A/N: All things must finish sooner or later, even Masks....


Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.

~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939, translated from French by Lewis Galantière


Mary was cold. The daylight was almost gone, the last colors of it painting the sky, and she needed to leave, needed to pick up her phone and check in at the very least. She knew it, but she couldn't seem to make herself get up from the bench, couldn't make her hand reach out for the BlackBerry. Her mind and her heart needed time to turn this new thing over, to examine it from all sides, to make sure it really fit, that she really understood it. She couldn't stand the idea of going home to more of Jinx's accusations, and she didn't know what she'd say yet to Marshall. Therefore, she'd stayed despite the darkness and the dropping temperatures. She hugged her arms around herself, hunching slightly to maintain her body heat as she continued to think.

I'm going to have to talk to him about this at some point. But...how do I do that? I mean...words are not my strong point. Actions, actions I have lots of. I wish there were some way I could just "action" it and he'd understand me. I can't have the big stupid dramatic, "So how do you feel about me?" conversation, dammit. I don't know how, and...and...what if I screw it up? She sighed, eyes slipping over to the now-empty swing where the raven had sat not so long ago. Don't suppose you have any miraculous advice left up your feathery sleeve do you?

Despite the absence of a physical avatar, the sonorous voice filled her again as well as a distinct feeling of amusement, "Don't waste your chances. That's the best advice I know to give, child."

"What the hell kind of advice is that?" she mumbled, and then jumped, startled, hands flying for a gun that was not currently there as warmth draped itself around her cold body.

---

"Jesus, Marshall, you scared me!" She tried to calm her breathing and her heart rate, but both were still elevated from the shock he'd given her. She watched him slide his long legs under the top of the picnic table and settle himself beside her. His eyes were slightly amused, but she could see the concern just under that surface.

"Then I guess we're probably even, then," he said quietly. His lips curved briefly with it, but the little smile disappeared quickly. She looked away from him, back out at the vista in front of her, unable to meet his eyes, and he turned to stare straight ahead with her, out into the darkening desert. The moon was beginning to rise, and the edge of it was a shimmering crescent on the far horizon. They sat in silence for a time, watched it pull itself up from the edge of the world to glow softly. The world was silver, black, and deepest blue. A few early stars appeared.

Mary wanted desperately to break the silence between them, but the longer it went on, the less she knew how. She'd ignored his calls, and he'd come and found her anyway. Was he angry? He was never angry, but he wasn't saying anything.... Now there was all this to tell him somehow, all this newness of emotion that she was feeling. She watched him out of the corner of her eye, pulled the jacket around her more securely, enveloped in the warmth of it and the smell of him. What now? What now? What now?

Marshall kept his eye on the moon. It was cold, and even though he was wearing an old sweatshirt, he felt it without his coat. More than the physical cold, though, he felt the silence between the two of them like a thick icy curtain. He thought back to the last time they'd sat in the moonlight together, not so long ago, to that garden bench where he'd kissed her, not quite believing she was real, not believing at all she would ever really be his.

And how right I was. Made of moonlight and mist. Now the heat of day, of reality has come and burned all the illusion away, I guess. Such a shame, especially with all this moonlight still here on the ground. That was in a garden, though, and this is a desert. I guess some things just can't survive here. Maybe I was a fool to believe otherwise, to think there was a place in this world for magic or love.

Something silver caught his eye, and it seemed for a minute he saw a tall figure shrouded in silvery-white light walking across the sand toward them. Marshall realized that everything was completely silent and still as the figure on the sands came closer. The small scrap of paper that had been tumbling across the ground in front of the table had frozen in place. The leaves caught with it in the tiny whirlwind were also motionless, sculpture-like. Marshall whispered to Mary, "Are you seeing this?" but when he turned to look at her, he realized that she, too, was frozen in place.

He quickly looked back toward the approaching figure only to find that it now was calmly sitting at the table across from him, gazing at him with patient amusement from avian eyes rimmed with gold.

---

You did this? Is she okay?

"You know the answer to the first question already. Of course it was I who stopped time. I needed a moment to speak with you privately. As for the second, I would no more hurt her than pull those stars down and put them in a box in my pocket where no one else could see them."

Could you...you could do that?

Silky laughter like the rushing of quick river waters over smooth stones. "Of course. But what would be the point? That is not their purpose, and a joy shared is a joy multiplied. Have you not always found it so?"

