“Fate?” Mac asked, pulling back from the kiss for a moment to look at Harm with a bemused half-smile.
He kissed her again, mumbling, “Coin toss.”
“Mmm,” she said, appraising for a moment until he distracted her with a line of kisses from her neck back up to her lips.
He stood up, still kissing her, kicked the door shut, turned and backed up, leading her over to the couch.
She laughed and gave him a playful push; he sat down, pulling her down with him.
As she straddled his lap, hands on his shoulders, she said, “Why did we wait this long?”
He leaned back, hands on her hips, and looked at her, “I have no idea.”
She fingered the buttons of his shirt. “Oh, really?”
He glanced down at her hands, then looked up at her, a half smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. “I think we both know.”
She let out an abrupt laugh and shook her head, “Do not start that again. That’s EXACTLY why it took us this long—” she paused to push his shirt completely open, “—to do this,” and she kissed his bare shoulder. She sat up and said, “Now, talk, sailor.”
She bent back over to kiss the other shoulder, and he said in a slightly strangled voice, “It’s very difficult,” as she kissed his neck, “to think,” and his breath came a little faster, “let alone talk,” and she breathed on his ear, “when you do that.”
She sat up, grinning. “Okay, I’ll stop.”
“Oh no you don’t,” he said, sliding his hands under the bottom edge of her shirt to find the skin on her back. He pulled her closer and said into her collarbone, “Don’t you ever stop. Not now.”
She stroked his hair as he ran his lips lightly across her skin, and said, “Harm, I’ve been waiting for so long for you to tell me you wanted me, I need to hear it.”
He pulled back just enough to kiss her, reached up, took each of her hands, and looked into her eyes. “Sarah, I love you. And I never want to hold you back. I never wanted to make my...desire for you more important than your happiness. I always wanted you, always.”
She smiled. “Your desire for me is my happiness. Part of it, anyway. But a girl likes to be told.” With a grin, she pulled her shirt upward and over her head. His hands followed, running lightly up her sides, down her back, pulling her closer.
He rested his lips against her skin just above her bra and closed his eyes, feeling her chest move with each breath. He paused, savoring the feel of her against his cheek, then said, “I want you more than I’ve wanted anything in my life.”
She laughed. “More than you wanted to find your father? More than you wanted to fly? More than you wanted to be in the Navy?”
His voice was quiet but intense as he answered. “I needed to find my father. But it was enough to know what had happened to him. I’ve given up flying before; every fighter pilot knows that if he lives long enough he’ll have to stop at some point. And I gave up the Navy for you once already. I knew you were in danger. It was the only way. And there was not one question in my mind which was more important. When I had to choose the Navy or you, I chose you. I’d choose you again. I’ll always choose you. I want to continue choosing you for the rest of my life. I need to know that you are happy. I want you to be happy with me. I...” He faltered for a moment. He pulled back and looked up at her. “I wanted to show you, not tell you. I thought it would mean more. And whenever I was ready to tell you, something or someone would get in the way.”
He reached up, touched her face, and she realized her cheek was wet with tears. She blinked hard, and he shifted, leaned up to kiss the salt off her face and hands and lips. Then he asked, “And you, Sarah MacKenzie? What do you want?”
She punctuated her words with kisses. “I want you. I want to marry you. I want to live with you and fight our battles together. I want both of us to have meaningful work, but at the end of the day I want to come home and be in your arms. I don’t know if I can get pregnant, but I know I want to try, because I want to feel your child grow inside of me and I want you to have the chance to be the father you deserve to have the chance to be. And right at this moment, I really,” she reached down and flicked open the top button on his jeans, “really want to make love with you.”
Between kisses, he said, “Sounds good to me,” and unhooked her bra. “All of it.”
She laughed, “All?”
He worked at the closure to her pants for a moment, “Well, maybe only if you help me get these off of you.”
She chuckled. “Aye aye, Captain.”
As she stood up, he glanced ruefully across the sea of boxes between them and the bed, the boxes on the bed. “I’m afraid that my apartment is suffering certain limitations in the bed department.”
When he looked back, she was shimmying her pants down her hips, and his breath caught. “But I’m sure this will be just fine.”
She stood in front of him, completely naked, and raised an eyebrow at his pants. “Your turn.”
He stood, leaving his shirt on the couch, and shucked off his pants and socks.
She laughed, and hooked her thumbs in the waistband of his boxers. “These really have to go.”
He watched as she slid them down over his hips and groaned a little as his erection bobbed free, tantalizingly close to her face. Almost numbly, he stepped out of the boxers when they reached his ankles.
All he managed to get out was, “So beautiful”, and she was standing close, kissing him again, hands flying across his skin, at his face, on his back, cupping his ass. He touched her cheek with one finger, as if she were made of porcelain and might break, then traced his fingers down her back.
He stopped for a moment, and stepped back. She cocked her head to one side, and he said, “I want to look at you.”
She blushed and cast her gaze down, then deliberately looked up at him. “Like what you see, flyboy?”
“No,” he answered, then when she frowned, continued, “I love what I see.” He sat back down on the couch, and reached up to her. “Now, where were we?”
She laughed and straddled his knees again, running her fingers up and down his bare chest. “Right about here, before our clothes so rudely interrupted.”
He ran a finger down her chest, circled her nipple with it, almost idly, then said quietly, in the general direction of her bellybutton, “I think that my condoms are packed.”
She slid closer to him, leaned in and said, “Do you always use them?”
He looked away and answered very quietly, “I always have.”
She gave a wry smile and said, “I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get pregnant.”
He looked up at her. “It’s your decision. I want you. On your terms. You know where I stand on the subject of kids.”
“You’d stop right now, wouldn’t you, if I said I wanted to use protection.” She ran her fingers down his belly.
“Long enough to find protection,” he answered. “On your terms, Mac. Always.”
“And if I don’t want you to wear a condom?” There was a small tinge of challenge in the question.
“That, too, is your prerogative.” He leaned forward, lifted her a little, and ran his tongue around her nipple. She inhaled sharply.
He flicked her nipple with his tongue, found the other with his thumb, and she groaned. “I think,” she said, and then paused again as his mouth left her nipple, “I think the theme of the evening is fate.”
He smiled up at her. “Fate it is.”
He watched with a quiet reverence as she reached down for him, closing his eyes with a sharp intake of breath as she touched him, then, feeling her shift, he opened his eyes to see, and feel her center herself over him. He held perfectly still, body tense, waiting, as she looked him in the eyes and slid down, taking him deep within.
She stayed there, not moving, simply feeling him there inside of her. “Harm...” she said, her voice raw and low, and he put a finger on her lips.
He could feel the tension around him, an electricity passing between them, and he pulled her close, then began to move very slowly. His hands pressed hard on her back, and he found her mouth with his own.
She moved with him, hesitant at first, but then they found a rhythm, slow, intense. Her whole body tingled, and she clung to him as he moved under her.
He shifted, and she leaned back a little. He took the opportunity to find her nipples again, smiling at her response to the additional stimulation, not breaking the rhythm. He watched her as they moved together, then slid one thumb down to the place they joined, experimenting for a moment to find what got the most reaction. When he felt an additional tightness around him, he focused his efforts there, moving his thumb in quick, tiny circles. She opened her eyes for a moment, saw him watching her, then closed her eyes, bit her lips, and let her head fall forward.
He started moving faster, thrusting in harder, keeping a constant motion on her clitoris. She was so close to the edge, her hands clenching hard on his shoulders, and he kept going until he felt her starting to spasm around him. He pulled his hand away and held her hips as he pushed up into her until his own orgasm followed. She chuckled as they slowed, low and pleased. He flashed her a cheeky grin and she laughed outright. She relaxed against him, still joined, and he whispered, “I really don’t mind you being on top.”
“Let’s take turns,” she answered.
“Deal,” he said. “We’ll have to practice that. Often.”
She leaned against his chest, her head on his shoulder, still connected, quiet.
“Harm,” Mac asked a few minutes later, “What the hell are we going to do?”
“Get married,” he said, eyes closed as he rested his head against hers.
“How is this going to work? Does it change things if a coin decides?” She sat upright and looked at him.
He sighed, and held her hands between them, not wanting to break any more contact than necessary. “Mac, we have two great opportunities in front of us, which are mutually exclusive if we want to spend more than one night out of every sixty or so together. We would both do well in the positions offered to us, it would be great for either of our careers, and we respect each other too much to ask the other to give up something so important. I don’t want you resenting me and I don’t want you to think I resent you, however it goes. So let fate decide.”
She persisted. “But what would you do, if the coin fell my way?”
He shrugged a little, and said, “Fly planes. Be a lawyer. Take care of Mattie. Be a dad. Be your husband. I’m not worried.”
“You could give up the captain’s billet, your future, for that?”
“Mac, I’ve already given it up for you once, I could do it again. You are my future. If I have to choose the Navy or you, I choose you. You know that.” He looked down at their hands, then back up at her. “How about you? If the coin falls my way, what would you do?”
She smiled. “I don’t know. I’m sure someone in London could find a use for a Farsi-speaking ex-Marine lawyer.”
He chuckled and said under his breath as he wiggled suggestively under her, “I know I can find one...”
She swatted him playfully, then said quietly, “I could try to get pregnant. Maybe work at the Embassy. Take care of Mattie while you are off being the boss. Go on inactive reserve. Be your wife.”
“You’ve worked so hard...” he started.
She shook her head, “And you haven’t? Please. Would you think less of me if I wasn’t ‘Colonel Mackenzie’?”
He laughed. “At this rate, we’ll be flipping to see who gets to quit.”
She lifted herself up off his lap, and stood in front of him. “So are your coins packed?”
He smiled, “I have another idea, but it’s definitely going to require a change of clothes.”
“We’re not wearing any.”
“I can see that... but I think if we are going to tell our nearest and dearest friends, naked is probably not the way to do it.”
“Tonight?” she asked.
“When else? We only have...” he paused.
She grinned. “Ten hours, forty three minutes and seventeen seconds.”
“How about I call the gang and get them over to McMurphy’s, while you go home and find something more appropriate?” He smiled at her.
“Only if you promise to wear your dress whites and your wings,” she said, and then threaded her way through the boxes over to the bathroom.
He shook his head and sat on the couch for a couple of minutes, head spinning, smiling vaguely at a box. Then he picked up the phone.
Mac called tails, and they watched the coin spinning upwards, then back down, and Bud lunged to catch it, smacking it between his hands. He stood for a moment, not revealing the coin.
Jen said, impatiently, “Go on, which is it?”
Bud looked at Harm and Mac and took a deep breath. He lifted the covering hand, revealing the eagle.
Harm said with a small sigh, “Tails it is.”
Mac looked thoughtful. “London.”
Startled, Harm looked down at her. “But...”
The general leaned forward. “That’s the lady’s choice. She won the toss.”
Harm frowned, “But...”
Mac looked up at him. “London. You only have a few years to your twenty. Maybe then we’ll take turns.”
“But Mac,” Harm started again.
“No buts. I won the toss. I’m deciding. No regrets.” She smiled up at him. “You can stop sputtering, sailor.”
General Cresswell turned and said, “So, Petty Officer, what does this mean for you? Still want San Diego?”
Jen blinked, and said, “I... Captain? Would you want me on your staff?”
Harm smiled. “I think Mattie would want to kick me if I said no.”
“She’ll be going to London then?” asked Harriet.
Harm nodded. “I’ll be her guardian again within the week. As soon as she’s stable enough to travel, she’ll come to live with us.”
Mac added, “Given the situation, I may be following Harm to London with Mattie in a few weeks. There’s a lot to work out still.”
The general looked at them, and then sighed. “Captain, given the change of circumstance, I’ll authorize three days additional leave. Will that be enough?”
Harm took a deep breath and said, “It will have to be, thank you.”
“So when’s the wedding going to be?” Harriet asked.
Harm and Mac looked at each other. He grinned at her and said, “You won the coin toss.”
She smiled. “That all depends on how fast we can pull together the people who need to be there.”
The general nodded. “Petty Officer Coates, I am assigning you T.A.D. immediately to assist the Captain in whatever arrangements need to be made to expedite the Captain’s assumption of his new duties, pending your permanent orders. I expect you to use your, erm, talent for getting people where you want them to be to its fullest.” He turned to Mac. “Colonel, see me in the morning at 09...” he checked his watch. “Make that 1100 hours to discuss your options. Oh, and Turner, you I want to see at 0930. Sharp.”
Turner reflexively straightened. “Aye aye, sir.”
“I don’t know about you people, but I’m going to have enough headaches tomorrow morning. I’m going to head home, presuming no one actually has a flat tire?” The general glanced at Jen.
“No, sir, I’m fine, thank you.” Jen looked back at Harm and Mac, who were already back to gazing raptly at each other. “Sir, ma’am, if you don’t mind, I think we’ll all head out. Thank you for the drink.”
Harm pulled his gaze away and said, “Right. You’re welcome, and thank you all for coming tonight. Sorry if we’ve thrown a wrench in your plans, General.”
The general laughed, “Why the hell did you think I assigned you two to the opposite ends of the globe? I just didn’t expect you to work quite so fast.”
Mac coughed. “Sir, I’m not sure you can call nine years ‘fast’.”
“Colonel, were you two even dating before today?” the general asked.
She blushed. “No, sir. Thank you.”
“If it was anyone else, I’d say you were crazy. But with you two? Someone had to do something. Good night.” He set his unfinished martini on the bar, turned on his heel, and left.
Harriet looked bemused. “Did he just play matchmaker?” She didn’t wait for an answer, but set her drink down and said, “Bud, I think we should leave the Colonel and the Captain to their celebration. Mac, call me tomorrow and we’ll talk dresses.”
Harm paid the tab, and said to Mac, “So, is your bed more accessible than mine?”
She smiled. “Why do you think it took me so long to get here? It is now.”
“Meet you there.”
It wasn’t that she didn’t think he’d come, but the knock on her door a little while later made her breath catch.
She opened the door to find him, flight bag over one shoulder, in his dinner dress whites, leaning against the frame just as he had done a million times before. He said, “Hi,” and stood there for a moment, just looking at her with a funny little smile on his face.
It wasn’t until he said, “May I come in?” that she realized she had been standing in the doorway staring at him for a full two minutes and fifteen seconds.
“Of course,” she said, and stepped back.
“Mac,” he started.
She shook her head. “It was my choice. And I chose you.”
“I was going to say thank you.” He stepped through the door and closed it behind him.
“Oh.” She looked down at her hands.
He set down his flight bag next to the door and tossed his jacket on it. Catching her hands in his own, he said, “You know I would have gone willingly to San Diego.”
She looked up at him. “I know. I think… if I hadn’t known, I wouldn’t have decided London.”
He kissed her forehead. “That may well have been the most generous thing anyone has ever done for me.”
She shrugged a little. “For us. If we’re really going to try to have a baby, I’m told I’ll need to reduce my stress level. And pregnancy would likely involve mandatory leave. Captain in an overseas billet pays better, and it would be harder for you to resign again and come back later than it would be for me. Theoretically in three to five years you could retire with a good pension, which you can’t do yet. It will take me seven years, but I’m five years younger than you are, so I’ve got some leeway. Fate made it my decision. So I decided.”
He wrapped his arms around her. “All valid points. Did you know beforehand?”
She chuckled. “I had a feeling it would come up tails, but it wasn’t until it actually did that I made up my mind.”
He looked down at her sharply. “That’s why you hesitated. You almost called ‘heads’ anyway. You knew.”
She tucked her arms under his and looked up at him with a smile. “Yep. Really, I couldn’t lose.”
He just shook his head. “I love you, Sarah MacKenzie.”
She smiled. “Yeah.”
“Want to help me out of this uniform?” he asked, with a lecherous grin.
“Any time, sailor.”
A few minutes later, they were sliding into Mac’s bed.
“It’s gone, you know,” she said, as they settled into each other’s arms, legs entwining and his hands meandering over her skin. She tucked her head against his shoulder.
“What’s gone?” he asked, pulling her closer.
“The space between us. How many times did we come close?”
He chuckled. “More than I care to count. Sometimes it seemed like we were trying to push two magnets together, positive to positive... the harder we tried, the more we ended up pushing each other away. Can we stop doing that?”
“We already did,” she answered. “I mean, right now it feels more like the polarity has flipped. I don’t think we’re going to be pulling apart any time soon. Thank god.”
He held her tightly, and said, “This feels right, doesn’t it? I can’t remember ever feeling so... content. Ever. Probably a good thing I’m moving into administration, at this rate my edge will be as dull as a spoon.”
She reached down for a moment, toying with him just enough to get him hard, and then said, “You’ve got a point, at least. That’s not dull.”
“Oh, is that how it’s going to be, Colonel?” he said, with mock outrage, and tickled, half pinning her.
She gave a little shriek and wiggled, then suddenly his mouth found hers and she was wrapping her legs around him, drawing him in. He groaned and thrust into her with almost reckless abandon, kissing her, taking some of his weight with one arm while the other hand roved from breast to buttock and back again.
She found herself grabbing the bars of the bed frame above her, bracing herself to keep from being pushed up the bed. He settled into a rhythm, deep and strong, reveling in her.
The orgasm crept up on her, and caught her off guard. He didn’t break his rhythm, and the waves kept washing over her. She clung to him and bit his shoulder, shuddering, and he finally slowed and whispered, “Do you want me to stop?”
Breathing hard, shaking a little, she finally found her voice, “Do you want to stop?”
He chuckled. “One of the, er, advantages of age, darlin’. I could do this all night. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She growled low in her throat, and said, “I’m a Marine. You think I’m going to quit?”
“Turn over, Marine,” he said, and sat up enough for her to swing a leg around. He started moving again, reaching around from behind to cup her breasts. His pace was more relaxed, but every bit as relentless. When he felt the tension in her rising again, he reached down and found her clitoris, keeping his rhythm until her breath came in ragged gasps and her shoulders were shaking. He stilled his hand and drew her back until he was sitting on his heels, still moving slowly within her, holding her to his chest, his mouth on the back of her neck. When the shuddering stopped, he said, “More?”
She slid off of him, turned around, and then slid back on, face to face. They moved slowly together, languidly, as she kissed him. He leaned forward, putting her back down on the bed, staying nearly upright as he continued to move. After a few minutes, she felt something in his intensity shift, and he began to move faster and faster until he cried out, his whole body tight, and then collapsed forward onto her as he spent himself.
He started to push himself up to take his weight off of her a moment later, but she stopped him with a hand and said, “Stay.”
He let his weight press against her again, dropping his head down as she held him. She stroked his back and said, “That was...mmmm.”
He smiled against her neck. “Glad to oblige, ma’am.”
A few minutes later he rolled off of her, then spooned in tight behind her. “Good night, Sarah,” he whispered. “I love you.”
She purred sleepily. “Love you too.”
She woke in the exact position they’d fallen asleep in, and turned over in his arms. He shifted and opened an eye to look at her, then said, “How long was that?”
She answered, “Eight hours, thirteen minutes”.
He rolled onto his back and stretched. “I cannot remember the last time I had eight uninterrupted hours of sleep.”
She smiled. “You needed it.”
“I like this. Waking up with you,” he said. “We should do this more often.”
She snuggled against him. “So what’s on the to do list today?”
“I want to get down to the court and see if I can’t expedite Mattie’s custody. You have a meeting with the General. And Harriet. And Jen. And we need to get a license ASAP. I mean, we are going to try to get married this week, please?” He grinned at her.
She arched a brow. “In a hurry?”
He pulled her closer. “You have no idea.”
“I think I do,” she answered. “It’s a lot cheaper if we move to London married than if we wait to marry there. Plus most of our people are here.”
He sighed. “I don’t know which is harder to believe. That we’re actually doing this or that we didn’t do this a long time ago.”
She smiled. “It makes more sense now than it would have then.” Then she rolled away. “But we have to get going. I need a shower.”
“Can I help?” He smirked.
“Help? No. Join me? I think that could be arranged.”
Mac walked through the bullpen to the General’s office, feeling very much out of place for the first time in recent memory. It was clear from the looks she was getting that scuttlebutt had performed its usual miracles of FTL communication. When she got to PO Coates’ desk, she said, “Okay, who won the pool?”
Jen grinned. “Which one?”
“Nevermind. Is he...”
“The General is ready to see you, just knock. And when you’re done, I’m supposed to attach myself to either you or the Captain until you tell me to go away.” Jen grinned, and then gestured at her desk. “I’ve been compiling several lists of things we need to do, I’ll just let you review them before I pull the trigger. Um, so to speak.”
Mac chuckled and knocked on the door.
General Cresswell was sitting behind his desk, with a peculiar expression on his face. She realized suddenly that he looked very satisfied with himself as she came to attention.
“At ease, Colonel,” the General said, “Have a seat.”
She sat down on the edge of the chair and started, “I have my resignation papers right...”
He put up a hand. “Don’t be too hasty. I just might have a wedding present for you.”
“Sir?” she asked.
“I checked with the ONRG office, and the embassy in London. It turns out the embassy has a department which is eager and willing to make use of your abundant skills. ONRG would be happy to take you, too, but the math and the skill fit is better at the Embassy.”
He handed a file folder to her. “Take a moment, look that over.”
She flipped through the folder. “Can this be right, sir?”
He smiled. “I talked to your fiance. He authorized me to give you this.” He passed over another folder.
She opened the folder, blinked, and then flipped back to the first folder.
“You’re saying that if I take the assignment at the Embassy, I’ll not only keep my rank and active duty status, but factoring in allowances, I’ll be making more than he does? Is that even possible?” She kept flipping back and forth between the two folders.
“London proper and London metro are two entirely different animals when it comes to housing. His allowances are based on one dependent and a station in Middlesex at the ONRG JAG office. Yours are based on a station in central London. Assuming you live together, you’ll have quite a bit of surplus housing allowance each month. A bit of a commute, I understand the two offices are about an hour apart by train.”
She stared at the numbers. “Even by himself, we’d do fine. With this....”
He grinned. “Now, you had something for me?”
She looked at the letter she’d prepared. “Um, no sir, I don’t think that it is relevant at this point. Can I ask for some more details about the Embassy assignment?”
“I believe they are classified, need to know, and I don’t really need to know, but you can probably guess why they’d need someone with your linguistic, legal, and political science background working at the embassy. My understanding is that you would be liaising with European law enforcement agencies, among other things. Langley will have more information for you before you leave. You’ll be reporting for your assignment in three weeks. In the meantime, you may either take leave or continue here, your preference. I can certainly use the help, but given Captain Rabb’s ward’s issues, I will understand if you prefer to use some of the leave you have accrued.”
She nodded. “Thank you, sir. Does the Captain know all of this yet?”
“I thought I’d leave the good news to you. That will be all.”
She stood at attention and walked out.
Jen was on the phone, so she walked into her office in a daze, closed the door, and sat down at her desk to stare at the contents of the file folders. She realized after a few minutes that her hands were shaking.
A knock brought her out of the reverie. “Enter,” she said, closing the folders.
Petty Officer Coates stepped into the room. “Do you have time to look over my notes, ma’am?”
Mac nodded and gestured for Jen to take a seat.
“I’ve got the start of a guest list for a wedding. I figured you’d want to keep it reasonably small, so I kept the list to the people you’re close to here at JAG, plus the Admiral, the Captain’s mother and stepfather, and I didn’t know if you’d want to invite your mother, or if he’d invite his brother. Is there anyone else?” Jen smiled.
Mac sighed. “I don’t even have a current address for my mother. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to try to get her here. We’ll invite Sergei, but the chance that he can attend is slight. Add Clayton Webb to the list, though I doubt he’ll come. You’ll have to ask Harm who he else he wants there. Any chance we can do this in the hospital chapel, for Mattie’s sake?”
“That was my next suggestion, ma’am, and yes, they can make it available at several points later this week. Were you wanting Commander Turner’s father to perform the ceremony?”
“If he’s available.” Mac smiled.
“So, the next question... full formal military?”
“Can we pull that together that fast?” Mac asked.
“I think we can manage, ma’am, if you want it.” Jen said.
Mac pondered for a moment, and then said, “Just ask Harm. If he wants it, I’m fine with it.”
“It’s a big day for you, ma’am, don’t you have an opinion?”
“Jen, I would marry that man in fatigues on a carrier if I had to. As long as I’m married to him at the end of the day, the rest is window dressing.” Mac took a deep breath. “What else?”
Jen set her materials down. “This may be an odd question, ma’am, but when we go to London, do you think you and the Captain would mind being my landlords again? I was thinking that it might help with Mattie, but I know it could be an imposition. I can pay my rent, I had a look at the housing allowances and it shouldn’t be any problem at all, but I miss her, ma’am, and I know it’s going to be hard...”
Mac inhaled sharply, startled. “I’ll have to talk to Harm, but honestly, I think it would be wonderful. We’d be lucky to have you, but I don’t want to take advantage...”
“She’s like my sister, ma’am. You are all like family to me. It’s not taking advantage. I mean, in some ways I’ll be taking advantage of you to live someplace that wasn’t a barracks or with poorly behaved roommates.”
Mac smiled. “You’ve been a wonderful support to Mattie. I can’t imagine that Harm would object.”
Jen looked at her watch, “Ma’am, I took the liberty of making some calls this morning, and I talked to the Captain while you were in with the General. He suggested that he could come pick you up at 1300 to go get your marriage license. Since you’re getting married in Virginia, there’s no waiting period. So you could have the wedding anytime between now, and say, Thursday.”
Mac blinked. Then said, “I think Thursday would be fine.”
“Oh, and if you’ll take a look at this, my suggestions for the wedding party...” Jen handed over another sheet of paper.
Mac scanned the list. “You know, I think you have a knack for this. I’ll call Harriet myself, and Chloe. Obviously Harm should deal with the other side of things. And yes, please do see if you can get the Admiral here, he was supposed to walk me down the aisle the last time, and I’d still like that if he can get here in time.”
Mac picked up the phone as Jen left.
Harm was waiting for Mac on the front step. When she opened the door, he gave her a kiss and said, “You know, it was six years ago, right here.”
She smiled. “God only knows when we’ll be able to make good on our deal.”
He grinned. “I was thinking about a contract revision.”
“Oh?” she said, dryly.
He pulled something out of his pocket. “A new deal, of sorts.”
