Disclaimer: Don't own'em
A/N: Thank you for reading, and for the comments/reviews.
On the road to MacLean, VA
"The Admiral just invited everyone from JAG to his place for chili?" Mac asked him, seated in the passenger side of the car.
"Yeah. He won an award for this chili recipe years ago. The topic came up Wednesday when we were in the break room. Harriet said her grandfather's chili is the stuff of legend. He challenged her to a cook-off."
Mac stared at Harm in amused disbelief. "Poor Harriet."
"I'd say poor admiral. I never knew Harriet had such a competitive streak. The admiral asked – well, ordered really – us poor bystanders to be judges. I just wanted a cup of coffee."
She laughed, one hand coming to rest on his arm. He watched her from the corner of his eye, enjoying this side of her. She was a lot less … reserved around him since Friday night. And a lot more tactile in these small ways.
"This has disaster written all over it." She grinned.
"I don't know whose bad side I'd rather be on, the admiral's or Harriet's." He added. He took her hand in his, and rested them on his thigh. He glanced at her, and they exchanged a warm smile.
They fell into a comfortable silence as he navigated the streets towards MacLean.
"Harm." By the tone of her voice, he knew she was worried about something.
"We haven't talked about what we're going to do about work." She was watching him carefully.
That was true, Harm thought, and rather uncharacteristic for both of them. But they'd been busy doing other things … More enjoyable things. He grinned, remembering what they had been doing. He never knew that Mac could—
"Harm!" She shook his hand to get his attention.
He snapped from his thoughts and looked at her.
"Yeah?" Maybe she wouldn't realize where his thoughts had been.
"Where were you?" She grinned as she said this, and he knew she'd caught him out.
"We aren't breaking any regs." He ignored the smug look on her face, and tried to get the conversation back on track. "We'll talk to the admiral on Monday. See him first thing in the morning."
"Okay." She nodded slowly, considering his suggestion. "So we play friends and coworkers this afternoon?"
He tightened his hold on her hand.
"We're still coworkers, Mac, and we'll always be friends." He felt a bit thrown off by her statement. Things had changed, but not that much.
She wrapped both her hands around his. "That's not what I meant." She reassured him. "But we didn't really leave my apartment all day yesterday, and you haven't exactly been keeping your hands to yourself." She teased him, one eyebrow arched mischievously.
He couldn't help but laugh. "Neither have you, Marine."
"That's the difference. Marines have great willpower." She stated with a conviction that had to have been drilled into her at boot camp.
"We'll see." He challenged. This had a lot of potential.
"We will see." She affirmed.
He brought her hand to his lips. "So we keep this to ourselves until we talk to the admiral tomorrow morning?" He glanced at her.
She nodded, and then broke into a huge grin.
"I can't wait to see everyone again! This is going to be such fun."
"Except the bit about the admirals' pride and Harriet's family honour being on the line." He pointed out.
"You can be so dramatic." She rolled her eyes.
"Ready?" Harm asked Mac as they stood on the admiral's front deck.
She nodded, and reached forward to ring the doorbell.
"You?" She asked in return.
Harm spared the door a quick glance before leaning in to deliver a brief kiss.
"I'm always ready," He stated arrogantly.
She laughed, and pointed a finger at him. "I told you Marines have better willpower. Keep your hands to yourself."
"I did keep my hands to myself," He lifted his hands to show them to her, and leaned his face in towards her, "But you didn't say anything about—"
The admiral's front door swung wide open, causing Harm to abruptly drop his hands and turn towards the door – but not before catching Mac's victorious grin.
"Ma'am!" Bud exclaimed, smiling widely when he saw Mac. "The Commander wasn't sure you'd be able to make it!"
"And miss a chili cook-off?" Mac asked with a touch of drama.
Harm rolled his eyes. Mac and meat.
"How was Ger—"
Before Bud could finish the question, Harriet appeared, holding AJ in her arms.
"Harriet! You look great." Mac exchanged a hug with her friend.
"You too, Ma'am! It's great to see you." Harriet enthused. "How was the trip?"
"It was alright." Mac shrugged, and then broke into a smile. "But it's great to be back home."
"Hey, don't I get a proper greeting?" Harm teased, as he watched the warm reunion.
Mac rolled her eyes, while both Bud and Harriet laughed.
"And is this little AJ?" Mac exclaimed, tickling the blond boy Harriet was holding. AJ shrieked with laughter. "How's my godson? Can I hold him?" She asked Harriet, her eyes wide with eagerness.
