Albuquerque, we have a problem

Chapter 78 – The Final Countdown

Marshall turned as Mary came out onto the balcony of the Sunshine Building.

She triumphantly held up two mugs emblazoned with the star of the marshal service. Marshall rolled his eyes.

"What?" she snapped, "I don't know where Eleanor's stashed the glasses."

"So we're stuck drinking champagne out of mugs on New Years Eve. Really, Mare, you're so uncouth."

"Really?" she questioned, finding secret amusement in his use of interesting or obscure words. "Uncouth?"

Marshall grinned at her predictable response. Maybe her amusement wasn't so secret after all.

"Did you know that champagne was discovered in France but the bubbles were generally seen as undesirable. The interrupted fermentation process causes the production of CO2 gas which is trapped in the bottles and early French wine bottles weren't strong enough to withstand the pressure..." Marshall watched as Mary rolled her eyes, a perfect mirror of his reaction a minute ago.

"Shut up."

"Make me."

Marshall had found in the week since Christmas that challenging Mary to make him shut up often resulted in her kissing him, a snippet of knowledge he was unwilling to share with Mary least it result in immediate cessation of the action.

It was a trick he had discovered the day after they had returned to Albuquerque.

That morning, a plaintive phone call from Mary had summoned him to her house where he had found that Brandi and Jinx had waited for Mary's return before celebrating Christmas. Secretly touched, but a little off balance because of their thoughtfulness, Mary had called for backup. Marshall had instantly abandoned his pile of laundry and driven to her house. Once there, he had found an edgy Mary, who was convinced that the niceness was all a prelude to something bad and that she wouldn't be held responsible for what happened when she found out what her family had done this time.

Marshall had convinced her to give her family the benefit of the doubt and had stayed to celebrate with them and referee when needed. Mary had made a noticeable effort to be nice, so Marshall had quickly realised that his presence hadn't actually been needed, just wanted. The thought had made him relax and settle into the role of boyfriend to the point that neither Jinx or Brandi questioned why he was there.

When he had recalled some obscure fact about the winter solstice to entertain Brandi with, he'd got carried away. His interesting factoid had soon become a full blown discourse on paganism in the modern age that had Mary telling him to shut up. The stupid smile on her face as she had said it, belayed the imperative of her words and he had just grinned back impishly and uttered the words of his challenge.

Much to his surprise, Mary had taken the challenge at face value and had climbed onto his lap and kissed him until he hadn't had any breath left to breathe with, let alone spiel minutia. A quick glance at Jinx and Brandi when Mary dismounted told him that that was also how Mary had chosen to inform them that Marshall's role in her life had been ungraded, judging by the pointed looks they shared and their mildly-amused-but-not-too-surprised expressions.

The rest of the week had been almost normal compared to the Christmas weekend. They'd gone to work, visited their witnesses, Mary had tormented Eleanor and harassed Stan. There had been no crises while they'd been away so they'd been free to settle into their old, yet slightly altered routine. The most noticeable alteration was the morning that Mary was woken by the light of an alien abduction lamp at an ungodly hour and had to restrain the urge to throw it across the room. Marshall had moved it slightly further away from her side of the bed after that.

The ring that Marshall had presented her with at Ellen's had also undergone a slight relocation on Mary's return to work. It no longer sat on her ring finger, but was attached to the chain around her neck with the St Christopher her dad had given her before he had left – the two reminders of promises from the two very different men in her life, good and bad, now hung side-by-side in plain sight.

Eleanor, ever observant, had noticed the new piece of jewelery and mentioned it to Stan - far safer course of action than talking to Mary about it. She felt she had the right to meddle in Mary's life as she had detected that Mary's intervention was behind Stan's unexpected visit on Christmas day. Despite that, a mutual truce was in effect between the two women, with Mary not asking about Eleanor's holiday and Eleanor not directly asking about the sudden appearance of an engagement ring and its unconventional position. So, it had been up to Stan to pull Marshall aside one afternoon and apply his subtlest interrogation techniques while hinting that, while he didn't personally have a problem, officially he'd have to disapprove if anything happened between his Inspectors.

Marshall read between the lines and understood. He indicated that he'd be prepared to fight the bureaucracy if it came to that, but it was still early days and he had enough of a battle on his hands combating Mary's natural aversion to commitment. Stan had smiled, wished him luck and made a note to start gathering dirt on those higher-ups that were likely to kick up a fuss when the inevitable happened and Marshall won his first battle.

Neither marshal had brought up their plans for New Year's, they both just assumed that they would be repeating the activities of the previous year and the year before that, as they had every year since Mary's first year in Albuquerque. Some traditions went without saying.

So, they had spent the day checking on their most at risk witnesses, including the Lerners and Amy, who once again had expressed an interest in becoming a marshal. This was followed by an evening of paperwork until one of them declared their hunger and their traditional squabble over what to have and who was going to pay ensued. Once the food arrived, all thoughts of paperwork had been abandoned and the pair had spent the hours leading up to midnight with their feet on the desk, flicking things at each other and enjoying each other's company in the otherwise empty office.

