Petty Officer Jennifer Coates looked up in surprise when she heard her CO's office door open and close with a loud slam that she was certain could have been heard throughout the building. Former Marine Lt. Col. Sarah Mackenzie, now Mrs. Harmon Rabb, Jr., barely acknowledged Jen's presence as she crossed the outer office and left before Jen was able to get her attention.
Sensing that something was wrong, Jen grabbed the coffee pot and knocked once on the Captain's door before entering. "Coffee, sir?" she asked, pretending not to notice that he was standing by the window that overlooked the street below, staring outside. When he didn't respond, Jen asked again. "Sir?"
He finally turned around, as if he was only then realizing she was there. "I'm sorry -" he noticed the pot in her hand. "Yes. Coffee would be nice."
Jen filled the cup on his desk - the one that Mattie had bought for him on Father's day a year ago right after she and Mac had joined Harm here in London. It was oversized, and had "World's Greatest Dad" emblazoned on the ceramic.
"Hard to believe that it's been a year, isn't it, sir?" she said, carrying the cup to him at the window.
"Sometimes," he agreed, taking the cup as he watched Mac get into a taxi and leave. "Do you remember when we all went to that restaurant to celebrate your promotion, Coates?"
"Yes, sir. All of us had the same fortunes in the fortune cookies," she recalled with a smile, wondering where this was going. "Except for Col. Mackenzie - I mean, Mrs. Rabb."
"Hers was the same as the others," Harm said. "I stole a peek at hers as I was leaving."
"But, she said it was something entirely different. Why did she lie?"
"Maybe because she didn't want to think about the real fortune and what it might mean."
"The road not taken, sir?" Jen questioned. "But you were thinking about it, weren't you?"
"Yeah," Harm nodded, sipping his coffee.
"I noticed you were a little - distracted that night."
"I bet you notice a lot of things that no one else notices."
Jen lifted her shoulders. "It's part of my job, sir."
"One which you do very well. Have I said lately how much I appreciate your being here? I don't know what I would have done this last year without you. Helping Mac get Mattie back and forth to her therapy sessions, spending time with Mattie so that she didn't feel alone and cut off -"
"Mattie's a friend. She's like a little sister. I did it because I wanted to."
"I know. And you're a good friend to me as well." His gaze returned to the scene outside of the window, and Jen watched him, seeing the sadness on his face.
"Is everything okay, Captain?" she asked at last. "You seem - upset about something. And I couldn't help but notice that Col. Mackenzie - Mrs. Rabb -"
"It's just a rough patch," Harm said, smiling slightly as Jen stumbled over the names. "She's still getting used to being a civilian and the CO's wife instead of a Marine."
"There hasn't been any word about a possible billet for her here in London that would make it possible for her to restore her commission?"
Harm shook his head. "General Cresswell's been looking, but so far, there's nothing that she's qualified to do. The Military Attaché at the Embassy is only a few years from retirement and requested that he be allowed to remain in that billet until then. That would have been Mac's best shot."
"And she can't practice law here."
"Not without some courses and time. It's a little more complicated than what we're used to. She doesn't really want to get that started and then have to stop if the General finds something for her. And there are - other pressures that she's not handling very well at the moment. But once she gets through them, I'm sure things will be fine."
"I hope you're right, sir," Jen said, glancing at the grandfather clock that sat near the door into her office. "You have a meeting scheduled with Cmdr. Roberts in ten minutes, Captain."
"I know. Thanks."
"For what, sir?"
"For being here. For being a good friend."
"Anytime, sir," she assured him.
"Send Bud in when he arrives, please."
"I will, sir."
Back in her office, Jen waited until Lt. Cmdr. Roberts arrived for his meeting and went into the office before she picked up the telephone and dialed the number for the Rabb house. Located in Daws Hill, not too far from the US Navy "base" in West Ruislip, it was a nice bungalow-type house, with three bedrooms, one of which Harm had converted into a study until they found a larger place or the bedroom was needed for something else.
She was relieved when Mattie answered the phone instead of Mac. "Hey, Mattie," she said.
"Jen. To what do I owe this call?"
"Just thinking about you. How's it going?"
"I just got home from my therapy session," Mattie said. "I'm hurting. Big time."
"That's good, isn't it? Didn't Ms. Gresham say that pain meant you were getting better?"
"I think she just likes to hurt people so she says that," Mattie grumbled. "But I did spend some time on the bars today."
"Good for you! You'll be walking before you know it." While Mattie had regained use of her upper body quickly, the use of her legs was taking much too long for Mattie's liking.
"I hope so. I know everyone's worried about me. And Harm and Mac don't need anything else to worry about right now."
"What do you mean?" Jen asked; glad to take the opening that her friend had given. "Are they worried about something else?"
"I think Mac's feeling a little left out," Mattie said. "And I'm not sure, but I think they've been trying to have a baby, and it hasn't happened yet, so she's feeling down about that, too." She lowered her voice. "In fact, I think Harm's been sleeping in the study for the last few nights. I don't know that for sure, but the cushions on the sleeper sofa in the study have been a little out of place."
Jen felt a little guilty, hearing that bit of news. That would explain a lot, she thought. And combined with the fact that the longer it took for Gen. Cresswell to find Mac a billet so she could resume her career, the more likely it was that it wasn't going to happen at all, Jen had no doubt that Mac was feeling boxed in and a little useless.
"Is she there right now, Mattie?"
"Mac? Yeah. She brought me home from the therapy session. You need to talk to her?"
"Just a sec." She heard Mattie put the phone down and call out for Mac.
A moment later, Mac's voice came over the line. "Hello, Jen."
"I didn't get a chance to mention it when you were here, ma'am, but it's almost time to start planning the staff Fourth of July get-together and I know I did it all last year, but that was because I had more time, and you were still getting settled. I'm a lot busier this year and I'm not sure that I'll have the time, and it would really be a help to me if -"
"You want me to plan to it?"
