I walked past Max and entered the café, letting the doors swing shut behind me. Michael was sitting on top of the counter at the far end of the room, his hands curled into fists, staring down...
I placed the vocalist, her soft voice carried over the speakers, and blinked in surprise. Sarah McLachlan...
"Hey, thanks for letting us use the place," Isabel said suddenly, standing next to me. I tried not to stare. Was the whole dress leather? She was wearing that in the dead of summer?
"Oh. Uhm - sure," I said quickly, nodding. "I'm really glad everything worked."
"Yeah," She said, smiling, her white teeth catching the light. "I didn't have to do much. Just be the distraction."
"You know," She said, rolling her eyes. "The damsel in distress. Who really needs to talk to the security guard right away."
"Really?" I laughed, frowning in surprise. "That must've been a switch."
It took me a second to realize she was staring at me, frowning slightly. "What do you mean?"
"Oh -nothing," I said quickly. "I just - you know, you always seem like you know what you're doing. Like you don't need anyone. I mean, that you can, uhm, take care of yourself."
Her gaze flickered over my shoulder and I turned around, following the look. Alex was sitting at the end of the bar, flipping through some CD's.
"Right," She said quietly.
I closed my eyes. Idiot… I turned back to her, wanting to say something, but she was already backing up. "Isabel -"
"Well - thanks," She said, turning away and walking to join Tess, sitting alone in a booth.
I watched her for a moment and then glanced around. Alex was near the door, all his attention focused on the CDs he kept shuffling in front of him. Michael was as far away as he could get, staring at his hands. Isabel and Tess were exchanging uncomfortable smiles.
All of them glancing at each other and then away, not knowing what to say, how to act…
…you're so beautiful, with an edge and a charm,
but so careful when I'm in your arms...
"Hey," Alex said suddenly, next to me. "Didn't hear you come in. Maria's in the back."
I stared up at him, surprised. "Oh, well - should I get some cokes or something?" I caught a glimpse of the pile of pizza boxes on the counter. "Looks like you have the food under control-"
"No, that's not what I mean," He interrupted, lowering his voice. "She's, uhm - she's upset. You might want to go talk to her."
I looked back up at him, confused. She was upset and he wasn't talking with her? "What happened?"
He pressed his lips together and looked down. "Three guesses," He said quietly. "And the first two don't count."
I instinctively looked over his shoulder at Michael.
Alex nodded, breathing in sharply. "I tried to talk to her," He muttered, looking away. "But she's being all... you know. Teflon."
...you're working, building a mystery,
holding on and holding it in…
I looked at Alex, watching the resentment dancing under his features, simmering to the surface. I nodded and touched his arm gently. "Okay," I said evenly. "I'll be right back."
I stared down at my hands, my teeth clenched against the inside of my cheeks. She was talking to Alex, and though I couldn't hear what they were saying, the gist of it was obvious.
What the hell was I supposed to do?
Maria wasn't taking no for an answer. I said goodbye, I refused to call her, I avoided her like the plague so I wouldn't hurt her again, wouldn't see that damn look in her eyes, and…
It didn't matter. She wouldn't let go. I don't even know why. The whole thing was a sham. It wasn't right, what we did to her.
What you did to her, I thought.
I'd told her not to miss me. Leave me alone, get over me, whatever. And when I turned around, the first person I saw was Alex, glaring at me with this - accusing, protective, malevolent look.
I heard this choking sound behind me and knew she was crying. Then the footsteps, heading back to the back room, the sharp slap of her palm against the door, the sound of it sliding back into place -
"God, Michael," Isabel whispered, suddenly close to me. "You didn't have to humiliate her like that."
I closed my eyes and shook my head, turning back to the bar. The door was still drifting closed. She wouldn't listen. She hadn't so far, why would she start now?
"Yeah," I'd muttered, glancing at Isabel before moving to the end of the bar. "I did."
I'd felt the tension following me as I sat at the end of the counter, staring down at my hands because I didn't want to see their faces, waiting for the awkward pause to end. It didn't.
I didn't even look up when Liz came in, although Is and Alex both looked happy to see her. Relieved, at least. And now she was walking toward me with those long strides, her hair loose and lifting off her shoulders with the intensity of her walk, her chin set -
I tried to ignore her as she walked past me. I expected to hear an echo of Maria's hand smacking against the door and looked up.
She was staring at me, her back against the door and she stepped into the room behind her quickly, twisting sharply, away from me...
I felt the air stir against my skin with the settling of the door, and then the gap closed between us.
I'd expected to see some kind of judgement in her eyes. Frustration. Maybe even sadness.
I didn't expect sympathy.
"Hey," She said quickly, standing up from the chair and pacing away from me, her hands fluttering over her face and hair before she turned around, smiling. "How's the world of politics?"
"You want to tell me what happened?" I asked gently, letting the door close behind me.
She stared at me for a second, then looked away, shrugging. "No, you know what? It's fine," She said, waving her hands in dismissal. "Just Michael being - you know. Michael."
I nodded and waited.
…you feed off our fears,
and hold back your tears…
"He's - he's just so different, you know?" She said, her voice quivering slightly. "And I am not just talking about the hair, although believe me, I have tried to talk to him numerous times about the importance of just a little bit of style - no. No, you know what, never mind style, just common sense, just grooming, for God's sake, and he just -"
"Maria," I murmured quietly.
