Maria, Michael, Kyle, and Isabel finally gave me my wedding gift today, and for the first time in a long time, I can cry.
I'm going home. Just a visit, but I have passage to Earth, with a healthy chunk of time devoted specifically to Roswell, New Mexico, and I'm going to see where my family was buried and visit Alex's grave. Max is coming with me, and it'll be a honeymoon and a pilgrimage and a vacation all in one.
But it’s really for me, and I love them for it.
They're all going to join us soon, and in fact this trip will officially constitute a royal visit to cement interplanetary political alliances. But we're coming early, dodging the media of several planets to come here by ourselves. Just for a few days, but the very thought of it has me shaking with anticipation.
It must have taken some doing, actually. The security arrangements had to have been a headache, and I know I owe Michael some thanks for that. And the sheer logistics of getting so many key personnel together and off-planet – I don't even want to think about the amount of paperwork that is going to pass between Isabel and Maria's home offices and their rooms in the newly built Antarian Embassy in New York.
But it's a gift, and part of the gift is not having to worry about all of that. So I don't, and I won't.
I'm going home. I can almost taste the water now.
"—and that's why it took me so long to come back, Alex. Sorry about that."
I pause to adjust a flower that doesn't seem to want to stay in place.
"I miss you, you know that, right? Nothing ever seemed right after you were gone. I got married, and you weren't there. Do you know how wrong that felt? I ... I'm sorry I couldn't save you. I'm sorry I still can't."
I've been rambling since I got here, reminiscing about our adventures as kids, telling him about Maria and how great she's doing, and how Isabel's fine, for the most part. But finally I just sit on the ground, content to stare at his name and remember.
Of course, in the back of my mind, I find myself wondering what Kyle was talking about. Sure, being here is like looking back, but if all he meant was that I needed to honor the past, why didn’t he say so? What was he trying to prepare me for?
"Liz? Liz Parker?"
I whip around, startled. Max had gone to visit his parents' graves, and I didn't expect him to come back for me for at least another hour. I didn’t expect anyone, actually.
There's an old man standing about twenty feet away, holding the hand of a young girl, a teenager. She looks about Ander's age, maybe a bit younger, and there's something about her ... or maybe it's something about him ...
I'm shocked when he smiles and comes closer. Oh my god ... I'd just blurted it out, really, without thinking. But it's really him. He looks so old ...
"Charles, please. Liz, this is Amanda. Amanda, this is Liz Parker. She was good friends with your brother."
Brother? I focus on the girl next to him. Now I know why she seemed familiar. She looks like Alex. Not pretty, exactly, but a lot of character. She looks easy-going but strong-willed, and she has an engaging smile. I like her already.
"Da-ad, I know who Liz Parker is," Amanda whines slightly, and I can't help but smile. She sounds like any ordinary teenager, and I'm struck at how long it's been since I've talked to a child who didn't grow up right in the midst of a war, who still had that wonderful air of innocent arrogance.
"Well," I interrupt, holding out my hand, "I'd be honored to know who Amanda Whitman is."
Now she looks a little unsure, and I know she really does know who I am and what I am, but she doesn’t know how to act around me. I smile a little brighter, trying to put her at ease. Slowly she steps forward to shake my hand, and on impulse I pull her into a hug. She's a little stiff at first but then she hugs me back. I guess it helps that I don't really look like a queen in my grass-stained jeans and dusty t-shirt.
I’m also several inches shorter than she is. I have to stand on tip-toes. Ye gods.
Releasing her, I hug her father and he's a little stiff too, albeit for much different reasons, so I'm as gentle as possible. Physically, anyway.
Too excited to be tactful, I blurt out, "We thought you were dead!"
He smiles at my enthusiasm, as understanding as ever. "I was out of town, during ..."
"The attack," I say, when he doesn’t, and he just nods. Then a thought strikes me, a wild, crazy thought that sends my heart rate soaring. "Mr. Whitman – Charles – if you ... did you ... do you know ... could my parents have ...?"
Saddened now, he shakes his head. "I'm sorry, Liz."
I close my eyes, calling on every last ounce of discipline I've learned. I knew they couldn’t have survived, someone would have told me if they had, of course they would have, but it’s still hard to hear. Taking a deep breath, I open my eyes and meet his gaze head on.
"I'm glad you're okay," I tell him, and I mean it.
"We've seen you on the news," Amanda interjects, obviously sensing that her father is upset and wanting to change the subject. "Was my brother really a war hero? Did evil aliens kill him because he tried to stop them from taking over the world?"
