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Classification JAG story, drama, romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 30,000 words, 56 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Season 8 “The One That Got Away”
 
Rating GS

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

 

 

Harm leaned over the small, chipped sink and peered at the slightly distorted image in the grungy, scarred mirror. It looked a little bit like he felt, fuzzy and slightly out of focus. He’d been feeling that way for months now and he ought to be used to it by now, but he wasn’t.

The face that gazed back at him looked older than it should be, older and maybe, just maybe, a little wiser. Harmon Rabb, Jr., ex-fighter jock, ex-lawyer, ex-naval officer...ex-a-lot-of-things.

With a scoffing snort, he smeared on a handful of shaving cream then plunged the disposable razor into the icy pool in the sink. The dingy hotel didn’t sport hot water in the rooms but he considered himself lucky to have any facilities at all. The last place the agency had stuck him didn’t even have indoor toilets.

Still, the optimist inside wouldn’t let him forget the amazing experiences he’d had since joining the agency. He’d flown more types of aircraft in the past six months than he had in the past five years – maybe ten. Every day was a new challenge and, provided he didn’t think too much about everything he’d lost, he could almost convince himself he was happy.

Almost.

Ducking out from under thoughts that were getting depressing, he turned his mind to the upcoming mission. Most aerial reconnaissance missions didn’t take this long to set up, but then again, most AR missions didn’t require using a decrepit old charter plane with barely enough range to complete the flyover. He was used to starting off on friendly territory, getting in, and getting back out to that same friendly territory. He still wasn’t sure about this business of starting the mission deep inside a country where most everyone would gladly shoot him if they knew what he was up to.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Two hours later, he was even less sure about it.

The small, beat-up eight-passenger plane groaned uncomfortably as it lumbered into the sky. He thought for a moment he heard one of the engines cough, but he couldn’t be sure. Damn good thing he didn’t have a full load of passengers. The added weight would probably be too much for the old rattrap. Gritting his teeth, he concentrated on getting the mission over with and getting this thing back on the ground in one piece, preferably with the rubber side down.

Another hour later, he got a rude awakening about just how difficult that was going to be.

The flyover was almost complete. Five more minutes and they’d have everything they needed to confirm if the jungle camp was a simple family trying to eek out a living, a drug operation, or, as rumors had suggested, a training ground for terrorists.

That five minutes was three more than he had. Out of nowhere, a bullet ripped through his right wing as several more slammed into the body of the plane. Snarling a curse, he fought the controls, literally manhandling the plane out of its desire to spiral into the ground. He spared one brief second to wonder about how things were going in the passenger compartment behind him but gave up even that when the plane bucked again, as if it were a horse, determined to be rid of its human passengers.

Harm wrestled valiantly with the controls, even though he knew in his heart it was hopeless. The plane was dropping like a rock and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to prevent it. The ground was rushing toward him at an alarming rate and in a stunning moment of clarity, he realized there weren’t going to be any miracles this time. He wasn’t going to be able to pull off some stunt and save the day. This time, he was going to die.

Still, the tenacity that had marked his whole life wouldn’t let him give up. He would fight the controls until the nose of the plane came through the windshield and took his head off. The angle of his descent pretty well guaranteed that’s what would happen.

But it also meant that long before it did, there was nothing to see but greenery. The foliage filled his vision...and then suddenly it was gone. In its place was a vivid image of Mac’s face. She was smiling that sad smile of hers, her eyes flooded with tears. It was exactly as she had looked all those years ago when they said goodbye before he left on a fool’s errand to reclaim what he’d thought was the only life he wanted.

They hadn’t said goodbye at all this time and now, they would never get the chance to. Leaves and branches slapped the windshield as the plane plunged into the forest canopy and he knew he had only a few seconds left. Mac’s sad, smiling face filled his mind once more.

“Goodbye,” he whispered. “Goodbye, my love...”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Goodbye, my love...”

Mac awoke with Harm’s voice whispering through her mind and her eyes filled with tears. She couldn’t remember the dream, but she couldn’t shake the overwhelming grief and sadness flowing through her. She was halfway through dialing his number before she finally got a grip on herself. They hadn’t talked in months. He would think she was crazy, calling him just because she’d had a nightmare.

Besides, she didn’t even know if he was in the country. For all she knew, he was off somewhere playing spook.

She still had a hard time thinking of Harm as a CIA operative. He’d always shown such contempt for Clay...but now, she was beginning to wonder if that contempt had been fueled by Clay’s profession, or by some innate sense males of any species seemed to have that told them when they were in the presence of a rival.

She made a scoffing sound in her throat. A rival for what? In the eight years she’d known him, Harm hadn’t done more than come close once or twice to admitting he felt anything for her. Somehow, she knew he did, and his complete refusal to even face the situation left her feeling hurt and rejected.

Unfortunately, when she was hurt, she tended to lash out. It was her worst flaw, as far as she was concerned, but she didn’t seem to be able to do anything about it. The defense mechanism was so deeply ingrained in her, it just leapt out before she could stop it. It was especially bad where Harm was concerned because he tended to do the very same thing. It seemed like every time they tried to face what was going on between them, they ended up sniping and snipping at each other like a pair of five-year-olds.

Groaning over the less than cheerful thoughts that she was starting the day with, she rolled out of bed.

 

JAG HQ – 07:49 EST

 

Mac had barely made it to her desk before P.O. Coates arrived at her door. “Morning, ma’am. The admiral asked to see you the moment you arrived.”

Mac stifled a groan, but she couldn’t help feeling like she’d just been given a summons to the principal’s office. The admiral was riding everyone hard these days, but after her monumental blunder recently, she had a feeling she would need to keep a very close watch on her six to avoid having a size twelve shoe print planted squarely on it.

