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Monday, 1825 Hours EDT
Mac's room, Georgetown University Hospital


When he came in, Mac was perched in the chair watching the evening news. She clicked the remote to mute and looked up expectantly.

Harm tossed his cover on the bureau and held up a duffle bag. "Toothbrush, hairbrush, pajamas, slippers, and your current novel. I gotta tell you, Mac, some of that stuff in your dresser is a lot cuter than these pj's."

She blushed. When he had offered to stop by her apartment to pick up some things, she hadn't stopped to think that he'd have to go through her lingerie drawer. He grinned as she pulled the thin hospital robe around her with dignity and stalked into the bathroom.

"Tell me you brought dinner!" she called while she changed.

"One cheeseburger with everything," he said, and set the takeout sack on the table. "Is it okay for you to have this now?"

"Must be -- they brought me a meal, if you can call it that." She emerged wearing her own flannel pajamas and gestured at the tray. "That stuff isn't recognizable as food." She hopped back onto the bed and unwrapped the burger and fries.

"How'd you get along this afternoon?" he asked, easing his tall frame into the chair and leaning forward. His clasped hands rested between his knees.

"About a million tests," she said. "You know, go here, go there, just like boot camp. I'm not sure I have any blood left."

"How was the MRI?"

"Worse than being strapped into the back seat of an F-14," she said lightly, but he noticed that she was barely picking at her meal. Finally she pushed away the burger half-eaten.

Harm held up a manila envelope. "I brought the medical leave forms for you to sign."

"I'll be back at work next week," she waved it away.

"You need to file if you're out more than three days, Mac. You know that."

She glared at the wall, then wiped her fingers fastidiously with the napkins and held out her hand. He passed her the papers and a pen. "I'll submit them for you in the morning," he said, tucking them into his jacket and watching as she sipped at her chocolate shake. "Look, Mac," he began reluctantly. "I'm really sorry I can't be here for you tomorrow morning."

"It's okay, Harm," she said. "You have the new admiral coming in. Besides, there's nothing you can do just sitting around waiting. I'd rather see you when I'm awake."

"I can make it by about 1600," he frowned. "Mattie and I have a hearing with the family court judge tomorrow afternoon to get permission for her to spend time with her father this summer."

"I should be there for *you*," she said gently. "You've got a hell of a day lined up."

"So do you," he muttered. "Anyway, I'll get here as soon as I can, okay? I want to hear what they have to say."

She nodded soberly and looked down, picking at the cotton blanket. After a long pause, she whispered, "I feel like I'm at the top of a big slide, and when I start down I'll be out of control."

He reached over and took her hand. "I know," he nodded. "But we'll get through this, Mac. We'll hang in there and we'll get through it, a step at a time."

She blinked furiously. After a moment she managed to say, "Okay."


Tuesday, 0900 Hours EDT
JAG Headquarters


"Attention on deck!"

With a muted thump, 75 officers and enlisted personnel snapped to attention, eyes front.

Admiral Harrison Prescott came to a rigid halt just inside the glass doors. Flanked by two aides, a Marine staff sergeant and a Navy lieutenant commander, Prescott surveyed the orderly rows of his staff with frosty grey eyes. "At ease," he snapped, and the ranks shifted to parade rest, moving as one individual. Prescott nodded once, and the lieutenant commander stepped forward and read the orders for the change of command.

Prescott continued to stare over the rows of people, and the silence began to stretch out. At last he said, "Staff call for senior officers at 1100 in the conference room." He nodded to the Marine, who bellowed, "Dismissed!"

Everyone broke ranks and milled around in quiet disorder as they headed back to their duties. Prescott marched straight into his office with the lieutenant commander at his heels. The Marine stopped in the outer office and spoke to Petty Officer Coates, who hurriedly gathered up her things and dumped them on an unoccupied desk in the bullpen.

A few minutes later, she looked up to see Harm frowning at her. "You're sitting out here now, Jennifer?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," she answered, trying not to sound upset. "Staff Sergeant Morrissey will be the Admiral's administrative assistant. I'll be his clerical backup."

"Keep your chin up, Petty Officer. I'd better get in there or I'll be shoveling guano on Guam myself," Harm muttered under his breath and continued briskly to the Admiral's anteroom, where the sergeant jumped to attention.

"Go right in, sir," he said crisply. "He's expecting you." The man's square face and hard eyes were impassive, and the pale skin over his jaws betrayed a shadow of beard despite an immaculate shave.

"Thank you, Staff Sergeant," Harm nodded and opened the door. "Commander Rabb reporting, sir," he said as he came to attention.

Already the room seemed unfamiliar. The worn leather chairs had been replaced with handsome antiques, and an Oriental rug was spread before the fireplace. The young officer was busy at the mantel, hanging a Fitz Hugh Lane marine seascape that looked like it belonged in a museum.

Prescott finished reading something on his computer and tapped a few keys while Harm waited patiently. The discourtesy surprised him, but he realized he simply didn't care. He was finding it difficult to think about anything but Mac, who was probably in surgery right now. With an effort, he forced himself to focus.

Harrison Prescott had been the deputy JAG for eighteen months, but his visits to headquarters had always occurred when Harm was on assignment, and he had never met the man. Prescott had a reputation as a by-the-book guy, a solid administrator who had spent very little time in the courtroom and owed his career in the Navy to his impeccable background, connected by marriage to the President himself.

Finally the man swiveled his chair to the front and looked up. "At ease, Commander," he said curtly. "Have a seat." He picked up a sheaf of papers and went on, "I expected to be dealing with Colonel Mackenzie on the transition."

"The Colonel was hospitalized yesterday, sir," Harm said and laid Mac's forms on the desk. "She'll be out the rest of this week at least. Here are her leave papers."

"What the hell's the matter with her?" Prescott frowned. "This isn't some sort of elective procedure, is it?"

"No, sir." Harm waited while the man picked up the forms and began to read.

"My God," Prescott frowned. "Jesus, what a hell of a thing. Well, obviously she won't be back on full duty for a long time, if ever. Solves one problem, at least. Jack!" The lieutenant colonel stopped shelving books and stepped smartly across to the desk.