Marshall took a deep breath. He had. That, of course, was why he loved to share his trivia and hobbies, odd as he knew Mary found so many of them, with her. They felt better, were more fun when he saw them anew through her eyes....

"I am here to tell you that you must not give up."

You stopped TIME to give me a pep talk?

More laughter. "You say that like it was something difficult to do. And perhaps not the whole world has stopped.... In any case, you must use all the traits we share to persevere."

Ah. I see. And those would be?

"Wisdom. Knowledge of many things. Diplomacy. And yes, possibly even a little magic, child." One slender long-fingered hand, wide golden cuffs glinting dully, pointed toward the moon where it hung in the sky. "That alone is a powerful ally to you if you will but use it. It has been for all lovers for many ages of man."

But she isn't like most other women....

"And do you not give thanks for that each morning, each night?"

Yeah, but I don't know how she feels about me, and right now I'm afraid she is done with me...with us...with this for all time....

"Then can you think of a better time or place than right here and now to settle those fears? I give you this night, this moon, this place of peace and privacy. The rest is up to you. Don't waste it."

And the tall birdheaded god began to fade away until there was only a bright patch of moonlight where he had once sat. Marshall shook his head slightly and became aware of Mary stirring beside him. The breeze picked up. Marshall took a deep breath and turned toward the woman at his side. She was sitting hunched into his coat and miserable-looking. She did not seem to notice that the world, or at least their little corner of it, had paused briefly.

Don't waste it, huh? Okay. This is me, not wasting....

"Mare," he said softly, "why did you run away this afternoon?" He kept looking out over the moonlit landscape.

She jumped as though he'd stuck her with a pin. "Why does it matter?"

"Because you stopped answering your phone. Because I was scared. Because...I talked to Brandi."

"Ah. I see." And did she tell you that my mom thinks I'm fun-fucking you? That I'm going to tear your heart out of your chest and leave you for dead somewhere?

"I understand you and Jinx got into it this afternoon...."

"We did, yes." Then you got the whole sordid tale. Fandamntastic. Then how am I supposed to repair this? She sighed and got up, unable to sit there any longer. She paced away from the table and over to the swing where the raven had sat earlier. She sat down on the pliable plastic seat, wrapped her hands around the chain, let her feet scuff the worn patch of dirt under it gently.

She heard Marshall come up behind her, felt the warmth of his hands close over the chains just above hers, not quite holding her hands, but only just touching. She wished, briefly, furiously, that he had wrapped his hands over hers instead.

"Don't do this. Don't shut me out now. Please talk to me."

"Marshall, I...don't know what to say." Help me. Please help me. I don't know how to fix this.

He shifted behind her, and she sensed the frustration coming from him. "Well, how about we start with whether you want me to be here, then. Because I'm getting the feeling that you really don't right now, Mare..."

She was silent another moment, struggling with the words that never came to her easily, and heard him sigh deeply. The words of the Morrigan raven came back to her suddenly, made to seize happiness with two strong hands and cling to it, and she brought her hands up to clutch at his just as he was letting go of the chains of the swing. She caught his fingers with her own and gripped him tightly. "Marshall. Don't." And then the word that was hardest for her, "Please."

For a moment, his hands were still in her own. Then they squeezed back. "I'm freezing, Mare. If we're going to have this conversation, let's get off the playground at least, okay?" He gently tugged her hand, and they headed across the parking lot to his truck.

---

Marshall got a couple of blankets that he kept for emergencies and shook them out. They climbed into the bed of his truck and bundled the heavy fabric around themselves. Mary gave Marshall his coat back and sat with her back pressed against his chest, her head against his shoulder. With the blankets and their shared body heat, they were soon more comfortable. The moon shone down on them, gloriously bright and full.

"So..." Marshall's voice was calm, patient.

"So. So you know I suck when it comes to words, Marshall. So why don't you try asking me some questions, and I'll try answering them, and we'll see if we can manage not to turn this into a freaking trainwreck, okay?"

He smiled, and the arms he'd instinctively draped around her waist squeezed gently, encouragingly. "Okay. I'd like to avoid all wrecks of all kinds if possible."

"Double ditto, slick.. Fire when ready." She shifted uneasily against him, unsure of what he would ask or how she'd be able to answer.

"Why did you run off this afternoon?"

