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Classification Adventure, Angst, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 154,000 words; 327 pages (8 x 11)
Spoilers Through Season 9
Rating IM15

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7
Part 8 Part 9 Part 10 Part 11 Part 12 Part 13 Part 14

 

 

Chapter 1

The Anchorage Bar & Grill
Washington D.C.
0130 Local

 

Staff Sergeant Mallory ambled unsteadily out of the seedy little bar and headed for his car. He'd had enough beer and shots to create a pleasant euphoria. He would take the back roads to his house, no sense in making himself a target for some ticket-happy cop. Reaching the beat-up Honda Civic, Mallory fumbled in his pocket for the keys.

"Sergeant."

Surprised, he turned around to see a tall, dark-haired woman standing about five feet away. It was hard to make out details in dark. It would have been hard even if he hadn't been three sheets to the wind. He blinked a couple of times, "Yeah, do I know you?"

"No."

A sense of confusion permeated the alcoholic haze as he braced himself against the car. He wasn't in uniform, how did she know he was a Sergeant? The confusion turned to annoyance, damn hookers showed up everywhere. "Listen sweetheart, it's late, I'm tired and I'm broke. Try somebody else."

She didn't say anything, just stared at him. Irritated now, he pushed himself upright, "What are you? Deaf? Beat it!" She still didn't move and his temper, never good, began to flare. Scowling, he took a step towards her, fists clenched. If there was one thing that pissed him off, it was some goddamn, miserable whore not doing what she was told. Mallory froze when she pulled a pistol out of her coat pocket and leveled it at him. His eyes widened and a moment later, the slug hit him in the forehead. The Sergeant was dead before he hit the ground. The woman stepped up to the body, her hand reaching into the other pocket. She fingered a globe and eagle insignia, "Semper fi, you bastard." Turning away, she disappeared into the darkness.

 

Georgetown
Mac's Apartment
0600 Local

 

Mac walked into her apartment and then headed for the bathroom and a hot shower. Running was usually therapeutic for her but lately, it was more of a stopgap measure. She dragged a hand through her hair and then turned on the water. Stripping out of her sweat-drenched clothes, she gratefully eased into the steaming shower. Life had gone to hell in handbasket in the last year. Why in the world had she ever let herself pursue a relationship with Harm? Never had she met anyone who could cause her such joy and such pain. When it came to her physical well-being, he willingly did whatever it took to keep her safe. Emotionally, however, he could and had been devastating. Mac closed her eyes, letting the water stream over her. The problem, of course, (and despite her words in Paraguay) was that she still loved the big jerk.

Paraguay. It had wound up costing her almost everything but her life. What she wouldn't give to have those days back, to have said no to Clay when he asked for her help... But then Clay, and probably Gunny as well, would have died down there. Sadik Fahd would have had 100 Stinger missiles with which to kill Americans. No, her duty had been clear. Webb, whatever his motivation, had been right about stopping Sadik. It hadn't really surprised her to discover that the CIA operative had been skating on the fringes of a legitimate mission. Years of working with Harm had made that a familiar territory. Sometimes you just did what you had to do, higher powers be damned.

Harm... Goddammit to hell, never would she have imagined that the outcome of that mission would be her telling him to forget about their relationship. Looking back, she barely recognized herself. She'd been so off-balance and things had spiraled out of control.

It hadn't been that she hadn't realized how dangerous the mission was going to be. It seemed like Clay had pointed it out to her at every turn and God only knew how often these things went sour. She'd thought she was ready for whatever might happen down there. Unfortunately, there was no way she'd been prepared to listen to Webb's screams for hours on end. It had taken all her resolve to stay with their cover story but she hadn't been acting when she'd gotten on her knees to beg that son of a bitch to stop torturing Clay. Terror, guilt, frustration, helplessness, anger - all melded together into an unimaginable weight.

Later, when Sadik had shoved that knife into her pregnancy suit, she'd been appalled to find herself grateful to the bastard for not killing her right then. She hadn't been ready to die just yet, hadn't accepted that that might be her fate. Had she known on some subconscious level that Harm would appear to the save the day? Or was it just something she had grown to expect over the years? Either way, he had shown up when she needed him most and then things had gone haywire. One minute, he's blowing holes in Sadik's goons and freeing her from that miserable little shed and the next, he was all business, wanting to know about the missiles. Running on adrenaline and stress, she had followed Harm's lead, telling him what she had managed to overhear about the whereabouts of the Stingers. Keeping things on a professional level was a damn sight easier than dealing with personal issues. Hell, the two of them had had years of practice.

If ever she had needed proof that Murphy ruled the Universe, Paraguay was the clincher. It couldn't have come at a worse stage in their relationship. She and Harm were both primed for misunderstandings. Things hadn't been quite the same between them since that bizarre incident in the Blue Ridge. They barely had time to recover from that when the shocking murder of Lauren Singer and Harm's arrest occurred. Although she knew with a surety that went right down to her toes that he hadn't committed the murder; in all fairness, his odd behavior from the moment they heard about Lauren had had her investigative alarm bells ringing. NCIS obviously had felt the same, throwing him in the brig almost immediately.

It had been horribly frustrating when the Admiral had ordered them all to back off. She'd gone to talk to Chegwidden privately later. It'd helped a little to find that he was as mystified as she was about Harm's actions. Unfortunately, she also discovered that his hands were tied about the isolation of his senior attorney. The SecNav had been adamant that the "integrity" of the JAG corps not be compromised. It didn't make any sense until one filtered it through the Looking Glass of Washington politicking. Mac found the whole situation ludicrous.

After her interview with Gibbs, she was ready to concede that Harm's solitary confinement had saved his life. If she could have gotten to him just then, she would have surely strangled him. Why hadn't he talked to her about his suspicions of Singer and Sergei? Why hadn't he trusted her? The distance between them widened once again while she juggled worry over his trial with the anger and hurt. After he was exonerated, she let the resentment fester until the night before she left on the mission. Her parting shot at Harm had been undeserved even if there was some truth in it. Mac regretted the words almost as soon as she'd said them but her stupid pride had kept her back stiff and her feet moving - right into the perdition of Paraguay.

