A/N: I hope you all enjoy how I wrap this up. It's kind of open-ended, but I don't like to close every door even when the story is over.
Mary might've been against the idea of a Christmas party when it was planned by Delia. She couldn't stop the rash it brought on when she had to think about dancing, drinking, and spreading merriment with people like Hanson. But, when it came to what she referred to as a 'gathering' in her own house, it sounded a bit better. It gave Marshall an opportunity to see everyone again – like Jinx, Brandi, and the rest of the crew – but without being bombarded. At his request, she'd finally confided in her mother and sister that Abigail would not be Mrs. Mann much longer, due in large part so he wouldn't have to answer a thousand questions at the party. That settled the most awkward of matters Mary and Marshall could forecast.
Otherwise, it was loud music, lots of snacks, and too many people. Mary reminded herself two out of three wasn't bad, and was almost happy to see Jinx and Brandi show up at her door while Delia set out a bowl of cashews. Her family, unusually punctual, was never late when it came to parties. They were weighed down by coats as well as Colin in his car seat at arrival, bringing a flurry of freezing wind with them.
"Merry Christmas!" Jinx bellowed at the top of her voice, parading inside and over to Delia, who had set about arranging a tray of muffins at the island.
"Merry Christmas, Mrs. Shannon…" Delia replied politely, wearing her usual thousand-watt smile. This time, it was accompanied by a fire-engine red top adorned with a few-too-many sequins, in Mary's eyes. "Care for a muffin?" she offered one, but Jinx already had her nose stuck in the whole lot.
"You call me Jinx…" the woman persisted while she examined. "These formalities Delia; so unnecessary. Is this butter cream filling?" she wanted to know.
Mary spared the smallest of glances to the kitchen, bouncing Colin in his green Christmas sweater while Brandi removed her coat and tipped a whole load of presents beneath the tree. Marshall was hanging back against the counter, sipping a beer and keeping an eye on Norah, who was at her usual spot on the floor with Oscar. Mary had refused to put her daughter in festive clothing and instead shoved her into her denim overalls, topping the ensemble off with a crimson turtleneck.
"Mare…?" Brandi called from where her head was buried beneath the branches. When her sister joined, she continued, "Should I put Marshall's gift under the tree?" dropping to an undertone.
"You got Marshall a gift?" Mary was astonished, hitching up Colin's khaki pants so they wouldn't slip over his diaper.
"Well, I wanted to cheer him up…" Brandi shrugged, still in that cagey tone. "How is he doing?"
"How do you think he's doing; and stop with the cloak and dagger," Mary ran-on quickly. "The whole point of me telling you what was going on was so we could avoid this sort of thing."
"I know, I know…" Brandi claimed, deciding Marshall's gift did indeed belong under the tree without waiting for Mary's approval. When she emerged, she pursed her lips in her inspection of the man in question, working her mouth side-to-side with thought. "That beard looks hot on him," she blurted out baldly.
"Squish; shut up!" Mary smacked her with the hand that was not supporting Colin. "You are shameless! His wife just left him, and you're sitting here telling me he looks hot. Gross."
"Gross…" Brandi scoffed, ignoring the rest. "How come he never had a beard before?"
"I don't know, but I think he's gonna shave it…" Mary muttered absently, Colin slithering all over in her grasp like he couldn't wait to be put down. "How's the tiger shaping up anyway?" she inquired to divert from the subject of Marshall.
Brandi immediately took the bait and started making kissy-faces at her son, admiring his unfathomable ginger locks. She even danced her fingers across the freckles on his nose, which made him blink furiously from his spot in Mary's arms.
"Spoiled rotten; that's how he's shaping up…" she mooned girlishly, inches from his face. "But, better now than when mommy goes to work next month…"
Mary had to stop herself from breathing an enormous sigh of relief at this pronouncement. Brandi had a job – a job as a massage assistant where she could work and finish completing the required courses by May. Work, school, and a baby added up to a tall order, and yet a job that Mary had found so idiotic several years before was just a job now. A job that paid money. Merry Christmas indeed.
"You're looking good, Squish…" Mary decided to point out as the three of them made their way to the kitchen, trying not to tread on Oscar and Norah in the process. "Like things aren't so hectic anymore."
