Author: Chris Kenworthy PM
Loose threads start to tie up when Tess asks Alex to translate the book.Rated: Fiction M - English - Drama/Romance - Michael G. & Maria D. - Chapters: 16 - Words: 119,239 - Reviews: 20 - Favs: 8 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 05-19-09 - Published: 05-11-03 - Status: Complete - id: 1340905
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
By Chris Kenworthy
Shipper warning: Rest assured that a happy ending for our favorite dream couple will be in the offing before the end of the series. Stargazers and Candypeople have no reason to fear here.
I didn't look up when the bell attached to the front door of the Crashdown cafe rang out. I didn't pay attention to the footsteps crossing the dining room to my table. To be honest, I only barely twigged when he said my name.
"Huh?" As I looked up, my eyes slowly coaxed each other into focus. "Alex??" A second's pause to make sure it was he. "Alex! How did your studying go?"
"Let's not bother with the lame excuse, Isabel," Alex said, dropping casually to the chair opposite mine. "I think we both know I wasn't studying for any big Robert Frost test tonight."
"Then..." I glanced away to check the clock. Twenty-five after eleven in the evening. Somehow it all fell into place.
"You wanted to see if I'd wait here all night, just on the off chance that you'd come by?" Alex nodded slowly. "Well, I'm here, aren't I??" I couldn't possibly have admitted that I *had* lost hope that he'd show up, but had been too tired by then to move, could I? Besides, that wasn't entirely the point.
"Yeah, you're here," Alex agreed with a smile. "And so am I, now." He reached out and took my hand into his, and somehow that simple touch took my breath away more than any kiss in my life.
"You know that I'm crazy about you, I know," Alex said, looking deep into my eyes. "And you know that it's burned me. If you want to start something up again, I have to know that it isn't going to be like before."
Oh, no. Somehow I knew that I was not really in the right state of mind to be making a solid commitment. But it would totally ruin the moment, and maybe more, to admit that to Alex. Plus... well, hadn't I worked this out to myself already?? 'Being of sound mind and body...' as the saying went, I had decided to pursue things with Alex, and I was *not* the kind of girl to make a decision like that lightly. So... yes, I would trust my own judgement now, while I was *not* of definitely sound mind. "I know, Alex. I know that you've been there for me ever since you've come into my life, and I want to be there for you. I want to always be there for you." Oh, god, I was repeating song lyrics now. Time to shut up, Isabel.
Alex seemed to have come to the same decision. He scooched over from the chair to sit on the long bench beside me, wrapping one arm around my shoulders and brushing a locks of hair out of my face with the other.
'Kiss me,' I mouthed silently to him. I felt like I was always making the first move and kissing Alex. This time, I wanted to be the kiss-ee.
It's funny how the things that end up changing the course of your life happen to you when you're not expecting them. Well, you'll see what I mean.
Mrs. Evans smiled politely and turned away to call up the stairs: "Max! Tess is here to see you." Max appeared quickly enough, smiled when he saw me, and soon enough, the two of us were sitting alone in the Evans family den.
Before I could begin, Max blurted out what had obviously once been a carefully prepared speech. "Tess, I don't think we should jump into anything. Yeah, I know the 'moment' we had at the prom was intense, and I do have feelings for you, but it was really such a long time ago that I fell in love with you, and so much has changed and everything's complicated now. So, to sum up, I think we should take a break before..."
"That's nice to know," I broke in, "but I didn't come here tonight to talk about us. Well, not 'you-and-me' us, at any rate. I..." I didn't have strength to form the words any more, so I just tossed the computer printouts over to Max without a word of explanation.
He picked them up and browsed through each sheet slowly. "Tess, what's all this about??" he asked once he had gone through the full cycle.
"It's an article I printed out off the Web," I explained slowly. "About these 'Quantum' computers they have down at the University of New Mexico in Las Cruces and how they've been using them to break codes and decipher unknown languages."
"Yeah, I got that much," Max clarified with a shake of his head. "What I'm missing is the reason you're showing them to me."
Is Max really that dense or is he just playing dumb?? I let his statement hang in the air for long seconds, trying to figure out which. "I thought it would be obvious," I finally said. "We have a book written in an unknown language, or at least a language that no-one we can trust seems to understand. A book that hopefully holds the answers to a lot of our questions, if we could decipher it."
