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Mac pulled the elevator gate across and held it for Harm, who was carrying her television set. "You know, I never stopped to think whether your apartment is wired for cable," she said.

"And you’re asking *now*?” He shifted the bulky weight and grunted.

She quickly fished out her key, unlocked the door, and held it open for him. Harm staggered up the three steps to the bedroom and carefully slid the TV onto the top of the dresser. "Okay," he panted, "I'll go get the DVD player."

Mac dropped her duffle bag in the corner and said, "I'll hook them up later, Harm. You've got a plane to catch." She was painfully aware that it had taken a long time to get in and out of her apartment to collect her things.

"Two hours, plenty of time," he grinned and disappeared out the door.

Mac followed slowly and decided to wait on the sofa. He would need to pack and change, and she didn't want to be in the way. He returned carrying the last of her things and called, "There's water and juice and stuff in the fridge," and pulled his shirt over his head as he went into the bathroom.

She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. It seemed only a moment before she felt his hand on her cheek. She blinked and saw Harm bending over her, dressed in khakis. "Hey," she said sleepily, and put her hand over his.

"I'm sorry I have to go, Mac," he said.

She stood and walked with him to the door, and he slid an arm around her shoulders. Hers went naturally around his waist, and she said, "Have a good trip. Call me."

He gathered her against him, and she hugged him fiercely. He mumbled against her hair, "Take care, Marine." Then with a quick kiss on the cheek, he was gone.

Mac crossed her arms and gripped her elbows. The loft suddenly seemed very empty. She went to the phone and called the neighbor who collected her mail when she was away, and then wandered to the refrigerator. Tofu, vegetables, sprouts, yogurt, orange juice, beer. Oh, Harm. With an indulgent smile, she selected a bottle of water and sat at the kitchen island. She'd have to ask Jennifer to pick up a few things at the market.

It was very strange to sit here in Harm's loft all by herself. Memories echoed in the silent space – had it really been nine years ago that she had first seen this place? She remembered the smell of sawdust and plaster, the drop cloths draped everywhere. Nine years, and she was only now discovering that she scarcely knew him at all. The cocky, arrogant flight jock had developed reservoirs of patience and perception she had never even guessed at. When had he changed, or had he simply matured? Had she?

She ran her fingertips along the strings of his guitar and listened to its ghostly music. The bookcase fascinated her. When did he read all these heavy volumes on international politics and foreign relations? There were books on cars and aviation, she would have expected that, but very few popular novels. Instead, she discovered Hemingway and Steinbeck, Melville and Twain, Eliot and Yeats and even a well-worn volume of Shakespeare. It was oddly comforting to sit at his desk and handle the handsome leather blotter, the letter knife, the crystal paperweight. She turned on the CD player and picked up its jewel case. Ella Fitzgerald – this had been playing the other night.

She turned up the volume a little, pretending he was still in the next room.

 

Tuesday, 2100 Hours EDT
Harm's apartment

 

She caught the phone on its first ring. "Hey, sailor."

"I'll bet you say that to all the guys."

"How's Japan? How was the flight?"

"This case is a stinker, Mac. The JAG is a lieutenant fresh out of law school, and he completely screwed up the investigation. I spent the day re-doing all the interviews."

"And you had him taking notes the whole time."

"Well sure, of course. How else is he going to learn?"

"You're a good C.O.," she said, smiling.

"I don't know about that, I'm just trying to straighten things out over here. The local T.S.O. is a shambles. It's a good thing somebody finally called Litigation Services, or we'd be trying this thing in appellate court next fall. How are you doing?"

"Better than you, I imagine. I really think the treatments are getting easier. I'm recovering a lot faster." She decided not to enumerate how many times she had vomited today. "How was the flight?"

"All right. Had a layover at Pearl, didn't get in until yesterday afternoon."

"Wow, you've done a lot in a short time."

"I never can remember what day it is over here. Seems like I've been here forever. I miss you."

"I wish I could help out."

"Your legal skills would be a plus, Mac, but I meant I miss *you.*"

She went very still. Then, "I miss you too. Hurry home."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac pried her eyes open reluctantly. They were stuck shut with something that felt like library glue. The little digital clock on Harm's bedside table said 8:30, and she sighed. She had lain awake for hours last night, finally falling into a heavy sleep at dawn.

She hauled herself out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom with a passing thought that the walk-in shower was a definite plus. The grey quarry tile and shining chrome of Harm's bathroom were so different from hers, but she liked them.

She draped a towel over the heating rack, stepped carefully into the shower enclosure, and closed the glass door. The hot water came on almost instantly. She lifted the shower handset and sat down on the tile ledge, grateful that she didn't have to stand up.

For a long while, she let the hot water surge over her head and shoulders, soothing away the gremlins of the night. Her skin had grown more sensitive, and she soaped herself slowly with a bar of Cetaphil. Her hair felt greasy, and she couldn't remember when she had washed it last, so she forced herself to stand up to reach for Harm's shampoo in the rack. It seemed like too much trouble to get out and search for her own in her duffle bag.

When she flipped the cap, it smelled like him. She closed her eyes and massaged the lather through her hair, which she had been letting grow out. She could almost feel the texture of Harm's soft short hair beneath her fingertips.

She adjusted the handheld shower attachment and began rinsing, running the warm spray luxuriously over her scalp again and again. At last she reached up and twisted the control to "off," glad that she could reach it without getting to her feet.

