A/N: You guys are awesome and I love you! This is a long one!
Twelve Years, September:
She heard Marshall, but didn't really hear him all at once. She knew he was speaking, and yet for some reason it did not seem important to answer. It was the same way she stared across at the dance floor from her post at the bar. She saw Jinx twirling around, her skirt fanning out, her hair flying in all directions, but she didn't see her the way a normal person used their eyes to look at all around them.
It was like everything had gone transparent; see-through and clear. There was this fuzzy film in front of her vision; the same kind coating her ears. All of it was muffled and none of it mattered.
"Mary, I'm talking to you."
Marshall was now not only talking, but touching her arm. It was the feel of another person that snapped her back to life. The music was garish and loud as it blasted from the speakers. The babble of happy discussion among reception-goers was heightened. Mary's hand was sweating unpleasantly against her glass of champagne, which had begun to perspire on its own in the warmth of the ballroom. Her cheeks were hot even though she was sitting right under a blasting vent, and she suddenly felt prickly all over at having Marshall's fingers laid against the fabric of her jacket.
Marshall's brow was furrowed when she finally looked at him. He seemed concerned, not for her well-being so much as her sanity. He thought she was touched in the head.
"Huh?" Mary finally croaked stupidly; she allowed herself another swallow of champagne when she heard herself sound like a frog.
"Are you…all right?" her husband asked with a strange pause halfway through. "You've been over here awhile. I hope you're not brooding."
Didn't the fact that he'd brought it up tell her he knew she was brooding and he wanted her to stop it? Well, he could join the club. She'd been the perfect lady for the entire evening, playing the doting daughter; feigning cheerfulness, shaking hands, pretending she was filled to the brim with unrivaled enchantment. She'd earned her sulkiness.
"I'm not brooding," Mary claimed anyway, unable to stop herself from gulping another sip of champagne. "I'm thinking."
It wasn't a total lie. She was thinking, however darkly.
"And what might you be thinking about?" Marshall pressed curiously, sliding onto a stool beside his wife.
He signaled to the bartender with a wave and ordered his own drink. The man passed him a napkin and a stir while he went off to mix, leaving the couple by their lonesome. Mary had no desire to be goaded into revealing anything in her mind. It wasn't anything Marshall couldn't guess anyway.
All the change. It was creeping up on her.
"So," Marshall stated, watching her eye the last few sips of her drink to avoid looking at him. "What's rattling around in my girl's pretty little head?"
He was going to get smacked later for the 'pretty little head' comment, but right now Mary was too busy pondering a neutral answer to his question. Her eye caught the ring that shimmered on her fourth finger, which made her gaze stray to the sleeve of her jacket hitting her wrists.
Here was something.
"Jinx was pissed I had to wear a suit," she grumbled, downing the last of her beverage in a single gulp, fully prepared to beckon the bartender back for something stronger. "She must've complained for thirty minutes."
This was a rounded-up estimate, but why split hairs?
And Mary hadn't picked the outfit on purpose. Early that morning, just when all the wedding preparations were beginning, the inspector had received a call from Stan begging her to drive to Santa Fe to take a meeting with the police department there. Stan himself was already in attendance but the feds had been so testy and uncooperative he was forced to bring either Mary or Marshall in to sweeten the deal. He'd apologized in earnest that it wasn't able to be Marshall, but thanks to his not-so-new position with improving the greater southwest WITSEC he was no longer the man for the job.
As if Stan hadn't been annoyed enough, getting called out of retirement, however briefly to discuss the situation.
Granted, Mary had made it back about twenty minutes before the ceremony but getting changed at that point had been out of the question. So, she stood in her suit of black-and-white next to Brandi in that gaudy shocking pink dress and Jinx about had a fit.
Fortunately, once the vows began she forgot all about it but it hadn't made Mary feel any better. George, bless him, actually thought it was funny and had helped his new bride cheer up.
"I thought you and Brandi were quite a sight up there," Marshall mused as he thanked the bartender for his drink.
"Scotch neat," Mary interrupted while their caretaker was still nearby.
Marshall shot her a warning look at the order, "You don't think you've had enough?"
Mary scoffed as she turned to him, giving him her best incredulous face.
"I had two glasses of champagne," she reminded him. "Some of us can hold our liquor, lanky. Just because you magically transform into more of a bumbling fool than you usually are under the influence of three sips, doesn't mean we all do."
Marshall accepted this and went back to his prior statement, "George was right," he decided. "You and Brandi were like a classic parody of a wedding couple – Brandi the weeping, appropriately moved wife, and you the uncomfortable, get-me-out-of-here-as-fast-as-you-can husband."
"Nice picture," Mary grumped; fiddling with the napkin she'd been given.
"Jinx made her peace with it," Marshall reminded her. "I think your attire is the least of her worries at this point."
Truer words had never been spoken, Mary thought as she glanced reluctantly back to the dance floor. Jinx was radiant as she spun around with George, trying to teach him her fancy dance moves. She'd worn her hair up, but it was beginning to fall out in wisps that framed her face. Her dress was off-white and quite tasteful for someone of her age, off-the-shoulder and tea-length with a flowy skirt.