"That wasn't a compliment coming out of your mouth, was it?" Brandi inquired, halting at the counter to help herself to trail mix. "Not possible."
"It's Christmas," Mary shrugged it off now that they were near Marshall, who had immediately taken an interest in the red-haired child trying to bat his mother's earrings from two feet away.
"Hi Marshall…" Brandi greeted him quite normally, for which Mary was grateful, and even added a smile. "It's good to see you."
"You as well," he reciprocated. "And your little man. This must be Colin…"
Mary saw him reaching, and she couldn't resist passing him over the counter that stood between them and into Marshall's arms. The man lit up around children, and it was with a heavy heart that Mary realized he must be mourning the absence of kids he would never get to have with Abigail. Watching him make eyes at Colin while Brandi beamed nearby, she found herself wishing so violently he found someone else as soon as his heart would allow. He didn't deserve to be alone.
"Well, look at you, Red…" he proclaimed merrily, fingering the lighter strands of Colin's locks. "Aren't you a handsome fellow?"
"That's my boy," Brandi sang modestly.
With that, the door opened another time just as Jinx made her way over to say hello to Marshall as well; now having gotten her share of muffins. Mary whipped around at the sound of the knob, pleased Marshall was momentarily content with the women and babies, and saw it was Mark who had arrived. Joanna was indisposed for the day, but Mary suddenly realized she was happy to have Mark in the house. In Marshall's absence, he'd become the first real friend she'd had in a long time.
"Hey Mark!" she called, crunching on some snacks herself.
"Hello, all!" he answered, but his voice was drowned by the enchanted wail of a little girl who not-so-many days before had been fearful of all but her mother. Marshall being her new caretaker had taught her to trust more freely.
"Da!" Norah shrieked, not lacking in vigor for even a second. She scrambled to her feet, hands clasped in front of the bib on her overalls in obvious unfathomable joy. New life had been breathed into her. "Da-da; tee! Tee!" she gestured at the faux-evergreen in the corner, just as Mark lumbered his way in.
He was cautionary for a moment, eyeing Oscar with apprehension, but the dog merely watched. There was unmistakable skepticism in his brown eyes, but nothing more was done.
"Hi angel…" the man hummed sweetly upon seeing his path was clear. "Don't you look festive in your red shirt?" and Mary had tried so hard to avoid that feeling, she recalled with scorn.
Mark immediately boosted Norah into his arms, clearly thrilled as well as baffled at what appeared to be a sudden change in mood. He'd been devastated when she'd reverted after her tumble and refused to go near anyone but Mary and the woman couldn't blame him. But now, his blonde-headed baby was making up for it as she snuggled in near him, buttons on her overalls crackling against his chest.
"Hello my sweet girl…" he rubbed her shiny hair, fresh from a bath the night before. "Let daddy see your head; I want to see if you still have a boo-boo…"
Mary cringed at the use of the phrase, as he made his way to her on the outside of the counter through his examination. He, like his ex, was pleased with the result.
"Can hardly tell it's there now…" Mark reported, leaning to lay a peck on Mary's cheek. "She's been feeling better, I guess?"
"Well, she's had to get used to the company…" Mary admitted. "With Marshall around."
This led to more pleasantries being exchanged by the men, as Mark thanked Marshall for spending so much time with Norah while they all wrapped up work before the holidays. Marshall, predictably, was humble and said he didn't mind at all. Mary couldn't help noticing that, despite his efforts, he still seemed a bit glum. Maybe all the people hadn't been the best idea, even if he was able to conceal his troubles for a little while.
Meanwhile, Norah was becoming fidgety with so many prospects in front of her, and it was clear her enthusiasm with Mark was going to be rather short-lived.
"Mama…" she requested now that they were so near each other, extending her arms to reach. "Mama…bocks…" she asked for her favorite toy as Mark gave a resigned, but genial sigh.
"Had to have known this wouldn't last…" he teased as he handed his daughter over to her mother. Norah latched on at once in Mary's touch, sprawling her arms all down her back, resting her chin on her shoulder. "Guess I should be grateful I got even a couple minutes in."
"Get yourself some food," Mary advised to make him feel better. "I need to figure out something for her to do so she's not tripping people."
Mark followed the suggestion and made for the island, leaving Mary and Marshall alone, now that Colin was back with Brandi. Norah was still whining for her blocks, but Mary had to shake her head and tell her no.
