After leaving the CAG, Harm found his chief mechanic and aircraft on the hangar deck. "Anything, Chief?" he asked.
"No sir. Nothing unusual so far. If it was anyone else, sir, I'd suspect them of lying about the failure."
After watching the Chief's men going over the aircraft, Harm decided that he needed a cup of coffee and headed toward the Officer's Ready Room. As he entered, he saw a group of pilots at a table, talking, and wondered what was going on. This group hadn't talked like this in months, yet now here they were. He got an explanation when he heard Boomer's voice.
"Everyone has a bad day, Boomer," his wingman, Lt. Gary "Piker" Parker was saying.
"You think he really had a problem?" Boomer snorted.
"Hard to say," was Piker's response.
"It happened," Harm told them, causing the others to turn as they realized that he was there. "But it's nice to know that my incident got you guys talking again. Nothing like a little juicy speculation and gossip to start a conversation, hmm?"
"Sorry, Hammer," Boomer said. "But you have to admit, it's a little strange. Most failures don't fix themselves."
"No, they don't," Harm agreed. "Anyone else had any problems lately?"
"Anyone had problems like that, it would have been reported, Commander," Boomer pointed out.
Harm thought he saw Piker start to say something before looking down at the table. When there was no response Harm finished his coffee. "Well, I'm going to turn in, get some sack time." Putting his cup on the counter, Harm said, "Don't let me stop your conversation."
He was halfway to his quarters when Piker caught up with him. "Excuse me, sir, can we talk for a few minutes?"
"Sure," Harm told him. "You had something happen, didn't you?"
Piker looked around. "Not here, sir."
Harm thought for a moment. "The fantail?" he suggested, and followed Piker down the corridor.
Once they reached the fantail, Harm turned to look at the Lieutenant. "Go on."
Piker put his hands on the rail, looking at the wake below them. "A couple of months ago, I had something similar happen. It only lasted a couple of minutes, but it was pretty unnerving. When I got back, I told the Chief to do a thorough check on my plane - and he didn't find anything wrong."
"Why didn't you report it?" Harm asked.
As Piker turned to look at Harm, Harm noticed a movement at the hatch. Something warmed him and he yelled at Piker, "Look out!" and pushed the other man out of the way, sending him in the direction of the railing as there was a muzzle flash from a handgun. He felt the bullet enter his shoulder, sending him to the metal deck with a force that nearly caused him to black out as the back of his head connected with the hard surface.
Dimly he heard sounds of what could have been a scuffle, followed
closely by the sound of Piker screaming in terror before he heard
the metallic sound of the hatch closing. Moving slowly, Harm fought
a wave of dizziness as he pulled himself to his feet using the
metal railing. "Piker?" he called, wincing as the action
sent pain and more dizziness through his head. There was no sign
of Piker, and Harm turned to stumble back through the hatchway
and into the main area of the ship before he slid to the floor,
unconscious . . .
Jennifer didn't understand why the Admiral had asked her to join him after he asked her to get his senior staff into his office ASAP. But the answer wasn't long in coming.
"There was an - incident on the Seahawk late yesterday," he said, and Jennifer felt a chill along her spine.
"Involving Commander Rabb, Admiral?" Sturgis Turner asked in a concerned tone.
Jennifer saw AJ's eyes flicker in her direction before answering the question. "While he was interviewing another aviator on the fan tail, someone shot Cmdr. Rabb and apparently sent the man he was questioning over the fantail." He glanced at his notes. "Lt. Gary Parker is still missing."
"Going off of a carrier from the fantail he would be, sir," Bud said. "I doubt they'll ever find him."
AJ nodded, looking at Jennifer as she asked. "How is - How is the Commander, sir?" she asked.
"Recovering in sick-bay. The bullet went through his left shoulder and he also has a mild concussion. The Seahawk's doctor assures me that he'll recover fully. "
"Thank God," Mac sighed gratefully.
"I want you and Commander Turner out there on the first transport, Colonel for a JAG man investigation."
"Why isn't NCIS handling it, sir?" Bud questioned, blanching when he saw the expression on his CO's face.
"Because I claimed jurisdiction since it was one of my officers that was injured. Mr. Roberts, you'll take whatever cases you can during their absence."
Jennifer lingered for a moment after the others had gone. "Admiral, would you know if there's been any media coverage or release of information about this? If so, I'll need to let Mattie know what happened before she hears it from another source."
"The DoD will contact Lt. Parker's family before releasing any further information to the public." He looked at her. "Why don't you take the rest of the day off?"
"I'd rather be here, sir."
AJ sighed. "Very well. I'll try to give you enough notice so that you can inform the Commander's ward about the shooting."
"Thank you." She turned and left his office, only to find Mac waiting in hers. With a sympathetic smile, Mac squeezed Jennifer's hand. "He's going to be okay, Jennifer," she said quietly.
"I know he is," Jennifer said. "Would you - tell him that -"
Mac nodded in understanding. "I'll tell him. Are you going to tell Mattie?" she asked.
"Later. The Admiral said that he'd let me know when the media would publicly announce the death of Lt. Parker and Harm's being wounded."
Sturgis appeared in the doorway behind Mac. "You ready to go, Mac?" he asked. "I've got us a hop out to the Seahawk that leaves in a little over an hour."
