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Monday, 1600 Hours EDT
JAG Headquarters

 

Harm clicked 'Save' and closed the file. For the hundredth time, his hand reached for the phone, and he stopped with an impatient sigh. She would call when she was ready.

He swiveled to stare out the window. The brief he was writing was going nowhere -- he simply couldn't concentrate. Every five minutes, his mind wandered to the image of Mac with those tubes running into her, and he lost the thread of his argument.

His cell phone vibrated against his hip, and he snatched it from his pocket. "Rabb."

"Harm?"

"I'm here, Mac. How are you doing?"

"Okay. They say I can go home now." Her voice was very faint.

"I'm on my way."

"Thanks." The connection clicked off.

He swept a few papers into his briefcase, shut down his computer, and punched an extension on his desk phone. Morrissey answered on the first ring. "Yes, Commander."

"I'm securing early today, Sergeant. I can be reached on my cell if necessary."

"Aye aye, sir."

Twenty minutes later, the intercom buzzed on Morrissey's desk. "Get Commander Rabb in here," Prescott ordered.

"He's left for the day, sir," Morrissey answered.

Silence. Prescott snapped, "Get me Turner."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Okay, easy. Here we are." Harm pushed open the door and helped Mac inside.

"What the hell is *that*?" she demanded.

An enormous recliner upholstered in dark leather stood beside the sofa. The two tiny wicker armchairs had been relegated to posts against the wall.

"It's a present," Harm said. "If you don't like it, we’ll send it back."

"But how -- ?"

"I called your super. He let the delivery guys in."

She tottered slowly across the room and reached out a hand to lean on the massive chair. "Why?"

"You looked so uncomfortable on the sofa. Want to try it?"

Cautiously Mac perched on the seat and slid back. "How does it work?" she asked.

"Just lean back." She gave a feeble push and looked up, annoyed. He pressed on the backrest, and slowly the footrest came up and the back reclined. "It'll go almost flat if you want," he said.

"Wow." Mac looked up at him in surprise. "This is incredible. I may not move. Ever."

"Great." His smile was dazzling, and she couldn't help a little grin in return.

Wearily she closed her eyes, and a moment later she felt the comforter laid across her lap. She dragged it up around her shoulders and snuggled her face into its soft folds. She was aware of Harm moving quietly around, and she murmured, "Did the cleaning lady come?"

"Looks like it, yeah. They did a good job. Do you want anything, Mac?"

"Uh-uh."

"You doing okay?"

"Sure. I haven't barfed in hours." Her eyelids felt scratchy, but she dragged them open. He was sitting tensely on the sofa, watching her. "I'll be okay," she tried to reassure him.

"Mind if I stay?"

"Okay. Sure."

Some time later, she didn't know how long, she awakened enough to feel him slip a cool pillow beneath her head. She said something, her voice feeling fuzzy, and heard him say, "You're okay, Mac. Sleep now."

The last thing she remembered was the feel of a soft kiss on her forehead.

 

Tuesday, 0900 Hours EDT
Conference Room, JAG Headquarters

 

"That about covers it, gentlemen." Prescott closed the cover of his leather portfolio and looked up. "Dismissed."

The lawyers along both sides of the conference table rose, came briefly to attention, and began gathering their papers when the admiral said quietly, "Commander Rabb, please remain a moment."

Harm set his briefcase down and waited while the room emptied. Instead of inviting him to sit, Prescott leaned back in his chair. The door swished shut, and the room was silent.

Prescott spoke in his usual uninflected tone, but a perceptible chill wafted from him. "A call from PACFLEET came in yesterday at 1630. I had to send Commander Turner to handle that espionage case. Admiral Drake wanted someone immediately."

"Yes sir, I heard."

"I had intended to send you, Commander. Imagine my surprise when I discovered you had secured early."

"Yes sir. I had just left to pick up Colonel Mackenzie at the hospital."

Prescott nodded. "I need to clarify something here, Commander. Are you and Colonel Mackenzie married?"

Harm frowned. "No, sir."

"Engaged to be married?"

"No sir."

"I thought not. You are not a member of her immediate family, Commander. Therefore, it is unacceptable for you to take unscheduled personal time due to her illness. You may use your leave in accordance with regulations, but schedule it in advance from now on."

"Yes, sir." Harm stared straight ahead and managed to keep his tone respectful.

"That will be all, Commander."

Harm came briefly to attention, turned on his heel and left.

 

That evening, 1800 Hours EDT
Mac's apartment, Georgetown

 

"Hi." He laid his cover on the table by the door.

"Hi, yourself." She was neatly dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, her hair was clean and fluffy, and she wore a trace of makeup that almost concealed the shadows beneath her eyes.

He decided not to ask how she felt. "What would you like for dinner?" he asked, heading toward the kitchen.

