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Classification Romance, Adventure (H/M)
Length Approximately 110,000 words; 234 pages (8 ˝” x 11”)
Spoilers None
Rating GS
Summary A sequel to Devolution, Mac takes on a diplomatic assignment while restricted to light duty. What was to be an easy week answering questions about a career in the US military turns into something more. In my little corner of the world, Tribunal hasn't happened yet.
 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10 Part 11

 

 

Chapter 1

JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, VA
0930 Local

 

Mac absently savored her coffee as she stared at the computer screen. It had been two weeks since that nightmare in Memphis had ended and only one week that she'd been back in the office. Things were slowly working their way back to normal, but she would be on restricted duty until the fractured collarbone healed. Mostly it meant she would not be going out on any field investigations. Fortunately, it didn't stop her from litigating. If she'd had to spend the next six weeks doing nothing but administrative paperwork and research, Mac was positive she'd be ready to break someone else's bones.

As of yesterday, she'd been given a relatively clean bill of health from the doctor over at Bethesda. She was grateful to be off that miserably boring diet, although Dr. Berger had warned her to return to her normal diet gradually. She smiled to herself recalling Harm's incredulous snort, she'd had to jab him with an elbow to keep him from launching into his version of her 'normal' diet. Still, it was sweet that he insisted on coming with her to her appointment. They were both cautiously feeling their way along in this new/old phase of their relationship. It was like slipping into a comfortable old sweater and discovering it wasn't the color you thought it was. They'd agreed to help each other out; he'd help her work through her insecurities and she'd show him that love wasn't synonymous with loss. Despite all their accumulated baggage, this being-a-couple thing was definitely rewarding. Her smile grew as she contemplated the 'rewards'.

"I don't know what you're looking at, Colonel, but could you send it over to my computer, too?" Sturgis' deep voice startled her out of her thoughts causing some of the coffee to slosh out of her cup.

"You're a dead man, Sturgis, that's the first coffee she's had in three weeks and you just made her spill it."

Sturgis turned around to see Harm standing behind him. He raised his hands in mock surrender, glancing from Harm to Mac, "It was an accident, I swear. I didn't think Marines were that nervous."

Harm folded his arms and gave the Commander a stern look, "C'mon Sturgis, everyone knows that you have to approach Marines quietly and carefully because they frighten so easily. Pleading ignorance isn't much of a defense."

Mac looked up from blotting spilled coffee off her hand and desk and arched an eyebrow, "If you gentlemen are planning to take that show on the road, I'd suggest you try making it funny."

The Commanders looked at each other and then back at Mac. "We think we're funny," Sturgis said solemnly. Harm opened his mouth to add his two cents when Mac's intercom interrupted him. The metallic sound of Tiner's voice came over the speaker, "Colonel MacKenzie? The Admiral would like to see you in his office as soon as possible."

"On my way, Tiner," Mac said, standing up. She made a shooing motion at Harm and Sturgis, "You two can go back to your day jobs now."

Harm waited in the doorway as she left her office, "Think this is about the Bacovian babysitting detail?"

Mac shrugged, "Possibly, the Admiral said it should begin sometime this week." She continued walking, giving Tiner a nod as she entered the outside office.

Tiner smiled. "Go right in ma'am, the Admiral's expecting you."

"Thanks Tiner," Mac smiled in return. She rapped once on the door and then walked into Chegwidden's office. Approaching his desk, she snapped to attention, "Colonel MacKenzie, reporting as ordered sir." She was peripherally aware of a civilian already seated.

AJ nodded, "As you were, Colonel. Have a seat." He gestured to the civilian, "This is Mr. Nathan Gallagher from the State Department. He's here to deliver the background information on your assignment with the Bacovian royal family, as well as give you State's views on the subject."

Mac picked up on the slight change of tone the Admiral used on the last part of his statement. They looked at each other for a moment and then she turned her attention to Gallagher.

Gallagher had been staring at Mac since she walked into the Admiral's office. He didn't like the idea of working with the military on this assignment. This was his ticket to bigger and better things and he didn't need to have it compromised by some low-brow misanthrope who couldn't function in the real world. Anyone who happily gave up their free-will for a life as structured as the military obviously had some sort of pathological need for authority figures. Admittedly, this particular officer was easy on the eyes and as a lawyer probably had to have some native cunning. Hell, she might even possess a modicum of intelligence, but he wanted someone who could understand the complex nuances of diplomacy. The damn Marine Corps version of diplomacy was to blow the other side off the map. He clenched and unclenched his hands, a nervous habit, why did this always happen to him? Well, he'd establish who was in charge as quickly as possible and see if he could keep the damage to a minimum. At least, as a woman, this MacKenzie would be used to letting a man take the lead. Gallagher refocused his attention when he heard Admiral Chegwidden introduce him.

He took his time, adjusting his tie before finally clearing his throat importantly, "Colonel MacKenzie, I hope you realize the significance of this assignment to the United States government. Bacovia has been an excellent source of titanium for us and if we can work out an agreement for the military bases, it'll be quite a coup. Having a member of the royal family in our military will help solidify our relationship and give us some leverage as well. We're counting on you to put the military's best foot forward and convince the King that this will be an excellent opportunity for his daughter." He pulled out a heavy file folder as he spoke and handed it to her.

Mac accepted the folder and looked at the man for a long moment, "Of course, Mr. Gallagher. You should know, however, that I intend to be as honest as possible about what a woman's life in the military entails."

Gallagher gave a short, mirthless laugh, "Of course you will, Colonel. Just avoid or downplay any potentially negative aspects of military life. Surely, as a lawyer, that's not beyond your capabilities." He let a tiny amount of pique creep into his voice. Great, this was just what he needed, some jarhead officer playing the 'I'm-too-honorable,-I-cannot-tell-a-lie' game. She was a lawyer for god sakes! She probably lied all the time.

Mac's face lost all expression and her voice turned icy, "Are you asking me to deliberately mislead these people?"

Gallagher glared at her, "I'm telling you what needs to be done to serve and protect this country. I didn't think I'd have to point that out to an officer in the United States Marine Corps."

