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Maria DeLuca: Bar owner, psychic and honorary relationship therapist

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***

Maria's not going to pretend she's a huge fan of Michael Guerin. In high school he was fine. A little odd at times, his head stuck in a book the rest, but he was wicked smart and had always been kind to everyone. Even the freak daughter of the single psychic who owned the local dive bar. But now he's a drunk who starts fights to avoid paying his tab and hides the genius kid he'd been with a ridiculous level of asshole that just makes Maria want to smack him with a brick.

And he definitely smells like a river. One that's covered in engine oil and strangely enough, nail polish remover. How he ever picks up women is beyond her, but there's a certain class of girl who hangs out at the Pony who don't mind if their lay stinks like the bar floor as long as they're good looking enough and can get them off. From what Maria's heard, Guerin surpasses all expectations in bed, even if the expectations are pretty damned low.

Still, he'd been a rock to lean on when she'd needed to cry the other week, willing to sit there and hold her in silence until she could pull herself together enough to get him to leave. She might have a teeny-tiny soft spot in her for him after that.

It's big enough that she keeps a closer eye on him than usual one night when he comes into the Pony looking completely dejected, even his curls hanging limply in defeat, but she doesn't attempt conversation with him beyond getting his drinks. She's learnt what a person looks like when they aren't in the mood for conversation.

Maria wonders if it has anything to do with Isobel Evans disappearing, apparently headed for rehab. She calls bullshit on that line but the gossip train, although in overdrive, doesn't actually have any useful information to go off except that Max and Michael were last seen taking her out of the hospital in her gown, pretty blonde ass exposed when a gust of wind came through.

She remembers the weird friendship the three of them had in school, and about how they'd all been found wandering the desert together twenty years ago. None of them look a thing alike, but Maria knows a family when she sees one, and she also knows the look of a man who's lost his.

So she keeps an eye on him, watching him quietly nurse his drink and turn down offers for pool games, ignoring hopped-up attitudes of even bigger assholes than himself that he'd normally have punched by now. She watches him sink further into the stool with his head in his hand, staring sadly at a spot on the bar that only he can see, and she wonders what the hell happened to him.

He only perks up when Alex Manes laughs as he walks through the door with his arm around a blonde man, and Maria's torn between going to greet one of the best friends she could ever ask for and finding out who he’s dragging into her bar, and watching the light finally come back on in Guerin's eyes. In the end she stays where she is, and because of that she catches how Guerin spins to look at Alex with a grin that's gone as quickly as it arrived when he sees Alex isn't alone, and from the warning look he shoots both her and Guerin, he very much doesn't want to talk.

Maria sees the light in Guerin’s eyes dim again and he droops like week-old flowers in a vase before turning back to his drink, somehow looking more downtrodden than he did when he came in.

Huh.

Now that's not a match Maria would ever have thought of, not least because she was under the impression Guerin was straight. But Alex always did have a bit of a type when they were in school, always falling for the underdog in books and getting soft eyed over both the bad boys and the nerds. Guerin certainly fits all of the above categories.

‘Didn't notice he got kinda hot,’ her ass. She was going to have words with a certain Mr Manes next time she got him alone about lying by omission when it came to guys. Lord knows she needs to live vicariously through her friends when they got interested in someone these days.

She eyes off Guerin as he slumps forward, and now that she's looking, he’s carrying more than one level of heartbreak on his shoulders, and there's a little twinge of sympathy inside her for the guy, then more than a little frustration at herself. The guy comes in here at least five times a week, gets drunk, hustles people out of their money and bangs bar-bunnies in her bathroom or parking lot, gets in stupid arguments that break her bar and make her have to call the cops, then he comes back the next day with a swagger and a grin like nothing’s wrong, just to do it all over again. Yet one moment of kindness out of him and the knowledge of what it’s like to have the person you want walk by with someone else, and she’s feeling all soft-hearted towards him.

Ugh. Maria sometimes hates the massive dose of empathy she inherited. She turns away with mild self-disgust to serve customers who are actually going to pay her, but it sticks in her mind. After all, half her job is being a damn therapist for people who come into her bar in need of help that doesn't come out of a bottle.

By the time she’s served the next half-dozen customers, things haven’t improved at all. Guerin is pointedly avoiding the corner of the bar that Alex is haunting, while Alex is being a less than attentive date and keeps staring at Guerin’s back like he expects a demon to come out of him. If it weren’t for the fact that the bar is plain out too busy, she’d go over and meet Tall Military and Extremely Dumb, if the look on his face is anything to go by. She’d go over and find out what the hell Alex has been doing sniffing around Michael Guerin.

