***This is my first attempt at any story, much less a fanfic. But, I love the show and love trying to figure out how all the characters think. Raph may be a bit OOC, but we really don't know him that well and I chose him to take liberties with. There are spoilers from everywhere…so enjoy! ***


Jinx was in the laundry room when the next argument began between Mary and Raph. She sighed and resigned herself to staying in the small room even though the last load had already been folded. There was no way she was going to risk her oldest daughter's wrath by walking in on a fight. "God…" she fretted, "how many does this make today?" They had already fought over a half dozen things since this morning. That was in addition to the numerous arguments every day for the last four days since Mary had been released from the hospital. Obviously, the loss of blood from her gunshot wound hadn't affected her ability to be a general pain in the ass and hard to get along with. Her Mary was so stubborn! Jinx didn't understand why Mary didn't see Raphael for the good thing that he was. Why did she fight so hard against him when all he wanted from her was her love and respect? The words from the other room had become louder and more heated. This was going to be bad and she couldn't help but creep to the door to listen more closely, morbidly drawn to the verbal destruction of the two people in the living room.

"Raph you KNOW I cannot predict where my job takes me and when!" Mary hissed. "We've talked and talked about this and you're just not getting it. I cannot pick and choose my assignments. There will be times when I have to leave on a moments notice and there will be times when I'm gone for weeks. It's not going to change once I'm back at work." Mary was getting frustrated as this issue just won't go away.

"How can you be so casual about this?" Raphael fired back. "How do you think I feel not knowing where you're going, how long you'll be gone…even if you will ever come back?! I just cannot believe you can't give me some idea of what's going on. At least you could call me…even ONCE…when you are out of town." He was always hurt that he never heard from her when she was gone and that she didn't return his calls…sometimes even days after she had returned.

"Oh no…" thought Jinx. The fights about Mary's job were always the worst. Why doesn't Raphael understand how important her job is to her? His old fashioned ideas prevented him from seeing that Mary's career was her shining glory…her reason for getting up in the morning some days. Even now knowing how dangerous her daughter's job was, Jinx knew there was no doubt Mary would return to it as soon as she could recover. And God help anyone who tried to stop her. Raph was about to need God's help.

"Mary, have you thought about slowing down for a little while? Maybe switch departments and work at the courthouse instead of with the program?" Raph's voice was calm and steady. "You would be safer and we would have more time together. I would like that!" He was hoping his calm demeanor would keep the conversation civil.

Mary sighed and made a concerted effort to match his calm tone. "Raph, I'm going back to do exactly what I've been doing all along. I won't sacrifice doing what I love just to "take it easy" because you want me closer to home. Jesus…don't you understand that I'm good at what I do and it makes me feel vital and alive? Yeah…it's a dangerous job, but I've known that since the day I strapped on my first weapon. I accept that…revel in it actually…and you need to accept it too. For God's sake, ninety percent of the time Marshall is with me anyway…it's safer than you think"

"Thank God for Marshall", thought Jinx. She knew Mary had had some close calls in the last four years and that Marshall had been there to pull her ass out of the fire. Jinx suspected there was much more to Mary and Marshall's job that they would tell and she was glad they had each other to turn to. He was a good man, that partner of hers. Jinx often wondered about Marshall's uncanny ability to weather Mary in any storm. Very rarely had she seen Marshall show anger or frustration at Mary, and when he did, her daughter was quick to back down. Marshall seemed to know Mary's every mood and then anticipate the next one. He was always ready with some comment or factoid to please her or talk her down…or at least direct her frustration onto him and away from its designated target. It was amazing, actually, how well they got along. Jinx couldn't think of any other person in Mary's life that knew her as well as Marshall.

She realized the conversation had become louder and tuned back in. "…and why do you always have to take his calls and go when he says to go?!" yelled Raph.

"I can't believe we're talking about this yet again!" Mary yelled back.

Jinx could see from Mary's shadow that she was pacing now and running her hand through her hair. That's not a good sign.

"Marshall is my partner, Raph. Let me explain it to you again: Partners must know each other completely…trust each other implicitly…live in each other's back pockets for Chrissake! He's my best friend because I trust him with my life. A trust that's been tested time and time again and has never been broken!" She was gesturing widely with her hands as she paced and her voice rose. "I know how he thinks and he knows how I think. I can turn to him in any situation and know he's going to be there to back me up. He will never betray me…never hurt me…never leave me! How can I NOT stand by him? How can I NOT go when he needs me? How can I NOTlo…" there was sudden silence. "…love him???" the phrase completed in her head but not out loud.

She had cut off the sentence abruptly and was staring at the far wall with a look of amazement on her face that Raph couldn't see. The revelation flashed over her like an electrical charge and she actually flinched. "Oh CRAP…oh my god…I'm in love with Marshall" she whispered to the far wall, unheard to anyone but her…and Jinx. The emotions played across her face as the stunning realization rattled through her brain. Raphael and their argument were momentarily forgotten as she tried to fit this new perspective into scenes of her life flitting through her mind like a poorly filmed movie. Marshall pledging to stay alive for her in that stuffy garage. Her fear and desperation driving her to sacrifice her life if need be to get him out of there…All the times Marshall said, "What do you need?" without ever denying her the answer…The way she always felt just a little more relaxed and little more safe every time he walked into the room…Marshall's head resting on her hip while he slept in the chair next to her bed at the hospital, not knowing she was awake watching him. "I'm in love with Marshall Mann" she whispered again, shaking her head slightly as if to clear it.

"Oh, poor Mary" thought Jinx, remaining hidden just inside the doorway to the laundry room. What a crappy time for her daughter to realize something that she suspected had been true for so long but that Mary did not recognize for what it was. Sometimes Mary is so self absorbed she can't see the forest for the trees.

Raphael was too angry and caught up in the argument to catch Mary's near slip of the tongue and he spoke into the heavy silence, "I HATE your job and you know that. I hate knowing you look more forward to going back to work than you do to our wedding. I am a patient man, Mary, but I cannot…will not…be content to being always in second place!" Raphael's command of the English language began to slip a bit, his accent thicker as he became more upset. "You know what Mary? I don't have something you seem to need. You get all your happiness from your job and your partner and there's nothing left for me. You even clean your gun with more affection and tenderness than you give me! I want to be a happiness for you too, but I cannot when there is no reason for you to look at me for it. I want you to come to me with your problems. I want to be the one you need! You put me between a rock and a soft spot, Mary! Look at me, Mary…look at me when I ask you this because I will only ask you once."

