Empty Arms

Author: Debbie
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: No aliens were harmed in the making of this fic. Er… and everything belongs to Katims, Metz, and the WB.
Author's Notes: Thanks to Kate for the inspiration. I love your Isabel/Cliffie analyses! And thanks to both Kate and Bennie for taking the time from their incredibly busy schedules to betaread for me.
Feedback: This is my first Cliffie fic. Feedback greatly appreciated.

"Hey Iz," Max said, leaning around Isabel's doorway, "some of us are going to catch a movie tonight. You want to come?"

"Oh. No thanks, Max. I can't." Isabel avoided looking at him, pretending great interest in straightening the quilt on her bed.

"Hot date tonight?" Max asked with a smile.

"No, nothing like that. I've just got … stuff I have to do."

"What's going on, Izzy?" Max came all the way into her room and looked at her curiously. "You're acting kind of strange tonight."

"Nothing! Nothing's going on. I'm fine. God, does everything I do have to be scrutinized as being possibly abnormal? Fine -- you want to know where I'm going? I'm babysitting tonight. There -- are you satisfied now?" Isabel looked at him impatiently.

Max couldn't believe his ears. "Babysitting?" he asked, incredulously. "Iz, you've never babysat before in your life! You always acted like it was beneath you."

"It's nothing to make such a big deal about, Max. I just need some extra cash for clothes and stuff, you know? So when Mrs. Munoz said she was desperate for someone to watch her baby for a few hours I said I'd help her out. A couple of hours and I get some bucks." She grabbed her jacket and brushed past her brother. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go before I'm late."

Max shrugged helplessly and followed her out. "Okay, Izzy. Sorry. I was just surprised, that's all."

The tension in Isabel's shoulders eased a little. She smiled slightly and changed the subject. "So, what movie are you seeing? I assume you're going with Liz?"

"Yeah. It's some action flick. To be honest, I haven't a clue which one. Kyle picked it out."

Isabel almost choked. "Kyle?"

Max looked sheepish. "Yeah, well, now that Liz and I are friends again, I figured it would be prudent to try to be friends with her friends. So she, Kyle and I are going to see … whatever it is. He's picking us up."

"Well … it certainly sounds … interesting," Isabel smiled.

Max smiled back. "Yeah. Well, I guess I'll see you when I get back."

Isabel waved as she got in the Jeep and drove off. Thoughts of Max and his unusual companions were quickly forgotten as she headed down the road to the Munoz house.


Max quietly unlocked the front door and tiptoed in. Good thing his parents trusted him enough not to set a curfew, or he'd probably have broken it, it was that late. But after the movie the three of them had gone back to the Crashdown for dessert, then had, surprisingly, gotten along so well that they'd sat talking long after the place had officially closed for the night.

Moving silently down the hall, he stopped when he came to Izzy's room. She must have been really beat, he thought. She forgot to close her door before falling asleep. He reached out to shut the door for her, but froze when he saw her. She was in bed, asleep, that much was completely normal. But what wasn't normal … at least, he didn't think it was … was the fact that she had her old teddy bear cradled in her arms. Had she been doing that all along? He didn't think so -- he was pretty sure that bear hadn't moved off the top of her bookshelf in ages. Weird. Suddenly Max yawned. Thoughts of Isabel's odd behavior were getting fuzzier by the moment as he strove to stay awake. He shut Isabel's bedroom door with a click and padded off to his own bed.


"Morning, Izzy." Max slid into a chair at the kitchen table and reached for the cereal.

"Morning." Isabel was stirring her Cheerios dolefully.

"What's the matter? The Munoz kid run you ragged last night?"

"Who, Tony? No, he's adorable, really. No trouble at all." Isabel smiled brightly. Too brightly.

"So what's the matter?" Max repeated.

"Nothing's the matter, why?"

"Well, you seem kind of down this morning, Iz. And last night I saw you asleep with your old teddy bear. I thought maybe something was bothering you."

"No. I'm fine, Max. Really. There's no need to be getting all intrusive." Isabel got up from the table abruptly. "Look, I told some friends I'd study with them for tomorrow's history test. I gotta go." She put her half-eaten bowl of cereal in the sink and disappeared upstairs before Max could say anything else.

Isabel went straight for her room and shut the door. She didn't bother locking it -- it wouldn't have kept Max out anyway, and he usually had the decency to respect her privacy. Tears started to spill down her cheeks as she sank down onto her bed. She reached for her bear and cradled it in her arms, unconsciously making rocking gestures as she wept into the worn fur.