The first year they had spent New Year's Eve together, it had been spontaneous and they had ended up toasting the new year with the dregs of the coffee pot. Subsequent years, Marshall had stashed a bottle of champagne in the office, just in case. And now, as he recalled the origins and contemplated the interrupted fermentation process that produced champagne, he made a mental note to bring champagne flutes next year.

Mary's thoughts had nothing to do with champagne, however, as she was considering ways to make Marshall stop with the trivia.

She was just about to, once again, shut Marshall up with a kiss when she stopped to think the situation through. The thought occurred to her that Marshall had been spouting a lot more useless information than normal in the last few days. As she took a step toward him, she took in the hopeful gleam in Marshall's eye and realised that she'd almost fallen into his trap. Rather than be manipulated, she just stayed where she was and said nothing.

Marshall returned to pouring the champagne into the mugs, disappointed his ruse had failed and his chances had run out.

He handed her the full mug and asked, "What shall we toast to?"

Mary thought for a while then sidestepped, saying, "Did you know that toasting actually has something to do with bread? The name comes from the custom of flavoring the wine with spiced toast."

Marshall stared at her, dumbstruck.

She grinned mischievously.

Marshall continued to stare at her in awe until she shrugged and said, "I had this conversation with your sister earlier."

Marshall chuckled and returned to looking out over the city as he said, "I think you've spoken to her more in the last couple of weeks than I have in the last two years."

"It's not my fault she prefers me to you," she replied, dismissively.

"It's nice," Marshall admitted after a moment, referring to Mary's growing friendship with Ellen. "Although I'm surprised that you haven't tried to convince me to tell them the truth about us."

"What do you mean? Why should I care if you're lying to your family?" she asked.

"It's just not like you, that's all. In fact it's very un-Mary-like. You have a very low tolerance for BS, so I'm surprised you're letting this go."

Mary huffed, "After meeting your parents, I'm not going to let you meet them alone. What kind of partner would I be if I let you walk into that sort of danger with no one to watch your back? And if I have to go in undercover, so be it."

What Mary didn't mention was that she'd already decided to let Marshall's family believe they were engaged for as long as possible. That way, if they did get engaged for real, all the fuss over the announcement would be over and done with and they could just get on with their lives. She kept telling herself this little plan of hers was only logical and a prudent precaution, but as the idea had occurred to her, she had realised she wouldn't hate the idea of being engaged to Marshall, especially if the real experience was anything like the pretend one.

Marshall's amusement at her sentiment was tangible in the comfortable silence that settled over them. They both leant on the wall of the balcony looking out over the busy town below. Mary couldn't help but contrast the scene below her with her recurring nightmare of being abandoned in an empty city, a nightmare she hadn't had since she'd started sleeping in Marshall's bed. She shifted closer to him, wanting to cling to him like a ward against any further occurrences of the dream that had plagued her since childhood. As she watched the people below her go about their business, oblivious to the surveillance from above, her hand drifted to the ring on a chain around her neck as she reminded herself of the promise Marshall had made her, hoping that was enough to keep the dream away.

Marshall noticed the action and pulled her into an embrace. He had noticed her hand drift there in the last week whenever she was unsure or thoughtful. He didn't know what had caused her sudden shift of mood, but he automatically took steps to ease her discomfort.

As he felt her relax slightly, he reassured her further, in case she was still worried about his family, "It's not an experience I'm eager to repeat."

It took Mary a moment to recall the previous topic of conversation. She knew, at some point, she would tell Marshall about her nightmare, but for now she was grateful for him pulling her away from her dark thoughts.

"Have you spoke to your dad since?" she asked.

"No, but Mom phoned the other day, just to check we got back okay."

Another silence descended as they waited for the firework display to begin. It was part of the tradition, watching the New Year's fireworks together, for free, from the top of the building.

"You never answered my question," Marshall finally reminded her.

"What question?"

"What shall we toast to at midnight? Health? World peace? The President?"

Mary screwed her nose up more at each suggestion.

"Happiness?" he suggested.

Mary half shrugged at that one and tentatively offered a toast of her own.

"Promises kept?"

Marshall stared at her, surprised that she would be the one to suggest such a toast. He noticed her hand was still at her throat, and knew she was still looking for reassurance about something. Suspecting that she was thinking about her dad and his abandonment, he chose a toast to remind her of his recent promise.

"To partnership?" he offered.

Mary smiled and nodded.

They turned to watch the city again, Mary doing her best to ignore the images of her dream by holding on to Marshall's vows not to quit and to wait for her.

"Speaking of promises, have you made any resolutions?" Mary asked.

Marshall pulled himself upright and Mary smiled in anticipation, knowing whatever his answer was going to be, it was going to be good.

"I find there is something rather futile about the whole idea," Marshall began, "No one ever stick to their resolutions for more than a week and I don't believe it's an auspicious way to begin a new year, with a broken promise, so I don't normally make any. But this year I have. And I've embraced the futility of it - I've resolved not to make any resolutions. Unfortunately, the very act of making such a resolution breaks the one resolution I've made."

