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Chapter 24

 

"What time is it?" Harm asked his wife as he snuggled a little closer to her beneath the covers. With the drapes in their room drawn, the rosy gray of early morning barely penetrated the darkness around them, but Harm didn't need his eyes. Married-- lovers-- for only a shade over three weeks now, he already had the feel of her memorized: the perfect way she fit against him, the softness of her skin, the wonderfully smooth flare of her hip as he ran his hand along her waist.

She chuckled sleepily, undoubtedly aware of the direction of his thoughts. "It's… 5:04." He heard the pause as she translated to civilian time.

Harm sighed. "I guess I'd better get going, then." Reluctantly, he slipped out of bed and into the clothes he'd left out. It was time to do a little investigating. He heard Mac sit up behind him in a rustle of sheets. She had her own job to do.

"Stay out of trouble," she said softly, her voice full of a smile he couldn't see in the dim light.

"You know me," he answered with a grin of his own.

"That's what worries me."

Chuckling, Harm left. He closed the door of the stateroom quietly behind him, then set off down the hallway. There was no way to avoid the cameras that coated the ship, so the only option was misdirection.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

George Laughton stared at the complex tangle of wiring in front of him, thoroughly intrigued. He stood in one of the wiring closets, staring at the fiber backbone that connected the two main computing networks onboard the Radiant Heart. One network controlled the vast multitude of cameras filling the ship, the other stored the data. George had been checking the layout of the fiber against the documented specification, and had found a few discrepancies. He crouched in the narrow confines of the closet, flashlight gripped between his teeth as he copied down the actual configuration. Tracing the connections back to their origins would tell him whether the changes were mistakes, work-arounds, or something else.

"Ahem."

George started at the sound of a man clearing his throat. He whipped around in guilty surprise, banging his head on the unyielding metal edge of the wiring cabinet.

"Ow."

Harmon Rabb winced sympathetically. "Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you." The tall lawyer stood a few feet behind him, arms crossed as he stared at George in a mixture of humor and carefully veiled interest. His keen gaze flicked to the tangle of wiring then back to George’s face.

George stared back, his throat suddenly dry. Does he know? was the first thought that passed through his mind. Would that be a bad thing? was the second. Pushing the questions away, he removed the flashlight from his mouth.

"Contestants aren’t really supposed to be in this area," he told Rabb as he gingerly rubbed his scalp.

The other man waved the protest away with a casual wave and a guileless grin. "I need to ask someone from the technical staff some questions."

George felt a stab of alarm, but tried to keep it off his face. The Navy investigator wasn’t going to give himself away, was he? George rose to his feet.

"Well, I’m not exactly the resident expert, as witnessed by the fact that I’m working the graveyard shift, but I know a few things." He extended his hand in what he hoped was a sincerely friendly manner. "George Laughton."

"Harm Rabb." Rabb shook his hand.

"I’m not sure what I can tell you," George continued. "I’m not supposed to give out information to any of the contestants that might influence the competition." He waved toward the camera mounted in one corner of the room. "It’s all recorded, so don’t expect me to make an exception."

Rabb chuckled, apparently not put off by the brusque statement. "No problem. I’ll ask my question, and you can decide whether or not it’s information you can give me."

George wondered if he looked as wary as he felt. "All right." He didn’t like having Rabb asking him questions. It jeopardized his own job aboard the ship, drawing attention to him when he would much rather have remained unnoticed.

Rabb clasped his hands behind his back, seeming to consider his words before he spoke. "Do you see everything that’s recorded on this ship?"

George couldn’t help but snort in mild contempt. "Are you kidding? We work three shifts with four guys on the first two, and one on the graveyard. I see maybe a quarter of the action shots."

"Action shots?"

George nodded. He felt pretty safe explaining a few technical details. "Yeah. The recording is all digital, so any time there’s a static scene, the recording gets compressed. There’s no sense in taking up all that memory to record hours and hours of an empty hallway. Everything that’s left is called an ‘action shot’. It just means something’s happening."

The lawyer absorbed the explanation. "But you would hear about anything interesting, right? Even if it wasn't on your shift?"

George cocked his head, deciding to push a bit. "Like you betting with Nikki Upton for a kiss?"

Rabb looked affronted. "Hey, I said no to that." His gaze narrowed. "But I'll take that to mean you do."

George shrugged. "Sure." He grinned at Rabb. "We poor working stiffs have gotta do something for entertainment."

Rabb chuckled, but his humor didn't last. The blue eyes grew somber. "What about something that's not so entertaining?"

George paused. "What do you mean?" What was Rabb after?

"Violent." The other man pinned him with an expectant gaze.

Phew. Talks like a lawyer and stares like a fighter pilot. Some combination. George debated his response. He was pretty sure he understood, but it wasn't information he could give out without risking the wrath of some important people in the television business. "Violent? Like how?" Best to play dumb.

Rabb's expression gave away very little. "Like domestic violence."

"Oh." Immediately, George knew he'd given himself away. Rabb's expression sharpened, the intense, hawk-like gaze skewering him where he stood. Now what? The idea that jumped to mind startled him. But he'd always had a secret desire to play Mission: Impossible.

Very slowly, George gave a discrete nod, the motion nearly invisible. "No, nothing like that." He forced a smile. "I mean, you and your wife are probably the most violent contestants we have."

Rabb chuckled, though the expression didn't quite reach his eyes. "All in good fun."

They stared at each other in silence for an awkward moment. The question in Rabb's gaze begged an answer.

"Well, sorry I couldn't be much help." George said.

Rabb shrugged, another of those guileless smiles appearing on his face. "No problem. Sorry I interrupted… whatever you're doing."

George shook his head. "Just a little minor troubleshooting. It gets pretty boring around here in the middle of the night, especially once all the partiers have given up or passed out."

Rabb raised an eyebrow. "Things get pretty wild?"

George shrugged. "Oh, sometimes. Unlimited free booze, what do you expect?"

"Sounds like you're not into the party scene."

"Not every night." George smiled. "When I need to de-stress, I usually join in on the HALO competition. Shooting things helps me relax more than alcohol."

Rabb gave him a confused, slightly alarmed look. "HALO?"

