“I have to call it.”
Kyle’s soft, regretful voice momentarily cuts into the only sound in the room: the high, even whine of the ECG. The flatline. Audible confirmation that they’ve done all that they could, and it still wasn’t enough.
Max is dead.
Liz can’t get enough air. Her chest is tight, her breath coming in shallow pants that she can’t push through. Her throat is tight, too, so when she tries to tell Kyle ‘ no ’—the best she can manage is a breathy whimper that even she can barely hear, swallowed up by her frantic sobs.
She’s already turned away, clutching at Rosa like her sister will have the answers—a solution, a hail Mary, anything. Liz hasn’t relied on Rosa for anything in years—even before she was dead—but Rosa is the one with the faith. Maybe, if Liz clings to her hard enough, Rosa will be able to share some.
Rosa’s eyes stare back at her, wide with fear and sorrow. Max’s final miracle was bringing Rosa back, and now she is all that Liz has left. Rosa blinks as if she is finally coming to understand this, her gaze shifting over Liz’s shoulder to Kyle and hardening with determination.
“Do it again.”
Rosa is speaking to Kyle—commanding him. Whatever is in his face, whatever reaction he has to Rosa’s command, Liz doesn’t see it. Liz only sees her sister settle into the determination, summoning all the bossiness that being an older sibling demands, and order Kyle again.
“Do it again, come on, one more time—you have to.”
It must have an effect, because the next person to speak is Kyle. “Charge.”
Liz responds to Kyle’s instruction as if divorced from her body, turning the dial, pressing the button, standing back when he calls for them all to stand clear. Repeating all the actions that have already failed them. It’s irrational; the opposite of who Liz is at her core. But this is Max, and Max makes her irrational in so many ways.
She can’t look. Not at Kyle, not at Max—only at Rosa, and the silent promise she is making to Liz with her eyes.
When the defibrillator whirs and snaps, like the crack of a bone, there’s an extra sound—a hot crackle of electricity, and Liz turns, following the line of Rosa’s outstretched hand to where she is pushing a ball of lightning into Max’s chest. Then Liz has to look away again—from the open wound in Max’s chest, up to the monitor where a single, flat line cuts the screen in half.
Nothing changes. The code whines on.
A single, high note replaces the whine. Then another. And another. They set a rhythm, a tattoo, slow and even, like they never stopped at all.
Liz stands in emptiness.
There’s nothing around her, a perfect void. No sight, no feeling except her own weight pressing down on the balls of her feet. It just...is. There’s nothing here except — except music.
The music jerks and stutters, its rhythm all wrong, the words slurred and dragging. Liz tries to focus, to hear the lyrics—what song is this? Why is it so strange? It’s like it’s being played through molasses, or she’s had too much to drink and the room is spinning, her grasp on sound slipping as she slips out of consciousness—
Except she’s not dizzy. She’s not blacking out, even though she’s not sure she’s awake either. She can’t see a thing and she’s not sure where she is, but she can hear perfectly well.
She just can’t grasp hold of the words, or the beat. It’s like a stuck record, or playing one with the RPM set too low, or—
Or the music is playing backwards.
With that established, she tries to concentrate on more. Like, where is she?
As if in response to her thought, lightning crashes across the pitch black sky. Only for a moment, but it’s enough to show her that she’s out in the desert. Far out, with nothing around her—the mountains and mesas are visible, but they seem to be miles away, and Roswell should be down in the valley below the plain she is on, yet it’s dark. Either the lights are blown out, or the valley is empty. She isn’t close to a road, and there’s no car nearby either.
As quickly as the lightning came, it fizzles out, leaving Liz drenched in utter darkness. She feels neither warm or cold, no breeze or rain—she feels nothing. Without the lightning she can’t see even the stars in the sky. All she can do is listen, and wait for the lightning to flash again.
How did she get here?
For someone who is supposed to be the oncoming darkness, Max Evans is very quiet and still.
When they leave the hospital, they transport him out to the same mothballed facility that houses Liz’s makeshift lab. They wheel him past it, where she worked on bringing him back to life, to another room deeper into the complex. It’s been kitted out with old equipment supplied by Michael and Alex—from the dark web or military supplies, Liz isn’t sure, but it’s not as high spec as what Kyle used during Max’s surgery. Not that it matters; for now, they only need to monitor Max while he sleeps off the effects of the surgery and his body heals. It could be days or weeks. Nobody’s really sure, not when this is pioneering work.
Liz never expected that her greatest scientific accomplishment would occur in a makeshift laboratory in an abandoned government facility. Nor did she ever think that she’d have to keep it hidden from the world—that the leaps and bounds she’s made in regenerative medicine are something she can’t share with the rest of the scientific community.
But she’ll do that. Because for once, something is more important to her than her career. She stepped outside the bounds of ethics boards, and she created a miracle. But the result is something so precious to her that she wouldn’t risk its harm for a hundred Nobel prizes.
It’s just a shame she can only experience it from behind bulletproof glass.
Liz doesn’t even want to know what the original purpose of this room was, or why the glass is bulletproof. Alex surely knows, but to ask him feels like pressing on a bruise, which would be completely ungrateful after all he’s done for her. Nobody feels the horrors of this place like he does. Liz can only hope this one miracle wipes away a few droplets of the blood and tears that were spilled in this facility.
“It’s for the best, Liz.”
The voice comes from over Liz’s shoulder, and she doesn’t even look at the speaker. Isobel’s voice is familiar enough to her now that it doesn’t need visual confirmation, and Liz doesn’t think she can look away from Max, despite how objectively awful he looks. Thin and pale, his skin a sickly, mottled gray. Livid sutures criss-cross his torso and wires entangle his body, feeding the machines that regulate his breathing and monitor his vital signs. A white breathing tube hides his mouth and a drip full of acetone is pumped into him like morphine.
He should look better than he did when he first came out of the pod; he’d been dead then, but he’d at least looked at peace. Death had been peace, of a kind, or the promise of it, but she’s forced him back into a broken body. Now, he looks sick. She can’t help feeling he’s one breath away from leaving her behind forever.
“So you keep saying.” Liz doesn’t want to sound churlish, but she doesn’t think she’s entirely successful in keeping her simmering resentment out of her voice.
“If we allowed Max to do anything to you—”
“He might .” Isobel’s tone is firm enough that it finally steals Liz’s attention, and she glances across at the other woman who is also fixated on the man in the bed. “I was in his head when he died—you weren’t. I’ve been in his head before but this time…” She shudders, crosses her arms over her chest and clings to herself. “This was different. He was different. And if he did harm you, he’d never forgive me. I’m doing this for him. Not for you.”
“Thanks,” Liz mutters.
“You know what I mean,” Isobel snaps, and when Liz glances at her again, Isobel melts into contrition. She looks as pale as her brother, the dark circles under her eyes a bruised contrast to her pallor. Her make-up has been cried away, remnants of mascara smudged across her cheeks. Liz is sure Isobel would be horrified if she could see her own reflection—but she’s also sure none of them look much better. Michael is napping on a chair in the corner of Max’s room, and he’s not showered in days. He looks like he’s crawled out of his own grave. Kyle went home to his own bed as soon as Max was settled in here, reassuring Liz that he’s worked harder, longer shifts, even if she doubts he’s faced any as emotionally grueling as this one.
Isobel is doing what Isobel always does, retreating into her hard shell to protect herself from the world.
“It’s okay,” Liz whispers. “I do know what you mean.”
They’d gone from thinking they’d have a minute with Max, at most—just enough to tell him that they love him. That Liz could tell him she loves him. Only Michael’s quick thinking and Rosa’s act of mercy had changed that. And now…
Now they might get him back for good. Except, based on what Rosa and now Isobel have told her, Liz really isn’t sure if the Max who comes back will be the one she lost.
This information has changed their plans. Instead of returning Max to his own home to recuperate in peace there, Alex had been drafted to prepare a more secure space for Max in the compound. Max will be kept under guard until he wakes up, with the machines relaying their data to Liz and Kyle to alert them when it looks like Max is rousing. And somehow, without Liz being included in the decision, everybody agreed that only Michael and Isobel can enter the room with Max. They’re the only two people who might be able to quell his destructive urges when he wakes up.
Isobel clears her throat. “I guess I should say thank you.”
Liz shakes her head. “You don’t need to thank me. It was for me as much as it was for any of you.” She shrugs. “I couldn’t let him go.”
This is what she fears. Max hadn’t asked her directly—he’d never visited her dreams like Rosa’s, and she’d never got into his mindscape like Isobel. But Max had begged the other two women to let him go, and Liz had refused. Knowing he might be dangerous, knowing he wanted to die, she’d carried on regardless.
What will he have to say about that when he wakes?
She doesn’t have the energy to feel guilty about it now. She’s sure the wound will fester and plague her over the coming days, but not yet. Right now she can only feel relief that Max is here and breathing. And if he does turn his back on her—if he cannot forgive her for the choice she made on his behalf—then so be it. Better a world with him in it than one without. She’d only experienced the latter for a few months and she had no doubts she’d made the right choice. Not just for her.
But that is all so long as they can contain him and his destructive urges when he wakes up. It’s why somebody will be with him at every moment. Isobel is the most prepared—she’s been expanding her powers, even if she isn’t as proficient with her newer abilities as she would like to be. Michael will have to rely on the violence implicit in his telekinesis.
Rosa volunteered to help, but her own power is a mere facsimile of Max’s, and none of them would accept her offer. The only thing worse than it going badly with Max is something happening to Rosa again.
“You should take this,” Isobel says.
Liz feels something being pressed into her hand, and when she looks down, she finds a taser.
“For your protection. Keep it charged and on you at all times. In case you’re here when he wakes. In case he gets out of the room.”
“I really don’t think that’s going to be necessary.”
“You didn’t see him against Noah,” Isobel tells her. “He can call lightning—how are any of us able to compete with that?”
“If I use this, it will damage the new heart and make all of this work for nothing!”
“Then so be it.” Isobel’s mouth sets in determination. “Liz, I don’t know if he is going to recognize any of us, and if he does, I don’t know if he will be able to control himself. We all saw him after he healed you—and back then he only blew out the town. This is ten years of darkness compared to your few seconds of death. What do you think he’s going to do this time? He might level Roswell. He might level the state. He might cause the earthquake that shears California off of the continental US and sends it sliding into the Pacific Ocean.”
“That’s not how plate tectonics work.”
“That’s not my point! I know Max injured your arm while he was still trying to get the poison of healing you out of his system.”
