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Classification Angst, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 14,000 words; 32 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
Spoilers Through the end of Season 8, A Tangled Webb
Rating GS

 

 


Le Sanctuaire

 

A dark silhouette stumbled down the road towards the Embassy. The Marine guarding the gate squinted against the sun and stared hard at the man and woman limping their way to him. Their progress was slow and the guard had plenty of time to study them.

They leaned heavily against each other, the woman's head resting on the man's shoulder. The man limped and his free arm, his left arm, dangled at an awkward angle by his side. They were both dirty and the guard couldn't distinguish between dirt and blood. But, if he had to guess, he would lay even money that the stain on the woman's shirt was blood. As they inched closer, he saw that the stain was actually quite large. Beneath the grime, their faces were pale and covered with sweat. Whatever had happened, wherever they had been, it had been bad.

"We're Americans," the man called out. "Open the gate."

The guard noticed that his right arm, wrapped tightly around the woman's waist, was holding her up. She didn't look like she would be able to stand were it not for him. Her head lolled back on his shoulder as she moved to study the iron gate before them. The guard was inclined to grant them access. But he had been a Marine long enough to know that things weren't always what they seemed. People could, would, do anything to make their points, to achieve their goals. “Passports?" he drawled the word out, because he had time enough to wait for proof of citizenship or a really good story.

"We were in an accident. They were lost." The man hitched the woman up against his side and gestured down the lengths of their bodies. The woman moaned against the movement.

"I'm a Marine," she spoke up. "Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Mackenzie, JAG Corps. You can verify it with the headquarters in Virginia. Ask for Admiral Chegwidden."

Feeling like the guard at Emerald City, the Marine opened the gates, wondering why they didn't just say so. The JAG himself, Admiral Chegwidden, had called and asked the Ambassador to keep an eye out for these two. Though, truth be told, he thought the woman would look a little different. Bigger, somehow. Or tougher.

"You're not going to call?" She asked as they hobbled through the gates.

"Your C.O. beat you to the punch, Ma'am. Sir." The guard nodded at them. "We've been expecting you." The man flashed him a smile, his white teeth contrasting sharply with the layers of dirt on his face.

"Oh, thank God," she breathed as they passed him.

"Yes, Ma'am." The guard nodded again. He understood that sometimes Heaven wasn't an ethereal place in the sky peopled with angels. Sometimes, it was an American Embassy in the middle of Paraguay guarded by the Marines.

 

The Permanent Residents of Limbo

 

The sheets were soft against her skin. After days in the jungle and nights on dingy cots, she didn’t want to wake up. If she opened her eyes, she might not see a room in the embassy. She would be in the hut on the plantation. Or she would see a bright canopy of green leaves arching far over the dirt floor of the jungle. The beating of bird wings would replace the sound of someone knocking on the door. Or she would wake to hear Clay’s screams echoing across the courtyard.

“Hey,” he pushed the door open slowly, “are you awake?”

“Hey.” She forced her eyes open. Harm leaned against the doorjamb, his good arm propped against the frame. “How’s your wrist?”

He glanced down at the cast. She had pleaded with him to get a colored cast, but he had insisted on plain white muttering about job interviews and potential employers not taking him seriously. “Broken.” He raised his eyes to study her. “How are your ribs?”

She cocked at an eyebrow. “Broken.”

He limped into the room and eased himself on the side of her bed. His good hand found hers and wove her fingers between his.

“I never did thank you,” she murmured between careful breaths.

“For what?” Mimicking her earlier expression, he raised an eyebrow. “For rescuing you? For quitting the Navy to do it? Or maybe you wanted to thank me for crashing you into a mountainside?”

“Yes.” Her answer was simple. She didn’t want another misunderstanding between them. Their future was haunted by more ghosts than she could count. “For all of the above,” she paused. “Except for the crash.”

“You’re welcome.”

Her fingers flexed in his, squeezing once before pulling away. They retreated to the safety of her abdomen. His hand moved back to his thigh. She wanted to sigh. Why was it always so hard? For days, they had stumbled through the jungle together. They had survived only to recover to face awkward pauses more daunting than being lost in a foreign country.

As if he could sense her discomfort, or maybe he could feel it shimmering in the air, he smiled. “Anyway, you should really thank me for all I did to get here. Or maybe congratulate me.”

“You resigned,” she pointed out the one fact she already knew, wondering what merited congratulations. “I assume you got on a plane?” An eyebrow rose to punctuate her question.

“Funny.” He shifted on the bed, bringing his leg up so his knee bumped hers. “No. That’s not what I was talking about, wiseass. I had to pretend marry a CIA agent.”

“Excuse me?” Both eyebrows tracked a path high on her forehead. Although she tried to keep her voice light, shock rolled over in a cold sick wave.

“Well, you got to do it,” he pointed out logically. “I didn’t want to be the only kid on the block without a fake marriage to a CIA agent.”

“I can only hope it was a woman,” she said solemnly. Her brain scrambled for answers. She didn’t want to be ungrateful. But she couldn’t help but wonder what it meant. The doubts, the little thoughts of what if, began to resurface. Mercilessly, she told herself to shut up.

“Funny you should say that.” He launched into the story of his marriage ceremony with a detailed description of the vows. She laughed as much as her ribs would allow her, filling in his pauses with appreciative, perfunctory giggles.

When he finished, she let her eyelids droop and her breathing slow. He waited until she drifted off and then crept out the room. She could feel the bed shift under his weight and heard the door click softly behind him. Her eyes opened again and she stared at the door for a very long time.

 

A Peacock in Paraguay

 

The distinctive call of a peacock split the early evening quiet. Years ago, an employee, a junior assistant, or so the story goes, rescued the animal and brought it back to the embassy. It was rumored that the bird once belonged to a drug dealer. Other versions of the story claim the bird was a part of an exotic bird smuggling ring. The bird’s origins are unclear now. Facts have become rumors; rumors passed into myth; myth became fact. Ambassadors have come and ambassadors have left but the bird remains, haunting the embassy’s grounds.

She was hiding in the courtyard. Tucked into the corner of a bench, in the shadow of the embassy, she tried to breath shallowly in order avoid inciting the wrath of her ribs. The doctors had just given them medical clearance and their flight was booked. She had no bags, no personal effects other than a few hastily bought pieces of clothing purchased by an embassy employee on her behalf.

If her ribs weren’t broken, she would almost be able to fly away from Paraguay and pretend the whole ugly incident never happened. She sighed shallowly and readjusted her position on the bench to accommodate her ribs. She was fantastic at pretending things never happened. She lost people and places in her memories so often that her mind was a graveyard of people she once knew, places she had been. It was almost a wonder there was anyone left in her life. Like mother, like daughter.

She propped her chin on a fist and frowned. As far as she was concerned, this whole year had been a disaster. Nothing had gone right. Not for her, not for Harm.
Harm. The circle comes round again, she thought. It always came back to Harm. She had no right to feel jealous. Even less of a right to feel betrayed by him. And yet, here she was, in the middle of the courtyard, hiding from the one person she could never, would never, lose. She did, as he pointed out, run off to play Webb’s pregnant wife. And she kissed Webb good-bye. And meant it too.

This, she supposed, is where she should arrive at the conclusion that they were never meant to be more than friends. The signs were all there. He dated other women. She nearly married other men. They’d kissed exactly three times in almost seven years. She was a third of the way to that total with Webb. They’d both jumped into fake marriages with CIA agents. Maybe this is where their story would end. In an embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay. But she didn’t want to be just friends. The problem was, she didn’t know if they could ever be anything else. There was just too much between them – too much time, too many emotions, and too many misunderstandings.

She sighed for a third time. She would love to be able to breathe freely again. She would love to be able to just feel free. To be with someone with whom she wasn’t forced to examine his actions looking for subtext. But it was getting late. Late in the day, late in her life. She shifted slightly. She should probably go in soon. Soon, it would be time to leave. But she had a few minutes left and she was going to use every last second of them.