Mac nodded. "I just need to make a phone call and get my cover and coat," she told him, slipping past.
"You okay?" Sturgis asked Jennifer as she sat down.
"It helps that we know he's okay."
"For now," Sturgis pointed out. "But whoever shot him and killed Lt. Parker is still on board."
"That's why you and the Colonel are going out there, sir," Jennifer said.
"We'll find whoever did it, Jennifer," he promised, glancing around as Mac came out of her office.
Mac and Sturgis reported in to Capt. Morgan and the CAG before doing anything else. "Sorry to have to see you here again so soon, Col. Mackenzie," Morgan said after the amenities were dispensed with.
"I agree, Captain," Mac said. "Do you know what happened?"
"From what the Commander's said, he was talking to Lt. Parker on the fantail about a problem that the Commander had with his aircraft earlier and an unknown third party tried to shoot the Lieutenant."
"What kind of problem?" Mac questioned.
"Apparently his Hornet's instruments and com system went down while he was returning to the ship after last night's mission, Colonel," the CAG said.
"Not unless those things have figured out how to repair themselves in the air, Cmdr. Turner. Cmdr. Rabb says that the systems came back up just as he was about to trap."
"He was going to trap without a radio and instruments?" Mac questioned, exchanging a knowing glance with Sturgis.
"Sounds like the Commander," Sturgis noted.
"Man's got guts," the CAG agreed. "Why don't we go let him tell you what happened?" he suggested.
Capt. Morgan gave them his permission to leave the bridge, and the two JAG officers followed the CAG out. "How's he doing, CAG?" Mac asked.
"Like I said. He's got guts. I really think there are some people just too stubborn to die."
"And you think Cmdr. Rabb's one of them," Sturgis said.
"I do. Pity he had to give up flying for so long," the CAG sighed, leading them through the corridors toward sickbay. "He'd probably be in line for my job. And he'd be damn good at it. Excuse the language, Colonel."
"That's okay, CAG," Mac said with a smile. "I've heard worse."
Harm lay in the too-short bed, trying to ignore the dull ache in his shoulder and the still throbbing bump on his head. Seeing the CAG's head appear around the door, he smiled.
"Feel like a little company, Harm?" he asked, continuing into the room, followed by Mac and Sturgis.
"I thought you two were never going to get here," he said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed so he could sit up. He was assailed by dizziness again, and was grateful for Sturgis' strong hand on his arm to steady him. "Thanks, pal."
"Leave it to you to get into trouble in the middle of nowhere, Harm," Sturgis said, shaking his head. "Always said that you were a magnet for trouble."
"At least you weren't flying this time," Mac said. "How are you feeling?"
"Not as bad as I could have been," he said, rubbing his shoulder. The ache was more persistent since he'd sat up.
"What happened?" Mac asked.
The CAG spoke up. "I'll leave you to your investigation. Doc says you should be released later today, Harm. See you later."
"Thank you, CAG," Mac said before looking at Harm again. Lowering her voice so that anyone nearby wouldn't overhear, she said, "Jennifer sends her love. She's going to tell Mattie later today."
"I need to call and let them know I'm okay," he said.
"What happened?" Mac asked again.
Harm shrugged, and winced as he realized that it was a mistake. "Damn. Where should I start?"
"How about with the problem in the Hornet?" Mac suggested in a wry tone, causing Harm to wince again.
"There's not much to tell, really. We were on a routine flyover mission, everything went fine until we started for home. About five minutes out, my instruments went dark. And by that I mean they weren't working. The engines were fine, the throttle was working - and the com system went down as well. I used Morse code to let the squad leader know I had a problem but that I believed I could land the plane safely."
"You never considered punching out, did you?" Sturgis questioned.
"No. And before you say it, I know I should have - but I wasn't sure that the ejection system would work. Decided it was better to take my chances on the gears and tail hook deploying."
"I guess they did, since you're got down in one piece," Mac noted.
"I felt the gears lock into place, and if the tail hook hadn't dropped, I would have been forced to give ejecting another thought. I was on the glide slope, had the ball. Everything looked fine. Then just before I crossed the threshold, the instruments started working again - and the radio almost deafened me. Startled me and I nearly lost it. Luckily I managed to get it together and trapped the number two wire without further incident."
"Luckily is the right term for it," Sturgis nodded.
"Do they know what caused it?" Mac asked.
"Not as far as I know. I told the Chief to do a full diagnostic and mechanical test, and went to the ready room for some coffee. The other pilots were there - including Piker." Seeing their confusion, he explained. "Lt. Parker. He and Boomer - squad leader Lt. Doug Montgomery - were discussing what had happened to me, and I wondered out loud if of them had had a similar experience. Boomer said that if they had, it would have been reported, so I left, intending to get some rack time. But Piker caught up with me, wanting to talk."
Sturgis nodded. "So you went to the fantail."
"He didn't want anyone to see us talking," Harm explained. "He told me that he'd had a similar problem a few months ago, but that it resolved itself within a matter of minutes."
"And he didn't report it?" Mac questioned.
