*** Ah...my sincere apologies and mea culpas (which are the same thing but I like to say that phrase) for missing a day in the posting schedule. *sigh* I don't know it was the karate, dance, swimming, crazy people at work, death in the family, crazy kids or constantly running toilet that sent me over the edge, but the chapter wouldn't coalesce. Finally, the muses have cooperated and I present chapter 9...the final chapter.***
*** Mary's made a choice, but where, exactly, does she stand? Marshall reminds her of the significance of the little things against the bigger picture. ***
*** I cannot thank my ladies enough! RJ, Roar and Dispatch...many hugs, cookies and whatever gifts I can cyberly fling your way! ***
I had no choice but to hear you
You stated your case time and again
I thought about it
You treat me like I'm a princess
I'm not used to liking that
You ask how my day was
You've already won me over in spite of me
Don't be alarmed if I fall head over feet
And don't be surprised if I love you for all that you are
I couldn't help it
It's all your fault
You're the best listener that I've ever met
You're my best friend
Best friend with benefits
What took me so long
I've never felt this healthy before
I've never wanted something rational
I am aware now
I am aware now
- Head Over Feet, Alanis Morissette
Marshall's subconscious brain tried to incorporate the incessant buzzing into his dream. Crickets. No…motorcycles. Motorcycles with crickets on them. Hell's Angels in carapace riding down a freeway that seemed to defy gravity. The buzzing continued, and his rational brain tied it to reality. Alarm clock. No…cellphone.
He flopped an arm towards the nightstand, knocking over an empty glass and the flashlight until finally connecting with the offending object. Blindly brought it to his ear and grunted some form of greeting, uncaring as to identity, or species, of recipient.
Five minutes later, Marshall was rubbing sleep out of his eyes as he cursed age, lack of sleep and the sadistic tendencies of his boss. Rising to a chorus of protesting ligaments, the tall man staggered towards the bathroom, careened off a doorjamb and cursed while fumbling for a light. He had to wake Mary. He needed protective gear.
Snippets of conversation and purple-hued memories flickered through his mind as he went about his abbreviated morning ritual. A small smile caused him to drool toothpaste, and Marshall felt it was a fitting picture for his state of mind. Rinsing his mouth, he settled his school-boy nerves and remembered that Mary and early, unscheduled morning witness emergencies went together about as well as Brussel sprouts and chocolate sauce. Somebody was going to get spat upon, and he needed to make sure it wasn't him.
He prodded her still staggering form down the hallway about a half hour later, muttering encouragement to keep her moving. Promising breakfast delights when they reached the lobby.
"Who's coming from where?" Mary asked again, the cool hallway and bright lights finally coaxing her brain into real wakefulness.
"Harold Germaine Blanchard DeWitt III. From New York City. Today." He kept it short and sweet.
"Insider trading. Black market. Bad deals. Bang bang. People dead." Marshall answered with a smirk.
"It's a-live" he crowed and side stepped her halfhearted attempt to smack him.
Mary mentally sorted through the various physical aches and pains that came with sleeping for too little a time on too soft a mattress, pronounced herself sound, and switched gears to process Marshall's information from Stan, the approximate time of their drive and why the hell they were up at the ass crack of dawn.
"It's a seven hour drive, Marshall," she groaned, stabbing at the elevator button. "We could've left at a humane hour of the morning and still gotten home before the office closed." She picked at a persistent piece of sleep in the corner of her eye.
"Ah, yes," he hedged with a grimace. "The witness has a bit of…influence, with some of our higher ups. Wants us there by early afternoon so he can get a round in before dark."
Mary stilled, and Marshall quickly slipped through the opened elevators doors to drop the bags. She looked up at him with a glare. "Oh, hell no."
He reached through the doors to snag her lapels and pull her in with him. "Take a deep breath. It's too early in the morning to go nuclear. I'll buy you a drink afterwards…two drinks."
"Why do you wait to tell me these things until we're out the door?" she growled.
"I've seen you reenact Waco in a hotel room." He shuddered. "Better to get you out in the open first."
"You used that one already." He tried to keep a straight face as the doors opened to the lobby and he offered her egress.
Mary halted a few steps beyond the doors, inhaled deeply and turned back to him with a glower. "I don't smell coffee."
