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Classification JAG Story, Romance (H/M)
Length Approx 42,250 words, 125 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Anything's possible
Rating IM15 (Part 2 is AO)
Author's Notes 1: This is the sequel to "Flying High." If you've not yet read that one, or if you need a refresher course, you can find it at my website or in the Legacies archive.

2: In Back in the Saddle, TPTB decided that Blacksburg would be 100 miles from Falls Church instead of 270. Since 100 miles made this story much easier to write, we stuck with canon instead of going with reality. We also moved Front Royal, so that for purposes of this fic, it's only about 30 miles from Washington D.C..

3: Soaring Free is set within the basic parameters of season10. General Cresswell's the JAG, and Mattie's with her dad, but you won't find any mention of Vukovic, Mayfield, or Graves. There's also no mention of Mac's health issues. This story is muddy enough without throwing that into the mix.

4:  My deepest gratitude to Captain for sharing her spacious brain, to Aerogirl, for her technical knowledge and her red pen, and to Tracy for stepping in to help with the beta work on what turned out to be very short notice.

Summary Harm and Mac investigate a mysterious small plane crash.  Was it suicide?  Or was it murder....  Meanwhile, a friend from Mac's past threatens to topple her wedding plans. 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

 

 

 

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

By John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

 

 

Chapter 1


He pulled her close, and she nestled into the spot below his collar bone that seemed to have been tailor made to fit the shape of her head. Her hands wandered across his back, memorizing the feel of his body, even though after ten years of marriage, she bore his imprint on her soul. They stood like that for a long while, oblivious to curious onlookers and the passage of time. Finally, he moved his hands to her shoulders and held her slightly away from him, looking down at her with loving eyes.

"I won't be long."

"I know." She tried to smile, but she knew he could see the worry in her eyes. He dipped his head to give her a gentle kiss before he turned and climbed into the small plane that sat beside them on the tarmac.

"Pasta tonight?" he asked, as he settled himself into the pilot's seat. "Carmen's?"

She did smile, then. Carmen's was one of her favorite restaurants.

"Sounds good."

"Great. While I'm gone, you can think about which dress you want to wear. I vote for the blue." He pulled the shoulder harness into place, and then leered at her wickedly. "But if you do choose the blue, I can't guarantee we'll ever make it to the restaurant."

She laughed at him. "Then I'll make sure to wear the blue." The dress in question, a deep, shimmering, midnight blue, fit her perfectly, the silky fabric draping enticingly over breasts and hips before falling in soft waves to just below her knees.

"You'd better stand back, sweetheart. I'm ready to fire up the engine."

She stepped back with a small wave, not wanting him to go, but knowing that he needed this. He'd always been this way, apparently programmed from birth to feel most at home in the sky. She knew he did his best thinking in the air, knew also that this was why he so desperately needed to fly today, and she loved him enough to let him go, even though every minute spent apart was an agonizing torment.

She watched as he started the engine and wheeled the small experimental craft onto the runway, gradually gaining speed and then lifting off with a degree of grace that belied its man made origins.

She was turning to walk back to the car when a sound filtered back to her on the breeze. It was a small thing really, a catch, as though the tiny craft hiccupped as it climbed. She would always remember that sound, would hear it over and over in her dreams, replayed on an endless, agonizing loop. She spun back around, and the puzzled expression on her face turned to one of horror as she watched the delicate white wings tilt, the nose angling down and to the right. Unable to tear her eyes away from the unfolding nightmare, she stared, mouth open in a scream she never heard, as the tiny aircraft spiraled out of control. Flashes of white and blue blended and then separated again until, with a screech of metal and a sudden burst of flame, the doomed Long EZ plowed into the ground less than a mile from the end of the runway.


Chapter 2

0947 Local
JAG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia


Mac started to stand when she saw the general at her door, but he waved her down.

"Keep your seat, Colonel." He came in and closed the door, effectively kicking Mac's trouble radar into high alert. He handed her a file, but she did no more than glance at it before looking back up at him.

"There's a new case - a JAGMAN investigation." He raised a hand to stall her questions. "Normally, I make these assignments during staff call, but because of the delicate nature of this one, I felt I should speak to you privately."

