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Classification Romance (H/M), Angst, Humor
Length Approximately 41,000 words, 126 pages (8 ½ x 11”)
Spoilers Anything's possible
Rating IM15
Author's Notes The characters from N.C.I.S. make cameo appearances here. You don't have to be a fan of the show to understand what's going on, but it will help if you've seen Ice Queen and/or Meltdown so that you understand their personalities. This story is light on angst, long on romance.
Summary Harm and Mac are on opposite sides of a drug trafficking case.

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

 

 

 

Chapter 1

0500 Zulu (2100 Local)
Whidbey Naval Air Station
Whidbey Island, Washington

 

The casual observer would never peg the ungainly P3-C at its true value to the United States Navy. Gunmetal gray, virtually windowless, and bulky, it reminded Special Agent Jethro Gibbs of nothing so much as an oversized pelican. He watched it drop clumsily to the tarmac, then ducked back into his service car, slamming the door and shifting it into gear in one smooth motion. Beside him, Agent Tony Dinozzo popped a fresh clip into his 9mm, pointing it at the floor of the car while he removed the safety. In the back seat, an audible click indicated a similar action on Agent Kate Todd’s part. Expertly, Gibbs spun the car onto the runway behind the plane, speeding after it, leading the pack of half a dozen identical vehicles, all of them with lights flashing and sirens wailing.

Almost before the plane rolled to a complete stop, it was surrounded by NCIS investigators, guns drawn behind the cover of their open car doors. For several minutes, silence reigned, broken only by the gentle sound of the rain as it soaked into tarmac and human alike, causing more than one agent to tug down the brim of a hat or tighten a jacket collar. Gibbs ignored the steady trickle down the back of his neck and fixed his attention on the hatch, willing it to open. When it did, the audible thunk tightened the spines and raised the chins of two dozen agents. The airstair slowly unfolded, and a solitary figure appeared at the top of it, hands raised.

Gibbs raised his voice, the better to be heard over the fading roar of the turbo props.

"NCIS! Turn around and descend the ladder slowly. When you reach the bottom, freeze, lace your hands behind your head, and await further instruction."

The petty officer did as he was told. Kate met him at the bottom, cuffed him, and led him to one side. The process was repeated eleven times, until the entire crew stood in an uneasy line on the tarmac. Gibbs waited then, letting the silence and the rain tighten the tension in ways simple words could not. He paced up and down the line while NCIS agents secured the plane for the evidence collection team.

"All clear, Boss!" The call came from Dinozzo, who had donned a pair of latex gloves and was already halfway up the airstair. "The evidence team is ready to start. Drug dogs should be here any minute."

"They were supposed to be here an hour ago," Gibbs muttered to himself. "You waiting for an invite, Dinozzo? Get busy!" he snapped. Tony turned and disappeared inside the huge aircraft, half a dozen agents on his heels. Gibbs stopped pacing and turned to stare long and hard at the crewmen lined up before him.

"Lieutenant Mercer!"

"Sir! Yes, Sir!" The pilot stepped forward, coming to attention as well as he could with his hands cuffed behind his back. Gibbs stared at him, starting at the man's feet, and working his gaze slowly up to his face. The lieutenant was perfectly turned out, his Navy flight suit spotless, gold wings glinting in the floodlights that had been set up around the perimeter. Raindrops trickled off the rim of his cover, the rivulets of water soaking into the broad shoulders beneath, but Mercer's face remained impassive. If he was worried, he was doing a remarkable job of hiding it. Gibbs moved until he was standing toe to toe with the younger man, glaring balefully into eyes that, once defiant, were starting to take on a hint of fear. Gibbs had a special place in his heart for people who sold drugs to kids, and he recited the Article 31 rights with a certain perverse pleasure.

"Lieutenant Mercer, you have the right to remain silent and make no statements. Any statement you do make could be used against you in a court martial. You have the right to consult…" He finished in record time and gestured to a nearby agent. "Henderson, you and your partner deliver the lieutenant to the brig. I'll meet you there later."

"Yes, Sir." The agent hustled Mercer off to the car and was gone. Gibbs surveyed the remaining crew.

"I don't have enough evidence to take any of you in," he said, and watched eleven pairs of shoulders visibly relax. "But you can bet you'll be sorry if I find anything to tie you to Mercer. Return to your barracks and await further orders."

He gestured to another agent to remove the cuffs and pulled a pair of latex gloves out of his pocket. Without a backward glance, he climbed the airstair and disappeared into the maw of the huge gray bird.

 

1317 Zulu (0817 Local)
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Four pairs of eyes flew to the conference room door when it opened abruptly, admitting a highly agitated Harmon Rabb. Mac hid a smile. He was late again. Really late, this time. He was lucky the admiral was in a good mood.

"Commander, how nice of you to join us. Please. Have a seat." The admiral's voice was deceptively pleasant, and Harm slid into his chair, wishing that just once his alarm clock and the traffic patterns would cooperate with him.

"My apologies for my late arrival, Sir. The elevator appears to be out of order. Had to take the stairs."

"It takes you seventeen minutes to make it up three flights of stairs, Commander?" A.J. shook his head in mock dismay. "We need to get you some PT time."

"Yes, Sir. I mean, no, Sir."

"Which is it? Yes or no?"

"It's no, Sir. I'm in top physical shape."

"Hmm…" The admiral's response was noncommittal, but he let it drop, returning to the files in front of him.

"Now that Commander Rabb has joined us, I guess we can go over this new case." He flipped open the file and scanned the cover sheet.

"Lieutenant Steven Mercer. Arrested last night at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. It seems Mercer took advantage of his gold wings to smuggle Ecstasy across the border from Canada. Apparently, there's some concern about Mercer's international connections, thus his transfer to Norfolk for trial here." He flipped a page, scanning quickly. "Looks like they're in a hurry on this one. NCIS delivered him to us personally at 0500 this morning." He glanced around the table, and his next words dropped like stones in a pool of still water. "The lead investigator on the case is Special Agent Jethro Gibbs."

Harm's head snapped up as he felt three pairs of eyes fasten on him and slide away. The admiral glanced back at the file, made a decision, and looked back at his attorneys.

"Colonel, you'll prosecute. Commander, you'll defend."

"Yes, Sir."

The admiral handed case files to the two attorneys and stood.

"That's it, people. Let's get to work."

Chairs scraped and papers rustled as the group prepared to leave.

"Commander."

"Sir?"

"Try to be on time tomorrow."

"Yes, Sir."

Harm caught Mac's small grin and traded it for a glare. Her smile widened, but she turned away before he could say anything, and he shook his head with a half smile of his own.

A maintenance worker stood just outside the room.

"Commander Rabb?"

"Yes."

"You reported the problem with the elevator, Sir?"

"Yes."

"Well, it's fixed. I thought you might like to have this."

He handed Harm the single sheet of paper he held in his hand. Harm glanced at it, and then back up, confused.

"I don't understand. Why would I want the 'Out of Order' notice?"

"I thought you might like to see the back, Sir."

Harm flipped it over, and muttered an oath that caused Mac's eyebrows to shoot up.

"What is it, Harm?"

He held it up. On the back, in bold letters, was the single word, "Gotcha!" with a big smiley face.

Mac's laugh escaped, despite her heroic attempt to hold it back. Sturgis, Bud, and the admiral fought grins of their own.

"You're not exactly off to a flying start today, Sailor."

"This isn't funny, Mac."

"No, of course it isn't. I'll see you later, ok?"