At her nod, Coates disappeared. Mac followed as quickly as she could. Keeping the admiral waiting wasn’t likely to improve his mood. The moment she stepped into his office, however, she realized nothing could improve the admiral’s mood. His scowl filled the room.

At first, she thought it was directed at the slightly heavyset older man sitting in front of the desk, but the tight lines around Chegwidden’s mouth didn’t relax any when he turned toward her. “Col. MacKenzie, this is Allen Blaisdell. He’s with the CIA.”

A visit from the CIA was enough to get the admiral scowling, but it still didn’t account for the strange, hard glitter she saw in his pale blue eyes. She dragged her gaze from his and turned to Blaisdell. “Pleased to meet you.”

“No, I’m afraid you won’t be,” he replied bluntly, his voice gravelly and rough.

Mac felt her own scowl beginning to form. “Excuse me?”

“Have a seat, Colonel,” the admiral interjected. “Mr. Blaisdell has some information he needs to impart.”

Suddenly wary, Mac slid into a chair. The admiral was being far too formal, too rigid. Something was definitely not right here.

Blaisdell turned in his chair, facing her more squarely. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”

Her insides turned to ice. Harm...or Clay...? Which one was it, and how bad was it? Clenching her hands together in her lap, she waited for him to go on.

“At approximately zero-six-hundred this morning, a reconnaissance mission over Guatemala went bad. Harm’s plane was apparently shot down. It exploded on impact. I’m sorry, Col. MacKenzie... He’s dead.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

AJ watched as Mac reeled with the blow. He knew exactly how she felt. He was still staggering himself. It was taking every scrap of SEAL training he had to keep it together. She blinked several times, her eyes suddenly bright and brassy, and gulped in a few breaths of air. Blaisdell gave her the time she needed, discretely averting his gaze to provide her at least a semblance of privacy.

“Are...” She swallowed – very hard. “Are you certain?”

Blaisdell nodded sadly. “As certain as we can be. Villagers in the area confirmed the explosion.”

This was something AJ hadn’t heard before and he pounced on it. “You mean none of your people have gone to the wreckage?”

“No, and they won’t be, either. It’s too risky.”

“What do you mean, too risky?” Mac demanded before AJ had the chance. “How do you even know for sure Harm’s dead, then? He could be injured! He could be—”

“He could be.” Blaisdell held up a hand. “But from the description of the explosion, it’s not very likely and sending someone in just to confirm what we already know would only put more people’s lives at risk.”

“But you don’t know!” she insisted. “Not for sure!”

“I have to agree with her,” AJ threw in. “I can’t believe you would leave something like this open to the slightest uncertainty.”

“We have to,” Blaisdell replied with something of a helpless shrug. “Until the area is secured, no further entrance into the area will be authorized.”

AJ watched Mac’s incredulity expand further. “But what about...you’ve got to at least recover his...remains.”

Blaisdell shook his head again and she came halfway out of her chair. “You can’t just leave him there!”

Blaisdell’s expression hardened slightly. “Look, Colonel, this isn’t easy for me either. I got to know him pretty well. He’s my friend too.”

AJ watched the war of emotions on Mac’s face as she struggled to hold onto her composure. Blaisdell didn’t begin to understand what was going on here. He might be Harm’s friend, but Mac was in love with him.

It was why he’d asked Blaisdell to tell her what had happened, and it was why he had to intervene now before the colonel took the man apart with her bare hands. “Colonel, I’d like to speak to Mr. Blaisdell a moment.”

She was slow to respond but a second before he was about to repeat the request, she straightened and turned to him. “Yes sir.”

Spine ramrod straight, she spun on her heel and strode from the room. AJ had a feeling he would have to keep a very close eye on her. There was a storm brewing behind that tough-Marine façade and God help anyone who was in the way when it broke.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Clayton Webb acknowledged the phone call holding for him and took a fortifying breath before picking up the phone. He paused one second longer before punching the line button. “Sarah, hi. I heard. I’m so sorry.”

“Are you aware that they aren’t even going to...to bring him home?” Her voice was strung tighter than he’d ever heard it.

“This isn’t the Marine Corps,” he said quickly. “Semper Fi doesn’t apply here, Mac.”

“Apparently basic decency doesn’t either,” she snapped. “They don’t even know for sure if he’s dead, but if he is...he...he deserves a proper burial, Clay. It’s the least he deserves!”

“I know,” he said quietly. “I argued the same thing myself, but the higher-ups are adamant.”

“Unacceptable!”

“It will have to be,” he replied, his tone hardening despite his best efforts. “The decision’s been made. There’s nothing more anyone can do.”

“We’ll see about that. I thought I could count on you, Clay, but I see now I was wrong. Sorry I bothered you.”

“Sarah...” A loud click sounded over the phone line. Sighing, he slowly hung up the phone.

She hadn’t given him the chance to tell her how hard he’d argued in favor of a rescue/recovery operation. He’d been ruffling feathers since the moment he heard about the crash, to the point that superiors were telling him to leave it alone. They also discretely reminded him that he wasn’t even officially back at work yet and suggested that if he ever wanted to be, he would quit questioning their decisions.

Which sat him squarely on the horns of a dilemma. If he wanted his job to still be waiting for him when he was ready to return, he had to drop the whole thing, but if it weren’t for Rabb, he probably wouldn’t be here to take the job waiting for him. He wasn’t naïve enough to think Rabb was thinking about anyone but Mac when he stormed into Paraguay, but the fact of the matter was, the man had saved his life.

And, even more importantly, he’d saved Sarah from enduring the same torture he’d suffered. If it weren’t for Clay, Sarah wouldn’t have been in that position in the first place and even though it chafed like hell that it was Rabb that bailed them out, he owed the man a huge debt.

