Part 24 : Sweet & Spicy
June, 2008 – Hong Kong

1: Maria

"Would the lady like some dessert?" the waiter politely asked as Maria was finishing the last of her main course. Mr. Han Yung was finishing his main course as well and looked at her with a small smile. Chinese men had the strangest small smiles she'd ever seen. It was as if they knew far more than they were telling, and their smile had more to do with that than anything to do with her.

"Yes, please," she said. Efficiently, the waiter produced the dessert menu a second later. She sighed in content. Being here, eating here, with this man—this was the life she wanted. This was what her talents were for: negotiating.

She was in Hong Kong, settling a deal with one of Dave's companies. It was attached to one of the many patents the wonder trio with Jake had been able to discover through the years of working with Dave. Jesse and Isabel had been supervising the legal paperwork while she was securing the commercial use. It wasn't exactly what she had pictured herself doing as a career, but it had both the benefits of keeping an eye on their finances and traveling.

Even if it comes with playing with fire, she thought, while Mr. Yung was telling her about a show she should attend while being in the city. His English was slightly accented, certainly nothing to compare to her butchered Mandarin. Besides, speaking the language would go against Dave's cheating list.

When she'd first expressed her interest in helping out in this part of the process, Dave had said it could be done, but only if she applied herself. You already are good at negotiating, Ms. Deluca. But if you're going to be dealing in my affairs, you'll need more than just those glares of yours.

She'd glared at him.

One of the first things he'd personally taught her was to never volunteer more information than necessary. "Most people assume Americans don't speak anything but English. Take that assumption and run with it. Especially if you are meeting two or more people, they'll tell each other things that wouldn't say otherwise knowing you won't understand."

And it had worked. Oh, how it had worked.

Just as Isabel had worked for her law degree, Maria had gone for an MBA. True, the diploma that hung on her bedroom couldn't have been more faked, but what it represented was real. She'd read the books, gone through the works, and learned through experience, being a glorified secretary for Susseth while she learned the ropes for an entire year.

In short, she had earned the right to be sitting at this table, negotiating the financial future of what was rightfully theirs, discovered by the sweat of her hybrid friends and boyfriend. A financial future she liked to call "the-run-away fund." The key was not to get greedy. She just had to figure out when it would be okay to stop.

She picked a chocolate cake with nuts for dessert, even if Mr. Yung excused himself, saying he had another meeting to attend. He bowed to her a couple of times, and she awkwardly bowed back. Her Chinese manners were not better than her spoken Mandarin, but at least her host seemed to think that was expected. At least that part, she didn't have to feign.

Her dessert arrived the moment she'd found herself alone at the table. She'd just scored a big win, and she was more than happy to celebrate with a nice dose of chocolate goodness.

The lesson that hadn't really been a lesson was that big corporate men liked pretty girls. Pretty girls with brains, on the other hand, was a two-punch combination. This, you already have, Dave had said, praising her. She had never said that to Michael, knowing Dave's windows could only withstand so much of her boyfriend's furious energy. Dave hadn't been flirting, of course, he'd been practical. That he'd appointed her to take a course in beauty, how to dress, make-up, and talk, had been a little bruising to her ego, but it had been worth it.

She would never have the looks or the intimidating aura that Isabel commanded, but she certainly did not look—or feel—like a small-town girl swimming with sharks. No, now she was a businesswoman. At twenty-four, she was standing at the top of the world, and she loved it. Michael had been biting his tongue more times than she would have thought, especially when she put her looks to good use in meetings like this one. He kept reminding her that she was free to go. Whenever she wanted, he would deal with Dave's fallout. She was normal, she was beautiful, she was young. Sometimes, the only thing that was missing from those conversations was a finger pointing to a door with Michael saying, just go!

Fat chance. She was not leaving Spaceboy alone to fend for himself. She might not feel truly comfortable with the circumstances they were in, but she couldn't deny the benefits of what she'd earned by being a glorified prisoner. Not only had she earned an education she wouldn't have been able to afford, but she'd also earned the trust of a very powerful man and the people who worked for him. Dave had great respect for passionate people, for people who liked to act, and that was her.

"Where Liz has her brains, and Isabel her looks, you have something else. You have fire." Dave had said that, and she'd never forgotten it.

