A/N: Okay folks – here is the promised epilogue. Don't be disheartened by the turn it seems to take initially. That's part of the reason it's so long; I wanted to show Mary and Marshall as still being 'real' but also happy. So read it through and I hope that by the time you make it to the end you will be satisfied.
Five Months Later
Swirling silver snow circled in the streetlamps and blanketed the brown Kansas grass in a shining white sheet, bluish with the light of the half moon hanging low in the sky above. Mary watched the tan fields flick past, even in the darkness, saw the pinpricks of light as Marshall drove into the suburbs, tiny dots of red and green blurring against the fast-falling flakes.
Her partner noticed she was strangely silent, but he knew her unhappy silent from her contemplative silent and this one seemed more contemplative.
"You're not nervous, are you?" he prodded delicately.
"Why should I be?" she answered almost immediately, nearly speaking over him. She didn't turn from the window.
"Well, you shouldn't. That's the point," he replied. "You've met them all before, albeit briefly. It's no big deal."
"Exactly. I know that. No problem," Mary said shortly.
Marshall nodded and decided not to press the issue. She would speak when she was ready – possibly. Hard to say with Mary, even now.
A tiny whimper sounded from the backseat – agitated and uncertain. Like clockwork, Marshall saw Mary respond in an instant.
"I wonder if he's hungry," she whirled around in her seat and rubbed the little one's belly to soothe him. He shifted as well as he was able in his car seat and cooed softly again before settling down.
"Don't obsess, remember?" Marshall reminded her. "It's not good for either of you. You fed him as soon as we got off the plane. He'll be okay until we can get to the house."
"Oh…" Mary slowly turned to face the front again, crossing her arms over her middle. "Yeah. Right."
Despite Marshall's constant refrain that Mary not over-prioritize, over-think, frankly overdo every part of their son's life, he couldn't help but find it endearing. She'd taken to their boy like turkey to mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. Yet, she was still Mary in every single way and sometimes he felt she dealt with him a little too much like a witness. Deep down, Marshall knew she still doubted herself and her abilities to mother and she got so caught up in doing the job right, she didn't leave time to enjoy it.
"Hey – Sheriff Sam!" Marshall called, peering into his rearview mirror as though the baby might actually respond. "Tell your mama obsession dominates one's thoughts and ideas to the point of injury and she'd do better to stop and smell the roses once in awhile."
"Not funny, doofus," Mary groused from his right.
"What's up with you?" he decided to cut to the chase. "Not that I don't enjoy your usual sunny attitude but you seem strangely out-of-sorts. And I know holidays aren't really your thing but…"
"Well then, you'd think you could figure it out, couldn't you?" she sniped. "Jesus, a guy with brains like yours and you never know when to quit."
"Is that any way to talk to your fiancée?"
The word made Mary's heart twitter like it was growing wings, but it also made her stomach churn – not as though she were sick, but as though she were about to go skydiving, flying through the sun and couldn't uncurl her toes from the edge of the cliff. In simpler and more-demeaning terms – fear.
"Marshall, I…" she turned to face him, his eyes still on the snow-covered road in front of them.
They were near it now; she could see the canopy of trees sagging under the weight of the ice, the houses thatched as though frosted – like cakes or gingerbread cottages.
"I've never spent Christmas…doing anything worth doing," she confessed. "The best one I remember is the year Jinx bought me that big wheel. Raph and I never spent holidays together; he always went home to the Dominican Republic because I made excuses about having to work."
"The excuses weren't always untrue," Marshall interjected, trying to make her feel a bit better. "Remember the year we had to stake out in Flagstaff on Christmas Eve at twenty-below? In the Probe with its crappy heater?"
Mary smirked at the memory. Sad as it might have been, that was one of her better holidays. She knew it was because she'd spent it with Marshall.
"I just don't know how to…do family traditions. Sugar cookies and twinkly lights and gaudy wreaths? All this merriment people spread around? It's so…" she searched for the right word. "Foreign."
The rental car came to a halt in front of a familiar house, decorated tastefully with a few simple strings of white lights, a plain wreath with a red bow lit by the porch lamp. Marshall must've been able to see the doubt in her eyes, because he reached out and touched her knee.
"Mare, I don't think you're worried about spreading Christmas spirit. You'll do what you can, just like anything else," he began. "I think you're worried about what mom and Griffin and Julian are gonna think about us being engaged with a two-month-old that isn't even mine."
"Don't say that," Mary interrupted sharply, all seriousness. "Sam is your son. I know Mark and I figured things out – or as much as we ever do – but you're raising the little Smush. And he's yours for a lot more reasons than just that one."
"You're really sticking with Smush, huh?" Marshall wanted to know, deviating slightly.
"I told you I don't know where it comes from – it just happens!" Mary protested, sounding like her old self. "I don't even know why Brandi's Squish – she just is! Roll with it, Poindexter!"
Marshall grinned, rubbed her knee lightly and then squeezed it. The touch seemed to recall her to what they had been discussing before and he saw the misgivings creep in.
"If I can roll with it, you can too," he promised her. "If Stan can wrangle the two of us being kickass Marshal's and a couple of lovebirds with the DOJ and everybody else, this is nothing."
"Don't say lovebirds," Mary requested automatically, and he smirked again.
"Think about when you were here the last time," Marshall suggested. "You came of your own volition – didn't even waste the energy worrying what my family thought of you."
"That's different…" Mary began.
"Maybe," Marshall offered. "But think about this. Look how far you've come since then. You let me in. We are one…"
He saw her go slightly red at the words, but continued.
"And you have a very handsome son that you couldn't adore more if you tried."
