"She's beautiful, AJ," Marcella declared as she rubbed Dammit's ears the next morning after his trip to the kennel to retrieve the animal. The dog lifted her paw onto the sofa beside Marcella, resting her head alongside it, her tail wagging. Pointing to the floor, Marcella said, "Lay, Dammit," and AJ's eyes widened with surprise as the dog did as she was told.
"She certainly likes you," he noted.
"How can you tell?"
"She did what you told her to do. Usually I'm the only one she listens to."
Francesca came from the kitchen, pausing as she saw the large dog lying on the floor. "Is this - Dammit?" she asked. The dog lifted her head, panting as she looked up at Francesca.
"Isn't she beautiful?" Marcella asked, reaching down to pet the soft fur as Francesca approached slowly, her hand extended.
"Oh, yes," she said, smiling as Dammit sniffed at her hand before giving it a lick. Looking up at AJ, she said, "I always wanted a dog." Petting the animal, she laughed, slipping a hand under the long snout. "Are you hungry, Dammit?" she asked.
Dammit's tail changed to double time. "She's always hungry," AJ commented, laughing. "Her dog food's in the pantry -"
"I'll feed her," Francesca offered, rising to her feet again and moving toward the kitchen.
Dammit didn't move until she heard the sound of dry food hitting the metal bowl. Looking up at AJ, she seemed to be asking permission. "Go on, Dammit," he said, his words releasing the dog, who barked once and ran into the kitchen.
Listening to Francesca's delighted laughter, AJ found himself wishing - not for the first time - that things had been different. If he'd gone after Marcella all those years ago, is this how things would have been for them? Francesca might have had younger brothers or sisters -
"Why the sad face, AJ?" Marcella asked, bringing him back to the present.
"Just - thinking about how different things might have been if I'd followed you all those years ago," he said, moving to sit on the edge of the sofa beside her. "I didn't think you wanted me to. Your last letter was pretty clear that it was over and there was no chance. The torn-up photo of me seemed to confirm it. You didn't want anything to do with me or my -" he narrowed his eyes as he recalled her exact words, "my blood-soaked, violent way of life."
"I was angry when I wrote that letter," she told him.
"Could have fooled me," he drawled.
"Angry, and hurt, and lonely, and terrified at the changes I saw taking place in you." His head dropped at her words as she continued. "The kind, gentle man that I fell in love with, who kept that gentleness hidden behind a gruff exterior, was no longer there."
"He was there, Marcella. It's just -" He ran his hand over his head before rising to his feet and pacing away from her. "I couldn't talk about the things I'd seen, the things I'd done. I wanted to protect you from all of that. From all of the ugliness and horror -"
"And so you became more and more closed off and unapproachable," Marcella finished.
"Except for the occasional outbursts of anger," AJ recalled. "I sometimes wondered how you stayed with me as long as you did. You know, looking back, I realized that I was trying to make you leave," he admitted.
"I wasn't sure that I could protect you - from myself. I'd seen too many guys come back and -" he sat down again. "It doesn't make much sense, does it? Hurting you to keep *from* hurting you."
"So we ended up hurting each other," Marcella pointed out, placing a hand on his where they were clasped between his knees. "But that is all in the past now, isn't it?"
He took her hand in his. "I hope so, Marcella. I hope so."
Jennifer found Harm upstairs in the hallway, examining a storage closet. "There you are," she said. "What are you looking at?" she asked as he slipped an arm around her waist.
"At the moment, my beautiful wife," he said, leaning down to give her a kiss.
She smiled up at him. "I'm serious, Harm."
"So am I," was his reply before he gave her a longer kiss. "Where's Johnny?"
"Asleep. What's so interesting about this closet?" she wanted to know.
"Look here," he said, going into the closet and pulling her with him as he pointed to something in the drywall.
"I don't see it," she told him, squinting. "What?"
"There's been a drywall patch put in here. The back of this closet faces the garage apartment," he told her.
"It's possible that there used to be a doorway that connected the apartment with the rest of the house. Probably put in before it was converted."
"A doorway?" she repeated. "What made you think about something like that?"
"Honestly?" he asked, taking a screwdriver from his back pocket and tapping the wall with the handle as he spoke, nodding when he was rewarded by a hollow sound. "I was going to see if it would be possible to *put* a doorway in - in case your dad decides to move in. It would make access to the apartment easier."
Jennifer smiled throwing her arms around Harm in the cramped closet. "You'd really have done that?"
"Yeah," he said, giving her another kiss before releasing to go back to work. "But I don't think it's going to be necessary," he told her, pulling the blade of the screwdriver around the edge of the patched area. "Step back," he warned. Once she was out of the closet, he pried the section loose and looked behind it, giving her a grin of triumph. "I was right." He pulled the section aside, revealing a section of a closed doorway. "I'm going to need some tools to finish this. I'll go out to the workshop and get them."
"Harm," Jennifer said, causing him to stop before he reached the stairs, "Did Dad say something last night when you two went outside that makes you think he might agree to move in?"
