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Classification Drama, Humor, Romance(H/M)
Length Approximately 15,000 words; 43 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Through “Pulse Rate”
 
Rating GS

Part 1 Part 2

 

 

Chapter 1: First Steps


JAG Headquarters
1445
Harm's Office

 

Commander Harmon Rabb sat with the receiver at his ear, playing with a paperclip as he sat hunched over his desk, talking quietly. "Look, Mattie. He probably just likes you."

"Right. He made fun of me in front of everybody. I hate school. It's stupid." The young voice on the other end was clearly trying not to cry.

"Mattie… you know how it is. He was probably just looking for attention. Don't let it bother you."

"Easy for you to say. You weren't the one they were staring at."

"Mattie…" Harm hesitated. The female mind in general was often beyond him, and as far as teenagers went, well… he hadn't been the easiest to deal with either. "Just ignore him."

"I've been ignoring him! It just seems to make it worse." The voice cracked this time, and he shifted uncomfortably as she sniffled. Part of him wanted nothing more than to head out to her school and pop this kid, whoever he was. Jason? Jimmy? He sighed. The words came out before he had a chance to think about them.

"Well, sometimes people get worse when they're ignored. They want to see if they can make you feel anything, even angry or hurt, so they…" His eyes widened as he saw himself in the courtroom yesterday. A clear vision of him lashing out at Mac's weak spot. "They just want to know if they can affect you at all." He trailed off, and the girl seemed to sense his shift.

"Harm? You okay?"

"Yeah, it's nothing. I just –"

"Harm. If we're going to be a family…"

The naval officer, reduced to being reprimanded by his would-be ward, chuckled in spite of himself. "Fair enough. Okay, Mattie, but this is embarrassing, alright? It's personal."

He sounded serious enough for her to pause. "Okay. I'm listening."

He smiled as he realized she was parroting him. "I think I did exactly what Jimmy-"

"Jason."

"Right. Jason. I think I did exactly what he did. Except I did it to Mac. And in court."

"She probably deserved it."

Harm paused for a moment, rubbed his forehead with his other hand. Mattie exhaled. "Well? She probably did."

"Did you deserve it?"

"No! And at least I like Jason."

"Mac is my best friend, Mattie." He frowned at himself, but it was true. It still felt perfectly natural to say that.

"Right. She sure doesn't act like it."

"Yeah. Like I did in court yesterday."

"But…" she hesitated. "You still like her that much, even after she was so nasty to you?"

"Yeah, Mattie. Friends find the way to forgive. Just like family." He sighed. It was so much easier to say than to do. "Even if it's hard." Shaking his head, he looked out through his office blinds. "And friends don't take shots at people just to see if it will hurt."

"Harm?"

"Yeah."

"You know I'm not crazy about her."

He grinned. "I believe you've made that abundantly clear."

"But I'll try not to say anything… if you still think she's your friend."

Smiling at the concession, Harm nodded. "Thanks, Mattie." His smile changed to a frown. "Did you say you like Jason? You mean like like?"

There was a teenaged pause. "Yeah. You know, to tell you the truth, that's probably why it hurt so much when he acted that way." A series of noises made it clear that dishes were moving around. "Did Mac get real upset when you took a shot at her?"

Harm stared out the window again, his stomach tightening in a compact little knot. "Yeah."

"Hmh."

"Hey. Don't change the subject. Tell me about this Jimmy character."

"Jason!"

 

1510
Colonel Sarah Mackenzie's Office

 

Mac sighed at the phone as she hung it up carefully. Clay was pushing for more time together, and as fond as she was of him lately, she was in no mood to rush. A knock on the door made her look up, and Commander Harmon Rabb stood in the doorway, his arms folded tightly across his chest.

"Yes?"

"Ah... Mac. Do you have a minute?"

"Yeah. What is it."

He paused, looked at her face. "You know, if you're busy…"

"No, I just –" she stopped, shook her head. Getting into a discussion with Harm about Clay would not be on her top ten list of fun things to do. "My head was still on the phone, but I'm here. What's up?"

He stepped into the office but left the door half open. He wasn't sure if that made her feel safer, or gave him a less claustrophobic feeling about being in her space.

"Mac, I wanted to apologize."

