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Rachel is my creation, as is Andie Nichols (remember her from “Learning How to Fall”?).
Classification Action/Adventure, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 29,000 words; 69 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers “Nobody’s Child”/ “Goodbyes”, “Answered Prayers”
Rating GS
Author's Notes This story is set mid-season seven, and although it’s certainly not critical, it might help if you’ve read my story “And Miles to Go” to understand where exactly Harm and Mac are in their relationship. (Cliffs Notes version: They know how they feel about each other, but they’re not really ‘together’ while they quietly look for a career option that would work a little more smoothly.) For the sake of continuity, this takes place before Bud gets deployed to the Seahawk. Also, I personally don’t know a thing about ASL, so any details, specific signs, etc. contained herein are either from a little bit of online research or figments of my imagination. I leave it to you to decide which is which. This one is admittedly something that will never, ever happen on the show, but hey, I’ve never let that stop me before.

 

Summary A young girl, the only witness to her mother’s murder, leads Harm and Mac to important truths about both their investigation and each other.

 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

 

 

 

 

1003 EST
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia


“Incoming!”

Sarah Mackenzie instinctively ducked as a projectile whizzed by her head. “What the hell was that?” she demanded, startled. Against the far wall, a small balsawood airplane had embedded its nose into the bulletin board. Petty Officer Tiner poked his head out into the bullpen, looking faintly guilty. “What’s wrong, Tiner? Law classes so boring you had to take up aerodynamics on the side?”

“No, ma’am – sorry, ma’am. It’ll never happen again, ma’am.”

Mac raised an eyebrow, already suspicious. Three “ma’am”s was overkill, even for Tiner. “Who are you covering for, Petty Officer?”

Just then, another office door opened, confirming her theory. “What did I tell you?” Harm called to the embarrassed Tiner, retrieving the toy airplane from the wall. “Vertical stabilizer. Works every time.”

“You win, sir,” admitted Tiner, handing over a five-dollar bill and scurrying back to his desk before he could get yelled at. Mac only shook her head.

“How can you take his money? You have an unfair advantage.”

“Hey, I don’t build ‘em – I just fly ‘em. And it’s his fault for challenging me.”

The colonel rolled her eyes at her best friend. “You’re a detriment to good order and discipline, flyboy.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“Commander, Colonel,” summoned the admiral from the entrance to his office. Harm straightened, hiding the little airplane behind his back. “Got a minute?”

It wasn’t really a question. Things like that never were when asked by a two-star admiral. “Aye, sir,” they replied in unison, moving to follow him. As they passed through the outer office, Harm swiftly tossed the airplane back onto Tiner’s desk, and the yeoman hurriedly stuck it in a drawer before their C.O. could notice. Mac swallowed a grin and came to attention beside her partner in front of the wide oak desk.

“As you were. Commander Rabb, Colonel Mackenzie, meet Agents Holstrom and Faulkner from NCIS.”

The attorneys turned to shake hands with the visitors, noticing a young girl sitting in the corner of the office. She looked up at the uniformed newcomers for a moment, then returned her attention to the book in her lap. Agent Holstrom gestured toward her. “The little girl is with us for the moment. Her name is Rachel Marks, and her mother was Lieutenant Commander Alison Marks, from the J-2 office at the Pentagon.”

His use of the past tense didn’t escape the notice of either officer. “What happened to Commander Marks?” Mac inquired carefully.

“She was killed early yesterday morning at her home in Arlington. Two shots to the chest, point-blank range, and no evidence of a robbery. Our assumption is that her death has something to do with her work.”

J-2 referred to the intelligence division of the joint services directorate, as all those present were well aware. Murdered for an intelligence operation, in her own home? Mac’s eyes strayed back to the girl, hoping she wasn’t listening, but she hadn’t even glanced up. There was something in her bearing that was oddly familiar to the Marine, something that brought back memories of her own less-than-perfect childhood. This girl was shutting herself away.

“The commander’s husband died four years ago in a flight-deck accident on the Kennedy. The daughter is the only witness to the incident yesterday, and we’re not entirely sure what she saw,” Holstrom continued. “Obviously, we’ll have to keep a close watch on her, in case whoever did this knows about her. We’d like to request JAG assistance with the case, especially with this deposition. Questioning seven-year-olds isn’t something we’ve done a lot of, and there’s a complicating factor.”

Harm spoke up. “Agent, would you mind not talking about the girl as if she weren’t here?”

Mac glanced over at him, wondering if visions of Annie and Darlyn Lewis were flashing before his eyes. Oblivious, Agent Faulkner entered the conversation. “That’s the complicating factor. Rachel Marks is almost completely deaf, and has been since birth. She reads lips moderately well, but she mainly uses sign language.”

Admiral Chegwidden sighed. “That’ll make this harder. Where do we find ourselves an interpreter?”

“We were told you had someone with signing experience,” Faulkner queried.

The admiral immediately looked to Mac, who shook her head. “Not me, sir. I know a few languages, but this definitely isn’t one of them.”

“Don’t worry, Mac,” Harm said simply. “I’ll take it.” As the others watched, he crossed the room to kneel by the girl’s chair. She raised her head, faint distrust in her eyes.

“Harm,” Mac began quietly, “I don’t think this is something you can fake your way through…”

Surprising her, he began to form the words with his hands, slowly but carefully. “Hi, Rachel,” he said aloud, partly for the others’ benefit and partly because he wanted to make sure he was being clear. Signing the letters of his name, he continued, “My name is Harmon. I’m going to help you. Do you understand?”

