A/N: The real title to this is actually one of my Christmas prompts: How the Grinch (Mary) Stole (Liberated) Christmas (That consumer-driven holiday in December). Unfortunately, it wouldn't fit in the title line. LOL! Anyway, this was written to fill prompts #6 and #12 on my list which were the title and a request for Mary/Marshall, office party and aftermath. My first real story for this fandom so concrit is welcome. Enjoy!
Mary was hunched over her keyboard, a scowl on her face.
"Goddamn it!" she swore as she furiously stabbed a finger at the delete key, over and over again.
Marshall looked up from his own desk and watched her warily. Stan, who was standing behind him as they went over the details of a file, followed his gaze.
"What's up with her?" he asked.
Before Marshall could answer, Mary stopped alternately rubbing her temples and beating her computer and got up from her desk, heading directly for the office Christmas tree, whose colored lights were blinking merrily in the corner. Once there, she hooked one foot in the extension cord that snaked out from it's base and with a swift kick, disconnected it.
"There, that's better," she said as she stomped back to her desk and sat down. She looked over at Marshall and Stan who were staring at her with open mouths. "What are you looking at? Fucking lights were giving me a headache. And who decided on the colored, blinking ones anyway, I mean what are we, twelve or something?"
Then she went back to abusing her keyboard and Marshall turned to Stan.
"Jinx and Brandi went out and bought a tree with all the trimmings and set it up in Jinx's apartment," he whispered.
"You saying she's got something against Christmas trees?"
"Then they bought Mary a few presents," Marshall continued under his breath.
"And this pissed her off ... why?" Stan whispered back.
"Brandi lifted Mary's credit card to finance their little spree - and they still expected her to appreciate their holiday spirit. The experience has left her feeling somewhat less than charitable towards the season."
Just then, Eleanor came into the office, carrying a large basket filled with small slips of paper. She glanced over at the now unlit tree and her brow furrowed.
"I thought I had that cord tucked out of the way. Did someone trip over it?" She bent down and plugged the tree back in. "There, that's better. Now, who wants to be the first to pick their Secret Santa?"
She started to make a beeline for Mary, completely failing to notice Marshall and Stan, who were frantically trying to wave her off. When Mary studiously ignored her, she thrust the basket under her nose.
"How about you first," she said.
"How about me ... not at all," Mary grumbled.
"Don't be such a Scrooge."
Mary tried to go back to her work but Eleanor stubbornly continued to block her view of the monitor. "Pick," she demanded.
"What are you, some kind of evil elf? I told you I don't want to play, so how about you take the whole Santa thing elsewhere."
"I'm not leaving and you are playing."
Mary threw up her hands. "Fine," she agreed less than gracefully. She withdrew a slip from the bowl, unfolded it and read her assignment. "Great, that's just great," she muttered.
"If you drew yourself, you need to put it back in and try again," Eleanor told her.
"Don't worry, thanks to my family, I've already bought myself more gifts than I want. I have no need to add to the total." Then she crumpled the piece of paper and stuffed it deep into a pocket. "I'm good."
Eleanor gave her a suspicious look but finally shook her head and turned to Marshall and Stan to give them a chance to pick as well. Then, humming a carol under her breath, she headed off to cover the rest of the building.
"Now will somebody please turn that damn tree off again," Mary snarled at her retreating back.
Mary's mood had not improved by much when she and Marshall headed out that afternoon to check on one of their witnesses. Or if it had, it quickly deteriorated when they had to dodge both traffic and pedestrians while they drove through the shopping district. After enduring fifteen minutes of her swerving and swearing, Marshall finally spoke up.
"Exactly what sort of bug have you got up your ass today? Because I know your family's antics are not enough to explain your current lack of good cheer."
