Mary Shannon watched the barren landscape fly past her window, the snug seatbelt uncomfortably tight against her swollen belly, the child within obviously in the midst of gymnastics class. She sighed, blinking against the strong sunlight streaming in, and ventured a quick glance towards her partner, Marshall Mann. He was listening to a book on tape, chuckling occasionally. Hands lightly on the steering wheel at the precise ten and two o'clock positions. From her vantage point, she could see his eyes moving behind his aviator shades, constantly checking the mirrors, the sparse traffic around them, the dials on the dashboard. Occasionally darting sideways to the passenger seat.

A slight wariness had crept into their relationship since Mary had learned of Marshall's impending cohabitation plans with that child, Abby. A reserve on her part, a reluctance on his. They no longer shared everything. She hesitated to ask him about his youthful girlfriend. He refrained from enthusing about her. She shook her head slightly. That line of thought had to stop. Abby was a grown woman, a capable detective by all accounts, a perfectly nice person. So what if she was what, thirteen, fourteen years younger than Marshall? So what if she was perpetually sunny? So what if her somewhat unstable accent grated like the proverbial fingernails on the chalkboard? She made Marshall happy. Something Mary herself didn't seem to do, something she had never put herself out to try to do. And Marshall deserved to be happy. Mary could see that now. Could see it so clearly.

Shifting slightly, she tried to ease the ache in her back. A constant companion these days. Reluctant admission that this would have to be her last road trip until after the baby was born.

The exit to a rest area came up and Marshall turned on the blinker, pulling over and parking beneath some shade trees. He pulled his earpiece out and rolled his neck. Opening the door, he looked over at his partner and smiled. "Need a break," he said, "stretch my legs."

Mary nodded and opened her door. Marshall wouldn't allow her to drive and the full burden of the travel fell on him. She had huffed under his restriction, but acquiesced under the steely glare he had directed her way and the firm, unyielding grasp on her elbow guiding her to the passenger side of the SUV. His face now showed signs of fatigue, the smile he'd directed her way was strained. It had been an easy transfer, but a long drive. The breeze felt good against her overheated body, the small internal furnace she carried working overtime. The lanky figure of her partner caught her eye as he ambled back from the building housing the restrooms. She would need to make use of the facilities before they left, but for the moment she was content to just sit and let the wind lift her hair.

Marshall walked up to her and handed her a bottle of water before coming around to the driver's side and opening the door. The sat in companionable silence awhile, Marshall reclining his seat and leaning back to close his eyes. Mary fiddled with the cap on the water bottle, opening her mouth several times then closing it. She had a question she wanted to ask, but couldn't quite bring herself to do so. This...reticence, was new. She found she couldn't ask things about his relationship with Abby either. It was too awkward, painful almost. She shied away from the thought of her partner as a sexual creature, although she didn't know why that should be so. He was a nice looking man, tall, lean, had good hair – not something many men his age could claim, was in top physical condition. He had an easy grin and killer blue eyes. Nothing repulsive there, but somehow if she let her thoughts drift towards what he may do in bed she felt a tightening in her gut, a sharp discomfort. Thinking about him and Abby...she looked away abruptly, watching the comings and goings of the other people at the rest stop.

She wanted to follow up on something he had said earlier though. She had accused him of having a pregnancy fetish. That wasn't fair and Mary Shannon knew it. The problem was, her question went 'there'. And Mary didn't want to go 'there'. Torn between wanting to know and not wanting to acknowledge the sexual nature of her friend. Once upon a time that sexual interest has been directed towards her. And she had run away rather than acknowledge that interest. Sucking in a deep breath, the tang of mesquite in her nostrils, Mary's thoughts drifted traitorously to a barn and eager lips, gentle hands holding her face, want so strong she could taste it on him. He would be a good kisser. That entirely too brief interlude made that clear.

Marshall reached over and grabbed her hand, startling his partner, who looked at him in alarm. His eyes were still closed.

"Just ask me, Mary." She gaped at him. "Whatever it is you've been trying to spit out." How did he do that she wondered? Was he so attuned to her? Of course he was. The man knew everything about her. Hell, he even knew she was pregnant before she did.

