Fanfic - Max/Liz
"Strong, Dangerous, and Undeniable"
Part 51
by Destinee
Disclaimer: The characters aren't mine, but thanks to Ms. Metz, Mr. Katims, and the WB for letting us play.
Summary: This story begins with the scene in MITC when Liz does her astral projection thing. It follows along with everything in the show, except the final scene in MITC in Liz's room never takes place.
Category: Max/Liz
Rating: PG
Zan, Laanie, Rath, and Dreyah stood in the center of a familiar-looking courtyard, surrounded by a contingent of soldiers, wearing identical silver-blue metallic uniforms. The sky above them was a cloudless, royal purple, and spirited gusts of wind whipped around them occasionally, signaling the imminent arrival of that day’s dust storm. The two pairs of siblings were standing in a tight box formation with their backs to one another, and they fought off the soldiers who ringed them as the men constantly shifted and moved in attacks on them.

Zan was trying to keep the four of them surrounded with his protective force field, but each time Rath had to use his energy blast against the attackers, Zan dropped the shield to allow him to do so, leaving them dangerously unprotected for brief moments at a time.

One man was standing apart from all the rest, seeming to be merely observing the action. After watching Zan drop the shield several times, he shook his head and said, “Raathos, you must send your energy through the shield. It leaves you too vulnerable for Zandaar to release it so repeatedly.”

“Well I can’t get through anymore,” Rath muttered, as he warily eyed two men who had broken ranks slightly, and one in the back who seemed to be shifting suspiciously among his fellow comrades.

“Of course you can,” the observer scoffed. “Zandaar’s mind is still the same. His powers are no different. None of that has changed.”

“Well something’s changed,” Rath insisted. “I can’t get through I’m telling you. Now, Zan. Drop it now!” he ended urgently, as the two fighters closed in from either side of him, and the guy in the back pushed his way forward to rush him head on.

Zan threw a look over his shoulder to make sure he got the shield back up quickly enough to guard them from the blasts of the attacking soldiers’ tri-phasers, but he suddenly jerked his attention back to his own flanking opponents, just as two men began moving toward him.

“Then you aren’t properly connected,” the instructor answered to Rath’s complaint. “Look to Shaandreyah, Raathos, that’s what she’s there for. I shouldn’t have to remind you of things you learned long ago.”

When Zan abruptly faced forward at the same time that the two men who’d been making a bee-line for him suddenly stopped and turned on each other, the instructor said disapprovingly, “Vilaandra, get out of Zandaar’s head and let Shaandreyah do that. You are to be focusing on guarding Raathos. You’re leaving him unprotected.”

While keeping her gaze focused on the two grappling soldiers, Laanie scowled and grumbled, “I don’t know why we can’t just do what’s easiest. Let Drey cover Rath. I’ll help Zan. Why can’t we just do it the way we’re best at?”

“You know the answer to that as well as I do. If you focus only on building your strengths, your weaknesses will be your downfall,” the instructor intoned sternly.

“Over here, Shaan, look out,” Zan warned lowly, when two men circled around to head for Shaan’s quadrant next to him.

“No, to your right, Drey. Your right,” Rath said immediately in contradiction, as three men approached in a much more expedient fashion from his direction.

“Communicate mentally!” the instructor barked. “How many times must you be reminded? Mental communication only!”

“I’d like to give you a mental shove the likes of which you’d never seen,” Rath muttered under his breath, taking his frustrations out on the foolhardy group of men who had fanned out on his right to initiate an offensive attack.

While Zan and Rath were occupied with opponents of their own, Dreyah darted a quick look from side to side to appraise both groups of men they had warned her of. In the very next instant, a sudden gust of wind conveniently blew a red cloud of dust from the ground directly into the faces of the two men on Zan’s side, and at the same time, Dreyah lifted a hand towards the trio on Rath’s side to release a blast of energy that sent them scattering.

She had managed to do what Rath had said wasn’t possible by sending the blast through Zan’s shield, but the sudden faintness of the green glow around them was a telling sign of how much she’d weakened its solid protection by doing it.

Instantly seizing the opportunity, one man stepped forward to set off a round of blasts from his tri-phaser directly at them.

