A/N: I am overwhelmed by everyone's support. As I said yesterday, 'My Way Home' was my most popular story by a wide margin until last night. I went several reviews past with everyone hitting that button. Not only that, if you use the review count to filter the stories in the IPS fandom, this one is now the tenth most popular. I am touched by your comments, and sad to see this wrap up. This epilogue is insanely long (so long it might bore you,) and it's possible you may choke on the sappiness, but I hope you enjoy nonetheless.

XXX

Five Years Later:

Mary was grateful the balloons had been red, rather than pink, or even yellow. Red indicated a kind of non-gender-specific quality she had always admired. That was perhaps why she had loved red so much as a child, and had tried to foist such a feeling onto her daughter. She wasn't entirely sure the attempt to embed had been successful, however.

"I kinda wanted some purple ones…" Melissa intoned from the round kitchen table, licking her fingers free of chocolate icing.

Mary turned to look at her, completely uncouth as she smacked her lips, combing every inch of her nails for stray spots of fudge. The ponytail her hair had been in earlier – dirty blonde and with a perfect wave down the center – was askew, having migrated to the side of her head. The absolutely pointless ribbon Jinx had tied in it was falling out too. You could see the rubber band that had so skillfully been concealed beneath.

"Purple what?" Mary eventually inquired, back against the counter.

"Balloons," Melissa answered promptly, still sucking her fingers and reading her mother's mind. "It's my favorite color."

"This week," the elder couldn't help pointing out. "Last week you said it was yellow."

"I changed my mind," the little girl claimed baldly, as though her mother should've known. "Yellow is too vivid!" she squealed on the tail end, throwing out her chocolate-y fingers in her enthusiasm.

Mary could not hide the disbelief or the laugh that escaped at such a proclamation, "Vivid?" she inquired with great skepticism. "Where did you learn a word like that?"

Melissa, an eminence uncanny of the woman standing before her, merely raised her eyebrows without comment as if to say, "Where do you think?"

"Forget I asked," Mary joshed, recognizing the superiority in her five-year-old-face. Migrating over to the table, she questioned the child about the cake, "You leave any for me? Or did you hog it all?" She peered at the remains, all crumbs and smeared frosting, and yet Melissa still shielded it with her hands, a maniacal gleam in her eye. Mary saw the way they sparkled behind her little round glasses, making her look more scholarly than most.

"I thought it was my birthday!" her tongue poked between her teeth.

"Yeah, and what makes that so special?" Mary was careful to sound expertly teasing so her daughter was not the least bit offended. "You think you had a hand in getting here, girl? We've talked about this. Who did the grunt work, huh?"

Melissa merely giggled, more in-tune to her mother's dry wit than any other child so young. But, it was easy to roll with the punches when you grew up with that kind of humor. In any case, both of them knew she was only fooling around. Bedtime stories detailing the fairytale of a three pound baby fighting her restraints in the nursery were the most popular around Chez Shannon. Melissa always got every ounce of credit she deserved.

"You have a good time today, sweets?" Mary went on in a more natural tone, seating herself across from her daughter at the table. "Did you manage to look past that garishly girly dollhouse Jinx picked up for you?"

"I like it…" she emphasized the first letter contemptuously, resuming her feast of cake now that she saw Mary wasn't going to steal it. "Those humans she got to go with it have glasses like mine. They can be scientists, and I can turn the kitchen into their lab. They can concoct a special brew," her large jade orbs danced to life once more just at the prospect.

Mary was simply floored. 'Humans,' not 'people,' and certainly not 'dolls.' 'Concoct' rather than 'make.' And then there was the fact that she wanted her figurines to be scientists rather than mommies and daddies like all the other little girls.

"Make sure Jinx is here when you set that up," her mother joked, leaning her chin into her hand as she contemplated such a thing. "It'll crack her up."

"I know it…" Melissa was anything but deterred. "Remember when Brandi got me those paper dolls? I cut-out my own clothes. I made them into fire chiefs – like the ones that saved you and me," she detailed unabashedly. "Jinx and Brandi thought it was hilarious."

"Hilarious," Mary repeated. "You sure you're five, sweets? You sound about thirty," she brushed over the fact that there had only been one 'fire chief' that had rescued the pair of them, whatever her daughter's imagination.

"Not thirty yet…" she shook her head. "But…"

And suddenly, the little girl's air of complete overconfidence faded. Her eyes, once before so lifelike and jovial, sunk into darkness; their green no longer radiant. Her already matted hair even went limp as she blinked confusedly at her mother. Mary watched her eyebrows furrow and her nose wrinkle, and it was like she was looking back at herself.

"Melissa?" she prompted, wanting to know what this was about, leaning in and squinting. "I was kidding; you know that…"

She did want to confirm sometimes, still befuddled to think she had a kid that grasped her type of sarcasm. Melissa merely shook her head.

"The boys won't miss when I turn thirty, will they?"

Mary couldn't stop herself from smiling sadly at Melissa's downtrodden expression. She had been very caught up in the throes of her birthday, as was any girl of five, but both of them knew the piece that was missing. Much as she loved a good spoiling from Jinx and Brandi with Peter mingling in-between, they were not with whom her heart was strung. It beat on a regular Joe who sold solar panels, a chief with a balding haircut, and a US Marshal with a five-point-star forever fixed on his belt.

"Try not to think about that…" Mary offered as kindly as she knew how. "You got lots of stellar presents," she reminded her, folding her elbows on the table, nodding benevolently.

"Yes…" Melissa bobbed her head properly. "That's true," she sounded so adult, Mary thought. Then again, she always had; precocious as they came. "Jinx even said she would trade me the party shoes she bought for a pair of hiking boots," this seemed to perk her up.

Mary chuckled, "What do you want hiking boots for again?" she couldn't remember the latest escapade.

There was no delay, "For when I go spelunking," it was such a long word it came out sounding more like, 'spell-bunking' but it made no difference. It was amusing no matter what way you sliced it, considering it was only Melissa's mind's eye that was going to take her any such place.

"How could I have forgotten?" Mary played along, but her child didn't smile this time. She averted her eyes to the last few morsels of cake and took her final bites. "At any rate; it'll be awhile before you turn thirty," she reflected, not even wanting to think about that day.

"Twenty-five years," like the brilliant brain she was.

