Operation: Road Not Taken
Part 2
Nancy Eddy

Disclaimers in Part 1

Over dinner, AJ told Meredith as much as he could about the diamond she had been so concerned about. "So it was technically stolen?" she asked.

"From the Navy. It was a synthetic diamond. They make them for testing and manufacturing purposes." He hesitated before continuing. "I had another stone set in the ring. I was going to give it to you that night."

"Oh, AJ," she said, looking devastated by his words. "I'm so sorry. I know things will never be the same between us, and I don't expect you to forgive me for betraying your trust the way I did -"

AJ reached across the table and took her hand in his. "What would say if I were to tell you that I'm thinking about retiring - and doing some traveling?" he asked.

"You talked about retiring before, AJ - is something wrong at the office again?"

"No," he assured her. "I'd like to have the time to do what I want to do for a change. Not to have to keep a timetable or be available for meetings. You know, I've been all the over world, but I've never really had the time to enjoy being anywhere."

"If that's what you want to do," she said, her gaze falling to their hands on the table. "You've always been so active -. You wouldn't be bored to death? "

"I wouldn't be if you were with me," he told her, and smiled when she looked up at him in surprise.


He put his other hand into his pocket and pulled it out, bringing the paperweight into view. Placing it into her hand, he closed her fingers over it as he recited, "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice."

Meredith smiled at him through the tears in her eyes. "The Merchant of Venice, Act IV Scene 1," she cited automatically. "Are you sure, AJ?"

"If you can promise me that it won't happen again, Meredith, I'll promise you that you'll never have reason to feel lonely or ignored - or unloved - ever again," AJ replied.

"Oh, yes, AJ. I can promise you that. Never again. Ever. I love you."

"And I love you," he told her, lifting a hand for the bill. "Let's go home. We need to make some plans."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Well?" Mac asked as she turned off the movie and set it to rewind. "What did you think?"

"It wasn't bad," Harm said, his arm around her shoulders. "I can see why you like it so much."

"But you didn't like it."

"I didn't say that," he told her, "I liked it." He grinned. "I bet it must have been interesting watching the restaurant scene with Chloe, though."

Mac returned the smile. "You're right."

"Do you think it can really happen?" he asked.

"What? Faking it?" Mac questioned, knowing exactly what he meant, but wanting to tease him since he was cute when he was embarrassed. During the scene, she'd noticed that his ears had turned bright red.

"I'm not questioning that, Mac," he told her. "Best friends becoming more."

"I'd like to think so," she said, watching as he moved closer.

"Think it could happen to us?"

"It's - possible," she said, leaning forward herself, meeting his lips midway. Sliding her arms around his chest, she pulled him closer, enjoying the feel of his lips on hers, his arm around her. Mac slipped her fingers beneath the fabric of his shirt, stroking the warm skin of his back.

Harm moaned at the touch of her fingers on his skin and realized that they were moving too fast again. "Mac," he said, pulling away - a task made more difficult by her fingers sliding under the waist of his jeans. He finally grasped her wrists and pulled her arms away, trapping their hands between their bodies. "Slow and easy, remember?"

"Harm," she said, her lips still moving across his throat to caress his Adam's apple, "I've been waiting for eight years. I don't want slow and easy."

He released her hands to frame her face with his hands, forcing her to look at him. It was a mistake, because her fingers began working on unfastening the buttons of his shirt. "Mac, I'm not playing games anymore. I'm ready. I just need to know that you're ready too. That you're not going to change your mind tomorrow morning."

She leaned forward again, repositioning herself so that she was straddling him on the sofa, facing him. Sliding her hands inside of his now unbuttoned shirt, she smiled as Harm drew a quick breath when her blunt cut fingernails brushed against his nipples. "I'm not going to change my mind, Harm."

"What about Clay?" he asked, hating to even bring the other man into this, but wanting all of the cards out on the table.

Mac pulled back from him, her passion dazed eyes slowly clearing. "Clay," she said in a soft voice. "Damn."

"You have to choose, Mac. Either him, or me. Once we're together - really together, I don't want to share you."

She slowly gathered herself together and got out of his lap, standing up to take the tape out of the VCR while Harm concentrated on trying to button his shirt. "You're right. I need to break it off with him first - It wouldn't be fair to either of you not to." Her eyes scanned the area around the TV. "Where's the case?" she asked, sounding frustrated.

Harm pulled the case out from the sofa cushions and stood up, taking it over to her. "Here. Mac -"

"I guess we've come full circle, haven't we? I asked once if you'd give up Renee to have me and now you're asking me to give up Clay."

He touched her face, lifting her chin. "You left before I could answer that day, you know. I said I would."

"I wasn't ready to hear it," she admitted, pressing her cheek into his palm, covering his hand with hers. "I wish you didn't have to go," she sighed. "You could - stay," she suggested, meeting his eyes. "Nothing would have to happen."

Harm's lips met hers again, gently at first, but the kiss quickly deepened, careening out of control, leaving them both breathless and frustrated. "It would happen, Mac. Without the usual barriers we've put up, it would happen," he declared, looking into her eyes. "I'll pick you up around eight tomorrow morning. We'll drive over to the house and then out to meet Mattie at the airport."