She took a deep breath, let it out on a frustrated sigh. "Because...because Jinx made me so damn mad. She came through the door Full of accusations, of me not being home enough, the usual, and then out of just nowhere, she lays into me about you. She knows I'm sleeping with you, what is it I'm doing with you, do I really think she's so stupid she doesn't know, it went on and on and on...." She threw up her hands in irritation.

Marshall's voice was neutral as he spoke. "What'd you say to her?" This was the information Brandi hadn't been able to give him. Jinx had been yelling, easy to hear; Mary had not.

"I told her that it was really none of her business what we were doing, although I believe I phrased it a lot less nicely than that. Her comeback was that she knew what we were doing, or rather that she knew what I was doing, anyway, and that that was the main problem."

Careful, careful, the lack of inflection in the voice.... "And what is it that you're doing, according to Jinx, anyway?"

"I'm using you as my personal pleasure toy. Disposable-dating. Slaking my savage lusts with your body. Fun-fucking. Pick the festive term you like best." The humor in her voice was bitter, bitter.

"I see." He waited four agonizing heartbeats, hardly drawing breath. "So what did you tell her we are?"

"I didn't tell her we're anything, actually. I stormed out and headed out here so mad I couldn't even see straight. It's not her business if I'm paying you to do me, Marshall. There are lines she doesn't need to cross, dammit."

His disappointment swamped him like storm waves over a tiny boat at sea. He tried to keep his tone level. "Oh.... Definitely. Your private life is...yours." He knew he hadn't succeeded, but he felt as though he'd been kicked hard directly in the middle of the chest. Well, now you have your answer. Whatever we are, it's not worth the defending to her.... His hands slid off her slowly. "Well, you know what? It's really, really cold out here, and even with these blankets, I think it would be better if I got you back to your house..." And it's time to let that beautiful dream I had built up for myself go. I know what Thoth said, but in the face of such overwhelming evidence, I really think that there is no more magic to be had. I have no more diplomacy in me, and the moonlight is really starting to wear pretty thin....

Mary heard the change in his voice, felt his withdrawal from her, and she felt panic knife at her sharply. Hell, I screwed up. Where did I screw up? She reviewed the conversation quickly, and suddenly understood. She scrambled up to her her knees and turned around to face him.

"No, Marshall. Don't do that. Don't...." She reached for him, laid one hand on the side of his face.

He looked at her with a soft smile, but she could see the hurt behind it, had known him too long not to see it there behind the facade of normalcy he was trying to desperately to put on for her. He took her hand in his, squeezed it gently, let it go.

"It's okay, Mare." He brought his hand up to brush away the strands of her hair that the wind had blown across her cheek, across her mouth. "I always knew that this was a possibility, and I'm a big boy, remember? I went into this...relationship...with my eyes wide open. You like things to be physical, easy, no-strings. I understand. Remember what I told you that first night. This is whatever you want it to be, whatever you can let it be. No more. I would never ask for something you didn't want to or weren't able to give me." And his heart was there in his eyes, bleeding, fading, dying.

Now, dammit. Now. You can't just let him suffer. He's in pain. You wouldn't let him endure physical pain for you, but you're leaving him in emotional pain. Fix it. You'd take a bullet for him, right? Well, now, Mary Shannon, now is that time!

She brought her hand up to find his again, and she grasped his hard. "Marshall...what if..." She fumbled for words desperately. "What if I wanted more, then? Would that be okay, too?" She looked into his eyes, hoping fervently that he understood her. His eyes locked with hers, and his brow furrowed for a moment.

"What are you saying? I am not sure I understand. Because it almost sounded just then like..."

"Like what, Marshall?"

"Like...you were saying that you want a real relationship...." His tone was soft, wary, refusing to be hopeful.

"And if I was?"

"Don't do this. Please. I can't play games..." His voice was a whisper and he was looking at her as if she were an angel or a destroyer, possibly both somehow together.

"You idiot," she said softly, sliding her hands onto his shoulders. "Listen. I'm trying to tell you something."

"So tell me, then." The tiniest smile passed over his lips, and he stared at her as if she were the last hope of salvation to be seen. Mary could feel him shaking very slightly under her hands.

"After I ran away today, I started thinking. About what Jinx said. About how I was going to hurt you because of the way I use men and get rid of them. About how you are so good to me and for me and about how much you....you...."