At that moment, there was a rapping knock on the door. Both Melissa and Mary turned at the sound, eyes catching the living room still littered with the after-effects of the party. Streamers were strung against the carpet; balloons running out of gas lingered midair. There were piles of wrapping paper still strewn on the floor, and the aforementioned dollhouse standing oddly sentry in the midst of the chaos.

"Who's that?" Melissa inquired, whipping back to face Mary.

She shrugged, "Don't know. Maybe Brandi or Jinx forgot something. Go ahead and see."

Mary watched the rest in slow motion, watched her daughter push her chair back and run – tappity-tap – across the kitchen floor. Her pale blue party dress was rather bedraggled like the rest of her. The sash that tied around back was coming out of its bow, and the ruffles were crushed against the rest of the fabric. But, Melissa was too active; too energized to bother with it looking nice. Jinx had been disheartened at first, but knew her granddaughter well enough to concede. At least the child was diplomatic enough to put it on.

Slowly, Mary ventured in behind the birthday girl, stopping in the doorway to the living room to see her stand on tip-toe to reach the knob. The act was hauntingly familiar of a dream gone bad she had-had many years before, but something told her the end result would not be the same. The hatch made its creak as the blinding sun emerged, shielding the visitors from view for only a fraction of a second.

That was until the unbridled elation and bliss swept in a fleet through the demolished room; here to wash all disappointment away.

"SURPRISE!"

It was that high-pitched little girl's shriek that turned Mary's smirk of a secret into a genuine grin. She'd lived for this; lived through the entire day pretending the three most important men in her daughter's life were too busy to show up for her birthday. Until now, she'd wondered if such a fib had been worth it. There was no wondering anymore.

Miss it? As if.

Melissa was so shocked by the three familiar faces on her stoop that she couldn't bring herself to speak or even maul them. She spun on the spot to face her shrewd mother, hands clasped in front of her chest as though all her prayers had been answered.

"Mama!" her tone was so sweet with its sincere astonishment. "Mama! They…you said…!"

The words were very literally chased out of her when a long and lanky arm scooped her up from behind, flipping her upside-down as though she were a sack of potatoes. She was tiny; no getting around it. No bigger than the average three-year-old. Brandi lovingly called her, 'Thumbelina.'

"Mama!" the squeal turned into a laugh as she hung by her ankles.

"Guys, come on…" Mary chastised quietly, forever protective. "Her glasses…" they were dangling off one ear.

"Well, that looks like Missy Jean!" Mark proclaimed from Marshall's right, peering into the face of his child, which was fast-growing beet red. He didn't entirely ignore the request about the spectacles and pushed them back onto her nose.

"Mmm…" Stan, on the left, hummed disapprovingly, taking his turn at crouching over an armful of packages. "I don't think so, boys. No-no…" he shook his head, blatantly taunting. "This girl is too big. We caught the wrong one – it's not her birthday."

"Is so! Is so!" Melissa shrieked, growing breathless in seconds from trying to twist herself right-side up.

"I'm not sure we can trust this one, men…" Marshall chimed in, tightening his grip with a tickle, which prompted another laugh from the flailing one below. "She's got the shifty eyes."

"Do not!" Melissa was not about to be deterred. "It is my birthday! You know it's my birthday...!" for someone with their head almost on the ground, her speech was remarkably quick. "Remember?! I'm Melissa Jean Shannon! I was born on August 11th! I was only three pounds! Marshall…!"

A mirthless, delighted giggle was more inviting than finishing and she shimmied upward, the man in the middle still holding her firmly by her feet. Mary was grateful she had on shorts underneath that ridiculous dress.

"You were there!" funny, how she could always spot her mother's sarcasm a mile away, but she always played along with these three. "Mama, tell him he was there!"

She batted her eyes furiously across the room, waiting for her mother to confirm such an event. Mary stayed where she was, reveling in every second, and then nodded solemnly.

"She's innocent, this one…" the woman held up her hands. "Looks like you found the right girl."

"Well, that's assuming we can rely on your word, inspector…" Marshall waffled, but his eyes twinkled and he loosened his grip briefly to hitch Melissa around, hoisting her into the crook of his arm. "I'll be doing a background check."

"Yeah, get right on that," Mary scoffed.

But, the games were over. Free to grapple and cling, Melissa was now perched aloft with the man who had, indeed, been there at her appearance. He planted what sounded like a very wet kiss right in the middle of her forehead, while Mark and Stan attacked her cheeks. Shameless, they were. One little girl could turn three full-grown men into a puddle of mush.

"Happy birthday little Missy…" Marshall sang.

"Guess we got it figured out after all…" Mark conceded, ruffling her hair.

"You knew it all along, Mark," Melissa dictated, never having been much for official titles. "All along."

"Happy fifth, captain," Stan gave her a light punch with his fist. "You're in the big leagues now."

Melissa ignored all salutations, hardly able to inhale and exhale with all the stimulation whirling in her very veins. Mary couldn't help noticing how she gripped at Marshall like he was the edge of a cliff; she might've been cutting off his circulation. But, even as she clutched, her eyes darted from Mark, to Stan, and back again. She was in love, and she was not the only one.

"Mama said you weren't coming…" she couldn't resist pointing out, Marshall shifting her in the air so she would be a bit more comfortable. "She said you were working – all of you! She said all of you were working!" she clearly could not get past the idea that she'd been duped so spectacularly.

"A birthday would not be a birthday without a little surprise," Marshall told her. "It is tradition."

"And who needs solar panels in this heat anyway…" Mark chimed in, fiddling with the droopy bow on her sash peeking out between Marshall's arms. "Sun roasts things better than we do. This is the hottest August we've had since I moved here."

Marshall shot Mary quite a significant look at these words as he began to mosey in toward the living room. His eyes didn't leave her as he said, "Not entirely the hottest."

This garnered no response from the other party-dwellers, but Mary understood it for what it was. Temperature aside, no August was going to rise to the lengths of a raging fire in a burning building. The competition had already been decided on that one.

"Join us, inspector…" Stan offered with a wave of his hand as the men settled themselves on either the couch or the floor. "Marshall and I don't have to be back at work for a couple hours."

"So, who's handling the desk?" Mary inquired as she abided his request, noticing how Mark took up residence on the ground below Marshall and Melissa on the sofa. "Not Eleanor. It better not be Eleanor."