The floor of the shower was two inches deep in soapy water, barely below the doorsill. Surprised, she swished the soapsuds away, and with a cool sense of dread, she lifted a dark mat of hair from the drain. The water sucked and swirled away in a spiral, leaving Mac sitting on the cool tile bench, staring at the dark mass clinging to her fingertips. Her nipples contracted in the sudden chill.

Slowly she rose and stepped out of the shower on shaky legs, wrapped a thick towel around herself, and wiped the steam from the mirror with the palm of her hand. She peered at her reflection, rubbing her fingertips lightly across her scalp. Her once luxuriant hair seemed thin and dry, and several strands came away on her fingers.

Mac 's knees trembled as she lowered herself to sit on the cover of the toilet. For a long time, she sat there, wet and shivering.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Her days became very quiet. Hours passed in silence broken only by the hum of the refrigerator, the low voices on the television. Harriet brought her home from the hospital, and it was good to see her cheery face and listen to her chatter. But now she was alone, comforted only by the sense of Harm's presence surrounding her.

The nights were the worst. In the daytime, she could distract herself with phone calls, television and magazines, but at night, Pandora's box opened and fears swooped like bats around the darkened room. The sense of her own death hung over her, lurking just out of sight, ever present. She dreamed of children, and awakened with the sounds of their happy laughter receding in the cool grey light of morning.

The traces of Harm comforted her. She found him in his books, in his music, in the clothes hanging in his closet, in the oddments shuffled into his dresser drawers. Searching for stamps in his desk, she came across an unframed snapshot of herself and sat looking at it for a long time. It must have been taken at the Roberts' last Christmas party, when she had thought -- who knows what she had been thinking. She looked at her face now in wonder. Had she ever been that pretty? That happy?

Harm called every night, and she lay in his bed, listening to his voice. She forced herself to sound cheerful and upbeat. Afterward, she pressed her face into his pillow, trying to feel less alone.

 

Saturday, June 5, 1430 Hours EDT
Harm's apartment

 

Harm set his sea bag and laptop down carefully. "Mac?" he called softly. He had phoned her from Pearl, but the flight had been delayed and his cell phone battery was shot.

She was lying on the sofa, covered with an afghan. At the sound of his voice, she sat up, pushing the coverlet off her knees. "Hey, welcome back!" she smiled, rising to meet him.

They both hesitated. Then he reached out and enfolded her in an embrace. Harm held her close, shocked by the change in her. Her body felt so small, with new sharp edges and bones where he was used to taut muscle and curves. He stroked her shoulders gently, and at last she leaned back and gave him a brilliant smile. "I'm sorry if I woke you," he said.

"I was just resting. I called Andrews and they told me what time your flight was due." She gave him a quick hug, stepped back and leaned on a stool at the island. "Are you hungry?"

"No, thanks, I'm good." He helped himself to a cold beer from the fridge. "Thank God that flight is over. Troop seating all the way."

"Ouch. Sounds like you'll need the heating pad for sure." She gestured awkwardly. "Well, look, you probably have a million things to do. I'll call a cab and get out of your hair."

He cocked his head, taking in the sight of her neatly packed duffle bag standing ready behind the door. "I didn't stop to think you'd probably want to get back to your own place. If you'll give me a few minutes, I'll take you home."

She said shyly, "Actually, I'm beginning to feel at home here. I don't remember if I ever thanked you for letting me stay. That elevator saved me."

"I'm glad it worked out, Mac." He gazed at her, an overwhelming tenderness thickening his throat. "I hope you'll stay here any time you want."

Her eyes widened, and a faint tinge of pink brightened her pallor. "I'd like that," she answered.

"Good, ‘cuz I'm not hauling that TV again," he grinned.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The following week passed slowly for Mac. Simply getting dressed took more energy than she previously would have believed, but knowing that she would see Harm goaded her to make the effort. One evening, as she stood in her bedroom trying to fluff up her thinning hair with the blow dryer, she heard the front door slam and Harm's voice calling, "It's me!"

"Hi, me," she smiled as she entered the living room. She spied the pile of papers on the table and frowned. "Tell me you don't have to work tonight."

He turned from unloading his briefcase and gave her a smile that lit up the room. "Just a little prep for that Article 32 tomorrow morning," he said. "I hoped you'd run over it with me."

"Sure," she replied, secretly pleased. Harm often discussed his current caseload these days and consulted her on a regular basis. It was precluded when they were opposing counsel, but now there were no constraints, and she relished the sense that she still could contribute something useful, something that had nothing to do with illness. She suspected he knew that, and to her surprise, she did not resent it.

Now she slid her palm up his broad back and made slow circles between his shoulders as he bent over the papers. "Have you eaten?" she asked. Ever since the disastrous pasta incident, as he called it, Harm had begun eating at one of the neighborhood restaurants before he arrived.

"Nope, I thought I'd try this tonight," he held up a white paper sack. "Promise you'll tell me if it bothers you."

"Sure. What is it?"

"I stopped at that "Gourmet on the Go" joint around the corner. Grilled veggies, fruit salad, grilled shrimp with pasta, all cold. They promised there was zero garlic in any of them."

"That's a great idea," she smiled. "I hate making you eat out all the time."

"You don't *make* me do it, Mac, I want to."

"Let's sit at the table," she suggested, and put out placemats and napkins. "I'll get mine and join you." She set went to the kitchen and returned holding a bottle of Ensure with a straw in it.