"Mr. Gallagher, I doubt these people are stupid. Lying to them about the downside of military life is not only wrong but foolish. What makes you think they don't already know about the flaws in our system? What if this is a test of our integrity?" Mac matched his glare with one of her own.

"Colonel, I don't expect someone like you to understand the subtleties of international diplomacy, so I would suggest you keep your ears open and your mouth shut. All you're supposed to do is follow orders. My orders. “Gallagher was thoroughly annoyed. The nerve of this woman!

Mac looked at him silently, then placed the folder on the desk and stood back up at attention facing AJ, "Sir, I understand that this assignment is voluntary?" Chegwidden nodded slowly. "Then sir, I respectfully decline. Permission to withdraw?"

"Granted, Colonel." AJ watched her pivot and march out of his office before turning back to Gallagher. "If there's nothing else, Mr. Gallagher, my yeoman will see you to the door."

Gallagher stared at the Admiral, "Wait a minute, I need a tour guide for the princess and her parents. They specifically asked for a woman who is active in the military."

Chegwidden leaned back in his chair, "You probably should have thought of that before you treated the Colonel like an idiot. She is the best qualified and, at the moment, happens to be restricted to light duty. I can't spare anyone else right now. You'll have to go to the next person on your list. I would suggest you curtail your obvious contempt for the military or I doubt anyone will be volunteering to work with you."

Eyes squinted in anger, Gallagher sat silently. Goddammit! Although he had no intention of admitting it, MacKenzie did happen to be the most qualified. If he had to work with these anachronistic, murderous cretins, it made sense to use the best of the group. Why increase the odds of failing with someone even worse? He looked at AJ, "I want MacKenzie. Order her to take the assignment."

Chegwidden stared back at the man, keeping his expression blank. He hadn't run into someone so belligerently anti-military since the Gulf War. Considering the current attitude about the military after 9/11, it was surprising to say the least. He sighed to himself, this would have been an excellent interim assignment for Mac while she recovered. He knew from watching her with Chloe that she worked well with kids and she was a fine example of what women could achieve in the military. He had no doubt she would have impressed the parents as well. All of which was water under the bridge, thanks to this smugly superior bureaucrat. "This assignment was on a volunteer basis. If you want the Colonel, apologize and try to convince her yourself. Consider it an opportunity to exercise the 'subtleties of diplomacy'." He turned and punched his intercom, "Tiner, would you please escort Mr. Gallagher out?"

"Admiral!" Gallagher protested angrily, "I was promised full cooperation from the military! I can't believe you'd jeopardize this country's well-being because one of your female officers was having some sort of PMS moment!"

Chegwidden's eyebrows slowly came together and his eyes narrowed, "Mr. Gallagher, I don't know where you learned diplomacy because so far I've seen little evidence of it. The Colonel was looking forward to this assignment until you opened your mouth and I find it hard to believe that you came in here without being aware of her qualifications. All of which makes your insulting behavior even more egregious." AJ held up a hand to forestall Gallagher's response, "However, it's patently clear that this mission is vital to you. I'd have to say that your opinion of the importance of this assignment is over-inflated. It is a good-will mission, nothing more. If it's successful, it will make both sides happy. If not, well, it's likely things will continue as before. I seriously doubt the King would break off diplomatic relations because his daughter didn't go to Annapolis. So I will tell you again, if you want Colonel MacKenzie - you convince her." He looked down at the papers on his desk, signaling that the conversation was over. Gallagher huffed and grumbled a little longer before getting up and striding out of the office, Tiner at his heels. AJ looked up as the door closed and muttered, "I hope you know how to duck."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac stalked back to her office and dropped down in her chair. That obnoxious, boorish, patronizing, contemptible jackass! That scurrilous...

"Mac? Are you okay?" Harm poked his head cautiously in her doorway. When she looked up at him, he pretended to fend off her gaze, "Owww, Marine. Put that glare back on stun." Seeing her shake her head, he ventured in the rest of the way and dropped into a chair. "Problems with babysitting?"

Mac drummed her fingers on the desk, "I declined the assignment."

Harm's eyebrows rose in surprise, "I thought you were looking forward to it. What happened?"

"A pretentious, obdurate State Department hack who wanted me to lie to the Bacovian royal family about any problems a woman might face in the US military." Mac leaned back with a scowl. It deepened when she saw a smile lurking on Harm's face. "You think this is funny?"

"No, no. It's just that when you're ticked, I find my vocabulary expanding. Why not call the SOB a SOB and be done with it?" Harm grinned at her.

Mac sighed, "Not enough syllables, thank you. Honestly, I want to flatten that supercilious jerk."

Harm's smile turned mischievous, "We could waylay him in the parking lot. I'll hold him and you can incinerate him with one of your glares."

Mac gave him a look, "You're just hysterical today, Rabb."

"Hey, I'm not the one who inadvertently crisped a petty officer on my way back from the Admiral's office. Go look in the bullpen, I'll bet that little pile of ashes is still smoldering." He watched her with an innocent expression. Mac couldn't help herself, she let go of her anger and grinned ruefully. Harm smiled to himself in satisfaction. He rose from the chair and motioned to her, "C'mon, I'll buy you a fresh cup of coffee."

They were halfway to the break room when Gallagher stormed out of the Admiral's office. Seeing the two officers, he headed towards them, "Colonel MacKenzie!" A harried-looking Tiner chased after him.

Harm felt Mac tense beside him as they turned around, although her voice and expression remained neutral, "Yes, Mr. Gallagher?"

Gallagher let his gaze drift to the tall Naval Commander before dismissing him to stare intently at Mac, "Colonel, I don't believe you fully grasp the importance of this assignment. I was promised full cooperation as well as whatever assets I deem necessary for the successful completion of this mission. You are the most qualified and therefore necessary; I'm ordering you to participate." He folded his arms and waited expectantly, you had to be simple yet firm with these military types.