"Apparently not. We were just getting to the reason for that when all hell broke loose. I saw the hatch open and a hand holding a gun that was pointed directly at Piker. I pushed him aside, saw him grab the rail as the bullet hit me and sent me onto the deck where I hit my head. I guess I partially blacked out because I can remember hearing the sound of someone struggling and then Piker screaming - I guess that's when he fell overboard. The hatch closed again as I managed to get to my feet. I looked for Piker - not realizing that he'd gone over at the time. I went back through the hatch and passed out. Don't remember anything else until I woke up here."
"You didn't see who fired the shot?"
"No. It happened too quickly." He smiled. "But I think I have a way to catch whoever it was."
Jennifer was waiting outside of the school when Mattie came out with Andre. "Hi, Jennifer," she said brightly, but her smile faded quickly as she noticed that Jennifer didn't return the smile. "Is something wrong?"
"I need to talk to you," Jennifer said. "Excuse us, Andre?"
"Sure," the young man said, stepping away from the Lexus after closing the door. "See you tomorrow, Mattie."
"Yeah," Mattie replied, still looking at Jennifer. "Something's happened to Harm."
"We'll talk about it when we get home," Jennifer said, surprised at how calm she sounded.
"Jennifer - tell me."
Gripping the steering wheel tighter, Jennifer said, "Harm's okay. I want to tell you that first."
"Then what -?"
"He was wounded. Someone tried to kill another pilot and got Harm instead.
"Oh, God," Mattie breathed, tears filling her blue eyes. "But he's okay? Have you talked to him?"
"No. But Mac and Sturgis left to go out there to investigate the shooting and they'll be in touch. And I'm sure Harm will call soon."
"How did it happen?"
"I don't know anymore than you do, Mattie," Jennifer said. "But he *is* okay."
Mattie sat there. "I hope so. If anything happened to Harm -"
Jennifer reached over and grasped the young girl's hand. "I know, Mattie. Believe me. I know."
Once Harm explained his plan, Sturgis decided to go start it into motion and looked at Mac. "I'll see if I can't find Chief Delgado," he said.
"I'll talk to Lt. Montgomery," Mac nodded.
"Glad you're going to be okay, buddy," Sturgis told Harm.
"So am I," Harm replied as his old friend left sickbay.
Alone with Mac, Harm was suddenly uncomfortable. "Mac -"
"Don't, Harm. You were right. It was time for both of us to move on. You just figured it out before I did. Did Jennifer tell you that Clay's giving up being a field agent?"
"She mentioned it," Harm said. "Never thought he'd have that much sense," he teased, taking her hand. "Friends?" he asked.
"Friends," she agreed. "Now, I need to go find Lt. Montgomery. What makes you think he might be the one behind this?"
"I'm not sure. But if Piker told anyone about that glitch, he told Boomer. Piker was Boomer's wingman."
"I'm sorry, Commander," Delgado said as he worked on a Hornet. "I'll tell you like I told the CAG: I didn't find anything wrong with that bird. Everything checked out like it was supposed to."
"Did you see anyone else around the aircraft before or after the mission?" Sturgis asked.
Delgado thought for a moment. "You know, Lt. Montgomery spent some time down here. Said he wanted to make sure there were no problems with Cmdr. Rabb's plane since it was his first flight with the squadron."
"Was the Lieutenant alone with Cmdr. Rabb's aircraft at any time?"
"He could have been. We have a lot of things to do with these things to get them ready for a mission, sir."
"Thank you, Chief."
"Is Commander Rabb going to be okay, sir?"
"I think so. Hopefully his memory will return -"
"When he hit his head, he lost a few minutes. The Commander believes that he got a look at the person who shot him and possibly threw Lt. Parker overboard. We're just waiting to see if he remembers."
"Hope he does, sir. It's a little scary, knowing there's a killer out here."
Sturgis nodded in agreement and left the Chief to his work.
He'd planted the seed; all they could do now was wait for it to bear fruit.
Mac found Lt. Montgomery in the Officer's Mess. "Do you have a minute, Lieutenant?" she asked.
"Sure, Col. Mackenzie. How's Hammer?" Mac gave him a long glare. "I mean Commander Rabb."
"Better. The doctor wants to keep him in sickbay for another night to see if his memory returns," she told him in a voice just loud enough so that anyone else in the room could hear her.
"His memory?" Boomer asked. "Something wrong with the Commander's memory?"
"He's sure that he saw who took the shot at him but the blow to his head has caused a hopefully temporary loss of memory. Once it returns, he should be able to identify the shooter."
Finally deciding that Harm wasn't going to call, Jennifer crawled into the king sized bed that was the center point of the master bedroom. Even though they had only shared it for one night, Jennifer pulled Harm's pillow close to her, hugging it tightly, breathing in the faint smell of his aftershave that she had sprinkled onto it. Finally, around two am, she finally managed to fall into a fitful sleep.
"I stopped by the weapons locker," Sturgis told Harm and Mac. All of the weapons are accounted for."
"That's not surprising," Mac said. "The bullet that they took out of Harm was a .38 caliber."
"So someone brought a personal weapon on board ship and has been able to keep it hidden," Harm said.
"Is that possible?" Mac questioned.
"It happened," Harm told her, putting a hand to his wounded shoulder. "I have proof. Unfortunately."
"You really think this is going to work, Harm?" Sturgis asked.
"If we give it a chance," Harm said.