Max nodded slowly. "Are you proposing that we go up to Las Cruces and ask the computer scientists if they want to translate our alien book?"
I shook my head at him. "No, mister Devil's advocate, of course not! I'm proposing that we find a way to use those computers and translate it ourselves!!"
There it was. Max nodded. "Okay. Well, leaving to one side the practical issues involved in faking our way into a research project at a major state University... there's the question of how to actually use these machines. I mean, I know my way around windows, but I'm pretty sure that a quantum cryptography computer is way over my head. Yours too."
"I know," I conceded. "But I'm not sure it's over the head of some of your friends..."
"So..." Tess Harding said, staring right at me. "Can you do it?"
"Can I do *what*, exactly??" I countered, looking from her to Max and Isabel. "I can follow the code listings that were included with this article." I tapped the magazine that Tess had wished upon me. "But they were obviously chosen and simplified to be read by average... college students. Whether I could actually use these quantum computers... well, there's really no way to know ahead of time. Speaking of which... do you have any ideas as far as actually getting *into* this project?"
"We're working on that," Max said, sharing a glance with Isabel and Tess. "If we figure out a way, will you go in??"
I looked over at Isabel myself. "Are you sure you really *want* to know what this book says about you??" I know it didn't work this way really, but subconsciously I tend to blame the damn 'Book' for the Michael/Isabel stuff last spring and Isabel's pregnancy scare.
She reacted to the question like she'd been burned, for an instant, which surprised me. What was Isabel scared of finding out? But after letting that reaction pass, she nodded seriously. "We *have* to understand where we came from. You can understand that, can't you??"
I looked over at Max, and he nodded in agreement. "Then I'll do everything I can, of course."
"Any idea what it would TAKE to become a part of a research project like that?" Isabel asked in an aside.
"I dunno," I admitted. "Aside from stumbling upon a key formula or equation that they need... and what are the chances of that??"
"Well, you never know," Max said with a soft laugh. "Can you find out more about what they're doing from here in Roswell? Maybe something that they might need??"
I wasn't sure I wanted to know what Max was planning. "I should be able to."
Tess smiled at me. "Thanks again for all of this, Alex."
Then someone came close to our table, and the subject of conversation beat a hasty retreat to the lunch menu.
So... I was sitting in the dining room after school, working on some stupid geography term paper, when the doorbell rang. As I got up to answer the door, I wondered who it could be. Michael was on shift at the Crash right now... and that pretty much finished the list of usual suspects, not that Spaceboy is especially big on ringing doorbells.
I wasn't quite prepared to see Jim Valenti out there when I peeked out of the little window set into the front door. As I opened up said door, he did a double take and put something small and dark back into his jacket pocket.
"Oh... hey Maria! Is yer mom around?"
"No, Mister Valenti," I said, shaking my head for emphasis. "She's down in Hondo all day, meeting with a prospective client. Should I leave her a note on the bulletin board that you dropped by?"
"Yes, thank..." Valenti caught himself in mid-phrase. "Actually, Miss DeLuca, I'd consider myself much obliged if you did no such thing." He must have been able to tell how surprised I was. "You know, keep this just between you and me for now." And with a tip of the hat he wasn't wearing today, he headed off back down our front stairs.
"Okay, that was weird," I muttered as I closed the door and headed back into the living room. My geography stuff was still strewn across the dining room table, but I couldn't focus on that right now. Valenti comes by, not knowing that Mom is out of town, and doesn't want me to tell her he was here. Well, *why* didn't he know she would be gone. This trip wasn't a secret or anything... Mom was excited about maybe getting some more business. So... had he intentionally not said anything about today? That seemed to fit in with the rest of the secret-ey stuff.
Then there was that mysterious thing Valenti had tried to hide when I opened the door. Looked like a tiny black box. And there was a third thing that was bugging me about Valenti's visit. (Or had I counted up to four?)
Then that last clue hit me, and with it the answer to this minor mystery: Valenti had been *flexing one knee* before I opened the door!!
