Part 16

"Hey Isabel. Maria and Michael are in the living room. Step in. And who's this?"

Isabel blinked up at the woman she hardly recognized. Amy was rather pretty when she's not got her face shoved down the toilet and barfing really. Her voice was actually pretty cool when she spoke. Isabel usually heard her voice only as a series of grunts. She smiled at Mrs. De Luca.

"This is Tess Harding. She's our new friend."

Amy extended her hand and shook Tess'. "Hello dear. Isn't this exciting?"

"Yes, Mrs. De Luca."

"Call me Amy, Tess."

Tess bounced into the living room, followed by a more sedately walking Isabel whose head was raised high. Both had shopping bags with them. Amy heard Isabel announce to the living area in general: "We are going to prepare for the party, Michael. We would appreciate it if you would scoot out now and take a bath at your place."

"It's still too early, Miss Evans," Michael complained. "Besides we were talking."

"No talking anymore!" Isabel decided. "We need to look super. And you need to smell better," she told him pointedly.

Michael managed to look offended. For her part, Maria thought the Michael musk was fine. But that didn't really matter. She needed to look gorgeous for tonight. And Isabel was the queen of that, so she will follow her advice. "You should listen to her. She might put hot iron curlers on your hair," she teased. The offense morphed into terror, and Michael scampered out of the De Luca residence.

"That was well done, Iz," Tess congratulated the tall blonde.

Isabel nodded in acceptance. And then she asked Amy if they could all troop upstairs to get ready. "But first, we want to get your approval on something."

"Really, dear? What is it?"

Isabel handed a smaller bag to Amy. "Here it is. Just tell us if you think this would be fine for Maria to wear tonight."

Maria watched in fascination and surprise as Amy drew out the long pale green number from the bag. Her mother held it up to the light, and the light danced on the tiniest glitters lining the hem. "Oh Isabel it's beautiful!" Amy gasped.

"Is that—"

Tess' curls bobbed up and down. "Sure is, Maria. You're going to the party in that. If your mom approves, that is."

Amy handed the bag and the dress to a speechless Maria and embraced Tess and Isabel. "This is so wonderful of you. I'm so happy Maria's got you. I couldn't—"

"Oh Mrs…Amy… It wasn't me at all. This was—"

Isabel jabbed her elbow into Tess' stomach. "It was our gift to Maria. She's been the most fantastic friend to all of us. This is just me and Tess and Michael and Kyle and Alex saying we love her."

When they were released from the hug, Tess blinked up at Isabel, who merely shrugged. Maria hugged the dress to her chest as she kissed her friends. On the way up the stairs, Tess whispered at Isabel, "You're not as bitchy as you like people to think you know."

"Yeah well don't spread it around," Isabel warned.

~~

Liz grabbed her mother's hand. They have been walking for hours around the mall, looking for a dress that's not too much of this and too little of that for Liz's taste. It seemed hopeless, and Mrs. Parker just wanted to go home and rest her feet. Finally, Liz stopped in front of a shop and pointed to the display on the window.

It was the palest green that they have ever seen. The mermaid gown glittered at the bottom, and showed off a huge expanse of the back. It had a low décolletage that required assets from the wearer.

"I want that in brown," she said.

"Honey, are you sure you can carry that?"

Liz's eyes slitted. "I want that in brown, mom."

~~

Michael shook his head again and cursed. He reached out and tapped it, then patted it. He was quickly getting frustrated. Again he tightened it, but it wouldn't budge. The thing kept slipping.

"I can't do it," he told Kyle.

"Nawww man, you have to. Try it again."

With a deep breath, Michael tried to fix the Kyle's tie. "It's useless, Valenti. It's gonna have to stay lopsided forever. I don't have enough talent to straighten the thing."

"I straightened yours, Michael. Least you can do is reciprocate."

"What can I do if your tie just won't listen!"

"This isn't funny!" Kyle was going red in the face.

"Who's laughing?" Michael retorted.

Furious, the two stepped out of the Valenti vehicle. They stood in front of Maria's house bickering until another car stopped at the back of Kyle's. Alex stepped out and strode over to them. "Problems, gentlemen?"

Michael merely snarled. Kyle turned pleading eyes at Alex. "Can you fix a tie?"

