BOOK 10 MAJESTY'S MORASS
(WHAT HAPPENS NOW, MAX?)






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PART 10


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(Friday, December 21st, 2001)

It took two cars to transport all six of them, but half-an-hour later they were standing outside the Artesia Good Samaritan Nursing Home.

Maria turned to Rath, "What are we doing here? Is this some kind of joke?"

"Yes Rath," Max said. "Enough mystery. Tell us why we are here."

Rath motioned to the building, "Just trust me a little more. We're almost there. Room 134."

Liz looked at the others and when no one moved, she opened the door and went inside. She immediately noted the subdued lighting and the fact that no one was working at the information desk, but a sign on the wall pointed the way.

She followed the left hallway, scanning the room numbers with an increasing sense of anticipation. Liz couldn't have said why she was excited, only that she was sure something very important was waiting for them. Vaguely she was aware the others trailed behind her but her whole being seemed focused on her task until she finally stopped before the door marked 134.

She reached for the doorknob only to be stopped as Max gently took hold of her wrist.

"Let me," he said softly. "It could be a trap."

Liz knew in her heart it wasn't a trap but she allowed Max and Michael to precede her into the room. The door closed behind them, and for a moment there was no sound from inside, and then Max opened the door. Liz saw immediately that he was incredibly pale and distressed and she reached out to him, "Max?"

"I..." he trailed off, shaking his head. "You'd all better come in." He took Liz's hand in his and led her into the room.

Liz looked around the room quickly, taking in the medical equipment and Michael standing by the single bed. He was motionless, as if in shock, staring at the bed's occupant. Liz stepped closer until she could make out the features of the patient and gasped in recognition. "Alex!"

At her outburst, Maria and Kyle rushed forward, stopping by the bed.

After a moment, Maria turned to Max, with tears in her eyes. "Is it really him?"

Max looked to Rath, "Is it?"

Rath nodded. "Yeah, it's him. He's been in a coma for months."

"But how?" Kyle asked. "I remember Tess making me put his body in the car."

"Tess thought she killed him but he wasn't dead," Rath explained. "She panicked and called me and Lonni to help get rid of the body. She made you put him in the car and we met her to help stage the accident, but I could see right away he wasn't dead. Lonni said we should keep quiet and use it to our advantage. If Tess thought she killed Alex, we could use it as leverage over her if we needed it."

"So who was in his car?" Max asked. "I tried to heal him."

"I don't know," Rath said, with a shrug. "Some homeless guy we picked up who was about Alex's same size. We knocked him out, dressed him in Alex's clothes, Lonnie changed his hair and the color of his eyes and we put him in Alex's car. I waited until a truck came along and used my powers to drive the car head-on into it. Afterward, me and Lonni made sure that the guy's face was messed up enough so no one could tell who it was. The guy was in Alex's car, wearing Alex's clothes, the same height, weight and hair color. We knew no one would question it."

"That's why no one noticed anything unusual about the body," Liz said woodenly, "because he really did die in the crash."

"And Alex has been here the whole time?" Maria choked, tears streaming down her face. "Just a few miles away." She sat on the edge of the bed and took his hand in hers.

"Lonni and I put the homeless man's clothes on him, took him to the hospital in Artesia and told them we found him in an alley. They marked him a John Doe and figured he'd been mugged. After awhile, the doctor moved him here and promised to call us if he got better. Lonni really thought it was funny, you know the name, good samaritan..." he trailed off with a chuckle but no one else laughed.

"What about Alex's condition?" Liz asked. "What did the doctor say?"

Rath shook his head. "I don't know the technical stuff, but his brain is messed up. Bleeding or swelling or somethin', because of Tess' powers. They don't think he'll get better."

Liz turned to Max and touched his arm. "Max," she urged with the single word and he knew she was asking him to see if he could heal Alex.

He had been so surprised to see Alex or he would have thought of it himself. He placed his hands on Alex's head and started a connection, and flashes of Alex's last couple of hours before the accident assailed him. Max saw Liz and Maria with Alex at his house and the delivery of the Thai food that triggered his memories. He watched as Alex recovered the translation from the computer and his futile attempts to call Isabel. Alex's unsuccessful struggle against the compulsions Tess had placed in his mind and his drive to the Valenti's house to confront her.

Then he saw Alex arguing with Tess, and Kyle's interruption, and he felt Alex's blinding pain as Tess tried to mind warp him again. Max gasped and pulled back as Alex's pain ripped through him and Liz was instantly at his side.

"Max, what's wrong?"

