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The following Friday, 1730 Hours EDT
JAG Headquarters


Harm slammed open the door to his office and snatched up the phone. "Bud? Hey, I'm glad I caught you. Listen, I know you need to get home, but I have to hand off the Mortensen case. Yeah, I know. But there's been another incident in Qatar, and Prescott wants me on a plane tonight. Sorry. Okay, give me twenty minutes to get the stuff together. Thanks."

He banged the phone down and glared at it. Without warning, his arm shot out and swept it off the desk. It crashed to the floor, and in an excess of rage, he seized a spiral bound manual and hurled it against the wall, where it burst open with an explosion of papers that fluttered gaily in the air.

"Excuse me, Commander." Harm whirled to find Captain Sebring standing in his doorway. "I knocked," Sebring said mildly.

Harm snapped to attention automatically. "Sorry, sir. Please, come in."

Sebring didn't seem fazed by the mess. He brushed aside a few sheets of paper from the visitor chair and sat down, and after a momentary hesitation, Harm seated himself behind his desk. "What can I do for you, sir?" Belatedly, he realized it was unusual for a judge to come calling like this, and his radar went up.

"Relax, Commander, this is a personal matter. I wanted to commend you on your performance in my courtroom over the past two months."

"Sir?" Harm felt badly off balance, and hated it.

Sebring held up his hand. "Forgive me if I'm out of line, here, but I'm aware of the situation with Colonel Mackenzie. I know from personal experience how difficult it can be."

"She's doing very well, sir, considering. But I'll tell her you asked, thank you."

"I don't mean her, Commander. I meant you." Sebring smiled grimly at Harm's confused expression. "The Navy doesn't train us for these situations, Commander. Sometimes we get so focused on being strong for others, we don't notice we're getting close to the edge ourselves. You've managed to keep doing an excellent job in spite of circumstances, but it's got to be taking its toll."

"I'm all right, sir, but thank you."

Sebring steepled his fingers. "I thought I was all right, too, until I wound up in court with you defending me. You're a hell of a lawyer, Rabb. Don't let the situation with Prescott push you to do something stupid."


"I keep my ears open. Now, what I'm about to say doesn't leave this room, agreed?"

"Yes sir."

"Prescott doesn't like you, but he's using you to troubleshoot all of his most difficult situations. You make him look good to the brass, and he'll remember it next spring."

"I'm just doing my job, sir."

"And it's difficult when your attention is divided, right?"

Harm sighed in frustration. "Do you remember what you told me, sir, that time? You weren't worried about yourself, you were only concerned about who would care for your wife when you were gone. I'm all Mac has, sir, and every time she needs me, I'm sent on assignment."

"And you're getting so strung out, you're ready to blow."

Harm glared at him and remained silent.

"Rabb, you're human. Don't try to handle this all by yourself. Talk to somebody."

Harm said angrily, "When, sir? When am I supposed to do that? I just got pulled off a big case again to go to the Gulf, leaving tonight."

Sebring nodded, unoffended. "How about if I look in on Colonel Mackenzie while you're away?" he asked.

"Sir, we couldn't ask you" --

"You're not asking. I'm offering."

"Sir, it doesn't seem fair" --

"What you're too polite to say, Commander, is that after losing my wife to cancer, it might be too much for me to deal with it again?" At Harm's stricken expression, Sebring said, "Helen has been gone nearly two years. I'll be okay, and so will the Colonel. Please tell her I'll stop by tomorrow, unless she'd rather I didn't. And she can call me anytime. Judges have a little more discretion in their schedules than attorneys." He gave one of his wolfish grins.

Harm took a deep breath, and relief swept over him. "Thank you, sir. That will be more help than you can imagine."

"Oh, I can imagine, all right," Sebring said gruffly.

Bud tapped at the door. "Excuse me, sir," he said when he saw Sebring. "Am I interrupting?"

"No, Commander, we were just straightening some things out," Sebring said.


Wednesday July 28, 2230 Hours
Dulles International Airport, Washington, D.C.


Harm came striding up the concourse, his long legs carrying him past slower pedestrians. His white uniform stood out among the rumpled travelers coming off the trans-Atlantic red-eye flight.

Scanning ahead, he saw Bud Roberts waiting just outside the security barrier, wearing civvies. Bud waved, and Harm raised his hand. A stab of anxiety shot through him. This couldn't be good.

Bud's serious, level gaze met his, and even before they shook hands, Harm knew. "Is it Mac?" he demanded.

"She's in the hospital, sir. I didn't want to leave a message on your voice mail." Bud held up his hand to forestall Harm's next questions. "She's going to be okay, sir. They just wanted to keep an eye on her -- apparently she was running a temperature. Captain Sebring took her to the hospital this morning, and we couldn't get word to you while you were in transit."

Harm wheeled and started walking rapidly toward the terminal until he realized Bud was limping to keep up, and he forced himself to slow down. "I had a feeling something was wrong," he said, his mouth pressed into a thin line. "I got her voice mail when I called from London." He glanced around impatiently.

"Over here, sir," Bud pointed to the luggage claim area, but Harm waved him off impatiently. "I only have my briefcase and sea bag, Bud."

"Is your car here, sir?"

"No, I left from Andrews. Didn't expect to be coming home on a commercial flight. Where the hell can I get a cab?"

"This way, sir." Bud held up his keys, and Harm changed direction with a quick nod.

"Thanks, Bud."




He pushed open the door and tiptoed into the silent room. A soft light burned above the bed by the window. The other one was empty.

He stood at the foot of her bed, turning his cover in his hands.

Mac appeared to be sleeping. She looks so small, he thought, swallowing against the ache in his throat. Her body barely made a ripple in the covers. An IV was taped to the back of each hand.

"Harm?" she murmured, and opened her eyes. Slowly a broad grin crept across her face. "I knew it was you."

"Hi, baby," he smiled back, moving quickly to the bedside. "I came straight here. Bud picked me up at the airport."

"How did you get in here?" Her voice was barely above a whisper. "It's so late."

"Hey, I just talked a bunch of Arabs into letting us build an airstrip. I can talk a nurse into letting me into your room."


"Mac, she's old enough to be my mother." He sat on the edge of the plastic chair and carefully eased his fingers beneath hers. "How are you feeling?"

"Better now," she said, rolling her head toward him. "But I look like hell, don't I?"

