Watching Mary self destruct is one of the hardest things I've had to do. And this year has been rough on her. I want to protect her from the world. But sometimes it feels like she doesn't want help. She's had only herself to rely on for so long that she doesn't know how to lean. She needs support, wants it even, but she doesn't know how to take it when it's offered. So I'm there. I'm there when she needs me. I'll be whatever she needs. But sometimes it's so hard to watch...

_________________

The cell phone, lying just out of reach on the bedside table, rang shrilly. Mary tried to ignore it, but as consciousness crept in, she realized that her family was all home, tucked safely in their beds, and it was either a wrong number or work. She thrust her arm out from under the comforter and stretched blindly for the phone on the off chance it was work. She knocked the alarm clock off the table with a clatter and the tips of her fingers made contact with the cell just before it stopped ringing. Damn, she thought to herself. She peeled her eyes open slowly and flipped to the missed calls screen. Marshall, what is going on now? She was only mildly annoyed. He never called without a reason, but she routinely woke him up with her family drama. She didn't bother checking for a voicemail but hit the button that redialed the previous call. She waited as the phone rang three times and then lifted her head when the voice of a stranger answered.

"I'm calling Marshall Mann." Her voice was sleep roughened, the water on the bedside table forgotten.

"Is that his name?" the voice asked. "Uh, yeah. You were first on his speed-dial...." the voice trailed off. "He passed out about thirty minutes ago. Someone needs to come get him, and pay his tab."

Mary was sitting up now, sheet wrapped loosely around her waist. Raph was snoring beside her, oblivious to the commotion. Mary quickly wrote down the name of the bar and was off the phone and getting dressed before she stopped to wonder how Marshall had come to drink enough to pass out, alone, at a bar.

__________________

Mary walked through the door of a dimly lit, seedy bar, two miles from Marshall's apartment. She hadn't known that the place existed. She doubted that Marshall had been there before. She didn't see him when she walked through the door. She stepped to the bar and pulled out her credit card. She looked around as she waited for the bartender to notice her. In the back corner of the bar was a booth. She couldn't see the person sitting there, but she had a good view of a lax hand, lying on the table. She'd know those long, skinny fingers anywhere.

The bartender caught her eye and she nodded to Marshall. He tilted his chin toward the corner. She laid her card on top of the bar and walked toward the booth. As she approached, she could see the back of his head. His hair was ruffled, as if Marshall had been running his fingers through it. His face was turned away from her. She could see his profile. He didn't look comfortable, and even though he was unconscious, he didn't look relaxed.

She shook his shoulder gently. "Marshall, Marshall, it's time to go home." She nudged him, and he opened his eyes, disoriented. She nudged him again, and he scooted over so she could sit next to him. She was close enough that their hips were touching. He was warm and solid next to her.

She turned and was able to catch the bartender's eye. Water, she mouthed, and he nodded.

Mary handed over the glass but didn't release it as it wobbled in his unsteady grip. She steadied it as he gulped thirstily. "Easy," she whispered. She sat patiently as he finished the glass and then waited while he studied it intently.

"What are we doing here?" she asked, when he shifted his gaze to her.

"I wasn't ready to go home alone." He spoke candidly, the alcohol erased any barriers that were left between them. He smiled sadly and shrugged one shoulder.

"Oh." Mary squeezed his fingers. A dozen questions ran through her mind, but she didn't ask them. They sat quietly, each lost in thought. "Are you ready to go?" she asked a few minutes later.

Marshall nodded and made to move. Mary slid out of the booth so he could get up. She gripped his bicep. He was unsteady on his feet. The bartender handed her the credit card as they walked past. Marshall started to protest, reaching for his wallet. Mary motioned for him to leave it. "I'm sorry, Mare."

Mary just shook her head. Whatever was going on with Marshall, she owed him. She folded his long legs into the Probe and shut the door quietly.

The trip back to his apartment was made in silence. Marshall tipped his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. He reached for the door handle, and Mary skirted around to the passenger side. She was standing there when he stepped out. She wrapped her arm around his waist and slid a finger through his belt loop. It felt natural, like she'd done it a million times. They were in step as they walked to the door, and Marshall only fumbled a little with the keys.