One he would now be unable to repay.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac stared at the phone, wishing she could somehow crawl through the phone line and choke some sense into Clay. Outwardly, she was still, but deep inside, she was trembling uncontrollably. Keeping her hands in her lap ensured the façade was unblemished. Even though there was no one around to see, she didn’t dare ease her grip on herself. If she slipped even a little, she was afraid she would start to cry – and never, ever stop.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

At AJ’s request, Coates gathered the staff in the bullpen. He knew they were waiting out there, wondering what was going on, but it took him another full minute to gather his wits. His guts felt like a bag made of Jell-o and filled with battery acid. He’d performed some hard duties in his time but this...this was going to damn near kill him.

Squaring his shoulders, he dragged in one more deep breath and stepped out into the bullpen.

“Attention on deck!”

“As you were.” Bracing his feet, he clasped his hands behind his back. Scanning the room, he briefly touched the gaze of each staff member, reading the slightly nervous anticipation they were each trying to hide.

“I received some unfortunate news this morning. Comm—” He blew out a breath and started again. “Former Cdr. Harmon Rabb was involved in an air accident while flying a small plane over Guatemala. The crash was...fatal.”

A collective gasp rippled through the room. AJ watched as his people struggled to come to terms with the awful news. Each of them responded in his or her own way. Lt. Bud Roberts stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. A few feet away, Cdr. Sturgis Turner sucked in a sharp breath, his whole body going rigid. At AJ’s side, he heard Coates try, not quite successfully, to stifle a sob. He wracked his brain for something more to say and came up empty, but that didn’t really surprise him. Empty was exactly how he was feeling right now.

He shot a look at Mac’s tightly closed office door. It hadn’t surprised him when she failed to respond to Coates’ request to gather. She knew what was coming and he didn’t blame her for not wanting to hear it all over again. He envied her the solitude of a quiet office and, with a muttered promise to keep them informed if any more information became available, he escaped to his own refuge.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac could hear the admiral speaking out in the bullpen and even though she couldn’t make out the words, she knew the exact moment when he delivered the news. It was as though the building itself held its breath. The silence was overwhelming. And then, woven through the deafening quiet, she heard again the whispered words that awoke her this morning. Before she could stop it, that damnable time-sense of hers kicked in, automatically doing the calculation. Harm’s crash was at six a.m. – exactly the time she heard those words.

Goodbye, my love...

A single sob burst from her throat, then a blast of anger washed through her, burning away further tears. It couldn’t end this way. It just couldn’t!

 

ADMIRAL CHEGWIDDEN’S OFFICE – 15:30 EST Two days later

 

When Coates announced that Col. MacKenzie was waiting to speak to him, AJ almost refused. He knew what would be the very first thing out of her mouth – the same thing everyone asked him at least twice a day. Heaving a sigh, he crossed to the desk and punched the intercom, telling Coates to let her in.

Mac strode into the room, her anger and tension sweeping in ahead of her like the crest of a wave, about to break on top of him. Unconsciously bracing himself, he faced her.

“What can I do for you, Colonel?”

“Sir, has there been any movement from the CIA? Are they going to retrieve him or not?”

“Their position remains unchanged,” he told her. It was the same thing he’d told her yesterday and it was the same thing he would have to tell her tomorrow.

Her stance stiffened to a formal pose. “Then I request you send me to Guatemala, sir.”

“On what grounds? There’s nothing going on down there requiring JAG’s attention.”
“Sir, with all due respect, make something up. If they won’t do this, then I will.”

Folding his arms across his chest, AJ regarded her in silence. The flashing anger in her eyes, the defiant jut of her chin, it was all classic Mac with a full head of steam, so why did he feel like he was being swamped with déjà vu?

“I had virtually the same conversation with Rabb when he wanted to go after you in Paraguay.”

She abruptly broke from attention. “Admiral, heaven knows I’m not too happy with the way he went about it but you have to admit one thing. His heart was in the right place. His lo—loyalty to me meant he couldn’t sit here waiting to see if I came back vertically or horizontally, but that’s where this is different, sir. You all knew I would be coming back, one way or the other. The CIA won’t go in there until the area is secure and who knows how long that could take. By then, his body....” She dragged in a hissing breath through her teeth. “By then, he could be...anywhere.”

AJ watched her grapple for control. She was wrong about one thing. This was no different. He’d caught her abrupt change in the choice of words and knew she was wrong about that too. Her first choice would have been the better one. For her, this wasn’t about loyalty, any more than it had been about loyalty with Rabb. It was about something that started with l-o all right, but there were only two letters after that.

He shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Colonel. There’s no way I can justify sending a member of this staff into Guatemala to retrieve a civilian.”

An instant blaze of anger flared in her eyes. “Admiral, I don’t give a damn what the last line in his service record reads. He’s one of our own! We can’t just leave him out there!”

One of our own. The words stabbed through AJ like a hot knife. She was right. Rabb did belong to this family his command had become – and he always would. Shoving off the desk, he paced a few steps away, keeping his back to her as the guilt washed over him anew. If he hadn’t processed Harm’s resignation, he never would have been on that plane in the first place. He’d cut Rabb adrift; never imagining the bizarre currents in this new and uncertain world would carry him away forever.

“Admiral, please...” Her strangled whisper filled the room, seeping into every corner and folding around him like a hot, suffocating cloak. He spun to face her.

“All right, Colonel.” The words were out of his mouth before he knew what he was going to say. “Don’t ask me what excuse I’m going to use, because I haven’t come up with it yet, but get yourself on a flight to Guatemala.”

She snapped to attention so sharply it must have hurt. “Yes sir!”

She turned to go but as she reached for the door knob, more words flowed out of him without his permission. “Mac.”

She turned around, meeting his gaze.

He swallowed hard. “Bring him home.”

Just for an instant, her features were claimed by the same gut-wrenching grief that flowed through AJ, and then it was gone, buried again just as he had to bury his. She gave a single firm nod.

