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Classification Action, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 38,000 words or 99 pages (8.5 x 11)
Spoilers Anything up through "Back in the Saddle"
Rating IM15
Author's Notes I began this story right after the Season 9 opener, and events diverge from there. I do not pretend to be an expert on the political situation in Indonesia; my apologies for any and all inaccuracies. This is a shipper story, I promise -- but it takes awhile.

 

Summary While Harm is in the CIA, he and Mac find themselves on intersecting missions in Indonesia and discover that sometimes, getting lost may be the only chance to find your way.
 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

 

 

 

October 25, 2003

 

The soft chiming of his Rolex jerked him awake. What the hell was his bed doing on the wrong side of the room?

Harm stared into the darkness and let details filter through the fog. Thick velvet curtains, with a sliver of city lights visible between them. A quiet hum of air conditioning. A warm, soft hip against his. He blinked and rolled his head to the right, feeling his cheek rasp against the pillow with a sandpapery whisper.

A lock of blonde hair gleamed in the faint glimmer from a digital clock blinking five a.m.

He stared up at the ceiling for a long moment, then sat up with a sigh and scrubbed his hand over his face. The air was cool on his body.

"Harm?" Her voice was blurry with sleep. "Did the alarm go off?" Warm fingers grazed his back.

"No, it's only five. Sorry I woke you, Cath," he said, reaching over to pat her shoulder. "Go back to sleep." He stood and groped for his clothes on the chair. He heard a rustle as she sat up behind him, and the bedroom sprang into life as she clicked on a bedside lamp. Harm squinted his eyes against the sudden glare. "Hey," he complained.

Catherine Gale pushed her hands through her short blonde hair, flung back the covers, and frowned at the clock as she reached for her robe. "Coffee's on the timer," she announced, and walked swiftly out of the room, the pale satin of her peignoir swirling as she belted it around her slim naked body. Harm sighed and groped for his shoes.

He didn't even have time to pull on his socks before she was back. "You're up early," she observed, and handed him a steaming mug. "Are you leaving town again?"

He shrugged and sipped. "Guess I'll find out, they want me in at 0900," he said.

"So why the dawn patrol? Even *I* don't go in this early," she smiled and sat beside him, her shoulder touching his. Her robe slipped open to reveal the curve of one small breast.

"It's Friday. Five-mile run before work," he said, pulling at his shoelaces.

You'd think he's still in the military, she thought with an inward groan.

Harm set his cup on the nightstand and kissed her on the cheek before standing up decisively. "Thanks for last night, Cath. It was great."

"As always." She looked up at him, debating, then said, "So what is it, Harm?"

"What's what?"

"Whatever is still bothering you. Sometimes I feel like a battleground when we're done."

He busied himself with sorting keys, wallet, and change into his pockets, and didn't turn around. "Nothing's bothering me, Cath. Hey, I'm sorry if I was a little rough last night. I've been away for awhile." He gave her a charming grin and pulled her to her feet for a quick kiss. "I'll make it up to you."

"You don't need to make anything up to me," she said lightly. "We don't have any strings on each other, you know that. But I care about you, Harm." She gave him a shrewd look. "I'd like to see you happy, and you aren't."

He glanced away, his expression carefully neutral. "Happy is a bit of a stretch when you're starting your career over for the third time," he said. "But I'm fine. Look, I've got to go, but I meant it about making it up to you, okay?"

"Okay. But I'm not the one fighting the war, Harm."

He gave her a quick wave on his way out, not meeting her eyes. She listened as the front door opened and shut behind him, and sighed. Men.

 

0640 Hours EDT
North of Union Station, Washington, DC

 

The phone was ringing as he opened his door, panting and wet with sweat from his run. Harm lunged for the phone grabbed it just before the machine picked up. "Hi, Mom."

His mother's silvery laugh floated over the line. "Happy birthday, darling. How did you know it would be me?"

"Only my favorite girl would be calling at this hour."

"Well, that's sweet, dear. But I could almost wish you *had* a favorite girl other than me."

"Mom" --

"I know, I know. How's the new job going?"

Her cheerful tone touched him. She had been upset when he finally steeled himself to tell her about leaving both the Navy and the law, and he knew she was trying to conceal her anxiety. He replied, "It's nice not to be in an office all the time. It's all right."

"So, big plans for later?"

"Shooting hoops with Sturgis." He grinned to himself as he visualized her expression.