With her rescue by Harm, the surreal quality of her life increased tenfold. Everything around her was changing so fast that it was almost impossible to keep up. Moving from unimaginable feelings of guilt and fear over Clay to the horror of watching the Robinsons executed to the tightly held terror while being shackled to the table to the amazing relief of seeing Harm and the shock of finding Victor still alive. The worst was her absolute lack of control. Although she hadn't said so to Harm, he wasn't the only one with that particular fear. The difference was that he expected death and she had experienced worse.

Unfortunately, the relief of being rescued by Harm had been decidedly short-lived. It was nipped in the bud by the abrupt change in his attitude. It suddenly felt like she was the weak and bumbling 'Bimbo in Distress' that he, the Hero, was forever rescuing. She hadn't liked it but events were moving so quickly right then that she hadn't made the correlation about Harm's change of demeanor. Later at the hotel when she had time to think about it, it became obvious. The turning point had come when she'd kissed Clay. Harm had been behind her and right after that, the professional mask had dropped into place. And he'd been angry - his affronted attitude and sarcastic manner had grated on her already raw nerves. How dare he be offended? Webb had gone through a physical hell to keep the same thing from happening to her and Harm was jealous that the ordeal had made her and Clay closer? Dammit, it wasn't like they'd been on an extended date! Every time she thought about it, she couldn't decide whether to cry or swear.

Saying good bye to Clay at the hacienda had been wrenching, he'd been so badly hurt. It was her fault, really. She was the one who had insisted on rescuing Victor. Webb, despite his heartless agent facade, cared enough about her to go along and he'd paid for it dearly. Mac sighed and leaned against the shower wall, closing her eyes. She didn't think she'd ever absolve herself of the guilt she felt. The man had been a bloody wreck and he'd laid there and apologized - apologized! - for getting into her into such a mess. Not one word of recrimination for her pigheaded 'Marines don't leave their own behind' philosophy that had led to their capture. She was fairly sure that Clay hadn't expected to survive long enough to reach medical care or he probably never would have told her of his feelings.

Things had gone downhill pretty quickly between her and Harm after Victor had left with Clay. Against all common sense and past experiences, she had once again climbed into the cockpit of a plane with him. To be honest, it had been the only way to find and destroy the Stinger missiles but, dear God, when was she ever going to experience an uneventful landing with the man? Okay, leaving an unconscious Harm to find transportation had been a mistake. She knew better than that. All she could say in her defense was that she hadn't been thinking all that clearly either. Hell, she'd barely been thinking at all. Her mind had decided to take some time off for a euphoric high after having survived two life or death situations in less than a day (three, if you counted Harm trying to blow her brains out when she came back with the truck). It had been the weirdest feeling. There she was: bruised, exhausted, filthy, dealing with enough stress to power the city of Detroit and her head was telling her that dancing a little jig would be entirely appropriate. Undoubtedly, she was more flippant about their situation than she needed to be but she couldn't seem to help herself. At first, it seemed like Harm was answering in kind but then she began picking up an edge in his comments. Before she knew it, her remarks were becoming more cutting and things just escalated.

They might have still been able to work it out when they finally reached the hotel if Webb and Gunny hadn't shown up. As relieved as she'd been to find that Clay was still alive, Mac could have wished for a little more time alone with her pigheaded aviator. She'd been floored when Harm told Clay that he had resigned in order to come down to Paraguay. Why hadn't he told her? Instead, he'd brought up some cock and bull story about getting married! He had been more concerned with tweaking her for a reaction than the fact that he had given up the most important aspect of his life in order to rescue her. What the hell was he thinking!? That Harm had been forced to do such a thing was a scenario that had never even occurred to her. It seemed like every moment she was being knocked further off-kilter, trapped in some real-life Twilight Zone. Had everyone gone nuts? The Admiral was a SEAL, goddammit, he KNEW you didn't leave people behind. Her shock readily turned to anger - Chegwidden would have left her fate in the hands of the CIA? He might as well have shot her himself.

Although it hadn't occurred to her while it was happening, now it struck her as the height of irony that someone with her time sense could have had such incredibly poor timing. Trying to get Harm to talk about what was left of their relationship while they were both reeling had all the portents of the Titanic leaving her home port. Still, she had persisted and look what it had gotten her: He'd been obsessed with the notion that she and Clay were a couple, dismissing her disavowal of any feelings beyond friendship on her side. It had hurt to learn that he thought so little of her and when he asked to table the discussion for a later date, she hadn't fought it. The next day it seemed that Harm was still angry, belittling her input like she was some sort of incompetent civilian and not an experienced Marine officer. It had taken Clay's reprimand to get him to listen to her at all. God only knew what Victor had thought of whole thing. He'd wisely kept his mouth shut most of the time.

While he didn't come right out and accuse her of cheating on him, Harm's unsubtle hints that she had slept with Clay during the mission only added fuel to the fire. That wasn't even taking into account the slur against her professionalism. It hadn't helped that Webb had egged on Harm's jealousy and it did nothing for her temper to discover that he had bought into it without bothering to suspect Clay's motives. Dammit, why was Harm always so ready to assume that she would immediately jump in the sack with whatever man she happened to be friends with? He'd done it with Mic, conveniently forgetting that the first time she had actually gone on a date with Brumby had been after Harm's return from flying and after he'd blown off her invitation to dinner. To discover later that Harm had blown her off for a date with Renee Peterson had been particularly galling.

Mac shook her head as she turned off the water in the shower and grabbed a towel. It had been terribly naive of her to believe that once she and Harm became a couple that all their problems would disappear. They were still the same two mule-headed people who didn't communicate as well as they should.

 

JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, VA
0930 Local

 

"Colonel MacKenzie?"

Mac looked up from her computer to see a woman standing in her doorway. Her courteous response died in her throat and she visibly tensed at the sight of the NCIS ID badge. She still hadn't forgiven those agents for the hell they put Harm through. Warily, she leaned back in her chair, "May I help you?"

Kate Todd did her best to keep her surprise off her face at the Marine Colonel's reaction. Goddammit, how many JAG HQ officers had Gibbs pissed off? No wonder Tony didn't bitch and moan when she got this case and not him. Stiffening her spine, she pasted a polite smile on her face, walked in and offered her hand, "Special Agent Kate Todd with NCIS, Colonel, and I do hope you can help."

Mac shook her hand and gestured towards a chair, "Have a seat, Agent Todd."

Well, it wasn't much but it was a start. Kate opened up her case and pulled out photographs, "Do you know this man or the woman?"

