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Classification Angst, romance (H/M)
Length Approx 164,000 words, 345 pages (8 x 11)
Spoilers Through Season 9, then picks up after "Gratitude."
Rating SLSV
Summary Mac and Harm have to learn how to handle life as a couple.

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

 



JAG Headquarters

October 27, 2003

 

Lt. Colonel Sarah Mackenzie stood in front of the television monitors in the bullpen, watching ZNN and wondering when she'd be able to breathe again.

Harriet had rushed into her office five minutes ago to tell her that ZNN was reporting that a C-130 was attempting to land on the Seahawk. No mention had been made of the pilot's name, but Mac knew that it was Harm. Not because she knew his mission, and not because she always knew where he was; no, she knew it was Harm because no one else in the universe was stupid enough to try to land a C-130 on an aircraft carrier. She watched breathlessly as the plane skidded across the deck of the Seahawk, coming to a stop with its nose hanging over the edge. Fortunately, she thought as the tight knot of panic began to ease, the only things in the universe greater than Harm's stupidity were his talent and his luck.

Love and pride filled Mac as Harm's smiling face graced the bullpen monitors. `My flyboy,' she thought, unable to contain her own smile. She laughed to herself at the thought. Their relationship wasn't even six months old, and she was already territorial. Oh, who the hell was she kidding? She'd been territorial for eight years; now she just had a legitimate excuse.

"As you were." The Admiral's gruff command echoed through the bullpen and everyone scattered, resuming their duties as quickly as possible. It wasn't a good idea to get on the Admiral's bad side these days. Although he had mellowed a little in the months since Harm left, he seemed to take moments like these, moments when Harm proved he could succeed outside of JAG, as a personal affront. Which meant that everyone else steered clear of him for a while. Including Mac, who ducked into her office as fast as she could and still retain her dignity. Her relationship with the Admiral had improved after her shooting, but when it came to Harmon Rabb and their respective relationships with him, the strain was still very much evident.

Mac sighed and sat behind her desk, staring at Seaman Weston's file. She had been in the middle of writing up the plea agreement that she and Sturgis had reached when Harriet had pulled her away. Looking down at the folder, she sighed. There was no way she was going to be able to concentrate on this now, her emotions were still in upheaval over what she'd just witnessed. She needed to calm down so that she could focus her attention fully on her client. Hopefully that would happen before Sturgis came back to sign off on it. She'd like to think that he'd understand if she was a little behind, but these days, an understanding Sturgis was in short supply.

She glanced up just in time to see him walk into his office and shut the door firmly behind him. Since he almost always had the blinds closed now, she couldn't see how he was doing. She was worried about him. The funk that Sturgis had been in since his hearing just seemed to be getting worse. He had managed to push it aside long enough to help her deal with her own problems this summer, but it had come back with a vengeance later on. Looking back, Mac thought that it got really bad when they had gotten the news that Sadik had died as a result of his gunshot wound; the wound that Sturgis had inflicted. No matter how justified it was; she knew that it was difficult for him to accept that he'd killed a man. It hadn't helped matters any that Bobbi Latham, upon hearing the story of what had happened that night, had distanced herself from Sturgis as fast as she could. And while that had confirmed Mac's opinion that the congresswoman wasn't good enough for him, she wished that Bobbi wouldn't have abandoned him at such a crucial moment. It had only added to Sturgis's disillusionment and unhappiness. And it had left both Mac and Harm at a loss as to how to help him.

Mac was startled out of her contemplation of Sturgis's problems by the ringing of the phone. Annoyed at the interruption, and still on edge from Harm's landing, she had to take a deep, calming breath before she picked up the phone.

"Mackenzie." She managed to keep her tone professional, if not friendly. A familiar and welcome voice greeted her on the other end.

"How's my favorite jarhead?"

"Harm," Mac sighed in relief, immensely grateful to hear his voice. And now that she could talk to him and hear for herself that he was okay, she could kill him for scaring her. Her voice dripping with sarcasm, she asked, "So, anything exciting happen lately?"

"You saw the landing." It was a statement rather than a question, so Mac chose not to respond. "How much, exactly?"

"You mean, did I see the part where you and your C-130 slid across the deck of the Seahawk and almost landed in the ocean?" she questioned archly. "Because I saw that part."

"The key word in that sentence is `almost'," Harm replied quickly, trying to minimize damage. "It all turned out fine."

"Yeah, except for the five years you took off my life," Mac responded dryly, before adding seriously, "You scared me."

"I know," he replied softly. "I'm sorry. I wish you hadn't seen it."

"No," she interjected, "I'm glad I saw it. Because as scared as I was for you, I was just as proud of you. You did good, flyboy."

"You really think so?" The little boy tone in his voice tugged at her heart. Of all the things she had come to understand about Harm in the months that they'd been together, the vulnerability lurking beneath the cocky flyboy exterior was what surprised her the most. And every time that she saw it, she was both humbled and elated that he was willing to share that part of himself with her.

"Yeah, I really think so," she responded softly. Then she smiled, "I guess the whole spy thing is working out better than you thought, huh, Maxwell?"

Harm groaned. "Mac," he whined in annoyance, "how long are you going to torture me with `Get Smart' references?"

Mac just laughed. "A long, long time, Agent 86. So you better get used to it. If I'm going to date a spook, I'm at least going to have fun with it."

"You're cruel, Marine," he scolded her, but she could hear the smile in his voice. "Especially since you won't let me call you 99."

"I'm not a spy, Harm," Mac explained again with exaggerated patience, "so it wouldn't work. I told you to give it to Beth."

"Yeah, but Beth and I don't have that whole sexual tension dynamic going on. For obvious reasons," Harm countered. He wasn't allowed to tell Mac a whole lot about what he did for the Agency, but he did tell her that Beth O'Neill flew with him sometimes. Mac had been surprisingly supportive about the whole thing, and Harm was convinced it was because she knew she didn't have to be jealous of Beth. He smiled to himself. There were some things that hadn't changed since they'd become lovers; Mac's jealousy of other women in his life was one of them. His jealousy of the men in her life was another.

"Harm?" He heard the question in Mac's voice and realized that he had drifted off.

"I'm sorry, Mac," he apologized. "Got lost in thought for a minute there. What were you saying?"

"I asked if you had any idea when you'll be home," she answered

Harm shrugged; a futile gesture since she obviously couldn't see him. "However long it takes them to debrief us. Hopefully it won't be more than a couple of days."

"I miss you." She said wistfully. "It's pretty lonely in that big bed all by myself."

"I know, Mac." And he did; he felt the same way every night that he went to bed in some strange place without her comforting warmth beside him. He sighed. "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault, Harm. It's just the way it has to be right now." Mac smiled as another thought occurred to her. "And, lest you forget, there's going to be a significant improvement in the way things are in the next month or so."

It took Harm a moment to figure out what she was talking about, but when he did, an answering smile slid across his face. "Our house," he said softly.

"Mm hmm," Mac confirmed, "our house."

She smiled, remembering the day they had decided to move in together. It had been a little less than two weeks after she'd gotten out of the hospital and come to stay with him at his apartment to recuperate. The first few days had been wonderful, resting on his couch while he cooked dinner for them, occasionally coercing him into letting her help. Curling up in his arms and watching a movie or listening to music, putting on one of his Navy t-shirts and crawling into his bed and into his arms. It had been marvelous, magical. For about a week. Then she began to realize how uncomfortable a leather couch was in D.C. in the summer, and how much she missed being able to take a bath, or reread whatever book caught her fancy. And while there was something about wearing Harm's clothes that made her feel warm and safe and loved, she wished she was able to go into a closet and find clothing that was actually made to fit her body. But most of all, she missed food. Real food, with grease and starch and dead animal and all of the other wonderfully delicious things that Harm so foolishly denied himself.

ago," she responded sincerely. "And I'm more than ready for this. Are you?"

"Ready to spend the rest of my life waking up next to my favorite jarhead? Oh, yeah." Harm said.

Mac smiled softly. "Then stop worrying, Harm. Things are going to be fine."

"Yeah, I know," he answered, knowing he was being foolish. But it was still hard sometimes to believe that this was real. "I just need an occasional reminder."

"Anytime, flyboy," Mac said. "Now, Maxwell, you need to go find some spook and get yourself debriefed so you can come home," she ordered, before adding flirtatiously, "because I've got a few other important things to remind you of."

Harm grinned. "I like the sound of that," he replied. Then he sighed; she was right, he did need to go. And the quicker he got off the phone, the quicker he could get things taken care of and come home.

"All right, Marine. I guess I better go," he admitted reluctantly. "I'll try and call again if I can. Otherwise I'll see you in a few days. Are you going to be at your place?"

"No, I'll be at yours. And don't bother to call, just come as soon as you can," she said.

"I will," he promised. "I love you, Mac," he added softly.

"Love you, too," she whispered. "Bye."

"Bye." Harm hung on until he heard the other line click, and then hung up the phone. Knowing that if he stayed here, he would just end up depressing himself with thoughts of home, Harm quickly got up and decided to go look for Beth. Then they could finish this up, and he could go home and see Mac, and life would be perfect.

 

Harm's apartment
October 30, 2003

1950 EST

 

Fired. Again.

Those two words had been running through Harm's head in a repeating loop since Harm had left Blaisdell at the golf course earlier today. He should have seen it coming; judging by the tension in the air at the debriefing and Beth's frequent worried glances, he was the only who hadn't. But like he had told Blaisdell, his life was a constant surprise to him these days. If someone had told him last year that in the space of six months he would get kicked out of JAG, go work for the CIA, get kicked out of there, and be unemployed again, he would have thought they were high.

Of course, if someone had told him that in the space of six months he and Mac would go from not speaking to buying a house together, he would have known they were high

Harm sat on his sofa, nursing a beer while idly strumming his guitar as he pondered all of the changes of the past year. Professionally, they pretty much sucked. He would never regret his decision to resign his commission, but the longer he was away from JAG and the Navy, the more he realized that he missed it. As for the CIA, he couldn't in all honesty say that he wasn't glad to be gone. He'd miss the flying, of course, and it was a blow to his pride that they had canned him, but a part of him had always known that it would end like this. His values and the Agency's were just too different. In fact, while he'd been sitting around on the Seahawk waiting to get debriefed, he'd pretty much decided to start looking for something else. He just wished he could have found a new job before he lost this one.

Harm sighed and set the now empty beer bottle on the table. Good or bad, he was out of the Agency, and he wasn't going to accomplish anything wallowing in self-pity. He would find a new job soon enough, he had enough money saved that he could still pay his share of the bills, and he could always sell his `vette if it came down to that. As long as he had Mac, the rest of it just didn't matter. Keeping that thought firmly in mind, he laid his guitar on the table, picked up the empty bottle, and headed to the kitchen to make something special for dinner in honor of their first night together in far too long.

He had the salad made and had just put the fish in the oven when he heard a loud thump, followed by a muffled curse, just outside his apartment. Curious, he made his way over to the door, opening it right as Mac leaned against it with an armful of files while she dug through her purse for her keys. He managed to catch her before she fell, but not before the mass of paperwork hit the ground and scattered everywhere.

It only took Mac a moment to regain her balance, and the minute she did she pushed herself out of Harm's arms and into the middle of the mess on the floor.

"Damn it!" she swore loudly, bending down and angrily scooping up papers, "Four hours! Four hours at work getting these into order, and look at them. This is just great!"

"I missed you, too," Harm said wryly, wondering if she'd even noticed who it was that had opened the door.

"What?" she muttered distractedly, glancing at a piece of paper before shoving it into a folder. Suddenly, Harm's words, and his presence, registered in her mind. She looked up at him standing there, looking tall and handsome and a little hurt at her attitude, and felt a stab of remorse.

"God, Harm. I'm sorry. Of course I missed you," she said softly. She looked down at the mess around her. "It's just that it took so long-" She broke off with a sigh. What did it matter really? The Imes debacle was going to take forever to fix no matter how organized she was, so why was she stressing over it? Especially when the man she loved was standing in front of her waiting to be welcomed home?

Harm watched as the lines of tension in her face eased, and a soft, sexy smile took its place. He felt his whole body tense in anticipation. He knew that smile. He'd been waiting all day for that smile.

Mac stood up slowly, letting the remaining papers in her hand slip out of her grasp and flutter carelessly to the floor. She stepped up to him, locked her arms around his neck, and leaned forward until their lips were almost touching. "Welcome home," she murmured before pressing her lips firmly to his.

The kiss was long and slow, filled with a simmering passion that they both made a conscious effort to restrain, wanting to prolong their reunion for as long as possible. If there was one thing they had both learned over the years, it was that patience had its rewards.

"Better?" Mac asked breathlessly after the need for air finally forced them apart. Harm flashed his wide, flyboy grin before pulling her into his arms for a hug so big that her feet came off the floor.

"Marine, you have no idea," he whispered in her ear, burying his face in the crook of her neck. For a long moment he just held her, letting all of the fear and anger and stress of the last few days melt away. Finally setting her back down, he lifted his head and took a long look at the scattered folders spread out around them. There were more than he realized, and he felt bad that he had messed up all of her hard work. He smiled a little sheepishly at her. "Sorry about that."

She shook her head at him. "It was an accident," she said with a shrug. "I should've set them down before I tried to unlock the door anyway." She reached up and caressed his cheek. "It's a small price to pay for finally having you home."

He slid his hand over hers, turning his head to kiss her palm. "I'm glad you feel that way," he said, giving her hand a squeeze before lowering it to her side. Bending down, he began stacking up files and papers. "But the least I can do is help you fix this mess."

"I was hoping you would say that," she answered quickly. Something in her voice made him stop what he was doing and look up. He caught just a glimpse of her Cheshire cat grin before she turned and headed back out into the hallway. He watched warily as she came back in with a large case of what he assumed were more folders, and dropped it unceremoniously at his feet.

"What's that?" he asked suspiciously, inching away from it as if it were a bomb about to explode. His wariness only increased when she looked down at him with a smirk.

"That," she answered, gesturing grandly at the case, "is Harmon Rabb's greatest hits."

Harm backed up even more. "Although I have the feeling I really don't want to know the answer, I'm going to ask anyway." He scooped up the last of the papers and handed them up to her. "What the hell are you talking about, Mac?"

She let out a small chuckle before taking the papers from his grasp. Nodding towards the couch, she walked over and set everything down on the coffee table before sitting down. Harm trailed behind, gingerly holding the case. He placed it down next to the papers and sat down, looking over at her expectantly.

She stared at the case for a moment, and then turned to face him with a sigh. "Do you remember Commander Imes?"

"I remember that I beat her six times running," Harm answered with a smile.

"She's not a lawyer."

"I could have told you that," he joked. When Mac just glared at him, he straightened up and asked seriously, "What happened?"

She explained the situation to him: the Admiral recalling Imes to take Harm's place, finding out that she wasn't a lawyer, Mac having to defend her at her Article 32, and all of the cases that now had to be reviewed as a result of the whole fiasco. When she was done, Mac looked hopefully at him. "So do you think you could spare some time and go over these? I know it's a lot to ask-"

"It's not a lot to ask," he interrupted, before adding, "And it seems I have nothing but free time these days." His voice held just the barest hint of resentment, but Mac read him too well not to pick up on it. She gazed at him with a mixture of confusion and concern, and he smiled self-deprecatingly.

"Agent 86 got eighty-sixed," he told her with a forced nonchalance. She caught on immediately, and her mouth dropped open in shock.

"They fired you?" she asked incredulously. He nodded silently, and she shook her head in disbelief. "How could they fire you? I don't understand. I mean, you were just on-" She broke off and her eyes widened in understanding. She looked down at her hands. "Oh."

"Yeah. Oh." He gave a half-hearted shrug and gestured to the case. "So it looks like I'll have plenty of time to go over those."

She looked up at him, and there was a spark of anger in her eyes. Harm tensed, wondering if it was directed toward him. After all, this was the second job he'd lost in less than a year, and they had just bought a house together. Maybe she was starting to rethink the wisdom of being involved with a man who couldn't seem to get things together. He waited apprehensively for the other shoe to drop.

"They still shouldn't have fired you," she stated crossly and Harm gave a small sigh of relief, grateful that he wasn't the target of her discontent. "I mean, it's not like they couldn't have found another place for you. There were other things that you could have done without going undercover."

"Mac, you hated my job. Why are you so upset about this?" He was a little surprised at how badly she was taking this.

She glared up at him. "Because!"

"Because why?"

"Because you were supposed to quit, not get fired!" Her voice rose in frustration. "You were doing your job, and doing it damn well. You're too good for them, and you deserved the chance to tell them to shove it! Not have them kick you out for saving a bunch of lives!"

Before she could get any more riled up, Harm reached out and yanked her into his arms. Wrapping his arms around her and squeezing tightly, he marveled once again at how lucky he was to have this woman in his life. Leaning down, he kissed her softly. "Thanks, Mac."

"For what?" she asked sullenly, not quite ready to let go of her righteous indignation.

"For sticking up for me," he answered sincerely. "For being here with me. For loving me."

With those words, the last vestiges of her anger melted away and she relaxed in his embrace. "Always," she said with a loving smile. She leaned her head against his chest. "It's going to be okay, you know. There's a dozen law firms that would kill to have you. You don't have anything to worry about."

"I have to worry about house payments," he pointed out.

"No, you don't," she argued. "We don't move in for over a month, and you'll have a job by then."

"And if I don't?" he asked. Although it hadn't been too long ago that he had been giving himself the same reassurances she was, he still needed to hear her tell him that things were going to be okay.

"Then we deal with it," Mac answered firmly, lifting her head. "If worse comes to worse, we can always sell one of our cars. We don't need three of them." She placed her hands on either side of his head and looked into his eyes. "We have a lot of options, Harm. You just need to have a little faith."

"Yeah, you're probably right," he conceded with a small smile.

"Of course I'm right," Mac responded confidently, "I'm always right."

"You think so?" Harm asked, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. Mac just nodded her head, grinning impudently at him. "Well, you know what I think? I think you need to be put in your place."

"Excuse me?" Mac asked indignantly. She pulled away, crossing her arms and glaring at him. "And just where is my place?" she asked, her tone challenging.

Harm smirked knowingly at her. "I'll show you," he said. With that, he picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. Ignoring her shriek of surprise, he quickly made his way to the bedroom, where he dropped her unceremoniously in the middle of the bed. Standing over her, he took a moment to admire the sight she made, sprawled across the bed with her cheeks flushed and her eyes flashing and her skirt riding up temptingly high. And then she slid around, getting up onher knees and crawling towards him, and his heart started to race.

"So you think this is my place, hmm?" she asked, her voice low and dangerous and so sexy that all he could do was dumbly nod his head. She reached out and ran a finger down his chest. "And you think you can keep in my place, do you?"

"I don't think," he responded huskily, grabbing hold of her wrist and pulling her up close. "I know I can."

She pressed herself against him, wrapping an arm around his neck and pulling his head down to her. She brushed her lips against his ear and issued her challenge with a sultry whisper.

"Prove it."

"With pleasure," he grinned, before capturing her mouth with his and lowering her down onto the bed.

 

Grace Aviation
November 5, 2003

1650 EST

 

Harm glanced in his rearview mirror, making sure AJ was behind him before pulling away from the hangar and out onto the road. As he headed towards the nearest bar, he again reminded himself not to get his hopes up. It had been a little less than an hour since Mac had called to tell him that she was sure the Admiral was on his way up to see him. Relaying the conversation as Jen had told it to her; he could hear the mixture of hope and anxiety in her voice. Although neither one of them said it aloud for fear of jinxing it, they couldn't think of any reason for him to come up unless it was to offer him his job back. And if he did, Harm wasn't sure what he was going to do about it.

He wanted his job back; he wouldn't deny that. Crop dusting was fun, but it wasn't something he planned to make a career out of. And the thought of joining a civilian law firm kept bringing to mind images of Lowne the Clown, not very appealing. But as much as he wanted to go back to JAG, he wasn't at all sure that he wanted to be back under the Admiral's command. After all, aside from that brief meeting in the bullpen yesterday, he hadn't seen the man since Mac was released from the hospital all those months ago. He had no idea what the Admiral thought about him, anymore than he knew what he thought about the Admiral.

Try as he might, Harm still couldn't understand the reasons behind AJ's actions last summer. And it wasn't until Mac's phone call today that he realized he wanted to understand. He wanted to know how the man he'd known for eight years could suddenly become a stranger. He wanted to know when he'd lost AJ's respect, when he'd gone from being a fine officer to a man who wasn't a team player and would be better off wrestling alligators. But most of all, he wanted to know why the Admiral hadn't let him go after Mac. Even more than he wanted AJ to offer him back his job, he wanted the man to offer him an explanation.

It didn't take more than a few minutes to reach the little bar on the side of the road. Parking their respective vehicles, they wordlessly headed inside and found a table. When the Admiral came back with their drinks, Harm was standing next to the table playing darts and doing his best to ignore him. Well, he knew this wasn't going to be easy.

"Thought it was time we had a talk," AJ said as he set the drinks on the table. He looked over at Harm.

"Thought we'd done our talking," Harm responded, throwing the dart in his hand with a little more force than necessary.

"So did I, turns out there's more to say."

"Well, I can't imagine what that would be," Harm said, his voice tinged with bitterness.

"God, you're damned annoying," AJ sighed, wondering for the hundredth time why he'd come.

Harm turned to look at AJ, wondering the same thing. "Is that what you drove a hundred miles to tell me?"

"That's part of it," AJ's voice was carefully neutral.

"Well I'm also, and here I am paraphrasing," he said sarcastically, "not a team player and controlled by my emotions."

AJ wondered when they'd get around to that. Well, if Harm thought he was going to apologize for that, he had another thing coming.

"All that's true."

Something about that statement, or maybe it was the calm manner in which it was stated, pushed Harm over the edge. Giving up on the darts, he sat down and stared AJ in the eye for the first time since he'd entered the bar.

"Look, why are you here, Admiral? What'd you come looking for absolution? Did you come to gloat?" Harm asked, no longer caring what his tone was, or what it might be revealing, "Or you just want to ride in an airplane?"

AJ's own temper flared. "You're bordering on insubordination, Rabb."

"I'm a civilian now, AJ. I'm not in your Navy." It was a cold, hard truth, and it left a bitter taste in his mouth. All of these months; he thought he'd gotten over it. He thought he'd moved on, and it galled him to realize that he hadn't.

Too frustrated to stay in place anymore, AJ quickly stood. Bracing his arms on the back of the chair, he decided to get down to business. "All right, here it is. As you know, the Imes debacle has forced us to review over two hundred cases, many of which you were involved. And you did some...damn fine lawyering." He shook his head; wondering again how they'd gotten to this place. "Now you're a crop duster."

"I'm good at that, too," Harm answered cockily, trying to throw the Admiral as off-balance as he felt. AJ could see this, but he wasn't about to give the younger man the satisfaction.

"I might consider asking SecNav to reinstate your commission and take you back at JAG, under the right circumstances," he offered calmly, trying to get the conversation back on track.

Harm crossed his arms over his chest and said belligerently, "I'm listening."

"Harm, it's time to stop being Peter Pan, the boy who likes to fly and never grew up," AJ stated bluntly. "You're not going to have the life that you want until you learn to take responsibility for your actions. Not at work, not with women, not in any facet of your life."

Harm stared at him for a moment, amazed at the other man's nerve. What gave him the right to make judgments about his life, especially his relationship with Mac?

"You know what, AJ? You don't have any idea what you're talking about," he said quietly. "You think I haven't taken responsibility for my relationships? You think my relationship with Mac is some kind of childish whim, and I'll just fly away as soon as I get bored, or it gets too hard?" he asked, his voice and his anger steadily rising. "Well, I have news for you. It's been pretty damn hard the last six months. It's been pretty hard for the last eight years. But I'm still here. I'm here for all of the fights, for the signing of the loans, for the sessions with Chaplain Turner, for the nights when she wakes up screaming remembering everything that bastard put her through. I'm here for her, and she's here for me. So don't tell me I haven't taken responsibility, and don't presume that you know what kind of life I want. Mac is the life I want."

"And what about the rest? What about your career?" AJ countered, "You gonna spend the rest of your life dusting crops for a mouthy teenager? Is that what you want?"

"No, that's not what I want," Harm shot back, all control gone. "You want me to admit that? Fine, I admit it. What I wanted was to be at JAG, to be in the Navy, to serve my country."

"Really?" AJ responded with an exaggerated drawl, no longer trying to keep hold of his temper. He could see that they'd reach the point of no return. "You could have fooled me."

"Damn it, Admiral!" Harm yelled, pushing back his chair and ignoring the stares of the other patrons. "What the hell do you want from me?"

"I want you to look at your life!" AJ responded, stepping around the table until he was standing in Harm's face. "I want you to accept responsibility for your actions! I want you to realize that this life that you have is the life you created. All of it, Harm. Not just the good, but the bad, too." He took a step back, and tried to reign in his temper. When he could speak without yelling, he continued, "You blame me for the loss of your career. Despite the fact that you were the one who chose to resign, you still think it's my fault that you're out here today. Why is that?"

"Because you were the one who forced me to resign in the first place," Harm answered him, his voice softer but no less angry. "You could have granted me leave. You could have given me a chance-"

"A chance?" AJ asked incredulously, cutting Harm off. "Exactly how many more chances do you want me to give you?" He shook his head; amazed that after all this time Rabb still couldn't see just how lucky he'd been all these years.