Stan sighed, "You know she's been managing everything like clockwork since they sent her back our way. It's been four years. You'd think you would be used to it," he assumed.

"You would think…" Mary muttered under her breath, knowing the role she was supposed to play.

"I like Eleanor," Melissa piped up, Mary settling herself beside the crew. Mark, absurdly, was starting to examine the figures from the dollhouse. "Her snickerdoodle cookies are the best," it was as though she were giving some sort of review. "And she's funny."

"Hilarious, you mean?" Mary quipped, remembering her use of the word earlier, but Melissa paid no attention. She was too busy roving the buttons on Marshall's shirt, giggling when Stan stuck his finger in her sides and turning her attention to his maroon tie.

"So, Missy Jean…" Mark craned his neck from the floor to address the child. "How was the party? Did you guys have a good time?" his gaze darted to Mary as he asked.

"Yes…" she nodded vigorously, accurate as ever. "But, I really didn't think you were going to be here!" nothing else mattered now; the day could've been a total bust and it made no difference. This was what she'd wanted. "Did you know they were coming, mama? Did you?" her eyes were wide and mystified behind her round frames.

Mary tousled her hair affectionately, "My little secret, sweets. Least I can do for a girl tough enough to survive a blaze before she's born."

Melissa's ears definitely perked up at this, and she bounced in Marshall's lap. Mary knew even before she opened her mouth what the question was going to be, but despite her origination of the topic, she wasn't quite in the mood right now.

"Can you tell the story?" she asked eagerly. "Please? About when I was born?"

Marshall sensed it wasn't the time and hurried to the rescue, "That's a bedtime story, Missy. The sun has not gone down quite yet. Think you can hold on?"

Melissa huffed, "I guess."

"Well…" Marshall was quick to lift her spirits. "A bit more of a haul might make the wait a little easier. Mark and Stan have got your loot…" he indicated the shorter man, holding an entire pile of gifts. "Why don't you take them into the kitchen and start shaking them up?"

Melissa bit her lip in her anticipation, and nodded quickly, not before asking her most essential question, "You're coming, Marshall?"

He bobbed his head slowly, "I would not miss it. Give me a few minutes with mother dearest, here…" he inclined his head at Mary. "And I'll be right there."

This satisfied her momentarily, and she clambered off Marshall's lap, helped along by Mark who had stood to be her escort. Stan followed, clattering boxes enticingly as they journeyed to the kitchen.

Marshall, however, hung back as promised and Mary's autonomy kicked on when she stood up. His arm wove around her back, and hers did the same like it had a mind of its own. The one that hung at her side found Marshall's fingers on her side and closed in. The way he held her hand was one of her favorite things about him. It was like clarification, day after day, that he would always be there for her to reach for in the middle of the night.

Watching Missy settle herself comfortably at the table, he posed the query, "So…" he began lightly. "Did you find the cloak-and-dagger had any merit?"

Mary smiled up at him, awe written in every line in her face, "You heard the scream, didn't you?"

"That I did…" Marshall couldn't disagree. "I just wondered if it was so ultrasonic due to a despondent day. Did she actually have fun with Jinx and Brandi?" he forever worried. "Since part of that 'working' fib was true. For me and Stan, at least."

Mary shrugged, her nails digging into his spine as she pulled him closer into her groove.

"Sure," she was mostly honest. "I wasn't sure I'd actually convinced her you weren't on your way until I saw her open that door. Guess I'm a decent liar," she hunched her shoulders again. "Positive or negative?"

Marshall's blue eyes shone with his adoration of her, for he had to look down to see her face, rather than up. "Well, you can decide if you would like to use your powers for good, rather than evil."

"I'll have to get back to you on that," Mary retorted.

Both went silent then, still observing the goings-on in the kitchen. Mark was doting where Melissa squirmed in her chair. He actually slipped her fair-haired streaks out of their ponytail and redid it, raking his fingers through the strands. Mary wasn't all that surprised to see him fasten the ribbon another time; he was finicky about such things, and she'd never known why. Stan was rattling packages in the seat across from the girl, offering suggestions under his breath. Melissa shook her head and giggled every time, seemingly not even noticing Mark's grooming.

"It doesn't feel real sometimes," the mother intoned out of nowhere, knowing it was Marshall's gentle up-down rhythm on the curve of her middle that was doing it. "This…"

Her words trailed away, eyes fixated on the trio beyond, knowing it was just two shy of complete. Marshall, as Marshall always did, sensed where the phrase had been headed regardless.

"I would say this is as real as it gets," he dictated. "A happy, healthy child is the gift it is forever touted. Wouldn't you say?" he chanced a glance to see if Mary was listening.

She was, but what she was actually thinking was that not near as many people had the gift she did. She had a daughter that had withstood prematurity, smoke, flames, and underdeveloped lungs. A small stature and bad eyesight were a bee sting in contrast.

"Is it strange that I think she's like…?" Mary shook her head. "I don't know. This…" Marshall squeezed, and that got her moving forward. "This…marvel compared to other kids?"

Marshall just laughed, which was not something Mary was expecting, but his words proved that it fit in its own way. "Missy is your child, right? Marvel sounds pretty close."

Mary wasn't sure whether he was saying she was correct because all women thought their children were perfect, or because of the circumstances surrounding Melissa's birth, but she didn't care. He understood, and it was this that enabled her to open up a little more. He was pushing her in the direction of the kitchen now, seeing Melissa get antsy trying to wait to open her presents.

"I don't know…" Mary found herself repeating, making her feet move with Marshall's. "Her birthday is just weird to me. It's not like I'm sad, but it's not like I'm happy either."

"Faultlessly logical," Marshall claimed without even a beat in-between. "You have done remarkable as the years have gone on, Mare," he praised. "Nearly losing your life on the same day your child is born is something not-so-many have to grapple with."

He reminded her of this whenever she needed, but she still felt there was something wrong with the way she became enclosed on this day of all days. You were supposed to bask in your offspring's entrance into the world, not wallow in whatever hazards it had caused you. Hell, if she'd gone through labor she'd have had the same experience as other broads. They managed to forget the pain and the interminable hours lingering beforehand. She couldn't?

Marshall stopped their ascent around the outside counter, seeing that he had lost Mary in her thoughts.