"Yeah…" was all the older daughter could say. "I guess."
She was back to not paying attention. Brandi and Peter were doing some sort of embarrassing jitterbug near Jinx and George, Brandi sashaying all over the place. Sam and Jesse were congregating at one of the round tables with George's granddaughter, Allison, who was a year older than Sam, and Jesse's companion Ellie.
"Babe, just tell if you're not okay," Marshall pleaded without preamble. "I want you to be able to enjoy the party and not worry about keeping everything to yourself all night."
She sighed just in time for her scotch to show up. She clasped the glass firmly in her fingers and took an unwisely large chug, which burned her throat. With her esophagus tingling like it was, she had a good excuse not to answer.
And yet, "It's just a lot," she choked hoarsely. "All at once."
Marshall considered as he took a cautious sip of his own drink, drumming his free hand on the counter top.
"Nothing wrong with that," he said with a swallow. "It is a lot. It happened fast, it was marginally unexpected, and no matter how much you love Jinx or how much you like George…"
"Is this going somewhere?" Mary cut in shortly. "Is there an end in sight? We can't just skip to the, 'I get it' and 'I love you anyway' portion?"
Marshall nodded slowly, a half-smile playing around his lips. He leaned over and pecked her cheek lightly, granting her wish.
"I get it and I love you," he repeated as told. "But no 'anyway,'" he rectified, sharply enough she would take notice, but gently enough to be relaxed. "No 'anyway' about it."
Mary almost copied him in the leisurely, sedate nod with the pleasant, half-tired smirk. They were forever told they were some measure of two peas in a pod, although Mary was so used to their movements she never even thought to look at it as such.
"You think she'll actually be happy?" Mary wondered aloud, taking a more acceptable sized sip as she turned on her barstool to scrutinize Jinx. "You know. For any…extended length of time?"
She really didn't know why she was asking. The answer was pretty obvious.
"She certainly seems happy," Marshall voiced, also taking his turn to examine as though to confirm his beliefs. "She's been different since she met George. Although, I hope you would concede at this point that she was doing fine before him. Functioning sober does wonders for a person," in an ironic moment, he drained his drink to accompany these words of wisdom.
Mary shook her head, not able to take her eyes off her mother's flushed cheeks, her vivacious smile, the way she laughed at everything George said or did. They'd been out on the dance floor for what seemed like hours now, Jinx completely in her element to show off every balletic move she'd ever learned. George was charmed and she was in heaven.
"They never looked like that," Mary remarked in a low voice.
For the first time, she felt the effects of the alcohol. It was a little bit of a struggle to get out five words and they seemed to slur together on a delay; she didn't hear them back for several seconds after she'd spoken.
"Who?" Marshall asked, confused.
"Jinx and my dad…" his wife sighed and rotated back to face the bar, sliding her napkin back and forth on the shiny surface. "Even on their best days. They never looked like that," she jerked her head at the couple.
Marshall wasn't sure whether he was supposed to agree with this statement, to refute it, to maybe say it didn't matter, or any combination of the three. Mary had gone a little unfocused, but he still felt like she was here with him. She was coherent, just without her usual guard.
"My dad hated that she was a dancer…" she recalled with an ill-timed hiccup. "Well, not hated it so much…" she clarified, still keeping her eyes fixated on the napkin so she wouldn't have to look at Marshall. "But he thought it was a shitty choice for a career. He said she'd never make any money doing it, and if she wasn't talented enough to go earn cash on Broadway she might as well hang it up."
Unexpectedly, this made Marshall sad even though Mary was prattling it off fairly evenly. He always took James with a grain of salt, letting himself believe that aside from the illegalities he performed on the side he had put up a pretty good front – enough of one that Mary had bought it at seven years old.
"He said that?" her husband whispered, just the idea unable to compute; he couldn't imagine uttering such a thing to his wife no matter how dead-end the marriage might be. "It may have been a little impractical with two young daughters, but to just crush her dreams…"
"Marshall, come on…" Mary sniped, reaching to take another drink on instinct before she remembered she'd ended up empty. "I used to believe the same thing. Probably got it from him."
"I like to think you recognized Jinx simply needed to find employment when she was living with you, whether that included dancing or something else," Marshall sugarcoated quite swiftly. "Am I right?"
"Are you ever wrong?" Mary grunted with great sarcasm.
She shut her eyes for a moment because the room had started to have a twirling, tilted quality to it. She knew she shouldn't order anything else and was going to have to force herself to stop slogging them back. If she wanted to sound halfway intelligent for the rest of the night, it was essential she keep her mind clear.
"You okay?" Marshall asked at once.
Mary shook her head for the second time, but quickly so he would know it was just to ward off all the spinning colors and shapes. Carefully, she slipped her lids back open and faced him; he was watching her with that telltale look of agonizing worry. It was dulled in the sensitivity of his features, but sometimes Mary thought she put him through the wringer so frequently it never went away.
"I'm trying," was all she could say, wanting to prove a point. "Marshall, I'm trying…"
Sometimes trying wasn't all it took.
"I know you are," he murmured kindly. "That will always be good enough for me."