I took off like a shot, geography homework forgotten. I have no memories of locking the front door behind me, though I later found out that I had -- guess that just to show you how things become second nature. Anyway, aside from some blurry imagery of dashing down the streets of Roswell in a mad panic, the next thing I recall is bursting through the kitchen door of the cafe and puffing over to the grill, where Michael had stopped flipping galaxy melts and was staring at me like I was a crazy lady.
Well, by this point I was *way* too worked up to worry about playing into type. After checking to make sure that no one else was around, I burst out with "Mister Valenti is about to ask my mom to marry him!!"
Spaceboy paused and let that news sink in for a moment. "So??" was his first response. "I mean, you like Jim, right?? Heck, *I* like Jim... and considering he was the sheriff up until two months ago and was at one point crusading to expose me as an alien... goes to show you that he's an okay guy."
"Yeah, I know that he's an okay guy!" I replied, trying desperately to keep my voice below shriek level. "But that isn't enough when we're talking about *marriage* here!"
"God, no! They aren't serious enough to be thinking of marriage. I mean... yeah, they've been on and off for a little more than a year, but that's exactly my point! They've never acted like it was anything more than a casual thing. And I think it's a little more than co-incidence that James Valenti junior, career lawman, has lost his job when he suddenly comes to the decision to remarry. It's like he's on the rebound from his career, and everybody knows you should NEVER jump into big commitments on the rebound. Lastly... well, this is a little selfish, but my mom's just getting by, and the way Kyle tells it, the Valenti family is sinking fast." I sighed. "It's horrible to say it, I know, but I don't want to get dragged down with him."
Michael was smiling and shaking his head. "What??" I barked at him.
"Well... I hate to say it, but don't you think you might be over-reacting, just a bit??"
"No!! I mean... well, think how everybody would react if they found out that WE were getting married!! That's really what it would be like."
"But they're not 'getting married' yet," Michael said. Wait a second - since when does Michael get to be the voice of reason?? "You say that you think Valenti is going to ask, but your mom hasn't said yes. She's a pretty together lady, deep down. If there are that many reasons that it's a bad idea, she'll..." And then he trailed off.
"Yeah, she'll *what*, exactly?" I cracked back, and sighed. "Tell him no, puncture his ego and drive him away forever??"
"Well... she might be able to find some way to squelch it short of that," Michael mumbled feebly.
"Plus..." I sighed. "Amy DeLuca might be a 'pretty together lady'... I'd like to think so. But she's starting to creep up on the big four oh... a single mother with a wild and crazy teenage daughter..." make a silly face, "and she's been lonely for a long time, I know. There's a lot of reasons she might jump at Valenti's offer that don't necessarily make it a good idea."
"Oh, damn it, wait a second..." Michael flipped over a burger and looked at it critically. "Orders up!!" He slapped two patties that had a little too much black on them by *my* standards into buns and took it over to the dining room window. "Agnes, orders up!!" He shook his head, took an order slip from the window, and started putting some unsuspecting Crashdown customer's food on to cook. "What makes you think that a popping of the question is imminent anyway?"
I opened his mouth to explain, then stopped short. "You'd better not make fun of me for this, Guerin."
"I make no guarantees."
"He was flexing his right knee before I opened the door, he put what looked like a jewellery box in his jacket when he saw it was me, and he didn't want me to tell my mom that he had stopped by." I could see a broad smile fighting to get to Michael's face. "Fine, don't believe me. In fact, I'll bet you... that we find out he WAS going to ask my mom to marry him if she was at the house today."
"I didn't say I didn't believe you!!" Michael quickly disclaimed.
"Then why were you almost laughing??"
He stepped in close to me and leaned down to kiss me on the forehead. "Because you're so cute when you play the little detective, DeLuca."
Nothing had prepared me for that. "Oh."
"So... maybe you should give Kyle a heads-up on your little theory," Michael went on. "See if he can find any corroborating evidence. Plus, if you're right... I'm sure he's gonna need all the advance warning he can get about becoming your step-brother."
I laughed a little at the notion. "Maybe later." I hopped up onto an empty table. "For now, I think I like it right here. So, did you hear about Alex and Isabel??"
"Oh, my god. She couldn't shut up about it today at school..."
After carefully loading up a tray with items that seemed not too likely to upset the palate, I looked for a place to sit in the crowded West Roswell cafeteria.
