Mattie saw him as soon as she came out of the building and started waving. "Harm!" she said, running toward him and giving him a welcoming hug that almost knocked him off his feet. "You're back!"
"I told you I'd be home today," he reminded her, returning the embrace before he turned to her friend, Andre, who was standing at attention, saluting.
"At ease, Seaman Andre," Harm said with a grin.
"Thank you, sir," Andre said. "I'll see you on Monday, Mattie," he said, nodding at Harm. "Nice to see you again, Commander," he said, moving away briskly.
Harm kept his arm around his ward's shoulders as they moved toward the Vette. He'd asked Mac to drop him by his place to pick it up before she went home. Of course, she wasn't happy that Clay had gone out of town again the previous day and had hinted that maybe she, Harm, and Mattie could have dinner together.
But Harm had other plans and had begged off, claiming that he was tired and was probably just going to go to bed early and catch up on his sleep. On the drive back to the apartment, Harm answered Mattie's questions about his flight in a Hornet that he'd taken to prove the pilot hadn't been at fault in the accident that they'd gone to investigate.
Mattie told him that the realtor had agreed to meet with them over the weekend to show them the house she'd found in Falls Church. "She said it had a huge back yard with a workshop and garage apartment -"
"How far from JAG HQ is this place?" he asked.
"Just a couple of miles. That's the best part," Mattie told him. "And it's still in the same school district, so I wouldn't have to change schools or anything."
"Sounds almost too good to be true," was Harm's comment. "Probably asking more than I'm willing to pay."
"She told Jennifer that it was within the parameters you gave her," Mattie told him.
"We'll see tomorrow. I still think there's a catch somewhere."
"I'm *sure* it's going to be perfect," Mattie declared. "Just what we've been looking for."
"Yes, well, I thought I'd found that one already, but it fell through," Harm told her.
"Before the hearing. I had everything planned. A house - a private school - but everything fell through at the last minute. The guy who owned the house decided not to sell, and the school called to say that since you'd missed an entire semester you'd have to catch up before they would take you."
"No wonder you were so - uncertain about everything," Mattie said.
"For a while there I wondered if it wasn't some kind of sign that I wasn't going to be granted custody - and then your dad showed up and I was sure it was."
"Well, it wasn't. You got me."
"Thanks to Mac," he reminded her.
"Yeah. Does she know about you and Jennifer yet?"
"No. And I don't think she should. Not until Jennifer's out of the Navy."
"She's not going to happy about it, is she?"
"I'm not sure how she'll take it."
"I kinda feel sorry for her, you know? I mean, she had her chance and just - waited too long."
Harm smiled at her assessment of the situation. "I guess you're right. You know, you're a smart young lady."
Harm had his apartment door open so when Jennifer got off of the elevator, he was there waiting for her. She was in his arms immediately, holding onto him so tightly that he started having trouble breathing. "Hey," he said after their kiss ended, "did you miss me?"
Jennifer laughed, her arms loosening slightly. "How'd you guess?"
"I've never had someone almost break a rib when I got back from an investigation."
"Don't be," he said, holding her arms so that she couldn't move them. "I love you," he said. "I wanted to tell you that all week. But every time I called, it seemed like Mac or someone else would come in and make it difficult."
Jennifer buried her head against his chest. "Where's Mattie?"
"Doing her homework so we can get to the restaurant in time to make our reservation."
"We're going out to dinner. The three of us," he told her, moving them toward her apartment and opening the door. "So change into some civvies and we'll go."
"Yes sir," Jennifer said, grinning at him as she entered the apartment, slipping reluctantly out of his embrace.
"Bud was a little upset that I'm not reenlisting," Jennifer told him over dinner.
"What did he say when you told him why you'd made the decision?" Harm wanted to know.
"That he thought I'd make a good officer if I decided to come back after college. I didn't tell him that I probably wouldn't return to JAG if I did."
"Did you tell him about the job offer, Jennifer?" Mattie asked.
"The offer that the Admiral made if I agree to work as his secretary once I'm a civilian," Jennifer clarified.
"I told him I'd take the job," Jennifer said.
"I'm glad," Harm declared, grinning at Mattie who was sitting across from them.
"It would only be part time once I start college this summer," Jennifer told him. "A couple of days a week, mornings or afternoons, depending on how my classes fall."
"Have you decided what degree you're going for?" Harm wondered.
"Business admin. If I were a few years younger, I'd probably opt for aeronautics or engineering, but -"
"You're not that old," Harm reminded her. "There are still plenty of options if you go that route."
"Both take more than two years, since I don't have the credits to back them up. I can get the business degree in a little over two years."
"If that's what you want, then go for it."
In the hallway between their apartments, Mattie unlocked her door, glancing at them as Harm told Mattie, "Jennifer and I are going over to my place for a little while, Mattie, if you don't mind."
"He-" she sighed when she saw his frown of disapproval. "Heck no. I told you already, Harm, I'm not a kid. I don't have a problem with Jennifer spending the night somewhere else. You'll just be across the hall, and I'll lock the door before I go to bed -"
"Mattie, we're just going to have a drink and talk for awhile," Harm told his ward. He and Jennifer had both agreed that it was important to set a proper example for Mattie during the week, as much as they both wanted to be together.
"Whatever. Look, you're both adults and I understand that. You're also in love. Nothing wrong with two people who love each other being together -"
"I think what Harm's trying to say, Mattie," Jennifer began, but Mattie shook her head, grinning.
"Have fun. I'm going to bed." She gave them each a hug. "I'm glad you're home, Harm. Night. Night, Jennifer."
