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|Title: Second Degree
Rating: Adult ( PG -13 version at: www.oocities.org/clkjag/)
Background: Written Mid Season 10 after Christmas Episode before the news of DJE broke– Does not follow season events after Christmas.
First posted March 2005
Summary: Something unexpected brings Harm and Mac closer
“What part of ‘no’ are you having so much trouble with?” Harm barked at Bud as the two lawyers exited the courtroom.
“Sir, it’s the best offer your client is going to get,” Bud sighed, frustration clearly evident in his voice. “Even you can’t pull enough rabbits out of your bag of tricks for the court martial to turn out any better than the Article 32. Ten years confinement is very generous.”
Stopping to take a deep breath, “Okay, Bud. I’ll propose it to my client, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.” Harm smiled apologetically before entering his office and closing the door loudly behind him.
“No improvement I gather?” Sturgis commented to Bud, frowning at Harm’s closed door.
“No, sir. I sure wish Colonel MacKenzie would hurry up and come back. With every passing day, his disposition gets more and more...challenging.”
Mac had been in Iraq for almost a month. Stepping in for the field JAG who had slipped coming out of the makeshift showers and broken his leg in two places. They needed an alternate senior JAG on short notice, and Mac’s language skills placed her top on the list of contenders until a permanent replacement could be found.
What was originally supposed to have been a two week TAD was now crawling toward four weeks, and more and more, Harm was beginning to resemble a bear awoken too early from hibernation.
Sitting down at his desk, Harm immediately clicked his flashing yellow icon. A smile instantly replaced the furrowed brows when he spotted not one, but two emails from Mac.
‘Hi Sailor, I laughed so hard at your last email my side still hurts. Stop worrying about me so much. Rest assured, the only dangerous place they let me anywhere near is the showers, LOL. And I have no intention of breaking my leg. Honestly, Harm, you know how they protect their Jags around here. I’m probably safer than you are. Speaking of which, how’s the Beltway been lately?’
Grinning from ear to ear, Harm read and laughed at the rest of her email and quickly scanned through the next one. This wasn’t the first time he and Mac had been separated by a TAD assignment, but he couldn’t remember ever missing her as much as he did now.
Since Mattie had left, he and Mac had been spending more and more time together. Then she had that horrible accident on Christmas Eve and they seemed to finally connect. For the first time in a long time, Harm allowed himself to think that having Mac in his life could be more than a dream. Their friendship was back on track and they seemed to be growing closer then they’d ever been when the General assigned Mac to Iraq. To make matters worse, the senior staff members were more than overworked trying to keep up in her absence.
Harm knew he was being a little gruff… okay, a lot gruff, but he missed Mac so damn much! Never before had he felt such empathy for the military families left behind. Taking a deep sigh, he hit the reply button.
Somewhere in Iraq
“Colonel Howell would like to see you ASAP, ma’am,” the baby faced gunny announced.
Mac couldn’t help but wonder; were these men all really that young, or had she really just gotten that old? “Right away, Gunny. Thank you.”
She hit send and closed her laptop. Military communication had certainly improved since she first joined the Corps. As much as she loved being a marine, she didn’t want to think about how much lonelier she’d feel if she couldn’t keep in touch with Harm as often as email allowed.
“You sent for me, sir?” Mac stood at attention.
“At ease. We’ve had more trouble reported at the prison. Some DIA officials are reporting that recently captured insurgents are complaining of brutal treatment.” Colonel Howell stood almost six foot four, had sandy brown hair, and the deepest blue eyes Mac had ever seen. He also had a wife and four children, not that it mattered to Mac. Her heart belonged to only one military man, and he most definitely was not a marine.
“I really don’t want to do this, but I don’t have a choice. I’ve got no one else available who can communicate with the detainees.” Howell really disliked the idea of sending Mac to interview the prisoners. It wasn’t so much the prison that worried him, it was transportation to the prison. He’d lost three more men to insurgent ambushes. He really didn’t want to have to write a letter home to whoever was waiting for Mac. “The sooner we investigate this and submit a report, the better off we’ll all be.”
“Mac.” Much like Admiral Chegwidden, Ken Howell reverted to Mac’s name instead of rank when he had something important to convey. “No heroics, please. I don’t want to send you home horizontally. Just interview the people involved and get back here.”
“I’ll do my best.” Mac flashed a half smile. Ever since she’d ridden shotgun with the Gunny to check out some rumors of Al-Qaeda hiding out in a village not far from the encampment, the Colonel had been keeping a closer eye on her.
Colonel Howell respected Mac as a marine, but his grandma’s southern upbringing just didn’t mesh with the idea of a female so close to combat. Hell, who was he kidding? He hated sending any of these kids out to patrol the streets. Looking down at his watch, he did some fast calculating; it was1300 hours, and a two hour drive to camp would put them there at 1500. She’d have to get all the information she needed in only thirty minutes in order to make it back to camp before sunset. No, even she’s not that good.
“You’ll leave first thing in the morning, 0700.” He had to send her soon, but the least he could do was make sure they traveled in daylight hours.
0800 hours (1600 Baghdad)
“We’re expecting the new attorneys sometime this week. Lt. Vukovic will sit second chair with you on the MacDonald case,” the General glanced at Sturgis.
“Lt. Mayfield will assist you with the Denning court martial.” His eyes briefly shifted towards Bud.
Harm remained perfectly still in his seat, even though his insides were squirming around. It was usually the General’s practice to address the most senior officer first. He wasn’t sure what to make of this delay.
“Commander, that leaves us with you.”
“Sir?” Brother, this man may be shorter than Harm in stature, but his glare could make a SEAL nervous.
“We’ve had more trouble in Iraq.” Cresswell was momentarily taken aback at the obvious blanching on Harm’s face. Coates was right, he wasn’t going to find two more impassioned people.