Prescott made the introductions with a wave of his hand. "Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Jackson, my aide. Commander Harmon Rabb." The two men nodded, sizing each other up. "Jack, you'll be in Colonel Mackenzie's office," Prescott said. "Have her stuff moved to an unoccupied office on the lower level, or put it in storage until a space opens up."

Jackson nodded, "Aye, sir."


"Sir -- " Harm started to protest and waited as Jackson left. He held Prescott's cool gaze. "Sir, Colonel Mackenzie expects to return to duty in a week or two."

"She will be undergoing treatment for months, correct?"

"I believe so, sir."

"Then it would be extremely unrealistic to wait until her health situation is resolved, one way or another."

When the meaning of the admiral's words sank home, Harm had to grip the arms of his chair until the red haze dissipated from his vision.

Unconcerned or oblivious, Prescott was scanning a folder on his desk. "You and the Colonel have worked together here at headquarters for years now, correct?"

"Yes, sir."

"And that's why you're running interference for her on this matter?"

Harm took hold of his temper. "Colonel Mackenzie has no family, sir. We've been friends for a long time."

"A long time. Yes. Look, Rabb. Admiral Chegwidden compiled an outstanding record, and he did it by developing a team of fine litigators, headed by yourself. But I believe he extended your tour of duty here at headquarters what -- three times? -- and several others, also. Well, Commander, I might as well be blunt. That's going to change. I'll be bringing up new officers who deserve a shot at top level litigation, and many of you will be rotating to new billets in accordance with normal military procedure. It won't happen tomorrow, but it's time for some new blood around here."

"Understood, sir." Harm kept his expression neutral.

"Let's get something straight, Rabb. Your record as an attorney is exceptional, and so is your reputation for getting results. Silver Star, two DFCs -- Jesus. But your service record reads like a cheap novel. You'll be lucky to make Captain no matter what the hell that missing six months was all about, and you certainly won't make it unless you take an overseas billet with command responsibilities before you come up for promotion. I don't have time for dead wood on my staff."

"Yes, sir."

"Excellent. Now let's go over these summaries before staff call. I'll be meeting with heads of all JAG divisions and overseas commands during the next month, and I'll expect litigation to keep moving smoothly."


Later that morning, 1145 Hours EDT
Conference Room, JAG Headquarters


"Well, that about wraps it up, gentlemen." Prescott closed the cover of his leather portfolio and stared down the long mahogany table. "I have a lunch at the Pentagon, but first I have a couple of announcements." Every officer at the table looked up expectantly.

"As of now, Lieutenant Commander Jackson will assume the duties of chief of staff," Prescott said. "All matters of personnel will be referred to him. Staff Sergeant Morrissey will serve as my administrative aide and keep my appointments calendar." His cool voice continued without skipping a beat. "Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie has been hospitalized with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, and as of today she is on medical leave. Her assignments will be determined when she is cleared to return to duty. Dismissed."

A wave of icy rage swept over Harm, and he forced his expression to remain impassive as everyone came to attention and the Admiral left the room. Instantly Sturgis and Bud turned to him, their faces taut with shock.

"Harm? What's going on, man?" Sturgis demanded.

"Mac's having surgery this morning," Harm said reluctantly. "We'll know more later."

"Can Harriet call her, sir?" Bud asked.

"Of course, Bud. I know Mac will appreciate seeing her when she feels better, she just didn't want everyone to hear about it by public broadcast," Harm snapped. "That son of a bitch didn't waste any time, did he?"

Sturgis put his hand on Harm's shoulder. "Easy, man. How's she holding up?"

Harm let his breath out slowly. "They say they've caught it early, and her chances are very good. That's all we know right now."

"What can we do, sir?" Bud said.

"We'll pray for her, Harm," Sturgis said.


That afternoon, 1630 Hours EDT
Mac's room, Georgetown University Hospital


She knew when he entered the room, and opened her eyes. "Hi," she smiled. Her voice sounded hoarse.

"Hi yourself," he said, seating himself gingerly beside her bed. "How are you doing?"

"Fine. I didn't get back to the room 'til about 1400, so I'm still a little groggy, that's all."

"Wow, what time did they start?" he asked, hiding his anxiety.

"It felt like the crack of dawn. Then they kept me in the recovery room a long time."

"Have they told you how it went?"

"Not really. They said it went okay, but I haven't seen Dr. Levine yet. It's hard to remember what they say when you're all doped up."

"Well, that's good. I mean, I wanted to be here when you talked to him."

"How did it go with Mattie?" she asked.

"All right. The judge approved her spending the time with her dad, I mean. We'll try it for a month and see how it goes, and we can ask for a change if Tom falls off the wagon or it just doesn't work out."

"Are you okay with it?"

He looked away, but she didn't miss the pain in his eyes. "Sure. Hell, I'm proud of her. It isn't easy to admit you were wrong and give somebody another chance. This is the best possible outcome for her."

"But not for you. You did a great thing, Harm."

"It's not about me." He looked away. "And I wouldn't trade the past six months for anything." Quickly changing the subject, he bent to retrieve a package from the floor, and with a wistful smile, held up a threadbare pink teddy bear. "Mattie sent this. She said it always makes her feel better, and she wants you to take care of it for her."

Mac felt tears threatening, and forced herself to smile. "Oh Harm. What's its name?"

"Hell, I don't know. Look, when she asked me why I was worried, I had to tell her you were in the hospital, but I didn't say why."

"That's all right, Harm. I just don't want everybody to hear until I can tell them myself." A pained expression flitted across his face, and she said quickly, "What?"

"The cat's out of the bag. Admiral Prescott announced it at staff call. It hit Bud and Sturgis pretty hard."

"Oh no." She grimaced. "Well, what are you gonna do. I just didn't want a lot of rumors and people fussing around." His expression warned her. "What else happened? Harm?"

"What makes you think something else happened?"

"You have that look."

"*What* look?"

"That 'how do I get out of here' look."

He gave a short laugh. "Mac, it's nothing. It'll keep."

"*Now,* Commander."

He sighed. "Prescott made his aide chief of staff and moved him into your office. The good news is, you're next door to me."

She stared at him. "Wow, that was fast."

"If it's any comfort, I think Prescott planned to do it anyway. This just gave him an excuse."

"It's not a big surprise, Harm. Anyway, it'll give me more time to try cases."

Harm might have looked inscrutable to anyone else, but she knew he wasn't telling her everything. Just as she started to press for details, Dr. Levine gave a loud knock on the open door and bustled in, his white coat rustling with starch.

