Always beautiful in the desert, the sunset this evening seemed to have been made specifically for Tess

Always beautiful in the desert, the sunset this evening seemed to have been made specifically for Tess. The last, fading remnants of the blue sky reminded Max of her eyes, and the golden sunlight was her hair, bouncing and shimmering as she laughed at him. He thought that this was a fitting place for her…that she would like it here.

Max turned slightly from Tess's grave and saw that Isabel and Michael were standing a short distance behind him, waiting respectfully for him to finish his thoughts, and rejoin them. With a final look at the cairn of stones, Max turned and followed them up the path to the summit where Rath had tried to kill Isabel the day before. God, he thought wearily, so much has happened since then. Yesterday Tess had been alive. She'd sat with Isabel and Michael and Ava at the Crashdown, and kept lookout for Lonnie and Rath, and she'd worried about him. He remembered his brief phone conversation with her from Alamogordo, the way he'd cut her off and asked for Michael. Had he always been so callous? But for whatever reason, Tess had seen beyond all of that, and in the end had sacrificed everything for them. She deserved much more than we ever gave her.

The three of them stood there, looking out over the quarry and Tess's final resting place, with heavy hearts. They had lost one of their own. And as they watched the sun go down, each of them reflected on all that had come to pass that day, and what they had learned from it.

Eventually, Isabel asked a question that had been on her mind ever since she'd stood in the shadows and listened to her brother tell Lonnie how much he hated her. "You seem to have had some…previously repressed animosity for Vilandra." she said. "Do you…feel that way about me, too?"

Max was shocked, and looked at Isabel in genuine confusion. "What? No! Why would I feel that way about you?"

Isabel kept her gaze on the setting sun, but her fingers played nervously with a button on her fashionable jacket. "Well, technically I am Vilandra…genetically, Lonnie and I were both her. By hating Lonnie…"

"No," Max interjected. "you're not the same person. You're not Lonnie, and you're not Vilandra. You're Isabel…a totally separate individual."

Isabel's features reflected uncertainty. "But…"

"No buts," Max cut in again. He thought for a moment about how to say what he needed to say, and then began. "We may have all started out with the same genetic structure, us and our duplicates, but we're not the same people anymore. Along the way, we've all been faced with choices, and how we chose determined what kind of people we turned into. Vilandra and Lonnie chose to think of themselves…betraying those they were supposed to care about. You, Isabel, chose to protect the people you care about. Rath was ambitious and opportunistic. In the end, his loyalties were to no one but himself." Max paused here and looked at Michael. "Whereas I would trust you both with my life…and have before." Michael swallowed, moved. Max looked out again into the sunset, and spoke softly. "And Tess…in the end, she became her own person. Rather than do what she was programmed to do, she broke free and made her own choice in saving Ava. And now, because of her, Ava is alive. It's all about the choices we make."

Michael got goose bumps as he thought about his words, realizing that Max was right. And Isabel took his words even more to heart. "You're right," she said softly. Isabel's face cleared, like she'd just had an amazing revelation. "You're absolutely right!"

Max looked at her curiously. "Isabel?"

Her voice was excited when she spoke, and she stepped back from the edge of the cliff to pace. "You're right, Max. About everything…all of this. This whole time we've been pawns. Sent here and manipulated by players in some game we don't even know the rules to. Programmed and directed here and there, so we'll act a certain way. Well it ends here." Isabel stopped suddenly, her mind working around it. She repeated herself. "It ends here. I'm done being their plaything. I mean…who do we owe our allegiances to, anyway? Our race? Lonnie and Rath? Our people? We don't even know anything about them! All we know is that they cloned us, and sent us here. They want us to fulfill our little destiny." Isabel said the word like it was profanity, and made the quotation marks in the air with her hands as she continued. "But they never stopped to think we might not want to. That's what's missing from this whole equation…our free will."

Max and Michael stood silent, watching Isabel as she appeared to be going crazy. But Isabel was far from it…she felt more liberated and sure of herself than she had her whole life. "Well I just found mine." she said. "And I know who my allegiances are to." She turned around and looked at her brother and Michael. "They're to you. And to Tess. And to all of the people who know what we are and cared about us anyway. Who have helped us and saved us at every turn."