"No blocks right now…" she lamented, fixing a droopy strap on Norah's overalls while she had her. "How 'bout a book?"
"No book…" she moaned sourly.
Mary could've expected that, but had no better options right now and instead decided to let her daughter wallow momentarily while she had Marshall to herself. He was looking wistful and a little more pensive then he might be ordinarily. Mary did not have to ask why, but it was probably pertinent to inquire on how much.
"Hey…" she started simple to recall his glance, and his eyes journeyed to the voice that was addressing him; blank and slightly unfocused. "Are you okay?"
He sighed, "As okay as I'm ever going to be right now," he admitted. "But…" he shook his head, trying to smile affably. "I don't want to ruin the party," he stuffed his hands in his pockets.
"Well, it's not like people wouldn't understand…" Mary offered at once, arms becoming sore with Norah on board. "Not that you are ruining the party, I'm just saying…"
"I shouldn't be here," Marshall cut her off, placing his beer bottle on the counter with somewhat of a loud thud.
Mary didn't know what that meant, but intended to find out as soon as possible. It was awkward, having to speak over Norah's leech-like stance. She might've been improving, but when provided all her choices, Mary was still the best one in her very young eyes.
"What do you mean?" she shifted, wanting to be on the other side of the counter; as to be closer to him. "Here at the house, or…?"
"Here at the party," Marshall decided quietly, eyeing the empty contents of his bottle. "It's your family, and I don't belong…"
"Hold up," Mary slipped in sharply, and she took her own advice by skittering around the counter to be directly in front of him. Luckily, the rest of the group was on its way to the living room. "You are family. That's why you're here. I thought you knew that."
Marshall shrugged and Mary was struck once more by how much taller he was than her. He didn't look imposing right now, however, which was how Stan often seemed despite his more miniscule stature. Marshall just looked bummed and run-down. He didn't know what he wanted anymore.
"Have you eaten anything?" she asked when he gave no response.
"I'm not very hungry."
"Maybe later…" Mary didn't want to push him. "Is there something I can get you?"
He smiled a little more freely at her evident generosity; at how hard she was trying to lift his spirits. He wasn't sure whether the one thing he wanted was very appropriate for this moment, but she'd asked and seemed to want to help in whatever way she could. He loved her for that.
"You think I could…?" he hedged, and then decided to just move on. "Take Norah back to her room for a bit?" he inquired. "She'll need someone to play with and then she won't be in everyone's way."
Mary's heart, already somewhat fragile when it came to Marshall these days, couldn't say no. She immediately gave up her daughter, shifting her off her hips and into Marshall's arms. This prompted a few pitiful whimpers from Norah at being detached from her mother, but she offered a few soothing words before they took off.
"Go with Marshall…" she encouraged, noting Norah's suspicious dark green eyes with the suggestion. "Mama's right out here. Marshall's gonna play with your blocks…" she teased invitingly with a silly smile.
The fright eased, "Bocks?" she blinked innocently at the man.
"That's right…" he sang.
And without further ado, he was off to the bedroom, ready for whatever game Norah wished to inflict upon him in the minutes to come. Mary couldn't deny him the pleasure of something that made him so happy, but did hope when he was feeling a little more like himself he would return to the party. She didn't like to think of him hiding, and others would wonder where he'd gotten to.
Mary's qualms about Marshall disappearing proved right on the money when she commenced with the others in the living room. All of them were settled in couches and chairs, munching heartily on all the finger foods.
"Honey, where's Marshall?" Jinx butted in while the aforementioned took the only free spot – on the floor next to Mark in his chair. "Won't he be joining us?"
"He just took Norah back to her room for a bit," she attempted to be nonchalant, easing herself down to the ground. "She needs a buddy. You know how much she likes being the center of attention," the mother fabricated.
Nobody really seemed to fasten on to this statement; nobody believed it. Mary was beginning to wish she hadn't said anything in regards to Marshall's plight. Jinx and Brandi were likely to have bought into a pack of lies much better. Mark and Delia wouldn't think to ask if they had enough intuition to know something was off. They were a little more tactful than that.
"I feel just terrible for him, darling…" Jinx prattled on, true to form. "He must be so hurt."
