all he could say at first, feeling a dull heat spread up his neck. "OK then. That—requires some—mental adjustments. Feeling like a kitten doesn't seem so humiliating anymore somehow," Max half smiled.

"That analogy's all wrong anyway, Max. You're not nearly cute enough to be a kitten," Isabel teased gently.

"And you're not particularly furry, either," Maria said speculatively. Max followed her gaze to his chest. His very bare chest. He snatched at the blankets.

"Uh, could someone—thanks, Izzy," he smiled as she handed him a T-shirt. Careful not to move too fast, Max nevertheless pulled it on as quickly as possible. Thinking back to when Liz had first appeared, by herself, he realized that it had really been her. She had not appeared just in time to rescue him; she had actually been there both times he had seen her before that, and he had…uh-oh.

"Did Liz—when she started to, dreamwalk me, was she—on the bed too?" Max inquired, sure he knew the answer. He grimaced as they all nodded. "I hope me being out of it means she's going to go easy on me for being an idiot."

"I'd guess that it's worth several "Get Out of Jail Free" cards, yes. Why, what'd you do?" Maria asked curiously.

Max drew his legs up, hugging his knees to his chest. "I didn't believe her. I didn't think she was real," he admitted.

"You never had any trouble identifying that I was real," Isabel commented.

"Yeah, well, I knew you were in the room down the hall trying to piss me off," one corner of Max's mouth lifted briefly. "I thought Liz… When I was with—Pierce, he showed me some virtual reality stuff," Max did not miss Maria's shiver or Michael's pained look but he continued speaking.

"He—one of the images was a, it was of Liz's body. Her—corpse," he clarified. "Nicholas—when Nicholas was trying to—take control, he saw that—that memory, and used it, somehow. He—made me believe that… I kept hearing her voice and—feeling her, with me; when I saw her I figured I had finally lost it. But I—I couldn't let go…shit," Max swore as tears prickled his eyes and he put his head down on his upraised knees. Someone, he did not lift his head to see who, rubbed his shoulder soothingly. It felt nice, but it was not enough.

"Reen, are you finished? He needs to see her," Max heard Sean murmur to the unknown woman tending to Liz. He swallowed the resurging grief and tears, lifting his head to look at the corner of the room where Sean bent over the two women: one kneeling, one prone. Max threw a quick smile at Maria, who squeezed his shoulder and let him be.

The woman who had been kneeling stood up and turned to face the group. <I>If her hair were longer, I'd have thought that was Liz, </I>Max thought in surprise. He caught a flash of fear from her, nervous fear, and noted that she glanced at Sean for support.

Sean stepped forward. "Max, may I present Serena?"

The name was slightly familiar but Max forgot that in his shock as Serena bowed deeply.

"Your Highness," she murmured, looking at the floor.

"You're Antarian," he stated and she nodded. "Can you—bring her to me? Please?"

"Of course," she answered readily, brushing Sean's offer of help aside. Serena knelt back down, scooping the small body of Liz Parker into her arms and stood, seemingly effortlessly. As she made her way towards the bed, her gaze lifted from the floor and she met Max's eyes for the first time.

<I>Pure black, like a starry sky,</I> Max thought dizzily and watched her lovely eyes widen in surprise at whatever it was that she saw in his face. Something stirred inside him as she came ever closer and stopped beside the bed. He held out his arms for Liz.

"Maxwell, I don't think," Michael stopped talking, evidently realizing that Max was paying no attention to him. Serena looked down at Max measuringly, her eyes locked with his, and suddenly she leaned forward. She gently set Liz down on the bed, placing her waist beside Max's and laying her across him so that Liz's back was supported by his bent knees, her head by his waiting arm.

"Thank you," Max breathed, still captured by Serena's eyes. There was a spark of humor there and they both smiled.

"You should know that I would never do anything to hurt the people you love, Zan," she chided gently.

"I do, Serenalyia. I do know that," Max reassured her.

"I apologize for the bow. I seem to have forgotten how to formally curtsy," her black eyes twinkled.

He laughed. "That's hardly a surprise, Aly. You avoid it whenever possible!"

"Too true," she smiled. Her smile wavered almost imperceptibly as her gaze flickered down to Liz and back. "Look to your Chosen, Zan."

"Aly—" Max felt a pressing need to explain something, but he did not know what. He did not fully comprehend what was happening. <I>Story of my life, </I>he thought wryly.

"Zan," Serena shook her head impatiently. "Max. This is what's meant to be. You know that. Liz knows it, though she doesn't understand yet. Do you love her?"

The question caught Max off guard and he responded brutally honestly, "More than I've ever loved anything."

"Then there's your answer. Don't ever let her go," she smiled though he could see her chin trembling. "And—I have my own Chosen," she added then backed away.

Max heard the scattered questions being fired at him but paid them no mind as he looked down at Liz's sweet face. With his free hand he traced the dark circles under her eyes, seeing the translucent quality to her paler than usual skin. Irrelevant all; she was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

As if from a long way off, he heard Sean protest, "Uh, Reen, I thought—"

"Shut up and hold me," Serena cut him off, sniffling.

Content now, though no less confused, Max tuned it all out as he began to delicately stroke the side of Liz's face, alternating between her cheek and the long lock of hair that insisted on falling over her brow. Several minutes passed in silence, at least for him, and then Liz's eyelashes fluttered open and she blinked up at him. Recognition dawned in her eyes and her lips stretched in an amazingly wide smile.

"Max!" she exclaimed softly, her voice saturated with joy.

"Hey, sleepyhead," Max grinned back.

"That's funny, coming from you," Liz teased.

"So I've been told," he could feel the blush creeping up his face but he did not care.

"Oh," her lashes swept down briefly before she looked back up. "Are you upset?"

"No, Liz. A little embarrassed, but I'll live," he promised.

Her smile dimmed and faded away. "You almost followed her, Max. You scared the hell out of me!"

"I know. I know, I'm sorry. I couldn't—" he stopped when she shook her head firmly.

"Swear that it'll never happen again," Liz insisted.

"Liz—"

"Swear it, Max. I need to know that you won't follow <I>me</I> if—if anything ever happens," her voice shook with intensity.

Max stared down at her, knowing that there was no getting out of this one. If she wanted his pledge he would give it; his life already belonged to her.

"I swear."

"Thank you," Liz whispered. She turned her face into his caress, kissing his palm. "I'll come back to haunt you otherwise," she smiled.

"I thought you were," he teased. "I heard everything you said, believing that it was my own imagination." Somehow the hurt was gone, soothed away by the light in Liz's eyes.

"Everything, huh?" she colored a little as he nodded. "Well, I guess we're right back at rule number one on both sides."

Max laughed. "No secrets and no lies." He brushed his thumb over her bottom lip, remembering when he had kissed her. "Liz, about what I said to you…"

"You're not taking it back, are you?" her eyes sparkled mischievously.

Something warned Max that he had better not do that. "Um, no?"

"Good. Me neither," Liz murmured. His breath caught and an entirely inappropriate rush of heat soared through him.

"Oh," Max managed to reply, seeing her smile widen. He leaned down and pressed his lips to her forehead with such tenderness that her eyes closed in rapture. Smiling, he kissed each closed eyelid and the tip of her nose.

"Max," Liz sighed softly.

"Sh, I'm getting there," he whispered, kissing each cheekbone and the corners of her smile. At last he kissed her parted lips, the slow rub of his tongue against the sensitive inner surfaces of her mouth eliciting another sigh when he pulled away.

"God, I missed you," Max murmured. Her eyes opened and she smiled, raising a hand to touch his face.

"I love you," Liz declared quietly.

"And I, you," he affirmed, kissing her palm even as she had done to him. They gazed at each other in silence, and then Liz brushed his jaw again and dropped her hand to his shoulder, her mien becoming more somber.