"What is it, sir?" Mac knew the tension she felt colored her voice.

"There was an accident yesterday in Blacksburg. A Captain Terrance Clark took his kit built aircraft out for an afternoon flight. Apparently, something went wrong, and the plane crashed just after takeoff. Captain Clark died on impact."

The general was never one to sugarcoat bad news, but his blunt delivery still caught Mac off guard, and she knew why he hadn't assigned the case during staff call. It involved a Navy pilot, a plane crash, and the airfield where Harm had met Mattie all those months ago.

"Who's doing the investigation?"

"Captain Clark was on special assignment to Homeland Security. There are going to be a lot of questions. I want you and Rabb on the case."

"Yes, sir."

"The team from the National Transportation Safety Board is already out there. I'd suggest you get on this immediately."

Mac stood, already collecting a notepad, the file, and several sharpened pencils. The general opened the door, and then turned back to her, his hand still on the doorknob.

"Keep me informed, Colonel. I don't want any ugly surprises."

"We will, sir."

Moments later, Mac was sitting in Harm's office. She flipped through the slim case file while she waited for him to get off the phone.

"What's up, Mac?" He hung up and sat back in his chair, a curious expression on his face.

"We have a new case."

"We?" He looked puzzled. "The general hasn't assigned us a case together since we got engaged."

"It's a JAGMAN investigation." She paused, reluctant to continue. This case was going to push all kinds of hot buttons. "Harm… It was a Navy pilot. He crashed his private aircraft just outside Blacksburg."

Harm paled slightly.

"When?"

"Yesterday afternoon. The general wants us to get out there right away to talk to the NTSB."

Harm stood and reached for his cover. "We'd better get going, then." He gestured to Mac to lead the way.

During the long drive to the airfield, Mac went through the file, reviewing the details and filling Harm in on the case. The captain had been a career Naval officer. He'd graduated from Annapolis in the class of '79. When Mac read his duty stations Harm gave a low whistle.

"Pretty much toured the world, didn't he?"

"Looks that way. Fit reps were all top notch, too. I don't see a single ding in his record."

"How long was he with Homeland Security?"

She glanced through the file, locating the information.

"Right from the beginning. March of 2003."

"Any indication what his responsibilities were?"

Mac flipped through the pages again.

"Not that I see here. We'll have to ask his CO that one."

"Eventually. What about family?"

"Married. One child." She inhaled sharply, and Harm looked over at her.

"What?"

"It's a little girl. Audrey. She's four."

He glanced over at her, his eyes sad. "Poor kid."

"Yeah."

Mac closed the file and laid it in her lap. The tragedy of the situation had hit them both, and suddenly it seemed wrong to discuss the case like some sort of unfinished mystery novel. Harm reached over and took her hand, squeezing it in silent support before resting it on his thigh, their fingers still twined together.

When they arrived at the airport Harm maneuvered them to the accident scene with a confidence born of familiarity. The area was littered with yellow caution tape and numbered markers. An assortment of vehicles, including several dark sedans, an evidence van, and a flat bed truck, surrounded the charred wreck like vultures eyeing a corpse. To the uninitiated, things might appear chaotic. In reality, the NTSB team was highly trained, performing their duties quietly and with little wasted movement.

Harm stepped out of the car, automatically adjusting his uniform and cover – not out of vanity, but out of long experience with the destructive effects of automobiles on summer white uniforms. He watched as two people detached themselves from a group near the evidence van and started toward them – most likely the NTSB accident investigation team. He glanced over at Mac, intending to ask if she was going to bring the case file, but she had shaded her eyes and was staring hard at the approaching men.

"Thor?" Her sudden exclamation took him by surprise, and he looked over in time to see her moving quickly toward the taller of the two men.

"Noodle!"

Harm watched as Mac was swept into what looked like a bone crushing hug. He blinked, and looked again. Unbelievably, instead of berating the man for his familiarity, Mac was laughing up at him. Harm moved around the car and over to her side, openly curious.

Mac turned to him, her eyes sparkling. "Harm, I'd like you to meet Gunnar Thorsen, an old friend of mine from college." She smiled at Gunnar. "This is my partner, Commander Harmon Rabb."

