Chapter 38

Two days later,

Saturday,

Eppes Residence

Pasadena, CA

1205 Local

Alan leaned down and looked out the front window, "They're here."

"Great," Charlie poked his head out of the kitchen. "I'll be there in a second, just finishing up the salad." True to his word, he joined Alan on the porch by the time Harm, Mac and the Burnetts reached the steps. After introductions, handshakes and hugs were exchanged, they all moved inside. Trish stopped for a moment to admire the interior, "This is beautiful." She turned to Alan and Charlie, "Sarah tells me it's a Craftsman?" That was enough to get Alan started and soon the elder Eppes was leading Frank and Trish off for a tour of the house and grounds.

Charlie smiled as he watched them walk away and turned back to Harm and Mac, "Dad's going to talk their ears off." He looked the JAG officers up and down, "How are you two doing?"

Returning Charlie's smile, Mac spoke first, "Much better, thank you."

Harm nodded in agreement. He had an arm casually draped across Mac's shoulders so that she was comfortably tucked against his side, "Is everyone here already?"

"Just about," Charlie led them towards the back door, "Megan called, said she and Larry would be here in about ten minutes. Everybody else is out back."

A chorus of greetings met them as they stepped out on the patio. Harm went to join Don, Ian and David by the grill while Charlie and Mac sat at the picnic table with Amita and Colby.

"You look like you're feeling better," Colby poured a glass of sweet tea and handed it to Mac.

"I am, thanks," Mac sipped the tea and smiled. "And relieved this case is over."

"No arguments there," Charlie agreed, sharing a slight grin with Amita.

"So I guess you two will be heading back to DC soon?" Colby folded his arms and rested them on the table.

Mac shook her head, "General Cresswell granted us leave for the next three days, starting today." She looked in Harm's direction, "Harm's parents have invited us to stay with them so we'll be heading to La Jolla this evening. They've got a beautiful home on the ocean."

"Sounds nice. You both could use a break," Colby turned his head at the sound of a door opening and smiled, "Hey Megan, Larry." Alan walked up at nearly the same time with Frank and Trish. Introductions were made once more and shortly afterwards Don announced that the meat was ready. The next hour was spent eating and casually conversing. Eventually, everyone was reduced to what Alan referred to as 'filling up the corners' as they relaxed with their beverage of choice.

"That was delicious," Trish smiled at the Eppes men.

Frank nodded too, adding, "Thank you for including us."

"Nonsense, it was our pleasure" Alan waved a hand in dismissal and raised his wineglass, "And it's nice having someone else here who understands how these kids can turn you prematurely gray. We parents need to stick together."

"Amen to that," Trish raised her own glass before taking a sip.

"Aw, Dad, c'mon, it's not... ," Charlie started to argue and then gulped as the three turned to stare at him.

He looked over at Don who grinned as he held up a hand, "Oh no, nothing doing, Chuck. You can get yourself out of this one."

"Fine," Charlie huffed a little as his father eyed him expectantly, then straightened up. "Okay, really, it's just a matter of statistics. If we were to take the number of cases handled on a weekly basis - ," he paused for a moment looking around, "which is what? Ten? Twenty?"

"Try forty or fifty," Megan chimed in as she shared an amused glance with her colleagues.

Charlie's eyebrows went up, "Really? Wow, okay, say fifty. Out of those fifty, how many would be considered dangerous?"

"All of them, Chuck," Don was clearly enjoying himself. "They involve criminals and illegal activities."

"You're not helping," Charlie scowled at his brother.

"Didn't intend to," Don grinned.

"Four or five will probably deal with a violent crime," Megan interrupted the bickering, "The rest are mostly white-collar - fraud, embezzlement, extortion, that sort of thing."

Charlie spread his hands at his father, "See? Ten percent or less - and that's merely potential, there's no guarantee anything would actually become dangerous."

"Unless you factor in those two," Trish pointed at Harm and Mac. "Honestly, if I could buy stock in Bethesda, I would. I swear they're on a first-name basis with all the doctors there."

Both Harm and Mac looked at each other and then back at the group with identical 'who me?' expressions. Harm directed a mock scowl at Charlie, "Thanks a lot. We were trying to stay out of this conversation." He turned back to his mother, "It's not that bad." He relented a little at Trish's incredulous look, "Well, it's not like we go looking for trouble."

"But it certainly finds you," Trish pointed out. She caught the uncomfortable look on Mac's face and backed off, "Just try to be more careful, please? My poor old heart can't take the strain."

Harm snorted, knowing how vibrant and active his mother was, "Your 'poor old heart' will outlast us all. You run circles around people half your age."

"I'm still finding it hard to believe that it was Carson Bander who was shooting at you both," Frank redirected the conversation. "It seems completely out of character."