She nodded, but he could tell that she wasn't happy with his decision. "If you insist," she sighed, following him to the door.

"Thanks for dinner," he said as her arms slid up and joined behind his neck. "Tomorrow night - we'll go out."

"A real date."

"We'll talk about it tomorrow," he said, pulling her close for a quick kiss which Mac seemed determined to prolong. "Mac," he said, trying to disentangle himself from her without much success. "Sarah - please - I'm only human-"

"Then prove it!" she said, backing away from him, her eyes revealing something that worried Harm. "I'm practically throwing myself at you - I've been doing it for eight years - and that damned *control* of yours won't budge a damn inch!"

Harm stood there in the open doorway, frowning as she paced the room in an agitated manner, ranting. "Sarah -" he said again, closing the door behind him.

"Just once - *once!* - I'd like to find out what would happen if you lost that control. If you gave in and did what you wanted! Every time you shut me down that way, I feel - I feel weak because I'm *not* in control, because I want something and you're too strong to give in." She had moved to stand directly before him again, still talking. "What would it take, Harm?" she asked. "What the hell do I have to do for you to -?"

Suddenly something inside of Harm snapped and his hand shot out to slide around the back of her neck, pulling her into a kiss, his lips plundering hers. Holding her body so close to him he could feel her heart beating a double time march in time with his own, his hands moved to her hips, dragging her even closer, leaving her in no doubt about how out of control he truly was.

When he lifted his head, Harm's eyes drifted over Mac's swollen lips to her dark eyes, now half closed as she tried to recover from his onslaught. "Was that out of control enough for you, Sarah?" he asked. "Because there's more where that came from if you think you can handle it."

She smiled at him as she stepped away - just long enough to pull the sweater she was wearing over her head and drop it onto the floor - before taking his hand and leading him into the bedroom. Once there, she initiated another kiss while unbuttoning the few buttons that Harm had managed to refasten earlier. Pushing his shirt off of his shoulders, Harm let it fall to the floor, pushing Mac backward onto the bed as he did so, never breaking the kiss.

Half-lying atop of Mac's body, one leg resting between hers, Harm felt her squirm at the contact, and moved his thigh closer, smiling at the reaction it caused. Her back arched, bringing his attention to the lace covered breasts that he had fantasized about for longer than he cared to remember. "Harm," she said breathlessly, her fingers digging into the hard muscles of his back.

Harm kissed her into silence again before his lips moved down her chin, over her neck, and further still, climbing the farthest mound of flesh, tracing the top of the snow - like lace covering his goal with his tongue, causing Mac to squirm again.

But this time, her squirming caused her leg to press against Harm's hardness, making him moan. Nimble fingers moved to the front clasp of Mac's bra and he used his teeth to pull the covering aside and reveal her to him, while his fingers moved lower to the button at the top of her jeans, making quick work of it and the zipper as well.

Sucking the darker brown aureoles of her breasts, Harm used one hand to slip the denim over her slim hips, along with the wisp of panties, leaving her uncovered and ready for his touch. Biting gently on the hard peaks, he slipped a finger into her dripping core, adding two more as her breathing became shallow and she began to moan. Softly, at first, and Harm released her lips from his to watch her face. The sound level slowly increased as her moment of release drew ever nearer. "That's it, Sarah," he whispered against her cheek. "Come for me. That's it."

Suddenly her entire body arched against him, and her cry was loud enough that Harm worried for a moment that the neighbors might have heard her scream. Pulling her into his arms, Harm waited for her to regain her senses, feeling her heartbeat slowly return to normal. His fingers stroked her face as he held her close. "I love you, Sarah," he said.

"I hope so," she told him, her voice deep and breathy. "Because after that, there's no *way* I'd let you go." She smiled up at him. "When you lose control, you *really* lose control, don't you?"

"I guess so," he said, returning her smile.

Mac's fingers stilled as she ran them through his short hair. "You meant it, didn't you?" she said.

"Meant what?"

"That you're only this way with me," she said in a voice filled with awe, her hand resting against his chest.

Harm nodded in answer. "I've never been able to let myself lose control like that."

"Do you regret it now that you have?" she asked, watching him carefully, waiting for his response.

He took her hand and pressed it against the denim-covered bulge that was straining against its confinement. "What do you think?"

"We have to do something about that," she sighed, sounding concerned as she moved to straddle his hips, pressing her still sensitive core against him, causing Harm to draw in a breath through his teeth. "Eventually, anyway," she added, running her long fingers through the dark hair on his chest, rubbing the small nubs she found there until Harm arched up to her.

"Sarah, please."

She leaned forward, feeling the coarse hairs brushing against her breasts as she kissed him. "Shh. Just relax and let the Marines handle this, Squid." Her lips followed almost the path that his had, pausing to circle each nipple before moving lower, dipping into his belly button as she moved farther back on his legs. Harm felt her fingers release the button and then slowly - so slowly that he groaned in anticipation and frustration - lowered the zipper before her fingers slipped inside of his boxers and touched him. Harm jumped at the contact of skin on skin, trying to reach for her and pull her back up to him for a kiss.