"Hey…"

He snaked his own arm back to his side, and then placed a hand on her shoulder. She snapped her eyes onto him, Melissa's anticipation just a distant hum in her ears.

Marshall's gaze was soft and filled with humility. She could act this way every year, and she was pretty sure he wouldn't blink. She loved him for a reason, after all.

"Missy's here," he reminded her calmly, gripping the bone in her shoulder a bit harder than he might've done ordinarily. "When the rest invades, just remember that one thing. Knowing she's here and that she's okay can squash everything else for awhile until you're ready to think about it."

Mary cocked her head, so endeared to the way he had altered his approach to suit whatever she wanted or needed. Underneath, he was not letting her get out of dealing with her feelings, but was giving her the opportunity to batten the hatches until a later date. When she wasn't willing to run as far as she needed to cope, he reeled her in as far as possible until the moment presented itself.

When she was ready. When she was ready.

"Mama!" the familiar voice called impatiently. "Marshall! Stan and Mark say I can't open until you come over!" she whined. "Come on!" she beckoned with a wild arm.

Marshall did his diplomatic duty by patting one more time, but then his focus was all for the little girl who made his life worth living. He practically goose-stepped to the table in mock-excitement, causing Mary to roll her eyes and tune back in. In typical Marshall fashion, he didn't take his own chair, but used his super-strength to lift Melissa out of her own.

She squeaked out a very girlish, "Marshall! Don't!"

He hopped, straddle-style, over the back of the chair and had settled her back in his lap before she could begin to catch up. Quick like a fox and never once missing an opportunity to delight.

"Ready to go!" he kissed the top of her newly-styled hair and rested his chin upon her head. "Party's over here, Mare…" he reminded his woman.

When Marshall waggled his fingers, Mary caught the gray band on his fourth in the light; shining and sterling silver. After four years, she still wasn't used to seeing it, especially since it was still too big and he had yet to have it resized. She forever reprimanded him for letting it slip up and past his knuckle. He retorted that the day he was allowed to get her something with a stone was the day he'd adjust. So far, she'd stuck with the gold band, sans sparkles.

"Well, girly…" Mary began, taking the seat between Mark and Stan with the birthday girl on her right. "Before you open anything, I think there are a few words we should hear first…" she put a hand to her ear, playing silly despite the fact that she was serious. "Starts with a T…"

"Not a T!" Melissa corrected her, nearly knocking into Marshall's chin as she bounced up. "A 'T-H!' It makes a different sound!"

"Whatever," the mother shook her head. "If you know it so well, why don't you say it?"

Melissa smiled sweetly at Mark and Stan across the table, "Thank-you for the presents," it was rehearsed, but Mary didn't care. "They are very nice," she turned her face upward to give the last words to Marshall.

Stan just chuckled, "You don't even know what they are yet, captain," he was referring to the 'nice' comment. "We could've gotten you a bunch of boring clothes."

"That's okay," Melissa shrugged, reaching for the first box, shielding her outstretched armpits from Marshall's tickling. "When they get old I can make them into flags – for my scientist lab," she indicated the dollhouse. And then she reiterated, "Thank-you very much."

Gratitude was a big lesson in the Shannon household. Even so, Mary couldn't let the sappiness go by unnoticed.

"All right…" she waved an eager hand. "That's enough gushing. Have at 'em," and she gestured toward the tower of gifts with a jerk of her head.

Mary watched in nothing but utter amusement as her daughter, perched on Marshall's lap, opened the oddest array of presents she'd ever seen. Paper flying, she glimpsed decorative, shimmering feather boas in all colors for the days Melissa felt like feigning royalty. She saw a box that indicated there was to be a revolving solar system inside upon assemblage.

There were three stuffed animals – one for each man – including a lion, an iguana, and something that resembled a pelican, but which might've been a duck. Mary wasn't sure, but Melissa didn't flinch. She roared and squawked with the best of them, until she came to the lizard.

"Iguanas don't make a sound," she informed Marshall stoutly.

"Maybe not," he agreed. "Ask Mark what he thinks. He's the one who got it for you."

Mark was not one for technical jargon, "Show me your tongue, Missy Jean. Don't they do that a lot?" he appealed to Marshall. "That's the best we can do."

But, Melissa was pleased with the suggestion and started poking her tongue in and out of her mouth – the perfect iguana. She descended into giggles as Mark began to do the same. They were a trip, Mary thought, and she knew in just one glance that her child was going to be spoiled to the maximum. If not spoiled rotten.

With this thought, Mary heard the buzzing of her cell phone on the counter. She was about to tell Melissa to sit tight while she got it, but she needn't have done. Now that the opening of presents had commenced, she was a busy bee and needed her mother no longer. Signaling to Marshall and getting his approval, Mary stood and marched over to the sink.

Staring at the screen, the number seemed unfamiliar but that didn't mean anything. Her title at WITSEC these days was unofficial; instead of one who catered to the new witnesses, she kept tabs on the old three or four years down the road. This gave Marshall and Stan the opportunity to blast the nutters in the field.

"Mary Shannon," she answered in an undertone, on the off-chance Melissa was listening.

The lingo with which she was familiar warbled through her cell; accepting the out-of-state ringer along with the charges. This told her it was most definitely a witness long-since relocated, and she just hoped nothing was wrong.

Finally, there came a young and sweetly innocent voice, "Hello?" it was timid, but resolute as well.

"Yeah…" the Marshal was short. "This is Mary."

"Hi Mary…" the tone became more reminiscent with each passing letter, even with five years of time between them. "It's Cassidy."

Mary grinned against her will, wondering how it was possible year-after-year for her to forget that this call always came. Maybe it was because the timbre always sounded a little bit older; a little more matured. It was the same and yet vastly different all at once. There was years of experience etched in every syllable.

"You on a secure line?" was her first question.

The twelve-year-old laughed, "You know you ask me that every time I call."

"Part of my job," Mary was not deterred, but she was teasing. "But, it sounds like whoever is taking care of you up there does the thing properly. For now."

"Well…" Cassidy went quieter still. "They've got a lot to live up to."

Despite the fact that it was expected anymore, the appreciation still overwhelmed Mary a little. She'd taken it to heart, it was true, but she still didn't look at herself as some sort of hero. She'd done everything she'd known how to do; she'd acted on the instincts wired into her from age seven. It had paid off – nothing more, nothing less.

