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Second Degree Part 4

By:   CLK

Chapter 22

JAG headquarters
Next morning

Harm reported for duty at 1030 hours.  Removing his cover, he stood waiting at Petty Officer Coates desk.

Good morning, sir. Its good to see you, she beamed.

Good morning, Jen.

How is the Colonel doing? Jen stepped around her desk and started towards the Generals door.

Shes doing much better, thank you.

Hes been waiting for you. Knocking on the door, Jen waited patiently for the General to call for her. Shed learned her lesson about entering his office too quickly. She didnt need a brick wall to fall on her.

Send him in, Petty Officer, his voice resounded through the door.

Good luck, sir, Jennifer whispered before opening the door to let Harm into the lions den.

Reporting as ordered, sir. Harm stood stiffly at attention.

Do you have any idea how much flack Im taking for your actions? Cresswell spat from behind his desk.

No, sir, Harm answered, still standing at attention.

A senior JAG officer, who also happens to be a decorated Naval officer, attacks an unarmed prisoner without provocation. I have heard from so much brass in the last forty eight hours Ive been blinded by the glare!

Yes, sir. This wasnt going the way Harm had anticipated.  He hadnt expected Cresswell to be annoyed enough to leave him standing at attention.

Want to tell me your side of the story?  Cresswell stood up and walked around to the front of his desk.

I was interrogating the prisoners that were reported to have been witness to the original complaint.  Of the three witnesses Colonel MacKenzie found willing to state theyd seen mistreatment, one recanted and the other twos stories were so similar it was obvious theyd been scripted.

That much I read in your report, Cresswell interrupted, folding his arms across his chest.

Yes, sir. We were interviewing the last prisoner. It was obvious, despite my lack of knowledge of Arabic, that he was being uncooperative.  When I insisted the Sergeant translate, I was informed the prisoner had made disparaging remarks about Colonel MacKenzie.

Thats when you attacked him?

No, sir.  I approached him rather closely. Harm chose his words carefully.

Approached him? Cresswell repeated sarcastically.

Yes, sir. The prisoner had his back against the wall when I informed him he was at no time to disrespect any officer in the United States military.  After the Sergeant had successfully translated my message, I retrieved my belongings and left the room.

You did not strike the prisoner at any time? Cresswell was beginning to consider the possibility that Commander Roberts assessment of Rabbs behavior might be more accurate than hed given Bud credit for.

No, sir.

Did you threaten him? Cresswell dropped his arms to his side.

I informed him if he disrespected ANY United States military personnel he would answer to me personally, but I was not specific, sir.

In other words, you threatened him. For a flash of an instant, Cresswells voice bore a surprising resemblance to that of Admiral Chegwidden.

I prefer to think of it as sharing information, sir. Harm tried to ignore the deep furrow that had just formed in the Generals brow.

Did this prisoner strike you?

No, sir.

Did he threaten you in any way?

Not that I am aware of, sir. But I also was aware of the prisoners previously violent outburst, and was cautious not to be caught off guard as Colonel MacKenzie had been.

You knew he was violent?

I knew of his attack on the Colonel, yes, sir.

Are you saying you were behaving in self-defense?

No, sir. Im saying I was prepared to defend myself if necessary. It was not necessary. The prisoner did not dispute my information.

Yes, information. Damn, Cresswell had to admit Rabb was good. You clearly did not threaten him?

No, sir. If Id have threatened him, I would have made it crystal clear that I would snap his scrawny little neck in two if he ever gave any trouble to another marine, SIR. Harm didnt realize he still had it in him, or his back, to remain at attention this long.

As if reading Rabbs mind, Cresswell ordered, At ease, biting back his own laughter. He never thought hed see the day when a squid would defend a jarhead with so much fervor.  I thought the Marines were supposed to be the Navys ground support, Rabb. Not the other way around.

Yes, sir.  Harm wasnt sure, but it looked to him like Cresswell was turning the corner.

You realize if Sergeant Kepo comes back with anything even minutely different from what you and Gunnery Sergeant Billings have reported, there is no way I can prevent HQ JAG involvement and most likely an article 32?  Cresswell was slowly making up his mind.  Rabb was indeed an impassioned officer who was willing to push the envelope and bend the rules, but not break them.  You didnt get the amount of medals this guy wore without being willing to push your limits.

Yes, sir. 

Have a seat, Rabb.  Cresswell took a seat behind his desk.

Harm sat stiffly in the chair. He was confident hed been accurate in his assessment of having swayed the General to his side, but he was apprehensive about what would be coming next.

The only bright spot in this horrid mess is that Commander Manetti seems to be in your corner and for whatever reason, she has the SECNAVs ear.

Yes, sir.

You already know that?

About the SECNAV? Yes, sir. It was he who recommended the Commander to our office a few years ago, and when a former colleague made some serious and erroneous accusations regarding Admiral Chegwidden and his command. Commander Manetti came to our rescue. Harm couldnt help the smile that crept onto one side of his face.

