Operation: The Road Not Taken 2
Part 1
Nancy Eddy

Disclaimers in Part 1

Pairing: Harm/Mac; AJ/Meredith; Sturgis/Varise
Rating: PG 13
Spoilers: Everything through "Hard Time"
Disclaimer: I don't own them. I'm also poor. I'll give them back, I promise!
Archiving: Various JAG lists and my website. http://jagficlady.gopages.net Anywhere else, ask!
A/N: Fallout from Harm's realization in "What If?" A tragic accident results in a minor change in Harm's plans; AJ discovers the truth about Meredith. This story is dedicated to KarenB. Thanks for the tape!

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Mattie carried the groceries into the house, using her foot to close the back door. Dropping them onto the table, she called out. "Dad?" The sound of something hitting the floor alerted her, and she froze. She had learned a long time ago to recognize the sound of an empty bottle hitting the floor.

Forcing herself to remain calm, Mattie put the groceries away. Finally, with nothing to use as an excuse for staying in the kitchen, she headed toward the living room, where she found her father sprawled in his favorite chair, a half -full glass in his hand, the empty bottle on the floor.

Deciding to leave him alone to his drink, Mattie turned toward the door, only to pause when she noticed the telephone sitting on the floor beside the chair, the receiver laying beside it. "Why's the phone off the hook?" she asked, bending to pick it up and hang up.

"Didn't want him to call back, that's why."


"Thinks he can take my daughter away from me. He's not going to do it." He reached out, grabbing her t-shirt. "You won't leave me again, will you, Mattie? I need you."

"Who called?" she asked again, not answering his question. "Was it Harm?"

"You wouldn't go with him again. You're not his daughter. You're mine. You belong here. I'm trying to make things right -"

"How? By drinking again?" Mattie asked, biting her tongue as she reminded herself that she wasn't going to argue with him while he was drunk. It never did any good. "Did Harm call? Did he know you'd been drinking?"

"What difference does it make? The courts won't take you away again -" She grabbed the phone and started to dial. "Who - Who're you calling?"

"Harm -"

Suddenly he grabbed the phone from her hand and threw it across the room. "No! You don't need him anymore. You're *my* daughter."

"That's it. I'm outa here," Mattie declared, pulling away from his grasp and running toward the door. She got into the truck, cursing softly when the starter refused to engage. Hearing the back screen door of the house slam, she rolled the window up and locked the door then went back to trying to start the battered vehicle. She'd drive to the airport and then call Harm to come pick her up -

"Mattie!" her father yelled, beating on the door of the truck. "Get out of that truck!"

She ignored him, ignored his screaming, concentrating on getting the truck started so she could get away. When it finally caught, she put the truck into reverse as the passenger door opened and her father jumped into the truck. Gunning the engine, she spun out of the driveway and into the road, nearly flinging him out of the vehicle again as the door swung open.

"Stop this truck, Mattie!" he yelled, grabbing for the steering wheel.

Mattie slapped his hand away, pushing him. "No! I hate you! I hate you for what you did to my mother, for what you're doing to me, and what you've done to yourself! Once I'm with Harm, I never want to see you again!" she declared.

"You're not going with him. You're not going with anyone!" Tom yelled back, grabbing for the steering wheel once again - this time with more success. Pulling it sharply, he caused the truck to swerve off of the road. It slammed through a barbed wire fence and into a tree head on as Mattie screamed in terror.

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

Harm, still in shock at the news that he would be the new Chief of Staff, was in a conference with the Admiral about his new duties once Mac transferred to the judiciary when Jennifer Coates knocked and entered the room, her face pale.

"Something wrong, Coates?" AJ asked.

"There's a telephone call for the Commander, sir," she said. "It's the Sheriff out in Blacksburg."

Harm went still. "Mattie?"

"There's been an accident," she nodded.

AJ indicated his telephone. "You can use this phone, Harm."

"Thank you," he said, grabbing the receiver as AJ moved aside with Coates. "Hello? . . . Yes, this is Commander Rabb -"

"Coates," AJ said quietly as he watched his senior officer closely, "Go and find Colonel Mackenzie."

"She went to a meeting with Adm. Morris, sir," Coates informed him, still looking frightened.

"Find her and get her down here ASAP."