With one hand clasped within Zan’s, Dreyah swiftly turned to lift her opposite arm parallel to his, bringing about an immediate strengthening of the shield. The shots from the soldier’s weapon might not have made that much of an impact on it if it hadn’t been for the act of a second battalion officer, who quickly moved in beside the first, and lifted his palm towards them to send an accompanying blast of energy. It crashed with explosive force against the barely reinforced wall of the shield, and sent the four of them behind it staggering.

The force-field around them flickered falteringly, but before any of their adversaries could take advantage of their vulnerable position, the instructor entered the fray and said disgustedly, “Alright, enough. Take a break.”

Immediately, the four of them collapsed to the ground with a collective groan of relief.

Their teacher shook his head and said, “I am extremely disappointed in this display you just put on here. I’ve never seen such incompetence. The four of you act as if you’ve never trained together before in your lives.”

Bristling, Rath said in defense, “Well it’s been a long time, Dracaar. And Laanie and Zan are different now.”

“And that’s an excuse?” Without pause, he answered his own question. “No, it is all the more reason for you to apply yourselves toward relearning your boundaries and attaining your former strength. A small child would have no trouble defeating you if you continue on in this vein.” With a final look of admonishment, he said, “You have five killaseconds. And when we resume, I expect to see a vast improvement in your performance.”

Rath glowered at his retreating back, and grumbled, “A small child, huh? I’d like to see you find a small child that could throw you as far as I could with a single flick of my finger.”

“Oh, Rath, just rest,” Dreyah said chidingly, flopping back to lie on the sparse patch of grass where they sat. “Didn’t you hear what he said? We only have five killaseconds.”

“And he expects a vast improvement when we resume,” Laanie said sarcastically. “Don’t forget that part.” Lowering her head into her hands, she began to lightly rub her temples. “Soltaar above, how long does he think he can keep drilling us this way?” she complained. “Has he completely forgotten who we are? Zan, you’re the king. Say something to him.”

Zan shook his head. “He’s right, Laanie. We need all the practice we can get,” he said wearily. “We’re weak right now, and all the opposing factions know it. It would be far to easy for someone to come in and take advantage of that.”

“Yes, but pushing too hard before you’re ready can only do us harm, Zan,” Dreyah said gently.

Reaching up, she grasped a handful of the shiny black material of his jumpsuit and tugged, pulling him back to lie beside her. Twisting around to face him, she propped her head up with her hand, and touched his face lightly.

“Are you doing okay? You look exhausted,” she said with gentle concern.

Zan smiled softly, but before he could form a reply, Rath said censoriously, “Don’t coddle him in front of the men, Dreyah. You’ll weaken him in their eyes.”

The smile left Zan’s face at the admonition, and he made immediately to sit up, but Dreyah quickly caught hold of his sleeve to keep him where he was.

Shooting Rath a glare, she said, “I am not ‘coddling’ him. There’s nothing wrong with showing fatigue, Zan,” she assured him. “It’s perfectly human.”

Rath sent her a chastising look, and said, “I’m sure I don’t have to point out that that’s exactly the nature of the problem.”

“He’s right, kitya,” Zan said, sounding regretful. “A show of strength is especially important right now.” He tugged affectionately on a lock of her bright hair, then dutifully rose to sit.

Sighing, Dreyah followed him up.

Rath and Zan exchanged a look, and then Rath nodded across the courtyard. “I think Boring Man over there has been deriving way too much enjoyment out of this little session today,” he said, referring to the soldier who’d almost taken them down earlier with his energy blast. “I swear, if he smirks at us one more time when Dracaar yells at us...” his jaw taut, he left the threat hanging.

“Turelians can’t smirk, Rath,” Dreyah scoffed. “They hardly have any facial muscles at all.”

“Well this one can,” he insisted. “I’ve seen him do it. Seems kind of traitorous to me, taking pleasure from our failures. And every time we mess up, he’s always right there to take advantage.”

Zan shook his head in amusement. “Borean is just doing his job, Rath. He’s the captain of the guard. Of course he’s going to be involved in most of the maneuvers. What are you saying? You think he’s trying to take us out or something?” he asked mockingly.

“No,” Rath returned with a tone of surly sarcasm. “I’m just saying- if he doesn’t get out of my face with his stupid alien-impaired smirk, I’m going to have to put a few more wrinkles in that scaly sloped forehead of his.”

The others just rolled their eyes in response.

Rubbing the back of his neck wearily, Zan gave Dreyah a smile that drooped a little around the edges, prompting a slight frown of concern from her.