Harm noticed that she'd introduced him by his rank rather than by their relationship, and even though he knew it was completely appropriate and professional, part of him wished she'd made a different choice.

Gunnar's voice rumbled out of his chest like boulders down a mountain. "Pleased to meet you, Commander." He offered his hand in greeting. Harm hesitated for a fraction of a heartbeat, the pause an obvious masculine message to the other man. Only when his message had been received and acknowledged did he accept the proffered hand. The two men had initiated, discussed, and concluded an entire conversation, and Mac hadn't been aware of any of it.

Gunnar turned back to Mac. "I see you're still a Marine."

She nodded. "I'm with JAG now."

"That's short for Judge Advocate General, isn't it?"

"Sure is."

"So you're a lawyer?"

"Right again."

Gunnar shook his head a little ruefully. "After all those debates I lost to you in college, I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

The other man cleared his throat, and Gunnar started slightly. "Good Lord," he said, "I've completely forgotten my manners. This is Edward Maybourne, my partner and the lead on this investigation." The older man stepped forward, extending his hand in polite greeting while his partner made the introductions.

"Meet Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie and Commander Harmon Rabb from the Judge Advocate General's Office."

Harm had to give the guy credit. Not only had Thorsen remembered his name, he'd gotten both his and Mac's ranks right.

"I assume you two are here because of the accident?" asked Maybourne, his tone businesslike, his back stiff with disapproval - though about what, Harm could only guess.

"We're here to handle the JAGMAN investigation," said Mac. "Are you two the NTSB investigators?"

"Yes, but I'm afraid there isn't much to tell yet."

The NTSB agents lead the way over to the crash site.

"Everything we've been told so far seems to indicate that this should've been a routine VFR flight," Maybourne said, as they approached the crumpled remains of the aircraft.

"Mrs. Clark witnessed the accident. She stated that everything seemed normal during preflight." He pointed to a spot down the runway that had been marked by a bright orange cone, "The pilot started his takeoff roll from there."

Maybourne watched a crew attach cables to the mangled aircraft preparatory to moving it to the flatbed truck. He shouted an instruction, and waited for a wave of acknowledgement from one of the crew members.

"According to Mrs. Clark," he said, turning back to Harm and Mac, "shortly after the plane left the runway there was an odd sound. She compared it to a hiccup. She says she looked back in time to see the craft tilt to the right and nose over into an uncontrolled spin. The pilot died on impact."

"Any indication of cause?" Harm asked.

"Too early to say. We'll ship the wreckage back to the lab and let the techs go over it. If there's a mechanical issue, they'll find it."

Gunnar spoke up. "We also need to do an autopsy on the pilot, but the wife is against it. We can overrule her, but …"

"Maybe we can talk to her." Mac glanced toward the main building. "Have you interviewed the airport personnel yet?"

"Yes. They said there'd been nothing unusual about yesterday's flight. Captain Clark had stated that he was only going up for about an hour under visual flight rules, so he didn't file a flight plan." Gunnar stooped to pick something up off the ground. He examined it closely before pulling out a plastic bag and placing the piece carefully inside. That done, he went on. "Apparently, Clark asked about business and chatted about the weather. As far as the controller could tell, everything was normal."

A technician approached Gunnar and his partner, and there was a brief murmured conversation. Maybourne turned to Harm and Mac. "If you'll excuse us, there's something we need to attend to."

"Certainly," Mac said. "Where can we reach you to get updates?"

Gunnar reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a business card, which he handed to Mac.

"Call me," he said. "Maybe we can have dinner together sometime – catch up on old times."

Mac smiled at him. "I'd like that."

Harm handed a card to Maybourne. "Here's our card. We'd appreciate it if you'd keep us posted."

Maybourne accepted the card, glanced at it, and put it in his pocket. "I'll do that, Commander."

The four of them shook hands again, before going their separate ways. Questions tripped over themselves in Harm's mind as he and Mac walked back to the car. Who was Gunnar? What was his history with Mac? How close had they been, and why had Harm never heard anything about him? And – how in the world had Mac ended up with Noodle for a nickname?

He waited until they were back in the car with the engine running before raising a curious eyebrow at her.