She pressed her lips together and shook her head. "I know," She muttered, throwing her hands up in the air. "I know! I mean, it's been three months, Liz. Three months of no communication, not that there was ever a lot of that to begin with, but I thought…"
"What?" I asked gently, moving closer to her. She sighed loudly and sat down on the bench by the lockers.
"I don't know," She mumbled, fumbling with the material of her dress, staring down at her lap. "That he'd - let me in. Or change. Something."
I bit down on my lip and took a breath.
"I mean - why can't he be more like Max?" She asked suddenly, looking up at me.
I started to shake my head and paused, taking a breath and sitting next to her. "Look. Maria - would you really want him to be? I mean, he's not -"
She snorted. "Oh, what, honest? Someone who's, I don't know, emotionally available? Open about his feelings? I mean, he does have them. Nobody thinks he does, but..." She shook her head. "He does. I mean, I've seen it. He can be really…"
Incredible. Gentle. Kind -
"- tender," She finished. "Well. Sometimes. And deep down, he's - he's good. You know?"
I bit down on my lip and stared down at my hands. "So, he, uhm… he hasn't said anything to you," I said slowly. "About why."
"Why he dumped me?" She muttered. "No. Well, nothing other than oh, I'm so dangerous," She said, snorting suddenly and rolling her eyes. "Men."
"Yeah," I whispered.
She looked over at me, her eyes suddenly red, her lip quivering. "God, Liz," She whispered. "This summer was just so bad."
"Hey," I whispered. I'd forgotten how quickly she could change. She held in so much, tried so hard to put up this cool front... "It's okay-"
"Oh, please," She interrupted suddenly, a short, bitter laugh slipping out, shaking her head. "Look at me. I'm a mess. Chasing after him like this, I mean..." She looked over at me. "This is not like me, Liz."
"I know," I whispered.
"And that just pisses me off even more," She muttered, her eyes flashing. "That I'm not okay."
I didn't say anything.
"I mean, what right does he have to just decide for both of us?" She demanded suddenly. "We were -" She looked down, her lips pressed together again. "We were getting really close, and then… for him to just…"
I watched the tears slipping over her cheeks, her shoulders shaking. "I just miss him," She whispered. "You know?"
I felt like I was dreaming. Watching Maria say everything I'd thought, everything I'd felt... it was too surreal. Like watching the world through water, like someone else speaking your lines...
I reached out and took her shoulders in my hands, pulling her into a hug, feeling her turn her face towards me, crying silently. She always did that. She told me once that she cried really quietly when she was young so her parents wouldn't fight -
"I'm so sorry," I whispered against her shoulder. She pulled back and shook her head, sniffling loudly and laughing a little at the same time.
"It's alright," She mumbled. "Besides… it's not like you had anything to do with it."
I just stared at her as she reached down for her purse, rifling through the contents and fishing out a compact mirror. I could taste the guilt in my mouth, bitter and cold and -
"Oh, great," She snuffled, her hands moving clumsily over her hair. "Look at me. Crying over a man. My mom would have a fit-"
"Maria," I said slowly. "Look, I - I understand. How you feel, I mean."
"Look, Liz, no offense, but how could you possibly understand how I feel?" She asked. "You left."
I stared at her, stunned.
She took a deep breath. "Look. I am your best friend," She said slowly. "But you left, Liz. You left him standing there, in the desert, you ran all the way across the country." She shook her head and put the compact back in her purse. "I'm the one who had to stay here and deal with everything. Me and Alex."
"That's not -"
"And you know what?" She asked, turning to me. "After all that, after this whole summer, Max still wants you back, and you won't even talk to him. Do you have any idea how that makes him feel?"
"Okay, I know you guys became friends over the summer," I started. "But you don't know the whole story, Maria-"
"Oh, please," She interrupted. "This is me you're talking to. If anything, it's me and Max that're in the same boat," She said, waving her hands. "With and you and Michael both just pushing us away... like nothing ever happened..."
I swallowed and avoided her eyes, trying to breathe…
...you're working, building a mystery
and choosing so carefully...
"I just - I don't get it," She muttered. She shook her head for a moment and then stared across the room at the sink in front of us, looking at me in the mirror's reflection.
"I'm sorry," She said quietly. "I shouldn't have said anything."
"It's okay," I murmured quietly. Neither of us said anything for a moment.
"Listen," I said finally. "Have you, uhm... have you ever thought that maybe Michael has a reason for why he's acting this way?"
"Oh, God," She groaned suddenly, letting her head roll back and staring up at the ceiling. "You sound just like him. Telling me he's doing this for my own good, that he's dangerous -"
Whatever I'd hoped to say died in my throat.
Tell me how you got in here. You have three seconds -
"…and I should just accept it," She continued. "All this stuff about them, the four of them, having to stay away from us …"
Aliens and humans don't mix, Liz. And the sooner you deal with that, the easier this is gonna be -
"..I don't know. It's like all of a sudden, he's…"
"Different," I whispered. She looked over at me.
"Yeah," She said quietly. "Ever since they found that stupid cave. And it's not like I don't see what he's talking about, in some way," She mumbled, her fingertips fumbling with her dress. "I mean, yeah, it's hard, and it's scary, but it's always been like that. That's part of it."
I don't want easy. I never did -
Just let it go, Liz. It doesn't matter. You, me, us, any of it.