"G'night," Harm replied, waiting until he heard the lock turn on the door before guiding Jennifer into his apartment.
The moment the door closed behind them, Harm gathered Jennifer into his arms for a long kiss. "I wanted to do that when I saw you at JAG today," he said against her ear after the kiss ended.
"I wanted you to," Jennifer confessed. "I don't know how I kept my mind on work after I saw you. All I could think about was being with you."
"Sofa or bed?" he asked, feeling her hands against his back once she'd pulled his shirt out of his jeans.
"You're a woman after my own heart, Jen," he told her, cupping her face in his hands, her long, dark hair flowing through his fingers. "I want you, Jen. Now."
"Not as much as I want you," she assured him.
Later, his arms wrapped tightly around Jennifer, Harm sighed. "We did it again," he told her.
"I'll say," Jennifer agreed in a dreamy voice, snuggling closer to his body.
"I meant about protection."
"I don't care," she said.
Harm looked at her. "You mean that, don't you?"
Her fingers were moving on his skin, while she looked up at him. "Yes."
"I know we touched on it, but we've never really talking about whether or not you want a family."
"I already have one," Jennifer said. "You, Mattie."
"What about children of your own?"
"As long as they're your children," Jennifer told him. "And I don't want to wait. I can still go to college if I'm pregnant - and by the time the two years was up, I'd be able to go back to the Navy if I want to."
He sat up, pulling her with him to rest against the headboard. "Jennifer, I want you to know that - I want this to be forever. I *am* going to ask - but I want to wait until -"
"Until you won't be breaking regs to do it."
"Breaking regs anymore than we already have," he reminded her.
"There is that," Jennifer agreed. She took a deep breath. "I'd better go back over to the other apartment," she said. "Spend at least part of the night in my own bed."
"I guess you're right," Harm agreed, but neither of them moved.
"I'm going now," Jennifer said again, sliding out of bed. "But first I'm going to take a shower," she informed him with a playful smile. He scrambled to follow her, a huge smile on her face.
"Didn't I tell you it was perfect?" Mattie asked as they stood in the kitchen of the house in Falls Church. Through the windows they could look out over the covered back deck and the backyard with the workshop that stood in a corner. There was a also a swimming pool. "And I didn't even *know* about the pool!"
Harm looked at Jennifer. "What do you think?"
"It *is* a nice house," she agreed. "Roomy, and somehow - comfortable. Welcoming."
"Almost like it was waiting for us," Mattie agreed. "Please, Harm? Can we get it?" she begged, holding onto his arm.
There were three bedrooms in the house. One, the master bedroom with an attached bath, had been converted from what had once been a study and was downstairs. The master bedroom and living room had fireplaces. The other two bedrooms were upstairs with a third room that could be used for storage or another study. The kitchen was open and airy, with a folding partition between it and the formal dining room.
There was an attached two-car garage with a one-room apartment above it. The entire property was almost two acres in total, and only a couple of miles from JAG HQ.
Mattie had been right, Harm realized as he stood there, his arm around Jennifer in the kitchen of the house. The house was perfect.
"It's probably a lot more expensive than I'm looking for," Harm told his ward, but the realtor, who had up until now remained silent as they examined the property, spoke up.
"Actually, Commander Rabb, I think you might be pleasantly surprised. The owner lives in California. His mother lived here, and he decided to take her out to live with him there. He doesn't want to rent the place out since he lives across the country and just wants to get it off his hands."
When she told him the asking price, Harm was unable to hide his surprise. "You're serious? That's not a mistake?"
"As I said, the current owner just wants to get it off his hands. He doesn't really need the money."
Hearing that, Harm made her a counter offer.
"You're very astute, Commander," the woman said. "Why don't we go back to the office and discuss the particulars?"
"We're right behind you," Harm assured her.
"I'll leave the key with you, then," she told him, handing it over. "Just make sure you lock up when you leave."
"You're going to buy it?" Mattie asked.
"Looks that way," he said, and was almost knocked off his feet as Mattie threw her arms around his neck, squealing with delight. "I want the back bedroom upstairs," she declared.
Things were definitely looking up. He had Mattie - hopefully until she was 18, he was in love with Jennifer; and now they'd found a house they all liked. Harm was finally going to have the life he'd always wanted.
They spent the next couple of weeks making plans for the house, deciding where to put the furniture they already had and what they would need. Whatever they couldn't use in the house itself, they decided to put into the garage apartment - using it as a blind if they moved in before Jennifer's enlistment was up, telling everyone that Jennifer was going to rent the apartment from Harm so that she could still help out with watching Mattie whenever he was away.
Harm signed the papers on the house at 1939 Ross with almost a month to go, and suggested that they spend the next month painting and working on the woodwork and hardwood floors that he wanted to sand down and restore.
A week before Jennifer was supposed to start working as a civilian in the office, Harm was passing through the bullpen after discussing a case with Mac - who was still frustrated with Clay and giving him the definite impression that she was interested in more than friendship - when Jennifer approached him.
"Excuse me, sir, but Captain Morgan is on the phone for you."
Harm frowned, wondering why Morgan was calling until he remembered his talk with the Admiral after he and Mac had returned from the Seahawk. "I'll - take it in my office, Coates," he said.
"Yes, sir," Jennifer nodded, going back to her desk.
Harm had put his quals out of his mind, mostly because of the work they had been doing on the house to get it ready for move in. He closed the door and picked up the phone quickly. "Rabb."
"Commander. It's Captain Morgan."