“So would it weaken the mighty king’s image in front of the men if I rubbed his shoulders for a bit, o’ commander of empty threats?” she asked Rath mockingly.

Rath gave her a sarcastic smile, but before he had a chance to answer, Zan did it for him, saying teasingly, “The mighty king thinks it wouldn’t hurt his image at all. Your image on the other hand...”

She grinned. “What, you think they’ll see me as some dutiful little palace attendant humbly servicing my lord and master?” Zan smiled rakishly at the picture she painted, and as she got to her knees behind him, she murmured into his ear, “Like that idea, do you? Well, you know... I could always just make them see their king kneeling here rubbing my dainty feet instead.”

“All you need do is ask, and the king probably would kneel here and rub your dainty feet,” he murmured back humorously, and she giggled softly as she began to knead his tense shoulder muscles.

Rath scowled at their suggestive playfulness, then looked over at Laanie a bit uncertainly. She hadn’t said much since they’d sat down, and still sat there methodically rubbing at her temples.

He darted a brief glance at Zan and Dreyah, who continued to talk together in a low, intimate tone while she massaged his back, then he cleared his throat and asked, “Are, uh- are you okay, Laanie?”

Without halting the circular motions of her fingertips, she replied with sharp irritation, “No, I’m not okay. My head hurts from trying to get through your thick skull all day. Anything else you want to know?”

Frowning with indignance on her brother’s behalf, Dreyah broke off her conversation with Zan to say, “He was only showing a little concern, Laanie. There’s no reason to take his head off.”

Laanie remained stonily silent.

Dreyah looked at Rath commiseratingly before continuing her ministrations on Zan, and he, in turn, was sending his sister a disapproving glare that was going completely ignored by her.

Rath studied Laanie’s downbent head for a moment, then looked away with a grieved sigh. Something caught his attention at one of the upper windows of the palace, and he looked up and made a face.

“She’s watching again,” he informed Zan and Dreyah.

The two of them had resumed their hushed conversation, but at this, their heads came up, and they followed Rath’s gaze to the window just in time to witness the fluttering of the window hanging as it fell into place.

Even Laanie had looked up in interest, and now she made a sound of disgust and said, “She just keeps getting creepier and creepier, Zan. She’s become a veritable wraith whenever you’re around. Can’t you do something about her?”

His eyes lingering regretfully on the window, Zan asked, “What do you suggest I do, Laanie? Lock her in her room? Or better still, send her packing before Khivaar comes back to get her? Mother would have my hide.”

“Well- just talk to her, at least,” his sister said impatiently. “Make her join the real world and act like a normal being again. She never used to irritate me so.”

Zan’s eyes flashed reprovingly. “Oh, and of course that’s the most important thing in all this. We must all endeavor not to get on Princess Vilaandra’s nerves with the drama of our insignificant lives,” he said sarcastically.

Laanie had the grace to look slightly ashamed, and muttered, “You know what I mean. She’s just not herself anymore. I don’t know why mother agreed to let her stay here while Khivaar’s away. She had to know how hard it would be for Ava.”

“Where else was she going to go? Their nearest neighbors are centares away, and they barely even associate. Besides, mother’s missed her. And I think she thought it would help Ava get past all this if- if she was here.”

“Well, that may be why your mother agreed to it, but I doubt that’s why Khivaar was so hot to have her stay here,” Rath said knowingly. “You’ve got to feel a little sorry for the kid. It can’t be pleasant for your only living relative to see you as nothing more than a marriageable bargaining chip. Especially in this day and age.”

“Yeah,” Dreyah agreed with quiet sympathy. “Kinda makes me feel a little grateful for the brother I’ve got.”

With a look of indignation, Rath asked, “Only a little?”

“Yes,” she answered with playful defiance. “Because most of the time you’re a pain,” she charged.

“I’ll make you think pain,” Rath threatened lightly, and made as if to come after her.

“Zan!” Drey said in mock-panic, as she scrambled to put him between herself and her brother. “Call down your second. He’s turning on his own sister!”

Lazily stretching out his legs to cross them at the ankles, Zan said unhelpfully, “Seems to me if you will pull a sarazon by the tail, you have to deal with him when he’s roused.”

Dreyah looked at him in outrage. “Well that’s gratitude for you. After I so generously allowed you to keep your dignity in front of your men, this is the thanks I get.”