George nodded. "Yeah, it's a new game. Just came out on the market a few months ago. It's a first-person combat sim, essentially. It has a plot, though. And killer graphics."

Rabb's expression didn't change.

"It's a video game," George told him.

The lawyer's confusion deepened. "What, like Nintendo?"

George chuckled. "In the way a paper airplane is like the Space Shuttle, sure." He looked at Rabb. "I take it you've never played?"

"I don't even own a television."

"Oh, well you're really missing out, man. You should come join us sometime." George tried to put some extra emphasis in his gaze. "I bet you'd have a blast." He watched Rabb, hoping he'd gotten the hint.

Rabb looked at him doubtfully. Then he shrugged. "Sure, I guess. When and
where?"

George told him the particulars with a sense of excitement. Ethan Hunt eat your heart out. This cruise was about to get much more interesting.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac waited for Tiner to transfer her to the Admiral with a sense of trepidation. She'd called to talk to Bud, who often came in that early in order to leave by mid-afternoon, but had been redirected to the Admiral. She couldn't help but wonder if something had gone wrong.

"Colonel Rabb, good morning." The Admiral's voice was somehow warm and gruff at the same time.

Mac paused, startled to hear herself addressed as "Rabb" by her commanding officer. Wow. It's really real, isn't it?

"Good morning, sir," she managed.

The Admiral obviously heard her hesitation. "Everything o.k. there, Mac?"

Mac nodded. "Yes, sir. It's just strange to hear you call me that." She paused. "Nice, but strange."

As was his usual practice, the Admiral didn't extend the personal interaction. "I'm sure you'll get used to it. Now, down to business."

"Yes, sir. I was calling Bud to see what he'd gotten so far on the items Commander Rabb asked him to look into."

"Lieutenant Roberts is here with me, Colonel. We've discovered some information you and your husband will undoubtedly find interesting. Lieutenant?"

Bud's voice came on the line. "Good morning, ma'am."

"'Morning, Bud." Mac smiled as she imagined Bud's round, cheerful face.

"Commander Rabb asked me to compare Mrs. Antony's account of the notes she sent with the Naval reservists' to see what kinds of discrepancies I could find. It turns out that the only one is the last note-- the one Mrs. Antony supposedly sent inviting Mr. Brown and Mr. Rossman to meet her. She denies sending the invitation. However, the rest of their stories coincide."

"So they were definitely involved, or planning to be." Mac found that fact disappointing, though not very surprising. "That's convenient."

"For Mr. Ariel, anyway," Bud agreed.

"Now here's where it gets interesting, Colonel." The Admiral took over. "We found a clause in Tony Ariel's contract for the original show, awarding him a two million dollar bonus if there ended up being only one couple left at the end of the cruise."

Mac digested the new information. "That sounds like a motive, sir."

"Glad the weeks in the sun haven't addled your brain too badly, Colonel."

Mac ignored the comment, the only safe course in such instances. "What about the recording quality? Do we have any new information there?"

"Some, Colonel," Bud assured her. "The poor quality appears to be due to some kind of interference, probably from an improperly grounded wire in the camera. The degradation shows up from time to time on that camera, but not very frequently. The member of the technical crew I talked to said they asked about trying to repair it, but since it was in an empty cabin and since the problem didn't happen very often, Ariel decided not to."

"Ariel decided not to?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"The pile of circumstantial evidence just keeps getting higher."

"Yes, ma'am."

Mac ran a hand through her hair. "So he knew about the camera's problem. Is there any way he could know when the picture would go bad?"

Bud sounded dubious. "Only if he caused the problem with the camera in the first place and had a way of controlling it."

"Is this the only camera that had problems, Bud?" Ariel couldn't have been that stupid, could he?

"No, ma'am. Several others had intermittent problems. The worst ones were replaced during the course of the cruise, but there were a total of three that Ariel told the technical staff not to bother with."

"Where were they?"

Mac tried to envision the layout of the ship as Bud read off the room numbers. All three, she thought, were unoccupied cabins in widely separated locations.

Another thought occurred to her. "What about the hallways? Even if the room camera had problems, the hall cameras were fine. Can't we see who came and went, and when?"

"Yes, ma'am." Bud sounded disappointed, like she'd beaten him to the punch. "We think we've got that sequence all put together. Jessica Antony entered the room alone. The Naval reservists are also seen approaching the room, about forty minutes later. They left after about an hour. Mrs. Antony remained in the room until the host and his bailiffs arrived to escort her to the Tribunal." The Tribunal was the mock court in which the evidence of indiscretions was disclosed and couples officially disqualified from the competition. "She seemed somewhat disoriented at that point, but didn't protest any of the charges."

"So how did Ariel lure Jessica Antony to the cabin?" Mac toyed with the ends of the belt on her robe as she tried to put the events in order.

"Unfortunately," Bud drawled the word, warning Mac of impending bad news. "It doesn't appear that he did. Mrs. Antony claims she doesn't know how she got to the stateroom, but the video definitely shows her arriving alone and of her own volition."

Mac frowned. "Something doesn't add up."

"Colonel?" That was the Admiral.

"Sir, the reservists claim Ariel set them up to meet Mrs. Antony, but say the incident was totally consensual. Mrs. Antony says she didn't make any kind of invitation and that she was raped, but she can't explain how she got there. She says she was drugged, but the hallway video apparently doesn't support that. Mr. Ariel denies delivering the invitation note, as well as doing anything like drugging Mrs. Antony, but most of the circumstantial evidence points to him. However the explicit evidence-- the hallway video-- doesn't implicate him. But, he's the only one with a compelling motive. It just doesn't fit together."

"Keep working on it, Colonel." If he was perturbed by the apparent inconsistencies, the Admiral kept it well concealed. "What has your own investigation uncovered?"

Mac sighed. "Do you want details of the other contestants' private lives?"

"Not really."

"We haven't had much contact with Ariel. It seemed unwise to draw his attention. Harm is going to try to get some information from one of the techs who run the recording system, under the guise of trying to find evidence that Booth Crossby is abusing his wife."

There was a short pause. "Make sure you stay on track, Colonel."

Mac heard the warning clearly. "Yes, sir."

"Anything else?"

"No, sir."

There was a pause, and Mac's stomach tightened.