I see.  This could be his ace in the hole.  The Commander seems to be unswerving in her support for you.

Thank you, sir.

Dont thank me. Im not the one singing your praises.

Yes, sir. Understood. Thats it Rabb, open mouth, insert foot.

Tell me, Rabb, is it the cologne you wear? After shave maybe, shampoo? Perhaps a particular brand of deodorant or toothpaste?

Excuse me, sir? Harm had no idea what the General was rambling on about.

Petty Officer Coates, Commander Roberts, and now Commander Manetti.  Is there anyone you work with who isnt at least a little fascinated by you?

Harm sat completely speechless.  Visions of Megan in California telling him he made women fall in love with him cluttered what was left of his mind.

Commander? Cresswell was thoroughly amused by Harms look of complete and total bewilderment.

No disrespect intended, sir, but I believe you have overestimated my effect on people.

Yes.  Well, Commander Manetti informs me that Sergeant Kepo is expected back at base in the next 72 hours.  Once she gets his corroborating statement, Colonel Howell will forward the report to Colonel Thompson at the prison, and myself.  I will then forward a copy to the remaining brass who want your ass on a skewer.

Yes, sir. Harm tried not to flinch at that last mind picture.

If Kepos report varies even slightly with what we already have, I have no choice but to send your protg, Roberts, to investigate further.  The brass wont settle for anything less than senior staff from JAG headquarters.

Understood, sir.

Good. Now tell me, exactly what is going on with you and my chief of staff?

Chapter 23

Harm felt every inch of his skin cringe.  If only Cresswell understood what a loaded question that was!

Well, Commander? Rabbs need for time to carefully form his thoughts only succeeded in fueling what Cresswell had already concluded.

The Colonel is in no condition to care for herself completely without assistance, sir. I am her oldest, and most likely, closest friend. In a few more days, shell be able to tend to her injuries unassisted and Ill be able to return to full duty. A few more days. He hadnt really considered the truth in that.  Mac was moving more easily now, and the doctor had told them from the beginning that her burns would only require special care for about three weeks.  Harm was filled with a sudden surge of terror at no longer having an excuse to be with her, a horrible feeling of emptiness settling in its place.

Cresswell studied the man before him, his eyes a glass wall. Whatever was going through Harms mind, Cresswell was unable to read it.

Rabb, I like the Colonel. Shes a good marine and a good lawyer, but Im not going to risk my career over a nasty remark.  Thats the reaction of a man, not a colleague.

Im occasionally overprotective where the Colonels concerned, sir. Shes been through a lot in her life.

Yes. Cresswell paused to consider his next words.  Rabb, I dont particularly give a rats ass what two grown adults do in their off-duty hours.  I do, however, care if its going to in any way affect this office.  Cresswell fell silent reading Harms reaction.

Yes, sir.

I have been assured and reassured that your relationship with the Colonel, especially in this office, has always been nothing but professional.  I myself have observed nothing that I could consider even remotely questionable behavior. I have, however, also concluded if you two are just friends, Im Admiral Percy.  Im not accusing you of any impropriety, but theres something else going on here and I want to know about it before it becomes my problem.  Cresswell sat back, his arms folded, prepared to hear a long story.

Harm took a deep breath and drew on his best skills as a litigator to present his closing arguments.

Sir, the Colonel and I have run the gamut from an inexplicable life saving bond to barely speaking to each other. Weve been shot at and shot down.  Our friendship has survived oceans and continents, foreigners, blondes, and spies. I can only assure you that we have never crossed the line in an intimate sense, and if for some reason we ever reach a point in our lives where something changes and our relationship takes on a more permanent nature, I will most definitely give you a heads up. Harm took a deep breath and prayed that would be enough for Cresswell.  He had every intention of informing his commanding officer about his relationship with Mac. He just needed a little more time to get a handle on exactly what that relationship was going to be.  For all he knew, things could turn out very differently when all returned to normal. It wouldnt be the first time things didnt work out the way hed wanted with Mac once the dust had settled.

You havent told her, have you? Cresswell asked, his arms still crossed in front of him.

Excuse me, sir? Harms face clearly showed his confusion.

You havent told her youre in love with her. Cresswell unfolded his arms and leaned forward. You dont need to answer that.  I have no right, nor any intention, of interfering in your personal life or the personal lives of any of my staff.  I will, however, take the liberty of saying this much: you are most definitely in love with Colonel MacKenzie. Whether you know it, or admit it to yourself, or anyone else, I dont want to know, but I will give you this small piece of advice.  Women like that do not come along every day, and if you dont tell her how you feel, and what you want soon, youll wake up one day and find yourself too old for the dream.  Cresswell sat back in his chair.

Ill expect a report on MacKenzies condition by Friday, along with when we can expect you back on full duty.

Aye, aye, sir.

Is there any reason why you or she could not do some minor case review in the meantime?

