But Life Does Not a Happy Ending Make

a/n: There was no threat of closing the WitSec office so Stan is still the chief and Marshall is still Mary's partner. Marshall and Abigail are still engaged, and the dreaded conversation on the balcony did indeed take place (sorry). Characters become OOC at some points. The only one who really has an excuse for this is Mary because she was supposed to have character development through learning life's lessons…Right? This takes place about a month after the finale. Which month that is…I'm not sure. Norah was born I'm going to guess in March or April, and when the S5 premiere aired, it was supposed to be six months later. Which puts the finale in September…ish. Which puts my story in October. I guess that's what I'm going with. Anyway, flashbacks are in italics. I own nothing except errors (…figures). Spoilers from S3 finale through series finale, but, let's face it, anything at this point is fair game. Reviews are greatly appreciated. Criticism is as well, just don't poke too many hole in my balloon. Thank you, in advance, to all readers. Please enjoy my meek contribution.

Rated T, for now, for attitude and language.

Summary:

Whatever ever after, that was life. Fuck the fairy tale ending, she thought. There has never been and will never be such a thing. Mary collapsed onto the bed, pulling her pillow close to her body. She buried her face in its softness and cried. And cried and cried and cried.

CHAPTER ONE

As a U.S. marshal for the Federal Witness Protection Program, Mary Shannon had learned many things that, seemingly odd, were crucial to her line of work. Sleeping techniques, though not something officially taught, had been one of those things. When transferring or guarding a witness, Mary needed to sleep lightly. She learned how to sleep with the proverbial one eye open, balancing her body's need for rest with the job's need for awareness of surroundings. Mary always looked forward to the first night home after such events when she could bury herself in the plump pillows and heavy down blankets of her bed and saw as many logs as she felt necessary.

Despite that specific marshal 'training', Mary could not make it work for the two weeks of sleep deprivation through which she had suffered, or for the weeks she knew were still to come. She fought with her head, arguing that sleeping lightly at home was no different from sleeping lightly in the field. Her head, however, refused to listen, anxiously perched on the edge of unconsciousness, waiting for the smallest of sounds to ignite the fuse and propel her body into action.

Norah, Mary's eight-month-old daughter, woke every couple of hours during the night crying through the agony of teething, those tiny little teeth working so hard to push through soft, pink gums. Courtesy of Brandi, Mary's eight-month-pregnant sister, outbursts of a different kind accompanied Norah's painful ones. Brandi's incessant need to relieve her baby-abused bladder was a fifteen-minute production of sounds. After the first night, Mary had the lines memorized; staring at the ceiling as she quietly mouthed the words. 'Groaning sister, squeaky mattress, creaky floor boards, clacking door latch, flushing toilet, running water, clacking door latch, creaky floor boards, squeaky mattress, groaning sister.' Mary had some sympathy for Brandi, having gone through the same while pregnant with Norah. Mary's sympathy, however, went only so far when she spotted Brandi with her twelfth or thirteenth bottle of water for the day. "You know, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing." Mary's advice was cynical and always pushed aside with a smile and a tip of the water bottle.

Mary slipped a dark green shirt over her head and picked up her hairbrush from beside the bathroom sink. Pulling the brush through her long blonde hair, Mary listened to the voice of her mother coming from the bedroom down the hall. Jinx had taken to her role of grandmother with great vigor. She saw her time with Norah as a way to make amends, to be the mothering personality she couldn't be when Mary and Brandi were young. Mary knew even without the need to prove herself, Jinx would still have been a doting grandmother, all too willing to spoil whatever grandchildren with which she was blessed. With Jinx's dance studio closed on Wednesdays, she quickly claimed the day to babysit Norah.

Leaving the bathroom, Mary stopped in the doorway of her bedroom, quietly watching grandmother and granddaughter. She shook her head and smiled. Even though Mary had issued several warnings of 'no baby talk', Jinx cooed away happily, her inflection implying that being a stinky little girl was a wonderful thing. There was no point in changing how Jinx interacted with Norah. Mary knew once she was out of sight, Jinx would revert to doing things her own way. And somewhere, deep down, Mary supposed she was all right with that. She continued down the hallway, turning into the kitchen.

"Ugh!" Mary hollered. "What the hell is all of this?"