Her eyes were encircled with brown shadows, and with her bald head, she looked very old. "You look beautiful," he told her. "But Mac, what happened? What's wrong?"

"I started running a temperature, so this morning I called Dr. Levine, and he said to come in. I was afraid to take a cab alone, so I called Captain Sebring, and he came. Then Levine said my immune system has gotten run down, and next thing I know, I'm on intravenous antibiotics." Her voice was getting scratchy, and she coughed.

"Take it easy, Mac. Rest now."

"You need to go home and get some sleep, Harm." Her fingers tightened in his.

"I slept on the plane. I can stay awhile."


Thursday, 1700 Hours EDT
Mac's room, Georgetown University Hospital


"Hey there," he said. At the sight of her smile, he felt himself relax for the first time all day.

"Hey yourself," Mac said. Her bed was raised to a nearly sitting position, and he leaned down and kissed her. She still looked worn and pale, but her eyes were sparkling with life. He dropped into the bedside chair and tossed his cover onto the little rolling table.

"How's it going?" he asked.

"Pretty well, I think. Levine won't tell me when I can go home, though." She waved her hand, dismissing it. "Harm, I know we talked about it on the phone while you were gone, but I have to tell you, Captain Sebring has been wonderful to me. He came by today at lunchtime, just to tell me you were tied up with the debriefing."

"Pretty nice of him, considering you tried to send him to Leavenworth a couple of years ago," he teased.

"And you got him off. He thinks the world of you, by the way."

"Yeah? Well, a lot of good it does." His tone was bleak.

"Tell me," she said.

With a deep breath, he said, "Prescott gave me the word today. I've been reassigned to JAG command at PACFLEET as executive officer. I have to report to Pearl a month from today."

"Wow. You must have impressed Prescott. That's a great opportunity."

"I know." He looked down at his hands, and after a moment he went on, "I've been away so much, I haven't been able to line up anything else -- the only opening I found for an O-5 was supervising contracts at the DOD, and they want somebody who specializes in it."

"Good. You'd go crazy there. Besides, it would be a waste of your talents."

"My talents would be put to pretty good use in civilian litigation."

Mac pushed herself up a little higher against the pillows and said, "Harm, you promised we could talk about this before you decide. Will you do that for me, just this once?"

He felt tension ball up inside, but in spite of himself, he felt a corner of his mouth turn up. "Okay."

She leaned forward and said, "Forget about everything else for a minute. Do you want this assignment?"

He nodded slowly. "Yeah, I do."

"You were born to be a naval officer, Harm."

"You want to get rid of me?" He didn't move, didn't take his eyes from her face.

"No." She reached out for his hand. "But I don't want you to live with regrets because of me. When you gave up the Navy to go to Paraguay, you saved my life. But even *you* can't pull that off this time." Her eyes smiled. "But in a couple of months, this will all be over, and I'll be okay. I could come to Hawaii to join you. Separations are a fact of life for military couples. We can do it, too."

"I told you I would always be there for you, Mac."

"I know. And you will."

Amazing, he thought. Even feeling lousy, she's tougher than I am. There was a new serenity about Mac that he had rarely seen in her. It seemed to flow over him in a soothing tide, easing his soul. Slowly he shook his head in wonder.

"What?" Mac was watching him intently.

"Just you," he said, and he pressed her fingers to his lips. "Okay, sweetheart. Start planning a honeymoon in Hawaii."


Saturday, 1400 Hours EDT
Georgetown University Hospital


Harm hurried down the hall toward Mac's room, his running shoes silent on the vinyl floor, and nearly crashed into Dr. Levine in the doorway.

"Oh excuse me, doctor," Harm said, stepping back.

"Commander Rabb," Levine replied, with a grave twinkle in his eye. "Don't rush, she isn't going anywhere." Harm frowned, and Levine gestured to one side. "Can we talk for a minute?"

They walked a few paces down the hall. Levine said, "Her temp's still slightly elevated. Not a big deal, but I'm going to keep her over the weekend. The chemo has depressed her immune system, and we can't risk her developing pneumonia."

"What about next week? Will you still start the next cycle of chemo on Monday?"

"Let's see how she's doing by tomorrow. I may keep her here while we resume the treatments, but we'll just have to see. Chemotherapy is like walking a tightrope, Commander. It has to be strong enough to kill any lingering cancer cells without harming the patient. The Colonel is a very strong woman, physically and emotionally. She's doing very well. This is just a minor setback."

Harm blew out the breath he was holding and nodded. "Okay. Thank you." They shook hands, and Levine hurried off. Harm muttered "Suck it up" under his breath and pushed open Mac's door.


Sunday morning, 1100 Hours EDT


This damn parking garage was becoming all too familiar, he grumbled to himself as he locked the Lexus and sprinted for the stairs. He had overslept, awakened grumpy, and was still shaking the cobwebs out of his brain as he hurried across the street to the shining chrome and steel entrance to the Cancer Center.

As he crossed the cavernous atrium lobby, Harm glanced around with a sour eye. Just look at this damn place, he thought. It's a temple, dedicated to the gods of modern medical technology and designed to cow and awe the supplicants who come to beg for help. This joint is more imposing than any corporate headquarters I've ever seen, and I guess it's supposed to look like an elegant hotel, but my God, it's cold. No matter how many potted plants they scatter around, they can't hide what it is -- a place of death.

He shook off his gloom with an effort and took the elevator to Mac's floor. Navigating this building was like finding your way through the Outer Banks in a heavy fog, and it depressed him to realize that the route had become familiar. He waved to the nurses at the station, who also were becoming familiar, and hurried down the bright wide hallway.

He pushed open Mac's door cautiously, in case she was asleep. And then he heard her voice, faint but unmistakable. "No," Mac's voice begged. "Please, please stop."

Harm barged through the doorway. A nurse he had never seen before was leaning over Mac, doing something. "Now just hold still," he heard her say.

With one swift stride, he seized the woman's hand in a viselike grip and said, "Whatever you're doing, stop it."

The nurse drew herself up with a scowl of indignation. "I'm trying to start an IV here, sir. I'll have to ask you to step away."

Harm ignored her. Mac lay back against the pillows, one thin arm extended. It was blue with bruises, and a thin line of blood trickled from the back of her hand. Her face was wet with tears. "I'm sorry," she whispered, between hitching breaths. "It just hurts so much."

"It's all right, baby. It's okay," Harm murmured, stroking her forehead with a gentle hand. "They won't hurt you anymore, I promise."