"I still can't get over how much of that stuff you have in your fridge," he gestured with his fork. "Maybe we should buy stock in the company."

Mac lifted a shoulder and accepted his teasing with equanimity. "The doctor recommended it. It tastes good, it has plenty of calories and vitamins, and it doesn't make me sick." She decided not to mention that almost any other food was cloying or impossible to get down these days.

Harm sampled his dinner and looked up. "Okay?" he asked quickly.

"Fine, thanks. It's nice to share a meal with you again."

He smiled again, his eyes warm on hers.

After dinner, they reviewed the case file for the Article 32 and lobbed arguments and strategies back and forth for awhile. At last Mac held up her hands to signal time out. "I'm sorry, Harm. But I'm fading. Will you be okay with this tomorrow?"

"Sure thing. Why don't you go relax, and I'll clean up here."

She was leaning back in the recliner when she heard him drop into his usual place on the sofa, and she opened her eyes. Harm had picked up a well-worn paperback copy of ‘Master and Commander' lying on the coffee table and was examining it quizzically. "Is this mine?" he asked, one eyebrow raised.

"Yep. I started it that week you were in Japan, but I didn't finish. So I stole it."

He laughed. "Man, I haven't read this in years. It's a great story, isn't it?"

"I figured it must be – you have the whole set."

"Well, you either like ‘em or you don’t. The movie didn't do them justice – but if you're a sailor, you gotta love these books." He lifted an eyebrow. "They don't always portray Marines in a very flattering light."

"Yeah, I noticed that."

"Let me know when you finish, and I'll give you the next one."

"At this rate, it'll be awhile. I can't read for very long, my eyes get tired. Good thing I bought another TV," she smiled.

"Hey, it's a great excuse to lie around in bed with you," he grinned. She laughed and looked away to hide the sudden flush that slid from her cheeks to her fingertips. The man is an incorrigible flirt, damn it. Why do I have to look like something the cat dragged in?

Harm was scanning the back cover and said, "Would you mind if I read a few pages? Aloud, I mean?"

"Harm, you don't have to" –

"Mac. I'd enjoy it. There's nothing on the tube tonight anyway."

"Okay," she nodded. When he picked up the book, she furtively wiped her eyes, relieved that he didn't seem to notice. He began reading, and her self-consciousness slipped away as she was drawn in, transported by the beauty of his voice. Harm had always had a gift for reading – poetry, fiction, even a legal brief – in a way that gave beauty and significance to the language on the page. Now she listened to the music of his speech and lost herself in the story.

She was drowsily watching the play of lamplight on the strong planes of his face when he marked his place and closed the book. His clear eyes flashed as he looked up. "Time for bed," he smiled.

She yawned suddenly.

"Come on, sleepy head." He pulled her to her feet.

 

Thursday, 1800 Hours EDT
North of Union Station

 

Dr. Levine gave her the following week off. When Monday passed with no treatment, it felt like the first day of summer vacation, and by Thursday she felt ready to take on the world. She went over to Harm's place to wait for him as if it were a treatment day, and met him at the door wearing a soft flowing skirt, a short-sleeved cotton sweater, and a touch of lip gloss.

"Wow," he smiled, setting his cover on the table. "You look terrific."

"I feel terrific. Come on, I'm taking you out for a change."

"Mac – hey wait a minute! Can I at least change first?"

"Get the lead out, sailor."

Ten minutes later, they were walking hand in hand toward Union Station. The lights were just coming on outdoors, and the big fountain glowed gold in the early dusk. They joined the crowds of tourists strolling through the plaza, surrounded by bright banks of flowers and cheerful music.

"I'm hungry," Mac announced.

"Mac, there's a dozen good restaurants inside" –

"Gelato," she breathed, her voice caressing the word as she gazed lovingly at the cart.

"Ice cream?" Harm said doubtfully. "Are you sure?"

"Cappuccino, please," she told the man, and Harm watched with amusement as she licked at her cone with dainty care. "This is the most delicious thing I've ever tasted," she sighed. Everything conspired with her effervescent mood, leaving her a little giddy.

Harm grinned. "I'm glad, Mac. Enjoy."

Even the billowing cloud of smoke from the barbeque cart failed to make her stomach lurch. Harm let her buy him a veggie burger from the sandwich stand, and they ate while listening to a steel band jamming on the corner.

"Come on, let's get out of the heat," Harm said. She followed him through the revolving doors into the vast central hall, where the air conditioning hit them like a cool wall. Harm took her hand, and they strolled along the marble floors, window shopping and people watching.

Suddenly she stopped in her tracks. Raucous hurdy gurdy music spilled from an enormous carousel revolving beneath the great dome in a swirl of colored lights. Shrieking children clung to the brightly painted animals, their laughter filling the air like sparkling fairy dust.

She turned to Harm in delight. "I'm gonna ride," she grinned. His eyes widened, and she laughed and joined the queue of kids and parents. Harm shook his head and joined her.

"Hurry," she called as the merry-go-round slowed and stopped. "I want to get that big black horse." She jogged past the rooster and the tiger and climbed onto a gorgeous steed with an arched neck, a flying mane and tail, and brilliant red eyes. Mac grabbed the polished pole and slipped her feet into the steel loops just as Harm came up beside her. "Aren't you going to ride?" she teased. "If you can keep your feet off the ground, that is?" Harm's legs were so long he could straddle the next horse without climbing on.