"You think every CO would have let you off as easily as I did when you shot off a gun in open court?" he asked, his voice holding that deathly quiet tone he only used when he'd been pushed past his breaking point. "You think anyone else would have given you leave to go to Russia to find your father, much less send your partner with you to watch your six? Do you have any idea the heat I took for that?" AJ asked, but continued before Harm could respond. "You think it was easy for me to go to bat for you with the SecNav about changing your designator, when I knew you were chasing a pipe dream? Or to help smooth the way when you figured that out for yourself and wanted to come back? You think anyone would have ignored the resignation you handed in to go look for Sergei? Or that another officer would have turned a blind eye when you disobeyed direct orders to stay with Bud? You don't have any idea how many chances I gave you. How many loopholes I found, how many hoops I jumped through, how many things I ignored or swept under the rug so that you wouldn't lose your career. So that the Navy wouldn't lose a fine officer. And how did you repay me for that? By lying, by keeping secrets, by making yourself look so damn guilty and creating such a mess that I had to order everyone else to stay away just to keep from making it worse."

He glared at Harm, all of his frustration over everything that had happened since Lindsay's report spilling into his voice as he asked, "What makes you think you deserved any more chances?"

For a long moment, Harm didn't say anything, and AJ could see the truth of his words registering. When he finally his spoke, his voice was soft and accepting.

"Nothing. There's nothing, no reason for you to have given me another chance," he answered with quiet conviction. "But even if I didn't deserve another chance, Mac did. How could you punish her for my mistakes?"

And that's what it's really about, AJ thought to himself. What it had always been about. He looked Harm straight in the eye. "Harm, do you really think that I didn't care if she lived or died?"

"I don't know," Harm answered honestly. He saw a quick flash of hurt in the older man's eyes, "A year ago, I would have decked anyone who even suggested it. But now..." he hesitated. He wasn't sure he wanted the answer to this question, but they had gone too far for him not to ask. "Why AJ? Why wouldn't you let me go? What possible reason could you have for not wanting me to save her?"

The Admiral looked down at the table and ran his hands over his head with a sigh. "You want the truth?" he finally asked. When Harm nodded, he sighed again before admitting, "I honestly didn't think you could. Harm, you were a mess. I could see that. From the minute we found out about Singer, you started losing control of your emotions. That loss of control got you arrested, and I didn't let you go because I was afraid it was going to get you killed."

Harm didn't bother trying to deny the truth of what AJ was saying. He knew that he'd screwed up the whole Singer situation, and he had paid the price. But that still didn't answer his question. "So you wanted to save me at the expense of Mac?"

"Damn it, Rabb!" AJ shot back, his voice rising again. Why couldn't Harm see what he was trying to say. "I wanted you to think! I wanted you to stop for half a second and realize that if you went down there on your own you didn't have a chance in hell of saving her!"

"I did save her!" Harm yelled, slamming his hands on the table. He heard the murmur of voices around him and knew that they were once again the center of attention, but he didn't care. The Admiral's accusation hit too close to home, brought back too many memories of everything that had happened with Sadik.

"Yeah, you did," AJ acknowledged before continuing, "But not because you had some great foolproof plan. And not because you're Superman, able to take on a hundred bad guys alone. The only reason you were able to save her was because you lucked out. That's all, Harm. And it's about time you realized that."

"Who the hell-" Harm didn't get any further than that before the Admiral held out his hand to cut him off. When he was sure Harm had stopped speaking, he issued his challenge.

"Answer me one question Harm," he said quietly, "Yes or no. And if you can look me in the eye and honestly say yes, I will take back everything I've said and issue a public apology in the middle of the JAG bullpen."

Harm hesitated. He wasn't sure where the Admiral was headed, but he was pretty sure he wasn't going to like it. "What question?" he finally asked.

"If Gunny hadn't been looking for you when you landed, if he hadn't found you when he did, would you have been able to save Mac?"

The question hit Harm hard, forcing the air from his lungs. It was the one question he had never asked himself, because he already knew the answer. But now it was out there, and it required an answer. He thought about everything that happened. The dead end with Hardy, the feeling of helpless frustration when he realized that he didn't know how to find Mac. The relief when Gunny showed up and told him that he knew where she was. As much as he wanted to deny it, to insist that he would have found a way, he couldn't.

"No," he whispered, his voice full of pain. His gaze was locked on the table. "No. I wouldn't have gotten there in time. I wouldn't-" he broke off, unable to say more. When the Admiral didn't say anything else, he forced himself to look up. AJ was staring at him with a mixture of understanding and sympathy, and maybe just a hint of regret.

"All I wanted from you was to give me a little more time, time to gather information, to come up with some sort of plan that would save her without getting you killed in the process," AJ explained quietly. "In hindsight, I can see that it was the wrong move, that I didn't have that kind of time. After it was all said and done, I could see how close we came to a disaster. And when you didn't see that, I did the only thing I thought I could. I cut you loose."

Harm nodded. It made sense. And as much as he hated to admit it, it had worked. Losing his career had made him reexamine his life, made him figure out what was really important. It brought him and Mac together. Thinking of Mac brought up another question. He looked at AJ. "Why did you attack me that way? Was it really necessary to rip me apart like that in front of Mac?"

"No, it wasn't. I handled that badly," AJ admitted, feeling a familiar twist of guilt tighten his insides. If there was one thing he regretted about this whole mess, his unprofessional attack on Harm was that thing. He hadn't meant for things to happen that way, but when Rabb had come in looking so confident that he was going to get his job back and everything would be back to normal, he lost his temper. "I was pissed, Harm. I was so pissed off that you'd backed me into a corner, backed us all into a corner. You went and saved the day, and came back the conquering hero just like always, but you didn't learn a damn thing."

"Yes, I did." Harm interjected quietly. He locked eyes with the Admiral, and AJ could see the truth in his words. He nodded.

"Yeah, I'm beginning to see that." And that is why, no matter what happened, he wouldn't regret his decision to let Harm go. Or to bring him back. "I can't change what happened, Harm. But if you want to come back, the door is open. We'll start with a clean slate." He stood up and threw some money onto the table, before picking up his coat and heading out. There was nothing more he could do. Now it was up to Harm. Looking over his shoulder, he said, "You know where to reach me. Let me know what you decide."

And he walked out, leaving a confused and conflicted Harmon Rabb behind him.

 

Harm's Apartment
2040 EST

 

By the time Mac finally got home after another obscenely long day at JAG, she found Harm sitting on the sofa in the dark, staring out the window. He didn't turn or acknowledge her presence as she set down her keys and her briefcase and hung up her jacket, and she wondered if he had even heard her come in. But when she moved to turn on the light, he called out softly to stop her.

"Don't turn the light on, please," he said quietly, still staring out at the darkened sky.

"Okay." She moved over to the sofa and sat down beside him. He remained still, and she wondered if she should give him some more time to himself, or if she should try getting him to talk. Reaching out, she placed a tentative hand on his shoulder, and was relieved when he reached up and covered it with his own. She slid her other arm around his waist and laid her head against his back.

"What are you looking at?" she asked softly, running her hand gently up and down his chest.

He shook his head. "Nothing, really." He grabbed hold of her free hand and lifted it to his lips. Pressing a soft kiss against her palm, he added, "Just needed someplace to stare while I was thinking."

"Okay," was her only response as she leaned in, snuggling closer to him.

"Aren't you going to ask me what I'm thinking about?" Harm prodded when she didn't say anything further. He knew she wanted to know what had happened between him and the Admiral; he was actually surprised when she didn't demand answers as soon as she walked through the door.

"Nope," Mac answered firmly, sliding both arms around him and giving him a quick squeeze. "You'll tell me when you're ready."

Harm looked at her incredulously. This was not the reaction he'd been expecting at all.

"Who are you and what have you done with my Marine?" he asked suspiciously.

"Jerk," she said with a laugh, nudging his stomach with her fist. Leaning up, she lightly kissed his cheek before removing her arms from his middle and draping them over his shoulders. "This is the new me, remember? The one who doesn't push you to talk about things before you're ready."

Harm smiled a little at her words. "I remember," he said lowly, his voice full of warmth.

In the aftermath of everything that had happened with Sadik, Mac had made the decision to continue going to Sturgis' father for counseling. In addition to dealing with the lingering effects of that whole ordeal, she had wanted to work on some of her other issues, ones she was worried would hurt their burgeoning relationship.And although she had assured him that it wasn't necessary, he had decided to do the same whenever his job with the Agency would permit, which unfortunately wasn't off enough. Still, even those few sessions had helped immensely. Mac was learning to give Harm space, and Harm was learning how to be more open with his feelings. With that in mind, he decided that it was time to tell her about his conversation with the Admiral.

"He offered me my job back." He hadn't meant to blurt it out like that, but he wasn't sure where to begin. Slipping out of her embrace, he turned to face her. Her wide eyes were brimming with happiness, and she flashed him a beaming smile.

"That's great," she said excitedly, flinging her arms around him and hugging him tightly. When Harm didn't immediately respond, she pulled away and saw the shadows of doubt lingering in his eyes. Confused, and a little concerned, she asked hesitantly, "What's wrong, Harm? Isn't this what you wanted?"

"Of course it is," he responded immediately. He hesitated; he really didn't want to have to talk about this again. It had been hard enough admitting to himself and the Admiral that it was only luck that had allowed him to get to Mac in time; admitting it to her was going to be a lot harder. But he had no choice; she had as much right to know the Admiral's reasons as he had, maybe even more. With a sigh, he pulled her into his arms, tucking her head under his chin. It would be easier to talk to her this way.

"He told me why he did it," Harm admitted. Mac tensed and wrapped her hands tightly around his arm, but said nothing, so he continued. He relayed the whole conversation, from AJ's Peter Pan references to his own realization that he wouldn't have gotten to her in time if it hadn't been for Gunny. When he was done, he pressed a kiss to the top of her head, and whispered, "I'm sorry."

At those two words, Mac pulled away from him. Raising her gaze to his, she took his face in her hands and said fiercely, "You have nothing to be sorry for, Harm. Nothing."

"He wasn't wrong, Mac," Harm countered. "Everything he said was true. I didn't have a plan, and I wouldn't have been able to get to you in time if Gunny hadn't shown up."

"So what?" she threw back. "Just because the Admiral wasn't wrong doesn't mean that you were." His confused look told her that he didn't understand what she was saying, so she took a deep, calming breath and tried to explain.

"Harm, looking at the situation from his perspective, I can see now why he made the choices he did. From where he was standing, he made the only decision he could have at the time, and it was probably the right one. But that doesn't make you wrong. You knew that I was in trouble, and you based your decisions according to that knowledge. And just like the Admiral, you made the only decision you could have. And it was right for you. Even if Gunny hadn't been there and you hadn't found me in time, it would still have been the right decision."

"How can you be so sure?" he questioned her.

"Because I know you, Harm. If you had waited, I would have died. And you would have never forgiven yourself," she answered with absolute certainty. "Making the choice that you did, at least you would have known that you had done everything you could have. As for how you saved me, yeah, some of it was luck. And it was a mistake to take that for granted. A mistake you and I both made. We've both gotten so used to being in danger, and to getting out of danger, that we stopped thinking about what would happen if our luck ran out. We just assumed that we wouldn't have to do anything and it would all work out in the end. That was wrong. But you were right when you told the admiral that you'd learned from that mistake. You and I sitting here together is proof of that. And he sees that, Harm, or he wouldn't have asked you back."

Mac fell silent, knowing there was nothing more she could say to convince him. He either believed her or he didn't. She watched him intently, trying to get an idea for what he was thinking, and was relieved to see the shadows start to lift from his eyes. Straightening his shoulders, he looked at her and smiled.

"I can't believe I'm going to say this twice in one week," he said with an exaggerated sigh, "but I think you're right."

Mac was so happy that he understood what she was trying to say that she forgot to gloat. Instead, she settled herself back in his arms and smiled happily. "So everything's okay now? And you're going to call the Admiral and accept?"

"It depends," he responded cautiously, causing Mac to lift her head up and glare at him with a `what now?' expression.

"Depends on what?" she asked with an exasperated sigh. He said he wanted to come back, so why was he making this so difficult?

"On what the Admiral plans on doing about us," he said, before adding matter-of-factly. "I won't come back if it's going to screw things up with us."

"It won't," she answered confidently. When Harm just looked at her skeptically, she said, "Harm, he knows we're together. For heaven's sake, he agreed to help us move into our house. I'm sure he wouldn't have made the offer if he didn't have some plan that he thought would be acceptable to us."

"Like what?" Harm asked.

"I don't know. Why don't you call him up and ask him?" she suggested. She went on, her voice sincere and her eyes filled with love. "Call him, Harm. Call him and tell him you accept."

She leaned up and kissed him gently. "It's time for you to rejoin the Navy, sailor. It's time for you to come home."

 

Grace Aviation
November 6, 2003

0940 EST

 

"You're late." Mattie's voice was cold as she watched her newest employee slide off his motorcycle and head towards the hangar.

"Yeah, well, traffic was murder." Harm responded lightly, glossing over the fact that he wouldn't have been caught in the worst of the traffic if he hadn't gotten distracted in the shower this morning by an amorous Marine.

Mattie glared at him, clearing not buying his excuse. "I didn't even know if you were gonna show up," she declared sullenly.

"Oh, hey, a deal's a deal," Harm said, trying to keep things upbeat. He could see that she was upset with him, and he was pretty sure it was because he left yesterday to talk with the Admiral. Still, he wanted to get through this last day before he told her he was leaving. "So what's up for today, boss?"

She was standing on the other side of the room, and she turned around to look him in the eye. "You're going to quit," she stated quietly, a hint of resentment creeping its way into her voice.

He hesitated a second before replying honestly. "Yeah," he said. He was upsetting her, and he hated it; in the few days that he had known Mattie, she had come to mean a great deal to him. He wasn't sure if it was because they had bonded over the planes and their lost parents, or if it was because he could sense that there was a deeper hurt that she wasn't sharing with him, but her happiness had become important to him.

"To go back to the Navy with that mean old man," she continued, her tone clearly conveying that she thought he was crazy to even consider it.

"Yeah." Harm suppressed a grin at Mattie's characterization of the Admiral; a characterization he had agreed with until yesterday.

Mattie shook her head in disgust. "That sucks."

Harm shrugged. "Well, that remains to be seen."

"You know," she offered hesitantly, "I could talk my dad into giving you a raise."

Harm sighed. "Mattie, it...it isn't about the money," he said, and cursed as he watched the hopeful look in her eyes vanish as she threw up all of her walls. She glared at him.

"Then what?" she asked. After everything he had told her about going to find Mac and what the Admiral had said to him when they got back, Mattie honestly didn't understand why he would want to go back there.

"It's what I'm good at," he explained gently. "It's who I am."

Mattie folded her arms across her chest and stared at him in disbelief. "So it isn't about being able to work with your girlfriend again?" she asked archly.

Harm grinned. "That is definitely an added bonus."

"I'll bet," Mattie snorted. One of the first things she'd noticed about him was that he couldn't go more than five minutes without bringing Mac into the conversation. Mattie hadn't decided if that was endearing or annoying. She frowned as something else occurred to her. "I thought you couldn't do that, though. Work together when you're dating or whatever."

"It's complicated. Technically we're not doing anything wrong as long as we're not married," Harm explained. "And once we move in together, the Admiral's going to keep our working on the same cases to a minimum so we're not giving the appearance of impropriety. But other than that, we can work together."

"Well that's good," she said grudgingly, knowing how much Harm had missed working with Mac. Mattie had only met her once, but she seemed really nice and she was easy to talk to. She had actually been hoping that Mac would come around and visit more often; she missed having a woman to talk to. And from the little Mattie had been told, it sounded like Mac would understand if she knew about what happened with her dad. But now that Harm was leaving, she doubted she'd ever see either one of them again. It really did suck.

Harm's next question startled her out of her musings. "Mattie, how come I haven't met your dad?"

Mattie stared at him in shock. She wasn't expecting him to ask about her dad. When he said he was quitting, she figured he wouldn't want to get any more involved with her life than he already was. She hesitated; the safest thing to do would be to tell him another lie. If she told him the truth he would probably just report her. But didn't he tell her that he ran away to look for his dad when he was just a little older than her? Maybe he would understand what she was going through, and that she could take care of herself. And she'd been alone for so long.

"He was driving the car when he got into an accident and killed my mom," she answered finally, her voice monotone. "He was drunk. After he killed her, he kept right on drinking."

And with that, the whole story spilled out of her. Her mother's death, her father's abandonment and her subsequent efforts to take care of herself; she told him everything. It felt good to let it go, to let someone in. She hadn't thought she'd ever trust anyone enough to do that again.

Harm was stunned by what he heard. He'd known there was more to her story than what she'd told him, but he never would have guessed it was something like this. He couldn't decide whether to be alarmed that she had been living and taking care of the business by herself for so long, or impressed that she was doing such a good job at it. He settled for being cautious.

"What happens when he comes back?" he asked when she had finished her story. Mattie glared at him from her perch on the plane she was checking out.

"He's not coming back," she said bitterly, "Not after what he did. Besides I wouldn't let him in the house."

"It's his house," Harm pointed out. He wasn't sure why he felt the need to play devil's advocate in this conversation. From what Mattie was saying, it sounded like she was better off without her father. Still, she was too young to be taking care of herself. Even as he listened to Mattie, his mind was trying to work out a way that he could help her.

Mattie shook her head. "It's mine," she countered matter-of- factly. "My mom left me the airplanes and the house in her will."

Harm hesitated. He didn't want to give voice to his next question, but he knew that it had to be done. He just hoped she wouldn't close down on him.

"What happens when they find out, Mattie?" he asked finally. "I mean Child Protective Services, the F.A.A. Cause they will."

Mattie's heart sunk. She should have known.

"You gonna tell?" she asked belligerently, silently berating herself for telling him the truth.

"No, I'm not gonna tell," he answered calmly.

Mattie looked up at Harm with a shocked expression. He couldn't blame her; he was almost as surprised by the words as she was. But he couldn't betray her trust, and he couldn't just abandon her to strangers. As hard as it was for her to open up to him, he knew that if he walked away now, she would never take the risk of opening up to anyone else. A plan formed in his mind, and was out of his mouth before he could stop to consider the consequences.

"What I will do, though," he told her, ignoring the shrieking voice in his head telling him to slow things down, "is I'll call you every day, and I'll come out here at least once a week, until I can file a petition with the court to become your guardian."

Mattie was stunned. She couldn't believe that he would do that for her. He hardly even knew her, and here he was offering to take her in, to take care of her for who knew how long. She felt her hopes rising, and tried to ruthlessly shove them back down. There had to be a catch in there somewhere, something that would ruin this before it ever got started. That's what happened in her life; things always got ruined.

"What about Mac?" she asked skeptically, latching onto the first argument she could find. "I don't think your girlfriend's gonna be too thrilled with this whole idea."

"Mac will be just fine with this, Mattie," Harm reassured her, shoving aside the growing feeling of dread at the thought of what he was doing, and how Mac would react when he told her. "I know you guys haven't gotten a chance to really get to know each other, but she was really impressed with you when she met you."

"But if she's not?" Mattie pressed him. She didn't think Mac would be jumping for joy when Harm told her, whatever he might say.

Harm sighed. "Then we'll have to come up with something else," he told her honestly. He felt bad as he watched her face fall, but he couldn't lie to her. He really did think that Mac would agree once he explained the situation to her, but if she didn't, he couldn't risk their relationship by doing this without her. Not even to help Mattie. Still, he couldn't just abandon her.

"It'll be fine, Mattie," he reassured her, "trust me. We'll work it all out."

Mattie bit her lip nervously. It still sounded too good to be true. "Are you sure about this?" she asked hesitantly. She tried one last time to give him an out. "Because you could back out now and I wouldn't hold it against you."

"No backing out. For either of us," he said firmly. He flashed her his best flyboy grin. "Now, how about you and I take the day off and I'll give you your first flying lesson?"

"Sounds great," Mattie grinned at him. Her eyes twinkled mischievously. "That way if Mac kills you when she finds out what you've done, you'll have at least enjoyed one last flight."

"Funny," he said with a roll of his eyes. He reached out and ruffled her hair. "How many times do I have to say this? Mac is going to be fine with this."

 

Mac's Apartment
1920 EST

 

Mac stared at Harm incredulously.

"You did what?!"

The evening had started out pleasantly enough. Harm had come home to find dinner waiting, complete with soft music and candlelight. He had thought about telling her his news over dinner, but she was so thrilled with his return to JAG that he didn't want to put a damper on her happiness. So he waited until they were sitting curled up together on the sofa in front of the fireplace, and when she asked him how his last day as a crop duster had gone, he told her what had happened. It started out okay; Mac reacted to Mattie's story just like he'd thought she would. And when she mentioned wanting to help Mattie out, he became even more confident that he had made the right decision. That is, until he told her and she looked at him like he'd lost his mind.

"I don't believe you, Harm!" she yelled, exploding up off of the couch. She turned and glared down at him. "How could you do something like this?"

"Come on, Mac," he said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. He needed to calm her down before she completely took his head off. "You're making it sound like I murdered somebody or something. I'm trying to help out someone in need."

"You're doing a little more than helping out, Harm!" she countered angrily, arms flailing. "You're making a huge, life-altering decision on the spur of the moment-"

"Would you stop being so dramatic?" he interrupted her in irritation. He knew he should have talked to her before he said anything to Mattie, but she wasn't even giving him a chance to explain before going off on him.

"You think I'm being dramatic?" Mac shot back. "Do you have any idea what it takes to raise a teenager?"

He stiffened at the condescension he heard in her tone, but kept a hold on his temper. "I have an idea," was his only response.

"No, I don't think you do," she countered. "I don't think you have any idea at all. If you did, you wouldn't have arbitrarily decided to take her in."

"God, Mac, you're making it sound like Mattie's a stray cat I found on the street!" Harm's grip on his temper was slipping. He sighed, running his hands through his hair. Looking up at her, he said softly, "I know this is a big deal, okay? I know that it's going to take work, and some adjustment to our lives. But I also know that we can handle-"

"We? What we?" she asked incredulously. She shook her head. "There is no we in this. There's you, Harm. There's you making a decision without even considering what I might think or how I might feel about it. There's you making promises to a young girl without having any idea if you can back them up. There's you thinking that you can just swoop in and play the hero, just like always, and I'll be your dutiful sidekick, following your lead and backing you up. There's you, acting without thinking and expecting me to deal with all of those pesky details that you can never be bothered with-"

"Now wait a minute," he angrily interrupted her tirade. He glared at her from his seat on the sofa. "That is not fair. I never expected you to deal with the details all by yourself. I never expected to play the hero here, Mac."

Mac took a deep breath and tried to get control of her anger. She knew she wasn't dealing with this very well, but she just couldn't believe that he would make such a big decision without her. Forcing herself to speak calmly, she asked, "What exactly did you expect, Harm?"

Unlike Mac, Harm made no attempt to disguise the anger in his voice. "I expected you to understand that there's a girl out there who's all alone and needs our help," he shot back at her. "I expected you to see that I couldn't just walk away and ignore that, or pass her off to Child Services because I couldn't be bothered to help. I expected that you would want to help her as much as I do."

Mac sighed in frustration. He was completely missing the point.

"I never said I didn't want to help, Harm," she told him, moving to sit at the other end of the sofa, "That's the whole point. I never got a chance to say anything. You didn't give me a chance. You just assumed that I would go along with whatever you wanted."

"I did not!" he responded forcefully. "I never said I expected you to just follow along. I never said you didn't have any input. And I told Mattie that I would be her guardian, not you, because I didn't want to force you into being legally responsible for her. And I told her that if you didn't agree with it, we would have to think of something else."

"Oh, that's just great, Harm!" she exclaimed, her anger flaring again. "And if I don't agree then I'm the bad guy, and you still get to be the hero. That's just great."

"For God's sakes, Mac, what do you want me to do?" Harm stood up and began to pace. "You want me to go back and tell her no? You want me to be the bad guy? Fine. I'll be the bad guy. I'll tell her I changed my mind and I won't even mention your name." He stopped pacing and fixed his eyes on hers. "Will that satisfy you?"

"No!" she said, standing up and moving to stand in front of him. "I never said no, Harm! This isn't about Mattie!"

"Really?" he responded, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Then what the hell are we fighting about, if it's not about Mattie?"

"God, Harm, are you really that dense?" she asked, shaking her head wonderingly. "Can you really not understand why I'm upset?" She reached out and grabbed hold of his wrist. "We're a couple, Harm, and couple's are supposed to make decisions together!"

Harm stilled at her words, and at her touch. Locking his gaze on her, he said quietly, "Like this summer, when we decided that I should get kicked out of your life with no explanation?"

Mac heard the hurt that wove its way through his words and flinched. She had explained that to him, and she thought he had understood. "That was different."

"How?" he questioned disbelievingly.

"It just is!" she answered in frustration, knowing that it wouldn't be enough. She started to point out that her decision had been wrong as well, but she didn't get the chance.

"Oh, well that's a helpful answer. You know what, Mac?" Harm said, pulling his arm out of her grasp, "You're right. You're absolutely right. I did assume. I assumed that you would want to help her the same way you've helped Chloe over the years." He gestured at the picture of Mac and her little sister above the mantle. "That you would see that Mattie needs your help, even more than Chloe did, and you would jump in like you've done a hundred times since I've known you. I thought you would be the same kind, compassionate woman that agreed to be godmother to little AJ and Jimmy; who would take them in, or take Chloe in, without a second thought."