"Yes, sir."

"How are they? . . . Yes. I can be there in an - hour . . . Thank you." Harm hung up the phone and stood there for a moment before standing up straight. "Mattie and her - father were in their truck when it went out of control and into a tree head on," he told AJ.

"How are they?"

"Mattie's unconscious, but she doesn't seem to have any serious injuries. Tom Johnson is in critical condition. He was - thrown from the truck on impact. They don't expect him to live."

"I sent Coates to get Mac. She can drive you out to Blacksburg."


AJ ignored the embrace that the two officers shared, watching in amazement as the one man he never thought needed anyone drew deeply on the strength of the Marine in his arms. "Get him out to Blacksburg, Mac. And keep me informed."

"We will, sir," Mac assured him. "Jen, could you get his cover from his office? We'll get mine on the way out."

"Yes, ma'am," Coates nodded.

AJ stood in the doorway of his office a few minutes later, looking at Coates. "Would you like to take the rest of the afternoon off?"

"No, sir. I think I'll be better here, keeping busy."

He nodded in approval. "Let me know when they call."

"I will, Admiral. Thank you."

Jennifer Coates wasn't one for prayers. She'd gone through too much at the hands of her minister father - but for once, she found herself saying one under her breath, praying that Mattie Grace Johnson would be okay.

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

"I shouldn't have let her go back to him," Harm said.

Glancing at him, Mac saw that his head was back against the headrest. She hadn't seen a look like that on his face since those long hours when they'd been waiting for news on whether Bud was going to live or die. "You had no way of knowing, Harm," she said, reaching over to take his hand in hers. "You thought he'd quit drinking, that he was ready to be a father to her again. It's not your fault."

"Then why do I feel as if it is?"

"Because you're worried. Didn't the Sheriff tell you that Mattie wasn't seriously injured?"


"Then she'll be fine. And you'll be there for her."

"We'll be there for her," he corrected her.

"Yes. *We* will be there for her," Mac repeated. "Now just relax. We'll be there soon."

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The Sheriff was waiting in the waiting room when they entered, hat in hand. He and Harm had met once, when Mattie had still been running Grace Aviation. "Commander," he said, shaking Harm's hand as he glanced toward Mac. "Ma'am."

"How is she?" Harm asked.

"Last anyone told me, she was still unconscious, but they think it was just from a blow to the head and that she'll be okay. Tom's in surgery."

"What happened?" Mac wanted to know. "A neighbor heard them yelling and saw Tom jump into the passenger side of the truck as Mattie was driving away -"

"Mattie was driving?" Harm questioned.

"That's what Mrs. Tompkins said. She also said Tom was yelling to beat the band, screaming at Mattie to come back inside, that she wasn't going to leave him again." He looked down at the battered rim of his hat. "He'd been drinking - his blood alcohol was well above the legal limit - but since he wasn't driving -"

"What else?"

"Mrs. Simkins said that she thought she saw Johnson grab for the steering wheel before the truck got far from the house, but it stayed on the road. If he made another attempt and she wasn't able to stop him -"

"That sonofa -" Harm began, but Mac put a hand on his arm.

"Harm. Why don't you go see if you can find a doctor that can tell you what's going on?"

He nodded jerkily and left them. "He's as fond of that girl as if she was his own, ma'am," the Sheriff told Mac.

"I know." She extended a hand. "Lt. Colonel Sarah Mackenzie. I'm Commander Rabb's partner."

"Sheriff Blake. I'd say you're more than just his partner, Colonel, bringing him all this way."

Mac saw that Harm had cornered a doctor down the hallway, and excused herself to join them. "Miss Johnson's in stable condition, Commander," the doctor was saying.

"Is she still unconscious?" Harm wanted to know.

"I'm afraid so. There doesn't appear to be anything wrong - but she did receive a severe blow to the head. We have her under observation."

"What about her father?" Mac wanted to know.

"Mr. Johnson's condition is critical - he was thrown ten feet from the vehicle. Both legs were broken and he has some internal injuries. There is also some possible damage to his spine - even if he does survive, it's quite likely he'll be a quadriplegic."

"I need to see Mattie," Harm said. "I want her to know I'm here."

The Doctor looked as though he was going to refuse the request. "Please, Doctor," Mac said. "It might help."