"Hah hah, very funny," he grinned indulgently. "I'll just make sure you don't fall off, little girl."

The carousel began to turn, and Mac gave a happy bounce. "We're moving!" Her horse began to bound up and down in a stately rhythm as they picked up speed, and the lights of the midway whirled past in a brilliant stream of color. She laughed with sheer exhilaration, and her spirits rose even higher when Harm's laughter joined hers.

At last the ride slowed and coasted to a stop. He steadied her as she reluctantly slid off, his big hands spanning her waist, and he didn't let go. Mac felt his nearness tingle along the length of her body as he leaned down and kissed her, his mouth soft and warm on hers.

After an endless moment she stared up into his brilliant eyes, breathless and a little dizzy. There was no sound but the beating of her heart and his.

"Hey pal, ya gonna ride again or what?" somebody called, and Harm grinned and helped her off as the carousel started up again. His arm went around her shoulders, and she let him steer her through the crowd. He appeared calm and collected as if nothing had happened, but she saw the rapid rise and fall of the button at his open collar, and smiled to herself.

"Let's go home," she said in a low voice, and saw his eyes darken.

They made their way slowly through the boisterous crowds. Mac felt only the nearness of his body as he walked beside her, the brush of his hip, the welcome pressure of his hand at her waist. She felt as if she were floating on a cushion of warm air, buoyant and free.

The clamor of Union Station faded as they walked slowly up the street, and the humid darkness of the summer night enfolded them. They did not speak. When they reached his building, Harm led her to their parked cars. But instead of opening the door, he leaned against his Lexus and pulled her to him, and his mouth came down on hers.

A soundless clap of thunder, black velvet night, stars whirling past. Mac surrendered to the urgency in his body and returned his kiss fiercely. At last they broke off and leaned against each other, panting. Her blood pulsed in her lips, in her fingertips, in the depths of her body, and an answering rhythm pounded clear and strong beneath her lips where she pressed them to his neck.

Her legs were trembling, and she couldn't slow her breathing. Harm's hands, gentle now, stroked the back of her head to her shoulders, slowly, calming her. "Shh," he soothed. "Shh."

At last she lifted her head. The streetlight overhead cut sharp shadows in the strong planes of his face, making him look stern. "Mac," he said, and his voice was low-pitched and rough. "Sweetheart, I would like nothing better than to take you upstairs and make love. But you have to tell me if you're ready."

She reached up and laid her hand against his cheek, noticing the faint rasp of whiskers along his jaw. Beneath the euphoria, her energy was melting away like sand in a fast current. Reluctantly, she said, "I wish I were. But I need to wait until I'm past this. Can you understand that?"

He nodded. "I asked you to wait once, too."

"This isn't fair to you."

"Let me be the judge of that."

The lights swam and her vision blurred. "Will there ever be a time for us?" she whispered.

"Yes."

She never knew how long they stood there, holding each other. At last she mumbled against his shirt, "May I stay with you tonight?"

Without a word, he pulled her against his side and led her into the building.

 

Sunday, 2100 Hours EDT
Harm's apartment

 

Music poured from the sound system and wove a tapestry of colors on the air. Harm leaned against the pillows with Mac in her new favorite position, seated snugly between his knees and propped up against his chest. He rested his forearm across her shoulders and absently caressed her arm while they listened to the music. Candles glowed in the darkened loft.

When the CD ended, he clicked the remote and let silence seep back into the room. Mac rolled her head to the side, and he thought she had fallen asleep until she said, "Last night of vacation."

He knew she dreaded resuming chemotherapy in the morning, and tightened his arm around her. He dreaded it, too.

"How was Mattie?" she asked, meaning the phone call earlier.

"She wanted to thank us again for coming out yesterday."

"It was good to see her. She seems to be doing great, Tom too."

He nodded, not wanting to talk about it any more.

She laid her hand over his where it rested on his knee. Her slim, capable fingers didn't begin to span his, even when she stretched them to the limit. She said softly. "Just three weeks." He knew she was talking about the next time she would have a week off from the hospital, and gave her a little hug.

"Sturgis's wedding is in four weeks."

"I ordered the gift to be delivered. I made it from both of us, was that okay?"

"You bet."

"Varese invited me to her shower, but I just don't think I can do it."

"That's okay, Mac. They understand."

She was silent. He leaned forward to see her face, and tilted her chin up to his. "What is it?"

She swallowed, and her hand tightened in his. "I'm scared to go back tomorrow," she whispered.

He wrapped both arms around her. "I know, baby. But everything will be okay." He wished fiercely that he had some way to guarantee that, other than the strength of his need.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The warm June days melted into one another, each more beautiful than the last -- but her days were spent indoors now, measured out in hospital corridors and still, silent spaces. Without any discussion, she had simply begun living at the loft, and it seemed odd to her that she had found Harm at last, only to feel herself slipping away.

She knew it was the chemo that was making her ill, and told herself over and over that it would pass, repeating it like a mantra as the clear fluid dripped into her veins. Nausea no longer devastated her, but she felt herself growing gradually weaker as the treatments took their toll. She was reminded of an old photograph, slowly fading between the pages of a scrapbook.

Mac stoically plodded through her routine, living for Sundays when she had a little energy. She made an effort to keep her spirits up for Harm's sake. She tried very hard not to be needy.