Four hours later, Harm was pretending to be asleep in the darkened room when he heard the door open. Remaining totally still, Harm waited until he could hear someone breathing heavily before he opened his eyes to find Lt. Doug Montgomery holding the pillow from the other bed over his face. "Nice of you to drop by, Boomer," Harm said.
Boomer recovered quickly, making an attempt to finish what he'd started. But Harm fought back, ignoring the pain in his shoulder.
Realizing that his best option was to escape, Boomer flung the pillow at Harm's head, turning to make a run for the door - only to find his way blocked by Sturgis, who was also holding a gun.
Mac and the CAG appeared a moment later with a couple of Marines.
"Why, Boomer?" Harm asked, sitting up on the bed and standing up. "Why did you do it?"
His arms held tightly by one of the Marine guards, Boomer smirked as his eyes raked Harm's body. "You've had found out after another few days. They all do. I'm not saying anything more until I've talked to a lawyer."
"I think that can be arranged, Lieutenant," Sturgis told him. "Get him to the brig," he told the guards.
"We need to search his quarters," Mac told Sturgis. "See if we can find the gun and any other evidence."
Sturgis turned to the remaining Marine. "You're with me."
Mac moved toward Harm. "Are you okay?" she asked, frowning. "You're pale."
"I'm fine," he told her, and then slid to the floor in a dead faint.
"Harm!" Mac gasped, kneeling beside him to pull the dark robe away from his shoulder to reveal the blood soaked bandages. "Doctor!" she called as the CAG came over to help her get Harm back up onto the bed
When he came to, the first thing Harm saw was Mac's worried face. "Hi there," she said.
"What happened?" he asked.
"You tore your stitches," she said. "Lost a lot of blood. On top of that and the dizziness from the goose egg on your head - I guess the excitement was too much for you."
"Sturgis found the gun he used to shoot you hidden in the void beside his bunk."
"Why?" he felt stupid and slow - recognized that the doctor had probably given him some kind of pain killer/sedative.
"Therein lies the tale. Montgomery hasn't said a word, but the other members of the squadron have been singing like the proverbial canary."
"Lt. Doug Montgomery is gay," she told him. Harm frowned at the news. "Right after he came on board, he made a move on one of his fellow pilots - and then threatened to bring the man's plane down with a little computer chip that he claimed to have."
"Seems Montgomery's hobby was designing computer software and hardware. He's pretty good at it, too." Mac took the chip from her uniform pocket and placed it in his hand. "That, combined with some software that erased itself as soon as the program it activated ended, caused the problems that both you and Lt. Parker had with your Tomcat. He only wanted to scare Parker, to let him know that he could do what he threatened to do."
"Parker was the other pilot?"
Mac nodded, taking the chip again. "Yeah. After his success with keeping Parker quiet, Montgomery moved on to some of the other pilots - usually without success - and always using the same threat to keep them quiet. After awhile, none of the pilots felt safe talking to each other."
"Why didn't they just transfer out?" Harm wondered.
"Because he used the same threat - One word to anyone and they'd find themselves in a plane that most of them couldn't land."
"He used the chip on your plane to make a point to the others that they weren't to talk to you. When he saw Parker follow you out to the fantail, he realized that Parker was probably going to come clean and went to his quarters to retrieve his gun. There's more, but you need to rest."
"All that just to keep it a secret that he was gay?" Harm questioned.
"It wouldn't have been a problem if he hadn't tried to jump every pilot in his orbit," Mac pointed out. "The man had no self-control. How he ever made it through pilot training is beyond me." She picked at the blanket on Harm's bed. "Sturgis and I are heading back to DC in about an hour," she told him.
"What about me?"
"Capt. Morgan has said that he's releasing you back to JAG, since you more or less solved his problem. The doctor says you should be ready to travel back to DC in a few days - if you behave yourself."
"Jennifer," Harm said.
"Don't worry. I'll tell her what happened. You need to find a way to contact both her and Mattie ASAP, though."
"I will," Harm assured her. "Think they would let me use my laptop in here?"
"I'll see what I can do before I leave. Sturgis should be here any minute to see you."
Harm went by helicopter into Kuwait, and from there by C-130, arriving in Washington on Saturday, barely a week after he'd left. He wasn't surprised to see Jennifer and Mattie waiting for him when the aircraft touched down. Mattie nearly took him down the moment she saw him, throwing her arms around him, momentarily ignoring his left arm that was still in a sling. He returned the hug with his right arm in spite of the slight pain her embrace caused him, resting his cheek on top of her blonde streaked hair as his eyes locked with Jennifer's brown ones, silently telling her how much he'd missed her.
"I'm *so* glad you're okay," Mattie told him after muttering an apology when he winced. "When Jennifer told me you're been shot -"
"I'm sorry I worried you," he said, looking down at her as she released him. "But I'm okay now. I'm back with my girls. Hi, Sunshine," he said to Jennifer when he and Mattie approached her. Even before the thought was fully formed, Harm lifted his arm from Mattie's shoulders and used it to pull Jennifer closer as he placed a kiss on her lips.
He felt Jennifer's arms carefully encircle his chest before she pulled back. "Harm -" she warned, glancing around to see if anyone else might be watching the scene. "What if someone sees us?"
