Author's Notes/Disclaimer: The characters and situations herein are not mine. This story is meant solely for entertainment purposes. No infringement is intended.
This is my second attempt at IPS fic. I hope it works. This is a "Duplicate Bridges" post-ep piece, so massive spoilers for that. Thanks for reading!
His steps were heavy and leaden; they were faltering in concrete shoes of his own making--his lingering failures. He was exhausted long before he reached the door to his apartment, and turned his key ring repetitively over his index finger, trying to force himself through the barrier of deeply wounding pain that had followed him home. Under normal circumstances, he couldn't wait to stand on the simple sisal welcome mat, now faded by too many moves and too many hours in the direct Albuquerque sunlight; couldn't wait to feel the weight of the key in the lock replace the weight of whatever shit the day had rained down upon him.
These were definitely not normal circumstances.
Then again, Norman Baker's case had never been normal. Why should his death--its aftermath--be any different? It was almost expected--necessary--that Marshall Mann would be haunted by the one who got away, the one he let down above all others.
He'd been naïve to think a simple drive from Omaha to New Mexico would be enough time to work out understanding to a man's life and his choice to die. Hell, he'd been naïve to think he'd ever understood anything about Norman Baker at all. Perhaps it was his hubris--this cocky, repetitive, but not wholly believed, "I know my witness" spiel--that blinded him to the second job, the second alias. To the pain Norman was in.
He'd ignored it--as a Marshal and as a man--in Norman's life, so he'd accept it after his death. He'd carry the burden that Norman couldn't bear to shoulder during his days on Earth. Arduous and tiring as it may be, but it was the least he could do for a man he'd forgotten needed help.
Marshall noticed the unsettling environmental shift immediately upon opening the door and flicking the lone lamp on in his living room; where, a thousand times before, he'd been able to stop the outside world from crossing the threshold--stop the chaos from infringing upon his carefully ordered, structured sanctuary--he was now unable to shake the lingering demons and their tightening nooses of judgment. They stalked him like prey, their blackness suffocating and stifling enough to nearly bring him to his knees. Dropping his overnight bag in the middle of the floor, Marshall fumbled for the edge of his couch, falling onto the familiar leather mostly on instinct, and fighting for a deeper breath, different than the shallow ones currently and uselessly filling his lungs.
He wanted to run, wanted to leave it all behind--but wasn't this what he deserved? Isn't this what Stan and Mary did when a case hit particularly close to home? Is that why he'd failed so miserably with Norman? Because he kept everything so ordered, so separate, that he couldn't see when it was necessary for the lines between private and professional to blur into a shade of grey?
He supposed it had been a building tidal wave, a tsunami he could no longer outrun, strength of will be damned. The minute he'd let himself get emotionally involved with Norman Baker--the minute he crossed the line he'd wasted his breath so many times warning Mary about--he'd sent events into motion he'd eventually be powerless to stop. He'd been a fool to think he knew his witness inside and out; to think he could rationalize, dissect or understand the minute complexities of human behavior as though they were puzzle pieces with a specific order or function.
He'd let himself get too complacent; too cocky. He'd let his fondness for Norman get the better of him. He'd dropped his guard; forgotten to look over his shoulder or remain vigilant, both for himself and his charge. Norman had been the first witness where it hadn't just been his job to protect and serve--it had been a favor to a friend.
And it had cost his friend his life.
Scrubbing at his face, Marshall tried to get the image of the exploding bridge out of his mind. It was a futile effort; that much he knew. Watching Norman disappear among disintegrating shards of metal and ungodly shades of orange and red--colors never repeated, even in the vast beauty of the New Mexico desert sunrises--Marshall felt like a little part of him had died as well. A part he'd not acknowledged until it was gone: blindness.
It was an obvious oxymoron, and for once, the ordered philosopher wasn't sure he cared. How one could be blind but see the trait disappear was incongruous. He chuckled to himself as Mary's face entered his mind's eye unbidden; she'd wrinkle her nose in confusion and a little bit of disgust had he voiced the thought in her presence--she never really did have time or patience for his "Confucius says" wisdom. But he'd always tried to keep his eyes wide open to the world around him, found explanations even for those things that ought not be explained. Mary was the one who lived harmoniously with blind faith, endless optimism, incessant tenacity--common sense be damned. He had always been the one to reel her in, and now, he was the one at the end of his rope. It was a frayed tether he was quickly losing grasp of, pushing him further out into a tumultuous sea of unanswered questions and vastly changed understandings. He was quickly losing grip in a sea of confusion and emotion; sadness, loss. Both for Norman and for himself. It was too much to think on; too much to analyze without a starting point. He leaned back against the giving weight of the couch and thought back to the road trip home. Like now, he'd been caught up in his own headspace, replaying every minute detail, asking a thousand different questions a thousand different ways, wondering what if until Mary eased him out of his preoccupation by placing a gentle hand on his, loosening the white-knuckled grip he had on the steering wheel.