Her breath caught as he opened a small ring box.
“I went shopping, after I stopped at the courthouse.” He turned the box around, and she put her hand over her mouth, overwhelmed.
Inside the box was an antique-looking platinum ring, with a flower of diamonds in the middle.
“After AJ’s problems with Meredith’s ring, I decided to buy an antique. No worry about blood diamonds, and this was well-pedigreed. It has the added advantage of bezel settings, it shouldn’t catch on things. And while the stones aren’t CIA perfect, they’re all unique, old European cuts. Not the sort of stones you’ll see terrorists using.”
She nodded, and held out her hand. “It’s gorgeous,” she said. “You didn’t have to...”
“I wanted to. So what did the General have to say?” Harm slipped the empty box back into his pocket and proffered his arm.
She took his arm and said, “Well, if I accept the job he has in mind, with allowances I’ll be making more than you will.” She grinned.
He raised his eyebrows appreciatively. “Nice! And keep your active duty status?”
“Uh huh. Ironically this’ll pay significantly better than the San Diego post would’ve, especially since, sharing accommodations, our housing expenses will be nowhere near the allowance. I’ll be at the embassy. They’re being a bit cagey about the exact duties, but I can pretty well guess.”
He nodded, and opened the car door for her. “Let me guess. Something about Farsi and company work?”
“Or something like that.” He backed the ’vette out and she continued, “I have a few weeks before I need to report, so I should still be able to handle logistics with Mattie. Oh... speaking of which, what would you think about subletting a room in whatever house we get to P.O. Coates? She asked.”
“How do you feel about sharing our first home together with two young women?” he replied.
“You know, Harm, if it was anyone but Mattie and Jen... I really think Jen will make things easier. Mattie’ll have a hard enough road ahead of her. I wouldn’t have presumed to ask Jen, but assuming we find a place where the walls aren’t too thin, I think it could work out very well indeed. She wants to pay rent, of course.”
He nodded. “I figured. I’ll have to check frat regs, but I think there’s an exception for landlord/tenant relationships. You know, if you’re going to be getting an official PCS, we don’t have to rush to get married this week.”
Mac frowned slightly. “You rethinking?”
“No,” he said. “I’m just thinking if you wanted a wedding that had more time for planning...”
She smiled and shook her head. “We’ve waited long enough. I want to marry you. I’m not worried about some elaborate huge thing. They’re overrated. I don’t need a lot of time to think about it, and I don’t need fancy.”
He smiled. “Then this week it is. So as long as you’re okay with it, I think we could use Jennifer’s help with Mattie.”
“I have a feeling,” Mac said, “that the minute we say yes to her, she’ll have a house picked out within walking distance of the ONRG. She already has the wedding ninety percent arranged.”
He chuckled. “By the way, can you come back to the courthouse with me at 1630? I managed to get a hearing quickset for custody. If we get get both of us ‘on the record,’ I think it will be easier for the judge to rubber stamp it.”
“Of course,” she replied. “Think there’s any chance we’ll be able to just flat out adopt her?”
He shook his head. “Not today, but possibly in six months, since her dad is bowing out gracefully. Oh, did I tell you? She’s starting to get some sensation in her shoulders and a little in her arms.”
“That’s fantastic!” Mac said. “Does that mean she’s more likely to recover fully?”
“The doctor said we’re still in wait-and-see mode, but given that they originally said she could be respirator-dependent, it’s fantastic. Every bit of function she regains is that much more independence. I’d be happier if she was moving her hands, but the fact that she’s getting any sensation at all...” He looked relieved.
“And will we be able to move her soon?”
“That’s the best part, actually. They’re going to set up a medical transatlantic transport. If she’s listed as my dependent, the Navy will provide it. So she can come as soon as you’re ready to come with her.”
She nodded. “I’m so glad. Do we know where she’ll be cared for in London?”
“I’m making arrangements for that tomorrow. I’ll talk to the doctors when we go to Blacksburg tonight.” He caught himself. “That is, if you want to go with me...”
Mac nodded. “Of course I will.”
Applying for the license was surprisingly mundane. No waiting period, no blood tests. They made the hearing in juvenile court surprisingly quickly.
The judge looked over the papers, then looked up at them. “I see here the biological father offers no resistance to Captain Rabb becoming Mattie’s guardian, but the request is for joint guardianship between the two of you?”
Harm nodded. “I have a copy here of our marriage license. Due to a change in my duty station, I will be flying to London in a few days. Colonel MacKenzie will be accompanying Mattie in a medical transport sometime next week. We’ll be married later this week, it would simplify things if we were co-guardians.”
“And you, Ms. MacKenzie? Oh, I’m sorry, Colonel MacKenzie. You and Mattie have a relationship? I remember you speaking so eloquently the last time we were all here.”
Mac nodded. “We’ve spent a fair amount of time together. She’s a great kid, and I look forward to being more closely involved.”
The judge flipped through the paperwork another time. “It is clearly in this girl’s best interests for you two to have guardianship. She’s lucky to have you, given her father’s issues. Captain Rabb, your willingness to support reunification with her father, and willingness to step back in despite her current severe medical needs tells me that the Colonel’s evaluation of you was not in error. If you decide to make this an adoption down the road, I’d love to be the presiding judge, and I don’t say that lightly.”
She stamped and signed the papers, and a few minute later they left, certified copies in hand.
Mac was struck, looking at Mattie, by how thin she looked. Never a big girl, she’d always exuded vitality and strength, but weeks in the hospital, motionless, had taken their toll on her muscle mass. It hit home, seeing the girl asleep, her arms almost skeletal at her sides from lack of muscle, the gentle thrum of the anti-thrombosis stockings, just how long a road Mattie might have back to health. If she ever got there. Mac took a deep breath and walked into the room with Harm.
The nurse put a hand on Mattie’s cheek, and said, “Sweetie, Harm’s here.”
Mattie’s eyes opened, and widened when she saw Mac with her arm around Harm’s waist. “’Bout time,” she said. “You guys look good together.”
Harm held up the court papers. “It’s official. You’re ours again, for as long as you want to be.”
“Show me,” Mattie said.
He held the papers in front of her, and she said, “Mac is my guardian, too?”
Mac nodded. “They set the hearing faster than we thought they would, so we didn’t have a chance to ask. But if you’ll have me, I want to be there for you.”
Mattie blinked back a tear. “I was worried you might not want me.”
Mac went over and picked up Mattie’s hand, and put a hand on Mattie’s cheek. “Oh honey, how could we not want you? How could anyone not want you?”
Mattie looked up at her. “Even like this? Broken? My dad doesn’t even want me.”
“That’s not true.” Harm spoke sharply. “Your father wants you, he just doesn’t know how to be your parent right now, and he’s not very good at dealing with his own failing. He gave me custody because he thought it would be better for you. Not because he didn’t want you.”
Mac said, “Mattie, what happened to you is a terrible thing, and it’s going to make your life different in ways we don’t even know yet. But we’re going to work together to help you. Harm has to report to his duty station sooner than we think we can arrange the medical transport to get you to London. But I’ve been able to get enough time that I’ll be flying with you when you go. And when we get there, Jen will be staying with us. She asked if she could, she said she misses you.”
“I miss me,” Mattie said. “I feel like a head in a jar.”
Mac squeezed Mattie’s hand. The girl’s eyes widened. “Do that again.”
“You felt that?” Mac asked, and squeezed again.
Mattie gave a tiny nod. Harm moved over to her other side, and picked up her other hand. Mattie closed her eyes and each of them felt the tiniest squeeze.
Mac realized that tears were running down her cheeks. Mattie opened her eyes, looked at each of them, and said, “You guys are leaking.”
Harm said, “The doctor said that getting motor control back in your hands would be one of the most positive indicators.”
“So when are you guys getting hitched, anyway?” Mattie asked. “I’m guessing there’s no way for me to be there.”
“Actually,” Mac started.
“We’re getting married here,” Harm finished. “So you can be there.”
“That’s going to be weird, guys,” Mattie said. “You seriously want to get married in a hospital room?”
Mac smiled. “There’s a chapel.”
The next few days went by in a whirlwind. True to form, twenty-four hours after they told Jen that she could rent a room from them in London, the petty officer had found via a real estate website a four bedroom house with a large back garden just off of a golf course, within walking distance of Harm’s new office and mass transit heading straight to Hyde Park, available for “let” for half of Harm’s monthly housing allowance.
Strings were pulled and favors called in, and Wednesday night was a crazy buzz of people coming in from the airport and a dizzy party at Harriet’s and Bud’s.
Mac and Harm sat together on the porch swing as people showed up, the circular drive filling with cars.
“You two look like the rest of the world could disappear and you wouldn’t notice,” Harriet said, offering them a tray of hors d’oeuvres.
Mac took a canape and smiled up at Harriet. “It probably could.”
“You look so relaxed, I can’t believe it,” Harriet said.
Mac laughed. “I am relaxed. Compared to the debacle that was the rehearsal dinner with Mic, or the stupidity that surrounded my first wedding, this is easy. You and Jen have been wonderful.”
Harm said, “The only thing I have to compare it to is Bud’s wedding night, and turning down the offer of a bachelor party was the easiest decision I’ve made in recent history. This is nice.”
“Oh, look, it’s the Admiral!” Harriet exclaimed, and they looked over at the end of the driveway, where AJ Chegwidden was getting out of a two-seater.
“And he’s brought a date,” Harm said, as AJ opened the other car door. “Anyone recognize her?”
Mac shook her head. “That’s unusual. She’s blonde.”
“I thought he only did brunettes?” Harm muttered, swiped a crudité from Harriet’s tray.
Harriet set the tray down on a small side table. “Admiral!” she called out.
“That’s AJ, Harriet,” he called back, walking up to the house with his date on his arm. “Carol, this is Harriet, Mac, and Harm. Guys, this is Carol.”
The woman looked like she was in her mid-forties, with straight, blonde shoulder-length hair and a tanned, fit body. Her dress was sleeveless and short and form fitting, but tasteful. She said with a faint southern accent, “Pleased to meet you. AJ’s told me so much about you.”
Mac smiled and reached up and shook Carol’s hand. “Nice to meet you, too. Have you known the Admiral long?”
“AJ and I met last summer at a ballpark. And then another one. After the third one, he asked me out.” Carol smiled. “I think his daughter put him up to it.”
“How is Francesca, AJ?” Harm asked.
“She’s doing well,” answered AJ. “We’ve been staying near her home in Italy for the past six months.”
“So it’s serious,” Harm commented.
Carol laughed. “As serious as marriage can be.”
This prompted sputtering from the people on the porch. Harm finally got out, “AJ, you dog, and you didn’t invite us?”
AJ said, “We eloped. Never got around to sending out announcements, we were having too much fun in Europe.”
“Still, sir, we would have liked to have known,” Harriet said, chidingly.
“If I’d told you all, you would have insisted on sending presents, which we don’t need, or throwing a party, or all those other things we’ve both had enough of for a lifetime. I spent long enough trying to give away most of the stuff I’d accumulated—the last thing we needed was an excuse for more stuff.” AJ sniffed. “Do I smell popcorn?”
Harriet shook herself a little. “What am I thinking? I’m being a terrible hostess. Come inside, there’s lots of food.”
Carol followed Harriet into the house. AJ lingered for a moment, and said, “Took you two long enough. ’Bout time. When did you two start actually dating?”
Mac snorted and Harm said, “We, um, didn’t.”
“Well, when did you get engaged?” AJ asked.
Mac gave a sheepish smile and said, “Twenty-one seconds after he finally got off his six and kissed me like he meant it.”
AJ laughed. “Sounds about right. I wish you every happiness. Being married to Carol has been more fun than anything else I’ve done in my life, and I hope it’s that good for you two. You certainly deserve it.”
Mac looked up at Harm. “I think we’ll do alright.”
Harm leaned down and gave her a quick kiss, then said, “So far, so good.”
AJ gave a short laugh. “I’m going to need insulin if I stay out here. Have fun, you two, and don’t stay out too late. I have a toast planned.”
Harm and Mac stayed on the porch swing, watching through the window as the ripples of surprise ran through the crowd inside in response to Harriet’s introduction of the Admiral’s new wife.
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes. Then Harm said, “You know, the only thing I regret in all of this...”
She looked up at him. “Yes?”
“No honeymoon. We’ll have to plan something once we’re settled.”
She smiled. “We’ll be having a working honeymoon in London next week.”
“That soon?” he asked.
“Jen told me a little while ago that she’d gotten the transport worked out for Mattie, and equipment hired for the house in London. Also a nursing service and tutors. Barring medical complications, we should be there Wednesday, we’re leaving Tuesday.”
He raised his eyebrows. “She takes her duties seriously.”
Mac leaned against him. “I feel almost guilty for having her do so much of the work.”
Harm said, “Almost. She clearly enjoys it. So, what’s your ideal vacation?”
Mac smiled. “Someplace warm. And private. Without a phone.”
“I think I could get onboard with that,” Harm said. “Topless beach?”
She laughed. “Depends on how private it is. But not Australia.”
He grinned. “No, definitely not.”
“Or, since we spend so much time traveling, we could have a lovely honeymoon unpacking boxes in London.” She smiled at him.
“As long as we’re not six thousand miles apart, I’m happy.” He straightened. “Shall we?”
She took his offered hand and stood up. “Lets.”
They went inside to join the guests.
Mac woke to find Harm already awake, lying on his side, looking at her. She smiled sleepily, and said, “Hi”
He smiled. “Hi yourself. Will you marry me?”
He grinned. “Good. Breakfast?”
She smiled. “Shower first.”
He looked nonplussed for a moment. “That is a disadvantage of a whirlwind engagement, isn’t it?”
She cocked her head. “What, I can’t get clean?”
He shook his head. “No, you didn’t get a bridal shower.”
She gave a half-shrug. “I get you. And a daughter. And an all expenses paid trip to London. I really don’t need yet another party right now. We got plenty of gifts last night…”
“Do you wish we had more time?” he asked.
Shaking her head, she said, “We’ve had plenty of time. Will have plenty of time. I just… Marrying you feels like the best idea either of us ever had. I can’t wait.”
He smiled. “And you won’t have to.” He stroked her cheek, kissed her, then rolled on his back and let out a happy sigh.
She laughed. “What?”
He shook his head. “It’s just being able to kiss you. And knowing I can kiss you again. Finally knowing what it feels like to make love to you. Letting you in. I just…”
She rolled over and snuggled up against him. “I know.”
He wrapped an arm around her, and said, “I know I should be wondering if this will work, if we can do this, if it is too fast. But I don’t. Wonder, that is.”
“It feels right,” she agreed. “I’ve known since I met you, and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t happening, except that it never quite felt right. And now it does. I feel like I can finally see the path in front of us, I never could before. And I like what I see.”
He grinned. “Helps that you don’t have to give up your career.”
She chuckled. “I must admit that being able to more than double our annual income is appealing. But I was prepared to walk away. So were you. Knowing that... It makes the future less scary. You’re the only man I’ve ever been close to who hasn’t tried to push me somewhere I didn’t want to go.”
“It feels like we broke through a wall and stumbled into happiness,” he said.
She smiled. “Exactly.” She sat up. “Shall we get going? We’ve got a ninety-minute drive, and the wedding is in three hours and thirty-seven minutes.”
St. Vincent Hospital
Mac got dressed in an empty patient room down the hall from the chapel. Harriet and Jen were fussing around her like mother hens when there was a knock on the door.
Jen opened it, to find a rotund woman standing on the other side. “Is my daughter in there? Sarah?”
Jen’s mouth opened and shut without a word, then she said, “Let me see if she’s ready to see you.”
Mac called out from the bathroom, “Who is it?”
Jen answered, “Colonel, it’s your mother.”
Mac sighed. “Send her in.”
Harriet squeezed her hand, and said, “Are you going to be okay, Mac?”
With a nod, Mac walked out of the bathroom, in her dress but no shoes, her hair still down.
Deanne looked her up and down and burst into tears.
Mac frowned a little, then sighed. “Mom, I see Jen tracked you down?”
Her mother nodded. “How could I miss my daughter’s big day?”
Mac felt a retort on the tip of her tongue, but bit it back. “Would you like to help with my hair?” she asked.
Deanne fluttered. “You always had such lovely hair, and you’ve grown it out. Of course I would.”
Harriet and Jen looked at each other for a moment, and then Harriet turned and said, “All the stuff is right here by the sink on the instrument table. Jen, would you come to the car with me to get the makeup?”
Jen started, “But it’s,” and intended to say, “in the bathroom already,” but she caught Harriet’s warning glance and said brightly, “Of course.”
As soon as they were in the hall, Jen said, “That’s her mother?”
Harriet said, “I know. No one’s met her, how did you find her?”
Jen shrugged. “I knew her name, and the internet did the rest. She wasn’t going to come, said she didn’t think Mac would want her there, but I told her that it was probably the only time she’d get to see her daughter married, and that if she ever wanted to have a relationship with her grandchildren, she should probably make the effort.”
“You know then, that she abandoned Mac?” Harriet asked.
Jen nodded. “I just thought it would be a chance, you know? For both of them.”
Back in the room, Mac sat on a stool in front of the mirror over the room’s sink, as her mother brushed her hair.
“I wasn’t sure you’d let me see you,” Deanne started. “I know I’ve been a bad mother.”
Mac sighed. “Mom, I’m getting married today. Let’s not make this about you and me.”
Deanne nodded, and twisted Mac’s hair into a chignon. As she pinned it into place, she asked, “Does he treat you right, honey?”
Mac smiled. “Better than any man I’ve ever known.”
Deanne looked misty for a moment, and separated a few strands from the bun. As she applied the hot curling iron to the curls, she said, “I understand he’s in the military, too? Aren’t you worried he’ll get stationed far away?”
Mac started to shake her head, then remembered the hot iron. “We’re moving to London next week. He got a great assignment there.”
“London, England?” Deanne asked, “I suppose you’ll have to give up your career then?”
As Deanne dropped a curl and started another one, Mac answered, “Well, at first we thought he’d give up his career. Then I decided to give up mine. Then our boss gave us a third option, and I’ll be working in London, too.”
Deanne looked slightly confused. “And is this what you want? How long have you known this man?”
Mac answered, “Yes, and nine years. We’ve been in love with each other for a long time.”
“Why are you getting married in a hospital, then, if you’ve been together for so long?”
Mac laughed, and Deanne dropped the curl hastily. Mac said, “Harm’s daughter… I mean, he’s her legal guardian, but for all intents and purposes… Anyway, she was hurt a month ago in a plane crash. We’re both her guardians now, but she’s not quite ready to leave the hospital. So we wanted to get married here so she could be part of it. And we need to get married before Harm reports to his new duty station, or things get complicated and expensive. We’ve known each other a long time, but we haven’t been together for very long.”
“But you’ve been in love...” Deanne took up another curl.
Mac smiled. “It took us a while to be ready to be together. He didn’t want to push, and I didn’t want to have to ask.”
Deanne smiled. “He sounds like a good man.”
“He is. The best.”
Deanne dropped the last curl and gave it a spritz. She stepped back to study her handiwork, and asked, “What do you think?”
Mac looked. “I think it’s perfect, thank you.”
The door opened and Harriet and Jen entered.
Harriet looked at Mac’s hair, and gave a dreamy little sigh.
Jen went into the bathroom and brought out the makeup.
Deanne held out her hands and said, “May I?”
Jen said, “I need to go check on the groomsmen, if you’ll excuse me?”
Harriet asked, “Do you need me right now?”
Mac said, “Please.”
Down the hall, Jen knocked on the door of the room the men were using. Bud looked out, and she said, “Just wanted to let you know that the Colonel’s mother showed up.”
Harm’s face appeared above Bud’s. “Is Mac okay? I should go...”
Jen held up a hand. “No, you shouldn’t. Mac seems fine. Serene, even.”
“You’re sure... that woman ran her through the wringer the last time...”
Jen nodded. “Trust me, sir. The Colonel even let her mother do her hair and makeup. There wasn’t even any yelling, and we stayed just outside the room the whole time.”
“How’s everything else coming together?” Harm asked.
“I’m just going to to check on one more thing, but I think we’re going to be on time to start at noon. People are starting to arrive.”
Jen turned and walked down to Mattie’s room. Mattie looked at her and said, “It’s going to be weird being at a wedding in a bed and hospital gown.”
Jen smiled. “Well, about that...”
Mattie looked confused.
Jen went into the bathroom and brought out a dress on a hanger. “I thought you might want to dress up.”
Mattie looked upset. “How?”
Jen leaned out into the hallway and beckoned a nurse into the room, then unwrapped the plastic from the dress.
“It’s a wrap dress, with tie shoulders. With a little bit of help, they should be able to get you into it just fine. And I’m told they’ll have a special chair for you down here in about ten minutes.”
Mattie blinked, and said, “I don’t have to go in a hospital gown?”
Jen grinned and shook her head. “The chair is a bit weird, but it will have you upright. We can’t get rid of the brace, but you’ll at least be able to see, and you’ll have real clothes on.”
Mattie said, “Okay, but you have to go when they change my clothes.”
Jen frowned. “If you insist...”
Mattie said abruptly, “I insist. The last thing I need is for you to see me in diapers.”
Jen took Mattie’s hand. “Who do you think is going to be helping you with those in London? At least part of the time?”
Mattie looked miserable.
“Sweetie,” Jen said, “it is what it is. You’ll probably get that back eventually. But right now your body needs help, so we’ll do what we must for you until it is. I don’t have to stay right now if you don’t want me to, but it’s going to happen eventually and it would be helpful for me to learn how to help you from people who are really good at it.”
The nurse said, “Perhaps your friend can help you with your hair?”
Mattie still look skeptical, but gave the tiniest of nods.
Jen talked to Mattie while she worked through the bed tangles with a pick and detangling spray. “Just like old times,” she said, as she worked the mess of curls into submission. All the while, she watched out of the corner of her eye as the nurse stripped Mattie down, gave her a quick sponge bath, checked the catheter placement, changed the bag, and put on an adult diaper.
Then the nurse said, “Do you think you can help keep her head in line while I turn her to get this dress on?”
Jen answered, “Just talk me through it.”
As they rolled her onto her side, Mattie said, “I feel like cordwood.”
The nurse slid the dress to the middle of Mattie’s back, and counted to three, then she and Jen rolled Mattie the other way. As the nurse brought the dress over Mattie’s front and tied it at the sides, Jen tied the shoulder straps and said, “You don’t look like cordwood. Let me do your makeup.”
“Like I could stop you.” Mattie said.
Jen raised her eyebrows. “You could say, ‘Don’t do my makeup, Jen’, and I’d stop. But I kind of thought you’d want to wear some for this.”
“I’m sorry,” Mattie said. “You’re being really nice, and I shouldn’t...”
“Hush,” Jen said. “I can’t apply lipstick when you’re talking.”
Chloe Madison and her grandmother, Betty Madison, arrived at the hospital about thirty minutes before the wedding was to start. She fussed at her dress as they pulled up. Her grandmother reached over from the driver’s seat and patted Chloe’s hand. “It’s fine, honey.”
Chloe sighed. “I know, I just wanted to be here sooner.”
“We’re here now, sweetheart.”
They walked into the main hotel lobby, and the clerk pointed them back towards the chapel. A young woman in uniform rushed up to her and said, “Chloe?”
Chloe nodded, nonplussed.
“Mac is waiting for you, follow me. Oh, I’m Jen.”
Chloe looked over at her grandmother, uncertain.
Betty smiled, and said to her granddaughter, “That’s all right, dear, I’ll go sit in the chapel while you help Mac.”
Jen led Chloe down to the makeshift dressing room, and said, “I’ll be back in a few minutes, I need to go find the flowers.”
Chloe knocked on the door. Harriet opened it, and called out, “She’s here, ma’am.”
She opened the door the rest of the way, and Chloe could see Mac, perched on the edge of a hospital bed, wearing a white strapless sheath, knee length, her hair and makeup done.
Mac turned, and all Chloe could say was, “You grew your hair out.”
Mac laughed. “And you cut yours. It looks great.”
Chloe rushed over, and then stopped. “Will I rumple you if I hug you?”
“I’d rather be rumpled,” Mac said, and wrapped her arms around the teenager.
A little cough from the large woman on the other side of the room, and Mac turned. “Mom, this is Chloe, my little sister.”
Deanne cocked her head to one side. “Sister?”
“Well, kinda,” Chloe said. “She saved my life.” She looked up at Mac. “So tell me everything! Why didn’t you tell me you guys had finally started dating? Where are you going for your honeymoon? Why are we at a hospital? Oh, and I TOLD YOU SO!”
Mac laughed, and started into the list of explanations she’d given so many times in recent days.
Harm peeked into the chapel, and then said to Jen in the hallway, “I thought we were having a small wedding?”
Jen grinned sheepishly. “Friends and family. And it’s a small chapel, so it looks like more people than it is.”
“It looks like a lot of people.” Harm took a deep breath. “Is Mac ready?”
Jen smiled. “She’s been ready for fifteen minutes, sir. Everything is in place. I’m sorry Sergei couldn’t make it.”
“It’s okay, he’s made arrangements to visit us in the UK.” Harm straightened, and took a deep breath, tugging at the bottom hem of his dress uniform. He looked down the hall, and his jaw dropped. “Mattie?’
Mattie was sitting a little bit reclined in a rolling armchair, her hair up in a high bun, a pretty quilt over her lap, head high over the protective collar she still wore. A small bouquet of flowers lay in her lap, her hands loose around them. She smiled wanly, “Look, pa, no bed.”
He bent over and kissed her cheek. “That’s awesome.”
She said, “I wanted to be your best chick.”
He chuckled. “You’ll always be my best chick, princess. Where you sit when we’re at the altar doesn’t matter. Nice dress, by the way.”
“Yeah, I’m told it has no vent flap in the rear. A refreshing change, if I could feel it.”
He rolled his eyes. “Would you like to accompany me in?”
Bud was standing just inside the door, and said, “Oh good,” as Harm rolled Mattie into the chapel.