"I just don't like Christmas." Marshall raised an eyebrow without speaking and after a moment Mary continued. "Look, the best Christmas I ever had was one when we were flat broke. My father was still around and he fished this misshapen tree out of a dumpster somewhere and brought it home. We cut stars out of soda cans and snowflakes out of newspaper to decorate it. Then we pushed all the furniture out of the way and my mother danced whatever the bits of 'The Nutcracker' that she remembered, right there on the rug."
Mary paused in her narrative to make an obscene gesture at a shopper crossing against a light, then she continued. "He left less than a year later. The next time we had a tree, it was big and brash and bought by my mother's latest lover, who then kicked us kids out of the room so he and Jinx could play Santa Baby in front of it, which kinda ruined the impact. I haven't liked the holiday since, and I'm not particularly fond of the trees, especially over decorated, commercial ones."
"You know, the practice of decorating trees dates back to pagan times, when they were a fertility symbol used to celebrate the winter solstice. They just got co-opted into the Christian holiday so it would seem familiar to new converts."
"A fertility symbol? And this is supposed to make me feel better ... how? Because, you know, the whole fertility thing isn't doing anything for me."
"Not your fertility, the earth's. They were praying for a fruitful spring."
"Yeah, well doofus, in case you hadn't noticed, we live in the desert. Nothing fruitful is likely to happen here no matter how many trees we mutilate."
"There has to be something you like about the holiday."
"I'm kinda warming up to this Secret Santa idea. I drew Eleanor and I've been trying to think of the most wildly inappropriate and useless gifts so I can give one to her. So far it's a tie between a set of those pens where the woman undresses when you turn them over and an Obama Chia Pet." She gave an evil smile. "Who did you get?"
"Mare, you're not supposed to tell anyone who you have. In case you hadn't noticed, they call it Secret Santa."
"For God's sake, don't be such a boy scout, what fun is it if you don't tell me. Besides, I'm pretty sure you'll need my help to pick out a gift that's suitably awful."
"You're missing the point."
"Well enlighten me then, because I fail to see the point of spending money I'd rather keep, on a gift for person I didn't choose, in return for what will probably be yet another piece of Christmas kitsch, given to me by someone I hardly know."
Marshall gave up. "Forget I mentioned it. You really are the Grinch."
The rest of the ride was spent in silence, except for Mary softly humming what he could have sworn was the tune to You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.
A few minutes later, they pulled up at their destination, a rundown, two-story building in one of the poorer parts of town. No sooner had they parked than a middle aged man came out onto the front stoop and waved them inside. He was neatly but plainly dressed, with salt and pepper hair and dark framed glasses.
"Wow, is that Jonathan Sandina. I'd never recognize him," Marshall whispered to Mary as they walked up to the door. "What happened to the slick Washington lobbyist who used to give you fits?"
"Just when I was about to kill him, Jonathan did the honors himself. This is his reincarnation."
"Positively phoenix-like, he rises from the ashes of his former life to serve a better cause. It must be quite a story."
"Mostly he just quit whining and turned to charity," Mary summarized dryly.
Then they were inside and being greeted by a motley crowd of children, all of whom were clamoring for 'Mr. Jon's' attention. They followed the commotion into a large room, floored in cracked linoleum and boasting several mismatched couches as its main furnishings. An old, box style TV played in the corner, but no one was paying any attention to it. Instead, a group of mothers and children were grouped around a rickety table, hard at work cutting out snowflakes and other Christmas decorations. Glitter and glue were stuck to every exposed surface and the fruits of their labors were already strewn around the room, taped to walls and hanging from the ceiling in a haphazard but festive jumble.
"So, what do you think?" Jonathan asked the marshals.
"The decorations suck, but otherwise I'm impressed," Mary replied as she surveyed the scene.
"How many people do you have here?" Marshall asked.
"We've got nine families, a total of twenty-three people, actually living in the shelter. Then there are another half dozen or so who have already been able to move out on their own but still make use of our free childcare and counseling. And some just come to visit."
"Are they all abused women, or do you take in ones that are homeless too?" Mary asked.
"If they're single moms with no place to go we don't ask too many questions, we just welcome them in."