I heard her breathe in sharply and exhale slowly, all the air rushing out of her lungs. She stared up at the ceiling, leaning her head back against the wall behind us. "I just…"
I looked over at her and tried to say something. Anything. My mouth was dry and I had to lick my lips before I could speak. "Just what?" I asked quietly.
She looked over at me. A wistful smile danced across her lips and disappeared.
"I just wish it didn't hurt so much," She mumbled. "You know?"
I stared at her.
...you won't tell me and you won't talk to me and it hurts too much, Michael...
I looked away from her, across the room, staring at our reflections, both of us sitting side by side...
"He keeps ignoring you," I whispered, my voice cracked and dry, like summer air over dry leaves. "Acting like he knows everything."
"You don't even know," She whispered, rolling her eyes.
"Telling you how things are gonna work," I said, my emotions blurring our reflections, refracting the images. "And he thinks you're just gonna take it. Like he doesn't make any difference, like you don't have any ideas of your own-"
She didn't say anything. I blinked and her reflection drifted into focus. She was staring at me, her eyes opening wider, her lips parting in disbelief...
"Oh my God," She said, standing up suddenly, looking down at me, her features open in shock. I stared up at her, my heart speeding up to this terrified, pounding rhythm...
She knows. Oh, God, she knows, and she's going to hate you, and you've hurt her even more than -
"You know what we should do?" She said, smiling suddenly. Her hands circled my wrists.
I blinked and tried to breathe.
"Wh -" I swallowed and started over. "What?"
She pulled me up, a determined look on her face.
"We're gonna dance," She muttered, and pulled me toward the door.
Maria burst in suddenly, dragging Liz behind her. I blinked. Her chin was up, her eyes were bright -
"Hey," She called to me over her shoulder as she passed. Sounding like she couldn't care less. I rolled my eyes. She was back.
She made a beeline for Alex, dragging Liz behind her. "Let's get this party started," She muttered, taking the CD's out of his hands and flipping through them quickly, discarding each one. "Too slow. Too annoying. Oh, God, Roxette? Too 80's. Where's all the ones I brought…"
"I see someone's feeling better," Alex murmured, smiling at Liz behind Maria's back.
"It's a miracle," She smiled back.
"What's going on?" Isabel asked, crossing the room to join them.
"I just thought we could actually have some fun. You know, for a change," Maria muttered sarcastically, opening a CD case. "Feel like dancing?"
"Dancing?" Isabel asked, surprised, a smile lifting her lips. "I don't even remember the last time I -"
"Soap factory," Alex murmured absently.
Everyone looked at him. He looked up at the sudden silence. "Oh, I mean - nothing," He said, focusing back on the stack of CDs. "I, uhm - I think I have some good techno stuff in here…"
Tess was staring at the ground. Maria had this look of sympathy on her face. Isabel looked like she was going to cry. My eyes flickered over to Liz -
She was looking right at me. I caught myself looking back at her, staring at those warm, soft eyes...
I scowled and looked away.
"Here," I heard Maria say suddenly. "You're the DJ."
"I'm what?" Isabel said.
"Your powers," Maria muttered. "Go on, grand master Is, mix it up. Alex? Dance with me?"
"Maria, you know how much I love dancing…"
"So I'll understand when you say no," She muttered, finishing his sentence for him. I stared at the room to the back, listening to her sigh loudly and cross the room. "Tess? Tess! You know how to two-step?…"
You had to give it to the girl. She didn't give up.
"Hey," Liz said quietly behind me. I frowned and turned around to look at her, glancing over at Maria and Tess. They were talking and pointing at the lights.
"Hey," I muttered, fighting the urge to inch away. She was too close. She was wearing this lipstick that made her lips shimmer with this soft, pink sheen, and I caught the scent of raspberries -
Her lips moved. "So you're out," She said, her voice strange. I swallowed and looked over at her eyes. She was wearing some kind of new eye makeup, which was stupid because her eyes were perfect but it made them even softer, even warmer and I -
"Yeah," I muttered, tearing my gaze away from her, trying to focus on flourescent lights. Taxes. Anything. "Obviously."
"I was just surprised," She said.
"That I got out?"
"No," She said softly. "That I heard it from Max."
I scowled and glanced back at her. "What do you want me to say?" I demanded, feeling the resentment bubbling up, rising to the surface. Good. Anger I understood. That I could deal with. "I told you. Aliens and humans -"
"Don't mix," She finished, her voice soft. The tip of her tongue slipped out and wet her lips softly before disappearing out of sight.
I nearly lost it.
"Yeah," She whispered. "You did."
I swallowed hard, trying not to stare at her mouth. "So what's the problem?" I mumbled.
She tilted her head to the side and stared at me for a moment. "I guess… nothing," She said quietly.
We stared at each other for a minute. Her eyes flickered down to my hands, staring at my rings.
"Enjoy the party, Michael," She said, walking away without looking back, that long skirt swishing around her legs, her hair swaying with each step, her skin glowing from the inside out...
Breathe, Guerin. Breathe.
"I think I've got it," Isabel called out suddenly from the other side of the room, holding one CD and then the other up to her ear. Tess was pointing at the lights overhead, her eyes narrowed slightly, and Maria was backing up, smiling nervously -
The lights shimmered and flickered, and then suddenly everything went -
"Great," I muttered. "Pink."