Harm rolled Mattie up to the front, and settled her into the cutaway section of the front pew set aside for wheelchairs. Taking his place, he realized that indeed, he knew every single one of the faces in the chapel. The front row of pews was empty, but other than that, the chapel was packed. Reverend Turner was behind the altar, flipping through a bible. Recorded music played in the background, and he noticed Mike Roberts showing his mother and Frank to their seats.
The canned music shifted, and Mike escorted a large woman to the other side of the front row, then went back out, and returned at a slow march, with Chloe on his arm. The woman stared at Harm, and he realized that this must be Mac’s mother. His future mother-in-law. He gave a weak smile, and noted a look of approval on the woman’s face. Chloe caught his eye and smiled, and he forced himself to smile back. He glanced at Mattie, whose expression was unreadable, and then back at Chloe, and was momentarily struck by a sense of profound loss. She’ll get back there, he thought. It hadn’t occurred to him until that moment that the two girls were the same age, within a few months of each other. They have more in common than they know right now.
The music shifted again, and everyone stood as first Harriet and then AJ and Mac walked down the aisle. AJ found his seat next to Carol and Mac handed her bouquet to Harriet, taking Harm’s hand. He looked down at her, and they shared a smile. The music faded, and the ceremony began.
It was simple, traditional, short. Harm repeated the vows reflexively, not taking his eyes off of Mac’s for a second. He slipped the curved ring on her finger, snug around the engagement band, spoke the words, she did the same.
When he heard, “You may kiss the bride,” he grinned, and then bent down to lock lips with hers.
It took a cough and a nudge from Bud for them to surface, blushing furiously, to the applause of their audience.
They led the way out of the chapel, down the hall and to a small courtyard of the hospital. Looking back, they saw Chloe and Mike pushing Mattie in her chair along behind them, and smiled.
He said to her, quietly, “We did it.”
She grinned back. “We sure did.”
They waited at the door of the courtyard for the honor guard to assemble.
The hospital function room had been co-opted by Jen and Harriet for the small reception. Mac sat with Harm at a table with Mattie as people stopped by to wish them well after the cake cutting. A CNA started to offer Mattie a few bites of food, when Mattie hissed at her and the woman desisted. Harm noticed, and said, “You okay?”
Mattie said quietly, “I don’t want to eat in front of people like that.”
Harm nodded. “We’ll make a plate for you to take back to your room in a little bit.”
Mac looked out across the room, seeing their friends and family chatting, Harriet and Bud’s older two were playing an amorphous game of tag with Chloe, the Admiral holding their young daughter, Carol holding the baby boy. She looked at Mattie, and at Bud, and Harriet’s words about Bud’s health came back to her. She turned to Harm and said, “Harm, is Mattie on Tricare now?”
He blinked, and said, “She should be, I just need to file the paperwork. She’s been on Medicaid.”
She said, “I could do that tomorrow. I was thinking... what would you think about me taking her to Bethesda for a consult before we leave?”
He looked back at her, and then asked Mattie, “What do you think? Would you be willing to check out the Navy hospital?”
“If I could shrug,” Mattie answered, “I would. Heck, anything to get out of this place.”
Mac explained, “It’s just that they’ve got some really advanced facilities for spinal injuries. When you were on your dad’s insurance, it wasn’t a good option, but now... I’d just like to see if they have ideas to help make the transport better, see if the doctors here have missed anything.”
A few minutes later, Mattie said, “Harm, I’m really tired, do you think they could take me back to my room now?”
Mac said, “Why don’t we both take you back?”
They wheeled her down the hall, the CNA trailing after them. Mattie was almost asleep by the time they got her to the room, and mumbled as the CNA showed them how to put her back into the bed, “It’s lame that it’s exhausting for me to sit in a freakin’ chair.”
“Bud used to get tired lying down,” Mac said. “You’re healing, and that’s work.”
The CNA started to untie Mattie’s dress to get her back into the hospital gown, and Mattie yelped. “Harm’s here!”
Harm said, “I can leave, but there’s a good chance I may have to help you with these things down the road.”
Mattie said, “I know, but not... not today. I guess Mac can stay.”
Mac nodded. “I’ll be out in a few, Harm.”
He kissed her and gave Mattie a kiss on the forehead, then left.
After he’d gotten out of the room, Mattie said to Mac, “I don’t know how to think about you. Should I call you Mom? Or just Mac? I’d started calling Harm ‘Dad’ when I was talking to other people about him before my dad got sober, but it feels strange to say ‘legal guardian’ all the time, and makes people curious, but my mother...”
Mac stroked a straying curl away from Mattie’s forehead. “You were angry at your dad, I think it made it easier to replace him. Your mother...”
Mattie sighed. “I don’t know if it would be disloyal to her... if I was your foster daughter, Mom would be assumed, but...”
Mac smiled. “How about I leave it up to you? I’d be honored to call you my daughter, but I don’t want to try to replace your mother’s memory.”
“How about I call you Mac, and if I’m talking to other people who don’t need to know, I can just call you my mom and leave it at that? That way I don’t have to tell the whole sob story every time I talk about you guys.”
Mac laughed. “That sounds like a very, um, pragmatic approach. If you’re comfortable, I’ll do the same.”
She stood up and smoothed her dress. “I think it’s time for me to let you sleep. How about I see you tomorrow? I need to do some paperwork and make some calls in the morning, but after that I can spend the day with you.”
Mattie smiled. “I’d like that.”
When Mac got out into the hallway, Harm was waiting for her. She explained to him the agreement she’d come to with Mattie, and he smiled. “Works for me. Want to duck out of the party?”
She said, “We should say goodbye....”
He pulled her close, and she amended, “Or maybe not... but I need to get my stuff.”
They headed back towards the dressing rooms, but Jen and Mike met them in the hallway, bags slung over their shoulders.
Jen smiled perkily and said, “We took the liberty of packing your things... if you want to make your escape, now would be a good time.”
They headed for the hospital lobby, and then shot Jen a dirty look when they realized the entire wedding party had moved out to the front entry of the hospital.
She gave them a cheeky grin, and said, “Sorry, sir, ma’am, the General’s orders.”
They passed through a gauntlet of hugs and bubbles to the car.
They rode in silence for a while as Harm navigated the familiar highway between the hospital and Washington. Once they were on the highway, he said, “Thank you.”
She gave him an odd look. “For?”
“Marrying me,” he said, taking her hand.
She smiled. “Yeah.”
He glanced at her, “You know, we never talked about whether you were taking my name or not.”
“No, we didn’t,” she said inscrutably. “Do you have an opinion?”
He smiled. “I would be honored if you did, and I would understand if you didn’t. Since I can’t imagine changing my name, I don’t feel like I’d have a leg to stand on if I tried to push my opinion on the matter.”
She laughed. “I asked Harriet about why she kept her name. She said that it was fine to be Mrs. Roberts socially, but that the rest of the time changing her name would have been a pain. I think things are complicated enough right now. So I don’t mind being Mrs. Rabb outside the military, but I’m not sure I could get used to being Colonel Rabb.”
The afternoon lit the fields along the highway, May’s green growth luminous. “England,” Harm said. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
Mac looked at her hands, “I know. You’d think that for as much time as you and I have slept alone in our adult lives, I’d be less daunted by it.”
“It feels like everything is divided into before and after,” he said. “Even if it was just a few days ago, it’s hard to remember what it was like before.”
She squeezed his hand. “Just promise me you won’t shut me out again. I’m not sure I could take another string of unreturned phone calls at this point.”
“Mac, once I open the door and someone steps in, I don’t shut them out again unless they leave by choice. Not even then, really. You stood at the door, but you never really entered. Until now.”
She shot him a look. “And how many people have you let in? In your whole adult life?”
He glanced at her and then put his eyes back on the road. “Two. You, and Mattie.”
“She’s been good for you,” Mac said.
“So have you,” Harm answered.
“I’m glad I can be good for someone,” she said. “Not everyone I’ve been with has come out better for it.”
“I’m not a stalker, and the CIA doesn’t want me,” he said. “My life expectancy should be somewhat higher.”
“You are an aviator. And you’ve cheated death often enough,” she responded.
“I’ve always come back to you,” he said. “Always. And I’m in admin now. I have too much to live for. I didn’t always.”
They’d been driving for nearly an hour and a half when he turned off the highway. She asked, “Fairfax?”
He smiled. “I thought we could spend the night at a bed and breakfast.”
“With a jacuzzi tub?” she asked.
“And bubble bath,” he answered. “And a king-sized bed.”
She grinned. “I like the way you think.”
A few minutes later they got out of the car in front of a huge old farmhouse. Manicured gardens with stepping stone paths, arbors and fountains flanked the walkway. Hand in hand, they walked up to the wide stone porch.
A middle aged woman looked up from a desk as they opened the front door. “Mr. and Mrs. Rabb?” she asked.
Harm grinned. “That’s us.”
“Welcome! I’m Mrs. Hampton. You’re our only booking tonight, so make yourself at home. I can show you to your rooms any time. Do you have bags?”
Harm said, “I can get them...”
Mrs. Hampton cut him off. “No, don’t bother, I can send Charlie out for them. CHARLIE!”
At her bellow, a young man with pale skin and drab hair came in from another room. “Yes’m?”
“Fetch this lovely couple’s bags from their car, will you, love?”
Without a word, the man held out his hand for the keys, then left the way they’d come in.
Mac looked around the front rooms. The walls were white, high ceilings with ornate cove molding gave the place an airy feel. A piano sat in one corner, formal furniture flanked a fireplace. On the other side, an expansive dining room with four white-clothed tables and ornate chairs looked out over one of the gardens. A stairway went up the center of the house.
Charlie returned a moment later with their flight bags and a large basket. Mac didn’t recognize it, and looked at Harm. He shrugged, and said, “I don’t recognize it either.”
Mrs. Hampton said, “You just got married today, right?”
At their nods, she said, “I’m sure you’ll find a card in there, that looks like a standard honeymoon basket. Probably full of treats, so you don’t have to leave the room if you don’t want to. When would you like breakfast tomorrow?”
They looked at each other. Harm said, “I need to catch my flight at 1020.”
Mac said, “8 should be good.”
“Any special dietary requirements?” Mrs. Hampton asked.
“He doesn’t eat much meat. Other than that I think we’re pretty easy,” Mac answered.
“That should be just fine. Charlie will show you your suite.”
Charlie deposited their things on a bench just inside a spacious dormered room, and Harm slipped him a five. Charlie pointed out a tiny fridge and then bowed deeply and left them alone.
When the door closed, they looked at each other, and Mac said, “You said there was a jacuzzi?”
The tub was in the arc of a bay window, but all they could see from it were leaves from a huge maple. Light filtered in, sparkling on the fixtures.
Mac felt Harm’s hands on the back of her dress as she bent over to start the tub filling. He unhooked the top and slid the zipper down past her hips. She shimmied and the dress slid down as she reached out to open the front of his uniform. Harm caught the dress as she stepped out of it, and lay it on a wooden chest, then shrugged out of his uniform top, laying it next to the dress. Their clothing was soon laid out neatly. She pulled a small bottle out of her bag and poured some bubble bath into the tub. He grinned.
She stepped into the steaming tub, and sighed as she sank into the foam. He stood looking down at her for a long moment.
She looked up at him, and said, “What?”
He answered, “I was just remembering Paraguay for a moment.”
She looked down. “We weren’t very easy on each other.”
“No, we weren’t. I’m just glad you were wrong.” He leaned down and kissed her, and she pulled at him until he climbed in.
She flowed into his arms, slick and humid, and he closed his eyes as they kissed, feeling every bit of tension flow out of his body.
“Oh my god,” he breathed.
She leaned against him, and said, “For what it is worth, I think it’s better now than it would have been then.”
“I don’t know,” he started, then cocked his head. “No, you’re right. Mattie is too important, and I don’t think I would have met her without that distance between us.”
“I’m...I’m sorry I hurt you then, regardless,” she said, stroking his chest. “I don’t think I grasped at the time just how far you’d gone for me, and then I didn’t know how to meet you there.”
He kissed her. “I have you now. And that five-hundred-pound gorilla got its ass kicked to the curb. And we have Mattie. I think where we are right now is good enough to put the past in context. And I wasn’t exactly easy on you either.”
“Harm, how long have you been in love with me?” she asked.
He closed his eyes and leaned back. “There’s been a spark since that first moment. Honestly, right now, I can’t remember ever not being in love with you at least a little. I had to be to make that deal in the first place, at some level.” He looked at her. “And you?”
“Russia,” was all she said.
“You just like me in purple,” he teased.
“That, and it was the first time I saw just how far you would go for someone you love. I just didn’t think you could ever focus on me, or on anyone, the way you focused on your father.” Her right hand wandered up to his neck, and she leaned against him in the hot water. “When you came to Paraguay, I didn’t know what to think, and I was afraid I was just another obsession, except you didn’t even seem happy to see me.” She put a finger on his lips as he started to speak. “And I didn’t have enough perspective to realize how much you’d given up and how much it must have hurt to see me close to Clay. Then when you threw out that crack about having gotten married, it just seemed like our same song all over again.”
“I think we changed that song,” he said into her hair.
She looked up at him, kissed him, and said, “Thank god. It was getting old.”
His lips strayed down to her ear, and abruptly there were no more words, simply hands and lips and bodies joining in the heat of the water.
Her fingers were wrinkling by the the time they bothered getting out. She wrapped up in one of the decadent towels stacked on a little hutch by the tub. He watched her every move until she was entirely wrapped, and she gave a slightly shy laugh, saying, “When you look at me that way...”
“You know what it means now,” he said.
She laughed. “If I’d known what it meant before, I don’t think we would have gotten much work done at the office.”
He grinned, and wrapped a towel around his hips. “So what’s in the basket?”
She opened the capacious picnic basket, and set things on the table. “Sparkling cider. Cheese. Crackers. Smoked oysters. Apples, grapes, and pears. Chocolate, oooh! Good chocolate. A couple slices of wedding cake. Wine glasses, cloth napkins, small plates, a tablecloth...” She continued pulling a variety of snacks out of the basket.
“Any note?” he asked.
At the very bottom of the basket, they found a note from Harriet.
“We were given this basket for our honeymoon. The food it had then was a godsend, so we decided to pass on the basket and filled it with things to help you make the most of your short leave.”
He grinned. “So we don’t need to go forage tonight?”
She picked up a grape, and fed it to him.
They were both incredibly relaxed after breakfast, and took their time loading the car with the remains of the basket and their fancy clothes.
Mac drove Harm to Dulles. They didn’t talk much until they were nearly to the turnoff to the airport property.
“I’ll take Mattie to Bethesda as soon as I can get the paperwork done after I drop you off,” she said. “I’ve got the movers coming to my apartment on Monday.”
“Jen’s coming this weekend to help get the new place ready,” he said. “I wish I could stay to help you with Mattie.”
“We’ll do okay,” Mac said.
“I know you will, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss you both.”
She smiled at him, then pulled up to departures. They got out of the car, and he started to pick up his flight bag and the garment bag containing his dress uniform. She stopped him, and threw her arms around his neck. He buried his nose against her shoulder, and she whispered, “I love you, Harmon Rabb.”
He straightened a little and kissed her until the people behind them were honking and the traffic cop gave them a move-on warning.
He picked up his bags, and was gone.
Mac got back in the car, feeling oddly bereft and happy at the same time, and drove to JAG headquarters.
Sorting out Tricare and filing the change-of-status with HR was a drawn-out affair that took Mac into the early afternoon. Jen called her in the middle of the process and offered to ride with Mattie on the private ambulance to Bethesda.
A specialist met them in the neurology wing. The small, balding man walked in looking at a chart, glanced up at them, and said, “I’ve looked over this, we need to do a better MRI. They’ll take her down now. You’re the mother, I presume?”
“Doctor...” Mac said, looking for his name.
“Oh, I’m Dr. Stoubs. Sorry.”
“Thank you. I’m Mattie’s legal guardian.”
Mattie looked at Mac and said, “Another test?”
“Up to you,” Mac answered, “but I think it’s a good idea. They’ve got better equipment here.”
Mattie sighed. “Okay.”
An orderly came in and kicked the releases open on the bed. Mac started to follow them out, but the doctor put up a hand. “She’ll be fine, there’s no room in there for company. Big equipment, tiny room. They’ll put on music for her and give her a sedative. You can wait here.”
Mac asked, “How long do you think they’ll be?”
The doctor thought for a moment. “Should be done in two hours. We’re doing several kinds of tests while she’s sleepy.”
“You really think there’s a chance that you’ll find something the other hospital missed?” Mac asked.
The doctor glanced back at the chart. “The fact that she’s had as much improvement as she has had, but not more, makes me think they may have missed a compression issue. It could be something we can’t work on, or it could be something we can fix. If we can fix it, well, she’ll have a better chance at walking again. The MRI machine at that podunk hospital she was at was at least four years out of date. We’ve got better, and more experience with this kind of injury. I’m surprised you didn’t have her brought here first thing. We deal with a lot of spinal injuries, every day.”
Mac answered, “Please note the date on the guardianship papers.”
The doctor looked. “Oh. Of course. Well, we can’t all be perfect. Goodbye, Colonel.”
He exited the room as quickly and brusquely as he’d entered.
Mac looked over at Jen, who seemed completely cowed by the whole business. “Jen, I’m going to head over to Dr. Purcell’s office and see if she can work me in. Will you come get me if I’m needed?”
Jen nodded, then said, “Colonel? Would you mind company?”
Mac frowned, and then said, “You know, that might be okay.”
“Tell me if it isn’t.”
They left word at the nurses’ station and went down to the physician’s office. The receptionist was apologetic. “I’m sorry, she’s gone for the weekend, but we do have another doctor who might be able to work you in, given the PCS.”
Mac shrugged. “Second opinion can’t hurt.”
They waited twenty minutes before the nurse called Mac back to the familiar exam room. An impossibly young looking male doctor came in holding her chart. “What can we help you with today, Colonel?”
Mac opened her mouth to speak, then looked at Jen. “Jen, could you step outside for a moment?”
Jen nodded and left.
Mac looked at her hands and then up at the doctor, and said, “I was told last year that the extent of my endometriosis might make it impossible for me to get pregnant. It wasn’t relevant at the time, but I just got married, and...”
The doctor flipped through, and said, “Well, without an HSG, we can’t really know that, and I don’t see one in your chart, just the lap. When was the start of your last menstrual period?”
“The 16th”, Mac answered. “And what’s an HSG?”
“It’s a hysterosalpingogram. We inject dye into your uterus, and take pictures to see if the dye comes out of your fallopian tubes. Given your history of endometriosis, I’ll be using an oil-based dye. It carries a small increased risk of embolism, but a dramatically increased benefit where fertility is concerned. We’d have to do it before Monday, then, the sooner the better. The good news is that the procedure is fast and usually less uncomfortable and less invasive than the lap was. The better news is that the procedure itself can increase fertility for a few months. ”
“And the bad news?” she asked.
“The bad news is that if we can’t do it by tomorrow, in all likelihood, we won’t be able to do it until next month.”
She frowned. “I have a PCS. I’m leaving for London on Tuesday.”
“Would you have time today for a procedure?” he asked.
“I’ve got the next hour and a half free, but my ward is having testing done and I’ll need to be available to her afterward,” she answered.
“That should be time enough if I’ve got space in my schedule. When did you last eat?” he asked.
She blinked and realized she had not eaten anything since breakfast. “That would be seven hours and twenty-three minutes.”
He cocked his head. “Exactly?”
She nodded and said, “Don’t ask.”
“Can I ask if you normally skip meals?”
She smiled. “I got married yesterday. Since then I dropped my husband off at the airport, spent hours in human resources, and got my ward transferred here. Normally food is a part of my daily routine. Nothing about today is routine.”
He said, “Well, we won’t put you under for this, but it’s better not to have anything in your stomach, so I think we’re good there. I’ll need to check with my assistant, but it may be possible we could do this now. Shall I send your friend back in?”
Mac nodded, and the doctor left. Jen returned, vibrating with curiosity but not asking.
Mac took mercy on her and said, “I have endo. They need to do a quick test to see if it is blocking my fallopian tubes.”
Jen said,”Oh, I’m sorry.” Then realization dawned. “You wouldn’t be checking those unless you and the Captain...”
“We want a baby, eventually,” Mac said. “I’d rather get the testing done here. Last time I asked, they told me my chances of conceiving were slim to none. Best to get the unpleasant news out of the way so we can plan for other options if we need to.”
Jen smiled. “You guys would be great with a baby. I’m sure it will happen.”
Mac sighed. “I can’t get my hopes up. If this hadn’t come up... He and I had a deal that we would try to have a baby someday, long before we ever talked relationship. That ‘someday’ was supposed to be a year ago. If I hadn’t gotten the bad news then, chances are we would already have a child. At the time, it didn’t seem worth trying. Whatever we find out today, though, don’t tell Harm. If it’s bad news, I’ll tell him. If it’s good news, then I definitely want to be the one to tell him.”
Jen drew an invisible zipper across her lips. “No worries, ma’am.”
“If you’re going to live with me and see them stick dye in my uterus, please call me Mac when we’re off duty.”
“Okay, Mac,” Jen said. “Force of habit.”
The doctor returned, a nurse tagging along behind him. “Good news. Our radiologist should be available in about forty minutes. Major Hills here will help you with the prep. I suspect your friend will prefer the waiting room until we’re ready to do the procedure.”
Mac learned why a few minutes later, as the nurse gave her a small handful of ibuprofen pills and then explained she’d need an enema.
Jen came in just as they wheeled her out the door to go to radiology. “I checked,” she said, walking next to the bed. “Mattie is sleeping, and between tests. They found something but wouldn’t tell me what, other than that it meant they needed more tests. They said it would be another ninety minutes or so. Do you want me there for your test?”
Mac nodded. “It should be interesting.”
The room was sterile and blue, and they draped her liberally with blue cloths. The tech, a bland looking woman in her early thirties, explained as she went along. “We’re going to do an ultrasound first, to make sure you haven’t ovulated yet. The girls call this the dildo-cam.”
Mac felt something cool and impersonal penetrate her, and said, “Not nearly fun enough for that, but I can see why.”
The tech turned the screen. “If you look here,” she pointed at a small dark grey blob in a sea of static, “You can see an unruptured follicle.” She measured it. “You’ll likely ovulate Tuesday.”
Mac said, “I won’t see my husband again until Wednesday.”
The tech laughed. “Well, since we’re x-raying your girlie bits today, probably best you not get knocked up this cycle anyway.”
Mac frowned. “I’ve been sexually active....”
“Sperm can live a maximum of five days in ideal circumstances. It is theoretically possible that if you had sex this morning...”
Mac blushed, and the tech continued, “... that those sperm might live long enough to fertilize an egg, but you’re what, thirty-seven? And having a procedure which, while not damaging, isn’t quite friendly to sperm, at this point, is not going to help things along this month. Now, next month it might help a lot, assuming his duty station and yours are close enough together.” As she said this, she removed the probe.
“Ready to go?” another voice asked.
The tech answered, “Just need to put an apron on her friend here.”
A few minutes later, the radiologist was feeding a small tube into Mac’s uterus. Mac flinched, and Jen took her hand. “That’s probably the worst of it,” he said, “although a blockage may make this crampy.”
Images appeared on a screen in front of him. “That dark stuff is the dye flowing in,” he said. “And right about now, we’ll see if the tubes are open.”
“That fast?” Mac asked.
“Hmmm,” he said, and she frowned. “Nothing... oh, there it goes. Left... hmmm... and right.”
“Is that good?” Mac tried to keep her tone level.
“Hmmm,” he answered. “Looks like there was some blockage in the right, and the left was twistier than we like. But the dye straightened it significantly. They’re both clear enough for dye to move now.”
He clamped and withdrew the tube, and started doing something at the machine.
Mac heard her voice starting to waver as she asked, “Does that mean what I think it means?”
He looked up. “Your odds are not as good as if you had never had endo. But they’re significantly better than they were. Your doctor will tell you more.” He got up and left.
She lay there with a strange expression on her face as the nurse tucked a towel under her. Jen had a death grip on her hand, oddly comforting. They waited, and eventually the door opened and the young doctor came in. He looked pleased.
“Well, I’d put your odds of conceiving in the next six to twelve months at about thirty percent” he said.
“Only that?” she asked.
“Even if you didn’t have any issues at all, at your age your chances would only be about sixty percent in a year, maybe fifteen percent in any given cycle. We’ve just taken you from one-to-five to thirty percent in a couple of hours. Now, if you go six months without getting pregnant, that will be the time to look into more extensive testing or other options. If you factor in the other options, your chances of getting pregnant within the next two years could be as high as seventy-five percent, depending on what you were willing to try.” He smiled.
“So it is good news?”
“Potential good news,” he said. “Now, it probably won’t happen this month. When do you see your husband again?”
“Wednesday,” she said. “I’m flying out on Tuesday.”
“And you just got married? I’m going to write you a prescription for antibiotics. Given your newlywed status, I know better than to try to convince you to abstain, but you do have a slightly increased risk of infection due to the procedure.” He keyed in something on a laptop. “You can pick up your meds in the pharmacy in half an hour, start taking them tonight, once a day for five days. Ibuprofen for pain, and if you have more than spotting, come back in.”
Mac’s internal chronometer pinged. “We need to check on Mattie,” she said to Jen.
“I’m on it,” Jen said, “Meet me up there when you can.”
Mac looked up at the doctor. “Thank you for working me in so fast.”
He smiled. “I’m working toward becoming a reproductive endocrinologist, when my time in the Navy is up. I live to get people pregnant. Wait, that sounds wrong.”
She laughed. “Well, thank you anyway.”
A few minutes later, she made her way back to neurology. Mattie was back in the room, drowsing, and Jen sat by her bedside, reading a magazine. The doctor waylaid Mac before she could go in. “Colonel, if you have time now to discuss our findings?”
Mac nodded, “If we can sit down, please?”
The doctor gestured to a small group of chairs. “Be my guest.”
She took a deep breath and focused on him. “How did the tests go?”
“Well, we think we know what’s causing the problem. We would like to do some exploratory surgery, which may turn into a repair attempt.”
She nodded. “When?”
He looked over at the room. “I’ve been making calls. The good news is that our best neck man is available. The bad news is that he’s only available today.”
“Today is good,” Mac said. “What kind of risks are we looking at? Will she still be able to travel on Tuesday?”