“There’s been another report of detainee abuse. The Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency has sent a letter to some of the big brass at the Pentagon. They’re demanding an immediate investigation. If we want to cut this one off at the pass I’m going to need my best people out there handling it. Colonel Howell has ordered Colonel MacKenzie to do the initial inquiry. She’s not going to have enough time to devote to this and keep up with the constant changes in the ROEs on the field.”
“Understood, sir.” Some of the color was coming back to Harm’s face, but he wasn’t happy about Mac interviewing at the prison. The last time she tried to interview prisoners was a few years ago in Afghanistan and she wound up in the middle of an uprising with a knife to her throat. “Perhaps it would be best if the Colonel were to wait for me to arrive. Then I wouldn’t have to rely on second hand information regarding the interviews.” That sounded a little like he had a good reason and not so much like he was scared to death for Mac.
General Cresswell stared long and hard at Rabb before answering.
“It will take close to 24 hours to get to Iraq. I wouldn’t call that expedient.” Cresswell was still glaring at Harm. This would prove to be a very informative assignment, of that much he was sure.
“Understood, sir.” Harm stiffened his stance.
“Petty Officer Coates has your travel orders. Your flight leaves in three hours. I want this handled quickly and quietly.”
“Aye, aye,” Harm nodded. Glancing down at his watch, he knew it would be a crunch to clear off his desk, run home for a bag, and make his flight.
Iraqi detention center
1100 hours next day
Mac had been interviewing, or trying to interview detainees for over an hour. She was getting absolutely nowhere. The first half-hour after her arrival had been wasted convincing the powers that be that she needed to interview the detainees one at a time, in private. A group interview in the open was not going to work. She’d gone that route once before, and would never make the same mistake twice in her lifetime.
“Gunny, remind me when we get back to base that I like my job.” Mac cleared her throat. This was the frustrating side of her work; if she had thought she was accomplishing something she wouldn’t mind. Having angry, disrespectful men ignore her, or worse, spit on her, was not her idea of a profitable way to spend the day.
“Yes, ma’am,” Gunnery Sergeant Todd Billings nodded, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He liked working with the Colonel. When she first arrived, he was none too happy to have been assigned to a paper-pushing lawyer, never mind a female paper-pushing lawyer. It wasn’t long before he realized Lt. Colonel Sarah MacKenzie was a force to be reckoned with: marine first, lawyer second. He would follow her to hell and back. Mostly because he knew she’d bring him home.
“What do you say we take a break and you find us something to eat?” The food in Iraq wasn’t anything close to haute cuisine, but it hadn’t deterred her appetite any. She had taken a liking to Gunny Billings. The kid looked like he’d fallen off a Boy Scout recruiting poster from the Midwest, but she trusted him. In many ways he reminded her of a young Gunnery Sergeant Victor Galindez.
“Yes, ma’am. If you need anything, Corporal Watkins will be outside the door.” Gunny snapped to attention, then turned in search of a decent meal.
Mac looked over the information she’d been given before leaving base camp. She’d looked it over for hours last night. Nothing had changed, but she reviewed it again. These damned accusations were a cauldron of trouble just waiting to overflow and burn everyone within a fifty-mile radius. At least she could safely assume the lack of willingness to corroborate the recent claim by the allegedly abused prisoners to mean the complaint was unfounded. She certainly hoped so; the Iraqi campaign didn’t need another public relations black eye.
Airplane over Kuwait
Harm’s flight was preparing to land. It had been a nine-hour flight to Frankfurt, followed by an hour and a half layover before his connecting flight to Kuwait. Now he would change from commercial travel to a C-130 to Iraq, leaving only an hour and a half flight to go. Depending on how long before the next transport was available, it could be only a few hours until he saw Mac again.
Packing his files away in his carryon, he returned all ten copies of his orders, along with his letter of exception for the service weapon in his suitcase. One phrase in his orders kept repeating in his mind over and over, ‘Authorized to carry both M9 and M16’. Mac’s orders said the same thing. In fact, everyone sent to Iraq had the same recommendations. Extra firepower was needed; there wasn’t any post where safety was guaranteed. Harm didn’t want Mac in Iraq, he wanted her safe, back in DC.
Iraqi detention center
“How many more prisoners are there?” Mac asked Gunny Billings.
“Only two, ma’am.”
“Good, let’s get this over with.” Mac moved to the end of the room, while Gunny escorted the next prisoner in to be interviewed.
“I don’t speak to women,” the prisoner informed the Gunny.
“Well, you don’t have any choice. He only speaks English,” Mac replied in almost flawless Arabic.
The prisoner glared at her long and hard. When he took a step towards the table and chair, Mac thought he was at least going to pretend to participate as the others had. She’d already gotten three corroborating stories; interviewing this character was nothing more than a formality at this point.
“What can you tell me about your treatment here?” Mac asked, stepping closer to the prisoner.
“I don’t speak to women!” the man screamed. Grabbing the chair, he raised it over his head and swung it in Mac’s direction.
Dipping to one side, Mac spun around as the chair landed on the table beside her, cracking into several pieces. A broken piece of wood still gripped tightly in her attacker’s hand connected with the side of her arm at the same moment her leg swung around, knocking the angry man to the ground.
In what seemed like a flash, Gunny had the prisoner pinned to the floor. “Sorry, ma’am! I didn’t see that coming.”
“Neither did I, Gunny. Neither did I.” Catching her breath, Mac’s right arm reached across to her pained left arm. What looked like a platoon of Marines, had stormed through the door and were now escorting the still fighting prisoner back to his cell.
“Ma’am, we’d better get that looked at.” Gunny’s eyes showed his concern, despite his outward calm. Mac’s arm was hanging somewhat limply at her side, her sleeve torn, and a trickle of blood was pouring down a trail to her hand.
“I’m fine, Gunny.”
“Ma’am, with all due respect, if I bring you back to the Colonel looking like that, he’s going to have more than just my stripes.”