"Very well." He indicated an examination room. "She's in there."

A young nurse was checking readings when they entered the small room, where Mattie was laying on a bed, hooked into a couple of machines that monitored her heart and pulse rates. There was an abrasion atop a nasty-looking lump on the girl's forehead, but other than that, there was no outward appearance of injury.

The nurse smiled at them before touching Mattie's arm. "You have visitors," she said, before nodding and leaving the room.

Mac noticed that Harm's hand was shaking when he reached out to touch the girl's hair. "She's so pale," he said in that quiet voice that Mac knew masked his deepest emotions. "Mattie, it's Harm. I'm here, Princess. Mac and I are both here," he said, reaching to take Mattie's hand in his. "I'm not going anywhere until you come back to us, Mattie."

Spying a chair in the corner, Mac pulled it over and placed it so that Harm could sit down. "I'm going to go find a place to call Jen and let her know we're here and what we know."

"Thanks, Mac," he said, grabbing her hand. "Don't be long."

"No longer than I have to be. But I can't use my cell phone in the building, so I need to find a pay phone or go outside." She squeezed his fingers in silent support before releasing his hand and leaving the room.

"She's worried too, Princess," he told her. The memory of another time when he had been the one in the hospital, after he'd temporarily lost his hearing surfaced, and Harm leaned forward, his head bowed. "Hey, God. This girl's got so much of ahead of her, so much life yet to be lived. Keep watch over her, and tell her mom that I intend to take the very best care of her that I possibly can from this point on." He drew a shuddering breath and thought he felt Mattie's fingers move in his. Standing up, he bent over the girl.

"Mattie? Can you hear me?"

Mac returned at that moment. "What's going on?"

"Her fingers moved," he said, not taking his eyes from the girl. "Mattie?"

"Mattie?" Mac said, standing on the other side of the bed, stroking Mattie's hair. "Mattie, wake up."

"Come on, Mattie," Harm whispered, "If you can hear me, squeeze my fingers, open your eyes - something -"

Glancing at the monitors, Mac noticed an increase in both readouts. "Keep talking to her, Harm," she said. "I think she hears us."

Suddenly Mattie moaned softly and her eyes opened a little. "Harm? Mac?"

"Yeah, honey, we're here," Harm said. "Thank God you're okay -"

"I'll go get the doctor," Mac told him.

"Doctor?" Mattie asked, turning her head to look around. "Where am I?"

"The hospital. There was an accident."


The doctor and a nurse entered the room. "Excuse me, Commander, could you please leave so we can examine her?"


"I'll be right back," he promised her. "I won't be any further than those doors."

He moved to the waiting area across the hall and sank onto a sofa, finally releasing the control. Harm felt Mac sit down beside him and put her arms around him, pulling his head onto her shoulder. "She's okay, Harm," Mac said.

"I know. I know. Thank God," he said again, holding onto Mac, as she finally let go as well.

The doctor came out of the examination room and found them. "She's a lucky girl. She had enough presence of mind when she got into the truck to put on her seat and shoulder belt - it's probably what saved her life."

"Then she's okay?"

"She has a headache - and she doesn't recall the accident."

"She doesn't?" Harm asked.

"No. The last thing she remembers is leaving to go to the grocery store earlier in the day."

"Does she know about her father?"

"No. I thought you would prefer to tell her about it."

"Do you think it's safe to tell her right now?"

"It might be a good idea, Commander. Last report I had, Mr. Johnson should be out of surgery soon - it might be her only chance to say goodbye to her father."

"How long will she have to stay here?"

"We'll keep her here for a few hours, at least. But I would think she'll be ready to be released this evening. Tomorrow morning at the latest."

"Thank you, Doctor," Mac said as Harm looked toward the doors. "She needs to know, Harm."

"I know, Mac," he said, looking into the room through the window on the door. "But how am I supposed to tell her that -"

"That her father might die? And that even if he does live, he might be paralyzed?"


"Just start with - 'you're alive', and work from there," Mac suggested gently. "I'm going to call Jen again - I'll join you in a minute."

"Mac, I'm glad you're here."

"Get in there and let her know that *you're* still here."