Still laughing, she entered her office, closing the door behind her. Suspicious sounds floated through the crack under the door, and he glared at it balefully.

Bud and the admiral had already left to return to their own offices, so Harm fixed his best interrogation stare on the one remaining suspect. Sturgis threw up his hands in surrender.

"I don't know anything about it, Harm."

With a snort, Harm turned and headed back to his office. He wasn't certain who the guilty party was, but whoever it was, they were in trouble. They were messing with the master.

Grumpily, he dropped into the chair, absently picking up a pencil and tapping it against the scarred desktop. He had a pretty good idea who the culprit was, and a slow grin spread over his face as he plotted his revenge. A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts and he glanced up.

"It's open," he called.

Mac poked her head inside.

"Is it safe?"

"Shouldn't it be?"

"Thought I should make sure before I exposed myself to enemy fire," she grinned.

Harm put his hands to his chest in mock pain.

"Your lack of faith wounds me."

His smile gave the lie to his remark, and she came in, relaxing into a chair on the other side of his desk.

"Just thought I'd check. Listen, I'm heading off to Norfolk for a preliminary interview. Gibbs and his team are meeting me there. Want to tag along?"

"Sure. I'll even buy you lunch."

"Meat?"

He groaned.

"If I must."

"You must."

A few minutes later, they were settled in Mac's Corvette. The engine purred to life, and Harm arranged his legs in the small space.

"You know, we'd have been more comfortable in the Lexus."

"Probably, but this is more fun. Besides, it was my idea that we go together. That means I get to drive."

"Bossy."

Her only answer was a smug grin as she expertly maneuvered the car through the city streets and onto the highway. Harm spent a few minutes glancing through the slim case file, then he closed the folder and focused his gaze on the passing scenery.

Her soft voice finally broke the silence as she glanced at him, concern in her eyes.

"Are you ok with this, Harm?"

"Am I ok with what?"

"Gibbs."

He didn't answer right away. When he finally did speak, his voice was low, bitter.

"It's not something I like to talk about, Mac."

"You're angry."

"Not angry, really. Disappointed."

"Disappointed?"

"Yeah."

"About what?"

He looked over at her, frustrated that the confined space wouldn't allow him to turn his body.

"Why didn't you come to see me?"

Surprise flitted across her face as she glanced over and then back at the road.

"Didn't the admiral tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

"He ordered us to stay away."

"Hmm…" Harm's voice was noncommittal as he returned his glance to the passing scenery.

"You don't believe me?"

"No. I believe you."

"Then what?"

"Nothing." He was quiet for a minute. When he spoke again, his voice was tinged with disappointment. "It's just that if it had been you in there, nothing would have kept me away."

She looked over at him. "You'd have gone against a direct order." It was a statement, not a question.

"If I had to, yes. It wouldn't have been the first time."

"It wasn't just the orders that kept me away."

"Oh?" He raised an eyebrow at her.

"Yeah."

"What was it then?"

"I didn't know how to help you, Harm. If I'd gone to you, I could've ended up being a witness for the prosecution." She glanced at him again, her expression serious. "I couldn't take that chance."

"You think I would have told you something that would hurt my case?"

"I don't know," she said. "I suppose I thought it was possible."

He pondered that for a minute.

"Why didn't you come to see me after I got out?"

"I did."

"Yes, but as an afterthought. You were already committed to that fiasco in Paraguay."

"Fiasco is right. I'll never forgive Clay for dragging me into that mess."

"Why did you go?"

"You know why, Harm. Orders."

He sighed. "Sometimes I hate the military.”

"Me, too."

Silence. Then Mac's quiet voice.

"Forgive me?"

He looked at her, meeting her eyes for a brief moment before she flicked them back to the road ahead.

"Yeah."

He was rewarded with a relieved smile.

"Thanks."

He didn't answer. Instead, he picked up her hand from where it rested on the gear shift, squeezed it gently, started to release it, and then changed his mind and held it, surprised and pleased when she didn't immediately pull away. He tried to act nonchalant, turning his head to look out the window as though he'd simply forgotten to let go, yet every fiber of his being zeroed in on that single point of contact, the warmth and softness of her small hand nestled securely in his. He concentrated on the moment, and on the bubble of quiet peace that surrounded them, and tried not to let optimism overcome realism in his heart as the car sped toward their destination.

He'd missed this feeling of closeness between them, this sense of being two parts of a single entity. There'd been a time when it had been a constant in their relationship, his anchor in a storm. Then life had gone crazy, as it had an annoying tendency to do at times. Now he had Mattie, she had Webb and everything was different; and yet, in a strange way, everything was the same. He'd never said it to her, and the way things were looking right now, he probably never would, but a fact was a fact, no matter which way you twisted it. And the simple fact here was that Mac held a piece of his heart that he'd never be able to retrieve, no matter how bad things got between them.

A light tug forced his attention back to the present, and he released her hand so that she could shift gears, pleased to see a soft smile curving the corners of her mouth. Neither of them said a word, as though acknowledging what had just happened might somehow jinx it, and a few minutes later, they pulled up outside the brig. Mac set the handbrake and looked over at him.

"You ready?"

"Let's do it. I'll meet with my client while you talk to Gibbs and his crew?"

"Deal."

They unfolded themselves from the low slung car, and Harm stretched the kinks from his back and legs before reaching in for his briefcase. Moments later, they were walking into the building in companionable silence.

Gibbs stood at the guard desk, signing in and turning over his handgun. He turned when the door opened to admit Harm and Mac. There was a heartbeat of tense silence before Harm spoke.

"We meet again," he said, feelings and memories washing over him.

"Looks that way," Gibbs replied, and clipped the visitor's badge to his lapel. He gestured to the two people standing to one side, visitor's badges already fixed to their jackets.

"I believe you remember Agent Dinozzo?"

Harm exchanged nods with Tony, still grateful to the man for the extra bit of effort that had saved his neck all those months ago.

"This is Special Agent Caitlin Todd." Gibbs indicated the slim, dark haired woman who was observing the reunion with interest. Harm wondered how much she knew about him, and realized it might be very little. Gibbs wasn't exactly the gossipy sort. He nodded in her direction, and received a slight dip of the chin in reply.

"Shall we get started?" Mac asked then. "I believe they have a conference room reserved for us, Agent Gibbs. Harm? We'll meet back up with you in a couple of hours."

"Sounds good," he said, scribbling his name in the entry log while the guard inspected his ID. He picked his cover up from where he had set it on the desk, clipped on the visitor's badge, and turned back to the group.

"See you in a while," he said, and turned to follow the MP down a familiar hallway to the meeting rooms. Mercer hadn't been brought in yet, and while the guard went to collect him, Harm settled himself at the table, opening his briefcase to pull out a fresh legal pad and pencil, then snapping it shut and standing it on the floor beside his chair. He had just time enough to jot down the date and time at the top of the paper when the door opened to admit his new client.

Harm glanced up, observing the man as he walked across the room and settled himself in the other chair. He'd been a lawyer long enough to know that his first impressions were usually accurate, and he didn't like what his instincts were telling him about the lieutenant.

Mercer was tall, nearly as tall as Harm, but bulkier, with a massive chest and shoulders that spoke of hours spent lifting weights. In contrast, he was slim through the hips and thighs, giving the overall impression of a triangle that had been tipped on end. His brown hair, close cropped even beyond the demands of Navy regs, did nothing to sharpen the angular planes of his face, but it somehow emphasized the crooked nose that was likely the result of more than one ill-conceived bar fight. Mercer's mouth, wide and full lipped, was stretched tight in controlled anger, his hazel eyes sullen.

