NOTES: Post-ep for Significant Others. A response to the themango Anti-you challenge, so the anti-k story is supposed to be happy het, with no internal dialogue or pop culture references. And not Sorkinfic. Thanks to Luna, Jess, Mosca and Shana.

THE COMPANY OF MEN

"You're glad I have friends?" Michael shot a glance at Maria.

"I am. Stop being so surprised." Maria tapped her nails on the counter. "Now I need all these orders." Maria turned around and walked away from the kitchen.

Michael smelled hamburgers on the grill, fries in the fryer and somewhere, a whiff of Maria. He assembled three orders and pushed the plates up for Maria and Liz. Mr. Parker came up behind him. "Why are you surprised?"

Michael turned around and then turned back to the grill. "Surprised? Things surprise me. I'm amazed every day."

"Specifically today? Specifically Maria?" Mr. Parker watched Liz taking orders. Liz glared back at him occasionally.

"She's not mad at me. I double-booked and she's not mad at me. It's weird. She likes to be mad at me and here she's letting it go. Except for the tuna melt." Michael shook his head and flipped burgers.

Mr. Parker grunted and walked away to better monitor Liz. Liz brushed past her father with a huffy sound and picked up the orders. "Hey, Michael."

"She's not mad at me." Michael shook his head. "I don't understand her at all."

Liz frowned. "Michael, you're an idiot."

Michael shook his head again. His neck hurt. He rubbed his neck and shoulders. Maria came back and looked at him. She raised an eyebrow. "Hello? Michael? My orders? My customers? My ability to keep being your sugar daddy?"

"Actually, Maria, right now, I am my own sugar daddy. Between this and Meta-Chem, I'm okay. I don't need a sugar daddy. And, wait -- when did you become my sugar daddy?"

Maria rolled her eyes. "Cook, cook-boy. Please."

Michael assembled her orders and handed them over. "Cook-boy? You can't come up with anything better?"

Maria balanced the tray on her shoulder. "You're not the only who's tired, Michael."

After the afternoon before the evening job, at home, he sat on the couch while Max paced. "Michael, I can't deal with this. She's not mad at you. Deal with it. Make up for the tuna melt thing, right? She's mad about the tuna melt? I can't deal with this."

Michael drank a Snapple and fiddled with his stupid tie. "Yeah, I should get to work. You should get some sleep."

Max looked at Michael. "You're sitting on my bed."

Later, at work, Steve said, "Look. She's not mad. She's a great girl. You should marry her."

Michael cleared his throat. "Maybe not right now. But it's like, it's like some clichéd sitcom thing. I double-booked, I have no time for her, and she's not mad. She says she loves me and she's glad I have friends. Wouldn't the correct ending have been something more like she throws a bowling ball at me?"

Fly looked up from watching ESPN. "Yeah, she throws a bowling ball at you and the audience laughs and laughs. Dude, I saw that ep. What show is that?"

Michael looked over at ESPN. "It should have been the latest episode of the adventures of Michael and his crazy girlfriend. It wasn't. I don't understand women."

Everyone in the room nodded and grunted. "Women," George said.

"Women," echoed Steve. "They are mysterious."

Monk looked up from the Playboy channel for the first time. "But I like them."

Everyone in the room nodded again and grunted again. Fly was watching ESPN again. "Maybe she's setting you up. Like, you know, pretend to be not mad and then bam!"

Michael looked from side to side nervously. "Bam? Dude. Fuck. Maria's "bams" can be very scary."

Steve laughed. "Don't listen to these guys, Michael. She sounds like a great girl. Don't listen to them."

The next morning, he fell asleep in class. Max poked him with a pen and when class was done, waiting in the hall, Michael tried to rub the pen mark off his arm. "Max. I think she's faking the not angry with me thing."

Max watched Liz walk down the hall. They exchanged deep, soulful glances. Michael poked Max with a pen. "Max. Back to me. The non-felonious, non-Romeo-and-Juliet-angst crap relationship here, okay?"

Max whirled and glared at Michael. "She's not faking it. She actually loves you. Stop being stupid, as difficult as that is for you when it comes to Maria." Max marched off to his class. Michael sighed.

Michael sat across from Maria at lunch at school that day. "You're really not mad?"

Maria frowned and cocked her head. "Michael. That was Saturday. Now it's Monday. Get over it."

Michael scratched his head. "It's Monday? Do I have work tonight?"

Maria smiled and rolled her eyes. "Maybe you should use all your extensive earnings to hire an assistant. Or, you know, keep expecting me to take care of these things."

Michael sipped his milk. "So. Do I have work today?"

"Yes. Crashdown and then Meta-Chem. You're gonna get, like, at most, three hours of sleep." She played with her food. Her hair curled around her shoulders.

"If I ask you if you're just pretending not to be mad, will that make you mad?"

Maria burst out laughing. "Yes. It will. Go to class, you freak alien boy." He watched her mouth curl into a smile, brown lipstick over a rosebud mouth. She'd have laugh lines when she was very old, wrinkles that said here was a woman who knew a good joke.

