Disclaimer: Characters are not mine; they belong to DPB. If they were mine, this episode would have ended quite differently. And a certain line would have never ever been spoken.
Author's note: Episode coda to "A Merry Little Christmas". This can also be considered a sequel to Comfort and Joy. Pure fluff and I'm working out some frustrations with the episode here <g>. With gratitude to Jerie for the beta.
Mac shoved her hands deeper into the pockets of her black overcoat. Despite her red lamb's wool gloves, her fingers were freezing. Or maybe, she thought, as she glanced sideways at Clayton Webb, it was something more than a simple physical reaction to the below freezing temperatures.
After a filling dinner of pasta and bread, downed with plenty of red wine, they had decided to walk off dinner by looking at the holiday decorations. A light sprinkling of snow covered the sidewalks, and white lights decorated the elm trees lining the street. A ribbon of a chilly breeze was just enough to keep the night air brisk.
"Beautiful night," Webb said. He glanced sideways at Mac. "You okay?"
"Fine," she said. She smiled at him. "I'm enjoying the date."
"Are you? Or is that the wine talking?"
She shrugged. She hadn't had a drink in years and tonight, she had suggested the bottle of wine. Webb had glanced at her oddly, had asked if she was sure, and she'd laughed off his concern. The first sip had been bitter, and she'd swirled it around in her mouth before swallowing; the second had been warmer, richer, and she'd finally started to relax. This wasn't her first dinner with Webb, and so her sudden nervousness had surprised her.
"You were quiet tonight, Sarah," Webb said.
"I was just thinking," she said quietly. They stopped at the corner and waited for a car to pass.
"Harm. And Mattie Grace."
"That was a nice thing you did for the Commander," Webb said carefully. He offered her his arm as they crossed the street; she accepted, her hand resting lightly on his jacket sleeve. "You didn't have to. Not after some of the things he's said to you in the past few weeks."
"I know." She sidestepped a slush puddle. "But it was something he really wanted and I knew I had to help him. I *wanted* to help him."
"Do you really think he's up to the job of raising a 14-year old girl?" The edge of increduality underlying his voice was less than subtle and it irked Mac for reasons she couldn't quite name.
"I think Harm will make a good father," she said. "I meant it when I told the judge that." She'd said even more to the judge too, but she wasn't about to tell that to Webb. After all, Webb wasn't particularly thrilled about Harm these days, not since Paraguay, and Harm, well, he was Harm and simply being--
Mac stopped short, that familiar lump of emotion hardening in her throat.
"What?" She didn't mean to snap at Webb. He stared at her.
"Is something bothering you?"
She couldn't speak.
"Sarah." Webb took her by the shoulders.
"It's nothing," she said. She resumed walking at a quick pace so Webb had to speed up to catch up to her.
"Look, whatever it is, we can talk about it," Webb said.
Mac shook her head. What was there to say? Perhaps the truth, but after all
of these months after getting to know Clayton
Webb better, she found herself actually liking the guy, caring deeply for him. Yes, truth be told, she did have a certain affection for Webb. Love? Well, that was a strong word in most circumstances, and certainly, it was in this particular situation. But Webb wasn't stupid and it wasn't fair to lie to him.
"I was just thinking how Harm looked when I brought Mattie to him," Mac said finally. "For once, he's not spending Christmas alone."
"He has his mother."
"Yes, and she has her husband. In San Diego." Mac glanced sideways at a particularly lovely window display; a toy train circled a village of miniature Tudor-style homes, while specks of silver confetti drifted down from the ceiling. "Have you ever thought about coming home to the same person every night, Clay? Of getting into your car, driving, and knowing when you open that door, that person will be there waiting for you?"
"Is that what you want?"
"I've wanted it for a long time." The words slipped out before she realized what she was saying. "I'm sorry." She looked at Clay. "That must be the wine talking."
"I don't know if I'm ready for that, Sarah." He scuffed at a patch of snow with the tip of his black leather shoe. "I'm willing to consider it though. For you."
"I don't want you to consider it," she said boldly. "I want you to be sure." She lowered her voice. "Clay, what are we doing?"
"No." She took a deep breath. "Maybe we need to talk about taking a break."
"Yeah. Look, I just need some time, some space, to figure things out for myself."
Webb glanced at her suspiciously. "Does this have to do with Harm?"
"Maybe." Mac lifted her chin defiantly. "But perhaps it's just about me."
"Ah, that's a classic line, Sarah. 'It's not you, it's me.'"