"Obviously, I assumed wrong," he finished softly. For the first time since he'd stepped away from her, he met her gaze. The pain in those beloved chocolate eyes was too much for him; he had hurt her again, and he hated himself for it. But he was still caught

up in the swirling tempest their argument had swept him up in, and rather than stay and wreak more havoc, he decided the best thing to do would be to step back. To take the time to get himself under control, to digest and process everything that had been said, and to figure out where to go from there. With that in mind, he slowly turned and grabbed his jacket before heading to the door.

The moment Mac saw him moving away, she felt a stab of fear in her gut. "Where are you going?" she asked, unable to mask the panic in her voice. How had things gotten so out of hand? How had they gone from sharing a romantic dinner to him walking out the door? How could he leave, when he had promised never to walk away from her?

Harm didn't turn around, just scooped up his keys as he replied, "I need some air, Mac. And I think we both need a little space to breathe."

"Harm-" she started, and he turned around to face her, one hand on the doorknob. At the sight of his face, at eyes swirling with hurt and guilt and confusion, her intended protest died on her lips. As much as she didn't want him to leave now, she could see how much he needed to go. And she had promised herself that she would always try to give him the time he needed. Pushing down her hurt, she asked softly, "When will you be back?"

"Actually, I was thinking I'd spend the night at my place," he answered. She dropped her gaze to the floor, not wanting him to see her expression. But she wasn't quick enough, and Harm caught the fear in her eyes. It was the same fear he had seen in the hospital after she'd been shot, when she'd confessed that she was afraid that she wouldn't be enough for him and he would abandon her. He sighed, trying to figure out a way to reassure her and still take the time he needed. He glanced down and saw the answer to his problem sitting on the coffee table.

"Mac," he called out softly, taking a step away from the door. She hesitated a moment, and then looked up at him. When she did, Harm walked over to the coffee table and set down his keys. Before she had a chance to ask him if he'd changed his mind about leaving, he had reached down and picked up the single key sitting in a bowl on the table. It was the key to her apartment, the one she took with her when she went jogging. He held it up for her to see, and then placed it in his pocket. Stepping back, he said, "I'm not sure how long I'll be gone, so you don't have to wait up. But don't bolt the door, okay?"

"I won't," she promised softly, understanding the deeper meaning in his words and offering her own reassurances. She managed a little smile, one that she kept on her face until he shut the door behind him. Then she walked up and turned the lock before sinking to the floor and giving in to the tears she could no longer keep at bay.

 

Vietnam Veteran's Memorial
2110 EST

 

Although Harm had no particular destination in mind when he left Mac's, it didn't surprise him in the least when he found himself walking down the familiar path to the Wall. In spite of all the turmoil that his father's disappearance had caused, or perhaps even because of it, this was one of the few places where he could find some comfort from the messes in his life. Especially the messes that he was responsible for creating.

"I screwed up pretty spectacularly this time, dad," Harm sighed as he ran his fingers over his father's name. It hadn't taken him long to realize just how stupid he had been to make promises to Mattie without talking to Mac. It had taken him a little while to figure out why he had done it, but when he did it made perfect sense. Now he just had to figure out a way to explain it all to Mac.

"I shouldn't have said anything to Mattie before I had talked things over with Mac," he told the name on the wall, wishing as he still did sometimes that he could talk to the man instead of the ghost. "I know that. I knew that when I said it. But I couldn't just leave her there, dad, thinking that I was going to be another person in her life who was going to walk out and leave her to deal with things on her own."

"We connected, dad," Harm said. "At first I thought it was just because we both lost parents we loved when we were kids. Well, that and flying, of course." He smiled, knowing that was one thing his father would have definitely understood. He grew serious as he continued, "It wasn't until she told me the whole story today that I realized why she's gotten to me the way that she has, and so quickly. It's not because she's like me. I mean she kind of is. But mostly, she's like Mac."

Tilting his head back to gaze thoughtfully at the stars, he went on. "I looked at Mattie today, and for the first time I think I understood a little of what Mac went through after her mother left. How alone she must have felt; why she stopped trusting people, and why she started drinking. She was on her own, with no one to turn to. No one to care about what she did, or how she felt, except that bastard father of hers, and he only made things worse for her." His hands clenched tightly into fists as he remembered some of Mac's tearful midnight confessions about the way Joseph Mackenzie had treated his only child. He shook his head, trying to clear away the anger and refocus on what he was saying.

"Until Colonel O'Hara came and got her, no one ever tried to help her or make things better for her, and by the time he did, she'd already been through so much. And I just couldn't stand the thought of Mattie having to go through that, dad. I wanted so much to help her, and I just assumed that once I told Mac, she would feel the same way. I was so wrong."

"No you weren't." Mac's voice was soft, but it might as well have been a cannon blast in the silence surrounding him. He spun around, and there she was behind him, close enough to touch. Focusing on her face, he could see that her cheeks were as red as her eyes, and he wondered how long she'd been standing in the cold.

"How long have you been here?" he asked when he finally found his voice. And how much did you hear? he added silently.

"Twenty-three minutes and seventeen seconds," she responded, answering both of his questions. She'd seen him walk up and had followed him without his noticing. She gave him a little shrug and explained quietly, "Once I calmed down and thought things over, I realized that I needed to explain some things to you. After a while when you didn't come back, I took a chance that you would come here."

He shook his head ruefully at his own predictability. "I guess you know me pretty well," he said with a small smile.

"Yeah, I do. And you know me pretty well, too," she added. When he stared disbelievingly at her, she sighed. "I heard what you said, Harm. About how Mattie reminds you of me; how you don't want her to end up like I did."

"Mac, I didn't mean it like that-" Harm rushed to explain, fearing that she'd misunderstood what he had been saying. It seemed to be the night for it, but her next words reassured him.

"I know. I do, Harm," she told him firmly. "And you're right. She shouldn't have to go through all of this alone." She gave him a small smile. "Hell, if I had been there, it would have been a toss- up who came up with the idea first."

Harm shook his head, unwilling to let her absolve him of guilt. "I still shouldn't have said anything until I talked to you."

"No, you shouldn't," she agreed calmly, "But I shouldn't have freaked out like that. And I'm sorry that I did; that I didn't give you a chance to explain where you were coming from."

She sighed deeply and leaned her back against the railing facing the Wall, turning her face to his father's name. It would be easier to start this if she didn't have to look at him.

"Harm, in the midst of all that yelling that we were doing, did you hear me say that couples are supposed to make decisions together?" She saw him nod out of the corner of her eye. "I said that once before," she admitted quietly. "To Mic, the night he left me."

Harm couldn't help but tense at the mention of the man who had almost stolen Mac away from him, but he didn't say anything. He could sense that this was difficult for her to talk about, so he leaned back until they were side by side, and wordlessly took her hand. She gave him a small, grateful smile before returning her gaze to the Wall.

"Sometimes I look back on that time, from the moment he proposed to the moment he left, and I wonder where the real me was," she admitted ruefully. She sighed. "That night, when I said that to Mic about being a couple, he called me on it. He said that I'd been making all of the decisions from the moment we found out you went down, and he just went along with them to make me happy. He made me feel so guilty, mostly because he was right."

"It wasn't until I took the TAD assignment and had some time to think about everything that I realized that he had done the exact same thing our entire relationship." Her voice betrayed the anger she still felt at that little revelation; anger at Mic for manipulating her, and at herself for putting up with it. "I was so shocked when he proposed. My instinct was to say no, but I didn't do that. I thought that you had rejected me," she explained. She squeezed his hand tightly, silently reassuring him that she understood now what he hadn't then. "I thought that I had lost my chance at a relationship with you, and I was so afraid that I was going to end up all alone that I couldn't bring myself to completely reject what I thought might be my only chance at a family."

"So I didn't say no. I told him I needed to think about it." She shook her head in disgust at what she now recognized as the first of many mistakes she made in that relationship.

"That's when he told me to where the ring on my right hand. I tried to say no, but before I knew it he was sliding it on my finger. And I let him." She admitted, pushing the words past a throat that had suddenly become tight with unshed tears. She hated talking about that time in her life. She took a moment to force them away before continuing.

"And then he showed up at the Surface Warfare Ball and he told me he'd resigned his commission and given up everything to be near me," she went on, and the anger began making its way back into her voice. "And while a part of me was flattered, mostly I just felt obligated. And resentful that he had made this huge decision without consulting me. He was always doing that; assuming that whatever he wanted was automatically I wanted. And I let him. I might have gotten mad at him, and fought with him, but in the end I always went along. And the more it happened, the more trapped and resentful I felt." She turned to face him for the first time since she'd started her explanation. Her voice was clear and strong when she said, "I don't want to ever feel that, to be that, again."

"And that's why you were so angry with me." Harm finished for her, sensing that now was the time to enter the conversation. She nodded; her eyes full of regret, a regret mirrored in his own eyes. He reached up and cupped her cheek with his free hand. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "I don't ever want to make you feel trapped, Mac."

"I know that, Harm. I do," she hastened to assure him; she needed him to understand. "I realized after you left that I was projecting all of my problems with Mic onto our relationship, and I'm sorry for that."

"I would never assume you would just do what I wanted. I would never want you to do that," he told her earnestly, before admitting, "But I did assume that I knew what you wanted, and I shouldn't have."

"That's the thing, Harm," she said with a rueful shake of her head. "You did know what I wanted. You know me better than anyone else, and you knew what I would want in this situation." Her voice dropped to a whisper as she confessed, "And that scares me a little; that you know me so well."

"It goes both ways, you know," he answered her confession with one of his own. "The knowing, and the fear." She nodded silently, reaching up to cover his hand with hers. For a moment they just stood there, relishing in that simple touch. Stroking her cheek tenderly, he asked her, "So what do we do now?"

She smiled and pressed a kiss to his palm. She recognized that by asking the question, he was putting the control back in her hands. "We keep working at our relationship," she said firmly. "I try not to project my past relationships on you-"

"And I'll remember to ask you before I make any decisions, even if I think I know what you're answer will be," Harm finished, a hint of that cocky flyboy smile making its way across his face, but it quickly disappeared as he brought up what had started their fight. "So what do we do about Mattie?"

"We apply for guardianship," Mac replied without hesitation. "Together."

"Mac, are you sure?" he questioned earnestly, searching her eyes for any hint that this wasn't what she wanted. "I meant it, I don't want to pressure you-"

"You're not. I promise," she swore, pulling her hand away and raising it as if she were testifying in court. When he still didn't look convinced, she said honestly, "Look, Harm, I'll admit that the circumstances aren't exactly ideal. And I'd be lying if I didn't say I wasn't a little worried that we might be taking on too much at once. But you were right," she told him, her voice strong and sure. "We can't just abandon her. She needs someone to take care of her, and give her the chance to just be a kid. And I think we're the best ones to do that. So that's what we'll do."

Harm shook his head. This woman never ceased to amaze him. He smiled softly at her. "What did I do to deserve you?"

"You loved me," she answered simply, "like I love you."

"Always," he vowed. He pulled her into his arms, and poured all of his love her into the most passionate kiss he could muster.

After they had come up for air, he said, "I do love you, Mac. More than anything. And if at any point it looks like this is too much for us to handle, then we'll stop and find some other way." His voice was firm and unyielding. "Because as much as I want to help Mattie; I'm not going to risk what we have to do it."

She nodded her head in agreement, then smiled reassuringly. "We'll figure it out, Harm. We always do, even if it takes us awhile."

Harm snorted. His marine certainly had a gift for understatement. She grinned up at him. "Although if we stay out here any longer, we're going to freeze before we figure out anything. Let's go home."

With that, she turned and started up the path towards her car. When he didn't immediately follow, she looked over her shoulder and saw that he was still standing where she had left him, a bemused look on his face. Deciding he could use a little more incentive, she called back to him in her most sultry voice, "Harm, if you don't hurry up, you're going to miss the best part about our fight."

"What part is that?" he asked, arching an eyebrow at the wicked grin on her face. He could feel his desire stir as she took a couple of steps back to him, her hips swaying provocatively. When she got close enough, she leaned up and whispered in his ear.

"The making up part," she purred before turning and rushing off to the car, with a now very aroused flyboy hot on her heels.

 

November 21, 2003
JAG Headquarters

1430 EST

 

Harm and Mac sat silently in the Admiral's office while he looked over the report on the Tunney case. Although they hid it well, they were both nervous. From the moment he handed them the case, they had both known it was a test, to see if they could still work together now that they were in a relationship. If they couldn't, chances were that one of them would get transferred out of JAG before you could say `fraternization'.

It seemed like forever, but eventually the Admiral looked up from the report, setting it on his desk and placing his reading glasses atop of it. He leaned back in his chair and placed his hands across his stomach.

"Well," he finally said, "It would appear that the two of you managed to get through this case without too much trouble."

"Of course, sir," Harm replied calmly, while breathing an inward sigh of relief. "The Colonel and I are professionals."

"Really?" AJ asked skeptically. "And you behaved professionally the entire time you were in Arizona, did you?"

"Yes, sir," They chorused, knowing what he was implying. Although he hadn't said anything directly, he had made sure that they understood that they were assigned two rooms for a reason, and that they were to use both of them.

"That must have been frustrating," he muttered half under his breath, and Harm snorted inwardly. AJ had no idea. Harm didn't think he'd ever been so frustrated in his life. He had thought it was bad when he was on assignment for the CIA, but it was much worse knowing she was close enough to touch and not being able to touch her. He would be lucky if he made it through the rest of the day without ravishing her in the middle of the bullpen.

Harm was drawn out of his lustful thoughts by the Admiral's next question. "And you're both satisfied with outcome of the case?"

"Yes, sir," Mac replied. Well, she still thought she should have won the case, but she rested easier knowing that Tunney would almost certainly lose his wings. Unlike Harm, who felt bad about it, Mac was just grateful that he wouldn't endanger any more lives with his recklessness.

AJ nodded thoughtfully. "Good." He looked back and forth at them and said, "Well, I imagine the last week has left you both a little tense, so once you've finished up your paperwork, you can take the rest of the day to...unwind."

"Thank you, sir," Harm responded gratefully. Realizing that he probably sounded a little too appreciative, he added, "We have a lot of things to do. Packing and stuff."

"I'm sure you do," AJ responded seriously, but there was a twinkle in his eye. He fought back a grin as he watched matching blushes creep over their faces. Packing, my ass he thought. Deciding he'd tortured them enough, he quickly dismissed them.

"Aye, aye, sir," they chorused, coming to attention before hurriedly turning and making their way out of AJ's office. Once they had passed out of the Admiral's hearing, Harm stopped and grabbed hold of Mac's arm. "How long will it take you to finish your paperwork?"

"About an hour," she said after a moment's thought. "You?"

"Probably a little less," he replied. "I worked on it on the plane while you were asleep."

"Good," she nodded. "Then why don't you use the extra time to call Mattie and let her know we'll definitely be up tomorrow morning?"

Harm smiled at the thought of visiting Mattie. He had missed her. They both had. "Good idea. One less thing to do when we get home."

"Mm," Mac smiled seductively, and her voice was almost a purr. Lowering her voice, she whispered, "There's only one thing I'm going to do when I get home."

"You are bad, Marine," Harm scolded as all of the blood rushed to a spot somewhere south of his belt.

Mac arched a brow and asked, "Are you complaining?"

"Not on your life," he grinned wolfishly. "Now hurry up and finish your paperwork so we can hurry up and get out of here."

"Yes, sir," she responded with an impish smile as she turned and headed towards her office. She walked briskly, trying to focus on the paperwork on her desk and not how very aroused she was, so she didn't notice when Sturgis came storming out of Bud's office until they collided in the middle of the bullpen. Mac grabbed hold of his arm to steady herself, but she had barely regained her balance when he shrugged out of her grip.

"Excuse me," he muttered curtly, stepping around her and making a beeline for his own office. Startled by his abruptness, Mac didn't find her voice until he opened his office door.

"Sturgis?" she called after him in concern.

"Later," he snapped without looking at her, slamming his office door behind him. Mac flinched, both at the sound and at her friend's harshness. Although she knew that she wasn't the cause of his bad temper, it was hard not to take it personally. Taking a deep breath, she debated whether to follow him and see if she could get him to talk, or to take him at his word and give him time alone.

Before she had a chance to make up her mind, she felt Harm step up beside her. "You okay?" he asked quietly.

"I'm worried about him," Mac admitted softly, still staring at his closed office door. Then, realizing they were still standing in the middle of the bullpen, she gestured towards her own office door. "Why don't we talk in my office?"

"Sure." Harm followed her inside, shutting the door behind him. Sliding into one of the chairs in front of her desk, he watched her move to stand in front of the window. After a couple minutes of silence, Mac sighed and turned to sit behind her desk.

"I thought things would get better once you came back," she told Harm. "But he just seems to be getting worse."

"Well, with what happened on that sub, and then this last case, I can see why he'd be upset," Harm said. "From what Bud said, Sturgis worked hard to help Commander Bentley out. He even got his father to testify. And then to find out it was all a lie..."

"That's my point," she answered when he trailed off, "He's hurting, Harm. And I don't know how to help him."

"All you can do, all either of us can do," he corrected himself, "is be there for him. He's got to work this out on his own, Mac. We can't do it for him."

"I know," she said with a frustrated sigh. "It's just that after everything he's done for me, I feel like I'm letting him down."

"Well, you're not," Harm said firmly. "Mac, everything that he did was because you let him in and gave him the chance to help you. Until he does the same, there's nothing more you can do."

"I know. And that just sucks," she complained helplessly. She glared at Harm as he began to laugh. "It's not funny."

"I'm sorry," he chuckled, holding up his hands in defense, "but you're just too cute when you pout."

"I'm not pouting," she pouted.

"Whatever you say, Mac," he humored her. He reached across the desk and patted her hand, "But you're still cute."

"Don't you have paperwork to finish, and a phone call to make?" she asked pointedly, snatching her hand out from under his.

"Yes ma'am," he said with an impudent grin. He stood up and headed to the door. Putting his hand on the doorknob, he turned and said, "Don't forget to take care of your own paperwork, Marine. I, for one, am anxious to get out of here and go home." He raked his eyes up and down her frame, and added huskily, "I have something very important to do, and I'm going to need plenty of time to do it properly."

Mac stared at him wide-eyed, a heated flush sweeping over her. She tried to answer him, to regain her composure, and cursed inwardly when all she could manage was a very breathy, "okay."

Satisfied that he had aroused her into incoherence, he gave her a smug little wave and headed towards his office, whistling `Anchor's Aweigh' as he went.

 

Saturday, November 22, 2003
Grace Aviation

1000 EST

 

Mac pulled her `vette into its usual spot next to the hangar. Stepping out, she quickly pulled her coat more tightly around her and headed for the warmth of Mattie's office. It was freezing out this morning, and Mac hoped that it would warm up enough for Harm and Mattie to fly today. He had promised her that they could go up last weekend, but hadn't been able to because of the Tunney case. He was really looking forward to being able to take her up today, probably for the last time until spring.

Mac walked into Mattie's office and found her hunched over the desk, scribbling in a notebook.

"Dare I hope that that's homework you're working so hard on?" Mac asked lightly as she unbuttoned her coat. Mattie turned around in her chair and watched silently as Mac laid her coat on the filing cabinet.

"Where's Harm?" she asked when Mac was facing her again.

"He'll be here in an hour or two," Mac answered, a little startled by the sullen note in the young girl's voice, but not paying too much attention to it. Mattie was, after all, a teenager; and if there was one thing Mac had learned from her relationship with Chloe, it was that teenagers were known for their mood swings.

"The real estate agent called this morning and needed to see one of us," Mac continued her explanation, coming over and leaning against the desk. "Harm offered to go so that you and I could spend some time together before you two go flying." She smiled and pulled out a handful of paint samples that she'd picked up at the hardware store the day before. "So I brought these samples with me. Hopefully we'll find one that you like for your room."

"Why bother?" Mattie muttered, just loud enough for Mac to hear. "It's not like it matters."

Mac frowned; there was something more than normal teenage mood swings upsetting Mattie. She reached out and placed her hand on Mattie's shoulder, only to have Mattie jerk away. Pushing her chair back, she stalked over to the other side of the room, ignoring Mac's concerned stare.

"You want to tell me what's going on?" Mac asked quietly.

Mattie whirled around and met Mac's gaze for the first time since she'd come into the office. "I heard Mrs. Patterson on the phone yesterday," she spat out angrily. "She told me to come over for dinner, and I got there early, and I heard her on the phone. She was saying that she would be happy to have me come live with her. I know she was talking to you."

"Actually, she was talking to Harm," Mac corrected. Mattie just continued to glare at her. She sighed. "Mattie, sweetie, we talked about this. There's a chance that the judge won't let Harm and I have guardianship, because of our jobs and other things."

"So you just decided to give up and pass me off to somebody else?" Mattie shot back, hurt and anger warring in her voice.

"Nobody's giving up, Mattie," Mac responded firmly, walking over and placing her hands on Mattie's shoulders. She lifted Mattie's chin until the girl was looking her in the eye before explaining. "Harm and I are going to do everything we can to make this work, and I really think that we will. But as much as we'd like to, we can't make any guarantees. And if for some reason things don't go the way we want them to, we're not going to just abandon you. That's why we talked to Mrs. Patterson. So that no matter what happens with our petition, you won't have to go live with strangers."

"What makes you think they'll let me stay with her and Mr. Patterson if they won't let me stay with you?" Mattie countered sulkily, not ready to let go of her anger.

"The Pattersons have had other foster children over the years, plus two of their own," Mac explained calmly. "And staying with them would mean your life wouldn't be disrupted as much. Mattie, you said that they were nice people and you liked them, so we thought it was better to ask them than to risk you being sent to live with strangers. But if you really don't want to stay with them, we'll figure something else out."

Mattie sighed. Everything Mac was saying was making sense but..."It's not that I don't want to stay with them," she said quietly, "It's just that I don't want to stay with anyone but you and Harm."

"I know, sweetie," Mac answered her, running a hand soothingly along her cheek. "That's what we want, too. And we're trying, Mattie," she tried to reassure the girl. "We're doing everything we can. And I think we have a really good chance, but we still need to be prepared. You ever heard that old saying, `Hope for the best,prepare for the worst'? That's all Harm and I are trying to do."

Mattie bit her lip and forced back the tears springing to her eyes. "Okay," she said with a sniffle, resting her cheek against Mac's palm.

"Okay," Mac echoed. She brought her other hand up and ran it through Mattie's thick curls. "Do you want me to tell the Pattersons that we're going to try something else?"

"No," she shook her head. "If-if I can't live with you guys, then I'd rather stay with them than a bunch of strangers. I just-"her voice trailed off, choked with tears.

"I know, sweetie," Mac said understandingly. She pressed a kiss to Mattie's forehead. "Try not to worry too much, okay? We'll work it out, you'll see."

"Yeah." Mattie took a deep breath, and pushed away the last of her fear and doubt. When she met Mac's gaze, she was once again wearing her traditional teenage smirk. "So, what color are those paint samples?" She looked at Mac in mock horror. "You didn't bring anything pink, did you?"

Mac laughed and drew Mattie in for a long hug, glad that they had been able to move past this. When Mattie finally pulled away; Mac smiled and handed her over two dozen samples. Then they spread all of them, none of which were pink, onto the floor and sat down to try and find the perfect color for Mattie's bedroom. It was a pretty slow process, since they were spending as much time laughing and throwing the samples back and forth as they were trying to pick a color. However, two hours later they had narrowed the choices to four, and were waiting for Harm to arrive to give his opinion. In the meantime, Mattie had dug out a deck of cards and they began a cutthroat game of gin rummy.

"So," Mattie said as she picked a card from the stack, "Harm said that the case in Arizona was probably the last one you guys would be doing together now that you are moving in with each other."

"Probably," Mac responded, her attention still fixed on her cards. She didn't like thinking about never working with Harm again. But Mattie didn't let it go.

"Will you miss it?" she asked curiously. Mac sighed, and resigned herself to the conversation.

"Yes," she answered honestly. "I mean, we haven't worked together all that much the past year or two, but still...yeah, I'll miss it."

"Even though you guys fight a lot on cases?" At Mac's questioning look, she explained, "Harm told me about your case when he called yesterday. He said you `didn't always see eye to eye'."

"That would be an understatement," Mac grinned. Her smile grew wistful as she added, "But that's part of what makes us good partners, the way we come at things from different angles. And when we're opposing...it makes thinks interesting."

"Do you really think that guy...Tunney?" Mattie asked, trying to remember the name Harm had told her. When Mac nodded, she continued, "Do you really think what he did was wrong?"

"Yes, I do," Mac answered without hesitation. "He was reckless. And because of his recklessness, people got hurt."

"Harm thinks you were too hard on him," Mattie told her.

"Harm would," Mac said with a snort. Mattie looked a little confused, so she explained, "He sometimes has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to his fellow aviators."

"That figures, I guess," Mattie said. She hesitated for a moment, "Mac, if Harm had done what that guy did, would you have prosecuted him the same?"

"Harm would never do what Major Tunney did," Mac answered confidently, not a doubt in her mind. "He does dangerous things sometimes, but he's never reckless."

"So what?" Mattie asked, "If Harm wouldn't do it, then you think it's wrong?"