"Marshall, I don't know what the hell I'm doing…" she gestured indistinctly at the baby trying to snooze in the backseat.
"You're just green," he reminded her gently. "It's new and – don't smack me – but scary. You think you're not doing it, but you are. I see it every second you're together. I just wish…" he trailed away, unsure whether he should go on, not certain how she would take his next proclamation.
"What? You wish what?" she demanded impatiently.
Marshall hesitated again, but knew she'd just get angry if he beat around the bush.
"I hate to see you miss out on all the great parts of being a mom because you're so afraid you're gonna make a mistake," he murmured. "It's gonna be full of successes and failures. Hell, Brandi put his diaper on backwards last week."
"Yeah, and he spends more time with her than he does me anyway…" Mary muttered in an undertone, but Marshall wasn't fooled.
"Don't even go there," he interrupted, deciding it was time to wrap this up and head inside. They could go round-and-round on it all night. "We're taking each day as it comes, remember? Your mother and Brandi and Peter do great with him when we've gotta handle our job. Between the five of us, he's getting more love than he knows what to do with. What do you say we head in and give him some more?"
With that, Marshall opened his car door, careful not to ding Griffin's SUV already parked in the driveway on his way out. He went around to Mary's side to see if she wanted him to carry their little one in, but she was already on it – unbuckling his car seat, lifting him out. He couldn't think of anyone but Mary that would unstrap a two-month-old just to go ten feet to the front door in snow, but she liked to keep him close. Marshall decided they could grab the presents out of the trunk after they said their hellos and took Sam's now-empty seat to cart inside.
When they reached the porch, Marshall gave his fiancée one last reassuring look to make sure she was ready for what lay ahead but she was nestling a sleepy Sam in her chest, adjusting the hood on his navy fleece to cover his ears. So he simply opened the door and shouted his greeting.
Inside the house, it was warm and bright and Mary was pleased to see that the decorations had been kept to a minimum. Judging by the pine smell wafting into the foyer, a real evergreen stood in the living room, shining with multicolored spheres, packages in bright colors huddled in the lower branches. This was all she took in before the crowd convened, Marshall scarcely able to unwind his scarf.
"Uncle Marshall! Uncle Marshall!"
Twin squeals erupted from Sophie and Sarah as they bolted in, wearing identical plaid pleated dresses – Sophie in red, Sarah in green.
"Hey, double-vision!" Marshall tossed his scarf aside, onto the steps, and hoisted each girl up briefly for a quick kiss.
"Is that Sam?" Sarah wanted to know, looking thrilled at the prospect and peering on tiptoe at the bundle in Mary's arms.
"Nah, he's a loaner…" she muttered and Marshall nudged her with his elbow.
"That is Sam," he answered over his brooding bride-to-be. "But he's been in dreamland so how 'bout we let him wake up a little? If he's anything like you two-!"
He poked a finger into each of the girls' tummies, making them squeal and try to snatch his hand, but he was too quick for them.
"He'll be a real grouch if you rouse him before he's ready."
Mary could tell Sarah and Sophie were both going to pout, but Marshall was saved more explanation by the arrival of the rest of the Mann's.
"Hey-hey!" Griffin and Julian shouted in unison, waving with flour-caked hands which prevented them from shaking Marshall's. Mary, of course, was holding the baby – so close to her chest it was as though he were a life preserver. In the back of her mind, she realized he was dealing with this much better than she was – she ought to take her cue from the little one.
"Uncle Marshall!" Daniel and Quinn cried as they crashed in, throwing their arms around Marshall's waist for bear hugs, their mothers waving as the group made its way into the living room. Mary could see doughy cookies on the island, wives submerged in sprinkles and frosting.
Mary felt grateful Marshall was such a commodity with this group because no one had paid much attention to her yet – that is, until they realized the lump shifting against her shirt was Sam.
"Mary, good to see you," Griffin finally greeted her, and his words seemed genuine. "How's our guy, huh?" he gave Sam a small rub on his back, but didn't wait for Mary to respond before Julian joined in and said hello as well.
Near as May could tell, none of them seemed to care that she and Marshall were going to be married, that they were raising another man's child. Sure, they wouldn't pester her about it her first five seconds though the door (would they?) but something told her it wasn't coming at all – present or future.
It was starting to come back like a good dream – one she'd started to believe hadn't really existed to begin with. Although her original trek to Kansas had been for a somber occasion, she'd found something there she'd never had before – a complete family.
Granted, Jinx and Brandi were now so responsible and upstanding it was slightly scary, but she liked having another side of relations as well. Marshall was the only part of it that had seemed real in the last five months but she was starting to realize she hadn't fantasized this group. They were here, proving that her son was going to grow up with the kind of life she'd always hoped he would have, be it with the Shannon's or the Mann's.
Mary settled herself on the couch and unzipped Sam's fleece pullover to take it off, revealing his grey-and-white stripes underneath and a pair of jeans so miniscule Mary was still amazed they made such a thing. Now that he was waking up a little, she could see his big round eyes. She remained convinced they were going to turn green, like her own, and his hair was light and flyaway, growing in tufts on top. She saw his cherubic, soft cheeks, slightly pink from the cold and the way he looked at her – all wonder, trust, and hope. Nobody else gave her that same glance.
In the kitchen, the twins were showing off their cookies to Marshall and he was prattling on about the way he used to do the same thing with granddad when he was a kid. With a jolt, Mary suddenly felt selfish for making this holiday all about her when it was Marshall's first without his dad. On the ground, Daniel and Quinn were shaking boxes underneath the tree, paying Mary no mind. What did boys want with babies?