"Sir," the nurse said again. "Excuse me, but I have to start this IV line. Her veins are like spaghetti, it's not my fault."

Harm wheeled and stood between the nurse and the bed. Speaking very quietly, he said, "Whoever you are, leave now and send in someone who knows what they're doing."

The woman opened her mouth and closed it again. Without another word, she whirled and marched out, quivering with indignation.

Harm reached through the steel side rails to cover Mac's thin hand with his own. She gulped and raised her other hand to wipe at her eyes, and he quickly grabbed a Kleenex to blot her tears. "Thank you," she gave him a shaky smile.

"You're welcome. She's lucky you didn't give her a karate chop," Harm smiled.

"I'm just so tired of needles," Mac said. "I didn't mean to start whining."

"You whine all you want," he told her.

"What's going on here?" a stern voice demanded. A trim grey-haired nurse in blue flowered scrubs glared at him from the doorway.

Harm straightened up and looked her in the eye. "Thank you for coming. The nurse who was here before was hurting Colonel Mackenzie. I asked her to send someone else."

The new nurse's name tag read "Saunders." After glaring at him another moment, she relented. "She's a fill-in," she said. "We're short staffed this weekend." With quick, efficient movements, she examined Mac's arm and clicked her tongue. "Well, that must have hurt," she said more kindly. "Let's give it a try in a different spot, all right?" Almost before Harm realized what she was doing, she taped the new needle in place and attached the tubing. "There we are, all set," she smiled at Mac.

"Thank you," Mac whispered.

"You're welcome. Now tell this big guard dog of yours not to bite people on my staff." Nurse Saunders smiled at Mac, gave Harm an amused scowl, and bustled out.




After a tasteless lunch in the deserted cafeteria, Harm went back to Mac's room carrying a carton of ice cream, but when he got there, she was sleeping. He stood looking down at her, shifting from one foot to the other. There were a million things he needed to be doing today. But he didn't want her to wake up and find him gone. He had been gone too damn much lately.

He eased into the big armchair and opened the issue of "Newsweek" he had picked up in the gift shop. He shifted around, trying to get comfortable. The hospital was very quiet on the weekend.

When he realized he had finished an article and had no idea what it said, he tossed the magazine aside and got up, prowling restlessly until he ended up at the window. He leaned his forehead on the cool glass and stared sightlessly at the parking lot below.

Nine years. Nine goddamn years, wasted. Even as he berated himself, he knew it wasn't true. He and Mac had been like two planets whirling in separate orbits around a central point, their careers in the military. He had been a guy in a hurry with a lot to prove and a horror of being tied down. She had been a lonely, unhappy girl, unsure of her abilities, with a chip on her shoulder.

For so long, he had refused to trust the intensity of the attraction. At first, he was sure it was simply her resemblance to Diane. Later, he told himself it was just physical -- a man would have to be dead not to want her.

But like an inexorable gravitational pull, they kept moving closer. Even when one of them flew off on a tangent, the force of it pulled them back. It had made him nearly crazy to see her get involved with one wrong guy after another.

When did it happen, he wondered now. When did I start to love her? He didn't know. At some point, he just knew. She was as necessary to him as breathing. Even when he was too self-centered to admit it.

I was such an idiot, he thought in disgust, not for the first time. There will never be enough time to make it up to her. If I get the chance.

His mind shied away then, and he dropped back into the chair, closing his eyes and trying to relax. At some point he must have drifted off, because he woke to a boom of thunder that rattled the windows. Rain tapped on the glass, and it was getting dark outside.

A faint voice echoed in his mind. "It's getting dark in here." His eyes snapped to Mac, but she was lying quietly. Had he heard her, or only dreamt it? Something about the wisp of memory was achingly familiar.

The thunder boomed again, and she stirred. "Harm?" she muttered.

"I'm here, Mac," he said, reaching over to put his hand on her. Her eyes opened, and she stared blankly at the ceiling.

He frowned. "Mac?"

She blinked, and slowly rolled her head toward his voice.

He stood up abruptly, leaning over the side rail. She stared at him in confusion, her eyes glassy. Two hectic spots of red stood out on her sallow cheeks. He grabbed the control box hanging on the rail and punched the call button.

"Yes?" came a tinny voice.

"Colonel Mackenzie isn't feeling well," he said, not taking his eyes from her. The urgency in his voice must have gotten through, because a moment later a nurse came in, walking fast. She reached for Mac's pulse and took her temperature, and said, "Her temp's gone up. I'll call Dr. Levine and see if he wants to order any additional meds." She hurried out, and Harm reached for Mac's hand.

"You're going to be fine, sweetheart," he said, forcing a smile. "They'll give you something to make you feel better."

"Okay," she whispered.

More people came and went, and Harm stayed beside her, not moving, not letting go of her hand. After awhile, Levine came in, and Harm stepped back when he realized he was in the way.

"I'm going to move her upstairs," Levine said in an undertone, taking Harm aside. "I want her in intensive care so she'll be monitored more closely. Don't worry, she's not in any immediate danger. It's just a precaution."

"Can I stay with her?"

Levine's eyes crinkled at the corners. "You're my secret weapon, Commander. She does better when you're around. I'll tell them to cut you some slack."

"Thanks, doctor." They wheeled Mac out the door, and he sprinted to catch up. He held her hand as they rode up in the elevator.




Harm pushed through the heavy glass doors and stood on the steps, taking deep breaths. The wet pavement gleamed with recent rain, and the air smelled fresh and wonderful after the sterile medicine smells of the hospital. A few cars went by, their tires swishing in the puddles.

He pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his old leather flight jacket and headed to his car. At this hour, it was all alone on the upper level of the garage, parked beneath buzzing florescent lights. He scrubbed a hand over his face, knowing he was tired, and forced himself to focus on his driving.

When he got home, he flipped on the lamp by the door and went straight to the refrigerator. A cold beer sounded good right about now. He cracked off the cap and sank half of it, then leaned one hip on a stool while he stared out the dark windows at nothing. After awhile he got up, beer in hand, and wandered over to turn on some music.

A jacket of Mac's was hanging on the coat rack. He straightened it carefully before trudging up the steps to the bedroom.

A small pair of white Keds stood neatly side by side beneath the chair. Slowly he picked one up and held it, then slipped his fingers inside. Her sweater lay across the chair, and he let his hand linger on its soft folds. Here in this room they shared, her presence was a living thing.