Mary thought about asking him if he would let her peer into her letters later, if she could request to read one or two and he could pull them from the depths of wherever he kept him these days. But she thought better of it; poring over those words was only going to make her feel worse, not better.
She wasn't even entirely sure where the heartache came from. She'd rarely thought of Jinx and James as a couple and George stepping into the picture forty plus years down the road replaced absolutely nothing. It was just the change; the change was always what she fought to the bitter end.
"I believe it is time for me to rejoin the festivities," Marshall suggested when Mary didn't respond to what he'd said.
He stood from the stool, smoothing his jacket and leaving a tip for the bartender.
"Why don't you come with me?" he tried to ask, but it was voiced like more of a demand. "Sit with the boys and Ellie and Allison. Don't stay over here by yourself all night."
Congregating with the men and not their dates – as Sam constantly reminded her – didn't sound awful but she was shaky at best on conversation with Allison. She would turn fourteen in March and her father, Trevor something-or-other, had just become Mary's step-brother. Although the interaction would be very minimal considering Trevor lived in Maine, extra family members were never something Mary did well with. George was enough.
"In a little while," she tried to compromise. "Make sure I can still walk before I get up," she attempted to tease.
Marshall raised his eyebrows and peered inward at her, showing he didn't buy a word of it but Mary was determined to play him for the fool.
"I'm fine," she nodded as convincingly as she could. "Really."
Marshall knew when there was nothing else to be done and conceded defeat.
"Promise you'll join us soon?" he bargained.
Mary didn't do promises, but for Marshall she would barter as close as she could without actually saying the words.
"Count on it."
Her husband accepted this and finally made his way back to the group, weaving among guests and round tables, shaking hands and fielding congratulations. He was a natural and took it all in stride, even though Mary's family wasn't even his.
No, she reminded herself. He was a Shannon. He'd vowed and he'd never broken his word. Twelve years together ought to convince his former partner they were bound on both the Shannon and Mann side of the fence. She couldn't forget that so easily.
Facing the drink selection in front of her once more and longing for anything in any of those bottles, Mary reluctantly held her tongue and saw that the bowl of snacks that had been left out was down to its last shells. Maybe she was going to quit putting away the beverages, but she couldn't say no to gaining a few while she sat sedentary.
"Can you hit me up with some mixed nuts over here?" she called brazenly to the man behind the counter, waggling the dish to show there was nothing in it. "And none of that salt-free, fat-free garbage. Load me with cholesterol and crap," she finished her request.
"Coming up," the man chuckled, slipping the dish from her fingers and going to work on a refill.
This left Mary with just her napkin and empty glass, not much to do with her fluttering, antsy fingers while she waited for something to crack and chew on. She was considering ordering something less strong to bring her down off the peak of the wave, when she heard a shuffling behind her.
Whirling about on the stool, she found Jesse standing in front of her. He looked – a word Mary generally hated – but adorable in his three-piece suit. It was grey with matching vest and a sky blue tie, his blonde hair trimmed just enough so that it fell perfectly over his head, stick-straight as always.
"Hey Jess," she greeted him. "What's up?"
There were only a few answers to be had here – there was no reason for Jesse to come over to the bar if not to see Mary, unless he planned on kicking back a rum and coke.
"Oh, not much," he shrugged. "Are you having a good time?"
Mary wasn't sure this qualified as a good time, but a bad time would be awfully dramatic.
"Decent enough," was her response just as her lackey returned with her treat. She grabbed the bowl and offered it to Jesse, "Have a nut."
"Thanks," he scooped up a whole handful in his fingers and started popping them in his mouth at once. "Can I ask you something?" he posed around his chewing.
"I think you already did," Mary was mumbling also, having stuffed in a few more nuts than she'd originally intended. "But you can ask me something else too."
Jesse giggled, "Well…" he considered briefly and then, "I think maybe Ellie wants to dance with me."
Mary couldn't stop herself from raising her eyebrows in spectacular fashion, so high they might disappear into her hairline. She even wiggled them a few times in her surprise, which made Jesse giggle feverishly again.
"What?" he laughed, although he knew very well 'what.'
"Don't give me that, outlaw," Mary wagged her finger, still smirking. "You can't come over here and give up that kind of information and not expect me to get my shots in. Don't know your aunt very well, do you?"
But he did know his aunt, and Mary always toned it down for his benefit. He was sensitive and sweet, and definitely didn't need to be poked fun of.
"So, where's the question come in?" she pressed curiously. "You want to know how to foxtrot or waltz or something? Because you're barking up the wrong tree, man. That's Jinx's department."
And yet it was clear from Jesse's face, the way he turned a little awkward, that was exactly why he'd come over. You couldn't dance with the girl if you didn't know how, and Jinx was otherwise occupied at the moment. He was smart enough not to go to Brandi with the question because she was likely to bawl over all the cuteness and make a huge scene out of some innocent swaying around.
"Jess, I'm really not a dancer," Mary was forced to admit. "You'd be better off going with your instincts than mine on this."
But he looked desperate and also feared being humiliated, "Can't you show me something?" he pleaded. "Anything? I don't even know where to start, and doesn't the boy have to lead or something like that?"