Mac couldn’t stop the laughter that erupted. “Very well, Gunny. Let’s stop at sickbay on the way out of here.”
By 1400 hours, Mac’s arm was in a sling, bandaged, and they were all packed into a humvee on the road back to base camp. Less than an hour into the ride, they came across an improvised explosives attack on the main road.
“Ma’am, it looks like we have no choice but to turn around in order to get past this.” Gunny waved his arm at the wrecked and mangled vehicles blocking their path. “The unit in charge is already in place and has given us a recommendation for the best way to get to base. The alternate route isn’t too far back the road. We’ll make camp in about two hours. We should still beat sunset, ma’am.”
“There’s nothing we can do to help with this mess?” Mac glanced around at the dozens of dead or injured bodies strewn about the roadside.
“No, ma’am. They’ve got it all under control. They’re used to this ma’am.” He hated making it sound so callous.
The suggested turn off the main road led through the center of a small abandoned village. Something didn’t feel right. The hairs on the back of Mac’s neck bristled as the large vehicle hummed down the narrow road.
Everyone aboard was poised for action, they all felt it. The minutes ticked by in slow motion until the first blaring sounds of rapid fire were heard. Then all hell broke loose.
Gunfire was coming from every direction. Returning fire, Mac heard Gunny’s voice echoing behind her. “Get us out of here!” Another voice hollered back, “Can’t, there’s a car up ahead blocking the way.”
Just then, Mac heard a bullet fly past and stop silently beside her. Quickly shifting to the other side, she tried to examine the young corporal who had taken the shot.
“Stay down, ma’am. I’m okay.”
“You let me be the judge. Where are you hit?” Mac ducked her head, hoping the next bullet didn’t have any of their names on it.
“It’s just my arm, I’m fine. Really.” The sound of another voice screaming ‘incoming’ distracted the two Marines. Looking behind her, Mac saw a nondescript blur swerving towards them, full speed ahead. Grabbing her extra weapon, she and the young corporal made a last minute attempt to dive out of the way before the oncoming vehicle struck. A ball of fire blew around them upon impact, sending the occupants of the humvee flying.
“Colonel, can you hear me? Colonel?!” Gunny Billings yelled loudly into Mac’s ear. Scrambling to reach the radio, Gunny checked the corporal a few feet away but was too late. The explosion had done what the snipers couldn’t.
Mac’s head felt like it weighed a thousand pounds, her insides were on fire. The gunfire around her sounded so loud, yet hollow. Where was her gun? She needed to return fire...the gun. Her mind was drifting to a quieter, more comfortable place. She could hear him, was that Harm? No, not Harm. The voice was too hard, too different... ‘Still taking fire’...
“I need that medivac, NOW!” Gunny shouted over the sounds of gunfire. To hell and back, he thought, to hell and back.
Harm had been waiting in Colonel Howell’s office for nearly twenty minutes. When the Colonel finally hung up the phone, Harm straightened in his seat.
“Sorry for the delay. I’ve had two IEA’s in the last four hours, and now it looks like there’s a coordinated ambush effort on all the alternate routes around the problem.” The Colonel rubbed one side of his face roughly before running the same hand through his hair and down the back of his neck. “My medics are spread too thin. I hate days like this.”
“Yes, sir.” What more could Harm say?
“I’m expecting Colonel MacKenzie back any minute. I’m afraid we’re a little short on space here. The only spare bunks left in officer quarters are in Colonel MacKenzie’s tent. We don’t have the luxury of separate facilities, and she’s pretty good about sharing. Until now we’ve managed to limit it to female officers only so she’s had the tent to herself, but she’s going to have to put up with you for the time being. ” The Colonel wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw Harm squirm, probably wondering exactly what ‘facilities’ weren’t separate. Surely he wasn’t any more immune to Colonel MacKenzie’s assets than the rest of them. If the Commander was any kind of man, his mind was most likely already in the showers. Colonel Howell decided he’d wait until later to mention how the men practically stand guard when she showers, allowing her at least some privacy. Although, if he weren’t happily married, he wouldn’t mind letting his mind wander to sharing the shower with her either.
“Sir,” a scrawny private stood in the doorway.
“About Colonel MacKenzie, sir.”
“What’s her ETA?” Colonel Howell moved around the desk to take a seat.
“I’m not sure, sir.” The private was starting to sweat profusely, and it wasn’t from the oppressing heat of the Iraqi climate. No one wanted to face Colonel Howell with bad news regarding Colonel MacKenzie.
“Explain yourself, private.” Howell could smell something was wrong.
“I believe she’s been injured in the ambush, sir.”
“Damn,” he mumbled under his breath. “What do you mean, you believe?”
“Her detachment radioed in they were taking sniper fire and had casualties. According to Gunny, they needed back up and a medivac for the wounded.”
“One that we know of, sir.” The private was standing his ground.
“How do you know the Colonel’s been injured?” Howell noticed Harm’s discomfort out of the corner of his eye. Something was definitely up with these two and it had nothing to do with horny sailors and daydreams of beautiful Marine colonels showering in the desert.
“Well, sir, when we told the Gunny the medivac units were tied up, he shouted back ‘SHE needs help NOW.’”
“I see. Is the unit on its way?”
“It is now, sir. Yes.”
“Very well, report as soon as you hear anything. Dismissed.”
“If the Colonel is injured, where will she be taken?” Harm ventured to ask as soon as the private had left. His control was hanging by a thread.
“The field hospital. I’ll have one of my men take you there.” Howell picked up the phone. “The two of you are...close.” It wasn’t really a question.
“We’ve been partners for nine years, yes, sir.” It was an honest answer, just not the one Harm knew the Colonel was looking for.
Somewhere in Iraq
The chopper landed, and uniforms were buzzing around like bees on honey. Harm had been waiting only a few minutes, but it felt like hours. He’d been through this once before, waiting to hear if Bud was going to live or die, the difference then was Mac had been his rock.