Mac started to laugh off Mattie's question, until she thought about it for a second. She was shocked to realize that Mattie was probably right. Subconsciously, she tended to compare every pilot she met to Harm, and judge them accordingly. If they did something that Harm wouldn't, then her instinct was to say that it was the wrong thing to do.

"Yeah, I guess I do," she told Mattie, her voice full of wonder at her revelation. Realizing what she'd just admitted, she looked at Mattie and told her only half-jokingly, "But don't tell him I said that. His ego's big enough."

"Too late," came a familiar voice from the doorway. Startled, they both dropped their cards and turned to see Harm leaning against the doorframe, a smug look on his face.

"Harm!" Mattie squealed, jumping up and nearly knocking him down with the force of her hug.

"Hey, Mattie," he said with a laugh as he tried to keep his balance. He returned her hug, planting a quick kiss on top of her head. Then he looked over her head and flashed his best flyboy grin. "Hey, marine."

Mac glared at him as she stood up and walked over to him. "You shouldn't eavesdrop on private conversations," she accused, poking him in the arm.

"You should close the door if you want the conversation to be private," he countered, still grinning. He reached out as Mattie shifted out of his arms, and Mac soon found herself pressed tightly against his chest.

Trying to ignore the rush of arousal his touch always triggered, Mac looked up with a frown. "How much did you hear?"

"Enough," he was still smiling, but she could see the vulnerability in his eyes when he asked, "Did you mean it?"

"Yes," she responded sincerely, recognizing his insecurity and wanting to ease it. She leaned up and pressed her lips to his, ignoring Mattie's exaggerated groan of disgust. "Do me a favor, though?" she added, running her hand affectionately down the side of his face. "Try not to let it go to your head too much, okay?"

"I'll do my best," Harm laughed, bringing her palm to his lips and kissing it. He laughed again when he heard Mattie stalk over to the other side of the room, muttering something about old people and public displays of affection.

"Get used to it, squirt," he called after her unrepentantly, giving Mac a mischievous wink. "You'll be seeing even more PDA's after you move in with us." When Mac looked over his shoulder and giggled, he turned around just in time to Mattie sticking her tongue out at him before she whirled around and pretended to work on paperwork.

"So what did the real estate agent want?" Mac asked when she had calmed down, finally remembering the reason Harm was late.

"Oh, just a couple of i's to dot and t's to cross, nothing major," Harm said with a shrug. There had been so many last minute details at this point, that neither one of them bothered to get worked up about it unless it was something major.

"So we're still set for December 1st?" Mac confirmed.

"Yep," he grinned. "One week and we will officially be homeowners."

"Actually, it's nine days, s-"Mac started, only to be cut off by another long kiss.

"I get the picture," Harm replied after they came up for air. Without turning around, he called out to Mattie, "So, you ready to go up?"

"Always!" Mattie responded enthusiastically, forgetting her disgust in the face of an opportunity to fly.

"Well then, Ms. Grace," Harm said, looking over his shoulder, "I suggest you grab your coat and gear so that we can get going. It's warmed up quite a bit since this morning, but it's still pretty chilly. We need to get a move on before the temperature starts dropping again."

"No problem." She had squeezed past them and was halfway out the door as she said, "I'm just gonna go grab my coat."

Harm and Mac watched in amusement as she disappeared around the corner. "Think she's excited?" Mac asked sarcastically.

"Well, it is the last chance we'll get to fly for a while," Harm pointed out. He glanced down. "Try not to look so relieved, would you?"

"Hey," she responded unrepentantly, "just because I have faith in your flying skills doesn't mean I don't get to worry. Your luck isn't always the greatest."

"True. But that's only when you're with me. So you don't have to worry too much today," he pointed out with a grin, earning him an elbow in the side.

"Funny," she said with a roll of her eyes. Changing the subject, she said seriously, "Harm, Mattie overheard you and Mrs. Patterson on the phone yesterday. I explained to her what was going on, but I think it would help if you reassured her that we aren't giving up on her."

"Of course I will," Harm answered. "I was planning on talking to her about it anyway. Now I just have an excuse," he added. He looked down at her, "You going to be okay here by yourself for a little while?"

"I'll be fine," she said. She gestured to the stacks of paperwork scattered around the office. "I'm going to spend a little time going over the books and making sure everything's in order. Then I'm going to make a list of things we need for the house. I thought that since we're up here and we have both cars, we could take Mattie and get some shopping done when you get back."

"Sure," he responded easily, and then added with mock severity, "But no shoe shopping."

"No shoe shopping," she agreed solemnly. He smiled and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. Mac waited until she saw Mattie come along beside him before calling out, "But we are going to take Mattie to Victoria's Secret for some new underwear."

Mattie shrieked with laughter as Harm stumbled in shock, nearly tripping over his own feet. Mac watched, giggling helplessly, until he turned around and started to run back to the office. Moving quickly, Mac just managed to get the door shut and locked by the time Harm got back. He glared at her through the window, but she just stuck her tongue out impishly, which made Mattie laugh even harder. Deciding to go after an easier target, he turned and charged towards Mattie, who let out a shriek and ran. Mac watched as he caught her just as she reached the hangar doors, and started to tickle her mercilessly. Waiting until they had passed out of sight, she moved away from the door and picked up the nearest stack of paper, a broad smile on her face. Life is good, she thought to herself.

 

December 1, 2003
JAG Headquarters

1300 EST

 

When Harm and Mac returned from lunch that day, there wasn't a single person on the grounds that didn't notice them. Although the day was cold and wet and miserable, they strolled across the parking lot as if it was the Tidal Basin in the spring, with the cherry blossoms in full bloom. Smiling and laughing, they were standing as close as they could to each other, and would most certainly have been holding hands had they not been in uniform. As they passed by one of the Marine guards walking the grounds, he managed to hear snippets of their conversation.

"...and paper plates. Oh, and you should probably pick up some beer, too. I imagine you'll want to relax after lifting all that heavy furniture," Mac looked at Harm with a teasing grin.

Harm raised his eyebrow. "Don't you mean, we? Or is the big bad marine too weak to carry a couple of measly couches?" he shot back, before adding, "And no beer."

"I can carry any piece of furniture I choose. However, someone's got to give you poor squids direction, so I'm afraid I'm going to be too busy supervising. And just because I don't drink, doesn't mean everyone else has to abstain, too," she told him.

"That may be, but Mattie's going to be there, too, and I don't want her to have to deal..." Harm's voice trailed off as they passed out of the guard's hearing. The young gunnery sergeant shook his head as he continued his rounds. He'd been at JAG for over three years now, and he'd seen enough interactions between the Colonel and the Commander to know that their living together was bound to make life very interesting, for everyone.

Harm and Mac passed through the doors into Headquarters, but when Mac started towards the elevators, Harm reached out and grabbed hold of her arm. She looked at him curiously as he began to lead her to the stairwell door.

"I just think we could use the extra exercise," he explained innocently. "Since we're going to be too busy getting everything ready for the move this weekend, we won't have time for our usual workouts."

"Mm hmm," Mac said skeptically. She knew he had some ulterior motive for taking the stairs, but she didn't bother calling him on it. Mostly because she was pretty sure she knew what that motive was, and was very much looking forward to it.

She quickly found out she was right; when the door closed behind them, Harm took only a cursory glance to make sure they were alone before pressing her up against the wall and drawing her into a kiss that stole all of the breath from her lungs.

"We bought a house," he murmured happily as he pulled away, leaving her panting for air, only to trail his lips across her cheek and down her neck.

"Yes," Mac moaned breathlessly as she tilted her head to give him more room to maneuver. She thought about stopping him; the first thing they had agreed on when Harm came back was that they would maintain a professional distance while they were at work. But she found it impossible to worry about professionalism when he was doing such deliciously evil things to her neck with that remarkable mouth of his.

For his part, Harm had stopped thinking about professionalism right around the time he'd taken hold of the keys to their new house. For some reason, knowing that he was going to spend the rest of his life going home with Sarah Mackenzie had produced a wave of desire that was both completely unexpected, and utterly overwhelming. It had taken all of his willpower just to wait until they reached this semi- secluded location. Still, they were at work and in uniform, so he knew he had to get himself under some kind of control before someone walked in and caught them. After all, he really didn't want to have to look for another new job this year.

Lifting his head from her neck, he rested his forehead against hers and said softly, "It's a good house."

"A wonderful house," Mac agreed. She flashed him a brilliant smile. "Everything's finally coming together," she said happily, and then leaned up to brush her lips against his cheek and whisper, "I love you."

"I love you, too," Harm answered, sliding his arms around her waist and holding her close. He rubbed his cheek against her hair. "Thank you."

She pulled away and looked up at him. "For what?" she asked curiously.

"For not giving up on me." He reached up and cupped her face in his hands, and Mac could see the faintest sheen in his eyes when he added sincerely, "For making me happier than I ever thought I could be."

Mac's heart filled at both his words and the love she saw reflected in his eyes. "You're welcome," she told him, covering his hands with her own. She smiled softly, "And it works both ways, you know."

"I know." Deciding to tempt fate one last time before they headed upstairs, he drew her to him for one last long, gentle kiss.

"Mm," he murmured happily as he pulled away, gratified when Mac let out a small moan of disapproval. "What do you say we tell the Admiral that we have clients to interview, and then sneak over and go christen our new house properly?"

"Sounds tempting," she allowed with a smile, "but there's a few problems with your plan, sailor."

He frowned and asked somewhat petulantly, "Like what?"

"Like the fact that the Admiral knows my interviews are set for tomorrow afternoon," she reminded him with an indulgent grin, "And the fact that you have a deposition in exactly twenty-two minutes. And that I have one at 1600, which is why you are going to the store after work. And, if you'd looked at number four on the grocery list I gave you, you'd see the last and most important problem with your plan."

"Why?" He asked as he pulled the list from his pocket. He scanned it and asked, "What's number-oh."

Harm's voice trailed off when he reached number four. Tampons. Damn. Well, that sucked. Not because of the effect it would have on their extra-curricular activities; he'd gotten to be an expert in improvising when necessary. No, his unhappiness stemmed from the fact that he was going to have to walk into the feminine hygiene aisle of the supermarket, where he would end up standing there looking like an idiot for at least five minutes trying to find exactly the right box, until some nice but condescending woman took pity on him and picked out what he needed in about ten seconds. He sighed. He loved Mac, but this was one part of their relationship that he could very happily do without.

Mac watched Harm's face fall as he realized what his trip to the store meant, and bit down on her lower lip to keep from laughing. She knew how much he hated doing this for her, and how embarrassing it was for him, but he just looked so cute standing there with that forlorn, exasperated look on his face. Forcing back a smile, she asked, "Harm, do I need to go to the store myself?"

"No," he answered, heaving a large melodramatic sigh. "You're going to be running late as it is. I'll do it." He gave her his most pitiful pout. "But you'll owe me."

She smiled indulgently at him. "I promise I'll make it up to you," she said, patting his cheek affectionately. She pushed herself off of the wall and started up the stairs. "Come on, flyboy. Only nineteen minutes `til your deposition."

"You're never going to tell me how you do that, are you?" he asked grumpily, still pouting over his impending trip to the store. He started up the stairs, quickly moving a step ahead of her so that he would reach the door first and be able to open it for her.

"Nope," she replied cheerfully, subtly slowing up to make it easier for him to pass. She knew exactly what he was doing and, although she would never admit it, she loved it. At least, when no one else was around she did. She was a marine, after all, and she had a reputation to maintain. She smiled at him as she passed through the open door and into the hallway leading to the bullpen.

"I love you," she murmured as she slid by him, giving his arm a quick squeeze as she headed towards her office. Without bothering to make sure they were alone, she called back over her shoulder, "And, Harm? Make sure you get the super absorbent, okay? The blue box, not the pink. And don't forget the ice cream."

"Yes, dear," he responded sarcastically. He started to head off to his own office, muttering about the things he had to do for her, when he heard a muffled laugh from behind him. Harm groaned, knowing that someone must have overheard their conversation. Turning slowly, he prayed that he outranked whoever it was so that he could order them to forget everything he'd just heard.

His prayers went unheeded, however, as he finished his turn and came face to face with Sturgis, leaning against the wall next to the stairwell door, a wide smirk on his face.

"Not a word, bubblehead," Harm warned quickly, knowing that it was useless. Sturgis was going to milk this for years.

"Did I say anything?" Sturgis asked innocently, his hands out in protest. He laughed when Harm just turned with a scowl and stalked to his office. Unwilling to let this opportunity to needle his old friend pass him by, he followed him down the hall.

"So, is this a regular thing for you? Picking up Mac's...personal items from the store?" he asked with a grin, leaning against the doorway.

"What part of `not a word' didn't you grasp, Commander?" Harm glared balefully at Sturgis as he flopped down behind his desk. Sturgis snickered, and Harm made a mental note to come up with some hideously painful retribution for Mac for putting him in this position, even as he came up with a viable punishment for Sturgis.

Shaking his head, Harm leaned back in his chair and smirked. "You know what, Sturgis? You keep talking, and not only will I make sure you pick up every last piece of heavy furniture we own on Saturday; I will leave you alone to deal with Drill Sergeant Mackenzie when it comes time to `arrange' everything to her satisfaction. How does that sound?"

"Sounds like I might be developing some forty-eight hour virus Friday," Sturgis countered easily, and watched smugly as a panicked look passed over Harm's face. He decided it was time to give his old friend a break. "Relax, Rabb. I promised her I'd be there, and I'll be there."

"You better," Harm threatened only half-jokingly. He still remembered what Mac was like when they helped Bud and Harriet move, and he was determined not to face that alone. He frowned then, as he realized for the first time that he was asking Bud to spend the weekend in the company of a man who was not exactly his biggest fan. Looking over to where Sturgis was still propped up against his doorway, he debated whether or not to ruin the other man's rare good mood by bringing up the subject to him. Fortunately, Sturgis guessed what was going through Harm's mind and saved him the trouble.

"I promise to be on my best behavior, so you don't have to worry," Sturgis promised solemnly. Harm started to protest that he wasn't worried, but Sturgis held up his hand to stop him. "Look, I know that I've been...difficult. And I'm not going to deny that I'm not the happiest person to be around these days. But I'm not going to ruin this for you guys. You and Mac, more than anyone I know, deserve a little happiness."

"Everyone deserves a little happiness," Harm countered quietly, hoping that Sturgis would both understand what he was trying to say and that he would believe it. But Sturgis only shrugged and shook his head.

"I've got to get back to work," he said, ignoring Harm's comment and the unspoken offer of help that went with it. He straightened up, tugging on his uniform jacket, and headed back to his office without another word.

Harm sighed. Every time he thought that Sturgis was working his way out of this funk that he was in, something would happen that would send him sliding right back down again. And despite what he'd told Mac about just being there for him when he was ready, he felt just as helpless as she did, and hated it just as much. He wanted to see his friend happy again, and it didn't look like that would be happening anytime soon.

"Commander Rabb?" came a hesitant young voice at the door. Harm looked up to see a nervous young Ensign standing at attention, and remembered the deposition he had scheduled. He waved the young man inside.

"At ease, Ensign Ryan. Come in and have a seat," he said, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk. Ryan stepped in quickly and sat down, ramrod straight, in his chair. Harm tried to put the younger man at ease. "You can relax, Ensign. You're not in any trouble. I just need you to tell me what you saw on deck the night of the accident."

"Yes, sir. I understand, sir," Ryan answered, as Harm began digging in his desk for a pen. "But before we get started on my statement, I'm supposed to give you a message, sir."

Startled, Harm looked back up and asked curiously, "What message is that, Ensign?"

"It's from a Commander Turner, sir," Ryan told him, and Harm tensed warily, wondering what Sturgis was up to. Oblivious to the change in Harm's demeanor, the ensign continued earnestly, "I bumped into him in the hallway, and he told me to remind you that it was the blue box, not the pink one, sir."

He looked at Harm in confusion. "Does that mean something to you, sir?"

"Unfortunately, Ensign, it does," Harm responded dryly, ignoring the befuddled look on Ryan's face. It meant that the good Commander would be spending a lot of quality moving time with Mac this weekend. It also meant that the old Sturgis might be a little closer to making a comeback than he'd thought. Harm smiled; things were definitely looking up.

 

December 1, 2003
Mac's Apartment

1920 EST

 

"Mac?" Harm called out as he knocked on the door for the third time. He knew she was home; he had called not fifteen minutes ago from the supermarket. `She must be in the shower,' he thought with a sigh of resignation, placing the groceries on the floor and digging out his keys. He unlocked the door and propped it open with his foot before gathering the bags back into his arms and hurrying to the kitchen. Unfortunately, he'd forgotten the stacks of boxes piled haphazardly throughout the apartment. He managed to pass the first two without any problems, but had a near miss with a third, which threw him off- balance and caused him to collide into the fourth with a loud thump.

The boxes, being braced against the wall, wobbled a little but stayed upright. Harm, being braced against the boxes that were braced against the wall, wobbled more than a little but also stayed upright, as did two of the three bags in his arms. The third unfortunate bag, however, slipped from his grasp and tumbled to the floor; breaking open the box of Mac's beloved Cocoa Puffs and scattering the contents across the entire living room.

Shit Harm swore, looking down at the sea of cereal. Now he was going to have to find the broom and the dustpan and spend the next twenty minutes cleaning up this mess, which killed any chance he had of joining Mac in the shower. Swearing again, he secured his hold on the remaining bags and stomped into the kitchen, perversely delighted at the sound of the cereal crunching beneath his feet.

He set the bags on the nearest counter and began to remove and separate the contents, quickly putting away the perishables and leaving the rest on the counter. He then went back to the third bag, pulled out everything but the empty cereal box, and put that away as well. Just as he was about to pick up the broom and start the Great Cocoa Puff hunt, he heard the water cut off in the bathroom, and knew that Mac's shower was over. He immediately stopped and set the broom back in the closet. The floor could wait, he decided, as he snatched the detestable blue box from its place on the kitchen table and hurried towards the bathroom.

By the time he reached the door, Mac had already propped it open enough to let some of the steam escape. Pushing it open a bit farther, he found her standing in front of the mirror in nothing but her panties She had both arms raised above her head and was staring intently at her reflection, doing her monthly breast self-exam.

Harm watched her, transfixed by the sheer wonder of her. Her hair was slicked back, and the occasional drop of water still fell from the ends to roll down the long, graceful line of her back. He took in the slim, toned muscles of her arms and legs. And her dusky skin, still damp from the shower, glowed, highlighting each generous curve. Not even the thin jagged scar on her side, or the smaller one on her thigh, could detract from her beauty.

Caught up in his admiration of her, he didn't notice when her arms fell to her side, and she turned to face him. It was only when she stepped forward and took the box from his hands with a murmured `thank you', that he realized how completely he'd been focused on her body. She smiled knowingly at him, and he felt the red flush of embarrassment creep up his face.

"I remember the first time you watched me like this." Mac laughed when she realized he was blushing. She tossed the box onto the counter and then leaned her hip against it. "Your face turned red then, too."

Harm glared at her even as his face reddened some more. He tried to defend himself.

"Well, it was the first time I'd seen a woman do that," he pointed out in indignation. "And it was definitely the first time one had asked me if I wanted to help."

"You know, I find it hard to believe that of all the many women in your life, none of them ever did a breast exam before," Mac told him skeptically.

"First of all, there haven't been that many women in my life," Harm pointed out, wondering why everyone always thought that he was such a playboy. He continued, "Second of all, I didn't say they didn't do one; I said I hadn't seen it. Renee always locked herself in the bathroom, and the one time I asked Jordan about it, she psychoanalyzed me until I felt like a pervert."

"Well, that's what you get for dating a shrink," Mac told him. She smiled reassuringly at him. "She was probably just surprised that you were curious. Most guys avoid women like the plague when it comes to `that time of the month'."

"You didn't seem surprised," he pointed out. "Didn't you think it was weird?"

"Not as weird as Mic's fascination with watching me paint my toenails," she said with an amused shake of her head. "I never did understand that. I mean, having a guy wanting to stare at me while I touch my breasts kind of makes sense. But watching me putting nail polish on my toes? I don't get that."

Harm grinned. He knew exactly why a toenail painting Mac was so appealing. "It's the lip," he told her helpfully.

"Huh?" Mac asked, totally confused. What did her lip have to do with her toes?

"Your lower lip," Harm explained matter-of-factly. "When you're painting your toenails, you get this intense look on your face, and then you start chewing on your lower lip. It's really cute, and kind of sexy. You do it when you're checking your breasts, too."

"Really? And you know this how?" Mac asked archly. "I didn't know you were paying enough attention to my face to notice."

"Hey, I know how to multi-task," he protested, waggling his eyebrows suggestively as he pointedly shifted his gaze from her face to her chest and then back again.

"You're terrible," she laughed, slapping him lightly on the arm and giving him a gentle shove towards the bedroom. "Go lie down and wait for me; I'll be out in a minute."

"Aye, aye, ma'am," he said with a playful salute, before turning and walking out of the bathroom, unbuttoning his shirt as he went. As Mac watched him pull the door shut behind him, she wondered again what she had ever done to deserve a man like Harmon Rabb.

When she had asked Harm that first time he'd watched her if he wanted to help, it had been a diversion; a way to ease the awkwardness and to let him know that she was feeling amorous. She had only mentioned what her doctor said about how helpful it was to have your partner participate because he had looked so embarrassed about his own curiosity; she thought it would make him feel better to know that her doctor would sanction, even applaud, a thorough exploration of her chest. Never in her wildest dreams did she think that he would take her so seriously about it. She shook her head ruefully; she should have known better. When it came to her health and well-being, Harm took everything seriously.

It had taken every ounce of willpower she possessed not to burst into tears that first night, to just hold him and never let go. The way he'd tripped over his words as he asked her what he was supposed to look for, how he was supposed to touch her. The way his brows knitted together, and his eyes narrowed intently as he concentrated on learning every inch, every fiber of her breasts. It had taken him the better part of an hour, she recalled fondly, as he had frequently taken her fingers in his and pressed in some spot or another, asking her if that was the way it normally felt. And when he had finished, he had looked at her with such love and pride and relief, that shecould do nothing except pull him to her and love him with everything she had. It was the most intimate experience of her life, with Harm or any other man. No one had ever cared for her like that, had ever loved her enough to take such care with her, and it had convinced her of his love in a way that nothing else could.

"Mac?" Harm's voice came drifting in from the bedroom, startling her and drawing her back to the here and now. Brushing away the memories, she quickly lifted her arms and cursorily finished her exam. Slipping into her robe, she turned out the bathroom lights and headed out to where Harm was sprawled across her bed wearing nothing but boxers and a flyboy grin.

"Get lost in there, marine?" He asked archly, patting the bed next to him and beckoning her to join him.

She smiled and sat down to the right of him. "Lost in thought, maybe," she told him as she slid onto her back, letting her gaze drift to the ceiling.

"What were you thinking about?" Harm asked somewhat distractedly, more interested in the way the tie to her robe had loosened when she rolled, leaving a tantalizing bit of skin uncovered, than he was with the answer to his question.

"Honestly?" Mac turned to face him, propping herself up on one arm and lifting the other to stroke his cheek. "I was thinking about how well you take care of me."

Harm's face reddened even as his eyes softened. Even though they had been together for a while now, moments like these, when Mac was soft and vulnerable and sincere, made him a little uncomfortable. Not because she was showing him her vulnerability, but because he knew he was the only one she'd ever really shown it to. It was both a gift and an enormous responsibility, and he was still unsure of how to handle that.

"Why, because I brave the feminine hygiene aisle at the supermarket on your behalf?" he asked lightly, falling back on his old habit of joking his way out of an uncomfortable moment.

She laughed a little, but didn't let him off the hook. "That's one of the reasons, yeah. This," she added seriously, gesturing between them, "is another. Most men wouldn't have taken me seriously when I asked if they wanted to help. They would have just used it as an excuse for sex."

"I'm not most men," he responded, and there wasn't even a hint of laughter in his voice this time. He had spent too long trying to convince her that he was different from the other men in her life to make jokes about it now.

"I know. It's one of the reasons I love you," she told him, and was rewarded with a long, passionate kiss.

"One of the reasons, huh?" Harm slid his hand into the gap of her robe and began rubbing the soft skin of her stomach. "Why don't you tell me what the others are?"

"I'd rather show you," she told him. She untied the robe and leaned up to slip it off of her shoulders. When she was done, she grabbed his hand and slid it up her ribcage to the underside of her breast, and then whispered huskily, "Why don't you hurry up and finish your part of the exam, and then we can really play doctor?"

"I like the way you think, marine. Lean back," he told her with a soft smile, even as he gently pushed her onto her back. She raised her arm above her head, shifting until she was in the correct position. She couldn't help the shiver of desire that coursed through her at his first touch, but she pushed it aside as he moved his hand gently over her breast. She wanted to revel in their intimacy first; desire would come later. She closed her eyes and let herself get lost in the sensations.

Harm watched her eyes flutter closed with enormous relief. It was nearly impossible to focus on his task when she looked at him like that, her eyes brimming with love and gratitude and desire. And it was important to him that he take this seriously, that he never become one of those men who would use her offer as an excuse for sex. Although he laughed and joked and teased, he never took this exam, or his part in it, lightly. Not when her health was at stake.

When he finished with the first half of the exam, Harm got up on his knees and started to shift over to Mac's other side. Looking down and realizing that he was straddling her, he paused momentarily so that he could get a handle on the quick bolt of desire that washed through him. Then he slid down and started the process over. Trying to distract himself from any lustful thoughts, he decided to find some nice, neutral topic for them to discuss.