"Only if you're following every single step," Mary told him. "If it's a fast song, just get her out there and jump around a whole bunch – if nothing else it'll make her laugh," his aunt decided. "And a slow song is even easier; just sway back and forth."
"No way am I doing a slow song," Jesse nixed at once. "What if she expects me to kiss her?"
"Oh…!" Mary waved a disgusted hand and made a face, her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth. "Gross Jess – not while we're eating! You're eleven years old for God's sake and Ellie has never struck me as the smooching type."
"Yeah, but if she thought it was all romantic or something…" Jesse obviously couldn't quite let this go and allowed his words to trail away, looking for more confirmation.
"All right, no slow songs," Mary conceded, drumming her fingernails on the leg of her black slacks and thinking.
She couldn't imagine the uproar if she went and boogied out on the dance floor with her nephew – the pictures, the noises, the gawking; all of it was too much to bear, and she'd been doing so well adopting her usual sulky self for the majority of the reception. Why ruin that now?
Not to mention, her dance knowledge really was pretty minimal. The best she'd be able to do would be to teach Jesse the box step, but that wasn't going to help if he was boycotting the more gushy tunes. She was basically walking into a minefield full of wiggling hips if she took him out there.
"Do you even want to dance with her?" she finally asked. "Or are you just doing it because it's what she wants?"
"I don't know," Jesse shrugged nonchalantly. "I thought it might be sort of fun if I knew how, but I don't want her to think I can't. She might not like me anymore."
That trademark fear of rejection never completely left Jesse, even over something as ridiculous as tapping around at a wedding. Mary severely doubted that Ellie would dump her friend because he didn't have the moves she envisioned.
"She likes you for you, bud," Mary couldn't resist reassuring him. "Not because you can shimmy-and-shake like some Hugh Heffner."
"Who?" Jesse was way too young to understand the reference, and Mary guessed it was under the influence that she had uttered it. "Who the heck is Hugh Heffner?"
"Never mind…" Mary shook her head, crunching another honey-roasted to distract from the name. "The point is, if Ellie is as good a friend as she's been so far, she's not going to ditch you even if you happen to suck at dancing."
Mary doubted this would satisfy him – the excuses sounded feeble even to her. She might have to settle for just going out to size up the dance floor, to maybe get Jesse out of his shell, and then she could split at the drop of a hat. Reluctantly, she slipped the bowl – which was almost empty once again – back onto the counter and slid down off her stool.
"Let's just see what we're dealing with," she muttered, not about to sign on for good. "No promises."
But Jesse was an expert at daring to hope and immediately took off at a fast-walk for the floor at the other end of the room, Mary striding along behind him. She felt conspicuous in what could only be described as funeral attire, looking like she'd just arrived from court. She'd swept her hair back with a headband so her bangs were out of her face, but otherwise she was dressed for the office and she hoped Marshall was right in his belief that Jinx had gotten over it.
The music was much louder on the hardwood, booming out of enormous speakers that were like bookends on the corners. Jinx, George, Brandi, and Peter were still hustling around with a couple of other dwellers. Sam, Ellie, and Allison watched from a nearby table; Ellie appeared wistful, but Sam was making conversation with Allison and wasn't paying much attention.
"All right…" Mary was not a fan of this at all, but now that they were here, she wondered if she could get away with some sort of an introductory step without too many people noticing. "Come out here – take my hand…"
Jesse wasn't shy about that and immediately slipped his fingers into hers, allowing her to lead him out to a secluded spot on the floor. The wood was slick from people sliding across it all night and the lights above in the chandelier were hot. Mary could taste that champagne mixing with the scotch again and hoped she wasn't going to puke.
"Okay, man…" she couldn't stop looking over her shoulder with every word that escaped her mouth. "Put your arms around my waist…"
This, in and of itself made Jesse laugh but he did as told. Mary decided to ignore the fact that the song currently playing was nowhere near the style they needed. But it might keep others from staring.
"We're going to make a box…" she told him. "It's easy; just make sure you don't stomp all over my feet…" she realized with this instruction that she should've taken her boots off.
But at that moment, the tune faded out and another one sprung to life directly above Mary's right ear which about deafened her for the next eternity. It was a song she didn't recognize, one with an awful rap back-beat and some guy speaking rather than singing – to the audience, she guessed?
"What the hell is this?" Mary voiced to no one in particular. "The Platinum Band?" she went on with disdain as she heard more of the lyrics. "Is that supposed to impress me?"
But a throng was definitely forming; the older guests were shuffling away while the younger ones began to congregate – Sam, Allison, and Ellie among them. Mary decided it was up to her to appeal to Jesse.
"Do you know it?" she asked.
"Nuh-uh…" he shook his head, but Mary's question was answered by the arrival of the other three.
Strike that – four. Marshall had joined in.
"It's the cha-cha slide!" Ellie burst excitedly, seizing Jesse's hand and swinging him in to stand next to her.
"The what?" Mary needed clarified.
"It's a kid's dance, babe," Marshall filled her in; she should've known. "Orchestrated by D.J. Casper, otherwise known as Mr. C."