"Here ya go … Men in Blackberry pie for everyone." Maria slid the pie onto the table and then plopped down into an empty seat herself. "You're lucky I hid this one -- there's usually never any left at the end of my Saturday night shift!"

Tess cut herself a slice and dug in. "Oh, wow." Her face took on a look of sheer bliss. "Maria, does your mom keep this stuff around the house? Because I may just move in with you instead, if she does."

"Are you kidding? I'd never be able to fit into any of my clothing if she kept her pies in the house." Maria tugged at her uniform. "To say nothing of this chic outfit."

"Oh well." Tess took another bite and looked across the table at Kyle. “Looks like you’re stuck with me after all.” Then she reached for the Tabasco sauce and added, "Too bad Isabel's not here -- she once told me that this was her favorite dessert."

"Say, where is Isabel, anyway?" Liz turned to Max. "I haven't seen her around lately."

Max shrugged as he swallowed a mouthful of pie. "Babysitting"

"Babysitting? Huh. Never would have pegged her for the type," Maria mumbled.

"See, that's just it," Max replied. "I didn't think so either, but this is the third Saturday in a row that she's given up in order to do it. She gave some excuse about needing money, but it's not like she's gone on any spending sprees lately, so that doesn't seem right. She's been acting strange in a bunch of ways, but whenever I try to talk to her about it, she denies everything, changes the subject, or leaves. Have any of you noticed anything?"

"Other than not seeing her much, not really. What else have you noticed?" Tess asked.

"Like … Ok, take last Wednesday. She *did* go shopping after school, but she came home with baby clothes, not stuff for her. She took them with her when she went over to the Munoz's tonight, said they were for the baby. If she's in need of money, why is she buying stuff for other people? The people who gave her the money in the first place?"

"Maybe she figured the baby needed clothing that was trendier than his parents were gonna buy him," Kyle cracked.

"Maybe…." Max said dubiously. "But then why would she get all defensive about it? You know Iz -- normally she'll come right out and say if something offends her sense of style."

"I'll vouch for that," Maria added. "I remember the time I was wearing--"

"What else, Max?" Liz interrupted, throwing a fond but "hush-I-want-to-hear-this" look at her best friend. Maria rolled her eyes and got up to tend to another customer’s gesture for more coffee.

"Did I mention she's got a teddy bear?" Max murmured, looking around at the group for a reaction.

"That's not so unusual," Liz said gently. "Lots of girls have stuffed animals."

"Yeah, but I *know* that bear hasn't been anything more than just room décor to her since we were ten. Now it's got a place of honor on her bed. He's got a new bow, and I think one of those baby sweaters ended up on him. Whenever I walk past her room she's got him in her arms, even while she's studying."

“Okay, a little more about your sister than I needed to know,” Kyle said. “Man, I would beat the crap out of my brother if he shared all this stuff about me. If I had a brother, that is.”

Max looked chagrined. “Sorry. I just don’t know what to make of her behavior and I’m worried.”

Michael hadn't spoken up at all during the conversation. He just listened. Idiots -- couldn't they see what was bothering Isabel? No, of course not. They couldn't possibly know. But he did. Oh, did he ever.

Without further explanation, Michael slid out of his seat and started walking toward the door.

"Hey, where are you going?" Max called after him.

"I just remembered something I gotta do," Michael threw over his shoulder. "Don't worry your pretty little heads about me. See you later." And with that, he jumped on his bike and headed out into the night.


Isabel leaned over Tony's crib and brushed his dark hair absently, watching him sleep. Her English assignment was calling her name from the living room, but she ignored it. Books could wait.

Her reverie was broken when she heard knocking at the door. Strange… she didn't remember the Munozes saying they were expecting anyone…. She went to the door and looked through the peephole. The image was blurry and distorted, but she recognized the face immediately. Isabel pulled open the door -- "Michael! What are you doing here?"

Michael pushed past her before she could stop him. "You and I are going to have a little talk."

"About what? Michael, you can't just barge in here! This isn't even my house. And besides," her eyes narrowed suspiciously, "how did you know how to find me?"

"Max said you were babysitting for the Munozes, and Mrs. Munoz eats at the Crashdown's counter a lot. She's always talking about her street, her neighborhood, so I knew where to look. Your Jeep is in the driveway. Bingo! Here you are." Michael crossed his arms and looked at her. "So, now that I've solved the great mystery, are you going to talk to me or what?"