No, sir. Weve been playing a lot of scrabble. I think the Colonel would appreciate a chance to do some real work.

Very well, Ill have some cases delivered to the Colonels apartment sometime this afternoon.

Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Harm was eternally grateful that this inquisition into his and Macs personal lives was over so quickly.

Dismissed, Cresswell ordered gruffly.

Aye, sir. Harm stood up and hurried to exit the room.

Oh, and Commander?

Yes, sir? Harm reluctantly turned to face the General.

Remember everything I told you.  Give it some serious thought, and make sure Im not the last to know when you figure it all out. Cresswell looked back down at a stack of papers on his desk.  He was sure he couldnt possibly be the only person to have given Rabb that particular advice. Almost losing the woman you love can sometimes be just the catalyst a stubborn man needs, along with a little prodding from his boss. Maybe this time Rabb was finally scared enough to do something about his feelings for MacKenzie. There was no doubt in Cresswells mind that their feelings were a two-way street.

Yes, sir. Harm stood briefly at attention, then turned on his heel.  He couldnt get out of the office, and home to Mac, fast enough.  Home to Mac, now that was an incredible thought.  He knew everything the General had said was correct.  He had admitted he loved and needed Mac to himself a long time ago. He had tried in his own way to tell her at the admirals dinner, but it was too much too soon.  He could only hope things were finally changing.

So many things were racing through Harms mind on the drive home.  He hadnt really paid attention to schedules, but this was already day three since Mac had been released from the hospital. He was fairly sure the three weeks of treatment with antibiotic ointment would be finished in a few more days.  Despite her lingering soreness, without the need to clean and dress the burns there was no reason for Harm to stay around. Deep down, he was terrified that when Mac was back in full marine mode, they would revert to the holding pattern theyd been in since summer, washing away all the progress since Christmas and Iraq.

Now he was even more anxious to get home to Mac. In a few more days home would be an empty loft on the other side of town.  Stepping more heavily on the gas pedal, Harm was determined not to waste any more time than necessary away from her side.

Macs apartment

Harm let himself into the apartment.  Glancing quickly into the room, he dropped his cover on top of the armoire and took off his coat.

Mac, Im back. Draping his coat over the back of a chair, he resisted the urge to call out, Honey, Im home!

Im in here, Mac called from the kitchen.

What are you doing? Coming up behind her, Harm wrapped his arms carefully around her waist.

Fixing lunch. You havent eaten yet have you? Mac continued chopping peppers.

What are you making? Resting his chin on her shoulder, he peeked over at the counter.

Cheese and broccoli soup, and salad. She smiled broadly, even though he couldnt see her face.

It smells wonderful, and so do you. His nose sniffed into her neck.  She smelled like almonds and vanilla.  Without thinking, his lips began nibbling at the exposed spot above her shirt collar.

When Mac dropped the knife in the sink with a loud clunk, Harm jumped back abruptly.

Are you okay? Im sorry, I shouldnt have done that. Searching her hands for any sign of blood, Harm finally looked up into her eyes.

Would you stop apologizing. Mac picked up the knife again.

What happened? Harm was completely confused.

That felt nice, chopping vegetables didnt seem so important anymore, she shrugged.

Really? Harm wrapped his arms around her again. Maybe his fears were unfounded.  There was no way he would have felt free to hold her this way a few weeks ago, and she most definitely was not pushing him away anymore.

I guess youre growing on me, Mac chuckled.

Then you wont mind if I do this? Taking the knife out of her hand and setting it down on the counter, he carefully turned her around and pulled her into his arms, his lips gravitating instinctively towards hers.

Without thinking, Mac raised her left arm to snake around Harms neck and promptly let out a sharp whimper, pulling her arm back down to her side, simultaneously breaking the kiss.

Oh, God, Im sorry.  Now what did I do? Harm was afraid to touch her.

Not you, me. I forgot about my shoulder. I should have left my hands on your hips. Her head dropped to rest on Harms chest, her breathing heavy from the pain. God, I hate this.

What? Drawing soothing circles on Macs back, Harm tried not to let himself think the worst; that he had been wrong in his previous assessment and something about this new, closer relationship might be upsetting her.

Feeling fine one minute and so broken the next.

Harm didnt know what to say. He hated seeing her in pain, and he especially hated that his selfish desires had prompted this pain.  He was simply going to have to stop thinking with his hormones. Somehow.

Chapter 24

Hows your shoulder feeling now? Harm asked between spoonfuls of soup.

Better, thanks.  It doesnt really bother me at all, so long as I dont lift it any higher than this. Mac raised her arm straight out to show Harm.

I know you dont want me to say it, but I really am sorry. 

I told you it wasnt your fault.  Why dont you tell me how it went with the General instead?

Not quite what I expected.  Manetti and the SECNAV are on my side.  I think Howell is sitting on the fence, but leaning in my direction.