But she gracefully pulled out of his reach, shaking her head. "Patience," she admonished, her eyes glistening with anticipation of her own as she grasped the top of his jeans and shorts to pull them down over his hips and then shimmied off of the bed to remove them completely before kneeling between his legs once more to study the hard evidence of his desire.

"Sar- ohhh," he said, groaning as she reached out and circled him with her hand, stroking him, pausing to run a thumb around the sensitive ridge below the swollen, dark head. "Oh, god," he moaned, lifting his hips.

Mac smiled and bent forward, dragging her tongue along the underside to the top of his cock, her dark eyes still focused on Harm's face as she slowly engulfed him with her warm mouth. Drawing back, she saw his head fall back onto the bed and increased the suction as she pulled him back into her mouth, setting up a rhythm while her other hand moved down to fondle his balls, feeling them begin to tighten. Each time she took him all the way in, Mac hummed in her throat, causing him to gasp.

"Sarah," Harm breathed, reaching for her again, begging, pleading. "I want to -"

But she evaded his attempts to draw her up to him, gently pinning his hands to the bed at his sides as his hips lifted from the bed again and he cried out her name with his release, his body shuddering and convulsing while Mac swallowed almost every drop. Knowing that Harm's half-open eyes were watching, she ran her tongue around her lips, causing him to groan again - and his still half-hard cock to jump in response.

Sliding up his body, Mac lay there, wrapped in his arms, her head pillowed on his chest as he recovered. He'd never liked letting women do that to him - giving up that kind of control wasn't easy. In fact, he could count on both hands the times he'd allowed it to happen - but it had never, *never* been that intense.

"Damn," he finally said, running his fingers through Mac's thick hair.

"Too much for you, sailor?" she asked, looking up at him with a smile on her face.

Lifting his head, Harm kissed her long and hard, before flipping them over so that Mac as under him. "I'm just getting my second wind," he told her, covering her mouth once again, only ending the kiss when the need for oxygen demanded it. "Turn about's fair play, remember?" he asked, sliding down her body, leaving a trail of fire with is tongue, between her breasts, around each nipple, and lower, tracing her hipbones and smiling as she lifted her hips, putting her hands on his head, trying to force him to where she wanted him most.

Taking her hands in his, he placed a kiss into each palm and said, "Patience, remember?" before placing her hands firmly onto the bed at her sides. Resuming his task, he dipped his head lower, brushing her clit, sucking gently at first, and then with more force.

"Harm," Mac whispered, moving her head from side to side. "Please."

Slipping two fingers into her moist passage, Harm pressed the palm of other hand against her mound as he asked, "What, Sarah? What do you want?"

"You," she said. "I need you - in me," she whispered. "Now." Harm reached behind him, trying to find his jeans. "Harm -"

"Just a minute," he said, finally locating what he was looking for and holding it up to show her.

"I'm on the pill," she told him, reaching for his shoulders to pull him down to her. "Now. Please."

Harm dropped the foil packet and covered her body with his, burying himself inside of Mac's body, bracing himself on his arms before dropping to his elbows. Keeping his eyes locked with hers, Harm began to move against her, feeling her legs wrap around his waist. So many things in her eyes. Love, want, *need*.

Remembering her words in Paraguay, Harm rolled them over so that Mac was on top, watching as she began to move. He placed his hands on her breasts, kneading, pinching the tips between his thumb and forefinger, causing her to moan, putting her head back, and arching her back from the bed. He watched as her hands combed through her hair before sliding down to cover his hands at her breasts, taking them lower, to where they were joined together. Understanding what she wanted, Harm's attention turned to her clit again, pulling at it, strumming it like the strings on his guitar. Mac's hands returned to her breasts, rubbing them, pulling at the nipples as her movements became wilder and her breathing began to shallow.

Harm gripped her hips, lifting his hips toward her on each down stroke, coming as she began to scream again, her body growing rigid and her back arching before she collapsed on top of him, exhausted.

He rubbed circles on her back as they both lay there, a tangle of arms and legs.

"Damn," Mac said, and they both started to laugh . . .
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Harm woke up the next morning and snuggled closer to the warmth pressing against his chest. That warmth moved slightly, and he opened his eyes to find a pair of deep brown ones watching him. "Good morning," he said, smiling at her.

"Good morning to you," she said, returning the smile.

"What time is it?"

"Zero six fifty-eight," she told him.

"I can see we're going to be able to toss the alarm clock," he said with a grin, rolling over onto his side. "This is nice, waking up with you."

"I wonder why it took so long to find that out?" Mac sighed.

"Because we weren't ready - because *I* wasn't ready," he amended, running his finger across her collarbone, dipping into the v at the center before continuing on to the other side.

"And you're ready now?"

"You have to ask after last night?" he wondered, looking up at her.

"What changed?"