The air was soft and the harsh yellow lighting was fading into a tropical sunset. Tonight, the sky will be a clear blue, a shade that makes people breath deeply, trying to drink the color in. The plants in the courtyard will cast exotic, bizarre shadows. And then the shadows will fade, shrinking and blending into the darkness. And from somewhere in the courtyard, the peacock will sound out his call. For, although the embassy employee had rescued him, no one had thought to buy him a mate. With no peahen, and far from his native home, the peacock was forced to wander through the courtyard alone. Sometimes, the peacock wondered if he had really been rescued at all.

 

Spinning and Spinning

 

Spinning on a fifteen degree angle, the Earth rotates on its axis once over a period of twenty-four hours. Over the course of the year, it circles the sun. There are four seasons, even when you live in a place that doesn’t really feel them, and each day, the moon’s pull causes the tides to wax and wane.

Outside his door, there is a posted speed limit that no one ever obeys. All around him, except for on the Beltway, there is movement. As he stands on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue, the Earth is spinning beneath his feet and commuters are hustling towards the Metro stop at Union Station. Tourists are hailing cabs and families are reuniting for the long weekend. And yet, he is standing still.

His life was on hold and he hated that feeling. The Admiral promised him that his job was still his – and it is. He returned to JAG quietly, less dramatically and with more reservations than when he left. His co-workers greeted him quietly, but happily, and, after a few days and what felt like a few hundred petty cases later, he could call his life his own again.

If he was honest with himself, and as he stood on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue watching the tourists, he is inclined to be honest with himself, he is unsure of what he wants from the planet spinning beneath him. When he first considered leaving, the course of his life had been firmly plotted. It pointed south and to her. But even before he tendered his resignation, the line began to waiver. There were distractions, he decided, and then there were blondes.

He smirked. Blondes were a weakness. And Catherine Gale was definitely a blonde and definitely pretty. Originally, he went searching for her to find Mac. He would have done anything to find her. Even if Catherine had been ugly. It helped that she wasn’t, but he wouldn’t have cared. And that was where the line began to quiver. Because she wasn’t ugly and as a much as he wanted to dismiss it, the kiss may not have been just a kiss.

This was where his problems began. Before he went in search of Catherine, he was convinced he was in love with Mac. But now, he was forced to consider the possibility that maybe he wasn’t. Could he kiss another woman if he was? Would Mac have kissed another man if she were in love with him? He was beginning to think the answers were no.

Clearly, they were destined to be just friends. They were stuck in that wasteland of ambiguous emotions. He rubbed a fist over his breastbone, trying to ease the tension in his chest. It was the right decision, and eventually, the terrible pressure would subside. Maybe he would call Catherine and see if she wanted dinner with her favorite, and only, pseudo-husband. Maybe he would kiss her at the end of the date. It was time to start moving again. The maybes were endless.

 

Smile, Though Your Heart is Breaking

 

It is a universal truth that some sentences are better left unspoken. Some phrases, no matter how innocuous they seem, dictate the whole course of a conversation. Words strung together, like can, we, and talk, or can, you, come, here, and for a minute, insert such a feeling of dread into the listener’s ears that, even if the following conversation is benign in its content, the listener cannot fully participate for fear of the other person’s mindset. Equally true is the axiom that all important conversations should take place at night. That way, the participants can stumble wearily into bed and sleep the tension away.

Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp. In the summer, the air is soft, sometimes swampy itself, even at night. They met by the tidal basin under the cherry trees that are no longer in bloom. The air was blue and thick and the first stars were beginning to appear in the sky. They walked in silence because neither wanted to be the person who initiated the conversation. Neither wanted to admit that they had failed at something they had never tried. It was almost humiliating.

They were standing at the base of the Jefferson Memorial. The huge stone steps loomed in front of them before rising and forming a dome over the statue of one of the country’s founding fathers. He was a man who helped start their country. It was almost ironic that they were there to end something.

He drifted to the steps and sat down. From his vantage point, he could see the whole basin. It was empty, only dotted with a few tourists looking at the monuments. Tomorrow, the water’s surface will be littered with paddleboats. Tourists and joggers will line the paths. Tonight, she was the only person around and she was hesitating at the base of the steps.

Although he couldn’t see her face clearly, he knew she was trying to decide what to do. He could almost hear the debate in her head. He understood the debate. He had argued it this morning before he called her. He held it again this evening before getting out of the car. It was a matter weighing which option was more appealing: whether to have this conversation or to run as far and as fast as he could.

Finally, with a sound that was sort of a sigh and half a harrumph, she settled her body next to his. She pulled her knees close to her body, tucked her elbows between them and her chest, and would not look at him. He saw all this and nearly breathed a sigh of relief because he knew that he would not have to start this conversation.

Steadfastly refusing to look at him, she turned her eyes to the trees across the basin. After a few minutes of staring at their indistinct forms, she spoke up softly, “Do you think we’ll be able to stay friends?”

“We’ve always been friends.” Resisting the urge to rub a fist over his chest again, he forced his hands to dangle loosely over his knees.

She tilted her head slightly so that she could see him from the corner of her eye. Her hair fell in soft angles against her cheek, dividing and segmenting her skin. “Yeah,” she said quietly, “I guess we have.” She paused. “It’s different now though.”

He huffed out a breath and wrinkled his forehead. “It doesn’t have to be does it?”

Her head shook a little and she released a shaky sigh. She laughed slightly and brushed a hand over her cheeks. “I think it does now. At least for a little while.” Angling her knees towards his, she looked at him for the first time that evening. “Until everything settles down.”

“Mac, I…” He broke off, unsure of what he wanted to say.

“I know. Really, I do.”

It had all been said before. On porches, on ferries, on ships, at the end of races. They’d had their chances. Now all they needed to do was end the what ifs. Slowly, he leaned in to kiss her. It was light; it was soft. And it signaled endings rather than beginnings. Desperate emotions didn’t compel it. Awkward situations didn’t demand it. Just as slowly, he withdrew and smiled at her. “I’ll walk you to your car.” He offered her a hand and hauled her to her feet.

“Thanks.” She dug through her purse to find her keys. She looked up at him from beneath her bangs and smiled slightly. “Do me a favor?” she asked.

“What’s that?” His hand rested beneath her elbow as he walked them towards their cars.

Shuddering out a deep breath, she moistened her lips. “Don’t bring whoever she is to JAG right away?” She laughed nervously. “At least not soon. I don’t want a repeat of the Mic / Renee caper.”

His fingers tightened slightly, then fell away. They had reached the cars. “Sure.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Make me the same promise.”

She flinched at his word choice, but nodded. He watched as she braced her shoulders and looked away. Her gaze dashed over his shoulder and she pressed her lips together. Her arms slipped around her torso and hugged her body hard. “I…” Her voice trailed off into the night sky. “I want to end our deal.”

“The baby deal?” He hadn’t been expecting this request. It caught him so off guard, he didn’t stop to ponder how he knew to which deal she was referring.

“Yeah.” She nodded. “I need to end it.” She turned her head away, once again refusing to look at him. “To make a clean break.”

“But,” he stammered. His arms rose and fell uselessly by his side. Finally, he sighed in defeat. “Okay,” he almost whispered the word.

She leaned forward, resting her forehead against his chin. His arms slipped around her waist; her arms remained tightly locked around her body. “It’ll be better this way.” She pulled away slightly. “You’ll see.”

“Yeah. It will.”

She pasted a bright smile on her face. “I should really go.” She reached up to kiss him on the cheek. “I’ll see you Monday?”

“Monday,” he smiled. He slipped into his car and started the ignition. With a wave, she drove off. Slowly, he pulled away from the curb and drove in the opposite direction.

 

In the Foothills of a Bad Decision: A Geography Lesson

 

On the East Coast, conflicts with the land are mostly manmade, the Beltway, for example. Traveling west, the scenery shifts and changes. Mountains rise out of the plains, jutting into the sky. Their peaks are jagged and glacier pocked. Older and suffering from the effects of erosion and time, the mountains in the East are different. Millennia ago, glaciers swept down from the north, shearing the mountaintops. The Appalachian mountain chain is not comprised of the original peaks, but of their roots, the hardy rocks that survived being packed down in ice and snow.