"I hoped you might be celebrating with friends," Trish said with elaborate casualness.

"Nope, no real plans this year," he said. He fervently hoped she would stop there, but knew she wouldn't.

"It must be difficult, staying in touch with people." He could hear the concern in her voice, carefully masked. "How's Mac these days, and your godson?"

"I wouldn't know, Mom." He didn't elaborate.

"Oh." Her disappointment came through over the phone, but mercifully she held off. "Well, darling, watch for UPS, they'll be delivering your present. I hope you like it."

"A new oil pump for Sarah?" he asked hopefully.

"Certainly not. A cashmere sweater. I assume there are still a few occasions when you're *not* wearing a flight suit?"

"Only in the shower."

"Watch it, young man. I still have those bathtub pictures."

They shared a laugh. "Thanks, Mom. Suddenly I feel a lot better about turning 40."

"Thirty-nine and holding, dear. At this rate, we'll be the same age before I have grandchildren."

"Listen, you have more energy than I do. What are you doing up in the middle of the night, anyway?" It was 3:45 a.m. in California.

"Giving you trouble, of course. It's my job."

Harm laughed. "Gotta get ready for work, Mom. Give my best to Frank."

"Of course, dear. I love you."

"Love you too, Mom. And thanks."

He replaced the phone in its cradle and stood with his hand on it, absently staring at nothing while he rubbed his sweaty hair with a towel, wondering why his immaculate loft no longer seemed like a welcome source of solitude.

The empty silence mocked him.

 

1400 hours EDT, same day
Marine Obstacle Course, Quantico, Virginia

 

The rapid thump of running shoes echoed in the silent woods, a counterpoint to harsh breathing. Golden leaves swirled into the air and fluttered into piles behind her as she sprinted beneath the arch of trees and leaped to grab the rope jump.

Mac swung across the water, paused at the apex of the trajectory, and dropped lightly to the hard packed dirt on the far side. Without a pause she raced for the pile of logs and vaulted over, pushing off the top with one hand to land with a thump and a grunt in a pile of leaves. Panting hard now, she dug in for the steep section and grabbed the heavy line that hung down the rutted path, pulling herself up hand over hand, lungs burning.

The golden afternoon was perfect. God, she needed this day off. It felt so good to really attack the course, knowing that the phone wouldn't ring, no one would interrupt, no one would make any demands on her. Harder and harder she ran, pushing to the limit, past the point where she needed to feel or think about anything but making it over the crest of this damn hill . . .

She went over the top in a burst of speed and barreled recklessly down the slope on the other side, racing over the path in a blur of pounding steps, dodging exposed tree roots and rocks that threatened to trip her, scarcely feeling the thin branches that whipped at her arms and legs. With an agile leap, she flung herself past the switchback in the steep trail.

Without warning, her heel slipped on a patch of gravel and went out from under her. She went down in a wild, skidding slide that erased skin from her knees and elbows and came to a stop sprawled across the bottom of the slope, the wind knocked out of her.

After a couple of frantic, painful gasps, she was sure she could breathe again and lay still, panting, waiting for the pain to subside enough to sit up. She knew she wasn't really hurt.

"God DAMN IT!" She pounded her fist into the cool dirt. "Shit, shit, shit!" Her hair clung to her neck, clammy with sweat, and she rested her head on her arm. All around her, the forest was filled with the faint sounds of early autumn -- birds singing far away, a squirrel rustling through the undergrowth, a woodpecker drilling. The obstacle course was deserted.

Slowly she sat up, hugging one knee, and risked a quick glance. Her black tights were shredded, and she could see blood and torn skin through the gap. Not too bad. Her left forearm was scraped from wrist to elbow, but it wasn't deep, there wasn't a lot of blood. She flicked a small piece of gravel from the wound.

Abruptly, tears stung her eyes and nose. "Oh, crap," she muttered as she felt a tightly held barrier crumble inside. She leaned her forehead into her uninjured hand and gave in, her throat aching, sobbing until she ran out of tears.

Finally Mac lifted her swollen eyes and looked at the golden patterns of leaves shifting overhead. Her belly ached with weeping, but she felt calmer. What the hell was that, she wondered vaguely. It isn't like me to overreact like that. Guess I've been more stressed lately than I thought. Funny -- things at work have been so quiet. Almost dull.

