"So, how did I do?" Mattie Grace asked as they got out of "Sarah" and turned her around to push the aircraft into the hangar.
"Not bad," Harm said. "You could use a little work on your landings. But that'll come in time."
"If I remember correctly, *you* bounced once today," Mattie pointed out.
"All part of the plan," Harm replied with a grin. "I was just showing you what *not* to do."
"Uh huh," Mattie said, turning to look at him, her arms crossed over her chest. "Sure it was."
Harm knew he'd been caught out by the young lady and wisely dropped the topic. "How are things going out here?" he asked.
Mattie gave him a look that clearly said that she knew what he was doing, but answered. "Not too bad. Mrs. Crider has been bringing me casseroles to eat and some of her old textbooks so I can get caught up when I finally start back to school."
"Good for her." Mrs. Crider was Mattie's closest neighbor. A retired teacher, she had agreed to 'keep an eye' on Mattie whenever Harm couldn't be there, until he could figure out how to proceed. "Speaking of which, I have to get going. I'm due at a friend's for dinner this evening. And I need to ask if he and his wife would be willing to take care of you whenever I'm out of town working."
Mattie frowned. "I can take care of myself," she reminded him. "I've been doing a pretty good job of it for the last six months."
"The point is, you shouldn't *have* to. I need to have everything ready before I file those papers or they not only won't appoint me as your guardian, you'll be placed into foster care." He had decided to apply for custody of Mattie, mostly because he thought she needed more stable influence in her life. His being gone on missions would make things difficult, but if Bud and Harriet would agree to pinch hit for him, Harm thought he might be able to pull it off. It would mean, of course, that he would have to move out of the loft and into either a larger apartment or a house.
"I'd run away, first," Mattie said, and Harm had no doubt that she would do precisely that if necessary. "So, what is this friend like?"
"Bud Roberts. We were in the Navy together. He's a JAG lawyer and a Lieutenant. He's married to Harriet, they have two little boys."
"Great," Mattie sighed. "That's one of the reasons I didn't want to stay with my dad's folks, remember?" she said when Harm lifted an eyebrow at her lack of enthusiasm. "All they wanted me around for was to baby-sit their brats without having to pay me for it."
"Believe me, I don't think Bud and Harriet will expect that. They're good people. Their oldest son, AJ is my godson."
"How old is he?" she asked.
"About four and a half. His little brother Jimmy was born a couple of months ago."
"Oh. You think they'll agree to take care of me whenever you're out of town?"
"I hope so. I don't have a lot of people that I can ask that I trust." Mac flitted through his mind, but they still weren't speaking. As yet, they hadn't managed to set up their 'talk' meeting, since whenever Harm was available, she wasn't. Usually, she was out with Webb or working. He couldn't possibly ask her to help out. She'd probably give him a lot of static about doing this anyway.
But after several flying lessons during his visits, Harm had realized that Mattie *needed* him, even if she wouldn't admit it. "Wish you didn't have to go," she said now.
"I'll try to get back out tomorrow, unless I get a call." All he'd told her about his job was that he flew various aircraft for a government agency, and that he couldn't talk about the missions because they were classified. While he had seen the curiosity in her blue eyes, he also knew that she wouldn't barrage him with questions about it or become angry.
"Hey. Earth to Harm," Mattie said, waving her hand in front of his face. "You kinda zoned out there for a minute. Heavy thoughts?"
"Very heavy," Harm admitted. "*You* need to spend the rest of the afternoon studying."
"Don't remind me," Mattie sighed, walking toward the Vette with him. "You'll call?"
"You know I will. And if you need me, don't hesitate to call *me*, okay?"
"I won't." Harm opened the door of the car - and was about to get inside when Mattie impulsively threw her arms around him, giving him a hug.
He returned it carefully. "What was that for?" he asked when she finally let him go and stepped back, looking slightly embarrassed.
"To say 'thank you' for caring, I guess," she answered with a lift of her shoulders.
"You're welcome," he said, and winked before getting into the car and starting it. "Take care."
He could see her standing where he'd left her through the rear-view mirror until he turned the corner and headed back toward DC. She was a good kid. She just needed someone to let her *be* a kid instead of a young adult.
Falls Church, VA
"I hadn't realized he'd be this big," Harm told Harriet as he held the sleeping baby in his arms.
"He's almost three months old, sir," Bud reminded him.
"You can call me Harm, Bud. I'm not in the Navy anymore, remember?"
Bud took a deep breath and exhaled it. "I know. I wish you were. JAG's not the same without you around."
"Without me around to take the heat from the Admiral, you mean," Harm said, only half joking. He was surprised to see Bud pale slightly at the comment. "Something wrong, Bud?" he asked.
"Uh, no. It's just -" he winced. "Commander Turner said something similar not too long ago."