"I'll tell you sometime. Right now -" his lips began to follow the trail that his finger had just taken, "I have something else in mind."

Mac brought her hands to his back, running her fingernails across his skin, down to the sensitive skin of his hips. "Hold that thought," she told him. "You said something last night about picking me up at eight, remember?"

"I'm already here," Harm pointed out, continuing his exploration of her body.

"I'm hungry," she told him. "And we have to go to your place so you can change clothes," she said.

"I've got a change of clothes downstairs," he said. "In my emergency bag."

Mac considered that for a moment. "You still need to feed me, Flyboy." She crossed her arms behind his neck. "You know what I'm like when I'm hungry," she warned, a teasing glint in her eyes.

"Are you always this demanding in the morning?" Harm questioned.

"I am when I need food."

"Okay, okay," he said, laughing as he dropped another kiss on to her lips and rolled over to get out of bed. "I'll go get my bag from downstairs."

"I'll shower and get dressed while you're gone," Mac decided.

Sitting on the edge of the bed as he put his legs into his jeans, Harm turned around to leer at her. "If you'll wait till I get back upstairs, we can shower together."

"I doubt we'd get out of the apartment for the rest of the weekend if that happens," she said.

"You've got a point," he said, sighing again as he started looking for his shoes, grabbing his shirt as he did so. "Don't use all the hot water."

"Why not? I think you could use a cold shower this morning," she teased, moving quickly toward the bathroom as he gave her a warning look before lunging in her direction. Mac ran into the other room and pushed the door closed, laughing as Harm grabbed the door knob and rattled it. "You're slowing down, Squid," she called out.

"I'll show you 'slowing down' later, Marine," he replied, shaking the door once more before saying, "I'm going to get my things. If you're still in there when I get back, you'll have to replace a door."

Mac turned on the shower. "Sorry! Can't hear you!" she said, laughing again. She felt as if a huge weight had lifted from her shoulders after last night. She felt more confident, more sure of herself as person - and as a woman. And Harm - she didn't think she'd ever seen him as relaxed and happy as he had been this morning.

Smiling, she stepped under the stinging spray, wondering if he'd *really* break down that door if she wasn't out when he returned.

Harm shook his head and left the apartment, retrieving his overnight bag from the SUV, leaving the video on the seat to return later in the day. Returning to the apartment, he heard her cut the shower off at the same moment and shook his head, still smiling. Moving into the kitchen, he started the coffee, knowing that Mac would be looking for a cup when she came out.

The telephone started to ring as he picked up his bag and headed toward the bedroom. "Should I get that?" Harm called out, continuing to the bedroom, and unzipping the bag to remove his clean clothes.

"No, I'll get it," Mac said, opening the door and moving past him. Harm paused to give her a look of admiration. She had wrapped a towel around her still wet body, and he couldn't resist reaching out to follow water droplet down her arm with his fingertip just as she picked up the phone. "Hello?" Her deep sigh told Harm who was on the other end before she said another word. "This is a surprise, Clay. You don't normally call once whenever you're gone. Two times in less than twenty-four hours is - . . . I don't have to account to you for every move I make, Clay," she said, giving Harm a look of apology.

Harm nodded and pointed toward the bathroom, taking his shaving kit with him. Mac nodded, watching him as he closed the door behind him. Through the door, he heard her still talking.

"Okay, yes, I was with Harm. We had dinner and watched a movie . . . That's none of your -"

He deliberately turned on the shower to drown out the rest of the conversation, stepping into the stall and letting the water run over his body. He should have waited until she'd broken it off with Clay, he told himself, only now beginning to wonder about the reasons for Mac's accusations last night that had seemed deliberately designed to drive him to lose control for the first time in his life and take what he wanted. Harm was certain that it was somehow tied in to Saddiq Faad and what she had gone through in those minutes before his death. Bracing his palms on the cool tiles, he stood under the water, trying to figure things out - and to figure out where they were going to go from here.

There was no way that Harm wanted to go back to the old dance - but if by giving in to Mac last night he had somehow managed to screw this up - He sighed, shaking his head. For the moment, he would let things stand as they were - but somehow he was going to get Mac to open up to him fully about the night that she had killed Saddiq. According to the Admiral, she'd gone for two sessions with a psychiatrist at Bethesda, just enough to satisfy his order.

From his own experience, Harm knew that she needed more than that - he could still recall Mac's reaction to having killed that poacher to save her own life - and he hadn't hurt people that Mac cared for.

A tap on the door made him realize that he'd been in there longer than he'd meant to be. "Talk about using all of the hot water," Mac drawled. "Coffee's ready."

"I'll be right out," he told her and finished up quickly, turning off the shower and grabbing a towel to wrap around his hips as he stepped out into the bathroom. Opening the door to clear the steam, he wiped the mirror and pulled a razor and shaving cream out of his kit, along with a toothbrush and paste.

"I thought you used an electric razor?" Mac asked, as he picked up the razor and started to scrape the night's growth of beard from his face. He turned slightly to find her lounging against the doorframe, a cup of coffee cupped between both hands as she watched him.