"Good lord, I don't even want to know how you know that…" she shook her head. "Anyway, you're not going to catch me shipping out in the coffin trying to figure out the logistics of this thing."
She made to leave the floor, deciding Jesse could take care of himself now that Sam had joined in with the rest of the crowd; Brandi, Peter, Jinx, and George had opted to stick around as well. However, she hadn't banked on Marshall closing his fingers around her arm in an effort to get her to stay.
"It tells you what to do," he informed his wife with a very boyish grin. "No instructions required."
Still, Mary wanted to escape more than ever but it was too late. A line had formed to face the collection of round tables and according to Casper the Friendly Ghost or whoever the vocalist was, they were about to get 'funky.'
"No way…" she tried to keep the laugh out, but it wasn't going well.
"Don't tell me you're not going to get funky!" Marshall began to drag her in to stand beside him. "I think you give new meaning to funky."
Whatever that meant.
"I am not doing this…" she growled as everyone in line began to clap their hands to the beat, which happened to consist of her family alone. "I am not using the opportunity to get in touch with my inner homie…"
"He says, 'Everybody clap your hands!'" Marshall declared joyfully, completely ignoring her stance and smashing her between him and Sam so that the men's elbows crashed into hers when they applauded.
Mary huffed a very annoyed sigh and tried to listen to the lyrics, mostly to see what she could omit, feeling like she was part of some conga-line with everybody end-to-end.
"To the left…take it back now ya'll…"
Unfortunately, Mary did not care enough to move with the others, and when her party slid to the left and then backwards, she was left standing alone where they'd started.
"Mom, come on!" Sam called from her rear. "Just listen! He tells you what to do – it's easy!"
By the time she tuned in again, they'd reached the 'cha-cha' part of this supposed slide, and from what Mary could glean that just meant you shuffled with whoever was near until the next part of the song. Marshall seized her around the waist and began to spin her. Her common sense kicked in and she lifted the heel of her boot so she twirled better, but three drinks under her belt made her feel hot and tipsy with all the movement.
"You heard him…" Marshall swooned in her ear, his breath warm on her neck. "Cha-cha…real smooth…"
"You are shameless, doofus," she replied with a reluctant grin, but her extremities began to tingle when his hands grazed her hips, fingers slipping and fondling over each and every one of her curves.
"Marshall, stop it…" she forced herself to hiss, not wanting to make a spectacle and knowing she couldn't completely trust herself under the liquor. "If we're gonna do this crap, get back in line…"
A half-satisfied, half-disappointed grin was playing on his lips as he obeyed and dragged her back to the group.
But as it turned out, the dance blasting through the speakers was extremely repetitious and Mary was able to pick up the movements quickly. The boppers also figured out pretty fast that standing in a line didn't give them much room and they fanned out, Mary pairing off with Jesse and Ellie; Marshall occupied with Sam.
"Mary, you criss-cross!" Ellie instructed, hopping on the spot and weaving her feet one-over-the-other and back again. "Like this!"
"I like that part," Jesse decided as he gave it a try. "Do it with me Mary…"
Mary wasn't the best at saying no to Jesse and took both his hands in hers. His face was shining with glee at having escaped an official dance with Ellie and he hung on tight, obviously not wanting to fall over.
"You ready, man?" his aunt asked, gripping tight. "On three, all right?"
He nodded while Mary counted him off. When they got to three, they both jumped and swapped feet and it was all Mary could do not to let Jesse tip over backwards. But he laughed out loud in earnest and allowed himself to pitch forward into Mary's arms once he saw he was going to lose balance.
"Whoa, hold the reins outlaw!" she cried, sweeping him up with her big hands. "Don't think a dual-hop is such a good idea on this one."
In a moment of spontaneity, she pushed him outward with her arm and spun him around like a top; easier to do than anticipated because he was such a string bean.
"Whee!" he called. "It's like being in those spinning teacups at the amusement park…"
Last Mary remembered, Jesse had barfed on the spinning teacups and she slowed her approach to the twirling in hopes that-that would not happen again.
"Try it out on your lady, then," Mary was decisive, getting him to rotate over to Ellie in her pale pink dress, her long sand-colored hair falling in a sheet down her back. "A spin and a dip always gets the ladies, Jess. Well – most ladies anyway," she conceded with a reference to herself.
Jesse was predictably nervous about this but the lyrics to the song had long since been forgotten and he took Ellie's hand, who was a good and obliging sport.
"I'll spin you, and then you spin me," she suggested. "But don't drop me if you go for the 'dip' thing."
This made Mary laugh and saw that her work on this front was done. Instead, she turned her attentions to Marshall and Sam who looked fantastically awful trying to bop all over the floor; Marshall was traditionally a fairly decent dancer, but Sam had not had a lot of practice.
"I don't think I can get a handle on this one, Smush…" she admitted as she jived over, watching him bounce up and down at the knees, Marshall swiveling his hips in an Elvis-esque fashion. "What do you call those moves?"
"Not like they have a name," Sam stopped immediately in the presence of his mother, at a classic age to be embarrassed. "I was just fooling around."