"Of course!" Harriet handed AJ over to Mac, who carefully took him in her arms.
"Aw, Harriet! He's even bigger than he looked in the pictures." She smiled at AJ. "Hey, little man. Your Aunt Mac missed you so much! Can you say 'Mac'?"
Harm laughed. "There's a while for that yet, Mac." He came to stand next to Mac, placing one hand on her shoulder, and tickling AJ lightly with the other. "Besides, his first word is going to be 'Harm'." He glanced at Mac, grinning, before focusing on AJ. "Isn't that right, buddy?"
AJ clapped his hands and gave Mac a huge smile. She grinned in return and then turned to look at Harm, full of vindication.
"Ha." She stated, before turning her attention back to AJ. "You look so handsome in the pictures your mommy sent me, Sweetheart." She looked up at Harriet. "Thanks for the pictures, Harriet. They really made it easier to be so far away..." She trailed off uncertainly, and Harm felt her tense beneath his hand.
He looked up to see what caused Mac's reaction, and found that Harriet was watching them, her expression an odd mix of delighted curiosity and reserved speculation. Harm realized he and Mac were standing in a rather intimate and comfortable position – his one arm around her while she held a baby…
He took a step back from Mac as casually as he could.
"So, Harriet." Harm decided that now would be a good time to change the subject. "Is your secret family chili recipe ready for the challenge?"
That seemed to be enough to distract Harriet. She turned to Harm, her usual sunny exuberance in place.
"You bet, Sir. The admiral doesn't stand a snowball's chance in he—" She glanced at AJ and amended, "Heck!" She declared categorically, then after a slight hesitation, added, "Respectfully."
They all laughed, even AJ joined in.
"Well," Harm replied, "Now that Mac's here, you'll have a judge who knows what they're talking about." He turned to Mac. "Isn't chili a big deal in Arizona?"
"You can't compare Arizona chili to Texan chili, son." The admiral stated. All four turned, surprised to see him standing in the hall, watching them with his arms crossed over his chest.
"No, Sir." Harm fought his smile.
"Good to see you, Colonel." The admiral said warmly to Mac. Harm watched the exchange, admiring Mac's bright smile as she stood surrounded by people whom she cared about, and who cared about her.
"Thank you, Sir. It's good to be back." Mac gave the admiral one of her rare full-blown smiles. Although given what he'd seen of Mac since dinner on Friday, Harm was pleased to note that he didn't think it quite as rare anymore.
"Things go well in Germany?" The admiral asked.
Chegwidden nodded, before turning his attention to the entire group assembled at his front door.
"Everyone in the living room. The rest of the judges are waiting. We begin in ten minutes."
They followed the admiral to the living room, Bud and Harriet walking ahead of Harm and Mac, who was still holding their godson. Harm glanced at Mac as she charmed AJ. He caught himself smiling at the picture they made. The way AJ was looking up at her, she definitely had herself another lifelong fan.
They entered the living room, and Mac was greeted by the rest of the JAG staff, including Mattoni, Tiner and Gunny. She was also introduced to Singer. Harm thought Singer looked like she was sizing Mac up, but he could've been mistaken.
The rather noisy reunion amongst the JAG staff was put to an end when the admiral asked everyone to settle down.
"Here are the ground rules." The admiral began once everyone had taken a seat. Harm, conscious of maintaining an appropriate distance, sat on the couch next to Mac. She held a happily fidgeting little AJ on her lap.
"You are to judge each chili based on taste, aroma, texture and originality." The admiral continued. "The chili will be presented to you in identical bowls, with no outward indication of whose chili you are tasting. This will ensure that your decisions will not be influenced by any undue fears that I will scuttle your careers or that Harriet will become your worst administrative nightmare, should the results not work in either of our favour." He glanced at Harriet, frowning in mock warning.
The staff collected in his living room laughed at the admiral's uncharacteristic display of good humour.
"My entry is my original Trident Burner Chili. Lt. Simms," The admiral nodded towards Harriet, handing her the floor.
"My entry is my grandfather's Southern Devil chili. The recipe has been in our family for three," She glanced at AJ, who was trying to make a grab for Mac's earrings, and added with a smile, "And now four generations."
"We'll bring out the bowls when the chili is ready to taste." The admiral concluded. He and Harriet left the room, heading towards the kitchen.
Harm watched them walk out, and turned to look at Mac.
"They're taking this very seriously, aren't they?" She asked him, watching AJ as he pulled on her necklace.