He shook his head, "I'm okay. I just saw what happened to Alex." He placed his hands on Alex and started the connection again, pushing the horrible images away, looking for the damage. Max found several areas where the walls of the tiny vessels in Alex's brain were stretched too thin, causing them to bulge and press dangerously on his brain. He easily fixed those and then moved on to the main problem, a large vessel that was perilously enlarged and engorged with blood, close to bursting. The brain matter around it had been pushed aside as it had swelled, causing the coma.

Max gently returned the vessel to its normal size and the pressure on the brain-matter eased. He could feel Alex slip into a normal state of sleep and he took his hands away.

He nodded to Liz and whispered, "He's okay, just sleeping now. But it will take a while for his brain to go back to normal and I'll bet he'll have one hell of a headache when he wakes up."

"Should we wake him?" Maria whispered.

Max shook his head, "I know he's been out for months but he'll need a lot of rest to recover."

"We should get him out of here," Rath said. "If he wakes up and the doctor's call Lonni..." he trailed off with a shrug.

"We can't just take him," Liz said. "If he disappeared, there would be an investigation and they would..." she trailed off and then smiled. "All we have to do is change the contact phone number in the file to Maria's, so Lonni never knows. We let Alex wake up naturally and he tells the doctors who he is and they will take care of everything. If there is a silver handprint, it is on his head hidden by his hair. Then there will be no unexplained return from the dead and none of this can be linked to aliens. The police will probably figure that the homeless guy mugged Alex for the car and clothes, and then died in the crash. It's a simple case of mistaken identity."

Max looked at Michael and motioned to the door with a jut of his chin.

Michael nodded, understanding him immediately and went to find the records room.

"That's pretty smart," Rath said.

Liz rounded on him angrily. "You helped Tess in Las Cruces with the translation."

Rath swallowed hard and looked around at the others. "Yeah, it was Lonni's idea. She thought if we had the Granolith and knew how to use it, she could make a deal with Nicholas to go home."

"Tess didn't trust you or Lonni. How did you get her to help you?" Kyle asked.

Rath nodded, "Lonni has some dirt about Tess' past life, I don't know what, but she used it at the summit to blackmail Tess. Lonni told Tess if she didn't help us, she would tell Max the truth about her and then he wouldn't want her. I don't think Tess wanted to help us, but Lonni didn't give her a choice."

"She always had a choice," Max said softly.

"And Leanna?" Liz asked. "How does she fit into this?"

"It was Lonni's powers," Rath said. "She can change her appearance, make people see her as someone else. She took the real girl's place at the University so she could move around the campus and it wouldn't look suspicious."

"And then you put the real Leanna back, hoping we would blame and kill her," Max added.

Liz advanced on Rath, poking an accusing finger into his chest. "And what about Alex? Were you going to kill him too?"

Rath backed a step, shaking his head. "I swear we didn't do nothin' to hurt him. The plan was to get him to do the translation and then put him back, and no body would be the wiser."

Michael came back into the room and saw Liz confronting Rath. "Is there a problem?"

Liz shook her head and backed down. She could feel Rath's fear but somewhere underneath, she could also feel sincerity.

Rath took a deep breath, "I knew I was taking a chance coming to you but I thought it was my only shot to get home." He motioned to the bed, "I gave you Alex back. If I wanted to kill him I could have and never said a word, and none of you would have known. That's gotta count for something."

Max looked at Michael and Liz with a nod. Michael agreed with a jut of his chin and Liz nodded gravely.

Max turned back to Rath, "If you work with us and don't betray us, you've got a deal." He held out his hand.

Rath smiled and shook it. "I won't let you down, duke."

Max nodded and looked at Alex, lowering his voice, "Okay, let's go out to the parking lot so we don't wake Alex and then Rath can tell us everything he knows about Khivar's new troops."

Rath was momentarily shocked. "How did you know about . . ." he trailed off but recovered quickly with a jerk of his head and a smile. "You's the man."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Roswell, NM)

Max dropped Rath off at his car, that was parked a couple of blocks from the Crashdown, and the gang waited until he had driven away before they started talking.

"So, how much are you planning to trust him?" Michael asked.

Max shook his head, "I'm not trusting him at all. Everything he tells us is suspect."

"Why did you tell him we knew about the new troops?" Maria asked. "Isn't that just tipping our hand?"

"If Rath isn't on our side, he'll report back and then Khivar and Nicholas will wonder how we found out and maybe suspect that we have a spy in their midst," Max explained.

Liz spoke up, "And if Rath is on our side, it will show him we do trust him because we offered him information."