She frowned, her eyes darting as she tried to figure out what he needed to apologize for. Today.

"For?"

Stepping closer to her desk, he consciously unfolded his arms. "Do you still want to be friends?"

Visibly taken aback, Mac sat back in her desk chair. "Do you?"

"I asked you fir-" he stopped, smiled at himself with downcast eyes. "Yes. I would. But it takes two, and I need to know if you're interested."

Mac watched his eyes for a long moment. "Yes. Our friendship has always meant a lot to me." She gave him a futile little smile. "You mean a lot to me, Harm."

He smiled, a bit resigned but warm. "Then I think I need to be honest with you. I haven't always told you things."

"Reaally." She drawled the word, and they both laughed.

"Yeah. Well. It's always been easier for me to say what I'm thinking than what I'm feeling. Probably easier for me to understand what I'm thinking. Anyway."

She watched him struggle curiously. Where this was going was a mystery, but she did want to remain friends with him. "And this means…?"

Harm was staring at the floor again, seemed to argue with an inner voice. "Okay. What I want to say is this."

With an act of will he shifted his gaze to her eyes, and she could feel the openness. The vulnerability. It was attractive, damn him.

"I was really out of line yesterday in court. I had no right to say anything about your personal life to begin with, and taking a shot like that was more than unprofessional, it was unkind. I'm sorry." She blinked at him, nodded.

"Thank you, Harm. But I thought we-"

"And the reason that I did it was because I still have feelings for you, and I guess some adolescent in my mind wanted to see if I could make you feel anything at all. Even hurt."

Her eyes dropped to her desk. "Harm-"

"Wait." He shook his head. "I'm not looking for anything you can't give, really. There's no sense in that, and I accept it. But I want you to know that I'm still… well… healing, I guess. I just want to be able to do it as an adult, not a teenager." He paused, smiled lightly. "I want to be a better friend."

Mac looked back up into his eyes, and felt the sincerity. These were not the kind of statements he was accustomed to making. She stood up and moved to the other side of her desk, leaned against it. "Thank you. I know that wasn't easy to say." He shrugged and she went on. "For what it's worth, I think we're both 'healing'. This has felt like more than a friendship and less than a relationship for a very long time. I just hope someday we figure out what the hell it is."

They were looking at each other, their eyes trying to continue the conversation, when Bud knocked on the door and stuck his head in. "Excuse me. Commander?"

"Yeah, Bud. What is it?"

"There's a Judge Alberti on the phone?" The look in Bud's eye made Mac think there was something he wasn't saying. Harm, still distracted by his conversation with her, frowned.

"Alberti?"

"Yes, Sir. You wanted to talk to the judge that would be assigned to the, ah…custody case…" he faltered, and Harm's eyes widened.

"Right. Thanks." He barely nodded to Mac and was halfway out the door before she could call to him.

"Is everything alright? What's going on?"

He looked back, opened his mouth and closed it again. "I'm adopting a daughter. Later." And he was gone.

Mac stared after him, then narrowed her eyes and looked at Bud. "Well?"

Bud looked at her, shrugged. "I really can't say, ma'am."

Mac stared for a moment longer, as her temper flared. "Right. He wants to be friends, but he can't tell me what the hell that meant before he flies out of here." Sitting down at her desk, her voice dropped to a dangerous mutter. "Why do I even bother." Bud, who had been diplomatically heading for the door, paused.

"Ma'am. I'm sure he'd tell you if he-"

"No, Bud. Don't bother doing the good ol' boy defense. I'm sick and tired of him acting like things will be different and then shutting me out. 'Adopting a daughter'. Right." Her voice was a bit sharper, a bit louder than she intended, but she didn't look back up at Bud to ease it. She just slammed a folder open and began shifting through papers. Realizing, after a few moments, that Bud had not left her office, she finally looked up.
"Lieutenant?" Her voice was chilly.

Lieutenant Bud Roberts, the kindest, most patient man in the office, looked more angry than she had ever seen him.

"Bud?" The expression threw her, and she backpedaled. "What-"

"He's doing something important. Alright? Important. I can see why he didn't want to tell you."

Mac looked at him in shock. First because Bud was clearly angry with her, which she had never seen, and secondly because it sounded like Harm was involved with something... Her defenses got to her mouth first, and she continued to sound angry. "What do you mean? He's not really adopting -"

"Never mind."

