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Classification Adventure, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 52,000 words; 113 pages (8 x 11)
Spoilers Through Season 7
Rating SLSV
Author's Notes This was my first JAG fanfic. I started writing it during Season 7, inspired by the attack on the Cole. Believe it or not, the submarine was part of my plot before the Season 7 finale, so this is sort of AU for everything up to then.

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

 

 


2400 Zulu (7 p.m. EST)
Fort Myer, Virginia
Late March, 2002

 

My locker slams behind me with a metallic boom as I swing my gym bag onto my shoulder and push through the heavy locker room door. It whooshes shut, cutting off the women's voices echoing over the hiss of the showers.

Thursday night. Home to a silent apartment, NPR on the radio, Budget Gourmet in the microwave. Packing for my weekend assignment. Early to bed. Not even poor old Jingo for company, since he's still with Chloe.

The squeak of my running shoes is loud on the polished concrete floors. At the Fort Myer athletic complex, it's a long walk up the stairs from the locker rooms when you're exhausted from a tough workout.

I welcome the comfortably tired feeling. It makes it easier to get through an evening alone when you can hit the rack by nine o'clock. Sometimes I even sleep through.

At this hour there are always lots of officers here. They arrive in uniform and leave in civvies, like me. Mostly men, a few women. The Fort Myer O Club has a terrific pool and weight room and a quarter-mile indoor track, and it's convenient to JAG headquarters in Falls Church. And of course, it beats the hell out of those expensive health clubs in the city where the jerks try to pick you up. Here, the oak leaves on my collar guarantee the leering will be subtle and won't get out of line.

I've been coming here almost every evening after work for the past few months, when I'm in town. It's one of the few calm, sane routines in my life anymore. After September 11, none of our lives will ever be the same -- although for me, nothing has seemed normal since Harm crashed, and Mic left, and I ran away to the Guadalcanal to try to pull myself together. Whatever normal was, or is, my life sure as hell isn't it.

Since Harm and I agreed to a truce last fall, I haven't seen him much. Maybe that has helped, I don't know. For a long time I was so lost and hurt and angry at him, at Mic, at myself. Lately, we've been away on separate assignments much of the time. Our stints at headquarters have not overlapped very often, and when they do, we're a little wary of each other. But it seems as if some of the barriers are coming down. An uneasy truce at best, as Sturgis likes to point out. That guy is too damn perceptive.

My breath puffs out in a steamy cloud around my face as I push open the glass doors to the parking lot. It must have started snowing again after I went in -- the air is thick with fat white flakes that blur in the lights, and the cold night air feels wonderful on my overheated skin. Then, as I head down the walk, I come to a dead stop.

Harm is leaning against a light pole, arms crossed, looking down at me. In his leather flight jacket and khakis, he looks as if he just stepped off the deck of a carrier at sea. I could not be more startled if he had materialized out of thin air like Captain Kirk. "Hey," he calls with a grin, looking utterly relaxed and cheerful.

"Hey yourself." I shift the heavy bag on my shoulder. Damn the man. Come on, Mackenzie, get a grip. I give myself a little mental shake. "When did you get in?"

"Couple hours ago. The Admiral told me to report straight from Andrews and not wait to change uniforms. I just finished up with him."

"How did you know I was here?"

"Guessed. So I cruised by and saw the 'vette in the lot." His eyes are warm as his grin deepens. "Besides, I always know where you are, Marine, you know that."

"Well, I didn't know where *you* were." Harm was pulled off an important court martial ten days ago for an abrupt departure overseas, and not even scuttlebutt seems to know much about it.

Now he's shaking his head, still smiling a little. "Sorry. But I can tell you one thing -- you're going to catch cold. Don't you know you shouldn't go out in winter with wet hair? For Pete's sake, Mac, you're going to wind up with pneumonia." While he's lecturing me, he reaches out and zips up my fleece parka.

"Okay, Dad. Thanks." I blink snow off my eyelashes and can't help smiling back at him. "Have you had anything to eat yet?"

"No, you?"

"I had a date with the microwave."

He makes a face. "I've been looking forward to a decent meal for ten days. C'mon, let's go." We turn and head for the parked cars, and he casually reaches out and takes my duffel bag. Our feet crunch in the snow as we walk side by side, his presence big and solid beside me. Everything seems hushed.

I dig in my pocket for my keys. "Where do you want to go?" I ask. "I'm not exactly dressed for anything in Alexandria." Before I can stop him, Harm reaches out and takes the keys.

"You're riding with me, Mac. There's no way I'm letting you try to drive the 'vette in this weather."

Ordinarily, his calm proprietary tone would infuriate me. I'm ready to retaliate that I don't need some arrogant squid aviator to tell me when the roads are too dangerous. And the words won't come. I just stare at him, and he's watching me with that damn little amused gleam in his eyes, just waiting for me to argue. And after a moment I shake my head. "You realize you'll have to give me a ride back here to pick up my car tomorrow."

"No problem."

"I have to leave for Annapolis by 0700."

"No problem." Boy, he's really feeling stubborn about this if he's willing to get up that early. For an instant I flash on a fantasy about staying over at his place, then pull myself together.

I shrug and turn away, trying to hide my smile. If only I weren't so damn glad to see him. "Okay, flyboy. You win. This time."

"Okay," he grins, and flips the keyless entry on the Lexus.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damn, how does she manage to look so good after a full day at the office and a hard workout?

So many women seem sort of grey and rumpled until they fix their hair and makeup, but Mac is fresh and shining. Her wet hair, combed back, outlines the shape of her proud little head, and I catch a faint, delicate fragrance of shampoo or conditioner or whatever the hell women use. She really ought to wear warmer clothes, though. At the same time the thought crosses my mind, I'm admiring the way those thin grey sweat pants cling to her hips and thighs as she climbs into my SUV.

We pull onto the highway past the Pentagon. The snow rushes to meet the headlights in a dizzy blur that reminds me of the Millennium Falcon going into hyperdrive, and I prudently ease back on the accelerator until I feel the SUV grab traction. I level it out at about 30 before I glance over at Mac. She's sitting with her arms and knees drawn up as if she's cold, and I adjust the heater.