"What can I do for you, sir?"
"I'm curious about what decision you've made regarding your carrier quals, Commander. After you last visit, I'm of the opinion that I need someone onboard who understands things from an aviator's point of view -"
"Captain, I'm sorry that I haven't gotten back to you before now, but - to be honest, I'm thinking about letting my flight status elapse."
"That would be a shame, Commander. Admiral Chegwidden told me that you could be coming up before the promotions board in the next few months. Spending a six weeks TAD to the Seahawk as special JAG liaison wouldn't hurt your chances," Morgan pointed out.
That was news to Harm, and got his attention. "I'm in the process of moving into a new house, Captain, and I'm almost engaged to be married -"
"Congratulations, Commander. And any other time, I'd back down here. But I really need your assistance -"
"May I ask, sir, why me? There are other aviators -"
"None of them who are also JAG officers, Commander. And most of the men respect you, know you're fair. I need an answer by the weekend," he said. "After that, I'll have to try to figure out some other way to handle this. That could include making it an order. I'd prefer not to do that, however. I'd rather you be here because it was your choice."
"I need to discuss it with my family," Harm said at last. "I'll call you this weekend with an answer, sir."
"I'll look forward to it, Commander."
Harm hung up the phone, staring out of the window, trying to figure out how he was going to broach the subject with Mattie and Jen . . .
Harm waited until they were eating dinner that evening before he told them about Captain Morgan's request. Jennifer didn't comment immediately, but Mattie frowned. "How long would you have to be gone?"
"Six weeks," Harm told her. "I spoke with the Captain again and he told me that he wants to start a pilot program and this would be the test case."
"That I might end up going to other carriers for six weeks at a time to set things up if it works."
"Do you want to go, Harm?" Jennifer asked.
"Honestly - yeah. You know how I am about carriers," he said, squeezing her hand, watching her smile. "But I won't do it if you two don't want me to."
"Would it mean you'd be flying?" Mattie wanted to know.
"Probably. It could also mean that I'd be promoted to Captain sooner than I thought it might happen. And if I *do* retire, it would be better to do as a Captain."
"You're right there," Jennifer nodded. "When do you have to give him an answer?"
"By tomorrow. I know. I should have said something sooner, but -"
"How long have you known about this?" Jennifer wanted to know - and then considered the question. "Captain Morgan called the day that you and Mac returned from the Seahawk," she recalled.
Harm took a deep breath. "That was when I first heard about it," he admitted. "But with the house and everything else, it slipped my mind. Truthfully, wasn't going to *go* for my quals this time around."
"Until he called yesterday," Jennifer said.
"Yes. Like I said, if the two of you say no, I'll tell him no. But you should also be aware that he could make it an order - and that would probably mean I'd be away longer than six weeks."
"So it doesn't matter *what* we say, does it?" Mattie declared, tossing her napkin onto the table. "You're going either way."
"Mattie - it's his job," Jennifer said in a quiet voice, causing Harm to look at her. Seeing the love and support in her eyes gave Harm the courage to try and solve this problem.
Mattie turned to look at Jennifer as well. "You don't mind that Harm's going to be gone for six weeks, Jennifer? That he'll be out there flying, maybe getting shot down - "
"That's not going to happen, Mattie," Harm said, going to put his arms on the girl's shoulders. "I made you a promise, remember? That you'd never be alone."
"What about the hearing?"
"I'll be back for that," Harm promised. "I'm sure Captain Morgan will grant me a couple of days leave to handle it."
"I guess, as long as Jennifer's okay with it, I am too," Mattie said at last.
Harm looked over at Jennifer, giving her a questioning look. "Well? Looks like the ball's in your court, Jen."
"When would you have to leave?"
"A little over a week," he said. "Gives me time to finish getting things into the new house and see you two settled in before I go." He held his arm out to her. "Come here." When she joined them, he put his arms around both of the women in his life and held on tight. "I love you both. And I'll just be a phone call away. I'll call and email every day."
Jennifer smiled. "That's what Lt. Roberts did when he was on the Seahawk," she said. "He and Harriet used to chat all the time."
"Well, we'll just have to do that, then," Harm agreed, winking at Mattie. "Of course, you'll have to show me how to do it."
Mattie laughed. "Deal."
On Friday morning, Harm was in his office, trying to clear up the last of his cases. He looked up when he realized someone was standing in his door. "Hi, Mac. Something I can do for you?" he asked, smiling.
"When were you going to tell me that you're going TAD to the Seahawk?" she asked.
"Oh." He'd been deliberately avoiding Mac on anything other than JAG business, hoping that she and Clay would manage to work things out before he had to tell her that he was involved with someone else. "Didn't I mention it?"
He shrugged as if it wasn't important. "It's just for six weeks. Capt. Morgan thinks that having someone trained in International Law and the ROE working with his pilots will help keep things going more smoothly."
"I thought that was why Lt. Brown was stationed there?" Mac questioned.
"He's not a pilot," Harm pointed out.
"You're going to fly," she said, as if that explained everything, moving farther into the office. "Why is it that every time you get a chance to go out there and put your life on the line you do it?"
"I'm not putting my life on the line, Mac," Harm insisted. "I'll be there as an advisor. I doubt I'll do anything more than training missions -"
"Training missions have a way of turning into other things. Especially where you're concerned."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mac," he said, trying to keep his tone light. "Always nice to know what my friends think. How's Clay doing these days?" he asked, hoping to distract her.
"In town, for a change," she told him. "What about Mattie?"
"What about Mattie?"