Mac studied the pictures carefully. She hadn't seen the man before. There was something vaguely familiar about the woman but no names came to mind. She handed it back to Kate, "I don't think so. Should I?"

Kate regarded the JAG officer for a long moment. There had been... something, recognition perhaps?... before the Colonel had answered. She leaned forward to take the photographs back, "Are you sure? For a moment, it looked like you knew them." MacKenzie's expression grew stonier, something Kate hadn't thought would be possible. She wondered fleetingly if the woman ever played poker. Still, sometimes a lack of reaction was as good as an overreaction. What was she concealing? According to her information, the Colonel had a connection with the late Vincent Mallory. Granted, it was somewhat oblique but Kate wasn't willing to leave any stone unturned - not when she was working for Gibbs.

Mac glared at the NCIS agent, "I didn't." She gestured towards the stacks of files on her desk, " Is that all? I have quite a bit of work to do." The sooner she could get this woman out of her office, the better. Dammit, seeing a man dead from a head wound was bringing back unwelcome memories of Paraguay. At least this man still had his face, something that couldn't be said of those two missionaries Sadik executed. Right now, Mac couldn't tell if the familiarity she was feeling was because of method of death or if the woman just reminded her of Carla Robinson. She couldn't concentrate with Agent Todd staring at her and now her mind was dragging up the sounds of Clay's screams.

Narrowing her eyes, Kate returned the photographs to her case and stood up, "Fine, Colonel MacKenzie. Sorry to have wasted your time." Standing up, she strode out of the office feeling irritated at the lack of cooperation. Dammit, Gibbs had probably gone too easy on the JAG officers if the Colonel thought there was some sort of percentage in playing dumb. When she got back to the office, she would take a more thorough look into MacKenzie's personnel file and find out just what type of weasel lawyer she was dealing with. If the Colonel tended to play fast and loose with the truth there was bound to be something she could use for leverage.

Mac sat straight-backed until Todd had cleared the bullpen before slumping a little to massage her forehead. Nothing like a visit from NCIS to bring on a headache. Pulling open a drawer, she started rummaging for the bottle of Ibuprofen and then jumped at the sound of Harm's tight voice, "What did NCIS want?"

 

Chapter 2

JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, VA
0950 Local

 

Mac looked up to see Harm standing in her doorway, either unaware or unrepentant for startling her. She sighed quietly. Finding a way back to their relationship was like walking through a minefield. Since she had been the one who had ended it, it was obviously up to her to make the first move. The problem was that she had been trying for the last eight months or so. There were times when she thought they were making progress. At least they were on cordial speaking terms... most of the time, anyway. Then he would turn around and say something hurtful. It seemed like whenever Harm thought she was being intractable, overzealous or just plain bitchy about something, he'd throw her past in her face. Mac didn't think it was a coincidence that it seemed to be happening more often.

In her more charitable moments, she would allow that he probably didn't mean anything deeper than a comment on her behavior and that he wasn't deliberately hitting her where it would hurt the most. Before Paraguay though, he had kept the comments between the two of them. It had been bad enough when he alluded to her alcoholism during court but his sarcastic barb later in the bullpen about her quitting cold turkey - twice - had really stung. She wasn't proud of that particular moment in her life, that she'd been so weak. Apparently, Harm thought as little of her for her lapse as she did, despite how he'd acted at the time. That notion was reinforced when she had to practically drag a half-hearted apology out of him. ...Oh hell, sometimes she wondered why she was beating her head against the wall. She knew she was no prize.

"Mac?"

She blinked and felt herself blush, suddenly realizing that she'd been staring wordlessly at him for the last 22 seconds, "Ummm... what?"

Harm stared at her, his initial (and admittedly, irrational) irritation forgotten. She'd looked so lost there for a moment. With everything that had happened between them and despite his best efforts to banish Mac from his heart, he found that he still loved her. It was driving him crazy. He had every right to be mad as hell and he had found that it was rather easy to become annoyed with her. Reason seemed to have very little to do with it. Hell, it wasn't Mac's fault if NCIS came calling.

All of this because of Paraguay. Everything he'd done, all he'd given up and she'd dumped him - for Clayton Webb of all people! When Chegwidden had drop-kicked him out of the Navy, it had been easy to blame her for that too. Although, to be fair, if it hadn't been for that chain of events, he would never have met Mattie. And, despite their argument, it was Mac who had made it possible for he and Mattie to be together. He hadn't expected her to appear in court and, even now, he felt a little twinge of guilt for thinking that she'd shown up just to shoot down his chances. How had they gotten so far apart that he'd even suspect her of such a thing? If their positions were reversed, he would never torpedo Mac. Harm cleared his throat, realizing she was waiting for him to say something. In a milder tone he asked, "Why was NCIS here?"

Mac shrugged a little uncomfortably. "I'm not sure. A Marine sergeant was murdered and, for some reason, Agent Todd thought I might know him." Her voice trailed off, there was that niggling feeling of familiarity again. Somewhere, somehow, she must have crossed these people's path. It couldn't have been for any mentionable period of time. She seldom forgot someone once she encountered them - a trait that was both a curse and a blessing.

"Did you?"

Harm's voice intruded once again, forcing her back to the present. "I... umm... I don't know." This was going to bug the hell out of her until her subconscious coughed up the info. Mac sat back with a sigh and attempted a slight smile, "So, how's Mattie doing at the new school?"

"She's getting there - slowly," Harm smiled indulgently. "It's been an adjustment going from being her own boss to just being a teenager again."

"She's a bright kid, she'll be fine," Mac's smile grew a little more genuine. She liked the young woman and Mattie was a safe subject for the two of them.

"Yeah," Harm agreed. The silence that followed began to feel awkward as the two stared at each other. Finally, Harm began backing out of the door. He stopped halfway and took a deep breath, "Are you doing anything for dinner tonight?" His face fell at the look on Mac's face, "Never mind, maybe another time." He turned around to leave, not wanting to hear her say she had a date with Webb - again.

"Harm, wait," Mac stood up, trying to halt his retreat. He stopped and looked at her, she could almost see the shield of nonchalance drop into place. She spread her hands, "I'm sorry, I've already made plans for this evening. How about tomorrow?"

He gave a noncommittal shrug. Dammit, two could play this game, "I'll have to check my calendar. Let me get back to you."