He said, “Well, any surgery in the neck area has risks. Given that she’s already paralyzed, it might seem like a no brainer, but the fact is, if something goes wrong, she may become respirator-dependent. However, the potential benefit is huge. There appears to be a small mass, a bone chip, maybe, or a bit of disc, something pressing against the spine at C4. But if she’s able to breathe and feel her arms, it isn’t severed. Removing that mass may allow her a near complete recovery with proper therapy. The good news is that if the surgery goes as intended, she won’t lose function, and her recovery from the incision should be a matter of days, not weeks. Her overall recovery will be much longer, given how long there has been pressure there, and she’ll still need extensive physical and occupational therapy, but chances are she’ll regain bladder control quickly, and the biggest hurdle will actually be regaining muscle mass due to the extensive time on bed rest. Travel? We’ll have to wait and see. When are you to report?”
“Two and a half weeks, but we’d planned on leaving Tuesday to allow her time to settle in London.”
“Well, I’ll check our facilities there, but barring severe complications, I don’t see any problem with it.” He actually smiled. “Can I give the go-ahead?”
“Can I talk to her first?” Mac asked.
“Of course,” he answered. “Let the nurses know when you’re ready to give the go-ahead.”
She got up slowly, noting a small amount of cramping, and went into Mattie’s room.
Mattie opened her eyes blearily and said, “Hi.”
Mac smiled. “They want to do surgery.”
Mattie blinked. “They think it will help?”
“Then do it,” Mattie said. “Does Harm know?”
Mac shook her head.
“Don’t tell him. He’ll go crazy trying to get back here. Surprise him, if it works.” Mattie closed her eyes again, and said, “When?”
“Now, I think,” said Mac.
“Like I’ve got anything better to do,” Mattie said, trailing off into sleep.
Mac went back out into the hall and leaned over the counter of the nurses’ station. “Tell the doctor yes, please,” she said to the nurse sitting there. The nurse nodded and hit a button on her desk.
Mac went back into Mattie’s room, and sat down heavily next to Jen. “This may be a while.”
“I’m all packed, Ma’...Mac.” Jen smiled. “I can stay until tomorrow morning if need be. You should get a room at the lodge and sleep while she’s in surgery.”
A nurse came in and overheard. “For parents, we can put a rollaway in the room. If she wants to stay here.”
Mac nodded, “I just had a procedure done myself.”
“Last-minute scramble before a PCS?” the nurse asked.
Mac nodded wryly. “My husband will be so surprised.”
“Aren’t they always,” the nurse said. “We’ll bring in the rollaway as soon as they come to get her.”
After Mattie was wheeled out, Mac put her head on her hands and started to cry.
Jen looked alarmed for a moment, and then asked gently, “Mac? When did you last eat?”
Mac said, through tears, “Oh. Yeah. Long time.”
“I’m on it. When do you expect to hear from Harm?” Jen stood up.
“Soon,” Mac said. “Not soon enough.”
Jen had been gone for about twenty minutes when Mac’s cell phone rang. She answered, and Harm said, “Just landed, how are things?”
She managed to keep most of the tremor out of her voice when she said, “They’re good. How was the flight?”
“Sat next to a talker. I know more than I could ever want to know about ankylosing spondylitis. Tell me something good.”
“I had a test done,” she said.
“What kind of test?” he asked slowly.
“One to see if I’m really as barren as I was told last year,” she answered.
“Only time will tell, but the odds of it happening have gone from about one percent to between thirty and seventy-five percent.”
“I’d play those odds,” he said, an odd note to his voice.
“They said it would be unlikely this month due to timing, regardless of what we do. But that we’re free to try as much as we want, and the test itself improves the odds for a few months. And if we don’t conceive in six months, there are other things we can try if the old-fashioned way doesn’t do it.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line, “That’s amazing, wonderful news, Mac,” he said quietly. “Does this mean you’re ready to try?”
Her mouth went dry, and she said, barely above a whisper, “Yes.”
She could almost hear his smile. He said, “It’s going to be fun trying, however it goes.”
She laughed in spite of herself. Then he asked, “So, how’s Mattie? Have they seen her yet?”
“What, is she okay?” Harm asked, worry creeping into his voice.
“She wants to wait to tell you herself. I think we’ll know more in the morning. Don’t be scared,” Mac said.
“Can I talk to her?” Harm asked.
“She’s out cold,” Mac answered, as Jen came back in with a tray full of food. “You can talk to her yourself tomorrow.”
“What aren’t you telling me, Colonel?” he said, pushing.
“Don’t pull rank on me, mister,” Mac shot back. “I answer to a different chain of command at the moment, and her royal highness has sworn me secrecy.”
Jen snickered and held out her hand.
Mac put the phone in it and grabbed one of the plates from the tray.
Jen’s eyebrows went up at whatever Harm was saying on the other end. When she was able to get a word in edgewise, she said, “It’s true, sir. Mattie is out cold right now, and you can talk to her tomorrow. Okay, okay, I’ll give the phone back, you don’t have to swear. I hear it’s bad for your sperm count.”
Mac sputtered and nearly spit out her food. “You never heard that,” she finally got out. “It can’t possibly be true.”
“I’m sorry, Mac, he hung up, said something about a conspiracy.” Jen took the other plate and began to eat.
Mac snickered, and then answered the phone on the first ring. “She held my hand through the procedure, Harm, she had to know.”
“How the hell am I supposed to keep proper decorum with her after that?” he asked.
“How did AJ manage? How does General Cresswell manage? I don’t think she’s been any easier on them. We’re not at work right now, and she’s been very helpful, and besides, I needed the laugh.” Mac took another bite.
Harm said, “I really can’t win here, can I?”
“You already won, you just don’t know it,” Mac answered. “I love you and I miss you and I really wish you were here right now.”
His tone softened. “I’m supposed to go to sleep. And I keep thinking about going to bed in this hotel without you.”
She smiled. “Think about going to bed with me last night instead.”
Jen held up a finger, then thought better of whatever she was going to say, and left the room, closing the door behind her.
Mac grinned. “I think I just got back at Jen.”
He laughed. “Thank you. But really, what is going on with Mattie? The consult went well?”
“Harm, technically it is still going on. And that’s all I can say.”
“It must be after 1800 there, the doctor’s working late?” he pressed.
“Please don’t ask me for more than that right now. I love you, but I want her to trust me, and she asked me to wait to let her tell you whatever they find out.” Mac closed her eyes.
There was a long silence on the other end. “Okay,” he said, finally. “I trust you, and I trust her, and I have to trust it is important enough for you to let me wonder.”
“Love you, sleep well,” she said.
“I’ll just imagine I’m sleeping with you.”
She smiled. “I can live with that. For now.”
Mac was just starting to doze on the rollaway when a resident put a hand on her shoulder. “Colonel?”
She sat up and blinked. “Is everything okay?” She glanced around the room. Jen was nowhere to be seen.
He nodded. “Dr. Stoubs thought you would want to know, the exploratory went well, and they’re in the process of removing several small bone fragments. He thinks she’ll be out of surgery in about ninety minutes.”
Mac frowned. “Isn’t that a long time?”
The resident shook his head. “They’re using microsurgery techniques to avoid further nerve damage, and they’ll be putting in a plate to hold things in place, so she’ll have better mobility sooner, without a halo. Ninety minutes is actually pretty fast for this kind of thing.”
“Do we have any sense of how she’ll do after the surgery? Will she walk?” Mac asked.
“Dr. Stoubs will have to talk to you about that, and we can’t know anything at this point, except that her prognosis is probably better than it would have been without the surgery.” He shrugged apologetically. “In injuries of this kind, we see any improvement as a gift.”
She nodded. “Keep me informed?”
“Yes, ma’am. She’ll probably be back here in about three hours. I expect Dr. Stoubs will come talk to you once he’s scrubbed out.”
Mac lay back down as he left, and stared at the ceiling until she fell asleep in spite of herself.
National Naval Medical Center
She woke nine hours later in the dark room, and panicked when she realized that Mattie’s bed was still missing. Jen was curled up in a vinyl armchair chair, still in her uniform, sleeping. Mac jumped up and Jen stirred.
“Where’s Mattie?” Mac asked, “I thought the doctor...”
“He came in, you were out cold,” Jen said. “He said everything went well, but that they were going to keep Mattie under sedation in the ICU for eight to twelve hours. He said he’d talk to you when they were ready to let her wake up.”
“Did he say anything about whether she’d walk again?” Mac asked.
Jen shook her head. “He was kinda vague. He seemed pleased, but he did mention the length of time between the injury and the surgery being a concern. We’re back to wait and see.”
“Can I see her in the ICU?” Mac asked.
“I don’t see any reason why not,” said Dr. Stroub from the doorway. “I apologize for not waking you sooner, but you appeared to need the rest, and there was nothing you could do for her at that moment. I’m sorry we have to be a bit vague , but the fact of the matter is that there are never guarantees with spinal surgery. She had extensive compression of the spine, and irritation, but the nerves did not appear severed. There may be some crush damage, but that’s something we can’t fix, and I believe it’s limited to a relatively small group of nerves. The inflammation and pressure were causing the paralysis—we’ve removed the physical cause of the pressure, and are treating the inflammation. My best guess is that she’ll regain much, but not all of her function, significantly more than if we’d left things alone. She’s young, and we used a new protocol that’s shown promise in helping nerves heal. Those things are on her side. It was a long time between the injury and removing the pressure, that’s against her. On the other hand, she’s been immobilized for a while, so she wasn’t making things worse. And again, the lack of mobility means recovery is going to take a lot of work. I wish I could tell you for sure ‘She’ll be able to walk’, but I can’t know until she does it. There’s a lot now that’s up to her, and her support system.”
Mac nodded. “If she does learn to walk again, will she be able to regain full function?”
He shrugged. “She could get to the point of running and dancing, or she might need canes for balance. If there remains some interruption or impedance of nerve signals, she may have some motor issues that prevent her from full function. If only some signals get through, her movements will not be smooth and balance may be an issue. We did some testing while she was out, and we did get some brain response to stimulation of her extremities. That gives us quite a bit of hope. She may have some pretty severe pain for a while, though. I want you to be prepared for that. Nerve pain can be very wearing, and before we send her home, we’ll arrange a consult with a pain management specialist.”
Mac nodded. “Can I see her now?”
He gestured. “Follow me.”
He led her down several hallways and through a set of double doors to a dimly lit unit of glass-walled rooms. Mattie’s room was very close to the nurses’ station, and she lay surrounded by machines, electrodes attached to many points on her head and chest, with a soft collar on her neck.
Dr. Stoubs took a stylus out of his pocket and ran it up Mattie’s bare foot, and said, “Do you see on the EEG there? That spike?”
Mac nodded. “She felt that?”
“Her brain registered the sensation. She’s still sedated,” the doctor clarified. “We can try letting her wake now, but if she’s in too much pain, we’ll need to sedate her again.”
Mac nodded. “Please.”
The doctor clamped off one of the tubes that branched into the main IV line. “It may take a little while for her to come around,” he said. “Maybe twenty minutes. I’ll be back then.”
Mac pulled a stool up next to Mattie’s bed and sat down.
About ten minutes later, Mattie gave a low moan, and Mac stood up, saying, “I’m here, sweetie. It’s okay.”
One of Mattie’s hands lifted weakly off of the bed and swatted feebly at the IV. Mac caught her hand, and fumbled with her free hand to find the call button.
Mattie groaned again, low and plaintive. A nurse appeared at Mac’s side, and said, “She’s not entirely awake yet, she probably feels pretty raw.”
Mac said, “She moved her hand... lifted it right up.”
“Good,” the nurse said. “She’s getting feeling back. I’ll go find the doctor.”
Mattie mumbled something, and Mac moved closer to her head, mindful of the machinery.
“What did you say, honey?” she asked.
Mattie pressed her lips together dryly, then said, “Hurts...”
“What hurts?” Mac asked.
“Everything,” Mattie answered, swallowing. “’zat mean they fixed things?”
Mac stroked her cheek. “Maybe. Do you want something for the pain?”
Mattie frowned. “Not... yet... owww.”
She shifted her shoulders a little in the bed. Mac smiled. “Hey, you’re moving.”
Mattie blinked her eyes open. “Really?”
Mac nodded. “Really.”
Dr. Stoubs appeared at the other side of the bed. “Mattie, I need you to try to move your right foot.”
Mac watched, and Mattie’s foot moved a tiny bit. Then the other one moved a little.
“Good,” he said. “Does anything hurt?”
Mattie groaned a little. “Everything.”
“What kind of pain?”
She closed her eyes. “Ache... little burning pain on my hip... Arms sore. Neck sore. Headache... and my girl parts.”
“That’s all normal. You haven’t used those muscles in a while, they’re not used to it. And you have a catheter in, we’ll have them remove that once you’re able to sit up. Don’t try to move any more right now, we’ll get you moving soon enough.”
Mattie nodded, and then realized that she’d nodded. “No collar?” she said, then amended, “Different collar?”
“You have a soft collar on. There’s a small internal plate now that’s stabilizing the place that was damaged. The soft collar is mostly because your muscles are so out of practice.”
She sighed. “Am I going to be normal again?”
“That remains to be seen,” the doctor answered. “But right now, I can say that the operation appears to have been quite successful. There’s still some residual damage, I don’t want you to overdo it or expect that you’ll be a hundred percent immediately. But our goal will be to get you walking and functioning normally.”
Mattie smiled, and then winced. “I think that pain medication might...”
The doctor nodded. “We’ll give you something that will make you sleepy for now. When you wake up, you’ll talk to another doctor about other pain management options.”
She nodded again, and closed her eyes, a slight grimace.
Mac said, “Can we call Harm now, Mattie?”
Mattie asked the doctor, “What are the chances I’ll be walking by Wednesday?”
The doctor shook his head. “I wouldn’t expect it. You have a lot of muscle to get back in shape before you’re going to be able to even try to walk. If you tried now, you’d fall like a marionette with the strings cut.”
“Call him,” Mattie said. “I want to tell him.”
The doctor pointed at a “No Cell Phones” sign and said, “If you can wait on your pain meds, we’ll get you back to your room first.”
Mattie gave another little nod. “For this, I’ll wait. What time is it?”
Mac said, “It’s 3:17 am. Harm’s probably awake by now, five-hour difference.”
“I’m thirsty,” Mattie said, licking her dry lips with little result.
The nurse brought over a cup of ice chips, and handed them to Mac with a little plastic spoon. “Give her these for now.”
Mac nodded, and spooned a flake of ice into Mattie’s mouth.
Mattie let it melt on her tongue and said, “That should not be as delicious as it is.”
Mac gave her another chip, and then stood up hastily to get out of the way as a couple of orderlies bustled in to unlock the bed as the nurse detached most of the leads. A minute later, the bed, the orderlies, the IV, Mattie, and Mac were on their way back to the room they’d started out in.
As soon as they were out of the ICU, Mac was dialing Harm’s cell phone number.
He answered on the second ring without any preamble, “How is she?”
The orderlies started plugging things into the wall, and Jen came over to listen.
Mac thumbed it to speaker phone and put the phone next to Mattie’s head on the pillow. “Ask her. You’re on speaker.”
Mattie said, “Hey, Harm.”
“Hi, Princess. Mac won’t tell me anything, what’s going on?” Harm’s worry came through loud and clear.
“I just had surgery,” Mattie said. “I can move my feet now.”
Jen’s jaw dropped, and they all flinched a little at the volume of Harm’s whoop of joy. When he’d regained his composure, he asked, “So what was the surgery?”
Mac said, “There were some tiny bone fragments creating pressure and inflammation. They removed them. She’s in a fair amount of pain, which she won’t tell you, but her prognosis just improved dramatically.”
“I’m going to have to take you both dancing,” he said.
Mattie gave a wry smile. “Um, I’m not sure I’m up to that yet.”
Mac explained, “She’s still really weak, from being in bed so long. And they’re not sure she’ll have full function, although she does have feeling in her hands and feet. She’s still got a long road back.”
“We’ll get you there, Mattie.” Harm said. “It will just take time.”
“I actually think I believe you now,” Mattie said.
“You’ll get there,” Jen said. “We’ll all help.”
“So, Harm, have you seen the new house yet?” Mac asked.
“That’s my next stop. When does Jen get on a plane?”
Jen looked at her watch. “About eight hours from now, sir. Harm.”
“I’ll pick you up from the airport. Heathrow?”
Jen gave him the flight information, then Mac said, “They’re giving Mattie her pain meds now, so I’m going to take you off of speaker.”
When the phone was at her ear, she said, “We miss you.”
“How much pain is she in?”
Mac looked at Mattie, and then walked out into the hall. “She’s got pain ‘everywhere’ right now, but we think most of it is just ache from being in bed and nerves waking up. She can talk through it and seems to be in pretty good spirits right now, but the doctor says she may need some ongoing pain management.”
He sighed. “I hate it that she’s hurting, but I suppose it’s better than not hurting at all at this point.”
His tone changed. “You know... I was thinking.”
“Yes?” she said, curious.
“I was thinking about the bed and breakfast.”
She smiled. “Oh really?”
“Mmm hmmm. I was thinking that we should make some time when you get here, a weekend, and do something like that again.”
She grinned. “I’m game.”
“I miss you.”
She sighed a little. “Yeah.”
“And I want you.”
She smiled. “Keep talking.”
“I love you, Mac.”
“I love you, too, Harm. See you Wednesday.”
“Count on it,” he answered.
National Naval Medical Center
The most frustrating thing about physical therapy, Mattie decided, was how much it proved she still couldn’t do. That was clear in the first five minutes.
“How the hell am I going to start walking,” she asked the PT, “if clapping my hands together makes me this tired?”
The PT gave Mattie an understanding smile. “Right now, we have to start with simply making your muscles work again. Once you have some basic tone and control, we can work on whipping you into shape. That’ll take a while.”
“How long is a while?” Mattie asked.
“If you were a cranky Admiral, I’d say never. If you were a smartass Lieutenant, I’d say about six months. You’re a teenager, so it really depends on how sorry for yourself you get. If you stick with the exercises and don’t push too hard too fast, I’d say you could do it in about four. If you start getting bogged down in how hard it is, it could take longer. A lot longer.”
“Four months? To walk?” Mattie asked, frustrated.
“Four months to walk well, hopefully without needing a cane. We’ll get you up in a walker a lot sooner.” The PT massaged Mattie’s legs. “You don’t have much muscle left here. But there’s stuff you can do in bed to help get it back.”
The PT showed Mattie a variety of isometric exercises she could do lying in bed, from tightening her abdominal muscles to leg-strengthening routines.
“Don’t get crazy and try doing them nonstop. If you get tired, stop for a while. If you manage to injure a muscle, it’ll set you back. But you do have to do them several times a day, every day, and in increasing intensity.”
“Listen to her,” someone said from the door. “She knows what she’s talking about.”
“Bud!” Mattie said, “I’d get up, but...”
He laughed. “Harriet and Mac thought that you might like some commiseration right about now.”
Mattie smiled. “I guess you know this drill.”
“Well, I lost a leg. And they got me working out pretty quickly after the injury. But even in a few days of intensive care, I lost a whole lot of muscle, and it was pretty hard getting it back.”
“But you do great now,” Mattie said.
“I’m in better shape than I ever was before,” Bud said. “I have to be, in order to keep up with people who haven’t been hurt.”
“That’s not fair,” she said.
He shrugged. “Life isn’t. The sooner you get over the idea that it should be, the easier this process will be for you. I’m not a hundred percent, but I know it could be a lot worse. So I’m grateful.”
“I’m just afraid...”
“That your life is over?” he supplied. “It isn’t. You’re going to England. You’re going to meet new people and go new places and learn new things, and you may not be a volleyball champ or a Navy pilot down the road, or maybe you will. I do know that there are plenty of people in the world who don’t get to do those things at all, even though they have perfectly whole bodies, and they still manage to lead pretty good lives.”
She sighed. “I hope so.”
“Do what the doctors and therapists tell you to do. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to try something new, but use some common sense. I think you’ll do fine,” he said.
She smiled at him. “When did you get so wise?”
He grinned. “Right around the time I stupidly stepped on a land mine.”
Mac took Jen to the airport. As the petty officer disappeared from view, Mac had a sudden jolt of dislocation, as if her life was being disassembled piece by piece and sent away. When she got back to the hospital, she found Bud at Mattie’s side.
She gave Bud a hug and said, “I’m really sorry you’re not coming to London now.”
He smiled. “Yeah, it feels like our whole family is packing up and leaving. Maybe when the babies are a little older, we’ll make a trip of it.”
“I’d like that,” Mac said. “And I know Harm would, too.”
“I need to get going, Harriet is picking me up shortly,” he said.
“I’ll walk you out.”
“It seems so crazy that you two are married now,” Bud said as they walked down the hall. “It must be weird having him over there through all this.”
Mac sighed. “Being married feels like the most sane part of this whole process.”
“Well, we’d been wondering when you two were going to finally stop dancing around,” he said. “Who knew it would take the General?”
Mac chuckled. “Apparently he did.”
“So do you guys have any plans for kids?” Bud asked, and then looked embarrassed, adding, “I’m sorry, that’s really none of my business.”
Mac smiled. “There’s a funny story there.”
“Oh really?” Bud said, curious.
“Remember when baby AJ was born?” Mac said.
Bud nodded and laughed. “Not something I could forget easily.”
“That day, Harm suggested that five years from then, if neither of us was in a relationship, we should have a baby together.”
He blinked. “But AJ is six.”
Mac gave a half-smile. “Things don’t always go as planned. But yes, we’re planning on having kids. Sooner than later, if possible.”
Bud smiled. “This has been percolating a long time, then.”
“At the time he suggested it, it felt like it came out of left field, just completely unexpected. But it planted a seed. Seeing that baby born... Anyway, you know a lot of what has happened since then. And it may not be possible. But Harm would be a great dad.”
“Colonel, you’ll be a great mom,” Bud said. “I hope it works out for you, I love kids.”
She laughed. “I hope so. Are you guys planning any more?”
He looked sheepish. “We didn’t plan the last two. I think Harriet’s at her limit for now. Any more and we’ll need a bigger car.”
They got to the front door of the hospital, where said car was waiting. Harriet got out and gave Mac a hug. “Sorry I couldn’t come in,” she said, gesturing at the van full of children. “It just didn’t seem like the thing to do to inflict these guys on the poor hospital staff.”
Mac smiled, and found that seeing Harriet’s children didn’t sting quite as much as it used to. “They’re adorable, but it would be hard getting them in the door.”
Bud climbed into the front seat, and Harriet said, “Come to dinner with us before you go?”
“I’d like that,” Mac said. “Sunday night?”
“Sure thing!” Harriet answered, and they drove off.
National Naval Medical Center
The first time she felt an urgent need to pee, it really started to hit home for Mattie that she might eventually be okay. Then the process of being hoisted onto a commode by a nurse, nearly sliding off of it because her muscles wouldn’t cooperate, and being too uncoordinated to wipe herself quickly sent that feeling of incipient self-sufficiency into the proverbial and not so proverbial toilet.
When Mac got back into the room, Mattie was lying on her side, crying quietly into a pillow.
“Hey there,” Mac said, putting a hand on Mattie’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
Mattie shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Might make it easier,” Mac said. “I don’t know how to help if I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“I don’t want to need help,” Mattie said. “It’s humiliating.”
“You’ve needed help for weeks. You’re going to need less help as time goes on. What happened?”
“I can’t...” Mattie said. “It was bad enough knowing someone was changing my diaper like a baby... worse to feel someone else wipe my ass for me. I can’t even sit on the damn john without someone holding me there like a baby.”
Mac noticed then the commode sitting off to one side. “At least you’re out of diapers. The rest will come soon.”
“I just want my life back,” Mattie said, and her shoulders shook as the tears intensified.
Mac sat down on the bed behind Mattie, kicked off her shoes, and gently curled up behind the girl. “Which life is that?”
“The one where I could take care of myself. When I was fourteen, I was running my own damn business. Now I’m almost sixteen and I can’t go to the bathroom without help.”
“You want to go back to being alone?” Mac asked.
“At least I could be proud of it,” Mattie answered. “Now I’m not just a burden to Harm, I’m a burden to you, to everyone who gets close to me. I thought the surgery would fix me, but I still feel completely useless.”
Mac stroked Mattie’s hair. “Does it matter if we want to be here for you, want to help you?”
“You and Harm should be off having a honeymoon, Mac. You should be off in some hotel somewhere ordering room service, not separated so that you can stay with me.”
Mac shook her head a little with a wry smile, and said, “We probably wouldn’t have been able to close the gap between us if it hadn’t been for you. Don’t underestimate yourself.”
“But you can’t tell me you’d rather be here than there right now,” Mattie said.
Mac sighed. “No one ever wants to have to spend time in a hospital. But I’d rather be here with you right now than to watch Harm going crazy because he had to be so far away and didn’t have anyone to stay with you he could trust. Jennifer’s gone, she’ll be landing in a few hours. Bud and Harriet have their little ones. Right now, my highest priority is to be his partner. And at this moment, that means doing what he wishes he could do, but can’t. It helps that you’re high on my priority list, too... it means there’s no conflict. Staying here with you right now wasn’t a hard choice. It was the easiest choice to make in the circumstances. And all we have right now is the hand we’re given. So if that means that I’m going to have to help wipe your butt for a few weeks until you get to where you can do it for yourself, I’m going to just have to chalk it up to being a parent. I hear that’s part of the job description. Do I miss him? Of course I do. So do you. But we’ll be with him soon.”
“Chloe seems like a neat kid,” Mattie said.
“She is,” Mac said. “You remind me of her in a lot of ways.”
“Did you ever think about adopting her?” Mattie asked.
“Her family is great with her. I love her dearly, but she’s living on a farm with a dog and a horse and she’s happy as a clam. I wouldn’t take her from that.”
“Is away at sea for long stretches at a time. She lives with her grandparents.” Mac stroked Mattie’s hair idly.
“I don’t understand why my dad hasn’t come to see me.” Mattie said. “It feels like he just gave up on me.”
Mac sighed. “He’s wallowing in a dark place right now. Whether or not he comes out of it, you need to be with people who can be there for you no matter what, not just when things are going well. He knows that.”