"Hello, Colonel," he said cheerfully. "Commander. No, no, please sit down," he waved Harm back into his chair and pulled up a stool on the opposite side of the bed. "How are you feeling, Sarah?" he asked and reached for her pulse.

"Not too bad, considering I seem to have gone three rounds with a kangaroo wearing boxing gloves," Mac said. Levine chuckled.

"You've had two procedures in less than a week. You're bound to feel pretty beat up. But the good news is, we only had to take the one ovary. There was no sign that the tumor had spread."

Harm's hand tightened around hers. "Thank God," she heard him whisper, and their eyes met. Her heart was thudding erratically, and she saw him swallow hard.

"We'll let you have tomorrow to recover," Levine was going on, "and we'll start the chemo on Thursday morning."

Mac cleared her throat. "Can't I go home tomorrow and come back?"

"I'd rather keep you here, Sarah. We need to monitor everything you eat and drink tomorrow, and you'll need all the rest you can get."

"But I can go home on Friday?"

"If all goes smoothly, yes. Now get some rest, okay? I'll stop by to see you tomorrow."

When he was gone, she turned to Harm. "These guys never give you an absolute answer to anything, have you noticed that?"

"Yeah, I have. Just like we don't ever promise a client how the members will decide."

She had to smile at that.


Wednesday, 1300 Hours EDT
Mac's room, Georgetown University Hospital


"I am going to go nuts if I have to watch another episode of 'Law and Order'!"

Mac hurled the TV remote against the pillow with more force than necessary, and Harriet's laughter greeted Harm as he came in. He was relieved to see Mac bouncing up and down, nearly fizzing with suppressed energy.

"Hi, Commander!" Harriet greeted him cheerfully. She was seated on the unoccupied bed with her shoes off, and Mac was sitting crosslegged on hers. "I was just trying to convince the Colonel that staying home during the daytime has its perks."

"Hey, Harriet. How are you doing?" Harm smiled and kissed her cheek.

"We're just great, sir, thanks," she beamed.

"Harriet brought me some stuff from home," Mac smiled as he took her hand and held it. He didn't see Harriet's eyebrows ascend to her bangs. "I didn't want you to have to deal with girl stuff again."

"Hey, I liked it," he grinned. "Look, Mac, I'm sorry I can't stay, but I've got court this afternoon, and Mattie has her last volleyball game tonight. Do you need anything?"

"I'll be fine. Please thank Mattie for me, tell her how much I love the bear."

"I'll get here by lunchtime tomorrow." Mac gave him a reassuring nod, and he reluctantly picked up his cover, hating that she had to be on her own for the next 24 hours. With a wave, he called from the doorway, "Harriet -- try to keep her from assaulting any of the nurses."


Thursday, 1230 Hours EDT
Mac's room, Georgetown University Hospital


The curtains were drawn against the brilliant sunlight outside. He tiptoed into the room, thinking she must be asleep, and froze at the sight of her curled on the bed. He couldn't believe this was the same vibrant woman he had talked to on the phone last night.

Mac lay huddled on her side, clutching a kidney-shaped plastic basin. Her eyes were closed, and her face was so pale it looked yellow. Clear plastic tubes snaked down from two IVs. There was an unpleasant odor of chemicals and sickness in the air.

Harm clutched his fists. As he hesitated, Mac cracked an eye and one corner of her mouth turned up. "Hey," she whispered.

"Hey Mac," he said, and sat carefully in the chair. "How's it going?"

She slowly shook her head and shut her eyes. He reached out and gingerly stroked the damp hair off her forehead. "You need to get back to the office," she mumbled, not opening her eyes.

"Yeah, I do," he said. "But I can stay a little while. I just wish there was something I could do for you, Mac."

"You're" -- abruptly she retched, horribly. A thin stream of yellow bile dripped into the basin, and she heaved again. Harm jumped to his feet, frantic, just as a nurse came in.

"Okay, Colonel Mackenzie, how are we doing?" the woman said brightly as she whisked the basin away and handed Mac a fresh one.

"Just peachy," Mac mumbled.

"Isn't there something you can do to make her more comfortable?" Harm demanded.

The nurse checked Mac's IVs and said briskly, "I'm sorry, but this is normal for the treatment. It'll pass in a few hours." She gestured to the door. "Let's go outside, sir."

With a glance at Mac, Harm followed reluctantly and confronted the nurse with a furious whisper. "A few *hours*?"

"Try not to be upset, sir. It's helping her. It's just part of the chemo."

Harm turned away from the woman, afraid he'd say something unforgivable. He gripped the window frame until his knuckles turned white, and after a moment the nurse walked briskly away, her shoes squeaking on the linoleum.

He saw nothing of the sunny day outside the glass. A cold wind was rattling the shutters of his soul, ripping away his last tattered shreds of denial. He could no longer hide from the knowledge that Mac was suffering, that she could die. His helplessness mocked him as he stared into the abyss.

After a few minutes he steeled himself to go back into her room. Her eyes were closed, and he sat silently beside her, turning his cover around and around in his hands. He recognized rage and frustration as the masks of fear, and at that moment, Harmon Rabb knew he had never been more terrified in his life.


That evening, 1900 Hours EDT
North of Union Station, Washington D.C.


"Should I put these onions in now, or what? Harm? Earth to Harm," Mattie said, waving her hand in front of his face. He came to with a start.

"Huh? Oh, sorry, Mats. Um, yeah. Lower the heat first." He stirred the pot of rice and covered it while Mattie tossed vegetables into the wok. Harm turned to the sink and began washing up a few odds and ends, not speaking.

He was absentmindedly pushing food around on his plate when Mattie blurted, "Harm? Are you mad at me?"

"What?" He looked up.

"You're acting like you're mad at me or something. Are you upset because I'm leaving?" Mattie glared at him. Her eyes were bright and shiny, and he knew she was trying not to cry.

"Oh God, no, Mattie -- I'm not upset with you. My mind was a million miles away, that's all. I'm sorry."

"Well you're upset about something," she tossed her curls. "You've been like this ever since Mac went in the hospital, so if it isn't me, it must be her. Harm, she's really sick, isn't she?"

He put his fork down. "Yes. She is."