Everything he saw seemed to reproach him.

Harm slammed the door on his way out.




He walked for a long time, not caring where he went. The streets were deserted, and he supposed he should have been concerned about getting mugged, but it didn't seem important. Finally he found himself circling back toward the loft. He didn't want to go home. On an impulse, he turned into the bar on the corner.

He hadn't been in here much. It was dark and musty and the décor ran to formica tables and neon beer signs, with a television set tuned to a baseball game on cable. Only a couple of people even looked up. He slipped onto a stool with a cracked vinyl cushion and glanced at the bartender. "Jack Daniels."

Harm sipped at the shot, welcoming the burn in his throat, and gestured for another. Warmth spilled through him all the way to his toes, and he remembered that he hadn't eaten since breakfast.

A long while later, a hand fell on his shoulder. He squinted at it before slowly raising his eyes to find Sturgis standing there, looking trim and neat despite the hour. "What the hell are you doin' here?" Harm said, and turned away.

"Bartender called me. He found my card in your wallet." Harm vaguely patted his pockets, looking confused, and Sturgis held it up. "Looks like your lucky day. The neighborhood bartender is an honest man."

"I'll walk home."

"Yeah, and we're walking now. Come on, man." Sturgis put his hand on Harm's shoulder, and he shook him off.

"Lemme alone, Sturgis."

Sturgis eased onto the stool beside him and signaled for coffee. The bartender slid two cups onto the varnished wood in front of them and picked up Harm's empty glass. Leaning on his elbows, Sturgis sipped at his coffee and finally said, "Want to talk about it?"

"Not partic'larly." Harm picked up his coffee and glared. "Plannin' to get a lot drunker."

"Well, I'd say you were probably overdue," Sturgis said reasonably. "How's Mac doing?"

Harm snorted. "Just great. They put her in intensive care today." The welcome fog around him began to dissipate, and his eyes stung as the lights blurred in his vision. He managed to rasp, "She's so sick, Sturgis."

"What happened, buddy?"

"Infection. She's so weak, she can't fight it off."

"She'll be okay, Harm. You gotta believe that."

"All my fault," he blurted.

"How's that?" Sturgis's voice remained calm and kind.

"Never there. Never paid ‘tention." He put a hand over his eyes. Somehow, it was easier when he didn't have to look at Sturgis. "Sometimes, I feel like it's happening to *me.* I wish it were me, an' not her." He clenched his fist and brought it down on the bar. "There's nothing I can goddamn DO!"

"Did you tell her you love her?" Sturgis was watching him intently.

Harm lifted his shoulders in a hopeless shrug. "Yeah."

"Then you did the best thing you could, Harm."

Somehow, the weight over his heart eased a little. He untangled his legs and managed to stand, and felt Sturgis take his arm. "Thanks," he remembered to call to the bartender, and got a wave in return. "You pay ‘im?" he mumbled as they navigated out the door.

"Yep. Come on now, keep walking. You're gonna have a hell of a hangover tomorrow, buddy. And you're going to have to explain to Varese why I smell like bourbon."


Thursday August 5, 1900 Hours EDT
Mac's room, Georgetown University Hospital


"Here you go, Mac." With a flourish, Harm lifted the cover from the tray and said, "Wow, lime Jello. Your favorite."

"I am so sick of Jello," she grumbled, and he grinned. She was propped up in bed giving him a rebellious glare. Obviously she felt better.

He picked up the dish and sniffed. "Mm, yummy! Okay now, here comes the airplane – open wide." He waved the spoon around, making airplane noises, and he could tell Mac was trying not to laugh.

"Give me that," she said. She grabbed the spoon and flipped a glob of green Jello at him. It landed with a plop on his shirt. "Oops," she said, eyes dancing.

Harm felt himself grinning as he swiped at his shirt with a napkin. Mac began to giggle, and he shook his finger at her. "That's cold, Mac. That’s very cold. Just wait ‘til you can fight back."

"Just as soon as they let me out of here," she said, and picked up the spoon to finish off the Jello. "I feel like I'm in jail. There, all gone." She held up the empty dish with a smile.

"Good girl. You get a prize." He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed her fingers gently.

"Can we watch CSI?" she said hopefully.

"Oh gross, Mac, how can you possibly enjoy that stuff!" he groaned.

"Just because you can't stand the sight of a little blood" –

"A *little*? You call putting some guy through a meat grinder little?"

"It's only make-believe."

"Okay, okay. But I don't have to look at the bad parts."

"You're such a wimp," she teased. "Okay, I give up. Read to me?" He sat down beside her and picked up their current book. She leaned back against the pillows, and when he glanced over, her eyes were shut. He started to close the cover, and she murmured, "It's okay, I'm listening."

So he read for awhile, feeling a strange sense of peace. Maybe some of it was because she was past the crisis for now, but mostly it was just Mac. She seemed to handle the tough stuff with stoic acceptance, yet she could still relish each moment of joy. He wished for some of her serenity.

Mac drifted off to sleep, and he marked their place in the book and turned on the Discovery Channel, set to mute. He held her hand, and after awhile something made him look up.

A.J. Chegwidden paused in the doorway, one hand raised to knock.

Harm jumped to his feet. "Admiral!" he whispered.

A.J. entered silently, carrying a pot of tulips and looking strangely ill-at-ease. "Rabb," he nodded. "How is she?" He was staring at Mac, and Harm was surprised by the shock on Chegwidden's face until he remembered that the Admiral hadn't seen Mac since May. He gestured to the hallway, and A.J. set the flowers on the table and went out.

Harm followed him down the hall until Chegwidden whirled and demanded, "Good God, Harm, I had no idea. I just got home a few hours ago and picked up my messages. How's she doing?"

"She's doing well now, sir. The chemotherapy has been pretty hard on her, so they're keeping her here this week, but they moved her out of intensive care a couple of days ago."

"When the hell did this happen?"

"We found out the night of your retirement party."

A.J. closed his eyes briefly, then scowled. "I wish I'd known."

"Mac didn't want to make a big thing out of it, sir. There isn't much anybody can do except wait for the chemotherapy to be over."

"How much longer?"

"A couple more months, sir."

"Cut out the ‘sir,' it's A.J. now," Chegwidden said irritably. "What kind of forecast are they giving her?"

"The tumor hadn't spread, they caught it early."