Harm entered the room to find that the head of the bed had been raised more. "Hey there," he said, sitting in the chair again. "How are you feeling?"

"My head hurts. Guess I'm not as hard headed as I thought, huh?" she asked.

"Enough that you were lucky it wasn't worse."

"I'm sorry about driving, Harm. I know you don't like it when I do - but we needed some stuff from the store - and Dad was - well, he was sick -" she looked toward the door. "I guess he's pretty upset that I wrecked the truck, huh?"

"I'm sure he'll just be glad you're okay, Mattie," Harm said, taking her hand to stop her from picking at the blanket.

She lifted her blue eyes to his face. "He doesn't know? They called you before they called him?"

"Mattie," Harm said, "why didn't you tell me that he was drinking again?"

She looked away, lifting her shoulders. "I don't know. I figured you'd gotten rid of me and you - wouldn't care anymore."

"Hey, I care. I never stopped caring. I just thought - you seemed like you wanted to go back to him - I shouldn't have agreed -"

"Harm, what's going on?" Mattie asked. "You're scaring me."

Mac returned at that moment, and gave Mattie a sympathetic smile. "You're looking better."

"I'm fine - except for my head. What's going on?"

Harm took a tighter grip on her hand. "Mattie, do you remember returning to the house after going to the store?"

"No. I don't. I didn't." She looked from Harm to Mac. "Did I?"

"I'm afraid so, Mattie," Mac answered.

"Then - how -?" she waved to indicate the room. "How did I end up here?"

"Mrs. Simkins told the police that she saw you in the truck and your father standing beside it, yelling and beating on the door. When you got the truck started and pulled out, he jumped inside - she believes that he tried to grab the steering wheel out of your hands, but you stopped him -"

"He was in the truck too?" Mattie said. "Where -?"

"He's in surgery, Mattie," Mac explained. "He was thrown from the truck when it hit a tree because he wasn't wearing his seat belt."

"Thank goodness you *were*," Harm told her. "His condition is critical, Mattie - and he probably has a severe back injury as a result of the accident -" She squeezed her eyes closed, as if fighting back tears. "It wasn't your fault, Mattie."

"Is he going to die?" she asked. Harm looked up at Mac, trying to decide what to say next, and the silence caused Mattie to open her eyes and look at him. "Harm, is he going to die?"

"It's a possibility," Harm admitted.


"Mattie -" he said. "You don't mean -"

"Yes I do! He *deserves* it! Dying the same way Mom did because of what he did! I hate him. I -"

Mac placed a hand on her shoulder. "Mattie, you might mean that now, but that will change."

"How do you know anything about it?" the girl wanted to know.

"Because my father was an alcoholic, too. He drove my mother away when I was fifteen. I stayed around for another two years and didn't see my father again for almost twenty years."

"Did you forgive him?"

"Yes. But it was too late. He was dying and in a coma, and he never heard me." Mattie was looking up at the ceiling. "Mattie, I'll have to live for the rest of my life never knowing whether or not he even knew I was there."

"Why should you care?" Mattie asked. "If he was like my dad -"

"I'm sure he was. But your father at least made an *effort* to change, Mattie. Just because he failed doesn't negate that attempt."

"So you think I should go see him?"


"Harm?" Mattie said, looking at him, gripping his hand tightly in hers.


"Do you think I should go see him?"

"Only if you want to, Mattie. I'm not going to push you one way or the other this time. I feel like it's my fault you were with him again, and -"

"I made the decision, Harm," she said. "I thought he needed me. You didn't seem to - and then I - well, I didn't want to be in the way between the two of you -"

"You wouldn't be in the way, Mattie," Mac assured the girl. "I really think that Harm and I can make room in our lives for you. If you want us to."

"I'll see him," Mattie decided. "But even if he recovers - I'm*not* staying with him. I mean it."

Harm was about to agree with her, but Mac spoke before he could. "We'll discuss that later. Once we know more. Right now, I think the doctors want you to stay here and rest - you have a concussion, and were unconscious for some time."

"I feel fine," Mattie insisted. "Except for the headache."

"Take it from someone who's been there - it goes away eventually," Harm told her.

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

"Is anyone else here?" Mattie asked after awhile.

"Such as?" Mac asked.

"My aunt, I guess. His sister."