"Sure, man." He reached out and with a gentle flick of his wrist, Kyle's tie was miraculously cured.

"See, Michael. I could do it on yours. You're so untalented."

"Want me to fix that horror too?" Alex asked Michael.

Confused, Michael strode to the car and looked at his reflection. "This sucks too, Valenti."

"No worries, Michael. I'll do it." At first, Michael seemed unsure. Alex Whitman wasn't really a friend yet. And then he saw the shadows on Maria's window and sighed. He walked up to Whitman and allowed him to flick his wrist by his neck.

~~

Part 17

"Hey Maria," Tess said as she applied her eyeshadow.

"Yeah?"

Maria has been staring at herself in the mirror for the past ten minutes. She couldn't believe she was wearing something so gorgeous to the party. It hugged her body closely and shimmered in the precise places. The dress wasn't blinding in its glitter, but it was eye-catching just the same.

"So how's our taste?" Isabel inquired earlier.

Maria was still breathless when she replied, "Exquisite, Iz. Thank you so much."

Isabel hugged Maria, careful not to crease their attires. "You are so welcome, Maria. It was the least we could do."

Maria knew very well that it was Isabel who chose and paid for the dress. Isabel was funny like that. She would build this exterior of being really untouchable and then she'd shatter the very image because she just can't help being so darned nice. She owed Tess a lot this past months though. She filled the void that losing Liz as a best friend left her. In fact, Tess turned out to be so much more fun that Liz had been.

"Do you think Kyle loves me?"

Both Maria's and Isabel's eyes flew to the smallest girl in their trio. It was Isabel who responded, "The guy is insane about you!"

Tess seemed thoughtful as she sat down on the dresser. "Insane's as insane does. I'm looking for something more."

Intrigued, Isabel stepped closer while adjusting the pins on her hair. "Something more? Like what?"

"I don't know what—"

Maria interrupted Tess' frustrated sigh. "She obviously means that warm fuzzy feeling when you look at each other, Izzie. Or that restlessness when you know he's just outside your classroom door and the teacher won't dismiss you early. Maybe even that panic you feel when you think he's hurting inside…" her voice trailed off.

Tess blinked at Maria.

"Well isn't that what you're looking for?"

Tess nodded. "How'd you know?"

Maria's lips curved into a smile. She had decided something tonight, but these two girls, although very close to her, were not the ones who would know about it first. She was reserving the knowledge for her best friend. "I saw it in the movies," she told them offhandedly.

"So you think?" Tess asked again.

Isabel found the conversation train rather unappealing, so she peered over Tess' shoulder at the mirror to check her eye make up. Maria went over to Tess and said, "Look me in the eye, Tess." When blue met green, she continued, "The guy has been sniffing after Liz Parker for years and then you come and suddenly, he's forgotten about her. He missed basketball night to order you around in the diner and take you riding. He borrowed Steel Magnolias to watch it with you, when the guy at the counter is like one of his toughest rivals for team captain position. Then you blew him off to go shopping with Isabel and right now he's still downstairs waiting for you, fidgeting because he's not sure you'd like how he looks. So having said all that… what do you think?"

"I think," she started. "I think…"

"Yes…"

Her eyes crinkled at the corners. "I think there's a huge possibility he thinks I'm 'it.'"

Tess jumped off the dresser and grabbed her gown. Isabel breathed a thank you that the dresser was free. "Well done, Maria."

"Ah well," she grinned.

~~

Kyle, Michael and Alex were lined up at the living room, waiting. Amy had asked them to sit down, and they did. But they fidgeted so much and finally stood up again that Amy decided it was best to let them remain as they were.

She was surprised to open the door to a bickering Kyle and Michael, muttering something about idiots and the idiocy of requiring ties with clothes. Standing behind them was someone she wasn't really familiar with. When they introduced him as Alex Whitman, she was hugged by the lanky boy warmly.

"Mrs. De Luca. By any chance are you the wife of Maria's brother?"

"Oh stop it," she giggled, slapping the boy playfully on the arm. She had never enjoyed herself so much. Maybe this sober thing wasn't so bad. "They'll be down shortly. Tess can't seem to find one of her shoes."

"Figures," Michael muttered, and Kyle jabbed him with an elbow. "What man!? I meant figures there must be something wrong that they're not down here yet."