Taking on a look of haughtiness, Zan arrogantly replied, “A king isn’t required to give thanks to a lowly palace attendant.”

Dreyah’s mouth fell open, and she gave an incredulous laugh, then dove for his side to tickle him in retaliation.

Laughing, Zan jerked his arms in close to his ribs defensively, and attempted to hold her off without leaving his ticklish areas exposed.

While they struggled playfully, Rath suggested jokingly, “Use your force-field, Zan.”

Laanie looked on with a slightly wistful smile, and it was at that moment that Dracaar rejoined them, putting an abrupt end to their play with his words.

“Well, it’s good to see you looking so well-recovered,” he told them. “Play time is over, children. Time to get back to work.”

They all groaned like the children he’d professed them to be, and reluctantly climbed to their feet.

As they waited for the troops to get into place around them, Dreyah stole an upward glance towards the palace.

A soft light shined in one of the upper-story windows, its contained glow somehow seeming a sad and lonely sight.

Liz jerked awake with a small gasp, and only a moment later, the others stirred to life around her. One by one, they sat up slowly, the same sort of dazed look on their faces.

“Wow,” Isabel said softly.

Alex, Kyle, and Maria had gathered around in eagerness, and Alex asked, “Well? Did it work? What did you see?”

Not exactly answering his question, Max turned to Liz and said, “That was... that was amazing, Liz. It almost felt like I was really there. I could even feel the wind blowing.”

“And I think I can almost remember what it even smelled like,” Isabel said in awe.

“Yeah, um- I guess it made the dream even stronger with all of us connected like that,” Liz deduced. She could almost remember the smell Isabel was talking about, too. And it seemed like it had been a familiar odor. Like something she smelled every day and should readily recognize. She racked her brain to try and place it, but the answer remained elusive.

“I was right,” Michael said softly, looking up at Maria with an emotion-filled gaze. “She was my sister. Dreyah. I- I had a sister,” he ended on a slightly strangled note.

Liz lay a hand on his leg where it rested near her head, and Maria crossed the room to go to him, sitting down beside him on the couch. She reached for his hand, and Michael grabbed on and held to it tightly.

He wasn’t quite sure exactly how to feel about the news. On one hand, it was like receiving a present from someone he hadn’t expected to get, and it felt like something to celebrate. But on the other, was the grievous knowledge that he’d gone through his entire life on this planet feeling isolated and alone, and he’d had someone out there all along who was blood of his blood. Of course, it did no good to know it even now. There was no way he knew of to get to her. If she was even still alive out there somewhere.

Noticing that Tess had been strangely silent as everyone enthused over what they’d seen in the dream, Kyle asked her, “What about you, Tess? What did you see?”

She looked at him wordlessly for a moment, then said flatly, “I didn’t see anything.”

She turned her gaze on Liz in an almost accusatory fashion, as if Liz had deliberately excluded her somehow.

“You didn’t see it?” Liz asked with some surprise. She’d assumed since Isabel had been able to join them that Tess had shared the dream as well. She wondered fleetingly what had held Tess back from the experience. She’d had the vague idea that being connected to Tess had included a mention of Ava in the dream, but maybe that hadn’t been the case.

At the memory of the dream conversation the aliens had had about Ava, Liz’s eyes widened. Had she understood it correctly? Had they intimated that Ava was Khivaar’s sister? Liz’s eyes flew swiftly back to Tess. Did she know about this?

“Oh,” Liz said faintly, and looked at Max meaningfully.

He returned her look with a momentary incomprehension before it occurred to him what she was thinking.

“Oh,” he echoed, his brows lifting in understanding as his mind began churning.

“Um... I’m sorry, Tess,” Liz offered apologetically. “I don’t know why it didn’t work for you.”

Tess shrugged a shoulder in cool dismissal, not letting on how excluded she was feeling. It almost felt like they’d gone home and left her behind. While taking Liz in her place. She didn’t understand why she would be the only one who hadn’t been able to do this. She knew it was irrational to blame Liz for it. She was sure the other girl couldn’t control what happened in her sleep. But it was hard not to blame her when it seemed to be entirely Liz’s show.

“Was Ava in it this time, at least?” she asked stiffly.

The four of them exchanged uneasy glances, edged with a questioning wariness. None of them were sure what to think about the revelation of Ava’s identity, if indeed that had been what the four aliens in the dream had suggested. And though they hadn’t come right out and stated her relationship to Khivaar, it seemed pretty clear from the context of their conversation what they’d meant.