“Am I supposed to forgive him for this?” Mattie asked. “I don’t know how to feel... On the one hand, he abandoned me again. On the other hand, if I could abandon me right now, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
“And you don’t understand why we haven’t? Why I haven’t?” Mac asked gently.
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“I love you. And my mother abandoned me and I didn’t understand until not long ago just how much that wasn’t my fault. And I’m not about to abandon you, not when staying is simply a matter of putting up with a hospital and helping a sick friend get back on her feet. The only reason I didn’t spend more time with you at the other hospital is that Harm wanted to do it himself. He didn’t want to ask for help. Sound familiar?”
“Harm can be an idiot sometimes,” Mattie said. She paused, and then continued, “And so can I, I guess.”
“I want to be here for you. I want to do what I can to help you get better faster. Will you let me?”
Mattie nodded. “You’re pretty good at this mom thing, you know?”
Mac found herself blinking back the sting of tears. “Thank you.”
“Maybe I can be practice for the real thing,” Mattie said.
“You are the real thing,” Mac answered. “Don’t ever doubt that.”
The next few days passed in a blur for both of them. PT and OT came to work with Mattie, Mac spent half her time in the car and the rest of the time with Mattie, visiting friends, packing, doing paperwork, and saying goodbye to what had been her life for nine years. Early Monday morning, the movers came to pack her apartment. They’d decided to put her car in storage rather than ship it, but the rest of her stuff was going to get to London before she did.
The one constant was Harm, oddly enough for the distance between them, who called her every four hours while she was awake. The conversations were short but sweet, the content of the calls less important than the regularity and consistency of hearing his voice from so far away. He talked about the new place, about what he was seeing and eating and feeling, and she filled him in on the minutiae of Mattie’s progress.
It only occurred to her Monday evening that he’d even called her in the middle of his night, and when she called him on it, he said, “That’s what alarm clocks are for, not that you’d know. I remember how it was for you when Clay was gone. I don’t want you to have time to worry.”
She chuckled, and said, “I’m getting on a plane in the afternoon. Then we’ll be there with you.”
“I can’t wait,” he said.
“I know,” she answered.
“No, really, I’ve been thinking about borrowing an F14 and coming to visit. Think they’d mind? I could be there in a couple hours.” She could hear him grinning.
She laughed. “They’d shoot you down. We’ll be there soon.”
“I love you, Mrs. Rabb,” he said.
She smiled, eyes shining, and said, “I love you, too. Go to sleep.”
Mattie was so improved by Tuesday that rather than flying strapped to a hospital bed, she was cleared to ride semi-reclined, with just Mac and a nurse accompanying her on a military transport. The flight had a handful of soldiers on it, who seemed to regard Mattie as a curiosity.
The nurse offered each of them a small tablet of melatonin when they got onboard. “It won’t force you to sleep,” she said. “But you’ll have an easier time adjusting once you’re there.”
They drowsed through most of the flight, which took them rapidly into darkness as they flew away from the setting sun.
Mac woke as the drab cabin lightened a little with the rising sun, and realized that they were only a half hour from their destination.
A moment later, a shift in the angle of the plane confirmed it, as they began their descent. Mattie woke, and Mac said, “Almost there.”
“Is Harm going to meet us at the plane?” Mattie asked.
Mac snorted. “You really think there’s anything in the world that could stop him?”
“I was just thinking about airport security...”
“He won’t have any trouble,” Mac said. “I think he’s coming with the transport team who are taking you to the rehab facility.”
“I wish I was going home with you guys,” Mattie said.
Mac held her hand. “It won’t be long. Just until we’ve got your room set up. And we’ll still be there with you every day.”
“When do I have to go back to school?” Mattie asked. “This semester was pretty well a bust. Am I going to have to repeat tenth grade?”
Mac shook her head. “You’ll have a tutor through the summer, and if you test well and can handle a full school day by then, the school is putting you with the kids in their eleventh year. The British system is a little different, and we’ll be putting you in a local school, so you can be closer to the house.”
“You’ve been talking to Harm a lot then,” Mattie said.
“He’s been working really hard to make sure you’ll be able to continue your education. When they thought you’d be bed-bound, it looked like you might be doing the rest of your schooling at home. But at this point, we’re planning on seeing where you are at the end of the summer.”
“No summer vacation,” Mattie said, with pretend pique.
“A working vacation,” Mac amended.
As they got close to the ground, Mac noticed Mattie’s knuckles whitening, and abruptly remember this was her first landing since the accident. The nurse strapped the soft collar back on, and Mac held Mattie’s hand as the plane neared the tarmac.
The plane landed almost gingerly. When Mac commented to the nurse how smooth the landing had gone, the nurse laughed. “I had a word with the flight crew, told them the captain should fly like he was trying to balance a stack of wine glasses on the nose of the plane. She doesn’t need any more trauma.”
“Harm will be impressed,” Mac said.
“Harm will be too busy kissing you to bother being impressed with the landing,” Mattie said.
The cargo hatch dropped, and two of the soldiers handed their duffles off in order to help bring Mattie’s chair down. Mac picked up her bags, and led them all down the hatch.
He was standing there, in uniform, waiting, about forty feet from the plane. She found herself running, and dropped her bags in a heap as he picked her up and kissed her. She heard Mattie over her shoulder call out, “Told you so,” and laughed into his shoulder.
He set her down, touched her face and said, “Your eyes are leaking.”
She looked up and said, “So are yours.”
He kissed her again, then picked up one of her bags, slung it over his shoulder, waited for her to pick up the other, and then walked hand in hand with her over to Mattie’s chair.
The nurse removed the soft collar, and Mattie held out one of her hands. “Look, pa, hands!” she said.
His voice was gruff with emotion as he answered, “I see that. You look amazing, princess.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” Mattie answered.
“Can I hug her?” he asked the nurse.
As the nurse nodded, Mac said, “The doctors said that as long as we’re not subjecting her to a lot of jarring force, she’s fine. There’s a plate, so she can move around without creating more damage.”
He leaned down and gave Mattie a hug, then said, “Can I get you you out of the chair?”
Mattie frowned. “I can’t walk yet...”
He grinned. “And you don’t have to.”
With that, he carefully scooped her up. “We need to feed you a sandwich,” he said, feeling her ribs pressing against his arms, her body surprisingly light.
Mac tossed the bags into the chair, and they walked across the tarmac to a waiting van. When she saw the van, Mac asked, “Rental?” and Harm answered, “Lease, with trade-in option if we need something smaller.”
Jennifer Coates was pulling the left side door to the van open. She smiled at Mattie, then asked, “Can she ride sitting up?”
The nurse, who had trailed along with them, said, “Reclining in the front seat, I think, would be fine.”
Jen nodded. “We can strap the chair in the back. There’s a lift. I had planned for her to ride back there, but if she doesn’t need it...”
Mattie said, “I call shotgun.”
Harm laughed. “Where else would we put you?”
Jen reclined the front seat partially, and Harm set Mattie gently down.
Mac and the nurse got the chair anchored in the back, then the nurse said, “I can ride with you to her facility, then I’ll be on leave for a few days before returning to the States.”
Mac nodded. “Thank you for your help.”
The nurse smiled. “I get three days in London out of this, I should be thanking you.”
Harm appeared at Mac’s side. “Mattie is stowed. Jen’s agreed to drive. Sit with me?”
She smiled, and they climbed into the third row of the large van. The nurse climbed in after them, sitting just behind Mattie’s left shoulder.
Mac buckled into the middle seat, and leaned against Harm’s solid chest. His arm fit snugly over her shoulders, and she sighed, suddenly realizing it felt like she’d been holding her breath for days. She looked up at him, and found him looking down at her with a goofy smile on his lips.
She felt herself smiling back at him. “You’re really here,” she said.
“I could say the same about you,” he responded.
“Jen’s okay to drive on the left?” Mac asked.
He nodded. “We spent an hour each day getting her used to it, chances are she’ll be driving Mattie occasionally and I wanted to be sure she’d be safe doing it.”
“How far is it to the facility?” she asked.
His eyes twinkled. “Well, it’s about eight miles.”
“Harm, what are you not telling me?” she asked.
He grinned. “You’ll see,” he said, put a finger under her chin, and then kissed her.
“I can see that, you two,” Jen called from the front of the van.
“Get used to it, Coates,” Harm called back.
“Everything is backwards,” Mattie commented from the left front seat. “Even the malls are wrong.”
It took them about twenty minutes of traffic circles and row houses on a main thoroughfare before they finally turned onto a little side street, then immediately onto another one. The street dead-ended in front of several houses packed close together. Jen pulled the van into the driveway of a brick Tudor house.
“What kind of facility is this?” Mattie asked.
Jen grinned. “The kind we all live in.”
West Ruislip, Middlesex
The front of the house was all dark brick and darker beams. Jennifer opened the front door, and Harm pushed Mattie in her chair up a tiny ramp that had clearly just been installed, into the front hallway. Mac, coming in behind them, noticed handrails running down both sides of the hallway. Off to one side was a den containing a variety of exercise and therapy equipment. Down the hall she could see a larger living room and kitchen.
The nurse indicated she’d wait outside for her cab.
Mac absently noted familiar pieces of furniture in the unfamiliar house as they walked through.
She followed Harm and Mattie down the hall. He turned left and moved to a door at the opposite end of the living room. Behind it lay a bedroom with a hospital bed and a long padded window seat looking out over a vividly green backyard. A number of boxes were still stacked against one wall, and there was a middle-aged woman sitting at a desk in the corner.
The woman looked up and smiled. “This must be Mattie. I’m Mrs. Jones. I’ll be your day nurse.” She spoke with a thick Yorkshire accent. With her graying, mousy hair in short, permed curls, and her stout frame, she looked like the quintessential housekeeper.
Mattie looked uncertainly up at Harm. He grinned. “She’ll be here during the day on weekdays.”
“Seven to four,” Mrs. Jones supplied. “Got here a few early, since the Cap’n said you’d be getting home this morning.”
“Can I see the rest of the house?” Mattie asked.
“If you don’t mind being carried,” Harm said.
She lifted up her arms. “Don’t throw your back out.”
“I can bench press more than you, darlin’,” he said, picking her up.
Mrs. Jones pulled the chair out of the way, and Jennifer led them upstairs.
At the top of the stairs was a landing with a many-paned window. A glider rocker and ottoman were near the window, with a small table Mac recognized from her apartment. She asked Harm, “Where did those come from?”
“Wedding present from Bud and Harriet.”
He set Mattie down in the rocking chair.
Off to the right were two rooms. His bed, made, was in the smaller front bedroom, hers, mattress bare and boxes piled around, was in the large back bedroom. The back bedroom looked out over the garden, and several chairs were arranged haphazardly near the window. He looked around at the mess apologetically, and said, “I figured you’d want to arrange things in here yourself. We can decide which room we use as a master bedroom later. There’s a walk-through bathroom between the two rooms.”
She smiled and looked over at the other side of the landing. Jennifer said, “That’s my room and a bathroom over on that side. It’s still half packed.”
Mattie looked out over the back yard. “Pretty yard, but small.”
Mrs. Jones piped up from the stairway, “It’s a lovely garden, they don’t come much bigger in this area, not in the type of house real people live in.”
Mattie said, “I grew up on farms. Anything smaller than an acre feels tiny.”
Mrs. Jones smiled. “Oh, me, too! Maybe one of these days we’ll go visit me da’s place up in Yorkshire, the country air would do you right.”
Mattie sighed. “I’d fall on my face.” She was already slumping a little to one side in the padded rocking chair.
“Not in a month or two you won’t,” said the older woman, firmly. “Soon as you’re walking, we’ll take a day trip, if your parents don’t mind.”
Mattie looked up at Harm. “Could we go back down now?”
He nodded and scooped her up. “Living room or bedroom?” he asked.
“Living room for now, if you don’t mind,” Mattie said, “I want to lie down, but I’m not sleepy.”
The stout nurse bustled down in front of them and set up Mac’s couch for Mattie.
Jennifer and Harm left for the office after breakfast, and Mac set to unpacking the remaining boxes. It was an almost meditative process, and she realized after the third box that it was the first time in nearly two weeks that she had not been on a deadline. She dusted her hands off on her pants and went downstairs, where she found Mrs. Jones puttering around the kitchen while Mattie napped.
“How is she doing?” Mac asked quietly.
“Poor thing is worn out,” said Mrs. Jones. “We did some exercises, I had to stop her from going too hard.”
“How do you know?” Mac asked.
“Tremor and drops,” the nurse said.
“Drops?” Mac asked.
“You’ve seen when she drops her head or her arm goes limp, or she slumps... Drops. Didn’t they feed her in the hospital?”
“She wasn’t doing enough to maintain her muscle mass,” Mac said. “And I think she tends to run a fairly high metabolism normally. She was also tube-fed for a significant period, and then had a hard time with eating when she first woke up.”
Mrs. Jones clucked. “Well, I’ll be feeding her up then. She’s a stone seven down from where she should be. If you help me find the baking dishes, I’ll make something up for tea later.”
The surprisingly modern kitchen was a good size, and they finally found some of Harm’s cooking supplies in a lower cupboard. The cupboards, unfortunately, were not well stocked, although there were some sandwich makings in the fridge.
“I’m going to have to do some shopping at some point,” Mac said. “But I have no idea where the grocery stores are.”
“There are a couple down the road, Ickenham to Kingsend takes you right there. Think there’s some nice take-away.”
Mac sat down on a stool, and sighed. “I can’t get my mind around it, I don’t know why. We’ll make do for dinner, maybe Jen and Harm have figured out the neighborhood.” She stood up and paced across the kitchen. “I don’t know why the thought of going to the store is overwhelming. I just married my best friend with three days’ notice and moved halfway around the world to take a new job, you’d think the store would be nothing. It’s not as if I never traveled before.”
Mrs. Jones smiled reassuringly. “Perhaps you’ve hit your limit? It’s quite all right dear. You’ve got enough to survive on for t’day, and there’s a list of food delivery restaurants on the pin board. Seems to me you’ve got plenty on your plate without dishing up more. Have a sarny for lunch, and call it good. I can make biscuits for tea tomorrow.”
“Thank you. Let me know when Mattie wakes up, will you? I’m going to go unpack more boxes.” Mac fled upstairs.
Harm came home early, and met Mrs. Jones coming out the front door. She said, “I’m leaving a couple minutes early if you don’t mind, Capt’n, my replacement is already inside, and I want to pick up a few things for tomorrow’s baking. The little girl is on the couch.”
He pulled out his wallet and found a twenty pound note. “Consider this petty cash, if you need to pick up anything for Mattie.”
She smiled, and said, “Thankee. That will do nicely.”
Inside the front door, a tall, angular woman in her forties, with pale skin and dark hair peppered with grey, was setting her purse down on the entryway table. Her face was narrow, not particularly attractive, but friendly. She stuck out a hand and said, “We talked on the phone, Captain Rabb. I’m Marjory. I’ll be helping your ward this evening.”
He shook her hand and said, “Welcome. She’s in the living room, I’m told.”
He gestured for her to walk ahead of him, and they went into the living room.
Mattie was reading. “Good book?” he asked.
Mattie looked up. “It’s distracting. How was work?”
He leaned down and gave her a hug. “It was work. This is Marjory, she’ll be helping out this evening.”
Mattie gave a small wave to the new nurse, then asked Harm, “Miss the thrill of the courtroom?”
He chuckled. “This is a different kind of thrill. I get to make lots of decisions without anyone second guessing me. So far I haven’t had time to miss the courtroom, and I get to leave when I decide to go.”
She grinned. “All that power going to your head?”
He smiled. “Careful, young lady.”
“Mac’s upstairs, I think,” Mattie said.
“That was my next question. You’re learning to read minds,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “If that wasn’t going to be your next question, I’d be wondering about your mental health. By the way, do we know what’s going to be for dinner? Mac said something about waiting for you guys to decide.”
“Well, do you like Indian food?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Never tried it much, what’s it like?”
“Spicy,” he answered.
She shrugged again. “I’m game. Go say hello to your wife, she’s missed you.”
He gave her hand a squeeze, and looked at Marjory, who gave a reassuring smile and said, “I’ll just take a look at Mrs. Jones’ notebook, and get to know Mattie.”
Upstairs, Mac was sitting on the edge of the bed in the back bedroom, facing away from the door, flipping through a pile of papers.
He quietly set his cover down on a chair, closed the door, and sidled around the bed. She didn’t notice him until he’d sat down next to her. She looked up and he took the papers out of her hands, setting them down on the edge of the dresser. Then he kissed her.
When they came up for air a moment later, he said, “I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
She smiled and kissed him again. Then she said, “I missed you.”
He nibbled on her ear, and her eyes glazed over. He stopped for a moment and said, “Your procedure, is it okay...”
Instead of replying, she straddled his knees and pushed him back on the bed. He laughed between kisses and said, “I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Shut up,” she said, stripping off her shirt.
“Yes’m,” he said, muffled by her kisses, his hands working the buttons of his uniform.
She pulled back long enough to shed her pants, and he took the opportunity to lose his as well, and scooted back on the bed. He’d barely gotten his arms free of the uniform when she was straddling him again, her hands behind his head, kissing him as he tossed his shirt out of the way. He groaned, feeling the heat of her thighs against his cock, grinding against her blindly until things lined up and he was in, thrusting as she slid, his hands finding her ass and heat building fast between them.
She felt him nearing the edge and backed off just a little, then started again until they both climaxed. She collapsed on his chest, riding out the shudders that passed between them. When his breathing returned to near normal, he managed to say, “Wow.”
She smiled into his chest. “I think I mentioned that I missed you.”
He stroked her back. “I don’t think I can move.”
“We’ll need to eat eventually,” Mac said. “You’ll have to move then.”
“Indian food okay with you?” he asked.
“Only if we can also go shopping,” she said. “I’m hoping you know where a grocery store is. I don’t.”
“Deal,” he said. “I’ve only been once so far, mostly been ordering in.”
“Mattie’s nurse wants to bake tomorrow.” Her internal chronometer suddenly reminded her that it was quarter after Mrs. Jones’ shift.
He felt the sudden tension, and asked, “What’s wrong?” as she rolled off of him and to her feet.
“Her shift ended, I should have been down there...”
He grinned. “Relax. Her replacement is already here, I met her on the way in. And I gave Mrs. Jones twenty quid so that she could get what she needed for the kitchen.”
Mac opened her mouth, then closed it again. “You didn’t say anything when you came up here...”
He snorted. “I hardly had the chance, not that I’m objecting. You can jump my bones like that any time. Well, almost any time.”
She grinned, then looked ruefully at the boxes strewn around the room. “Unpacking is endless.”
“No hurry,” he said.
“It won’t feel like I’m really living here until I don’t see boxes every time I open my eyes,” she retorted.
“Fair enough. Want help?” he asked.
“Later,” she said. “Right now what I really want is a shower.”
He got up and opened a door at the far corner of the room. “Right this way.”
Half an hour later, she emerged, hair up in a chignon and makeup on, and pulled fresh clothes out of one of the drawers she’d loaded earlier. Harm was nowhere to be seen, but his uniform had been put on a hanger and hung off the back of the door. She smiled at the easy familiarity of it.
She slid flats on and went out the door, to find him in his civvies, reading in the rocking chair by the window. He smiled up at her. “Nice shower?”
She nodded. “Felt like heaven after all that travel and boxes and...”
He grinned. “And… Shopping?”
“Please,” she said. “I won’t feel like I’m a fully functioning human until I know I can at the very least go buy food without having to have someone hold my hand.”
“You ever driven on the left?” he asked.
“Once or twice,” she said. “How bad is the traffic?”
“At this time of day?” he said, “I’ll drive.”
“Do we have to take that monster van?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Nope, the ’vette is here. Oh, that reminds me.” He shifted and pulled a keyring out of his pocket, tossing it to her.
She caught it. Four keys were on it. She held up the wide headed silver one. “Van,” he explained. She held up a key with a round, black plastic covered head. He said, “That’s the ’vette.”
The third key, she held up and they both said, “House,” at the same moment.
The last one was flat and small, and she guessed, “Diary?”
He laughed. “Mailbox.”
Then she noticed the keychain itself, a disc with the marine corps logo on it, and smiled at him. “Thank you.”
He said, “Well, it seemed to me that you might be feeling a bit at sea, and I felt bad for abandoning you for the office today.”
“So you had Jen go make these?” she asked.
“You’ve guessed my awful secret,” he said.
She smiled. “I figured that you probably didn’t want to spend time we could be together having keys made.”
They went downstairs, and found Marjory sitting across from Mattie in the living room, knitting while Mattie continued her book.
Mac said, “Three days ago, I don’t think you could have held that book open, let alone turned the pages.”
Mattie said, “It’s a paperback. If it was hardcover, I don’t think I could.” Then she carefully turned, looked at Mac, and smiled. “You look relaxed.”
Mac blushed, and said, “Do you need anything from the store?”
“Marjory has the list I made with Mrs. Jones earlier,” Mattie said. “I don’t suppose a laptop would be a reasonable shopping list item?”
Harm said, “Well, I doubt we’ll find one at Costcutters tonight, but the concept isn’t out of the question.”
Mac had a momentary reflexive twitch about the cost, then remembered the amount of his future paycheck, and hers, and said nothing.
“Cool!” Mattie said. “How about a car?”
“You’re still fifteen,” Harm said. “Nice try. Oh, and the legal age for driving in the UK is seventeen. But talk to us next year.”
She made a pout. “I was so close, too.”
“Them’s the breaks, kid,” he said.
“Where’s Jen?” Mac asked.
“Office, still. She’ll be home closer to 1830,” Harm answered.
“Did she take one of the cars?” Mac asked.
“I didn’t even drive to work this morning. We’re practically in the ONRG parking lot in our living room,” he said. “Well, it’s two blocks, but still. I occasionally parked that far away from my apartment in DC.”
“I’ll need to drive to work, though,” she said.
Marjory spoke up. “Where will you be working, ma’am?”
Mac answered, “The American Embassy.”
“Then you best not drive. There’s a rail station not a quarter mile from here. You’d have to walk farther than that on the other end, if you drove. It goes very close to the embassy.” She pulled a map out of her knitting bag. “See here?”
She pointed out the stations. “Don’t drive unless you absolutely have to, it’s not worth it.”
“Point taken,” Mac said.
“So shall we head to Costcutters?” Harm asked.
Marjory said, “There’s a Marks and Spencer just down the street from that, if you want organic.”
Harm smiled. “Thank you, we’re still finding our way around here.”
The nurse nodded in the direction of her knitting.
“Mattie, you need anything before we go?” Harm asked.
“Not really. Mrs. Jones got me squared away earlier, and I’m sure Marjory can help if I need anything while you’re gone.”
They took the ’vette to the store, and once Mac got past the sharp differences in brand names and food names, she started to feel the nagging tension of being out of her element fade away. They stopped on the way home and picked up Indian food.
At home, they spread the take-away boxes on the table, and Marjory brought Mattie into the dining room in her reclining wheelchair. Mac realized that the dining room table had come from her apartment, and wondered idly where Harm’s tables had ended up.
Mattie looked at the spread and said, “I’m still kind of messy at this.”
Mac said, “I’ve been seeing you eat for days. You’ll be fine.”
“What exactly is all that stuff?” Mattie asked.
Harm opened the boxes, looked at the food, and then went into the kitchen. When he came back, he had a wide plate with an almost bowl-like rim, and a spoon with a chunky silicone handle. He ladled something a creamy shade of green onto the plate, and said, “This is spinach dal. It’s spicy and creamy and very rich.” He put the spoon on the plate, and put a piece of flatbread next to the dal. “The bread is called naan, very fresh. You can either eat the dal with a spoon, or you can dip the bread in it and eat it that way.” He paused for a moment and then tore the bread into bite-sized pieces. “Just pick one up and dip it and eat.”
She looked at the spoon, and the bread, and chose the bread. Her eyes widened. “That’s good. What else?”
He searched through the cartons, and found what he was looking for. He put a spoonful of something a buttery orange on her plate. “That’s called chicken korma. It has cream, butter and coconut milk. It’s pretty mild, but very flavorful.”
She folded a little bit of the naan around a piece of chicken, and ate it. “If my thumbs weren’t busy, I’d give two thumbs up.”
Next he spooned on a little bit of rice, and then put a round ball of something on top of it, with a vivid orange sauce. “Malai kofta,” he said. “It’s like falafel. Or a vegetarian meatball, but very spicy and tasty.”
She used the spoon this time, her hand betraying only a tiny tremor. Her eyes widened, and after she swallowed, she gasped, “Water...”
He brought over a paper cup with a straw. “Not water. This will kill the heat better.”
She sipped, and said, “It’s good. What is it?”
“Which tells me nothing,” she said.
“You’ve had mango before, right?” he asked.
“Never,” she said. “I thought Mango was that weird dude on SNL reruns.”
Mac suppressed laughter as she finished making her own plate.
“Mango is a fruit. That’s a mixture of mango juice and yogurt,” Harm explained.
“That actually explains a lot about the SNL guy,” Mattie said, leaning over for another sip. “Any other new taste sensations?”
He opened a styrofoam carton, and put a couple of fried things on her plate.
“Pakoras,” he said. “They take vegetables and put them in chickpea batter and deep fry them.”
She looked at the odd shapes. “Vegetables... including spinach?”
“Apparently,” he said. “But it’s good.”
She started to take another bite, but her hand was shaking too much so she set the food back down. He sat down next to her and said, “Pick.”
She frowned. “Harm....”
“You’re still hungry. Pick,” he insisted.
“Pakawhatsits,” she said.
He poked at the pakoras on her plate. “I think this one is potato,” he said, and offered her a bit.
She shot him a look, but then took the bite offered.
Jen came in a moment later, and sniffed appreciatively. “Indian again?”
Harm nodded, and Mattie said, “Chicken. On the spoon.”
Jen looked over the table, and said, “Did you get papadums?”
Mac pointed at the paper bag.
Mattie laughed. “Seriously? They’re called papadums? I guess I know why Harm didn’t bring those out.”
Jen pulled out what looked like a thin, speckled tostada. “Giant lentil chips. They’re yummy with sauces. But kind of messy to eat.”
