The following Wednesday Michael and Liz were laughing as they chased each other around the kitchen at the Crashdown. Michael was spraying Liz with water from the hose attached to the sink, and she kept swatting him with a towel while dodging blasts of water. It was this scene that greeted Isabel, Kyle, and Maria as they entered the kitchen from the diner's main room.
At a loss, because none of them had ever seen Liz and Michael drop their guards like that with each other before, they all stood there gaping. Realizing that Liz and Michael were in their own little world and not sure how she felt about it, Maria finally let out a strangled shout, "Michael?!"
Startled, both Liz and Michael froze. They dropped their weapons and exchanged a look, and it was as if they put on invisible armor. Their backs straightened and their expressions turned serious, Liz took a breath and turned and smiled at everyone. After a wordless beat, Liz launched herself at Maria, exclaiming, "Maria! You're back! When did you get in?"
Maria hugged her friend automatically. Her eyes never leaving Michael's form, still bent over the sink. Liz turned to Kyle and Isabel asking "You guys want ice cream?" with some overbright cheeriness. Following her lead, Kyle and Isabel quickly agreed.
Pretending to ignore the drama unfolding around them Isabel, Kyle, and Liz set about preparing the bowls and spoons as Michael finally turned and made his way towards Maria.
"Hey." He said quietly as he wrapped his arms around her in a hug.
"That's all you have to say to me? 'Hey.' No, 'how are you Maria' or 'I missed you Maria.' No, all I get is a 'hey.'"
Michael closed his eyes. For a moment he had been happy to see Maria, but then the drama settled back in and he just wasn't sure he could handle it anymore. She was still carrying on when he finally decided that the best way to shut her up, the only way to quiet her, was to kiss her. When they were kissing they weren't fighting. And Michael was so tired of fighting.
"Michael I—" Maria started to speak. But Michael didn't want to talk in that moment. There were too many things to say and he knew if they started talking right then it wouldn't end well.
"Shh. Welcome back. I don't want to fight." Michael interrupted softly.
"Hey you guys, we're all set up out in the front," called Isabel.
Michael and Maria walked out together, each immersed in their own thoughts. Kyle and Isabel kept up a steady stream of conversation about the Valenti-Deluca camp vacation. Liz couldn't keep her mind off the fact that Alex and Max were missing. Nothing about this felt right. Maria looked as if she was about to explode, and it had nothing to do with the fact that she had just spent a week camping. And Kyle and Isabel were trying so hard to pretend that all this was normal.
When Kyle and Isabel took their leave, Michael, Maria, and Liz remained in an awkward silence. A tension that had never existed between them settled in. After avoiding both Michael and Maria's eyes Liz stood up and began collecting the dishes, waving away both their offers of help and insisting that Michael accompany his girlfriend home.
Standing alone in the kitchen at the Crashdown she felt bereft, the solitude overwhelming her. She refused to cry about it. She knew she needed to talk to Max. Things couldn't continue this way. She knew exactly what she needed to do. Liz quickly ran to the employee lounge and changed into her street clothes, leaving the dirty dishes piled up in the sink, she too left the diner.
As Michael walked Maria to the apartment she shared with her mom, he could sense that they were not in sync. He was just so tired of arguing with her. Nothing he did was ever good enough.
And as if on cue, Maria started complaining, "Michael, don't you want me anymore? We never spend any time together."
Michael sighed, "Maria, what are you talking about? This has been the first week we've had any time apart since school ended."
"I don't know Michael. It's just that you've seemed distant lately. And I thought we were really moving towards something special and now we just seem to be stuck." Maria couldn't stop herself from pouting.
"Maria, Christ. You need to let me breathe. I don't know what the whole moving toward something special thing means, but I'm pretty sure I'm still not ready for that. I've had a lot to deal with. I have a lot of stuff I need to work through." Michael knew these were just excuses. But he couldn't bring himself to say anything that would rock the boat.
Michael spit out the first thought that came to mind, "Like knowing that I'm here on Earth to stay."
"But you stayed for me. What do you mean? Are you having second thoughts?"