I want to smile in delight at the way her child's mind works, but she'd take it the wrong way. So I just nod. It's not exactly a lie, anyway.
"I'm sorry we couldn't tell you before we left," I tell Mr. Whitman.
"I understand," he says, and of course, he probably does. We'd talked openly about Alex on Antar, calling him an early human casualty of the war. Obviously some of it had leaked through on newscasts back here over the years, so Charles has had a long time to think about this.
There’s an awkward silence. Finally I ask, stupidly, "Are you here to visit Alex?"
He nods. "Alex and Yvonne."
Belatedly, I note the stone next to Alex's, and I learn that his mother died two years ago. "I'm sorry," I tell them both, feeling horrible that I hadn't noticed earlier.
They're very gracious about it, though, and we talk a while longer. I agree to come back to their house for lunch, and I write down their address to send some invitations for an Embassy dinner, reminding myself to put them on the “Always Approved” visitor's list.
They wait for Max along with me, so I can hear all about how different Roswell is now. I’m glad we came right here from the transport, because it’s really something to see it – the “new” Roswell – through a child’s eyes.
For one thing, Amanda is looking forward to attending Maria DeLuca High next semester, having just graduated from Kyle Valenti Elementary. In the meanwhile, she’s enjoying summer day camp at the Michael Guerin Civic Center, which stands right across the street from the Alex Whitman Memorial Theatre and down the street from the Evans Family Municipal Complex and Courthouse, where each wing is named after a different Evans. On their way here, incidentally, they stopped at the Elizabeth Park for lunch, and I have to laugh at the pun.
I have to laugh; it all sounds so incredible. But of course, this is Roswell; anything to capitalize on the aliens, right? I sober quickly, however, when Charles tells me that one of the last items he processed before retiring was the final approval for the Jeff and Nancy Parker Memorial Hospital.
But before I can form any coherent thoughts on the matter, Max shows up, and aside from Amanda's sudden shyness at actually meeting an alien hybrid king, we’re all happy to go back to the Whitman house for lunch.
It's a nice afternoon. There's a great deal more laughter than I would have expected, and it's my pleasure to tell Amanda all about her wonderful, brave, brilliant older brother who would've loved her more than anything and died too damn young.
It’s funny, though. I can feel him all around me here, but I keep getting the feeling that it’s me he never left, not this place. I just never realized it until now.
It’s silly, and irrational, and I’ll never tell anyone, but it’s how I feel.
And it helps. It helps a lot.
"It's an honor to be here," I say, sincerely, loud enough to make sure the microphones pick up my words but not quite shouting. It's an art, really, and one I'm getting too much experience perfecting. "I may call Antar home now, but Roswell, New Mexico will always hold a special place in my heart."
There's a little more cheering until I hold up my hand. "We're here today to remember two people who loved Roswell, who loved to live here, and loved the people they knew here. Some of you may remember my parents, Jeff and Nancy Parker, as owners of the CrashDown Diner, which used to stand just over there, by the old UFO Museum. But since I've been back, I've learned that they were also heroes."
It's true. During the Trejantisian strikes, Brody opened the bomb shelter-turned-UFO museum and provided a temporary refuge for a couple hundred suddenly homeless Roswell residents. Mom and Dad, of course, volunteered whatever stores they could salvage from the CrashDown to help out, from food to candles to blankets to anything useful anyone could bring over from the apartment. In the last few days, countless people have told me about 'inheriting' some item from my closet, and one young woman tried to return a small music box I used to keep on my dresser.
But when she told me that she and a half-dozen other young orphaned girls had weathered the air raids wearing my jewelry and listening to the quiet tinkling of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", I refused to take it back. Instead, I asked her to tell me what she remembered about my parents.
My mom, she said, made sure that everyone had something warm and clean to wear, even when it meant tacking something together out of a curtain or cutting up a tablecloth because they’d run out of proper clothing. My dad organized rations so that everyone got their fair share and no one got sick, and he was the one that started the babysitting rotation so that no small children were left unattended at any time.
When virtually everyone around them was reeling in shock at their violent introduction to alien life, my parents kept their heads. And it’s funny, how I’m so proud of them I could just burst, but at the same time, I wish they’d been less brave, less self-sacrificing, so I could be honoring them today, not their memory.
They died going back for more supplies, when one last strike hit a block away and flying debris decimated everything within a hundred feet.
Ironically, that was the final attack on Earth. Just hours earlier, every functioning television on Earth had caught our historic broadcast, the one explaining who was attacking and why we were forcing the war back into Antarian/Trejantisian territory. But it was too late to save them.