"You knew him?" Harm's eyebrows lifted in surprise as he glanced from Mac to Don. Mac looked surprised, Don looked irritated. Harm knew it wasn't directed at Frank but more at the circumstances. There'd been no way in hell to keep the shooting out of the media. There'd been too many civilians around. It hadn't taken long for the reporters to figure out that it had been Carson Bander who'd been killed. After that, frenzy didn't even begin to cover what had happened. The SAC, Merrick, had been beside himself.

General Cresswell had been less than pleased as well, especially when the story went nationwide. At first, the media had amused itself with theories of why a respected and powerful CEO would allegedly have started shooting at anyone, much less a couple of military lawyers. Inevitably, that led to Michele Elbert and speculation intensified. One ridiculous theory had Bander as Elbert's distraught secret lover, out for revenge. Then an enterprising reporter had made the connection between Mac and the sensationalized CourtTV trial from a number of years back. News stations suddenly felt compelled to air choice segments of the trial while they refined their suppositions about possible motives. For once, Harm was glad when the doctors decided to keep Mac overnight as a precaution. She'd missed a lot of the initial stupidity and gotten one good night of rest.

Meanwhile, Frank was shaking his head, "As an acquaintance for the most part - a friend of a friend of a friend. We've met at conferences. He was a dynamic speaker with an eclectic set of interests. I enjoyed talking to him."

"The guy was nuts," Harm retorted. Mac had her hands tightly clasped together and he dropped a comforting hand on top.

"I don't know that 'nuts' is the right term," Megan said thoughtfully.

"Crazy? Unhinged? Three bricks shy of a load?" Don joined in, gently waggling his beer bottle before taking another sip.

Megan raised an eyebrow at him and he subsided. She looked back at the others, "For lack of a better word, I'd say he was 'high'."

David was shaking his head, "I don't think so. According to the initial blood tests, he was clean. Unfortunately, the full toxicology report won't be ready for a couple of weeks."

"I didn't say it was drug-induced," Megan shook her head. "Remember he'd retired unexpectedly the day before. An abrupt change like that either leaves you depressed or excited. I'm not thinking he was depressed."

"It was a surprise," Frank nodded, "The business sector's been in an uproar. Nobody knows how Threetrails will manage Liwanu's holdings. There's a lot of maneuvering going on."

Larry leaned forward so that he could rest his chin on his hands, "So he went from unimaginable pressures and responsibilities to absolutely no cares in a 24 hour span. That could radically alter your thought processes." He tapped his chin, "Still, it was his choice. He had to have been planning for it."

"But what if all this accelerated his timetable? What if he'd felt it was necessary but not necessarily what he wanted to do just yet?" Amita gestured as she spoke, emphasizing her point.

Harm folded his arms as he stared at Megan, "So you think he was on some sort of euphoric high from a complete lack of responsibilities and decided to celebrate by shooting Mac? Which part of that doesn't qualify as nuts?"

Megan shrugged as she smiled slightly, "Have you read his file? This guy was intense. He'd been working hard since he was a teenager. Took care of his mother until her death. By then, he'd founded Liwanu and was responsible for hundreds of employees. He was sixty-two years old and the last forty-seven years have been spent going above and beyond whatever was required. Then, in twenty-four hours, it stops. He doesn't have to be anywhere, doesn't have to meet anyone or regulate his time, so yeah, I think his thought processes were 'altered'. All he had left to focus on was revenge and this guy was used to winning. In Bander's eyes, his failures were Mac's fault. Because of her, he'd lost control of the situation. She'd betrayed him when she didn't warn him not to proceed with his plan, so he hired Ian to correct the problem. He'd taken back control and was probably feeling invincible right about then. It was that high that made him go to watch without considering that he might be recognized."

"Arrogant SOB," Ian threw in laconically as he leaned back. "Obsessive, too. After we met, he wanted every detail, right down to the caliber bullet and why I thought it was the best choice. I told him to go to hell and let me do the job he hired me for."

Megan grinned at him, "Bet he loved that."

Ian shrugged, "It worked. He was a lot more polite the next time we talked."

"I think that's enough shop talk for now. I'm sure we can find more pleasant topics of conversation." Alan finally spoke up. He'd couldn't imagine that Mac was enjoying the discussion very much.

There was a short, awkward pause before Trish brought up a story involving one of her first art showings at her gallery, an androgynous, highly-strung artist named Mike and the ensuing difficulties when two prominent art critics took opposing views about one of his/her sculptures. That they despised each other fed fuel to the fire, as did the liberal amounts of wine they'd imbibed. The upshot was a short but violent food fight with the hors d'oeuvres and Mike in tears. Appalled, Trish had dealt with them just as if she'd been their mother: stopping the fight while lecturing the critics on their behavior, eliciting sullen apologies to all concerned and figuratively sending them to their rooms by kicking them out the door. She'd spent the next week removing shrimp and sundry other bits of food from assorted nooks and crannies. Surprisingly, considering the tongue-lashing she given the two, both critics had been effusive in praise of her and her gallery in their next columns.