"Noodle, huh?"

"It's what Gunnar called me in college. Macaroni? Noodle?"

"I see." He considered that for a moment. "And you called him Thor."

"Harm," she said, exasperated. "It was college."

"Isn't Thor the name of a Norse God?" he asked, his tone deliberately casual.

Mac glared at him, but Harm ignored her. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers. "That's right! I remember now. Thor was the God of Thunder." He grinned at her. "As I recall, he was supposed to be a pretty powerful guy."

"Harm…" The warning tone in her voice didn't faze him.

"Were you two close?" he asked.

"We were friends." Something about the way she said it made him look at her sharply.

"Good friends?"

She stared out at the passing scenery, her expression pensive. Harm waited - patiently at first, and then with growing unease as the silence lengthened. "Mac?"

She finally turned back to him, a faraway look in her eyes. "He was the best friend I had at U. Minn."

 

Chapter 3

1500 Local
Clark Home
Front Royal, Virginia

 

The car pulled up to the curb and Mac looked at the house. The old world colonial-style home was well cared for, the grass neatly trimmed, flowers blooming prettily along the walk.

"Harm." Mac touched his arm. "Look."

A little girl sat on the front steps. Her tiny knees, peaking out from beneath a pair of dark blue shorts, formed a resting place for a rather bedraggled looking stuffed rabbit. Child and rabbit were nose-to-nose, apparently deep in conversation. Neither looked up when the two adults approached. Harm and Mac exchanged a glance, and Mac seated herself on the steps while Harm moved to the door. She was careful not to crowd the girl, not wanting to frighten her.

"Nice rabbit you've got there," she said softly. Behind her, she heard the faint chime of the doorbell. She didn't turn around.

"Have you had it for a long time?"

The little girl looked at her, her small head tilted slightly to one side, dark eyes wide and curious. "Who are you?"

"My name's Mac."

"Oh." The little girl looked back at her furry friend, running her hand down the length of one long ragged ear. "I'm Audrey," she said in a small voice.

Behind them, she heard the door open and the sounds of quiet conversation.

"That's a pretty name," said Mac, her voice still soft. "What's your friend's name?"

The little girl pulled the rabbit in closer to her chest, wrapping her arms around it in an almost desperate hug.

"This is Hoppy."

"Hello, Hoppy." Mac reached out and gently stroked one long ear. Bald patches tickled her palm. Neither one of them said anything for a few seconds.

"My daddy went away," Audrey said finally.

"I know he did, honey."

"Mommy says he's never coming back." Tears welled up in Audrey's brown eyes, and one solitary drop spilled over to trail down her cheek.

"I know that makes you sad."

"Yes. And it makes Mommy cry."

Mac glanced over her shoulder. Harm and Mrs. Clark were watching. Mrs. Clark twisted and untwisted a tissue. Her face had the tight, pinched look of grief, but she didn't say anything, only offering a small nod to Mac that she should keep talking. Mac leaned a little closer to Audrey and placed her hand on one tiny shoulder.

"When I was little, I had a favorite story about a rabbit. May I tell you about it?"

Audrey nodded and tucked herself in close against Mac's side.

"In the story," said Mac, snuggling Audrey into a one-armed hug, "a little boy had a rabbit just like yours. He had his friend for a very long time, and he loved it very much." Audrey nodded in perfect understanding, and Mac smiled down at her. "One day, the little boy got very very sick, and after his doctor had tried everything else he could think of, he decided that the little boy's toys were part of what was keeping him from getting better."

Audrey looked up at Mac. "Really?"

"Yep. And the doctor said that if the boy was ever going to get well, his parents would have to burn all of the toys in order kill the germs that were living on them."

"Even the rabbit?" Audrey squeezed her beloved toy closer to her small body.

Mac nodded. "Even the rabbit."

"He must have been very sad."

"He was. He cried. But there was no help for it. The little boy's rabbit, his best friend in the whole world, would have to go away."

Mac sensed movement behind her, and suspected that Audrey's mother was about to stop her. Then she heard Harm's whispered "Wait," and Mrs. Clark grew still again.

"What happened?" Audrey's voice was worried.