He was almost out the door when she pushed it shut and leaned on it. "Lieutenant, I don't want to order you…" she stopped, caught herself.

"Good, Colonel, because you couldn't."

"Bud!"

"I'd think you, of all people, would understand. Would back him up on this."

"And why would I do that? Harm, adopting a child?"

"He'd be her legal guardian. And she's not exactly a child, not at fourteen."

"Fourteen? Dear Lord, a teenage girl? Is he-"

Bud rounded on her, his tone cold as if he was addressing a murderer in court. "She's alone, Colonel. Alone. Her mother is dead. Her father is an alcoholic who ran away from the responsibility. She's been working on her own for years… and Harm is trying to help her. Is that so crazy? Is that so stupid and irresponsible?" His voice had risen to a yell by the end of his sentence, and he stopped. "I thought you would understand, but he was right."

She was more than confused now, but clearly there was nothing she could say, not when he had that expression on his face. She crossed her arms and looked down for a minute. "I'm sorry if you think I'm being insensitive." When she looked up, her eyes looked a little watery, and he seemed to sag at that. "I'm sorry you're mad at me, Bud. I never thought that would happen, and now I know why the image of it worried me." She put out her hand, touched his arm. "Can you please tell me what's going on? If I promise not to make a scene?"

"I'm sorry, Colonel. That was out of line. But I can't say."

"It wasn't out of line between Mac and Bud, and this doesn't sound like a military matter. Look, I know things are weird with Harm and me right now, but I'd like to know if he's getting into something that might be over his head. Please?"

Bud sighed. "Ma'am…"

"Please, Bud. I promise I won't say a word."

 

Chapter 2: What Friends Do

 

Bud looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head. "I've already said too much, Ma'am." He put his hand on the doorknob, but she remained leaning against it. Her expression shifted slowly to one of resignation.

"Fine, Bud. You have to do what you think is best."

He looked at her seriously. "Yes, I do."

She stood away from the door and crossed her arms. "I admit I'm hurt."

"You're hurt?"

"We used to be like the three musketeers, Bud. We always knew what was happening with each other. Now…" she shrugged, covering a rush of sadness that surprised her, one that she couldn't quite explain.

"That's true, Ma'am. But things change. People change."

"I suppose the 'mystery woman' knows all about it, though."

"'Mystery woman'?"

"Oh, please. The one he's been making so much time for on weekends. You know, the one that calls all the time-" she stopped as he exhaled a humorless laugh. "What?"

"Yeah, I'm sure she knows all about it." He looked exasperated, and a little sad. "She is her, Ma'am. No need to be jealous of a fourteen year-old. –oh, wait. You wouldn't be jealous anyway…" his sarcasm stung, and this time the hurt showed in her eyes.

"That was below the belt."

"Sorry." He shook his head, seemed surprised at his own anger. "Things certainly do change."

"And we're no longer friends?"

He sighed. "Permission to speak free-"

"For the love of- Bud, if you haven't been speaking freely already, then I'm in more trouble than I thought." Her frustrated expression fell into his thoughtful stare. "Bud?"

"I can't pretend I've ever completely understood the relationship you two have. Or try to have. Or try not to have. But I know this: when Harm blew off the Admiral, quit his job-"

"I never asked him to-"

He held up a hand, and that, along with his expression, stopped her. "-quit his job, broke God knows how many laws, just to get you out of there – well. There was no doubt in my mind that he felt more than friendly toward you. Nothing he did was your fault, but…"

She blinked at him, shook her head. "I don't deny any of that."

Bud's head dropped to one side. "Then why didn't you even thank him?"

She stared. "I thanked him." Her expression became a frown. "Didn't I? Come on, I didn't gush, but I must have actually said 'thank you'…"

Bud exhaled heavily. "Maybe you were too busy letting him know how things were going to be." He paused, wondering how much he should admit Harm told him over wine that evening after dinner at their house, while Harriet put the kids down for the night. Frankly, he wasn't sure, given the Commander's state of mind that night, that he would even remember it all. It was as if Harm had been talking to himself, and Bud happened to be there.

