*** Sometimes it just takes one person to set you on the right path. You just need a light to follow :) ***

Worry not everything is sound
This is the safest place you've found
The only noise beating out is ours
Lacing our tea from honey jars

Why don't you rest your fragile bones
A minute ago you looked alone
Stop waving your arms you're safe and dry
Breathe in and drink up the winter sky

- The Lightning Strike, Snow Patrol

Mary woke slowly and with little grace. Her nose was stuffed up and her eyes scratchy and swollen. She sniffled and rubbed at her face as her surroundings registered. Dark, cool living room of her house.

What? she thought blearily, trying to make sense of it. Struggling to a sitting position, she was grateful for Marshall's assistance. Wait a minute…Marshall?

"If you rub at your face anymore with those hands you're going to be ready to party with covert ops," he teased, shaking his head as she smeared more soot on her nose. He knew she was confused and took advantage of the few moments before reality crashed down. "Let me get you a washcloth."

As Marshall disappeared to the bathroom, Mary shook off the last vestiges of slumber and stared at her hands with a frisson of fear. Slowly sliding her gaze to the fireplace, she let out a small moan as she realized it hadn't been a dream.

"Sore?" Marshall asked as he sat back down. He placed the wet cloth in her hands and she just let it sit there.

"I burned them," Mary whispered, eyes locked on the pile of ashes. "They're all gone."

He knew there was nothing to say. Slowly, Marshall reached over to take the cloth back and carefully wiped her hands. She let him fuss without complaint, just continued to stare.

Mary looked down at her hands after a moment, the coolness of the washcloth distracting her from her reverie. Her partner's hands held hers as he cleared away the soot; strong, tanned fingers nearly engulfing her own. Something she wasn't used to.

"I thought I told you to go home," she said quietly, remaining still.

"I did. Couldn't sleep."

"So you came over here to wake me up and keep you company?" Mary teased with a hint of a smile as she looked up at him. She took the cloth he proffered yet again and wiped her face where he indicated.

"If I had let you stay there you'd need a crow bar to get up in the morning. Then you'd be cranky and I would suffer. Seemed prudent to point you in the direction of the actual bed." He wondered how long she would avoid talking about the letters.

Mary wiped at her face a few more times then pushed herself off the ground with a grunt. "Now I'm thirsty. Want something to drink?" she asked as she made her way to the kitchen.

Marshall silently followed her. Mary tossed the cloth in the direction of the laundry room and walked over to pull open the fridge. She knew Marshall was waiting for her to say something, but she didn't trust herself to talk just yet. Didn't want to even think about it, yet her mind was beginning to loop through earlier events on its own accord. She wondered why he came back. Moving things around in the refrigerator, Mary tried to fill the silence that was making her anxious.

"I've got a little apricot juice left and some orange juice…and a half a bottle of that Fusion stuff. Jesus, there's enough vitamin C in here to cure a third world country. What the hell, Brandi? What ever happened to making Kool-aid? And the only beer in here is that crap Peter buys. He must own breeder's rights to those damn horses or something. Oh, wait, there's something back here-"

"Mary," Marshall cut her off. "Water's fine."

She froze, then backed out of the fridge with a huff. "You could've told me that before I went spelunking in there, numbnuts."

"You didn't ask," he retorted, watching her.

"I see," she said, now reaching for glasses. "You want all your options. So do you want ice or no ice? Filtered or tap? I guess I could offer you a lemon if we have one." Mary felt her control slipping; hard pressed to keep her mind on the task when images of burning pages were running through her mind.

Marshall heard the edge in her voice and saw her fumble the glasses as she set them on the counter. He stepped in close and placed a hand on her upper arm; waited for her reaction. She stilled, swallowed, stared at the countertop in front of her. He tugged gently and she turned, resting her forehead on his shoulder with a shuddery, deep breath. Stiff and guarded, but there.

She was so tired. This offer of comfort that he kept extending to her called so strongly that she could no longer reject it. He had come back. Come back to check on her…as he always did. She had been trying to push this man away since the day he walked into her life and he always came back. Mary allowed herself to lean into him and loosely wrapped her arms around his waist. She closed her eyes and sighed.