"Max…why didn't you tell me that it would kill her?"

His brow furrowed, mirroring her grief. "Would it have made any difference?"

Liz considered her answer, finally admitting, "No, I guess not. It was her choice, right? Tess did—what she felt she had to do, to atone for killing Alex." She was quiet for a moment, pondering it further. "You tried to talk her out of it, didn't you?"

"Up one side and down the other. I had no idea Tess was that stubborn," Max smiled a little. "Honestly, I—had no idea who she even was until these last few days, and—I don't think she really knew before, either. Too many years following Nasedo's orders and believing she—she belonged with me." He coughed, adding, "And the truth is, she didn't even like me very much, which felt—odd, given the circumstances."

"Poor baby," she smiled at his discomfited expression.

"Don't encourage me in the self-pity department," Max warned. "Anyway, once I—accepted that part of the plan, we—we kept working on it and refining it and—it really was a brilliant plan and everything was working great until I started transferring power to her."

"And you opened the Seal," Liz nodded thoughtfully.

"Yeah, apparently," he shrugged diffidently. "I wish I knew if it worked."

"You didn't feel Nicholas die?" she questioned him.

"No! You did?"

"Yes. I—actually, Max, I can still feel her—energy," Liz frowned as she reached out with her mind.

"Can you trace it, find out what happened?" Max asked eagerly.

"I think so, but—not on my own," she shook her head then looked speculatively at him as her hand rose to his face again. Her eyes flickered to his forehead and back to meet his. "Can I—borrow?"

"Can you?" he raised his eyebrows in surprise. Max took her nod at face value, never stopping to wonder how it was possible. If Liz said she could do it…he took a deep breath. "I'm all yours."

Her smile said that she knew that already as Liz threaded her fingers through his hair, over his temple. Max opened himself to her the way Tess had shown him and felt her take hold of his energy, spinning it out as she latched onto the faint traces she could sense. Uniquely sensitized to Tess's energy by the manner of her death, Liz began to follow the traces, moving carefully and keeping a firm mental grip on Max. He knew she was wary of becoming lost.

As Liz grew more accustomed to the process she went faster, and Max heard her gasp as she reached her destination.

"What?" he wanted to know. He could sense what she was doing but did not receive the visuals that he knew she was getting.

"Max, were they in Copper Summit? The—area looks kind of familiar," Liz stalled.

"Yeah, Nicholas pulled everyone in. Even most of the renegades had returned; they were shedding too much to pass in normal society. Tess said they were working on some kind of technology to replace the husks using the granolith, but she didn't know anything about it beyond the fact that it wasn't finished yet. What do you see?"

"It's like a perfect circle was cut out of the Earth and painted black. Max, the entire town went up in flames!"

"Like the firestorm at the school, only—on a bigger scale," he could not quite comprehend the absolute destruction, even though he had known that was the plan.

"Exactly. She—wait, there's another trace. Hold onto me," she ordered, and Max tightened his grasp on her mind. It was intoxicating, the feel of her slipping along inside him while he anchored her.

"Liz, where are you going?" he demanded, as her presence grew fainter. He began to worry when she did not answer immediately. "Liz!"

"I'm—almost there. Oh, my God!"

"Liz, you're killing me here!"

Her voice held a thread of laughter. "I hope your family has a renovation budget because she decimated the throne room!"

"What? On <I>Antar</I>?"

"Yeah. At least, I'm assuming it's the throne room, since that weird stone—monstrosity looks sort of throne like, and—oh my God, Max. That's why Tess insisted that it had to be now! There was some kind of—of strategy meeting, with all the head military types and his counselors, and—"

"Khivar?" Max asked thickly.

"He—oh that's gross. No, Max. He was here, but he did the same thing Nicholas did for the first firestorm: used the death energy around him to fuel a shield. Tess didn't have a direct line like she did to Nicholas this time so Khivar was able to get out. No one else, though. Nearly his entire support system was in here when it happened. The army or whatever they call it has got to be in total chaos, and even though he's alive Khivar's barely got a leg to stand on right now," Liz declared triumphantly.

"That's enough information. Come back to me, Liz," Max coaxed.

"OK. Hang on," she said mischievously. "I want to try something."

"What? Liz, now isn't really—" he fell silent as he realized it was too late. Max felt a peculiar snapping sensation in his head and immediately following it was the renewed sense of Liz's presence as she opened her eyes and looked up at him.

"That was so cool!" her whole face shone. Max laughed, and then they both became aware of the other people in the room.

"Liz, what did you <I>do</I>? And how? Are you like part alien now? Because if you are I think I'm going to scream!" Maria announced with a smile.

"You say that like it's a bad thing," Isabel bristled.

"Hardly," Maria snorted. "More like me being jealous—I'm the only lowly human left! But I'm not interested in having Max heal me of a near-death experience to fix that," she added hastily.

"Hey, I'm a lowly human," Sean protested from his position near the window. He still had Serena clasped in his arms.

"Oh, right, you. Let me rephrase that and say that I'm the only intelligent human left," Maria rolled her eyes. There was a smattering of laughter.

"I don't think I'm an alien now, Maria. I—I'm not sure what's happened exactly, but it—had something to do with Tess," Liz said slowly. "Anyway, didn't Nasedo tell you guys that your powers are human?"

"That's what he said," Michael confirmed. "But who knows if anything he said was true anymore?"

"Your Gifts are human as much as Antarian," Serena turned to speak. "One of the reasons Earth was chosen was because our brain structures are very similar. Certain areas of the human brain that are generally dormant can be awakened; that's where your Gifts reside. Although you should be aware that Antarians don't use their entire brain either, and the fact that we do use a larger percentage doesn't make for any less stupidity," she snorted.

"Yeah, we met Courtney," Maria said sweetly. Max smiled at Michael's look of disgust.

"Something tells me I don't want to know any more about that right now," Serena's mouth quirked up in a half smile.

"There is something that I'd like to know more about, though," Kyle finally spoke up. He gazed directly at Max. "What happened to Tess?"

Max looked down at Liz, both of them hearing the echo, <I>Tell Kyle that I loved him.</I> Her eyes filled with tears, but also with resolution, and she jerked her head to indicate that she wanted Max to help her sit up. He did, and Liz moved around him to sit on the side of the bed, near enough for him to touch still. She clearly understood that Max needed her close right now.

"Kyle…I'm so sorry, Kyle, but Tess died. She was in Copper Summit when she engulfed the town in flames; Nicholas had been holding her prisoner all that time. She—when she unleashed the firestorm, she made sure that Nicholas was aware that…that she did it for Alex," Liz said softly, her eyes finding and holding Isabel's. Max watched the emotions chase each other across his sister's face, knowing how unutterably difficult this was for her. Through the tears shimmering in her eyes he saw Isabel reach the same conclusion and forgiveness that he himself had; that Liz had as well.

"A life for a life," she nodded. "I—I understand."

"She said you would," Liz smiled a little. "She—oh, Isabel, I wish things could have been different! But—they're not, and Alex is gone, and now Tess is gone too."

Liz swiveled to look at Kyle again. Max could see him fighting to hold back his own tears. He noticed that Maria was sobbing in Michael's arms, and though Michael wore his typical stoic expression there was a haunting look in his eyes.

"Kyle, would you—come here, please? I—I know that you know now that Tess—mindwarped you into thinking of her as a sister. But it wasn't—it wasn't because you were in her way, it was because she knew she wasn't strong enough to resist you. She was in love with you, Kyle," Liz's voice wobbled as she spoke to her friend, who had pulled the chair over to sit in front of her. "She wanted—Tess wanted nothing more than to be with you, and to let your dad be her family."

"Then why was she after Max? Because of that stupid deal Nasedo made with Khivar?" he said harshly.