The fact, if it were true, raised a flurry of questions in all their minds. What did it mean that she’d been Khivaar’s sister? How could she be a sister to the one who’d taken Zan’s throne and still be a member of their four-square? Had she turned on her brother? Or had it been some sort of plot she’d been involved in with Khivaar to infiltrate their ranks? And if it had been, did Tess have any knowledge of that now? Or was she as clueless as they were about it?

“Uh... yeah. She was in it. Kind of,” Max finally replied in answer to Tess’ question.

Shaking her head a little in consternation, Tess asked, “What do you mean, ‘kind of’?”

“Well, it was mostly just a conversation about her,” Max explained carefully. “We didn’t actually see her, but... Zan and the others, they, uh- they knew she was- close by.”

Tess waited for him to go on, and when nothing more was immediately forthcoming, she felt a flash of pique. Only a second ago they’d all been gushing over the dream, but now that she wanted to know about it, they went all quiet. It was almost as if they didn’t want to let her in on it, Tess mused with a pang. Their sudden air of secretiveness was only adding to her feelings of exclusion.

After only a moment, she prompted sharply, “Well? What did they say?”

Max hesitated, not quite sure how to go about answering her. He was already feeling a little conflicted about her trustworthiness because of the mindwarping business with Liz. Unknowingly, Kyle had given Tess a partial alibi when they’d told everyone about today’s incident with Nicholas shortly after the group’s arrival at the apartment. Partial because, even though she’d been with him at the library while they worked on a history project together, Kyle had lost track of her for a short period of time. When he’d heard about Liz and Maria’s run-in with Nicholas, he’d scolded Tess for getting off somewhere by herself, even if they had been in the public library. Tess had said she’d merely been somewhere in the stacks looking up some research material, and Max really wanted to believe her. He hated to think she could be the one responsible for scaring Liz so badly, and it did seem pretty unlikely that she would’ve had time to go all the way across town from the library to the Crashdown and back again, with Kyle being none the wiser about it. But it just made Max uneasy to know that her whereabouts around the time of the mindwarp were a little questionable.

And now, here was this thing about her being Khivaar’s sister. It was stunning news, and Max found it hard to believe that she’d lived with Nacedo all her life, and he hadn’t mentioned this very pertinent fact to her. But then again, who could say for sure what Nacedo might or might not have done? He’d certainly never been very forthcoming with information once he’d discovered the rest of his royal charges. In fact, his appearance in their lives had probably raised more questions than it had answers. He’d only been with them for a short while, though. Tess had had him close for seventeen years.

The uncertainty of whether this was something Tess had known all along had Max torn between wanting to accuse her of keeping secrets from them and demanding to know why, and going easy with her in case this was news to her as well.

Treading cautiously, he finally said, “They said something that was really big news, actually. And- I can hardly see how this is possible, so, uh- if you have any ideas, Tess... now would be a really good time to share.”

“What are you talking about, Max?” Tess asked uneasily. She was beginning to get a very bad feeling about his reticence. What was this big news he seemed so reluctant to tell her?

Kyle was picking up some weird vibes in the air too, and he moved across the room to park himself on the arm of the couch close at Tess’ back in a show of support.

Deciding to just start at the beginning, Max said, “They were fighting this time. Well- training, actually,” he corrected himself. “There were four of them- Zan, Rath, Laanie, and Rath’s sister.” He looked at Tess steadily and allowed her time to absorb the fact that, once again, Ava hadn’t been a part of their fighting unit. “When they sat down to take a break, Rath said he’d seen Ava watching them from a window. Then they started talking about how hard it was for her to be there for some reason, but she was staying with them while Khivaar was away. And... they never came right out and said it directly, but- from the way they were talking...” watching carefully for her reaction, he slowly lowered the boom. “They made it pretty clear Ava was Khivaar’s sister, Tess.”

Tess blanched in a reaction that was far from her usual guardedness, and Max suddenly had no trouble believing she’d been in the dark about this.

“W-what?” she asked faintly.

Bristling protectively at the vulnerability in her voice, Kyle said almost angrily, “How do you know that if they didn’t actually say it? Why don’t you tell us exactly what they did say, Evans.”

By tacit agreement, the others had sat by quietly and let Max handle this the way he saw fit since he really knew Tess better than they did anyway, but Kyle’s strident tone had Liz jumping in quickly to back Max up.

