WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON
7 AUGUST 2002
HARM AND MAC'S HOUSE
ROSSLYN, VIRGINIA

The house is quiet when I carry in a napping Tori – too quiet. I know Mac is already home because my Corvette is in the garage. I got her message from this morning, but she never answered her cell phone when I tried to call her back and her office phone went to voice mail. I even tried our home phone with the thought that the doctor may have ordered her to stay home today, but I got no answer there either.

I know I shouldn't be worried. A sinus infection isn't that serious, but something just feels wrong about the silence from her. A quick check of the first floor reveals no Mac, but I do find her purse sitting on the coffee table, along with a prescription bottle. Balancing Tori in one arm, I stoop to pick up the bottle and study the label. I don't recognize the name of the medication, but the label is dated today and judging from the directions and number of pills, it seems to be an antibiotic.

"Let's go find your mother," I whisper to Tori. She stirs and stretches a little, but doesn't wake up. I carry her upstairs and, after checking to make sure she doesn't need a diaper change, lay her in her crib to finish her nap while I continue my search for Mac.

After I enter our bedroom, it doesn't take me long to realize where she is. I can hear the bubble and hum of the whirlpool from outside the open bathroom door. I step into the bathroom to find her lying in a tub full of bubbles, her head resting against one of those inflatable pillows, her eyes closed. She doesn't even seem to hear me approach as I sit on the floor next to the tub, taking her hand in mine. "Mac?"

She doesn't say anything or open her eyes, but I know she is awake when she tightens her fingers around mine. "Harm," she murmurs, turning her head toward me. After a moment, her eyes flutter open, her gaze going to our clasped hands.

"Hey, Marine," I say in a cajoling tone. "Did you fall asleep in here?"

"I wasn't asleep," she replies in a tone I can't quite decipher. "I was just thinking."

"Care to share?"

"Just….things," she says hesitantly, still avoiding my gaze.

"I saw your medicine downstairs," I say, trying to draw her out. I can't figure out what's got her so withdrawn, and it's just making that feeling that something is amiss even stronger. "So I guess the doctor said you have a sinus infection."

"Yes," she replies with a shrug. "She told me to stay home today and maybe tomorrow if I still have a fever."

"Maybe Dr. Rabb can fix you up some chicken soup to make you feel better," I joke, but it sounds hollow to my ears. There's something else going on here, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what it could be.

"If only it were that simple," she says softly, her voice catching.

"Mac, look at me," I plead, the worry inside me growing, gnawing in the pitch of my stomach. "Tell me what's wrong."

After a long moment of silence, she finally lifts her eyes, but I find no reassurance there. I find the apprehension I feel reflected back at me, the worry clear in her dark eyes. "Mac, please tell me what it is," I say.

She doesn't reply, but instead lifts the hand she holds to her throat, pressing my fingers against the base of it. Confused, I let her move my fingers over her skin, tracing the outline of….something. My breath catching in my throat, I ask, "What is that?"

Taking a deep breath, she replies in a shaky whisper, "A lump."

"A lump?" I repeat. My brow furrows as I try to figure out what this means. There is only one connection that my mind can make and the worry explodes into full-blown fear. "Like a lump in your breast?"

"Kind of," she says with a slow nod. "Except this lump is on my thyroid."

I stare at her in mute silence for a long moment, trying to process the myriad of thoughts racing through my mind, but one word keeps pushing itself to the forefront. Please, God, no, not that. Disregarding the water, the fading bubbles and the fact that I'm still in my uniform, I gather her into my arms and half-lift her out of the tub, pulling her tight against me.

After a moment, she throws her arms around me, clinging to me just as tightly as I am to her, burying her face against my neck. For a long moment, I just hold her, trying to forget everything but the feel of her in my arms, but reality keeps intruding, one word pounding through my head like a mantra, and I find myself blinking back tears.