"It's a long way from the beltway and boardrooms you were used to," Marshall commented.
"A long way to a much better place. You know, when the FBI first grabbed me in that whole defense contractor fraud deal, I thought my life was over. As far as I was concerned, Albuquerque was the armpit of the universe and I just wanted a way out. Then, one day while I was still living in that crappy apartment you got for me, this woman and her kids who lived upstairs came banging on my door, looking for a place to hide from her drunk husband. I found out that there was a huge shortage of shelters for women in her position, or at least very few where you'd want to take your kids." then he looked down at a little boy who was tugging on his shirt. "Speaking of which, I think these hooligans want my help."
He took the end of a paper chain a group of children was holding out to him and tried to decode their excited instructions. Finally, he grabbed a chair and stood on it, attaching the chain to the ceiling with a bit of tape. Then he climbed down and started talking again.
"Anyway, that night I spent with them, it changed me. Faced with someone who didn't even know where she was going to sleep, let alone how she was going to feed her kids, suddenly the way I was mourning the loss of my Lexus and my lap pool seem terribly self involved. I saw that there was a way to use my talents. After all, if I could talk people in Washington into giving me money for crooked purposes, then I ought to be able to hit Albuquerque up for a good cause. And that is how Halfway to Hope was born."
"Quite a story," said Marshall with a smile.
"It's quite a place," was Jonathan's reply.
"And you didn't use any of your old contacts to help with the financing, or solicit donations?" Mary asked, finally getting down to the reason for their visit.
"Not a one, you guys were very clear about that when I came into the program. Besides, once I testified, I became persona non grata even with those of my contacts who were on the right side of the law."
"Well, good," Mary said nodding her head. "That's really good. I've just got one more question."
Marshall looked over at Mary suspiciously. He recognized her tone of voice and he didn't like it one bit since it usually meant she was hatching some plan in that devious mind of hers.
"Ask away," Jonathan prompted her, completely oblivious to any overtones.
"Where's the tree?"
"Oh, we just couldn't afford one. At least not if we wanted to keep the heat turned on. As you can see, the kids hardly miss it."
"Well, there's still time and maybe Santa will be feeling more generous than usual," Mary told him cryptically.
"It'd be nice but I won't hold my breath."
Then he showed the marshals back out. Marshall held back his suspicions until they were both in the car, but he knew she was up to something. One look at the secret smile pasted on her face and anyone could tell that.
"Mary, what are you up to?"
"Give it up, Mare. And by the way, you need to work on that innocent look because the average hyena does it better."
Marshall never did get anything out of her, but he watched her nonetheless. The next several days were far too busy for her to get up to trouble. Not only did they have a new witness to process, but also several minor incidents involving old cases flared up. Almost every night saw them working late and then heading straight home. If Mary thought it odd that he made a point of calling her each night, just to ascertain her whereabouts, she never said anything.
She just continued to grumble about any festivities that people tried to foist on her and snark at Eleanor about the office tree she seemed to find so offensive. He did receive several cryptic notes in the form of post-its stuck to his computer screen. A hot pink Snuggie, said the first. Then a lifetime supply of Sham-wows, was followed by the Thigh Master. Apparently these were Mary's ideas for the perfect Secret Santa gift.
Finally, it was the day before the office party and they actually managed to finish not only on time, but even early. Once it became clear that everything was going to stay quiet, Stan sent them all home. Marshall watched Mary as she gathered up her coat and left the office, giving the brightly blinking tree a long, speculative glance. He knew her well enough to tell that she was definitely up to something.
He made a quick run by his house to grab a bite to eat and gather up some supplies. Then he headed back to the Sunshine Building and parked near the end of the block, in a spot where he had a clear view of the entrance. He didn't have to wait long. As soon as darkness fell, Mary drove up, parking near the front doors and heading inside after glancing around to make sure that she was alone.