Rachel looked at him, her blue eyes wide, and started to sign back rapidly. Harm smiled, overwhelmed. “Easy, honey,” he answered, still signing. “I’m a little out of practice. Can you try to slow down for me?”

She signed again, more deliberately, and his heart ached at the earnest fear that lingered on her delicate face. “No, honey,” he said firmly. “No one’s going to hurt you. I promise.” When he’d finished the signs, he laid his hand on top of hers, and she almost – almost – smiled back.

Fascinated, Mac turned back to the admiral. Although he made it a policy never to be shocked by anything in this job, especially anything done by one or both of his senior attorneys, he was nearly as surprised as she was. “Commander, Colonel, can I infer that you’d like to take this case?”

“Yes, sir,” Mac replied smoothly, seeing that Harm’s opinion was already clear. “Agents, if you’d like to move into the conference room, we can get started on planning the investigation. We’ll just grab some files on the way and join you in a minute.”

Harm stood up and followed the others to the door, looking back to see his partner watching him with new interest. The two of them hung back from the group for a moment. “What’s that look for? Some people know Farsi and Russian. I know ASL. So what?”

“Sailor, I have no doubt that you have many, many hidden talents,” she replied sweetly, “but face facts. Sign language is not something the average citizen has the means or motive to learn. So spill it.”

He shrugged. “I had a friend in junior high and high school who was deaf. It’s a fantastic way to keep nosy classmates from eavesdropping on your conversations. Anyway, I haven’t used it in twenty years, so I’m going to have to brush up a little. Anything else, Curious Jarhead?”

She shot him a dirty look. “Now that you mention it, yes. Why’d you tell her your name was Harmon? It’s kind of long to spell out like that.”

“I though ‘Harm’ might confuse her too much. Typically you end up abbreviating names to the first letter, though, so it probably won’t matter for long. Come on, we’ve got work to do.”

“Right behind you.” After a moment, though, she called after him again. “Hey, Harm?”

“Hmm?”

“Must have been a good friend.”

Harm’s eyes darkened for a moment, but he nodded. “Yeah, he was.”