"I usually do," he answered. "If I'm at home or have time to pack before going somewhere. I keep razors and shaving cream in my kit just in case."

"Good idea," she nodded. She'd put on a pair of jeans and tee shirt that clung to her like a second skin.

"What did Clay have to say?" he asked, watching her reflection in the mirror as he forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand instead of Mac's body.

She lowered her eyes to the coffee before answering. "He thinks he'll be home midweek. He wants to see me. To - talk things over."

Harm held the razor away from his throat as he told her, "I think you should, Mac."

"Trying to get rid of me already?" she questioned, putting the coffee cup down on the counter to run her hands around the top of the towel that covered him as Harm attempted to resume shaving.

"You're going to get rid of me by causing me to cut my own throat if you're not careful," he teased.

Mac moved to his side, her arms wrapped around his waist, watching his reflection. "Can't have that, can we? You didn't answer my question."

He rinsed the razor in the sink, looking for spots he might have missed as he answered. "Believe me, Mac, I'm not trying to get rid of you. But I just think you owe it to Clay to make it a clean break, that's all."

"I suppose it would be too much to suggest that you go with me to see him," she sighed.

He picked up a towel and wiped his face clean of the white foam, chuckling. "I think so. What's wrong? You're not afraid of Clay, are you?"

"Of course I'm not. I just - I hate the idea of hurting him. After what he did -"

Harm put his hands on her shoulders as he turned to face her. "Mac, I know he let himself be tortured to keep you safe, but have you ever considered the fact that it was his fault that you were *in* that position to begin with?"

"I made the decision to go with him, Harm," she reminded him. "I could have said no."

"I know." Harm's fingers tightened momentarily on her shoulders before he released her and went into the bedroom to get dressed.

"I was angry with you, you know," she said, sitting on the edge of the bed as he put on his clothes.

"With me?" he asked, frowning.

"Because you had to come down there and save me. I hated that. I'm grateful that you *did*, but -"

"It made you feel weak," he said. "Just like my being able to maintain control made you feel weak and out of control." As he spoke, he saw the look on Mac's face and knew that he was right.

"You want some coffee?" she asked, trying to move past him. "I need -"

Harm grabbed her arm and pulled her into his arms, holding her close. "It's okay, Mac. And I'm sorry if you were angry. But when I started having nightmares after you left -"

"You had nightmares?" she asked, lifting her head to look up at him.

Harm nodded, running his fingers through her hair. "About you and Clay - you were both killed by someone I couldn't see. I couldn't get any information about where you were or what was going on. I was so desperate for information, I even called Clay's mother."

"And got the stone wall," Mac said. "I know. I've gotten that a few times myself these last few months, along with a little lecture about having to 'get used to it' if I wanted to be with her son," she explained in a wry tone. "I don't think Porter Webb approved of me."

He smiled at her. "I don't think Porter Webb would approve of *any* woman her son brought home unless she'd hand-picked her herself." His words brought a smile to Mac's face. "We need to get going," he told her. "If I'm going to feed you. We'll finish this conversation tonight, okay? After dinner?"

"Is this another 'let's table the discussion' discussion?" she wanted to know.

"No. We'll talk. I promise."

"And you don't make promises you can't keep," she said, her eyes sparkling.

"Haven't yet," he confirmed, fully aware of what she was thinking. "We'll discuss *that* tonight, too, if you want."

"Sounds like it could be a *very* interesting evening after all," Mac observed as she led the way out of the room toward the front door.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

After stopping for donuts to pacify Mac's hunger as well as her sweet tooth, they drove to the house in Falls Church. Harm watched Mac's reaction to the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood and when he pulled into the driveway of the house itself, he said, "Here we are."

"It's bigger than I thought it would be," she said, her eyes scanning the farmhouse-style exterior with its wide, wraparound front porch supported by tapered columns. "There's even a porch swing," Mac commented as they climbed the three steps up onto the porch.

"Wait till you see inside," he suggested, turning as a car pulled up at the curb and a woman got out.

"Sorry I'm late," the attractive blonde told Harm as she walked up the sidewalk toward them.

"No problem," Harm assured the realtor. "We just got here ourselves. Sarah Mackenzie, Pam Brinkman."

Pam looked around. "Mattie's not with you?" she asked.

"No. Actually, Mattie's gone back to live with her dad."

"And you're still buying the house?"

"I'm here, aren't I?" Harm replied, taking Mac's hand in his. "I'm hoping that I won't be here alone for very long."

He saw Pam's disappointed sigh as she pulled the keys out and unlocked the front door. "Well, I suppose we'd better get to work, then. I have another appointment to get to."

Harm waited for Mac to enter the house before following her inside. She stood in the two-story entry, looking around. "It's lovely, Harm," she declared.

"It needs a little work," he cautioned, a hand at the small of her back. "But -"

Pam cleared her throat as she continued into the kitchen. "We can sign the papers in here on the counter, since there's no other place to do it," she said, her voice echoing through the empty rooms.

Mac smiled at Harm. "I'm going to look around while you sign your life away," she told him. "Unless you think you need some protection from Blondie."