"Well, I would, if you'd only tell me what I'm supposed to be talking about," Isabel retorted.

"About the real reason you've been babysitting so much."

"Just like I told Max. I needed the money and--"

"Cut the crap, Isabel" Michael waved his hand impatiently. "This is me you're talking to. Besides, Max said you've been getting the kid clothes and stuff with your money. Doesn't sound like a financial crisis to me."

Isabel stared at him a moment. Then she sank into the sofa and put her head in her hands. "You're right, Michael. It's not about money."

Michael sat down next to her. "It's about the dreams, isn't it?" he asked her gently.

"Yeah." Isabel sniffled a little. "How did you know?"

"Isabel, I had those dreams, too, remember? When Max told us how baby-crazy you'd been lately, I knew right away what was going on."

"Did you tell everyone?" Isabel looked worried.

"Nope. They haven't a clue what's going on with you, and as far as I'm concerned, it's none of their business, anyway. But I couldn't let you go on by yourself." Michael put his arm around her awkwardly.

"Oh, God, Michael." Isabel wiped a tear from her eyes. "It's been awful. I don't know how it started, but one day I remembered those dreams we'd had last year, about the baby and all, and then I just couldn't stop thinking about it. I mean, it was scary because we didn't know what was going on, but they were really happy dreams, you know?"

"Yeah," Michael said gruffly. "I remember. I'd never felt so happy in my life as I did in those dreams."

"Same here. Oh, Michael, I don't like the idea of 'Destiny' and I'm not really ready to be a parent *now*, but I just can't let go of those dreams. In a way I wanted to be pregnant for real, to make the dreams come true." Isabel pushed another tear off her cheek with her fingers.

"Here." Michael dug in his jeans and pulled out a rumpled Kleenex. "It's clean, I promise."

"Thanks." Isabel blotted at her eyes and nose, then clenched the tissue in her fist. "What about you, Michael? Do you ever wish those dreams were real?"

"Kind of. I mean, the whole idea of being a dad scares the hell out of me, but in those dreams everything seemed perfect. You, me, our child … Like I'd found a part of me I never knew was missing."

Isabel leaned her head on Michael's shoulder. "That's how I felt, too. I guess that's why I've been acting the way I have. I would just hold Tony and rock him, and when I closed my eyes, I'd pretend it was real, that the dreams came true."

"And the teddy bear?"

Isabel blushed. "Oh, God, did Max tell everyone about the bear?"

"I'm afraid so. He was just worried about you, Isabel. Don't be too hard on him."

"I suppose so. I just didn't want to go into this with him. He's so against the whole Destiny thing, I knew he'd never understand."

Michael nodded his agreement.

"Well, anyway," Isabel went on, "the first night when I got back from babysitting, my arms felt so empty, I just had to have something in them. So I took my old bear off the shelf, dusted him off, and held him instead." Isabel's eyes filled with tears again. "It's all I have, Michael. An old bear. That's all there is now. A couple of nights of dreams, where everything seemed perfect, and we were a family, and now there's nothing. Nothing but an old bear." A few more tears escaped but she seemed not to notice.

"Isabel, that's not true." Michael brushed the tears off her cheeks with his fingers. "You've got us -- the whole group. And you've got me."

"Yeah, but what about the future?" Isabel whispered. "What about the dreams?"

"I don't know, Iz," Michael replied honestly. "But like I said, I've never been so happy in my life as I was in those dreams. When you've had the life I've had, you don't take happiness like that for granted. I don't know what's going to happen between you and me in the future, but I'll tell you one thing -- I'm not willing to let something like that go without a fight." He leaned in and brushed his lips lightly against Isabel's in a gentle kiss. "You're stuck with me, Isabel."

Isabel smiled faintly and then leaned back against Michael again, drained after all the emotions she'd been through recently. "Thank you Michael, for being so understanding." Then she yawned. "I hope the Munozes get home soon. I'm really tired."

"Why don't you just take a nap? I'll watch the kid if he wakes up or anything."

Isabel craned her neck to meet Michael's brown eyes. "Are you sure? You're not exactly rolling in baby experience yourself, are you?"

"No, but you never know.… The practice might come in handy someday." He smiled at her.

Isabel stretched out on the sofa and pillowed her head on Michael's lap. I hope so, she thought. God, I hope so.


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