"I'm sure the Sheriff notified anyone who needed to be," Harm asserted.

Mattie sighed. "She's probably drunk anyway. She usually is."

All three of them looked up as the door to the private room that they had transferred Mattie to opened and Dr. Carlson came in. After performing a brief examination, he told them that Tom had come out of surgery a little while earlier.

When Mattie didn't say anything, Mac asked, "What's the prognosis, Doctor?"

"I have to be honest with you. His chances aren't very good. They had to remove his spleen, he had a collapsed lung. His - back is broken. I'm afraid it's just a matter of time."

"Has he regained consciousness at all, Doctor?" Harm wanted to know.

"He *was* muttering Mattie's name when they brought him in, but he wasn't wholly responsive. Once the anesthesia wears off, he should wake up." He looked at the girl. "Would you like to see him?"

Mattie's eyes moved from Harm to Mac before she answered. "I guess so."

"I can take you to him, then."

Mattie was silent as she let Harm help her out of the bed and onto her feet. "Dizzy?" the doctor wanted to know.

"A little," she said, standing still. Grabbing Harm's hand, she looked at him, and then at Mac again. "You're coming in with me, aren't you?"

"If we can," Mac said.

"I think it'll be okay," Carlson nodded. "This way."

He led them into a darkened room, the only occupant being a pale, small man lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to several machines. Mattie stopped just inside the room, and Harm put a comforting hand on her shoulder, causing her to drag her gaze from the sight of her father to him. "You don't have to do this -"

"Mac's right, Harm," she said, reaching out to take Mac's hand. "I do." Giving him a brave smile, she moved slowly toward the bed, leaving the three adults to follow behind her.

Watching her, Harm felt Mac's hand curl into his, and he looked down at her, realizing that she was reliving her own father's last moments. Pulling had hand from hers, he placed his arm around her shoulders before turning his attention back to Mattie.

"Can he hear us?" Mattie asked the doctor.

"Mattie?" Tom said, opening his eyes.

"I'm here," she told him, hesitating a moment before covering his hand with hers.

"You're - okay?"

"A little bump on the head," she said. "You know me. Hard-headed."

"Good - thing," he said. "Wasn't - wasn't your - fault. Grabbed - wheel. Didn't want - to lose you - again." A tear fell from the corner of his eye, rolling down toward his tousled hair.

"Don't talk, Dad," she said. "You need to rest -"

"No - time. I can tell - Can't - move -"

"Your back was broken when you thrown from the truck, Mr. Johnson," Dr. Carlson informed him. "I'm Dr. Carlson. I saw you when you were brought in before your surgery. We have you restrained so that you can't do any further damage."

"Harm? You there?"

Placing a hand on Mattie's shoulder, Harm spoke. "I'm here, Tom."

"I knew - knew you would - be. Take - take care of - her."

"I will, Tom," Harm promised.


"Here," she said, clearing her throat to talk past the tears. "I'm here."

"I'm s-sorry. Never meant to -" There was a sound somewhere between a sob and a mirthless laugh. "Guess - I had this - coming. Your mom -" The sound turned into a death rattle, and Harm placed his other hand on Mattie's shoulder. "Look - for-ward. Not - back -"

"Dad?" Mattie said quietly as Tom began to gasp for air and the machines attached to him sounded a strident alarm.

Harm gently pulled Mattie back as nurses and other doctors appeared, trying to help Dr. Carlson in an effort to resuscitate the patient. "You want to go out and wait?" Harm asked the girl, but she shook her head in a silent refusal, her eyes glued to the spectacle of life and death across the room. He felt her jump every time they used the defibrillator. Finally, she turned around and wrapped her arms around him, burying her head against his chest, as if seeking to escape. Harm put his arm around her, the other stroking her hair, feeling her deep sobs as she began to cry.

"Time?" Dr. Carlson asked at last.

"Seven thirty two p.m." one of the nurses told him.

"Time of death, 7:32 PM," Carlson stated, reaching over to turn off the monitor, leaving the room bathed in an eerie silence after the last few frantic minutes. He moved toward where Harm, Mac, and Mattie stood. "I'm sorry," he told them. "If it helps any, I don't think he was in any pain."

Mattie nodded in acknowledgment of his words, not moving from where she was.