Damn you, Harm, she thought. Just because this is the first time in eight years we haven't celebrated your birthday, do I have to feel so lousy? Why didn't you return my calls, dammit? I'm sorry you had to leave the Navy, but I made the right decision, I know I did. So why does everything feel so wrong?

With a little hiss of pain, she struggled to her feet and began limping along the course. All her life, she had been picking herself up and getting herself home. She wasn't about to stop now.

 

1730 hours EDT, same day
Stonewall Jackson Park, Falls Church, Virginia

 

Bang. Bang. Bang. The bouncing twang of the basketball echoed off the pavement as Sturgis slowly circled for an opening. Harm balanced lightly on the balls of his feet, arms outspread, watching narrowly in the fading twilight. With a sudden fake to the right, Sturgis pivoted and drove for the basket.

Harm leaped, blocked the shot, and the two men crashed together in a tangle of elbows and knees. Harm grabbed the rebound and knocked the smaller man sprawling.

"Foul," Sturgis wheezed, flat on his back.

"Sorry, you okay?" Harm extended a hand and pulled him up.

Sturgis took a limping step, panting, and shot him a look. "I'll live, no thanks to you. Are you still growing or something?"

"I eat my spinach," Harm grinned.

"Like hell. You've added ten pounds of muscle this year, easy." He bounced the ball as he went to the foul line. "You lifting some serious weight?"

"The last year or so, yeah. Plus running."

"Shows. You training for something?"

"Yeah, to kick your sorry ass," Harm grinned, and jumped for the rebound as Sturgis's foul shot bounced off the rim. Sturgis scrambled onto defense, but Harm's jump shot sailed cleanly through the hoop, snagging the torn net on the way.

Sturgis gestured time out, panting. The crisp autumn afternoon had been warm, but it quickly turned chilly as they sat on the scarred wooden bench beneath the backboard. Sturgis picked up a towel, and Harm pulled a sweatshirt over his head.

"You must have started as soon as you healed up after that crash in the Atlantic," Sturgis commented.

"Yeah. I wanted to get back in shape, and it sort of went from there."

"Probably comes in handy working for Air America."

Harm gave a derisive snort, twisted the cap off a bottle of water, and tilted his head back, swallowing.

"So how is it going?"

Harm shrugged. "I can't say I'm too crazy about the whole culture at Langley, but I'm not there much."

"Must be tough."

"Yeah, well, it's not like I haven't had some experience starting over," Harm said lightly, but Sturgis noted the set of his jaw. "You know, it's funny in a way. After the ramp strike, I thought I'd lost everything, but all I lost was flying. This time, that's all I have left." He gave a mirthless laugh.

"You're still a lawyer."

Harm shifted restlessly. "I can't see myself as an associate in some big law firm. I'd be working 80 hours a week just so some corporation can stick it to the rest of them. One of these days, I'll find a firm that does a lot of civil liberties litigation. But for now, I just want to fly and get out of town for awhile." He grinned. "Or maybe I'll sell the 'vette, cash in my IRA, and buy a boat. Sail around the world for a couple of years."

"Want a crew?"

Harm cocked an eye at him. "That doesn't sound like everything is happy at headquarters."

Sturgis took a long pull at his water. "Man, I just don't know. The Admiral is sailing a much tighter ship, so I guess somebody over at the Pentagon is still getting the wind up. Maybe he has his sights set on a third star, who knows."

"Sounds like you should be pleased, Sturgis. You like things run by the book."

Sturgis gave a quick, humorless smile. "Guess the weird dynamics grew on me. All I know is, JAG used to be an exciting place to work, we were amazingly productive, and we got some damn fine results. Now we slog along, every case takes months, and we have to document every step. We're always watching our backs and covering our ass. It's a demoralizing way to operate." He glanced at Harm. "Everybody misses you, you know."

"I doubt that."

"Your name comes up about ten times a day. 'Harm did this,' or 'The Commander did that.' Drives the Admiral bugshit." Sturgis looked at him. "I'm sorry about the way it all worked out, man."

Harm rested his forearms on his knees. "I accepted the consequences when I made the decision, Sturgis. Do I think the Admiral could have handled the situation better? Yes. Would I make the same choice again? Yes."

"I'm glad to hear it." Sturgis watched his friend thoughtfully. "So -- are you okay?" he asked, surprising himself.

Harm raised his eyebrows. "Yeah, fine, why?"