She liked to repeat that to herself from time to time, too. She would never be a bookworm like Liz when it came to science, and never would effortlessly make men's heads turn like Isabel. But she could command a meeting, plan a fundraising, and be all-around charming while never losing the business objective. This was the life she'd always wanted and never knew about.

A beep went off from her phone. A message had arrived.

The meeting's over?

Michael's text read. He was always making sure she was okay. That things were going according to plan. Since Dave's goddaughter had been targeted a year before, Michael had liked less and less the idea of her going alone. Dave had told her—and only her—that he would respect her wishes if she wanted to go alone, but he could also arrange for Michael to serve as her partner in crime—as long as Michael wouldn't mess up the meetings to begin with.

I'm having dessert. Meeting went great!

She texted back. She loved Michael, she did, but he just didn't have the patience for the finesse and subtleties of the back and forth of the business world. Besides, liked it or not, her charm diminished when she had a man beside her, especially someone as intimidating as Michael could be when it came to her and those he loved.

Although lately…lately, Michael had been calmer. No, that wasn't the right word. He just seemed more centered. Like his rebellious years were finally coming to a stage where he didn't open his mouth before thinking all the time. He sometimes made surprisingly accurate predictions of what would happen on the negotiation table. He was still her Michael, just a bit older and a bit wiser.

Chocolate cake, right? Save some for me.

She smiled. A few words on a phone screen were not nearly enough, but at least talking to Michael in some way made her feel as if he were nearby. Closer. She would finish her cake, go to the hotel, and call him. It would be the middle of the night for him, but he certainly was awake. She couldn't think of a better way to keep him company with an ocean in between.

Um… eat it carefully.

Michael's last message made her laugh. For the last couple of days, she'd been telling him about Hong Kong's exotic food. Usually, of the moving variety. There were plenty of American restaurants and fast foods around for her not to worry about it, but her curious soul had wanted to try as many dishes as she could. Chocolate cake was a welcome familiar sight, though.

Something clinked with the fork as she sliced the cake in half. She sliced it again, slowly this time, until the fork made contact with the hard object once more. Bringing the cake closer for inspection, she started to remove cake off the foreign piece. What could the Chef possibly have spilled on her cake?

Eat it carefully, indeed, she thought to herself as she uncovered what was really inside. It was a tiny dark box. She stared at it for a second, before suppressing a laugh. She went to her phone, ready to text: "OMG. Somebody is going to propose, and the waiter messed it up. I ended up with the cake with the ring!"

She didn't even get a chance to start. Michael had beaten her to it. She stared at his message, knowing she was reading it wrong.

Would you marry me?

The four words stared right at her.

She didn't know how he'd orchestrated all of this. She didn't care how, actually. Part of her had thought he'd never propose—that marriage was as alien to him as Antar was—but here was the ring, right in the middle of Hong Kong, in a fancy hotel, with Michael thousands of miles away at the other side of the world. The coward, she thought with a smile, her shocked face becoming one of love as she kept re-reading the message.

I'll take that as a yes.

She frowned at that. And then, her eyes opening wide, she snapped her head to look around. He was here, he had to be here, knowing she had ordered the cake, knowing what to say and when to say it. And sure enough, there he was, standing not even ten feet from her table, all dressed up in a suit, a knowing, mischievous smile touching his lips.

She really didn't care how. She just flung herself to his waiting arms.

2 : Max
June, 2008 – The Compound

Max opened his eyes. It was 12:57am, according to his bedside clock. By his side, Liz's eyes opened a moment later.

"What?" she asked, frowning, still not sure she was awake.

"She said yes," Max replied a second after, hugging her. They had been waiting for the official news, but sleep had ensnared them about an hour before. Michael's happiness had dragged Max out from his dreams, and through his connection to Liz, she'd felt the echo coming from Max.

She hugged him back.

Michael had asked him how he'd proposed a few months ago. Max had—admittedly dreamily—told him, but Michael had concluded he didn't want something "sappy" like that. It had taken time and a perfect choreography of the right moment versus the right place. When the trip to Hong Kong came a week ago, it had taken a team effort to make it work.

Liz quietly repositioned herself over his chest, listening to his heart, both of them lost on a night years ago, when she had said yes as well.

"Do you think he even realizes he's sappier than you were?" she wondered out loud.

They both laughed at that.

AN: Hey all! I'd love to hear from you guys, and knowing what parts you're enjoying the most. Do you have any theories on what Max is going to decide? What is Van going to do?