Hes a good man, Harm.  Hell handle the situation fairly. Mac took a sip of her soup, silently thankful for how much better her arm was feeling.

I got the impression hes what stopped this from going directly to an article 32. Harm stabbed his fork at a piece of lettuce. Kepo is out on special ops maneuvers.  Hes expected back within 72 hours. If his story jives with the rest of ours, this whole thing will be behind us by Monday.

Is there any reason his story wouldnt match? Mac set her spoon down in the bowl and stared pointedly at Harm.  She knew from their conversation the other night that he was holding something back.

No, there shouldnt be. Harm was playing mindlessly with his soup. Apparently Billings, like Harm, had neglected to mention in his report that the prisoner was not standing against the wall of his own accord, but held there with the aid of Harms hand on his throat.  If Kepo mentioned that little tidbit of information in his report, thered be no way to avoid an article 32.

Then whats eating at you? It was Macs turn to stab at the salad.

Cresswell asked what was going on with us. Harm caught her eyes without raising his head all the way.

What did you say?

As little as possible.


Mac, Im not sure I understand whats happening right now, or what will happen when you dont need me here anymore. I told him we were the best of friends, weve never slept together, at least not in the biblical sense, and if that were to change Id let him know.

All the color had drained from Macs face, and her eyes were bugging out of her head.  You said THAT?

Well, not in those exact words, but that was more or less the drift of the conversation, Harm shrugged. Hes also sending over some case files for us to work on.  He wants an update on your status after you see the doctor on Friday.  Harm didnt want to discuss that aspect of their lives just yet.

He went from our lack of sexual relations to working a case load, just like that? Mac snapped her fingers. She couldnt believe Harm had actually discussed their personal lives so casually with their CO.

Pretty much, yeah. What time is your appointment Friday?  Harm really, really didnt want to go there now.  He needed to redirect this conversation, and quickly.

Eleven hundred hours. Still stunned, Mac was slowly resigning herself to the situation.

Harm flashed a quick smile.  I have a question for you.

Shoot. She was having a hard time shifting gears.  How could Harm be so calm?  How could he discuss their sex lives, or lack thereof, with their CO?

Why do you smell so delicious?

Mac blushed several different shades of red.  Harm!

Im serious. Yesterday you smelled like your shampoo, sour apples.  Now you smell like almonds and vanilla.

You noticed? Once again Macs spoon was resting still in the bowl. All concerns over the General were completely gone.

Yes. Harms voice dropped lower than he intended.  I notice everything about you.

Positive the blush was rising in her cheeks again, Mac dropped her gaze and poked at her salad. I filled the tub with a few inches of warm water, poured in some almond vanilla bath oils, then I put the kitchen step stool in the tub and climbed in.  I just wanted to feel really clean.

MAC! Why didnt you wait until I was back?  Youre not that steady on your right leg, and you could have hurt yourself badly if youd slipped and fallen.

And what would you have done? Held my hand? Mac stifled a laugh.

No, but if anything had gone wrong at least I would have been here.

Thats right, on the other side of a locked door. Im okay. Nothing happened to me, but thank you for your concern. Mac rolled her eyes and took another bite of salad.

It was futile arguing with a marine. Harm resolved simply to not leave her alone again, and finished the rest of his lunch buried in idle chitchat.

By mid-afternoon Petty Officer Coates had dropped off a mountain of paperwork.  Harm and Mac spent the next two days watching TV and plowing through case files. Ever since the incident in the kitchen, Harm had refrained from even the most modest of pecks on the cheek. It was one thing knowing his advances were welcome, but it was entirely another thing having them cause her pain. They had developed a smooth morning and bedtime routine, any awkwardness or embarrassment had been left by the wayside days ago.  Harm had waited all these years to be free to touch her at will.  He could wait a little longer.

Every day Mac was moving with increasing agility.  Even Harm had to admit in just the last five days, the burns on her leg seemed to have made as much progress as they had in the previous two weeks.  The dark red color had faded, leaving a blotchy pink pattern in its stead. The blisters had almost completely disappeared, and even the scar from the shrapnel wound seemed less frightening.

Bethesda Hospital
Friday late morning

Sitting in the waiting room while Mac was inside with the doctor, Harms mind kept drifting off to visions of Mac that morning.  Hed gone to sleep in his t-shirt and sweats, as hed done every night for the last five days. Hed noticed Mac had to be feeling better because she would wake up in slightly different positions from how shed fallen asleep the night before.  The first two nights they were home she hadnt moved an inch.  The next night, she bent her right knee towards Harm, and stretched her arm out between them. Then the following night, she had actually rolled slightly onto her right side, but this morning was the most startling.  Mac had actually scooted only a few inches away from him, her left arm, bad shoulder and all, rested heavily on his chest. 

He had, much to his own surprise, found himself waking up every morning in exactly the same position hed fallen asleep in; on his back, hugging the edge of the bed.  His fear of moving and somehow hurting Mac outweighed his bodys tendency to toss and turn through the night.

