Pairings: Michael & Maria
Summary: Just a little one-shot set a few years down the road after high school. No drama, no alien insanity, just a little glimpse at what could have been.
~ The Gift ~
Because we have to celebrate the gift of life and love
Because we have to celebrate the gift of life and love
Something so small shouldn’t be capable of intimidating a grown woman. It sat there on the dining room table, flanked by a bowl of fruit and the salt and pepper shakers, its appearance deceptively innocuous. It was ridiculous to feel like an inanimate object could mock her, but it didn’t stop her from indulging in that fanciful thought.
She’d discovered the existence of aliens in her hometown of Roswell, NM while in high school. She’d been involved in some pretty bad situations over the years – most of them alien-related. How many people could say they’d been involved with so many not-of-this-Earth events? She’d seen shape-shifters, Skins, rebels, traitors, and even the Special Unit, which was alien-related due to the reason for its existence. But it had been years since they’d had to deal with any of that and it wasn’t like anything remotely close to any of those things could be lurking beneath the garish red bow stuck to the top of the box covered in glossy white paper.
Michael Guerin, alien-human hybrid and the love of her life was many things, but romantic was not one of them. He also wasn’t very good at picking out gifts. Or wrapping them, she thought as she stared at the white paper. She was pretty sure the paper had come out of the printer in the den.
It’s the thought that counts, she reminded herself. That had become her mantra over the years, regardless of holiday or special occasion. When she was younger she hadn’t understood what his problem was. There had been times it had hurt her feelings or just plain made her mad when he presented her with gifts that just seemed so senseless or thoughtless. It had taken her a while to figure out that it was just the opposite.
Michael was a practical man. It was something that was deeply ingrained in him. She knew genetics was partly responsible for that, but growing up with an abusive foster father that hadn’t cared about him had also played a large role in that personality trait.
As she’d matured she’d learned to appreciate that about him. But no matter how much she appreciated it, sometimes a girl just wanted a gift that wasn’t so practical! But Michael just didn’t seem to be wired for anything that didn’t relate to practicality in some way. And the man didn’t pick up on hints no matter how blatantly obvious they were so that was out the window. Well, she amended, that wasn’t completely true. On the rare occasion when he paid attention to something she wanted and he actually tried to follow through with it, she’d realized that every word was open to interpretation by the thick-headed hybrid.
When she was seven months pregnant she’d been absolutely positive she’d never see her feet again. She’d felt fat and unattractive and she’d been prone to emotional outbursts. During one of those moments she’d started crying and going on about the chipped polish on her toenails, not being able to fit into any of her clothes, stretch marks and her skin feeling like sandpaper.
The next morning she’d waddled into the kitchen in search of a snack and immediately spotted the box on the counter. Her curiosity had been piqued and since her name was on it in his familiar scrawl she’d wasted no time opening it. Yes, she’d been hoping for a day at the spa and a mani-pedi sounded like heaven on Earth, but rather than a gift certificate she’d pulled out a tube of cream guaranteed to aid in the reduction of stretch marks.
She reminded herself how much she loved him and forgave him for that. Eventually.
A couple of years later when their son Jamie was doing his very best to make sure there was no question why people referred to it as the ‘terrible twos’ she’d lived in a constant state of exhaustion. She’d felt like a zombie half of the time and had probably looked like one too. She’d been certain she was never going to feel rested again. Keeping up with an active toddler with special abilities courtesy of his father was difficult enough without adding in cooking, cleaning and everything else that went with running a household.
A conversation with her loving man hadn’t resulted in a handmade coupon giving her a day off. There was no romantic gesture as he whisked her away for the weekend to celebrate their anniversary. No. No, his solution to that one was bringing takeout home so she wouldn’t have to cook. And that would’ve been nice but he’d also brought their son a chocolate milkshake and Jamie had been bouncing off the walls for hours afterwards.
He’d meant well and she loved him for it. She’d still made him sleep on the couch that night.
Last year she’d started talking about maybe joining a gym, getting out of the house and exercising. He’d surprised her with a trip for her birthday. A week of roughing it in the wilderness; hiking, fishing and a dozen other things he and Jamie had enjoyed immensely. Hybrids were apparently impervious to blood-sucking insects and poison ivy. The mosquito population hadn’t gone hungry that week and between the insect bites and the poison ivy she’d been chewed up and covered in a rash that had spread like wildfire.
