A/N: It's Halloween week, and I'm inspired. This is a fluffy bit of nothing for you. Pull up a pumpkin and enjoy.
Clothes make a statement. Costumes tell a story. ~Mason Cooley
Mary's morning had gone to hell long before she arrived in the office. Jinx and Brandi had started her morning off squabbling over the last of the cereal and both had turned their petty wrath on her when she'd entered the kitchen, complaining stridently about her failure to get them provisions. She'd fled without any food whatsoever, and in her haste to get away from them, she had even had to forgo her morning coffee.
Traffic, once she'd managed to escape her family, had been a snarl of unmoving cars and irritated drivers trapped by a wreck that blocked most of the route Mary usually took to the office, and, as if all that weren't enough, Mary's Probe had begun to overheat radically, causing her to coax, curse, and pray it into her parking space, completely foiling her plans to stop by a drive-through coffee stand. By the time she'd made it to the elevator, she'd been far past a rolling boil herself.
The doors opened with their typical soft ding, and she fervently wished she could rip into the metal paneling and tear out the chime. Maybe with my teeth, even. Yeah. Damn happy little bell. Deserves a vicious death. She strode out, and the expression on her face and the set of her shoulders clearly said, "DANGER."
Mary's mood was not improved by Marshall's empty desk. Her partner, the only person who could possibly have soothed her and cheered her in the absence of coffee, was nowhere to be seen. "Where the fuck is he?" she snarled at Eleanor.
"And a bright, cheery, good morning to you, too," Eleanor said calmly without looking up from the papers she was processing.
"See, answers like that are like unto get you killed this morning. But since I'm such a charitable and almighty forgiving soul, I'll give you another chance to answer me. Where is Marshall?"
Eleanor batted not an eyelash as she firmly tapped her stapler, affixing a form to a casefile before closing it and stacking it in a pile to be replaced in the filing cabinet later. She folded her hands in front of her and then looked up at Mary with a placid smile. "Me? Why, I'm fine this morning. Thank you so much for inquiring."
Dead. Going to kill her dead. Maybe with my teeth. Yeah. The teeth are definitely the popular option this morning. Lots of satisfaction to be had with the teeth....
Mary growled under her breath and shuffled over to her desk, throwing her leather jacket over the back of her chair. She glared at the empty desk across from her own as though it had done her personal injury and booted up her computer.
Marshall came in a half hour later to find Mary typing with stiff, hard gestures as though she were finger jabbing the keyboard. He and Eleanor exchanged knowing glances, and Marshall shifted the cardboard carrier of coffees in his left hand before extracting two to leave on Eleanor's desk. He knew that she'd see to it that Stan's got to him. Each of them had their own morning job to do, after all...
He crossed the small distance to Mary's desk, and grinned to himself as she continued steadfastly to ignore him.
"I come bearing gifts," he crooned, and he set her coffee down on the desk squarely in front of her, careful to pull his hand back quickly. Because I know that she is fully capable of biting the hand that feeds her.
For a moment, she maintained her assault on the computer. Then her hands wrapped around the paper sleeve of the coffee, and she cut her eyes up to him, narrowed. "You'd better have something a damn sight better than this on you if you're claiming that you're bearing gifts, slick." She took a long, slow swallow of the coffee, and Marshall wanted to breathe a sigh of relief. Thank God. She's taken caffeine internally. Stage one of mood diffusing accomplished.
"Well," he drawled, "since you sweet-talked me," he thrust his hands into the pockets of his coat and pulled out a white waxed paper bakery bag. He opened the top and tilted it so she could see the contents.
Her eyes lit and the scowl that had been etched into her face dissipated. "Is that...oh you wonderful, wonderful man....is that really and truly..."
He shook the bag, his grin spreading. "Who's your partner? Who's your friend? Who's got your back for breakfast?"
"Don't push it, wiseass. Hand over the bearclaws and nobody will have to die this morning after all."
Marshall chuckled and gave her the sack of pastries. He perched on the corner of her desk and fished another bag out of his other pocket. Even though Mary was in the middle of devouring one of the sweet, sticky pastries, her eyes riveted on his bakery bag hungrily.
"Uh-uh. You got yours. Keep your avaricious little claws off." He pulled an apple fritter out of his bag and began to have his own midmorning sugar rush.
She sniffed the fresh apples and cinnamon in the large pastry, and eyed it lustfully. "We could always share."
He snorted. "Ha. I know that line. 'Share' with you is just code for, 'Mary gets it all.'"
She smiled and bit a large chunk of bearclaw. "That's right, mister. Just as the gods intended."