He hadn't realized just how alike he and Mary were, not until Norman Baker had resurfaced and once again become an active case. He'd always thought Stan had partnered them because they were complementary; similar enough that they could work together but different enough that there were two separate minds working two avenues of thought on one problem. But as the flat dryness of the plains stretched into oblivion, he'd come to the conclusion that he and Mary shared a madness; one the psychologists termed folie à deux. The madness of hope; the insanity of believing they could stop events already in motion. That they could control things already in the making; save the unsaveable and protect the unprotectable.
He wished that were true. When he'd joined the Marshals, he'd sworn to serve and protect. But what had he protected Norman from? The man he'd testified against had gotten away with murder. He hadn't been able to shield Norman from the pain of the past, or the outside world--just as Marshall couldn't do upon his return home. So what good was he to any of his other witnesses if he couldn't even protect himself?
With a deep sigh, he took a long, loathing look at the Zen-like atmosphere of his small apartment. He'd set it up to be his space; a place where he was not Marshal Mann--a place where he was simply Marshall. A place where there was no title, no explanation necessary.
No strangleholds of past failures.
But now the white walls were closing in, and the silence he normally worshipped above all other earthly things was the one thing he now vehemently damned.
He pushed himself off the couch and started pacing the small living space, body still heavy and burdened. He made to push a frustrated hand through his hair, but instead took note of the fact that his hand was shaking.
It's just adrenaline, he tried to convince himself, leaning exhaustedly against the edge of the breakfast bar that connected the kitchen to the living room. Because I don't have time for it to be anything more.
Again, his partner's voice sprang unbidden into his mind, and Marshall wondered if this was a second sign that he was going insane, that Mary Shannon had somehow become his inner--and, of course, sarcastic--detractor. Melodramatic, party of one.
For the first time since they'd chased Norman halfway across the country, Marshall smiled. Awkwardly, uncomfortably and only halfway, but at least it was there.
He was heading back to the couch when there was a knock at the door. Confused, he did a double take before checking the peephole, and finally opened the door to find Mary leaning against the doorjamb, pizza in one hand and a six-pack in the other. She gave him a familiar crooked smile, and inexplicably, he breathed a sigh of relief. She'd never been to his place before; he'd never wanted her there. But now, she'd found him when he was most lost, and, if it wasn't so far outside either of their natures, he'd hug her for it. Instead, he asked, not unkindly, "What are you doing here?"
She lifted one shoulder in a halfhearted shrug. "I was in the neighborhood."
He chuckled, rubbing his temples. "I didn't realize you knew where this neighborhood was."
Mary raised the hand holding the six-pack and was somehow able to shake her index finger at him. "Hey, don't think you know everything, buster. I have to keep some air of mystery, or you'll find yourself another partner."
The banter was easy, familiar, relaxed. Most importantly, it loosened the hold Norman's ghost--the ghosts of all of those Marshall had inadvertently let down--had on him. "Believe me, I think about having another partner every day."
Rolling her eyes playfully--but with something in her gaze Marshall couldn't quite define; perhaps relief that he wasn't sitting with his service revolver pressed against his temple?--she looked past him into the small apartment. "I don't see a keg, so I know you don't have guests. You going to invite me in?"
He pretended to think about it. "I was always told 'beware of Greeks bearing gifts.'"
Finally, she ducked under his arm and set the pizza and beer on his coffee table. "Well then, you're in luck, because I'm not Greek." She peeled off her leather jacket and tossed it on the back of the couch before walking into the kitchen as though she'd been there a thousand times before. He finally shut the door and watched as she opened every cabinet, searching for something that remained unvoiced.
Before, he would have stopped her midway through her disorderly search, probably by force, with a strong hand on the cheap wood veneer. She would have huffed, tilted her head and given him her "I call your bullshit" look and he'd have relented. Now, he just let Hurricane Mary tear through his kitchen. She couldn't do any more damage to his ordered world than he'd already done himself.
Definitely a shared madness, he thought to himself.
Finally, she found what she was looking for--napkins, but no plates, of course, for that would be too logical--and strode past him, settling herself comfortably on his couch. After she'd toed her shoes off and let them fall to the Berber carpet with a dull thud, she opened the pizza box and rubbed her hands together excitedly.
