Mac looked up from her conversation with Bud and Harriet with a sinking sense of dread to see Harm push through the doors leading into the bullpen. She'd been grateful, in a strange and painful sort of way, to discover that he'd left to spend some time with Diane. She'd been hoping to avoid seeing him, at least for today. She wasn't at all sure she'd be able to keep her emotions off her face if she had to talk to him.
"Excuse me," she told the two lieutenants quickly, cutting Bud off mid-sentence. She flashed him look of apology then spun away, retreating toward her office as fast as dignity would allow.
"Hey, Mac! You got a minute?" Harm's voice froze her in her tracks.
Stiffening, she turned to face him. He was headed toward her with a determined spring to his step, and Mac knew instantly that he wanted to talk about something personal. She could read it in his eyes.
I can't do this right now, she thought, panicked. "No, Commander, I'm sorry. I don't." And before he could do more than gape at her in surprise, she turned on her heel and left.
When she reached the relative safety of her office, she closed the door behind her, then leaned her hands on the desk and tried to force herself to breathe normally. She straightened a moment later as the door opened, her heart clenching. She didn't need to look to know who it was. She could feel him standing behind her, his presence like an electrical thrill across her skin.
Some of the raging hurt she felt tore free at his intrusion. "Would it really be too much to ask for you to knock before barging into my office, Harm?"
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him recoil at her tone. "Mac? Are you all right?"
The loaded question nearly shattered her composure. She laughed raggedly, the sound emerging as a groan. "Go away, Harm."
His response was predictable. "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's wrong."
Mac closed her eyes. Insufferable, stubborn man. If he stayed any longer, she was afraid she would either bawl or start screaming.
"I don't want to talk about it. Now if you'll excuse me—"
"Not until you tell me what's wrong."
Grimacing, she did the only thing she could think of. "Dismissed, Commander."
"I said dismissed," she snapped, pouring every ounce of military bearing she had left into the words.
The silence stretched thunderously, but then she heard the rustle of cloth, the creak of shoe leather, as he snapped to attention. "Aye, ma'am."
Mac waited until his footsteps had retreated before allowing herself to release her pent up breath in a shaky sigh.
Sturgis and Bud both paused, startled, as Harm stormed into the commander's office. Harm was vaguely aware that he was interrupting, but he didn't care.
"Do either of you know what's wrong with Mac?" he demanded.
The two officers exchanged a look.
"Why? Did she say something?" Sturgis asked after a moment.
Harm crossed his arms over his chest. "No, she's refusing to speak to me." He felt like he'd walked into the Twilight Zone. For the first time in his life, he was truly ready to lay everything out on the table and tell the woman of his dreams exactly how he felt about her—and she, inexplicably, was unwilling to give him the time of day.
"Um, sir?" Bud waited for Harm to focus on him before continuing, "Can you really blame her?"
"Harm—" Sturgis' voice was the essence of reason. "Mac just needs a little time to adjust to the situation."
Harm stared at them both. "What situation?"
Bud gave him an incredulous look. "You and Diane, sir."
Resisting the temptation to grab the lieutenant and shake him, Harm forced out through gritted teeth, "What about me and Diane?"
Bud was starting to look uncomfortable. "Er... you and Diane... together. Sir."
The pieces clicked into place all at once and left Harm flabbergasted. "Whoa. Back up. Who ever said that Diane and I were together?" He pinned both men with an accusing gaze.
Sturgis and Bud exchanged another look, this one of dismay.
"Mac did," Sturgis finally answered. "Should I take this to mean—?"
"Diane and I are just friends." Harm was painfully aware of the irony in that statement. "And we'll never be anything else. That part of our lives is in the past." Then the full import of what Sturgis had said finally hit him. "Wait a minute—Why would Mac think anything different?"
Bud slowly shook his head. "I hate to say it, sir, but I think everyone had the same impression."
For a moment, Harm recalled the look on Harriet's face during their last conversation on this topic—the anger and disappointment in her eyes—and he realized it was true. He turned to Bud.
He could see Bud composing his thoughts. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
Harm nodded, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose as he did so. He had the feeling he wasn't going to like what Bud had to say.
"It only took a couple of months... after Colonel Mackenzie was assigned here... for everyone to realize you and she were a really good fit." A crooked smile lit Bud's face. "For a while there was even a pool going as to when you two would get together." He met Harm's startled gaze and shrugged. "But after six years and—well, everything that's happened during them—I guess people finally came to the conclusion that there must be some reason it was never going to happen. Then Diane showed up, and it just seemed obvious that she must be the reason."
Harm stared at his friend as the words slowly sank in. "You know what the scary part is, Bud?"
The lieutenant shook his head.
"She was the reason. I didn't realize it, but she was. It took seeing her again to put everything into perspective."
Bud looked a little surprised at his admission. Sturgis remained inscrutable as he shuffled the papers on his desk. "I'm sure Mac will be glad to hear that."