“Because I provoked him—”
“ No . Because he lost control. Normally Max would have never done anything to hurt you—he’s spent too many years learning to control his emotions and his powers. But he did that, and this time I’m afraid of what might happen if you’re in his path if he loses control. It’s better that you turn that thing on and shred his new heart, than risk him killing you—because much as it pains me to say it, you are his heart. He wouldn’t recover from that.”
Isobel leaves, and Liz is left in the hushed darkness on her own, with only the soft glow from Max’s room as her company. She watches the rise and fall of his chest, and she breathes in rhythm with him, relishing the oxygen like she hasn’t had any in years, like she’s been drowning, inhaling water all this time instead of the air she’s been walking around in.
Isobel’s words sting, although Liz understands them. She shoves the taser into her pocket, knowing that even if she did as Isobel asked, keeping it charged, keeping it with her, she probably won’t be able to turn it on Max if the time came. Maybe it’s better to give it to Rosa, who won’t have the same hesitation.
And as if summoned, Liz hears the quiet shuffle of her sister’s booted feet across the carpet.
“You’re still here?”
“You’re my ride, remember. You can’t stay here all night,” Rosa murmurs from behind Liz. “You need to rest too. Your part is done.”
“But he’s here,” Liz replies to her sister, and she tries to sound joyous as she says it. “I don’t want to leave him again. Not after everything.”
“He’ll still be here in the morning. You can come back after your shift at the Crashdown.”
Oh. Right. Liz has to open up the diner. She probably needs to shower before then as well, especially if she wants any tips.
“What if he wakes up while I’m gone?”
“Alex’s gizmos will alert you. And you know you shouldn’t be here when that happens anyway.”
“I don’t even know how to thank Alex. Or Kyle. Free food for life doesn’t seem to come close to what I owe them…”
Rosa’s hand comes to rest on Liz’s arm, while Liz’s hand is pressed up against the glass. She wasn’t even aware she’d put it there until Rosa covers it with her own.
“Thank you,” Liz whispers. “For bringing him back.”
“It was the least I could do,” Rosa says. “Our whole freaky life-death debt is repaid now.”
“I know you don’t like him—”
Rosa shrugs awkwardly. “I’m your big sister, I’m not supposed to like your boyfriends. Especially not since papi likes him.”
Liz finds herself breaking into a smile. “He does, doesn’t he?”
“Come on, let’s go home. Can’t go letting him think you snuck out to spend a night with your man, he might change his mind.”
Liz takes one last peek at Max’s still form, then lets Rosa usher her out of the facility and into the hazy dawn.
On the next flash of lightning, Liz sees the car. It’s some way off. Not her own; a jeep. She tries to count between the flashes but it’s like time stops without the light, and she can’t keep herself present. But in the precious few seconds where fire next splits the sky, she orients herself towards the jeep and sets off.
As she walks, one foot in front of the other, arms out to keep her balance, the music changes. Speeding up, she thinks.
The desert doesn’t feel right underneath her boots—it’s too even, too soft. But she hopes that’s a good thing, that it will be even enough and perfectly flat that she won’t stumble over an obstacle in the darkness and injure herself.
She could have walked for seconds, or for days. Flash, the jeep is distant and dark. Flash, and the jeep is still a mirage on the horizon, never getting closer. Flash , and she almost stumbles right into it.
The music is different now. She knows it, even though it is still too slow, skipping and dragging. But there are words, and they are moving forwards through time, not backwards.
You know this song, she tells herself. You know the words. When it comes on the radio, you change the station because it means something, and it hurts.
Max doesn’t wake up that day, or the next, or the next. Kyle tells her to stop expecting another miracle. Michael is diligently keeping Max unconscious with copious amounts of acetone, and he’ll wake up when he’s healed enough for it.
The days pass in a blur—Liz barely gets any more sleep than she did when he was in the pod. He still doesn’t visit her overnight, though it’s clear from the way Rosa seems more rested that he’s stopped haunting her dreams. Rosa’s handprint fades too—it flared back to life just as Max did, but ebbed away as the days passed, prompting Liz to feverishly track his vitals through Alex’s relay.
“How does he feel?” she asked Rosa. “Can you feel him?”
“Not really,” Rosa tells her. “He’s not in pain, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t think he’s aware of anything.”
If Max is being swallowed by a gathering darkness as he slumbers and heals, none of them can tell.
With nothing else to do, Liz spends her free hours in the lab. Max’s heart will need strengthening if it’s going to last, so she takes the scans that Kyle did while they were still in the hospital and combines them with the samples she took while she regrew Noah’s heart.
Really, she needs Michael’s help for this part. If the heart is both tech and biology, it needs both of their brains, both of their specialties to succeed, but Michael is a wraith. He goes to complete his shifts at the junkyard—grudgingly—and the rest of the time he spends here, sleeping in whatever chair is available to him even when it is Isobel’s turn to keep watch.
She works on a new serum, a variation on the cure she’d once created for Isobel. This time she needs to encourage Max’s heart to repair itself, to regrow in his chest cavity in the same way it would have done if she’d been able to keep working on it in the lab. Even with Michael’s pacemaker, they only have a few years—a decade, maybe—before this heart fails and needs replacing again. And the problem is that once it does, they have no idea where else to turn to for a new heart. Noah was the only other alien they know of, except for the poor creatures held at Caulfield, so a ready access to a supply of alien organs is something they don’t have. Maybe Liz can grow a completely new one with enough time and inspiration, but they need Max to take exceptional care of his existing heart in the meantime.
On the third night she sleeps in a chair in the lab, she wakes up to find Alex shaking her awake.
“You can’t keep doing this,” he tells her.
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she grouses, stretching out the crick in her neck.
“Well, Rosa doesn’t have the wheels to pick you up, so I called the next best thing.”
Liz blinks beyond him to the doorway, expecting papi to materialize there, but instead Maria steps into the frame. She dangles her car keys from her index finger.
“Come on,” she commands, cocking her thumb over her shoulder. “You need a break, and I need answers.”
Liz doesn’t know what to say, mutely following Maria out to the cherry-red Chevy. When she clambers into the passenger seat, there’s coffee and pastries waiting for her.
“Thank you,” she tells Maria, and then waits for the response, unsure if she’s been forgiven or if Maria just couldn’t refuse the call from Alex. Instead Liz uses the coffee as a cover, occupying her mouth so she doesn’t have to speak again.
Maria frowns, staring straight ahead and drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. She doesn’t start the engine, and it’s several long minutes before she speaks.
“You should have told me Max was dead. I might not have ridden you so hard.”
“No, you were right to. I should have told you what was going on long ago.”
Maria looks at her sideways. “Yes. You should have.” She starts the engine. “It’s too late—or early—for tequila, so how about some crashbrowns?”
The diner is silent and quiet when they enter through the side door; Rosa is fast asleep and Arturo’s snores rattle through the apartment. Maria makes herself a milkshake while Liz turns on the fryer, and they work peacefully until Liz serves up the food.
“Why did you come?” she asks. “Not that I’m not grateful. I thought maybe we’d lost you forever—”
“I miss you. All of you,” Maria says.
Maria pulls a face. “Even him.”
“I’m sorry. At first, it didn’t feel like my secret to tell, and then as time went on, it got harder.”
“That’s what he said. The second part, at least. And the irony is, he was coming to tell me all of it when I found Rosa.”
“What exactly did Rosa tell you?”
Maria pauses. “Honestly, it was kinda garbled. I got aliens, pods, and then she passed out. I would’ve thought she was just high if it wasn’t for the fact it was all coming from a dead girl. Michael tried to add more, but I wasn’t exactly in the mood to listen.”
So Liz tells her everything. More than she intends to, at first, because discussing the handprint seems too intimate—like it should be between her and Max alone—except, she can’t tell Maria how she knew to go and find Max on the day he brought Rosa back, without telling her about the handprint, and there’s no good explanation for that except for the truth.
“Can Michael do that?” Maria seems both aghast and intrigued at the notion.
“I don’t think so.” She shudders a little at the thought, and Maria swipes at her from across the table.
“Hey, I saw that!”
Liz shakes her head. “Sorry. It’s not that. I was thinking of Noah. He knew how to do it, but only when he was trying to kill someone. Isobel has started being able to manipulate energy—Rosa, too—but from what Noah told them, I think the amount of control Max had over it and the way he can heal people is an anomaly. Noah even called it an aberration.”
“Huh. So Noah left a handprint on you as well?”
“Yeah.” That earns another, bigger shudder. “His head is not anywhere I want to be.” As distant as it had felt most of the time, Noah’s emotions had been like a scum of oil lying over Liz’s own emotions. She’d barely noticed the bond with Max the first time around, it had felt so natural—them meshing together like they were two rivers flowing into each other—but Noah hadn’t been like that at all. “But that faded before he died, so I didn’t feel him go. Not like…”
“Not like Max?” Maria reaches across the table to take Liz’s hand in hers. “Do you feel him now he’s back?”
“No. Rosa’s handprint came back when he did, but it’s gone now. Mine never developed.”
“Well,” Maria says brightly, “I don’t think I’ll be either asking Guerin for or permitting him to lay a finger on me anytime soon, let alone an entire hand, so I guess that’s a problem I won’t be facing.”
Liz covers Maria’s hand with her own. “If you can forgive me, you can forgive him. He had more at stake than I did.”
“You weren’t parking in my lot.”
“Come on. This was about his life and his freedom.”
Maria shrugs. “I feel like I’m just repairing things with Alex after it got all weird between us. I think I’d rather concentrate on the two of you for now. And Mimi—I still don’t know where she went or what happened while she was gone. Or if it’s related to all this. I feel like I can’t move forward with anything until I have the answers—what if she goes again? What if she disappears and doesn’t come back this time?”
“We could help,” Liz offers. “Maybe if we assume it was alien-related, somehow, we can figure it out. You, me, Alex. And by that, I mostly mean Alex. He’s the one with the actual skills and resources. But I figure I can feed him and you can water him, and between us we might be able to unravel this riddle.”
“Are you just looking for a distraction from your resurrected boyfriend while you wait for him to return to the land of the living?”
“Maybe. But when the boyfriend comes back, Max has got a whole other set of skills he might be able to lend us.” She finds herself smiling down at her milkshake.
“Can’t believe I’m calling him my boyfriend. For all the talking we did after I got back to town, we never did have a conversation about relationship status or anything. We’ve never even been on a date. Calling him a boyfriend makes it sound so—”
“Yeah. It sounds ridiculous—pretentious—but he’s more than a boyfriend. But partner is too adult, you know?”