Unlike their western counterparts, the Appalachian chain is lower. In the early part of the century, engineers discovered that they could build roads over them. What could not be conquered by going over, they burrowed through. There were, they saw, ways to traverse the mountains. The advent of technology made the engineers realize that whatever problems the mountains first posed to the original settlers, those problems were no longer insurmountable.

Before the mountains lies the Piedmont. It’s the foothills. It sits in the shadows of the once large mountains, never quite achieving their heights. Never leveling out, either. Like an anteroom in an office, the Piedmont marks a type of waiting room in the land.

On a perfect summer day, the hills still green and the air a deep, clear blue, his plane made lazy loops in the sky. The yellow wings were a sharp contrast against their backdrop. He had taken to the air to help clear his head. He couldn’t decide whether to make the phone call. Since Catherine didn’t know that he was planning to call, it didn’t matter how long it took him to call her. Why he was hesitating, he didn’t know. He had resolved his feelings for Mac. It didn’t even bother him that she hadn’t called him. Or that she barely spoke to him aside from what office politics demanded of her. He didn’t mind.

So really, he couldn’t understand the hesitation. There was a beautiful woman at the end of the call. A possible dinner date that could evolve and grow into something else in the future.

Obviously, Mac was okay with their new arrangement. He had even seen her smile. Granted, it wasn’t directed at him. He wasn’t even really meant to see it, but he just happened to be staring out his office window and there she was. He tried not to notice the smile. It was one of her softer smiles, the kind reserved for special occasions. He didn’t know what prompted it, but a part of him, the part that had always hoped they’d untangle messes in their lives and then entwine their lives, wished it was directed at him.

He shook his head lightly. He had come up here to make a decision about his future and Catherine Gale, not dwell on Mac and his past. Which, he supposed, was a part of his problem with Mac, she was so firmly entrenched in his past, and the years he wanted to make a part of his past, that he couldn’t build a future with someone who constantly reminded him of it, of them. Catherine was another problem altogether. A fixable problem with an easy solution. He didn’t know her very well; but first dates were invented to overcome that very dilemma. And he may never know her as well as he knew Mac, but that was the point.

Beneath his biplane, the terrain was growing hillier and rockier. Green hills were giving way to more Alpine scenery. The mountains were absorbing the foothills until they became indistinct from each other. He glanced down at his instrument panel. It was time to turn around. He had a call to make.

 

A Confluence of Events

 

The bullpen noticed three things at once. The most obvious one was that the Commander and the Colonel were uncomfortable around each other. If asked, no one would be able to say exactly what was wrong. Just as obviously, they were not fighting with each other. They talked – sort of. They spent time with each other – kind of. If one of them entered a room where the other one was, the person already in the room would linger for a few minutes and then leave, citing work, phone calls, and court appearances as excuses.

The next thing they noticed was that the Commander was dating and the Colonel was not. Although smart money said this was the source of the tension, it still baffled the staff. Some of the more romantic employees were disappointed. They had been convinced that the Commander and the Colonel were finally going to start dating after Paraguay. It appeared they were only half right.

Finally, a journalist arrived at JAG. He was doing a slice of life piece on military families during wartime. Surprisingly, when he expressed a desire to interview the JAG staff, the Admiral agreed. Some of the scuttlebutt said that the Admiral actually respected the writer. Other rumors whispered that it was direct order. No one, not even Tiner, knew the truth, but it made for great gossip.

Adam Jefferson was likable. Years of interviewing reluctant subjects had given him a smooth delivery and easy style. People found themselves drifting closer to him to hear his stories and were surprised to find themselves sharing their own. After a few days, they were hard pressed to remember JAG without him.

There were two people who resisted talking to him. The Commander had no interest in him. The Colonel would give him shy, half-smiles from across the bullpen before disappearing into her office.

Enter Harriet. She considered herself one of the Colonel’s best friends and she was determined to give the Colonel a happy life. For a while, she was convinced that Mac’s path to happiness was with the Commander. Apparently, she had been wrong. At first, she had been indignant on behalf of her friend. But her heart was too big to begrudge the Commander his happiness for too long. And, more importantly, she began to watch. And the more she watched, the more she saw. She saw the shy smiles. She saw Adam’s small waves and the darting glances.

It was only a matter of manipulation. Being pregnant worked to her advantage and she wasn’t afraid to use it. Mac would do almost anything, forgive almost as much, to make her friend comfortable in her last trimester. So Harriet began to plot. The more elaborate the schemes grew, the faster she realized it was just a matter of inviting them both to lunch and then conveniently forgetting to go with them. It was risky. Mac and she were good friends, bound together by happiness and heartache, but Mac was still the ranking officer.

The day of the lunch date, Harriet was so jumpy she could barely sit still. Only her sore legs kept her in her seat and watching the clock. The minute hand circled it once. It was beginning to make a second journey around when Mac and Adam entered the bullpen. The Colonel was laughing softly and Adam was gesturing, pantomiming, badly, ducking. Mac’s eyes found Harriet, who smiled sheepishly. She was caught. Mac smiled at her and shook her head before turning back to her conversation. Harriet spent the rest of the afternoon trying not to gloat. It took a little work, and a great deal of anxiety, but now the Colonel was dating, too.

 

Unhappy Fortune

 

In Romeo and Juliet, the friar and Romeo railed against fortune. Literature, like that play, is filled with instances where the courses of the characters change because of bad timing. But for a faster horse, worse aim, or a slower poison, the whole play could have ended differently. So, too, is history. One wrong turn and Europe had the impetus it needed to ignite the powder keg of World War I. Call it fate, fortune, or luck; it always seems to desert the people who depend on it the most.

A few blocks past the Dupont Circle Metro stop, there is a small Mexican restaurant. Although it’s not exactly halfway between Georgetown and Union Station, it’s close enough to midway that they could call each other Sunday nights and meet there for dinner from time to time. It became a favorite quickly. The televisions above the bar play ZNN and other news stations so they could keep tabs on the outside world. In the winter, it was small and cozy. In the summers, the bright interior is light and festive. Some summer nights, when their schedules were light and the nights were clear, they would linger on Connecticut Avenue, window-shopping or settling down at an outside café.

By some unspoken agreement, a verbal contract that was never verbalized, they have never brought dates to the restaurant. It was their little spot. A mutual location, untouched by the ghosts of past relationships and work. She loved the restaurant. She didn’t know if it was the place itself or if the yellow interior had soaked up the good cheer of those Sunday dinners. Its lopsided tables witnessed hope and the whisper of a promise for a future.

She’ll never remember her ride back from the Jefferson Memorial. Looking back on that night, she’s amazed that she made it home safely. The enormity of their decision, however, didn’t register until that Sunday night when her hand reached for the phone to call him and ask if he felt like Mexican that night. Her hand clutched the half-dialed receiver while she slid down her living room wall. They had ended their Sunday night dinners. Her fingers trembled and released the phone, which clattered to the floor unnoticed by its owner. She wrapped her arms around her shins and buried her head in her knees.

One Saturday afternoon, after they had been dating for a few weeks, Adam called and asked her if she wanted to go dinner. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew he was going to take her to that restaurant. The nerves were instantaneous and, to him, they would be unexplainable. She tried to think of logical reasons for them but found none that would work. How did she tell the man she was dating that the restaurant was special because of a man she never dated? In the end, she couldn’t invent any excuses so she remained silent.

They settled into a booth off to the side. From her seat, she had a clear view of the door and front window. Her eyes darted around the room and she barely glanced at the menu. Adam watched her carefully. He knew exactly when she saw whomever or whatever she had been searching for. Her shoulders slumped and her breath expelled in a soft whoosh like she had her breath knocked out of her. She nodded slightly at the door and lifted her hand in a sick, half wave. “Harm, Commander Rabb, just walked in,” she told him softly.

He twisted in his seat and saw the JAG lawyer standing by the entrance. A blonde woman hovered by his side, one hand resting lightly on his forearm as she scanned the room for the hostess. Interestingly, Rabb, despite the pretty woman by his side, wore a sick expression on his face. His nod in their direction was curt and just shy of friendly.

He couldn’t have explained it, had he been asked, but he felt recrimination in the nod. No one was going to ask him, however, least of all his fidgety girlfriend, so he remained silent. But it puzzled him. He didn’t know why it was there, but he did understand that it wasn’t directed at him. He turned back to Mac. “Who’s the blonde?”