Deciding she’d have the opportunity to further question him later, she simply offered a smile and ducked into her office to grab a pad of paper.

~~~~~~~~~~

Lieutenant Commander Alison Marks had been, by all accounts, an outstanding officer. A ROTC graduate of the University of Illinois, she had been selected for intelligence work after her first tour as a cryptologist on the USS Leyte Gulf. She’d been at the Pentagon ever since, analyzing satellite data for the general staff. Rachel was her only child; also her only family following the death of Lieutenant Stephen Marks four years earlier.

Alison Marks was as clean as they came – there wasn’t a black mark of any kind on her record. Yet someone had walked into her home and shot her through the heart. Had she discovered something, as part of her duties, that she wasn’t supposed to have seen? What else could possibly have been worth killing for?

Before joining the group in the conference room, Harm had sent Harriet out on a shopping mission to locate a sign-language dictionary. He’d been relatively fluent back in school, but this was a far cry from the teenage-flavored conversations he’d had with J.J. all those years ago. While Mac and the NCIS agents discussed the evidence already collected, he took a seat next to Rachel.

The girl pushed locks of light-brown hair out of her eyes and stared back at him curiously. She was afraid of some things, certainly, but apparently he wasn’t one of them. He offered another smile. Rachel put down her book and started to sign.

[Do you fly planes?] she asked.

Surprised that she’d noticed and identified his wings, Harm nodded. “Sometimes,” he answered. “Do you like planes?”

She shrugged. [Mom said my dad liked them. I’ve only ever been in a plane once.]

“Well, I have a plane of my own,” he told her, both aloud and with his hands. “Maybe, if you want, you could come flying with me sometime.”

[Cool,] she signed simply, which was about as far as he could have hoped to get.

Mac watched them from the other side of the room, wishing they didn’t have to make this poor girl relive the nightmare of her mother’s death. So far, Rachel had been calm, if a little wary of her surroundings. But children could react in so many different ways. Being calm meant next to nothing in terms of her true emotional state. They’d learned that much from Darlyn Lewis. Rachel Marks was fragile, and what they were about to do would undoubtedly hurt her.

But there really wasn’t any other choice.

“Is she ready to talk to us?” Holstrom asked. Harm translated the request, and Rachel nodded, looking anxious. The commander squeezed her hand briefly, then turned to the agents so that she wouldn’t be able to read his lips.

“She’s right here, guys. She knows you’re talking to her, so do me a favor and actually talk to her, all right? And take it easy.”

Mac hid a smile at seeing her partner in ultra-protective mode. It wasn’t a trait he had the opportunity to use very often, but when he did, it made him deliciously attractive.

“You got it.” Holstrom looked directly at the little girl and softened his tone: a useless gesture to her, maybe, but Harm understood and appreciated it. “Rachel, can you tell us what you remember about that night?”

Rachel looked to Harm as he carefully signed the words. While she replied, he concentrated on her rapidly-moving hands and worked through the signs as quickly as he could. “ ‘I was sleep – asleep in my room,” he began tentatively. “When I woke up, I got up to get a … a drink, and I saw the man come in.’ ”

“How did he come in?” Faulkner interjected. “Did he break in, or was the door unlocked?”

Rachel thought for a moment, then responded. Harm translated, “ ‘I don’t know. He just walked through the door. He went into the living room, and I saw he had a gun.’ ”

“Did he see you?” Mac asked gently.

Rachel shook her head. “ ‘I was on the stairs,’ ” Harm said, following the signs more easily now. “ ‘I went to warn Mom, but she wasn’t in her room. Then I heard the – ” he faltered briefly on an unfamiliar word “ – the shots.’ ”

The adults exchanged surprised glances. “You could hear them?” Holstrom asked.

“ ‘A little, because they were so loud. I could feel them in my head …’ ” Harm trailed off as Rachel’s eyes filled with tears. Immediately he started signing to her. “Sweetheart, we can take this as slow as you want. I know you don’t want to think about this. You’re being very brave.”

She nodded, and started again. “ ‘I hid on the stairs until he left, and then I went to look for Mom,’ ” he continued. “ ‘When I saw her in the kitchen, with all the – the blood, I called 911, like she always said to do. They can find you even if you can’t talk to them.’ ”

Mac couldn’t help being impressed at the way she was holding it together. The agents were uncomfortable as well, but they pressed ahead. “Can you describe the man you saw, Rachel?”

The girl paused, and only Harm noticed the slight tremble in her fingers. “Use me as a comparison,” he suggested to her. “Was he shorter or taller than me?”

At her response, he laughed out loud. The others looked at him quizzically, and he related. “She says everyone’s shorter than me.” Some of the tension dissipated, and she moved on. “ ‘A little shorter, and a little heavier. He had dark hair … that’s all I saw.’ ” She turned away quickly.

This was the hard part, Harm suddenly realized. Trying to picture the face of her mother’s killer, a face she never wanted to see again – reliving the evil this man had brought upon her…

Instinctively he reached a hand out to her, but she jerked back and tore out of the chair. Sinking to the floor in the corner of the room, she hugged her knees to her chest, and her muffled crying was the first sound any of them had heard from her.

Harm took a deep breath and dropped to one knee beside her, waiting quietly until she looked up with red, bleary eyes. [She’s gone forever,] she signed through the tears. [I can’t see her anymore.]

God, I hope I get this right, he begged silently, and very deliberately began to respond. “Rachel, I know we can’t make this okay. Your mom was a very special person, and it’s not fair that someone took her away. But I promise you that we’ll find this man so that no one else gets hurt like this. And I promise that someday, it won’t hurt so much. We’ll help you, honey. You’re going to be all right.”

The little girl searched his blue eyes for some kind of understanding. After a long minute, she leaned forward and put her arms around his neck. He felt a few tears fall on his collar, and held her with as much reassurance as he could put into a simple hug.

Holstrom sighed. “I hate cases like this. We can end here for now – it’s not worth upsetting her any more. If you two want to go pick up the ballistics report while we drop her off, we can meet up at the crime scene.”

“Where’s she staying?” Mac asked, her gaze still on the small figure in her partner’s embrace.

“She doesn’t have any family to speak of – at least none that we’ve been able to find. Social Services temporarily set her up with a couple in Rosslyn. They’re both cops, so it’s safe enough, but she has to write things down for them instead of signing. She goes to a school for the hearing-impaired, but it’s not exactly a secure environment, so we’re keeping her out. Best we could do for the moment.”

“All right. We can work out of JAG for the duration of the investigation, so I guess you’d better bring her back here tomorrow morning.”

Harm gently disengaged himself from Rachel once the tears stopped, and he walked with her to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” he told her kindly. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

In response, she signed his name, then touched her hand to her lips and tipped her fingers toward him, palm upward. He smiled. “You’re welcome. Bye, Rachel.”

Once they’d gone, he rose slowly to his feet, and Mac stepped closer, laying a hand on his shoulder. “It’s awful, isn’t it,” she said quietly.

“Yes, it is. But I think she’ll be all right, eventually. She seems pretty strong. I mean, it seems like she’s starting to trust me.”

“Sailor, you’re half a mile tall and you wear a uniform. What seven-year-old girl wouldn’t feel safe with you around?” She smiled up at him and gathered up the files on the table. “We have some reports to pick up before going over to Arlington.”

“Lead on, Marine.”


1402 Hickory Drive
Arlington


Mac looked around the first floor of the small house with a critical gaze. “I hate to say it, but as witnesses go, Rachel’s not much of one.”

“I know. For all we know, Alison Marks could have had an entire conversation with the guy before he shot her.” Harm bent down to examine the kitchen floor, marked with the traditional body outline. “But I doubt it. There wasn’t much time. No signs of struggle, either. You think he caught her by surprise?”

“Or maybe she knew him,” she suggested, moving to the doorway. “Why would the door have been unlocked at that time of night? Maybe he had a key?”