"That will be all, Lieutenant," she heard Chedgwidden tell Bud. After a moment-- no doubt to allow Bud time to leave the office-- he went on in a more personal voice. "How are you holding up, Mac?"

Mac drew a deep breath. "Sir?"

"The last episode we saw, things seemed a bit… tense between you and Harm." The Admiral's tone indicated he was growing more uncomfortable by the moment.

"We're o.k., sir."

"Very well." She imagined him clasping his hands together on his desk, frown in place. "That will be all." She could hear the smile in his voice. "You two be good, Colonel."

"Yes, sir." Oddly encouraged, she ended the call.

 

Chapter 25

 

After Mac finished her conversation with the Admiral, she climbed into the shower. Her mind continued to run through the information she'd received, trying to put it into some kind of comprehensible whole. Unfortunately, her brain kept drifting to inconsequential details. Colonel Rabb. She found herself trying to imagine what it would be like to be back at JAG. Now, when the Admiral leaned out his door and yelled Rabb! would that still mean Harm, or perhaps both of them? And every time they reported to an assignment together, what would they say? Sir, Commander Rabb and Colonel Rabb reporting as ordered. Every skipper or CO they ever stood in front of would look at them cross-eyed. They'd waste both time and good favor with each one, explaining how a couple of married officers could work together. Eventually, word would get around, and the wasted time would be replaced by, Oh, you two. Mac wasn't sure which would be worse.

She sighed. Well, you didn't have to take his name. But she'd wanted to. Growing up, she'd felt reassured by the fact that her mother was Mrs. MacKenzie. Not that it had kept her from abandoning the family, but…

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the bathroom door opening and closing. A moment later, Harm stuck his head around the curtain.

"Mind if I join you?"

Mac summoned a smile. "Of course not." She cocked an eyebrow. "Morning meeting?" They often showered together, both for the entertainment value and because it was the only place they felt safe talking, certain the conversation couldn't be recorded.

Harm nodded. A minute later, he joined her in the water. Mac slipped into his arms for a hug.

"Bad news?" he asked.

"Confusing," she answered, and proceeded to describe for him the details of her conversation with Admiral Chegwidden and Bud.

Harm's brow furrowed as he thought. "You're right. Something doesn't add up. Either Ariel somehow modified the hall recording, or Mrs. Antony is lying." He picked up his soap, turning it in his hands to make lather. Mac wondered what it was about men and bar soap. However, since Harm generally referred to her bath sponge as "that poof thing", she supposed she already knew the answer.

"I may be able to work the hall recording angle," Harm went on, oblivious to her thoughts. Mac forced her mind back on topic.

"You had a productive conversation with Mr. Laughton?" They'd picked him after a little discreet asking around revealed that Mr. Laughton was considered the black sheep whiz of the technical staff. And Tony Ariel apparently disliked him.

Harm summarized his encounter with the technician.

"So he knows something-- about Boothe and Carmen, at least." Mac added the new information to her growing collection of facts. Right now, each one was like a puzzle piece, a random part of a whole whose image she'd never seen. Once they'd gathered enough pieces and put them in something close to proper order, the larger image would start to become clear.

Harm nodded. "I'm a little curious about what he was doing when I found him, too."

Mac frowned. "He said he was fixing something, right?"

"Yeah, but how often do they come in and start messing with the wiring when we have computer problems at the office?"

Mac raised an eyebrow. "Never, as far as I've seen."

"My point exactly. It doesn't ring true. Maybe Bud can tell us what he might have been doing in there."

Mac chuckled. Bud. Sweet, humble, unassuming Bud, who had more esoteric knowledge stored in his brain than anyone she'd ever met.

"Probably," she agreed.

Mac picked up her bath sponge, squirted soap onto it, and began to wash. The soap's hazelnut smell filled the air.

"Here, why don't you let me do that." Harm wiggled his eyebrows suggestively as he held out a hand for the sponge.

Laughing, Mac surrendered it. "I take it we're done with the serious conversation."

"I can think of much more interesting things to be doing while standing next to a beautiful, naked, soapy woman."

She grinned. "I'll bet." Keeping a hand on his shoulder for balance, she closed her eyes as the sponge slipped across her skin. The bath was more an expression of affection than desire, but Mac happily submerged her thoughts in favor of the delicious sensation.

Some time later, Harm stopped abruptly with a low, angry curse. Mac's eyes flew open. She turned her head to look up at him, not too terribly surprised to find his gaze empty, locked on some distant point.

"Harm?"

He dragged her into his arms for a tight, slippery hug, as if suddenly needing reassurance.

Mac bit back a surge of alarm. "Harm, talk to me." She kept her voice level. "What is it?" Obviously, the wheels in his head had continued to turn and he didn't like where his thoughts had taken him.

He heaved a sigh. "Steiner was wrong when he said Ariel would target us because we're lawyers."

Mac frowned, trying to follow his train of thought.

Harm went on. "Ariel doesn't care about the show's ratings. His bonus is based on there being one winner, period. Steiner's too wrapped up in where his own profits come from."

"Or he didn't know about Ariel's bonus," Mac reminded him.

Harm's expression said he didn't believe that for a moment.

Mac shrugged. Neither did she, honestly. "So what are you getting at?"

Harm didn't meet her gaze. "Why do you think Ariel picked the Antonys?" He paused, and a hint of sarcasm crept into his voice. "Assuming, of course, that he is guilty."

Mac shrugged. The answer was obvious. "Because Mrs. Antony already had an ongoing… relationship, for lack of a better word, with two men other than her husband. She was an easy target." Mac sucked in her breath in sudden understanding. She pulled back to look up at her husband. "So if we want to have any hope of getting him to try the same stunt with us…"

Harm's eyes filled with grim shadows as he nodded. "…then when the time comes, we have to give him the same kind of opportunity."

They stared at each other in silence, heedless of the water that was slowly growing cold around them. Mac wanted to yell at Harm, tell him he was wrong, but the words lodged in her throat. Eventually, Harm reached down to adjust the water temperature, bringing a fresh burst of warmth. The water did nothing to dispel the cold fear Mac felt inside. She deliberately turned her back to him and picked up the shampoo.

"We'd better finish up," was all she could find to say. She didn't look at her husband.