Max nodded, "But we all have to be careful about what we tell Rath. We have to assume that everything we reveal to him is being relayed to Khivar. So don't mention Liz's or Kyle's powers and no one says anything about who Liz really is."

Everyone nodded.

Max continued, "And I know everyone is excited about getting Alex back, but we have to pretend like we don't know until it is officially announced, and that may take a few days. It will be hard, but everyone just act normal and then when he's back, we can all celebrate."

"And Isabel?" Michael asked.

"I'll tell her when she gets home," Max said.

"And what about Tess?" Liz asked softly. "Now we know she's still in Copper Summit."

Max shook his head, "It doesn't change anything. I can't go and drag her back here and chain her in a basement until my son is born. I just have to wait."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Hale stopped his car in the Evans' driveway.

Isabel smiled, "I could have driven to your house."

Hale shook his head, leaning closer, "I couldn't let you do that. It would be ungentlemanly."

"But now you'll have to drive all the way back home," Isabel argued, closing the distance until only a couple of inches separated them.

"It's a small price to pay, for your company," Hale whispered. He placed a gentle kiss on her lips and touched her face tenderly. "I love you, Isabel."

A soft smile lit Isabel's features, "I love you too."

Hale smiled in return. "Let me steal you away from your friends one more night and I'll take you to dinner tomorrow."

Isabel nodded, "I'd like that."

Hale took her head in his hands and kissed her lingeringly. When they broke apart they were both breathing roughly. "This is just so incredible," Hale said. "I never thought I would find someone like you."

"Me either," Isabel agreed. "I didn't think it was possible to feel this close to anyone."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Max heard Isabel and Hale pull into the driveway and he sat on her bed, waiting impatiently for her to come inside. Finally he heard the front door shut and Hale's car drive away and Isabel came into her room.

"Oh," she gasped, surprised by Max's presence, "you scared me, Max. What are you doing here?"

"I have some news," Max started but he saw Isabel's reaction and immediately amended himself. "Don't worry, it's good news, but you can't say anything yet and I don't want you to overreact and wakeup Mom and Dad."

Isabel shook her head, "What is it? And why can't I say anything?"

"Why don't you sit down?"

Isabel complied apprehensively, taking a seat next to Max.

"I don't know how to say this other than just to say it." Max smiled, "Isabel, Alex is alive."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Saturday, December 22nd, 2001)
(The Parker House)

Light streaming in the window woke Jeff and he put a hand to his eyes in confusion, and glanced at the clock. It was after nine.

He had gotten in bed last night and replayed the scene in the dining room over and over in his head, trying to make sense of it. He had intended on confronting Liz when she got home but he must have fallen asleep while he was waiting.

Rubbing at his eyes, Jeff sat up just as Nancy opened the door.

"Oh, you're up," she said. "I was just about to wake you."

"Why did you let me sleep so late?" Jeff asked.

Nancy shrugged, "You seemed tired so I let you sleep, but Jeff we've just got some really good news."

Jeff's groggy brain didn't process what she was saying. "I wanted to talk to Liz. Is she here?"

Nancy sat down beside him. "She's here but I doubt you'll be able to talk to her."

"Why not?"

"That's what I've been trying to tell you, Jeff. We got a call from Chuck Whitman a few minutes ago. Alex is alive."

Jeff shook his head, "How is that possible?"

"Apparently he got car-jacked and left for dead in an alley in Artesia. He was admitted to the hospital as a John Doe and has been in a coma. But he woke up sometime early this morning and told them who he was."

"So who was killed in his car?" Jeff asked.

"They are guessing it was the carjacker."

"And Alex is okay?"

Nancy smiled, "He has a little memory loss but otherwise he's fine. Liz and Maria haven't stopped jumping around. They're so anxious to see him. Chuck said Alex was being released from the hospital this morning and he invited Liz and Maria and all of Alex's friends to come over this afternoon."

Jeff nodded, his thoughts of talking to Liz about last night, going right out of his head. "It's a miracle."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(The Evans House)

Tears streamed down Diane's face as she hugged Isabel. "It's a miracle, honey."

"I know," Isabel said. "It's so wonderful, I can't believe it's true. There were so many times that I wished it was all a bad dream and I could just wake up."

They broke the hug and Isabel continued, "I can't wait to see him. There's so much we all have to tell him."

Diane smiled, "I'm so happy for all of you, especially Alex's parents. This must have been a nightmare for them."

"I keep pinching myself to make sure I'm not dreaming," Isabel said. "I just feel like this huge weight has been lifted. I felt so guilty about his death."