"Got the fool part right," she stuck her finger in his chest. "You don't think dad and I can bust one or two?"
Her fingers curled into Marshall's and she got some of her hips in on the action, much to Marshall's pleasure and surprise.
"Look who's getting into the spirit," he remarked, copying her movements, fanning her in and out, her feet somehow finding the beat and the rhythm all on her own.
"It's 'cause you had about ten drinks," Sam decided with a smirk. "I was watching you at the bar."
"Three," Mary corrected, still trying to stay in step with Marshall. "Three is not ten."
"Still," her son chuckled, looking all-superior in his black suit and vest, his tie a fashionable forest green. "Like you'd ever do this if you hadn't had any, even if it was just three."
"I don't remember you becoming an expert on this," his mother replied snidely, Marshall almost wrenching her arm out of its socket as he spun her around his back, pinning her in something resembling a throw-down move before he released her. "You been testing the liquor at home?"
"Get real," Sam scoffed, having to raise his voice over the music. "I'm not saying it's a bad thing," he told her. "You're more fun when you've been drinking."
"All right, man…" Marshall was politely firm even as he knew the statement to be true; Mary was not the definition of 'fun' and never had been.
"You think that's insulting?" Mary wanted to know, wrenching herself out of Marshall's moves. "I hate to see how you react when he pulls that kind of smack on you."
"Whatever…" Sam shook his head, still grinning. "I'm going back to the table…"
But if Mary was going to loosen up, so was Sam and she snatched his arm just as Marshall had done with her.
"Not so fast, Smush!" she ordered broadly. "Humiliation's getting passed down here, and you're next on the list."
"Mom, come on…" Sam was disbelieving, rolling his eyes. "When I said you were being fun, I didn't mean dancing-fun. Honestly, it's getting kind of scary…"
But a strange something floating inside of Mary, heightened with all the champagne and scotch mingling in her veins, wanted that dance with her son. Even if it was ridiculous and goofy, and even if she could've never pictured such a thing happening. Deep down, she'd grown into every other mother on the planet whether she admitted to it or not.
"Well, it's either me or Allison," she haggled in a last-ditch attempt. "I hear fourteen-year-old girls are aces at kissing, especially with tongue."
She wasn't even going to break character and show how ill such a picture made her, how she wished with every fiber of her being she had not created that image.
"Someone needs to say they're uncomfortable," Marshall chuckled just as Brandi twirled their direction on Peter's arm, her skirt of shocking pink swishing and spinning fast in all directions.
"Shannon's, you're just standing here!" little sister clucked even still on the move. "Either join the party or get off the dance floor!"
"Option B!" Sam declared, and he managed to wiggle himself out of Mary's grasp and bolt back for the tables before she could stop him.
The upbeat, driving tempo of the song was beginning to fade away and Marshall didn't have to yell as he dropped his arms in a minimal amount of defeat. He squeezed Mary's shoulder reassuringly, even though she looked perfectly – okay, at least halfway to – giddy with her flushed cheeks and weird half-smile at Sam's departure.
"Ah…" he tried to brush aside. "He's a twelve-year-old boy, Mare," he went for consoling. "We're lucky we got him out here this long. Not to mention you."
"Yeah…" she was strangely breathless, feeling her heart beat quickly inside her ribcage, like it was taking place of the bass drum in the disappearing song. "It doesn't matter. I don't know what I was trying to do with him. He's right; I must be hammered…"
Feeling suddenly silly, she began to take the same path as her son and get out of the spotlight. She didn't know what she'd been thinking.
"Wait…" Marshall obviously didn't want things to end and reached for her arm again. "We were having fun…" he tried to convince her. "Stick around."
His blue eyes were large, round, and full of an odd sort of desire Mary wasn't sure she'd seen there before. He wanted it for himself as much as he wanted it for her, his fingers lying slack against her forearm; poised mid-reach and ready to reel her in.
But her gut was sloshing uncomfortably with all the movement, she felt dumb for having tried to sashay with Sam, and she was cursing herself for having drunk so much. It had made her feel clouded and suddenly uncharacteristically agitated. Or more so than usual.
"Marshall, give it a rest," she snapped unkindly. "I'm sitting down. You got your fun and games; leave me be."
He was hurt and Mary knew it, but being under the guise of the alcohol kept her from backtracking and she was almost fine leaving him standing there bewildered on the dance floor.
She managed to get to Sam's table because it was closest and in the most remote corner of her brain she knew she was doing it so Marshall could keep an eye on her. She sunk into a chair and sighed, not wishing to engage her son in conversation.
The lights had gone low on the floor in favor of a more romantic song and Marshall had gone to teach Ellie a few steps. Watching him with the little girl, Mary felt the most bizarre sensation – one she could safely say she'd never felt before. She adored Sam and she adored Jesse, but perhaps it was the lingering memories of James that had her wishing she'd been able to see Marshall with a daughter.
He took her fingers lightly in his, revolving her ever-so-delicately on the hardwood like the ballerina in the music box. It gave her pink skirt just the right amount of twirl, her sandy hair catching the glow from the bulbs in the chandelier. She beamed at him while Jesse got pointers nearby, the young lady reveling in the attention.