Harm gently extracted AJ's fingers from around Mac's necklace. The kid had a surprisingly strong grasp. "You didn't see them in the break room on Wednesday when the topic came up." He grinned at Mac. "I'm surprised they haven't handed us pre-printed scorecards."
Mac laughed, and Harm watched in amusement as AJ joined in on her infectious laughter.
"What's so funny, buddy?" Harm asked AJ.
AJ garbled a response, his grubby hand tightly holding Harm's index finger.
"You tell Uncle Harm, AJ." Mac encouraged him playfully. "Can you say 'Mac' for me, little man? Say 'Mac'."
AJ giggled and bounced on her lap.
Mac gave Harm a knowing glance. "He's getting there," She informed him.
Harm was about to respond, when the admiral called everyone into the dining room.
"I'll just give AJ back to Harriet," She told Harm, and then turned to AJ. "That way Aunty Mac can enjoy her chili."
AJ drooled in agreement.
"See," Harm told Mac, grinning. "He's more like Jingo than you think."
"Harm!" She gave him a disapproving frown before heading off to find Harriet.
Harm stood with a bowl of chili in hand, chatting with Mattoni and his wife about the merits of chili number one versus chili number two. He glanced around the room, while Mattoni and his wife argued lightheartedly about their chili preferences, and saw Mac talking with Tiner and Gunny. She'd been chatting with someone or the other since she walked into the dining room, holding a bowl of chili instead of a godson. He was waiting patiently for her to make her way to him.
Mattoni and his wife had just excused themselves to get another drink when Mac finally reached him.
"Hey," She smiled at him.
"Hey." He grinned.
Her eyes flicked to his bowl of chili.
"You're eating chili." She was staring at him.
He shrugged. "The admiral was going to throw some veggie burgers on the grill, but the freezer brand he has is absolutely disgusting, so I opted for this. Besides, have you ever tried to say no to Harriet…" She was still looking at him, an odd expression on her face, her eyes traveling from the spoon of chili in his hands to his face and back. It was a bit disconcerting.
"What?" He asked, putting a spoonful of chili in his mouth.
His question snapped her out of her daze. To his confusion she looked over her shoulder and, seemingly satisfied that no one was within hearing distance, leaned forward until she was mere inches from his face.
"I, uh, I'm a bit embarrassed to say just how turned on I am at the sight of you eating … red meat." The last word was barely a whisper as her eyes latched onto his lips, and then his eyes.
Sweet mother of … This was unexpected. There was what could only be described as a hungry look – tempered by a slight embarrassment – in her eyes. Harm swallowed heavily. It was a stupid thing to do with a mouth full of chili, which went down the wrong way. He coughed, choking on the meat. His eyes watered and Mac rushed to pat his back.
"Harm! It's okay. It's just like eating vegetables. Just chew and swallow." She said solicitously. He could hear the amusement in her voice, and rolled his eyes through his tears.
"Sir…" He heard Harriet's concerned voice. Great, now he had an audience.
"Are you alright, Commander? Is it too hot for you?" And the admiral. Great. Just great.
"He's fine, Sir." Mac answered, now rubbing circles on his back. "He's not used to eating meat. I think he forgot how to." She teased.
Harm decided revenge would be sweet.
He coughed a few more times, and took a glass of water that someone was holding in front of him.
"Ah. I'm fine, Sir, Harriet. Thank you." He cleared his throat and offered a reassuring smile before turning an accusing glare at Mac.
"If you'll all excuse me…" He left the small circle and made his way through the Admiral's house towards the nearest washroom. Stupid meat. No wonder he never ate the stuff … Although if he'd known how Mac would react like that to his eating it, he might've started consuming it years ago. Probably that first time they ate her peace offering on his bed. That would've made for some definite fun.
A few minutes later, Harm was exiting the washroom when he heard Mac's voice drifting from the kitchen. He'd bet good money she would come to check on him. He ducked into the nearest room, and waited for her to walk by. He only had to wait a few moments. Just as she passed in front of the door, he shot his arm out and grabbed her. Harm pulled her into the room and pressed her against the wall. After giving one last look out the door to make sure no one else was in the hallway or had noticed his brilliant move of stealth, he ducked back into the room, shutting the door behind him, and locked it.
"I got you, Marine. Without a fight." He grinned arrogantly. "You should be ashamed."
"Harm! What are you doing?" She asked, alarmed. He rarely saw her look alarmed. He would take full advantage of it. Revenge was sweet.
"Come on, Mac." He held her arms against his chest, and nibbled lightly on her neck. "Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Where's your sense of propriety?" She pushed him away, but left her hands on his chest.