"What time did you want to go over to my apartment tomorrow?" Harm asked casually, as his fingers started moving again. He figured that talk of the move and all its requisite packing would keep his mind focused.

"I was thinking around 1900. That would give us time to change and grab some takeout," she responded, opening her eyes to see what he thought of her decision.

"Sounds good," he agreed. "Do you want pizza or-"?

Both Harm's words and his hand stopped abruptly, and Mac quickly focused her full attention on him. "Harm," she asked cautiously, "Is something wrong?"

Harm heard Mac's voice from far away, and he could tell from her tone that she was asking him a question, but he couldn't focus enough to hear the words. He couldn't focus on anything except the one thought running in a constant loop in his head.

I found something

He took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down and think logically. Maybe I imagined it, he rationalized to himself. He reached out and ran his fingers over the spot he had just examined and couldn't feel anything. But just as he was about to breathe a sigh of relief, he moved his hand backwards and there it was again, that something. Something that wasn't there before, something small and hard and-

Unable to complete the thought, he stopped his hand and lifted his head to meet Mac's concerned gaze. "Harm, what's the matter?" she asked worriedly as she took in his face, suddenly drained of color. She saw a sheen of sweat break out across his forehead and wondered for one brief, terrifying moment if he was having a heart attack.

Later, she would look back on this moment and marvel at the fact that despite what he had just been doing, she had never even considered the most obvious answer for what was upsetting him. Not until he reached out with a shaky hand and grasped hold of her fingers, placing them where his had just been. Then, in an instant, she knew exactly what was wrong, and she instinctively tried to pull her hand from underneath his. But Harm didn't let go; he just forced her fingers over that one spot.

"Do..." Harm's voice trailed off as his throat closed up. He took a deep breath and forced himself to try again, "Do you feel that?" he managed to get out in a choked whisper.

It was small, barely detectable and easily overlooked. And she would have overlooked it, had overlooked it. But now that he'd found it, now that he'd pointed it out to her, it was impossible to ignore.

"Yes," she whispered, her voice barely audible, even to herself, as she pressed her hand against the small lump in her breast.

 

Part 2

 

Yes

It was amazing how much damage one little word could do. A word that was meant for positive things; an answer to questions like `Do you love me?' or `Will you marry me?'. Not for ones like `Do you feel that lump in your breast?' or `Is it cancer?'

Cancer; that was another damaging word. It was a word that wasn't supposed to touch them. After all, isn't that what this was for? This monthly exam; wasn't it supposed to prevent this? Wasn't it a spell, performed every month to ward off an evil curse? As if just the touch of a hand, the gentle pressure of fingers sliding over soft flesh, could erase the threat as easily as erasing words on a chalkboard. Words like tumor, or disease. Or cancer.

Neither one of them said that word, of course. They didn't say anything. They didn't even move. They just sat there, staring at the hands still resting, one on top of the other, on her chest.

Harm was the first to recover, as his natural instinct to search for answers and fix problems kicked in and demanded that he take some kind of action. Sliding his hand away, he propped himself up on his elbow and asked softly, "What happens now?"

Mac looked at him, her eyes dazed. "I, um," she hesitated, trying to push away the fog of shock enveloping her. She met Harm's worried gaze and finished quietly, "I call the doctor and make an appointment."

"Are you going to do that now?" Even as he asked the question, he was leaning over to pick up his cell phone where it was lying on her nightstand.

"Harm, it's 2023," she countered, reaching over and trying to gently remove the phone from his hand. "I can't call now; no one would be there."

"It's Bethesda, Mac," he argued, not releasing his grip. "There's always doctors there."

Mac tugged harder and successfully pulled the cell from his hand, placing it back on the table. "For emergencies. This isn't an emergency."

"But-" Harm lifted his hand again, and Mac quickly covered it with her own.

"Harm, I'm going to Bethesda tomorrow afternoon to take a deposition." She squeezed his hand reassuringly. "I'll make an appointment with my doctor then."

"You should call first thing in the morning and see if they can fit you in tomorrow afternoon," he pushed her, unwilling to waste one moment, "since you'll already be there."

"Fine," she agreed quickly, not wanting to argue about it. Not wanting to think about it at all. "That's a good idea."

"What will you tell the doctor?" he quizzed her, missing the silent plea in her eyes.

"That I found a lump in my breast," she answered him with barely concealed impatience. There was nothing they could do about this tonight, and she desperately needed him to let it go for now. To stop pushing and let her pretend, just for one more night, that everything was fine.

But Harm couldn't let it go. He needed answers. He needed to know this was fixable. "What happens then? Are you going to have to go to a specialist-"

"Damn it, Harm!" she exploded, her frustration and her fear overpowering her. "How the hell should I know?"

Harm drew back in shock. He opened his mouth to defend himself, when he finally saw the fear hiding behind the anger in her eyes. The same fear that had taken hold of him. Taking a deep breath, he said softly. "I'm sorry. I just..."

He trailed off, unable to explain the confusing mass of emotions swirling in him right now. But Mac saw, and her anger dissipated as suddenly as it had appeared.

"I know. I do," she assured him. She sighed. "I'm sorry, Harm. I didn't mean to snap. But I've never dealt with this before either. I don't know what happens next."

Of course she didn't. He should have realized that, and not pushed. "You're right. I'm sorry." He looked at her with a kind of desperate hope. "Besides, it's probably nothing. Most of the time these things are nothing, right?"

"Right," she agreed, shaking her head fervently, "I'm sure it's nothing. Nothing to worry about."

"Absolutely." They spoke the words as another talisman to ward off evil, and hoped desperately that they would work.

"Um, what...are you hungry?" Harm asked, deciding that avoidance was the only thing they could really do tonight. "Why don't I make us some dinner?"

"Yeah, dinner sounds good." Actually, nothing sounded more unappealing at the moment. Her stomach was tied up in so many knots; it would take forever to untangle them. Still, if it gave him something to do, somewhere else to focus his attentions, she would pretend. "Do you want to order a pizza or something?"

"No, I got stuff for sandwiches at the store," Harm told her, sliding off the bed. He grabbed a pair of sweats and a t-shirt from the drawer. "And I got some soup from that deli down the street. I just need to reheat it."

"Oh, okay," she said quietly. She watched him slip into his clothes, and it only served to emphasize her own nakedness. Hastily pulling her robe back onto her shoulders, she stammered, "I'll, um, I'll get dressed quick and then I'll come help you."

"Great." He slowly headed for the kitchen, torn between his desire to escape the oppressive weight that was hanging between them, and the need to keep her within arms reach. When he finally reached the door, he turned back. Mac had pulled out a pair of old pajamas, and was sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling on the bottoms. Looking closer, he recognized her old cowboy pajamas, and for a moment his fear melted in the face of old memories. The need to tell her that he loved her washed over him and he called out softly, "Mac?"

"Yeah?" She lifted her head to meet his gaze, and his declaration died in his throat. Sitting on that bed, half-clothed, big brown eyes full of apprehension and concern, was the most important person in his life. She was his life, and there was a chance that she could be sick; that he could lose her.

"I..." he cleared his throat and, unable to deal with either his love or the fear that was now inextricably bound to it, said hurriedly, "Make sure you put something on your feet. It's going to get pretty chilly tonight."

"I will," she reassured him with an understanding smile. Harm nodded and rushed out of the room. Mac watched him go, the smile slipping from her face. When she was sure he was out of hearing, she whispered, "I love you, too."

She pulled on her pajama top, but when she went to button it, she found that her hands were trembling. As she pulled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them, all of the emotions she'd been suppressing slammed in to her, and all she could do was rock and back forth as she tried desperately to catch her breath. This wasn't happening. Not now, not when her life was finally getting close to what she'd always dreamed it would be. God couldn't be that cruel, could he?

No, she swore silently. She was not going to do this. She was not going to fall apart, and she was not going to jump to conclusions. It was probably nothing, just like they'd said. Just because they'd found a lump didn't mean she had breast cancer, and she wasn't going to assume the worst like she had so many times in the past. She was going to be positive; she was going to believe that everything would be fine until someone came along and showed her proof otherwise.

Mac lifted her head from her knees and let her legs slide to the floor. She took a couple of long, deep breaths and forced herself to a place of calm. She knew better than to think that her anxiety was going to go away just because she wanted it to, but she wasn't going to let it take over. She was a marine, and she was damn well going to act like one. With that in mind, she quickly finished buttoning her top and strode out to find Harm.

He wasn't in the kitchen, although their food was sitting on the table waiting. Instead, she found him lying on the floor in the living room, straining to get his arm underneath the sofa. Curious, she walked over to him.

"Harm, what are you doing?" she asked as she perched on the arm of the couch.

"Looking for Cocoa Puffs," came the muffled answer, and she frowned in confusion.

"Excuse me?" She said as she watched him slide his arm out and start to lift himself off of the floor.

"I had a little accident while I was bringing the groceries in," Harm admitted as he leaned back onto his heels and opened his hand to show her the half-dozen puffs he'd gathered. He shrugged sheepishly. "Your cereal was a casualty."

"I see," she responded sagely, but her attempt at seriousness was ruined by the twinkle in her eye. "Do you need some help?" she offered.

"No, I think I got most of them," he told her with a roll of his eyes. "We'll find any strays this weekend during the move." Standing up, he held out his hand to her. "Ready to eat?"

"Sure," she responded, taking his hand. Harm quickly shoved the cereal into it and forced her fingers into a fist, crushing it. Annoyed, she tried to fling the remains at him, but he ducked into the kitchen with a smirk. Mac just shook her head and, after rinsing off her hands in the sink, joined him at the table.

The roast beef sandwich he made her was excellent, as was the chicken noodle soup from the deli; but Mac found it impossible to force down more than a few mouthfuls of each. Harm managed even less than that, but neither one of them brought up the other's glaring lack of appetite as tension once again filled the space between them. Mac simply picked up the food and went into the kitchen to wrap it up to take to work tomorrow, while Harm headed over to the television to begin packing up the videos.

Mac finished with the food and decided that since she was already in the kitchen, she would finish packing up the dishes. She had just pulled out the newspaper to begin wrapping the glasses when Harm called out and asked her to come into the living room. Although there was nothing in his words or his tone to indicate that he was going to attempt a serious discussion, Mac hesitated. She just wanted to forget. Tomorrow, when it was time to call the doctor, time to give voice to what they had found, to what they feared; then she would deal with it. But tonight, she just wanted to pretend that it didn't exist; that they were just two people in love about to start their life together.

He called to her again, and she sighed and set the newspaper back on the counter. She made her way into the living room, entering just in time to see Harm push a movie into the VCR. When he saw her standing there, he picked up the remote and used it to motion her over to the sofa.

"Harm?" Mac didn't move, just stood there looking at him in confusion. "I thought we were going to pack?"

"I had a better idea," he told her. He moved over to the sofa and tucked himself into the corner before holding out his hand and motioning for her again. "Come here," he insisted, and she finally began to move towards him. He gave her a small but sincere smile.

"You and I are going to curl up on the sofa and watch a movie, and just forget about everything. Packing, moving, the outside world...everything." He hesitated for just a second, and then shook his head with a smile that was wider than the first, and only a little forced. "How does that sound?"

"It sounds perfect," she said sincerely, grateful that they were on the same page, and the tension between them melted. It amazed her how they managed to understand each other so well, and yet found themselves misunderstanding each other for so long. But she wasn't going to think about that now, she vowed as she sat down between his legs and let him pull her against his chest. She sighed, for this one moment she was perfectly content, and she was going to do her best to forget everything else and just cherish that.

She turned her head into his chest, inhaling the intoxicatingly familiar scent of him, before burrowing deeper into his arms and asking with only the mildest of curiosity, "What are we watching?"

Harm just tightened his arms around her and said mysteriously, "You'll see."

"Harm, don't tease," she scolded him, but Harm knew she wasn't serious. Teasing, smiling, laughing, those were exactly the things they needed right now. Tomorrow would be soon enough for the rest. Forcing himself to bury the last of those disquieting thoughts, he focused all of his attention on Mac as she peremptorily ordered him to tell her what they were watching.

He allowed himself a dramatic pause before saying grandly, "As you wish." He swung his arm out with a flourish, starting the movie. He knew the moment Mac figured out his hint, because she gave a very unmarinelike squeal of delight and leaned up to give him a big kiss.

"I thought you were never going to watch this again?" she teased as the credits for The Princess Bride rolled across the screen. It was Mac's favorite movie, although very few people actually knew that, and those that did were sworn to secrecy. After all, it didn't fit with her tough marine image. It didn't fit with Harm's tough flyboy image, either, which was the reason he vehemently denied any appreciation for the movie at all.

"I wasn't," he answered her question with a martyred air. "But I decided that for you, I'll suffer through it one last time."

"How big of you," she said sarcastically. She decided not to mention that he was the one who had bought her a new copy when her old one started to wear out. Or about that time she came home unexpectedly to find him engrossed in one of the dueling scenes, quoting the lines of both Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes. Instead, she just wrapped her hands around one of the arms encircling her waist and leaned back to enjoy the movie.

She barely made it past the credits before she fell asleep, exhausted by the day's events. Harm spent the first half hour or so trying to get lost in the movie, but soon realized it was hopeless. His mind refused to focus on anything but Mac, and the possibility that she could have...that she could be sick.

He glanced down at the head resting peacefully against his chest, and marveled again at how lucky he was to have her in his arms. So many times over the years, he had despaired of them ever moving beyond friendship. It had taken them so long, and they had been through so much to get where they were; he didn't want to think that it could be taken away already.

Mac whimpered and shifted a little in his arms, and he immediately focused all of his attention on her. Sliding one hand off of her hip, he reached up and began to stroke her hair to soothe her. For the longest time he just sat there holding her as he tried to convince himself that everything would be fine. He was still trying when a slight whine startled him out of his contemplation. He looked up and saw the blue screen on the television signaling that the movie was over. He quickly grabbed the remote from the coffee table, jostling Mac awake in the process.

"The movie over?" she murmured sleepily, curling herself up into an even tighter ball in his arms.

"Yeah. It's late, Mac," he whispered, gently pushing her up off of his chest. He held her arms until she steadied herself, before pressing his lips to her temple. "Time for bed."

"'kay." She mumbled as she got up and stumbled towards the bedroom. Halfway there, she realized that Harm wasn't following her and turned around. Rubbing her eyes, she asked, "You coming?"

Harm shook his head. "I'm not tired. I think I'm going to work on some of the packing." Although he tried to sound nonchalant about it, Mac could hear the tension in his voice and knew that the little bubble of forgetfulness they had enveloped themselves in had burst.

"Harm," she protested, knowing that if he didn't come to bed now, he wouldn't be coming at all. She didn't want that; the only reason she had fallen asleep on the sofa was because she could feel his arms around her. She needed his arms to help her feel safe, and she knew he needed the same thing from her. But as she looked into his eyes, she saw that he had already erected his walls, and there would be no dislodging them without a fight. Because she was too tired for that, she just sighed and said resignedly, "Don't stay up too late."

"I won't," he told her quickly, grateful that she wasn't going to push him. Looking into her eyes and seeing the worry and disbelief there, he tried to reassure her. "I promise I'll go to bed at a reasonable hour. Don't worry, okay? "

"Okay," she nodded softly, careful to hide her hurt at his words. He had said he would go to bed, not come to it, and she was sure she'd find him asleep on the couch in the morning. "I love you," she told him, hurrying to the bedroom before he could see her tears; his "I love you, too" falling on deaf ears.

 

JAG Headquarters
December 2, 2003

0930 EST

 

"Sir, are you alright?" Bud asked as he watched Harm shift uncomfortably in his seat for what seemed like the hundredth time since their meeting had started half an hour ago.

"I'm fine, Bud," Harm sighed as he rolled his head in another vain attempt to get rid of the stiffness in his neck. He caught Bud's disbelieving stare and admitted, "My body's a little too old to be sleeping on couches."

"Ah," Bud said understandingly. He knew all about sleeping on couches. "What did you do, sir?"

"Huh?" Harm looked at him in confusion. He saw the sympathetic look on Bud's face and realized the younger man had misunderstood. "Oh. We didn't have a fight, Bud. I was working on packing things up, and sat down on the couch to rest for a minute. Next thing I knew, it was morning and Mac was waking me up to get ready for work."

Bud laughed. "I've done that once or twice myself, sir, working on a big case," he confided to his mentor. "Was the Colonel mad?"

"Was I mad about what, Bud?" asked a familiar voice from the doorway. Harm looked up and saw Mac leaning against the doorframe, her arms crossed over her chest and a look of curiosity on her face. Bud turned around in his chair and smiled.

"About the Commander falling asleep on the couch, ma'am," Bud explained, missing the way Mac stiffened a little at his question.

"No, I wasn't mad," she said, forcing a smile. Not mad, but hurt. Just because she had guessed that he would spend the night on the couch didn't make it feel better to wake up alone, knowing that Harm would rather sleep on something three sizes to small for him than join her in their bed.

She gave herself a little mental shake. There were more important things for the two of them to deal with than where Harm fell asleep last night. With that in mind, Mac turned to Bud. "Bud, could you give us a minute? There's something I need to talk over with the Commander before I head out to Bethesda."

"Of course, ma'am," Bud said agreeably, oblivious to the tension building in the room. He turned to Harm. "That is, if it's alright with you, sir."

"Sure, Bud." Harm handed him a file and added, "I'll come to your office when Mac and I are done so that we can finish up."

"Sounds good, sir. Ma'am." Bud nodded to them both and headed back to his office.

Harm waited just long enough for Mac to close his door before speaking. "Did you call the doctor?" he questioned her, leaning forward intently.

"Yes. She can fit me in this afternoon at 1300," Mac told him calmly. "I'll have to leave a little early, so we won't be able to have lunch together."

"That's okay. We can pick something up on the way to Bethesda," he said as she sat down across from him.

"We?" Mac asked, puzzled. "Harm, you can't come with me. You're in court this afternoon."

"Bud can handle it. It's a pretty cut and dried case." It wasn't really; that's why the Admiral had it assigned to both of them. But today was just opening statements; Bud could handle that by himself easily enough.

"And what were you planning on telling the Admiral?" she questioned pointedly.

"That you needed my help? I had to chase down a lead?" he said with a hopeful grin. Her expression didn't change, and he admitted with a sigh, "I'm not sure, okay? But I'll think of something."

"No, you won't." Mac leaned across the desk and took Harm's hand. "Harm, I appreciate that you want to come with. I really do. But it's not practical and it's not necessary."

"The hell it isn't," Harm declared forcefully. "I'm not letting you go through this alone."

"Harm, it's a first visit," she explained gently, trying to keep him calm. "All she's going to do is verify that there's something there and order more tests."

Harm glared at her accusingly. "I thought you didn't know what was going to happen?"

"I didn't," she replied, starting to get a little defensive at his tone. "I asked."

"Well, what if I have questions of my own?" Harm didn't mean for the question to come out so belligerently, but he couldn't help it. He was tired, he was sore, and although he refused to admit it, even to himself, he was terrified.

Mac, however, knew that he was afraid without him having to say a word, and it took the edge off of her anger. "Tell me what they are and I'll ask for you," she said, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze. He didn't look at all mollified, and Mac sighed. "Harm, be reasonable. If you come with me, all you'll be able to do is sit in the waiting room. What's the point?"

"The point is that I'll be doing something," he said stubbornly, pulling his hand away from her and crossing his arms over his chest. Mac thought he looked just like AJ Roberts did when he was about to throw a tantrum, and she had to literally bite her tongue not to tell him so.

"No, if you stay here you'll be doing something," she told him with exaggerated patience as her anger started to resurface. "Like your job. If you come with me, all you'll be doing is pacing back and forth and driving everyone around you crazy."

"So you don't want me to come with you," he said flatly. It was a statement, not a question, and Mac could see that he was no longer even attempting to listen to what she was trying to tell him.

"No, I don't," she shot back, fed up with his attitude. "Not when you're like this, I don't. I-"

"Fine," he cut off her abruptly. Picking up his file, he pushed angrily away from his desk.

Mac reached out and grabbed hold of his arm as he passed. "Harm-"

"No, you're right," he told her, pulling his arm away. "I have work to do; a lot of it. And since you don't need me, I should get back to it."

"I never said I didn't need you, Harm," she exclaimed in aggravation, unsure of how this had gotten out of control so quickly. She just needed him to sit down long enough for her to explain, but he had already opened his office door and was halfway into the hall.

"Damn it! Don't do this!" she called after him.

"I'm not doing anything. And that's your choice, not mine." His voice was cold. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go see Bud."

And with that parting shot he was gone. Mac collapsed back into her seat, and covered her face with her hands. This is not happening, she thought.

But it was happening, and she didn't know how to deal with it; how to deal with any of it. All she could do was hope that her doctor was going to give her some good news, so she wouldn't have to figure it out.

 

Naval Hospital
Bethesda, Maryland

1610 EST

 

The appointment was over, and Mac was grateful for it. It had been pretty much what she'd expected, what she'd told Harm it would be. She had gone in, put on one of those obnoxious paper shirts, and waited twenty-one minutes in the freezing examination room for her doctor to come in and confirm that she did, in fact, have a very small lump in her breast. After that came the reassurances, and the discussion of tests that would be needed just to make sure it was nothing. And then, after a pat on the knee and an admonition not to worry, the doctor was gone, leaving Mac and her paper shirt behind. Finally, after taking two minutes to slip back into her uniform and thirty-one to set up her next appointment, she went off to take care of her depositions and was now finally able to head home.

Mac stepped outside just as the clouds opened and a freezing rain started falling heavily around her. She thought for the briefest moment that she should go back inside and wait for the storm to ease, but the idea of spending any more time within those cold, sterile hospital walls made her stomach turn. Without another moment's hesitation, she turned and sprinted as fast as she could across the parking lot to her car. By the time she reached her `vette she was drenched; her coat had offered little protection against the wind and rain. Sliding quickly into the driver's seat, she locked the doors and started the car, turning the heat up full blast. Letting it idle, she reached into the back for her workout bag and dug through it until she found a towel. She slid out of her jacket and dried herself off as best she could before tossing the towel onto the seat beside her. Then she pulled her phone out of her purse and started to plug it into the car charger; but when she turned it on she noticed the flashing voice mail icon, and knew it could only be from Harm.

Mac sighed. Although she had tried more than once that morning to pull him aside to talk, he managed to successfully avoid her, finally dragging Bud off to a conference room so that they could work out their strategy in private. He hadn't even come to see if she'd left ,to wish her good luck. She knew he was smarting about being left behind. She was also willing to bet that he had avoided her more out of guilt than anger, and that the guilt had pushed him to overcome his pride and try to call her. Looking at the time stamp, she saw that the message had been left just a couple of minutes after she'd entered the hospital and turned off her phone. She bit her lip, debating whether to listen to it here or wait until she got home. In the end, she decided it wouldn't be fair to leave him hanging about her appointment, no matter how annoyed with him she might be. With another large sigh, she punched in her code and listened to her message. Hey, Mac. It's me. I wanted to call and wish you luck, but you must already be inside. His voice was soft and unsure, and Mac felt a little twist in her stomach. So, um, if you could just call me when you get out. I mean, I'll be in court, but if you could call and leave me a message to let me know how it went, I'd appreciate it. I'll talk to you later. I'm sorry. Love you.

And with that, the message ended, taking with it the last of Mac's anger. She had told him last night that she didn't know how she was supposed to deal with all of this; the truth was that neither one of them had any idea what was going to happen, nor how they would handle it. All they could really do was try and handle it together. And the first step would be for Mac to leave the message Harm requested. She didn't want to go into details over the phone, especially about her next appointment, but she could at least let him know that things were okay. She quickly dialed his cell, knowing he would check it as soon as he left court.

"Hey, it's me," she said softly, "I just got your message. The appointment went fine, I guess. The office was cold and I hate those stupid paper shirts. And I have another appointment scheduled, but I'll talk to you more about it when you get home." Suddenly, the desire to get away from the hospital and all that it represented grew with every word she spoke, so she rushed through the rest of the message. "Don't forget we're at your apartment tonight to finish packing. I'll see you when you get there. I, um, I hope court's going well. Love you."

Hanging up the phone, she quickly put her car in gear and peeled out of the parking lot, heading towards Harm's apartment with the devil on her heels.

 

Harm's Apartment
1805 EST

 

As soon as Harm stepped off the elevator, he could hear music blaring inside his apartment. Quickly unlocking the door, he stepped in to find Mac sitting on the floor in front of his bookcase wrapping up a frame in newspaper. Singing along, loudly but only a little off-key, to the Eagles `Heartache Tonight', she didn't notice him come in until he reached up and turned down the volume.

Startled, Mac looked up and saw Harm standing over her, smirking slightly. Blushing, she fixed her gaze back on the frame in her hands before mumbling a quiet hello.

"Hi," he answered, placing his briefcase and cover by the door before heading into the bedroom to change. Unbuttoning his uniform jacket, he glanced over and saw her stand up just long enough to turn off the stereo before settling back on the floor to finish wrapping the frame. As he began to hang up his uniform, he wondered what to do. Although she didn't seem to be angry with him anymore, he knew that he still needed to apologize face to face. Still, it wouldn't hurt to feel out her mood a little. With that in mind, he decided to try a little small talk. "How long have you been here?"

