Part One

"What are you doing tonight?" Maria Deluca asked as she dried a glass with her café-issued white towel.

Her best friend, Liz Parker, gave a little smile as she placed her finished glass in the rack and picked up a new one to dry. "Just staying in."

Maria frowned. Maybe Liz was staying in, but there was never a "just" involved - staying in to Liz meant something painfully romantic, something involving Max Evans. "Staying in and doing what?" she asked.

Liz giggled. "Just watching a movie probably."

Maria knew that Max and Liz had rented the same movie many times because they never actually watched it. They probably knew the first ten minutes by heart, but anything after that was up to speculation. They were so hot for each other, so head-over-heels in love that nothing on celluloid could keep them apart for long.

"What are you doing?" Liz prompted, more as an afterthought of courtesy than out of curiosity.

"Looking for my life," Maria quipped sullenly as she put her glass in the rack and reached to get another, found the dishpan empty.

Liz giggled again. "Oh, Maria. You have a life."

Maria put a hand on her hip. "I do? Can you tell me where I left it, then?"

Her friend was about to retort when the door chimed and their attention was drawn to the person entering. Tall, Dark and Handsome himself. Liz nearly melted into a little Liz Parker puddle right there behind the Crashdown counter.

Maria watched as Liz moved to meet Max at the door and sighed - those two looked so damned goofy whenever the other was around it was nauseating. Max smiling was quite the sight to behold since he did it so rarely, and Liz nearly beamed when he flashed her that smile. Gag, Maria thought.

Of course, she was just envious. Not because Liz had Max. But because Liz had someone like Max. Maria had -

"Hey, blondie, gonna deliver this before it grows up, moves out of the house and has kids of its own?"

Maria had Michael Guerin.

She turned on her heel and met her boyfriend at the pick-up window. He gestured with his eyes toward a plate of food.

"I'm serious - that burger is so old pretty soon it won't need to be carded at the door, if you know what I mean. And I think I saw the fries start to get those little white potato sprout things on them," he quipped.

Maria was tired - she didn't feel like fighting. But she also didn't feel like letting it go, either. So, she did the mature thing - she stuck her tongue out at him.

As she turned to walk away, she heard him behind her, "I'll expect you to use that later."

She ignored Michael first, then Liz and Max as she passed them, Liz dragging Max by the hand toward the kitchen door. Sometimes she just couldn't deal with the perfect couple. Not while she was part of the anti- perfect couple.

"Bacon double cheese burger," she mumbled nearly-incomprehensibly as she unceremoniously dropped the customer's order before him and moved away before he could protest about the amount of time it had taken to arrive.

Maria walked back to the pickup window and leaned against the small ledge. "So, what are we doing tonight?" she asked Michael, trying to smile and be pleasant for a change.

Michael was busy shuffling cheese slices like cards, dealing them expertly onto the tops of steaming burgers. He shrugged in that uncaring way that so annoyed his petite girlfriend. "Doesn't matter."

She withdrew a bit. It did matter. To her it mattered.

Michael seemed to catch her silent reaction and corrected himself. "Is there something you like would like to do?"

Maria thought of Max and Liz so happy to see one another. "Just watch a movie or something," she answered, her voice sounding far-off, like she was somewhere else.

"That's cool," Michael answered, relieved to be off the hook for anything more than that. "But I'm getting out of here late."

Maria looked at the clock - it was already seven o'clock. "How late?"

"I told Mr. Parker I'd close," he answered unapologetically.

"Michael," she began. "We had plans to do something tonight."

"I need the money," he answered, his tone even.

She let out a snort and shook her head.

Michael stopped his dressing of the burgers and regarded her with an even stare. "I have bills to pay, Maria. And rent and all of that wonderful stuff. I need the money, so I told him I'd do it." His tone still held no apology - he wasn't arguing about this. As he resumed his duties, he told her, "Why don't you pick up the movie and I'll just meet you at my apartment?"

She watched him, defeated.

"And you might want to pick up some food or something because I haven't shopped."

Well, there was the capper. Without a word, she untied her apron and walked away from the window. As she pushed her way through the kitchen door, she jumped, startled, because Michael had beaten her there.

"I do want to see you," he told her, his voice low, private. "I just have to do this, okay?"

Maria nodded in resignation and stepped past him to shove her apron in her locker. She didn't turn around to see if he was still behind her or not. Grabbing her purse, she pulled out her keys and walked through the exit door and into the alley. A noise to her left caught her attention - Liz and Max were against the building, giggling, kissing, climbing all over one another. Maria drew in a deep breath and climbed behind the wheel of her car.

Michael needed a wife. Or a maid. One or the other, because he seemed incapable of cleaning up after himself.

Maria stood in the doorway of his apartment and let out a sigh. In the living area, there were empty cans, pizza boxes and various articles of clothing. In the kitchen, the dishes were stacked so high in the sink that she wasn't sure there really was a sink under there any more.