Mary turned to look at Raph, concerned with the tremor in his voice and tears on his face and fearing she knew what he was going to say. Dreading the response she already knew she'd give.

Jinx stood very still and held her breath as Raphael finally gave Mary the ultimatum. She had expected it to come to this eventually, but even she was surprised by the terms. The living room was quiet; loaded with sadness, anger and fear for what seemed like a long while. Then she heard her daughter speak with a voice that was clearer and stronger than she had expected.

"Raph…I can't be the woman you want me to be, and you can't ask me to give up something dear to me…that makes me who I am and keeps me going during the times that would grind me to a halt. I won't give you that piece of my happiness."

Mary took the ring off her finger and set it on the small table near the front door. She was surprised to feel very calm, as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders as the band of metal was removed from her hand. She turned to Raph, who had not moved and looked slightly unsure as to what had just happened. "I do love you, Raphael, but I can't live with you and I can't marry you. I'm going to be out back for the rest of the evening so you can have the house to yourself to pack up your things. I need time to myself and I don't know when I'll be ready to talk about this…if ever."

Jinx's eyes filled with tears for Mary and Raph. She understood Mary's choice and actually felt a bit proud of her for being strong and giving Raph a clear message that the relationship was over. But she also felt a loss knowing Raph would be leaving…she liked the man and knew he would be in pain. He had tried so hard with Mary. She also knew there would be ramifications for Mary's actions…by Mary. Her daughter would likely now become sullen and difficult as she wrestled with these new found feelings and the choice she had made. Mary was her own worst enemy. Jinx sighed softly, knowing the next few days…or weeks…would be like living in a giant trash compactor of anxiety called the Shannon household.

Mary grabbed a blanket off the couch and quickly walked through the kitchen and out the back door to sit in one of the lounge chairs by the pool. She carefully avoided looking at Raphael and never saw her mother standing in the doorway of the laundry room. She knew there was only a small amount of time left before the full weight of the situation descended on her and her world would crumble. She wrapped the blanket around her and laid her head back while closing her eyes. She slowly became aware of the burning ache in her abdomen and down the middle of her back from the gunshot wound. Between standing up for the last half hour, the tension her body maintained while fighting with Raph and the fact that she hadn't taken any pain medication since late last night, she wasn't surprised to begin to hurt. "I'll be damned if I go back in there now" she swore to herself. She'd just have to sit here and manage.

Her thoughts were interrupted by her cell phone and she fumbled under the blanket and grabbed it off her waist. One look at caller ID and she felt every rational thought flee her panicked mind. "Shit". It was Marshall. What is she going to do about Marshall?! It seemed as though her mind and fingers were frozen as she just stared at the cell phone screen and tried to unravel the tangled scenarios she presented to herself. Her inability to act resulted in the call going to voicemail. She released the breath she didn't know she was holding and gave herself a mental shake.

"Marshall is still Marshall and it doesn't matter if I'm in love with him or not" she tried to convince herself. The thought was still invoking feelings hard to describe, but she knew she needed to get a grip in order to make a decision as to what action she would now take. She knew she couldn't tell him. "Christ…that would be a complete disaster!" she muttered. No way would she jeopardize their friendship with an emotional burden like that. She knew Marshall was fond of her beyond friendship, but she really didn't know how far that went and really wasn't ready to test the waters. Yeah…she was going to just need some time to think about this. She settled into the lounge chair a little more deeply, trying to get comfortable enough to doze. "Dammit…I really wish I had grabbed those pills" she thought as her mood began to sink. Her phone rang again with Marshall attempting to reach her. "The damn man is going to keep calling until I answer" she snorted. She flipped the phone open and said, "What?"

"Did you know the standard greeting for answering the phone in Holland is the Dutch phrase for "with me""? came the response from her partner.

"What the hell are you talking about, you idiot?" she snarked back.

"I take it you're in a typical, joyful mood and trying to make everyone as surly as you?" he replied sarcastically.

She relented, sighing. "Yeah…look, I'm sorry. It's been a long day of staring at the same walls and not being able to do what I want. I'm thinking about hiring a hit man to kill the neighbors just so I have some action to watch. Are you leaving the office?"

"Just drove out of the parking lot. I was thinking about cooking some dinner for you and yours tonight instead of bringing take out again, but if hit men are on the menu I'll definitely bring popcorn too so we can watch together." Marshall had been stopping by each night to make sure the household was running fairly smoothly despite its dysfunctional occupants, and that someone had thought about actually taking care of Mary. God knows she won't take care of herself.

"Um, I think we're good here actually, Marshall" she said, trying to inject a tone of perkiness into her voice to make him think all was well. There was no way she would be able to keep herself together emotionally and mentally if he came over here and she had to face new, raw feelings while in his presence. She wouldn't be able to pretend she wasn't looking at him differently. Once you know something, you can't unknow it. Oh no…that would not do. "Take a break tonight, Florence Nightengale. I promise we'll all eat and I promise I'll rest. I'll even take the damn pain medicine. I'll make sure to call Guido and schedule the neighborhood massacre for another night"

Mary was no good at "real" perky, much less "fake" perky…even over the phone. "What's going on?" demanded Marshall, sensing that things were not what they seemed.

"Seriously, Marshall, nothing. There's nothing going on. My mom is doing the laundry" she was suddenly distracted by her own thought of whether her mother had left the laundry room before she and Raph started fighting. "..er, and Brandi is at school and Raph is…uh, cleaning some stuff up. I'm laying down. See…resting!" She stuck her tongue out at the phone.

"I saw that" he remarked with a chuckle. She just smiled…how does he always know?

"How do I know you're laying down willingly or if you've fallen down and can't get up and are using semantics to distract me?" He pondered aloud. She sighed.

"I couldn't have asked for a better caretaker than you for the last four weeks, Marshall." Mary continued "But you need a break too. I'm fine and I'm really going to just kick back and lay outside for some fresh air for a while. Go home, o.k.? Please?" she was nearly pleading and he sensed she wasn't up for an argument. "You know you're to cave and do what I ask you to do anyway, so let's just keep this short."

"Did you know that the nursing profession originally was practiced by prostitutes?" he asked and continued "It was the true definition of patient satisfaction!" He thought he was pretty funny with that one.

"Oh my God, I'm going to practice some serious patient DISsatisfaction on your ass if you don't shut up and go home." she shot back…but couldn't help a grin.