Still, the yearly phone call indicated it leaned toward 'more' rather than 'less.'

"Did Melissa have a good birthday?" Cassidy inquired when Mary didn't respond. "Did Marshall and Stan come?" she didn't know about Mark; never had, and it almost made Mary sad, but the details were better kept under wraps anymore.

To avoid, she responded in kind, "Don't you mean Chief Queen?"

Mary could picture the redhead rolling her eyes on the other end, "I was seven," she chuckled. "I didn't know 'McQueen' was a last name."

"Hey, I'm not faulting you…" Mary told her. "We've learned to love it around here."

Even without getting an answer to the query about Melissa's birthday, Cassidy was smart enough to know that the conversation was even partially blocked off. She'd grown used to it; it was important to keep the past in the past when it came to WITSEC. Mary always let a few things slip, but that was because they were careful. Cassidy had been one of the most careful witnesses she'd ever had.

"Well, I know you probably can't talk for very long…" the girl assumed, remembering previous dealings over the phone. "I just didn't want you to think I'd…" a sigh. "…That I'd…" another pause, and then, "That I'd…forgotten, or anything."

She was trying to be nonchalant, but the inspector could hear the need for approval lingering underneath. Cassidy couldn't stand the idea that Mary might not know she was still grateful all these years later. Well, it was a hard thing to neglect, Mary conceded – having your life saved. She'd been there. The appreciation, when it mattered most, never washed away.

"I didn't think you had, Cassidy," she promised. "I won't forget either. Count on it."

"Okay…" she was preteen now, and she sounded the part. "My dad says hi too."

Mary took this at face value, "The boys do too," she referred to Stan and Marshall, fabricating just a little to appease her charge. "Take care, kid."

"Yeah…"

Cassidy didn't appear quite ready to let go, even though she knew how short such conversations usually were. Mary was patient, waiting her out, reminding herself forcefully of a night many years before when this same girl had called her crying for help, crying for the past to bring her home. It was funny; though Mary hadn't said the words or acted as such, she'd felt the same way. She'd yearned for what she could never get back instead of what might lie ahead, just as Cassidy had.

"Mary…" she was prepared now. "I know it sounds stupid. I mean, you might not get it…"

Her voice was a whisper, "Try me."

Cassidy exhaled through the speaker, and then, "It's crazy, but…" a beat. "I wouldn't change anything. I mean, even when I thought I was gonna…"

Die.

"You know…" she segued as Mary thought what Cassidy had not voiced. "I know that still could've happened," they were really good at keeping it in the vault, both with mutual understanding of the code. "But, I wouldn't trade it. I don't think I'd have it as good as I do now without…this."

She meant WITSEC. And maybe, just maybe…

"Even with the school…"

The fire.

"I wouldn't trade it," she concluded. "I just wouldn't." She just had to ask, "Would you?"

Mary didn't have an instinct in that moment. She didn't have a gut reaction that told her one way or the other. She thought about her life before the fire. She'd been dithering around about becoming a mother. She'd been hanging onto foolish memories of a father who was never coming back. She'd had a boss she'd taken for granted, an ex-husband she'd claimed herself above, and a partner. A partner who worshipped the ground she walked on and she'd been too afraid to see it. Not to mention a mother and sister, ready to grow up if only the prickly eldest could let them pass through the gates.

Behind her, she heard Missy laughing and crumpling her paper. She heard the voices of three men who were going to watch her grow up or die trying.

Or die trying.

"I wouldn't, Cassidy."

It wasn't a lie.

"I wouldn't," she repeated. "I'll see you, okay?" even though she wouldn't. "Take care of yourself."

Cassidy said she would, and Mary was finally permitted to hang up. Even after she did, she couldn't make herself turn around to rejoin the group. They were perfectly content in the world beyond; Melissa's universe so often consisted of the trio and only the trio. They were so much more than her heart and soul. They were her life blood. Her anything; her everything. Mary had said there would be no competition, and there wasn't. Nothing on earth compared to Marshall, Mark, and Stan.

The chortling became so pronounced; Mary had to do an about-face. When she did, all sentimentality was hounded out of her by the booming, spontaneous cackle that escaped at seeing 'the boys' suddenly dressed for the occasion. Marshall, Mark, and Stan were actually wearing the feather boas they'd given Missy; Stan in green, Mark in yellow, and Marshall in bright pink.

"Oh, this is a pretty picture…" she declared, meandering back over. "Sweets, this is just sad…" she addressed Melissa, slipping the phone into the pocket of her jeans. "Did you do this to them?"

"Yeah, right!" Melissa puffed. "Like it's my fault they want to look like girls!"

"Because femininity hurts us," Marshall scoffed. "Am I wrong, boys?"

"I'd be speaking for yourself on that one, inspector," Stan interjected, looking particularly ludicrous with his bald head. "Where are we headed Missy?" he asked. "Since we're all dressed up now."

"Marshall said we were racing!" she reminded them with vigor. "In the yard! Can't we?"

This didn't surprise Mary in the least. Melissa wasn't much for sports, but she was a sprinter at heart. She went nowhere without running; she wanted to see who could go the fastest or the longest at any given moment. She constantly wished to be timed to see if she was getting any quicker, and Mary had never understood the fascination. But, she was like the wind, or else the flames her mother reflected with a lurch. Undeterred and never slowing down.

"Well then, let's go!" Mark responded, and there was much scraping of chairs, decorative feathers dangling with the rise. "Is this a team thing, Missy Jean?" he inquired. "Because if it is, you know you're captain and that means you've got to pick your favorite."

This was the oldest game in the book; all the men clamoring to be told they were number one. Stan pointed at himself, mouthing and swishing his boa. Mark shook his head at the displays and tried to get his child's attention by shoving Stan to the side. Melissa could only giggle and shake her head, too smart to be baited as such.

"One-on-one…" she was diplomatic. A very coy smile escaped, "I don't have a favorite."

Even as she said it, Mary couldn't help but notice the way she swung on Marshall's hand, fingers firmly ensconced inside his. There was the way her eyes traveled to his face as she nixed the thought of picking a side, blinking shyly beneath her glasses. Mary kept her feelings to herself, but she knew.

No favorite, her ass.

