The Breakdown

By: Haley J. The Bat

Rated: R

Kyle/Isabel, Kyle/Tess, Isabel/Alex, Michael/Maria, Max/Liz

Post-Departure. Everyone left behind has to deal with the grief in their own way. Their emotions are coming down around them, and they all need release.

Author's Notes: This fic has Kyle/Isabel in it, and seems to be the focus of the story. But at its heart, this story is all CC. Kyle and Isabel just need someone to lean on, and everyone else seemed to be occupied.

"Where are you going?" Max asked lazily from the spot on the couch he'd been spending a lot of time on lately. "You're always leaving lately."

Isabel turned around in the doorway and looked at her brother. The question seemed casual enough, but she knew him better. Inside his eyes was a flicker of hurt - more hurt than was there usually, that is. She walked to the couch and gave him a hug. Without a word, she turned around and left in a matter of seconds.

She jumped into the crappy car their parents had bought when the jeep hadn't turned up from being "stolen." The radio was playing an upbeat song about love, but Isabel switched it to a metal station. This music defined her feelings at that moment much better.

Max hadn't done much over the summer but sit at home and go places with Liz. Personally, Isabel didn't see why the girl had given into Max again so easily. If Alex had . . .

Isabel's hands shook on the wheel, and tears sprang to her eyes. No. She would never, ever compare Alex to Max. A memory of Alex's best nerdy grin surfaced, and she choked out a sob. The best thing about Alex's grin was that it was so . . . real. It was uninhibited, one hundred percent Alex, all set out for the world to see. If anyone wore their heart on their sleeve, it was Alex.

The car screeched to a halt in front of the Valenti household, and she honked the horn three long times. Then she rested her head against the seat and closed her eyes. The pain of remembering Alex was becoming too intense. She needed to see Kyle.

The passenger door opened, and she turned her head to see Kyle plopping down, a dark look on his face. "Where to?"

"Anywhere but here," Isabel muttered as she pulled the car out of park. "Anywhere without memories."

Kyle nodded, but didn't comment. "Taking music advice from Michael?"

Isabel simply turned the volume up. "It beats thinking."

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess it does," Kyle murmured, raking a hand through his hair. His forehead was wrinkled in worry. But it always was ever since Tess.

Isabel jerked the car forward suddenly when she thought of Tess. Thinking of the blonde always made her angry, then sad, then devastated. She wasn't keen on being any of those things anytime soon; she just wanted to be the way she was before Tess ruined her life.

Kyle turned to the window and didn't face her again until she stopped the car. They were in the middle of the desert, but on the other side of Roswell than the Granilith. She pulled the keys out and put them in her purse. Then they both sat there in silence for several long minutes.

"Max asked me where I've been going lately," Isabel said softly, wanting to bring some conversation into this meeting.

"Did you tell him to go fuck himself?"

Isabel managed a small smile. "Not quite."

"Well, you should have. If I was talking to him, I would have definitely said that."

"I believe you would. He did screw-"

"Shut up, Isabel." Kyle whirled towards her. "I don't want to talk about Max. I hate him just as much as I . . ." He trailed off, unable to finish.

"He's my brother," Isabel whispered. "No matter how desperate and demented he gets, he's still my brother. I love him, even when I don't want to."

Kyle clenched his jaw as if he wanted to comment, but he managed to hold himself off. "We're alone in this, Isabel. No one else can understand. Liz and Max could never see beyond themselves and their own problems unless it was directly affecting them. I rarely see Maria and Michael anymore. They're always at Michael's place getting it on or whatever freaky shit their up to."

"Freaky shit?" Isabel arched an eyebrow. "Is that your term for it?"

"All I'm trying to say is that not one of them cares about what we lost, and I'm pissed at each of them." Kyle looked straight ahead, out the window and into the horizon.

"You seem to be angry a lot lately, Kyle." Isabel scrutinized him. Since when was Isabel the Ice Queen so pensive? She was witty, charming, gorgeous . . . but never pensive.

"Look, do you want to do this or not?"

Alex came to mind again, springing tears to Isabel's eyes. She nodded and let out a tiny sob. "Yes. Please."

Kyle quickly put his arm around her and brought her face up to his in a kiss. Isabel closed her eyes and probed his mouth with her tongue. She sought comfort, and Kyle was the only one who could provide it for her.

The kisses weren't sweet. They weren't innocent and budding with love like Alex's used to be. They were just kisses, and lacking in everything Isabel wanted. But when she was kissing Kyle, her body was distracted. She could sometimes convince her mind to become distracted, too, and then she forgot about Alex and Tess and her whole shitty life for just a few moments. A few moments were all she craved right now.