"At the moment, I don't care," he said, slowly slipping his left arm from its protective sling to carefully place it at her waist. "I have to check in here and then report to Bethesda."
Jennifer nodded, watching Mattie pick up Harm's duffle. "The Admiral told me. He also said to tell you that he and the others would see you later."
"That's good. After I see the doctor, all I want to do is go home and spend a quiet evening." It had been Harm's decision not to have the entire JAG staff waiting for him when he returned. He had told Jennifer as much via their chats over the 'net during the last week.
Jennifer and Mattie joined Harm the moment that he came out of the doctor's office. "What did he say?" Jennifer asked, not protesting as he put his arm around her.
"That I can lose the sling, but I'm looking at a few weeks of therapy for the shoulder."
"Did he clear you to go back to work?"
"Light duty," he said, nodding. "No heavy lifting -."
"Your shoulder's healing okay, isn't it?" Mattie asked.
Harm smiled and winked at Jennifer as he said, "He said what I need most now is some TLC."
"I think Jennifer can manage that," Mattie told him.
Harm pretended to study Jennifer's face for a moment. "Think you can handle it?"
"Try me," was Jennifer's response.
Harm's soft chuckle sent a frisson of anticipation down Jennifer's spine, and she didn't stop him when he lowered his lips to her ear to whisper, "Believe me, I fully intend to, Sunshine." Jennifer felt the warmth in her face as she blushed. Harm laughed again, tightening his hold on Jennifer and Mattie. "Let's get out of here. I *hate* hospitals."
From the passenger seat, Harm watched Jennifer's hands on the steering wheel of the Lexus. He wasn't someone who easily gave up control of a vehicle to someone else. But during the ride to the hospital and now, he'd watched Jennifer, feeling himself relax, realizing that he was in safe hands. It was that thought that caused him to shift in his seat, trying to get into a more comfortable position.
Jennifer glanced over at him. "Are you okay?" she asked.
"I will be," he assured her as she braked at a stoplight. Reaching over with his left hand, he ignored the pain in his shoulder at the movement and took her hand in his. Glancing into the vanity mirror on the visor, he saw the Mattie seemed to be deliberately ignoring what was going on by staring fixedly out of the side window. Smiling at Jennifer, Harm placed her hand on his thigh first, then moved it slightly over so that Jennifer would have no doubt as to the reason for his being so uncomfortable before he released her hand.
Jennifer returned his smile and put her hand back onto the steering wheel just as the light changed to green. He noticed that she kicked the speed up just a notch, as if she were as anxious as he was to be somewhere with a little more privacy.
AJ had just stepped off of the elevator into the darkened bullpen when he realized that there was a light on in Mac's office. Frowning, he wondered what she was doing here on a Saturday evening. As he moved closer, he could hear her voice, and realized that she was talking to someone.
"I thought you weren't going to do that kind of thing anymore?" she asked. AJ paused, waiting for the answer. But when she spoke again, he decided she was on the telephone. "Dammit, Clay! . . . Fine! Fine, just - just go off to Sri Lanka or - or . . . Sudan! Whatever! Just don't expect me to be here waiting when you get back!"
AJ winced as he heard her slam the telephone back into its cradle, and wondered if he needed to have Coates order a replacement phone. He'd heard through the office grapevine that Mac was still seeing Webb - and that the spook had made the decision to stop working in the field in order to show her how committed he was to the relationship. Apparently something had happened to change that. As he stood there outside of her office, the door was pulled open with such force that he was surprised it remained on its hinges and Mac appeared. She wasn't in uniform, but was wearing a dark dress that would be appropriate for a dinner date. She had probably planned to meet Webb for dinner after working for a while - or he'd been supposed to pick her up here.
"Admiral," she said, her dark eyes huge in her face. She glanced behind her, as if wondering whether or not he'd been there long enough to overhear her conversation with Clayton Webb.
"Colonel. What are you doing here on a Saturday?"
"I had some work to finish up on the Compton case, sir. Harm called earlier - he's at home. The doctor at Bethesda told him he could come back to work on Monday, but he'll be on light duty until he finishes rehab for the shoulder."
"That's good news. I sometimes think that the bad guys always know when this office is short-handed because things seem to pile up whenever we are."
"And it's worse when it's Harm who's out," Mac told him.
"Don't tell him I said this, but you're right," AJ confided with a smile.
"Your secret's safe with me, sir," she promised. "His ego's big enough already. Why are *you* here on a Saturday, sir?"
"Thought I'd get an early start on some fitreps," he told her. "Not much else to do on weekends these days but work." He inwardly frowned as he said that, wondering why he'd done it. What he did or didn't do with his weekends wasn't anyone else's business but his own.
"I haven't had a chance to tell you how - sorry I am that things didn't work out between you and Meredith, Admiral."
AJ saw something in her eyes that bothered him. "You've talked to Meredith, haven't you?"
Mac shrugged. "She called me," she told him.
"A few days after you made the announcement that the engagement was off," Mac answered. "She - wanted me to ask you to call her. I told her that I couldn't do that."
"She did tell me her side of what happened, Admiral -"
"Colonel, I don't care to discuss Meredith. With you or anyone else. It's over. Best to move on, put it behind me."
"Begging your pardon, sir, but you're not doing that."