“I do. If ten years apart and a death apiece isn’t enough to keep you away from each other, then is there really a word to describe what you are to each other?” Maria squints down at her last crashbrown. “I wonder if they have a word for it on their home planet.”
“If they do, they don’t know it.”
Liz risks a peek at the clock behind the counter, then groans and shoves herself up. “I need to shower before I open up.”
“I’m going to crash in my own bed, then kidnap you at the end of your shift so you don’t go straight back to that compound.”
“You can’t get there without me anyway. Your car is still there. No, you’re only going back to that place when I decide you’ve had enough R&R. And you’re going to have to work hard to convince me.”
“If Max wakes up—”
“Then you’ll get paged, and you should be nowhere near that place anyway. Alex has briefed me. Can’t kid a kidder, remember?”
“You’re a cruel friend.”
“It’s for your own good. Go. Wash the scent of government compound out of your hair, stinky. It’s a new day, and I need a new attitude out of you.”
Maria’s version of kidnapping involves bundling Liz up to her room and letting her crash out for a few hours. She’s not even aware of Maria hanging around, but when she cracks her eyes open, her friend is sprawled out on Rosa’s bed with her nose buried in the dog-eared copy of Twilight. Meanwhile, Rosa lies beside her, toes to tail with Maria, frowning up at a Vampire Diaries book. Where it came from, Liz doesn’t know, since Rosa’s books were cleared out with the rest of her belongings last year.
For a moment, it’s like Liz has been transported back in time. A decade—more. They used to do this all the time. Liz on her own bed, doing homework, Rosa and Maria draped over each other in that kind of intimacy only a long friendship invokes. When they’d all had no money to justify going elsewhere, or it had been a rare, rainy day in New Mexico, they’d holed up in this room in quiet company. At times there had even been hair braiding and nail painting. The sense of being back in time is magnified by how little Rosa has aged since those days—and Maria looks so peaceful, the tense lines on her face smoothed out, that even she looks like a younger version of herself.
“This is crap,” Rosa declares when she notices Liz is awake. “I should’ve known they’d mess up a sequel trilogy to the originals, but did you know they fired the original author?” She flings the book onto the rug dramatically. “So glad I didn’t pay full price for that garbage.”
“Wait until you see what they did to Star Wars.”
Liz cracks her other eye open and peers at the chair, where Alex is curled up, attention glued to his laptop screen.
“Am I invited to this party?” she asks, rolling over and shoving her hair out of her eyes.
“Did nobody tell you that you were supposed to bring the snacks?” Alex says, the side of his mouth curling up into a smile.
“Hold that thought.”
There are probably better places to discuss this, but somehow they end up sitting crossed-legged on the floor with a mountain of nachos and several bags of candy.
“How many boot manufacturers can there be?” Alex asks, typing in a query and hitting enter, before frowning as the list of results starts to load. And keeps loading.
Maria leans over his shoulder to look. “It’s not like we live in the southwest USA where everybody owns a pair of cowboy boots or anything.”
“I don’t,” Alex tells her pointedly.
Alex pulls a face and goes back to his results. Rosa nudges Liz with her foot.
“You’re smiling,” she points out.
“I am.” She shrugs. “This is nice. It’s just…nice.”
She gestures at their little group.
“It’s been a long time,” Maria agrees.
“Aliens were the worst thing to ever happen to us,” Rosa grouses.
“But they were some of the best, too,” Liz says softly. Maria and Alex share a glance, then nod in agreement. “I guess nothing is without its complications.”
“Gotta take the rough with the smooth,” Maria agrees.
“So aliens are peanut butter?” Rosa asks.
“No, peanut butter is either crunchy or smooth,” says Alex. “The whole point of choosing smooth is that you don’t have to put up with the crunchy parts.”
Rosa tips her head in consideration. “So Guerin is crunchy peanut butter?”
“Guerin is no kind of peanut butter, because that is a terrible metaphor, and I hate peanut butter.”
“Well, you come up with a good metaphor then!”
“You’re the artistic one!”
Liz flops backwards, letting her arms spread out onto the carpet. She’d forgotten how quickly Rosa and Alex can wind each other up. On the ceiling, one of Rosa’s old murals spreads out across the plaster. Parts of it aren’t visible right now—she’d used glow-in-the-dark paint that just looks white in normal light—but the rest of it shows a bird emerging from the broken remains of its shell.
“Can you two knock it off?” Maria cuts in. “How are we going to cut down the list of bootmakers?”
“Well, we could—”
“We could do some boot shopping,” Rosa suggests. “What do you say, Manes? Surely there’s some military budget you can slide this under. Better it gets spent on this than on another drone.”
Alex cocks his head. “No.”
“So what are we supposed to do instead? Speak to people?”
“You know,” Maria says, “It’s times like this I really do miss Max. His investigatory skills are sadly lacking right now.”
“What about Jenna Cameron?” Liz suggests.
“What about her?”
“She was a deputy too. And she already knows about aliens.”
Alex shrugs. “Let’s give her a call.”
“Tell her to bring some Reese’s,” Rosa says. “I’m in a peanut butter mood.”
The music is playing from inside the jeep. When Liz was crossing the desert towards it, the car was a silent, shuttered lump. Now, the doors are open, the lights are on, the radio is blaring. Liz’s eyes should need time to adjust, but the light doesn’t hurt them. Still the lightning comes. Faster or slower, she isn’t sure.
She can see the sky above better now. Still no stars, only thick, eerie clouds that billow and ripple, their indigo mass flowing enough to feel uncanny.
Yours was the first face that I saw
I think I was blind before I met you
She does know this. She wants to reach inside the jeep and change the station even now, even though she instinctively knows that won’t work. Whatever this place is, she has no control over it. But even though the song is objectively harmless—it’s not one of the million songs that made her think of Rosa and weep or rage in the decade that followed her loss—it still stirs a visceral reaction. She’d avoided it for so long because it wasn’t tied to anger, but to a niggle deep inside, a softer loss than Rosa’s. Somewhere between nostalgia and grief. What could have been. For ten years, she’d hated this song without ever stopping to think about why it hurt like it did.
Now she remembers, or at least stops pretending that she forgot. This song was tied up in the person she had the most regrets about, the person she’d always wondered about in the years she’d spent running away from Roswell.
The person who owns this jeep.
She says his name out loud like it will summon him.
Liz doesn’t intend to pry. Art is the only thing keeping Rosa aloft right now—she knows that, so Liz has to let Rosa have that. She’d belatedly been out and bought the supplies Rosa needed, sketchbooks and paint, pencils and fancy, stupid expensive pens. It was money she didn’t have, but money Kyle had happily given her for Rosa’s art therapy.
This is important to Rosa, and Liz gives her the space to do it in her own time, without pressure to be good, without pressure of being judged. Liz won’t ask her to share, because she suspects Rosa is capturing fleeting fragments of her soul between the pages, and Liz only has the right to look at them if Rosa volunteers. Rosa isn’t ready for that yet. Rosa may never be ready for that.
But sometimes Rosa forgets. Rosa leaves her sketchbook open while she goes to get snacks, and then is too distracted to return, ending up on the roof star-gazing or shooting the shit with Maria instead. And that means when Liz comes to their room, to get changed out of her uniform, or to collapse bone-weary into her bed, the contents of its pages are open for her to see.
She averts her eyes. Closes the book, most of the time. But to do so means that even for the briefest of moments she sees its contents—the world inside Rosa’s head, vivid and raw.
Sometimes that world is monochrome, sketched out in rough charcoal lines: a lonely figure against a barren sky, the sky itself a sea of blackest-black, a scattering of stars scratched out in stark white.
Sometimes that world is a swirling mass of deep, deep blues, a fog of indigo without any stars at all.
Sometimes the world is a barren desert with lightning splitting the sky in hot white.
Liz closes the book, and she doesn’t ask questions, even as her heart aches for Rosa. All of it speaks of loneliness. All of it. Liz thought she was an expert on loneliness, but this is something so unique to Rosa she doesn’t think she can wrap her head around it. She wishes she knew a way to cure it, but how do you convince a girl out of time that she isn’t alone? The people she counted as friends a decade ago think she’s dead, or they’re dead themselves; the few of them who are in on the secret have aged far beyond her and can’t quite relate to her brand of teen angst anymore.
Rosa needs therapy—but there isn’t a therapist on the planet Liz trusts with this secret, or with her sister’s life.
If Rosa notices when Liz closes the sketchbook, she never says a word.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately,” Rosa says as she stares up at the vastness of the night sky from the roof of the Crashdown. “Death. Heaven and hell.”
“Haven’t we all,” Maria responds.
Rosa ignores her. “I thought dying would give me some answers, but it didn’t. If I went someplace else, I don’t remember it. Why don’t I remember it?”
Liz bites her tongue, aware of what her view on the situation is. Rosa didn’t go anywhere, except into the pod. Whatever makes Rosa ‘Rosa’ is the product of neurons and brain matter, and they hadn’t had a chance to decay before she was preserved. Then when Max brought her back, the neurons came back to life too, suddenly firing again, every part of her except her short term memory from before her death. And wasn’t that one small blessing in the entire mess?
Rosa’s death and resurrection has done nothing for Liz except reaffirm her faith—in science. It might not be science that she fully understands, but she still sees nothing mystical in the events they’re caught up in. The problem is, that’s not what Rosa needs to hear.
“Maybe when they put you in the pod, it stopped you moving on,” Maria suggests. “Or maybe your human mind just can’t comprehend where you were, so you can’t remember it.”
“If I was in hell, I guess I can’t complain.”
“Why would you have been in hell?” Liz asks.
“Why not?” Rosa frowns at her sister. “You didn’t think that’s where I was?”
“Never,” Liz replies, and she means it. Not only because she doesn’t even believe in hell, but because whatever Rosa had done in her life, nothing had earned her eternal damnation. And if that was the way of things, then Liz would have some things to say to God when she faced God herself.
“It’s funny,” Rosa continues. “Every time I saw Max in my dreams I was sure that’s where I’d been dragged to. Like maybe I’d only just escaped it, and when he brought me back, he had to take my place.”
“You thought Max was in hell?”
“At first. Now, I’m not so sure.”
Liz remembers sketches of the blackest night and cold, cold fog.
“Maybe it was purgatory,” Rosa muses. “Since he was still connected to me—maybe he couldn’t pass on, and that’s why he was in pain and trying to cut the connection.”
“I know that face,” Maria says, looking at Liz. “What’s your theory?”
Liz shrugs. “Max’s brain activity was maintained by the connection to Rosa, and then by the preservative properties of the pod. He was just trapped in his own head.”