I smiled, moving to the rhythm of the music. It felt like years since I'd had a good time. And this wasn't perfect, but Maria was dancing, and smiling at me, and I could feel Michael's eyes on me, watching me move in time to the music…and I liked it.
Maria whispered something to me. I almost didn't catch it -
"He's watching, isn't he?" She said, louder this time, swaying gently in front of me.
He was still sitting on the counter, his arms folded over his knees. I glanced over at him and caught him staring at me, his eyes locked onto mine, and...
I felt something. Some kind of intense reverberation, moving back and forth between us for just a second -
And then he was jerking away, turning his chin against his shoulder and looking away quickly.
I turned back to Maria, smiling and confused. What was that?
I looked up at her. She was grinning. "I knew he couldn't resist," She muttered, reaching for me. "Come on."
"No," I said, shaking my head and resisting the urge to get up and talk to him.
"Come on," She wheedled.
"Maria, no..." Did he feel that too?
"You know you want to," She accused, rolling her eyes and giving up. "So, what's up with you and Max?"
I shook my head and looked down, smiling and relaxing a little. Typical Maria. She started feeling better and it was back to Max…
"Nothing," I said.
"I saw the way you looked at him. Did you have a flash?"
I just started laughing. It was too ironic, and I could feel Michael staring at me, and it felt so good...
"I knew it," She said, grinning. I smiled back at her -
And then the doors swung open, Tess yelled something -
The music stopped and Max collapsed on the ground. "He's dead," He said breathlessly, gasping for air, staring up at us with this expression I'd never seen before.
"What?" I demanded, trying to get to him. The others were all crowded around him. Liz and Alex were lifting him into a chair -
"He came to me injured," He whispered, staring down at Liz, crouching next to him. "He said... he said it was another alien, and that we're all in danger…"
Another alien. We're all in danger -
I was more prepared than any of them to hear it.
It was still a shock.
"He died," Max whispered, choking on the words. "In my arms. He died in my arms-"
"Oh, my God," Isabel whispered.
"We have to get Nasedo to the pod chamber," I said quickly. "Use the healing stones to revive him. Max, where is he? Where's Nasedo?"
He glanced up at me, his eyes dull with shock. "In my room," He whispered.
"In your room?" Isabel asked.
"Where's the jeep?" I demanded.
"Out back," She said quickly, looking up at me. "I'll get the keys -"
Liz was talking, her voice a whisper. "Max. You're hurt -"
I stared down at her, watching her touch his face gently, her eyes worried and soft, watching her expression fading as Tess ran her hand along Max's jawline, healing the bruise on his face and neck -
We're not ready, I thought, trying to control the panic rising up in me, threatening to surge into my hands. I'm not ready. We need more time -
There is no time, Guerin.
"What should we do?" Alex asked.
"Nothing," I snapped. "Just go home."
"Wait," Maria interrupted, turning to me quickly. "What about this other alien? Shouldn't we at least try and go -"
"I'll handle it," I said. Bring him back. Get some answers. That's what we had to do -
"You're not in charge here, Michael," Tess said.
I looked down at Max. His eyes were locked on Liz.
Like hell, I thought. I reached under his arm and pulled him up suddenly, dragging him to the back door. Isabel reacted first, catching his other side -
"Well, somebody has to be," I muttered.
He was still craning around to see her when the doors swung shut behind us.
"Michael, you're going the wrong way. Michael -"
"I'm going to my place," I muttered, gunning the engine as we turned the corner.
"Michael, we have to get Nasedo out of there," Isabel said, her voice rising. "If my parents find him -"
"We're getting my bike," I snapped, my hand locked on the wheel. "Five of us won't fit in the jeep. Then you'll drive to your house. Dreamwalk your parents."
"What?" She asked, staring at me. "Michael, I can't just -"
"Just do it," I snapped. "Now. Make sure they're out of it. Tess," I said, looking at her in the rear view mirror. "How do you mindwarp?"
"I don't - I don't know what you -"
"Do you have to know how many people there are?" I demanded.
"No - I mean, yes." She said, glancing over at Max. He was in the back seat, silent, leaning against the frame of the car. "I mean-"
"They're asleep," Isabel interrupted suddenly, her eyes opening. "They're asleep."
"Good," I said. "Tess, be ready to mindwarp anyone that shows up. Got it?" I muttered, slamming on the brakes and jerking the emergency brake up. "Okay. I'll meet you there. Go," I muttered, launching myself out of the car.
"Michael," Isabel called after me. "Be careful-"
I didn't answer, running for my bike, listening to her rev the engine and drive into the darkness.
"Oh my God," Isabel whispered, staring down at Nasedo's body. "Is that blood?"
"Probably," I muttered, yanking at Max's blanket, pulling it off the bed and throwing it over the body. "Get the window."
She walked to it quickly and I heard her pull it closed. I wrapped my fingers around his wrist to pull him up and almost dropped it immediately -
He was cold.
"What?" Isabel whispered. "What is it?"
I swallowed and moved quickly, grabbing his wrist and pulling his arm over my shoulders, behind my neck. I tried to stand up with his weight and almost stumbled, my muscles and tendons screaming to let go, get away, let go -
"Nothing," I mumbled, swallowing hard and standing up straight. "Let's go."
She didn't move. She was staring at the body. Nasedo's head lolled to the side, away from me, gravity rolling his head toward her -
"Isabel," I snapped.