AJ narrowed his eyes as he looked at her. "And how's your relationship with Webb going, Colonel? All sunshine and roses?" The moment he saw her react, AJ wished he could retract the words.
She dropped her gaze to the floor between them, a dark flush appearing on her cheeks. "I suspect that you already know better than that, Admiral."
AJ took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. "Have you had dinner, Mac?" he asked.
She looked up at him, blinking. "Excuse me?"
"I was just going to work through dinner, but by the look of you, you were planning on having dinner with Webb. Since he's apparently not available, why don't we go get something to eat?"
"No, separately," he drawled, and then smiled. "Would you like to have dinner with me, Mac?"
She hesitated just long enough that AJ was about to retract the invitation. "Just let me turn off my computer and get my coat, sir."
They went to Tony's, one of AJ's favorite Italian restaurants. Once seated, they placed orders for drinks - tonic water with a twist of lime for Mac and a Scotch for AJ. "So," he said across the table as they waited for someone to come take their food order. "I guess Webb's out of the country again?"
Mac nodded, playing with the fake flowers in the center of the table. "Sudan," she confirmed.
"I thought I'd heard he wasn't going to do that kind of thing anymore?"
She smiled at him, the candlelight between them flickering in her eyes. "And just where did you hear that, Admiral?"
"Scuttlebutt," he told her. "And it's AJ tonight." AJ took a sip of his scotch. He'd been over his "thing" for Mac for years. It had been a momentary aberration that he'd know he could never act upon. "Did he say why he was going?"
"Something about needing to verify some information that couldn't be done in any other way but face to face with the source."
"Well, at least this time you know where and why. Any idea of how long?"
"A couple of days," Mac told him with a deep sigh. "I just - I thought it was all behind us. And then -"
"Mac, when you left for the Seahawk last week - how did Webb take it?"
She smiled. "He said he regretted that we wouldn't be able to have dinner that night, but he understood that -"
"That is was your job?" AJ finished when she paused. Mac nodded. "You know, Mac, Webb's been an agent for a long time. It's not easy for a dog to change his spots. Take it from me," he growled, lifting his glass again. "Sometimes it's damn near impossible."
"That's not true, sir," she said. AJ looked at her. "AJ."
Their waiter arrived at that moment to ask for their order. Once he was gone, AJ ran a finger around the top of his half-empty glass before asking, "What did Meredith tell you?"
"Not *what* happened," he amended, looking at her. "Why. That's what I don't understand. *Why.* Why she -"
"She was frightened," Mac said.
"Frightened?" AJ repeated, scowling. "Of *me*?"
"No. I believe she did love you - I think she still does. But -"
"Then why did she jump into bed with that - that Italian -" he sputtered.
"She had doubts. Not about you. About herself. About her ability to be a military wife. It's not an easy life, AJ. The sacrifices that the wives and husbands of military personnel are asked to make -"
"I know about those sacrifices, Mac," he muttered. "Cost me my first marriage."
"I thought it was because she got homesick for her mother in Italy?" Mac questioned, and AJ smiled.
"That was part of it. But my being away all the time didn't help." He sighed again. "Why didn't Meredith come to me? Talk to me about this instead of -"
"She was weak," Mac said. "You were so busy with work, and he was there -"
"I was trying to track down where that damned diamond came from to ease *her* mind," AJ reminded Mac. "And then I went out to buy her another ring. A brand new one with a valid certificate of authenticity." He stared into his glass. "I went to see her that night, intending to give it to her. I returned it to the store the next day."
"I'm sorry, AJ," Mac said. "I guess I shouldn't have advised you to trust her when it came to her friend. Like I'm a person to give relationship advice. Certainly none of mine have worked out lately."
"You really think it's over with Webb?"
"I don't know," she answered honestly. "I sometimes wonder if the only reason I'm with him is because of everything that happened in Paraguay."
"I think I owe you an apology, Mac," AJ said, deciding to say something he'd wanted to say for a long time.
"About Paraguay. I should have tossed Webb out on his six when he came in asking for your help."
"It was my decision to go, AJ. I didn't have to say yes."
"And then there's the fact that I wouldn't let Rabb go after you without resigning." He saw the flicker of anger in her eyes at that, confirming his belief that she resented him for it. "I had assurances from Harrison Kershaw that you and Webb would be fine, that they had something in place to clean things up. I thought that Rabb would go down there and do his best 'bull in a china shop' routine and get all of you killed and create a damned international incident."
"Harm saved our lives," Mac said.
"And got treated like dirt because of it," AJ nodded. "I won't even attempt to go into my reasons for that, Mac. But let's just say that Harmon Rabb Jr. isn't the only person in that office with a huge ego." Seeing Mac smile again, AJ hesitated to turn the subject back to Webb again, but he had to. Mac needed to talk this out - and he needed to hear her do it. If for no other reason than to convince him that he'd been right to ignore the feelings that he had for her. "We were discussing you and Webb."
"While Harm saved our lives, Webb let himself be tortured almost to the point of death trying to protect me."
"And you feel grateful to him for that."
"Of course I do. He nearly died -"
"And if he hadn't taken you down there in the first place, he wouldn't have had to protect you."
"I know. I've told myself that a hundred times, AJ. But there's more than that. And there's not." She laughed. "Doesn't sound very squared away, does it?"