"If something happens to you, Harm -"
"Nothing is going to happen to me, Mac," Harm insisted. "Mattie understands that it's part of being the Navy."
"You need someone to stay with her?" Mac asked. "I could -"
"Thanks, Mac, but Jen- Jennifer's going to stay with her while I'm gone."
"Jennifer. I forgot that she's renting the garage apartment at the new house," Mac said. "You know, I still haven't seen it -"
"We were going to have a housewarming next week, but we decided to put it off until I get back."
"What about the custody hearing?"
"Already arranged," he told her easily. "Capt. Morgan's giving me a couple of days leave to come back and attend the hearing." He stood up to place a folder into a box. "I don't see why you're so upset about this, Mac. I'll be back in six weeks."
"I just - I'll miss you, Harm," she said, moving closer, all but trapping him between the wall and his desk. "I feel as if we're - drifting away from each other again, and I don't want that to happen."
"Uh, Mac - I -" he was saved from saying anything else by the telephone ringing. Grabbing it up, he said, "Rabb . . . Thank you, Jennifer. I'll be right there." He hung up and picked up a folder from his desk. "I have to meet Sturgis about a case he's taking over," he explained. When Mac didn't move, he met her look. "Mac? I need to go."
"Just promise me you'll be careful?" she asked, stepping back so that he could escape and then following him from his office.
"I promise I'll be careful," Harm repeated, leading her into the bullpen, glancing toward Jennifer's office. He noticed that she was watching him and Mac. At the door to Sturgis' office, he gave Mac a final smile and entered, greeting Sturgis with relief.
"You're going to have to tell her sometime, Harm," Sturgis proclaimed, seeing Mac walk toward her own office.
"I know. But I don't think the day before I'm being deployed and Jennifer's a civilian is the right time." Sturgis had discovered the relationship when he'd offered to help with moving the larger items from the apartments into the house. He had found Harm with Jennifer in his arms, standing in the middle of the master bedroom, and quickly put 2 and 2 together.
"There's gonna be hell to pay. You know that."
"I'm really hoping that Clayton Webb will get his tail out of his six and figure out what he needs to do to make her happy."
"If you're talking giving up being a field agent, I don't think that's going to happen."
"You never know, Sturgis," Harm said. "Stranger things have happened. Here's the Jepperson file I promised."
"Good. Got a few minutes to discuss what you were planning for a defense?"
"I've already apologized for being late, Sarah," Clay said as they entered the restaurant. "It wasn't my fault that the meeting rang long. I *did* call and let you know. I'm not sure what else you want me to do."
"I'm not sure either, Clay," Mac sighed as the hostess approached them.
"We have a reservation," Clay told the woman. "Clayton Webb."
The attractive blonde checked her list. "Ah yes. This way, please."
Clay placed his hand on Mac's arm as they followed the hostess to their table. After she left, he said, "Sarah, we need to talk this out."
Mac sighed, looking across the restaurant where she could see Harm sitting in a booth. A waiter was blocking her view of his companion, but she thought it was probably Mattie.
"What are you looking at?" Clay asked, following the direction of her gaze. "Rabb," he almost growled. "Look, Sarah -"
"He probably brought Mattie out to dinner since he's leaving for the Seahawk tomorrow," Mac said.
"Probably," Clay agreed. "Sarah, please -"
"I think I'll just go over and let Mattie know that if she needs anything while Harm's gone -"
Clay sighed in frustration. "Sarah, you need to choose who you want to be with."
Mac frowned, looking away from Harm's table to focus on her companion. "What?"
"I'm getting tired of being played, Sarah. Either you want to be with me, or Harm. Make up your mind."
"I'm not - playing, Clay," she objected. "I'm just -"
"Confused," Clay finished for her. Standing up, he said. "When you figure it out, Sarah, give me a call."
"Clay -" she sat there, watching him leave the restaurant, completely shocked by his actions. How dare he do something like this? Maybe it was for the best - she decided, standing up with the intention of joining Harm and Mattie for dinner.
At that moment, the waiter moved away, just as Harm reached across the table to take his dinner companion's hands in his. Mac was all the way across the restaurant and to the table before she realized the identity of the longhaired brunette woman with him. "Jennifer?"
Harm saw Jennifer's eyes widen at the familiar voice and turned, refusing to allow Jennifer to pull her hands from his. "Hello, Mac," he said. "This is a surprise."
"Yes," Mac agreed, her gaze focused on the two pairs of hands clasped across the table. "I guess it would be. Where's Mattie?" she asked.
"Spending the night with a friend of hers. We're going out to Leesburg to fly tomorrow morning, so she thought Jennifer and I might like a night out before I leave for sea duty."
"Jennifer and - you," Mac said slowly.
"Mac, I know this is a surprise, and it's not the way I wanted you to find out -"
"How long?" she asked.
"Just a few weeks, ma'am," Jennifer said, ignoring Harm's warning glance.
"So this is why you decided not to reenlist, isn't it? So that you and Harm could -" She shook her head, looking at Harm. "Robbing the cradle now, Harm?" she asked, her voice ragged and filled with disappointment and anger.
"That's not fair, Mac," Harm said, indicating an empty chair. "Sit down and -"
"No. I - I can't believe - all this time you - Ex-excuse me," she said before turning and almost running out of the restaurant, causing several of the diners to watch her departure.
"You should go after her, Harm," Jennifer said. "She's hurting - and she's your friend. I -"
"If I go after her, Jen, it'll only make things worse," Harm said. But the pleading look Jennifer gave him caused him to sigh and bring her hands to his lips before he got up. "I'll be right back."