Harm was flipping through another magazine, not paying any attention to what he was looking at, when he saw Mac coming through the door.  Immediately he stood up, but stopped himself from approaching her.  It was probably best if he let her come to him.  He didnt want to crowd her, especially not now.

Judging by that grin on your face, all is well? Harm placed his hand at the small of her back as she walked past him.

Burns are healing perfectly, according to Dr. Schmell. I can suspend the ointment and bandages but need to continue the oral antibiotics for another ten days.  I can start physical therapy anytime, and look Mac held her cast free wrist, now wrapped in an ace bandage, up in the air. He thought I might need an air cast for a couple more weeks, but the x-rays looked good, and best of all, Im authorized to return to work on Monday if I want.  Mac was bubbling over with excitement like a kid in a candy store.

That soon? Harm still had his hand on her back as they entered the elevator.

Well, it wouldnt be full time. Im only authorized for half days. Dr. Schmell is estimating three weeks of therapy before Ill be able to return to full duty.  Ive got an appointment next Thursday to see how Im progressing. Mac was grinning from ear to ear as they stepped off the elevator.  She was still sore, and had aches and pains, but she was so ready to have her life back.

What do you say to a celebratory lunch, anyplace you want? Harm wasnt going to let Mac see how disappointed he was that this would be his last day staying in her apartment.

Caf Italia.  I have a sudden urge for fettuccini alfredo. Mac grinned up at Harm before climbing into the car.

And after lunch, you can call in the good news to Cresswell. Harm closed the car door behind her, oblivious to the ashen look on her face.

Cresswell, Mac sighed to herself.  That was one conversation she was not looking forward to.

Chapter 25

Harm had just taken the last bite of his chicken when the loud chirping of his cell phone echoed through the restaurant.


"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir, but the General wants you to report to his office ASAP," Petty Officer Coates informed Harm reluctantly.

Did he say what about?

No, sir.

Very well, Im having lunch. Ill dash home for my uniform and be there within the hour.

Ill tell the General to expect you shortly. Coates hung up the phone with a sigh. The General was in a crusty mood.

Putting his phone back in his jacket pocket, Harm looked up at Mac. Cresswell wants me in the office right away.

So I gathered.  Any idea why?

Coates didnt know.

Do you think it has something to do with Kepo? Maybe hes back and has made his report. Mac fiddled nervously with the food on her plate while Harm flagged down the waitress, signaling for the check.

Could be, Harm shrugged.

So, this should all be behind us soon?  Mac watched the waitress drop the check on the table

If there arent any more problems, yes.  Harm read the tab quickly, pulled a few bills from his wallet, and dropped them on the table.

Why would there be any more problems? Mac reached for her purse and slowly raised herself out of the chair.

No reason. Extending his hand, Harm stepped around to escort Mac out of the restaurant.

Stiffening her shoulders, Mac dug her heels into the floor. What arent you telling me?

What? Harm was momentarily startled by her odd behavior before it dawned on him what she was implying. I was thinking about paying the bill, calculating how long its going to take to drop you off at your place, get back to mine for a clean uniform, and then back to headquarters.  Theres nothing covert going on here. I promise. He nudged her along.

Youre right. Im sorry. Why do you need to go home for a clean uniform? Mac scolded herself silently for overreacting.

Looking at her a little oddly.  Are you suggesting I show up in a dirty uniform, or perhaps in my jeans? Holding the door, Harm watched Mac walk past.  She really was moving more easily, he thought.

Harm, youve got a uniform at my place. Mac looked at him, truly astonished that he had forgotten that fact. Hed just picked the uniform up with a few of her things from the dry cleaner yesterday.

Gees, thats right.  Well, good, you just shaved about 40 minutes off my flight plan. Harm flashed her a grin, hoping to relieve her concerns.  If the huge smile on her face was any indication, he hadnt lost the old flyboy charm yet.

Macs apartment
Twenty minutes later

Thoughts of what the General wanted that couldnt wait until Monday played back and forth in his mind.  Hed showered in record time, and was now shaving when he thought he heard sounds coming from the bedroom. Turning his lather-covered face, he noticed Mac frozen just inside the bedroom door.

IIm sorry.  I just wanted to change out of these clothes.  I thought you would still be in the shower. She hadnt expected to find the bathroom door open. Although he was already dressed in his trousers and a t-shirt, Mac couldnt help but feel she had somehow invaded his privacy. Her brain shouted at her to move, but she couldnt.  Fascinated, she stood watching Harm shave.

No problem. Ill be done in a minute. Waving his razor in the air, he turned back towards the mirror.

Without any conscious effort, Mac found herself slowly moving closer to the bathroom door.   Her eyes were drawn to Harms bulging biceps, as though pulled by some unseen magnetic force.  She couldnt have looked away if shed wanted to.  It had been a long time since shed allowed herself the indulgence of just watching his exquisite form.  Time had filled out what was once a lean frame, but he was still a magnificent sight.  Leaning against the doorframe, she couldnt help but wish that she were that razor, gripped firmly between his long fingers and skillfully gliding across his rough skin.