With that, he strode back to his office. Mac sighed in frustration. Of all the times when she didn't have anything to do, he had to go and pick this night. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that he thought she was going out with Clay again. It wasn't that great a leap of logic. She had been meeting Clay for dinner about once every week or two, depending upon his schedule. She felt closer to Webb since Paraguay and it helped to talk to him when memories became overwhelming. Long explanations weren't necessary between them, for which she was eternally grateful. This had been one subject she couldn't talk to Harm about - even if he had returned any of her phone calls - and she had needed to talk to someone.

Unfortunately, it seemed like the few times Harm made an overture, he picked a night when she was getting together with Clay. That wasn't actually the case for this particular night but she wasn't about to go chasing after the man just to explain herself. It would only lead to a fight. He still believed she was romantically involved with Clay and she'd been unable to convince him otherwise. Mac sighed, maybe she just should have asked Harm earlier if he wanted to go with her. The invitation had said she could bring a guest. She shook her head, their relationship was so up and down right now, she hadn't been willing to chance it. Dropping back into her chair, Mac pulled out the ibuprofen. It was going to be another lovely day.

 

NCIS
Washington, D.C.
1410 Local

 

Gibbs stopped at Kate's desk, "Well?"

She looked up from her computer with a frustrated expression, "Nothing. Aside from the fact that it was a .38 slug and the shooter was no more than six feet away, there wasn't much evidence at the scene. No footprints, no shell casing, no witnesses - just one dead Staff Sergeant. Abby says that the double striations on the slug show that a silencer was used which explains why no one heard anything. Of course, in that part of town, people don't rush out to find who's shooting at who. According to Ducky, it happened around 2 a.m. - give or take - which means he was shot right after he left the bar. Still had his wallet and the car was there, so robbery wasn't a motive."

"Found anybody who'd want to kill him?" Gibbs folded his arms.

Kate grimaced, "His ex-wife. Judging from various reports, Sergeant Mallory liked to use her for a punching bag. She never pressed charges and the most he'd gotten was 'counseling'."

"Have you talked to her yet?"

"Haven't been able to find her," Kate leaned back with a scowl. "She filed the divorce papers and disappeared. I thought I had a line with a JAG lawyer but she clammed up. Said she didn't recognize Mallory or his wife from the pictures I showed her."

"Who was the JAG?"

"The HQ Chief of Staff, a Lt. Colonel MacKenzie."

Gibbs' eyebrows rose, "No kidding, Sarah MacKenzie?"

She looked at him in surprise, "You know her?"

He shrugged, "Met her once while we were investigating the murder of that JAG lieutenant last year."

Kate nodded to herself, Gibbs must have really outdone himself if the JAG lawyers were still pissed about seeing anyone from NCIS. "Was she a suspect?"

"No, not her. Her partner, Cdr. Harmon Rabb, JAG's Golden Boy. Got all the way to trial before we figured out that he'd been framed." Gibbs' face remained impassive but he wasn't particularly pleased with himself about that case. Rabb was an irritating, arrogant son of a bitch and had clearly been withholding information but NCIS... he... had nearly screwed the pooch on that one.

While no one had said anything, it was fairly obvious that MacKenzie and Rabb were involved. Gibbs had checked into MacKenzie's background and whereabouts, as well. This wouldn't be the first time a woman had helped in getting rid of the 'other woman'. Her service and personnel records were almost as outlandish as Rabb's. No wonder they were attracted to each other. He'd been surprised that the Marine Colonel was unaware that Rabb had been investigating the identity of unborn baby's father. From the brief flash of emotion before she regained her professional demeanor, he was willing to bet MacKenzie probably had a few unkind words to say when she next saw the Commander.

"I guess she made quite an impression?" Kate offered, gritting her teeth just a little. Why couldn't the Marine Colonel have been some dowdy, mouse-haired old frump?

Gibbs gave a lop-sided half-smile, "She's been pretty impressive; her and Rabb, both. The two of them seem to be the CIA's favorite secret weapon. Remember when Admiral Jacobs of NIS was discovered to have been running an illegal covert operation? He was killed when they closed in on him. MacKenzie was the one that brought the whole thing down."

Kate glanced over at her computer screen, "I guess that explains all the classified areas in her records." She looked back up at Gibbs, "Any idea why she'd stonewall me about Mallory?"

Gibbs shrugged again and turned away, "Nope, but I'm sure you'll figure out how to get her to talk. Soon."

 

Martinelli's
Washington, D.C.
1830 Local

 

Mac walked into the restaurant and stopped for a moment. A quiet word with the hostess pointed her in the right direction and she made her way to the banquet room in the back. She stood quietly in the doorway for a moment until one of the men at the main table noticed her. Smiling, he strode over and enveloped her in a hug, "Sarah! You came."

Mac grinned back at him, "You know I wouldn't miss this if I could help it." She glanced at the table, nodding a greeting to the rest of the people, "When's she getting here?"

"Any time now, Michael's bringing her." He turned back, leading her to the table, "You remember Angie, don't you?"

"Of course, how are you, Angie?"

"Getting bigger with every passing moment. This baby can't get here soon enough," Angie sighed dramatically and then directed a mock scowl at her husband. "James Fine! Where are your manners? Get the lady a seat."

"Yes'm." Mac let her face become impassive as the DC police lieutenant pulled out a chair, adjusted it carefully and then bowed deeply, "Would Her Colonelship care to rest her nether regions on this exquisite example of American craftsmanship?" After hearing about the Dzuricks, James had taken to teasing her about her short stint as royalty. Mac reciprocated by playing the insufferable aristocrat to the hilt. It wasn't often that she felt comfortable enough to act silly in front of others but James was hard to resist. The rules were simple enough - first one to smile, lost.

Putting on a suitably haughty look, Mac swept up to the proffered chair and rolled her eyes downward. Stretching out her arm and extending a trembling forefinger, she raised an eyebrow at the big man and did her best Nora Desmond voice, "There's a speck."

James clapped both hands to the sides of his face, looking properly horrified. He started to speak when Emma Fine's voice made them both jump, "Will you two stop?!"

The rest of the table began to laugh and James turned to them with a bow. In his rich baritone voice, he intoned solemnly, "Thank you. Our next performance will be at 9 pm so please reserve your tickets now. All proceeds will benefit the 'It's A Fine Thirst' Beer Fund."