She could feel his gaze boring a hole in the back of her head as she worked the shampoo into her hair. "Mac, please, be reasonable." She could hear the tired patience and regret in his voice, and underlying them, the unyielding iron of his will.

Mac spun to face him, overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. "No, I will not be reasonable! Not about this." Throwing her arms around his neck, she kissed him with everything that was inside her-- love, passion, anger, fear, determination. Harm answered her with a savage passion of his own, crushing her against him. Water and suds ran down Mac's face in torrents, filling her mouth with the taste of soap. She didn't care. She was his, and he was hers. Nothing could ever compromise that. She wouldn't let it.

Eventually, they separated. Mac lay her head against Harm's shoulder, feeling his collarbone beneath her cheek, as he buried his face against her neck. She spluttered a bit, trying to spit out the taste of the shampoo.

"Blech," Harm agreed in her ear.

Mac couldn't help it. She burst out laughing, shattering the intensity of the moment.

"Note to self: Rinse out the shampoo first," she said.

Harm joined her laughter. "I'll give you points for spontaneity, though."

Mac raked her hair back from her face as their mirth faded. Harm met her gaze. His eyes were deep and blue and calm.

She sighed and squared her shoulders. They'd gotten past the emotions. Now it was time to talk business. "So, this means I need to cultivate a boyfriend."

Harm nodded, not looking terribly pleased at the prospect. "Yeah. Slowly, though. We've still got three weeks left on this ship."

"At least we've got a believable set up going."

Harm gave her a curious look.

Mac returned the look innocently. "You and Ms. Upton, remember?"

She felt him tense. "Mac--"

"It's o.k., Harm." She cut him off mid-protest, smiling in reassurance. "I know you're not interested in her. However, she is interested in you, and the whole world by now knows I don't like it." She gave him a self-deprecating smile. "I'm sure we can play it into reason enough for me to…" Mac's voice faded as the enormity of what she was saying hit her. "…to be unfaithful." She bit her lip, forcing herself to meet her husband's gaze. She saw her own fears reflected there.

He shook his head slowly. "We don't have to do this, Mac."

"If we want to catch Ariel, we do."

He didn't try to argue that. "Forget Ariel for the moment. This is us I'm talking about." Harm captured her hands in his, pressing them to his chest, over his heart. "I want you to promise, Mac. If this… charade… starts to get confusing-- if either of us starts to doubt that we're acting-- we walk. No questions asked. We get off this ship and get on a plane and go someplace totally private, and we work it through." His fingers tightened around hers until they ached. "We've had too many misunderstandings already. I won't lose you to another one."

Mac's heart swelled at the words and the intensity of his stare. Weak-kneed, she nodded. "I promise." She licked her lips. "I love you, Harm."

His smile was like a sudden light. "I love you, too, Sarah. We'll get through this."

Mac smiled back at him. "Semper Fi, Navy."

He touched her face in a tender caress. "Semper Fi."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The aircraft turned out to be a Stampe-- a Belgian aerobatic trainer dating from the mid-1930's. The plane had been beautifully restored and had a modern avionics package in the cockpit. Harm wondered whose airshow Ariel had raided. But, with five thousand feet of air beneath his wings, he didn't really care. He was just grateful.

"Ready for another one?" he shouted to Nikki over the roar of the prop. A small video camera mounted on each of the windscreens recorded everything.

"Yeah!" She was laughing in sheer exhilaration.

Harm added power and pulled up, putting them in a steep climb. At ten thousand feet, he tipped the aircraft over, added rudder, and let the wings stall. Suddenly unable to generate lift, the biplane turned into a brightly painted rock. They fell out the sky, spiraling earthward.

Nikki screamed enthusiastically.

At four thousand feet, Harm recovered from the spin. He pulled out at about 2 g's, grinning as he was shoved back into his seat. It felt so good to fly, especially after his conversation with Mac that morning. Things were uncomplicated in the air. For a little while, at least, he could forget his problems, his fears, and lose himself in the unadulterated joy flying brought him.

Harm banked the aircraft and headed out over the water. Beneath them, the massive Radiant Heart looked like a bath toy. The ocean darkened in gradients as the land beneath the water fell away. They could clearly see the outline of reefs near the tiny island hosting their activities that day. The sun gleamed on the water, making the shallows glow an unearthly turquoise, and turned the whitecaps golden.

Harm brought them down to the deck. Over the calm Caribbean waters, he felt safe dropping to twenty feet. They skimmed across the shallow water near the beach. Nikki waved to the people who lined the shore, watching them. Harm performed a ninety-degree snap roll, completing the pass with his wings perpendicular to the ground. Nikki cheered.

"So, are you still being nice to me?" Nikki shouted as they gained altitude once again.

Harm grinned. "So far. Why? You ready to try some serious flying?"

Her laughter was torn away by the rushing wind. "Bring it on, Harm!"

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

To her surprise, Mac was having a great time. Her escort for the day was a young man named Toby Mathis. The ironic thing was that Toby could have been Nikki Upton's twin brother. He had the same deep tan and sun-streaked blond hair, the same cocksure smile. But despite being a full decade younger than Mac, he turned out to be pleasant enough company. They were snorkeling along one of the reefs, something Mac had never done before. She was amazed by the beauty of the fish that filled the water around her. Toby took time to point out different varieties of sea urchins and anemones, their puffy bodies decorated in a riot of pinks, purples and oranges. A diver followed them with an underwater camera, but Mac rarely noticed him. The sea itself was too captivating.

Around lunchtime, though, hunger finally drove her to shore.

Laughing, Toby followed. "I've heard about your appetite."

Mac flopped down in the sand, clapping one hand over her stomach. "It's all true. Oh, I'm hungry." She glanced behind her to where a small crew was discretely setting up a small table, complete with flowers and white tablecloth. "I hope they don't take too long."

"Nah. They're usually pretty quick."

Mac chuckled. "I see. So I'm not the first woman you've used this routine on."

He looked down at his toes. "Caught me." His grin was guileless as he shrugged. "I just love snorkeling."

Mac waved his embarrassment away. "Can't blame you for that. It's amazing."

They chatted amiably until lunch was ready, then moved their conversation to the little table. Mac stopped short when she saw the food that had been laid out.

