*The end is here, my friends. It's been an amazing journey - can you believe I originally planned this trilogy as a one-shot? I don't know who's more amused by that idea - me or my muses, who are currently curled up taking a well-deserved nap. Thanks for all your amazing love and support in reviews (the most I've gotten to date!) - and I will see you all in my next story, whatever and whenever that may be!
**It is 2017 - and this is no dream (or nightmare)! Ready to meet Jackson and Charlotte and see what they're like? (Because we all know who their father is, you know I wouldn't do that to you guys!)
(HER): One can have a dream, baby
(HIM): Two can make that dream so real
(HER): One can talk about bein' in love
(HIM): Two can say how it really feels
(HER): One can wish upon a star
(HIM): Two can make that wish come true, yeah
(HER): One can stand alone in the dark
(HIM): Two can make the light shine through
It takes two, baby
It takes two, baby
Me and you, just takes two
To make a dream come true, just takes two
(HER): One can have a broken heart, livin' in misery
(HIM): Two can really ease the pain like a perfect remedy
(HER): One can be alone in a car, on a night like these all alone
(HIM): Two can make just any place seem just like bein' at home
Me and you, just takes two
-Marvin Gaye, with Kim Weston: 'It takes two'
September 16, 2017: Mary and Marshall's house
"Happy birthday, mama!"
Mary rolled over just in time to catch the flying bundle of energy that was her seven year old daughter, and grunted from the impact.
"Charlie! You are definitely your father's daughter – what time is it?" Mary groaned as she tried to make her eyes focus on the clock.
Charlie giggled. "I didn't wake you up too soon, mama, I promise. I waited until my alarm went off just like we talked about."
Mary groaned again, knowing that if that was the case it really was time for her to get up and get moving. "Where's Katie and your brother?" she asked as she slipped from the bed, pulling on her robe. Marshall was at a conference in Atlanta this week, and Katie had come over to help with her cousins.
Charlie rolled her eyes. "JT is still sleeping – he snores, mama! I'm glad we don't have to share a room when Katie's here. She's still asleep too!"
Mary ruffled her daughter's brown hair. It had been blond like her brother's as a baby, but as she got older, her hair had darkened until it was the same color as Marshall's. "Your dad should be finished painting your room next week, Peanut. Then you can move in and you and Jellybean won't have to share one any more, ok?"
"Hooray!" Charlie hugged her. "Can I have waffles for breakfast?"
"Only if they're the toaster kind- your dad's the cook, Peanut."
Charlie stuck out her lip. "But I wanted chocolate chip ones."
Mary pulled her greasy hair up into a ponytail to get it out of the way. "Well, how about putting chocolate chips on top of the waffles?"
Charlie's green eyes lit up. "Bananas too?"
"Of course," Mary nodded as her daughter ran out to the kitchen to find the waffles. "Just as long as you don't ask me to eat any!" She shuddered, her craving for the fruit having left her as soon as the twins were born.
She padded down the hall toward the twins' room, noticing that Katie was making the sofa bed in the living room as she went by. Mary knocked on the door as she pushed it open.
"Hey, Jellybean, it's time to get up."
"Five more minutes, mama."
That's my boy. She smiled as she sat on his bed and pulled down the covers to reveal his tousled blond hair. "You're going to miss the bus if you don't get up right now, Jackson."
JT groaned and tried to pull the covers back up.
"You force me to use desperate measures," she said as she wiggled her fingers, and began tickling him. JT's blue eyes snapped open, eyes that were so like Marshall's it still took Mary's breath away when she saw them first thing in the morning. She'd never forget the first time she saw those beautiful blue eyes.
"One more big push, Mer, and one of our children will be here," Marshall encouraged her.
Mary bit her lip as another scream left her throat and pushed hard. A baby's loud wail filled the room and she collapsed back against the pillows.
"Come cut the cord, daddy," Dr. Day said, holding the squalling infant in her hands. "And say hello to your son."