Trish's story broke the ice and the others soon chimed in with their own stories of ridiculous situations or people they'd dealt with over the years. All too soon, it seemed, Harm, Mac and the Burnetts on the road heading for La Jolla.

Trish turned to look in the back seat at Harm and Sarah as Frank merged onto the freeway, "Are you two okay? Do we need to stop for anything?"

Harm resisted rolling his eyes. His mother had been asking those same questions on every road trip since he was a kid. He shook his head, "I'm fine, Mom." He looked at Mac, repeating Trish's question, "You okay?" She really hadn't said much since leaving the Eppes' place.

"I'm fine," Mac smiled at Harm and then Trish, "Just a little tired." The ER doc who'd made the decision to keep her overnight had warned that she'd tire easily for the next couple of days and to curtail her activities accordingly. He'd also gone on to suggest that she wear a helmet at all times and if that wasn't feasible, to find an interior room without windows, cover herself with a mattress and stay there until it was safe to come out - say, sometime in the next millennium. Mac wasn't quite sure if he was kidding or not.

Harm shifted so that he was braced in the corner and motioned to Mac, "Why don't you lean against me and rest for a bit?" She hesitated and he grinned cheekily as he waved a hand at himself, "Come on, how can you resist this?"

At that, Trish decided it was safer to turn forward again while Mac couldn't help rolling her eyes. She also nestled herself carefully against his side, "I'm not hurting your shoulder, am I?"

"Nah," Harm dropped a light kiss to the top of Mac's head while he draped an arm along her back. After a few moments, he felt her sigh. Harm frowned a little, "Mac?"

"It's nothing," Mac's voice was slightly muffled. "It's just that, despite everything that happened, I think I'm going to miss Don, Charlie and the team."

"Yeah, me too," Harm agreed thoughtfully, "Go figure."

They lapsed into a comfortable silence and Harm leaned his head back against the seat. The next time Trish checked, they were both asleep. She turned back and looked over at Frank, her voice soft, "That didn't take long."

Frank glanced in the rearview mirror, "Not surprising, considering the week from Hell. Sarah was fading fast in that last hour at the Eppes'."

"It was horrible, wasn't it? That awful man - " She stopped, not wanting to say it out loud. God knew, over the years, Harm had caused her more gray hairs than any child had a right to but this was different. This time she'd had a front row seat while some maniac tried to kill her son and future daughter-in-law. Trish shook her head. She was silent for several minutes, watching the scenery zip by, before venturing quietly, "Do you think Sarah's having... issues because of the concussion?"

Surprised, Frank took his eyes off the road for a few seconds to stare at Trish. Returning his attention to the road, he frowned a little, "Why do you ask?"

"I don't know," Trish sighed after a moment, "Well, yes I do. Have you noticed that her reactions don't always seem to follow the conversation? It's like she's hearing something different than what's being said."

Frank nodded slowyly, "I have but, like you said, she is getting over a concussion." He gave Trish a reassuring smile, "I'm sure a couple of days of rest will put her right again." He then quirked an eyebrow at her, "And by resting, I mean no dragging her off on one of your extreme shopping excursions."

"Fine," Trish rolled her eyes before grinning a bit. Frank always knew how to make her feel better. After a minute or so, she murmured defiantly, "And it's not just shopping. We're bonding."

Frank chuckled softly before concentrating again on his driving. The sooner they got home to La Jolla, the sooner they could start putting this nightmare behind them. He didn't think the media would be able to find them and hopefully, the furor would die down a bit.

Saturday,

Bander residence

Silverado, CA

1320 Local

Margery Threetrails unlocked the door and stepped inside. The Bear's luxurious compound as well as a good half of his personal wealth was now hers. Bander had willed the other half of his wealth to his foundation, various charities and other community programs. She was still feeling a bit shell-shocked. He'd let her know in numerous ways that she was his heir but she'd assumed that was strictly on the business side. It turned out that he had no close relatives. She hadn't been sure. Considering the vastness of his holdings, though, she knew long-lost cousins and other barely-related flotsam would be making an appearance before too long to try and wrest away what they could. She would fight them on principal. Being frugal, she'd had her own wealth from her earnings and her new position as head of Liwanu ensured a spectacular income for the future.

Margery wandered through the house, feeling the loss of her mentor and boss even more keenly. His funeral had been this morning. It had been well-attended by a great number of people. All had been shocked by his death at the hands of the FBI and more than a few were muttering darkly about conspiracies against a champion of the People. Margery had done nothing to correct them although she was fairly certain she knew what had happened. Their outrage, carefully cultivated, could be useful in the future.

Stepping into the massive study, Margery sat down at the desk, running her hand over the age-darkened wood. Leaning back, she slid a key out of her pocket and unlocked the bottom right-hand drawer. From there she pulled out a folder and placed it on the desk. Over the years, she'd accumulated her own contacts. She owed a number of favors for this but it was worth it. Margery pulled out a thin sheaf of papers and carefully scanned each one. It was a copy of the FBI's after-action report covering the shooting death of Carson Bander. She now had the names of everyone involved in his betrayal and murder. Margery tapped her fingers on the desk as she thought. There would be payback. That wasn't a question. The question was when. She was the head of Liwanu now and with it came massive responsibilities. Thousands of people's livelihoods depended on her maintaining the health of the companies in her charge. She no longer had the freedom to indulge in personal vendettas. Every action would have to examined for its consequences to Liwanu. It was frightening and exhilarating at the same time.