As much as she loved him she’d sworn nothing would ever get her on another campout. She hadn’t even had to tell him where the couch was when they got back home. He’d voluntarily set up camp in the living room. She wasn’t sure if that was his keen sense of self-preservation kicking in or because she’d looked like a… she didn’t even know, but it had been nightmare-worthy.
She’d never asked. Never ask the question if you’re not sure you want the answer.
For Christmas last year he’d given her a card with reservations for a weekend in New York City. She’d nearly passed out from the shock. She’d thought he’d been listening when she’d said they needed to get away for a few days, just the two of them. But then she’d found out that Kyle had won tickets for some stupid hockey game and the two of them figured if she and Tess tagged along they could keep each other company while the guys hung out. Translation: If the women in their lives were appeased they could go out and play without being nagged to death about it.
She loved him without question, but that night she’d told him in no uncertain terms that if she was spending a romantic weekend with Tess he was going to owe her big time.
And now there was Valentine’s Day. Supposedly the most romantic day of the year. Unless your other half happened to be Michael Guerin. Because not only was he challenged in the romance department, he’d made his feelings on the overly-commercialized holiday clear. He wasn’t interested in the hearts, the flowers, the chocolates or anything else associated with it.
Although he wasn’t averse to Valentine’s Day themed lingerie. In one of his poor attempts at being romantic he’d claimed it was the gift that kept giving. She rolled her eyes at that memory. Of course he didn’t have any problems with Valentine’s Day where lingerie was concerned – he was getting something out of it! She chuckled to herself. Well, it wasn’t like it was one-sided, was it?
She was pretty sure it wasn’t lingerie. She reached over and poked the box, frowning when it didn’t move easily. Okay, definitely not lingerie. There was no telling what he’d done this time. She was certain she hadn’t dropped any hints, intentional or otherwise. She’d decided to just take a holiday off because without reminders of any sort he was likely to simply forget about it.
The front door opened and slammed shut just a few second later. The feet pounding through the house belonged to their six-year-old and she smiled when she heard Michael telling him to slow down. It didn’t take long before she could hear them discussing something in hushed tones and she schooled her expression when their footsteps neared the kitchen.
She moved over to the refrigerator, pulling the door open to look like she was doing something serious like mulling over lunch rather than obsessing over what was tucked away in that box on the table. The weather had been warm for this time of the year and her boys had gone out to join some of the neighbors for a baseball game over at the city park.
She couldn’t stop the smile when her little boy ran across the room and threw his arms around her waist as she turned. He was beginning to exhibit moments of independence but thankfully he hadn’t gotten too old for hugs and kisses yet. “Hi, sweetie!” She leaned down to kiss the top of his head before stepping back just enough to look down at him. “Did you leave any dirt on the field?”
He grinned, showing off a couple of gaps where he’d started losing his baby teeth. Good grief, she’d cried when that first little tooth had fallen out. Michael had looked at her like she was from another planet but he’d had enough sense to just pull her into his arms and let her ride it out.
“We won!” He let go of her, quickly shoving his right hand behind his back, and taking a couple of steps back.
“What’ve you got there? The game ball?”
He rolled his eyes. “No, it’s a s’prise.” He raised his free hand and curled his forefinger, gesturing for her to come closer.
Michael paused in the doorway to watch the woman he loved as she lowered herself to their son’s level. He and Jamie had been walking home from the ball field when they’d passed an empty lot that was overgrown with every weed imaginable. But intermingled here and there were assorted flowers, although he suspected they were probably weeds as well, just the more colorful ones. Jamie had insisted on picking a handful of them and he’d rolled his eyes when asked why.
“’Cause, Dad,” he’d sounded exasperated, “girls like it when you give them flowers.”
He’d watched his boy scamper around the lot, snatching up the colorful weeds and cramming them together in his hand. “There some girl you’re pickin’ them for?”
“They’re for Kaylee. If I give her flowers she’ll be my girlfriend.”
“Don’t you think you’re a little young for a girlfriend?”