"Well thank God for that, anyway," A.J. muttered. "Look, can I buy you a cup of coffee or something?"

"Sounds good, A.J. There's a place downstairs."

They rode down in the elevator in awkward silence. Harm asked about Francesca and tried to make small talk about their summer travels, but A.J. seemed distracted. When they slid into a booth, he scowled and demanded, "So how are you holding up, Harm?"

"Me? I'm fine, sir. A.J."

"Getting along with Prescott?"

"Well enough."

"Don't be polite, the man's a boot licker. I hear he's reassigning half the staff."

Harm nodded. "A lot of people are gone already, and he's brought some new officers to headquarters."


"More or less."

"Jesus, Rabb, this is like pulling teeth! You don't have to watch your step around me anymore, so relax. I hear you've been reassigned to Pearl. When do you leave?"

"Three weeks."

"What about Mac?" Chegwidden's eyes were fierce.

"Mac and I worked it out. She'll join me in Hawaii when the doctors turn her loose."

"Then I take it you've worked out your personal situation, as well?"

Harm regarded him steadily, debating how much he felt like discussing it. "If you're asking whether we're getting married, AJ, negotiations are in progress."

Chegwidden stared at him intently. "Always hoped you two would figure it out some day."

"Sir, I am target fixated."

Abruptly, the admiral gave a chuckle. "Glad to hear it. Otherwise, I'd have to deck you." Harm grinned, and after a minute AJ squinted, looking away, and said, "I thought you might have resigned again, to stay here with her."

"I thought about it. But this seemed like the right choice. Besides, she wouldn't let me."

A.J. nodded slowly, as if confirming something. "Harm, you have more ability than any officer I've ever served with, but I wasn't sure you were ready to accept the demands of higher command. Did you wonder why I didn't do something about your next assignment before I retired?"

Harm regarded him. "Yes sir, I did."

Chegwidden skewered him with a look. "It will be a stronger recommendation coming from your new commanding officer, rather than from me. But most of all, I wanted you to make your decision without worrying about my opinion. I hope you don't take this the wrong way, son, but I'm proud of you."

Harm met his gaze. "Thank you, Admiral."

A.J.'s lips quirked up into one of his little smiles. "Has Mac thought about her career, down the road?"

"We finally decided to figure that one out *after* the fact. We'll work it out somehow," Harm smiled.

"I'm sure you will. And I'm sure it won't be easy for her when you ship out."

Harm nodded politely. There was nothing to say to that.


The following Wednesday, 1745 Hours EDT
North of Union Station


Mac scribbled another note on her legal pad and leaned back with a sigh. How could simply making a list be tiring? God, I am so sick of being sick, she thought, and closed her eyes. Come on, Marine. Suck it up.

She had to go in for chemo again in the morning, and she didn't feel ready. The treatment on Monday had been the toughest yet, and she had scarcely been out of this damn recliner since Harm had brought her home. She often slept out here now, when she was too uncomfortable to share the bed, or when her restlessness kept him awake. In ten days he would be gone, and he would probably welcome the break from her, she thought with an unaccustomed surge of self-pity.

Furiously she wiped at her eyes, refusing to wallow in her mood. At least she would be staying here. Somehow she had to make arrangements to close up her apartment and put all of her stuff into storage. The mere thought of it exhausted her, and the thought of being alone again filled her with dread.

She sighed again. One thing for certain -- she must never let him see how desperately she would miss him. There was so little she could do for him, at least she could do that.

A short time later, the sound of his key in the lock awakened her. She sat up as he came through the door, looking impossibly strong and handsome in his summer whites, and she felt her heart lift. He was positively beaming.

"Hey sailor," she said. "Looks like you had a good day."

"I had a *great* day, Mac." He dumped his briefcase and cover on the desk and sat on the arm of her chair. "How's the prettiest egghead in town?"

She smiled at his now-familiar joke, and laid her hands lightly on either side of his face as he leaned down to kiss her. "Wow," she said breathlessly when he sat up at last. "I guess you *did* have a great day. What happened?"

"Patience, Marine. All in due time." Harm's eyes were sparkling. "Hey, what's all this?" he said as he accidentally knocked her notepad to the floor.

"Lists of stuff I need to do," she said. "There are about a million things to take care of."

"Like what?" He retrieved her scattered papers and set them aside on the coffee table.

"Like getting the things I need from my apartment and having the rest packed up and moved out. Jennifer offered to go over there for me. At least the landlord let me out of my lease."

"He's afraid of you, because he knows you can sue him," Harm teased. "Look, I told you I'd take care of all that stuff."

"You have enough to do before you leave."

"Yeah, well, what do you say we shelve all that for tonight? I have a surprise."

"Wow, sounds serious."

"Want anything?" he asked as he went to the refrigerator.

"Yeah," she whispered. She didn't mean for him to hear, but he frowned and came swiftly back. He smoothed imaginary bangs back from her forehead. "What is it, Mac?"

She said lightly, "I'm just tired of being stuck inside all the time. I'd like to feel the sun on my face. I want to smell the rain, and watch a sunset." Sudden, traitorous tears pressed behind her eyes.

"I know, sweetheart." His clear green eyes searched hers with compassion, and something more – an intensity she didn't understand.

"Harm? What is it?"

He let out a breath and said with a faint grin, "I'm staying."

She tensed up, and he said quickly, "I got a call from AIRLANT today. Admiral Landry offered me the post as his chief counsel." She stared at him, frozen, and he added, "He remembered me from that case with Airman Tyree a couple of years ago. It's an incredible job, and I'll be stationed at the Pentagon."

For a long moment she didn't react. Then she buried her face in her hands.

Harm went down on one knee and pulled her into his arms. She pressed her face against his chest and listened to the calm beat of his heart, breathing in his warm, clean scent as his big hands stroked her back. Finally she managed to get hold of herself. She sat up and gulped, "I'm okay, really. It's so wonderful, and all I can do is bawl. I'm sorry."

He held out his handkerchief, and she wiped her eyes.

"It's okay to cry, Mac."

"Marines don't cry. I *never* cry."

"Okay," he soothed.

She dabbed at her eyes again and sniffed. "Get up, or you'll ruin your whites."

He chuckled and stood up. At the refrigerator, he poured mineral water into two crystal wineglasses and carried them back to her chair. "Cheers," he said, clinking his glass against hers, and she raised it in salute.

"Guess what else," he said.