She walked up to Max, looking him in the eyes. "They're to Liz, who saved us all by letting you go, and who saved my life only yesterday in this very spot." Her gaze moved to Michael. "They're to Maria, who is in the hospital because of us, and probably the only reason you're alive right now." She looked down at her boots. "They're to Alex, who has never denied us his help, no matter how much I've hurt him. And they're to the Valenti's, and our parents, and our friends, and this whole life that we have here, guys."

As Michael and Max absorbed and thought about her words, Isabel smiled for the first time. "I think we each need to make a decision here," she said. "We can either continue to hold out hope for the mothership, or we can move on with our lives here, and make our own choices. Be our own people."

They all looked at each other, and Isabel's smile got wider as she saw the realizations in their eyes. She nodded a gracious farewell to them. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen…I've got some free will that I'd like to exercise."

With that Isabel turned on her heel and started back down the path into the quarry.

~*~*~*~*~

Ava sat on the small bed in Tess's former room at the Valenti's, and looked around warily. Liz, packing some clothes away in the dresser, noticed her trepidation and smiled at her. "Don't worry, Ava…I know this all seems crazy and overwhelming right now, but Sheriff Valenti's a good guy. And…well, Kyle's not so bad once you get used to him." She said the last with a wink, and Ava almost laughed.

Almost.

Her smile quickly fading, Ava's expression took on again the fear that she'd shown ever since Liz had told her she'd be staying at the Sheriff's house…in Tess's place. "It just…feels kind of wrong to me, you know?" she said tentatively.

Liz looked at her knowingly, and sat down beside her. "I understand…and no doubt it will be kind of weird and hard at first. But this is really the best thing. There can't be any official investigation into Tess's death…and there'll be no need for one if you're here…being Tess." She interpreted Ava's uncomfortable look, and hastened to clarify. "You're still Ava…and we all know that. And no one is going to expect you to be just like Tess. You're two different people. But this is the best solution for you, too. You've lost the others…the people who have been your family. Let us be your family now."

Ava drew her knees up and clasped them under her chin. "I'm afraid…I'm afraid the others won't accept me. Because I'm not her. And not just Max and the others…but Sheriff Valenti and Kyle, too. They all knew her."

Liz nodded. "It will be hard…Tess will be missed, and they'll need to grieve for her. In a way, I will too. But like I said, you're not her. You're a totally separate person from Tess, and it won't be long before the Sheriff and the others see that, and appreciate you for the good person you are."

Liz looked at Ava sincerely. "You saved my life today…thank you. I can never repay you for that. But I want you to know that no matter what happens, I'll be here for you. If you need anything…even if it's just a friend to talk to when you're feeling lonely…I'm here."

Ava smiled shyly, and she felt a little better about her situation. As Liz rose to leave, Ava even managed to toss out a joke. "I think I can live here, and be happy. But…do I have to dress like you guys?"

~*~*~*~*~

As soon as Michael stepped off the elevator, he started getting dirty looks. It seemed like every corner he turned, and every station he passed by, all the nurses were glaring at him. It was enough to make a guy check to make sure his fly was up. Assured that it was, Michael continued on to Maria's room. One of the nurses up on the Intensive Care Unit had informed him with a scowl on her face that since Maria had regained consciousness and was considered to be in stable condition, she'd been moved to one of the regular rooms on a different floor. So he'd come on down here, carrying his little bouquet of flowers purchased from the gift shop down in the lobby, and gotten the evil-death-ray-stare from every single nurse he'd bumped into so far. There were even some residents of the hospital glaring at him. Jesus, he thought, how did she turn them all against me already? She's only been in here for a day!

Michael passed an elderly woman in a wheelchair in the hallway and almost fell flat on his face when she stuck her tongue out at him. "Insensitive jerk!" she said, and By God she sounded like an eighty year old version of Maria.

Shaking his head, Michael continued on until he found room 730. He heard voices within, but the door was open, so he just walked right in.