"Oh…" Mac turned away, back again. "But he must realize – I mean – I would have done the same…"

She felt herself wavering as Bud shook his head. "I don't know what he knows, Ma'am." His hand reached for the door once more. "But I don't see any real friendship here. It's more like family you're forced to be around, but don't even really like." Pausing, he added, "And I've got to say, Colonel, if we're not the 'three musketeers' anymore, it's because you decided you don't want to play anymore."

"Bud –" He shook his head as he left the office, leaving Mac standing alone. Feeling very alone indeed. Her eyes were watering now, and she closed the blinds before moving to sit behind her desk. She reached for the phone, wanting to talk to someone. There was a moment when she almost dialed Clay's number, but she returned the receiver to its cradle with an exasperated noise. Shutting out the rest of the world, she rested her head on crossed arms for a few minutes.

After a while she lifted her head, took a tissue from the box on her desk and blew her nose. Another tissue, her eyes dried, she looked at the computer. Nodding, she began typing a search. Family court. Judge Alberti. She jotted some notes down and tried another direction. Legal guardianship. Living parent, abandoned child. Ramifications. Mac quietly thanked God for the efficiency of military legal search engines, took a deep breath, and continued to make notes.

"Damn, Harm. This isn't going to be easy no matter what he's done." She stared at the screen for some time, doing her best to stay in lawyer mode, reading carefully. Sitting back, she stared thoughtfully at the desk, the ceiling, the wall, looking for inspiration. Her eyes brightened with a little aha, and she picked up the phone, dialed an outside line. "Hello, Chaplain Turner? This is Sarah Mackenzie, from JAG… yes. Good, thank you, and you? No, no, he's fine. Listen, Chaplain… can we talk for a minute?"

 

JAG Headquarters
Commander Harmon Rabb's Office
1930

 

Mac walked through the empty bullpen and up to the office door, which was closed tightly. The blinds were drawn, and it appeared that the lights were out. She frowned. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out her cell phone, dialed his extension. She gave an affectionate little smile as he picked up, his voice weary.

"Rabb."

"Hey."

There was a pause. "Mac?"

"Yeah. You're working late, flyboy." She almost bit her tongue, but the nickname was already out.

"Not really." The silence dropped back into place, and she took a deep breath.
"Can I come in?"

Another pause, where she could actually picture the frown. She heard him get up from his desk, walk to the door. "Where are you." He opened the door as he asked, and they looked at each other, phones still at their ears. He almost smiled, and spoke into the phone. "Hey, I've got someone here. I'll talk to you later."

"Okay. Bye."

"Bye." They hung up and continued to look at each other. "You could have just knocked."

"And you could have not answered."

"Right." He motioned for her to come in, and returned to where he sat slumped at the desk. She almost turned on the lights, but decided the dim light filtering in from the bullpen might be better.

"How did it go?"

He sighed, looked at her. "Bud usually keeps a secret better than that."

"He didn't have much choice. I provoked him."

Harm's eyebrows raised. "You provoked Bud?"

"Yeah." She clearly didn't want to talk about that. "This is important to you." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yeah." He didn't seem inclined to elaborate, and she nodded.

"Okay. Then it's important."

He seemed surprised by her attitude, and a little guarded. "You think so?"

Mac sighed. "It's what friends do, Harm." She extended her hand, waited, and he reached out and gave it a squeeze.

"Thanks, Mac." He released her and slumped back in his chair. "Although at this point, I'm not sure what's going to happen."

"What happened with Alberti?"

He looked pained for a moment. "She checked my records."

"You have an exemplary military record…" Mac hesitated, thinking.

"Right. The amount of travel bothered her, but what really seemed to get her was the letter from Annie that's in there."

Mac's jaw dropped, her eyes wide. "Annie complained? Officially?"

"Yeah. Well, not so much an official complaint as … well, I don't know. All I know is that there's a letter from her in my files, stating that I not only took her son on an outing without her express permission, by doing so I put him in direct personal danger. I suppose you'd call it an unofficial opinion."

"Wow. That could be a problem… but her mental state would certainly be an arguing point."

He waved his hand. "I don't want to hurt her any more than I have. Hell, I don't want to even talk with her again." His hands moved restlessly to a pen on his desk, toying with it absently. "I don't know what's going to happen."