Mary was trying not to panic but she was desperate to know what her son looked like. Did he look like Raph? Did he look like Marshall? She tried to catch a glimpse of him as the nurse cleaned her son and placed him in Marshall's arms.
"Please, Marshall, tell me how he looks," Mary pleaded as she felt another contraction building. Her daughter wasn't going to wait long.
"He's beautiful, my Cherie," Marshall whispered, his gaze never leaving the baby in his arms.
"Damn it! What does he look like? What color are his eyes?" Mary gritted her teeth and fought the urge to push as Marshall approached her side. She could see the tears in his eyes as he held their son down so she could see him too.
"Say hello to our son, Jackson Tyler Mann," Marshall said shakily as the baby opened his eyes and Mary gasped.
"He has your eyes, Marshall. He has his father's eyes," Mary sighed and sobbed in relief.
Marshall pressed a kiss against her forehead as he felt another contraction seize her body. "Yes, he does. But you're not done, my Cherie. I think our daughter is anxious to join her brother."
Jackson's voice broke through her memory, bringing her back to the present."Stop, mama, stop!" he cried, giggling helplessly.
"Will you get up?" she asked, her fingers dancing across his tummy.
"YES!" he cried.
She blew a raspberry on his tummy and only left the room when he was standing by his bed, pulling off his pajamas.
Katie was in the kitchen, braiding Charlie's brunette locks when Mary joined them. Two Eggo waffles popped out of the toaster and Mary grabbed them as she went by.
"Peanut butter, Peanut?" she asked her daughter, making her giggle.
Mary spread peanut butter on the waffles, poured on maple syrup and added some bananas and chocolate chips, before handing the plate to her daughter. Charlie dug in eagerly as Katie looked at the sticky sweet mess in surprise.
"Does Uncle Marshall let her eat that for breakfast when he's home?"
"No, it's our secret, right?" Mary winked at her daughter. Charlie winked back.
JT entered the kitchen and looked at his sister's breakfast. "Gross, sis!"
Charlie grinned. "Wanna bite?"
"No thanks! Do we have any oatmeal, mama?"
Mary smiled. "With bananas and craisins?"
Mary fixed a big bowl of instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal, which she topped with a sliced banana and a handful of craisins before she passed the bowl to her son.
"Thank you, mama."
"You're welcome, Jellybean."
JT ate exactly half of his oatmeal before he passed the bowl to Charlie and she passed the rest of her sticky waffle breakfast to him. Katie's mouth dropped open in astonishment.
"I thought he said her breakfast was gross!" she whispered to her Aunt.
Mary smiled. "Jackson always says that – he's just like his father. He can't eat something that sweet on an empty stomach. Once he has had some oatmeal though, he wants some of her waffles and Charlie is only too happy to share."
"But Charlie doesn't like craisins!"
Mary pointed at her daughter's placemat where a small pile of oatmeal covered craisins was steadily growing – but Charlie never said a word about them as she gulped down the rest of the oatmeal, chattering away to her brother.
Katie and Charlie disappeared into the twins' bedroom after breakfast to get dressed. Since JT had put his clothes on before coming out to eat, he helped Mary load the dishwasher and then asked to be quizzed on his spelling words. Mary smiled, loving the extra time with her son, but knowing he didn't really need her help. He was a chip off his father's block, always with his nose in a book, and his vocabulary showed it.
"That's the last one – you're going to ace the test, son," Mary praised him as they sat together on the couch, waiting for the bus. "But I don't want to get another call like I did yesterday from your teacher, ok?"
JT nodded as Charlie flew back into the room, her backpack slung over one shoulder.
"It wasn't JT's fault, mama! That mean ol' Trevor just slipped and spilled his lunch, didn't he, JT?" Charlie looked at her brother in wide-eyed innocence.
Mary sighed. "Come here, Charlotte." She pulled her daughter up onto the couch so she could sit on the other side of her. "I admire you defending your brother, but I don't want you lying to me, ok? Your teacher said he saw JT trip Trevor in the lunch room yesterday and your brother said he did it." She turned back to her son. "Will you tell me why?"