At least Colonel Howell understood Harm’s need to be with her.
Harm stood up as Mac’s gurney came rushing past him. She looked so pale, her face hidden under the oxygen mask. Her clothes were singed and covered in blood. There was no possible way for Harm to begin to guess where she was injured, he could only hope it wasn’t all her blood.
Following the gurney until it moved out of sight, Harm’s eyes were drawn to the disheveled Gunnery Sergeant at his side.
“Were you with her?” Harm’s voice was barely audible.
“Yes, sir.” The Gunny hadn’t moved his eyes from where the gurney had disappeared.
Harm studied the young man beside him and wondered if this was the young kid Mac referred to so often in her emails as ‘baby face’. Covered in blood and dust, the reality of war camouflaged his youthful features.
“What happened?” Harm turned towards the obviously distraught soldier.
“We were ambushed while rerouting to avoid an IEA.” As if only just now realizing someone was talking to him, the Gunny turned to look at Harm. “I’m sorry, sir.” He snapped stiffly to attention.
“At ease. It could be a while. You’d better take a seat, then tell me everything.”
“It felt wrong.” Gunny pulled the M16 rifle from his shoulder and fell heavily into the closest chair. “From the minute we turned down the quiet narrow road, it just felt wrong. Sure enough, partway into the village, we were taking fire. They had us locked in and pinned down. I managed to make it clear of the vehicle, taking up a better position on the other side of the street to return fire, when I heard Corporal Watkins shout incoming in time to see a small truck burst into flames on impact with the humvee.”
Harm took a deep breath, his fingers tightening the hold on his cover, his knuckles turning white with pressure.
“I got to the Colonel first. She was unconscious and covered in blood. I checked Corporal Beaux beside her - he was already dead. Watkins had taken some shrapnel in his legs but was still returning fire. I radioed for help. I could tell the Colonel was in bad shape. I’m not a medic, sir, but even I knew if I didn’t do something we’d lose her. Blood was gushing from her thigh so I tied a tourniquet and applied pressure to her bleeding shoulder. She still wouldn’t wake up. I honestly didn’t think we would be able to hold out till the response team arrived. When I saw our guys working their way up the street towards us, I thought I was dreaming.” Gunny’s hands began running a path across the tops of his legs, from his knee to his hips and back again.
“The response team?” Harm asked.
“No, sir. More marines caught up in the detour. They saw the fireball and scrambled. They’re the ones who secured the area so the medivac could land.” Gunny was still rubbing his legs, slowly working off the adrenaline.
“Sounds to me like you may have saved her, Gunny. Thank you.” Harm was still gripping his cover as if Mac’s life depended on it.
“Doing my job, sir.” Gunny took a long look at Harm, “Permission to speak freely?”
“You must be the email partner.” A hint of a smile teased one corner of his mouth.
“Excuse me?” Harm wasn’t sure he followed the question.
“The only time I ever saw the Colonel smile a ‘real’ smile, you know, the kind that reaches her eyes, was when she’d been reading her email. One time, I came in just before she closed her laptop. She must have recognized the look of curiosity in my eyes, because she volunteered, ‘My partner at JAG.’ You made her happy.”
“And I thought she was counting ways to keel haul me instead of sheep.” Harm cracked a small smile. He had hoped he had the same effect on Mac as she had on him, he just hadn’t wanted to find out this way.
“Any news yet?” Colonel Howell came walking up to Harm.
“Nothing official,” Harm stood up at attention, “but according to the Gunny here, it doesn’t look good.”
“At ease. Surely there’s someone here who can tell us something?” Howell looked around. The operating room was nothing more than a large container attached to a tent. Where exactly was he supposed to find information? The entire field hospital was a scattering of tents, containers, and old buildings fenced into an enclosed area. There were as many MPs as there were medical personnel.
“A nurse came through there a few minutes ago, but didn’t say anything.” Gunny pointed to the door Mac had disappeared through.
The three men sat staring at each other, the ceiling, and the doorway to the OR. Neither said much. Occasionally someone echoed the other’s heavy sigh of frustration.
“I’m going to need to get back,” Howell said, looking at his watch. He’d been here for almost forty minutes. Mac was a good lawyer and a damned fine Marine, and he hoped a friend, but no matter how worried he was about her, things were still happening with the rest of the war and he’d already taken out too much time as it was.
“I assume you gentlemen are waiting for news on Colonel MacKenzie?” A soft voice spoke from the doorway.
“Yes ma’am.” The three sprang up.
“She’s in pretty bad shape. Broken ribs, wrist, multiple lacerations, dislocated shoulder, second degree burns. Those are the easy ones. They’ve removed the bullet from her shoulder and repaired the damage to her leg. One of you do the tourniquet?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Gunny answered.
“Good job. You definitely saved the leg, maybe her life. There’s internal bleeding. They’re operating now to find the source. If they can stop it, then we wait and see.” Without waiting for any questions or comments, the nurse pulled her mask over her nose and hurried through the double doors.
“I need to call General Cresswell,” Harm mumbled.
“Already done. I’ll update him as soon as I get back to my desk. Make sure I stay informed.” Howell nodded at Harm, then the Gunny, and headed back to camp.
‘IF’, if they could stop it. The words rolled around in his head like dice on a craps table. Of course they could stop it. They’re doctors. That’s what they do. They do it every day. Don’t they? Dear God, please. Harm flopped in the chair, his naval demeanor gone, the terrified man left alone.
“She’s tough,” Gunny offered quietly.
“Excuse me?” Harm looked up.
“She’s tough, but I’m sure you know that.” Gunny smiled a little.
“Yes, I do.” Harm appreciated the kid’s efforts. Mac was right, he had a baby face. All these kids were too young to be here. “I know I said it before...but, thank you.”