"Okay," She whispered, her face pale, lips trembling. She started moving for the door and then turned back suddenly, racing for Max's dresser, opening the first drawer and then the one just below it -
"What are you doing," I hissed. "Is, let's go -"
"Max," She whispered, her hands rifling through the second drawer. "Max needs a shirt."
Jesus. "Hurry up," I muttered, hefting his arm around me again, reaching for the blanket that wasn't covering him completely, trying to pull it over his head. His body lolled towards me and I swallowed the nausea in my throat.
She grabbed a dark shirt and bunched it up in her hands. "Okay," She whispered, staring at the body. "Okay. Okay." She reached out to take his other arm and I shook my head.
"I got him," I muttered, not wanting her to touch his skin. "Get the door."
She moved quickly, almost relieved, opening it wide enough for me to walk through. I carried him out to the hall and paused at the top of the stairs, trying to be quiet, lifting him over my back, pulling hard on his arms so his feet wouldn't knock against the stairs on the way down...
We were by the front door. She moved to the window, pulling back the drapes and looking out quickly, checking the street. She nodded once and came over, reaching for one of his arms. I tried to take a step back.
"Michael," She whispered, glaring at me. "Let me do this."
I stared at her for a moment, her eyes flat and determined. I shrugged. She took his other arm and stopped for just a second. I waited for her to say it, say that he was cold, that he was really gone this time -
She didn't. Just pulled the arm over her back, pulling it across her shoulders. "Let's go," She whispered.
I pressed my palm against the doorknob, listening to the click of the lock turning back, and then we were out under the night sky, running for the jeep. It couldn't have taken more than five minutes.
It felt like forever.
"I'm gonna go," Maria said, standing up and pushing herself away from the counter.
"Wait," I said, trying to catch her arm, dragging the fresh pot of coffee with me. "Maria, wait. It's only been a few minutes. I'm sure they'll be back soon -"
"No. They won't," She said, staring at me. "But thanks for saying it."
"I'll see you guys tomorrow," She said over her shoulder, moving for the front door.
"Wait up," Alex said quickly, standing up. "I'll walk you. And don't give me that," He muttered as her head rolled back, sighing loudly. "Come on. It's not safe."
"Not much safe for you, either," She pointed out.
"Yeah, well -" He shrugged. "Lemme do it anyway."
"Fine," She muttered. "Can we go now?"
He glanced back at me, shrugging his arms into his jacket. "See you tomorrow, Liz."
"Yeah," I said quietly, watching them leave, listening to the faint whine of the door as it shut slowly behind them. I set the pot of coffee down on the counter and closed my eyes.
Michael couldn't have made it more obvious if he'd drawn a line in the sand. We're leaving. You're staying. I sighed and opened my eyes.
"Please let them be okay," I whispered.
"It's not working," Tess whispered, her words rushed. "Why isn't it working?"
I took a deep breath and stared down at the stone in my hand. They'd flickered on and off, but Nasedo wasn't moving.
And I didn't know how I felt about that.
I stared down at his body. He had some strange kind of brand on his chest, crusted in what looked like blood, and it was running down his face…
You know I'll kill you for this.
I had to help bring him back. I was trying to bring him back.
"I think whatever happened to him is...something we can't reverse," Max said quietly.
"He can't die," She whispered. "We need him."
"I'm sorry, Tess," Isabel said quietly, lowering her stone and turning to the girl, her eyes soft and sad. I blinked and stared down at the stone, dull and dark in my hands.
That's it, I thought. That's all we can do. That's all we're going to try.
One of us was dead, and that was all we could do.
"You said he mentioned another alien," I said slowly, staring down at his body. "What exactly did he say?"
Max looked at me strangely for a moment. Then he looked over at Tess and Isabel. "He said that we were all in danger," He said quietly. "That the skins were among us."
"The skins," I repeated. I could feel his eyes on me.
"What?" He asked.
I started to tell him about the skin I found out in the desert when I heard Isabel's voice, shaking. "Look," she whispered, pointing down at Nasedo's body.
He was - dissolving. Melting. It was like his whole body just collapsed upon itself, disintegrating into ash. I felt my blood turn to ice.
"What do we do now, Max?" Tess whispered.
I looked over at him. He was staring down at Nasedo. "I don't -" He whispered. "I don't know."
We all stared at him. Someone had to know. And he was it.
"Alright," He said finally, when no one else spoke. "Isabel and I will take you home," He said, glancing at Tess. "Make sure everything's alright."
They both nodded. Isabel reached out, taking Tess' arm. "Come on," He said, walking to the stone wall. Isabel glanced down at Nasedo's body and then up at me as they passed. I barely heard them go.
I stared down at Nasedo, frowning, crouching next to him as I listened to the stone opening -
I licked my lips and looked up at him. Tess and Is were gone. "What're we - what're we gonna do," I said quietly, hearing the tremor in my voice, wondering at it. I gestured down at the body. "With him."
He looked behind him, staring out over the desert. "We can't bury him out here," He said slowly.
"Yeah," I muttered, rubbing my hands over my face roughly, letting them drop to my sides. "Might have more renegade geologists looking for clues."
"Michael. I told you. He was just doing his job -"
"Maybe," I snapped, pushing myself upright and staring at him. "Maybe not. Maybe he's the skin."
"I don't have time for this," He said. "Come on. We're taking them home."