Mary was about to shut her up, but Brandi got there first, "He's such a good guy; I can't believe Abigail would do something like this to him…" she rocked Colin and fed him his bottle as she said it. "Are they seriously filing for divorce?"
"Please, as if he needs to fight for that awful witch…" Jinx disagreed, but Mary had heard enough.
"Both of you shut your traps, would you?" she snipped snidely, knowing she sounded very harsh and that Jinx would not appreciate it. "Don't you have any sense of decorum? Are you gonna sit here all day and talk behind his back like a bunch of gossipy schoolgirls?"
"We're on his side!" Brandi protested a little too loudly, and Mary prayed Marshall had shut the door when he'd retreated with Norah. "We want to help…!"
"It's probably better if we let Marshall deal with this however he wants, though…" Delia interjected softly, but assuredly from the chair opposite Mark. "If I know Marshall, he doesn't want our pity."
"He doesn't," Mary surprised herself by agreeing with Delia almost at once. "He just wants to get back on his feet without everyone trying to kiss them in the process."
Fortunately, this quieted the gang, and the only sound was Colin sucking on his bottle. Mary hadn't meant to demand they all see this her way, but she was feeling very protective of Marshall since his troubles had come to light. She'd meant what she said about recognizing how much she relied on Marshall without him around.
"But…thank-you…" she suddenly offered without even thinking about it, seeing how everyone scrutinized her last response. "I know Marshall appreciates it."
With that, the conversation tittered into something more pleasant, but Mary still felt odd. Watching everyone share snacks and stories, talking about plans for the holidays, she felt as isolated as Marshall must back in the bedroom with Norah. It didn't feel right, being out here while he was alone, despite having requested it – especially after doubting he was a part of her family.
Rising from her spot on the floor, she only caught the attention of Mark, who was nearest.
"Where you going?" he asked, craning his neck to look up at her. "You just sat down."
Mary was mindful to drop her voice, "I just think I should probably check on Marshall."
Mark was also discrete, and scanned the room briefly before snooping a bit more delicately than the rest.
"He must be having kind of a hard time," he assumed. "Probably doesn't feel like being around a bunch of people."
"Probably not…" Mary sighed. "Too bad I couldn't figure that out before today."
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Mark said. "You're doing the best you can."
Mary gave him a shy smile to say she was acknowledging his kindness, but was more than happy to leave the group behind in order to unite with her best friend. She was pleased to see that Marshall had shut the door, if not all the way, and so it was easy for her to enter without knocking.
Mary felt certain she couldn't have been gone that long, and yet she found Marshall in the rocking chair, swaying Norah back and forth on the runners. Her daughter was already asleep with her head beneath Marshall's chin; a discarded book resting upon his knee. His eyes ventured upward at the sound of the door, and he smiled at her presence.
"Guess it was naptime…" he commented. "Built a few towers…" he gestured at the abandoned blocks on the floor. "Wore her out quicker than I expected."
"Lot of work being Bob the Builder…" Mary joked, sliding onto the floor, thinking in the back of her mind that she spent far too much time on the ground these days. She tweaked one of Norah's socked feet and went on, "I'll put her down in the crib if you want."
"I would rather keep her here, if it's all the same to you…" Marshall murmured unashamedly.
Mary saw no issue, "Why not? She looks content to me."
Marshall seemed pleased by this, almost proud, and continued his rhythmic rocking to keep Norah from waking. It was hard to talk to him, Mary reflected, as he seemed so large sitting above her – completely out-of-perspective. Then again, lots of things in his life were out-of-perspective at this point.
"I'm sorry about this crowd, Marshall…" she tossed up, nothing better to say. "I don't know why I thought it would help; I guess they mean well, but…"
"No, they do…" he conceded. "I know they do. I thought I'd want to get up and get back to normal too; it's just not as easy as I thought."
"Just because today is easier than yesterday doesn't make it easy yet…" Mary found herself musing quietly, and she saw him nod out the corner of her eye. "Marshall, it's only been like, a week. You can't expect to be a hundred percent yet."
"Maybe not…" he contributed. "It's this emptiness, though…this giant patch where everything was supposed to go…"
Mary chuckled without meaning to, hoping he would give her a chance to explain, because his description had sparked something in her brain. It was so familiar to words she had spoken herself several years before; her and Marshall were of one mind more often than not.