Mac looked at him and said calmly, "You don't have the authority." She turned back towards the break room. Incensed, Gallagher reached out and grabbed her by the upper arm, yanking her back towards him. Clenching her teeth on an exclamation at the unexpected pain, Mac let out a hiss. Seconds later, Gallagher found himself pinned facedown on a desk, his arm painfully twisted behind his back.

"Tiner, call Security." Harm's voice came out in a low growl. He looked over at Mac, she was white-faced and had a hand pressed against her shoulder. "Mac?" Harm asked anxiously. Harriet hurried over and helped her into a chair.

"What is the meaning of this?!" AJ's bellow drowned out Tiner's 'Attention on deck'. He motioned for Mac to keep her seat and glared at Harm, "Commander! Release Mr. Gallagher."

"Aye, sir." Harm let go and stepped back quickly. Sure enough, Gallagher came up swinging. He was pounced on from either side by two large petty officers.

AJ was in the bureaucrat's face in less than a heartbeat, "That's enough, Mr. Gallagher! I want you out of this building and off these grounds. Your behavior today has been nothing less than reprehensible. Consider yourself lucky that I'm not having you thrown in the brig. I will, however, have a number of things to say to your superiors." Chegwidden looked at the petty officers, "Escort him to Security. Tell Gunny Walters to make sure he leaves the premises and if Mr. Gallagher causes any more problems, arrest him and take him to the brig." He waited until they left the bullpen before turning back to his two senior attorneys. "Colonel, do we need a corpsman up here?"

Mac shook her head, "No sir, I'll be fine in a moment." She smiled reassuringly at Harm and Harriet.

AJ looked at Rabb, "What exactly happened?"

"Gallagher ordered Mac to take the Bacovian assignment. She told him he didn't have that kind of authority and turned away. He blew up, grabbed her by the arm and yanked her back to face him. Then I subdued him." Harm was still angry. He wanted nothing more than to follow that son of a bitch into the parking lot and beat the holy hell out of him. When he realized that the Admiral was still watching him, he carefully schooled his features to become expressionless.

AJ grunted as he watched Harm become poker-faced and then swept his gaze across the bullpen. The staff immediately became engrossed in their work, shuffling papers and typing industriously. He glanced over at Mac, "If it's any consolation, Colonel, I believe Mr. Gallagher will soon find himself reassigned to Outer Mongolia."

Mac smiled a trifle wanly, "Thank you sir, I think I'll wait to celebrate until it's official." Harriet gave her a hand as she slowly climbed to her feet. There was an industrial strength bottle of ibuprofen in her desk and she intended to make use of it.

Chegwidden arched an eyebrow, "Not that I blame you, but I think I can guarantee that Mr. Gallagher never sets foot in this office again." He looked at all three officers, "Carry on." With that, AJ turned around and strode back to his office. He had a few heads to roll over at State.

Harm hurried over to the two women. He looked at Mac, "Are you okay?" Harriet continued to hover nearby.

Mac nodded, rubbing the front of her shoulder, "Yeah, everything's down to a dull roar." She turned and slowly walked back to her office. Harm went with her while Harriet continued into the break room. Settling carefully in her chair, Mac looked over at Harm, "Thanks for the rescue and the restraint. For a moment, I was afraid you were going pound him flat."

Harm snorted as he settled on the corner of her desk, "Don't think it didn't cross my mind. My question would be what idiot in the State Department decided that that lunatic could handle a diplomatic assignment?" He watched her rummage through a desk drawer before pulling out a bottle of ibuprofen. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'll be fine in a little bit,” Mac replied. She broke into a grateful smile when Harriet entered the office, bringing her a glass of water. "Bless you, Harriet." She downed several of the pain-relievers and looked at the two naval officers, "Not the most auspicious beginning to the day, is it?"

 

Chapter 2

JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, VA
1420 Local

 

Mac looked up from her paperwork and saw the Admiral standing in her doorway. Immediately, she began to rise to attention. AJ waved her back down as he entered and dropped into one of her chairs, "Would you reconsider volunteering for the Bacovian assignment, Colonel?"

Mac eyed the Admiral, "May I ask if Mr. Gallagher is still in charge?"

Chegwidden allowed himself a small grin, "You may and he's not. As of 1232, he has been suspended for two weeks and then he'll be reassigned. I believe he's going to Greenland, apparently there were no openings in Antarctica."

Mac chuckled, "That's too bad, I was hoping not to be in the same hemisphere. And yes sir, I'd be happy to take the assignment."

"Good," AJ handed her the file folder as he stood up. "Report to the Bacovian embassy tomorrow morning at 0900. You'll meet with the King's Chief of Staff, a Daniel Rica. He'll take it from there."

Mac stood up as well, "Yes sir." She waited for AJ to leave her office before sitting back down and opening the file folder. Twenty minutes later, a tap on the doorframe interrupted her reading. She looked up to see Harm standing there, "Hey Sailor, how did court go?"

Harm grimaced slightly, "About how you'd expect with Lt. Singer prosecuting. She always goes for the jugular." In truth, Lauren hadn't been nearly as obnoxious as she had been in the past. The Memphis trip had been an eye-opener for her.

Mac smiled, "So she's giving you a run for your money?"

"She's wearing me out. Have you got any plans tonight?" Harm changed to the subject he would rather be discussing.

"Why? Are you hoping to bounce defense strategies off me?" Mac propped an elbow on the desk and rested her chin, gazing at him innocently. No sense in making it too easy, Harm could use the exercise.

He gave her a look before folding his arms and leaning against the doorframe, "If I was going to bounce something, it wouldn't be strategies."

Mac's smile grew wider as both eyebrows went up, "In that case, Commander, I believe my social calendar is clear. Your place or mine?"

Harm's grin matched her own, "I'll pick you up, there's a new Italian place that's opened. I thought we could give it a try."

"Sounds good," Mac glanced back down at her file and waved a hand at him, "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm knee-deep in Bacovian history."

This time, Harm's eyebrows went up, "You took the assignment? Does this mean Gallagher is out of the picture?"