Once she disappeared, Marshall waited a while to make sure she wasn't coming right back out, then got out of his car and crept in after her. When the elevator doors opened onto the WitSec offices, he saw a comical scene. There in front of him, bent nearly double and swearing like a dock worker, was Mary. She had a bag full of ornaments slung over her shoulder and she was trying to drag the denuded office tree towards the elevator using her other hand. Marshall burst out laughing.
"Seriously, Mare, I know you don't like Christmas, but don't you think going all Grinch and try to stealing the office tree is overkill."
"I'm not stealing it, I'm just ... reassigning it. Now give me a hand, numbnuts, before I break something."
"Halfway to Hope?" he asked.
"Well I'm certainly not bringing the tacky thing back to my house."
Marshall grabbed one end and together they struggled to get the rather large tree safely into the elevator. He didn't remember anyone having this much trouble when they delivered it, but then again, at that time it was still wrapped up in netting and rope and much easier to handle. Finally they succeed and Mary punched the button that would take them and their loot down to the lobby.
Marshall wiped a bead of sweat from his face. "You do realize there was an easier way to do this? For example, a common solution would have been to just buy a tree."
"What fun would that have been?" Mary countered.
"Fun will be seeing Eleanor's face in the morning when she finds out her precious tree is gone."
"You are going to tell her what you did with it, aren't you?" Marshall asked in a worried voice.
Marshall wasn't sure he liked the sound of that but he didn't comment because he was having too much fun watching Mary. They had managed to get the tree out of the building and now it was lying on the sidewalk next to her Probe. Mary stood with her hands on her hips, looking back and forth between the tree and her car, obviously perplexed. While she had made a plan for acquiring the tree, and obviously knew where she was taking it, she had apparently neglected to give much thought as to transport. One look at the relative sizes of the tree and the Probe made it clear that without some supplies, the tree was going nowhere fast.
"Problem, Mare? Is there a little hitch in your plans?"
"Shut up, Doofus, I'm thinking."
"Well, while you think, how about I go and get the burlap and rope I have in my car?"
"What?" Mary said as she whirled around to look at him.
"It's not like I didn't know what you were planning. You really need to work on your poker face before you try anymore break-ins."
"You ... I ... when ..." she spluttered as she tried to decide if she was angry or relieved.
"'Thank you' would do nicely."
Mary shook her head in amazement as an unwilling smile quirked the corners of her lips. "Okay, fine, thank you. Now will you go get the stuff, because I told Jonathan I would be there by eight."
Wrapped in burlap, the tree was finally secured to the roof of her car and they were on their way to the shelter. Marshall expected Mary to drop of her loot and beat a hasty retreat so he was surprised when she not only accepted Jon's offer of coffee and cookies, but grabbed some tinsel and started to help decorate the tree. He joined in as well, noticing that Jon was snapping pictures of the whole process.
Once the tree was done, Mary surprised him yet again. She stepped back, gesturing to Jon to join the children grouped around the tree and pulled her own camera from a pocket. Once they were all in place, she took several shots before dropping it back into her jacket. Then she beckoned to Marshall and headed for the door.
Marshall started to follow her but was suddenly struck by inspiration. He ducked back into the main room and drew Jon aside.
"Can I ask you a favor?"
"Sure, anything. We already owe you guys a big one."
"If you got any good pictures of Mary would you send them to me right away?"
"That's no problem, just give me your email. I'm happy to share."
Marshall dug a card out of his pocket and jotted his private email on the back, then he hurried out after Mary.
The next morning, Marshall almost didn't get off the elevator. Even before the doors opened he could hear the commotion as Eleanor loudly demanded either the return of her tree or Mary's head on a platter. He thought it sounded as though she would prefer the latter. Unfortunately Stan spotted him before he could hit the down button again and there was nothing for it, he had to wade into the fray.
"I realize that for some twisted reason you hated the tree, but couldn't you have considered everyone else's feelings and just put up with it? Was complaining to anyone who would listen not enough, you had to actually remove it?" she demanded of Mary.