"But none of it was your fault," Diane said.

"I know," Isabel said, "I just felt like I should have been able to do something to keep him safe." She shook her head, "I just should have known."


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(The Whitman House)

At four o'clock precisely, the whole gang was gathered outside the Whitman's door. Liz and Maria were in front and Maria pressed the doorbell.

The door was opened immediately by Alex's father Chuck, who greeted them with a huge smile. "Come in. Please come in."

Liz and Maria both hugged him and he hugged them back with a laugh. "I can't believe this has all turned out so well."

Alex's Mom, Gloria joined them, and Maria and Liz hugged her too.

"We're so happy for you," Liz said.

Gloria greeted them all, "It's so great to have all of you back in the house again. We've missed you almost as much . . ." she trailed off with a shake of her head. "But you want to see Alex. He's in his room, ordered to bed rest for the next couple of days, but he'll be fine."

"Go ahead and see him," Chuck prompted. "We've got pizza on the way."

Liz and Maria led the way to Alex's room. They stopped briefly, and then Maria threw open the door and she and Liz squealed when they saw Alex. Running into the room, they both threw themselves onto the bed, hugging Alex fiercely.

"We're so happy to see you," Maria exclaimed.

"It's so good to have you back," Liz said.

Alex hugged them back, "Believe me I'm happy to be here."

Maria and Liz settled down next to him and the others stepped up. Max and Kyle gave him manly hugs and Michael offered a firm handshake.

Finally Isabel stepped up and gave him a quick hug.

When Isabel released him, Alex looked at Max. "My parents tell me I was in a coma for more than six months and then I suddenly came out of it. Somehow I have a feeling I've got you to thank for that, Max."

Max nodded, "I just wish we'd known you were alive sooner."

"And where's Tess?" Alex asked.

Max spoke up, "She's gone."

Liz took Alex's hand. "We know most of what happened to you. What do you remember?"

Alex looked relieved. "The day I supposedly died, I remembered that Tess, Lonni and Rath sent me to the University of Las Cruces to use the supercomputer to translate the alien book. I tried to contact Isabel and tell her what happened but Tess had done something to my mind and I couldn't dial the phone. So I got in the car and tried to drive to the Crashdown, but I couldn't go anywhere but the Valenti's house. I confronted Tess, and I remember Kyle coming in, and then I had a terrible pain in my head." He shook his head, "The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital."

"Wow," Maria said, "do we have a lot to tell you."

Alex nodded, "You'll have to tell me what I'm supposed to say to the police too. I told the police in Artesia that I didn't remember anything but I'm sure they'll keep asking. I'm supposed to have an interview with Valenti tomorrow."

Max nodded, "Well, I guess we should start at the beginning."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Isabel, Max, Kyle and Michael left an hour later, leaving Liz and Maria with Alex.

"I can't believe everything I've missed," Alex exclaimed. "Show me your powers again, Liz."

With a laugh, Liz touched his t-shirt and the white swirled into a deep blue.

"That is so cool." Alex leaned in closer, "So since Max healed me, am I going to get powers too?"

Liz shrugged, "I don't know. We're not sure why it happened."

Alex shook his head and changed the subject. "And what is the deal with Isabel? When I left, we were really getting close but now she's the ice queen again."

"Your death was really hard on all of us, but Isabel blamed herself," Liz explained. "She thought if she hadn't invited you to come out that evening you wouldn't have been in the accident."

"But you found out months ago Tess killed me," Alex argued. "Isabel still couldn't blame herself for that."

Maria nodded, "Yeah but then Isabel thought she should have noticed something was wrong with you. She thought she could have protected you from Tess."

Alex sat back with a huff, "That's just crazy. From what you've told me, Tess was manipulating everyone."

"Yeah," Liz agreed. "It took Isabel a long time to get past that and I'm not sure she's put it all behind her yet. But she met a new friend at college who she's gotten really close to, and I know that's helped her."

"Well that's good," Alex said, "she needs a friend she can . . ." he trailed off as understanding suddenly dawned. "I keep forgetting that for months, you all thought I was dead. Isabel met a guy at college and she moved on. That's what you're so delicately trying to tell me isn't it Liz? And that's why Isabel left so quickly today, because she didn't want to tell me."

"I'm sure she just wanted to wait for a better time," Liz said. "And not confront you with it on your first day back."

Maria nodded, "Yeah, I'm sure that's it."

Alex shook his head, "Man did I ever get the shaft. Remind me if I ever see Tess again that she and I have a few things to discuss."