"I'm calling you later" he stated matter of factly. "Make sure you answer your phone".

"Do you want me to answer with my "sexy Mary" voice or my "naughty Mary" voice?" she purposely baited him knowing how squirmy he got when she used fake phone sex as an interrogation technique.

"That depends" he said through obviously clenched teeth "on whether you want "irritated Marshall" or "really irritated Marshall" to come over and wring your little neck!" He was beating down the visions of Mary lying in bed having phone sex…so disturbing.

"I'll talk to you later, Prudence" she laughed as she hit the end button.

Marshall stared at the disconnected phone with narrowed eyes. Something was not quite right in Mary's Universe, but it wasn't anything setting off warning signals. Just the niggling sense of a disturbance in the force…as you will. A corner of his mouth turned up at his own joke. He would call her later, and he knew she'd answer the phone. He couldn't deny a wisp of relief at not having to negotiate the emotional landmines known as the Shannon women tonight…with the added peril of Raph's occasional stray bullet of resentment. He would find himself wound as tight as the rest of them at the end of some of the evenings he had stayed and it would take an extra hour or two at home to just relax enough to fall asleep. But mainly he felt disappointed to be going home without seeing Mary.

He'd seen her everyday since the day she had been shot…willing every ounce of strength he possessed into her body and mind to heal. He knew they had mended the frayed ends of their friendship from the few weeks before the shooting and things were easy between them again. But, he wasn't completely blind to the fact that Mary would soon start to rebuild her defenses against the world in order to get back to her old self so she could return to work. Unfortunately, those defenses kept him from being able to tell her how he truly felt because she would run in the opposite direction as fast as possible in order to keep herself safe. No, it still wasn't time to venture in that direction if he valued their renewed friendship, and other vital portions of his anatomy. He turned down his street, trying to look forward to a night of peace and quiet.

Mary laid back on the lounge chair and stared at the deepening colors of the sunset. "Why did I not see this before?" she puzzled. Maybe it was because she now had no other distractions to keep her mind busy while she wasn't working. Her thoughts had had time to wander into her mind's attic and identify the secrets and treasures that had, up until now, only been blurred curiosities covered in dust. She realized she was scared. These are new emotions to her and she didn't want them to endanger her connection to Marshall or somehow damage her ability to remain herself. She would need to keep him at arm's length for a little while until she could become familiar with how she felt. "Something happened to me while I was sedated in that hospital bed" she realized. "Before, I would've stuffed this down as deep as possible and held it down by force. I would've been angry with myself. But now I want to feel this way…at least for a little while. I feel…alive." Her face relaxed and her lips turned up in a smile as she drifted off to sleep, thinking about patient satisfaction.

Jinx peered out the kitchen window at her sleeping daughter. Should she tell her what she had overheard? No. Jinx knew Mary would somehow turn that knowledge against her or against herself and it would come to no good. "Better to let sleeping dogs lie" she whispered to herself.


Marshall sat at his desk again staring suspiciously at his phone. The disturbance in the force was starting to look more ominous. This was the fifth night in a row that Mary had asked him to take a pass on coming to visit. Up until tonight, he felt pretty assured she was just trying to rebuild her life on her own and re-establish her independence and didn't mind giving her that space. They talked every night before she went to bed and that had allowed him to feel as though he was caring for her, but still gave him the permission and breathing room to get his own life back into a routine. But, this was the first time he had heard fatigue and strain in her voice when she told him she was fine. They got into an "are not"… "are too" argument over the phone until Stan gave him the evil eye. Eleanor just rolled her eyes and told him to relax. Mary was probably just tired from the first full week at home. He was doing the right thing by letting her readjust to her family and new live-in fiancé. Marshall was sure he had developed a new eye twitch at the utterance of the phrase "live-in fiancé".

"Why doesn't she want me to come over there?" he began to sort through the possible reasons for her to keep him away. Wait, was he really trying to psychoanalyze Mary? That's a scary neighborhood to drive through when she's acting normally. It's especially frightening when she's off kilter. "O.k…switch directions…Maybe it's Raphael?" He knew Raph resented his closeness to Mary and wondered if her fiance was guilt tripping her into staying away from him. Now, Marshall could get Mary to do what he wanted her to do, but he had years of practice and knew to approach her from angles that would be painful even for a contortionist. No, there's no way Raph has taken the time to get to know Mary well enough to utilize those tricks and make her push Marshall away. Something was going on, and he decided to push the issue tonight if she still sounded so tired on the phone later. In the meantime, he had two new witnesses to focus on and had to finish the threat assessments for their new jobs. He turned back to his computer screen with an irritated mutter.


Mary almost called Marshall back to tell him to come over after all, and to bring food. The last four days had been…well, for lack of a better word, Hell. The only positives were that she hadn't taken Raphael back and her mother was still sober. She sat slumped at the kitchen table nursing a glass of water and a handful of Tums while pondering the downward spiral of both her mood and physical state. Squish was still angry with her for breaking up with Raph and wouldn't even speak to her except to ask "how could she do this to Chico?" Brandi knew Mary was not taking Raph's calls and in apparent punishment to Mary, would not take Mary's calls. Neither would she run any errands or help around the house. "God…I live with a twelve year old" Mary mumbled. Jinx was supposed to have stopped at the store this afternoon before catching the bus home from rehearsal but forgot. "Dammit" mumbled Mary to the table.

Mary had felt tired the day before and woke up this morning with a general ache to go with the tired. She chalked it up to a restless night after being awoken by her ringing phone three times. Raph. She didn't answer any of the calls but wasn't able to fall back into a good sleep afterwards. By mid morning her stomach was unsettled and her muscles ached more. She chewed on some Tums and took some ibuprofen for the aches. She had been trying not to take the stronger pain meds. She had to admit to feeling better by that afternoon, but now this evening her body began to complain again in earnest. A decent meal would've been nice, but the best combo she found in the dwindling food supply was a jar of peanut butter and some pretzels. "Oh yum" she muttered sarcastically, "just what I wanted". The first pretzel went down alright, but then her stomach turned over again and she decided to quit while she was ahead. So here she sat at the table…back to the Tums. Her wounds were adding their own complaints to the cachophany of pain and she just laid her head on her arms. "I think I'm going to have to call Marshall" she decided. "He's going to be pissed at me for letting myself get rundown, but so be it. At least he'll stop at the store on the way over."

"Mary?" queried Brandi. She was standing near the end of the table.