"No," he admitted, and saw her expression change back to the worried frown she'd been wearing for the last few days. "But I suggested that he talk to Chaplin Turner. I think he might be able to convince him that it's the best option for everyone. Are you sure you'll be able to handle everything?" he asked, pulling her into his arms again. "The baby, college, work, your father?"
"About college, Harm, I've been thinking - maybe I should put off the next semester -"
"Just until summer -" she finished, looking up at him.
"We'll talk about it," he told her. "I don't like the idea, but we'll talk." He kissed the tip of her nose before releasing her. "Let me get those tools."
"Good morning, Admiral," Harriet said, smiling brightly as AJ entered the bullpen early on Monday morning. "Welcome home, sir."
"I hope everything was satisfactory when you returned, sir?"
"More than satisfactory, Harriet," he assured her. "I thought you were taking some time off?" he said, looking around the empty office.
"I'm only here until Jennifer comes back, sir," she told him. "I came in early to get the files in order."
He made a mental note to call his assistant before leaving for the day to check up on her. "Could you please ask Lt. Commander Roberts to come to my office, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir!" she agreed.
"And - you might as well join him," he told her before she got very far, earning another smile.
He continued on to this office, hanging his cover on the rack near the door, which he left open. Going to the desk, he sat down and picked up the telephone, intending to call the house and check on how Marcella and Francesca were doing, but before he finished dialing, Bud and Harriet appeared in the doorway.
"Lt. Cmdr. Roberts, reporting, sir," he said, standing at attention.
Hanging up the phone, AJ smiled, recalling the awkward, nervous ensign that Bud had been upon his assignment to JAG all those years ago. That young man was a far cry from the tragedy-toughened attorney who stood before him now. "At ease, Bud." He moved around the desk again to stand before the young man and administered the oath affirming the promotion. "Congratulations, Lt. Commander Roberts," he said when finished.
"Thank you, sir."
"I'm sorry that you had to wait until I returned -"
"That's okay, Admiral," Bud said. "I understood. How are your daughter and Mrs. Paretti?" he asked.
"Bud," Harriet hissed, wincing. "Sorry, Admiral."
"Don't worry about it, Lieutenant. I suppose since both of you know - everyone else does as well?"
"You didn't *order* me not to tell anyone else, Admiral," Harriet pointed out. "Everyone was - worried about you."
"Who did they send as my yeoman in Jennifer's place?" AJ asked, realizing that he was fighting a lost cause.
"Petty Officer Parker, sir," Bud replied.
AJ frowned slightly. PO Greg Parker was *too* efficient, if there was such a thing. The man had an internal chronometer similar to Mac's - and every second was meticulously detailed. "How much longer before Jennifer comes back? Anyone know?"
"You'll have to ask her, Admiral," Harriet explained. "Her father's ill, and -"
"Her father?" AJ frowned. "I thought she and her father weren't speaking?"
"He turned up last week after reading the announcement of Johnny's birth in the paper. Apparently he'd been trying to reach her for some time but couldn't locate her."
"Anything else that I need to be brought up to date on?"
"I think that's about it, sir," Harriet answered.
"Very well. Dismissed. "
The officers left the room, passing PO Parker on his way in. "Admiral Chegwidden," the young man said. "Welcome back, sir."
"Parker," AJ responded, eyeing the paper in his hands suspiciously.
"I have your schedule for the day, sir," Parker said, extending the paper toward AJ.
Glancing at it, AJ realized that there wasn't a free moment all day. "Parker, reschedule the meeting with General Bennett for tomorrow."
"And staff call is at ten hundred, not zero nine hundred."
"But -" Parker looked stunned as AJ handed the schedule back.
"Clear my lunch hour today - I'll be out of the office visiting a friend. Reschedule whatever other meetings that you can - and be aware that from now on, I'll be leaving the office no later than seventeen thirty unless it's unavoidable."
"Y - Yes sir, Admiral," Parker said. "I'll take care of it right away."
"Take care of it yesterday, Petty Officer," he growled. "Dismissed. Close the hatch behind you."
AJ stood there for a moment before heading back to his desk and sitting down. Picking up the phone, he began scanning through the file folders on the desk, updating himself on pending cases that had come in during his week off until the phone was answered. "Francesca."
"Papa," she said, and he could hear her smile across the lines. "I did not except you call so soon after leaving."
"Just wanted to make sure things were going okay out there."
"We're fine, Papa," she told him. "Mama is tossing Dammit's toy across the room for her bring back. To - fetch?"
"Yes. Fetch," he confirmed. "She likes that."
"Don't worry about us, Papa. Mama and I will survive until you return this evening."
"I guess I'm just - not used to having someone *to* worry about," he told her. "I'll see you later. Tell your mother - well, uh -"
"I'll tell her, Papa," Francesca assured him. "Arrivederci."
"Arrivederci." As he hung up the telephone, AJ considered calling Parker in again and asking him to locate an employment agency to set up interviews for someone to stay during the day with Marcella after Francesca had to leave at the end of the week.
He wouldn't have hesitated to ask Jennifer's help in the matter - she would probably have known exactly which agency to call and picked out the perfect person for the job. He supposed he should get used to not having her around, though. Once she finished college, he'd be forced to get used to a new yeoman permanently.