"Seventy-two minutes," she told him as she placed the frame in the box beside her. She pushed the flaps closed with one hand and reached out with the other to grab hold of the packing tape. It wasn't where she thought it was, so she had to let go of the box and lean behind her to pick it up. When she turned back around, Harm was kneeling on the other side of the box in jeans and an old sweatshirt, holding the flaps closed for her. She gave him a small smile. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. Have you been packing this whole time?" he asked, trying to keep the conversation going.

She nodded, pulling out a piece of tape. "We still have a lot to get done for the move, and we don't have time to waste. I left you a message."

"Yeah, I got it. Thanks," he told her. He took the tape from her and placed it on his side of the box, pressing it down before handing the roll back to her. As he moved his hands back, he admitted quietly, "I, um...I wasn't sure you'd want to see me right now."

Without looking up, she replied just as quietly, "If I didn't want to see you, I wouldn't have spent all morning trying to talk to you."

Harm reached out and placed his hands over hers. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely, giving her hands a gentle squeeze. "I completely overreacted today, and I am so sorry."

"I know," she whispered, turning her hands over and interlacing their fingers. "I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have lost my temper, and I should have done a better job of explaining myself."

"Kind of hard when I wouldn't let you finish a sentence," Harm countered. He knew that she was trying to let him off the hook, but he wasn't going to let her. He hadn't given her a chance this morning, and they both knew it.

"Will you let me now?" she asked, biting her lip as she waited for his response.

"Yes," he told her firmly. Releasing her hands long enough to stand and push the box out of the way, he reached down and helped her to her feet before leading them over to the couch. When they were seated next to each other, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Ignoring the butterflies in his stomach, he asked calmly, "What did the doctor say, Mac?"

Mac took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts before saying, "She examined me, and confirmed that there was a lump in my breast. She doesn't think it's anything," she hastened to reassure him, "something like seventy percent of lumps end up being benign, but we still have to make sure."

"Of course," he agreed quickly, and felt a little of his tension ease at the positive statistic. Still, he would feel even better if he knew exactly what was going on. "How do they do that? You mentioned something about a test in your message."

"A biopsy," she confirmed, shifting around so she could see his face, "it's called a fine needle aspiration."

"Surgery?" Harm asked sharply, his anxiety rising again.

"No, no surgery," she told him. "It's actually pretty much like it sounds. They take a long, skinny needle and stick it inside the lump, pull out some cells to test, and it's done. In and out in less than an hour."

Harm nodded, breathing a little sigh of relief. The thought of Mac in a hospital bed brought back too many memories of this summer, when he had come so close to losing her. "And how long until they know something?"

"She said it normally takes about three days, but things are backed up, so it could take a little longer," she said with an annoyed roll of her eyes. She shrugged. "But definitely no more than five days."

"Five days," Harm snorted derisively. Of course it would take longer than normal; it was, after all, a military operation. Which brought up another question. "How soon before you get an appointment?"

"I already have one actually." Harm was so surprised, and so relieved with that bit of news that he didn't catch the hesitant note in Mac's voice.

"That's great!" he enthused, "Don't want to wait any longer than necessary, right?" When she didn't answer, he looked at her in confusion. He frowned as he watched Mac's gaze drop to her lap. "Mac, what's the matter?"

She shook her head. "Nothing, it's just..." she hesitated as she tried to decide how to tell him. Finally she just decided to blurt it out. "I made the appointment for Friday at 1600."

Harm did a quick mental check of his calendar, and didn't like what he saw. "Friday? But I'll be in court!"

"I know, but I couldn't help it," she told him helplessly. She looked up at him with wide, pleading eyes. "I tried to get a different time, Harm, but the next one available would have been next Thursday. That's an extra week, and I don't think I can wait that long. I'm sorry."

"Don't," he told her quickly, trying to shake off his frustration. "Don't be sorry, Mac. Of course you can't wait that long. I can't either."

"So you're not angry with me?" Mac asked hesitantly, nervously reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear.

"No! Of course not!" Harm exclaimed forcefully. Sliding his arms around her waist, he dragged her onto his lap. She immediately wrapped her arms around him, and for a long moment they just sat there, taking comfort in each other. Finally Harm pressed a kiss to her hair and said softly, "Mac, I'm not angry with you. I wasn't this morning, either. Not really," he told her, trying to find a way to explain his actions. "I knew you were right. I was just so frustrated. And I felt so helpless. I don't know how to explain-"

"You don't have to, Harm. I understand," she cut him off. She leaned her head on his chest. "It's hard to think of someone you care about in pain while you're locked away, unable to help them. Believe me, I know."

"I know you do," he whispered, knowing she was remembering what Webb had gone through in Paraguay at Sadik's hands. What she had almost gone through herself. He hugged her closer, trying to shield them both from the terrible memories of that time. After a moment, he slid a finger under her chin and tilted her face up to his. "There's a difference, though, Mac. I'm not locked away. I'm sure if I explain to the Admiral, he'll let me take the time-"

"No." Her answer was immediate and absolute. "Absolutely not, Harm. You're not saying anything to the Admiral or anyone else."

"Why on earth not?" he asked, startled by the intensity and determination in her gaze.

"Because I don't want them to know," she responded simply, her eyes never leaving his. "Harm, this past year has been so hard, on all of us. And now that things are finally starting to get back to normal, I don't want to shake things up again."

Harm sighed. "Mac, don't do this," he pleaded with her, "Don't run away from everyone again."

"I'm not. I promise, I'm not," she swore, willing him to see the truth in her eyes. "If it turns out that there's something there, then I'll tell the Admiral and the others. But I'm not going to worry them if I don't have to," she explained. "It's bad enough that we're going to spend the next week on edge. Why make everyone else suffer, probably needlessly, with us?"

He nodded. She was right; it didn't make much sense to tell them when all they could do was wait and worry. But he wasn't completely satisfied with her decision, either. "How are you going to get the time without telling the Admiral?"

"I've already got it, remember?" She slid one of her arms away from him and gestured to the sea of boxes. "He agreed to let me secure early so that I could have extra time to get ready for the move. I leave at 1100. I'll go home, get some things done at the house, and then drive over to Bethesda."

And that, Harm thought, was where his dissatisfaction lay. It was bad enough that she'd have to go through the biopsy alone. He'd be damned if she was going to make the drive there and back by herself.

"I think you should take a cab," he told her, and gave himself a little pat on the back for sounding so calm and reasonable. And for not blurting out his first thought, which went something along the lines of `You WILL take a cab!' and would have most likely landed him on the floor begging for mercy.

Mac wasn't as impressed with his restraint. "A cab?" she asked incredulously. "Do you know how expensive that is?"

"Not as expensive as it would be to fix your car if you get into an accident trying to drive home following your procedure," he argued. "You take a cab there, and I'll pick you up."

"Harm, it's not like they're putting me under or anything," she said exasperatedly, and fought the urge to roll her eyes. "The only thing they're going to numb is my breast, and I don't use that to drive."

"It could make you sore. Something could happen," Harm countered stubbornly, and before she could think up another argument, he took hold of her free hand and placed it against his chest. "Mac, please. Just humor me on this, okay? It's going to be hard enough being left behind at JAG while you're having this done. Please just take a cab to the hospital, and let me pick you up."

"Harm-" Mac's protest died with a small sigh when she saw the pleading look in his eyes. His plan, while more expensive and time consuming and really not necessary, gave him something to do, something that would stave off those feelings of helplessness. And that made it worth the trouble.

"All right. We'll do it your way," she finally agreed, and was rewarded with a gentle kiss.

"Thank you," Harm murmured against her lips. He considered extending the kiss indefinitely, but he wasn't sure if there were still things left to discuss. "So, is there anything else the doctor told you that I need to know?"

"I don't think so. She gave me a few things for us to read when we get a chance," she told him, gesturing to the pamphlets on the coffee table. "Oh, and I told her you might have some questions and she said you could call her and she'd be happy to talk to you."

"Thanks," he said sincerely. He was grateful that she was trying hard not to shut him out. Right now, though, trying to process anything else was the last thing he wanted. "Do you, um, do you mind if we read these later though? I'm on overload right now, and I don't think I'll be able to process this stuff until later."

"That's fine," she answered quickly, giving him a small, relieved smile. "I feel the same way, actually."

Harm smiled back at her, happy that they were once again on the same page. "So," he asked as he ran one hand up and down her back, wondering idly if he could resume the kissing portion of the program, "I guess that means we should start tackling this, huh?"

Unfortunately for him, Mac had other ideas. "Okay," she agreed, sliding off of his lap. She headed over to the phone. "But I'm hungry, so let's order something to eat first."

Harm rolled his eyes. He should have known. "Of course," he said sarcastically, "What was I thinking?"

"Shut up, squid," Mac said, glaring at him from across the room before playfully sticking her tongue out at him. Instead of responding in kind, Mac could see him decide to take her gesture as an invitation, and she quickly darted around the kitchen counter to head him off. He gave her a pitiful frown, but she just ignored it and ordered them a pizza. Sighing in defeat, Harm moved to the bedroom to pack up the last of his clothes.

They didn't bother to stop packing when the pizza arrived; they just grabbed paper plates and took them back to their respective positions, and for the rest of the night they packed and ate in companionable silence. It wasn't until Mac had finished wrapping the last of Harm's glasses that she realized how late it was; it was a good thing they'd decided to stay the night here.

"Harm," she called out from her perch on the kitchen counter, "it's 2330, and we both have court in the morning. Time for bed."

"Hmm?" he asked absently, poking his head around a pile of boxes near the door. He glanced instinctively at his watch. It was late, and he was tired. Still, packing was doing wonders keeping his mind off of his worries, so he told her to go ahead while he finished up this last box.

Mac wasn't buying it. She knew him too well, and she knew that if she didn't say something they would have a repeat of last night. And she wasn't about to sleep alone again.

"Harm, you're exhausted," she pointed out reasonably. "Not to mention the fact that your back and neck can't take another night of this."

He waved off her concern. "I'm okay, Mac."

"No you're not," she argued, walking over to him. She knelt down behind him and started running her hands soothingly along his back. "But if you come into the bedroom, I'll give you a nice long massage and you will be."

When Harm didn't budge, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and whispered against his ear, "Harm, please. Don't make me go to bed alone."

Unable to resist her pleading tone, he nodded and let her pull him to his feet and into the bedroom. She nudged him towards the bed with instructions to strip down to his boxers, and then headed to the bathroom to change. By the time she came out wearing nothing more than one of his old t-shirts and a pair of panties, Harm was lying face down on the bed, trying to keep his eyes open.

He was exhausted. The events of the past twenty-four hours had finally caught up with him, and now he wanted nothing more than to sleep. Unfortunately, his physical fatigue was not enough to counteract the knot that was once again taking up residence in his gut. He tried to resist it, but by the time Mac had eased herself onto the bed, he was tenser than ever.

Mac straddled his thighs, resting her weight on her heels, and began to slowly run her palms up and down his back. As she felt his muscles start to relax a little, she began to knead them, working away all of his tension and worries. And it wasn't long before Harm began to drift to that hazy place between waking and dreaming. But just as he was about to fall asleep, he felt a change in Mac's movements.

Leaning forward and bracing her hands on either side of him, Mac began to trail little butterfly kisses down his back. She knew she shouldn't, knew she was taking the chance that she would arouse him and delay him the rest he so desperately needed, but she couldn't help herself. She needed to feel him, needed to feel their connection and erase the memory of the fear and loneliness of last night and this morning. So she kept pressing those soft kisses against his bare skin, until Harm finally slid onto his back and tangled his fingers in her hair as he pulled her down for a passionate kiss.

By the time the kiss was over, he had pulled her shirt halfway over her head, and she was frantically trying to get him out of his boxers. And then there was nothing but the touch of skin on skin, and they were making love as if it was their first, or their last, time. It was passionate, and it was desperate, and it was filled with such wild tenderness that she couldn't help the tears that fell as they came apart in each other's arms.

And when it was over, Harm wrapped his arms around her and laid his head on her chest, needing the reassurance he heard in the wild beating of her heart.

"Don't leave me, Sarah," he begged her in a choked whisper as he gave in just for a moment to his darkest fear, "Don't ever leave me."

"Never, Harm," she swore tearfully, clutching him tightly to her. "I won't ever leave you."

It was a promise she had made him before, an impossible promise, but one that she was nonetheless determined to keep.

 

December 6, 2003
Rabb
/Mackenzie residence
Alexandria, VA

2015 EST

 

It had taken them the entire day and well into the evening, but the JAG crew had managed to move everything from Harm and Mac's apartments into their new house, and had even gotten a significant portion of it unpacked. Now they were sitting scattered throughout the living and dining rooms, eating and relaxing and just truly enjoying each other's company for the first time in a long while.

Harm had just finished starting a fire in the fireplace, and was now leaning against the mantle, taking a moment to proudly survey his new home. It really *was* a good house, he thought to himself. It wasn't big or flashy, just a simple two-story in a quiet neighborhood; but it was sturdy and comfortable. And despite the lack of paint in some of the rooms, and the boxes still scattered here and there, it was already home; thanks in large part to the efforts of the people gathered around him.

Harm looked around the room. Harriet was sitting on the sofa, feeding Jimmy and talking to Meredith and Jen about wedding plans. He looked around for the elder of the Roberts children and was amused to see him on his namesake's lap while the Admiral read him a story. Upon closer inspection, he saw that little AJ's bedtime story was actually one of Mac's dinosaur books, as the rest of the books were still packed in their boxes. And it apparently wasn't one of the more interesting dinosaur books in the world, if the way little AJ's head was nodding on big AJ's shoulder was any indication. Of course, it could just be that the little boy was worn out after a tough day of helping lead the troops. Mac had, after much pestering and begging on AJ's part, made her godson second in command, and had him relaying orders to the adults on where everything went. He had been a good XO, until he had decided that his little brother would best service the operation by staying out of everyone's way while they were working. At least, that's the explanation he gave his father when Bud found Jimmy in one of the downstairs closets. Bud didn't buy it, though, and little AJ was quickly demoted and sent to time out.

Shifting his gaze with a smile, he saw Bud sitting at the dining room table with Mikey, who had come up from Annapolis for the weekend. They were talking quietly, neither one paying any attention to Bud's prosthetic, which was lying on the table between them while Bud worked out a cramp in his leg. Harm shook his head, amazed at how quickly they had all adapted to Bud's injury, especially Bud himself. He wasn't just bouncing back to his old self; he was becoming a better lawyer and officer, a better man. It hadn't been easy, though, and there had been more than a few bumps in the road. His gaze automatically sought out Sturgis. He found him off by himself in the living room, staring out the large picture window that faced the back yard with a melancholy look on his face. He had been true to his word, and had done his best to maintain a pleasant, if somewhat reserved, attitude during the move. He seemed to be coming out of his funk a little, although his relationship with Bud was still strained and they had spent most of the day trying to stay out of each other's way.

As he stood gazing thoughtfully at his oldest friend, he noticed Mac come up and stand beside Sturgis, placing a hand lightly on his arm. Sturgis didn't take his eyes from the window, but he did reach up and cover her hand with one of his own. Mac rested her head against his shoulder, and for a long moment, the two of them stood silently looking out at the clear night sky. Then Mac raised her head, gave his arm a quick squeeze, and headed off to the other room, probably to go call and check on Mattie, who had missed out on the move thanks to an ill-timed bout with the flu. Sturgis turned and watched her go, a slight smile gracing his face. Harm shook his head, wondering how Mac seemed to know just when to push Sturgis, and when to leave him alone. It was a skill he didn't possess, his tendency was to push until he got what he was looking for, but he was trying to learn. And this past week dealing with Mac had presented him with plenty of opportunities to do so, especially last night.

True to his word, he had picked her up after her biopsy, managing to get there just as she was walking out of the doctor's office. When he asked her how it went, she had shrugged and said that it was fine, no worse than getting a blood test done. But she had been quiet and withdrawn the whole way home, and he knew that there was more to it than she was saying. It had taken every last ounce of strength not to push her to tell him what was wrong. Instead, he had made small talk, telling her about his day in court, his phone conversation with Mattie, and the last minute details about the move. She had seemed grateful for the distraction, and by the time they had gotten home had seemed like her normal self. They had eaten dinner and finished up what little packing was left before deciding to head off to bed early. She had gotten quiet again then, and instead of changing in front of him like she always did, she had taken her pajamas into the bathroom. And when she finally joined him in bed, she had clung tightly to him, something she hadn't done since this summer when she was still having nightmares about Sadik. It worried him; however they were so busy today that he hadn't had a chance to do more than make sure she wasn't in any pain from yesterday's procedure. But as he watched Mac end her phone conversation, he vowed that before they went to bed that night, he was going to find out what had happened at the doctor's yesterday to upset her so.

"No, Mrs. Patterson, don't bother to wake her. Just give her my love and tell her to make sure she rests...Thank you...Bye."

Mac hung up the phone after assuring herself once again that Mattie was all right. She was grateful to the Pattersons for taking such good care of her, and for how well Mattie had been responding to them. Especially considering the events of the past week.

Harm was worried about her, she knew; she could feel his eyes on her from across the room. But she wasn't ready to talk to him yet, especially not now, when they had a houseful of people. She didn't want to talk about it at all; there was nothing he could do, and what she told him would just cause him to worry more. But she knew that he wouldn't let it drop, and a small, selfish part of her was grateful for that. Although she had gotten used to carrying her burdens alone over the years, it felt good to finally have someone who was willing to share them with her. She just wished that it didn't feel so one-sided. Since they'd begun their relationship, it seemed like he was the one who was always having to take care of her, and if she *was* sick, he would be doing it more than ever.

She also felt guilty because she knew that being sick would pretty much tank their chances of getting guardianship of Mattie. She had briefly considered stepping back so as not to jeopardize their chances, but when she had mentioned the idea to Harm, he had quickly vetoed that idea, reminding her of his vow not to let the situation with Mattie come before their relationship. He had actually been pretty angry with her for even suggesting it, an anger that she now realized stemmed from his constant fear of losing her. She had never quite understood how strong that fear was until she had been shot, but once she had she did her best to reassure him that she wasn't going anywhere. She wondered if she would still be able to do that once the test results came back.

Finally compelled to turn around, Mac turned and saw that he was still watching her, his eyes full of love and fear. Feeling her own eyes fill with tears, she quickly turned away before she broke down, taking a moment to regain her composure before heading over to sit with Meredith and Harriet.

From his perch on the couch, holding a now sleeping AJ Roberts in his arms, the Admiral watched the interaction between Harm and Mac with a concerned eye. Although he doubted anyone at JAG realized it, he had been watching them all as closely as possible since last summer. He was determined not to let things get as out of control as they had since Rabb's arrest for Singer's murder. And so he had noticed almost immediately that something was off with his Chief of Staff and his star attorney. At first he thought it was just stress from the move; after all, it was a huge step for them and they were both likely to be feeling a little anxious and overwhelmed. But as the week went on, and he watched them together, he became convinced that it was something else. There was tension between them, but it didn't seem to be directed at each other. He wasn't sure what that left, but whatever it was, it probably wasn't good. And that worried him.

Things were finally returning to normal at JAG, and as much as AJ hated to admit it, that normalcy was due mostly to Harm's return. He had honestly thought that things would get better without Harm there. That without the constant disruptions of Harm's crusades and Peter Pan quests, life at JAG would run more smoothly. How wrong he had been. AJ had underestimated how large a role Harm played in keeping JAG steady and stable; but it became clear to him rather quickly that Rabb's absence had thrown the entire office off- balance. Since his return, things were slowly returning to an even keel, and AJ intended to make sure they stayed that way.

Before the Admiral could do more than wonder whether he should pull Harm and Mac aside to find out what was wrong, little AJ woke up from his nap and proceeded to throw a rather large temper tantrum. Realizing that they needed to get their kids home, Bud quickly moved to take AJ from his C.O. as Harriet went to put Jimmy in his carrier. Taking that as their cue, everyone else began to pack up and head for home. Soon, after thanking everyone for their help and seeing them out to their cars, Harm and Mac were left alone in their new house.

By unspoken agreement, they walked the house together that first night, moving through the rooms arm in arm while checking locks and turning out lights before heading up the stairs to bed. Once in their new bedroom, Harm quickly shed his clothes and slipped on his pajama pants. Mac stayed in the room this time to change, but turned her back so that he couldn't see the small bandage covering her left breast. She knew that he wouldn't care; except for a slight bruise there really wasn't anything for him to see. But she still didn't want him to look, because it was just another reminder of the dark cloud hanging over their heads. Changing quickly, she slid silently into bed. Harm tried to think of a way to start the conversation, but in the end she saved him the trouble.

"When the doctor inserted the needle to withdraw the cells, she found out that the mass was solid," she told him quietly, her eyes fixed on her hands as they clutched the comforter. She didn't explain any further; she didn't need to. She and Harm had read and reread the material the doctor had given her enough times to know what a solid mass meant. A fluid filled mass was a cyst; this was definitely a tumor.

Harm said nothing, just reached out and grabbed hold of her hand. After two full minutes of silence, Mac tried to reassure him. "It doesn't mean that it's cancer," she said, trying to inject a hopeful note into her voice. "There's still a very good chance that the tumor is benign, so there's really no more reason to worry than before."

"If that's true," Harm responded, turning to stare pointedly at her, "why didn't you tell me about it yesterday?"

She met his gaze unflinchingly. "Because," she answered honestly, "just because there's no reason to worry, doesn't mean you're going to stop worrying."

"No, it doesn't," Harm conceded, looking down at their joined hands. "I can't help but worry about you, Mac."

"I know. And I love you for it." She lifted her free hand and cupped his face, gently urging him to meet her gaze. "I worry, too, Harm. It's normal. I just don't want it taking over our lives. We've both spent most of our lives expecting the worst to happen, and I don't want us to do that anymore. I want to believe that this is nothing, just a scare that we'll look back on six months from now and wonder why we panicked."

"I understand that, Mac. I do," he insisted, before adding firmly, "But I can't do that if I know you're keeping something from me."

Mac hung her head, and whispered remorsefully, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make things worse."

"I know," he assured her. "Come here," he said, sliding his arms around her and pulling her to him.

"I want to believe that this is nothing, too," he told her softly, tucking her head in the crook of his neck. He pressed a kiss to her hair. "So that's what we'll do. We'll believe that things are going to work out until-unless-" he corrected quickly, giving her a tight squeeze, "someone tells us otherwise. Okay?"

"Okay," she agreed. She lifted her head and leaned up to kiss him gently. "I love you."

"I love you, too," he smiled. He released her to reach over and switch off the bedside lamp. Sliding down, he made himself comfortable and drew her back into his arms. "Let's get some sleep."

But despite their vow not to worry, to believe that everything would be fine, it was a long time before either one of them slept that night.

 

December 11, 2003
JAG Headquarters

1230 EST

 

Harm's well-intentioned vow not to worry lasted the rest of the weekend, but by Tuesday it had begun to falter. He knew that the doctor said it would probably take five days, but that didn't make the waiting any easier. By Wednesday, exactly five days after Mac's biopsy, he was spending his day trying to come up with any excuse to go visit Mac's office and check and see if she'd gotten the call. But Wednesday passed and they didn't hear anything and now, halfway through Thursday, Harm's patience had worn out.

"It's been five days, Mac!" he said loudly, pacing back and forth as best he could in his tiny office. "It was five days yesterday."

"I realize that, Harm," she answered pointedly. She gestured to the receiver propped between her shoulder and her ear. "That's why I'm on the phone with the doctor. To find out what's happening. And it would be a lot easier to do if you would just calm down."

"Fine." He flopped down into his chair, scowling furiously. He didn't understand how she could be so calm about this. Not only were they a day late in calling, but Mac had spent the last half-hour being transferred or put on hold. So now they were stuck in his little hole in the wall office, chosen because they were less likely to be interrupted and overheard, waiting for someone to give them vital information about their future.

Mac understood Harm's frustration; she felt the same way, she was just better at hiding it. But she hadn't gotten more than a couple hours of sleep last night, and she only forced down her breakfast because Harm was watching her so intently. She didn't want to feed his worries with her own. Still, she had spent the morning alternating between anger that the doctor hadn't called and relief that she wouldn't have to hear what the doctor had to say. Of course, her doctor wasn't there today, and after thirty-four minutes of waiting for someone to get her answers, anger was rapidly winning out over relief.

A voice on the other end of the line startled her out of her thoughts. "Yes, I was calling to find out the results of a biopsy I had done on Friday," she told the Lieutenant on the other end of the phone, and felt her temper rise when she heard the phrase `I'll have to transfer you' yet again. She took a deep breath and explained with admirable calm, "No, I've already talked to them, and they told me to talk to you."

Harm watched as her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Yes, I understand that these things take time," she said in that low, overly calm voice that usually signaled an impending meltdown, "but I was told that I'd have the results in no more than five days. It's been six." She listened again, her face flushing with anger.

"Look," she finally snapped, cutting the other woman off abruptly, "I've been transferred or put on hold for the last thirty- seven minutes. I either want to know what the results of my biopsy were, or how long I have to wait before they're ready." She waited until the Lieutenant agreed to go find out the results.

"Thank you," she said with exaggerated patience, rolling her eyes at Harm. "The last name is Mackenzie, first name Sarah. Yes, I'll hold."

"What's going on?" Harm asked impatiently, rolling a pen nervously back and forth between his hands.

Although she was still on hold, Mac put her hand over the mouthpiece before answering. "She's checking on the status of the tests."