"Thank you, Doctor," Mac said. "We appreciate everything you did."

Carlson glanced toward the bed. "Wish it could have been more. I'll see you before you leave. I want to examine Mattie again before I release her."

Harm nodded, and the doctor left them alone in the room with Tom's body. Harm met Mac's eyes over Mattie's head, reaching out to take her hand. "Mattie? You want to see him again before we go?" She shook her head no, keeping her face turned away. "Okay," he said, accepting her decision. After a final glance toward the body, Harm carefully kept Mattie turned toward the door as he and Mac moved in that direction.

"We'll stop by the house and pick up some of your things," he told her as they walked down the corridor. "We can take care of the rest of it later."

A slightly built woman approached her dark roots belying the blonde of her hair. When she saw Mattie, she called out.

"There you are! What did you do to him?" she demanded. Even from four feet away, Harm could smell the alcohol on the woman's breath.

"I didn't do anything!" Mattie declared, moving closer to Harm.

The woman grabbed Mattie's arm. "You little - you said you were going to do something to him after your mother died -"

It was Mac who removed the woman's arm. "Let her go."

"Who are you?" the woman wanted to know, sneering at Harm. "You have to be the one to took her away from him."

"Commander Harmon Rabb," Harm confirmed. "And you are?"

"Lillian Foster," Mattie told him, her tone sullen. "Dad's sister. My *aunt*."

"Ms. Foster -"

"Where is he?" she wanted to know. "I have a right to see him -"

"Why?" Mattie wanted to know. "You didn't care about him when he was alive -"

"He's - dead?"

Mattie wasn't listening, didn't see the shock on the older woman's face. "You never came to check on us, you didn't care that he was drinking again -"

"He stopped," Lillian declared.

"No, Ms. Foster," Mac said. "He started again. He was drunk today, and when Mattie decided to leave, he tried to stop her, sending them both into a tree. They could have *both* been killed. Would you have been happier if that had happened?"

"Tom's dead?" Lillian said again.

"Yes," Harm confirmed, finally seeing a tiny glimmer of sadness in the woman's eyes. "He was thrown from the truck - his injuries were too severe -"

"What about -" she looked at Mattie. "Are you okay?"

"She'll be fine, Ms. Foster," Harm said. "Your brother's body is in that room down there - third door."

"Mattie? Do you have a place to -?"

"She's coming with us, Ms. Foster," Harm said. "It's what her father wanted."

Lillian Foster nodded once before turning toward the room down the hall.

Mac watched her go. "Let's go find the doctor and get out of here," she suggested.

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

Dr. Carlson agreed to release Tom's body to a local undertaker, getting Harm's signature as Mattie's guardian on the required paperwork. He then gave Mattie another examination before releasing *her* into Harm's custody, with the admonition that they keep an eye on her.

The drive back to the house was a quiet one, as Mattie sat staring out of the window. Harm was relieved that there seemed to be very little signs of the accident along the road, but he found himself watching her in the rear view mirror as they passed the spot that he thought had been the scene. There was no reaction, no recognition at all.

As they pulled into the driveway, Mrs. Simkins came out of her house. Noticing the elderly woman, Harm suggested to Mac that she and Mattie go inside and pack a few things, and then make sure the house was secure, while he approached the neighbor.

"Mrs. Simkins."

"Commander. I heard what happened. My niece is a nurse at the hospital." She watched as Mattie and Mac entered the house through the back door. "How is she?"

"I think she's still in shock, Mrs. Simkins. Thank you for calling the police when they left -"

"It was the least I could do. If I'd known that he was drinking again, I would have called you, Commander."

"I know."

"I suppose you'll be taking her back to live with you, now?"

"Yeah. Tom asked me to take care of her before he died."

"Rather ironic, the way he died," she observed. "After causing his wife's death because he was drunk -"

"Would you keep an eye on the place for me, Mrs. Simkins?" Harm asked. "We'll be back tomorrow, I'm sure."

"Of course. Do you know when the funeral will be?"

"I haven't thought about it - probably not before Saturday afternoon."

"I'll be there - as moral support for Mattie if no other reason. I never liked Tom Johnson, but his wife was a wonderful woman. Mattie's a lot like her."

"I wish I'd known her."

