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Chapter 3

1730 Zulu (0930 Local)
Whidbey Naval Air Station
Whidbey Island, Washington

 

Mac stared up at the behemoth. The P-3C Orion was one of the Navy's less aesthetically pleasing birds, that was for sure. Bulky and lumbering, it reminded her of an ungainly prehistoric bird, seemingly outclassed by its sleekly graceful descendants. She knew though, that behind the seemingly awkward exterior lay a gold mine of sophisticated equipment that made it one of the Navy's most prized possessions. She walked around it, followed by a flight engineer who blessed her with an unending litany of the plane's attributes, most of which she'd never remember, much less need to know for the trial. She climbed the boarding ladder and entered the dim interior, vaguely amused when the close confines made her think of past submarine assignments. The engineer followed on her heels, his enthusiastic voice a youthful counterpoint to her thoughts.

"This girl's a hunter, Ma'am. She's the eyes and ears of the Navy. P-3's have served in Rwanda, Mogadishu, Somalia, and Desert Storm. This particular bird flies aerial reconnaissance over the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii through the Bering Strait and on up into the Arctic Ocean. She's a sub watcher. Hunts 'em down, keeps an eye on 'em, makes sure nobody's up to any mischief."

"Too bad she can't spot mischief inside her own hold," said Mac under her breath. "Master Chief, can you show me where NCIS located the alleged contraband?"

"Yes, Ma'am. Follow me."

As they walked through the plane, her tour guide continued to regale her with praise for the Orion, and Mac took mental notes of anything that might be useful for the trial. More than once she shook her head at the stupidity and arrogance of the man who jeopardized the safety of this highly sophisticated aircraft in order to mule drugs.

They reached the aft section of the plane, and the master chief bent down to pry open a loose panel, revealing a narrow opening the size of a paperback book.

"This is it?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"It's a pretty small space. Is this all NCIS found?"

"It's deeper then it looks, Ma'am, but as far as I know, yes, it's all they found."

"Hmm…" Her tone was noncommittal. She'd have to talk to Gibbs. Granted, the opening was big enough to hold several thousand dollars’ worth of the drug, but she'd had the impression Mercer had been ferrying more than that.

"Thank you, Master Chief. That's all I need from you today. I may need you to come out for the trial, but I'll speak with your CO about the arrangements."

"Yes, Ma'am."

He excused himself and left her to finish her inspection. She spent a few minutes wandering through the empty plane, noting the complicated instruments and the sonar buoys ready to be deployed, then turned to go aft again, pausing at the sound of footsteps on the ladder. A moment later, a familiar dark head popped through the hatch, and she grinned. Something about planes always made him act like a little boy. Harm looked around and whistled, obviously impressed by the array of sophisticated instrumentation that met his eyes. Then his gaze settled on her, and the whistle died on his lips, replaced by a warm smile.

"Just the person I was looking for," he said.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I had a question for you, but I seem to have forgotten what it was." He looked a little sheepish at that, and she laughed outright.

"Devil got your tongue, Harm?"

"Something like that." He grinned at her and she decided a change of subject was in order.

"Have you finished your interviews?"

His expression turned serious as he remembered what it was he had to ask her.

"I need to see your witness list before I can answer that. Have you compiled it yet?"

"Not yet. I hope to get it finished this afternoon. Can you wait on it?"

"I guess, but the sooner I can get a peek at it the sooner I can finish up."

"I'll hurry. I know you need to get back before Mattie gets home."

"Thanks." His head disappeared, then reappeared, the devilish grin once more making an appearance.

"Have I told you lately that I love you?" he asked.

"Not since last night." Mac couldn't help the smile in her voice. They'd parted reluctantly after dinner the night before, as though by some tacit agreement they'd decided not to rush the development of their newly acknowledged feelings, and she hadn't seen him this morning because she'd had an early appointment with the flight engineer.

"I do, you know."

She fought the urge to reach out to him, settling for a smile instead.

"I know."

He grinned and disappeared, and with a sigh, she turned back to her work. She walked back to the loose panel where Mercer had hidden the drugs and lay down on her stomach beside it, stretching her arm in and down to run her fingers along the inside corners and edges. She worked by touch alone, the dim interior light and awkward position making it impossible for her to see the place her fingers explored. The master chief had been right. The space he'd shown her had appeared small but now, as she stretched her hand to reach the bottom corners, she realized that it really was quite deep.

Something fluttered against her hand, and she twisted her arm, grasping it gently between two fingers so that she could pull it out. She sat back and looked at her find, puzzled as to why NCIS had missed it during the evidence collection process. The tiny scrap of paper looked like part of a fancy cocktail napkin, a portion of the logo still intact. It was red and gold, and the letters "GEN" were stenciled across it in raised white letters. The heavyweight paper reminded her vaguely of the napkins she'd had printed up for her aborted wedding to Mic. Unsure what it meant, or if it meant anything at all, she pocketed the scrap and stood up. She'd pass it on to Special Agent Gibbs and see if he and his crew could come up with any useful information from it.

 

2245 Zulu (1445 Local)
Whidbey Naval Air Station
Whidbey Island, Washington

 

Mac glared at the young petty officer who sat across from her at the conference table.

"Look. You can tell me what you know about Lieutenant Mercer and earn yourself a reduced sentence, or we can throw the book at you. Your choice."

"Ma'am, I swear. I don't know anything."

Mac rolled her eyes, unimpressed with the innocent act.

"Where did you get the drugs?"

"From Lieutenant Mercer, Ma'am, but he didn't tell me what it was. Just said it'd help make the time pass during the long flight home from Copenhagen."

"And you didn't think to ask him what it was?"

"No, Ma'am. He was my commanding officer for the flight. It didn't occur to me to question him."

Mac sighed. Every once in a while she met a sailor who didn't seem to be able to think for himself. This looked like one of those times.

"Did you pay for the pill?"

"No, Ma'am. He just gave it to me. Said to let him know what I thought of it."

"Did you see him offer them to anybody else?"