With a heavy sigh, she settled back in the chair, his chair, and stared at the papers. In his personal safe at the office, Bander left her a detailed letter that was to be opened in the event of his death. In it, he'd spelled out his hopes and plans for Liwanu, his contacts, the politicians he owned and the secrets he had on them. Obviously, he'd been preparing the document for quite some time. There was a certain satisfaction in discovering that most of what she'd surmised had been correct. However, the letter hadn't only been about Liwanu. He'd also laid out in detail, exactly what he'd been trying to do for their people. It was a sprawling, complex and completely audacious plan and was exactly the sort of thing she'd expected from Bander. Again, she'd been right on target with a lot of her assumptions. However, there'd also been a section that she'd found extremely troubling. Handwritten and dated the day he'd been killed, it hadn't sounded at all like the man she'd known and admired.

She was dismayed to learn that he'd taken the JAG officer, Colonel MacKenzie, against her will, believing she was deeply connected to the otherworld. He'd even gone so far as to claim that she had guardian spirits protecting her. Margery knew he had believed in the old ways but to think he would take it to that sort of extreme was unsettling. It was also oddly out of character for him to obsess about the woman and her supposed abilities like he had. The Bear had been determined to have her to speak to their ancestors and learn if his plans still had their blessing. Apparently there had been unexpected setbacks that were making him question his timetable. To enhance the vision quest, both he and MacKenzie had taken peyote, although from his phrasing, Margery didn't think the JAG officer had been aware of what she'd been given. In any case, it had done its work. MacKenzie had had a vision that convinced the Bear to proceed and then things had gone horribly wrong. It was at this point in his narrative that Margery noted a change in both his handwriting and tone.

To begin with, somehow, MacKenzie had escaped. Ridiculous as it sounded, according to the Bear, it had supposedly been with her guardian spirits' help. He'd sent James Swift and Lonnie Waterman after her. At first, it had been to bring her back but as she continued to inexplicably elude them, he'd ordered them to stop her any way they could. Not only had they failed to carry out his wishes, they'd also managed to be apprehended by the FBI. Margery had shaken her head as she'd continued to read. Those two had been remarkably incompetent. That, or MacKenzie had had the Devil's own luck.

Bander obviously thought it had to do with Hell. With yet another failure to deal with, he'd managed to convince himself that MacKenzie was actually some sort of demon in human form, sent here to destroy everything he'd worked for. He'd ranted about her lies and treachery and how she'd betrayed all of their people. The Bear laid the entire blame for the failure of his plans solely at MacKenzie's feet. Because of her deception, he'd misread the warnings to delay and disaster had been the result.

There was more along the same vein, along with the fact that he'd hired an assassin to eliminate MacKenzie, thus depriving the evil spirit of a host body. It had sounded insane - hell, it was insane. All she could think was that, after all the years of preparation, the complete failure of his plan to seek vengeance for their people had been too much to bear and that he'd snapped. He'd scribbled down the day, time and place for the shooting in the margin. Now it was apparent that he'd wanted to be there for the destruction of the demon. That was something Margery couldn't understand. Bander had always been obsessively circumspect and yet, in this instance, he'd been remarkably careless. It spoke volumes about his mental state. It was almost as if he'd wanted to be recognized. He had to have known how it would end once he'd started shooting. Was this suicide by cop?

Her expression hardening, Margery shook her head. She refused to believe that he'd wanted to end his life. He'd been betrayed. He must have been depending on the sniper he'd hired to protect him long enough to escape. Instead, the man had protected MacKenzie and Rabb, shooting down the Bear in cold blood. It didn't matter to learn that the sniper was actually an undercover FBI agent. It was still a betrayal.

Margery looked at the list again. Sarah MacKenzie, Charles Eppes, Ian Edgerton, Harmon Rabb, Don Eppes, Megan Reeves, David Sinclair and Colby Granger; these were the people who needed to answer for their crimes. She would see to it that they did but it didn't have to be tomorrow or the next day. The Bear would be just as dead ten years down the road as he was now. She would continue to collect intel and bide her time. Opportunities would always be there. She stared at the list again, committing the names to memory. Like any good predator, she would wait and watch from concealment until her prey became careless and then they would be hers.

Saturday,

McKlellan Estate

Silver Springs, MD

1130 Local

Edwina McKlellan marched into the house, barely acknowledging Raphael as he took her coat. Heading straight for the bar in the family room, she poured herself a stiff shot of bourbon. Bastards. Every single last one of them, starting her own dear father and ending with that hypocrite, Sheffield. Tossing down the drink, she poured herself another. They were all hypocrites, damn them. The private 'memorial' service she'd just attended was a farce. She and ancient Mrs. Perryman, their first governess, were probably the only two there who truly cared about Bradley. The rest attended either because it was expected or to quietly gloat at the family's misfortune.