“Messy eating I can do,” Mattie said. “Harm, I think I want to brave that mushball thingy again.”
He gave her a bite of the malai kofta, and then immediately put the lassi straw up where she could reach it.
“You’ve got him trained,” Jen said.
Mac stifled a laugh and muttered, “Took long enough.”
“I heard that,” Harm said.
“Chicken, with bread,” Mattie said. “This stuff is so incredibly much better than hospital food, I cannot even tell you. Why didn’t we ever get this in Washington?”
Mac said, “Harm is a creature of habit. Apparently this is the new habit.”
Jen took a small piece of papadum and spread a little mint sauce and coconut sauce on it. Then she leaned over and said, “It’s not a bad habit. He just likes it because they don’t serve cow. Here, Mattie, try this.”
Mac said, “The other thing is that I don’t often order Indian food because this stuff is incredibly high fat. So unless I’m training for quals, or getting over an illness, I don’t generally need the calories.”
“Ah, so this is the proverbial sandwich Harm was threatening me with?” Mattie asked. “That spinach thingy, I think.”
“With bread or no?” Harm asked.
“With,” she said.
Mac said, “It’s got lots of fat and protein. It’s better than a sandwich.”
Mattie said, around the bite, “Mush better.” Then, clearing her mouth, “Lassi, please.”
Mac finished the small portions she’d allowed herself, and said, “I can take over, Harm, if you want to get something to eat for yourself.”
He thought for a moment, and then shook his head. “Feels good to be able to do something to help, finally. I’ll get some when we’re done. Korma?”
“That’s the chicken thing?” Mattie asked.
“It is indeed,” he answered.
“Then definitely. That stuff is decadent.” Mattie looked around the table. When she finished the bite, she said, “This feels... right.”
“The food?” Harm asked.
“The people,” Mattie said. “Our family is finally together.”
They looked at each other, and Mac said, “Yeah. It is.”
Jen looked bemused. “You’re saying I’m part of it.”
Mattie’s reply was exasperated. “Duh. Big sister.”
“Mac’s not old enough to be my mother,” Jen said.
“Thank you,” Mac said. “Although I wouldn’t mind being a big sister to you.”
Harm raised an eyebrow. “That could get very confusing, if my wife is my daughter’s sister’s sister.”
“Thank god we’re not biologically related then,” Jen said.
“Note they didn’t say that you were too young,” Mac said, grinning at Harm.
“Et tu?” he said, clutching his chest. “Get me my pills, woman.”
“Hah,” she retorted.
“I’ll have you know,” he said, “I would have had to become a father at sixteen in order to be Jennifer’s father. Not theoretically biologically impossible, but not likely.”
“I’d rather have you for a dad, Harm, than the one I was born to,” Jen said, suddenly earnest.
He remembered her father, and winced a little. “Yeah.”
Mattie looked at him curiously. “Why is it,” she asked, “that you pushed me to have a relationship with my dad, but haven’t done the same with Jen?”
Harm offered her another bite of korma. “Your dad isn’t very good at being a dad when the going gets rough, but ultimately his heart is in the right place.”
Jen added, “My dad doesn’t really have a heart, let alone one in the same body as the right place.”
“Still,” Mattie said, “Shouldn’t she be at least trying to mend fences?”
Jen sighed. “The last time I saw him, I told him that I was out of trouble, working, supporting myself, and doing very well in the Navy. He looked me up and down and said, ‘You’re still going to burn in hell.’ I decided then and there to put my energy in to the relationships that were helping me be a better person. Contact with him just made me want to go throw rocks through windows and set things on fire.”
“Ouch,” Mattie said. “I... whatever else my dad did, he never wanted to hurt me.”
“Exactly,” Harm said.
Mac had been very quiet. “My father was terrifying, but I think Jen’s dad was more abusive, when it comes down to it. My father knew that he was the problem. And I knew that it was more about alcohol and less about me, although it took me a while to figure out that underneath it all he actually did care.”
“I think it would have been easier to take if my dad had been violent but still cared. As it was, he was violent and didn’t care at all and made sure I knew it. You and Harm were the first people who ever really saw me as more than my father’s daughter,” Jen said. “And you two have taught me more about being a good person, just by example, than my father did with his years of hellfire and brimstone. You two made me want to be good. He just made me want to prove him right, since that was the only way it felt like I might make him happy.”
“You helped me,” Mattie said. “You made it so that I wasn’t alone anymore.”
Mac got a funny look on her face. “You realize that we are all only children?”
“I’m not,” Harm said. “Although for all intents and purposes...”
“I used to dream of having a brother or sister,” Mattie said. “After my mother died, I just wanted someone to talk to. It took a while to realize Dad wasn’t coming home. I was busy, but I didn’t realize how lonely I was until Harm started showing up and it stopped being so lonely.”
Harm reached out and gave her hand a squeeze. “I doubt you would have escaped foster care if you’d had a younger sibling.”
“And I wouldn’t have run away,” Mac said, “if it meant leaving a younger sister or brother there with him.”
“I’d have still gone,” Jen said. “Chances are if I’d had another sibling, he would have liked them better.”
“I just don’t get that,” Mattie said. “You’re so darned loveable. What was his problem?”
“No clue.” Jen shrugged. “I think Mac and Harm should adopt us both. Then I won’t even have to think about him.”
Mattie considered it, and Mac and Harm looked at each other across the table.
Mattie nodded. “It’s not like you need a whole lot of parenting. But you need family.”
Mac looked amused. Harm said in a slightly strangled voice, “I think there may be a problem with the frat regs. We’re pushing it as it is.”
Jennifer smiled and said, “Not if I get my degree and get into OCS.”
“How much do you have to go on the degree?” Harm asked.
“Two semesters,” Jen said. “I don’t know if I can do them here.”
He looked at Mac, who gave him a tiny but definite nod. “You get your commission,” he said, “And we’ll see what we can do. But you’ll be moving out of my chain of command.”
“Don’t you have to talk that over with Mac?” Jen asked.
Mac said, “He just did.”
Mattie laughed. “You guys are scary when you do that.”
“Nine years,” Harm said. “You get to know someone. We’ve been finishing each other’s sentences for at least...”
“Six years,” Mac said. “Maybe seven.”
“Do I have to get my commission?” Mattie asked, teasing.
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re not enlisted,” Harm said. “The only reason we haven’t yet filed paperwork is that things have been so crazy. I thought we’d get established here and then work out the paperwork in a few months.”
Mattie smiled. “You know, falling out of the sky really really sucked. And I want my body back. But this... this doesn’t suck.”
As the two weeks before Mac’s job started unfolded, she definitely had to agree with Mattie that things did not suck. Waking up with Harm each morning was a delicious decadence. With days off of work, getting unpacked could be done at a leisurely pace, she had the luxury of finding the right place for things. Mrs. Jones and Marjory were a tremendous help, and when they found they didn’t need anyone during the night, Marjory quickly cut back to six hours from her original eight. On the weekends, with all of them home, they didn’t need the nurses after the first weekend.
Mattie grew stronger. Walking wasn’t happening yet, but the service sent out a physical therapist and equipment, and Mrs. Jones continued the work on the days the PT wasn’t there. They’d been in England for a week when Mattie was able to finally get through a meal without dropping her fork or getting too tired to lift it, and she was starting to assist during transfers. She started doing exercises with resistance on the machines in the front room, and her leg strength was getting better every day.
Harm’s job turned out to involve more politics than lawyering, but he discovered he had a knack for it. It had more consistent hours, and he had more opportunity to set his own schedule. The “big” cases tended to go stateside, as they had always done, but as his staff came together, he was able to keep more of the cases in the office. He had brought a few people to the office, but many had been stationed there for years. He tapped the longtimers for their knowledge of the local area, and by listening and appreciating, gained loyalty faster than he might have otherwise. He thought about the courtroom, about the thrill of the battle and the thrill of solving the puzzles, but then thought of the hours away from home, the stress of having someone’s life in his hands, and he didn’t regret it anywhere near as much as he had been afraid he might.
Jen was able to continue her online degree. She found herself diving into it with renewed zeal. She’d been content as a petty officer, she was good at it, but she found the possibilities available with officer training to be intriguing, and the idea of not just belonging in the Navy, but belonging to a family, was tantalizing. She explained it to Mattie one night, saying, “I was never very good at being a daughter, and I feel like if I can figure out how to be in that kind of relationship, maybe someday I’ll be ready to be in an adult relationship.”
Mac found herself wondering about the job she would be starting. She had received very little beyond the basic orders, which were cryptic enough. She tried not to think about the implications of the procedure she’d had done, but her natural flare for math had already told her that it would be six weeks, minimum, from the time they landed, for her to find out if their first month of trying had born fruit, and she knew that she’d already be working by the time she would be fertile again. She found, as her period came due, that she was more eager to see it than she’d been in a long time, probably because it would mark the time that she took her metaphoric hand off the metaphoric snooze button on her biological clock.
It was obvious that Harm was thinking about it, too. A few books appeared in their bedroom, she noted the bookmark that wandered through the stack, but didn’t comment on his choice of reading material, and he didn’t discuss it with her. She was amused to see him reading things like Take Charge of Your Fertility , and Getting Pregnant after 35, but was just as glad that he didn’t try to talk to her about the reading, for the most part.
The one exception was one night when she came in to find him already in bed, reading from the thick book on “fertility awareness.” She raised an eyebrow and he shrugged, saying, “The book says that everyone approaches this process a little differently, and some people need and want a lot of information, and others do better if they don’t overthink it. You told me a while ago that you hate dissecting relationships, looking at them too closely. And I like a lot of information. So I’m getting the information. If you want to talk about it, I’m sure you’ll let me know or read it yourself.”
She said, “Okay,” and then took the book out of his hands, replaced the marker, set it on the stack, and climbed on top of him.
She wondered if his reading would change his perception of her body. If anything, he seemed to take more delight in studying her and her reactions.
The first ten days in England passed incredibly quickly, but by the time Mac was to report in for her first day, the house was “settled,” and she felt like it was time to get back in the saddle.
Hair up in a regulation tight chignon, dressed in a crisp dark uniform, briefcase in hand, Mac found her way easily from the tube stop to the embassy. A brisk young woman with freckles and pale red hair in a tight bun met her at the front desk, saying, “I’m Agent Maia Dowd. If you’ll follow me, we have a briefing scheduled for 0830.”
Mac shook her hand and followed, bemused, as they left the public area of the Embassy.
Agent Dowd opened a large wooden door and gestured for Mac to enter. Inside, the long windowless conference room was nearly completely filled with a wooden table surrounded by padded folding chairs.
Deputy Director Kershaw was sitting at the far end of the table. He looked up as she entered, and said, “Colonel MacKenzie, welcome. Come have a seat, if you please. It’s good to see you again.”
She smiled reflexively, polite, and made her way over to the seat he had gestured at.
He sorted through the stack of paperwork in front of him, found a manila file folder, and handed it to her. A seal and the words “Top Secret” were the first things she saw.
She opened it, and he started to talk. “You know that there has been a push for international and interagency cooperation in the war against terror, I assume.”
She nodded, and he continued. “I know you’ve been told little about this assignment, other than that it will be a good fit for your skill set and will base you here in London. You’ve done an excellent job on other tasks with the Agency. We need people who know Middle Eastern languages, who are good at picking up new languages, and who have enough common sense and legal know-how to avoid some of the pitfalls our intelligence agencies have fallen into thus far. We prefer to, er, avoid embarrassment for the US government and its allies. Would you be averse to learning Arabic?”
The question seemed an afterthought. “I would be happy to,” she answered cautiously, “but it will take time.”
“Of course,” he answered. “We don’t plan on having you undercover, but we do provide our field operatives with extensive linguistic support, and the more you understand, the easier it will be to keep our people alive.”
“Thank you, I would rather avoid undercover until my family is settled.”
“Oh, yes, I understand congratulations are in order. Mazel tov and all of that.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
He continued, “Now, technically, you will be in the DIA’s chain of command, but the CIA is providing most of the material support for this task force. I’m hoping your familiarity with the CIA will ease some of the usual interdepartmental tensions.”
He glanced at his watch, and said, “You’ll be the head of the London unit of this task force. Our main unit is in Washington, and the European headquarters are in Stuttgart, so you’re not top of the food chain, but you will be the biggest fish in our little pond here once I leave. If you’ll follow me, I’ll lead you to our main operational center here at the embassy. We have some people for you to meet.”
They stood, and she followed him out. They went down a flight of stairs, walked down a long, nondescript hallway, opened an unmarked door, and took an elevator down two more floors. The underground portion resembled a warren, all unmarked doors with palm scanners and bland fluorescent lighting. He led her to a pair of double doors at the end of a hallway, slapped the scanner, and the doors opened out into a large room. A series of workstations occupied by busy people in a variety of uniforms were distributed in a semicircle in front of a bank of smaller monitors surrounding a very large flat screen on which a world map was shown. A variety of colored symbols were distributed around the map. While the majority of the map was relatively dim, the colors of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East were bright and vivid. Off to one side, up a short stairway, there was a conference table surrounded by people. She was startled when she realized that one of those people was General Cresswell.
The General’s eyes were twinkling, and he beckoned her to come up the stairs.
Curious, she did so, and realized Clayton Webb was sitting at the table, carefully studying a file folder. He didn’t even glance up, though she was certain he knew she was there. Next to him sat Victor Galindez, Gunny no more, as he now sported Master Sergeant stripes on his shoulder.
Before she had time to say anything to Galindez, the General said, “Colonel, welcome to your new command.”
She put her head to one side and said, “Thank you. I’m delighted to see you, sir, but surprised.”
He looked her up and down and said, “I couldn’t resist coming, you see. The selection board came back a few days ago, and well, Colonel, you seem to be out of uniform.”
She started to say something, but then closed her mouth as he continued, “With a position of this importance, it really does need to go to a full-bird Colonel.”
The room came to attention, and with a smile, he went through the brief ritual.
“Now,” he said, after it was finished and the eagles were pinned, “I’m not really supposed to be here for the briefings I’m sure you’ll spend the rest of the day doing. And I promised my wife I would take her shopping. We made a vacation of it.”
She nodded, said, “Thank you, sir, for coming,” and saluted.
He returned the salute and then left.
Deputy Director Kershaw said, “All right people, let’s get to work,” and they all found places around the conference table.
Agent Dowd walked around the table, distributing manila folders as Kershaw continued. “Colonel MacKenzie, welcome aboard. You’ll find a command chart in your folders. We’ve got a lot of bodies here from a lot of different organizations, and you’ve all been picked for your specific expertise. Nevertheless, even those from non-military backgrounds will need to pay close attention to the chain of command. Colonel MacKenzie strikes me as an immanently reasonable person, but those of you not already familiar with her should know that she speaks more languages than any of you, is probably a better shot than you, has logged enough field expertise that the most experienced field agents here owe her their lives several times over, and she could easily kick your ass figuratively, metaphorically, and intellectually. So don’t underestimate her. Is that clear, Peterson?” At this, a nondescript-looking brown-haired man at the other end of the table cocked an eyebrow in Deputy Director Kershaw’s general direction.
“Sure thing, Kershaw,” the man said, and Mac made a mental note to keep an eye on him.
“Now, introductions,” Deputy Director Kershaw said. “You know Clayton Webb and Master Sergeant Galindez. I believe Commander Austin worked at JAG as well.”
They went around the table. Of the others at the table, the majority were CIA, a few from the DIA, and Peterson was FBI. One middle-aged woman with a British accent blurred by years in other countries was from MI6, while the young man with a strong French accent hailed from the French DRM. A woman with a huge mass of long, tight curls sitting near the other end of the table was introduced as a member of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence community, and the bearded man in glasses sitting next to her was introduced as an Iranian exile, a professor. His English was crisp and precise as he explained that he had been working with MI6 for several years, having lived in the UK since his late childhood.
Mac was processing a huge amount of information, not just what she was being told, but also the body language of each of the people at the table, how they held their pens, whether they wrote anything down, who they looked at, how they looked at her.
Meg Austin looked at her a little strangely, Mac noted, and she wondered whether it was about Harm or about Diane. Meg’s computer skills would be welcome, if they could get past whatever was putting Meg’s guards up.
Mac realized that Clay was looking at her, finally, and she looked back at him. His expression was unreadable, and she saw no hurt in his eyes, but did sense a deep undercurrent of something. Just so long as it doesn’t interfere with the work, she thought. They’d always worked well together. In fact, they’d probably been better working together than as lovers. She offered him a guarded smile and he looked down at his papers.
Gunny... no, Master Sergeant Galindez, she amended, looked eager and interested. His presence was reassuring, although she strongly doubted they’d see much of him, given his penchant for field work.
Nava Cohen, the Israeli intelligence agent, was leaning close to the Iranian professor, Arash Razavi, and Mac was intrigued as to the nature of their relationship.
Jean Dantou looked ill at ease, quietly tapping his pen against his paper.
She got nothing from Peterson; he sat, not tense, but not moving, face devoid of anything resembling emotion.
Deputy Director Kershaw was addressing the various activities they were currently monitoring. She’d skimmed down the list already. The map, which she could see off to her left, was tracking field operatives from a variety of agencies, each operative’s agency ID providing the color, and each icon linking out to a monitor with information about the individual being tracked. “Your role,” Kershaw said, “is in large part supportive and advisory, although several of you are simply in between field assignments. We have live audio and, in many cases, visual contact with most of our field operatives, and we may be asked to listen in, translate, and provide ops advice on a moments’ notice. You’re working in tandem with other offices, our goal is to have 24/7 coverage for linguistic, technological, and legal assistance.” He pointed to the board, and said, “Any bright icon up there is linked out to a monitor. We can pass them off to another office, and the icon will dim. If another office passes to us, we’ll get a new bright icon. In general, to reduce confusion, each agent will have a specific group of agents working at different offices, but only one at a time. Some of you already have them; those of you who are new will be issued a tablet computer and headset that will be able to tie into the main grid at any time. This is a closed network, but we are centralized and highly encrypted and we do NOT overlap with public networks at any time. You will have other gadgets available that are connected to the internet should you need it, but operational security says that our closed network stays closed, period. Commander Austin can address your individual tech needs.”
He nodded at the Commander and then continued. “Now, we are not just wiretapping. In many cases we have skilled agents on the ground, but given the intensely multinational nature of some of our targets, we may have an agent fluent in Arabic who ends up in a situation where he overhears people speaking Persian or Russian or whatever the bad guys du jour are speaking. If you’ve got a Saudi terrorist buying arms from the Russian Mob with the help of an Iranian go-between, and each of them has people with them, you can imagine how many side conversations could be happening, and we just don’t have enough people who speak all of the relevant languages to get solid info from every infiltration. So some of your work may involve listening live while a buy is going on. Some may involve listening to recordings sent to us after the fact. You who go into the field will be our eyes and ears.
“Ultimately the goal is to stop terrorist activity before it causes damage. We want to get the bad guys off the streets. We also want to keep them off the streets, and we’ve been taking a beating from some of our methods for doing that. Which is why several of you, including Colonel MacKenzie, are attorneys. We want to be able to make things stick, and you can help us keep from making missteps that let the bad guys walk. This task force will, very likely, have a role in interrogations. We need the information, but we also need to be able to trust the information.”
He looked around. “There is a manual in your packet. I’ll be here this week for any further clarifications. At this point I’d like to have Victor here brief you on his last mission.”
Victor Galindez stood up, flashed a grin at Mac, and said, “First, I answer to Galindez, Vic, Victor, or Gunny. The last isn’t accurate, but it’s a habit. I also answer to Omar Khagan, Isaac Cohen, José Gutierrez, or whatever happens to be the most expeditious name at any given moment for the assignment at hand. I am fluent in Spanish and English, competent in Portuguese, and can get by in the street in Arabic and Farsi. I am a Marine, but I’ve spent several years doing joint operations with the CIA. Recently, I infiltrated a local cell that was looking to buy a variety of chemical warfare agents ranging from acids to sarin gas. The cell’s members included men from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, and the mission we managed to stop involved a terrorist attack on a local school for Muslim girls. We managed to stop them here, but it was timed with several other attacks in other countries, and we missed two of them. You may have heard about those on the news. A hundred and thirty-seven girls were sickened in those attacks, three died, and the coordinated acid attacks on the people fleeing the buildings caused permanent disfigurement for more than a dozen girls and teachers.”
He stopped, and looked around. “We don’t have enough people who speak the relevant languages fluently enough and look the part to blend in to get into every group. I was able to get enough to stop the attack here. Later analysis of the recordings I made told us that if we’d been doing full translations in real time, we could have prevented at least one of the successful attacks. So we’re pushing our technological envelope and working to make sure that when we get people in, we get the most out of them that we can.”
Mac said, “You mentioned recordings. How are you going to shift to real-time translations without running the risk of a wire being exposed?”
Meg Austin rested her elbow on the table and raised a hand, saying, “If I may, Colonel...”
Meg walked around the table to Vic, who sat down and tipped his head to one side. She gently had him turn his head, and said, “Look closely here.”
They looked, all they could see was skin. Then she pulled a little pot of cream out of her pocket, dipped a finger in it, and ran it along the hairline behind his ear. Then she rubbed for a moment, and peeled back what looked like hair to reveal a small flat mass of electronics sitting flush against Galindez’ shaved skin.
“This is one of four components that are attached to his body right now. We won’t uncover all of them, but the net effect is that we can hear what he hears and what he says, wherever he is. He can hear what we say, too. We have several different methods of transmission, so if we know or suspect they’re able to snoop for transmissions, he can set up ways of minimizing the risk of detection. The adhesive we’re using has a high tensile strength, so hair passes the tug test unless the releasing agent is applied. The low power units have a kinetic power system, so they don’t need recharging. The broadcast units are extremely efficient and can be charged as little as once every three days. There’s nothing surgical about what we’re doing, although in ten years there will be. Within two years, we should have a prototype that allows us to do video as unobtrusively. We’re close now, we just need to wait for the chips to get a little smaller before we can make them truly unobtrusive.”
She pulled a small microfiber cloth out of her pocket, wiped the edge of the scalp prosthesis on Vic’s head, applied a tiny bead of adhesive to the edge, then slicked it back against his skin. A moment later it was invisible again.
“This is a new system. We’re working the bugs out,” Meg continued. “My assistant, Shauna, is actually our primary gadgeteer; I’m just better at the education and practical applications side of things. She does more hardware, I do more software. If you have a problem, or you even think you might maybe have a problem, please talk to me.”
She walked back over to her chair and sat down.
Kershaw said, “We have a wealth of experience in this room. I expect you to make use of each others’ expertise to the fullest. The whole point of this task force is to break down the barriers of agency infighting, so we can prevent turf wars from getting in the way of actually catching the bad guys. Ask questions. If you have an idea, share it. Don’t even think about trying to hoard the glory, we’re here to get the job done and we picked people to help make that happen. Many of you were picked over people with more seniority because you had a history of playing well with other agencies.”
He stood up. “Take some time to read over your materials. Colonel, if you’ll follow me, your office is this way.” He gestured to a door behind the conference table, flanked by wall to wall mirrors.
She stood, and the military personnel at the table stood reflexively. She gave them a nod and then followed Kershaw through the large wooden door.
The office was surprisingly spacious, and wide windows looked out over the bullpen and conference area. She cocked her head at them and asked, “One-way mirrors?”
He nodded. “You need to be able to see the board at all times. And you need privacy in here.” He waved in the direction of a door on the far wall. “Through there, you have a private exit. It’s one-way, a bolt-hole really, comes out in the tube network. I recommend using it only in an emergency. We chose our location within the embassy for this.”
She remembered her last frantic escape from an embassy, and said, “I’m glad to know it’s there, sir.”
He gestured for her to come around the large walnut desk. “Have a seat,” he urged.
She sat, and realized that she was looking up at a large number of monitors mounted near ceiling height.
“Those have the same information that’s out in the main room,” Kershaw said. He picked up a stylus from her desk, pointed it at one of them and pressed a button. On the large flat monitor on her desk, the image duplicated. “Just point and pick, and you’ll have it all right here,” he said. Then he slid aside what had looked like a desk protector, and exposed an overgrown phone system. He tossed her a manual. “This puts you in touch with the people out there. If you stand up...”
She stood. He pointed at each numbered button and then out at a numbered desk. “Press, talk. It directs to each workstation. The green button over there, full intercom. The red, recessed button is a scramble, and we’ll go over later how and when you might have cause to use that.”
He smiled. “It’s a lot to take in. If you like, I can leave you to your reading for a few hours, and I can meet you back here at 1500 in case you have any further questions.”
She nodded and said, “Thank you. I’d appreciate that.” He started to move towards the door, and she said, “If you’d leave that open on your way out?”
He raised his eyebrows, and then smiled. “Good idea.”
She had barely enough time to get the folder open when the first knock came on the open door. She looked up. “Hello, Clay,” she said. “Come on in.”
Clayton Webb came in carrying papers in front of his chest, and closed the door behind himself. Before she could say anything more, he removed a wrapped package from the top of the stack, and put it on her desk. “Wedding present,” he said. “Sorry I couldn’t make it, I was out of the country. Well, that country, not this one. Congratulations.”
She looked for any sign of bitterness in him, but he seemed genuinely sincere. She gave a slightly bemused smile and took the present.
“Clay,” she started, but he held up a hand.
“Just tell me you’re happy, Sarah,” he said.
She blushed and looked down at her hands for a moment, a smile playing at her lips. She looked back up and said, “Happier than I’ve ever been.”
Tension seemed to flow out of him. “I’m glad, Sarah. I really am.”
Responding to the change in him, she smiled and said, “How have you been? Have a seat.”
He sat down, and said, “Well, they’ve taken me off of field work.”
She frowned and asked, “Are you okay with that?”
He nodded. “It was time. My choice. After everything that happened... I was clearly losing perspective. And that can get you killed. Not to mention other people I care about. I’ve been helping set this up for a couple months. When I heard about you and Rabb... I suggested that this might be a good fit for you. Whatever else has been between us, I’ve always enjoyed working with you, and you’re one of the most competent people I’ve ever known.”
She inhaled sharply at the unexpected praise. “This post... it made a hard choice a lot easier. Whatever is in the box, I’m not sure it can even come close to knowing that I can be here in London without having to give up my career. If you’re responsible for that...”