"Just Ensign Fremont, Ma'am. And you already know about him."

"Yes, I do."

Fremont had been just as clueless as Petty Officer Long. It didn't look like either one would be much help to her case.

"Well, Petty Officer, this is a first offense, and it doesn't sound like you really knew what you were getting into, so you might hope for a light sentence. I'm not handling your case directly, but I'll speak with the JAG assigned and let her know that you were cooperative."

"Yes, Ma'am. Thank you, Ma'am."

The young man, obviously frightened and worried for his future, couldn't do enough to thank Mac, and she sighed with relief when he was escorted out of the room. She felt for the young Petty Officer, aware that he'd fallen into this mess mostly through his own gullibility, and she was relieved that his involvement wasn't any deeper than it was. As far as she could tell right now, Mercer hadn't involved any of his crewmates in his drug trafficking scheme, choosing instead to go it alone, probably to avoid having to share the profits.

Thinking about profits reminded Mac that she hadn't seen Mercer's bank records, and she made a mental note to request those from NCIS first thing Monday morning. It was a safe bet that they'd rounded up every conceivable scrap of financial information and would be able to tell her more about the lieutenant's banking habits than she'd ever learn by staring at copies of his bank statements.

She spent the next two hours making lists of the things she still needed to do before she'd be ready for trial, and transcribing her conversation with Petty Officer Long. When she finally finished, she was pleased with her efforts, and even better, aware that she'd finished the work she needed to do here in Washington. She was ready to go home.

Since today was only Friday and their flight out wasn't scheduled until tomorrow afternoon, she found herself hoping that Harm was nearly finished with his investigation, too. She'd never visited this part of the country before, and a little down time before leaping into the trial would be a welcome relief. She returned her notes to her briefcase and stood, stretching out the kinks in her back and legs and rolling the tension out of her shoulders.

An hour later she sat on her bed, files spread out around her, notebook in her lap, and a cold drink by her side. She wrote quickly, mentally organizing and reorganizing data as she went, working out the best order of presentation for her case. She knew she still had some gaps, but her case was coming together, and she felt fairly confident that with another few days of prep time she'd be ready. She looked up from her notes at the knock on her door, then set aside her pad and went to open it, not surprised to find her partner standing on the other side.

"Hey. May I come in?"

"Sure. Just give me a sec to clean up these files."

She closed the door part way, knowing that he'd understand her ethical obligations, and put away her files, tucking them neatly back into her case. When she opened it again, the movement chased a faraway look from his eyes, and she wondered what he'd been thinking.

"How's your case coming along?" he asked, when she shut the door behind him.

"Great. I've pretty much finished all I can do out here. I'm looking forward to a day off before we head back."

"Me, too. Thanks for getting that witness list to me earlier. It was a big help."

"No problem."

"Listen, I had an idea. Are you interested?"

"Depends on what it is." She gave him a wary look.

"I thought we could head in to the city tonight. Maybe grab some dinner somewhere? That way we don't have to get up quite so early in the morning."

"Harm, our flight isn't until 1430. We wouldn't have to get up early even if we stayed here."

He shrugged. "I've never visited Seattle. It'd be nice to see the sights."

Mac rolled her eyes at him. It drove her crazy when he used that tone of voice on her. He knew she couldn't resist it; probably also knew it was twice as effective in light of last night's confessions.

"Okay. Just give me a minute to pack up."

Her acquiescence drew a wide smile from Harm.

"I'll meet you at the car in five."

"'Kay."

He was gone before she could ask what he had in mind for dinner, but she shrugged and began folding her things into her duffle bag. She'd find out soon enough.

They were on their way in record time, and Mac relaxed back into her seat, cocooned in an exciting, yet oddly peaceful feeling now that she was alone with him again. The next eighteen hours belonged to them, and she planned to enjoy every minute of it.

She looked over at him, his features dearer to her and somehow more familiar than her own. An extraordinary magic or a higher power had stepped in on their behalf last night, and something she'd never thought possible had somehow come to pass. She wasn't sure where destiny would lead them from here, but she was pretty certain the ride would be an interesting one.

"What?"

He'd caught her staring, and she turned her gaze quickly to the window.

"Nothing."

"Uh huh…Why don't I believe you?"

"I was just thinking about how much has happened this week."

He reached for her hand, folding it into his larger one with a new confidence. Gone was the tentative touch of their trip to Norfolk. The way he held her now had a sense of possession to it, of ownership. She decided she liked the feeling, and squeezed his hand gently in reply.

"Did you ever think we'd get to this point?" he asked.

"No, actually. I didn't. I was fairly convinced there'd been too many wrong turns along the way."

"Where do you think we made our first mistake?"

"Are you sure you want to go down that road?" She wasn't certain this was a good idea. Their relationship still felt so new, like a newly hatched butterfly with untried wings.

"Mac, I want to put the ghosts to rest. We made a start last night, but there are still some shadows to chase. Do you mind?"

She thought about that for a while, but ultimately decided that if she was going to have to jump off a cliff before they could fly, she'd rather do it now and get it over with.

"Our first mistake?"

"Yeah."

"I think that one was mine."

"What was it?" He glanced at her curiously before turning his eyes back to the road.

"I think it was when you went back to flying."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I couldn't believe you would make a decision like that without including me."

"I'm sorry for that, Mac. I guess I was afraid you'd try to talk me out of it, and I didn't think I could bear to see the look of disappointment on your face when you realized how determined I was."

"You were determined, all right. Are you glad you did it?"

"Went back on flight status, you mean?"

"Yeah."

He considered that while he paid the toll for the ferry and drove into line behind the few other cars that were waiting for the next transport to the mainland.

"Yes. I am glad. I needed it to end on my terms. I needed to put Mace's ghost to rest."

"I can understand that."

Comfortable silence settled over them for a few minutes while Harm drove onto the ferry and they settled in for the short trip across the sound. By tacit consent, they didn't leave the car, choosing instead to remain in the bubble of privacy that seemed so comfortable just then.