"But Harm, the judge must have seen that you're squeaky clean on the important things – “

"She said, and I quote; 'We can't play the law of averages here'."

Mac nodded. "Everything I read about her says she's tough. But she's supposed to be fair." There was a longish, quiet pause.

"'Everything you read'?"

"Yeah. You don't think I'd be here this late for nothing, do you?"

He shook his head and exhaled a little laugh. "I should have known." The quiet settled back in for a stay, as their thoughts unraveled. Mac sighed.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I was afraid you wouldn't support the idea. Or that you'd think I was trying to replace you somehow… one relationship with another."

"Replace me with a fourteen year-old girl?"

"Yeah. A real spitfire with an absent mother and an alcoholic father."

"Oh." A pause. "Were you?"

He chuckled. "No. Although you influenced me. I know you came from a similar background, and have turned out so successful, so amazingly… well. I know how much you credit your uncle for being there, taking an interest, supporting you. I guess I felt like maybe I could be that for her." He tapped the pen a few times, then dropped it and rubbed his face with his hands. "I would have liked that."

"You're not giving up, are you?"

"I don't want to, but I don't see how…and how will I tell-" the phone rang and he picked it up. "Rabb. Oh, hi, Mattie… yeah, I talked to her. Well…" he looked up at Mac, his eyes shining sadly. She felt her heart go out to him, and even more so, to this girl she didn't even know.

Her whisper was clear in the dim room. "Tell her it's going to be tough, but we're not done fighting yet."

"Hang on, Mattie." Harm covered the receiver. "Mac, I don't want to get her hopes up."

"Her hopes are already up, I'm sure of that. We just have to figure out how to make it work."

Harm gaped. "We?"

She exhaled and looked into his eyes, her own shining with emotion. "Hey. We're the dream team, remember? If it can happen, we'll figure out how."

He stared at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable.

"Thank you."

She nodded. "It's what friends do." Turning, she walked out and went back to her office, determined to make a few more calls before she went home.

 

Chapter 3: Waiting

Two Days Later
Outside Courtroom B
1143

 

Mac reached up instinctively and straightened his collar. "You look fine. It'll be fine, Harm. Just be yourself."

"That's what I'm worried about. What if myself isn't good enough?"

"Harm." She looked at him, willing him to calm down.

"This is ridiculous, Mac. I've never been this worried before a case, not even when my career was on the line."

She sighed at him. "That's because this isn't a case, Harm. It's just a hearing. Just a formal conversation about Mattie." Mac looked down the hall to see if the courtroom had opened yet. "And you're not worried about the case, you're worried about her."

His eyes found hers, and the aquamarine edged toward green in his concern. "What if I let her down, Mac? I started this whole thing-"

"You're doing a good thing, Harm. Let's not borrow trouble." She gave him a tight little reassuring smile, and he skimmed his hand over her arm.

"Thanks." The commander shrugged his tension and tried to grin. "Getting Chaplain Turner was a great idea."

"Well, I figure he's God, Man, and the Military all in one nice little package. Not to mention he's a wonderful advocate."

"It was brilliant." His expression was sincere. "Thank you."

Mac brushed it off. "I try to be brilliant once a day."

"Usually before lunch."

They laughed together lightly, although the tension was still evident. "You're incorrigible, Rabb."

"Just don't let the judge hear that." His expression shifted abruptly to his previous nervousness. "What if she won't give me a chance?"

"Listen. We've got good paper. We've got the Chaplain's letter of recommendation, we've got the Admiral, Bobbi…" She stopped, looked up at him sincerely. "You have a lot of people on your side, Harm."

"I know." His eyes met hers and became uncommonly gentle. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to thank you for this. You know I would have been too worried to tell people, let alone ask for help."

Mac shook her head. "It was only two days. And just some leg work. Or phone work, as it was. You built your own reputation." She looked up at him. "And I hope the best way to thank someone is to still be there for them when they need you."

They stared at each other, and impulsively, he reached out and pulled her into a hug.

They stood quietly for a moment, and she grinned into his chest. "Butch and Sundance ride again."

"Thank God." They laughed quietly, still unsure of their footing, but better. "I just hope it's enough."

Mac sighed. "Harm, at least you have the lawyer's advantage."

He frowned at her, confused. "And what would that be?"