"Oh, I had something earlier, thanks," she said evasively.

Frowning, Harm pulled a cold can of Diet Coke from the refrigerator and went back to the living room. Mac gestured to the recliner. "Go ahead, try it. I used to think they were the ugliest things I'd ever seen, but I love it." Her smile was wistful. “I don’t know how I’ll ever thank you for everything, Harm.”

He was surprised, and faintly embarrassed. To cover, he made a production of sitting down and stretching out. "Wow. Now I know why you didn't want to get out of it last night," he teased. After she had slept through the evening, he had managed to tuck her into bed, pausing only to untie her sneakers.

Now she observed, "It's nice to see you sitting in a chair that fits. You always looked uncomfortable in those little things. So how did it go today? What's going on? How's Monty?"

Harm grinned. Someone had already nicknamed the new chief of staff ‘General Montgomery,' and Mac had pounced on it. Now Harm leaned back and told her, "Oh, same old same old. I got that brief done, finally. Sturgis left for an espionage investigation."

"I thought you were due to take the next investigation."

He started to shrug it off and his eyes met hers. "I was picking you up when the call came in."

"Was that a problem?"

"Yeah, it was. Prescott read me the riot act after staff call."

"Harm, you're a senior officer. You're allowed to determine your own schedule, within the limits."

"Not for anything but an emergency, apparently. Immediate family only."

"I see." She regarded him soberly, knowing that before all this, he wouldn't have told her about it. "I'll work something out, Harm. It's not fair to ask you to pick me up twice a week."

"I want to do it, Mac. I just have to put in for half days in advance, that's all."

"And you'll run out of leave in no time. I'll ask some different people. Harriet offered."

"Harriet is carrying twins. If you get dizzy on the stairs, you could both fall," he glared.

"I do have a few other friends," she reminded him tartly. "I'll spread the job around. Anyway, I'm handling it better than I did. And I can use the elevator at headquarters."

"Mac, you can't be thinking about going in tomorrow."

"I certainly am. I need to meet Prescott, for one thing, and I want to get a look at Monty."

"There's no need – look, Mac, at most you'll be able to work on Wednesdays. What's the point?"

"The point is, I don't want my career to go down the tubes while I get left behind! I need to see people, I need to feel like I'm worth – like I'm doing something worthwhile."

"Taking care of yourself isn't worthwhile? Getting well isn't worthwhile?"

She waved her hand impatiently. "I'm going crazy sitting around here alone all day!"

They glared at each other. She had gone very pale, and she was clutching a sofa cushion to her chest. Harm stood up and took a deep breath, willing himself to take it easy. He knew she would never change her mind, and getting angry wasn't going to help.

"May I pick you up tomorrow?" he said evenly.

"I can drive myself," she snapped. "I haven't forgotten how."

"The day will be tiring enough without fighting traffic, Mac."

She scowled at him for a full minute before she relented. "All right."

"I'll see you at 0700," he said, and picked up his cover. Arguing with Mac was usually a stimulating diversion, but not this time.

 

Wednesday, 0830 Hours EDT
JAG Headquarters

 

Mac straightened her jacket with a nervous tug and squared her shoulders. She still felt overwhelmed by the number of people who had crowded around to welcome her back and ask how she was. And now she had to meet a new commanding officer.

"He says to go right in, ma'am," Sergeant Morrissey said. She nodded, thinking that Morrissey was stern even for a Marine. The man's incurious black eyes seemed to bore holes in her back as she pushed open the familiar door and came to attention before the desk.

"Colonel Mackenzie," Prescott said, rising politely. "As you were. Please, sit down."

She had a fleeting impression that she had seen him, or met him, somewhere before, but it wasn't until he gestured stiffly to one of the chairs facing his desk that it clicked. Slim and fit, with hooded eyelids and a mouth like a bloodless wound – Prescott could have played the aristocratic commandant in the old prisoner of war movie she had watched last night. Mac bit the inside of her lip to keep from smiling.

Prescott was saying in his cool voice, "I didn't expect you to report for work so soon, Colonel. I hope that means you're feeling better?"

"Yes sir. My doctor cleared me for light duty when I feel up to it. I plan to come in on the days I'm not receiving chemotherapy."

"Splendid. You do realize, of course, that you won't be serving as counsel on cases or conducting investigations for the time being?"

"Of course, sir. But I'd like to help out with routine matters wherever possible. It helps to keep busy."

"Yes, certainly. Well, Colonel, we can always use another attorney around here. I was very sorry to hear of your illness, but I'm sure you'll be back up to speed in no time. I'll ask Lieutenant Commander Jackson to show you to your new office." He stood, and she rose as well, realizing that the interview was over.

"Thank you, sir," she said.

Harm was lurking at the filing cabinets when she came out, and she walked over to join him, glad to see an ally. He asked quietly, "How did it go?"