He shook his head. “Only partly responsible. You were on the list of potentials for months, JAG just didn’t want to let you go if they could get you in San Diego.”
She cocked her head. “Cresswell knew that?”
Webb snorted. “Kershaw has been asking for you since the business with Sadik. Hell, since Paraguay, even. But Chegwidden said no when it came to having you do field work for us again. I believe his exact words were, ‘Mac is a damned good attorney and a brilliant marine, and she’s one of the best human beings I’ve had a chance to know. And you’re not going to throw her to the wolves again.’ Cresswell was more succinct. I think his exact words were, ‘Over my rotting corpse will you do that to her again.’ We told him that we had a non-field position you might do well in, but he told us he wanted you in San Diego, and the only way we’d get you is if you turned that down.”
She chuckled. “Well, it worked out. Being assigned to San Diego was the single best thing Cresswell could have done for my relationship with Harm.”
Clay looked slightly embarrassed. “If I hadn’t made a move in Paraguay...” he started.
She shook her head. “I don’t regret getting involved with you, Clay, even if it didn’t work out. Harm needed to learn some things about himself that he wouldn’t have if he and I had gotten together then. Things are good right now. They would have been very different then. I don’t dwell. Can we move past all that?”
He nodded, then handed her a file folder.
She took it and opened it. It contained a dossier for a Russian mobster named Gustav. She skimmed it, and then asked, “Relevance?”
He said, “We think that he’s the one who was going to sell Sadik the PAL. Sergei says...”
She interrupted him. “Sergei is working with you?”
“With you, too. The Russians are working with us. Well, rather, we have Russians working with us, they have to avoid channels to a certain degree because they have too many mob-dependent politicians higher up in the food chain.”
She rubbed her temples. “How did Sergei get involved?”
“He contacted us. He’s been working hard in Russia with those who want to get the corruption out of their government. When he found a Russian trying to sell a part of a nuclear weapon to the highest bidder, and realized who was bidding, he actually called me.”
“How much support does he have on the ground there?” Mac asked.
“Well,” Webb said, “we have some pull there, but it’s a diplomatic minefield. He’ll be in town later this week, and we can set him up with more technology. That will give him an information edge, at the very least.”
She nodded. “If Harm finds out, he’s not going to like it, but whatever we can do to keep Sergei safe.”
“I’d like your permission to send Victor back with him,” Webb said.
She got an odd look on her face. “Where are you in the organizational chart, Clay?”
He coughed a little. “Well, I’m not quite in it, exactly. I’ve been running things until you got here. I’ll stay on in an advisory role until I’m needed elsewhere. But as of today, you’re in charge.”
She sighed. “Let’s work together on this. You’re up to date, I’m not. I want you to talk to me about the decisions that need to be made, and your reasoning, but if something goes hot, I need to follow your lead until I get my feet under me. I don’t want you to not make a decision if the decision can’t wait.”
He nodded. “Decisions on Sergei can wait. We’ll have a few days before we send him back out, regardless. We’ve gotten the PAL out of Gustav’s hands, and Gustav thinks Sergei is on vacation with his commission.”
Mac raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“We bought it. It was the most efficient method. His price was low enough that trying to beat it out of him would have been more expensive than just buying the damn thing. Wouldn’t have worked with the missile Sadik had anyway, but that’s another story.”
She shook her head. “The marine in me doesn’t like it. But it sounds... pragmatic.”
Webb gave her a guarded smile. “Pragmatic is my middle name.”
“I wouldn’t put it past your mother,” Mac said, then stopped. “What?”
“Mother...” he paused. “Mother is declining.”
She frowned. “I’m sorry, do you know what’s wrong?”
“She’s developing memory issues. We’re told it is a type of dementia, degenerative, related to Parkinson’s. But she’s on treatments that should slow the progression for now.”
“Clay, I’m so sorry,” she said. “Is it Alzheimer's?”
“Lewy body,” he said. “Same general idea, but the symptoms and progression are a bit different.”
“If you need to go be with her...”
“I’m told that the progression takes years,” Webb said, “and I have time to help you get settled. She’s well taken care of.”
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” Mac said. “I know she’s important to you.”
He gave a bitter laugh. “You can shoot me if I start showing signs of the same thing.”
“No, I can’t,” she said. “Is it hereditary?”
He gave a half shrug, half nod. “They think it might be. Good thing we didn’t try to make a real go of it, no?”
She sighed, “Don’t do that, Clay.”
“Sorry, I try not to...dwell. But when it comes up, it’s hard not to think about the might have beens and what ifs. I’m just glad that you’re happy,” he said. “The last thing I ever wanted to do is hurt you.”
She gave him a compassionate smile, and said, “I really am happy.”
He stood up. “I’m glad, Sarah. You look happy. Have a look at these other dossiers when you have time. I know we’re throwing you into the deep end here, but we... You’re the right one for the job.”
He set the rest of the stack on her desk, and left.
Most of the people who had been at the conference table showed up in her office at one time or another during the day. By the time her meeting with Kershaw rolled around, the only person she’d expected to see but hadn’t yet was Meg Austin. She made a mental note to remedy that after the meeting.
The meeting with Kershaw was brief. She’d found the people she’d been assigned by and large extraordinarily competent. A few missions had already been run in the weeks prior to her arrival, and reviewing those gave her the best look at how and what the task force did than nearly anything else could have.
After the Deputy Director left, Mac looked out at the desks down in the bullpen, found Commander Austin’s blonde head, noted the number of the workstation, and then punched that number on the keypad in her desk. It lit. “Commander Austin?” she said, crossing her fingers that everything had gone right.
“Ma’am?” came back the answer, nearly instantaneously.
“Do you have time to come join me in my office?” Mac asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” came the crisp reply.
Mac pressed the button again, and the light went out. She let out a small sigh of relief. Screwing up a simple phone call with the task force technology expert was just not how she wanted to start her command relationship with her husband’s ex-partner.
A brisk knock came a moment later, and Mac said, “Enter. You may close the hatch behind you.”
Commander Austin came in and stood at attention.
“At ease,” Mac said. “I’ve been getting to know people today, and noticed you hadn’t been in.”
Meg relaxed a little, but still looked wary. “Sorry, ma’am, I get focused on the technical problems and I don’t notice the time.”
“That’s okay,” Mac said. “I understand you worked with my husband before I joined JAG.”
There it was, that flicker. “Yes, ma’am.”
“He said you’d transferred out rather abruptly,” Mac said, leading.
“Yes, ma’am. Our last case together was...” she hesitated. “You look so much like her, Colonel.”
Mac chuckled. “Yes, and you should have seen the look on his face when we first met.”
Meg relaxed a tiny bit more. “I can imagine.”
“It took a long time for him to get past that resemblance,” Mac said. “Is it an issue for you?”
Meg looked uncomfortable. “I... Not the resemblance, ma’am, that was a long time ago, and I never knew her personally.”
“But there is an issue?” Mac asked.
Meg sighed, “It shouldn’t be. I left JAG headquarters because it was clear to me that he was too caught up in the past to see anything or anyone else. When I heard that his wife was coming here, and saw your picture.... Let’s just say it brought back a less than happy time in my life. But I want to do my job, and I don’t know you, ma’am.” She looked down at her feet, and then looked directly at Mac. “Was it because you look like her?” She looked away, “It’s none of my business, I’m sorry.”
Mac looked at her for a long moment, then said, “It isn’t, but based on your file, you’re the best one for the job here, it’s clear you cared about him, and if answering your questions helps make it easier for us to work together, I’m willing to try, within reason. So in answer to your question, he said himself that she and I were nothing alike other than in appearance. And we’ve been through too much together as friends and coworkers to have made the leap to marriage because I look like his dead girlfriend. It took us nine years to get to the point of being ready to have a relationship with each other.”
“Is he happy?” Meg asked.
Mac smiled. “He seems happier than I’ve ever seen him. He never mentioned that you and he...”
“We weren’t,” Meg said. “I would have considered it, but it was clear that his mind was elsewhere, and with Krennick...”
Mac nodded. “I know about Krennick,” she said.
“Anyway, he didn’t seem to be interested. And eventually it got too hard, so I asked for a transfer. I’m over it, but your picture brought it all back.”
Mac said, “Do you think we can get past this and work together?”
“I’m sure of it,” Meg said. “You seem very reasonable, and it’s good to know that he found peace.”
Mac smiled. “So do you have anything you’d like to brief me on?”
“Are you interested in the specs for our tech toys?” Meg asked.
“I am. Tell me, though, do you still practice law?” Mac asked.
Meg answered, “I keep my bar license current, and my CLEs up. In past assignments, I’ve been doing a combination of tech and legal work wherever I’ve been stationed. There’s not as much call for lawyering per se, here, but I’ve been able to offer some help so far. I’m working hard to keep as current as I can on legal issues as they relate to technology, which is actually much more important now than it was back when I got my degree.”
“That sounds like it will be very helpful,” Mac said. “So what do you have for me?”
Meg set a briefcase on Mac’s desk and opened it, revealing a tablet computer. “This is probably the best way to show you, as it has the specs loaded, and you’ll need this anyway, we use them all the time. We recommend that you use this,” and she pulled a cable out of the handle, “to secure the case when you’re out of the office. Just loop it around your wrist and fasten it to itself.” She demonstrated, and then continued, “It’ll keep anyone from snatching it.”
Mac flexed her wrist, then asked, “How do I take it off?”
Meg took a tiny card on a fob and inserted into a small slot on the cable, and the cable fell away, retracting. She handed the fob to Mac, and said, “Put that on your keychain. It’s not perfect security, but there is no such animal. That happens to look exactly like a local grocery store’s membership card. Works at the store, too.”
Mac smiled, “You really enjoy this, don’t you?”
Meg grinned back. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I think we’ll get along fine,” Mac said. “Show me where the specs are?”
Meg nodded and gave her a brief tour.
Mac made her way home on the tube, new briefcase latched around her wrist, her head buzzing with the day’s information load.
It was a short walk back to the house from the station, and she found that the closer she got to home, the calmer she got.
Finding her key, she started to unlock the front door when it opened. She found herself engulfed in a hug, nose pressed against Harm’s service whites near the ribbons, and she let out an “oof.”
Laughing, she pushed back and said, “Hi, sailor, miss me?”
He grinned. “Like crazy.” He cocked his head and looked at her new birds. “Full bird colonel? Congratulations!”
She grinned. “I’m just glad you got promoted first this time. Last time, you were insufferable. All that ma’am-ing.”
He laughed. “I was proud of you. As I am now. How was work?”
She held up her wrist. “Let me get unlocked first.”
“Oooh, Secret Agent Woman,” he said, with a leer.
“You have no idea,” she said, setting the briefcase down on the entry table, and fumbling at the little lock. It popped off, and she rubbed her wrist. “Some old friends were there.”
“I have some idea,” he said. “I take it you’re doing something for the Agency?”
“Sort of,” she said. “They’re involved, but I’m admin, so don’t worry.”
“Clayton Webb knows that if he gets you hurt again, I’ll kill him. So I assumed that you probably weren’t going to be diving into field work.”
“He said as much,” she responded. “Actually, I think he was more afraid of AJ and General Cresswell.”
“He was there?” Harm asked, guardedly.
Mac unlocked the briefcase and pulled out the wrapped package. “He gave me this, and his blessings.”
“Oh really,” Harm said. “What’s in the box?”
“I don’t know. He called it a wedding present,” Mac answered. “Go ahead and open it, it’s to both of us.”
The top of the box formed a bow by interweaving the different layers of the box. It undid with a little twist, revealing a card, and another box only slightly smaller than the first. Harm handed the envelope to Mac and slid the box out. He flicked a fingernail across a line of tape and opened the box as she opened the envelope. He looked inside, and then said, “So what does the note say?”
She opened the simple white card, and read, “To two of my closest friends, wishing you every happiness with each other. If you ever need anything, call.”
He showed her the contents of the box: two tiny cell phones with chargers. “I’m guessing these are not your standard two-year contract?” he said.
“Given what I saw today? I can just about guarantee it,” she answered.
He looked over her shoulder at the card. “So I take it from that, that I’m forgiven?”
“I don’t think he was angry,” Mac said. “He... He said he just wanted to know if I was happy. And it was a relief to him when I said yes and meant it. If he was mad at anyone, it was himself. He doesn’t make friends easily enough to give them up lightly.”
Harm took the phones out of the box. One had a tiny silhouette of a fighter jet embossed on the face, the other had a single small diamond embedded in the same position. “I guess we know which is which,” he said.
She flipped her phone open, and it started dialing immediately. There was no keypad, only a single toggle switch. She put it up to her ear, hesitantly, and Webb answered on the second ring. “Sarah,” he said. “You opened your present.”
She smiled, “Thank you. Are we to assume these are dedicated lines?”
“Yes. They transmit on open, this line only. If you open it and push the toggle switch up towards the hinge, it will go into silent mode, and we’ll be able to use the onboard GPS to locate you. If you push it down, it will go into listen-only mode, but we won’t come unless what we hear warrants it. Left is another silent mode, hit that and close the phone and your ringer will be off until you do it again. Push it right once and it goes into listen mode and asks us to locate you. Push it right twice, and ten seconds later it starts screaming. Push it right a third time and it screams immediately. Press the button straight in to hang up. If you open the phone and immediately hit the toggle straight in twice, it will call the other phone instead of home base. They both work the same way. Explain it to Harm while I have you on the line.”
She did so. Harm flipped his open, and it became clear that they both went to the same line. “Webb,” he said. “How likely are we to need these?”
Webb said, “I have no idea. Plug the charger in and when you put the phone down at home, put it on the charger. Doesn’t have to be precise, anywhere on the charge plate will do. If you do that at least once a week, the things should stay charged just fine. They should be light enough to go on your keychains. I’d rather you have them and not need them than need them and not have them.”
“Thank you,” Harm said. “Who else might answer besides you?”
Webb answered, “Unless I’m actually indisposed, no one. If I don’t pick up by the fourth ring, it goes to the current lead at Mac’s office.”
“That would do it,” Mac said. “Thank you, Clay.”
“I try to take care of my friends,” Clayton responded. “I’m not always very good at it, but this gives you a better chance than most, should something go wrong. You two have a nose for trouble. Good night.”
The line went dead and they closed the tiny phones. Harm took one of the chargers and set it on the entry table, crouching down to plug it in behind. It had a funny international plug, and he studied it for a moment.
“I’ll go put one upstairs,” Mac said.
He found the correct setting and got the plug into the wall socket. A small red light lit up at the edge of the charge plate, and he set the phone on it. Then he followed Mac upstairs.
She’d plugged the charger in behind the dresser, and was just moving the dresser back to its place when he got to the bedroom. She dusted her hands off, and then reached up to let her hair down, kicking off her heels with a sigh.
He grinned and said, “Can I help you get more comfortable?”
She smiled. “Define comfortable.”
“I was thinking naked,” he said with a leer.
“Dinner?” she asked.
“Marjory is cooking,” he said. “We’ll eat at 1900. Plenty of time.”
She gave him a feral grin. “Naked is good.”
They lay on the bed after, side by side, and he said, “So, anyone else at work that I would know?”
“Gunny got his Master Sergeant stripes,” she answered. “And Meg Austin was there.”
“How was that?” he asked.
“Awkward, at first. She had a serious crush on you at one point.”
“She also said you were focused on other things. That’s why she left.”
“She never said much,” he said. “She was a good partner, we got along well. But I was pretty focused on other things, and with Krennick chasing me around tables, it didn’t seem wise to set Meg in her sights.”
Mac turned and snuggled up against him. “She said that, too. She’s over it, we’ll be able to work together, it was just weird at first. She asked me if you’d married me because I looked like Diane.”
He laughed. “What did you tell her?”
“That with as much as we’d been through over the years, me looking like your old girlfriend was really low on the list of good reasons to get married.”
He turned towards her and kissed her. “Diane was sexy as hell. You’re sexier. And that has next to nothing to do with why I fell in love with you.”
“That’s not exactly what I told Meg, but close enough,” Mac said with a laugh. “You’re pretty hot yourself, Captain.”
He grinned at her, and she felt herself melt. “I love you,” she said.
He kissed her, then said, “Good.”
Later that night, after dinner, as she was getting ready for bed, she felt the first nagging ache that usually foreshadowed her period. She paused for a moment and put a hand on her back. Harm, just coming into the bedroom, noticed, and was behind her immediately, his large hand spreading over her sacrum.
“Period?” he asked, and she leaned against his hand for a moment, feeling the tension in her back subside.
She gave him a funny look, and said, “Tomorrow. That feels good, by the way.”
“Do you want to try next cycle?” he asked.
“I don’t want to not try,” she said. “I’m not sure I want to think about it too much. Where did you learn how to do that?”
“Reading,” he said. “About endo. And Jordan had bad cramps sometimes.”
She turned and leaned against him. “Thank you.”
He kept one hand down at her sacrum, but used the other to stroke her hair. “I don’t like it when you hurt.”
“This is nothing, really,” she said. “It’s actually convenient. I don’t forget the necessaries.”
“I’m surprised you don’t know to the minute,” he said.
“My body isn’t as precise as my brain,” she answered. “And I’m not that regular.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Just tell me if I’m doing too much.”
“I always do, Rabb,” she said, tartly, then softened. “But you usually listen, and what you’re doing right now feels good.”
The period, when it arrived the next day, was harder than they’d been since before her surgery. She finally did an online search for endo, and realized quickly that it was probably due to her tubes being open. She sighed, took some ibuprofen, and got back to work. Getting into the swing of things wasn’t too hard, her people were competent, and Webb told her that a true crisis was not likely to be a daily occurrence. They’d had a small handful since the task force began, but most of the work was the daily grind of information processing.
Each of the people monitoring active agents in the field had a list of the office staff and each person’s language expertise. Mac’s first opportunity to help in that department came when one of the younger staff called out for help figuring out which language was being used. She listened, and it turned out to be Farsi, but spoken with a heavy Russian accent. It took her a few minutes to figure it out, the young man scribbled on a Post-it, “We’re recording,” and she nodded absently as she continued to listen. After the conversation was done, she had him forward the recording to her desk, and she came back with a transcription not long after that. “We found one of our Russian black marketeers,” she commented. “Good job.” The young man beamed. “Get the information to Agent Webb, please,” she said, and went back familiarizing herself with the current surveillance cases.
When she arrived home later, she said hi to Mattie and headed straight for the shower. Harm found her with the spray pounding her lower back, braced up against the far wall of the shower. He stripped and stepped into the spacious shower behind her. She looked over at him through the steam, and he said, “Bad?”
She nodded. “Worse than it’s been, not worse than it used to be.”
“The books said that might happen after the HSG,” he said, rubbing her back gently. “Anything I can do?”
She leaned against him, closing her eyes in the steamy warmth, and said, “This.”
He kissed the top of her head, and stroked her back, ignoring the fact that the close contact with her naked body was sending interesting signals to the rest of him. She noticed, and said, “Maybe tomorrow.”
He chuckled. “Theoretically it can help, but you’d have to feel like trying it, and you don’t look like you feel like it.”
She grimaced and leaned against him. “Astute.”
“I’m trying,” he said.
They stayed that way until the water started running cooler.
Dinner was subdued. Harm made pasta, and Mattie kept her nose in a book the entire time. Mac realized that Mattie was tightening her leg muscles absently while she read, and asked, “Are you doing exercises all the time now?”
Mattie looked up. “If I keep them moving, it helps with stamina. I’m starting leg presses tomorrow with Mrs. Jones. Once I can leg press my own weight, I’m going to try standing again.”
Mac smiled. “I’m proud of you.”
Mattie shrugged. “It’s not an option to stay in the wheelchair.”
“Good for you,” Harm said. “What are you reading?”
Mattie lifted up the book for them to see the cover. “Science fiction?” Mac asked.
“Needed something escapist,” Mattie said. “This is about as far-out as it gets. I should live in space, then I won’t need super duper coordination or leg power.”
“If your goal is to live independently, a space station probably isn’t the way to go,” Harm said. “Not until they figure out how to grow their own food reliably and get better at recycling their water supplies.”
Mattie grinned. “Maybe I’ll figure out how to do those things.”
“You want to be an astronaut?” Mac said, intrigued.
Mattie answered, “Not really, I want to live in space. Astronaut implies going back and forth a lot. Maybe more like a colonist.”
“Lofty goals,” Harm said. “Knowing you, if you put your mind to it, you’ll succeed.”
“You better believe it,” Mattie said, and went back to her reading.
Mac’s period started tapering off after three days, faster by a couple days than it usually was. The cramps of the brutal first day faded quickly, to her relief. Work was mostly about getting to know her staff, and when she had down time, she listened to language tapes or practiced with one of the Arabic speaking members of her staff. Webb stayed mostly in the background, where he spent most of his time in a workstation close to the stairs to the conference area and Mac’s office, keeping quiet tabs on everything that went on. Kershaw went home at the end of the week, comfortable that Mac and her staff were gelling into a cohesive unit.
The office had a few important successes on the information-gathering front, as they picked up side talk that their on-the-ground agents couldn’t understand. Mac found herself in discussions with Kershaw about these, and he recommended passing the information on to the main unit in Stuttgart. By the second week, Kershaw called her and let her know that they would be routing most of the more complex linguistics assists to her team.
On that Friday, June 17, Sergei was escorted down to the task force ops center.
He greeted her with a big smile and a hug, and said, “I have never had a sister before. I am pleased.”
She laughed, and asked after his fiancée. Sergei looked momentarily downcast. “After that mess with Lieutenant Singer’s death, we called off the wedding.”
Mac frowned, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I thought perhaps you’d gotten married while Harm was away from JAG, he never mentioned...”
Sergei shrugged, then looked up and smiled. “It is okay. I’m a free agent now.”
“Secret agent is more like it,” Mac said, “if you’re here.”
“That, too,” he said. “So, boss, what do you need me to do?”
She smiled. “Well, for starters, you’re going to talk to Clayton Webb and Vic Galindez. Then you’ll come home with me and have a nice dinner with your brother.”
“Of course,” he said. “I was sorry not to be able to make your wedding, but as you can see, I was unable to get away.”
She smiled. “We didn’t give people enough warning to expect anyone to come from that far away.”
“Big hurry for a marriage,” he said. “Are you expecting?”
She laughed, “No. Are you always this blunt?”
He shrugged. “I like to have all the facts on the table when it comes to non-work. Work is all secrets, at home it shouldn’t be so. So why the fast marriage?”
“We thought at first we needed to in order to make the move work. By the time we realized that we didn’t need to move so quickly, we were already in motion. Given how long we’ve known each other, I think we didn’t want to have time to back out.” She smiled. “I think you know your brother well enough to understand.”
He gave her a wry grin. “I do, although not as well as you do. But yes, it seems like a good idea to tie him down before he gets distracted.”
She laughed. “That wasn’t exactly my thinking, but good enough.”
She left early for the first time that night, leaving the office in Clayton Webb’s capable hands, taking Sergei with her. Rather than walking directly home, they walked from the rail station to the ONRG offices where Harm worked.
At the lobby desk, they signed for visitor passes, and the clerk directed them down a long hallway.
She had Sergei wait by the door before she pulled open the office door.
The space was smaller than JAG headquarters, but felt similar. A female lieutenant with short mousy hair looked up curiously as she entered, and said, “Ma’am, may I help you?”
Mac smiled. “I’m looking for Captain Rabb, I have a visitor for him.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, he’s on the phone. Can I take a message?”
She smiled sweetly. “If you’d let him know that his wife is here?”
The young woman’s eyes widened, and she came to attention. “Yes, ma’am, it is good to meet you, ma’am. Wait right here.”
Jennifer Coates appeared a moment later, smiling warmly and saying, “Colonel MacKenzie! What a surprise!”
Mac put a finger to her lips. “I’m not the surprise.”
Jen raised her eyebrows and mouthed, “Sergei?”
Mac nodded as the lieutenant reappeared looking rather cowed. “I’m sorry ma’am, he bellowed before I could get the message out.”
Mac looked amused, and Jen said, “If you don’t mind, I think I can handle this one. He’s on the phone with General Cresswell. Who will understand.”
She grabbed a piece of paper and a marker and scribbled on it. Then she walked back to Harm’s office, slid the door open a crack, and held the piece of paper up against the opposite side of the door.
About thirty seconds later, the door opened, and Harm appeared, looking slightly harried and curious.
“Colonel MacKenzie, what a surprise!” he said, winking at her. “Sorry about the confusion.”
She suppressed a grin and said, “I got off work early. I have a surprise for you.”
“You’re not the surprise?” he said.
She rapped on the door behind her, and Sergei opened it.
Harm’s face lit up. “Brother!” he said, then blinked. “So that’s what he meant. When I told the General that my wife had inexplicably come to visit, he told me to go enjoy my family reunion.” He looked around the office. “Coates, is there anything pressing in the next two hours that will cause the walls of this place to fall down if I leave early?”
Jen smiled. “No, sir.”
They walked home through the pleasant June afternoon. When they arrived, Mattie was in the front room with Mrs. Jones, sitting on the leg press machine.
“Oh good, Cap’n,” Mrs. Jones said. “Perhaps you can talk some sense into her?”
“Mattie?” Harm asked.
She stared over his shoulder, at Sergei and Mac following him into the house, and asked, “Is that him? Your brother?”
“Oh, yes, Sergei, Mattie.”
Sergei smiled affably and gave a polite little bow. Mac said, “Sergei, how about we get you settled upstairs, and then we can come back down and spend some time together?”
Harm gave her a grateful look, and turned back to Mattie. “What’s going on, kiddo?”
“She won’t put more weight on,” Mattie said. “It’s too easy.”
“Why not add some weight?” he asked Mrs. Jones.
“The physiotherapist warned against her doing too much too fast, and she’s already at the upper limit for the week,” Mrs. Jones explained.
Mattie rolled her eyes. “It’s too easy. I need to build muscle.”
“Reps help, too,” Harm said.
“I’ve DONE reps. It’s still too easy. Look,” and she did a few.
“You understand that if you pull something, it will set you back?” Harm asked.
She nodded. “But I’m not going to pull something. I need to get stronger. Put more weight on, dammit.”
