"So, tell me all about Florida," Dad grinned, setting down two cherry cokes before sitting across from me.

I sighed and reached for the coke, pulling it towards me. This was part of coming home, as far back as I could remember going on vacation without my Dad. Mom and I would go away for the summer, and Dad would stay home because the cafe needed someone here all the time, and when we came back, he'd ask me to tell him everything that happened. Everything he'd missed. And he'd pretend - in this funny, harmless, Dad way - to be really upset that he'd missed all this cool stuff.

It was no big deal. It was just a habit.

But it was more than that, too. I think that it made it easier for both of us, him not being there when we were gone... knowing I'd be able to come home and share it with him all over again.

I think you develop rituals like that, habits like that, because it makes you feel better, somehow. Sometimes the best part of the vacation was coming home and sitting in the cafe with my Dad, telling him about all the places I went to, all the things I saw.

Except this time, my heart wasn't in it.

"Oh, it... it was okay," I said, shrugging a little, staring at the bubbles rising in the glass. I reached for the straw and stirred the drink slowly.

"Okay?" He said, blinking in mock confusion. "Just okay? Well. Wish I could have gone off to Florida. Sunshine, all the beaches... was there a lot of sun?"

"Every day," I said, nodding a little. He groaned slightly, shaking his head. I bit back a smile. There was sun here everyday.

"Live music, I bet. It was everywhere, right?"

"Yeah," I said, smiling in spite of myself, feeling myself relax into the habit. Maybe I could focus on something good. Just for a little while... "There were musicians everywhere. Especially," I stressed, "when we went to the Keys."

"You guys went to the Keys?" He groaned again and clutched his hand to his chest. "You're killin' me! I remember going to the Keys with your mom right after we were married..."

The smile on my face caught and faded slowly as my Dad spoke. I glanced over at the pickup window.

...right after we were married...

I bit down on my lip and tried to focus on the first time my Dad taught my Mom how to use a snorkel.


I took a deep breath in the alley and scrubbed my face hard. So she's back. It doesn't change anything.

I turned back and yanked the door to the kitchen open. The smell of burning meat hit me before the chill of the air conditioner.

"Damnit," I muttered, lunging for the spatula and crossing to the grill in three steps. The smoke was thick and rolling off the grill in waves. I flailed one hand to clear the air and tried to shut off the grill with the other.

Use your powers. Just use your powers -

Right. In front of a dining room full of people and waitresses who could walk in at any second. I'd railed at Max for doing the same thing. I grabbed the apron that I'd left lying on the countertop and started beating at the flames. Drops of hot oil jumped up and danced across my skin.

"Damnit," I snapped, beating the air with the apron, swallowing the urge to throw the spatula in the trash and just bolt, walk away, leave the smoke and the grease and the burning and everything else. Just walk out.

Liz was sitting in the dining area, ten steps away from me, and all I wanted to do was run.


"So then, your mother, she - is that smoke?" Dad said suddenly.

I looked up at him before turning around in my seat. He was already rising up out of the booth. Thin tendrils of black smoke were curling towards the ceiling.

"Oh, God," Dad murmured, moving for the counter. Where we kept the fire extinguisher. The chatter in the restaurant was dying quickly as other customers started to notice the smell.

I stood up on a tide of worry. He's back there. Michael's back there -

A sharp hissing sound filtered out from the kitchen suddenly, followed by a billowing, white cloud. Several of the customers gasped and stood up. The dark curls of smoke hovered for a moment before drifting down slowly, and then dissapating into nothingness.

The sound of coughing resonated through the room, and then the kitchen door swung open -

Michael stood there, covered in grease and smoke and white dust, hefting the fire extinguisher in his hand.

"S'alright," He muttered, the heel of his hand wiping his eyes as he turned back to the kitchen. "I got it."

The door swung shut behind him. Sighs of relief rose up around me. My Dad shook his head, his lips tight. "I'll be back in a sec, sweetie," He said quickly, moving to do damage control with the other customers. Then he started moving for the kitchen.