"You going to get me out of here?" he asked, his tone bordering on disrespect.

"I think that depends on you, Lieutenant. Have a seat."

Harm had Mercer's service file in his briefcase, along with the case file that contained the basics of the crime. He didn't want to look at cold facts right now, though. He wanted to hear the story from his client's own lips, get a feel for him as a man and a human being. He'd long since found it to be the best way to begin to formulate a defense strategy.

"Want to tell me what happened?"

"NCIS tricked me. That's what happened."

"Tell me about it."

"You're my attorney, so you have to keep what I say private, right?"

"That's right."

"I've been doing this for years. Flying those birds back and forth across the border makes it easy, you know? Who'd ever think a Navy pilot would be shipping drugs? My guys in Canada and Denmark are happy because they get their money. My pals in Washington are happy because they get their merchandise. I get enough money to buy my wife a nice home and maintain our membership at the country club. Everybody's happy."

Harm resisted the urge to throttle the man then and there. The arrogant fool didn't even think he'd done anything wrong.

"Anyway, a couple of months ago I get this new client. Woman. Real good looking if you know what I mean," Mercer smirked, causing Harm's blood pressure to notch up a few more points.

"She wanted an ounce of Ecstasy. I told her sure, no problem. We made the deal, and we both walked away satisfied."

Mercer shifted, stretching out his legs in front of him.

"She called me again, 'bout a month later. Wanted a pound this time. I said fine. Gave her the routing numbers for my bank, said we'd hook up in a week. She seemed happy enough with that, so we went our merry ways, and I scheduled a trip to Copenhagen to pick up more supplies. I get back last night, and those NCIS goons are waiting for me. The way they acted, you'd have thought I was an ax murderer. I was surprised at first, until I saw my newest client carrying a badge and a Sig-Sauer."

He shook his head in disgust, though whether at himself for trusting a pretty client, or at her for the set up, Harm couldn't tell.

"I'm not a bad guy, Commander. All I do is answer the call of supply and demand. I don't sell the stuff on the streets, and I don't use it myself. I'm not stupid enough to do that, so I'm not entirely sure why I'm even here."

"You mean aside from the fact that you broke half the regs in the UCMJ?"

"Those regs are out of date. They need revising to keep up with the times. Like I said, I wasn't hurting anybody, so what's the problem?"

Harm leaned forward, speaking slowly and clearly.

"Lieutenant Mercer, you're looking at hard time here. You took advantage of your uniform to smuggle a Schedule I controlled substance . The members aren't going to look kindly on that."

Mercer had the decency to look a little ashamed.

"Look, I know I shouldn't have done this while I was on duty, but the uniform made things easier, you know? Who's going to suspect a Navy pilot? Besides, look at me. I'm not exactly profile material, you know." He almost preened, and Harm mentally added vanity to the growing list of things he disliked about this client.

Harm sighed. The fact that Mercer was a Navy pilot, gold wings and all, turned his stomach. For him, those wings symbolized commitment to the highest standards, the utmost respect for the military and the United States of America. In contrast, the man sitting across from him right now seemed to see the wings merely as a means to an end, a way to step up on the economic ladder of life, and God help anybody who got in his way. He lifted his briefcase to the table and opened it, returning his notes and pencil before closing it again with a snap. He stood up, moved to the door and knocked, his signal to the guard that he was finished.

"Wait. That's it?" Mercer was agitated. "When do I get out of here?"

"I don't know, Lieutenant – certainly not before the trial, not with these charges and the amount of evidence against you. For now, I need to compare our conversation today to my case notes and think about where to go from here. I'll be in touch."

The door opened, and Mercer stood to leave, then stopped, turning back to Harm with the first traces of concern on his face.

"You're going to get me out of this, aren't you, Commander?"

"I'll do my best, Lieutenant." He didn't like it. In fact, right now there was nothing he'd like better than to lock the man in the brig and throw away the key, but unlike Mercer, he respected the laws of career and country, so he'd do everything he could to make sure the lieutenant got a fair hearing.

Mercer left, and Harm was alone in the empty room. He sighed. He truly hated cases like this, hated having to fight for a guilty man's freedom. With luck, Mac would be willing to consider a plea bargain, though he hadn't discussed the idea with Mercer yet. Before he did, he wanted to go over the case file and whatever information he could get from Mac in discovery.

Until then, he wouldn't even know what his bargaining position was. He did know, however, that Gibbs was one of the best. He'd be willing to bet that the case he'd built against Lieutenant Mercer would be rock solid. His only hope would be to look for a weak spot, a chink in the massive amounts of paperwork that these types of cases always generated. Somewhere, somehow, he had to find an uncrossed "t," or an undotted "i."

He scrubbed the back of his neck with one hand, the mere thought making him tired. Long hours of poring through masses of documents loomed ahead of him, and he was dreading it. Paperwork had never been his strong suit, and to get stuck with mounds of it for a client he knew was guilty did not make him happy. Standing, he pushed the chair in with a touch more force then was absolutely necessary, then he grabbed his briefcase and left the room, hoping that Mac was ready to go.

Luckily, she was, but she looked tense, and Harm wondered what had happened in her meeting to put those lines around her mouth. He glanced around. Gibbs, Dinozzo, and the new agent, Todd, were nowhere in sight.

"Everything all right, Mac?"

"Everything's fine." Her voice, a shade too bright and a shade too edgy, brought his head up from where he'd been bent over the logbook, signing out.

"What happened in there?"

"Nothing, Harm. I told you, I'm ok. Are you ready to head back?"

"Sure am, but if I remember right, I owe you lunch first."

Her eyes brightened, as he'd thought they might.

"Food?"

"Sure. What are you hungry for?"

"How about Mexican?"

He groaned.

"Spicy?"

She grinned. "Is there any other kind?"

Pleased that he'd managed to chase away the worry lines, he gave in.

"All right. We'd better get going, though."

"Right behind you, Flyboy."

Twenty minutes later they sat across from each other in Mac's favorite Mexican restaurant. They sipped from tall glasses of iced tea and munched on fresh tortilla chips while they waited for their food to arrive.

"So who do you think pulled that elevator stunt this morning?" Mac asked.

Harm groaned. "Did you have to bring that up again? It'll take me months to live that down."

"Yeah. I know. Isn't it great?" Her smile was wide, and her eyes danced in merriment, causing Harm to catch his breath. It'd been a while since he's seen a smile that made it all the way to her eyes, and he'd almost forgotten how beautiful it made her.

"Never fear. I fully intend to get even with the perpetrator."

"Oh? And who do you think that might be?"

"You'll find out soon enough."

"Surely you don't think I did it."

He didn't answer, merely watching her with a quirked eyebrow and a twinkle.

"I didn't!"

She was playfully indignant at the accusation.

"I believe you." But he didn't really, and she knew it. She huffed at him in exasperation, but he just grinned at her and reached for another chip, dipping it into the queso and waiting for the extra cheese to drip off before bringing it to his mouth.

Mac watched him, unaccountably fascinated. A tiny drop of bright yellow dotted his chin, and she picked up her napkin, unable to resist the temptation. She targeted the spot with her eyes, dabbed it, glanced up, and froze. His eyes held an intense light that she'd only seen once before. It had sent her heart into overdrive then, and it had the same effect now, causing her to suddenly feel like she'd just run the hundred yard dash. He caught her wrist and held it gently, his thumb stroking tiny circles against her skin. The action momentarily shorted out her internal clock, and she lost track of the passage of time while she struggled to remember how to breathe.