Her hands went for his pants, and she undid the button and zipper with familiar fingers. They didn't waste time with foreplay. It was just two desperate people fucking. Isabel had never liked to use that word associated with sex before, but there wasn't another for what she did with Kyle. It wasn't anything emotional. She'd never felt anything more than annoyed friendship with Kyle, and she never would.

Kyle's hand reached up to cup her breast, and he kneaded it gently. Isabel arched her back and pulled away from his lips to rest her head against the back of her seat. Her skin was coming alive, and her brain was becoming foggy. She smiled dreamily.

Isabel undid her jeans as well, and she pushed them down her legs unceremoniously. Kyle's hand on her chest pushed her down, and he stayed on top of her as she rested across the seats. "Feels good," Isabel whispered her encouragement.

"I'll say." Kyle flashed her a strained smile that was supposed to be joking. He kissed her again, his lips moving desperately against hers. Isabel felt tears spring to her eyes, but it was okay. This wouldn't be the first time she cried while they were doing this.

After another few minutes of making out, Isabel felt Kyle enter her. He thrust in and out of her immediately, and she wrapped her legs around his waist. They pulled away from the kissing then so that each could concentrate on forgetting. Isabel turned her head to the side, away from him, and felt the tears spill over as Kyle brought her closer and closer to the edge.

Kyle didn't bother trying to comfort her. The first few times he'd tried to say things, tried to make sure she was all right. He realized after awhile that Isabel was just venting. A mixture of the sex and the tears made her grief muted for just a little while.

Isabel thrust her hips against his and gasped, arching her back against him. She was close . . . so close to oblivion. Kyle sensed this, and he brought a hand down to rub her clit roughly. Then the tightness ceased, everything ceased, and Isabel was thrown into pleasure for a glorious moment. She distantly felt and heard Kyle's release, and then he collapsed on top of her.

When her orgasm was over, she cried long and hard, burying her face in Kyle's shoulder. She felt him start to sob, too, and the second stage of their comfort started.

After awhile, Kyle pulled himself up and looked down at her. Their tears had dried, and it was time to go back to reality. They both moved to their seats and pulled their discarded clothes back on. Then Isabel turned the keys in the ignition and pulled the car around to head back to Roswell.

* * * * *

Neither spoke on the ride home. Kyle stared out the window again and wondered for the thousandth time if this was wrong. He still loved Tess; Isabel still loved Alex. Was this the right way to deal with the pain?

Kyle shook his head and looked at Isabel. Her eyes were red rimmed as she stared straight ahead. That and her tightened fingers on the wheel were the only indication the she wasn't her usual well-put-together self.

They stopped at Kyle's house. "I need to reapply my makeup," Isabel said tensely. "Then do you want to go to the Crashdown for lunch?"

Kyle stared at her long and hard. He slowly nodded. "Yeah. Lunch would be nice."

They walked inside together, and Kyle spotted his dad on the couch with a distant stare in his eyes. "Hey, Dad," Kyle said softly. He sat down next to him while Isabel went to use their bathroom.

"Kyle," Jim greeted as if coming out of a dream. He coughed. "Uh . . . what's up?"

Kyle wanted to roll his eyes at his dad's use of teenage slang, but he didn't. Jim looked so out of it that he couldn't bear to. "Nothing. I'm going to the Crashdown in a few minutes. Want me to bring you a DeLuca pie home?"

Jim shook his head. "No . . . no. We should eat healthier. Tess said-" He stopped short, coughed again, and stood up. "I'd better go, um . . . yeah . . ."

Kyle watched his dad go. He collapsed against the couch and threw a hand over his eyes. For some reason seeing Jim's pain made his even sharper. He wanted to ask Tess why she did it . . . but Max had shoved them all out of the Granilith before he could do more than yell. Yelling had felt good at the moment . . . but Kyle regretted it all now. He just wanted to see her, talk to her, forgive her . . .

"Kyle? Kyle!"

Kyle snapped his eyes open to see Isabel standing in front of him. Her face was so impeccable you wouldn't have guessed she'd been crying her eyes out a little while ago. Kyle stood up abruptly and gripped her neck, pulling her close and ravaging her mouth.

Isabel struggled slightly at first, but then she succumbed to him. Kyle shut his eyes tightly and imagined it was Tess. Then he pushed Isabel away abruptly, disgusted with himself. He wiped his hand across his mouth and started for the door, expecting her to follow.

