It had been two weeks since Mike's return, and still Isabel woke every morning with a cold lump of fear in the pit of her stomach. Still her heart raced every time the phone rang, and her fingers trembled when she picked up the receiver. Still she was terrified that she was about to learn more bad news—that he had left again.
She leaned her hip against the rail of the balcony, folding her arms across her middle as she stared across the dunes without seeing them.
No, her mind's eye was focused inward, reliving the day when he had shambled into the Pad, filthy, exhausted, and emaciated—but alive. She could vividly recall the feeling of relief; it had been so overwhelming that her head swam at the strength of it.
But on its heels fright had quickly followed.
It didn't help that he refused to give a straight answer about where he'd been and why he had left without anything except the clothes on his back. All he would say on the subject was that he'd needed to lose everything before he could find it again—whatever that meant. When she asked about the strange dream she, Micky, Peter and Davy had shared, Mike had simply smiled and said she wouldn't believe him if he told her, and there was an end to it. No amount of questioning on her part would pry any more information out of him.
All those days he was gone, she had felt as if she was living in a fog, going through the motions of life, outside of herself somehow, watching but not feeling anything except a sick dread like nothing she'd felt since she was a child, waking up from nightmares that her parents had been killed. Then remembering it was true.
She'd dreamed of Mike every night he was missing, but they hadn't been comforting dreams. She'd seen him wandering in some vast, barren wasteland, waking to find tears rolling down her cheeks and growing angry with herself for such childish weakness. She was twenty-one, not ten.
And if he was heartless and unfeeling enough to run off without a word, he didn't deserve her tears.
She still couldn't believe he had abandoned them—abandoned her. Yes, he seemed to be much more at peace with himself now, but why couldn't he have turned to them for help? Why had he felt the need to run away?
When was he going to do it again?
That was the question gnawing her heart, feeding the fear growing in her soul. Her parents had died; her grandmother had made it abundantly clear that she was less than pleased about having to raise a child; her only other living relative had practically sold her off...
She thought—hoped—she had finally found stability with Mike. That he was someone she could trust, someone who wouldn't leave her.
Apparently she was wrong.
The phone rang, and she nearly jumped out of her skin; her heart pounded in her throat as she hurried to answer.
"Hello?" she said hesitantly, the familiar surge of apprehension welling up in her chest.
She closed her eyes, clutching the receiver until her knuckles turned white, limp with relief at hearing Mike's voice.
"Late for what?" she asked, hoping her voice didn't sound as shaky as she felt.
A glance at her watch showed it was a few minutes after seven o'clock, their usual rehearsal time.
"We're fixin to start, but our audience isn't here."
"Okay, I'll be there in a minute," she replied quietly, then hung up and clasped her fingers together to still the trembling.
A few deep breaths helped calm her down and clear her head, and she felt ready to face him once more.
But the tenuous emotional crutches on which she'd propped her fragile confidence were abruptly kicked out from under her when she walked through the door of the Pad.
On the surface, everything was normal. All four of them were set up on their small stage at the back of the room. Peter was grooving with his usual enthusiasm as he played his bass and chimed in with back-up vocals. Davy was thwacking his tambourine against his hip and doing a little Davy-dance. Mike was perched on a stool as he played and harmonized with Peter on the back-ups. Micky was behind his drum kit, running through the licks as he sang lead.
"I woke up this morning, and this is what I found—you had gone and left me, and you never even made a farewell sound!"
Isabel sagged against the door, feeling the blood drain from her face.
"Now all the king's horses and all the king's men—they couldn't put my broken heart back together again."
"Someday you will know—"
Micky broke off suddenly when he glanced up and noticed her; the others looked at him questioningly, then followed the line of his gaze to the door.
"Izzy, are you okay?" Micky stood up and tossed his drumsticks aside as he skirted the kit, heading for her.
But Mike hadn't wasted time with words; he'd immediately unslung his guitar and strode over to her.
"What's wrong?" he asked quietly, touching her cheek and forehead with gentle fingers, testing for fever. "You feelin bad?"
She didn't look up at him—she couldn't—as she shook her head mutely. No, physically she was fine...
Micky and Peter had reached them by now, and both were watching her with solicitude growing in their eyes.
"You want to sit down?" Micky asked, touching her arm lightly.
"No..." she replied, fighting to keep the tremor out of her voice but not entirely succeeding. "I want to go home."