“He just meant they didn’t make a specific point of saying ‘Ava is Khivaar’s sister’, Kyle. But they did say he was her only living relative. And then Dreyah said the way he treated Ava–“ she faltered slightly, as she realized this small fact would only add to Tess’ bad news, and finished quietly, “Um, she said it made her feel lucky that Rath was her brother. The way she said it- it just sounded like she was comparing brothers, you know?”

Everyone fell silent and waited for Tess to say something, but she just sat there in a sort of unfocused daze, as if she were no longer with them.

Finally, Max asked gently, “Nacedo never said anything about this to you, Tess?”

“What?” she said vaguely, shaking her head a little as if to clear it. “Oh. No...he- he never said anything,” she confirmed, her voice subdued.

“How could he keep something like that from you guys? I don’t get that,” Maria said in consternation.

“I guess he figured disclosing former family ties wasn’t part of his job description as an intergalactic protector,” Michael said acidly.

Max could easily understand Michael’s bitterness. He was none too happy with Nacedo, himself at the moment, and he hadn’t just learned that the disdainful shape-shifter had kept his family secret from him.

But although Shaandreyah hadn’t been related to him, it seemed as though she’d been important to Zan. In this dream, and in the one when they’d been dancing together, they’d seemed very affectionate with each other. With troubled concern, Max wondered what had happened to her and why she hadn’t been sent to Earth with them. It was obvious now that she had trained to fight with them, so how was it that their enemy’s sister had ended up in her place?

He couldn’t help but think it sounded suspiciously like some kind of plot, but he no longer suspected Tess of being in on it. She still sat there wordlessly with an almost stricken look on her face, and Max felt remorseful now for thinking her guilty of some nefarious scheme. She was obviously really upset over this news.

“Well, obviously we need to discuss this,” Max told them. “Put our heads together and try to come up with some logical explanation. But now probably isn’t the best time to do it. If Liz is willing, maybe we could get together tomorrow night and try this again. As long as it keeps working like this, it seems like the best way we’ve ever had of finding out the answers about our past.” He looked at Liz questioningly, and she nodded her agreement to the idea.

“Yeah, that’s fine with me,” she assented.

“Okay, good,” he said with a small smile of thanks. “So maybe we can talk about all this tomorrow. After it soaks in and everyone’s had a chance to think more rationally about it.”

Everyone agreed and they arranged a time to meet, then got to their feet and made ready to leave. Driving plans were made to ensure that everyone had a way home and no one would be driving alone, and Max warned them all to keep a close lookout as they began to disperse. He almost wished they could all just stay together where they were, but he knew that wasn’t a feasible idea. They might be able to get away with it for a night or two, but what about after that? They couldn’t have co-ed pajama parties indefinitely while keeping four sets of parents in the dark about them. And besides, troubling though the thought was, it truly seemed like Liz was the one the watcher was focusing on. And Max wasn’t letting her out of his sight. Feasible or not.

Before Tess left for home with Kyle, Max pulled her aside to have a quiet word with her and make sure she was going to be okay. She quietly assured him that she’d be fine, but there was a note in her voice that concerned him.

“Try not to worry about it too much, okay?” Max suggested gently. “Maybe tomorrow night we’ll see something that’ll clear all this up.”

Lashes lowered, Tess nodded, guilt twisting her insides. “I... I’m sorry, Max,” she told him, her voice hardly more than a whisper.

Frowning slightly, Max rejected her apology with a shake of his head. “For what? You haven’t done anything wrong, Tess,” he assured her. “Look, I don’t know what happened back then on our world- none of us do. But no matter how it came to be, you’re a part of us now. That’s not gonna change because of who Ava was related to in the past. That doesn’t have to mean anything to who you are today. You know?”

Her throat tight, all Tess could do was nod miserably as tears stung her eyes. How could he still call her a member of their group knowing who she was now? His easy generosity made her feel that much more ashamed.

Kyle had come up next to them and stopped to hover a few feet away. “Ready?” he asked hesitantly with a glance between them both.

She nodded and started to move away without ever having once looked at Max directly.

“See you at school tomorrow,” Max said by way of goodbye.

“Yeah, see ya,” Kyle answered for them both, as he placed a hand gently on Tess’ back and they turned to go.

While Max had been talking to Tess, Maria had been checking on Michael in a similar fashion, knowing he was upset over the confirmation that he’d had a sister.