"All right, who had the enchilada plate?"

It was their server, and Harm released her to look up. She sank gratefully back in her chair and willed her heart to slow down, her diaphragm to force the air in and out of her lungs.

"I did."

It was a good thing Harm answered, because she was pretty sure that the only sound she could make right now would be a moan.

"Cujo over there ordered the fajitas."

That brought her back to reality with a thud.

"Cujo!"

She fired her wadded up napkin at him, and he ducked, coming back up with a wide grin. Their server chuckled and refilled their tea glasses before leaving to attend his other duties. She glared at Harm.

"Cujo?"

"As I recall, he was pretty fierce and he liked meat. It seemed to fit."

"You're terrible, you know that?" But she couldn't help smiling at him.

"I try."

He waggled his brows and then turned his attention to his food, pointedly ignoring her snort of laughter.


1900 Zulu (1400 Local)
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

Harm and Mac stood at attention in front of the admiral's desk. He looked up at them, his annoyance at the interruption plain on his face.

"Well? What can I do for you?"

"Request permission to book a flight to Seattle, Sir. We need to interview witnesses on the Mercer case."

A.J. sighed.

"I suppose you both need to go?"

Harm and Mac exchanged glances.

"Yes, Sir," Harm answered. "We need to interview the flight crew and Lieutenant Mercer's commanding officer. We could bring them here, but it'd be cheaper for Mac and I go to out there."

"All right, then. Permission granted. Get your flight information to Coates. Dismissed."

Harm was right behind Mac as they walked through the bullpen, so when she stopped suddenly, he plowed into her and nearly knocked her to her knees. He caught her shoulders to steady her, greatly enjoying the incidental close contact, even when she turned a halfhearted glare in his direction.

"Tailgating's illegal, you know."

"Sorry."

Somehow he didn't look very sorry, and she quirked an eyebrow at him suspiciously. He responded with his best innocent schoolboy impression, causing her to grin despite herself.

"You're hopeless, you know that?"

"I try, Mac. I try."

She gestured toward a group of people clustered around the water cooler.

"I wonder what that's all about."

"Let's go find out."

Harm's height advantage had him chuckling before Mac could see what was going on.

"What is it?"

He didn't answer, but caught her by the arm, gently maneuvering her closer to the cooler.

"That's what it is."

Mac looked, and burst into laughter. Inside the bottle, floating merrily about, were a dozen tiny rubber ducks. She was staring at the brightly cheerful little objects, wondering who would have had the nerve to pull such a stunt, when Harm started humming a familiar song behind her. With a wide grin, she started to sing along.

"….you make bath time lots of fun. Rubber ducky…."

Gradually, the people around her joined in, their voices fading in and out as their laughter allowed. Mac angled her head up to look at Harm when they launched into the second verse.

"Rubber ducky, joy of joys…. When I squeeze you, you make noise…"

"What's going on out here?"

The voice of doom brought an immediate guilty silence as choir members scattered like so many startled sparrows. Mac turned around as A.J. came to a stop beside her, folding his arms across his chest as he rocked back on his heels and cocked his head to one side in puzzlement.

"Has the whole world gone mad?" he asked rhetorically.

"I don't think so, Sir. Looks like a bit of innocent fun to me."

"Whose innocent fun, Colonel?" He glared down his nose at her, as though holding her personally responsible.

"It wasn't me, Sir. I was with Harm in your office, and before that we were in Norfolk."

"Uh huh…" He looked as though he didn't quite believe her.

"Coates!" he bellowed.

"Yes, Sir?"

A.J. started slightly, obviously not expecting to find her standing right beside him. He twisted his head around, turning his scowl on her.

"Lose the ducks."

"Um… What would you like me to do with them, Sir?" Her question earned her an over the shoulder glare from the retreating officer.

"I don't care what you do with them, Coates. Just get rid of them!"

"Right away, Sir."

The admiral's door closed behind him, and Jen turned to look at Mac, who threw her hands up in self-defense.

"I have no idea, Jen."

Jen sighed and stared at the water cooler, evidently trying to determine how to dispose of the offending objects without creating a minor flood. Mac left her there and returned to her office, only to find Harm comfortably ensconced in one of her chairs waiting for her.

"Any preference on flight times?" she asked him.

"Mattie left this morning with her volleyball team for an out of town tournament. She's supposed to be gone until Sunday afternoon. If we can get a flight out tonight, we'd have three or four days to do interviews."

Mac picked up the phone. "I'll see what I can do."

In short order, she had them both booked on a flight that would leave Dulles at 1930 and arrive in Seattle at about 2200 local time. She followed up with a rental car reservation, and they were all set. She'd even thought to make sure that Harm got an aisle seat on an exit row so that he'd have a little room to stretch out his legs. She hung up the phone and turned to Harm, who'd found mysterious reasons to wait in her office instead of returning to his own where he might actually accomplish something productive.

"We're all set," she said, jotting the flight and rental car information on a piece of paper that she handed over to him. "Would you drop this off with Jen on your way back to your office?"

"She's not exactly on my way, but sure, I'll take care of it."

"Thanks. And Harm?"

He turned away from the door, one eyebrow raised inquiringly.

"Why don't we take my car? That way there'd only be one parking fee to pay at the airport."

"That's good thinking, but there's a problem with it."

"What's that?"

"There's no way I'm getting back into that matchbox you call a car."

"Harm?" she said sweetly, turning his expression instantly suspicious.

"Yeah?"

"Deal with it."

He rolled his eyes.

"I tell you what."

"What?"

"Since you drove to Norfolk, I'll drive to the airport. Meet me at my place at 1730. We'll leave your car there and take mine." He was gone before she had a chance to object.

 

Chapter 2

2200 Zulu (1700 Local)
2812 M Street, Apartment 4
Washington, D.C.

 

Harm glanced at his watch when he heard the knock, then zipped his duffle bag closed and carried it with him to the living room, setting it on the floor while he opened the door.

"You're early," he said, stepping back and waving her inside.

"I know. Are you ready to go?"

"Not quite. I need to grab my uniform bag and take out the trash. Make yourself at home. I'll be ready in a minute."

"I'll take care of the trash if you like."

"No. I've got it. Have a seat. I won't be long."

He disappeared to the back of the apartment and Mac wandered to the kitchen for a glass of cold water. She was getting some ice when a knock at the door interrupted her.

"Harm?" she called. "Are you expecting anybody?"

"It's probably a missionary group. They've been making the rounds of the neighborhood. Just tell them we're on our way out."

"Will do." She'd been walking to the door while she talked to him, and now she pulled it open, startled to find Webb standing on the other side. Clay's normally immaculate presentation was skewed slightly off center, as though she were viewing him through a fun house mirror. His tie hung unknotted down one shoulder, and the top buttons of his dress shirt were hanging by threads on the same side. One sleeve was rolled up, the other down, but unbuttoned and torn at the shoulder. His slacks were badly wrinkled, and Mac wondered how many times he'd slept in them.

"Hello, Sarah. Fancy meeting you here," he said, his breath faintly colored with alcohol.

"Webb. What are you doing here?" She backed away from the door, and he followed her in, then turned on slightly unsteady legs to close it behind him.