In the car, Isabel put it in drive and didn't speak. They never asked questions anymore. They were using each other for a common need, nothing more.

At the Crashdown, Isabel leaped out of the car and opened the door for him as he followed. Inside, they mutually sat down at a booth and waited for Maria or Liz to wait on them.

"I haven't cleaned my room," Kyle said softly.

"Hmm?" Isabel looked confused.

"Tess used my room, and all her things are in it. I-I can't . . . I can't go in there anymore." Kyle studied the menu in front of him, unable to meet her eyes. He'd never talked about Tess much before. Now that he felt he could, he didn't want to talk to anyone but Isabel. Only Isabel knew the pain of losing someone you loved.

"Hey, guys!" Maria came to the edge of the table and smiled. There were bags under her eyes, and she looked exhausted. "What do you guys want to drink?"

"Cherry Coke," Isabel said.

"Coffee," Kyle said quietly. He wanted something bitter, almost as a self-punishment for thinking about Tess when he should be able to forget her.

Maria arched an eyebrow. "Okay," she said slowly and went to the counter to pour their drinks.

"Do you want me to go with you?" Isabel asked abruptly. "Into Tess' room . . . I could help you clean it out."

Isabel hated Tess. "No . . . I'll be okay," Kyle assured her. He was lying; he had a feeling that things would never be okay again.

"Here you go," Maria said as she set their drinks down. She also put a pot of milk in front of Kyle. He picked up his mug and took a sip of it black, not even wincing. "Wow. You have definitely got some skills, Kyle. Are you hungry?"

"Maria, you look like crap," Isabel stated, always the blunt one.

Maria's eyes widened as she stared at Isabel. "W-What? Um . . . that's a really nice way to greet someone with self-esteem issues."

"I mean it," Isabel pressed. "You look like you haven't slept in weeks, and I know you haven't. I'm not saying to give Michael up completely, but . . . you need to spend a few days just sleeping and relaxing."

Maria's cheeks were tinged a little red. "I'll-I'll keep that in mind. Thanks for the advice."

"I want a slice of your mom's pie. I don't care what kind," Kyle interrupted. He pushed his menu aside and drank some more of the coffee.

"The same," Isabel said, smiling at Maria in a way that meant "go away now before I bust your ass."

"I'll be back in just a few." Maria wrote on her little pad and went merrily on her way.

"I mean it, Kyle."


"I want to help you clean out Tess' room. You're never going to move on with all her things so close by everyday."

Kyle shook his head again, smiling ironically. "Getting rid of her clothes isn't going to help, Iz. You should know that."

Isabel's eyes went downcast, and she played with the edge of the table. "I know. Sometimes I wonder how people do this. How do I go on? I-I know I could never love someone else."

Kyle reached across the table and took Isabel's hand, squeezing it. "I couldn't either. I guess we're stuck living our lives in unrequited love with a good friend to . . ." He trailed off, not wanting to bring up what he and Isabel did. They didn't speak of it - not when they were in reality. He didn't want to lose the one comfort he had.

"Here are your pies." Maria appeared at the table again with a slight tick in her voice. She was glaring down at their hands, and Isabel snatched hers away. Kyle did so more slowly, wanting to show Maria that he wasn't ashamed.

"We had chocolate pie today. It's really good." She set the pies down with a clatter, spilling a little of the chocolate filling on Kyle arm. "See ya."

Kyle looked down at his arm, shrugged, and licked it off. He heard Isabel make a sound in front of him, and he looked up. "What?"

Isabel gave him a look, and he got it. "Um . . . bathroom?"

They both jumped up from the table and made their way to the bathroom as casually as possible. Kyle walked into the girl's bathroom with Isabel. She insisted that no girl with any class would ever use this bathroom, so they would be free of interruptions. This wasn't the first time they'd used the Crashdown bathroom.

Kyle pressed her up against the wall and kissed her hard, wanting to empty the loss of Tess, wanting to empty the thought of all her clothes and things in his room.

* * * * *

Maria stomped up to Michael and pushed him.

Michael whirled around. "What the hell, Maria?"

Maria put her hands on her hips and glared. "Do something about Kyle and Isabel. Talk to Isabel. I don't care what you do! Just do something."

"What?" Michael scratched his head. "Why?"

"Because," she stressed. "I think there's something going on between them, and if there is, it needs to stop."

"First of all, there's nothing going on between them."

Maria snorted. "I just caught them holding hands."

Michael squinted at her. "Holding hands? What kind of holding hands, because Isabel doesn't do that type of thing."

