Disclaimer: Don't own'em.

A/N: This is it. Last part. All done. Thanks for reading. Thanks for the comments.

--

Squatter – Part 11

Stay

Two weeks later

JAG HQ
Christmas Eve
1308 Local

Mac crossed the bullpen, heading towards Harm's office. She wondered at how, after just a few weeks, going to his office had slowly climbed up her list of favourite moments in the day. A little casual conversation, a little teasing; it invariably netted her a smile. Since his return to JAG, that had been anything but the case. But since she'd started seeing McCool, since Harm had been doggedly insistent on not letting her retreat behind her shield of isolation, since he'd been trying his best not to get upset or angry or impatient at how difficult all of this was ... since then she'd started enjoying visits to his office more and more. She enjoyed just seeing him.

He'd made his offer to talk a standing one – sometimes hinting and prodding – but she'd invariably deflected his overtures, and he'd invariably, though reluctantly, held back. They definitely did talk more, about significant things. But never about the contents of her sessions.

She'd been telling herself she couldn't talk with him, just yet. Not with all the emotional turmoil the sessions with McCool invariably dredged up. Not when she was still trying to get a hold of herself. But, increasingly, she felt an actual need to talk to him. Hear his thoughts, his input. She would talk to him. Not yet. But, maybe today. Hopefully tonight...

She knew they were still just out of phase with what they once had, who they once used to be. She also knew that was mostly her fault – she was keeping a distance between them. She was still wary. All the talking with McCool had helped, Harm's presence had helped. But she was still wary. She was trying to fight her wariness, trying to beat it into submission. She was trying hard. Hence this visit to Harm's office. Try as she might, though, she couldn't suppress the feeling that she didn't deserve half of what he was doing for her. She didn't deserve the way he looked at her.

"Are you sure?"

His voice snapped her from her thoughts. She'd made it to Harm's office without even realizing it. Automarine.

He had his back to her, the phone pressed to his ear. He was casually leaning back into his chair, sounding amused. It suited him.

"Yeah, of course I am." His tone was light, upbeat. "This is great news. Do you have the dates?"

She entered his office and took a seat, waiting for him to finish. He turned around at the sound of her footsteps and his demeanour brightened. He sat a little straighter in his chair and grinned at her.

Mac returned a dimmed version of his smile. Most of his attention was on the phone call, so she didn't think he noticed her reserve.

"Yes," he rolled his eyes and laughed. "I know how email works."

He nodded into the phone, and Mac took the opportunity to study him. They were definitely in a much better place than they had been a few weeks ago. She knew he was still waiting for more. And, lately, that didn't make her too nervous. Well, it did kind of make her nervous. After all, there was so much potential for things to go wrong.

"You, too. Bye." His soft voice drifted into her thoughts, easing some of her worry.

Weeks of session with McCool had also helped in that regard, had brought the realization that it was normal to have some doubts. To have some fears. He was, after all, so important to her. And she needed to make sure he knew that, needed to tell him just how much he meant to her. To thank him. She had to loosen the tight hold she maintained on her reservations, her insecurities, and she had to trust him. She had to show him her trust.

"Hey, Mac." He looked at her and smiled as he hung up the phone.

She smoothed her skirt with her hands. Deep breath. Time to let go.

"Hi." She tried to return his smile. It was half-hearted. God, she was nervous about this.

He didn't seem to notice, or if he did he didn't comment. Instead he tilted his head lightly to indicate the phone.

"That was Mattie. She'll have a few days early in the new year to come visit." He was grinning widely, ear to ear.

Mac smiled genuinely at his good humour. "That's great, Harm."

"Yeah, it is." He nodded happily as he watched her from across the desk.

"Is she still taking those flying lessons?" She knew Mattie was still taking the lessons; she also knew how much he loved talking about her taking them.

"Damn straight." He replied, practically glowing with fatherly pride.

Mac laughed. "Hey, did you tell her about the first time you flew solo?" She asked, unable to keep the teasing note from her question.