"Yes and yes," Mac replied, "Mr. Gallagher is currently suspended for two weeks and will be reassigned to a post in wonderful, sunny Greenland - hopefully the northernmost tip."

"That ass should have been fired," Harm grumbled. "He'll be trouble wherever he goes."

"Getting rid of government bureaucrats is like getting rid of dandelions - practically impossible. At least we won't have to deal with him anymore. I'm looking forward to this," Mac said with a warm smile.

"When does it begin?" Harm was vaguely aware that he was grinning too; she had that effect on him.

"0900 tomorrow," She shook a finger at him, "So you can't keep me out 'til all hours. I'll make a better impression if I'm awake and coherent."

"What if I promise to have you home and in bed by nine?" Harm waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Mac laughed as she leaned back in her chair, "Then it will be your fault when I commit some faux pas and Bacovia declares war in the next twenty-four hours." A little light flirting did make the day more enjoyable.

Harm made a show of pondering this. "Well, I suppose that wouldn't look good on my service record. Still... Bacovia's pretty small?" Mac nodded with a grin. "So theoretically, if I borrow a Tomcat for a day or so, I could not only start the war but win it too. That would look impressive on my record."

"What would look impressive on your record, Commander?" The sound of Chegwidden's voice startled both officers. AJ had been coming out of the break room when he saw Rabb at the Colonel's doorway. Deciding to get an update on the McPherson case, he had detoured over in time to hear the Commander's last comment.

"Ummm...," Harm stammered a bit, straightening up. He hadn't expected anyone but Mac to hear what he'd said. AJ gestured at his Chief of Staff to remain seated while looking curiously at Rabb.

"Saving the world for truth, justice and the American Way, sir," Mac chimed in, looking highly amused.

Chegwidden's eyebrow slowly rose as he silently contemplated his aviator-turned-lawyer. Harm met his gaze stoically while squirming a little inside. What Mac had said wasn't much better than what he had said. Finally, AJ spoke, "Highly commendable, Commander Rabb. Just remember that the uniform of the day does not include tights." He turned to leave and then stopped, looking back over his shoulder, "I'd like an update on the McPherson case. Meet me in my office in five minutes." He paused for a few seconds and then added, "Please don't fly in through the window." With that, he headed back to his office looking pleased with himself.

Harm waited until AJ had cleared the bullpen before covering his face and groaning, "I'm never going to hear the end of this." He lowered his hand and glared at Mac. She was laughing silently. "This is your fault, Marine."

She raised her hands, "Hey, I'm not the one who likes to fly faster than a speeding bullet." Mac cocked her head to the side, "So tell me, do you have a cape attached to your flight suit?"

Rolling his eyes, Harm turned to walk back to his office, "This is going to get old fast." He looked over at her, "Pick you up around 1830?"

"I'll leave the window open," Mac smiled. Harm gave her a pained look before retreating to his office. He was going to have to think about payback. His expression lightened - handled correctly, it could be fun.

 


Mac's Apartment
Georgetown
1830 Local

 

Mac opened her door and grinned at her partner, "I'm impressed. You're thirty-three seconds early."

Harm gave her a sidelong look, "I flew." Mac laughed as she gestured him in. Her Superman analogy had filtered into the bullpen and Harm had spent most of the afternoon dealing with witty and wry remarks from those officers senior enough to get away with it. The junior officers and enlisted had contented themselves with grins and sotto voce renditions of 'faster than a speeding bullet...' whenever he walked past.

She headed for a closet, "Let me grab a light coat and I'll be right with you." Harm admired the view as she walked away from him. She was wearing a black skirt with a burgundy sweater top. She draped the coat over her arm, grabbed her purse and turned back to him with a smile, "All set."

Harm grinned as he opened the door and bowed her through, "After you, madam." He waited while she locked her door and together they walked down the hallway. They stopped at the entry and Harm helped Mac into her coat, taking care not to jostle her shoulder. He paused for a moment with his hands resting lightly on her back. Leaning in, he said softly, "Have I mentioned how beautiful you look tonight?"

He felt her tense momentarily, before relaxing again and turning to face him. At his questioning look, Mac looked a little abashed, "Sorry about that, I guess I'm still not used to hearing those kinds of comments from you. It threw me a bit."

Harm gave her a grin while offering his arm, "Well, you know what they say. Practice makes perfect."

Mac smiled back while taking his arm, "In that case, may I say that you're looking handsome tonight as well?" He was wearing black slacks and a charcoal sport coat. His shirt was a shade or two lighter than midnight blue. It complemented her outfit with the added bonus of setting off the brilliance of his eyes.

Chuckling, Harm inclined his head, "Yes, you may." They reached his SUV. He opened the passenger side and handed her in. Eyes sparkling, he kept hold of her hand for a moment and said solemnly, "I think we'll just have to face it, Ms. MacKenzie, we are a stunning couple."

Suppressing a grin with difficulty, Mac matched his demeanor, "I concur Mr. Rabb. Let's go knock their socks off at that restaurant."

With a wide smile, Harm gave a slight bow, "As you wish."
 


JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia
0805 Local

 

Harm strode into the bullpen with a slight bounce to his step. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening for both of them. The food had been excellent, the conversation lively and even though it was an early night, they still had time for a short after dinner stroll. He shook his head slightly; they'd known each other for seven years and still found each other's company fascinating. He'd known married couples that had little to say to each other after five years. He glanced at Mac's office, noting that it was dark. Seeing Harriet at her desk, he veered over to her, "Morning Harriet."

"Good morning, sir," Harriet tried to contain her surprise. Harm was usually not in for at least forty more minutes. She managed to get out "How are you?" instead of "What are you doing here?"

"Fine, thanks." He hurried to ask his question before Harriet started in on hers. "Has Colonel MacKenzie been in this morning?"

"You missed her by about five minutes, sir," Harriet smiled. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, no," Harm backed away and headed briskly to his office. Although neither he nor Mac were hiding their relationship, that didn't mean that he wanted to be grilled about it. He could feel Harriet's grin all the way into his office. With a sigh he dropped into his chair and started in on paperwork, it would be a long day.
 