Shit. Things were getting out of hand. He wanted to avoid an argument, not start one. "God. No. It's just that it was never so final. I don't regret staying, Maria, please don't think that. But I need to get used to the idea that this is my home. Forever." Didn't she realize that he'd been counting on leaving Earth for so long, that even though he didn't really want to leave, the permanence of destroying the regolith chamber was still messing with his head.
"And what if Max finds another way to leave? A way home to save his son, what would you do then?"
"Honestly, Maria, I don't know." He didn't know what he would do then. The truth was that things were still in flux, Max and Isabel were his family. Could he really live in a world where they were not? At Michael's answer Maria eyes filled with tears. And she quietly walked around him and entered her home.
"Michael, I'll call you when I'm ready to talk," she said as she closed the door in his face. So much for avoiding an argument. Lately he couldn't win when he was around Maria. He wasn't sure how much longer they could continue this way.
Liz rapped somewhat nervously on Max's bedroom window. It had been a while since she had sought him out like this and she was unsure of her reception.
"Liz?" he asked in greeting as he swung open the window.
"Hey Max, do you mind if we talked for a bit?"
"Sure. What's going on?" he said quizzically as he took a seat on his bed. He waved her to the chair at his desk, "Make yourself comfortable."
"I really need to be able to say this, so let me finish first, okay?" Liz took a deep breath. It was time to lay her cards out on the table with Max. The last six months, the last year had changed things between them. And she was more certain than ever that they could never go back to what they had been. But she wasn't sure if he knew that. Liz needed to tell him, but God, it would hurt. It hurt her to hurt him. It hurt to let go of the idea of them as a couple.
"Okay, I promise," he said.
Liz chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully before beginning. "Max, I was kind of upset today at the Crashdown when everyone came over. And while there were other things on my mind, what really got to me was how alone I felt.
"For the past two years you have always been my partner. And as much as I am not ready to be involved with you romantically. And honestly, I may never be ready, Max. The thing is, I need you in my life. And I realize that sounds incredibly selfish right now. But I think that one of the things that went wrong this past year was the fact that we had stopped working as a team. Because we had lost faith in each other.
"I want you to know that I have faith in you. And that even though I am not prepared to trust you with my heart, I trust you in all other things. So don't avoid me. Or gatherings that will include me. I need you to be my friend. You know me so well. And I would hate to lose you completely. But I need to know if that's okay with you. If you can do this? Be friends, just friends." Liz warm brown eyes had filled with tears as she looked down at her hand as laced and unlaced her fingers as she spoke. She felt like the worst possible person. She was demanding something from a person she had just hurt terribly.
When she finally looked up at him, he smiled at her warmly. "Liz, I agree with you completely. I felt like an idiot staying at home today. But I wasn't sure how much space you meant when you said you needed it. I do need you in my life. If not as my soul mate then at least as a kindred spirit. We've always made an excellent team, and I think you're right it's high time we acted like one."
"So we're friends?"
"Of course, we're friends. Liz, I want us to be able to go back to what were. But I know that with everything that happened it might be impossible to really do that. But one thing I can promise is to be your friend. And I also promise to be a better friend than I've been this past year. Because you're right that we stopped acting like a team at some point."
Liz smiled, her warm brown eyes filling with emotion. This was so bittersweet. It felt almost like a goodbye, but it was a goodbye that she needed to say. In her heart she knew she would always love Max. But it wasn't the kind of love that would lead to a happily ever after for them. He was her first love. But they'd been changed by everything that they'd endured. She fell in love with the Max that saved her that night in the Crashdown. But now, all she knew was that she loved him, but she wasn't in love with him.
Max smiled back at her. He knew Liz was right about where things stood between them. He would always love Liz, but if they could only be friends then that was okay. The truth was that if he were honest the lies and the betrayals they'd endured had taken a toll on their relationship. When he'd fallen in love with Liz Parker there had been hope and light and love. There was still love between them, but it was muted now, it had been overcast with shadows. "Good night, Liz."
They looked at each other as Liz turned and slipped out the window. The dream of Max and Liz forever had finally been put to rest. As Liz walked home she felt as if an incredible weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Finally her relationship with Max had some solid footing. And even if it wasn't the relationship she had imagined, she was happy that they were friends again.