"We've all been through a lot over the last year," AJ pointed out. "What you need to figure out is whether what you feel for Clayton Webb is gratitude or love, Mac. Until you do, you're never going to get your life straightened out."
"Well, Harm certainly seems to have straightened his life out. Maybe that means there's hope for the rest of us."
Harm sat against the padded headboard of the king sized bed, watching Jennifer she bent to adjust the fire in the fireplace. Since Mattie had been with them almost constantly, they had settled for stealing a few kisses and furtive touches over the course of the evening, which had only served to increase Harm's need to be alone with Jennifer.
Now, watching the glow of flickering firelight across her skin, Harm felt his reaction all the way to his toes and was unable to stifle the soft groan the escaped his lips.
Hearing it, Jennifer turned to look at him with concern. "Are you okay?" she asked, moving slowly toward the bed.
Harm patted the bed. "I don't know. I think I need a little one-on-one therapy, nurse."
"We don't want strain your shoulder," she whispered, between placing feather-light kisses along his jaw and down over his neck to the v at the top of his breastbone. "Let me take care of you."
All Harm could do was nod, a jerky, uncoordinated movement in itself as he let his head fall back onto the pillow.
A little later, Jennifer paused, looking down at him. Giving him a kiss, she said, "Do you want to use protection?" and Harm blinked, confused, until she confessed, "I stopped taking the Pill." She was holding a foil packet in her hand as she slipped it from underneath her pillow.
"Do you want to use it?" he countered.
Harm took the packet and tossed it across the bed. "I love you," he told her, and gave her a long, hard kiss. His hand tangled in her long hair, bringing it over her shoulder as they joined together...
"Jen?" he asked later, having moved her over to lie beside him, still held securely by his right arm.
"Hmm?" she responded.
"Why'd you stop taking the Pill?"
She opened her eyes to look at him. "It was after I found out you'd been wounded. I realized that if you'd been - killed, I wouldn't have had anything left of you. And I wanted that." Her dark eyes lowered, uncertain. "I know that you've always been afraid of leaving a child to grow up without a father - but -"
"Jen," Harm said. "Look at me." When she didn't, he placed a finger under her chin to lift it. "I love you. And I understand why you did it." His hand moved down to spread his fingers across her flat stomach. "We agreed that we want children. And that we don't want to wait -" Her left hand was lying against his side, and he brought it to his lips. "Where's the ring?"
Jennifer rose from the bed and went over to the jewelry box on the dresser. Opening it, she took something out and returned to the bed. Kneeling beside Harm, she dropped the ring into his outstretched hand. Harm sat up and took her left hand in his without a word to slip the ring onto it. Bending forward, he kissed the ring, keeping his eyes on hers. "This time, it stays there."
"Isn't it too soon?" Jennifer questioned. "People might wonder -"
Harm reached up to cup her face with his palm. "I'll just tell them that being wounded made me see what's important in my life. And that means you. And Mattie. I've made another decision, too, Jennifer. I'm giving up my flight status."
"But - you love to fly," she said. "You don't have to -"
"Yes, I do. I can still fly. There's always 'Sarah'. My job is dangerous enough without my taking the risk of leaving you and Mattie alone because I'm trying to prove something that was proved a long time ago." Seeing the tears in her eyes, Harm wiped them away as they slid down her cheeks. "Hey, Sunshine. I didn't mean to make you cry."
"Haven't you ever heard about tears of happiness, Harm?" Jennifer asked.
He pulled her into his arms and lay down again, pulling the covers over them both.
"Why 'Sunshine'?" she asked. "You never told me why you chose that as my screen name before you left."
He pulled her even closer against his body before answering. "Because you *are* my Sunshine," he told her, and felt her smiling against his chest.
Mac still hadn't heard from Clay by the time she arrived at JAG on Wednesday morning, and she wasn't in a good mood. A call to his mother had resulted only in the standard "sacrifices are required" speech, and Mac had been hard pressed not to hang up in the middle of it. Even her sources at the CIA were no help. It was almost as though Clay had told them to keep her out of the loop - which meant that he hadn't been telling her the truth about his trip to Sudan.
"Surprise, surprise," she muttered as she entered the break room to get a cup of coffee.
"Talking to yourself, Mac?" Harm questioned, glancing at her as he finished making a cup of tea.
"Just plotting the demise of a certain spook," she said, grabbing a mug from the cabinet.
Harm frowned. "You still haven't heard from Clay?"
"Not so much as a peep," she said. "He was supposed to have been back on Monday. I'm getting stonewalled at every turn. It's frustrating." She stirred sugar into her coffee as she turned to look at him. "At least there's one bright spot in my life right now."
"What might that be?" he asked, already aware of the answer to the question.
"You and Jennifer setting a date. I can't believe she agreed to two weeks. That's not much time to get everything ready."
Harm shrugged. "We discussed it, and while I suggested we put it off a little longer so she could have the whole big wedding, she insisted she just wanted a small ceremony. Family and friends -"
"Have you decided where this is going to take place?" Mac wondered.
"Still looking," Harm told her with a grin. "Right now, we're talking about the back yard at the house."
"And if it rains?"
"That's the problem," he admitted, moving out of the office ahead of her. "If there was some way to guarantee the weather we wouldn't have a problem."