"Well, what the little boy didn't know was that a very kind fairy had seen how much the rabbit was loved. She used her magic, and all the love stored inside that toy, and she made the rabbit real. The next spring, the little boy was playing in the yard, and he happened to look up. What do you think he saw?"

"His bunny?" Audrey looked hopeful.

"Well, he wasn't really sure, but that rabbit looking at him from the other end of the garden sure did look like his rabbit. It had the same long floppy ears, and the same patchy fur, and the same bright button eyes."

The little girl was quiet. She stared down at the stuffed toy, her eyes thoughtful.

"Do you think my daddy will come back to see me?"

Mac stroked the shining hair. "I don't know that you'll ever see him, but I'd bet he's nearby."

"How do you know?"

"I don't," Mac said honestly, "but I do know that if you were my little girl I'd never be able to leave you all alone." She gave Audrey a quick hug.

"Sweetheart?" Mrs. Clark spoke from behind them, and Audrey turned around.

"Yes, Mommy?"

"Why don't you go play in your room for a few minutes? Mommy needs to talk to these people."

"About Daddy?"

"Yes, honey. About Daddy."

"O.K., Mommy."

Audrey stood up, and looked at Mac. "Bye."

"Bye Audrey. I enjoyed talking to you." The little girl went into the house, and Mac stood up. Her glance skipped across Harm's look of tender pride and settled on the grief in Mrs. Clark's eyes. She was still fumbling for something to say when the petite woman spoke.

"You're good with kids, Colonel." Her musical voice held a brittle edge that spoke of tightly controlled emotion.

"Thank you, ma'am."

"Would you like something to drink?"

"A glass of water would be nice."

"Certainly. Come inside."

The house was tidy, but not obsessively so. Mac spotted a few toys lying about, their colors bright in the darkened room. A stack of picture books adorned the oak coffee table, a rubber duck perched proudly on top. The framed photos scattered about the room told the story of a happy family.

"If you'll excuse me, I'll just be a minute." Mrs. Clark gestured at the sofa. "Please. Make yourselves comfortable."

"Can I help with anything?" Mac asked.

"No thank you. I can manage." She left the room, and Mac looked at Harm.

"I wish we didn't have to do this right now," she said in a low voice.

"I know." His eyes were warm as he looked at her. "You were incredible with Audrey."

She ducked her head, vaguely embarrassed. "Thanks."

The gentle pressure of a single long finger beneath her chin made her look up again. "You're going to be an amazing mother, Mac." His low voice sent an involuntary shiver up her spine.

There was a slight sound in the hallway, and Harm dropped his hand. When Mrs. Clark came back in they had seated themselves on the couch and were flipping through the case file. She set down the tray she carried and offered them each a glass of water, then gestured toward the assortment of snacks on the tray.

"Please. Help yourself." She shook her head. "I don't know what it is about tragedy that makes people inundate you with food. Audrey and I aren't big eaters."

Mac took a finger sandwich, even though she wasn't really hungry.

"We're sorry, ma'am," said Harm. "We know this is a difficult time, but we need to talk to you about your husband's accident."

"I already told the other investigators everything I know."

"I'm sure you did, but if you could tell the story one more time, we would appreciate it. It might help us to figure out what happened."

"My husband died, Commander." Her voice was rough with pain. "That's what happened. His plane crashed, and he died. What more is there to know?"

"Wouldn't you like to know why he crashed, ma'am?" Mac asked gently.

"Does it matter?"

"Yes ma'am, it does," said Harm. "Right now, the loss is too fresh. You can't think through the pain, but someday you're going to want to understand it all, and you won't be able to do that if we wait too long to try to sort things out."

Paige Clark looked at him sharply. "You know."

"Yes."

The conviction in the single word seemed to comfort Paige. She sighed heavily.

"It was a beautiful day. The sky was so blue…" She paused and looked up. "I have this ring my husband gave me on our last anniversary. It has this gorgeous blue stone in it. It's called iolite. I remember thinking that the sky looked just like the stone in my ring." She pulled a tissue out of the box on the table and dabbed at her eyes.