"So what are you doing at Annapolis tomorrow?"

She turns to look at me. "Filling in for a faculty member who went on medical leave. I took over the general survey course on the UCMJ and a 300-level seminar on military legal ethics. I usually stay over on Saturday morning to see students and use the library to prepare for the following week."

My eyebrows go up. "Jeez, they must really have been impressed with that lecture you gave last spring."

Her eyes have an amused glint. "You don't have to sound so surprised."

"On the contrary, I'm impressed. And jealous. If the professors had looked like you when I was a mid, I wouldn't have minded calculus so much."

"Spare me, please, Mr. Trident Scholar, Magna cum Laude."

She must have looked up my record. For some reason, I'm absurdly flattered. "Well, I was a history major. I never would have made it through all the math without Diane." As soon as the words are out, my mouth slams shut. Rabb, you are such an ass sometimes.

But Mac, God bless her, just cocks her head and gives me a warm look. "Yeah, I'm sure. Especially since you had to pull better than a 3.25 in engineering and physics to get flight school."

I shrug, embarrassed, and change the subject. "So what do you think of the Academy, anyway?" I'm curious to know what Mac makes of the place that was, and is, such an important part of my life.

She is watching the snow in the oncoming headlights, but her eyes are distant. "I think it's extraordinary," she says after a moment, her voice soft. "I'm going to have to take back all those cracks and jokes I've made about it over the years." Once again, she has surprised the hell out of me.

I feel her eyes on me and I listen, intrigued and curious, as she continues, "I never realized before how intense it all is -- not just the academics, but the level of dedication everyone brings to it. I had no idea that honor and integrity and duty are literally part of the curriculum." Her voice gets even softer, and I have to listen intently as she says, "I understand a few things better now. And I'm extremely proud to be part of it."

"The Navy, or the Academy?"

She gives a graceful little shrug. "Maybe both." From the corner of my eye I catch a little smile. "Maybe the people who make them what they are."

Something tightens in my chest, and I turn my head to look at her. Her eyes are dark and shining in the glow of the dash lights. Then we're on the bridge approach and the slippery road and the traffic demand my concentration again. After a moment I clear my throat. "So how's the Arabic stuff going?"

She doesn't complain about being tired, but she must be. Ever since 9/11, as one of the few people with high security clearance who is fluent in Farsi, Mac has been away more than she's been at headquarters. They pulled her in at Langley for three weeks straight, doing translations and setting up a crash program to train CIA agents in Arabic dialects. Then she spent another few weeks on and off at the FBI academy at Quantico, doing the same thing, all the while keeping things running at JAG as chief of staff. Good thing she rarely sleeps, I guess -- but I worry about it anyway.

She sighs. "I spent three days at the War College last week while you were gone. Now they're talking about making it a language requirement at the Academy. I thought the Admiral was going to pop a gasket, trying to figure out how to keep things moving at JAG with both of us gone so much." She cuts a quick glance at me, obviously thinking of my recent TDY. "Can you talk about it?"

I shake my head regretfully. "Sorry, still classified. And it looks like that won't be changing any time soon. I'll be in Washington for the next ten days, but most of that will be out of the office. After that, who knows."

In the glow of the dash lights I see her looking at me with awe. "Damn. You got it, didn't you?" she whispers.

I lift an eyebrow at her. People often take one look at Mac and get no further than her looks -- it's easy to underestimate her, but it's a mistake no one ever makes twice. She didn't finish in the top one percent of her class at Duke Law for nothing.

She's looking at me as if I just threw a 60-yard pass to win the Super Bowl. "You're running the task force for the military tribunals, aren't you?" she says with certainty.

"I can neither confirm nor deny, counselor." I can't quite keep the grin out of my voice. "That operation is being run out of the Pentagon, you know that."

"And I know they are following the recommendations of experts on international military jurisdiction," she says, "which is you. God, Harm, it's a career-maker. Congratulations."

I feel a warm glow at her approval and find myself wondering how many officers in the huge bureaucracy of the JAG Corps would be so whole-heartedly glad for me. Once again, I realize how lucky I am to have Sarah Mackenzie for a friend.

"If I could discuss it, Mac, I'd say thanks," I tell her, and take the exit ramp for Georgetown. "Now how about takeout for dinner? Can we eat at your place?"

"Sure. How about the deli on the corner?"

"Nah, unless you're really up for it -- I was thinking about that new Japanese place on J Street. I'm dying for some sushi, and you can get sukiyaki or something."

"Something cooked, at least," she laughs. "None of that low tide stuff."

"Hey, sushi is very good for you," I protest. "If you'd just try it" --

"Not a chance. Especially that gooshy yellow junk with the dead seaweed."

"That is sea urchin, and it's considered a delicacy."

"Okay, Emeril. Just don't ask me to eat anything that might wave at me as I bite down. Or any of that tofu stuff."

"Soy is extremely good for you," I try to explain for the thousandth time as we pull up outside the restaurant. Mac just throws her head back and laughs merrily -- she's heard it all before. If tofu gets her to laugh like that, maybe I'll have to expand my repertoire to alfalfa sprouts and fish oil.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Listen, finding a parking spot within a block is really lucky," I try to tell him again as we trudge up the street to my door. I'm carrying a warm, fragrant brown bag filled with our dinner, and Harm is lugging my duffel. He is complaining about how heavy it is and how far we have to walk to my door. I am enjoying it, because he's teasing about the former, and he's concerned about the latter -- not tonight, when we're together, but for other times when I have to walk from my parked car alone.

As we turn the corner, he stops in his tracks and says, "Well, now at least I know what happened to your hat." He's staring at the lopsided snowman leaning drunkenly on the snow beside my building. It's a bit dilapidated by now, but it's still wearing a stylish red fleece chapeau.