"Well, it's always been the unit CO's wife who planned it before last year, and since that's you -"
"Okay, Jen. Why don't we have lunch tomorrow and we'll go over the details?"
"That'll be fine, ma'am. 1200 hours?"
"I'll meet you at that little place down the street from the office."
"I'll be there," Jen assured her, hanging up.
Maybe getting Mac more involved in the unit activities, helping her get to know some of the personnel would help her make a smoother transition - and hopefully put a smile back onto Capt. Rabb's handsome face.
Jennifer Coates had long ago admitted to herself that she was totally in love with Harmon Rabb, Jr., but she had also been forced to admit that nothing would ever come of it. He was an officer, she was enlisted, and Harm was too good an officer to ever break regs for an enlisted female. And then there had been Mac to consider. Ever since that first Christmas, she'd known that Harm and Mac were fated to be together. But that hadn't stopped Jen from fantasizing about him, especially during that time when she had been sharing an apartment with Mattie and spending so much time with the two of them.
In her mind, they had been a nice little family - even if she believed that Harm saw her more as a little sister than an attractive woman. So Jen had made it her life's work to make sure he was happy - even if that meant he was happy with another woman. She was content just to be around him and a part of his life in whatever capacity. It was the reason she had asked to accompany him here to London when he'd received his promotion and transfer.
Inside Harm's office, the two men were finishing up their business when Harm asked, "Has Harriet gotten settled in, Bud?"
Bud grinned. "Definitely. She's been volunteering at the base day care three days a week and seems to enjoy it."
"No regrets about leaving DC and moving across the ocean with the kids?"
"Not that she's mentioned. I know she was reluctant at first, but she seems really happy to be here. She *loves* the base house in Daws Hill, and it's close to your place, which makes it better. On the days she's not working, she's been touring the area, finding places to take the kids when they're a little older. Between that and getting Little AJ into the American school, she's pretty busy. I think it's probably a good thing that she has the kids to keep her busy, though. If she didn't, she might be like -" Bud's voice trailed off as though he wasn't sure if he should say more.
"Like Mac?" Harm finished for him.
"Don't apologize, Bud. Has Harriet mentioned anything to you about what Mac might have told her? I know they talk and have lunch at least once a week."
"Not for the last couple of weeks," Bud corrected, and Harm frowned. "Harriet said that Mac's been calling off, saying she had other things she needed to take care of."
Harm knew that Mac was avoiding Harriet because she was jealous of their friend's large family. A family that it was beginning more and more to look as though Mac would never have.
"She just needs more time, Harm," Bud said at last, breaking the silence. "It's a big adjustment to make, not being in the Marines anymore."
Harm rose from his chair and went to the window, realizing that he'd been spending a lot of time there lately. "If it was just that, Bud, then maybe we could find a way to handle it. But it's more."
"More?" Bud questioned, his tone uncertain, and Harm smiled and shook his head, deciding to change the subject.
"Never mind. Have you looked at the list of new attorneys we're getting?"
"Not yet. I was going to go over it this afternoon -"
Harm returned to his desk and picked up a piece of paper, holding it out for Bud to read. "Here. Check out the fourth name from the bottom."
Bud scanned the names, coming to the one Harm had pointed out, and then he grinned. "Tiner?"
"Lt. (j.g.) Jason Tiner," Harm nodded.
"Hail, hail the gang's all here," was Bud's comment, and Harm laughed for the first time in some time.
Jen entered Harm's office as he was putting things into his briefcase to go home. He had already changed out of his uniform, and had it in a garment bag to take home. "You have plans for the evening, Coates?" he asked.
"No, sir. Just studying."
"You need to get out more."
"I will, sir. As soon as Mattie's on her feet again. We've promised each other that we'll see all the sights together."
Harm picked up some papers, and one of them fell to the floor. Before he could grab for it, Jen bent and retrieved it, noticing it was a pamphlet with advice on fertility problems. "Here, sir," she said, handing it to him without comment.
Taking the booklet from her, Harm's eyes met hers. "It's for Mac," he said, stuffing it into his briefcase, and Jen noticed that his ears were a tad pink.
"I understand, sir," Jen assured him in a quiet, calm tone meant to reassure him. "It must be difficult, wanting something so much and not being able to have it."
"That part remains to be seen - if Mac is willing to try."
"Good luck, Captain."
He stopped as he fastened his briefcase and looked at her. "Thank you."
Jen watched him leave the office, watched from the window as he left the building and walked down the street. With a deep sigh, Jen set about straightening his desk, getting things ready for the next day before going out to her office, turning off the computer and forwarding the telephone to her cell for any emergencies that might come up.
Turning off the lights, she went to the ladies room and changed out of her uniform and into civvies before she left the office to the cleaning crew that was due in later in the evening. Signing out with the Marine guard downstairs, Jen turned her steps toward the apartment she shared with three other girls to spend her evening studying, as she'd told Harm she was going to do.
Harm entered the house and put his briefcase on the table in the entry hall. Going into the living room, he found Mattie sitting in her motorized chair at the table, working with her laptop. "Doing your lessons?" he asked, moving over to give her a kiss on the head. Mattie had been enrolled in the school for the children of American military and diplomatic employees - and even with her having missed so much school, the tutor they had found had helped her to catch up quickly with the others. She was excelling in Math - something she'd had trouble with before the accident.
"Yes. I missed a couple of hours because of therapy today." She rolled back from the table. "See what I can do?"
Harm stopped and watched as she removed the blanket that was covering her legs, revealing her bare feet. Very slowly, she moved the toes on both feet and then flexed her feet at the ankles.
"Way to go!" he said, kneeling to give her a hug. "You'll be walking by Christmas."
"Thanksgiving," she corrected. "If not sooner. I was thinking, since I'm doing better - and the weather this weekend is supposed to be nice - maybe we could go flying? If you can get the plane from that guy again?"