"What?" he asked curiously.
She shifted onto one hand, shaking her hair out of her eyes to get a better look at him. He did not look offended by the laugh; he knew Mary well enough to know she wasn't poking fun. All he had to do was wait.
"I said something…practically those exact words when Raph and I split," she confided in him. "Weird, right?"
Marshall didn't seem to think it was weird at all. He even seemed to find it endearing; that they'd shared something circumstances and years apart. No matter how far flung one of them strayed, they always ended up in the same spot eventually.
"Was it hard for you?" he wondered in a hushed voice, peering down at her from his spot behind Norah's head. "To try and imagine this whole other life down the road – that there even was a future down the road?"
"I don't know…" Mary said honestly, and knew she wasn't going to be able to talk to him from below anymore.
She stood, unable to stay put, and began to pace, fiddling with the stray toys she'd carted into the room over the past few days. Most of them were stacked on top of the dresser, but she was contemplating building shelves in the closet to hold a few things, or crafting a bin to keep them out-of-sight. She spoke as she considered.
"It was harder for me than I let on…" she admitted coolly, not meeting Marshall's eyes. "It was probably when he picked up his things that got to me…" she remembered that day very well. "In fact, I know it got to me," she threw him a sheepish smile.
Norah shifted in her sleep, groaning halfway between satisfied and prickly. Mary thought she might not actually be completely under, but the fact that she felt safe enough to stay down made her heart soar. Marshall needed it right now.
"I'm not sure why I'm asking…" he responded casually, kicking his foot into the carpet to keep the tempo. "It's not really the same thing," he supposed. "I mean, Raph didn't…"
He stopped rather abruptly, Mary reorganizing the clothes in Norah's top drawer somewhat absentmindedly. It took her a moment to become conscious of the fact that he was getting uncomfortable.
"…Not that you weren't hurt…"
Now she got it. He worried he was implying his pain outdistanced hers because Raph hadn't cheated on her. Well, she was far from offended, because there was nothing untrue about his assumptions. She hadn't loved Raph. Marshall did love Abigail.
"Marshall, stop before you hurt yourself…" she said easily, closing the drawer to face him dead-on. "Yeah, I was upset about Raph, and I was a big fat liar when I said I broke up with him…"
"I kind of figured."
"But, just because it's not the same in every way doesn't mean it wasn't the same in some ways," Mary presented less-than-philosophically. "It sucks when you don't know what's coming down the pike. I like when life is mapped out, and Raph threw me for a curve. Not that it was anything compared to the knuckleball Abigail gave you."
Marshall gave her a half-smile, but nothing more, and averted his eyes down to Norah once again. Mary could see that he was basking in the softness of her skin, the gentle way her chest rose and fell beneath his hands. She was truly angelic, especially when asleep. For a week filled with so much unpleasantness, Mary couldn't blame him for soaking up every bit of purity there was left in the world.
"I don't know where I'm supposed to go from here," he eventually claimed, fiddling with the turned-up collar on Norah's turtleneck. "I can't just stay in park."
"Well…" Mary stepped a little closer to him, wishing more and more with each passing moment that she had a chair to sit in as well. She felt demonstrative towering over his hunched form. "There's work. Have you thought anymore about that?"
"Every day," he replied swiftly. "It's probably one of the few things I'm sure about."
Mary's heart began to pick up speed, "How so?" she tried not to sound as over-eager as she felt.
His blue eyes rose to meet hers, far and away displaying their most confident shine since everything Abigail had inflicted upon him.
"Think you can stand having me as a partner again?"
Mary tried not to let the goofy, completely ludicrous smile pop onto her face, but there was no stopping it. It stretched and widened across her cheeks, scrunching her eyes and streaming rays of sunlight into her very soul. Not having him around had been bad enough, but she hadn't honestly been sure if she'd be able to adjust to the idea of him as her boss. She'd have made the attempt, but couldn't help believing it would not bring out her most flattering side.
"I don't know…" she toyed with the idea briefly, not wanting to play her hand too soon. "I'm a pretty tough gal to work with. Sure you're up to the challenge?"
Marshall actually laughed, and it made the lines in his face sink in; streaking the spots where he looked most aged from his recent tribulation. But, Mary was glad to hear the sound nonetheless.