Mac nodded, laughing as she headed toward her office, - only to stop as the elevator doors opened and Clay appeared. There was a small bandage on his forehead, and he was using a cane - but he was alive.
"Hello, Clay," Harm said.
"Harm," Clay nodded, but he was looking at Mac.
Mac touched the bandage on his head. "What happened?"
He glanced at them both. "I need to talk to both of you -," he said.
"My office?" Mac suggested, frowning as she saw him wince when he moved in that direction. "Clay -"
"I'll explain in a minute, Sarah," he promised. "I just need to sit down." He dropped into one of the chairs next to her desk as she closed the door behind the three of them. He exhaled loudly. "I just got off a flight from Sudan an hour ago." He ran his hand over his face. "I haven't slept in three days."
"I thought it was just a fact-finding mission," Mac said.
Clay's lips thinned for a moment. "It was. I told you that I had information that needed to be verified face to face -"
"What kind of information?" Harm wanted to know.
Clay looked at Mac as he answered. "Sadik had been spotted in a small village in northern Sudan, recruiting volunteers for a Jihad again the United States. I needed to verify that information first hand."
"Sadik?" Mac repeated, sitting on the edge of her desk as her legs gave out. "You went after that - that -" she paused, trying to rein in her anger. "You went after that bastard alone? After what he did to you?"
"That's why he had to do it alone this time, Mac," Harm said, still looking at Clay. "This time, he wanted to keep you out of it."
"Harm's right, Mac," Clay said. "I didn't want to risk you ending up between us again. I needed to be able to focus on what I needed to do without worrying about protecting someone else."
"Was he there, Clay?" Harm asked, interrupting Mac before she could take him to task for still seeing her as someone who needed to be 'protected'.
"He was," Clay confirmed. "Intel placed him in a small village with little outside contact. He put up a fight - we lost six men of the ten man team that went in to take him out."
"My God," Mac breathed. "Is that how you-?" she indicated his head and leg.
"Yeah. It's worse than it looks, though. I wound up hand to hand with Sadik himself." Mac took a deep breath and stood, moving to the window, her arms crossed over her chest as Clay continued his narrative. "My ankle's twisted and bruised - and my forehead came in contact with a packing crate that contained RPGs and launchers that he'd just purchased on the black market."
"What about Sadik, Clay?" Harm asked.
"He's been neutralized." Clay's tone of voice told Harm all he needed to know: Clay had taken the man out personally.
Mac turned around to look at him. "He's dead?" she asked, and Harm thought that he detected a note of pleading in her voice.
"A bullet between the eyes usually kills someone," Clay told her. He used his cane to get to his feet. "I'll be going. I just wanted the two of you to know that he's gone."
Harm nodded. "Thanks, Clay." He glanced at Mac, and decided that three was a crowd. "I'm supposed to be in court in about five minutes," he said. "Catch you later, Clay. We need to talk."
Clay nodded, but his eyes were on Mac. "See you, Mac." He didn't wait for a response before edging carefully out of the room.
"I need to let Mother know that I'm back and check in," Clay said. "I'm sorry about Saturday, Sarah," he said.
"Why didn't you tell me, Clay?" she asked.
"What would you have done if I had?" he countered.
"Insisted on going with you!" she declared.
"And that's exactly why I *didn't* tell you, Sarah," Clay shot back.
"Dammit, Clay, I'm a *Marine*! I don't need to be coddled or protected -"
Clay took a deep breath. "I know that, Sarah. But the last time, I was more concerned about making sure that you weren't hurt - that those bastards didn't touch you than I was about completing the mission." He braced on hand on her desk. "Don't you understand? I *had* to do this. Not to prove anything to the Company. To prove to myself that I could do it. That I hadn't lost my nerve -" He sank back into the chair, totally drained.
Mac moved to crouch down beside him, her hand on his back. "Clay. I never realized you felt that way."
He shook his head. "I didn't want you to. It was enough that everyone at Langley believed it. And finally, I started to believe it myself," he told her in a shaky voice.
"I wish you'd told me, Clay." When he looked at her, she shook her head. "Not about Sudan. About how you felt - You don't have to be strong and brave all the time you know."
Clay drew a shuddering breath. "I'm sorry, Sarah. Sorry I put you in danger in the first place. I shouldn't have done it. It was unprofessional. You were right - I could have found someone in the Company to pretend to be my wife. But I wanted it to be you. I figured I'd never get another chance to spend that much time with you without Harm being around -" he admitted, giving her a sideways glance. "I made too many mistakes, took too many chances on that mission. I'd never let my emotions guide me like that -"
"We got out, Clay," she reminded him.
"Thanks to Harm. Do you have any idea how terrified I was that you'd forget all about me when he showed up like the Lone Ranger?"
"It didn't happen, did it?"
"Almost. And it still could -"
"Clay - Harm's engaged to be married," Mac told him. Seeing Clay's surprise, she said, "He and Jennifer Coates are getting married in ten days."
"Thank God." Clay's sigh of relief was almost amusing.
Mac moved to give Clay a kiss. "Why don't you go check in with your bosses and see your mother? Oh, and be prepared for her to tell you how totally unsuitable I am for you -"
Clay frowned. "Why? What did you do now?" he asked with a groan.