She’d go and find out what happened for her best friend to have gone near Guerin in the first place, and then what happened that broke Guerin so badly that Maria isn’t sure her least favourite barfly is ever going to recover.

Speaking of the barfly, he’s waving her over, and Maria rolls her eyes where he can see her and takes just a little longer getting the new glasses out, because the last thing she needs is Guerin thinking she’ll come at his beck and call. If he gets that idea, he’ll be even more of a pain in the ass next time.

“You want another one?” Maria gestures at the empty bottle in front of him, ready to pull another beer out - Guerin’s never come in and had less than four drinks, and he’s only on two right now.

“Thanks, DeLuca, but I’m done here.” Michael murmurs, soft and sad and nowhere near the cocky jerk he normally is in here, and he stands and slides - God damn - the right amount of cash across the bar, with a tip. Miracles do occur.

She can support this interest in Alex if only it means she's going to end up being paid on time and there's no bloodshed in her bar. Then again, she’s not sure she can support it if Guerin’s going to spend much more time looking like someone ripped out his heart then drove over it for good measure.

Guerin doesn’t even give her a chance to say anything before he’s turning and slipping through the crowd without a glance in Alex’s direction, but Maria doesn’t miss how Alex watches him go, his date all but forgotten about. Then again, that seems to be the theme of the evening, and she’d feel sorry if not for the fact that TDM hasn’t seemed to have noticed that he’s not even a distraction for Alex.

***

A good twenty minutes later, she’s dumping a bag of garbage out in the dumpster and sees Guerin’s familiar junky old Chevy still parked in her lot, tucked up against the wall of the Pony.

Maria frowns, more than a little concerned. Guerin isn’t one that she needs to worry about driving shitfaced drunk - he’ll always call Isobel to come and retrieve him instead. But unless he had a bottle hidden away somewhere, he was sober when he walked out her door.

She wavers for a moment between going back inside and finding out what the hell’s wrong. A choked sob coming from the truck makes her mind up for her and she groans. The other two bartenders will have to cope for a while longer.

It says something for how upset Guerin is that he doesn’t hear her coming, doesn’t even look up when she’s at his door. He just stays curled over his steering wheel with his shoulders heaving from the harsh sobs pouring out of him, the most horrible little noises tangling up with them until he sounds like the stray dog Maria had accidentally hit with her car years ago - completely and utterly broken, inside and out.

There’s also a puddle of puke only a few inches to the right of the door, and Maria glances at it with an experienced eye. A bit of beer and not much else at nine PM.

Awesome. So she’s got a heartbroken starved asshole crying in her parking lot. She’d heard rumors that Guerin had recently given up pawning off the more valuable shit he found at the junkyard, but she doesn’t know if his bank balance looks that sad or if it’s just whatever’s tearing him apart that’s stopped him eating.

Either way, it's not good for business to leave him out here like he is, so Maria pulls the door open without knocking first, not giving him the opportunity to get himself settled again.

He jerks in place and stares up at her with his bottom lip wobbling and his big eyes bloodshot and overflowing with tears, the tracks of all the previous ones leaving pink stains down his cheeks. He looks heartbreakingly young and small and vulnerable, not things Maria was aware Michael Guerin was capable of being, and before she knows what she's doing she's dragging him into a hug just like she would any other miserable thing she found crying themself sick. 

Guerin’s stiff for a moment before he folds into the hug with his nose pressed into her collarbone and her chin on top of his head, and she gives him the same silent comfort he’d given her when he starts to cry again, the sobs coming out hard and heavy and painful like he’s never cried before, like there’s a dam of nearly thirty years worth of hurt coming out. Maria thinks it's more likely that he's just never had someone to hold him while he cries, and the idea tears at her heart. She might be losing her Mom, but she grew up loved and wanted and able to be comforted whenever she needed to be. She always had someone in her corner, someone there at the end of the day who would try to cheer her up, and even now her Mom will give her as many hugs as she could ever want.

Guerin, on the other hand, grew up alone in foster care, with the only family he had adopted into a happy, if sterile Stepford family. She's pretty sure he lived in his truck most of senior year, and from what she knows his current day situation isn't much better. Apart from the hook ups and Isobel Evans, there's still nobody there for him. She wonders if that's what Alex had been for Guerin, if that's why he's hurting so badly. Losing both Isobel and … whatever the hell Alex is to him, at the same time would be hard enough, but if they're all Guerin had?