"Yes, well, at least I was good for something around there."
"Sir - Harm," Harriet said, "Couldn't you talk to the Admiral? Maybe he's not so angry now and he might -"
Harm shook his head, handing baby Jimmy back to his mother. "I've already lost over six months, Harriet. I don't think I could go back that easily."
"You never know until you try," Bud said.
"If the Admiral wants me back, I'm not that hard to track down. Even with my job, I *do* have an answering machine. And I'm sure he has contacts that would be able to let him know when I'm in town." He shook his head. "Besides, I'm enjoying what I'm doing now. I get to fly all kinds of aircraft," he said with a wide smile.
"We do need another lawyer on staff," Bud said. "Especially since that mess with Carolyn Imes."
"I still can't believe that she managed to fool everyone," Harriet noted.
"Everyone has their secrets, Harriet," Harm said, and then laughed to break the sudden, uncomfortable silence that followed his words. "How did we get off onto that subject?" he wondered aloud. "I have a huge favor to ask of you two - I know I haven't been around much, and I probably don't have the right to ask, but -"
"Of course you have the right," Harriet insisted. "You're AJ and Jimmy's god parent. And we understand why you went so long without contacting us. I mean, it must have been really hard to leave the Navy and JAG and start over again the way you had to do."
"Harriet's right," Bud agreed. "What's the favor?"
Harm told them about Mattie, about how her mother had been dead for six months and her alcoholic father had abandoned her. About how she had been running "Grace Aviation" on her own during that time, and that he was planning on petitioning the court to become her guardian.
"A fourteen year old girl?" Bud asked, his eyes wide.
"She's mature for her age, hasn't really had a chance to *be* a kid. I want to be able to give that to her."
"Will a court grant you guardianship with you gone out of the country so often?" Harriet wondered.
"I hope so. Especially if I can assure them that I have a safe place to leave Mattie whenever I have to go out of town."
"And you were wondering if she could stay here," Bud realized.
"I know it's a lot to ask, considering you don't even know her, but -"
"Well, that can be fixed easily enough," Harriet said. "Bring her over. The next time you're in town, give us a call and I'll fix dinner for both of you."
"What about your loft?" Bud asked. "It's only a one bedroom. Not nearly large enough for you *and* a teenage girl."
"I've been looking at some houses in the area. Small two or three bedrooms, fenced yards."
"You've been in that loft for a long time," Bud said. "I can't believe that you're willing to give it up."
"If it means getting Mattie in my life and taking care of her, I'll do it. I think I'll take you up on your offer, Harriet. Next time I'm in town, I'll call." He hesitated. "I'm probably also going to need some character references -"
"We'd be more than happy to do that, wouldn't we, Harriet?" Bud asked, looking to his wife for confirmation.
"Of course we would. And I'm sure that the Colonel would be -"
"I'm sure she would be, if I asked," Harm interrupted smoothly. "Thanks. I know I haven't been around much lately, but I'm hoping that will change now that we have a few more people working in the unit and I'm not working so much." He didn't tell them that he'd deliberately worked more than he should have to keep from having to think, to have a reason why he couldn't stay in touch with his old friends. He stood up. "Right now, I have to be going."
"So soon?" Harriet said, looking a little upset. "It's been so long since we've seen you, it seems like you just got here."
"I know. But I got a call just before I left the apartment. I've been scheduled for a mission tomorrow. Have to be up at zero four hundred."
"I'll walk you out," Bud offered.
Harm told Harriet and little AJ goodnight, and left the house with Bud. "I guess you're not coming back to JAG, are you?" Bud said as they stood beside the Corvette. "I mean, you seem to enjoy doing what you're doing."
"I do. You know me and flying."
"Yeah," Bud nodded. "I meant what I said earlier, though. It's not the same without you around. Jennifer Coates is always finding ways to drop your name around the Admiral. I think she's pushing him to talk to you."
"She's just going to get herself into trouble by doing that. You tell her -"
"I think that *you* should tell her, sir," Bud said firmly. "I know she'd be delighted to hear from you. She misses you as much as I do."
"I'll try to give her a call," Harm said. "See if we can't meet somewhere away from JAG and talk."
"You know, it must be exciting, flying all those airplanes into dangerous situations, living on the edge."
"Never a dull moment," Harm nodded with a grin as he glanced back at the house. "But you know what, Bud?"
"I'd be more than happy to trade it for what you've got here. You're a very lucky man, Bud. Don't ever forget that."
"Believe me, Harm, I remind myself of that every day."
Harm shook his friend's hand and got into the car to drive away.
After they returned from the mission a few days later, Keeter suggested that he and Harm go out on the town for a few drinks. "Be like the old days," he said. "You and me, playing the field."