"You know that no matter what happens, you can always challenge it, fight it, try to find another way. I've seen you do it a hundred times."

He brushed a fond kiss on the top of her head. "Keep it up. I may begin to believe you." She put her hand on his chest, looking up at him, when he suddenly tensed, releasing her from his arms.

"There they are." Mac stayed where she was while Harm walked briskly down the hall to meet Mattie and Bud, who had driven out to pick her up while Harm readied himself for the hearing. "Wow, look at you." He smiled down at Mattie, who brushed her hands over her outfit nervously.

"You think it's okay?" She was wearing a simple suit dress of navy blue, the white blouse underneath showing a bit of lace. "I feel all girlie."

Harm laughed as he hugged her. "You look beautiful, Mattie. And very professional, as well." She dimpled, looked nearly embarrassed, and saw Mac.

"Harm? Why is she here?"

"Mac's been helping me with the case, Mattie. She's been a real lifesaver."

"I bet."

"Mattie…" Harm hesitated, looked between the two women and took a deep breath. "If we make this work, we'll have Mac to thank for it. She's worked really hard."

"Why?" The question shone in her young eyes, and Harm looked into them calmly.

"Because it's what friends do." He took her by the shoulders and gently steered her toward where Mac stood quietly down the hall. "And now we'll see how well you've been practicing the diplomacy thing." Mattie rolled her eyes at him, then put on a somewhat reluctant smile as they walked over.

"I don't know if you two have been formally introduced. Miss Mathilda Grace Johnson, Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Rose Mackenzie." As he hoped, that earned him a shocked glare from both of them, and he smiled to himself as they looked back at each other, unable to help the 'do you believe him?' look. The colonel was first to extend her hand.

"Hi. Most people call me 'Mac', and no one uses the 'Rose' part."

"Mattie. People who call me 'Mathilda' often get smacked."

"It's nice to meet you. Harm speaks very highly of you."

Mattie blinked at the polite offensive, but gained her composure quickly. "He speaks often of you, as well, Colonel." Mac's smile quirked into a grin as she noted the phrasing, and the girl relented. "Should I call you 'Mac'?"

"I would like that."

"Alright." The girl looked around the hall and back to the colonel. "What do you think the chances of this working are, Mac?"

"Mattie-" Harm's voice was controlled but firm.

"I just want to know, Harm." She looked up at Mac, and Harm was amazed at how similar their expressions were. "Well?"

Mac looked over her young adversary and made as quick a decision as she ever had to in court. Harm recognized her 'opening argument' voice and stared. "I believe that this will be a difficult fight, Mattie, but also believe that most things worth having are worth fighting for." She avoided Harm's gaze as she continued, feeling his stare. "You should also know this: Whatever happens after this interview, Harm will always be there if you need him. A piece of paper or someone else's opinion isn't enough to dissuade him once he's made up his mind. Trust me."

Mattie looked away from her and up at Harm. Her defenses crumbled just a bit, and her voice was younger sounding. "Is that true?"

His expression was completely sincere. "Yes." He grinned. "A deal's a deal." When Mattie looked away, his eyes darted back to Mac, but she had backed up a step to stand next to Bud.

"We should probably go find a seat so they can go over the details before Judge Alberti calls them in." Bud and Mac made eye contact, and the intensity of his expression made her a little nervous. They hadn't really spoken about anything but the custody hearing since he blew up at her two days ago. "Lieutenant?"

He slowly smiled, extended his elbow to escort her into the courtroom. "You can call me 'Porthos', Ma'am." She stared for a moment before the reference clicked, then smiled tightly as she put her hand on his arm.

Turning to Harm and Mattie, she said, "We'll see you inside." Her eyes met Harm's once more. "We'll be right there if you need us."

He nodded, and frowned as they walked away. He thought he heard Mac say 'does that make her D'Artagnan?' followed by Bud's chuckled response. 'We'll have to see how she handles a sword'.

Mattie was still watching them, a delicate frown creasing her brow. Harm looked at her, puzzled. "What is it, Mattie?"

She sighed and looked up at him with resignation in her eyes. "She's harder to hate than I thought."

The Commander really laughed for the first time that morning. "Tell me about it."