"Toby, you're my hero." Mac sank into her seat with a huge grin. Each plate held a monstrous hamburger, piled high with unhealthy goodies, and a mound of fries.

"I'd heard you were a major carnivore." He gestured for her to proceed. Mac dug in with gusto.

Toby watched her for a moment, shaking his head and laughing. "Doesn't your husband feed you?"

Mac met Toby's gaze across the table, surprised. "Usually. He makes me eat vegetables, though."

Toby popped a french fry into his mouth. "Potatoes are vegetables."

"Point." Mac smiled, cocking her head to study him. "You know, you're the first of my escorts to voluntarily mention my husband to me."

Toby shrugged, seeming unconcerned. "Facts are facts. You are married, and seduction's not really my style. The way I figure it… I'm here, I'm available, and I'm a nice guy. If you want to do something about that, go right ahead." He turned on a charming smile, then let it fade. "If not, that's o.k., too."

Mac absorbed his explanation, then slowly grinned. "Deal." She went back to work on her food. "So what's the plan for the rest of the day?"

"Well, we can keep snorkeling, or I've got a boat reserved so we can do some water-skiing."

"Hmmm. Choices, choices." Her contemplation was interrupted by a distant, high-pitched roar-- the unmistakable sound of a small airplane. Mac looked up, shading her eyes as she scanned the sky. She spotted the red and yellow plane a moment later and smiled in satisfaction. It looked like Nikki Upton was getting exactly what she'd asked for. If she could still walk once Harm got her back on the ground, Mac would be impressed.

"So what do you think of Nikki?" Mac asked her escort after a moment.

Toby grinned at her. "Why? Is she the competition?"

Mac waited a beat too long to answer. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. "Of course not."

To her surprise, she saw sympathy in the younger man's gaze as he answered, "She is pretty hot. Bossy, though."

Mac had to chuckle. "Well, if there's one thing Harm can't stand, it's bossy."

"Sounds like you don't have anything to worry about, then."

Mac sighed. "No, probably not."

 

Chapter 26

 

It was nearly midnight as Harm made his way toward the conference rooms that hosted the frequent HALO sessions. All things considered, he would much rather have gone to bed with his wife. Despite George's claims, Harm didn't find any real appeal in the idea of staying up all night to play video games. But, duty calls… Who knows, maybe being able to play one of these things will win me some points with Chloe. He grimaced sourly. Yeah, right.

Harm reached the correct room and stepped into a computer generated war zone. Images were splashed across two walls in the darkened room. It took him a moment to realize they were first-person views of the same location, from different angles. The graphics were better than the best flight simulator he'd ever flown. A pile of computing equipment sat on the floor beneath each projected image. Two pair of speakers blared with noise-- voices shouting and giving commands, gunfire, screams and explosions. The weapon sounds were unrecognizable to his trained ear, but everything else shouted to Harm that he'd walked into the middle of a firefight. He tensed instinctively, fingers twitching toward a weapon he wasn't wearing.

"Pretty real, huh?"

Harm whipped around to stare into George Laughton's round face. The other man took a half step back, his smile dying. Harm forced himself to relax before he gave himself away. It's just a game.

"You're not kidding. I almost dove under the table." He cracked a smile. A table at the center of the room held the video projection equipment. Others were scattered about the room. Here and there, people sat to chat, eat or just watch.

George gave Harm an odd look, but chuckled. "Well, c'mon. Let me introduce you to some folks and then I'll show you the basics of the game." They wound their way through the tables, pausing from time to time to meet the people sitting there. The Radiant Heart was a small community, all things considered, so Harm was familiar with most of the faces.

They ended up next to one of the players. "Hey, Geordi," the man said, never taking his eyes from the screen. Harm was surprised to recognize Don, the cameraman who'd helped him rescue Nikki almost three weeks earlier.

"Hi, Don," Harm said, causing the other man to look up sharply. Then Don's face split in a wide smile.

"Hey, Hero."

Harm rolled his eyes. The ribbing about that little stunt had finally died away, for the most part.

George chuckled. "Looks like you've already got your screen name."

"Not likely," Harm told him. He would never live it down at JAG. "Yours is Geordi?"

George grinned. "Yeah, you know, Star Trek: The Next Generation?"

Harm just shrugged. When it came to television, he was pretty much lost.

"Never mind." George gestured toward the wall in front of Don. "They're playing capture the flag, every man for himself," he explained. "We have a total of four systems running, so there can be up to four players in the same game environment."

Harm watched the screen for a moment, then nodded. He'd flown multi-pilot simulations, even done a little dogfighting in that environment, so the concept wasn't new.

George spent some time giving him an overview of the game and explaining the various weapons and equipment available to the video game characters. Then, once Don's round had finished-- Harm had no idea who'd won, except that it wasn't Don-- George sat him down in the player's seat for an introduction to the hand controller. Under George's directions, Harm took his character off line for a practice session.

Once he was driving, Harm felt a lot better. As a fighter pilot, his reflexes and hand-eye coordination were exceptional, as was his ability to process information from multiple inputs in a realtime environment. Once he'd adjusted to the feel of the controller and started memorizing how to access things like his inventory, he quickly made progress.

"Hammer?" George asked at one point, referring to Harm's screen name.

Harm shrugged. "It was my dad's call sign in Vietnam. Seemed appropriate."

"Your dad flew in Vietnam?"

In the midst of fighting his way out of a small ambush, Harm didn't look away from the screen. "Yeah."

"Cool," was George's only response. Harm had to smile. George's generation was the one after Harm's, and it was obvious he hadn't lived through the decade of vicious backlash against that war or seen the deep rift it had caused in the country. To the younger man it was just another piece of history-- 'cool' because America had stood up for something, even if they'd done a poor job of it.

"The guy's a natural," Don commented to George a little while later as Harm wrapped up the practice round. The other man looked impressed.

George laughed and wagged a warning finger at Harm. "You aren't supposed to be this good at this." Harm stared as he continued, "I'm supposed to be bringing in fresh meat, not serious competition."

Mentally, Harm shook his head. It was just an innocuous statement. There was no way for George to know who he really was. George held out his hand for the controller.

"Here, I'm not going to try to walk you through joining a networked game. This time, at least, I'll just do it."