Harm laughed and shook his head. "I'm too old to be playing the field, Keeter," he told his friend.
"Then just come with me for a couple of drinks. You owe me."
Harm's eyebrows rose. "*I* owe *you*? I think it's the other way around, pal."
"Okay. So maybe I owe you. So let me pay you back by buying you a couple of drinks." When Harm still hesitated, Keeter said, "Beats sitting around that apartment by yourself playing that guitar."
"Okay. But I have to call Mattie first."
"You're really serious about that kid, aren't you?"
"You bet I am. I don't know what it is about her -"
"Maybe she reminds you of someone," Keeter suggested.
"Maybe she does," Harm confessed, but didn't say more. "I'll meet you."
"Sounds good. The Cove Bar. I'll keep a stool at the bar warm for you. And if you're not there in an hour, I'll come over and drag you out of that loft," he threatened.
"I'm supposed to be scared?" Harm asked, and grinned, enjoying the teasing between them. He'd missed having Keeter around, being able to laugh and just let go a little.
"You'd better be. I know where all the bodies are buried, remember?"
"Just one more, Harm," Keeter said, slurring his words slightly. Even Harm felt a slight buzz from the whiskey that he'd downed.
"I don't think so, Keeter," he answered. "As it is, I'm going to have to call a cab to take me home."
"Can't let that happen," Keeter said, throwing his arm across Harm's broad shoulders. "I bet we could find some little cutie who would be willing to drive you back to your place," he said.
"Let a stranger drive my Vette?" Harm questioned. "I'm not *that* drunk, buddy."
"Hmm," Keeter said, his expression thoughtful. "So what are you gonna do? I don't think you want to leave that car down here all night, either."
"No, I don't. And that's why I'm not having anything else to drink - except coffee." He looked at the bartender. "Cup of coffee?"
"Comin' up," the man said. "Your friend want one, too?"
"Nah," Keeter said. "I'll take another Jack Daniels."
Harm shook his head and lifted his eyes to the ceiling. "Keeter, you're not twenty five anymore," he said.
"But she is," Keeter said, his eyes locked onto a table across the room where two young women were sitting. One was blonde, the other brunette, and both were wearing skin tight, low-cut tops and jeans that looked as if they had been poured into them. "Wow." He turned to the bartender. "Barkeep, I want to buy those two ladies a couple of drinks."
"If you say so," the man said, giving Harm the cup of coffee and sliding a glass of whiskey across the bar toward Keeter before going to pour two glasses of wine and carry them out to the table.
Harm wanted to fall through the floor when the two girls looked toward them and Keeter grinned and waved at them. "Keeter, what are you doing?"
"Trying to find some company," he answered, picking up his drink as the girls continued to smile at them. "Come on. Be sociable for a change. Anyone would think you'd joined the priesthood or become a monk. Your social life is beneath the radar."
"That's not true. I go out."
"Yeah. With Beth and Lucy. Or Mattie. Not much of a life, pal," Keeter said. "Come on."
Doubtful, Harm followed his old friend across the room. "Hi," one of the girls said, giving them both a long, accessing look.
Keeter grinned. "I'm Jack. This is Harm."
"Nick tells us that we have you to thank for our drinks," the blonde said. "I'm Lisa," she told them.
"And I'm Holly," her friend said. "Why don't you join us?" she suggested, and Keeter wasted no time in taking the chair closest to the petite brunette. Harm hung back a moment, but finally relented, unwilling to not be there to watch his friend's back.
"So, what do you two guys do for a living?" Lisa asked. "Let me guess," she continued before either Keeter or Harm could respond. "Military?" she asked.
"We were," Harm admitted. "Now we're just pilots."
"Ooo," Holly said. "What do you fly?"
"Well, darlin," Keeter drawled, leaning close to Holly's shoulder, giving him an excellent view of her deep cleavage, "We used to fly F-14s in the Navy."
"Like Tom Cruise?" Holly asked in a wide-eyed fashion, and Harm barely repressed a groan at the comparison.
"Not - exactly," he finally managed to say in an effort to keep Keeter from saying anything he shouldn't. In the early day of his career as a pilot, Harm had been willing to play on the popularity of "Top Gun" to find companionship. He'd privately thought it was a stupid movie. Until the ramp strike. And then he'd been unable to watch the movie again because the death of Maverick's RIO Goose was too painful to go through after his own RIO's death.
"You're going to tell us it wasn't very true to life, aren't you?" Lisa asked him.
"In some respects, it was. In others - Not much."
Lisa sighed deeply, causing her ample breasts to heave slightly, momentarily distracting Harm's attention. "Too bad." When she lifted her eyes to his, she smiled. "I bet you looked fantastic in dress whites," she said, leaning closer to him. "I'm sure you know what they say about Dress whites and gold wings, Harm."
