***A Secret Snowflake gift to Tilley_girl for the LJ activity**

***Prompt: Mary/Marshall at the shooting range***

Aiming for Empty Spaces

It was Saturday. Mary had already eaten, read the morning news online (well, at least the comics) and watered the one, poor real plant she owned. It was supposed to be low maintenance, but she was pretty sure some of the leaves looked funny…dead funny. Of course, she hadn't watered it for about five days not that long ago when she and Marshall went on that unexpected transfer, but he assured her it was hardy. Hard to kill…like her.

Unable to stop herself, Mary looked down at the pink, fading scars that crisscrossed her left arm from wrist to shoulder. Flexing her fingers on that hand, she silently cursed the numb and stiff little finger and stared hard at the digit, willing it to move. She was sure she had felt a tingle yesterday…some hint of sensation along its length that had her focusing all her energy on it as one focuses on the last ember of a dying fire, mentally blowing on it to keep it alive. But like that hopeless fire, it was cold and dead by morning.

The horrific crash should've taken her life as well as those of her witness and the two FBI agents in the truck with her. She remembered nothing, of course…nothing past the shout of one agent as they were rammed from behind. No recall of being thrown thirty feet as the SUV rolled five times, crushing all the other occupants; no memory of undoing her seatbelt before the crash; nothing of the frantic screams of her partner as he and the rest of the team rushed towards the wreckage…blissfully ignorant of what they had found. Commutated fractures. Epidural hematoma. Crushed pelvis. Nerve damage. Mary closed her eyes and blew out a slow, long breath to release her mind from a prison it had been trapped in for too long. That road was closed. Over and done.

She was back. Walking again, talking again…working again. Alive. Outwardly dented and dinged with the promise of a new paint job for a few of the graft scars on her back, but back in the action with only a barely noticeable limp and a wonky left hand. It had taken eight months before she could pass the physical…two more to qualify at the range. Barely, with a much hated exception for her off hand. She used to be one of the best, and now her scores were buried in with the rookies and retired deputies who target shot for fun. It was humiliating, and despite Marshall and Stan's reassurances of their complete faith in her ability to perform her duties, Mary felt like an imposter. She had become fixated on regaining her status at the range. Practicing before work, after work, weekends…becoming frustrated and discouraged as her scores refused to creep upward. Until Marshall had found out…

"You know what the definition of insanity is, right?" His voice had meandered out of the shadows of the empty range like a nocturnal spectre.

Mary fumbled her clip and cursed. "Jesus Christ, Marshall. This thing is loaded, you know?" Her ear protectors were around her neck as she reloaded, otherwise she never would've known he was there until she had finished. "And I'm a lousy shot."

Marshall stepped forward to lean against the doorframe of the alcove where she stood, one leg crossing slowly over the ankle of the other as he crossed his arms and leveled her with a look. "It's doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

Mary snorted. "Maybe in your world of Vulcan mind melds and Danish philosophers, but in the land of squirrelly perps and qualifying scores," she grunted as she shoved the full clip home, "it's known as practice."

Grabbing an extra pair of ear protectors from a hook on the wall, Marshall barely managed to slide them on before his partner was emptying the fresh clip into the vaguely man-shaped target down the line. One kill shot, three hits, and the rest were scattered about the periphery. Mary's curse would've peeled paint from the walls…had they been painted. They both pulled the ear protectors off as she slammed the gun onto the ledge.

"You're not practicing, Mary," Marshall said quietly. "You're hammering a bent nail into the wood without taking any time to straighten it first."

"Somebody's gonna get bent…" she muttered as she dug into her pocket for yet another box of ammo to fill the clip, trying to ignore the throbbing behind her right eye and the slight blurring of her visual field.

Silent and insidious, the headache had crept across the back of her skull and climbed into her jaw and temple as it always did; a dreaded reminder of lingering physical limitations that she had, so far, kept to herself. Prolonged visual concentration should be avoided, she was told. Fuck that, she decided. She could live through a few headaches. Her hands shook as she tried to press the rounds into place, and Mary cursed again as a few fell into the sawdust at her feet. Marshall's boot covered them before she could bend down.

"'Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.'" He stood so close she could smell his aftershave over the cordite and dirt. Mary stared at the pulse in his neck, momentarily undecided as she considered his words, then frustration embraced confusion and she lashed out. Pushed him back.

"Don't fucking patronize me, asshole." She glared at him before squatting down to pick up the rounds. "You know how hard I've worked to get this far, and I'm not letting you, or anybody else, try to convince me that this is it. I refuse to accept that." To her dismay, her left hand refused to grasp one of the small bullets, and it skittered over to rest against her partner's boot.