Harm had been surprised when Mattie had suggested on her own that they go up when she realized that there was an 'Aerodrome' not very far away from them. Harm had found her sitting in the garden when he had come home one day, watching an airplane swooping and looping through the sky, a familiar expression on her face. Mac had confirmed that Mattie had taken to spending much of her time outdoors to enjoy the view while doing her lessons - and that more than once she'd found her watching airplanes.
He had been relieved that she hadn't somehow held him responsible for her decision to fly to begin with. Of course, Mattie had reminded him that she had been working around aircraft when they first met -- and would probably have taken lessons anyway even without him in her life.
After making some inquiries, Harm had gotten clearance to fly private aircraft and a new-found friend with a Stearman similar to 'Sarah' had offered him the use of it. After carefully placing Mattie into the cockpit, Harm had almost backed out when he'd seen the quickly hidden panic in her eyes. But she had insisted on pressing on, and they had flown for over an hour. When they had landed, Harm had seen a return of the light in Mattie's eyes, and a determination that she *would* walk again - and get her license.
Delighted that Mattie seemed to have recovered from the accident mentally if not physically, Harm laughed. "We'll see what I can do." He looked around. "Where's Mac?"
"She's on the phone in the study, I think. Supper's almost ready."
"I'll go let her know I'm home," Harm said, picking up his briefcase from the hallway on his way to the converted bedroom/study - that had recently been used as a bedroom again, mostly due to Mac's coolness toward him of late.
She was just hanging up the phone when he entered the room, and he thought for a moment that she looked guilty about something before dismissing it when she came to give him a kiss on the cheek. "I thought I heard you come in."
"Managed to secure a little early today. I have some reports I need to go over this evening, but it shouldn't take too long to get through them. And -" he put his briefcase on the desk and opened it to pull out the pamphlet that he'd dropped earlier, "I picked this up during lunch today - I thought we might talk about it this evening," he moved behind Mac as she looked at the pamphlet and wrapped his arms around her waist, "after Mattie's in bed."
Mac moved away from him, putting the paper onto the desk. "I have to finish supper, Harm. Excuse me. Why don't you go take a shower?"
Harm stood there after she was gone, shaking his head in disbelief. This wasn't the first time he'd brought something in, something that could possibly help them to achieve what they both wanted - a child of their own, but Mac always managed to dodge the conversation. She had shut down again, refusing to let him in just as she had after the Admiral's Dining Out. And just as he had done to her after Mattie's accident. It was the one thing that neither of them seemed able to do with any success: break that old habit.
Unbuttoning his shirt, he moved out if the study and into the master bedroom and it's attached bath, where he turned on the shower and finished undressing. Tonight - tonight he wasn't going to let her escape so easily. They *had* to discuss this, get it out into the open and start moving forward again.
But after he helped Mattie into her bed and said goodnight, he returned to the living room to find it empty. Going to the bedroom, he found it dark - and Mac already in bed. "Mac?" he called softly, moving across to sit on the edge of the bed. Putting a hand on her shoulder, he said her name again.
"I'm tired, Harm," she murmured. "It was a long day and I have another one tomorrow. I'm meeting Jen for lunch to discuss the JAG 4th of July gathering. That means I'll have a lot to get done before lunch."
"I thought we were going to talk?" he said.
"Maybe tomorrow," was her answer.
"Then we don't *have* to talk," Harm said, bending to kiss her bare shoulder, sliding the strap of her nightgown over it. "We could - do something else."
She shrugged away from him, and Harm felt a cold chill run down his spine. "Not tonight. I'm not up to it."
He didn't push. He *never* pushed. It wasn't in his nature to force the issue - especially about this. Instead, he backed away with a sigh, grabbing his robe from the back of the bathroom door before going back to the study again, where he pulled out the sleeper sofa, taking his frustration out on the inanimate piece of furniture as he tossed the pillows across the room.
They couldn't go on like this. Something had to break. Tomorrow, he'd call Gen. Cresswell again, see if there was *anything* in the London area of operation that Mac could do as a Marine. As he sank tiredly onto the bed, his eyes fell on the pamphlet again, and he recalled the words he'd said to Bud. If her not being a Marine anymore was the only problem, he could handle it easily. As for the rest - without Mac's cooperation, there wasn't much he could do about that. But getting her back into the Marines would be a start, he told himself, and then maybe she'd be more open to his suggestions about starting a family.
On that thought, Harm drifted into a restless sleep on the too-short hide-a-bed mattress.
Mac was already gone when Harm woke up the next morning. She'd told Mattie that she had some 'things' to take care of in town and would talk to him later, leaving Harm to get Mattie to school before continuing to the office.
Jen was already at her desk when he entered the office, and after giving him a cheery "Good morning, sir," she followed him into his own office with a hot cup of coffee, then quickly and efficiently filled him in on the day's schedule, which she had typed and placed on his desk before his arrival.
Once that was done, Harm expected her to return to her office and picked up his cup again, only to stop and look up to find her watching him. "Something else, Petty Officer?"
"You look tired, sir," she said, and then looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be making personal observations, sir."
"That's okay," Harm said, trying to smile. "Besides, you're right. I am tired. Mac mentioned that you and she were having lunch today?"
"Yes, sir. To discuss the early planning for the staff get-together on July 4th. I know I did it last year, but from what I've heard, it's traditionally done by the CO's wife."
"And what if the CO wasn't married?" Harm wanted to know.
"Then his XO's wife took care of it," she admitted. "But I thought it might help give the Colonel - Mrs. Rabb something to keep her mind busy. I hope that I haven't stepped out of line."
"Not at all. You might be right. Mac has been at - a loose end lately. She's having a little trouble adjusting to being a civilian, among other things."
"That's understandable. She was a Marine for a long time. It's a big change for her."
"Yeah," Harm agreed, but didn't add, *one I still hope she can make*. "Thanks again, Coates. Send Bud in, please?"