He’d thought about that while uprooting a particularly stubborn symbol of childish love. “No. I don’t think you gotta be old to get a girlfriend.”
He’d nodded. “I see. Well, I’m not so sure Mom will agree with you.”
“But Dad, if Kaylee’s my girlfriend she’s gotta share all the treats her mom lets her have.” He’d glanced at his dad. “And her mom doesn’t make her have fruit. She gets the good stuff.”
“Is that the way it works?”
Jamie had given him that look – the one he’d seen Maria aim in his direction more times than he could count. “Mom said no one but you gets to share her treats. I heard her tell you that.” He’d frowned at the look on Dad’s face, not understanding why he looked like that.
Michael had cleared his throat, grateful that Jamie hadn’t heard that entire conversation because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to explain it in an acceptable manner his six-year-old could understand. It hadn’t been a conversation meant for little ears. “I think you’re outta room, Son,” he’d said with a nod at the boy’s hand, hoping to redirect the conversation.
“I gotta get some for Mom too. Kaylee’s can’t be bigger than Mom’s. That’s like a girl rule.”
“Where’re you getting all these rules?”
“Uncle Kyle knows all about the rules and Uncle Max, he knows all about the stuff girls like.” He’d grinned proudly and looked at the overcrowded bunch of flowers he was gripping so tightly. “See, if I give one a bigger bunch of flowers, then the other one will be sad. Or,” his eyes had widened, “she’ll be mad. Uncle Max and Uncle Kyle both said that’s really, really bad. So, I gotta have two big bunches of flowers.”
“Uh-huh. Maybe you should talk to your Uncle Alex.”
“How come you don’t ever bring Mom flowers?”
No way was he explaining to his little boy that the one time he’d made that ridiculous gesture she’d dumped him. “Just not my thing.”
“You should oughta do it, Dad. Mom’s a girl and girls like flowers. They get all happy and stuff.” He’d looked down at his flowers. “I think I got ‘nuff now.”
Movement caught his attention and he focused on Maria and their son when Jamie jerked his hand from behind his back and thrust the handful of weeds towards her so fast she nearly toppled over when she moved to avoid being smacked in the face by the well-intentioned gesture.
“Oh, Jamie, they’re beautiful.”
They weren’t. They looked like a handful of half-dead weeds. But, Michael was sure in her eyes no bouquet of long-stemmed red roses could be more beautiful. It was a mom thing, he was sure of it. She accepted the raggedy would-be bouquet and moved them this way and that way as she admired every petal and leaf, somehow ignoring the small clumps of dirt that shook loose from the roots still hanging from many of them.
His gaze moved to his boy. When Maria had asked him what he thought of names for boys he hadn’t had to give it much thought. He knew plenty of guys wanted to give their son their own name, but he hadn’t wanted that. He’d wanted something strong, something that had meaning. So he’d suggested the name of the man who had made a difference in his life: Sheriff James Valenti.
“Go get washed up and we’ll have lunch shortly.”
“Okay.” He grinned and took off, pausing at the doorway, one grubby hand holding onto the white trim. “Hey, Mom?”
Maria looked up when he called her and she felt that familiar choking sensation when he gave her that soft little smile that tended to precede her three favorite words.
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Jamie.”
And just like that he was gone.
“You know those things are gonna be dead before the day’s over,” Michael said when she started trying to clean the roots so she could put the weeds in a vase filled with water.
She snorted softly. “You’d never let that happen.” He couldn’t stand to see the look of disappointment on their son’s face anymore than she could.
He waited until she had succeeded in finally ridding the worst of the dirt from the weeds and arranged them in a vase before he came up behind her. He wrapped his arms around her, offering her the single red rose he’d picked up at the store.
Maria stared at it, trying to comprehend the gesture. Michael just didn’t bring her flowers. Ever. He hadn’t since that one time she’d nearly destroyed everything. Her fingertips brushed over the perfect green leaves hesitantly. “Michael, what’s this?”
He waited until she turned in his arms. “I’ve got it on expert authority that you’re a girl and girls like flowers,” he murmured as he leaned in for a kiss.
She knew exactly where that little gem of information had come from. Her fingertips wound around the longer hair that brushed against his collar. “Which one of them has he been talking to this time?”