Win tossed back the second drink and poured a third. She was already feeling a mild buzz but what she wanted was to be numb. Braddie was dead. She knew it in her bones despite the fact that no one had found his body. He would have called her otherwise knowing how she worried about him. Feeling the tears welling up again, she turned and headed for the comfortable, old wingback chair near the fireplace. Settling down, she drew her legs in. This was the chair she and Bradley would sit in when they were little. She'd make up stories about a prince and princess battling an evil King and Braddie would hang on every word. Feeling the tears leak out, she put the drink on the small endtable and covered her face with her hands. Damn them all.

"Edwina."

Her head came up and she turned to regard her maternal grandfather, Harrison Coughlin, her expression cold. While her father was a mean-spirited, greedy, selfish and arrogant SOB, he was also defiantly overt about it. Anyone who knew Stephen McKlellan knew exactly what they were facing. Her mother and grandfather, however, relished the public facade of being warm and generous. In truth, they were as bad as her father. The difference was that Stephen McKlellan would shoot you from the front while the honorable Senator Harrison Pike Coughlin and highly-regarded Emmaline Coughlin McKlellan preferred hiring someone to shoot you in the back. It was a crying shame that Bradley had inherited the worst qualities from both their parents. Edwina continued to glare at her grandfather, ignoring the tears still running down her face, "What do you want?"

"You left early." It sounded like warm concern but Win knew it for the rebuke that it was.

"And that left a hole in the solid family front we were presenting to the unwashed masses? Mother must be mortified." Win no longer felt like being the 'good' child to Bradley's bad boy reputation. Those were the roles they'd worked out when they were finally old enough to understand their father's use of wealth as a club and their mother's underhanded and manipulative ways. Braddie had insisted. Half the stunts he'd pulled were to keep his parents' attention off of her. Unfortunately, the other half were just because he enjoyed raising hell. Despite that, Win did her best to bail him out when she could and she was always there to listen.

Coughlin's eyes narrowed at the sarcasm from his usually passive granddaughter. Edwina was normally as bland as Bradley was troublesome. "Your mother is understandably upset about Bradley. She needs everyone's support in this difficult time."

"Oh, please," Win knocked back the third drink. "Mother hasn't felt anything for Bradley or me since we were whelped. Mrs. Perryman is the one who 'needs everyone's support in this difficult time'. She actually liked us."

"You're drunk," Coughlin growled, now thoroughly out of temper.

Edwina stood up and faced her grandfather, "Not yet, old man, just nicely buzzed." She took a step towards him, "And unlike you, I loved my brother, warts and all. Do I believe the 'baseless rumors and spurious innuendo' about Bradley committing treason? You bet your wrinkled ass, I do. Know why? Because he was making a great deal of money from it, the end-all and be-all of the McKlellan clan. Do you know how I know? Because a nice junior lieutenant at JAG contacted me to let me know I was his sole beneficiary. Bradley left it to me and, ironically, I get to keep it because you derailed that part of the investigation with the help of your weasel pal, Sheffield."

"How dare you!" Coughlin drew himself up in indignation.

"Oh I dare," Win retorted, brushing past him. She stuck her head out into the hallway, "Raphael? Would you have Benny bring my car around? Thank you." Turning back to Coughlin, she folded her arms, "I hold you and my idiot parents ultimately responsible for getting Bradley killed. Your self-righteous 'make a man out of him' crap played right into Father's hands. You sanctimonious hypocrite, you waited until he was full-grown before suddenly professing concern for his character and changing all the rules. Where were you when Bradley was ten and your attention might have made a difference?"

"What do you want?" Coughlin decided to cut to the chase as he eyed his granddaughter warily. He'd dismissed her over the years, believing her to be another spoiled, shallow debutante. Now he realized he'd underestimated her.

"I want my brother back," Win said softly and then her voice grew harder, "Since that's not possible, I want to know exactly what happened to him, who was involved and why the hell no one protected him like they should."

Coughlin shifted uncomfortably. The tone of her voice promised retribution, "And then what?"

"And then..." Win glared at him and then her expression went ominously blank, "Nothing." She glanced over her shoulder when Benny appeared in the doorway, "It's out front?" The young man nodded and she waved a hand in dismissal, "Thank you, I'll be there in a moment."

"Where are you going? You know you're supposed to join the family tonight for the public service. You have to be there," Coughlin warned with a frown, "Your parents are expecting everyone to attend. Don't embarrass them."

"Wouldn't think of it," Win retorted. She turned around and walked out, leaving her grandfather staring after her. Benny was waiting by the car when she made it outside and she gave him a polite nod while he held the door open for her.