"You've been a little quiet. Especially today."

Harm looked away. "Just one of those days, I guess." He took another swallow and squinted up at the sky. "We're going to have to turn the lights on if we want to keep going."

Sturgis reached into his gym bag and pulled out a six pack of Heineken. "What do you say we knock off a couple of these? Happy birthday, man."

Harm grinned as he twisted the cap off a bottle and clinked it with Sturgis's. "Thanks, I guess. I mean, Jesus, *40.* How the hell did that happen?"

"Beats me. And why are we sitting here tonight without a date between us?"

"Speak for yourself. I have an appointment later."

"You're seeing someone?"

"I don't know if 'seeing' is exactly the term. But when I'm in town, I occasionally spend the night with a very smart lady who doesn't feel the need to analyze my lack of commitment." Harm took a long pull at his beer.

Sturgis lifted his brows at the unfamiliar bitterness in his friend's voice, and paused before deciding to risk his next question. "What the hell happened in Paraguay, Harm? If you don't mind my asking?"

"I do mind, but I don't suppose that'll stop you."

Sturgis caught the bleak undertone, and a glance confirmed his suspicion that an indirect approach might be wiser. He took another sip of beer and said, "Mac looks awfully unhappy these days."

"Mac wasn't happy about *anything* I did in Paraguay. And when it was all over, she informed me things were never going to work out for us."

"You're kidding." At Harm's glare, he quickly added, "But -- you saved her life" --

"She didn't pay much attention to that."

Sturgis was appalled. "That doesn't sound like Mac."

"Tell me about it." Harm was silent for a long time. Sturgis handed him another beer, and Harm sat turning it absently in his hands without saying anything. For a long minute, Sturgis was sure he would say no more, and then Harm sighed. "Funny thing is, this past year, I thought we were finally getting it right. I went down there ready to -- to say everything I should have told her a long time ago."

"And she didn't want to hear it?"

"Hell, she came at me with both guns drawn. I think she had already made up her mind to move on." Harm blew a silent whistle through pursed lips and leaned back. "Man, I cannot believe I am buzzed on one beer."

Sturgis noted the sidestepped question, and waited patiently. After a long while, Harm spoke, almost to himself. "You know how she is, Sturgis. She decides something and that's it, full speed ahead. Webb pulled her into an incredibly dangerous situation, and they went through hell together. Next thing I know, she's all over him." Harm's profile revealed little emotion.

Sturgis watched his friend with compassion. "I'm sorry, man."

"So am I." Harm shrugged. "But hey, you put it behind you and move on, right?"

Sturgis wasn't fooled. "You sure about that, buddy?"

Harm's deep set eyes were somber as he turned the beer bottle in his hands. His voice, when it came, was so soft Sturgis had to strain to hear. "It's hard for Mac to believe that anyone loves her. She needs to hear the words." His lips tightened. "And I made her wait. Too long."

"Why did you?" For a moment, Sturgis was sure he had pushed too hard.

Harm looked away. "Who knows why anybody does anything?"

"If Mac didn't know how you felt, she *must* need it spelled out."

Harm stood up, grabbed his duffle bag, and tossed his beer into the trash barrel. Sturgis was shocked at the pain he glimpsed in his friend's face.

Very softly, Harm replied, "I thought I had, Sturgis."

 

Part Two

That evening, 1900 hours EDT
Georgetown, Washington, DC

 

The door of the limousine closed with a quiet, expensive click. Mac slid into the soft leather seat and turned to smile at Clayton Webb.

"You look lovely, Sarah." His eyes gleamed as he lifted her hand and brushed a light kiss across her knuckles. "What happened here?" he frowned, noticing the bandage on her elbow.

"Oh, just a scrape. I took a fall on the obstacle course at Quantico today."

"So that's what Marines do on their day off?"

"Some Marines." She was glad her hemline covered the wounds on her knees.

"Well, you certainly clean up well. I'm glad you could come tonight."

"All work and no play, remember? Besides, we have to celebrate your getting out of the hospital. But Clay, you didn't need to bring a limo."

He waved his hand, dismissing it. "The chauffeur and the car are Mother's. She's letting me use them while I recuperate."

"Doesn't she need them?"

"I'm staying with her. We manage." Clay smirked and flicked an imaginary speck of lint off his dark sleeve. His gold cufflinks caught the light.