"Fine by me." Harm surrendered the controller. "I'm trying to memorize too much already."

"You seem to be doing pretty well at it," Don commented dryly.

Harm shrugged. "I'm a lawyer. Memorization is my life. You want me to quote you the Constitution?"

Don gave him a strange look. "All of it?"

"It is the basis for all law in the United States."

Don grimaced. "No, thanks. I hated Social Studies."

"There. You're set." George handed the controller back to Harm. Harm accepted it, and was surprised to feel something other than plastic along the back of the device. He gave no sign, however, just palmed the slip of paper and tucked it in his jeans pocket. Then he gave all his attention to the virtual combat world of HALO.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm got back to the room just as Mac was waking up. She sat up in bed, looking deliciously tousled as she tried to gain her bearings.

"Are you just getting in?" she asked, her voice still thick with sleep. She rubbed her eyes and brushed a lock of hair away from her face, yawning hugely.

Harm grinned, then knelt on the edge of the bed to kiss her soundly. He was still running high on adrenaline and caffeine, and she was just too beautiful to leave alone.

Mac laughed when he released her, dark eyes dancing. "I take it you had a good time?"

Harm pushed himself away from the bed. Standing, he stripped off his shirt, then sat on the edge to take off his shoes. The jeans he would leave on until he got into the bathroom and could take a look at whatever George had passed him. "More than I expected, actually. I swear, the game's addictive."

Mac watched him as he undressed. "Are you headed for bed?"

Harm flashed her a smile. "I couldn't sleep right now if I had to."

She grinned wryly. "I know. You're positively bouncing."

He headed into the bathroom. Mac followed him. Once they were safely away from the cameras, Harm pulled out George's note.

Mac raised an eyebrow in silent question, and Harm nodded. He unfolded the paper, tilting it so Mac could see it as well. The note read:

There's a secondary recording system in the contestants' cabins-- sound only. It records while the cabin cameras are off. Only the bathroom is safe.

Harm frowned. The information wasn't exactly a huge surprise, but the confirmation only served to anger him. Such recording was, technically speaking, illegal, though whether there was enough to make a case against Ariel, Steiner, or the studio, he couldn't say.

Mac's brow dipped as she tapped the note. "He didn't say anything about Boothe and Carmen," she whispered.

"Not explicitly," Harm countered, also in a whisper. "But he could be implying there's evidence on these sound tapes. Something that happened when they didn't know they were being recorded."

"Maybe. Or maybe the warning is directed at us." She gave Harm a grave stare. "Do you think Webb could have planted someone on the ship?"

He blinked. That had never occurred to him. "George? That would be a pretty big coincidence." He shrugged. "But I wouldn't put anything past Webb. We can ask the Admiral."

Mac watched him thoughtfully. "We're going to have to be really careful not to step out of character for the next few weeks."

Harm nodded grimly. The apparent rift they generated to give Ariel the opportunity to target them would have to exist twenty-four hours a day because of the secondary recording system.

He shoved the thought away. For now, at least, such concerns remained in the future. They could still legitimately be a happily married couple until the opportunity to start destroying the relationship presented itself. Unconsciously, he fingered the ring on his left hand, and the miracle it represented.

"Mac, did I ever tell you how sorry I am that it took something like this insane investigation to shove me into marrying you?"

Her brown eyes widened in surprise. "No, but--"

Harm silenced her with a finger to her lips. "Then I should." He cupped her cheek in his hand, lightly stroking the line of her lower lip with his thumb. It was getting easier to be honest with her. He took a deep breath.

"You deserved better than this, Mac. You deserved…" He faltered for a moment. He had had his own secret dreams of what their wedding would be. "You deserved to have your wedding in a rose garden, and to know that the only reason it was happening was because there was a man who loved you more than more than anything-- more than his independence, more than flying… more than life itself." Harm wasn't entirely sure when he'd realized that he'd be willing to walk away from anything else in his life if it meant keeping Mac.

Mac's eyes filled with tears. "Dress whites and roses…" She smiled wistfully. "That's how I always envisioned our wedding, too." She raised a hand to cover his where it rested on her face, her expression firming. "But it doesn't matter. What matters is that we're together."

Harm wondered if she had any idea what an amazing woman she was. "No, it does matter, Mac. I can't turn the clock back, and, to be brutally honest, I'm not sure I would ever have gotten to this point without being forced into it--" He sighed. It was disappointing to see this flaw in himself so clearly. "But with the wisdom of hindsight, I just wanted to tell you that I wish I'd been able to do it right."

With a crooked smile, Mac raised her left hand to show him her wedding rings. The diamond that had once belonged to Harm's mother sparkled and flashed in the harsh electric lighting.

"Are you so sure you haven't?" she asked him.

He looked at her blankly. Her smile deepened.

"Your mother told me about this ring, Harm." She looked down at her feet for a moment, her expression filling with pain. "It was the only thing that kept me from completely coming apart that last day or so."

A knife to the heart would have been kinder. Harm pulled her close, feeling the hot sting of tears. "I'm so sorry, Sarah. I never wanted to hurt you."

Mac sighed softly. "And I forgive you, if there's any need for it." She shook her head. "We were so messed up, Harm… As crazy as this whole thing has been, I'm not sure we could have made it any other way." She pulled back to look up at him, her gaze firm. "I'll take the reality over the fairy tale any day."

Harm had to smile at that. "Me, too."

 

Chapter 27

 

Harm stood at the bar in one of the Radiant Heart's dance clubs, quietly nursing his bourbon. Mac had already gone to bed and the HALO session wouldn't start for another hour, so he was killing time. Heavy techno music throbbed through the crowded room, so loud he felt like his teeth were vibrating. A couple of women had come by already with invitations to dance, but he'd turned them down. For one, none had been Nikki. And even if she had been there, it was a step he was deeply hesitant to take. There would always be another opportunity. On this ship, that much was guaranteed.

He took another sip of his bourbon. Maybe if I procrastinate long enough, we can come up with a better plan. One that didn't involve walking the gray line between fidelity and betrayal.

A hand closed on Harm's shoulder, strong fingers digging into the joint. Harm turned in surprise to find Boothe behind him, his face suffused with anger.