"Flowers," Brandi said as she moved around the kitchen, pouring water into each of the three dozen colorful pots that littered the countertops and table. "They've been trickling in over the last few days. You would have noticed if you had been home from work at a decent hour," Brandi taunted. "They're from Mom's friends in Florida for Dad's funeral." Mary looked around the room, frowning.

"Okay, first, it wasn't a funeral; it was a fake wake…a month ago. And second…" Mary cocked her head to the side as she looked at her sister. "Mom had this many friends in Florida?" Brandi nodded. "Wow. That must have been one hell of an AA meeting."

"Mary," Brandi scolded with a small smile.

"Where's the fruit bowl?" Mary started digging through the flowers on the table. "I don't get the sending of the flowers. 'Hey, sorry you lost someone you loved. Here's a bunch of flowers that are going to wilt and shrivel. Let me show my sympathy by sending you something else that's dead.'" Mary pulled her hand from the midst of the flowers and held an apple triumphantly in the air.

"Mary, Mary, Mary," Brandi said shaking her head and setting the watering can into the sink.

"What?"

"When are you going to ask the Wizard for a heart?" she asked, crossing her arms over her growing stomach.

"When you ask him for a brain." Brandi caught site of their mother entering the kitchen, Norah on her hip.

"Mom, Mary's making fun of me."

"She started it," Mary said, biting into her apple.

"Girls, girls. No fighting in front of the little one." Jinx moved to Brandi's side and rubbed her daughter's stomach. "Soon to be plural," she said with a smile. Both daughters rolled their eyes. Jinx sighed and placed her hand on her free hip. "At least pretend for your mother's sake that you like each other."

"Yeah, like that's going to happen," Mary teased. "Bye, Bug." She placed a soft kiss on her daughter's forehead. "Bye, Mom," she said, placing a kiss on her mother's cheek. Mary stood behind Brandi, leaning over her sister's shoulder and planting a very loud smooch on her cheek.

"Ah! Yuck!" Brandi squealed, trying to lean away.

"Bye, Squish." Mary grabbed her bag and slung the strap over her shoulder as she walked to the front door. Turning and taking the last few steps backwards, she pointed at her sister. "See?" she started, a mouth full of apple. "I do have a heart."

^m*m^

Marshall Mann had called Mary Shannon on her bullshit from day one, never flinching when she returned the challenge. He quickly learned how to counter her aggressive personality, finding the right balance between letting her win and letting her think she won. Three months into their partnership, Marshall was starting to get the feeling that Mary had figured out his tactic. It was during one of their most intense arguments that he had suspicions confirmed. Though she had never said the words, he caught her admission in the brief smile she allowed to break across her lips. Marshall couldn't remember what had started the argument, but he had certainly not forgotten the way it ended.

"That's not what I said," Marshall defended, his anger starting to get the better of him.

"Um, yes, it is." Mary looked at him and mouthed a silent 'duh'.

"No, that's where you're wrong. I said—"

"Guess what, Marshall?" Mary sneered before tossing back the shot of tequila. "I don't give a rat's ass." Mary slid the empty glass in front of Marshall, hopped off the barstool, and made her way to the door.

"How can you not care?" he called after her. Frowning, Marshall swallowed his shot, trying to remember how many he had downed, and followed Mary out of the bar. His anger was close to full-grown over Mary's flippant attitude, blaming him for words he never uttered. "I never said that," he mumbled to himself.

Mary pulled her cell phone from her back pocket and called a cab. They roamed the dirt parking lot for several minutes in silence, circling each other as though preparing for an attack. Marshall took the opportunity, for the third time that night, to admire Mary's clothing. With the anticipation of the late-night summer heat, Mary chose to wear a white tank top with her blue jeans. It hugged her body nicely, something Marshall secretly appreciated. Mary stopped moving, hooked her fingers in the back belt loops of her jeans and leaned into one hip.

"Take a picture, Partner," she joked. She had caught him staring, but he would have to worry about those consequences later; he had a discussion of a different kind with which to contend.

"You should care, Mary," he said, rehashing the argument. "Your life could be in danger someday, dependent upon me for salvation." He smirked. "And I won't save your sorry ass because you won't let me explain what I said."

"Oh, so now you're admitting that you did say that?"

"No," he said slowly. "No. Quit putting words in my mouth, Mare."

"I'm not putting words in your mouth, Marshall. I'm just repeating the words that are coming out of your mouth."