"It's nice to see you back in a three-piece suit," she teased. "You look like yourself again. How are you feeling?"

"Steps are still a bit much, sorry I had to send Franklin to the door for you. But I'll be a hundred percent in no time."

Riding through the streets of the District in comfort instead of battling the traffic was a luxurious sensation. Abruptly she was reminded of Dalton, and shrugged it off as she inquired, "Where are we going tonight, anyway?"

"We're here." The big car sighed to a stop at the curb, and the chauffeur held the door as she stepped out. Clay followed, and she noticed he was using an ebony cane, but his limp was barely noticeable. She turned and looked up at the quiet stone building. A dark green canopy stretched from the entrance to the street. They ascended shallow carpeted steps to the entrance, where a liveried doorman opened the wide doors with a flourish.

"Evening, Charles," Clay said casually.

"Good evening, Mr. Webb," the man replied.

Mac gave Clay an inquiring glance. "Harvard Club," he explained briefly. She looked around with interest as they crossed the entrance hall. Her heels clicked on the marble floor, and suddenly she was glad she had worn her new black dress with the matching wrap.

"Ever been here?" Clay asked.

"No, I haven't. It's a beautiful building," she said.

"We'll go right to the table, James," Clay said to a footman, and gestured for Mac to precede him to the dining room. As they passed the cavernous lounge, Mac glimpsed a huge fireplace, walls lined with books, and about an acre of Oriental rugs. People were seated here and there in leather chairs, and there was a discreet hum of conversation, the clink of ice in crystal glasses.

The dining room it was dim and quiet, with only a few tables occupied. Paneled walls and tall, narrow windows rose to the ceiling high overhead, and Mac stared curiously at the walls lined with silver cups and old photographs massed on shelves. Athletics teams, she supposed, going back to the last century. The captain seated her and spread her napkin, then did the same for Clay.

"Very impressive," she smiled, looking around.

"It's quiet, and the food's good," Clay shrugged. She was intrigued by the offhand way he ignored the trappings of old money as if they were commonplace, a birthright. For him, she supposed they were.

They chatted easily during dinner. Clay's astute and waspish observations on everything from politics to popular culture were always entertaining, but she was still startled by the intensity of some of his conservative opinions. While he amused her with anecdotes about people he knew in the Bush administration, she reflected on his smug assumption that he always knew more about every topic than anyone else. The fact that he was often correct did not keep it from becoming faintly annoying, and after awhile, she began to weary of the need to lob back clever rejoinders. 'I wish just once you wouldn't have a comeback,' she thought, and was startled to recognize Harm's voice echoing in her mind.

Quickly she focused on Clay, watching the candlelight play over his thick, coppery hair, his elegant clothes, his strong hands, visualizing him riding and controlling a powerful horse. Despite the sarcasm, his sharp intelligence and wit were stimulating, and she basked in the gleam of admiration in his eyes.

But as the evening progressed, Mac found herself making an effort. When informed that his favorite author was Anthony Trollope, she had to stifle an urge to groan. We have so little in common, really, she thought as she smiled and nodded. Most of our work is classified or confidential, so we can't talk about it. We shared one horrific experience. And that leaves -- what?

" . . . took care of our friend Hardy," Clay said, and she tuned back in.

"He's dead?" she asked, startled. "How?"

"Bullet through the head. Somebody tried to make it look self-inflicted after too many shots of cana, but I think he finally tripped himself up playing both sides of the street."

"The next head of station will be a little more trustworthy, I hope," Mac said. She knew she would never get used to his casual attitude toward killings.

"We'll try. It's not a coveted posting, you know."

"Why did they keep someone like Hardy, anyway?"

"He had his uses. He knew the ropes down there."

"So the fact that he was a weasel and a liar and traded information with other parties didn't matter."

"Come on, Sarah. We seldom have the luxury of operating in an unambiguous situation, or dealing with people of high moral character." He regarded her, considering. "Speaking of which, you haven't asked me how Rabb's doing."

She looked away. "How is he doing?"

"He was offered a promotion to field agent. I was glad to hear he turned it down. The missions they have him flying are dangerous enough."

"What do you mean?" Her voice was quick and sharp.

Clay didn't miss it. "Rabb's a warrior, Sarah. That's why Kershaw recruited him -- he's smart, resourceful, confident, and as you and I both have reason to know, he never gives up. But Harm doesn't deal in shades of grey -- he's one hundred percent or nothing. They don't teach irony or ambiguity or lying at Annapolis."