Marshall's hands found her waist. "About how much I....?" he gently prompted when her voice failed her.

"Love me." There. I said it. It's out in the open. Torpedoes away. Let's see if that one blows up before I launch the really deadly one....

He drew her forward against him, pulled her down into his arms so that he embraced her firmly. He kept his voice soft in her ear. "Yes, of course. For a very long time now, Mare. But I don't think this is what you were going to tell me." That soft tremble still rippled through him, like the tremors right before a major quake.

She drew in a breath, could smell the clean scent of him, soap and shampoo and fabric softener and plain Marshall. She burrowed her face into his neck briefly and just took strength from his arms around her, from hearing at last, out loud, confirmation of what she had known in her heart for so long.

"Please, Mary." He whispered. "What else did you have to tell me?" Please say it. Please...please....

She pulled back enough to look into his eyes. "As I thought about all those things, I realized something." She laid a gentle hand on his cheek. "You are everything Jinx said you are. You are a good man, you are my best friend, and you do care for me as nobody else ever has. She was right about that, Marshall, so right."

Marshall blinked, felt fear building. No. This can't be her saying goodbye. I won't let her. I'll take her any way I can get her....Promise her whatever I have to....

"But she was wrong about what I felt for you. You're not disposable to me, Marshall. In a world where everything else I have is temporary, broken, or fading away, where even the names of most of the people I know are lies, you are the one real thing I have. You let me be just who I am, even when that person isn't very nice most of the time. You make me take off all the masks, even when it hurts to do it, and you love the face underneath and tell me it's beautiful. Marshall. I...I...love you."

And it seemed to him as if moonlight had been crafted just for this moment, just to frame her perfectly so she glowed like a goddess as she knelt there in front of him. And she'll kill me if I say that... The thought randomly floated through his mind, and he smiled with it as he pulled her forward into his arms, joy filling him like a thousand shimmering stars in the sky, and he pressed his mouth to hers with a little sound of happiness.

---

Marshall was holding her in his arms. They were wrapped tightly in the blankets and staring up at the sparkling sky. Mary's head rested on his shoulder. They had been silent for some time now, content, all the things they had needed to say for so long said at last.

Mary recalled something suddenly and stirred, breaking the silence. "Guess I ruined whatever you had set up for tonight's big finale, huh?" She rolled to look up at him and grinned a little, eyes seeking his. "Sorry about that." The smile faded and her voice was sincere. They both knew she wasn't apologizing about having interfered with his plans.

He reached out and pushed her hair back behind her ear. "It's okay. You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men..." He thought of the restaurant, the candlelight, the romantic setting he had planned to provide for the evening. He thought about how what he'd wanted to tell her, about how scared he'd been about what he'd hoped to hear in return, about what he'd ultimately planned to end the evening if all went well, and he sat up.

"Actually, the location for what I had planned wasn't as important as the last thing that I intended to have you do."

Mary sat up, scooted to sit beside him leaning against the wall of the truck bed, and she looked at him with arch interest. "Oh, really? Something I could do anywhere. Wonder what that could be?" She grinned at him, placing a hand on his knee under the blankets.

His hand covered hers and he laced his fingers with hers to capture the wayward hand before it began to distract him. "Well, no, actually, as much...um...fun...as that always is...that actually wasn't what this was about."

She pouted very briefly and settled back again. She looked up at him. "What then? What was the last thing you were going to order me to do? What last great command were you going to give before this bet ran out?"

He smiled softly. "It's actually the only command I ever intended to give from the very beginning, Mare. This was what I first envisioned from the very moment you started pressing me about this bet. Of course I didn't picture it happening in the back of a truck in the middle of a run-down public park, but..."

"Marshall," she said, impatience lacing her tone, "you're not making sense. What is what you've been planning from the very beginning, idiot? You left out a piece along the way."

He blinked. "So I did." He reached down into his coat pocket and pulled out a small black jeweler's box. He cupped it in his hand at his side beneath the blankets and said, "Okay. Mary Shannon. Here is your final command. Are you ready for it?"

She rolled her eyes and grinned. "Theatrical, too, aren't you? Yeah, yeah. Just tell me what it is you want."

With his heart racing and a crooked little smile of his own, he brought his hand out from under the covers. "Close your eyes."

She looked at him with slight mistrust.

"Mare...."

"Okay, okay." And she did it.