Oh, there was Maria! And Kyle, and Tess, and quite a few empty seats near them. I headed over to the nearest, which happened to be next to Tess. "Hey, guys, what's up?"
Maria got up quickly, shot me a cross look, and stalked off. "Ouch," I whispered. Since the fallout from prom, I've gotten the impression that Maria is intentionally boycotting Tess and I, as people in the same vicinity. If I'm walking to class with Tess and say hello to Maria, she ignores me, and pretends that nothing's wrong later. Yesterday Maria and I were hanging out in the quad, talking about new CDs we were excited to listen to, when Tess came up, waved hi, and sat down on the other end of Maria's bench without interrupting us. A sentence later, Maria says she has to go and walks away. This was the first time I'd seen her with Tess since the whole thing started, but otherwise it fit the pattern perfectly.
I was losing patience with the routine. I understand that Maria is Liz's best friend, but if she has a problem with Tess and me she should say something, not play elaborate games of cold shoulder. I mean, I don't know whether anything is happening between Tess and I, or if it will, or if I want it to. But I'm pretty sure it's between me and Tess, not anybody else's business. Not even Liz's, by this point.
"You'll have to excuse Maria, she's a little upset right now," Kyle mumbled through his sloppy Joe, startling me out of my thoughts.
"Yeah, I know," I agreed, starting in on my own lunch.
"Really?" Tess piped up, flashing me a brief and friendly smile. "Who told you about it?"
"Well, I guess no-one really told me," I said, surprised at the question. "It wasn't very difficult to guess what was bugging her."
Kyle gave me a doubtful look, and then jumped a little in realization. "Max, we're talking about my Dad maybe asking Maria's mom to marry him. Is that what you're talking about?"
I blinked in surprise. "Well, no." I guess I had jumped to conclusions, maybe the me-Tess thing wasn't the *only* reason why Maria ran off so fast. "Umm... excuse me for asking, but just why is this upsetting news? I mean, Jim and Amy make a great couple. I'm..." I trailed off uncertainly.
"Yeah, she's a good influence on my Dad," Kyle allowed. "But Maria's pointed out a lot of problems with the situation that probably escaped the notice of our dearly dating parental units. There's the financial situation, practical issues... and I'm just not that wild about having Maria for my sister."
"I'm not even sure where I'd fit into this happy little family," Tess pointed out.
"Where would we all live?" Kyle ranted. "Both the DeLuca's house and ours are tiny little two-bedrooms, no way a total of five people could move into either of them. And the real estate market in Roswell sucks for any kind of trade-up."
"Hey, I've got an idea," Tess said, grinning at Kyle. "Amy can move into Jim's room, you can take your own back, and Maria and I can live together in the DeLuca house. It'd be like a sorority of two."
"They would *never* let either of you get away with that," Kyle chuckled.
"Hey," I said, struck by a sudden thought. "What happened to the house Ed Harding bought in Roswell last year? I guess I kinda forgot about it."
Tess blinked in surprise, and told me that the house actually hadn't been foreclosed on yet, mostly because there was still money in Ed's accounts that she had used to make the payments. I suggested that someone should mention that to Jim Valenti if the engagement actually did happen, just to see what he thought.
"Yeah," Tess agreed softly. "Well, that's enough family finance for me. Who has another topic for conversation?"
"I still say it could work," I insisted fiercely as we walked through the alley gate into Valenti's back yard.
"C'mon Tess," Max sighed. "Just think about it. How many people you'd have to mind warp to convince everybody that counted that Alex was some... some computing teenage genius visiting from another university. You know that I have nothing but the highest respect for your talents, but large numbers and forced repetition on different individuals over a short time period are your biggest weaknesses. You told me so yourself."
I had to admit that Max was right, which was so annoying because my plan would have been *SO* cool, if it could have worked. "Okay then, what's your angle?" We were inside now, and I looked around to see if anyone else was about, even though the chances of anyone being here in the Valenti house who wasn't in on the secret were slim to none.
But as it happened, there was no one around at all. Except for Max and me. I always liked the sound of that. Nevertheless, and Max chewed over his answer I started leading the way up to my room, both in case Jim brought Amy home and, well, for the sake of the atmosphere.
"I dunno, I just think that we need to bring these people something real," Max decided. "Something that they need. Then we can lie through our teeth about how we got it if we need to... quite frankly I'm not sure if they'd even care."