It wasn't something that AJ was looking forward to, he admitted, and then shook his head, recalling a conversation with Mac when Harm had decided to leave JAG and return to flying. Something about it not being a good idea to get too comfortable with billets or personnel. Apparently, he wasn't very good at taking his own advice.
"Excuse me, Admiral," Parker's voice came over the intercom, and AJ grinned as he heard the uncertainty in that voice.
"Commander Turner is here to see you, sir, if you're not busy."
"Send him in, Parker," AJ replied.
"Come in, Commander," AJ said when the door opened. "Have a seat."
"It's good to have you back, Admiral," Sturgis said.
"What's the matter, Sturgis? Didn't you enjoy your time in the big chair?"
"Let's just say that you look far more comfortable sitting there than I ever could, sir."
After staff call, AJ told PO Parker that he would be in Capt. Rabb's office for a few minutes. "You have a meeting at -" the young man began, but AJ silenced him with a glare.
"A reporter with the Washington Times, sir."
"See if you can reschedule it for later in the week, Parker," he said, turning and leaving the office.
Ensign Davis smiled when she saw him enter the office. "Admiral," she said, starting to rise to her feet.
"As you were, Ensign. Is he in?"
"Yes, sir. He's been expecting you, sir. Go right in."
AJ tapped on the doorframe, waiting for a response from inside. "Enter!" Opening the door, he entered the room. Harm rose to his feet. "Admiral. I heard you were back."
"Sit down, Harm," he said, doing the same thing in one of the chairs in front of the desk. Harm's office was similar to AJ's, but on a smaller scale. As expected, memorabilia from its occupant's days as a Naval aviator were scattered around the room - including the scale model of a yellow Stearman which had decorated Harm's various offices ever since AJ could remember.
"How are Francesca and Mrs. Paretti, Admiral?"
"Francesca was lucky. Marcella has a broken leg and her shoulder was injured. But she'll be fine in another few weeks."
"I'm glad to hear it. I hope you'll give Francesca my regards."
"I will. How's the new addition to the family doing?" AJ asked.
Harm's smile widened at the question. "Growing like a weed," he said, picking up a framed photograph from his desk and handing it across to AJ. "Mattie took this on Thursday."
Looking at the photo of Jennifer, Harm, and Johnny, AJ noted, "Harriet mentioned something about Jennifer's father being ill?"
"Cancer. He contacted her last week, wanting to apologize and let her know he was ill. She wants him to move into the garage apartment so that he'll be close enough for her to take care of him."
"Is he going to do it?"
"We're not sure yet. But Jen tends to get her way on most things," he commented.
"Do you think Jennifer would be able to take care of a personal matter for me, Harm?" AJ asked. "I hate to ask, but Francesca has to return to Italy at the end of the week, and I'm going to need someone to keep an eye on Marcella during the day. Would Jennifer be willing to set up interviews and weed through applicants for the position? I'd pay her for it, of course -"
"I think she could use the work to keep her mind off of her father," Harm declared.
"Then you wouldn't mind if I talk to her about it? I was - thinking about driving over there during lunch to see the baby anyway -"
"I can't hurt to ask. Jen's got a mind of her own. You didn't have to go through me, sir."
"Well, that wasn't my only reason for coming to see you - how would you feel about moving back to JAG - as my adjutant?"
"Move back to JAG, sir?" Harm questioned, caught totally off-guard by the idea. "I've only been here for -"
"I know. But I need someone who knows the office and has management experience. You've done a good job down here. I'll be honest, Harm. With Marcella here, I won't be able to spend as much time working. I need help - and I think you're the best person for the job."
"What about Sturgis, sir?" Harm wanted to know.
"I've already spoken to Commander Turner, and he has no problem with my choice. The job is yours if you want it, Harm." He smiled. "You might even have the occasional opportunity to get back into the courtroom."
"Can I think about it?"
"Take your time," AJ said, standing up. "Just get back to me as soon as you come to a decision."
"What would that mean regarding Jen's return to work for you?"
"I think I'll be able to sell it to the SecNav. Unlike his predecessor, he likes you." The two men smiled over the statement. "Now, once she finishes college and goes through OCS,-"
"We've already accepted that we wouldn't both be working together at JAG, Admiral." Harm frowned as he said, "Of course that presupposes Jen even finishes college at all."
AJ frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Admiral Chegwidden," Trish Burnett said, smiling as she saw him standing on the doorstep. "Come in. Harm called and said that you'd be dropping by." She closed the door behind him. "I hope you'll stay for lunch. It's just about ready."
"I don't want to put you to any trouble," AJ said.
"It's no trouble, Admiral," she assured him.
"Make it AJ," he told her. "Where's Jennifer?"
"She's in the living room. I'm sure you know the way. I'll finish lunch."
Mattie saw him first, giving him a big smile. "Admiral!"
"Hello, Mattie," he said, frowning. "Why aren't you in school?"
"We start back tomorrow," she explained. "How was your trip to Italy?"
"Tiring," he told her, giving Jennifer a smile. "How are you doing, Jennifer?"