"You know what?" I asked, staring at him. "Go ahead. Tuck everyone in, make sure they're safe until the skin comes crawling through the window to get us in our sleep. I'm gonna stay here and bury him."
"What is wrong with you?" He demanded suddenly, his eyes angry, stepping back into the chamber. "Look, we have to work together-"
"We're not ready," I shot back, stepping around Nasedo's body, crossing to Max. "They're here, just like I told you they would be, and we're not ready."
"There's no way we could've-"
"I told you!" I shouted. "I told you. He told you," I said, pointing down at Nasedo's body.
He almost flinched, staring up at me, his eyes wounded and unbelieving.
"I told you they were coming," I snapped, stepping closer to him, feeling the rage rising up in my hands, burning through the muscle and blood and skin to the surface. "You ignored it. And now they've killed Nasedo, we have no idea who or how many there are, we have no defense and we know nothing about them."
"As far as I'm concerned, Maxwell, that's on you."
His head was shaking slightly from side to side in denial, his gaze dropping from me to the body behind us...
"Say something," I hissed.
He didn't move for a second. Then his mouth closed and his eyes flickered up to mine slowly, hard and glittering in the dark...
"Do what you want," He whispered, turning away.
I blinked, staring at his back, watching him walk away from me until he turned the corner and disappeared out of sight, and then all I could see was sky.
I listened to his footsteps pounding hard against the stony desert ground. I didn't move to the chamber opening until I heard the roar of the jeep.
Isabel was staring up at me in confusion and resignation, her hand reaching up to brush a loose strand of hair out of her face. Max gunned the engine and a cloud of dust swirled up around them, threatening to swallow them completely. I stood there, looking after them, watching the cloud of dust hang suspended in the air before drifting down slowly, settling against the earth long after the scream of the engine had faded from the canyon...
I looked up at the stars.
You could see thousands of them out here. Liz had tried to tell me the constellations, months and months ago…
"That's Casseopeia," She whispered, pointing up. We were on top of her roof, laying on her quilt, her heartbeat resonating through my rib cage, her head against my chest. "That's Orion's belt. That's Ursa minor…"
I blinked and stared upwards, trying to make sense of the millions of tiny dots, trying to see the big dipper, ursa minor, anything…
It was all just noise.
They were just stars. Random dots. How anyone could look up and say "there's a ram", or "there's a bull," and insist it was different from four other stars right next to it…
I didn't get it.
They were just tiny points of light that had already gone out and didn't know it. Liz would've known how to make sense of it -
Liz isn't here.
The wind rippled through the canyon suddenly, a sharp, chilling gust, blowing my hair back. I felt the goosebumps rising up in my arms and neck, protesting against the cold…
I turned around and stared at Nasedo's body.
"Guess it's just you and me now," I said.
I stood up slowly, staring down at the hole I'd carved into the ground. It was maybe three feet wide and shallow.
It didn't need to be six feet long. He wasn't even a body anymore. Just clumps of ash…
I glanced over my shoulder at Nasedo's body. "Alright," I muttered, circling around, my hands scrubbing through my hair for a second as I stopped next to what remained of his body. His clothes were lumpy and limp all at once, like a discarded scarecrow, a sand sculpture half washed away…
I swallowed and crouched next to him. I hadn't touched him yet. I'd only made the hole in the chamber where I was going to put him.
I reached out my hand slowly, my fingertips shaking, and unbuttoned the top button on his shirt, trying to touch the cleanest parts -
He was still cold. I snatched my hands back and then scowled at myself for it. Of course he was cold. It was creeping up through what was left of his body, seeping into him from the stone beneath him, and there was no heartbeat or pulse or breath to warm him anymore...
I swallowed and brought my hands back to the shirt, fumbling with the button, trying to pull the button up and away from the damp, cool ash beneath. My hands were clumsy and I brushed the fabric with my fingertips, moving quicker. One. Two. Three. Four...
When I was finished, I sat back on my heels, letting my palms rest against my legs for a second, feeling the warmth flowing up from my jeans. I took a slow breath and reached out, taking the edge of the shirt and peeling it back from the ash inside, listening to the strange sucking sound of it lifting away from the damp clumps beneath...
I stared down at him. What was left of him.
He looked - it looked - how I imagined sand would look, maybe in winter, just before a storm. Cold. Grey. Damp and clumping together...
I took a breath, peeling the shirt off of what used to be his torso with one hand, raising the cuff of his shirt sleeve with the other. The ash inside the sleeve resisted at first and I raised it higher, shaking the material between tight, pale fingertips until the wet ashes tumbled down the sleeve, falling in little clumps to settle against the center. I reached over his body and picked up the other cuff, shaking it until both arms were empty.
I gathered the edges of the shirt in bunched-up handfuls, lifting it off the floor so the bulk of ashes sagged down in the back of his shirt, carrying it over to the hole in the floor. I stood there for a second, holding the shirt in my hands, trying not to think, trying to forget I was holding someone's body in my hands...
Not just a body. His body.
I'd sworn to kill him, and now I was burying him. And I didn't even know why.
You should say something. That's what people do when they bury someone...
I let go with one hand and watched his ashes fall, the damp clumps tumbling over and into each other, breaking apart on impact, coming to rest in a damp pile on the bottom of the hole...
I did the same thing with his pants and then with his jacket, picking them up and emptying them out, tossing the clothes to the far corner of the chamber when they were empty. I moved back to the floor where we'd tried to bring him back, staring down at the clumps of ash that hadn't been surrounded by clothing.