"So what, we find some poor guy - or girl for that matter - who invented a gizmo that the university geeks need, and scam her or him out of it? Without even letting that person know that they were being scammed? Or maybe we can just whip um an electromagnetic processing booster with our alien powers."
"It doesn't have to be a tangible 'thing', like hardware," Max corrected. "Maybe just an idea." He sighed. "I know, it isn't much of a plan, yet, but I'm all planned out." He dropped down into the small armchair I'd bought last month, while I crossed my legs lotus-style on the bed.
"Well, I've got a new topic," I said, taking a deep breath to nerve myself up. "A few days ago... the night I came to you with all this Quantum project stuff, in fact, you told me that we were riding off of high emotions from the dance, and that we should take a break, or something like that. When do we get off of break?" I tried to smile innocently at him.
Just as I had been afraid of, Max's face twisted into an awkward attempt at a smile. "Ehh..." was the only sound that came out of him.
"That's not really something that a girl wants to hear," I teased him.
Max smiled again, this time more naturally. "Okay, Tess, here's the thing. You know that I like you. All other things being equal, I think I'd probably say sure, let's jump in and give it a try. See if we *really* have true love waiting for us or not."
I took a second to digest this. "'All other things being equal.' Why do I get the feeling that that's just a euphemism for 'if there wasn't something else'?"
"Because you know me well by now," Max agreed, shaking his head. "Well, let's forget the euphemism. There IS someone else. Tess, I've already found true love, and I'm not ready to give up on it yet."
"Even though for most of a year, Liz Parker has done nothing but run away from you or push you away?"
"Even though," he confirmed. "I think love can be a scary thing as well as a beautiful one, and movies have taught us that the big love tends to bring big obstacles with it." Max laughed very softly. "To be honest, I don't know exactly what Liz is scared of - I haven't been able to get her to tell me. And that's beside the point. I'm not ready to walk away from what we had. And that means I'm not ready to start anything with you, despite what we did at Prom. That was probably already crossing the line, especially considering who caught us kissing."
Now this was news to me. I didn't know that anyone had walked in on Max and me, which meant that whoever it was had left without making a scene. Not Maria, then. Liz herself? I couldn't be sure, and didn't want to ask Max.
"Can you accept where I'm coming from, Tess?" Max asked softly, probably misunderstanding what I was thinking about.
"Yeah, yeah I can," I assured him quietly. "I'd be lying if I told you it was what I wanted to hear, but I can understand. I hope you don't take offence to the comparison, but it sounds like how I feel whenever someone implies that I should give up on what I feel for you." I forced a deep breath, as if making sure that my system didn't rebel against me and wither away despite what I was about to say. "So go ahead and take all the time that you need, Max. If you..." Breathe, damn it... BREATHE!! "If you and Liz get everything sorted out, I'll... try to find some way to be happy for the two of you. If not... well, this may be beyond obvious, but I'll be waiting."
Max smiled a little sadly. He could see how much this was tearing me up inside, and I think that hurt him too, but he was damned and determined to follow through on what he had told me. Somehow, I actually think I admired that, crazy as that sounds. "Thanks, Tess. Your... blessing... means a lot to me, for this." He stood up and looked around nervously. "I should probably go now."
"Yeah. Th-thanks for stopping by." Try as I might, I couldn't keep the quiver out of my voice. The sarcasm was mostly purposeful.
"Are you sure?" Max asked. "You're going to be okay??"
My heart, as torture-tested as it was from this whole conversation, melted a little at the simple concern in his voice, and for a second I wanted to tell him anything just so he would stay and be nice to me. Play hard on the vulnerability card, maybe, and see if I could use that to maybe even change his mind. The 'better judgement' category vetoed that plan, though. I treasured the respect I've earned from Max this spring too much to risk it all on a foolish caper like that. Better to get him out of here before my willpower cracks, though. "Yeah, go on with yah," I called, waving him out of the bedroom and trying my best to force a smile.