"All right," she murmured from the passenger seat. "I take back one…just one…of the 'asses.'"
Marshall had driven to two 7-11s and one McDonalds before they found coffee fresh enough to be palatable, and now Mary sat hunkered in the seat with a steaming cup held snugly between her hands. The aroma of Arabica popping open a few more brain cells and a sinus passage or two.
Her thoughts drifted to ponder the long trip home, the turn of weather that had brought a chill wind and temperatures far below comfortable, and the events of the night prior. The latter flittering around the edges of her consciousness until she reluctantly allowed it to alight. Studied it in the graying dawn.
She still felt like she was sitting at the table; cards in hand and the stiff-soft feel of green velvet under her forearms. It was that moment before the players revealed what they held for all to see, and she just wasn't sure what was supposed to happen next.
Marshall watched her furrow her brow and pick at the sleeve on the coffee cup. She looked as tired as he felt and he knew his own earlier thoughts of the previous night were likely being entertained in her mind also. She was thinking before the sun was up, and he worried about second thoughts attached to second guesses.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he gently prodded.
She shot him a sideways glance. "Talk about what?" Mary fumbled with the bag containing her breakfast. Studiously smoothed a wrinkled napkin on her lap.
His breath caught for a moment as he worried she was going to purposely erase the events from her mind. They had come too far.
"Gee, I don't know," he hedged. "I remember a fight, a storm, stories…a kiss…" His voice trailed off as he noted her beginning to shred the edge of the napkin.
Mary noted the hesitancy in his voice; a slight defensiveness. "I think I did most of my talking last night. I'm just…unsure of what you…what I should…" She sighed heavily and leaned her elbow against the door. Scratched her nose as she chanced a glance at her partner. He looked tired.
"Are you changing your mind in the almost-light of day?" His heart sat somewhere in his stomach, poised to plunge further.
Mary shifted to look directly at him. "No. No, that's not it. And when have you ever known me to be wishy-washy?" He shrugged, seemingly chagrined, and she continued, "I'm just not sure what this looks like now. I don't know the rules, remember?"
Her gaze was full of uncertainty, and Marshall relaxed fractionally. He wouldn't rush her. Wouldn't put her in a position of stress where flight became an option. He wanted her to seek him in such times…not push him away.
"There're not really any rules, Mare," he said as he merged onto the highway. "No steps or instructions that you have to follow." He glanced over. "I'll continue to be your major source of information beyond the cereal box you read in the morning." She glared and he was encouraged. "You'll still be the one who feeds the witnesses their own asses when they screw up, and we'll continue to conquer the world one idiot at a time."
Mary sat back with a chuckle, nodding in agreement. "Okay, okay. I get it. Just go with the flow and try not to make it more complicated than it needs to be."
Marshall reached over to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and caught her gaze. "It's just me." His fingers lingered on her neck. "It's just us." She smiled and dropped her eyes back to her breakfast.
"Now, eat your McMuffin and then catch a few more hours." He turned his attention back to the road to give her an emotional respite. "Shortened sleep cycles result in a lack of REM sleep. That results in lack of dreams, and that can lead to poor decision making and a feeling of general discombobulation until the body gets what it wants."
Mary unwrapped her sandwich and took a bite as she tried to interpret. Talked around the food. "If you think that means you can talk me out of my muffin due to my confused state, you're sorely mistaken."
"Technically, it's not a muffin - " He was cut off.
"Technically, it's mine, so I'll call it what I want. Keep your hands on your own side."
Marshall laughed as he piloted the truck towards Flagstaff.
"This is definitely not Albuquerque," Mary mumbled as she stretched, eyeing the tall pine forest surrounding the small, packed dirt parking lot. No other cars were seen. "I can't imagine you would be lost, so I'm assuming we've ventured out into the boonies for a reason?"
Marshall's gaze appreciated curves accentuated by her feline actions and he smiled slowly. "Stan called. Tee time has been moved back a few days. We can take our time."
"Oh hell, Marshall. I am not camping," Mary warned, pulling her boots back on. "No way, no how."
"Relax," he drawled as he unfolded from the truck into the cold air. "I know better than to put you within close proximity of a tent. There just this thing I want to show you."
Mary stomped her feet and drew her jacket closer as she exited. She gave her partner a lascivious grin as he came around her side. "Wow. I haven't been propositioned on a lonely country road in a long time." She laughed as he blushed and gave her a reproachful look.