"I'm just not sure I'm ready to accept all the responsibilities as chief yet," he declared, finally standing up slowly to put Norah in her bed for awhile. Mary grinned seeing she had a print imbedded in her skin from where her cheek had pressed into the buttons on Marshall's shirt. "And, it sounds like Hanson's happy where he is."
"Well, he's no Stan…" Mary lamented. "But happy – or else superior – would be the word for it."
Marshall was careful to snuggle Norah appropriately against her pillow so she would be comfortable, and also nestled her rabbit in the crook of her arm – so she wouldn't wake up completely alone. When he turned around, it was with a look of relief with Mary standing right there waiting.
"I'm not sure this doesn't qualify as staying in park…" he settled on. "I mean, we're kind of back where we started, aren't we?"
"Yeah, if you want to look at it that way…" Mary almost scoffed; glad they were right in front of each other now; eye-to-eye. "You could also look at it as going back to your roots – back to where you were doing what you loved. If you ask me, you're lucky to have found what makes your blood pound so early in life."
"And here I thought being lucky wasn't in my vocabulary this week," Marshall quipped. "It's nice to know you can be that open-minded."
"What can I say?" Mary held up her hands in defeat. "I'm a new woman."
Another thought had just occurred to her, and she wanted to voice it before Marshall made the offer to return to the party, as she was sure he was going to. He wasn't one to get a reputation as a spoil sport, and wasn't about to start now. But, Mary intended to keep him as long as she felt necessary. He belonged to no one else right now.
"Well…working with me will probably be a bit much…" she began. "And I can't promise I won't be as hellish and cranky and grouchy as I've always been…"
"Hey, that's the Mary I sighted as my best friend…" Marshall slid in neatly.
"But, if you wanted a place to bunk up…" she shrugged, gesturing around the room in an indication of the rest of the house. "No rush trying to snag a place on the market right now."
It was her way of asking him if he wanted to stay with her. Abigail would have a fit if she found out, but Abigail could do what she wanted. She'd tossed aside a perfectly humble, perfectly wonderful, perfectly honest man who loved her without a second thought. He was Mary's now. In truth, he'd always been Mary's – friends to the end.
"That's really nice of you…" he understood. "But…"
Mary stopped him with a mere wave of her hand. She wanted to show him she still intended to be that best friend she'd yearned for so badly. He didn't need to dispute it all the time. He didn't need to give her an out, or assume she didn't mean what she said. Hell, he out to know by now she always meant what she said.
And, the hand did it. A slow smile crept onto his face, and for a split-second, Mary saw a flicker of that Marshall she knew so well – beneath the beard, the weary eyes, and unkempt hair. Underneath, he was still Marshall.
And polite to the very end, "Thank-you."
"Sure…" a nod was all it needed from Mary. "It's the kind of thing you do for someone you love."
The effect was instantaneous. Everything else fell so seamlessly into place. His eyes weren't lifeless anymore, but beginning to twinkle. His bones weren't so weak, but starting to gain ground. Most of all, the way he carried himself radiated a sense of confidence – minor, but there just the same and even more so as Mary jerked her head and led him back to the door.
"Love you too, Mare…"
He'd neglected it several nights before, after what had been quite a step for her. But, validation wasn't essential.
"Platonically, of course," he felt the need to tack on.
Big words, blue eyes, and boundless heart. Boundless. Yes, he was Marshall. And Mary laughed just thinking about it.
A/N: The End! I really appreciate everyone who has taken the time to read this, and to review. It hasn't been my most beloved story, but it had a nice little circle of followers and it's all about quality, not quantity. Thanks so much to Jayne Leigh, carajiggirl, hannanball13, BrittanyLS, JJ2008, usafcmycloud, thena-ditey, TaleWeaver, JC4ever, MEG, Karmagirl880618, ladypuercoloco, Orion-Starr, Reader1701, redbrainbluebrain, Grey Fool, and many guests! I am so grateful to all of you, and take note of the kind comments.
I am honestly not sure where I am headed from here! I haven't had any ideas on a sequel for this story, but my mind still wants to do something else with Sam (just can't let him go!) and the holiday series – more the holiday series at the moment. But, I should warn you it is going to have to wait. I am insanely busy from now until the end of November, so I will be awhile! Thank-you so much for your support! XOXO