It all happened so fast I didn't have a chance to say anything. I just sat there with my mouth open, my heart slowly starting to return to its regular rhythym. Michael was in trouble. What was I supposed to do?

What do you want to do?

I reached for the edge of the table, moving over to stand up, make sure he was okay, run some kind of damage control between him and my Dad -

Maria leaned against the booth. "Only Michael," she murmured, staring at the kitchen door and shaking her head. "Thank God I told him to keep the extra extinguisher back there."

I blinked up at her. "What... what're you talking about," I asked. "There's been other fires?"

She looked down at me, rolling her eyes. "Liz, he's been impossible for the last two weeks. More so than usual. He won't talk to me at all - not that he would all summer - but he's just been so out of it. He can't focus on a simple burger, you know?" She shook her head and folded her arms. "It's like he's worried something bad's going to happen."

I stared back at the kitchen door and forced my hands to let go of the table. I tried to sit back and relax.

I should be in there. I should talk to him.

And tell him what?

"So," She said, turning around to face me, smiling broadly. "Have you talked to Max yet?"

I blinked. "What -"

"Girl, he has been absolutely insane all summer. 'Have you heard from Liz?' 'Do you know when she's coming back?'" She grabbed my shoulders suddenly. "And have you seen him? The boy has been working out." She glared over her shoulder at the kitchen. "As opposed to some other Czechoslovakians I could mention -"

"Maria, what are you -"

"I mean all summer long, it was Liz said this and we used to do that and - I barely missed you. Do you know that? It was like I had a running itinerary of everything you'd ever done. I was living the history of Liz and Max. Do you know he thinks you're his soulmate?" She sighed, shaking her head and clasping her hand over her heart. "You always were the lucky one. You got picked first for dodgeball, you got to eat all the ice cream you wanted, you -"

"Maria!" I said loudly. She stopped.


I took a deep breath. "Are you - are you saying that Max has been asking about me?"

She stared down at me blankly. "Liz. This is Max. Czechoslovakian, likes tobasco, crazy in love with you? You remember." She waved her hands in frustration. "Yeah, he's been asking about you. Ever since you left. Every fifteen minutes." She shook her head. "I don't even know why I bother sometimes. Why? Why do I do this?"

"But," I mumbled, feeling the blood drain from my face. "But - but what about Tess? And the hologram? I thought - I mean -"

She rolled her eyes and pointed to the wall. "Scoot," She commanded. I pushed myself deeper into the booth and she sat down next to me.

"Okay, look. I understand you broke up with him, and you were upset, and you had every right to be. But, see, here's the deal: he doesn't want to have anything to do with Tess, and he's made that incredibly clear, although I have to say the girl was not interested in getting the message and I finally had to step in and convince Max he was just gonna have to be ruthless, you know - no wriggle room, no room for interpretation, over, basta, done. And she gets it now."

"Gets what?" I demanded. "Maria, what are you talking about?"

She made an exasperated sound. "You! Liz, you and Max are in the clear, okay? He's crazy about you, and I know you were mad at him for kissing her, but the boy has paid, Liz, alright, and I know you. I know how much you care about him, so I'm telling you that he's waiting for you and he's been waiting for you all summer." She was smiling.

She was beaming.

"He's been talking to you," I said slowly.

She shrugged and waved her hands. "Yeah. Every day."

"About me."

The shrug was sharper now. "Yeah. Liz, what's the matter?"

"Did he say anything about -" I swallowed. "About talking to me before I left?"

Her eyebrows shot up. "Ohhhh. So that's it," She said, nodding and making that tsk sound. "You're feeling guilty."

"What?" I shook my head and tried to close my mouth. "No. No, Maria, that is not it -"

"He told me you didn't call him," She said, shaking her head slowly. "That was pretty harsh, Liz. I mean, I know you were upset, and I am your best friend, first and foremost, but -" She shook her head. "I don't know." She glanced at the kitchen. "I couldn't have done it. Left without saying anything."