Suddenly, Mary heard footsteps and Carolyn appeared down the stairs, leading little Claire by the hand, whispering something in her ear as Claire held a rectangular box. Mary's senses tingled, acting without her consent upon seeing the youngest. Admittedly, Claire was looking a little older than she had several months back. Her hair was growing and she had gotten taller, dressed in a red Christmas sweater, a reindeer printed on the front.
The pair noticed Mary and beamed.
"Mary, darling!" Carolyn announced. "I didn't hear you come in! Claire here was just helping me wrap up a gift…"
She nudged the little girl, who gave a secretive giggle and shoved the box into her grandmother's arms to say hello to Mary.
"Hi!" she bounced onto the couch next to the woman and kissed her cheek, just as she'd done when they'd parted ways back in July. This time, Mary was a little less surprised but it still caught her off-guard.
"Hi Claire," Mary replied. And then, "Hi Carolyn. Merry…" She cleared her throat stupidly, "Merry Christmas."
She didn't miss Marshall look up from his spot in the kitchen when the phrase came out of her mouth.
"How are you?" Carolyn made her way over. "Are you getting any sleep?" she laughed. "Or is this one keeping you up most of the night?"
Carolyn sat on the coffee table across from Mary and rubbed Sam's head, fingers tracing the outline of his tiny body. She seemed enraptured and suddenly, Mary couldn't understand why she'd ever worried about blood or biology or DNA.
"How are you Sammy boy?" she whispered. "I'm your old, unhip grandmother…"
Mary smirked at the salutation, glad it was just the four of them, Claire being unobtrusive and observant at her elbow. She knew Marshall was watching and would try to keep the group solidified as long as possible so Mary could relax. He was always thinking about her, and it was then she realized Marshall had probably told his family not to overwhelm Mary and the baby. They hadn't even met Sam yet and she knew under ordinary circumstances they would be gushing uncontrollably. She was instantly grateful for Marshall's ability to think ahead.
"Claire, look how tiny he is…" Carolyn pointed out to her granddaughter. "See his beautiful eyes?"
Mary smiled and gazed into Sam's orbs herself and saw that he was watching not her, but Claire, with quite a bit of interest. They probed slowly back and forth, taking in her features, blinking fast like it was too much all at once.
"He's gorgeous, Mary," Carolyn said softly, stroking his head another time. "You and Marshall must be so proud."
The sentence took Mary back to their first meeting, when Carolyn had insisted the two of them were family without even knowing who Mary was. The thought made her feel safe and it helped calm her slightly.
"Thanks," she said to Carolyn. "Sometimes I…wonder if I'm doing this whole thing right…"
She didn't know what made her admit it.
"The best of us wonder that about our kids," Carolyn said, straightening Sam's shirt, fingering the thermal with her nails. "But I know you, and I definitely know Marshall. This one will be fine – trust me."
She smiled warmly and Mary began to feel better; Carolyn stood and gave Daniel a nudge with her foot on her way into the kitchen.
"Grandma!" Daniel gave an annoyed shout but Quinn snickered and snatched a package from his cousin's arms.
Lost in thought, Mary watched Sam flex his fingers as though testing them out, nestling his head against Mary's chest. She loved when he did that; he was like a heated, soft little ball, perfect and content in her arms, even if just for a moment.
"Mary…" Claire suddenly said quietly.
Mary turned to the little one, who was looking curious, almost inquisitive.
"How come Sam smushes up his face like that?" for the boy was sniffling slightly, trying to find a good spot in his mother's grip.
Mary had to grin. Smush.
"I'm not sure," she said honestly. "Sometimes, Uncle Marshall and I say it's because he's trying to decide if he wants to cry or not."
"Hmm…" Claire nodded. "He's so little," she continued.
Nervously, she perched next to Mary, as though worried about disturbing or breaking him. Mary had felt the same way when he was born and still did at times. It just endeared her more to Claire.
"You can touch him," she said, trying to sound inviting. "He likes it. And it might keep him from bawling," she added with a bitter laugh.
Cautiously, Claire extended her hand and tickled her fingers across his belly – index, middle, and ring right in a row as though too much contact was a little scary. But when Sam sighed his happy sigh, Claire giggled excitedly. Amazing how something so small could please so much and Mary laughed too.
"Claire…" Mary began, considering what was going to come out of her mouth next.
She hesitated only for a minute before landing on a decision.
"Do you want to hold him?"
She knew if the others had been paying more attention, they'd never have let her. They'd say she was too little, not strong enough, and on the off-chance they said it was okay, she'd have been last behind her brother and cousins. By then, Sam would be fussy and agitated and no longer interested in being passed around. Mary was usually reluctant to hand the baby over anyway – except to Marshall. It made her so nervous having him out of sight but something deep inside her wanted to do this for Claire. After all, she wasn't the baby anymore.
Claire looked a little apprehensive at the prospect, but also excited and she nodded eagerly.
"Okay…" Mary stood, shifting Sam into the crook of her arm. "Sit back against the cushions in the corner," she instructed, indicating the space she had just vacated, throw pillows aloft to give her a little more support.
Claire nudged her rear-end into the space, legs dangling above the ground. Slowly, Mary leaned in to place the baby in Claire's arms.
"Now you're gonna put one hand behind his head…" she eased the little one down, resting his torso in Claire's lap so she could adjust her hand around the top of his head.
"And put this one…kind of on his butt…"
Claire giggled, but did as Mary told her. The phrases reminded Mary of Marshall schooling her on how to hold Sam when he was just a few hours old. Sometimes, she had to go over the principles again, still plagued by worry she was going to drop or hurt him.
"Just make sure he doesn't hit the ground and you're good to go," Mary shrugged and slipped her fingers off Sam's back, giving Claire all the power.