"Mary." Marshall took a slow breath, Mary quietly enjoying Marshall so close to losing control. "I said-"

"Did you not hear what I said?" she asked, descending upon him and poking his chest to punctuate her words. The yellow cab pulled into the parking lot a few feet behind Mary. Marshall started forward, slowly backing Mary towards the vehicle.

"I heard every word you said. But, guess what, Mare?" Her back hit the cab and Marshall rested his hand on the windows to either side of her shoulders. He leaned forward, forcing eye contact before continuing. "I don't give a rat's ass," he mocked angrily. Mary smiled a brief but devious smile. Marshall tilted his head slightly and studied her. When he caught the sparkle in her eyes, he knew he had been played. Mary pushed Marshall back a step and opened the cab's door.

"My place?" he asked, though he already knew the answer. "I'm assuming I'll be driving you to your house in the morning to get the Purple Probe of Death." Mary shook her head.

"You're taking me home in the morning to shower and change and then you're taking me to work." She smiled, allowing the grin to stay on her lips this time. "My reward for goading you into this argument. You almost blew your stack, Inspector," she teased. As Mary turned to slip into the cab, Marshall caught her arm and pinned her against the inside of the door.

"You…conniving blonde woman," he whispered. Mary beamed.

"And don't you forget it."

Marshall sighed as he replayed that memory. If he had not realized it before that point, that night solidified the fact that Mary had forever changed his life. He, too, had changed hers. Their partnership spilled over into their personal lives, each becoming a best friend to the other. They went out to dinner; they went out for drinks. They shared nachos and a soda, always Marshall's treat, at the occasional Isotopes baseball game. One night, over cheaply priced beer, Mary admitted that it was easy for her to be herself around Marshall. She had never trusted partners, friends or family members the way she trusted him. Her admission deeply moved him. He understood that he was the only person she allowed to see the real Mary. Marshall knew it had not been easy for her to acknowledge that revelation to herself, let alone say the words to him. Emotions and affections were not her strong suits.

So when Marshall came to the realization that he had fallen in love with Mary, he decided to keep those feelings to himself. The friendship they shared was too important to both of them and he feared losing Mary all together if he flat out said, "I love you." Marshall bit his tongue through boyfriends, one-night stands and a marital engagement until he could no longer bare the pain. His wanted his confession to be heartening, not alarming, so he purposely made it cryptic as to not scare away his partner.

"If you feel like you need to get something out of your system," he said, approaching her desk. "If you need to go 'do some cowboy'…"

"What?" she asked, prompting him to continue.

"You've done the cowboy," he finally said. "And when you weren't doing the cowboy, you were the cowboy – like with Raph." He couldn't hold back that insult. "You don't need to let off steam. What you need is…" Mary tilted her head slightly to one side. Confusion crossed her features but Marshall knew he had her full attention and pressed on. "I get that you don't like messy, but maybe messy is what you need. Maybe instead of just anyone, you should be looking for someone." Mary mouthed the word 'someone' as Marshall continued his speech. "Someone who challenges you. Who calls you on your B.S. and gets in your face and…makes you think." He noticed a shift in Mary, and worried that he had gone too far, said too much. "What?"

"What? I'm thinking," she replied, breaking from her reverie. Marshall, stunned by her answer, wondered if she understood what he was saying or if she was truly thinking. He stopped talking, deciding not to finish baring his heart until he knew that answer.

Marshall had tried to tell himself that if Mary really cared about him, however she represented that care, she would be able to connect the dots. But, for reasons unknown to Marshall, Mary didn't acknowledge what he had said and his worst fear began. The rift he wanted so badly to avoid opened and every good, bad and indifferent occurrence during the next two years of their lives splayed the rift beyond repair.

"Marshall? Is something wrong with your eggs?" Marshall blinked and looked to the lovely face of his bride-to-be. "You're not eating," she observed, leaning on the kitchen counter.

"Oh." He looked at his plate and shook the musings from his head. "No, Abigail, the eggs are…they're fine," he lied. "I think I'm just a little out of focus this morning," Marshall smiled.

"Well, you better wake that sleepy head up and finish your breakfast or you'll be late for work," Abigail said cheerfully through her southern accent.

"Work, right." Marshall forced a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth, purposely swallowing without chewing, and quickly followed them with some orange juice. "I have to go, Abs." He wiped his napkin over his mouth and stood. "I forgot we have an early meeting this morning."