JT looked up at her with Marshall's eyes but remained silent. Charlie piped up from her other side. "You mean, he didn't tell you what happened? How Trevor has been teasing Mary Ellen and-"
JT leaned forward so he could see his sister. "Shut up, sis!" he snapped.
Charlie shut her mouth, her eyes wide and confused and wet with tears.
"Jackson Tyler! Don't talk to your sister like that!"
But JT was already moving, climbing over Mary's lap and wrapping his arms around his sister's neck, holding her close.
"I'm sorry, Lottie! I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it," he whispered, rocking them back and forth.
"It's ok, Jacky. I know you didn't mean it," Charlie sniffled.
Mary's heart melted as she watched her children comfort each other, and yet it ached at the same time. Jackson was already showing signs that, personality wise, he was going to be his mother's son. He kept his feelings bottled up inside until something made him lash out, usually to protect his sister or to defend one of his friends.
"Jackson," she said softly. "Is what Charlotte said true? Has Trevor been teasing Mary Ellen?"
She watched as the twins pulled apart and communicated silently with their eyes for a moment. By unspoken consent, it was Charlie who answered. "Trevor is the class bully, mama, and he's been teasing Mary Ellen, saying all kinds of mean things just because she's worn the same clothes every day since school started! Me and JT have been ignoring him just like Daddy told us to, but yesterday he took Mary Ellen's lunch card so she couldn't buy her lunch and she started crying, so when Trevor wasn't looking, JT tripped him and his food went all over the floor! It was great!" Charlie crowed.
JT frowned at his sister before looking up at Mary. "I know it was wrong, mama, and I'm sorry. 'A soft answer turneth away wrath,'" he quoted softly.
Mary's mouth fell open. "Where on earth did you hear that?"
JT shrugged. "Uncle Peter says it all the time."
Mary rolled her eyes. It sounded like something her pacifist brother-in-law would say all right!
Charlie cocked her head. "What does 'wrath' mean, Jacky?"
"It means mad or angry, Lottie."
"Oh. How come it doesn't just say that?"
JT grinned. "It does: 'A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger'. Proverbs fifteen, verse one," he stated proudly.
Charlie bit her lip. "But what does gr- grac- that 'g' word you said mean?"
"Grievous?" She nodded. "I think it means to hurt someone, doesn't it, mama?"
Mary rubbed her temples. Since when did her son quote the bible? And had he been reading the dictionary online again? Surely no average seven year old knew what the word 'grievous' meant!
And what the hell had they been talking about before this side trip into definitions?
Mary gave her head a little shake and smiled at JT. "Yes Jellybean, grievous means to hurt someone on purpose. That might make them angry enough to hurt you – that's what the saying means. That's why you should try to use your words and not your fists – or your feet, just like your daddy says." God, what am I turning into? If someone had told me eight years ago that I would be sitting here today, talking to my children, telling them that violence isn't the answer to solving their problems, I would have bought them a one way ticket to the fucking funny farm!
She pulled the twins into her lap. "Jackson, I'm not a mind reader. You need to tell me when something is bothering you, ok? Mary Ellen is your best friend and you're obviously worried about her."
JT nodded. "It's not like her to come to school in the same outfit every day, mama, and she's been looking so sad."
"I'll talk to your teacher, Mr. Franklin, and see if he knows anything, ok? At the very least he needs to know about the trouble that Trevor is causing." She turned to her daughter. "Now Charlotte, I know you love your brother fiercely and you would do anything to protect him but lying for him is not acceptable. Is that understood?"
Outside the bus honked and Mary squeezed her Peanuts, giving each of them a kiss. "Now have a good day and try to stay out of trouble, all right? I love you."
"I love you, mama. Bye, Katie!" Charlie kissed her cheek and jumped off her lap.
JT looked into her eyes. "Mama? I am sorry that I tripped Trevor in the lunchroom yesterday."
"I know you are – try to focus on making Mary Ellen smile today instead of getting even with Trevor, all right?"