Mary stared at the shiny object as her hip now began to ache in protest to her crouched position. Her head throbbed in earnest…and her hands continued to shake. She felt old and broken while bowed under Marshall's assessing gaze, and to her horror, her eyes welled up with tears. Pressing one fist to her mouth, she squeezed her eyes shut to try to quell the rising emotions and prevent this from turning into a more humiliating experience than it already was.

The air swirled around her as Marshall stepped forward to lean down, gently grasp her arms, and firmly draw her upward until she again stood before him. "'There is a time for being in motion, and a time for being at rest. A time for being exhausted, and a time for being safe.'" His slow, soft words were accompanied by the caress of his hands along her upper arms, and Mary swallowed a sob as she refused to give in to this comfort. He allowed her the silence for a few moments more, but finally spoke when she faintly grunted as pain shot through her temple.

"At some point, Mary, drive and determination become obsessive…unhealthy. You push yourself beyond any reasonable expectations, and if you keep putting these demands on your body…your mind, you're not going to be any good to anyone. Including me." His one hand traveled up over her shoulder to knead the knot behind her neck, the soothing motion taking some of the sting out of his words and eliciting a small sigh of relief from her. "You've done as much as you can. It's time to rest."

Each stroke of his fingers brought profound relief from pain and stress, releasing some sort of chemical reaction in her brain that forced the tears from the corners of her eyes, and the pressure of his hand had coaxed her forward until her forehead rested against his shoulder. She gently tapped her fisted hands on his chest and slowly shook her head. "I can't…" Marshall completed the tentative embrace by sliding his other hand around to rest on her back and her words died a sobbed death. The feeling of flailing uselessness was stilled as she was cocooned like a swaddled newborn.

"A time for being safe," he repeated, drawing her close. "And a time for trust, Mary. I can help you."

Mary was pulled out of her reverie by the sound of Marshall's truck rumbling into her driveway, and she smiled with anticipation. The time they had spent in that dark shooting range had stayed with her through the eight weeks he had now been appearing at her doorstep each Saturday. He had held her for nearly a half hour as the months of pain, anxiety and brutal realizations of mortality had worked their way to the surface like glass from an old wound. Patient and silent, he somehow knew she had reached the end of her endurance…mental, physical…emotional. And, like always, he was present to offer her what she needed. She had staggered to her car wrung out and committed to letting Marshall plan an activity each week that he promised would bring her closer to full recovery. The catch being she wasn't to visit the range. Not until he deemed her ready. It wasn't a hard decision at the time, her mindset one of defeat, but in the light of day she had wondered just exactly what she had signed up for. Her partner's idea of 'activity' could often border on…embarrassing. Especially for her.

It had started out benign enough; a trip to the high school track for a bastardized decathalon in which she discovered her partner's proclivity for sadism went beyond endless litanies of trivia. He pushed her relentlessly around the track, yelling challenges when she slowed and barking insults if she stopped. He was lucky there had been no javelin throw.

They fought for twenty minutes at his next visit as Mary refused to do anything requiring a bathing suit. Marshall finally relented to conducting the exercise in her own pool instead of dragging her to the RecPlex, and Mary felt vindicated for the short time it took until she was in the water. After that, she could only groan. He spouted mantras and pithy sayings from the deck while still in his boots while she nearly drowned. Asked her if she needed a rubber ducky and ended up sloshing home in soaking wet jeans.

A week later it was Tai Chi class, then back to the track, and how could she forget the debacle loosely defined as rock climbing. Marshall had delighted in discovering she could scream like a girl every time she fell, and Mary could only blame her inattention to the rock on how well a climbing harness could emphasize a portion of her partner's anatomy. She was pretty sure the lesson, whatever it had happened to be, was lost on her that day.

Mary was sure there was a method to Marshall's madness. This was not a man who did much, or anything, without some underlying motive that he would likely trot out, smug as a bug, just as she launched into some scathing diatribe that only proved his point. There didn't seem to be a pattern beyond forcing her into activities that took nearly 100% of her concentration to complete, and left her nursing new aches, pains, scrapes and scratches each week. Maybe there was a connection within the venues? The time of day? Or, possibly, it had something to do with the random strings of thought Marshall insisted on voicing the whole time they were together. Randomness aside, Mary had kept her part of the bargain partly because once she committed to something she followed it through, and partly because curiosity had gotten the better of her. And she hadn't been disappointed.

Week six was the art gallery. A fucking art gallery? That foray into her apparent bad taste was followed up by more physical exertion, a concert in the park, and then a full day of helping Marshall lay a brick patio in his backyard. There was a boatload of froufrou philosophy thrown at her that day.

"Are you going to talk like a bad martial arts movie all day?" she asked, looking up from smoothing sand between the complicated brick pattern. "Because I'm no longer sure whether I should wax on, wax off, or go get a Brazilian."

Marshall choked slightly before tapping another brick into place. "'We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.'"