"I think the next mistake was mine," he finally said quietly.

"Which mistake was that?"

"Sydney."

Images washed over Mac. Memories of that long ago trip that had spiraled them both into new trajectories, though for vastly different reasons.

"I think we both made mistakes there, Harm." Her voice, soft and sad, drifted through the empty space between them, landing on his ears like raindrops.

"What happened, Mac?"

"I'm still not sure."

"That night on the ferry, when I said 'not yet.’ What did you think I meant?"

"I thought you meant you weren't ready to let go of Diane. I thought…" She turned away, but he reached across and caught her chin, turning her back to him.

"Mac. I need to know. I need to understand what happened."

"I was hurt, Harm. I felt rejected. It'd been more than three years since Diane died and you still couldn't let her go. I guess I decided I couldn't fight a ghost anymore."

"So that's why you went to Mic?"

"Part of it. I didn't want to spend my life alone. I was so sick of being alone, and when you turned me away…I don't know. I guess I gave up on us."

"I'm sorry, Mac. I never meant to hurt you."

She turned her body, angling toward him to get a better look at his face.

"I've never asked you this before, but what did you mean?"

"By not yet?"

"Yeah."

It was his turn to think about choices and consequences, and Mac gave him time, knowing it wasn't always easy to find the right words and then arrange them in a manner that would make some kind of coherent sense.

"I didn't mean it the way you took it, I can tell you that."

"So I gather."

His faint grin was sardonic, but he quickly turned serious again.

"Mac, even then I knew that there was the potential for something special between us, something few people are lucky enough to find. My 'not yet' didn't actually have anything at all to do with Diane. You'd banished her a long time before that trip."

"Then what was it?"

"I just… didn't want ambiance to be the reason we started something serious. I didn't want an ephemeral affair in the golden sun down under. I wanted more than that. I still do."

"Wow." It wasn't much, but it was the best she could manage just then. Harm seemed to understand, though, because his hold on her hand tightened again, and he reached across to tuck a stray hair behind her ear.

"Yeah. I think it was a perfect example of total communication meltdown."

"What a mess we both made. I ended up with Mic. You found Renee…"

"And neither person was right for us."

"No. They weren’t. They would have been great for each other, though."

Harm laughed.

"You noticed that, too?"

"Yeah. Kind of an odd thing to notice, isn't it? I mean there I was, engaged to Mic, and I couldn't stop thinking what a perfect match he'd be for Renee."

They shared a grin before Harm turned serious again.

"That brings us to the next mistake."

"Which was?"

"The night Brumby left."

"We talked about that last night, remember?"

"I know, I just thought we should include it as one of our bends in the road."

"Well, it was that."

Harm started the car back up as the ferry bumped into the dock, and they waited their turn in companionable silence. Soon they were back on the highway, speeding toward Seattle in surprisingly light traffic, and Mac decided it was time to pick up the thread of their conversation.

"I think the next one was mine."

A gently raised eyebrow was his only response, so Mac took a deep breath and plunged in.

"The Guadalcanal."

"Mac, I think that was another time when we both screwed up."

"Maybe, but I think I did the most damage. I couldn't sit still long enough to hear what you had to say. I was just so… mixed up. I only knew that there was no way I was going to fight Renee for you."

"I wish you had stayed around to listen to my answer."

"Your answer?"

"You asked me if I'd be willing to give up Renee for you."

"I remember. You hemmed and hawed and I finally got fed up and left."

"Just in time to miss my reply."

"What did you say?"

He glanced over at her, catching her eye for an instant before directing his attention back to the road. His answer, delivered in a low voice, made her wish she could turn back the clock.

"I said I would. I would have given her up."

Mac caught her breath. A split second decision, made in a moment of absolute frustration and pain, had cost her years. She shook her head at her folly. Sometimes she hated that penchant she seemed to have acquired for always seeing the worst in him.

"I'm sorry," she said, her voice simultaneously sad and sincere. "I didn't know."

"I realize that. It's ok, Mac. It's behind us now."

"Is it?"

"What do you mean?"

"Think about it, Harm. How many times have we done this? How many times have we screwed things up? What makes us so sure we can get it right this time?"

He didn't answer her. Instead, he checked his mirrors and then pulled off the highway, coming to a stop on the shoulder. He put the car in park and turned to her, his expression serious.

"This time is different, Mac."

"How? How is it different? It's still you. It's still me. We're both just as hard-headed now as we ever were."

Her voice rose slightly despite herself. The thought of losing him tore at her, causing a faint tinge of fear to edge her words. Harm, however, seemed totally unaffected. He merely reached for her hands and waited for her to run out of steam.

"It's different because this time we know we love each other."

That stopped her tirade mid-thought. He was right. Before, they'd each been living their lives as individuals. Now, they were two parts of a couple, and somehow that simple fact changed things immeasurably. She took a deep breath and offered him a smile.

"You've got a point there."

His lips twitched.

"You think?" he asked.

"Don't go getting cocky. It's just one point."

"Hey. One point is still one point. I'll take it."

"Good. Now. Think you can get this thing moving again?"

"I suppose, but you'll have to pay the toll." His smile was wider now, almost wolfish.

"Toll?"

He leaned towards her, his intentions clear, and Mac felt her heart skip a beat even as her mouth curved into a smile. She met him halfway, accepting the gentle caress and returning it with one of her own. Then he sat back, shifted the car into gear, and began to whistle "Anchors Aweigh" as he merged back into the traffic. Mac relaxed into her seat for the rest of the drive, content to let the remaining miles pass in shared silence.

 

0310 Zulu (1910 Local)
The Edgewater Hotel
Seattle, Washington

 

When Harm pulled up in front of the hotel, Mac couldn't suppress a gasp of awe. The Edgewater was beautiful, located right on the waterfront, and obviously very high class.

"Harm? Are you sure about this?"

He smiled gently at her, his eyes warm.

"I've never been more sure of anything in my life."