“I’d vote no on both of those,” Agent Faulkner surmised as he and Holstrom entered the house. “The lock was picked. With a pretty slick tool, too. The scratches were barely detectable.” He handed over a set of photographs, which Mac scanned. “You got something in trade?”

Harm held up the ballistics report. “Nine-millimeter, nothing special. Unless your crew finds a weapon around here, this won’t be much help.”

“We’re still searching dumpsters and such around the neighborhood, but I doubt we’d be that lucky. This was awfully damned clean. Which brings us back to motive. Either of you have security clearance?”

“We’ve both got low-level,” Mac replied. “Anything beyond that … well, there are people we can ask.”

“Then you can be the ones to check into the victim’s work. Defense Intelligence is scanning the hard drive of her home computer, just in case she brought home something she shouldn’t have. They’ll eventually give us the cleaned-up version, for what it’s worth.”

“Satellite data,” Harm mused thoughtfully. “Even if you needed to keep something quiet, what good does it do to kill the analyst? Nobody’s reported any missing or doctored files, right?”

“You’d have to check with the J-2 office, but I don’t think so.” Holstrom waved a hand around the room. “If you need us, just yell.”

Harm nodded absently and started up the stairs, trying to put himself in Rachel’s place that night. From the top of the staircase, about half of the front door was visible, along with part of the entryway that led into the kitchen. She would have had only a few seconds to see the intruder, and then she’d gone into her mother’s room…

Mac followed him into Rachel’s room: a perfect little girl’s bedroom, with lavender walls and rainbow curtains. He looked around at the scores of books that filled her shelves, the plush teddy bear lying on her still-unmade bed … the picture frame on her dresser. Apparently Rachel had gotten her hair and eyes from her mother. By the time she was old enough to realize it, that picture might be her only link to the blissful life they’d once shared.

Impulsively, he picked up the teddy bear and chose a few books from the shelf. At Mac’s inquiring glance, he explained. “It might be a long time before she can come back here. Maybe she’d like to have some of her own stuff.”

His partner only smiled, keeping any other questions to herself for the moment. If he needed to do this, to try and help her, so be it. The way this case was shaping up, it might be as close as they’d get to making any difference at all.


The following day
0921 EST
JAG Headquarters


“Sir, I’ve got some files for you,” Harriet announced, coming into Harm’s office with a towering stack of folders. “Pentagon courier just dropped them off.”

“Thanks, Harriet. If they’ll fit on top of the cabinet, stash them over there for now.” Harm pulled his attention away from the computer screen and rubbed his eyes. According to Commander Marks’s superiors, her recent area of specialty had been North Africa. Getting any further information out of them, however, was beginning to resemble an exercise in futility. They intended to ask Rachel some more questions about her mother’s work, but realistically, their best hope for a lead was probably buried in those files. “Have the NCIS guys shown up yet?”

“Haven’t seen them – ” The lieutenant stopped short as she noticed a young girl hovering patiently in the doorway. “On second thought, sir, does that answer your question?”

Harm followed her gaze and smiled. “Hi, Rachel,” he signed. “You didn’t sneak away from your new friends, did you?”

Rachel shrugged, looking only slightly guilty. [Talking to them is hard. I’d rather talk to you.]

“Okay, but next time, tell someone where you’re going, okay?” As she nodded, he lifted his gaze. “That’ll be all, Harriet. Thank you.”

“Aye, sir.” Harriet stepped out into the bullpen, her initial amusement dampened by the onset of reality. She’d heard about the investigation, and she empathized with the child as only a mother could. But Commander Rabb had obviously begun to forge a tenuous bond with her. That was certainly a step in the right direction.

Inside the office, Harm split his morning bagel in half and offered one piece to Rachel. She smiled a little and munched contentedly on it for a while as he sent the email request he’d been writing. After a minute, she started wandering around the office, looking at the pictures on his desk and the walls. [Is your baby deaf, too?] she asked suddenly. [Is that why you understand me?]

Surprised, he looked up at the photo she’d spotted, of little A.J. on his first birthday. He shook his head. “No, I don’t have any children. That baby is my godson, A.J., and he can hear. I learned sign language because of a friend. A long, long time ago.” He didn’t add that he’d spent an hour and a half refreshing his memory the night before.

Rachel nodded, accepting that response, and continued to explore. She seemed to sense that Harm was watching her, but it didn’t bother her. She picked up a newspaper that lay on the corner of the desk and studied the picture on the front page. [That’s where my mom worked.]

“That’s the Pentagon,” Harm said simply. “They’re fixing it.”

[Because of the plane that hit it?]

“That’s right. Did your mom tell you about that?”

She nodded again. [She wasn’t there that day. She was going to go on a school trip with me. Instead we just stayed home, and she cried a lot. Her friends were in there.]

“I know how she felt,” he said quietly. Fate was a strange thing. Alison Marks might have sidestepped it when she missed work on that day in September, but it had come back for her just a few months later. “Rachel, I know this doesn’t mean much, but you should be very proud of your mom. She spent her life helping keep all of us safe.”

She looked at him with a kind of disbelief. [It’s easy for you to say that. You still have a mom. Don’t you?]

“So do you,” he countered firmly, wondering exactly how he’d gotten himself into this. “She’s always going to be your mom, no matter what. It’s just that you can’t be with her right now. And you’re right. I do still have a mom, but I lost my dad when I was a little younger than you are now. So I know that nothing I can tell you will help much. I just want to help however I can.”

Rachel played with her golden-brown braid for a second before replying. [I don’t remember my dad. There’s pictures, and letters, but …] The signs melted into a small, helpless shrug. [Who’s going to take care of me?]

Harm had thirty years of life experience over her, and he felt every bit as helpless as she did. “I don’t know, sweetheart,” he told her honestly. “But whoever it is will love you just as much as your mom and dad did. And for now, you’ve at least got me. Okay?”

In response, she stepped around the desk and grabbed his hand for an exaggerated handshake. Despite himself, he laughed. “Deal. We’ll stick together.” Remembering the books he’d retrieved from her house, he reached under his desk. “I almost forgot. I brought you some things.”

Rachel’s eyes brightened as she reached for the books and the stuffed bear. Within moments, she had climbed atop his desk and was dangling her feet over the side, engrossed in a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. Satisfied, the attorney slid his chair back and started to skim through the files Harriet had delivered.

“Hey, Harm, have you seen…” Mac came through the doorway and trailed off upon seeing the little girl who’d taken over his desk. “Um, never mind.”

Harm offered a sheepish grin. “Sorry. I was going to come find you guys in a minute. Really.”

“Don’t worry about it. I figured she’d track you down.” Mac turned to Rachel, clutching her beloved bear under one arm, and smiled. “Good morning, Rachel,” she said, being careful to enunciate clearly without overdoing it. “I see you found a friend.”

Rachel glanced down at the bear, then up at Harm. [I think I found two.]

Mac looked to Harm for the translation and saw how his features instantly softened at Rachel’s words. She’d thought that his days of impossible quests were over … but then again, this wasn’t like any other obsession she’d seen from him. Her partner was falling hard for this little girl.

“All right, let’s get started. Down you go, Rach.” He held out a hand, and Rachel dutifully took it, hopping down from the desk. As they started toward the conference room, Mac leaned in to talk to him more privately.

“You owe me a serious chat, flyboy. Think you’ll be free for lunch?”

“The way this is going, I doubt it. How about dinner at my place? Nineteen hundred?”

Her heart sped up a little at the suggestion. They hadn’t had many opportunities to meet outside of work much lately. But ever since the conversation that had redefined their relationship, they’d somehow been reaffirmed as the best of friends, and the promise of something more still lingered in the background. Timing, however, was still very much an issue. “What should I bring?” she asked in a low voice.

“Just yourself.”