"Of course you would know," Maria grumbled. "Like, they were holding hands across the table. For everyone to see."

"Hmm . . . are you sure they weren't just, I don't know, comforting each other?" Michael turned back to the grill.

"There's more to it!" Maria insisted. "And you'd better do something!"

"All right! All right!" Michael snapped. "Now go. I'm working."

Maria walked to the doorway. Then she stopped and turned back to Michael. "And I don't want to do anything with you this weekend. I need time to myself." With that, she left a very confused Michael staring after her.

* * * * *

The next day, Michael still didn't know what the hell was going on with Maria. She'd ignored his calls, and when he tried to go to her window, she'd yelled his ear off. There had to be something wrong.

Michael didn't just miss her because of the sex, either. He was used to having Maria around all the time. It was actually starting to unnerve him just how comfortable he'd grown around her.

Despite his insecurities about their relationship, he was going to see Isabel in hopes that it might get him on Maria's good side again. He knocked on the front door of the Evans, feeling awkward at using it instead of Max's window.

Max opened the door, looking surprised. "Michael! Um . . . what are you doing here?"

"I'm here to see Isabel," he muttered, avoiding his friend's eye.

"Oh . . ." Max looked a little disappointed. "Well, she's out again. She probably won't be back for an hour or two. At least, that's how long she stays out normally."

"Where does she go?" Michael pushed his way past Max and into the living room. It looked like Max had been camped out in front of the TV, so he sat down on the couch.

Max sat next to him and shrugged. "I've no idea. I asked her about it, but she just . . . she acted really weird about it. She hugged me and left."

"She hugged you?" Michael ran a hand through his hair. "Man, Isabel showing emotions? What's happening to her?"

"I just don't know." Max shook his head.

Michael stayed quiet for a moment, looking around. Max, sitting around and watching TV? Come to think of it, he hadn't seen him at the Crashdown very much lately. "Um, Max? Are you . . . doing . . . okay?" Michael struggled, but he got the words out. Michael may hate to do this kind of shit, but it was Max. Where was Michael if Max was a total wreck?

Max nodded.

"C'mon, man," Michael continued. "I know you're not. You can talk to me. I mean . . . we're not as close as we used to be, but you're still my best friend."

Max turned to him slowly. His eyes were shining with tears. "Life is shit."

"Is it Liz?"

He laughed bitterly. "No. Not really. Well . . . kinda. It's a whole bunch of stuff. I mean, at the top of my list is the fact that Tess is carrying my child in another universe. That's weighing me down just a tad. Then there's the sudden reality crash that there's no point in any of this. I have to go back to Antaran. I can't . . . I can't leave my son there. This is just fate trying to take me where I belong. And Liz . . . Liz is being so nice. But she's not the same person. Or maybe I changed. We just don't connect like we used to because there's this big Tess-shaped thing between us. Everything just . . . sucks."

Michael nodded along. Then he rested his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes. How was he supposed to do this? Max needed him, and for once Michael was willing to be supportive. But how? "I don't know what to say, Max."

"You don't have to say anything. Just . . . come over more often. I never see you anymore. You're always at the Crashdown or with Maria."

"I'm sorry." Michael said the words meekly because he was saying them when he actually felt them. God, Maria is having a lasting effect on my life. She's definitely gotta go if she's making me act like this. Michael smirked at the thought. Fat chance. "Let's go rent some movies and wait for Izzy to come home. I feel like some Close Encounters and E.T. Think Isabel will be up for one of our old alien-movie marathons?"

* * * * *

Isabel took a drag of her cigarette. "I swear to God I saw Alex today."


"At his grave. He . . . talked to me."

"Iz, that's not good," Kyle said, shaking his head.

"You think I don't know that?" She sucked in some more smoke angrily and blew it in Kyle's face. "But it was . . . it seemed so . . . real. I mean, he had Alex's sense of humor down pat. He was wearing one of those button down shirts." Isabel felt tears spring to her eyes. "I ran when he said hello."

"You've got to quit smoking, Isabel." Kyle reached for the cigarette and threw it out the window. "You'll be addicted before you know it."

"It gives me something to do when I can't get to you." Isabel looked down at her palms. "I've been looking for any way to escape lately. I . . ."

"Me, too," Kyle said softly, seeming to read her mind. "I pulled out a razor blade and was all ready to do it. But . . . then I thought that if I kill myself, I'm letting Tess win. She screwed me over. I won't lie down and let her finish the job."

"I took fourteen painkillers. Then Mom knocked on my door to see if I wanted to watch CSI with them. I feel like shit."