"It will be okay," she tries to assure me, her voice as shaky as I feel. She pulls back slightly, lifting her gaze to meet mine. "Harm, it will be okay."

I take a deep breath, my fingers playing with her hair as I try to figure out what to say. What does one say in a situation like this? "Is that what the doctor said?" I finally settle on asking.

She hesitates, and I see the uncertainty in her eyes. "We don't know enough yet," she admits. "I had an ultrasound this afternoon at Bethesda. That's why I wasn't able to answer my cell phone when you called and why I asked you to pick up Tori. I wasn't sure how long it would take."

So she did know I tried to call her back. Irrationally, I latch onto that. "Why didn't you call me back?" I demand.

"And say what?" she counters incredulously. "'Harm, I'm at Bethesda because I've got this lump in my throat that may or may not be something.' You don't really expect me to break news like that over the phone, do you?"

It does sound ridiculous when she puts it like that. I guess if our positions were reversed and I had a lump where there shouldn't be one, I would want to break that news in person. I'd need to be able to look her in the eyes and feel our love as I break news of such vital import. "I'm sorry," I say, shaking my head. "I just….Mac, I don't know what to think."

"I know," she says. "I've been lying here trying to figure that out. That's what we do as lawyers, right?"

I nod. Okay, let's try to look at this analytically, try to figure out what all this means and how to deal with it. "I need to know what exactly the doctor said," I say insistently.

"Yeah," she agrees. She looks at me critically and inexplicably burst out laughing. "Maybe we need to put this conversation on hold for a few minutes."

After I give her a confused look, she explains, "I'm sitting naked in a bathtub and your uniform is half-soaked."

I look down at myself in sudden realization and manage a wry chuckle. "It's probably time for the laundry for this one anyway, so no big deal. I just wasn't thinking," I admit as I stand, pulling her up with me. I grab a towel from the rack and wrap it around her as she steps out of the tub.

"Obviously," she remarks, a wicked gleam suddenly appearing in her eyes. It takes me a moment to catch up to the new direction of her thoughts. Oh. It's almost funny. I have my wet, naked wife in my arms and the furthest thing from my mind is having my way with her.

"Should I be apologizing?" I ask, trying to keep this light, or my thoughts might get bogged down again.

"Actually, I think it's sweet," she says with a laugh. "And in other circumstances, I probably wouldn't let you leave this room – at least until after I helped you out of those wet clothes."

"I'll keep that in mind for later," I say, trying to clamp down on my body's natural reaction now that the subject's been brought up. I almost wish we could just let nature take its course and worry about everything else later. But later will come too soon and everything else isn't going to go away.

"Get changed," she orders. "Then we'll talk."

In a few minutes, we're curled up together on our bed, Mac's head resting on my shoulder. With a finger, she traces the work 'Marines' on the front of my t-shirt as we lie silently entwined. The red shirt, with white lettering proclaiming 'Property of the United States Marines', was a gift from Mac that I found in my duffel bag after the SeaHawk left Norfolk back in January. I put it on because I thought it might cheer her up, which it obviously did judging from the laughter when she joined me on the bed.

"Okay," she finally says, taking a deep breath. "When the doctor examined me this morning, she said she had seen the lump, so she ran her hands over my throat to feel it." She lifts her hand to her throat, her fingers moving over the lump. "It's so obvious that I can't believe I never realized it was there until Dr. Barber said something."

"I never noticed it either," I say, trying to remember how many times since I've been home that my hands have touched her, my lips have moved over her without realizing there was something wrong. I recall the feeling of the mass when she first pointed it out to me, and wonder how neither of us could have known. "How long has it been there?" As soon as the words leave my lips, I realize how silly that sounds.

"We really have no way of knowing," she points out. "But I would think…."

"It's probably been there a while," I finish for her.

"That's what I would think," she says in a frustrated tone. "I just don't know."