"Is she going to be okay?"

"I hope so."

"But you can't tell me about it?"

"No, I can't, Mattie. Not ‘til Mac says it's okay."

Mattie sat very still, watching him carefully. "I'm not leaving," she announced.

"Mattie, I thought we had an agreement."

"I need to be here for you! Like you were there for me! Besides, what if I hate it? What if he gets drunk? What'll I do?" Suddenly Mattie looked very young.

"You'll call me, and I'll be there. But you need to give it a fair shot, okay?"

Mattie scowled down at her plate, cross and rebellious. Finally she said, "Can we still spend the day together tomorrow?"

"You bet. I'm going to pick Mac up at the hospital and take her home, then you and I are going to do what we planned. Are you all packed for Saturday?"

"I guess. I'm going to leave most of my stuff here, though."


Friday, 0900 Hours EDT
Mac's room, Georgetown University Hospital


Mac was dressed and waiting for him when he stuck his head in the door. She was sitting in a wheelchair, looking out the window and holding Mattie's bear on her lap.

"Hey, you look better," he greeted her, smiling for what felt like the first time in days.

"I feel better," she said. "But they told me I have to use this stupid chair." Actually she still looked exhausted, and her hair was pushed back behind her ears, limp and shapeless. But she was smiling at him, and that was all that mattered.

He sat on the edge of the bed facing her, and brushed her cheek with his fingers. "It's so much worse than I expected, Mac. Yesterday -- "

"The treatment's worse than the disease," she said lightly. "But they tell me it gets easier."

"God, I hope so."

"Let's get out of here," she said.

He picked up her bag, released the brakes on the chair, and pushed it slowly through the door. Mac said over her shoulder, "Thanks for picking me up, Harm. Prescott doesn't sound like the type to approve a personal day."

"I have 30 days leave on the books, Mac, and I requested the time off last week. It's Mattie's last day before she leaves for Blacksburg, and I promised to take her to the Air and Space Museum, then out to dinner."

"I'm sorry to take up your time like this."

"Don't be an idiot, Mac."


Mac's apartment, Georgetown


Since most of her neighbors were at work, they actually found a parking place right by the entrance to her building. Harm jumped out and made it around the Lexus in time to help her climb down, then fetched her bag as she shuffled carefully across the brick sidewalk. She stopped at the bottom of the high stone steps before slowly lifting her foot onto the first one.

Harm followed right behind her. "I'll check your mail," he said, and unlocked the little cubbyhole in the foyer while Mac went inside.

He stuffed a few envelopes into his pocket and looked around. She was leaning on the newel post at the base of the stairs, looking up.

Hesitantly he asked, "Are you sure about this, Mac? ‘Cause I can carry you if" –

"No," she snapped, not looking at him. "I can do it. I just need to take it slowly." They started up, with Mac holding onto the banister. Harm stayed at her elbow, trying not to let her see how much her effort upset him.

At the first landing, she paused and leaned on the railing. "I just need to rest for a minute," she panted.

"It's okay, Mac," he said. "We have all the time you need."

"They said it will get better after this," Mac said after a minute, as if reminding herself.


She looked up quickly. "I'm okay, Harm. Really. And I need to do this, because you aren't going to be able to help every time."

"We'll work something out, Mac. Don't push yourself too hard."

Cautiously she turned and made her way up the next short flight. She took his arm to walk along the hallway to the next set of stairs, where she grabbed the rail. "Just one more to go," she said with grim determination, and began climbing, one step at a time.

Halfway up, she swayed. Instantly he had his arm around her waist, taking most of her weight. He supported her as she lifted one foot, then the next, and again. Then they were at the top landing, and he dropped the bag and put both arms around her, holding her against him. His throat ached, and he could not have spoken if he'd tried.

Mac's arms slipped around his waist as she rested her head on his chest. He held her quietly for a long time, feeling her heartbeat slow beneath his hands, feeling the slight tremor in her limbs ease. "I'm ready," she said at last.

He put his arm around her waist, and this time she frankly leaned on him as they climbed the last short flight to the third floor. At last they made it to her door, and she eased herself onto the sofa while he carried her bag into the bedroom.

When he came back, she was reclining against the cushions, eyes closed. "Mac?" he whispered, thinking she had drifted off to sleep.

"Hm?" she answered. She opened her eyes and gave him the ghost of a smile.

"What do you need? What can I do?" he asked, perching on the edge of one of the wicker armchairs.

"Not a thing. I'm gonna rest and then I'm going to take a nice hot bath in my own tub."

"What about some tea or Seven-Up or something?"

"Please, don't mention anything about eating right now. The grocery store delivers. And a friend promised to stop by later. So get going, and have a good time with Mattie."

"I don't think I should leave yet, Mac."

"I'll kick your ass if you don't," she said. "Harm, your plans with Mattie are important. Give her my love, and tell her I'll be fine."

He watched her steadily, his eyes troubled, and she reached out and put her hand over his. "Go. Call me tonight, okay?"

His shoulders relaxed, and he leaned forward and gently kissed her cheek. As he went to the door, she called, "Harm?"

"What?" he turned back.

"Thank you."


Friday, 1800 Hours
Harborside Restaurant, Alexandria, Virginia


"Wow, no wonder you made me get all dressed up," Mattie whispered as the maitre'd led them to their table.

"Wearing a skirt is not ‘all dressed up,' " Harm teased. The restaurant's outdoor seating area extended over the water and was strung with twinkle lights that glittered on the Potomac gliding past the railings. At this early hour, only a few other tables were occupied.

Mattie's ringlets stirred in the soft breeze off the water as she looked around in delight. "This is a pretty fancy place, Harm."

She was trying to sound blasé, and Harm concealed his grin. "Do you like it?"

"I like all of it. The Smithsonian was really cool, but I think the Aviation Museum here in Alexandria was the best," Mattie said. "All those old biplanes are right up my alley. Especially since I'm learning to fly one." She looked at him with a shy smile. "You'll still keep giving me lessons, right?"

"Of course I will, Mattie." His eyes were warm.

They ordered dinner, with Mattie firmly refusing to try the soft shell crabs and opting instead for pasta with shrimp, while Harm ordered grilled fish and vegetables. Mattie chattered gamely while they ate, telling him all her plans for the coming month, and Harm listened and marveled at how much she had grown up this year.