"Sort of," Max stepped in. "When Tess and I were in New York, she—Lonnie and Rath tried to mindrape her, to find out where the granolith was. At least, that's what Tess told me. That's what she believed. The truth—the truth was that Nicholas mindwarped her. All the details of the deal, all the—the uncontrollable pursuit of me. He even," Max hesitated; Liz did not know this part yet. "He gave her a trigger phrase, to use on me when I—when I was—alone and very—vulnerable. All the times that we had been—trying to get our memories back, Tess had been planting coercions and—other things in my mind, only—she didn't know that. And then she found me, at the observatory, and…it was supposed to be real, to bind me to her, but even mindwarped she didn't—she wanted Kyle."

Kyle raised his eyebrows and Max half smiled, acknowledging the irony. There was a small spark of Kyle's usual humor in his blue eyes at the turned tables as he spoke, "Thanks, for telling me. I appreciate the honesty, Max."

"Yeah," Max nodded. "We—I think we've all kept too many secrets, here."

"We really should stop doing that," Kyle agreed, surprisingly enough. He and Max shared a look of harmony on that issue as Liz sighed. She released Kyle's hand, having taken hold of it while Max was explaining, and leaned back against the side of Max's legs.

"It's amazing, how—ordinary Tess actually was, as a person. She didn't really want a lot from her life, just a—a normal American dream kind of thing. Tess wanted to be normal even more than I used to wish that something interesting would happen in my life!" Liz smiled at the quirk of fate that had engineered this entire situation.

"Liz, how do you know all this? Are you getting it from me?" Max asked curiously.

"No," she said thoughtfully. "It's—almost as if it's part of me. I just know these things. The emotions are one step removed so I know they're not mine, but I can still feel them and understand them. I guess this is what Tess was talking about when she asked if she could give me something. At first I was confused, because how could she have asked me that when she knew she was going to die, but—it seems to have worked, whatever she did."

Serena snapped to attention in the corner of the room, drawing everyone's gaze to her suddenly rigid body. "Liz, exactly what did she say to you?"

Noticeably agitated by Serena's unexpected response, Liz answered her, "She—she said that she wanted to give me something that would help me keep Max safe, and she couldn't tell me what it was but she needed my permission anyway."

"So you gave it to her? Just like that? Liz, are you crazy?!" Maria exclaimed. "You didn't know any of that stuff then!"

"I'm not stupid, Maria. I—well, since Serena and I could link because we're both linked to Max, I figured that I'd be able to link to Tess, and I was. I could tell that it wasn't something that would harm Max or me and that the offer was genuine, so I said yes," Liz said defensively.

"How? How did you agree?" Serena inquired as she moved across the room to stand in front of Liz. Kyle rolled the chair back to give her some room.

"I—I said, "You have my permission to give me whatever it is that will help me keep Max safe,"" she recited. "Why, do you know what's happening, Serena?"

The dark-haired woman knelt in front of Liz. "I think so, but—I need to connect, to you, in order to make sure. May I?" Her black eyes flickered to Max. He was still trying to figure out exactly who she was—or rather, who she had been. The snatches of memory were not at all clear, and had more to do with her personality than anything else, although he had a sense that they had worked together. Something involving powers? He was not sure of any of that, but he knew that he trusted her. Max nodded slightly and Serena raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement before returning her eyes to Liz, awaiting her answer.

"Yes," Liz said simply and Serena placed her hands on either side of Liz's face, her fingers threading into Liz's long hair. Max blinked at the strange echo of his own first connection with Liz, made doubly bizarre by the similarities in the physical appearance of the two women. He watched carefully as they locked gazes and tuned out the rest of the world.

A few minutes later sense returned to both of their eyes and Serena removed her hands, sighing as she stood.

"I didn't anticipate this. I'm going to need to brush up on everything. In spite of everything else, Jirathelan did teach her properly so I didn't think I'd need to do much. And then there's the whole political angle—my God, the Thenarians are going to be spitting mad! It'll be chaos for a while but that'll die and really, it is for the best and," she paced back and forth, muttering to herself.

"Aly," Max said firmly. "Snap out of it! What's going on?"

Her head lifted and she looked at him. "Serena, please, Z—Max. Reen if you must use a nickname. I—I'm sorry, Liz, I just—this is so unbelievable! Give me a sec to let my brain run and then I'll talk," Serena offered with a rueful smile.

"Uh, yeah, that's fine. I do that too," Liz confessed, smiling back.

Serena resumed her pacing, still muttering although it was inaudible now. Finally she grabbed Isabel and Michael, tugging them towards the bed. She placed one of Isabel's hands in Max's, the other in Michael's, then did the same for Liz's hands, all the while ignoring the questions and puzzled looks. Serena stood back and looked at the resulting formation for a moment, nodding in satisfaction.

"Welcome to the four-square, Liz. You're a Mindwarper."

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Tasyfa
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Post by Tasyfa » Sun Oct 14, 2007 1:51 pm

<center><b>Chapter 16</b></center>

"I'm a what?" Liz asked tightly.

"Mindwarper. You have the ability to mindwarp," Serena looked at her like that should have been obvious. And it was. Liz understood the words; it was the implications she was having some trouble with.

"Yeah, I got that part, thanks. How is it possible? How is that fucking possible?" she shouted, ripping her hands from both Michael and Max's grasps.

"Liz!" Maria exclaimed in shock. Liz could feel shock emanating from Max too, as well as some kind of vague fear. She was too upset to focus on him, though.

"What?" she snapped at Maria.

"You were all excited a minute ago that you could mentally flit all over the universe. Why are you freaking now?" Maria did not understand.

"I—figured it was an after effect, you know, of having Max's energy go through me to Tess. And maybe—maybe it was strong like that because we're sort of linked. I didn't think it was permanent," Liz looked appealingly at Serena.

"I'm sorry, Liz, but it is permanent. It's called a Bequeathing. It's rare, but—when an Antarian dies, they can pass on their—their Gifts, and their knowledge, to another person who has agreed to receive them. When you gave Tess your permission, that is what it was for. You agreed to accept her abilities and shoulder her responsibilities," Serena said gently.

"I—didn't know," Liz whispered. "Why wouldn't—never mind, I know why she didn't tell me, because I wouldn't have let her die. I didn't—how do I—what do I do now?" she asked, near tears.

Kyle stepped in front of her, grasping her upper arms lightly. "Liz. Liz, listen to me. It doesn't matter that she didn't tell you beforehand; she knew you'd say yes."

"What are you talking about, Kyle? I never wanted—this," Liz's voice shook and the tears began to slide down her cheeks.

"Maybe not. But it's for damn sure that you didn't want to hand Max over on a silver platter to his supposed destiny either, or break his heart, but you asked me to help you do both of those things because if you didn't, people were going to die. Tess knew why you did that, right Evans? I'm assuming you two talked about that?"

"Yeah," Max confirmed, and the raw sound of his voice sent fresh tears spilling down.

"But—" Liz protested.

"No buts," Kyle told her. "Tess told you that you would be better able to keep Max safe, and it was the truth. You put Max and yourself through hell so as not to break the four-square; how could she think that you would do anything but accept, Liz? How could you think that?"

"You're right, you're right," Liz sniffled. "It's just so," <I>overwhelming</I>, she meant to say, but the tears caught up to her and she started to cry in earnest, leaning against Kyle for support. He awkwardly patted her back, making soothing noises.

Max caught Kyle's pleading expression and half smiled. "I'd love to, but I don't think I could stand let alone support her," he admitted ruefully.

"Oh, here," Michael held out his free arm; the other was still around Maria, who had started to cry again at Liz's display of tears. "I might as well pull double duty!"

Gratefully Kyle steered Liz over to Michael, and she grabbed hold of Michael's shirt and moved without protest to cry on his shoulder, one hand seeking out Maria's and holding it tightly.