“Then how did he know the stuff about absorbing darkness and needing to let it all out, if he didn’t know it before?” Rosa challenges her.
“I don’t know, but I have theories. Maybe he’s wrong—maybe that’s him making assumptions about what will happen. Maybe it was a total lie to get us to let him go, so he’d stop being in pain.”
“Or he knew that, deep down. Maybe it was a memory from before the crash, and something about being in the pod, synapses firing all wrong as he was in the process of dying, unearthed that knowledge from wherever it had been stored in his brain.”
Rosa narrows her eyes. “Then what about the connection?”
“The handprint?” Liz shakes her head. “There’s a scientific explanation, even if we don’t know what it is. It’s just too advanced for us. Yet.”
“Can science explain Max’s connection to you ?”
Liz shakes her head. “He doesn’t have a connection to me. I told you—he hasn’t been in my dreams. Only yours.”
“Are you kidding me? Liz, wherever he was when he was inside that pod—stuck inside his own head, in purgatory, wherever—it was all about you. The Crashdown, and the desert, and your high school science lab. Everything in Max Evans’ personal little hellscape—it all came from you.”
Nobody appears. She tries again, louder. “Max!”
Her voice echoes strangely, but now she can feel the wind on her skin, at least. It’s warm and mellow, not matching the violence of the sky. The lightning crashes on.
She hears—something. Underneath the music. She turns, expecting him to be there.
He isn’t, but the desert isn’t so empty anymore.
There’s a booth. Back in the direction she came from, though not as far out as she had been. Aged red and black vinyl and a cream formica table. Just abandoned in the middle of the desert like it’s been lifted straight out of the Crashdown and dropped here.
And it is a Crashdown booth. She’s wiped enough of them down, swept underneath them to recognize it without hesitation.
She doesn’t want to leave the jeep, which feels like safety despite the music still playing at a sluggish rate. Yet she knows if she wants answers, she has to figure out how the booth got there, so she sets out, boots sinking into the soft clumps of grass.
This time, she almost trips up. Something is buried in the earth, almost sinking into it. She hadn’t seen it until her toes caught, and only her cautious walk kept her from sprawling face down in the dirt. Instead she stops, bending down to examine what it is that almost felled her.
It’s a dark square, one corner jammed into the ground, the other pointing upwards. At first she thinks of music, probably because she’s been so focused on it in this space—it’s bigger than a CD case, smaller than a vinyl record sleeve, and thicker too. But when she reaches down to lift it, she realizes it’s actually a book, hardbound, the cover a little glossy but dusty.
New Roswell High School.
“Much as I’m enjoying being paid in tequila,” Jenna says, “actual funds are running a little low.”
“What does that mean?” Maria asks.
“Means Sheriff Valenti is low on deputies and has offered me a position back. Apparently she’ll take me getting frisky with a handgun at a public function over someone who sleeps at their desk or accepts bribes.”
“You did what with a handgun?” Rosa asks.
“Poor choice of words.”
“She saved Max’s life,” Liz murmurs. “What if being back at the sheriff’s office gives you the resources to canvas properly?”
“Or,” Alex offers. “What if I allocated some funds from Project Shepherd to pay you instead?”
“You can do that?” Rosa and Jenna ask in unison.
Alex ignores Rosa, and instead responds to Jenna. “You’re ex-military so setting up the right clearance for you should be a breeze. And why not? It won’t be forever, though.”
“No, but it does beat going back to wrangling Guerin from the ditch outside the Pony every weekend.”
“He’s barred,” Maria says curtly. “That won’t be a problem.”
“Racist Hank then.”
“Exactly how much did I miss when I was gone?”
“Not as much as I did,” says Rosa.
“How about I set you up with some ID, a vehicle, and a short-term contract?” Alex offers. “I hope you take orders well.”
“Sounds good to me. I do have one request though.”
“So Mimi’s boots came from a man who was involved in a Project Shepherd experiment,” Jenna says. “But we don’t know where he or his twin brother came from because his farm burned down.”
“Right,” says Alex. “And we know Charlie’s work was folded into Project Shepherd before she was arrested for whistleblowing, and now she’s disappeared.”
“I don’t think these connections to Project Shepherd are coincidental, do you?”
“What does it all mean?” Maria asks. “Where was Mimi all that time?”
“You think she was on that farm?” Jenna asks Alex.
“I’m not sure. Maybe not—if Project Shepherd has a drug that can erase memories, then I’m fairly sure that’s why Mimi can’t remember what happened to her. And that means my dad is involved in this somehow, even if he is playing the frail convalescent.”
“So where do we go from here?”
“We start connecting the pieces,” Alex says.
Alex keeps talking—they all do, but Liz doesn’t hear a word of it. Her hip has just vibrated and she knows, she knows without even looking, what it is. Who it is.
Max is waking up.
She doesn’t tell any of them. She knows what they’ll say, what they’ll do. They’ll band together to keep her here until they’ve received an all clear from Michael and Isobel.
Besides, if she tells Maria and Alex, they will only fret over Michael. Despite Maria’s pretense that she doesn’t care about Michael right now, she does. Liz knows it isn’t that easy to turn your emotions off, especially when they’ve been strangled, cut off at the knees by truth mushrooming out of lies. They might get buried in anger, temporarily, but they’re still there. If the pair of them know that Michael is facing imminent danger with Max’s awakening, they might do something stupid, like go to the compound to offer support. Liz can’t let them do that.
Especially since that’s exactly what she intends to do.
She slips out of the room mumbling about needing the bathroom. She only has socks on her feet, which means she’s able to quietly pad her way downstairs without them being able to hear her make a break for freedom. Luckily Rosa has abandoned a pair of boots downstairs, and Liz is able to shove them onto her feet instead of leaving the house barefoot. She grabs a jacket from the hook in the hallway. Could be Rosa’s, it’s probably hers—but why break the habit of a lifetime and stop taking Rosa’s things?
She’s hunting for Rosa’s sets of keys when a set of fingers curl around her arm.
She stifles her yelp, spinning around while trying to shrug whoever it is off of her. For a moment, she expects to find Noah there, his strong fingers refusing to let go of her, crowding her with his height and all of his malice. Sometimes, in the night time as she shuts up the diner on her own, Noah’s ghost likes to tiptoe through, taunting her if the jukebox flips to Mazzy Star or she catches the scent of turmeric.
It’s not Noah. Instead Maria unfurls her grip, stepping back and raising her hands in surrender as Liz whirls to strike her. Her eyebrows are hiked up into her hairline.
“Not the reaction I was expecting,” she says.
“Sorry,” Liz replies. “I thought you were someone else.”
Maria doesn’t question her further. Well, not about that.
Not without the keys. “I was just…going to head out for more snacks.”
“I thought you were using the bathroom?”
“I was, but we’re out of toilet paper.”
“Sure. And I’m the tooth fairy.”
Maria digs into her jacket pocket and retrieves the car keys, dangling them over Liz’s palm.
“I’m guessing Max is awake.”
“I—maybe. Or waking up, at least.”
“You know you shouldn’t go until we’ve got the all clear.”
Liz just bites her lip and remains silent.
Maria drops the keys into her waiting hand. “But, if I try and stop you, you’ll find another way of getting there. Maybe not tonight, but sooner rather than later. You are the smartest person I know—don’t tell Alex I said that—and that probably extends to jail breaks.”
“You’re not going to stop me?” Liz asks, hushed.
“There’s no point. Besides, I think out of everybody, you know Max best. Isobel might not want to admit it, but it’s true. If you think he’s safe, then I trust your judgment. But.”
She reaches behind her neck, unclasping her chain, then dropping the pendant into Liz’s other palm.
“No,” Liz says. “I can’t take this—it’s a family heirloom!”
“That protects against evil, or at least, alien powers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it has that flower inside it. So take it with you. Wear it. Break in case of emergency.”
“It’s the pollen, not the flower itself, and it needs to be extracted…”
“Just take it, Liz.”
Liz smiles at her friend, curling her fingers closed over the pendant. “I’ll take good care of it.”
“You’d better. Now go.”
“What are you going to tell them?” She juts her chin upwards to indicate the top of the stairs, where she can still hear Alex and Rosa bickering.
“I sent you for the good tequila? I’ll think of something.”
Maria gives her one last arm squeeze, then gently steers Liz out the door, into the side alley.
After Liz climbs into the car, before she starts the engine, she slips Maria’s pendant over her head, tucking it under her sweater. She doesn’t believe in luck or magic—she doesn’t even fully believe in Maria’s psychic abilities, which have proved to be demonstrably accurate—but she does believe in science, and the flower in the pendant has some protective capacity against aliens. Even if it’s in the wrong form right now, even if it’s in too tiny quantities to have much effect against Max at the height of his powers, it’s scientifically valid. Not luck or magic. And that makes her feel protected as she starts the engine and sets off for the compound.
For the first time, Liz puts her faith in Maria’s instincts. It’ll be okay. It has to be okay.
It’s a yearbook. Her yearbook. Their yearbook.
She pulls it out of the dirt, expecting more resistance but it comes too easily, almost sending her spiraling backwards onto her ass when the ground yields the book. It was like passing the book through a cloud rather than the solid, hard earth it was buried. She blows the dust away, then lets the book fall open where it wants.
The pages are blank.
It makes no sense. She flicks through them, and other pages have photos on them, photos and signatures in fat black Sharpie lines, but a few specific pages are clean and white. Liz knows that in her own copy of the yearbook there is something here—she remembers them, and she’s turned to them often in the time before this place, but what they show is just outside of her grasp.
She snaps the book shut but keeps hold of it, and this time when she looks up there’s a new addition in the sky. The Crashdown sign hangs above the jeep, its neon tubes flickering weakly. It doesn’t glow properly, like it cannot hold back the tide of darkness around it, but the longer she stares at it, the steadier and brighter it seems to become.
She turns her back on the sign and heads towards the booth, head down this time to make sure she doesn’t trip. The ground is glittering with broken glass, and she struggles to understand where it all comes from. Is it from the Crashdown windows? That time Wyatt Long put a bullet in her and blew out the windows? But there’s so much of it, a trail of fragments that crunch underfoot.
When she looks up this time, there are three booths instead of one. And in the central booth, a milkshake waits in the middle of the table. Little Green Man. It’s written right there on the board.
Liz has never made a tenser drive in her life. Not even the time she’d left Roswell for good, fleeing the aftermath of Rosa’s death. Back then she’d been fueled by anger and fear and grief and whatever else had been in the cocktail of emotions that left her unable to sleep.