In an instant, Mary knew it was worth whatever Griffin or Julian might say about Claire not being able to handle the baby because she positively glowed with the thrill if holding him all by herself. And incredibly, Sam didn't look so small in Claire's arms. He looked like a real person – eyes following the little girl's with an awareness Mary didn't know a two-month old could have.
"He's watching me!" Claire announced, her nose inches from Sam's face. "Does he like me?"
It seemed she and the four-year-old were of one mind. She'd wondered the exact same thing, almost the minute that Sam had landed. She'd never given a damn what people thought of her and yet she was terrified her son wasn't going to take to her the way a little boy should adore his mother. She'd remembered Marshall and Carolyn and prayed they would end up like them.
Mary sat beside Claire but was careful to let her do her own thing; she was completely capable of hanging on to Sam.
"Looks like it to me," she answered Claire's pressing question. "He's not crying."
Claire smiled at the realization, turning to Mary to flash her grin and she noticed one of her bottom teeth was missing.
"Did you lose a tooth already?" she asked without thinking.
"Uh-huh," Claire answered, holding her limbs stiff to keep Sam content. "But not like…the regular way."
"What way did you lose it?" Mary couldn't help wondering with a bemused chuckle. "The irregular way?"
Claire was about to respond but footsteps interrupted them and Mary saw Marshall striding into their midst, mock-surprise on his face.
"That grown-up girl holding my boy absolutely cannot be my Claire Bear!" he gaped so dramatically it was comical and Claire became keen to share.
"Uncle Marshall, Mary let me do it all by myself! Before Sarah or Sophie or Daniel or Quinn or anyone! And she said he likes me! He does, doesn't he?" she wanted to know again.
Marshall laughed, first at Claire's joy and then at Mary's cheeks, pink with embarrassment but also satisfaction.
"You're a lucky lady," Marshall told her, perching on the arm of the couch next to his niece. "Mary doesn't let just anyone hold Sam."
Truer words had never been spoken.
"But she made an excellent choice. You're a very big girl and Sam loves you. You're his cousin!" he reminded her and Mary flushed again at the title donning the pair related.
Unfortunately, their conversation came a halt when the rest of the Mann's made their way into the living room, Griffin, Julian, mothers and grandmothers squawking excitedly while Claire chirped her accomplishment about holding Sam. Ill-timed it became though, when the ruckus shook Sam from his reverie and he started to whine, meaning Claire had to give him back to Mary. She took it in stride though and joined her cousins and brother on the floor in front of the Christmas tree.
Once the baby was securely in her arms again, Marshall stepped to Mary's side in front of the couch and squeezed her shoulder tenderly, a silent appreciation for her consideration of Claire. Her own contribution to, "Christmas spirit." She smiled softly at him and leaned over to lightly kiss his cheek.
"Sit down! Sit down, all of you!" Griffin's wife shoved the kids to the floor for they were bouncing all around, upsetting the lower branches, knocking ornaments onto the carpet. Daniel gave Sophie once last push while Sarah jumped between them before they all settled down.
"So Mary…" Carolyn began as the adults took places on the floor as well, Carolyn in a recliner opposite the tree. Griffin and Julian nestled with their wives, Mary and Marshall taking residence on the couch, Sam cradled in Mary's grasp. Once seated, Marshall put his arm around her trying to pull her closer.
"We're not much for a lot of schmaltzy traditions – give us the early-morning cheer and the good food and we're set," she continued.
"My kind of Christmas," Mary laughed and she heard Marshall do the same beside her.
"But we do have one it's a little hard to let go of," Carolyn added. "Hope you don't mind."
"No…" Mary shook her head, unsure as to why she was being consulted. "Don't give it up just because I'm a Scrooge."
"You're not a Scrooge…" Marshall placated her.
"Oh, please," Mary scoffed, flashing him a spectacular eye roll. "You're not fooling anybody. They aren't going to pretend not to know I'm no Christmas elf."
Honesty felt okay right now. She could joke with these people. Couldn't she?
"You don't like Christmas?" Quinn exploded from his spot on the floor. "Doesn't Santa bring you anything? Were you bad?"
All the adults laughed, Marshall among them, but Mary couldn't smile. It wasn't that what Quinn said wasn't amusing. But trying to explain why Christmas was difficult involved her father, a younger, more-sloshed Jinx and a whiny baby Brandi. Nobody needed those memories plaguing their good ones.
"Are you kidding?" Marshall answered for her. "Nobody's better behaved than this one. To a fault," he added.
Whatever that meant.
"Anyway Mary, the reason I bring up this whole 'traditions' malarkey is that we never open gifts prior to December 25th…" she threw the grandkids a pitying look and they frowned.
"With a small exception. Our youngest gets to open just one before bedtime – no more till tomorrow morning."
Mary nodded, glancing at Claire, expecting to see her bound for the boxes, ripping paper off before she could even begin to savor the moment. But it was then she realized everyone was staring at her and Claire hadn't moved. She was thrown completely – Carolyn had said the youngest got the single, solitary gift on Christmas Eve.
"What…?" she murmured uncertainly, looking to Marshall for assistance.
"Babe, Sam's the youngest," he whispered, his breath tickling in her ear.
Babe? Yeah, that one was new.
"Oh…" she remarked stupidly, turning back to the group and deciding to leave Marshall's new nickname for later. "No, I mean…he's not…really, I'm sure…"
What was she even saying? She couldn't get a coherent thought out. All she knew was that this was totally unexpected – a curve ball if ever she saw one. How could she be so adept at sniffing out con-men and run-amok witnesses yet she couldn't sense bonding and togetherness from a mile away? Suddenly, all the ease she had felt with Claire and Carolyn evaporated and she fancied herself an outsider again.