"I don't know if I can take anything else."

"I think this had something to do with a call from the Admiral. Chegwidden, I mean."

She lifted her brows. "Really?"

"Admiral Landry mentioned he'd talked to him a couple of days ago. Usually this kind of appointment goes to someone with a captain's rating, you know. It involves a lot of international negotiations, and apparently A.J. told him about that master's degree I earned at Georgetown."

"Wow, that's what -- eleven years ago? Before I came, anyway."

Harm shrugged. "I got it the year after I passed the bar. Admiral Brovo wanted somebody on his staff who was up on international maritime law and jurisdictional issues, and I talked him into letting me get a master's while I was at it."

She cocked her head. "And I guess it impressed the admiral."

"Which one?" he said with a cocky grin, and they laughed together.

"Seriously," she tried again. "I'm glad Admiral Chegwidden went to bat for you, and I'm *really* glad he finally decided to stop punishing you."

"I think it had something to do with you," Harm said.

She could imagine how *that* conversation had gone. She said, "There must have been something else."

"He was pleased I decided to accept the overseas transfer. Said he didn't think I had it in me." Harm shook his head. "A.J.'s toughest tests were always the ones you didn't know about until they were over."

"I'm proud of you, Harm," she said. His eyes lit up, and she was startled to see how much it mattered to him. It was both frightening and humbling, and she realized she would do anything to keep this man from being hurt, ever again.

"I'm proud of *you,* Marine," he answered lightly. "Now before we celebrate, can I take a shower?"




Harm dried the last of the dishes and announced, "I have a surprise for you, Mac."

She was stretched out on the sofa. "Another one? I don't know if I can handle this much excitement in one day."

He said, "Trust me, you'll like this one, too."

"Can't we save it for tomorrow?" she grumbled sleepily.

"Nope, it's something special I arranged specially, but we have to do it tonight. I'm going to get ready." He slipped out the door, grinning to himself, and hurried down the hall.

When he let himself in a few minutes later, Mac was sitting up. She looked at him expectantly, sensing his excitement. "What do you have out there?" she asked, trying to peer behind him.

"Not a thing. Come on." He helped her stand up.

"We're going out?" She looked confused, and stubbornly pulled back a little.

"Not exactly." He clasped her arms and said, "Trust me?"

Something softened in her face. "Always."

Without another word he bent, slipped an arm behind her knees, and swung her up against his chest.

"Harm! What are you doing!" she giggled.

"I always wanted to sweep you off your feet," he smiled down at her.

"You did that on Day One," Mac said softly, and her head came to rest in the curve of his neck. Her body felt light and fragile as a bird's wing in his arms.

He carried her out the door, kicking it shut behind him. At the stairway leading to the roof, she looked up at him wonderingly, and a surge of tenderness tightened his throat as he started up the steep, narrow steps. He nudged open the door at the top with his foot, congratulating himself for remembering to leave it unlocked, and carried Mac across the dark expanse of flat roof, cinders crunching beneath his shoes. Near the corner parapet, he carefully set her on her feet before he lowered himself into the folding lounge chair he had put there. He looked up and held out his hand.

Wordlessly she sat down, and he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her back against him, bending his knees to hold her securely. "You asked for a sunset," he whispered against her cheek. "This was the best I could do on short notice." The night sky soared overhead, spangled with twinkling stars that outshone the lights of the city.

"Oh, Harm." He could hear the smile in her voice. Her hands came up to cover his, and her head came back against his shoulder.

A soft night wind caressed them, relieving the heat that lingered in the air, and he asked, "Warm enough?" She nodded. "Okay then. The show's about to start."

"Show? You lined up the Blue Angels?"

"Better. Watch now."

A moment later, a shooting star traced a fiery arc across the heavens. Mac caught her breath, "Look! There's another one!" She pointed, her hand thin and fragile against the night sky. Star after star shot across the night sky as they watched in silent delight.

After a long while, she said in a hushed voice, "How did you know?"

"I set it up just for you." She twisted around enough to smile at him, and he said, "It's the 11th of August, Mac. A meteor shower happens every year around this time."

"Well, it was the best surprise I ever had, except for your new job." She leaned back against him with a little sigh.

"Tired, baby?"

She nodded. "Yes, but I don't want to go in yet. Can we stay here awhile?"

"Sure." He rested his cheek against her temple and simply held her, rocking a little. Her breathing slowed and evened out, and he thought she had fallen asleep until she murmured softly, "I love you so much."

He swallowed the lump that rose in his throat and gently kissed her forehead. "I love you too, sweetheart." Thank you, he prayed silently. Whatever happens, thank you for this. Thank you for bringing her into my life.


Sunday, October 24, 1000 EST
Blacksburg, Virginia


"Are you sure you're up for this?" Harm swung his heavy leather flight bag out of the trunk. "It's only been two weeks, Mac." He knew he was worrying obsessively, but ever since she had completed chemotherapy, she had been pushing it.

"I'm sure. Anyway, you're the one doing all the work. I'll just be sitting there."

He eyed her dubiously, and she came close and put her hand on his arm. "I'll be fine, Harm. Please don't worry. When was the last time we had a day like this? I can't wait." Beneath her snug wool watch cap, her eyes sparkled .

"Okay," he smiled, knowing he could never refuse her. He slung the bag over his shoulder and put his other arm around her, and together they walked out onto the apron where Sarah waited, gleaming in the sun. It was a gorgeous Indian summer day, and it would be a great day for flying.

Mac stashed the lunch cooler in the cargo hatch and watched while he pumped gas into the wing tanks. He wiped his hands on his jeans before helping her climb into the front cockpit, and he stood on the wing to tug and fasten the harness firmly around her. She grinned at him and pulled on her goggles, and he gave her a quick kiss.

He jumped down and began his walk-around, concentrating on pre-flight. Finally he climbed in, plugged in his headset, and fired up the engine to roll out on the taxiway. At the top of One-Niner, he ran the engine up to full power, checked the magneto, and throttled down as he turned into the wind.

"Ready?" he shouted to Mac over the roar of the motor. She gave a thumbs up, and he eased off the brakes. They began to roll down the runway, faster, faster, and Harm watched the tach and speed needles climb as the edges of the tarmac blurred. He pulled back on the stick, and Sarah lifted off, reaching for the heavens like the creature of the air that she was.