Marshall reached over and grabbed her hand to pull her towards the small path, the look in her eye a moment ago affecting him more than he cared to admit. "C'mon. We've got about a mile to walk."
"Oh my God," she fussed. "First we're up at the crack of dawn and now I have to frickin' exercise? This better be good, idiot."
Marshall grinned as he kept a brisk pace. Mary had laced her fingers through his despite her nearly continuous litany of complaints, and the warmth of her hand made him forget the chill. He recognized the large boulder near the end of the path and slowed in anticipation.
His parents had brought him and his brothers here nearly every year since he could remember. The same road. The same path. The same prize at the end. A pilgrimage that never needed to be explained, only beheld. He never grew tired of it, and it was time to share it with someone else.
"Okay, now you have to close your eyes." His smile was wide and bright and Mary was instantly wary.
"Nope." Smug. "You have to experience it all at once."
Mary narrowed her eyes. "You said you were going to show it to me. Now I have to experience it? What the hell is going on?" She tried to tug her fingers free but he held on. "Dammit, Marshall, this better not be one of your 'alien landing site' adventures. That creeped the hell out of me."
Marshall stepped in close and grabbed her other hand. Waited for her to settle and look up at him.
"Do you trust me?" he asked softly.
Her irritation was replaced by an odd anticipation as she felt his body heat. There was a spark of delight in his eyes that she couldn't ignore, and her heart stutter-beat in a way she wasn't sure she was comfortable with.
This was part of it, she supposed. Part of this offering of self. Allowing him to share without ridicule or rejection. Her nose was cold and she shivered when the cold breeze snuck under her collar. He raised one eyebrow and she gave in with a sigh and a grin. Squeezed her eyes shut.
"Fine. But if you run me into a tree…" She let the threat linger in the air with their breaths.
Marshall led her by one hand while she used the other to cling to the back of his jacket. He checked over his shoulder frequently to make sure she wasn't peeking, and as they climbed the last small incline he repositioned her in front him with hands on her shoulders.
Mary felt the change in her surroundings. Felt the trees drop away behind them, but heard nothing to clue her in to where they had emerged.
"Just a little further, Mare, there you go," Marshall encouraged, finally halting her. "Okay…open your eyes."
Mary could hear the excitement in his voice, and as she opened her eyes all forms of speech escaped her.
She was standing on the edge of the Earth.
The depth of blue in the sky was reflected fathoms below by a thin strand of color wending its way through massive walls of rock and sand. Paintings and pictures could mimic color and texture, but no tangible piece of canvas and pigment could capture the vastness…the eternity. The nearly palpable stillness that settled into your bones as you could see nothing other than time rolled back before your eyes. Sounds and movements of the living, temporary creatures on the planet were insignificant against the monolithic rocks and expansive chasms that stood in testament of eons gone by. Authoritatively permanent and an awesome reminder of mortality.
"Wow," Mary whispered in awe, eyes slowly sweeping the vista before her. "Wow."
Marshall gazed at her fondly, remaining behind her to keep her from feeling vulnerable so close to the canyon wall. She was speechless for many minutes before the sound of worship fell from her lips, and he remembered similar reactions of so many through the years. Hands on her arms, he leaned in to murmur in her ear.
"It's 277 miles long, 18 miles wide at points and over a mile deep in some spots. Carved over a span of six million years by a single river." He exerted the barest amount of pressure on her arms to coax her towards him. "I remember you saying you've never seen it. That it would be silly to travel all that way just to see a hole in the ground."
She leaned back into him unconsciously, seeking contact due to self preservation as the earth ended only yards from her boots. Slowly gathered her wits as the cold wind whipped across the openness and stung her cheeks.
"I had no idea," she reverently stated, then huffed a short laugh a few minutes later. "I bet some poor settler shit his pants when he cleared those trees to see this."
Marshall laughed in her ear and she felt the vibration throughout her body. Felt his hands wrapped around her biceps and his hips pressed against her curves. Cocooned. But not by fear and uncertainty, or doubts centered upon the past. He held her secure as part of himself. Included. Wanted.
Mary tentatively reached up to capture his hands and guided them around her, allowing herself to rest her head back against his chest. Marshall willingly adjusted his stance to fully hold her to him, his soft purr her encouragement, his light kiss pressed to her temple his acceptance.