"James!" Emma gave her unrepentant son one more glare as she hugged Mac. She leaned down and gave Angie a kiss before straightening up again. Hooking a hand through Mac's elbow, she turned the brunette towards a tall, slender young man. "Sarah, I'm so glad you came. I don't think you've met my youngest son, Michael. He's a Seaman on the Enterprise. Michael, this is Sarah MacKenzie. She's a Lt. Colonel with the Navy JAG."

Michael's eyes widened just a little before he popped to attention. Mac waved a hand at him, "Stand easy, we're not in uniform. May I call you Michael?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am." Michael relaxed only slightly. His mother had mentioned Sarah in a few of her letters. He knew she was a lawyer and had been doing some pro bono work for the shelter residents but the fact that she was a field-grade Marine officer apparently hadn't been important enough for Momma to note - until now.

James and Emma's middle son, Charles, walked up just then and stopped on either side of their mother. James gestured towards the tables, "C'mon Momma, it's time to get your birthday celebration underway." Mac found her seat with some of the members of the Orphan Brigade. She'd met a number of them during her association with Emma, as well as her work at the Baylor shelter. The other 'Orphans' often volunteered their time down there. Chantra and Ellie grinned at her as she sat down next to them. This pair had been two of Emma's more spectacular successes. Chantra Stivens now ran her own advertising specialty firm and Ellie Nichols was a high-powered real estate agent. Mac liked them both. Chantra was always willing to provide or hunt down some sort of employment for the shelter women and Ellie kept her eyes open for affordable housing. Mac, with the Admiral's blessing, provided pro bono legal work when time allowed.

"Sarah! How have you been? We haven't seen you in ages!" Chantra gave her arm a squeeze.

"Military stuff is keeping you hopping, isn't it?" Ellie chimed in, "How's your to-die-for Commander?" At Mac's suddenly closed look, Ellie and Chantra glanced at each other in surprise.

Chantra took the lead, "Oh honey, what's that man gone and done now?"

Mac sighed a little, the two women meant well. Perhaps she could keep this brief, the last thing she wanted was to bring up more memories of Paraguay. It weighed on her too much as it was. "This was my fault. I broke off our relationship."

Ellie and Chantra leaned back, folding their arms in identical poses. Ellie tilted her head, "Uh-huh... just out of the blue, you told Mr. Perfect to take a hike. Girl, your head ain't on that crooked."

When Mac didn't answer right away, Chantra narrowed her eyes, "Was it another man?"

Mac snorted, in spite of herself. She did not want to discuss this right now. Ellie glanced at Chantra and leaned in again, "There wasn't, was there?" She would never have pegged Sarah for the cheating type but then, she hadn't been right about that miserable bastard she'd married either.

"No." Mac grimaced, "He thought there was someone else. I got angry and screwed everything up. ... Look, can we drop this for now? I'd like to not think about it for one night."

"Sure, honey," Chantra gave Ellie a sideways look and patted Mac's hand. They would get together later to discuss this latest development. Speculating on the escapades of the beautiful Marine Colonel and her dashing Navy Commander was more fun than any soap opera. "So, have I told you that my daughter got accepted to MIT? After she graduates, she wants to work for NASA."

Mac smiled, grateful to no longer be the topic of conversation, "That's wonderful. You must be so proud of her."

The evening went along smoothly after that. Each of Emma's sons got up and talked a little about their mother. It was funny and endearing at the same time. After dinner, everyone began mingling and Mac finally relaxed. She found herself in a group with James, Michael, some of Emma's coworkers and several of the Orphans. They began comparing some of the more outrageous war stories of Emma and the unfortunate bureaucrats that she crossed swords with over the years. Mac couldn't remember the last time she had laughed so much.

"Sarah," Emma appeared and touched Mac on the elbow. She smiled at the others, "Would you excuse us a moment?" Leading Mac towards another, smaller group, Emma glanced over at the dark-haired Marine officer. Something was eating at the younger woman. Although she seemed to be enjoying herself tonight, in her unguarded moments she looked... unsettled. Emma filed a mental note to get together with Sarah for a quiet dinner. It had been months since they'd last met, for the most part due to Sarah's unrelenting schedule. She'd broach the subject later. Right now, however, they had reached their destination. Emma smiled, placing a hand on Mac's shoulder, "Congresswoman Elbert, I'd like you to meet Lt. Colonel Sarah MacKenzie. Sarah, this is Michelle Elbert, our newest champion in Congress. She's spearheading a campaign to help stop violence against women."

Michelle Elbert smiled as she shook Mac's hand, "Actually, I'm conducting an inquiry and trying to bring the issue more fully in front of the public eye. Emma said you were a JAG lawyer, I thought, perhaps, you could help with the military side. From what I understand, the services don't take spousal abuse as seriously as the civilian authorities do."

Mac started to reply and then stopped. That was it. That was where she'd seen the woman. Tia Mallory had fled to the Baylor shelter and Emma had contacted Mac when she learned that Tia's husband was a Marine. That had been about five months ago. Mrs. Mallory had refused to press any sort of charges or even cooperate if Mac decided to file. All she wanted was out. Out of the marriage and out of the state as quickly as possible. Fortunately, there were no children involved, so there were no custody issues. Without any way to bring Mallory up on charges, Mac had settled for filing the divorce papers for Tia. Now, Sergeant Mallory was dead and, apparently, NCIS was focusing their attention on the ex-wife.

"Colonel... ?"

"Sarah?" Both Emma and the Congresswoman spoke at nearly the same time.

Mac blinked and then gave a slightly chagrined smile, "Oh, I beg your pardon, Congresswoman. I've been making myself crazy trying to remember something all day and you just jogged my memory."

"Well, that's not exactly what I envisioned in my role as a public servant but, hey, glad to be of service." Michelle Elbert grinned, "So Colonel, think you can help me deal with the military on abuse?"

Mac tilted her head a little, "I suppose that depends, Congresswoman." Elbert raised a questioning eyebrow and Mac continued, "It would depend on my CO giving me time to look into this... " She held up a hand when the Congresswoman started to speak, "and it would also depend upon whether this will be even-handed in regard to the services and civilian policies. I will not participate in a game of Capitol Hill military-bashing just to advance your career."

She watched calmly as the Congresswoman indignantly drew herself up. Michelle Elbert glared at the woman in front of her for several long seconds before finally relaxing. She shook her head ruefully, "We are going to have an interesting relationship, Colonel." This time she held up a hand when Mac opened her mouth, "Providing, of course, your CO approves. Would you object to my asking the JAG for your help?"