"Right away, Captain."
Jen saw Mac the moment that she entered the small tea room, and waved before making her way over to the table where she was already seated. "I'm sorry I'm late, ma'am," she apologized. "But there was a last minute call at the office and I had trouble getting away."
"I understand," Mac assured her. "Sit down," she invited, and Jen complied, spending the next several minutes ordering drink and food from the young waitress.
"What exactly does this get-together entail, Jen?" Mac wanted to know.
"It's usually a picnic at the base," Jen told her. "The staff and their families get together and spend time together. Play baseball, cookout - there are games for the kids and -"
"Baseball? Not soccer?" Mac questioned.
"Some of the kids play from what I understand. But some things don't change, ma'am," Jen clarified. "Even if we're not in the US, we're still Americans, and baseball is as much a part of July 4 as fireworks. Speaking of fireworks," I've already filled out the paperwork for the permit we'll need for them," Jen said, reaching into the pocket of her coat to pull out some papers. "Here are the notes I made for last year, as well."
"You're still as organized as ever, Jen," Mac noted, glancing over the papers while the waitress brought Jen's drink and refilled Mac's. Once they were alone at the table again, Mac put the papers down and looked at Jen. "Why are you really asking me to do this, Jen?" she asked.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am?"
"I'm not in the Marines anymore, Jen. I think you can call me Mac."
"I'm not sure that would proper, and besides, I still think of you as a Marine. I'm sure that General Cresswell will find something locally for you to do so you can reclaim your commission, ma'am."
"Am I that transparent," Mac wondered aloud.
"Only to those who care about you," was Jen's answer.
"Like Harm and Mattie?"
"Yes, ma'am. Neither of them have really *said* anything, but I can sense that the Captain's not very happy, and Mattie worries."
Mac looked thoughtful for a moment before giving Jen a smile. "We'll just have to hope that the General comes through quickly, won't we? And then we'll all be happy again." She picked up the papers. "Now, how many people are we talking about here?"
Harm had deliberately waited until Jen and everyone else left for lunch before placing the overseas call to Falls Church. It was 0830 there, the day was just beginning, but Sgt. Tom Gordon, the General's new aide, answered the telephone with his usual Marine efficiency and within moments Harm heard Cresswell's voice on the line.
"This is a surprise, Captain," he said. "I hope you're not calling with bad news."
"Not at all, General. Things couldn't be better here. I'm - calling about a - personal matter, sir."
"A personal matter? What is it?"
"I was hoping that you might be onto something that would allow Mac to return to the Corps, sir."
"I take it that she's not adjusting well to being a civilian - or a Navy wife?"
"Either, sir. The hoops she would have to jump through here to practice law are a little overwhelming, not to mention frustrating. I just want her to be happy, General."
"As I've explained already, Harm, there's nothing that I could slip her into without pulling some major strings - and while I *could* put her in your office as my personal JAG liaison, reporting directly to me, I'm not sure that's a good idea, either. The regs regarding a husband and wife working in the same command are there for a reason."
"I understand, sir."
"I'll see what I can do about finding her something. We can't have Mac unhappy, now, can we?"
"No, sir. I'd prefer the opposite, to be honest."
"I hope so," Cresswell said in a rather cryptic tone. "I have another call, Captain. I'll be in touch."
"Thank you, sir." Harm hung up the phone and took a deep breath. He'd done what he could. It was out of his hands now. What he *really* needed was to find a way to get Mac to talk about their options. She had refused outright to consider adopting a child, insisting that she wanted to know what it felt like to bear a child, to give birth to a child. She had claimed that while she loved Mattie as though the girl were her own, Mac had also said that it was important to her in a way that Harm, as a man, simply couldn't hope to understand.
That had been the first night he'd slept in the study. And he'd been there every night since. Sitting back I his chair, Harm closed his eyes, intending to get a little rest. The hide a bed wasn't nearly as big as the one he shared with Mac - and he could never get comfortable on it. He'd catch a few z's now, and he'd be good to go for the rest of the day . . .
Jen returned from lunch, and after changing back into her uniform, noticed that the Captain's office door was closed - unusual for him during the day unless he was in a meeting or on the phone. The light under his extension wasn't lit, so that told her that he wasn't on the phone. She double checked his schedule -- the next meeting on it was in another half hour with someone from the PM's office.
Picking up the agenda for that meeting, she tapped once on the door, and when there wasn't a response, slowly opened it and peered into the dark-paneled room. The lamp on the desk revealed Capt. Rabb leaning back in his chair, head to one side, his eyes closed. Moving farther into the room, Jen hesitated as she closed the door again and stepped toward the desk.
"Captain?" she said quietly. Moving closer, she smiled as she heard the soft snoring. Still uncertain, Jen moved around the desk and touched his shoulder. "Capt. Rabb."
Harm's hand moved up to grasp hers, holding it. "Just another minute, Mac," he muttered, bringing her hand down to his chest and covering it with his, turning his head into her arm.
"Sir," Jen said, trying to gently disentangle herself from his grasp, knowing that he would be very embarrassed if he were to wake up and discover what he was doing.
"Sir, please!" She felt the sudden tension in his hand and shoulder before she found herself free of his hold and backed away, trying to maintain as professional an air as she could.
"Jen," he said, sitting up and obviously trying to ignore the incident as well, even the fact that he'd used her given name instead of the more formal "Coates".
"You were - sleeping, sir," she explained quickly. "When I called your name, you didn't respond, so I thought I'd shake your shoulder."
"Thank you. I haven't been sleeping well."
"That's understandable, sir," Jen said. "You have a lot on your mind. I brought in the agenda for the meeting with Sir Hilary," she told him, placing the folder on his desk. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Thank you. I've been saying that to you a lot lately, haven't I?"
"I don't mind, sir," she assured him, picking up his empty cup. "I'll be right back with the coffee."