She was pacing in front of the restaurant, obviously waiting for a cab. "Mac -"
"Don't, Harm," she said, turning away from him. "Don't. Go back to your - girlfriend."
"She's my fiancée," Harm said. After all, once he gave Jennifer the ring in his pocket, it would be the truth.
Mac crossed her arms at her waist, hugging herself. "I guess I deserve this, don't I? After what happened in Sydney?"
"This isn't payback. I never wanted to hurt you, Mac. I mean that. I love Jen." She snorted in what sounded like disbelief at his words. "I'm sorry if you don't believe that, but I do. I hope we can still be friends, Mac. I hope you find someone to make you happy. I mean really happy. I thought that was Clay, but -"
"Clay walked out," she said, and he heard the tears in her voice. "Left. Just like all the other men in my life. What was it you said to Sturgis? That all the men in my life are either dead or wish they were?"
"I didn't mean it, Mac. I shouldn't have said it. Then, or in Paraguay."
"But you were right. Maybe you were the lucky one, Harm. The one who managed to get away and survive. And maybe without me, Clay will do the same thing." The cab pulled up and Mac moved to open the door.
"Mac - wait," Harm said, putting his hand on her arm to stop her from going. "Don't blame Jen for this. It wasn't her fault that I fell in love with her and she with me."
Mac reached up to touch his face. "I guess I really blew it, didn't I? Don't worry, Harm. I don't blame anyone but myself in this mess. You'd better get back in there to Jennifer. Give her my best wishes. And tell her - tell her that if she or Mattie need anything while you're gone -"
Harm pulled her to him for a moment. "Are you going to be okay?"
"Don't worry, Harm. I'm not going to fall apart. Right now, all I want is to go home and cry myself to sleep."
"Good luck on the Seahawk. Don't forget that you've got people back here who - love you and expect you back home in one piece."
Harm nodded as she got into the cab. Closing the door, he said, "I'll be in touch."
She nodded, and then gave the driver her address before the vehicle pulled away from the curb.
Harm watched it as he moved back toward the restaurant, taking out his cell phone to dial a number that he hadn't used much recently. "Clay - it's Harm . . ."
Jennifer smiled when she saw him returning. "Afraid I wasn't coming back?" he asked as he took her hands in his again.
"No. I knew you would. How is she?"
"Angry. Sad. Confused, I think."
"It's not going to be easy, working with her, I guess," Jennifer said, looking at their hands.
"She said to tell you that if you or Mattie need anything while I'm gone, to call her."
Jennifer's eyes widened. "She said that?"
"She did. I called Clay, told him what happened and that he needed to get over to Mac's ASAP."
"Do you think he'll go?"
"If he doesn't, he'll have to answer to me when I catch up with him," Harm told her. Sitting forward again, he said, "Now, let's see. Where were we?"
"You were telling me about your grandmother."
"Ah, yes. She'd have loved you almost as much as I do," he said, grinning when Jennifer blushed. "When she became engaged to my grandfather, he gave her a sapphire and diamond ring to wear. She wore it until the day my dad told her that he was going to propose to my mom. After my dad died, Mom returned the ring to my grandmother, since it was a family heirloom." He released Jennifer's left hand to put his right one into the pocket of his jacket. When he pulled out the square box of blue velvet, he heard Jennifer's soft gasp of surprise. "Grandma Sarah left it to me for me to give to the woman I want to marry," he said, opening the box and placing it between them on the table. The flickering candlelight reflected off of the center diamond surrounded by blue sapphires.
"Harm?" she said, raising her sparkling brown eyes to look at his face.
"I know I'm leaving tomorrow, Jen, but I wanted to do this tonight, to make it official." Removing the ring from the box, he held her left hand again. "I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, have babies with you. Will you marry me, Jen?"
All she could do was nod in the affirmative, unable to speak.
Harm slid the ring onto her finger. Seeing the surprise in her eyes at the fit, he smiled. "I had Mattie 'borrow' one of your rings from your jewelry box so I could have this one sized," he told her.
"Then - Mattie knows?"
"Why do you think she was so anxious for us to go out tonight?" he asked. "Do you want to set a date now, or wait until I get back?"
"We can wait," Jennifer told him. "It's probably better anyway. If people realize that we're together, they'll figure out that we were together before my contract ended." She looked at the ring on her finger. "I doubt I'll wear it at work - if that's okay with you?"
Harm nodded. "You're right. I just - wanted to let you know that I fully intend to come back to you in six weeks. And that I'm going to miss you more than you know."
"Not as much as I'm going to miss you," she said," she said, wiping a tear from her cheek. "I'm sorry. I just -"
Harm smiled. "You don't have anything to apologize for," he assured her. "You ready to go home?" he asked, signaling the waiter for the bill.
Mac heard someone knocking on the door, but decided to ignore it. She wasn't in the mood for company. Not after - her gaze fell on the photograph of herself and Harm taken in Afghanistan. Friends. He'd been her friend when she'd been foolish enough to become engaged to Mic, and even then he'd stood by her. He'd even tried to fly back in a storm to get here for the wedding. For one brief moment, she thought maybe Harm had convinced himself that he was in love with Jennifer and that he'd change his mind. But in the next moment, she knew that was just self-delusion. She could see that Harm was in love. It was in his eyes, in the way he treated the younger woman. Hell, if she hadn't been playing her games, she probably would have seen it weeks ago.
The knocking finally stopped, and Mac relaxed again, deciding that whoever it was had decided to give up - suddenly the door opened and Clay was standing there, looking at her.