Maria was sitting up in bed, her hair brushed back from her face and held up in little clips, and she was chatting amicably with a female nurse who sat on the edge of her bed, patiently letting Maria apply gobs of make-up to her face, and listening to her prattle on.

"So I'm like, 'what the hell's going on?', and he's like 'nothing, I'm just here to…bring her something she left at the diner', and then this blonde bimbo comes out of the shower, wearing only a towel, and it was so obvious what she had on her mind…"

Michael stopped in shock for a moment as he realized what Maria was telling the nurse, but then he realized she'd glossed over the real reason he'd been in Courtney's hotel room – to see what he could find out about her, and why she was so suspicious. He relaxed for a second, but then realized with indignation that this is why everyone was scowling at him. In less than twenty four hours she'd already managed to brainwash the entire hospital into thinking that he was a jerk!

Michael cleared his throat rudely. "Ahem. If I'm not interrupting anything of vital importance, Ms. Maybelline…"

Maria looked up at him and – almost- smiled. Then she seemed to recover herself, and nodded to the nurse as she got up to leave. She called out after her. "We'll chat later, Michelle…by the way that's a really great shade on you!"

Michael followed the nurse to the door, and shut it behind her, leaving him alone with Maria. Suddenly awkward, he brandished his flowers like a weapon. "I brought you these," he said.

Maria eyed them warily. "Are you going to slay me with them?"

Michael was confused. "What? No."

"Then quit pointing them at me." she said, annoyed, then gestured toward a vase on the windowsill. "They can go in there."

Michael complied, unwrapping the flowers and placing them in the vase next to some pretty daffodils. He then turned around, not quite sure what to do next. They stared at each other in silence for a minute, before Maria finally broke the silence quietly. "Liz called me…I know about Tess. I'm sorry."

Michael nodded; he'd figured she'd already know. With that said, he looked around the room as if waiting for her to bring up the next topic of conversation. Maria sighed. "I'm not going to make nice with you, Michael. You've been really harsh…."

"I know…" Michael started to interrupt, but Maria overrode him.

"Really harsh, Michael…and I'm done playing this game. I'm not going to sit here and poke and prod at you until you tell me what's going on…if you've got something to say, you're just gonna have to say it." With that she folded her arms in a defensive barrier before her and glared at Michael.

Michael found himself glaring back at her out of habit, before he realized what he was doing and dropped his arms, blowing out an exasperated sigh. Good one, Guerin, pick a fight the second you see her, why don't you?

Maria ended up sitting there watching him argue with himself, his mouth gaping open and shut, like he couldn't figure out how to start out. Finally, her patience was stretched too thin and gone were all of her wonderful proclamations of making him sweat it all out by his lonesome. Her voice was a little softer when she asked "Michael, what do you want?"

Michael's eyes shot to hers. At last…Providence. The chance. Losing any and all pretenses, he reached his hand out to her, palm up, beckoning for her to take it. "To let you in," he said simply.

Maria blinked. What?

Michael didn't withdraw his hand. Merely held it out for her to take until her eyes gradually grew wide with understanding and amazement. Questioning, and with no small amount of trepidation, she slid her own hand into his.

~FLASH~

The shock of all the images and sounds and memories almost made her jerk her hand back, but Michael kept a firm hold on her until she came out of it, and she was left sitting in her hospital, one of her hands clasped in his, and tears in her eyes. He'd really done it…he'd let her in. She looked up at him, and understood so much.

Michael gazed back at her…his heart beating rapidly. Maria wasn't the only one who'd learned something. His head swam with images of Maria, feelings and emotions from Maria…and love for Michael was there. And this wasn't just what she said, or what he thought he felt in her, this was real. She loved him, and she accepted him, and he knew it. For the first time in his life, Michael knew that someone other than Max and Isabel genuinely loved him. The revelation took his breath away. When he got it back, he said "Screw Destiny."

Still amazed at what he had done, Maria choked out his name, and tugged on his hand.

Obligingly, Michael moved forward, and his head bent down to meet hers as her arms came up around his shoulders, holding him to her tightly.