Mary was surprised and turned her head to look at her little sister. "Hi Squish".

"Mary, you don't look very good. Are you o.k.? I can't be mad at you if you're sick or hurt or anything you know. Are you sick?" Brandi looked concerned and alarmed.

Squish offered the olive branch and Mary eagerly accepted. "Yeah, kiddo. I'm really not feeling stellar today and it seems to be getting a little worse now. I'm hoping it's just lack of sleep and a touch of a cold or something." Mary smiled and tried not to worry Brandi. "I was just going to call Marshall to see if he'd bring some chicken soup over."

Brandi gave a short laugh and smiled. She remained worried, though, because Mary really did look pale and drawn. Her big sister looked frail today, and Brandi got a little nervous when Mary looked frail. She offered, "Do you want me to get your phone?"

"Yeah" said Mary. "It's on the coffee table".

Brandi had picked up the phone when there was a loud, drawn out pounding on the front door. They both jumped and Mary moved quickly to retrieve her weapon from the front hallway table drawer. Aches and pains currently forgotten. Jinx came out of the back room to see what was going on.

The pounding stopped as a loud voice began to call. "Mary…Maaaarrry!! I know you are in there! Do not make me stand out here and yell with you!" It was Raphael…and from the thick sound of his accent and his slurred words, he was quite drunk. Mary breathed a sigh of relief and put her gun away. Even a drunk Raph could be dealt with without fear of violence. Mary threw the door open before he would have the chance to pound on it again. He lurched forward and placed his hands on her shoulders, leaning heavily on her.

"Mary, you don' answer my phone calls! I call and I call all week, but you don' answer and I just wan' to tell you how sorry I am." He smelled like whiskey…a lot of whiskey. Mary was struggling with the amount of weight her was putting on her shoulders. Normally it wouldn't be a problem, but she wasn't even close to full strength yet. She pushed him more upright with her hands on his chest. He suddenly released her, causing them both to stumble backwards slightly.

"Raphael, you're drunk." Mary stated while trying to catch his eye…and her breath. "Why don't you lay down on the couch and try to get some sleep and we can talk later?"

"Try to get some sleep? What is sleep?" He was glaring at her and she began to feel a twinge of unease. He continued "You kick me out of your life and you kick me out of your house. I don't sleep…I don't eat…you know what I do?" He was slowly advancing on her with shuffling steps and pointing his finger at her. "I think about what you would be doing! And I think about WHO you would be doing it WITH!"

Mary refused to back down and Raph ended up about two inches in front of her face with his finger tip poking her in the sternum. "Raphael" Mary said softly "what are you doing? Think about this for a minute, please." She knew if she backed up he would follow and become more agitated. There was no chance of her being able to withstand a physical altercation with the man and she sure the hell wasn't going to shoot him, so she had to try to talk him down.

Jinx had grabbed Brandi's arm when Raph lunged into the house and now the two women could only stare in shock at this very uncharacteristic behavior. They would never have thought Raphael could be a threat to Mary and they knew she was no match for him right now. They both began to cry softly and Brandi hit the speed dial on Mary's phone.

Some of Mary's words must've penetrated the alcohol haze swirling around Raph because he stepped back slightly and dropped his hand he had pushed against her chest. Mary took that space to take her own steps backward and toward the kitchen. Away from her mother and sister. Training took over in these types of situations and she was trying to move the threat away from vulnerable parties. Raphael must've been thinking about the night she broke the engagement and left through the kitchen because he suddenly trotted over to her and stopped her with a hand around her wrist.

"You are not going to run away from me this time Mary!" his voice getting louder. "I want to know how many times you were with him! I want to know why you think I am a stupid man!" He was yelling now and flushed with anger.

Mary had had enough of this shit. "What the hell are you talking about Raph?! I wasn't with anyone while I was with you…ever! Where is this coming from?" she was yelling back now. Matching his aggravation level. He wasn't making any sense and she could see her questions were angering him more. She was not going to have a pissing contest with a drunk Hispanic man tonight!

Then it just got nasty. Raphael's grip tightened on her wrist and he was shaking her arm with every statement. And his statements were awful. He was accusing her of reprehensible acts and of lying to him and treating him like a dog. She didn't even know how to respond…the words were flying at her so fast. This was not the man she knew and she could do nothing but stare at him with shock on her face. She heard Jinx crying behind her and Brandi was talking low and fast to someone while crying herself. Raph gave her arm another sharp jerk and her attention was focused back on him. He continued to level threats against her for all the acts he believed she had committed. She must have stood there in dumb silence for five minutes while he screamed at her before she registered his question. "You don' even deny anything that I am saying!" he yelled.

She finally found her voice and it was loud and furious. "How can I deny things that don't even make sense, you idiot! You're accusing me of ridiculous things…asking me questions that I have no answer to! What do you want me to say, Raph? That I'm sorry we broke up? That I'm sorry I hurt you?" She was so frustrated and angry she was shaking. She broke his grip on her arm with a quick flick of her wrist and pushed him away. "I am sorry I hurt you. But the rest of your accusations are crap and you know it! You don't come into my house and threaten me and my family with violence while spewing awful, hateful lies!" She saw doubt enter his brown eyes for a moment, then it was quickly replaced with another spark of hot anger. She took a quick step backwards.

Raph spun around, grabbed the edge of the kitchen table and flipped it over, destroying a chair and a vase in the process. The quickness of the action and loudness of the crash startled everyone and Mary readied herself to make a dash for her weapon if Raph moved toward her. "This was insane!" she screamed in her head. "Stop it, Raphael" she yelled at him. "Stop it! This is not you! What are you thinking! I don't want to hurt you and I don't want to call the cops….just stop!" She was nearly begging him at this point. He picked up one of the surviving chairs and smashed it forcefully atop the overturned table causing splinters of wood to land throughout the kitchen and at Mary's feet. "Stop, Raphael!" she yelled again. One of the shards hit Raph in the face and caused him to jerk backwards slightly. That action seemed to freeze him in place. Jinx could be heard sobbing and Brandi muttered a few words softly. Mary's eyes were fastened to the face of the man she no longer knew, not knowing what was going to happen next. She was breathing heavily and her stomach was churning and she wasn't sure she wouldn't be sick.