Kyle barked out a laugh. "This is the worst I've ever felt in my life. When Liz left me for Max, I thought that she had plucked my heart out and stomped on it until all I felt was pain. This is . . . this can't even compare."

"I know." Isabel reached for another cigarette and lit it up. "You should try smoking. It's very relaxing."

Kyle took her cigarette, but instead of throwing it out, he took a drag, closing his eyes and blowing it out. Isabel smiled at the look on his face and pulled another one out for herself. "I'm old enough to smoke. No one can stop me."

"Yeah. I'm close enough. And I feel . . . like I'm fifty or something."

"And if smoking kills, then I say bring it on." Isabel cracked another smile and looked at Kyle.

"Iz, are we just gonna keep doing this our whole lives?" Kyle asked with a sigh.

Isabel immediately was on her guard. He shouldn't talk about it! He wasn't supposed to ever talk about it. "What happened to living in the moment?"

Kyle stared at her for a long time. He seemed to be reading her soul when he nodded slowly and murmured, "Yeah. I guess you're right."

Isabel wasn't stupid. He would bring it up again. She threw her cigarette out the window and started up the car. "I'm taking you home."

Kyle just shrugged like he'd expected that.

* * * * *

About half an hour later, Isabel walked into her house with the intention of taking a long, hot bath and going to bed early. That's why she became angry when she ran into Michael and Max in the living room. "Hey," she greeted, coming through the door.

"Isabel!" Max jumped up. "You're here. Michael and I rented movies-"

"Alien marathon," Michael interjected. His eyes were shifting as if he was very nervous about being there.

Isabel rolled her eyes. "Aren't we a little old for that, boys? And I don't want to watch movies." She started to go to her room, but Max put a hand out to stop her. "Max!"

Max sniffed the air. "Izzy . . . you smell like smoke."

Isabel straightened her shoulders. "Whatever. Now excuse me."

"Where do you go?" Max demanded, his jaw clenching. "When you leave all the time, where do you go?"

Isabel jerked her arm out of Max's grasp. "It's none of your fucking business!"

"I'm your brother, Isabel! Don't forget. Your . . . home." He looked down.

Isabel bit her lip. "You sure were being a great brother when you fucked Tess, huh?" She turned and left, but stopped at the doorway to add, "And I'm with Kyle. You don't have to worry."

She went to her room and started gathering the supplies she'd need for a bath. She was just picking up her robe when the door opened. "What do you want, Michael?"

"I don't want to do this," Michael said quickly. "Maria's making me."

"And there you go," Isabel whispered to herself. Everything Michael did these days tied back to Maria. Maria, Maria, Maria. Isabel was sick of her!

"What?" Michael must have decided it wasn't important because he kept talking. "Um . . . you've been spending a lot of time with Kyle lately?"

"What's it to you? He's my friend," Isabel snapped. She was defensive about Kyle. She and Kyle knew what they were doing, but nobody else would understand. "He's your friend, too."

Michael snorted. "I wouldn't go that far. But . . ." He sighed again and shrugged his shoulders. "Is there anything going on between you?"

That was it. Isabel cracked. She dropped everything in her hands, rushed forward and punched Michael in the jaw. "Quit trying to reassert yourself in my life! I don't want you there. And Kyle's and my relationship is none of anyone's business!"

Michael rubbed his jaw, looked her up and down, and nodded. "Okay."

Isabel was shocked at how easy that was, but then she thought better. Michael knew when to back off because he was the same way; he didn't want people nosing around anything to do with him, and he only let a few people get away with it. She shut the door when he left and collapsed against the back of it. As soon as the tears started she got her phone and collapsed on her bed.


"Kyle?" Her voice cracked. "Can you come over?"

"Sure. What's wrong? Are you okay?"

"No . . ." She sniffed. "Come to my window, and I'll let you in."

"Iz . . . that's a little risky."

"I don't care anymore, Kyle! Just come over here!" She slammed the phone down and buried her head in her pillow, tears wetting the surface of it.

* * * * *

Liz was surprised, to say the least, to see Max sitting on her bed when she entered her room. Her shift downstairs had just ended, and she was too exhausted to scream. She held a hand to her heart and gasped for breath. "Jesus, Max. You scared me."

"I'm sorry." Max continued looking at her. "I need to talk to you, Liz."

"Of course." She swallowed and shut her door, then went to sit down next to him. Her hand reached for his, and she squeezed it reassuringly. "You can always come to me, Max." At least . . . he used to be able to. Lately he hadn't said more than a handful of words to her.