Marshall glanced at Mary who was doing her rather unconvincing version of innocence. "I'm sure there's an entirely reasonable explanation, isn't there, Mary," he said as he gave her a significant look in the hope that she would decide that now was a good time to tell Eleanor what she had done.
"I don't know, am I supposed to have one?" Mary replied, shrugging her shoulders and spreading her hands.
"You ... you ... " Eleanor spluttered. Her fingers were opening and closing as if she wanted to wrap them around Mary's neck.
"Enough!" Stan bellowed as he stepped between them. "I really don't give a crap about the tree, so can we all get back to work."
Eleanor gave Mary a final glare, spun on her heel and headed off towards her desk. Mary smiled to herself as she went to hers. Clearly the situation was fulfilling her deep-seated need for confrontation.
"Any chance you could talk some sense into her?" Stan asked Marshall.
"Not if I want to live."
"But there really is an explanation?"
"Is she going to tell it to Eleanor?"
"In her own good time."
"That's what I was afraid you were going to say."
Both men glanced over at Mary, who was typing away, a secret smile still on her face. She looked happier than she had in days. Finally Stan just shrugged helplessly and walked off shaking his head in bewilderment.
The situation remained the same throughout the morning. Eleanor wasn't speaking to Mary but that didn't stop her from staring daggers at her every chance she got and sighing dramatically whenever anyone was close enough to notice. Mary just went on smiling and occasionally humming an off-key Christmas carol if the other woman was within earshot. You could have cut the tension with a knife but somehow they made it through the morning without further incident and as soon as it was noon, Mary grabbed her jacket and headed the door.
"Where are you off to in such a rush? I thought you'd stick around since you seem to be enjoying the animosity," Marshall asked her.
"I figured I'd go out and see if I can do the world a favor by liberating a few more Christmas trees. I've been finding the one in front of the records building particularly offensive. Seriously, smart aleck, I have some errands to run, and no, you're not invited."
Which suited Marshall just fine since he had an errand of his own. One that he needed to do without her. Once she left, he checked his email, relieved to find the message he was waiting for. When he opened the attached files, he found himself smiling happily. They were even better than he had hoped for. Then he came to the last one and his breath caught in his throat. He absently reached out a finger to stroke the image, snatching his hand back when he realized what he was doing. It was perfect ... if only he dared to give it to her.
Before he could change his mind, he tapped a few keys and sent the attachment on to the local photo shop. Then he grabbed his coat and hurried off to follow it to its destination with his heart thumping and his gut churning. Please ... please let her like it, he thought to himself.
By the time Mary and Marshall returned from their separate jaunts, people were starting to gather for the party. Christmas carols were playing and a couple of folding tables had been dug from a storage closet somewhere and covered with holiday cloths. One held an assortment of food, from bowls of chips and tiny sandwiches, to plates of home baked cookies. There was soda, and given that most of them were officially off duty, beer and some sort of frothy spiked punch. The other table held several stacks of gaily wrapped gifts - the fruits of the Secret Santa exchange.
Mary had a gift in her hand, but she didn't put it on the table. Instead, she looked around until she saw Eleanor heading towards the spread with yet another platter in her hands. She went up to her and held out her parcel.
"Just put it on the table with the rest of them," she told Mary with a scowl.
"Actually, it's for you. Surprise! I'm your Secret Santa and I think you should open it. Now."
Eleanor put down the food and took the gift from Mary, eyeing it suspiciously.
"Don't worry, it's not booby trapped."
"Whatever you got me, it won't make up for the tree."
"Just open it, you can yell at me later."
Eleanor peeled off the paper and slowly opened the box. Inside, nestled between a few layers of tissue paper was a framed photograph. Over a dozen smiling children surrounded the second incarnation of the office tree, joy shining from their faces. Mary had taken a marker and in bright red ink written across the bottom of the picture: Merry Christmas from the kids of Halfway to Hope.