His eyes closed now, Marshall breathed deeply to embrace the smell of winter on the breeze. The storm had brought snow to the nearby peaks. His ears were cold, and the back of his neck needed a scarf, but the rest of him was almost overheated. Mary. Pressed against him from hip to chest; her arms pinning his own against her abdomen. He could think of no better way to view the Grand Canyon.
"So what do you think they did?" she asked suddenly. He opened his eyes to peer at the top of her head.
"Those settlers," she explained. "What do you think they did when faced with…that."
Marshall was quiet for a moment. "I guess they had to make a decision. Either find a way around and commit to their intended path, or go back. Hard to eke a living out of this soil."
"I'd go," she said softly a few minutes later. "I'd have to know what was on the other side. Otherwise…you'd always wonder."
Marshall studied her carefully. It wasn't normal for her to be so wistful; so contemplative. Something else was also on her mind. She shifted suddenly and he loosened his grip, but she only turned within the circle of his arms to drape her own arms over his shoulders.
"Hi," she breathed, eyes serious.
"Hi," he returned, tightening his arms slightly. She played with the hair on the back of his neck and his pulse rate shot up.
"I have wondered, you know, occasionally, what it would be like to be with you." Mary watched his eyebrows shoot towards his hairline. "Not like that…necessarily...just how something more would look…how we would look…oh, screw it." Her last statement was mumbled as she rose up on her toes to place her lips on his.
A jolt of surprise and then he was kissing her back. Softly. Slowly. A handful of jacket to hold her close while the other hand finally tangled in her hair. Her tongue flicked out to touch his bottom lip and he groaned. Again a cautious lick, then she pressed more firmly against him and he opened his mouth to hers. All thoughts of time and place were surrendered as their tongues met in mutual exploration. He matched her eagerness and she yielded to his finesse.
Marshall pulled back to nibble on her bottom lip and trail kisses over her jaw, finally settling on that ever tantalizing spot between mandible and ear lobe. Soft and sweet, and he lightly suckled her, hummed in pleasure at her gasp. Nipped her earlobe and smiled as she invoked a deity. She grabbed his hair to pull him back and stared at him with eyes blackened by desire.
"We're gonna need some rules, Cowboy," she purred, kissed him again until he tightened his grip with a moan. Pulled back. "Otherwise this is likely to turn into a free-for-all."
"Too cold. Too many clothes. And we're too close to the edge…literally." Each sentence was punctuated by a kiss to her lips, eyes, nose. "But I have suddenly thought of some rules."
She was slightly distracted by his hands, which had found their way beneath her jacket to rest on the bare skin of her waist. When had he done that? Another kiss dropped onto her forehead pulled her attention back to his face.
"Rule number 1: You have to kiss me like that at least once a day," he informed her with mock seriousness.
"You're an idiot," she grinned, combing the hair away from his forehead. "But I think I can follow that one. What else?"
Her warm skin beneath his palms made coherent thought difficult. "Rule number 2: You must wear that lacy, purple bra under that low-cut blue sweater more often."
Mary slapped him on the chest with an indignant snort. "How long have you been looking down my shirt, pervis?"
He raised one eyebrow in rebuttal. "I'm a guy. And that sweater tends to…gape."
"Okay," she challenged. "Rule number 3: You have to give me a two hour head start on drinking before you bring over any of those Hobbit movies."
Marshall scowled, "Well, then, I counter with Rule number 4: You will not use, or attempt to use, the grill without supervision."
"One time," she mumbled and Marshall laughed.
A cloud moved in front of the sun, casting the rim of the canyon in shadow and eliciting shivers from the pair as they sobered. Mary held onto Marshall's lapels and studied his chin for a moment.
"Rule number 5," she said while raising her eyes to his. "No more running."
He moved his hands to cover hers and leaned in to kiss her softly. "It's time to rest."
*** Finally...she finally gives in. I don't know if any of you have seen the Grand Canyon from the north rim, but that's how it presents on many trails. You come out of the woods and it's just...there. Awe inspiring. I hope you enjoyed the journey...as angst-y and fight-y as it was. But, as always, I present you with a happy ending! Please let me know what you thought of the chapter...the story. REVIEW REVIEW! ***