"Okay, I suppose." She felt strangely hollow.

"Don't let him get to you."

"I'm not," she said with a quick smile. "Well, guess I'd better go introduce myself to my replacement." With her head up, she marched decisively across the bullpen to her former office and knocked at the open door. Harm sauntered casually over to the fax machine and waited within earshot.

"Excuse me, Commander," Mac said pleasantly. Jackson looked up and jumped to his feet. She said, "As you were. I'm Colonel Mackenzie." She stuck out her hand, and after a nearly imperceptible hesitation, Jackson shook it. His grip was oddly tentative.

To conceal her distaste, she gave him a friendly smile and said crisply, "I'll be in the office part time for awhile. If you like, I'd be glad to show you the ropes."

"Thank you, ma'am. But everything seems pretty straightforward. Your records were exceptionally well organized." Her attention sharpened at his faintly patronizing air, but she shrugged it off. She hadn't succeeded in the military by letting male attitude get to her.

"Well, I'm glad to hear that. The operational tempo around here is pretty busy. I understand you're not an attorney, so some things are probably a challenge."

"Not really, ma'am. I've been Admiral Prescott's aide for the past year. You pick up the lingo."

Mac lifted an eyebrow. No, she wasn't imagining it. "Glad to hear it. In that case, Commander, I would appreciate it if you'd detail a yeoman to help me set up my new office space this morning. And I'll need to have my computer connected to the network."

"Yes ma'am. Sorry to put you out of your old office, by the way. But I'm afraid we won't be able to get you online until next week, Colonel. If I'd known you were coming in I could have made arrangements, but the IT people are in the middle of an upgrade to the online research database. They won't be finished until Friday."

"Ah. Upgrades must have changed, then. Most of the time they sit around playing chess while they wait for stuff to download. Did they tell you it would require all three of them?"

For the first time, Jackson looked disconcerted. "Yes, ma'am."

"They always try to pull that." She leaned forward. "I expect to see an IT tech in my office within 30 minutes, Commander. Is that clear?"

"Understood, ma'am."

Mac glanced around at the walls. "Love what you've done with the place," she said.

Harm smothered a grin as she stalked by, and managed to get to the glass doors in time hold one open for her. His solemn expression was marred by the glee dancing behind his eyes.

"You going downstairs?"

Mac gave him a death glare. "Yes."

"I'll be along in a minute." He watched her walk to the elevator before turning back to get the file he had left on top of the cabinet near the Admiral's office. As he picked it up, he could hear Jackson in the anteroom. The man didn't bother to lower his voice. "Now I know what those guys meant when they said that's one Marine who really stacks up. Her records aren't the only things in great shape."

Harm stiffened and almost missed Morrissey's quiet snort. "Whadda you expect when they make a female a senior officer?"

The edges of objects in Harm's vision sharpened to a razor's edge. He took one step to the door of the anteroom, and Jackson froze like a squirrel facing a speeding car. "Commander, wait for me in your office," Harm said, his voice dangerously calm. Jackson hurried out, and Harm swiveled his gaze to Morrissey, who was standing at attention, his face impassive. "Staff Sergeant, do you believe it is appropriate to display disrespect to an officer?"

"No sir."

"From here on out, keep your opinions to yourself or it will be your ass. Clear?"

"Aye sir. Sorry, sir."

"As you were."

Harm spun on his heel, walked to Jackson's office with quick strides, and closed the door. He stood with his arms crossed and stared at the young man, who stood rigidly at attention. At last Harm said, "I expect that kind of crap from an enlisted man, Commander, but are you in the habit of encouraging disrespect in the people under your command?"

"No sir."

"Ah. Then you must have been speaking of some *other* female senior officer, one with whom you are sufficiently acquainted to pass judgment on her competence?"

"Yes sir."

"So you're in the habit of disrespecting all female officers? Or only the ones you know?"

"Yes sir. I mean, no sir."

"Then just how would you characterize the remarks you made?" Harm's tone was silky. Anyone else would have recognized the warning signals, but Jackson breathed a little easier.

"Inappropriate, sir."

"Inappropriate. Macho frat house bullshit is ‘inappropriate,' Commander. Conduct Unbecoming is another matter entirely." Harm's voice remained even, but it had acquired a dangerous edge.

"Sir, I" –

"Because making those remarks was bad enough, but making them in the center of JAG Ops goes way beyond inappropriate, Commander. I strongly suggest you reexamine your attitude toward women officers, particularly those whose record puts your own to shame. And rest assured, if there is ever the slightest hint of this attitude in the future, you *will* be facing charges. Am I clear?"

Harm's chin was inches from Jackson, who was unconsciously leaning back. He gulped and stammered, "Yes sir."

