Disclaimer: Oh, come on. Seriously, now. If I owned them, I would so have better things to do than write.

A/N: Astara12 is like a Michael psychic or something. She wanted a Maria-Finds-Out. When she requested it, I had already had it written for, like, six months. And just for y'alls future reference, don't write the beginning of a fic, and then a piece in the middle, because your brain will get stuck on the way. In Chapter Six. Twice.

Chapter Three

Michael crashed when they got back from L.A. It was as though, now that the holiday crises were over, his body decided it needed all the sleep he'd been too worried to get over the past two weeks. The pounding on the door late Friday night woke him up.

He opened it, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, and was almost bowled over by Maria. "Michael, Michael, what is going on?" she gasped.

"Maria? What the hell are you doing here?" he grunted.

"Kyle called me. He said Liz was dying."

"She isn't. She's fine."

"Then what was all that stuff about her collapsing and lighting stuff on fire?" she demanded.

"She is. We went to see Langley in L.A., and he said she's fine. It's a side effect of Max healing her, that's all."

"Oh, thank God." She sank onto his couch. "I've been freaking out. Liz wasn't home, and all I got from anyone else was voicemail! Do you guys not answer your phones anymore?"

"Isabel's in Houston with Jesse, Liz is at an Astronomy Club study group, and I don't know what Max and Kyle are doing. I was sleeping. Why did you come back? I thought you were in the middle of recording."

"Finished yesterday, thank God. Dominique is having cats as it is. I told her it was a family emergency."

"Well, crisis averted. You can go back." Michael knew he was being rude, but he felt like he was being unfaithful to Liz just by being alone with Maria. In his head he knew it was stupid, but his gut reactions didn't even have a nodding acquaintance with logic.

"That's not the only reason I came back, Michael," she said in a soft tone.

She wouldn't look at him, and the way she'd said his name had the back of his brain screaming, Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! "It isn't?"

"No. I miss you."

She had to say it. "Maria, you left me for someone else. It's been months. Did you think I was just going to wait?" he demanded. It was clear from the shock on her face that yes, she did think he was just going to wait.

"Michael-"

"No! I never did anything right, Maria. Why the hell would you want me back anyway?"

"Because of this!" Maria shot back, and then she kissed him.

The habit of years and the lingering sleep hangover fuzzed Michael's brain, and he kissed her back. Only for a minute-only long enough to ruin everything.

"Michael?" Drywall exploded, one chunk striking Michael's back.

He sprang back from Maria with a curse. "Liz?" His girlfriend was standing in the open doorway.

"Omigod, Liz!" Maria shrieked, gaping at the hole she'd blown in the wall.

"Liz, it wasn't what it looked like!" Michael protested before he thought, then winced at the overused cliché.

"Really?" Liz shot back, her hands crackling with green energy. "Because it looked like you were kissing her!"

Michael went to her, pulling her close even when she punched him in the stomach, a girly tap with more anger than skill behind it. He threaded his fingers through her hair and forced her to look at him. "I'm not Max," he reminded her gently.

"I know that," she gasped wretchedly, trying to fight off tears. "It's just…Tess…"

"I know," he soothed, stroking his thumb over her cheek to remove a smudge of drywall dust. "Liz, hey. Look at me. I'm crazy about you, okay?"

"Michael-"

"Okay?" he repeated, a little more forcefully.

She took a shaky breath, nodded. "Okay."

"Okay. So switch off the Christmas lights." Liz made a face and zapped him. "Ow!"

"Christmas lights," she muttered. "Jerk. They hurt, and it's all your fault."

He only smiled, because he knew she didn't mean it. "I'm sorry, honey," murmured, resting his forehead against hers, their lips almost touching. When he was sure he was forgiven, he let her go.

Maria was sitting on the couch again, her chin trembling. "Liz…you and Michael? For God's sake, when?"

"About a week ago," she admitted. "Maria-why were you…?"

"I kissed him," she confessed grudgingly. "I think he tried to tell me…I didn't really want to hear it. Max said you were just friends."

"Max doesn't know yet," Liz admitted.

"Are you insane?" She looked at Michael. "He's gonna kill you when he finds out." She was silent for a moment. "Liz-God. I can't believe you'd do this to me!"

"I'm not doing anything to you," Liz pointed out. "I'm sorry you're hurting, 'Ria, but this isn't about you."

"How can you say that? You know how I feel about him!"

"Maria, you left!" Michael barked. "You went halfway across the country to be with someone else, and it just about killed me. So you don't get to sit there and make Liz feel guilty!"

"Michael-"

"No," he cut her off. "I stayed for you, and that wasn't enough. I need someone I can be enough for." The raw echoes of pain in his voice did what all the yelling couldn't. Maria shut up.

"I'm sorry," she said after a long, stunned pause. "I had no idea…I never meant to hurt you like that, Michael."

Liz stood. "I think I should go," she suggested, twisting her fingers together. "You guys need to talk." Michael glanced at her, and even though he didn't say it out loud, she knew he wanted her to stay. "Or, you know what, I'll put in a load of laundry."

Maria's eyebrows scaled her forehead. "You do his laundry?"