Eleanor looked from the photo up to Mary, who had jammed her hands into her pockets and was looking as sheepish as Marshall had ever seen her.
"Why didn't you just tell me?" she asked.
"What, and ruin the chance to get your goat? If I was going to do this damn gift thing, I was damn sure going to have my fun," Mary said, but there wasn't any real bite to her words.
"Thank you," Eleanor said as she reached an arm out to embrace Mary. "I guess the Grinch does have a heart after all."
"Aw, jeez, stop it already." Mary's face was scrunched up with discomfort and embarrassment as she unwillingly submitted to the hug. "If you're gonna go and get a mushy on me, I'm gonna take it back."
"No, you won't," Eleanor said as she patted Mary on the back and ignored the way she flinched.
Shortly afterwards the party got into full swing, everyone eating, drinking and once enough punch had been consumed, even occasionally bursting into song. Mary's picture sat in a place of honor in the center of the rapidly emptying gift table. Everyone seemed pleased with what they received, especially Mary, whose Secret Santa had given her an assortment of gag items designed for playing practical jokes. Needless to say, he was not someone who worked in close proximity to her, or he would have been worried about finding that whoopie cushion on his chair one day.
By the time the sun was setting, people had started to drift home. Marshall looked around, not wanting to miss Mary. At first he didn't see her, and he began to worry, but then his glance fell on the door to the balcony. She was outside, leaning against the railing as she gazed at the riot of color on the horizon. Marshall dug into the bottom drawer of his desk, retrieving the package he had stashed there earlier. Then he went out to join her.
At the sound of the door opening, Mary swung around and smiled when she saw him.
"Hey, doofus, love the hat."
Marshall reached up to finger the long, tasseled, red and white striped ski hat that had been his Secret Santa gift. "I guess it could have been worse, you could have picked my gift out."
Mary laughed. "Who do you think gave Charlie the idea. I threatened everyone until I found out who had drawn you, then I made some suggestions."
"In that case ... I love it."
Marshall didn't deny it, instead he held out the gift he had been keeping behind his back. "Here, open it."
"Just a little something to remind you that while you may act like the Grinch, there's a Kris Kringle hiding inside you."
Mary looked at him, confused, but she took the gift and tore off the paper. Then she gave a little gasp. It was another framed photograph of the tree, but this time instead of the children, it was Marshall and Mary that were the subjects. Jon had snapped it when the tree was almost finished and Mary had climbed up on a chair to put the final touch in place. Marshall stood below her, holding up the tinsel star that would grace the topmost bough and they were smiling at each other. Even in the photo you could see the intimacy of the look between them. Two people so close that a simple smile said more than words ever could.
Marshall waited, his heart in his throat, to see what she would say when she finally found her voice. He thought he had prepared himself for anything from sarcasm to silliness, but what she did next caught him by surprise.
Eyes shining with what he thought might be tears, she stepped towards him and reached up to caress his cheek with one hand. He remained speechless as her hand drifted around to the back of his neck and she pulled him down towards her. Then she kissed him.
Their lips touched, chastely at first, but when she didn't pull away Marshall's hands came up and wrapped around her. He opened his mouth slightly and ran his tongue over her lower lip. With a little moan, she parted her lips and he deepened the kiss. She tasted of the party, a mix of punch and peppermint candies, with her own sweet flavor underneath it all.
She fisted her hand in his hair and pressed herself even closer and he groaned as he felt her belly up against the ache in his groin. He could have stood like that forever but the need to breathe finally separated them. They stayed there for a long moment, still touching but a bit of space between them now, before Marshall opened his mouth to speak.
Mary held a finger to his lips, quelling his words. "Don't," she said, an unusually fragile and slightly frightened look in her eyes.
Then she pulled away and walked towards the door, the photograph still clutched in her hand. She paused and looked back at him as she swung the door open.
"Merry Christmas, Marshall," she said. Then the door closed and she was gone.