“She’d have done the same for any of us. She means a lot to you, doesn’t she?” He was definitely overstepping the boundaries with a superior officer, but somehow, it didn’t seem to matter here.
“More than I like to admit.” Harm berated himself.
The two men sat in silence. Time passed in slow motion. To Harm, the quiet ticking of the clock on the wall pounded loudly, like a time bomb waiting to explode. The seconds seemed like hours, the minutes like days. The hours were eternal.
Gunnery Sergeant Billings had long since returned to duty, when the nurse finally came to tell Harm he could see Mac.
“She’s stable now. The bleeding seems to be under control. They had to go back in a second time, but her pressure is up and her color is good.”
Harm walked slowly towards Mac’s bed. The machinery by her side drew his attention. Blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen rate, his eyes rose to the IV bags. She was probably on a boatload of antibiotics to avoid infection.
“Why is she on oxygen?” He moved even closer to the bed, his eyes focused on the narrow tubing under her nose, not sure anyone was still there to hear him.
“One of the broken ribs punctured her lung. We had to re-inflate it. It’ll be easier for her to breathe with a little extra oxygen. She’ll probably be on her own by tomorrow if there aren’t any more complications.” A tall, dark haired woman answered.
“Is she really going to be okay?” Noticing her eagles, Harm realized she must be Mac’s doctor, or one of her doctors.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. We almost lost her twice on the table. She’s a fighter though, that’s very important.” Colonel Abigail Hawkins watched Harm intently.
“Thank you.” Harm had taken Mac’s hand in his. His eyes glancing quickly for someplace to sit.
“I’ll have someone bring you a chair. I gather you’re going to be here a while.” Intrigued by the naval Commander’s apparent attachment to her patient, Colonel Hawkins wondered what their relationship might be. Family members generally weren’t stationed together in a war zone, and these two were definitely more than drinking buddies. “But you won’t be able to stay over night,” she cautioned.
Harm turned to look at the woman with all the answers. “I actually have work to do. You’re sure she’s okay?” Harm turned back to Mac.
“As I said, we’re cautiously optimistic.” Colonel Hawkins waved at one of the passing orderlies to bring a chair for Harm. “If you think of anything else, just have some one call me. I’m Colonel Hawkins.”
Letting out a deep sigh, Harm turned fully to the woman. “Sorry, ma’am. Commander Harmon Rabb, JAG Corps.”
“Go ahead and talk to her, it helps.” Smiling approvingly at the handsome Commander, Abigail Hawkins turned her attention to her other patients.
Harm took hold of Mac’s hand again, careful not to upset the clips on her fingers, or the wires draped everywhere. “Oh, Mac.”
He leaned over her bed more closely, not consciously thinking he didn’t want to be overheard but somehow aware what he wanted to say was for her ears only.
“I’m so sorry. I know you need time and space, but I need you. I don’t care about anything else but you. I can’t do this without you, Mac. Please don’t give up. Please.” One lone tear streamed down his cheek. She just had to be okay. “I love you, Sarah,” he whispered quietly.
A nurse tending to a patient on the other side of the curtain couldn’t help but smile.
Harm had no idea how long he’d been sitting with Mac when Gunny Billings had shown up to take him back to base. On the ride back Gunny filled Harm in on all he knew of Mac’s interviews. The notes she’d taken were destroyed in the firefight, but Billings was able to give Harm fairly detailed information. He even remembered the names of two of the witnesses, as well as that of the nutcase that attacked her.
The soldiers were housed twelve to a tent. Officers were bunked as many as three or four to a tent. Since Mac was the only female officer, she had been on her own. Harm sat on his bed just looking over at where Mac should have been sleeping. He’d given up on the case forever ago. He just couldn’t concentrate. There would be no choice; he was going to have to go to the prison tomorrow and check everything for himself. With only three out of twenty witnesses willing to corroborate, Harm wasn’t so sure there really was anything to corroborate. His instincts told him this claim was just a DIA overreaction with a prisoner or two usurping the publicity from the previous situations.
Despite his worry for Mac, the stress of the day and not having slept much over the last 36 hours was beginning to catch up with him. His body was giving out. Tomorrow morning he would go check on Mac first thing, then he would have to tear himself away and find out for himself just what the hell was really going on with the detainees.
Harm slept more soundly than he had expected to, he just didn’t sleep as long as he should have. By 0500 he was at Mac’s bedside.
“Shouldn’t she have come to yet?” Harm inquired when the nurse stopped to change Mac’s IVs.
“Well, she took quite a blow to the head. It’s probably best her body rest while it can. When she does wake up, she’s going to be in some serious pain.” The nurse reset some buttons on the machine by the bed, gave Harm a soft nod, and walked away.
“I guess she’s right.” He spoke to Mac the way the doctor had encouraged. “I just would feel better if I could hear your voice.” Harm sat up against the bed, his hand softly stroking hers, carefully avoiding the rest of her arm. He hoped it wouldn’t scar badly. He was sure she wouldn’t like that. The doctor said the burns could have been worse, but Harm hadn’t been there when they’d changed the bandages, he hadn’t seen for himself. At least she wasn’t on oxygen anymore. Maybe that was a good sign.
“I have to go to the prison this morning. I think you’re going to be right, but I have to check it out. Besides, Cresswell might want me in DC if I call him too soon.” Harm had no intention of returning to DC without Mac. Not this time. Careful of her IVs, Harm stroked Mac’s hand and continued talking to her about anything and everything he could think of.
It was 0700 and Baby Face would be here to pick him up any minute. “I’m going to have to be going. I’ll come back as soon as I can. Get all the rest you need,” he said, still holding her hand. “Don’t forget, I need you... I love you, Sarah.” Why hadn’t he found the nerve to tell her that when she was conscious? Shaking his head, Harm prayed he’d get another chance.
After yesterday’s incidents, MPs were everywhere along the road between the camp and the prison. Harm’s detail arrived without incident.