Mac fiddled with silverware on the table before looking up. “Um, her name’s Catherine Gale.” She watched them sit down at a table behind theirs. “She works for the government.”

“Doesn’t everyone in D.C.?”

She laughed slightly but it sounded forced, even to her ears. “Sometimes it seems like that.”

Adam studied the other couple. The woman, Catherine, stood up and wove her body around the tables to the back of the restaurant, cell phone in hand. He tipped his head in their direction. “Well, that didn’t take long.”

“What?” Mac looked up from the tabletop where she’d been tracing patterns in the water from her glass. She shifted and saw Harm sitting by himself. “Would you excuse me? I’m going to go say hi.”

She pushed her body out the chair slowly. She’d been dreading this moment and she knew it would happen. It was fate’s idea of a funny joke that it happened here. Reaching out, she touched his shoulder blade lightly before sitting down in the vacant chair. “Hi,” she said softly. “Where’d Catherine go?”

He nodded. “Hi.” Clearing his throat, he said, “Work. She got paged.”

“Oh.” She paused. “I’m sorry.” They understood she didn’t mean the phone call.

He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. “Me too.”

Before she could stop them, her fingers lay lightly on his wrist. “It wasn’t my idea. He wanted to surprise me.”

He covered her hand and squeezed it. “You don’t owe me an explanation, Mac.” The belying his own statement, he offered her his explanation. “It was Catherine’s idea.” He glanced back at the table she had just left and raised his eyebrows. “Adam?”

She shrugged as nonchalantly as possible when holding the hand of one man and discussing another one. “He’s a good man.”

He nodded. Her hand turned over in his and her fingers curled against his palm. “Yeah,” he agreed, “he is.” He raised his eyebrows higher. “I thought you were going to start dating Webb.”

“Clay?” She started to pull her hand back but it was stuck firmly beneath his. “Why?”

It was his turn to shrug. “It looked like you two grew close in Paraguay.”

“I guess we did. He told me he loved me,” she whispered, partly because she didn’t want him to hear it, but mostly because she didn’t want to think about the hours and minutes that led to that confession.

“So why aren’t you dating him?”

“I didn’t – don’t – love him.” Her breath hitched slightly as she considered his question. Her free hand brushed her eyelashes. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It took seven years, but she finally understood his thought process. “Despite what you think, I don’t fall into bed with everyone who says that.”

He sighed. “That’s not what I meant. It looked like you two were close,” he repeated.

“I don’t love him.” She placed a slight emphasis on the last word. She looked up and tugged her hand free. “Catherine’s back.” She smiled at the other woman.

Adam spoke up as soon as she sat down at their table. “You were gone a long time. Everything okay?”

She smiled softly and tried to readjust to looking into brown eyes. “Yeah, it will be. We just had to straighten something out.” She reached out to squeeze his hand. “I’m sorry it took so long.”

Adam studied Harm’s back. “Did you two date?”

She drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “No.” She repeated it when he looked like he didn’t believe the one word answer. “No. We didn’t. But,” she added, “we weren’t uninvolved. Does that make sense?”

“You both thought something would happen?” He tried to make sense of her thought patterns. “Am I just a space holder?”

“No. Yes. No.” She shook her head. “Yes, we, at least I did, thought something might happen eventually. But that’s over now. You’re not saving his spot.”

“Okay.” Although she seemed surprised at his easy acquiescence, she slid easily into another conversation.

Throughout dinner, Adam studied her. He was journalist and made a living paying attention to details and mannerisms. He had noticed the little touches when she talked to Harm. The way their hands clung to each other although neither of them looked happy with the other person. He watched her all night and noticed that she never once turned around in her chair to look at Harm. Although he caught Catherine’s eyes twice during their meals, Harm’s back remained stubbornly to them. Biting his lip, he held back a quiet sigh. He realized that they must have had a lot of practice at this.

 

Awkward Pauses

 

She didn’t know how to approach him. Over the course of the weekend, she’d realized that she would have to be the adult this time. He wouldn’t make the first move. If she guessed correctly, he would beeline towards his office and shut the door behind him. And although she knew all this, she still didn’t know how she should begin a conversation that neither person wanted to have. Could she just come and out say, I’m sorry we broke our hearts and then trampled on them later?

What did she say to him that would take the pain away from Saturday night? She slumped behind her desk and rubbed her eyes. Why did she have to be the person who apologized when he breached their understanding too? She swallowed hard and twisted her fingers together in a tight fist.

Her heart hurt too. She hated seeing them together. Yes, she had Adam and he was a wonderful guy. Maybe one day, she’d even like him. But, it was quite possible she would never love him. Not like she - God, it was too early in the morning to think about all of this. All she wanted to do was hide and instead she was forcing herself to watch the bullpen for the man from whom she wanted to hide.

She caught sight of him. As predicted, he called out good mornings and went straight into his office. Forcing her toes to uncurl in her shoes, she heaved a sigh and pushed herself away from her desk. She didn’t knock; she didn’t want to give him time to compose himself. “Harm?” she called softly as she opened the door.

He was standing by his desk flipping through letters and the remnants of Friday’s mail. Looking up from under his eyebrows, he asked, “Don’t you knock?”

She shifted her weight from one hip to the other. “Not today.” Her hand remained on the doorknob. “I….” She broke off and looked around his office, miserably unsure of how to proceed. “About Saturday, I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”

He tossed the mail into his inbox. Cracking open his briefcase, he pulled out the files he had brought home over the weekend. The silence grew until Mac wasn’t sure he would answer her. Her foot was posed behind her, ready to flee if the tension grew worse.

“Me too,” he said after a few minutes.

“I meant it when I said it wasn’t my idea.”

“Me too,” he echoed. She waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, when it looked like he was only going to start working on the piles in front of him, she twisted her torso to walk away. His softly spoken “Did you have fun?” was almost unnoticed.

She paused and glanced back over her shoulder. “I’ve had better.”

He flashed her a quick smile. “Yeah, me too.”

She smiled back. “I’ll let you get to work.” She nodded at the files. “Looks like you have your hands full.”

“Yeah. No rest for the weary, I guess.” He paused and raised his eyebrow. “Or for those of us facing the Admiral’s wrath.”

“If you need anyone to dig you out,” she called over her shoulder, “you know where to find me.” She pulled the door shut behind her, looking, she hoped, decidedly more carefree than she felt.

 

Chinese Takeout and Accidents

 

Even the strongest wills can break. After sixteen days of rain, the weather was on course to break a hundred year standing record and the office was at its breaking point. Nerves were stretched thin. They had been stuck indoors, held captive by humidity and rain, and the strain was starting to show. People snapped at each other and the gossip mill, always active, was operating at full strength. No one was safe from it. The people who had office doors kept them shut, ignoring the outside world and the people in it.

There were stacks of folders on his desk. They were six inches deep in places. A notepad sat in front of him. It was blank and the pages were slowly diminishing as he tore them off to make crumpled paper basketballs. He had missed, on average, every third shot, but he felt his aim was improving. The misses weren’t nearly as bad. After all the pick-up games with Sturgis, he thought his trashcan basketball would have improved, too. Apparently, he was wrong.

He was bored. Catherine was out of town and he had a pile of dull cases and duller clients waiting for him. Through his half-drawn blinds, he could see Mac slouched over her desk. Her forehead rested in her hand. For a minute, he thought she was doing work until he noticed that she was tapping her pen against her desk with her other. If he wasn’t mistaken, it was a one handed rendition of “Chopsticks.” An idea flitted around the back of his brain like a moth around a light bulb. He swatted at it, because it wasn’t supposed to be there. Like the moth when it reached the bulb, fulmination of the idea could only lead to bad things. But, also like the moth, it wouldn’t go away. He was drawn to it.

Before he could stop himself, he found himself walking across the bullpen heading towards her office. He knocked but entered before she could answer. His plan depended on spontaneity.

“Harm,” she gasped, the flat of her hand lying against her chest and eyes wide. “You startled me.”

He shrugged easily. “I knocked.”

“You did? I didn’t hear you. My mind was wandering.”