 

Chapter 4: Courting Disaster

Courtroom B
1225

 

Judge Alberti was a tall, striking black woman in her fifties. She had eyes that glittered intensely, and a sharply regal profile. One look at her and it was all Harm could do not to salute. "And where do you propose the young lady will live, Mr. Rabb?"

"With me, of course, your Honor." He folded his hands in front of himself, felt them slide wetly against each other and dropped them to his sides. He resisted the temptation to stick them in his pockets only by calling on all his military training and pulling himself to parade rest.

Mac, sitting in the courtroom, could see it from far. She whispered something under her breath.

"Ma'am?" Bud, sitting next to her, whispered quietly in response. She looked at him and shook her head.

"He's really nervous. I don't think I've ever seen him this bad, not even when the Admiral was on his back."

"I know." The lieutenant shook his head. "I wish there was something I could do."
Mac shot him a smile, put her hand on his for a moment. "We're doing it. And he's not done yet." She looked back up at her partner, who seemed totally out of his element, and wished she could shake this strange nervousness that was sitting in her chest. Taking a deep breath, she listened to the judge.

"But where, Mr. Rabb? I understand the young lady has property that will be left to her when she comes of age, some distance from here?"

"Yes, your Honor, but we've talked about it, and I'd like to have her in town with me."

She looked at her notes again. "You're a pilot, correct?"

"Yes ma'am."

"And you, as legal guardian, would have jurisdiction over that property - which includes a hanger, I believe - until she's older?"

Mac stared, amazed. This woman pulled no punches. That she could actually suggest that Harm might be after the airfield property was shocking – but also told the colonel that this judge had seen her share of impropriety in this kind of case. Come on, Harm. Speak to her concerns, don't just be defensive.

Harm frowned. "I'd help her manage the business, but the properties are hers and will remain so."

"I see." The judge filtered through some papers on her bench. "You seem to have a lot of friends in high places, Mr. Rabb." Harm looked at her, trying to figure out how to react to that comment. "While I appreciate their fervor, it doesn't change the fact that you travel a great deal, and are a single man looking to take responsibility for an adolescent girl."

"Your Honor, she would need to be placed somewhere-"

"Which also begs the point: Why didn't you tell child services as soon as you realized her situation?"

Harm floundered. "She would need to be placed somewhere. Doesn't it make sense to put her with someone who is willing, even anxious to help?"

Alberti looked down at him over her reading glasses. "Some might say too anxious, Mr. Rabb."

"Your Honor!" He stopped, bit back the objection, realizing his usual combative style would get him nowhere here. "I assure you that I would do my best to give Mattie a supportive environment to live in."

There was some quiet as the judge sifted through more of the stack of papers before her. Eventually she looked up once more, focusing on Mattie. "Young lady, I'd like to ask you a few questions. Would you come up here please?" The judge indicated the witness stand chair. Mattie shot a nervous look at Harm, who nodded with a reassuring look. She stood and walked up to sit.

"Do I have to swear in or anything?"

It earned her a rare smile from the judge. "No, I just want to know a few things. For example, how did you meet Mr. Rabb?"

Mattie bristled a bit in spite of Harm's training. "Commander Rabb keeps a plane at our airfield. A Steerman."

"I see. Does he take good care of it?"

"Yeah, it's in great shape."

The judge raised her eyebrows. "And how did it develop that this customer decided to try to become your legal guardian?"

The girl frowned. "We just get along, that's all. We're friends. And when he heard I was on my own he was worried about me, and said he would do something about it." She looked at Harm and smiled bravely. "It's what friends do."

He grinned back at her from where he sat.

"Yes. I'm sure. What I'm not sure of is why you want to do this. Your father is still living. If he comes back, he is still your father."

"He's not coming back. I don't matter to him."

"People change, you know. Are you saying you wouldn't give him a chance, even if he changed?"

Mac shook her head from halfway back in the courtroom as Mattie struggled through her response. "Oh, my."

Bud turned to look at her. "It doesn't look good, does it." She shook her head, unable to answer. While the judge quizzed Mattie on school, moving, and the business she had been running, Mac frowned and picked up her briefcase. Quietly she opened it, pulled out a pad, jotted down a few notes. She handed the paper to Bud.

"Listen," she whispered. "Can you check this out?" He scanned it quickly, his eyes widening as he did.