Mary managed to get Marshall to the couch before he was leaning hard enough to make her stagger under his weight. She let him flop bonelessly onto the cushions and sat beside him. She put her feet up on the coffee table, ignoring her shoes. Marshall leaned toward her until their shoulders were touching. She sighed and tugged on him until his head was lying on her thigh.

Mary had spent a large portion of her childhood putting drunk people to bed. Mostly her mother, but as Mary got older, Jinx brought friends home, and Mary put them to bed too. She tried to keep her little sister from stumbling over them, passed out on the bathroom floor, when she was getting ready for school. Mary ran her fingers through Marshall's shaggy hair, thinking he was overdue for a haircut.

He cracked an eye at her and tried to focus on her face. "Thanks for getting me home." His words were deliberate but still a little slurred.

Mary knew she was being dismissed but refused to take the bait. She yawned loudly and threw her head back against the couch. "You'll need me to take you to pick up your truck in the morning, and I'm tired. I think I'll just stay here."

He opened and closed his mouth wordlessly and then perhaps thought better of speaking. He nodded. "You can take the bed. I think I'll just stay here."

"I'll get up in a minute," she said softly. She knew that Marshall would be asleep any second, and for a reason she couldn't quite put her finger on, she felt the need to make sure he didn't wake up alone. Perhaps it was the vulnerability in his voice when he said he wasn't ready to go home alone, perhaps it was the fear of him aspirating his vomit. Either way, Mary was going to stay, and in the morning she was going to make him tell her what was going on.

She pulled a ratty blue afghan off the back of the couch and flipped it over Marshall. He sighed and burrowed into the side of her leg. She slid her fingers through his hair again. She thought about the last two days. Marshall's words ran through her head. You walk around like you're responsible for how she turned out. She was responsible. She had raised Brandi. Jinx had barely been there, and when she was there she was drunk or sleeping it off.

Brandi was flighty and immature, but Mary took responsibility for that. She'd been cleaning up all of Brandi's messes since the time she slugged Zachary Johnson in third grade. It was Mary that Brandi had called for in the courtroom, not Jinx. And even if Marshall was right, and Brandi wouldn't appreciate the gesture, she couldn't give up on her. She wasn't a bad kid, just misguided, and Mary had to take responsibility for that.

And her father. The man who was supposed to love her. She couldn't reconcile what she remembered about him with a man who was free enough to have another family. Mary had never believed that her father had just abandoned them, but now she had to reassess that notion.

She thought about Marshall, the way he had been there without question. He had helped her clear her sister, even though he felt less than charitable toward her. She also thought about the way he held her while she cried. Marshall was a good friend. She should take the time to see him more often. Mary fell asleep with that thought running around in her head.

________________

Mary woke with a start as Marshall lifted his head and looked at her blearily. The last thing she remembered was thinking that she should get up. She scrubbed at her eyes with one hand, and when they focused she turned Marshall's wrist over so she could see his watch. 5:45.

"How's your head?" She spoke quietly, familiar with the pounding that followed a night of overindulgence.

Marshall swung his feet to the floor and hung his head for a moment. He turned to look at her, and she could see him struggle to focus on her face. "I need a shower," he said shortly. She looked at him, surprised as he got up and walked away.

He was dressed when he returned. His hair was wet, with the comb lines still in it. He looked solemn. Mary stood.

"Sit down, Mare. There's something I need to tell you." He looked her square in the eye. Mary didn't sit, but he spoke anyway. "I'm leaving."

"You're not going far without your truck." She gave a half smile, trying to judge his reaction.

"No," he said slowly. "I'm leaving the Marshals Service. Last night I took a job with a private security firm. I'll be heading up the northeast division, based in New York."

Mary's mouth dropped, and she sat abruptly. She stared at Marshall until she found her voice. "What the hell are you talking about?" She wasn't sure what she felt. Her words were angry, but she felt like someone was sitting on her chest. Suddenly it was impossible to breathe. "I don't understand. I was with you until six, when did you..."

"I have a friend who has been bugging me about coming to work for him for years. I called him last night."

"But why?"