"Okay, I'll walk you—" Mike slipped his arm across her shoulders, but she shrugged him off, ignoring his look of surprise at her unexpected gesture.
"No," she added unnecessarily. "I want to be alone."
"Fine." He stepped back, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops and regarding her impassively, but she wasn't fooled. Those tell-tale stubborn lines had appeared around his mouth, and she knew he planned to grill her as soon as he thought she was feeling up to it.
She fumbled for the doorknob, desperate to escape, inexplicably feeling like she was suffocating under the weight of their collective concern. Wrenching the door open, she stumbled out of the Pad to freedom, barely able to hold back her tears until she was safe in her own home again.
But if you were truly alone, a tiny inner voice piped up, you wouldn't have this problem, would you?
No, she wouldn't...
What's the point in allowing yourself to love someone? You see what always happens. They leave. You wind up alone again anyway because they don't really want you around. They don't ever love you back.
If she didn't love...If she didn't feel...She'd be alone—terribly alone—but she was alone anyway. Choosing to isolate herself was far less painful than being abandoned by everyone she ever cared about time after time.
But Mike...She loved Mike...
Yeah, and look where it got you. Left behind again. He doesn't care about you any more than everyone else who left you. He walked—and he won't even give a plausible reason why. He doesn't care enough to help you understand what happened.
Isabel dashed away the hateful tears, her face hardening into an implacable mask.
She loved him, yes—but not enough to be hurt by him deserting her again. Not enough to risk having her heart broken again by his callous dismissal.
He'd turned his back on her.
Now it was her turn.
Micky bounded down the tornado staircase, headed for the kitchen—he was starving as usual—only to notice Mike sitting on the windowseat, staring out at the late morning sky.
Huh, he thought, stopping dead in his tracks and watching his room-mate for a moment. That's weird. Usually he's over at Isabel's by now.
They always spent Saturdays together; sometimes they joined the rest of the crowd on the beach or at a burger joint or something, but more often than not, they spent the time alone. But now that he thought about it, Mike had been home nearly all the time since Isabel had walked out on practice, no matterwhat day of the week it was.
"Morning, Mike," Micky said in a normal voice as his growling stomach prompted him to stop speculating on other people's love lives and concentrate on finding out if there were any pancakes left. "I'm surprised to see you here," he remarked as he scrounged around in the fridge for some juice.
There was no answer.
"Mike?" Micky turned, orange juice in hand. Mike was still sitting by the window, lost in thought, appearing as if he hadn't even heard Micky.
"Mike?" Micky asked again, concern flaring.
Was he that out of it?
No...Micky shook his head with a wry smile at himself for forgetting—again. Mike was acting like he hadn't heard Micky because he hadn't heard Micky!
Mike's hearing was normal again. Since his vanishing act, that was. He'd returned home unable to hear any better than the rest of them. But Micky and the others were so used to Mike being able to hear them from anywhere in the house that they tended to forget that he couldn't anymore.
"Mike," he called out, raising his voice a little so it would carry across the room.
Mike glanced up, and Micky grinned and waved. "Morning," he greeted cheerfully, and to his surprise, Mike smiled slightly and gave a little wave in return before turning his gaze out the window once more.
You're so serious all the time...
Mike smiles more at me now that before he disappeared, Micky thought, crossing the living room as he downed the juice. And they're his own smiles, not Peter's... He shivered at the memory of those awful days when Mike and Peter both had lost themselves, and how hard it had been for Mike to regain his own personality again.
He still wondered what had happened while Mike was gone; he'd left as a weird mixture of himself and Peter, but when he came back, he was all Mike again, only with some subtle differences—for one thing, he seemed a lot more together, a lot more at peace with himself, and he also treated each of them differently. But Mike wasn't talking, and Micky could only speculate, wondering if that weird dream had anything to do with it.
You're the one I need to make laugh the most...
Peter had eventually admitted to Micky that in his dream, he told Mike he felt like they were brothers, not just friends. And the more Micky thought about it, the more he realized that Mike had been treating Peter like a kid brother, showing more affection and less inclination to lead Peter around by the hand.
Davy still refused to tell any of them what he'd said in his dream, but Micky noticed Mike had been exhibiting far more patience where Davy was concerned, seeming to make an effort to talk to him and ask his opinion about things more.
Maybe it wasn't so weird after all...Maybe there had been a connection. But if that were the case, Izzy had shared the dream too, so why was she so freaked now? Had the dream changed things for the worse for her and Mike instead of for the better?