She turned slowly to face him. "Okay." Mary paused, thinking there was so much she didn't know about her partner, her best friend. She had never even asked him about that time in his life, his college days. What classes he enjoyed, what clubs he had joined, who he had dated. "When you said you had ...been...with a pregnant woman," she paused as one blue eye popped open and stared at her, "it seemed like you," she hesitated again, "that you liked it." She smoothed her top down over the mound that sat where her waist used to reside. Gaze held steady on her hands. "Why? Why would you like that? With someone who was all fat and swollen? When it wasn't yours?" Her words finished in a rush to get out of her mouth before she changed her mind. She mentally cringed. It hadn't been her intention to sound so petulant, so accusatory, so insecure.

Marshall opened both eyes and sat up. His gaze fell from her eyes to her belly, fingers twitching before he stilled them. Finding her expression devoid of any sneer, he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "It was being able to feel the baby moving. Having my hands on her belly and feeling that life inside her. I don't know how to explain it. It was magical. And she was beautiful to me."

Mary's eyes followed his hands as she listened to his words. It was a constant jolt, each time she was forced to acknowledge that Marshall wasn't like other men. He could look at a woman, pregnant with another man's child, and find her desirable. Find the very existence of that child miraculous. Allow the child to enhance, rather than detract from, the intimacy with the woman. She felt a blush of shame come up on her cheeks. She knew her friend longed to feel her child, to put his hands on her extended abdomen. She saw it in his face every day and she had never invited him to touch her. Never granted that gift. To his credit, he had never asked. He knew he would be rebuffed.

She nodded slowly, the blood thundering in her ears. She wondered if he still thought her beautiful, her pregnancy carried in every part of her body. Reaching over and grasping his hand, Mary drew the large palm over and placed it on her belly, underneath the curve so the back of his knuckles brushed her hip. The kid was currently practicing for the World Cup. Green eyes found blue and watched his tired face light up and a look of pure wonder take residence. His grin was enormous as his eyes slid down her body. The activity level seemed to ratchet up as if the little Pele could feel the warmth of the protective hand and was responding. Marshall brought his other hand over and placed it on the other side of her stomach, cupping the child. Good lord, was the kid doing jumping jacks now?

Marshall's breathing became more shallow as hands circled and caressed, gently pressing in where activity was strongest. As the mini-Sugar Ray Leonard went to town, Marshall bent down, his cheek against her. Mary could tell he was holding his breath as he felt the baby continue to move. Unbidden, her hand moved to rest lightly on his head, his hair soft and silky under her fingers. His head stilled as her hand came to rest on his dark hair, but then his full attention returned to the bulge underneath his cheek, held between his hands. Mary began a hesitant, light stroking of his head and relaxed back into the seat, realizing just how tense she had been on the drive.

Coming awake with a slight jerk, Mary realized in dismay that she must have dozed off for a minute. Marshall was still bent over her now still womb, baby Nadia apparently having done her final dismount. But he was talking, murmuring quietly. Straining to hear his words, he was talking to the baby she realized.

"Hey there little guy or gal, it's your Uncle Marshall here. You need to let Mommy get some rest. She gets cranky without enough rest. Trust me. I just wanted to say hello and tell you that I love you. Now be good." He patted her belly gently.

Marshall straightened up and caught Mary's eye. He smiled, his eyes so full of affection that Mary felt tears pricking. Her lips lifted up and she saw him, for the first time maybe, truly saw him for the man he was. Familiar features bringing a sense of comfort to her. Leaning over she caught his lips with her, pressing a soft kiss on his mouth. She tasted the hint of sweet from the soda he had been drinking, smelled the faint aroma of industrial hand soap and cologne. He was warm and safe and all she could ever need. Lips parting slightly in invitation, she leaned closer.