"Hold out your hand."

"Are you sure this doesn't have anything to do with sex?"

"Mare...."

"Right. Shutting up now." And her hand reluctantly rose, palm up. He could see her fighting to keep a smile off her face. She looked amused but relaxed.

He gently placed the little box holding his future in her hand. The second it made contact with her palm, her fingers contracted around it convulsively, tracing the dimensions of it, the surface texture and shape of it, and her eyes flew open to look down. Her entire body tensed, all traces of humor suddenly gone.

"Marshall," she murmured, and her voice broke. She continued to stare at the tiny container as though it might suddenly detonate in her hand.

He had expected this. "During this week, I've made you do a lot of things you wouldn't normally do. I made you pay for coffees and work with Eleanor in the office. I forced you to go to that restaurant across town that you swore you'd never eat at. I made you spend time with the Donnelly kids Tuesday afternoon coloring, made you have lunch with that inspector downstairs who's new in town, made you go to that foreign film festival with me downtown. Do you know why I did all that stuff?"

Her eyes did not leave the box. She shook her head. Her breath was coming quickly.

"Because I wanted you to see that just because you think you know what something is or believe you can't do something or won't like it isn't any reason to turn against it. Was any of the stuff I asked you to do this week bad for you? Did any of it hurt you or cause you pain?"

Mary couldn't take her eyes off that box, that box, that box and what she knew was inside of it....

"Trust me," he reached out his hand and covered her own and the box with it, drawing them both down, holding it between their palms. "Just trust me. Okay? Listen to what I'm asking you. Did it?"

Now that the hypnotic object was removed, the gearing of her brain came unstuck and she considered his question as best she could, trying very hard to press down the panic that was still fluttering wildly around the edges. I trust him. I trust him. I trust him. No. Nothing this week was bad.... She had enjoyed many of the new experiences. The restaurant she'd thought she'd hate had been quite nice, actually.

Coloring with the Donnelly kids, although she'd rather be skinned alive than admit it, had been so funny and so stress-relieving. She had a folded-up picture of Cookie Monster in the cupholder of the Probe from that day, her own creation, proudly given to her by 5-year-old Kate Donnelly who had told her she was welcome any time.

Even spending time with people she was sure annoyed her like Eleanor and the new inspector downstairs hadn't been all bad. Eleanor was still a denizen from the lower circles of hell, but Mary now perhaps could respect that. And they'd had such a good laugh over Marshall's behavior that day. It had felt odd but pleasant to talk to a woman about things. It was very different from talking to Marshall but not in a bad way. Eleanor had, surprisingly, understood some things quite without being told that Marshall never seemed to grasp even after repeated explanations. They weren't quite friends, but at least Mary didn't have to feel as if she had an enemy in the office anymore.

So....he was right. At least so far. But...that box in their joined hands.....

He had been carefully watching her expression in the moonlight, watching her remember the week. He watched the memories flicker past, saw the corners of her mouth turn up once or twice, wished she would speak.

She looked up at him, eyes a little lost. He saw that confusion.

"Do you trust me, Mare?"

She frowned, nodded her head, and paradoxically tightened her grip on the box. He laughed softly.

"How much?"

More than anybody else there is. She looked down, sighed, and forced her hand open. He removed his hand from the top of hers and there again the little container sat on her palm.

"Open the box."

Because he would never ask me to do anything that wasn't good for me. Because he loves me and I love him. Because I don't have to be afraid. Because I don't have to be afraid.....

She opened the box to reveal a very simple ring, lovely, somehow old-fashioned. As the diamond at the heart of it caught the moonlight, that thing inside her that had been fluttering in panic and fear simply stilled. This? This is what I was so afraid of? But I don't have to be afraid of this. This...this belongs... to me, doesn't it?

And she looked up at his face, that familiar, angular face and she smiled. He breathed a huge sigh of relief, and she realized suddenly how tense he'd been. His hands were shaking slightly as he reached down to remove the ring from the box.

"Like I said, there was supposed to be candlelight and flowers. We were supposed to be warm and at the very least indoors for this. But...maybe this is better. I'm done, as of this moment, giving you orders. But I do have one last request." He gently took her hand in his, set the box aside.

"Mary Shannon, will you marry me?"

It seemed to her that everything around them held a collective breath. The winds were calm, the stars seemed to pause in their twinkling, even the moonlight seemed somehow still as she looked at this man she loved and considered.