Boothe leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. "Just where do you get off telling people that I abuse my wife?" he shouted over the music.

Harm pulled out of the other man's grasp and turned to face him. "Do you?" he shouted back.

Boothe took a deep breath, then opened his mouth for a response. Harm braced himself. But then Boothe seemed to deflate. He gave Harm a look that was part fury, part disgust, and rolled his eyes. He waved toward the door as if to usher Harm outside.

Curious, Harm complied. Leaving his drink, he followed Boothe out of the club. The main concourse was fairly deserted at that late hour, giving them some semblance of privacy.

Once they had walked a short distance from the door, Boothe stopped and turned around. "Now I'll answer your question. No, I do not-- and have not ever-- abused my wife." His voice was taut with suppressed anger. "Where do you get off accusing me? Did you know Tony Ariel came to see Carmen and me and suggested that we withdraw?" He made a sharp gesture. "Apparently they don't want a wife-beater on their show!"

Harm watched the other man cautiously. Boothe appeared to be sober. Harm crossed his arms over his chest, keeping his demeanor casual.

"Carmen told Mac you hit her."

Boothe looked startled for a moment, then the anger returned. "You're lying." He took a step closer.

Harm shook his head, but otherwise didn't give. "I'm not. Do you deny hitting her?"

"You sound like a cop."

Harm frowned. "No, just a lawyer."

Boothe glared. "Then stop talking to me like a lawyer!"

They were nearly nose to nose now. Harm smiled in what he hoped was an engaging way. If at all possible, he wanted to defuse the situation. "Sorry about that. It's what I am."

Boothe stared at him, the menace in his expression unwavering. "Look, I don't know where this is coming from, but it's not true. It's some head game of Carmen's, so stay out, got it?"

Harm raised his hands, palms out. "Hey, Mac was concerned so we started asking some questions. That's all. Do you know if Carmen has any abuse in her past?"

Boothe's laughter was hard and brittle. "Little Miss Rodeo Drive? Daddy would have had them shot."

Harm took a deliberate step back. "Wait-- Carmen grew up on Rodeo?" Boothe nodded, and his mind started turning in new directions. Rodeo Drive meant serious money. "She hasn't been disinherited or anything, has she?"

That earned him an odd look. "No. Why would you say that?"

Harm shook his head. "Never mind. You're right. She's playing some kind of head game with Mac."

Boothe's stormy expression began to fade. He nodded sharply. "All right then."

Harm studied him. He was beginning to get the feeling it was Boothe's position in the marriage that was precarious, not Carmen's.

Harm cocked his head. "Her family doesn't like you very much, do they?"

Boothe gave a derisive snort.

"How'd you two end up on the show?"

Boothe shrugged. "Carmen's idea. I figured it'd be a lark, though." He looked at Harm. "What about you and Mac?"

Harm chuckled. "I'm chalking it up to temporary insanity."

Boothe grinned, and for the first time Harm began to feel like he had some idea what was going on inside the other man. He wondered if Boothe had married Carmen for her family money, or if he really cared for her. Harm didn't envy him, in either case.

He took his leave then and headed for the HALO rooms. Now all he had to do was figure out how to continue the investigation without the excuse of digging into Boothe and Carmen's relationship.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac wandered the confines of the stateroom restlessly. She'd told Harm she was going to bed, but she couldn't force herself to lie down. Every time she closed her eyes, her mind conjured another image of her husband-- in the arms of Nikki Upton.

"Oh, for goodness sake!" Frustrated with herself and her overwhelming insecurity when it came to her relationship with Harm, she stalked over to the closet and began to dress. She would go crazy trapped in here.

The night air felt good against her face as Mac stepped out onto the deck. Overhead, the stars were bright and so numerous they looked like salt scattered across a dark cloth. She went to the rail and stood there for a while, watching the water.

"Penny for your thoughts?" a man's voice asked from a few steps behind her.

Mac glanced over her shoulder to find Toby watching her, his expression curious. "You wouldn't be getting much for your money," she answered, and turned back to the water.

He came forward, leaned his elbows on the rail next to where she stood. "That's o.k. It's an investment."

Mac couldn't help a small smile.

"So where's hubby?" Toby asked after a moment.

"Playing video games."

"He got sucked in to that, huh?"

Mac nodded, unconsciously clasping her hands together in front of her. "Third night this week." She sighed softly.

"Uh oh. Well, he's an idiot for ignoring someone as nice and smart and beautiful and funny and--"

"Oh, stop!" Mac was grinning widely. Her smile quickly faded. "Thanks."

"No problem."

They stood together in silence. Mac watched the dark water and listened to the soft rush of air past her face.

"You hungry?" Toby asked suddenly.

Mac flashed a smile. "Always."

"You want to go get something to eat? I hear the midnight buffet's to die for." After a moment's hesitation, he offered his hand.

Mac stared at him. I don't want to do this. It's necessary. It's not worth the price. Harm knows it's not real. It too easily could be. Mind and conscience warred over her response.

"Just friends?" she asked, biting her lip.

He grinned and shrugged. "Sure."

Taking a deep breath, Mac slipped her hand into his.

They wandered the length of the ship, arriving eventually at the buffet. There were a few people around, and Mac self-consciously pulled her hand away from Toby's as those nearby took note of their arrival.

Together, they moved to the head of the buffet table. Mac picked her way through the food, wishing she was as hungry as she claimed. Eventually they settled at a table near the edge of the cavernous room. Despite Mac's fears, Toby did nothing overtly suggestive. He was friendly and lighthearted-- exactly what she needed to take her mind off Harm. They talked about inconsequential things, shared stories from their college days (though his were a good deal more recent than hers), and had a generally good time.

They'd been there about an hour when a voice she knew better than her own shattered the small measure of peace she'd gained. Mac heard her husband's laughter and looked around, startled. He had just walked in, along with five or six others. They were all chatting companionably, but Mac's gut twisted at the sight of a certain blond head bobbing along beside Harm. Nikki Upton had apparently figured out where Harm was spending his evenings.

"Looks like the game crew got hungry," Toby commented. He sounded as wary as Mac felt. "Do you want to go say hi?"

Mac started to shake her head, but stopped when Nikki reached up to lay a hand on Harm's shoulder, leaning into him as she talked.