"Okay, well, call me if you can do lunch today."

"I will." Marshall rounded the counter and kissed Abigail. "I love you."

"I love you, too." Marshall reached into his pocket for his car keys. "Oh, Marshall?" Abigail called as he reached the front door. "Don't forget to ask Mary about the wedding." He nodded and smiled, but the smile faded as the door closed behind him.

^m*m^

Marshall sighed and ran a hand over his eyes. He sat back in his chair staring across the desk and through the window to the balcony of the Sunshine Building. He should have, those two years ago, pulled Mary onto that balcony and said, "Maybe I am what you need." Instead, he continued to keep his feelings under wrap. Mary took a vacation, heading to Mexico with FBI Agent Mike Faber, who wanted nothing more than to add her to his list of cowgirls. Marshall didn't know what to do, what to think, what to say. Did Mary understand what Marshall had been trying to tell her? Was she running from his obscure profession? Did she run because she didn't feel the same way? Did she run because she did? Maybe she didn't get it, in which case, Marshall was pissed that she had been so blasé about running away with a guy she didn't know.

Marshall harbored his anger and frustration and, in classic 'chicken or the egg' fashion, their relationship became awkward which limited their time together outside of work, which only served to strain the relationship more. The two settled uncomfortably into the vicious cycle. During this "life without Mary," Marshall met Abigail Chaffee, a detective for the ABQ police department. He turned his usual time with Mary into time with Abigail. She was smart and funny, beautiful and charming with a soft, southern mannerism, and he soon found himself in love with the brown-haired detective.

Despite the strange tension between the marshals, Mary reverted to old habits, throwing out wisecracks about Abigail. "Oh, how cute. Hardy Boy Marshall is in love with Nancy Drew." It was Mary's way of telling Marshall she didn't want to be on the outs with him anymore. The tension seemed to ease and after a few months, Marshall no longer felt the anger towards Mary or himself, and believed the rift was finally beginning to close.

Then Mary found out she was pregnant, consequence of a one-night stand with her ex-husband, and Marshall knew the rift had irreparably opened. Marshall's nearly extinguished hope of having a relationship with Mary had officially reached the point of no return. Understandably, he had taken a back seat to a more important responsibility called Norah. He adored Mary's little girl and he happily let it show. But, he recognized the time as one to move on. And move on, he did. A few more months of being with Abigail, he asked for her hand in marriage.

"What are you staring at, Doofus?" Marshall turned his eyes from the balcony to his feisty blonde partner. Her smile faded to a look of concern. "You don't look well, Marshall. Did Abigail make scrambled eggs for breakfast again?"

"Good morning, Mary," Marshall drawled. "And what has made you such a lovely ray of sunshine this morning?" Mary's expression sobered. She took a deep breath and shook her head as she looked at Marshall.

"Just tired." Marshall knew it wasn't the entire truth but he didn't push. "It's been a long couple of nights." She moved to her desk, dropping her bag next to the chair. Marshall nodded and sat forward, leaning his arms on his desk. "Teething baby, pregnant sister, surgery-prone witness," she said, waving a dismissive hand. "She practically owns the east wing of the hospital."

"How did the whole surgery thing go with Marla?"

"It went well," she answered. "I just wish her appendix would have exploded earlier in the day instead of at six in the evening. I didn't make it home last night until a little after eleven." Marshall laughed.

"I'm sure the next time a witness' appendix bursts, it will better fit into your schedule, Mare."

"One can only hope." Mary reached into her purse for her ringing cell phone. "Hmm, speaking of bursting..." She held the phone to her ear. "Hey, Brandi." Marshall shook his head, watching Mary as she spoke with her sister.

Abigail and Mary were different in so many respects, but each was just as captivating. They both needed him, Mary as a friend, Abigail as a husband, and he wanted to be there in completion for each woman. He wasn't, however, able to find that happy medium. Time with one took away from time with the other. Marshall needed a solution before he lost both of the women he loved. Abigail pleaded with Marshall, asking him to loosen the tie he had with Mary. He knew it was the only way to keep his friendship and his marriage intact. Marshall's attention wandered again to the balcony where he stood with Mary a little over a month ago.

"This," he started waving his hands between them, "what we have, it's undefinable, and up until now nothing's ever come along to jeopardize that."