"If you don't count lies of omission as well as commission."

Clay's eyes narrowed slightly at the undercurrent of bitterness in her voice. "Being uncommunicative or misleading is a long way from lying," he pointed out.

"That's just splitting hairs. It still makes it impossible to trust someone. How do you live with dodging shadows all the time, Clay?"

"Easily. But I'm not a Boy Scout like Rabb. One of these days, he's going to hang it all out for the wrong person and wind up dead."

"Harm isn't naive."

"No, but he is one naturally heroic son of a bitch, and he takes ungodly risks. I ought to know, he's saved my life twice."

"And you got his brother out of Chechnya. He'll never forget that."

"No, he won't. Unlike most people."

She wondered if that included her. "So you weren't kidding, were you? In the CIA, lying and murder really are just another day at the office."

The flick of his glance registered the barb. His grey eyes met hers. "And that's why Rabb's in the wrong line of work, Sarah."

"There's nothing I can do about that."

"You're probably the one person who *could.*"

She stared at him. "Why would Harm listen to me? He never has yet."

For a long moment Clay watched her with curious intensity, then dropped his gaze and rubbed his fingers absently over the fine white tablecloth. "If you really don't know, then it's certainly not my place to tell you," he replied. "Please forget I brought it up. Would you like dessert?"

The rest of dinner passed with light, pleasant chit-chat, but Mac couldn't shake the feeling that something important had passed, just out of her line of sight. Later, as the limousine purred past the White House, she stared at the lighted facade and wondered if Clay was right. It would be like Harm to bury his feelings by taking one dangerous assignment after another, she thought with a little prick of anxiety.

Clay's fingers closed over hers where they lay on the seat, and he leaned forward. "Take a swing around the monuments, Franklin," he said, and touched a button to put up the screen.

"That sounds like a line from an old movie," Mac teased.

"Hey, it worked for Kevin Costner," Clay said with an arrogant smile. Slowly, he placed two fingers beneath her chin and tilted her face to his.

His kiss was warm and firm, and it lingered long enough to ask the question. His lips were very soft. She found herself wondering what on earth she was going to say.

Finally he leaned back and regarded her intently. "This is never going to work, is it Sarah?" It wasn't a question.

She let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. "No," she agreed. "I'm sorry, Clay."

"Don't be. I'm not."

"Clay" --

"Please. Let's not get into the part about how we'll always be friends. You know we will."

She nodded silently.

 

A Friday night two weeks later, 1900 Hours EST
JAG Headquarters, Falls Church, Virginia

 

Mac sat back with a sigh and rubbed her tired eyes. Her neck ached, the close print of the legal brief was beginning to blur, and she was sure she had read the same paragraph three times. The pool of golden lamplight on her desk seemed to be the only source of illumination in the silent old building.

I should go home, she thought as she poked at her discarded shoes beneath the desk with a stocking toe. The thought of another evening alone in her apartment discouraged her, and the idea of a meal from a can or the microwave killed any appetite she might have had. I swear I can feel my ass spreading to the exact dimensions of this chair, she grumbled to herself.

Irritably she wadded up a sheet of scratch paper and tossed it at the wastebasket, where it bounced off the rim onto the carpet. Shit, she thought with a spurt of unaccustomed self-pity. I'm thirty-five, I haven't dated anyone in just about forever, and the most exciting prospect for my weekend is the laundry. I need a life.

"Excuse me, Mac?" Mac looked up quickly to see Meredith, who was standing with her hand raised to knock at the open door. "I was just leaving and saw you were still here."

"As always," Mac replied, trying to sound cheerful.

"I came to meet AJ, but he has to go to some late meeting over at the Pentagon. Would you like to join me for dinner? I haven't seen you in ages."

Mac started to say no, and stopped. Why not? She liked Meredith, and God knows she wasn't getting anything done here. "I'd love to. Where?"

"How about Callisto's? Shall we meet there? Then you won't need to come back for your car."

"Sounds great," Mac smiled, and stood up, straightening some stacks of papers.

"I'll go on and get a table. See you there," Meredith waved and hurried out.

When Mac arrived, the restaurant was already crowded, but she spotted Meredith waving to her from a booth against the wall.