"Hell no, Mac!" He exclaimed, alarmed. He sat upright in his chair and tried to fix her with a stern look, all the while reddening with embarrassment. "And you won't either."

"I won't?" She tapped her finger against her chin, thoroughly enjoying his discomfiture. "I think she'd appreciate learning from the best. We both agreed your technique was flawless." She added, her grin betraying her attempt at innocence.

"Hey, do you think Chloe would be up for dinner when she comes?" He asked quickly. "It's at around the same time, and I think they might get along well."

She raised an eyebrow, recognizing his attempt to change the subject. He grinned at her expression, and she decided his smile was nice enough to merit him a furlough from the teasing.

"I can ask her." Mac shrugged. "I don't think it'll be a problem."

"Did she get that care package you sent her?" He leaned back into his chair, settling in for a chat.

"Yeah." Mac nodded, grinning widely. She couldn't hide her pride, nor did she find that she wanted to. "She thinks I should quit the Corps and open up shop with my grandmother's Halva recipe."

"I'd be your most loyal customer, Marine." His eyes sparkled with humour.

Mac laughed in delight. "I told you how incredible my Mamani was, but if I'd known she had the power to turn you, of all people, on to desserts, I would've taken better notes during her lessons."

They shared a laugh.

"That recipe book is a treasure trove, Mac. I still think Faisinjan is my favourite." He paused, straightened slightly in his chair. Concealed just behind his good humour, she could see the steady look of anticipation that never left his eyes when he looked at her. "It was the first dish of hers, of yours, that I tasted."

She had been ignoring that unwavering glimmer of anticipation these past few weeks.

Her smile faded, her expression turned serious.

Not yet … Maybe today … Hopefully tonight.

He was watching her carefully. Waiting.

Jump in. Let go.

"Harm, I need to …" Mac hesitated, looked at her hands in her lap, searched for the right words. This was not the fourth grade. This was Harm. "What I mean is, are you free to, ah … I mean, I know it's Christmas Eve and you—"

"Of course I'm free, Mac." He cut her off quickly, a slight smile lifting the corner of his lips. "We'd already planned to meet to exchange gifts, remember?"

Mac clasped her hands together tightly and looked Harm in the eye.

"I mean to talk. I need to … I'd like to talk with you. About … things. It can be anytime. When you can."

She pressed her hands together even more tightly and swallowed her exasperation at her verbal fumbling. Who knew it could be so hard to say just a handful of words? Her tongue felt like it had just run the Ironman. At least he understood her.

His body tensed, his eyes became alert as her meaning registered. She could see him try to hide just how much her request affected him.

"Tonight?" The barely restrained anticipation in his voice was evident.

"I have an interview to conduct, this afternoon. Quantico." She watched him carefully, hoping he wouldn't think she was evading. "I don't know what time..."

"Not a problem, Mac." He jumped in, this time not even bothering to restrain the hope. "I'll make dinner, and we can eat whenever you make it back."

"Are you sure? It is Christmas Eve..."

"Yes." His voice was firm. "And," he grinned. "I have a spare key to your place..."

She returned a slightly dimmed version of his smile. Relieved that he was coming, worried that the conversation they were going to have might not go well, terrified that it would.

It's okay to have doubts, she reminded herself.

"You don't need me to tell you to make yourself at home." She repeated the same phrase she'd used a few weeks ago.

His grin widened into a full-wattage smile. She couldn't help but admire it for a few short moments.

"I'll see you, tonight, then." She turned to leave his office.

"Tonight," he repeated, his smile not fading an inch.

--

Bethesda Naval Hospital
Christmas Eve
2149 Local

Mac leaned back into the hospital bed. Her entire body was one gigantic, pounding ache. She closed her eyes and sighed. She was sure even her eyelashes hurt. And her car ... her beautiful, beautiful car. She couldn't complain, though. She was alive. It was apparently a miracle, given the extent of the damage to her car. To her beautiful, beautiful car.