"Sure, Guerin. Now shut up. I should've known you shouldn't have been encouraged to speak more around us."

"Stuff it, Valenti."

"Can I help?" Alex asked, and the two guys turned shocked expressions on him.

"I wouldn't go there if I were you," Amy advised. "They're all on their hands and knees crawling on the floor, looking everywhere."

It was like lunch bell, and Amy's announcement made their ears ring in excitement. Kyle and Michael straightened readily and started up the stairs. "We should really help," Kyle said. "We can't be late." They stepped on each other in a hurry to open the door first. Alex followed closely behind.

Being an athlete, it was Kyle who reached the door first and pushed it open. The three young men looked in to find Tess putting on the stray shoe, and Isabel dusting her skirt with long elegant hands. Michael helped Maria off the floor and finally got a good look at her.

The material fell heavily around her, snug and shivery to look at. The front revealed just enough skin to expose the curve of her breasts, and Michael was possessed by the urge to dip his head and just… smell her. He tamped down the desire and said, "You look amazing."

"Yes she does, doesn't she, Kyle? Now quit that and pick up your jaw. I'm your date."

Embarrassed, Kyle looked at Tess up and down. "What can I say, babe? I'll be walking to the prom with an angel."

While Tess was blushing at Kyle's comment, and Michael was still awestruck, Isabel arched her brow at Alex. "So don't you have any flattery for me too?"

"You already know how beautiful you look, Isabel. You don't need me to tell you," Alex told her matter-of-factly.

Isabel frowned. "Well I think I'd enjoy hearing something!"

"Yeah all right." Alex leaned close to whisper stringed together sentences that made her cheeks burn with pleasure.

"So are you all shoed?" Michael cracked, but no one laughed.

Kyle said, "You have to accept the fact that you're one of those people meant to say just a little, Michael."

Alex turned to the girls. "So ladies, all ready to go?"

Isabel reached for Maria's and Tess' hands. "Well let's rock Roswell High!"

~~

They arrived at the prom with the usual fanfare of people staring at them waiting for something dramatic to unfold. They were disappointed to see that the three couples were acting normal, flirting, laughing and dancing. At the dancefloor, Tess Harding and Jock Kyle were having the time of their lives. They watched closely to see if they would grind their hips together and create scandalous moves. Unfortunately, those two were pretty General Patronage-Admit all Audiences.

When they looked for Isabel Evans and Alex Whitman, the two were murmuring to each other by the punch bowl. There was nothing special about the sight really. Of course they hadn't seen Isabel look softly at a guy like she's doing now. But that in itself wasn't titillating…

So they scanned the crowd for where Maria De Luca and date Michael Guerin went. Speaking of the two, were they back together? They looked awfully close there by the sidelines. Was that Maria De Luca trying to pull Michael to the dancefloor? Well this is something they just had to see! That was soooo comical. But it wasn't soap material. Was life getting boring?

Hey, would you get a look at the back of that dress! Maria De Luca's gown was barebacked. It was so low. That's probably why Michael Guerin's insisting that they stay out of the dancefloor. He wouldn't want anyone to cut, now would he?

All eyes turned to the swinging doors, as Jared Tyler stepped into prom with a brown lump hanging on his arm. He walked forward and was bathed in light. And the brown lump was revealed to be Liz Parker.

Was she wearing the same gown as Maria De Luca?

The students saw Liz's eyes rest on Maria, and those brown eyes slitted. Liz was monochrome… but that was really beside the point. She looked pissed.

Liz started pulling her date in the general direction of Maria and Michael. Isabel at the punch bowl and Tess on the dancefloor were too far to beat her to their friend.

"Looks like we shopped in the same boutique," Liz said. "Is the tag still hanging there, Maria? 'Coz I know you can't afford that with the pittance your mom makes. Better be careful not to spill anything. You know you can't return damaged items."

Now the soap has begun! The crowd started closer on the show.

Like the supporter of feminism that he has suddenly become, Michael leaned back and let Maria fight her own battle.

Maria mocked a gasp. "Are we wearing the same gown, Liz? Because this mermaid cut was given to me by my best friends, and it doesn't look like that sack you're wearing." And then she looked directly at Jared. "Or is just the plain lack of curves that's making an expensive dress look like rag?"