Once she was settled, he climbed into the driver's seat and glanced at the rear view mirror, "Where to, Ms. Edwina?"

"DC, Benny, the Navy JAG headquarters," Win leaned back in the seat. It was time to start gathering information and playing the naive, distraught sister seemed the best way to approach it. Pinnella had been warmly sympathetic when he'd gone over Bradley's will with her. She thought she'd detected some interest on his part as well and wasn't above capitalizing on it, if possible. While a few tears could go a long way in getting some of her questions answered, entering into a relationship would give her ample excuse to visit the JAG headquarters. The more familiar she became to the office denizens, the less of a threat she'd appear. Once she knew all those involved, someone would answer for what had happened to Braddie.

Sunday,

Burnett residence

La Jolla, CA

0340 Local

Mac started a little when the black cat leapt up in her lap and then smiled as she scratched under his chin, "Roger, where've you been?"

"Catching perpetually fat, stupid mice," Avis walked out on the porch carrying a pitcher of lemonade and several glasses.

Surprised, Mac blinked and looked around. She was sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of Avis' snug little house in the Shenandoah Valley. She glanced over at Avis, "I'm dreaming?"

The blonde nodded as she sat down in another chair, "It's easier this way - and more pleasant."

"It's good to see you again," Mac shook her head a little, "Does that make sense?"

"Of course," Avis grinned, "I imagine it's been difficult listening to disembodied voices."

Mac looked over her shoulder, "Is Kate here?"

"She'll be along in a bit,"

"So this is just a visit?" Mac's tone was light but there was tenseness about her as she looked at Avis.

"Of a sort," Avis reached over and patted Mac's arm, "Don't worry. It's perfectly safe here."

Mac relaxed somewhat, rubbing behind Roger's ears while he purred loudly, "So why do I feel like a shoe is about to drop?"

Avis looked down at her glass of lemonade, "Because I have to tell you that Kate and I will be stepping back now. There's no longer a need for such constant interaction."

"Oh." Mac stared out across the fields near the barn, telling herself it was silly to feel hurt.

"Sarah," Avis waited until the brunette was facing her again, "That doesn't mean you're being abandoned. I'll still be here but it will be as it was before. I will stay in the background. You must admit, it will be less complicated than continually trying to conceal our conversations."

Mac nodded silently. Avis had a point. She frowned slightly, "Before? Have you always been watching me?"

Avis chuckled, "Heavens, no. You and your Commander generally require a team." She hesitated a little, "I joined just after your return from South America."

Mac flinched and concentrated on Roger. That was a less than stellar time in her life. Worse was her cold-blooded killing of Fahd nine months later. Avis had seen that?

"Sarah, stop," Avis ordered, "That man had given himself over to evil. You did what was necessary. Neither of you had a choice."

Turning away to gaze at the landscape, Mac took a deep breath and nodded slowly. Her actions that day would probably always haunt her to some extent. She'd just have to deal with it and keep moving. The two women fell into a comfortable silence for a few minutes before Mac spoke again, "If you've been with me all this time, why couldn't I see and hear you before?"

"That would be my fault."

Mac turned and saw Kate standing in the doorway, while Avis smiled and gestured for her to join them. Mac glanced at Avis and then looked back at Kate, "Your fault?"

Kate walked out and leaned against the porch railing, folding her arms and shrugging a bit, "Rookie mistake. I didn't know it was 'watch but don't speak'."

"What?" Mac shook her head, feeling confused.

"It wasn't a mistake. It was a rather powerful aspect of Kate's nature," Avis rocked slowly, while the other two women looked at her. "She's a protector. It's how she lived - and died, and when she found herself with you, Sarah, she continued that role." Avis grinned at Kate, "What surprised us was how fast she learned to manifest herself."

Kate ducked her head, looking embarrassed, "I haven't learned enough. I can't do a quarter of the things that you do."

"But when you two first appeared, I thought I was dreaming. You could have left it at that," Mac cut in. She eyed Avis for a moment and then her eyebrows rose in surprise, "You saw something, didn't you? Like you've done before."

Avis smiled as she shook her head, "And you continue to be a catalyst for those around you. Yes, I saw there was more going on. It was decided that you would need a more involved guardianship than usual. Kate and I were chosen because of our past relationships with you. You needed people that you could trust implicitly." Avis stopped rocking and stood up, "And now I'm afraid it's time for us to go."

Mac stood, too, feeling distressed, "So soon? I was hoping we'd have a chance to talk for a while."

"We will again. There's always your dreams." Avis stepped forward and hugged Mac and then moved back so Kate could hug the Marine as well.

Mac stepped away, eyeing the other two women, "So how does this work?"

Avis smiled as she stood with her hands clasped in front, looking almost exactly as she had on the first day they'd met, "It's simple enough, continue to dream."

With that, she and Kate faded from view, leaving Mac standing on the porch. Mac took one more look around the little farm as she waited for it to fade as well. She froze at the sound of clucking and turned to stare at the bottom of the steps. A large, black hen stared back and Mac rolled her eyes as she looked up towards the sky, "Very funny."