Still, they knew where I was when they died, and why I left, and I like to think that they died knowing I didn’t leave them because I wanted to. They were good people, and I hope they thought I was a good person too. I’m just sorry they’ll never meet their granddaughter.
The flash of a camera reminds me that I’ve stopped speaking. Smiling, I finish.
"I can't help but believe that a hospital is a fitting tribute to two people who cared so much for the well-being of others, whether friend, family, or stranger. And when you sit down for a bite at the New CrashDown Diner –" everyone cheers at the name of the hospital cafeteria "– please take a moment to appreciate the true meaning of hospitality. Thank you."
As I step forward and lift up the ridiculously large shears to cut the silver-and-sea-foam-green ribbon, not one but a hundred cameras click and flash to capture the moment for all posterity.
I can't sleep.
He mumbles something unintelligible.
I poke him in the side. "Max!"
He simply buries his head in his pillow.
Thinking, I lie back down and close my eyes, focusing my energies inward, allowing the electricity of our connection to build, slowly but then with more heat, first in the pit of my stomach and then spreading, stretching, expanding ...
I open my eyes ever so slightly, gratified by the sight of a flushed and obviously awake Max Evans.
"Oh good!" I chirp brightly. "You're up. I wanted –"
I'm interrupted by a growl of pure animal desire, and all of a sudden my plans take a slight detour.
I can't say I mind much.
"Okay, what was it you wanted so badly?"
" I mean,” he protests, and the way he can still flush demurely after all this time makes me laugh out loud, "why did you wake me up?"
"Oh, right." It takes a moment for me to switch mental gears. "I was thinking, earlier, that we've come full circle."
"You mean, because we're back in Roswell?"
"Sort of. But more than that – Max?"
"Can you read me right now?"
He concentrates for a second and then smiles, gently this time. "Yes."
"I'm happy, Max."
He nods, but I can sense his confusion.
"No, I mean ... I wasn't, before. For a long time, I wasn't happy. You must have known that."
He nods again, this time looking a little depressed.
"Do you know why?"
He shrugs. "There wasn't much to be happy about."
I push the point. "Do you know why?"
Reluctantly, he lets his gaze meet mine, and I know that he has an idea.
Good. That means I can skip the painful explanations. Well, most of them. "I think I died a little the day Alex died. I truly believed it was my fault, and that I'd failed him. And I've been punishing myself for it ever since. You know that?"
He looks at me with sad eyes. Of course he does. When I don't finish the thought, he leans forward to push a stray strand of hair off my face. But again he just nods. He’ll have something to say about this later, but right now, he’s listening to me, and I love him for it.
“Kyle once told me that sometimes you have to look back before you can move forward. And I think he’s right, and that coming here was exactly what I needed to put my old life behind me, so that I can concentrate on the life we’re living instead, so that I know where home really is for me. And ...”
"Time is a by-product of gravity, did you know that?"
He looks understandably confused, but interested.
"I read an article once about this theory of planetary rotation, that explains how time can be a constant even though it is also one of the most flexible physical aspects of the universe. It all depends on perspective and perception and position, you see."
He cocks his head, trying to see where I’m going with this. "How do you mean?"
"Well, you know how time is elastic? That it really is relative, like ... like when you go to a different planet. You don't feel as though time is moving at a different rate, but if you compare it to how time progresses in a ship out in space, you can see how it's passing at a different speed because it has a different gravitational reality. And remember that simulated black hole they built, where the gravity was so strong at the event horizon that time moved at a different rate in the lab than it did outside?"
He nodded, face neutral. "Go on." Max understands little about the vagaries of space travel and cares even less, I can tell, but I appreciate his patience.
"What happened to us ... the whole thing with Khivar ... it completely turned my life around. But it didn't happen in a vacuum. I think it, or something like it, had been coming for years. It’s like I spent half my life in the shadow of this big black hole, moving at a different speed than everyone else, just waiting and preparing for what was coming.”
I take a moment to breathe deeply. I’ve come a long way since all that, but I’ll never escape it completely. The memory still holds power over me, and it’s a daily struggle to face the consequences of what happened and my role in it.
“I was relieved when it was over, because I thought 'well, that's it. The Big Bad Scare happened, and I won.' I'd answered my call to arms and could finally go on with my life. But at the same time, all the bad stuff ... sometimes it still seems fresh to me, like it just happened yesterday. Like the war never ended. So I start asking myself: have I really caught up? Or am I stuck in the same place?"