Harm snorted at his droll tone. As with any good lawyers, the more tender facts of this case were known to all, but remained unspoken. "Yeah, if I can get her to listen to me long enough to tell her."
Mac tensed as soon as she heard the doorknob turn. There was no one else who could possibly have both the persistence and the audacity to barge uninvited into her office twice. "Don't take another step, Commander," she warned before his head even appeared around the door.
Harm ignored her, coming to stand in front of her desk with an expression she'd become very familiar with over the years. It was his closing argument 'game face,' and the determination he normally conveyed to a nine-member jury was now focused entirely on her.
"Are you going to call security to have me removed? That's the only way I'm leaving before I finish this."
She forced herself to meet his gaze, beginning to resent his insistence. What did he want from her? Permission to live happily ever after? Did he honestly have no idea what this was doing to her?
"What is there to finish, Harm?" she asked, her voice tired.
"A hell of a lot more than you realize. I finally dragged some information out of some of our coworkers, and it seems that everybody around here has a fundamental misconception about Diane and me. I think I've been unknowingly contributing to it, and that's going to stop right now."
Sensing that she was trapped, Mac decided to play along. She leaned back in her chair, pretending nonchalance. "Okay, what's the misconception?"
"That there is such a thing as 'Diane and me.' There isn't. We're friends, and we're always going to be friends. Nothing more."
Mac stared. He looked so sincere, and yet she couldn't possibly believe him. "Harm, I'm not going to try and get between the two of you." The words tasted awful in her mouth, and she drew on all of her strength to continue, "There's so much there that I know nothing about—"
He flashed her a look of pure frustration. "Mac, you're not listening. Di's reactivating her commission. She wants to join up with Naval Intelligence and put her experience to work. When I left here this morning, it wasn't to go off and start something with her. It was to take her home to see her father. I'm not with her, and I don't want to be. What do I have to do to convince you of that?"
Mac shook her head numbly, standing up from her desk. "I think you believe that, Harm, but that doesn't make it true. You two have so much history together... Could you really tell me that you're never again going to look at her and wonder about what might have been?" She met his defiant stare. "I'm not going to compete with that."
"You don't have to. There aren't any questions any more."
Mac summoned every ounce of skepticism she could find to drown out the sudden hope that flared in her heart. "Can you guarantee that?"
She bit her lip. "How?"
Harm threw his hands up. "Because she isn't the one I'm in love with!"
Mac stood very still, trying not to flinch under the intensity of his gaze. She couldn't breathe. If he really meant that... "Then, by extension, am I to assume there's someone else you're in love with?" she asked carefully.
Anger flashed in his gaze. "You don't have to assume a damned thing. I'll say it flat out."
Mac's heart sank. She sighed. "No, you won't," she said quietly. "Not here, in this office, and once we lose this moment I sincerely doubt we'll get it back. We never do."
A flash of panic flickered through Harm's ever-changing eyes, and she began to turn away from him, recognizing the all too familiar beginnings of a retreat.
"Oh no you don't." Without warning, he seized her wrist and headed toward the door. "Come on."
Thoroughly confused, she didn't resist as he dragged her through the bullpen. When she caught sight of the staff members gaping at them, though, some memory of propriety surfaced, and she straightened. "Harm, what in the– "
His voice was sharp. "Don't argue with me, Marine."
Unable to overcome her shock enough to protest, Mac allowed herself to be dragged after him.
No sooner had the doors closed behind the two officers than Harriet rushed toward Commander Turner's office, skidding to a halt in the doorway. "Something's happening," she told her husband and Sturgis breathlessly.
The two lawyers looked up with frowns. "What kind of something?"
"Something something." Harriet couldn't help her huge grin. "Come see."
Outside the building, Mac had given up on trying to decipher her partner's intentions. As much as she wanted to dig in her heels and demand an explanation, she hesitated to resist. Given his current level of resolve and the vise grip he had on her wrist, fighting with him would only have drawn more attention. She could only follow along for the time being and hope he hadn't wandered completely off the deep end.
"Sergeant," Harm called to the gate guard as they approached the guard shack.
The Marine sergeant snapped to attention, giving no indication that he saw anything odd about the situation. "Sir!"
"Where is the property line for this building?"
"I'm sorry, sir?"
"We don't have a fence, so it stands to reason that somewhere beyond this checkpoint there is a line that separates federal property from the city of Falls Church. I want to know where it is."
The sergeant didn't blink. "Approximately thirty yards out, sir. Just beyond the second oak."
"Thank you, Sergeant. Carry on." Harm took off at a brisk pace, forcing Mac to trot to keep up. When they reached the point in question, he stopped abruptly and swiveled to face her.
"So, have we lost the moment yet?"
"You made a good point about not having this conversation in the office. However, we're no longer on the grounds, so I'm theorizing that I can avoid a conduct unbecoming charge for doing this. Wish me luck." Then, before she had a chance to formulate a response, he pulled her in by her wrist. His other arm snaked around her waist, fingers splayed across her back as he brought her body flush with his. She felt every point of contact like the touch of a live wire as he bent down and delivered a stunning kiss.
