A/N: The obligatory post-"Cry for Me" fic. Plus, I wanted to give Brandi a break. Despite making some incredibly bad decisions, I don't think she's as dumb or inherently evil as some people make her out to be.
Also, it's almost 4 in the morning and I have no intention of proofreading this any further. Sorry 'bout that. Hopefully there's nothing too egregious lingering about.
A/N: 9/7/09 - Did a little proofreading, a little housecleaning here and there. I was a little nervous about how this piece might be received, so I'm basking in the positive reviews even more than usual. But there's always room for one more!
Hours ticked by, slow and torturous, as though an errant bolt had jammed in the gears of time.
Marshall sat silently in the ICU waiting area, alone except for Jinx. She sat near the corner of the room, a magazine in her lap, but Marshall couldn't recall seeing her turn a single page. Raph had taken Brandi back to the house for a shower and a change of clothes. Though aware he was being irrational, Marshall felt that somehow Mary's family knew this was his fault, that he should have been with Mary that night, instead of on a date, for chrissakes. It wasn't even a good date. True, Sheila had been sweet and bright, not to mention stunning to behold in a low-cut dress of amethyst chiffon. She'd attracted the attention of a number of guys that night, most notably the waiter with eyes so fixed on her bosom she could've had the head of an ape and he wouldn't have noticed. Marshall chuckled when dinner arrived, amused by the schmo's shameless gawking, which Sheila answered with a knowing smile and a roll of her eyes; however, he found himself unable to stop imagining the verbal (and, quite possibly, physical) abuse Mary would have meted out in the same situation. At that point, Marshall knew the date was over, though he and Sheila would exchange pleasant enough conversation—until Marshall had to step away to take a call from Stan.
Stan had left the hospital to follow another lead regarding Mary's shooter. Marshall had been desperate to follow, to do something, to grind some punk's head into a pulp with his bare hands. Stan knew that, and also knew that with each passing hour, Marshall's fury-riddled heart was overtaking his cool head. "You stay here, inspector," his voice strength wrapped in softness, brass knuckles under a cashmere glove. "That's an order. Mary's needs come first right now, and what she needs is for you to be here when she wakes up."
What she needed was for her partner to have her back, thought Marshall.
A little more than an hour after Stan left, Marshall got up to stretch his legs and wash his face. He stared dully at his reflection in the men's room mirror, drops of cool water caught in the stubble on his chin. He patted at his face with a handful of coarse paper towels as he unsuccessfully tried to will away the slew of what-ifs gathering in his head, stinking and hot, as inescapable as tar.
Hand rubbing at his tired eyes, he muttered an apology as he bumped blindly into a figure just outside the door. A hand touched his arm, startling his sluggish reflexes into alertness. He followed the hand on his sleeve up a thin arm to land on a familiar face. Brandi.
She must have news. What kind of news? She's not crying, not grinning. News somewhere between "Mary's dead" and "Mary wants to know where the hell her clothes are so she can go home." Marshall covered Brandi's hand on his arm with his own, feeling suddenly unbalanced. "Mary?" he asked, hopeful and terrified at once.
"No," she said quickly, before realizing what thoughts she'd inadvertently ignited in Marshall. Her tone turned apologetic. "No, no news."
Marshall sighed and leaned heavily against the wall.
"You were gone when we came back—I was worried."
His shook his head. "Me? I'm fine."
"You're lying." She looked at him, couldn't bear what she saw there, instead focusing on a loose thread at the corner of the tote bag slung over her shoulder. "None of us are fine." She dared to glance back up at him.
He met her eyes with a weak smile. "I suppose you're right."
"If I had a nickel for every time I'd heard that," she bit her lower lip, then smiled. " I just might enough for…a phone call?" She shrugged her shoulders—an uncertain invitation. "Maybe enough for a vending machine raid?"
Marshall and Brandi sat on opposite ends of a small, hard sofa wrapped in a loud, hideous print in one of the hospital break rooms, a pile of processed treats spread between them like Halloween loot. Most had been paid for, though some may have been encouraged to fall from their metal-and-glass cages.
"I'm glad you stayed," Brandi said, using a finger to scoop the filling out of her half-eaten off-brand Ding-Dong.
Marshall fidgeted with a foil Pop-Tart wrapper. "Would rather be out finding the asshole who did this." Would rather be anywhere but sitting here with you, chatting over pastries engineered to last another three decades as though there was never a drug deal gone bad, a suitcase full of meth, a kidnapping that came so close to going irreparably wrong. Marshall closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He knew Mary still took care of her sister despite Brandi's bottomless well of trouble, and, in her—please God, temporary—absence, he felt obligated to do the same.
Brandi laid the eviscerated cupcake on its wrapper, focused her attention on Marshall. "But Stan will find him, right?"