I stared at her openly and then turned to the window. Left without saying anything? We'd talked in my room. He'd followed me there -

To make sure Michael and I were over.

I looked over at Maria. She was looking at me strangely.

"What is up with you?" She said. "I thought you'd be happy...are you alright?"

I took a deep breath. "Look - Maria, I don't know if you're going to understand this, but... Max and I are over."

She frowned briefly, then put her palm against my forehead quickly.

"Nope," She said. "You're not sick -"

"Maria," I said sharply, brushing her hand off my face, cutting her off in mid-sentence. Her eyes widened.

"Look, I'm - I'm sorry," I said, trying to soften my tone. "I'm telling you the truth. Max and I are over. We are not going to get back together," I emphasized, turning back to the table, toying with the straw for a minute before deliberately pushing it away and dropping my hands back into my lap. I took a deep breath."It's over."

I could feel her staring at me in disbelief, and tried not to look over at her. She'd always had this - image of me and Max, of how perfect he was, how perfect we were together.

I wondered what she would have thought of the Max that I saw the night before I left.

"I will never understand how you could walk away from that man," She sighed quietly, interrupting my thoughts. "Look, you don't even know what he's been like since you've been gone. He's changed, Liz. Really. I mean, if you'd just talk to him -"

"Maria, I -" I shook my head and bit down on my lip.

She paused. "Hey," She said softly. "Hey, Liz..."

I moved my hands over my eyes quickly. "I just -" I swallowed. "I just don't want to talk to him. Or about him. Alright?"

She pursed her lips and nodded slowly. "Alright," She said, her arms reaching out for me. "C'mere."

I felt my breath catch and hugged her back, trying to keep the tears back, trying not to stare at the door to the kitchen, trying to swallow the panic rising up in my throat. Everything in me was screaming to get to Michael.

He wanted me back. Max wanted me back -

I had to talk to Michael. We had to figure something out.


"I'm going," Maria called out from the dining room. I scowled and looked around the kitchen for something, a rag, anything -

"You coming?" She asked nonchalantly, pushing the door open.

I glanced up at her, brillo pad in hand. "Can't," I mumbled, raising my hand. "Gotta scrub the grill."

"Oh." She looked disappointed and I almost sighed. Maria'd been disappointed for the entire summer. She didn't wear it well. Maria's face wasn't meant for brooding. She should be dating guys, I thought. Living her life. Having fun. Doing normal teenage girl stuff.

You mean human stuff, don't you, the voice in my head said. I pursed my lips and delivered a mental shrug. Whatever. Just not - this. Not waiting for me to come running back to her, not wishing everything was...

Different, Guerin?

I blinked. She was just standing there, staring at me. Waiting for me to say something. Something that would make it all different.

"Okay," She said finally, trying to keep her voice light, to sound like she didn't care. "Well, if you change your mind -"

"I won't," I interrupted.

Her eyes flickered up to mine quickly, wounded, and I struggled to keep my face even. I'd been straight up with her. I didn't know how else I could tell her. Why wouldn't she just believe it was over?

Her face clouded over and she stepped back before closing the door. "Okay," She said quietly, and slipped out of the kitchen. I listened to her footsteps fade slowly across the dining room, and then the quiet click of the cafe doors.

I let out the breath I'd been holding and set the scouring pad down, frowning at it. You'd think I'd get used to lying to her. You'd think I wouldn't hate it so much, after so much practice...

Maybe it was just easier to forget with Liz around.

I breathed in deep and rubbed my hands over my face for a second. I had to talk to her. I had to not talk to her. It was such a fine line...

I let my hands drop and almost laughed at my own hypocrisy. My heart was pounding like crazy. I couldn't wait to see her.

Well, you'll have to wait until tomorrow.