“I hate leaving you here alone like this,” she lamented, lightly stroking his upper arm in a gesture of sympathetic comfort.

“Maria, I’m fine,” he insisted in dismissal. “It pisses me off that I never knew this until now, but... there’s not anything I can do about it,” he said with quiet regret. “That was 50 years ago, on another planet. It shouldn’t mean anything to me now.”

“Except it does,” she said softly. Knowingly.

Unable to deny it, Michael just looked at her wordlessly for a moment.

He’d been telling the truth when he said the entire situation had him feeling extremely ticked off. Because he’d been robbed of a relationship like Max had with Isabel when he’d obviously had that at one time, long ago, because he didn’t know the reason why that had been taken away from him, and because he hadn’t even known what he was missing until now, when he’d seen it first-hand through the dreams. And the fact that he had no one to aim all his anger at for snatching it all away ticked him off even more.

But underlying all of that was a deep sense of loss and grief. As if something had been born and had died in the same breath, it’s amazing possibilities snuffed out right before his eyes.

“Yeah,” he finally admitted quietly, his gaze still locked with Maria’s.

“I’m sorry, Michael,” she said with soft sincerity, then slid her arms around him in a comforting embrace.

He hugged her back tightly and took comfort in her arms, amazed that something as simple as this could bring such peace to his thoughts.

After holding each other for a long, tranquil moment, Michael sighed deeply and happened to catch sight of Alex waiting patiently by the door as he lifted his head.

Reluctantly, he let Maria go and said, “Alex is waitin’ for you. But listen... I’m not gonna let you stay alone tonight, so if you hear anything outside your window, it’s just me, okay?”

Her expression revealed how touched she was by the thought as she said, “That’s so sweet, Michael. Really. And I appreciate the gesture. But you can’t stay outside my window all night. It’s the dead of winter. You’ll freeze.”

His lips quirked, and he said wryly, “I think I’ve had this conversation before.”

Maria narrowed her eyes at him, but it was so good to hear him make a light comment when he’d seemed so melancholy only moments before, that she couldn’t get mad over the whole spending the night with Liz issue again.

“Well don’t expect the outcome to be the same this time, Spaceboy. I think my mom would probably kill you dead if she caught you sleeping in my bed again. Either that, or ship me off to an all-girls’ boarding school or something,” she said dryly, in reference to an incident that had happened earlier in the year, before he’d gotten his emancipation. One night, he’d come to her when he’d been having trouble with Hank, and they’d fallen asleep on her bed, only to be woken the next morning by her mother’s shrieks of holy terror. Maria had been afraid that her mom had been in imminent danger of having a nervous breakdown right in the middle of the kitchen floor over the idea that her baby girl was having sex.

Of course, nothing could’ve been further from the truth. And that would be the case now as well, but she doubted they would ever be able to convince her mom of that fact if they got caught.

Especially not if their only argument was that Michael’s real purpose in being there was only to protect her from evil aliens. Maria might just as well fill out the admission papers for the Brooke’s Academy for girls, and send them in herself, she thought ironically.

“She won’t get a chance to do either one of those things,” Michael assured her. “‘Cause I won’t be comin’ in. I’ll be fine outside. I’ll bring a blanket,” he said carelessly.

“Michael, I would never be able to sleep knowing you were out there on the cold, hard ground with nothing but one of your old salvation army rejects for a bed,” she said exasperatedly.

Michael sighed shortly at hearing almost the same words coming out of her mouth that Liz had used the other night. Was there a written argument for this occasion out there somewhere that he didn’t know about?

“Then I’ll bring two,” he countered impatiently.

Their eyes locked in a moment of contention, then Maria made a small huffing sound. “I don’t know why we’re arguing about this. It’s not even me they’re after.”

“We don’t know that,” he contradicted. “It may look like Liz is the one he’s focusing on, but you were there today too. Max is gonna be with Liz tonight, and I don’t feel good about leaving you unprotected, Maria,” he said insistently.

Maria’s expression softened, and she said relentingly, “Alright, clearly a spirit of compromise is called for here.”

“Well... you could always just sleep over here,” he casually suggested without meeting her eyes.

Maria looked at him in narrow-eyed contemplation.