One he was alone again, Harm ran a hand over his face and rose from his chair, heading toward the small bath off his office that he used as a changing room. It was more of a glorified coat closet with a wash basin and toilet. He turned on the cold water and ran some into his hands, splashing it onto his face before grabbing the towel that hung nearby. Deliberating avoiding his reflection in the mirror, he turned back to his office just as Jen returned with the cup of hot coffee, which she placed on his desk in its usual place. "Thank you -" he said, and then stopped, grinning.
"Admiral Chegwidden once told me to stop thanking everyone, sir," Jen told him. "I don't expect your thanks. I'm just doing my job."
Harm sipped his coffee, letting the caffeine jump-start his system. "I think it could be considered above and beyond to wake up your CO from a cat-nap, Petty Officer."
"As I said, sir, just doing my job."
"How was your lunch with Mac?" he asked, pretending an interest in the papers regarding Sir Hilary Graham's appointment.
"Very productive, sir." Before either of them could say anything more, the telephone rang in Jen's office, and she backed toward the door. "I'll send Sir Hilary in when he arrives, Captain."
Harm nodded, still unable to totally look at her after having woken up with her hand in his held against his chest, and his head resting against her arm. He'd never thought of Jennifer Coates as anything other than an efficient Petty Officer and little sister, especially during those months when she lived next door to him with Mattie. And thinking of her as anything more than that now was unthinkable. It would be too easy to fall into something he shouldn't even consider, and it would add to his already full basket of problems.
And the idea of losing her as his yeoman because of a slip - or even the hint of anything untoward - was *really* something that he didn't want to think about.
"You need to take some time off, Rabb," he muttered, and realized that he'd said it aloud. "Great. Now you're talking to yourself." Groaning, Harm rested his head in his hands before Jen's voice came over the intercom, informing him that Sir Hilary had arrived for their meeting. Taking a deep breath, Harm cleared his mind of his problems, and told her to send him in.
When Harm got home that evening, he remembered that Mattie had arranged to the spend the night with a friend after going a movie near the base - a major step for her, considering that she had refused to go out when she and Mac had first arrived in London, because she didn't like being stared at because she was, in her words, "a freak in a wheelchair". But they had found a small, lightweight motorized chair for her instead of a bulky one, and she had slowly begun to make friends, mostly having them spend the night with her, however.
But this one's mother was a nurse and Mattie felt comfortable around the family, so she had asked for permission to spend the night with Carrie, which left Harm and Mac alone in the house for the first time since their marriage.
Feeling less inhibited by the fear of arguing in front of Mattie, Harm pulled the pamphlets out of his desk and took them into the living room, where Mac was watching something on the TV. As the program ended, Harm picked up the remote and turned off the set, causing Mac to look up at him with surprise.
"Why did you do that?" she wanted to know.
"Because I think we should take this opportunity to talk."
"Talk? About what?" she asked, rising from the sofa and moving toward the kitchen, where she got a bottle of water from the fridge.
Harm, determined not to let her put this off again, followed her, holding out the pamphlets. "This, for a start."
"Harm - I think we've said everything that *can* be said. It's just not meant to be."
"You don't know that, Mac," he insisted, refusing to her pass him in the small room to get to the door. "We haven't tried all the options."
"I told you, I don't want to adopt. Or use a surrogate -"
"Okay, fine. So there's still in vitro."
Mac turned away from him toward the counter, and he saw her shoulders lift and fall. "It won't do any good," she said in a quiet voice.
"It's not like you to dismiss something without checking all the options, Mac," Harm insisted. "What happened to that kick-ass Marine I fell in love with? The one who said 'never give up'?"
"She stopped being a Marine a year ago," Mac replied, turning to look at him. "And she went to see some fertility specialists when she arrived in London."
Harm frowned. "I didn't know about -"
"Because I didn't want you to know. I didn't want you hovering around, worrying, asking questions that I didn't have answers to."
"And now you have the answers?"
She finally turned to look at him, and the tears in her eyes tore at Harm's heart. "My doctor at Bethesda said that I had less than a 4% chance of having a child --- the doctors here say it's closer to zero. The endo is under control, but the damage was too severe - and even if I *did* manage to beat the odds and become pregnant, the chances of my being able to carry to term were less than 2%."
Harm reached out to cup her cheek in his hand, rubbing away the moisture with his thumb. "And you're not willing to take the chance?"
"No. I can't. I'm sorry, Harm, I can't -" without warning, she pushed past him, surprising him so that she could escape the room, leaving Harm standing in the middle of the kitchen, stunned by what she'd told him.
Suddenly he turned and followed Mac out of the room, hearing the bedroom door close before he reached it, and the sound of the lock being set as he grabbed the doorknob. "Mac, let me in," he said in a quiet voice.
"Harm, I can't talk about this right now."
He rested his forehead against the door, knowing that he'd gone as far as he could. "Okay. Let me know when you're ready. You know where to find me." Drawing a deep breath, he released it slowly before turning toward the study. Maybe doing some of the paperwork that he had planned on *not* doing tonight would help him get tired enough to sleep.
He was still working on a report that was due on Monday when he looked up to see Mac standing in the door. Surprised, he waited for her to talk first, just in case he'd misunderstood her coming to him.
"I think you should know that I've been in touch with General Cresswell, asking him to find me an assignment away from London, Harm."
"Away from - Mac," he said, standing up and moving around the desk, only to stop when she put out a hand as if to stop him. "Mac, you can't do this. What about Mattie? What about us?"
"Mattie will survive. She'll still have you. And even as close as she and I have gotten, you're still the one she *needs* and depends on. Not me."
"That's not true -"
"Yes," she said, more loudly than she might have planned, since she took a deep breath before continuing. "Yes, it is. Harm, I've spent my entire adult life measuring my success as a Marine. Without, that, I don't know who I am."
"You're the woman I love," he told her, reaching out a hand to her.
"And I thought that would be enough," she replied.
"But it's not?"