Harm held his stare a moment longer than necessary. Without another word, he spun on his heel and left. The door rattled on its hinges behind him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Hey, tiger. How's it going?" Harm leaned in at the door of Mac's office. The cramped space was crowded with a young petty officer putting files into drawers and a computer tech crawling around on the floor, connecting network cables. Mac looked up from her desk chair. She was very pale.

"We're getting there," she answered.

He nodded and continued down the hall to his own office. He was just booting up his computer when Mac tapped at his door. "You busy?"

"Court this afternoon – Judge Sebring."

"Mind if I hang out in here for awhile? I'm in their way." She gestured in the direction of her office, and without waiting for an invitation, she dropped into his visitor chair.

"How did it go with Prescott?" he asked.

"Once I got past the guard dog, you mean?" Harm smothered a grin. Morrissey did resemble the Marine mascot. Mac went on, "I don't know what I expected, but I guess I thought Prescott would want to ask me a *few* things. But he acted like it was irrelevant."

"I told you he's a pretty cold fish. Don't let it get to you, Mac."

"He didn't. But that smug little prick, Monty, almost did."

"Guess lieutenant commander tastes pretty good for breakfast, eh Marine?" This time, Harm did grin, and after a moment she returned it.

"How are you holding up?" he asked, watching her carefully.

"Fine.” She glanced around. "You know, I kind of like it down here. It's quiet. You even have a window."

"Yeah, and we have our own entrance – the back emergency exit is just down the hall. If I still smoked cigars, I could sneak out whenever I wanted."

"Well, I'm glad you gave up those nasty things at least," she said lightly. They both realized where that remark could lead, and she shied away. "Look, please don't let me bother you, I know you have work to do."

"It's okay. It's nice having some company for a change."

She tilted her head to one side and observed, "Something's bothering you, though." He opened his eyes wide, and she snorted. "That innocent look hasn't worked on me in years, Harm. Something upset you when you went back to the bullpen."

He hesitated. "I overheard Jackson and Morrissey making some ill-considered remarks," he said reluctantly, "and I dealt with it."

Mac crossed her arms, and her eyes were warm and knowing. "Are they currently changing their underwear?"

"They damn well better be." At her broad smile, he relaxed and grinned back.

 

That afternoon, 1420 Hours EDT
Courtroom, JAG Headquarters

 

Harm was listening intently to Bud's cross examination when something plucked at his sleeve. He glanced over his shoulder to see Jennifer Coates holding a folded slip of paper. The abrupt break in his concentration made him blink.

One look at her tense face told him to snatch the note and open it quickly beneath the edge of the table. Mac's clear handwriting read, "Taking a cab home early. M." His gut clenched, but he kept his face impassive and forced himself to focus on the witness.

"Nothing further," Bud said, and limped back to his seat.

"Redirect, your honor," Harm said. Quickly he framed a crisp question, enough to blunt the impact of the previous testimony. Lieutenant Adair, his second chair, gave him a subtle thumbs up as he sat down.

"Recess for 30 minutes," Judge Sebring announced. "Reconvene at 1500."

At the bang of the gavel, Harm was on his way out the door, with Coates trotting to keep up. "Where is she, in her office?" he demanded over his shoulder. "Is she all right?" Harm gave up the elevator as futile and banged open the door to the stairs.

"I think so, sir," Jennifer panted behind him. "She told me to wait until court recessed, but I didn't know how long you'd be."

These stairs were too wide to grab the rails and slide down, damnit. He jumped the last three to the landing and ran down the next flight. He ignored Jennifer's light footfalls on the steps above him.

Harm burst through the door to the basement level and trotted to Mac's office door. She was slumped in her chair with her arms wrapped around herself and her eyes closed, but she opened them when he knelt beside her chair. "Hey," she said with a little smile.

"Hey," he said, brushing a wisp of hair from her cheek. "How's it going?"

"I'm okay," she said. "Just really tired. I thought I'd better go home and lie down."

"Have you called the cab?" At that, the phone rang. It was the guard at the gate, calling to let her know the cab had arrived. Harm carefully helped Mac to her feet and steadied her.

"Harm, I didn't mean to drag you out of court."

"You didn't. Okay, nice and easy now," he said. She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm, and slowly they made their way to the elevator. Jennifer was already there, holding it open, and he said quickly, "Thanks, Petty Officer. Ride with us, please."

The doors slid open in the lobby, and Harm walked Mac slowly down the hall, with Coates following. He could feel a fine tremor in Mac's hesitant steps, as if she were made of glass. "Petty Officer, I'm detailing you to take Colonel Mackenzie home," he ordered. "I wish I could take you myself, Mac, but I'm due back in court in 20 minutes."

"I'll be okay," Mac protested. He ignored her and put an arm around her waist, and she clutched his hand as they slowly descended the front steps and crossed to where the cab waited. He helped her into the back seat and turned to Jennifer, who was hovering at his elbow.