"Oh, this is delightful," Meredith beamed. "I've been meaning to call you for lunch for weeks and catch up. How *are* you?"

"I'm fine, thanks. I don't think I've had a chance to congratulate you on your engagement." She raised her goblet of water, and the crystal rang as she touched it to Meredith's wine glass.

"And to think it was you who introduced us!"

"That wasn't deliberate, you know."

"*I* know that, Mac. I'm not sure AJ believes it, though," Meredith smiled.

Mac picked up her menu and said, "I hear you're having your wedding at Annapolis?"

"Yes, in the Academy chapel. AJ is Catholic, I'm Presbyterian, it seemed like a perfect compromise. Besides, when I married my first husband, we had the wedding in a park, with bare feet," Meredith laughed. "I knew AJ would demand a little more dignity this time around."

"I didn't know you had been married before."

"We met in graduate school, but we divorced a couple of years later when we realized we had absolutely nothing in common but our PhDs." She looked up as the waiter materialized at her elbow. "Oh, yes, I'll have the calamari. You really should try it, Mac, it's a specialty here."

"I'm afraid squid always tastes like rubber bands to me," Mac smiled. "I'm a Marine, remember? The lasagna, please." Suddenly the joke turned bitter in her mouth. She handed her menu to the waiter and turned to Meredith. "I got married too young, too."

"It helped me over that horrible transition from school to the real world. There are worse reasons to get married, I suppose, but I'm glad we were able to move on without too much difficulty. It would have been harder if we'd had children."

Mac hesitated, and then something prompted her to say, "I'm beginning to think I'll never get a chance to have kids. Do you ever regret not doing it?"

Meredith looked pensively at the candles glowing on the table. "Regret is the wrong word, I think. I would have loved to have children, in the right circumstances, but now that a wonderful man has come along, the time has passed. I'm 44, and I can't see asking AJ to start raising a baby at 58. Fortunately, we both have rich, full lives, and I adore my students. Besides, I don't have to change their diapers or pay tuition," she grinned.

When she saw Mac's half-hearted smile, Meredith leaned forward impulsively and laid a light hand on her wrist. "But there's no reason for you to give up, dear."

"I'm 35, and I don't have the best track record with relationships," Mac answered lightly. "It's funny, I never expected to make my career the center of my life, but it's the one thing I haven't made a mess of." She thought of her Article 32 hearing, and a vivid memory of Harm flashed through her.

"AJ thinks the world of you and the job you do, I'm sure you know that."

"I haven't been doing so well lately."

Meredith's keen gaze regarded her as the waiter placed salads before them. "AJ doesn't talk about things at the office, of course, but I know you went through an ordeal a few months ago. You look exhausted."

"We're short-handed, so we've all been working long hours. The admiral still hasn't found another litigator he wants to move up to headquarters."

"Yes, so I understand. Commander Rabb will not be easy to replace." Meredith was watching her intently, and Mac had a sinking feeling that she wouldn't let it go. Sure enough, Meredith asked, "Have you heard from him? How is he doing?"

Mac wondered irritably why everyone seemed to assume she had some sort of hotline to Harmon Rabb. "I don't have a clue," she replied shortly. "He hasn't returned my calls."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Meredith said, noting the defensiveness underlying Mac's tone. "He went through quite an ordeal himself last spring, even before all this happened."

"Harm always bounces back."

After a pause, Meredith said kindly, "I'm sorry. I didn't stop to think that you'd probably prefer not discuss this with the boss's fiancée."

"Meredith, I'm sorry. I didn't mean" --

"Nonsense, of course you did. And you're quite right. I'm not used to being part of a couple, it's something I still have to get used to."

"I imagine it's a big adjustment."

"I didn't expect it, but yes, it is. I've had relationships before, of course, but never anything like AJ. He's such an overwhelming presence, yet so painfully inarticulate when it comes to personal matters," she shook her head fondly. "It must be hard to go from giving orders that are instantly obeyed to discussing your innermost feelings."

"The service tends to instill that in people," Mac observed. "It can be hard for two strong-willed personalities to make it work."

"I don't know about that. A balance of complementary forces is the only thing that's satisfying in the long run, don't you think?"

"A balancing act can get awfully hard," Mac replied, feeling a little defensive. "It can seem more like a tug of war."