She didn’t want to give him any ideas, but she couldn’t prevent the tiny thrill that went through her at his suggestion. Not only because it had brought a sudden rush of breath-stealing images popping into her mind, but also because Michael was so determined to protect her. It made her feel.. almost precious to him.

And if the truth be known, she had been pretty nervous about spending the night alone in her room, with its easy window-access. She probably would’ve ended up sleeping on the living room couch with a baseball bat for company. But sleeping on Michael’s couch seemed an even more inviting prospect, faded and worn though it was. His presence nearby would more than make up for any lack of comfort she might find in it’s lumpy hide-a-bed mattress.

“Okay,” she conceded. “I’ll get Liz to cover for me in case my mom calls, and I’ll spend the night here. On the couch,” she clarified with a warning glint in her eye. “This is just for the sake of protection. You’re guarding my body, not doin’ anything else with it. So don’t get any ideas.”

Michael scowled. “Get over yourself, Maria. Protection is the only reason I even asked,” he informed her with disdainful nonchalance.

Unconvinced, Maria just smirked at him for a brief instant, then said facetiously, “Oh, good. I’m glad we’re on the same page then. So I guess I need to have a little conference with Liz. Be right back.”

As she passed Alex on the way, Maria told him, “I just need to talk to Liz about something real quick. Can you wait one more minute?”

“Do I have a choice?” he asked dryly.

Regarding it as the rhetorical question it most definitely was, Maria went to make her plans with Liz, then she and Michael arranged a time for him to come pick her up after she’d gotten things squared away with her mom.

After Alex and Maria were gone, Liz cornered Michael and told him, “I’d just like the record to show that I’m not giving you anywhere near as hard a time as you’ve given me and Max lately about being alone together- and we’ve never been completely alone in an empty apartment, I might add- but I feel I have to warn you that this little early warning detection system we have going on between us? It probably works both ways. So if my energy gives me any wake-up calls tonight, as you so quaintly put it the other day, I’m gonna be forced to come over here and drag my best friend out of your horny little clutches. Okay?” she ended with an overly-sweet smile.

Reddening slightly, he muttered, “I so cannot believe you just said that. In fact, I choose to believe that innocent little Liz Parker did not just say the word horny to me, and implied that I’ve got ulterior motives here. What is it with you people? We’ve got an enemy on the loose, you know. I just want to keep an eye on her.”

Liz looked at him in dry disbelief, enjoying the chance to turn the tables on him after all the grief he’d given her over the past week. “Just as long as that’s all you keep on her. And remember, I’ll be able to tell. Please remember,” she begged wryly, not exactly relishing the thought of being forced to tune into the Michael/Maria channel while they were making out. She suddenly had a lot more sympathy for Michael’s position the past several days.

“Just don’t worry about us, and you behave yourself,” Michael warned her in turn.

“Yeah, yeah,” she grumblingly replied, and went on her way.

At the same time that Liz, Max, and Isabel were leaving Michael’s apartment together, Kyle and Tess were nearing home in the Mustang.

Tess literally hadn’t spoken a single word since they’d gotten in the car. Kyle hadn’t made any attempts to draw her into conversation, but his concerned gaze was drawn to her again and again as he drove. She just sat there staring sightlessly through the windshield, and he wished he had some idea of what was going on in her head.

He imagined it would be pretty difficult to have to deal with the sudden knowledge that your brother was a throne-usurping alien that had sent his evil dwarf of a henchman across the reaches of space to hunt you down and kill you and all your friends. He doubted Khivaar was a family member she would want to add to her Christmas card list. But she had to know that she was only related to him by accident of birth, and this didn’t change who she was now by one iota, didn’t she, Kyle wondered worriedly.

After holding his silence for most of the way home, he decided he had to find out.

Clearing his throat, he said hesitantly, “Uh, Tess? Do you- do you wanna talk about it?”

Tess didn’t respond. In fact, she hardly even realized he’d spoken. Ever since Max had told her about Khivaar, she felt almost completely disconnected from everything that was going on around her. Even her thoughts were disjointed, and bounced around in her head like a ricocheting ping-pong ball. But their overall theme had remained the same. And it repeated itself like an insistent throbbing.

There could be no disputing it now. Nicholas and the others had been telling her the truth all along.

She truly was the traitorous sister of Zan’s enemy.

Part 50 | Index | Part 52
Max/Liz | Michael/Maria | Alex/Isabel | UC Couples | Valenti | Other | Poetry | Crossovers | AfterHours
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