In the afternoon, at the Crashdown, he watched Maria surreptitiously. She smiled at customers, rolled her eyes at Liz and tugged at her headband. He looked away when she looked at him, because he was watching her surreptitiously, not staring or anything. He grunted at her when she made comments while dropping off orders.

Liz poked him at the end of his shift. "What's wrong with you?"

"She's planning something. She's mad and she's covering it up. I just need to be ready for the inevitable bam!" Michael washed his hands and ran his hands through his hair.

"Michael, this is so sad. I didn't know grease fumes could sap IQ points and so quickly. I should tell my Dad." Liz walked away and he heard her laugh.

At work that night, he and Fly tried to figure out how Maria was going to get him. Fly proposed that Maria, like one of Fly's exes, would put laxatives in his soda.

George said, "Fly, give me that girl's number so I never, ever call her."

Monk grunted. "Girl ain't gonna do something psychotic. She's nice. She's just gonna withhold sex."

Michael tugged at his tie. "Fuck. You think?"

Steven clapped down his clipboard. "Stop listening to these guys, Michael. She's a good girl. She's not mad at you. There won't be any laxatives in your soda." Steven looked at the picture of his wife and kids and smiled.

Michael ignored the smile and rubbed his forehead. "No, she'll put it in the Tabasco sauce."

He drove to Maria's in the morning, right before school. He knocked on the door. Maria opened it slowly. "Michael? Is this sleep deprivation finally rendering you insane? Why are you here?"

"I know you're mad at me. You should be mad at me. What are you planning?"

Maria closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. She opened her eyes and grabbed Michael's face. Her hands were warm and soft against his cheeks. "I'm not mad. I love you. Even now, when you appear to have the brain of a frog. A frog on acid. Seriously. I am not mad. I love you. Enjoy your time with your friends. Make time for me. It's all fine." She kissed him. She tasted like toothpaste and pancakes.

That night at Meta-Chem, he told the guys he was sure Maria was not mad at him. "But, damn it, now I have to do something really nice for her."

Fly suggested flowers and chocolates. "That always works."

George said, "Cook her something. Something special."

Michael frowned. "I can't cook."

George shook his head. "You are a cook, man."

"I make burgers and sandwiches and fries. It's not like I can do, you know, other types of food. I'm not a romantic making up for being an ass kind of cook."

Monk stared at the Playboy Channel. "Take her to a movie. Like, not a dirty one. Chicks like movies. Buy the popcorn. Don't get butter on it, chicks hate butter."

Steven rolled his eyes at the single men. "Just spend time with her. You need to stop listening to these guys."

Michael stood up and leaned against the monitors. "But, see, her best friend Liz? Max is going all out for her. Hang-gliding, romantic picnics on the dock, robbing convenience stores -- she's hearing about all this deeply romantic moments. I need to measure up to that."

He doodled down ideas during class. He tried to ask Mr. Parker for suggestions but Mr. Parker just grunted and walked away to talk to Liz. He got home to his house that night and found Maria at his door. "How'd you beat me home," he asked.

"Speed limits are for wimps." She followed him inside. Max was already asleep on the couch.

He grabbed her hand and pulled her to the backyard. She stepped over the stones and weeds. "How are you, Michael?"

"I'm good. I'm an idiot, right?"

"It's good that you know that. Are you completely over this 'Maria is secretly mad at me' thing?" The light from the street shined off her hair and her eyes. He could see her smile.

"Yeah. You know what I think?"

"Almost never can I penetrate that eternal mystery. It's like Greek to me, Michael."

"I think guys give bad advice." Michael leaned against the wall of his shack and ran his hands through his hair.

Maria's smile looked blessed with light. "Well, yeah. On the topic of women, feelings, the right kind of feminine protection, sure. But, hey, let's step away from the gender stereotypes for a moment and focus on you. Why would you think I would be mad at you when I said I wasn't?"

Michael kicked at a stone. "Can't we stick with gender stereotypes? I am male, I am stupid."

Maria laughed. "No, that's too easy. You're not stupid. You're definitely male, but not all guys are stupid and not all women are mysterious. What's up with you?"

"I'm amazed every day." He looked at the house, falling apart. He looked at the yard he never cleaned up. "What do you see in me?" Michael looked at her again. He watched her face soften in the half-light. An ambulance roared by and her face was bathed in red flashes.

She laughed again. "I am not going to repeat this. Just accept it. I, Maria, love you, Michael. You, Michael, love me, Maria."

He kissed her, and held her away from the dirty walls. He broke off the kiss and looked down at her. "I can't do all that shit Max has been doing, and neither of us can afford to be robbing convenience stores -- so, um, wanna drive around in Max's car and listen to, like, chick music?" She kissed him again, which meant yes. He let her choose the radio station and he listened to her beautiful voice sing along with every tune. He smiled and held her hand as they watched the stars flick by.

THE END

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