“Take your pick. Although I’m pretty sure he’s angling to make Kaylee his girlfriend since there are rules. Apparently this change in status would mean any treats she has automatically belongs to both of them and she’d have to share.”
“So you haven’t opened your gift.”
“Considering your views on Valentine’s Day I’m surprised you picked something up.”
“Well, they should’ve called it somethin’ else. If you abbreviate it you get V.D. and I don’t know anyone who wants to get that.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Most people don’t run around calling it V.D. Why don’t you go get washed up and I’ll get to work on lunch?”
“You don’t wanna open it?” He injected just a hint of disappointment in his tone, knowing it would encourage her to suck it up and set her trepidation aside to make him happy.
“Well, Valentine’s Day is still two days away.” If she could put it off long enough maybe she could open it without an audience and she’d have the time to practice the appropriate amount of enthusiasm when he asked if she liked whatever it was.
“That’s okay, you don’t have to wait.”
“Really? Are you sure?” She was stalling. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.”
“No, no, I promise, it’s okay if you wanna open it early.”
Her eyes strayed back to the box when he walked over to pick it up. She hadn’t had time to get her surprised face on. Okay, she could do this. For some reason he seemed to be eager for her to open it up and it was hard to say no when he got like this about anything. “Well, if it means that much to you…”
“No reason for it to carry the stigma of being opened on V.D. Day.”
“Stop calling it that.” She made a face at him. “It’s not…” she shook her head. “Nevermind.” It wasn’t worth getting into that conversation again.
“It’s got a little weight to it so I’ll just put it here, okay?” He made a show of gently placing it on the center island and then motioned to it. He was perfectly aware of his track record where gifts were concerned. Basically, he sucked at choosing gifts, but she seemed to understand that and somehow she usually managed to find that well of enthusiasm inside for whatever he chose to gift her with. Okay, there were a couple… well, maybe a few times that he’d ended up in the doghouse when one of his gifts backfired, but he was pretty sure that wasn’t his fault.
“Are you sure you intended for me to open it?” Maria teased when she realized he’d sealed it with packing tape from one end to the other, which explained why it appeared to be glossy.
“Here, I’ll get you started.” He pulled his pocketknife out and ran the tip along one of the seams and then repeated the move on the flap that crossed over the first one.
“I don’t remember asking for anything that would have this kind of weight,” she said as she pulled the flaps back to reveal a cardboard box that had previously held some part he’d ordered for the car. Well, that sure didn’t give anything away. She took her time pulling the paper off, working out the chances that he might think an automotive part would make a good gift. No, that couldn’t be it. Besides, he’d done whatever repair he’d ordered the part for, hadn’t he? Yes, he had. She relaxed fractionally since it couldn’t possibly be some part for the car.
He watched her from the corner of his eye as he wandered over to get a cup of coffee, doctoring it up and taking a drink. “I thought maybe we could go out for dinner tonight.”
“Out?” she echoed stupidly.
“Yeah, we could celebrate. Maybe go to that place you like over on Collins Street.” He pulled his pocketknife back out and sliced through the tape sealing the box shut before she could ask.
Maria paused. “The restaurant that requires reservations?” He preferred to go to places that didn’t have dress codes or reservation requirements. The gift was becoming more suspicious by the moment.
“Sure, why not? I’ve already talked to Liz and she said they can keep Jamie tonight.”
Dear Lord, what was in this box? She cleared her throat and lifted the flaps… and stared at the rocks that filled it. “Michael…” She had been cursed. For some reason she couldn’t comprehend she had been given a box of rocks. Her fingertips brushed over them as she tried to figure this one out. Okay, there were a lot of them, which told her nothing. She cleared her throat, desperately trying to figure it out because if she had to ask it would probably hurt his feelings.
Michael kept an eye on her while pulling out the stuff to put lunch together. He could see she was trying to figure out what it meant and he grinned when she opened a drawer to pull out a box of wax paper. She ripped off several sheets and lined the countertop before picking the rocks out one by one and lining them up on the paper.
It took nearly ten minutes before she realized the rocks surrounded something at the center that was covered by yet another cardboard box. She pried it out, mindless of a couple of small rocks that were catapulted across the room. She didn’t pay any attention to the landslide that occurred when the centerpiece came loose. Holding it up, she gave it a little shake and then lifted the top, upending it and shaking the contents out.