This tension is different. It’s anticipation, but with a solid undercurrent of uncertainty and fear. She’s on her last reserves of adrenaline, after running on it for so many months. She’s not sure she has any more to give after this is over, the well running dry. Whatever happens, she’s going to have to start feeling other emotions.
The compound is dark and quiet when she arrives, though the thunderstorm brewing somewhere out over the desert tells another story. The thunder isn’t a coincidence, but at least it’s not directly overhead. Not yet.
She knows better than to call out. She has Isobel’s taser at her hip, charged and primed as she promised, but Liz knows she’ll not be able to discharge it against Max. Not when his heart is already so fragile. She’d only be guaranteeing losing him again. She turns her phone to silent, slipping it into her pocket, and creeps into the compound through the side entrance.
The first problem is that the darkness is so complete. The lights are out—the power blown. Alex’s fancy hand-print scanner is rendered null and void, inert and vacant even as she presses her palm to it desperately.
Turns out her panic is misplaced. Without the power to keep the doors sealed, they open easily with a tug of her hand. Not only is the main power out, but so is the back up generator—all of Alex’s careful plans to protect the facility wiped out by a surge of power none of them had predicted.
Perhaps they should have. The compound is smaller than a town.
But that was before Max warned them of the pending darkness.
She steps through, glad the rubber soles of Rosa’s boots are quiet against the tiled floor. Without a flashlight, she keeps a hand against the wall to guide her way, squinting down the dark corridor in the direction of her lab. She’s never really explored the compound, not beyond her lab or the suite of rooms converted into a med bay for Max, but she knows that the double doors at the very end were supposed to be for the gymnasium.
They’re wide open.
She creeps down, listening for any sign of life. It’s eerily quiet and still, even the distant thunder successfully shielded from her through layers of acoustic tiling. Somewhere, something is dripping, but that’s not what she’s listening for. Footsteps, breathing, a heartbeat—anything that doesn’t belong to her, but to another living soul.
The only sense she has is the pressure, the weight of a storm pressing down on her, every hair on her body standing on end like she’s rubbed herself up against a Van Der Graff generator. The closest she’s ever felt to this was going up to the Crashdown roof with Rosa as a child in the middle of storms—sneaking up when their parents were asleep. Arturo Ortecho can sleep through anything—break-ins, gunfire—his snoring drowning out the loudest of thunder. And Helena…well, her cocktail of medications and booze made it a miracle she hadn’t choked on her own vomit over the years. Those nights had felt like an act of wild defiance, creeping up to the rooftop to whoop and dance as the static sparked in the air and the stars gave way to a brighter fire.
This is like that, but closer, and fiercer. Liz wouldn’t want to light a match right now.
And it’s all wrong for other reasons. If Max is brimming with energy, of course he can’t control it. Of course it’s spilling out of him like this, blowing out the power, leaching into the air until Liz breathes it into her lungs. But where are Michael and Isobel? Why are they silent? Why did nobody come rushing at the sound of her entering?
Moving down the corridor takes forever, and her eyes don’t adjust to the dark at all. Only her hand on the wall keeps her grounded, keeps her aware that she’s somewhere and it’s real. It’s the only thing stopping her from choking on the power in the air.
She reaches the gymnasium doors, and realizes they aren’t propped open like she’d thought. They’ve been completely blown off their hinges—she can’t even see where the doors are. They must be somewhere in the vastness of this quiet, empty cathedral of space. There are windows, high up, but not enough light for her to make out what she is seeing while she lurks in the corridor.
She takes a deep breath, and steps inside.
She doesn’t expect an answer, but she’s still disappointed when none arrives. She puts the yearbook down beside the milkshake, and turns to examine the space around her.
Every time she looks, something new appears. But it feels like it’s always been there too—like this strange corner of the desert always had half the contents of the Crashdown in it and—is that a lab? She peers over. It is. It’s the bench she shared with Max at school when they were lab partners. Several empty beakers are lined up waiting to be used, and when Liz checks the ground, all the broken glass has gone.
She turns back to the yearbook, back to the empty page.
“This is just the beginning.”
That’s what was missing. She thumbs through, and there they are, smiling together at the camera like the goofs they were. And the other photos, the other pages have filmed themselves in—the other spaces she’d slipped into the pages all those years ago, as the football captain’s girlfriend, as valedictorian.
The jukebox has arrived. It looks powered down, but Liz doesn’t care. Whatever this place is, it’s all centered around her. These relics are remnants of her life in Roswell, and she doesn’t know how she got here, but they belong to her , dammit, and they’ll do what she wants. If science, if logic, aren’t the governing rules of this strange corner of the universe then she’ll forge her own.
With the first button press, the jukebox lights up. Liz makes her choice and grabs the antenna headband from where it rests on top, shoving it onto her head. Then she waits for the first few bars—the claps, the cymbal countdown, those familiar piano notes.
Liz whirls away from the jukebox to start dancing to Mrs Potter’s Lullaby .
“Who are you?”
She stops, turning back towards the booth where a familiar figure in a deputy’s uniform and desert-sand cowboy hat waits.
There’s rubble on the ground, and at first Liz glances up, looking for the source of it. But the roof is whole, the sky barricaded away from her eyes behind ceiling tiles and concrete—the rubble has been here for some time.
But then she notices the smaller mounds among the rubble, and as she creeps closer, her worst fears are confirmed.
One is sprawled out face down, twisted, arms splayed. The mop of hair could only belong to Michael. The second is lying more elegantly, tucked onto her side like she’s sleeping, even if she doesn’t look that peaceful.
Liz’s dread turns to real fear, simultaneously icy cold and burning hot. She forgets to sneak, rushing over to Isobel’s side, her own breathing coming in great ragged pants, enough that she can’t gather the air to call out for either of them.
She falls to her knees beside Isobel, brushing blonde hair away from her face where it’s come loose from her ponytail. Isobel’s skin is warm, and her chest rises and falls. Relief rushes through Liz—even though it shouldn’t, because there’s not a scratch on Isobel, nothing to explain why she’s unconscious. Well, except for the blown-off doors.
Liz shakes Isobel gently by the shoulders, and she stirs, moaning, trying to burrow into the ground instead of face Liz. There’s not much else Liz can do right now—she can’t even call Kyle, because it’d just be luring him into potential danger.
Instead, she scoots over to Michael. Truthfully, she’d gone to Isobel first because Michael’s position had scared her—of the two, it looked like he’d taken more damage from whatever happened to them. But there’s no blood underneath him—and although his position looks unnatural, he’s breathing too, and she’s able to shift him into the recovery position to keep it that way.
Where the hell is Max?
There are multiple ways in and out of the gymnasium, but the other doors remain on their hinges. He could have gone through any of them. He could already be out of the compound, free to leave the same way she’d been able to get in without the scanners working, and she’s got no chance of catching up with him once he hits the desert. Maybe that’s where he’d go—chasing the building storm to harness its power.
Her priority needs to be Michael and Isobel. She has to make sure they’re okay, give them a chance to recuperate and see if they’re capable of going after Max.
If they aren’t—
She’s not sure what they’ll do.
Isobel stirs more, her eyes shifting open. She tries to move, but that only makes her whimper. Liz dashes back to her side.
“Hey, hey—if it hurts too much, stay put,” Liz murmurs.
Isobel nods weakly. “I’m sorry Liz. We had no idea what we were up against.”
“He didn’t even recognize us. He was like—an animal. He just fought his way out.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“He just blasted us through the doors into here. I think we both hit our heads.”
“I need to get you some acetone.”
“It’s all gone. As soon as he woke up—before he started fighting back against us—he took the drip and just tore into it with his teeth, downing it.”
“I have more,” Liz reassures her. “In the lab. I’ll go get it, and then we’ll get out of here, okay?”
“No, Liz—what if he’s—”
But she’s already on her feet, walking away from Isobel. She knows what the warning will be, and she can’t think about that. She can’t carry them both out of here—they need acetone to get up and move under their own steam, and if she doesn’t go into the lab, she’ll need to go past it. So whether he’s in there or not, until they know where he is, nowhere is safe.
Every footstep lets Isobel’s words sink in. Max had devoured the acetone, and he hadn’t recognized his siblings. Not even Isobel, the one person he’d always had a connection with. His twin.
What is Liz walking towards?
For now, they need acetone, and that’s all in her lab. She sets off, back down the corridor and toward her lab, less cautious now.
Less cautious even though the storm has shifted closer, and she can feel it as much as she can hear it, rolling overhead and underfoot. The stark white flash of lightning throws her spindly shadow down the linoleum as the light spills through the gymnasium entrance from behind her.
She’s less cautious even though, with every step she takes, she’s aware that the air is charged, like those nights up on the Crashdown roof. And it smells faintly metallic, like solder, or a spoon run under a hot tap. It all reminds her of one thing—of Max gripping her hand when she’d provoked him, pushed him into overloading the ECG machine and frying it.
Every sense is warning her that Max is close by, and every step she takes towards her lab intensifies the feeling. Isobel’s taser would be of no use here—what good is a single spark against the power of an entire storm?
If Max is inside—if Max is in her lab—she has two choices. She turns around and hides behind Isobel and Michael. Or she faces him.
Well. She fought this hard to bring him back. She insisted on it. Even when he’d warned her of the potential consequences.
This is her mess to clean up.
She puts a hand on the lab door, and she pushes her way inside.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“Max!” she cries.
Finally, finally, he has graced her with his presence. Liz understands it now—this is the same dreamscape that Rosa was dragged into when she slept and her and Max were still connected by the handprint. For all the times Liz had wished for him to come see her during the night, all those months he’d spent resting in the pod, it’s finally come true. Which means she must be dreaming.
Liz takes a step forward, but Max’s steely gaze stills her in her tracks.
“I know my name,” he tells her. “I was asking for yours.”
And if that isn’t a bucket of ice water sloshed over her. Thunder joins the lightning overhead, rolling deep and true, but it already feels like the rain has begun, cascading through her veins.
Rosa mentioned this place—in a garbled way, like she’d struggled to describe it properly. She preferred to layer it onto paper in indigos and violets. It was the space Max had been trapped in when he died, kept tethered to life through Rosa. In hell, or purgatory, or a landscape composed by misfiring synapses.
Liz lifts her chin and faces Max head on. “I’m Liz.”
He doesn’t show a flicker of recognition at her name. “Why are you here?”
“I don’t know.” She glances around, at the perspex specials board that’s now in her peripheral vision, at the extra row of booths that’s joined the first. “Do you know what this place is?”