"Coates, there are a lot of stairs at the apartment. Take it very slowly, okay? Stay behind her, or you'll never be able to catch her if she gets dizzy." Even as he bit off his orders, he dug some bills out of his wallet and pressed them into her hand. "Wait for me there, I'll pick you up after taps. Don't leave her alone, no matter what she says, and if anything happens, have the cab take you to Georgetown University Hospital. Got it?"

"Aye aye, sir. We'll be all right, Commander." Jennifer went around to the opposite door and got in.

Harm stood staring after them for a long moment before squaring his shoulders and heading back into the building. He didn't notice Captain Sebring standing at the window of his chambers high above.

 

That evening, 1830 Hours EDT
Mac's apartment, Georgetown

 

"How's she doing?" Harm whispered, closing the door quietly behind him.

Jennifer dropped the magazine she was leafing through and jumped up from the sofa. "Okay, sir. I helped her out of her uniform, and she went to bed. I think she's asleep."

"She give you any trouble?"

Coates's eyes sparkled. "She ordered me to go home, sir."

"Good job, Petty Officer." He returned her brief smile and hesitated before he added, "I don't know how to thank you, Jennifer. You're always there when I need you."

"Back at you, sir." She frowned. "I just wish there was more I could do. She's really sick, isn't she sir?"

He sighed. "Yeah, Jen, she is. Anyway, would you mind taking a cab home? I don't want to leave her alone."

"No problem, sir." She reached for the phone.

"Do you need some more dough for the cab?" He reached into his jacket, but she held up her hand.

"Got it covered, sir. You gave me plenty before, even with a big tip. The driver helped us get in the doors downstairs."

With a wave, Jennifer let herself out. Harm rubbed the back of his neck and went to the door of the bedroom. When he peeked inside, Mac was lying with her back to him, the covers drawn up to her chin. He tiptoed to the window and twisted the blinds to block the late afternoon sunlight, and when he turned around, Mac was watching him.

"Hey," he said, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed. "How are you doing?"

"Okay," she replied and sat up, swinging her legs over the edge. "Is Jennifer gone?"

"Yeah, I sent her home in a cab."

"I thought you were going to take her yourself." She straightened her rumpled, oversize t-shirt and began rummaging around in the top drawer of the nightstand.

"Jennifer will be fine. Are you getting hungry? Did you eat anything for lunch?"

"Yes, I had lunch. No, I'm not hungry." Mac slammed the drawer shut and demanded, "Where the hell is the remote?"

Harm lifted it from the bedspread and handed it to her.

Mac snatched it from him, propped herself up with several pillows, and clicked on the TV. "What are you hanging around for?" she snapped.

"I wanted the company," he said mildly.

"Look, Harm, I have to go to the hospital tomorrow morning. This is the best I'm going to feel for a few days, so you might as well take off."

"What is it, Mac?" he asked.

"What's what?"

"Whatever's bugging you."

"What do you mean, what's bugging me? I feel like shit, you're acting like a mother hen, and I humiliated myself today. What more do you want?"

"How did you humiliate yourself?"

She ran an impatient hand through her hair. "I told Prescott I'd be coming in three days a week. I ordered Monty to drop everything and set up my office. And then I couldn't even make it through one whole day. They're probably laughing their asses off right now."

"Nobody's laughing, Mac. Look, you tried and you did the best you could. But right now, your energy needs to be focused on getting well."

"Right now, I'm focused on asking you to leave me alone!"

"Mac" –

"Look, I know you're lonely right now, Harm, but I have no intention of being a substitute for Mattie, okay?"

He rocked back as if she had slapped him. "I don't" –

She shoved at him weakly. "Go on! Get out, Harm! Just leave!"

Mac always turned into a bully when she felt threatened. He caught her wrists in gentle hands as she flailed at him and said calmly, "I'm not going anywhere, Mac."

"Why? What's in it for you this time, Harm? I'm not one of your charity cases! I've never been good enough for you before, so why now?"

He froze. Mac's white face seemed to blur and dissolve into Mattie's face, and it was Mattie's voice that echoed in his mind -- "You just want to get rid of me!" Two scared, abandoned little girls, both hiding behind a brave front. Both sure that they were unlovable, because they had no one who loved them.

Something essential clicked into place. And now it was Mac's voice he heard, as the memories tumbled over each other, blurring into the present. "You've never had a weak moment in your life, have you?" "It means more to you than JAG, more than Jordan, more than . . ." "You're just this way with me, aren't you?"

Harm blinked, and focused on her furious stare. "I owe you an apology, Mac."

"Just go." She turned away, and the dejected droop of her shoulders nearly broke his heart.

"No," he said. She jerked up angrily, and he laid light fingers on her mouth before she could speak. "Please -- wait."