"Yes, Marshall. Yes, I will."

He slipped the ring on her finger, and they stared down at it for a moment. He softly traced over it with his thumb as if he needed to confirm physically that it wasn't an illusion, some trick of the light. Then he looked up, and he kissed her.

Epilogue:

The day of their marriage was a day of impossible stress for them both. It had not been an easy road getting here during the past year. Their usual personalities had not dissolved with the slipping of that ring on her finger, and it had taken considerable work on both their parts to make things work. They had, as they always did, found their own path, and despite the numerous bumps and bruises, sometimes since Mary was involved literal ones, they were stronger together now than perhaps ever before.

Mary sat wrapped in a bathrobe in the room of the small church where she was getting dressed and she stared into the reflection in the mirror, with her head in her hands, wondering for the hundredth time since the day had finally arrived if she had enough strength to do this. It wasn't that she didn't want Marshall. It wasn't that she didn't want to spend the rest of their lives together. It was just this place, the trappings of this ceremony, that horribly poofy dress that hung behind her like a mocking specter of all the things that had gone so wrong in the past that seemed so threatening suddenly.

There was a brief tap on the door, and Mary glanced over her shoulder. "Come in," she called out uncertainly, wondering if Brandi or Jinx had gotten up enough courage to come back after the last time she'd thrown them out when they'd gotten into a squabble over trying to get her hair pinned up. It was now a horrible mess thanks to their mutual assistance. She knew they'd only been trying to "help," but she'd very nearly gone and gotten her clutch piece out and shot them.....

The door cracked open just enough to permit someone's head to slip in, and suddenly, she saw peering around the corner the last person in the world she was expecting: Max Henderson.

"Max!" She cried. "You came!" She and Marshall had decided to send him an invitation, but they had not heard from him, and they had both decided that he probably wasn't going to show up.

"Of course. How could I resist?" He stepped the rest of the way into the room, and once again, Mary was struck by the sheer size of the man. He smiled and looked at her. "Ah, Mary Shannon on her wedding day! Always so lovely, the bride."

Mary gave him a rueful smile, gestured vaguely to the mass of out-of-control hair atop her head. "Thanks, Max, but maybe not this bride."

Max ran a practiced eye over her and said, "Ah yes. The last-minute emergency. I am familiar with this, of course. All theater has it, always."

She arched her brows at that. "All...theater?"

"Yes. For what you are about to do is drama of a type. You and he, you are already bonded in all the ways that are most important to you, are you not? What you go to say today in front of those people, it is not anything you have not already said to each other alone. That which you promise publicly, you have already vowed privately, yes? What you go to do now, this is... a theater of declaration, a public performance so all the world knows. That is what I have always thought of a marriage as, anyway."

She mulled that over. Somehow, put into those terms, what she was facing was somehow no longer such a threat, no longer something to fear or dread.

"Just a costume show, huh?"

Max smiled. "Exactly, Mary. Exactly." He turned to look at her dress where it hung rather forlornly on its hanger, and she saw him frown just a little as he ran a fingertip lightly down the sleeve. "But if you would permit me..." And he stepped back to the door, opened it and disappeared into the hallway for a moment.

He came back inside the small room carrying a large garment bag. He pushed the door closed and he held the bag out to her. "I have taken a rather enormous liberty, Mary Shannon. In fact, it borders on the unpardonable, I suspect."

Mary's heart was pounding. She stood up and took the bag from him, hung it on a hook and pulled the zipper open. Inside, what she saw made her sigh.

She'd looked for a wedding dress only because she'd known that she had to have one, that one was required. Of all the hated tasks the wedding had brought her, the quest to gown herself was the one she'd been forced to do alone. Marshall had helped her wade through caterers, flowers, invitations, and his help had saved many a bright-eyed consultant from an early demise or a sudden and unexpected trip to the emergency room. He had taken care of the arrangements for the location entirely, and she was infinitely grateful once again that his nature ran to intricate details and plans.