Ugh. No wonder he's such an asshole. Maria's pretty sure she would be too. She feels kind of guilty - even though they didn’t hang in the same circles she knew what people were saying in school about him, and instead of trying to draw him in like she had with Liz and Rosa and Alex, giving them her Mom and a home and as much love as they could handle because the DeLuca family dishes out love very well, she'd just … Maria doesn't know what she'd thought at the time, but she could have done better.

While she’s been having her little guilt party going on, Michael's sobs have quietened, and although her shirt is wet from the tears, he's down to shuddering inhales that sound like something's being torn out of him inch by inch. When even those settle to just pitiful little sniffles, and then nothing but deep, forcibly even breaths, Maria pulls her head out of those downright ridiculous curls to smile at him as kindly as she can, just leaving one conciliatory arm wrapped around his waist when she settles on the running board.

So .”

He groans, the noise cracking but almost right for Guerin. Maria marvels at the wonders of a good cry and a hug. “Can I go now?”

“Not until you tell me why you've been making a corner of my bar seem like Eeyore's Gloomy Place and then dragged the self-pity party right out the door with you.” She replies as sweet as can be, at the same time as she reaches over and takes his keys hostage, wiggling them in his face for good measure. “So make with the story, cowboy, or you're gonna be walking.”

“It's fine -” Guerin starts, looking constipated at the thought of sharing his feelings, and no, Maria has spent far too much time on this particular problem for the evening. Sympathy or not, Guerin's cowboy angst is a puzzle she wants to figure out an answer to that doesn't leave him bawling, then go back to work and leave him to go home and get some sleep.

“Nope. Not gonna work. Do you want to start with the lovely Isobel Evans-Bracken or Mr Alexander James Manes? Because I'm going to hear both tales of woe, but the order is your choice.”

Guerin's shoulders slump, making him seem so much smaller than he's ever appeared before. “Why's it matter to you?”

He sounds more confused than rude, and Maria wonders just how much of his usual bullshit attitude is a front. “Because I'm a shameless gossip hoarder. And you were happy to be there for me when I needed someone, so I'm here for you. Spill the beans, mister.”

She can play friend to her barfly for a while. He's not so bad. In small doses. And upwind, honestly, he smells like he's been sleeping on the Pony's floor.

Guerin sighs in defeat, and Maria knew he was still a genius under all the alcohol and asshole, or at least still capable of making smart choices.

“Isobel’s … not well. She’s gone away to try and get fixed, but who knows when or if she’ll be back, and I better not hear from anyone that you’re passing this on.” The glare he shoots her would be good warning if not for the fact that his eyes are still bloodshot and wet with unshed tears.

Maria nods in understanding. “I said gossip hoarder , not gossip spreader. Now tell me about Alex.

Because honestly, that's the part Maria is most lost on. She doesn't know when the hell those two would even have time to speak to one another since Alex got home from Baghdad, let alone do whatever it was that got Guerin so attached.

He stares at his shoes and swallows, his throat clicking in the quiet of the parking lot. “There's nothing to tell. We fell in love, he fell out of it.” He falls silent for a moment, and when he speaks again, what comes out is barely a whisper. “And I never did. Don't think I ever will.”

“Never?” That whole thing sounds older than the timeline Maria had assumed. Unless …

She rears back to stare at him in shock, suddenly realizing why she never figured out who Museum Guy was. Because Alex had only been involved with one person before he enlisted, one person who he fell hard for and never recovered from losing, even though Maria has never gotten the full story about why exactly it hadn't worked. Suddenly the whole deal is making more sense in a weird way, like when you've got most of the puzzle pieces on the board but don't have the full picture yet. “This didn't start back in senior year, did it? Say, a few weeks before graduation?”

Michael blinks at her, then nods, utterly befuddled.

Good Lord. Maria drops her head into her hands, wondering why the hell men seem to lack the sense to communicate and function on their own. “You do realise he's still completely gone on you, right? Like moping into his whiskey after close gone? The kind where casual sex with a hot stranger does absolutely nothing to stop him wanting you?”

Guerin looks like he's been slapped, all wide-eyed surprise and shock, then it's taken over by that wilted, heartbroken, downright self-hating look he’s been carrying around all night.

“Then why's he here with someone else when he wouldn't even let my sister see us together? Why's that guy good enough when I’m -” He breaks off to get out another horrible shuddering breath then plows ahead with his voice raising with every word, his fingernails digging into the steering wheel and the seat edge as he tries to get out what Maria imagines has been on his chest for a while. “Why am I not worth sticking around for if I supposedly mean that much to him? The answer is I don't, DeLuca. And he knows it, I know it, you know it. I just gotta deal with it.”