He found himself returning her smile as he replied. "They'll get you into bed anywhere."
"Harm had the ladies lined up," Keeter agreed before finishing his beer. "I need another beer." Looking at Lisa and Holly, he said, "You ladies ready for more?"
"We're always ready," Holly declared, running her bright red fingertip down Keeter's shirt, circling the buttons as she did so.
"I don't really think you need anymore to drink, Keeter," Harm said, stopping Keeter as he was about to raise his hand.
"Come on, Harm, old buddy," he said. "Don't be a stick in the mud. I hope you can loosen him up, Lisa. He's a little rusty around the hinges."
Harm did groan then, seeing Lisa's amused smile. "Don't worry, Jack. I think I'm up to the task."
Harm felt his eyes widen in alarm, and picked up his cup of coffee to take a drink of it. It was cold, but he drank it anyway. Right now, he needed to sober up if he and Keeter weren't going to end up in more trouble than they could handle.
1000 Hours ZULU
North of Union Station
Harm woke slowly, already regretting having so much to drink the night before. He was about to roll over onto his back when he felt the mattress move beside him and tensed, trying to figure out who it might be. He hadn't drank enough that he would have forgotten bringing that girl - what had her name been? Linda? Lisa? - home, he was sure of that much.
When he heard the loud snoring, Harm relaxed, recognizing the sound as memory returned. Keeter had been too drunk to drive himself, and so Harm had brought him back here to sleep it off. Only Keeter had passed out on the bed, leaving Harm with the choice of sleeping on the sofa or sharing the bed with his oldest friend.
He'd opted for the bed, of course, and now took a deep breath before getting out of bed and heading for the kitchen to put on some coffee. He had a feeling that Keeter was going to need it when he finally woke up. Once the coffee was brewing, Harm took a shower, putting on a pair of sweat pants. Grabbing a cup of the coffee, Harm took it into the bedroom and shook Keeter's shoulder.
"Wake up, Keeter."
Keeter mumbled something, pushing Harm's hand away before turning over again.
"Jack, wake up," he said again, this time using a firmer tone and shaking a little harder than before.
Keeter opened his eyes and blinked, looking around. "Where am I?"
"My place," Harm told him, holding out the cup of coffee. "Here. You probably need this about now."
Sitting up, Keeter winced at the movement. "What I really need is some aspirin. And maybe an ice bag for my head." He took a drink of the coffee. "This is a first. I don't think I've woken up in another man's bed after drinking."
"Don't worry," Harm teased, turning and going into the bathroom as he talked. "I didn't take advantage of your condition."
"Whew!" Keeter said with exaggerated relief. "That's good to know."
Harm tossed the bottle of aspirin in the other man's direction. "Here. After you finish the coffee, take a hot shower. It'll help. I'll make us some breakfast."
"Not sure I can face food right now, pal," Keeter said.
"You don't have any choice. You took advantage of my hospitality, so you get breakfast."
"Yes, sir," Keeter agreed, finally smiling a little through the pain as he tossed back a handful of tablets, washing them down with the coffee.
Harm returned to the kitchen and started making pancakes while Keeter went to the bathroom for his shower. He was just dishing up the first of the pancakes when there was a knock on the door of his apartment. Unsure of who might be visiting him at this time of the morning, Harm cautiously approached the door and opened it to find Mac standing there, wearing running clothes and holding a paper bag from the bakery just down the street.
"Mac," he said. "This is a surprise."
"I took a chance that you would be home," she told him, lifting the bag. "I brought breakfast. I thought we might go running -"
"I was just making breakfast for us -"
"Us?" she repeated, looking past him into the apartment.
"A - friend slept over last night," he said, wondering why he'd phrased it that way. But seeing Mac's expression gave him his answer. She looked disappointed. Harm wasn't sure if it was because he wasn't alone or the fact that she thought he might have moved on. "You're welcome to come in, if you want," he said, stepping back from the door.
"No, I -" her voice faltered when Keeter spoke from the bedroom as he came out of the shower.
"Just how big of a fool did I make of myself last night, Harm?" he asked, falling silent as he realized that Harm was standing at the open door, obviously nervous about something.
When he came into view, wearing his jeans from the previous evening, no shirt, and the damp towel slung around his neck, Mac looked at him. "Hello, Jack."
Harm noticed his friend's expression close down upon seeing Harm's former partner at JAG. "Mac," he said shortly.
She looked at Harm, obviously relieved. "When you said a friend slept over, I thought -"
He knew that he would regret it later, but in that moment, Harm gave in to the tiny, mischievous imp sitting on his shoulder, whispering into his ear, and said, "Maybe you were right," he suggested, turning to give Keeter a surreptitious wink, hoping that his old friend would pick up on the currents in the room and play along.