He narrows his eyes at her. “Yes. Of course.” But his gaze strays across to the science lab, and he doesn’t seem very convinced.
“This is the Crashdown. Or what’s left of it in your brain.” The Counting Crows have been muted by their conversation, quietened down like a movie soundtrack playing in the background of a scene.
“Do you always talk in riddles?”
“It’s not a riddle.” She’s confident in her theory now: that she’s been mostly erased from his brain. As it shut down in the dying pod before the surgery, the broken fragments of his memories had been discarded, and this is all that’s left. What she doesn’t understand is why more details—more memories—keep appearing. Why, when she sees her reflection in the specials board, she isn’t only wearing the antenna, but now she’s in the diner uniform as well.
Are they in his brain? How? It doesn’t make sense. He was in the process of waking up, and Liz has no handprint connection to him, so there’s no way for her to have gotten inside his head. Where is this coming from?
The lab’s in disarray. Glass is shattered, like it’s exploded—like the Crashdown windows after Wyatt’s bullet pierced them and strewed their shards across the ground.
She’s not alone. She knows that. But she can’t see or hear Max, only feel his presence. She might as well have jammed her finger inside a plug socket, the way her skin feels alight.
The glass crunches underfoot, giving her away if the door didn’t already, but nothing stirs. She ventures forward, looking around at her research, strewn across benches and the floor. Pieces of Noah—tiny slices of his organs, all that was left—paint the glass.
She turns, coming around a bench, and there he is. Max. Sprawled out with his back against the wall, a bottle of acetone gripped in his hand, nearly empty. Empties litter around his feet.
He looks up at her, eyes wild, unfamiliar. The feral smile he throws her way feels like his mouth and teeth ought to be coated in blood or worse, like she’s caught him tearing into the carcass of his prey.
No. She’s the prey.
Liz takes a step backward, but it’s too late. He’s rearing up, glugging the last of the acetone down and tossing the bottle away. He’s still pale, and in the shadows he’s rendered solely in black and white: dark hair which falls into dark, malevolent eyes, the dark wound of his mouth, and pale, glittering teeth. He’s shirtless, his neat surgery scar a shiny silver against the chalky expanse of the rest of his chest, and even though he’s so slight, so slim compared to when he’d last been alive, she’s aware of all the power he contains. She’s in the presence of a being who could do great damage to her without breaking a sweat, and it’s got nothing to do with the strength in his arms.
“What was being done here?” he asks.
She blinks. She hadn’t expected him to speak—some distant corner of her brain had expected him to be mute, like they’d been when they emerged from the pods as children. If he’s reverted to some feral state—and the twitch of his shoulders, the tilt of his head confirms he has—then surely language would get thrown out along with everything that made him human. But no. It remains.
Then she registers what he’s asking. He’s gesturing at the mess he’s made, and now she realizes it was deliberate. Not just a show of power, or destruction he couldn’t contain. No, when he shattered her work and exploded Noah’s remains across the walls, he’d intended to.
“We were helping you,” she says, trying to keep her voice calm. “We were working to bring you back.”
“I don’t believe you!” Max yells, and as he does, something else explodes. She can’t see what—over in the corner of the lab. A bulb, or a fuse, something pops and shatters.
“It’s true. And see, you’re better now.” She gestures at his scar, but all that does is make him scrutinize it, glaring back up at her with greater suspicion.
“Who are you?” he demands.
She’d feared this. Even as she’d acknowledged that he hadn’t recognized Isobel or Michael—the two people he is closest too, the people he is fundamentally connected to—some small, vain part of her had hoped that he’d still remember her. The woman he’d loved for twenty years. But it had been exactly that—a small vanity. She’s been erased from his brain and heart as much as everything else was.
“It’s me. Liz.” She holds her hands up to show him they’re empty, but he doesn’t even acknowledge the gesture.
He shakes his head, still confused, still angry. “This was your doing?”
“Some of it.” Most of it. “I know it looks bad, but all this research was done on somebody who was already dead. You killed him, and then when you died we fixed his heart so you could have it.”
His lip curls. “Why? What do you need me for?”
“All this work? It was for a reason. If I died, why bring me back?”
“Because we l—” The word curls on the end of her tongue, then dies. Now is not the time. “We missed you,” she whispers. “We didn’t want to let you go.”
“Why do I feel so bad?” he asks. “Why does it all ache? I drank so much, but it doesn’t go away—it’s under my skin, itching, and it wants to get out, but no matter what I try I can’t get it to stop.”
“It’s destructive energy,” she tells him, trying to explain even though she doesn’t fully understand it herself. “You healed somebody—you brought them back to life! But in the process you absorbed what you’re feeling right now.”
He nods, as if it makes perfect sense. The back of her thighs hit a bench, and she didn’t even realize she was edging away from Max until she meets a dead end. Even as her rational mind looks at Max and whispers that this is the man she loves, and she is safe, her body reacts to the obvious truth. She isn’t safe.
“I need to let it out,” he says, stepping towards her, with the slow, graceful stalk of a predator. “I need to destroy more than this.”
She can’t look away from his face, from the stark black-and-white beauty as his curls tumble across his forehead, but there’s no mistaking the amber glow rising from his palm. Too late, she turns to run, but she doesn’t even make it half a step. He has her pinned up against the bench, caged between his arms.
“I need to kill,” he tells her, in a voice still rough from disuse. And as his glowing hand connects with her chest, “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t think you should be here,” Max tells her. “It doesn’t feel safe.”
“No, I think this is exactly where I’m supposed to be,” Liz replies, and she sounds more confident than she feels. “I think I’m supposed to help you remember.”
Where did that peculiar notion come from?
“All of it.”
“There’s nothing to remember. I’ve always been here. This is where I belong.”
“No, it isn’t Max. There’s a world beyond this desert—a world of sunlight and possibility. But I think you’re trapped inside here, and I have to find a way to get you out.”
“You’re wrong. It’s not safe for you here. You need to go.”
“I don’t know how to leave,” she admits. “So I guess we’d better figure out this riddle together.”
“I mean it! You’re going to get hurt—”
And before he’s even finished speaking, Liz feels wetness spreading across her chest. She smells ketchup and copper—and when she glances down, vivid red is blooming across the front of her uniform.
Right above her heart.
There are two kinds of pain. They’re equally searing, equally demanding of all her attention, and Liz has no idea how she contains both of them at once.
The first is centered above her heart. It’s hot, a fierce branding that burns down through her chest, through layers of skin and fat and bone. Like her heart is in a crucible, heated up so far until it glows crimson and spits off sparks. The rest of her being shrivels and melts in its proximity, every cell screaming for relief.
The second runs deeper than that. It’s not related to any specific body part, except maybe a soul, if she believed in that kind of thing. It’s threaded throughout her, like needles shoved into her skin and straight through the other side, only the needles have been dipped in acid and are trying to pull her apart, not stitch her back together.
She’s still screaming. She knows that much. Even when the second pain abruptly cuts off, she can’t stop.
She’s on the ground, and she doesn’t remember how she got there. Lights are popping above her—lights she can’t see, beyond the way they burst and blow against the blackness.
It doesn’t hurt, but instinctively she claps her hand to her chest, right above her heart.
A familiar voice, low and gruff. She takes a shuddering breath. It still doesn’t hurt, but it’s cold, and she’s sure she isn’t filling her lungs as much as she should be.
Somebody is above her, blocking out the light. A panicked face, wide, honey-brown eyes, rears over her.
“What’s happening?” Max asks. “I don’t understand—”
“You saved me once,” she tells him, and the Counting Crows keep jamming in the background. “Just like this.”
She presses down over her heart.
His hand glows and he stares at it, horrified. “I can’t save you. That’s not what I am.”
“Then what are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how do you know you can’t save me?”
He swallows. “Because they always said—”
“I don’t know!”
Liz reaches out for his glowing hand with her free one, gently taking him by the wrist and guiding him down towards her heart.
“No, I shouldn’t.”
“Please.” It’s a whisper, a quiet breath.
Whatever he sees in her face, he stops resisting. Their hands rest above Liz’s heart, layered—hers, then his, then hers—and she’s conscious for it this time, not like when she’d lain bleeding out on the Crashdown floor for real. It doesn’t feel like much of anything—not like it had when they’d made love in the morning sunlight and he’d forged a deliberate bond with her—but then he’s not skin to skin with her like then.
But the blood has dried up. Her uniform is whole and clean, and when she blinks, they’re in the empty Crashdown. It’s complete—the jukebox is silent, the windows are whole, there’s no pool of blood and ketchup underneath them.
And Max’s face is lit up in astonishment. Surprise, and wonder, and love.
“I remember,” he whispers. “I remember all of it.”
“Good,” she replies as he helps her back into a seated position.
“I remember all of you .”
And then the awe is replaced with horror as he stares down at his hand, freed from between hers but still shining with the ethereal light. “Liz, I can’t control it. I can’t stop it.”
“You can,” she urges him. “You have to.”
“I think you have to wake up.”
Something has changed, but she can’t open her eyes to figure out what. She remembers being in the dream world—in Max’s head, where things were peaceful, if confusing. She thinks the second pain, the pain like she’s being ripped apart at the molecular level, was being pulled out of his mind and into the real world.
Which means the first pain is—
That changes too. It cools, quickly, and softens. It goes from having something wrenched from her—life, she realizes, from having the life drained from her body—to a different kind of warmth. It’s still insistent, and she can still feel the electric charge thrumming through her, but it’s not painful anymore. It’s a connection, a soothing golden bond, one she’s experienced before.
When she opens her eyes, Max’s are still closed. They’re still leaning against the bench he’d trapped her against, but now the arm around her isn’t caging her in. She covers his hand with her own, and only then do his eyelids flutter, peeling away to reveal the familiar warm brown she’s missed.
“Liz,” he breathes, ragged.
The air is charged around them, the fine hairs on her body on end. She thinks they sit within the eye of the storm right now, because Max is the storm. The entire lab is one spark away from erupting, and it’s dangerous, but she’s not afraid anymore. She’s exhilarated, ready, eager.
Maria’s pendant glows on her chest, like a hot coal freshly pulled from a fireplace. It’s not burning her, but Max shifts his gaze away from the sight of it, like he’s glanced directly at the sun.
He releases the handprint, but she does not release him. Even without the active connection, she can still feel the bridge between their minds, a golden chain keeping them tethered together.
Which means she can still feel that dark energy pulsing through him, an ocean contained within a single bottle, ready to burst its confines.
“Liz, I still need—”
She does the only thing she can think of. She kisses him.