"I'm fine, sir," she said, her tone quite a bit more reserved than he'd been expecting. "It's nice to see you."
"Uh, Mattie, would you mind leaving us for minute?" AJ asked the young woman. "I need to talk to Jennifer about something."
"Sure. I'll go check on Johnny," Mattie told Jennifer.
"You can bring him in later so I can see him. Harm says he's growing like a weed."
"He's right," Mattie agreed with a grin as she left the room.
AJ sat down in one of the chairs across from the sofa, looking at Jennifer. "Enjoying being a lady of leisure?" he wondered.
"It's not all it's cracked up to be, Admiral," Jennifer told him. "No one will let me *do* anything except take care of Johnny - and sometimes not even that. Between Harm, and Mattie, and Trish and Frank - I almost feel as if I'm not needed around here."
"Well, then it sounds as if I came home at the right time."
"Even you don't need my help, sir," she sighed.
"What makes you think that?"
"You called Harriet and asked her to get your cabin ready -"
"Jennifer, you'd just had a baby - I didn't think you'd be up to what needed done out there so quickly. But I should have asked," he agreed. "I'm sorry. But I'm here now - and I have something that might just keep you occupied." He wasn't surprised when her eyes lit up in anticipation.
"What do you need, sir?"
"I'm sure you know that my daughter and her mother are staying with me?"
"Harriet mentioned it," she said. "How is Mrs. Paretti doing?"
"She'll be fine in another few weeks, but that's where you come in. Francesca has to return to Milan at the end of the week, which means Marcella - Mrs. Paretti - will be alone during the day -" he waited, seeing the wheels already turning in Jennifer's mind.
"And you'd like me to try and find someone suitable to stay with her when you're not there," she finished.
"In a nutshell as usual," he said with a smile. "I'd pay you for it - just keep a record of how much time you spend on it."
"I'm going to be interviewing someone to stay here with Johnny once I start back to work," she said. "So I can kill two birds with one stone."
"Any idea when that might be? I believe the new college semester starts in two weeks, so I'm assuming that it would be around then?"
Jennifer stood up and moved toward the fireplace mantel, where she fidgeted with the framed photograph of her, Harm, and Mattie. "I haven't decided about going back to college this semester, Admiral," she said slowly.
"What about your plan to finish and reenlist for OCS?" he wanted to know, standing as well.
"It would only be for this semester. My father -"
"Is ill. Harm told me about it. Have you discussed this with either of them?"
"Harm and I talked about it, but - he said it was my decision."
"What about your father? What does he think about it?"
"I haven't told him. Admiral, he's dying. I need to -"
"You need to make sure you have your own life in order, Jennifer. If your father's really concerned about you, he'll want you to continue your education - not put your life on hold for him. You said that you were getting someone to take care of Johnny - couldn't that same person keep an eye on him if moves into that apartment?"
"I - suppose so. It's just - Going to school and working and taking care of Johnny was going to be tough anyway. With my Dad in the mix -"
"Talk to him about it, Jennifer," AJ said. "It's the only way you'll know. And I've no doubt that you'll be able to handle it. Hell, you handled me - and that's not an easy thing for anyone to do."
"No, sir, it's not," she agreed, and then spent a long moment looking at him. "Admiral - is everything okay? You seem - different. More - relaxed."
"I'm not quite ready to share the reason yet, Jennifer. But when I am, you'll be one of the first to know about it. Now, where's that baby? And I believe your mother in law mentioned something about lunch?"
Harm looked up as Jennifer called his name. "Hey," he said, smiling at her.
"I just wanted to let you know that I'm leaving for my Psyche class," she told him.
He glanced at his watch, noting the time. "A little early, isn't it? It doesn't start for another hour."
"I know. But I want to swing by the house to check on Dad and Johnny."
"Okay," he told her, standing and coming around the desk to face her. "What time will you be home?"
"Around seven, I think. Mrs. Jennings should have dinner ready when you get home." She gave him a quick kiss. "See you later."
"Bet on it," he said, watching her turn back toward the door before stopping.
"Oh. The Admiral wanted me to let you know that he needs to see you about the Conklin Article 32."
"I'll go right in. Be careful," he said, smiling as she crossed the bullpen. Harm still had no idea what the Admiral had said to convince her to return to college for the spring semester, but whatever it had been had worked wonders.
After finding Mabel Jennings, a fifty-something retired nurse who was a widow with two grandchildren of her own, Jennifer had returned first to school and then to work a month after Johnny's birth six months ago. She had also found what the Admiral called the 'perfect' nurse/housekeeper for him, an Italian-American nurse who had struck up an immediate camaraderie with Marcella. Harm had returned to JAG as the Admiral's adjutant, taking on much of the paperwork and scheduling matters.
Harm tapped on the bullpen entry to the Admiral's office, waiting for him to respond.
"Jen said that you wanted to see me, Admiral?"
AJ held out a folder. "I have to take Marcella to the doctor for a follow up. Hopefully her last one. So I need you to assign the Article 32 for Gunnery Sergeant Kevin Conklin to Tiner and Roberts."