While Mattie attacked a huge mound of strawberry shortcake, he excused himself and walked down the pier to use his cell phone. Mac answered on the first ring, "Hi, how's it going?"

He laughed. "Are you having a psychic moment, or doesn't anyone else call you?"

"Are you kidding? Since you called the last time, the phone hasn't stopped. Harriet and Bud, Sturgis, a couple of friends. You're the only person I know who's left."

"How are you holding up?" he asked.

"Tired," she admitted. "But I'm curled up in bed. How was the museum?"

"A big hit. We're having dinner at the Harborside."

"Mattie must be loving it."

"Yeah, I hope so. Well, I'd better get back. Are you okay for tonight? Do you need anything?"

"Thanks, I'm going to be asleep in about ten minutes. Give her a big hug for me, Harm."

"I'll do it. ‘Night, Mac."

Mattie looked up when he returned to the table. "How's Mac?" she asked.

"Good. She had a lot of calls today, so she's pretty worn out."

"Well, you've called her three times. I can see why she'd be tired," Mattie grinned impishly. Then her expression turned serious. "Are you ever going to tell her?"

"Tell her what?" Harm wasn't paying attention as he signed the check.

"That you love her."


"I know, I know. But take her some flowers at least, girls love that." They left the restaurant and strolled across the wide wooden pier toward the parking lot. Harm started to retort with amused exasperation and stopped when he saw Mattie's face.

"Hey, hey, what's all this?" he asked, reaching out, but Mattie turned angrily away to hide the traces of tears in her eyes. She stood rigid, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Harm hesitated, then put his hand on her shoulder. "Mattie," he said gently, and abruptly she turned and buried her face in his jacket. He patted her back and waited.

"I'm sorry," Mattie gulped, swiping furiously at her eyes. "I'm just going to miss you so much. And I love you and I don't want you to be lonely."

Oh God, Harm thought, his throat aching with tenderness. He blinked away the sudden sting in his eyes and hugged her. "Mattie," he said after a moment. "Mattie, look at me."

Reluctantly she raised her eyes to his. He said gently, "I love you too, honey. I always will, no matter where you go. But you have to live your life, Mattie – not mine, and not your dad's. It's up to us to take care of you, not the other way around." He smiled at her. "And like I told you, Mac and I are working on it. The only thing you have to worry about this summer is being the best right fielder that softball team has ever seen."

Mattie gave him a tremulous smile. "Deal," she said.


Saturday, 0900 Hours EDT
Mac's apartment, Georgetown


She pried her eyelids open and wearily considered the digital clock on her bedside table. When was the last time she had slept this late? She had lain awake much of the night, uncomfortable and unable to rest, but too tired to get up. It was nearly dawn when she finally dropped off to sleep.

A clap of thunder shook the bed, and she realized the storm must have awakened her. The room was still dark as rain lashed the windows and lightning flashed. Briefly she considered pulling the covers over her head, but sheer stubbornness pulled her out of bed. She plodded to the bathroom and winced when she flipped on the light, avoiding her reflection in the mirror.

"Come on, Mac. You have to start feeling better," she lectured herself, rubbing crumbs from her eyes. Her skin and hair felt rough and dry, but the thought of lowering herself into the tub and climbing out again exhausted her. Wearily she turned on the shower and stepped in, and for an instant, her head spun with vertigo. Carefully, she steadied herself on the towel bar and reached for the shampoo.

The water felt like needles on her skin, and she fumbled ineffectually with the shower head, trying to adjust it. The old-fashioned chrome attachment was stiff with lime deposits, and she gave up, soaping and rinsing as quickly as she could.

She twisted the knobs to ‘off' and straightened up cautiously, feeling only a slight dizziness. Her thick terry robe was warm and soft, and she let it blot up the moisture rather than toweling herself dry. Her skin felt sensitive, and when she brushed her teeth, the taste of the toothpaste was nauseating.

Briefly Mac considered getting back into bed, but she couldn't stand the thought of lying on the same rumpled sheets after her long night. She would get dressed and have something to eat, and that would help, she told herself firmly.

She dragged on clean sweats and some thick socks and padded into the kitchen, where she set a mug of water in the microwave to boil. Some tea sounded good. Maybe some dry toast. Come on, Mac. It's just like a bad case of the flu. It'll pass.

The smell of the bread toasting was almost too much for her, but after sipping some tea with a little honey, and she was able to put the cool toast on a plate and carry it into the living room. She turned on a lamp, fetched her newspaper from the doorstep and sat on the sofa, pulling a comforter over her knees. Perfect. A rainy Saturday morning with breakfast and the Washington Post, who could ask for more?

By chewing very small bites slowly, she was able to finish the toast and keep it down. Definite progress. It was tiring to hold the paper up, so she leafed through it page by page. After a while, she rested her head on the cushion and closed her eyes.

Slowly she became aware that someone was knocking insistently on her door. "It's open!" she called, pushing her damp hair off her face. "Come in!"

The door swung wide to reveal Harm standing on the threshold with a dripping umbrella. "Hi," she greeted him, feeling unreasonably glad to see him, and her internal clock kicked in to tell her that an hour had passed. "Sorry, I must have dozed off."

He didn't take his eyes off her as he leaned his umbrella in the stand. "I got a little worried when you didn't answer the door bell or your cell phone. One of your neighbors let me in downstairs." He swiped at his wet forehead. "Tell me you don't always leave your door unlocked, Mac. You didn't even know it was me."

"I guess I left it open when I picked up the paper," she told him. "Why don't you get a dry towel? You look like a drowned rat."

"Thanks," he grinned, shrugging out of his wet leather flight jacket. "I had to park in the next block." He disappeared through the door to the bedroom and came back rubbing his hair with a towel.

"Would you like some tea?" she held up her mug.

"Yeah, sounds good. No, let me get it," he waved her off when she started to rise, and gratefully she dropped back into her seat.

"So how's it going?" he asked when he returned with fresh tea for both of them.

"Better," she said, determined to sound cheerful.

He put his head on one side, considering. "Looks like you got that bath," he teased, eyeing her damp hair.

"Shower, actually. I decided not to try climbing in and out of the tub again." His gaze sharpened, but he made no comment, and Mac quickly changed the subject. "Did Mattie get off okay?"