She went very still.

He spoke slowly and watched her intently. "I'm sorry for all the times I wasn't paying attention. For worrying more about our careers than about us. For being afraid to let you get too close." He cleared his throat. "I've made a lot of mistakes over the years, Mac. I can't wipe all that away. But I'd be grateful if you'd let me prove that *I'm* good enough for *you.*"

Her eyes widened. Time stretched and held, motionless. He held her gaze, feeling calm and sure, and simply waited.

A single tear brimmed over and traced a silver line down her cheek. Harm never knew who reached out first, but when he gathered to him, her arms slipped tightly around him.

For a long time they simply held each other, rocking gently. When Mac finally lifted her head, his eyes were wet, too.

 

Thursday, 0500 Hours EDT
Mac's apartment

 

She awakened with her head nestled in the curve of Harm's neck, his skin warm beneath her cheek. For a long time she lay there, feeling his chest slowly rise and fall, listening to the calm beat of his heart.

The room was cool in the dim light before dawn. With faint surprise, she realized she had slept the night through. They had been watching TV last night, and Harm must have turned it off. He was still wearing his white uniform trousers, but at some point he had removed the blouse. Now he lay on his back, the thin white t-shirt clinging to his powerful shoulders.

She must have moved, because he gave a little snore and opened his eyes. A warm smile spread slowly across his face. "Hi," he rasped, his voice rough with sleep.

"Hi," she smiled back.

He scrubbed a hand over his face. "I didn't mean to fall asleep," he muttered. "What time is it?"

"0530," she said. "I'm glad you stayed. I slept better than I have in forever."

"Me too," he said with faint surprise. He rolled to face her and laid his hand on the curve of her waist. "You look beautiful in the morning."

"Thank you," she said after a moment. She knew how pale and drawn she was, but she could tell he meant it. Slowly she ran her fingertips over his sandpapery cheek, and he reached up and brought them to his lips for a light kiss.

"I'm so glad you don't wear cologne," she said.

Harm's eyebrows went up. "So am I," he grinned. "No sane man uses that stuff past the age of 16. But is there another reason?"

"Smells are starting to bother me. Air fresheners, perfumes," she shrugged.

"How about some hot tea?" he asked.

"Will you stay and have it with me?"

"Sure. But then I've gotta get going." He rose and stretched before heading to the kitchen. While he worked, he smiled to himself, feeling relaxed and cheerful, and tapped out a quick drum roll on Mac's pots and pans.

A few minutes later he carried two steaming mugs and a plateful of dry toast into the bedroom to find Mac sitting up against the pillows. "What time do you have to be there this morning?" he asked, sitting on the side of the bed and sipping at his tea.

"Nine." She looked away.

"May I make a suggestion?"

"Sure."

"You could take a cab to my place when you're done. It has the elevator, and you could rest there until I can give you a ride home."

She sipped her tea and thought about it. "Do you think I can manage the gate?" she asked. "It isn't heavy, but you know how it sticks."

"We had it fixed."

Mac sighed. "It's a good solution, Harm. It's just that" -- she looked away, and he waited.

When it appeared that she wouldn't continue, he probed gently. "What is it, Mac?"

"I hate it," she said, her voice low and vehement. "I *hate* it. I hate not being able to do things. I hate being helped. I hate *needing* help." She frowned. "It makes me feel . . . weak."

Harm remembered the times he had been laid up and silently agreed. But he suspected that for Mac, the frustration went far deeper than physical constraints. Self-confidence came to him as a birthright, but for Mac, strength and determination were her protection, her armor.

So he simply listened and nodded. "I know. But courage wears different faces, Mac. You have what it takes to get through this and get well. The rest doesn't matter."

"Okay," she agreed with a tiny smile.

He grinned back. "Great. You'll call me when you get home?"

"Sure. Besides, it'll give me a chance to go through *your* underwear drawer."

 

That night, 1830 Hours EDT
Harm's apartment

 

He let himself in quietly and bent to untie his shoes. The loft was very still, and dusk was beginning to gather high in the corners beneath the rafters.

Moving silently on sock feet, he climbed the three steps to the bedroom and was swept with a powerful sense of deja vu -- Jordan, sprawled across his bed, his heart in his mouth until he was sure she wasn't dead. Not that time, anyway.

He shook away the memories and tiptoed across the carpeting. Mac's eyes were closed, and she huddled beneath the covers, clutching one of his pillows in her arms. Her breathing was light and even, and he turned to collect clean clothes from the dresser.

"Harm?" she called sleepily.

"Yeah, it's me. Sorry to bother you, Mac. Go back to sleep."

She rolled over to look at him. "I wasn't sleeping, really."

"Can I get you anything?"

"No, I'm fine."