~~~~~~~~~~


… It was precisely eighteen fifty-eight when she knocked on his apartment door, rubbing her hands together to warm them up. “It’s open,” called Harm’s voice from inside, and she let herself in, heading straight for the heating register.

“I thought winter was supposed to be almost over. It’s below freezing out there,” she informed him flatly, huddling as close as she could to the outflow of warm air. He rolled his eyes in agreement while stirring the pasta sauce.

“No kidding. Whenever it gets like this, I start wishing I’d stayed home.”

“You are home, sailor.”

“No, I mean twenty years ago, when I left California.” He flashed a grin at her, and she had to laugh. “Did you come up with any brilliant leads this afternoon?”

“Not really. All I know is that Commander Marks was an authority on large-scale weapons activity in North Africa. We’re talking missile tests, all kinds, by both government and non-governmental groups.”

“Otherwise known as terrorist cells,” Harm replied, understanding her meaning. “Somalia?”

“Not this time around. Everyone seems more concerned about certain areas of Libya.”

“Them again?”

“Hey, maybe they want to get back at you for that little maneuver you pulled in their backyard all those years ago.” Mac raised an eyebrow, continuing. “The thing is, the stuff that the J-2 office sent over has been scrubbed so clean that there’s hardly anything left to read. I understand the need to take security seriously, but it still feels like we’re banging our heads against a wall.” Finally beginning to defrost, she took off her coat and laid it over the arm of the couch. “I’m tempted to call Webb and see if he can’t pull some strings to let us take a peek at the uncensored version.”

“I guess we’ve always got that as a last resort, but I already owe him for the rest of my life.” Harm pulled the pot off the stove and began dishing up the linguine. Mac moved over to the kitchen island to assist.

“Speaking of which, how’s Sergei doing?”

“Pretty well so far. He loves having Russian neighbors – says it’s like having the best of both worlds. His apartment needs some work, so I promised I’d come over and help him out next weekend.” He handed her a glass of mineral water with a smile. “It’s been a long time since we did something like this,” he pointed out softly.

“Too long,” she agreed, clinking her glass to his. “Come on. I’m starved, and this smells wonderful.”

Their dinner conversation was animated, as each recounted tales of trials and office gossip the other had missed while working separate cases. Mac nearly fell out of her chair in hysterics when Harm told her about Sergei’s encounter with Lieutenant Singer.

“It’s not funny, damn it! My little brother, with a crush on the ambition queen of the Navy?”

“Of course it’s funny. You’re cursed, flyboy.” Mac wiped tears from her cheeks and spoke dramatically. “Good news: you get your brother back. Bad news: you might end up with a really interesting sister-in-law!”

“Don’t even joke about that! If I have to, I’ll order her away from him, but there’s no way in hell I’m letting that happen.” He tossed a nearby dishtowel at her. “Just for that, you have to help with the dishes.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

After a few minutes of washing and drying in comfortable silence, she glanced over at him. “So,” she began calmly. “Time for the full story. You learned sign language from a friend in school. Details?”

He shrugged, and she could see the light in his eyes fade ever so slightly. “The year I started eighth grade, everybody was making a big deal out of this deaf kid who was coming to our school. The teachers were falling all over themselves to try and help him, so all the kids automatically assumed he needed it, but he didn’t. I mean, he needed a little help, but he was smarter than most of the class, and it took people a while to figure that out. Anyway, a couple of weeks after school started, I was in the locker room, and the fire alarm started going off. When I headed for the door, I saw J.J. just standing at his locker, because he had no idea anything was happening. I went over and tried to tell him what was going on, and it took a good five minutes of total confusion before I just went over to the wall and pointed at the alarm.”

“That’s why they have lighted alarms these days,” Mac pointed out.

“Hey, it was the seventies. But you’re getting me off track. After we finally got outside with the rest of the kids, J.J. started signing something to me, but I had no clue what he was trying to say. Eventually, he pulled out a pad of paper and wrote down, ‘Next time, just do this.’ He was showing me the sign for fire. After that, it just kind of grew from there. I helped him out with note-taking, because he’d occasionally miss words when he was lip-reading, and he helped me get through chemistry, which I absolutely sucked at. And once I got halfway decent at signing, we never had to worry about passing notes behind a teacher’s back. We did occasionally get busted for ‘talking’ in class, though.”