Kyle stepped back and regarded Michael, who now held two weeping women. "You look pretty comfortable there, Guerin," he ribbed.

"It's called practice, Valenti," Michael shot back, but he looked at Max. Max nodded, acknowledging Michael's implied care of Liz while he had been incapacitated with a sense of relief.

"Thanks, Michael. Actually, thank you—all. You've obviously been—really great, together, while I've been, well, out of it, so—thanks. I appreciate it," Max said sincerely, smiling when they shrugged or otherwise dismissed it.

" Max, I—I can heal your—the lingering effects. I mean, you're in pain from the sheer amount of energy that went through you; your body isn't really designed to handle that. Neither is mine, incidentally. I'm sorry, I healed Liz when I—when I controlled her projecting, but I didn't really have a chance to ask you after that," Serena offered.

"Is that what those sickening dots were, Liz was mindwarping?" Maria sniffled.

"Yes. She was momentarily knocked out when she got thrown across the room, and when she began to revive she projected what she was seeing," Serena explained with a sympathetic smile. She turned to look at Max questioningly.

Max felt all kinds of nervous as he nodded in agreement. He glanced at Liz, feeling her non-verbal reassurance that she trusted Serena, but Liz's face was still buried in Michael's damp shirt. He took a deep breath and looked at Serena as she knelt on the bed, rearranging himself to sit cross-legged so that she could reach him more easily.

Serena mirrored his position, sitting cross-legged with her knees touching Max's. Her lips curved in a faint smile. "You don't trust me."

"No, I do," Max hastened to refute her statement. "That's the really weird part. I don't know you at all, but I trust you. I'm just—nervous. I—I don't usually—connect, very often."

"I know, Max. But I've been keeping tabs on all of you through a link to you for years now, so there isn't much you need to worry about hiding," her black eyes sparkled.

"Oh," he remarked, slightly embarrassed at that information. Not anywhere near as embarrassed as Max thought he should be, though, which puzzled him even further until she spoke again.

"And you do know me, or at least part of you does. Zan and I knew each other very well. Are you ready?" Serena asked. Max settled himself a little more comfortably and nodded, and then her hands reached for his face.

Involuntarily Max closed his eyes as her fingers threaded into his hair. He told the butterflies in his stomach to quit their somersaults. He could not function properly right now without allowing her to heal him, and besides he had told the truth: he trusted her. Moreover, Liz trusted her. Surely that ought to make him calm about this!

Max took a few deep breaths, synchronizing his breathing with Serena's, and his eyes fluttered open to be caught in hers. Just like the first time, it was as though he were falling into her midnight gaze and something deep within roused at the contact. The blackness grew until it encompassed him, pushing everything else away.

There was a sharp flash of white light and then a scene unfurled before him, drawn up through the darkness. A stone room, vaguely circular, the moonlight pouring through the open windows and turning the mist outside to a shimmering antique gold. A raised platform in the corner opposite the window, just beyond the reach of the lines drawn on the floor by the rays of the moons, covered with deep red fabric that glinted against the faint glow of the figures entwined on it. There was the gentle rasp of silk sliding against skin, and skin against skin, and the soft sounds of laughter and love.

"Max? Max!" he heard dimly, engrossed in the scene playing out in front of him. It was not until she called, "Zan!" that Max snapped back to himself, to find Serena withdrawing her hands.

Oblivious to the lack of pain, Max grasped her hands, his fingers curling into her palms and preventing her from pulling away. He stared at her, wide-eyed, and an expression Max could not quite name stole across Serena's face.

"What—what did you see?" she murmured haltingly, seemingly unsure if she wanted to know.

"Golden moonlight and red silk and—and the two of us," he responded softly.

"Max…" Serena attempted to tug her hands free, her voice laden with reluctance.

"Serenaly—Serena, please," Max tightened his grip. "I may not exactly be well-versed in Antarian physiology but I know what was going on! What happened? Why did I marry Ava when—when I was in love with you?"

At his words her eyes softened, and Max had the sudden urge to kiss her. Hard on the heels of that impulse, he felt a stab of—something from Liz. It was not jealousy; that, he would have recognized. <I>Ditto for possessiveness,</I> he thought wryly, knowing he was prey to that as well. No, it was more like certainty. An absolute trust in him, and it illuminated the truth that while this remembered passion did imbue Max with desires, the dark-haired woman sitting in front of him, her hands captive in his, was not the object of those desires. He wanted to share that kind of carefree intimacy with someone, but not Serena. Every direction he chose, every impulse he harbored; every emotion Max experienced all led back to the same place, as they always had: to Liz Parker.

"What happened? Your father was killed and you were crowned King. Suddenly you had all these different responsibilities and pressures, not the least of which was to get married as soon as possible. You and Vilandra were the only royal children; Vilandra had only just gone through her Emergence and wasn't supposed to be sexually active for a few more years, so you were it. Everyone kind of assumed that you'd formally Choose me then. I—well, I was sort of on the outs with my family for improper behavior, but they were highborn enough that I would suit," Serena flashed a wicked smile that left no doubt that the "improper behavior" to which she was referring was her relationship with Zan. Max blushed a little but silently implored her to continue.

"Why didn't he Choose you?" Maria asked candidly, seeking answers on her best friend's behalf. Serena glanced in her direction then refocused on Max.

"I didn't love Zan enough to let him Choose me, and he didn't love me enough to try to change my mind. There was too much—I couldn't give up everything I would have had to, in order to become your wife. Your Queen. We never actually talked about it, we just—you just knew. That's when you asked Mythandra to find a bride for you, and she selected Ava. Uh, Mythandra is—is your mother," she added.

"Why Ava? Did I even know her?" Max asked incredulously. Hearing his mother's name brought a warm flush to him, but he ignored it in favor of learning the whole story.

"Uh, you'd met. I believe Larek introduced you at his cousin's party. Erineth had a huge estate overlooking the water, near Demara's Rock. It was gorgeous," Serena smiled wistfully at the memory.

"So all that stuff that Brody said when he was possessed by Larek's memories, about you guys swimming and seeing Tess on the rocks, that was the truth," Sean commented.

"Right," Serena agreed, an ironic sparkle in her eyes. Max realized she knew that Zan had told Larek that Ava was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and he felt oddly guilty about it. Serena's smile deepened.

"Ava was very beautiful. She was also young and incredibly naïve. She grew up extremely sheltered and had been handfed the whole Cinderella-type story. That's what she expected when she married you, and that's what she got. Ava never knew it was just a role; she never really knew Zan at all. You cared about her, yes, but you never loved her, Max," Serena revealed.

"Did—did I kiss her? At that party? Tess—she said that I—our first kiss was late at night, at a party…" Max trailed off, hesitant to ask about some of these things with Liz listening. He did not want to hurt her but he needed to know. It reassured him that he could feel how calm she was now, but still he worried a little.

"Mmm, it was, but not at that one. You didn't kiss her until your engagement celebration, and that was at the palace. Erineth's party is also where we met, actually, and the day after that was when I began to scandalize my family," Serena noted, sounding eerily like Maria with the bright sarcasm biting through her latter remark.

"What, did they find out you dragged the prince off to some dark corner during the party or something?" Kyle waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"Not exactly," Serena hedged, her eyes sliding from Max's to fix on some unspecific location.
"Then…" Sean prompted. Max looked at him; he seemed rather calm given that he and Serena appeared to be involved. Which was something else Max wanted to ask about, but one thing at a time!

Sean met Max's eyes with a kind of challenge, almost as if he were daring Max to make a move on Serena. Max shook his head slightly, indicating that he did not want to step in the middle. He merely wanted information about who Serena had been to Zan, in their previous lives. For while Serena had not died, it was abundantly clear that she was not the Aly with whom Zan had fallen in love any longer, any more than Max was Zan. Each had their own lives, their own significant others now, and Max was more than happy to have it that way.