He watched her for a moment, grinning – panic was a great look on her – and then returned to exploring the graceful column of her neck.
"Really, Harm. This is unlike you, to be so…" She searched the ceiling for the appropriate word, but gave up after a few fruitless seconds. "I mean, we're in the admiral's house!"
"Unlike me, is it?" He asked, pretending to think her words over. "And here I was thinking the real me was finally shining through, just for you, French fry." He gave her what he thought was a winning smile.
"Don't use flattery on me." She warned. "You know better than to think it'll work."
He was pretty sure his flattery had worked really well yesterday. It was his charm that had encountered some trouble. Or so she said. The heady anticipation he'd been feeling around her all weekend was suddenly almost overpowering.
"God, I love it when you get all feisty and act impervious." He whispered into her ear. He knew they probably shouldn't be doing this, but he'd been admiring the wrap around dress she was wearing from the moment she'd emerged from her bedroom that morning. He trailed his fingers along her waist and to the knot that held her dress together. He wondered what would happen if he just tugged at it, would the knot actually unravel? He'd thought about it quite a bit since the morning.
"I am…" She trailed off when he kissed her jaw, and slipped one hand around her back.
"Feisty?" It was a task to keep talking when there was so much he'd rather be doing, like – his tongue traced the line of her collarbone – like that. "I know." He tugged on the knot he'd been thinking about for hours, and the front of her dress actually fell open.
He stared at her in awe. He hadn't really expected that to work. Shouldn't she have more holding her clothes together?
"Impervious…" Her breath hitched when he lowered his head to her chest, and slid his hands over her bare skin. "To your charms…Harmmmhh."
He loved it when she said his name that way. It was so … uninhibited.
"When you say my name like that…" His lips lazily explored a path to her shoulder.
"You…" She began, trailed off, and then tried again. "We have to stop…"
"We're not in uniform." He slid his hands to her hips, over her soft skin.
"We're in the admiral's guest room!" She protested, leaning heavily against him, her breathing laboured. "We'd be naked and we'd still be in uniform."
"Naked?" He asked, pulling her even closer into him. "Want to test that theory? Not that you have far to go…"
"Harm!" She pushed his shoulders slightly. "Please…"
"Alright, alright." He pulled away, scowling.
She laughed, out of breath, and rubbed her hands up and down his arm in a soothing motion. "Come on, Harm. Just a couple more hours. I'm sure you can wait."
"I waited long enough." He leaned his forehead against hers, his hands on her waist. "I don't see why I should wait anymore."
"Just two hours. And we're telling the admiral tomorrow," She reminded him, she placed her hands over his.
"Yeah." He reluctantly pulled his hands away from her skin, and began wrapping her dress back around her. He tried not to scowl at his own idiocy. Maybe dragging Mac into an empty room, with her wearing a dress held together only by a knot, while their physical relationship was still obviously new and explosive was not the best idea he'd ever had. He bent his head, concentrating on tying up the knot on her dress.
"C'mon, Harm." She kissed his forehead, he was comforted to know she sounded apologetic. "We should get back…"
He looked up at her with a frown, and studied her. How could she go from being unwrapped, to being so … normal. Was he the only one having a hard time with this?
"How can you just switch gears like that?"
She looked in his eyes, and heaved a deep sigh, full of longing. "It's not easy." She trailed a finger from his bicep down to the crook of his elbow. "Trust me. I would like nothing more than to see you…" She leaned her head back against wall, their eyes locked. "To feel you."
"Stop!" Harm quickly put out a hand. "Whoa there, Marine. Save it for the bedroom." He looked around at their surroundings and mumbled, "A bedroom where I can actually follow through on that."
"That was fun. I told you Marines have better self control." She gave him a diabolical grin.
"Cruel and unusual, Marine." He shook his head, amused. He took a deep breath.
"Alright." He told her. "Let's get back in there."
"Just a couple of hours." She said.
"Just a couple of hours." Harm repeated, already counting down the minutes until they could make a graceful exit. "And then we'll see how great your willpower really is." He added in warning.
"We should get back." Mac said reluctantly, breaking their rather heated staring contest.
Mac wiped lipstick from his lips while he finished straightening her clothes. She grinned up at him as she adjusted his collar, then gave herself a final look over and seemed satisfied. "Let's go, Sailor."
He unlocked the door, and held it open for her. As she exited the room, she looked at him over her shoulder.