He smiled happily as Mary laughed at his diatribe, then asked, "How about you?"

Mary considered a moment then shook her head.

"I kinda made mine at Christmas."

He raised an eyebrow in question.

"I promised myself to give this thing with us a go," she explained lightly, not wanting to make a big deal about the resolution that it had taken her a long time to come to, before finally deciding Marshall was worth the risk, "and to try not to let my fear of commitment get in the way. I reckon trying to keep that's enough to last me well into the coming year."

Marshall didn't know what to say in response to hearing Mary commit herself to having a relationship with him. He knew there would still be ups and downs and moments of doubt and insecurity that would make maintaining a relationship with her difficult, but it would be infinitely easier if she was trying too.

Rather than say the wrong thing, he did the only thing he could think of at that moment - he leant forward and kissed her gently.

Mary knew that her promise not to run scared at the first sign of commitment was a babystep compared to Marshall's promise not to leave, but he seemed strangely touched by her sentiment. Surprised and encouraged by his silent response, she took another babystep.

"You know, Jinx has been dropping hints all week that if you wanted to spend more time at our place, or spend the night..." Mary trailed off, leaving the invitation implied but open.

"That's magnanimous of her, considering it's not her house," Marshall hedged, not sure if Mary was offering what he thought she was offering.

"That's what I told her. Although she has a point and I'm sure the homeowner wouldn't mind..."

"Is that so? Huh." His confusion cleared up, Marshall was ready to have some fun of his own.

"What?"

"Is that it? Is that as much of an invite as I get? Where's the pristine invitation, embossed with gold-leaf? What happened to the little niceties of life? When did calling cards and formal invitations go out of fashion?"

"Moron," she pushed him away playfully, "Do you want to stay or not?"

"Best offer I've had all year."

"Well, if that's the best offer you've had all year, you must have had a very disappointing year."

"O contraire, mon petite catastrophe, I've had a very good year, offer-wise," he glanced at his watch, "and as there's only few minutes of this year left, I feel I'm able to say that's the best offer I've had or am likely to get."

Mary thought for a moment and then quietly admitted, "This is the best holiday this year."

Marshall regarded her silently, waiting for her to continue.

"Just the two of us. No family to mess things up," she explained.

Marshall moved to stand behind Mary, sitting his champagne mug on the wall and wrapping his arms around her. He rested his chin on her shoulder and they stood like that as they waited for the fireworks to start.

Securely held in Marshall's arms, Mary turned her thoughts away from her long term future with him and to what they had to achieve in the immediate future.

"So, have you talked to Stan about Amy joining USMS?" she asked.

"Not yet," he admitted sheepishly.

"I can't believe you're taking such a hair-brained scheme to him. What on earth has possessed you? You'll be putting her in danger if she gets in!"

Marshall let Mary rant for a minute about his stupidity and when she finally stopped, said, "You done?"

Mary took a breath. "Yeah. But seriously, Marshall, what are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking that Amy is my witness and she's not even twenty and her life is already mapped out for her. If she wants to change something, to try for something more than a junior receptionist's position, then it's my job to help her."

"What about the fact she'll be in greater danger?" Mary asked again.

"Or, something I learned from Dad - she'll be safer with proper training. It's part of that whole teach a man to fish thing. Plus, marshals do things other than look after witnesses."

Marshall paused and waited to see Mary's response. He wasn't entirely sure he was doing the right thing, but if his plan stood up to Mary's scrutiny, he would know he was on the right track. She didn't say anything, giving his argument some thought.

"I don't think she's got her heart set on WITSEC," he continued, "I think she see us, our partnership, and wants that kind of relationship with someone. I doubt she even desperately wants to join USMS. I suspect she'd be happy with ABQ PD or another branch of law enforcement as long as she had a partner and friend."

Mary considered all this for a long moment and conceded that Marshall's assessment of his witness was probably accurate.

"The marshal service might be best," she concluded, "Marshals have the most knowledge about WITSEC and know not to ask too many questions, so her cover would be safest."

"So, we don't have a problem? You're with me on this, even when I take it to Stan?"

Mary muttered something under her breath.

"What was that?"

"I said, 'No,' - we don't have a problem. And I'll always be with you, even if I still think you're an idiot."

"Good," Marshall said, as the first of the fireworks exploded in the night's sky. "Now, come here and kiss me, it's midnight."

For once in her life, Mary did what she was told and kissed him passionately, intending to start the year the way she hoped it would continue.

In the moonlit Albuquerque sky, the firework display went unnoticed by the two people on the roof of the Sunshine Building. Two people who defied classification, who merged the roles of marshal, friend, family, partner and lover without a problem.


AN: Thank you to all of you that have been following this story. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thank you also, if you took the time to review and special mention must go to Kathiann who has reviewed every chapter. Finally, many thanks to Roar526, who beta-d the last third of the story, without whom it could easily have been abandoned at times or caused my laptop to be thrown out the window. She kept me sane, gave me someone to bounce ideas off and stopped me second guessing myself too much, not to mention corrected my errors.