"I'll call if I need the Marines," he promised, following Pam into the kitchen, where she was laying out the necessary paperwork on the workspace in the center of the large room.

Fifteen minutes later, he walked Pam to the door, house keys in hand, his copy of the papers waiting for him in the kitchen. "Mac?" he called, listening.

"I'm up here." She appeared on the second floor landing, looking down at him.

Harm climbed the stairs, watching as she disappeared into one of the bedrooms. He stood in the doorway, watching her at the window that overlooked the back yard.

"You didn't mention the pool," she said.

"Did I leave that out?" crossing the floor to join her. "What do you think?"

"I haven't seen any of the downstairs, but with a little work, this place would be perfect. A new coat of paint, maybe some wall paper -" she glanced down at the wooden floor beneath their feet. "I'd put carpet in if it was mine -"

"Maybe up here," he agreed. "I'll probably refinish the floors downstairs. Did you see the master bath?" Harm asked, pointing toward the closed doorway.

"I thought it was a closet," she said.

"The closet's over there," he said, pointing to another door in the opposite wall. Opening the bathroom door, he flipped on the light switch and stepped back.

Mac ran her hand over the deep, oversized bathtub sitting in the room. "A claw foot tub," she sighed. "I love these things. They're deep enough that you can soak up to your neck if you want to."

Slipping his arm around her waist from behind, he said into her ear, "It looks big enough for two, if you ask me."

She lifted a hand to the side of his head, nuzzling hers into the hollow of his neck. "There's even a shower."

He grinned, reaching out to show her the oval rail hung from the ceiling. "That's for the curtain. I wasn't sure about leaving it before, but now, I think I will."

Mac turned into his arms. "Any particular reason you changed your mind?"

"I'll give you one guess," he said.

"Let's see: it's a big tub so you won't have to feel cramped?" she guessed with wide eyes.

"Why don't I show you?" he suggested, lifting her off of her feet.

"Harm!" she said, gripping his neck as he lowered her into the tub, then stood there smiling down at her. Mac had a moment of déjà vu as he stood there, and she smiled back at him. "What?"

He dropped to his knees beside the tub. "It always amazes me how beautiful you are," he said, reaching out to touch her dark hair before pulling her close for a kiss.

"What time are we supposed to be at the airport?" she asked, and Harm sighed, resting his forehead against hers.

"What time is it?"

"Almost ten."

"Then we have time for me to show you the rest of the house before we have to leave," he decided, rising to his feet and extending a hand to her, lifting her out of the tub and back onto the floor.

There was an immense double fireplace between the living room and formal dining room, and Mac nodded approvingly as Harm told her about his plans for the house. The study was huge, and Mac told him so. "It's big enough for *two* desks," she declared.

"I was thinking the same thing," he agreed. "One here by the window and the other over there. I'll have to do some planning about electrical connections and such, but I think it's doable. Wait till you see the kitchen. It needs a little modernization, but I figure I can do it a little at a time - there's a dishwasher behind those doors, but its ten years old and *loud*. I'll retile the floor -"

"And just where are you going to live while you're doing all of this work?" Mac wondered.

"I *was* planning on doing it a room at a time. A little like I did with the loft. Using one of the bedrooms til I finish another, and so on. But I might have to up the timetable a little," he told her.


He turned his head to look at her, and grinned before placing his hands on her waist to lift her onto the counter before him. "Because, as I told Pam, I'm hoping that I won't be living here alone for very long. And it wouldn't be fair to this - other person to ask her to - put up with plaster and sanding and -"

Mac placed her hand to his lips. "And have you *asked* this - other person if she would mind?"

"No, not yet, but -"

"How about if she wanted to help?" Mac asked. "Maybe the two of you could - work on your dream house together?"

Harm gave her one of his patented 'flyboy' smiles. "Think she would?"

"She hasn't heard you ask, yet," Mac pointed out.

"So, uh, Mac, do you think you'd like to - help me do the work that needs to be done to make this place livable?"

"I happen to think it's *livable* already," Mac told him, putting her arms around his neck. "For one very important reason."

"What might that be, ma'am?" he asked.

"Because you're here," she told him, leaning forward to give him a kiss, wrapping her legs around him. "We have to go," she said, "if we're going to be on time for Mattie's flying lesson."

Harm groaned softly, dropping his head to her shoulder for a moment as he struggled for control. "You're going to be the death of me," he said. "But what a way to go," he added, lifting her off of the counter to slide down his body until she was on her feet. "Let's go flying."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Mattie already had "Sarah" outside of the hangar when Harm and Mac arrived. When she saw who was with Harm, the teenager's smile widened to reveal her delight. "Mac! I wasn't expecting to see you!" she declared.

"Mac and I are going up for a few minutes after our lesson, Harm explained, returning her hug with one of his own. He looked around, frowning. "How'd you get here?"

"Dad brought me. He had to run a couple errands, said he'd be back to pick me up."

"How's it going?" Harm asked her.