When he's finished the tears are spilling down his cheeks again, and Maria reaches up to mop them off with her already damp shirt sleeve. He watches her like he doesn't know what to do with something so maternal, and Maria resolves to start involving this sad puddle of cowboy drama in her life more often if only so her Mom can give him some of the love he's missed out on.

“Oh, honey.” She finds it strangely easy to call him that, channeling her mother when she’d comforted anyone who looked like they’d been ran over by life’s bus in the bar. Guerin’s huge deer eyes stare up at her, and Maria’s heart hurts at the fact that it’s probably been far too long since anyone called him that. “You two need to have a conversation.”

“We’ve had enough of those, thanks. Look, DeLuca, thanks for this, but can I go now?”

It’s plaintive and mournful and, no, still not gonna work. Maria isn’t having Alex torture himself for God knows what reason for another ten years, and she’s not dealing with Guerin walking around looking like the textbook definition of depression as well.

She's got an idea for that, actually, something to hopefully give Guerin hope until things get better for him. And just because Maria doesn't want spoilers of her own life doesn't mean she doesn't want to know what's ahead for other people.

“I'll make you a deal. You let me read your palm, and you sit your ass here for a few minutes while I go back inside, and then I'll credit your tab with let's say … thirty bucks, for next time.” She's not going to starve for the loss of it.

Guerin eyes her suspiciously for a moment. “And why would you want to do any of that? Normally you're threatening to chase me out of here with a hose, not get me to stick around more.”

She shrugs. “Call me curious.”

He grimaced, then sighs and goes to flip over his left hand, the easiest for her to reach in their current position, before thinking better of it and giving her his right instead. It’s not like Maria's missed the damage that he had done to him sometime between the night Rosa died and graduation - even drowned in misery she'd seen him cradling it at school, protecting it from being jostled - but she'd been so distraught she'd never tried to find out what happened to him. Now is not the time or place, so she takes his hand and waits.

It’s not an exact art, what she does, and although she does read palms, what she gets her strongest feelings from is just the contact with the person. She sees their aura, their soul, what they're hiding under the mask people put up for the world to see, then she asks for something in particular based off what her client wants. This time, she asks for happiness and love.

Sometimes she gets nothing in return and has to make up an answer on intuition and local knowledge alone. Sometimes what she feels is muted and still needs a bit of educated guess work. But other times it's like she's living inside that person's skin, all their answers written so clearly she can see it like she’s watching it on TV.

Guerin is apparently the latter, and Maria blinks in surprise at the sheer level of chaos inside his soul that hits her. Wind and rain and screaming, a constant terrified, furious cry in her ears, memories and mementos swirling wildly around him and Guerin standing in the middle, small and scared and angry. There's figures she remembers from watching Liz do her AP physics homework, stuff Maria doesn't understand and couldn't in a million years. There's blood and pain and the universe full of stars, a feeling of whistling past them like she's on a rocket headed for a particular place.

It's so much that she has to let go to get her bearings back.

“Wow. You're a loud one.” Maria shakes her head, not sure how Guerin deals with living inside a hurricane, her mind still reeling from the sensory overload.

When Guerin pulls away, startled, she snags his hand back. “Nuh-uh, not finished with you, mister.”

Then she asks her question. What's up ahead for this pile of drama in a cowboy hat, is he going to be happy, is he loved?

It fades out easily, the picture coming in clear and fast. Guerin sits on a couch in a log cabin, the structure old but it's clean and loved, filled with books and food and music. The fireplace is crackling and Alex is playing guitar at his side while a … oh God. Maria fights the urge to smile at the Beagle puppy chewing on the hem of Guerin's jeans.

Guerin's heart is full of love and that wonderful contented feeling of being wanted and loved in return and safe, like wearing a comfortable old sweater in bed watching feel-good movies. It's one Maria's seen a hundred different readings, one that means home.

She wonders if the look on Alex's face is anything like how he's looked at Guerin before. If it is, she doesn't know how the hell these two ever ended up apart.

The puppy is damned cute, too. And at least her Mom hasn't lost her touch. Maria wants to tell Guerin everything, but hey, nobody needs all the spoilers for life. Sometimes just a teaser will do.

“You're at a log cabin, under a window looking out at a sky full of stars. There's music, someone playing guitar. You're happy, and warm, and loved more than you know. There's a puppy running around under your feet, trying to chew your pants.”