"Any preference in regard to defense and prosecution?" Harm questioned, glancing through the file.
The Admiral stopped, briefcase and cover in his hands. "Tiner can prosecute, Roberts defend." Noting Harm's expression, he asked, "You have a problem with that, Captain?"
Harm hesitated only a moment before nodding. "No sir. It's just - Tiner's never sat first chair on a case like this -"
"You don't think he's ready?"
"It's not that, Admiral," Harm replied immediately. "Tiner's a good attorney. I just think that the case might call for a more - seasoned prosecutor."
"I believe that Lt. Tiner is well suited to the task on this particular case, Harm," AJ said, turning toward the door again. "But if it makes you feel any more secure, you can sit second chair if you're not certain he's ready to go solo -"
AJ smiled. "You've been saying that you want to get back into the courtroom," he pointed out. "But I believe he's ready. You might want to check out a case that took place while you were stuck in Iceland a few years ago. 'State of Virginia v. Galindez'."
"I'll do that, sir. Anything else?"
"No. Just make sure you get those productivity reports finished by the end of the day."
"No problem. They're almost done."
"Good." He paused on his way out of the door to look back at Harm. "I haven't told you this, but you're doing an excellent job, Harm. See you on Monday."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Once the Admiral was gone, Harm returned to his office, where he accessed the legal database to find the case file he'd mentioned. He vaguely recalled having heard about the case after his return from Iceland.
There were two cases, actually. A military hearing, in which Gunnery Sergeant Victor Galindez had been found not guilty of charges of gay bashing, and a civil one. The Admiral had defended the Gunny in the civil trial, finally bringing out the fact that Victor had been trying to stop the fight, not start one - and that the man Victor had been accused of beating up was actually then Petty Officer Tiner's half-brother.
Picking up the telephone, Harm buzzed first Jason then Bud, asking them to come to his office ASAP.
Harm indicated that the two officers should sit down when they entered his office. "A week ago, Michael Howe, a civilian employee at the post exchange at Quantico, was badly beaten by a person that he claims to have been Gunnery Sergeant Kevin Conklin. The convening authority in the case has asked for an Article 32 hearing for the Gunnery Sergeant."
"On what grounds, sir?" Bud asked.
"Mr. Howe had recently come out publicly as a homosexual. He claims that the Gunny beat him up because of it." Harm watched the expression Tiner's young face.
"What's the Gunny saying?" Bud asked.
"You'll have to ask him, Bud," Harm said. "He's your client," he said, handing Bud a copy of the paperwork. "He's being held in the brig at the Navy Shipyard." Handing the copy over, Harm said, "You're prosecuting, Tiner."
"Don't think you're up to it, Lieutenant?" Harm questioned.
"No, sir - I mean, yes, sir, I'm up to it," he said, taking the papers.
"Very well. Dismissed." Both men rose and snapped to attention before turning toward the door. "Mr. Tiner, could you please stay a moment?"
Bud left the office, and Harm sat back. "If you run into any problems, Jason, my door's open."
"Thank you, Captain. I appreciate that. And I appreciate the confidence in my abilities -"
"Actually, it was the Admiral who suggested that you prosecute the case, Jason," Harm admitted. He smiled. "But I agree with him. It's time you moved out on your own."
"I'll try not to let you or the Admiral down, sir."
"Just do your best."
"Yes sir," Tiner said, turning and leaving Harm's office.
Harm watched him go with a smile on his face, wondering how long it had been since he'd been that enthusiastic about his job.
It wasn't that he didn't care anymore, the Navy, truth, and the law were all still important, but they were no longer the driving force in his life. Harm's gaze fell on the framed photograph of Jen, Mattie, Johnny, and him that sat on his desk. There were other photos scattered around the room. Johnny and Jen, Johnny and Mattie - one of Mattie's volleyball team taken the night she'd spiked the winning point and finally felt like she was part of the team. Anyone who entered this office knew immediately that he was a family man who *enjoyed* being a family man and who was proud of that family.
The only cloud on Harm's horizon was Jen's father. Conrad's health was taking a severe downturn, something which Jen herself seemed to be trying to pretend wasn't happening. Even Conrad himself had been unable to make his daughter accept the inevitable: Conrad didn't have much longer. Harm felt totally useless, and knew that all he could do was to be there for her when the time came.
After Marcella's doctor gave her a clean bill of health, declaring her totally recovered from the accident, AJ suggested that they go out to dinner.
"I thought that Gina was preparing something before she left?" Marcella questioned.
"I called earlier and told her that we'd be going out," he said. "I thought I'd surprise you."
"I see," was all she said.
"If you'd rather not, I can cook something at home -"
"AJ," she said, reaching across to place a hand on his thigh, "You're worried about something."
He removed a hand from the wheel to cover hers, not risking a glance in her direction. Between the traffic and the way her light caress had made his body react, he wasn't certain that he'd be able to keep his mind on driving if he looked into her dark eyes. "What's there to be worried about?" he questioned. "You're fully recovered. No more doctor visits."
"Thank goodness for that," Marcella declared, sitting back in her seat. "If I never see another doctor for the rest of my life I will be happy."