"Because I can't watch you do this anymore. You're trying to help people who don't want your help. They hurt you over and over, and..."

"What are you talking about? Brandi didn't do anything. The information you found was part of what cleared her." A note of desperation crept into Mary's voice.

"I'm not talking about today, Mare, I'm talking about every day. You're going to let them destroy you. I just don't have it in me to stand here and watch." Marshall was calm and resolute.

"I won't let you do this."

"You don't have a choice, I've made up my mind," he said quietly. He walked over to the couch and sat beside her. He picked up her hand and toyed with her fingers. "I've already talked to Stan. It'll take a couple weeks to get a new witsec inspector in the office and get him up to speed on my cases, but then I'm leaving."

Mary felt tears welling up behind her eyes. She willed them to stay there. She would not cry. "There's nothing I can say? Marshall, I, I thought..."

"I know. You thought I'd always be there. I thought I would always be there, too. This is something I just have to do."

"I have to get out of here." Mary ran frantic fingers through her hair and stood abruptly. She paced the room, searching for her keys. She spotted them on the glass-topped end table and scooped them up.

Marshall didn't protest as she left. He would walk to his car. The fresh air would clear his head.

______________

Mary didn't say goodbye. She was conspicuously absent during the going away party Eleanor threw thirteen days after Marshall told her that he was leaving. The lines around his eyes deepened, but he didn't say anything. He knew she felt like he was abandoning her, but he didn't know what else he could do to preserve his sanity.

_________________

Three Months Later:

Marshall Mann was good at his job. He got along with his coworkers; he was a fair supervisor, and well liked by the staff. But people noticed that his smile never quite met his eyes. He was always the first to arrive and the last to leave the office. Even though they didn't know him very well, the people he worked with noticed that he had lost weight since he started.

He hadn't heard from Mary and didn't expect to. He knew that she was angry and hurt, and he thought that a clean break might be better for both of them. Knowing that didn't stop him from checking the answering machine as soon as he walked in the door. Stan had his contact information, and he knew Mary could find him if she wanted to.

He walked through his door and tossed his coat over the arm of a chair, glancing reflexively at the machine. The little red light was blinking, and for a moment his heart stopped in anticipation. He held his breath as he pushed the button.

"Marshall, this is Bernie from work. I uh, I know you just left, but there's kind of a situation at the U.S. Bank on 4th Street. Carl thought that you might, uh, be able to go down there and give them a hand."

Marshall looked at the time stamp on the recording and then at his watch. Ten minutes ago. He was only five blocks from that U.S. Bank. Why didn't they call my cell? he wondered to himself as he flipped it open. "Damn, dead again." That was something he would never have done in Albuquerque. He didn't know where his mind was these days. Probably still in Albuquerque, he mused as he slipped his coat on and headed back out the door.

The situation turned out to be a bank robbery with hostages. His company was providing the security for the bank, and two of his men were inside. Marshall appropriated a radio and a kevlar vest before he slipped around to the back of the building. The police had the place surrounded, but so far there hadn't been any demands. The responders didn't have a good handle on the situation.

Marshall spoke quietly with the Captain, and his credentials were enough to secure access to the scene. Marshall got a key to the back door from the bank manager and moved to enter the building over half-hearted protests from the police.

He opened the door and looked over his shoulder. He had forgotten for a moment that he was alone in this. In that moment, he expected to see Mary standing behind him, ready for anything. He steeled himself for what was on the other side of the door and carefully crept inside.

Marshall could hear voices coming from the front of the bank. It sounded like one man trying to get the teller to open the safe. Marshall knew the teller couldn't open the safe if he wanted to. He cleared the storeroom around him and started for the front of the building. He hugged the wall and tried to avoid the security mirrors.

He peered through the door and saw one armed man. He was dressed in black and had a revolver pressed tightly against the throat of a woman wearing a flowered dress. Marshall craned his neck. He could see the teller standing, palms out, pleading with the man. The security guards were in the corner, duct taped back to back.