"They told me you were leaving town on an assignment with Rabb. I wanted to say goodbye, so I went by your place. When you weren't there, it wasn't hard to figure out where to look next."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Just that I knew you'd be with him." He grabbed her shoulders and dragged her into a kiss that turned her stomach, releasing her only when her struggles threatened to topple both of them to the floor. "That's ok though, because I know it's me you love."

"I think you'd better leave," said Harm, his voice dangerously low. Apparently, he'd come around the corner of his bedroom in time to see the end of the kiss. His body radiated tension, and Mac knew she'd have to act quickly if she wanted to avoid a fight, but Clay spoke up before she could do anything.

"Sarah…" The taffy candy syllables stretched to brittle threads and ended in a whine that made a nerve in her jaw twitch reflexively. "Where's my fond farewell?"

She backed away.

"I'll call you a cab, Clay."

"No need. I have one waiting for me downstairs. Just kiss me goodbye, and I'll be on my way."

"No, Clay. I don't think so."

"Why not? Don't you love me anymore?"

The silence that descended then was heavy and thick, and it reminded Mac of Red Rock Mesa just before an explosive summer storm. She stared from Clay to Harm and back again, pondering her choices. She didn't want to do this now. She didn't want to hurt Clay by telling the truth, and didn't want to hurt Harm by not telling it. She sighed. There was really only one option, one honest answer, but even as she made her decision, she prayed silently that her next words would not come back to haunt her in the days and weeks to come.

"No, Clay. I don't."

She could have sworn she heard a sudden whoosh of air from somewhere in Harm's vicinity, but when she glanced over at him, his expression was unchanged. He still stared daggers at Clay, whose face had turned bitter and angry.

"You used me." The words, sharp and fierce, chewed holes in her heart.

"I think we used each other, Clay." She said it softly, her voice immeasurably sad.

"So I was just a convenient roll in the hay? Is that it?"

Harm took a step forward at that, but Mac stopped him with a look.

"It was a mistake, Clay, on both our parts."

"And when you said you loved me? Was that a mistake too?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Harm's shoulders slump, saw his expression change from one of anger to one of resignation, and ached at the thought that she had hurt him again, however indirectly.

"That's not what I said, Clay."

"Sarah. I was sitting right next to you when you said it." He spoke to her as one speaks to a very young child, with infinite patience and a wealth of good humored affection.

"No, Clay. If you'll think back, you'll remember that I said I killed Sadik because he hurt someone I loved." She glanced at Harm and then back to Clay, wishing this conversation had occurred under different circumstances. This wasn't the way she'd planned on handling this – with either man - but it was too late to turn back now, too late to keep from inflicting more pain on a man she cared about, but did not love, a man she suspected was teetering on the crumbling edge of an emotional precipice.

With a silent, desperate prayer that her next words would not send him off the cliff, she spoke.

"I wasn't talking about you." The words dropped one by one, like raindrops on rose petals, spoken so softly that both men had to strain to hear them.

Silence prevailed while Clay stared at her, his face flushing first red and then white in anger and humiliation. His hands fisted, and he took a step toward her, prompting Harm to move quickly to her side. The feel of his hand on her shoulder, and his gentle squeeze of support made tears spring to her eyes – tears of gratitude, and sadness, and contrition. What a mess she'd made of things. How would she ever be able to make them right again? And how would she live with herself if Clay couldn't handle the truth?

She was startled from her thoughts by the slam of the door. She ran after him, flinging the door wide and cursing in frustration at the sight of the empty hallway, the click of the stairwell door the only indication of where he'd gone. She dashed through it and down the stairs, hoping to catch him, desperate to make him understand that she'd never meant to hurt him, never meant for things to spiral so wildly out of control. She pushed through to the outside only to see the taxi pull away from the curb with a screech of rubber. Sobbing now, she sagged against the wall, crying for herself, for Webb, for all the people whose lives had been turned inside out because of one sadistic madman.

She felt gentle hands on her shoulders and turned, wrapping her arms around Harm in a futile attempt to stop the shaking that overcame her at the impossible, agonizing pain of it all. They stood that way for a long time, her tears melting into the front of his shirt while he stroked gentle circles on her back and murmured soothing words of comfort that neither one of them would remember later. She finally calmed, then stirred against him, and he released her, dropping one hand to her shoulder while he used the other to wipe a lingering trace of dampness from her cheek.

"O.K.?" he asked gently.

"I will be."

"We need to talk about what just happened, Mac, but this isn't the time. We're about to miss our flight."

She realized what time it was with a gasp. The urgency of the situation was the catalyst she needed to distract her from recent events.

"Go," she said. "Get your things. I'll get my duffle and meet you at the car."

Five minutes later, they were on their way, Mac staring sightlessly out the window while Harm concentrated on getting them to the airport as quickly as possible. They made it onto the plane in an undignified dash and collapsed into their seats, snapping their seatbelts into place as the big jet pulled away from the terminal. The next few moments were spent arranging their bodies in the cramped space and catching their breath, then Mac turned to stare into the night, her expression once again worried and sad.

Harm watched her for a while, at a loss as to how to help. They still needed to talk, but the middle of a crowded jetliner, thousands of feet above the earth, was not the place for it. He saw her fold her arms around herself with a barely perceptible shiver and stood up, searching through the overhead bin until he located one of the thin blankets the airline provided for its passengers. Unfolding it, he tucked it around her shoulders, and earned a grateful glance in reply.

It occurred to him then that there was one more thing he could do, another way he could let her know she wasn't alone. He'd be risking a glacial rejection, but he'd never been one to choose the safe path through life, so he flipped up the armrest and reached for her hand, enfolding it securely within his own. When she raised an inquiring eyebrow at him, he answered the silent question in her eyes with gentle warmth and a reassuring smile, half expecting her to pull away, half surprised when she merely went back to staring into the darkness, her slim fingers clinging to his own like delicate moss clings to a sturdy tree.

They sat that way for several minutes, she staring fixedly at nothing, and he pretending to watch the in flight movie while his mind twisted and turned the day's events, trying to fit the puzzle pieces together in a way that would begin to make some sense. He lost track of the passage of time, so he was vaguely startled when he felt her head settle into the curve of his shoulder and her free hand tuck itself around his waist, the actions completely out of character for her, and yet somehow exactly and perfectly right.

He held himself as still as possible, almost afraid to breathe for fear she would change her mind and pull away. When she didn't, his immediate surge of pleasure was tempered by concern. Mac prided herself on her strength and independence, and was not by nature a clingy person, having learned at an early age that the only person she could truly count on in life was herself. He knew this about her, knew enough of her history to understand how it defined her now, and with that knowledge came understanding.

The day's events had short circuited her normally rigid self control, forcing her to turn to him for strength and support, and even as he reveled in the feeling of having her close, he wished there was something he could do to take away her pain. There wasn't much though. All he could do was to be there, to hold her for as long as she needed to be held, and then to let her go. It was with this thought in mind that he carefully wrapped both arms around her, pulled her close, and rested his cheek against the silk of her hair.

Mac awoke slowly, her ears popping from a change in air pressure. She didn't move right away, choosing instead to savor the sensations that coursed through her body at the dawning realization that her pillow was a perfectly formed dip just below Harm's collarbone, her blanket the comforting strength of his arms. A deep inward breath brought his warm spice scent into her lungs, and she concentrated on it for a moment, memorized it, and filed it away to bring out on those long lonely nights when she was sure they would never be anything more than friends to each other.