"I'm sorry, Sarah," he said.
She didn't remember getting off of the sofa or moving - suddenly she was in his arms, holding onto him tightly. "No, I'm the one who's sorry. I treated you so horribly -"
Clay closed the door as he guided her toward the sofa. "We need to talk, Sarah. Or, rather, I need to talk and I need you to listen." She just looked at him, waiting. "That meeting tonight? The one that went long? The reason for it -"
Sarah's shoulders slumped in defeat. "You're going out of town again."
"No," he said, grabbing her shoulders and turning her to face him. "I'm trying to set things up so that I can give up being a field agent, Sarah," he said. "I requested a transfer to analysis, which means I'll be staying here in Washington. No more last minute trips that I can't tell you about."
"You love being a field agent," she said. "You once said -"
"That was before," Clay told her, sliding his fingers into her short, dark hair. "Before I realized what it could cost me. If having you means that I have to give that up, I'll do it. Because you mean more to me than any job."
"You - You'd do that - for me?"
"I love you, Sarah Mackenzie. And I hope you feel the same way about me."
Mac's response was a hiccup, and Clay laughed.
"Can I take that as a yes?"
"Yes," she said, and then hesitated. "If you're sure you want to take a chance - I don't have a very good track record -"
"I survived hell for you, Sarah. I don't think there's anything else that could possibly be worse."
"Oh, Clay," she said, throwing herself into his arms.
Harm exhaled loudly as he dropped into the chair at the desk in his quarters. Opening his laptop, he turned it on and set it to check email before turning his attention to the stack of folders sitting there.
Over the weekend, he'd managed to satisfy - and surprise Capt. Morgan and the CAG as to his ability to fly a Hornet - not missing a single trap in his quals. Now, the real work was beginning: Harm's job was to fly every mission and observe the squadron's actions, making sure they were all observing the Rules of Engagement - and to give him a means of improving unit cohesiveness, which lately had been suffering to some degree.
Fights had broken out between the pilots, most of which had ended up being resolved by Captain's Masts. But Morgan and the CAG were both concerned that something was very wrong - the incident which Harm and Mac had investigated had been traced back to a mechanic who had been too busy to properly do his job, and that the pilot hadn't checked up on the work before taking off - which had resulted in a weapon being accidentally deployed when it had simply dropped off of the aircraft.
Luckily, there had been no injuries as a result of the mistake, since the weapon hadn't been armed at the time, but it could have been much worse. Morgan wanted the answer to the problem found and implemented before someone was seriously injured - or killed, and he'd chosen Harm as the man to find that answer. Trouble was, he wasn't even sure what the problem was, Harm sighed.
A notification popped up on the screen of his computer, telling him someone was online, and seeing who it was, Harm smiled, thanking Mattie and Jennifer for showing him how to initiate an online chat.
*Hey, Sunshine,* he typed. *You busy?*
It was a moment before there was a response. *I have a couple of minutes. How are things going?*
*Busy. I'm being buried with paperwork at the moment.*
He had called last night and told Jennifer and Mattie that he'd aced his quals, so her next question wasn't surprising. *Had a chance to fly yet?*
*Not yet. Should happen soon, though. How are things going there?*
*Nothing's really different, except that the Admiral told me that I didn't have to keep calling him 'sir' all the time now that I'm a civilian.*
*Have you seen Mac this morning?* he wanted to know, aware that Mac, if she was in a vindictive mood, could easily cause problems for them on the fraternization issue.
*I was getting the Admiral's coffee this morning when she came in. She apologized, said that she and Clay were trying to work things out. She said that he'd giving up field agent status.*
*Good for him. He's too old to be chasing around the world looking for terrorists.*
*And you're not?* was Jennifer's reply. Harm could picture her impish grin as she had typed the question, and wished she were there so he could kiss it from her lips.
*I'm not looking for terrorists,* he replied. *And you WILL pay for that remark, Sunshine.*
*:-D I'm looking forward to it.*
Harm forced his thoughts back to what they had been discussing. *So Mac's okay?*
*She looked much better than she did the other night.*
*Good. Mac deserves some happiness. And she's okay with us?*
*I think so. She noticed I wasn't wearing the ring and asked about it.*
*What did you tell her?*
*The truth.* Harm's fingers hovered over the keys, about to ask why she'd done that, when Jennifer typed again. *She also told me that if Mattie or I need anything while you're gone, to let her know.*
*Maybe I need to email her,* Harm wrote.
*Sorry. Have to go. Phone call. Miss you.*
*Miss you, too,* Harm typed back as she signed off chat.
He sat back in his chair as the hatch opened and his bunkmate entered. Lt. Doug "Boomer" Montgomery was ten years Harm's junior, and thought he was the best pilot in the squadron. Harm had seen his kind too many times over the years: a hotshot pilot with more talent than sense. That kind usually ended up badly, Harm thought. He'd been like that once, before the ramp strike had shown him that he wasn't perfect, wasn't infallible.
"Have you heard?" Boomer asked.
"I figured the CAG would have already filled you in, you being the insider and all," he said, unbuttoning his shirt as he spoke.
"Do you have a problem with my being here, Lieutenant?" Harm asked.
"No, sir. Just do what I'm told. We're up for a mission."
There was a knock on the hatch before Boomer could say more. "Enter!" Harm called out, rising to his feet as the CAG appeared. Boomer, half-undressed, also snapped to attention.
"As you were, Lieutenant," the CAG said. "Commander, a word, please?"