"Harm, maybe you shouldn't be so quick to let the cat out of the bag, buddy," Keeter said.
"Why? We're not in the Navy anymore. Nothing wrong with exploring - other options, is there?" he asked Mac, who looked totally stunned as she backed toward the door.
"N-no. Of -of course there isn't. Ex-cuse me. I just remembered something that I have to do before I get ready for work." She nodded once to Keeter and then disappeared toward the stairway door, clearly not wanting to wait for the lumbering freight elevator to take her downstairs.
Harm closed the door and stood there, fighting the urge to go after her, to tell her that it had just been a joke. Probably a bad joke at that. But as his fingers tightened on the doorknob again, Keeter's hand came up to stop him from opening the door.
"Don't, Harm. If she doesn't know you well enough to know that we were just kidding around, then that's her problem, not yours. Unless you're ready to talk to her -."
Harm took a deep breath, asking himself if he was. The answer was still no. He'd heard through Bud and Harriet that Mac was still seeing Webb. He wasn't about to play second fiddle to that spook. "No. Not yet. Thanks for backing me up, though."
"No problem. Just remember it next time I set you up on a blind date," Keeter said, following him over to the kitchen to retrieve the pancakes.
Harm glanced at him. "As long as she's not a college student with the IQ of a turnip, I'll remember it."
"Come on. That last one was nearly thirty."
"And she was an astrologist," Harm pointed out. "We had nothing in common, Keeter."
Keeter carried his plate over to the table, shaking his head. "You're too picky, pal. And at 40, you can't afford to be. Not if you ever want to have that family you keep talking about."
"I'll have a family. And without one of your one-night wonders to 'help'."
"Let me guess: Mattie, right?"
"Yeah," Harm confirmed with a smile. "Mattie."
1700 Hours ZULU
"What time do we have to be there?" Mattie asked as she watched Harm working on the engine of his precious Stearman.
"Nineteen hundred," he answered absently. "Could you hand me that wrench over there?"
"Sure. Let's see. Nineteen hundred. That's seven pm, right?"
He took the wrench, grinning. "Right. You have a dress to wear?"
"A *dress*?" she questioned.
"You need to make a good impression," he reminded her. "Don't worry about it. But we do need to get you a dress before we go to court."
"Any idea when that might be?" Mattie wondered.
"Depends on how things go this evening at the Roberts. If you like them and they like you, I'll get the paperwork filed and get things started tomorrow."
"We wait for a court date. They'll interview us, probably do a home visit - speaking of which, I think I've found a house in Falls Church - I thought we could drive by on the way to Bud and Harriet's to check it out."
Harm chuckled and shook his head as he continued to work - until he heard a familiar voice. "Been awhile, Commander."
He stopped working, glancing at Mattie out of the corner of his eyes before turning his attention back to the work he was doing. "At least six months, AJ," he agreed.
"Who is he, Harm?" Mattie asked.
"Admiral AJ Chegwidden, Mattie. Judge Advocate of the US Navy."
"The guy who fired you?"
"He wasn't fired," AJ pointed out. "He quit."
"He just didn't invite me to come back," Harm told Mattie.
"He's stupid, then," Mattie declared.
"And exactly who are you, miss?" AJ asked.
"Mattie Grace. I run this place. And Harm's a friend of mine," she added in a confrontational tone. Harm hid the smile that her protective air created.
"It's okay, Mattie."
"Can we talk, Harm?" AJ asked, glancing pointedly at Mattie. "Privately."
Seeing Mattie bristle, Harm spoke quickly. "Didn't you mention something about paperwork that you had to do before we leave for dinner?"
"Yeah," she said, still glaring at AJ as she passed him and headed toward the doorway on the other side of the hangar.
"She's certainly outspoken," AJ noted, watching her go.
"Yes. She's a good kid, though. Just needs someone who cares about her and won't abandon her."
"Where's her family?"
"Her mother's dead, her father's a drunk. He deserted her after her mother died."
"So where's she been staying?"
"She was on her own until I came along. I'm going to petition the court to become her guardian."
"That's a major step. A lot of responsibility."
"Especially for someone who's not a team player and ruled by their emotions," Harm continued. "I think I'm up to the challenge." He took a deep breath. "Why are you here, AJ?"
"To tell you that if you want to come back, I think I could make it happen."
"Six months ago, you cut me loose without a second thought. What's changed?"
AJ looked away from him to examine one of the crop dusters sitting nearby. "We're shorthanded. I need a good attorney - and I thought maybe you might be getting tired of playing spook."
Harm crossed his arms across his chest and leaned back against a worktable. "Not really. Hours are good at the moment, money's good."