Raphael slowly raised a hand to his face and touched a small drop of blood oozing from a cut by a shard of wood. He looked at it questioningly as though he couldn't understand what it was. When he turned to look at Mary, she saw the crazed look had disappeared and was replaced by the sad eyes of her former lover. She relaxed the tiniest bit, but was still on high alert. He spoke slowly and softly. "What does he have that I don't have, Mary? What is it that he gives you than I cannot?"

Her responses were swift in her mind, startling her in their clarity "My heart. His heart".

But she would not say this aloud and continued to stand there silently regarding Raph.


Marshall's phone rang with Mary's ringtone right after he had finished dinner. He picked it up and spoke swiftly. "Did you know it takes two hours to digest chicken and four hours to digest beef?" he said.

"Marshall??" sobbed Brandi into the phone "You need to come over here right now!"

Marshall's stomach dropped into the floor as he identified the terrified and crying voice of Mary's sister. "What's wrong, Brandi?" he snapped as he threw his boots on, grabbed his car keys and was out the door. He could hear yelling in the background, but couldn't make out any words. Brandi was talking again.

"Chico is here and he's really, really drunk. I've never seen him like this before and I'm really scared!" she hiccupped and continued to cry. She took a breath and began to speak again rapidly "He's screaming at Mary and pushing her and saying horrible, mean things to her! And Mary is trying to calm him down but he just keeps yelling at her and threatening her! Oh, Marshall, I'm so scared…please, please come over here and help!" Her voice rose in panic as he heard Raphael start to yell even louder on the other end of the phone.

He was already turning at the end of his street and calculated it would take him eight minutes to get to Mary's if no one got in his way. His jaw was tight and he gripped the steering wheel ferociously. He couldn't believe Raphael would physically assault anyone, much less Mary. And with Mary still recovering, Marshall feared she would not be able to defend herself for long…if at all. "Jesus…Dammit…can't this shit pile of a car go any faster!?" He realized Brandi was talking to him again and her thought process was aligned with his.

"Mary's sick today, Marshall, and she's not going to be able to fight with him if he decides to attack her or something! I'll try to help, but he's crazy mad right now! I'm really scared something bad is going to happen…hurry!!"

Now Marshall could hear Mary yelling back at Raph. He never thought the sound of her yelling would be comforting. "Man, she's pissed", he thought "and that means she's still up and functioning. That's my girl." He knew he'd be there in four minutes and told Brandi so.

There was brief stretch of silence on the phone and then he heard furniture being tossed around and he just about came out of his skin. Brandi yelped into the phone and began to cry in earnest and almost chanted "hurry…oh, please hurry…he's gone crazy…hurry!" Marshall could again hear Mary yelling over the noise and made out her pleas for Raph to stop. Hearing the scene played out over the phone was the worst torture he could possibly think of. If Mary were to be attacked he would be able to hear it but not be able to do a damn thing to stop it or help her. "Almost there" he whispered.

He turned onto her street just as the noises on the phone stopped. He could still hear Brandi crying softly as he skidded into the driveway and jumped out of the car and said "I'm here" into the phone. She whispered "it's o.k…he's stopped and doesn't look crazy anymore. Don't come in too fast and scare him", she said, worried the sudden appearance of Mary's partner would rekindle the anger. "Mary's fine" she added. He released the breath he'd been holding for eight minutes and slowly approached the still open front door. He could hear Raphael talking to Mary in a low voice over the pounding of his heart. He moved into the shadow of the front hall and assessed the situation.


"Tell me, please, Mary…what is it that I don't have?" Raph pleaded.

Mary felt the last vestiges of mental and emotional strength ebb away. "Jesus….I can't be honest and I can't lie" she thought "I can't give him the answer without it being a disaster. He wanted an honest answer…wanted me to make an honest choice…and now it's all thrown back in my face. I can't do this anymore. Not tonight…not in front of my family." Her hands dropped to her sides and she looked down at the floor. The hot wetness of a teardrop splashed onto her bare foot…surprising her. She thought, "Am I actually crying about this? I'm too god damned tired to cry".

Mary took a deep, slightly shuddering breath and said hoarsely, "Raph…you need to go."

"Answer me, Mary!" Raph demanded, still too intoxicated to read the signs that Mary was finished with the conversation.

The tension in the room was wearable, the focus on Mary and Raphael in the kitchen. No one noticed Marshall walk quietly into the living room from the open doorway. Jinx and Brandi held each other up in the living room across the counter from Mary, both of them weeping softly.

Raphael stood within touching distance of Mary with his fists balled at his side. He was staring at her intently and swaying just slightly. His eyes were reddened, whether from the alcohol or tears, it was unclear. There was a thin line of blood on his left cheek.

The overturned table rested nearly dead center of the kitchen with the ruined pieces of the chairs scattered as far as the living room carpet.

Marshall focused on his breathing and tried to calm down as he realized Raphael was no longer out of control. The adrenaline was adamant, though, and he remained wound up.

He had heard Raph's demand for Mary's answer and could immediately see that Mary was no longer listening to the questions. He studied her and saw that her body language shouted defeat and fatigue even while she still vibrated with tension. From her hair held loosely and messily in a band, to the too long sweatpants sitting low on her hips, she was unkempt and looked tired and sad. This was not the Mary he knew. This was a person who was ready to scatter in pieces with even the softest touch. This was all wrong.

Mary turned away from Raphael and had taken a step towards the other room when she spotted Marshall standing quietly at the edge of the carpet. Her eyes expressed surprise and, he was sure, relief. "What are you doing here?" she demanded, reflexively defensive.

Marshall didn't see the flare of anger in Raph's eyes upon his presence being announced.

Raphael knew Mary was now focused on Marshall and his whiskey filled soul howled at the thought that he was going to once again be ignored and replaced. He reached out, grabbed Mary's upper arm and whirled her forcefully to face him. Mary's face pinched tight and she gasped in a breath as a sharp pain radiated from the tender, healing wound that was being twisted too quickly. Her free hand flew to hold her abdomen.

"Raphael!!" Marshall's voice was like a whip cracking through the air. All movement stopped except for his three quick strides bringing him within lunging distance from Raph. His eyes burned hotly and his jaw was bunched as he stared at the inebriated man. He had managed to not reach for his sidearm, but just barely. "You. Should. Go... Now." He hissed from between clenched teeth.

Raph sobered quickly and immediately realized two things. One, he had hurt Mary and that broke his heart. He never meant to hurt her and his hand dropped to his side as his eyes filled with tears. Two, he had seriously underestimated the dangerousness of the tall, male Marshal. The man radiated menace and Raph was sure he would lose…and lose badly…in any physical altercation. Seeing that Marshall was between him and the front door, Raph wisely chose the exit out of the kitchen into the back yard. "I'm so sorry Mary …I can't…." he sobbed as he stumbled down the steps. Brandi began to cry harder.

