While Marshall was wrangling their errant elf, Mary hurried Susan out of the crush of shoppers. She didn't know of any direct threat to the little girl but the milling crowd was just too uncontrolled a situation for Mary to feel comfortable. She figured that the Melbournes must be somewhere nearby and they could meet up once they had a bit more space and privacy. Unfortunately, even after Mary stashed herself and the kid in a quieter corner, no one showed up to claim Susan.
After a few minutes, Mary began to get suspicious. "Susan, where are your foster parents?"
The little girl chewed her lower lip nervously. "Uh, I don't know." Mary narrowed her eyes in suspicion and Susan broke under her scrutiny. "They're at home," she said, sniffling as a tear escaped the corner of her eye.
"Then how did you get here?" Mary asked, having trouble keeping her frustration from tinging her voice.
"I took the bus." Susan's tears were falling in earnest now. "I had to. I had to come and see Santa, he's the only one who can help me. I read about him in the paper Mr. Melbourne gets every Sunday and all the kids they talked to said he must be real because he knew what they wanted without them even telling him. And one girl said he even helped get her parents to stop fighting. How could he do that if he's not Santa Claus?"
"Honey, there isn't …" But Mary couldn't just tell her that baldly, not when the kid was already so upset, so she tried again. "Nick's just a nice old man whose very good with children. He doesn't have any special powers."
"I don't believe you. He said he'd do his best to help me get my family back."
"Susan, I know you understand that your parents are dead, you testified against their killer. They can't come back. You know that."
"I know, but I have other family. Why don't they want me? What did I do? That's what I asked Santa, if he could make someone in my family want me. I told him I didn't even want to have Christmas if I couldn't have that and he said he'd do his best."
"It's not that simple and I really don't think … " She stopped when the little girl gave her a heartbroken look. "Look, we'll talk about this later. Right now, I have to call the Melbournes and take you back to headquarters while we sort this whole mess out."
Mary made it back to the Sunshine building first. She stashed Susan in one of the conference rooms with some paper and a bunch of highlighters, then laid in wait for Marshall and Nick. As soon as they walked through the door she pounced.
"Are you out of your ever loving mind? Oh wait, you think you're Santa Claus, so I guess that question is moot. Inconspicuous. That's all we ask, that you try to be inconspicuous and nowhere does that include having your picture in the paper while dressed in bright red velour and surrounded by elves."
"It's my job," Nick protested.
"Well, get another one."
"It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. For the past fifty years or so I've been getting more and more worried about Christmas. Seems we're all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle. How could I pass up the chance to bring the real meaning of the season to so many children."
"He has a point, Mare."
"Jeez, Marshall, don't tell me you're agreeing with him."
Marshall shrugged. "No, just saying I understand where he's coming from."
Nick smiled at him gratefully. "I can't change who I am," he told Mary.
"Fine, but you're not St. Nick, because there is no Santa Claus. It's just a fairy tale."
Nick gave her an enigmatic smile. "How do you know? After all, Santa is more than just a person and Christmas isn't just a day … it's a state of mind."
"Shoot me now," Mary muttered under her breath. "Look, this has got to stop, and while you're at it, I need you to talk to Susan and explain to her that you're not really Santa."
"Mare, the poor kid already lost most of her childhood when that hit man took out her parents, why would you want to take this from her too. What's the harm in letting her believe?" Marshall asked, surprised at Mary's vehemence.
"But there is harm. We tell her that she can't be with any of her family and a very convincing old man with a real beard comes along and says he'll try to help. What is she going to think? Who is she going to believe? She can't go on thinking life is a fairytale and that at any moment her father is going to appear and take her away from all this. Life is about reality and the reality is that it's not going to happen. What do we tell her then?"
When Mary finally paused for breath, Marshall gave her a concerned look. "Are we talking about Susan, or are we talking about you?" he asked softly.
Mary just stared at him for several moments before making an indecipherable, but clearly rude noise and stomping off.
Marshall shook his head. "That did not go well."
"I could speak to the little girl. It might help the situation a bit."
"You're going to tell her you're not Santa Claus?" Marshall was amazed, and strangely disappointed.
"I'm going to do what I always do, tell her the truth."
"Hello again, Susan," Nick said as he walked into the room and took a seat next to her. "What are you drawing?"
Rather than answer, she held up the sheet of paper she had been working on. There was a picture of a house, colored in garish, highlighter green and complete with brilliant, blue shutters. A neon yellow sun shone overhead. But the parts with the most detail were the figures. A little girl with blonde hair, whose clothes approximated the ones that Susan was wearing, stood hand in hand with two taller figures. Every finger and curl of hair had been drawn to the best of the child's ability but the tall figures had no faces. It might have been a frightening scene, except Susan had drawn herself with a smile that, quite literally, stretched from ear to ear.
"Very nice," Nick told her as he admired the drawing. "I can see this is you, but who else is in the picture?"
"You already know," Susan said solemnly. "I talked to you about it at the store. That's my family, the one you're going to find for me. I couldn't do their faces because I don't know who they are yet."
"Yes, yes … I remember." Nick put a very serious expression on his face. "You do know that not every child can get their wish for Christmas. Sometimes they wish for things that wouldn't be good for them. Like a rocket ship, or a locomotive …"
"Or things that don't actually exist," Marshall contributed helpfully.
Nick gave a soft chuckle. "I hope you realize, Marshall, I did the best I could with that whole light saber thing."
Marshall's mouth dropped open. How could he know? Marshall thought to himself. It must be a guess - I'm the right age, a bit of a geek … just a good guess is all. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the conversation at the table.
Susan wrinkled her forehead as she thought about what Nick had told her. "But a real family would be good for me. And they do exist … somewhere. So if you're really Santa Claus, you'll get them for me." She looked up at Nick with tears pooling in the corners of her hazel eyes. "And if you can't … well, then I guess you're just a nice old man with a white beard, just like Mary said."
"I can see why you'd think that, Susan, but there's one other thing you need to understand. Your wish - it involves people. Now I'm real reliable when it comes to things, but people … that's a whole different problem. The best I can do is try to give them an idea, a little vision, if you will, and then let them take it from there."
"It wouldn't be fair to make someone do something they didn't want," Marshall added.
"Exactly. Lots of people wish for things like this and just because they don't get them right away doesn't mean they should stop believing." Nick turned to give Marshall a significant glance. "Marshall here, he knows exactly what I mean."
Mary. He's talking about me and Mary. The realization flooded through him, rendering him speechless for a moment, until he realized that both Susan and Nick were staring at him, waiting for a response. "Yes," he stammered. "Yes, I do know. Can't say that I always like it, but that's how it is."
"Do you think it will work this time?" Susan asked.
"I can't really say, but the important thing is that you believe. That's the best way you can help me."
Nick was interrupted by a sharp knocking on the conference room window. They all looked up to see Mary scowling through the glass. When she caught their eyes, she beckoned abruptly, hooking her thumb backwards to indicate that she wanted Marshall and Nick to come out.
"I'm glad we had this little talk," Nick said as he rose from the table. "I hope it helped." Then he followed Marshall towards the door. "Just remember, no matter what happens, the most important thing is to believe."
Marshall had the sneaking suspicion that Nick was actually talking to him