By Gale Dumont

The first thing she notices about Courtney (besides her obvious attraction to Michael, which amuses her no end) is her skin. It isn't creamy like her own; it isn't not-quite olive, the way Max's skin looks sometimes, in the right light.

Courtney's is...pale. Not creamy-pale, but unhealthy. As if she'd been trapped inside somewhere for a very long time. Up north, maybe. The few times she's tried to engage Courtney in a conversation, the results were less than spectacular.

There are a few freckles scattered across the bridge of Courtney's nose. They stand out under the lighting in the Crashdown, exquisitely shaped and kissable.

But that thought disturbs her, so she buries it away and goes back to staring at Max in rapt fascination.


Somewhere along the line, in the bleak dreamtime humans call summer, she realizes that she doesn't want Max.

Not "she doesn't love Max"; love had never been a part of what Nasedo had drilled into her over the years. She has her duty, her destiny: complete the square. Wed the king, save their people, retake the throne.

Nowhere in Nasedo's lessons had there been anything about sweaty palms or rumbling stomachs or dreams of forever.

Max does not love her. She has always known that.

She does not love Max. This is Something unplanned.

She will continue on as Nasedo has instructed: Be subtle. Overt actions, obviously, do not work. Quieter movements, then. Your hand on his shoulder. If he does not move away, advance; if he does, retreat.

Perhaps Nasedo's CD collection needs updating. Despite what Pat Benetar has to say on the subject, love should not be a battlefield.

But she does as her Protector instructs, and courts Max so slowly that she doubts he realizes it.

But she does not love him.

She begins to wonder if she even wants him anymore.


"God, you're here a lot, aren't you?"

She looks up from her plate at that -- the remains of a Will Smith with Orbit Fries -- and into Courtney's eyes. "So are you," she says, her voice flat and unwelcoming. It has not been a good day. Max has ignored her attempts at even the mildest flirtation. Isabel canceled their plants to go to a movie. Nasedo has not contacted her in a week-and-a-half.

"Yeah, but I work here. What's your excuse?"

She doesn't say anything to that, just glares up at the other blonde and tears into a french fry with more savagery than is strictly necessary.

Courtney's eyes light up. "You mind?" she asks, and plucks a fry from Tess's plate before the smaller girl can say a word. She polishes half of it off in one bite, lingering with the other half. Her teeth are neat and even, not too big. Her lips are candy-pink from her lipstick. They look soft to the touch.

Max has a very soft mouth. Extremely kissable.

But it's not Max she's thinking about kissing.

She opens her mouth to speak --

-- and then a bell dings in the kitchen, drawing Courtney's attention. Her face lights up. "You want me, Mikey G?" she says, smiling flirtatiously. Tess wants to tell her to just stop it, Max isn't the only one who's been poisoned by Earth girls, but doesn't.

Courtney takes off without a single backwards glance.

Tess snarls silently and ravages another fry. It tastes better when she pretends it's Michael.


Time passes. Liz comes back from Florida, and Max starts after her as if the revelation in the pod chamber was just a bad dream. Tess can't even bring herself to care, though she makes a shot of it while Nasedo's in town. Her Protector expects no less of her.

One night, while Liz is at Congresswoman Whittaker's office, Tess is over at the Crashdown with Maria and Isabel, eating ice cream out of the freezer and just talking. Tess finds that she likes spending time with Maria, which surprises her. She has always thought Maria was too flighty, too much of a sidekick, and that's just not true at all. She's funny, and utterly beautiful, and more loyal than Tess would like but she can live with it.

Tonight, Maria is complaining about Courtney.

"She's all over him," she grumbles, stabbing at her Fudge Caramel Chunk with a ferocity that makes Tess take a deep breath. "And it's not like he's exactly shoving her away. Damn him for being all surly and mysterious. Bastard. Bitch." She finally tears a chunk of ice cream free of the carton and spoons it into her mouth. A smear of chocolate remains on one full lip; absently, she licks it away.

"It's just Michael, Maria," Isabel says, shrugging and spooning some Mocha Delight into her mouth. For the first time, Tess notices how much like Max's her mouth is. She wonders if they would taste alike, the King and the Princess. Maybe Isabel would be smokier, more filled with life than her brother.

Maybe Courtney --

The thought makes her choke on her Chocolate Chocolate Chip. But just for a moment.


She dreams when she sleeps.

Her dreams are no longer filled with dark-haired, dark-eyed royalty plundering her in the desert, in the rain.

Now when she sleeps, her dreams are feverish things, filled with heavy-lidded eyes and all sorts of surprises beneath the teal-and-silver uniform.


And then she finds out that Courtney is a Skin.


Later, in Liz's bathroom, she stands perfectly still and watches water run down the drain, while Courtney huddles in one corner and tries not to die.

Courtney seems smaller now. Weaker. Less.

Unworthy of her love.

Very quietly, so quiet that you'd have to listen for it, Tess hears her heart break. She lets the pieces go, following pieces of Courtney down the drain. It seems...fitting, somehow.

She is a shell now, no different from the shivering creature across from her. But not forever. They do heal faster than humans, after all.


And Tess turns her back and walks away.


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