The man with the gun continued shouting, occasionally removing the gun from the woman's neck to gesture at the teller with it. Marshall took the opportunity, while the man was looking the other way, and darted behind the counter. He sidled along, careful to stay out of sight. The teller spotted him when he was halfway there but Marshall furiously shook his head, and the man seemed to understand. He turned toward the robber again. Marshall waited for his opportunity. His heart pounded in his ears.

A phone rang. The hostage negotiator, no doubt. The gunman was distracted for an instant, and Marshall used the opportunity to spring into action. He leapt over the counter and tackled the gunman. They went down in a pile, tangled with the hostage. Marshall managed to wrestle the gun away, and it skittered off into the corner. The hollow sound of metal on tile echoed in the room. They wrestled on the ground.

The hostage shrieked as she took a fist to the cheek. She scrambled backwards out of the melee. The stunned bank teller watched with his mouth open. He was the only one in a position to assist Marshall, and he appeared to be paralyzed. Marshall held on to his Glock. He was too close to fire, but he used it as a club, swinging at the suspect's head. The blow glanced off the man's temple, and Marshall's arm bounced back. The robber used his leverage to roll them into a desk. He grabbed Marshall by the collar and slammed his head against the floor. Once, twice, three times. Marshall was dazed, and the pain in his head felt like an explosion, but he knew he had to get this guy off of him.

Once the teller realized that the robber didn't have his gun, he sprang into action. He ran from behind the counter and lifted the metal desk chair over his head. He brought it crashing down onto the two men with all of his strength. He wasn't aiming for Marshall, but the men were too close together to differentiate. The teller, caught up in the moment, brought the chair down again and again.

The bank robber was stunned. He fell away from Marshall and landed against the leg of the desk; the teller wielded the chair as a weapon, too caught up in the moment to stop, and he brought the chair down one more time.

Marshall heard the snap of his left femur before he felt it, and he didn't feel anything at all.

_______________

Ten minutes later paramedics got the go-ahead to enter the building. The bank teller was pale and shocky, slumped on the floor by the wall. The two guards were talking to the officers who had entered and cleared the building once the teller had unlocked the door. The former hostage had been removed from the bank and was being assessed in the back of one of the two ambulances present.

The paramedics hovered over the remaining men: The bank robber, cuffed and groggy on the floor, with a goose-egg the size of a golf ball on the right side of his forehead. And Marshall Mann, unconscious, glasgow score of 8, plus an obvious deformity of the left leg. They started a large bore IV in the right antecube on the first attempt and ran a liter of normal saline by gravity as they boarded him for transport.

__________________

Marshall was moved rapidly from MRI to the Neuro ICU. The epidural bleed was small but made more worrisome by the fact that he hadn't fully regained consciousness at the scene. The orthopedist placed his leg in traction. He needed surgery but wasn't stable enough for the OR.

One of Marshall's coworkers arrived at the hospital shortly after he was settled. Marshall's nurse greeted him gravely. "We need consent for the OR. We can take him emergently, but it would be better if someone consented to the procedure."

The coworker nodded and returned to the office. He pulled Marshall's file.

Emergency Contact: Mary Shannon (505) 452-2102.

__________________

Two Days Ago:

Mary was having a shit day. This was nothing new. For the last three months, most days had been shit days. She yanked on the Probe's parking brake and felt something snap. She took her foot off the brake and the car rolled backwards.

"Damn," she muttered. She pushed in on the clutch and put the car in first. It rocked for a moment but then settled into the spot. She slammed the door and briefly closed her eyes. She tried to find her center. Her center, what a joke. That was Raph's new mantra. He wanted her to come to a class to align her chakra.

Her workload was heavier than ever, and the jackass that Stan assigned as her bullet holder couldn't find his way out of a paper bag. He also refused to help with any of her paperwork. And she missed Marshall. That was the crux of the problem, but Mary was working hard on her denial. He wasn't part of her life anymore. He didn't want to be part of her life. She couldn't handle another person that she opened herself up to choosing to walk away, so she just didn't think about him at all. Well, not much. Not when she could avoid it, in any case.

Mary knocked on the door, harder than she intended. Brandi opened it.

"Mary, um, Mary what are you doing here?"

"I told you I'd drop your mail by, Squish," Mary sighed. "I take it you forgot."