They ate in silence for a while, and hot coffee and good baking did a great deal to restore Mary's shattered mood.
"So other than being on a coffee run, which, by the way, probably saved countless innocent lives, where the hell were you this morning?" Mary finally asked, sweeping crumbs away from her desk and onto the floor. Marshall had returned to his own desk and was entering data and sipping his coffee.
"I had to go see one of mine early this morning about something," Marshall said a little evasively, and he kept his eyes glued to his own computer screen. Mary didn't press. If Marshall hadn't taken her and wasn't telling her now, it had been a private issue and was none of her business. She respected that. Even partners in their line of work didn't always tell each other everything.
He cut suddenly-amused blue eyes to hers, laugh lines crinkling the corners. "Why? Did you miss me? Pine and yearn in my absence?"
She snorted. "Like hell. I needed a backside to kick and yours wasn't handy like it was supposed to be for my booting pleasure."
He looked at her a moment and she had that odd sensation that she'd only ever gotten with him, that feeling that he was reading her somehow, that he could somehow see right through all her masks and pretenses to the reality behind them. "That crappy a morning, huh?"
She used her short thumbnails to incise random patterns on the cushioning cardboard of the insulating sleeve of the coffee cup. She felt the corner of her mouth turn up, but there was no humor in the movement. Both of them knew it. "Yeah, well... you know life at the Shannon household is just one big party all the time..." She did not look at him.
He nodded gently, and looked as though he was going to say something when Stan and Eleanor came out of Stan's office. Stan was beaming from ear to ear, and in his hand he held a large manilla envelope.
"I have something for you two," he said, and he withdrew two small black envelopes from the larger tan one, waved them in the air with a flourish before handing them to Mary and Marshall. "It's that time again, and we have, once again, been invited to join with ABQ PD in the Law Enforcement Halloween Masque."
Mary felt her mood darken to the color of the little letterpressed envelope. "Oh fucking hell, Stan. Tell me you're kidding. Please. Or shoot me. Either way."
He favored her with a small smile as he extended the envelope to her. "Nope. And yes, before you ask, your attendance is required."
Mary snatched the envelope from him with narrowed eyes. Marshall was grinning as he took his from Stan's hand and proceeded dig in his desk drawer for a letter opener.
"I wonder what the theme is this year," he said.
"I swear by all that's holy, if they're doing 'Partner Pair-Up' again this year, I will be in the hospital with a self-inflicted gunshot wound."
"Aw, Mare, come on. Don't shoot yourself over a costume party. Save it for something important, like the next time Jinx and Brandi try to get you to have a 'Spa Day.'" Marshall's smile was wide since he knew he was relatively safe across the room and behind the protective bulk of his own desk.
A feline smile crossed Mary's lips as she used her index finger to slit open her own invitation. "You're absolutely right, Marshall. Besides, if I need a hospital emergency as an out, I can always just shoot you instead...."
He stuck his tongue out and both of them slipped the small white card from their envelope at approximately the same time. As was so typical, their reactions were a study in opposites. Marshall's face lit up like a kid presented with a new toy. Mary groaned and leaned over to bang her head on her desk softly and repeatedly.
Every year, the Albuquerque Police Department hosted a large costume party for the area law enforcement. It was the pet project of the commissioner's wife. She also had a penchant for coming up with themes that called for specific types of costumes. This was Mary's personal idea of torment. In the past three years, she'd had to scrape together something that could pass for Wild West gear, medieval clothing, and last year, she and Marshall had been forced to dress in some kind of matching get up by the "Partner Pair-Up" theme the little black envelope had spit out.
Marshall in his typical fashion, had been bubbling over with suggestions as to what their costume could be, most of which she'd shot down with verbal violence, some of which she'd actually chased him around his living room for during their planning session while he cackled his crazy laughter.
"I will so NOT go as Princess Leia to your Luke Skywalker. Besides, as much as it pains me to say that I know this...didn't they turn out to be related in the end?"
Marshall, right before he had started running, had shot back at her, lascivious leer in place, "Yeah, but to see you in that gold metal bikini, I might be willing to break all sorts of cultural taboos...."
They'd wound up going as a pair of old-timey U.S. Marshals, long dusters, cowboy hats, and jeans. It was a recycling of pieces of their costumes from two years before and of things both of them already had around the house. Mary was satisfied with it, and she had thought Marshall had been rather pleased with it, too, especially since his costume had looked suspiciously like some of the family photos she'd seen at his house.
This year, though, nothing within her comfort zone was going to be possible. The little card bore her doom in neatly engraved letters. The costume theme for the masque this year was "Fantasy Surprise."