"I love you."

"Max . . ." Liz couldn't take another one of these. She wasn't sure if she could just fall into his arms when he said that; she had changed.

"I just wanted to let you know that . . . despite everything, I really do love you. It's always been you, and it always will be." Max ran a thumb over her hand. "I know you didn't believe that, and I gave you good reason-"

"Good reason?" Liz shook her head bitterly. "Liz, you slept with Tess . . . of all people . . . Tess."

"I know." His voice broke. "And you can't imagine how sorry I am. We say that we understand, but we don't. You don't understand that you're my everything."

"How can you say that?" Liz started crying. "I know you want your son back . . . I'm not everything. I'm Liz . . . I used to come first in your life, Max, but a long time ago we both figured out that doing that puts you in danger. I've accepted it, and now you need to."

Max looked away. "I do want my son. I need to find him."

"Then do that." Liz let go of his hand. "I understand, Max. I can't say I'm not hurt, but I understand . . . and I have enough strength to let you go."

"God, Liz! I don't want to let you go. I don't want-" He choked back a sob.

"We both know that this won't work. It's too intense for real life, and . . . maybe someday, Max. We can both strive for a someday."

"It wasn't supposed to happen like this."

Liz took a deep breath. "Well, it did happen. Destiny doesn't exist, Max. Not ours, not Tess'."

"I know." Max looked at her again. "I'm going to have to back to Antaran someday."

Liz lurched forward and hugged him. "And I will love you from this distant planet. You have so much more than this. You owe it to your people. Me . . . I'm just your high school sweetheart."

"Would you go with me? If I asked?" Max's eyes held hers intensely.

Liz started to cry again. She would, but she couldn't say it. She had to stay strong. "We'll find out."

"God." Max buried his face in her neck. She closed her eyes and held him close. She would give him comfort right now because it was what they needed. But soon she would have to start breaking away. Tess had proved to her that there were things a lot more important than love.

* * * * *

Michael rapped gently on Maria's window late that night. He'd talked to Isabel, so Maria should be happy now.

Maria's face appeared at the window. She opened it and reached for him, kissing him soundly. She backed away just as abruptly, and he staggered through the opening.

"So I'm allowed inside now?" Michael teased as he shut the window.

"I love you." Maria reached for him again, and this time the kiss lasted longer.

Michael began to lay kisses along her jaw bone. "What brought this on?" he whispered.

"Liz called me . . . Max visited her." Maria pushed him away. He watched, dumbfounded, as she went to the door to lock it. "I don't want my mother walking in," she explained.

"I saw Max earlier. He's a wreck."

"Liz told me that love isn't enough, but I told her she was wrong. It was love that made you come back, right?"

Michael sat down on her bed and gestured for her to sit next to him. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and hugged her close. "I don't say it, but I love you. You're the most important thing in my life."

"Me, too," Maria whispered. She laughed slightly and swiped at her cheeks. "Why am I crying?"

"Because you're happy." Michael scooted backwards on the bed, and she followed. "Let's not do anything tonight. I just want to be with you."

"Okay," Maria said, nodding as if she understood. "I was pushing you away because I've been so tired lately. We can't keep spending all our free time together because I need sleep."

Michael wanted to laugh, but he stifled it. This was the time to bring up something that had been on the edge of his mind lately. "Move in with me, Maria. I don't want to wait another year to have you with me all the time. We can balance things easier. No more sneaking into your room at three in the morning. You can just stay with me."

Maria laid her head on his chest. "Mmm . . . it sounds wonderful. My mom won't let me."

"You'll be eighteen in a couple months."

"Yes . . ."

"I want to, you want to. What's stopping us?" Michael ran a hand through her hair. God, he loved her hair.

"Okay." Maria laughed slightly. "Okay! Wow." She kissed his chest impulsively and wrapped an arm around his waist, pulling him closer. "We're going to move in together."

He kissed the top of her head. "I talked to Isabel today."

She stiffened. "What happened? Was I right?"

Michael sighed. "I don't know, Maria. Max and I wanted to have a movie marathon with her . . . we used to do that all the time, just a few years ago. But she got angry and yelled. She said some pretty mean shit. I followed her to her room and confronted her, but she . . . she punched me."

Maria chuckled. "She punched you? I know it's not funny, but . . . you got punched by a girl?"

He tickled her side briefly, until he felt he'd gotten his revenge. "There might be something going on there . . . or it could just be that Isabel felt cornered and she acted out. Isabel does that a lot."

"She's got a temper," Maria agreed. "I just hope she's not messing with Kyle."