Do you think the reason fewer men need facelifts has something to do with shaving? Mac had no idea where that thought came from, but her mouth was open and the words had tumbled out before her brain could engage.

What? Harm tapped the razor against the sink and glanced in her direction, obviously confused.

I mean, all the contortions you have to put your face through to shave. Maybe all that exercising actually helps keep the facial muscles from sagging. Not that she could picture anything of his ever sagging.

Could be. A little confused by the odd conversation, Harm rinsed off the razor and set it down on the side of the sink.

It looks good on you. Macs mouth was engaging without her brain again.

The shaving cream?  Harm grabbed a towel and wiped down his face.

My bathroom. You look comfortable. A bright red blush flushed her face.

Maybe too comfortable, Harm mumbled.

What do you mean?

Nothing, Mac. He turned around and grabbed his shirt off the hanger.

Dont, Harm. Were finally learning to really talk to each other, dont stop now. What did you mean?

Okay. Harm shrugged into his shirt. I like it here, very much. Maybe too much. He moved closer to where Mac was standing as he buttoned his shirt.  The only problem is, according to your doctor, it doesnt look like youll be needing me around here anymore.

Macs breath caught in her throat.  She hadnt thought about that.  Shed been so happy to move forward in her treatment, it hadnt occurred to her that it might mean leaving Harm out of it.  A cold chill shot through her.  She didnt want to do this without him.

Stalling for time, she turned around by the bed and picked up Harms tie.  Spinning around slowly, she found him standing right in front of her.  Heres your tie, she whispered awkwardly, stretching her hand into his hard chest.

Mac was standing so close Harm could feel her breath against his chin. Thanks. He wanted desperately to sweep her into his arms and beg her to let him stay, now and forever, but he was going to have to deal with his feelings on his own. Even though theyd become more comfortable with each other, pushing too hard, too fast was still something he had to be careful to avoid.

Maybe we should talk about this. Mac bit lightly on her lower lip.

Cresswells waiting, theres no time now. Taking half a step back, giving himself some much-needed space, Harm let his hand momentarily caress her shoulder before abruptly pulling away.

Shall we finish this conversation over dinner? Ill cook. Mac tried to smile.

Id like that, but I dont want you cooking. If Im not back in time to help with dinner, Ill pick something up on the way home.  Tightening the knot on his tie, Harms heart skipped a beat when Mac reached forward to straighten it for him.

Works for me, sailor. It took all her restraint not to run her fingers down the front of his shirt and undo all those little white buttons.  Of course, it made more sense to try a bold move like that when she would actually be in physical shape to follow through.

Tugging slightly on the tie, Mac leaned up and kissed his lips as lightly and tenderly, as she could, hoping she could convey everything she couldnt find the words to tell him. Ill be waiting for you.

I wont be long. Tingling from his head to his toes, Harm drew on all his years of military discipline to walk away.

Chapter 26

General Cresswells office

It seems Commander James Gatling has decided to assist the Navy in retiring its F-14s.  This morning he flew his tomcat and RIO into the drink, as you Navy people like to say.  While on target for approach to the Seahawk he lost radio contact, overshot the deck, and flew straight into the water.  His RIO managed to eject but hasnt regained consciousness.  I want you there when he does.

And the pilot, sir?

Cresswell shook his head no.  Petty Officer Coates has some background information for you. Youll be delivering a replacement bird thats been ferried to Andrews from Oceana. Noticing the twinkle in Harms eyes. Cresswell almost growled, Dont look so unhappy. then checked his watch, Youre ride is waiting, Commander. Dismissed.

Aye, aye, sir. Coming briefly to attention, Harm turned on his heel already working through a checklist of things to do.

Macs apartment building
A short while later

Debating with himself, Harm hesitated outside Macs door.  Should he use the key as hed been doing all week, or was it time to go back to ringing the bell?  He hadnt moved out yet, though if he wanted to get technical about it, he had never really moved into her apartment either. He was more of a houseguest.

He hated that thought: being a guest in Macs life.  He wanted to be a part of her life, a big part of it. He wanted to belong here.  Pulling the key out of his pocket, he slid it into the lock and quickly turned the latch.

Honey, Im home!  This time he couldnt resist teasing as he closed the door behind him.

Did you bring dinner?  Mac set the book she was reading down on the table, grinning inwardly at his bold announcement.

I didnt have time. Walking very slowly across the room, Harm sat next to Mac.

Something was wrong, she could feel it.

Not planning on staying? she tried to tease, pointing to the overcoat he was still wearing.