"Marshall, you're my best friend. You're my only friend. I mean, forget friend, you're-" Mary shrugged. "You know."

"I know. I love that. But that's the problem." Mary nodded.

"Because you're getting married," she supplied.

"Yeah. I'm getting married. I love Abigail deeply, and because I do…that's why I need you to do something for me."

Mary had taken Marshall's request for some space better than he had expected. Mary surprised him with her blessing, saying she wanted him to have the happiness he deserved. He believed her to be genuine; he just hadn't expected to hear the words.

"How's Brandi?" he asked as he heard Mary's phone hit her desk.

"Still pregnant," Mary shrugged. "So, my kitchen has turned into a fricken green house," she said, quickly changing the subject. "Feel free to come over and relieve me of the damned vegetation. I'm sure Nancy Drew would love some fresh dandelions around the house." Marshall feigned a laughed at her crack.

"What are you up to today?" he asked.

"Um, I'm making my rounds today. I just came by to grab a couple of files." Marshall watched as Mary yanked open the top desk drawer. She sifted through the file folders, pulling three from the drawer. Mary picked up her bag, throwing it on the table and shoving the folders inside. "There," she declared. "Got 'em."

"Would you like some company?" he asked, standing and moving to the front of the desks.

"Nah, you wouldn't have any fun." Marshall raised his eyebrows. "I'm not visiting the assholes until tomorrow," she clarified.

"Mary." Marshall stepped in front of Mary as she rounded her desk.

"Marshall, you're blocking my path to the door."

"I know." Mary crossed her arms in front of her chest, leaned on one hip and titled her head to the side.

"Are you purposely looking to get your ass kicked today?"

"Funny. You've just been…I don't know." Marshall paused. "I just want to know what's going on; that you're all right." Mary regarded him a long moment before speaking.

"I'm fine, Marshall," she smiled. "Never been better." Mary sidestepped Marshall and headed towards the door. He turned with a sigh and watched her leave. He knew exactly what was wrong. Since their talk, Marshall had been decreasingly privy to the details of Mary's family life. She no longer complained about Brandi's whining or Jinx's meddling. She no longer told him stories about Norah. Even when Marshall initiated the conversation, Mary's answers remained short and vague. He appreciated that Mary was trying to honor his wishes, but, in the process, she was pushing him completely away.

^m*m^

"Oh, I am so sorry this place is such a mess," Carissa said, straightening the three magazines on the coffee table. Mary looked around, failing to find anything out of place or covered in dust.

"Your apartment looks just fine, Carissa. Really. And you certainly don't need to clean on my account."

"Nonsense. Sit, sit." Carissa motioned Mary towards the couch. "With everything that you have done for Greg and I, the least I can do is make my home presentable when you visit." Mary offered a close-lipped smile.

"Okay, thank you." Greg walked into the living room, handing Mary a glass of iced tea. She accepted with a nod. "So, how have things been going so far?" she asked.

"Oh, wonderfully," Carissa answered as she sat in the love seat across from Mary. "I love my job at the library and Greg just adores the restaurant." Greg sat next to his wife.

"Everyone said those summer school cooking classes would just be a waste of my time, but look at me now," he said with a smile. "I have a job that just happens to be my favorite hobby!"

"Great," Mary nodded, resisting the urge to roll her eyes at the Brady Bunch personalities. The two were so young, barely over twenty, and still very naïve. They had been married only three months, just starting to plan their lives together when they were thrust into Witness Protection Program for witnessing the murder of a corrupt city mayor. "How about the house hunting?"

"Well, we are so glad you asked. Carissa and I made an offer for a beautiful three-bedroom ranch. It was accepted and we close on Friday."

"It's spacious but so cozy," Carissa added. "It is the perfect place to raise our family." Mary caught the excited look on her witness' faces and decided she would play along. Setting the glass on the coffee table, she hummed thoughtfully.

"Well, I'm going to guess by the use of 'our family' instead of 'a family' that you are pregnant."

"I'm pregnant!" Carissa confirmed.

"I keep telling her she won't be able to hold that secret for long. She had such a glow about her." Greg leaned over and kissed his wife's cheek. Mary might not have appreciated the happy-go-luckiness of the couple, but she could see the joy in their eyes. They were very much in love and excited to welcome a little one into their lives.

"Wow, congratulations," Mary said with a soft smile. "That's wonderful news." There had been a couple of handfuls of witnesses over the years to announce the expectance of a child, but Mary knew this was the first time she was sincere in her salutations.