"But wouldn't it be easier to take care of Mattie if you had a stable position - one that you didn't have to lie to her about, or worry that you wouldn't come back from?" AJ countered.
"Yes, it would be easier. But I'm finding out that I can do other things besides be a Navy lawyer. If worse came to worse, I could stay here and help Mattie with this place."
"Dust crops for a living? There's a job for a grown man," AJ snorted.
"It's good, honest work," Harm pointed out evenly.
"Working for a teenager," AJ said, shaking his head.
"You know why you're really here, AJ?" Harm said. "You need me."
"Maybe," AJ admitted. "Whatever the reason, the offer's on the table. Think about it. Think about what's best for that young lady in there," he continued, nodding toward the closed office door. "Just don't wait too long. You know how to get in touch with me."
Harm stood there, watching as AJ left the hangar. He heard the office door open, and sensed Mattie's approach. "Everything okay?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said, staring at the floor. "Mattie, before we go any farther, I need to tell you something. About my job."
She came to lean against the table beside him. "So tell."
"Remember that I told you that I fly planes for a government agency?"
He turned to look at her. "I work for the CIA."
"You're a spy?"
Harm laughed softly, shaking his head. "No. I just fly. Most of the time. I mean, I'm not a field agent who goes undercover, but there are times when circumstances require me to do more than just fly. And I still won't be able to answer your questions about what I'm doing or where I've been - or where I'm going."
"You're trying to tell me that you've got a dangerous job, aren't you?"
"Yes. And that if something were to happen to me on one of those missions, I might not be here for you. That's why I'm trying to find someone I can trust to take care of you if something were to happen. Not that I think it will. I just -"
"I can take care of myself," she reminded him.
And he gave her the same answer. "You shouldn't have to. The Admiral wants me to go back to the Navy and work for him again."
"Is that what you want?" Mattie asked. "To work for that mean old guy?"
"He's not that bad once you get to know him."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Could you handle it if I don't go back to the Navy? Knowing what I do and that if I'm captured the odds are that I won't make it back?"
"I'd go looking for you," she told him, her blue eyes meeting his. "No matter how long it took."
Harm smiled, but something about that idea bothered him. He didn't want Mattie growing up searching the way he had. "Well, it won't happen anyway," he assured her. "Not with my luck."
"You have good luck?"
"I found you, didn't I?"
"I thought that made *me* lucky," Mattie replied, and quickly turned away, but not before Harm saw the bead of moisture roll down her cheek. "I thought we had to be at your friends' place for dinner at nineteen hundred?"
"So we do. Come on. I'll help you lock the place up so we can get out of here."
0200 Hours ZULU
Falls Church, VA
"She's adorable, Harm," Harriet declared, watching as little AJ talked a mile a minute to Mattie. "I think AJ likes her, too. He's been feeling a little left out with the new baby."
"Just a little acting out from time to time. Nothing we can't handle, I'm sure," Bud explained.
"So if I go through with this, would you two be willing to keep an eye on her whenever I'm out of town for more than a day?"
"Undoubtedly," Harriet declared firmly. "If she's agreeable to that arrangement."
"I'll discuss it with her later. I wouldn't want to put her on the spot and ask her when you're around."
"That's understandable," Bud nodded. "And just so you know, sir - I mean Harm, that's not why *we* agreed to help."
"I know, Bud." Harm took a deep breath. "The Admiral came to see me today." Seeing the way his friend's eyes lit up with hope, Harm hated to let him down.
"Did he ask you to come back?"
"In a way. Said that he could make it happen - if that's what I wanted."
"But it's not, is it?" Harriet guessed sadly.
"Not right now," Harm admitted quietly. "I know it would probably be best for Mattie - but I'm not sure I could just go back like that."
"I'm sure that the Colonel would be glad to see you," Bud said. "She doesn't say it, but I think she really does miss you."
"Is she still dating Webb?" Harm asked.
"I think so."
"I'm not ready to try and be there every day, watching her make another mistake, Bud," Harm said. I've done it once, twice is more than I can take. It's bad enough that I have to see Webb occasionally at Langley."
Baby Jimmy started to cry, and Harriet glanced up the stairs. "I'd better go -"
"I'll go, honey," Bud said, moving away toward the stairs.
"What happened, sir?" Harriet asked.
"What do you mean, Harriet?"
"I know you can't tell me about what went on when you left last year to find the Colonel and Mr. Webb, but - well, I thought the two of you would come back closer after everything. But you didn't. You barely spoke to her before you left the office that last day."
"Eight years of waiting happened, Harriet," Harm replied, turning to watch Mattie again. "We've changed, grow apart."
"You don't believe that."
"No, maybe I don't," Harm said. "I've changed. I'm not sure about her. I mean, I didn't expect her to throw herself into my arms because I saved her life - but I didn't expect to find her kissing Webb either."