Harm nodded, following the CAG from the compartment and into the corridor, closing the hatch behind them. "Lt. Montgomery said that something's up," Harm said.
"He's right," Capt. Beaumont nodded, leading Harm to the Officer's Ready Room, which was nearly empty. Pouring them each a cup of coffee, the CAG indicated that Harm should sit down. "What's your gut feeling about the squadron, Commander?"
"I hesitate to say anything until I've had a little more opportunity to study the files and spend time with them, sir."
"Don't play word games with me, Mr. Rabb. You've been on board almost 48 hours. Surely you've formed some kind of opinion."
Harm took a deep breath. "Honestly?"
"Of course. Wouldn't have asked if I didn't want honesty."
"From what I've seen of how they relate to each other on the deck, I don't know how they can possibly work together with any effectiveness in the air. I've never seen a unit as fragmented. None of them speak to the other; if they do it's with barely concealed anger."
"Any ideas about the cause?"
"Not yet." Harm sat forward, both hands around his coffee cup. "CAG, I'm still not convinced that I'm the right person for this job."
"Capt. Morgan and I believe you are, Commander. Most of the squadron respects you -"
"Including Lt. Montgomery?" Harm questioned, and saw the CAG's lips turn up into a smile.
"Boomer likes to think he's the best jet jockey in the whole damn Navy. Case of a man's ego overshooting his ability. Don't get me wrong. He's good. But no one's infallible. I hoped that incident a few weeks ago would have tempered him a little."
"It takes a little more than that for some people," Harm noted, thinking about himself.
"My point exactly. I'd hate for him to have to kill someone to learn a lesson."
"So would I," Harm agreed. "So, what's the mission?"
Jennifer saw the deliveryman with a huge bouquet of red roses the moment he got off of the elevator, and held her breath, torn between hoping he wasn't there for her and hoping that he was. It would be just like Harm to send her flowers - but he would probably have them delivered to the house instead of JAG, she reasoned as the man paused to ask Harriet Sims-Roberts for directions. Jennifer released her breath as Harriet pointed toward Mac's office and the man headed in that direction, pausing again at the doorway.
Jennifer smiled, knowing that the roses had to be from Clayton Webb, and glanced at her computer to see if "JAGTopGun" was still online. He wasn't, but Jennifer smiled as she recalled Harm's initial reaction to the screen name that Mattie had chosen for him. He'd muttered that he "hated that movie", and then bravely borne half an hour of her and Mattie talking about how "cute" Tom Cruise had been.
Her smile widened as she recalled the "payback" that Harm had insisted on later that night after Mattie had gone back to the apartment across the hall.
"Something amusing, Ms. Coates?" the Admiral asked, causing Jennifer's smile to disappear as she barely managed to keep from snapping to attention.
"No, sir. Did you need something, Admiral?" she asked, noticing that he was carrying his cover and overcoat.
"No. I have meeting with SecNav. I'll probably have lunch after the meeting, so I should be back here around 1300."
"I'll make a note of it, sir."
He shook his head. "I thought I told you that -"
"That I don't have to keep calling you 'sir'," Jennifer finished for him, well aware that she had finished his sentence. "But old habits are hard to break. It's either that or 'Admiral'."
"Sir will do," AJ said with a sigh. "I'll see you later."
Once he was gone, Jennifer rose from her desk and went to Mac's, tapping timidly on the doorframe to get her attention. The Colonel looked up, smiling when she saw who it was. "Jennifer. Do you have something for me?"
"No, ma'am. I couldn't help but notice the roses," she said, moving into the room to touch a dark red petal. "They're beautiful."
"Yes, they are, aren't they?"
Jennifer looked at her. "From Clay?"
Mac nodded. "We're having dinner tonight at his place." She looked up at Jennifer. "Why don't we have lunch?" she suggested. "I still feel as though I need to apologize for the other evening."
"I told that's not necessary, ma'am -" she stopped as Mac sighed.
"Jennifer, its Mac. You're not in the Navy, remember?"
"I know. It's just - I'm going to be *back* in the Navy eventually, I just feel it would be best to keep in practice."
"Well, two years is a long time to keep in practice. It's Mac, and that's that. Understood?"
Jennifer grinned. "Is that an order - ma'am?" she asked, making Mac aware of the tone in which she'd made the statement.
Mac laughed. "Point taken. But it's still Mac. And if it takes an order, then I'll make it one."
"Fair enough - ma' - Mac."
"Much better. I have to be in court for a sentencing, but I'll see you at 1200."
Harriet met up with Jennifer as she left Mac's office. "How's it going?" she asked.
"About the same, ma' -" Jennifer stopped, expecting Harriet's next words.
"It's Harriet, okay?"
"Yes, - Harriet," Jennifer agreed. This wasn't going to be as easy she'd thought it would be.
Mac insisted on taking Jennifer to Beltway Burgers for lunch. "A double cheeseburger and fries," Mac told the young man behind the counter.
"What drink, ma'am?" he asked.
"Lemonade," Mac said.
"And you, ma'am?" the young man asked, turning to Jennifer.
"A veggie burger -"
Mac groaned. "He really *has* corrupted you, hasn't he, Jennifer?" she asked. "Come on. Live dangerously. I won't tell him you broke training."
"I *like* veggie burgers, ma - Mac," Jennifer insisted.
"So, that'll be a veggie burger?" the young man asked.
"Yes," Jennifer confirmed. "And a Coke."
Mac paid for the order before leading Jennifer over to get their drinks from the machine before going to a booth. "You didn't really mean that, did you?" she asked.