The dress, though, she knew he could not see. She had tried to summon up some shred of enthusiasm for it, but she hated or was bored by every one she saw. Jinx and Brandi and even Eleanor had oohed and aahed over bridal magazines, had dragged her to shop after shop, had switched the TV to scary reality shows about women in bridal boutiques spending tens of thousands of dollars on dresses until Mary had wanted very much to scream at them all that she was getting married in her black jacket and jeans. The whole concept of super-bright-whiteness, satin, tulle, lace, and bows on the ass had given her nightmares in which she was wrapped up tightly like a living mummy by skinny women in Chanel suits who chattered incessantly like insane doves at her about how what a lovely bride she made. To stop the process so she could have some peace, one day she'd just randomly picked one of the dresses she hated least and purchased it.

What she saw inside Max's bag was so much more than a compromise or a necessity. It was, as everything he made was, something brought forth from another place and made corporeal here by the means that only he knew. Now, if any of those damn boutiques had had anything like this in them.... But she knew that this was something only Max could do.

"This is one of yours?"

He nodded, beaming. "It is my wedding present for you, Mary Shannon, if I have not been too bold in my offering."

Her smile was radiant and she stepped forward to place a kiss on his cheek. "Oh no, Max. Oh no. It's...it's..." She didn't have words.

He squeezed her shoulders softly. "Then let us get you ready. It is something of a custom for the bride to be a bit late, but I would hate for your groom to think you weren't coming at all!" He laughed and they began to get Mary into the gown. It fit perfectly, of course, even without ever having been fitted or tailored to her once. She did not even wonder at it.

---

Marshall was nervous. He was pacing. He had had thoughts, fleetingly, of sneaking out and disabling the Probe to prevent her from escaping using that route. Nothing lasting, just some little disconnection, or some critical part pocketed.... He laughed and took another turn around the small area where he waited for the word that she was ready to go. Stan watched him prowl back and forth.

"You know what? After awhile, even stone does wear out. Relax, Marshall. Eleanor is watching the front. She'll call if she sees anything...newsworthy."

Marshall looked up at Stan and saw the wry grin. "That transparent, am I?"

"Let's just say there's a bit of a pool going as to whether or not this event goes off without handcuffs, a fistfight, some gunfire, or a runaway bride."

Marshall laughed. Predictable. Cops are predictable. "What option have you got your money on?"

Stan held out his hands. "Me? Not a betting man. Not today. Not about you two. You're going to make it."

Marshall grabbed one of Stan's hands in a firm grip, shook it. "Thanks, Stan. Really. I appreciate this. You. All you did to make sure we could stay together, still be partners. There hasn't been a minute, it seems, when I could tell you that, but I wanted you to know it. It means the world to both of us, and we both know how hard you had to fight to make it happen. She might not ever say it, but she's grateful, too. We owe you."

Stan returned Marshall's grip, waved away the thanks. "Couldn't have my best Marshals broken up, could I? You don't owe me. Just be happy, okay?"

The organ began to play, and Marshall tensed. Apparently, she hadn't run.... They turned and walked toward the sanctuary door.

---

Mary got ready to come down the aisle on her own. There was nobody to give her away and nobody she wanted to ask for that job. I'm giving myself away. That's appropriate. I don't need anybody else's permission or support for this. This is between me and him, anyway.

She rolled her shoulders, got ready to step around the corner to take that first step, and told herself again, Just a pageant, just a play for everybody else. Nothing to this. Remember what Max said. Marshall and I have already said all the important stuff. This is all just for show, just for the others.

Finally in the archway, she looked down the narrow passage at him and saw Marshall's eyes for the first time that day, saw him see her. She was suddenly so very glad she'd agreed to this, to the whole church and minister and flowers, poofy dress and fancy tux, rice-in-the-hair and cake-at-the-end of it. All those damn months of Jinx and Brandi and endless annoying women in shops with vaguely pretentious or precious names had been worth it for this, for this, for him, there, looking at her like that. She stepped forward, conscious of nothing now but him, and the thought flitted across her consciousness, Maybe there is more to this than just a costume drama, after all....

---

Her dress was not she'd described to him when she'd told him of the frustrating experience of shopping for it, not what he'd expected, and she took his breath away. She always does that, though. Today, seeing her in a gown that was cut off one shoulder and that glowed like softest moonlight somehow gathered in the hand and fashioned into fabric, perfectly cut to her shape, simple and elegant as were all the best of things, she was beyond all his many words. Its only embellishment was a faint tone-on-tone woven pattern along the trailing hem, a pattern of birds in joyous flight. Her hair was gathered up and away from her face, again, something simple, artless, graceful, but so perfect for his Mary that he could not imagine why anyone would ever want something more elaborate. The only jewelery she wore was the heavy silver torc around her neck, and somehow it looked as though it and this gown had been made to go together.