He threw his arms around her neck. "Ok. I love you, mama. Happy birthday!" Jumping down, he grabbed his sister's hand and they ran out the front door.
Mary drove Katie to her middle school on the way to work.
"So I overheard some of your conversation with JT and Charlie this morning about what happened yesterday at school," Katie said as she carefully applied some lip gloss. "And to think you spent so much time worrying about whether or not you'd be a good mom, Aunt Mary."
Mary rolled her eyes. "We have our moments, believe me. Right now it isn't so bad because I can still grab both of them and hold them in my lap until Marshall calms us all down." She glanced at the niece. "Wait until they're teenagers – I just might lock them in their rooms until they're thirty."
"Oh, come on, Aunt Mary! You'll still have Uncle Marshall to back you up, keep you sane."
"Are you kidding? He's already bought his shotgun and is no doubt planning the security system for Charlotte's bedroom window as we speak."
Katie laughed. "What about JT?"
Mary shuddered. "He's a boy – believe me, I remember quite well what adolescent boys think about. Yup, I'm definitely locking them in their rooms until they're thirty."
"I'll be sure to visit and smuggle them in bread and water from time to time," Katie giggled.
Mary smiled and brought the topic back to the present. "I don't think I've told you happy birthday in all the excitement of getting the twins off to school, Katie. Or thanked you for coming and staying with me while Marshall's been out of town this week – you've been a huge help."
Katie smiled. "It's no problem – I love spending time with Charlie and JT, you know that."
"Yes, but today's your fourteenth birthday! Shouldn't you be thinking about boys and slumber parties and stuff like that?"
"I'm not ancient, you know. I do remember what it was like to be your age – it was after the Flood! Not long after, but after," she said with a laugh.
"I guess the boy craziness just hasn't set in yet, is that weird?"
"No! It will happen soon enough. Don't rush it, pumpkin. Sorry! I forget that you're too old for that," Mary held up her hand apologetically.
Katie gave her Aunt a small smile. "As long as no one else is around to hear you and it's just once in a while, you can still call me 'Pumpkin', Aunt Mary. I kinda miss it," she shrugged.
Mary glanced at the teen in the passenger seat and sighed, remembering what it was like to be fourteen. Her growing up years had been very different from her niece's, though, and for that she was eternally grateful.
Katie bit her lip and Mary realized with a start that it was a nervous habit the girl had picked up from her. "Aunt Mary? Uncle Marshall will make it back in time for our birthday party tonight, won't he?"
Mary sighed. "He said that he would do his best."
Katie nodded. "Then he will. Uncle Marshall never misses a birthday."
Karen's house, 6pm
Mary looked around the backyard at her family and smiled. The past seven years had been very good to all of them. Brandi had married Peter two years ago and they were expecting a baby around Christmas. Jinx had finally gotten a job as a dance instructor and hadn't had a drop to drink in eight years. She had even eventually forgiven Mary for eloping without her. Stan and Eleanor had gotten married the summer after the twins were born and Miss Ellie had been promoted to Grandma Ellie.
But one of the biggest surprises had come in the fall after Mary had given birth to the twins. Karen had come knocking on the door shortly after she had gotten them down for the night, looking upset. She had wandered into the house and sat on the couch, stared into space, and not spoken unless asked a direct question. Marshall finally excused himself, saying they were out of something, and went for a drive.
"Karen, what is it?" Mary asked in concern, sitting down next to her friend.
Karen turned to look blankly at her. "Yeah, oh. That's what I said when the doctor told me. I mean, Jamie is barely a year and a half, Mary!"
Mary was trying not to giggle since her friend was obviously panicking, but the sound escaped through the fingers covering her mouth.
Karen frowned at her. "What's the hell is so funny?"
"I'm sorry – it's just – I think you're taking the 'be fruitful and multiply' statement a little too literally, Kare. I mean, haven't you ever heard of birth control?"
"This isn't funny! Especially coming from you, the queen of 'Oops, I guess the condom broke!'"