She stopped speaking abruptly when she walked right into the admiral, who was standing just outside the door. Harm's jaw dropped in horror. Crap. This was not good. He fervently prayed they didn't look like they'd been necking in their CO's guest room.
Chegwidden lightly caught Mac by the shoulders to steady her.
"Are you okay, Mac?" He asked, his expression one of concern. The look on his face however, transformed into one of suspicion when he caught sight of Harm gaping as he stood behind Mac, still in the bedroom. Harm shut his mouth.
"Did you two get lost?" He asked, his piercing gaze shifting from Mac to Harm and back. He crossed his arms.
"Yes, Sir." Said Mac.
"No, Sir." Said Harm.
They exchanged a look. Shit, Harm thought.
"I thought the washroom was in here," Mac tried to cover.
"I needed a quiet room to a make a phone call," Harm stated simultaneously. Their words stumbled over each other in awkwardness.
Harm thought he caught a trace of amusement flicker briefly in the admiral's eyes as he studied them, his expression thoughtful.
Harm remembered the golden rule he'd learned when he was sent to the principal's office for the first time in grade two: the less you said the better.
"I see." The admiral said slowly. He made a show of searching the room behind Harm. He looked first Harm, and then Mac. Harm felt like a specimen under a microscope.
"Would I be safe in assuming that you only make a habit of getting lost or making 'private' phone calls in quiet rooms when you're off duty?" He said after interminable seconds of silent scrutiny.
Harm felt his heart slowly crawl, shamefaced, down to his toes. Judging by the look on Mac's face, she was feeling pretty much the same way.
"Yes, Sir." They both stated, appropriately chastised. And embarrassed.
"Hm." The admiral said. He waited in silence, obviously expecting them to say more.
"Sir," Mac began, and Harm braced himself. It figured: Mac had probably never been sent to the principal's office as a kid. She wouldn't know the golden rule. "The Commander and I would like to meet with you, tomorrow morning to discuss a … matter."
The admiral's eyes narrowed, and he leaned back slightly, arms crossed in full CO mode. The admiral studied Mac speculatively, and then shifted his gaze to Harm. Harm decided he was going to have a long talk with Mac about the golden rule.
Finally, the admiral nodded his head, his eyes softened almost imperceptibly. "0900 it is, Colonel." Satisfied, he changed topics. "We're counting the votes to determine the winning chili. If you would both make your way to the living room." The admiral turned on his heel and left.
Harm watched him walk away, and then reluctantly turned to look at Mac. He supposed, technically, that he was the one who'd dragged her into the admiral's guest room and proceeded to unwrap her. He hoped she wasn't upset. Although, knowing how much importance she placed on her image at JAG and in the eyes of her CO, Harm was mildly terrified of her reaction.
"Mac," He began, intending to apologize, but when he faced her he didn't think she looked upset, just a bit worried as she watched the spot where the admiral had stood moments ago. He changed tracts, not wanting her to be fret.
"Everything will be fine, Mac." He glanced down the empty hallway before taking her hand in his. "We'll be fine."
After a brief silence, she turned to look at him.
"I know," She affirmed, her expression one of resolve. She broke into a slight smile, and tugged his hand playfully, trying in turn to put him at ease. "We'll talk to the admiral tomorrow – officially – and it will be sorted."
He shook his head, and tried to convey his meaning to her. "I don't mean just tomorrow morning. No matter what happens tomorrow morning at JAG, or at any other time, we'll be fine."
She looked up at him, searching his face. He waited for her to decide if she believed him, and if she trusted them.
Slowly, the smile that he now recognized as his spread across her face and shone in her eyes. At the sight of it, he was hit by the epiphany that had been escaping him all weekend. He realized that this is what he'd been missing, had been looking for. The life that was waiting for him, the home he was trying to find, the sense of belonging he thought he'd lost.
All of it in held in the eyes of the woman standing in front of him. His best friend, his confidant, his support, the person who mattered most to him in this world. And to think, he'd worked with her for three years, side by side, day in and day out, yet it took a 77 day TAD to another continent, an ocean away, for him to realize all that he felt for her, all that he wanted with her.
Life really was full of unexpected surprises.
He was pulled from his thoughts when Mac gave his hand a quick squeeze, before letting it go.
"We should go to the living room. And no private phone calls until we're back at your place." She threw him a quick conspiratorial wink, full of amusement and affection as she walked away.
He raised an eyebrow, and watched her retreating from. A couple more hours. And an entire lifetime after that. He followed her down the hall, wearing the same huge smile he'd had on for the past two days. He was going to enjoy every moment of this.