Mary raised her head. "What the hell does that even mean, 'Fantasy Surprise?' It sounds like the label on a cheap bottle of wine."
Marshall snorted, and Stan looked at them both. "It means," said Stan, "as it was explained to me by our hostess, that the costumes should be fantasy figures, fairies, elves, gods and goddesses, vampires, ghosts, things of the imagination. The surprise part of it comes from the fact that this year everybody without fail is to wear a mask that hides their identity." He didn't pause when Mary started to fuss. He had long experience in just speaking over her. "Apparently, at the end of the evening, there's going to be some kind of big unmasking. She picked it up reading about Italy, and now she's desperate to try it out here at her party."
"Well shit, Stan. Italy this ain't" She gestured lazily around her with a wave of the hand. "Hasn't anyone seen fit to mention that little nugget of truth to her?"
Stan's lips quirked briefly. "No, and you won't be the first to do so, either. You know we do this every year as a way to improve our rapport with the various branches, particularly ABQ PD. We step on enough toes that when we can do something like this to smooth things over, we do it."
"Yeah, but at what cost. I mean, Stan, elves and goddesses? Me? A fairy princess? Really?"
"Follow Marshall's lead. I'm sure he can throw a sheet over your head and stand you in a corner or something...." Stan laughed to himself at the image and walked away.
Marshall was laughing too a bit, and Mary turned her irritation on him. "And just what, pray tell, is so funny?"
"You. The thought of you with a bedsheet with eyeholes cut in it like a five-year-old draped over your head." Marshall chuckled and made a slow gesture with his arms as though he was the one with the sheet costume on. "Whoo...I am ghost Mary...."
"Watch out, Mr. Smartass, or you won't need a costume to attend this thing as a ghost."
Marshall smirked. "Oh no. I'm not going as any wimpy ghost. I already know just what my costume is going to be."
"And what tragically geeky science fiction hero are we going to be this Halloween?" She flashed him her most saccharine smile.
"Just for that, I don't think I'm going to tell you. You're going to have to figure it out on your own."
"Oh, my money is evenly split between Darth Vader, Spock, and that guy who became king in Lord of the Rings."
"His name is Aragorn and neither Spock nor he had a mask. Although, Aragorn did have a battle helm in the last one. I guess that could count if it were properly modified...."
Mary shook her head. "God, Marshall. We must get you a woman from somewhere. It's just so...so...sad....that you know these things...."
Marshall threw back his head and laughed. "Yeah, well...to each his own, right? But keep this in mind, partner of mine, as you're flailing around looking for a costume, sometimes it's good to know more than chokeholds and gun specs."
Mary looked at him with challenge firing her eyes. "You don't think I can put together a decent costume for this damn thing, do you? I know Stan doesn't, but you don't either, do you?"
Marshall leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk. "Mary, every year I've been here, I've had help outfit you for this, sometimes forcibly, sometimes even with Stan's help. So maybe you can understand how I'd have my doubts."
"It's just a Halloween costume, Marshall. How hard can it be?"
"Ah, but you see, it's not. It's a costume that meets the requirements of the theme AND in which you cannot be recognized until the unmasking. So it's kind of like a covert ops disguise with a twist."
"Which is why you like it so much."
"May be right," he said, evading her statement.
"Look. I'll bet you whatever you want to wager that I can do this every bit as well as you can, that I can come up with a disguise that you can't recognize me in."
Marshall shrugged, a deliberately indulgent smile on his face. "Sure, Mare. Whatever makes you happy. Look, think about what you want to wager and get back to me, okay? It's okay with me if you don't want to set the stakes too high."
Mary gritted her teeth. "God, such very dangerous, dangerous ground you're on. Absolute quicksand. Come on. Enough of this nonsense right now. We have witnesses to see today and other things to think about." She tossed the invitation carelessly on top of a pile of other papers on her desk, grabbed her leather jacket from the back of her chair, and headed for the elevator.
Marshall got ready to follow her, but as he was tidying up his workspace in preparation for leaving, his eyes followed her form as she stalked toward the elevators, and he then looked down at the invitation in his hands. For just a moment, he traced a fingertip over the engraving as if in thought, and the briefest of smiles ghosted across his lips. Then he tucked the invitation back into its black envelope and laid it in his "Current Projects" sorter box. The elevator dinged its arrival, and she was calling him to hurry him up. He grabbed his own coat and headed for the door, still turning a twisty little plot over in his head as he joined her.
More to come in the week ahead.... R&R. Suggestions welcome....