"What? That I like veggie burgers?" Jennifer asked.
"Yeah. I mean, they're okay, but -"
"I really do like them. The ones here aren't as good a the ones that Harm makes, but -"
"Well," Mac said, shaking her head, "whatever you do, don't let him make his 'meatless meatloaf'," she warned.
Jennifer ducked her head as she said, "That *was* awful," she had to admit, and both women laughed while the young man from the counter brought their meals on a tray.
"Thanks," Mac told him.
Jennifer grabbed her burger and unwrapped it, watching Mac open the ketchup for her fries.
"Have you heard from him?" Mac asked.
"He called last night," Jennifer confided. "And he IMed me this morning. He aced his quals."
"In a Hornet?" Mac questioned.
"Evidently he learned how when he was working for the CIA," Jennifer explained.
"Ah. Guess it makes sense," Mac said, dipping a fry in some ketchup. "He had to transition to the FA-18 if he wanted to keep flying in the Navy."
"He's a good pilot," Jennifer said.
Mac rolled her eyes. "Yeah. I don't envy you, Jennifer. Every time he went for his quals, I waited by the phone the entire weekend."
"Harm takes too many chances. Flying aircraft when he knows there could be a problem; flying through thunderstorms -"
"I thought he did that to get back for your wedding," Jennifer said quietly.
"Well, yes," Mac had to admit as she toyed with another fry. "But - he almost died, Jennifer."
"From what I hear, he didn't. Because of you."
"I got lucky," Mac said.
"I guess you have a right to - resent me," Jennifer said, suddenly uncertain. "After all, you and Harm -"
"We were never really more than friends, Jennifer," Mac said. "I think we mistook that for something more and let it confuse everything. I'm glad he's found someone like you. Someone who doesn't want to change him."
"He doesn't need to change," Jennifer said. "He's really wonderful."
"The fact that he gave you that ring proved it to me," Mac said. "We never got that far. We'd better finish lunch or we'll be late getting back."
Harm felt the impact of the steam catapult as it launched his aircraft into the air. His was the last Hornet to launch since he was only there as an observer. The mission was a patrol over "Suni Triangle". It was supposed to be routine, more a means of letting the pro-Saddam forces in the area know that they were still there than anything else.
There was very little 'chatter' over the com system, something that would normally have happened in a 'milk run', Harm thought, frowning. It wasn't a good sign, he thought.
He hated these types of runs. Seems like a waste of fuel and personnel. But he wasn't the one who made the policy decisions, he reminded himself. If Command wanted a 'presence' established by flyovers, that was their choice.
Everything was going well until they turned back toward the Seahawk. Five minutes before going feet wet, Harm's instruments went dark. Everything else worked - except the radio. He couldn't tell anyone else that he was having problems - and he had to land the plane.
Grabbing his small flashlight, he came up beside Boomer's aircraft, beginning to flash a message in Morse code. *Gauges dark. No com.* It wasn't easy since he was also having to concentrate on keeping his aircraft in the air, but Harm managed.
*Other probs?* Boomer flashed back.
*Can u land?*
Harm considered the question as Boomer repeated it. Did he have a choice? Harm had no intention of ejecting. He wasn't even sure that the ejection system would work. Using his flashlight, Harm flashed back *yes*.
*Will let them know. Good luck.*
As he was approaching the Seahawk, keeping his eye on the ball to stay on glide slope, the instruments suddenly flared back to life, along with the radio, surprising Harm enough that he allowed the Hornet to drift up. "Damn," he muttered, regaining control and dropping the nose slightly, not breathing until he felt the tail hook grab the wire and bring the aircraft to a stop. When the crew got to him, Harm told them that he wanted the entire electrical and com system checked out immediately.
"You okay, Hammer?" Boomer asked when he finally got down onto the deck.
"Yeah. Thanks," he said to Montgomery.
"Hey, no problem. Glad to help," Montgomery said.
"I'm just glad you're okay."
"What happened up there?" the CAG asked.
"Some kind of temporary failure," Harm explained, watching as the CAG appeared on deck. "My instrument panel went totally dark - no readings of any kind. Whatever it was took my radio as well."
"You said temporary," the CAG pointed out.
"They came back up just before I got down." As the CAG started toward his plane, Harm said, "I've already told Chief Delgado to do a complete systems check, CAG."
Beaumont nodded in his direction. "I want to talk to you after debriefing, Commander."
"Yes, sir," Harm agreed.
He replayed the incident over and over again while the CAG debriefed the squadron. It didn't make sense that the systems would have failed that way and then come back up.
"So, Commander," the CAG said, getting Harm's attention. "Talk me through it."
Harm realized that he and the CAG were alone. "Not much to tell, CAG," he said. "About five minutes out, the instruments went out, followed immediately by the com system."
"Is that when you sent the Morse message to Lt. Montgomery?"
"Yes. I wasn't having any problem with the landing - I think I was on glide slope -"
"You were," the CAG confirmed. "Dead on. Go on."
"The systems came back up with no warning, surprising me, which caused me to let the nose drift up. I recovered and continued with the landing."
"Did you consider punching out?"
"Yes, sir. But I've already done that three times. Four's pushing my luck."
Beaumont shook his head. "You are the luckiest man I've ever met, Rabb," he sighed. "Hopefully they'll find the problem when they go over the aircraft. But an electrical short of this kind doesn't usually show up on the ground."
"I'm aware of that, CAG," Harm agreed.
"Were you able to make any observations during the flight before your aircraft developed a problem?"