"I stood with him there on the tarmac, and we talked while he did his preflight checks. He was only going to go up for an hour or so. I was going to do some shopping, and then come back to pick him up. After he took off, I turned to walk back to the car."

She looked up, tears glistening in her eyes. "There was this… strange sound, and I turned around to see what it was." She twisted the already mangled tissue and took a deep breath. "I… saw the plane tilt to one side, then tip up on its nose." Her voice broke, and the tears spilled over. "Every time I close my eyes it's there again. It all happened so fast, and yet… somehow it seemed like it took a lifetime."

She smiled a little, abashed. "I guess that sounds silly."

"No," Mac said quietly. "It doesn't."

Harm spoke up. "Can you tell us a little more about the plane?"

Paige blew her nose, took a deep breath, and looked at Harm. "What do you want to know?"

"Did your husband build it himself?"

"No. He bought it from somebody who builds them from kits."

"Can you tell us who that was?"

"Um…" She blew her nose and stood up. "Just a second. I'll get the paperwork." She left the room, and Mac looked at Harm.

"You think maybe there was something wrong with the plane?" She asked him.

He shrugged slightly. "It's too early to say, Mac. Government oversight is different when it comes to general aviation. It's the difference between safety for hundreds on the commercial jetliners and safety for one or two or even a few in the private sector. They tend to focus more on the big things and less on the little ones. It won't hurt to check it out."

Paige came back with a thick sheaf of papers in her hand. "Here it is… Ashburn Aviation Services."

Harm took out a small notebook and jotted a note. "Do you have their number?"

Paige read the number off, and then looked up from the papers. "The owner's name is Jack Stone. He's a nice man. We used to drive up there every weekend to check the progress on Terry's plane."

"Thank you, ma'am," said Mac. She glanced at Harm and then back at Paige. "I'm afraid there's one more thing we need to talk to you about."

"What's that?" Paige asked warily as she straightened from setting the sheaf of papers down on the table.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry. I know this isn't easy, but they need to perform an autopsy."

"Absolutely not." Paige turned abruptly and moved to the window. For a few moments, she stared outside. When she turned back, tears sparkled in her eyes.

"It was an accident," she said, her voice rough with pain. "There was some type of engine problem and he crashed. What can an autopsy tell you that you don't already know?"

"I'm sorry, but it's standard procedure in aviation accidents," Mac explained. "It's better if you agree to it, but the NTSB does have the authority to overrule you if you decline."

Paige's head jerked up at that, and she looked angrily at Mac. "He was my husband!"

"Ma'am," Harm said, making both women start slightly. They'd temporarily forgotten his presence. "Think about this. If they don't do an autopsy, and they can't find any mechanical reason for the crash, they're going to assume that your husband wasn't medically fit to fly."

"Medically fit?" Paige's anger rose, and with it, her voice. Mac glanced in the direction Audrey had gone. Paige noticed the look and took a deep breath, struggling to regain control. "My husband was a highly regarded naval officer, Commander. He spent hours keeping himself in perfect physical shape."

"An autopsy would confirm that," said Mac. Paige's fierce gaze flickered back to her, her anger almost palpable in the suddenly quiet room. Harm and Mac waited silently until Paige's shoulders slumped and she turned away from them.

"Do whatever you have to do," she said. "Just… let me know when I can bury my husband." She turned and moved to the door. "I'm sorry, but I'm tired. Was there anything else you needed?”

"No ma'am," said Mac. "Is there anybody we can call? Somebody who can stay with you for a few days?"

"My mother will be here in a few hours." Paige glanced down as Audrey tugged on the hem of her shirt. The adults hadn't seen the little girl come into the room, and Mac wondered how much she'd overheard.

"Mommy?"

Paige stooped to her daughter's level.

"What is it, honey?"

"I'm hungry."

Mrs. Clark looked up at Harm and Mac.

"I'd better fix her a snack."

"Of course," said Harm. "Thank you again for talking to us, Mrs. Clark. We'll be on our way."

He and Mac turned and walked down the steps, the door closing behind them with a soft click. They waited until they were in the car before speaking.

"Wow," said Mac. "That was tough."

"It was. I kept remembering what Mom was like when she first got the news about Dad."