"What?" Michael wondered. "Why is this so important to you?"

Maria sighed. "I guess . . . It just feels so wrong for her to be with someone else when Alex just died a few months ago. I know it hit her hard. She loved him. I could tell more when he was dead when he was alive though."

"I don't think Isabel is doing anything with Kyle. She's not attracted to him, and . . . Isabel has closed herself off. You might not see it, but I can. She's grieving. She can't be with someone and grieve at the same time."

"I hope you're right, Michael. I don't want her hurting Kyle."

* * * * *

The next morning, Isabel took the car before Max woke up. She especially didn't want anyone asking questions today. Not with where she was going.

She parked the car at the cemetery and stared at the grave a few feet away. The dirt was still fresh. When she was little, she'd had this fear that if you walked near a new grave, the person was still alive and would eat you. Isabel closed her eyes, wishing that she could have such simple fears again.

"You look tired, Iz."

Isabel jumped and let out a yelp. She turned to her side to see Alex.

"Don't leave!" Alex looked desperate. "Please."

Isabel took a deep breath. "This isn't happening. It's just a figment of your imagination."

"Probably. But it feels pretty real to me," Alex said. "I, um . . . I think I'm caught in some kind of limbo. Unfinished business and all that."

"What's your unfinished business?"


Isabel felt tears fall down her cheeks, and she shook her head. "No, no. Not me, Alex. I don't deserve you. I never did."

"But you had me, nevertheless."

"Stop." Isabel shook her head harder. "Please stop. Don't do this to me. I can't . . . handle . . ."

"I'm sorry."

Isabel's car felt empty, and she turned to see that the Alex had disappeared. She gulped and reached for her cell phone. "Kyle? I'm coming over, all right?"

* * * * *

Kyle leaned his forehead against his old bedroom door. He was sitting Indian style on the floor and torturing himself over Tess. Again. He needed to get in the room and clean it up. As soon as he could do that, he could release himself of Tess.

Tess . . . He'd said she was a sister, but he had been so wrong. He just hadn't realized it until he remembered carrying Alex . . . His heart had torn into tiny little pieces, scattered across the galaxy so far apart that he knew he'd never find enough to make a new heart.

"Why?" Kyle whispered, hoping she could hear him when he knew she couldn't. "Why'd you do it? Why'd you do a lot of things . . . starting with your little friendly game of doctor with Max. Yeah, I'd definitely like to start there."

Kyle groaned. "Back to talking to yourself again?" he muttered. He laughed a little, but not because it was funny, because he it felt normal to laugh. He'd do anything to feel normal again.

Kyle reached up and opened the doorknob, pushing the door open before he could talk himself out of it. His heart started racing. He hadn't opened her door in a . . . long time. Months. Probably not since she'd left.

"Okay, you've opened the forbidden door. Now get your ass in there and look at her stuff. Put it in bags, and get rid of it. Burn it! Yes, burning is a good idea." Kyle's words were strong, but his voice quivered. "Shit, I can't do this."

Kyle stood up, grabbed the doorknob, and shut the door. He went into the living room and picked up the phone. Isabel had called him a lot lately. It was okay for Kyle to call her again. Even if they had met just earlier that day.

Kyle picked up the phone, ready to dial. He couldn't. Things with Isabel had been feeling very wrong lately. Their sex had become desperate, quick, and much more frequent. Either things were getting worse, or they were about to come to a breakdown.

Kyle hoped it was the latter, because he didn't think things could get much worse than this.

* * * * *

Isabel didn't go back to the cemetery for a week, but every night she dreamed of Alex. And during the day she wondered if he was real. After deciding that he was indeed her imagination, she got in the car to visit his grave again. She would prove to herself that she was stronger than this. Living with the guilt hurt her more than words, having his "ghost" hanging around didn't help.

She stopped the car and got out, ignoring her shaky legs. Her jeans were probably getting dirty, but she didn't care as she sat down on top of him. Alex would not reach out a hand and pull her down with him to eat her. Just like he wasn't sitting on the grave in front of her.

"Hey, Isabel." Alex looked tense.

Isabel already had a plan for this. "Look, I know you're not real. So just . . . go back to whatever layer of my conscious you're buried in. I don't want you up here."

Alex looked at her for a long moment. "If I am from your conscious, then only you can get rid of me."

"That's what I'm trying to do," Isabel all-but growled.

"Geez." Alex held up a hand as if for protection. "Forget I said anything."

"I will because you're not . . . real." Isabel felt tears coming on. "Damn't! Leave me alone!"