"I never understood what she saw in that man -"

Knowing that the woman was just getting wound up, Harm smiled graciously. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go check on Mattie."

"Of course. Let me know when the funeral's going to be," she called after him as he left her standing there.

Mac and Mattie came out of the house just as he reached the SUV. Mattie had a backpack slung over her shoulder, and waited for Mac to make sure the door was locked behind them. Harm took the pack from Mattie when they joined him. "Does anyone else have a key to the place, Mattie?"

"Aunt Lillian might," she said. "But I doubt it."

"Mrs. Simkins is going to keep an eye on the place until we figure out what we're going to do," he said, opening the back door for her.

Mattie nodded and got into the truck, leaving Harm and Mac standing there looking at each other.

"Everything's secure," Mac told him. "I checked the doors and windows while Mattie packed." She looked as though she wanted to say more, but instead of doing so, she shook her head and moved around to get into the passenger side front door.

Once back on the road, Harm glanced into the mirror again. "You want something to eat, Mattie?" he asked.

"I'm not hungry," she said.

"You need to eat," he told her. "Why don't we stop at that pizza place that you like so much -?"

"I said I'm not hungry, Harm," she said again.

"None of us have had dinner," he continued. "I could stand to eat, and I'm sure that Mac -"

"If you two want to eat, go ahead," Mattie told him, sliding down in the seat. "I'm going to go to sleep."

Harm and Mac exchanged a concerned look. "Mattie -" Mac began, but the girl interrupted.

"Don't worry. It's not because of the concussion. I just - I don't want to talk anymore right now." She closed her eyes, resting her head against the back of the seat.

Harm glanced at Mac. "You want to stop to get something to eat?"

"No. Let's just go home," she told him. "I'll grab something once we get there." Harm frowned with worry as he glanced into the mirror again, and Mac reached over to touch his arm. "Just give it time, Harm. It'll be okay."

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

At the house, Mattie stood in the entryway. She'd been in the house once before, when they had first talked about buying it, and had called dibs on the front corner bedroom. Harm had teased that she only wanted it because she'd seen what she had referred to as a "hunk" washing his car across the street a couple of doors down, but Mattie had denied the accusation.

"I'll go make up the bed," Mac told them, taking the knapsack from Harm as Mattie wandered into the living room.

Harm followed Mattie, who moved to the raised brick hearth and sat down. "I still think you should eat something," Harm said, joining her.

"I couldn't. Not right now." Her shoulders lifted as she took a deep breath. "It was my fault, wasn't it?"

"No," Harm insisted, placing an arm around her shoulders. "It wasn't. You were just trying to get away from a situation that frightened you. If Tom hadn't chased you out to the truck and then tried to stop you, he'd be alive. He told you that himself."

"But I - I shouldn't have been driving. And I shouldn't have tried to leave."

"Do you remember what happened?"

"No. It's still a blank from before I got back from the store until I woke up in the hospital."

"He was angry that I wanted you to come here for the weekend," Harm told her. Seeing her confusion, he explained, "I called where he worked, wanting to make sure it was okay with him for you to spend the weekend here."

"I told you not to -"

"And I could tell that you weren't being entirely truthful with me. I could tell you were upset about something when we talked last night. I guess maybe I should take a share of the blame if there's any to be doled out."

"You? Why you?" Mattie questioned. "You didn't do anything -"

"I let you go back to him before I should have. You didn't trust me enough to tell me what was going on, and I should have insisted -"

"I trust you -"

"Then why didn't you tell me he was drinking again, Mattie?"

"I told you. I didn't want to be in the way of your having a life. You didn't need me. He did."

"Mattie, I made you a promise, and just because you went back to him, that promise still stands: you're not alone. And you won't be. I hope you trust me enough to be able to come to me about anything. And I mean *any*thing."

"I do. I guess - I guess I was just hurt that you seemed like you wanted me to be friends with him again, that you wanted me to go back to him. And then after I did, suddenly you were with Mac - and - well, I just figured you *really* didn't need me anymore."

Harm pulled her close to his side. "I'll always need you, Mattie. And we'll *both* be here for you. Me - and Mac."

"You sure about that? Not many women would be willing to -"

"I'm not most women, Mattie," Mac told her, entering the room.