"Then I'll resign my commission," Harm decided. "Mattie and I can follow you wherever you're posted -"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "Don't you see? I don't *want* you to give up your career. And I *need* mine. I don't want to risk your feeling this way about things in a year, two. Mattie's getting better. She'll leave for college - or the Academy in another couple of years. And then there won't be anything left to hold us together."
"We'll have each other," Harm insisted.
"Is that really enough for you, Harm? I've tried being a good little Navy wife. Tried living in your shadow, Harm. I can't do it. You have no idea how big that shadow of yours is, Harm. Maybe, if we hadn't waited too long -if we'd been able to have a baby together as we planned, then things would be different. But maybe it's better that we couldn't. I'm not sure that I'm cut out to be the 'little woman' for anyone. Not Mic, not Clay. Not you. Even as much as I love you, I can't submerge myself that much anymore."
"I'm not asking you to submerge yourself or to live in my shadow, Mac. I'll do whatever I have to for this to work."
"I know. But would it really make both of us happy, Harm?" she asked. "Can you honestly say that you've been happy these last few months?"
"No, I can't," Harm replied honestly. "But only because I've known how unhappy you've been. I'll be fine out of the Navy, Mac-"
"But you shouldn't *have* to be. I won't run the risk of destroying what little we have left by letting you give up your career for me again, Harm. I'd like to salvage our friendship, at least." When Harm made a move toward her again, Mac backed away. "I need to learn how to take care of myself, Harm. Without a safety net. You were always that safety net for me. Always there -"
"Not always," he corrected, recalling a couple of times when he'd let her down.
"Most of the time you were. I - release you from your promises, Harm. The promise to have a baby together - the promise to always be there for me. I need to work without the net, and the only way I can do that is away from you."
"Mac, I love you -"
"I know. I love you, too. And I hope that one day you'll find someone else to love. Someone who can give you what you need as well as what you want."
Harm knew that pushing her wasn't going to do any good. He wanted Mac to be happy. And if this was the only way she believed that could happen, then so be it. He wouldn't fight her on it. Tamping down the flare of anger at her making this decision without even consulting him, he said, "What happens now?"
"The General's agreed to let me go back to Falls Church until he can find a more permanent assignment for me. I'm due there next week. Whatever paperwork you need me to sign, I'll sign it. I want to make this as painless as possible. For both of us."
He nodded, but still felt he had to say, "There's no need to rush into anything -"
"Yes. There is. I don't want another marriage that I 'forgot' to legally end, Harm. I've gone down that path before. You need to be free. For your sake and Mattie's."
"What about Mattie?" he asked.
"I thought we could tell her together. When she gets home tomorrow. I know she's going to be upset -"
"That's an understatement. With everything else that's happened in her life over the last few years, this kind of upheaval --"
"I know. And I fell guilty as hell about it. But I have to do this for my own sanity, Harm. I can't keep living this way. Knowing that one day - whether you want to admit it or not - you'll resent me for not being able to give you the family that you always wanted."
"I wouldn't ever -"
"I can't risk it, Harm. I'd rather leave with us being close to friends than end up hating each other." She looked down at her left hand and slowly removed her wedding and engagement rings, placing them on the desk. "You once told me that you'd never feel about anyone else the way you feel about me. I hope you were wrong about that - and that you find someone someday." Having said that, she turned around and left the room.
Harm picked up the rings, closing his fingers around them, and closed his eyes, fighting the pain that struck him squarely in the chest, icy fingers curling around his heart just as his had curled around those rings.
By the time Mattie returned home the next afternoon, Harm had resigned himself to Mac leaving. And he'd promised himself that he would be there for Mattie, that he would help her get through this upheaval as best he could. Mac's suitcases were already packed, and she had made reservations for a flight out of Heathrow to Washington National for that evening. Mac had spent part of the morning at Bud and Harriet's, telling them about her plans and assuring them that she was going to remain a part of their children's lives if at all possible. When she returned, they set about making the decisions necessary for ending the marriage, and were at the kitchen table when they both heard the car pull up outside of the bungalow. They looked at each other for a long moment before Harm moved, going to the front door to open it for the girl, who looked happier and more carefree than he'd seen her in a long time. For a moment, he considered not telling Mattie - trying once again to talk Mac out of her decision.
Mattie rattled on about the movie they had gone to see, and about how when they were at Carrie's, her older brother Glen had come in and had actually *flirted* with her, asking her to go out with him.
"And what did you tell him?" Harm wanted to know.
"That I had to discuss it with you and Mac, of course. He's a good guy, Harm. And *handsome*!"
"Well, that's a good enough recommendation for me," Harm said, laughing at her exaggerated speech.
"Mattie, there's something that Harm and I need to talk to you about," Mac began, and Harm's laughter stilled, his attention wholly focused on his ward's face as she looked from him to Mac.
"This sounds serious," Mattie noted. "I know my grades haven't been the best, but -"
"Your grades are fine," Harm said in a quiet voice, placing his hand on Mattie's shoulder. "It's something else." He moved to sit on the arm of a nearby chair so that they would be at the same level.
"I'm getting scared now," Mattie said. "Has something happened to Dad?"
"No. I haven't heard from Tom," Harm assured her, pleased that she was beginning to show some sign of concern for her father. "But I'm sure he's fine."
Mac sat down nearby as well, and took Mattie's hand in hers. "Mattie, I'm sure you've noticed the last few weeks that Harm and I haven't been getting along -"
"You're just going through a rough patch," Mattie said. "My folks did that a lot -"
"Sometimes, rough patches can't be 'gotten through', though," Mac said, glancing at Harm. "No matter how much we wish they could."
"So - what are you saying?" Mattie asked. "You're not - separating or anything, are you?"
"I'm going back into the Marines, Mattie," Mac explained.
"That's great! Where will you be stationed?"
"At JAG Headquarters until they can find another place for me," Mac told her.
"Back in Falls Church? You're moving back to - That's more than a separation."