Mary felt the ripple of surprise jolt through his body. He allowed the kiss, one hand moving from it's resting place on her tummy, to snake behind her neck and take control. Mary reveled in the feel of his hand running through her hair. He wasn't kissing back, she realized with a faltering shudder. His grip on the back of her head prevented her from deepening the kiss. Marshall pulled back and looked at her, lips twitching with a half smile. She missed the warmth of him immediately. His confused gaze held hers silently.

"I don't deserve you," she said quietly to his unasked question, "don't deserve your friendship, your loyalty, everything you bring to the table. I'm selfish and uncaring." Her eyes slid away, only to be returned by the force of his finger under her chin. Oh God, what have I done? Neurons ramped up, preparatory to initiating self-flagellation. Her hand had been shown. That impulsive kiss...and he hadn't returned it, simply accepted it.

"You know that is not true." Palm once again cupping her child, he leaned in close. Mary drug her attention back to the comfortably familiar face of her partner. "You are doing the most unselfish and caring thing possible in giving up this child. You love it so much you want it to have what you didn't – an intact family with parents that love both it and each other." His fingers danced up from her chin to her cheek, resting in a caress she wanted to lean into. "And you have my friendship forever. Don't ever doubt that." Mary looked warily into his eyes, noticed something missing underneath the warmth of tenderness she saw there. The spark was absent. The spark she hadn't realized was there until it wasn't. She saw what she had been telling Marshall for years that she wanted: friendship and nothing more.

A dull ache spread across her chest as she nodded and he dropped his hand, her cheek heated from the imprint of his touch. Marshall nodded towards the restrooms. "Better take advantage of the opportunity," he said, turning his attention back to the dashboard and bringing his seat upright. Mary sat rooted to the spot, his words like a cruel taunt. She hadn't taken advantage of her opportunity. It had been placed in front of her year after year, and she had spurned it, rejected it, ignored it. And now she wanted it and her opportunity had moved on, leaving her behind.

Slowly swinging her legs over, she heaved herself out of the car. Tears blinding her vision, she weaved her way unsteadily to the ladies, wondering how she could have been so stupid. But then, stupid seemed to be her way of life. Stupid choices, both hers and others, had brought her to this point. Pregnant by an idiot former boyfriend, who had been her husband for a few days a lifetime ago. Unable to fully perform her job, due to her condition. Losing her best friend a little bit day by day. Losing his time, losing his attention. She swallowed hard. Losing his love. He had offered it to her. Offered more than once. Offered with no strings attached. And she had turned him down, hadn't even done him the courtesy of giving a response. That choice was going to cost her any chance of future happiness. She could see that now. Marshall had moved on, found himself someone who made him happy. He was more than willing to give to Mary his unadulterated affection. His love though, belonged elsewhere now.

Mary splashed cold water on her face, willed her eyes dry, straightened her shoulders and walked back out to the vehicle. She opened the door, heard the softly murmured side of Marshall's conversation, the pleasure in his voice, knew it was Abby on the other end. Had he ever sounded like that when he talked to her on the phone? Marshall quickly wrapped up the call and closed his phone, turning to look at her, raising an eyebrow in question. Was she ready to go? Mary nodded, buckling her expanding waistline into her seat and leaned her head against the window. She was a fool. No two ways around it. A blind one at that.

Marshall started the truck, then reached over to place his hand on her waistal area once again. "Thank you Mary, for sharing this with me." Amazing blue iris's pinned her. "I've wanted feel your baby. To feel it moving. You know," he halted, words uncertain, "you know if you change your mind, about giving up the baby, that I...that I would help you?" He was so earnest her heart almost broke. He would do it, he would daddy her baby. For the next twenty years, he would be there for both of them. Mary knew this deep in her soul. It wasn't enough though.

"I know Marshall. I want my baby to have both a father and a mother though, who both love it. Who love each other. Who will raise it in the same house." His hand slid around to grasp her fingers.

"I love your baby Mary. You know that right? Because it's part of you. I love him or her already." Mary squeezed his fingers, gave a tremulous smile. She was unable to get any words out. The unspoken subtext knocking the breath out of her. I love you, therefore I love anything that's a part of you. Perhaps, it wasn't too late. Perhaps.

The End