“And you call yourself a Marine.” He smiled to lessen the impact of the barb. “Do you have any plans for tonight?”

“What?”

“Plans,” he repeated. “Do you have plans for tonight? With Adam?”

“No.” She shook her head. “He’s working.”

“Great. What do you say we call it a day and get some Chinese takeout or something? It’ll be like old times.”

Her eyebrows knit into a frown of confusion. “I thought we weren’t doing that anymore.”

He slid into a chair and hooked his ankle over his knee. “Those were your terms, not mine. The way I see it,” he leaned back and steepled his fingers.

“Please, make yourself comfortable.” She gestured to the chair he was already occupying and, cupping her chin in her hand, tapped her fingers against her cheek.

He flashed a quick grin. “Thanks, I will. Now, as I was saying, the way I see it, I can ask but you can’t.”

“There were loopholes in that arrangement?”

“Every good one has them. Now, quit interrupting. Since you were obviously sitting here waiting for me to ask, I thought I’d end your misery.”

“I didn’t know I was doing that.”

“Please. I could feel the vibes through the window. So what do you say, Marine? Have any civilian clothes with you?”

Her expression was peculiar. It was an odd mixture of wistfulness and ambivalence, covered with a thin layer of blush. Not for the first time in his life, he wondered what she was thinking. He could tell, however, that she was wavering; it was only a matter of time before she capitulated. “As it so happens, I do,” she mumbled into her palm.

“Great. Pack it up.” He left the office before she could change her mind. This, he decided, was much better than wastebasket basketball.

Dark clouds had bubbled over the city by the time they returned to his apartment with the food. In the distance, lightning flashed and illuminated the dark clouds. He ushered her ahead of him and they dashed into the building seconds before the rain. Gesturing to his bedroom, he told her, “You can change, I’ll set up for dinner.”

She murmured her agreement. As she stepped into the bedroom, she tried not to marvel at the fact that she was standing in his bedroom again. In his apartment again. It seemed like so long ago. Their friendship had been rocky before; sometimes it was so thin it was almost transparent. But it had never been like this. It had never gotten to the point where her skin had itched and tension slid under it like a thin, cold layer of water. She wanted it back; she knew he did, too. Which was why she agreed to come back with him.

Nervously, she slid a hand over her shorts and tried to tuck her bra straps beneath her tank top. She huffed a breath out in exasperation. Why couldn’t she have had jeans and a parka in her car?

Smothering a grin as he jumped, she stepped into the kitchen. “Hey, I can take over if you want to change.” She placed her hand lightly on his back. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” She bumped him gently with her hip. This time, they both jerked at the contact. Smiling nervously, she shooed him away from the food. “Go. Change.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

It happened slowly. It was slow enough, had she noticed, that she could have stopped it, them. But the evolution from awkward to friendly was so seamless, she would never be able to figure out the moment when things began to shift and change. Tucked away in his quiet apartment, while the rain ran down the window in tiny streams, conversation flowed from one topic to another, as fluid as those little rivulets of water. It must have been rote memory or inherent knowledge. Like animals migrating year after year to places where they had never been but knew how to find. Light taps to limbs became lingering touches. Sidelong glances and shy smiles turned into long stares.

It was as natural as their friendship had once been, but accompanied by something else. Years of sexual frustration and innocent, and not so innocent, flirting were going to end. When one of them would leave the couch, for coffee, water, or something equally innocuous, they would return to sit inches closer. Inch by inch, the expanse of leather couch was disappearing between them. Like conquering heroes, fueled by desire and determination, they waged steady assaults against the space between them.

His fingers threaded through her hair. Voices lowered to murmurs; murmurs whispered into sighs; sighs slipped into silence. Her head lay beneath his chin, her fingers, woven through his, lay in a tangle on his lap. His leg brushed against hers. Jolted by the contact, she jerked her head up. Their eyes met and his hand tightened on the crown of her head. Her eyes widened slightly. She had been working so hard, concentrating on a chess game made up of human pieces and tactical maneuvers, that she wasn’t sure whose turn it was to move next. The palm of his hand pushed lightly on her skull and she found herself leaning forward slightly, her head tilted fractionally.

Their lips were a breath apart. She could almost feel them, but didn’t move closer. Anticipation coiled in her stomach; it rested on her lips. Before she could think the word ‘please’, his mouth was on hers. Her hands moved to his shoulders, his arms pulled her against him and she found herself crawling over his lap. Without asking or agreeing, without directions or discussion, begging or promises, they stumbled off his couch and backed into his bedroom, a trail of clothes marking their passage.

 

Re-Evaluating Data

 

Welling up from the deepest parts of the ocean, tidal waves can race across the sea at speeds of five hundred miles an hour. Tremors in the ocean’s crust, the thin coating covering the globe, cause upheavals on the water’s surface. They build as they travel until they are towering walls of water that hurtle towards the land. Their reach is great. The path of destruction is massive.

Scientists are struggling to understand them. Like hurricanes and tornadoes, they have a system of warnings and watches to alert coastal towns. But the waves, like the weather, do not always conform to the systems.

Her hand swatted lazily at the thing holding her arm down. When it brushed over skin, she bolted upright. Through luck and clumsy choreography, he snagged the blanket as she yanked the sheet around her. They stared at each other from across the bed. He watched as her hand flew to her head, patting down errant strands of hair before settling against her mouth.

Someone needed to start talking, he realized. “Good thing it’s Saturday,” he tried to smile. It felt more like a grimace.

“Did we just – did you and I have - ?” she broke off.

Because her hand muffled the words, he only nodded, guessing at what she was saying. A sick feeling snaked around inside of him. He watched as she lowered herself on to the bed. “Oh, dear God,” she moaned against her hand.

Cautiously, he eased on to the bed beside her. He had a girlfriend. She had a boyfriend. They were both dating people. People that weren’t each other. “Well,” he said at length, “you’ve got admit, this a new place for us.”

She laughed suddenly and leaned against his wall, crooking her knees. “Yeah, we’ve definitely never done that before.” Angling her head, she murmured, “Maybe that was always the problem.”

Stretching his legs out in front of him, he mimicked her relaxed attitude. He turned his head to see her better. “I thought you were going to bolt.”

“Me too,” she admitted. She blew out a breath and combed her fingers through her hair. “So, what do we do now?

He didn’t want to say it. He didn’t want to be the person who pointed out all the obstacles that could keep this from happening again. But she was going to make him say it. He could see the look in her eyes. They were soft and compassionate. “Mac, I….”

She thought she could do it. She thought she could hear the words or say them, but she couldn’t. She had wanted this for too long to hear what a mistake it was for them to be together. Gently, she laid two fingers against his wrist. “Don’t. Don’t say it. I know.”

“No. Mac. Wait.” He grabbed her arm as she started to rise from the bed. “I don’t want you to go.”

Her back remained to him, but she turned her head and rested her chin on her shoulder. “Do you want me to stay?”

“I – I don’t want you to go,” he repeated.

“What about Catherine?”

His hand dropped from her elbow. He rubbed his hands over his eyes and sighed. “What about Adam?” he countered.

“I don’t know.” Her head dropped into her hands. “He deserved better than this. They both did.”

“You’re right. They do.”

She sighed and tucked her sheet more firmly around her body. “Are you going to tell her about this?” She stood up and turned to face him. He lay slumped against the wall, his head turned away from her. If the circumstances were different, she would have tried to soothe the frown away. She wanted, her fingers curled against the temptation, to rub away the lines on his forehead, erasing them.

The thought was incongruous, but it was there nonetheless. He had never seen her like this and he wanted to see her again first thing in the morning. Before the bad coffee and traffic jams. “The truth, I guess.” He shrugged. “It’s the only thing to tell her.”

“Yeah,” she nodded and bit her lower lip. “I guess it is.” She crossed an arm over her breast and tugged lightly on the sheet until it swirled around her. He heard her shaky indrawn breath and braced himself for the question. He could practically see the words forming on her lips. “So...” she trailed off.

“So.” He stood up, searching his drawers for underwear. A sneaky suspicion told him that this wasn’t a conversation for which he wanted to be naked. “Do I ask it or are you going to?”