She smirked. “I’m trying to picture a fifteen-year-old Harmon Rabb, smiling his way out of trouble and practically getting away with murder in high school.”

“I didn’t get away with anything. Contrary to what you may think, I wasn’t exactly the golden boy of East La Jolla High. Especially after everyone heard about my unauthorized summer field trip before senior year.”

“Have you stayed in touch with your friend at all?”

He dropped his gaze to the sink. “Being deaf was far from being J.J.’s only obstacle in life. He died sometime during my second year at Annapolis. Heart failure, technically, but with his immune system, it could have been just about anything.”

“I’m sorry. I should’ve left it alone.”

“Not at all. He was a big part of how I got through high school. I had a lot of trouble staying motivated enough to keep up with the Academy’s standards, but every time I wanted to give up and feel sorry for myself, I just looked at him. He could’ve gone to a private school and had life a lot easier, but he didn’t want to. He had to work for things that came easily to me, but he always found a way.” He turned slightly toward her, and was puzzled to see that the smirk had returned. “Now what?”

“I’m just surprised, that’s all. I had this image in my head of you as the class president, star quarterback, and homecoming king all in one.”

He only rolled his eyes. “Tried student council and hated it, rode the bench on the football team, and … okay, so I was homecoming king, but – ”

Anything else he might have said was drowned out by her triumphant laughter. “I knew it!” He responded by flicking soapy water in her direction, and she snapped the towel at him. Before she could wind up for another shot, however, he grabbed the end of the towel and yanked, throwing her off-balance and bringing her abruptly toward him. Just like that, they were only inches apart.

After a moment, Mac swallowed the flush of heat that had risen to her cheeks and spoke quietly. “This is getting harder and harder, isn’t it?”

“If you mean it’s getting harder to justify staying away from you, I agree wholeheartedly.” The intensity of that comment, and of his gaze, startled her a little. She’d seen him in passionate moments before, times when he’d battled fiercely for justice … but this clearly was no courtroom. For the first time, she could see that what he wanted so badly was her. If she’d been any less of a Marine, her knees might very well have buckled.

“You know what a bad idea this would be right now,” she reminded him, her voice barely audible. “Two high-level officers who have to face off in court every other week … adversarial by day, hot-bunking by night…”

“It screams ‘appearance of impropriety’,” he admitted, moving back by a fraction of a step. “I’m just not sure how long I can stand the idea of putting our lives on hold for a more convenient time. It seems – I don’t know, it seems like maybe our priorities are out of whack.”

“Harm, we’re doing it this way because of how important it is, not in spite of it. If all I wanted out of you was a night or two in that bed over there, this wouldn’t be nearly so complicated.” His eyes widened at her casual tone – this wasn’t exactly a topic they’d covered in depth – but she continued. “But it’s not. If we want to be together, as in really together, we’re going to have to figure out a better way to handle the office. That’s all there is to it.”

They just stood there for a minute or two, every ounce of willpower concentrated on keeping that small distance between them intact. Both somehow knew instinctively that if they surrendered just for an instant, just for a kiss, the floodgates would be opened, and there would be no going back. So they stood there, reading the same thoughts and hopes in each other’s eyes.

Finally he spoke, a hint of humor creeping into his voice. “Times like this, Marine, are the times that make me seriously consider chucking it all and taking the first transfer I can get, just so we wouldn’t have to keep this up.”

“Careful what you wish for,” she returned slyly. “You do that, you might end up a cook on a frigate somewhere.”

“I’ll have to be a little more discriminating, then. Think the Patrick Henry would take me back?”

The teasing tone immediately vanished, and he regretted even making the comment. “That isn’t funny,” she said quietly.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. Every time it seems like we’re getting somewhere, I manage to screw it up by throwing an airplane into the mix.”

“It’s all right. Just promise me you won’t leave again without a direct order from the Joint Chiefs.”

“As long as you do the same,” he replied solemnly.

The telephone interrupted them, and Harm cursed inwardly as he reached for the handset. “Hello?” The way he instantly paled at the response told her that this wasn’t a social call. “When? All right, give me the address, and we’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“What happened?” Mac asked, already on alert.

“That was Agent Faulkner. Someone just attempted to break into the home of Rosslyn police officers John and Lisa Harper.”

There was only one possible reason for that information to be at all relevant to them. “Rachel?”

Harm nodded grimly. “They’re all fine, but the intruder got away clean. What are the odds that this was a coincidence?”

“Not very good. We’d better get over there.” She picked up her coat, but his hand on her arm stalled the motion.

“We will be finishing that conversation eventually, won’t we?” he asked carefully.