"I know, I know, you're right, I'm sorry."
Both women stared at each other for a long moment, before they burst out laughing and wrapped their arms around each other. That's how Marshall found them when he returned minutes later from the store with chocolate chocolate chip ice cream.
Mary smiled again as she watched Charlie, JT, and Karen's youngest, Marianna dash across the yard. They were being pursued by Grandpa Seth who was growling like a bear, threatening to 'eat them up'. Elizabeth called out from the other side of the deck.
"Don't terrorize our grandkids, Seth!"
"Aw, come on, Beth, I'm just playing with them!" he called back.
The second biggest surprise had come the Christmas the twins were three. Seth and Elizabeth had come down and after the big holiday dinner at Karen's, they had shared the news that Seth was finally going to retire from the FTF.
"But that's not the best part!" Elizabeth beamed. "Seth has promised me that we can move to Albuquerque so we can be close to all our grandkids!" She opened her arms as the grandkids that were old enough to understand this announcement flew into her lap.
Mary's musings were interrupted as her namesake Marianna ran up to her and grabbed her hand. "Come on, Aunt Mary! It's time to make a wish and blow out the candles!"
Mary let herself be dragged to the table by Marianna, her own two children pushing her from behind. Even now, her eyes scanned the backyard for Marshall. She remembered another party, eight years ago, when Katie had insisted sharing her birthday with her Aunt. It was the next year that Katie told her she wished their birthdays could be on the same day every year. Mary had agreed and never looked back.
Now as Karen placed the blazing cake in front of them and she met her oldest niece's eyes over the top of it, she knew both of them were putting on brave faces. Katie, who was turning fourteen and was no longer the little girl who spilled everyone's secrets, was looking at her with big eyes, waiting for her to say something –
"Do you have your wish?" Mary whispered.
Katie nodded. "Do you?"
Did she? She looked out over the sea of faces at her family, at her two precious children. She had everything she ever wanted, everything she never thought she could have. Everyone was here except-
"Hey, you're not going to blow those candles out without me, are you?"
Marshall's arms came around her and Katie from behind and Mary nearly sagged against her husband in relief.
"Uncle Marshall!" Katie squealed. "Well, look at that, Aunt Mary! Birthday wishes still come true!"
"Of course," he winked at his niece and gave his wife a quick kiss. "I never miss a birthday."
Later, after cake had been consumed and presents opened, Marshall looked at his children curled up together sleeping on one of Karen's chaise lounges and sighed in contentment.
He reached out and pulled Mary to him, holding her tight against his chest in the gathering twilight. "So what did you wish for this year, my Cherie?"
She rested her head on his shoulder as they swayed together, dancing to music only they could hear. "Nothing. I realized for the first time tonight as I looked out at my family that I already have everything I once thought I could never have." She turned, looped her arms around his neck and smiled up at him. "And then when you showed up and the twins tackled us, I realized I didn't have anything left to wish for because I already have it all."
He sighed and rested his chin on the top of her head, encircling her waist with his arms. "Does this mean you believe in forever?"
Mary angled her head so it rested over his heart and listened to its steady rhythm. She looked over at her two children, sleeping like angels, wrapped up together in a blanket. Charlotte whimpered in her sleep and Jackson instinctively reached out, curling his hand around hers. Jackson opened sleepy eyes and looked at his sister.
"Lottie?" he murmured sleepily, before his eyes closed again.
Mary knew he hadn't woken up completely but that some part of him had known his sister needed comfort and he had responded. She wondered if it was a 'twin thing' or just a normal sibling response.
Then her smile deepened because she realized that Marshall knew her that well and they definitely weren't twins – but they were two halves of one whole: life partners, soul mates.
She halted their twilight dance long enough to look up into his cobalt eyes and whisper, "I think I'm beginning to."
*So I'm just going to back away quietly and not disturb this beautiful moment in the Mann family. I'd love to hear your final thoughts on this chapter and the story as a whole. Even if you haven't reviewed before, don't be shy, push the button and let me know what you thought!