Mary spoke softly, "Brandi, please call Raph a cab and make sure it picks him up."

Brandi ran around Marshall and followed Raph into the backyard. Mary had backed up to the counter and was supporting herself with her hands as she leaned over slightly, taking some deep breaths. She did not feel well…at…all.

Marshall's gaze snapped to Mary and noticed her paleness, the sheen of sweat beading on her forehead and the tremble in her arms braced against the counter. He made a snap decision. Bracing himself for the inevitable verbal assault and possible physical mauling, he scooped her up off her feet and began to carry her toward the couch. His alarm bells started to ring right away. One, she was nearly listless in his arms with one hand gripping his collar and the other lying in her lap. She allowed her head to fall onto his shoulder. "My God", he thought "she should be pummeling me in protest to this manhandling!" Two, she was decidedly underweight. Marshall had had various occasions in the past to lift Mary off the ground during training exercises or operations and she was a tall woman at a normally healthy weight. He knew she had lost weight during her hospital stay, but he had not realized how much. He was very concerned that he could feel every rib through her thin sweatshirt.

"Jesus, Mare" he whispered, "you need a keeper". "Oh", he remembered, "that's me".

Mary was thankful for Marshall's rash action as she was sure she would've passed out within the next few seconds. His decision to carry her to the couch saved her the embarrassment of oozing to the floor in front of him. She allowed herself the brief comfort of his arms, the warmth of his body and the weird feeling of safety she always associated with his scent. She'd analyze that later, when her mind wasn't so fuzzy.

"So" she said with a smirk, "you think you can just come in my house, chase away my guests and take advantage of me?"

Marshall's eyes sparkled through his worry and fading anger as he set her on the cushions. He realized she was trying to distract him from his anger. Standing up, he replied with a chuckle, "Hell yeah…god forbid I pass up an opportunity like this!"

She could still see the tension in his face and the concern in his expression. "You know" she began, "I'm not going to die on you or anything here. I'm fine…"

"You're not fine!" he interrupted her, a bit more gruffly than he intended. "People who are fine do not look like they hired a colorblind mortician to do their makeup. I don't know about you, but if I had just reenacted a scene from Fatal Attraction with someone I love I wouldn't be fine. And don't joke about dying…it's too soon to be joking about that!" Mary had the decency to look slightly abashed. "Jinx" said Marshall as he looked about for the older woman, "please bring a cool towel for Mary, a glass of juice and some crackers, and her pain meds."

"Marshall, I don't ne…." Mary began to protest.

"Shut up, Mare" Marshall snapped as he focused on her. He sat next to her and placed his hands on the arm of the couch on either side of her head. Basically pinning her gently and forcing her to look at him. "You have spent the last week trying to convince me you were taking care of yourself. You wouldn't let me come check on you and made it sound like all was well. I've been trying to believe you and give you your space to heal, but my gut just kept yelling at me that the world was not right. You know what? My gut was right! Here you are barely standing up because you're skin and bones, sick and in pain, your family drama continues with a few rounds of pre-marital smack down to boot and it doesn't even look like anyone is taking care of the place." He had noted the disheveled couch and table with magazines and wrappers scattered about the room, dishes in the sink and a large pile of laundry in front of the washing machine around the corner. "I really think you have given up all say in what you think you need. I am now going to take care of you and you are going to let me." His tone and gaze dared her to argue.

Jinx had come back to the couch with a cool towel, a glass of water and Mary's meds. She said "We don't have any juice and crackers right now." And set the objects on the table near Marshall. Marshall pinched the bridge of his nose. He was still shaky from the adrenaline rush. "Do you have any food in the house, Jinx?"

"Well…" she drew it out "I've been at rehearsals for the new play and Brandi's back in classes now, and without Raph here….um…we haven't been out shopping for a few days".

Marshall took a deep, calming breath…quickly reminding himself that Mary would be irritated if he murdered her mother. Mary put her hand on his arm, but wisely said nothing.

Seeing that Jinx was dressed appropriately for leaving the house, Marshall handed her his car keys and gave her instructions. "Go to the grocery store and get enough food for four people to have breakfast, lunch and dinner for four days. Mary's credit card is in her purse." he looked at Mary as she nodded her approval, knowing she'd never let him foot the bill. Jinx hurried out the door and Marshall sent up a prayer to the car gods for the safe return of his vehicle. Marshall stood to start straightening up when he realized what Jinx had said…"without Raph here…"

Mary was watching him as she took her pain meds and was using the cloth to cool her face. Her nerves were shot and she still felt nauseous. She had heard her mom and was wondering if Marshall was going to catch on…"oh yeah…there it is" she thought as she saw his movements still and his head tilt slightly. She had actually been starting to relax as Marshall took control of the situation. She could feel the tension start to ball back up. Oh man…she didn't really want to have this conversation tonight, but she felt she owed her partner that much courtesy after trying to push him away all week and scaring him tonight. She decided the preemptive strike was the best approach.

"Raph and I aren't getting married". She announced into the silence, watching his reaction.

He turned to look at her, blue eyes focused on her green ones to see if she was baiting him. She met his gaze unflinchingly.

"When did this happen?" he asked, gingerly sitting on the edge of the coffee table. A small flame of hope had flickered to life in his stomach and he was afraid to move in case it would be snuffed out.

"Monday" she said, tilting her chin up defiantly. She knew he was going to get angry that she hadn't told him, and she was right.

"And today is….." he drawled tightly, leaning toward her with narrowed eyes.

"Friday" she replied, leaning back into the couch. "Wait for it"….she thought.

She was amazed by the emotions that flickered across his face in the next few seconds. Anger, frustration, surprise and…pain? "Dammit" she thought, "why do I always end up hurting him. The last person on this green earth I want to hurt is the very person I keep inflicting pain upon. What is wrong with me?" She watched as he lowered his head into his hands and took a deep breath.

"Marshall? I didn't tell you because I ..."