"No," Mac shook her head, "It's an issue that does need to be addressed." She frowned slightly, "The problem will be time. With the current state of affairs with the military, our office has been inundated. Admiral Chegwidden might say no just because he can't spare an attorney."

"Understood, Colonel. I hope we will be able to work together. There are people out there who need help and I intend for them to be heard." Michelle grinned at Mac and then over at Emma, "Well, that takes care of the official stuff." She rubbed her hands together as her eyes took on a devilish gleam, "Now let me tell you about Emma and a certain city manager who tried to funnel money away from the shelters... "

The rest of the evening went quickly and all too soon, Mac was retrieving her coat and saying good night to everyone. It took another thirty minutes to make the rounds but at last, she was standing at the door with just Emma beside her. She gave the older woman a hug, "Happy birthday, Emma, and thanks for inviting me. I had a wonderful time."

Emma nodded, "I'm glad. We don't see each other hardly enough anymore. Would you mind getting together for lunch or dinner sometime in the next week? I've missed talking to you."

"I've missed you, too. Everything's been so hectic lately." Mac frowned slightly, "Let me know what your schedule is like. I wouldn't want to keep you up on a night that you're working."

"Sounds like a plan. You be careful going home now, hear?"

"Yes ma'am." Mac chuckled, "I'll talk to you soon." She turned and walked out.

Emma watched until she disappeared out the door and then jumped when her oldest son's voice sounded right behind her, "Did you find out what's bothering our favorite Marine?"

"James!" Emma whirled around, her hand on her chest, "I will not reach my next birthday if you keep sneaking up on me like that!"

"Sorry, Momma," James said contritely. He leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek, "So, did you find out what's wrong with Mac?"

Emma shook her head, looking towards the door again, "No, but I intend to... and soon."

 

Chapter 3

JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, VA
0830 Local

 

Mac stared at her phone, debating with herself. She'd come in a little earlier than usual and pulled up the files on Tia and Vincent Mallory. Now she was beginning to think that she had deliberately tried to forget about the couple. It had been way too close to her own life and had started her on a useless round of 'what ifs'. Even as she found herself dwelling on such unwelcome memories, some small part of her wondered why it was affecting her so strongly. It wasn't like she hadn't handled these types of cases before. While she was more sensitive about them, she could usually distance herself enough to work. Ordinarily, she might have broached the subject with Harm. He'd always been good about pulling her off these destructive paths but this had happened when he was off with the CIA and still too angry to return any of her calls. She had sucked it up and moved on, adding it to the other burdens that were fraying her nerves at a glacial pace.

Taking a deep breath, she picked up the phone and dialed the number from the card Special Agent Todd had left with her. After a couple of rings, she heard, "NCIS, Todd speaking."

"Agent Todd, this is Col. MacKenzie. Those photographs you showed me, they were the Mallorys, weren't they?... Yes... yes, I do think we need to get together." She paused for a moment, reviewing her calendar, "How about 1430 today? I have court this morning. All right. Where? That's fine. I'll see you then." Mac hung up and sat back in her chair for a few moments. She was almost certain it hadn't been Tia who had killed Vincent Mallory. One could never tell but it just didn't feel right. It took either a lot of anger or a complete lack of emotions to shoot someone right between the eyes as Mallory had been. No matter how awful her father had been, she'd never contemplated killing him in cold blood. What she had done was run as fast and as far as she could. It had taken Joe MacKenzie on his deathbed and Harm's considerable powers of persuasion to get her back anywhere near the man.

Uttering a soft groan, Mac leaned forward to put her face in her hands; goddammit, she was doing it again. This was not about her.

"Late night, last night?"

Mac jerked her head up to see Sturgis standing in her doorway. They hadn't been on the best of terms lately - he'd been prickly and defensive and she'd been abrupt and short-tempered. Her problem had been Paraguay. Sturgis' problem had been Bobbie choosing her career over him. That had coincided with his inadequate counsel hearing that Bud had tanked. Being found wanting in both his personal and professional life had been a serious blow to his self esteem. Sturgis' answer had been to drive himself harder, as well as take a harder line with almost everything and everyone around him. While Mac could certainly understand zealousness, it was the uncharacteristic lack of any sort of compassion that surprised and annoyed her. His callous cross of the Recon Marine who couldn't kill a defenseless child had truly sparked her ire. He had destroyed the young man's confidence to the point where her client refused to contest the court martial. Deciding punishment had been a lose/lose situation. If she'd gotten the young Marine discharged, his failure, guilt and self-doubt would have probably followed him all his life. She kept him in knowing there was a good chance he'd wind up back in Iraq. She could only pray that he wouldn't get himself killed trying to redeem himself.

She had told Sturgis that she thought his tactics cowardly and not long afterward, he'd called her a sanctimonious prig. That was where their relationship stayed. They maintained a professional attitude towards each other but that was about it. Now he was standing in her doorway. Was his question a true inquiry or just something he threw out to get her attention? She looked at him for another moment and then sighed, propping an elbow on her desk and resting her chin, "More like old memories. What can I do for you, Sturgis?"

Sturgis frowned slightly. He now knew her well enough to know that if Mac was dwelling on old memories, chances were it wasn't anything good. He wasn't happy with the coolness in their friendship but he had mixed feelings about what to do. He had been angry with Mac on several levels (not the least of which was her treatment of Harm), but he was more angry with himself.

It seemed like his world had turned inside out. All his life, he felt he had to be perfect. He was studious, serious and played by the rules because that's what Chaplain Turner's son should do. When he'd first met Harm at the Academy, he hadn't been sure what to think about the tall, young man. Rabb was serious and completely focused on his goal of becoming an aviator and while Sturgis admired his drive, he could tell there was another, wilder side. He and Harm discovered that they shared a common family history of military service - it became one more stone in the foundation of their budding friendship. Before he knew it, Sturgis had found himself numbered among the tight little core of friends that surrounded Harmon Rabb, Jr.

Harm had been a puzzle. Sturgis quickly discovered that his new friend had a deadly sense of humor and the wherewithal to pull off some amazing pranks. He wasn't the crazy, damn-the-consequences man that Jack Keeter was but he had managed his fair share of scrapes and he'd dragged Sturgis right along with him. Looking back, Sturgis could only shake his head at some of the antics that Harm talked him into. It had been a liberating experience for a minister's son. After graduation, they'd gone their separate ways. Harm and Keeter took to the air, Diane had put her analytical talents to good use by becoming a cryptologist and Sturgis headed for the deep blue.