I grab her hand in mine and lift it to my lips, kissing her fingers. "It's okay," I try to assure her as she did me earlier, although I'm far from convinced. But I don't know what else to say. "So the doctor sent you for an ultrasound, obviously."

"Yeah," she continues. "They need to determine if the lump is a cyst or if it's solid."

"What would be the difference?" I ask.

"Well, if it's a cyst," she explains, "it could be drained and that would be pretty much it. Or it may just shrink on its own. Either way, no big deal really. They would keep an eye on things afterwards to make sure it doesn't come back. If it's solid…."

She looks up at me for a long moment, the struggle to find the words being played out in her eyes, before she finally says, "If it's solid, they would probably order a biopsy."

There it is, the nagging fear that's been in the back of my mind from the moment she mentioned the lump. "So it could be….?" I ask hesitantly, trailing off. I can't say it. Not yet.

"It's probably not," she answers quickly – maybe too quickly. How can she know that for sure?

"Mac…."

"Harm," she says, "the doctor said that most women have these nodules without even knowing it and about 50 percent of people overall. And the larger it is, the more likely it is to be a cyst. More than 95% of these things turn out to be benign."

I try to take comfort in the statistics she's citing. It does make sense. I just never expected anything like this to happen – not to us. Everything in our lives is finally going right. We have each other and Tori. I made it out of the Persian Gulf. My career may be on pause right now, Silver Star notwithstanding, but I know that is only temporary. After everything that we've been through the last year, this was supposed to be our time to sit back and just be.

Unfortunately, I can't push the worst case scenario from my mind. It's the lawyer in me. I have to make sure that my clients are fully aware of the absolute worst that could happen if things don't go their way. Only we're not in court and we can't argue our way out of this one.

"Anyway," she finally continues when I don't say anything, "if it is solid, they would remove it surgically, cancer or not. It's too large to just leave. It could impact my breathing because of the location of the thyroid wrapped around the windpipe."

At that, my mind travels back to an incident that seemed of little importance at the time. We had gone for a run two weeks ago, our first together since my return, taking advantage of an offer from Harriet to babysit – probably offered as much to keep herself busy as to allow Mac and I some time alone together. Since Mac needs to be in shape for her PFT by October, and she's been so exhausted recently, she thought going on a run together would help motivate her.

By about halfway through, she seemed to be gasping for breath more than she should considering we weren't going full out. She had brushed it off at the time, reminding me that it had been a long time since she'd exercised that hard. That explanation did make sense – still does – but what if it was something else?

"Like when we were out running?" I ask.

"The doctor did say it could be related," she replies. "With a mass of this size…." She trails off with a shrug. "It could also be impacting the function of my thyroid."

"Which does what, exactly?" I haven't the slightest idea. What little anatomy I might have been exposed to was at least twenty years ago.

"Controls metabolism," she says. After another moment, she adds, "It could explain some other things, like why I'm tired all the time or why I'm having problems losing all my baby weight. The blood work from my physical last week should show whether that's the case or not. Anyway, I would think that would be resolved once the lump is taken care of."

Like her breathing issues, she'd also chalked up her fatigue and weight to aftereffects from pregnancy. Things that once seemed to make sense suddenly don't anymore. "So what would surgery entail?"

"If it's benign," she says, "they just remove the mass. But as long as it's not causing too many problems, at least compared to now, I can probably delay the surgery. I don't really want to have surgery when Tori is so young."

Obviously, having her throat cut open to remove a lump is no minor thing, but I'm not sure if I like the idea of delay and tell her so. "Mac, if you need to have surgery, go ahead and have it. It's not like I can't take care of Tori and you."

She props herself up on her elbow. "Harm, it's not that," she says with exasperation. "It's not you at all. I don't doubt that you could take care of both of us, even at the expense of driving yourself to exhaustion."

"Then what…?"

"I'm still breastfeeding," she reminds me. "And I don't really want to stop, not yet. I'd thought I'd go until she's a year old, but if not….I'm not going to stop at three and a half months, either, for what would essentially be elective surgery at this time."