The plane shifted beneath her on its descent into Seattle, and she lifted her head, quietly pleased when his arms tightened for an instant before loosening and helping her to an upright position. She opened her mouth to thank him for the loan of his shoulder, but when she met his eyes the words disappeared, lost somewhere in the deep blue depths of his gaze. He leaned over and placed a butterfly kiss on her temple, then pulled back slowly to look at her with a gentle smile.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi yourself."

"How are you feeling?"

She considered that for a moment.

"Better."

"I'm glad." His tone evoked images of firelight and candle glow, and she basked in its warmth. "We'll talk later, if you want."

She held his gaze while she thought about that. Then, deciding that the time for subterfuge had passed, she nodded.

"I want."

The big jet shuddered slightly as the landing gear locked into place and the flaps extended, slowing it for its final approach. The resultant rise in engine and wind noise made further conversation impossible, and they sat back in their seats for the landing, content to wait a little while longer for the conversation that just might change the direction of the rest of their lives.


2030 Zulu (1230 Local)
Whidbey Island Naval Air Station
Whidbey Island, Washington

 

Harm looked up from his notes at a knock on the door. The temporary office assigned to him was barely big enough for a desk and chair. There were no windows, and something above him rattled ominously every time the heating system groaned to life, which it did with an unnecessary frequency that had long since forced him to remove his jacket and roll up his sleeves in a futile effort to stay comfortable. He'd been here since just after breakfast, interviewing crew members, and then transcribing their notes into a form that might actually be useful to him upon his return to Falls Church. Mac's entrance, with the tiny burst of fresh air that swirled through the door around her, was a welcome relief.

"I have some news," she said, and her tone of voice alerted him that he didn't really want to know what it was.

"Oh?"

"I just got a call from NCIS. The blood tests on Mercer and his flight crew are in."

"And?" Foreboding twisted in his gut.

"Mercer tested positive for MDMA."

Harm locked his best poker face firmly in place. He didn't want Mac to see the anger and disappointment that surged through him at the news that a fellow aviator had done something so incredibly stupid.

"Really?"

"Yes." She glanced at a scrap of paper in her hand. "And so did two of the men in the flight crew." She handed the paper over to him. "You'll get this on discovery anyway, so I thought I might as well pass it on now."

He glanced at the names, cursing inwardly as he realized he'd already interviewed both men and would have to call them back.

"Have charges been filed yet?"

"Not yet. I imagine that'll happen within the hour. The admiral doesn't want us to pursue the Article 112a charges on the other crew members. Those will be handled by the local JAG."

"Thank God for small favors," Harm said, and saw the corner of Mac's mouth twitch up.

"Feeling the stress?"

"Let's just say I can think of cases I've enjoyed more."

"I don't know. Seems pretty open and shut to me."

She was fishing, and Harm knew it.

"Time will tell, Mac."

"Well, if you decide you want to plead it out, you know where to find me. Just don't expect any great favors. The facts are on my side. "

The trouble was, Harm knew she was right. This case was going to be a tough one to win. He wasn't about to let her know that he had doubts, though. She was too good a lawyer for him to take that kind of chance.

"Mac, we haven't even finished interviewing witnesses yet. Don't you think it's a little early to be talking about a plea?"

"You wouldn't think that if you'd seen the evidence."

"Speaking of that, when do I get my copies?"

"I'll get them to you as soon as we get back. There are a couple of documents I still need from Agent Gibbs."

"Fair enough."

"Ready for a lunch break?"

Harm glanced at his watch.

"I'm sorry, Mac. I'm meeting Breanna Mercer in twenty minutes. Rain check?"

"You have a lunch date with your client's wife?"

He shrugged. "Apparently, she has a busy social calendar. It was the only time she could get away."

Mac rolled her eyes.

"You'd choose high society over burgers and fries?"

"What can I say, Mac? Duty is a grim master." He shrugged and grinned.

She smiled, her hand already on the doorknob.

"You don't know what you're missing."

"Oh yes I do."

But she was gone already, so only the dust bunnies bore witness to the depth of feeling in his words. With a sigh, he pushed back his chair, collected his cover, and followed his partner out the door.


2115 Zulu (1315 Local)
Island Grill
Oak Harbor, Washington

 

Harm stood when a petite, dark haired woman approached the table.

"Mrs. Mercer?"

"Breanna, please. Mrs. Mercer is my mother-in-law." She shuddered theatrically and then smiled as she accepted the chair Harm pulled out for her.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Breanna."

"Wish I could say the same, Commander. Are you going to be able to help my husband?"

"I'm going to try, Ma'am."

She looked at him appraisingly before she spoke again in a cultured melodic voice.

"I made some phone calls after we talked this morning, Commander. Grapevine has it you're the best there is."

Harm raised an eyebrow.

"Grapevine?"

"My dad and granddad both served. Dad's retired now, but he still knows a few people."

"Ah…Well, I'll do my best, Ma'am," he said with a smile.

Their server arrived then, and conversation stopped while they placed their orders. When they were alone again, Breanna got right to the point.

"Commander, nobody's told me what's going on. I only know that my husband's locked up in a Virginia brig and that it has something to do with a drug charge." She twisted and untwisted her napkin in a nervous gesture that belied her outward calm.

"Mrs. Mercer… Breanna…your husband's in a lot of trouble."

"That much I understand. What I don't understand is what they say he did wrong."

"NCIS didn't speak to you?"

"They came to the house with a search warrant, turned everything upside down, and left again. The agent in charge…Gibbs, I think his name was… wasn't a very talkative man."

Harm decided that Breanna Mercer would have made a good diplomat. Saying that Gibbs was 'not very talkative' was like saying that his relationship with Mac was 'complicated.' He shook his head slightly, chasing the wayward thought out of his mind before he went on.

"I can't tell you the details of the case, Breanna, but I can give you a few of the basics." He took a sip of water and leaned forward slightly. "Six months ago, NCIS received an anonymous tip. The caller said your husband was trafficking in Ecstasy."

"I don't understand. My husband would never do something like that. He's a Navy pilot, for God's sake."

"Well, Ma'am, NCIS claims that your husband used his position as an aviator to escape detection by customs officials."

"Customs officials? They think he was crossing the border?"

"Yes, Ma'am. That's why they changed the jurisdiction. There are international ramifications."

Breanna looked stricken.

"What…" She stopped to take a sip of water, then went on. "What's going to happen to him?"

"I can't answer that yet. I'm still assembling the facts of the case, and I haven't seen the prosecution's evidence yet."

"Worst case scenario?"

"The trafficking charge alone could get him a fifteen-year sentence, and there are other charges pending that could add to that."

"How can I help him?"

"To be honest, there's not a lot you can do. You're his wife, so the members will assume you're biased if I call you as a witness."

"There must be something I can do."

"Can you come out for the trial? Your presence in the courtroom might not help his case any, but I'm sure your husband would appreciate your support."

"Of course I'll be there. When will the trial start?"

"Opening remarks are scheduled for Thursday morning."

"Do you have any idea how long the trial will last?"

"It's hard to say. I'd guess anywhere from a couple of days to a week, depending on the number of witnesses involved."

He reached for his wallet and pulled out a business card.

"Call me anytime for an update. I'll do my best to keep you informed."

She tucked the card into her purse just as their food arrived, and the conversation turned social while they ate. Breanna had lived all over the world, courtesy of the military, and the two of them were able to find plenty to talk about during the remainder of their meal. Harm returned to his office an hour later with a full stomach and the firm belief that Lieutenant Mercer had won himself a better woman then he deserved.