I grabbed my jacket and slowed as I passed the grill, running my hand a few inches over the black metal, watching the hardened grease slip away from the metal and disappear. I opened the kitchen door, breathing in the cool night air, forcing my steps away from the crashdown, away from the fire escape that led to her, led to her room, to where I'd slept next to her and kissed her and turned her over in my arms -

Way to distract yourself, Guerin. I shook my head and stared up at the stars for a second, taking a deep breath.

Alright. Shake it off. You can do this. Just keep walking -


I looked up sharply at the whisper. Liz was standing at the opposite street corner, looking to both sides of her and waving like crazy.

"Come on!" She whispered, loudly enough so the sound carried to me. "Michael!"

I couldn't move for a second. Was she nuts? Anybody could see us. Maybe they'd heard her. Maybe they were watching. She was putting herself at risk -

I ran across the street, my arm stretched out to grab her as I passed, hearing the breath slip out of her body as I jerked her along with me, into the shadows of a nearby doorway. "Liz, what the hell are you -"

The flash hit me hard. My eyes were open but I wasn't seeing the doorway, or the dark - I was seeing her. Liz. Helping me look for an apartment, laughing at me in the crashdown, leaning towards me in my room to kiss me -

Looking up at me when I gave her the ring.

I stepped back and my back hit the brick wall behind me, jarring the vision loose. It wavered in front of my eyes and melted into thin air.

Liz was staring at me.

I blinked and focused on what she was wearing. A dark leather jacket that was too big for her. A woolen cap pulled down over her head. "Liz," I mumbled, confused. Summer was barely over. "What are you -"

"I'm in disguise, Michael," She whispered. "Look - I had to talk to you."

"We can't be seen together," I said automatically. I'd told myself so many times it was second nature to say it out loud. "Liz, we can't be seen like this -"

"I know, but -" Her eyes flickered to the street and back to me. "Michael, he's been asking Maria about me."

I frowned. "Who?"

"Max!" She hissed. "He's - he's been talking to Maria all summer, Michael, and she - she was telling me that I had to get back together with him, and I -"

"Whoa," I said, raising my hands to her shoulders without even thinking about it. Damnit. She's gone for three months and you can't even break the habit of touching her...

I let my hands drop.

"It's okay," I said, staring out at the street, down at the curb. Anywhere but at her. "They've just been hanging out a lot this summer, and she -"

"Michael," She whispered, and I stopped talking.

No one ever said my name like that. No one else ever would.

"I can't forget the way he talked to me before I left," She whispered. I took a deep breath and raised my head to look at her -

She was looking down at her hands, and I followed her gaze. I blinked and swallowed a laugh. She was wearing mittens.

God, I loved her.

"He never spoke to me like that, Michael," She whispered, and my heart stopped. She was crying. "I mean, I know we deserved that from him, and I don't have any room to talk but he really -" She paused and glanced back at the street. "He scared me, Michael."

I bit down on my lip and tried to breathe. You knew this was coming. You knew he'd check on her. You knew Max still wanted her back -

This was impossible. I couldn't do this. I couldn't stand there and not tell her, not do anything. I had to do something -

You could run, Max's voice said in the back of my head. And believe me - you would be on the run, Michael. From all of them.

And from me...

I stared down at her, crying in the dark, her shoulders shaking. My mouth was dry, my heart was pounding -

How are you going to do this, Guerin?

"It's alright," I lied, mumbling roughly, swallowing hard. I raised my hands to her. "It's alright."

She closed the distance between us instantly. Her cries were muffled against my jacket and the two of us were standing in the night, in the open, our arms wound around each other -

It felt exactly the same. Like she'd never left.

Control, Guerin...

I closed my eyes and arched my neck, swallowing hard. It would be so easy to kiss her. No one would know...

Except I couldn't be sure no one could know. And I couldn't risk Nasedo finding out. That was the whole point.

I took a deep breath and steeled myself, feeling her relax against me. I was on the verge of commending myself for my restraint when I realized my hands were smoothing down her hair.

I froze in place. I couldn't help it. I didn't even know I was doing it.

It was just habit.

And I didn't know how to stop.


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