"No, um, I just didn't expect you today, during the day, um..." Brandi had been living in the new apartment for three weeks. She still hadn't managed to get her mail forwarded.

"It's hot, and I want to see where all the boxes are this week. Aren't you going to invite me in?" Mary pushed past her younger sister and stood face to face with her fiancé.

"Raph..." Her mind went blank. "I thought you were in Cincinnati for training this week." She looked at the guilt on Raph's face, and then she looked at Brandi. Her little sister was standing with her mouth open, eyes wide. Brandi never could lie to Mary. She could evade and omit, but she couldn't lie.

"Squish?" Mary ducked her head so she could see directly into Brandi's big blue eyes. "How long has this been going on?"

Brandi burst into tears. "Forty-seven days," she said tearfully.

"This is exactly what Marshall was talking about. Jesus. My goddamn partner left me because he didn't want to watch my family destroy me. I called him an idiot. And look at this." She gestured to the pair. "You've more than fulfilled his expectations." Her voice rose with her words but then fell as reality sank in. "I thought he didn't care. He told me, and I still didn't understand. He was the only one who did care. I'm a fucking fool." She pushed past Brandi and Raph. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she noted their stunned expressions. But it was with an air of freedom that she walked out the door.

She needed to think, and she couldn't do it at home. She threw a few things in the duffle she kept in the trunk and managed to get out of the house without running into her mother. She understood the irony of being forced to flee her own house from a permanent house guest who didn't even pay rent. She didn't know where she was going, but at some point she realized that it didn't really matter.

___________________

Mary was holed up in a flea-bag hotel on route 25 when she got the call.

___________________

Mary glared at the phone. She would have left it out of juice, and in the car, if it wasn't for her newest witness, a petite pole dancer who had stumbled upon the real source of her employer's revenue. Her boss was cutting 80% pure cocaine in the back room. Nadia would sell her body for petty cash, but she was no druggie. Unfortunately, she didn't have a lot of skills other than taking her clothes off, so she was prone to crying jags in the middle of the night. She was scheduled to testify in two months, and Mary had to baby her along until then. They would be pulling a billion-dollar-a-year drug dealer off the street if they could get this guy.

"Hello?" Mary didn't recognize the phone number, but in her profession that was common.

"I'm looking for Mary Shannon." The voice was male, nondescript.

"You found her." Mary brushed a lock of damp hair off her forehead. The air conditioning in this place was worse than mediocre.

"My name is Bernie Shaw. I work with Marshall Mann. He's, um, my boss."

Mary's left eyebrow raised involuntarily.

"There was an incident," he continued when Mary didn't respond. "Marshall was injured, and you are listed as the emergency contact on his paperwork. I, uh, think you need to contact the hospital," he said nervously.

Mary scribbled the contact information for the hospital on a crumpled takeout bag lying on the table. She shoved her belongings back in the bag even as she clenched the cell phone between her cheek and shoulder while she was waiting for information.

_________________

Mary didn't even blink at the price of the last-minute, full-price plane ticket. She plunked down her credit card, the one Jinx didn't know about or would have maxed out, and boarded the flight with little more than the clothes on her back and a toothbrush. She radiated anxiety. Emergency surgery, traumatic brain injury, bleeding in the brain. The words bounced around in her head like little red rubber balls. She was still, but she felt like she was vibrating from the inside out. At any moment, she could fly apart in one brilliant flash of light.

The trip was anything but smooth. She lived in the desert, so when the heavens decided to open, it was a supreme deluge. They were delayed for three hours on the tarmac, and Mary felt every one of those minutes. She kept reminding herself that she really could breathe. She heard Stan's voice in her head, telling her that Marshall was tough. He was tough, but he wasn't invincible.

Mary was able to get a faint signal on her cell as she waited anxiously on the runway. She spoke to a very sleepy Bernie and found that the surgery was over and Marshall was in a coma in the ICU. He didn't have any other information; she was the hospital's contact, and they were reluctant to give out information to anyone else. Mary gulped back a sob as she stared out the window at the rain.