"Jesusgod," she groaned. "Can I make you a non-being? Really, Marshall, I'm not going to have an amazing epiphany because you insist on quoting some 'I of Ching' at me. I'm really hoping this," she waved her hands over the half-finished deck as she sat back on her heels, "whatever it is, is actually leading up to you taking me back to the range and not some cleverly disguised plan to save yourself a few bucks on contracting costs."

He looked over at her work with a grimace and mumbled, "It would've been money well spent." Mary glowered, and Marshall sat back to grin at her. "When you don't know the source of your discontent, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. When you realize where you come from, you naturally become quiet…tolerant…able to deal with whatever life brings you."

Mary opened her mouth to mock him when a spark of…something…checked her actions and held her still. The source of her discontent. She trailed her fingers over the rough grit of the sand on the bricks as she studied the various patterns they had laid. Each brick had a place; a slot to fill and a purpose to serve. It fit. She did not. The accident, and the months preceding it, had rearranged her patterns, and she hadn't yet found her place. Hadn't yet felt as though she served a purpose, other than to worry and confuse those around her. She had thought she'd eventually regain her former position in the universe, but that slot wasn't a shape she could fit into any more. There were too many changes, and all her efforts to shove herself back in were only resulting in a slow destruction of her very make-up. Mary's eyes drifted over to squint at the empty portion of the framed-out deck. She wasn't sure what patterns Marshall was going to put in there, but she knew he would have a place for every brick. She became aware of his gaze and self consciously tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as she grabbed more sand to get back to work. So much for no epiphanies…

"Whatever life brings you," he softly repeated, and Mary's cheeks heated inexplicably before he continued the quote, "'And when death comes, you are ready.'"

Mary pulled her feet under her in a crouch and leaned towards him with a feral grin, glad to see him lean back slightly. "Are you ready?" she asked with raised brow. Marshall yelped as she pounced.

The loud knock at her door again brought her back to the present, and Mary chuckled softly as she shook her head while walking into the front room. Put it in gear, Shannon. These trips down memory lane had become a little more frequent in the last few weeks. The jury was still out on the 'why.' Pulling the door open, Mary was greeted by her jean and boot clad partner who had wisely stopped for breakfast on his way over. She grunted a hello while reaching to snag the bag containing obviously greasy pastries. He held it out of reach.

"Ah…so greedy. And so wrong," he drawled, easily side-stepping her efforts to saunter into the kitchen. He set the food and beverages on the counter and turned to block her progress. "Today we're going to try something new." He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a blue bandana with a USMS insignia. Mary narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

"We're going to flash gang colors in the wrong part of town? Clock our 100 yard sprint?" she asked snidely. "I only have to run faster than you, you know?"

Marshall rolled his eyes and beckoned her over as he folded the bandana. "No…though that tactical exercise could be arranged. Today you're going to view the world from a different point of view. Blindfolded."

Mary just stared at him, never reaching for the strip of cloth he held out. Finally, she huffed a chuckle with her hands on her hips. "There are just so many reasons why I'm not putting that on."

The bandana never wavered. "Do you trust me?"

His voice was low and heavy with seriousness, and Mary's gaze was drawn to his blue gaze with realization: every protest she had hinged upon that question. Some tendril of calm wound its way through her veins, and she saw herself reach out to take the cloth from his hand. He helped her tie it snugly around her head and presumably danced in front of her to test for any visual breaches. She crossed her arms and refused to cater to his whims.

It was disorienting and disturbing to be reduced to four senses, and Mary at first clung to her partner for guidance as he coaxed her to gather her things for the day's outing. Even her own home seemed perilous without sight to navigate. He stood her still before they exited.

"'Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding. When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.'" His voice came from near her ear, and Mary was more aware of his height that she usually was. He wore no cologne today, only aftershave and toothpaste.

"We're doing Mr. Miagyi again, too?" she wondered aloud with a grin. She swore she heard him make a face as he opened the door to escort her out.

The ride to…wherever…had Marshall avoiding her every attempt to wheedle a location out of him while Mary ran her fingertips over just about every surface in the SUV. She wasn't completely unaware of the purpose of the blindfold; forcing her to notice small, seemingly insignificant details in the visual world that now gave her vital clues to person, place and orientation. She could hear Marshall's breathing, his shifts of weight and small noises of either contentment or thoughtfulness. The catch of his breath when her fingers accidentally found his thigh provoked a tightening of her own gut that surprised her. Responsive to his reactions on an interesting level. She took her time withdrawing her hand to her own lap, curious as to his complete silence.

Mary realized she knew when they had left the more maintained roads of the city and now traveled on either gravel or poorly laid asphalt. The air felt clearer somehow…less populated. Smelled of pine and wet dirt rather than exhaust and fast food joints. They were headed up the mountain.