"Ma'am?"

"Please, Bud. Would you? You have your laptop with you, right? I can't leave… I don't know if it will help or not, but we're in the thick of it now." He looked at her, his expression grim, and nodded.

"I'll see what I can find." Quietly he ducked out of the back of the courtroom without disturbing anyone. Mac turned her attention back to the hearing.

"Thank you. You may return to your seat."

"Your Honor?" Mattie's voice sounded quite small in the nearly empty room.

"Yes?"

"I- well, I just want to say that I really want Harm – Commander Rabb - to be my guardian." The judge gave her a polite smile.

"Yes, that's clear. But I'm sure that you realize what we want is not necessarily what is best for us." Even Mattie could feel the steel behind the softly spoken comment, and as she walked back to sit with Harm her eyes began to water. He leaned over to say something when she whispered furiously at him, blinking hard. He looked a little dubious, but nodded.

"Your Honor, if we might take a short recess?"

"Recess? I believe we're nearly finished here, Commander."

Mattie stood and blurted out, "I have to go to the bathroom, okay?" Her voice cracked and she swiped a hand hard over her face. Harm looked at her, then at the judge pleadingly.

"Your Honor-" The judge nodded with an elaborate sigh.

"Fifteen minutes. No longer." She stepped down and vanished into her chambers.
Harm turned to Mattie but she had dashed down the aisle and out the door of the courtroom. Mac stood up and looked at him. "Should I follow her?"

"No." He rapped his knuckles on the table. "She'll come back. She just –" he faltered a bit – "she just doesn't like people to see her cry." Mac walked down to where he was and put her hand on his arm.

"How are you holding up?"

"How do you think? You can hear it in her voice. Oh, Mac." He rubbed his fingers against his forehead and closed his eyes. "She's not going for it. What am I going to do?" He exhaled heavily. "God… what am I going to do?"

Mac blinked back her own tears, trying desperately to find some way to remain professional, and thereby helpful. He went on, almost talking to himself, his voice bleak.

"I don't know. I can't even begin to explain why I want this so much. I didn't go looking for it, she was just dropped in my lap, like a gift… and now I can't imagine not being there. Not having her." He half turned away from Mac, staring at the far wall. "The story of my life. Always too little, too late."

Mac reached out toward him. "Harm –"

He was too distracted to notice. "My dad, us, and now Mattie… Anytime I try to do something, anything that really means something, it always…" He seemed to abruptly realize that she was standing there, and shook his head. "I'm going to get a drink of water. And find Mattie." With a few long strides he was out of the court, and Mac was left standing there alone.

She took a deep breath, walked up to the judge's bench, and ran her fingers idly along the smooth maple. Turning, she looked at the room, one of she didn't know how many court rooms that had shaped her life, molded her character. Rooms that were built for the sole purpose of making important decisions.

"I guess that's what I need now."

"Pardon, ma'am?" Bud had walked up to her, silent as her thoughts were loud. "Is it done? Or are we recessed?"

"Bathroom break. But it doesn't look good. Any luck?"

"Some." He handed her the paper. "Harm might still manage to get primary custody if her father should show up. It's happened before." Frowning, he shrugged. "Do you think it will make much of a difference?"

She looked at the paper and smiled wanly. "I'm grasping at straws, Bud. I wish there was more… but I'm trying to figure out what the judge's biggest worries are."

"Well, the single fatherhood."

"Right. And the property, but I really don't think that's huge. I think it's the lifestyle…"

"Right." Bud shook his head. "Not much we can do about that."

"No." Mac looked up as Harm and Mattie walked in from the back of the courtroom, his arm around her as he leaned over to say something with a smile while Mattie struggled to keep her composure. Mac swallowed hard. If that girl knew how hard it was for Harm to smile right now

She sighed. "There must be something. Something I'm missing." She turned and saw Bud was watching the connection of the would-be father and daughter intently, his eyes filling abruptly.

"Sometimes, there just isn't anything you can do, Mac." Her eyes followed him as he walked slowly back to his seat, looking just a little older than usual.

"Oh, Bud…" Mac tried to push back the flood of feelings that this case was stirring up for all of them, and only noticed absently that her cell phone was buzzing. Blinking back tears, she stepped out in the hallway to answer it.
 

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