The valet opened her door, and she stepped out onto the walk, waiting patiently while Harm handed over the keys, collected their duffle bags, and came to her side.

"You ready?"

"You knew I'd cave, didn't you?"

"What do you mean?" He had that innocent kid look about him again, and Mac folded her arms and spread her feet shoulder width apart, refusing to take another step until she got some answers.

"You had to have made a reservation, or we wouldn’t be here."

"What can I say?" He shrugged his shoulders and offered a crooked grin. "I'm an optimist?"

"Harm, this place must cost a fortune!"

"I happen to think you're worth it." His voice, low and rough, sent a tremor up her spine. He grinned suddenly, and tapped her lightly on the nose. "Don't worry, though. Your virtue is safe. At least, it is as long as you want it to be." His predatory grin made her laugh.

He gestured toward the door, drawing her attention to the uniformed attendant who patiently held it open for them, and with a roll of her eyes and a shake of the head, she gave in. One thing she'd learned in her years of knowing Harm. Some battles just weren't worth fighting.

They approached the registration desk side by side, Harm still carrying both duffle bags, despite a halfhearted attempt on Mac's part to get hers back.

"May I help you, Sir?"

The clerk's voice distracted Mac from the bay view, and she turned her attention to the pretty girl on the other side of the counter who was all but swooning over Harm. Feeling suddenly proprietary, she linked her arm through his, and earned herself a raised eyebrow and a grin in response.

"Harmon Rabb Junior. I have a reservation."

The clerk took her dewy eyes off of him long enough to type a few words into her computer.

"Here it is. Two rooms, right?"

"One," said Mac, firmly. "We don't really need two rooms, do we, dear?" She batted her eyelashes at Harm, and had the perverse pleasure of watching him swallow painfully before he answered.

"Are you sure, Mac?"

She dropped the pretense, her voice soft and serious.

"I've never been more sure of anything in my life." She gave his words back to him, and knew that he recognized her comment for what it was, a commitment, a promise, a gift of her faith and trust. Her eyes locked on his, and everything else faded away, replaced for those few seconds by the absolute certainty that they were the only two people on the planet.

"Sir?"

Harm started slightly at the clerk's voice, and Mac allowed herself a small satisfied smile as he turned back to the star-struck girl.

"Yes?"

"If you'll just sign here, please? And I'll need your credit card."

"Oh. Right." He reached into his pocket and handed over the small piece of plastic, then scribbled his name and accepted the pass card the clerk handed to him.

"You're in room 447. Take the elevator to the fourth floor. Turn right. Your room is the third one on the left."

"Bay view?"

"As you requested, Sir." The clerk's smile was bright, if a little whimsical, and Mac couldn't help the joy that whispered through her at the knowledge that Harm belonged to her. She felt the clerk's green eyes follow them all the way to the elevator, felt Harm's proprietary touch on her lower back as they moved, and knew a happiness that she gathered in close to her heart.

Their room was beautiful, decorated in a subtle nautical theme that Mac knew Harm would appreciate. She moved across to the window and pulled the curtains open, stunned at the vista that opened up before her. The hotel was positioned so that from where she stood, it looked for all the world like they were floating on water, and for a few moments, she simply stood and watched the boats, big and small, as they wandered across the bay. The sun was setting in another spectacular display that reminded her of the prior night's visit to Deception Pass and she couldn't help thinking that this time of day would always make her think of Harm.

He came to stand behind her then, sliding his arms around her waist and pulling her back against the firmness of his lean body while he dropped his head to nuzzle her neck. She looked down at his strong forearms where they rested just below her breasts, and caught her breath at the intimate contact that was both just right and somehow not enough. His low voice at her ear, accompanied by the tiniest nibble of her earlobe, convinced her that until this moment she'd never really been touched by a man.

"Are you okay with this, Mac?"

"It was my idea, as I recall." She tilted her head, giving him better access, fully aware that the huskiness of her voice communicated more effectively then the words themselves ever could.

"Yes, but you were just marking your territory. I won't hold you to it." He nuzzled a particularly sensitive spot just behind her ear, and she shivered, causing his arms to tighten around her in response.

She twisted around to look up at him, only mildly abashed.

"You saw that, huh?"

"You weren't exactly subtle, Mac." His lips quirked with masculine humor, and she suspected she'd inadvertently given his pride a boost it didn't really need.

"Neither was she."

"To be honest, I didn't notice." He dropped a feather light kiss at her temple, and one of his hands started to wander lazily up her back, tracing the contour of her spine.

She didn't believe him, and her expression must have given that away because he chuckled low in his throat.

"There's only one woman I notice, Mac. It's been that way for a long time."

"Oh really?" Her voice had dropped, deepening to something just shy of sultry, and she reached up to trace the v-neck of his shirt, careful to avoid skin to skin contact, certain she would go up in flames if, no…when, she crossed the line, because she had every intention of crossing that line with him tonight, of finally giving in to the desire that had plagued her for years.

"Really." He anchored her to him with one arm and buried his other hand in the silky strands of her hair, then dropped his head to taste the spot where her shoulder met her neck. In response, she tugged at the back of his shirt, freeing it so that she could reach bare skin, then moaned in pleasure at the delightful feel of his muscled torso beneath her palm. A surge of feminine satisfaction curled through her when he shuddered and drew in a ragged breath.

"Mac." His voice, low and husky, rumbled delightfully in her ear.

"Hmmm?"

"If we don't stop this, I can't guarantee you'll get dinner."

"That'd be bad, wouldn't it."

"Probably."

"Hmm…" she said again, though she wasn't feeling particularly concerned at the moment.

Harm brought his hand around to cradle her cheek, then tilted her face so that he could see her eyes.

"Mac…"

"Has anybody ever told you that you talk too much?" she asked, though her voice sounded uneven to her own ears. "Wouldn't you rather kiss me?"

 

Chapter 4

 

"Is that an invitation?" The corners of his mouth twitched up.

"No. It's an order."