She missed her connection in Kansas City by ten minutes. There wasn't another flight out until morning. She rented a car and headed for St. Louis. She couldn't just sit and wait, and there were more flights out of the bigger airport. She managed to get on the last plane of the night. It was a direct flight that left at eleven pm, but it was delayed due to fog. Mary walked slowly down the jetway in New York at three-forty-six the next morning. Her clothes were wrinkled, her hair limp, and she hadn't heard an update on Marshall's condition in hours.

She paused to orient herself. She hadn't been to New York City in years. She left New Jersey as soon as she could get away, and never looked back. She hadn't expected her troubles to follow her in the form of Jinx and Brandi... Albuquerque was home in a way that New Jersey had never been. Marshall and Stan were her family. They were the people who loved her and didn't ask for anything in return.

She found herself at the Budget rental desk. A droopy-eyed teenager stood at the counter. Mary dreaded the idea of driving in the city, but it was the most straight forward way of getting to Mount Sinai Hospital. Luckily, traffic was still quiet, and Mary made good time.

Adrenaline kicked in again in the parking lot. All of her senses were heightened, and she felt light-headed. Her toes tingled. She tried to ignore the nausea that came in waves as she walked through the glass double doors.

Mary wasn't used to fear. She could deal with anxiety, hurt, and anger, but fear was foreign. She paused before she approached the admissions desk. She wasn't sure she remembered how to pray, but she offered up a brief request for Marshall before she looked up to ask where he was.

"I'm looking for Marshall Mann." Her voice caught in her throat. The receptionist typed slowly and Mary worked to control herself.

"It looks like he's in intensive care on the third floor. Visiting hours are over now but they start again at nine."

"I'm not waiting." Her tone was sharp. She knew there was no point arguing with the woman. She was only doing her job, so Mary backed down. "I'm just going to wait up there," she finally replied.

Mary walked away before the woman could stop her. She made it to the ICU by following the signs on the wall but was thwarted when she got to the waiting room. It was a locked unit. She pressed the buzzer impatiently. The long trip and the uncertainty had left Mary at the end of her tether. If she had come this far only to be told that she had to sit in the waiting room for another four hours, she was going to lose her mind.

A harried-looking nurse opened the door. "Can I help you?" Her voice was clipped.

"I know it's not visiting hours, but my partner, my best friend, is here, and I don't know what's going on. I'm his emergency contact and I..."

"You're his emergency contact?" The nurse's voice softened as she took in Mary's appearance. "Who did you say you were here to see?"

"I didn't." Mary looked hopeful. "Marshall Mann. He was involved in a bank robbery, and he..."

"Mary, right? We've been waiting for you. Why don't you come in. Debby is taking care of him tonight. She won't mind."

Mary followed the nurse down the hall and through the sliding glass door of an ICU room. Marshall was lying quietly in the bed, his eyes were closed. He looked far too pale. The nurse looked up from her charting in surprise.

"Deb, this is Mary..."

"Oh, Mary." The woman smiled at her. "He'll be so glad to see you when he wakes up." Mary looked at her, confused. "He woke up before he went to the OR, and he was asking for you."

"Oh." Mary shrugged out of her jacket and dropped her purse on the floor before taking the only chair in the room. She scooted close to the bed and ignored the two women. The nurses looked at each other meaningfully before the charge nurse left them alone. Mary picked up Marshall's hand and squeezed it between her own.

The nurse watched for a moment before placing her hand on Mary's shoulder. "He's going to be okay," she said kindly. She dropped down so that she could see Mary better. "Didn't anyone tell you about his condition?" At the shake of Mary's head, she continued. "He's had surgery and a lot of pain meds. We wanted to observe him overnight in the ICU, but we'll move him to a regular room tomorrow. He should go home soon after that. He's really going to be okay." Mary slumped and her shoulders shook as she sobbed quietly.

"Can I get you a glass of water?" Debby asked when Mary showed no sign of composing herself after several minutes. Mary nodded and took a deep breath, brushing damp hair off her cheek and fighting for control as she lifted her face and turned and faced the nurse.

"When you say he's sleeping ... I was led to believe that he was in a coma," Mary spoke hesitantly.