She heard the rapid pounding of feet against the linoleum floor in the hallway, and she hoped everything was okay. Christmas Eve seemed a terrible time for tragedy. She rolled her eyes at the thought, scoffing. As opposed to any other day of the year?

The rapid footsteps approached her room and she looked towards the entrance. To her shock, Harm rushed in through the door, wearing his civvies and a look of panic that made the blood pound in her ears and her headache increase tenfold.

He stopped the moment he caught sight of her on the bed and stood, tense, by the entrance, watching her. He looked like he was barely containing himself, and she couldn't help but admire his restraint. His eyes never left hers as he stepped forward slowly, each step hesitant and cautious, until he reached her bedside. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder, trailed it down her arm. He entwined his fingers with hers. She watched as the tension left his body. His shoulders slumped and he bowed his head.

"Mac." He breathed, lifting his head to look at her. "Mac. Are you..." With his free hand, he hesitantly fingered a strand of hair from where it rested on her shoulder, and watched in rapt wonder as it glinted in the light. She realized that it was probably the only part of her that wasn't hurting.

"You gave me quite a scare, Marine." He smiled weakly as he tucked her hair behind her ear. He pulled the chair from the wall closer to the bed and sat down, his hand never leaving hers. She tried not to cringe in pain as his movements lightly jolted her.

She was so glad to see him, she didn't care to ask how he found her, didn't care how he knew about what had happened. A miracle, the doctor had said. A miracle. She could see the concern crinkle his brow, worry line his eyes, weariness darken the edges of his irises. Beneath it all, she could see the features she had so grown accustomed to, come to love. God, just seeing him, his face, his eyes...

"I've been pushing you away." She squeezed his hand as best she could. Even the cartilage in her knuckles hurt.

"You had stuff to figure out. I understand." He offered her a weak half-grin.

She shook her head. "I don't think you do."

He watched her, silent.

"Then help me understand." He leaned forward, rested his elbow on his knee, his hand still holding hers, and waited. Intently. Patiently.

She studied him for long moment, then let her gaze drift to their clasped hands. "I was afraid," she began quietly, "that if I talked to you about it and figured it out, then it wouldn't be me. It wouldn't have been me getting over all the crap of the past year and a half. And then when ... if you ... if it didn't work out, I'd be back at square one."

"Mac, I told you: I'm not—"

"I know, Harm." She bit back her frustration. "You told me. But I still have a hard time believing it. It's not anything I've ever had any experience with. And after the last year ... I didn't know. I couldn't be sure. I mean, who can guarantee that kind of thing?" She leaned back into the bed, shifted to try and somehow quell the aching in her body.

"Life has no guarantees, Mac."

"I know, Harm. God, do I know. But I just, after the last year and a half, I just couldn't do it anymore." She paused, stared at the hospital bracelet around her wrist, and at how his fingers seemed so much larger when they held hers. Now was as good a place and time as any to have the conversation that had been lurking in wait each and every time they talked.

Let go.

"You know, McCool agrees with you." She watched his fingers tense slightly around hers. "She says that I'm choosing to be alone. She thinks it's what I do, push everyone away. Especially you. Because then I can control everything, make my own guarantees. She thinks it's SOP with me."

"What do you think?" He prodded.

Mac shrugged, and lifted her free hand to their clasped ones. Delicately, she traced the contours of his fingers as they held hers.

"She's seeing me after the shittiest year and a half of my life." Her skin was also darker than his. Even in the harsh, impersonal hospital room lighting, her skin seemed golden next to his whiter skin. She remembered the conversation they'd had weeks ago about what color suited her. She wondered what he saw when he looked at her.

"So you don't agree with her?"

She looked up, pulled from her thoughts by his question.

"I don't think I pushed you away all the time." She didn't like how defensive that came out sounding. Mac sighed. "She thinks that's what I was doing after Mic left. When I went TAD."

"Was it?" They stared at each other. He was searching for something in her eyes, and she didn't know what it was. She looked away, suddenly feeling restless, and waved her hand aimlessly over her shoulder, ignoring the dull pain that pulsed from her arm through her entire body.