*And I'd be happy if I knew what her plans for the future were* AJ thought silently. It was the hardest thing he'd ever done, not asking Marcella what she was going to do. These last six months, living in the same house in separate bedrooms had been sweet torture for him. While they had been getting along relatively well - they had only had one argument, and that had ended quickly when AJ had left the house to take a long walk to cool off - he was still afraid that she would now return to Naples, leaving him to either stay here alone, or to make good on his promise to retire from the Navy and follow her.
Harm entered the house and put his cover on the table just as he always did. Looking up, he saw Mattie at the top of the stairs, holding Johnny. "Hey, you two," he said, but the smile on his face faded as he noticed the Mattie's red-rimmed eyes. "Mattie, is something wrong?"
She didn't say anything as she came down the stairs, simply fell against him, forcing Harm to put his arms around both of them to keep from falling. "Hey, Tiger," he said to Johnny, whose chubby face seemed somber as well. "He's worse," Mattie said into the fabric of his white shirt.
"Conrad?" Harm questioned, and she nodded, looking up at him. "Mrs. Jennings is up there with him."
"Does Jen know?" he asked, taking the stairs two at a time with Johnny in his arms, Mattie close on his heels.
"I tried to call her cell phone, but all I got was her voice mail. I didn't want to leave the message -"
"She was probably still in class," Harm guessed. "She turns it off." The door was open from the hallway into the garage apartment. Mabel Jennings glanced up from her position beside her patient's bed, giving him a look that answered his question before he could ask. But he asked anyway. "How is he?"
"He's not good," she told him.
Harm's eyes turned toward the thin, frail man lying in the bed, noting his labored breathing. "Did you call Dr. Morris?"
"There's nothing he can do, Harm," Conrad said slowly, his voice as frail as his body. "We discussed this. No - heroic measures, remember?"
"What about Jen?" he asked. As if on cue, the telephone began to ring.
Mattie grabbed it, looking at the caller ID before answering. "It's Jennifer."
Harm took the phone from her, taking a deep breath before pressing the button to make the connection. "Hi, Jen," he said.
"Harm? Is it that late?"
"It's almost seven," he told her. "Where are you?"
"Class went late. I just got out and turned on my phone. Mattie tried to call me three times but didn't leave a message. Do you know what it's about?"
Tightening his hold on Johnny, Harm answered. "Jen - you need to come home, honey."
"It's Dad, isn't it?" she asked, and Harm heard the fear in her voice.
"Where are you, Jen?" he asked. "I'll come get you -"
"No, I'm already in the car and only about ten minutes away - less if I -"
"Don't speed, Jen. You won't do anyone any good if you have an accident."
"I'll be there in a minute," she told him, and the line disconnected.
Hanging up the phone, Harm handed it back to Mattie. "Are you okay?" he asked her.
"Sure," she told him, but her smile was a bit watery and didn't quite reach her eyes. "Why don't I take Johnny to his room?" she suggested. "Just until Jennifer gets home -"
"Good idea," Harm agreed, giving them each a kiss on the cheek and then watching them down the hallway until they turned the corner.
"She's thinking about her own father," Mrs. Jennings told him.
"I know." He started to rise from the side of the bed. "I'm going down to wait for Jen."
Conrad's claw-like fingers pulled at his arm. "Don't let her ignore my wishes, Harm," he begged."
Harm covered the older man's hand. "I won't," he said softly before leaving the room. He got to the bottom of the stairs just in time to hear the Lexus turn into the driveway. A moment later, Jennifer was through the door. Harm caught her in his arms, trying to hold her for a moment. "Jen -"
"I need to go and see him, Harm," she said. "Have you called Dr. Morris and an ambulance?"
"He doesn't want to go to a hospital, Jen," Harm said. He'd said it before, so had her father. But Jen refused to hear the words.
"That's silly. Of course he does."
"Jen, it's his life - his decision."
"I'm not going to just stand by and let him die, Harm. I -" she paused, blinking back tears. "I can't!" she finished, running up the stairs. Sighing deeply, Harm followed her at a slower pace.
She was sitting on the edge of the bed, cordless telephone in her hand. "I can't believe that you didn't call an ambulance, Mrs. Jennings," she was telling the older woman. "You're a nurse. You know that he needs to be hospitalized -"
"Jennifer," Conrad said weakly, lifting his hand to her arm with some effort. "No hospital."
She looked down at him, taking her hand in his. "Dad - You're not going to give up like this. I won't *let* you give up."
"My Jennifer. Always - trying to - make it better. You - can't. Not - this time." He was having difficulty breathing, Harm noticed, and met Mabel Jennings' sad eyes over Jennifer's head. "Let me go," Conrad begged. "You have - have your own - family to - to take care of - now. You deserve - to have a - happy life after - everything I did. I'm - proud of - you."
"I shouldn't have left you, Daddy," Jennifer said. "If I hadn't -"
"You had to. In order to - survive. I would have - hurt you just like - like I did your - mother." He eyes were focused across the room. "Carolyn."