"It's - okay. We're still - getting used to each other again," Mattie explained. "Good and bad. I miss you."

"You're the one who decided to leave," Harm pointed out.

"I know. How's Jen?"

"She said to say hi. She found another roommate by the way."

"That didn't take long. Guess I couldn't come back now if I wanted to, huh?"

"Well, by this time next week, there'll be a couple of rooms available at a place in Falls Church -" Harm told her.

Mattie's mouth opened in shock. "You bought the house?!" she said. "I didn't think you would after -"

"Not only that," Mac told the girl, "he sold the Corvette."

"The Vette?" Mattie cried, disappointed now. "I was looking forward to driving it when I get my license."

"Hey, I trusted you with my plane, that should be enough," Harm said, laughing. "Besides," he told her, leaning close, but speaking loud enough for Mac to overhear, "Mac's got a Vette. It's not a Classic, but -"

"Yeah," Mattie nodded, looking at Mac with a smile that reminded her a little of Harm when he wanted something. "Mac -"

Mac laughed. "We'll talk about it," she said.

"You ready to fly?" Harm asked Mattie.

"You bet," she told him, smiling from ear to ear. "She's all fueled up and I did a pre-flight."

"Let's do another one and we'll take off." He looked at Mac. "Are you going to be okay here alone?"

"I'll be fine," she assured him. "Go have some fun."

"Is that an order, ma'am?" he asked.

"It is," Mac confirmed with a smile. He gave her a brief kiss before turning toward the yellow Stearman where Mattie was waiting.

Mac watched as they walked around the airplane, inspecting it, before climbing into the cockpit. She heard Mattie's voice call out, "Contact!" just before the engine roared to life and the plane started to taxi toward the runway. Harm turned to wave at her as they passed, and Mac returned the wave, returning his infectious smile as well.

That was one thing about Harm that would never change - and it was the one thing she wasn't sure that she really *wanted* to change. As long as he wasn't flying Tomcats, she could handle his love of flying through the air. Standing beside Harm's SUV, she covered her eyes as the plane rolled down the runway and leapt into the air.

Mac smiled, watching as it flew away from the field, toward the area where Harm usually took people to 'play'. Getting Mattie with Harm was one of the few things Mac had been proud of herself for doing over the last few months. There had been times when Mac had wished she had had someone like Harm in her life at Mattie's age - Uncle Matt had been away in the Marines and had been more or less unaware of how bad things were after his sister left her husband and daughter - but Mac had often wished he'd been there for her, been able to keep her from making the mistakes she'd made.

At least Mattie had Harm - and Mac's small part in arranging that made her realize just how wonderful a father he would be to his own children. It wasn't *just* Mattie, of course. Harm had always had an affinity for children. For a long time, she'd believed it was because he was still a child himself with a huge case of arrested development. But over the last couple days, she'd seen signs that Harm was growing up - maybe it had been happening for longer, but she'd been so caught up in her own self-pity that she'd missed it.

Hearing another car, Mac turned her head and smiled as she saw Mattie's father in the beat up old pick up truck. He parked it beside the SUV and got out, nodding in her direction. "Colonel. It's been awhile."

"Yes, it has. How are you doing, Mr. Johnson?"

"You know how it goes, Colonel. One day at a time. Having Mattie back's a big help, though. I'm grateful to Harm for convincing her to give me another chance. And that he hasn't totally dropped out of her life. She counts on him being there for her."

"And he will be," Mac assured him. "For as long as she needs him to be."

"I know." He looked up, scanning the clear blue sky. "How long have they been gone?"

"Nearly an hour. They should be back any minute. Harm says Mattie's a natural at the controls."

"She's like her mother. Sandra could fly almost anything she put her hands on. We were a good team once. She'd fly, and I'd work on them. At least, till my addiction got the upper hand and -"

Mac reached out to touch his arm. "One day at time, remember? Don't look back. Keep looking ahead. You've got a wonderful daughter, Mr. Johnson. And whether she can admit it right now or not, she cares about you."

Tom Johnson drew a shuddering breath as he nodded and looked up, hearing the sound of an airplane engine. Pointing to the south, he said, "There they are."

As the two of them watched, the Stearman flew across the field before turning to make a picture perfect landing and taxied to a stop on the tarmac.

"Nice landing," Mac told Harm when they got out of the airplane, taking the goggles from Mattie when she held them out.

Grinning, Harm put an arm across Mattie's shoulders. "That wasn't me. It was Mattie. She did all the flying, from take off to landing."

"You were flying?" Tom asked, giving his daughter a proud smile.

"Yeah. It was a kick, too. Harm thinks I'll be more than ready by the time I can get my private ticket."

"Hold on," Harm said, "We have some radio work to do, and that's going to mean renting another airplane. But you should be ready. I'll do some checking about 172s. I think I know someone who'll let us use his for the cost of the fuel."

"Cool!" Mattie declared.

Harm shook Tom's hand. "How are you doing?"

"Like I was telling the Colonel, one day at a time."

"It's a long process," Harm agreed, "but you've got someone who cares about you."