I reach out and straighten the hat, brushing away wet snowflakes. "I made this with Jimmy from downstairs yesterday," I tell him proudly. "My first snowman. I don't know who was prouder, him or me."

Harm is silent, and I look up to find him looking at me in consternation. "You never made a snowman before?" He seems perplexed, and he's so cute I want to ruffle his hair, but he probably wouldn't appreciate it.

"I grew up in the Sunbelt, you know that," I said. "And I never had a seven-year-old neighbor before, either."

"They didn't have snow in Minnesota?"

"They were more preoccupied with chilling beer in it than playing with it," I say dryly.

Harm just stares at me, those incredible green eyes wide. Suddenly, he smacks his forehead with the heel of his hand and topples backwards into the snow bank, arms flung out. As I stand there with my mouth open, he waves his long arms and legs back and forth in the snow, looking for all the world like a giant stork doing the backstroke, and I start to laugh. With a huge grin, he struggles upright and points to the outline with a flourish.

"What do you call that?" I giggle.

He cocks his head. "You've never made a snow angel, either? You are culturally deprived, Marine. That's about to change." And without warning, he picks me up and tosses me onto my back in the snow. "Flap your arms and legs, Mac," he calls loudly, not caring in the least that a few passers-by are staring.

Fascinated, I do as I'm told, then struggle to my feet and turn to look. "It worked! I made a snow angel!" I shout and fling my arms over my head like a referee signaling a touchdown. Harm is looking down at me and for a moment we just grin at each other like idiots. God, that man's smile could melt bronze.

"You're the snow angel, Mac," he says, "and your nose is running." He taps my cheek with his glove, gives me another charming leer and reaches for the duffel bag.

My snowball smacks him on the neck with a soft "plop." He straightens with a yelp and wheels on me, and I clap my mittened hands over my mouth to stifle a giggle. "I can't believe they did that," I say, praying he'll go for it. "A drive-by hit, I swear to God."

"You're a dead woman!" he laughs, reaching for a handful of snow. With a squeak of terror unworthy of a Marine, I dive for more ammunition, but Harm's missile gets me right between the shoulder blades. I fire one back that is an ignominious miss, and then he's looming over me, all six-feet-four, two hundred pounds of him, and he's grabbing me around the waist and threatening to shove a handful of snow down my neck. We're both laughing so hard we can scarcely breathe and I pull my shoulders up to my ears with an undignified shriek.

"Give up?"

"I have not yet begun to fight!"

"That's Navy, not the Corps," he says. "I win." He releases me and we both stand there, gasping for breath. After a moment Harm straightens up and wipes his nose, which is red as a cherry.

"Thanks for the introduction to winter sports, Navy," I grin.

"Anytime, Marine," he says, and picks up the sack with our supper. It's only slightly squashed. "C'mon, let's get inside before someone decides I'm a mugger and calls the cops." He holds out his hand, and I take it.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac flips on some lights as I head for the kitchen with our supper. "Hey, where's Jingo?" I call after her.

"He's staying with Chloe on her grandparents' farm," Mac calls from the bedroom. "Since I've been traveling so much."

I pull some plates out of the cabinet and spoon things out of cartons. My hand goes to the right drawers without hesitation and the sense of being at home slides into place with a nearly audible click. I usually cook for Mac at my place, but God knows how many takeout meals we have shared here. Not for awhile, though. Too long.

I carry the things into the dining room and set out some place mats and silverware as I hear Mac coming. "Tea okay?" I ask her, "after all, it is Japanese food" -- and then I look up.

She has dried her hair and changed into a casual velour top and pants. They are the deep garnet color of cranberries, and she looks great. How does she do that so fast?

"Tea's fine," she smiles. She takes the napkins from my hand, where I seem to have forgotten them. She's standing so close I can feel the warmth of her body and I wonder how soft her shirt would feel beneath my hands. "Harm? Is the tea okay for you?"

"Um, yeah, tea's good," I try to pull myself together. Mac smiles at me and I forget what I was going to say.

She brings cups and a couple of glasses filled with ice water, and as I hold her chair, I lean close. Damn, does she smell good.

So we eat, and talk, and laugh, and I watch the soft light play across her skin and listen to her voice, which always reminds me of smoky wine. We share scuttlebutt, and Mac brings me up to speed on the latest at the office since I've been away. When she tells me about her classes at the Academy, and how bright and challenging the students are, I watch her animated expression and wonder how those hapless midshipmen ever stay on track during class.

It's been too long since we've spent an evening together like this, just us. At last Mac looks up and shrugs, a little embarrassed. "Sorry, I got carried away."

"You didn't," I say. "And I'm glad you're enjoying the teaching so much."

"Yeah, I am," she says with a smile. "Well, maybe just the change of pace. Want some coffee?" With surprise, I look at my watch and realize it's 2200 already.

"No, thanks, I need to catch up on sleep, I think I'm still jetlagged," I tell her. "Gotta be in the office early tomorrow to get caught up."

"Well, how about some more tea before you go?"

"Sounds great," I say, and stand up to stretch. I reach for the dishes, but Mac shoos me away. "Go light the fire, will you? I'll bring the tea," she says.

So I amble over to the fireplace and twist the knob for the gas log. I installed this thing for Mac a few years ago, and it's nice if I do say so myself. It better be, since I spent the better part of a day lying on my back with a hammer drill, breaking through the concrete to run the gas line.

Mac has these little wicker armchairs that were made for midgets, so I throw myself down in my usual spot on her sofa and lean back, watching the firelight. Fortunately Mac doesn't object to shoeless feet on the coffee table, at least not my feet. She comes in with two steaming mugs and turns off all but one soft lamp, then settles down at the other end of the sofa and hands me my mug. Our fingers brush, and I see the contact spark in her eyes.

She settles back against the cushions and we relax in companionable silence for a minute. I'm just opening my mouth to tell her about my own project at Annapolis when she asks, "So when did you learn so much about snow, anyway? I thought you grew up in California. You can't tell me you made snow angels at the Academy."