Bacovian Embassy
Washington, DC
0850 Local

 

Mac drove up to the entry of the embassy and gave her name over the intercom. Forty-three seconds later, the gates rolled open. Pulling into the courtyard, she was directed to a parking space by a young soldier. He waited for her to get out of the car and then escorted her to a side door. There, he handed Mac off to a liveried servant who took her to a richly appointed sitting room. The servant gave a slight bow and disappeared as quietly as he had arrived. Curious, she scanned the contents of the room. Aside from the to-be-expected expensive furniture and hangings, there were a number of photographs, both on tables and hanging on the walls. Obviously professionally done, they were of the royal family. Mostly, they were of the children at various ages, engaged in numerous pursuits. The twins were immortalized jumping fences on horseback, playing soccer, rock-climbing, giving music and dance recitals and even in fencing attire. The younger children didn't have nearly as many photos but apparently were just as active. Mac smiled to herself, wondering if this was what every well-rounded royal child went through.

A throat clearing interrupted her perusal. Turning around, she saw a small man standing in the doorway. If she had to describe him, the first word that came to mind was 'soft'. He was round-faced and round-bodied, with a library pallor that contrasted sharply with his black hair. Mac was willing to wager that he had only a passing acquaintance with any physical endeavors. She walked over to him and smiled, "Mr. Rica? I'm Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie from the Judge Advocate General's office." Her smile faded a little as he regarded her silently. She began to wonder if anyone in this embassy actually talked.

Abruptly, he turned and walked out with a gesture for her to follow. Mac swallowed a surge of irritation and started after him. She had a good four inches of height on him and so she had no trouble catching up with the little man. He seemed to find that development annoying, to judge from the look on his face. However, with her longer stride, his only other option was jogging. That was definitely beneath what appeared to be a massive amount of dignity. Finally, he spoke, "You're late."

Mac blinked, "I was told to meet you at 0900."

"Precisely. You're late."

After debating with herself for a few seconds, Mac said, "No, I'm not. It's 0856."

He looked at her in disbelief as he continued to stride down the corridor. Reaching into his coat, he brought out an expensive-looking pocket watch. Glancing down at it, he said rather triumphantly, "It's 9:05."

They were rapidly approaching the end of the corridor. There was a set of double doors flanked by uniformed men. Mac spared them a quick glance and decided they must be members of the Bacovian Household Guard. They silently opened the doors as the two came closer. Rica never slackened his pace. Staying alongside, she looked down at him, "Your watch is fast, it's 0857."

Once inside the room, he turned to face her. Waving his watch under her nose, he said, "This is a finely tuned, precision-crafted timepiece and it's... " he stopped moving it to look, "... exactly 9:06. You're late."

Mac folded her arms and stared at him, "It's 0858:32. I entered the Embassy grounds at 0850, it took 3 minutes and 26 seconds to park the car and walk to the sitting room. I waited 3 minutes and 41 seconds until you came in and it took 85 seconds to reach this room."

"Surrender gracefully, Daniel," came a soothing, baritone voice from a corner of the room. "The Colonel is quite correct about the time." The owner of the voice moved to the center of the room. Mac stiffened to attention. Even without Rica bowing respectfully beside her, she would have known that this man was King Gheorghe. He exuded an aura of strength and authority without seeming to be aware of it. His features were a trifle too irregular to be considered handsome but there was a rough-hewn attractiveness there. He was of medium height, lithe rather than heavily muscled and moved with an athlete's grace. His dark eyes, sparkling now with humor, missed little. Mac sucked in a breath, even after seven years of preparation with Harm, this man's charisma was damn near overpowering.

He gestured at her as he continued to walk towards the two, "Please, Colonel, relax... umm, as you were. Is that correct?" He smiled when she nodded and turned an indulgent grin upon Rica. "Daniel, I've been telling you for weeks that your watch is gaining time." He watched the little man huff indignantly and then turned back to Mac, "I beg your pardon, we haven't been introduced and Daniel isn't finished sputtering about his exquisitely crafted watch. I'm Gheorghe Dzurick and you, I presume, are Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie?"

Mac nodded, "Yes, Your Majesty."

"Thank you for coming. Despite the reception Daniel probably gave you, my wife and I appreciate your presence." He sat down in a brocaded wingback chair and motioned for Mac to have a seat. The King glanced at Rica as he spoke and the little man looked back in defiant displeasure. "I'm afraid Daniel doesn't approve of my daughter's plans nor our acquiescence.’It is unseemly for a woman of royal blood to pursue a career as a common soldier.' I keep assuring him there is nothing common about Mo. Nor, if I may be so bold, does there seem to be anything common about you, Colonel."

Mac blushed and looked down at her hands for a moment, feeling a trifle flustered. It was disconcerting to find another man that could affect her the way Harm did. "Thank you, Your Majesty... I'm looking forward to meeting your daughter."

"And so you shall," Gheorghe replied. Fifteen seconds later, another liveried servant stood attentively at the doorway. Mac decided there must be some sort of bell or signal near the chair. "Would you ask the family to join us?" Gheorghe inquired. The servant nodded silently and disappeared. The King turned back to Mac and cleared his throat, "Colonel, I believe I should warn you - my children are headstrong and they always try to push the limits with anyone new in their lives. I don't know if I'd call them bullies... “Rica snorted and then subsided when the King looked his way.”... but don't let use their royalty as a club. As far as my wife and I are concerned, you outrank them."

"Yes sir," Mac said with a slight smile, wondering if the Princess would be another Chloe.

Gheorghe leaned back in the chair, "Might I ask a personal question, Colonel?" Mac nodded somewhat warily. The King grinned as he glanced at Rica, "How did you know exactly what time it was? Is this something they teach in the American military? Because if that is the case, perhaps I will send some of my staff to be educated."

Chuckling, Mac shook her head, the thought of the stuffy, little Bacovian Chief of Staff in Marine boot camp was amusing, to say the least. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but that particular ability is all my own. I've been able to tell time without a watch since I was ten."