"Don't I know it. AJ and I both lived alone for years, so we're both used to deciding everything without consulting anyone else. I get so excited about making plans and trying new things, it took me forever to notice that he didn't really enjoy some of them. He was too polite to say so, poor dear."

"He is one of the most private men I know."

Meredith's eyes were twinkling. "Remember when he announced our engagement without mentioning it to me? When I confronted him about it, he just said, 'So, interested?'" They both chuckled.

"How did you handle it?" Mac grinned.

"Finally I marched myself into his office and asked him if he was trying to propose to me. The poor man just needed a little help."

Mac leaned back against the banquette and took a sip of water. "Sometimes those kinds of conversations backfire."

Meredith tilted her head. "That's true, of course. But I find if I listen carefully, he tells me what I need to know. More by the things he does than what he says. 'Strong reasons make strong actions,' and all that."

"And what if he never did ask?" Mac said softly.

"You know, last winter I was beginning to wonder. So I told him how *I* felt, and made it clear there were no strings attached." Meredith's shrewd gaze was warm with compassion. "If AJ hadn't responded, it would have hurt. But I would have moved on, eventually. Any self-respecting woman would."

"I've never been brave enough to say 'I love you' first."

Meredith was silent. Finally she said, "I guess I was more concerned about his feelings than my own."

Mac looked up quickly, but the waiter moved in to serve and she lost sight of Meredith's expression. As they began to eat, Meredith smiled cheerfully and demanded, "So tell me, how is Chloe?" And the moment passed.

But for Mac, later, sleep was a long time coming.

 

Late November, 2200 EST
Andrews Air Force Base, Washington, D.C.

 

"This way, ma'am." The skinny kid on the flight crew could not have been more than eighteen, and Mac thought, damn, it's finally happened. I could be this kid's mother.

He shouldered her sea bag and she followed him out toward the enormous military transport parked on the concrete. The autumn night was chilly and clear, with a brisk breeze that hinted at a change in the weather. Mac sighed. It had been a long day, and it was about to get a lot longer. God, why did the admiral have to pick *her* to spend the next 15 hours trying to sleep sitting up aboard military transports? Why couldn't someone in Japan handle the problems at Seventh Fleet?

A movement caught the corner of her eye and she turned to see a shiny Lear jet taxi up to the next gate. Its door opened, and immediately three men in suits trotted down the steps carrying briefcases. They were met by a couple of people who emerged from the building, and there was a lot of handshaking.

Feds? VIPs? Her idle curiosity evaporated as she turned to board the transport. And stopped, with her foot on the bottom step.

A tall, broad shouldered figure in a flight suit had emerged from the Lear and joined the group on the tarmac. Even in the darkness, half blinded by the lights reflecting off the vast expanse of runways, Mac knew who it was.

Harm shook hands with one of the men, and they stepped aside for a private word. They came a step closer, and Mac could see Harm's face clearly. He looked tired. Harm said something, watching the other man, then looked down thoughtfully. He nodded once or twice.

Soldiers were tromping up the ramp behind her, but Mac was oblivious to the noise. As she watched, Harm turned to take a clipboard from one of the ground crew and stood there alone, scribbling something. Mac hesitated, then started toward him with a tentative step.

She stopped abruptly when Harm looked up, but he was staring the other way. A slim blonde woman was approaching, a light rain coat billowing around her as her high heels tapped across the pavement. When she reached Harm, she put her hand on his arm and said something, smiling up at him. Mac recognized Catherine Gale.

Harm said something, and Catherine answered, nodding. Then he bent and kissed her.

Fifty yards away, Mac stared in disbelief. It wasn't a passionate clinch, but it was definitely not a platonic kiss on the cheek. She stood frozen, watching Harm and Catherine turn to walk toward the lighted doorway. His arm slid around her shoulders in a casual gesture, familiar and relaxed. The way couples touch who have been together for awhile.

Thank God it was dark, Mac thought, stepping back into the shadow of the big plane. Finally she forced herself to look away and climb the ramp, find a seat, and strap herself in. Her mind was blank, and her lips and fingers felt stiff with shock. She wrapped her arms tightly around herself as the big plane taxied out and took off with a roar of engines.

Okay, Mackenzie, she chided herself. You have no business being upset. Why should it bother you? This is what you wanted. He's a man, he has a perfect right . . . .

Sleepless, she stared out at the night sky for hours, numbed by the metallic roar of the engines, wondering whether she would ever feel warm again.
 

 

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