"Pulling rank, Colonel?" Humor and passion warred for dominance in his voice, and she dragged her eyes up from his lips, only to lose herself in the intensity of his gaze. There was something there that she'd never seen directed at her before, and it had the interesting and altogether delightful effect of turning her insides to jello. Then his head dipped toward her in an agonizingly slow movement that made her forget to breathe, and she froze in his arms, all of her attention focused on his face as it moved closer to her own. Unable to help herself, she stretched toward him, but he only smiled and feathered light kisses across her forehead and down her cheek.

Two could play at that game. Mac smoothed her hand up his side and across his chest, delighting in the solid feel of him, awed and amazed that she was finally free to give in to an urge that had often plagued her imagination. She lingered there for a moment, tracing patterns with her fingernails until she coaxed a low groan from him. Then she slid her hand back down, snaked it under his shirt, and walked her fingers up his rib cage.

"Mac…" The word rumbled through his chest beneath her hand, then exited his throat on a whisper of air that stirred the hair above her ear and sent a shiver down her spine. Reflexively, she wrapped her arms around him again, pulling herself closer as she dropped her head back. His arm came around her shoulders then, pillowing her head as his mouth crashed down on hers, all pretense of patience and subtlety abandoned in the sudden rush of fire that swept over them both, consuming them in a blaze that narrowed their world to one of sensation; of touch, and taste, and smell, and whispered words of love that only served to fan the flame to greater heights.

Later, Mac would have been hard pressed to tell the details of that first time together. Eight years of wanting had coalesced into an experience so intense as to be almost unbearable, her existence so closely bonded to his that for the first time she knew what poets and song writers meant by the phrase 'perfect love'. To be fair, there were moments of awkwardness, moments when passion overcame finesse, and one or the other of them had to make a subtle course correction, but rather than distracting from the experience, those occasions only made it more perfect, more real. When at last the final explosion roared through them, it swept with it all the pain and misunderstandings that plagued their past, leaving in its wake a peace and happiness that surpassed anything either had ever felt before.

As Mac slowly returned to reality, she found herself held close in Harm's arms, one leg curled between his, her head pillowed on his shoulder. She played idly with the damp, silky strands of hair on his chest while she waited for inspiration to strike. She knew she should say something, felt the silence between them stretch until it was almost palpable, but words failed her. What they had just shared had been beyond anything she had ever experienced, beyond any adjective she could pull out of her still muddled brain.

Harm was the first to speak, though she noticed in a self-satisfied way that his mouth worked silently a few times before he was finally able to activate his voice box.

"That was… incredible."

She propped herself on an elbow and traced the outline of his lips with her finger, surprised when his gentle nip sent a jolt through the body she'd thought couldn't possibly desire any more attention.

"I kind of enjoyed it myself. Want to try again?"

Her grin was impish, but she swallowed it in a hurry when Harm flipped her on her back and loomed over her, his own expression one of pure lust.

"Ready when you are, Marine."

"You have got to be joking."

He grinned and dropped a kiss on the end of her nose before collapsing onto the bed beside her and pulling her securely back into his arms.

"You'd better believe it," he said, after he'd arranged her to his satisfaction. "I think I need to start working out more. You set a deadly pace, woman."

"Speak for yourself, Flyboy."

He chuckled, and the sound tickled her cheek where it lay against his chest, drawing an answering smile in reply.

They were quiet for a while then, both savoring the utter relaxation that comes of being well and truly loved.

"Damn!"

The abrupt expletive caused Mac to prop herself on her elbow again, a curious look on her face.

"What's wrong?"

"Mac, I'm sorry. I screwed up."

"What do you mean?"

Instead of answering, he reached for his wallet, still tucked into the pocket of the jeans that had been discarded somewhat haphazardly beside the bed. When he pulled out a familiar foil packet with a sheepish expression on his face, Mac couldn't help herself, and burst into delighted laughter.

"What's so funny?"

"I didn't even think about protection. If you'll recall, we were a little…eager."

His grin turned smug.

"We were, weren't we." Then the smile disappeared and his expression became serious again. "Mac, I'm truly sorry."

"Don't worry about it, Harm. I'm on the pill. Have been for years." Then a thought occurred to her and she raised an eyebrow at him, biting back a grin. "You don't have any strange diseases, do you?"

His answer came in the form of a thrown pillow, and the fight was on. Harm was bigger, but Mac was fast and sly, ducking under and around his defenses at every opportunity. Twice the bedside lamp almost hit the floor, both times rescued by quick thinking and a willingness to take a sucker shot. The third time, they weren't so lucky. The lamp crashed to the floor and shattered, bringing an instant end to the impromptu battle as they knelt, shoulder to shoulder, on the edge of the mattress to survey the damage. Mac turned her head to look at Harm, a mischievous expression on her face.

"Now see what you did?"

"Me! You were the one that knocked it off the table…"

"You started it." At her smug reply and teasing grin he wrapped an arm around her and tumbled both of them back to the bed, pinning her body beneath his own in a move that brought them nose to nose, both still breathing hard from their pillow fight. And all at once, Mac's heart began to race for reasons that had nothing at all to do with pillow fights and everything in the world to do with the man who held her in his arms.

She gave in to temptation and pulled him in for a kiss, her lips moving softly against his while her hands buried themselves in his hair. Their loving was gentle this time; slow, and languid, and full of new discoveries and sighs of delight. When at last it was over, and she lay once more in his arms, Mac knew that nothing would ever induce her to let this man get away from her again. She had never in her entire life felt this treasured, this accepted, or this adored. She drifted into pleasant dreams, secure in the knowledge that she was truly and absolutely loved.

Several hours later, a cramp in Harm's arm roused him from a deep sleep. He smiled as he realized the reason for the cramp. Mac had turned in her sleep, spooning herself into him and wrapping his arm around her, snuggling it between her breasts the way a small child cuddles a favorite stuffed toy. They had neglected to close the curtains earlier, and now the light of a nearly full moon flooded into the room, suffusing her features with a pale glow that seemed almost fairy-like to him.