“I will, sir. Count on it.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Feeling energized to the point of distraction, Mac charged out of the admiral’s office. Halfway across the bullpen, she caught Bud’s arm, dragging him along toward her office. “Bud, get me on the first plane to Guatemala. I don’t care if it’s a transport, or even a Fed-Ex cargo plane!”

He skidded to a halt. “You’re going to bring him back? The admiral approved it?”

“He did, sort of.”

“All right!” Suddenly realizing his outburst, he glanced around the room, and then lowered his voice. “Any chance there’d be room for two of us on that—”

She shook his head, cutting him off. “Sorry, Bud. The admiral’s putting his six out on a limb here. Let’s not add any more weight to the branch.”

Bud managed to contain his disappointment – barely. He told himself it didn’t matter who brought Cdr. Rabb home, so long as it happened.

Ever since he heard the news, Bud had been consumed by the awful need to say goodbye. He longed for the chance to talk to the commander just one more time, to tell him how much he appreciated his support over the years. Without the commander and the colonel, Bud had no doubt that he would not be where he was today. The two of them were his mentors, helping him when he needed help, pushing him when he needed to be pushed.

He wouldn’t be able to tell the commander any of this, but just knowing he was back on US soil, that he was...home...would make a huge difference.

A sudden presence beside him snapped Bud out of his thoughts. Cdr. Turner spared him barely a glance, then turned to Col. MacKenzie. “Did I hear you say you’re going to be on a flight to Guatemala?”

She nodded. “The admiral’s working on finding an assignment for me right now.”

“As a cover for the...real reason?”

She nodded again.

Abruptly, the commander’s face cleared of all expression. “Good. That’s good.”

Without another word, he turned and walked away. Bud watched him go, confusion lacing its way through him.

“I just don’t understand him,” he admitted. “He didn’t even sound happy about it.”

Col. MacKenzie briefly rested a hand on his shoulder. “He’s just dealing with it in his own way, Bud. Remember, he and Harm have been friends since the academy. Sturgis has known him longer than any of us.”

“I guess,” Bud said with a sigh.

Sturgis crossed the bullpen, keeping his pace measured and slow, when all he wanted to do was run. As he approached the door to his office, his steps slowed even further. This wasn’t his office. It was Harm’s, and it always would be. Every time he set foot in here, every time he sat down at that desk, he felt as though he was usurping Harm’s territory. It was as though he was being asked to take Harm’s place and that was something he would never – could never – do.

But now, just for a moment, the office felt welcoming, a quiet refuge where he could be alone with the spirit of a friend he would never see again. He gently closed the door and simply stood, soaking up the essence that remained in this room, that would forever remain a part of JAG.

“Well, buddy,” he whispered, “if this is the way it has to be...at least we’ll all be able to rest a little easier...” He dragged in a shuddering breath. “...once you are.”

 

DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – 18:20 EST

 

It took everything Mac had in her to keep from fidgeting as she waited for her flight. The commercial flight to Miami was the first of several short hops to get her to Guatemala, but it was still going to be faster than waiting for something more direct. Lost in thought, she barely acknowledged a presence beside her, until the person spoke.

“Is this seat taken?”

Her head shot up. “Clay, what are you doing here?”

He slid into the seat beside her. “Just waiting for a flight to Miami. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?”

“Like hell it is,” she shot back. “I repeat, what are you doing here?”

“Going with you,” he replied bluntly.

She eyed him critically. “Officially or unofficially?”

“Unofficially, of course. I’m not even on the active roster, remember?”

“Why?” she stabbed at him.

He blew out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. “Because you’re bound and determined to do this and since no one can talk you out of it, the least I can do is make sure you don’t have to do it alone. It’s a nightmare down there right now, Sarah.”

“Yeah, well it’s a nightmare around here too,” she muttered.

“I know,” he said softly. That was something she was still getting used to: Clayton Webb being gentle and comforting.

“As long as you’re not going to spend the whole time trying to talk me out of it,” she warned.

“I won’t. If you managed to convince Chegwidden to let you go on this...mission, I know there’s not much chance anyone can say anything to change your mind.”

“You’re right, there isn’t.”

They sat in silence for a moment. It was the kind of strained silence she hadn’t once experienced around him since their return from Paraguay. Something had changed between them down there, but she wasn’t quite sure what it was, or what it meant. But now wasn’t the time to think about that. She had enough on her mind. Once she got down to Guatemala and...learned the truth, then, and only then, would she be able to even contemplate the direction the rest of her life was going to take.

 

Chapter 2

 

After bouncing around from place to place most of the night, they finally arrived in Flores, Guatemala. At Clay’s insistence, they checked into rooms at a small hotel. He said it was so they could get a few hours sleep before going on, but somehow, Mac got the feeling he was working to some kind of timetable. She wouldn’t put it past him to have made all sorts of covert arrangements, once he learned she was coming here.

If it got her where she was going, she was perfectly content to let him handle the arrangements, but as she surveyed the tiny room, she knew the waiting was going to drive her crazy. There was no way she was going to get any sleep. She’d hardly closed her eyes since hearing news of the crash, for every time she did, Harm’s voice whispered through her mind.

She had tried a hundred times to tell herself it was just a coincidence, dreaming of him saying goodbye at exactly the same moment he was supposed to have crashed in the jungle. It had to be, because the alternative....

She violently shoved that thought away. There hadn’t been so much as a scrap of confirmation that Harm had died in that crash. He could have bailed out. It wouldn’t be the first time. He knew what he was doing and had uncanny survival instincts that rivaled a cat. She couldn’t count the number of times he’d gotten into a situation that should have been fatal, but somehow, he always got out alive. The man’s luck was phenomenal.