“Would you please?” she asked in a tiny voice.

“Where does this leave us?”

“That would be the question.” She nestled her hand between her chin and her chest. “Do you love her?”

“No,” he answered. “But I do like her. Do you love Adam?”

“No,” she sniffled. “But I like him. He’s good to me. But I don’t love him.”

He tried not to sigh at those words. “I don’t love her. It’s easy with her. We have a good time.” It was as close as they would come to an admission.

“Oh,” she nodded and sniffled again. She wanted to cry when she heard those words. He was going to pick Catherine and she was probably going to choose Adam in response to his decision. All that remained to be done was saying the words.

“I’ll be the bad guy here. I’m not sure I want to break up with Catherine. Although she may dump me,” he added as an afterthought. He didn’t add the thought that he was hoping it would happen.

“I know. I mean, I understand.” She smiled shakily. “So we just pretend this never happened?”

“I guess.”

“I should – I should get dressed and go.” She tugged at the sheet again and headed off to find her clothes.

“Are you going to stay with Adam?”

“Honestly?” Pausing her quest, she turned around. “I don’t know. He doesn’t deserve to be treated this way. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Yeah. I guess we’ll both just have to wait and see.”

She nodded and resumed her hunt.

Years ago, in the Hawaiian Islands, scientists studying the ocean noticed an unusual disturbance in it. The signs pointed to a tsunami. They watched carefully, but when the wave arrived, it was only six inches high. Imagine their confusion when, after all that build up, nothing happened.

 

A Butterfly on M Street: Chrysalis

 

There are specific types of flowers that gardeners can plant to attract butterflies and birds. Brightly colored, the butterflies dance over flox, coneflowers, spiderflowers, black-eyed susans, and daisy like flowers. Black with iridescent blue, yellow and black, the exotic coloring makes it almost impossible to remember that they started as ugly worms.

On a corner of M Street, someone owns a house with a small plot of land. The owner is either a prodigious gardener or hires a lawn service because the yard is an explosion of color from April to October. Flowers crowd the tiny lot in clumps and sprinkles of purples, oranges, and reds, tempered with cooler, calmer colors. It should have clashed but it worked for the small brownstone.

In the summer and spring, she drives out of her way to see the house when she comes home from work. On gray days, the colors brighten her mood. On days when the sun is shining and her work load is light, the flowers add to the day. It makes her nostalgic for something she has never had. A quiet home with its own little space in the world. She’s not even sure she could garden without killing every plant in the yard, but her fingers itch to try. Every day she drives by the little house and contemplates the one she’ll own one day. It’s a remodeled version of the one she’s been building since her childhood. Over the years, she’s added to it and changed it, refining a detail here, simplifying a plan there, as her tastes changed. This year, she’s added butterflies.

It’s been over a week since she left Harm’s apartment. Although she’s tried to act naturally around him, she can’t quite remember what their relationship was like before. Before Catherine and Adam added complications to a relationship that need simplifications. Before they saw each other naked. At that thought, she has to remind herself to concentrate on driving. Her skin, however, remembers what her mind has made taboo and phantom fingers, given presence by the air rushing through her car windows, brush over the skin of her arm.

She hasn’t asked if Catherine forgave him. She doesn’t want to know. It’s selfish and she knows it, but she can’t help hoping that Catherine won’t let this slide. It’s selfish because she hasn’t talked to Adam yet. She knows he won’t forgive her. And if she’s honest with herself, she knows that she wouldn’t respect him if he forgave her her sins.
In truth, she hasn’t decided if she’s going to tell him about that night. It would only hurt him and it wouldn’t serve any purpose. She already knows it’s going to end and that she’s going to be the one to end it. She’s going to miss him. More, she’s going to miss the possibilities of them. As she pulls onto M Street, she stares at the little house on the corner and regretfully puts away her dream again.

The light changes as she drives up to the corner. She coasts to a stop in front of the house and sighs. Resting her chin against the steering wheel, she studies the brick structure. She tries not to picture herself in its rooms, cooking dinner or sitting at the table. She tries not to imagine bright, happy children wreaking havoc in the small yard. She tries not to picture Harm standing on the front porch with her as their children leave for their first day of school. But all that is like trying not to imagine a pink elephant. Say the words and the images appear.

As her car idles at the curb, a butterfly form the yard flies over the hood of her car. She watches the yellow wings float over the red surface. She sighs and tracks the bug’s progress. It’s funny; she never classified butterflies as bugs before. They were distinct from their caterpillar counterparts in her mind. The life was comprised of distinct phases: bug, chrysalis, and butterfly. It’s hard to think of the thing hovering over the flowers as something that was once ugly, but the fact remains.

The light changes again and she depresses her gas pedal, feeling lighter than she has in a week.

 

Spilled Milk: Or Why We Cry

 

There are a lot of sayings that she just doesn’t understand. Little comments, pithy witticisms, and downright clichés that people utter like truisms when they lack the ability to say anything else. Like, for example, having your cake and eating it too. What the hell does that mean? Isn’t the whole point of cake to eat it? Sure, eventually, it goes away, but, for days on end, you have a perfectly edible cake. She has stopped eating, buying, or looking at cakes because of that expression.

Although she may not always understand the words coming out of their mouths, Catherine Gale can always read people. It’s part of her job. For the past week, she’s been using these skills on her boyfriend. Sometime, during the middle of the week, she realized that it was hopeless. Not trying to understand him, that’s pathetically easy.

The past few weeks had been fun. He was a wonderful date. He was kind and, although this week was a definite exception, attentive. But this week, he’s broken four dates. He made one lunch date, but spent most of it staring out the window of the restaurant. He’d been jumpy and surly and nearly yelled when she mentioned Mac. And that was when she knew. He’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. That expression she understood perfectly.

Harmon Rabb, Jr., and Sarah Mackenzie, the only, had slept together. She was hurt. She was angry. And she was embarrassed. She rubbed a hand over her face. God, she was embarrassed. She should have known better – she did know better.

The day he pretended to marry her. That was when she knew that he was firmly committed to the Colonel, even if he had yet to realize it. But she had forgotten all that, or pushed it to the back of her mind, when he called her office and asked her out to dinner. Warnings and cautions flew from her brain to be replaced by images of handsome naval commanders in dress whites. Although she knew better, at least once a day, she found herself yelling at herself for picturing her wedding to him.

The buzzing of her intercom interrupted her self-pity. When her secretary announced the presence of her boyfriend, she bit back a sigh. It was well past time to end the charade. It was time to abort the mission. Catherine Gale, your new mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find someone who loves you back.

Rising from her desk, she met him half-way across the room. Grabbing his arm, she smiled up at him. “Well, this is a surprise. Why don’t I use this as an excuse for an early lunch?”

He smiled back at her. “That was the whole point, Ma’am.”

She pulled the door shut behind them. “I know the perfect place.” It was quiet and out of the way. She hardly ever went there, which was the whole reason she picked it. After today, she never wanted to be reminded of this afternoon again.

As she wandered back to her office alone, she pondered the old clichés again. The saying she always understood but never comprehended was crying over spilled milk. She knew it meant that there was no sense in crying over things you couldn’t have, but weren’t they always the things that make you cry the most?

 

Nothing Worth Having

 

Becoming a hero isn’t an easy task, not even in society clamoring for heroes. From the time we’re young, we’re told stories of heroes and soldiers. Of presidents who have led in troubled times. We’re cultured to the ideas of big men and women rising to meet the challenges in life. Yet, very often, the stories we love the most are the stories of the underdogs. Those people who faced challenges that seemed insurmountable and overcame them. Their faults are forgiven, their sins commuted. Sometimes, having the courage to do something is worth more than a character flaw. We want to see greatness, yes, but we want to see it in human form. It reminds us that, even in a somewhat cynical and less stable world, big things are possible. Even when you’re slightly less than perfect.

“Are things ever going to be normal between us?” he asked, following her into the bullpen one Monday morning. He was afraid his attempt to be inconspicuous was failing. The bullpen was studiously not paying attention to them. A sure sign that its occupants were hanging onto their every word.