Life has a funny way of kicking you in the teeth at times. Who knew that years down the road, it would put he and Harm in the same designator of the service and ultimately in the same office? Had someone told him at the graduation ceremony that he and Rabb would wind up as lawyers and that Diane was slated for an untimely and brutal death, he would have disgraced his father by flattening the bearer of such a tale.

He used to think that it was tough being a minister's only child, especially the son of the illustrious and well-respected Chaplain Turner. How unfair it seemed, to have had every action he took weighed against the high moral standards of his father. Not that Harm had had an easy time with his dad declared MIA but his behavior wasn't constantly compared to whatever his father might have or had done. If he'd had a nickel for every time he'd heard, "When your father was your age... " Sturgis figured he could have retired at an early age.

Then he'd met Sarah MacKenzie. She bore an uncanny resemblance to Diane but appearance was the only thing they'd had in common... that and Harmon Rabb, Jr. He'd been surprised after first meeting her that Harm had insisted the two of them were only friends and colleagues. He hadn't been surprised when Harm had put his foot in his mouth with that crack about the Colonel's boyfriends. If they'd been kids, Harm would have been the one putting snakes in Mac's locker. It had taken him a while to get a clearer picture of the Marine Chief of Staff. If Harm was a puzzle, then Mac was an enigma.

To call her stubborn would be like calling the sun hot and, at first, he had attributed her zealousness to typical overcompensation by a woman in a decidedly male world. Eventually, he realized it was closer to the truth to say that she had little patience or compassion for people who blamed everything but themselves for their own choice of actions; especially if those actions had led to injury or death of another. She'd taken a hard line with those idiotic dueling cadets until they had admitted what they had done had been childish and dangerous. It hadn't been until that debacle with Jacobs that he'd learned of her upbringing. It had shocked him that the elegantly beautiful Marine had had such a hellish childhood even as it explained her aggressive and occasionally belligerent attitude towards abuse cases.

Every now and then, he'd ponder what he might have been like if he'd had the life that Sarah MacKenzie had had. Would he have survived and made something of himself as she had done? There were so many people in similar circumstances that had let life overwhelm them. Did he have that iron core deep inside that would have allowed him to triumph? He just didn't know and, on some level, it galled him. Mac had gone through the crucible at an early age and come out stronger for it. While he was not a man given to vacillation, he also wasn't going to delude himself. The only other person he knew who could match the steel-willed Colonel was Harmon Rabb.

Sturgis gave himself a mental shake. Truthfully, what went on between Harm and Mac was none of his business - a fact that he kept reiterating to himself to, apparently, little avail. Just like his Academy days, Sturgis had found himself swept up in strong currents of Harm's life... He held up a file folder for Mac to see, "The Nebrino file you were looking for, Colonel."

Mac nodded, holding out a hand, "Thank you." She kept a firm grip on her disappointment. So his inquiry had been merely a device to get her attention rather than a tentative offer to start reconstructing their friendship. She had made a few overtures herself and been rebuffed. Nothing cutting, Sturgis wasn't that kind of man, but more like his responses had stayed strictly on the professional level. She accepted the file and dropped it in the stack on her desk. Expecting him to leave, Mac was surprised to look up and find an uncertain looking Sturgis still standing there. Concern colored her tone as she gazed at the handsome submariner, "Sturgis, are you all right?"

He smiled a trifle sheepishly, "I was about to ask you that. Are you okay?" He watched her carefully, unsure of how she would respond. After all, he'd been keeping her at arm's length for the better part of two months.

Mac swallowed her first automatic response of 'fine'. Sturgis was making an effort and she didn't want to shut him down despite her aversion to coming out from behind her professional facade. Leaning back in her chair, she fiddled with a pen and sighed a little, "No, not really."

Sturgis lowered himself into one of her chairs, "Want to talk about it?"

He watched her gaze dart nervously about the room before settling on him. She gave him a rueful smile, "I don't think there's enough time left in this century to cover everything."

"How about hitting the highlights?" Sturgis winced slightly at her soft, incredulous snort, "Sorry, poor choice of words."

Mac looked up at the ceiling for a moment, "How about we just stick to the latest and greatest?" She glanced down to see Sturgis nod and took a deep breath, "Yesterday NCIS came calling." She shook her head at the surprised and wary look on Sturgis' face, "Nothing to do with JAG and at first, or so I thought, nothing to do with me either. A Marine sergeant was murdered two days ago. Agent Todd came by with photographs, thinking I would know the victim. She also had pictures of his ex-wife."

"They think it was the ex-wife? Why talk to... ? Ahhh, " Sturgis raised an eyebrow, "They can't find her and they think you know where she is."

Mac nodded, "Except that I didn't remember either of them and that's what I told Agent Todd." She leaned forward to rest her elbows on the desk, "There was this annoying sense of familiarity but I couldn't pin it down. At least, not until yesterday evening when I was talking to Congresswoman Elbert. Then I remembered how I'd met the ex-wife."

Sturgis gave her a puzzled look, "You know Congresswoman Elbert?"

"Not until last night. It was Emma Fine's 60th birthday and her boys threw a party at Martinelli's. The Congresswoman was there and Emma introduced us. Anyway, I came in this morning and looked up the file. Staff Sergeant Mallory liked to get drunk and then go home and beat his wife. Tia Mallory finally had enough and ran to the Baylor shelter where she met Emma... "

"... and Emma got her in touch with you." Sturgis finished. "Do you know where she is?" He could see where this type of case would make Mac a bit touchy but she'd handled them before. Why was this one bothering her?

She shook her head, "I don't think so. She refused to press charges or let me do something about him. All I could do was file the divorce papers for her. Tia moved out of state almost immediately - told me she had a friend in Philadelphia who could put her up for a while."

"But you think she was lying." Sturgis made it more of a statement than a question.

Mac shrugged, staring down at her hands, "Educated guess. Tia was terrified that her husband would find her and she didn't trust the court system to be able to keep her safe. Can't say I blame her for that."

They were both silent for a moment. Sturgis cleared his throat, he would try to broach this as carefully as possible, "This doesn't sound too different from other abuse cases you've handled."