Serena heaved a sigh. "Fine. What happened next was…one of those life-changing moments, you know? Or—well, not what happened next exactly, but," she pulled her hands from Max's finally, placing them on her flaming cheeks. "God, it's been sixty some-odd years and this still embarrasses me! <I>Un</I>believable!"

"This should be good," Kyle commented gleefully. Max shot him a look and he shrugged pointedly. Max gave up. Trying to change Kyle was even more useless than trying to change Michael. He returned his gaze to the woman blushing in front of him, something about her vivid embarrassment striking a familiar chord.

"I have—had, three brothers. Two older and one who was very young at the time, just a child. Maybe six or seven in human years? Anyway, Zanelan, my baby brother, had this habit, of—of visiting people unexpectedly, and the next morning he—arrived, in my room, rather early," Serena explained haltingly. Max bit his lip; he was beginning to remember the rest of the story.

"You weren't—I mean, he didn't come in while you were—otherwise occupied, did he?" Maria asked, wincing even before Serena had a chance to answer.

"No, no. He—well, he and Zan scared the crap out of each other and Zanelan screeched, which brought my older brothers running, and—oh my God, it was a mess. If you had been anyone else…as it was my eldest brother started to say something scathing and then Dearnen hissed at him and pulled him down, and he realized who you were and they were both bowing…the entire thing was such a spectacle," Serena bemoaned.

"Little Zan," Max added suddenly. He flushed at the speculative looks turned his way. "Your brother—I called him little Zan, and he took me to see your mother's garden, after."

"Yeah," Serena nodded. "That made him feel so important! He talked my mother's ear off about it for ages."

"Wait, why didn't he do that to you?" Kyle asked, puzzled.

"Oh. While—they were in the garden, Dearnen and Jithar made it very clear that prince or no, they wouldn't put up with that kind of thing. So, they ranted and I—I packed," she shrugged, glancing at Max.

He did remember the next part. "You came with me, to the palace, and I—" Max broke off, staring at her in amazement.

Serena half smiled at him. "Yes. You offered me the Queen's apartments, and I refused. The next time either of us spoke that word was when you formally introduced me to Ava, at your wedding reception."

No one spoke for several minutes; it was an overwhelming amount of information, although it still only scratched the surface of what they needed to know. Liz regarded Max but he was staring into space, thinking. She had remained quiet throughout, not wanting to disturb his surfacing memories or Serena's revelations. They were oddly fascinating to Liz, and she did not quite understand how it could be that such blatantly personal things did not make her feel uncomfortable or threatened. Instead she was curious and amused and a hundred other nameless things.

Liz cleared her throat softly, smiling mischievously when everyone looked at her. "You know, you could have just called her brother Maria."

"What?" Maria squealed. "And here I was, nicely <I>not</I> pointing out that Max's impulse control hasn't improved much in sixty years!"

"I don't think you can really compare when Maria burst in on you two to when Serena's little brother caught them. At least Zan got somewhere first!" Michael smirked.

That made everyone laugh, and Max put his hands to his head. "I'm beginning to wish I could go back to the needing help to sit up part! That seems pretty tame now," he smiled ruefully, his eyes seeking Liz's for a tender exchange of glances.

Warmed inside, Liz noticed that Isabel looked a little strained although she was smiling along with the rest of them. Divining her concerns, Liz gently requested, "Serena, would you—can you tell us what happened to Vilandra?"

Dead silence greeted her request, though Isabel flashed her a grateful look. Serena's features twisted into a grimace of hate. "What happened to Vilandra was a perversion of everything that I held holy. In times past, a crime like that was punishable by the equivalent of castration, and for Khivar I would cheerfully have held the knife myself," she spat. Seeing their appalled confusion, her face softened. "Let me see if I can explain, without getting too worked up.

"Like me, Khivar was a Gifts teacher, though not in my league. I could and did kick his ass in the Practice Room on a regular basis. Come to think of it, I kicked your ass on more than one occasion," she smiled at Max.

"I don't think that even fazes me at this point in my day!" he smiled back.

"Probably not. In any case, Villa Emerged not too long after Zan and I—got involved, and it was decided that it posed a conflict of interest for me to teach her so she was placed in Khivar's class," she began to explain.

"What is Emerging? You've mentioned it a few times," Isabel inquired hesitantly. Liz knew this was a truly difficult subject for her to deal with and she was glad when Kyle placed his arm around Isabel's shoulders. The tall blonde relaxed minutely.

"Emerging is sort of like a coming of age process. I said before that Antarians don't have an adolescence, and physically that's true. But while our bodies go straight from child to adult, our minds do not. It's—don't groan, guys, but it's something like a girl getting her period for the first time. Most human females begin menstruating between the ages of eleven and fourteen, and technically that means that they're capable of reproducing. But we all know that fourteen-year-old girls are not ready to be mothers! So, for Antarians there is a maturing process for a few years, which loosely translates to Emerging. Mostly it consists of Gifts and other training. High school with a twist," she winked.

"During that process, the Emergents are not supposed to even be alone with a member of the opposite sex who isn't also a family member. For example, I was accompanied just about everywhere by either Jithar or Dearnen when I was Emerging," she rolled her eyes.

"Apparently you were fully Emerged by the time you met Zan at that party," Kyle teased.

Serena coughed. "Yes, well, that's true enough, although I hadn't been for that long, which I always thought contributed to my brothers' boneheadedness. Anyway," she said pointedly, wrinkling her nose at Kyle.

"Mythandra and Khivar's mother had grown up together, and she stayed close, living in an estate near the palace. Khivar didn't get along that well with Rath but Zan generally played peacemaker and the three of you were good friends when you were younger. As you grew older, Khivar spent less and less time with you because he was undergoing his training to be a teacher. It's fairly rigorous; doesn't leave a lot of time for socializing. And of course Rath had his own military training, and Zan was learning statecraft from Kindar. That was your father, Max," Serena smiled sadly. "He was a wonderful man, so warm. But proud, and oh my word, stubborn! Your mother used to tease him that Rath was really his son because they were constantly butting heads, and then the three of you would have mock wrestling matches while she and I and Villa watched and laughed at you all. It was a side of your family that few people were privileged to see."

"It sounds happy," Isabel said wistfully. "I remember playing referee for Max and Michael when we were all little and they'd watched too much WWF. They wouldn't let me play, though."

"Hey, we let you play once and you fought like a girl, all scratching and hair pulling! Max had to heal me afterwards so we didn't get in shit from your mom," Michael defended the exclusion, making everyone laugh.

"Would you go on, please, Serena?" Liz asked with a smile. Serena met her eyes and Liz felt a shock go through her at the depth of pain she saw there. Abruptly it was cut off, as if Serena had realized what her expression was saying, and her eyes became reflective black pools, revealing nothing of her feelings. But as she complied with Liz's request, Serena could not keep her voice quite so neutral.

"As I said before, Khivar became Vilandra's teacher. Uh, you know that she and Rath were betrothed, right? Well, they were just betrothed still because she was too young to marry. But she did have a crush on him, and a major case of hero worship for her older brother. So, Villa had a habit of following them both around, especially when they were together, and she eavesdropped on their conversations. I knew she did it and I considered it a harmless pastime. So did the palace guards; they just ignored her running around as long as she stayed safe. I mean, she was a princess, and she was going to marry the General Commander, so it didn't seem that important. And she also reported anything they said about me, which was nice. Somewhat underhanded, I admit, but Zan never complained when I showed up somewhere I wasn't supposed to be," she ducked her head a little in embarrassment at that admission.

"So—so I got involved with Khivar, and—and told him things?" Isabel asked, her horror and self-disgust evident in her voice.