He stripped the ribbons and insignia from his summer whites, tossed them into the bag for the cleaners, and pulled on a pair of khaki shorts and a clean t-shirt. Barefoot, he crossed to the bed and leaned over to stroke her hair. "I brought some work home," he told her. "Just yell if you need anything. Mind if I put on some music?"

"If it isn't too loud," she whispered, closing her eyes.

Harm moved silently into the living room, found his favorite CD, and dialed the amplifiers down. He opened his briefcase and laptop, placed neat stacks of papers on the glass table, and rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the tension humming through his veins. He felt better having Mac here, but it was harder to ignore the worry.

Deciding he was hungry, he retrieved a covered dish from the refrigerator, set it in the microwave, punched a couple of buttons, and cracked open a cold bottle of beer. He leaned on the kitchen island, sipping it, letting himself relax while he stared out the window and listened to Ella crooning in a voice like silver lace.

The microwave dinged. Harm spooned steaming pasta onto a plate and slid onto a stool to eat at the island. Just as he started to take a second bite, he heard light footfalls, followed by retching sounds coming from the bathroom.

He was up the steps and across the bedroom like a shot. "Mac!" he called, and skidded to a stop, horrified to find her clinging to the toilet, her body wracked with dry heaves.

"It's okay, baby, you're okay," he murmured, kneeling beside her and sliding an arm around her waist. With one hand, he grabbed a washcloth, managed to wet in the sink, and held it gently to her forehead.

She fumbled at it with trembling fingers and pressed it to her face. "It's the food," she mumbled. "The smell. I'm sorry."

"Oh God, Mac, I didn't realize. Look, hang on, okay? I'll get rid of it." He ran back to the kitchen, grabbed the dishes and thrust them onto the fire escape, and slammed the door. He paused long enough to switch on the vent fan in the stove before hurrying back to the bathroom.

She rose shakily to her feet with his help and leaned against him. "I'm sorry," she mumbled.

"*You're* sorry?" he whispered into her hair. "Mac, I had no idea, please forgive me."

"It's okay, really," she said, and shuffled back to bed. He drew the covers over her and sat on the edge of the mattress, stroking her hair. "Harm -- you need to eat," she mumbled without opening her eyes.

"I'll be okay," he said soothingly. "Rest now, Mac."

After awhile, her breathing evened out, and he rose stealthily. In the kitchen, he slipped outside and finished his cold dinner standing on the fire escape, watching the sun set over the roof of Union Station.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm threw down his pen and rubbed his eyes. This case was a loser, he could feel it. With a couple of clicks, he shut down his laptop. Enough, already.

Pausing to turn off the light above the kitchen island, he tiptoed to the bedroom. He was unwilling to rouse Mac, so he brushed his teeth in the dark, stripped down to his boxers, and climbed into bed on the far side, slipping between the cool sheets.

"Harm," she murmured, and rolled over. Her hand brushed his chest and stroked it, and he caught it in his.

"I'll take you home tomorrow, okay?" he whispered.

" 'Kay," she answered sleepily. "S' nice here. I like your bed." She seemed to hear what she had said and stiffened a little.

"I like having you here," he smiled into the dark. "Sleep now, Mac."

Her eyes gleamed, her face a pale shadow in the darkness. A moment later, she slid toward him and laid her head on his shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close.

 

Saturday, 0830 EDT
Mac's apartment

 

Saturday dawned bright and clear, and the sunlight streaming in the windows matched her mood. The nausea was gone, the dizziness was gone, and she managed to cook and eat a bowl of rice for breakfast. This really is like riding a rollercoaster, she thought. It feels exactly like recovering from a bad bout of the flu, over and over again.

Her legs were still a little shaky, but after showering and getting dressed, she felt ready for some fresh air and some company. She knew that trying to reach any of her friends on Saturday morning was hopeless – everyone would be out doing errands or driving the kids to soccer practice.

With her purse over her shoulder, she locked the door of the apartment and paused at the top of the stairs. A small voice told her this was stupid, but she ignored it. Going down wasn't so bad, as long as she kept hold of the railing. She rested for a moment in the lobby before descending the steep stone steps to the sidewalk.

The quaint old streets of Georgetown were alive with tourists and residents walking their dogs, and Mac strolled slowly along in the shade beneath the trees that lined the curb. The fresh summer morning smelled wonderful, and she was cheered to see the brightly colored umbrellas beginning to sprout outside the cafes on M street.

She pushed open the door to Starbucks and immediately backed out, overwhelmed by the smell of coffee that met her like a wall. Now there was a thought – a Marine who couldn't stomach the idea of coffee. With a shake of her head, she went into the deli next door, where she bought half a dozen bagels still warm from the oven. At the last minute, she smiled to herself and picked up a big cinnamon muffin, thinking of Harm. He had called last night from the VOQ at the Norfolk Navy Yard, tired and annoyed that his witness had provided no useful information.