Seeing that Harm wasn't going to help, Mac said, "We tried, Mattie, but sometimes even best friends can't make it work."
"I don't understand why you can't work here. If you leave London, how are you and Harm going to work things out?"
"We won't," Harm answered. He looked at Mac before continuing. "We're getting a divorce."
"No! This is my fault isn't it?" Mattie questioned, tears in her eyes.
"Your fault? No!" Harm insisted, as Mac spoke at the same time.
"Of course it's not your fault, Mattie."
"If I hadn't been here, then you two would have been able to handle things without having to worry about me. I should have stayed with my dad - or let them put me into a foster home - or died in that accident - so I couldn't screw up your lives!" she declared, putting her hand on the control for the chair, clearly intending to roll away from them.
But Harm wasn't going to let her go that easily. He couldn't stop Mac, but he would be damned if he was going to let Mattie think that any of this was her fault. "Hold on, Mattie. *None* of this is your fault. Mac and I just couldn't make it work. It wouldn't have mattered who was here. Things just didn't work out. It's no one's fault."
"Talk to her, Harm," Mattie said, tears rolling down her face. "Make her stay."
From where he was kneeling beside Mattie's chair, Harm looked over at Mac before answering. "I've tried, Mattie. I can't stop her if this is what she wants to do. She wouldn't be happy. And that's what's important. That she be happy."
"Is this because you haven't gotten pregnant?" Mattie asked Mac, and Harm almost winced at the look of pain that crossed Mac's face.
"Mattie -" he began, hoping to divert her, but Mac spoke quietly.
"It's okay, Harm. She has a right to know. That is part of it, Mattie. I found out a couple of years ago that I have something called endometriosis -"
"I know about it," Mattie said. "One of my aunts had it. But she had a baby -"
"Probably because she was lucky and they caught it in time. I wasn't. I hoped things would change, that I'd be able to get pregnant and have a child, but - it just wasn't to be."
"You could adopt -" Mattie suggested, and looked up at Harm when he squeezed her hand gently in warning. "I guess that's not the same, though, is it? I mean, you didn't get much of a bargain when you got me -"
"Oh, Mattie. I think you're been one of the best things that ever happened to Harm. And I could never regret the time we've spent getting to know each other, becoming friends. But I want - I *needed* to have a child of my own. To feel it inside of me - I know it probably sounds silly, but -"
"No. It doesn't. But that still doesn't mean you should give up on Harm. He needs you. We both need you."
"I wish I could stay, Mattie. But I can't. I don't expect you to understand, but don't hate me for it, please."
"I *don't* understand," Mattie declared. "And I can't accept it." She pushed Harm's off of hers and rolled the chair back, away from them. "And I can't accept that Harm would just let you go like this." She turned the chair around and took it down the hallway to her room, leaving Harm and Mac standing there, staring down the now empty hallway.
"I should go talk to her," Mac said, starting in that direction. But Harm put a hand on her arm.
"No. She needs some time. Call her in a few days, once you're settled. You can talk to her then." He didn't say what he was thinking, that Mattie was no longer Mac's responsibility; that it was up to him to deal with this. "You'll miss your flight if you're not careful. Although I wouldn't mind if you did."
"My taxi should be here any minute."
He nodded. "I'll go get your suitcases."
As he went to the bedroom, he heard Mac knock on Mattie's door. "Mattie, I have to go. I'll call you as soon as I can." The soft sound of sobbing was the only response. "Bye."
Harm met Mac's eyes and saw the pain in them - along with what he hoped might be doubt at what she was doing. A taxi blew its horn, signaling its arrival. "Your ride's here," he told her.
Mac nodded slowly and turned away from Mattie's door, leading the way outside, one of the smaller cases in her hand. As the driver began putting her cases into the car, Harm touched Mac's arm, and she looked up at him. He decided to make one last try at changing her mind, and pulled her close, pressing his lips to hers. He could feel her body's response to him, and lifted his head to look into her eyes as he said, "Stay, Mac. Please. We - *I* need you."
Harm felt her physical withdrawal even before she closed her eyes to gather herself. "I'm sorry, Harm. I can't. Keep in touch?"
"You know I will," he said, knowing that they probably wouldn't talk again for awhile. The pain was still too new, the wound too fresh. "Maybe the General will have to send you over here for a case -"
She nodded sharply and drew a quick breath. "Take care of yourself. And Mattie."
"I will. You take care of yourself, Marine."
"I'll try." She stepped away and got into the car, leaving Harm to close the door and nod to the driver. He stayed at the curb, watching the car disappear down the road. As he did so, he remembered something his grandmother had once told him.
A bedraggled cat had appeared on her doorstep one rainy night, and Harm had taken it in, dried it, fed it, and at twelve years old had been devastated when it had wanted to go back outside. He'd been afraid to let it go, sure that, like his dad, he'd never see it again.
But Grandma Sarah had smiled at him and said, "Do you think that cat will be happy, cooped up here in this house after having been living out in the open all this time, Harmon?" Harm had replied, no, he doubted the cat would like it much. "You want him to be happy, don't you?" Harm had nodded, petting the cat as it stared at the back door, struggling against his hold. "Then you have to let him go. If he's supposed to be here, then he'll come back." Very slowly, Harm had walked over to the back door and released the yellow cat, watching as it ran off of the porch and into the darkness beyond.
Two years later, when he'd been visiting his grandmother again, a yellow tomcat had appeared on the doorstep, purring and meowing for food. He'd stayed at the farm until he died several years later. While Grandma Sarah had never been convinced that it was the same cat, Harm had been certain of it - and it had made him that much more determined to go with Col. Stryker to look for his father. If the cat had come back, then so could Harm's father --- and so would Mac.
If it was meant to be, she'd be back, he decided, turning back toward the house and Mattie.
Inside, he went into the kitchen, putting some soup on to heat before going to Mattie's door and knocking softly. "I'm making some soup, Mattie," he told her.