Micky dropped down onto the seat beside Mike and nudged his arm to get his attention. "Hey, Mike? What's going on with you and Izzy?"
Mike snorted and shook his head. "Well, if you want to know something, just come right out and ask," he said dryly.
"Sorry, man," Micky replied with a little shrug. "I'm just worried, y'know? It's not like you guys to be apart so much."
Mike sighed softly as he ran his fingers through his raven hair. "I don't know, Micky. She...She seems to be withdrawin’..."
"From all of us," Micky mused.
He'd gone over to check up on her the day after that practice session, wanting to see if she was okay, and she'd treated him with polite distance, almost like he was an acquaintance rather than someone she'd once called her adopted baby brother. At the time, he'd chalked it up to her feeling bad, but now he wasn't so sure it was that at all.
"Even me," Mike said, nodding agreement. "And I don't know what triggered it or how to fix it..." He stood and began to pace. "I thought she just needed some time, y'know? Some space to sort things out after what happened with Peter'n me. I could understand if she did. I probably would too."
"But it's been three days since she walked out on us," Micky finished. He knew how much alike Mike and Izzy were, but he doubted either of them would ever need three whole days to pull themselves together.
Mike nodded. He stopped pacing and sat down next to Micky again, his expression grave. "I'm startin to think there's somethin else goin on here."
"Going on where?" A new voice entered the conversation, and Mike and Micky looked up to see Peter walking out of the bathroom; he joined them at the windowseat, plopping down on Mike's other side and resting his bent arm on Mike's shoulder as he leaned forward to be able to see Micky as well.
"With Isa," Mike explained, and Peter nodded comprehension.
"Yeah, I noticed that," he agreed. "What's up with her?"
"That's what we're tryin to figure out," replied Mike. "Got any ideas?"
Micky glanced at him, surprised, but Mike was watching Peter and missed the look.
"What about the dream?" Peter asked softly, and Micky's surprise turned to shock. Mike had deflected any questions about that particular topic from any of them since his return, and they had all given up trying to get any sort of explanation from him, or even so much as an admission that he had shared it as well.
"What about it?" Mike asked mildly, no trace of irritation in his voice at having the taboo subject brought up.
"Did she say anything to you that might explain this?" Peter elaborated. "Or did you say anything to her?"
Micky sat up straight, alert and at full attention as he waited for Mike's answer.
"No." Mike shook his head and gave a rueful one-shouldered shrug. "If anything, it should've made us closer, not torn us apart like this."
Micky stared at him, feeling his lower jaw drop slightly, astonished that Mike had actually admitted the truth at last. He had shared the dream with them! It really was him they'd talked to! It wasn't just another dream!
His cheeks burned crimson as he remembered what he'd said; never would he have admitted such a thing in the waking world. The feelings were too personal, and he didn't feel comfortable expressing them anymore than Mike felt comfortable hearing them—at least in the past. But while he was in the throes of that bizarre vision, he'd had no choice. The words had poured out before he could stop them.
And truth to tell, he'd been relieved Mike wouldn't confirm or deny its reality, because then he could pretend it was just another dream and convince himself that he hadn't revealed anything, and Mike didn't know how he really felt.
Just then the beachside door opened and slammed shut again, and Davy strolled in, toweling off his wet hair and leaving a trail of sand and salt water behind him with every step.
"Hey, what's with you guys?" he asked, throwing them a puzzled frown.
"We were talking about Isabel," Peter supplied helpfully.
"Oh, yeah," Davy nodded, tossing his towel around his shoulders and grasping the ends that dangled in front of his bare chest. "She hasn't been coming round much lately. Something wrong?"
"Don't know, man," Mike replied. "I think it's about time I found out, though."
With that, he rose to his feet as if he were going to match deed to words right then, but Davy immediately piped up, "Are we gonna practice this afternoon? We've got that gig tonight—"
"Yeah, I remember," Mike said. "Write up the set list, and we'll rehearse when I get back."
Davy gaped at him, visibly astounded; Micky was more than a little surprised himself. Mike generally preferred drawing up the song list himself, and if he did delegate any band-related task, it usually wasn't to Davy!
"You want me to do it?" he squeaked. "B-but what—I mean—which—?"