"Yeah," Liz said, "well you'll have to get in line."

Alex nodded, remembering everything the gang told him about the months he was gone. "So Rath told you where I was because he wanted to make a deal with Max."

"That's what he told us," Maria said. "He said he'd be a spy for us."

"And what other information did he offer?" Alex asked.

"He really didn't know much," Liz said, "but we suspected Khivar had sent more troops to Earth and Rath confirmed it. He claims he and Lonni and Tess have been ordered to stay away from the troops, and he doesn't know why they're here. But he said he would try to find out."

"Could this be the invasion the Max from the future told you about?" Alex asked.

Liz shook her head, "I don't know, but Rath said there were only about two hundred soldiers. I think they would need a lot more to take over the Earth."

"So what are we going to do about them?" Alex asked.

"We don't know," Liz admitted. "Max is going to give Rath a little time to try and find out something before he makes any definite plans, and until then we keep doing what we've been doing; practicing our powers, trying to recover our memories, and trying to live our lives."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(The Evans House)

Isabel waited nervously for Hale to arrive, not sure how to tell him her news. He had been so understanding when she had told him about Alex's death and it was partially due to Hale's quiet support that she had been able to move on so quickly. But Isabel felt so guilty about her relationship with Hale. From Alex's point of view, it had only been a single day since they were together and she wasn't sure how to explain her actions to him.

When she finally heard Hale's car, Isabel rushed out to see him.

Hale smiled, "Couldn't wait to see me?"

Isabel blushed. "Would you mind taking a walk with me? I have something I need to tell you."

Hale's smile was replaced by a look of concern. "Is everything okay?"

Isabel nodded, "Everything fine. In fact it's great. I . . ." she trailed off, shaking her head.

Hale draped his arm around her shoulders, "Let's drive over to the park and you can tell me the whole thing."

Isabel nodded and allowed Hale to help her into the car. The drive to the park was short but silent and Isabel was aware of Hale's concerned gaze on her more than once.

Finally he pulled the car into a quiet parking space near the trees and turned to her, "So do you want to tell me what's wrong?"

Isabel shook her head, "That's just it, nothing is wrong. We got news this morning that my friend Alex is really alive."

"What?" Hale asked. "You told me he died in a car accident."

"We thought he did, but apparently he was car jacked and the guy took his clothes. And after the crash there was so much damage to the guy's face that everyone just assumed it was Alex who died. All of this time he's been in a coma in a hospital in Artesia, listed as a John Doe, and he just woke up this morning."

Hale shook his head incredulously, "That's incredible." He reached out and took her hand, "I'm so happy for you Isabel."

Tears started to prick her eyes but she pressed on, "The thing is Hale, for Alex only a day has passed. We weren't exactly together but things were headed that way and I need to tell him about us. But I wanted to talk to you first, so there wouldn't be any misunderstandings."

Hale nodded, "Of course you need to talk to him. I understand completely. You are friends and I would never let our relationship change that."

Isabel pulled him into a hug, "Thank you for being so wonderful."

Hale placed a soft kiss on her cheek. "It has obviously been a stressful day for you. Do you still want to go to dinner or should I just take you home?"

"I am a little tired," Isabel admitted.

Hale nodded, "We'll go another time then."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Roswell Sheriff's Station)

Deputy Hansen burst into Valenti's office. "Sheriff, is it true? The Whitman boy is alive?"

Jim nodded, "Yeah, and I've never been more glad to be wrong about anything in my life."

"So who died in that wreck and is buried in the grave?"

"We don't know," Jim said, "but there's an exhumation order for Monday and this time we'll do all of the tests to try and figure out who it is."

"And what exactly happened?" Hansen asked.

"Alex didn't remember anything when the Artesia police talked to him. We have an appointment to interview him tomorrow. I guess he'll tell us what he does remember."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Sunday, December 23rd, 2001)
(The Whitman House)

Isabel knocked softly on Alex's door.

"Come in," he called out.

Nervously she pushed the door open and stuck her head inside, "Hi Alex, it's me."

"Hey Isabel, come in."

She entered his room and took a seat on a nearby chair. "You look like you're doing well."

Alex smiled, hearing the nervousness in her voice. "Apparently I'm good as new. Can't beat that alien healing."

Isabel smiled but looked around the room to avoid his eyes.

Alex spoke up, "It's okay Isabel. I know about Hale."

"You know?" Isabel asked, and then nodded. "Maria and Liz told you."

"They thought it might be easier for both of us, I guess." Alex sighed, "I won't pretend I'm not disappointed but I do want you to be happy."