"What the hell does that mean?" he exclaimed, throwing the pen down on the desk. How much longer was he expected to wait to get some answers?

"It means they're checking the status of the tests, Harm!" Mac shot back angrily, unable to control her frustration with him anymore. They glared at each other for a long moment, until Harm finally backed down.

"I'm sorry," he sighed, leaning back in his chair. He ran his hands over his face. "I'm just frustrated. I'm not built to handle all this waiting around and doing nothing."

"Really?" Mac asked with an exaggerated drawl. She arched an eyebrow at him. "I hadn't noticed."

"Cute, Marine." He gave her a wry little smile, but it quickly faded as he added seriously, "You can't tell me that you're not the least bit upset about this."

"Of course I am," she told him. "I just don't think that blowing a gasket is going to serve any purpose. I'd rather-" she cut off abruptly, straightening in her chair. "Yes, I'm still here," she told the voice on the other end of the phone.

Harm watched as all the color drained from her face. His heart began to pound in his chest, and he leaned forward, bracing his arms on the desk as he waited for the worst. He was caught by surprise when he heard her ask incredulously, "What do you mean; misplaced? How does that happen?"

That was not at all what he expected to hear. He let the words sink in. Misplaced? She couldn't mean that they'd misplaced the results of her biopsy. That was just not possible.

Unfortunately for them both, it was very possible. Mac listened with growing dismay to the hapless Lieutenant's timid attempts at appeasement. "No, I don't want another appointment," she said angrily, "I want you to find my test results!"

Harm listened to Mac's side of the conversation in disbelief. They had actually lost Mac's test results. Test results that would tell them whether or not she had cancer, and they lost them. Frozen in shock, he sat numbly and waited for Mac to finish.

"Fine. I will make another appointment," she finally conceded, "but in the meantime, I expect you to continue looking for the original results...Yes, that's fine. 0930. I'll be there...Yes, I'm sure you are."

Mac slammed the phone back into its cradle. She dropped her head onto Harm's desk, and tried to wrap her mind around the latest developments, grateful when she felt Harm's hand brush against her hair. She allowed herself one brief moment of comfort before informing him of this latest setback.

"They lost the results," she said, her voice a mix of bitterness and weary resignation. "They're going to keep looking for them, but in the meantime, I have another appointment scheduled for Saturday morning."

"You're kidding me." Even as the words left his mouth, Harm was kicking himself for saying something so stupid. He just couldn't get his brain to accept that this wasn't some cruel, elaborate hoax.

Mac raised her head from the desk and glared at him. "Do I look like I'm kidding?"

"Well, this is unacceptable." He kicked his chair out and stood up. "I'm going down there right now," he informed her angrily, heading for the door.

Mac reached out and caught hold of his arm. "Harm, would you please calm down?" she pleaded. She could feel a dull throbbing pain start behind her eyes.

"No, I won't calm down!" he told her forcefully, shaking his arm free but making no further move towards the door. "This should never have happened, and it needs to be fixed."

"And they're trying to fix it," she sighed wearily, rubbing her temples. "So why don't you just let them?"

"Because I don't trust them; they're the ones who lost the results in the first place!" He stepped in front of her chair and looked down at her in frustration. He knew he was probably overreacting just like he had when she told him about the original biopsy, but he couldn't help it. He hated this; the waiting and the worrying and the helplessness, and seeing her sitting there so calmly was only making it worse. "How can this not upset you the least little bit?"

"You think this doesn't upset me?" she asked quietly, but her voice was so full of rage that Harm instinctively took a step back. "You think it doesn't upset me that I've waited six days for nothing?" She pushed her way out of the chair. "You think it doesn't upset me that I have to go and have another needle stuck into my breast?" she continued, jabbing a trembling finger against his chest to emphasize her point. "That I'll have another bandage and another bruise?" Her breath hitched and her throat tightened, but she forced out the next words. "You think it doesn't upset me to know that I'll have to wait another week or more for someone to call me up and tell me I'm going to -"

"Don't!" Harm cut her off, unwilling to allow her to give voice to his worst fear. He reached out and grabbed hold of her arms, pulling her body, still trembling with rage and fear, to him. "Don't you dare finish that sentence!" he whispered fiercely.

The moment he drew her into his arms she sagged against him; her anger was gone, leaving behind only exhaustion and fear. She looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. She was trying so hard to stay positive, but the thought of another week of waiting and worrying was too much for her battered defenses. "But what if I-"

"No." Harm placed a finger over her lips and shook his head. "We're not going to do this, Mac. We're not going to fall apart," he told her firmly. He reached up and brushed away the lone tear trailing down her cheek. "We're not going to assume the worst, okay?"

"Okay," she agreed, and managed to give him a teary smile. But the smile quickly faded and she wrapped her arms around him. "I'm scared, Harm," she admitted softly, before burying her face in his chest.

"I know, baby. I know," he whispered, holding her tightly as she fought to keep from breaking down. He wanted more than anything to promise her that it was going to be fine; that she was going to be fine. But he didn't make promises he couldn't keep; and despite what he had just told her, he wasn't at all sure that he could keep that one.

 

December 12, 2003
JAG Headquarters

1535 EST

 

Mac slowly made her way through the bullpen, balancing a load of case files and her sixth cup of coffee. Completely exhausted, she needed the constant influx of caffeine to get her through the day. She wondered if Harm was faring any better. Despite their best efforts to think positively and not to worry, neither one of them had managed to get much sleep, and it had left them tired and irritable. At least the only thing she had to worry about was finishing up paperwork; Harm was still in court, dealing with closing arguments. She took a quick check of her internal clock and sighed; only eighty- five minutes and the day would be over.

"Ma'am, here are the rest of the files you asked for." Mac looked up from her desk and saw Harriet standing in her doorway, her arms loaded down with cases. Suddenly, eighty-five minutes seemed like a lifetime.

"Thank you, Harriet," she said wearily and gestured over to a small empty space on the file cabinet. "Just set them over there for now."

"Yes, ma'am." Harriet deposited the files and turned back towards the door. Halfway there, she stopped and spun around to face Mac again. She had been debating whether or not to say something all day, and now, seeing how worn down the Colonel looked, she decided it was necessary. "Ma'am, are you okay?"

Mac was speechless for a moment, startled by Harriet's unexpected question and the concerned look in her eyes.

"I'm fine, Harriet," she answered finally, forcing a smile, "just a little tired. It's been a long week."

"Yes, ma'am," Harriet nodded doubtfully. Although she had been pretty wrapped up in the USO preparations, she hadn't missed the tension between the Colonel and the Commander. She decided to push a little harder. "It's just...you seem a little anxious. Tense."

"Well, I did just move into a new house," Mac pointed out calmly, ignoring the little voice that was telling her to let Harriet know what was going on. "I'm fine. Really. Things have just been a little hectic, that's all."

"Of course." Harriet smiled understandingly; she knew all about hectic. Still, she wondered if that was really all there was to it. "Is there anything I can do, ma'am?"

"No, I've got it under control," Mac lied, hoping she sounded convincing. "And you need to go finish up your work so you can go home and spend some time with Bud and the boys."

"Yes, ma'am." Harriet still wasn't sure she believed her, but they were at work and Mac was still a superior officer, so she could only push so far. "If you need anything-"

All Mac needed at this point was to be left alone so she just smiled and said, "I know, Harriet. Thank you."

"Okay, ma'am." Recognizing the look on Mac's face as a dismissal, she had no choice but to give up for now. With an inward sigh and a vow to try again later, she wished the Colonel a good weekend and headed back to her desk to deal with more of the annoying details that came with this latest assignment.

Mac sat back with a heavy sigh. Part of her wanted to call Harriet back in and tell her everything, about the lump and the tests and her fears of what was still to come. But as much as she wanted to confide in someone, she just couldn't bring herself to tell Harriet the truth. And not just because it would worry her, but because despite the apologies and the progress they'd made since the summer, she still wasn't comfortable with the idea of leaning on anyone at JAG too much. Not unless it was absolutely necessary. The mending of their fractured family was slow and tenuous, and it would be all too easy for it to fall apart again. Mac didn't want to be the reason it did.

The shrill ring of her phone startled her out of her thoughts, and she jumped slightly at the unexpected intrusion. She quickly reached out and plucked the receiver from its cradle while she tried to calm her racing heart.

"Colonel Mackenzie," she snapped, irritated at both the interruption, and her extreme reaction to it.

"Colonel, it's Dr. Carter." The familiar voice of her doctor echoed across the line. "I'm calling about your appointment tomorrow."

"What happened?" Mac asked, tensing instinctively as she wondered what had gone wrong this time. "Do you have to postpone again? Because if you do, then I'd just as soon have someone else-"

"Actually, Colonel," the doctor said quickly, cutting off the impending tirade, "I was calling to let you know that we located your results."

"You did?" Mac leaned back in her chair, overwhelmed by the feeling of relief washing over her. Her mind focused on one thought; she didn't have to go through it all over again. She couldn't wait to tell Harm. "Thank God. That's wonderful; so we can just cancel tomorrow's appointment, right?"

"No, you'll still need to come in tomorrow," Dr. Carter told her. "I've scheduled you an appointment with Captain Phillips at 1030."

"Captain Phillips?" Mac was confused. She'd never heard of him before. A thought occurred to her and she asked curiously, "Is this about the test mix-up? Are you doing an investigation?"

"We are looking into it, but Captain Phillips isn't involved with that," the doctor said slowly. For a moment, there was nothing but silence on the other end, and Mac wondered if they had gotten disconnected. Just as she was about to speak, though, Dr. Carter spoke again.

"He's the Chief of Oncology, Sarah," she told Mac softly, a note of regret in her voice. "The test results indicated that the tumor is malignant."

Malignant. The word reverberated in Mac's head, drowning out whatever it was the doctor was trying to tell her. Malignant. She tried to wrap her mind around the word, but found that it was impossible. She wasn't prepared for this. She thought she would be; she thought she'd accepted the possibility that this could happen. But she couldn't accept it, couldn't understand it. She couldn't even think.

She heard her name being called from a distance and realized that the doctor was still on the phone. She was startled to realize that only ninety-six seconds had passed since she'd heard that word. Malignant. She shook her head and tried to focus on the doctor's voice.

"Colonel?" Dr. Carter called out to her in concern. "Colonel, did you hear me?"

"Ye-yes," Mac stammered, trying desperately to pull herself together. "I heard you. An appointment at 1030 with Dr. Phillips, I'll be there," she reassured the doctor. "Thank you for calling." As she quickly hung up the phone, a small part of her brain recognized what an inane thing that was to say, but she couldn't help it; her mouth seemed to be running on autopilot.

Malignant. A malignant tumor. She had a malignant tumor in her breast. She had cancer.

She didn't know what to do. What was standard operating procedure for this situation? Was she supposed to cry? Break down sobbing in the middle of the bullpen? Or maybe she was supposed to get angry. Take her rage out on her defenseless office; maybe she should throw her stapler through her computer monitor or something. There had to be something. Something she was supposed to be doing, some way she was supposed to be reacting. But she had no idea what that was, because all she felt was numb.

Moving. That's what she needed to do. She needed to be moving. Women with malignant tumors didn't just sit in their offices, staring at their polished desktops waiting for the answers to miraculously appear. Women with malignant tumors got off their sixes and went out and found the answers they needed; at least they did when those women were marines. And she was a marine, so she would go find the answers. Just as soon as she figured out where she was supposed to go. Where did marines with malignant tumors in their breasts go for answers?

Harm. She would go to Harm. Harm would have the answers; he always did. Or, at the very least, he would know where to find them. He would know what she was supposed to do, how she was supposed to react. Wouldn't he? But how could he, when he didn't even know what was happening? Oh, god. How was she going to tell Harm? How was she going to tell Harm that she had cancer?

The questions just kept tumbling over and over in her head, forming a vicious circle that surrounded her, until all she could think about was how to escape from it. She needed to escape, to get out of this place where the walls were closing in on her and she couldn't think and she couldn't breathe. Vaulting out of her chair, she scooped up her coat and her cover, slung her purse over her shoulder and rushed out of her office. She didn't know where she was going, just that she had to get out. Out into the open, where words like malignant and cancer couldn't surround her as they echoed within the confined space of her office.

The thought of going to Harm was still foremost in her mind, but he was in court and she knew she couldn't interrupt him. A small part of her wanted to go down and burst into the courtroom anyway, run into his arms and never let go, but even if she was willing to embarrass herself that way, she couldn't do that to Harm. She had no idea how he was going to react when she told him, but the last thing he would need is to have to put on a brave front for their co- workers. No, she would go home and wait for him there.

But the thought of being cooped up anywhere, even inside their own home, was more than she could take. She needed to go somewhere where she could breathe, where she could be alone, but where he would still be able to find her. One place immediately came to mind. It was the perfect solution, and she latched onto to it like a life preserver, using it to keep her afloat.

Her decision made, she headed quickly towards the elevator. It wasn't until she passed Coates, who was on her way back to her desk, that she realized that she was about to walk out of JAG without informing the Admiral. For the briefest moment, her mind touched on the idea of going to the Admiral for advice before quickly rejecting it. She had no idea how he was going to react, and she certainly didn't want to find out now.

"Jen," she called out to the Admiral's yeoman just as she was about to reach her desk. She waited until Jen made her way back towards her and then said quietly, not wanting to be overheard, "I need you to tell the Admiral that I had to leave early."

"Ma'am?" Jen started to question the Colonel, but was cut off before she had the chance.

"Just tell him, Coates," Mac snapped impatiently, her desire to leave overriding her normal good nature.

"Yes, ma'am," Coates replied quickly, and Mac immediately turned and headed off. Jen waited for a moment, and then hurried after her. "Ma'am?" she called out hesitantly, flinching when the Colonel spun around and glared at her with annoyance. Moving up close, not wanting to risk the Colonel's wrath any more than necessary, she asked quietly, "What should I tell him when he asks why?"

"What?" The question seemed to throw Mac for a loop, and as she struggled for an answer, Jen noticed her pale face and shaking hands. She reached out and placed a gentle hand on the Colonel's arm.

"Ma'am, is everything all right?" she murmured softly, not wanting to attract the attention of the entire staff. "Are you sick?"

Mac's entire body stiffened, and Jen caught a glimpse of raw pain in her eyes before she turned her head away. "Yes," Mac answered, her voice barely audible. "Yes, I am."

At that moment, the elevator doors opened and she rushed inside, leaving a confused and concerned Petty Officer behind her.

 

JAG Headquarters
1640 EST

 

The trial was finally over. Harm and Bud had pulled off the impossible and won, once again due to one of Harm's last minute miracles. Any other time, Harm would have been celebrating his victory, but today he ignored all of the congratulations and compliments and rushed out of the courtroom, heading straight for the bullpen and Mac's office.

"Wow, sir," Bud said excitedly, ignoring Harm's obvious distraction. He hurried to keep up with Harm's longer stride. "I wasn't sure we were going to be able to pull that one off. We kind of lucked out there at the end, didn't we, sir?"

"Hmm? Yeah, yeah we did," Harm answered distractedly. "Excuse me, Bud, I need to go talk to Mac about something. I'll catch you later."

"Okay, sir." Bud called after Harm, but he wasn't listening. All he could think about was going to see Mac and making sure she was okay. He was hovering, he knew that, but he couldn't seem to help it. He had no one to talk to, no one to express his fears to, so he had to keep it bottled up inside. And the more he tried, the more his fear grew, until he ended up sitting in the courtroom with his mind fixated on worst-case scenarios. The only thing that made him feel any better was to seek her out so that he could see her, talk to her, remind himself that she was here with him.

It had been especially bad today; for no discernable reason his anxiety had shot through the roof about an hour ago. It had taken all of his willpower, but he managed to stay calm, to tell himself that he was just upset because of the screw-up at the hospital. It was a logical explanation, but Harm couldn't help but feel that there was something worse going on. And the longer he sat in that courtroom, the worse that fear had gotten.

Harm strode through the bullpen, ignoring everything around him, and reached Mac's office only to find it empty. Taking a quick look around, he saw that her computer was still on, but her coat and purse were gone. He felt his anxiety level go up another notch as he wondered where she could be.

"The Colonel went home, sir."

The voice at the door made him jump, and he whirled around to see Coates standing in the doorway. She started to apologize for startling him, but he waved her off impatiently. Gesturing to Mac's still running computer, he asked, "Did she say why, Jen?"

"Yes, sir," Jen answered promptly, "She said that she was sick, sir."

Harm felt his knees begin to buckle and quickly grasped onto the edge of the desk for support. "Sick?" His voice was strained, but he managed to keep his composure enough so that he didn't alarm the young Petty Officer. "Sick, how?"

"She didn't say, sir," Jen told him apologetically. Not wanting to worry him anymore, she hesitated before adding, "But she was pale and shaking a little. It almost looked like she was going into shock, sir."

In fact, Jen thought privately, Mac looked much the same way Harm did now. Questions were running rampant through her mind, but she restrained herself from prying. The Commander didn't look like he was in the mood to answer questions. "Jen, tell the Admiral-"

"He already gave you permission to secure as soon as you got out of court, sir," she interrupted with a reassuring smile. It had been the first thing he'd said when she'd informed him that the Colonel had left early. "He said to call him if it was something serious, otherwise just make sure she relaxes this weekend and takes care of herself."

"Thanks, Jen," he said gratefully, and managed to muster up a small smile in return.

"You're welcome, sir." She quickly stepped to the side as he hurried out of Mac's office. He hadn't gotten more than a couple of steps when Jen called out, "Sir?"

Harm turned around impatiently. "The Colonel took her car, and I know you drove in together, so I had a cab called for you when you came out of court. It should be here in about five minutes."

Harm quickly thanked her, grateful for her foresight, and then rushed into his office. Kicking the door shut behind him, he headed over to his desk and immediately picked up the phone to call the house while reaching out with his free hand to shut down his computer. After four rings, the answering machine picked up, and Mac's cheerful voice informed him that they were unable to come to the phone.

Harm waited for the beep before calling out anxiously, "Mac? Are you there?" He stuffed a few files into his briefcase while he waited to see if she would pick up. "Mac, pick up the phone."

When there was no answer, he decided that she wasn't there. There was no way she would have ignored the panic in his voice, no matter how much she might not want to talk. "Okay, call me on my cell when you get this."

Disconnecting the phone, he then tried to call her cell phone, but she must have turned it off because it went straight to voice mail. He hung up, grabbed his keys and his cover and headed out the door. A minute later, he was waiting impatiently for an elevator and trying to figure out where she'd gone.

His first thought was the cemetery where Singer was buried. She still made a point to try and go at least once a week, but after the events of this summer, she never went without Sturgis. Since he was in court, Harm eliminated that possibility.

The elevator doors opened, and he stepped inside, reaching forward to press the down button. Halfway there, his hand stopped as a horrible thought entered his mind. What if she had gone to a bar? He shook his head in denial. No, she wouldn't do that. She had made it through everything that had happened in the past year without falling off the wagon, she wouldn't risk her sobriety now. And she had promised that she would call him wherever he was, no matter what, if she really felt like she was going to falter. No, there had to be somewhere else. But where? Where would she go to escape? He knew where he would go, but-

Suddenly, he knew exactly where she would go to get away. The one place where she knew he would find her. Rushing out the doors and to the waiting cab, he hopped inside and directed the driver to take him to the Mall.

 

Vietnam Veteran's Memorial
1730 EST

 

The sun had set, and what little warmth the daylight had provided was long gone. Still, a few brave souls wandered up and down the Mall; tourists mostly, willing to endure the cold to get their money's worth out of their vacation. He passed them quickly, intent on reaching his destination as soon as possible, knowing she would be there.

She was there, had been for hours. A lone figure standing in front of the cold, black wall, running a gloved hand back and forth over his father's name. He saw her face in profile, the lines of sorrow etched there, the defeat, and his worst fears were confirmed. As he got closer to her, he slowed his pace; partly because he didn't want to startle her but mostly because he didn't want to face the moment he knew was coming.

He wouldn't have startled her; she had been waiting for him. Had chosen to come here for that exact reason. This was his refuge, a place where he could let go, where he could find strength to face the challenges ahead. He would need it now more than ever. And because he needed it, so did she, because he was her refuge. Her safe place, where she could let go, and where she could find the strength she needed. She prayed that the strength they found would be enough this time, for both of them.

She waited until he was standing behind her before speaking. "I tried to call," she said softly, her tone apologetic, "but I couldn't find the words. So I came here, knowing you would find me."

"I know," he whispered, stepping forward until her back was pressed against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and waited, for words he didn't want to hear and she didn't want to speak. He just stood there holding her, ignoring the fact that they were both still in uniform. Ignoring the fact that the temperature continued to drop and they both needed to get out of the cold. Ignoring everything that wasn't her; wasn't them.

"Doctor Carter called. They found the results." Her voice was barely audible, but he heard her. Still, he didn't say anything. He just tightened his arms around her and waited for her to continue.

Turning in his arms, a single tear trailed down her cheek as she finally spoke the words they had been dreading to hear these past two weeks.

"The tumor is malignant." Her voice was tight with unshed tears as she wrapped her arms tightly around him and buried her face in the crook of his neck. "I have cancer."

 

Rabb/Mackenzie residence
1840 EST

 

Harm unlocked the front door and ushered Mac into the house before closing and locking it behind him. When he turned around, Mac had hung up her coat in the closet and was silently holding out her hand. He shed his own coat and handed it to her, and she quickly hung it up in the closet before turning to head for the kitchen. Before she could take more than a couple of steps, Harm reached out and caught hold of her arm.

"Why don't you get changed and I'll heat up some soup for dinner," he told her gently, giving her a little nudge towards the stairs for good measure. She looked up at him and then nodded.

"Okay," she agreed quietly, and made her way slowly up the stairs. Harm stared after her worriedly, wondering what to do. Other than telling him about the appointment with the oncologist tomorrow and letting him know where she'd parked the car, she hadn't said a word. He wanted to draw her out, get her to talk to him, but he didn't know how. He was as lost as she was, trying to deal with something so large and frightening that he couldn't seem to wrap his mind around it.

Mac walked into the bedroom and headed straight for the closet without bothering to turn on the light. Opening the door, she reached blindly for a hanger and began to strip out of her uniform as rapidly as possible. Once she was clad only in a bra and panties, she hung up her uniform and made her way through the darkness to the other side of the room. Halfway there, she tripped over one of Harm's sneakers that he'd left lying in the middle of the floor, and just barely managed to keep from falling. She swore softly as she felt her toe began to throb, but continued on her path to the dresser. She knew it was foolish not to turn on the light, she could do a lot more damage then just stubbing her toe, but the last thing she wanted at this point was to see herself. Whether it was in a mirror or just her own eyes, she couldn't bear to look at the body that had betrayed her.

Finally reaching the dresser, she slid her hands into the drawers and picked out, by memory alone, a pair of sweats and a t-shirt. Dressing quickly, she made her way out of the room and back down the stairs, needing the warmth of the kitchen and of Harm.

She found him standing in front of the stove, jacket off and sleeves rolled up, stirring a small pot of chicken noodle soup. She paused in the doorway and took a moment just to watch him. His broad shoulders were hunched over a little, and she could see the tense muscles of his back through his shirt. He was hurting, and she wanted to help him, but she didn't know how. The few feet between them felt like a chasm, and she couldn't see a path to the other side where he was.

Slowly making her way over to him, she lifted her hand and, after a moment's hesitation, placed it softly on his back. Lost in thought, Harm hadn't even realized she'd entered the room until he felt her touch. Startled, he dropped the spoon in his hand and whirled around to face her. Mac quickly pulled her hand away and took a step back from him.

"Sorry," she apologized hastily. There was a moment of awkward silence as they both tried to think of something to say. Finally, unable to stand the tension, Mac spoke.

"Go and change out of your uniform," she ordered quietly, her gaze fixed on the stove. "I'll finish here."

"Okay." He handed her the spoon before sliding past her and out of the kitchen. Stepping up to the stove, she forced herself to concentrate on the simple task of getting dinner on the table.

Stir the soup. Turn off the stove. Move the pan to a different burner. Get down two bowls. Ladle the soup into the bowl. Carry it to the table. Set it down. Go back to the stove. Pick up the other bowl. Ladle the soup. Take it to the table. Get the silverware. Pour the drinks. By focusing all of her attention on these simple steps, she managed to keep her mind clear of more disturbing thoughts.

She had just finished setting the glasses down when Harm reappeared, dressed similarly to herself in sweats and an old Patrick Henry t- shirt. He waited until she sat down before sliding into his own chair. Picking up their spoons, Harm and Mac slowly began to eat. Neither one of them was very hungry; they ate because it was dinnertime. And there was some small comfort in doing what they were supposed to, in following a routine; something they could do without thinking or worrying. Unfortunately, without the lesser things to worry about, their minds inevitably began fixating on the greater things. Soon the silence became oppressive, and the tension too much to bear.

"We need to start planning things." Mac's words came out of nowhere, and startled Harm out of his intense contemplation of his soup. He looked up in confusion, trying to pick up the thread of the unexpected conversation.

"Things?" he repeated slowly, hoping for some clarification.

"You know, who to tell, and when," Mac explained. She shrugged in a studied attempt at nonchalance. "I mean; we'll obviously have to tell the Admiral. I'm going to need time off, medical leave or whatever." Her hands started to flutter as she began to speak faster, and Harm could see her level of agitation rising. "And we'll need to see what kind of time you can get, I suppose. And of course there's probably going to be a hundred forms we'll have to fill out. Plus-"

"Mac," Harm finally interrupted, and grabbed her hands in his own, causing her to jerk back in surprise. "Honey slow down. Stop and take a breath, okay?"