"She's a free agent, can see anyone she wants to. But she can't expect me to be there like some backup man, just in case things don't work out."
"I don't think she expects that, Harm," Harriet said. "You *are* going to ask her to be a character reference for you in court too, aren't you?" she asked pointedly, giving Harm a look that probably worked most of the time on Bud - or little AJ.
"I hadn't thought about it."
"You should. Maybe it would - break the ice?" she suggested, suddenly uncertain.
"That ice is pretty thick, Harriet," Harm told her, but seeing her hopeful expression, he nodded. "I'll think about it."
"You're not just saying that?"
"No. I'm not just saying that," he assured her.
0400 Hours ZULU
North of Union Station
"You're sure you wouldn't rather I drive you back out to Blacksburg?" Harm asked as he spread blankets on the sofa.
"It's too far for you to go this late at night," Mattie told him as she came from the bedroom area, having changed into an oversized t-shirt and a pair of running shorts that she'd brought with her. "I can sleep on the sofa and you can take me back to the airport tomorrow morning."
"You won't be able to open the doors at zero eight hundred," he warned.
Mattie shrugged. "That's okay. It's not like there's much going on out there right now anyway, with the dusting season pretty much over."
It wasn't the first time she had said something similar, but Harm didn't want to push her to talk about whatever was troubling her. When she was ready, she'd talk. "What did you think of Bud and Harriet?" he asked to change the subject.
"I liked them. And AJ is a little cutie. Seems a little lonely. And he *doesn't* like the idea of having another baby around very much."
"Harriet mentioned something about that. You think you could handle staying with them whenever I'm gone?"
"Good. Because they liked you, too," he said.
"When do you think we'll know something about the house?" Mattie asked. They had gone by the house he'd found earlier, and Mattie had declared it to be "Absolutely perfect".
"Hopefully within a week. I'll probably go ahead and file the papers on Monday, though. Just to get the ball rolling."
"And how long will it take before I'm officially your ward?"
"Depends on how busy the court dockets are. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Christmas."
She made a show of crossing her own fingers. "So am I," she told him, grinning.
"Sure you wouldn't rather take the bed?"
"Nah. This is fine," she assured him, slipping between the sheets that he'd placed on the couch for her. "Besides, you're too tall to sleep comfortably on this thing, I bet."
"It is a little short," he agreed with a grin. "I'll see you in morning."
He was halfway to the bedroom when she spoke again. "Harm?"
"Yes?" he asked, returning to stand beside her. She sat up, looking into his eyes across the dimly lit room.
"I know what I'm getting out of all this. But what are you getting?"
That was a loaded question. A family. Someone else to worry about instead of himself. Someone to take care of. But he answered with a simple, "You. Now get to sleep."
Mattie lay back down and Harm tucked the covers around her. He would have pulled away, but she grasped his hand. "You're a good man, you know that?"
"So I've been told. Night."
"Night, Dad," she said softly before turning her face toward the back of the sofa and getting comfortable.
Harm double-checked the doors, turning out the remaining lights on his way to the bedroom, wondering how a slip of a fourteen-year-old girl had managed to get under his carefully erected and maintained walls so easily - and without him even realizing it.
But as his head hit the pillow that night, he thanked God that she had.
He was getting dressed the next morning when there was a knock on the door and Mattie called out. "You want me to get that?" she asked.
"Ask who it is first," he called back.
Mattie went to the door. "Who's there?" she asked.
"Clayton Webb," came the muffled answer, causing Harm to stop in his movement of putting on a pair of tennis shoes.
"Damn," he muttered under his breath. "What the hell does *he* want?"
"Should I let him in?" Mattie asked.
"Might as well. I doubt he'll go away if you don't," Harm added quietly as there was another knock on the door. In a louder tone, he said, "Let him in and tell him I'll be there in a minute."
Mattie opened the door, looking at the man who stood there, noticing his well-made tailored suit. "Hello, Mr. Webb," she said, her tone unknowingly colored by Harm's reaction to the man's arrival. "Harm's on his way." She stepped back. "You want to come in?"
Clayton Webb gave her a curious look as he moved into the apartment. "Thank you, Miss -?"
"Mattie Grace," she told him. "Harm and I -"
"Hello, Webb," Harm said as he came from the bedroom.
"Harm," he replied shortly. Glancing toward Mattie, he said, "Can we talk? Privately?"
"I need to take a shower," Mattie told Harm, grabbing her overnight bag from beside the sofa and disappearing up the stairs into the bedroom.
"Who is she?" Webb asked.
"She's a friend," Harm explained. "I'm going to ask the court to appoint me as her guardian since she's alone. If it's any of your business. What did you want to talk about?"
"Sarah," Webb said after taking a deep breath.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Harm questioned, "What about her?"