"I just want you to know it wasn't an overnight thing Alex. I was so devastated by your death." She shook her head. "I used to talk to you. I know it wasn't really you but I would pretend it was your ghost looking out for me. You know, my own guardian angel."

Alex smiled and nodded.

Isabel continued, "It really helped for me to talk things out, to try and cope with you being gone." She looked up at Alex, "And then I met Hale and he understood things so well because he's lost both his parents." Isabel looked away, "For the first couple of months we were just friends."

"But it grew into something more," Alex prompted.

"I never mean for it to," Isabel said. "It just happened."

Alex smiled sadly and reached out to take her hand. "You can't control falling in love."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


A figure outside watched them carefully through the window.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Copper Summit, AZ)

Lonni grabbed Tess' left arm as Rath took hold of the right, and they steered her into a deserted alley.

"What do you want?" Tess asked, annoyed.

"This thing isn't going down as we had hoped," Lonni said. "We've been in this po-dunk town way too long and I see it as all your fault."

"Yeah," Rath said. "We had this perfectly good plan and you had to go and screw it up."

"And it looks like Khivar is trying to go back on our deal," Lonni added.

Tess shook her head, "What can I do about it?"

Lonni circled around to Tess' other side, leaning close to her. "I think it's time to play a few more of our cards to show Nicholas and Khivar that we can be valuable allies."

"What do you mean?" Tess asked, with wide eyes.

"Chill Chanya," Lonni said. "It's not like you were going to be able to keep your secrets forever. We need to use them to our best advantage."

Tess winced at the use of her real name. "So what are you going to do?"

Lonni shrugged. "I need to work out a strategy on how to present the information so it benefits us the most. We have to be smart about this or the whole thing could be for nothing and we'll be stuck on this miserable planet, for the rest of our lives." She turned to Tess with a sneer, "And don't even think about trying to double cross us."

Rath nodded and jerked Tess by the arm to get her attention. "Just remember, in the big picture, you're less than nothing without us."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Monday, December 24th, 2001)
(Roswell City Park Bandstand)

"Isabel," Hale called out, trying to catch her attention. He jogged over to where she was in a discussion with four other women. "Excuse me ladies," he apologized. "I didn't mean to break into your conversation."

One of the women spoke up, "We were just finishing up, weren't we ladies?" She winked at Isabel and quickly herded the other women away.

"I'm sorry, " Hale apologized again to Isabel. "Your mother said you'd be here. I know you're busy with all of your Christmas activities, but I just wanted to see if you had time for me to take you to lunch."

Isabel smiled, "Thanks, that's so thoughtful but I still have a million things to do. There's the Christmas Pageant this afternoon, and the totaling and distribution of the collections of the food drive. And I still have to get someone to cover for me tomorrow at the nursing home Christmas dinner because of Alex's welcome home party at the Crashdown."

Hale nodded, "So am I invited to the welcome home party? I would love to meet Alex."

Isabel suddenly realized what she'd said and immediately regretted it. She'd had no intention of inviting Hale or even mentioning it to him. It almost seemed like a slap in Alex's face to invite Hale, but then Isabel reasoned, she couldn't keep them apart forever.

Isabel hesitated too long with her answer and Hale lifted his eyebrow. "You weren't going to invite me?"

"No," Isabel instantly denied. "Of course you're invited. I thought I had already told you, that's all. With everything else, it must have slipped my mind."

Hale smiled, "I'm sure that's it." He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. "I had no idea you were so involved in all of this. Is there anything I can do to help?"

Isabel smiled, "Yeah, that would be great."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Crashdown Cafe)

"Your end of the banner is too low, Liz," Isabel called out.

Liz raised it a few inches, "Is this better?"

Isabel eyed it critically, "Yeah, that's perfect."

Maria bounced over to Isabel. "The streamers are all finished."

"Okay," Isabel said checking her list. "What about the balloons?"

"Kyle and Michael are on it," Maria said, pointing toward the back.

Isabel glanced toward them, noting that more helium was going in the boys' mouths than in the balloons. She raised an eyebrow and turned back to Maria.

Maria grimaced, "I'll just go check on them."

Max and Liz climbed down to join Isabel just as Ryan came into the cafe.

He glanced at the banner, "Welcome home Alex." Ryan turned back to them, "Is that a friend of yours?"

"I thought the story would be all over town by now," Max said. "For months, everyone thought Alex was dead, killed in a car accident."

"Oh," Ryan gasped. "He's the one that was in the coma." He smiled, "It must be great to get him back after you thought he was gone. That's what everyone who looses someone dreams of."