When he pulled back, a fire raged behind his eyes. "I love you," he stated clearly, making her heart soar. "Not Diane or anybody else. I won't deny that for a long time she was the reason I held back, but it wasn't because I loved her. It was because I didn't know whether or not I loved her. I know that doesn't make much sense, but when she came back, I realized that she couldn't make me feel whole, and that the only person who could do that is standing right in front of me."
Tears brimmed in Mac's eyes as she recognized the truth in his words. "Harm– "
"I'm serious, Mac. When Rupert brought her in, I was sure it was you, and I was terrified for you. Di saw that—I mean really saw it—and she understands that what I feel for you is so much more than anything she and I ever had. So if she believes it, there's got to be some way I can make you believe it, too, and I'm telling you here and now that I'm going to keep trying until—"
"I love you, too." At his sudden, joyful comprehension, her earnest expression dissolved into a grin. "You need to learn to quit while you're ahead." She reached up and pulled his head down to meet her lips. He immediately drew her in, melding them together.
On the steps of JAG Headquarters, a half-dozen people were squinting out at the two figures across the parking lot, trying to get a good look. Tiner hurried out of the building with a pair of binoculars in hand.
"Found 'em!" he panted triumphantly. Harriet immediately snatched them away.
"Lieutenant," Admiral Chegwidden commented mildly from the step behind her. "Is that really an accepted use of Navy property?"
Harriet looked abashed and placed the binoculars in his outstretched hand. "Sorry, sir."
"Damn right." Chegwidden smiled as he lifted them to his eyes. "Admiral's privilege."
A low hum of conversation, broken by laughter, ran through the group. Even at that distance, it was obvious what the two officers were doing.
A.J. pulled the binoculars away with a snort. "Someone had better put a stop to this before we have to call the fire department," he muttered.
Handing the binoculars to Harriet, he set out across the parking lot.
Diane puttered around her San Diego apartment, humming to herself as she cleaned. The last year had seen so many fundamental changes in her life, but she was happier now than she could ever remember. Her work was challenging, her personal life full. Just being able to visit her father—go to an Orioles game from time to time—brought her tremendous joy.
A rap at her door interrupted her thoughts. She went to answer it, and was thoroughly surprised to find Harm standing on the other side.
"Surprise," he said with a grin.
"Harm!" Delighted, she wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him tight. Then she stepped back, inviting him in. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm on an investigation at Camp Pendleton, but I decided to take the opportunity to visit my Mom and Frank while I was here, and you're just around the corner from them, so—" He shrugged.
"Well, I'm glad you did." She eyed him critically, certain she knew the reason for the fundamental change she read in his face. "You look great."
He glanced down at his toes, abashed. "Thanks. You, too."
Diane tucked her hands behind her back self-consciously. "So, did you bring me wedding pictures?" She'd been deployed at the time and couldn't attend, which she figured was probably a good thing.
Harm reached into his coat pocket, emerging with a white envelope that looked to be stuffed with photos. "Of course." He handed them over.
Diane quickly settled on the couch, pictures in hand. Harm came and sat next to her as she flipped through the stack. The gold band on his left hand glinted softly as he moved, evoking a tiny pang of regret. Not because she resented his relationship with Mac, but simply because of what they might have had if things had been different.
The thought faded quickly as she studied the radiant couple smiling out at her from the photograph. No, this was how it was supposed to be. She looked up at Harm.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but does Mac know you're here?"
He flashed an amused grin. "Of course. She said to tell you hi."
Diane straightened the stack of photographs and returned them to their envelope. "Here's a bit of irony for you."
He quirked an eyebrow and waited.
She grinned. "I'm dating a pilot." At his look, she added, "Hey, if you can marry a woman who looks just like me, I can date a Tomcat pilot."
He chuckled and looked away. "Fair enough. What squadron?"
"He's a Top Gun instructor, actually."
That brought forth full-blown laughter. "Lucky man."
"I like to think so."
Their humor died quickly, replaced by stilted silence. Harm rose. "Well, I should go. I just wanted to stop by and... see how you were doing."
She touched his arm. "You don't have to worry about me, Harm," she told him gently. She stood up so she could look into his eyes as she spoke. He needed to know her words were true, and maybe she did as well. "I'm happy with my life." Somehow her hands found his. His grip was warm and comforting, but no sudden spark flared to life inside her at his touch.
He watched her for a moment longer, then bent to kiss her on the cheek. "I'm glad, Di."
She smiled fondly at him as she walked him to the door. "It was good to see you, Harm."
He echoed the expression. "You, too." Then, with a last grin, he was gone.
Diane closed the door behind him with a sense of closure. She doubted she would see him again for some time, but that was all right. Their past had become a stepping stone to separate futures, both of them bright. And what else, she thought, were friends for but to help each other through the rough times, and to see that they found the happiness they so richly deserved?
"Goodbye, Harm," she said to the blank door. Then, smiling softly, she turned away.
*** THE END ***