I I have to catch a plane. Stretching his hand out, he took hold of Macs.  Theres been an incident with a tomcat.  Im being sent out to the Seahawk to investigate.  I had to stop at my place to pack a bag.  I know we were supposed to have dinner and talk if you still want to, talk that is, when I get back I

Ill be waiting for you, Mac interrupted. The electricity surging between their hands was warming her entire body.  Shed been a nervous wreck killing time waiting for Harm to get back from Ops.  Part of her had worried about what the General wanted, while the other part was concerned over how this conversation was going to go.  It looked like it didnt matter either way. Her worst fear was about to become her reality.  She was going to have to get used to being alone again.

I took the liberty of speaking with Bud about your therapy. Now that he and Harriet have hired a nanny to help with the twins, shell be able to take you to your therapy appointments until I get back.  That is, if you want me to I mean if you still needwell, help.

Thank you. Mac didnt dare say anything else.  This wasnt what she had prepared herself for, and she didnt think she could take dragging this conversation out any longer. She also didnt think she could let go of his hand. It had been her lifeline so often these last few weeks.

Jen is also bringing over a pizza, Harm tossed out at the last minute, letting go of her hand and getting up.

Harm? Mac stood up beside him.

Okay, shoot me. I wanted to make sure you ate something and since I knew I wouldnt have time for an extra stop if I wanted to come say goodbye, I called Jen and asked her to bring a pizza over on her way home.  It might be nice if you invited her in to eat. A Rabb grin slowly crept up one side of his face.

Mac swung her arm to smack him playfully and unexpectedly lost her balance, landing squarely against Harms chest with a thud.

Instinctively his arms snaked around her, helping with her balance and indulging in the sweet pleasure of her soft body pressed against his.

Oh, Mac, he groaned. Unable to help himself, he dragged her more tightly against him, their lips met in a clashing of desire.  His heart racing frantically, his hands slid down her back lightly caressing her six, before swirling upward again. All the blood in his veins quickly flooded in another direction altogether. 

A fleeting memory of needing to leave, of being late, and of his beloved tomcat waiting, had just begun to take hold of his thoughts when Mac let her hand drop to Harms six and none too gently pushed his hips into hers.  All coherent thought escaped with the gush of air that rushed from his lungs. 

If it hadnt been for the sound of the doorbell, and the light knock that followed, Harm would have been willing to face any charges the Navy could think of to stay in this womans arms.

Colonel, are you there? Jennifer Coates called through the door.

Mac pulled her lips away from Harms and called over his shoulder, Coming, Jen.  Straightening her clothing, and taking a deep breath, she backed away slowly.  Harm turned and headed for the door, thankful for his winter coat.

Oh, Commander, I didnt realize you were still here. Jen wasnt sure exactly what to make of the delay.  She knew the Colonel was convalescing, but still, what could possibly have taken them both so long to get to the door?

Harm immediately sensed her unease, Sorry, we were just putting a few things together.  I need to go, or Ill be late. Make sure she eats something. Harm waved a finger at Jen.  Jen and Harriet had both promised to check up on the Colonel during his stay on the Seahawk, but he hadnt seen any need to mention that to Mac.

Yes, sir.  Ill make sure shes all tucked in safe and sound before I leave, sir. Jen smiled broadly at Harm before shooting an apologetic glance in Macs direction.

Well pick up the other matters when I get back. Harms words were more of a question than mere commentary. They had so much to say before, and so much more to cover now.

Ill look forward to it. More than he could possibly know, she smiled demurely.  Not a single muscle, burn or stitch was hurting her at the moment.  Oh, yes she most definitely would be looking forward to his return.

Chapter 27

USS Seahawk

Commander Rabb, I gather youve given up landing transports on carriers? Captain Johnson nodded.  He was glad to see Rabb on his ship again, but not under the current circumstances.

Yes, sir. Harm stifled a chuckle.

Its good to see you in uniform this time.

Its good to be back, sir.

I want to know what happened, Commander. Johnson got straight to the point

Has Lt. Benson regained consciousness yet? 

No, and hes the only one with all the answers.  We lost communication on final approach.  Theres no way we can retrieve any of the bird in these waters. It looks like youll have your work cut out for you, Commander, but Ive learned to expect the unexpected from you.

Ill do my best, sir. Permission to leave the bridge?

Granted. Johnson watched Harm make his way out the hatch. He had been more than pleased to hear Rabb would be the one investigating this.

Harm made his first trip to sick bay to check on the RIOs progress. 

Whats the prognosis? he asked the doctor.

Pretty much what youd expect from punching out.   He wasnt in the water very long, so hypothermias not an issue.  Hes pretty banged up, but nothings broken.  The bullet wound was minor.  He could wake up any minute or in a few days.  We just have to wait and see.

Bullet wound? This wasnt what Harm had expected. 

It was minor, the doctor shrugged.

Why did he have a bullet wound?   Nothing in the report Coates had given him at Ops, or anything in Captain Johnsons comments, had indicated that the RIO had suffered any non-crash related injuries.