I grin, but I wonder what to say. After a moment, I shrug. "About a year after my dad went MIA, mom decided to move back to Connecticut to be with her family," I say. "We moved in with my grandparents, and we lived there for the next five years." It seems a little odd that I have never told Mac this.

Mac's watching me, knowing there's more. "How was it?" she asks cautiously. Of course, she is aware that I have never mentioned my mother's parents before.

"I hated it. At first I had this idea that my dad wouldn't know where to find us when he came home, or something. And there was all this weird tension between my mom and her parents. I didn't figure out until I was older that they hadn't approved of the marriage -- the Navy didn't quite stack up as a career choice in their eyes. I just knew that I wasn't supposed to talk about any of it." I stare into the fire, remembering.

"That's lousy, Harm. It must have been hell on your mother." I look up and see Mac looking indignant.

"Yeah, I think it was. I just remember that overnight, the most powerful person in my whole world disappeared, and all they ever told me was not to cry. I think I was scared that if it could happen to Dad, it could happen to my mom, or me, or anybody. The only thing to do was to be so strong that nothing could ever touch us again." I hesitate. Where the hell did all this come from? I don't know that I've actually said any of this stuff before.

"That was a lot for a little boy," Mac says softly. I look at her, and somehow it feels right to go on.

"I knew mom was devastated," I tell her slowly, remembering. "I used to lie in bed at night, after she had turned off my light, and I'd hear her next door, crying in the bath tub." That's the worst memory, the one I can never shake.

"When you're a kid, adults seem so powerful -- it's awful when you see they're just as scared and clueless as you are," Mac says. With a little start, I realize that Mac really does get it, as few people could.

"I just couldn't protect her -- not from all of it," I remember. "And the kids at Greenwich Country Day were the worst. This was the late sixties, early seventies, and everybody hated the war, especially a bunch of elitist jerks who knew their student deferments would keep them out of it. There was no such thing as a military hero. I got in a lot of fights."

"I'll bet your grandparents loved that."

I snort. "Then when I was twelve, mom married Frank and we moved to La Jolla."

"And four years later you ran off to Laos."

"Yeah, I guess I thought if I could just find Dad that everything would be okay again, you know? I was angry at Mom, at Frank, at life -- just generally pissed off. Hell, I was sixteen. I thought I could fix it somehow."

My arm is resting along the back of the sofa, and after a moment Mac sort of slides her hand over and I take it in mine. And it feels so peaceful and right, just sitting there in the firelight for awhile longer, two friends who don't need to talk.

 

Saturday, 0530 hours
Annapolis, Maryland

 

The Severn River is barely beginning to show the pale shimmering grey of dawn. The light wind off the Chesapeake Bay is thin and cold and smells of the sea.

My running shoes make scarcely any sound as I pound along the path beside the harbor. The historic brick houses of Annapolis flash by on my left, and sailboats bob in the marina. Their rigging clangs against the spars and makes a faint metallic jingle in the morning breeze.

I have come to cherish my weekly visits to this quaint old town, particularly on the quiet mornings before any tourists are around. Yesterday was a long day. I left D.C. at 0700 to get here in plenty of time for my lecture at 0900, and it didn't end until 2030 last night after the faculty reception at the Admiral's home.

After nearly falling asleep on my sofa Thursday night, Harm showed up at my door promptly at 0600 Friday morning to run me down to Fort Myer to pick up my Corvette. He was sleepy and grumpy and had cut himself shaving, and he made a point of telling me he was allowing me drive to Annapolis alone only because the snow had stopped and the roads were clear. I gave him fresh coffee and a warm bagel from the corner deli, which I ran out to get before he arrived, and he cheered up. God, he is adorable sometimes.

My breathing is deep and measured as I cruise along, but my thoughts are far away from the jogging path. It has been a long time since Harm opened up to me the way he did the other night. Remembering all the times when I pushed, only to feel him pull away.

Frustrating, infuriating, impossible man. I wonder what he's up to this weekend. Maybe I'll give him a call before I leave.

The faculty thing last night was actually kind of fun. I'm beginning to connect a few faces and names, and I'm pleased to realize how quickly I have remembered the rhythm of an academic community, how much I enjoy the interactions with students and colleagues. Of course, it's also a military installation, and despite the fact that half the faculty are civilians, most professors I know would find it painfully conservative and regimented -- but I feel right at home, despite being here just two days a week. After my chaotic schedule of the past months, it's nice to have this to look forward to.

This morning, it feels great to get out and stretch my legs and my lungs. I need to spend a few hours in the library later, pulling references for my next few lectures and mapping out the syllabus for the coming weeks, but for now I can relax and enjoy some time to myself.

After five miles I'm breathing hard. But the cold salt air blowing my hair feels wonderful, the Academy dock is sight, and I bear down, sprinting to touch the stanchion before relaxing into a slow jog.

There's a light burning in one end of the big boathouse, and a couple of people are moving around. On impulse, I head down the concrete steps and enter the wide central breezeway, a dark tunnel open to the river on the far end. My footsteps echo with a hollow sound I walk slowly past the looming silent shapes of the crew shells poised on their racks.

At the other end there's a flight of shallow wooden steps down to a wide wooden platform across the entire back of the building -- I suppose they'd call it a dock, but it looks like a dance floor to me, swaying in the light chop of the water. A couple of gigantic midshipmen are lowering themselves gingerly into a delicate two-man shell that is bumping against the side of the platform.

I watch as they fit their shoes into the footrests and adjust their sliding seats. There are four long, slender sculls lying alongside on the dock, and one by one they fit them into the oarlocks before shoving off. They lean forward, oars poised, and then shoot across the water with no visible signal. I watch, fascinated, as the delicate little craft skims away into the sunrise, the oars dipping in perfect unison. The tips scarcely seem to touch the water, grazing it like birds' wings.

I pull the clean salt breeze deep into my lungs and let it out with a sigh. A few more rowers are moving around and I realize I'm going to be in the way, so I head back inside and wait for a moment until my eyes adjust to the dimness.