He eased his arm from beneath her, stifling a groan at the inevitable tingling that signaled a return of circulation. He knew it would be a while before the needle prickles would allow him to rest again, so he contented himself with watching her sleep, convinced that the fall of her lashes against her cheek was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Her skin, so unbelievably soft, called to him, her siren's song completely irresistible, even in slumber. Ever so gently, he reached to tuck a strand of hair behind one delicate ear, then rested his hand on her shoulder, amazed all over again at the paradox that was Mac. She was stronger than almost anybody he'd ever met, and also as delicate as fine lace.

She stretched in his arms and rolled toward him, her eyes blinking open in a manner that reminded him of a cat waking up from an afternoon nap in the sunshine.

"Hi."

"Hi yourself." He smiled at her, then traced his finger down the center of her face from forehead to chin, pleased when she caught his hand and brought it to her lips for a kiss.

"Are you hungry?" he asked. "I could call room service."

"That sounds heavenly." She stretched again, and Harm fought his body's instant response. "I think I'll take a bath while we wait." With a total lack of self-consciousness, she slipped from the bed, picked up her duffle bag, and padded to the bathroom, her every action seemingly calculated to drive him wild. The tactic, deliberate as it was, was also highly effective, and Harm stifled a groan as he flopped back to his pillow, only to sit bolt upright again at her sudden burst of delighted laughter.

"What's so funny?"

"Come see!" she called, merriment adding sparkle to her voice. When he arrived at the bathroom door, she was bent over the tub, adjusting the water temperature and adding something to the running water that was sending fragrant steam wafting into the air. He caught his breath at the sight, and it hit him that working with her was about to get a lot more complicated. He'd have to master levels of control that he never could have conceived of before. She turned then, caught the longing expression on his face, lobbed it back to him with a wink, and held up her discovery. His budding passion disappeared, replaced by laughter.

"Where'd that come from?"

"It was here, on the edge of the tub!"

"You're joking."

"Nope."

She squeezed the small yellow duck. It squeaked obligingly, and they laughed at it.

"Do you suppose the admiral's figured out who put them in the water cooler?" he asked, still chuckling.

"No idea. Do you know who it was?"

"Nope. We were together all morning that day, remember?"

"Yeah. I remember." A shadow flickered across her face so quickly he almost thought he'd imagined it. Then she turned and stepped into the steaming bathwater, sliding into it with a contented sigh that was almost a purr.

"Enjoy your bath. I'll go see what I can scrounge up for us to eat."

He turned and left, humming softly under his breath. From behind him, Mac's voice chimed in.

"Rubber ducky, you're the one. You make bath time, lots of fun."

She continued to sing softly and he grinned while he hunted down the room service menu and placed their order. She segued to a lilting melody he didn't recognize and was still humming happily when room service arrived.

They ate by the window, their only light the moon and a single snow white candle. They'd worked up healthy appetites, and their conversation consisted mainly of appreciative comments about the food and offers to share this bite or that of some particularly delightful dish. When they'd finished, Harm took a shower and they brushed their teeth standing side by side at the sink, exactly like an old married couple, and the idea made them smile at each other in the mirror. Then he took her hand and led her back to bed, tucking her in beside him and pulling the covers up to her chin before he settled into his own pillow, contented in ways he'd never imagined it was possible to be.

The morning dawned gray and misty, as many Seattle mornings do, and Harm awoke slowly, pleasure winging through him when the first thing that greeted him was a pair of chocolate colored eyes and a warm feminine body snuggled close to his side. He had no idea how long she'd been watching him, but he knew she was a light sleeper and, that strangest of creatures, a morning person, so he suspected that she'd been awake for quite a while. He pulled her in for a soft kiss, unsurprised when even that light contact caused his heart to skip a beat and his body to spring to readiness. It occurred to him that if Mac ever became aware of her power over him she'd take shameless advantage of the fact, but somehow he didn't care.

"Good morning." His voice, rough with sleep, made her smile.

"Morning."

"What time is it?"

"It's early yet. 0617."

"Good." He couldn't resist. He had to feel the softness of her skin beneath his fingers again. He reached for her, running his hand down her arm, delighted at the slight shiver that rippled just beneath the surface of her skin.

She had to swallow before she could speak again. "Why?"

"Because it means we still have some time before we have to catch our flight."

Her eyes sparkled with mischief when she answered. "You're right. We could visit a museum, take a walk…Hey! I know! We can visit the Experience Music Project! I've heard it's pretty impressive."

"We could…but I have a better idea." He was not to be deterred. His hand skimmed across the smoothness of her stomach, and he smiled when he heard her soft intake of breath and saw her chest rise convulsively.

"You do?" Her voice was a mere whisper now as her hands began an expedition of their own.

"Yeah." He inhaled sharply as her clever fingers discovered a particularly sensitive part of his anatomy.

Her smile was smug, knowing. "Tell me."

"I'd rather show you."

She lay back on the pillows, stretched luxuriously, and smiled at him.

"So show me…"

They ended up nearly missing their flight again, but this time when they collapsed into their seats, they shared a smile full of warmth and humor.

Once they were airborne, Mac released her seatbelt and angled her body toward Harm's.

"You know, there's something we have to talk about."

"What's that?"

"Mattie? The Admiral? Our friends at JAG?"

"Oh."

"What do you want to do?"

He leered at her and she smacked his shoulder.

"You're insatiable, you know that?"

"Only with you, Mac."

She smiled and squeezed his hand, but she wasn't about to let him off the hook that easily.

"We need to figure this out, Harm."

"I'm not sure I want to tell people about us just yet."

"That could make it harder for us to spend time together."

"I can be incredibly creative when motivated."

"So I've seen." It was her turn to leer, and Harm had a hard time not kissing the look right off her face.

"We'll have to tell the admiral, though," he said, not looking forward to it.

"You're right. I wouldn't want to give Mercer grounds for an appeal."

His look was challenging.

"You seem pretty sure you'll get a conviction," he said.

"I am." Her smile was equally challenging.