He gave a noncommittal shrug, and she noticed that he failed to meet her eyes. "Tom picked her up around ten. They'll have a tough drive in this rain."

"Did you decide what to do about the apartment?"

"Not yet. We don't know where she'll be next year, and it was important for her to know she'll always have a home to come back to." His quick smile couldn't quite conceal the shadow in his deep set eyes.

"I guess you still have to pay the extra rent, then."

"It isn't that much. Besides, I think Jennifer's enjoying having the place to herself for a change."

"She'll miss her, too," Mac said.

He looked down at the mug in his hands as if wondering what it was, and said quietly, "It's amazing how someone so small can leave such a big hole behind them."

Mac's heart ached for him, but she knew he didn't want sympathy. She picked up the stuffed bear sitting on the couch and hugged it. "Well, at least we still have this little guy."

Harm gave a half-smile and stood up, prowling restlessly around the room. He stared out at the rain for a minute, his expression bleak, before gathering their mugs from the coffee table and heading for the kitchen. She heard water running and closed her eyes, enjoying the sounds of him moving around in the other room.

When Harm brought another cup of tea, she accepted it with a smile. "Thanks, but you don't have to wait on me, Harm. It's nice just to have some company."

He sat down again and sipped at his mug. "Is there anything that needs doing around here, Mac? Laundry, chores, anything?" She grinned, and he demanded, "What?"

"I had a sudden vision of you downstairs in the laundry room with my lingerie. The neighbors would love it."

He grinned and stood up. "Well, I don't know about them, but it might have its kicks. Where's your detergent?"

She started to protest and stopped. She knew he was hurting, and if he needed to keep busy by doing her laundry, so be it. "All the supplies are in the linen closet," she pointed, "and the laundry's in the hamper."

She heard him stripping the bed, and a few minutes later he emerged with a full basket. "Do you have any quarters?" he asked.

"There's a roll in the desk," she told him. While he was gone, she got up, dried her hair, and turned on some soft music and the gas log. Suddenly the room seemed cosier than it had in a long time.

She was dozing again when he came in, and she heard him go straight into the bedroom. After awhile she opened her eyes to see him sitting patiently in a chair, staring into the fire.

"Hey there," he smiled.

"Hi." Sleepily she stretched.

"How about some lunch?" he said.

"I'm not hungry, thanks. But I'd love it if you'd stay and eat. There's some soup and stuff, or the deli on the corner delivers."

"Mac, you need to eat something."

She sighed. "I know. I had some dry toast this morning. But even the thought of eating makes me feel sick."

"Do you think you could handle some chicken noodle soup? Maybe some saltines?" She knew that look. He wasn't going to give up.

"Okay. I'll try."

And surprisingly, it tasted all right when he brought it to her in a large mug, with crackers on a plate. She sipped the soup slowly and was relieved that her stomach didn't rebel. Harm had soup too, and a peanut butter sandwich with a glass of milk. She watched him sitting in the chair that was too small for him, eating absently while he stared into the flames on the hearth.

"I'm glad you're here," she said suddenly. His eyes flicked to hers. "And you make a mean cup of chicken noodle."

He laughed at that and set his plate on the table. "Hey, Mac, I've been thinking. That tub-shower of yours is an accident waiting to happen. Would you mind if I put up a grab bar on the wall?"

She started to refuse, but something made her pause. Maybe the eagerness in his expression. With a little smile, she swiped her hand across the table and held it up, coated with a fine layer of dust. "Do you do windows, too?"

"No, but I was thinking about calling a cleaning service. They could come Monday morning while you're at the hospital."

"Harm, you don't" – His gleam of amusement stopped her. "I'm not an invalid, you know. Just because I haven't dusted since last weekend doesn't mean I can't take care of myself."

"Nobody knows that better than I do, Mac," he said quietly. "But why not let me treat you? You need to use your energy for getting well."

She glared at him. Damnit, she hated it when he was right. "Okay, but I'm paying for it," she humphed.

"If you insist. Relax, Mac, nobody will think you're not a good Marine."

"It's just – I hate feeling helpless."

"I know. It stinks."

She looked up, startled. "I forgot. You really do know how it is." The few details he had shared about his recovery from the ramp strike 13 years before came flooding back.

"Yeah. All you can do is keep telling yourself it won't last forever."

"You're right, I know you're right," she agreed, and pushed back against the cushions, trying to find a comfortable position. Harm watched for a moment before going into the bedroom and reappearing with a couple of pillows. "Here, lean forward," he said. He slipped one pillow behind her, the other beneath her feet.

"Thanks," she sighed. "That feels great."

"Why don't you stretch out on the bed? I gotta go home for some tools and make a stop at Home Depot. You don't look too comfortable there."

"It feels good to look at a different set of walls for awhile. I'm sick of lying down."

Harm nodded and carried their dishes to the kitchen. She heard water running and the dishwasher starting up, but she didn't hear him close the door behind him.




She awakened disoriented and confused. "Harm?" she called in a fuzzy voice.

A moment later he appeared in the bedroom door with a cordless drill in his hand. His alert look softened, and he came over to the sofa. "I'm here, Mac," he said, and she felt his big warm hand stroke the hair back from her forehead.

"Hi," she murmured. "What time is it? Oh, it's 1630. Wow, I guess I really slept."

"You were sawing wood."

"Was not."

"Were too. You drowned out the power tools."

"Huh," she grumped. "Can I see?" She struggled to sit up and untangle her legs from the comforter, and Harm reached down to help her to her feet.

"Easy there, tiger." Mac fluffed her tousled hair and shuffled sleepily toward the bathroom, where she halted at the door and stared in astonishment.

Sturdy stainless steel handrails were mounted beside the toilet and across one end of the tub enclosure, and another, longer rail slanted across the back wall. A narrow stool of white plastic with rubber feet and chrome handles stood in one end of the tub, where a sparkling new hand-held Shower Massage was installed.

"Wow," she breathed.

"I got a little carried away," he said, watching her doubtfully. "I hope you don't mind."

Mac swallowed hard and kept her face turned away. "No, I don't mind," she said after a minute. "It's wonderful."

"Mac?" He bent down to see her face, hidden behind her hair, and his face tightened with concern. "Are you all right? I'm sorry if I upset you" –

"You didn't upset me," she gulped. "I'm just not used to having someone help me with stuff. I really – thanks, Harm."