He laid her hands on the table with what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "We don't need to take care of this tonight. There's not much we can do until we talk to the doctor anyway." He gave her hands a quick squeeze. "Okay?"

"Fine," she agreed quickly, pulling her hands free and turning her attention back to her soup. For some inexplicable reason, his attempts at reassurance irritated her. And the more she dwelt on it, the more irritated she became. It was irrational, she knew, but she couldn't seem to help herself. And his next words just made it worse.

"Are you okay?" It was a stupid question, and he regretted it the moment it left his mouth. He started to apologize, to try and take it back, but it was too late. Mac looked up from her bowl and stared at him disbelievingly.

"Am I okay?" She parroted sarcastically, the need to argue, to lash out suddenly overwhelming her. Her eyes flashed with anger. "I have cancer, Harm. What do you think?" she spit out, throwing her napkin down and pushing away from the table. Harm caught her arm as she started to storm past him.

"Mac," he pleaded, trying to pull her back to him. She shook her arm out of his grasp and stepped away. "Mac, don't do this."

Mac looked down at him and saw the pleading look in his eyes. Her anger vanished, leaving behind a bone deep weariness. "Harm, please. I just-" she sighed, not sure how to make him understand. "I just need some time to myself."

"Mac, don't push me away," he said, standing up and putting his hands on her shoulders, as if to keep her from doing just that.

"I'm not!" she protested defensively. He just stared at her in disbelief. She sighed again. "I'm not," she repeated softly. She reached up and placed her hands atop his. "But I need a little space, Harm. A chance to catch my breath. Please?"

He saw the pleading look in her eyes and sighed. "All right," he agreed reluctantly. "I'll go and clean up."

He started to pull away, but before he could she reached up and took his face in her hands, giving him a soft but sincere kiss. "Thank you," she whispered gratefully. With tears in her eyes, she dropped her hands, turned and rushed out of the room.

Within moments, Harm heard her heading down into the basement, which they had turned into an exercise room, complete with treadmill and a hanging punching bag. It was a good alternative to running when the weather turned too cold, and gave them someplace to go when they needed to sweat out some of their demons. Like now, he thought, and decided that as soon as he was finished cleaning up, he would go down there and join her.

He gathered up the dishes and took them back to the kitchen. Fighting the urge to just dump them in the sink and go after Mac now, he set them down and took the time to rinse each one before placing it in the dishwasher. Grabbing a plastic container, he poured the rest of the soup inside and placed it in the refrigerator. By the time he'd gotten everything put away and the table and counters wiped down, almost thirty minutes had passed. Figuring that he had given her enough time to herself, he tossed the towel on the counter and headed to the basement.

Opening the door, he was surprised when the only sound he heard was Mac's heaving breathing and the occasional thump as she hit the bag. One of the first things she had done was to install a relatively nice stereo downstairs; she almost never worked out without music. Curious now, he quietly made his way down the stairs, hoping for a chance to watch her a little, unnoticed.

By the time he reached the bottom few steps, he realized that he could have come down the stairs with a brass band and she probably wouldn't have noticed. She was completely focused on the bag in front of her; kicking and punching with a ferocity he had never seen before. That worried him; he knew what an angry Mac looked like when she worked out, it was one of his earliest memories of her. But this was something he'd never seen. There was no control in her movements, none of the grace that she usually possessed. She was out of control, blindly lashing out with her arms and legs at whatever was within reach. He wondered if she'd even notice if he walked up to her now, or if she'd just look at him as part of the punching bag.

Not wanting to find out, he lowered himself down onto the steps, watching as she worked herself into a frenzy, coming at the bag hard enough to start it swaying back and forth. He was up again a minute later when the bag swung back unexpectedly, forcing Mac to hold up both hands to stop it and bending her hand back sharply. She managed to get it stopped before bending over, hissing in pain and clutching her wrist.

"Mac!" Harm cried out in alarm, jumping off the steps and rushing over to her. He grabbed hold of her hand to examine it, but she immediately began to struggle. Breaking free, she angrily jerked her arm out of his grasp and resumed her attack on the bag.

"I'm fine." She spit out angrily. She hit the bag as hard as she could, ignoring the throbbing of her wrist. "I'm fine."

"I'm going to be fine," she repeated firmly, speaking more to herself than to Harm. "I've finally got my life together. I've finally got things where they're supposed to be, and I'm not letting go." She punctuated that statement with a particularly heavy blow. Wincing at the pain it caused, she glared at the bag. "I'm not giving it up. Not because of some stupid disease."

She paused to push her hair out of her face, and froze when she caught sight of herself in the mirror against the wall. "This wasn't supposed to happen," she whispered, anguished, "It's not fair. It's not fair!" she screamed, whirling around to face Harm. "Damn it! We finally get things right, and I go and get cancer and it's not fair!" She was trembling with rage and fear.

"It's not fair, Harm! Why is this happening?" she asked tearfully, "Why is this happening to me? What did I do that was so wrong that I deserve this? It's not fair!"

She spun back towards the punching bag. Pulling back her injured arm, fueled by rage and grief, she smashed her fist into it as hard as she could. The moment her hand made contact with the bag, she screamed in pain as her wrist gave out under the force of the blow. Cradling her injured arm to her chest, she began to sob. Harm quickly moved in behind her, wrapping his arms around her. She struggled briefly before giving in, collapsing against him and forcing him to lower them both to the ground.

Pulling her onto his lap, he cradled her in his arms as she cried, finally letting go of all of the emotions she had been bottling up since the doctor had given her the news. She clutched at him, repeating over and over again between sobs that it wasn't fair. Rocking her gently back and forth, he did his best to soothe her, running his hands gently up and down her back and pressing his lips softly against her hair. Finally, when her sobs became sniffles punctuated by the occasional hiccup, and her grip on his shirt had loosened, he lifted her face with his hand and spoke.

"You're right," he told her softly, brushing the last remnants of her tears from her cheeks, "It's not fair."

"But it isn't your fault, Mac," he added firmly, tightening his hold on her chin when she tried to turn her head away. He waited until she met his eyes again before repeating himself. "This isn't your fault, Mac. You didn't do anything wrong, didn't make this happen. It just happened."

Before she could agree or disagree, he leaned down and whispered softly, "You're right about something else, too."

"What's that?" she asked with a little sniffle, leaning her head on his shoulder. Harm pulled her closer.

"You're going to be fine," he told her softly, pressing another kiss to the top of her head. "Whatever it takes, you're going to beat this, and I'm going to be there every step of the way," he vowed. "We're in this together, Mac. And we're going to be fine."

She lifted her head again. Taking a long, hard look into his eyes, she found that she believed him. "Okay," she said, and the smile she gave him was small but sincere. She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him down for a long, passionate kiss.

"I love you, Harm," she whispered fiercely when they were finally forced to come up for air. Holding him a little tighter, she said it again. "I love you so much."

"I love you, too, Sarah," he told her, his eyes shining with unshed tears.

They sat there for a few more minutes, holding each other tightly. Eventually, once Mac recognized that they were still sitting on the hard basement floor, she separated herself from him and stood up.

"Are you okay?" she asked quietly, her eyes full of concern. Ignoring the dull, steady throbbing in her left hand, she reached out with her right to help him up. He brushed her hand lightly aside and quickly scrambled to his feet.

"That's my line," he told her jokingly. He gestured to her injured wrist, even though he knew that wasn't what she was talking about. "I'm not the one who-"

"Don't." Mac reached up and placed a finger against his lips. "Don't do that, Harm. If we're going to get through this together, then we have to be honest with each other." She brushed her hand against his cheek and said softly, "I need you to talk to me too, Harm. Tell me what you're feeling."

He sighed, leaning his cheek against her palm. He tried to find the words to describe his conflicting emotions.

"I'm feeling the same things you are, I guess," he finally admitted. He pulled her hand from his face and held it between his, focusing his gaze on the lines of her palm. "Angry. Terrified. Helpless. I don't know what to do," he told her quietly, "and I hate not knowing."

She slid her hand up under his chin and lifted his head to meet her gaze. "I know," she said reassuringly. "And that's okay."

He nodded and took a deep breath, trying to shake off the lingering gloom. At least for a while. He reached for her injured hand. "Let's get you upstairs and put some ice on this."

"Harm." She started to protest, to launch into her `I'm a marine' speech, when his next words brought her up short.

"Let me take care of you, Mac," he said earnestly, and it wasn't an order but a plea. "Just for a little while. Please."

Overwhelmed by the look in his eyes, she nodded her head. "I can do that," she agreed, and was rewarded with a full flyboy grin. She could do it, she repeated to herself. Not because she wasn't capable of taking care of herself, but because taking care of her made Harm feel a little less helpless, a little more in control. Taking care of her was what he needed right now, so that's what she would give him.

"Come on, Marine," Harm said, wrapping his arm around her waist and leading her towards the stairs. "Onward and upward."

For the first time since Dr. Carter's phone call, Mac felt the smallest ray of hope. Wrapping her arm around him, she smiled up at him and decided it was time to try and lighten the mood.

"Harm?" she asked innocently. "Does taking care of me include making me hot chocolate?"

Looking down at her, he knew exactly what she was trying to do, and he was grateful for it. He wanted to smile and laugh and tease, for however long they could, so he decided to play along. He pretended to give her request serious thought before conceding, "I suppose that could be arranged."

"With marshmallows?" she added hopefully in the little girl tone she had discovered early on that Harm was powerless against.

He glared at her before agreeing grudgingly, "With marshmallows."

"And a foot rub?"

"Don't push it."

 

Captain Joseph Phillips office
Bethesda, Maryland

1025 EST

 

Harm and Mac's vow to stay positive got them through the long night and past breakfast. But it faltered when they left for Bethesda, fading faster with every mile; gone completely by the time they were shown into Captain Phillips office. As the door closed behind them, Mac moved to one of the seats in front of the desk and sat down uneasily, trying not to let her fears overwhelm her. Needing to focus on something other than how scared she was, and how Harm's nervous pacing was rapidly getting on her nerves, she focused her attention on her surroundings.

It wasn't at all what she was expecting. She and Harm had spent almost two hours researching Dr. Phillips this morning, reading the many accolades and citations; so the obligatory degrees and certificates on the wall didn't surprise her. What did surprise her was the wall to the right of his desk. It reminded her of the Roberts refrigerator, with children's drawings and photographs of smiling families framing the big picture window that looked out over the courtyard below. Intrigued by something that seemed so out of place, she leaned closer for a better view, and saw the words `thank you' spelled out in childish handwriting across the drawings with various degrees of accuracy. And in every picture, there was at least one person, almost always a woman, who bore the obvious signs of illness in the lines of her weary but genuine smile.

These were his patients, she realized, and felt a small sliver of hope for the first time since entering the room. None of the research, or the assurances that he was one of the best oncologists around, reassured her as much as those bright smiles and sincere expressions of gratitude written in crayon by grateful children.

She turned in her chair to catch Harm's attention, to show him what she'd discovered, when the door opened and the doctor strode in. Habit had Mac and Harm snapping to attention. He was, after all, a superior officer, despite the fact he was in the reserves, and that neither he nor they were currently in uniform.

"Sir," they chorused in unison, and were surprised when Captain Phillips just laughed and told them to sit down, waving a hand at the chairs in front of his desk.

"Okay," he said quickly once they were all seated, "Let's clear that one up right now." He pointed a scolding finger at them and said with mock severity, "No sirs, no Captains. I would prefer no doctors either, but most patients aren't comfortable calling me by name." He shrugged before adding a little hopefully, "However, if you'd like; Joe, Joseph, Doc, or Dr. Joe are all welcome."

"Um, I think I'd prefer to stick with Doctor for now," Mac told him hesitantly, a bit taken aback by his easygoing manner. Pictures on the wall or not, she had been expecting someone more formal, more serious. Doctor Phillips, with his twinkling eyes and graying beard, reminded her more of a tall, skinny Santa than a decorated Naval officer and doctor.

"Fair enough, Colonel," Phillips said giving her a friendly smile to show that he was okay with her decision. He turned to Harm. "How about you, Commander?"

Harm grinned. The man's good nature was contagious, and the fact that he'd taken a close enough look at Mac's case to know who Harm was greatly impressed him. Besides, the guy really did look like a skinny Santa Claus.

"Well, Dr. Joe," he told the older man easily, "I prefer Harm."

"Good man," Dr. Joe said approvingly. He held out a hand, and Harm shook it firmly. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Harm." Turning to Mac, he raised an eyebrow and asked, "Well, Colonel, what's your pleasure? Name, rank, or serial number?"

"Name. And it's Mac." She smiled in spite of herself, as the feeling of warmth and hope she'd felt before he walked in, returned. Holding out her hand, she added shyly, "Nice to meet you...Joe."

Joe beamed. "You are now my new favorite patient," he told her as he shook her hand, adding with a wink, "But don't tell."

Pulling his hand away, his face grew serious. Clasping his hands together and laying them on the desk, he said briskly, "Now, I think we should get down to business."

"Here's what I'd like to do. You let me tell you how I want to handle things today," he suggested, "and you decide if it works for you or not, and we'll go from there." His voice, calming without being patronizing, set them both at ease and they silently nodded their agreement.

"First of all, I have no intention of trying to overwhelm you with a lot of medical terminology," he reassured them. "Not this early in the game, anyway. So I've prepared a file, which goes into precise detail on everything we're going to talk about today, for you to go over when you feel up to it." He grabbed the top file off the stack on his desk and slid it across to them. Unbothered when neither one of them rushed to pick it up, he just continued to speak in that same calm tone. "I'm also going to give you a copy of the biopsy results so that you can seek out a second opinion if you want it."

His face darkened a little. "In fact, because of what happened, I've already sent them to another independent lab to go over," he told them, and when Mac saw the angry look in his eyes, she almost pitied whoever was found responsible for losing her tests. Almost. "I want to make sure that nothing else went wrong besides your tests getting lost," he said, "although I looked over them carefully and I don't think that's the case."

"Now," he continued, rising from his desk and coming around to the other side, "while I encourage all of my patients to seek out second opinions, I still want to come up with a plan to begin treating you." He pulled a chair from the corner and placed it between them, waiting until they shifted their chairs to face his before continuing, "If something changes, or you find another doctor you're more comfortable with, that's fine," he assured her. "But if not, then I don't want to waste any time doing what we need to do to get you to the point where you're a cancer survivor, instead of a cancer patient."

"And make no mistake about that, Mac." Joe leaned forward in his chair, his gaze intense. "If you decide to stick with me as your doctor, that's what we're going to do. I have only one rule for my patients - as long as you're breathing, you're fighting." His tone was firm and unyielding. "You promise me that, and I'll promise you the same. I don't give up, and I won't let you give up either."

The power in that statement, the confidence and determination, reminded Mac that this man was more than a doctor; he was an officer in the Unites States Navy. A damned fine one, she imagined. She could trust him to keep his promise; he wouldn't give up on her, no matter what. And that was all she needed to know.

"I promise," she said simply. Whatever was in store for her, whatever challenges were ahead, she would meet them head on, like the marine that she was. As long as she breathed, she would fight.

Joe stared into her eyes for a moment, and then, satisfied with the conviction that he saw there, nodded his head approvingly.

"Good." He shifted his gaze to Harm and started to open his mouth, but Harm interrupted him before he could speak.

"I'm not giving up, either," he told Joe immediately, "Whatever happens, I'm here for the duration."

"Okay." Joe leaned back in his chair, and his voice took on a clinical tone. "Now, let's talk about what we know at this point."

"Mac, you have cancer," he said bluntly. When she flinched at the word, he told her, not unkindly, "You need to get used to hearing that, and you need to get used to saying it. Because that's going to be your life for a while."

He paused for a moment to let that sink in before continuing. "Now, once we discovered that the tumor was malignant, we ran some more tests. And the results were very encouraging." He gestured towards the file still lying on the desk. After a glance at Mac to get her approval, Harm slowly reached out and picked it up. He opened it gingerly, as if afraid something was going to jump out of it and attack him, as the doctor went on with his explanation.

"We appear to be looking at a Grade I tumor. Basically, what that means is the tumor has a low degree of malignancy. Obviously that's a good thing." He gave them a small smile, before adding, "Unfortunately, that's about all we know at this point. And while it's a good sign, it's not enough. We can't determine a full course of treatment until the tumor is staged, and to do that, it needs to be removed completely," he informed her. "Which means surgery."

"Surgery," Mac repeated, before taking a deep breath and asking bravely, "Do you mean a mastectomy?"

"That is one option," he conceded. "The other option is a lumpectomy, followed by a course of radiation."

"What's the difference?" Harm asked curiously, unable to make sense of the file. The terms they were using were only vaguely familiar to him, and what little he did understand was just enough to worry him further.

"A mastectomy is the complete removal of the breast." Joe answered. He was looking at Harm as he spoke, but his explanation was for both of them. "If the tumor is localized, which we won't know without further tests, then we'd be done. However," he cautioned, "If the tumor has spread, then we're still looking at radiation and chemo."

"A lumpectomy, on the other hand, only removes the tumor itself and a small rim of surrounding tissue to remove any remaining cancer cells. Again, if the tumor is localized, then you're pretty much considered cured. Although most doctors, myself included," he hastened to add, "recommend a course of radiation treatments, on the off chance that any stray cells might have broken away."

After taking a moment to digest the information she was being given, Mac asked him which option he would recommend.

"A lumpectomy," the doctor answered immediately and without hesitation, "followed by radiation, and if necessary, chemotherapy."

"Mac, your tumor is small, and from the early results, is most likely localized," he explained to her, "Removing the entire breast would be unnecessarily traumatic, both physically and emotionally. If the cancer IS localized, and we do a mastectomy, then we've removed a lot of healthy tissue for nothing."

"And if it's not?"

"Then we might need to go back in and do more surgery," he conceded, but added, "But it's a heck of a lot easier to take more out than it is to put more in."

"There are two basic reasons why women choose mastectomies over lumpectomies. One is necessity. If the tumor is too large in relation to breast size, or there's good reason to believe that it's spread beyond the initial site, then a mastectomy is the only option," he explained. He held up a second finger. "Number two is that despite all of the studies that show that a lumpectomy followed by radiation is just as effective long term as a mastectomy, some women just feel safer having the whole breast removed."

"Now, you're not one of the patients who fit the necessity criteria for a mastectomy. Which only leaves reason number two."

"If you want to have a mastectomy, if it would make you feel safer, then that's what we'll do. And I'm not going to criticize that decision," he told her honestly. "I don't think it's necessary, but I'm not the one who has to live with it for the rest of my life."

"But there's no difference in the outcome?" she asked, trying to wrap her mind around all of the facts and details and options. "I mean, the statistics are the same whichever one I choose?"

"Yes." He reached out and tapped a finger on the file Harm held loosely in his lap. "The exact statistics are in here with everything else for you to go over, but the short answer is there's no difference."

She nodded silently and paused to take it all in. After considering everything Joe said, and weighing her options, she took a deep breath and announced firmly, "Then I want the lumpectomy."

"Mac, are you sure?" Harm asked, leaning forward to take hold of her hand. He searched her eyes to see if there was any hint of doubt or confusion. Not that he wanted her to choose the other option, but he didn't want her to make her decision hastily. But one look into her eyes told him that she hadn't.

"I'm sure. I'll get the second opinion," she told him, "but unless it says something vastly different, then I don't want them to take my breast."

"Okay." He said softly, squeezed her hand to silently reaffirm his support. For obvious reasons, he couldn't completely understand the motivation behind her decision, but he understood enough to know that it was the only one she could live with at this point.

She gave him a small smile, grateful for his understanding and support. Reaching down, she covered their joined hands with her free one and then turned back to face Joe, ready to find out what came next.

 

Applebee's restaurant
Bethesda, Maryland

1320 EST

 

Mac watched their server walk away before turning her attention to the grilled chicken salad in front of her. She sighed; she'd give anything for a Beltway burger right about now. Unfortunately for her, Dr. Joe had banished that, and all other burgers, from her diet. Along with all other forms of grease, starch, fat, and any other foods that made life worth living. She sighed again. It wasn't that she didn't like salads; she did. For all of her sarcastic commentary about Harm's diet, she didn't really have a problem with healthy food. She just didn't like being forced to eat it all the time.

"So what do you think?"

Harm's voice pulled her away from her contemplation of her new dietary restrictions, and she looked up with a frown. She pushed her salad half-heartedly around her plate a couple of times before throwing her fork down in disgust. "I think this sucks," she told him grumpily, crossing her arms over her chest.

Harm smiled as he watched her glare at the offending pieces of lettuce. "That goes without saying," he said wryly. But he wasn't talking about food and they both knew it. He gestured with his fork to the file lying between them on the table. "I meant about all this."

"I don't know," she replied honestly. "I mean, I'm glad that the initial tests were good, but I'm still trying to wrap my mind around everything Dr. Phillips told me."

"Yeah," he agreed quickly; he felt the same way. He gave her a little smile. "But it's not Dr. Phillips, it's Dr. Joe, remember?" he teased lightly, before asking sincerely, "Seriously, Mac, are you okay with him? Because if you're not comfortable-"

"No, I like him," Mac assured him. She grinned thinking of her new doctor's unusual style. "He takes a little getting used to. But I like his attitude, and even though I know we just met him today, I trust him."

"What about you?" she questioned Harm. "Are you okay with him?"

"More than okay," he said, grinning. "I think he's the first doctor I've ever met who didn't make me want to run screaming from the building." The grin faded as another thought occurred to him. "I just hope we have the same kind of luck with the surgeon."

"Well, he did say that he and the other doctor worked together often," Mac pointed out. "So it should be okay."

"Yeah," Harm allowed before asking hesitantly, "but are you sure you want to wait that long for the surgery?"

"That long?" she said incredulously. "Harm, it's in thirteen days. That's not long. Especially when you consider all the tests I have to have beforehand."

"I know." He sighed, putting down his fork as he gave up trying to force down any more food. "I just hate the idea of having to wait even longer to know for sure," he admitted. "I mean; I know that all the early signs look good and all, but I'd just like to have definite confirmation, you know?"

She reached out and squeezed his hand. "I know." She looked down at their half-eaten lunches and realized that neither one of them was going to eat any more, so she gestured for the server to bring them the check. Harm pulled out his credit card, and quickly handed it to the young woman who was waiting on them. Once she had walked away, he brought up the next thing on his list of things to deal with.

"We're going to need to talk to the Admiral first thing Monday," he said quietly, "let him know what's going on."

Mac's gaze dropped to the table. "I guess," she murmured, picking at a stray thread on her napkin. Harm looked at her in concern.

"Mac?" he asked worriedly, but she just shook her head. Stretching out his arm and lifting her chin, he was shocked to see tears welling in her eyes. He didn't understand; she'd kept her composure throughout all of the talk of tests and surgery and radiation, only to break down at the thought of telling the Admiral? It didn't make sense to him.

She saw the look of confusion in his eyes, and tried to explain. "I just...I don't want to tell him," she managed to choke out past the lump in her throat. "Telling him makes if more real somehow," she sniffled, swiping at her eyes. She bit her lip and shrugged self- deprecatingly. "Pretty stupid, huh?"

"No, it's not stupid at all," he reassured her, rubbing his thumb across her cheek to catch a stray tear. "Unfortunately, we don't really have much of a choice," he told her gently. "You're going to need time off for some of the tests, and for the surgery, and then the treatments afterward."

"Only if I need chemo," Mac pointed out quickly. "Joe said I could still work during radiation."

"He said it might be possible," Harm corrected. "Either way, until we know for sure, we need to make the Admiral aware of the possibility."

She started to protest again, but realized it would be useless. Harm was right; however you looked at it, she was going to be missing a significant amount of work. The thought rankled her, but she had no choice but to accept it for now.

"You're right," she admitted to him. She sighed, and then reached into her purse for her cell phone. It was still turned off from being in the hospital, so she hit the power button and waited for the screen to come up. When it did, the words `missed call' immediately popped up, so she quickly checked the number.

Harm looked at her, a little confused by her quick turnaround. "What are you doing?" he asked as the waitress brought back the slip for him to sign, missing the way her face paled as she looked at the number on her phone.

"I'm calling to invite him to dinner tomorrow." She told him shortly, going back to the main menu until she hit her phone book. "I don't want to do this at work."

She scrolled down until she found the Admiral's home number, hitting the talk button and putting the phone up to her ear before Harm could say anything else. Fortunately for her, the Admiral was home. Doing her best to keep her voice calm and even, she asked him to come to their house tomorrow for dinner so that they could discuss something with him. She could tell by his tone that he knew something was wrong, but to his credit, he didn't push her to tell him over the phone. He just told her what time he'd be over, and that he'd bring something for dessert.

"He'll be there at 1700," Mac told Harm after they'd hung up. She picked up her purse and put the phone back inside.

"Okay," he said slowly, wondering why she seemed so tense. "So what do we do until then?"

"We get in the car and we drive up to Blacksburg," she told him softly. She watched his face pale as he realized for the first time what her diagnosis would mean for their guardianship petition. They could fight as hard as they wanted to, and they would, but no judge was going to let them take on a teenager when Mac's health was so uncertain. Mac bit her lip and looked down at the table, before quietly voicing the thought on both of their minds.

"We have to tell Mattie."

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
 
 
   

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