Her thoughts were confirmed as Melissa pulled the longest and lankiest of the three through the back door, not about to let him escape, Stan and Mark shuffling along in their wake.

It was boiling outdoors, just as Mark had reported. The sun hung lofty in the sky, despite the fact that it was nearing six o'clock; it beat as if it were high noon, scorching the back of Mary's neck. Only the faintest tinge of orange lingered on the horizon, tempting those who dappled in nature of cooler winds to come. The backyard wasn't very big, but Melissa was content to start and run from one wooden fence to the other. The scuffs from her shoes were imprinted on the timber.

In preparation for a race or five, the men began removing their adornments. No place to put them, Mary suddenly found herself a coat rack.

"Have a wrap, inspector…" Stan invited, draping her neck in his emerald boa while Mark followed suit with the yellow. She rolled her eyes at their nerve, but they paid no attention. "You deserve to look like the hostess you are."

Mark chortled loudly, but Mary only had words for her boss, "Funny," she dripped with acidity, swinging the green around like a scarf. "With those tassels and all, I really thought you'd be reaching for your scepter, Chief Queen."

Mark, fortunately, had busied himself unlatching Melissa's party shoes in the grass, for she claimed she could run better without. Stan, however, smiled softly and stole away with the opportunity.

"That who was on the phone?" he whispered while he removed his jacket and began rolling his shirt sleeves.

Mary nodded, "Yeah," she was grateful for her ability to have men that read her mind like an open book, something she used to detest.

Then again, she was grateful for a lot of things she didn't used to be, and her reflection must've shown on her face. Stan narrowed his eyebrows, knowing the sort of feelings Cassidy brought on for Mary. She understood the need for that annual check-up, yes. But still. Birthday or no, it was still a strange day.

"You good?" he posed, still in an undertone, which seemed so unnatural for all the joviality going on right beside them. "You need to talk about anything?"

"No…" Mary shook her head, and she was being truthful. She could talk later, if need be. She had a whole fleet waiting for her to spill her guts. "Cassidy's old hat by now," she only used the name because she knew no one else was listening, Marshall going through ludicrous warm-up motions against the fence. But, she saw the uncertainty in Stan's features and was quick to placate him, "I'll let you know."

Her chief, queenly or otherwise, seemed satisfied with the leeway and extended a hand to pat Mary's back. She smiled sheepishly at the gesture, feeling conspicuous even without the other three watching. And evidently, motions weren't the only thing on Stan's mind.

"We're here, kiddo…"

It wasn't so different from what Marshall had promised. Melissa was here. And so were they.

"Not just for the captain," he ticked his head in the direction of the child. "For you too. Got it?"

"Yeah…" Mary laughed to show him she did, feeling the sting of tears behind her eyes. She wasn't sure where they came from, but August 11th often inspired more emotion than she could handle. She'd never figured it out, but that was why she had Marshall. "Yeah, I got it." She reached out briefly to give him a pat too, "Better get on it. Melissa will get all out-of-joint if you're not in the first sprint."

Little left to do and somewhat worn-out from a day of partying, Mary stood with her back against the fence and slid down it, knees pulled to her chest in the late evening sunset. Marshall, Mark, Stan, and Melissa herself were perched against the lumber, flexing their legs in preparation for the run.

"Mama, I need you to count," Melissa proclaimed before beginning.

"Count what?" she inquired to make sure, squinting up at the foursome, lamenting that she'd disregarded her sunglasses.

"How long it takes us to get back," her daughter continued.

"These slowpokes...?" Mary gave an indistinct nod to the boys. "I'll be timing all day. How about I just clock you?"

Before Melissa could answer, Mark was on it, "Some way for a lady to talk," he referred to the insult.

But, Mary still remained astonished at the quick wit of this kid, "Get used to it boys!"

The phrase earned her a chorus of chuckles and Marshall couldn't resist patting her head affectionately. Mary could practically breathe in the light in his eyes; the sheer radiance that glowed from his very heart. She'd never known a man who could spend every waking minute with a child that wasn't even his and still relish the twenty-fifth hour if it were ever to come. They lived in the same house. They woke up together; they ate breakfast together. There was no pulling them apart unless Stan and Mark were there too, and yet Marshall never, ever got enough.

He'd meant what he said – his little Missy, through and through.

"All right, on your mark…" Mary started the rehearsed line. "Get set…"

She was still sitting on the ground, watching the figures loom above in shadow. She could see the smudges on Melissa's glasses from the way the sunshine hit the frames. Stan's bald head was extra-shiny, Mark's form more curved and relaxed. Marshall, of course, had a silhouette-length to rival even a giraffe.

"Go!"

And off they bolted, Melissa shrieking and squealing the whole way, but it didn't stop her for anything. They looked preposterous, Mary reflected. Completely and utterly insane; Stan striding along, pumping his short arms and legs. Mark at an easy jog, pretending to grab Melissa's sash in the back of her dress. Then there was Marshall, taking giant leap after giant leap, begging Missy to try and catch up. She darted ahead of him time and again; thrill not lost no matter how many times she jumped in front.

"I'm gonna win! I'm gonna win!" her daughter announced as she combed ahead, helped along by their expertly hanging back.

Mary fully expected to see Melissa touch the fence and dance in victory as usual, when she surprised her. As soon as she reached her mother, she bounded almost face-first to the ground, sailing in a nosedive in Mary's lap. She was breathless and her joints were trembly from running.

"Melissa?" Mary questioned skeptically, trying to pull the dirty blonde hair from her chest. "What are you doing, sweets? Are you okay?"

But, it couldn't have been more obvious she was elated as she emerged; ponytail fallen-out once more, whatever Mark's brave attempts to fix it. Mary was forced to push the glasses back to the bridge of her nose, eyes glimmering beneath. Dark green – exactly like Mary's.

"What are you doing?" Mary repeated, anchoring the miniscule body in her arms and trying not to think about the memories it evoked.

The boys hung back, chatting in the grass and watching the scene with an attentive eye.

Melissa finally answered, "Thank-you, mama."

Mary unintentionally frowned, "For what, girly?"

"For letting the boys come," she was prompt in her answer. "I said thank-you to them, but I didn't say thank-you to you."