The floors and walls are dark with years of varnish and smell like the inside of a cigar box. Shelves of trophies and framed pictures line the walls, and I walk slowly along, seeing faces in handlebar mustaches and sideburns from the turn of the last century, followed by groups of stern young men lined up on the same dock I saw outside. Row on row, decade after decade, dim black and white prints changing to color for the last fifteen years or so, and I realize with a little lump in my throat how many of these boys never came home.

For no reason at all, my eye catches and holds on one photograph. Clear handwriting across the mat beneath the dusty glass reads, "Head of the Charles, Championship Eight, October 1983." Eight young men and the female coxwain stand behind their shell, which is lying on a dock with a big silver trophy poised in front. They are wearing Naval Academy shirts, holding their oars vertically, and each boy is broad shouldered and grinning proudly.

I'd know the smile on the guy on the left anywhere. It's Harm.

Something twists inside as I realize how young he was -- what, maybe nineteen? The face and the tall figure are more slender than I recall, but the shoulders are already there. I stare at his face, at once so familiar and so touchingly young. I fancy I see a maturity, a strength of character in Harm's face that is not yet present in his teammates.

"Can I help you?" A man's voice startles me from my hypnotized focus on the photograph.

"No, thanks, master chief," I smile into the lean tanned face of the tough looking man standing before me. His insignia is on his ball cap, and suddenly I realize I must look like a gawking tourist. "I'm Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie," I tell him.

"Yes, ma'am. Sorry ma'am. We get a lot of civilians wandering in here," he says. "You interested in the pictures?"

"I -- I know someone in this one," I tell him. "Commander Rabb. We serve together in the JAG Corps."

His face splits into a friendly grin. "You know Rabb? Damn, how's he doin'? I heard he'd become a damn Jag after that Tomcat crash, goddamn shame. Not the lawyer part, of course," he adds hastily. "No offense, ma'am."

"None taken, master chief," I laugh. "I'm sure he agrees with you. And he still flies whenever they let him."

"Yeah, I heard about those two DFCs," he snorted. "Well, Rabb always did have more guts than brains."

"I'll tell him you said so," I smile.

"You tell him Master Chief Bledsoe said so," he says with a glint in his eye. "Tell Rabb to come back and see me sometime. I'll put him on the ergometer and we'll see what kind of shape he's in." He shakes his head. "Damn Rabb. One of the best I ever coached. Don't tell him that," he glares at me fiercely.

"Don't worry, his ego is still aviator-size," I promise. "Nice to meet you, Master Chief."

"And you, ma'am. You just here visiting?"

"No, I'm teaching a couple of courses for Captain Hastings."

Bledsoe scowls again, and I can't tell if he's mad or if squinting is all he can do after a lifetime on the water. "Damn Marines," he mutters. "At least they're making them better looking, ma'am." Now I catch the twinkle.

"I'll tell Hastings you said so," I answer sweetly, and wave as I leave.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Colonel Mackenzie!"

A woman is standing at the top of the marble steps as I come out of the library into the portico. She raises her hand in a quick wave, and I walk over to join her.

"Mrs. Benson," I greet her with a smile. "Thank you again for last night. I had a lovely time."

The admiral's wife stands tall and erect, with silver hair caught in a French twist. She gives me a warm smile and extends a long slim hand. Her handshake is surprisingly firm, evidence of a lifetime of official functions.

"It's a pleasure to have you with us, Colonel," she says now. "Even if you're here only two days a week. I hear that the UCMJ survey course has never been so popular."

"Well, the fact that it's a requirement has a lot to do with it," I grin.

"I suspect it's you, my dear," she replies.

"The midshipmen don't see a lot of female officers," I point out. "And my seminar students are a terrific group. I'm having a hard time staying a step ahead."

"It must be quite a change from JAG division headquarters. It sounds like you're enjoying it, though."

"It's wonderful," I say, and realize with a sense of surprise that it's true. "I love the feeling that I'm doing something positive, instead of just trying to resolve problems."

"You're a fine litigator, I hear."

"I hope so, ma'am. It's very challenging, and I love working for Admiral Chegwidden."

"Oh yes, A.J. Please tell him hello. We haven't seen him here for Alumni Week in a while."

As we stand together in the shadow of the tall pillars, a group of officers in the quad below catches my attention. Admiral Benson, the Academy superintendent, is there, and Captain Hildebrandt, the academic dean. They are talking intently with a tall, broad shouldered commander who has his back to us, but it's a back I could pick out of any crowd, anywhere.

"Excuse me?" With a start, I realize that Helen Benson is waiting for a reply. "I'm so sorry, I didn't hear you," I apologize in confusion, but I'm still distracted. With a quick salute, the commander turns and looks straight at me. I'm so astonished I just stand there as he flashes me that dazzling grin and strides up the steps toward us. In his immaculately tailored dress blues and ribbons, he is a dominant presence even here, among men trained to command.

Mrs. Benson fixes me with a sharp stare, then follows my gaze. "Never mind, dear," she says with amusement in her voice.

Harm comes to attention before us, looking dapper and impossibly handsome. "Colonel," he greets me. "Ma'am."

Somehow I hear myself saying, "Helen Benson, may I introduce Commander Harmon Rabb? Harm, this is Mrs. Benson, Admiral Benson's wife."

He takes her extended hand. "It's nice to see you again, ma'am," he says with a courteous bow.

"Mr. Rabb," she greets him. "I didn't realize this was one of your weekends."

"It's not, ma'am," he looks down at her with a smile. "But one of my guys called. I've been away on assignment, and I thought I'd better stop by while I had the chance."

"You know each other?" I try to cover my surprise. And what "guys?" Admiral Benson has been head of the Academy for five or six years, so he and his wife couldn't remember Harm as a midshipman. Helen Benson is smiling back at him, and I feel a fleeting spasm of irritation. Is there a woman drawing breath on the planet that he can't charm?

"Commander Rabb is head of our Officer Mentoring Program," Helen tells me. "He spends a weekend or two here every month, don't you?"

"Unless I'm overseas, ma'am," Harm answers.