And best of all, she was smiling. She didn't look nervous or scared. His own heart wanted to shout in relief at that smile, at what that meant to him, to them, for this day, for the rest of their life together. From the moment she'd rounded that corner and looked at him, her lips had curved, her golden eyes had danced, and he had seen true happiness in her as she had walked toward him. There was no fear in her proud step as she came to him, as she slipped her hand into his, as she repeated the words that bound them together, man and wife at last.

---

They did not get to take a long honeymoon immediately. Neither of them were willing to leave their witnesses that long since both had individuals in sensitive situations at the present, despite the urgings of Stan and Eleanor. They decided to save the time and use it later on. Stan grumblingly agreed.

They were opening the presents they'd received for their wedding together sitting in the floor of what had been Marshall's and was now their house. Mary lifted an elaborate and heavy box with no tag on it.

"Do you know who this is from?" She turned it over gently, inspecting it carefully.

Marshall put down the gift he'd just unwrapped and scooted over to where she was. He took it in his own hands, frowning in puzzlement. "No... I remember that one. I remember seeing it on the table at the reception, but I never saw anybody near it."

"Hmm." She ran a hand along the silver ribbon. "Do you think we need to worry about it?"

"It should be fine. Everything that came in was checked, you know." The justifiable paranoia of law enforcement extended to all areas of their lives, especially when they gathered in large numbers....

She tore the top off the box and looked inside. He peered in after her. They sat, dumbfounded, and then they drew out the two objects inside. Marshall held in his hands a fragile-looking whitish carving of a feather. Hieroglyphs ran up the back of it. Mary withdrew a small golden bowl covered with elaborate carvings. They looked at each other and then back at the items they held.

"Mare," breathed Marshall, "this thing is...this thing is...alabaster and...old..."

"What the hell is it?"

"It looks to me like a representation of the Egyptian idea of Ma'at, or harmony, order, and truth. Thoth used it to weigh the hearts of the dead against. If it is, it's the fundamental guiding principal of their culture, everything they believed held the world together, all they thought was good and right." He ran his finger reverently along the edge of it.

"And this?" She held out the small golden bowl which sat comfortably on her cupped palms.

Marshall carefully sat aside the sculpture and took the bowl from her and turned it over in his hands. He studied the carvings. "It's a small version of a Celtic cauldron. I've seen bigger ones on display, but never one like this..."

Mary looked at it in fascination. "What is it for?"

Marshall glanced up at her. "The cauldron was the heart of the ancient Celtic home, maybe even the ancient Celtic culture. Every house had one. They used it for so many things related to daily life, carrying water, cooking, even bathing in the really big ones. In most houses, it was the most costly thing they owned because it was used so much and had to be made so well.... It was used in their magic and in their religion as well and there's all kinds of symbolism attached to it." He was still inspecting the carvings. There were flowing rivers, branching trees, figures who might have been deities...and finally, he stopped and tapped his finger on something right on the center portion of the bottom. "Ah. Thought I'd find her here, sooner or later."

"Find who?"

"Look."

Mary peered down at the section he indicated, and she saw a carving of a woman. She wore a long cloak and carried a spear. All around her were birds in flight. Despite the lack of detail on the carvings, Mary knew that figure, knew that hooked spear, felt a tingling clear through her....

"No...not really..."

Marshall looked up at her and grinned.

"So what are you saying, then, Marshall?"

"Well, there's no card, and these things are old, old, old. I'm thinking museum-quality old. We'll need to get them checked out, probably to be sure, but..."

"You can't be serious..."

"I guess everybody wanted to wish us well. They gave us what they felt like we'd need most to have a happy home."

She looked back down at the beautiful bowl and up to Marshall's face. She set the ancient cauldron down gently next to the alabaster feather and took his hand, pulled him to his feet. She kissed him softly.

"They didn't have to send a gift. They had already helped me get the only thing I really have to have."

Opening the rest of the presents could wait until later.


And thus it finally, finally ends. I hope you have enjoyed it. R&R, please, particularly if you haven't yet.

For more information on the Celtic Cauldron, try this site: symboldictionaryDOTnet/?p=958. Convert the DOT back into the appropriate punctuation, of course.....