"I'm not hungry."
"Not eating won't bring her back," Harm told her through the door. Grasping the knob, he rattled it gently. "Unlock the door, Matts."
A moment later, he heard the lock turn, and then the door opened to reveal Mattie's tear-streaked face, her eyes red from rubbing them. "You didn't even *try* to talk her into staying," she accused.
Sighing, Harm sat down and took her hands in his. "Yes, Mattie. I did. But I know Mac well enough to know when to back off. If I'd kept pushing, it would have ended up with her leaving anyway - and leaving angry. At least this way, there's a chance she might come back some day."
"You don't think that will happen, though, do you?"
"I don't know," he answered honestly. "What I *do* know is that it's time for dinner, and I promised Mac I'd take care of you." Oh, so he hadn't promised. But if it got Mattie out of her room and to the table, the white lie would be worth it. "You wouldn't want me to break my promise to Mac, would you?"
"No," she decided, and then looked at him. "Can I have a hug?"
"Of course you can," he said, pulling her upper body into his arms, her head onto his shoulder. He felt her sigh.
"What's going to happen to us, Harm?"
"I need someone to take me to therapy, and -"
"I can do that," he told her, pulled away and handing her another tissue from the box on her bed.
"You can't leave the office that easily."
"Then we'll find someone to help out. I'll have Jen start looking around."
"Maybe Jen could do it - until we find someone else?"
"I couldn't ask her to do me a personal favor, Mattie."
"No, but I could as her friend and former roommate," Mattie informed him. "She did it before, when we lived in Washington."
"Things are different now. I'm her CO -"
Ignoring him, Mattie sniffed the air. "I think you'd better check the soup."
"Oh, h -" Harm started to say as he bolted out of the room and got to the kitchen just in time to rescue the soup from boiling over. Mattie appeared in the doorway to watch him lift the pan from the stove and put it onto the hot pad on the counter before getting two bowls from the cabinet. Mattie rolled over to take two spoons and napkins from the drawer. She carried them to the table and put them into the places that she and Harm had habitually used.
"Did Mac know about the endometriosis when you got married?" she asked when Harm brought their soup over and sat down.
"Yes. She found out just before Admiral Chegwidden retired."
"And it still took you two a year? My aunt was told that the longer she waited the less chance she had of having a baby."
"Mac wasn't ready. And I didn't want to push because of that."
"I guess I just don't understand. I know you said that it was complicated, but -"
"Tell you what - after dinner, we'll sit down and talk, okay? Right now, eat your soup before it gets cold. You want some bread?"
"Yeah," she confirmed, taking the slice from him. "Thanks."
Harm slept in the king sized bed in the master bedroom that night - for the first time in two weeks, but he didn't get anymore sleep than he had on the hide a bed. Halfway through the night, he realized that he could smell Mac on the pillows, sheets and blankets, so he got up and changed the bed --- and opened a window to get some fresh air into the room.
It still didn't help. He was wide awake. He and Mattie had spent the evening going over his and Mac's relationship over the years. He'd left out a lot of things that might cause Mattie to view Mac in a bad light, things like the fact that she'd forgotten to divorce her first husband, or that she'd had a brief affair with her CO in Okinawa. He did tell her about Sydney, however, and how he'd felt blindsided by Mac's suggestion that they get together because they weren't on the same continent. He had admitted that he'd wondered sometimes if he'd make a mistake by turning her away that night and into Mic Brumby's arms. That he'd even fantasized about what might have happened if they'd gotten married at that point - and that it had ended up basically the same way as it had today: with the two of them apart.
But in the reality, they'd parted as friends. Or so Harm hoped. There was still a part of him that was still hoping that she'd come back. That one day they'd run into each other and -
Harm punched his pillow into shape again and dropped onto it, knowing that he owed it to Mattie not to live his life on the vague hope that Mac would come back. Even if it happened, it wouldn't be soon. There were logistics that had to be taken care of, not the least of which was, as Mattie had pointed out, transport for her to and from the twice weekly physical therapy sessions that seemed to be paying off for her. Getting her back onto her feet, and back onto the path she'd been on before the accident, was Harm's only focus now.
Tomorrow, he'd call Capt. George Hoskins, RAF, and ask if they could borrow his Stearman. Maybe a day of flying would put things back into perspective for them.
It worked - until they got home and realized that Mac wasn't there waiting to hear about their day, listening with an indulgent smile as they recounted their experiences. So Harm distracted Mattie by helping her with her exercises and then her homework before helping her into bed.
Going to the study, he hesitated a moment before he picked
up the phone and dialed Jen's cell then waited for her to answer.
"Hello," she said, thinking that Mattie was calling, since she had recognized the number on her caller ID.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you, Jen."
Jen nearly dropped the phone upon hearing that voice, especially using her first name. He hadn't done that since they had come to London - unless they were in a non-military setting. "Capt. Rabb. Is everything all right?" she asked. He'd never called her at home before.
"I hope I'm not interrupting something important, Jen -"
"No, sir. Just studying. Is Mattie okay?"
"Mattie's - fine. I just wanted to let you know that I would be a few minutes late tomorrow morning, in case you need to reschedule an early appointment."
"The first thing on your calendar is the staff meeting at 0830," she recalled. "But I can move that back - how late will you be?"
"I should be there by nine. I have to make sure Mattie gets to school."
"I bet she's looking forward to the end of term," Jen said. "It's only another few days."
"Yes," he said, as though he hadn't thought of that before.
"I guess Mrs. Rabb has something else to do?"
"Something like that. I'll explain tomorrow."
"Yes, sir." Jen hung up the phone and sat staring at it for several minutes, wondering about the strangeness of his tone. He'd sounded strained and upset. Jen had a feeling that something was seriously wrong, but knew that she would just have to wait until the next day to find out what was going on.
Turning back to her studies, she resumed concentrating on the computer screen before her.