"I never thought of that," I admit. I know Tori has never been near a bottle of formula, which I agree with due to the health benefits. But I'd never really thought about how long Mac would be nursing her and it hadn't occurred to me to ask. I know she mentioned recently during a trip to the Commissary thinking about starting her on solid foods once she's four to five months old depending on her next visit to the pediatrician – I had expressed curiosity while we were in the baby aisle stocking up on diapers - but that's still at least two weeks off, so I haven't really thought about what that would entail. Of course she would still need milk and not the stuff the adults drink.

She sighs. "I'm sorry," she says, resting her head on my chest again. "I didn't mean to snap. I've just been thinking about nothing but this all day since the doctor first mentioned surgery. Anyway, there's work to consider. We're still shorthanded and I don't really want to tell the Admiral I need to take a few weeks off to have surgery just a few months after taking six weeks' maternity leave."

"I guess that's true," I reply. If things were different, I could help there, but I can't. Damned bureaucrats.

"I'd want to delay surgery until probably after the beginning of the year," she continues. "At least by then, Tori should be pretty established on solid foods plus able to drink juice, so it would be easier to stop nursing. Plus I hope by then the Admiral and I will have been able to find some people to bring into headquarters to take up the existing shortfall."

"What if you can't delay?" I ask uncertainly.

"You mean what if it's cancer?" she blurts out.

I inhale sharply at the word. That's the first either of us have mentioned it in this conversation, although it's been hanging over us like a thundercloud the entire time. "Yeah," I agree quietly. "What if it's cancer?"

"That would obviously add some urgency," she says so matter-of-factly that she might have been talking about something mundane and not the fact that she might be seriously ill. "I don't know exactly how soon it would have to happen. I just know that surgery would be a little more involved, because they'd have to remove the entire thyroid."

"What about…?" I trail off, unable to complete the thought.

"Chemo? Radiation?" she concludes. She shrugs. "I don't know yet. The doctor at the clinic is just a primary care physician, so she couldn't tell me much. She kept trying to emphasize that most of these are benign. She did say I'd have to see an ENT about the surgery. I suppose I could do some research online, but….there's so much going through my mind right now that I'm still trying to sort it all out."

I've known about this for less than an hour and my mind is spinning. I can just imagine how this has been weighing on her all day. "Research," I repeat. Research is good. Then we'll know more about what we're dealing with. And I know the perfect person who can help with that. "I can ask Bud for…."

"I'd prefer you didn't," she interrupts, pulling out of my arms and sitting up, pulling her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.

"Mac?" I ask, confused. I sit up and move back next to her, putting my hands on her shoulders. She's so tense, and she sighs softly as I begin kneading the taunt muscles.

"I don't want to say anything to anyone yet," she says. "There's probably nothing to explain, anyway. It's probably all going to turn out to be nothing to worry about. There's no sense in troubling everyone else, too, unless there's actually something to worry about."

"Are you sure?" I ask. I'm tempted to argue the point, but as much as I want to talk to someone right now – my grandmother comes immediately to mind – I suppose it is her decision, as little as I may like it.

She pulls away, turning to look at me, obviously sensing the hesitation in my voice. "Harm," she says insistently, grabbing my hands, "you can talk to me."

"I am talking to you," I counter. Where is she going with that?

"That's not what I mean," she reassures me. "It's not an accusation. I just want to know what you're feeling."

"I don't know what I'm feeling right now," I admit, trying to push aside the flicker of hurt that it occurred to her that I might not talk to her about this. I guess it's an understandable fear given the past, but surely we've moved past that after everything we've been through. "There's so much to think about…."

She sighs. "I'm right there with you," she says. "I went to the doctor for a sinus infection. A sinus infection, Harm. I never expected…." She pulls a hand free and waves it in frustration.