"You are obviously a woman of many talents, Colonel... “The King was interrupted when the doors opened and a crowd of people entered the room, the youngsters were chattering noisily. Gheorghe climbed out of his chair and Mac rose also. That was enough to quiet everyone down. A brunette, only an inch or so shorter than Mac, continued forward until she was at Gheorghe's side. He placed a light hand on her back and smiled, "My dear, may I introduce Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie? Colonel, this is my wife Carol Dzurick."

Mac inclined her head a little and smiled, "Your Majesty."

Carol smiled in return and offered a hand, "I'm glad you're here, Colonel MacKenzie, my daughter is anxious to find out everything she can about a military career. You're going to be her 'inside' information." She turned to Gheorghe and raised an eyebrow, "I think you'd better start the introductions before all your children expire from curiosity."

Gheorghe glanced over his shoulder, "I believe you're right." He looked at Mac, "Are you ready to brave the lion's den?"

 

Chapter 3

Bacovian Embassy
Washington, D.C.
0938 Local

 

Mac followed along in the little crowd that trailed after the royal family. The King and Queen went first, followed by the Heir Apparent and Heir Presumptive, their twin daughters. The third group, which Mac found herself in, consisted of the ever-scowling Rica; the King's batman, Lucian Valter; the Queen's Executive Secretary, Elizabeth Parker; and Gheorghe's aunt and uncle, the Grand Duke Victor and his wife, the Grand Duchess Katrina. The introductions had gone, more or less, smoothly. There were a number of people. The twins had been on their dignity, she'd have to wait to see what they were really like. The younger children had turned shy at the last minute. The rest had been the adults and they were clearly divided about whether the Princess' desire for a military career was a good idea.

Rica was adamantly opposed and judging by the cool reception, so were the Grand Duke and Duchess. The King's batman, the Queen's Executive Secretary and the governess, Olga Hristov, were all in favor. Now they were on their way to private living quarters of the royal family. Carol, keeping a weather eye on the undercurrents, had decided that the discussion that was about to take place would be better in a less public setting. The whole thing had Mac slightly perplexed. She thought she would be allaying (or possibly confirming) the parents' concerns, not arguing her case before the royal household.

They entered a large, comfortable room and subconsciously or not, split into opposing sides. Mac stood back a little ways, apart from either group. Grand Duke Victor fired the opening salvo, "I cannot believe you're actually going through with this, Gheorghe. The military is no place for a woman and most especially, not one of royal birth. It's degrading and dangerous." Mac noticed the surreptitious looks cast her way by the others, as well as the identical defiant look directed to their great-uncle by each of the twins.

"Uncle Victor," Gheorghe said calmly, "I am going through with nothing. Natalya is eighteen and can make her own decisions. Naturally, her mother and I will gladly offer opinions - wanted or not." This produced the expected smiles and eye-rolling from all the children, easing some of the tension. The King waited a moment and then said more seriously, "As for the rest of your statement, I believe you've come perilously close to insulting our guest." He looked at Mac, "Colonel, would you like to answer Victor, or shall I?"

Mac looked at him for a moment, realizing that Gheorghe had expected this reaction and now apparently wished to gauge her response. Meeting his gaze, she gracefully inclined her head and turned to the Grand Duke with a smile, "Your Grace, while I respect your opinion, I'm afraid I'll have to contradict you on several points. The military is the place for anyone who is willing to serve and defend their country, regardless of gender." She glanced around the assemblage, "I doubt that it's much different than the responsibilities of royalty; unless you find 'noblesse oblige' to be degrading as well?" She paused, raising an eyebrow. Victor glared at her but remained silent. Mac continued, "As for danger, well obviously, some aspects of the military are more dangerous than others but then, these days, being alive is dangerous too. The difference is that in the military, we expect to deal with danger and are trained accordingly. Civilians rarely have that advantage."

"If the military life is so idyllic then why aren't more people joining?" This came from a frowning Grand Duchess.

Mac turned towards her, "Idyllic is hardly the way to describe the military. We're undermanned, overworked and underpaid but we stay in because it's important and because there's something honorable in serving one's country. Not a lot of people are willing to make the sacrifices a military career demands."

"But your military doesn't allow women in combat. You don't get to defend your country - you're nothing more than a group of uniformed secretaries and clerks. Why should the Princess demean herself for such menial tasks?" Victor said this with a hint of malice. Mac noticed both Elizabeth Parker and Daniel Rica bristling at his words.

"There is nothing menial or demeaning about the clerks or the secretaries. Only a small percentage of troops actually see combat and they couldn't if it weren't for the clerks, secretaries, cooks, mechanics, technicians, truck drivers, warehouse workers, medical personnel, lawyers and all the rest of the support staff that keeps the military functioning. Despite the non-combatant status, all receive the same combat training because there is very little that is predictable in battle. Women are currently not allowed in the frontlines as ground combat troops but that doesn't keep them from providing support in the rear echelons. And, as you're surely aware, there are a number of women combat pilots." Mac locked eyes with the Grand Duke and waited for his response. She was peripherally aware of the small smiles on the faces of Gheorghe, Carol and the children.

Victor's face reddened as he remained silent, his eyes narrow as he glared at her. Abruptly, he threw up his hands and turned to Gheorghe, "Very well, disgrace the family if you wish. I can see that I will have little say in the matter." He turned towards the doors and looked at the Grand Duchess, "Come." Then he strode angrily from the room, trailed by his wife. As he passed by Mac, he said softly and venomously, "Suka." She stiffened momentarily and watched him leave the room. Only the Grand Duchess had heard Victor's last comment and she looked like she agreed with him. Mac decided that she'd need to keep an eye out for the belligerent couple.

Gheorghe's gaze followed the Grand Duke and Duchess out of the room. He turned a perplexed look towards Mac, "Victor rarely surrenders a position so easily, Colonel."

"And he's been known to try physical intimidation when words fail him," Carol added grimly. She glared at Gheorghe who looked at her with a slightly shocked expression, "Liza and I hear things from the staff that you don't, Geordie. As far as we know, he hasn't actually laid hands on anyone yet; but he's been growing more and more difficult these last few months. I don't know why he persists in staying with us when we so obviously annoy him."