And luck had a way of running out when you needed it most.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Pulling in at least half a dozen more favors than he had coming, Clay arranged for transport out to the village of Salamandra. It took him over two hours to set it up and he hoped Sarah was getting some rest at the hotel, but he knew it wasn’t very likely. He’d never seen her this restless, this...driven.

Like everyone else who’d ever met her, he knew there was something between her and Rabb, but no one seemed to know exactly what it was – including them. And, like probably every other living, breathing heterosexual male who’d ever met her, Clay hoped he could overcome whatever it was.

He wouldn’t have chosen this as the way to do it, though. He didn’t wish Rabb any ill fortune, and watching Sarah going through this hell was harder than anything he’d ever done. He’d seen the reports of the villagers’ accounts of the crash and he knew in his heart what she was going to find there. As painful as it was to admit, her hell had just begun, but if there was any way he could help ease her way through it, he would.

She shot him several suspicious looks when he knocked on her door and told her he’d arranged transport to the village, but said nothing. She simply picked up the backpack she was using as a purse and gestured toward the door. “Lead on.”

For now, it seemed, she was willing to let him take the lead. He hoped that would continue after they arrived in the tiny jungle village. If he could pull it off with anything short of tying her up, he was going to make sure she never got within ten miles of that crash site. There were some kinds of hell she didn’t need to go through.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

In an ancient rusty jeep, they bounced and chewed through the jungle for over two hours. At times, the driver seemed to be creating his own trail, but his quiet confidence told Mac he really did know where he was going. Ramon was nearly as old as the jeep and had lived in the Guatemalan jungle all his life. When they finally came out into a small clearing, he turned to her with a wide, nearly toothless grin. “You see, Colonel. I tell you I know the way.”

She frowned. “Uh, this isn’t a village, Ramon.”

He laughed. “No, we must walk from here.”

“How far?” Clay asked from the back seat.

Ramon shrugged. “Ten minutes, maybe a little bit more.”

Mac climbed out of the jeep and accepted her backpack from Clay. He was a little slower to get out.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” she asked quickly.

“Of course I am. It’s just a quiet stroll through the trees.” He gave a shrug that only added to the sense that he was trying too hard to make light of it.

The trail turned out to be an easy one and Mac offered a silent thank-you for it. She knew Clay would never admit it, but he wasn’t nearly as recovered, as he wanted people to think.

She dropped back to walk beside him. “Tell me about the mission, Clay. I want to know how this happened.”

He dragged in a breath and blew it out. “About thirty miles from here is another village, Dominguez. It’s much larger and even has a small airstrip. That’s where Harm took off. His mission was to do a flyover of a small jungle camp about fifty miles away. We’re almost certain the camp is a drug operation but more importantly, we think it’s being used as a terrorist training base as well.”

“You think?”

He nodded. “That’s why we needed the flyover. After our Guatemalan contacts heard about the crash, they contacted the village and confirmed from an informant there that Harm took off alone. He was supposed to be working with a partner, Todd Sheldon, but we have confirmed that Sheldon didn’t show up. We don’t know what happened to him, but Harm arrived at the village alone and went up alone.”

Mac absorbed the information, but it refused to sit quietly. She didn’t like the idea that Harm had gone into this alone, but it was just like him to do that. He wouldn’t cancel an important mission just because his own position had become more tenuous. He would have seen it as simply more of a challenge.

The lush growth around the trail gave the impression they were miles from any form of civilization but thirteen minutes after they left the jeep, they emerged into a large clearing ringed with huts. In the center of the village, a large ring of stones circled a fire pit. Even in the middle of the hot, humid day, a small fire burned.

It didn’t take long for their presence to be noticed and Ramon moved forward quickly to speak to the small group of people coming to meet them. Mac watched as he began to focus his attention on a man she guessed was several years older than he was. Gesturing back toward her and Clay, he conversed with the man for a moment longer before they both started in her direction.

“Col. MacKenzie, Mr. Webb, this is Caton. He is the leader of the village.”

Mac nodded to him and greeted him in Spanish.

Smiling widely, the old man revealed a mouth with even fewer teeth than Ramon. He returned the greeting, and then turned to grasp Webb’s hand, shaking it soundly.

Mac wanted to get right down to the business of discussing the crash, but Caton insisted on extending his village’s hospitality first. Leading them over to the fire pit, he offered them seats on large logs that had been sawed flat on top and called to someone to bring food and drink.

“That’s really not necessary,” Mac said in Spanish. “We don’t want to impose.”

“You are not,” Ramon replied in English. “Caton and his family don’t often have visitors. It is a special occasion for them.”

Mac got the hint. Sighing, she accepted the drink she was offered. She sniffed it carefully, but she couldn’t tell for sure. She looked up at Ramon. “Is it alcohol?”

“No, it is a fruit drink favored by the women here.”

She got that subtle hint too. Men and women were treated very differently in this world. Her suspicions were confirmed when Clay took a sip of his drink and gave a small gasp.

“This sure as hell isn’t fruit juice!”

Ramon laughed. “No, Señior Webb, that is not.”

Clay took another cautious sip, starting to enjoy the drink now that he was prepared for the kick. He sat and listened to the friendly banter going around the circle, wishing his Spanish was a little better. He managed to pick up a few things here and there, but much of the conversation went by way too fast.

He also kept one eye on Sarah. He could tell she was antsy, eager to get down to the reason they’d come here, but she kept it in check. For her sake, he watched closely for the first opportunity to turn the conversation to their reason for coming. It came nearly half an hour later.

“These people came a long way today,” Ramon told Caton.

“Yes, we did,” Webb said quickly, pouncing before Mac could.

Caton nodded. “The...airplane,” he said in very broken English.

“Yes, the airplane,” Sarah replied in Spanish. “You saw it crash?”

“Sí.” Caton shook his head sadly. His speech had slowed down and Clay had an easier time following. “It was a very large explosion. We knew we would not find anything good when we got there.”