Wrapping my arm around her, I pull her into my lap. She snuggles into my embrace, closing her eyes as she rests her head against my shoulder. I close my eyes, too, losing myself in the feel of her body against mine, the faint smell of vanilla clinging to her from the bubble bath. "Mac," I say after a moment.

"Hmmm?"

"I love you." I know she knows that, but it seems so important right now to say the words. It might give her some comfort to hear them right now.

"I know," she says, "and I love you, too." I feel her move and open my eyes to find her looking at me, an indecipherable look in her eyes. After a brief moment, she closes the distance between us, her lips pressing softly against mine. She shifts in my lap so that she's straddling me, her body pressing against mine as she deepens the kiss, her hands sliding under my shirt, fingernails scraping my back as she grinds her hips against mine.

She tears her mouth from mine, her tongue darting out to moisten her lips as she starts to lift my shirt up. I start to lift my arms to help her, but we're interrupted by a sharp cry from the baby monitor on the dresser.

We stare at each other then burst out laughing. At least this hadn't moved along very far yet – we've been interrupted at even more inopportune moments. It took me just over a day after coming home to find out that taking care of a baby and wanting to have sex with my wife can and will conflict.

Mac gives me a quick kiss and slides gracefully off my lap as I glance at the alarm clock. It's dinner time. I guess with everything, even Mac lost track of the time. "I'll be back in a few minutes," she promises.

I lie back on the bed, listening as Mac moves around in the nursery while I try to calm myself. It all sounds so normal, so common place, even as her life has possibly been turned upside down. I guess it's a good thing. Maybe having Tori will help keep her from dwelling too much. I know it's not quite the same, but Harriet confided that she didn't know what she'd do with herself if she didn't have AJ to chase after.

After a few minutes, I realize that I haven't heard anything from the baby monitor for a while. I'm about to get up and go look for my girls when Mac comes back into the bedroom with tears in her eyes, trying to get Tori to take a bottle, which she'd gone downstairs to retrieve, explaining the silence. Tori turns her head away, flailing as Mac tries to put the nipple in her mouth.

"Hey," I say, holding out my hands, "want me to do that?" She hesitates a moment then hands Tori over, sitting down next to me with a heavy sigh.

"I thought since we had plenty of bottles prepared," she explains, "and I'm still running a fever that I would give her a bottle, but she doesn't seem to want to take it from me." Her assertion seems to be proved when Tori stops fussing after a moment and takes the bottle from me.

"She's just used to getting it from a different source with you," I point out. "It's a change. If there's a reason to, she'll get used to it."

"I know," she said. "It's just a little frustrating after today, like it's just one more thing that I didn't need right now."

"Hey," I say, motioning awkwardly with one hand while trying to juggle baby and bottle. Mac leans against my side, linking her arm through mine. "Weren't you the one who was saying that it's probably nothing to worry about?"

She smiles weakly at me. "I wasn't very convincing, was I?"

"Whatever happens, we will get through it," I vow. "Together."

"Is that a promise?"

"Of course it is," I reply. I've made her more than one promise over the years, going all the way back to the beginning when I promised to do everything I could for her uncle while protecting her. The two most important are the one I made just over seven months ago and the one embodied in the little girl in my arms. This promise is simply an extension of those. It's about our family.

"We do make a pretty good team," she says. She lifts one of Tori's hands with a finger, Tori's tiny fingers curling around hers, clinging tightly.

"Always, Sarah," I say, tightening my arm around her. "Always."


Author's notes - In the next part, look for Mac to get the results of her ultrasound and to find herself having to tell the Admiral what's going on.

On another note, I found my story outline for 'Searching For Sunny Skies'. I may work on that next (before going back to the next part of DOALS) - I can see the next scene playing out in my head. It's going to be very emotionally trying for Mac. The next scene is actually a continuation of part 7, which has already been posted, so it is still going to be from Mac's point of view. If all goes well, I'll have that for you soon.