Didnt anyone tell you?  They took fire on that last run and were flying home in an injured bird. The doctor seemed surprised that Harm hadnt been told, but not as surprised as Harm looked.

Thanks, Doc.  Looks like I need to talk with a few other people.  Harm nodded and turned down the hall. He had a long list of people to interview, starting with Gatlings wingman.

The more people Harm spoke with, the more the possibilities were mounting. Radio communication was sketchy after theyd taken fire.  At the time both the pilot and the RIO reported being fine, but if the RIO had been shot, it was entirely possible that the pilot had been more seriously wounded as well.

The radio only working intermittently could have explained why the pilot didnt report all the pertinent facts.  Either he reported only the information he considered priority, or maybe he had thought everything had been received.

During final approach, it appeared that all systems were working fine for landing, but when the radio went out permanently at the last minute, any other number of instruments could have gone out along with it. Gatling could have simply lost control and had no choice but to ditch. 

Over the next couple of days Harm interviewed the wingman, the crew on the deck who watched the flyby, the mechanics who worked on the plane before take off, and anyone who ever shared so much as a smile with the two officers in the last six months.  Harm had seen the computer re-enactments, and listened to the tapes of the mission over and over until he could recite them in his sleep.  Hed drawn his own conclusions, but the only one who could give him definitive answers showed no signs of waking up anytime soon.

JAG Headquarters
Monday afternoon

Coates hung around to eat dinner and watch movies with Mac until late Friday night. When Jen refused to leave until she had climbed into bed, Mac couldnt help but laugh. I promised the Commander, and hes one person I dont plan on breaking my word to, Jen insisted.

The weekend went by quickly, without any catches.  Mac was moving around well by herself.  Harriet and Bud had come by and picked her up so she could spend most of Saturday afternoon and evening at their house. Chloe called every morning to make sure she was doing well. Coates called Sunday to see if she wanted company, and of course Harm had called every day at least once to report in.  Mac knew he was really checking up on her, but she didnt mind.  She looked forward to it. 

By Monday afternoon, Mac was sitting at her desk wishing the email icon would sound on her computer, when she was distracted by Jennifers knock at the open door.

Yes. Mac nodded for Jen to come in.

I thought you might like to know maam.  The General just got his report from Iraq on the Commander.  Based on further corroborating evidence, Commander Manetti is recommending the dismissal of all charges against Commander Rabb. Jen tried to contain her own enthusiasm. Shed been on pins and needles over this one all week.

Thank you, Jennifer.  Has Commander Rabb been informed yet?

I believe hes on the phone with the General now, maam.

General Cresswells office
Same time

There are a few ruffled feathers on this end, but the SECNAV knows how to deal with it.  What have you got for me on Gatling and Benson?

Nothing new, sir.  According to the audiotapes from the mission, they took quite a bit of fire, possibly much more than they had indicated in their initial transmissions.  Lt. Benson was hit but made no mention of it when reporting to the ship.  From what Ive been able to put together, Im leaning towards the theory that Gatling couldnt control the sick bird anymore and had no choice but to ditch her to save the deck crew and his RIO.  The only way I can prove that, sir, is if Benson wakes up.

I see.  Well, with Colonel MacKenzie back I dont see any reason why we cant spare you a few more days.  We owe Commander Gatling that much.

Aye, aye, sir.  Harm disconnected the call and took a deep breath.  There was nothing harder for a pilot than knowing he couldnt keep his plane in the air and that emergency procedures would be unavoidable.

Macs office
1430 hours

I really appreciate your doing this, Harriet. Mac gathered a few files into her briefcase, but hesitated before picking it up.  Shed been looking forward all day to starting therapy this afternoon. She was still walking rather slowly and with a heavy limp, the use of her left arm continued to be limited, and she was increasingly desperate to erase all the outward signs of her recent ordeal.  She was especially desperate to be back to normal by the time Harm returned from the Seahawk.  Shed done a lot of thinking over the weekend, and shed made up her mind: before anything, or anyone else, came between them, she was going to make it perfectly clear exactly what she wanted from her relationship with Harm.

Would you like some help with that, maam?

No, its not that heavy, thank you. Mac heaved the case off her desk with her right hand and let out a short sigh of relief. Her entire day had been filled with new challenges that tested the limits of her recovery.

Youre sure you dont need some help? Harriet pushed just a little, extending her hand towards the briefcase in case Mac accepted her offer.

You sound as bad as Harm, Harriet.  Im fine. Lets go, therapy awaits.

Ive been called a lot of things in my life, but no one has ever compared me to a gorgeous navy pilot before. Harriet couldnt help but giggle as she followed a chuckling Mac out of the office.

You two sound like youre having way too much fun to be going to physical therapy.  Youre not holding out on me, are you? Bud questioned, pleased to see his wife and Mac enjoying their time together.

Harriet and Mac simply rolled their eyes and sauntered past him, leaving an amused but bewildered Bud in their wake.

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