He interviewed all of the same people Mac had. The witness whose name Gunny couldn’t remember had come down with second thoughts and recanted his story. The other two corroborating witnesses gave the same story, almost verbatim. Proving collusion was going to be easy. One of the last people brought in was the prisoner who had become violent with Mac.
“What did he say?” Harm asked the translator, Sergeant Andrew Kepo.
“Those were a lot of words for nothing. You just tell me what he said, I’ll decide whether or not it’s important.” Harm wanted to get back to Mac. He didn’t need to waste time with a well meaning Sergeant.
“He said it’s about time we smartened up. He heard the woman who didn’t know her place got what she deserved,” Sergeant Kepo repeated reluctantly.
Harm practically flew across the table. Knocking the chair out from under the detainee, Harm grabbed his throat and slammed him against the wall, his feet barely touching the floor.
“SIR!” Gunny Billings shouted, stepping up next to Harm. “Sir, the Colonel doesn’t need you in the brig.” Gunny’s voice was calm, but his eyes expressed anything but.
Harm took a deep breath. Not letting go, he looked at the interpreter. “You tell this… ‘gentleman’… if he ever disrespects a United States military officer again, he will answer to me personally.” Then Harm let the man fall to the ground, picked up his notes, and stormed out the door.
“We’re finished here,” Harm called over his shoulder.
Harm rode all the way back to the hospital in total silence. Billings and Kepo never said a word to him, and he didn’t bother initiating conversation. He had everything he needed to rule the allegations false. All he wanted now was to check on Mac. He could write up his report for Cresswell later.
He’d hoped that Mac might be awake when he reached the hospital. He understood it would somehow be less painful if she remained unconscious while her body continued to heal, but he needed to hear her voice, to know for sure she was going to wake up. What he hadn’t expected was to find Mac not only back on oxygen, but wearing a plastic face mask instead of the thin tubing. Her color seemed pale and some of the machinery that had sat unused before was now blinking with activity. Frantically, he turned to find a nurse.
“What’s going on?” He grabbed at the first medical person to come within reach.
“If you’ll wait a moment, I’ll find her nurse for you.” The older woman patted Harm’s arm gently. She wasn’t used to coming across concerned family members out in the field, but she’d had enough experience to recognize one when she saw one.
Harm sat at Mac’s bedside as he’d done so often over the last two days. Her skin was hot to the touch, and her breathing seemed so labored. Her chest would barely move and then suddenly heave outward. This pattern repeated itself several times before a nurse finally appeared with an explanation.
“Why is she on oxygen again?” Harm immediately demanded.
“She’s had some difficulty breathing. The doctors are concerned she may be coming down with pneumonia. It’s not uncommon after surgery like hers.” The nurse smiled reassuringly.
“Pneumonia,” Harm repeated. “She feels like she’s burning up.”
“Her white count has been going up. She may have developed an antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria, so the doctor has ordered a new cocktail of high strength antibiotics. We’re expecting the lab results back shortly. She has an infection somewhere. Wherever it is, these new antibiotics should knock it right out.” The nurse smiled again.
“How serious is this?”
“If it’s pneumonia, it’s always serious. The infection is unsettling, but she’s young and strong. It shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll be on duty for another few hours, if you need anything just ask for Judi.” Double-checking Mac’s lines, and machinery, the nurse returned to continue with her other responsibilities.
Harm remained glued to Mac’s side for the rest of the day. Thoughts of prison abuse, and reports for superior officers had completely fled. The only thing that mattered was having Mac wake up.
“Excuse me, sir.” Gunny cleared his throat. Mac wasn’t looking good, and at the moment, the Commander wasn’t looking much better. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but Colonel Howell wants to see you in his quarters ASAP.”
Harm simply nodded his head. Gently he placed Mac’s still warm hand on the bed, and walked out the door.
“Commander Rabb reporting as ordered, sir,” Harm saluted.
“At ease, Commander. I realize this is difficult for you. I know you and the Colonel have been…associated for some time. We’ve only had her here for a month, and half my platoon is waiting with bated breath for news of her status. Unfortunately, I still have a war to deal with.” Howell tossed the radio he’d been holding onto a stack of papers and sat down behind his desk.
“Yes, sir,” Harm acknowledged.
“Sit down, Commander.” Howell paused, watching Harm take a seat. “I’ve spoken with Cresswell. Apparently the Colonel’s replacement will be ready to travel in a couple of days.” The irony of that information hadn’t escaped Howell. “It looks like you’re my JAG until he gets here. Cresswell wants a report on the prison incident yesterday and an update on the Colonel every hour. I told him that wouldn’t be a problem. Will it?” Howell looked at Harm pointedly.
“No, sir.” Of course it was a problem. Harm didn’t want to leave Mac for a minute, not even to report to his commanding officer, but he would. He was a naval officer and duty always came first, no matter how distasteful it could be.
The report to Cresswell on the prison situation would be the easy part, or at least Harm thought it would.
“Sir, you have a phone call from Commander Rabb,” Petty Officer Coates’ voice announced through the intercom.
“Thank you, Petty Officer.” She had gotten much better at following protocol, and being less presumptuous. Cresswell was actually beginning to think the office wouldn’t be the same without her.
“How is she, Rabb?” Cresswell boomed into the phone, the tone of a commanding General mixed with a twinge of fatherly concern.
“Not well, sir. She’s got a bacterial infection that’s resistant to antibiotics and they’ve got her on oxygen. They’re worried she may have pneumonia.” Harm couldn’t hold back the small sigh that escaped.
“What’s the prognosis?”
“Yesterday they were cautiously optimistic. Today, I don’t know.”
“I’m sending Traci Manetti to replace you and the Colonel. I understand you’ve worked with her before?”
“Yes, sir. She’s a fine officer. Her language skills and training came in very handy in a serial murder case we worked together a few years ago in Italy.”