"No! No, you did no such thing. You were a <I>child</I>, Isabel, and Khivar was supposed to protect you! Instead he taught you only those skills that would benefit him. He never taught you how to block anyone out of your mind, because you might have used that ability on him. He did teach you how to enhance your senses, so that you could spy on your brother from greater distances. And then he seduced you, violating his oaths as a Gifts teacher and committing treason against his King, and worst of all tainting your Emergence. It is a sensitive time for an Antarian's mind; that's why physical contact is frowned upon, and sexual activity is absolutely taboo. <I>Any</I> sexual activity, even kissing. But because he knew of your habit and because our minds are open to each other during intimacy, Khivar took your innocence and bound you to him. You didn't even know that he could listen to your mind, because he didn't teach you that either. And we all thought nothing of the way you were still following Zan and Rath around, it seemed like business as usual… Khivar abused Vilandra, Isabel, in a way that makes me ill to even think about. Maybe because it's my fault. I let it happen," Serena whispered guiltily, tears forming in her eyes.

"What? No, Serena, it wasn't your fault! How can you say that? You didn't know anything about what was going on!" Liz exclaimed, moving to sit on the bed beside her. She pulled the dark-haired woman into a hug, and Serena leaned her head on Liz's shoulder.

"If—if I had married Zan, the first time he asked me, it wouldn't have been a conflict of interest for me to teach Vilandra. I would already have been family, and that would have been acceptable. She never would have been exposed to—to such filth," she murmured brokenly.

"He would have found another way, Reen. You know that. And he could still have used Vilandra as his pathway, even if he wasn't her teacher, because he was allowed to be alone with her. He was considered family, remember?" Sean said forcefully. "It is <I>not</I> your fault! And it's not your fault either, Isabel. It isn't anyone's fault except Khivar's."

"And Khivar will pay for his crimes with his life," Max pledged softly, gazing at Isabel. Liz shifted and looked at him, seeing the pain and the determination in his face. Determination she could feel thrumming through her own body, straight from him.

"Yes," she agreed, the low volume of Liz's voice not masking its steel. Max's eyes flew to hers and there was a fierce quality that she had only seen in them once before: when he had healed her of the gunshot wound, before she had really even known him. Liz suddenly understood that Max's need to defeat Khivar was as much about healing as anything else. First and foremost, that was who Max was: a healer. It was one of the infinite reasons why she loved him so.

Serena lifted her head from Liz's shoulder, capturing Liz's attention as she gazed straight into the human woman's eyes. They sat frozen like that for several minutes, twin sets of dark eyes boring into each other in search of the truth. At last Serena inclined her head respectfully, the tenor of her stare changing as a faint smile graced her mouth.

"You give yourself to him without reservation, lending of your strength and your life force. It's something I was not able to do, among the many other things that I could not have done for Zan. You have already proven that you are willing to make the necessary sacrifices, and I don't think anyone in this room has any doubt that you love him enough. Your love for each other is your strength and it will serve you, and us all, well. You're more than worthy of your title of Queen, Liz, and while Zan loved me I believe that his soul was waiting for you. I'm glad he found you," Serena smiled, brushing Liz's cheek with gentle fingers.

"The—what? Queen? But I'm not Antarian! I'm not even a hybrid Antarian!" Liz exclaimed.

"No, you're not. We expected that Zan would find a human Queen, since that's the only way the royal line can continue. The hybrids are completely infertile with each other; they can only have children with full-blooded humans or Antarians. I would have thought you'd know that, Liz," she chided.

"I do, it's just that the genetic technology used to create them is so far beyond what we can do here that I—we thought you'd figured out a way around that," Liz nearly whispered. She sat frozen in place, not able to feel anything through her shock yet. On some level she had understood the implication of Serena's many references to Choosing and to royalty, yet it had not quite connected in her brain to supply her with the information that she, Liz Parker, would be Max's Queen.

"No. In fact, we discovered that the problem with the birth defects of most hybrid offspring worsens considerably as the relative sentience of the organism increases. So we eliminated the possibility of hybrid-hybrid offspring altogether, preferring to dilute the royal bloodlines with human blood. Cell structure aside, it's not that different," Serena smiled.

"Can you explain that in English, please?" Kyle requested, sounding aggrieved.

"The smarter the hybrid parents, the more defective the kids," Michael supplied, making a face when Kyle looked surprised.

Serena looked thoughtful as Michael spoke, as if he had reminded her of something. She added to her previous statement, "Actually, um—how to put this? You should all be extremely careful in terms of birth control, because you three hybrids were designed to be particularly fertile. One slip-up is likely all it would take for pregnancy."

Michael blanched and Liz hid a smile. She had a feeling that she and Maria were going to be taking a shopping trip to a pharmacy soon, notwithstanding the fact that both women were on the pill. Regular odds were bad enough; throw in alien sperm and she knew that Maria would not want to take any more chances. <I>Neither do I,</I> she added to herself. Sooner or later she and Max would reach that point in their relationship and Liz did not want any unexpected consequences either.

"What if Max hadn't found Liz? What would have happened then?" Maria wanted to know. She grimaced meaningfully when Liz glanced at her, and Liz did smile, knowing her guess a moment ago about the pharmacy trip had been correct.

"A couple of different things might have happened at that point. It's hard to say, since he began the process the first time he saw Liz across the playground," Serena evaded a direct answer.

"You said full-blooded humans or Antarians. You were the back up," Kyle asserted with a sudden insight.

"Yes, that's one of the reasons that Mythandra asked me to be part of the team. But it doesn't matter anymore, because Max has a Chosen and so do I," she sent a heated glance towards Sean, who smiled cockily.

"Yeah, I'd really like to know how Sean got mixed up in all of this," Michael not quite asked.

Serena's cheeks took on a pink hue. "That's not really relevant information right now. The point is that he found out and we—we got involved and—it all happened so fast, and I just knew. I knew that I could trust him, so I—let him in. On everything. And I Chose him," she smiled tenderly at Sean. Liz noted the sparkle in his eyes at her smile, thinking that they deserved to be happy together.

"What exactly does it mean, to Choose someone?" Isabel asked, still safely wrapped in Kyle's arm.

To everyone's surprise, the answer came from Max. "It means to open yourself completely to another person and create an unbreakable emotional bond. From then on, you'll be able to feel what your Chosen is feeling and if the emotion is intense enough, sometimes you'll get images and words as well, as long as you remain open to each other. Even if you close yourself off, though, the bond is still active. In Antarian custom, it's considered to be a form of betrothal, like you're—declaring your intentions."

"So, it's sort of like continuous flashes—like when you and Liz found the orb last year," Maria thought out loud.

"Flashes?" Serena asked.

"When you get images from someone else's mind while connecting with them," Liz explained, and Serena's puzzlement cleared from her features.

"Oh, that's what you call the image rush! Flashes. I like that; it suits the phenomenon," she grinned.

"So does that mean that—you said that Max Chose me," Liz remarked nervously, not quite able to form the question. She could feel that niggling fear from Max again and was not sure what it was that he was afraid of.

"Yes, he did. In your case it's a little different, since in Choosing you he also made you part of the Seal. As you've already shown, you can use it as a power source as well. Max had to transfer the power to Tess for her to be able to use it, but you can draw on it directly, Liz. And while it's more—complete than that, I suppose you could say that you and Max are engaged," Serena answered the unspoken question, compassion in her eyes. As she listened, Liz felt Max's fear spike higher and she realized its cause.

"Liz, I—I can't take it back. Choosing is permanent. I didn't know—didn't know that's what I was doing, when I kissed you on the stage at the blind date concert. I probably would have done it before then but I was too afraid, to open myself fully. And then I kind of wasn't afraid of anything that night," Max's tone became wry. "I'm sorry. I should have asked first."