He spent the remainder of the day interviewing members of the flight crew. By 1700 he had finished talking to half of the men, and had come up with little more than character references. Apparently, Lieutenant Mercer was demanding but fair, kept to himself, and performed his job well. Harm made notes next to the names of two crew members who might make useful character witnesses, and then closed the folder, sliding the file into his briefcase before locking it closed and standing to stretch.


0105 Zulu (1705 Local)
Whidbey Naval Air Station
Whidbey Island, Washington

 

Mac hung up the phone and rolled her shoulders. The busy day had worn her out. She'd talked to crew members, met with Mercer's commanding officer, and lined up an engineer to act as an expert witness. Tomorrow she planned on getting a look at Mercer's plane and talking to the two crew members who had tested positive for Ecstasy. She hoped they would agree to a plea bargain in exchange for their testimony against Mercer. For today, though, she'd had enough. She was putting files in her briefcase when her door opened and Harm poked his head inside.

"Permission to come aboard?" he said with a grin.

She was hungry, exhausted, and tense, and still the man could make her smile.

"Permission granted."

He closed the door and settled himself in the chair across from her, long legs jammed against the front of her desk in a way that must have been acutely uncomfortable.

"You just about done for the night?"

"I think so. I thought I'd take these back to my room and go over them while I eat dinner. Why do you ask?"

"I wondered if you'd consider joining me on an adventure."

"Harm, your adventures are other people's nightmares." She smiled to take the sting out of the words. "But I'm feeling brave. What do you have in mind?"

He smiled, and her heart skipped a beat, then rushed forward, as though making up for lost time.

"One of the flight technicians told me about this state park just down the road. Deception Pass. I thought it'd be nice to take a walk, work out some of the kinks. Care to join me?"

She glanced out the window at the darkening sky.

"Let me get this straight. You want to take a twilight hike in fifty degree weather?"

"You're a marine. You can handle it."

"Is food involved?"

He tilted his head to one side in that endearing way that nearly always won her over, and Mac sighed in mock exasperation, amused to see a spark light in his eye. She was melting and he knew it.

"Would it make a difference?" he asked.

"Maybe."

"I saw an interesting place in town…The Laughing Seed Cafe. Would that work?"

She wrinkled her nose at him.

"Only if we stop at Burger King afterwards."

He laughed.

"All right. I'll make you a deal. Come for a walk with me, and I'll let you pick the restaurant."

"Any restaurant I want?" Visions of thick steaks and fluffy baked potatoes floated through her head, pushing her salivary glands into overdrive.

Harm pondered that for a moment, then nodded.

"As long as they have a salad bar."

"You have a deal. Just let me finish packing this stuff up."

Thus motivated, she finished quickly, and in a few moments they were back in the rental car and on their way to the park.


0212 Zulu (1812 Local)
Deception Pass State Park
Whidbey Island, Washington

 

Mac looked around her and took a deep breath, pulling the clean sharp smell of cedar deep into her lungs. The night was unseasonably warm for this time of the year, with the temperature hovering somewhere in the mid fifties, but it would be dark soon, and the temperature would drop quickly. The sun was already setting, and automatically she flipped on the flashlight she'd grabbed from her room before they set off, checking the battery strength. Satisfied, she turned it off again and tucked it into her jacket pocket, turning in time to catch Harm grinning at her again.

"What?" She felt unaccountably defensive.

"Satisfied?"

"I am now. You ready?"

"Lead on." He gestured toward a narrow well-worn footpath that led into the trees, and they set off at a brisk pace.

Five minutes later, Mac stepped off the path onto a rocky beach and caught her breath at the splendor before her. Fire and water. Earth and sky. Sunshine and darkness. These things were supposed to be opposites, like black and white, right and wrong. But somehow she had stumbled into a magical place where things that were supposed to be opposites no longer were - a place where sharp edges blurred and blended in the hazy golden light of sunset reflected on water. Suddenly, she was glad she had allowed Harm to talk her into this.

She knew when he came to a stop close behind her simply because she always knew where he was, and she fought the urge to lean into him, dragging her wayward thoughts away from a silent wish that he would wrap his arms around her and pull her back against him, adding their own blurred edges to the illusion. Instead, she stood silently, absolutely still, and watched until the final hint of pink faded from the sky, releasing her from the magic. He'd moved away from her by then, and was wandering down the beach, the beam of his flashlight arcing slowly from side to side as he walked.

He stooped and picked something up. A rock, she guessed, and she wondered what he was thinking as he turned it over in his hand, tracing its edges with one long finger. As she moved toward him, he pulled his arm back and threw the rock far out into the water, following its path with the flashlight beam, then lingering to watch the ripples widen, spread, and finally disappear.

"What are you doing?"

He glanced at her, his expression difficult to read in the deepening darkness.

"Exorcising demons," he said.

She thought about that for a minute.

"What demons?"

He didn't answer right away. Instead, he directed his flashlight back at the ground and started sweeping its beam back and forth again. Then he stooped, picked up another stone, and showed it to her.

"This beach is full of rocks," he said. "I wasn't expecting rocks."

"I like them." She wasn't sure what rocks had to do with demons, but she was caught up in the mystery and the magic of the place; willing to let the conversation drift where it would on the soft breeze and the golden light.

"I like them too, but they remind me of us."

"A rock reminds you of us?" She was puzzled, and a little amused, and he glanced up at her with a tiny embarrassed grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.

"Yeah."

"How?"

"I'll show you." He reached for her hand, quirking an eyebrow when she pulled back, and all at once it was her turn to be embarrassed. She'd pulled away, not out of fear, but out of an instinct for self-preservation, an awareness of just how deeply his touch affected her. She ducked her head self-consciously and placed her hand in his, grimly suppressing the tremble that shivered through her at the contact.

Harm pressed the stone into her hand, its jagged edges sharp against her palm. Then he took her free hand in his, and together they traced the rough spots, their heads bent close in the deepening darkness.

"Words, Mac." His voice was low. "Words and actions. The sharp ones hurt."

He curled her fingers around it and bent down, this time choosing a rock that had been worn smooth by the tides. He put the second rock in her other hand, once again curling his fingers around hers.

"Compare that one to this. This one is smooth and solid, still warm from the sun. It feels good, doesn't it?"

All she could do was nod. Her traitorous voice seemed to have deserted her at the appearance of this surprisingly metaphorical side to Harm. The deepening darkness made it nearly impossible to see his expression, but the feel of his hands on her own, gentle and strong, clearly communicated his sincerity.

When she didn't answer, he went on, his hands still cupped protectively around hers.

"When I hold this rock, I can't help but think of all of the things that are right between us. Things that I sometimes take for granted, but shouldn't."

Mac struggled to find her voice. His had dropped as he talked, taking on those warm tones that had her thinking of firelight and candles again. In contrast, she half expected hers to come out in a squeak, so she was pleasantly relieved when she sounded almost normal.

"What things?"

"Your friendship, for one. There's nobody I'd rather have watching my six."

"Not even Sturgis?"

"I doubt even Sturgis would have followed me all the way to the taiga."

"I think you're wrong, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt."

In response, he took the jagged rock from her hand, looked at it for a moment, and then catapulted it into the sound, once again watching until the ripples faded away.

"You said 'things'," she reminded him.

"Your strength," he said, already searching for another rock.

"Anything else?"

He swung the light toward her, lighting her face, but careful not to blind her with its beam.

"You're fishing," he said suspiciously.