"He works two jobs and goes to school, Maria," Liz reminded her as she disappeared into Michael's bedroom. "He's not Superman."

"That doesn't mean you have to-" she retorted, still outraged.

"I know that." She came out of his room with an armful of sheets. "I want to. He does nice things for me too."

"Well, I guess…" she said at last, clearly nonplussed. "But you just don't fit. I mean, you and Max were soulmates, Liz. It was destiny."

Liz shrugged. "I don't believe in destiny anymore." She went into the kitchen, and they heard the squeak of louvered doors and the hum of the washing machine filling up.

Michael held up one hand. "Don't, Maria."

"I didn't say anything!"

"It was a pre-emptive strike." He sat down on one of the stools at the counter. "I'm not having that conversation with you."

"Michael, you heard her!" Maria barrelled ahead, despite his warning. "This is Liz we're talking about! Since when doesn't she believe in destiny?"

"Since my destiny got someone else pregnant!" Liz shot back, coming back into the living room, clearly pissed. "Since my destiny let the bitch who killed Alex just leave, and doesn't even realize he reminds me of that every single time he mentions his son! Destiny screwed me! There is nothing romantic about being miserable all the time!"

"Liz…you weren't always miserable." She paused a minute. "Were you?" she added uncertainly.

"For the past year and a half, yeah, I was. Most of the time. And when I wasn't miserable, I was confused or angry or caught up in the whole star-crossed-lovers melodrama. I don't want to live like that. And even if I could go back, to the way things were before Tess…I wouldn't want to. I'm happier with Michael."

"You don't have to say that." He wouldn't look at her while he spoke. "I know he was the love of your life. I'm okay with it. Being second is still pretty damned good."

"Don't be a bonehead," she replied affectionately. "One of these days you'll believe me, and until then, you'd be better off not to say things you'll just have to take back."

"Liz-"

"Shush," she advised him. "You get in so much less trouble if you just keep your mouth shut."

Maria snorted. "Good luck. I've been telling him that for two years. Does he listen?"

"Are we okay, 'Ria?" Liz asked with a soft, wry smile.

"No," she admitted. "But I think we will be. It's just…going to take me some time to get used to this. A lot of time," she added, shaking her head. "This is totally out of left field."

"I really am sorry," Liz said again. "This wasn't the best way to find out."

"Kinda sucked," she agreed. "But on the upside, at least you're not dying. The relief should make the whole you-boinking-my-ex thing easier to take."

"Uh…Maria, we're not…" Michael started, then rubbed at his eyebrow and looked away, not sure how to finish that sentence.

She glanced from Liz to Michael. They looked equally embarassed and uncomfortable. "Oh." She bit her lip on a grin. "So you haven't seen that weird green thing yet?"

Liz gaped. "Maria!"

"I do not have a 'weird green thing!' " Michael protested.

"Now, Spaceboy, it's nothing to be ashamed of…" she managed to assure him between guffaws.

He shook his head, half amused and half disgusted. "Well, your bizarre sense of humour seems to be in fine working condition, so I guess we're gonna be okay. I've got work at two-I'm going back to bed." He kissed Liz's cheek. "You two try not to break anything."

"You're just going to leave us here unsupervised?" Maria grinned rather evilly. "To drink your Snapple, reprogram your remote and put your CDs in the wrong cases?"

He froze, but didn't turn. "You wouldn't."

"I so would."

"Maria-"

"And he has a bunch of sketchbooks around here somewhere, that no one is allowed to look at," Maria advised Liz. "I've only caught glimpses at best. And now that you have powers, you can totally unlock that closet where he keeps all his paintings."

"Um." Liz wouldn't meet Maria's eyes. "I've already seen his sketchbooks."

"And his paintings?"

"He gave some away for Christmas. I asked to see the rest, but he says he's working on one that he wants to finish before I see it."

"Huh." Maria blinked back tears. "I'm really trying not to be hurt, right now," she said to Michael. "In two years you never trusted me that much. I know with the way things turned out, you probably feel like you had good reason, but it would have been nice. You and Liz have been hanging out, what, a month? Two months?"

"Two months," Michael confirmed in a low voice.

"Two months." She exhaled slowly. "When we hit the two month mark, I think you'd already dumped me twice."

"I know I hurt you. And I'm sorry." He studied the carpet like there was going to be a test later. "I'm able to be with Liz because I've grown up a lot the last couple years, and a big part of that was because of you. So…thank you."

"Well. You're welcome. I guess." She took a slow, steadying breath. "I'm going to go now, I think. Get in some Mom time. I'll see you later, Liz?"

"Sure, 'Ria." Liz wanted to hug her friend, but didn't think it would be welcomed. "We'll have lots of ice cream and you can tell me all about New York."

"Okay." Her smile was a little wobbly, but it was real. "That'd be great. I'll call you."

"Maria?"

"Yeah?"

"No matter what happens. You're my best friend, and I love you."

A full-on grin this time, even though it didn't reach her eyes. "Back atcha, chica."

oOo

I have my moments of liking Maria. This chapter turned out to be one of them. After the initial heated reaction, she handles several shocks in a row with humour and class. Inspired by the end of the M/M subplot in 'Significant Others.'