Sarah’s eyes opened wide. “You’ve been to the crash site?”

Caton nodded again. “We have what you are looking for.”

Clay saw her stiffen sharply. “What? What do you have?”

The old man’s gaze dropped to the dirt at his feet. “A body.”

Mac came halfway to her feet but Clay grabbed her hand, giving it a squeeze in a silent warning to slow down. It took a second for the message to sink in, but she finally sat back down.

“We need to...see the body,” Clay said slowly, hoping his Spanish was correct.

Caton hesitated a moment, then nodded.

He rose, leading the way toward a small hut on the far side of the village. Clay could see Sarah gathering herself for what was to come. Brick by brick, she built a wall around herself. He’d seen a wall like that before, had built one himself many years ago during the most horrible moment of his life. It was a dam, designed to hold back a grief so strong it would flood the world if it wasn’t contained. His jaw tightened painfully.

“I had no idea,” he said quietly.

“No idea about what?” she asked, her voice strained.

“You’re in love with him.” It wasn’t a question; it was a statement of fact.

She held his gaze a few seconds, then abruptly turned away, but her very silence confirmed it. Realizing he had completely underestimated the depth of the bond between Sarah and Rabb, he wondered anew at the history between them. How far had their relationship gone?

He would probably never get an answer to that, but he wasn’t sure he wanted one anyway.

They approached the hut and Caton gestured to him. “Mr. Webb, come.”

Beside him, Sarah tensed. Before she could argue, he laid a hand on her arm. “Let me go in first.”

She stared at him for a long moment and then, to his surprise, she nodded. Giving her arm a squeeze, he moved to join Caton and Ramon.

Mac watched the three men duck into the hut. A huge part of her wanted to go in there with them but another part acknowledged that as long as she didn’t, she could continue to tell herself it wasn’t real, that it wasn’t Harm’s body laid out in that shack, cold and lifeless.

Clay came out a moment later and the instant she saw his face, everything changed. He was pale as a ghost, a thin sheen of sweat glistening on his brow. He shouldn’t have been that shaken. Something wasn’t right.

Before she was even aware of moving, she lunged toward the shack, but Clay caught her shoulders, barring her way.

“Sarah, no!” he hissed.

“Let go of me! I need to go in there. I need to see—”

“You do not need to see that,” he replied roughly.

Instinctively, Mac knew what he was referring to and why he was so shaken. The plane had exploded on impact. There would have been fire....

“But...it’s him, isn’t it? You could tell, right?” The desperation in her own voice frightened her.

Clay’s hands tightened on her arms. The awful pain in his eyes bored through her. “Not visually. There’s...there’s not enough left.”

Stunned, Mac struggled to absorb the impact of this latest blow, but there was simply no possible way she could. Not only was Harm’s spirit gone, but his body had been destroyed as well. She didn’t know why she had assumed he would be...whole. She knew about the explosion, but her mind had rendered his image as a peaceful mockery of sleep. Now, her much too vivid imagination seized upon the horror in Clay’s eyes.

With a strangled sob, she spun away but Clay moved right back in, wrapping an arm across her shoulders. Grappling with a grief too profound for tears, she stood, her entire body one massive, rigid ache.

“Come on,” he whispered softly. “It’s time to take him home.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Monday morning, Mac reported for duty as usual, but nothing was the same anymore. There was no purpose, no “mission” to focus her thoughts on, and no way to keep the awful truth at bay. She’d met with the admiral over the weekend and he had taken on responsibility for the funeral arrangements, so even that distraction was denied her.

Going through the motions, she stored her purse and briefcase and began the day as if it were a day like any other. She was functioning strictly on autopilot, because that’s the only way she could function at all.

As the morning progressed, the vaguely surreal quality began to fade and she was surprised to find she was able to concentrate on whatever task was at hand. For now, at least, that would have to be enough – taking each moment one at a time, without any thought for what the next one would hold.

Just before ten o’clock, PO Coates, buzzed her, saying the admiral had asked to see her. She put aside the brief she’d been working on and crossed the bullpen.

“He said to go right in, ma’am.”

Nodding, she rapped on the door and went in. She paused when she saw he was on the phone, but he waved her into the office.

“I don’t care what the rules say! If I don’t see a squadron of F-14s over Arlington on Wednesday, more than one head is going to roll, but I’ll start with yours and work my way up! Is that clear?” He paused briefly, and then his tone became sarcastic. “Thank you!”

He dropped the receiver back onto its cradle and took a deep breath before turning to Mac. “Sorry about that, Colonel.”

Not sure what to say, she simply nodded. He blew out an explosive breath and she watched him mentally shift gears.


“Have a seat.” He waved her to a chair and dropped into his own. “Colonel, I have a task I’d like you to take on. It’s strictly voluntary, but I’d appreciate it if you would consider it.”

She didn’t like the sound of that but replied, “Of course, Admiral. What is it?”

He paused a moment. “Harm’s parents are flying in this evening. I’ve arranged for them to use his apartment but I need someone to...go in and set it up for them.”

Inwardly, Mac cringed, understanding now why the admiral had seemed so reluctant to ask. She surprised herself by saying, “I can do that, sir.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Her words came back to her that afternoon as she stepped off the elevator and saw the door to Harm’s apartment. Suddenly, she wasn’t at all sure she could do it. Steeling herself, she moved quickly to the spot where he hid his spare key, hurriedly digging it out and sticking it in the lock before she could lose her nerve. The door swung open and she forced herself to step inside.

Nothing had changed...and everything had changed.

The loft looked exactly as it had the last time she’d been here – it felt like a lifetime ago – but there was a stillness now, as though everything in the room mourned the loss of the spirit that had made them into more than a collection of objects. Haunted by that very lack of spirit, Mac hurried through making sure things were in order for his parents’ arrival.