But as June eased into July and the air conditioners never stopped, she could feel her control stretching out like a fine silver wire, becoming tighter and thinner day by day.

Harm was working long hours on a big case. Often he did not get home until late. He arranged for the recliner to be moved to the loft, and she spent hours napping in it. In the evenings, he read aloud, or played his guitar while she lay in her chair, watching his hands as they moved over the strings. At night they shared the big bed, taking comfort from each other’s nearness.

The 4th of July came and went, and they sat on the fire escape to watch the fireworks on the Mall burst above the city.

On Monday morning of the holiday weekend, she awakened alone. The sheets beside her were cool, and his running shoes were missing from the closet. A surge of longing startled her, and she swallowed hard, wishing she could go for a run. It occurred to her that he probably was glad to have some time to himself.

As she brushed her teeth, she stared at herself in the mirror. Her dull, sallow complexion and thinning hair filled her with dismay. The shadows beneath her eyes had become perfect half-moons, and her face looked gaunt. She had deliberately stopped looking at her body weeks ago, but now she took off her robe and stood naked before the mirror, appalled to realize how thin she was. Her muscle tone was lax, and her skin was dry. Even her breasts had shrunk, and she cupped her hands over her chest as if to shield them.

The sound of Harm's key in the lock sent her scurrying into the shower. She turned the water on full blast and crouched on the tile ledge, hugging herself, head bowed. "Hey Mac!" she heard him call, and she pretended not to hear, glad that the hiss of the water made conversation impossible.

A long time later, she emerged and quickly wrapped herself in a terry robe, belting it tightly. She could hear the whir of the blender, and knew he was making breakfast.

She padded barefoot down the steps and paused at the sight of Harm standing at the island. His shirt was off, and his running shorts clung to him, damp with sweat. Unaware of her, he took a gulp of orange juice directly from the carton and stared out the windows. The long, flat planes of muscle in his arms and back flexed as he reached for the blender and poured the contents into a big glass. His magnificent body shone with vitality.

She felt her soul shrivel into a tight little ball, and a desperate thought streaked through her mind like a shooting star -- why the hell is this man here with *me*?

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

When Harm looked up and saw her, he felt his smile stretch from ear to ear. "Hey, good morning," he called and lifted his glass. "Want some? It’s the Rabb Special -- a gourmet vitamin smoothie."

"You're cheerful this morning," Mac said. "Thanks, but I'll pass." She took a cold bottle of Ensure from the refrigerator and sipped at it.

"I just beat my own personal best for five miles along the river path, and I have the whole day off to spend with you. What more could a guy want?" He slipped an arm around her waist and kissed the back of her neck. Her answering smile was tepid, and he let her go with an inward sigh. Keeping track of Mac's moods lately was discouraging. "Are you done with the shower?" he asked.

She nodded. He rinsed his glass in the sink and headed for the bedroom. "What would you like to do today?" he called. She didn't answer.

He showered and shaved quickly and pulled on clean boxers and a t-shirt. When he went to get dressed, he found her sitting on the rumpled bed, rubbing lotion on her legs. "Bud and Harriet invited us to come by this afternoon," he said, rummaging around in his sock drawer. "What do you think?"

"I thought you were going to take your bike out for a spin."

"Yeah, I need to do that," he agreed. "Want to ride with me to Bud and Harriet's?"

"All the way to Rosslyn and back?" she said irritably. "No, thanks. But you go ahead."

He turned and looked at her. She had pushed up the sleeves of her robe and was rubbing lotion along her arms. He said, "I'm sorry, Mac, I didn't think. I guess I hoped you felt better today. But how about a short ride through Rock Creek Park, what do you say?"

"I say you should go and enjoy yourself. Tell Harriet and Bud I said hi." She shifted her shoulders restlessly and closed the cap on the lotion, refusing to look at him.

Harm sat down beside her. "What's wrong, Mac?" She didn't answer at first, and her stillness reminded him of a volcano about to blow. Good. Whatever it was, she had been holding it in for too long. It was driving him nuts.

Mac put the lotion bottle down with a rap and snapped, "The matter is, my skin itches like crazy. And you should be out enjoying yourself, not cooped up here with me."

"I like being with you," he said mildly. He picked up the plastic bottle and squirted some into his palm. "If the bike is too much, we'll take the 'vette. But let's go out to Bud's. It'll do you good to see some other faces besides mine." He slowly rubbed the lotion between his palms. "Here, let me put this on your back."

She looked away, ignoring him. At last, just as he was about to give up and go wash his hands, she reached for her belt and slowly untied it. With a tiny shrug, she let the robe slip a little and turned her back to him, holding the terry cloth tightly across her breasts.

Gently he smoothed the lotion across her shoulders, carefully pushing the robe lower until her back was bare. Dear God, she was so thin. Her shoulder blades stood out like knife edges, and his fingers rippled over her ribs. He added more lotion and made slow circles with the flat of his hand, trying to be gentle, to soothe.

Her shoulders began to shake, and she bowed forward, clutching her robe. He realized she was weeping, and his hands went still.

"Mac?" he whispered. "Sweetheart, what's the matter?"

She shook him off and buried her face in her hands, and when she spoke, her voice was muffled. "What?" he said, leaning close to hear.

"I look awful."

"Mac" – he tried to protest, tried to put his hand on her arm. She jerked away.