"Mare" he interrupted yet again, "I don't understand you. It seems to me that the most important events in your life are the ones you don't want to share with anybody. That's so ass backwards and you know it. Why?" He looked up at her through his fingers, then back down as he continued. "You know you are my best friend in this world and you know I would do anything for you…be here for you. Why is it, then, that I'm the last to know when you are happy…when you are sad…when you are hurting? Help me understand. I'm feeling a bit lost here, and I'm torn between staying to hear what you have to say and going home because my nerves are shot. What do you want me to do?" He rested his elbows on his knees and looked at her. His eyes were filled with tears, but they didn't fall.

She expected him to be angry, not…this. She panicked, "Please don't leave!" thinking he may actually go and attempted to sit up and take his hands. That attempt was aborted, however, when her abdominal muscles protested painfully. "Ow ow ow…" she grunted as she leaned back again. This brought Marshall over to the edge of the couch to sit and rest his hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Mare…I wouldn't really leave. I'm just really confused right now with what just happened and my head's a mess. I'm feeling a bit like a selfish bastard, I have to confess. I know you know I wasn't happy about your engagement. There's no way I can hide that from you. It didn't seem right…it didn't seem like you. My overwhelming, and often misguided, instinct to protect you wanted to kick and scream when you told me you were getting married. But, I'm your friend so I wanted to support you and be happy for you. But you weren't happy…at all. You were trying so hard to be someone you weren't. So…now I am relieved to hear it's not going to happen, but again hurt because you waited so long to tell me. God, Mare, this is crap." He blew out a breath and leaned back on the couch next to her, putting her legs in his lap. They both sat there staring ahead quietly for a while.

Mary was a bit surprised, actually. She new her announcement of being engaged shocked him and she knew he was upset that she didn't tell him sooner. But he was relieved that she had called it off? Hmmm…that was interesting. O.k., she was going to give this a shot…and considering the Vicodin would kick in soon, she was feeling a bit brave at the moment. Good thing too, because as she shifted slightly to face him she realized he was staring at her with a look of affection that made her knees slightly weak. "Oh Jesus" she thought, "anything but kindness and compassion…that'll undo me".

"You're right." she began as she shifted her gaze downward away from his eyes, "when Raph and I got engaged I didn't tell you right away because I knew you'd see through me. You always do. You have to understand, Marshall, I thought I wanted a normal life like everyone else. A husband, 2.5 kids…blah blah blah. I agreed to marry Raph because that's what he represented…that's what he was promising. Brandi told me once that I wouldn't ever be able to do any better…and I believed her. I told myself that the sex would be enough and I would learn to love him more. I honestly thought I could convice myself to love him." She paused…calming herself so she wouldn't become emotional here. "It was torture for me to know you knew what I was really feeling and yet pretended to be happy for me. I didn't want to drag you into this and it made me really angry when you told me I was painting myself into a corner so I would have to marry him. I just kept lying to myself."

"After I was awake at the hospital, I just knew it wasn't going to work. There was no way Raph was going to be accepting of what I do and the risks that I take. He's an honorable man, Marshall, and he wasn't going to be able to admit he couldn't protect me from harm. And I realized…well, I wasn't in love with him. I knew I had to end it, but I didn't know how. When I got home, we started fighting from day one. Where he was putting his stuff, who was doing the chores, how much he hated my job, how much I hated his job….endless topics we would never agree upon. But he finally brought it all to the surface Monday."

She stopped talking for a moment to get a drink of water and again back down from the waves of emotions threatening her. Marshall, acutely aware of her discomfort, and not wanting to interrupt this very uncharacteristic narrative, just sat quietly and waited for her to continue. His gaze never leaving her even though she wouldn't meet his eyes.

Mary continued, "We had a big fight. I had never seen him so angry before then and I was livid. I was talking to Stan on the phone about when I would be cleared to come back to work and Raphael heard me. He was yelling that he couldn't believe I wanted to go back to this job…that I wanted to put my life in danger yet again…he said I loved the job more than him. I yelled right back and said that it wasn't just a job for me…it was my life. You know what it's like, Marshall. It's how we roll. I told him I couldn't imagine a life without my job or my best friend. That's when it went really sideways and it boiled down to him giving me a choice. God damn it, Marshall…he actually made me choose!" She quickly wiped a tear away, embarrassed. The pain meds were starting to take effect and she was feeling woozy and a little drowsy. "And that's when I realized how I truly felt about…" she trailed off very quietly.

He looked at her quizzically…how she felt about what? The job? The engagement?

Mary finally looked at him directly. "I made my choice and told him to have his stuff out by the morning…and that was that". Her blinks were getting longer and Marshall could see she was going to be sleeping pretty soon.

"Hey Mare" he said. She looked at him as he took her hand in his and laced his fingers through hers. "Thank you. Thank you for telling me about it. It makes a little more sense and it gives me some comfort. Don't worry…I'm not going to leave tonight. Actually, I think you're stuck with me for the next week. Someone needs to be the voice of reason around here and actually make you do what's good for you". He was smiling at her. "You can kill me tomorrow when you're not hinkied up on pain drugs that are making you really mellow."

They both jumped slightly when Jinx barreled through the front door with bags of groceries. "Oh" she exclaimed, "you two are still just sitting there. Well come on, Mr. Marshall, there's more in the car."

Marshall released Mary's hand and turned to her. "Go ahead and get ready for bed. You need a good night's sleep. There's a big breakfast in store for you tomorrow!"

Mary laughed as she slowly stood up with his help. "Hey Marshall" she called at his back as he headed out to the car, "are you going to tuck me in?" "Good lord" she thought "the people who make these drugs should be lined up and shot. Next I'll be asking him to scrub my back in the shower!"

"Hmmm…this is likely to be a trap", he thought, but what the hell. "Mare…I'll make sure you're tucked in nice and tight" he said in a low voice as he winked at her. Pleased that she looked slightly taken aback and may have even blushed, he turned back to the door.

"Oh wow…." thought Mary, "that might be worth staying awake for!" She headed back to her room, brushed her teeth and washed her face and was asleep on top of the covers before Jinx and Marshall had even brought in the last load of groceries.

Marshall, ever true to his word, maneuvered a sleeping Mary under her covers a little bit later after helping her mother put the groceries away and making sure Brandi got off to Peter's safely. She awoke slightly, looked at him for a minute with a strange expression and said, "I don't regret my choice…I'll never regret it" then drifted back to sleep. He was always amazed by her face when she was sleeping. Gone was the smirk, the furrowed brow and the perpetual look of apprehension. It's a shame that sleep is her only refuge from all the worries and wounds of the world. That the only time she is relaxed and unburdened is when the world around her ceases to exist. "Goodnight Mare" he whispered as he laid his hand on her head… "sweet dreams…I love you".