It takes a moment for him to respond; an echo of their first kiss. Then he’s surging against her, hot and hungry, his mouth devouring hers. He isn’t tentative—he’s demanding, taking whatever he wants from Liz, yet there’s a sweetness beneath it too. A care in the way he slides one hand into her hair, to curl his fingers at her scalp. Tight, but not pulling. Not yet.
She smiles into the kiss, and tilts her head, letting him know it’s okay. Her nails rake up his back, hard enough to leave a mark, light enough not to draw blood. It forces a growl from his throat, but she knows from the way his hips thrust against her that he liked it. More than liked it.
She should be worried about his heart, but she can’t find the energy to care about anything except the way his hot mouth feels against hers.
He’s strong, despite how slight he is right now. He’s able to lift her with one arm, sprawling her across the bench. It’s mercifully clean, but she’s not sure she’d care even if shards of glass were pressing into her thighs right now. He presses her backwards, moving his mouth to her neck, worrying at the skin there with teeth and tongue while his grip in her hair keeps her still and exactly where he wants her.
They never had this before. Their first time had been sweet, and gentle, and sunlit. This is the opposite of all of that, and yet underneath it she can still feel Max’s love and reverence for her. He needs this—he needs her, and he needs it rough and fast, and he isn’t sure how to reconcile the two desires.
“It’s okay,” she murmurs to him, spreading her legs to welcome him between the cradle of her hips. “I want you too. Whatever you need.”
To prove her point, she fumbles at his belt, trying to undo it without being able to see what she’s doing.
He hesitates a moment more, then he smiles. That’s hesitant too, spreading slowly, crookedly, and there’s a deep well of love and gratitude in his eyes. She pauses, reaching up to cup his face in one hand, running a thumb over his mouth, up into a dimple. A moment of peace before the storm must continue.
Max kisses her palm quickly before taking over what she’d been trying to do, making short work of his belt and the buttons on his jeans. He makes no move to undress any more than that, but Liz has access to plenty of his skin as it is, running her palms across the warm planes of his torso. He’s slighter than he was the last time she got to touch him like this, but still strong, running hotter than any lover she has ever had. She keeps one hand above his heart, enjoying the feel of it beating fiercely beneath his ribs.
She’d barely thought about what she was going to wear today, and she certainly hadn’t dressed for this, but a skirt over leggings makes things easier than they might be. Max reaches under the skirt to roll the leggings down, kissing a hasty path down her bare thighs as they’re revealed, roughly removing Rosa’s boots so they can be kicked aside. It means Liz can spread her legs as wide as necessary, and he shoves her skirt up to reveal even more of her, letting it bunch around her waist. He noses at the juncture of her thighs, inhaling deeply, and she gives a shaky laugh at how much he seems to relish it.
“C’mere,” she tells him, reaching out to delve a hand into his curls, using her grip to maneuver him back up above her. He leans into her grip, making a low noise in his throat that coincides with a roll of thunder above them.
They don’t undress any more than that, their next kiss a collision of bruising force. She might not need this as much as him—this might not be a way for her body to purge itself of the destructive energy coiled inside it—but she’s hungry for him too. She’s spent months without him in her arms, after only one bright morning together, and her blood thunders in desperation for him too. She hopes he can feel that, and isn’t just mistaking his own desire for hers. She’s not a fragile, delicate flower he needs to worry about breaking—she knows she can withstand whatever it will take to sate him.
She tugs at Max’s hair again, and he retaliates, thrusting blindly against her thigh. Then strong arms are lifting her, turning her, so she’s facing the bench, the cool tile a shock against her bare feet.
Max presses a hand down between her shoulder blades to push her onto her forearms. He’s between her legs again, standing behind her with his torso pressed against her back. The height difference means this shouldn’t work, but Liz didn’t spend all those years doing calf lifts for nothing. She rises to tiptoe, letting him line up against her as he tugs her panties to one side, testing her with a calloused finger.
She moans at the touch, a breathy suggestion of his name. She’s ready for him—she’s been ready since that first kiss, since he came back to her, but he teases her anyway, refusing to press inside where she needs him. She whines, pushes back against him, but a firm hand in her hair stills her.
A quiet kiss to the nape of her neck, bared to him when he gathers all her hair into one fist. Then he’s pushing inside—not with a finger, but with all of him. And there is so much of him, a delightful surprise she’d discovered the first time they’d had sex.
Max doesn’t go slowly. He commands all of her attention like this, one swift thrust that knocks the air from her lungs, and then he repeats it. As sharp as lightning.
Liz lifts her head languidly, and is amazed to meet her own eyes. She’s staring at a reflection of herself, in an internal window behind the bench. The glass is a smoky opaque and her reflection is leached of color in the low lighting—she’s dark contrasts, just like Max was, though her mouth is a vivid enough red that it stands out amongst everything else.
And behind her, Max is reflected too, more like the vengeful god he was a few minutes ago. There’s nothing to stand out in color in the glass, nothing but the love in his eyes.
He’s hesitant, even now. She can see it in his expression, feel it in how his hips move. He’s holding back, and it’s not what he needs at all.
She arches her back, bringing him in even deeper, and he gives her a warning tug of her hair. That only spurs her on, a languid smile crossing across her face, drunk with pleasure. “You won’t break me,” she assures him. “Let go.”
She meets his gaze in the glass, and simultaneously chases him down the bond, letting him feel just how good his body is within hers.
It’s enough. He gives her everything.
And reaching out to share herself with him through the bond is a two-way street. Just as she’s projecting the sweet ache, the way her blood rushes, so too can she feel how he’s swallowed up in a world of sensation: soft and warm and pliant. There are no words inside his head, not really, but if there were, it would be her name. Lit up in neon lights.
His hand slides down from her shoulder, around her chest, brushing against her throat. She wonders for a moment, what he intends to do—if she’ll like it—but a second later, he grips Maria’s pendant in a tight fist and tugs it away from her neck. It stings as he tosses it to the ground, and Liz would protest at the momentary pain if it hadn’t blown the bond wide open. The pendant had muted everything. Now it’s gone, it’s like she’s experiencing it all in an entirely new dimension.
They keep the bond wide open, keep their gazes locked, as Max unleashes everything he is capable of, and the storm reaches its apex above the compound.
Max is close—she can feel him teetering on the edge of pleasure, of the moment where it would become so intense it would border on pain. A little death—she doesn’t know if that’s his thought or hers, but then the follow up thought makes it clear. Good enough to die for. Always. She doesn’t know if it’s like this for every man, or if it’s a quirk of his species, but she flexes around him anyway, urging him to throw himself over that precipice. And yet, for some reason she gets a flash of panic from his end at the thought. It makes no sense—he’s faced real death, true death, and that’s not what she’s offering.
Instead, he pulls away from her, despite her yell of protest. She doesn’t want to be separated from him; is already missing the warmth of him along her back.
But it turns out he doesn’t intend to be far away from her for long. She’s turned around, lifted back on the bench with him looming over her, his hair mussed and eyes alight. She can feel her hair fanning out around her head on the formica when he lays her out, and before she can catch her breath Max has her ankles over his shoulders, leaning over so she is bowed in half.
Somehow, it’s even more intense like this. Maybe it’s because the eye contact is direct, rather than through a reflection. His forehead ends up pressed against hers, and all those years of yoga pay off. She never did find internal peace, but flexibility, that she’s achieved. He doesn’t kiss her, even though they’re so close, swallowing her gasp as he pushes back inside.
He grins at her, and it’s wild, wolfish, a glint of teeth. Her body reacts, liking every single one of his smiles—they’ve been so rare, for so long, and that only encourages him. She misses his grip in her hair, but it seems he has other plans; her sweater rides up and he manages to unhook the bra so he can take a handful of her breast, rolling his thumb over the sensitive skin. The other hand snakes its way between her legs, clever fingers doing even more interesting things there.
She’s chanting. Yes, or his name, or exhortations to gods she doesn’t believe in. Her head is full of white static and you couldn’t get her to put a full sentence together if you promised her a Nobel Prize.
His teeth find her earlobe, then thwarted by chunky silver, move down to the soft skin of her throat. She arches below him again, giving greater access, and it shifts him inside her, makes it all come together in a cacophony of pleasure. The white noise becomes a tidal wave, and the storm goes from being in the sky above to rushing through her body. She’s made of sparks, spitting hot white and pulsing around Max.
She couldn’t say how long it lasted, little aftershocks racking through her until she rouses enough to push Max’s hand away. He links their fingers together instead, kissing the tips even as she feels his other hand move up her chest to line up with the mark he left over her heart.
He doesn’t reforge the bond—there’s no new glow. But she’s aware, in the dizziness of her afterglow—that the room is making ominous sounds around them. The shudder and sway of an earthquake.
Against her, Max shudders in his own way, his face buried in her neck, teeth clamped on the skin but not breaking it. Marking her in another way. He pulses within her, convulses against her, and she searches for his own heartbeat, palm flat against his ribs to feel it beating, furious but steady. Far above, the storm isn’t just a storm anymore—the thunder cracks and rolls as loud as her own pulse. It’s hungry, Max drawing its power inwards but only sating some of it in what they’d just done.
He pulls away, eyes dazed, a lopsided, giddy smile gracing his face, and he presses dozens of kisses to hers. That frenetic edge has left his gaze, and she knows that in the moment he’d given himself over to a little death in her arms, he’d spilled out some of that destructive energy into the space around them. He can think clearer, now.
Which is good. They both need to think clearly. The atmosphere is still charged, ready to ignite at the slightest spark. The room shakes around them, the walls spitting out plaster dust as they crack and shudder apart.
It’s a jolt of adrenaline to Liz, who had shut out what was going on around them while the bond with Max was so consuming. She hadn’t known things had got so dire, the destructive force of the storm starting to rattle the building to pieces.
“Oh shit,” she mutters, and Max is already moving, jeans zipped up and mouth set in a grim line.
Liz is still trying to hook her bra in place even as Max grabs her by the elbow, trying to usher her out of the lab.
She pauses to scoop up Maria’s pendant despite his urging. “She’ll kill me if I leave this here,” she protests at his exasperation.
“This place is going to come down,” he urges her. “We need to move!”
She barely has her sweater down over her ribs before he’s got her out into the corridor, where the ceiling creaks ominously.
“I don’t think it’s just the lab,” she mutters, quickening her step to try and match Max’s long strides. He’s faster than her, but his hand doesn’t leave hers, even as he takes in the widening cracks frantically.
They stumble out into the parking lot before Liz remembers why she was even in the lab in the first place. She turns, ready to dash back inside, but a firm hand on her elbow keeps her in place.