"I'm ugly, and weak, and *useless,*" she snarled in a clogged voice, and wiped savagely at her eyes. "Why do you want me now, Harm? I'm nothing but a burden. I'm – I'm just *nothing,* period."

He was stunned. "Good God, Mac, is that what's been bothering you?" She snatched her robe around herself like a shield and tried to stand up, to walk away, and he gripped her shoulders, holding her beside him.

"Let me go!" She hit at him with her free hand, frantic now, and he caught her wrist.

"Not until you listen to me," he said. At last she quieted, but she refused to meet his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was low and fierce. "Damnit, Mac, don't you get it? I *need* you. It's not something you have to earn. Don't you dare say you're ‘nothing.' You're *everything,* to me."

"Why?" Her red, swollen eyes were accusing.

He was bewildered. "Because I love you," he said, as if explaining to a child. Good grief, wasn't it obvious by now?

"You do?" She looked at him as if he were speaking Swahili, and at last, he understood. Slowly, gently, he took her face between his hands. "Yes, Mac. I love you. I always have. I always will."

Tears streaked her face, and her nose was red. Her breath hitched. "I love you, too."

"Okay." He gathered her close and kissed her forehead. "Glad we got that settled."

 

Ten days later, 2330 Hours EDT
Harm's apartment

 

"Dr. Levine said it's very common for chemo patients to get depressed," she said, cradling the phone on her shoulder. "He gave me some medication, and it's really helping."

"That's great, Mac." The cell phone connection crackled with static.

"So are you going to make it back for Sturgis's wedding? You *are* the best man, after all."

"No problem, we're filing the papers tomorrow and I'm outta here."

"Promise me you won't hijack a Tomcat again."

"Tempting as that sounds, I promise. Besides, I don't think Captain Johnson would give me another ride."

"You already tried, didn't you?"

He laughed. "I got my quals in while I was here. That's all they'll let me do, this time. Listen, did you call the cleaners about my dress whites?"

"Sure did. They delivered them yesterday, and I got your decorations all squared away. All you need to do is jump into them and pick me up."

"I still don't see why I have to come to your place."

"My clothes are there, my shoes are there, my jewelry is there . . . Need I say more?"

"Oh, I remember now. You're a girl."

She laughed, a happy sound.

 

Saturday, July 17, 1430 Hours EDT
Mac's apartment, Georgetown

 

Thank God there was a parking place. Harm braked the Corvette, jumped out, and locked it before he ran up the steps. God damn it, why did his transport have to be late today, of all days?

Impatiently he unhooked the collar of his tunic and pounded up the stairs two at a time. Dress whites were not made for July in D.C.

He let himself in and called, "Mac?"

"In here," came her voice from the bedroom.

He was at the door in two long strides and halted at the sight of Mac standing at the mirror, fastening an earring. She turned, and their eyes met. Without a word, she walked across the room and into his arms.

"You look beautiful," he said when he could breathe.

Her smile was radiant. "Thank you. Do you like it?" She gestured to her hair, a short feathery cut. He nodded. It was good to see her smiling.

"Flattery will get you everywhere," she laughed. "I bought it yesterday. I had so little hair left, I decided what the heck. Go for it."

Harm touched the wig lightly and put his head on one side, considering. "You look like Audrey Hepburn."

Her smile became even broader. "A compliment indeed. Thank you." She kissed him again and paused as he studied her intently. "What?"

He slipped his fingertips beneath the edge of her wig and carefully slipped it off. She stood very still. "I know, I look just like Demi Moore in ‘G. I. Jane,'" she said lightly, to cover her nervousness.

Harm touched her smooth scalp gently. "This is the sexiest thing I've ever seen."

Mac rolled her eyes. "You have got to be kidding."

"No joke, I love it. I love the way it feels," he murmured as he stroked her head with his palm. The shape of her head and her tiny, perfect ears was exquisite, accentuated by the sweep of her long throat. He bent and ran his lips along the nape of her neck and felt his body tighten as she caught her breath.

"Harm." Her great dark eyes were tender, even as she laughed at him. "I'm glad you like my bald head, but we have to get going or we'll be late."

 

Saturday afternoon, 1700 Hours EDT
Officers Club, Fort Meyer

 

The reception was in full swing, and the crowd in the ballroom was elbow to elbow with men in white uniforms and women in glittering dresses. Mac sat at an unoccupied table near the open doors with an uninterrupted view of the terrace, where the wedding party was posing for photographs. She smiled, cheered simply to be here. Thank God it was her week off from treatment, and she felt well enough to come.

She sipped at her Diet Coke and admired some of the fashions on parade. Her own dress was a simple linen sheath, bought last summer and never worn. It was too big now, and at the last minute, she had roped it in with a wide leather belt and flung a soft pashmina wrap around her shoulders, telling herself it would conceal how thin she had become. She wore just a touch of makeup, since too much made her look like a clown these days, and under Harm's warm gaze, she had felt almost pretty. At least until she greeted old friends and saw the shock in their eyes, quickly concealed.

She felt more comfortable here in the corner, watching Harm as he kidded with Sturgis. He was resplendent in his dress whites, towering over the rest of the wedding party. He certainly seemed to be dazzling the matron of honor, a stunningly beautiful African-American woman who looked no more than 25, and she appeared to be flirting outrageously in return. He looked up, caught Mac's eye, and winked.