Something inside Mac snapped at the casually familiar gesture. She rose from her chair like an uncoiling spring, hands curling into fists at her side. Marines didn't back down, didn't surrender a position once they'd taken it. And Harm was hers.

She stalked toward the group. A small, rational voice in the back of her mind insisted she was making a foolish mistake, but the rest simply wasn't listening. In that moment, Mac didn't care about the investigation, the Navy, or even the two reservists waiting for them back in Virginia. All that mattered was that there was another woman making a move on her husband, and he was doing nothing to stop it.

The group of gamers was too involved in their conversation to notice Mac's approach. Even Harm, who had uncanny spatial awareness, didn't give any indication he'd seen her.

Nikki had her back turned, so it was a simple matter for Mac to walk up, grab the other woman by both shoulders and spin her away from Harm. Mac caught some of Nikki's hair in the process, and was rewarded by a screech that plunged the room into silence. She stepped into the vacated spot, putting herself between Nikki and Harm, and glared at the blond co-ed. Very deliberately, she raised her hand to shake away the long blond strands that clung to her fingers, keeping her eyes locked on the younger woman's.

"Mac, what are you doing?" Harm's voice came from behind her, hard-edged and carrying a clear warning note.

Mac ignored him. She took a step forward, arms held away from her sides and fingers spread in an unconscious fighter's stance. Nikki swallowed hard. Mac grinned at her discomfort. She leaned forward until her face was only a couple of inches from Nikki's.

"Stay away from my husband," she said in a quiet, clearly-enunciated voice.

Nikki stared.

Mac studied her for a long moment, then nodded in satisfaction. She spun on her heel to leave, only to nearly collide with Harm who stood a pace behind her. They stared at each other in silence. Harm's expression could have been chiseled in stone for all the reaction he showed. Only his eyes were alive, flashing with indignation and anger.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

Mac raised her chin, her stomach clenched in a hard, cold knot. "Defending my marriage, which you, apparently, don't care to do."

Harm's gaze flicked to Toby, who had followed Mac and now stood a few feet behind her, watching everything with ill-concealed nervousness. Harm raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really?" His tone was thick with sarcasm. "Looks to me like we're on pretty even ground. Maybe you should go look in a mirror before you make any more accusations."

"Maybe so," she agreed tightly. "At least then one of us would still remember what I look like." With that, she turned and strode away.

"Thanks for the company, Toby," she told the young man as she brushed past him, her eyes firmly fastened on the far wall.

"Any time," he answered from behind her, but the statement lacked conviction.

Feeling the eyes of everyone in the room on her back, Mac forced herself to keep her steps even as she walked out.

Having nowhere else to go, she went back to the room she shared with Harm. She turned the lights on as she entered, knowing that she'd turned on the cameras as well despite the hour, and dropped heavily onto the edge of the bed.

Reaction set in. She began to shake. Tears quickly followed. Leaning forward, Mac clasped her hands together between her knees and let them fall.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm returned to the room just before 0400. Mac was still awake, curled up in one corner of the bed, reading. She'd been too keyed up to sleep and too afraid of the kinds of dreams she'd have if she'd tried, so she'd done her best to lose herself in a halfway intelligent mystery novel she'd bought a few days earlier.

She looked up when Harm entered. Their eyes locked across the length of the room. Mac couldn't bring herself to speak.

After a moment, Harm pulled his gaze away. He headed for the bathroom, stripping off his shirt as he went and leaving it in a heap on the floor behind him. Mac stared at the crumpled pile of cloth. It was such an un-Harm thing to do that she was momentarily shocked.

Tossing her book aside, she followed him, wondering with some trepidation what she might find. She tried not to let her fear show, though. If anyone had a right to be angry it was she, and to that effect, she kicked the bathroom door closed behind her as she entered.

Harm was waiting for her. He leaned casually against the edge of the sink, arms crossed over his bare chest. But the cold, impassive face he'd worn since walking into the stateroom cracked when the door slammed shut.

"Wow, Mac." The blue eyes suddenly twinkled with wicked humor. "You're good."

Mac caught her breath in a gasp as everything turned right in the world once again.

"You're not so bad yourself," she managed, crossing the distance between them in two strides. Harm barely had time to open his arms before she hit him, wrapping her arms around his neck and seeking his mouth with desperate need. He pulled her tight against him, one large hand knotting in her hair as he kissed her roughly in return.

The kiss ended as abruptly as it began. They stared at each other for a long, frozen moment. Then Harm's painful grip on her hair loosened. His gaze softened as he gently stroked the disturbed locks back into place and leaned forward to kiss her on the forehead. Mac smiled at the feeling of his lips against her skin.

"Are we o.k.?" he asked, his breath warm on her hairline.

Mac let out a deep sigh. "Yeah." She kissed his throat, then tipped her head to touch her lips to the soft spot just beneath his jaw. The dark stubble of his beard scraped her mouth, sending a thrill through her entire body.

He chuckled. "I thought for sure you were going to take the poor girl's head off."

"I was tempted, believe me." She turned her attention to the other side of his neck, feeling his skin warm in response to her ministrations. His pulse quickened beneath her lips.

The tenor of his laugh changed. His hands came to rest on her waist. "Mac, I really like what you're doing, but you've got to stop."

Regretfully, she pulled away. "I suppose, seeing as we're supposed to be arguing."

Her comment damped the desire flaring in his eyes. His lips twisted in a sour smile. "How do you want to play it?"

Mac gave the question careful consideration, ignoring the insistent voice in the back of her mind that told her to bag the investigation in favor of kissing this man until she couldn't remember her own name.

While she thought, Harm gave her an amused look from beneath his brows. "I would love to know what's going through your mind right now."

Mac flushed, grinning in embarrassment. "Yes you would," she agreed, but didn't elaborate. She pushed her thoughts back onto the question at hand. "We both need some sleep. Do you think frigid silence would be believable? I'd really like to lay next to you even if I have to pretend I'm not enjoying it."

He smiled ruefully. "I think we can make it work." He paused, eyebrows wriggling with irrepressible humor. "If you think you can keep your hands off me, that is."

Mac chuckled. "I can if you can."

He bowed with a flourish, gesturing toward the door. "After you, then."

 

 

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