“Where are you going?” Max demands.
“We have to get Isobel and Michael—they’re still in the gym.”
But Max has a look of intense concentration on his face—one she’s never seen before. He shakes his head. “They’re coming.”
And he’s right. When she glances over her shoulder, Isobel is dragging herself down the corridor, ashen and clammy, barely propelling herself forward, but she’s upright. Propped against her, his eyes barely open, arm slung around her shoulders, is Michael, and he’s the same color as the plaster dust.
Max rushes back to help Isobel, and the three of them collapse out into the lot beside Liz. Isobel curls up on her knees and retches, whereas Michael slumps down in a heap and doesn’t stir again.
“You know us?” Isobel asks Max, and Liz can’t help but melt at the expression on her face. She seems so innocent and childlike, all her bottled hope uncorked and let flow.
“Liz helped me remember,” he confirms, and Liz steadily avoids catching his eye for a reminder of how she helped him do that. She can still feel the sting of his hand in her hair, the ache between her legs. She doesn’t need the reminder, but she does need to keep a straight face in front of his sister.
Isobel doesn’t need much of an explanation anyway. She gasps as her gaze falls on the glowing outline of Max’s handprint which is peeking over the neckline of Liz’s sweater. “Did he try to—?” But she can’t finish her accusation, because her anger and her sudden movement leaves her retching again.
“I’m sorry,” Liz says to Isobel, smoothing the hair that has fallen from her braids away from her face. “There wasn’t any acetone left in the lab.”
“I drank it all,” says Max, his mouth pressing closed in the hard line that suggests he’s in the process of internally flagellating himself. “And then I unleashed this.” He gestures to the collapsing complex.
And it truly is collapsing. Bit by bit, she can hear the ceiling tiles and rubble hitting the ground like popcorn on a stove. The thuds become booms, the ground shaking beneath them, and it’s only a matter of time before the roof slides off the walls, and the walls themselves fall in.
“Did it help?” Isobel asks through a shredded throat.
It’s true. Even now, Max is full of that nervous energy, barely contained beneath his skin. Despite it all, the storm continues to spit and spark across the sky above them, the wind picking up enough to whip Liz’s hair across her face.
Max follows Liz’s gaze up to the sky. The bond should only give them enough connection to feel each other’s emotions, but she swears as she looks back at him she can hear what he’s thinking. They’re suspended together in a moment of equal tension and peace, caught at the eye of the storm in that way she’s becoming familiar with. She can have this moment of stillness, but it will always precede Max risking everything.
And she’s not fast enough to stop him from following it through.
“Max, no!” she yells, echoed by Isobel, as he sprints away from them, out towards the center of the near-vacant lot.
He whirls back to face them, arms outstretched.
“I have to do this,” he tells them, apologetic. “It’s calling me.”
He closes his eyes, palms facing up towards the sky. Against the eerie darkness cast by the storm, he could be back on the floor of the cave Liz had found him on, all those months ago. Cold and unresponsive and…
But he isn’t dead. Not yet. He’s still alive, and she’s not going to let him do anything stupid enough to change that.
Except Isobel is the one with the grip on her now, the one who won’t let her go. Isobel shakes her head and stares at Max with the deepest sorrow, all her earlier hope evaporated into nothing.
Michael stirs, propping himself up enough on one elbow to watch the show, though he says nothing.
Liz expects the lightning to strike Max. That’s how it had been explained to her, months before. Not by Max, but by Michael and Isobel, later, after he was…gone. But now she realizes they made poor apostles, because they didn’t witness it with their eyes.
No. The lightning doesn’t strike Max. Max calls the lightning to him.
She has to turn her face away when it streaks down towards him, the white too bright this close. It means she’s looking at Isobel and sees the mask of determination settle onto her face once again—she reads her lips as much as hears her say her next words.
“We need to move.”
“What?” But she’s being chivvied up, Michael too, to her feet and towards their cars.
“We’re too close,” Isobel says, as if it’s an explanation, “for what he needs to do.”
And maybe it is an explanation. When Liz had caught that wisp of an idea from Max’s thoughts through the bond just now—the memory of searing heat in his palms, the joy of destruction, the memory of being giddy on power—she hadn’t known his full intentions, but it’s obvious. Inevitable.
“I’ll drive,” she tells Isobel.
They can only take one car, and so they take hers. Liz has already lost one car to alien nonsense; she figures it’s Isobel’s turn. She’s oddly calm as she turns over the ignition, Isobel and Michael settling into the backseat like sombre ghosts, and she doesn’t look in the rearview mirror as she accelerates down the desert road away from the compound.
She doesn’t need to when all the electricity Max has absorbed from the storm glows hot-white from his hands, the power arcing out towards the closest building.
She doesn’t want to look in the mirror, not if it will be her final glance at him. Better to remember him as the man she loves, than as this being of destruction. Just a guy from Roswell, not a demigod who can summon lightning and storms.
The compound catches light, catches fire, and then it explodes behind them.
When she does look in the rearview mirror, her vision is cloudy, her eyes stinging with tears and smoke, and her mascara smeared across her cheeks. She lets the car roll to a stop—she’s in no state to drive like this. She waits, hand over her chest, over her heart, waiting for the bond to sever itself once more.
That cold, sharp, sickly sensation never happens. Instead, air keeps flowing into her lungs unimpeded, her heart beating so strongly she can practically feel Max’s pulse flowing with her own.
And then—elation. It hits so hard, bubbling through her veins fast enough to send her dizzy. She doesn’t feel weak, or tired, or sick anymore—she’s thrumming with energy, with power.
“He’s alive,” she whispers, and Isobel nods in the backseat.
She turns the car around so fast she’s sure the tires leave gouges in the road.
It’s not like she can get the car too close to the remains of the compound—the heat is too fierce even inside the car, the smoke too thick, the debris scattered too wide. Isobel’s license plate adorns the roadside, along with unidentifiable fragments of plastic. Liz keeps pushing forward, slowly, but when she decides to give up and carry on on foot, unbuckling her seatbelt, it’s Michael who abruptly leans forward and pins her into the driver’s seat with one arm.
“Don’t,” he croaks. “We let you walk into that mess and he really will kill us.”
It doesn’t matter anyway—from the billowing smoke, a figure emerges. At first he’s a thicker plume of smoke within the greater mass, shades of gray swirling within the whole, but he shines brighter than the dense clouds around him. Even though his skin is streaked with soot and ash, like war paint made of bone, he’s glowing—not just his hand, but all of him, like an aura of flame surrounding him. It’s impossible that he’s this unscathed, but there isn’t a scratch on him.
The glowing effect fades by the time Liz has shoved Michael away, when she’s pushed her way out of the car, and stumbled across the space towards him. Up close, he is still bright, like the afterglow of a dying star, but it doesn’t hurt to look at him.
“It’s okay,” he tells her. “It’s gone.”
It is, she can see it within him. The destructive urges have been purged, even though she suspects they’ve been replaced with something just as wild and potentially dangerous.
She steps into his waiting arms, buries her face in his chest, and nods in giddy relief. He smells so thickly of smoke she can taste it, practically bite into the aroma.
“Come on,” she murmurs against his skin. “Let’s get you home.”
The manic energy he’s absorbed from the lightning is easier to burn off. He passes some of it off to Isobel and Michael, healing whatever damage he’d inflicted on them earlier without suffering much ill side effects of his own. Liz protests, naturally—though he’s walking, and talking, and looking healthier than anyone who’d had heart surgery in the past month should be.
“Don’t worry,” he says, with that lopsided grin. The one she’s barely ever seen before, the carefree Max who reminds her of his younger self, before Noah shredded their futures into tatters. “My heart is fine.”
And it is. Days later, when Kyle scans Max’s heart—in the hospital, using equipment that hasn’t been stolen or built from spare parts—it’s better than fine. Max has taken the energy from the lightning and somehow managed to heal himself with it. Michael’s pacemaker is fried and useless—at some point it will need removing—but Max’s heart is as good as if Liz had been able to take all the time she needed to finish growing it.
She has some thoughts on the matter. Around how Max was able to do so much when he was brimming with the energy he’d absorbed from the lightning. Especially about how he did it without causing himself more damage. About how, maybe, with an external power source to call upon, rather than just himself, Max is capable of so much more than they realize, and it won’t shred his heart into oblivion if he tries it.
But she keeps her thoughts to herself. Max isn’t a science experiment—he’s a living, breathing person, and one she’s got no intention of taking for granted.
Besides. Her lab is gone. Obliterated by the freak gas explosion that blew up the old residential school and left a crater in the desert.
As for the lingering manic energy, Max found less destructive ways to channel it. Dawn was approaching on their trip from the destroyed compound to Max’s house—Liz had to drop Isobel and Michael off at their respective dwellings, Max apologetically confirming that Isobel’s car had been part of the fiery explosion they’d witnessed.
They shower first, but Max refuses to shower alone, and it’s only the beginning of the whirlwind that follows. He lets Liz rest. Sometimes.
She’s not going to complain. Not when they have so much lost time to make up for. Six months, and ten years.
When she finally remembers to check her phone—well, first she has to charge it. And then when she can read her messages, Maria has covered for her absence, and Isobel has picked up her shifts.
I love you chica , Maria says, and I’m happy for you, but are you dragging yourself out of Max’s bed anytime soon to give me back my necklace?
Max is passed out beside her, all the excess energy finally burned out. He’s out cold, but he’s not actually cold. He’s very, very warm, and she drapes herself over him, her ear pressed against his ribs, listening to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat.
Soon, they’re going to have to shower again, and attempt to put the pieces of their lives back together. She has no idea what that means for them, individually or as a couple. She put her career on hold to bring him back, and she’s unsure what her place is in Roswell that doesn’t involve waiting tables. His career is over too—he’ll need to find a new path to tread. Will they both try to do that in town, or will they seek new horizons together? First they have to unravel the mystery of Mimi’s disappearance—but Liz will find it easier to concentrate on that now Max is back with them.
And she’ll need to remind Rosa to play nice with him.
In the golden light of dawn, he’s painted in less stark colors than at the facility, even if he remains pale as moonlight. His hair, curling erratically, is a rich brown, rather than stark black. His eyes aren’t black either, when he’s looking at her—they’re soft, and warm, and ringed in amber. His skin isn’t chalky pale, but faintly pink. For all the unanswered questions and mysteries, for all that he is not truly of this world, in Liz’s opinion there is nowhere that he belongs better than here. In this moment, in her arms, in the faint pink-tinged glow of a new dawn.
And there’s nowhere she belongs except here with him.