Something in that look caused Harm to follow Conrad's line of vision. The look in his eyes was a combination of fear and joy as the man lay there, his eyes focused on a point across the room.
"What?" Conrad asked, and the fear faded away, replaced by a look of joy and serenity. "It's time, Jenny," he told her. "She's - waiting -" His eyes lost their focus and glazed over with the patina of death that Harm had seen too many times in his life. Conrad's grip on his daughter's hand had tightened, and then fallen away, causing Jennifer's eyes to widen in fear.
"Daddy?" she said. "Daddy -"
Mrs. Jennings checked his pulse, silently shaking her head in Harm's direction. Harm placed a hand on Jennifer's shoulder as she began to cry. Hearing a quiet sob from the direction of the doorway, he looked up to see Mattie standing there, tears rolling down her face, and held out an arm toward her. She accepted the unspoken invitation and came to the side of the bed, where she buried her face against Harm's shoulder. He heard a rustle of fabric as Mrs. Jennings left the room - probably to contact the medical examiner and funeral home.
Harm stood there, his hand on his wife's shoulder and the other arm around his adopted daughter, looking down at the lifeless body of Conrad Coates, fighting within himself. While Jennifer had managed to overcome her own anger toward the man, Harm had never been able to get that far - he had tolerated Conrad for Jen's sake and no other reason. Now, watching her exhaust herself in grief, all he could think was that Conrad was finally gone. "Jen, honey," he said once Mattie's own tears had subsided, "let's go."
"No," Jennifer insisted, pulling her shoulder away from his hold. "I don't want to leave him. I left him once, and -"
"You heard him, Jen. Even if you'd stayed, things wouldn't have changed."
Mrs. Jennings returned. "I made the calls, Captain," she informed him. "They should be here any minute."
"Thank you, Mrs. Jennings. Would you mind making some tea for Jen and Mattie?"
"I'll make some herbal tea," the woman nodded. "Just the thing to soothe the nerves."
Harm nodded as she disappeared again, and then realized that Mattie was gone as well, and frowned until he saw her coming back down the hall with Johnny in her arms.
His hand back on Jennifer's shoulder, Harm waited until Mattie spoke. "I think he needs his mommy," she told Jennifer, who looked up to see her son.
Jennifer took the baby from his sister's arms, holding him to her, and finally letting Harm gently help her to her feet and guide her out of the room.
"Hi there," Clay said, sliding his arms around Mac's waist as she was setting the table for dinner. "Sorry I'm late -"
"It's all right," she told him, turning into his arms. "I was late too. A plea-bargain didn't go precisely as planned and then I got stuck in traffic."
"Well, we're both home now," he noted, kissing her.
"Dinner will be ready in a couple of minutes. Why don't you go change out of that suit?" she suggested, releasing the buttons on his vest one by one.
Clay smiled at her. "Is that an invitation, Sarah?"
"Go change," Mac replied, her fingers now working on the buttons of his shirt, "and we'll discuss it."
Clay pulled her in for another kiss, drawing this one out, enjoying the way that she reacted to his touch, before slowly releasing her and leaving the dining room. "Do I have time for a shower before dinner?" he called from the bedroom as he began to remove items of clothing before putting on his robe.
"A quick one," she called back.
Entering the bathroom, Clay turned the shower on. Glancing at the counter beside the sink, he noticed something laying there and moved to pick it up. Realizing that it was yet another home pregnancy test stick, he nearly tossed it into the trash - but something about it didn't look the way that all of the others he'd seen over the last year had.
Studying the indicator, Clay's eyes widened. "Sa-" he began, only to see her standing in the doorway, a huge smile on her face. "Sarah. Does this mean -?" he asked, holding up the plastic stick. She nodded.
Clay's arms went around her as they met halfway across the room, lips finding lips. "I told you that it was just a matter of being patient, didn't I?" he said. "A baby. I'm going to be a father."
"That's usually the way it works," she nodded, still smiling. "I love you."
"I love you, too, Sarah," he replied, kissing her again.
Mac frowned when the kiss ended. "Was that the phone?" she wondered, listening over the sound of the still running shower. "I think it was. Take your shower and we'll have dinner," she said, pulled out of his arms and moving to the door.
"Okay," he nodded, glancing in the mirror as he removed his robe. The grin on his face widened even more when he realized it was there. He and Sarah were going to be parents.
"Hello," Mac said into the phone, her mind still on the news that she'd just shared with her husband.
"Mac, its Harm - I hate to bother you -"
Hearing the tone of his voice, Mac's smile faded. "Harm? What's wrong?"
"Jen's father - Conrad's dead, Mac."
"Oh, no," Mac sighed. "I'm sorry. How is she?"
"Not good. I was wondering - could you and Clay come over for a while? I think it would help Jen if she could talk to you -"
Mac had been through something similar with her own father, and did know some of what the younger woman must be going through. "Clay just got home from work. He's taking a shower. We'll be there an hour?"
"What are best friends for?" was her response. "How are you holding up, Harm?" she wanted to know. He had confided in her over lunch one day about his dislike of Jennifer's father, and his feelings of guilt about it. She had urged him to discuss it with Jennifer, but Harm had refused to consider it.