Slowly, Mac opened her eyes and looked out into the pre-dawn darkness. Something had roused her, what... she smiled softly as a large, warm hand lightly rubbed her shoulder. Turning onto her back, she saw Harm braced on an elbow, watching. Stretching a bit, she continued to smile, "It's early. Everything okay?"

"I could ask you that. You were getting pretty restless." Harm carefully brushed the hair away from her face and then let his hand slide down to caress her cheek, "Bad dreams?"

"Nooo," Mac drew the word out with a sigh at the end. She turned on her side so that she was facing Harm, "I saw Avis and Kate again. They wanted to say goodbye."

Harm's eyebrows rose, "Goodbye? They're gone? I thought - isn't Avis - ?" He stopped, not quite sure how upset Mac might be.

She stared down at the bed, tracing a random pattern on the sheet, "According to Avis, they'll still be keeping an eye out but staying in the background, like before." Mac took a deep breath, keeping her eyes down, "It's stupid, but I feel like I've lost them all over again."

"It's not stupid. Come here," Harm rolled onto his back and opened his arms. Silently, Mac scooted over and settled into his embrace, resting her head on his chest and throwing an arm across his midsection. Harm began rubbing her back. After a minute or two, he said quietly, "I saw Avis once in a dream, too. It was after you, Megan and McKlellan were taken."

Surprised, Mac lifted her head to look at him, "What did she say?"

Harm hesitated. He was reluctant to repeat everything Avis had said, not wanting to get Mac's hopes up. The odds were ridiculously long. "Mostly that I shouldn't give up hope of finding you." He waited a moment and then grinned, "And that she approves of taking kids in. She thinks we'll be great parents."

"She does?" Mac sounded pleased, and a little surprised, as she laid her head down again.

Harm let himself relax, drifting back towards sleep. He roused when he felt Mac shift. Lifting his head, Harm looked down towards her. "Mac?" he asked sleepily.

"I was thinking," Mac began, raising herself up on an elbow. She lightly slapped his chest when she heard him mutter, "Uh-oh." in mock horror. "I was thinking," she repeated, eyeing him sternly. Harm wisely assumed an expression of rapt attention although he'd trapped her hand on his chest and was playing with her fingers. She half-closed her eyes and shivered when he began a feather-light stroking on the inside of her wrist. A soft moan escaped as he moved up her arm and she closed her eyes the rest of the way. What was left of her concentration fled when she felt his lips on the side of her neck. After a couple of moments, or hours, or months - her time sense had disappeared with the rest of coherent thought - she felt a rumbling in his chest. Deciphering it didn't seem that important as Harm worked his way to her jawline. She couldn't help a petulant murmur when he pulled away. Dimly, she heard him call her name and finally forced her eyes open, "What?" Her voice came out in a throaty whisper.

Harm took a deep breath, trying to contain the desire that flared ever higher at the sound of her voice. Did she have any idea what she did to him? He cleared his throat, "I said, what were you thinking?" The tiny part of his brain that wasn't consumed by passion had annoyingly pointed out that he'd ignored whatever she'd wanted to talk about in favor of seducing her. He didn't want to belong to that list of men who'd dismissed her mind in favor of her body. He loved the whole package and he needed to make sure she knew that.

Mac blinked at him as she tried to quell the reactions he'd induced while recalling whatever the hell she'd wanted to talk about earlier. God, she loved him so much. Ironically, that thought helped bring her the control she needed. Her love for him encompassed more than the physical although she readily admitted he was drop-dead gorgeous and damn good in bed. Finally she remembered what she wanted to talk about and couldn't help dropping her head a little, feeling inexplicably worried, "I, uh, I was thinking maybe we should figure out a new wedding date." She chanced a glance up and couldn't help smiling at the huge grin that suddenly appeared on Harm's face.

He tried to look serious and failed miserably, "About time MacKenzie, I was beginning to think I was just another pretty face."

She couldn't help smirking slightly as she leaned in to kiss him, "But you are a pretty face."

Harm groaned in pleasure as Mac deepened the kiss. When they finally parted, he grinned at the look on her face and brushed some of the hair out of her face. He raised an eyebrow, "I have a mind, you know."

Mac leaned in again, "I don't care." After a few moments, Harm found he didn't care either.

Sunday,

Burnett residence

La Jolla, Ca

0830 Local

Frank and Trish looked up from their morning reading when Harm and Mac stepped out onto the deck. After exchanging 'Good mornings', Trish glanced at her watch, "I thought you two might sleep in a bit this morning."

Harm jerked a thumb towards Mac while plucking a banana out of the bowl of fruit on the table, "This is sleeping-in for her." He shot a look at Mac that made her blush a little, "I was perfectly willing to stay in bed a while longer."

Trish settled for raising an eyebrow at her son before turning her attention to Mac, "Have a seat, dear. Would you like some breakfast?"