"Hey, it's no big deal. Thanks for giving me something to do on a rainy Saturday."

"Are you done?"

"Just need to clean up."

" ‘Cause I kinda need to use the facilities," she smiled.

"Oh. Oh! Sure thing. I'm outta here."

"You're not leaving?" she asked hastily.

"Nope," he smiled and closed the door.


Sunday, 1030 Hours EDT
North of Union Station, Washington, D.C.


She had promised to call when she woke up. He was back from his five-mile run at six and out of the shower by six-thirty, and by the time his phone finally rang, he was ready to go over to Georgetown and break her door down. He took a deep steadying breath and answered as casually as he could, "Hey there, sleepyhead."

"Hi," Mac said in a fuzzy voice. "I just woke up."

"That's good, Mac. You needed the rest."

"I was awake in the middle of the night. Guess that's why I overslept."

"I wish I'd known, I was awake too. How do you feel this morning?"

"Dunno. Better, I think. I'm gonna try out that fancy spa setup in my bathroom, then I'll be able to tell."

"Can I come by?"

He could hear a smile in her voice. "Sure. As long as you promise you're not blowing off something else you should be doing."

"Nope. I'll be there by 1100, okay?"

"I'll leave the door open."

"Don't worry, I'll knock."

"I'll answer."

"I'll look forward to it." He felt himself grinning as he hung up.




She opened the door wrapped in a thick terry robe, her hair slicked back. "Wow, right on time," she teased. "The new shower's so great, I could have stayed in there all day."

"I brought you a cinnamon roll, is that okay?" He held up the paper bag.

"I'll certainly give it a try," she smiled, closing the door behind him. "Harm, I should have thought of installing one of those hand-held things a long time ago. Thank you."

"Glad you like it, Mac. Coffee or tea?" he asked, heading for the kitchen.

"Tea, please. I'll be right out."

"Take your time." While he busied himself with heating water and getting cups and teabags, he stretched the kinks out of his neck and shoulders. His sleep had been thin and restless, and he was still tired, but the little knot of anxiety in his chest had loosened. She obviously felt better today. He began to whistle along with the kettle.

"You sound chipper this morning." Mac came in wearing a faded pair of old blue jeans with a t-shirt and a cotton sweater.

"You *look* chipper." He poured boiling water over the teabag in her mug.

"I can't believe how much better I feel," Mac agreed.

Harm sipped his tea while he watched Mac nibble at her cinnamon roll. Sunlight gilded the table and warmed the wood beneath his hand, and he watched the way it lay against the curve of her cheek. "Do you feel well enough to get out of here for awhile?" he asked suddenly.

"Yes!" Her eyes lit up. "What did you have in mind?"

He lifted one shoulder. "I brought the 'vette."

"Can we put the top down?"

"I was planning on it."

Sunday morning traffic was sparse, and soon they were tearing up the highway toward Annapolis. Harm glanced over from time to time at Mac, glad to see her smiling as the warm wind buffeted her hair.

He didn't really know where he was going until he found himself taking the exit for the Bay Bridge. It was too early in the season for beach traffic, and the Corvette soared across the smooth ribbon of concrete and steel with the misty blue of the Chesapeake sparkling far below.

Coming off the east end of the bridge, he took the left hand exit for no reason at all, and they cruised northward along winding country roads. Forty minutes later, a sign reading ‘Crystal Beach' flashed past, and he took the next left, heading toward the bay.

The road ended in a wide empty parking lot dusted with sand and encircled by an ancient post and chain link fence. A rusted sign swung creaking in the breeze, proclaiming that swimming was at your own risk. "What do you think?" he turned to Mac. "Want to stretch your legs?"

"Let's walk down to the water," she nodded. They followed a rutted path for a hundred yards to a wide crescent of sand scattered with bits of broken shell. Tiny waves lapped at the boat ramp, overlooked by a few deserted picnic tables. A rusted trashcan was chained to a post near a concrete bunker with restrooms, still locked for the winter.

The sun was warm on their shoulders, and a cool fresh breeze brought the smell of the sea. Here near the top of the Chesapeake, the mainland shore was a veil of misty blue on the horizon. They stopped at the line of seaweed marking the tide line, and he put his arm around her shoulders. "Cold?" he asked.

"No, but I'm glad I wore a sweater." She leaned against him, her arm around his waist, and Harm closed his eyes, relishing the softness of her body and the warmth of the sunlight on his face, watching the patterns play across the red screen of his eyelids. For now, it was simply enough to be.

Far out in the main channel, a huge ship blasted its air horns, and his eyes popped open behind his dark glasses. "Transport," Mac commented. "The Aberdeen Proving Ground's right over there." Abruptly she sat down and began pulling off her shoes and socks. Harm watched with a little smile for a moment before bending to untie his own sneakers.

Mac rolled up her jeans and wiggled her toes in the warm sand as she tilted her face to the sun. "Oh, this is so great," she sighed. "I love the shore, and I hardly ever get out here."

He dropped down beside her and leaned back on his elbows. "It's nice like this, when nobody's around."

"M-hm." She jumped up and waded into the shallow water, stepping cautiously on the pebbly sand. "Yikes, it's cold!" she squeaked as the water rose to her shins. With a happy laugh, she kicked up a silver arc of droplets that sparkled in the sunlight. She cavorted like a child, lifting her long legs high over the surge of the tide. Harm felt himself grinning even as an ache squeezed his throat.

Her burst of energy was as enchanting as a soap bubble, and as fragile. After a few minutes she waded out of the water and dropped down beside him. "So are you ever going to tell me?" she panted.

"Tell you what?"

"Whatever it is that's been bothering you since Prescott came aboard."

He let his breath out with a gusty sigh. His first instinct was to deny it, but he was through with doing that. "How could you tell?" he stalled.

"It didn't exactly require a psychic episode."

She waited, sure he wouldn't answer until he said, "Some of us will be rotating overseas as soon as billets open up. It'll probably start in three or four months."

Mac swiveled her head toward him. Her expression was unreadable behind her dark glasses. He went on, "Apparently Prescott doesn't think much of the Admiral's policy of keeping senior litigators at headquarters."