The uncharacteristic confession took Mac by surprise, and she looked over at him. "Are you okay?"

He met her eyes briefly before starting the car and pulling it onto the quiet tree lined street.

"I'm fine, Mac. It's taken me a long time, but I think I've finally been able to let him go."

"I'm glad." Her voice was soft, but fervent, and he glanced at her again, the hint of a smile playing about the corners of his mouth.

"Was I that bad?"

"Umm…You were challenging."

"But worth it?"

"Definitely."

Mac smiled and reached down to pick up the case file and a legal pad. They spent the rest of the drive back to Falls Church reviewing details of the investigation and planning a course of action.

By the time they finally walked back into the bullpen, most of the staff had gone home for the day, but the general was still in his office, and they stopped to give him an update on the case. Afterward, Mac walked back to her office and sank into her chair with a sigh.

"You okay?" Harm had followed her in.

"Just tired."

"I'm heading out. Are you coming over for dinner?" He looked hopeful, and Mac hated having to turn down the invitation.

"Can't tonight. Harriet and I have dress fittings and then we're going to talk wedding over a late dinner."

"Oh." His face fell, and she laughed at him.

"Hey, this big wedding was your idea, remember?"

He leaned against the side of her desk and folded his arms, laughing down at her.

"Actually, that's not exactly the way I remember it."

"Really?"

"Yes, really. As I recall, you said we'd probably get lynched if we tried to sneak off someplace and get married quietly."

Mac sighed. "I guess I did say that, didn't I."

"You did." He reached over to brush some imaginary lint off her shoulder. "And you were right."

She smiled up at him. "Well, for better or worse, it'll all be over with pretty soon."

"Not soon enough for my taste." His eyes took on a wicked gleam and Mac's pulse leaped. She decided to steer the conversation into safer waters.

"Have you talked to your mom? Do you know when she and Frank will be flying in?"

His eyes full of teasing understanding, he nodded. "They'll be here a week from Wednesday."

"Have you made their hotel reservations?" She asked.

"Done. Rental car, too."

"My, aren't you efficient." It was an observation rather than a question, and humor sparkled from her eyes.

"When I want to be..." The heat in his eyes curled her toes, and she pushed her chair back from the desk, edging away from him.

"Something wrong, Mac?" He grinned, and she shook her head at him.

"You know very well what's wrong."

"Actually, I do." He smiled wickedly, glanced toward the deserted bullpen, and moved closer to her. He was just about to kiss her when the phone rang. Mac laughed at his muttered curse as she reached over to pick up the handset.

"Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie…"

"Colonel? It's Harriet."

"Oh. Hi, Harriet." Harm sighed melodramatically. Mac stuck her tongue out at him and grinned before turning her attention back to her caller.

"I just wanted to check in and make sure we were still on for tonight." Harriet was saying, "Bud said you'd been assigned to a new case and that you and Harm had gone out of town."

"Just to Blacksburg. We're back now."

"So we're still on for tonight?"

"Sure are. I'll meet you at the shop at 1830."

They exchanged a few more words and ended the call. Mac looked up at Harm.

"I'd better get going. If I miss this appointment my dress will never be ready on time."

"You don't need a dress on my account." He looked hopeful, and she swatted him on the shoulder.

"Time enough for that after the wedding, Harm. For now, you'd better let me go."

She gathered her purse and stood up as she finished speaking, preparing to move past him, but he stopped her with a hand on her arm.

"It took years to catch you, Mac, and now that I have you, I'm not letting you go without a fight."

Something about the tone of his voice made Mac search his eyes, seeing there a depth of love and determination that momentarily took her breath away. She laid her hand against his chest. "Not to worry, Harm. I'm not going anywhere."

He caught her hand, holding it captive with his own while he bent to bestow a fleeting kiss that instantly made her consider canceling her plans for the evening in favor of spending a few precious hours with him. He smiled at her as he dropped her hand.

"You'd better be on your way," he said. "You don't want Harriet to send out a search party."

Mac rolled her eyes and grinned as she slipped past him to the door. "She'd do it, too. She'd have the entire population of DC searching for me."

Harm's laughter followed her through the bullpen, and she was still smiling as the elevator doors closed behind her.

 

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