The fragrance of freshly baked bread was almost too much for her, and she paid quickly and left. She walked home slowly, feeling unreasonably cheerful and enjoying the simple pleasure of being out on the street. Two blocks later, she decided to rest on the iron bench beside the historical marker across the street from her building.

Harm was in Norfolk, but he would be on his way home by now. A faint smile flitted across her face without her knowing, and she shivered a little with anticipation. It seemed odd to feel so happy, so hopeful, when the future was so uncertain. But something was happening here, and it was happening in its own rhythm, its own time. She had the sense of a rosebud unfolding, a butterfly with wings tightly furled, at last escaping from its imprisoning chrysalis and breaking free into the sunlight.

She lingered in the shade, watching a few people go by. At last she stood up. "Come on, Marine," she muttered. She wasn't looking forward to climbing those stairs.

 

Sunday, 0900 Hours EDT, Memorial Day weekend

 

He didn't spend the night.

Mac only admitted to herself that she was disappointed when she woke up alone in a bedroom full of sunlight. Her last memory was of lying with her head in the hollow of his shoulder and a soft kiss on her hair as she struggled to keep her eyes open against the flickering glare of the television screen. He must have let himself out after the movie ended.

And now here they were, tearing down the George Washington Parkway in Harm's Corvette, the warm wind buffeting their hair. Sunlight flickered over them in a blur of green and gold through the trees overhead, and the Potomac gleamed on their left.

She leaned her head back and laughed, full of joy to be out and free and flying along in a fast and extremely cool sports car. Harm glanced over, inscrutable behind his black aviator shades, and after a moment he reached over and wove his fingers through hers.

An hour later, they turned in at Mount Vernon, paid their admission, and joined the throngs of holiday tourists. Harm held her hand as they wandered through the beautiful old grounds, finally stopping at a bench overlooking the Potomac. The warm breeze caressed her skin.

"I can't believe you've never been here before," Mac teased. "How long have you been in Washington?"

"I know, I know. Residents never take advantage of this stuff."

"This was one of the first things I did when I moved here," she said.

"What was the first?"

"The Mall -- the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, you know. The Smithsonian. The Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis."

"Now you're talking. How about some ice cream?"

"I would love some ice cream. Vanilla."

He walked over to the concession cart nearby, and she leaned back. When her eyes popped open, Harm was looking down at her with troubled eyes.

"Thanks," she smiled, reaching for one of the two sugar cones he held.

"Getting tired?" he asked.

"Not really. The walk from the parking lot was farther than I remembered, that's all."

"Shall we skip the tour of the house?"

Mac nodded. "It's interesting, but I've done it before. And I don't think old George would mind." She licked at her cone.

Harm stretched out his legs. "It always amazes me how *real* these guys seem," he said. "Washington, Jefferson, Adams. Real men, who loved their wives and enjoyed tending their farms more than power or ambition, who served because it was the right thing to do. And they changed the world."

He said it casually enough, but the hair stood up on the back of her neck. Harm was neither romantic nor naive, which made his idealism all the more powerful. It had startled her before, and it moved her each time he allowed her to see it.

"You're just like them," she said now, surprising herself.

"Me? Mac, the last thing I'll ever be is a politician," Harm shook his head with a rueful smile.

"Being a politician doesn't have to be synonymous with expediency or deceit, you know. All the great admirals have to be able to function in the political arena."

Harm shrugged. "The odds of my ever making admiral are slim to none."

"They'd be lucky to have you," she said. He gave her a lazy grin.

"When the promotion board comes up, I'll send in the Marines," he said. "Besides" -- he stopped as his cell phone chirped. "Rabb."

His face told her it was important, and she sighed inwardly, knowing their blissful afternoon was over. When he clicked the 'End' button, she gave him a crooked smile. "Duty calls?"

"Yeah. Prescott wants me in Yokosuka by tomorrow, they're having trouble with a court martial. I'm on the next thing smoking from Andrews."

He collected their sticky paper napkins, tossed them into the waste can, and held out his hand. Mac took it, and they started walking back toward the car. "I'm sorry, Mac," he said.

"Don't be silly. I've had a wonderful day, and besides, we still have a long ride home. What time is your flight?"

"I have to be at Andrews by 1800."

"We'd better haul, then."

"Look, Mac, I was thinking. How about if you stay at my place while I'm gone? I may not get back until next weekend. I'd feel a lot better if I didn't have to worry about you climbing those stairs by yourself, and Jennifer would be right down the hall if you need anything."

She thought about it. "What about my TV?" she asked with a little smile.

"We can stop on the way back to my place and pick up anything you want."

She didn't reply right away. Then, "Okay. That would be great. Thank you."

He slipped an arm around her shoulders with a quick hug.

 

 

 

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