"This is a family thing," she finally managed quietly. She felt Marshall sigh and tighten his grip around her back.
"Don't let me intrude…"
"Honey, you are family," Carolyn pressed gently. "You and Sam."
"Even before the boy scout popped the question," Griffin piped up and his wife smacked him playfully on the arm. "You're stuck with us, grouchy. Get used to it."
Mary tried to smile but the muscles required didn't seem to be working.
"It's really not a big deal," Carolyn assured her. "Honestly, you can't even return the thing," she laughed.
"Then it's the perfect gift for the Queen of Re-gift," Marshall joked, for Mary was still looking slightly lost.
"Marshall silly; I didn't re-gift," his mother corrected him. "I just said she couldn't return it. Sarah, hand me that box," Carolyn gestured at the lighter-haired twin who grabbed the package Claire had come downstairs carrying. It was wrapped in shiny red paper, a silver bow stuck to the top.
Carolyn stood from the recliner and handed the gift to Marshall, for Mary still had Sam who was trying to doze off again amongst all the commotion.
"You open it," he murmured in an undertone. "I'll take Sam."
Mary wanted to tell him no, wanted to say she was embarrassed, that she didn't belong in this land of light and happiness and joy but she didn't know how. So she allowed Marshall to slip the baby out of her grasp to cradle him in his arms.
Slowly, she unstuck the bow, rumpled slightly from what she guessed to be Claire's wrapping. She felt very self-conscious with everyone watching as she tore the paper off, trying not to engage in much childish-ripping. She tried to focus on Marshall's eyes and nobody else's; pretending he was the only one who could see her.
A white department store box was under the wrapping and she had to slit open some more tape before encountering tissue paper on the inside, which she pulled aside to reveal the gift.
"Oh, no way…" Marshall chuckled, sounding both surprised and amused.
Griffin and Julian began to laugh as well and Carolyn chortled politely as Mary held up a tiny, bright red sleeper that snapped up the front, printed with little cowboys on horses, swinging their lassos as they galloped across the fabric. She couldn't help noticing it was worn against the seat, the cotton well-loved.
"Wow…" Mary murmured, waiting for someone to explain the joke.
"Marshall had a cowboy fetish when he was a little one – no thanks to his father," Carolyn said with fondness. "Fostered from an early age, obviously. Those were the first of many pairs of bull-fighting jammies throughout his youth. I thought you two might like to have them for Sam."
"Carolyn, this is…"
Words were failing her. It was just an outfit – Sam had zillions at home. Maybe it was trying to picture Marshall such a size, in seeing the underlying closeness that existed in this home that came around year-after-year.
"It's…its great. Thank-you," she managed politely.
She guessed she sounded stilted despite her sincerity and suddenly, she wanted to get away before she fell apart, before she broke down and started wailing with gratitude and sap. Since Sam had been born, she'd kind of lost control of her emotions in a way that irritated her to the breaking point.
"I think Sam...needs to be changed…" she lied, trying not to yank the baby from Marshall in her impatience to get out of the room. Marshall handed him over but she didn't miss the look of confusion and concern on his face. Sam in one arm and the sleeper in the other, she made for the stairs.
"Just be a second…" she said quickly before slipping up and out of sight.
An awkward silence fell with Mary's abrupt departure, everyone exchanging uncertain glances – except for the kids who were back to shaking presents and elbowing each other.
"Marshall, is something going on?" Carolyn asked immediately. "She seems upset."
"No," Marshall sighed and got off the couch with every intent to go after Mary. "She'll never admit it, so you can't tell her I said anything, but she's…"
He hesitated, noticing that Griffin and Julian were waiting expectantly for answers as well.
"Just…nervous is all," he decided on a portion of the truth.
"What on earth for?" now Carolyn was standing, wanting to get to the root of the issue.
"Well…" Marshall shrugged. "The snap-engagement, the baby…Christmas with a new family. It's just a lot all at once."
His mother seemed to understand it better as he laid it all out and her son put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"I'll talk to her; don't worry," he promised. "Thanks for the gift, mom."
He kissed her cheek and she nodded, giving him permission to escape up the stairs after his girl. And he did just that, leaving his nieces and nephews to try and see through the gift wrap, Griffin and Julian to down their wine and make toasts with their wives. It was a more natural way to spend Christmas Eve but he and Mary never went for customary; they walked their own road, pieced out their own journey. He loved every stone and every brick, even the difficult ones.
The hallway was dark as Marshall approached it and he caught a glimpse of the snow still falling outside the bathroom window. Habit took him striding to the guest room, brain whirring of his previous visits to Mary in this house but when he reached the door he realized she wasn't inside. His mother's neat decorating adorned the tables and bed, pillows propped stylishly, a fresh vase of flowers on the bedside table.
Bewildered, Marshall glanced around and saw that his old bedroom door was open a crack, a sliver of light hitting the hall floor. How he'd neglected to notice he wasn't sure, but he'd strode right past without even realizing. Not wanting to burst in, he peered through the crack and laid eyes on a sight that made his heart melt into one big puddle.
Mary was sitting cross-legged on his cowboy bed, covers pulled down so she was perched in the sheets, Sam on his back in front of her, legs kicking as he got used to the surface. She was pulling the cowboy sleeper onto him, his second arm now secure and she did up the snaps one-by-one. Once dressed, Mary gently pulled him up under his arms, held him high above her head and kissed his belly. His little legs dangled beneath her strong hands as she left another fluttering kiss on his tummy, and then slid him in close, chest-to-chest, head-to-head, unmistakably hugging him, one hand now supporting his little butt.