“So I’ve been told. Her Arabic isn’t as good as her Italian, but she’s been studying since 9/11 and is anxious to put it to use. She should be there in less than 48 hours.”
“Yes, sir.” Harm was a little concerned about Traci in a place like this, but then again, she was a naval officer.
“Now, about the incident at the prison. What in the name of God were you thinking attacking a prisoner?” Cresswell tried to take it easy on Rabb, he knew this thing with Colonel MacKenzie had to be hard on him.
“Sir?” Harm was a little startled Cresswell had heard about it so quickly.
“You’re not going to deny it, are you?”
“I … persuaded a disgruntled prisoner that Colonel MacKenzie was an officer in the United States Marine Corps and due the same respect as her male counterparts, sir.” Even on the other side of the world, Harm found himself standing at attention for the dressing down.
“Just how much persuasion did you use?” He should have realized this had something to do with MacKenzie. Impassioned officers. Cresswell shook his head remembering Coates’ understated comment.
“Sufficient to make my point, sir.” The scrawny twerp was lucky Harm hadn’t seen fit to snap him in two.
“I would prefer, Commander, if in the future you refrained from using your ‘persuasive’ skills outside of the courtroom. Is that clear?” Cresswell was counting on the word of the Marine colonel in charge of the prison that Rabb’s reaction wouldn’t reach the public eye.
“Crystal, sir.” Just thinking about the arrogant little troublemaker still had the hairs on the back of Harm’s neck bristling.
By the time his conversation with the General was over, it was already after 2200 hours. Harm knew visiting hours were long since over, but was acutely aware he'd have little spare time to spend with Mac tomorrow. Disregarding the time, he grabbed his cover and made his way back to the field hospital.
Field Hospital Iraq
Marine Captain Marjorie Griffin pretended to not notice the handsome lawyer on his way to Mac’s bedside. She’d heard from other nurses about his devotion and concern. As far as she was concerned, having loved ones around was the best medicine.
Harm held on to Mac’s hand all night, he told her about the idiot at the prison camp, he told her how much he liked Gunny Billings, and even admitted, “When you’re right, you’re right. These guys all look like such babies. When did we get so old, Mac?”
He told her about Traci coming out to fill Mac’s billet. Not remembering if he’d told Mac much about the case in Naples, he went into detail about that, even leaving in the part about finding Traci in a towel in his room. “I suppose it’s a good thing you’re not awake right now. I suspect this is one story you might not take so lightly if you were,” Harm chuckled. He’d rather face an awake, angry marine, then watch her lying there so helplessly.
He had no idea what time he laid his head down on the bed beside her, or when someone had slipped a pillow underneath it, but he did see it was 0500 when he felt a slight tap on his shoulder.
“Isn’t someone going to be missing you soon?” Margie asked sweetly.
“Not yet.” Harm opened one eye a little more fully, the other still struggling with sleep.
“I need to change her dressings before shift change.” Margie sounded almost apologetic about needing to move Harm out of the way. “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave her with me for a few minutes.”
Sighing loudly, Harm’s eyes locked on Mac’s sleeping visage. “Is she any better at all?”
“Her white count isn’t going up any more. That’s a good sign. I’m hoping this morning’s blood work up will show it’s come down.” Margie glanced at her watch, she could give him a few minutes.
“If I promise to stay out of the way and not ogle, could I just move to the other side of the bed? I only have another hour before I have to leave. I’d like to stay with her as long as I can.” Harm waited till he was almost finished with his plea before turning to look at the nurse.
“Well,” How could anyone say no to such sad eyes? “I suppose if you promise, it will be alright.”
Harm gave her his best smile, even if it didn’t reach his eyes.
“How did you wind up stationed so close to your wife?” Margie moved the blanket off to one side and piled the miscellaneous gauze and creams she would need next to her.
“She’s not my wife. We’re partners.” Harm was standing on the other side of the bed, his fingers carefully entwined with the fingers of Mac’s IV clad hand. “She doesn’t feel as warm this morning.”
“No, her fever isn’t as high as yesterday.” Margie had stopped what she was doing, and was staring intently at Harm, wondering if perhaps she should reconsider letting him stay. Marine colonels weren’t known for being very happy about having their privacy invaded. Though this relationship seemed much more emotionally involved than that of just colleagues, if he wasn’t family, exposing the Colonel, regardless of the circumstances, may not be the brightest career move Margie had ever made.
Noticing a lack of movement on the nurse’s part from the corner of his eye, Harm turned to give her his full attention.
“Is something wrong?” His eyes were filled with both fear and panic.
“No, no…” Well, she could do this and still be discreet. After all, how intimate is a six-inch gash down your leg, anyway? Margie decided to let him stay, though she would definitely have to ask him to leave when she checked the sutures on Colonel MacKenzie’s abdomen and shoulder. Pulling Mac’s gown back slightly above the bandage, Margie moved the blanket back closer to add extra coverage while she worked.
Not completely convinced by the nurse’s denial, Harm opted to watch her more carefully than he had originally intended. He couldn’t help the slow hiss of air he sucked in when the bandages were removed and the wound on Mac’s leg was completely exposed. Her entire thigh was several shades of red, black, purple and blue. There were blisters all along her thigh from the second-degree burns, and the gash on her leg looked as though it went from her hip to her knee.
Margie couldn’t help but hear Harm’s reaction to Mac’s injuries. Too busy to really look up, she could imagine his expression. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” she reassured him. “The discoloration will fade in a few days. Most of this is bruising from the surgery. The burns will heal too. This gash looks pretty awful, but nowadays they can do all sorts of things with scars. I wouldn’t worry about it.” Margie glanced up for a moment, flashing a quick smile to set his mind at ease.
Scarring, however, was the last thing Harm was worried about.
Base Camp Iraq
Somehow, Harm found the strength to go through the motions of his day. A few times he managed to get to the hospital briefly to check in on Mac, but Colonel Howell was right; the war wasn’t stopping simply because Mac was hurt.