"Mac? I thought that was you. What are you doing over here all by yourself?" a hearty voice boomed over the din of the party.

"Rafe? Wow, how long has it been? Are you still over at the Pentagon?" she smiled at the big red headed man with commander's bars on his shoulders, and he pulled out the chair next to hers.

"Yeah, still at Disneyland East," Rafelson grinned. "Working for the General Counsel's office. How's everything at headquarters? You still knocking 'em out of the ballpark?" His grin was as sunny as ever, but she could see he was appalled as he looked at her. Just like everyone else today.

"I'm on medical leave," she said, and lifted her hand at his quick frown. "I'm okay, and doing fine, thanks."

"I'm sorry, Mac, I hadn't heard. You wouldn't think it would be so hard to keep up when you transfer ten miles down the highway, would you? Anyway, how is everybody getting along with Colonel Klink?"

Mac burst out laughing. "Is that what they call Prescott over there?"

"When they're being polite. Listen, are you here with anyone? Margie couldn't come because our youngest has the measles, so I'm on my own."

"Thanks, Rafe, but I came with Harm and we're at the head table, or we'd join you."

He nodded as if he weren't surprised. "There's a bunch of us here from the Class of '85," he said. "Sturgis is one of the last to bite the dust, so we have to give him a good send-off." He played with his cocktail napkin, and Mac wondered what was bothering him. Jack Rafelson was a good officer, and they had become casual friends when he was stationed at headquarters. He frowned and inclined his head toward the terrace. "How's old Harm doin'?"

"All right, considering he's best man," she smiled. "At least he didn't lose the ring." She frowned and said, "What's on your mind, Rafe?"

"That obvious, huh?"

"I don't think you came over here just to say hello."

He frowned. "Scuttlebutt has it that Harm's lookin' around for another assignment in Washington," he said.

"I know he's put out a few feelers," she said carefully.

"Any particular reason?" Rafe squinted, looking away.

"He's been at headquarters a long time, Rafe."

"Uh huh. Y'know, Mac, some of us who graduated from the Academy together come up for Captain's boards next spring. I always figured old Harm was one guy who'd be a shoo-in. But in my job I hear things, y'know? From what I hear, Prescott's giving him the shit detail, all the lousy assignments."

"Can you blame him for looking around?" she asked.

"I don't blame him at all. But a lateral move now won't look good to the promotion board. Harm was the fair-haired boy at JAG for a long time, but lately they're saying he's a wild card. You know how it works, Mac. Up or out. I'd hate to see that happen to Harm, he's the one of the best we've got."

"What options does he have, Rafe? Without Prescott on his side, he has two strikes against him."

"And he'll have three, if Prescott tells people Rabb wants to opt out of a transfer overseas." Rafelson sighed. "I always thought Chegwidden could have done more for his people before he retired. But I guess he called in all his markers to get that promotion for Roberts."

Mac nodded once, sharply. She felt a little sick.

Rafe put his hand on hers and gave it a little squeeze. "I know you and Harm are close," he told her. "I just thought he oughta know what they're sayin'."

"Thanks, Rafe."

"Thanks for what?" Harm's voice cut in. "Hey, Rafe, are you trying to steal my date?"

Rafelson jumped to his feet and pumped Harm's outstretched hand. "Hey, buddy, you know me, always hit on the pretty ones. How you doin'?"

The two men laughed and slapped each other on the shoulder, and Mac plastered on a smile. Finally Rafelson waved at her and moved off, and Harm held out his hand. "Come on, Mac, let's go find our table."

She rose and slid her hand into the crook of his arm, and together they worked their way across the room. It was slow going, since between the two of them they knew nearly everyone except for Varese's show business friends. At last they reached the head table, and Mac slipped gratefully into her seat. Harm sat beside her and leaned over to whisper, "You okay?"

"Sure, fine," she gave him a reassuring smile. "I just wish everyone would stop pretending not to be shocked at the way I look."

"You look beautiful," he said, and she knew he meant it. Beneath the table, he squeezed her hand.

Varese and Sturgis took their seats, and Harm rose, tapping his knife on a glass. Effortlessly he gathered the attention of everyone in the room, raised his glass, and grinned at Sturgis. "Ladies and gentlemen, fellow officers," he began. "It has been my honor and privilege to know Commander Turner since Plebe Summer, when he beat me to the last top bunk in Bancroft."

"Running late again, Rabb!" somebody called, and everyone laughed.

Harm continued, "I had to boost him up there every night for the rest of the summer, and to add insult to injury, I hit my head on his rack every morning." More laughter. "However, I got back at him with a knockout in the third year boxing championships."

Over the whistles and catcalls, Sturgis said indignantly, "That was a sucker punch!"

"Takes one to know one, Sturgis," Harm retorted, and more laughter drowned out any retort. At last Harm held up his hand for quiet, and said, "In spite of being a bubblehead, Sturgis, you managed to become a lawyer, and you had the good luck and good sense to persuade this beautiful lady to marry you. We wish you fair winds and a following sea, and Varese, I hope you have a good step ladder." He waited for the laughter to subside before raising his glass. "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Commander and Mrs. Sturgis Turner."

Mac joined the thunderous applause as Harm reached across to shake Sturgis's hand. Someone else stood to deliver the next toast, and Mac smiled at Harm, whose eyes were sparkling.