"He doesn't want to be too far from the power," Mac murmured thoughtfully. She flushed slightly when she saw the King and Queen look at her, "I beg your pardon, your Majesties. I was speculating out loud."

"It's a valid point," Gheorghe sighed. Then he smiled again, "But now that that's over, I think we should all sit down and get acquainted." He looked over at Rica, "Daniel, you may go or stay. It's up to you."

Rica smiled. Mac felt mildly surprised, she had begun to believe the little man didn't know how. He looked at the royal couple, "I believe I'll stay, your Majesty. I can hardly raise new objections if I'm not here to listen to new information."

"Very true, Daniel," the King laughed. He turned and escorted his wife to the sitting area, everyone else trailing behind. Once all were comfortable, he looked over at Mac, "Ready to answer questions, Colonel?"

"Yes, your Majesty," she said with a smile. Two hours and seventeen minutes later, Gheorghe called a halt. Mac heaved a quiet sigh of relief. She'd lost track of the number of questions she'd answered and had had very little time to ask any of her own. Still, the nature of the questions gave her some insight into each person. Enough for a pocket sketch of the various people she would be dealing with. The oldest twin, Princess Margarete Catalin, 'Cat', was the definitely the leader of the two. She didn't talk so much as listen and her questions tended to get to the heart of the matter quickly. She took her responsibilities as the heir seriously. Princess Natalya Moira was more vivacious. She had inherited her father's charisma and seemed blissfully unaware of the fact. 'Mo' combined a sunny disposition with the sometimes disconcerting habit of focusing her entire attention on whomever was speaking. Mac decided she was one of those people to whom others gravitated like moths to a flame.

Prince Andrei Nicolae, 'Nicky', was at that awkward age of fourteen. He was still trying to cope with the growth spurts and other changes that were taking place. Princess Christina Elena, 'El', was a typical twelve-year-old. Happy and bubbling, she bounced from subject to subject at the speed of light. In the space of five minutes, Mac learned that El's favorite pony was named Henri, her favorite color was blue, she was having trouble in math, she thought Mac was pretty and she wanted her parents to have another child because she thought babies were cute.

The King and Queen were a little harder to read. Mostly, their questions conveyed concern over the career choice their daughter had made. Mac was pretty sure that Carol was the disciplinarian in the family, Gheorghe tended to dote on his children. Liza Parker's title was Executive Secretary to the Queen but her true position was that of confidante and best friend. Mac learned that she and Carol had grown up together in Lexington, Kentucky and Liza had been responsible for Carol and Gheorghe meeting. Lucian Valter was the King's body servant. He was young and bright and his relationship with Gheorghe was somewhat like father and son. It was fairly obvious, at least to Mac, that he was mesmerized by Mo. The governess, Olga Hristov, was an older, mousy little woman whose main purpose in life these days, was keeping El out of trouble.

Daniel Rica was a puzzle. Intelligent, blunt and acerbic, he had no qualms about contradicting the King whenever the mood struck him. He played Devil's Advocate with a vengeance. Gheorghe treated him with fond amusement and a good deal of respect. Mac decided that his primary loyalty was to Bacovia and that he would put the safety and well-being of his country above any personal relationships, including that of the royal family.

"Colonel?" Gheorghe's voice broke into her thoughts. "Would you care to join us for lunch? After that interrogation, the least we can do is feed you. It will just be the family - nothing formal."

"Thank you, your Majesty," Mac said, "I'd be happy to have lunch with you, if you're sure I won't be intruding."

"Nonsense, Colonel," Carol smiled, "You're about to become a member of the family - at least for a little while. We've been hearing all about the Marine Corps and military life and now we should get to know one another on a more social level." She glanced at Gheorghe as she said this, checking his reaction and missed the quick look of displeasure on Rica's face. Mac didn't and wondered which was annoying the Bacovian Chief of Staff more, that she was staying for lunch or that he hadn't been invited. Truthfully, she wouldn't have minded skipping the lunch and calling it a day. Her stamina still wasn't where it used to be and she was tired. However, as in the case of admirals, when a king requests your presence - you say yes.

 

Bacovian Embassy
Washington, D.C.
1450 Local

 

Mac sat in her car and waited for the gates to open. Lunch had turned out to be an interesting affair, if unexpected. 'That's what I get for going in with pre-conceived notions,' she thought to herself wryly. What she thought would be a stuffy, stilted gathering had turned into an enjoyable experience. Eating had been punctuated with good-natured teasing, favorite stories and wry commentary on world events. The royal family was a close-knit bunch that obviously enjoyed each other's company. Listening to the twins was like watching a tennis match as they finished each other's sentences. Gheorghe had a dry sense of humor and a deadpan delivery as he told how Carol's parents (who raised thoroughbreds and warm-bloods) had been less than impressed with the possibility of a royal son-in-law until they discovered he knew which end of a horse got up first. Carol matched that with stories of her competition days in the equestrian 3-Day Event. The Bacovian royal family were intelligent, likable people. All in all, Mac decided that this would be a relaxing and fun assignment.

She pulled out onto to Embassy Row and headed for Georgetown. There was no point in going back to the office, the Admiral wasn't expecting her. She'd go home and relax for a couple of hours and then give Harm a call and see if he wanted to get together for dinner. Mac was fairly certain she'd had a more enjoyable day - he'd been in court again with Singer. No doubt he would need a little sympathy. Absorbed in her thoughts, she didn't notice the dark sedan that followed her.

 

Mac's Apartment
Georgetown
1530 Local

 

Mac entered her apartment, juggling keys and packages, and pushed the door closed with her foot. She'd stopped at a little market on her way home. Depositing the bags in the kitchen, she came out and stepped back in surprise. Clayton Webb stood in her living room, watching her reaction with a small, lopsided grin.

Mac put a hand to her chest, leaning against the side of her desk. Her heart was hammering wildly, "Goddammit, Clay! You scared the living daylights out of me! Don't you ever knock? What are you doing here?"