He watched her long slim fingers as they slowly sifted the sand, over and over. "Well, we knew it would happen sooner or later," she swallowed. His pain flared as he saw how hard it hit her -- first Clay, then her illness, and now this. He could almost see her Marine armor slip into place. He reached over and took her hand, stilling its restless movement.

"Mac -- I told you I would always be there for you. I meant it."

She was silent for a long time, staring out at the water, and he forced himself to wait. At last she said, "You also told me once, 'Geography doesn't change who we are.' "

He closed his eyes.

"You can't fight this battle for me, Harm. You'll always be just a phone call away. And when it comes to your career, I have enough on my conscience."

"Mac" –

"What other options *are* there, Harm? And don't even mention resigning again."

"Mac, my naval career is pretty much dead in the water, you know that. If I wait until next spring when my twenty is up, I can retire with all the benefits, but if I leave before that I'll still make a good income in private practice. Besides, Prescott came right out and told me I'll probably never make captain."

"With two DFCs and the Silver Star?" she bristled.

"He told me my service record reads like a cheap novel."

"Well, that's true enough," she agreed with a fleeting grin.

He tossed a pebble at the water with more force than necessary. "I've spent way too much time putting careers first," he told her. "I love the Navy, but I know what I really want." He glanced over and noted her dumbfounded expression, and one corner of his mouth turned up. "Don't look so surprised. I told you three years ago that you were the most important thing in my life, Mac." His gaze met hers squarely.

She removed her sunglasses with great care. "You also ignored me, picked fights, and resented my authority when I was on the bench."

"Guilty as charged." His resolute gaze held hers. "I acted like a horse's ass."

She stared at him in astonishment. After an endless interval, she looked away. "You behaved better than I did," she said bitterly, twisting her sunglasses, and he wanted to reach out to stop her before she broke them.

Instead he said quietly, "I tried to tell you a few times, but somehow it was never the *right* time. Funny, but I always thought there'd be time." He swallowed. "You don't have to say anything. But I'm through dancing, Mac."

She stared without moving, without breathing. "I can't do this now," she whispered.

"Look, I know it's too soon. I know you need time" --

She cut him off. "No! Don't you get it? I gave you up, Harm! It damn near killed me, but I stopped hoping we would ever be anything more than friends. I made a decision to get on with my life. And now -- now it's going to take everything I have just to get well." She blinked back furious tears. "I don't have the energy to risk it again. I just can't," she gulped.

"All right," he said quietly. "I understand. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable, Mac."

"This makes me feel like I'm using you," she muttered.

He was stung. "Did you think there were strings attached?"

Her face went white. "No. I – I'm sorry," she whispered.

"Friends help friends, Mac. That's what they do." He looked away and said, "And I'm going to be here, no matter what." His voice was low and fierce.

"Before you make a decision -- promise me we'll talk it over."

He didn't move. Didn't even blink. Then, "Okay," he said.




By tacit agreement, they left all serious discussion behind at the beach. They ate a quiet lunch in a diner in one of the tiny towns nearby and spent the afternoon motoring along two-lane roads, weaving among the endless creeks and rivers that run into the bay. At last they chased the sunset across the Bay Bridge, following the powerful swath of the Corvette's headlights as they swept past the twinkling lights of Annapolis and on through the gathering dusk.

The dashboard lights outlined Harm's profile. His eyes were somber, his hands quiet on the wheel and stick. The highway unfurled before them, rushing beneath the hood of the car in an endless ribbon, and the roar of the wind made conversation unnecessary. As they came off the bridge, Harm glanced over at her and reached down to switch on the heater.

Mac stared ahead, not seeing the tunnel of trees flickering overhead. Instead, she was staring at a parade of ghosts. Dalton, Mic, Clay -- each a good man, in his way. Each of them had sparked her hopes for children, a life, a future. Each of them had wanted her. She had tried so hard to want them in return.

I wouldn't have needed to try so hard if they had been right for me, she thought. To be honest, I wasn't right for any of them, either. With a pang of regret, she reflected that each of them had known he was just a substitute for the man beside her.

How many sleepless nights have I wasted, thinking about Harm, she wondered. How many times have I longed for him when he was dating someone else, missed him when he was far away, and hated him for not noticing?

I found out the hard way that feelings don't stop just because the relationship does. And now, when I'm on the ropes, he decides he's ready.

A small, still voice cut through the anger echoing in her mind. How many times did he try to tell me? How many times did I cut him off, because I was hurt and angry, and turn to the first man who showed interest?

Maybe he wasn't the only one who felt rejected. Maybe he wasn't the only one who was afraid.

Why couldn't I see the insanity of trying to build a relationship when we were competing for the same cases, the same promotions, the same command? He had the strength to see it years ago. She squirmed at the memory. What would have happened, she wondered now, if he had said yes? A blazing affair with a painful aftermath, trying to avoid each other at the office? Or worse, marriage, with one of them having to transfer out, pretending they didn't resent losing their career?

It wasn't just me, damnit. He never wanted to be tied down. This is just Harm playing Mighty Mouse again. Tears stung her eyes and strangled her throat.

With a swift sigh of disc brakes, Harm wheeled the Corvette to a stop near the curb and backed into a parallel space with an elegant economy of effort. He turned off the ignition, and in the sudden silence Mac could hear the streetlights buzzing high overhead.

He opened her door and held out his hand. Her fingers were engulfed in his warm grip, and in spite of everything, she was amazed that his touch alone could still make her feel so safe.

Suddenly she was exhausted, emotionally and physically wrung out. He turned to lead her into the building, and she held back. "Harm -- I need to be by myself now."

Reluctantly he let go of her hand. "I'll pick you up at six-thirty tomorrow," he said.

"I'll take a cab to the hospital."


"Don't fuss, okay? I'll be fine."

"Will you call me?" He frowned. "Let me pick you up? If they let you go, Mac, don't even think about trying to get up those stairs alone."

"All right, all right."

"I mean it."

"I know!" she exploded. It didn't seem to faze him in the least. Damn him.

"Mac. It's okay to be scared," he said softly.

"I'm not scared!"

"Okay. But even Marines are afraid sometimes. It doesn't mean they can't handle combat." A tiny smile lurked behind his eyes.

In spite of herself, she felt a corner of her mouth turn up. "You're a fighter pilot. You've never been scared a day in your life."

"I am now," he said.




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