He left, without another word, and I collapsed back onto the bed, trying not to break down in tears. Somehow... the whole damned scene... I meant what I had said, but I felt -- I don't know. I wanted to go find Kyle and kiss him like he's never been kissed before. 'Trim his lamp' maybe, even. But there were two problems with that. One... Kyle thinks of me as a little sister now, apparently, and two, whatever my chances with Max are, they'd go down two notches if he found out that I was hitting on other guys so soon after we had this talk.
I don't know, I guess I just wanted to feel... desirable. Flirting with Kyle always used to be good for that, especially when Max got that moony look in his eye, talking about Elizabeth Sara Parker... well, that was out. And I really didn't *want* to go trolling for guys just so I could feel hot, if it came to that. I just... wanted this to hurt less.
I rolled over and started fantasizing about other worlds, and other lifetimes.
I had been talking to Alex, about this Quantum computer business, (not that I could help him out with that much,) and then wandering, a little aimlessly, ever since I left his place. I didn't want to go home yet, but where else to? Not Max's house, for obvious reasons.
So I found myself walking past the DeLuca house, and muttered to myself "Why not?" Maria had probably gone over to Michael's apartment after her shift ended, but Sean might be around.
Sean DeLuca. I still wasn't quite sure how I felt about him. Was he a rebound guy or something more? Well, in any event, given that Max and Tess were busy making plans to translate their little book, I felt like tonight was a fine moment to do a little rebounding.
Mrs DeLuca showed me in - thought that I was calling for Maria at first, and then sent me out in the garage, because Sean was working on something with his car. Sean was happy to see me, face all smeared with brown and black stuff, and we flirted a little and talked about car trouble, and about plans for the future, in general terms. He even mocked me with an imitation of that time last week, before the prom, when I flipped out on him and said my life was falling apart - after I saw Tess in Max's room, sitting with him on his bed, and hugging him. He actually got me giggling at myself.
After we'd talked for a bit, he said that he wasn't going to get any more done with the car that night, so we went back to the house, and he immediately started washing up, which made me feel a bit awkward. He asked me to fetch a clean t-shirt out of his bag in the living room, which I was happy to leave for, but when I got back, who should I find but Max! Awkwardness squared, at least.
"Max!!!" I almost launched the shirt towards the ceiling in my surprise. "What are you... why... how..."
"I've been looking for you," Max Evans said softly in that understated yet intense way he talked sometimes. My heart swelled with some kind of emotion that I couldn't put my finger on at the time. **Dammit, heart, now is not the time.** As if to underscore that fact, Max glanced significantly in the direction of shirtless Sean, not asking for an explanation, just noticing.
Belatedly I tossed the blue shirt the short distance into Sean's waiting arms. "Thanks," he said while scrambling into it. "Feels good to be at least halfway clean after all that grease and grime."
"Mrs. Deluca let me in," Max commented in the awkward silence. "Said if I was looking for Liz, I should try looking for her in the garage with Sean."
"Don't talk about me like I'm not here," I blurted out, then realized it was an iffy case since that had been a direct quote. Oh, well. "Sean was fixing his car when I came, but then he called a break to come in here and get cleaned up."
"Umm... okay," Max said after a moment, and then turned to me. "Liz, I need to discuss something important with you. Alone."
I looked at Sean, and he was shooting me a concerned look, like 'If you don't wanna waste your time with this guy, just say the word and I'll show him da door.' I almost laughed out loud.
"Okay," I started, hoping it was a clear enough agreement to call Sean off. "Well, should we... I dunno, step into the back yard or something??"
Right then, the doorbell rang faintly, (hmm, why hadn't we heard it from here when Max came to the door? Oh, yeah, the running water would probably have downed it out. Or draining water, yeah, that fit the timing better.) Amy Deluca's voice called from up the stairs "Hey, could one of you kids get that? I'll be down in a minute."
"I've got it," Sean said, pushing politely between Max and I. (Boy, how's that for symbolism?) "At least I'm temporarily part of this household."
Max shot me a look and nodded his head both towards the back and front of the house. I shrugged and pointed in the direction of the front door. No sense in going off to have our talk in private if whoever had come to the front door was looking for one of us. Given the pattern of visitors to the Deluca house so far tonight, that seemed more than likely.
By the time we got to the front hall, Sean had already opened the door, revealing Jim Valenti on the other side. "Well, hello Sean. Is your Aunt in?"