"Things have been jumbled up since Paraguay." She gently untangled her arm from his. "Neither of us have had time to think straight about what we're doing, or what we even mean to each other. I don't want our relationship to be a mistake."
"I don't consider anything we've done a mistake."
"I need to be sure, Clay." Mac tried to keep her voice from trembling, but failed miserably. "Please understand. I respect you and I admire you and I don't want to hurt you."
They resumed their walk in silence and when they reached Clay's car, he opened the door for her and she slid in. The seats were cold and she hunched her shoulders in an attempt to conserve body heat. She directed him to the parking lot where she'd left her car and then, after a quick peck on the cheek, she drove off.
She didn't know how it was she ended up just north of Union Station; by now, she knew the route by heart. Her hands trembling, she locked her car and walked up the stairs to the second floor and knocked on the door. It was after midnight and she was taking a chance.
The door cracked open and then wider.
"Mac." Harm stared at her in surprise.
"Can I come in?"
He stepped aside, letting her pass.
"Um, I know it's late," Mac said awkwardly.
"How was dinner with Webb?"
"Fine." Mac looked at Harm. "I had two glasses of wine tonight."
His expression didn't change. "How do you feel?"
"Lousy. What do you expect?"
"I don't need a lecture, Harm."
"I'm concerned about you, Mac."
"The time for that is long past, isn't it?" She didn't mean to snarl at him, but hell, nothing else this evening had gone right. It'd be fitting to end yet another holiday at odds with the one man she was slowly starting to realize she couldn't do without. "You've been awful, and hell, I don't even know what is what anymore."
"Mac." Harm took a step in her direction. "I'm sorry."
She waved off his comment. "This isn't the way my life was supposed to turn out, Harm. This wasn't the way *we* were supposed to end up." Her words slurred, but she wasn't quite ready to blame the alcohol, but rather exhaustion, frustration and emotion, all wrapped up in a tidy mind-numbing package. "I can't keep up with you, Harm." She glanced around. "Where's Mattie?"
Looking bewildered, Harm jerked a finger towards his bedroom. "She's got the bed. I'm bunking out here." He pointed to the sofa, already made up with blankets and a pillow.
Mac took a deep breath. "I know you're not happy with me right now. I know you probably don't even like me very much." Her lips turned up slightly in wistful expression. "I did what I did in Paraguay because I didn't want you to reject me again."
"I've never rejected you, Mac."
She glanced at him wistfully. "Haven't you? That time with Renee?"
"Her father had just *died*, Mac."
"You didn't even tell me when you broke up."
"Like I said then, it was too late. You'd already run off TAD on me. You didn't return my phone calls or my emails. What was I supposed to do or think?"
Mac sighed, pulling her coat tightly around her. "I'm not sure I'm emotionally strong enough for what you do or do not feel about me, Harm. In the alternative, Webb, on the other hand, was very clear and it was the safe choice to make."
"I thought Marines didn't take the safe way out."
Mac glared at him. "I could still be right about you," she said shakily. "And maybe Clayton Webb is whom I'm meant to be with. With you, I'm on quicksand and Clay, well, he's solid through and through."
"I think I've made my feelings very clear," he said. He sat down heavily on one of the armchairs and indicated for Mac to sit on the sofa. "And--" he swallowed hard "-- sometimes I think you feel the same way."
"Then why is this so hard for us?" Mac asked softly.
"Well, if you hadn't run off with Clay--"
"I didn't run off with Clay." She stared at him angrily. "There you go again, making completely inappropriate remarks."
"I'm sorry." Harm held up his hands in mock surrender. "You want to give me an instruction manual so I can figure out if you're coming or going?"
"This is stupid." Mac stood up. "I don't know what I'm doing here."
Harm gazed at her intensely and she had to avert her eyes.
"Are you sure?" he asked softly. "Are you sure you don't know why you're here?"
"Somehow, I always find myself back here. With you. It has to stop, Harm. One of us needs to let go."
"And if we can't?" Harm was standing very close to her now; she could almost feel his warm breath on her cheeks.
"I don't know."
He tipped her chin back and kissed her. Very lightly, very slowly, not at all the passionate kiss they had shared on the night of her engagement party, but something even sweeter. Mac pulled back. Harm smiled at her. Her lips curled up.
"What do you think?" he asked softly.
Mac tipped her head to the side. "The members are still out, but..."
"Care to hear opposing arguments once again?"
Mac cupped her hands against Harm's face. "Oh yes," she said in the moment before once again, his lips skimmed hers. As she wrapped her arms around his neck, she knew, for once, it was truly a merry Christmas.
~ the end or read the prequel: Comfort and Joy
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