"I can confirm that," Harm agreed, watching Mac move to sit on the other side of Mattie.

"It's not fair to you - or Harm," Mattie insisted. "You're just finally getting close and -"

Mac took Mattie's hand. "Mattie, this is where you belong." She hesitated for a minute. "Five years ago, Harm and I made a deal," she said, looking at Harm. "That if neither one of us was in a relationship in five years, we'd go halves on a child."

"That's silly," Mattie said, rolling her eyes and looking at Harm. "You *really* made that deal?"

"Hey, Mac agreed to it," he countered.

"Yes, I did," Mac acknowledged, enjoying his discomfiture. "You know what I think?"

"What?" Mattie asked.

"That your being a part of our lives *could* be considered the fulfillment of that deal."

Mattie considered the idea. "I guess you could be right, but -"

"No more buts," Mac said. "Why don't you go get ready for bed and we'll talk some more about it tomorrow? It's been a long day, and I think we could all use an early evening."

"Okay." Mattie gave them each a hug before standing up and moving toward the door. Once there, she paused and looked back at them. "Guys?"

"Hmm?" Harm returned.


"Get some sleep. Maybe things will look better tomorrow."

She nodded, but her expression revealed that she had her doubts.

Harm looked down as he felt Mac's fingers close over his. "You want to call Jen and the Admiral? Or shall I?"

"I'll do it while you go find something to eat," he told her. But when she started to stand up, he kept her hand in his. "Mac - as much as I want Mattie here, I don't consider her to be -"

Mac smiled at him. "Neither do I. I said *could*, remember?" she finished, giving him a quick kiss. "You want some coffee?"

"No, thanks." He moved to pick up the cordless telephone from beside the sofa and dialed Jen's number. He wasn't surprised when she answered on the first ring. Briefly, he told her what had happened, assuring her that Mattie was okay, and that she just needed a little time to process everything. After she told him that she would call the next day to talk to her friend, Harm hung up and dialed the Admiral's number.

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

Mac was just finishing the peanut butter and jelly sandwich when Harm entered the kitchen and slipped his arms around her waist. "You want a bite?" she offered, holding it up to him.

"Not of that sandwich," he told her, burying his head against her neck, nibbling at the sensitive skin there. "But I'll take some of this," he told her.

Mac laughed, picking up a bottle of water. "What did Jen and the Admiral have to say?"

"Jen said that she'll call to talk to Mattie tomorrow. When I told the Admiral that I needed tomorrow off to make arrangements and spend some time with Mattie, he suggested that we *both* take the day." Looking at her, he added, "If you want to, that is."

"It was his idea?"

"Yeah." Harm released her and moved toward the back door, where he stood looking through the window into the darkness. "I'll understand if you'd rather report for duty. I can probably handle things -"

"It almost sounds as if you don't *want* me here, Harm," she said, joining him to look up into his face.

"You didn't sign on for any of this - maybe it's not fair of me to expect -"

"I'm where I want to be, Harm," Mac said, reaching up to touch his cheek. "With you and Mattie. We're a family. And even though I'm not sure that any of us have had a lot of experience at being one, last I heard that means we handle things together. Good *or* bad."

"For better or worse?" Harm questioned, putting his arms around her, resting his palms against her hips.

"Something like that. I didn't mention this earlier, but - when Mattie and I went in to get her things, I noticed that the telephone was lying on the floor, off the hook - it had been pulled from the wall."

Harm closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "He probably told her that I'd called and she tried to call me back. Tom was drunk, he threw the phone and she decided to leave. God, Mac. I should have followed my instincts last night and gone out there after I talked to her. I knew something was wrong. I could feel it."

"Hindsight, Harm," she said. "It's a nice luxury. I don't know how many times I've done the same thing, wondering how I could have changed this or that. All it does is make you crazy." She held up her sandwich again. "Eat. I have a feeling we're both going to need as much energy as we can to get over the next few days."

"Yes ma'am," he said, giving her a grin before he obediently opened his mouth and took a bite out of the sandwich. "Not bad, Marine."

Mac noticed a dab of peanut butter at the corner of his mouth and stood on tiptoe to lick it away with her tongue. "I agree, Sailor," she said. "Why don't we go check on Mattie and then turn in ourselves?"


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