"I am not!" she declared, but knew she'd been caught and decided to change tactics. She held out the jagged stone.

"What about these ones?" she asked. "What do they remind you of?"

"They remind me of times I screwed up. Times when I should have zigged instead of zagged."

"Like?"

"This particular rock," he said, touching its sharp edges with his free hand, "reminds me of that time in Norfolk when you showed up in Harriet's uniform and saved me from myself."

"I don't understand."

"I wasn't completely honest with you that night."

She caught her breath, her heartbeat suddenly unnaturally loud in her ears.

"What do you mean?" Her words were so soft, he had to bend close to hear them.

"You were right. I was kissing Diane that night." He took the rock from her then and hefted it in his own hand, testing its weight. He didn't look at her. "But I wasn't only kissing Diane."

"I'm sorry?" She was confused again, and he knew it. His eyes flicked toward her, their expression unreadable in the flashlight beam he still held between them. Then he turned back to the sea and brought his arm back in a pitch that would have made Nolan Ryan proud. He turned back to her.

"Part of me was kissing her goodbye. Maybe even most of me. But there was also a part of me that was kissing you. I lied to you, Mac, by not telling you the whole truth that night."

Mac began to understand what he was trying to do, but she needed to test her theory. She leaned over and picked up a smooth rock, the edges pleasing to the touch.

"This rock, Harm? What does it make you think of?"

He took it from her and closed his hand around it, playing with it in his hand while he considered.

"This one makes me think of the day you spoke up for me in court even though we'd parted on such angry terms the night before. You are the reason I have Mattie now, and I can't begin to tell you what that means to me." He took it from her and set it carefully on the beach, then selected another rough one and held it up.

"Can I try?" she asked.

He handed her the rock, and it was her turn to trace the edges. Her turn to think about mistakes and consequences.

"This is for making you feel like you had to choose between flying and my friendship. I'm sorry I used my fears to try to hold you back from your dreams."

With a quick twist of the wrist, she sent the stone into the night. Harm followed it with the flashlight beam, and together they watched until the ripples faded away.

For the next half hour, they took turns, their voices hushed, neither one rushing to fill the small silences with words. The night grew steadily darker as rock after rock sailed into Puget Sound, the splashes drifting back to their ears on the evening breeze. Once, Mac wondered at the fact that they had the beach to themselves, but she didn't question it, glad to have this chance to begin mending fences. She consciously chose rocks that seemed proportionate to her thoughts, and when Harm selected a particularly large one, one that required both hands and a fair amount of strength to heave into the ocean, she wondered what he would say about it.

"This one," he said, lifting it high in the air, "is for turning you away the night Brumby left."

He heaved it into the water with a mighty splash, and Mac leaped back from it with a muted sound of surprise. A stone shifted beneath her, and she stumbled, but Harm's arm was around her waist in an instant, rescuing her from a painful fall. She steadied herself against him and looked up, trying to read his expression.

"You didn't have a choice, Harm. Renee needed you."

"You needed me, too." His hands had settled on her waist, just above her hipbones, and she decided she liked the feel of them there.

"Renee was your girlfriend."

"You were …" He stopped himself and shook his head, his hands dropping from her as he turned and began walking back down the beach, head bent. Mac watched him for a few minutes, and then caught up to him, stopping him with a gentle hand on his arm.

"Why are we doing this?" she asked.

"Because…"

"Because why?"

"Because it's the only way I can think of to begin to make things right with you."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that I'm trying to simplify my life, Mac. I don't want it to be complicated anymore. I don't want us to be complicated."

"Us?"

He stared at her for a minute, his gaze assessing her in the flashlight glow. She saw the moment he made a decision, and mentally prepared herself for whatever was coming.

"I'm going to ask you a question. And I need you to give me an honest answer. Will you do that for me?"

"I'll do my best."

"Before we left, when Webb came over…" He paused, as though not sure it would be a good idea to go on. "He thought you were in love with him." Another pause. An indrawn breath. "You said you weren't."

"I wasn't." The words came out on a whisper, her voice barely audible above the gentle sounds of the surf.

"You told him that when you said it, you were talking about somebody else."

"I was." She felt herself tense, but whether in fear or anticipation, she couldn't have said.

"Who was it?"

She started to back away, but he reached out, capturing her shoulder in a move meant to calm and reassure at the same time it kept her from moving away. They stood that way as the moon crested the rocky cliffs of Deception Pass, its pale glow flooding the beach in soft light. Mac stared out over the water. Dare she tell him the truth? Dare she open herself one more time to the pain that would come with his rejection? Twice she'd invited him into her heart. Twice, he'd turned her away. She didn't know if she'd be able to bear it if he rejected her again, and yet, would she be able live with herself if she didn't take the chance?

"Mac?" His voice, full of hope, fear, and determination, jarred her from her thoughts, and she dragged her eyes back to him, her heart slipping out of her mouth almost before she had a chance to realize it was gone.

"You."

Later, she would think of the single whispered word as a kind of metaphysical break, its sound marking the distinct end of one existence and the equally distinct beginning of another. At that precise moment, however, she wasn't thinking at all, because Harm had dragged her into his arms with a low groan that somehow made her toes curl at the same time it made her stretch like a cat, pushing up and against him in a move that caused his hold on her to tighten as his head dipped toward hers.

The kiss they shared was sparks and sunshine, fireworks and moon glow. He held her close, his hands first smoothing and then roaming; his body firm and taut against hers. Partly convinced she would melt into a puddle at his feet, and partly convinced she would explode into flame, Mac wrapped her arms around his neck and clung for dear life, one hand buried in the short hair at his nape, the other tightly gripping his shoulder. The kiss, wonderful, and magical, and life affirming, lasted until an owl hooted from the trees, calling to its mate in the deep darkness of night. Slowly, Harm pulled away from her, and Mac couldn’t help a small sound of protest at the loss. When he brought up one hand to gently trace the outline of her cheek, she leaned into him with a sigh and sensed the smile it brought to his lips.

"Something funny?" she asked, her voice low and throaty despite her best efforts.

"No." She noticed with some satisfaction that his voice didn't sound much steadier than her own.

"Then what are you smiling about?"

"Us. This. Everything." He framed her face with his hands, then tilted it so that their heads were just inches apart, his breath fanning the hair at her temple. When he spoke, his voice was a prayer, a devotion, and a promise.

"I love you, too."

The words she had never expected to hear from him arced through her body, coming to rest in her heart with an explosion of happiness that brought tears to her eyes, and she ducked her head, burrowing into his chest and hugging him fiercely. His arms wrapped around her in response, holding her against him as though trying to force both of their souls into one skin.

They stood that way for a long time, neither wanting the moment to end, neither wanting reality to intrude on their moment of magic. But eventually the deepening darkness and dropping temperature forced Mac back to the present, and she leaned back in his arms, noting with pleasure his obvious reluctance to let her go.

"I just realized something."

"Hmmm?" God. That voice. A voice that sexy should be on the federal list of controlled substances. The things it did to her were positively indecent.

"I'm starving." No matter how delightful his kiss had been, it hadn't done a thing for her empty stomach, which chose that exact moment to rumble demandingly, causing both of them to laugh.

"Come on. Let's go eat. We'll pick this up later."

"Is that a promise?" Her stomach fluttered at the thought.

"Definitely." He hugged her to him quickly, then released her to bend down and pick up their flashlights.

"Let's go eat."

Hand in hand, they moved away, the moonlit beach empty and silent behind them, their future, bright and new, ahead.

 

 

 

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