TO BE NEAR YOU, TO BE FREE

"Men!" Mac fumed, slamming the door to the gym shut with a well-placed kick. Not one of her best kicks, perhaps, but it had all of her 130 pounds behind it and that felt damned good.

"Whoa!" someone said. "You might want to be a little easier on the equipment, luv."

Mac jumped. Dalton, Coster, Chris and an endless line of other men ambushing her whether she was in or out of uniform had made her antsy about dark places. But the voice had been a womanís. A British woman, to be precise. Mac liked to be precise.

"Sorry, " she said before she could remind herself that she didnít have > to apologise for everything. "I didnít know anyone else was here."

A lilting laugh and a gorgeous Asian woman emerged from under the bench press.

"Iím Betsy Braddock. You?"

"Iím Sarah MacKenzie. Call me Mac. Iíve never seen you here before, have you moved in recently?."

"Pleased to meet you, Mac. Iíd shake hands, but Iím all sweaty. I come here sometimes when Warren, my SO, has business elsewhere. The Subreality Cafe is just around the corner, so I pop in here whenever the writers get too bizarre. But you were saying something about men?"

Mac rotated her shoulders, flexed her wrists and started doing pushups.

"Men," she said, between breaths, "are a whole another species. Take for example..."

"Yes?" Betsy prompted.

"...my partner. Harmon Rabb. Harm. We work together over at JAG. You know, the Navy court."

"Ah. I think Iíve seen him on tv a couple of times."

"Iím sure you have. Heís the JAG hotshot, the fighter pilot who is also a lawyer."

Everything came so easy to Harm. A grin and flourish and all the pieces fell into place. Not to mention that women melted into puddles after just one look at him.

"So whatís wrong with him? You outrank him, you should be able to keep > him in line."

Mac sighed. Harm was infuriating, exasperating, obnoxious, didnít take well to authority and kept turning over rocks just to see what crawled out from under them. Not that he wasnít a good lawyer, because he was, in his own unorthodox way. Any case he found at all worthy of attention, he pursued far beyond reason. The mundane everyday cases he let her handle, claiming she was so much better at them. He operated mainly by > instinct, she by the book. While working a case together, they usually had all angles covered. Together, they seldom went wrong.

"Itís not work-related," she answered.

It was and it wasnít. Their working relationship suffered when their friendship hit the rocks and it was mostly her fault. She couldnít keep things separate. The Admiral had told her as much, and added that she< could use it or let it use her.

"Does it have anything to do with the ring on your right hand?"

Betsy was demonstrating a considerable flexibility at the barre. The woman could put her feet anywhere she wanted them.

"Itís a friendship ring," Mac said, "and itís not from him. And I donít want to talk about it."

"A rock that size has nothing to do with friendship, Mac mídear. Who are you stringing along?"

Mac decided it was a good time to go over to the punching bag. While it was softer and more yielding than Harm liked, it was easy on hands and calves.

"His name," she said between gritted teeth, "is Mic."

She could have added that he was dark and handsome and that he had followed her across half the world, expecting nothing in return. She might also have mentioned his quirky humour, his reckless laughter and the way he liked to hold her, afterwards. Or the fact, the commonly known fact, that he loved her.

"I see."

Her uncle Matt had said the same thing. She had wondered, as she did now, what it was he'd seen. He had always been quick to point out her intrinsic flaws. The drinking. The running away. The dereliction of duty without which he'd still be serving time in Leavenworth. But he had said nothing more about Mic, only looked at the ring on her finger for a moment longer.

"Good for you," Mac growled, "because I don't. See. Shit."

She threw a flurry of punches at the heavy bag and it danced away from her.

"Want me to brace it for you?"

There was a faint twinkle of amusement in Betsy's eyes and Mac decided she didn't like it one bit.

"Suit yourself. But I'm going to practise kicks, so keep your head up."

Betsy nodded, moving to the other side of the bag and holding it close to her chest. It was an ample chest, Mac couldn't help but notice and she absorbed the impact without doing more than shifting her weight from foot to foot. Mac redoubled her efforts, spinning and kicking so hard she could feel the shocks through her own abs as she hit the bag.

"You can't judge a man's worth based on how he treats you," Betsy said softly. "That someone pays attention to you doesn't automatically invalidate everything he says or does. And that someone treats you like dirt doesn't mean he's better than you. He might be. Then again, he might just be someone who treats you like dirt."

"Where, Mac said between kicks, "did you get your psychology degree? Because, pardon my French, this was the biggest load of crap I've ever heard in my life."

Again, the lilting laugh and this time Mac fancied she could pick up a note of derision in it.

"Good. You can be angry. I got my degree in augmented psychotherapy from the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters."

Mac stopped trying to slam the bag into oblivion. Professor Xavier was in the news daily. The new fringe element, the Admiral had called him, looking both annoyed and approving.

"Wait," she said. "You died. I saw that on CNN."

Betsy let go of the bag and went back to the barre. She picked up her bottled water and sipped it in a thoroughly ladylike fashion.

"I came back," she said coolly. "Just went to Australia for while."

"Did you like it there?"

"I liked the kangaroos. The rest, not so much. But I learnt a thing or two."

She stooped to pick up her bag and slung it over her shoulder in one fluid movement. It was an Army duffel and Mac tried and failed to picture her at boot camp. People like that, sons and daughters of Senators or coming from old money, didn't end up in the Army. But neither did they shop at Army surplus stores. The label said M.P.

"I'm sure you'll tell me," Mac said, trying for sardonic.

"How astute of you," Betsy said, lips curling in what was not quite a smile. But the expression changed, became wistful and her voice was soft as she said: "I would advise you not to turn down love, Mac. So very few of us can afford to."

Mac looked away, suddenly unable to meet Betsy's eyes.

"You're saying I should go to Australia," she said.

Betsy sighed, already halfway through the door.

"Don't you ever listen?" she asked wearily. "I said nothing of the sort."

FIN