~*~*~*~*~

The sun had fully set by the time Isabel pulled up in front of Alex's house. She sat there in the jeep for several long minutes, trying to decide if what she was about to do was right. No, she thought, that's not what you're trying to decide. You're trying to figure out if you actually have the courage to follow up on all of your fancy words. Do you really have what it takes to be able to trust, and follow your heart for once? As she thought about everything that had happened in the past few days, and what she'd learned from it, she smiled to herself. Hell yes.

With that she got out of the jeep, pocketing the keys and walking up the driveway to the front door. Alex answered the doorbell with a look of pleasant surprise on his face. "Isabel!"

Isabel smiled at him tentatively. "Can I come in?" she asked.

Alex immediately held the door open so that she could enter, standing back as she came in. "Of course."

Isabel smiled again, and took a deep breath as she stepped over the threshold, and Alex shut the door behind them.

~*~*~*~*~

Liz sat on her balcony, gazing up at the stars. They sparkled above her, millions of miles away, and shone a faint light down that was quickly lost in the colored lights running round her balcony. In her lap, her diary lay unopened. Part of her wanted to get writing…put everything down so that she could look back on it later and remember, but another part of her knew that she would never forget the events that had transpired in the past three days. It would be with her, always.

As she sat there looking up, she suddenly heard a scuffling of feet on the ladder that led up to her balcony, and she knew it was Max. She could feel him approaching; coming closer to her. A small part of her was afraid of the new turn the bond between them had taken...it wasn't normal by any standard definition. But most of her accepted it, welcomed it. It felt strangely right to her, and his presence was a comfort…his soul with hers, where it belonged. She felt his anticipation as he climbed the ladder, and saw him rise above the ledge of the balcony a moment later.

She watched him climb over, and look at her when he stood facing her. A wordless moment passed, and then Max finally spoke. "Hi."

"Hi," Liz said back, her voice quiet.

Taking his cue from her lowered tone, he kept his own voice low as he inquired, "Your parents?"

Liz nodded. "They got home a few hours ago." She felt Max form the next question in his mind, and answered before he could say anything. "Valenti told them what we all agreed to, that it was vandals who broke in downstairs. They smashed the place up, but didn't take anything." She paused for a moment, remembering their angry and scared faces as they'd made sure she was okay, that she hadn't been there when the vandals got there, demanding to know from the Sheriff what was being done to find the people who'd done it. They were confused and frightened, and they didn't know the half of it.

Max nodded, remembering Sheriff Valenti's devastated expression when they told him about Tess. He'd demanded to see her body, and from his face one would think she had been his own child. In a way, Max guessed she had been. She had been in his home for a few months, now, and he had come to accept her as his charge. It had surprised them all when, eventually, he asked about Ava. They had previously agreed that it would probably be a good idea for her to stay in Roswell, at least until she had fully healed from the partial blast she took from Lonnie…and then she could decide if she wanted to stay permanently with them or not. But they weren't sure exactly what to do with her. It was informally decided that she'd stay at Michael's, but the Sheriff had stunned them when he offered to take her in. Max wasn't sure if it was simply a way to explain Tess's absence – by replacing her with a duplicate that no one else would ever know really wasn't Tess – or if it was a gesture in some way toward Tess's memory; to protect the person she had died saving. In any case, it was the perfect solution to an awful situation.

Liz sighed, still looking up at the stars, and Max looked at her. She looked so frail and lost sitting there alone, and Max felt ashamed for everything she'd had to give up because of him and the others. He tried to form the words to apologize to her, but she turned her head slightly and looked at him with a soft smile on her lips. "Don't," she said. "It's okay. We make our own choices, remember? And I made the choices I did because they were right, and because I fell in love with you. There's nothing to apologize for." She looked again up at the stars. "And mine was not the most tragic sacrifice."

There was silence between them for a moment, and Max could tell Liz wanted to say something else. He waited patiently until she spoke. "Max, something's been bothering me…" she said. "Beyond all the rest of this, I keep thinking about the flashes." Max looked at her in confusion. "Over the past three days we've had flashes of the past," she explained, "of you coming back from the future, and that whole thing…and we've had flashes of the future. Like Rath dying, the glass exploding in the diner, and Isabel firing that gun."