“Sometime,” she promised with a soft smile. “Come on. We’d better take your car, in case the roads are icing up.”


~~~~~~~~~~



There was only one police cruiser in the Harpers’ driveway, and since it belonged to one of the home’s residents, its lights were decidedly not flashing. Despite the seemingly quiet street, however, there was plenty of activity inside the house. Two city police officers and two NCIS agents were already combing the first floor for evidence by the time the JAG officers arrived. Harm and Mac introduced themselves to Lisa Harper, who relayed the events of the evening.

“Rachel and I were watching ‘Cinderella’ in the living room when I heard a noise at the door to the garage. I called upstairs to John, just to be safe, but then I heard the door actually open. So I pulled Rachel down behind the couch, and John came down the stairs with his weapon. As soon as the guy saw that, he took off like a bat out of hell.”

“Did either of you get a good look?”

She shook her head. “He was wearing a mask this time. Guess he’s not stupid.”

“Where’s Rachel?” Mac asked.

Lisa sighed. “She hasn’t come out of the bedroom since it happened. She couldn’t hear any of what was going on. All she knew was that I was pulling her down – and then she saw John with the gun, and…”

Harm nodded, comprehending. Guns were becoming a recurring theme in the poor girl’s life. “I think we can assume that no burglar in his right mind would try to rob a house with a police car in the driveway. Unless either of you has made some dangerous enemies lately, we’ve got to assume that whoever killed Commander Marks is trying to tie up loose ends.”

“We need to consider a safehouse for Rachel,” Faulkner agreed. “Or at least some kind of stepped-up security.”

“Commander, maybe you could help calm Rachel down,” Lisa suggested tentatively. “It seems like you’re all she’s talked about since she got here.”

At that, Mac lifted an eyebrow, but Harm pretended not to notice and nodded. “I’ll do my best.” He crossed the living room to the bedroom door, where John Harper was silently keeping watch. The other man stepped aside to let him in.

Rachel was huddled on the floor next to the bed, her face buried in that treasured teddy bear. Harm knelt down next to her and gently touched her arm, trying not to startle her. When she looked up and recognized him, the sheer magnitude of desperate hope in her eyes was staggering. She really thinks I can protect her, he realized. God, I hope she’s right.

“It’s over now, Rachel,” he signed simply, just as she threw herself into his arms. He stayed there with her for a few minutes, stroking her soft hair and praying for some kind of guidance. When she finally pulled back, her hands were steady.

[I don’t want to stay here.]

“I know, sweetheart. We’ll figure something else out. Why don’t you gather up your things?” He got to his feet, but she grabbed at his sleeve.

[Can I go with you?]

Startled, he fumbled over the correct signs for a second. “Can you go where with me?”

[Wherever you live. Please? I promise I’ll be good.]

“I know you’ll be good. That’s not the problem. I just…” He stopped himself, taking a moment to think it through. What excuse did he intend to give her? That he didn’t have the first clue what to do with a seven-year-old? That he had enough else to worry about? Those answers weren’t good enough. She needed someone, and for once he’d simply have to put someone other than himself first. “I’ll go ask the agents, all right?”

Nodding vigorously, she leaped up and began to pull the few belongings she had into her small backpack. Harm sighed, already wondering how many ways he’d end up regretting this, and returned to the living room.

“We’ve contacted an FBI safehouse just over the border in Maryland,” Faulkner reported. “They can take Rachel for the time being.”

“Agent Faulkner, I realize this would be extremely unorthodox, but what if I took her home with me?”

Mac’s head swung around in surprise, but she said nothing. Holstrom was already shaking his head. “To D.C.? No way.”

“We could arrange for a guard to keep an eye on the building, and she could stay at JAG during the day. No safehouse is going to be as secure as a military installation.”

“Commander, I appreciate that you’ve taken a personal interest in the case, but this is a bad idea. Let the Bureau take care of her. She won’t be far.”

“No!”

All motion in the room instantly ceased as the adults heard Rachel’s voice for the first time. The word hadn’t exactly been articulate, but her meaning was clear as she stood in the doorway with determination born of fear and hope. Even if she hadn’t been able to read every word of their discussion, she could see where it was heading. [I’m not going with them. I don’t care what they say.]

“Rachel, they just want to help,” Harm tried to say, but she shook her head, looking up at him with pleading eyes.

[You promised, Harmon. You said we’d stick together. Please don’t leave me.]

With that, his defenses crumbled, and he lifted her up into his arms. She settled against him, her head resting on his shoulder, and he turned back to the agents. “She’s staying with me, guys. Either you can help me by calling the Marine detachment for a guard, or you can argue jurisdiction with my C.O. tomorrow morning. I doubt he’d be too happy if you called him right now.”

With obvious reservation, the agents acquiesced, and began making arrangements for a round-the-clock security sweep of Harm’s apartment building. Soon he and Mac were strapping Rachel into the backseat of his Lexus. Once they were on the road, and Rachel was staring out the window, Mac finally spoke up. “I didn’t want to undermine you back there, but I might as well say it now. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”

“To be honest, not really. But – God, Mac, I couldn’t let her go like that … When I was working on the Lewis case three years ago, Jordan warned me about continually upsetting Darlyn’s life, moving her from one place to the next.”

“It’s not the same. Rachel hasn’t been abused the way Darlyn was. She’s stronger.”

“She’s also seven years old, and right now, nothing in her life makes her feel safe. Except me, for some bizarre reason. Somebody’s got to be the constant for her, Mac. Somebody has to care about her. Why shouldn’t it be me?”

“That’s not all this is. You realize the risk you’re bringing on yourself by keeping her with you, right? If this guy’s willing to kill a child, he’s sure as hell not going to lose sleep over killing another naval officer.”

“I know. But at least this time he’ll have a fair fight waiting for him.”

She sighed. “I’m still worried about you getting too close,” she replied, quietly yet seriously. “But you’re a big boy, and I’m willing to step back and let you do what you need to do. Just let me be a little paranoid, all right?”