Marshall smiled, feeling a warmth in his own chest. He knew how Mary loved Sam, but in another's presence she became so concerned with his well-being she rarely showed it. Even when it was just the two of them, she marveled in Marshall's way with him, not her own. It made his Christmas to see them share the moment.
And then Marshall's smile turned upside-down as he realized Mary was no longer simply nuzzling her son – she was crying, face crumpled, tears rolling silently down her cheeks and if he wasn't mistaken, this made her hold Sam tighter. Marshall didn't even stop to think about her shame or embarrassment – Mary never cried in front of others – his protective instincts took over and her refused to stand and watch her weep.
"What's the matter?" he whispered, sliding in through the gap in the door. He was in front of her on the bed in an instant.
She didn't answer, but sniffled unattractively and Marshall noticed she was trembling slightly. As much as it pained him, he was afraid to let her hold Sam when she was so shaky.
"Give him to me…" he murmured softly. "I'll put him down; he's gotta be tired."
Mary obeyed and when Marshall stood to go back to the door, he realized there was now a crib in the corner behind it. His mother must've taken it out of the back room so Sam could sleep in here. Grateful for Carolyn's tact, he carefully put Sam down amongst the old stuffed animals left behind by his nieces and nephews, a battered-looking mobile of elephants twirling idly in the breeze from the heater. Then he returned to Mary, who was still crying.
"What's wrong?" he repeated; eyes full of worry and desperation. "Mary…"
He usually asked before getting too touchy-feely. But this was Christmas, they were in his parent's house with their son and his family waiting downstairs and the woman he loved more than life itself was clearly troubled beyond explanation. Sometimes you just had to do what needed to be done.
He pulled her into his arms and she buried her face in his chest, the fabric from his shirt soft against her cheek. He rubbed her hair and was brought back to a much different, far hotter evening in July when she had held him the same way, Sam just a bulge in her belly.
"I didn't want you to see," she said thickly.
"I've seen worse," he admitted, hoping to boost her spirits. "Besides. You're gonna be my wife. There's a lot more ugly ahead."
He heard her laugh slightly and she tugged away from him, wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands. Marshall peered low into her eyes, wanting to catch the weak link there and make her talk.
"You know I hate it when my girl is melancholy," he said, corny as ever. Mary rolled her eyes through the redness, but she grinned. "If Mama Mann and Sheriff Sam aren't happy then…"
He shrugged a little over-dramatically and Mary scoffed at the goofy nicknames, unable to hide the grin.
"Don't be cute," she whispered.
"I'll try not to," he promised and she smirked again. Marshall kept his arm around her, their temples side-by-side. There was barely enough room for the two of them on the tiny twin bed.
"Babe, why are you crying?" he pressed as delicately as he could, despite how anxious he was to get to the bottom of the issue.
"Where did, 'babe' come from?" she diverted, remembering his use of the word earlier. "Does that make me a pig?"
Marshall was confused for a mere moment until he remembered the film inspired by the hog and he chuckled.
"No," he answered. And then, "I don't know. Do you not like it?"
She shrugged, trying to compose herself because if she carried on like this it would upset Sam and she didn't want that.
"Just not used to it," she told him. "There's a lot of that going around."
He sensed her about to spill and decided to give her the time she might need to get the words out. Something about this house made Mary reveal all in ways she never did otherwise. That was fine with Marshall – he fell in love with her badass self, not some sappy Susie Sunshine. But he couldn't deny plumbing deeper depths of her emotions felt good on occasion; to help her break down walls she'd cemented a long time ago.
"Marshall…" she began without looking at him. "What if I don't belong here? What if this is a world where I don't fit in? I'm not exactly the familial type…"
She shuddered slightly in trying to control the tears and Marshall stroked her opposite shoulder to try and calm her.
"I don't think you're scared you don't belong," he whispered. "I think you're scared you do belong."
"The hell? What does that mean?" she snarked.
He took her chin in his hand and turned her face to his, her green eyes swimmy and large with dreams and desires.
"If you gain love, there's a bigger possibility you're going to lose it," he whispered. "And that's what you're afraid of. That's why you cling to Sam, am I right? Keep him close; make sure he knows he's never going to be left behind? Like your dad left you behind?"
He'd hit the nail on the head and he knew it at once. He wiped away the tears that leaked from her eyes with his thumb and while his hand lay suspended there, she reached up and grasped it, curling his fingers into hers and kissing his knuckles. He could feel her sheltering his fingers like a rope that would keep her from falling into the pit below, the bend in his hand pressed against her lips. He knew she was crying again.
"I miss my dad," she murmured, voice muddled and thick. "I'm so sorry Marshall…"
"Why are you sorry?" his tone was laced with sympathy as he pulled his fingers free so he could see her face, but still let his palm rest inside hers.
"Because this is your first Christmas without Seth and here I'm bawling over some con-man that ran out and never looked back."
"You're entitled to your feelings," he promised. "But this is about more than James. For the most part, you've left him in the past. This is about you worrying yourself sick that my family is going to turn on you the way that he did. Isn't it?"
"It's possible," she said an undertone, much more quickly than Marshall expected.
"Look…" he leaned in, transferring his hand to her lap and staring directly into her eyes. "I know you hate when people sugarcoat things. So truthfully, I don't know how my family is going to handle the newest Mann," he saw Mary smirk sadly at the play on words.
"But if they can't adjust, to hell with them," he stated baldly, meaning every word. "Nothing they say or do could ever keep me away from you and Sam. We are a pair 'till we're old, grey and still clocking glocks at the crazies."