"Where are we going?" she asked yet again, breathing in deeply. "I smell the Sandias."

"Very good," he replied, sounding proud. "It's not much further." True to his word, they bounced over some ruts a few minutes later and slowed to a stop.

Mary listened to the ting of the cooling engine as Marshall hopped out and came around to open her door. A chattering of birds and the faint whoosh of the wind in the pines greeted her, Marshall's forearm grasped in her hand as she stepped out of the truck. She could somehow feel the vastness of the mountainside, knew that the sky lay open above them and they were likely the only people around for miles. She had no control…no full understanding of the situation laid before her and it was suddenly intimidating. She balked as Marshall attempted to guide her away from the SUV.

"You know," she said nervously, "the last time I did this I ended up giving Lenny Markisan a bloody nose and hitching a ride home."

Marshall sidled slightly closer and rested a hand on her shoulder. She could hear the smile in his voice. "Hitching is a misdemeanor, and Lenny probably deserved a bloody nose." He was quiet for a moment until she looked up at him behind the blindfold. "We can go back if you'd like."

"Do you trust me?" Was what he really said, and Mary only hesitated a moment more before gently nudging him back on his way and falling into step beside him with the fingers of her bad hand resting on his arm, her good fingers fisted in the back of his jacket.

She moved in fits and starts at first, her brain sulking and whining about the lack of sight as a back-up plan when sounds and terrain indicated unknown obstacles. Despite Marshall's up 'til now empty threats to drop her off a cliff, she trusted him not to introduce her to grievous injury in her vulnerable state. He was trying to prove some point…to bring her to some awareness, and she doubted he'd kill off his subject before he got the data set he desired. Soon, she was automatically adjusting her gait to his rolling one, gauging changes in direction by subtle shifts in his posture and rhythm of step, and her mind wandered to previous excursions; wondered how many more tricks he expected her to perform.

Mary felt them leave the cover of the trees and enter a clearing of sorts, and Marshall stopped. "I have to set something up, so stand here and don't get into any trouble." He was only gone for a few minutes before she heard him approach again, and she reached for him without thought. His hand enveloped hers as he led her a number of yards into the clearing before turning her to stand in front of some barrier. Rough hewn wood with a smell of…gunpowder.

"What are we…" she began, turning towards him, and was cut off as he firmly repositioned her.

"'Seeing into darkness is clarity. Knowing how to yield is strength. Use your own light and return to the source of light.'" His words were slow and liquid, dripping onto the back of her neck and slowly running down her back, causing her to shiver in the warmth of midday. "We've practiced strength and speed, dexterity and endurance. You've overcome some fears, wrestled with some misconceptions, and I think you've even reconsidered a few things you thought were set in stone. Like any cross-training program, we've used the skills you excel at to support any weaknesses found. Provided a buffer and given you something to fall back on." Mary could hear him rummaging through items in a bag. Her ears perked up at a familiar note of metal on metal, then she caught her breath as he was suddenly behind her, hands on her upper arms as he positioned her just so. "Your body…your mind…is more centered. Instead of being pushed and prodded in one, singular direction, you've given it a wealth of opportunities to explore without demanding perfection in any one activity."

Marshall reached forward to ease the Glock into her hand, but instead of the shoulder hunching tension Mary had come to expect with the feel of the gun in her grip, she remained relaxed as her partner was wrapped around her, his breath warm on her neck. Her fingers wrapped around the grip of the Glock as she braced her wrist with the other hand. Marshall's fingers gently slid her off-hand up her wrist in slight adjustment while his knee nudged the back of her legs to encourage a wider stance. She obeyed the physical prompts without question as her reference field was limited to only what he could see. …a wealth of opportunities to explore… Her mind was busy tracking the lingering tingles of awareness left behind by his retreating hands, and she automatically brought the gun up to a yet unseen target. Confident he would show her the way.

"Your target is twenty five yards in front of you, chest height and stationary." He ran his hands along the undersides of her arms to raise her aim, and Mary could feel the heat from his belly along her spine. She closed her eyes and slowly released a long breath in tandem with her partner. Her finger squeezed the trigger on the end of a sigh.

The echoes of the shots faded into the breeze as the smell of gunpowder tickled her nose, and the endorphins from firing a weapon mingled with errant hormones provoked by Marshall's proximity. "We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want." Somehow, she was leaning back into him while his hands gripped her waist, his jaw against her ear.

"Three kill shots…the rest would've taken off a limb." His whisper carried the weight of pride and Mary beamed as she lowered her weapon. She let her head fall back against his chest, comfortable in his embrace within the darkness. "Whatever life brings you…"

*** I hope you enjoyed! Please REVIEW...as I always love to hear your comments! ***

Marshall's quotes are from 'Tao Te Ching' by Lao-Tzu