"So what should we tell the admiral?"

"The truth, I guess."

"You want to tell the admiral we spent the last twelve hours making passionate love in a waterfront hotel?"

She smacked him on the shoulder again, but he just grinned unrepentantly.

"Of course not. I just think we should tell him we're…" She trailed off, unsure what label to put on their new relationship.

"Now there's a good point. What are we exactly?" he asked, raising a curious eyebrow.

"Dating?"

He mulled that over, nodded, and squeezed her hand.

"That'll do…for now."

"For now?"

"My plans are rather…longer range than dating might imply, but it'll work for the time being."

His eyes were serious as he twined his fingers with hers, but he didn't take the conversation any further. Instead he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, suddenly aware that he and Mac had done very little actual sleeping the night before. Within minutes, he was asleep.

 

1330 Zulu (0830 Local)
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia

 

A.J. leaned back in his chair, observing the two attorneys who stood stiffly at attention before him, and wondering why they looked like a pair of nervous school children who'd been caught running with scissors. He decided to wait them out; see which one of them ‘fessed up first.

The silence stretched. Apparently, neither of them wanted to be the bearer of bad news.

"Well?" he finally asked. "What is it? Is there a problem with the Mercer case?"

"No, Sir," said Harm.

"Yes, Sir," said Mac at the same time.

They exchanged guilty grins, and A.J. was immediately suspicious. It wasn't unusual for these two to disagree. It was unusual for them to smile about it. Usually when they disagreed, neither one of them was willing to give an inch to the other. Something was definitely up.

"Well? Which is it? Yes or no?" he barked, hoping to startle the truth out of them.

"Maybe, Sir?" It was Harm who finally decided to take the plunge.

"Maybe? What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"It means there's a potential problem, Sir."

"Well, don't keep me in suspense. What is it?"

Harm glanced at Mac again, but she merely shrugged helplessly. He rolled his eyes. It didn't look like she was going to be any help at all.

"Sir, while we were in Washington there were some…developments."

A.J.'s eyebrows flew up and he leaned forward.

"What kind of developments?"

"It's personal, Sir."

"If it's personal, what the hell's it got to do with the Mercer case?"

Mac stepped forward then, earning a grateful look from Harm.

"It affects the case because it's between us, Admiral."

A.J.'s chin jerked up then, dawning understanding clearing the puzzlement from his face. He stared at the two of them, focusing first on Harm, who stood straight and tall, evidently ready to take whatever punishment was about to land on his head, and then at Mac, who appeared just the tiniest bit nervous, but whose back was also ramrod straight, her chin high. Finally, he leaned back in his chair and laced his hands across his chest, fighting back a triumphant grin, determined to be properly military about it all. He couldn't resist one under the breath comment though, a comment that both officers had to strain to hear.

"Well, it's about damn time," he said. Then louder, "You're wondering if you should recuse yourselves from the case?"

"The thought did occur to us. Yes, Sir."

"Can you keep this thing out of the office?"

"Absolutely, Sir." Their voices, in chorus, had him fighting another grin.

"When's the trial?"

"It's scheduled to start on Thursday morning, Sir."

"And most of the ground work is already done?"

"Mine is, Sir," said Mac. "I just need to go over the forensic evidence."

"Same here, Sir. I'm only waiting on some discovery documents and then I should be good to go."

A.J. considered for a moment. These two were his best attorneys, and the trial, which didn't seem complicated, was just days away.

"You two are professionals. I'll trust you to keep your relationship from infringing on your duties, but if I hear so much as a hint of impropriety I'll have you both off the case and out of JAG faster then you can say surface warfare. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Good. Now get to work."

He turned back to the file that lay open on his desk.

"Sir?" Mac said, interrupting his train of thought.

He brought his head up, feigning irritation.

"Yes?"

"We're…not ready to publicize this yet. Would you mind terribly…?"

"Consider it done, Colonel. Nobody will hear about it from me."

Her sigh of relief almost made him smile again, and he ducked his head abruptly, waving them out of the room. Only after he heard the door close, the latch clicking softly into place, did he allow himself the freedom of a wide grin. He'd all but decided those two would never get their act together. Now that they had, he suspected that life at JAG was about to get very interesting indeed.

Mac followed Harm to his office.

"I need to make a trip into D.C.," she said. "There's something I need to drop off with Agent Gibbs."

"New evidence?"

"Maybe. Something I found on that P-3 at Whidbey. I'll let you know if anything comes of it."

"I know you will. Dinner tonight?"

"Depends on what I hear from Gibbs."

"O.K., then. I'll see you when you get back."

"See you."

She sighed. Now that she'd become acquainted with the feel of his lips on hers, working with him had become a new kind of agony, one that she wouldn't trade for the world, but which nevertheless might just force her into a straightjacket before all was said and done.

He grinned, evidently very aware of her frustration.

"You ok?"

"I will be."

"I intend to make sure of that, Ninja Girl." The nickname, one she hadn't heard in years, combined with the suggestive way he used it, brought a flush to her cheeks, and she backed hastily out of his office, afraid that if she didn't escape – and quickly – they’d both end up facing conduct unbecoming charges. The warm sound of his laughter followed her all the way to her car and she was still smiling as she buckled her seatbelt and pulled down the sun visor.

It was …snowing? Impossible, on a gorgeous spring day, but nonetheless, there it was. Tiny white flakes floated through the air, coming to rest in her lap, in her hair, and on the steering wheel and dashboard. When her initial surprise passed, the absurdity of her first assumption struck her, and she captured one of the tiny white slivers in her hand. It only took a second to recognize it as a discarded circle of paper from a hole punch. She shook her head like a dog coming out of water, and more of the little circles landed in her lap and on the floorboards of the car. Somebody had had some fun at her expense. She chuckled. First Harm and the elevator, then the little yellow ducks, and now this. She didn't know who had planned this particular stunt, but as she pulled out of her parking space and swung into traffic, she was already plotting her revenge.