"Oh, well that's okay…" she assured her with a casual wave her hand, feeling how hard she was breathing with her sprawled on her chest in the grass. "Don't worry about it…"

"That's not what you say," Melissa shook her head confidently. "You said we always say thank-you. No matter what, right?"

Mary couldn't deny she'd pounded this into her daughter since…

Well, since the beginning. Since Cassidy.

"Yeah, that's true," she conceded. "No matter what."

Melissa smiled a nearly-toothless grin at being correct and glanced to the pack behind her one more time. Mary could see the high-esteem in which she held them in every inch of her features. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing they weren't and nothing they couldn't do. The perfect three.

"They're the best birthday present I have ever gotten," she finished kindly.

Mary couldn't resist clarifying, "You see at least one of them every day," she was trying not to give herself too much credit.

"Yes," she agreed. "But, it wouldn't be the same without them."

It wouldn't, Mary thought. In more ways than one. It wouldn't be the same without them. On that syrupy thought, the men bounded back into their midst, galumphing and galloping so over-dramatically it was embarrassing. Marshall and Stan argued loudly for Melissa's benefit about the real winner, while Mark appealed to the child.

"Why do you go a round in the big leagues?" he asked, leaning on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. "Marshall and Stan need some competition," he jerked his thumb at the pair. "I'm winded, Missy Jean."

Melissa, thankfulness fulfilled, pushed herself off Mary's chest and to her feet. She shook her hair out of her eyes and Mark reached out to remove her spectacles. He rubbed them on his shirt so they were free of smudges and sweat, and then replaced them. Forever sprucing her up. It still surprised Mary. She'd have thought Marshall would be the one with particulars.

"Okay…" she agreed to his suggestion. "But, Mark?"

"What?" he had to narrow his eyes to see through the setting sun.

"Will you come back a different day and help me set up my solar system?" she asked politely. "I do not want it to go to waste," she finished, sounding the adult once more.

"I sure will if we don't get to it tonight," Mark promised. "But, don't worry, okay?" he offered. "It will keep, believe it or not."

"I don't believe it!" she declared. "Which one is your favorite planet?"

"I couldn't begin to choose," Mark shook his head, sinking completely onto his knees next to Mary in the grass so Melissa stood above him. "What's yours?"

"Saturn," she murmured, momentarily distracted by the two remaining boys pulling on her shoulder to get her to rejoin. "It's fascinating. I adore its rings…" she emphasized. "And its Marshall's favorite too."

Of course.

With that, she was fully prepared for a second run – or else just a lot of chase games – with Marshall and Stan. The taller of the two began to shuttle up behind her, making her shoot off like a jet toward the other end of the yard. Stan was bellowing something Mary didn't quite catch. They weren't even racing anymore; they were spinning in circles of the grandest kind. Marshall caught his girl and lifted her to climb the tree in the far corner, guiding her into the open slats.

Mark, however, leaned back on his elbows as though sunning himself beside Mary. She stayed with her back against the fence, content to simply be.

"Nice day…" Mark commented vaguely. And with a nod at Melissa, "She's such a funny kid."

"Funny as in droll and charmingly witty, I hope you mean," Mary quipped.

She only said it because she knew it was exactly what he meant.

Mark didn't entirely pick up on the sarcasm and continued; "Funny as in…" he arched his neck, stretching as he paused in thought. "What's the word…?" he searched even with his eyes closed. And then, "Enchanting?"

Mary chuckled, "You are such a dad," she veiled it as an offense. "You acting like a grown-up – this nonsense notwithstanding…" she gestured in the playtime vicinity. "It's scary. I can't lie."

She called him 'dad' on purpose just to make him feel good, never knowing day in and out that if it bothered him that he did not possess the official title. But he, Stan, and Marshall had always had the equal footing she'd promised. There was no need to muddy it up with doling out designations. She liked to think Mark understood that.

"Well, dad or not…" he began. "Somebody's done quite a job with her," he tapped her knee to indicate it might've been Mary. "She is something else."

Well, their lives were 'something else,' Mary reflected. She worried about it sometimes – worried that it made Melissa different, or it would when she started kindergarten in just a few weeks. She didn't want her child to stand baldly apart from a group the way she had with her slipshod childhood. She didn't imagine many little girls shared their lives with a mother and three fathers.

"You gonna answer sometime soon?" Mark probed when his ex stayed quiet.

"Just thinking."

"About?" he pushed.

"How I ever managed without her."

"Makes four of us," Mark agreed. "Missy's a spectacle…"

Observing from this end of the yard, she saw Marshall muttering reassurances to his little tree princess, promising she wouldn't fall; he or Stan would be right there if she slipped. She persisted in giggling nervously, looking down every few seconds, but higher and higher she climbed. Mary knew she was going to snag her dress and Jinx would have a fit, but she really should've expected it. She was cautious, but always willing to take a leap.

Mark was still talking.

"She's no-nonsense…"

Stan.

"She's such a good girl; always does just what you tell her…"

Mark.

"And she's brilliant."

Marshall.

"Not to mention loyal to a fault," he tacked on.

Marshall, Marshall, and Marshall.

Before Mary could respond to this string of compliments, she heard the sound of the back door opening and closing once more. She started and saw her mother tottering out, waving a pair of sunglasses in hand. Mary waved automatically and Mark did too, but he saw the opportunity for an exit.

"Better rejoin the gang…" he stood up with a groan and Mary nodded. "Don't think too hard," he teased. "Don't want you popping a vessel, gorgeous," he smiled his boyish grin through the rays of sunshine.

"Marshall better not hear you talking that way," she mused, but knew he wouldn't care even if he had; her husband was used to it.

Mark signaled to Jinx with his jaunt back to the group and she waggled her fingers in return. Mary sat up a little higher at her mother's appearance, wondering why she had returned considering she'd been hosting the party mere hours before. She contemplated in the back of her mind if she was going to burn her skin with how hot the great ball beat on her upturned mug. It didn't prompt her to move.

"Hello darling…" Jinx sang airily. "I came to fetch my sunglasses and thought I'd see if everyone had made it!" she explained. "I saw Marshall's car in the drive…"

"Yeah, the threesome showed up…" Mary pretended to grouse. "I didn't have time to clean up the mess in the living room yet."

"Would you like me to do it?" Jinx offered benevolently. "So you can stay out with Missy?"