"You've got quite a group working on it now, isn't it up to twenty or twenty-five?"

"Mostly from my class, ma'am. We need some of the younger men."

"Oh, I don't know. I think there's something to be said for maturity," Helen smiles.

Harm puts his hand over his heart. "That's the first time anyone has ever called us mature, ma'am. Please, we have a reputation to protect. Excuse me -- yes?" A blond crew cut midshipman who doesn't look old enough to shave is hovering respectfully at Harm's elbow, and he turns away for a moment to speak to the boy.

Helen laughs pleasantly. "Speaking of maturity, I see Harvey getting impatient -- I can't keep the Admiral waiting. Colonel, it was lovely to see you and the Commander." As she turns, she fixes me with a bright glance. "So that's the man," she whispers.

At my bewildered expression, she simply shakes her elegant head. "Sarah, dear. When a woman like you is still unattached, there is invariably a reason."

With that, Helen Benson descends the marble steps to join her husband without a backward glance. I'm left staring after her rather vacantly, the thin early spring sunshine warm across my shoulders. After a moment, Harm returns the midshipman's crisp salute and turns back to me.

"Officer Mentoring Program?" I inquire, eyebrows raised.

"Mac." He's looking down at me, his eyes warm. "I started to tell you about it the other night, and we got sidetracked. I didn't know I was coming up today, or I would have mentioned it."

"You don't have to explain, Harm. But what's this program all about?"

He crosses his arms and looks out over the quad, where midshipmen in their dark uniforms are hurrying to and fro. Then he shrugs a little. "Midshipmen who request it are assigned an Academy graduate as a mentor. It's pretty informal -- you visit once a month or so, take them out to eat, listen to them. It's just a chance to talk to someone who knows the ropes, without having to worry about grades and protocol. It's kind of a safety valve, too. These kids are under a hell of a lot of pressure to excel, and sometimes you just need somebody to help put it in perspective."

"Like when they think they don't have the right stuff and go UA?" I ask, remembering Keeter.

He looks down at me with a twinkle. "Exactly like that." I feel him watching me. "Mac? What is it?"

"I had no idea you were doing anything like this, Harm. It's wonderful." With a pang, I realize just how much I've missed in the past two years.

Harm's eyes are clear and changeable as the sea, framed by those gorgeous black lashes with the faint melancholy slant at the outer corners. Now, as I finally look up, I am startled to see tenderness there. He arches an eyebrow.

"What, you think all I do on weekends is fool around with my car and my plane?"

"You left out blondes." I try to sound stern.

Now his expression is simmering with secret amusement. "You planning to bust my chops for the rest of our lives?"

"Probably."

"What, you never pictured me as a role model?"

"And which role did you have in mind? Outstanding midshipman, or overgrown juvenile delinquent who was too smart to get caught?"

"Whatever you may have inferred from Sturgis about our undergraduate career, the statute of limitations has expired."

"That's what he said, too."

"Yeah? And just what else did Commander Bigmouth tell you?"

"He didn't, damn it."

"Thank God. I wouldn't want to be the one to besmirch his otherwise exemplary record."

"Does that mean you'd squeal?"

"Absolutely."

I laugh at that, and together we start down the steps. Our shadows run before us, intertwined.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Damn, she looks great.

She walks down those wide stone steps with her usual unconscious grace, her gorgeous long legs and those trim, hard ankles flashing along in heels that bring the top of her head up to my chin. Heads turn discretely to watch her, and I feel my heart swell with unabashed male pride.

"Damn, you're the best thing to happen to this place in years," I tell her.

"Because I'm female, or because I'm a Marine?"

"Because of the way you look in that uniform." I'm on thin ice here, but I figure she won't try to hurt me in the middle of the quad. "I mean come on, Mac, a midshipman's uniform makes most of these girls look like fullbacks."

"And that's bad because?" she starts to get all ruffled up, then stops and gives me a look. "Nice try, commander. It's just too much fun to pull my chain, is that it?"

"Why would you think that, Mac?" I sidestep airily, then reverse field. "Anyway, how do you like Mrs. Benson? She's an original, isn't she?"

"Actually, she reminds me of Maddie," she says.

"Who's Maddie?"

Mac doesn't reply right away. We're walking slowly along the walk toward the chapel, and she takes her time picking her way across a line of cobblestones. It must be tricky in those pumps.

"Maddie was *my* mentor," she says at last. I know by the softness of her tone that this is important. "She was a professor of French literature at Minnesota, and she kind of took me under her wing. I used to go over to her home for tea in the afternoons, and we became friends."

After a moment, Mac continues, "I still don't know why she took such an interest, but she absolutely changed my life. She taught me how to dress, how to speak, how to behave. I mean, I was this gawky 18-year-old who had grown up chewing gum and riding motorcycles. I was trying to get my B.A. in a three-year program, and my idea of a fancy party was when the beer is served in a glass. Maddie changed all that -- I used to call her Professor Higgins, and she called me Eliza."

"She must be quite a lady."

"She used to say that a lady wasn't someone who was rich, or who had the nicest things -- a lady was someone who knew how to put people at ease in any situation. She was the most elegant person I've ever known, and she had absolutely no patience with pretensions."

I have occasionally wondered how Mac overcame her background. Her parents went three for three with abuse, alcoholism, and abandonment, and as far as I know, neither of them had any education beyond high school. Yet Mac herself has grace and poise that seem bred in the bone.

"Do you still stay in touch with Maddie?" I figure I should at least have heard of her before now. And then I remember that I just got around to telling Mac about one of the important chunks of my early life a couple of nights ago.

Mac's eyes are somber. "She died a couple of years ago." It must have happened when I was pulling sea duty with the squadron on the Patrick Henry. That was just a few months after Mac's father died and her mother showed up -- and I wasn't there for her that time, either. I feel a stab of something more complicated than guilt, and all too familiar.

"So now you're doing it for Chloe," I tell her. "I bet Maddie would like knowing that, Mac."

"I do it for me, Harm. Because I care about her."