^m*m^

"Marla? It's Mary," she started when she heard her witness' voice over the phone. Mary slowed her vehicle to a stop behind a silver open-topped convertible waiting at the red-lit intersection. "How are you feeling today?"

"Better than I was yesterday," Marla answered weakly. "The doctor has given me some really, really good pain medication." Mary laughed and switched the phone to her other ear.

"The doctor says you can go home tomorrow morning, provided nothing else in your body explodes. Of course, you've had three surgeries in the past six months which, I think, makes your next one free."

"Well, as nice as it sounds to not have a hospital bill to pay, I don't think I'll be going after that offer anytime soon."

"Do you have someone who can stay with you for the next couple of days? You know, bend at your every whim until you are functional again?" Marla laughed lightly.

"Yeah. My boyfriend is going to stay with me."

"Oh, you have a boyfriend?" Mary asked with surprise. "When did this happen?"

"I met him about…four months ago. He's so sweet, Mary. You'll like him."

"Yeah, I've heard that before." Mary took a breath. "Does he know?"

"No, I'm not going to tell him. I didn't do anything wrong, Mary. I just…I'm glad that I could help put that drug dealer behind bars, but now that the trial is over, I just want to live a normal life. You know, fall in love, get married, have kids. I want that fairy tale ending." Mary could almost see the white picket fence floating through Marla's head.

"Hmm. Let me tell you something about fairy tales," Mary mumbled.

"What was that?"

"Nothing. Listen, I'll stop by around eight-thirty tomorrow and get you out of that hell hole before they serve breakfast." Marla laughed.

"That sounds good. Scrambled eggs that taste like cardboard are not really my favorite." Mary said her good-byes and ended the call. She watched the four young men in the convertible. She guessed they were seventeen or eighteen. They each wore t-shirts with the sleeves cut off and had an arm hanging over the top of their respective doors, no doubt trying to show off the muscles they thought they had. The car's radio was so loud that if Mary had not known better she would have sworn they were on stage in the middle of a Kiss concert. The light turned green but the convertible stayed in place.

"What the fuck?" Mary muttered. She hit the steering wheel, blaring the non-threatening horn of her mini-van. They teenagers turned around to look at her, and raised their middle fingers. "Really?" Mary smiled to herself. She reached towards the passenger seat, digging in her bag for her badge and her gun. She held both in the window for the young men to see. Mary laughed as the car sped through the intersection. "Ha! Take that."

^m*m^

Mary left the apartment building and wandered the sidewalk to her mini-van. As she climbed into the driver's seat, she pulled her phone from her pocket. She sighed as she dialed and waited for her chief to pick up. Marshall normally accompanied her for follow-up visits, even when he was not the one officially assigned to the witnesses. These days seemed now to be longer and not so tolerable. Though it was only five-thirty, Mary felt as though it was closer to midnight. She would never admit it to Marshall, but she was bored and lonely without his company.

"Hey, Boss," Mary said, pushing Marshall from her mind. "I'm checking in."

"Really? Since when do you, Mary Shannon, check in?" Mary couldn't help mocking Stan as he spoke.

"Ha, ha, funny. I'm done badgering my witnesses. Finally," she added.

"Anything to report?"

"Three babies on the way, one engagement and a pain in the ass that just won't do me a favor and die."

"Oh, Mary. It's so hard to believe that you haven't driven Marcus to that point already." Stan remained quiet for a moment. "I see you have a couple of nasties to deal with tomorrow. You're going to take Marshall with you, right?"

"Why? I can handle myself, Stan. I'm sure Marshall has his own witnesses to see."

"I'm sure he does. Maybe while the two of you are out and about tomorrow, Marshall can explain to you the meaning of 'rhetorical'."

"Fine," she grumbled. "Stan, I'm half a mile from my house. Can I just head home for the night? I promise to return all of my paperwork in the morning. Intact and filled out, just for you."

"Mary, are you trying to prepare me for some bad news? Are you sick? Are you dying? I mean, checking in, willingly filling out your paperwork…"

"Stan," Mary laughed at the chief's smart-ass remarks.

"Have a good night, Inspector."

"Thanks, Stan." Mary ended the call and leaned her head against the headrest. She smiled as she checked the time display on her phone, happy that she would be home in time to have supper with her daughter.