"Don't you lock your door? I could have been some maniacal serial killer." Clay countered with a smug look. It was rare that he managed to surprise the hell out of her. He dropped down on the couch and watched as she went and locked her front door.

Mac turned around, folded her arms and regarded him sternly, "I thought you were still in Afghanistan. Did you suddenly feel the urge to come back to the States just to give me a heart attack?"

"That was on my agenda," Clay said, the gleam in his eye belied his serious expression. He waited while she settled in a chair opposite him, "So you're the officer they drafted to do PR work with the Bacovians?"

Mac nodded, eyeing the CIA operative with suspicion. He stared back at her, his expression neutral. Mac groaned and dropped her face in her hands, "Dammit to hell, Clay, this was supposed to be a relaxing, no-brainer assignment. Tell them about the pros and cons for women in the military, take them on a tour of Annapolis and maybe run them out to Quantico." She raised her head and glared at him, "If you tell me the royal family is a secret al-Qaeda cell, I think I'll scream."

Webb looked at her and grinned, "Not al-Qaeda - well, not directly, anyway. And we don't think the royal family is involved, but we're not sure. It could be the staff. Of course, we don't know if what we're hearing is true or if it's just misinformation to keep us turning in circles. That's where you come in."

Leaning back, Mac sighed in exasperation, "Clay, I'm just too tired to follow the convolutions. Could you please spell it out for me slowly and in English? What's going on?"

Clay took a closer look at Mac, she did look tired. "You're still recovering from that militia debacle, aren't you? Mac gave a slight, reluctant nod, she hated admitting weakness. Webb leaned back, while he thought things over. Damn, if what he suspected was going on, Mac would be invaluable as their inside player. The problem was that he had no way to gauge the level of danger she could be facing... He snorted to himself, what was he thinking? Mac was just as bad as Rabb; any estimate of the likelihood of trouble could be automatically squared if either one was involved. With both, the estimate could be figured by powers of ten. Unfortunately, that also went hand-in-hand with their success rate. If he got Mac involved in this, he could count on Harm's participation as well. That would bring in the Admiral... Clay felt his nose begin to ache.

"Clay... ?" Mac's voice brought him out of his reverie. He looked to see her watching him with mingled concern and amusement. "I guess I'm not the only one who's tired. I should have guessed that asking you to simplify things would send you off to uncharted space. Do you want some coffee?"

Webb raised an eyebrow and then nodded. He stood and gave Mac a hand up and then followed her to the kitchen. Leaning against the counter, he watched while she prepared the coffeemaker. Mac grinned at him, "Do you need real coffee or wimpy, squid coffee?"

Clay scrubbed the side of his face, "Real coffee, please. It's been a long couple of weeks."

Mac measured out the fragrant crystals and then started the coffeemaker. Turning, she leaned against the counter as well, "Have you figured out what to tell me?"

Sighing, Clay gave the bridge of his nose one final rub, "Yeah. You know we've been monitoring al-Qaeda traffic?" Mac nodded, everyone on the planet probably knew that. She refrained from comment, knowing he was ordering things in his mind as he spoke. He continued, "Well, we picked up an odd snippet about ten days ago. Chechen rebels arranging a meet with an al-Qaeda representative. In and of itself, that's not too surprising - the Chechens are willing to go anywhere for help. The thing is the call originated in Bacovia. The King has always been pro-West and we don't think that's changed. So this could be just a rebel group conveniently hiding out in the Bacovian mountains, or it could be a threat to the royal family. We also don't know if any of the family is involved. The Dzuricks have been a prolific bunch; you can't swing a stick without hitting a blood relation somewhere. Strategically, it doesn't really affect us but if al-Qaeda-supported Chechens establish a hold in that country, it could cause huge problems for Russia and the neighboring countries. Ultimately, that will cause us problems down the line. Especially when we start thinking about Iraq."

"So you're leaning towards a coup? Do you think they'd do away with the monarchy altogether?" Mac tightened her grip on the counter, what she was asking was whether the entire family would be murdered.

"We just don't know. They might keep some form of puppet government to appease the citizens. Most of this is speculation. We don't even know if the call was legitimate." Webb was silent for a moment and then looked Mac in the eye, "My gut feeling is that the Dzurick family is in danger."

"What do you want me to do, Clay?" Mac asked tightly, thinking of the lengths these people might go to to achieve their goal. That there were children involved had not proved to be much of a deterrent these days.

"Tell the King what we suspect and see if you can convince him to keep it to himself. Tell him we're doing everything we can to find and stop these people. He'll want to protect his family but what if someone in the inner circle is the traitor? If they think their plan has been compromised, they might just try to slaughter everyone. We need to proceed as if we suspect nothing." He looked down for a second and then said, "You realize you'll be a target as well? Killing an American officer would be icing on the cake." Clay was well aware that if anything happened to her, Rabb would kill him and the Admiral would make sure there was nothing left to bury.

"What are the alternatives, Clay? Run away and pretend it's not my problem? There's no way I'm going to let these bastards get a free ride, not if I can help it." Mac was adamant.

Webb smiled to himself; Mac had dropped into kick-ass Marine mode. Any terrorist who crossed her path right now was roadkill. He thought of something else and glanced over at her, "You should also know that Major Sokol flew into D.C. late this morning."
 


Bacovian Embassy
Washington, D.C.
1820 Local

 

He moved quickly to a deserted room when he felt the cell phone vibrate. Pulling out the phone, he looked cautiously around before answering, "Yes?"

"You were right to suspect her. The CIA met with her at her apartment this afternoon. The agent was there for over an hour. What if they know what's going on?"

"Don't panic. We've been careful, they're probably just speculating." He moved further into a corner.

"That's easy for you to say. What if they KNOW? What are we going to do?" the voice was growing anxious.

"We follow the plan. If it becomes necessary, we'll adapt." With that, he broke the connection and moved quickly from the room. They'd come too far to give up now. If the woman officer started poking around where she wasn't wanted, they'd get rid of her.

 

 
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