Mike waved one hand dismissively. "You know what works for us as well as I do." He paused, and a hint of mischief gleamed in his eyes as he added, "Just don't put 'The Day We Fall In Love' on there, or I'll never let you do it again."
Davy grinned broadly as he hurried off to get showered and dressed so he could complete the appointed task; Mike left to visit next door; Peter got up and headed for the kitchen to fix himself some eggs and toast, leaving Micky alone with his thoughts once more.
So it seemed whatever had happened to Mike while he was wandering who-knew-where and showing up in their dreams to ask strange questions had resulted in a marked improvement as far as his relationship with his room-mates went. Judging by his actions, Peter obviously felt closer to him; Micky was finding it easier to joke around and tease him because he was much more likely to loosen up and laugh with them now. And Davy...Well, there seemed to be something different there too.
But it didn't seem things had worked out so well with him and Izzy. If the dream hadn't upset her, then something else must be bugging her, and they needed to find out what it was—soon. Otherwise, she might drift so far away from them that she'd never come back.
When Mike walked into Isa's house, he was surprised by the absolute silence. Generally if she were home—and he knew she was—there was some kind of noise; either she was blaring Janis Joplin at full blast or she had the radio or TV on for background sound; at the very least, he always heard the distinctive clatter of her typewriter keys or the low murmur of her voice as she talked to herself, usually when she was trying to work through an idea for a story. That little trait had amused him to no end when he discovered it; he shared the habit, and he suspected it was common among only children because, as she succinctly put it, only children had no one else to talk to.
But today all was quiet and still, and that in itself gave him a strong sense of foreboding.
He ambled into the living room, schooling his features into neutrality so she wouldn't immediately suspect he was concerned; she was sitting at her desk—that at least was normal—but she wasn't working. Instead, she was curled up in her chair with her knees tucked under her chin, chewing her thumbnail as she stared blankly at the opposing wall, focusing on nothing.
"Isa?" he addressed her quietly, trying not to startle her, but it didn't work; she nearly bolted out of the chair, her face suffused with fright as she glanced wildly around. "Sorry," he added, shoving his hands in his pockets as he moved to stand near her desk, leaning his hip against it as he spoke. "Didn't mean to scare you."
"Well, you did," she replied testily, and he repressed a sigh. Not a good beginning.
"Haven't seen much of you lately," he said, deciding to jump right into the matter. He didn't believe in beating around the bush, especially not with her.
"I've been busy." Her reply was terse, and she didn't look at him—a sure sign she was hiding something.
"So busy you couldn't come to a single practice?" he asked quietly. "So busy you couldn't spare a single minute for me in three days?"
"I—" She started to speak again, but he captured her chin in his fingers, lifting it, forcing her to meet his eyes, knowing she couldn't look at him and lie. "What's goin on with you, Isa? Why've you been hidin’ from us—from me—lately?"
She knocked his hand away, jumping to her feet and retreating to the other side of the room as if she needed distance between them; he let her go, perching on the edge of her desk with his arms folded as he watched her pace nervously.
"I haven't been hiding," she replied, her tone querulous. Suddenly she stopped pacing and fixed him with an angry scowl. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe I don't want to spend every moment of the day with you? That maybe I need some time to myself?"
He rolled his eyes and let out a derisive snort. "Oh, come on," he scoffed. "Since when are we ever in each other's pockets all the time anyway? That ain't gonna work, Isa. We've always given each other space, and you know it."
"I told you—I've been busy," she repeated insistently. "Gregory's really pressuring me about a deadline—"
"You've been under pressure from work before, and it never stopped you from makin time for us," he pointed out, and she shot him a look of pure annoyance. "What's the difference this time, Isa? What's really goin on?"
She began pacing again, her chest rising and falling rapidly as her breathing grew shallow, her features drawn taut, and Mike watched this frenetic movement with growing concern; he'd never seen her this agitated before, not even during the worst of the trials they'd faced over the past year or so beginning with his blindness. She'd always kept her cool in the midst of chaos; even when Micky had yelled at her in his delirium, Isa had seemed calm and collected, and Mike had admired her strength then, knowing that such an encounter would have made some people collapse in hysterics.
"The truth?" she asked at last, her voice cracking on the words. "Fine. Just remember you asked for it."
"I can handle it," he assured her, certain there was nothing she could throw at him that they couldn't deal with, nothing she could say that would shake his trust in their relationship...
"I've been doing a lot of thinking about us lately, and I've come to the conclusion that perhaps it would be best if we didn't see each other any more."