Maria's smile is a little watery when she keeps going, because short of these two wrecking it, there's a good ending for Michael Guerin and Alex Manes. God knows Alex deserves to be happy, and now Maria is starting to think maybe so does Guerin.

“I get a massive sense of 'home.’ That you’ve finally found yours, and so has the person you're with.”

Michael is silent, his hand shaking a little where she holds it, and Maria can tell she's not going to get anything else out of him tonight. He needs his person to help him figure out anything else.

“Now for part two.” She drags herself up with a wince, wondering when she became old enough that her knees have started protesting about getting down on the ground. “And if I find out you left, I swear to God Michael Guerin that ban is gonna be permanent, and I know no other place in town will touch you.”

Maria ignores his weak protesting and tucks his keys into her pocket as she walks back into the bar, pretty sure Guerin will still be there when she sends Alex’s ass out to find him. That is, unless he feels like walking back to his trailer.

***

Alex is exactly where she left him, attempting to look interested in the guy and shooting glances out the door. Maria has no idea why the hell he's trying to see someone else if he and Guerin have been doing this dance for the last ten years.

God only knows what her face says, because Alex's very quickly reads 'panic’, and he smiles awkwardly at her.

“Heey, Maria. This is Riley, a friend from work, Riley -”

And Maria is already done. “Hi, nice to meet you. Alex, can I talk to you for a minute?” She grabs his arm and tugs him up and over to a quiet corner, pinning him against the wall and dropping Guerin's keys into his hand.

“You're a dirty rotten liar, Manes.”

That's obviously not what he was expecting, because his eyebrows attempt to reach his hairline. “Okay. What did I do?”

“You remember Michael Guerin?” She leans in and glares at him, watching him shrink into himself with … guilt? Shame? Fear? Maria isn't sure, which pisses her off, because Alex has been her friend for nearly twenty years now. She should know every single expression he's got. Then again, she should know more about the dude he’s been in love with for ten years. So she plows on, determined to push these idiots in the right direction before they turn into a living train wreck.

“‘Didn't notice he got hot,’ huh? Lies, Manes. Bald faced lies in Mama DeLuca's bar. I’m disappointed that you think I'd give you trouble as long as you’re happy, and ah ah ah,” She holds up a hand to stop him from interrupting. “You are not happy, sweetheart. And neither is my angsty little barfly.”

“What's wrong with Guerin?” Alex is still trying for nonchalant, but Maria calls bullshit. She can almost smell the concern coming off him at a hint of Guerin being upset.

“He's crying in my parking lot over you going public with someone else.” She's pretty sure it's a whole lot of other things, but that's for Guerin to share if he wants to.

“What?” Alex shakes his head. "I’m not on a date with Riley , Maria. He's really just a good friend, he's doing something at the base this week.”

Maria concedes that with a tip of her head. “I'll let you have that one, mister, but it's definitely your fault Guerin is crying in my parking lot. I do not like my barflies crying in my parking lot. They tend not to buy drinks out there and they turn off other customers. I especially don't like it when it's because of something I know you can fix by opening that pretty mouth and talking for a change instead of whatever you boys have been doing for the last ten Goddamned years. So go, give him his keys and actually have an honest conversation out there before I drag him in here to have it with you instead. Because I will not stand here and watch you two mess up a good thing.”

She's not just making an idle threat, either. Military training or not, Alex doesn't stand a chance against a DeLuca hurricane, and she's gearing up for some wild weather if these two idiots are going to keep up this mournful high school bullshit in her bar.

Alex has gained a brain sometime in the last ten years, because instead of fighting back like he would have done as a teenager with a chip on his shoulder, he squeaks out an affirmative answer and hauls ass out the door without so much as looking back at his friend.

Maria smiles at the befuddled look on Riley's face and makes a mental note to send the poor guy a drink on the house. Date or not, she has a feeling he'll be leaving the bar alone tonight.

***

Twenty minutes later she pokes her head out the door and finds Guerin still sitting in his truck. The difference this time is that he's got his legs out the door and spread wide to let Alex in between them, his arms tight around his waist to hold him close and Alex's holding onto him just as tightly.

Seeing as they have pants on and nobody's yelling, Maria thinks her job here is done, and she slips back inside.

Eventually, after close when the bar is mostly clean, she gets a chance to check her phone and it galvanizes the feeling that she did the right thing. It’s not much, just a text from Alex, but it's more than enough.

Thank you.

Yeah, Maria thinks they'll be okay.