The autumn sky was a pale watercolor blue washed with a few streaks of white, fading to a delicate haze at the horizon. Up and up they climbed, Sarah's solid old engine pulling like a warhorse, soaring into the vast blue arc.

And as always when he was airborne, a gentle peace filled his heart. His soul soared into the endless blue with a rush that felt like coming, and all the noise of the world slipped away. Whatever the future might hold, today he had this, and Mac was with him.

He eased them into a long, curving bank to the east, into the brilliant haze of the early sunlight, and set a course for the coast.

They had to negotiate the tricky limits of restricted airspace that spread out from the Washington area like the tiers of a celestial wedding cake, so he was preoccupied with the radio and the GPS, but he noticed Mac peering over the side as the Chesapeake Bay flashed beneath their wings. Once they passed over the tip of the peninsula, he banked north and followed the coast with the Atlantic gleaming like burnished pewter off the starboard wing.

"Mac!" he bellowed into the headset. "Look!" She swiveled to catch his emphatic gesture as he pointed over the port side, and she craned to see. He banked the biplane into a lazy circle, and she leaned out enough to see a pair of catamarans tacking into the wind, their sails a rainbow of brilliant colors against the sparkling blue water.

She flashed a huge grin over her shoulder and waved, and her obvious delight made him as proud as if he had put those sailboats there personally. The cool wind rushing past the open cockpit made conversation impossible, but it didn't matter. After pulling a series of lazy banking turns to keep the race in sight, Harm leveled out and headed north toward Ocean City.

It was nearly 1100 when they touched down at the small airport that served the tourist area. The day was warming up, and the heat was beginning to shimmer on the end of the runway. After topping up with fuel and a quick pit stop, they took off again and flew up Delaware Bay, skimming the blue water and waving at the ocean-going ships below. Far above, a fighter plane carved a thin white pencil streak across the sky.

Harm eased around onto a southerly heading and dropped down low on approach. The shoreline flashed beneath them, and he lined up with the tiny airstrip on Assateague Island, the brilliant green of the grass blurring beneath their wings as they came in and set down, bouncing lightly on the rough pavement.

Harm taxied onto the apron and shut down the engine, and in the sudden silence he saw Mac pull off her headset and struggle out of the front cockpit. Quickly he pulled off his earphones and jumped out in time to help her, his hands firm around her waist. She put her hands on his shoulders and jumped down, and he didn't let go. "There better be a ladies room in that hut over there," she said with a breathless little laugh.

"Dunno, Mac. If there isn't, there are some nice bushes over there -- OW!"

She hurried toward the steel frame building where a wind sock and some flags were snapping in the ocean breeze, and he stood there grinning like an idiot, rubbing his arm. Damn, she *was* getting stronger.

There was a Park Service office in the building. He arranged for a tie-down and headed back outside to wait, pacing back and forth, whistling a little.

When he looked up, Mac was walking back across the tarmac with her hands buried deep in the pockets of his old flight jacket. Her faded jeans hung loose on her long legs, but to his careful eye, she didn't seem tired. She was wearing sunglasses, and she shaded her eyes for good measure as she squinted at him and rubbed her midsection. He laughed and grabbed the cooler out of the plane before walking over to grab her around the waist with a resounding kiss.

"Feed me, Seymour!" she intoned in an attempt to sound like that ridiculous movie she had insisted on watching the other night, and they both laughed in simple delight because she was actually hungry.

"I'll do better than that," he said, and gestured at the ocean sparkling on the eastern horizon. "There's a beach just a few minutes that way. Okay?"

"More than okay."

The steady wind brought a clean scent of the sea. It felt good to stretch his legs. He shortened his stride to an easy pace, and Mac took his hand and hiked along beside him. They didn't talk as they followed a path that wound among the dunes. Out of the wind, the sunlight had some real warmth to it. Harm pulled off his jacket, and Mac tied hers around her waist as they followed the trail lined with sea grape and wild roses and grasses that rustled in the wind. Five minutes later, they emerged onto the sand, and the shining expanse of the Atlantic stretched out before them.




He tossed his old Georgetown stadium blanket down in a sheltered hollow that caught the warmth of the sun. Mac grabbed a corner, and between them they shook it out and spread it flat. She sat down, untied her sneakers, pulled off her socks, and buried her feet in the deep, warm sand. The wind ruffled her hair, and she lifted her face and closed her eyes, basking in the thin autumn sunlight.

He sat with his arms wrapped around his knees, watching her with a tiny smile. At last she looked over and laughed. "What?"

He shook his head. "Nothing. I was just remembering the last time we spent a day at the shore."

"It seems like a lifetime ago. In some ways, I think it was." She drew a circle in the sand. "Thank you -- for everything. For sticking with me."

"I could say the same, Mac. The important thing is, we're here now." He leaned over and kissed her lightly. "The real question is, what's for lunch?"

She opened the cooler, pulled out two plastic stemmed glasses, and filled them with ginger ale. She handed one to him with a flourish and raised hers. "Here's to the Navy's most distinguished O-5, soon to be O-6." She clicked her glass with Harm's.

"Remains to be seen," he said. "When you swim with sharks, there's always blood in the water. You gotta hope it isn't yours."

Mac's eyes were warm. "You love it. You'll see, in five years you'll be one of the star boys yourself."

"What about you, Mac? When you're cleared for duty, I mean?"

"That won't happen for a few months at least. I'm not going to worry about it. Right now, every day feels like a gift. When it's time, I think I'll know." With a quick smile, she opened the cooler again and began unwrapping sandwiches and fruit.

While she prepared the picnic, he pulled off his shoes and socks and rolled up his jeans. "Hey, those look terrific," he said as she handed him a sandwich.

"I got them at that place on the corner," she said. "You know, the new one?"

"When did you manage that?"

"I went down there while you were out running." She grinned. "Every day I walk an extra block. Soon I'll be running with you again."

"Just take it easy, okay?"

"I am. But now that I can eat again, I'll get fat if I don't exercise. I can't get over how *good* everything tastes!" She took a big bite out of her apple.

He watched curiously as she dug around in the cooler. She seemed to be hiding something behind the lid, and he peered closer. "What do you have in there?" he asked.

"Hold it," she ordered, raising her hand. "Okay. There." With a smile, she lifted out a huge brownie on a paper plate, with a yellow birthday candle stuck in the center. Carefully she shielded the tiny flame as it fluttered in the ocean breeze. "Happy birthday. A day early."