“Harm,” she began in a hushed voice as she stepped into the break room, “how can you expect things to be normal when you saw me,” she broke off abruptly when she noticed that they weren’t alone, “reaching for that doughnut,” she finished lamely.

Harriet and Bud smiled their hellos uneasily.

“Don’t you think we can,” he tried to figure out he could phrase his sentence without attracting attention and still stick within the parameters of the ridiculous conversation, “talk about….” His hands raised and lowered.

“No.” She shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to move past it.”
Harm flashed a quick smile at Bud and Harriet and struggled not to squirm. “It happened two weeks ago, Mac. We need to talk about it.”

“Please.” She closed her eyes. “Please stop talking about this. “ She rested her hands on the countertop.

“Mac,” he moved closer to her, “you haven’t talked to me in over a week. There are things I need to tell you about that – doughnut.”

Trapped in a corner of the kitchenette, Harriet and Bud watched the two officers carefully. Bud checked on the still brewing coffee, silently cursing the slow machine.

“Stop.” Mac opened and shut cabinet doors. Not finding what she was looking for, she moved to the dishwasher. “You have someone else to … share doughnuts with.” She turned to face him. “I don’t want to talk about this. Not now. Not ever. Has anyone seen my mug?” She dropped her hands to her sides and looked around the break room.

“It’s right in front of you, Colonel,” Harriet spoke up timidly, pointing to the cup on the counter.

Mac smiled her thanks, grabbed the mug, and left the room without waiting for the coffee to finish brewing. He smiled at the two lieutenants before following her out into the bullpen. “Batten down the hatches,” he called over his shoulder. “It looks like it’s going to be one of those days.”

In the kitchenette, Harriet turned to Bud and said, “Well, that was odd.”

“You said it, Sweetie.” He rolled his eyes. “Do you think they thought they were fooling us?”

“Don’t know. Coffee’s done.”

He was not going to be deterred. It was past time they talked. He didn’t think it was going to be easy. In fact, he knew it wouldn’t be easy. But he was up to the challenge. She was going to talk to him.

He could try the direct approach. He could open the door to her office, stride in, and announce his break up with Catherine. It could work. It had potential in theory. The problem with theories was that they had to be tested and he didn’t know what the results of that one would be.

The rumors were circulating, of course. Adam hadn’t been seen at headquarters in over a week. It galled him to admit he didn’t have the courage to ask her if they were true. He had played tag with a nuclear missile, been on both ends of a gun and a witness stand, had survived plane crashes, and, yet, he was afraid of a one hundred and twenty pound woman in the office across the bullpen. It was past time, too, to face his fears.
So he emailed her and asked her to lunch. Twenty minutes later, his computer still silent, Harriet appeared at the door with a case file for him from the Colonel. The only page in the file contained one word: no. It was underlined twice. With exclamation points at the end. In capitals. He sighed. It was going to be much harder than he thought. Good thing he was persistent.

He emailed her again. She forwarded it back to him. A technological way, he supposed, of returning to sender. He walked by her office. She closed her blinds. He made coffee the way she liked it. She drank water.

By the end of the day, the staff was following his every move avidly and with unveiled curiosity. When he didn’t overtly react to her darkened office, they bit back sighs of disappointment and felt strangely unfulfilled as they tracked his progress from the building.

On the way to her apartment, he had time to reassess his plan. Obviously, the subtle approach wasn’t working. He knew he hurt her. It was evident every time she didn’t look at him. But he also knew he wasn’t the only one at fault. She had walked out of his apartment that morning without ever looking back. The last glimpse he’d had of her was of her back as she went through the elevator gate.

It had taken him less than a day to realize that they’d been wrong. That he’d been wrong. In a little over five hours, he’d realized that he’d chosen the wrong woman. It had taken him a week to figure out how to undo part of the problem. Two weeks to come up with a plan to fix the other part. Three hours to understand it wasn’t working and one short car ride to decide on the direct approach.

When she opened her apartment door, he said, “I broke up with Catherine. I don’t want to have it easy. I just want you.”

“I think,” she cleared her throat lightly, “you better come in.”

 

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

 

When it was first introduced, the waltz was considered scandalous by its critics. It required its participants to stand too close together. The focus of dancing rests primarily on the interaction between a man and a woman. Whether it is a ballet or a rumba, a tango or a waltz, the audience is drawn to the dancer’s ability to convey emotions through movement. Want – outstretched arms and looks across a stage. Desire – the slide of a leg, a dip. Love – a slow revolution. In dance, the basis for movement is found in love.

She hovered by the door, unsure of what to say, what he was going to say. Her hand lay lightly on the doorknob, giving her an out even though it was her apartment. “So,” she began, then stopped.

“So,” he agreed. He shoved his hands into his pockets. His gaze roamed around her apartment, looking at everything but her. “So,” he repeated. He decided to try the direct approach again. “I screwed up.”

Surprisingly she nodded and moved to the couch. “You weren’t alone. I did too.”

“I never should have dated her.”

She shrugged and pulled a pillow on to her lap. “I shouldn’t have dated him.” She glanced up at him. “Are you going to stand there all night?”

“I don’t know.” He hunched his shoulders and let them fall. “Maybe.”

“I don’t bite.” She patted the cushion next to hers.

He answered without thinking. “Liar.” As soon as the word left his mouth, he immediately wanted to take it back. His mouth opened as if he could swallow it before it could reach her ears.

Shocked for a minute, she stared at him before giving in to the urge to laugh. “Um, okay. I’ll try to keep my hands and mouth to myself.” She held up her right hand and drew and X over her heart with her left hand. “Sit. You’re making me nervous.”

He perched tentatively on the edge of the couch. His hands dangled loosely in the space between his knees. Turning his head to face her, he let his breath out in a soft whoosh. “The thing is, Mac, I’m terrified.”

Her eyes widened and her fingers tightened on the pillow. “Of me?” She pointed to her chest. “You’re afraid of me?”

“Terrified,” he corrected. He sighed and brushed a hand over his hair before leaning back.

“But why?” Her eyebrows rose and knit together.

“Mac.” He looked over at her. “You know why.”

She fell silent and stared at the pillow. Cocking her head to the side, she mumbled, “Because I could break your heart?”

He nodded.

“Because of our track records with relationships?”

He nodded again.

“Because of our track record with each other?”

Again, he nodded.

She blew out a soft a breath that fluttered her bangs. Tossing her hands up, she said, “Well then. I don’t know what to tell you. Honestly? I’m scared too. But I’d be willing to work past it. But, Harm,” she leaned forward and tapped his arm lightly, “if you aren’t, then let’s just end this now. For real this time.”

“I’m not walking away this time, Sarah.” He captured her hand between his hand and his arm.

“Then why….” She trailed off.

He tugged her hand, pulling her closer. “I was just letting you know where I stand.”

“Oh,” she said in a small voice. She bit her lip and her gaze slid sideways.

“Now who’s running?” He smirked and pulled her hand again. Off balance, she fell against him.

She laid the flat of her hand against his chest. “Me,” she admitted.

“Because I could break your heart?” he asked softly.

The corners of her mouth turned up and she nodded.

“Because of our track records with relationships?”

She nodded again.

“Because of our track records with each other?”

Again she nodded.

“I can’t promise anything.” The words were hushed.

“I know,” she whispered. She looked up at him. “I think I need to hear the words.” She glanced away and bit her lip. “I thought – I thought I could live happily just knowing, but I can’t. I need to hear them.”

He placed a finger under her chin and turned her face to his. A breath shuddered out. These words were not easy to say but the direct approach had been working so far this evening. “I love you.” The words weren’t that hard to say either.

Cupping his face with her hands, she whispered, “I love you, too,” a breath away from his lips, but she didn’t move closer.

“I knew I could get you to admit it,” he smiled and shifted her into his lap. Like her, he didn’t move in for the kiss.

“Oh, so that’s what this was?” she questioned. Her fingers combed through his hair to rest against the back of his neck. She bumped her nose against his. “So now that you got what you were looking for, are you going to leave?”

His arms wrapped around her torso and locked at the small of her back. “Can’t think of any reason to stick around. Might as well go.”