After many toasts and much laughter, everyone settled down to dinner. Mac managed to nibble at her meal while chatting with Bud, who was seated on her right. Finally, Varese rose with much rustling of her gown, and Sturgis led her onto the dance floor as the band swung into a new set.

"Do you believe these musicians?" Harm said, shaking his head. At her questioning glance, he said, "Two or three of those guys record for major labels. I guess they're friends of Varese's."

"Well, they certainly sound fabulous," Mac agreed. Varese looked gorgeous, she thought, watching her dance with Sturgis, wearing a slim golden sheath that shimmered under the lights. "She looks so happy," she said, almost to herself. Harm slid his arm along the back of her chair and leaned close to whisper something. Just then, the music paused, and Varese went up to the microphone. Someone started clapping, and everyone joined in, stomping and whistling.

Varese gave a dazzling smile. "This is for all the people we love," she announced. "Thank you for sharing our happiness and celebrating with us today." The band played an opening riff in a minor chord, and she beckoned with her free hand. "Come on, everybody. Come on and dance."

Harm looked at Mac and lifted his eyebrows. She took his hand and rose, feeling hideously self conscious as they walked onto the dance floor. A thousand eyes seemed to be gauging the ravages of her illness with pity, even as she could feel than speculating about her and Harm. She lifted her chin with a spurt of defiance.

A few other couples drifted after them as Varese began to sing,

*The streets of town
Were paved with stars,
There was magic abroad in the air . . .*

Harm held out his arms. Mac stepped into them and felt his big warm hand against the small of her back as they began to sway, drifting to the music. Someone had lowered the lights, and the room was in shadows except where late sunlight slanted through the tall windows. Candlelight bloomed on the tables.

As Varese's beautiful voice soared through the wonderful old song, Mac lifted her eyes to find Harm staring down at her with tenderness glowing in his eyes. He tightened his arms around her, and suddenly it was as if there were no one else in the room at all.

Mac's eyes filled with tears, and Harm frowned with concern. "Mac? Sweetheart, what is it?"

"Nothing," she managed to whisper.

He tightened his embrace and rested his cheek against her temple. When the song ended, he steered her back to their table with an arm around her shoulders. She pulled herself together with an effort. Her energy was dwindling like thread running off a spool, but she dreaded the thought of attracting attention if they tried to slip away early.

"I wish Mattie could have been here," she said, hoping to distract him.

Harm said, "I do, too." His lips tightened to a thin line. "She's decided to stay with her father, Mac."

She nodded, unsurprised, but her heart ached for him. "I thought she might. When did she tell you?"

"She left a message while I was away, and I called her from the ship."

"I'm so sorry, Harm."

His face was grim, but he said, "It's the best thing for her. And it's not like we'll never see her, right?"

She laid her hand over his with a crooked little smile. "Remember five years ago, when we agreed to go halves on a kid?"

Harm nodded slowly. "How could I forget one of the dumbest, most immature things I ever said?" he asked lightly, but she could tell he was surprised that she had brought it up.

She squeezed his hand reassuringly. "In some ways, I think we already did."

He looked at her with such intensity that she held her breath, hoping she hadn't made it worse. And then he leaned close, his arm tightening around her shoulders, and pressed his lips against her temple. His breath was warm on her cheek.

Finally, Varese and Sturgis cut the cake, and it was time to go. Varese tossed her bouquet from the steps of the O Club, and one of her bridesmaids leaped high to catch it. The bride and groom ran through a shower of bird seed to their waiting limousine, and everyone cheered and waved as they drove away.

Harm wasted no time giving his ticket to the valet. They brought the Corvette around, and he helped Mac ease into her seat. It seemed to take a ridiculous amount of effort to lift her legs into the car. Harm climbed in and revved the engine, and at last they were on the way home.

She leaned back against the leather seat with a sigh. "Tired?" he asked, downshifting for an entrance ramp.

"Yes. But I'm glad I came. They seem really happy, don't they?"

"Yeah, they do. So, are you ever going to tell me what was bothering you back there?"

Mac sighed. Harm never missed a thing anymore. She debated with herself, but honesty won out. "Rafe made a point of telling me -- scuttlebutt says the promotion board won't like it if you make a lateral move to stay in Washington. Apparently the word is out."

Harm sighed. "So?"

"So it could cost you your Captain's bars."

"There's no guarantee I'll make Captain, even if I accept a transfer overseas," he said.

She was silent for so long he glanced over. "What?" he demanded.

At his inquiring glance, she swallowed her anxiety and said in a rush, "If we were married, they wouldn't transfer you."

He frowned, and the silence stretched out. She wished she could disappear, and was drawing breath to apologize when he said slowly, "Is that what you want, Mac?"

"I want you to stay in the Navy, because it's what you love."

"And I love *you.*" He kept his eyes on the road. "But can you honestly tell me that you want to get married now, except to keep me in D.C.?"

Tears pressed behind her eyes and closed her throat. "I can't see beyond tomorrow, Harm."

He nodded once, decisively. "Sweetheart, when we decide to get married, it will be because you’re ready. Not because it's expedient."

"But your career" –

"Oh, the hell with my career," he snapped. "I'll find a billet in Washington, and if the promotion board doesn't like it, so be it. I'll retire next spring and make a bundle in private practice."

She watched him with wonder. Only Harm could pull off a major declaration so casually. "When you're a rich and famous corporate lawyer, can we still go dancing?" she whispered. He smiled and took her hand.

 

 

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