Maria’s eyes went wide when she saw the deep green jewelry box that landed in the palm of her hand. “Michael, I… you…”
This form of speechlessness was a good sign, he was sure of it. Without realizing it, he held his breath, unable to take his eyes off of her as she lifted the hinged lid. It wasn’t huge, it wasn’t fancy, but when he’d seen it he’d known it was the one. Contrary to popular belief, he did listen when she talked. Maybe he didn’t always interpret things correctly, but he did listen to her… even when what she had to say wasn’t verbal.
They’d been together for years and she’d never pushed him to get married, knowing he didn’t put much weight behind a piece of paper. But he’d noticed the way she’d get quiet for a while after their friends one by one had gotten engaged and eventually married. Maybe he hadn’t noticed it at first, or at least hadn’t realized the reason for her being so quiet, but he’d finally figured it out.
They were together and he’d just kinda figured that was enough. And then they’d had Jamie and things had been even better. But somewhere along the way he’d started to wonder if maybe they were cheating themselves by not getting married. Then he’d overheard Jamie talking to one of his friends when he went to pick him up from a play date and the childish conversation had given him pause.
“How come your mom and dad don’t wear their rings?” Ally had asked.
“Huh?” That was his boy, eloquent with words.
“You know, married people are s’posed to wear rings. It shows they love each other.”
He’d frowned at that, obviously not understanding why anyone would suggest his parents didn’t love each other. “My mom and dad wear rings.”
She’d shaken her head. “But not wedding rings.”
His eyes had narrowed as he took her response as a slight against his parents. “They don’t gotta have them. They love each other.”
And Jamie was right. They loved each other unconditionally and without reservation. They didn’t need rings to know that. But that conversation had really started him thinking and it had pushed him to consider thoughts already set in motion by his observations of his longtime girlfriend after the weddings of their friends.
Did the ring make that much of a difference? Did the marriage certificate make a difference? No, he didn’t think they did. He had a feeling it was more about the level of commitment than any of the accessories that went with it. He’d always been satisfied with the way things were going. They had a good life together, they had a great son and things were going well. He’d never felt like he was stuck, never felt restless, and he’d never questioned if he was in this for the long haul.
He felt the weight of her stare and he reached over to take the ring from her. “So, I know we’ve never really sat down and talked about getting married. I mean, it’s kinda come up once or twice but just in passing, and I was thinking maybe it’s time I made an honest woman of you.”
Maria’s gaze bounced between the simple diamond engagement ring and him, feeling like maybe she should pinch herself to make sure this was really happening. She’d wanted him to ask; oh yes, she’d wanted the ring, the marriage certificate, the whole deal. Not because of what they represented; but because she wanted to be his wife. She wanted him to be her husband. But she’d also known it was a long shot at best. For him, what mattered was that they were together and the rest of it was society’s measure of a relationship. No, she had never pushed for it, knowing that for it to mean anything it had to come from him.
Michael gave her a lopsided grin as he met her gaze, not missing the sheen of tears making her green eyes darker than normal. “Marry me, Maria.”
She knew he wouldn’t ask if he didn’t mean it. Staying together wasn’t something that could be magically guaranteed by a piece of paper or a wedding ring. Those things were only symbols that told the world that they’d made a commitment to each other. What mattered most was their willingness to make that commitment work. “I hope you weren’t expecting me to say no,” she said with a grin. She held her hand out to him. “Yes, Michael, I’ll marry you.”
She didn’t comment on the trembling as he slipped the ring on her finger, not even sure if it was him, her or both of them. She laughed out of sheer happiness when he pulled her into his arms, his embrace so warm, familiar and loving. Suddenly his earlier suggestion that they go out someplace that required advance reservations made sense. The box on the counter caught her attention and as she realized the significance of his choice of packaging tears blurred her vision again.
It was his way of representing a diamond in the rough. It was pure Michael and she loved him. Maybe he didn’t always succeed with his gifts, but when he did, he hit it out of the park. She held her hand up over his shoulder to look at the ring, the diamond catching the light and sparkling brightly. Yep, he might be romantically challenged, but there was no doubt he loved her.
Not a single doubt.