In her years of kissing and being kissed, she has found that, often times, the kiss cannot live up to the anticipation of it. That space between the movement and the meeting, when lips are suspended over lips, is more exciting that the feeling. But she knew now that was because she’d been kissing the wrong men. The heady anticipation still existed. It sat between them like an invisible barrier, keeping them from moving closer until it rose to an intolerable level. Her head tilted slight to the right. His tipped, mimicking her motion. Like dancers waiting for the crescendo, they hovered on the brink of movement, paused and taut, ready to leap forward.

She smiled and lowered head when his hands pressed against her back. He could feel her grin against his mouth before he claimed her bottom lip with his teeth. His hand moved to fist in her hair. Her fingers curled around his shirt collar. He could feel her leg slide and bump against his as she tried to find leverage to stand. She found purchase and used her grip on his shirt to yank him to his feet and guided him into her bedroom.

In ballets, many duets are comprised of four parts. The dancers begin together. Then they are given solos that highlight their skills and let them shine on their own. In the fourth movement, often the most dramatic, the dancers return to the stage together.

The audience is allowed glimpses of their emotions through lifts and turns. The movements are a series of actions and reactions before the music fades and the dancers leave the stage.

 

Homemade Biscuits

2 cups of flour, sifted
1 tablespoon of baking powder
½ teaspoon of salt
1 ½ sticks of butter, chilled
½ cup of half and half

The scent of biscuits baking in an oven fills a kitchen. It’s a heady smell that can remind people of their childhood. Of snowy days and homemade soup that leaves trails of steam on the range hood. It’s the smell of winter mornings right before the holidays, when coffee smells like cinnamon and pine trees stand in living rooms. It’s summer mornings when the sunlight is just beginning to warm the night air and promise hangs in the mist over the grass.

No matter how advanced we are the easiest way to bake biscuits is the old-fashioned way. The recipes are easy to follow and the ingredients are simple, but there is a knack to making them. Too much mixing and the dough becomes heavy. The biscuits sit like too heavy pancakes on the baking sheet. Not enough mixing and the biscuits crumble before the butter has a chance to melt. But if you’re lucky, and have just the right touch, the biscuits are light and they remind you of an easier time in your life when things are just about perfect.

It’s early in the morning when she is woken up by a light tapping on her bare back. She’d been woken up this way before so she’s not alarmed. Instead, she smiled as the tapping took on a distinct rhythm. “Jingle Bells again?” she asked sleepily. “It’s barely November.” She rolled over to study her husband.

He smiled at her and waved to her with their son’s foot. It was that chubby appendage that had been tapping on her back. “He’s a baby, Mac. He’s bound to be excited about Christmas.” Carefully, he eased on to the bed and placed the baby between them.

She shot him a baleful glare as she rolled on to her side. “He’s eight months old, Harm.” She mimicked his tone as she reached out to tickle Jacob’s belly. “He only recently figured out how to hold his head up.”

Jacob chortled under his mother’s fingers. He grabbed his foot and proceeded to de-sock it while his parents talked.

“Mac, have I not told you what miraculous baby we have? Give the kid a break, it’s his first Christmas.”

She smiled down at the baby trying to swallow his toes. “Yeah, he’s pretty special,” she agreed. She turned her smile to him and he could feel a ridiculous grin spread across his face. Reaching up she pinched him lightly on the cheek before pushing herself up to rest against the headboard. “You know who’s really looking forward to his first Christmas?” she asked softly, as she attempted to put the sock back on her son’s foot.

“He’s only going to pull it off again in a few minutes,” he pointed out. Then he sighed with mock exasperation and gestured to the baby. “Didn’t I just say he was?”

“No,” she shook her head, “I meant you.”

He was quiet for a minute as he considered her words. He sighed a little, this time pensively, and turned his head away for minute to study the rapidly baring trees outside the window. “Actually, that’s not true,” he corrected. “I looked forward to Christmas last year, you know.”

“Yes,” she agreed softly, “I know.” Right before Christmas last year the doctor had informed them they were having a boy. He had piled presents under the tree for a child that wouldn’t be born for two months and wouldn’t be old enough to appreciate them for over a year. She hadn’t stopped him; instead, she enjoyed his enthusiasm. Every once in a while, she even gave into his holiday-induced madness.

“It’s hard to explain,” he attempted to explain while watching his wife patiently put the baby’s other sock back on his foot. The only word he could think of that explained everything, clearly and succinctly, was relativity. When he was a boy, things that seemed so huge were actually quite small. Hills that proved daunting to his bicycle prowess; trees that he and his friends climbed; they just looked immense in his mind. He’s noticed that words change their meanings over time, too. Like the word forever. When he was a child, the word forever robbed him of his father. How long will daddy be gone? Forever. As a young man, it was the word that kept him from assuming the pilot’s position in the cockpit. How long will my eyes be like this? Forever. But now, watching on as Jacob decided that his mother’s stomach was a great place to play the bongos, forever didn’t seem like nearly enough time.

Christmas, too, has become a relative concept in his mind. As a small child, the days he can barely remember, Christmas meant brightly colored wrapping paper, trees so big they seemed to fill the room, and boxes of toys meant just for him. After six, it marked the anniversary of his father’s disappearance. As an adult, surrounded by friends and a makeshift family, it became a bittersweet experience. But last year, after not even a full year of marriage and with a child on the way, he remembered why he loved Christmas as a five year old. Why the scent of baking cookies was magical and why people wished so hard for snow.

“You don’t have to explain,” she said. “I know.” Tilting her head up, she placed a soft kiss on his cheek. She rested her head against his shoulder before smiling up at him impishly. “If you’re this bad now, what are you going to be like if we have another kid? What will you do if you have a daughter?”

His shoulder jerked under her head and she patted his leg consolingly. “Relax, it was a hypothetical. Not a subtle way of telling you about another one.”

“I wouldn’t mind another one,” he admitted.

“Neither would I,” she smiled. “Just not while Jake’s so young.” Her stomach growled and she slapped a hand down on his leg. “I’m hungry. It’s your turn to make breakfast.” Scooping Jacob up into her arms, she climbed out of bed.

“I made it last weekend,” he lied, praying she’d forget. He didn’t have an aversion to making breakfast, he’d just much rather watch her and that was hard to do while he was cooking.

“You did not,” she called from the bathroom, although it was garbled because of the toothbrush in her mouth. She walked back into the room; baby on her hip and toothbrush in her other hand. “I did and you bitc – complained the whole morning because of what I made.”

“Well, really, Mac. Bacon?” He defended himself.

“Aha!” She pointed her toothbrush at him in triumph.

“Give me the baby.” He held his arms out as she passed Jacob to him. “Finish brushing your teeth. You look like you have rabies.”

“Sore loser,” she muttered.

“I heard that.”

“You were supposed to.” She squealed as he swatted at her backside and dashed into the bathroom. When she emerged, he was playing peek-a-boo with Jacob on the edge of the bed. Sometimes, when she steps back to observe her life, it amazes her that she’s gotten this far. It had taken her years longer than most people, but she’d finally found her place in the world. It shocked her when she finally realized that her place didn’t depend on location but upon the people in it. The past year and a half hadn’t been perfect. They were both too strong willed and too self-reliant to be a perfect mesh, but they were working through the troubling spots. Demons of yesterday and specters from the past lacked the potency they once possessed. Maybe, she decided, perfect depended on the people using it as a yardstick.

“God, I love you,” she said walking over to the bed. Reaching down, she circled her arms around his neck. “Both of you.”

“We love you, too. Don’t we, Jake?” He patted her arms and placed a light kiss on the inside of her wrist. “What brought this on?”

“Nothing,” she sang. “Just thinking about how much I love you.” She stood up. “I’ll make you a deal. We can go Christmas shopping for you know who if you make breakfast.” As if to sweeten the deal, she added, “I’ll even let you pick out age inappropriate toys that will have to gather dust until he’s old enough to play with them.”

He looked up from his game. He had been eyeing model planes the other day when she dragged him to the mall. “Deal.” He rose and planted a kiss on her smiling mouth. “I’ll even make biscuits.” He handed her the baby.

Her smile widened in appreciation and she followed him into the kitchen. He had a knack for making them.

 

The End
 

 
 
   

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