Isabel nodded. "Ryan, why don't you come to the party? I'm sure Alex would love to meet you."

"That would be great," Ryan said. "I'd love to meet him too."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Tuesday, December 25th, 2001)
(The DeLuca House)
(Christmas Day)

A knock at the door interrupted Maria, Sean and Amy from breakfast.

"I'll get it," Sean said, rising from the table.

After a moment Sean called out, "It's for you aunt Amy."

Amy and Maria looked at one another with a shrug and went into the front room.

"Merry Christmas," Jim greeted them.

Amy crossed to him, "Jim what a nice surprise. Merry Christmas."

"Well, I came over to give you a present." He motioned outside. "I left it out here with Kyle though." He led them out to the driveway where a new blue Volkswagen Beetle was parked, with a big red bow on top."

Amy gasped, "Jim, what did you do?"

Sean, Maria and Kyle laughed.

"You were in on this?" Amy asked. She turned back to Jim, "It's too much."

Jim placed a kiss on her cheek, "Merry Christmas, Amy."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Crashdown Cafe)

Michael, Maria and Isabel sat with Alex in the midst of the party. News of Alex's return had spread through the small community and the party was packed with well-wishers.

One after another, people had come to talk to Alex and welcome him home. Most of them were people he knew but some were simply people who had heard about his ordeal. Alex was surprised by all the attention but he accepted the greetings in the spirit they were meant.

He had just finished talking with Mr. Seligman when another unfamiliar face was suddenly before them.

"You must be Alex Whitman." The newcomer offered Alex a hand, "I've heard a lot about you."

Confusion creased Alex's brow as they shook hands, "And you are?"

Isabel jumped to her feet, "Alex, this is my friend, Hale."

Alex took in Hale's handsome face, blond hair and athletic build, and knew he didn't stand a chance. As Isabel stood next to Hale, Alex noticed how their golden beauty complimented one another. Even he thought Isabel and Hale looked like a perfect couple.

Alex smiled, "It's nice to meet you, Hale. Isabel has told me a lot about you too."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Max handed a drink to Liz, "This party was a great idea. So many people have shown up from school and the community. No one can believe that all of these months Alex was only a few miles away."

Liz smiled, "Everyone wants the chance to see a real miracle. Especially at Christmas."

"More like a good magic trick, " Max said, and suddenly Liz's words struck a chord in him. "A Christmas miracle," Max whispered.

"What?" Liz asked.

"The dream you had," Max explained. "It seemed familiar when you told me about it but I couldn't place it. The bright star you described was like the one leading the three wise men."

"But it wasn't real and it didn't lead us anywhere," Liz argued.

"Maybe that's only because we didn't know what we were looking for," Max suggested. "What part of the sky was the star in? Which direction?"

Liz shook her head trying to picture it and then suddenly she remembered, "It was in the south."

"Where Artesia is," Max pointed out. "Liz, whether we knew it or not, you predicted Alex's return."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Hale led Isabel into the back and placed a chaste kiss on her cheek. "I won't stay long. Tonight is for you and your friends."

Isabel touched his cheek. "Of course you're welcome stay, Hale."

Hale shook his head, "No, it's all right. I understand." He reached into his pocket, "I just stopped by to give you this."

He handed a small velvet box to Isabel and watched her reaction carefully as she opened it.

Isabel gasped with pleasure when she saw the sparkling diamond stud earrings. "They're beautiful, Hale but it's too much."

"Diamonds are the most precious and rare gem on the planet and that's exactly how I feel about you," he said huskily. "Money means nothing to me, but I finally found you, the woman I've been looking for all of my life, and that means everything. Please Isabel, I want you to have them, as a token of my love."

Isabel felt tears gathering in her eyes as she threw her arms around his neck, "I love you too, Hale."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Alex watched Isabel and Hale disappear into the back and spoke over his shoulder to Maria and Michael, "So that's Hale."

"Yeah," Michael spoke up, "he's a pretty good guy . . ." He trailed off with a gasp as Maria poked an elbow into his ribs. "Um, I mean . . ."

"It's okay," Alex interrupted. "I understand. Life goes on."

"Yeah," Maria said, "but she didn't have to bring him here and flaunt him in your face."

Alex shook his head, "No, that's not fair. It's not like we can avoid each other forever. Isabel is in love and she shouldn't have to hide that to spare my feelings."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Song Playing: Love Song by the Cure

Finally the party was over and the Crashdown was empty.