Shuffling through a stack of papers on the desk, it was late afternoon when Harm looked up at the sound of footsteps across from him.
“Yes, sir.” Harm sprang up at the sight of Colonel Howell.
“Commander, please sit down before you fall down.” He waited while Harm retook his seat. “How long has it been since you’ve had any chow?”
“I grabbed something not too long ago, sir.”
“What, a can of soda and a granola bar? That doesn’t constitute breakfast or lunch and it’s certainly not going to pass for dinner. By those circles under your eyes, my guess is you haven’t had much sleep either.”
“Some, sir.” Harm could tell there was no way he was going to win this battle.
“I want you to go get some decent food and then grab a few hours rack time.”
“That won’t be necessary, sir. I’m doing just fine, but I appre…” Harm was cut off before he could even finish the thought.
“Consider it an order, Rabb. Finish up whatever is in front of you and then food, and sleep.”
“Aye, sir,” Harm responded to the Colonel’s departing six.
Despite his unwillingness, the minute his head hit the pillow, Harm was out like a light. Three hours later the Gunny was in his tent waking him up.
‘There’s been another incident and Colonel Howell needs you ASAP,” Gunny shrugged apologetically. He knew the Commander was spending his nights sitting by Colonel MacKenzie’s bed and hated having to wake him up, but when these rebels start blowing up marines, the local JAG doesn’t get the luxury of much sleep.
It was another three hours before Harm was free again. Looking down at his watch, how he wished he had Mac’s sense of timing, it was just after 2130 and he really needed to check on her.
Field Hospital in Iraq
A different nurse was on duty tonight, but like Margie, she knew about the devoted Commander, and also believed there was no medicine like a loved one. By 0400 Harm was once again sound asleep on a pillow on the bedside, with Mac’s hand comfortably entrenched in his. Not even in sleep was he letting go of her.
Slowly, Mac’s eyelids fluttered open. She couldn’t remember them ever weighing so much before. She was tired... no she was more than tired, she was weak. Gradually, she grew aware of a sharp throbbing pain running up her right leg. Wanting to move her hand, she realized it was trapped. No, that wasn’t right, it was some place warm and soft, nice. With a little more effort, she managed to open her eyes enough to notice the large blob on her hand.
The kink in his neck was beginning to affect Harm’s nap, but the tickling in his palm really got his attention. When he realized the tickling was actually Mac’s hand moving, he sat up straight, his eyes wide open.
“Mac, honey!” Harm had jumped up, practically knocking the chair over behind him.
Did he just call me ‘honey’? Mac’s eyes began roaming the room. I’m me, this is Harm, I have no idea where I am, he’s holding my hand, and he called me ‘honey’. Mac’s eyes dropped closed again.
“Sarah, if you can hear me open your eyes. I need you back. Please hon.”
I’m not crazy. He said it again. He called me Sarah and ‘hon’. I must be dead, maybe this is heaven. Mac wanted to move her lips, but her face wouldn’t cooperate. She needed to sleep. She was so tired.
Lifting her hand, Harm placed a soft kiss on the back of her palm. “Please come back to me. I love you,” he said softly to himself, convinced she’d fallen back asleep.
Mac’s eyes shot open incredibly quickly for a woman too weak to even think a few seconds ago. His head was down, and his lips were still softly caressing her hand. She was not dreaming. This was very real.
“Amm,” Mac managed to moan.
“Oh, thank God! I thought I might have really lost you this time, Marine. Are you feeling okay? No, never mind, don’t answer that. You had a humvee blow up around you, how could you feel okay? Just hang on, let me get the nurse.” Harm grudgingly set her hand back down on the bed and practically ran to find the nurse on duty.
Two minutes later he was back with an annoyingly cheerful woman at his side.
“Let’s see what all the commotion is about,” she smiled. “First, I’m going to check a few things, so hang on a minute.” Quickly, the nurse took Mac’s vitals and scribbled them down on her chart. “I’m going to take your oxygen mask off.” Taking the plastic mask off Mac’s face, the nurse replaced it with the less cumbersome tubing that rested under her nose.
“How’s that? Can you breathe okay?” she asked.
Mac nodded her head yes.
“Good. Is your chest feeling heavy at all?”
Mac shook her head no. She opened her mouth to try to speak, but the nurse put up her hand.
“Hold on, let’s get you some ice chips and moisten up that mouth first. Then you can start spouting orders. Ma’am.” The nurse left the room for a few seconds and returned with a cup of ice.
“I’m going to give her some now, but if she wants more, you keep feeding them to her.” The nurse told Harm. “She can have as much as she wants.” Turning back to Mac, she fed her a few chips then stood back and let Mac swallow. “Are you having any trouble breathing at all?”
“No.” Mac managed a small, raspy response.
“My leg. Shoulder hurts. Arm’s a little sore.” Talking was exhausting. She didn’t feel like mentioning the fire in her belly or pain in her other arm.
“That leg is going to hurt for a while, shoulder too, but we’ll bring you a little something to help for now. Do you need anything else?” The nurse was poised to leave for meds on Mac’s okay.
“Hun…gryyy.” Mac swallowed hard. She was definitely going to have her work cut out for her if simply talking was so demanding.
“We’ll see what we can do about that. For now, don’t talk too much. You’re still pretty weak and those lungs of yours need more rest.” Smiling broadly at Harm, the nurse turned and left them alone.
“You scared me half to death. I thought after the accident Christmas Eve nothing you did could scare me. I was wrong.” Harm picked up Mac’s hand again and noticed her eyes immediately dart down to their clasped grip. “Is this okay?” His heart stopped beating momentarily, unsure of how she’d respond.
“I like it.” She tried to smile.
Harm’s heart kick-started again. “Me too.” For the first time in days, his smile reached his eyes.
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