Mattie gave her father a quick hug. "Dad, Harm bought that house I was telling you about."

Tom gave Harm a worried look that was quickly hidden. "Congratulations Harm," he said in his usual soft tone. "She wasn't sure you'd buy it after she decided to come back and live with me." He glanced at Mac. "But I guess you have other people to think about as well."

"You and Mattie will have to come to dinner once I get settled in," Harm invited.

"Let us know when," Tom said. "You ready to go, Mattie?" he asked, looking at the girl.

"Yeah." She gave Mac a slightly shy hug, saving the bigger one for Harm. "Bye. Next week?"

"I'll let you know if there's any change," he assured her.

"Harm," Tom said. "Colonel."

"Make it Mac, Mr. Johnson," she told him, and he nodded before walking back toward the truck with Mattie. Mac glanced up at Harm, and saw the regret on his face. "Letting her go isn't easy, is it?"

He shook his head. "No. It's not. But right now, I think it's what's best for both of them. Tom needs her, and Mattie needs her father, even if she doesn't fully agree with that idea."

Putting her hand over his where it lay on her shoulder, Mac said, "I thought we were going to go flying?" she questioned with a smile, hoping to remove that sad, lost look from his handsome face as he watched the battered old truck pull away.

"Ten minutes," he nodded, the smile returning as he looked at her. "I need to refuel and double check everything. But we're covered on the fuel line," he said.


With a grin, he went to the rear cockpit to pull out a length of tubing which he presented to her with a flourish. "I have extra."

Holding the tubing, Mac watched him walk away with his typical swagger, and she started to laugh.

Hearing it, Harm turned back to look at her. Lifting the tail of the airplane, he turned it toward the fuel truck. "Hey, you want to fly, you help push the plane!" he called out.

Placing the fuel line into the pocket of her jacket, Mac sighed. "I should have known there'd be a catch."

Mac's fingers curled into tight fists as the airplane rolled down the runway a few minutes later. Harm had insisted on doing the two walk-arounds he'd promised, ending up making her laugh when he'd called her over to show her that the existing fuel line was in perfect condition. He'd promised to take it slow and easy - making them *both* laugh - but Mac's previous experiences with Harm in a small plane caused her nerves to be wound so tightly that she wasn't sure what she was more afraid of: something happening, or disappointing Harm.

Knowing how much Harm loved to do aerobatics, Mac half expected him to try and sneak a few of them in on her. But he was a good as gold. Straight and level flight, gentle turns, all within easy sight of the airport.

"How ya doin'?" Harm asked through the headphones.

"Fine," she called back, slowly beginning to relax.

"You want to try it?"


"I don't see anyone else but us in the plane, Mac."

"The last time I took the controls of this thing we had to make an emergency landing."

"Won't happen this time," he assured her. "But even if something *were* to happen, the runway is just down there.

Mac peered over the side of the cockpit at the airport, opened her hand and moved it toward the stick, hesitating.

"What's wrong Marine?" he asked. "Don't tell me you're scared."

Even though she knew he exactly what he was doing, Mac grabbed the stick. "Okay. I've got it!" she told him.

"She's all yours!" he called back, and Mac felt the resistance of his control leave the stick.

Slowly, Mac began a few turns and started feeling more at ease - pulling back gently on the stick, she sent the airplane's nose toward the heavens, and then rolled it over before leveling the wings again, never once feeling Harm attempt to grab the control back from her.

It was with a sense of surprise that she realized they had been in the air for an hour. "Harm?" she called.


"It's been an hour."

"You that eager to land? I thought you were enjoying yourself."

"I am," she admitted. "Just thought you should know."

"Tell you what, let's land anyway. I have some things to take care of before our date this evening." Mac felt resistance in the controls. "I have it," he told her, and Mac released control of the airplane back to him, smiling to herself as he made a landing that would have put Mattie's earlier one to shame.

"Smooth as glass, Harm," she said.

"You expected something else?" he returned, and she heard the smile in his words.

"Just going by past experience," Mac said, turning around to look at him so he could see her teasing smile.

He killed the engine on the tarmac, and then helped her out of the front cockpit. "I've got a lot more good landings in 'Sarah' than bad ones, Mac. And this one today was especially important."

"You know, I think I'm starting to understand why you like flying so much. You're totally in control up there, and yet somehow free at the same time."

"I knew you'd finally understand one day," he said. "How about helping me push her back into the hangar?"

"Just a minute," Mac said, taking the rubber tubing out of her pocket. "I need to return this -"

Harm's fingers closed over hers. "Keep it as a momento," he said, moving to give her a kiss.

"Of my first uneventful flight with you?" she suggested, moving into his arms.

"Sounds good to me," he told her, backing her up against the fabric covering of the plane. "There's a little bed and breakfast about an hour south of here - maybe next weekend we could - fly down on Saturday after Mattie's lesson and then fly back on Sunday afternoon?"

"Sounds good to me," Mac said, repeating his words deliberately.

The sound of a car's engine caused Harm to sigh and release her, backing away. "Let's get this thing in the hangar and get out of here."


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