He raised his eyebrows at her. “Tone, young lady.”
“Please,” she implored. “Harm, I just want to see what I can press. If it hurts, I’ll stop right away.”
He looked at Mrs. Jones. “What increments have you been adding?”
“1 kilo,” she said, “but I think it is a terrible idea.”
He gave her an ingratiating smile. “I understand. I’ll take responsibility. She’ll either do well, or she’ll learn the hard way.”
Mrs. Jones shrugged and brushed her hands on her apron. “Have at. I’ll go put on tea. Your brother will be staying, Cap’n?”
He nodded, and shifted the pin on the machine down to the next kilo. “Try that.”
She pushed, first gingerly and then finding it not painful, confidently. She did two reps and said, “More.”
He checked the numbers. “You’re up to thirty-four kilos. That’s about seventy-five pounds. You sure?”
“Harm, I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t sure.” Her tone was pure exasperated teenage girl.
“Aye aye, ma’am,” he shot back, and moved the pin down again. “Thirty-five kilos it is.”
She did another couple reps, and said, “More.”
“Don’t hurt yourself,” he reminded her.
“Harm, how can I find out how much I can press if you don’t add more weight?”
He nodded, and moved the pin.
When they got up to forty-two kilos, he noticed a bit of tremor in her legs on the first rep and said, “That’s enough.”
“What is it in pounds?” she asked.
“A kilo is 2.2 pounds,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “I know.”
“Do the math,” he said.
She muttered, “84 plus 8.4...” and then said out loud, “92.4 pounds. What do I weigh?”
He grinned, and said, “Let’s find out.”
She looked at him oddly. “I can’t stand on a scale.”
“I can,” he said.
He went to the bottom of the stairs and called up, “Mac, can you bring down the scale?”
When Mac came down, he said, “Would you put that on the wood floor in the foyer?” She looked at him curiously and complied.
Picking Mattie up, he could feel how much more strength she had, and realized she’d also added a bit of weight with her returning muscles. He asked her, “Have you figured it out yet?”
She nodded. “You’ll weigh with me, then put me down and weigh without me.”
He nodded. “The scale tops out at three hundred thirty pounds. Unless you’re more than a hundred and thirty pounds, this should work. And you’re under that, I can tell you right now.”
He tapped the scale to zero it, waited, and then stepped on. Mattie asked, “So how are you going to read it?”
Mac leaned over and said, “It’s reading three hundred three pounds.”
“Close enough,” Harm said, and set Mattie back in her chair. He stepped on, and Mac said, “A hundred and ninety eight. So Mattie is a hundred and five pounds.”
Mattie sighed. “So close. I’m guessing I can’t try to stand yet?”
“Five more kilos,” Harm said. “It would be better if you rounded up, make it closer to fifty kilos total before you even think about standing.”
“Yes, boss,” she said with a frown. “How much can you press?”
He sat down on the machine, moved the pin to a hundred thirty kilos, and did a few reps. “That’s my low, for fast reps. I could do a lot more if I felt like getting my uniform sweaty right now. And Mac kicks butt at leg presses.”
She sighed. “Fifty?”
“Give it a few days, kiddo,” he said. “You’re doing great.”
Sergei stayed the weekend. Sunday afternoon, Mac, Jen, and Mattie went out together, leaving Sergei and Harm to work out. After they’d been working in silence for a while, Sergei said from the treadmill, “You know, having a bedroom is better than the couch.”
Harm let the high pulley down easily, wiped his brow and looked apologetic. “About Washington...”
Sergei stepped off the treadmill and shook his head. “I needed to be doing work that mattered and I needed to live my own life. You wanted me to be your kid brother, but I haven’t been a kid for a long time.” He took over the high pulley as Harm shifted over to free weights.
“You’re welcome to stay,” Harm said. “Anytime.”
“Thank you,” Sergei said. “When I am in London, I would be pleased to accept that offer. But I will be doing important work for your Mac.”
“I’m proud of you,” said Harm, “but the big brother in me can’t help worrying.” He switched the dumbbell to his other hand.
“You would not lessen me by preventing me from serving my country, any more than I would try to stop you from flying airplanes,” Sergei said. “You have been a hero many times. Now it is my turn.”
“You have a home and family here,” Harm said. “Whenever you need us.”
“Your new daughter and your new wife are good for you, I see,” Sergei replied. “You are a good father. And maybe more someday?”
Harm set down the dumbbell and looked down for a moment. “I hope so.” He moved over to do leg curls.
“If it is meant to happen,” Sergei said, “it will happen in good time. It is fate. Oh, tell me, would you object to me asking Petty Officer Coates out on a date?”
Harm stopped mid-curl and gave Sergei an appraising look. “Are you asking as my brother?” He continued working his legs.
Sergei let the pulley down and stepped away from the machine. “I’m asking because she looks at you like Mattie does, as a father of sorts,” Sergei said. “And you look at her much as you look at Mattie, although there is less worry in your eyes. But I do not see her as a niece. She is a beautiful woman.”
“That she is,” Harm agreed. “But be careful. I don’t want either of you hurt.”
“Then I have your blessing?” Sergei persisted.
“If it is mine to give,” Harm said, bemused. “You don’t know if she’ll say yes.”
Sergei grinned, and threw a towel around his neck. “Yes, I do,” he threw back, and walked toward the stairs.
Harm called out after him, “Hey. Don’t keep her out too late, she has work in the morning.”
Sergei laughed and called back, “Yes, Da .”
June 20, 2005
West Ruislip, Middlesex
Harm woke early Monday morning, to find Mac already out of bed and showering. He smiled and joined her.
As he soaped her back, he said, “I love this.”
She looked back at him. “This?”
“This,” he said. “All of this. Falling asleep next to you. Joining you in the shower. Knowing that when I come home at the end of the day, you’ll be there, too. Washing your back. Walking to work. Having Mattie here. Indian food. Working out with you guys. Making love to you. Planning for the future. All of it.”
She turned and kissed him, her body slick against his. He smiled against her kiss, fumbled the soap onto the soap shelf, and rinsed the soap off her back.
She pulled away a little, arms still up around his neck, and said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you so content.”
“There’s a reason for that,” he said, running his hands up and down her back. “Some days I can’t believe you’re mine. And some days I can’t believe you ever weren’t.”
She smiled and closed her eyes as he nibbled on her neck, the hot water sluicing down. “At some level, I always was,” she said. “Otherwise I would have been married years ago. But it does feel so very good to finally be in your arms.”
“Sergei leaving today?” he asked.
She nodded. “Will you forgive me if something happens to him? I can’t guarantee he’ll be safe where he’s going.”
He was quiet for a long moment. “Am I correct that you weren’t the one who got him involved in the first place?”
She nodded. “He volunteered to Webb.”
“He’s an adult,” Harm said finally. “I want to protect him, just like I want to protect everyone I love. But I can’t prevent him from doing what he feels is right, not with the risks I’ve taken.”
She put her cheek against his chest and wrapped her arms around him. “I will try to keep him as safe as I can without handicapping him.”
“That’s all I can ask for, Marine.”
Harm had gotten into the habit of walking to the office in the morning with Jen. As they stepped out of the front yard, he said, “So, how was your date?”
She shot him a look. “It was fine.”
“Did my brother behave?” Harm asked.
Jen’s eyebrows went up. “He was a gentleman.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes, then Harm said, “I don’t want either of you getting hurt.”
“I know,” she answered. “It was just dinner.”
He sighed. “Just don’t rush into things. His job will have him away far more than he’s here.”
She laughed. “It was just dinner. He’s a nice boy .”
“He asked for my permission to take you out,” Harm said.
She shook her head. “I told him to ask you how you felt about it before I said yes.”
“It’s not really my place to be giving permission or not for you to date anyone.”
“Yes, but I didn’t want to tread on your hospitality,” Jen said. “He is your brother.”
“I trust you, Jennifer. And I trust him. Like I said, I just don’t want either of you hurt.”
She smiled. “Thank you. But I’m not up for serious with anyone, and he knows that.”
As they got to the office, he felt the familiar shift between them into their professional relationship. It always happened right around the time they hit the north edge of the parking lot. By the time they walked through the front door, he was Captain Rabb and she was Petty Officer Coates.
His office was starting to feel comfortable and familiar. A pair of bookends from Admiral Chegwidden stood on the shelves full of law books, along with his model Tomcat and other little things here and there that personalized the space. Bigger than any of the offices he’d used in the States, it was only marginally smaller than the General’s office back at headquarters. Outside his space, the place was a bland cube farm, but in his office, his predecessors had made sure that the space was appointed in a way that represented the rank of the office holder. The first week or so, he’d felt like an imposter, but now, three weeks later, he had a routine and it felt less strange to prepare to go out and tell people what to do with their week.
He checked his email, chuckled over something from Bud, deleted the spam that had come in over the weekend, and, like clockwork, fifteen minutes after the hour, Coates came in with a stack of folders.
“Three disorderlies over the weekend, plus one UA,” she said. “The usual, sir.”
“Any repeat offenders?” he asked.
She let a smile crack through. “Any not repeat offenders would be a more relevant question, sir. Commander Harris hasn’t gotten me anything on the Johnson case this morning, so expect some sort of update at 0830 at the meeting. ”
“Right. Have we heard from the branch offices yet?” he asked.
“No, sir, that’s my next call.”
“Carry on,” he said. “Leave the hatch open.”
She came to attention, then spun on her heel and left.
At 0830, he made his way to the conference room down the hall. His senior staff were already there, stacks of files in front of them. They went around the table, each giving an update on their open cases, and he distributed the weekend’s dreck.
He spent part of the afternoon in the courtroom, watching his attorneys work. His attorneys. It felt strange to think of them that way. Major Noyes was a man of few words, but he made them count, prosecuting a sailor who had missed ship movement. He looked like a quintessential drill sergeant; older than many of his rank, he’d started enlisted and moved up, getting his bachelor’s degree over the course of seven years, tackling law school in his mid-thirties. On the defense, Lieutenant Shanks defended her client vigorously, although she didn’t have a whole lot to work with. The young woman and didn’t they get younger every year? was tall and a bit plain, with her sandy hair pulled back tight from her face.
Harm felt the flow of questioning and objection and rebuttal like a familiar pulse. He almost missed it, but when he thought about going back to being in the courtroom with Mac, the tension and separation and the way every case turned into something personal between the two of them... Every time he contrasted that ever-present tension, like a rubber band caught tight between them with no release, his mind would go to that morning, or the previous night, or the previous weeks since they’d stopped resisting...
There was before, which was cold and longing and alone, and after, which was warm and having and together, and any desire he might have to go back to that place fizzled away like water on a hot pan.
When the work was particularly dull, as it sometimes was, even now when things were new, that was the thought that kept him at it, with a will. That this work, this job, was the thing that had finally brought them together. He thought about the panic he’d felt when it had come down to the moment of now or never, how he’d stopped resisting that constant pull and how kissing her felt, even now, like drinking after days of thirst.
He brought himself back to the courtroom by sheer force of will. Shanks had begun her defense, which hinged on the fact that too much cold medicine had caused the sailor to fall asleep at his girlfriend’s flat, and that a power outage had kept his alarm from going off. Noyes seemed nonplussed, but responded appropriately, urging that such arguments be reserved as mitigation, not doubt.
Harm was skeptical, but Shanks had a report from the power company, and a receipt from the base commissary for the cold medicine.
The members found him guilty, but recommended only docking of pay and a battery-operated clock. Harm was pleased, and told both attorneys so.
He headed home early in order to be there for Mattie’s physiotherapy session. She’d managed fifty kilos the night before, and he’d insisted she wait for the PT before trying to stand.
When he got home, Mattie was dressed in gym shorts and a t-shirt. She still looked painfully thin, but new ropes of muscle were evident. The PT pulled up a few minutes after he arrived.
Mattie fidgeted in her chair as she waited for the woman to bring everything in. The PT gave Harm a pleasant smile, and said, “It’s nice to see you. Can you help me with my equipment?”
He accompanied the PT out to her van and said, “She’s pressing fifty kilos and really wants to try to stand.”
The PT smiled. “She’s making good progress. Tell you what, do you see those rails along the wall of the van?”
He looked in, and pulled out a pair of free-standing barres. “Should I think about installing something like this inside the house?”
She shook her head. “You already have those great rails in the hallway and on the stairs, and we’ll have her with a walker and crutches sooner than later.”
She grabbed some cross pieces and followed him into the house.
They set up the system while Mattie watched. The moment the last piece clicked into place, Mattie said, “Can I get up now?”
Mrs. Jones pushed the chair over to the double barre system and locked the wheels. Mattie looked warily at the barres and said, “What do I do now?”
The PT had Harm stand next to Mattie on one side and she took the other, and they lifted Mattie to her feet, taking most of her weight. Mattie settled her feet under her and reached down for the barres.
The PT nodded at Harm, and they gently let Mattie’s weight settle onto her feet. She gasped, and they stopped for a moment. “What are you feeling?” asked the PT.
“Shooting pain,” Mattie said. “In my hips. The doctors said it might happen.”
The PT said, “Let’s set her back down for a moment, and we’ll see if a TENS can help.”
A few minutes later, Mattie was wired up to a small machine that sent a tiny current to the skin of her lower back. This time when they lowered her onto her feet, she could feel it, but it didn’t make her yelp.
She grasped the rails tightly, and wobbled, but then found her balance. She looked up with a grin, and said, “I’m standing!”
Then she tried to pick up a foot to take a step, and started to crumple. Harm caught her. “You’re not up to what you need to be to take all your weight on one foot,” he said.
She looked frustrated. “Put me down.”
She braced herself on her arms, and tried again. Spreading her weight across both arms and one leg, she was able to pick one leg up, so she took a small step. She said, strain heavy in her voice, “Shifting balance is harder than it should be.” It took her a moment to consciously shift her weight to the forward foot, and then adjust one hand and the other, then take another step. “Should I have to think about all this so much?” she asked.
The PT nodded. “You had a brain injury and a spinal cord injury. The fact that you can do it at all is a miracle.”
Mattie’s knees were starting to shake, so Harm and the PT brought her back to the chair.
“So what now?” Mattie asked.
“Now, you spend time each day standing, holding onto the handrail in the hallway, and just shift your weight from foot to foot. Say, ten reps tomorrow, fifteen the next day, and so on through our next visit. When you can do fifty of those, we’ll try you out on crutches.”
“What about the pain?” Mattie asked.
The PT looked at Harm. “You need to get her in with a pain management specialist if you can. They can prescribe medication that helps reduce nerve pain. Acupuncture can be very effective, too, in this kind of case.”
Mattie shuddered. “Needles?”
Harm said, “Versus having to take drugs?”
She sighed. “I’ll try it. What about that TENS thingy?”
The PT said, “I’ll ask my supervising doctor to write a prescription for one, but it’s not an ideal solution for situations like school.”
Mattie tried to envision herself going to school with wires going into her pants and cringed. “I see your point.”
The PT worked with Mattie for another fifteen minutes, then Harm helped bring the equipment out the car. “What do you think?” he asked.
“She’s ahead of schedule. She’s still making progress. That progress could continue until she’s walking naturally and easily, or she may require help for pain, crutches for balance, or even braces to keep her ankles from turning. We don’t know when progress will slow or stop, and we won’t until it does. But she’s doing very well. I’m pleased.”
He smiled. “Given that a month ago she was paralyzed completely, I am delighted.”
“When does she go back to school?”
“Autumn term, next September.”
She nodded. “Let’s make it our goal to have her upright and wheelchair-free by then.”
He smiled. “Deal.”
When he went back in, Mrs. Jones had helped Mattie to the couch, where she was lying down with a book.
He peered over the couch back at her. “So, what would you like for dinner? To celebrate?”
She looked up at him thoughtfully. “The last pizza we got here was crap. And I’m tired of Indian food. Will you make me a veggie lasagne?”
He grinned. “You’re going easy on me.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you have all the ingredients on hand?”
“Tell you what,” he said. “In an hour or so, when you’re up to it, I’ll take you shopping.”
She frowned, and then said, “How? That’s usually a two-person job. You can’t push the cart and me at the same time.”
He smiled. “We have our ways.”
He said, “One of the stores we go to has electric shopping carts. Think you’re ready to drive again?”
“An old fart cart?” she said. “Harm, you’re a genius!”
He grinned. “Yes, I am, and it’s time you recognized it.”
She stuck her tongue out at him.
He realized, lifting her into the van, that she’d become part of his weight routine. Caring for her, in fact, had become routine in just about every way.
She was no longer making an issue about any of them helping her when she needed it; it had just become a matter-of-fact thing that had to happen sometimes. They’d figured out a way for Harm to help her into the bathroom, and it helped that dealing with the toilet paper was one of the first things she’d mastered. They planned for times when he had to help her by putting her in a loose, short dress, so that she could preserve her modesty. He’d decided early on to emulate the caregivers, who made helping Mattie with the personal stuff very matter-of-fact and almost invisible. Mrs. Jones had explained to him early on that she’d had to take care of her elderly father as he declined with dementia, and that at some point they’d just had to get past the whole business of modesty. She had shown him the difference between calling attention to a process and directing attention away from the process. So Harm had gotten in the habit, on the occasions when he needed to help Mattie with dressing or getting into the bathroom, of chatting about anything else, and not really looking while going through the process as routinely as possible.
Once, she’d commented on the strangeness of it, and he just said, “Princess, someday you may end up having to help me in the bathroom, when I’m old. Or Mac, if something happens to her. Or a baby sibling, if one comes along. I’ll do my best not to make a big deal about it. Can you do the same?”
He drove over to the bigger grocery store, parked, and told Mattie to wait for a moment. She laughed a few minutes later when he came riding out on the electric scooter, his knees folded awkwardly and a few pedestrians looking startled at the large, healthy man in the navy uniform driving the cart.
He pulled up on the left side of the car, opened her door, and lifted her down to the cart. He slid open the side door, and brought out a couple of small, flat pillows, and used them to help support her in the seat. One slightly larger bolster went on her lap, so her arms could rest while she steered. She grinned, and he said, “Squeeze left to back up. Squeeze right to go forward. Let go to stop. And don’t hit the van.”
She rolled her eyes, and as soon as the door was closed and he was out of the way, she pulled forward. He grinned as she zipped towards the front door and followed her in.
She kept up a running commentary on the odd food names, and he filled the little basket in front of her with the noodles, cheeses, and veggies he was going to use. He kept an eye on her energy level, but the pillows seemed to be doing their job, and she was controlling the cart easily.
She found the candy aisle and added some to the cart, throwing him a look to see if he would challenge her choices, but he just shrugged.
They stayed longer than they needed to, because she was having so much fun with it. Then Harm noticed her arm starting to tremble, and said, “Okay, princess, that’s it. Time to check out.”
He watched her like a hawk as they went through the checkout line, as she seemed to be fading fast. He asked the checker to bring another shopping cart around, and the man looked at him blankly until he said, “Trolley,” and the man smiled.
As the checker moved the bags over to the cart, Harm said, “Can someone push the car... trolley for me? I’m going to be carrying my daughter out, she’s too tired.”
The older man looked at Mattie, gave her a compassionate smile, and put a “closed” sign on his checkout station. When Harm picked Mattie up, the checker grabbed the pillows without being asked, and tucked them in the shopping trolley.
Harm realized as they got out to the car that a van with electric door openers was one of the better choices they’d made in that harried first week. A press of the button, and the back of the car was opening, doors already unlocked. The checker opened the left front passenger door for him, and he set Mattie down. By the time he’d gotten her buckled in, the car was already loaded, and the checker was handing him the pillows for Mattie, who looked incredibly tired.
He closed her door, and the checker asked quietly, “Was she in a car mash-up?”
Harm said, “Airplane crash,” and the man looked surprised.
“She’s very lucky, then,” the man finally said. “Pretty little thing like that shouldn’t be laid up, though.”
“She’ll be back on her feet soon,” Harm said. “She’s just tired from doing too much.”
The checker looked relieved. “Well, she sure did seem to enjoy shopping more than most of the people who come in here. Was a treat to see it, it was. Wouldn’t mind seeing her back here.”
Harm smiled. “I’m sure we will. Next time I’ll have to make us leave a little sooner. Thank you for your help.”
“Nothing to it,” the man said. “She looks like my granddaughter. All those curls. You take care of her.”
Harm smiled. “I will, at that.”
Mattie managed to stay awake through the drive home, but barely. Harm took her directly into her bedroom and laid her down once they were home. Marjory, who had been knitting in the living room, helped him get her settled. Mattie protested a little, but he put his finger to his lips and said, “Shhh. I’ll make dinner and get you up then. You’ve had a big day.”
She smiled sleepily. “’Kay, boss. I’d salute if I wasn’t so tired.”
He shook his head with a smile, and headed to the kitchen to make his lasagne.
It was a familiar routine. Chop and dice and layer, the noodles going in uncooked so they would cook in the tomato sauce and have more flavor. Layers of cheese and chopped veggies. He ran zucchini, eggplant, and mushrooms through the food processor so that they would not be readily identifiable. Fresh herbs and sauce layered on the stiff noodles. He had no idea how many times he’d made lasagne this way.
Mac came home just as he was closing the oven. She came into the kitchen to find him in a cotton tank and jeans, a simple green apron on, and said from the doorway of the kitchen, “It is unbelievably hot to have a man barefoot and making me dinner.”
He turned to see her standing there in her service dress khakis and pumps, looking extremely polished, and grinned. He slipped the apron off, twisted it into a makeshift rope, and looped it around behind her back, pulling her close to him. She laughed.
He murmured into her neck, “Mattie’s asleep, and the lasagna’s got a while to cook.”
She grinned. “Whatever do you have in mind, sailor?”
He chuckled and ran his hand down her back and over her ass. “Hmmm... let me drag you upstairs and I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
He was tempted to start unbuttoning her there, but Marjory was in the next room and Jen would be home soon.
“That works,” she said, following him into the bedroom.
He shut the door behind her and said, “Now, where were we?”
He smiled. “Right. I was going to help you out of those clothes.”
She started to unbutton her top, but he caught her hands gently, and said, “May I?”
She chuckled, and let him open her blouse. He worked each button free, then kissed her skin, following his hands down. When he got to her stomach, she twitched involuntarily, and he gave her a wicked grin. “Ticklish?”
She held herself straight and said with a neutral face, “Not at all.”
He chuckled, and unhooked her skirt. She looked down at him and said, “Are you having fun?”
He let her skirt drop, and she stepped out of it. He stood up behind her and nibbled on her neck as he unhooked her bra. “Mmm hmmm,” he said against her neck. He breathed against her earlobe and whispered, “Aren’t you?”
She closed her eyes and let her head fall to one side as he sucked gently on her earlobe. “Oh yeah,” she said. “Definitely. I’ll give you an hour to stop doing that.”
He laughed against her, and then pushed her panties and hose down, leaving her standing bare in front of him. She started to turn to help pull his shirt off, but he fended her off, saying, “Not yet.”
She looked at him curiously. “Oh?”
“I have plans for you,” he said, nudging her over to the bed.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, and he moved around her, looking thoughtful. She felt a giggle building up, he looked so feral and silly at the same time. Then he started to touch her, lightly, his fingers grazing her skin, his tongue wandering from her neck to her nipples.
She sank back until she was lying on the bed. She reached up to touch him once, and he shook his head, and said, “My turn right now.”
She smiled, bemused, and let her eyes close. He focused in on her left breast, pulling the nipple into his mouth, flicking it with his tongue, and she felt a low moan escape. His tongue still on her nipple, his right hand moved down her belly and over her groin.He felt her hips rise a little as his hand came close, then trailed his fingers down the front of her thigh. He dragged them back up her inner thigh, and in one smooth motion slid a finger deep inside. Her hips bucked a little as his finger entered, and he found himself studying her with his hand, feeling the little folds there, the smooth wetness here. She pulled back ever so slightly as his finger brushed against her cervix, and he pulled back a little, then curled his finger up gently toward her pubic bone. That made her shiver, and he redoubled his efforts on her nipple, gently working his finger at the same time. He started moving his thumb against her clitoris and grinned around her nipple as he felt her muscles tighten around his finger.
He shifted to run his tongue down her stomach, then pushed her labia aside and found her clit with his tongue, keeping a finger inside of her and reaching up with his free hand to find her nipple again.
It was just a matter of finding the right angle here, the right pressure there, and her head came up off the bed, her hips bucked, and he felt the deep spasm of her climax around his finger, riding it out with her. He slowed the pace of his fingers’ motion as she subsided, gasping, until she lay completely relaxed and smiling. She looked down at him, with his head leaning against her thigh, and smiled languidly.
He withdrew his hands, and said, “What would you like now?”
She sighed. “You, naked, in me.”
He pushed himself up until he was kneeling next to her on the bed, and stripped off the undershirt he’d been wearing, then the jeans and boxers. She looked incredibly relaxed, and he smiled as he lowered himself down, entering her slowly. She was practically purring, and he moved at a leisurely pace, feeling the exquisite friction with every nerve. She moved with him, following his pace, and he found her mouth with his.
He felt like they could go on like that forever, joined that way, a pleasurable buzz humming between them as they slowly made love. After a while her hands came up and she ran them lightly down his back, then slid a hand between them to feel the point where they joined. She whispered, “I want to feel you come.”
He increased the tempo, pushing a little faster, a little harder, and felt her tighten around him. She murmured, “Yes, like that,” and felt his control slipping. It fled entirely when she hooked her feet together behind him and pulled him in against her. He collapsed against her a moment later, shuddering and breathing hard.
“Mmmmm,” she said, and he chuckled against her shoulder, gently withdrawing.
They lay there for a few minutes, his head on her shoulder, his hand flat on her belly, until his watch began to beep. He swore, and said, “Lasagne.”
She laughed. “Better not let dinner burn.”
He rolled off the bed and she heard the shower go on; a moment later he appeared in a towel, grabbing for his jeans. “Dinner in ten,” he said, and headed out the door.
Mac watched him go, and then lay back for a few more minutes, a lazy, giddy feeling creeping through her.
The feeling crystallized into a laugh, and a single thought…
This is what happiness feels like.
She let that percolate for a few minutes, and it followed her into the shower, and then down to join her family for dinner.