A little while later, she pulled into the NCIS lot, checked herself over one final time, alert to the presence of any renegade "snowflakes," and stepped out of the car. Within minutes, she was escorted into the presence of Special Agent Jethro Gibbs. Mac didn't like Gibbs, hadn't liked him since he'd gone so single-mindedly after Harm when Singer was killed. She'd decided that he was the type of person who would do anything, step on anybody, in order to solve a case, so she didn't trust him and was wary of having any dealings with him that weren't absolutely necessary.

Gibbs was friendly enough when he greeted her, and Agent Dinozzo, her escort down to the forensics lab, positively oozed charm. She decided she didn't trust him, either.

Abby was a different story. She was quirky and funny and irreverent in a way Mac found amusing. She was also brilliant. When Mac pulled out the scrap of paper in its sealed plastic bag, the younger woman went straight to work, mumbling to herself about this test and that, fiber composition, dyes, and a host of other terms Mac didn't pretend to understand.

She looked over at Agent Dinozzo, and her puzzled expression made him laugh. "Don't mind her. I know she seems a little strange, but she's the best there is at what she does."

Abby looked up with a bright grin. "Why thank you, Tony. I do believe that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me." Then, "Colonel, it'll take me a few hours to analyze this. Should I have Agent Gibbs give you a call when I'm through?"

"If you would, yes. And the sooner the better. Opening arguments are scheduled for first thing Thursday morning."

"No problem. I'll get right on it."

"Thanks."

Mac turned back to Agent Dinozzo, who held the door for her to go out ahead of him. Together, they rode the elevator back up to the bullpen where Gibbs was ready with a packet of documents.

"Here's your forensic documentation. Let us know which items you need for court and we'll make sure you have them on Thursday."

"I'd rather have them today."

"We'll bring them on Thursday." He wouldn't be budged, and Mac decided not to push. After all, if he had the evidence, it'd be his fault if anything went wrong.

"Have your team there at 1230." She didn't bother explaining that the morning would be taken up with impaneling the members and opening remarks. Gibbs hadn’t gotten to where he was today without knowing a thing or two about trials. "Is there someplace I can work for a few minutes? I'd like to go through this documentation before I drive all the way back to Falls Church."

"You can use Dinozzo's desk. Just shove the clutter aside."

Mac raised an eyebrow at Gibbs' high handed manner, but the younger agent had already sprung into action, clearing his desk and offering his chair with a flourish. She shrugged her shoulders and accepted the proffered seat, and minutes later she was checking the documents, oblivious to the controlled chaos around her. She quickly identified the search warrants, chemical analysis, and surveillance authorizations. She skimmed through the paperwork, noted that everything appeared to be in order, and slipped them back into their folder, then stood and pushed the chair in. Gibbs was nowhere in sight, but she wasn't particularly disappointed about that. Agent Dinozzo wasn't far off, though, and when he saw her stand he hurried over.

"Everything in order, Colonel?"

"It appears to be, Agent Dinozzo. Looks like your team did a good job."

"Thank you, Ma'am."

"I'll be expecting a call from Agent Gibbs this afternoon, but other then that, I think I've got everything."

"Give us a call if you need anything else."

"Will do."

She left him then, her mind already fitting the final pieces of her case into place. This afternoon and tomorrow she'd finish reviewing the forensic evidence. Then she'd have Wednesday to perfect her opening remarks. She'd be glad when this was over. She wasn't looking forward to facing Harm from opposite sides of the courtroom this time. Oh, she knew she could handle it. They were both professionals, after all. Still, it would be strange, and she'd be glad to put it behind her.

When she got back to her office, she had an email message waiting for her from Harm.

"Hey, Mac. If I'm going to be ready for trial Thursday morning, I'll need the rest of your discovery documents this afternoon. If that's going to be a problem, let me know, and I'll request a short continuance. Also, the girls and I are wondering if you would join us for dinner tonight. 1730? My place? ……Harm."

She smiled. Dinner with "the girls" wouldn't be her first choice of a way to spend an evening with Harm, but it was better then not seeing him at all. She decided to copy the documents now and deliver her acceptance personally. A few minutes later, she knocked on his doorjamb, unable to hold back a smile at the sight of his dark head bent over a file, hair slightly mussed from running his fingers through it. He did not appear to be having a good time. He raised his head distractedly at her knock, then leaned back and smiled when he saw who it was.

"Did you have a good trip?" he asked.

"A productive one anyway. Here are the rest of the discovery documents."

"Did you get my e-mail?" He looked hopeful, and she considered teasing him, but decided that would be cruel. It looked like he was already having a bad day.

"Yes. I'd be happy to join you for dinner tonight. What can I bring?"

"Just yourself."

"You sure?"

"Absolutely."

"O.K., I'll see you then." She turned to go, but he called her back, a puzzled tone to his voice that made her raise an eyebrow curiously.

"Mac?"

"What?"

"Come over here for a second."

That earned him a suspicious look.

"I promise," he was quick to reassure her. "I'll behave. It's just that you have something in your hair…"

He'd stood up and come over to her while he talked. Now, he plucked something from the back of her head and held it out to her.

"Have you been playing in the recycling bin again?" There was a twinkle in his eye, and although Mac was vaguely embarrassed at having traipsed all over NCIS with confetti in her hair, she couldn't manage to be angry.

"Somebody booby trapped my car."

"Oh?" That eyebrow again. He could say more with that little strip of dark hair than most people could with an encyclopedia.

"Yeah. I pulled down my sun visor and hundreds of those things dumped out all over me."

Harm laughed at the mental image, and Mac couldn't stop a grin of her own.

"Who did that?" he asked.

"Well, I was pretty sure you did, but your innocent act is either authentic or very well played, so now I'm not sure. You can bet I'll have my revenge, though."

"Oh, I'm sure you will, Mac."

She tossed him a look as she left that made him laugh outright, and though she was tempted to stay and soak up the sound, she knew she couldn't. There was work to be done, and she'd never finish it by camping out in Harm's office, pleasant though the prospect might be.

 

 

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