"He was. He was in bad shape when he came in. He was non-responsive, but he regained consciousness briefly after the CT, and before he went to surgery. They were able to relieve the pressure on his brain through three burr holes.

"He was lucky; he received prompt medical treatment. It could have been much worse. It's obviously going to take some time for him to fully recover, and he'll need some help, but he should make a full recovery. It's the femur fracture that will give him the most trouble.

"Anyway, when he was awake, he was asking for you. He was frantic. We had a hard time calming him down. We told him that you were coming. Of course, we had no idea if that was true, but he settled down. He'll be so glad to see you."

Mary felt all the blood rush from her head, along with the pent up anxiety, and tension that she didn't even know she was holding onto. Her head was exceptionally heavy.

"Why don't you close your eyes for a few minutes," the nurse said kindly. "Visitors aren't supposed to sleep in the ICU, but you're not supposed to be here anyway, so I think it will be okay. I'll let you know if there's any change."

Mary was overwhelmed and just nodded, leaning back in the chair and closing her eyes.

________________

"Mary." The quiet voice woke her and she opened her eyes slowly, disoriented.

"Marshall." She jumped when she realized where she was, and that Marshall was looking at her with serious eyes. "Marshall," she said again. This time modulating her voice, so she wasn't screaming in his ear. She shifted so she was within reach and touched the back of his hand. He flinched away from her, and refused to meet her eyes.

"Why are you here, Mare?"

Seeing Marshall awake and on the mend restored Mary's spirit. He wasn't going to die, and she was pissed that he left, even though twenty-four hours ago she was alone, sulking in a hotel room, thinking about how he was right about her family.

"What do you mean, what am I doing here? One of your coworkers called and told me about this bonehead, who single-handedly stopped a bank robbery and very nearly got himself killed when he walked into a situation without backup. And it was a situation that he had no business being in in the first place. What were you thinking, Marshall? Since when do you want to play hero?" Her voice rose to fever pitch and then dropped to a whisper.

"I know you're pissed at me, Marshall. I know I deserve it. You were right." He turned to look at her, listening quietly. "Look, Marshall, I suck at this heartfelt conversation thing."

"Try." Mary looked startled at the interruption.

"What?"

"If you want me to hear it, you have to say it." His words caught her by surprise.

"I, um..." Green eyes pled with his blue, but he held firm. "I caught Brandi and Raph together. You always knew, you understood something that I couldn't see. I've spent the last couple of days thinking about it. They're my family. They will always be my family." She held her hand up as Marshall started to open his mouth.

"I can forgive her for Raph. The two of them actually have a chance. God knows what he's been doing with me all this time. But I can never forget what she's done. And Jinx is really no better. She stopped drinking, but she's content to sponge off me indefinitely. She'll never stand on her own two feet while she is leaning on me."

"And you'll never be able to find happiness when yours is tangled up with theirs." Mary nodded and swallowed reflexively. Marshall was letting her off the hook. She didn't deserve it, but that was the kind of man he was. He reached out and squeezed her hand. He winced when he thought she wasn't looking, but she saw.

"What hurts?" He shook his head, and she gave him the evil eye. He knew better than to lie to her twice.

"Everything kind of hurts, Mare." He conceded.

Mary got up and found the nurse. The morning passed in a blur of exhaustion and pain medication. Mary could still feel the physical and emotional tension between them, and she squirmed in her seat, but she didn't bolt.

He insisted that she get a hotel room after he was moved out of intensive care. Mary shelled out for the Hilton across the street from the hospital, chosen solely for proximity. She showered and collapsed onto the bed with a towel still wrapped around her head.

_________________

Mary slept for five hours until the ringing of the phone woke her.

"Hey, Mare," Marshall sounded uncertain. "Do you think you could come back here?"

She sat up abruptly, towel falling to the bed unnoticed. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing is wrong."

"I'll be right there." She picked up on something in his voice. She threw on the clothes that were still lying on the floor as she hurried out of the room.

Mary ran into Marshall's hospital room. Her anxiety was almost a visible wave behind her. She tossed her coat on the chair.

"Marshall?" She stepped closer to the bed and saw how comfortable he looked, propped on two clean, white pillows. He opened his eyes and saw her fear.