He'd expected her to laugh, maybe throw some disbelief in his face, but he didn't expect her to lean in and kiss him square on the lips, fingers in his hair on the back of his neck, breathing him in as though her life depended on it. He got lost in the touch, her lips salty from tears that were falling all over again. It was only until Sam whimpered softly that he realized they were making out in his kiddy bedroom, not to mention with his entire family waiting downstairs.
Mary started to laugh when he slipped away and caught him with another quick smooch before letting him go completely.
"For the record," he said abruptly. "I don't think you have anything to worry about. They're wild about you, they're wild about Sam…Mama Mann has won their heart," and he winked boyishly.
"Nerd," she joshed. "Quit calling me that."
He wouldn't. He loved the way it made her cheeks go pink.
"Trust yourself," he leaned in so they were cheek-to-cheek, his breath warm in her ear. "Okay?"
He felt her nod even though he couldn't see her eyes and then sat back again.
"So…" he could sense this passing into calmer waters and decided Mary had-had enough theatrics for the evening. "Before we rejoin the gang; I have something for you."
"Why?" she wrinkled her nose in bewilderment.
"Well, I don't know if you got the memo," he stood from the bed and peered into Sam's crib. He was drifting off to sleep, his tiny belly rising and falling with every breath beneath his inherited jammies. "But it is Christmas. This usually involves presents of some kind – a stocking here, some tinsel there…"
"Okay-okay," she nodded and held up a hand as Marshall reached into his suitcase waiting by the door. Either Griffin or Julian must've brought the bags in while the twins were showing off the cookies.
"Why now? I thought you don't open presents Christmas Eve," she raised her eyebrows in skepticism.
He unzipped the suitcase and groped for the book beneath his neatly folded clothes, fingers closing around it with satisfaction.
"Every family has their own traditions," he stated matter-of-factly, presenting the book with a flourish.
He went back to Mary on the bed, causing her to nudge herself against the wall to make room against the headboard. They sat side-by-side, Marshall's long legs protruding over the end. Memories flooded from another evening, one he'd remembered just five minutes ago. Sometimes you couldn't stop the recollections if you tried.
"Someone once told me…" he said, sliding the book with its handsome leather-bound cover into her hands. "There isn't any point in having memories if you can only remember the crap."
She looked at him, all admiration and adoration. How did he hold onto things like that?
"So…screw the bad times. Here's some good," and he patted the cover of the book, which Mary slowly opened.
It was pictures – photo after photo, time after time, person after person flashing past as the years faded, flew forward and stretched back. Some were of her that she'd never seen before. Others of what she could assume to be Marshall as a little boy, recognizing the face of the future-Marshal still propped on her desk in Albuquerque. And there were still more recent ones that made her grin with fondness, even Marshall in more current times with his nieces and nephews before Mary had met them.
"Marshall…" she whispered, turning the pages with lightness in her heart.
She and Brandi holding buckets at the beach, around six and one year old. Brandi was a fat baby, plopped in the sand, grains mushed in her hair while Mary waved at the camera in a spectacularly ugly swimsuit – lime green with bright hot pink flowers.
Marshall holding what she could assume to be Julian in the hospital, around five years of age, a much younger Carolyn in the bed bedside him. Griffin lingered in the corner, around two and a half or three years old. And there was Seth, perched in a chair on the opposite side looking gruff but pleased all at the same time.
A lump in her throat seeing Jinx hanging all over her father in what looked to be a casino – clearly they had won big because her mother was obviously jangling her quarter cup and James looked thrilled beyond words. With grim pleasure, Mary wondered if they were both drunk because they seemed way happier than she'd ever remembered them.
But remember the better times.
"Where did you get these?" she murmured. "I don't even remember some of them."
"Your mom, Brandi…" he answered with a shrug. "Remember when Brandi was looking to make a photo collage for she and Peter's wedding? Well, she and Jinx had them spread out all over the place – apparently your mother is quite the packrat – and I just gave them the once-over, picked my favorites."
Mary in college with Brandi on Little Sister's Weekend; the younger one was only about twelve, perched on her knees on Mary's awful, lumpy dorm bed, arms thrown around her big sister. Twenty-something-Mary was clearly annoyed by the affection and was rolling her eyes. And present-day Mary laughed at herself.
A hilariously stilted family portrait of the Mann gang, Marshall a gawky fifteen-year-old wearing an ugly purple bolo tie, his ears way too big for his head.
"You were a doofus even then!" Mary squawked with a hoot, tapping the photo with her nail.
Face after face flashed past – Sarah and Sophie, frighteningly-identical with their front teeth missing as Quinn crawled along the bottom of the frame. Claire from just a few years before, holding a baseball bat in the front yard like a weapon, Seth lurking in the background clearly wanting to correct her grip. Carolyn covering her face with her hands as some sneaky photographer snuck up before she was ready.
"Do you like it?" Marshall whispered, stroking her hair gently as she continued to flip through the pages.
She was about to tell him just how much when she hit a Polaroid that made her heart stop. She gasped softly seeing his face next to her own – his scraggly reddish-brown beard already streaked with grey, his hazel eyes, strong arms and big hands. Mary was maybe four and she was in her father's arms, her head against his chest as he held her aloft in the air, cuddling him close, smiling sweetly at the camera. He looked happy too, one hand on her shiny golden hair.
She felt Marshall kiss her temple. He knew to put it in. Most men would leave it out because of the emotion it would prompt, but not Marshall. He knew how she would appreciate it.
"It's perfect," she murmured, fighting not to cry.
The shots started to take a more recent turn towards the end and Mary found herself laughing all over again – Stan even made an appearance, bunny ears on Mary at the office while she flipped Marshall off who had been taking the picture. The two of them mixed in more and more, the captures always the same – Marshall being a complete goof in attempts to get Mary to crack a smile. She made a variety of faces, some of them fairly close to a grin; it was strange seeing those moments, knowing they hadn't been 'together' during the time of origin but knowing where they ended up.