Liz could feel how tightly Max was holding everything in and it made her want to laugh and scream at the same time. How could he still not understand, still be afraid? She swiveled on the bed to look at him, reaching with one hand to touch his outstretched leg.

"Ask me now," she said softly. Max's gaze snapped to hers incredulously.

"What?"

Liz smiled, her eyes sparkling with the knowledge that she had the power to bestow absolute happiness. "I said, ask me now. It won't go beyond this room, and there won't be any kind of jewelry involved, and there won't be any official announcements or anything like that for years, but…ask me now, Max."

Max stared at her for a long moment. Surely she was not serious! But he could feel her splashing wave after wave of love in his direction and suddenly his qualms seemed absurd. How could he doubt how she felt, with all the light in her shining eyes? Light that kept the darkness out of his world; light that he did not want to live without. Not now; not ever. Max cleared his throat, blind and deaf to everything else as he spoke his heart to his one true soul mate.

"Elizabeth Parker, will you marry me?"

"Yes," she answered simply, thrilling at the amber fire that ignited in his eyes. She crawled over his legs as he reached for her, pulling her close and cradling her slight body against his chest while he locked gazes with her.

"I love you," Max whispered, unable to comprehend how it was possible to feel this much joy and not burst apart with it. He knew that Liz felt the same way because he was open to her now, her love and his mingling and swirling around them both in giddy spirals.

"I love you," Liz responded, tracing his jaw line with a gentle fingertip. She lifted her head as his lowered, their lips meeting in a kiss so full of feeling that her throat closed at the intensity.

They drew apart at a loud sniff, smiling tenderly at each other in the knowledge that they needed to deal with their friends.

"That would be Maria," Liz's smile widened and Max laughed.

"Could be Isabel. Be careful or she'll have everything planned before we even formalize this," he teased, laughing again at the mild shock in her eyes.

"Not a chance. Liz and I already planned everything, years ago," Maria sniffled, and everyone laughed. Somehow the sound was a little freer now, everyone's perceptions colored by the magic of love.

Liz sat up, wriggling herself into a position between Max's legs so she could lean back into him and still face the room. His arms went around her as soon as she was settled, holding her close.

"Now that that's out of the way," Michael grinned crookedly as Maria elbowed him and muttered something about him getting cut off.

"If someone asks me what happens now, they're going to get hurt," Max threatened, to general laughter.

Liz laughed too as she stroked Max's arm, feeling him tighten his grasp possessively. She glanced around the room, taking in Maria, her oldest and best friend, as feisty as ever with her alien love. Kyle, her first real boyfriend, who had become a valued friend and team member. Isabel, the only real family Max had ever had, who had carried around the burden of having been Vilandra without knowing what that had truly meant; knowing only that she could never have betrayed the family that she loved. Michael, the gruff warrior whose gentleness still surprised her when he allowed it to show. Sean, a remembered face from her childhood who had somehow grown to be a part of this strange little family. At last her gaze lighted on Serena, this woman who wore such a similar form and had loved Max for who he had been.

Serena met Liz's eyes, a small smile playing around her lips as she inclined her head in approval of Liz's actions. There were secrets in the black depths of her gaze that Liz wanted to know, someday. As they looked at each other Liz felt as though she had found in Serena a kindred spirit, someone who would become what Future Max had said she would be: a friend. There was a spark of surprise in that fascinatingly deep gaze as Serena received Liz's feelings, Serena's remnant connection to Max allowing Liz to link to her at will. Surprise turned to pleasure and Serena smiled outright.

"I have the answer to that question, actually," Liz declared quietly, her eyes sweeping the room again and seeking out each one of them in turn. "We learn. We train with Serena and learn everything we can while Khivar's power base is gone. We figure out how to work as a team, and not just the four-square but Kyle, Maria and Sean as well. Then, when we're ready…"

"When we're ready, we collect on the debt Khivar owes to our families and our peoples. He has broken oaths and lives and kingdoms; for that his life and his soul are forfeit, and I claim them," Max vowed, the ancient words stirring in his blood and in the air around him as glowing trails of energy marked the Sealing of his vow.

"So be it," Serena murmured, hands outstretched to direct the energy. It coalesced into the form of the Royal Seal itself, the five planets hanging against the blackness of space for uncounted seconds before the image shimmered and dissolved, the energy dissipating into the air.

Liz's blood pounded through her own veins as she whispered, her quiet words dropping like pearls of prophecy into the stillness of the room, "The King shall claim his throne."

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Tasyfa
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Post by Tasyfa » Sun Oct 14, 2007 1:52 pm

<center><b>Epilogue (NOTE: Rated Mature)</b></center>

Max flicked off the light in the bathroom as he entered Liz's room, smiling when he spied her sitting on the edge of the bed, swinging her pajama-clad legs.

"Not sleepy yet?" he asked softly. Liz turned her head and smiled at him.

"Not really. You?"

"A little. What's up?" Max inquired as he sat beside her. Liz leaned over and kissed him, slipping her tongue into his open mouth. She drew back and wrinkled her nose at him.

"You taste like toothpaste," she complained.

"And that's a bad thing? It's your toothpaste!" Max laughed.

"I know," Liz sighed dramatically. "With all the millions of types out there, there's a grand total of two flavors: mint and bubblegum. The mint is the lesser of two evils!"

"If the bubblegum comes in those tubes with the cartoon characters, I agree. Michael has that and it's disgusting," he said as he put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. "You know, if you keep kissing me," he nuzzled her neck, "pretty soon I'll just taste like you."

Liz tilted her head to the opposite side, giving him better access to nip at her ear lobe. "True, but I taste like toothpaste too!" she laughed.

"Does that mean you want me to stop?" Max breathed, pressing kisses to her throat.

"Absolutely not," Liz pretended to be indignant and Max chuckled before he captured her lips again in a deep kiss, his free hand coming up to cradle her face. When the kiss ended they were both breathing hard.

"Two more days," Liz whispered, leaning her forehead against Max's. He stroked her cheek.

"Yeah, I know. It was great of Isabel to keep covering for us until just before your parents came home. The last few days have been…indescribable," he smiled.

Liz nodded. "Yeah, I used to think I knew you really well but compared to now, I don't think I knew you at all!"

"Sure you did. You knew me well enough to reach me," he reminded her gently.

"I could feel you. I still can, Max," she turned her face into his hand, kissing his thumb.

"I know. I can feel you, too," he told her.

"So, what am I feeling right now?" she asked slyly.

Max was not about to confess that at that moment, the sheer physicality of his emotions was obscuring what was from her and what was his own. "Well, you're not feeling sleepy!" he chuckled. "So, do you want to go watch a movie or something since you're not tired?"

"No," Liz sighed playfully. She slanted a look at Max. "Would you dance with me?"

"You want to dance?" Max asked in surprise. At her affirmation he shrugged. "All right, I'm game." <I>I think,</I> he added to himself. <I>A movie would have been much, much safer in terms of my ability to keep my hands to myself.</I>

Liz smiled and kissed his palm then rose, going to her little stereo and picking out a CD. Max came over and looked at the jewel case.

"Lifehouse? Never heard of them," he commented on her selection.

"Maria got me into them. She thinks the singer's seriously hot," Liz giggled as she put the CD in the stereo. "I like most of the music on the CD, but I absolutely love this one song. It always makes me think of you. It's called "Everything"," she set the correct track to play and turned, stepping into Max's arms. The soft strains of instrumentals began, followed by the slow haunting of the singer's voice.

Max listened to the lyrics as they danced, his chest tightening with the realization that Liz reciprocated his every feeling for her. He pulled her even closer and she laid her head on his shoulder quietly for a moment.

"You know, dancing with you is a whole new experience when you're not wearing a shirt," Liz murmured mischievously. She could feel the elevation in the temperature of his skin as he flushed and she smiled. Liz looked up at Max through a veil of eyelashes, gauging his reaction, then her tongue flickered out and she licked his collarbone.