Mac turned back towards the house, "I can get it."

"You'll do no such thing," Trish replied firmly, "You're supposed to take it easy, so sit. I'll be back in a jiffy. Everything's done. I was just keeping it warm."

"No one asked me about breakfast," Harm affected a put-upon attitude causing Mac to roll her eyes and Frank to look up from his paper.

"You're dressed for running and you just had a banana," Frank pointed out mildly and then grinned at his stepson, "Besides, we like Sarah better. Go run."

"Fine," Harm leaned down for a quick kiss from Mac and then handed her his banana peel, "For you, honeybun." He was off the deck before she could respond.

Trish walked out with a breakfast tray a few seconds later. Putting it on the table, she glanced at the banana peel Mac was still holding in two fingers and raised an eyebrow.

"Your son," Frank commented laconically.

Trish shook her head in mock despair, "I keep telling him flowers. He never listens."

- - - - -

Harm climbed the steps to the deck a little over an hour later, feeling satisfyingly tired. He'd always loved running on the beach. Reaching the deck, he found his parents and Mac engrossed in the newspaper while sipping coffee. The breakfast dishes were piled neatly on the tray. Pulling over a chair, he settled down next to Mac. Trish looked at him and wrinkled her nose, "Harmon Rabb, you're all sweaty. Go shower and I'll get your breakfast for you."

Harm rolled his eyes a little and looked at Mac, "Did you say anything yet?"

Mac shook her head, "I was waiting for you." In truth, she was still a little nervous about bringing it up.

Trish glanced at Frank, her hopes rising, "You wanted to tell us something?"

Harm grinned at his mother, knowing exactly what she was hoping for. He took Mac's hand and squeezed it, "We need to set a new date for the wedding."

Trish clapped her hands in delight, "That's wonderful! Have you decided when?"

Harm shared a look with Mac, "We were thinking about the beginning of October." He shrugged, "If I had my way, it'd be tomorrow at City Hall but Mac said you'd kill me."

"Smart woman," Frank smiled at his future daughter-in-law.

"October, that's less than six months," Trish was frowning a little. "That might make it difficult to find a place for the reception. They're usually booked a year in advance. You're still planning on an East Coast wedding, right?" Harm and Mac nodded. Trish tapped her chin, glancing around as she thought out loud, "I know I still have your original guest list. I imagine we'll have to augment that now to include the Eppes family. I'm sure they'll want to come if they can." She looked at the couple, "You do want to invite them, don't you?"

Mac glanced at Harm and nodded, "I'd like to invite Megan and Colby, too."

"Of course, dear," Trish smiled, "It's your wedding." How wonderful it felt to say that.

Meanwhile, Frank was rummaging through the mail that was stacked on the table. Finally, he held up a large, cream-colored envelope, "You might want to throw this into the equation."

Trish straightened, lightly slapping her forehead, "Oh dear, you're right. How could I forget?" She took in Harm and Mac's mystified expressions, "You'll probably find yours in your mail when you get home. This came Friday while we were in LA."

"Find what?" Harm asked with a slight hint of exasperation.

Frank opened the envelope, pulled out an invitation and began to read, "You are cordially invited to the celebration of the twenty-first birthday of Princesses Margarete Catalin and Natalya Moira Dzurick of the kingdom of Bacovia... " Frank lowered the invitation and looked at the rest of them, "This is on September 22nd at the Bacovian Embassy in DC. There's a second invitation to the coronation of Queen Margarete Catalin on October 6th in Bacovia."

Harm whistled softly, "So the twins turn twenty-one and Georghe is stepping down. I'd almost forgotten." He turned to Mac and grinned, "Feel like honeymooning in Bacovia?"

Mac smiled back, "Why not? It sounds like fun."

- - - - - - - -

Finis

Okay, that's it for this tale. Wanna guess where the next story is taking place - who's on the guest list? ;-)

This last chapter was tough, as all of you have no doubt surmised from the length of time it took me to finish and post. A lot of times, these things just write themselves - but not this time. I wound up rewriting several sections numerous times before I was halfway satisfied with the results. Thank you all for your patience and support throughout this story. You folks are awesome, so give yourselves a pat on the back. It certainly makes all the effort worthwhile. It wasn't always fun but I usually had a good time and I hope everyone else enjoyed it as well.

I'll be taking a bit of break before diving in again but I might as well warn you now, it could be a while. I'm still working six days a week, more often than not, which obviously cuts into my free time. I like to be at least a third or so through a story before I begin to post and I'm sure all of you are now aware of the glacial pace of my writing... maybe I should start apologizing now and get a head start.

I do have a story finished for another fandom that I'm thinking about posting. It's for CSI Miami, a show I think has potential if the writers would A.) pay attention to continuity and B.) get over the silly factor. I keep hoping. If you don't like the series, please skip the story. I mention this because some of you have author alerts and I don't want you thinking I've got another JAG story out there and then being disappointed.

Thanks once more for reading. We'll meet again.