With a brief smile of understanding, he reached over and touched her hand. “Mac, I can’t explain to you why I need to do this, or why I’m so sure that I can. I guess I just need you to trust me.”

“I always do, flyboy.”

When they arrived back at his apartment, she embraced him quickly and waved good night to Rachel. Then, efficiently, she moved across the street to instruct the recently-arrived Marine security officer. Rachel climbed down out of the SUV and slipped her small hand into Harm’s, content to follow wherever he led.

Now what? the attorney couldn’t help wondering as they took the elevator upstairs. His experience with children was limited at best: baby A.J. and Josh Pendry were the main highlights, and Josh could hardly be considered a stellar success. He was fully aware that his history didn’t really qualify him to take charge of anyone, let alone a seven-year-old with special needs. But he’d meant what he said to Mac. Something, somehow, was telling him that right now, this child needed him and only him.

Rachel cast a curious glance around the apartment, exploring a little as he hung up their coats. There was a giggle from the vicinity of his desk, and he looked over to see her holding up his new ASL dictionary. [Caught you.]

Harm shrugged, only mildly embarrassed. “Well, I don’t trust my memory. I wouldn’t want to make mistakes and have you laugh at me, would I?”

[You’ve already messed up a couple of times. But I knew what you meant. Besides, you’re the only one who tries.]

He ruffled her hair affectionately. “It’s late. Let’s get you ready for bed, okay?”

While she brushed her teeth and changed into her nightgown, he got out the extra blankets and pillows that had most recently been used by Sergei. Admittedly, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to put a little girl in a queen-size bed while a six-foot-four man slept on the couch, but he wasn’t about to deprive her of a proper bed.

[Can I leave a light on?] Rachel asked timidly as she climbed into bed and pulled up the blanket.

“Sure, you can. How’s this?” He clicked on the bathroom light and came back to sit next to her. “Everything okay?”

She nodded, settling into the pillow. [You and Mac are good together,] she informed him, so matter-of-factly that he had to mentally check his translation.

“You noticed I call her Mac, huh?”

[I notice lots of stuff. Like how you always stand real close to her when you think no one’s looking.]

“You’re pretty sneaky sometimes, you know that?” he teased, attempting to evade the topic.

[I’m not. I just see more things because I can’t hear them. Is Mac your girlfriend?] she insisted.

Harm sighed. “It’s kind of mixed-up at the moment,” he told her honestly. “She’s my best friend, and I’d like her to be my girlfriend, but it’s hard because we work together.”

[It’s hard because you’re officers? Mom said officers can’t always do what they want, because of rules and stuff.]

“That’s a big part of it. I think we’ll make it work somehow. But right now, it’s time for you to go to sleep.” Almost on instinct, he leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Good night, honey.”

It was still only 2200, so he put on a pair of comfortable sweats and headed over to his desk to revisit the files he’d brought home. Commander Marks had been working on a handful of related projects, monitoring the movements and operations of a few specific groups with camps in the Sahara region. Most of them were relatively well-documented cells, groups that the Department of Defense had been tracking since long before the start of the ‘war on terror’. A couple of them, however, were unfamiliar to him. There were very few clues to help him determine which of the cases had been Marks’s highest priority: the intel community didn’t dare spill that kind of information to a lowly JAG. Maybe he’d have to call Webb after all.

He leaned back in the chair, trying to piece together some kind of theory in his mind. First things first. Why kill someone? Besides money or anger, the most probable motive was to ensure silence. They needed to stop her from saying or doing something. What was the most dangerous thing that an intelligence analyst could do? Uncover a secret. And the most important question of all – whose secret could it have been? Someone involved with one or more of the terrorist groups, most likely…

A chilling possibility hit him then. Whoever had killed Lieutenant Commander Marks was here, not in the deserts of North Africa, and had had good enough information to track Rachel to the Harpers’ home. A well-trained foreign operative could certainly have done it, but this didn’t feel like a typical terrorist plot. What if the killer was American? Could the secret uncovered have been the existence of a traitor?

Nice theory, he thought with a tinge of sarcasm. Totally out of the blue. Where the hell would I even begin to try and back it up?

His train of thought sharply derailed at the sound of a few muffled wails from the bedroom. Harm crossed the apartment in long strides and found Rachel huddled up in a tight ball under the blanket. She looked up, feeling his weight next to her on the bed. “What is it, honey?” he asked, already aware of the answer.

[I’m sorry,] she signed halfheartedly, still sniffling. [I’m trying to be brave, I promise.]

“Don’t be sorry,” he told her firmly, lifting her chin so that her gaze met his. “Rachel, believe me. You don’t ever have to apologize for what you’re feeling. If you’re sad, or scared, that’s okay. You don’t have to hide anything, especially from me. All right?”

She glanced down for a moment, then confessed, [I’m more sad than scared right now, I guess.]

“Come here, sweetheart.” He gathered her up and rocked her protectively for a few minutes. As she rested her head in the crook of his arm, it occurred to him that there was something innately good about this feeling. He’d always kept the idea of having children in the back of his mind, but over the years it seemed to have been steadily pushed farther and farther back, displaced by his career or any number of uncertainties. Now, for the first time in his memory, he found that he could actually picture himself in the role.

Rachel twisted around and touched his cheek to get his attention. [I can ask you anything, right?]

“Sure,” he answered, slightly bewildered.

She looked almost guilty. [Would you stay in here tonight?]

Looking into her earnest blue eyes, Harm quickly came to the conclusion that he could very easily end up wrapped around this girl’s little finger.

“Of course I will.”

He slid into bed beside her and lay down on his back. In response, she curled her small body around his arm, and he pulled the blanket back up to her chin. As he closed his eyes and attempted to find rest, the last remaining thought in his mind was that this was decidedly a new experience.

 

 

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