He laughed and blew out the candle, then leaned over for a kiss. "Thanks, Mac. You didn't have to do that."

She licked frosting from her fingers and picked up a plate with her own brownie. "It feels good to do something for *you* for a change," she said. She broke off a corner of her brownie and said softly, "I was unfair to you, Harm. Before all this, I thought I knew you, but I didn't. I'll never be able to do enough to repay all you've done for me."

He frowned and put down his plate, then reached out and took hers. "I'd say it's the other way around, Mac."

She met the urgency of his gaze without flinching. "Okay," she said, brushing at her eyes. "Now come on, I want to walk off this enormous meal." She jumped up and trotted down toward the water, and he jogged after her. When she turned around and held out her hand, he felt something loosen inside.

Hand in hand, they walked along the silver sand where the tiny waves lapped and creamed around their ankles. Shore birds screamed and wheeled overhead, and the wind was chilly in the thin autumn sunlight.

Mac tilted her head back, eyes closed, and flung her arms out wide, smiling as she turned from side to side.

"What are you doing?" he laughed.

"Kissing the wind," she said.

Joy welled up inside him. He reached out and gathered her against him, her body slim and pliant as a reed, and when he kissed her, she returned it with a sweetness that lanced through his heart. "I love you," he whispered against her mouth.

Her beautiful eyes searched his, and in their depths he saw tenderness, and joy to match his own. Kissing her again was like coming home after a long journey.

Something hairy and wet and smelly shoved its snout between them and snuffled. "What the" -- he jumped back and grabbed for the wild pony's mane as it butted Mac with its forehead. She giggled and said "down boy" as the little guy nibbled the sleeve of her sweater.

There was a nervous whinny nearby, and they looked up to see half a dozen of the tough little horses that ran wild on the island. Mac scratched the pony's neck and he stared at her adoringly before wheeling and trotting off to join the others. The horses tossed their heads and galloped away, flinging sand that stung their skin.

Mac looked up at him and shook her head slowly. Her eyes were dancing, and he felt himself grinning back.

Laughter bubbled up between them. Mac leaned against him and they stood there, holding each other and rocking a little. Her head fit just beneath his chin, and he rested his cheek against her hair.

A moment later she shivered. He pulled her against his side and they hiked back up the beach, arms around each other. At the little hollow, Mac lowered herself gracefully to the blanket, and he dropped down beside her, propped on his elbow. Out of the wind, the sun was warm on his back when he leaned down to her.

Their hands were gentle on each other as they kissed, as if for the very first time, and her touch was soft and sweet with the promise of passion to come. After a long while, he lifted his head and stared down into her flushed face. "Marry me," he whispered.

She froze. He saw the fear in her eyes and felt her draw away, even before she sat up, and a cold hand tightened around his throat.

"Why?" she said, her voice shaky. "Why can't we just keep things the way they are?"

He sat up too, and reached out for her. "What's wrong, Mac?"

She made a futile gesture. "Harm, I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, or next week. I'll always be worried the cancer will come back. I don't know that I'll even be alive a year from now, or five years from now. And it'll be a miracle if I can ever have children." Her eyes were turbulent.

"You've never run away from anything, Mac. Are you going to let fear run your life now? Are you going to let it run *our* lives?"

"We'll both still be lawyers in the JAG Corps. I don't want to compete with you anymore, Harm."

"I thought we'd gotten past all that. We’ll work it out."

"We're both stubborn. We’re both only children. It's a recipe for disaster! We're happy now, can't we just be happy for awhile before" --

"Before what? Before it all goes to hell?" he said angrily. "I'm not Chris, or Dalton, or Mic, or Clay. It's time to stop letting the past run your life, damnit." He took a deep breath. Time to go for broke. "I made my decision a long time ago, Mac. But you have to choose, too."

She didn't look away. For a long, frozen moment she didn't move, he didn't think she even breathed. "What if I can't?" she whispered.

"I told you a long time ago that I'll always love you," he said gently. "And I'll let you go, if that's what you want." He wrapped his hand around hers. "Come with me, Mac."

He held his breath. She closed her eyes, then opened them to look right at him. "Anywhere."

He gathered her to him, and she hugged him back fiercely. "No doubts?" he whispered into her hair, then pulled back and stared into her face. He knew, even before she shook her head slowly.

From some dim recess of consciousness, his higher brain eventually reminded him that this had to stop, now. Not that the idea of making love to Mac in the open air wasn't eminently desirable, but he knew she was getting tired, and it was a public beach. Somehow, he managed to ease back and look down at her, his breathing ragged.

She was rosy and flushed. "Harm?" she murmured, panting a little. Her eyes were not quite focused. "There's nobody here but us."

"What if your pony comes back?"

"Let him find his own sand dune," she grinned. The heat leaped up, pure as the sunlight warming his shoulders, and he kissed her again.

After a long while Harm rested his face against hers. "Cold?"

"No." Actually the ocean breeze was sharpening, but the heat of his big muscled body warmed her.

"We'd better head back, though. It'll be getting dark soon."

"Let's stay here all night. Watch the stars."

His chuckle was a pleasant rumble deep in his chest. He said, "It's going to get pretty chilly. One of these days, we'll have to spend a night outside when it isn't cold."

"If you keep looking at me like that, we'll end up spending the night out here after all."

"Someday soon." Harm's hands came up and smoothed her face, and she laid her palm against his cheek.

Reluctantly they let go of each other and scooped up their things. Hand in hand they hiked back to the plane, and she supposed her feet touched the ground somewhere along the way. But she wouldn't have wanted to swear to it.

He helped her into the biplane and kissed her gently. “You must be exhausted,” he murmured. She was tired, but slowly she shook her head. “Just happy,” she said, feeling suddenly shy. “What about you?”

His smile was dazzling as a sunburst. “I think I could fly this thing home without an engine,” he said softly.

They took off into the afternoon sun, blazing in the west. The land was lost now in long shadows and the melting blue haze over the mountains of Virginia as they soared into the endless shimmer of the sunset. Harm put the plane through a series of lazy rolls and loops, laughing, and she laughed too and hung on, delirious with the rush of the wind. At last he straightened it out and aimed for home, and she leaned back and watched the first faint stars wink on above them. After awhile she reached up, trying to touch them, letting the air stream through her fingers. She let one arm trail behind, and a moment later she felt Harm's hand close around hers, warm and sure.


The End

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