Never had he known a woman who had to drop so many barriers for a simple hug. Sliding his arms around her on her cue, Marshall pulled her in a little more tightly. "There you go," he murmured into her hair. She smelled slightly smoky. Charred around the edges.

Mary didn't cry; there were no more tears for this night. She breathed deeply of the scent of her partner. Fabric softener and soap with an underlying layer of toothpaste and…man. He was warm through his t-shirt and she unconsciously burrowed a little closer; slightly chilled in her tank top. He rubbed her back and she realized she felt put together in somehow; wrapped up and safe. Mary remembered a time, long ago, when she had felt the same way. She was surprised to hear his voice rumble in her ear.

"You told me you didn't have any contact with your father." Marshall felt her stiffen and just held on.

She relaxed when she realized he had put together the pieces and now thought she had lied to him. "I didn't," she answered, staring at the neckline of his shirt where a few chest hairs poked out. "The letters came randomly. I tried to trace them back a couple of times but there was nothing. No clue to where they came from. He never wanted me to find him, just wanted to remind me he was still around."

Marshall turned slightly to lean against the counter, taking Mary with him. She squeezed him tightly for a moment, then released her grip and turned to lean on the counter next to him. He kept an arm around her shoulders and she let him.

"And now they're gone," she continued. "I can't undo what I did and I guess that's a good thing. I've been chasing him and running from him at the same time for…all my life, and tonight I realized he's been hiding from me. And for good reason. Frankly, I have no desire to go looking for a coward." Her voice caught slightly on the last word.

Marshall traced circles on her shoulder with his thumb. He knew she was still convincing herself to let go of the man whose absence had consumed her for so long. This wasn't going to be over in one night.

"Jesus," she whispered, rubbing her arms. "What am I supposed to do now?"

He knew what she meant. "Live your life the way you want to. Stop throwing roadblocks in your path because you're subconsciously seeking his approval. Stop limiting yourself because you feel forced into a role he wanted you to play. You're so much more than he ever was, or ever will be. Live the life you deserve and don't let him define you anymore, Mary."

Tears pooled in her eyes with his words. She thought of all the things she had done because it was 'expected' or she thought she was 'supposed' to. Of all the wants and desires she had kicked aside and scoffed at thinking they were beyond her reach. Her father left thirty two years ago and he was never coming back. Nothing she did now would make him leave again. Maybe she needed to give herself a chance to succeed, or fail, on her own terms.

She leaned her head against Marshall's shoulder and wondered at the two of them standing in her kitchen in the dark. "What if I want something I may not deserve," she asked softly.

Marshall looked down on her head as his arm tightened around her. "Some things are yours despite your own tally of shortcomings. You just need to commit to accepting them."

"Sounds kinda risky," she said after a minute, glancing up at him with a small smile.

He smiled back. "Mare, you think the 'buy ten get one free' coffee card is risky," Marshall teased, grunting as she elbowed him.

"Hey," she protested. "You could lose that thing and then you have to start all over."

The deeper meaning of the statement was not lost on him. "I'm not going anywhere."

Mary suddenly felt a little flustered. A small butterfly of excitement managed to loose itself in her gut and the pile of ashes were forgotten for a time. She cleared her throat nervously and stepped out of his reach as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I'm a mess and I'm exhausted, so I'm going to shower and hit the sack."

Marshall was careful. Hopeful, but careful. "It's late. Mind if I crash on the couch? Or do you want me to go?"

She stared at him for a moment; thought of empty boxes and coffee cards. Reaching out, Mary brushed at a smudge she had left on his shirt and grinned at him. "No, you can stay."

*** Sigh of relief. A hurdle she's needed to jump for a very, very long time! Like Marshall said, it's a journey that will take a lot more than one day. Sounds like she'll let him help her...and that's a good thing ***

*** Again thanks to my friends for their encouragement and ready previews, reviews and many other views :D And I can't thank my readers enough for their fabulous comments and reviews! Stay tuned for more stories throughout the summer! ***