"I don't know." She hesitated, gave it some more thought. She expelled her frustration on a quick breath. "Back then, no. At least, I didn't think so. I wasn't pushing you away. I was trying to find myself."

"And now?" She could feel him hold his breath, waiting for her answer.

"Trying to find myself again." She caught his eye for a moment, before looking away. A sardonic laugh slipped free of her grasp. "I get lost quite a bit, don't I?"

"You're not alone." His fingers tightened around hers. "You don't have to do this on your own to prove yourself. You don't." His sincerity cut through her self-deprecation.

"I'm starting to figure that out." She said honestly, and forced herself to look at him. "Thanks to you and ... to therapy." She tried not to let her embarrassment show. It still rankled her somewhat that she couldn't deal with this on her own. Intellectually, she knew it shouldn't. But it still did.

"You remember that night," He raised an eyebrow in question, he sounded uncertain. "I told you that I wouldn't say it then..."

She frowned, confused by the direction in which he was steering their conversation. What night? Wouldn't say what? As soon as the question formed in her mind, the feel of him sitting next to her, on her bed, of being wrapped in his arms, her forehead resting on his chest, took hold of her with blinding clarity. She could smell the new furniture and freshly painted walls in her bedroom. She could hear the words he whispered in her ear, could feel them flit across her cheek.

"Can I say it now?" He was hesitant.

Anticipation settled over her skin like thousands of tiny bubbles, popping and fizzing and tingling. She nodded, her eyes never leaving his.

"No expectations, no demands. I just, I can't hold it inside anymore, Mac."

Her heart thudded in her chest; she could feel each beat against her ribs. Her palms began to sweat. She absently noted that it was a different kind of palm sweating. Not borne of anxiety, but of sweet expectation. And the flutter in her tummy was nothing like the gut-wrenching nervousness she used to feel just over a month ago.

She watched his chest rise and fall as he took a deep breath. She watched his eyes darken to a sharp, mesmerizing blue, she saw hope and contentment flicker in his gaze. And he hadn't even told her yet, hadn't said it. She wondered at what he felt for her that a simple nod from her made him suddenly seem years younger.

He captured her eyes with his, and she wished she could feel his words against her skin, smell them, touch them. Hearing suddenly seemed a wholly inadequate sense.

"I love you, Mac." His words floated through the space between them and blanketed her heart, soothing over all the cuts and scrapes and breaks and tears the years had inflicted. She could actually feel his words. And she trusted the feeling, she let it flow through her, she swam in it.

"I think, in some form or another, I always have." He took her hand in both of his. "What I feel for you, it's ... I don't even think words could do it justice, Mac. I ... I don't have the words to do it justice."

She stared at him, feeling awed and other things she couldn't name because of the steady ache that was throbbing through her entire body, demanding too much of her. And yet, despite the ache, despite the grogginess from the meds, she felt more content than she thought she ever had before. More complete. More herself.

"Harm..."

"You don't have to say anything." He rushed the words out on an anxious breath, the intensity in his eyes not wavering. "Not now. Think about it."

She shook her head slowly.

"I don't need to think about it." And she didn't. She could feel it.

He raised his eyebrows in question, his voice barely a whisper. "Trust me?"

He was looking at her so intently, with such hope.

"More than I've ever let myself before." Her answer was heartfelt. In these past few weeks, she felt like the dark bands that had wrapped themselves around her, that had obscured everything she saw or touched had suddenly loosened their hold. She knew Harm, with his persistence and his caring, was the reason why everything seemed brighter, sharper. He was the reason why the world had suddenly fallen back into focus.

It was an epiphany. She had tried so hard to extricate herself from him, to pull away so that he could be happy and she wouldn't get hurt. And all along, the entire time, they had been irretrievably tangled together. She was his happiness, and he was her balm. Hell, she thought that maybe their very fates were intertwined.