"Yeah, Mister Valenti. Said she'd be down in a minute. Won't you come in?" Sean backed away from the door, and I could see that he was smiling broadly. Max seemed to be trying to hide a goofy grin. What was going on here?
"Thank you." Jim stepped inside, closing the door, and noticed Max and I standing there. "Mister Evans, Miss Parker?" His polite nod seemed forced.
It was at this point that Mrs. Deluca appeared at the top of the long open staircase in the front hall, still wearing the casual clothes that I had seen her in earlier - a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Her face practically shone when she caught sight of her most recent visitor. "Jim!! What are you doing here?"
"I have something to ask you," Valenti replied, still shifting nervously. "C'mon down here before my nerves give out."
A puzzled but intrigued look on her face, Mrs. Deluca hurried down the stairs. "Should we make ourselves scarce?" Sean whispered over in a voice that only Max and I could even notice.
"Only if one of them asks," Max murmured back. "I'd rather not miss this moment if I don't have to." It was definite - both of them knew something about what was going on that I didn't.
"Amy," Valenti started as she stepped down the last stair, taking one of her hands lightly in his. "I think you know that I... how much you mean to me, Amy, and it's something that I've had trouble saying for a lot of years now. But I've had a lot of time to rethink my life and my priorities, and I've come to the decision that I always did best when I let my actions speak for me."
There was a slight pause, and I think Amy and I might have realized what was going on at the same moment. "I know that I don't have much to offer you any more, except for everything that I feel about you, but I know that we could make it work with half of that." All of a sudden, James Valenti the second was down on one knee, an opened jewel box in his hand. "I know that we've both been down the road of marriage before, and had our hearts broken for our trouble, but when you love someone as much as I love you, you don't let something lie that stop you. Will you marry me, Amy??"
She was stunned speechless for a few seconds, and then a resolved look crossed her face. "Yes. Oh, yes, Jim. I would be DELIGHTED... and *honoured*... to become your wife." Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and Valenti stood back up and kissed her sweetly on the lips. Once the tender clinch was done, with one arm still wrapped around Valenti, Amy stretched out her left hand towards the jewel box, third finger widely separated from its neighbors. Jim did the honours.
"It's gorgeous, Jim," she said, examining the token of his love. "Where on earth did you get it? I mean..." She trailed off - we all knew what she meant. The Valenti extended family had just been getting by ever since he had been fired by the city council.
"It was the ring that Grandpa-ray gave my Nona," he whispered back, or at least I think that was it. "I tracked down my Aunt Bethany and she agreed that you should have it, since you're going to become part of our family."
It was at that point that Max stepped up towards the happy couple, right hand stretched out. "Congratulations. Mrs Deluca." Amy extricated herself from her new fiancée just enough to accept Max's congratulatory handshake. "Mister Valenti. I wish you all the happiness in the world. No-one deserves it more than you guys." After the handshake with Valenti ended, Max paused and then said casually, "Have you thought at all about where you're going to live after you're married?"
Amy was able to put together a nice little spur-of-the-moment engagement party. Grape soda, little powdered donuts, and cashews were the refreshments. Amy called over to Michael's apartment to tell Maria to come home, and Michael came over too, to congratulate the happy couple, and Jim invited Kyle and Tess over as well.
When the party was over, Amy had realized how late it was and was insisting that everyone who didn't live in her house get driven straight home. But Max made this impassioned plea about how he had come over there in the first place to find me and talk to me about something extremely important. Finally Mrs. Deluca relented, though she said that she's driving us home as soon as we're done and she's not letting us off her property in the meantime. So that's why I'm sitting on a wooden bench in the DeLuca backyard. Amy is probably calling my parents and Max's right now 'so they don't worry.' Valenti took drive-home duty for Michael and his own crew.
I sat down on the wooden bench with a bit of a thump. "Okay, Max, what's this thing that it's so important we talk about?" He stayed silent at me for a second, staring at me so intently with those deep, gorgeous brown eyes...
"I'm not quite sure where to start."
"At the beginning is traditional," I pointed out. "Some might say it's become cliche, but I don't hold with that." I was getting a little giddy and struggled to control it, since Max had obviously gone to a lot of effort to set up a venue for a serious conversation.
"I don't think I need to tell you about the beginning, do I?" Max said, smiling slightly. "You were there, after all."