"Right now, I'm worried about Jen. Anything else - doesn't really matter anymore, does it?"
"Thank you, AJ," Marcella said as he got into the vehicle. "That was a lovely evening."
"The evening's not over yet," AJ reminded her, reaching out to take her hand.
"That sounds - interesting," she told him.
"What is it, AJ?" she asked, smiling at him.
"I just - I want to tell you how glad I am that you're here. These last six months have been -" he nearly groaned in frustration as his cell phone began to ring, interrupting him. Taking it out, he glanced at the screen with the intention of turning the damn thing off and calling whoever it was back later. But seeing Harm's home number changed his mind, and he gave Marcella a look of apology. "Chegwidden," he said, aware that his tone of voice wasn't exactly friendly.
"I'm sorry if I'm disturbing you, Admiral," Harm said.
AJ knew that Harmon Rabb wasn't a person who rattled easily. Now, hearing the rattled sound in the other man's voice even in those few words, AJ regretted his angry tone. "What's wrong, Harm?"
"I just wanted to let you know that I might need a couple of days personal leave Admiral. I'll get the paperwork in Monday morning. Jen's probably going to need a few days as well -"
"Rabb, what's going on?"
"Jen's father died, sir. I think I need to spend time with her."
"Of course. Keep me informed about the arrangements. And take whatever time you need."
"Thank you, sir."
"Give Jennifer my condolences."
"I will. I'm sure she'll be grateful."
"If there's anything I can do, Harm, don't hesitate to call."
"I appreciate it, Admiral. Good bye."
"Good bye," AJ said, closing his telephone as the connection ended.
"Jennifer's father is dead?" Marcella asked, placing her hand on his thigh again.
AJ nodded, putting the telephone back into his jacket pocket before covering her hand with his. "Yes." Marcella had met AJ's coworkers and those he considered to be his friends over the course of the last six months of her visit and had surprised AJ by appearing to like all them, especially with Jennifer, who was around her own daughter's age.
"Jennifer is a strong young woman, AJ. She will get over this. She has people who love her. Her husband and children." She squeezed his fingers. "Her friends." When he looked at her, she smiled at him. "Let's go home, AJ," she said to him.
Harm accepted Mac's hug as he met her and Clay at the front door. "Where is Jennifer?" she asked in a quiet voice.
"In the bedroom. I managed to get her to go and lay down after the funeral home took Conrad's body away."
"What about Mattie and Johnny?"
"They're with her. Jen didn't want Johnny out of her sight. And Mattie, well - this isn't easy for her, either."
"I'm sure it isn't," Mac agreed. Looking at her husband, she said, "I'll go in and see her. Why don't you keep Harm company?"
The two men stood in the hall, watching as the Marine disappeared into the master bedroom. "Want some coffee?" Harm asked Clay.
Jennifer was lying in bed, Johnny by her side when Mac entered the dimly lit room. Her eyes were closed, and so Mac turned to Mattie, who was sitting in a chair beside the bed, giving her a hug. "Are you okay, Mattie?"
The girl nodded, returning Mac's hug. "I'll be okay. I talked to Tom - my dad a little while ago -"
"Good. How's Jennifer?"
"I'm awake," Jennifer said, opening her eyes to look at Mac. "Thanks for coming."
"Did you think I wouldn't?" Mac questioned, sitting on the edge of the bed and taking Jennifer's hand. "It's tough, isn't it?"
"More than I thought it would be. It's not fair, Mac," she said, fighting tears. "We were just starting to get close again, and then -"
"At least you had these last few months. I wasn't even able to talk to my father before he died. He was in coma by the time I got there. So I never got the closure I wanted. Never got the chance to confront all the issues between us."
"He and I never really did, either," Jennifer admitted sadly. "Every time something would come up, we'd change the subject. I wish now we had. I might make things easier for Harm. I know he's worried about it."
Mac nodded. "Yeah. Let's just hope that Mattie here learns from our mistakes."
Mattie's eyes widened at her words. "Who, me? We're getting along okay these days," she insisted.
"As long as neither of you brings up the past," Jennifer pointed out.
"What is this? Gang up on Mattie day or something?" Mattie questioned, rising from the chair.
Mac grabbed her hand to stop her. "You can't go until I tell you my good news."
"What good news?" Mattie wanted to know, giving her a wary look.
"So when's the funeral going to be?" Clay asked over coffee.
"There's no other family besides Jen," Harm noted. "Conrad didn't want anything more than a memorial service - he'll be buried while it's going on."
"Does Jennifer know that?"
"I told her. She's not happy about it, but there's nothing she can do without going against her father's wishes." He stared into his cup, glancing up when he heard Clay's stomach growl in soft protest. "Hungry, Clay?"
"Mac and I were about to sit down to eat when you called," Clay told him.
"Damn. We haven't eaten, either. Why don't we go see if Mrs. Jennings will take pity on us?"
"She will," Clay said with a smile as they started toward the kitchen. "You've got her as wrapped around your little finger as you have every other woman in this house."
"Who told you that?"
"I'm a spook," Clay answered. "They pay me to be observant."