He carefully tucked her hair behind her ear, trailed his finger over the shell of her ear, down her neck. All she could feel in that moment was the gentle trail left by his touch. His eyes held hers, showing her all he couldn't put into words.

He closed the distance between them and pressed his lips to hers in a soft, lingering kiss. She sighed at the contact. He pulled back slightly before leaning in again, gingerly running his fingers through her hair. The second kiss was slow and deliberate and held nothing of the desperation of that kiss by her stove. She leaned closer into him, parted her lips to deepen the kiss. The moment he responded, she felt sharp pangs of pain zing through her swollen face. She pulled back abruptly and shut her eyes, waiting for the stinging to subside.

When she opened her eyes, he was watching her with an odd mixture of concern and remorse.

She couldn't help but smile at his reaction, but that just served to stretch her tender skin. She sucked in a quick breath at the renewed jolt of pain.

His concern deepened, but she saw a slight smile tease the corner of his lips.

"Airbag." She offered by way of explanation once the pain subsided.

He took her hand in both of his and gave her a wicked grin. "I was trying to be good."

She laughed, or attempted to without moving her facial muscles too much. "We may have to settle for being gentle for the next little while, Sailor."

They exchanged an affectionate look, the shared memory lingering on its edges.

"This doesn't solve everything ..." She began hesitantly, hating to have to show him any sign of weakness. A part of her knew it was unreasonable after all he'd done, all he'd been for her ... but his opinion had always mattered so much. "I mean, I think I still need to see McCool."

He nodded slowly, looking relieved and pleased. "That's good, Mac."

She raised an eyebrow, surprised by his reaction. She searched his eyes, and all she could see was sincerity.

"I would never think less of you, Mac." His hushed words slowly, painstakingly crumbled the last of her defences. "I could never see you for less than you are."

She felt the tears well up in her eyes, and blinked them away.

"If you keep on being so sweet and understanding with me, you'll just make me cry."

He grinned. "Hopefully soon, it won't make you cry." He trailed his fingers through her hair.

"I think we're already on our way." She grinned in return as she felt the steady simmer of hope. The pain again lanced across her face. She closed her eyes and sighed tiredly. It was ironic. She actually had reason to smile now, and yet every time she did, the stinging pain felt like a slap.

"Hurts?" He asked sympathetically.

She shook her head, tried to smile without stretching her facial skin. Bruises on her face and entire body she could handle. The rest were already healing. Happiness settled itself by her side.

"Would you ..." She tugged his hand, and then looked away feeling oddly timid. She rolled her eyes, exasperated at her own behaviour. For god's sake. She was working on believing that being vulnerable didn't mean being weak, at least not with him. She was working on trusting him. Hell, she did trust him. She fixed her eyes firmly on his. "Would you stay?"

As soon as the words left her lips, he stood up from his chair and sat next to her on the bed. He pulled one leg up and delicately wrapped an arm around her shoulder. They both knew what she was asking him.

"Forever, if you'll let me." He kissed her temple and rested his cheek against the top of her head. "And even if you don't."

She took his hand in hers, leaned into his larger frame. She released a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. He held her close as she mulled over his words.

"Harm?" Her tone was tentative.

"Hmm?" She could feel his breath in her hair.

She turned as much as she could in his embrace, to face him. Her eyes met his.

"I do, too. Love you. I don't have the words to do it justice, either." She had to pause at the unabashed happiness that transformed his face. She brought a hand up, rested it against his cheek. "But I'm trying to make some up."

His smile lit the room.

"I don't even own a dictionary, Mac." He placed a lingering kiss on her forehead. She laughed softly at his reply, sighed with contentment at his gesture.

He settled back against the bed, carefully pulling her with him. She tucked herself into his side, her head resting against his shoulder.

"Rest, Mac." He whispered into her hair.

She nodded, even as she felt the dark, warm fog of sleep weigh down her eyelids and settle her mind into stillness. She closed her eyes, sighed. And with Harm sitting beside her, his arm around her shoulder, his hand wrapped in hers, his breath caressing her hair, Mac fell asleep.

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