"Oh Jesus…" Mary muttered, sounding thoroughly put-out and Marshall cracked up as he saw what was causing the reaction.
Mary enormously pregnant – around thirty-eight weeks – at Brandi and Peter's wedding, holding a royal blue bouquet to compliment the sky blue tint of her dress. It might as well have been a Mumu because she resembled a killer whale. She stood beside Brandi who was radiant in white and beaming with elation, arms thrown around what used to be Mary's waist, making her look comically short.
"Why did you put this in here?" she groused. "I had Sam two days later; I'm an elephant."
Marshall just guffawed as she swapped pages again and her tune changed slightly seeing another one from the wedding, this of Mary and her own husband-to-be. She had a soft smile on her face – no teeth – but her hesitation seemed tired rather than reluctant and her cheeks were slightly flushed because Marshall was kissing her cheek. She reached out her index finger and traced their outlines; Marshall put his palm to her now-flat belly, remembering when Sam had slept inside and missing it just a little. But a soft coo from across the room reminded him – better out than in.
And then the times tapered quickly into present day; neither could keep the smiles of their faces.
Mary nestling Sam against her chest in her hospital bed, hair matted and loose around her face. She had her lips pressed to his head, too fatigued to notice that someone had been capturing the moment.
Marshall and his son staring at one another from a chair at her bedside; Marshall grinning and wiggling his fingers in the baby's face, pure bliss alight in his eyes.
The card that had been inside Sam's bassinet in the nursery - Samuel Mann Shannon. October 10th, 2011; eight pounds, ten ounces, twenty inches long, came in screeching two minutes before five A.M. The card had a bear in the corner, brown with a blue bow.
And the last page showed the three of them – exhausted in demeanor but deliriously happy behind the eyes on Mary's couch the day Sam had come home. Their first day as an official trio.
Mary closed the book and leaned her head into Marshall's chest. They sat in silence, the photos tumbling through Mary's mind, the memories suddenly sharper and fresher than they had been in ages. Marshall fingered her hair, twirling the strands idly and Mary traced the lines on his jeans. She could stay here forever – as Sam snoozed softly in the bed beyond.
"Why now?" she whispered, referring to the abrupt way in which he'd presented her with the album.
"Because this is our family," he said, reading her mind, resting his chin on her head. "Jinx and Brandi are mine and Griffin and Julian and my mom and all those rug rats are yours. This is where we start," he tapped the book for emphasis.
Mary leaned up and kissed him again, loving the feel of his lips on hers, the sound of Sam breathing deeply from his crib, the shouts of the kids on the floor below, the thought of Aunt Brandi back at home, and a thousand other things her mind couldn't come up with at the moment because she was too wrapped up in Marshall. He, who understood it all, who took it all with two hands, who held her faults, hopes, dreams, sacrifices, and scars without even thinking twice.
"I love you," she murmured.
"I love you too," he answered, now with her chin perched on his chest, sprawled on her belly. "Merry Christmas, cowgirl."
"You're the cowboy; I can't be the cowgirl," she teased.
"You can be the cowgirl and I'll be something else," he offered. "The sheriff."
"Sam's the sheriff," she reminded him, playing him with her eyes.
He paused thoughtfully, liking her warm body on top of his, feeling the rise and fall of her stomach as she breathed in and out and fingered the stubble on his chin.
She stretched and raked her fingers through his hair, lips beside his ear.
"You can be the stallion."
He laughed so hard Mary jumped and that was it for the bed – they'd been squeezed together to the breaking point. She tumbled off, onto the floor, hitting with a loud thud which made her start laughing too. Marshall was in fits, tears in his eyes as he howled – not for his new nickname now, but for Mary on the ground. They were so loud they woke Sam, but he didn't cry, just cooed sweetly, probably wondering what on earth his parents were doing.
Finally, Marshall got off the bed and Mary stood up; he didn't wait for her permission, he pulled her into his arms and lifted her feet from the floor so she was weightless and free. Their laughs faded into tired sighs as Marshall held her and eventually let her toes touch down again.
"Sorry," he said quietly, not sounding quite sincere as Mary giggled and pulled back to look into his eyes, arms wound around his back.
She didn't answer, so Marshall continued.
"The cowgirl, the sheriff, and the stallion," he mused and was pleasantly surprised to see Mary smirking. "A good fit?"
"Works for me," she nodded.
A delighted shout sounded from downstairs, bringing them both back into the real world. But for once, the real world seemed even better than their own private universe.
"Uncle Marshall, the cookies are done!"
"Ready partner?" he asked his girl.
She smiled, leaned forward, and kissed him quick – a silent yes – until she poked her tongue through her teeth and winked.
A/N: The End! I really hope I wrapped this up nicely; I know there's another story floating around with a 'Sam' in it so I hope that wasn't too confusing. I really wanted Mary and Marshall to be content and happy, but not sappy and overdone; there's still going to be insecurities on Mary's part, especially with the baby. I hope I showed that they're in love, that Mary adores Sam and Marshall, but the bumps are still there because that's real life.
Thank-you so-so much to everyone that has reviewed! Shout outs to: jekkah, carajiggirl, The Dog in the Manager, Trinitystargazer3, Athena64, merciki, warrior-chic, Selene Illusinia, The Geek Ruler, Snowy midnight 942, SPopovich, ChibiBeth18, Eomara, Queequegg, and mmukh. You guys are wonderful!
Hit that button so I know how I wrapped this up – it's my BIRTHDAY so I would love the gift of reviews! ;)