It was pretty clear from her demeanor that Mary wasn't doing much of anything, but Jinx did know a few things – more than a few things. She would know that Mary didn't want this to end, and that she didn't want to miss a moment of it. Not for the first time, Mary decided to express her recognition of this consideration.

"Thanks mom," was all she said. "If you don't mind."

"Oh, it's no trouble…" Jinx swore.

Mary decided it was probably appropriate to stand at this moment, so Jinx would not have to stoop to try and talk to her. There were blades of grass dusting the seat on her jeans, and her face felt warm. Jinx's milky complexion had a sort of ghostly quality with the brightness of the outdoors, but she seemed to glow from within possessing such a feature.

But, far from her mother's form she saw Marshall running in from all the frivolity, able to dart away momentarily now that Mark had taken his place. His long legs got him to the two women in no time at all, and he was hardly winded despite all the running he'd been doing.

"Good afternoon, my lady…" he gave a mock-bow in his mother-in-law's direction, which forced Mary to roll her eyes. "I thought certain I would miss you today."

"Oh, Marshall…" Jinx blushed without shame at his little display, but took it in stride. "I'm sure Missy was thrilled you made it."

"Something along those lines, I would hope," he shrugged. But, Mary felt him clasp at her hand, squeezing her fingers lightly before pulling she, his wife, to his side. She all-but twirled in beside him, letting out a sheepish laugh as she did so. "All her clever mother's idea."

"Jesus, don't you ever turn it off?" Mary inquired in faux-annoyance.

Just the same, she found herself pressing further in on his grip, allowing their chests to stay one-to-one – ribs-to-ribs and heart-to-heart. Marshall was dazzling; he was everything she'd ever wanted starting from seven-years-old. It amazed her, to this day, that she had been this lucky – that James had truly been washed aside for three boundlessly better versions for her daughter.

"Little Missy's all worked up because she managed to climb to the highest branch…" he revealed in an undertone, for Jinx had turned her attentions beyond so they could have their moment. "Break out the video camera, mama."

"Something tells me I won't need it," Mary whispered, finding herself drawn in by the sky-blueness of his beautiful eyes, right now dancing with joy. "To remember today."

"This could very well be true."

Mary took pause as she breathed him in, wondering if it was possible for her to ever let him go. There were nights she dwelled upon such things, worrying for herself rather than her daughter. Because she knew, without a shadow of a doubt, she had achieved what she had always strived for when it came to Melissa. The probability of her being alone was next-to-nothing; there were scads of men waiting in the wings, just as good or better than parents, ready to raise her as their own. They were ready because they were already doing it. They'd shaped Mary, and now they were shaping Melissa.

"What?" Marshall prompted, seeing Mary lost in thought, tightening his grip on her form.

Mary kept it simple with a kiss on his cheek, "Thanks for loving my kid."

Marshall shook his head, "She's my kid too. And don't you forget it," a wink.

He also couldn't help himself from leaning even further in, from leaving a whisper in her ear to ensure that no one, no matter how close or how far, was going to hear. There was a time, ages ago it seemed, when it been just the two of them. And even though she'd die before she traded Melissa, there was a small part of her that missed the days of a working partnership. It was their beginning.

"I know Cassidy taught you well," he murmured, his breath warm on her neck. "But you don't have to keep thanking me. I'd be lost without you two."

Mary nodded against him, resting her chin over his shoulder, "Ditto."

It was the smallest of moments, and it was all they needed. Marshall shifted away and left his wife with a kiss of his own before he bid Jinx farewell and dashed back into the fray. Mark had lifted Melissa down from the tree and was back to following her around. Stan appeared to be on her side this time; he continually ushered her out of harm's way, helped along by Marshall at his return. They were quite a quad.

Suddenly, Jinx was there again. She wove a maternal arm around Mary's waist, standing side-by-side to watch the scene unfold.

"There is nothing lovelier than watching her laugh," the grandmother insisted. "She reminds me so much of you, angel."

Mary's instinct was to refute this; she didn't believe it was possible. Mary had never been like Melissa, especially not at this age. She'd been cynical and brooding from the onset. Jinx ought to know that better than anyone, but the daughter kept her mouth closed and shrugged to satisfy the comment.

"She is a riot just like you were," Jinx cackled reminiscently. "That is for sure."

This time, Mary joined in, but her mind was not with Jinx. It had been on its own all day, thinking to times long before August 11th when she'd refused to let anyone get close for fear of being left behind once more. She still cautioned herself every now and then, knowing the potential for loss and devastation was more likely the more people you loved, but she'd learned to take the leap she'd never been able to before Missy. It was worth the chance. Missy had been worth the chance.

"Would you look at the three of them…?" Jinx whispering lovingly, tipping her chin onto Mary's shoulder.

Stan was growling. Mark was jumping up and down like a frog. And Marshall? He held Melissa on his shoulders while she swatted at the bunch below, the bliss apparent in every vigorous squeal that erupted from deep inside her heart.

"Turning into complete fools for a five-year-old girl."

Mary didn't miss the fondness with which she uttered such a thing. She didn't miss it, because she felt exactly the same.

"Well, that's Missy Jean…" the mother said softly, not even blinking for fear of missing a second. "And the men who raised her."

XXX

A/N: THE END! I sincerely hope the whole 'Missy's three dad's' thing is realistic, and not too schmaltzy. But, it was how I envisioned the whole thing in my head. And, like I said, I hope you didn't lose a day and a half reading the conclusion. It got a little out-of-hand.

Thank-you SO much to everyone who has been along for this ride. My individual thanks to reviewers – Jayne Leigh, jekkah, usafcmycloud, Hannanball13, BrittanyLS, JJ2008, thena-ditey, Meg, Grey Fool, Sunny2006, Ares' Warrior Babe, ladypuercoloco, Frankies-Girl21, MegManning, tilleygirl, JMS529, and SO many guests! Many of the guests were probably regular reviews that couldn't sign in since the site is kind of wonky these days (and one of you was probably carajiggirl!) Know that I appreciate all of your support in spades. I don't know what I'd do without you.

I have no idea what is next for me IPS-wise! I would love to do something with Norah/Robyn/Max/Alice, but not sure what yet. Hopefully I will return in due time! Thank-you so much for all the kind words you've given me; it's been a very stressful couple of months, but you've all made it worth it!