His hands. His head.
You could still make out where his eyes had been, the little hollows that were - brown? Blue? I didn't even know.
I took a breath and knelt down next to him. I could have used the shirt.
I didn't want to.
I watched my hands rise up off of my knees, hovering in the air, holding them parallel to his body, trying to ignore the shaking.
He was a murderer.
He was a liar.
My hands floated over the mound of ash, dropping down slowly, slowly, and I waited for the cold, the dampness, for the chill to cut through the bone...
He kidnapped Liz. He threatened to kill her.
He threatened to kill you...
My fingertips closed the disance and I felt the dampness of the ash, the cold moisture making it stick to the ridges of my fingerprints, the cold chill shocking and repulsive...
He left me with Hank.
I searched for him my whole life, and he left me with Hank…
The sob slipped out of my throat suddenly, rough and broken against the silence. I squeezed my eyes and breathed in sharply, surprised and not surprised at once at the tears slipping over my cheeks. I opened my eyes, my breath coming in ragged gasps, blinking hard, trying to focus, trying to see him...
My hands clenched into fists, and he slipped through my fingers.
I put the last of the stones over the hole, closing off the ashes. I should seal it, I thought absently, bending down to move one of the rocks so that it fit more tightly...
I'd thought about making a headstone. A marker. Something.
I had no idea what to write.
I ran my hands over my face, breathing deep before letting them drop over my knees. I looked over at the pile of clothes. I didn't know whether to wash them before I returned them to Tess, or if she'd even want them.
Would it make her cry if I brought her his clothes with tiny pieces of him still clinging to them? Would it be worse if they were clean, if every trace of him was gone?
Would she even care?
Why do you care?
I closed my eyes and breathed out slowly before standing up.
I didn't even know why I buried him. I had more reason than any of them to hate him. It just seemed like something I had to do.
"Goodbye," I said, louder than I intended. The word echoed off the walls and came back to me. goodbye goodbye goodbye...
I stared down at the shallow grave.
"Well," I said finally. "That's it."
I was turning to go when I realized I wasn't alone.
Ed Harding stood next to me, staring down at the pile of rocks.
He looked over at me slowly, his mouth curving up in a smirk.
"You know, Michael," He said quietly. "When said you were going to bury me, I bet this wasn't what you had in mind."
"What," I whispered, looking from him to the stones and back again, stumbling backwards. "You're - you're dead," I whispered.
He looked down at the stones at his feet. "Yeah," He said, his voice puzzled and slightly amused. "Looks like."
My hands were shaking. I thought I was gonna be sick. "I'm hallucinating," I whispered. "You're not real. You're not -"
"Well, you haven't slept since you nearly fried Liz's insides," He murmured, looking down at the stones. He nudged one of them with his foot. "Bet that was a hell of a night."
"What do you want," I whispered.
He turned toward me. "Max told you," He said, looking at me intently. "He heard what I said?"
"Y-yeah," I whispered, backing up. "Yeah. He did."
"So he told you," Nasedo said slowly.
"Yes," I snapped, feeling the shock turn to panic, shooting through my veins. "What the hell do you want?"
Surprise flickered over his face. "I came to say goodbye, Michael," He said. "What did you think?"
I stared at him. "Fine," I muttered. "Goodbye. Go away."
He stared at me for a second. "I don't think you understand, Michael," He finally said. "In our world, it's customary to choose a person, and to lead your life by the words of that person."
"I'm not listening to you," I whispered. "You're dead-"
"It's believed," He said, his voice growing stronger, drowning my words, "That with faithful service to that person's memory, you will be allowed to speak with that person before you pass. I thought you might remember that," He said, staring at me intently, his voice unwavering. "It's sort of like choosing a mentor."
I stared up at him. When I heard the noise richocheting off the wall like bullets, it took a second for me to realize it was laughter.
And then I realized it was coming from me.
"You think I think that," I whispered, moving closer to him. "About you? Are you kidding me?"
He frowned. "Michael-"
"You think that I would choose you for that?" I shouted suddenly, feeling the fire blistering up through my hands. My words bounced back at me, overlapping each other. You think I choose you think for choose you that I choose you -
He was shaking his head. "Michael. You don't understand-"
"You don't know anything," I hissed. "You don't know anything about me. You never did."
He let his head drop, his hands pinching his eyes. His shoulders were shaking.
He was laughing.
"What's so funny," I whispered.
He shook his head. When he raised his head, his eyes were locked on mine.
"You've got it backwards, Michael," He said. "As usual."
I scowled at him. What does that mean -
"You were my mentor, Michael," He said, shrugging. "That's why I'm here.
"My mentor was you."
"You don't know what it was like, Michael," He said quietly, his hands up in appeal. "When we landed here. When the others were dead, mutilated beyond our capacity to revive them, or even worse, captured-"
"What the hell are you talking about," I whispered, backing up a step and then another.
He licked his lips slowly. "Look. When I got away from them - when I escaped - I came back here," He said quietly, waving his arms at the chamber.
"All the others were gone. I was alone on this wasteland of a planet. No assistance. No refuge. And that's when I decided to follow your… guidelines.
"You were a powerful commander, Michael," He said softly. "Never asked your men to do anything you weren't willing to do. Of course," He said, smiling slowly, "You were willing to do a lot."