Someone, she had no idea who, had the foresight to empty the fridge. It was clean and fresh. The whole apartment was covered with a fine layer of dust, however, and she quickly tackled it, but with each possession she touched, she was flooded by a hundred memories. His guitar, the photo of him and his dad, everything that had ever meant anything to him – they all sat as mute symbols of Harm’s essence, but that essence itself was gone.

The dusting complete, she tossed the rag into the sink, knowing only one task remained, the most difficult one of all. She turned very slowly to the stairs leading to the bedroom. Suddenly paralyzed, she gazed at the stairs, seeing Harm bouncing down them in his dress blues, in sweats, in a striking gray three-piece suit. She saw him come down slowly in the darkness, clad only in a pair of white boxers, coming to comfort her when the world was crashing down around her.

“Oh, Harm,” she gasped, her eyes flooding with tears. “How am I supposed to live without you?”

The empty stairway held no answer. Dropping onto the sofa, she wrapped her arms around herself as a huge sob wrenched from her very soul. This time, a second followed and then a third. She couldn’t hold them back any longer. The grief flowed over her and out of her, spilling forth and seeping into every molecule of the silence surrounding her. The sobs that followed echoed through that silence, combining with it and filling her with a soul-deep emptiness that would remain with her forever.

 

JAG HQ – 09:36 EST Tuesday

 

Bud Roberts moved slowly through the bullpen, acutely aware of the unnatural hush in the room, a pall that seemed to hang over everything and everyone. The place felt like a tomb.

He almost groaned aloud. Stupid analogy, Roberts! Stupid, perhaps, but unfortunately, very accurate. He wondered a moment if the place would ever get back to normal, but then, it hadn’t been normal for months now. Things had fallen apart a long time ago, but he was beginning to think this latest blow could be the final straw that forever destroyed the wonderful dynamic that had once existed here.

Trying to pretend he wasn’t dreading it, he made his way toward Cdr. Turner’s office. He never knew what kind of reception to expect from the commander, but it was guaranteed to range from neutral to outright frosty. Hoping this would at least be one of the neutral moments, he started to knock on the doorframe, but stopped when he realized the office was empty.

Turning, he caught the attention of one of the support staff. “Have you seen Cdr. Turner?”

“Yes sir. He said he would be working in the library.”

Threading back through the bullpen, Bud went out to the corridor and down to the library. Cdr. Turner was camped out at a table in the corner, reading a file and making notes. Determined to be friendly and cheerful, Bud went over to the table. “Doing some research, Commander?”

“No,” Turner replied slowly, “I’m just catching up on some paperwork.”

“Then why work out here instead of in....” He let the sentence trail off as the most obvious answer leapt out at him. “Oh, I think I understand. I don’t think I’d be too comfortable in there either, sir.”

Turner gazed up at him for a very long time. Something passed between them, a shared moment of understanding, but before Bud could do more than acknowledge it, the commander blinked and looked away.

“It’s...quieter in here, that’s all. What can I do for you, Lieutenant?”

Bud thought instantly of the unnatural silence in Ops, but decided not to comment on it. He held out the file he’d been carrying. “Here are the depositions from the Pearson case. You asked to see them.”

Sturgis accepted the file, knowing full well Roberts hadn’t believed his excuse for working in here instead of his office. He muttered a thank you, hoping Roberts would go away without saying anymore about it. To his surprise, that’s exactly what happened – sort of.

“You’re welcome, sir. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.” He paused, fixing Sturgis with a penetrating gaze that spoke volumes. “Anything at all.”

“Thank you,” Sturgis said again, but this time, he meant it.

With a nod, Roberts turned to go. Sturgis watched him, noticing his limp was a little more pronounced today. It got that way when he was tired and Sturgis couldn’t help thinking Bud probably wasn’t getting any more sleep than he was. Sleeps required letting one’s thoughts turn inward and that wasn’t a very pleasant place to go these days.

And neither was his office. Every time he stepped in there, he felt more like an intruder. If the admiral hadn’t been so insistent that he take the office in the first place, Sturgis would have requested a move a long time ago. He couldn’t very well go to the admiral now and ask to move because he felt haunted. That would go over like a lead balloon with the practical, no-nonsense ex-SEAL.

It should have been hogwash to a seasoned submariner too, but Sturgis couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling he got in that office. What surprised him was that Roberts had picked up on it so easily...and that he understood. Sturgis was at least mature enough to recognize that recent events had colored his perception of Lt. Roberts, but maybe he hadn’t realized just how much – until now.

 

MAC’S APARTMENT – 05:14 EST Wednesday

 

Mac awoke sobbing. Swimming up out of the nightmare, she came to slowly, her bedroom gradually replacing the background of her dream. As she had in the dream, she was clutching something to her chest. Now it was her pillow, its soft fabric soaking up her tears. In her dream, it was Harm’s cold, lifeless body.

With an agonized groan, she flung the pillow away, flopping over on her back. Not today! Please, not today! Today of all days, she needed to be strong. It was going to take every ounce of strength she had to get through this day without shattering into a million pieces.

Dragging herself out of bed, Mac shivered as a deep-seated chill soaked into her body. Even wrapping herself in her thick terry robe did little to chase it away. The moment she looked out the window, she realized why. A cold gray mist had moved in to blanket the city, as though echoing the bleak shroud draped over her soul.

It was no different at Arlington. A clammy fog wandered among the headstones, pooling in the low spots, as if pausing to pay its respects, then rising to curl among the tree branches. Even the normally bright reds and golds of fall seemed muted this day, stripped of their brilliance in deference to the solemn ceremony about to take place.

As she moved into position at the graveside, everyone from Bud and Harriett to Coates, Sturgis and even Capt. Seabring, tried to catch her eye, but Mac resolutely ignored them all. The only way she was going to get through this day was to disconnect from everyone and everything in it.