Liz Parker's date actually chuckled at that. Growling, Liz raised her palm and stepped closer to Maria, when a bouquet of roses was thrust in front of her. She glared at her attacker. Suddenly, her hard façade softened. "Max."

Max Evans was using the bouquet of pink roses to ward her off. "Leave Maria alone, Liz. Why don't you dance with your date?"

Angry but distracted upon seeing Max's deep meaningful eyes, Liz allowed Jared to lead her off in the meantime. Left to themselves, Max looked at Maria from underneath the dark half moon shadows created by his long, thick lashes. He offered the bouquet to her in two hands.

"Awww Max, didn't I specifically ask you not to do that!?" Isabel cried, stalking with Alex to where Max was standing with Maria and Michael.

Part 18

It took a lot of convincing for Max to leave Michael and Maria alone. Michael owed Whitman a lot for agreeing to have Evans tag along with him and his date. He promised to himself that he'd watch the next gig that guy would play in. He was so amazed at that act of kindness that he never noticed the way Maria had been staring at him until she pulled on his arm impatiently.

"Dance with me, Michael. Come on."

If only he didn't worship the ground she walked on! He sighed and followed her to the dance floor, where she looped her arms around his neck and pressed her soft body close to his. Ooooh, not bad. Not bad at all.

Unconsciously, he started looking around to see if people were watching them. It wasn't so much that he didn't want to be seen like this. That was the old Michael Guerin. This Michael Guerin was just observing his surroundings as habit.

"Don't worry if they're watching," she told him. "I know you hate that. But I'll make it up to you."

He was about to say that he didn't mind anymore, but her last words caught his attention. "Make it up how?"

His hands were resting on the small of her back, a favorite spot of his it seemed. She leaned close and rested her head on his chest. "Are you nervous?"

"No," he croaked.

"Why is your heart racing?"

"Lack of exercise," he stammered.

"Well then you really have to dance. Finish one slow dance with me and then we're getting off the dancefloor. And I can tell you something."

Michael pulled her closer, if possible. While she listened to his heartbeat like that, he rested his chin on top of her head and closed his eyes, so he won't see people looking at them and pretend that it was just the two of them and that music.

He was wrapped up in the perfume she was wearing and in the feel of her that he didn't notice when the song ended. He felt her move out of his arms and vaguely heard her tell him that they would go sit down.

On the way to the table they shared with their friends, he was stopped by the art teacher. He had heard from the school Michael applied to, he said. Maria grinned at him. "I'll meet you back there, okay? Go on. Good luck." And then he was pulled back into her arms and she was pressing the softest but firmest kiss on his lips. He barely had time to register that first real kiss she'd given him since their break up when next he knew she was smiling brightly at him. "Good luck, Michael."

He watched her vanish into the crowd. Forcing his legs to move, he followed Mr. Harold outside, where the music was muted and there were less people.

The teacher handed Michael a long white envelope. Slowly, Michael drew out the bond paper and read the form letter.

~~

"Congratulations!"

Max Evans nodded gratefully at Mr. Matthews, who informed him of the scholarship he had been awarded by Harvard. "Thank you."

"I knew you had potential, Mr. Evans. It's been an honor handling you. I hope you'll be very successful there."

Max held the slip of paper in wonder and happiness. It was what he'd always worked for, and there was no one else to congratulate him. Sure, they would have a celebration at home. His mother might even throw a party for him again. But he wanted that someone who really mattered to be with him.

He glanced down the hallway to see Michael Guerin looking desolate. Max made his way over to him.

"Hey man," he greeted, uncertain.

Michael felt like all his energy had been drained for him. After all the excitement, after all his plans… now… "Scholarship?" was all he could say, seeing the sparkle in Evans' popular eyes and the waving slip of paper in his hand.

"Yeah!" came the bright answer. "Got accepted for the Harvard scholarship. My future's all set."

Michael wanted to punch out the enthusiasm out of the Evans boy. But he didn't really have the strength anymore. "I'm really happy for you, Evans. But if you'll excuse me."

"Oh."

Michael sighed heavily. "You know something? Why don't you spend some time with Maria inside? I'm not coming back there, and I don't want to leave her alone there. She—she deserves someone like you. Someone who's got a future."