"I'd say it's mutual," I tell her. "Now, what do you have on your dance card for this afternoon?"

"I was hoping you'd buy me lunch before I drive back to D.C."

"Sorry, I'm booked. I'm taking one of my guys for lunch, he needs to tell me why he's flunking electrical engineering. But a bunch of us are playing rugby this afternoon, the mids against the officers. Wanna come cheer for us?"

"Do I have to bring bandages?"

"Nah, we like to bleed. Can you stay for the tap afterwards?"

"Doesn't that involve large quantities of beer and lots of drunken singing? Where few women emerge unscathed?"

"If anybody tries any scathing, my money's on you, Mac."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Feeling a little like an undergraduate in my jeans and turtleneck, I find a seat on the first tier of bleachers and shove my hands deep into the pockets of my fleece-lined jacket. It's a beautiful sunny afternoon, but the breeze is cold, and clouds are beginning to blow in from the bay.

There's a small group of fans in the cheering section, mostly girlfriends and wives, I guess. Two or three older men are standing around a big plastic barrel of Gatorade, kibitzing -- they're probably senior officers, judging by their military haircuts and posture.

The players are milling around in groups of two and three, talking and taking practice kicks. The mids are wearing navy blue Academy shirts, the officers are wearing grey ones, and everybody is wearing shorts and knee socks despite the cold. It would look like a soccer game except for the brown football. I see Harm standing with a bunch of other guys, talking. He sees me and waves, and I wave back.

Rugby is a wild cross between football and soccer, where perfectly nice men turn into Mongolian hoards. They throw passes and punches, tackle and kick the ball, each other, whatever. Instead of a line of scrimmage, they all get into something called a scrum, which is really just a gigantic shoving match until somebody breaks free and starts to run or throws the ball. After that it's just pure testosterone, no holds barred. The players don't always remember to stop running and you can get trampled if you're on the sidelines. I love it.

Eventually somebody blows a whistle and they're off. It's easy to follow Harm because he's so tall, but a lot of these guys are enormous and pretty soon they're all covered with mud. Waves of players surge up and down the field, seemingly at random, and I get a secret rush out of their ferocity. I can't tell who's winning, but at one point Harm jumps high to catch a pass and is immediately crunched between two behemoths. I wince, and see Harm slug one with his elbow as he pitches the ball to a teammate. Then he's buried beneath a pile of bodies as play surges past.

After a while the officers score, and someone calls time out. I've been screaming myself hoarse, so I amble over to the beverage table behind the stands to get the biggest cup of coffee I can find.

"Hey, Mac!" Harm's calling to me from a crowd gathered around the Gatorade, and I head over. As he stands there, breathing hard, the only spot on him that's not muddy is his smile.

I peer closely and inquire, "Do I know you, sailor?" Surreptitiously I lean closer to catch the warm scent of clean male sweat.

"You ought to feel right at home, Marine," he reaches out and puts a smudge of mud on the tip of my nose, and we laugh. His hair is sticking up in spikes, he has a blue bruise on his cheekbone, and he's bleeding from a scratch on his forehead. He looks magnificent.

Harm is holding a big paper cup, and he throws his head back and chugs the whole thing. Some of the drink runs down his neck, mingling with his sweat, and I watch, mesmerized by the sight of the powerful muscles working in his throat. Finished, he crumples the cup in his fist and flips it into the trash basket.

"Let's go, guys," somebody yells, and a hoarse shout goes up from a dozen male throats as they all go trotting back onto the field.

"Kick ass," I tell him, and he grins and sketches a salute. Thoughtfully I admire his ass in those tight shorts as he runs.

I'm standing at the end of the block of bleachers, watching the field, and at first I don't pay attention to two grey-haired officers who remain at the beverage table. With all the noise of the game, you'd think their voices wouldn't carry, but some trick of echoes beneath the stands throws the sound to me.

"So who's the brunette with the chest?" I'm not listening, but the reply brings me to attention.

"That's Mackenzie, the Marine."

"Jesus, you're kidding. She's filling in for Hastings?"

"Yeah. She's a trial lawyer, chief of staff for Chegwidden."

"No kidding. "Think he's fucking her?"

"Ah, you never know with A.J. If he isn't he's crazy."

"Well, if she's a Marine, God help us in Afghanistan. Who's that she's with?"

"That's Rabb, he runs the mentoring program for us. He's a JAG too."

The answering snort of derision is drowned in a cheer from the stands. I stand there frozen, holding onto my temper with a tight leash. I recognize them now, they're both senior captains on the faculty. If I confront them, I'll win the battle but I'll lose the war. God damn it.

Shaking with fury, I climb back into the stands and pull my jacket tighter around me, crossing my arms over my breasts. Two stiff, angry tears are clinging to my eyelashes, stinging, and I brush at them angrily.

It's not me, I think desperately. They can't hurt me, it's not my fault. They're jerks and they'll always be jerks. What makes me so goddamn angry is thinking what guys like this can do to decent officers, like the Admiral and Harm, who give women an even break. I've had to take my share of grief in the service, like any woman, but I've always known I could handle it. I'm not sure I can handle it when it's directed at men I admire.

And Harm -- my God, all the crap he has probably had to take over the years, just for being my partner. Abruptly it becomes clear just how much he has protected me. And how difficult and unfair it would be if we ever did get involved. Complicated, indeed.

"Shit," I mutter to myself. "Shit."

And what about the female midshipmen here at the Academy? How much does it affect them, the hidden hostility they still encounter every day?

I take a deep breath and make myself a promise. Looks like I'll be getting involved in Harm's mentoring program, after all.

 

2330 Zulu (6:30 p.m. EST)
Visiting Officers Quarters (VOQ)
U.S. Naval Academy

 

Mac answers the knock on her door almost before I drop my hand.

"Hi," I say with what I hope is a charming grin. It's a little difficult with the cut on my lip.

She stands there, considering me. "It's alive," she finally decides.

"Jesus, Mac, give me some credit. A victorious warrior stands before you," I tell her. "Go easy on me."