...Except perhaps that.
"You mind tellin me why?" he asked, drawing on every ounce of will power he possessed to ask the question in a reasonable tone when what he really wanted to do was yell at the top of his lungs, demanding to know what had gotten into her.
She stopped pacing and drew herself up, gathering her dignity around her like a cape. Or a wall.
"This isn't working for me," she said simply. "Not anymore. I'm not...happy with you."
"Since when?" He gripped the edge of her desk until his knuckles turned white, forcing himself to breath slowly in and out; losing it wouldn't help matters at this point. Throwing a temper fit would only give her more of an excuse to withdraw from him, and he wasn't about to give her that kind of ammunition.
"For a while now," she replied vaguely, studying the hardwood floor with more interest than it warranted. "I'm not satisfied. What we have—had—isn't enough." She paused, then finally looked up at him, her eyes shuttered, almost cold. "I want out."
They stared at each other across the room as the minutes stretched out into infinity. Neither moved; neither hardly dared to blink.
"So that's it?" he asked. "All this time, and you're just tired or bored or whatever, so you snap your fingers and it's over?"
Anger welled up in his chest, closed his throat so he could barely force the words out as he advanced on her menacingly. She backed away as he approached, her eyes growing wide with alarm, and then she hit the wall and could retreat no further.
"Well, let me tell you something, lady—it ain't gonna be that easy!" he growled, bracing his hands against the wall on either side of her head as she shrank away from his almost palpable fury. "There's something more goin on here, and I find out what it is. I ain't gonna give up on you, Isa, and I ain't gonna stand by and watch you toss our relationship aside like some old shoe. What we got deserves more than that, and you know it. You're just runnin scared from something you don't want to admit to yet, and I ain't buyin’ this whole 'I want out' routine."
"You mean your precious ego won't let you buy it!" she hissed, her voice laced with more venom than he'd ever heard before. "What makes you think you could ever hold my interest for very long anyway? Who are you but some Texas redneck? No education, no real job, living hand-to-mouth with three other losers," she said scornfully, curling her lip in disdain as she glared up at him.
He could feel the blood draining from his face, and he had to close his eyes for a moment, to stop and think, to remind himself that this was Isa, who knew him better than anyone—and who consequently knew what buttons to push to make him angry or to trigger his insecurities. And she was deliberately stomping all over them now.
Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, he stepped back and regarded her coolly. Oh, yes, behind the bluster, there was pain lurking in her eyes. All this lady-of-the-manor talk was just that: talk. If she really meant it, she wouldn't have stayed with him more than a few weeks at best to begin with. No, there was definitely something else wrong here, but he doubted he'd get anything out of her at the moment. He'd back off for now. But he wasn't giving up. Not by a long shot.
"You know who I am. You told me so yourself," he said, watching with satisfaction as her expression registered bewilderment, followed swiftly by understanding mingled with shock. It was the first confirmation he'd given her about the dream-vision, and the significance of his words wasn't lost on her.
Without another word, he turned on his heel and headed for the door, but he couldn't resist pausing long enough to tell her, "I'll be back. We're not done talkin about this yet."
"I told you I don't want to see you anymore!" she shrieked, and some inner demon prompted him to act, knowing it probably wouldn't help matters much, but at least it would give her something to think about.
He turned back to her, crossing the room in a few long strides, and, cupping her face in both hands, pulled her into a kiss; she let out a muffled protest, pushing her fists against his chest—but it was no time before the indignant squeaks became soft sounds of pleasure, and her fingers closed around the fabric of his shirt, holding him tight against her. Gently coaxing her lips apart, he explored her mouth at a leisurely pace, and—as usual—she participated equally.
When he finally released her, they were both breathing hard, and her face was flushed, but whether from pleasure or embarrassment he couldn't be sure. "Now tell me that again," he commanded softly.
She made no reply, and he saw her shoulders shaking as she hid her face in trembling hands.
Something shattered against the inside of the door as he closed it behind himself, followed by a string of words he hadn't realized she even knew delivered at top volume.
The bleeding had finally stopped, and Mike was just finishing the awkward job of wrapping the gauze around his knuckles when Micky bounded into the bedroom they shared. He stopped short, his eyes growing round when he noticed the hole in the wall between their beds from which plaster still fell in irregular bursts.
"I'll get it fixed."
And that was that.
Continue On to Part Two