Marshall would've been the perfect match to have a daddy's girl. And leaning her chin on her hand, Mary's pitiful sadness came. Alcohol did really wonky things to her brain; it was worse than after-birth pregnancy hormones in the way she flew from one end to the other.
"Mom?" she heard Sam somewhere far off, appearing as just a hunched silhouette somewhere to her right. "Mom, is something wrong?"
She must've gone pretty funny in the eyes of her son with her uncharacteristic look of longing, and when she turned to him he was leaning on his elbows to get a good glimpse.
"You want some water or something?" he asked, remembering his smart remarks about her being drunk. "I can get you some…"
It wasn't as sweet an offer as it appeared, since there was a complimentary pitcher sitting on their table. Without waiting for a response, Sam took the decanter and filled a nearby glass, handing it across to Mary. She accepted it gratefully and managed some words.
"Thanks Smush," she took a swallow. And then, "Sorry about before. I didn't mean to get you all wracked with shame and sin asking you to dance. I was just trying to jazz it up, but I really suck at it."
Sam looked a little guilty then, even with his face dulled in the darkness; the only light penetrating from the floor beyond.
"It was stupid of me to say you're not any fun," he conceded with his nearly pitch-perfect manners. "Really, it was dumb. Did I hurt your feelings?"
Even after all these years, Mary wondered why Sam was asking because even if he had hurt her feelings – which he hadn't, not really – he had to have known she would not fess up. It wasn't in her nature to do so, the façade she still put in plain view when she felt it was most vital.
"No Sam…" she shook her head slowly, liking the cool, pleasant flow of the water down her throat. "I knew you were teasing."
"Well…" her son shrugged, glad that was over.
His eyes strayed to the action going on at the dance floor; Brandi with her head on Peter's shoulder, Marshall guiding Jesse and Ellie into an acceptable, appropriate stance for the occasion, Allison swaying with her father Trevor. Evidently it was the last pair that caught Sam's attention, because it was of them that he spoke.
"I guess Trevor's part of the family now," he remarked. "Sort of. Allison too?" he looked to Mary for approval, taking a Hersey kiss from the bowl on the table and unwrapping it.
"In a way…" was Mary's partially tipsy response. "But not, in a way, too…"
That made a lot of sense.
"What happened to his mom?" Sam questioned, his eyes still with Mary's new step-brother. "Trevor, I mean. Did she and George get divorced like Jinx and your dad, or…?"
"No…" Mary remembered this vaguely; surprised she was able to unearth it since her mind was so full of fluff. "George mentioned that she died awhile back; she had cancer."
Sam was curious, "Really? What kind?"
His mother gulped a few more dregs of her water before responding, the liquid of the earth helping her to return to normalcy a little bit. Although, with clarity came the realization that her head hurt and it made her stomach slosh even more.
"I think it was breast cancer," Mary told her son. "Jinx said something about it. They've been to visit her grave every year on Memorial Day."
Mary had always found this entirely insane, not able to fathom the new wife going to pay her respects to the old. But Jinx had insisted that since it was important to George, it was important to her, and she didn't expect him to just forget the woman because she'd come along. They could get through it together, she'd claimed.
"Wow," Sam obviously found this unusual too, which pleased Mary on some weird level. "That's pretty cool that Jinx would do that. I guess Jinx doesn't go to your dad's grave, does she?" the question prompted another right on top of it. "Have you even been there?"
Mary balked, not having expected such a thing to come up, and her emotions must've been written all over her face because Sam's inquisitiveness fell away at once and was replaced by large, sad blue eyes.
"Sorry, mom…" he hurried to rectify at once. "I forget sometimes you don't like to talk about him. You don't have to answer; I just wondered."
It was his understanding that made Mary want to reveal all, and the fact that it was easier when his face was half-hidden in shadow.
"Forget it, Sam," she said in a would-be-obliging way. "No, I haven't been – Jinx hasn't either as far as I know. His grave is in Oregon because that's where he died."
Sam nodded, "Oh" and left it at that.
Fortunately, there was no need for further discussion because one of the subjects of their conversation presented herself, breathless and radiating charm. Mary turned, and Jinx was standing there in her tea-length dress, perspiring at the neck but unrivaled elation seeped from every inch of her skin.
"Hi honey…" she greeted her daughter. "Can I talk to you a second?"
Mary was pretty much talked-out between Marshall and Sam, but she knew it was essential she indulge the bride, even if she might be tempting her with the lingering scent of champagne and scotch on her breath. Regardless, she nodded and stood from the table, only a trifle steadier on her feet. Sam grinned at the way Peter was tossing Brandi all over the place and unwrapped the foil of another Hershey kiss.
Jinx led Mary across the room, near the double doors so that they now had a side view of the action on the dance floor, but it was darker and much more secluded in their corner. However, most of the guests had thinned out; as it was getting late.
"What is it, mom?" Mary asked dully once they'd halted their march.
Jinx took a deep breath as though she was preparing herself for what she was about to say and yet the happiness still loitered beneath her determination.