Without focusing on any one individual, she surveyed the sea of faces gathered to say farewell. Friends and colleagues, rivals and partners, virtual strangers and family. They were all here, stone-faced or grief stricken, each of them prepared for the moment when they would finally be able to let go and say goodbye.

Abruptly, Mac realized she had unconsciously taken a discrete step away from them all, for they were here to do something she would never – could never – do. She would grieve with them, mourn with them, and even gather with them to share the healing of stories and remembrances, but she knew with utter certainty that she would never be able to let go and move on in the way each of them was attempting to do. The hole in her life was too great, too raw and gaping, to ever heal.

At last, because she needed some sort of anchor to cling to, and because he wasn’t looking at her with sorrow-filled eyes, Mac let her gaze come to rest on Admiral Chegwidden. He stood stoically throughout the ceremony, his gaze locked on some distant point. She desperately envied him his strength...until the moment came to accept the folded flag from the bearer. As he reached out, she saw his hands tremble ever so slightly.

AJ clamped down on the flag as hard as he dared, concentrating on the silken feel of it until he could get a grip on himself. With a precision that should have taken far less concentration than it did, he turned and marched to where Harm’s mother was seated. Executing a sharp, snapping turn, he started to extend it to her...then he made the mistake of looking into her tear-filled eyes and his hard-won control threatened to desert him completely.

Don’t! He snarled at himself. Don’t you dare! Jaw clenched, throat tight, AJ hung on with everything he had. He hadn’t made it through Vietnam, September 11th and everything in between, only to lose it at the sight of a mother’s tears. He’d seen many, many mother’s tears in his career. This is no different, he insisted...but it was. This was the first time he’d even come close to understanding the agony behind those tears. She’d lost a son...and one hell of a big part of AJ felt like he had too.

He’d not only lost the closest thing he’d ever have to a son, he was at least partially responsible for it. He’d sent men on dangerous missions before, and felt like hell when something happened, but in every case, the men under his command had gone willingly, accepting the hazards that were part of their duty. But this time...this time, he’d cut Rabb loose. AJ thought he was released from any responsibility for Harm the minute that paperwork went through, but he was wrong.

That’s why AJ willed his hands to be steady as he bent slightly and presented it to her. This was to be his final act as Harm’s commanding officer, and he was damn well going to get it right!

Mac was losing it. Seeing the unexpected chink in the admiral’s armor made it impossible to ignore her own. She clamped down on the pain with a strength she didn’t know she had and made it through the ceremony...until the roar of jet engines rose to fill the air. The flyby! She’d forgotten about the damn flyby!

Powerless to stop herself, she turned her gaze skyward with everyone else as the four F-14s approached. She couldn’t stop the wash of tears that sprang forth as they streaked across the sky. The symbolism of the missing man formation had always been strong for her but when the one plane suddenly kicked heavenward, shooting straight up into the swirling gray clouds and she saw that awful gap in the sky where Harm should have been....

Bud wasn’t at all certain how he did it, but he managed to maintain his composure throughout the ceremony. He couldn’t help the tears that blurred his vision, but he didn’t even try. He was an officer in the United States Navy, but he was also a human being – and a better one, thanks to the man they were here to honor today.

When the ceremony was over and they were formally dismissed, it didn’t surprise him to see the JAG staff gathering in one location. Harriett at his side, he joined his colleagues. Admiral Chegwidden stood nearby – but not quite within – the group. Something in Chegwidden’s eyes, a distant, almost vulnerable look, made Bud move over to him.

“I’m sure Cdr. Rabb would have been honored, sir.”

The admiral started as if Bud had yanked on his arm. A brief but very sharp look streaked across his features then he shot Bud the shortest of glances. “Yes, I’m sure he would. Excuse me, Lieutenant.”

Turning on his heel, the admiral strode away, a hard, angry snap in his stride. He didn’t stop until he reached a large, imposing oak tree, its crown cloaked in the burnished gold of fall. Stopping beneath the riot of color, the admiral braced one hand against the solid trunk, as though seeking to draw strength from it. Head lowered, he stood for a very long time and then abruptly, his head sprang up. Taking a savage swipe at his eyes with the back of his hand, he pushed off the tree and walked away. Bud watched in silence as the strongest man he had ever known strode away in search of a place to weep.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

For the next two days, JAG Ops functioned by rote, running on autopilot as the entire staff adjusted to a new world where even the mention of Harmon Rabb’s name was met with uncomfortable silence. Mac managed to get through those two days the same way everyone else did, by keeping to herself when she could and maintaining an ultra-professional attitude when she couldn’t.

Over the course of the weekend, she literally ran herself ragged, extending her usual morning runs by half and adding a strenuous workout at the gym in the afternoon of both days. As long as she kept busy, both physically and mentally, she could almost convince herself life was returning to normal.

She also recognized how frightening that was. She didn’t want things to be normal; she didn’t want to believe her life would go on with so little disruption. She was already used to going through every day without seeing Harm, without talking to him about her latest case or some inconsequential bit of trivia. She couldn’t deny it. He had been out of her life completely long before the crash. The only thing that had changed was now, she knew it was permanent.

Dropping onto her sofa, she stared at the wall, consumed by the realization that, even after he disappeared from her life, she had very carefully avoided contemplating what that might mean for the future. Now, she no longer had that option.

Regret rolled over her in waves. There were so many things left unsaid between them, so many things left undone. Something inside her had always believed there would be some magic moment one day when everything would fall into place and they would acknowledge the soul-deep connection between them. If that moment was ever meant to be, fate had intervened, robbing her of the chance. Harm had gone to his grave without ever hearing how much he meant to her and now she would have to live with that until she finally followed him into whatever lay beyond this world.

 

 

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