Jinx noted the blankets on the couch as she walked to the kitchen the next morning. Then she realized the mess of the destroyed table had been cleaned up and there was a tall man sitting in one of the surviving chairs pulled up to a card table in the kitchen. He looked up as she walked in and smiled.

"Good morning. The coffee's fresh" he said as he indicated to the coffee maker with his cup.

Jinx went over to fill her cup. "Thank you for staying last night, Marshall. And thank you for cleaning up too. You really didn't have to do that, you know." She half heartedly chastised him as she walked to the table to sit down.

"I wanted to" he replied. "I didn't want you all to get up this morning only to be reminded of the craziness last night, especially Mary. I still can't figure it out. What got into Raphael? I never would've believed he would act like that, and I'm a fairly good judge of character." Marshall was rubbing his forehead with two fingers as he pondered the situation. "He wasn't even making any sense according to Brandi. He was ranting about her cheating on him and wanting other people…I can't seem to connect the dots here." He got up from the table to get a fresh cup of coffee.

Jinx added her own thoughts, "I think Raphael may have realized he never had a chance with Mary, even though she agreed to marry him. He finally knew he wasn't ever going to be the man she needed or wanted no matter how hard he tried, and he was probably just humiliated and hurt and horribly frustrated. Mary never made it easy for him." She took a deep breath and blew it out. She might as well tell him about the fight she witnessed. He needed to know. "Mary never even flinched when he layed out that ultimatum. Her decision was so fast…and so sure. I think that surprised him too. And after that, she was done. She didn't take his calls…nothing. He carried all that around for that whole week, and from someone who knows, drinking and pining for someone is not a healthy combination." Her gaze drew distant with memories.

"Hmph" grunted Marshall, rubbing the back of his neck. He needed to convince Mary to get a new couch. "What really confuses me is why he would give her an ultimatum that made her choose between him and her job. He had to know the outcome of that would be her job. Anyone who knows Mary even casually cannot miss how much she loves what she does, and I know they've had that conversation many times before with the result always being the same." He stared at the floor, thinking.

Jinx stood up and walked toward Marshall with a slightly crooked smile. Her eyes unexplainably tender. He looked at her. "Marshall," she said, reaching up to place her hand along side his face "you sweet boy. Raphael didn't ask Mary to choose between him and her job". Marshall's forehead wrinkled slightly as he tried to understand what she was getting at. "Uh…what?" he said. Jinx's smile deepened. "Raphael asked Mary to choose between him and you". Marshall's eyes widened slightly as Jinx pulled back her hand and gently patted him on the chest. She walked out of the kitchen toward her room, leaving him standing at the counter…speechless.

Marshall's world was slightly off kilter, to say the least. He was trying to skate on a emotional floor of marbles and doing a damn, poor job of it. A flash of red hot anger towards Raph for his selfishness in forcing Mary to choose at all was quickly extinguished by the gut clenching worry he felt for Mary's emotional state. "My God, no wonder she was so distant for the last few days." He imagined she was either seethingly angry at him for being the agent of her engagement's destruction, or embarrassed by the revelation of her feelings for him. Knowing Mary's reaction to feeling anger or embarrassment was basically the same…withdrawl…he'd have to investigate further to fully know the answer. But suddenly, the meaning behind her cryptic statement while falling asleep last night became clear: "…I don't regret my choice…I'll never regret it".

The butterflies in his stomach would not be ignored. Could she really love him as more than her best friend and partner? Certainly, she loved him more than she loved Raphael. That small flame of hope was starting to dance around a little more. She was so strong, this fierce woman who held him so dear. To release the chance for normalcy…to face the tears of her family and scorn of her fiancé…to chance the rejection of love…all because she chose something true and real to her heart. Amazing.

Of course, he thought as he smiled wryly, she could've just been so incredibly pissed at Raph that she had to get in a last dig when breaking off the engagement! The smile turned into a chuckle as he sipped his now cold coffee.

"What's so damn funny?" mumbled Mary as she shuffled into the kitchen.

Marshall, not having heard her approach, jumped away from the edge of the counter and spilled coffee down the front of his shirt and onto his feet. "Dammit!" he sputtered.

Mary chuckled. "O.k…that was funny!" she said as she reached into the cabinet for a coffee cup. "Where were you just then? Giving your brain yet another vacation day?"

Marshall replied by putting down his coffee cup, reaching out to turn her toward him and cupping her face in his hands. Mary's eyes registered surprise. "Mary Elizabeth Shannon" he said. She stood very still…his blue eyes were so intense…and her full name?...what the hell? He continued, "You are a wonder. It may have been a long time since someone has told you this, but it's time for you to hear it again. You are a woman of character and strength. You are wise, smart, beautiful, funny and you can kick a man's ass in thirty seconds. You possess a capacity for caring amid strife that I cannot yet understand. I know that everyday of my life that I have known you has been a better day than it would've been without knowing you. I am honored and proud to be your partner and your best friend and cannot imagine my life without you. I will stand by you and protect you until my last breath." Marshall tenderly kissed her on the forehead, released her face and turned toward the pantry.

Mary just stood there, her brain a little slower at processing information before her first cup of coffee. As the full weight of Marshall's words penetrated her understanding, her eyes became a bit blurred with tears. Her chest ached as if her heart had been filled up with just slightly more that it was used to holding. "This is what love feels like" she thought…amazed. She turned to look at Marshall rummaging in the pantry.

"Thank you" she whispered.

Marshall came out carrying ingredients for breakfast. "For what?" he said with a quizzical expression on his face. "For stating the obvious? Come on, these pancakes are not going to make themselves and you've got at least a half dozen to eat before I'm satisfied. And wash some dishes woman…it looks like you've been neglecting the housework for some time here!" Marshall teased while quickly moving out of punching range.

"Wow" Mary said, recovering her composure "not only did your brain take a vacation, it went and scored some serious smack and got lit up!" She was smiling now as she grabbed a towel to snap at his legs.

Sometimes, she thought, we don't know whether the choices we make are going to come back and bite us in the ass sooner or later. But other times, despite pain and angst, we'd make the same choice over and over again until the day we died. This was one of those times.

*** Thanks for reading! I know it's one big chapter, but I'm not familiar enough with the publishing tools the first time to segment it. Next time! Please review and give me a lot of advice. I have a plan for another story, but want to make sure I'm on the right track. Thanks! ***