If anyone had asked Marshall three days ago if he saw any resemblance between his partner and her sister, he would have simply answered no, maybe tossing in a comment about bottle blondes if he were feeling cheeky and Mary was beyond striking distance. He had a different answer now, though. Mary rarely paused long enough to seem thoughtful or earnest. The times she'd looked lost he could count on one hand, though he'd rather not. As Brandi looked up at him, eyes wider and deeper than he'd seen before, his mind flashed back to a hot, terrible day in a abandoned rest stop. Mary had looked at him like that, studied him with impossibly large eyes, quietly desperate for reassurance that he wasn't going to leave. Please try not to die, for me. His head felt too heavy and he cradled it in his hands.
Brandi's voice called him back to the present. "I know you think I'm a screw-up and not very smart, but I'm not oblivious." She scooted closer to Marshall, compressing the junk food pile between them; she reached out a hand, then paused for moment before laying it gently on his back.
Marshall felt a twinge of panic at the terrifying notion that Brandi could read him as well as Mary. Head still in his hands, he turned to look at her. "You're not a screw-up, Brandi. We all make bad decisions at one time or another. Like last night, I shouldn't have left, I…." His words trailed off. Brandi had to choke back a sob, overcome by the intensity of Marshall's emotion, his pain aching in her chest. He looked at her, eyes red and shadowed, a man wrestling with the weight of the world. Or, at the very least, the weight of his world. "I should be out there."
Brandi's hand slid down Marshall's sleeve to rest lightly on his hand. "You can't leave, Marshall. Mary needs someone to take care of her."
"You're her family," he said, voice clipped, his temper shortened by stress. "You and Jinx and Raph. After all she does for you, the least you could do is take care of her for a little while."
"That's not how it works." Despite the chaos of the past day, Marshall would forever remember the moment Brandi Shannon looked at him like he was dumber than a rock with a concussion. "Mary takes care of us, and you take care of Mary."
His temper ebbed as quickly as it had flared. "Well, you know, change is good."
That look again, followed by a mirthless chuckle. "Have you ever met my sister?" She bit her lip again, looked at him with Mary's eyes. The look that said We're done with all this bullshitting and dancing around the truth. "She won't let anyone else take care of her. Not Mom and certainly not me. Not even Raph, though he tries."
Marshall had trouble reconciling what he knew of Brandi with the woman sitting across from him. Mary's sister, the uninvited squatter with the drinking and the drugs and the stubborn lack-of-jobness whom Mary practically raised. Whom Mary raised. The pieces clicked together so effortlessly Marshall couldn't believe he'd never seen it before. Of course she was like Mary; how could she not be?
The silence between them grew long and awkward. Brandi abruptly pulled away. "I almost forgot," she said, reaching into her bag, "I grabbed a clean T-shirt for you while we were at the house."
Marshall was grateful for the lighter, more familiar tone. He took the garment from Brandi "You saying I smell?"
"I'm saying that my recent change of underwear felt like heaven, but that I thought twice about breaking into your house, so that's all I could come up with. Mary buys 'em to sleep in—it's not Raph's or anything weird like that."
Marshall didn't know what to say. He absently ran his fingers against the seam at the neckline.
Brandi didn't know what to say, either, but couldn't endure any more silence. "Nice and clean, fresh from the dryer…" she gave a sidelong glance to the floor and shrugged her shoulders "…and my bag." She smiled playfully, desperate to engage Marshall in anything but this silence.
He made a show of bringing the fabric up to his face and breathing deep, but his wisecrack about the freshness of spring meadows fell away as head was enveloped with the smell of Mary. He stared at the shirt as though it had slapped him. Brandi saw the sudden shine of tears in his eyes. "It smells like her," he said quietly.
Brandi was quickly learning that the sight of Marshall crying made her cry. She had meant to be helpful, not to make him feel worse. "I'm sorry, I didn't think."
Marshall looked at the shirt, then at Brandi, still bewildered by what he'd learned about her. "No, no," he squeezed her hand, "it's nice. Thank you. Really. It's very thoughtful."
Brandi looked uncertain, as though waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"I'll be sure to tell Mary that you took good care of me." Marshall let the tears fall down his cheeks.
Brandi smiled through her own tears. "Will you put that in writing for me, so I can show it to her next time I screw up?"
Marshall only nodded, eyes closed, fingers clenched around Mary's shirt. Brandi touched his face gently, wishing she could take some of his pain, knowing the only way she could take care of her sister was to take care of her partner, and silently cursing the ridiculousness of it all. Unceremoniously, she kicked the pile of snacks on the floor and sat right next Marshall with her legs folded. Her arms came around him apprehensively, unsure of his reaction. He tensed at the sensation of her holding him, also unsure of his reaction.
"Shh, it's okay," she whispered. He answered with a sob and fell against her. She murmured soothing nonsense while she stroked his hair. As his sobs began to quiet, she pulled his head down onto her lap, one arm curled protectively across his chest. "Get some sleep. I'll take care of you."