^m*m^

"Look, Norah! Mommy's home!" Brandi's singsong voice greeted Mary as she closed the front door.

"Hi, Squish." She dropped her purse on the floor by the coat rack and reached for the little one in Brandi's arms. "Hi, Bug," she said, kissing the baby's temple. "How did it go today?" Mary asked as they headed towards the kitchen.

"We had a great time," Brandi said excitedly.

"Where's Mom?"

"She went home to change. Norah graced her with some up-chucked green beans. She should be back soon." Mary stopped in the kitchen's opening, lifting her head as she sniffed the air.

"What…is that smell?" she asked. The scent was pleasant, but not expected in her home.

"Surprise! Norah and I made supper!" Brandi clapped her hands and bounced on her heels. "It's a hamburger and potato casserole topped with green beans and a little bit of cheese on the top." Brandi poked Norah's tummy, eliciting a giggled sigh from the infant. "It's better than it sounds," she told Mary. "Promise."

"I believe you, Squish. It smells great."

"Oh! And we made apple pie for dessert." Brandi glanced at the stove's timer. "The casserole is almost ready. Why don't I take Norah and you can go wash up."

"Um, okay." Mary passed her daughter to Brandi and wandered into the bathroom with a flabbergasted shake of her head. Brandi had done a lot of growing up since learning of her pregnancy. She swore to Mary that drugs, alcohol and partying were things of her past. Having heard that declaration at any other point in their lives, Mary would have laughed herself to death. This time, however, Mary believed her sister. The two months following Brandi's return to Albuquerque had proven to be a huge step in the right direction.

"What's this?" Mary asked, looking over the check.

"Its first month's rent and my share of the utilities," Brandi replied. "I snooped through your bills," she shrugged.

"Why? Squish, I don't need this." Mary handed the check back to her sister.

"Mary, listen. I know that you don't need the money. But I need to do this." Brandi took a breath. "I am going to be a mother…very soon. I need to be…more responsible for myself so that I can be responsible for the baby. I have a good chunk of money set aside from when I was in Florida. It's enough to pay for rent, groceries and temporary health insurance for me and the baby for the next seven months." Mary leaned a hip against the kitchen counter, thoughtful as Brandi spoke. "And I have a babysitter lined up so I can start my new job after the baby is born." Brandi smiled proudly.

"You have a job?" Mary asked skeptically.

"Yeah. My friend, Jeanette, she has a flower shop that she's expanding. She just leased the new space last week and she said when renovations are complete and she's moved in she'll hire me." Mary nodded. "I can babysit Norah. And I will take care of everything around the house. I'll do laundry and I'll clean and do dishes. I'll even make supper-"

"Okay, okay. One thing at a time, Squish." Mary sighed. "All right. I'll take rent… for now."

Mary considered ripping up the checks as she received them, but she realized Brandi could not learn how to be financially responsible unless she used her money in real world scenarios. Mary took the first month's rent and grocery money and set up a savings account for Brandi's baby.

Mary wandered into her bedroom and dug through the dresser for her worn blue jeans and a plain white t-shirt. As she changed, she thought about Marshall's words to her that morning.

"You've just been…I don't know. I just want to know what's going on; that you're all right."

Mary sighed loudly. For once, she was being the friend that Marshall needed, the one that did the favor without teasing or arguing. She would let him know, if the time came, when something was deathly wrong, but until then, he had no right to ask how she was doing.

"I need you to release me," Marshall started, unwilling to meet her eyes until he let all of the words leave his mouth. "I need to be free enough to have a life with Abigail, and I need you to be okay enough for that to happen, because if you call I'll come." He looked at her then. "Every time."

"Well, I don't know a lot these days," she joked. "All I know is that more than anything in the whole world, I want you to be happy. So, I'm going to say this once and only once. I want you to marry Abigail. She makes you happy. I like her and I like you together."

Mary meant every word she had said to Marshall. She did want him to be happy. He was a wonderful man, loving and selfless, who deserved to have someone love him in return. And she did like Abigail, even though she took almost every opportunity to pick on the young detective. Releasing Marshall was something Mary knew would be difficult, but she made the necessary changes almost immediately. She made sure she never called Marshall unless the call was work-related. She kept all complaints about Jinx and Brandi's troubles to herself. She even went as far as to limit what she told Marshall of Norah. She knew her partner cared deeply for the little girl and Mary did not want her daughter becoming a thorn between Marshall and Abigail.