"I just didn't want to get through the night without thanking you, Mary," she whispered, her big green eyes doleful and ever-innocent in their ability to be genuine.
Mary was thrown off guard and tried to come up with something satisfactory to say.
"For what, mom?" was all she could manage.
"Angel…" she reached out and patted Mary's cheek lovingly, a kind and sympathetic smile visible even in the dark. "I've been spewing my gratitude all over Brandi because she did the grunt work, but I don't want you to think I'm not thankful for you too…"
"Mom, I'm sorry about the suit…" Mary sighed, wondering if this was a round-about way of bringing that up again, glancing down at her attire with disdain. "I should've just worn the damn dress to the meeting and had done with it…"
"It's not about that…!" Jinx cut in quickly, hands fluttering about the jewels on her necklace. "I shouldn't have made such a big deal; you looked very smart and I was very proud to have you stand up there with me…"
In the back of her mind, Mary thought this was going too far, but at the forefront she appreciated the sentiment. It was nice to hear that her mother recognized her for what she was; Mary often felt Jinx had favored Brandi, especially when they were younger, but here she was making the effort to prove otherwise.
"Anyway…" Jinx persisted when Mary didn't respond. "You were my well-behaved girl tonight…" she gushed semi-condescendingly, patting her daughter's hair like a dog. "I appreciate it so much, sweetheart. Please know that, okay?"
Jinx was the only person who could make a plea sound like a request all at the same time, but Mary had no choice but to accept it. Looking at her mother's hopeful face, etched with the lines of the most intense joy, she couldn't take that away. Jinx was independent, sober, and thrilled to pieces – three things Mary had always wished she would be.
"Congratulations, mom…" she said throatily. "But you can tell me if I ruined things with my sour-sad-sack business," she offered lamely.
Jinx was almost pitying as she pulled her eldest daughter into her embrace, her way of acknowledging the somewhat-not-so-many-happy returns. Her mother patted her back softly like the parent she had become, assuring her she understood. She knew her child.
When they stepped apart, Mary received yet another smooth of her hair before the words came.
"You did not ruin anything," she promised. "Today would not have been the same without you. That's all I wanted you to know," she concluded. "It may be hard for you to believe that your presence means something, but it does darling."
Mary gave a sheepish nod and swallowed, wishing she had that water in hand once more. Fortunately, Jinx seemed to have finished.
"Now…" she fed her daughter a devious, conspiring grin and her eyes rested on the dance floor beyond. "Don't let the night be a total loss. Someone's waiting for you…"
With a very Jinx-like move, she bumped Mary's hip with hers as she tottered off to rejoin her new husband; duties and mission accomplished. Mary turned slowly on the spot and saw that the floor had cleared out almost entirely but for Jesse trying to sway not-so-dreamily side-to-side with Ellie. But the man who remained, slouched against the wall and watching the two kids, looked dispiritedly lonely.
Mary couldn't let that continue.
Gathering her courage, she began the steady walk to join him – the man she loved, the man she trusted, the man she'd beat up on tonight and so many other days, the man who continued to want her by his side day after day no matter what hell she put him through.
The song was slow, but not too sugar-sweet which Mary was pretty sure she could handle. Marshall saw her approach, and she loved the way his blue eyes glimmered even under the faint stage lights. He was studying her, calculating to see if she'd left her tipsy-brazenness behind to be replaced by her usual brand of snark.
"Hey…" he murmured once she arrived, shifting off the wall and onto the hardwood. "How you doing?"
Mary shrugged, "Think I'm up for a dance."
Marshall's pleasure might've rivaled Jinx's. He held out his hand and Mary let her fingers close into his, always feeling so encompassed by him when they were linked in that way – like it might be the only rope keeping them from being apart, but it was always strong enough to weather the storms that might fray its battered ends.
And yet, their hands eventually folded into one another, bodies pressed front-to-front, chest-to-chest and heart-to-heart. The slow, gentle cadence of their embrace meant they were not really dancing at all, but simply swaying serenely side-to-side, back-and-forth.
But Mary couldn't have asked for anything better, her arms splayed over his back, her chin resting on his shoulder.
"I feel like I should say something…" she murmured unexpectedly, lips barely moving.
"Don't," Marshall assured her from the other side. "It doesn't matter."
"It might…" she whispered softer still. "Since I'm like…the wedding witch in my funeral black."
Marshall gave a light chuckle, "Don't be so hard on yourself. I still love you…"
Mary remembered their conversation from before, couldn't help noticing the way his phrase trailed away as though he'd left something off.
"Still love me…" she repeated. "Anyway?"
She didn't have to be facing him to know he was shaking his head, knew what he meant just by the way he squeezed the small of her back with his long fingers.
"No anyway…" he reinforced, refusing to give up. "No anyway, or in spite of, or…"
"Marshall," it was Mary's least-obstructive interrupt. "Let's just go with, 'I love you too.'"
One hand left her back, found her cheek, and brushed the hair aside so he could turn ever-so-slightly and kiss her cheek. Butterflies, flocks of birds, and jumping beans, before he sealed the deal.
"No matter what."
A/N: I am sad to report there is only one remaining! You guys have been incredible!