"She's worried about you."
"And that doesn't bother you? After all, *you're* her boyfriend, not me." Harm could almost see Webb grinding his teeth in angry frustration at the words.
"You're her friend. And you're very important to her. And if she's upset or worried, then it affects me."
"I can't think why she'd be worried," Harm said. "I'm doing fine. I have a good job, I'm making friends. Rebuilding my life after it got torn apart when I returned from Paraguay after saving your lives." Harm moved to the kitchen to pour himself a cup of coffee. "Unless that's the problem. She's worried that I'm moving away from *her*. But that's not the case, I'm sure. I mean, why should she worry about that when she has you?" He held up an empty cup. "Coffee?"
"No, thanks. I'm on my way to the office. I'm going back on field duty this week."
Harm shook his head in disbelief. "After what happened down there, you're really going back to that?"
"It's my job. What I was trained to do."
"People can change with enough incentive, Webb."
"You're really going to take on the responsibility for a teenager with your job? You're in town less than I ever was usually."
"Like I say, things change."
"Speaking of - Sarah said that when she came by the other day, you and Keeter -"
Harm chuckled. "Tell her not to worry. It was a joke. Maybe not a funny one, but it *was* a joke."
"You know, you could go back to JAG. I'm sure that the Admiral would take you back -"
"Yes, he would," Harm confirmed. "But *I'm* not sure that I want to go back after everything that happened."
"Look, Harm, you have every right to be angry with me, but don't cut Sarah out of your life like this."
"I'm not cutting anyone out of my life, Webb. It's just that my life is taking a different path at the moment. And that path doesn't necessarily lead toward Sarah Mackenzie. You know, I can't figure you out."
"What do you mean?"
"You have Mac - she's with you, not me, and yet here you are, trying to smooth the waters between she and I. Seems to me that you're either *very* confident about your relationship with her, or you're looking for a way to end it."
"I just want to know that she's got someone around whenever I can't be there, Harm," Webb said. "You of all people know what my job is like. Sarah's strong and can handle things, but I think there will come a time when she'll need a friend."
"And you think she's willing to let *me* be that friend?"
"You know she would."
"And you'd be okay with that? Why my spending time with Mac whenever you were out of town?"
"I trust you. I know you'd never do - do what I did. But she was fair game, Harm," Webb insisted. "You didn't have any ties on her. Hell, we've known her for the same amount of time, and I stood back, waiting for you to make a move. You never did."
"I guess resigning my commission and going down to Paraguay wasn't enough of a move," Harm pointed out. He exhaled loudly. "I don't blame you for falling in love with her, Webb. But if you ever do anything to hurt her - you'll answer to me."
"I know," Webb nodded. "Call her. Talk to her. Let her back in. I think she's been through enough in the last few months, don't you?"
"I'll think about it," was Harm's only response.
"Don't punish her for what I did, Harm."
"You didn't force her into anything, Webb. Mac's a grown woman. She makes her own choices. She's with you because that's where she wants to be, not because of anything I did or didn't do."
"And maybe you're underestimating your importance in her life," Webb suggested in a soft voice.
Mattie returned, glancing at the two men before speaking to Harm. "I have to get back out to Blacksburg, Harm."
"Yeah. I think we're about finished here, aren't we?" he asked Webb.
"I guess so. Call her, Harm. That's all I'm asking."
"I said I'd think about it."
Realizing that the conversation was over, Webb nodded in Mattie's direction. "Nice meeting you, Miss Grace. Don't envy you trying to keep him in line, though."
Mattie grinned. "I think I can handle it."
Harm closed the door behind Webb and went over to pick up his nearly empty cup from the bar, aware that Mattie was watching him with a speculative gaze. "Okay, what's the story there?" she finally asked as he rinsed the cup out and turned off the coffee pot.
"We work for the same people - not the same department."
"Who's - 'Sarah'?" Mattie wanted to know, perching on one of the bar stools.
"Sarah Mackenzie. Mac to most people." *Unless you're sleeping with her* Harm thought to himself. "She and I were partners at JAG."
"She's in the Navy?"
"Marines. Lt. Colonel."
"Were you and she - uh - involved?" Mattie asked.
"We were friends," Harm said.
"Were? You're not now?"
"I thought you wanted to get out to Blacksburg, young lady?" he reminded her, hoping to distract her from this conversation.
"We can talk on the way," she decided, moving over to grab her overnight bag.
She turned to look at him. "Harm, if I'm going to be part of your life, I need to know things. And this seems to be one of them." Opening the door, she said, "You ready?"
With a grin, Harm said, "Let me get my jacket." He shook his head as he grabbed his jacket and followed her, wondering just what he had let himself in for by deciding to let this slip of girl into his life - and his heart.