The skeptical gleam in her eye is replaced by concern. "You're bleeding," she says, and lifts a gentle hand to my face.

"It's nothing," I pull my head away impatiently. "Just a scratch." She grabs my wrist and pulls me inside, and I suppress a hiss as her hand brushes my raw, scraped knuckles.

"Rabb, you are a mess," she pronounces in a matter-of-fact tone. She goes over to the dresser and quickly scoops a couple of ice cubes into a wash cloth, then dips it in a little water before turning back to me. "Sit," she commands, and I drop onto the sagging cot. For a moment I have a perfect mental picture of Mac keeping a whole family of teenagers in line, and grin to myself.

"Ow!" I try to jerk back as she presses the ice carefully against the mouse under my eye.

"Hold still, Harm. I'm going to get the first aid box from the bathroom. Don't you dare move off that bed."

"I've been waiting for you to say that," I call after her as the door swings shut. I know she heard me.

I lean my elbow on the back of the hard wooden chair and glance around. Apparently the VOQ treats women officers just as lousy as the men. Besides the bed where I'm parked, the tiny featureless room has a scarred wooden desk, a chair, a chest of drawers, and a single overhead light bulb that fills the small uncarpeted room with a harsh glare. It reminds me of every dorm room I have ever seen. Oh well, it's convenient, and the price is right.

Mac returns and rummages around in the white tin box with the red cross on top. While I was sluicing off the mud after the game, she changed into a pair of slim black pants and a thin white cashmere sweater that gives a whole new meaning to the term Sweater Girl. I just lean there, holding the ice to my face and appreciating the heart shaped curve of her ass.

She moves closer, positioning her knees on either side of my leg, and my breath catches as she lifts my right hand and sprays it with something cool. I watch as she wraps the knuckles in white gauze, her fingers light and quick. Then without any warning, she raises my hand to her lips and brushes a light kiss across my fingers. I forget what I was going to say. The amazing thing is, it really does stop hurting.

"Tell me the other guy looks worse," she murmurs, stroking my hair back from the bruise on my forehead. I am rapidly losing track of the conversation.

"Yeah," I manage.

"You beat the shit out of him?" she whispers.

"He'll be lucky to survive."

She leans closer, and a shadow of cleavage is barely visible at the neckline of her sweater. The scent rising from it is heady and sweet. I wonder what she would do if I just pressed my mouth --

"OW!"

"Oh, hold still, don't be such a baby. I was trying to see if you need stitches for this, but it's just a scratch."

"It feels like the Grand Canyon," I wince as her gentle fingers press a pad of gauze against my hairline.

"Scalp wounds bleed like crazy, but this is slowing down," she says. "Hold still now." She cradles my cheek in one cool hand while she dabs antibiotic cream carefully onto my forehead. Without thinking, I rest my hand on the curve of her hip, and I hear her breath quicken.

She's standing so close, I can feel her warmth on my face. Her lipstick is that soft shade of rose I love, and my hand tightens on her waist as I lean in --

"Not so fast, squid," she's laughing at me, her hands on my shoulders, and her eyes are bright. For one heartbeat we both hesitate, and then Mac gives a self-conscious little flip to her hair and turns away to clean up the first aid box.

"So, did you win enough on the game to buy me dinner?" she asks nonchalantly.

"Wagering for money? With underage midshipmen? Surely you're mistaken, ma'am," I reply. She picks up a jacket and slides into it, and I stand up with a groan.

"You okay?" she gives me a quick, worried glance that warms my heart. I try to straighten up without wincing.

"Nothing a handful of Advil won't cure," I tell her as I hold the door.

"You're limping," she says, and slips her hand into the crook of my elbow.

"Ah, it's okay. That knee I tore up last spring stiffens up sometimes."

She's quiet as we go downstairs and turn to walk across the campus. After a minute I look down, then stop and bend to see her face. She won't meet my eyes.

"Mac? What is it?" I cup my hand over her cheek.

Her lips tighten, and then she says, "It just brings it all back, that terrible night when I didn't know if you were going to be okay or not."

"Mac, that's ancient history" --

"I came by the hospital," she says, low and fast. "Later, after that idiotic visit when everybody was crowding in" --

"Mac" -- I stop, because she's not listening.

"That first night, I came back around ten. I told Mic I was going for a drive. You were asleep. I waited for an hour." Angrily she brushes at her eyes. "Then I tried again the next night, after work, and Renee was there. I didn't stay, I just left."

"She never mentioned it," I tell her. Goddamn Renee.

"I should have been there for you."

"And I should have talked to you."

"I didn't make it easy," she mutters, looking at the ground.

"No, you didn't."

"You don't have to agree with me so fast," she says, and a corner of her mouth kicks up.

"Jeez, I can't win," I smile at her. We stand there, and I reach out and cradle her face in both hands. "Mac, I never meant to hurt you," I say.

"I know." Her hands come up and cover mine.

"Do you still miss him?" I blurt out. Shit.

"What?" She looks genuinely bewildered, and then she understands and shakes her head. Thank God, I don't have to explain.

"No, Harm," she tells me. "At some point, I realized I don't miss him at all. How pathetic is that?"

"You gave away your ring."

"It was getting pretty heavy to carry around." Her gaze is clear and untroubled.

I feel like a hundred pounds just slid off my shoulders. Judging by Mac's expression, she does too.

We stand there in the moonlight, beneath the soaring dome of the Academy chapel, and after a minute I slide my arms around her and pull her close. Her head rests against my chest, and her arms go around my waist as she gives a little sigh.

"At least you lost the love handles," she mumbles.

"Hey, you try sitting around for six weeks with no running and no exercise," I protest. "It took me six months to get back in shape."

She gives me a final hug, then steps back, and now she's grinning. "Who says you're in shape?"

"Any time, anywhere, Marine."

We start down the walk, and she takes the hand that I conveniently make available. "So where are we going for this party, anyway?" she asks. "Am I going to get anything to eat?"

 

 

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