Max stared at Michael first, confused. But he didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so he shrugged and walked back to the party and started searching for Maria's table. He'd pick up the bouquet first, if the other girls hadn't gotten to it yet.

~~

Maria was worried. Michael had been gone for a while. She wanted to go after him, but she didn't want to disturb him if he chose to be private at this time. She hoped he'd come back soon though.

When she saw Max walking over towards her, she bit her lip and frantically looked about for a way to escape. And then suddenly the principal was calling the students closer to the stage for the announcement of the Senior Queen and King. Isabel appeared and pulled her over with them to watch the proceedings. Seeing his sister, Max slowed his pace a little.

"Well good evening kids." There were no replied from the audience. "I guess you're not required common courtesy to me since you're all officially graduates," he joked, earning a few chuckles. "Here in my hand are the names of those you've voted as Queen and King." The students applauded and hooted with excitement. "The King, hands down, is your very own Harvard scholar, Mr. Max Evans!"

The crowd squealed with excitement as Max made his way to the stage. He accepted the crown and smiled longingly at Maria. "Thank you."

"And your Queen. I'm sure you're all excited about this." The principal looked down at the numbers. "The votes are pretty close, but everything was tallied and we came up with the name. Batch 2002, your Senior Queen is Ms. Elizabeth Parker!"

Liz beamed upon hearing her name. Finally! She knew Jared Tyler had some use. Instead of leaving his date there since Max was waiting at the stage, Liz pulled him with her, strutting as the girls drooled over the college freshie that was Liz's date. Everyone adored him when he used to go to Roswell High. "Well, thanks for voting for me," she said into the microphone. "This has been the happiest night of my life. I have the crown, and I have Jared," she emphasized. Liz's date stiffened as she melted into his arm, ignoring Max, her King.

"Bitch!"

Oh. My. God. It's happening again! The sound came from someone from the doorway. The soap has begun again. Heavens if tv was this good none of them would leave the house.

It was Kenneth Carver, star quarterback of Jared Tyler's batch of Roswell High. He strode towards the stage, red-faced, fuming. Was Kenneth one of Liz's admirers too? Did he crash their Prom to make Jared pay? Ooooooh!

"You are a bitch Liz Parker," he barked. My my… He was pissed that Liz went out with someone else? There was more to Liz Parker than they thought!

"Kenny," Jared pleaded.

"No, Jared! This bitch has done enough."

"What's happening here?" the principal demanded.

"You sacrificed our date night for this, Jared?" Kenneth Carver demanded. The students were suddenly stunned to silence.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Kenneth," Liz denied. "Jared's my date. We've been going out. You… you homosexual! Gross! Stay away from Jared!"

Jared turned his blazing eyes at Liz and disentangled his arm from her. "Shut up. Don't you ever talk about Kenny like that! I've had enough of this, Liz. I don't care anymore! You had your father tell mine to make me go out with you or the Crashdown won't order from our supply business anymore. And all for this… To show me off!" Jared hurried down the steps and rushed over to Kenneth Carver's side. "Well you're not all that, Liz. Even Kenny here's got more than you'll ever hope to have!"

With that, in sight of the entire Batch 2002, Jared Tyler took Kenneth Carver's hand and they walked out of there. Slowly, jaws were picked up and eyes shifted back to a pale, trembling Liz Parker.

"You are sick, Parker!" one of the jocks yelled.

"Gosh, Lizzie, you're like such a total gay basher!" Pam cried.

"Loser!" someone else called out.

Liz's crown had fallen askew. She tried to straighten it as she looked down at the graduates of Roswell High, her subjects. Holding the scepter close, she picked up her robe and stumbled down the steps. Liz ran out from the insults and really despicable comments.

On the way out the door, Liz tripped on the cape. She stood up unsteadily and without looking back, left.

Several seconds of silence, then the ballroom erupted into laughter.

"Star quarterback huh?" Tess looked up at Kyle and grinned. "You sure I'm your type?"

The principal cleared his throat and took the mic again. "Well, I guess we'll need to proclaim another Queen then. Unfortunately, we have no more crown, scepter and cape, as our forcibly abdicated queen ran off with them. Three votes behind Liz, we have Ms. Maria De Luca!"