Dropping her purse to the chair, she started to pick up the living room first. She couldn't sit and watch a movie while seeing clutter out of the corners of her eyes - it would be a major distraction. At first she was disgusted at the mess, but then she picked up one of Michael's shirts and his scent, faint, drifted to her nose and she found herself smiling. Indulging herself, she held the shirt to her nose and inhaled deeply. Her mind immediately shifted to the smell of his sheets, which led to the thought of lying intimately with him and Maria continued her duties in a little better humor.

In the kitchen, she brushed crumbs off the counter and into a paper bag - she couldn't put them in a trashcan because Michael obviously hadn't felt the need to buy one. As she swiped empty Snapple bottles and old papers into the bag, something clattered to the floor. She swung the bag out of the way and looked curiously at the source of the noise.

On the floor lay the black cone that Michael had swiped from the compound when Tess's ship had crashed. Squatting, Maria picked up the alien object and turned it over in her hand. It was completely smooth, without dents or seams or anything. A small smile curved her lips as she thought that the object somewhat resembled a sex toy.

"I wonder where the batteries go," she mumbled to herself as she rose, placed the cone on top of the microwave and moved for the cupboard.

Michael hadn't lied - there were very sparse provisions in his pantry. "Very sparse" translated to a box of microwave popcorn and nothing else. Maria sighed and rubbed her stomach; she was too hungry to be picky. She ripped open the box, removed a bag and walked back over to the microwave. Tossing the bag inside, she entered two minutes on the timer and pushed the start button. With a whir, the appliance kicked to life and the lights dimmed. Maria looked toward the ceiling, silently wondered if the wiring in the dump could withstand the draw of a simple microwave.

Hands on hips, she turned to look at the mess of dishes in the sink. She knew Michael was a pig, but she would have at least thought Max would be anal enough to act the part of housewife and clean up once in awhile. In fact, Max was such a little priss about some things, she wondered if he hadn't stepped foot in the apartment in a week.which he probably hadn't considering the reappearance of Tess and his son. Maria frowned - it would be up to her to clean this mess if she couldn't stand it any longer.

She was about to start running water in the sink when a loud popping noise behind her caught her attention - that sound was a little loud and a little metallic for popcorn. What she saw sent a jolt of fear through her body - the black cone was hovering about three inches from the top of the microwave.and it was starting to hum and spin. Maria gasped in a breath and started to back away from it - whatever it was. She hadn't moved far, however, when a circle of blue light burst forth and quickly knocked her to the floor. Looking up at Michael's water-stained ceiling, she suddenly felt a sharp, unbearable pain in her stomach.

Then there was a blinding flash of light.

And words.

"Maria. MARIA! You have to look at me. You have to look at me."

Dazed, Maria cracked open her eyes.and looked up at the Crashdown ceiling? There was a stabbing, debilitating pain in her side and she felt like she'd lain down in a puddle of some kind - everything was sticky and wet. Despite the pain, she was tired, so very tired, and felt so weak. But she did as she commanded and looked into Max Evans' soulful, incredible eyes. Almost instantly, she felt a warm sensation across her abdomen and her body jerked from some unseen force. She thought she saw a memory flash across her mind, a memory from when she was just a child, but she thought she must be delusional.

Then Max was gasping for air and nearly collapsing over her. "You're all right now," he breathed. "You're all right." She had never realized how soft, how almost uncertain his voice sounded. And it had a strange, nasal quality to it, like he was pushing his words through his nose rather than his mouth. Why hadn't she ever noticed that about him before?

Maria's mind was reeling now that her senses were coming back to her. Why was she lying on the Crashdown floor? Why were all of these people staring at her? Why was Max telling her she was okay now - wasn't she okay before in Michael's kitchen? How did she get here? And why was her uniform ripped open to the waist for the entire world to see?

Over Max's shoulder, Maria saw Michael sudden loom into view. "Keys! Now!" he commanded and Max tossed them to him. Maria started to smile at Michael - her lover - but realized that something was seriously amiss here. Michael's hair was short, spiky, like it had been.

When Liz got shot.

"You broke a bottle when you fell, spilled ketchup on yourself," Max was saying as he smashed a ketchup bottle and poured its contents on her stomach. "Don't say anything. Please." He backed away, looking uncertain, frightened, her blood on his hands.

Her blood.

Shakily, she pushed herself to her feet, looked down at the bloody ketchup mess on her uniform. Then she turned and looked into the round, disbelieving eyes of Liz Parker.

Another flash of white light and Maria felt soft lips beneath hers. Oddly, she felt relieved - she must have passed out or something and Michael had come home, found her and was kissing her awake, rescuing her from her hallucinatory dream. Like Prince Charming.

There were about a dozen things wrong with that scenario, the biggest being that "Michael" and "Prince Charming" were never good company within the same paragraph. Second, these kisses were different than Michael's. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. More tender, perhaps, less hurried. But definitely not Michael's.

Maria stopped kissing, opened her eyes - and looked directly at Max Evans.