Max nodded to show that he followed so far. "The one that really sticks with me right now is the one we dreamt about…the one where you were hurt." Liz looked up at Max, looking worried. "You were dying."

Max swallowed, remembering the dream. Remembering the pain as he lay on the cold floor of the balcony, Liz leaned over him, her eyes wide and terrified. He wanted to rationalize that it had only been a dream, but he knew better. It had felt real…it was real. Just as real as he felt the other two visions that night had been. He cast about for another answer that made sense.

"Maybe," he said, "it was a vision of the future…only not this one?" Liz looked at him, waiting for the explanation. He continued. "The other moments we saw…I think they were from that other timeline…the one I traveled back from originally using the granilith. It's entirely likely that the flash of me dying was, too. Something must have happened, I must have been saved at some point, because we survived to go on and get married, and send me back here."

Liz's expression was thoughtful. "I'm not so sure," she said, but Max hardly noticed. Reminded of the future that they had originally shared together, he looked around the balcony and remembered – through Liz's eyes – their wedding dance here the night his future self had disappeared. Remembered the pain, and the hurt and loss after he'd vanished, and she was left here alone. Liz noticed the direction his thoughts were going in, and she smiled sadly.

Max tried to smile back, pained. "It's odd…I can remember it all though your memories. It's strange…and painful." He met Liz's gaze, the remembered agony in his eyes. "I'd thought there could never be anything that would hurt me more than when I thought you'd slept with Kyle…" He paused as he couldn't help but glance in at Liz's bed, and then looked back at Liz. "That was before I knew how it felt to love you as my wife…and still know I couldn't have you."

Liz closed her eyes in seeming pain, and Max moved to kneel at her side, brushing away a tear that slid quietly down her cheek. She reached up a hand to stop him, and he felt an icicle of fear in his heart. "Liz," he said desperately. "Don't push me away from you, please."

Liz looked at him sadly. "We can't, Max…we can't take the risk."

Max panicked. "What are you talking about? Liz…the situation is completely different now."

Liz shot back. "What if it's not? What if things don't change? What if the future still ends up badly because of us? What if Tess's death was for nothing?"

Max grabbed hold of her shoulders, forcing her to look at him. "Tess's death will never be for nothing." he said firmly. "We won't let it be. We know the mistakes of the future now; we can avoid them."

"Can we?" Liz asked brokenly. "Can we ever really?"

"Yes!" Max exclaimed. God, he couldn't believe she was contemplating throwing everything away. Now, after everything they'd been through. The thought that he might not get through to her drove him crazy. "Liz, what are you saying?"

Liz was frustrated, he could tell in the way she gestured with her hands as she spoke, and it throbbed over the connection between them. There had been one thing or another between them for so long, she was looking for the next obstacle. "What's the point? What was all this for? So we could be together? Tess died, so what…so we could go to Prom together?"

Max continued to hold her, not letting her break away from him. "Don't…don't trivialize this. You know there's something important here, with us."

"What?" Liz asked bitterly. "We both know it wasn't in the plan for us to be together. We weren't destined."

Max gripped Liz tighter, forcing her to look into his eyes; meet his intense gaze. He caught her there, and could feel her drawn in with him into the feelings swirling in and around them. "Maybe not by my people; maybe not by yours. But maybe by something else."

Liz looked into his eyes, into his soul, and she saw herself there looking back out. She was part of him, and he was part of her. And she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was right. They were meant to be together. She stopped trying to pull away from him, and reached out a hand to touch his face, watching his eyes close as he savored the feel of her hand against his cheek. He opened his eyes again and saw her gazing at him lovingly, and his heart started beating again. "Something bigger." he said, tenderly, and kissed her.

As his lips met hers softly, Liz closed her eyes and let the love between them carry her away. It took them up into the night, through the sky, toward the atmosphere. Liz was distantly aware that they were having a flash, but it was different this time. They flew up through the clouds, and before they knew it they were embracing among the stars. The planets spun and whirled around them, spinning away merrily as they came close to them. They drew back, still together, and they saw it all; the entirety of space. The universe spun, and circled, and came back to the beginning. And they rose and fell beneath it, whispering words of love and devotion, as they were swept away together.

~FIN~