"Perspective, perception, position?"
I smile. "Partly. It's a time thing; it'll only get better with time, and it's just a matter of getting through it. I know this. But there's more to it."
The smile drops. I’m utterly serious now.
"I think that's what I was doing in the forces. Preparing. Biding my time. And sometimes I feel bad about it, because I feel like I was taking something away from the cause I was fighting for, and from the people I was fighting with, because I was really just doing it for me."
"You mean, you weren't so much defined by being a soldier, as being a soldier was an expression of something that was in you?"
I think about it. I’m not entirely sure I know what he means, but it sounds right, so I nod.
"So why were you doing it, then? Why did you need to be a soldier? Why not something else?"
I hesitate. This conversation’s been a long time coming, and I’m risking a lot by telling him this.
I don't care. It’s … well, it’s time.
"In our timeline, no one's ever discovered time travel, not that I know of. But I know that it's possible because I've met someone who's traveled through time, someone who was part of one possible future."
His eyes widen; this he wasn't expecting, and I allow myself a small smirk at his expression. All too soon, though, his mask is back in place, confident and serene. "And?"
My turn to look shocked. I'd expected a bit more of a reaction. "And?" I mimic incredulously.
He shrugs. "I’ve known about the Future Max thing for a long time. You think about it a lot."
I’m shocked. “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
“You didn’t want to talk about it.”
Once again I’m struck at and by the depths of the man I married. It’s astounding that even after all we’ve been through, and despite the lack of privacy our connection and our lives permit us, we may never know each other completely. I like that. I like the idea that there will always be something else to learn about each other.
I start to tell him so, too, except that I have a point I want to make. So right now, I simply nod in acceptance. "Okay, I'll buy that.”
“So what changed?”
“I've spent my adult life making myself ready and waiting for it to happen again,” I continue, after a moment. “In the back of my mind, part of me was waiting for someone to put it together the way they did in another time and place, so I could go back. And that meant no more family. No more close friends. No more people to leave behind."
Comprehension flits across his face. "Because you might lose them when you went back and changed things?"
Thankfully, he doesn’t ask why I’d be able to leave him and Maria and the others behind in my little scenario. I don’t know how I’d ever answer that.
I just nod.
"But then I led that raid. And I helped bury a village, and I went to you and I got pregnant. I never planned any of it, but it happened, and everything changed. Because I couldn't bear to erase her reality, and ... and that threw me. It changed everything, you see, because it meant I couldn't go through with that plan anymore. I couldn't go back and save Alex, or our parents, or Kyle. So I realized that when Michael had offered me that last mission, he’d also given me the opportunity to forget that I knew about time travel at all, and I decided to take it. But then the triggers all got messed up, and they made me retrieve everything, even that, and it –"
When I find the words, they seem inadequate. "It's too much, sometimes."
"But that's not all,” he says, unexpectedly. “It would change everything, if you went back. Risk everything. You couldn't take the chance that things would be even worse the next time around. And you know that if you could ask them, the very people you wanted to save wouldn't want you to take that risk. You know this, and respect it. The honor of their memory demands it."
The High Antarian phrase sounds strangely stilted in English, but I know what he means. He’s thought about this a lot, I can tell. And as much as he himself wants them all back, Alex, his own parents, everyone we lost, Max wouldn't jeopardize the space-time continuum either. The honor of their memory demands it of him, too.
"Honor," I muse, letting the word roll around in my mouth and in my mind. "What is honor? Is it sacrifice? Does it have anything to do with death? Because I don't know when it happened exactly, but at some point everything became about death for me. And I'm not going to apologize for it, or make excuses for it, but I am going to let it go. Not completely, I don't think I could, but I'm going to try. I have a lot to live for now, and I know it, and I want to be there for you and with you, to enjoy it, good or bad."
I stop to take a deep breath.
"That's all. I just wanted you to know that. Oh, and to thank you for being there for me, too."
A slow smile creeps over his face as he reads my expression and reaches for me through our bond.
"Thank you," he says, and reaches for me with his arms too.
This time I find myself secure in the warmth of his embrace, both embraces, and, more than anything else, I’m content. It's a novel feeling, and a beautiful one. Like coming home.
"I love you, you know," I say, suddenly.
I feel more than see him nod. "I know."
"Do you love me?" I ask. Demand, really. And I don’t feel silly.
He holds me tighter. "Always."
I can hear the truth of it in his voice, feel the truth of it in his touch.
I yawn, then, and snuggle a little closer. All the fight in me is gone, and I'm tired.
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