"I can't," Alex said sadly. "Whether I'm in limbo or a part of you . . . I can't just leave because you tell me to."

"What will make you go away?" Isabel asked softly.

"Okay, first of all, you were never this bitchy to me in real life. Why do you want me gone so much?"

"Because I want to be left alone. I think about you all the time. I'm never not thinking about you except when . . ." Isabel trailed off. She couldn't tell him about Kyle, no matter where this Alex was coming from. "I'm tortured enough, don't you think? I don't need your ghost following me around everywhere."

"I only visit you here. When you're coming to grieve for me," Alex pointed out. "I don't think I can go anywhere else."

"Oh, well, gee. I guess that makes it all better."

"Now don't you think you're being a little cynical here, Iz?"

Isabel's tears began to fall. "I just . . . I just . . . I don't know!" She finished in a wail, and Isabel never wailed. Her tears came faster then, pouring down her face. But she felt no release.

Alex kneeled down beside her and put a tentative arm on her shoulder. She felt the touch, and she threw herself in his arms. Suddenly it didn't matter of this was her imagination or not. It was Alex. He was warm, alive, and so comforting. She felt complete again in his arms.

"I love you, Alex. I loved you."

"For how long?"

"Since . . . for a long time. I just didn't want to think about it. Then we were leaving, or things were so screwed up . . . I thought-I thought I had all the time in the world to tell you. I didn't know I'd only have a few months."

Alex kissed the top of her head. "It's okay. I know now."

"I hope you do," Isabel whispered. "I hope you're real."

"Even if I'm not . . . I mean, I'm not all religious or anything, but I'm sure that if I'm up in heaven or purgatory or even hell, I can hear you. I know you love me, wherever I am."

Isabel shut her eyes tight, hoping that what he said was true. "Are you going to leave me now?"

"I don't know. But I think you should go to your friends. You need to start your life up again. You have to live without me now, and I don't want you wasting your life because of me."

"Just . . . just hold me a little longer."

"Anything, Isabel. I've always done anything for you."

* * * * *

Kyle was just sitting there eating pie at the Crashdown when Maria suddenly sat down across from him. "Look, Kyle, I want straight answers."

"Um . . . okay. The pie is good, but it could use a little-"

"No, idiot. I want to know what's going on with you and Isabel." Maria crossed her arms and stared at him stonily.

Kyle took a deep breath. "I so was not expecting that."

"I want to know if anything is going on. I'll believe you if you say no."

"Yeah, well. I don't lie to my friends."

"Is that a yes or a no?"

Kyle looked at her. She wouldn't understand, he knew. But he couldn't lie to her either. Tess had lied, and look where that got her. "That's a sort of."

"Sort of? What the hell does that mean?" Maria's voice took on a softer edge despite her words.

"It means that we are and we aren't."

"Are and aren't what?"

"It's very complicated, Maria. I think you should back off now. Right now things are too raw."

Maria stayed there for a few more seconds. Then she stood up. "I don't like this."

"I'm getting kind of tired of it, too."

Maria impulsively hugged him. "Just talk when you're ready. I can listen just as well as I can babble." She smiled at him and left.

Kyle took another bite of his pie. Maybe he would take her up on that sometime.

He sat alone for another five or ten minutes before Isabel appeared. He looked at her tear-stained cheeks in shock. She never came out in public after crying. "Is-Isabel . . . what's wrong?"

She gave him a look. "You know what's wrong. But . . . I think I'm a lot more okay than I have been in awhile."

"What happened?"

"I talked to Alex." She held up a hand as if to stop him. "And don't start. It probably wasn't really him. But either way, it took a load off my shoulders. I'm healing now."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that."

Kyle took a shaky breath. "I opened Tess' door today."

"Did you go inside?"

He shook his head fervently. "Not ready yet."

"I think we've still got a long way to go, Kyle. But we're getting there."

Kyle looked at her straight. "I don't think we should see each other in . . . that way anymore."

"I don't think so either," she said softly. "But I don't regret it, Kyle. Okay? I was looking for comfort, and you gave it to me. It may have been wrong, but I don't think I could have gotten this far without you."

"I feel the same way." Kyle reached across the table and took her hand. "I'm always gonna be there for you, Iz. We've got an unbreakable friendship now."

Isabel smiled. "Promise?"

"Promise," Kyle agreed.

Kyle watched her smile a real smile, and his heart strings tugged. Just like Isabel had said, his shoulders felt a little lighter. And for the first time since Tess had left, he thought that maybe . . . maybe they could all get through this.