"I know," Mac raised both hands a little and then let them drop back in her lap. She let her gaze travel around the room again, a frustrated look on her face, "Honestly, I know that but it got to me then and it's getting to me now. I keep seeing... " Her voice trailed off and she shook her head and gave Sturgis a small smile, "I'll be fine. I have an appointment to see Agent Todd at 1430 and that will be that. I won't have to think about the Robinsons again."

"Who are the Robinsons?" Sturgis gave her a confused look.

"What?" Mac stared at him in surprise. How did he know about them?

"You said 'the Robinsons'. Who are they?"

"I did?" Mac rubbed her forehead, "They were... it's not important. I meant to say the Mallorys." She stood up and he got up as well, "I appreciate your concern, Sturgis, but I'm afraid I need to get going. I've got court in thirteen minutes."

Mac grabbed her briefcase and headed out of her office. Sturgis waited for her at the doorway. Somehow he got the feeling that Mac had just let him see the tip of the iceberg. He'd hadn't actually thought about it before but she really had jumped right back into the office routine almost immediately after returning from Paraguay. Only once had she mentioned any sort of aftermath and that had been when he wasn't truly listening. He'd uncharitably blown it off as a typically female emotional reaction to the use of coercion. He'd been far too focused on nailing that traitorous son of a bitch. Now he was remembering something she probably hadn't meant to let slip: that she could still hear Webb's screams. What the hell had happened down there? "If you feel like you need to talk, my door's open, Mac." She gave him a quick smile and a nod, then walked out of the bullpen. He watched her leave and then turned back to his office, feeling somewhat encouraged. It seemed that they were both ready to renew their friendship.

He had just entered his office when he heard Harm's voice behind him, "So I guess you two have kissed and made up?"

Turning around, he saw Harm standing at the door. Sturgis waved him to a chair as he headed for his own, "Have a seat, Harm." He waited until they were both settled, "What can I do for you?"

Harm shifted a little in his chair. He really didn't have anything important that he needed to talk about to Sturgis, he'd seen the two of them and hadn't been able to resist making a comment. Trying to appear casual, he waved a hand, "Nothing official, I was just wondering if you'd have time for a little one-on-one this Friday. Mattie's going to a concert with some friends from school."

Sturgis grinned, "And you need some way to work off all that parental anxiety?" He reached for his day planner, "Let me check and see what time Varese is back in town. I'm pretty sure it's a late flight."

Harm absently drummed his fingers on the armrest before lightly clearing his throat. "You and Mac are back to best buddies again?" he ventured in as offhanded a manner as he could.

Sturgis gave him a pointed look, "I was never her 'best buddy' but yeah, we're getting back to where we were. You should give it a try."

Harm gave a snort of disgust, "I've tried, she always off with Webb."

"Always?" Sturgis raised an eyebrow. "I didn't think Webb was in town that often."

"Often enough," Harm growled. A note of righteous indignation crept into his tone, "I even tried last night for all the good it did." He mimicked Mac's voice, "I'm sorry, I already have plans for this evening."

"She told you she was going out with Webb?" Sturgis frowned, his recently regained rapport with Mac was going to suffer if she was yanking Harm around.

"Not in so many words," Harm admitted, "But every other time it's been Webb, so who else would she be going out with?" Damn, he hadn't thought of that. Was Mac dating? Had she completely given up on their relationship? He hadn't been oblivious to her attempts to reconcile but he had been leery about jumping back into the fire. That and he wasn't adverse to a little payback. Maybe it was a bit petty but, dammit, he was only human after all and his ego had taken a huge hit.

"She went to Emma Fine's 60th birthday party - alone, it sounded like. Didn't she tell you?" From the look on Harm's face, Sturgis could guess what had happened, "You took off before she could explain, didn't you?"

"Well, every other time I've asked she's been out with Webb. Why wouldn't I think that she was going on a date with him again?" Harm said defensively. He decided he'd put off kicking himself until he was safely back in his office.

"No reason not to," Sturgis kept his tone sympathetic. He knew that Harm had been the injured party in the Paraguay fiasco but he was beginning to realize that he'd never actually heard Mac's side of it. She'd been firmly entrenched in her professional mode when she got back and he hadn't pried. Partly, that was because he was empathizing with Harm. Rabb had saved her life and in return, she'd dumped him for Webb. That had been pretty damn callous, as far as he was concerned. Mostly, however, it had been that he'd been too wrapped up in his own misfortunes to pay much attention to the ever-ongoing saga of Harm and Mac.

Harm hadn't given him that many details but it seemed like the two had once again danced between the raindrops, coming out virtually unscathed. Now, he was beginning to wonder if that was true at all and just how badly Paraguay and these past months had affected the Marine Colonel. Harm was pretty easy to sum up, he'd lost two things that had mattered most to him - Mac and his career. The hurt and anger were obvious and, just as obviously, a lot of it was directed at Mac. What the hell had happened down there? Looking at it a bit more objectively, he now realized it couldn't have been as one-sided as he originally thought. Mac was hardly impetuous or flighty. There had to be a serious reason (at least for her, anyway) to have broken up with Harm.

He couldn't blame Mac for Harm getting booted out of the Navy. Rabb was a big boy and when all was said and done, he HAD resigned and in a blatantly in-your-face way with the Admiral. While Sturgis had a hard time understanding Chegwidden's inaction with Mac's disappearance, he'd have thought twice before pissing on the Admiral's shoes. At any rate, Sturgis was fairly certain that Mac would have easily made the same sacrifice had their positions been reversed. He re-focused his attention when Harm stood up.

"We're good for Friday night, then? Around 1730?" At Sturgis' nod, he gave a quick grin, "Thanks, man." Turning around, he headed back to his small cubbyhole of an office. He'd have to talk to Mac again. Hopefully, she wasn't ticked about his abrupt departure yesterday. Deep down, he just knew Mac and Webb could never work in the long run. Mac had too much integrity to put up with the moral and ethical compromises that Webb made on a daily basis. He'd assumed when the break-up occurred, that Mac would come to him as she always did. Now, after talking to Sturgis, he realized that he'd been dangerously complacent. What if she got tired of attempting to patch things up between them? While it certainly helped assuage his pride to have Mac chasing after him, he wasn't about to make the stupid mistake of causing her to give up. It was time he took a more decisive hand in reconciling with her.

 

 

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