"Liz!" he exclaimed, the abrupt wet sensation shocking him. He closed his eyes in mute supplication as she continued her attentions, kissing all along his throat and collarbone.

"Relax," she urged, her hands slipping up to knead his upper back.

"I am relaxed," Max protested in vain.

"Would it help you relax if I went shirtless, too?" she smiled wickedly, her eyes sparkling.

"Good God, no! What are you doing, Liz?" he asked almost desperately. She was going to make him break every promise he had made to himself to take this slowly and not push her.

"Can't you feel it, Max? It's not all from you," she whispered. "Don't you know what you do to me? What you are to me?"

The music swelled to a crescendo as he stared down into her dark eyes. The message he read in their depths matched the one crashing through his body in the music; the one Max had always felt in his own soul.

<I>You're all I want
You're all I need
You're everything
Everything</I>

"Liz," he groaned, brushing her hair away from where it had fallen into her eyes and cupping her face. "What did I ever do to deserve you?"

"You saved my life," she reminded him with a brilliant smile.

"Only once, and you've been saving mine ever since," Max smiled back.

"You also love me, absolutely and without reservation," Liz declared softly, and Max's smile broadened at the certainty in her voice.

"That I do, Liz Parker, and I will as long as there's anything left of me," he vowed, watching her lashes drift onto her cheeks as his lips descended to her smiling mouth.

It was supposed to be a light, swift kiss. It did not stay that way for long. Liz's hands slid into his hair, her lithe body pressing closer as Max kissed her and her lips parting under his. Unable to resist, he slipped his tongue into her mouth and tasted her, seeking out every hidden place and bathing it lovingly. He rubbed his tongue along hers and underneath, licking at the sensitive skin that anchored it. It was her low moan that was his undoing and Max stumbled backwards, unsure if he was pulling or if Liz was pushing or both as they sank onto the bed together, bodies entwined.

Max rolled on top of Liz, following her insistent tugging. He settled his mouth more firmly against hers, his tongue teasing her lips apart again and seeking entrance. Liz opened to him eagerly, her tongue sneaking out to dance with his as they kissed. Max tangled one hand in her dark hair and slipped the other under her pajama top, his fingers splayed against the warm skin of her ribcage. Gradually his hand crept higher, spurred by Liz's soft sounds, until he touched her more intimately. He remembered this supple terrain from what seemed like a lifetime ago and he welcomed the opportunity to explore it again; an opportunity he had thought was lost to him forever. Knowing he had come so close to losing Liz made the privilege of touching her that much sweeter.

Liz's skin was on fire everywhere he touched. She moaned deep in her throat and freed Max's hand from her hair, guiding it down to join his other one on her body while she launched her own explorations. Liz slid her hands over his back and arms, feeling his muscles flex under her skimming palms. Greatly daring, she allowed herself to roam lower, over the thin cotton of his boxer shorts. Lightheaded from the sensation coursing through her, Liz gently pushed down, bringing their lower bodies into close contact.

Max made a strangled sound and tore his mouth from hers, burying his lips against her throat as he breathed raggedly. "Liz, please…don't," he entreated, his voice rough with emotion.

"Don't what?" she teased, sounding rather breathless. Liz wrapped her legs around Max, squeezing tightly. Her head spun from the way his firm body pressed against hers. "You mean this?"

"Yes I mean that," he growled. Max reached down to move her legs and Liz grasped his hand, stopping him. He looked at her and she gasped at the fierce desire in his eyes.

"Liz, please. I only have so much control," he admitted with a slight smile, "and right now you are testing it severely."

"What if I don't want you to be in control?" Liz countered. "What if I don't want either one of us to be in control tonight?"

Max's breathing sped up at her words and he stared at her, uncertain of her meaning. "What are you talking about?"

Liz gazed up into his amber eyes. "Max, for two weeks you spent every day and every night here in my bed. The last thing I saw before I slept and the first thing I saw when I awoke was your face. Your beautiful face," she said shyly, her hands coming up to stroke his jaw. "As time went by and you started talking and responding to me, it got harder and harder not to touch you."

"What do you mean? You were always touching me when you were in the room, even if it was just your foot against my leg or something," Max murmured, caught up in her gaze.

"No, Max. I mean not to <I>touch</I> you," Liz emphasized, simultaneously tightening her legs around him. She thrilled at the dawning knowledge in his eyes.

"Are you saying…what I think you're saying?" Max got out, his voice cracking a little. The invitation in her voice, her eyes, her body was unmistakable but he needed to hear the words. He needed to <I>know</I> beyond the shadow of a doubt that she was sure about this.

"Max," Liz said softly, locking gazes with him. "I love you. I am—my soul is bound to yours in ways that we're just beginning to discover and understand, and that—it fills me with this inexpressible joy to know that. To know that you Chose me—<I>me</I>, when you could have had anyone you wanted."

"I never wanted anyone else, Liz, only you. It was always you," he whispered. Liz nodded, her throat tightening at the glory in his eyes.

"Then make me yours, Max. Touch me and take me to places that we will only ever reach together," she offered herself to the only man whose touch she had ever wanted; the only one she would ever love, with everything that was in her.

Max swallowed hard as her words transformed a long-held dream into reality and yet he hesitated; there was something else he needed.

"Liz, I—I love you, so much, and—God, I have never, ever wanted anything so badly as to make love to you right now, but I—I don't—have anything," he confessed, blushing slightly as she smiled.

"I do," Liz said simply, and with the knowledge of what those two words meant Max felt a roaring in his blood that demanded release.

His lips descended to hers and he kissed her almost savagely, his body vibrating with an unfettered hunger that he had never shown. Liz responded on a primal level, her tongue entwining with his, her body welcoming the onslaught of sensation as Max accepted her invitation. Their clothing melted away, falling to the floor along with a small, empty foil package.

They moved in perfect harmony, seeking together for previously unknown heights; achieving them together and then falling, spinning out into the beauty of the universe where a million stars shone down on two souls, joined eternally in love.

Max rested his forehead against Liz's as the world returned around them, still locked into her eyes. He saw the tears shimmering there and smiled, knowing that Liz would see the same in his. She laughed lightly and reached up to kiss him, their lips meeting with an aching tenderness that further tightened their throats with the intensity of their emotions.

"I—wow," Max said softly and they both laughed.

"Yeah," Liz agreed wholeheartedly.

"I love you," he declared: a simple statement of fact.

"I know you do," she smiled. "And I love you right back."

Max brushed his lips over hers and moved to lie beside her. Liz curled up against him, resting her dark head on his shoulder.

"Do you want your pajamas?" he asked, secretly hoping she would not.

"No, just another blanket and you," she grinned, knowing he had wanted her to say that. Max smiled back at her and carefully sat up, pulling up the blanket that was folded across the bottom of the bed.

"Sounds good to me," he chuckled as he tucked the blanket around them. Liz snuggled up again once he finished.

"Sounds better than good, Max. It's perfect," she yawned. Max looked down at her, seeing the happy smile on her beautiful face; feeling the warmth of her body pressed against him with the comfort of intimate knowledge. His gaze swept the room, remembering that another Max and Liz had had a similar night in this very room together, many months and another lifetime ago. Thinking of everything that had happened since that divergence of destiny, Max realized that sometimes fate allows you to fight for what matters the most. In this moment, in the sparkling eyes and the glorious mahogany hair of the woman lying beside him and in the security of her love, he knew that the price had been worth it, for both of them. In each other's souls they had found purpose, and life.

"Max? Is something wrong?" Liz asked sleepily, his long silence worrying her. He settled into a more comfortable position, bringing his arm up around her to hold her close.

"No. I was just thinking that you were right: it's perfect."










THE END

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