Oh. So it was going to be another one of THESE conversations. God, I don't think I have the energy to figure out a new way of turning Max down. "Max..."
He must have been able to read the tone in my voice. "Don't... just don't, okay? At least let me babble on until I think I've said most of what I need to say." He took a deep breath and spun around with his hands in his pockets before locking his eyes onto my face again. "I can't let you go, Liz."
"That doesn't'..." I started, but Max cut me off.
"It has to," Max insisted. "It *has* to change things. Doesn't it? I... I have to get us back, the way that we used to be. How do I do that??"
"Maybe you can't," I answered with a sigh.
"I've called things off with Tess..."
"Oh god, Max, no..."
"What do you want from me??" he exploded. "I mean... you can't stand Tess... that's clear. And yet you keep pushing me towards her. Which means that you're pushing me out of your life too, because it's clear that nothing could ever be the same between us if I really did get together with Tess, not that that's..."
I groaned and looked up into his eyes. "Max... you *belong* with Tess, not with me. It tears me up inside, but I know that that's what's right."
"WHO ARE YOU..." Max's eyes were staring right through me, "TO MAKE THAT DECISION???"
That stopped me for a second, I mean, obviously I had no right myself to force one interpretation of Max's destiny on him. And even Future Max's decision... well, how long did I have to hold onto that? It had been six months since he had come, and gone. Six months since the timeline had changed.
No... I still had to stay the course. Unless I could be almost certain that something meaningful had changed. I looked up and realized that Max was staying silent too, an awkward pause surrounding the both of us.
"Max, I'm sorry, I don't have any right to decide your life for you, but..."
He cut me off. "I've told Tess that I can't go any further with her... not until you and I settle things, and when I say 'settle', I don't mean you arguing me out of this. At least give us one more chance, Liz." He reached out a hand to me.
Something odd struck me about that. "You told Tess... how did she take it??"
Max made a face. "Well, she wasn't particularly happy, as you might guess, but she accepted it. She said if we worked everything out, she'd try her best to be happy for us."
Somehow, that got to me, as nothing else Max had said got to me. I hated that, but there it was. If Tess had really come to terms with the concept of us... did that mean that Max and I could get back together without driving her away from the group? Was this the 'something changed' that I had been looking for??
Max groaned again. "WHY does Tess' opinion mean more to our relationship than mine does??" he complained, obviously seeing a tiny bit of what I was feeling in my face.
"It's not that," I sighed. "For one thing, your opinion has never been that much in doubt. But Tess... well, she's your wife, or she was. If we are going through with this, it will have to be with her understanding and acceptance. That's the least respect I can pay to your marriage vows, even in a weird situation like this."
"Don't lie to me," Max whispered. "You were never very good at it."
"Okay, then I won't!!" I flared. "But then don't ask me for the truth, because that is something that I can't tell you. As far as what you wanted to talk to me about, you and me... I'll think about it, okay? That's as much as I can promise at this point; it's been a long day and a long night. I may want to talk to Tess about it too."
"Okay," Max said, nodding slowly. "Be discreet with her about it though, okay?? I hurt her pride some tonight, I think, and forcing her to repeat some big declaration of surrender to you could be even worse."
"Well, duh," I sighed, though that was a mental image I'd have to revisit later as a fantasy. I stood up.
"Can I ask you one last thing before we go inside and Amy drives us home??" Max asked.
I tried to hide a smile, guessing what was coming. "Ask."
A part of me was telling me I shouldn't, yet, but I couldn't refuse Max that... or myself, to tell the truth. I stepped into his arms and his lips came down to meet mine, softly and sweetly.
FLASH. It was... it was myself, with short hair and wearing some kind of leather outfit, watching Max who seemed to be inside a giant inverted cone... that was future max! Was I... watching Future max go back in time using the granilith? Watching future myself watch him go??
The kiss broke. I couldn't help but ask... if Max had happened to see the same thing I had, he would have questions. "Did you... did you get a flash??"
"I was seeing you and Kyle, all over again." Max's voice was hurt. "Why should I still be seeing that?" He took a deep breath. "You??"
"Umm..." Quick, think of something. "You in the white room."
Max sighed again. "Okay, let's go."
TO BE CONTINUED...