Maria's heart skipped upon hearing her name. She didn't know her schoolmates thought much of her. She wished Michael were here to share the moment with her.

Isabel and Tess were cheering so loud she was nearly deaf. Alex offered to escort Maria to the stage, and Maria gratefully accepted.

Max was floating in euphoria when he learned that she was his Queen. They walked to the dancefloor and he held her close. "Maria, I want to apologize for what happened between us."

Maria sighed. "It's all right, Max. I guess if that didn't happen, I wouldn't really have the Michael I have now."

"Maria, we can get back together. Michael said so."

She stopped stock still. To her surprise, Max was still dancing. "Stop swaying!"

"Okay."

"What do you mean Michael said so?" she demanded.

Max shrugged. "Michael said you deserved someone like me. I got a scholarship. He's probably not even going to college."

So that's what happened. Michael… stupid, irrational idiot. Cute vulnerable jerk. "Where is he, Max?"

"Last I saw, he was in the corridor. But he's probably leaving soon."

Without even waiting for the music to finish, Maria picked up her skirts and ran out the door. She looked left and right, wondering where Michael was. She shod her shoes and ran barefoot down the carpeted hallway. "Michael!" she called. "Michael, where are you?"

She found him sitting down on the floor near the elevators. Maria sighed in relief and fell to her knees beside him. Michael looked up, sad eyes taking in her flushed face. "Hey."

Maria firmly took the letter from his grasp. She opened it and read down, closed the letter and handed it back to him.

"You shouldn't be here, Maria."

"Why shouldn't I be with the guy I'm in love with? It's a special night."

Michael shook his head. "You deserve more than a failure, Maria. You should have someone like Max. He can take care of you."

"I'm not looking for a nanny. If I were, I wouldn't even take Max. I have a feeling I'll be the one to carry that relationship." Maria tipped Michael's chin up with a gentle force. "Love is taking care of each other, Michael. And you're not a failure!"

"I can't even get a stupid government scholarship," he mumbled. "I wanted to get it so bad. I wanted to be someone you can be proud of, someone you deserve."

"What, I don't deserve someone who loves me?" She looked into his eyes. "Michael, you've just been accepted to one of finest art schools in America. So what if you don't have a scholarship? We can work on finding that tuition fee. But you have talent. This letter shows that."

She stood up and pulled at his arms to get him to stand too. When Michael did, it was his turn to talk to her seriously. "Maria, Max has a set future. He has a scholarship to a great college and he pretty much has a job waiting for him at his dad's firm. He has—"

"Shush! Max might have all those things you don't," she agreed, "but you have something he'll never get. Me. I love you. We'll work on this together."

Still unconvinced, Michael didn't put up much of a fight when Maria walked them back to the party. He didn't know what he was going to do now. They've planned to be together in New York. He can't afford that now. And no matter what Maria said, she's going to find someone else. New York is a big exciting city.

"Mr. Guerin!" The two of them turned to see the principal. "Just the guy I wanted to see."

"Sir?" The principal never wanted to speak with him unless he did something wrong.

"I wanted to congratulate you, Michael. New York School of Modern Art, huh?"

"Oh that," Michael mumbled. "I'm not going."

"What? Why? You've got such a wonderful program waiting for you. I guess a copy of this didn't reach your teacher huh?" He handed Michael a slip of paper. "You were being considered for the government grant that would pay for half your fee, but the Buchanan Art Foundation asked them to give the scholarship to someone else. The Buchanan Foundation, which is a private institution dealing with—"

"Contemporary realism—"

"Yes, that. The foundation decided to take you under its wing. They'll pay your full tuition and give you a generous stipend. Congratulations, Michael."

Michael was speechless. Mutely, he shook hands with the principal, who smiled at Maria and said, "I saw that painting he submitted for consideration. You looked very lovely there, Ms. De Luca." And then he left the two alone.

Maria whirled around to face a still speechless Michael. She couldn't find words herself. He sent a painting of [I]her[/I] for his most important submission ever in his art career. She searched his words for something… and tried to say something else… She just didn't know what anymore!

Michael just smiled at her. And they didn't need words anymore. He pulled her close to him and breathed in the scent of her hair, and like always, Maria listened to the beat of his heart.

They were going to New York.

end