"You're lying," I whispered, my voice hoarse and cracking. He looked over at me, his face impassive.
"I don't," I whispered, hearing my voice catch, trying to swallow and start over again. "I don't remember any of that -"
"That doesn't mean it didn't happen," He said evenly.
I stared at him wordlessly.
"You had the allegiance of thousands of men," He continued, his voice even and quiet. He turned around and stood in front of his grave. "It was considered an honor to serve under you, and dying alongside you -" He shrugged. "Well. Lots of warriors signed up for your missions. Even though they knew it was suicide," He said, rolling his eyes for a moment before regarding me quietly. "It always was.
"Max was better at public speaking," He said, pacing like a professor in front of a class. "He was making decisions and sending out royal decrees, and you," He said, pointing at me, "you were fighting the war. You also had an affinity for the written word. Your Rules of War were carried back from the front. They were memorized by troops, families, children...
"Do you remember them?"
"Remember what," I snapped. "I don't-"
"Never let your enemy get the upper hand," He recited. "First rule of war. Remember?"
I stared at him, my mouth open. My hands were shaking.
"Well," He shrugged, waving his hands. "Loosely translated, anyway. Any bells going off? No?" He asked, tilting his head and moving closer to me. "How about number two?"
There it is, I thought distantly, watching him move towards me. There's that look, that prowling walk, the gleam in the eyes...
"Make your sacrifices and move on," He whispered. "Accept your losses. There are always losses, Michael," He said, moving to stand in front of me. "You knew that back then.
"And you know it now."
I was shaking my head. I could feel my hands trembling. "I didn't say any of that," I whispered. "You're making it up-"
"Ah," He said quietly, squinting at me. "Well. My mistake, then. I must be thinking of the other commander who constantly defied his ruler's orders in secret, who snuck into enemy territory by himself to get the smallest bit of information..."
He peered at me closely. "That doesn't sound familiar at all, Michael," He said quietly. "Does it?"
I tried to swallow the nausea in my throat and failed.
"But you - you follow Max," I whispered. "You told me I had to protect him with my life-"
He took several steps quickly, closing the distance between us. "My allegiance to the king is absolute," He whispered. I could feel his breath, cool against my skin. "Never doubt that.
"But Max lost, Michael," He finished, his eyes flickering over mine, holding my gaze. After a second he snorted in contempt and turned away from me, pacing again.
"He was a peacemaker," He muttered. "Tried to talk to them. His advisors - yourself included - didn't trust them. Told him they weren't listening, that they were going to attack when he least expected it..." His voice trailed off and he paused for a second, staring down at the stones.
"He didn't agree," He said quietly. "And because of that, our world was lost."
He looked over at me. "You tried to win the war on your own," He sighed, shaking his head. "Some said you were trying to do that from the beginning. Got yourself killed. And then the few people left decided to try and remake you. Try and get it right this time. Make you stronger. Wiser. Help you to learn from your mistakes. So I had to make sure you would be ready," He said, turning back to me, staring at me intently. "That this time, you would succeed.
"Everything I did, everything I said, was based on your words, Michael. Your tactics. No mercy. No retreat. No surrender. Stand your ground, kill as many as you can and bury the dead. Wake up the next day," He said, holding his hands up, palms parallel to the ceiling. "And start over again.
"Nothing matters but victory," He said, moving closer to me again, his eyes locked onto mine. "No matter what means you use to get there. That's what you said. Do you remember?"
"By any means neccessary," I whispered -
He smiled suddenly, his lips curling up in triumph.
Why did I say that, I thought, feeling my heart hammering in my chest, watching the glimmer in his eyes. Why did I say that -
"Yes," He whispered, stepping back, his shoulders sagging in what I think was relief. "Yes. You do remember-"
"No," I said suddenly, my voice cracking, backing away from him. My legs jerked and I stumbled again, catching my equilibrium at the last second. "That's not what happened," I whispered, staring at him. "That's not true-"
He stared at me quietly, shaking his head. "You know it's true," He said softly, his smile fading slightly. "It's who you are. You can't fight it. I learned from you. And now, I've taught you what you taught me.
"I succeeded in my mission," He said softly, sounding surprised. "That's all that matters."
My head was shaking. It was hard to breathe. Get out of here. Get out, now-
"You buried me," He said slowly, looking over at me, his eyes regarding me strangely. "That's an honor. Where we come from."
"Shut up," I whispered, turning my body away from him, planting my hands against the stone wall, trying to breathe -
There was a pause. I could feel him staring at me.
"I understand," He said slowly, his voice quiet and respectful. I flinched and immediately tried to hide it, turning my face away from him. That was worse. He sounded so... certain...
"I hope what I said to Max makes it easier," He said. "For you."
I turned my head, staring at him in disbelief. Make it easier?
He stood with his hands at his sides, his shoulders squared, his head held high, proud and defiant.
And then I looked at his eyes.
They were filled with pity.
He was telling the truth -
I could feel the panic surging up through my veins, the light flooding behind my eyes. "Get away from me," I hissed. "Now."
He smiled wryly, bringing his hands up, his palms to the ceiling.
"As you wish," He said softly. "Sir."
He closed his eyes and raised his face toward the ceiling. He opened his eyes.
And then he was gone.
|DC Slash||Harry Potter||Ros. Hetero||Ros. Slash||Ros. Other|