"What's wrong, Mare?"

"That's what I was going to ask you," she said, a rush of air leaving her lungs.

"I told you nothing was wrong when I called," he said patiently.

"Well, I didn't believe you." She pulled the chair with her coat over to his bed and flopped down onto it.

"I just couldn't sleep. I wanted to talk to you before you went home."

"Before I went... What are you talking about, doofus?"

"Well, I appreciate that you came all the way out here, but I know you can't stay too long. Stan will have a fit."

"He'll forgive me when you're back and he can reassign that git who's assigned to the office now."

"Wait, what are you talking about, Mare?" Marshall looked confused.

"What do you mean, what am I talking about? I know it will be a while before you're ready to come back to work, but once that leg heals, well..."

"Mare," Marshall spoke softly. "I quit the Marshal Service. You didn't think that you could come out here, say you were sorry, and everything would go back to the way it was before, did you?"

"I, I..." Mary looked stricken. She couldn't find the words, and her eyes started to well up. Marshall reached over and tugged on her arm. She moved carefully to sit on the edge of his bed, and he pulled her head down to his shoulder. He held her as her sniffles grew into uncontrolled sobs. "I thought that I could still fix this," she choked out.

_________________

Marshall ran his fingers through her hair, but didn't try to quiet her. He felt his resolve start to weaken. He knew Mary needed him, and he needed her too. But he couldn't go back to the way things were. He couldn't stand to watch her hurt, and it hurt him to love her and know that she'd never reciprocate those feelings. But if she needed him for a friend, maybe that was enough.

"Mary, I..."

"I'm so sorry," she cut him off. Her words were garbled through her tears, but he could understand her. "I don't want to lose you. You're the only person in my life who I couldn't stand to lose." Her tears stopped, and she looked up in surprise at the truth in her words. "You're the only person I couldn't stand to lose," she said slowly.

Marshall watched as emotions flitted across Mary's face. There was surprise, and wonder there. And maybe, Marshall dared to hope, he saw the first hints of love. It wasn't a profession of undying adoration, but this was Mary. What did he expect? Her eyes had finally been opened to her family. Maybe they had a chance. He had to take that chance. As much as he had tried, he wasn't happy without her.

"Okay," he said softly.

"Okay?" Mary looked confused.

"I'll come back to Albuquerque. But things have to be different, Mare."

Mary nodded vigorously. "I know."

Marshall pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "I love you, do you understand what that means?"

"I think so." She reached out and squeezed his hand firmly. "I took you for granted. I couldn't see that until you weren't there anymore. But I'm stubborn." Marshall nodded at those words. "It wasn't until I thought you, you were, well ... I ... Jesus, Marshall! I haven't felt like that since I realized that my dad wasn't coming home. I can't promise that I won't be a bitch, and that I won't say all the wrong things..."

"Mare," Marshall interrupted, with his hand across her mouth. "I wouldn't have you any other way."

___________________

Three Months Later:

"Damn it, Marshall. We're going to be late. Stan thinks it's me who can't get to work on time. What he doesn't know is that it takes you twenty-two minutes to comb your hair in the morning. No wonder it doesn't move in a wind-tunnel. Would you get out here?" Mary stomped her foot impatiently.

"Cool your jets, turbo. It's my first day back. I think Stan will forgive me this one transgression."

"You think. But what you don't know is that Stan and Eleanor are impatiently waiting with welcome back mimosas and pie. Eleanor has sent me six text messages in the last five minutes, wanting to know where we are."

"Well, now you've ruined the surprise," Marshall whined. Mary reached up and pulled his face down, to plant a sloppy kiss on his cheek. Marshall giggled in delight.

She swatted him on the butt. "You had better act surprised." She watched as he walked out the front door, his limp barely noticeable now. She paused for a second and looked at the quiet order of the place. The walls had been repaired and repainted. The furniture she and Marshall had picked out together was comfortable and matched better than anything Mary would have picked on her own. It finally felt like her home. Like the home she dreamed of, on the day she moved in, and dubbed the spare bedroom her bullet room.

Peace. Peace was a hard thing to find. But with this zany man by her side, she was moving toward it.