He remained standing against the breakfast bar, trying to process the intrusion as familiar and welcome, but being unable to see past his failure with Norman--his failures with himself. And, he wondered, how many more would fall because of him?
Mary caught his gaze, and he watched as she pulled herself into a cross-legged position. "I'm going to take ten bucks out of your wallet whether you eat this or not, so you might as well have a slice or two." She pulled a stringy, cheesy piece out of the cardboard and motioned to him with it. "Come on. You haven't eaten since we got back."
He crossed his arms, interested. "And you would know this how?"
She rolled her eyes, as though the answer were infuriatingly obvious. "The Hall Monitor, jackass. Who else?"
"I assume this is Eleanor's trial nickname for the week?" He chuckled briefly, shaking his head, as he wasn't hungry in the slightest. "You understand she's going to retaliate one day, and I'm going to help her. Stan, too."
She made a dismissive sound and chucked her crust in the pizza box before uncapping her Bud Light. "You three don't scare me." She set the bottle of beer on the edge of his table and looked directly--seriously--at him, but just for a moment. She got comfortable again, resting her back against the armrest of the couch, knees bent and bare feet tucked in between the sofa cushions. She took another long swig of her beer before beginning conversationally, "You know who I thought about today?"
"I can only imagine what runs through your head on a daily basis. Actually, no. Scratch that. I don't want to know what runs through your head on a daily basis." It was supposed to be a return to the easy banter she entered the apartment with--the comfortable, welcoming reassurance that had started to warm and rescue him from the deathly cold chill that had engulfed him from the moment of detonation. It was something else they shared, something separate from the folie à deux. Something reassuring, something he could hold on to other than Norman's ghost.
But she was serious now; all business. And she wasn't hiding behind the normal tools of her trade: the Ray-Bans, the Sig-Sauer, the husky alto warnings and invasion of personal space.
He knew where she was going; what she was going to say--that Norman Baker wasn't the only one who needed help. After all, what kind of partner would he be if he couldn't anticipate her moves before she made them? And he didn't want to be part of it in the slightest.
He shook his head and held up his hand, pleased to see he was in control of his faculties enough to keep his palm still. "Mary, don't."
Of course, she didn't listen. Pulling her knees toward her chest--inviting, encouraging him to share one more thing with her, something other than the deafening sounds of madness--she said, "Do you remember what you said to me the day my first witness died?"
Truthfully, he didn't. He just remembered seeing his normally brash, ballsy partner--a woman who tended to defy descriptors, feminine or not--answer her phone, go pale, and drop the receiver with a loud, reverberating clang all within the span of fifteen seconds. She'd been numb and monosyllabic for days afterward, simply going through the motions as they tracked how the witness had contacted someone from their previous life, and the cartel they'd testified against found them all too easily. He remembered taking her home, easing her into a sitting position on the couch, and watching from the kitchen table as she stared into space for hours on end. He remembered driving her to the necessary counseling sessions, sitting in the waiting room reading issues of People and Us Weekly that were three years old, and hoping she'd never have to do it for him.
He was startled out of his reverie by her approach. "You said," she began, voice more forceful as she leaned against the end table, knocking the lampshade askew as she did so, "that it wasn't going to make sense. Not for a little while, either; it wasn't ever going to make sense. It was going to hurt. There was going to be guilt. There would be so much guilt that I would just want to pull out a fifth of Jim Beam and my weapon and end it all.
"There were going to be questions. How could I have let this happen? What had I done wrong? And the questions would become more hateful, more self-loathing the further I got into the fifth of Jim Beam. How stupid was I that I couldn't explain the Witness Protection Program correctly?"
She took another step toward him, hooking her thumbs through the belt loops of her jeans. "And then you told me that there wouldn't be any good answers. There wouldn't be any good explanations or aha! moments from shrinks with a thousand useless degrees. There would just be time. And there would be other witnesses--witnesses who I did help. And with time, and those witnesses, my Sig would stay in the gun locker, and the Jim Beam would stay in the liquor cabinet."
Finally, she stood toe to toe with him, and reached out to brush her fingers against his. "And then you said, 'And in the meantime, you got my number.'" She nodded emphatically, sharply three times, apparently making sure she had his attention. "Marshall…you got my number."
There were no words to say, no unnecessary and inane platitudes. Instead, he spread his fingers open slightly, and squeezed the tips of her index and middle fingers, both in solidarity and thanks.
She nodded again, then raised her right shoulder, indicating the living room behind her. "Come on. Pizza's getting cold."
They ate and drank in silence, and in between the creaks of the leather couch beneath them, he tried to find a way to start his goodbye to Norman.
But in his goodbye, he found he had more than shared madness, heartbreak and pain.
He had shared healing.