The transition was turning into a long and hurtful one. Mary never depended on anyone, not willing to be victim to the inevitable fall that came with entrusting oneself to another person. It was a lesson, thanks to her parents, she learned the hard way. Marshall was the only one she voluntarily opened to; he was too important to be in the same category as everyone else who had hurt her. Before Marshall would ever have the opportunity to crush her trust, something she believed he would never purposely do, Mary let go.

"Mary, Mom's here! And dinner is ready!"

"I'll be right there, Squish." Mary pulled the cuff of her sleeve over her hand and dried the tears from her eyes. She hated herself for the way she was feeling. She couldn't identify every emotion running through her head and that made it worse. She had spent too many nights in the last two months, crying herself to sleep for reasons she didn't really understand. Mary never felt control slip so easily from her grasp.

Mary neared the kitchen, taking a deep breath to steady herself before sitting at the table with the other three Shannon women. She noted the flowers that had occupied the kitchen table were gathered neatly in the corner of the living room. Norah sat comfortably in her bouncer on top of the table, Jinx to Mary's left, Brandi across the table from Mary. She imagined the scene before her through the eyes of her nine-year-old self. She could see two blonde-haired pig-tailed girls laughing and giggling, fighting maybe, their father taking a seat at the table, Jinx bringing the food. It was a picture quickly forgotten, though. Mary knew better than to dwell on what never was.

"Squish, this looks great," Mary said as Brandi set a healthy scoop of casserole on Mary's plate. Brandi smiled. Mary realized at that moment that her family's past was becoming less and less relevant. Here she sat with her mother, her sister, her daughter. Everyone healing, together, from their father's death and misdeeds; everyone healthy, drug and alcohol free; everyone happy with the addition of Norah and Brandi's baby to the clan. What mattered the most was the future in front of them, not the past behind them.

"Oh, Norah." Mary stood and unbuckled Norah from the bouncer, the little one now covered in the green beans that had not been released on Jinx earlier.

"No, no. You girls eat. I'll take care of Norah." Jinx removed the infant from Mary's arms and headed down the hallway. Mary sat down.

"Squish, listen," Mary said once they were alone. "I don't mean to keep harping on you about this." Brandi shot Mary a disbelieving roll of her eyes. "Seriously, Squish. I think you should tell the father." She pointed her fork towards Brandi's stomach.

"Mary, I don't know if—"

"Brandi, I just don't want you to miss out on something that could be so right for you."

"Right for me? You don't even know who the father is." Mary gave her sister a blank look.

"You may be able to fool everyone else, Squish, but I'm a U.S. marshal. I see all." Mary's eyes widened and she made an exaggerated encompassing motion with her hands. "Plus, I can do the math." Brandi smiled, but sadly. "You're due in the middle of November. Minus nine months…Your fiancé knocked you up right before your wedding." Mary's fingers curled in the air, making mock quotations.

"I don't want to tell him, Mary. What if…What if he hates me for this?"

"I don't think Peter is capable of hating you for any reason. Jesus, there were practically red hearts floating over his head when he was around you." Mary wiggled her fingers about her head. "I'll go with you, if you want me to go. Brandi…" Mary leaned across the table and took her hand. "Don't let something so good just slip away." Brandi felt the tears slip from her eyes. She didn't know if she was crying for herself or for her sister, whose face clearly bore the pain of the mistake she willed Brandi not to make.

"Mary, I see things, too, you know." Mary straightened and started to pull her hand from Brandi's. "Don't," Brandi said, gently squeezing Mary's fingers. "That's all I'm going to say about it. I'll never bring it up again. I just, you know." Mary nodded and relaxed a little. Both women relinquished their hold on each other and returned to eating their meals. "Would you call Peter?" Brandi asked. "Set up a time to see him?"

"Of course, Squish. Of course I will."

"Someday, Mary, I will be able to repay you for everything you've done for me." Brandi rose from her chair and stood behind Mary. She leaned over, wrapping her arms around Mary's shoulders. "I love you, Mary," she whispered. Mary hesitated a brief moment before settling a hand on her sister's arm. Mary didn't like hugs, but she was finding herself oddly comfortable with and enjoying her sister's affections. Mary leaned her temple on Brandi's forehead.

"I love you, too, Squish."