Jeff put an arm around Nancy's shoulders and turned to Max and Liz, "Let's leave the clean-up for tomorrow."

Liz agreed with a nod, "Okay Dad. I'll just say goodbye to Max and lock-up."

Jeff and Nancy nodded, "Goodnight Max."

"Goodnight, Mr. and Mrs. Evans," Max called out, as they disappeared into the back.

Liz took his hand and pulled him over to the Christmas tree in the corner of the room. "I have something I want to give you."

Max glanced at the boxes beneath the tree. "I thought they were empty, just decorative."

Liz reached behind the tree, took a box from the bottom and handed it to Max. "All of them are, except this one. Merry Christmas, Max."

Max pulled the ribbon off the box and opened it to reveal a leather-bound copy of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. It was his favorite book, by his favorite author and instantly he was reminded of another time when Tess had been reading Steinbeck outside the Crashdown. She had claimed to like the author but Max had guessed that Liz had coached her on what to do and say.

Once again Max realized what a fool he had been to ever fall for anything Tess had said or done. Everything between them had been false, an illusion. Tess had never known anything about him, unlike Liz.

Liz spoke up, "I wanted to get you a first edition or a signed copy but they were out of my price-range."

Max shook his head, "This is great, Liz. It's my favorite and it means even more since it's from you."

"Read the inscription, " Liz urged.

Max opened the book and read aloud.



My Dearest Max,

I have never wanted anything more than to be with you
and now that we are together, I have never been happier.
I love you more than I ever imagined possible and
I know without doubt that we belong together.
Every day I thank whatever forces brought us together.
You are my friend, my confident, my passion, my life, heart and soul.

I will love you always,
Liz




Max pulled her into an embrace, "Oh Liz, I love you so much and I'm so lucky to have you."

Liz shook her head, "No Max, I'm the lucky one."

Max pulled back from Liz and took her hands in his. "I don't know what I did to deserve you but I have something for you too." He reached into his pocket and took out a small velvet box. "This is for you."

Liz took the box and opened it to reveal a simple platinum ring with a single, brilliant star sapphire. "It's beautiful," Liz gasped.

"It's a promise ring," Max said. "I know it's too soon to get engaged officially, but I wanted to give you something as a tangible reminder of my love for you."

Max took the ring out of the box and held it out to Liz, "May I?"

Liz nodded as tears gathered in her eyes and she held out her hand to him.

Max slid the ring onto her slender finger. "In ancient times the three arms of the star were said to represent faith, hope and happiness. It was called the stone of destiny."

He raised Liz's hand to his lips and placed a kiss on her finger just above the ring. "You are my destiny Liz and I promise I will never stop loving you. And as soon as we are ready, I will replace this ring with an engagement ring and then a wedding ring."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Tuesday, January 1st, 2002)
(Roswell Municipal Courthouse)
(New Year's Day)

Song Playing: Annie's Song by John Denver

The small group of friends and family gathered together in the courthouse as Judge Lewis officiated over the special ceremony.

"Do you Jim take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and honor, until death you do part?"

"I do," Jim said, gazing into Amy's eyes.

"And do you Amy take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and honor, until death you do part?"

"I do," Amy said solemnly.

"Then, by the power vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride," Judge Lewis prompted.

A cheer went through the crowd as Amy and Jim kissed.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(Antar)
(Capitol city of Roistar - formerly Tageonon)
(The Royal Palace)

The messenger burst into the throne room and dropped to one knee in front of Khivar.

"Rise and report," Khivar ordered.

"My liege, we have the information you wanted."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(The Valenti House)

Jim and Amy waved goodbye as they drove away. The reception in the Valenti's back yard was winding down, now that the guests of honor were gone, and people were starting to leave.

Max gathered the group around and pulled out a bottle of non-alcoholic, sparkling grape juice. He poured the contents into seven glasses and passed them around. He looked at each of them, Isabel, Alex, Michael, Maria, Kyle and Liz. "New Year's Eve was last night but I wanted to make a toast anyway. It's been a long year, full of hardship and loss, but there have been a lot of good things too. The wedding and the formation of a new family, getting Alex back."

He reached down and squeezed Liz's hand. "We're all well and there's not an imminent threat to our lives, but there is a possibility of one out there. And that's why we need to stick together more than ever. We need to keep up with our training and keep our eyes open for anything unusual."

He raised his glass, "So I propose we renew our commitment to one another. To all of us, family and friends, we're in this together."

Everyone raised their glasses. "Together."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


TBC





BOOK 10 - MAJESTY'S MORASS
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